Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Day 256 - 258: Wanaka and the Fox Glacier

Wanaka is a small town which is home to two essential stops - Puzzling World and the Aspiring Campervan Site.

Being fans of optical illusions, holograms, mazes and...erm, puzzles, we were keen to visit Puzzling World. On arrival, you'll see something that puts the Leaning Tower of Pisa to shame:

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Indoors, you'll find everything mentioned above, plus a number of crazy rooms which will have you questioning your balance and sense of gravity.

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The Ames Room warrants particular mention, since the technology used to design it was incorporated into the Lord of the Rings trilogy to make the hobbits look smaller than the other actors.

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Video may give you a better appreciation of how it works - no camera tricks, this is all about the clever design of the room.



Outside is a large maze which has four corners you need to reach in order to "complete" it, all with different coloured towers.

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Gilly and I set off at the same time and I managed to get to all four towers before her. Unfortunately, to actually finish you then have to leave the maze. This is where I got into trouble. I wandered around getting more and more confused, and despite a rainstorm that had decided to kick in not long after we started, and despite temptation from a number of emergency exits - only to be used by the weak, frail, and those in desperate need of the toilet - I finally left the place to find that Gilly had beaten me to it. By about ten minutes. This perfectly highlights why I cannot function in a car without a sat-nav.

Puzzling World is a great diversion for half a day, and if you fancy yourself as a psychic then you have the chance to win $100,000 by locating a piece of paper hidden within 100 metres of a poster in the main lobby. You can use any psychic powers you have to find the paper but there's a catch: you have to pay $1,000 to attempt it. If you find it, the money is yours. If you are defeated, your fee gets donated to charity. Five self-proclaimed psychics have tried, and unsurprisingly none of them have managed to succeed. It's almost as if their psychic powers are a complete sham. One entrant was completely baffled by his failure, which suggests a staggering amount of self-delusion in the psychic world. Why didn't Mystic Meg ever win the lottery, anyway?

The second reason to stay in Wanaka, especially for folks travelling in campervans, is the incomparable Aspiring Campsite. For $34 a night, you get a fully-equipped kitchen, lounge with huge TV and log fire, and free wi-fi (which is something approaching unicorn status in NZ). If that isn't enough, they throw in a free sauna and spa. We were recommended it by some people we met along the way, and we in turn recommended it to Paul and Fi who liked the place so much they spent several days here.

As much as we'd have loved to stay for more than one night, there isn't that much else to do in Wanaka. We visited an art gallery in the morning, and took a stroll by the waterfront before setting off.

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Our goal was the Fox township, home to the Fox Glacier. Before that though, there were stops a-plenty to make.

The Blue Pools was one such stop. Supposedly filled with crystal clear water and hundreds of trout, we crossed bridges and hiked hills to ultimately find a fairly murky (yet blue) body of water, and not a trout in sight.

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Next up: Fantail Falls and Thunder Creek Falls, separated by the brilliantly named Gates of Haast which is actually just a bridge. Someone in town planning must have got a bit carried away with a Dungeons and Dragons name generator.

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After leaving Thunder Creek Falls we came across a hitchhiker on the side of the road (the usual place to find them) and after seeing that he didn't look like Rutger Hauer, decided to take a punt and gave him a lift. It was lucky for him we did. His name was Alex, and earlier that morning he'd been involved in an accident whilst trapping possums in the hills. Whilst driving his brother's off-roader, he'd been pelting along at a speed probably best left to the F1 tracks, and a sheep decided to commit suicide through his windscreen. Alex was cut up from the glass but otherwise OK; he'd picked up the possums he'd caught, packed a spare change of clothes, and then left the vehicle where it had hit the sheep. The trek to the nearest road would have taken him over 5 hours if he hadn't chanced his arm and crossed a dangerously fast-moving river - on two occasions he had almost been swept away. After getting across, he changed into dry clothes and just collapsed into sleep for a couple of hours before he came across us. We were more than happy to give him a lift to Haast; he said he could sell the possums to a local shop and then use the money to get back home before explaining to his brother what happened to the car...

With so much drama, we were ready for an early night and pulled into a Fox campsite that evening.

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The Fox Glacier is one of two glaciers in the area that are hikeable. The other is the Franz Josef Glacier, which was previously the most popular of the two. Due to the glacier's retreat though, Franz Josef is now only accessible by helicopter, hence our visit to Fox.

The glacier is named after William Fox, a previous NZ premier and the first tourist to visit it. After buying tickets that morning, we got given fleeces, gloves, overcoats, shoes and snow spikes and set off on the hike.

The walk to the glacier itself takes about 30 minutes from the car park, over rocky ground.

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As we approached the ice, we slapped on the snow spikes and hiked on to the glacier itself. The first thing we got to was an ice "cave" caused by the flow of the ice being pushed over itself as the glacier moved.

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You might not think a glacier needs maintenance, but you'd be wrong. Every day at a ridiculous hour of the morning, a group of workers go out onto the ice and carve steps in preparation for the hikes.

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It's such a strenuous job that each worker is only allowed to do it once a week, as it can severely impact the tendons in the wrist. We had a go at it, but weren't very good.

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There are also ice shelves which you can sit under. The shelves blend in so well with the surroundings that unless you are looking at them from the right angle, they look almost invisible.

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I wasn't expecting the glacier to be as beautiful as it was, and with just a small hiking group the experience was great.

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We had to make progress up the west coast, so travelled as far as we could before stopping in Greymouth for the evening. Tip:- don't stay in Greymouth. There is nothing of interest there (even Kiwis have nothing good to say about the place), and the facilities at the campsite we picked - from the very limited choice available - were abysmal. You may have heard that the majority of homes in New Zealand don't have central heating. This is true, but they generally have other means of heating rooms. Campsites, on the other hand, will usually let you freeze in the kitchen unless you ask for some form of fan heater. We normally ended up bringing the heater from our van and plugging it in somewhere just so we could get enough blood moving around our fingers to cook. Sites like Aspiring are few and far between, and coming to a place like Greymouth with a quality park like that still fresh in our minds only serves to highlight the more woeful sites. Still, it was only one night and we sucked it up, although the weather was getting noticeable chillier as New Zealand's winter started to exert its grip.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Day 252 - 255: Queenstown, New Zealand's Playground

We left for Queenstown in the morning, but not before stopping at the Te Anau Wildlife Centre. This is a free attraction (donations appreciated) which houses some of NZ's rarer birds including the flightless takahe, kereru, tui, kakariki, kaka, weka and yes, more keas:

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Queenstown is the hub of the South Island's activities. Anything even vaguely adrenaline-filled can be found here: bungee-jumping, skydiving, skiing, snowboarding, off-roading, whitewater rafting, jetboating, and so on. "Normal" activities such as golf, horse-riding and mountain biking are also here. You could easily spend weeks or even months in the town before getting through all it has to offer, but you'd need a hefty budget or - ideally - to be working here. There are very few Kiwis manning the shops, tour offices and bars in Queenstown; the majority of staff are made up of Europeans, Americans and Australians.

There are plenty of bars and restaurants in town, and after dropping the van off at the holiday park (Top 10, sadly - it was the only one in walking distance to the centre), we took a stroll around and were enticed in by a great fire at the Ballarat Trading Company. The cider and mulled wine were also spot on. We'd been told on our travels by people who had been to NZ that one of the world's best burger joints was in Queenstown, and its name was Fergburger. Whilst not on a par with my all-time favourite place to eat minced cow in bread (Kangaroo Cafe in Hanoi), it was a decent meal and the double cheeseburger is huge.

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After stuffing our faces, we went a bit English and set off to Dux De Lux which we'd spotted earlier and saw was having a quiz night. We got there right at the start of the quiz (unlike the UK it seems the Kiwis like to be punctual) and rather than try and catch up on our own, decided to join Mike and Catherine - a Kiwi couple from Auckland. They had never come to Queenstown before and were doing the tourist thing in their own country; they'd named their team after a friend of theirs as they were expecting to come bottom and could then take a photo of the scoreboard to show him how badly he'd done. We inadvertently scuppered that plan by being awesome at the quiz. Whilst we didn't take the top spot, we did come third which meant we won a respectable $40 tab at the pub. Mike and Catherine weren't sure that they'd be returning, so kindly told us to keep it. As you can tell, we were quite excited.

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Since we were in another ski-happy town, it seemed rude not to take advantage of the cheap ski rental offers that all of the shops were touting. So the next day we got kitted up with full ski gear and took a trip up to The Remarkables, which is a splendid name for...well, anything, but especially some mountains. The road there wasn't snowed in or even icy, so we were able to drive the campervan to the top without the need for snow chains. A few weeks later and it may have been a different story.

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We'd been told that there was a week-long pass that let you pay just once for the ski-lifts and you could then return any weekday and not pay anything further. On getting to the top though, we learned that this offer was only open to residents of NZ who had proof of address (so affecting a Kiwi accent wasn't going to cut it), so we had to fork over the cash for multiple days.

As we had been given lessons in Mount Hutt, we jumped straight onto the green slopes. These seemed a lot longer and a bit more windy than those on the previous mountain, and it took me a few goes to feel confident on them. I still wasn't particularly good at stopping, especially on one curve which let you pelt down at an insane speed, straight towards a cliff face where the only barrier was a bit of plastic ribbon. I suffered many a fall there, deciding that between almost certain death and a wet arse, the latter was preferable. It was a good day's skiing overall, although the snow in Mount Hutt had been softer and less icy.

At some point on the trip, the beanie I'd bought in Australia had disappeared. I wasn't too upset, as I found a thicker one in a shop in the town that evening which would keep my ears warm for our second day of skiing.

We ate at Winnies, an inexplicably popular pizza joint which - whilst having good alternatives to the traditional favourites (the Thai curry pizza was very nice), also had a load of misleading drinks offers clearly designed to draw in the punters but which started and ended at arbitrary times, and a lousy manager whose customer service was the worst I've ever received in a restaurant, and that includes the month I spent in Vietnam...

We hit the slopes for our second day of skiing early on, and Gilly managed to make it down a blue run three times without falling over but got a bit complacent on her fourth, and promptly face-planted. I wasn't brave enough for that, so I stuck to the simple stuff...and still fell over.

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For our apr├ęs-ski, we went back to Dux De Lux to use our winnings and bought a few plates of bar food which ranged from good to mediocre. Perhaps we should have blown it all on booze instead. The pub is home to a very lazy dog who wanders around as he pleases and snorts in his sleep.

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For our final full day, I decided to do a bungee (or bungy, depending on your preference) jump. This had been on the agenda since the start of the trip, but actually committing to book one a couple of days earlier in had been a little scarier than I'd imagined. The Nevis Bungy, at 134 metres high, is one of the highest bungee jumps in the world, and the highest in the southern hemisphere. Some debate has arisen around what constitutes a "big" bungee jump. The AJ Hackett staff told us that the Nevis is actually the second "longest" jump, in terms of the length of the bungee cord used. Other jumps may take place from a greater height, but the amount of freefall time you have is shorter. Only the Macau bungy jump, with a cable 3 times the length, beats it. Some people may think that chucking yourself off a great height attached to a glorified elastic band may be crazy. I was consoled by the 100% non-fatality record of the jump site, but when you see what the bungee cord is made from, you'd be forgiven for any apprehension.

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At £130, it isn't cheapest activity in the town, and if you're taking someone along to film the jump for you they will have to pay £25 as the site isn't accessible via public road. After a 45 minute drive to the site, I signed my life away and got stuffed into a harness before another, steeper ride up to a platform. The jump site itself is a hanging box reachable only by gondola, and we got to see a group take the trip ahead of us before it was time for our ride. That small white thing in the considerable distance is where we were headed.

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Once we arrived in the box, I was given two leg braces which seemed to be fastened by little more than velcro. These and the harness are what the bungee cord would primarily be attached to.

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Once that was done, I was whisked to the back room where I was sat in a dentist's chair and the cords attached.

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The oddest thing about the whole experience isn't that you're scared per se. It's that you simply don't have that much time to be scared. From the moment you're taken to the chair, strapped in and told what will happen, it's less than four minutes before you're actually hurling off the platform. With high-octane beats pumping out of the sound system to keep the adrenaline up, and the crazed, dazed faces of previous jumpers fresh in your mind as they squeeze past you, the entire jump seems to proceed at light speed so that when you're faced with jumping to potential doom, you don't really think about it that much and just end up going with it.

So, here's what happened:



I decided to make a decent jump of it so that if the thing snapped on the first bounce, at least my epitaph would read that I was committed. As to how it felt...well, it felt like I was falling head-first into a canyon. I'm not sure how I expected that to feel, but rather than my life flashing before my eyes it was more like "ARRRRRGHohshitherecomesthefloorohthankgodI'mnotgoingtodieafterall". It really is that quick. You bounce up, and you get another rush as you plummet back down again. There's a red cable attached to the harness that you have to pull on your second bounce to drop you into a seated position. It is highly recommended to do this, as if you don't, you will be pulled back up to the platform feet first. We saw this happen to one girl, it didn't look much fun. Somehow, even with my body buzzing on adrenaline I remembered to do it. The feeling once you're pulled back up is a mixture of euphoria from the jump, gratitude that you didn't die, and a bizarre urge to consider doing it again.

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I opted against another go, even though your second jump is much cheaper (£40), as I didn't want to dilute the experience. Gilly had obviously witnessed (and filmed) the whole thing, and was deciding whether to do it herself. After consideration she decided that she would regret it if she left without jumping, but it didn't make the contract-signing any easier!

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Five minutes later, and she too was plummeting to the ground:



She fully enjoyed the jump as well, and after picking up our souvenir t-shirts the ride back to town was something of a blur.

The day was far from over. Queenstown's Winter Festival was kicking off in the afternoon, so we walked down to the waterfront where dozens of food stalls had set up, as well as a big arena which was hosting a variety of music. There was also a decent fireworks show.

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After watching a recent episode of House, I realised that I'd never eaten noodles out of a carton. This was an experience that needed to happen, and Queenstown delivered in the form of Noodle Canteen. Two huge cartons later, and we realised that one portion probably would have sufficed. We managed to eat about half a carton each which both sated our appetites and also provided dinner for the following evening.

For our final activity of the day, we went on a Queenstown pub crawl. There are plenty of options to choose from in the town, but we went for the Kiwi Crawl which takes you into one of the ice bars for free (entry to which normally costs almost as much on its own as the entire crawl). It was a typical boozefest attended mostly by out-of-towners, and we hit five different places (playing a varying quality of music) before the night was over. Each place gives you a free shot which seemed to be some sort of Baileys variant, and whilst the majority of bars were nothing special, the ice bar (Minus 5) was the highlight, with the entire bar - including sculptures and your drinking glasses - made from ice. You're given a coat and gloves before entering, which are most definitely required.

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I could easily have spent another week or so in Queenstown exploring all of the activities on offer, but a lot of them would be more enjoyable in summer months - Shotover Jet, whitewater rafting, and so on. We collapsed back into the van at about 1am, with Wanaka the next day's destination.