June 29, 2008

Back to Christchurch

The Inland Scenic Route links Mt Cook and Tekapo with Christchurch. This route passes through some spectacular scenery, changing from impressive mountain ranges to vast farmland. Driving down the Tasman Valley past the southern end of Lake Pukaki, we drove through golden tussock land on the way to Lake Tekapo.

We made a stop at the privately owned Mt Cook Salmon Farm. Located on the Tekapo – Pukaki hydroelectric canal carrying pristine glacier water from the Mt Cook National Park catchment, it is the world’s highest salmon farm (677m above sea level). An estimated 120 tonnes of salmon are produced every year with almost half for export to Japan, Australia and US. Fresh salmon, whole, filleted or steaked, and smoked salmon were available for sale. We bought a huge salmon fillet to be cooked for dinner. It was nicely packed in ice for our five hours journey back to Christchurch.
Originally a rest stop enroute to Mt Cook and Otago, Lake Tekapo became a hydrotown in the late 1940s when the canals and dams of the Waitaki River were commissioned. This small township at the southern end of its namesake lake has unobstructed views across turquoise water, with hills and snow capped mountains as a backdrop. Little wonder it has become a popular stop for tourists’ buses. On the shores of Lake Tekapo is the Church of Good Shepherd, a stone and oak building built in 1935 as a memorial to the pioneers of the Mackenzie Country. While vested in Anglican property, congregations of the three main Christian churches worship in the church. The church has awe inspiring views of the lake and mountains through the altar window, and is a favourite for nuptials given its postcard perfect setting. Close by is the bronze statue of a sheepdog, erected in 1968 by the run-holders of the Mackenzie Country as a tribute to the hardy collie dogs ‘without the help of which the grazing of this mountain country would be impossible’.

The high country landscape changes abruptly to rolling hills of sheep rearing after Burke’s Pass, shortly after Lake Tekapo. Enroute were the towns of Timaru, Temuka and Ashburton. From here, the route to Christchurch is about as straight and flat as roads get in New Zealand. We caught sight of some camel-like animals in a farm by the road, and the owner happily brought us into the farm for an up-close and personal encounter with the alpacas.

We reached Christchurch in the evening for some last minute retail therapy. The next morning, we headed to the airport early to return our rental car before bidding goodbye to the South Island on our 8am flight to Auckland, onwards to KL.

June 28, 2008

The highest peak in Australasia

Declared a National Park in 1953 and a World Heritage Area in 1986, the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park covers over 70,000 hectares of alpine scenery, with over one third lying permanently under snow and ice. It boasts over 20 peaks in the Southern Alps above 3000m (and hundreds of others not far short of that), including the highest peak in Australasia, Mt Cook, named ‘Aoraki’ (cloud piercer in Maori) at 3755m, and five of New Zealand’s largest glaciers including the Tasman Glacier – 12km in length and one of the largest glaciers in the world.

A variety of walking trails begin in or near Mt Cook Village. One of the most popular is the walk leading up to the Hooker Valley from the White Horse Hill camping area towards Mt Cook. We immediately embarked on this walk upon arrival at Mt Cook Village. The track passes the Alpine Memorial, continuing to the Hooker River and crossing two swing bridges before reaching Stocking Stream Shelter for spectacular views of Mt Cook. We didn’t proceed further to the final destination of the terminal lake at the bottom of the Hooker Glacier as it was getting dark.

Alpine Memorial

Mueller Glacier

Spectacular view of Mount Cook Aoraki

We proceeded to check in at the Hermitage, arguably the most famous hotel in New Zealand, principally for its location and the fantastic views of Mt Cook. Originally constructed in 1884 in Hooker Valley 2km from its current site, the first hotel was destroyed in a flash flood in 1913. Rebuilt in its current site, it was completely burnt out in 1957; the present Hermitage was then rebuilt on the same site. The Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, adjacent to the Hermitage Hotel, honours his longstanding connections with Mt Cook National Park. The humanitarian, ambassador and one of the world’s greatest explorers made a number of first ascents of impressive mountain climbing routes in the Park and used the area as a training ground for his Everest and Antarctic expeditions. Dinner was at the Old Mountaineer’s Café, Bar & Restaurant. The interior, decorated with old photographs of mountaineers, communicates the very soul and spirit of the mountains.

Old Mountaineer’s Café, Bar & Restaurant, decorated with knick knacks of mountaineering

Our most expensive dinner in NZ, coz there were not many eateries in the small village

The next morning, we snapped some photos around the Hermitage, before walking around the village.

View of the village

We then traveled several kilometers to the Tasman Valley for views of the Tasman Glacier. From the car park, it was an easy 30 minute walk on a gravel path through lunar landscape of jumbled rock and carpets of moss leading down to the grey sludge of the terminal glacial lake with floating icebergs. It was rather unsightly compared to the usual spectacular sweep of ice higher up the glacier.

The rocky landscape and glacial lake

June 27, 2008

The long drive to Aoraki/Mount Cook

It was another long drive from Te Anau to Aoraki/Mt Cook. We retraced our journey to Queenstown and caught sight of the Kingston Flyer, the vintage steam train that used to ply the route to Queenstown, at the small town of Kingston.

We also made pit stops for photos for breathtaking views at the edge of Lake Wakatipu and the spectacular Remarkables Ranges. The movie sequence showing a depleted and demoralized Fellowship fleeing from their ordeal in the terrifying Mines of Moria without Gandalf, with Aragorn leading them down the steep slopes of the Dimrill Dale towards Lothlorien was filmed high in the Remarkables Ranges.

We stopped by a fruit farm near Lake Dunstan and bought 20kg of crunchy, sweet New Zealand apples to take home, with a few extra to munch on the journey.
Can't resist another shot of the Kawarau River on one of the many scenic stops

Apples galore near Lake Dunstan

We took a short ten minutes detour near the small farming village of Tarras to the Great East Road. Stretching through pine forests, the Flight of the Ford was filmed here with Arwen riding with Frodo as they flee the Nazgul.

We continued into the beautiful Lindis Pass – winding road amidst beautiful mountain scenery.

The beautiful Lindis Pass. I took this photo while driving, with hubby and mum happily snoring away in the car. See how deserted the road is...this is quite typical of NZ roads.

Further on, the road to Mt Cook hugs the edge of Lake Pukaki. The exquisite opaque turquoise colour of this lake and others in the area is caused by fine, glacier-ground rock particles. The ‘rock flour’ is suspended in the water and when combined with sunlight, creates the unique water colour.

Lake Pukaki, with Mount Cook in the background

The landscape gradually changed into a mixture of high country tussock, farmland and snow-capped mountains. We stumbled upon a sheep farmer moving his herd of hundreds of sheeps across the road, assisted by several sheep dogs. Mum and I were extremely excited at this unusual, at least for us, spectacle.

After the pleasant encounter, Aoraki/Mt Cook was just minutes away.

June 26, 2008

Milford Sound

Fiordland National Park, a World Heritage area and the largest National Park in New Zealand, is located on the South West Coast of the South Island. Fiordland’s West Coast is deeply indented by 14 fiords spanning 215km of coastline. Early Europeans bestowed the names of Sounds onto these dramatic valleys, however a true “sound” is a river valley that has been flooded due to the land sinking below sea level. Fiords are created by glacial action that produces U-shaped valleys with steep cliffs. Fiords are characterised by shallow entrances that slope quickly seaward to deep water.

In Maori legend the fiords were created not by rivers of ice, but by Tu-te-raki-whanoa, a godly figure who carved out the fiords with his magical adze Te Hamo. He started in the far south where he created a rough coastline with many islands. By the time he reached Piopiotahi (Milford Sound), he had perfected his technique and carved his finest sculpture, resulting in an awe-inspiring fiord.

The Milford Road is not a journey – it’s a destination in itself. Leaving Te Anau and heading north, we traveled 119km through green grass of lowland pastures and tussock country, to strands of native bush and rocky, mountainous terrains enroute to Milford Sound. There are numerous short walks and scenic lookout points, including McKay Creek which looks over Eglinton Valley, Mirror Lakes for shimmering views of mountain reflections on clear days, and Lake Gunn.

Top left: The sun shining through thick clouds to create a circle of lights on the foliage; Top right: The extremely vast and flat Eglinton Valley carved out by a glacier thousands of years ago; Bottom: Mirror Lakes

Lake Gunn

Gushing stream and unusual foliage on one of the many tracks

The road then climbs to the Homer Tunnel. Construction on the tunnel began in 1935, providing employment during the Depression, and wasn’t finished until 1953. The 1.2km tunnel pierced the mountain to allow road access to Milford Sound, the only fiord in New Zealand which can be accessed by road. At an altitude of 945m above sea level, the tunnel remains largely unmodified since its early creation. It emerges into the spectacular Cleddau Canyon on its Milford side.

Cleddau Canyon

From here, the road drops steeply between sheer rock walls. One important tip for those traveling on the Milford Road - head out superearly or later in the morning to avoid tour-bus congestion as tens of thousands of visitors arrive in Milford Sound each year.

We joined the Nature Cruise with Real Discovery, one of the many cruise operators operating at Milford Sound. The 16km-long fiord is dominated by the mile-high Mitre Peak (1695m) which rises almost vertically upwards from the glassy waters below, making for a spectacular sight, while luxuriant rainforests cling to sheer rock walls washed with waterfalls. Gliding over calm waters between sheer, weather-scuffed cliffs, the cruise took us directly underneath massive rock overhangs and so close to the cascading waterfalls that we can feel the spray on our face. We also saw a New Zealand fur seal, but unfortunately no bottlenose dolphins or Fiordland crested penguins which can sometimes be spotted. We were lucky that it was bright and sunny when we were there as daily downpours are common as Milford Sound receives up to 7m of rain a year (that’s over an inch a day!).

The massive Stirling Falls, one of the many waterfalls in Milford Sound

Left: Our guide getting some water from the falls for us to taste. The water was warm, caused by friction with the rocks on its way down; Right: Can you spot the rainbow formation amidst the spray of the waterfall?

Left: The boat for Nature Cruise; Right: The cruise departing at 1pm, the most popular time for tourist buses. Notice how long the queue is?

June 24, 2008

To the Fiordland

The serene deep waters of Lake Te Anau make up the largest lake in the South Island. Gouged out by a huge glacier, it has three arms, is 352 sq km in area, 64km long and its deepest point is 417km. The township is beautifully situated beside the lake, and acts mainly as a base for visitors traveling to Milford Sound.

Te Anau Lake

The hotel where we stayed, right across the lake

A major highlight of Te Anau is the Glowworm Caves, part of a 6.7km, four-level limestone labyrinth known as the Aurora Caves system. The caves are about 12,000 years old, but the limestone they carve through is ancient – up to 35 million years old. The caves are still increasing in size, as the river that flows through the caves is midly acidic, which helps to dissolve the rock and create passages. The caves were rediscovered in 1948 by local tour operator Lawson Burrows. Intrigued by the Maori tales of Te Anau au (cave with a current of swirling water) from which the lake takes its name, Burrows spent three years searching for the spring. When he found a stream gushing out of the hills along the edge of Lake Te Anau, he squeezed through the rocky entrance and surfaced in a dark cave. Above his head, he was stunned to see thousands of glittering glowworms.

Glowworms fish for food by dangling as many as 70 ‘fishing lines’ which are 20 – 150 mm long and covered with thick sticky droplets of mucus. The ‘fishing lines’ are really pretty, looking like strings of diamonds. The brilliant lights of the glowworm attract flying insects which then become trapped and paralysed by chemicals in the lines. When the glowworm feels vibrations on a line, it quickly hauls in its victims, kills it and sucks its juices. Gross eh? The hungrier the worms, the more brightly they glow. Glowworms only feed during their larval phase. As an adult, it has no mouth.

We signed up for a trip to the Glowworm Caves, and the excursion began with a scenic cruise across Lake Te Anau on board the catamaran Luminosa to its western shores. On disembarking, we went underground to view the dynamic environment of the caves in which water action steadily erodes the fractured limestone. It is a mysterious world of rock formations and fossils, waterfalls, whirlpools and a cavern with rock walls towering high above. Beyond these is the magical glowworm grotto. The delicate incandescence of thousands of glowworms is an entrancing and unforgettable sight, like a clear summer sky decorated by millions of stars shining brightly. Photography is not permitted inside the caves as the worms react to light and noise by switching off.

The Luminosa leaving a trail of water behind

The sun setting down outside the Glowworm Caves

June 23, 2008

Arrowtown and vineyard

After the thrilling time at the Kawarau Bungy Bridge, we drove to Arrowtown, about 20 minutes away. The fascinating little settlement of Arrowtown literally sprung up overnight with the discovery of gold in the Arrow River in 1862. Thousands of miners from around the globe flocked to the area and the river became famed as one of the world’s richest source of alluvial gold. At the height of the rush, the population of the town rose to over 7000 people. These pioneers constructed small cottages of stone and timber, established churches and planted handsome avenues of trees, leaving a legacy of a picturesque town that retains much of its original character, with many of its old shops and cottages still in use today.

The main street in Arrowtown and the Lake District Museum (bottom right)

The beautiful avenues of trees

The Lake District Museum is recognized as one of the best small museums in the country. Exhibits present an authentic picture of early Maori in the Southern Lake Districts, of the harsh pioneering days of the European settlers, the exciting gold rush era, plus a recreated streetscape from the time of the gold-rush. The museum includes the town’s original Bank of New Zealand premises, the bank’s stables and the town baker’s oven all built circa 1875. A short walk from the main street on the banks of the river is the Chinese Mining Settlement. The Chinese miners came after the European settlers, often working over ground which had already been tried by European miners for residual gold. Information placards tell of hardships and harsh conditions these settlers endured.

Chinese mining settlement

The LOTR trilogy was also filmed here. The Ford of Bruinen where the Nazgul charged as Arwen ferried Frodo across the river on Asfaloth was filmed on the Arrow River. A short walk away beyond the wide expanse of Wilcox Green is the Gladden Fields, a series of marshy paddocks where Isildur was ambushed by Orcs on his way to reclaim the Northen Kingdom of Arnor. Attempting to escape, The One Ring betrayed him when it slipped off his finger, leading to him losing his life. In later years, a group of Hobbits settled in the area, eventually leading to the rediscovery of The One Ring.

Top: The Ford of Bruinen; Bottom left: Gladden Fields; Bottom right: The local Saffron Restaurant, one the the cast’s favourite dinner locations in Arrowtown

Leaving Arrowtown, we made our way back to Queenstown to visit the beautiful Chard Farm, one of the more than 80 vineyards in Central Otago. The vineyards were heavy with grapes, clothed in reds and gold against bright blue skies, making for picture-perfect reminder of the region’s highly acclaimed wine producers.

Spectacular views of the Kawarau River, used to portray the Anduin and Argonath (Pillars of the King), can be seen on the way to the vineyard. We then left Queenstown and headed to the Fiordland.