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The Road Goes Ever On

So here I am, back in England. And this really is the last entry I’ll write on this blog. I know the last one sounded pretty final but this really is it. Promise!

When I last left you we were all but ready to set off home. We took a late morning flight from Christchurch to arrive in Auckland around lunchtime. Our flight for Shanghai being at 23.15, we had some time to kill. Throughout our trip, we’ve had two trusty guidebooks at our sides: my Lord of the Rings location guidebook and Tom’s Lonely Planet Guide. My guidebook has offered gems such as the following: “On your right up the hill are two trees…” in locations like this where trees are most certainly in abundance:

DSC01020

While Tom’s provides incisive commentary such as:

guidebook

However, what both of the guidebooks were unequivocal on was that, while in NZ, we should taste some of the country’s wine. Having handed in the car at Christchurch’s airport, Jordan was able to drink and so we set off from Auckland airport on foot (not as easy a task as you might expect: airports aren’t designed for people to go strolling out of their gates or, as we did, through several car parks, along a few roads and over the odd broken fence). Our destination was Villa Maria which was an hour’s walk from the airport. None of us, although all drinkers of wine, had ever done a tasting before. However, it was something that we all said we’d like to do again as we were presented with three whites (Arneis, Gewürztraminer and Verdelho) and three reds (Pinot Noir, Merlot Cabinet Sauvignon and Syrah). Hopefully those names will mean something to some of you!

With that, we headed back to the airport and made it to our flight in very good time indeed. From Auckland we flew to Shanghai where we had a four-hour wait before our departure to Heathrow. After over 24 hours spent in the air, accompanied by the usual tedium, inflight entertainment systems failing to operate, inflight meals (featuring particularly delectable liquified broccoli) and screaming children, we touched down in the UK. Having negotiated the maze that is Heathrow and collected our baggage, we embarked on a two-hour Friday evening drive home.

So that’s it: here I am. With jet lag fading away and the astounding appearance of the sun (and temperatures sometimes flirting with the 30 degrees figure) here in the UK, I can say with certainty that I will miss NZ.

Although Jordan and Tom will no doubt be a permanent fixture in my life for some time to come, no more will we enjoy together the self-satisfied snapping of Paul (the Kiwi Sat Nav voice who went into spatial awareness meltdown as soon as we reached the South Island) or the deep-voiced instructions of Naoimh (the Irish Sat Nav voice who guided us through the majority of the North Island without much mishap) while the hills, plains and mountains of NZ slide past the car windows. No more will we be graciously welcomed to a new hostel every night before being politely informed that we’re insane for visiting NZ during the winter. No more will we be able to enjoy the wacky news channels which sometimes play Star Wars music over their weather forecasts. Nor indeed will we be able to enjoy the tales from people we met on our travels about the filming of The Lord of the Rings, including the stories of Orlando Bloom’s incompetence when a) throwing a rope to the other actors in order to pull them to safety (he let go of both ends) and b) firing arrows (he would inadvertently take a hand full of his wig and yank it off his head rather than whipping an arrow from the quiver with the sort of elven grace that we expect from his character). And conversations will be that bit more dull without the regular interjection of ‘alrighty’ and ‘sweet as’.

However, what we have had is a tremendous experience that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. And, as the road goes ever on and on, I sincerely hope that this isn’t the last time that I’ll visit NZ.

Thanks very much for reading and I may even see you in the blogosphere again some time soon!

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

The hard life of a blogger

The hard life of a blogger

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The Three Hunters

Our final day! Our final Lord of the Rings location! It was a big one: Edoras (the capital city of the kingdom of Rohan which features heavily in The Two Towers). The set was constructed on top of Mount Sunday: a rocky hill set in the middle of a vast plain surrounded by mountains. It took eight months to build and, after eleven days of shooting, it was taken down again. There is no longer any sign that filming had been undertaken there at all. The location, however, is stunning by itself and very evocative of the land of Rohan.

Thus, we set off at 9am when our six-wheeled off-road contraption pulled up outside our hostel. There were only five of us taking the tour that day, so, having picked up the other two travellers, we set off from Christchurch. Mount Sunday is located just over two hours to the west of the city.

Our journey took us through the outskirts of Christchurch before we headed over into the rural areas between us and our final destination. Christchurch has been hit by several major earthquakes since September 2010. These have left the central areas of the city unusable, dangerous and closed to the public. The city is currently in the early stages of its redevelopment programme which will, in time, restore Christchurch to its former glory. We gathered, from talking to our fellow passengers and our tour guide, barely anybody in Christchurch escaped some sort of damage to their properties as a result of the 2011 quake.

As the journey to Mount Sunday was not an insignificant one, we stopped off at the Rakaia Gorge. The gorge, other than being a typically picturesque NZ scene, was carved out by the passage of a glacier many years ago. In the case of the Rakaia Gorge, this means two things: that the valley is extremely wide and, in turn, that it houses a braided river. Such rivers, we were told, flow in separate channels unless they are in spate.

Back in the 4×4, we continued towards Mount Sunday with our tour guide’s informative commentary on NZ and Peter Jackson’s filming exploits in the country puttering over the speakers. We would have two more stops before we reached the valley in which Mount Sunday sits. The first of these was a small cafe where we treated ourselves to some toasties before reaching the gravel roads which would mark the rest of our journey.

As the four-wheel drive was engaged, we drew closer to the Southern Alps and the alpine desert which lies at their feet. The array of mountains, towards which we were now directly heading, is known primarily for the twin peaks of Mount Potts. The scenery to either side of us was marked by the subtle transition from grassy plains to blankets of snow which stretched as far as the mountains and our next stopping point: Lake Clearwater. Brilliantly blue and etched with silver where the sun touched the ice-spotted water, the lake was an astoundingly beautiful sight. Again, I refer you to my pictures as they have a chance of capturing something of the beauty of the spot.

Rounding a hillside corner not far up the road from Lake Clearwater, we gained our first sight of Mount Sunday itself. The scene was exactly as it appears in the film and the illusion was not shattered as we drew closer to Mount Sunday until, reaching a turning point in the road, we drove up to what would later be the location of our lunch stop. There, we picked up several replica movie props including both of Aragorn’s swords, Theoden’s sword and Gimli’s axe. Thus fittingly equipped for our adventure, we returned to the track and, splashing through several rivers, we reached the foot of Mount Sunday.

From there we walked for some fifteen minutes to the summit and what had been the location for the Golden Hall of Meduseld. At the top of Mount Sunday with a 58km/hr wind billowing in our faces, we took in the views of the valley from our vantage point (including a v-shape in the mountains which was used as the backdrop for Helms Deep in The Two Towers) as well as posing for a great many photos.

Our return to Christchurch was somewhat less eventful and now, “Here at the end of all things” as a certain hobbit would say, we’re pretty much done. All that remains is for us to pack our bags and hurl ourselves into the whirlwind of twenty-six hours of flights before we reach that green and pleasant land from which we hail. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to adversity, but it takes a great deal more to stand up to the check-in desk! I therefore feel that I should end with a rousing speech to boost my morale (which I realise is somewhat self-indulgent for a blogger but there you have it):

“Hold your ground, hold your ground!
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers!
I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down!
But it is not this day! This day we [FLY]!
By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!”

Lake Clearwater

Lake Clearwater

Mount Sunday

Mount Sunday

The Three Hunters

The Three Hunters

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“The white gulls are crying, The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.”

For the first time since Wellington, Dunedin offered us a chance to explore a NZ city rather than simply passing through. Our first destination was the train station. Only running the occasional tourist trip now, the station was nonetheless a nice place to visit. The station’s floor was made up in a faux mosaic style while the walls (both inside and out) were elaborately, but not excessively, decorated. However, the station’s main claim to fame is that it is supposedly NZ’s most photographed building.

Our other stop in the city provided a more unique photo opportunity. Baldwin Street is unremarkable in all but one respect: it is the steepest street in the world. It was therefore accoutred with the obligatory gaggle of Chinese tourists which such a landmark inevitably attracts wherever it is, along with drivers, runners and backpackers dawdling their way up and down it with their cameras in their hands.

From there it was back to the rugged scenery for which the South Island is famous as we drove out to the Otago Peninsula. At the peninsula’s far end, we reached Pilots Beach. Aside from the cliffside views yielded by the location, we had a special reason for going there. This time, our hopes were realised as, walking down to the beach, we managed to spot some fur seals. Although most of them were behind the fences that had been erected to prevent members of the public from disturbing the seals unduly, we did have a closer encounter. Sat comfortably atop a pile of rocks on an unfenced section of beach was a large seal. Rubbing itself dry, the seal gave us a bleary half-glance before returning to its business. Sat slightly upright and with bristly whiskers adorning its pointed face, I could not help but be reminded of General Melchett (Stephen Fry’s character in Blackadder) as I looked at it. The nonchalant aura of comically misplaced authority was the same and the whiskers’ resemblance to Melchett’s own bushy facial adornment was remarkable.

Heading back up from the beach towards the cafe and visitor centre, we caught sight of the the other animal for which the area is known. Gliding swiftly and stilly on wings that were, together, almost two metres long, a royal albatross flew over the visitor centre before swinging back towards the cliffs and out of sight. We counted two of the great birds soaring in similar arcs at regular intervals while we watched.

The rest of the day was spent following cliff top walks to The Chasm (another aptly-named hole in the ground of the sort with which we are becoming familiar) and Lovers Leap. Still remaining in the vicinity of the Otago Peninsula, we headed back along the walks to our final destination for the day: Sandfly Beach. This time, however, we really were caught out by the sun as, reaching a hilltop overlooking the beach, we saw that sunset was fast approaching. Ahead of us was a forty minute walk (one way) that would take us down to the beach itself and its sea lion inhabitants. We did not have enough time to get down there and back again. Even had we done so, the beach would have been dark by the time we reached it.

From where we were standing on the hilltop, we could distinctly see the sea lions’ silhouettes scrapping in the surf. Aside from the time constraints that we faced, there was another good reason for not venturing down to the beach in the dark. At all of the wildlife spots that we’ve visited in NZ, there have been signs designed to ensure the safety of both the animals and the tourists. Dogs are, for example, not allowed anywhere near seals or penguins. Also, there are limits in how close one should stand to an animal. While we were okay standing three metres away from the fur seal that I mentioned earlier (as long as we didn’t block its path to the sea), sea lions are a different prospect. We would have to stand significantly further away from the creatures as, if angered, they have been known to chase and bite people. Not fancying stumbling upon a sea lion in the dark, we decided to return to Dunedin.

As I write, we are driving northwards along the island’s east coast. Our final destination is Christchurch where we will spend two days before returning to the UK which, I am told, has had better weather than we’ve experienced over here. Still, it’s brightening up outside and the forecasts look good for our Edoras tour tomorrow!

 

Dunedin train station

Dunedin train station

 

Fur seal

Fur seal

 

Royal albatross

Royal albatross

 

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The Edge of the Wild

The next couple of days were spent tootling along the South Island’s windy south coast. This section of the expedition began with us setting off from Te Anau and stopping, first of all, at our penultimate Lord of the Rings location at Rainbow Reach. Here, following a short walk through trees and over a swing bridge, we found ourselves yet again amidst scenery used to represent the River Anduin in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Then, heading south-east towards Invercargill (our next hostel), we stopped off at a wetland reserve. There, from a wind-blasted vantage point, we could see various wetland birds such as geese and oystercatchers paddling around in the water. When that got too cold for us, we made our way to Tuatapere. Our guidebook had informed us that Tuatapere is renowned for its sausages and that passing through without purchasing these delectable piggy tubes would be most despicable. Thus, we picked up some standard Tuatapere sausages and some merlot and cracked pepper versions too (all handmade) before toddling off to our next stopping point (and yes: they were very tasty indeed, thanks for asking).

That stopping point was McCracken’s Rest which gave us a view across from the Fiordland Mountains to the south coast. It was then on to Invercargill and, having checked in at our hostel, down to Bluff which, it is often claimed, is the southernmost point in NZ. I say ‘claimed’ because we were to arrive at Slope Point which can be described as the southernmost point with a great deal more accuracy.

Slope Point (and indeed the majority of our stopping points the next day) is part of the Catlins Coastal Heritage Trail. Because we were only planning on taking one day to do the trail, ours had to be a truncated version of the route.

Our first stop was at Waipapa Point where we took a short walk to a lighthouse and along the nearby beaches. Not finding the local wildlife at this time of year has been, and continued to be, a theme of our trip. In the case of Waipapa, there was a chance that we would see seals. Not a seal was seen and we returned to the car. This could have had something to do with the fact that a 30 knot wind was blowing across from the Antarctic.

We then proceeded to stop at the aforementioned Slope Point before reaching Curio Bay. At the bay, there was the possibility of spotting penguins but, unlike us, the birds weren’t foolish enough to be spending their time outside in the cold. The fossilised trees that lay about the beach and in between the rocks were, for obvious reasons, not quite so well equipped to evade inquisitive tourists like us.

Speaking of tourism, New Zealanders are very well aware of the importance of tourism to their country and, more importantly, how impressive NZ’s vistas are. We have therefore been able to stop at many lookout points throughout our time in the country (sometimes it seems like we spend more time at the lookouts themselves than we do on the road). The same was true of our Catlins day and we came across several lookouts on the southern coastline as we proceeded along the gravel roads of the trail.

We had two more stops to make before we reached our that day’s end in Dunedin. The first was the Purakaunui Falls: a tiered waterfall accessed via a forest track. By this point, however, the sun was sinking so we pressed quickly on to Nugget Point. There, we followed a gravel path down a hillside, with the sea not far off on our right, before reaching a hide. It was nearing sunset when we peered through the windows of the hide and, in the fading light, saw what we had hoped for: yellow-eyed penguins, the rarest species of penguins in the world. Shuffling out of the sea before standing like soldiers at attention on the beach, the penguins were coming ashore for the night.

We managed to see about ten penguins, all of which went through the same procedure:
a.) Get out of the sea
b.) Stand smartly for a few minutes to dry
c.) Join the orderly penguin queue
d.) Slowly amble into the gorse and out of sight

So, as it became dark and the penguins retreated to their burrows, we did likewise. In our case, this meant close to two hours’ drive to Dunedin where we were warmly received by Tom’s first cousin once removed (many thanks to Roni and Graeme for their hospitality).

That’s me done for now but, with only three days left of our trip, I’ll be back very soon!

Waipapa Point

Waipapa Point

Slope Point

Slope Point

Yellow-eyed penguins

Yellow-eyed penguins

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Over Hill and Under Hill

From Queenstown, we journeyed west towards Te Anau. Alongside our route lay the Remarkables, a chain of mountains beside Lake Wakatipu. Meanwhile, the area through which we were travelling was used to portray the setting for the Rohirrim’s retreat from Edoras to Helms Deep in The Two Towers.

Thus, having passed through Rohan, as it were, we stopped in Kingston for our final view of Lake Wakatipu. Parking up alongside a disused cluster of old trains and rails, we stepped out to the lake’s edge. Once more, we found ourselves looking on the fantastically blue waters of Lake Wakatipu, on the surface of which the reflections of the mountains shimmered. However, since you last heard from me, NZ (specifically the southern sections of the South Island) has got very chilly indeed. So, like wind-ruffled penguins with our flippers clapped to our shivering sides, we waddled back to the comfort of the car.

We drove onwards and, not far from Te Anau, we turned down a long gravel track which led us to another Lord of the Rings location. To either side of us, dark and festooned with moss, were the few real locations that were used to depict Fangorn Forest (the rest were constructed and filmed in the studio). Owing to the various angry signs about trespassing which were plastered on gates nearby, we decided not to venture into the forest but, instead, we returned to the main road and made our way to the lakeside town of Te Anau. Here we would be staying for the next two nights. So, having had a stroll around the local wildlife sanctuary, we went to bed early.

Early? Do students even know the meaning of ‘going to bed early’? We’re good at sleeping mornings away but surely we should be making the most of the evening? Well, I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that we went to bed early because, the next day, we rose at 04:25. Still confused?

We were off to Milford Sound! Our cruise was set to depart at 09:45 and we had to arrive twenty minutes early after a journey which should have taken two hours. However, the very real threat posed by black ice in that part of the island at that time in the morning, coupled with the risk of road closures as a result of the bad weather, persuaded us that we should leave three hours for the journey.

Departing from the hostel at about 06:15, we set off in the dark. The roads were frosty and there was no one else around. Passing several laser display boards warning us about the likelihood of black ice, the potential closure of Homer Tunnel and the possibility of having to use our snow chains, we carried on.

As we neared Homer Tunnel, we encountered a gritting lorry. Given the warnings about the state of the roads, we didn’t mind following the lorry as he prepared the road ahead of us. However, soon enough, he pulled over to let us through. We passed on with some trepidation along un-gritted roads.

The next stage of our journey was spent carefully twisting through a pine forest. The road glimmered with frost and the trees to either side were laden with snow. Above us, we caught glimpses of mountains, all of which were shrouded in thick snow. Although dawn was on its way, it was still dark around us.

However, rounding a corner, we found ourselves emerging into a deep valley. The trees faded back and the mountains reared tall on all sides. The road led us to the Homer Tunnel which burrowed through the mountain ahead of us. For now, the tunnel was blocked by a workman with a large pickup truck who told us that we’d need to wait for some lorries to go through in front of us. We therefore waited as we had been instructed to do, and, after ten minutes or so had elapsed, our friend the gritting lorry came past and disappeared into the tunnel.

Soon after he had entered, we too were signalled through with instructions to stay behind the gritting lorry until he pulled over to let us pass. The road sloped downwards and, as we moved through it, we saw that the tunnel really had been carved through the mountain: the roof and walls were composed of roughly-hewn rock and, in several places, we saw clumps of icicles hanging down beside the electric lights.

Reaching the tunnel’s exit, we were greeted by wintery sunlight. Below us, the road wound down the mountainside before pushing on through more trees towards Milford Sound. Mountains, banked with snow, pressed in all around us. It really was an impressive sight: the sort of natural grandeur that England simply doesn’t possess.

In the end, although we had needed about two and a half hours to get there, we reached Milford Sound without incident. This seems like a suitable point to explain what exactly Milford Sound is (although, as usual, I point you towards the pictures as well). NZ has several Sounds which are, in short, large areas which have been carved out between mountains by the passage of a river. These have then filled with water as a result of sea levels rising, to create lake-like structures. Milford Sound, however, is not strictly a Sound: it was carved out by a glacier and is now an iceless fjord. Milford Sound’s fresh water (from rainfall) mixes directly with the salt water of the Tasman Sea.

The cruise took us on a two hour journey around Milford Sound. This involved an informative commentary from our guide who told us about the mountains, cliffs, waterfalls and wildlife that were revealed as we moved further towards the sea. Milford Sound, we learnt, contains the largest sea cliff in the world (one mile high) and mountains of similarly gargantuan proportions. Along the way we also gained some close encounters with fur seals who waved lethargically at us with their flippers as well as pulling in close to the sites of several tree avalanches and waterfalls. In one case, we filled up glasses with the pure, chilled water cascading down from above us.

We viewed all of this during our short spells on deck (signalled by the sound of our guide’s voice on the speakers) before, more often than not, retreating back inside after having snapped some photos. The rest of the time was spent shuffling close to the radiators inside the boat and peering out of the windows: it was the coldest day that we’ve had so far, and we’ve had a few!

When the cruise was over, we indulged ourselves with some overpriced ‘fush and chups’ (that’s how the Kiwis pronounce it) before heading back through the mountain pass. From there we traced our route back to the hostel, stopping off at several points of interest on the way. These included The Chasm (it is what it sounds like) at the Cleddau River where the water had moulded the rocks into strange curves and holes before, in some cases, shoving entire trees through these gaps. Our other stops were at The Divide (the point where two glacial valleys meet), Lake Gunn (another clear-watered NZ lake surrounded by mountains) and the Mirror Lakes (famous for their reflective qualities).

Having edged our car through a huge flock of sheep which was being herded along the road, we reached Te Anau once more. From here, we are heading back to the east, specifically to Invercargill on the south coast. After that, we will spend our last few days in NZ working our way up most of the South Island’s east coast. For now, however, I must leave you.

Fare thee well!

Fangorn Forest

Fangorn Forest

Milford Sound

Milford Sound