Saturday, April 6, 2013

Two. Seven. Up!

Sadly, not many other people are. So it’s a quiet final night for me here at Harry’s. At least I get to chat to the barmaid for a while, and Amberly seems genuinely disappointed that I won’t be sticking around. I leave Queenstown and Harry’s with a heavy heart.

In the morning my legs are also aching. It seems the mountain wants to take our battle into extra time and has pinched an early lead. There’s only one thing for it, fight back!
It’s amazing where the time goes here. A month seemed like forever to explore a couple of small islands. Every day I’m at full pace, I do barely a fraction of the activities available, and yet I’m still pressed for time.
After reading the guidebook I could find no reason to squeeze in Invercargill or Dunedin so I’m heading north.
And north means hitting Wanaka again, and another chance to ride the Dean Bank track! Despite my aching legs, the second time is even better than the first. There’s no choice of routes here, just pedal like Billy-O, and hanging on. I set myself the target of staying on for the whole loop, and blast round in barely a half hour. I might just be getting the hang of this!

Back in the van and on up the road. The scenery continues to be stunning, and I’m heading for what ought to be the greatest sight of the lot: Mount Cook, the highest Mountain in New Zealand.
It’s at the end of a long cul-de-sac, but what a drive! As I emerge over a ridge, the first thing to hit me is the incredible blue-ness of Lake Pukaki. The rivers and lakes round here aren’t just pure-mountain-water blue, they’re weird, alien-landscape blues.
Then I reach “Peter’s lookout” and join the other gawping tourists. From here we can see Mt Cook, standing tall above the surreal blue lake, beckoning us onwards down the road. It’s still 50km away, but looks stunning.
The road curves and winds, then straightens out into a valley. Mt Cook is joined by other huge peaks, forming a wall around the valley, heightening the anticipation that we are heading into a truly special place. Then, as we approach the towering wall, the road sweeps left, around the gigantic mound which has been obstructing the lower half of Cook, preparing to reveal the entire mountain in it’s magnificence. As I reach the Mount Cook village, the mountain finally re-emerges and it’s utterly, mind blowingly disappointing.
Oh, OK it’s a very nice view. But for me, the views from miles away were way better than the view close-up.
Nevermind, the reward for making it all the way is the chance to visit the Edmund Hilary Alpine centre, a celebration of the greatest Kiwi climber, and a truly great man. Or a collection of old boots and a few cars, depending how you look at it.
I’m always cynical about museums: the best exhibits here seem to be movies, and I could watch those anywhere, why come here? Well, I think you come here to trek. To spend days gawping at the magnificence of the scenery. But as usual I gawp and run, the attention span of a

Onwards to Lake Tekapo, one of the greatest places in the world to observe the night sky. I check-in at a campsite on the lake shore on a cloudless evening and head for a beer and hopefully some company, but the local establishments are pretty quiet. This at least gives me chance to walk back along the lakeshore in the dark and gaze at the incredible night skies.
In NZ I’m running out of superlatives in the daytime, now the night sky is blowing my mind! The Milky Way is clearly visible above me, I see a shooting star, then another, then another…and make the same wish thrice.
There’s no moon tonight like at Westport, and there’s very little local light from buildings. It’s no surprise they built an observatory on the hill by this lake.

I don’t know if I can cope with any more incredible sights. I could do with turning New Zealand off for a bit.

Tuesday, and boy, do my legs hurt! Stiff from the running and the biking, I can barely walk. As I perform the morning campsite rituals of emptying out and filling up (the van!) a guy asks me where I’m heading.
“Christchurch, I guess”
“Yeah us too, unfortunately”, comes his forlorn reply.
After a week or more in the brilliance of Otago and Fiordland it seems sad to head for a city, and was there any fun to be had in Christchurch? Janelle hadn’t mentioned any.
I toy with the idea of not going, but there’re no real alternatives, and I should go seethe place while I’m here.
The drive is boring this morning. My request for respite has been answered, and the scenery’s gone dull. There are other people on the road, too. Not exactly traffic, but it’s disappointing not to have an empty road ahead.

I’m having a glum day. There’s nothing at all to complain about, and I needed a quiet day, but I’m blue nevertheless. I stop for lunch in a lay-by and look at the guidebook and the map again. What to do?
There’s a Scenic Inland Route. And there’s a Top10 in Christchurch. It’s far from the centre, but let’s not over-complicate things at this stage, let’s go!

The Scenic Route is perfect. Not overwhelmingly gob-smacking, just pretty, and the sun comes out. I’m back to a content buzz when I round a corner and the road turns dark under the shade of the trees.
But there’s something odd about the darkness, it’s rippling and seething, and…
I brake to a stop, but they’re coming right for me. Hundreds of cows across the width of the road. So I find myself reversing away from the herd, hoping a gap opens up I can squeeze my van through! Yep, this is farmland. I’ve started seeing sheep. I thought New Zealand was supposed to be all sheep, yet I’ve barely seen any. They talk about the sheep outnumbering the people, but is that more a reflection on the number of people than the number of sheep?

Anyhoo, I squeeze through a gap in the cows and carry on. The sun’s out and I stop for a 99 before reaching Christchurch. At least I can stay in the Top 10 Holiday Camp. I haven’t been in one for a while now, and spying the big yellow and blue sign feels like coming home.

Soooooo tired. Maybe I’ll just take it easy, and do the good stuff tomorrow. I assume the earthquakes will have reduced the options, so I won’t need too long
What little hair I have is getting shabby, so I find a hairdresser for a trim and ask:
“What’s good to do in Christchurch?”
I’m very happy to find a Chinese Massage place in the mall, and they manage to restore some sensation to my legs, though it’s hardly a deep tissue massage.
Back to the campsite and check what’s recommended locally.
Either trips outside of Christchurch, or bus tours of the earthquake destruction.
I find this rather sad. I don’t want to stare at the damage done, I’ve read about the energy and inspiration that the folk of Christchurch have shown. Not complaining about their lot, but accepting the challenge of a fresh start. Yet there seems little evidence of this in the tourist information. After some digging online I read about the restart mall, and the gap-fill projects and decide to go see them in the morning.

I park in the park. The brochures proclaim it: “Christchurch’s answer to Central Park”… it isn’t. If it’s the answer to anything, it’s “Hyde Park?”
Then I walk across towards the Central Business District and it hits me: The Silence.
The quake that killed people was 2 years ago. The major aftershocks stopped around a year ago, so there should be some real progress by now, right? But seeing the city centre brings home just how great the effect has been. So many buildings damaged and rendered unsafe, so much work to be done. And maybe because there’s only 4.5 million people in New Zealand, there’s only so many people who can fix things. The city’s in ruins.
But there are signs of life, of the hope of a new beginning. The chance to replace an apparently drab city centre with some more inspiring architecture. The gap-fill project uses empty sites in innovative ways, to brighten the area. I find the Dance-O-mat, where a coin-operated washing machine powers a dance floor, sound system and lights to the tunes from your ipod, making for a social music experience.
…and the Re:Start Mall. If I was from Christchurch and someone asked me what to do, I’d tell them to come here. Whether you want to shop or not, it’s delightful to walk around the area, where shipping containers have been re-purposed as temporary buildings for the shops. But by decorating them in bright and bold colours they’ve built a very special place to be, where there might have been a soul-destroying half-assed temporary mall.

I wish them well, but that’s enough big-city for me. Back on the road.

Hanmer Springs, or Kaikoura? My friends back home recommend Kaikoura, for the chance to see whales. I’ve already seen Wales, so I head to Hanmer Springs.
Hanmer Springs apparently has some great mountain bike tracks, and lots and lots of hot water springs and spas. It’s been raining all day, and my legs are still hurting like hell, so I head toward the hot water springs building, and walk right next door to the information centre for a map of the mountain bike tracks…

I need a map, because there’s loads of them! The map recommends 3 different loops which can be ridden. I’m tempted to string the 3 together. But I’ll just do a half-hour blast. Maybe an hour. So I hobble onto my bike and set off. The first section is a fantastic flowing section through the woods. Within moments I’m speeding along between the trees like an Ewok on Endor. I pass one group of people in the first 20 minutes, and the rain has given way to sunshine. Time for some harder tracks. I climb up, up and up the hills above, then swoop down by the river. More tracks. Eventually I reach the top of the climb up “Swamp”, emerging from the head high grass for a swig of water and to admire the view. I’m amazed to discover I’ve been going ninety minutes and glad I’ve brought a snack.
By the time I get back to the campsite I’ve been riding almost two hours, in “full attack” mode throughout. I’m utterly knackered, sweaty, muddy and bloodied. Fantastic!

Another quiet pub night and on towards Picton in the morning. The road is very pretty again. On any other trip I’d say it was stunning. I go through Kaikoura but don’t go looking for large Mammals. Through Blenheim, which has lots of vineyards, but drinking and driving don’t mix well, so I bezz on up to Picton Top 10.
Here’s the start of the Queen Charlotte Walk. An epic trail along the edge of Marlborough Sounds with incredible views across the bays at the islands, peninsulae and isthmi (or whatever the plurals are). But you should know by now I don’t walk, so I strap on my trainers and see how far I can run.
Well it’s bloomin’ steep but my legs are feeling better so I’m trotting along when a young guy in a Brazil shirt scampers passed me. Bloody kids!
A few km later I find “Ronaldinho” stopped, bent over and panting, so I offer him some of my water.
“How far’s the viewpoint?” he gasps.
“5 to 10 minutes”
“I’ll meet you there” he says gesturing me to go on ahead.
So off I toddle. When I reach the viewpoint it’s very impressive, but I still wouldn’t fancy days of plodding along at walking pace to see more of it. I have a drink, take some pictures and wonder what happened to “Pele”.
Running back he’s nowhere to be seen, so he must have quit. It’s not often I get to be the victorious tortoise!

The evening is chilly and wet, so I don my cap and coat, and find an Irish bar, the first in almost three weeks! Walking in the door I’m immediately surrounded by a group of old guys wearing caps with F.A.H.R.T. emblazoned above the peaks.
“Dammit I wore the wrong cap!” I cry, unwittingly launching myself into an evening of foolishness, Blues music, drunken revelry, antipodean jocularity and all round good fun. Just don’t ask me what F.A.H.R.T. stood for!

Friday is ferry day. I’m in the posh seats again, but on a different ship. Instead of the exclusive eight seat “Cove” for Janelle and I, this one has a Premium Plus lounge with about twenty people slumped around untidily. On the upside there’s free food, including chicken curry and bakewell tart, and without a cove companion I go outside and appreciate the view.

Wellington, and the usual big city problem. I want to be near the action, but who puts a campsite downtown?
WWMP! That’s who!

Wellington Waterfront Mobile home Park is basically a car park with power sockets and a bathroom, but it’s right on the waterfront and right by the action. It’s noisy of course, but a few beers should prevent that being a problem. And there’s plenty of drinking venues here. Sadly they’re mostly lacking bar stools, but there’s so many bars I find a few places where I can meet people.
I meet some kiwis in suits, who give me the usual endless list of things I “have to do” and I meet English people. A lot of English people. Chrissie from Finchley was particularly memorable, and we talked for hours. Sadly she's unavailable to join me for the next night, the whole North Island trip, marriage…

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