New Zealand – Wellington to Franz Josef

I was booked into a private room in Wellington - partly to recover from my previous stormy night, and partly to escape the traumas of yet another hostel dorm. In this case, it was a good move - each night I could hear the herds on the floor above as they rampaged back and forth. Nevertheless, the hostel was very well placed in the centre of the city, so I didn't need to use the car for my entire stay. Wellington is a nice place, with a scenic bay, a circle of hills, and a pleasingly curved layout to the city. Unfortunately, after spending a while out in the middle of nowhere, I felt a little shellshocked by the sudden mass of people, and spent most of my time trying to avoid crowds. The Te Papa museum was a good half-day outing, with well laid out exhibitions on New Zealand's history, both Maori and colonial, wildlife, and geology. It still seems odd that the western-style history begins so late, it must be a side-effect of living in somewhere like England, and you almost expect mediæval ruins round every corner. Ultimately, I was itching to get off to the South Island, and drove onto the ferry (the first time I've every done that - surprisingly exciting) with a sense of anticipation.
The Wellington to Piction ferry was described in the blurb as one of the most scenic in the world, and I'd be hard pressed to disagree. From the departure views of Wellington across the bay, out into the Cook Straits, and then the approach to the South Island via the Queen Charlotte Sound, the views were stunning. The only possible drawback was the almost constant strong wind - I spent most of my time on the open-air top deck taking photos, and frequently had to withdraw downwind to avoid being blown over. In the end, the journey almost seemed to short as the boat arrived in Picton - which is a tiny town of only about 4000, a far cry from the metropolitan bustle of Wellington. I decided not to hang around and headed westwards - unsurprisingly, perhaps, along the windiest route that I could find! I arrived in Nelson in the late afternoon to find it a pretty dead town, ironic perhaps on Halloween. A curious incident in the nighttime - someone climbed onto the roof of the hostel, broke in through a window, and stole a bag full of activity leaflets (all recorded on the hostel security cameras). Kiwi thieves are a strange bunch... Looking at things to do the following day, I realized that I was missing some vital equipment required to enjoy New Zealand to its fullest - a good pair of (broken-in) walking boots. Almost all of the area around here would be best enjoyed on foot (particularly the neighbouring Abel Tasman National Park) and neither my Sketchers nor sandals would be even vaguely up to the job. If I'm perfectly honest, my fitness levels wouldn't have been up to the job either, but that wasn't something I was going to confess to myself at the time. I headed on westwards at a slower pace, so that I could enjoy the scenery better, and headed towards Westport. This town was, like Nelson, a little dead - a formerly busy mining town, recent times seem to have drained the soul out of it a little. There was, however, a seal colony nearby which definitely perked things up a bit, particularly spending about half and hour watching some seal pups fall about on the rocks.
Driving southwards towards Greymouth (note that it's pronounced Grey Mouth, not Greymuth - I received several puzzled looks on that one), I passed a sign offering cave rafting. Having done no actual organized activities thus far, and my spirits being a bit low after the uninspiring previous couple of days, I turned around and booked myself in. Good choice. The trip involved a miniature train ride, a 20 minute yomp through the bush in a wetsuit carrying an inner tune, an hours tour through a really good cave system, floating down an underground river in the dark watching glowworms, and finally a rapids ride down the river outside. The glowworms were stunning, looking like a galaxy of stars spread across the sky, and floating beneath them in silence (no-one suggested it, we just all went utterly quiet for the 5-10 minute float) was a real experience.
In better spirits, I turned inland at Greymouth and headed up to Arthur's Pass - one of the few passes through the Southern Alps. This was a drive of excellent valley and mountain views, and was also the first time that I got to meet the world's only alpine parrot, the Kea. These guys are seriously cheeky, fearless, and willing to eat anything - including car aerials. A story I heard later was that they are known to chew off the rubber seals around windscreens, causing them to fall in so that they can then eat anything inside a car. Arthur's Pass itself has a permanent population of about 4, and is a jumping off point for walkers (or trampers as they're known in NZ). Naturally I left the next day, heading for the town of Franz Josef - the scenery was about to get even better...
Links: Cave rafting - Underworld Adventures Cave Rafting PS. If you have a look on their site, the photo gallery has my pics on the morning trip of October 29th 🙂
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3 Responses to New Zealand – Wellington to Franz Josef

  1. Pamela Oldfield says:

    Love your commentary, it puts me in mind of Bill Bryson. You should read his book on Australia.

  2. Kirsty Dermody says:

    Richard, you are having a great time by the looks of things, keep up with the blog and the photos are fab. Very jealous xxxxkirsty and fam

  3. Suzy says:

    Richard, I am really enjoying the amazing descriptions of your travels. I can’t believe that there is such a thing as undergroung cave rafting and you did it! Tick in the box. I’ll check back for your next adventure. Suzy

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