Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sheepskins, Scones, and Seafood

Another day of lazing around Napier with Stefan and Harrison today. I started the morning by going through my suitcase, pulling out all the clothes I have actually worn, transferring them to my hiking backpack, and then putting everything I don't actually need (or haven't used) into the suitcase to store at Fay and Frank's while I am off WWOOFing. After the teasing and playful ribbing I received for having two bags whilst travelling on the Stray bus (mainly by travellers who had only packed for a month or so away from home!), and the hassle of moving two bags around, I've decided to lighten my load to just my backpack and hiking backpack. After all, I packed for all sorts of weather, and fortunately I have the option of leaving things at Fay and Frank's. Stefan has also kindly offered to take some things home back to Canada for me (a few souvenirs I have bought that I don't want to lug around).

I also took a wander around Napier this morning, checking out bookstores; since being in New Zealand I have had this inexplicable urge to reread The Lord of the Rings (I can't imagine where that's coming from!). I managed to pick up The Two Towers and The Return of the King from the library in Wanaka as discards ($2 each!), but in perusing four bookstores around Napier, only one had a copy, and it was $25 for the paperback version that would sell for about $10 in Canada! I knew books were expensive here; I just didn't realize they were *that* expensive. My Fellowship of the Ring craving will have to wait until I get to a library, a used bookstore, or home.

At 11:15am Stefan and Harrison met me here at the hostel, and then Harrison and I did some wandering around downtown Napier while Stefan visited an internet café (including a surprise phone call from my mom on my mobile while we were in a bookstore!). For lunch we bought meat pies from Jesters Jaffle Pies on Emerson Street; apparently, it is an art to eat a pie out of a bag and walk at the same time (Harrison failed… his pie's contents gushed out into the bottom of his bag when he took too big of a bite). We then drove up to the Bluff lookout over the Port of Napier, which was less than impressive due to the low cloud cloaking the coastline. However, as we headed past the old hospital and down the hill, the clouds began to lift, and within an hour it was a beautiful sunny day! Go figure.

We stopped at Classic Sheepskins to peruse their selection of slippers, mittens, and slippers, and Harrison could hardly keep himself from doing a bellyflop into the very soft and very inviting piles of sheepskins piled in bins and in the centre of the main showroom. They were indeed very soft and inviting; I would love to have a sheepskin blanket or throwpillow for reading or watching TV. Even though it is sunny and decidedly un-witnery here, my mind is still hardwired to think of December as being cold and snowy, and as such I found myself looking at the mittens, toques, and scarves.

After a quick stroll along the beach it was back to Fay and Frank's, where I spent the afternoon watching Fay teach Harrison how to make cheese scones from her own family recipe, and Frank putter around outside with the edgetrimmer. (Apparently yesterday Stefan kept sneaking outside and unplugging the extension cord while Frank was working, and it took four or five instances of the edgetrimmer mysteriously "dying" before Frank figured out what was going on. Stefan's so cheeky, I love it. :-P ). Harrison and I also pretended to kick around a giant round rock Stefan had brought home as a kid like a soccer ball, and then the three of us all lazed outside on the patio, reading, with Fay and Frank's adopted stray cat, Tiger, sprawled out on the stones in front of us. It was such a beautiful spring afternoon, I was quite content to spend it doing nothing but enjoying a good book.

Dinner was fish and chips (yum!) that Harrison and Frank went and picked up, and once again we all ate in the living room while watching the news. Peggy phoned to talk to Stefan, and I spoke to her as well; it was nice to hear another familiar voice from home. Around 7:30pm Stefan drove me back to the Hostel so he could borrow my wifi connection; apparently the internet café he was at this morning wouldn't let him download some spreadsheets he needed, so he and I sat here in the lounge of the hostel and tapped away at our respective keyboards.

At the end of the evening I gave Stefan my bag of things to take back to Canada for me, as well as my suitcase, which will be residing at Fay and Frank's for the next month or so. We hugged goodbye and I wished him and Harrison a safe journey tomorrow, when they fly out of Napier to Auckland and then Auckland back to rainy/snowy Vancouver. It's been so nice to spend time with the two of them these past two days; a family recharge of sorts. :-) He asked me what I am planning on doing tomorrow, and I mentioned I am thinking of going to the Napier museum, and, weather permitting, going for a stroll on the beach.

Incidentally, I'm sitting in the lounge right now, and I think I've figured out where some of the strangest noises I have ever heard in a dorm room at night were coming from(!): there is a German girl sitting across from me, and she and a friend are looking through a stack of developed photos and she is laughing so hard she is making a clucking/hissing noise (it's freaking annoying, actually). Last night I heard someone making a decidedly similar sound in their sleep…! Oh, the joys of the communal sleeping quarters. Night!


Monday, November 29, 2010

Exploring New Zealand's National Aquarium

Staying in a private room last night instead of a dorm room was glorious; it was the first time I have slept in a room by myself in over a month, and it was wonderful to not be awakened by snoring, talking, or drunken stumbling. Instead I was awoken to the crashings and bangings of the recycling truck outside the window noisily smashing glass bottles at 7am, but at least that isn't roommate-related. Tonight I am at the same hostel, but now booked into a female dorm room; so far it looks like me and a bunch of (six, to be exact) Germans, so we'll see how that works out.

Today was a very special day for me; I got to spend it with my uncle Stefan and cousin Harrison, down here in Napier visiting Fay and Frank (Stefan's parents). I met up with them at the National Aquarium at 9:30am; Harrison spotted me first, and then Stefan gave me a big hug; it was so nice to see a familiar face. We then spent the morning wandering around the aquarium; they have a main tank that is 24 metres long, 30 metres wide, 3 metres deep, and takes 1 500 067 litres of water to fill. The coolest part is being able to walk through and under the tank via a 50 metre-long tunnel, so the fish swim over and above your head as well as around you. The tank is partioned into several sections, including one with sharks and stingrays! It is surreal to see such huge fish swimming over one's head.

The neatest part of the main tank, however, was feeding time; we stood in front of the main glass window of the tank and watched as a scuba diver descended with a bucket and proceeded to break little chunks of fish up in his hands and release them into the water while the fish swarmed around him in a feeding frenzy. Also cool was watching him feed the crayfish: I now understand why New Zealand crayfish are so expensive to eat; they are huge! For some reason I was picturing the crayfish that live in my aunt and uncle's pond, and look like miniature lobsters. In Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, "crayfish" refers to a saltwater spiny lobster, and these things are not shrimps.

From the main tank we left to explore to rest of the museum, being rebels and starting at the end of the suggested tour and ending at the beginning (as Stefan said, "we are upside down down under!"). We saw everything from a giant squid (not as big as the one at Te Papa in Wellington, however!), to turtles, to geckos, to koi, to clownfish, to eels, to seahorses, to dinosaur fossils. My favourite exhibit, however, was the kiwi bird. Yes, I saw my first real live kiwi bird today! It was located in a dimmed room (Kiwis are nocturnal; I suspect they turn the lights on at night to trick the birds and keep them on a schedule opposite to actual daylight hours… the birds are on London time and don't know it!), and it was furiously digging for grubs with its long beak. Kiwis are one of the only birds with a keen sense of smell, and the only bird with nostrils at the end of their beak. Though slightly odd-looking, one can't help but  love this fluffy, flightless bird, and I can see why New Zealanders have chosen its name as their demonym.

After leaving the aquarium we wandered down Marine Parade to the fountain of Pania, a beautiful sea maiden who legend says married a Māori chief, Karitoki, but was eventually drawn back to her sea-people and left Karitoki heartbroken. The sea-people petrified her body into the reef just off Napier's breakwater, now known as Pania Reef. There is a bronze statue of Pania by the fountain that apparently was kidnapped and held for ransom a few years ago! Fortunately, the statue was returned, no worse for wear.

For lunch we went to an Irish Pub, and Harrison devoured an order of fish and chips; indeed, I would have to agree with Stefan that New Zealand does have some of the best fish and chips in the world. Then we walked over to my hostel here, where I picked up my dirty laundry, and then to the Countdown, where we bought fish and potatoes for tonight's dinner. By midafternoon we were walking down Nelson Crescent, heading for Fay and Frank's; while I am well-used to walking for long distances now, Harrison was tired, and flopped down on his bed on the floor the minute we walked in the door; the poor guy is still suffering jetlag from his flight. He perked up a little, though, when he and I were looking through a stamp collection album given to him by Fay (it belonged to a deceased neighbour); Harrison is going to take it home to Canada and see if he can find out what some of the stamps are worth.

Stefan's dinner was delicious, and the presentation amazing (and I don't just say that because I've been living off of rice and salads). We ate in the living room, as Fay and Frank's kitchen table would have been awfully cramped with the five of us trying to squeeze around it, and watched the news on TV, which is the first that I have done so since arriving here in New Zealand. I try to catch news by reading newspaper headlines when standing in supermarket lines, or going online to the CBC website, but I do admit I am not as up-to-date on the news as I should be or would like to be.

Stefan very graciously dropped me back here at the hostel (with my clean laundry, courtesy of Fay and Frank's washer) around 7:30pm, and late tomorrow morning we are going to go out to a sheepskin outlet, then perhaps to a golf course (Harrison is keen to play). It's so nice to be spending time with people I know from home!


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Walkin' on the Sun (in Napier)

Another early morning today, made even earlier by the roommate who stumbled in around 5am and somehow managed to ascend into a top bunk, even in a drunken stupor (but not before waking up everyone else in the room). My alarm went off at 6:30am, and by 7:30am I was out the door, across the street at the train station, and sitting on a Intercity coach at Platform 9 (no, not 9 3/4, although that would be amusing) that was heading for Napier.

The 5 1/2 hour ride to Napier was mostly uneventful; I had fun recognizing the sites and sounds from when I traversed through this countryside with Mainline Steam, such as the stunning Manawatu Gorge, and the fountain in the city square in Hastings of which the railway line passes right though the middle. I also had fun (and as I am about to type this I realize how nerdy it sounds) listening to songs I know very well on my iPod with my in-ear canalphones and seeing if I can pick up new nuances,  mistakes, or backing tracks I hadn't noticed before. For AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top" the lead vocals faintly come in a bar too early at the beginning, and Tori Amos' "Yes Anastasia" doesn't really end with the piano dying away; instead, the note fades somewhat, she lifts her foot off the sustain pedal, and breathes out. Laugh at me if you will, but it gave my ears something to do while my eyes were busy gazing at the New Zealand countryside.

I got into Napier around 1:15pm, and checked into Criterion Art Deco Backpackers, housed in (like so many backpacker hostels here in New Zealand) what used to be an old hotel (The Criterion Hotel) on the corner of Emerson and Hastings (for those who don't know Napier, it's essentially right downtown). I then did mundane but necessary travelling tasks, like washing out some socks, and reorganizing my bags to save them from another encroaching case of suitcase rot. Then it was off to the grocery store to find some dinner supplies, and as I walked I tried to block out the sounds of the open-air concert going on across Marine Parade (they weren't the most talented of musicians). There is something surreal about walking around on November 28th, in brilliant sunlight, wearing capris and a t-shirt.

I do miss the snow and the winter sun (no, really!); down here, the lack of ozone layer makes the sun extremely intense, which is deadly to someone like me with fair skin. I've tried applying sunscreen two or three times a day, but it doesn't seem to make any difference; my face still burns. I've bought another brand of sunscreen (it's criminal, how much they sell it for down here - my bottle cost $23 - but it's because it's always in high demand), so we'll see if that makes any difference. And of course I'm wearing sunglasses, a hat, and staying in the shade whenever I can.

Tomorrow I will be spending the day with my Stefan and cousin Harrison! They are down here in New Zealand for a week visiting Stefan's parents, Fay and Frank, and we are going to go to the aquarium tomorrow, then wander around town. I can't wait; it's going to be so nice to see some familiar faces.

Now it is 11:30pm and I am yawning like crazy… here's hoping for a good night's sleep tonight, and that I actually manage to sleep without waking until 8am. A full eight hours of sleep: it will be a miracle!


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Heading to the North Island

Last night's sleep proved somewhat evasive; while there were snoring roommates (of course), my solution for that is to put in my in-ear headphones and listen to a Frasier episode (it works pretty well, and yes, I know I am a nerd). What it didn't work so well for was the blaring music from across the street; Kaikoura's live music scene unfortunately seems to foster the careers of talentless cover bands that see nothing wrong with butchering "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" at 12:30am. Even tonight as I type my dorm room is situated right above the bar and bar patio of Downtown Backpackers, and I think headphones and another Frasier episode are going to be necessary to drown out the shouting, cat-calls, and general bawdy behaviour carrying on below.

This morning we were up and out the door at 8:30am, heading for Picton and the Bluebridge ferry crossing. For it being my last day on the Stray bus, I wasn't particularly sad; I guess that is because I haven't made good friends with any of the passengers remaining on the bus, so I wasn't upset to leave them behind. I will miss the driver, Tia, however; even though I can't condone her drinking or smoking or poor nutritional habits, I love her spirit and sense of humour.

On our way up the coast we stopped at a fur seal colony to take photographs; I leapt at the opportunity, as the last time I was in this region it was on the train, and seeing as we were running late that day we were unable to stop and take pictures of the seals. Now I have a dozen or so, and some video showing the creatures larking about, rolling into the ocean off the rocks, and duelling with one another. They're not exactly cute, but they are definitely entertaining to watch.

Our morning tea stop was in the tiny town of Ward, where we were instructed to try the meat pies if we hadn't yet had one in New Zealand (seeing as I ate them for the first few days of the Mainline Steam Tour, I opted for ice cream instead. I must stop eating ice cream for breakfast...). Here several of the girls stocked up for the ferry ride by buying gossip magazines, and spent the half hour break dissecting Prince William's fiancé, Kim Kardishan's apparent plastic surgery, and Jessica Simpson's latest relationship. I half-read a few articles over one girl's shoulder, then sat there, eating my ice cream, and wishing I had taken my book off the bus to read instead.

When we reached Picton and the ferry terminal we all bid a fond adieu to "Bex", our Stray bus; only Tia will see her again when she comes back to the South Island on Monday with a fresh crew of Stray travellers. However, I don't think Bex is too happy with us; yesterday when taking us through a narrow switch-back up to a viewpoint over Kaikoura, Tia accidentally tried to start up the hill in 4th (she thought she was in 2nd), and Bex made some awful high revving and grinding noises, and spewed forth a horrible burnt smell for the rest of the afternoon. Today she seemed okay for the most part, but still, burning smells emanating from an engine can't be good!

Fortunately we had beautiful weather for the ferry crossing, and I was able to get several pictures of the scenery on both the Picton and Wellington sides. In-between photo-taking sessions I sat in the rear lounge with the rest of my Stray mates and saw part of When in Rome, which I valiantly tried to ignore, and No Reservations, which I actually watched (for the most part) because I like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Abigail Breslin. Watching such movies only reminds me how much I prefer to read quality literature as a past-time; I hate having everything spelled out for me in predictable ways.

Since docking in Wellington I haven't done anything particularly exciting; I walked across the street, checked into Downtown Backpackers, scouted out where my bus is leaving from tomorrow morning so I know exactly where to go, made some dinner, and then sat in the dining room / lounge downstairs reading. It is a little strange to not be with people from the Stray bus, but also freeing to be making my own decisions on where to go next.
Off to bed for me now; it is past 11pm and I have to be up and out the door by 7:20am at the latest. Goodnight!


Thursday, November 25, 2010


This is my penultimate day travelling with Stray; tomorrow we will drive to Picton and then then catch the ferry over to Wellington, and I will catch a bus to Napier on Sunday. In some ways I will miss travelling on the bright orange bus, but I am also very much looking forward to not being herded around from city to city as I have been in the last five days or so.

This morning we left Christchurch and drove up to Cheviot, a small farming town of about 1 500 people in the North Canterbury district. Here we had our morning tea break (I had ice cream for breakfast. Oh that's right, I'm living on the edge), and Tia explained the ropes of the Stray bus to those who had just hopped on this morning and were starting their trip around New Zealand. It's funny to think that I'm a veteran of the Stray bus now; I know exactly what is in store for these fresh young travellers.

It's the fact that they have to have the sign, not just what the
sign says, that makes this so amusing (and disturbing).

Our destination for today is the lovely seaside town of Kaikoura; its name comes from the Māori word for seafood (kai, food, koura, crayfish), which makes perfect sense, as until the late 1980s when the tourism industry started to pick up, Kaikoura was known primarily as a fishing town. In Māori legend, the Kaikoura Peninsula (Taumanu o Te Waka a Maui) is where Maui placed his feet while he hauled up the fish of the North Island from his waka of the South Island.

The Stray Bus atop the Kaikoura Peninsula

Admiring the view

The township of Kaikoura as seen from the Peninsula

If only all water tanks were this amusing.

After my wonderful excursion to the bar last night for the goodbye party I didn't get a lot of sleep, so when Tia passed around the activity sheet for today (Dolphin and Whale Watching) I opted out; instead, I spent the afternoon wandering around trying to find the supermarket (success), and then took in some of the sights and sounds of Kaikoura, including the TranzCostal train from Picton to Christchurch coming through town over the bridge just past 3pm. I walked over to the railway station, and it was eerie to think that I was here just over a month ago in that very spot, stopped with Mainline Steam and Ab 663 to take on water.

The South Island Main North Line
 passing over State Highway 1

The TranzCostal, enroute from Picton to Christchurch

I felt sorry for this seagull. On the other hand (leg?) he
seemed to be doing just fine, despite having only one foot.

For dinner I went to Cooper's Catch, where I was treated to the best whitefish and chips I have ever had.

Best "fush and chups". Hands down.

It is right across the street from our accommodation, the Adelphi Lodge, a historic hotel from the 1920s that has even managed to survive a devastating flood in 1993 (apparently the floodwaters were six feet high on the ground level!). Upstairs, the hallway is shaped like a "U", and the rooms are arranged around it in a mystifying collection of showers, toilets, and apparently random placement of ensuites and linen cupboards. To get to the dorm room I am in one has to walk down a hallway, open a locked door, step into another small hallway, past a single shower, and then into the bedroom; the toilet is off the room as a quasi-ensuite in its own room, but the sink is in the main room! It's a little bewildering, but entertaining nevertheless.

The change in the carpet pattern on the landing marks
the high water level from the terrible flood.

Adelphi Lodge has a love of The Far Side.

One of the better signs encouraging responsible dish-washing

I went for a walk along the beach today, watching the locals fish, and enjoying the sound the waves make as they crash into the steep, pebbly shores; when the waves recede, they drag the large pebbles back with them, a sound that is loud yet oddly comforting; a sound of nature. It is nice to be in a smaller community one again... while the cities can be exciting, I am happiest surrounded by nature in the small towns and parks.

Kaikoura Beach

Back to Wellington and the North Island tomorrow… let us hope that the ferry crossing is calm!


Mt Cook to Christchurch (Sort of).

Alright, I am absolutely no condition to post right now, but I am doing so to reassure myself and others that I am not dead; I have indeed made it from Mt Cook to Christchurch. The problem? Today a lot of people were either leaving the bus (having completed their Stray pass), or hopping off the bus, so we had something of a goodbye party for everyone down in the bar tonight. My specific problem: I had six drinks (four rum & cokes, one gin & tonic, and one jaggerbomb), which is more than I have ever had in my life in one sitting, and I am extremely out of it right now... I think the best thing for me would be just to go to bed. (Damn drink deals; I went down with $20 in my pocket, and I still have $5 left...).

Thankfully, we didn't do anything terribly exciting today; just drove from Mt Cook to Christchurch. Nevertheless, I will try to post the details tomorrow when hopefully I don't feel nearly as nauseated and like passing out on the floor.

The best thing for me to do right now would be sleep (I have to be on the bus at 7:45am tomorrow, ugh!) so I am off to bed. Night!



Okay. It is now 7:35am Friday morning, and while I am still not in the best of shape (sleep deprivation, what else is new) I can chronicle yesterday's events a bit more fully.

Yesterday morning I woke up at 7am (sigh, so much for sleeping in) and I went to watch the 3D Movie that was part of my Mt Cook Lodge package; it was called "Mt Cook Magic" and screens specially at the Sir Edmund Hilary Alpine Centre in the Hermitage. While it wasn't really my style (I thought it was going to be some sort of documentary, how silly of me), with minimal talking because it is trying to appeal to international audiences, the film had a superb animation of the Maori legend of how Mt Cook came to be, and then featured many shots of flying over and around the Southern Alps, and examples of the various activities done on the mountain (mountaineering, ice climbing, hellisking).

Hermitage Valley in the early morning

Sir Edmund Hilary gazes at Mt Cook, where
he practised for his ascent of Mt. Everest

The film over, I took a brief look around the museum portion of the Alpine Centre, then made my way back to the hostel to load my bags onto the bus. And then at 10:00 we were off!

Say hello to Aoraki/Mt Cook (centre)!

The beautiful Hermitage Valley

A vintage ad for the Hermitage

We stopped at Lake Pukaki again for a photo opportunity, which wasn't nearly as nice due to the cloudy skies interfering with the stunning blueness of the lake we were lucky enough to photograph yesterday; in fact, we were extremely lucky for the weather we managed to have while at Mt Cook National Park, as it was sunny and bright, with not a cloud in the sky (Mt Cook, normally shrouded in cloud, was fully visible).

Lake Pukaki

Sometimes, inexplicably, the best photos are taken
from inside a moving bus through the glass.

Our next stop was in Tekapo, where we photographed The Church of the Good Shepherd, a stone church built in 1935 on the shores of Lake Tekapo; it's said to be one of the most photographed buildings in New Zealand, and I can see why... its quaint architecture, beautiful pews and altar, and absolutely stunning views of the lake out its windows.

The Church of the Good Shepherd

Beauty of faith, or faith and beauty?

The back of the church

The church's waterfront view of Lake Tekapo

When we arrived a wedding had just taken place; there were rose petals strewn on the ground to the right of the church, and the bride and groom were down amongst the purple and pink lupen by the lakeshore, having their photographs taken.

Apparently this is a hugely popular location
for Asian weddings

Grenadine was our lunch stop, where I had my first sushi in two months (it wasn't really that good, sigh), and then later on we had a fuel stop in Rakia, and the public toilets were located in a playground, so of course I couldn't resist swinging around and hanging upside down on the monkey bars like I was twelve years old.


An interesting variation on the ubiquitous sheep transporter
trucks that can be found on roads all over this country

Then it was on to Christchurch! Seeing as I have been here before I wasn't terribly excited, but I was a little apprehensive to be staying at Base (thankfully, it wasn't as bad as the ones in Auckland or Wellington), and a little sad, because a lot of people from the bus are leaving us, either finishing their trip in Christchurch, or hopping off here for a few days. As such, we went out last night to celebrate and say goodbye, and you all know what happened after that...! Suffice it to say I will be taking it easy today, simply relaxing on the beach at Kaikoura rather than risking getting seasick whalewatching or something (come to think of it, I can whale-watch in Victoria! Why does one never play tourist in one's own neighbourhood?).

Base Christchurch

The lift in Base Christchurch. If you don't
close the wire cage mesh upon exiting, it
beeps angrily (and annoyingly) until
someone runs over and shuts it properly.

Christchurch undergoing repairs from
the September earthquake

The bus is leaving soon, so I will post this before my wifi internet connection dissapears as we drive out of range! Bye!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Heave Away, Haul Away, We're Bound for Mt Cook!

I am definitely looking forward to tomorrow morning: in comparison to today's 7:30am departure from Dunedin, leaving at 10:00am is going to look like positive luxury. I asked at the front desk as I checked out how old the Leviathan Hotel building was; the clerk told me it was built in 1884, and has operated as a hotel ever since, making it a very stately 126 years old.

The Levithan Hotel's dining room. I played the grand piano
in the left-hand corner (after getting permission, of course).

Our dorm room (with a sleepy Bart in the top
left bunk). We were right beside High Street,
so we listened to the traffic all night.

We headed north on State Highway 1 to the Moeraki Boulders (Māori Te Kaihinaki, "food baskets"), large round rocks lying on the beach like leftovers from a giant game of marbles. The café and gift shop on top of the bank has built a walkway down to the beach, but charges $2 to use it unless also dining at the restaurant; they have a $6 Stray backpacker breakfast special, so I had fried eggs on toast and then went down to the beach to have a look at these rather unusual rocks.

Moeraki Boulders

The cracking kind of makes them look
like giant dinosaur eggs.

A brief stop in Oamaru to drop off two passengers found me marvelling at all the old buildings from the 19th century still standing in the township; indeed, in Bluff, Invercargill, Dunedin, and now Oamaru I have been impressed with the age and number of these still-standing pieces of history. New Zealand is a young country in terms of European occupation, of course, and what I consider old is not what any of the Europeans on the bus would consider old, but coming from BC, where a building from the turn of the last century is decidedly ancient, seeing buildings from the 1860s or even earlier is a real treat for me.

We stopped for lunch in Omarama, home to a giant sheep statue of a merino sheep, often said to be Shrek, a marino ram who managed to avoid being shorn for six years by hiding in caves, and when finally caught and shorn in April 2004 his fleece weighed 27 kg! (Shrek himself, now New Zealand's most famous sheep, lives in the town of Tarras.)

Only in NZ will you find statues of sheep.

As far as I could tell, this was the one selling feature of Omarama, whose economy must be otherwise buoyed by its convenient location on the highway between Dunedin, Christchurch, and near the turnoff to Mt. Cook. Mt. Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand at 3 754 m tall (12, 316 feet); its Māori name, Aoraki, was traditionally translated to mean "Cloud Piercer", due to the mountain's impressive height.

The dry, arid plains found on the east coast of the
South Island (thank you, Southern Alps).

Beside the highway on the way into Mt Cook National Park we saw Lake Pukaki, which is an incredibly blue glacial-fed lake. As it was explained to me, the glacier churns up rock as it grinds its way though a valley (being essentially a river of ice). This churned up rock, called "rock flour", is carried out of the glacier in streams and rivers as it melts, turning them a milky greyish colour. When the water reaches the lake, however, the heavier silt settles to the bottom, and only the lightest particles of rock flour remain suspended in the water, which then absorbs all wavelengths of visible light except blue, which has the shortest wavelength, causing the glacial lake to appear unbelievablely blue in colour. We stopped for a photo at Peter's Lookout, and I jumped for joy at the beauty of the surroundings, which Jen caught on camera for me. :-)

I started having visions of Banff and Lake Louise
whilst lining up this shot.

Jumping for joy at Lake Pukaki

Enjoying the beauty of Lake Pukaki
and the Southern Alps

I wasn't jumping for joy when we got into Mt. Cook Backpacker Lodge, however; due to a mix-up between the lodge, the adventure tour company, and two Stray bus drivers (Tia and Natalie), there were twelve of us who thought we were doing the glacier explorers tour (one of three places in the world where one can go out on a boat on a glacial lake and wander inamongst the icebergs breaking off the terminal end of the glacier), but only nine spots were available. Owing to my nature, I made the least fuss, and shunted myself to the side as some of the other passengers tore a strip off the clerk at the backpackers office (who was just the poor middleman taking all the heat for something out of his control). The clerk (his name was Jock) turned to me and asked if I would mind doing a 4x4 trip up the side of the mountain and viewing the lake and glacier from there instead. I agreed, as all I really wanted to do was get out and see the glacier. In the end, he thanked me profusely for being so polite and easy about the situation, and gave me a $10 discount as well as a voucher for a free drink at the bar on top of the regular package I was getting (including the adventure, meal and drink, 3-D movie pass, and a hour of free internet).

Mt Cook Backpacker Lodge and its stunning location

The statue of Sir Edmund Hilary

The Southern Alps as seen from the Hermitage

When I got up to the Hotel in the Hermitage (Mt Cook village's nickname), it turned out I was the only one booked onto the 4x4 tour, and as such I had a private tour with a great guide named Willy. I had paid for a 1.5 hour tour, but because we were ferrying up the extra passengers for the glacier boat experience, I ended up getting a three-hour tour, as we had to wait to bring them back to the village as well.

Willy and I, adventurers and duet partners!

Believe it or not, this photo was taken standing
on what used to be an access road to a ski field.

After all the bickering and ill feelings of the early afternoon, my three hours 4x4ing and walking around the Tasman Valley were glorious. Willy and I got along well: he took me hiking up to a waterfall so we could refill our waterbottles with sparkling glacier water;

Do you see our 4x4 way down in the valley?

Ranunculus lyallii, or the Mt Cook Buttercup

Posing with the mountain buttercups

and up a short hike to the top of a rocky bluff so we could see the glacier lake with its resplendent ice bergs, where I saw the little boats whizzing around inbetween them (I was having such a good time I didn't envy them at all).

Lake Tasman. If you zoom in, you can see some tiny
little specks on the lake; those are the tour boats!

Sitting pretty high above Lake Tasman

The road we drove up was constructed in the 1920s and 30s as a Depression Relief project to reach the ski fields on the side of the glacier, but is no longer maintained and is now only suitable for 4x4ing (and even then, just barely; it is impassable after about 5km due to massive slips and erosion).

Old metal bracing for the road

A rock wall constructed to shore up the road

This is the modern way of delivering building
 materials to more remote areas of the park!

I saw this sign after we had returned from the 4x4 trip.
Everything it says is true...

I backed into this plant by mistake. Ouch!

Nevertheless, it provided stunning views of the glacial Tasman Lake and the terminal end of the Tasman glacier, where the silt-covered ice breaks off in chunks and falls into the water. I even heard an avalanche up on the slopes; it was sobering to think of how many people have died in this area, due to accidents, slips, and floods.

The terminal slump of the Tasman Glacier; this is ice and
water covered by gravel. Every now and then some foolish
individual tries to walk across this, falls into a crevasse, dies,
and then it is up to the mercy of mother nature and the
glacier as to when the body is released, if at all.

Tasman Lake

This rocky outcropping is called "The Throne".
As such, I affected a royal wave. 

On a lighter note, Willy quickly found out my musical training, and shared with me an Australian sea shanty he has adopted for the Tasman Glacier experience; he has written the words himself, and is writing new verses all the time. He taught it to me, and within five minutes I had figured out a harmony part, and we took great delight in singing it at the top of our lungs as we lurched and jolted over the rocky road. Indeed, when we picked up the other passengers to take them back to the Hermitage, we taught it to them and insisted they sing along on the chorus (which they did, the good sports). I recorded us singing it on my camera so I can transcribe the tune, words, and my harmony part a later date. The first verse and the chorus go like this (right-click to download the the file of me singing it, but be kind, as I'm singing into my MacBook!):

To Tasman Valley we are bound
Heave away, haul away
Lots of icebergs all around
We're bound for Tasman Valley

Heave away, you rolling berg!
Heave away, haul away!
Haul away you'll hear us sing
We're bound for Tasman Valley.

The Tasman River, its characteristic grey-blue colour due
to its carrying high concentrations of rock flour

Let the jokes begin!

At the end of the trip, Willy presented me with a polished and painted rock he made (one of his other jobs in the village is sculpting and carving); I thanked him profusely for the gift and for such a wonderful afternoon out in the Tasman Valley. I also made a point of seeking out Jock and telling him everything had worked out for me that afternoon, and that I had had a wonderful time, thanking him for all his efforts. If I believed in karma, this would be a definite example. :-)

Willy's glorious 4x4 rig

Now I am exhausted, and it is dinnertime; time to go cash in that dinner and drink voucher, then have a shower, and head off for bed… how I am looking forward to having an early night and late morning!