Doin’ the time warp at Shantytown, a recreated gold rush town on the West Coast.
Having been on one road trip around the South Island, I thought I’d seen it all, really. More fool me.
Last time around on the West Coast, I was a little on edge. We narrowly escaped getting our campervan stuck in sand, with the help of two gruff but kindly local blokes. And of course, the weather was crap.
This time around I was even more on edge in general (as I have been for a couple of months) and the weather was similarly awful – this is, after all, one of the wettest parts of the country. But despite all that, this was exactly what I needed. A work trip with a healthy dose of leisure slotted in, with luxury and pampering making up for the typically wild weather.
Franz Josef is a tiny little tourist town (population approximately 400) that revolves around tourism – glacier walks, kayaks and scenic flights; horse treks; 4WD adventures; skydiving. Luckily, there are other activities you can do in wet weather!
As the rain intensified overhead, we sought refuge at the Glacier Hot Pools in Franz Josef. The public pools are incredibly nice, with 36, 38 and 40-degree pools, all nice and large so you aren’t squeezed up against half naked strangers. They’re under cover, so if it’s raining as it so often does, you can still enjoy the water. There’s also private pools out a little way into the forest, surrounded by trees and paired with their own changing rooms – these have heated floors and deluxe showers. Little covered alcoves at the end of each pool offer shelter from the elements; it was surprisingly cosy in there despite being restricted to maybe 35% of the pool area since we wanted to avoid the icy rain.
Best of all, the pools backed onto Te Waonui, the five-star resort we were booked into. This is quite possibly the fanciest place this pleb has ever stayed at. Glasses of kiwifruit juice and fresh hand towels were brought to us at reception as we checked in. Branded umbrellas at the entrance were a nice practical touch. Service was outstanding, as you’d expect.
It may not look like anything particularly special, but this is the most wonderful bed I have ever laid in. It was like sleeping in a cloud. 8 hours was not enough. (A lifetime would probably not have been enough.)
Heated bathroom floors (I need these in my life). A heated mirror to clear steam. A speaker in the bathroom that amplifies whatever is playing on the TV. An adorable little deck opening out onto the forest. I could so get used to this.
While I’m not normally one for fine dining, I really don’t have any other words to describe the five-course degustation aside from exquisite (and not overwhelmingly fussy). Each course had approximately 5 options, and between the two of us, we sampled 10.
Highlights: I found the ostrich carpaccio, seafood (hapuka, clam, octopus and squid ink) risotto, and L&P ice cream with fondant particularly innovative. The kumara croquette and spinach/potato gnocchi were both divine (though the accompanying venison and cheese, respectively, not as impressive – I’d expected the cheese to be melty, or at the most, a little bit stringy, but instead it sat solidly in gobs around the pasta). I even mustered up the courage to down some beef cheek – I think it was actually rather good; I just couldn’t get past the mental ick factor. Current menu in full here.
And, importantly, the portions are good-sized. We both went to bed well satiated.
Sadly, our glacier flight and heli hike were canned due to the weather, so instead we popped into the West Coast Wildlife Centre for a bit. I’ve seen kiwi before and I’m not sure I’d personally pay full price $35 to go through the centre, but perhaps the guided tour ($55) may be better value.
I also got to do a couple of things I missed the first time around through the West Coast.
With brief snatches of almost decent (or at least less wet) weather, my colleague and I managed a quick walk to a lookout over Lake Matheson (the postcard-famous mirror lake – on a fine day, that is).
We also paused at Lake Ianthe between Franz Josef and Hokitika to stretch our legs.
Stay tuned for more South Island posts!
I do love a good train ride.
I’ve got fond memories of rail journeys through Europe (plus a few nightmarish ones) but I’d never done a long distance trip by train in New Zealand until this year.
Stupendously scenic, the TranzAlpine is one of the world’s most famous rail journeys. It travels between Christchurch and Greymouth through Arthur’s Pass, a national park nestled in the mountains.
I had a much needed doze in the beginning, as we rolled through the outskirts of Christchurch and the beginning of the Canterbury plains, peeking out every so often to catch glimpses of lush green fields and the darling spring lambs and calves.
When things really get exciting on the TranzAlpine is the point where we reach the ice-fed Waimakariri Gorge. It is jaw-dropping – pure aquamarine waters carving through the steep ravine. Take my advice and get your ass up to the observation carriage before then. It’s open air, no glass windows between you and the scenery – all the better for snapping pictures. (Be warned: it’s a little smoky up here near the engine, and if you don’t tie up your hair it WILL whip you painfully in the wind.)
From here the train approaches the Southern Alps and the weather gets wilder – foggier, windier, rainier. Enroute to Arthur’s Pass we snaked our way past rocky river beds and tussock, over bridges, and through tunnels and viaducts.
Past the misty mountains, there’s a beautifully still lake and couple of cute little settlements before the last stop in Greymouth, a historic mining town.
If you’re taking the TranzAlpine back the other way, it departs Greymouth in the afternoon and returns to Christchurch just in time for dinner.
Here’s what you need to know about taking the TranzAlpine train:
TranzAlpine train journey: 4.5 hours one way. Departs Christchurch at 8.15am and departs Greymouth at 1.45pm
TranzAlpine train tickets: Start at $89 one way
Getting to the train stations: The shuttle from our central Christchurch hotel took about 10 minutes to reach the train station in Addington; in Greymouth, the train station is fairly central – it’s a small town – right by the big Warehouse and the i-Site and rental car depots.
Part of #SundayTraveler!
There’s a wee cluster of them in the airport by the baggage pickup. And once you get into the city centre, they are the first thing you’ll notice in the central square.
Apparently it’s all part of a big public art project. They’re on display over the summer; there is, of course, a smartphone app and a trail to follow.
There’s no shortage of colour around. Re:Start mall is looking vibrant, with tons of cool boutiques and souvenir shops housed in containers. And as we passed charming New Regent St I did a double take. Plus, there are countless cool murals on walls around the city centre.
But it is still very quiet in the city centre – almost deathly still in the off hours we were there (Saturday evening). It was probably 90 percent tourists, and a couple of rough looking characters (the Christchurch housing market is squeezed, although for different reasons than Auckland).
Abandoned buildings are scattered throughout. The iconic cathedral now houses pigeons, lined up on a perch under its roof, open and yawning onto the square.
On the upside, the few eateries near our hotel that were open were humming. We had dinner at The Himalayas, a pulsing Indian restaurant. I wasn’t in love with my butter scallops, but I think it was more a personal issue with the texture of seafood in curry than a reflection of the food quality; the curry part was definitely fantastic. Chicken tikka masala = unreserved thumbs up.
I’ve learned a LOT about New Zealand over the past few months in the course of work. Here’s a few zany experiences you can have here:
Accessible only by helicopter. In a glacial valley. Insulated safari tents with ensuites and heated floors. THE MIND BOGGLES. Can I move there for next winter?
In all honesty, this sounds like one of those things I would only do under duress (like skydiving). Swim like a dolphin, fly like a superhero?
On a similar note, apparently you can go skimming across Lake Wakatipu in what is basically a gigantic shark. Who comes up with this stuff?
Slight cheat on this one, as I actually have known about zorbing for years… but it deserves a mention, especially since I failed to include zorbing on this list of quintessentially NZ activities! Again, not really my thing, but I’ll happily come along to laugh at you as you bounce/roll down a hill in a giant ball.
What do you think of when you hear ‘New Zealand’? Probably Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit – majestic, untouched landscapes, that kind of thing.
We’ve ridden this Middle-earth wave for a decade, and while we locals may be well and truly over it, the rest of the world is not. Everywhere we went, that’s what people associated with New Zealand.
Sometimes people assume I was an extra in the movies, or that I’ve bungied AT LEAST once. Nope and nope.
We may be the home of bungy but I have to admit this is one activity I never, ever plan to do. I’ve skydived as part of a media trip, and that is enough for me. Voluntarily leaping off a bridge is too extreme for my blood.
Swimming with dolphins
I’m a bit torn on this one. I really love the idea of swimming amongst dolphins, but I don’t do well in deep water and I suspect I might freak out a little (or a lot) if I was actually out the in the ocean surrounded by creatures, no matter how cute they were. And that would be a terrible situation to panic in.
Glow worm caves
Not a big fan of small dark spaces either, but I think I could probably handle it just to see the spectacle of glow worms at Waitomo.
Hot air ballooning
Hot air ballooning would be pretty neat – granted, I’m a wuss when it comes to heights, but this would be a pretty gentle way to get airborne. Oddly, I never really had any interest in this at all until I saw something online about ballooning over the Bagan temples in Myanmar (it wasn’t that particular link; I can’t remember where the original was). Seriously, how cool would that be? I kinda want to visit Myanmar now and see it from the air.
When we were tossing around booking a trip to Queenstown, T suggested doing a scenic helicopter ride. The prices for scenic flights can be pretty obscene, but I reckon in the right area it could be well worth it – I’m thinking over glacier country…
The thing about our country, if you’re a tourist, is that it will squeeze you for all you’re worth. That said, there are still things to see and do for free (and if you’re the outdoorsy type, there are countless trails and parks and beaches to explore). And as one commenter pointed out, they don’t have to be particularly taxing. Heck, some of them are even wheelchair-friendly.
We drove past this beach, marvelling at all the smooth white pebbles – and it took a few seconds to click to the fact that they all had writing on them. Travellers have apparently been carving their names into the rocks for years, or writing on them using markers. We had neither a permanent marker nor knife with which to scratch the date and our initials, sadly.
Explore the trails in Mt Aspiring National Park
The Catlin coast at the southern end of the country is home to seals, penguins and other wildlife. You probably won’t be rubbing noses with them, but seeing them in their natural habitat is truly awe inspiring.
Pub crawl in Queenstown
Pick up an attraction brochure (probably a Jasons one) in Queenstown and you’ll see ads for a couple of different pub crawls.
Think along the lines of six free drinks, free food and plenty of company.
Marvel at the raw power – and beauty – of the pancake rocks
I’m pretty sure my mouth was agape for the entire time it took us to walk around this clifftop track. At high tide, the ocean rushes into the channels, throwing sea spray all up the sides, and blows off pressure through the naturally formed blowholes. And you’ll probably encounter some friendly native birds!
In which we nearly get stuck in quicksand (slight exaggeration mine)
“I don’t think we should go on those rocks,” I said, as we pulled into an off-road track somewhere south of Fox Glacier, looking for somewhere to park up for the night. We’d just circled a small grassy clearing off the highway down behind some bush, where previous visitors had left the remains of a fire, and T was heading directly onto the pebbled embankment of the river just below.
“Rocks are better than sand,” he responded, and steered us toward the far end of the ‘beach’.
We’d found sand.
Let me pause here to impart a warning. Couples! Cautious ones: be more assertive. Headstrong ones: listen to your other half, for the love of God. Over the years you’d think T had learned to pay attention to my instincts (ignoring my suggestions also led him to not bring a rain jacket or any footwear aside from running shoes, and he dearly regretted not having jandals or a waterproof outer along the trip.
Next thing you know, we are quite literally spinning our wheels and going nowhere. There were no expletives strong enough. “The most epic fuckup of my life”, as T put it, didn’t even begin to cover it, although we had no idea just how bad it was going to get.
We tried going backwards, and forwards. I tried pushing from the front (it was a manual and I don’t really drive manual, and most certainly not while stuck in sand) which, as you can imagine, had less than negligible effect. We sunk in deeper. We tried to dig out the sand from around the back wheels. T had some crackpot idea about using towels, which thankfully we didn’t do. He brought out the snow chains, took one look at them, had a half-hearted go at starting to drape on one set, then scrapped that idea. We dug out more sand, collected some branches from around the beach, and placed them below the tyres in an attempt to smooth liftoff. No bueno.
With the aroma of clutch permeating our nostrils and the sound of the gunning engine still ringing in our ears, the rain decided to join the party (the clouds had been threatening to open up all day). In a random twist, a small white lamb had emerged near the track where we’d come down from and was baa-ing furiously in our direction.
Full disclosure: I totally failed on that commandment of marriage – always being a team – throughout. Not the best portent for the future. I at least kept my thoughts to myself, but they were ugly ones.
T walked out to the road to get help, while I hunched over in the driver’s seat. Probably less than 10 minutes later, 4WD slowly made its way down toward me and the campervan, then stopping and turning around. I couldn’t see if T was in the vehicle, but about the same time I saw him reappear around the corner, trudging back alone and dejected. Definitely a no.
Thankfully, the 4WD didn’t drive off. T flagged it down, and a couple of minutes later, one of the biggest men I’d ever seen jumped out of the cab and made his way over with a towing cord. Our saviours were here: two true-blue Southlanders (or West Coasters, I suppose) and one of their sons, all clad in Swanndri and gumboots. They could have stepped straight off the pages of Footrot Flats.
I have never been so embarrassed – nor so pleased – to see human life. These upstanding gentlemen promptly took over the whole enterprise – the driving of the van, the pulling by the Hilux, the stamping down of loose sand. It took a handful of tries, amid the cold and the insistent ambient drizzle, but eventually they dragged our camper backwards all the way to the track, and back up the track itself to the road. F-ing stupid JAFAs, no doubt, is what our angel farmers were thinking.
“That’s the last time I listen to you!” I said to T, weak-kneed with relief and gratitude.
“Oh come now, don’t be rash,” smiled the smaller man, the driver of the Hilux. “The man’s always right, even when he’s wrong.”
They’d spotted us while coming across a bridge ahead, from which the whole of the riverbank was visible, and blessedly decided to see what was going on. He honestly hadn’t thought we would be able to get out, he said, and recounted both a previous instance where they’d towed out another campervan, and one where they’d tried and failed. It cost in the area of $3,000 to get a towie from Fox Glacier, apparently. After hearing that, the impossibility of thanking them sufficiently really made itself felt. I’m sceptical that our rental coverage would include towing us out of surprise sand, and I hadn’t checked our travel insurance clauses to see if they included towing.
“Ah, you’d do it for anyone else,” the large, gruff man said, clapping T into a crushing handshake. “I’ve got a fair idea what this means to you.”
“This man deserves a DB!” cried the other, brandishing his own beer, encased in a blue holder. Heh.
And with a few last words of wisdom (“Franz Josef glacier? It’s shit” / “Check your brakes, tyres, lights”) we were off, and so were they, presumably off to the pub to tell tales about the hapless northerners they’d just encountered.
Welcome to glacier country
By the time we chugged into Fox Glacier proper, it was truly miserable. The West Coast lived up to its reputation, slamming us with the only wet weather days we encountered along the whole way (I hate to think that we might literally have been flooded out within hours if we hadn’t made it out of that river beach, with all the waterways swelling and rising fast). To start off with, though, it wasn’t too terrible, and in fact, it kind of added to the atmosphere. Walking toward Fox Glacier in the cold and rain somehow seemed fitting.
It’s an easy enough walk, though conditions are highly changeable. We didn’t go all the way to the end; you’re only allowed up to 200m away from the glacier face for safety reasons, and we had a pretty good view from where we were and didn’t see much point in getting just a bit closer. There are tours that take you onto the ice, though – for a pretty penny. What seemed most incredible to me were the two signs along the road winding toward Fox Glacier, marking the points at which many years ago the glacier had extended to. Think of how much the ice has moved/melted since, and the rough rocks it’s carved its way through that now litter the gorge.
And thus ended our glacier encounter. I wanted to do the one-hour Lake Matheson walk (apparently the most photographed lake in New Zealand) but the weather was downright awful by then and it was getting toward dusk anyway. We headed up toward Franz Josef glacier and spent the night just out of town, getting an early start in more blustery conditions the next day and getting the heck out of town (I stopped by the St James church just off the highway before the village, as it’s meant to give good views of Franz Josef, but it wasn’t open at 8.50am).
Of blowholes and pancake rocks
The ‘pancake rocks’ at Punakaiki are one of our most famous natural landmarks, and for good reason. They really are mindblowing: scientists haven’t quite figured out why the rocks formed in such thin layers (giving them the pancake moniker, as they resemble stacks of breakfast noms, except in charcoal). Sometime in the future some of the rocks will disappear, reclaimed by the power of the ocean.
Check the tides and be sure to go at high tide to witness the blowhole effect. The waves swish through the channels as they come in, and whoosh up through the holes to form little geysers. It’s a well-marked area straight off the highway and a 20-minute walk around the trail.
Bonus: birds! I’m pretty sure these were weka. We fed this critter here (T christened him Simon) with some bread crumbs, but when I brought out some corn chips for us to snack on, the little chap eyed up the bag and T deduced what it really liked. Simon was so accustomed to people that he even came up and ate out of our hands. Coupled with the extra bread it hauled away into the bush, I think he was well set up for a few days.
On the Kaikoura waters
Kaikoura is all about the coast, and there’s a brisk trade done in whale and dolphin watching tours. Truth be told, though, if you were planning on doing a fishing charter, that is in fact probably your best shot at seeing wildlife – the sightseeing charters disturb the water more and actually can’t get as close as you might think anyway. We didn’t have the best luck on our road trip (in Milford we only saw some sleepy seals and caught a glimpse of a penguin diving under) and in Kaikoura we again saw seals sunning themselves, as well as some mean birds.
The morning of T’s birthday we hopped on the Fish Kaikoura boat, along with three young guys from Melbourne, and set out to catch some fish and draw up crayfish pots. The glassy water … the mountain rising seemingly out of the cloud as you speed away from shore … it’s so pure and so breathtaking.
As soon as we stopped (I want to say ‘parked up’ but that’s not the terminology, is it?) an albatross came swooping in, wings spread, gunning right for us. And before long, birdie was joined by a whole gang, floating casually around the boat, waiting for an in.
It was stupidly easy to get bites. We were fishing right on the edge of an underwater canyon, before the ledge drops off. As soon as you put your line down, you’d catch something, and begin the arduous process of reeling it in. Skipper Mark filleted each fish as we went, and tossed the remains out to the waiting albatross, who’d all scrap fiercely for the spoils. Watching an albatross take off with its lunch, wings flared and literally running on water as it scrambles away to take off, never got old. A massive wandering albatross made a cameo, too – so huge its wings fold into three parts – as did some little mirror-backed petrels.
Sadly, I got horrendously seasick after about 15 minutes of standing still (still being relative, of course, as even while anchored on the open sea there is plenty of rocking about. I’ve been on plenty of ferries and the like, and never had any trouble, at least while in constant motion). I had to retreat to a seat and do my very best not to upchuck while T manned both our rods and outdid the Aussies singlehandedly. I held on right throughout, all the way back to the crayfish pots, when we pulled them up to harvest our one cray each … until right at the very end, literally about five minutes before we finished up and headed back in. Kaikoura Bay, I am sincerely sorry for polluting you with my peanut buttery stomach contents. MPFGHHHH is all I have to say about that.
Nonetheless, our 2kg of fish fed us well, as did our two massive crays. As we didn’t have a particularly large pot, Mark offered us the option of taking two frozen, pre-cooked crays from the day before, which worked out nicely. SO. MUCH. FLESH.
Back to the Garden City
We finished where we started, back in Christchurch. The day we landed and picked up our camper was pretty low key. There was some driving around getting a feel for the place; a jaunt out to Sumner and some rubbernecking at the destruction out by the cliffs; and a wee incident at McDonald’s that ended with us deciding against going through the drive thru as we were borderline on the height restriction (you read that right, McDonald’s. Judge away. I actually have a secret penchant for Big Macs, and their lunch deals are good value and filling).
This time around, we parked up outside T’s friend’s house and based ourselves there from Friday night to Sunday morning, just relaxing. (Apparently we slept through a couple of minor quakes and didn’t feel them.) We cooked up the fish in beer batter, napped, watched movies, and used his shower, really only venturing out to Hagley Park for a wee stroll. IT IS HUGE. I have never seen such an enormous public park, especially not in the middle of a city. It has botanic gardens, sports fields, even a freaking golf course.
All around, Christchurch actually has a shit ton of parks and reserves. Pity about the drivers. I’m sorry, but there is no way around it. Aucklanders are dodgy, but Cantabrians are even worse. The absolute lack of right-turn arrows on traffic lights doesn’t help. Who thought it was a good idea to leave drivers to their own devices when looking to cross as many as three lane of oncoming traffic?
On the bright side, kudos Christchurch for having rubbish bins, recycling bins AND organic waste bins as well (let’s face it, composting all food scraps is a reach for most of us). And of course, it’s still a beautiful place, battered though it is. I’m deeply sad that I never saw it before the earthquakes. We saw so many gothic old facades crumbling and fenced off. In our brief spin around Hagley Park we saw a couple of public buildings that had been closed down since and not reopened. The devastated CBD is full of empty parking lots, springing up on empty sites.
As the genial man who drove us back to the airport to catch our flight home said, you can never get the full effect on TV.
“It’s good you came down and saw it for yourself,” he told us.
Whew! Anything else you’d like to know? I can’t imagine how labour-intensive full time travel blogging is; just putting these recaps together took hours, to say nothing of the bandwidth/storage you’d need for all your images.