Tales of the Beast – Part 2
… The South Island Initiative…
Last time I left you, I had arrived in Picton with my best friend and the beast, ready to begin a ten-day road trip around the South Island of New Zealand. I’m pretty sure that it was 2003 back then but given that my mind has more holes in it these days than a Cabinet Minister’s alibi, it might have been 2004. Consequently, I would advise you to take the following account with a healthy pinch of salt and hold fire on sharpening your pitchforks, at least until you’ve given me a decent head start!
So, Picton. It’s a bit of a jewel really. At least it was back then. Sheltered, unspoilt and basking in the glorious Pacific sun, it always makes me wonder why they decided to make Wellington the Capital instead, which tends towards the cold, wet and extremely windy. You do get the occasional nice day in ‘Welly’, I should know, I lived there for almost seven years, but it doesn’t seem to happen quite as often as it does in Picton.
Anyway, despite its glorious climate, back in the day Picton didn’t have too much to offer two twenty-something lads in search of adventure and so after a night in a guest house and a couple of ales to recover from the ferry crossing, we set off down the East Coast towards Christchurch.
Along the way, we stopped at the little town of Kaikoura, which suffered a devastating earthquake a couple of years ago, but which was famous for its whale watching well before that. Built on the edge of a natural deep-water channel, Kaikoura was stunning, with ocean views on one side and mountains on the other. We stayed in a hostel that night, with the intention of doing a whale watch the following morning, but what we didn’t anticipate was another of Kaikoura’s many talking points: the sand-flies…
As soon as the sun had gone down, hundreds of them emerged and we were faced with a dilemma. In a baking hot room bereft of air-conditioning, or even a decent fan for that matter, it was a question of whether to leave the window open to keep cool and let the sand flies in or banish them and roast alive in the dormitory. In the end, I think we opted for the former, hiding under the duvets to avoid the little so and so’s. Not that it made much difference. The following morning, I was covered in bites on my ankles, shins, hands and arms, and boy, did they hurt. My friend, I recall, fared rather better than me and as a result, I think that he enjoyed the whale watching more than I did. We did see a couple of Humpback whales, as well as some Hector’s dolphins (the smallest and rarest in the world) but I have to admit that I was quite relieved when we took the beast beyond the Kaikoura city limits and continued on our way to Christchurch.
There isn’t too much to say about Christchurch, other than we visited some of my family friends who were living there and took the obligatory wander around the city, including the cathedral and River Avon. Both my friend and I were originally from Bristol, which also has a River Avon, so I suppose we got a giggle from walking along a river of the same name, almost twelve thousand miles from its namesake. Nowadays, Christchurch is rather different, following the devastating earthquakes which shook the city to its core back in late 2010 and early 2011. Whether it will ever be the same again remains to be seen, but what happened there is a stark reminder of how fragile and precious life is and how quickly it can be changed forever.
After Christchurch, the beast took us on a quick soiree to ‘Ash Vegas’ or Ashburton to give it its proper name. I can’t remember why it’s called Ash Vegas, but the name has stuck and although it was nothing like its namesake, it was pleasant enough. It also had a fish and chip shop that served the most enormous servings of hand-cut chips, which I discovered on a subsequent trip there some years later, much to the dismay of my waistline!
We certainly covered some distance in the beast, which performed magnificently, despite having no air-conditioning and a rather bothersome warning light for the catalytic converter that kept coming on when you least expected it (I had it disconnected when I got back to Wellington). So, with windows down and the tunes blasting out of the portable CD player that I had bought specially for the trip, we hurtled past lovely Timaru and off into the interior, towards Queenstown via the Lindis Pass.
Now, Queenstown is spectacular. A thrill-seekers paradise, it is nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and boasts huge, cliff-like hills rising dramatically from the lake itself. In the winter, it is famed for its alpine sports and in the summer, when we were there, it was just plain beautiful. Shunning the tried and tested activities, such as the high-speed ‘jet-boat’ rides and bungee jumping, we opted instead for the ‘street luge’. Think go-karts, but with much less control, racing down the side of a mountain and you’re halfway there. I’d done a similar one in Rotorua when I first arrived in New Zealand and to be honest, I thought that it was better than the Queenstown one, but we still had a good time crashing into each other and generally mucking around.
That night, we went to a little bar called ‘The Bunker’, which was hidden away in an alley off the main drag. I’d been there a few years earlier during a conference and was delighted to find the tiny place still open and complete with a roaring fire in the fireplace, despite it being the end of summer. I’m afraid that I can’t give you too many details of what happened that night, everything is a bit hazy, whether from the passing of time or the consumption of alcohol, I’m not sure, but what vague recollections I have are happy ones.
A couple of days later, we left Queenstown and made our way 350km north, past Lake Hawea, to the Franz Josef Glacier on the West Coast. Along the way, we passed a sign saying: ‘Last petrol for 110km’, which was an indication that we really were entering the wilds and were rewarded by nothing but endless countryside and the occasional small hamlet. Even when we arrived at Franz Josef itself, it was little more than a collection of small wooden houses and local shops, surrounded on all sides by wonderful dome-shaped hills that looked like they had been drawn by a child. How isolating it must be during the winter, I could only imagine, but the locals were extremely friendly, and we quickly found ourselves booked on a glacier walk the following morning.
We spent the whole day on the glacier, wearing spiked boots and clutching ice-axes, to help us navigate the treacherous terrain. Despite it being summer, it was extremely cold in amongst all that ice and we were especially glad of our ski-jackets. We did have a bit of fun, sliding down ice-holes that had been opened up as the glacier slowly (almost glacially, one might say) made its way towards the sea. All in all, it was an amazing experience, especially seeing the ‘blue ice’, which gets its name because it has no air bubbles in it, making it extremely dense and only reflecting blue light.
Exhausted from all the exertions of the day, we slept well that night and early the next morning, began the trek up to Nelson, right at the top of the South Island. Hugging the coast road through Hokitika and Greymouth, with only the occasional camper van getting in our way, the scenery was truly breath-taking. It felt like we were in paradise, with the azure blue of the Tasman Sea on one side and vast tracts of wilderness on the other.
It was here that we did have one close call. We’d been driving for quite a few hours and despite having the windows wound down and ‘Rob Zombie’ playing at full volume, the air in the car had become quite stuffy, with the result that we nearly drifted into the back of a flat-bed lorry, as a warm fug of weariness overtook us. Luckily, we avoided a collision and after a short break to get some much-needed rest and a shot or two of caffeine inside us, we were back on the road, driving with a lot more care and counting down the miles to Nelson.
Nelson was a bit of a pit-stop for us and looking back, I wish that we’d spent more time there. But to be honest, I think by that time, my friend and I were starting to show the signs of having had enough. After all, we’d pretty much raced around the entire South Island, covering almost 2000 km in ten days and had hopped from one hostel to another, boozing and revelling like Withnail and I along the way. So, the following day, we made the short hop back to our starting point, Picton and took the Interislander ferry to windy Wellington where, for me at least, lay the comfort of my own bed!
Looking back on it, the whole road trip was a great experience and I’d love to do it again someday, although I would probably spread it out over two or three weeks so that I could really take in the sights and appreciate my surroundings. I’d also like to get off the beaten track and visit some of the more remote places on the map that we didn’t get to see the first time around. Unfortunately, it won’t be in the beast, as she’s no longer with us, but I’ll always remember how well she served us on that particular trip, which turned out to be the first of many long-hauls she did with me.
Stay tuned for more ‘Tales of the Beast’ in future and in the meantime, why not share this blog or the first installment with your friends?