A Travellerspoint blog

Stop. Hanmer time

sunny 20 °C
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Most of my twelfth, and final, week in New Zealand has been spent in the alpine-styled village of Hanmer Springs.

Resident to a little over 700 locals, Hanmer's relative proximity to the cities of Christchurch (in one direction), and Nelson (in the other), guarantee it a steady supply of out-of-towners. Many come to soak in the thermal spa pools, or head off into the surrounding mountains for some ski action (during snow fall season), or perhaps propel themselves round some of the finest mountain biking trails on the South Island.

All worthwhile pursuits, for sure, but I'd be willing to bet my return ticket home that not many of Hanmer's temporary visitors get to:

- Wield a chainsaw through several dozen hefty logs, chop, split and then distribute them around the village to keep the locals in firewood for winter
- Construct a stage and rig the lighting in the town hall for an upcoming tribute concert to The Eagles (killer rehearsals guys)
- Divide up a sports field to create a temporary car park at the finish line of a sporting event
- Clean and service a fleet of mountain bikes at the local outdoor adventure centre
- Take part in a wonderfully corrupt St Patrick's Day pub quiz all in aid of sending a group of 16-year-olds to Thailand (why were these fund-raisers not invented when I was at school?)

But then not many have the chance to stay with Grum – local hero, creative force and Hanmer postie extraordinaire – and his wife Juliet. It was a real pleasure. For introducing me to the community, and getting me involved in local life, a huge thank you. I'll just have to remember to bring a bigger stash of unmarked fivers to the quiz next time.

Posted by Serge78 20:04 Archived in New Zealand Tagged living_abroad Comments (2)

Reaching the bottom

semi-overcast 12 °C
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I know the photo below is not particularly interesting, but for me the location shown here marks a personal milestone.


Taken at Sydney Cove on Ulva Island, it's both as far south, and as far away from London, as I'm going to get on this whole journey. Ulva is a small rocky clump lying within Paterson Inlet, and part of Stewart Island – a much larger land mass situated below New Zealand's South Island. It is a very very long way from home. Hazarding a rough guess, I reckon we're talking 11,750 miles from dear old London town.

Standing on the beach, a minute or so before I took that picture, I had one of those moments of clarity so mythologised by alcoholics (you'll have to indulge me a minute...) and walked slowly and purposefully over to the rock face you can see above. Holding out my right hand, I gave the rock some kind of congratulatory high five, about-turned, and set off back along the beach.

For better or for worse, I've gone just about as far as I can go. From now on home is only going to get closer.

Posted by Serge78 19:33 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

"You don't know you're alive until you've almost died"

storm 12 °C
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Or so the saying goes.

After slogging through three wind battered days in a sea kayak in Doubtful Sound, perhaps the most inhospitable yet beguiling corner of the Earth i've ever found myself in, I'd be inclined to agree.

Doubtful Sound, like it's better known cousin Milford Sound, is part of magical Fiordland. It's a vast wilderness of towering super-steep mountain sides, tight glacier-carved valleys, mighty waterfalls several hundred metres high and frequent rumbling tree avalanches that sound like bottled thunder.

Fiordland is also the spiritual home of perhaps the single most annoying insect ever conceived - the sandfly. The complete bastards.

As befits somewhere so remote, getting there is half the fun. My journey began well before sunrise on a chilly, drizzly Sunday. Our full compliment of six - me, a young couple from Paris, two Kiwi lads (one from Waiheke, one on a break from living and working in Miami), and our guide Will - headed sleepily out of Te Anau and down to Manapouri, a small settlement (even by South Island standards) on the edge of the lake of the same name.

Slumping out of the van, we lined up to pass-the-parcel our gear and supplies onto an awaiting vessel. Boating over Lake Manapouri is meant to be quite a cruise, passing sandy beaches, hide-away coves and more than 30 islands on the way across with the Cathedral Mountain range as a backdrop. I can't tell you much about it though as I spent most of the hour-long crossing crumpled on a bench, 'conserving energy' back in the land of nod.

I woke just as we reached West Arm on other side of the lake, right beneath the stonking great power lines of Manapouri Power Station. The birth of this power station back in the 1960s not only ticked the box labelled 'staggering feat of engineering', it also marked the awakening of environmental consciousness throughout New Zealand. The Save Manapouri Campaign galvanised both local and national support, so much so that a national election was won and lost on it's concerns.

There's a visitor centre here, as reward for making it this far, but we'd not come to walk among the exhibits. For us, it was a dry and warm place in which to get rubbered up in full sea kayaking attire (you know - base layer, wetsuit, fleece, rain jacket, three different hats, spray deck - the works).

Then followed a half-hour drive along the most isolated road in New Zealand (a title to be proud of when you think just how many out of the way gravel tracks this country has) to the dramatically monikered Deep Cove, and (finally) our awaiting kayaks.

Doubtful Sound is breathtaking, and utterly untameable. Whilst not quite unwelcoming, the natural forces at work here never fail to remind you that puny little humans - wetsuits or no wetsuits - don't really belong here. Nature has the upper hand at all times.

We began our first day of kayaking with a target of reaching Campsite 5, some 25km into the sound along a stretch known as 'Crooked Arm'. About an hour or so into paddling, just as we headed past an island somebody saw fit to name 'Elizabeth', an almighty wind kicked up, funnelling a mini-storm of pummelling rain and whipped waves straight towards us.

We'd no choice but to roll with the punches. Will, leader and guide, threw out the signal for us to raft up (a hand gesture that, to my eyes, looks mighty similar to the one divers use to represent "f@$*ing big shark") and we pulled our kayaks together and awaited for the weather to hit.

And boy did it hit. Whereas moments before we'd been cheerfully gliding up a softly rolling sound, we were now surrounded by waves angrily chopping at our sides and bottoms, and a wind wall that flipped our kayaks 180 degrees and was now pushing us back the way we'd come.

Holding on to each other in raft formation gave us a bit of stability, but it was taking considerable physical effort to keep from being pulled apart. Gradually, after perhaps ten minutes or so, the wind eased enough for Will to decide we'd better utilise the conditions instead of being totally at their whim. So out of his kayak he whipped a sail (handy), the corners of which we tied to our paddles.

Still in raft mode, now each of us had to tightly grip both a neighbouring kayak and our end of the sail. On Will's count we lifted our paddles, raising the sail and immediately caught a huge gust of puff, catapulting us along the water. It was bloody hard work. In an attempt to at least look like we were enjoying ourselves, we took it in turns to mock-roar in pain in a manner that resembled the scene in Point Break when confused Keanu Reeves unloads his gun into the air rather than shoot bad guy and best buddy Patrick Swayze (comparison copyright of Hot Fuzz).

And it was at this moment that somebody (one of the Kiwi lads I think) decided to utter the immortal line about knowing your alive = feeling like you're gonna die. Caught up in the drama perhaps, but they had a point. I would have taken a photo to illustrate his claim, but I was too busy trying to not capsize at the time.

Kayaking out here puts you at the total mercy of the weather. If the wind closes in, and decides that you're not meant to be heading in a particular direction, then that's the way it is. End of story. So Campsite 5 was off limits, but luckily Campsite 2 in Hall Arm was in our line of sight. And that's where we spent the night.

The conditions next morning were the exact opposite of the day before. Calmer than a Buddhist monk drinking camomile tea, Doubtful Sound on morning number two was as serene as can be.


Perfect water for paddling, we glided out of Campsite 2 for gentle kilometre after gentle kilometre and into Crooked Arm.

The stillness was pierced only once, this time at the hand of humans. As we rounded Crooked Arm and bore down on Campsite 5, the distant chug of the Fiordland Navigator - a sight-seeing boat laden with crew and moneyed day trippers - crept from behind. As the Navigator drew closer, an audible collective gasp sounded from the boat. And ahead of us, drawing nearer by the second, was a pod of dolphins, playfully spouting, rolling and flipping along the sound.

As the massed huddle of passengers on the Navigator reached for their cameras, we stopped dead still and just waited for the dolphins to say hello. They obliged, passing not more than 10 metres in front of us (a close encounter some 150 metres more intimate than those on the boat enjoyed). The captain of the Navigator radioed Will to congratulate us on our luck (at least I think what he said was congratulatory). I would taken a photo of our water-borne friends, but I was too busy looking smug at the time.

Day three started early, with us leaving the camp bang on dawn break. We'd received word of another weather front closing in, and we'd a long way to go. Exiting Crooked Arm into the main straight of Doubtful Sound, with the opening to the Tasman Sea behind us, the wind and rain arrived bang on cue and with ferocious strength.

Instead of smacking us square in the face, this time we had the weather charging into us from our tails. It was like we'd been lifted onto an express travelator, our kayaks absolutely rocketing along. Although there was a lot of chop, forcing each of us into making passable impersonations of socks inside a washing machine, at least this time we we being blown back home.

Two-thirds of the way along, the conditions eased and the sun (having been absent for days) finally pushed past a gap in the clouds. Against the dark background of the sodden slopes, a perfect full rainbow appeared a few hundred metres in front of us. Both ends were clearly visible, and I swear we could have paddled through the middle of it had any of us been able to summon the composure. I would have taken a photo, but I was probably wiping a tear from my eye at the time.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the reward you receive is equal to the effort you put in. And in Doubtful Sound, that was without question. I doubt (sorry) that I've ever been as drenched, or as bone-shakingly cold, or have felt like my arm was about to straight detach itself from my torso, or been so bothered by tiny little flying bastard blood-sucking sandflies, as I have here.

But the payoff, the chance to see, taste, hear, smell and feel a world as far removed from human comfort as this place is... if that isn't living, I don't know what is.

Posted by Serge78 17:00 Archived in New Zealand Tagged boating Comments (3)

A guiding light

all seasons in one day 20 °C
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If you're gonna go on an organised tour in New Zealand, if you're happy to hand over the reigns and let somebody else do all the organising and leg work for a change, whether it be for just an afternoon or for ten whole days, if you don't mind being led in a randomly pieced together group along a semi-set path probably trod by countless others before you... just pray you get a decent guide. It makes all the difference.

Graham wasn't a decent guide, he was an absolutely sensational guide. Probably one in a million. We - the eleven lucky people who signed up for Active Earth's Volcanoes and Rainforests tour around the north island in early February - got very lucky indeed.

Graham's endless enthusiasm for his bountiful country was equalled only by his vast knowledge of the all the best places to go. The promise of "off the beaten track", and of getting away from the (two whole million) other tourists in the country at the same time as you, is banded about so much in this part of the world that you start to wonder whether there is anybody at all on the beaten track, and if not perhaps you'd be better off taking that route instead. But when you've got a guide who is truly local, and somehow manages to find not only places that you won't find other tourists visiting, but also spots where you'd struggle to find regular Kiwis, then you've hit the jackpot.

Don't, if you can at all help it, find yourself on Franz Josef Glacier lumbered with a guide who is so obviously bored he decides to lead you towards dead ends and into tight corners, both near impossible to escape from, for his own amusement. Having paid good money to explore this huge lump of valley-carving ice, the warning bells should be ringing loud and clear when, from the outset, your group is so large your guide doesn't even attempt to ask anybody their name. Personal service you will not be getting. Tourist factory processed you will be.

In a country this eye-poppingly attractive, a bad guide isn't going to ruin your holiday. But a good guide, or (if you can find one) a truly great guide, will add so much value that you instantly forget just how many dollars you handed over for the privilege of scrambling through that rainforest/skreeing down into that volcanic crater/frisbee playing on that most dramatic of beaches at sunset.

Here's some pics, from organised and randomised trips. None do this country justice. Have I told you how beautiful it is here..?

Volcanoes and Rainforests

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Farewell Spit

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Kaikoura Peninsula


Franz Josef Glacier

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Otago Peninsula


Posted by Serge78 15:18 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

My night in jail

semi-overcast 18 °C
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Now I think about it, I've slept in some funny places since leaving east London.

From a Soviet-era concrete slab of a hotel in Siberia where I had to shower in the sink, to an incredibly toasty yurt in the frosty and desolate Mongolian countryside where meal preparation was a constant family affair, to a Buddhist temple high up on Koya-san mountain where I was encouraged to take part in morning meditation, to an ex-hippy's caravan in Coromandel that doubled as an insect-lovers paradise, to a stream-side sleeping bag deep in Tongariro National Park (more on this last one soon).

And that's not to mention umpteen nights spent struggling to sleep on clanky trains, cramped planes and wobbly boats.

None of these temporary abodes, however, had as much surreal appeal as the night I found lodging in a Christchurch jail.


Before I let you start thinking that I cut a deal with the screws and managed to swap the traditional one allowed phone call for one blog update, or that I'm somehow typing this from incarceration, I'd better explain that this jail is actually a totally legitimate backpackers called Jailhouse and I paid for the privilege of being here.

When the previous owners, the Corrections Department of New Zealand, decided at the turn of the century to close the facility and move it's tenants elsewhere, the jail was mothballed. It remained dormant until a couple of years ago when a Christchurch couple bought the place and set about transforming the sparse surroundings into a dwelling of appeal to travellers.

The basic prison shell is intact, the shower rooms, cells and kitchen are all in their original locations, but they've been significantly softened and made (much) more comfortable.

As a reminder of the buildings past, and perhaps to also show off how much they've improved the décor, the current owners have kept one cell in original convict condition. As you can probably imagine, it's a pretty cramped and dank space, the bare bricks decorated with various sketches of voluptuous women courtesy of the last resident artist.

Jailhouse can't quite resist playing up to it's previous notoriety, with various references to those who stay there as “inmates”, advice on local amenities listed under the heading “ways to escape”, and the proudly ironic boast that they've been “accommodating people for 130 years”, but all in all it's an efficiently run and well-kept place.

I just got the feeling that nobody who stayed there was ever fully relaxed. As novel a one-night stop as Jailhouse undoubtedly is, perhaps it'll never be able to escape the fact that fundamentally it's a (nicely scrubbed up) jail, and repeat offenders are not meant to be encouraged.

Posted by Serge78 12:57 Archived in New Zealand Tagged lodging Comments (0)

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