Category Archives: Adventurous Activity

The Garden Route- Mossel Bay to Storms River

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“On the road again”, but this time with the Baz Bus…

12.03.12, and we woke up with the strange realisation that 1 month today we fly home. But today was also the start of our hop on hop off tour of South Africa’s coast line using the Baz Bas as the mode of transport. So there is just one backpacker bus in SA and its called the Baz Bus. As we were to discover it is an incredibly cheap way to travel (our 21 day ticket cost £164 and would take us 2,300 kms) and convenient and safe taking you door to door from/to your hostel. However it isn’t the quickest or most efficient (picking up and dropping off from multiple hostels in each town passed) and it isn’t the most comfortable either! But hey we were game and we got picked up at 8.45am from our Cape Town hostel and our first destination was Mossel Bay- the start of The Garden Route. The Garden Route stretches from Mossel Bay to the Tsitsikamma River Mouth is like a “necklace of bays, beaches, cliffs and rocky capes strung together along a line of pounding white surf”…well that’s what the free Coast to Coast backpacker guide said about it! We were just looking forward to having some beach time!

We were meant to arrive in Mossel Bay at 2pm but after 2 sets of roadworks which saw people get out of their cars for a stretch and a walk as we were waiting so long, we arrived after 3pm. Now Mossel Bay is not the prettiest town to say the least and our hostel (Mossel Bay Backpackers) left a lot to be desired. But this was the best place to come to for Shark Cage Diving which Hedd really wanted to do so here we were. As we wandered into the town centre to explore our feelings of disappointed about our first stop weren’t alleviated and to top it all we went to talk to the Shark Africa Diving Company and they said they hadn’t seen sharks all week as they are migrating around some island some where! The activity cost 1,300RAN and they told us if Hedd didn’t see sharks he could get a gift voucher which he could use anytime in the next year! Umm, thanks but no thanks! Hedd was really disappointed and our spirits took another knock as we got back to the hostel and got online. Zambezi Airways who we were flying with from Lusaka to Livingstone had gone bust meaning we had to buy new flights! Could this day get any worse! It was a laugh or cry moment and we shakily laughed it off, reflecting that so far we’d been pretty lucky with all our other flights and buses etc, something was bound to happen before the end of our trip. Now that Hedd wasn’t doing his shark cage dive, the next day we headed for Santos beach- said to be one of the best swimming beaches along the Garden Route. The sun was up, the beach was clean and sandy and the water inviting. Our spirits perked up. We sunbathed and swam and generally had a chilled out day. We had some food at the Santos Express Cafe which was an old train carriage by the beach which was fun and only decided to head back to the hostel at 5pm when the sun started to hide behind the clouds. Lovely day. Due to the Baz Bus route schedule we had to spend 3 nights in total at Mossel Bay which was far too long to lavish on such a place, but we were determined to make the most of it. So today we decided to hike part of the St Blaize Trail which starts at Mossel Bay and ends at Dana Bay. The whole thing is 13.5km long but we were only planning to do 4 km of it. So we made our way to the start point at Cape St Blaize Cave in the crazy heat and was already a sweaty mess before we even made it to the coastal path! But the trail was pretty cool. The coastline was rugged with jaggedy rocks protruding into the sea with great blue lagoons in between. The trail wasn’t too strenuous gently undulating up and down, but the heat made it more of an effort. Plus there was a load of these crazy little creatures all the way along the trail which looked a cross between a ferret and a guinea pig with big teeth which properly freaked me out. But we survived, if a little dehydrated!

The 15th marked our last day in Mossel Bay (hooray!) and we were due to be picked up by the Baz Bus at 2pm so we just chilled at the hostel for the morning and sorted out flights out for Zambia, booking with Proflight Zambia and costing £275 each- ouch! Our destination today was just a short way up the coast and inland to a place called Oudtshoorn. We got dropped off at George by the Baz bus, then Gavin picked us up in the hostel van to take us to Oudtshoorn and our hostel Paradise Backpackers. I really liked Gavin; an old black man with silver hair who bopped away to the tunes on the radio when he didn’t think we were looking! Cool guy! The drive from the coast to Oudtshoorn was stunning. We drove the Outenuqua Pass; mountains all around, beautiful clouds in the sky with sun beams cracking through, hop farms growing the fruit for the local brew. Yes, this was more our kind of place! The hostel was great too and they were so helpful with organising activities for us. We were sad to only be staying for 1 night. We went for tea at the restaurant across the road called Bella Cibo which Gavin recommended. We shared a Game Plate and got to taste Ostrich, Springbok, Kudu and Crocodile steaks. It was really fun and we both agreed Ostrich was our favourite- very lean and tender meat which melted in our mouths. Crocodile, however, was not very nice- a fattier version of pork/chicken! The next day we had a jam packed morning of activities. Starting at 8am our first stop was to Cango Caves- Africa’s largest show caves. We opted for the Adventure Tour (80 RAN) of the caves which would see us venture into the deepest sections of the Cango One route, through passages and narrow chimneys. Our guide was a local girl who was really comical and called us by our home countries. So for the duration of the tour I was Miss England and Hedd, Mr Wales! So a bit about the caves…their caverns began to form 20 million years ago when acidic ground water chemically eroded the 100 million year old limestone rock; although today’s dramatic stalactites and stalagmites only began growing 3 million years ago when water which once filled the caves drained away. Although SA’s earliest people found shelter here thousands of years ago, the caves were only ‘discovered’ in 1780 by Dutch colonialists. So there were 15 people in our group and as we descended the stairs from the caves entrance to the first cavern both Hedd and I were super excited. The first cavern was called Van Zyl’s Hall, named after the Dutch guy who discovered it, and had loads of stalagmites and stalactites in it which were called the Organ Pipes as that was what they looked like. Next up was Botha’s Hall where we saw a complete column, where a stalagmite and stalactite had joined together. This formation was called the Leaning Tower of Pieza! After the 2 chambers it was time for the adventurous stuff. After ducking and diving our way through ‘The Avenue’ and the ‘Lumbago Walk’, we got to ‘King Solomon’s Mine’. We climbed a metal ladder and squeezed our way through ‘The Tunnel of Love’ and crawl into the ‘Devils Workshop’. Next was our most challenging part- clambering up the ‘Devils Chimney’ and then cheetah crawling along a very low passage and then delivering ourselves through ‘The Letter Box’ head first! Incredible fun and such good value at 80 RAN. Oh if you were wondering how they found this route through the caves- it was discovered by a 6 year old boy for lived at the farm next door! Not great parenting their, but he did find an amazing route around the caves! Next up we were whisked to Cango Ostrich Farm by Gavin in the van, getting there at 11.45 in time for our tour. Our guide first took us through the history of Ostrich Farming- firstly for their feathers in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and then for their meat, as feather fell out of fashion. Their skins are also now used for shoes, handbags etc. Their leather is the second toughest in the world after the Kangaroo- we’ve ate that animal as a steak too! He then took us through to the incubator room and told us about their development. And then it was to the main event- meeting the Ostrich’s. They are truly funny looking creatures. The smallest head but with the biggest eyes. Their brain apparently can fit on a teaspoon and their eyes are heavier than their brains…not the cleverest animals then! We then got the opportunity to ride the Ostrich’s. 2 farm workers held the Ostrich, who had their behinds covered with fabric, and they helped you on to it. We were told to sit right forward, hold onto its wings and then lean right back. The farm workers then let go and the bird ran hell for leather around the large pen and I just hung on for dear life! I fell off into the arms of the farm workers after 10 seconds but Hedd lasted a bit longer (but not by much!). We were then ‘treated’ to an ostrich neck massage, where 6 Ostrich’s fight to get to the bucket of feed that you are holding to your chest. It was a little scary and gross with Ostrich slobber thrown in for good measure! We arrived back to the hostel after our morning of activity at 12.55pm, just in time to pick up our shuttle back to George at 1pm. 1 hr 15 mins later we were back in George and awaiting the Baz Bus to take us to our next destination along the Garden Route- Plettenberg Bay.

It was just a 1 1/2 hour drive to Plett’, stopping off at Wilderness, Sedgefield and Knysna on the way. We were staying at Northando Backpackers in Plett’- a 5 star hostel- as a treat for Hedd’s birthday on the 17th, and indeed our room was lovely. We had a little planning session on what activities Hedd wanted to do for his birthday the next day but we didn’t have a car which was turning out to be a big issue with all the things he wanted to do being out of town! Not a good start but we kept up beat and grabbed a pizza for tea. Next morning, the 17th, and Happy Birthday Hedd! I made him breakfast in bed which consisted of a coffee and a big chocolate birthday cake complete with 6 ‘none blow out’ candles. I sang him Happy Birthday in my best Welsh and English as Hedd attempted to not catch fire from the novelty candles which were now acting like sparklers! They did burn out in the end but we did have visions of starting his birthday with a call to the fire brigade! He opened his card and pressie and was upbeat until he looked outside and saw it was tipping it down with rain…oh dear. I was remaining as positive as I could for the both of us and we walked into town in the rain to organise some calls/skypes from home to wish him happy birthday. He felt a lot happier after speaking to his mum on the phone and having the traditional Burkhalter out of tune Happy Birthday song shouted/sang at him through skype’s videophone! It was the first time I’d seen/spoken to my brother, Marc, and sister in law, Sarah, since I’d come travelling and it was really lovely to see and hear them. Deciding it wasn’t worth forking out on activities in this rain, we went for brunch at a local cafe and as the rain started to ease, had a wander around the shops and then down to the beach for a drink at the Lookout Deck Restaurant. Hedd had his favourite cocktail- a Mojito! We walked a little up the coastal path and then as the sky threatened to rain again, made a quick dash back up to the hostel. The hostel had a resident masseuse so Hedd got a 40 minute neck and back massage complete with a Happy Birthday sang to him in her native language- Xhosa. She was urging me to join in with her but I had no idea what I was doing with all the clicks that they use in the language and ended up huming along! But that was pretty cool for his birthday. It was Wales v France in the Rugby 6 Nations and we had found a bar that was playing it so it was a quick change and fast walk to catch the start. As we settled down with drink at Flashpackers Sports Bar we soon got chatting to the only other Welsh supporters there- a man called David and his South African friend called Lorna. David was from Denbigh- a town under 10 miles away from Gellifor where Hedd grew up! Another crazy small world moment for the trip, and soon us 2 couple were joking around like old friends. It was a good game, and I enjoyed supporting Wales especially as they won 16-9 and therefore won the entire 6 Nations competition! Always back the winners! We had a lovely meal at a restaurant close by called Nguni’s and Hedd got to try another bit of game- a big Springbok steak. And then it was back to Flashpackers in time to see the second half of the England v Ireland game and yet more drinks! It was St Paddy’s Day and a group of FNB Bank workers were on a team bonding fancy dress night out and had various challenges to complete. This involved Lorna getting her face licked and Hedd putting on one of the girls dress! Very funny. I managed to get a stumbling Hedd back to the hostel. He had a really good Birthday night out and that’s all that mattered. So the next day and another ‘morning after the night before’ for Hedd! He didn’t move from the room all day apart from when I made him a bacon butty and only allowed him to have it if he ate it with me at the table outside! Good night then! As Hedd spent the day recovering, I headed for the beach as it was now sunny (hoorah!) and there bumped into Lorna and David again from last night. She was just at the beach picking up her 2 girls from Lifesaving and Surf School which most of the towns kids go to on Saturday and Sunday mornings. It made me think that Plett’ must be a great place for children to grow up in, being in the sea every weekend. After getting my fill of vitamin D I headed back to the hostel after buying hangover food for Hedd and there we stayed, watching Spider Man 3 on the telly in the evening. The 19th and our last day in Plett’, and guess what Hedd’s back in the land of the living! It was sunny still and Hedd decided he wanted to see the beach I’d been to the day before so off we went. As we walked through town we past an all black protest against a local MP and his policies. It was the nicest sounding protest I’d ever seen- whistles and shouting still but also the unique, rhythmic and soul touching sound of African ladies singing. It was fantastic, and we watched the protest (at a safe distance mind!) before continuing down to the beach. We walked up and down both Central Beach and Robberg Beach, with the massive Beacon Island Hotel separating the 2. Robberg Beach was pretty much deserted and we messed around playing our own version of French Bowles using our flip flops and a water bottle as the marker. The lifeguard down the beach must have thought we were mad! Grabbing a cold drink at a bar on Central beach we bumped into Lorna and David again and Hedd got the necessary ribbing on getting so tipsy on his birthday…all good fun! Making our way back to the hostel we chilled we cups of tea and waited for our Baz Bus pick up at 6pm. Next stop…Storms River.

So it was only an hour ride to Storms River Village and our hostel, Tsitsikamma Backpackers. It was super dark by the time we got there though and the village had no street lamps. Proper rural! The hostels receptionist, Mitchel, was super welcoming and we had our Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour booked for the next morning before we knew it. We went for dinner with a guy called Christophe- a Belguim guy travelling on his own who we met on the Baz Bus. As we ventured out to find the village main street in the pitch dark we began to regret not remembering our head torches! But we found the street okay without any trips or falls and decided that this place was more of a Hamlet not a Village! We had dinner at Tsitsikamma Village Inn- a lovely pub type restaurant where the food and service was great, before strolling back to our hostel. We met an English couple in the kitchen who were from Wiltshire called Mary and Andy, and I made us all a cuppa as we chatted before heading to bed. We were all doing the Canopy Tour the next morning together and arranged to meet the next morning to walk down together. And that’s what we did at 9am the next day, meeting Stein our other friend from the Baz Bus at the Tsitsikamma Canopy Tour Office. We got a better view of actually where we were on the way to now it was light; surrounded by the Tsitsikamma Forest and Mountains. It was gorgeous and so green. We could see why the locals called it the garden of the Garden Route. After a quick safety briefing and the usual signing of the indemnity form, we all got harnessed up and furnished with gloves, helmet and our individual pulleys. Then it was all aboard a big 4×4 truck and we bumped our way to the start of the canopy tour 10 mins away. The tour involved a course of 10 ziplines and 1 rope bridge, which we were to go along, 30 meters above the Tsitsikamma Forest. The platforms in the sky were built around the giant yellow wood trees that made up the forest and the longest zipline was 91 meters long. Hedd and I were both game and threw ourselves into it after the lady guide showed us the technique; your strong hand behind acting as a brake, the other holding onto the ropes, legs up on landing. Pretty easy and a lot of fun, especially being amongst the friends we’d made the day previously! After 2 1/2 hours we had completed the course and we all got given lunch of ham and cheese toasties back at the office. We discovered that the canopy tour company was a part of a wider company called Storms River Adventures who run all sorts of sub companies and social projects, including the restaurant we were eating in and our backpackers. Their goal- Community Upliftment, with the profits of each venture going into social responsibility projects, school feeding projects, HIV/Aids awareness and environmental conservation. Really worthwhile and I was pleased our money was going into such a cause. That evening we were being picked up by the Baz Bus again to take us on our next leg, but we used the afternoon the best we could heading off on ‘The Big Tree’ walk in the Garden Route National Park. So this tree is a Yellow wood, 1000 years old, 36.6 meters tall and 8.5 meters wide and was raved about in the village. So we went and saw it, paying 10RAN for the privilege. And indeed it was big, towering over the other trees in the canopy. We walked the Ratel Trail around the forest which was nice enough, but forest walks aren’t Hedd and I’s favourite. But Hedd was constantly on the look out for snakes and bugs which apparently covered the whole of Africa in his mind, which I found highly amusing! We made it back to the hostel at 5pm and after freshening up went and found Stein, our Dutch friend, sitting at Marilyn’s Diner where we all had dinner together. He was catching the Baz Bus that evening too. Now Marilyn’s Diner was a bright and boisterous Elvis themed diner and inside had 3 really old but beautifully restored Chevrolet’s and was covered with Elvis pictures. Now this would have been perfectly normal in a town in America maybe, but we were in a tiny hamlet in South Africa within a National Park! It all felt very random! But there you go, always expect the unexpected. We all enjoyed American style burgers and caught the Baz Bus together at 7pm. Goodbye Garden Route, hello Port Elizabeth…

The Garden Route in a snapshot:

  • Weather= A mix of warm sun and showers
  • Food=Game, Ostrich and Springbok our particular favourites!
  • Drink= Hedd doesn’t want to see Savannah Dry for a while, lets put it that way!
  • Don’t bother with= Mossel Bay
  • Instead go to= Sedgefield (looked beautiful)
  • A term I want to introduce to the UK= ‘Community Upliftment’

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

There comes a time in every traveler’s journey when you realise you don’t have enough money to finish the trip and you’ve already used up the “backup” credit card on activities you didn’t know about, but didn’t want to miss out on. For us, this realisation dawned on us in Mossel Bay, at the same time that we found out that Zambezi Airlines who we were flying with in Zambia had gone bust months ago, but hadn’t told us! An absolute nightmare, it was looking like we might have to cut our trip short!! However, we were saved by the generosity of our parents who agreed to bail us out and would do so again in Port Elizabeth when we realised we had gotten our sums wrong! So a massive thank you to Paul & Diane and to my mum and dad, Ian & Bethan, for loaning us the money we needed. And as Helen keeps telling the whole world about my hangover days, I will point out that I’ve only had 3 (1 in Peru, 1 in Australia and 1 in South Africa) during the whole duration of this trip and in my mind that’s pretty good going and a whole lot better than if I’d been at home for the same time period!

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Queenstown- The Adventurous Stuff

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To do all the activities Queenstown has to offer just once, would cost you $55,000! Here’s a snippet of just the few to decided to give a go…

Nevis Bungy: 02.02.12, 12.30pm; 134m drop, 8.5 seconds freefall

Done it [by Helen]

So before I knew i, it was 11.15am and time for me to make my way to the meet point to be driven the 40 minutes to Nevis Valley and the site of Australasia’s highest bungy. I was surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing but as we made our final ascent to the top of the Nevis mountain my stomach rolled once as I spied the suspended platform in the middle of the valley which I would be jumping off very soon! Off the bus and I was buckled into my harness, got weighed in and then walked to the edge of the mountain side to look into the valley. It was a BIG drop! That was the first and last time I swore that day! We then took a little cable cart over to the suspended platform which was daunting enough- very rickety. But our bungy guide comforted saying that the Nevis bungy was statistically the safest thing you could do in Queenstown. We were then at my final departure point.

I watched as others got strapped in and shuffled to the edge and jumped. I was so pleased I wasn’t first up! Then a guy called Phil put my ankle straps on signifying that it was my turn. I went through a little gate, sat on a chair which was a cross between a dentist chair and something you’d find in a gynecologist office (!) and got my legs strapped together and attached to the bungy. The lady who was doing all this was very nice, kept calling me ‘hun’ but was subtly authoritative.  I was now being filmed and photo’s taken left right and centre. Then within a few minutes the subtly authoritative lady had got me up and I found myself on the very edge, toes just over, with the lady holding my back harness very lightly. She counted 3..2…1 and I jumped forward, my arms in a V above me. It was the strangest thing. Jumping was fine, jumping I do all the time; off a curb, a wall, the bunk bed etc… But it was the split second afterwards when my brain caught up with my body and I realised that I wasn’t jumping off a little wall but off a 134 meter drop that I suddenly wanted to stop myself. But that was obviously impossible, so the next second is full of absolute panic. But as quickly as the panic came, it had gone again and I was left with a feeling of elation as I freefalled the last 5 seconds or so. There is a massive ground rush as you whiz closer and closer to the valley floor but then your bungy tenses; I had reached the top of my trajectory and found myself whooshing back up, a split second pause and then falling again 50 meters.  I didn’t scream which is incredibly not in character- I guess it got stuck in my throat! The second bounce up and I pulled the red sash on my left leg to release my ankles so I could sit the right way up in my harness for the final fall back down and the hoist back up to the suspended platform 134 meters above me.

As I stepped back onto the platform I was beaming from ear to ear. I had done it!  Just as quickly as I had got out onto the platform and jumped I was back at the base, unharnessed and on the bus back to Queenstown. It happened all so quick; I could have just as readily snapped out of a daydream realising I had imagined the whole thing. But no it was real, I had jumped and according to my certificate “can no longer be considered a mere mortal”. But for me it wasn’t life changing. I had taken it almost disappointingly in my stride. But I am still damn pleased I did it!

Seen it [by Hedd]

I think I was more nervous than Helen on the drive out there, she didn’t seem fazed at all. She took the whole thing in her stride, which is very impressive given how high we were. From watching her, you wouldn’t have thought she was doing anything out of the ordinary, in fact she jumped off the edge so quickly that I nearly missed it while trying to get the zoom right on my camera. So standing on the edge fretting, just one, two, jump….and she did it with style to, almost a perfect dive. Not much fazes my Helen, this certainly didn’t, she is one amazing girl!! Well done baby.

N Zone Sky Dive: 03.02.12, 08.30am; 15,000 ft, 60 second freefall

Done it [by Hedd]

So it was the next day and my turn to do something crazy. We got up really early and I was strangely efficient, showered and eating my breakfast without the normal 30 minute struggle to get out of bed!! Then we headed to the office, where they told us to come back again in 30 minutes. Time for another coffee. We came back, checked in, met the other people who were diving and I had to sign the obligatory “if anything happens it’s not their fault form” before we watched a DVD on the sky dive which was cool and made me want to do it even more. Especially as the weather was looking good, with no sign of wind or rain. So they bundled us all into a van and even had space for Helen to come and watch. I sat next to this guy from England (I’m useless at remembering names) and chatted away. He was doing a 9,000 foot sky dive for the first time and was very very nervous, which made me feel pretty good, because at this time I was doing fine!

We arrived at the base and I got informed that I would be going up on the first plane, with two others doing 15,000 feet, one doing 12,000 feet and another 2 doing 9,000 feet. So we then got shuffled into the “authorised personnel only” room to get kitted out in the gear and to meet our tandem partners and camera guys. Can’t remember their names but they were cool, and my tandem partner had been doing this for 6 years which was reassuring. So off we go to the plane and as we see it, my heart starts to beat faster. We all get into the plane and are virtually sitting in each others laps, it was a tight squeeze, and then we set off. It was a nice little scenic flight, with amazing views but I am now starting to realise how high 15,000 feet is going to be. We kept climbing higher and higher and still no sign of the first sky divers. Finally the first three 9,000 feet go tumbling out of the plane. No one screamed, so that was a good sign. But we are bloody high and we start climbing again up to 12,000 feet. This is high, next girl goes out, still no screams. Up we go again, and now my heart is pounding away. I’m next. I’m the first one out at 15,000 feet. We are so bloody high, oh it’s my turn now…time to shuffle towards the door which is now open (must make sure to keep head back and feet back – the banana position).

So I’m ready to start panicking, but….s#@t were out of the plane (you don’t have time to scream) and for a couple of seconds we are falling backwards, my feet are not in the banana position and I’m worried, but then all of a sudden I’m facing downwards and its so, so cool. I’m falling so fast, but in a calm way, I can feel the wind and the g-force on my face, my mouth is quite dry but its such a rush. The ground is still so far away, it’s not scary. The camera man is making some hand signals towards me, but I don’t have a clue what he wants me to do, so I just smile. We are falling for close to 60 seconds and then up we go. This was amazing, we suddenly go from a noisy adrenaline rush, to utter calm. It was so peaceful, I’m looking around admiring the views, looking at Queenstown, the lake, the mountains. So for the next five minutes, we just float around the place, an amazing experience. I’m already thinking about how I’d like to do this again. Then its time to land, all I had to do was keep my legs up as we landed. It was a nice easy landing, but we still skidded along the grass for a bit, which was a cool way to end my trip.

For those of you wondering how my back coped, then the answer is really well. The whole experience didn’t put the slightest strain on my back and I felt great afterwards. I am going to do this again (when I have some more money – it isn’t cheap) and I would definitely recommend it. So if you get the opportunity, go and sky dive. You won’t regret it!

Seen it [by Helen]

So it was Hedd day for extreme sports. We didn’t know whether I would be able to come to watch until the morning due to limited spaces in the van but I got a spot and was really pleased that I was able to support Hedd as he has supported me yesterday. Having said that, I couldn’t do much because as soon as we had arrived at the base he was whisked off into a hanger for ‘divers only’ to get kitted up. So I positioned myself in the spectator viewing area and took some sneaky pics of him as he came out of the hanger and walked to the plane. They were up in the plane for what seemed like ages before anyone jumped. I tracked the plane as much as I could before getting neck ache and then it started. 9000 ft people came out, then 12000 ft and then Hedd and the other brave ones at 15000 ft. Soon the sky was full of parachutes and I had no clue which one was Hedd. [Note for other spectators- get your partner to tell you what colour his parachute is before boarding the plane!] My eyes jumped from parachute to parachute and I was convinced he was in a red and black parachute but no he was in a green one and I almost missed documenting his landing with the trusty camera. As he got unharnessed from his skydive buddy he looked so happy and proud of himself. His stroll over to see me in the spectator pen looked like a scene from Top Gun and I happily played the role of ‘love interest’ and gave him a big kiss well done!

Queenstown Rafting: 07.02.12, 13.00pm; Rapids Grade 3- 5

Done it [by Hedd]

So the day after getting back from the Routeburn tramp and it was time for my free rafting trip (remember, I won it at a killer pool competition in Franz Josef). It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining at it was so, so hot. A perfect day for rafting. We started by driving to the finishing point, where we got kitted out in our unflattering wetsuits. We then got bundled back into the bus and our driver “Chief” took us on a pretty scary 45 minute drive to our starting point. The road was an old mining track, not very wide and with a sheer drop on one side! Once at the river, we got to jump in and cool off before our safety training. I got placed in a boat with a Kiwi couple celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, a French girl and two guys from Germany and France. We all said hello and got under way. I sat in the middle on the right hand side and did my best to follow the paddling instructions. Although this was made difficult by the fact that I was supposed to follow the guy in front and he was doing his own thing!! It was nice and relaxing at this point and we even got to get out and float in the river. It was so cold, but so refreshing. We even drank the water to cool off. The water was so clear and the guides did it, so why not. Then came the rapids, which were fun. We got splashed about a bit, no one fell off, although the French girl did punch the German guy by accident. His lip got swollen and he wasn’t happy, but we all carried on. A few more fun rapids, a tunnel and some more floating. All in all, it was a very relaxing afternoon on the river, which was not what I was expecting from White Water Rafting. The whole experience (Grade 3-5 rapids) was a bit tame and I was glad I didn’t pay for it. I’d like to try rafting again, but I want a much more extreme version next time.

Mad Dog River Boarding: 08.02.12, 8.00am; Grade 3 Rapids, Water Slides, Rock Jumps

Done it [by Hedd and Helen]

So our last day in Queenstown and we couldn’t end our time here without doing one last extreme sport activity. We choice Mad Dog River Boarding. Basically going down a river on a boogie board facing rapids, whirlpools and eddies face on…literally! It was a 35 minute drive to the Mad Dog Base on the Kawarau River where we got kitted up with thick whole body wetsuits, shoes, helmets and life jackets. Not the greatest look but well needed as the water was a ‘tropical’ 12 degrees! We then hopped back on the bus back up-stream to our start point at Roaring Megs Lookout. After a little training which saw us kicked lengths on our board and do forward rolls in the water (I think the guides were having a laugh with us!), we were off. First off was ‘The Elbow’ which was a kink in the river which whooshed us into the bend then out and over the white water waves. Then the ‘Vacuum Cleaner’ which was a rapid of whirlpools where we pointed our boards to the sky and went around and around in. A little down time drifting down the river and then onto the ‘Man-Eater’ which is a big wave rapid where you will keep going up and over in until you get your angle right to pop straight through. Hedd and I didn’t get caught and managed to cut our way through first time. Then onto the ‘Rollercoaster’ which was a longer up and down rapid which was great fun to bob along. Some more whirlpools and then we were in calm waters. It was 45 minutes of so much fun. You could feel the power of the river just take you on your board and you just had to ride it and hope for the best until it decided to spit you back out. We got a lot of water in the face but it was exhilarating.

Not content for us just to drift back down to base, the guides then took us for a jet ski sled ride, where you basically hold on for dear life onto a boogie board tied onto the back of a jet ski as he whizzes off and makes sharp turns left and right. So much fun, Hedd and I were just laughing the whole time. Back at base and time to check out their Aquatic Playground. We started with the rock jumps. First one at 7 meters. As you stand on the edge, your heart beats so loud and you don’t want to do it. But then you jump and your feet cut through the water and your safe and smiling about what you’ve just done.

Or that’s how Helen did it anyway (Hedd here now!). I watched her do it and then stepped up to the edge, knowing that I’m not good at jumping off ledges – it’s not natural!! At this point my legs turned to jelly, it looked so much higher than 7 meters. I nearly couldn’t do it. This was much scarier than doing a sky dive, it was just me, a cliff, a river and a helmet. No qualified instructor that I was strapped to and not that much safety gear. Somehow I managed to step off the edge (I was supposed to jump – couldn’t do it)! And so I fell into the water, a bit too close to the rocks than I was supposed to be, but at least it was over and I could drift down stream to be picked up. I did it, but there was no way I was going to try to do the 12 meter one…so I just watched Helen do it!

Although I (Helen) was really scared I decided to try the 12 meter rock jump. It was high! Not quite 134 meters high like the bungy, but this time I knew I was going to hit something- the water! After a few moments of ermming and ahhing I did it. Not perfect technique as I landed a little on my bum which was painful but the experience was exhilarating all the same! With the adrenaline pumping it was time for the water slide. On our boards, we went down on our bellies, on our knees, on our bums and the finale- a joint one with Hedd and I on the same board; Hedd on his belly and me sat on top. Very fun and a good way to end the whole trip by sharing the adrenaline high.

If you could pick just one…

South Islands West Coast- Greymouth and Franz Josef

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If only I could fly by helicopter everywhere!

So another day, another Stray Bus and another driver. This one was called ‘Whales’ as he likes whales. His actual name is Adam but all Stray drivers go by their given company nickname. Either was he is a ‘ledge. Really good music, great driving, good facts and really ace sense of humour. There were still quite a few people on this bus that had been together since Auckland but not a clicky bus like the last one. So as Hedd and I settled in to the day drive to Greymouth we were quite pleased about the whole thing! So we were off to the West coast which according to Whales “s**ts on the Great Ocean Road in Australia on a good day”! Unfortunately we weren’t seeing it at its best; it was a bit wet and wild outside. But at worst it gave the coast a rugged edge to its beauty; it was still a spectacular drive. Our first stop of the day was at Cape Foulwind, named by Captain Cook in 1770 when his ship, ‘Endeavour’, was hammered by persistent wind and rain as it sailed through Tauranga Bay. It is also a place favoured by hundreds of Kekeno (NZ fur seals), which is what we were here to see. So just a 10 minute walk from the car park and we were at a viewing platform just above the rocks they were lazing on. There were little seal pups there which were just too cute for words as they scampered over the rocks- from a far they reminded me of black Labrador puppies with webbed feet! Whales played the first of his many tricks on us as we got back to the bus by gasping in disbelief at a bird standing by the picnic tables stating “wow, you hardly ever see kiwi’s out so near at this time of day”. As we all excitedly huddled around this bird taking pictures, slowly our eyes found an information board stating that this was in fact a wood-hen which is frequently mistaken to be a kiwi (a nocturnal bird) by tourists. In unison we whined: “Wha-les”! Even though we had only been on the bus 2 hours, we should have known better; Whales was always pulling our legs! Next stop was at Punakaiki to see a special limestone rock formation called Pancake Rocks. The rocks there are made up of layers of mudstone and limestone (due to ‘stylobedding’ hundreds of thousands of years ago) and as the mudstone layers have eroded more quickly than the limestone layers, the rocks turns out looking like pancakes stacked on top of each other. The sea was thunderous and the weather still a little wild which just added to the drama of the place. There were also little chimneys in some of the rocks which when the waves came in, sprays of water came in, up and over the chimneys causing blow holes, which were cool to watch. Then it was back on the bus completing our journey for the day at Greymouth. Well the place is certainly grey! Whales admitted that it’s a bit of a dump but a good place to break the journey from Abel Tasmin to Franz Josef and to pick people up from the railway station who had traveled the scenic rail journey over from Christchurch. So we looked around the town a little, bought some supplies from the supermarket then chilled back at the hostel (Dukes Backpackers) playing round robin pool and making the most of the happy hour at the bar!

Lunch time on the 29th Jan and back on the bus to continue onto Franz Josef. We had some new people so we welcomed them the Whales way, i.e. “Hey everyone we’ve got new people on the bus, say hey new people”; “Hello new people” we say in reply. Then he started the day on the bus the way he always does with his “Good morning, its gonna be a good day” song. No one liked to tell him it wasn’t morning anymore as we all secretly love the song! We split up the 3 hour drive with a stop at a place called Hokitika to check out a big shop and carving centre for ‘Pounamu’- jade/greenstone in Maori. We wandered around and learnt about the how the different shapes mean different things, e.g. that twists/crossovers represent the bonding of a special friendship or relation and a fish-hook wishes prosperity and good health for the wearer. Back on the bus and over a single lane bridge which is also shared with a train line (!), we continued forward traveling through a town called Ross which used to be a good mining town back in the day and the local pub was famous for having a 3 kg nugget of gold which they used to just prop the door open. The pub eventually sold this nugget to the English who bought it to give to the King for his Coronation. He then smelted it down to make gold cutlery which apparently the Royals still use to this day….Fact! 30 minutes outside of Franz Josef our final little stop for the day was at a beautifully blue river. It was a glacier stream and full of what they call ‘rock flour’ which when reacts with the water creates this gorgeous powdery blue flow. Very pretty. We arrived into Franz Josef at 5pm and got settled into our hostel called ‘Rainforest Retreat’. Not so much of a ‘retreat’ as it was rammed with 2 other bus loads of backpackers! But we fought our way through the kitchen, made dinner and then breathed a sigh of relief that the ordeal was over taking an evening stroll around Franz Josef village before bed.

Next morning (30th) and time to explore what Franz Josef is all about- the Franz Josef Glacier. We had booked onto a HeliHike with Franz Josef Glacier Guides and we met the rest of our HeliHike group (11 people) at their office at 11.45am.  We got handed our first bit of kit- waterproof over trousers and then headed over the road to pick up the rest; including a rain jacket (protection from the wind more than rain- it was a gorgeous sunny day), sturdy walking shoes and a rather fetching bright red bum bag to house our crampons (or as i like to call them- ‘ice claws’) for our shoes when we were on the ice. We felt ridiculous over dressed, heavy and boiling as we stomped through town to the heliport where we got taken through a super kit safety briefing before stepping onto the helicopter. They are loud! We put our seat belts on and our headphones so we could hear the captain and then we were off. It was a surprisingly smooth ride. I got a window seat and took loads of pics of the views. Our pilot took us on a 10 minute scenic flight up to the upper part of the glacier called the Neve which is the ice pool that ‘fed’s the glacier and back down over the drop in the glacier (an ice waterfall) to land around 100 meter below this- still very high up the glacier. We got out of the helicopter, took our first steps on the ice and took in not only the glacier but also the panoramic views of the mountains that surrounded us. Danny, our guide for the 2 1/2 hours, greeted us and directed us to tie our ice crampons onto our shoes before heading out on our guided walk amongst this awesome glacier scenery. The ice in a lot of parts was a crystal blue colour which he told us was due to the ice being so compacted that all the oxygen gets squeezed out of it leaving behind ice that can absorb all colours apart from blue hence giving it a blue appearance. Danny had been guiding here since 2008 and he told us that the glacier had changed a lot in that time. When he started Franz Josef was one of the few glaciers that was advancing but now it’s definitely in retreat with more rock poking through as the glacier melts.  We walked off to the right of the glacier over mounds of ice, through little streams, avoiding big holes and unstable ice on the way. Danny had a pick axe and made us little steps in the ice on the really steep bits. We crawled through 2 ice caves, saw an ice lake and walked to a big waterfall. In a word- WOW! We also witnessed a rock slide down an adjacent mountain. You heard it before you saw it. It was a thunderous, fearful noise as the big bits of rock tumbled down the steep sides. Just showed us in real-time how fragile these glacier landscapes are. The 2 1/2 hours went really quickly and soon it was time for us to get back on the helicopter again. Our pilot I think was keen to get home so it was a super quick flight. But he did some stunt moves sweeping from side to side, and going up and down fast making your stomach jump. It was fun! Then we were down on solid ground again, relieved to be out of all our layers but so happy to have experienced our first glacier and our first helicopter ride all in one afternoon!

With our HeliHike we got free entry into the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools. The pools were luxurious surrounded by forest and ferns which gave it a really lovely atmosphere. There were 3 pools- 1 at 36 degrees, 1 at 38 and 1 at 40 degrees. We eased ourselves into it at 36 degrees which at first seemed boiling but then almost got chilly! Time for the 38 and the 40 degree pools now that we were hardened ice climbers! After 40 minutes of relaxation we headed back to our hostel for dinner (not so crowded this time) and a couple of drinks at the hostel bar with some Stray pals. The bar that evening were holding a ‘Killer Pool’ competition with a chance to win a bungy jump, rafting or luge’ing at Queenstown. Great prizes! So naturally both Hedd and I signed up and gave our $2 each for charity. There were 25 players, all with 3 lives. If you didn’t pot anything on your go, you lost a life. And on it went. First round and I potted the white! 1 life gone. Second round after spinning around 3 times and taking aim I potted nothing. 2nd life gone. Third round after a shot of vodka, spinning 6 times and taking aim I…yep you guessed it, I potted nothing! I was out. But Hedd and our Stray pal called Chirag were still in with all 3 lives in tacked.  And the rounds went on and on until Hedd was down to the last 5. That round loads of people fell and it was just Hedd vs a guy called Eric. Chirag and I were cheering Hedd on and Hedd was doing really well but then over shot one ball, potting both the ball and the white. So Eric won. But Hedd still won a rafting trip in Queenstown worth $149! Not bad for a $2 charity entry! In celebration Chirag, Hedd and I donned red snooker chalk noses and saluted Stray Backpackers Bus before crawling exhausted into bed past midnight. We tried not to dwell on the fact that we were due up in less than 6 hours time but the late night was worth it.

Greymouth and Franz Josef in a snapshot:

  • Weather= A mix of wet and wild with clear crisp sunny days
  • Food= Spag bol and fajita’s
  • Drink= Celebratory cider
  • Lesson learnt= A wood-hen is NOT a kiwi!
  • If I won the lottery…=…I would buy a helicopter

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

Going on a heli hike may have been the more expensive option available to us, but it was definitely worth it. The whole experience was amazing. I’ve never really thought of ice as beautiful before, but blue ice is just stunning. I felt at times that I was walking through an alien environment, it could easily have been the setting for a science fiction move. I just wanted to run off and play, although it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t as the one time I tried to be a smart ass on the ice, I fell flat on my face…

Oh, and by the way, did Helen mention that I played a kick ass game of “killer pool” and won a voucher for free rafting in Queenstown!! Ok, so I came second, but the other guy only won because I potted the white. But I got the prize I wanted and he bought me a shot of Yagermister as a consolation prize. Result!