Friday, 21 December 2012

One long weekend

Watch out for the Kiwis!
New Zealand was always going to be the final destination of our world trip. After just about a year of travelling, and quite a few diversions along the way, we made it! It's somewhere that we both always knew we would enjoy and wanted to give a lot of time to. In fact, our original plan was to come and live and work here for a few years. When commitments back home shortened our planned trip (yeah, yeah- 18 months is still a long time!) we decided to drop the work part (d'oh!) and just come and enjoy as much time as we could here- about 4 months, conveniently timed over the southern hemisphere summer. We wanted to end our travels with time devoted to everything we love to do at the weekend back home- camping, hiking, kayaking, surfing, and spending as much time outdoors as possible. Basically, one long weekend!

Our home
First of all we needed to get kitted out, starting with a van that we could call home for the summer. It took 3 days, mostly spent trawling the internet in Christchurch library, to source 'Van Helsing', which we bought on Halloween from some French snowboarders. We had debated getting a car, and got as far as viewing a couple,but are so glad we went for a van and the relative luxury that goes with it. Van is perhaps a generous term for a converted Nissan Serena '93 people carrier, but we can sleep in it, sit in it, store our growing amount of stuff,and cook just outside it. With any luck, we'll also get most of our money back when we sell it.

Karl modifying the van
Like all good weekends, our time in New Zealand started with some DIY. The van had been converted, but we had lots of ideas for improvements to make our life that bit more comfortable. It's a little odd to arrive in a new country and spend the whole first week in garages, DIY stores and home improvement warehouses, but it was well worth it as we are now able to sit inside with a hurricane lantern glowing on a little table, freshly painted wooden benches, everything packed away in crates and lockers, bright and comfortable bedding and even a drinks cabinet! We really love the independence our own vehicle has brought us, and without spending too much money we have everything we need to enjoy life here. It's a completely different way to see a country, and we haven't had to get public transport or pay to stay in a hostel since those first few days in Christchurch.

Doing a spot of paintwork
Apart from out of town DIY stores, there isn't currently a lot to see in Christchurch. We knew about the devastating earthquake here in February 2011, but had naively though that would be all sorted by now. It is really sad and humbling to see what the people of Christchurch have had to deal with day in day out since that fateful morning. Forget about rebuilding the city, it's still in the process of being demolished. Over 70% of the CBD was destroyed and the entire city centre is still cordoned off, not to mention the damage to the suburbs. 

Piles of rubble and empty lots are everywhere, disconcerting search and rescue spray paint present on windows that were broken by the quake or in the search for survivors. 190 people were killed here, and when you see the level of destruction it's amazing more people didn't lose     their lives. 

Christchurch city centre
We took the time to go on a 'Red Zone' tour, a bus that travels behind the cordon into what used to be the city centre. With aftershocks and unstable buildings tottering throughout the city the risks of the tour are taken seriously and a disconcerting video is played just before the bus departs with a dead-pan voice warning that 'You may not survive this journey. If you wish to disembark please do so now.' It seemed a bit over the top until you see how bad things really still are, hear stories from the disaster, and see the harrowed faces of locals who have summoned the courage to take the bus tour and see what remains of their city for the first time. You could tell from their disbelief that the place really is unrecognisable. 

Shipping container shopping centre
On the positive side, there are some really cool projects going on to try and rejuvenate this fallen city. Called 'gap fillers', they have sprung up in the many empty lots and include a dance floor with disco ball, a little football pitch, a bar in an old bus, cafes made out of wooden pallets, and lots of vibrant artwork. A beautifully designed shopping centre called Re:start provides the only fully functioning area of the city centre, created entirely from shipping containers and full of quirky independent stores. It's going to take a lot of time to rebuild this city, but the opportunity for a fresh, sustainable (and hopefully more earthquake resilient) start seems to being seized, and I'm sure the future Christchurch will be an exciting and original place.

Coastal scenery on Banks Peninsula
Just as we were deciding where to travel first a Kiwi couple in our campsite, Niara and Nigel, sat us down in their caravan with a cup of tea and a sprawling collection of yellowed maps to help us with tips for our time here. They had travelled in NZ extensively over the years and were keen to share some of their favourite spots. We left with our arms full of maps, and brimming with ideas of where we might go. Leaving the distorted and cracked roads of the city, we first took our new van to the Banks Peninsula, an old volcano jutting out on the east coast. This was our first sight of the NZ countryside, and it had a striking resemblance to Wales. Rocky streams cut deep into green fields full of sheep and bordered with gorse, before a bright blue sea. We could so easily have been in Pembrokeshire, and felt right at home!

Relaxing in the van
There's certainly no culture shock in New Zealand, and it would be very easy to live here. Judging from the number of British accents, a lot of people have already had that idea. About half the residents we've met seem to have been Brits! The shops and services and a lot of the scenery are all similar, but it is noticeably less crowded. We haven't seen what peak season is like yet, or the more populated North Island, but most places we've visited have been so quiet we've been left wondering where everybody is. Even in towns, traffic jams seem non-existent, and in the countryside you have whole stretches of road to yourself, making driving very pleasant. The country is as expensive as the UK, sometimes more, but with the van almost eliminating accommodation costs, and being able to shop in supermarkets and entirely cook for ourselves,we can live here cheaply. Travelling independently and without ever needing to go on a guided tour, we seem to be able to stick to the same £20 a day budget that we had in Asia.

On snowy Mount Bealey, Arthurs Pass
Arthurs Pass was our first mountain area, and we travelled there through scenery reminiscent of the Cairngorms before we reached the high and snowy mountains. There was plenty of adventure to be had here, starting with a very steep climb up Mount Bealey. The summit was snow covered,with an impressive cornice, and the views of black and white snow and rock ridges were magnificent. That muffled, snowy silence you get on still days was only interrupted by the call of a Kea, a mountain parrot endemic to NZ. This was the first one we met, but we quickly found out how intelligent and mischievous they are. 

Karl has a conversation with a kea

One will distract you while another steals your lunch, or they'll jump up and down on the top of the van through the night and stop you sleeping. They're incorrigible and nothing is safe if left unsupervised for a moment. They're protected by law, endearingly cute, and I think they know it!

River crossing on our first tramp

Ready to enter Cave Steam
The scenery of the Arthurs Pass area was just as we'd hoped and we enjoyed a fairly tough 2 day introduction to New Zealand tramping with plenty of river crossings, fallen trees to clamber over, and sandflies (basically massive midges). There was still plenty of snow high up, but that didn't affect our next adventure; a trip up cave stream, and the best hour I've ever spent underground! The stream disappears into a cave and travels underground for about 1 km, and it's possible to follow it for the whole length. It's fast flowing and on occasion chest deep, with a series of small waterfalls to scramble up, and all done in the pitch black, soaking wet and freezing cold. Brilliant fun, if you like that sort of thing.

Ruth and me - the old Wildbore Vets dream team!
We briefly returned to Christchurch to meet a friend from home, Ruth, and her boyfriend Graham, on a fortnight's holiday here. It was great to catch up; Ruth and I used to work together and hearing all the latest news from the vets only made me very glad to be here, not there! It also made us appreciate being lucky enough to have so much time to explore the country with no deadline to return home yet, meaning we can travel spontaneously and without any plans- just the way we like.

On the beach at Kaikoura
Moving up the coast from Christchurch we came to Kaikoura, a nice little surf town to hang out for a few days. We'd been recommended a great spot to camp by the beach at the surf break 'Meatworks'. From the van you could look out over the waves, while just behind rose high snowy mountains. As well as surfing, it's a marine life hotspot, with loads of seals and seabirds to watch. We walked around the peninsula and along the beaches, inadvertently stumbling upon and being barked at by big fur seals. A little way along the coast and up a stream was a waterfall and it's plunge pool, which is used as a nursery for seal pups. You can watch them playing in the water, chasing each other in the spray of the waterfall while others sit on the rocks and stare at you with doeful black eyes. But our best seal encounter was underwater. 
Geared up for a spot of seal snorkelling

Having seen expensive trips to swim with the seals advertised all over town, we decided to try our own, home made version. We donned our snorkels, masks and new wetsuits and swam off the rocks, amongst huge strands of kelp that swayed in the current, little brown speckled fish darting in between. It was the coldest water I've snorkelled in (ice cream headaches and face-freeze) but before long we were rewarded by one of the best wildlife encounters I've had. We had spotted a seal at the surface and were watching her, keeping a respectful distance. Suddenly she swam straight towards us, diving down at the last minute to glide slowly underneath us just feet away, on her back and staring straight up at us. She looked completely different underwater, bubbles of air trapped beneath her slicked down silver fur and huge, bright and alert eyes watching us. It was just like footage from a wildlife documentary, and after she left we stared at each other in disbelief. Very cool, and completely free!

Karl models his tube
Our next cheap-skate entertainment was to buy a couple of truck inner tubes from an obliging garage. A 'poor man's kayak', they would at least enable us to get out on the water. We headed inland through farmland and forest to the Waiau river to try them out. The rivers in New Zealand are often wide and shallow, braided over a large pebbly riverbed. There are quite a few rapids, and I was a bit wary about white water tubing in unknown waters. Setting out tentatively from the bank, it was fun being pushed along by the current, alongside a rocky cliff and under a bridge, so we got a little braver. But our second set of rapids had us both tip over, swimming frantically for the river bank before we got swept into another run of white water. My tube got a puncture as well, so that was the end of our tubing for a little while. Maybe a kayak would be better. After getting cold and wet in the river, the hot springs at Hamner were perfect. We spent a luxurious evening trying out all the different outdoor thermal pools, and it was even better when it started to rain. We stayed until it closed, wrinkled from hours in the water but very relaxed.

The Waiau River
Our first few weeks in New Zealand gave us a taster of what we came here for. We'd been to the mountains, rivers and coast, had some great day walks and a multi-night tramp. We were loving the van life, having no plans, sleeping in the middle of nowhere, and moving from place to place when we felt like it. Leaving one 2 day adventure to head to another feels like a weird hybrid of a sunday night and a friday night back at home, as we head from one area to another, and simultaneously pack and unpack our kit. It really is just like a very long weekend, and we're in no hurry for it to end!


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