On the west coast there are two glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef, that are unusual in that they are relatively low altitude, and very close to forest and the sea.
We stayed in an Airbnb in Franz Josef and walked up the gentle forest-lined pathway, past waterfalls, towards the glacier.
Eventually the steep face of the glacier came into view about 750 metres away. It was a surprisingly easy walk and the proximity to forest was amazing.
The next day we took a guided tour to the Fox Glacier. This was an altogether more brutal and tough environment, with streams to walk through and rocks to climb over. The guide was a young guy from Shanghai and his love of nature was infectious. He showed us tiny “coral lichen” growing on rocks that could only survive in the cleanest of atmospheres. The glacier itself, and the surrounding vertical rock walls seemed a lot more unstable and dangerous than Franz Josef
The towns of Franz Josef and Fox are small and exist only to cater for visitors to the glaciers. They are pleasant enough but, if glaciers don’t interest you, then their remoteness means they are well out of the way for many visitors to New Zealand.
A three or four hour drive south west took us to the wild and rugged West Coast area. Enroute we were sidetracked by a sign that said “Buller River Swing Bridge – Longest Swing Bridge in New Zealand”. We stopped to investigate and decided that $10 was worth walking across the longest Swing Bridge in the country. “Swing Bridge” in New Zealand means a rope bridge that swings a lot due to its instability, not a bridge that pivots (which is the Wikipedia definition). Anyway we crossed said bridge.
After the wobbly crossing we started a 15 minute woodland walk before bumping into a strange Kiwi guy called Mike who was the driver of a jet boat. Through his charm (and large discount off list price) he persuaded us onto his boat for a 40 minute “spin” down the river. He clearly loved the Buller River and stopped periodically to tell us about the gold mining history of the place.
After the drenching and white-knuckles we drove on to Paparoa National Park, stopping briefly to admire the pancake rocks and the power of the swell of the South Pacific. There was no land to our west until Patagonia so the waves had time to build.
We finally made it to Nigel and Karen’s Airbnb. To say that they were characters is an understatement. Pre-arranged, they cooked for us. And Nigel plied me with his home-brewed beer. They have an after dinner ritual of getting Google Earth up on their big screen in their lounge and getting guests to show where they live and explain their lifestyles. Recently they had Somalian guests so I think East Grinstead may have been a little tame for them.
Having already visited Yellowstone and Iceland in previous travels, this destination was the final piece in the geothermal collection. Unlike the others, the bubbling hot pools can be found in the centre of town. In the town’s park to be precise.
These are pretty unimpressive cordoned-off pits compared to the beauty that can be found a few miles out of town. Within an hours drive there are a collection of very different thermal parks, each with their own character and features.
Some are brutal, sulphurous, other-worldly landscapes….
But my favourite was Waimangu Volcanic Valley. It was, uniquely, created within recent historic times (1886), when an eruption left behind a succession of geothermal features along a beautiful valley. Some features, like the worlds largest hot-water spring, Frying Pan Lake, were created as recently as 1917 in an eruption that buried a nearby tourist hotel.
The whole area is very important to the Maoris, who discovered the area and utilised the geothermal activity for cooking and for medicinal purposes.
We went to a Maori cultural centre to learn more about their history and traditions.
We also had a hangi feast…with meat and vegetables cooked underground in a pit and covered in sacks and earth. The lamb and chicken tasted so good…very tender due to the slow cooking.
Being complete New Zealand novices, we were pretty much guessing how we would find the driving, and where we should stop-over to break journeys. We put Hamilton on the itinerary as a break from driving down from the Bay of Islands, and, with huge snarl-ups around Auckland, we were glad we did. Hamilton, then, was a welcome break and a surprisingly nice place.
Our Airbnb was on the river and had a beautiful outlook.
Houses in this suburb were modern and light, with huge windows making the most of the views. The town itself was pretty ordinary but fine to provide food and beer to refuel us.
We woke up to rain, the marginal effects of the “weather bomb” hitting South Island and causing devastation there. We drove to Hobbiton, the site of filming for Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit films. Whilst a really touristy thing to do, the visit was interesting and professionally done.
Then on to Tauranga, a town on the east coast of North Island. With many peninsulas and inlets, the geography of the town was hard to absorb, until you climbed Mount Maunganui.
After a relatively tough climb, the view from the top was spectacular.
A twilight Kayak trip was the highlight of our stay. A small group of intrepid would-be kayakers were taken by a Thor lookalike to McLaren Falls.
There we paddled along the lake until night fell, and then drifted slowly into a narrow cavern… There we looked up and saw constellations of hundreds of glow worms. It was absolutely stunning. By torchlight we paddled back through the darkness to the minibus, tired but happy.
I’m writing this somewhere over Pakistan as the sun is rising outside the window of the A380… It’s 2:30 in the morning in London but breakfast time here, after a short, sleepless night. After watching a couple of movies and trying to coax myself to sleep I have given up and turned to Spotify and WordPress for entertainment.
Crammed in next to us is a 6’8″ mixed martial arts fighter from Cornwall, on his way to a training camp in Thailand; a real gentle giant. That’s the great thing about travelling…the people you happen to cross paths with.
Even though it would be nice to have a nice seat/bed at the front of the plane, economy really isn’t that bad at a fraction of the price…
In September my son and I went scuba diving in Iceland. I am sure your first thought was “why?”…. I know mine was when it was first suggested to me. This particular dive, in a place called Silfra, is often ranked in the top 5 scuba dives in the world. The reason for this high ranking is the crystal clear waters (that result in great visibility and water you can drink -I did), and the fact that, it is said, you are diving in a crack between the American and European tectonic plates. Here is a little video I shot of the experience…
From where I sit writing this, in a warm comfortable lakeside house, I have a view through the large picture window of the mountain, the shape of Ayers Rock but green and grey, rather than red. It sits the other side of the lake, its basalt faces and scree slopes changing shade and colour as lighting conditions change. To my left, another window, but the forest comes right up here, pine cones almost touching the glass. Beyond the pine, an unidentified deciduous tree starting to turn autumnal orange.