A June 2004 trip
to Christchurch by lemoncactus
Quote: From Christchurch on the East Coast on the Trans-Alpine train across to the West Coast: from pancake rocks to glaciers to warm cookies in Wanaka.
Time continues to absolutely fly by, and I continue to have the adventures of a lifetime squeezed into only a few weeks. I won't bore you with introspectives, so with my latest adventures (with your time and patience permitting), sit back and enjoy the ride. From autumn-strewn Christchurch (chch) I caught the TranzAlpine train to Arthur's Pass. This was everything I had hoped it would be. I love the rhythmn of trains and just sitting back and enjoying the ride, from vast sprawling canterbury plains, to foothills and then through huge gorges, vast snaking river beds, precipitous tunnels, viaducts, and through the magnificent Southern Alps.
Little did I know that arriving at Arthur's Pass would be like stepping through the wardrobe and arriving in another world. A tramper's paradise of rainbows, waterfalls, rainforests, mountains and rivers and a population of about 40 people. This place had a weird and slightly unsettling vibe, but was incredibly beautiful. A group of four of us climbed Avalanche Peak (1833m)--a unique experience of sheer hard work, wet feet, slogging through snow as solid as sheer ice, negotiating a pretty scary ridge with vertical drops on either side, much messing around in snow, sliding, and a mad Aussie who fell into a crevasse. We all thought this was incredibly funny at the time, as he disappeared up to his shoulders. The view at the top really is worth dying for. The whole panoramic, Arthur's Pass, a model village, the main road a pencil line and around us the mountains towering, also a beautiful, natural, un-tourist-tramped, deep blue glacier on one if the mountains behind us. I felt SMALL.
The next day, on a mountain-climbing odyssey, we climbed Temple Basin, a bizarre, almost ghost-town ski-field (1903m) with a winding path to the top through endless stones and a final slog through snow to the huts, run-down and rusting ski-lifts--an odd place. Arthur's Pass, I am not sure the place really exists, but that we were all just lucky to find ourselves there by chance, for some reason, I think to play Pictionary and introduce me to a film soundtrack of 'The Mission'. Wonderfully odd houses and churches and a teensy pub where we watched the rugby and drank stout with about 10 other people--a rockin' night.
How hard was it to leave this place and people? VERY. But onwards and upwards I had to go, and one of my missions to see the Pancake Rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki. So I went from one teensy town to another, my first real taste of the West Coast--and an apt flavour it turned out to be. Firstly, the West Coast has a really primeval feel about it. The whole place belongs to a time of dinosaurs, when giant plants covered all available space, and the weather is raw as I expect it was at the time of creation. I had a preconceived notion that it consisted of huge cliffs and desolate beaches, and I was not far wrong.
I arrived Punakaiki in the rain, in deeply thick clouds, oppressive and menacing, and it was in this prehistoric time and place that I had a chance encounter with an apple-picking pal that lead me to a road-trip down the west coast I would never have guessed in a million years. It began in the rain, and it ended in the rain--and it middled in the rain. It consisted of days travelling in a huge house-truck in convoy with a little black van and a top speed of 50km/h. We drove in the rain, we got up early and walked in the rain, up hills in the rain, to see panoramic views of the rain. The West Coast towns passed by like shadows of themselves, hidden under cloud. The West Coast beaches were like battlefields: I have never seen so much driftwood in one place--hundreds of kms of driftwood obscuring the sand, the ocean a murky greeny/brown, churned sea and sand.
We passed unscathed through West Coast blackouts (we're solar-powered), visited the smallest town in NZ (population 2), played scrabble and pool and cards, visited limestone caves and knew true, utter blackness.. when even with your eyes wide open all you can see is BLACK and your eyes play tricks and try to fill in the gaps and shape your reality--weird. Through Greymouth, Hokitika, and Okarito and all the way down to Franz Joseph, we convoyed. FJ and Fox are two little towns with two very big glaciers. I like the FJ glacier--goodness knows how you rate one glacier against another, but FJ gets my vote. The mountains surrounding it are slightly more impressive, snow-topped, and the deep river gorge in front of it is cool too. I did a walk that took me along the edge of the glacier and afforded views out to the coast and over the glacier and mountains - a pretty impressive panoramic.
These glaciers are 'scientifically' cool because of their proximity to the coast--to me, they are cool just as absolutely massive, solid, squeezed ice blocks between mountains with rivers of water streaming from them. I can almost not take in the sheer scale of them. On recommendation, I did my glacier hike at Fox. For a day walk, we set off at 9:30am and returned at 4:30pm and spent roughly 5 hours on the ice. Even with three pairs of socks on, my feet were cold, and it was interesting walking in crampons--stabbing our feet into the ice. Our guide literally cut out steps for us as we went and scouted the route as we walked; this did mean some hanging around on the ice whilst he chose the safest route--plenty of photo opps.
I am amazed at how much variety ice can have, and I get now why eskimos can have a hundred words for snow. My glacial-ice vocab as follows: pure white, dense white, bubbly white, cracked-like-glass white, deep blue, stripy blue, glacial blue, wave-like white, deep blue cave blue, wet blue, bobbly blue-white, diamond white, grey-white, black, sooty white. I love the bits where you can actually see the rocks and dirt being shed by the melting ice--quite mad. I was sad not to see any caves but happy enough to walk through a narrow crevasse with water running down all sides and look into various deep holes and be kind of glad that I wasn't down there. The ice was solid and slippery and vast; we only walked maybe a quarter of the visible length, and that does not account for the rest that lies beyond our view--quite an amazing thing, really.
It is from here that I undertook a journey that is well classed as being the most spectacular drive in NZ. The Haast Pass is pretty much beyond words in terms of sheer scale and utter beauty--the best I can do is to admit that it is so beautiful that I fully intend to go back there in a few weeks in a car and drive it myself. The only possible ending to such a journey was a town called Wanaka, and I have to say that I am bought and sold by this place, a small lakeside town still clinging to the last vestiges of autumn and almost electric with the anticipation of the ski-season around the corner. Add to this cozy backpackers, warm fires, good walks, bizarre pubs, a briliant group of people, and really life doesn't get any better. This is a place I felt at home like no other since I have been here, and here is a place I promised myself I must return to, always. I have a feeling all my roads may lead to Wanaka.
Here I climbed Mt Roy with a hangover (NEVER a good idea), 1600m of zigzagging penance, but the view from the top was worth every single step. I also went to the coolest cinema in NZ, furnished with sofas, armchairs, train seats, and with an intermission where you can buy the fattest, warmest cookies available (I would hazard a guess) on planet earth.
Nottingham, United Kingdom