New Zealand: Heading South for Winter

On to the South Island and we had a new driver named Sparrow, a blonde Kiwi and one of the only female drivers on the circuit. She was a super organiser for all our activities and made sure we got to do everything we wanted.

We had a new bus of people to meet and greet on leaving Wellington and got to know some of them on the ferry ride and the drive over to Abel Tasman National Park. We were afforded only one day in the Abel Tasman, and the actual park is a water taxi ride away, so if you have more days available, I would really recommend staying here longer if you get good weather. As it was, I managed an evening cliff top walk and a morning boat ride out to see Split Apple rock as well as some wildlife – seal pups and a tiny penguin!

After being reunited with Bec, who had gone ahead the day before to spend two days in the park, we set off the next day heading to Westport. Our route went inland, and around half way into our journey we pulled up to Lake Nelson – a beautifully clear and still lake with a small wooden pier out to freezing cold water and huge eels that call the lake home!

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Postcard perfect
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If you don’t mind some lake critters!

Sparrow announced over the speaker that anyone brave enough to jump in would get a pitcher of beer on her. Before we were out of our seats – a thirty-something skinny ginger guy had pushed his way out the bus door, hopped over the lakeside rocks and was sprinting down the wooden gangway, pulling his clothes off as he went…t-shirt off, shorts lobbed behind him…finally to points and screams from the bus, he whipped off his boxers and like a starfish – jumped butt-naked into the freezing lake.

We quickly got out of the bus to be greeted by this guy (Fraser , Irish) wandering around without a care in the world, picking up his clothes – excuse the pun, willy-nilly. Post the casual nudity, other brave souls jumped in wearing swimwear and skirted cautiously around the resting eels. Given the outside temperature was about 7 degrees, I wasn’t about to join them!  Meg, of course, did it, at least once, and Fraser went in again – in a Borat mankini (naturally!).

My First Surfing Lesson – as Funny as it Sounds

But I did throw myself in, in other ways.  In Westport, I had my first surfing lesson, with Joe, on the first day of the New Zealand winter and a high storm swell. Nothing like jumping in the deep end. As we did our theory on the beach in cold wet wetsuits and with sand blasting our ankles and rain pouring down, looking at giant white waves beating against the shore – I questioned my sanity. Sensing a disheartening in the group, our instructor quickly went through the basics and said it would be warmer when we were in the sea.

Well. At this, I gave a vocal “HA!” As in: “Ha you must take me, Sir, for someone born yesterday because, as I know, from summers in Cornwall and Wales – the sea is NEVER warmer than land.”

I was almost ready to sit the practical out, but turned to my inner grit and thought I might as well get in, he has taken my money already.

I cautiously put one foot inside the water line, followed by the other – waiting for that moment the wave rolls up over your feet and you wince through the bone chill. It didn’t happen. The water was…tepid. I waded in up to my middle and all was… fine. Then – wave. Salty water spluttering from my mouth… *must remember to close it next time*. Pushing my upper body up on the board I got through the next few waves and turned myself back to the shore…waiting….picking the moment…then paddle paddle paddle and pop!

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Still happy!
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But it did look bleak…

Well, the paddling was fine – I caught the best wave and sped towards the beach. The pop – well, I got into a doggy pose but didn’t quite get off my knees and on my feet. Surfing is tricky! Few more sessions needed I think. But not on this trip – because the next day I could barely lift my arms above my head.. paddling in rough water was a whole body work out, but the surfing at Westport comes highly recommended.

The Lake Manipua house party was also great fun and everyone got their creative hats on. The theme was “I wouldn’t want to be a…” So – naturally, I went as a shark attack victim. I made a shark out of paint and cardboard, wore my rash vest and a t-shirt I spattered with fake blood. Bec stole everyone’s cereal boxes to become a cereal killer…(see the pun there.) Meg outdid herself by going as ‘one night stand’ – complete with a lampshade hat, chest of draws body and even a condom on the box. Her outfit was so good, she won first prize – a Canyon Swing in Queenstown.

Getting our Glacial Hike On

Getting into Franz Josef, I had everything crossed for good weather. I had seen photos taken from the glacier and one of the things I most wanted to do on the trip was to explore the ice sheets. The day we arrived was cloudy and overcast with on and off rain. Meg and I took ourselves out regardless and explored the rivers flowing down at the base of the mountains.

The weather conditions being good are critical for getting onto the glacier, as the only way onto the ice is by helicopter.  Conditions need to be perfect for flying both at the base of the mountain, as well as at the top of the mountain for walking – which doesn’t happen all that often. The fear we all had was waking up to another Tongariro crossing day, but the sun gods were shining.

We excitedly checked in and were suited up with leather boots, a blue boiler suit and a small bag to take everything we needed. Amazingly, I was put up front again next to the pilot with Joe, Bec and Meg in the back. We had floor to ceiling glass views of the icy river filled with boulders, the sweeping highlands and finally the huge glistening glacier. As we flew lower it wasn’t clear where on earth the pilot was landing us – until we saw this tiny square of flattish ice….yep that was it. The size of a small car roof we were landing on – with ice crevasses either side!

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Excited faces!
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Mountain views parking

We disembarked and immediately starting sliding uncontrollably. Ice is slippy…who knew?! Crampons on, stability regained, and we finally got going with our guide. Exploring the ice formations we walked inside blue tinged tunnels, around giant seemingly bottomless cracks, on top of its vastness, we even ate the ice! Over two hours we walked through this stunning almost alien landscape.

It makes you feel small; it physically it dwarfs everything else human made. Other trek groups in the distance look like little black ants, it’s hard to comprehend how small it’s massiveness makes people seem. It also makes you feel a whole heap of other things – lucky, awe-inspired, insignificant maybe – the glacier is pretty old. It was really magical. A once in a lifetime experience I’ll remember forever.

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Getting surrounded
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Not ants but people!
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The glacier throwing up some big shapes

Further South

As we continued our journey South, we were warmed by Autumn sun,  and New Zealand’s fall colours came out in amazing golds and reds, like nothing I’ve seen before. Lake Wanaka and Arrowtown were resplendent in the sunshine, and it wasn’t even peak season yet!

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Golden trees in Arrowtown

The views and scenery in the South Island were spectacular, but as thoughts turned to Queenstown, there was something else on everyone’s mind. Activities. As the bus rolled into Queenstown I had a choice to make – to skydive or not to skydive… [to be continued!]

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Beautiful Queenstown in autumn colours

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