Chapter the 3rd: “…into the belly of the beast…”

Okay, chaps, so, the good news is, we survived our ‘unique and enchanting’ free camping experience. It is actually beautiful the next morning…there is no one else around (not even cute Spanish man, maybe the gorse ate him). What there is, is this view:

Mysterious camping spot.

This is pretty early in the morning. It is very windy, but incredible to be so out in the middle of nowhere with only the birds and the sky and the mountains surrounding you. The bad news is, Greta may never forgive me for what happened during the night. The lightning follows us, and it rains pretty heavily, thudding against Thor’s roof as we sleep. When both Greta and I wake up because of a thunder clap and a flash of lightning, I sleepily mumble to Greta that we could be hit by lightning, as we’re in a flat area and we’re the only big thing around. I then fall back asleep…and Greta doesn’t. Instead, she spends ages worrying about the fact that I’ve just told her we might die. I wake up again, and count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder.

Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three…twenty-nine…we’re good,” I say, before casually going back to sleep. Apparently Greta insistently counts after I drop off again, and it came as close as three kilometers. I of course miss all this, and wonder in the morning why Greta looks so sleep deprived.

Anyway, an adventure like that deserves a big breakfast (one thing they are extremely good at here in NZ) and we head into Tekapo for pancakes. This is what was left:

There were pancakes on this plate but you missed them.

Trust me, when you finish a breakfast plate in New Zealand, it means you enjoy it! Greta stealthily sneaks in our toothbrushes so we can brush our teeth in the café toilets (classy) before we walk to the actual lake. However, we are waylaid by THIS:

Needless to say, the next few minutes are epic but the video is too long so you’ll have to imagine it. Then, finally, we’re at the lake.

Lake Tekapo. Bit windy.

Very windy, as you can see. Lake Tekapo gets its colour (as do most lakes this blue) from the glacier dust that gets brought down by water/wind etc. It makes it beautifully vibrant, but also bloody cold. Also, Lake Tekapo apparently is like 120 meters deep, so who knows what lies below that placid surface…Forty minutes up the road, Lake Pukaki has the same amazing colour.

Lake Pukaki #nofilter

Yes, it really looks like that. As we marvel at the continuous beauty of the country we’re driving through, we’re on our way to Oamaru. This one is Greta indulging my nerdiness, as Oamaru is a small town dedicated to…Steampunk. For those not in the know, Steampunk originated in the early 1980’s as a literary genre (since grown into an underground cultural phenomenon)and is basically the idea of what would have happened had we continued to develop industry with steam during Victorian times. So Victoriana, but with cool machines. It’s also a large part of my book that I’m writing, so the Steampunk museum is high on my list. We arrive, park the car, walk up and see this:

Steampunk HQ.

That engine actually moves. What follows is a weird, bizarre, yet ultimately wonderful collection of machines and thingamajigs that work on steam, or electricity and look like Victorian paraphernalia that you discovered on your great-uncle’s mansion . There’s an abandoned train carriage, a huge motorcycle (all outside), a ship, a weird TV screen with strange videos playing, an ORGAN (seriously, this was so cool, Greta and I spent ages playing it) and a room called the Portal, which you’ll just have to visit because…yes. Just mental.

Awesome DJ Organ.

We reluctantly tear ourselves away (well, reluctantly – the slightly creepy guy working the counter does hasten our departure a bit, especially after we politely turn down his offer of parking the van at his and seeing his ‘mancave’ *shudders*) but really, there’s lots of cover before we get to Dunedin. We drive to see the Moeraki Boulders, a set of rounded stones that look like they have honeycomb in them, and have washed up on the beach like giant marbles. Due to some clever photography on my part, it looks like we’re the only people on the beach, disguising the contingent of Chinese tourists that flocked around us with some truly inspired poses (stationary running man, anyone?). Anyway, here’s what they look like (the boulders, not the Chinese tourists):

Moeraki Boulders.

And here’s what they look like on the inside:

Honeycomb centre and visiting mussels.

Apparently, there are supposed to be penguins in the vicinity, but we don’t see any. We drive up the road to a penguin sanctuary, go to the little secret viewing house, use the incredibly ineffective binoculars and still don’t see any. We see seals though. Tons of seals. Seriously, these guys are just show-offs. Disheartened, we’re about to turn back when we decide to go down one more path. Success!!!

Yellowbeard penguins? Yellowhead penguins? Just yellow penguins? (No yellow colouring to be seen btw)

They are very far away, so this is the best my zoom could do. There are only two of them, but we feel we’ve won a great victory, and move along to Dunedin, where we stay at a lovely little campground. There’s no bus into town, so, intrepid tour guides that we are, we walk the forty minutes in. We’ve even picked out this really nice restaurant, with lovely desserts and everything. When we walk in, it’s not even 9pm yet, but, you’ve guessed it. Their kitchen is closed. Seriously??? I mean, come on, chaps, Dunedin is supposed to be a student town! Two other places we ask, same thing. I literally do not understand this. Clearly, these places are missing a trick. Imagine how much money they could make by being one of the few places open late (*late* meaning about 9.30pm, I guess). Also, our mood is pretty low as it’s almost certain now that Donald Trump will be president of the United States. I take a picture of this guy for Ros (here you go, Ros):

For you, Ros!! (I don’t think  Rabbie Burns ever visited NZ though, sorry).

We finally find a burger place (mediocre) and then, we want to drown our sorrows. The only convenience store that’s open this late doesn’t seem to sell any alcohol (curses!) so we end up buying tons of sweets instead. Then, it starts raining. We get a taxi back, and there’s a small ray of light as I remember that there’s a little pathway behind our campsite where you can see glow worms! So, in pitch darkness, we have a sort of gothic fairytale adventure, using only our little red light torches given to us by the star gazing people to navigate across a small bridge down a little pathway, which, when we pause, is filled with dozens of tiny, tiny blue lights. We take a moment. There is still some beauty in the world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate well onto camera. Here’s the best picture I got:

Yes, there is a glow worm there, I promise.

See that speck in the middle? Glow worm. 

Next morning (Thursday – seriously, I need to remind myself, the days blur), Greta has found this amazing old railway track called the Otago Rail Trail. It’s technically a cycle route, and walking all of it would take us about a week, but there’s a few small sections we can walk, including going through an old tunnel! The weather, as if to make up for all the shitty world politics, is beautiful. A perfect day for a tramp (that’s what they call hiking here in NZ). 

Otago Railway hike.

It’s just us, a few cyclists, and a lot of sheep, who take offence to our presence and baa at us a lot. But it’s wonderful to get out of the van (sorry, Thor!) and stretch our legs a bit. Also, at this point Greta makes the confession that she doesn’t actually know that much about Lord of the Rings, which is a rather big error on her part, as I spend the next hour and a half going through each of the three movies, (and the books), each separate story strand, making references to Harry Potter so that I don’t lose her. There are also reenactions, and quotes. I’m sure she finds it very worthwhile. After that, we head onwards to Arrowtown, a small goldmining town near Queenstown. 

Arrowtown. Very picturesque.

Not only is everything kept oldschool style here, there’s also a Lord of the Rings location (‘if you want him, come and claim him!’) which Greta actually recognises, so all of my earlier hard work has paid off! However, there are some precarious moments of actually getting there (and back again, hah). It leads to this:

We drive the short drive to Queenstown, where we will actually have a day off from driving, as we’re staying two nights! Parking Thor at the camperpark, we meet these guys:

Baby ducks. Ducklings!

They are totally adorable, but of course, my main worry is that I will inadvertently run them over because they have zero sense of self-preservation. We walk into the centre of town, where THINGS ARE OPEN AFTER 9PM. Queenstown is obviously a superior place within NZ. It’s here that we are reunited with Patrick and Jess, who join us at a delicious Mexican restaurant. They chat about their helicopter flight to Milford Sound (something we’re saving for next time) and their jetboat experience. Greta and I have booked a jetboat for the next morning, but our afternoon is still wide open. Initally, we think we might do the canyon swing, but we discover it will take about four hours, which includes a long drive out to the ravine. The other option is the local bungy jump, which is just up the road, only 43 meters, and is also tandem. The issue is, of course, it’s a bungy jump. Greta, from the start, has been adamantly against any form of jumping off things with only a bit of elastic tied to her feet; a very sane and rational concern. We remain undecided.

The last thing we do this evening is go up the Queenstown gondola (you know how much we love a good gondola!) which gives us an amazing nightime view over town.

Queenstown gondola (love a good gondola).

The next morning, we’re supposed to meet our guide at 8.20am but we are so, so late. However, we get there in time to be allowed on the bus, although it does mean I have to put my contacts in during the bumpy ride – fun times. The minibus drives down the deceptively pleasant-named ‘Skippers Road’, which is one of the three roads Thor is NOT insured to drive on, just to give you an idea. It’s a 12km, narrow, windy, single-lane road with no safety barriers and a lovely ravine down one side. The speed limit is, of course, the usual 100km. I mean, what????? Lucky someone else is driving. We have a precarious moment where a van carrying 10 rafts comes up behind us, and somehow, we manage to let them pass without tumbling off the cliff. After I have spontanously accumulated 10 more grey hairs, we arrive at our jetboating adventure. It. Is. Awesome.

Skipper’s Canyon and jetboat (and dog).

I make Greta wait until the first boat leaves, which means we only have six people in our boat. Our skipper, Kevin, is awesome. We sit at the front, which means we get to sit and chat to him, and he manages to reassure Greta about a very important decision we’ve made on the bus over – we’re going to do the bungy!

Don’t worry,he says to Greta, It’s the safest form of extreme sports. It has a 100% success rate…so far.

He also stops at a Lord of the Rings film location, and does a few extra spins for us. Every bit is awesome. 

Kevin and Arwen and the Nazgul.

We are thoroughly satisfied. 

Everything is awesome.

Greta, however, is getting more and more nervous by the time we get back to Queenstown. It’s a 20min drive to the bungy (certainly beats 4 hours!) but I think I’d better drive, considering Greta’s hairtwirling is becoming more and more frantic.

We park, check in, and everything goes pretty smoothly. There are tons of children running around, and I’m not sure if this is a good or bad sign? Quite frankly, it means we can’t really show our fear. The go-pro is on, and we walk up the bridge. Since we’re tandem jumping, we’re strapped in at the same time, and the guy, Elliot, is chatty and tries to distract us, but Greta’s not having any of it. We’re wearing our Harry Potter t-shirts with pride though, and if it all works out, our inside arms will be wrapped around eachother and our outside arms will be curved like in a graceful, swanlike dive, and we’ll gently touch the water before being pulled back up.

Yeah, no.

The fear is real as we shuffle to the edge. I hate this bit.

“I feel sick,” I say to Greta, “I can’t do this, I feel sick.” Even though I know full well I’ll do it, because you only live once…

“What are we going to say? We should shout something,” I say, “and we should go quick!”

“For Hogwarts,”  says Greta, eyes wild but determined, as only a true Hufflepuff can be. Elliot counts down (maybe…by this time I’m so focused on not letting go of Greta’s camera, on shouting the right thing, on doing the graceful dive thing that I don’t actually hear it).

“FOR HOGWARTS!!!” we yell, as we go down. Greta promtly forgets everything we’ve just been told and just wraps her arms around me, clinging.

“HAND!” I shout, as we reach the water. But far from a graceful hand touch, my head gets dunked, and 3 seconds later, as we’re already drawing back up, Greta tentatively sticks her hand out before…nope, she’s back to the hedgehog pose. But then the adrenaline hits, and the fear fades, and we can’t help but laugh, and laugh, and laugh because we’ve only gone and bloody done it!

These facial expressions are totally not representative of how 90% of this went down.

For Hogwarts!!

So, yeah, who’s badass, huh?? Pumped, we watch our videos, laugh ourselves silly even more, get a cupcake as A.J. Hackett are celebrating their birthday, and buy some more merchandise, because yeah, who’s badass?? Boom!

We text Patrick and Jess, as we spot Sir Lancelot in the parking lot, and they’re just up the road having lunch. We join them, have our first tasting experience of New Zealand wine (very nice!) and all excitedly chat through eachother about our bungy experiences. What better way to round off the afternoon? We make a promise to take the same ferry back, and Patrick and Jess give us loads of reccommendations for Franz Josef, where we’re heading next.

Before that, however, there’s still dinner to go. We decide to go on the old steamship the TSS Earnslaw, just to take things down a notch (or twenty) and enjoy a slow, rolling jaunt across Lake Wakatipu to Walter Peak farm, where we have a lovely buffet dinner, and can just sit and recover from the adrenaline fueled day.

TSS Earnslaw BBQ buffet. So good!

The next morning is painful. I make Greta get up at 5.15am so we can drive at 6am. This is to ensure we reach Franz Josef at a decent enough time that we can do both the Glacier Valley walk and the stone carving that Jess and Patrick raved about. In apology, I drive first, and what follows is a snapshot of possibly the most beautiful drive we have done so far.

Scenic route from Queenstown to Franz Josef. It was okay I guess.

So yes, that. Four hours of stunningness. We arrive in Franz Josef slightly too late to squeeze the carving in before the valley walk. Disappointed (all that lost sleep!) we book the valley walk and then walk to the carving place, hoping to chat to someone. We won’t get back till 5.30pm though, and the guy who usually supervises has a DJ set that night (hardcore). Gutted, we turn to leave, when the man behind the counter beckons an older lady, whose name is Jan. Jan happens to co-own the shop, and says it’s no problem for us to come after and do some carving!!! Success!! Really pleased, we head off to the glacier valley walk.

Our guides are Ben and Tim, and they are both fab. The first thing we have to do is wear the waterproof clothing they give us, which makes Greta and I look like we’re fishermen from Newfoundland or part of a reunion of East 17’s Christmas video. Both comparisons are not particularly flattering but the shoes are SO comfortable.

The valley walk is incredibly fun. We split up and Ben takes us through the rainforest bush to taste leaves and seeds, shows us when a plant is creating new life, and, most importantly, has a pickaxe that Greta and I become quite enamored with.

What’s this??

We also get quite close to the gletsjer AND had hot chocolate AND got to stand under a waterfall without getting (too) wet. Basically it was epic, and I really had a wonderful time, especially since it’s likely that I will never see the glacier this far down in my lifetime again. As you may have guessed, the Franz Josef glacier is shrinking at a rapid rate, and the guides think that this will be the last summer they’ll get this close and still see ice. Although we are currently in a thaw age as opposed to an ice age, human impact on the country’s ecosystem has had a large effect on the rate the glacier is shrinking. To put things into perspective sizewise of how far away we still are from it, the black hole you see in the picture below is the size of almost two Eiffel Towers. Mind blown.

So much fun. Hot chocolate! Pickaxe! Glacier! Waterfall! All the things!

We’re all having such a good time that we don’t realise by how much we’ve overrun. On the bus back, we discuss Ben’s ghost story about the Patupaiarehe (potential evil spirit haunting forests and mountains) and the Maori glacier creation story (about them being formed from the tears of Hinehukatere when she lost her lover) and it’s only when we get close to town that Greta and I realise it’s 6.30pm. We’re over an HOUR late. Greta sprints from the van, and I give back all our gear before heading to Te Koha, the carving place. Luckily, it’s a thumbs up! Jan is pretty much the most chilled out woman ever. 

Greta and I spend a lovely hour and a bit carving our own stones – so cool!! Instead of the famous Pounamu jade stone, we go for Aotea, a blue stone that is only found in one place in the world, a unique reef in South Westland, in NZ. 

Te Koha stone carving in Franz Josef!

It’s such a lovely thing to take away with us and just highlights how awesome our day has been, and how much we’ve accomplished with our early morning start. Which is good, because tomorrow, we’ll have to do it all over again as we get up ridiculously early to drive the 7 hours needed to make our ferry…should be doable. Right?

Till next time!

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