Sunday, December 6, 2009

NZ Sth Island - Pt 2 Aoraki/Mt Cook and Dunedin

Day 5 - Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki; Aoraki and the Hermitage.

We sleep in today ;o) I didn't get up til 6am and mum 7 am daughter and sis even later LOL. In the three days we've been in Kaikoura we have used ridiculous amounts of memory with video and of course still photos. Mum at least needs another card and sis could do with a battery and memory card too. I think I could manage with what I've brought but am persuaded that another wouldn't hurt. We ask advice at reception and end up at the local Westfields shopping centre on Riccarton Rd which is conveniently on our route. Dick Smith has all we need. We deposited mum on some seats outside Kmart to save her dragging herself around. Lord knows we have plenty of other things planned that will take her to the limit. She doesn't need to exhaust herself in the shopping centre. Our errand completed we go to retrieve her.. I saw her here a minute ago.. we find her chatting to a demonstrator fellow (she's her mother's daughter!!) He's selling some great little bag sealer gadgets. Mum has bought some and requests that the guy show us how they work.. They look great so we each buy the package deal. They have a website and will mail them to Aussie. We used them throughout our trip and were quite happy with them.

Daughter buys some nice sushi for brekkie from the stall nearby (the rest of us had cereal at the motel) and we're off to Aoraki/Mt Cook via Geraldine. I fill up at the Starmart at Russley. I jump out and head for the bowser. A young guy comes bounding over to fill us up.. I am discombobulated for a moment... and finally when I find some words exclaim.. "you have driveway service???"
"are you Aussies?"
"yeah, we had some other Aussies in thismorning too"
"I bet they were surprised to find driveway service." "yep".... I take a few deep breaths and pull myself together. I go in to pay and also buy myself a kiwimap road atlas which I seem to recall was recommended to people on TA...

We head out towards the Mt Hutt area and pass a beautiful river with some jet boat operators on the shores. We didn't have time to stop but I believe daughter felt this was the most beautiful river we saw on our travels. At Rakaia Gorge we pull into the viewing area for expansive views across the braided river and the district surrounding. This is quite popular and cars are turning in regularly.

Ten minutes down the road we spot some highland cattle. Mum was really looking forward to seeing the highland cattle and requests a photo stop so we find a safe spot, chuck a uey and head back. It is clear that these cattle are somewhat bemused at their sudden celebrity, but we get some satisfactory photos before they casually move away from the fence.

When we come up to Mt Hutt I realised I haven't got specific directions for the carpark at Mt Hutt where the kea hang out but presume it's the ski field. Turns out the road to the ski field is closed. Oh well. We enjoy the view and turn back.

It's a fairly standard sort of drive for about an hour through farmland rich with hedgerows to get to Geraldine. Geraldine is quite busy with tour buses and people, and seems to be very much geared up for people who are passing through. We stop at the bakery to try to get some bread for lunch. Not much left but at least we manage to aquire a loaf. We are hanging out for some fruit too so we pull into the Geraldine Orchard after following the signs along the road and pick up some bananas and some apples of a variety we're not familiar with, but which turned out to be very nice. We're keen to press on to Lake Tekapo for lunch. As we get nearer we see signs for the Fat Albert Smokehouse. We like the sound of that for our picnic so we go in. Its seems very expensive. The smoked duck prohibitively so. We get some baked smoked salmon, smoked chicken thigh and some cold smoked salmon as well as some smoked Evansdale cheese. I am internally cringing as we hand over the $$. Geez this better be good. On we go towards Lake Tekapo. You need to allow plenty of time for the drive up here as you want to pull over in the laybys (like everyone else) for photos of the snow capped mountains as you approach. We are entranced. Our delight with the landscape is blown out of the water completely when we reach Lake Tekapo. Words cannot describe the beauty of this place. The magnificent aquamarine of the Lake tones magnificently with the blue of the sky and the deeper blue of the flowering lupins. Lovely grey white rocks echo the snowy mountains and billowing clouds. It is simply breathtaking. We grab a picnic table, which we can hardly believe is free at right bang on lunch time. We bring out the picnic sack and the goodies. The cheese was nice. The smoked meats are a bit disappointing. The salmons were fine, but pretty standard for the type. No better or different than what we would buy in the supermarket at home just a lot more expensive.. The chicken was rock hard, very salty and just plain horrible. We fed it to the birds... but nothing could dampen our mood in this glorious place. I swear someone must go around culling lupins that are not an appropriate colour for the setting.. which would be a totally understandable activity for someone living nearby actually.. or is it that the blue lupins like the alpine area and the yellow ones like the lower altitude??

Here we find that there are apparently rules that only magnificently lovely birds are allowed in the area. The gulls here are black billed gulls.
They are immaculately groomed with feathers in soft grey and white accented with white tipped black wing feathers. Bill and legs jet black. But their true glory is seen when they open their mouths. They have the most astonishingly red and beautiful colour inside their mouths when they squawk. If you're lucky one with get cross with one of the flock and give a long drawn out squawk showing his mouth. Stunning.

Another unfamiliar bird which we have been advised is a thrush, loiters around nearby careful to avoid the ire of the gulls. But he poses beautifully for our photographs. In his dapper specked plumage he too is immaculately groomed and blends beautifully with the ground around him.

Even the chaffinch is a particularly nice representative of his kind hopping jauntily among the herbage.

After lunch daughter decides to test the temperature of the water. I follow her, camera in hand. She heads for the shore. I castigate her for daring to wear red. She's clashing with the scenery. Oh Sorry she says and peels off her top T-shirt to reveal a T-shirt which is the perfect colour blue to compliment the scenery. Ah, that's better LOL!!! Now smile!

I suddenly think.. this is fabulous but heavens, we should be getting along up to Aoraki while the weather is good. We tear ourselves away and pack up. A quick visit to the Church of the Good Shepherd - which is situated quite differently from how I had imagined - then we press on. No superlatives are sufficient to describe the views as we drive around the edge of Lake Pukaki. Naturally we stop a number of times along the way. Eventually we get up into the national park and are a bit surprised at the extemity of the sharpness of the mountains against the extreme flatness of the valley plain between.
We reach the Hermitage and drive up to reception. We're booked into a motel family unit. The weather is cold and a bit windy and rainy. Now where here I don't like the idea of coming out in that for other activities or to be able to see the mountain and make a snap decision to have us upgraded to the Aoraki wing. This mountain is magnificent and we can all hardly take our eyes off it. I never imagined this place would have such presence. Mt Cook be damned. This Aoraki and you can feel him here. Fortunately they have two rooms available on the lowest floor. We all absolutely love the mountains and love the atmosphere in the Hermitage. It's a stunning stunning place and oh so romantic. Oh how we miss our husbands tonight. We settle into our rooms, drag the sofas across in front of the windows and sit with the lights out just watching the panorama while Aoraki retreats into the darkness as night decends.
Eventually, looking at the clock and with most not really wanting to eat anything substantial we head on down to the planetarium. I'm keen to see the 3D movie and others are keen on the planetarium show. It's Infinity Express which turns out to be as corny and full of filler as I expected (now the black holes one.. that might be better to see when we come back). The 3D effort starts out very promising with a great presentation of the story of Aoraki whose fate was to become this, the tallest mountain in the country. I enjoy this particularly. The movie then moves to be primarily an aerial exploration of the region which is also informative, but others in my party laugh and are irritated by what appears to them to be just a big add for the scenic flights given the prominence of the branding on the plane. Still, having the film might be quite handy if the weather is not cooperating with any efforts to get out and about in the area.

Day 6 - Oh no we have to leave Aoraki.. but we're off to Dunedinin

Everyone wanted to rise for sunrise this morning, but I'm in two minds whether to actually wake them. I see no colour in the sky, but Aoraki awakes and I am enthralled so maybe the others will be too. I knock on their room and let them know then it's up to them. I can't stay inside. It's rainy and windy but I must be outside. I go downstairs and walk to the little viewing hillock opposite the hotel. It is exhilarating out here up close and personal with the elements. AWESOME. My camera battery dies. I reluctantly turn and head back inside as I turn to face east the sky is ablaze with colour over the mountains. What is a word that means "Wow!" and "Sh*t!" all at the same time? Oh god! they'll all miss this... . I run upstairs. I knock on doors and say look to the east you can't see it out the windows in your rooms try these ones out in the corridor, though they are inconveniently high and deeply recessed! I dash away. With fumbling fingers I swap my battery and tear down that hallway, down the lift, across the air bridge down the lift again and out into the world. I am momentarily delayed by a Japanese lady who doesn't seem to know where she's going and doesn't speak much in the way of English and equally doesn't seem to want me to go anywhere. Finally outside, I chase the views around the hotel with my spirit flying over the mountains with the wind. Finally the colour fades away and Aoraki shrouds himself in a cloak of mist. The rain intensifies. I sigh and head inside. What a magnificent place. (BTW this sunrise shot doesn't capture all of the colour, but it is my favourite just the same.)

Breakfast is included in our tariff so we ready ourselves and head downstairs. We only are eligible for the continental breakfast though which some of my group felt was a bit stingy for the tariff.. but honestly I'm not fussed. What with sampling the myriad of kiwi specific lollies, chips and, god help us, even grainwaves flavours, we need a cooked breakfast like a hole in the head!! The croissants and pastries are bad enough.

After brekkie we make a stop in the gift shop. I had admired the large array of possum merino jumpers, scarves, gloves etc and am determined to do a bit of clothes shopping before I leave. Knitwear at home has been pretty horrible recently, although I have to admit I haven't been shopping in the equivalent price bracket. Daughter helps me choose a few jumpers and hat gloves etc and bingo! A beautiful scarf that daughter 2 will just love. Possum, merino and silk blend trimmed with possum fur. Gorgeous and luxurious and it's good to do something supportive of programs that help reduce the numbers of this feral Australian pest that is doing so much damage to NZ's wild places. We didn't see the same jumpers or the trimmed scarf anywhere else we went, so again I was pleased to have just bought things when we saw them.
Having checked out we go to load the car and are thankful that the mobility parking is in a protected covered area as there is now a howling wind. We drive off at about 9am. This is as good as I could have hoped. We have a long drive today and much to see. Well done ladies. As we pass the front of the hotel mum pipes up "did you get a photo of the statue of Hillary?"
"oh we have to have a photo of Edmund Hillary."
"where's my camera, I suppose I'd better take one too" says I
"I haven't got it" says daughter.
"I gave it to you when we were getting in the car and you were wandering about taking photos you haven't been anywhere else you must have it". She looks in her capacious handbag. "No. I don't have it". Panic ensues. It's nowhere to be found. Daughter goes into reception and gets a key to check the rooms again. No joy. We go around the back and unfortunately someone else has pulled up in the spot we vacated. We park in the howling wind. We hunt through cases. We laugh as the wind almost picks us up and carries us away.. and that's no mean feat I assure you!! Finally after everyone has hunted through it previously, daughter searches once more in her capacious handbag. "Here it is! In the "secret" compartment" We all laugh and groan. "It's in your handbag!!!" Oh thank god for that! ... all this kerfuffle only cost us about 45 mins or so, but I'm glad that it's not just us oldies that do this sort of thing!!

Still unable to tear ourselves away we decide to take a wander up the road to Hooker Valley as it's only a few kms. This only prolongs the torment of leave taking and we note the various walks that leave from the car park as we turn around and head to the east and south. Driving back through the valley the colour of the lake is reflected in the clouds. An effect that intensifies as we draw nearer.

Beyond the lakes we enter into a new landscape and I'm thinking that the scenery is comparatively modest here when a voice full of awe and wonder in the back pipes up "Look at that hill. It looks like it's been sprinkled with cocoa powder!" I look again with fresh eyes and it does. It really does. Just goes to show, there is beauty everywhere you look if you have the eyes to see it.

At Twizel we look for the Black Stilt hide. Tours of the facility are offered twice daily, once in the morning and again later in the afternoon. Bookings are taken at the visitors centre and one gathers that clear directions are given when booking as there is virtually no signage to the facility on the road, though the hide is marked on the map. Used to bird hides at home being open situations where you can rock up any time, despite the time we go looking for it. This is a misunderstanding on our part. This bird hide is actually an information and research centre with an appropriately positioned viewing room which looks over the breeding pens located a distance down the hill in the river environs. From the car park we see people looking at birds in pens. We're a little confused and I'm dubious about entering through the gate and recommend we leave, but sis insists it must surely be OK to look in the pens - it must be open there's people in there and cars in the car park. I wander in to sus things out. No not OK to just wander in. They have a school group in. That's who the people are. They do the public tours twice daily and have an educational program running the rest of the time. However the gentleman there comes out and after an explanation of the tours etc and politely leaving us in no doubt that it really isn't OK to just wander in, when I go to leave he very hospitably says that if we wait discretely perhaps we can slip in at the back of the next group watching the short video. Another foreign couple rock up a little while later and they join us too. The video explains the recovery project for the Black Stilt. The Black stilt is in big trouble because of habitat degradation and predation from the numerous nasties that have been introducted to NZ - stoats, weasels, ferrets, hedgehogs. The braided river beds where the stilts live have been over run with feral lupins and broom or negatively affected by river redirection or loss of water from hydro power infrastructure. Fortunately black stilts are not the sharpest tool in the shed and are farmed quite effectively without imprinting on humans, but keeping these dainty birds going is an ongoing struggle. We are blown away by the hospitality we have been shown under the circumstances and am embarrassed to have gatecrashed. I make a generous donation in the donations box to ensure that it is way in excess of the cost we would have paid for taking a tour. This is partly to compensate for our rudeness, but in all honesty I would have made a donation anyway. Best sort of souvenir really, to try to make some contribution to such a valuable conservation program. Despite the Kiwis hospitable natures I would encourage others wanting to see the black stilts to factor the tour times into their schedules more effectively than we managed to do. You really do need to take the scheduled tour to have access to the site. The down side of our visit here is of course that we just can't get the same level of enjoyment from the flowering broom and lupins as we drive around the countryside knowing what it's doing to the poor black stilts.
Heading on to Omarama we make a petrol stop without registering that we've passed the turn to Oamaru. We try some kiwi icecreams some get Memphis Meltdowns, daughter and I go for the Kapiti icecream with boysenberry. Both delicious.
Heading blithely straight ahead from the servo our first landscape feature of note is a severely eroded hillside which whets my appetite for a planned visit to the National Parks in Utah USA.

We find our selves travelling deeper into the cocoa hills. It's quite a different vegetation community than we have seen elsewhere. No trees in sight. Only beautiful tufting grasses dancing in the wind. Mum recalls the time she took daughter far north Queensland once christmas when daughter was 7 and tells again the story about daughter who, taken to view the approaching cyclone across some cane fields commented that the cane in the wind looked like soft coral swaying in the current. She has never been able to see that affect ever since without remembering those good times. We travel blithely ahead admiring at the scenery until we come to a sign - "Lindis Pass Scenic Reserve".. "Whoah!!" exclaims I. "What are we doing at Lindis Pass?" We consult our maps. Oops! Too much enjoying the scenery and not enough navigating. Perhaps we should have kept on going up through the pass then turned around, but folk are hoping to make Dunedin before the Cadbury factory shop closes, so we turn around at the first safe opportunity and back track. The Cadbury factory shop was not on the trip agenda, however sis and daughter have announced a desire to go there if we can. They have heard a rumour that you can get whole blocks of pineapple chocolate like they put in the Snack variety blocks in Australia... but more of that later. We return past rock cairns that someone has taken to building along the road verge, which gives us an opportunity for a belated photo stop. This country is a source of endless wonder.

Again through Omarama. We make a comfort stop. I note the shop across the road with a sign that says they have possum products and am frustrated that we don't have time to check that out. Possum products are definitely on my list of desirable souvenirs.
It's quite a long wide straight road for much of the way down the coast. More lakeside driving. Lovely lakes. NZ seems to have an endless profusion of beautiful lakes. In any other place many of these anonymous lakes would be a drawcard and it says a lot about the spectacle of Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo that these ones are aren't better known. We wizz past the site of the Maori rock art. We have places to be.
Daughter is taking her turn driving and used to speed limits of 110, with the long straight road and minimal traffic and plenty of power available from the engine she edges on the far side of way too fast. Gotya! She's sprung by a local copper. No points off her licence as she's foreign, but she's got herself a speeding ticket. Oh lord! At home she'd be up for a LOT of money, so she's greatly relieved when handed the ticket to find it only $175. Phew. Sis suggests using the cruise control which is now set, but daughter later announces a desire to only drive the winding parts from now on, as there is less opportunity to accidentally creep over the limit.

As we drive around the country we are somewhat bemused that the speed limit is only 100 on that long dead straight road, but it's also 100 on some stretches of road where only a maniac would travel that fast due to blind corners and curves. One other thing we find quite frustrating as we travel is that on the east coast at any rate the speed goes from 100 to 50 with no advance warning. One minute you're barrelling along and then it's "woah 50 zone" and on with the brakes, in a number of places this is quite sudden and the 50 sign is not so visible back along the road a bit. You have to go round a corner and such only to get a nasty speed sign shock. This takes some getting used to when you have come from a place where there are speed change warning signs so you can start slowing down in plenty of time.

We run straight through Oamaru, noting the Oamaru stone in the buildings. The weather has turned very warm. We are baking and rueing the fact that we have not brought shorts with us. Its 29C today. Though noone is much fussed at the concept, we make the obligatory stop at the car park for Moeraki Boulders and are pleased to take off our shoes/boots and walk along the beach in the breakers for a bit. It's a pleasant walk and the sand is firm packed and easy. Mum waits at the car, this is too much for her and she needs to save her energy for the Penguin Place. We walk I guess about half way and we find we just couldn't be bothered really and would rather just get to Dunedin so we turn back. We love the sheep paddock there by the carpark that abutts the beach front. There's a sign that suggests it might be about to be overtaken by a housing development and think that's a shame.
It's a fairly uneventful drive on to Dunedin. Along the way down I've noticed signs to things I would have liked to see. Totara Estate. Matanaka Farm Buildings. But we just had to be ruthless.. (I'll do them and the goldfields next time).. As we approach Dunedin we like it instantly. It has a really nice vibe about it and we already wish we had more time here. We pull up outside Cadbury world at 4:50pm. It's on a busy road. We pull over and pull out the binoculars to read the sign on the door. They shut at 4:30. Oh well and visiting in the morning is out of the question unfortunately.
We locate our motel. 555 on Bayview. A Bestwestern. I have to say the location is less than inspiring visually, but convenient for a quick departure tomorrow. I'm a bit concerned it might be noisy with traffic. The room however is well appointed and meets expectations. Very comfortable and noise was not an issue. We check in and decide to make our way out to the Penguin Place right away as we don't want to be late. My crew decide dinner can wait. The bloke on reception recommended we take the high road and provided route advice to avoid some traffic snarls that aren't obvious on the map. So off we go. While the high road is indeed scenic it is particularly hair raising. Sis has some issues with narrow winding roads with precipitous drops so she's not enjoying this one much. The views are indeed spectacular though.
Long term readers of my articles will be aware that my immediate family is a bit strange. We are fascinated by road kill. We have photos of dead angus cattle out near Coonabarabran NSW, and more recently a photo of a dead emu we saw in South Australia. Well, you can imagine the excitement when driving along this challenging road we spy our first road kill hedgehog that is in reasonable condition and not just a mangled bloody heap. Now most of us have never seen a hedgehog. I saw some pigmy hedgehogs at Lincoln Zoo in Chicago (so cute!!! and so exciting!!!.. and they were even alive!!) but that's about the limit. None of us have seen these larger versions. As sis groans "good grief you people are weird" in the back and daughter and I procrastinate, Mum announces she wants to see that hedgehog. We find a safe.. well reasonably safe .. spot with good visibility to pull up and out Mum and daughter hop out and walk back to see the hedgehog which is pronounced to be very interesting.. I'm driving so I stay with the car.

We arrived at the Penguin Place just after 6. We're booked on the last tour of the day at 6:45 which my research has suggested is a good time as the penguins are returning from their day out feeding. The reception staff advise we watch a video that they play in the waiting area, however the angle of the sun means that the screen is very difficult to see. We have the option of taking an earlier tour, but this we decline. We wait for some other people who rang saying they were lost, but they don't show up. Finally when the departure time arrives we board the bus and are taken to the viewing area. One look at the terrain and the distance walking required and my heart sinks. We were warned when I rang to book from Australia that the tour involves 90 shallow stairs. I had been dubious about the wisdom of mum attempting this tour, but she was determined to at least try. Luckily we are the only people on the tour, but how can mum possibly do this?
We head down to the first viewing hide and watch a yellow eyed penguin on the fairly distant beach coming in. A pair of Oystercatches strolls the sand nearby. Another penguin on the grassy slope below us is heading down and we watch as he plunges into to the surf all awkwardness gone. He swims through the breakers and out to sea. We spend a while here then move on to another hide. The tour is designed to make observations of particular penguins. Which penguins are observed varies in order to manage the impact on the birds. The hides are linked by a series of covered trenches, so that people can come and go without disturbing the nesting couples. Each hide has information posted about the penguins viewed from that place, who their partner is an their pairing history.
The periodic rests allow mum to rest and get her breath. We are all gobsmacked at how well she's managing, but as I have indicated previously, it's amazing what she can do when the incentive is great enough. I just hope I don't kill her making the incentive too great.
We see plenty of penguins along the course of the tour, but the highlight is Doug and Donna who, right outside the hide we are in, snuggle up and engage in an mutual grooming and affection session. Unfortunately they lost their chicks this year. We are watching Doug and Donna when our attention is taken by another bird who waddles across the dunes from the beach, down the glassy path and into the large pond, swims across the pond to emerge bedecked in stray water plants not far from where we are. Magic. our tour concluded we have a more direct climb back up the hill to the bus. We pause a few times for mum, but she makes it back to the bus alive.... "just" she says. She's loved seeing the yellow eyed penguins!

We start the drive home in the twighlight along Portobello Rd. I enjoy this road very much as it nestles right against the waterside along beautiful bays. However I turn off when Sis suggests we take the turn up towards Larnach Castle. She would have liked to see the castle and is wondering if you can get any kind of glimpse of it from the road. This is a suggestion she soon heartily regrets as we are once more on the perilous and precipitous high road. It is a very slow trip in the dark, but the lights of Dunedin create a magical fairyland in the distance.

Again we cop out and get Macca's and KFC, but lest we attract too much scorn let me assure you all that this is the last of our support for the multi-nationals this trip. We fall into bed. Who needs a book. I'm out like a light and the cares of life are a world away.

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