Team VA's Wonderings

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Back in Church

One way and another, it had been a fairly hard few days and I was pretty tired, as well as run down by my cold. So I don't think I was in the best shape for the 4 hour train journey to Christchurch-I had to work very hard and spend a lot of time on the open air observation carriage to stop myself falling asleep. Having just spent time in the mountains, some of the edge was taken off the spectacle, but I'm still glad I did it.

It had been a long day's travel when I got into my hostel at 7 p.m. Saturday night or not, I did my washing, had some dinner and chilled with the Hoff. HYPERLINK. I'm finally reading his book. Suffice it to say he's more self-important than I expected and goes to a cockfight. He has a dog called Sir Henry von Hasslehoff and writes 'There comes a time in your life when you've got to stop saving the world and save yourself'-he seems serious. There's much more.

Next day I had to make a few reservations first thing. I'm getting concerned that I'll run short of time in NZ, so am on a mission to get to Wellington and the North Island-without missing too much. After that I headed for the art gallery, which is housed in a very funky modern building. There were a range of interesting exhibits in mixed media from different periods and countries. I was most struck by the film on Erebus: NZ's worst air crash saw well over 200 people die when a sightseeing flight hit Mount Erebus in Antarctica. It ended such flights. Especially spooky was the footage filmed by a passenger, which was damaged, but recovered from the wreck. The dramatic irony was horrible as people were having a drink, wandering round the cabin and looking out the window, naturally oblivious to how their leisure trip will end.

The mood was lightened by a Maori group who gave a performance of traditional dance and song: I particularly enjoyed the chunky white guy, who was very into it.

I then headed to the international Antarctic centre. On the outside were some lines from an address that Clinton made at the centre: the sentiments of cooperation, environmental protection and that profit is not a moral compass made the disaster of Bush even sharper. Gore's decision not to have Clinton campaigning at the end cost the world dearer than it did him.

I really enjoyed the centre, which was based around informative displays, stuffed animals, videos and the like. I watched something on 'the longest night' about the 'over winterers', who spent the dark months in Antarctica. The fashions and glasses were clearly pre-internet, so the isolation for the Kiwi station was only relieved by the weekly phone calls, the mid-winter mail drop and trips to the Americans base at McMurdo, where there's a bowling alley and a Toga party ended in a fight. I quite fancy it, though I don't think I would enjoy it.

The centre's most ambitious piece was the Antarctic storm, opened by Sir Edmund Hillary, who also visited the Pole. You put a coat on, pass through a couple of doors into a mocked up Antarctic landscape, complete with ice and snow. It starts at minus 5, then the temperature drops, it gets dark and a bitter wind starts to howl. The wind reached about 40 kmph; winds of over 300 have been recorded at Antarctica. Most folk turned their back on the wind and huddled against the cold

I tried to face it, which made breathing difficult. I'm sure you're in there nowhere near as long as it seems, but I did wonder how long (minutes, not hours) I could last. The storms can go on for days.

They also had a refuge for injured penguins, who wouldn't survive in the wild. It was a chance to see them in the water and they were even more endearing usual-Elvis was blind and had to be fed by hand, another had a damaged flipper so he swam in circles.

Like many others, I travelled to Kaikoura for the wildlife-I'm on a whale watching boat later. I had to catch the 7 o'clock bus to do it, but it should be worth it. I didn't realise how beautiful Kaikoura is, I'd only expected a prime spot for marine creatures.

We're off to see Sperm Whales, probably the only whale that is always referred to by both parts of its name; for some reason the whale part is optional for Minke and Humpback, but not the Sperm Whale. We may also come across dolphins, sea, albatross and a number of others.

It's unusual to get sperm whales so near land, they hunt in the deep and have a taste for giant squid. I think they have been recorded at over 3,000m below the surface-now that's what I call deep. The reason they're at Kaikoura is the massive underwater canyon: just a few kms off the coast, the water rapidly changes from less than a hundred to 800m deep.

This is a pretty sophisticated setup-the boat's flash and they have sonar gear to listen for whales and help find them.

I know. Nelson has very odd PCs, so I can't get at the pic to turn it. Looks pretty cool from this angle I reckon.

They're noisy blighters, only the Blue Whale makes more racket, and at 160 decibels a sperm whale is louder than a 747. Rather than singing or pulling, the noise is mainly used for hunting: their eyesight is poor, so they use sounds to find and identify prey. So they don't have to swim so fast, they also use it to stun their prey-how cool is that. They can swallow a 2m shark whole, which helps make them the 4th largest creature on the planet-obviously after Blue whales, John Prescott and something else.

I felt my luck with seeing animals had to run out one day and after half an hour this looked like being it. Still, it was a beautiful day to be out on the water and we got an 80% refund for a no show. Then we saw this.

We saw 3 in all. I got a good video of one diving, which I don't know how to post. Fear not, I've got the classic

You see about 2 thirds of the whale bobbing in the water and they're not great breachers like the southern rights I saw in Hermanus, but it was still a majestic and awesome sight. The most beautiful thing, it was impossible to get photo, was the occasional rainbow effect in the spray of water and snot that is propelled out of the blowhole.

Even though a plane and chopper buzzed above us, I didn't have the moral worry of intruding on the animal-I figured if we were pissing the whale off, he'd just sink the boat. I say he, as they're all males here at the Kaikoura Blue Oyster bar-females are smaller and less blubbery, so it's too cold for them here.

On the way back, as if they knew we'd seen the good stuff, we got somersaulting dolphins putting on a full range of tricks. Great for us; not so good for the fish, as this was probably part of some group hunting.

In the evening we watched The Return of the King, my first LOTR since arriving-2 to go. I didn't recognise any of the locations. I get the bus to Nelson tomorrow, from where I shall be picked up for 2 days walking and kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park. Everyone I've met who's been there says it's wonderful.

I had few hours in Nelson after the bus arrived for a look round. Oddly, Nelson was named after Horatio, not Bob. Still, it's in a lovely setting by the sea, with hills rising up all around and was very pleasant to walk round. However, it is perhaps a little short on specific sites of interest. I picked out the Centre of New Zealand (henceforth CONZ), the cathedral and the supermarket. CONZ was described as the central point of New Zealand-I have no idea how they work these things out, but was confident it would be explained at the obelisk that marked the point. Also since I'd been to the Southernmost point of the South Island and plan to go to the top of the North, it seemed to complete the set rather nicely.

On my way to CONZ, I crossed the botanical sportsground, where Nelson College played the town in the first Rugby match in NZ. This reminded of being in Nelson before and playing the college, though not on this field. The memory was made weirder still by reproduction of the oldest picture of a game of Rugby on the Close at Rugby school-a reproduction used to hang somewhere in my house before I moved out. Speaking of my house, the bastard tenant's moving out, which could land me right in the shit.

Now I have seen many marvellous things on my travels and had a lot of new experiences, trying things I would normally shy away from. However, all this hasn't totally taken off my cynical edge and as I hauled my bones up an unnecessary steep hill, I thought it was a bit bloody convenient that CONZ was up a large hill, which I could tell would give quite a view over Nelson. And so it was that I did get a good view of the city through my sweat smeared eyes. I did not get an explanation of how they worked out CONZ was indeed CONZ. When I got back to the sportsground, I read some of the informational boards that councils put up: 'It is suggested that the actual Geocentre is.....about 55km SW of here. Botanical Hill's claim probably arose from.....' I can tell you the Lonely Planet didn't read that gem-all a bit of a con. Still, it was a nice view and having spent much of the day on buses the exercise was good.

The cathedral was in a terrific location atop a hill, but itself was underwhelming; the supermarket had some tasty looking veggie sausages-we have a winner.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Just in case.....

Not sure if backpacker buses in NZ plunging 30m off roads make the news in the UK, but this happened yesterday. I wasn't on it, but did hear sirens and see police, ambulances and the rest hammering down the road as I waited for my bus to leave Franz Joseph. A good call not to take Kiwi Experience

Wall of Sound

Milford Sound
There was frost on the cars this morning when I went out to wait for my bus to the boat. I wasn't in the best shape since I'd taken a while to get to sleep and it seemed only minutes later that some bloke started snoring as if he was trying to impersonate a chainsaw. Eventually, with no sign of him giving up, I did and got up.

I was pleased that at such an early hour, a local dog decided to entertain me. He started by staring out a house, then sat in the middle of the road and showed a good turn of speed when a cat appeared-it was real cartoon stuff, the cat ran in a house and the dog laid seige. I think the barking must have woken everybody else up, which made me feel much better. Then the bus arrived.

I'm very much the youngster today-not sure if it's the cost, the fact that Kiwi experience do a Milford Sound trip or just the lure of the word cruise, but today's crowd is a different bus pass to the one I have. It's all very pucker-this is definitely an executive sightseeing bus: the seats are angled towards the windows and there are ceiling windows too. The latter turn out to be very smart when we pass steep mountains.

On the way (Milford's about 120km from Te Anu), we find out that the road gets shut by snow, the bus has travelled 1.4 million kms in 13 years (I thought it was new) and that the km long tunnel through the mountain was a great depression project. We made a number of scenic stops, all of which seemed to heap more pressure on Milford. It's a wonderful, largely unpopulated piece of country. The ice crystals in the rivers and creeks result in the most beautiful colours. Mirror lakes was my favourite on the way up.

We arrived and it was straight on the boat.

High season's over and it wasn't too full. I took up position on the upper and lower front decks, shuffling up and down the stairs. When the mountains cut the sun off from me, it was quite chilly, but I stuck it out for 2 and a half hours aside from a tea stop.

So Milford Sound, worth the hype? Good enough to overcome being named after Milford Haven?

Er, yeah.

And some.

I will try and write something about it, but in essence you need to go there.

One key word is scale. It towers over you. The cliffs are almost shear-at one point we leaned back on the handrail and stared up. I think skipper said it 200 feet; I know he said it would take you 10 seconds to hit the water after stepping off the top. I'm not sure if the fellowship came down here in their boats, but it's that kind of grandiose, slightly unreal setting.

It's deep too, which allows the boat to get very close to the edges-we nearly sailed under a waterfall and I did get quite wet. There's only one bit shallow enough for boats to anchor and that's 17m. Much is 300m plus.

I was so pleased to be on the longer trip. The boat glided very slowly, which was marvellous as it gave you time to take in what was usually a 360 degree view of majestic loveliness. The scenery developed and altered as our angle and perspective shifted. The views evolved in front of us and despite the boat's slow pace, I felt the need to be alert to avoid missing anything. The Sound, which is actually a fjord, is constantly changing. I also saw how the weather would affect what you saw, some cloud cleared during the trip. Like Uluru, I can imagine many repeat visits each offering something fresh.

There was some commentary, but much of it washed over me. Like the centre of Australia I found it meditative and somewhat outer body. The kind of effect that makes talking redundant: I spent the voyage quiet and open mouthed. It's nice to be dwarfed, to be put in perspective, to feel awe.

We went all the way to the Tasman Sea before heading back. When the skipper warned it might be a little choppy, I thought 'I've been to Stewart Island'.

As if all that wasn't enough we got dolphins, lots of dolphins. They were surfing right alongside as well as frolicking in groups all around the boat. They really are the film stars of the marine world-they have a charisma that appeals more to humans than their fellow sea creatures. They brought the crowds flocking to the boat's edge, people leaned over the side, pointed dolphins out to strangers, called out to the dolphins and generally made the most noise of the day. Dolphins-they've got it.

I think I took more photos than at Uluru here's an almost random selection-I found it all amazing.

Can you see the helicopter?

I have two other pics that won't upload. Will try again 4152 4142

The feeling of the place echoed Uluru for me-it was spiritual and magnificent. Really quite good.

My decision to get going early was a good plan, it was quiet on the water while we were out, but when we returned there were a great many coaches piling in for the lunchtime rush. I'm thinking lunchtime could easily be circus time.

I quite hope it rains at Doubtful-like Uluru, people keep saying the temporary waterfalls are fantastic.

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound is 3 times the length of Milford and 10 times the area. It's also a lot more difficult to reach. For starters there's the bus from Te Anu to Manapouri, then a 45 minute boat trip across Lake Manapouri and then it gets fun. At the end of the lake there's a hydroelectric power station. During construction, the company decided to ship the bits of the plant in via Doubtful Sound, which led them to build New Zealand's most expensive road across the mountains. We take a bus over this, get our first glimpse of Doubtful Sound

and then head to our boat.

The boss man on the boat, who gives us our introductory talk and stuff is called Boss. I love that.

So time for some facts and stats and stuff. NZ's fjordland national park is a world heritage site covering a large portion (3 million acres) of the country's south west. That's 10% of New Zealand and bigger than the other 14 NZ National Parks put together. The peerlessly monikered 'Guardians of Fjordland' are charged with making sure the area is conserved.

Doubtful Sound is 14 nautical miles long, and after leaving our overnight mooring at Precipice Cove we travelled down the Hall Arm, where we were 23 nautical miles from the Tasman Sea. The Sounds have an odd thing with the water where there is a freshwater layer of a few metres on top of the seawater, which gives rise to black coral and great diving.

The Sounds have developed in the 14 ice ages that have taken place in the region in the past 2 million years. At their biggest the glaciers were 1.4km high, which has left Doubtful 434m at its deepest. We saw a waterfall 3 times the height of Niagara-it looked fairly puny in the monumental landscape.

The mosses, foliage and trees cling to the impossibly steep rock through a network of intertwined roots. This results in a codependency that can have disastrous results: when a tree loses its grip, it can start a domino like tree slide. If the tree is high up, then this can clear a huge triangular scar on the rockface.

Which reminds me that since the Europeans arrived, NZ has lost 76% of its forests. I find that a terrifying stat in a country that cares. In an Australian echo, NZ also has terrible problems with introduced animals. Ignoring Oz, some muppet introduced rabbits for a bit of hunting. When this turned out to be a predictable disaster, they brought in stoats to kill the rabbits. This was against the advice of the time. When NZ broke off Gondwanaland, mammals hadn't really evolved. Prior to man's arrival, the only mammals here were a few bats. It was a bird paradise with no real predators; consequently many of the birds had forgotten how to fly and were not afraid. Confronted with the choice of chasing fast moving rabbits, or easy prey, the stoats devastated the birds-leaving many species extinct.

Undeterred, to try and create a fur trade they introduced possums from Australia-there are now 90 million, eating a third of the 60,000 tonnes of foliage NZ's forest produce each night. Then there's the deer, eating all the lower forest foliage: hunters are allowed into national parks to curb numbers. And the moose....

Oh, and someone saw fit to call this the Hares Ears

Tom and James had been in my dorm in Te Anu and we were sharing again on the Fjordland Navigator.

There were a lot of families on board and, despite the fact it was the first day of low season and the trip was $75 cheaper, we were the only backpackers on board. Consequently we appeared to be the only people implementing a policy of 'the more we eat the cheaper it gets'. The idea was to eat now and not have to pay to eat when we got off the boat. In any case, the food was ace: muffins in the early afternoon, soup late afternoon, monster buffet (including desert and big plates) and a cooked/continental breakfast buffet. I'll be amazed if I eat as well before I get back to the Haywain and Mum's home cooking.

Quite full, we spent the evening playing poker. We had a fun solution to the usual problem of what to use for chips-take all the money out of the NZ monopoly set.

It was a great trip, I made a good decision in doing both Milford and Doubtful and it did rain. A lot, so we had a beautiful array of temporary waterfalls. It all ended on a surreal note: the crew do a week on, week off and ours had got into the habit of doing a song and dance routine to celebrate the end of their tour of duty. At the same time they rub the noses of the new crew in it, as they're waiting at the dock. They'd already had a conga and can-can. Today was the turn of the Macarena. More than Al Qaeda, the Macarena is proof of the existence of absolute evil on our planet.

Here are some Doubtful pics.

My bus from Te Anu got into a dark Queenstown at 8. Queenstown is the adrenaline capital of NZ-it's full of bungy, sky diving and jet boats. It's also got a reputation as a party town. While the rest of the country appears overrun with female tourists, I understand this is where the guys are. Having weighed up the attractions of Queenstown, I'm leaving on the 8.10 bus in the morning.

On my last trip to NZ, I got a filthy cold after about 2 and a half weeks. So, I've a real feeling of deja vu as the old health's letting me down. I guess I may have spent too long on cold and damp boat decks. I managed to get some drugs before the bus left this morning; last night's curry only offered temporary relief. As I'm going hiking on the Fox glacier tomorrow, I'm hoping for a quick cure.

Fox glacier
It looked like being a long day on the bus-Queenstown is nearly 8 hours to Fox glacier. As it turned out, I met Vicky and we talked almost the whole way, with a nice break for a power nap.

I reached my hostel, Ivory Towers, about 3.30. Under the circumstances, it would have been sensible to get a hot drink and watch a movie from underneath a blanket. However, I'd heard there was a shuttle to the glacier at 4, so I quickly headed out. I asked about the shuttle at the petrol station as it wasn't where it was supposed to be; turns out the shuttler was having a day off.

With rare determination, I decided to walk the 6km to the glacier car park and then do the hour walk to the glacier face. I'd got about half way when a French couple in a very nice campervan offered me a lift.

After a km of the return journey, the same couple picked me up. Just as well, had I had to walk the 8 km they drove me it would have been very dark when I got back to the township. In return I managed to give them some info on the glacier hike-they'll probably join my trip in the morning if the weather's good.

The glacier was more than impressive and I loved the way it radiated the cold as you got closer. I have no idea how the bloody hell we're going to climb up it tomorrow.

Glacier Hike
It's a glorious day, so this is going to be good. Alpine Guides bused us down to the glacier car park, saving me the walk this time. As we walked down to the glacier, there was a large and impressive collapse of ice at the terminal face. Turns out we don't ascend the glacier's front as it would be a tad dangerous-we climbed up the rainforest on the left side.

In itself this gave some top views.

Then it was on with the crampons and onto the ice.

I loved it. We went up and down, slipped a little, got photos in small caves, slithered through some tight crevasses and gawped a great deal. Obviously the environment was controlled and very safe (although, at Franz Joseph I heard one Alpine Guide got lost on a day trip). We could hear further ice falls at the front and jagged mountains of ice towered over us while the power and danger of the glacier was tangible.

We crossed the fault line where the Pacific and Australian plates meet creating the mountains, which continue to grow (Doubtful has a thousand earthquakes per month).

I didn't know that every snowflake is formed around a grain of dust. Parts of the glacier have a reddish hue-analysis has shown this is due to snow forming on red dust. From Australia. The mountains on the West coast catch weather that has travelled a long way. Near the summit, I think the annual rainfall was 15m.

I should have done the full day trip-it was not as physically taxing as the brochure had made out (refuse to believe I'm fit), we had a slow group and I felt a lot better than I thought I would.

I was surprised and disappointed when we suddenly stumbled off the ice and the glacier trek bit was over. Partly this was because the time had flown; mostly it was because I thought we'd be on the glacier longer and I'd been looking around, taking photos and hadn't got round to asking the American girl to join me in a homage to the Stanford Glacier Engagement. It was going to be a cracking photo. Clearly it would have been respectfully done.......

Of course, if I had done a full day, I wouldn't have spent the afternoon at Lake Matheson.

Later I met up with Tom and James who had found the amazing movie room in the hostel: I was in a self-contained 'house' in a separate building so had missed both this and the monster kitchen. It had a huge widescreen TV, real cinema seats and an enormous Dodgeball flag.

Franz Joseph Glacier
It's not every day you see a glacier, so I headed 30 mins down the road to the slightly more commercial Franz Joseph glacier-I couldn't say why this is the bigger draw, as they're both jaw dropping. I thought about helihikes (TC takes you high up the glacier in a chopper and you hike) and a similar trip to yesterday, but plumped for doing the number of walks between and around the village and glacier, which included a trip to Lake Wombat.

FJ seemed bigger to me, but apparently Fox is, so there you go. The weather was kind and walking alone, I barely paused in 6 hours.

On the rocky, scenic return I managed to clamber out into the middle of a river and sit on a very big rock. When I got back to the hostel I was exhausted; I listened to some Bon Jovi on a bus the other day and managed to keep going through the last few difficult kms energised by their mantra of 'I'll sleep when I'm dead'.

Leaving the mountains behind
Big travel day today-4 hours on the bus, then the 4 hour scenic rail journey across the Alps to Christchurch, where I may finally post this.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Road to Nowhere

The Catlins
I think I was suffering from a little bit of scenery fatigue in the Catlins, as I found it a touch disappointing. I ended up comparing much of what I saw to other places I'd visited-initially missing the point that all these things were in one unspoilt corner.

I was also distracted on the first morning by trying to ascertain what was happening in Augusta through the static haze of dodgy radio reception.

The direct route from Dunedin to Invercargill is something like 240 kms. I did dirt tracks, detours, scenic stuff and did a 100km double back to see the Cathedral Caves-I was too late on the first day, as they're only accessible for 2 hours either side of low tide. Over the 505 kms, I stopped off at Nugget Point, Cannibal Bay, Jack's Blowhole, Purakaunui Falls, Matai Falls, Lake Wilkie, Cathedral Caves, McClean Falls, Curio Bay, Slope and Waipapa Points. I also saw sealions. For me Nugget Point and McClean Falls stood out.

I broke the journey at Curio Bay, where the hostel was a delight. The booking system was a blackboard, where you wrote your name. Mine was already there as I'd called ahead, which was just as well as all 9 beds were taken. There were no keys, or reception. I walked in, found out where the dorm was and settled down on the sofa for a natter by the fire. The whole wall by the fire was a massive window/patio door looking out over Curio Bay. The Bay was beautiful, but rough enough in the vein of British coasts to make me glad to be watching it from the fireside. Later when I was cooking, a chap came round and collected everyone's money. Next morning, I went for a walk on the beach after breakfast-a quick stroll across the back garden and I was on the sands.

After that I visited the origin of Curio Bay's renown the petrified forest. Truth be told, it's not much to look at, but it does mess with your head. In amongst the rocks are tree stumps, branches and trunks preserved over millions year by the deposit of volcanic larva, starving the forest remains of the oxygen needed for them to rot down.

I was at my usual exasperated best to read that people who couldn't walk and chew gum simultaneously had taken bits as souvenirs-'Hey Bernice, this old bit of wood's been here since the dinosaurs, why don't I hack a bit off to take back home.' 'What a swell idea, Dwayne. We can put it on the mantlepiece, next to the Lady Di commemorative plate.' I hope the video surveillance has stopped it; personally I'd solve it by throwing Dwayne and Bernice into an active volcano to preserve them for future generations. They may be the missing link.

Having moved on from Curio Bay, I came to understand that when planning your day in the country, it's sensible to build in time for unexpected delays.

I took this photo from behind the steering wheel on the way to Slope Point. Slope Point is the most southerly point on the South Island. It's pretty much equidistant between the equator and South Pole-I was surprised, thinking we'd have been closer to Antarctica.

After my double back to the Cathedral caves and a very odd food stop (my apple turnover had to be fetched from the freezer and visit the deep fat fryer before it got to me), it was foot down to Invercargill. I thought I'd take the opportunity of having a car to make life a bit easier. So, I went to the supermarket and got supplies for Stewart Island, then checked into the hostel and dropped my bags off before filling up with petrol and returning the car. The sun had disappeared on the approach to Invercargill and the rain started on arrival. I hadn't noticed the cold wind until I got out the car. By the time I reached Thrify Car Hire 20 mins before closing, it was so miserable that the staff had shut up shop and buggered off. Just walking the two blocks back to the hostel from the deserted car hire lot was a sufficently damp experience to remove any desire to explore grey and functional looking Invercargill. As I'm heading straight to Te Anu when I get back, there'll be no time to look round Invercargill. I felt bad about this, as it was a bit lame to just write a place due to a bit of rain, even if I was only there to get a ferry. However, everyone I spoke to subsequently has told me there's not much/nothing to see in Invercargill, so it looks like I chose the right place to bin.

Stewart Island
The Lonely Planet describes the hour long crossing to Oban (the town-the island's population is 420) as 'often a rough ride'. When I checked out of the hostel, the wind was howling and the girl on reception told me the 8 a.m. out of Oban had been cancelled/postponed due to the weather. When I checked in I was told they weren't sure if we'd go-they were monitoring conditions and it was possible we'd get out the habour, the captain would look at the sea and turn back. There was a severe storm warning and I was given the option not to travel (a first).

We set off on time. I knew it could be entertaining when it got fairly rough, while we were still in the harbour. Out at sea was something else. We were frequently thrown to quite alarming angles left and right; I couldn't see much out the window, as they were almost permanently soaked in the spray of the latest wave. Some of the waves I did see were simply scary. After 10 mins, one of the crew came on the mike to tell us about the ship; a cynic might say she was reassuring us it wouldn't fall to bits. Several times we caught some big air and landed with a hell of a bang. I watched the skipper for a bit-he was spinning the steering wheel like I had on Fraser Island. After about 5 minutes I realised the non-driving crew were essentially on spew watch. It wasn't long before one guy was heading my way to advise and assist the mother and son behind me-'don't breathe in the bag', 'fold the top of the bag over-it helps keep it open', 'breathe through your nose', 'here's a fresh bag, I'll take that one'. I saw one poor little boy crying as he threw up. No one screamed or prayed, which was quite impressive; quite a lot of people had decided against the trip before we left port.

My mind kept replaying last night's dream, especially when the boat's nose was pointing skywards. For some reason I'd dreamt that the bus driver had let some girl have a go driving and she'd driven up something so steep that we'd tipped over backwards, which had hurt. I was hoping this wasn't a premonition. Happily each time the boat approached vertical, it returned to the horizontal with a sickening thud.

Of the 5 of us from our hostel, we had mixed fortunes. Tina looked oblivious, tho later confessed she'd been unsure if her stomach would make it. Poor Sisse had been chatting with me on the bus about how she hated boats and had taken a sea sickness pill in the morning-she did this without knowing about the weather. She did really well and had just a couple of late retches. My stomach was fine and after about 15 mins, I was fairly confident we weren't going to die (I met a guy this afternoon, who flew in yesterday and thought their number was up). My legs remained tensed about half the journey-it held me in my seat. I spent some time chatting to a girl from Somerset, who seemed very chilled. Our boat wouldn't go out if the waves exceeded 3m (an albatross or 9 feet); I remembered Ellen McCarthur talking about 30 foot waves in the Southern Ocean. As Somerset girl said, 'she's got balls'. Her friend spent most of the trip staring into a white paper bag with a cold towel on her neck.

I think we'll all still feel the motion in bed tonight. It was the roughest boat I have been on-do it all again on Saturday morning.

Sisse, Tinne and I grabbed an early lunch and headed out onto one of Stewart Island's tracks-Ryan's Creek. Like much of NZ, there are hour, half day and day walks as well as 3, 5 even 10 day walks. I'm not sure I could carry enough food and water for those. I take some feeding!

We slipped and splashed our way much of the track. It's impressive how far the mud travels up the inside of your leg. We skipped out onto a bit of beach and I saw one of the most wonderful things. I noticed the rainbow being born when it was only about 15 degrees of a semi circle; it proceded to grow and deepen its colours as it spread across the sea. The stronger colours by the pot of gold weakened and travelled across the arc, then the rainbow's origin disappeared before it had even reached the sea on the other side-at its biggest, it was just over a quarter circle. Its whole life was about 3 magical minutes when the final colours disappeared into the water. And despite the beauty of the location and the magic of the moment, my subconcious couldn't spare me Zippy, Bungle and Geoffrey's theme tune.

I did try to fall over once, but managed to stay dry enough to admire the views.

Tomorrow we're going to get a water taxi to a tiny island about 2km away. It's a wildlife sanctuary, especially birds, where they've purged all the rats! Well, we hope we're going-they kept the boats tied up today because of the weather.

Oh and sunset here is supposed to be amazing. Adams isn't about, so here's hoping.

Ian took us over to Ulva on his eco water taxi-it was too loud for me to find out what made it eco. They've eradicated rats from the island and want to keep it that way.

That's Ian in the background. The island had a number of tracks, which we explored comfortably in 2 and a half hours. We spotted many birds and were serenaded by an unseen host. I'd picked up a self-guide book to the island, which enabled us to identify much of what we saw, including this Weka

The bird was almost oblivious to us, as it wandered round the beach. I have some video of it pulling a big load of seaweed out the way to get digging (presumably for insects). The boat out to Ulva was quite smooth, which made the rough ride back something of a surprise.

We'd done quite well with the weather-the rainforest canopy kept most of the rain off and only on Boulder beach had the elements had a proper go on us out in the open. Over lunch the weather worsened substantially-rain became torrential, wind gale force and the two afternoon ferries were cancelled. The girls decided not to join my afternoon expedition, choosing the dry and warmth over the tempest. I was debating between the short walk and the 2 hour job to Horseshoe Bay. Inevitably, I went to look at the long one, conditions were worse than I thought, I kept going and ended up extending the route. I hoped I wasn't tempting fate with my revised route

With the rain hurting my face, I decided to risk the track that wasn't on my map, but looked like a potential short cut. I only have a waterproof jacket, so my legs/trousers were as wet as when I walked through an Oxford monsoon after watching Radiohead at South Park. When I felt my boots get wet, I realised the rain was serious. Luckily my route worked out. It was only a shortcut when a couple of guys offered me a lift over the last hill back into town-I had to walk 2-3 kms on the road out of the village to reach the tracks, so walking back the same way in the deluge was nothing new. I found it a bit strange that I really enjoyed it-although I would not have wanted to be returning to a tent that wet.

That night the 3 of us hit the fish and chip shop: egg, salad, beetroot and cheese in a burger roll with chips for me. Most of the hostel seemed to follow suit (to the shop, not with the veggie burger). In the dark I managed to stamp in a puddle, making my dry shoes and trousers wet.

It was a shame the main hotel had 'forgotten' to renew its licence-I'd been excited about a beer in NZ's most southerly bar.

Tinne had the mid-morning ferry, so just Sisse and I headed off to Acker's point and the lighthouse. We had rain, hail and an icy wind, but on the whole it was sunny and very pleasant.

In the afternoon I did a quick combo of the fuschia, raroa and observation point walks-nothing too amazing, but more good exercise. Still going to need some more training before Machu Pichu. Funny crowd in the hostel tonight, apparently there's some sort of card tournament at the weekend. After the ferries finally got away, the place is a lot emptier. Here's hoping for good weather tomorrow so we don't need to switch to the plane, as one group had to yesterday.

The ferry this morning was a different beast-had I not been on the previous one, I might have described it as rough in places. Sisse had no need for a bag this time. We're both connecting onto Te Anu. Despite this meaning a ferry and three buses, we should be there by 1-just as well, for I need to take some proper calories on board. I've decided to use Te Anu as my sole base for fjordland; this has reduced my travelling and sped things up a little, at a small cost.

I've little notion of what to expect, not having visited Norway, but the few photos I've seen are stunning. Tomorrow I go to Milford Sound for a 2 and a half hour Nature Cruise, then it's Doubtful Sound for an overnight boat trip and some kayaking. Just under $400 for the pair, but I don't expect to feel short changed.

In the end we needed a fourth bus to reach Te Anu YHA, but there was still plenty of time to explore. I headed straight down to the lake, which is the sight. Now Te Anu bills itself as the 'gateway to Fjordland', it's a jumping off spot-you come here en route to the pretty/scenic stuff. So given how gorgeous it is here, I'm a little excited for the next few days.

I even watched an Indiana Jones style seaplane take off from the lake. I really want to go on one, but I'm spending a lot of cash here already and must have some budgetary self-control.

I sauntered back towards town, heard a lot of shouting and looked over to see an oval ball cart wheeling through the sky. Since I didn't have much to do, thought this might be my only chance to see Rugby in NZ and couldn't remember when I last watched sport, I wandered over. The pitch was encircled by cars-there were no grandstands or admission fees. The cars honked their horns after a score. The rest of the time, balls kicked to touch just bounced off them; the owners seemed totally unfazed. What a great place to play, with the mountains as a backdrop.

After about 5 mins I found the scoreboard, which it later appeared was updated by a player. After another 5, I worked out the home side weren't wearing the ill-advised blue 'sweat revealing' shirts. And later still I realised I was standing with the away fans. I thought Te Anu would win; they didn't deserve to, the sweaty blue team with the rubbish winger was much the better side, but it was just that sort of game. The lead changed hands four times while I was watching and my side of the pitch hotly contested the amount of injury time. Judging by the amount of travelling support and the perfunctory nature of the post match congratulations, I'd say there wasn't much love lost between the two sides.

The smell of Deep Heat brought back many memories of a game I last played when I was 20. I instantly missed it; I may have to find a veterans pub team. Reckon I could have got a game here and these are New Zealanders.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Life is a highway

When a Canadian told me that I looked like a Canadian singer, I was dreading him saying Bryan Adams (I was confident it wasn't Sea Lion Dion). So I guess I should be pleased with him calling me a young Tom Cochrane, who provided the soundtrack to my trip to NZ.

Dunedin, through no real fault of its own, spent my first 24 hours here being the city of 'no you can't do that'.

Aware that the following day was Good Friday, I went straight to the Dive shop, which encouragingly had 'start learning to dive today' on it's walls in bright, five foot high letters. No you can't, next course starts in a week and is spread over a fortnight.

I want to go to Invercargill through the Catlins and spend the night there. No you can't: the Intercity uses a different inland route; the Catlins coaster only works one way in the opposite direction; Kiwi Experience ignores its brochure, no longer stops there overnight, so you'll have to pay extra to stay 2 nights. And we've no space.

No you can't visit the National Sports Museum on Good Friday, it's shut, even though it said it would be open.

I need to top up my current account; no you can't as Egg have decided to stop my account as they had some post returned to them.

I need to top up my phone's credit; no you can't as we've decided to change our technology, which means we've stopped top ups. Oh, and we should have told you that we'll switch the service off on April 20th. But it's OK, we'll send out new sim cards in the middle of June. Yes, you would need a time machine to stop that being fucking stupid.

No you can't have a drink, it's Good Friday. To be fair I got around this one as it appears to be the week of women plying me with booze. After Kylie, American Jen was giving me beer and Oranje Joelle red wine. So, as usual, no real dramas.

All the same, I was quite gutted as I walked back from the dive shop. I'd convinced myself I'd be learning to dive here, so was disappointed and now had a tricky bit of travel to arrange instead of spending a week in Dunedin. I had to organise Dunedin activities, the tricky Catlins journey, ferry to Stewart Island, Doubtful Sound overnight cruise (complete with buffet), Milford Nature cruise, relevant buses, connections and hostels. In a city that was largely closed. It was a bit of a pig.

Allan had recommended me the Elm tour to the Otago Peninsula, which is something of a wildlife paradise. Booking this was Thursday's one success, particularly as they did operate on Good Friday.

I had some time before we set off, so I took a bit of a walk round town, snapped the Robert Burns statue (the Scots came here), did some internet and grabbed an early lunch at the hostel, where I fell into conversation with the very lovely Joelle, who decided to join me on the peninsula.

Speaking of the hostel, I have to say Dunedin's Central Backpackers is ludicrously trendy. I've not been in a place with this much design since John and I uglied our way round super-chic, super-hip Stockholm, staying in a hotel, which styled itself as a celebration of design. No Ladies and Gents or Guys and Gals on the bathroom door here. Instead they use a couple of those black and white photos, accompanied by a bit of text. We've got a bloke resting his head on his hand, which is captioned 'Bob worked on the theory that if you use your left hand, it felt like someone else was doing it'.

Anyway, first was stop the Royal Albatross Centre. Before heading up to the top of the hill where the colony lived our guide gave us an informative introduction to the albatross and this, the only mainland albatross colony on earth. Essentially, this is the only place on earth I'm likely to see an albatross in the wild. As their 8kg bodies have 3m wingspans (think of someone stood on someone else's shoulders and you're about there), I hope to hell there aren't any in captivity.

The presentation included some video on the bird and colony, which was narrated by the Greatest Living Englishman (Sir David Attenbrough, in case there's any confusion). He was brilliant as ever, but made seeing the birds all the more surreal. After years of wildlife programmes, it was very strange to watch one, stand up, walk up a hill and be in the very place that David had just been talking about.

We were amazingly lucky. We saw chicks and parents feeding them; several landings-largely of the crash variety; take offs; and lots and lots of flying. Albatrosses don't flap their wings much, they're really gliders-damn good ones, who can stay away from land for years, using the prevailing winds to circle the Southern polar region. It was remarkable and when 3 albatrosses were doing a kind of formation glide, I had the sensation of watching something I would remember for a very long time. They're bloody fast too.

Next we headed over to a stunning beach, which was home to a lot of male sea lions. On the way down, we had to detour as there was a yellow penguin on the path.

Initially the sea lions were all asleep, but once one surfed in

It got quite heated

They spend a lot of time bullying each other, mostly as practise. Their motivation is that only the biggest bully gets any. 400kg sea lions aren't scared of me, so you have to watch them. Even so, we got quite close

The highlight on the beach was definitely the two yellow eyed penguins who had to go mountaineering to get home

They're very private birds and like an out of the way home. These two had gone to extremes. With one always a way ahead, looking back in what appeared to be impatience, it was very easy to imagine the penguins' conversation. Joelle and I put words in their mouths as we watched them waddle, struggle and jump their way up what must have been well over 100feet.

'Wahey. We made it.' 'I'm really tired. I told you not to build the house up here.'

We finished by hiking a pretty steep hill to get to the seal nursery pools. Seals learn to swim here so they don't drown in rough seas or get eaten. Mum goes off fishing for up to a week at a time, so there's plenty of time for mischief.

All in all an exciting and exhilarating day. I hadn't really been down, but it put the other crap in perspective.

I finally resolved the Catlins problem by finding a one way car hire for just a dollar more than the Kiwi Experience bus. Joelle may come too if she can get back to Mount Cook. Be nice and she's very keen to drive.

Good Friday is dry in NZ (as is Easter Sunday) and fairly much everything is shut. I cannot imagine how Easter would have been received by the Rugby tour 15 years ago. Inevitably a lot of bars were opening at midnight, seeing as Good Friday was over. Had they opened 2 or 3 hours earlier we'd have piled down, but at about 11 the inspiration for a big night out had dissipated-just as well if I'm to stay awake on the Taeri Gorge Railway tomorrow.

Ticket to Ride
The Taeri Gorge is a scenic railway, so it was a 4 hour return trip with a couple of leg stretching photo stops. The train rolled out past the House of Pain-Carrisbrook rugby ground, where I believe the All Blacks have only lost once. To England. Nice.

12km down the track at Wingatui, a chap stood on the veranda at the front of his house waving to us all. I suppose he must do it everyday; I thought it a really nice touch, I doubt I'd have felt the same at home 6 months ago.

I did have a couple of moments of heavy eyelids, when sat by the heater on the way back. Just as well I spent most of the way out hanging off the viewing platform between carriages. The cruise ship passengers were on another train, which was nice. It was a lovely way to spend a morning. I'll leave some of the many photos to do the talking.

Since the station contained the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame, I didn't have to think too hard about what to do after the train. It was a touch out of date (Bob Charles was still the country's only major champion, despite Michael Campbell's 2005 US Open) and it wasn't slick, but it paid honest and heartfelt tribute to NZ's stars and entertained me for an hour and a half. It also got me thinking-where's the British one. Perhaps I've found my life's work.

Inevitably there were names I expected-Meads, Fitzpatrick, Hadlee, Todd, some surprises (Chris Lewis got an awful lot of respect for reaching a Wimbledon final) and a great many I had never heard of. Chief among the latter category was Peter Snell. Is it just me? Who's heard of Peter Snell? He had the 800 and mile world records, won the 800m at Rome in '60, defended it in Tokyo, where he also won the 1500m. A distance he had not previously run competitively. He was the first to the do the double since Albert Hill, of whom we heard so much when Kelly Holmes did her own double. He was voted Kiwi sportsman of the 20th century-I get the impression he won comfortably. He's their Redgrave, so I thought it bad he was news to me. Peter Snell-worth remembering.

There was a large section on Sir Edmund Hillary, which contained a list of all the 43 Kiwis to have climbed Everest-2 didn't make it back. 1 who did was a double amputee. I think it is testament to Hillary and Tenzing's achievement and a reflection of how mountaineering has changed that it was 26 years after them that Kiwi no 2 got to the top. 21 of them have done it since 2002-9 in 9 days last year.

Amongst the Snell stuff was a list of the top 20 sporting achievements of all time. At no 1 was Sir Roger Bannister's 4 minute mile. Elsewhere was a list detailing the progression of the mile record. Bannister's record was broken, by over a second before the end of the following month. It's extraordinary that something that was so short lived is so eternal-it was an extraordinary achievement. My favourite hall of famer, just edging out the man-beating granny world bowls champ, had to be Ned Shewry

Competitive woodchopping doesn't get the attention it deserves. On the way home I booked ferries, hostels, buses and cruises, which will largely keep me going for the next 10 days.

It wears him out
I pride myself on being able to spot a quality tacky tourist spot. So, despite a very late night, I opened up today with a 45 minute walk to Baldwin Street. Most of the walk was through Dunedin suburbia, where Baldwin Street itself is to be found. I knew I'd hit paydirt when I saw two massive coaches and a souvenir shop. You see, Baldwin Street is the steepest street in the world.

I can only assume Norris McWhirter came along with one of those massive potractors they never used on the blackboard at school, measured the steepest bit and ratified the record. Like many busy tourist spots, it wasn't hard to find some solitude-simply walk to the top. I resisted the temptation to purchase a certificate to record my achievement for future generations. If you do ever go to Baldwin Street, I can fully recommend listening to Fake Plastic Trees on the way down-it felt perfect for the view and the thumping as my feet struggled to hold me back.

So, last night. Hmmm. Joelle and Anya had made inquiries and found the places we needed to be. Maybe it would have been better, had Dunedin's bars stayed closed again. The music? Well it wasn't good. It was awful, though we eventually drank enough to just laugh at it. You get a pretty good idea of what punters like when after 2 bars of a song, a cheer goes up and there's a rush for the dancefloor. This was when I knew we were in trouble. The song was Mysterious Girl. Yup, by Peter Andre. A bit like Oz, it's still the 80s here.

There had been other pointers. The mass exitus of fresh faced youths 5 minutes before 4 policemen walked in. The physical danger of getting between the dance floor and some of the local ladies, who were unstoppable once they got the urge to shake their booty. LOTS of priceless dancing onto the dancefloor. The guy who came up for air as he was convinced I was Pete. The dancing king-all shirt, time consuming facial hair and rehearsed moves. Not forgetting the bloke who could barely stand, who stumbled over to us. He made perfunctory and hopeless attempts to engage Joelle and then Anya. Realising he was getting nowhere, he decided to abandon conversation and kiss me. I was too quick for his open mouthed lunge cum headlock, but did end up with slobber on my cheek. I'm pleased to say he wasn't the guy I saw throwing up in the urinal.

It was crap, but very funny. Then we got back to the hostel, boiled eggs, decorated and hid them for everyone's Easter Sunday entertainment. When I finally found my bed, I discovered a pile of small chocolate eggs. I presume it was another nice touch from the hostel; I hope it wasn't from the wobbly at the bar.

Baldwin Street was a longer detour than I expected. I used up more time when I took a short cut through the Botanic-after some 'navigation', I emerged triumphantly where I started and took the long way. So I didn't have as long as I'd have liked at the modern and shiny Otago Museum. I also made a mistake when the short film on survival in Antarctica turned out to be movie with the guy out of American Pie, who all the bad stuff happens to. Still interesting with some amazing scenery; and only 2 of the dogs died. The time I had left, I devoted to the temporary Antarctica exhibition. It's shameful how little I know about the place. A few odds and ends that resonated strongly: it's 1 and half time the size of Australia; if its ice melts, sea levels will rise 60 metres; there was a reminder of the 130km ice shelf that broke off in 2000 (remember 90% of its below the water), bits up to a km long reached NZ, 5 hours away. By plane. I'm just going to turn some lights off. At the end I wished I had more time, wanted to know more (Christchurch should help) and of course I want to go there. Imagine a place where the sun sets for 4 months.

The Masters is the first thing I have really missed. Despite being in April, it always marks the start of the year for me. So, I've been doing early morning runs to the internet. Dare I say, come on our Justin? Well I have. And thanks and good luck to Our Greg.