Category Archives: New Zealand

Our Last Leg in NZ- Mt Cook, Rangitata and Christchurch


Good bye New Zealand, you have done us well.

So time for our last stretch on the Stray Bus and our final driver called Salty. He greeted us in the early morning pick up with a lot of swearing and exclamations…we liked him instantly! We were heading to Mt Cook for the night (12th Feb), but we had the journey first… Our first coffee break was at a place called Cromwell- well-known for fruit-growing and wine making. We then drove along Lake Dunston- a man-made lake created to generate hydro-power and flooding the old Cromwell in the process. Then through the Lindis Pass to Omarama for a toilet stop. We then made our way through McKinsey Country known who its sheep farming – not for meat but for Mareno wool used for warm wooly sock, jumpers, scarves etc. Fetches quite a price out here. We then drove along side Lake Pukaki and stopped at Peters Lookout for a picture. The lake was a bright light powder blue colour due to being fed by the Tasman Glacier; all the rock flour refracting the light making it show as a gorgeous blue. Just a little more driving and then we had arrived at Mt Cook on a stunning clear blue sky afternoon. The ice capped mountains of the national park looked spectacular. We were so lucky with the weather! We arrived at 2pm, checked into our hostel- Mt Cook Backpackers- and got our walking shoes on, heading straight out to walk the Hooker Valley trail to the base of Hooker Glacier (4 hour return). We walked up to the Hermitage Hotel, post the DOC campsite, passed an Alpine Memorial, crossed 2 swing bridges, tracked a lively pebbly river and eventually arrived at our final destination- Terminal Lake at the bottom of the Hooker Glacier. The lake had icebergs floating in it which was a bit mad and the weather stayed glorious so we had a fantastic view of Mt Cook the whole way. It was a fantastic walk but definitely further than we expected and as we made our way back the promise of food (even if it was just pasta and sauce) kept us going back to the hostel at pace and straight to the kitchen to cook dinner!

The next day (13th), and after such a great afternoon in Mt Cook, we were thinking maybe we should have stayed one more night here, but as we got outside and saw the weather we pleased we kept with plan a. The weather was horrendous. Thick fog everywhere and no mountains to be seen. So it was back on the Stray bus to our final nights stop with the tour at Rangitata. The journey was pretty rain filled, but the weather did let up for our picture stop at Lake Tekapo- the highest lake above sea level in NZ according to Salty. We then traveled back through McKinsey Country with its rolling green hills and entered the western front of the Canterbury Plains. We stopped at a place called Fairlie to visit one of the top 3 bakeries in NZ and try their famous bacon and salmon pie- it was indeed prize worthy! We made a last stop at a town called Geraldine and then arrived at Rangitata Rafting Lodge in the middle of nowhere in the heavy rain mid afternoon! On account of the weather going for a walk was out of the question, so instead we got cosy in the common room in front of the wood burner and watched The Bucket List film with copious amounts of tea! The group whiled away the afternoon and early evening with a mini film marathon until it was time to cook our last group meal with Stray- T-Bone Steak, Salad and Roasties. The T-Bones were as big as our plate and the feta salad was divine and the crispy potatoes tasty…all for $10! I think Salty might have taken a bit of a hit on our behalf there me thinks, bless him. We celebrated our last night on the bus with some wine and plenty of games of Jenga, hitting the hay at 11pm in prep for our 6.30am start the next day.

Valentines Day 2012 and our last journey with Stray across the Canterbury Plains to Christchurch. It was a dark and rainy journey and felt very much like what I imagine the weather in the UK is like at this time of the year! Our coffee stop was at a place called Rakaia, after which we crossed a bridge which is the longest 2 lane bridge in NZ and that was the extent of the excitement of that journey! We arrived into Christchurch’s Antarctic Centre car park, by the airport, around 10am and hopped into a group super shuttle taxi which would take us into town. After the February 2011 earthquakes Stray don’t stop or even do into Christchurch City Centre. All the big backpackers were taken out by the earthquake as they were all in the old High street that is now condemned and the roads are still pretty bad so it would take too long for the bus to navigate itself around the place. So that was the first sign that we had that something major had happened in Christchurch’s recent history that the city was still contending with. We were staying with my Mum’s old work colleague and friend called Helen in Christchurch and needed to meet her at work, so we got dropped off at the Women’s hospital and found the Oral Health Clinic by walking through the hospital and down the escalater…all with our rucksacks and luggage! Bizarre experience! We found Helen in the dentists and was greeted by a bubbly warm lady who treated us like old friends and not 2 people who she’d just met and were squatting in her house for a couple of days! Her generosity showed no limits either when she produced her car keys and tom-tom and showed us to the vehicle which we could use for our time in Christchurch to see the city. Amazing amazing lady. Although when we let slip that we had never actually driven an automatic before or used a tom-tom, she spent a bit more time with us to make sure we knew the ropes thoroughly before letting us run free with her assets! We survived the journey back to The Thurlow family home in a suburb called Horby without too much trouble and called Helen at work to say us and the car were still in one piece! It was so lovely to have all the comforts of home and we took the opportunity to have a good sort out of our stuff after 3 weeks on the Stray Bus, getting some clothes washing done and figuring out what we could send home to lighten the load. We met Neil and Ben, Helen’s husband and son, who were just as lovely as Helen was. That evening we enjoyed a gorgeous home cooked hot-pot with mash and peas and enjoyed watching some telly on Neil’s MASSIVE telly….bliss!

The next day (15th) and time to sort out the matt of fibre on top of my head which should be my hair! AKA I got a haircut! Wash, cut, blow dry and she straightened it too…the most action by hair had seen in 3 months by far! Courtney the hair dresser did a fab job and it was nice to have a bit of day-to-day life pampering. Afterwards Hedd surprised me with a pedicure at a nearby salon as a Valentines present (lovely boyfriend), after which I almost looked like a resident and not a backpacker…the accent gave me away of course! We then headed to the flicks at Riccerton Westfield just outside Christchurch CBD to use the film vouchers Neil and Helen had kindly donated to us the evening before. We picked the film ‘A Few Best Men’ and went up to purchase the tickets thinking we would have to pay something, but no completely free! We couldn’t believe our luck and tip-toed away with our tickets like naughty children. The extent of Neil and Helen’s generosity has no end! It was an hour before our showing so we wandered around the shops to try to find outfits for the wedding we were going to in Sydney in March. And hark I found a beautiful powder blue dress in the sale at a shop called ‘Forever New’. I really couldn’t believe my luck that day- hair cut, feet pampering and a new dress! Needless to say I had a big beaming smile over my face for the entire day! That evening Helen and Neil invited some of their friends over to meet us and we had dinner and drinks and chatted away the evening in the garden. All expats- a family from Leeds and a lady from Texas- and all as lovely as the Thurlows. Chat soon got around to the 2011 Earthquakes with talk about families still living in condemned accommodation and those that have moved out having to secure their homes from squatters and prostitutes who have lost their usual haunts in the CBD and now heading out into the suburbs. Also the how way of claiming insurance from the state as well as privately sounds horrendous. And the city is still getting aftershocks so the dilemma continues. But there is still a great feeling of resilience amongst the city too which is good to see, the recovery just sounds like its taking a while. But the Christchurch earthquake was the 2nd biggest humanitarian loss in NZ’s history so it was a big deal and easy to see why it’s still forefront in residents consciousness. I felt pretty lucky to have grown up in the UK where we don’t have such natural disasters.

Early start today (16th) as I had a ‘skype date’ with Mum and Dad and then it was up and out to spend some time exploring Christchurch city. We headed to the Avon River and to Cambridge Terrace (the opposite side was Oxford Terrace- a hark back to the opposing rowing towns perhaps?!) where we enjoyed a punt down the river which took us along the cities Botanical Gardens. It was all very quant and romantic, although not terribly Kiwi authentic as the guys were all English and dressed up in the Victorian British get up with straw hats and strippy trousers. But ah well it was good fun anyway! We then headed into where the High street used to be but that is all cornered off now. But in its place the city have created a mall called ‘Re-Start’ which is all made out of shipping containers. Either single story or stacked, each container holds a shop with one side cut out and replaced with glass. It was fantastic! We had a wander around and sat outside and had lunch before heading back out-of-town and into the suburbs to complete some errands. We posted some stuff home to lighten our bags for our flight to Oz the next day and we found Hedd some trousers and shirt for the wedding at a Discount Outlet called Dress Smart. Then we picked up the food supplies to needed to cook the Thurlow’s and Thank you and Farewell meal that evening. The Baked Spanish Risotto we made went down very well, as did the chocolates we bought for dessert. There was only time left to check out their massive TV once again to watch Monsters vs Aliens animated film in 3D. It was a bizarre experience sitting on the sofa with 3D glasses on watching a 3D film. But very cool that technology had advanced so much that it now allows such things. I had to remind Hedd though that it would be quite some time before we could afford such things. Men and gadgets eh!

17th February and time to say goodbye to New Zealand and head onto Australia. Really great country and one that I think we will probably visit again in the future. Thanks again Helen, Neil and Ben for making our last couple of days in the country so fabulous.

Mt Cook, Rangitata and Christchurch:

  • Weather= A real mix of sun and rain, but unfortunately more of the latter
  • Food= Steak and yummy home cooking by the Thurlow’s
  • Drink= Speights Apple Cider courtesy of Neil
  • Best day= Being pampered in Christchurch
  • Would have like to seen= The Tasman Glacier at Mt Cook (top tip- hire a bike to cycle from the village if you have time)
  • Community Resilience in action= Christchurch residents after being battered, and continuing to be, by Mother Nature


Hedd’s words of wisdom:

There’s nothing like a bit of friendly Christchurch hospitality, albeit from some ex-pats. We had a really great time with Helen, Neil and Ben and are so grateful to them for their hospitality and for making us feel so at home. They went above and beyond to make our stay in Christchurch as easy as possible – lending us their car was such a nice gesture. We didn’t see too much of the damage that the city had suffered, although the pop-up mall was interesting and it was good to see the city ‘adopting a life must go on’ attitude. However we did hear a number of stories from Helen, Neil and some of their friends of how people had suffered and are still suffering as a result of the earthquake, which was quite moving. We didn’t experience any aftershocks while there and I hope the city gets plenty of time to recover, rebuilt and future-proof before they experience anything else near the events of the past 12 months.


The Southern Loop- Stewart Island and Milford Sound


 The South is not so fun in the rain!

It’s the 9th Feb and another classic Stray early morning start- 7am with our new driver called Digger- to do the southern loop (Stewart Island- Milford Sound- Te Anau- Queenstown). From Queenstown we weaved our way through a stretch of road called the Devils Staircase and then through the Southland Plains- the flattest bit of land in NZ according to Digger. And then it was onto Bluff. It was rainy and dark outside and made the place look pretty bleak. Bluff is one of the oldest towns in NZ; established in 1823 it had 14 years of being a lawless rum filled whaling post before the Waitanga Treaty was signed. Bluff is also the location of the start/end of Highway 1 with Cape Reinga being the start/end in the North Island. So its pretty cool that we’ve been to both tips of Highway 1 which runs right down the centre of NZ’s 2 islands. We got to Bluff at 10.30am, ready for our 1 hour ferry across to Stewart Island at 11am. The weather was foul and we began to doubt the idea of going to the island which everything to do is ‘outdoors-ie’, but we got on the boat all the same! Our skipper told us a surprising, and scary, fact as we crossed the sea to Stewart Island…the waters hold the 3rd largest colony of Great White Sharks in the world after Oz and South Africa. So  that’s an obscure achievement which we can cross off our list at the end of this trip- visiting all 3! So why go to Stewart Island…85% of it is covered by the Rakiura National Park and so its a top destination for nature, in particular penguins and dolphins so we were still pretty excited to check that out. We checked into our hostel (Stewart Island Backpackers), put on our walking shoes and our waterproofs and headed straight out on a 3 1/2 hour walk of the coastline. After reaching Ackers Point, getting completely drenched and seeing absolutely no wildlife, let alone a penguin, we decided to cut the walk short and get a curly whirly from the local shop to have with  warm cuppa back at the hostel! It was less than 10 degrees for sure and so we wrapped up warm and sat drinking hot drinks in the hostel for the rest of the day. I devoured  whole book, 300 pages in one afternoon and evening whilst an older french man played classical piano pieces so beautifully the whole evening. A lovely, comfy, relaxing time. But not what we paid to come to Stewart Island for. A bit of a waste of money on reflection!

Next morning and time to take the ferry back to the mainland. The rain had stopped but it was still overcast and cold. But our destination for today was Milford Sound and as we got closer, travelling through Fiordland National Park, the sky cleared and the sun came out- hoorah! As we got close we had to go through Homer Tunnel which goes straight through the mountain for 1219m at a gradient of 10 to 1. So you really felt as if you were traveling to the centre of the earth! As Digger got onto the last bit of road to Milford Harbour we got our first sight of the sounds and it was a proper WOW moment. Very very beautiful and the water glistened in the sunshine. The mountain sides seem to jut out of the water at 90 degrees to the surface and the waters wraps and weaves around them. We were on the 15.00 scenic cruise with a company called Real Journeys. It was  big boat, too big really, with coach loads of people on it but we got a good point on the top deck to take in the scenery so we were okay. So some facts about Milford Sound…the first European to discover it was a sealer named John Gruno who was a Welshman from Milford Haven and thus named the area after his home town around 1820. While known as Milford Sound, it is really a Fiord as it is a flooded ice carved valley, not a flooded river valley which is what a Sound is. Silly European!

So started from the harbour wrapping around Mitre Peak, passing Sinbad Gully and Copper Point. Wind funnels through the area and at this point we had gusts of over 20 knots, but apparently it can get up to 100 knots of wind! 20 knots was windy enough for us! We then sailed out into the Tasman Sea, turned and then came back into the Sound passing Dale Point- the most northern entrance to Milford Sound. We saw sea lions on a rock and then it was onto Stirling Falls- 155m falls where the boat literally went right up close and Hedd and I who had moved to the bottom front deck got absolutely soaked by the spray! It was great fun! We returned to the top deck to dry off as we traveled past Mt Kimberley- also known as Lion Rock as it looks like a sitting lion (if you squint a bit!). Then we beared left into Harrison Cove where we had a spectacular view of the snow-capped Mt Pembroke. A very beautiful end to a great 2 hour cruise.

Before we knew it we were back on the Stray Bus, making our way to our base for the night at a place called Gunn’s Camp. It was originally a camp for the families of the Milford road and Homer tunnel builder’s in the 1930’s, with many children being brought up here. It was a tough existence- the camps in the middle of nowhere- but the community was known to make the best of things. After the tunnel was finished the families left and the camp was bought by Davy Gunn to run horse back holidays from it. Gunn was famous in the area, knowing the mountains like no other. He even has a mountain named after him. He tragically dies on his horse travelling across a river on Christmas Day and his son Murray took over and its been called Gunn’s Camp ever since. The place looks pretty much as it had done back in the day- little wooden or tin huts dotted about a river. We stayed in a hut called ‘Wanderer’. It is now powered by a generator that switches off at 10pm. The hot water if delivered by a wood fueled boiler and there is no fridge. Rural to say the least! And A LOT of sand flies- they are officially on Hedd and I’s hate list! But it was a fun place to stay for 1 night.

Next day (11th) and back to Queenstown. We stopped at Te Anau for lunch and Hedd and I used the time to go to the little cinema in the town to watch the locally famous Ata Whenau- Shadowland film. It’s an award-winning film of Fiordland filmed across extremes of season, climate and terrain all from the perspective of a helicopter. I really enjoyed it- the musical composition plus the images gave we goosebumps! A great thing to watch if your thinking of coming out for a visit. Then it was back on the bus to complete the remaining 2 1/2 hour journey back to Queenstown. On reflection I don’t know if I’d do the Southern Loop with Stray again- too much time on the bus. Perhaps a better idea would be to use Queenstown as a base and take day trips or overnight trips to Milford Sounds and Doubtful Sounds. Hmmm, next time!

The Southern Loop in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Lousy, with 1 great day of sunshine for the Milford Cruise
  • Food= Pasta with tomato sauce (tightening our purse strings!)
  • Drink= L&P!
  • Top tip= If you want to go to Stewart Island, spend at least 2 nights there- better chance of having a good weather day
  • If I were to come back I would do…= …A trip to Doubtful Sound

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

I don’t have many regrets from this trip so far, however not spending more time in the Fiordland National Park is one. In hindsight I think we shouldn’t have bothered with the Stray Southern Loop and hired a car for a few days from Queenstown and explored the area on our own in much more detail. I would have loved to have gone on a less commercial cruise through Doubtful Sound. But saying that, Milford Sound was beautiful and we didn’t have the time or money to do anything else. I guess we’ll just have to come back to do the rest…

Queenstown- Routeburn and the Rest


A toast to Queenstown’s magnetism and Routeburn’s Beauty…cheers!

After an early 6am start on the bus and stops along the way, including the mirrored Lake Matheson, Thunder Creek waterfall and the Blue Pools, we arrived in Queenstown late afternoon on the 31st January. It was our last day with Whales so we planned a big night out with him to say thanks, meeting at the famous Ferg Burger for dinner and then onto the bars. Now a bit about Ferg Burger- it was started by a local back in the day as a bakery to begin with as he felt you could never get good bread. Then he went onto gourmet burgers and its reputation is now global. Open 22 hours a day, 7 days a week and almost always packed with locals and travellers alike. And these burgers were big! As you can see from the pic and just as lovely as the reviews say they are. Then it was the big night out (haven’t had one of those in a while!) and we both enjoyed the 2 for 1 wristbands Stray got us. Plus there was a dance floor which I pretty much stayed on for most of the night!

Next day we just chilled and explored Queenstown. So a bit about Queenstown…it’s titled the adventure capital of NZ; hot in summer, freezing in winter- 2 ski fields really close by; it has a resident population of 20,000 people but a huge transient traveller population which doubles that figure and then some; its by a lake and surrounded by mountains. Hedd and I fell in love with it! So the 1st Feb was Hedd and I’s 18 months anniversary (awww) so we went out for lunch as a treat, walked the lakeside, and booked some crazy adventure stuff for us to do over our time here. Next day was bungy day and the day after was Hedd’s skydive- check out the blog post ‘Queenstown- the Adventurous Stuff’ for more about that. And after Hedd’s skydive it was time to get ready for our 2 night, 3 day tramp along the Routeburn Track the next day.

The Routeburn Tramp- 4th – 6th February

Day One

  • Distance= 8.8 km
  • Time= 4 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Forest and Plains

We got picked up by the Tracknet bus at 8am to take us to the start point of the Routeburn track at the Routeburn Shelter in Mt Aspiring National Park. At 10am, from 600 m above sea level, we started making our way up through beech forest where we saw NZ’s smallest bird (like a tiny fat robin) called the Rifleman; along the Sugarloaf and Bridel Veil streams of gorgeous powder blue colour; and over lots of cool swing bridges. Walking with full packs was a a bit of a shock but we figured they could only get lighter as we ate more of our food supplies as the days went on (we forgot we still had to carry all our rubbish with us though!). We stopped for lunch at the first hut along the track called the Routeburn Flats Hut, where the warden called Liz was just finishing up cleaning after the overnight trampers. Oh a bit of context needed…The Routeburn is  one of the Department of Conservation’s ‘Great Walks’, which means that the track enjoys a higher standard of track maintenance and hut facilities. Each hut along the Great Walks tracks has a warden who works 8 days on, 6 days off (they walk in) and is responsible for maintaining the hut and the track that surrounds it. The huts along the Routeburn have gas, running water, flushing toilets and bunk beds. Luxury! So after the Flats hut, we walked over more swing bridges through more beech forest and got some ace views of the valley where a recent land slip had taken the trees down at the side of the path. We arrived at Routeburn Falls Hut at 2.30pm, claimed two beds and then boiled some water for a nice cup of tea with powdered milk (yuk!). The hut was in a fab location and had a big veranda overlooking the valley and a small waterfall behind it. We cooked up filled pasta and sauce for tea and ate from the pan. We met our warden called Keith at ‘Hut Talk’ at 7.30pm and he talked us through hut safety, etiquette etc; which all seemed pretty pointless as we’d been here since 2.30pm and had used all the facilities and were just about to go to bed! And that’s just what we did.

Day Two

  • Distance= 11.3 km
  • Time= 6 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Stunning snow-capped mountains and alpine lakes

After a surprisingly good nights sleep, considering we were sharing the room with 26 other people, a cuppa and a cereal bar, we were ready for day 2- our longest day and steepest incline for walking. We set off at 8am for the steady climb up the Harris Saddle. It was tough going but we hardly felt our packs or the ache in our legs because our minds were captivated by the landscape and views that surrounded us. Behind us as we climbed was the Routeburn Valley, Lake Harris came into view on our right and the snow topped Darran Mountains were to the front of us. It really was spectacular and bathed in the morning light too- magnificent! We did the climb at good pace too, getting to the top and the highest point of the Routeburn track (1255 m) within 1 1/5 hours. However as we got to the Harris Saddle Shelter the fog set in, with the wind blowing moments of clarity and disguise with the fog in equal measure. We could see the top of the mountain behind the shelter so we dumped our bags in the shelter and decided to do the side trip up Conical Hill, hoping the fog would clear some more by the time we got to the top. It was a tough old climb/ scramble up a very steep side for 45 minutes, the majority of which we were walking through fog and thought ourselves bonkers! But then we reached the top and the sky was blue, sun was out and the views were spectacular. From the top we had a superb view of the Hollyford Valley through to Martins Bay at the coast and the Tasman Sea. It was fantastic. After 30 mins or so we made the scrabble/slide back down to the Shelter again, had some lunch, retrieved our bags and continues the walk towards Lake MacKenzie Hut where we were staying that night. We were now in Fiordland National Park and the track seemed to go on forever now and after the excitement of the Harris Saddle and Conical Hill, a rocky path slowly going downhill was a bt boring! But we kept on spying the view along Hollyford Valley to the Sea which was lovely and eventually we got our first sight of Lake MacKenzie. It looked so close but we soon realised we had a way to go as we zigzagged back and forth down the slope to get to it. The last bit of the walk was through bush land- moss-covered trees and leafy paths. Looked all very mystical and Hedd and I had a few Lord of the Rings moments! Eventually we caught sight of our hut, arriving again at 2.30pm. Lake MacKenzie was pretty but not as spectacular as Lake Harris but we got to paddle in this one which was fun but freezing! After a relax we went off to explore more of the lake and went to a place called Split Rock which was exactly that a Split Rock. And then came back to the hut and chatted to our group of tramp buddies who we had shared the bus with by the lake. We sat and had dinner with them too (filled pasta and sauce again!), and waited for our Hut Talk with our warden. This one was called Clive and this was his 17th season as Lake MacKenzie Hut Warden and he was a complete nutter! He went on for 1 1/2 hours telling stories that didn’t really make sense. He finally let us go to bed at 9.15pm with a cryptic warning about possums. But I was too tired to work it out so just went to sleep and hoped not to need to go to the loo in the night!

Day Three

  •  Distance= 12 km
  • Time= 5 1/2 hours
  • Scenery= Forest and alpine wetland

Our last day of the tramp and we were up and out on the track by 8am again. We crossed a small flat before climbing steeply to the bush line over steps of tree roots and rock. And I thought it was all downhill today! Where the trees parted a little we were afforded with a view of the Hollyford Valley out to the Tasman sea with a mystical hanging of mist that gave it a very different character to the same view we saw yesterday. It was quite beautiful. We passed an area called the Orchard which is a natural clearing enclosing Ribbonwoods resembling fruit trees, and then we hit Earland Falls. Wow that’s a big waterfall! 174 m and the path took you right up close to it. You soon felt wet from the spray but it did a perfect job of cooling us down. We then made the gradual descent to Lake Howden Hut- our lunch stop. I took of my shoes and padded about in my socks enjoying the sunshine at the hut. Although th sandflies were out and causing their usual annoyance! As we were there 2 boys walked past with the hind legs of a deer around their necks. They had obviously gone hunting and this was some sort of hunting trophy display- they certainly looked pleased with themselves but I thought it just looked grotesque. After being put off having anymore food, we set off again up hill towards the Key Summit Track turn off. We dumped our bags by the sign and took our remaining lunch to have at the top. A steep zig zag path up through the bush-line took us to the alpine wetland where you get a view of 3 major river systems. There was a 30 minute nature walk around the top, so we took the information card and wandered around finding the various pegs to read about. We had our sandwiches at the view-point overlooking Lake Marian. We had great views of the Darran Mts and Hollyford Valley. But really nothing that we hadn’t seen before on Day 2 so we completed the nature trail and headed back down to the main track. Last little bit now- down hill through Silver Beech forest. The sound of the Milford Highway was getting louder and we arrived at the Divide Shelter- the end point of the track and the lowest crossing point of the Southern Alps- at 1.42pm. I know the precise time as Craig one of our friends from the bus was clocking everyone in in his diary! We bantered with the group (5 from California and 2 from Stockport) until the bus came at 3.15pm to pick us up. It was a 3 1/2 hour haul back to Queenstown (I slept most of the way!) and we arrived at 7.45pm, just enough time to get a shower and a celebratory Ferg Burger and cider before crashing into bed. Phew we had done it!

So back in the adventure capital of NZ and on the 7th Hedd did some white water rafting and the next day we both did Mad Dog River Boarding (check out the blog post titled ‘Queenstown- the adventurous stuff for more on that). For our last afternoon in Queenstown we found 1/2 price wine tasting on a website The place was called Wine Tastes and you can taste over 80 NZ wines. You get a card which is loaded with money and you can pick any of the wine to have a taste, 1/2 glass or full glass of. It’s really quite clever. So we got there at 3pm and left at 4pm after trying 8 different wines and enjoying a 1/2 glass of our favourites. We found they had a free tasting session of 6 wines at 5pm so we hopped home for a piece of toast and then was back to try them! Cheapest drinking session we’ve had in NZ and a good way to say bye to our extended stay in the captivating township of Queenstown.

Queenstown and Routeburn in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Queenstown on the whole sunny; Routeburn a mix of sun and cloud
  • Food= the mighty Ferg Burger!
  • Drink= Milo on the Routeburn and Wine in Queenstown
  • Definitely check out= to save some money on Queenstown’s (expensive) activities
  • Definitely on the Routeburn you should= walk Conical Hill and slap on ‘Goodbye Sandfly’ lotion whenever you stop!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

At the end of Day 1, the ranger told us there would be no point going up Conical Hill if it was foggy and not to bother if we couldn’t see the top. Now you should probably listen to the rangers 99% of the time, but I’m glad we didn’t. When we started our side trip up Conical Hill, the fog didn’t look that bad, but we couldn’t see the top , however I was convinced it would clear by the time we got to the top. I was still convinced half way up when we could only see a few yards in front of us and one old lady turned around complaining that it wasn’t worth it as she couldn’t see anything. But we perservered and got our reward. When we got near the top, the fog started to clear and we could start to see the mountains and sky again, but nothing prepared us for the sight ahead. Over the last few rocks, we emerged on the top of the hill and stared in amazement at the snow-capped mountains right in front of us, the valleys to the left and the Tasman sea far off to the right. This was the highlight of the three-day tramp for me, it was stunning and it we would have never seen it had we listened to the ranger…


Queenstown- The Adventurous Stuff


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


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!


South Islands North Coast- Picton and Abel Tasman


Welcome to the Stray Bus!

So after cramming all of our stuff into our backpacks again (previously strewn all over a rental car!) we took the $2 shuttle bus to the InterIslander ferry terminal for our 08.25am crossing to Picton- the gateway to NZ’s  South Island. We got an ace seat in the ‘atrium’- floor to ceiling window seating area- at the back of the boat and sat back for 3 hours and enjoyed the ride. The Marlborough Sounds is a flooded sea valley so has lots of little islands which the boat cruised around. Very beautiful ride and it was sunny- yey! We got in at 11.30am and was greeted by a Sequoia Lodge shuttle bus which took us to our hostel for the night. The hostel was nice enough, but best of all they gave all guests free hot chocolate pudding and ice cream each night. It was yum! We just chilled out in Picton for the day and enjoyed the sunshine. Hedd got his hair cut and went from looking like part yeti to an army recruit with short back and sides! Oops!

Next morning it was time to meet up with the our transport for the next 3 1/2 weeks- The Stray Bus. So Stray is a backpacker bus which drives you around, you can hop on and off, it guarantees you hostel accommodation for your first night in places and stops off at some cool places along the way. There are lots of different passes you can buy. But we were on the Short Ron. The map opposite shows the route. And today (25th) we were traveling to Abel Tasman- NZ’s smallest national park but the second most visited after Tongariro National Park. There were 24 of us on the bus and our driver was called Ms P. Quite a few of the people had been on the bus together since Auckland so there was a bit of a click on the go but everyone was nice enough. It was Ms P’s first time driving such a big coach and she took the corners pretty sharp so the tummy muscles got a good work out trying to keep myself in my seat! It was weird not knowing where exactly we were going, or stopping or how long we were going to be driving for after being so independent in North Island. But equally it was nice not driving and just going with the flow. Plus there is not many roads in South Island so if we had rented a car we would have just ended up behind a Stray bus anyway; so might as well be on it! So the first drive towards Nelson was through the Marlborough wine region which was very pretty. Marlborough is the biggest wine exporting region in NZ and they have gravelly soil great for grape growing just like Hawkes Bay. We made our first stop at Bouldevines Wine Celler near Blenheim to do a wine tasting. We tasted 4 whites for $2 and bought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to have with our free BBQ that night that Stray was putting on for us. After tasting some fudge and different oils and chutneys it was back on the bus. We dropped some people off at Nelson and then continued forward through a place called Havelock which is a little town known for its green lipped mussels which they farm in the Sounds. Then it was onwards to Motueka- the last town before the National Park for a supermarket dash. Apparently Motueka is the one place Hippies and Farmers get on. The town used to be known for tobacco production but now they just grow hops for beer (and marijuana for the hippies!) It was just another 20 minutes to get to Marahau- the village just by the entrance of Abel Tasman National Park and where we would be staying for the next 3 nights. We were booked into The Barn in a little 2 person cabin which was very lovely and enjoyed a great BBQ that evening with the gang from the bus.

Next morning we decided to rent Freedom Sea Kayaks for the day ($55). We went with Independent Guides based at the hostel next door called Old McDonald Farm and Mitch, the owner, kitted us up, ran through a safety briefing and a quick lesson in kayaking before taking us and our kayaks down to the beach. We had to show we were semi-competent in the water (tick box exercise because Hedd and I passed and we were complete crap!) and then Mitch let us roam free!  Oh my goodness it was awful! We tried to paddle out and around Fisherman Island- absolutely over ambitious at our ability- and gave up half way as Hedd’s back was hurting, my shoulder was hurting and plainly it was exhausting! Hedd was setting the rhythm, although he would be the first to admit he has little, and I was attempting to steer with a rudder attached to foot loops that I had to almost dislocate my ankles to operate. All in all a frustrating time! But we made it around the first headland and beached at Appletree Bay, relieved to be out of the plastic prison that was our Kayak! Okay okay that was melodramatic, and after a sandwich, cereal bar and a sunbathe we ‘manned up’ and got back in the kayak. The going was still tough but we actually began to enjoy it as we kept close to the coastline looking at all the different bays. We made it to the end point for a 1 day freedom kayak called Watering Bay; surprising ourselves that we made it; and then headed back stopping at Observation Bay for our last sandwich and apple. The beach rivalled any beach we saw in Fiji- white sands and the water clear aquamarine. Although the water unfortunately was about 10 degrees cooler than the bath waters of Fiji. From Observation Beach we then made the long paddle home to Marahau beach. The favourable wind Mitch had promised us had not materialised and the trip home was long, hard and frustrating. We eventually dragged our kayak onto shore at 4pm, supporting the various bits of our body that ached. Semi pleased we did it as we got to see some of the bays in the National Park that are only accessible from the sea, but not for me sea kayaking I don’t think!

So the 27th January saw us exploring the rest of the park via water taxi and by foot. We got picked up from The Barn at 9am and taken to Aqua Taxi HQ to board our boat there which was on a trailer on the back of a tractor! This then tugged us to the beach for launch. You can imagine the chinese photo snappers loved that sight as we drive along the road to the beach! We had gone for a 1 day trip called the ‘Slice of Paradise’ where we would travel the length of the park to Mutton Cove and then back to Barks Bay where we would get dropped off and walk the 4 hours to Anchorage to be picked up again and taken back to Marahau. Our skipper whisked us off in our speed boat to see our first sight- the Split Apple Rock. Legend has it that it was broken clean in half by Captain Cook as he sailed past and shot at it with a cannon ball. Reality is a that it is young granite and full of iron which caused it to split in half after the impact of years of wind, rain and waves. We then zoomed off again passing Fisherman Island and settling by Adele Island to view Observation Beach. The whole area and the names of things have a lot to do with an explorer called Dumont d’Urville. He was the first European to spend much time in Abel Tasman back in the 1800’s and sort to complete Cooks charting of New Zealand. Story is that he got a bit friendly with a Maori lady whilst here and out of guilt for his wife back in France, named an island after her- Adele Island. Observation Beach is called such, as it is the beach from which Dumont d’Urville used the stars and super clever maths to locate NZ on the globe for the first time. His longitude and latitude positions were so good that they were used up until the 1960’s when they were then replaced with the coordinates from the satellites up in space. Worked out that Dumont d’Urville’s was only 2 km out! Fair flipping play! We then zoomed off again up the coast, stopping at Tonga Island to see the seal colony there. The seals were pretty lazy and our skipper told us they actually wait for the tide to rise to them instead of moving themselves to bath! We then continued to Totoranui and then right up to Mutton Cove at the top tip of the National Park. We saw Separation Point which is a headland with a little lighthouse on it and marks the point where the park ends and Golden Sandy Bay begins. We saw seals again and a wild boar. Then we turned back towards Barks Bay. On the way we saw Dusky Dolphins! Very unusual to see them as they are quite shy and smaller than the bottle nose dolphin. But they have lovely markings on them and 2 of them same up close. Our skipper was even chuft that he got to see them. Our last detour before Barks Bay was to a place called Shag Harbour. Its only accessible by boat at high tide and we had to go through this tiny entrance and then we found ourselves in a blue lagoon. The water was so clear we saw a sting ray swimming at the bottom on the shallow waters. Very beautiful place.

We finally got dropped off at Barks Bay at 12 noon, 50 minutes later than planned after the pleasantly eventful water taxi trip up the National Parks coastline. We had some lunch on the beach and then headed off on the Abel Tasman Coastal Path. The DOC guideline walking times said 4 hours to Anchorage. We had 3 1/2 hours before our water taxi ride back to Marahau so we went set a storming pace as we walked through forested headlines and coast line hugging track. It really was a lovely track to walk. Our first stop was at South Head to check out the view-point 10 minutes off the track. Abel Tasman certainly is stunning- challenging Coromandel Peninsular as my favourite place in NZ for sure! Then we headed inland, up and over various headlands and the Falls River. The glimpses you got of the coast along the way were just beautiful. Especially Frenchman Bay which, as it was high-tide, was covered creating a turquoise/aquamarine lagoon (see the pic opposite). Gorgeous! And some lucky bugger had a house on it! Then we made our way to Torrent Bay and had a rest and a snack on the beach there. Torrent Bay is one of the few places in the park with holiday homes on it. It was private land which DOC allowed the people to keep after turning it into a National Park. Its only accessible by boat now as the December floods washed the access roads through the park away and DOC aren’t rebuilding them. Although I hear a lot of the owners have their own helicopters too so I can’t say they are too fussed! As it was high tide we had to take the long 1 hour route to Anchorage instead of the mere 20 minute beach stroll you can do at low tide! Nightmare! So we stormed it again around Torrent Bay and up and over the headland. We stopped off at Cleopatra’s Pool which is a clear pebbly stream which gushes over a rock making a slide. We had our swimmers on with the intention of trying out the natural slide. But alas no time so we settled for dipping our toes in the icy water. To get to the pool you had to cross the river using non submerged stones. Needless to say there was plenty of screams on my front. But no injury, accidents or falling in so all was good! We walked the last little bit and arrived at Anchorage at 3.50pm for our 4pm pick up. Perfect timing! Our skipper this time around didn’t hang about and we were back at Marahau being towed by tractor out of the sea before we knew it. The tractor took us back to HQ and then we caught a lift to The Barn with a Kayaking instructor (ironic!). All in all a great day in the National Park.

The sun had gone in and it was much colder than yesterday, so we showered, wrapped up warm, had tea and retired to bed with a book with our jumpers still on! Tomorrow was departure day on a new Stray Bus with new people again. But this time we were heading for the West coast…..

Picton and Abel Tasman in a snapshot:

  • Weather= Sunny woop woop! Top temperature 28 degrees but cold cold nights
  • Food= Spag bol (classic) and free chocolate pudding
  • Drink= Sav’ Blanc and L&P (NZ lemon drink)
  • Watch out for= Sandflies (the bites itch for days!)
  • Top activity to do if you’re looking for an argument= Sea Kayaking!
  • Proof that you only get what you pay for= Hedd’s short back and sides Picton haircut!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

Whenever I’ve seen people kayaking on rivers or on the sea, they’ve always looked so peaceful and I thought that looks like a nice leisurely way to spend a day. So when we were in Abel Tasman it seemed like a perfect opportunity to try it – the place is famed for kayaking. So here are my words of wisdom for anyone out there who thinks that taking their significant other for a day of kayaking would be a lovely way to spend the day together – DONT!! It is bloody hard work, can lead to bickering and can result in lots of swearing!! Ok, we may have enjoyed the bit in the middle, the gentle paddling between coves, but the paddling out there and most definitely the long stretch back to the shore was exhausting. So if your thinking about a romantic day on the water, kayaking might not be what you’re looking for!!


New Zealand North Island Road Trip- The Forgotten World Highway and Wellington


“The journey is the destination”

So after 1hr 1/2 or so we arrived in Taumarunui and turned left off Route 4 onto Route 43- NZ’s 155km Forgotten World Highway. Its NZ’s oldest touring route joining Taumarunui with Stratford. 12 km of it is still unsealed roads and there no petrol stations or food shops along the way. So we filled up the tank and ventured West hoping for the best! The road was slow, very slim and windy. We were heading into proper NZ backcountry and man did we feel it! We were travelling through some stunning scenery though, and stopped off at Nevins Lookout which gave us panoramic views of the Central North Island. Bizarre landscape looking like a green grass Pavlova top- lots and lots of little green peaks! Next up was Tangarakau Gorge. The road was unsealed and we felt sorry for our little car crunching through the gravel. The scenery was something out of Jurassic Park. The road was wrapped with steep sides covered in thick foliage and the road was so thin, we were pleased we didn’t pass too many people on our way! We then went through a really cool tunnel on Moki Road called ‘Hobbits Hole’. It’s just 4.5m tall, single lane and 180m long with mud walls and timber ceiling. A proper little tunnel for Hobbit sized cars! It was built in 1936 and lowered in 1989 to allow access for trucks, but it is still super tiny. And then it was onto the village of Whangamomona through more windy, thin roads. As we arrived in the tiny village we both said in unison “where the hell are we!” Whangamomona village was first established in 1895 and was once a bustling frontier town with 300 residents and providing a lots of key services for the hardy farmers trying to wrestle a living from the bush surrounding it. The population has now since declined to 30 residents with all the shops closed except for the iconic Whangamomona Hotel/Pub. The welcome sign actually says “Welcome, please stay and add to our population”! So we entered the pub in the middle of nowhere, realising our phones had no reception, and asked at the bar if we could use their phone. My accent and non-farming attire soon unmasked me as an ‘outsider’ and she enquired further who I wanted to call, where I was staying etc. With Hedd in the toilet (who had all this info) I had to say, like a plonker, that I didn’t know their names, just the wife’s brother who was called Gwyn and no I didn’t know his surname. She knew instantly who I was staying with (the Hutchinson’s) and consulted her A4 list of all the families in the area with their phone numbers and dialed Gwyn saying to come pick us up! Now that what I call a community hub pub! Gwyn arrived 20 mins later (my goodness where were we staying!) and we catched up over a couple of ciders. No worry about drink and driving here…the nearest police were in Stratford 1hr 1/2 away and their visits to the area was twice a year at most! We then made our way to Gwyn’s sisters farm 10 mins along route 43 and then left off the road onto an unsealed road for 20 mins. So just to the left in the middle of nowhere, from the middle of nowhere! So a bit of context maybe required. Gwyn and Hedd are friends from Secondary School. Ceri is Gwyn’s sister and married to Kiwi called Daniel but everyone calls him ‘Pork’. They met in Ruthin whilst Pork was over doing a Shearing Season in Wales. They fell in love (awww) and then she moved over to NZ, to Whangamomona where Pork’s farm was, and has been here ever since (10 years). Gwyn’s been travelling around Oz/NZ and was helping out at the farm and invited us to stay so here we were! So the farm was in a lovely spot and Ceri greeted us with a big home cooked meal of roast chicken, mass and peas- yum after weeks of soup and beans on toast! Oh about the food. As I said there are no shops on the Forgotten World Highway. So all food comes from the Farm or the big food shop Ceri does once a month in Stratford. They have a big freezer for all the milk and bread etc! For fuel, they have their own fuel tank which gets filled up periodically by a big tank! Fair play, sounds tough but Ceri loves it and her 3 boys, Jed (10), Max (7) and Gus (1 1/2) are constantly outside being how boys should be. Great!

Next morning we had a lie in, enjoying sleeping in a proper bed for the first time since Auckland. With a duvet yey! We headed out late morning, meeting Ceri on the way. All communication is word of mouth or on the landline phone so we told her where we were going and when we were due back so she would know when to be in. Felt like the early 1990’s, arranging to meet up with friends ‘by Disney store’ in Plymouth city centre! So we were heading to Mt Damper Falls and we would be due back at noon! So after a 40 min drive along windy, unsealed roads we arrived at Mt Damper Falls car park and then walked the 20 mins to the falls. At 85m it is NZ North Island’s second highest waterfall and it had rained over night so their plenty of water crashing down into the pool. The water would eventually find itself to the Tasmin Sea. It was a really lovely waterfall in a very secluded point. We then headed back to the farm for lunch (cheese toasties-yum!) and then Ceri got the call that “the hay was ON”! , as they say “make hay while the sun shines” so there was no procrastinating, we all jumped in the car and made our way down to the field. So why were we ‘making hay’. Well the farmers in the area normally have to hire labour to load and transport hay from their fields to their storage barns each year. But instead in Whangamomona, the parents and children of the school do this instead and the farmer then pays 60 cents per bail to the school. This then funds school trips and educational resources. Really great initiative. So the farmer was half way through the field making all the bundles in his tractor and then all us lot rolled the bails into piles for the 4×4 trailer trucks to come around and load them and take them to the barn. It was hard going but great to be involved and that field gave about 400 bails so $240 for the school- not bad at all, and they still had plenty more farmers field to do so a nice little earner for the school each year! Afterwards the governors of the local primary school put on a BBQ for all the volunteers in the field, plus free beer! So we all sat around eating, drinking and chatting. Real community spirit in action. We then all headed back to Ceri’s farm to get ready for the ‘big friday night out’ at the local pub in Whangamomona (20 mins drive away!) The whole family came, including little Gus, and we played pool and chatted about all different things, but it soon got back to the subject of farming!

Next lunchtime after some more cheese toasties, we went on our way, saying a fond farewell to Ceri, Gwyn and the family farm. We got our passports stamped at the Pub on the way out and then made our way to Stratford. Ooh a bit of explanation Whangamomona declared itself a republic in 1989 after community outrage at local government boundary reshuffle. They have their own presidential elections each year but from what I can gather these presidents tend to be goats or dogs! As we left the village the sign said “You are now leaving Whangamomona, welcome back to NZ!” So the rest of the forgotten highway was just as windy and thin as the last bit and we arrived in Wanganui late afternoon on the West coast. We stayed at a Top 10 Holiday Park in a dorm overlooking Wanganui river and just chilled at the campsite. It was a bank holiday weekend in NZ so there was a local festival going on so we shared our campsite with a lot of beautifully restored vintage cars. The next day (22nd) Hedd got up at 6am to watch the Liverpool game and I sat by the river with a cuppa and watched the rowers on the river. Sculling seems a lot bigger here than sweep. But I did see a women’s 8 row past with their coach in the launch. Reminded me of my Sunday mornings back in Chester. But of course we were loads better than this crew [; ) ] Due to Liverpool losing 3-1 to Bolton, the final drive to Wellington, NZ Capital, was a sullen one! But we arrived safe and sound around lunchtime after putting the car through the car wash to hide the fact that we had obviously been on a lot of unsealed roads (not allowed in our rental apparently-oops!) Dumping our stuff at Downtown Backpackers by the Waterfront in Wellington, we dropped the car at Apex and made the walk back in the rain to the Hostel. Boo- bad weather again. The hostel was huge- 6 floors of accommodation and communal areas. It was a bit too big and anonymous for me. That evening we ventured out in the rain again to grab some tea and find the ‘Welsh Dragon Bar’- the only Welsh pub in the Southern hemisphere. We found it neatly tucked into the middle of the road on Cambridge Terrace. It used to be old public toilets so had lovely tiled walls and a domed ceiling….don’t make toilets like that nowadays! As soon as we entered it from the rain it felt like home. The guy behind the bar was from Pontypool and clearly has a South Wales accent. The place was covered in Welsh flags with the various Welsh visitors names and messages on them. We tried to find Emyr and Ger’s (Hedd’s school friends) names on them who had been here 2 years ago but failed. However there were plenty of people from Ruthin and surrounds who had been here, and Hedd recognised a few names. They only played music by Welsh artists (obviously) so plenty of Stereophonic but just before we left they even played a weird dance version of ‘Da Ni Yma o Hyd’ (‘we’re still here’) which Hedd loved! Hedd signed his name on a Welsh flag and then we headed home through the rain to our hostel.

Next morning the weather had improved and, after speaking to Mum and Dad for the first time in ages (so good to speak to them), we headed out to explore Wellington in a better light! We walked along the waterfront to the National Museum called Te Papa. It was the Monday of the bank holiday so there was a big concert in the little amphitheatre there plus a weird Bird Man competition where locals dressed up as birds jumped off a plank into the quay! After watching that for a while (the water looked terribly cold!) we visited the museum for free- yey! It was actually really good, interactive and the top floor had a roof terrace with a great view over the city. They even had a earthquake experience ride where you go into a little house and it rocks just like an earthquake back in the late 1990’s. Apparently the real thing was 50 times stronger than what you were experiencing- fingers crossed we won’t experience one for real when we’re in Christchurch! After lunch we found Cable Car Lane and took the car ride ($3.50) up to Kelburn lookout for a stunning view over the city and the harbour of Tara. The Botanic Gardens entrance is just behind  the lookout and we took the Downhill Path to the City route through the gardens following the pink flowers painted on the ground. The Gardens are 25 hectares of unique landscape, protected native forest, conifers, specialised plant collections and colourful floral displays. Plus it was FREE, yey! The sun was shining and it was a lovely place to wonder through. You quite forgot you were in a capital city. My favourite bit was the Vireya Rhododendrons section- a whole mini valley of different coloured Rhododendrons; very beautiful. We popped out of the Gardens just by the Parliament building- an ugly round 1970’s construction if you ask me! After an afternoon of internet cafe-ing and blogging we were ready for dinner and cider before packing up our bags for the next mornings ferry across to Picton (24th) to start our South Island adventures.

When taking a NZ road trip don’t leave without:

  1. A NZ touring map- as many different ones you can get for free. Each map shows different towns on it, plus definitely try to get one which shows where the i-sites are located.
  2. A Holiday Park of NZ directory and map booklet- where to stay and at what price
  3. Any variety of Pascalls sweets- our personal favourite: the pineapple lump!
  4. NZ Frenzy- An Adventurers Guide to NZ Wild Places by Scott Cook- a much better guide than lonely planet showing you lots of ‘off the beaten track’ places for you to visit along the way of your journey

 The Forgotten World Highway and Wellington in a snapshot:

  • Weather=A real mixed bag of brilliant sunshine and heavy showers grey days- are we in NZ or UK?!
  • Food= Home cooked grub and toasties (thanks Ceri!)
  • Drink=Monteaths Apple Cider
  • Community Spirit Moment= Making Hay in Whangamomona
  • Total kilometers travelled Auckland to Wellington= 3021.5
  • “Oh my goodness” revelation moment= We’re already half way through our travels!

Hedd’s words of wisdom:

It’s always good to catch up with old friends. The fact that we had to drive to the middle of nowhere to find Gwyn was just a bonus. We had a great couple of days in Whangamomona with Gwyn, his sister Ceri and her family. They welcomed us into their home and gave us a taste of rural life in New Zealand. The night out at the local pub (20mins drive away) was a particular highlight, as was baby Guss (so long as he had a clean nappy on!!). So thanks to Gwyn, Ceri, Pork and their kids for giving us a proper NZ experience in a place that I’m certain 95% of travellers to this country won’t visit.