Before I even get into talking about my travels or all the wonderful things I’ve seen and done I want to discuss one very important thing first: sausages. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve just completed the first leg of my trip and have spent three weeks travelling around New Zealand. Now, it’s a well known fact that Kiwi’s love their meat, and there’s no meat they love more than beef. Turns out that the standard sausage in New Zealand is beef, not pork, which continues to blow my mind. They also do beef scotch eggs which just seems wrong somehow. A snag is also a kind of sausage served in a piece of bread, cooked on a bbq, generally outside ‘Bunnings’ (a homeware store that’s the Kiwi equivalent of B&Q) and sold for charity. I wanted to eat a snag but sadly did not, which might end up being one of the greatest regrets of my trip. Also, mince on toast seems to be a legitimate breakfast option sold in cafes and restaurants which is maybe (if this is even possible) weirder than beef sausages and scotch eggs. The other side of the world really is a crazy place.
Anyway, minor food based digression aside, I’ve just spent three weeks road tripping around New Zealand, also now known as my new favourite country and have done pretty much everything from cruising Milford Sound to getting attacked by a bumble bee in my armpit and accidentally dropping my t-shirt down the toilet. It’s been a crazy ride. I very nearly didn’t get into New Zealand in the first place. Thanks to my fat thumbs and a slow self-service immigration machine I accidentally answered yes to ‘do you have any previous criminal convictions?’ and then had to sheepishly explain my mistake to the immigration officer. Luckily, all kiwis are absolutely lovely so he let me in with only the most minor of exasperated sighs. We road tripped pretty much every day and visited a ridiculous amount of places, so rather than doing a day by day rehash for you all I’m instead going to just focus on my highlights and the things I can remember. This might take one post or it might take two, let’s just see where it takes us.
The first thing I want to mention, before I even start to talk about what I saw, is just how ridiculously big and empty New Zealand is. I have no idea of the actual size of the country but we did a lot of driving and didn’t even manage to reach either the far south end or the far north end. Not only is New Zealand pretty long, it’s also pretty damn empty. I believe that the total population is just under 5 million, which is less than the population of greater London, and three quarters of that number live in the North Island, meaning the South Island is basically at post zombie apocalypse levels of habitation. Not only is there no one there, there’s also maybe the worst phone signal and wifi coverage of any country I’ve ever visited. I would say we didn’t have any signal at all for the best part of a week, and I think we actually had usable wifi maybe three times in the whole three weeks. Like I said, the other side of the world is a crazy place.
The South Island might be long and uninhabited but it’s also ridiculously beautiful. By far the highlight of my whole time there was the trip we took from Queenstown down to Milford Sound. Don’t get me wrong, the cruise around the Sound was amazing and beautiful, filled with seals and dolphins (apparently a rare sight in the Sound) and, thanks to some pretty awful weather, loads of waterfalls. But you expect Milford Sound to be breathtaking. What I didn’t expect was the beauty of the scenery all the way from Queenstown to the Sound. The journey took around three hours and was pretty much exclusively through the mountains, so we were almost constantly confronted with amazing vista after amazing vista for three solid hours. Throw in a lot of fog and cloud, which meant that the mountains and forests kept suddenly appearing out of the mist, and you’ve got a car full of eyes constantly out on stalks. The journey back was equally beautiful, and took around eight hours (instead of three) thanks to all the photo and exploring stops we kept making, but it didn’t quite have the magic of that first journey through. Fiordland National Park, you’ve ruined mountain scenery for me forever now!
I could bang on about the Fiordland and Milford for ever, but I won’t subject you to that, and will instead talk a bit about the weather. Now, apparently December through to February is supposed to be summer in New Zealand, and before we left Singapore I’m pretty sure that us Brits in the group had visions of beautiful sunny days and golden tans. Well, the South Island was having other ideas, and instead of being warm, sunny and summery it was rainy and windy and really, really cold. I’m not talking arctic cold, obviously, but for a country supposedly in summer it was freezing. Nowhere was colder than the Lindis Pass, a mountain pass we crossed on the way into Queenstown and a place where I’m pretty sure it was around 5 degrees. Maybe it would’ve made it up to an almost bearable 10 if it hadn’t been so bloody windy, but it was and so it didn’t. I mean, the scenery was nice and all that, but oh my was it cold.
I’d say it was pretty much constantly cold, and raining fairly regularly, for the whole of our first week, which really made us all rethink our concept of summer. Ironically, one of the slightly less cold places was Franz Josef, the town bordering the Franz Josef glacier. I mean, it rained continuously for the 24 hours we were there, and we couldn’t really see the glacier (except when we were just about to leave and the weather decided to conveniently clear up) because it was so cloudy, but it wasn’t the coldest place we visited.
The weather, thank god, started to improve as we headed north and we got two really nice days in Punakaiki, on the west coast of the South Island. Punakaiki is famous for its blowholes and pancake rocks, a section of coastline that has been eroded in such a way to make it look like countless stacked pancakes, littered with blowholes where the sea spray literally blows up through the rock. It’s a pretty impressive sight, made even more so because no one’s really sure exactly how the rocks were formed, but it was, of course, very windy, because obviously it would be.
After Punakaiki we headed up to Abel Tasman National Park and foolishly booked ourselves onto a water taxi cruise of the bay and two hour hike. I say foolishly because the weather had not been our friend up to this point, and was quite obviously not going to cooperate on the day we were out in the elements. To say it rained and we got wet is an understatement. For the whole time we were on the boat it was grey but dry, and we actually got to see some sights, including some New Zealand fur seals and even a shy little blue penguin, but pretty much as soon as we got off the water taxi the heavens opened and it did not stop raining. I would like to say that the hike was beautiful and I was awed by the scenery, but to be quite honest all I was really aware of was that there were some trees, I walked up and down hills a lot, and there were mini tidal waves in both my shoes each time I took a step. It was grim.
See, I started off this all positive and gushing about my time in New Zealand and have managed to dramatically bring it back down with tales of being wet and sad. But you’ll be pleased to know that this was pretty much the only low point of the trip for me (except maybe the ridiculously rough inter-island ferry crossing where we couldn’t even enjoy the scenery because of the weather, and a whole load of paper cups flew at us off the bar when the boat hit a particularly rough patch of sea. Oh, and the time we had to set up our tents in rain and gale force winds. And the time we were camping and my airbed had a puncture and I basically just slept on the ground all night) and everything else from here on in is pretty positive!
Anyone who knows me knows that I love history, and you’ll be pleased to hear that I managed to get a bit of history into my trip. On the way down to Queenstown we passed through the mountains of the Otago district and stopped at an old gold mining village where we learnt about gold mining in the South Island, life in the early days of European settlement and had a go at panning for gold. Unfortunately we didn’t find any, and it turns out that panning for gold is actually very long winded and boring, and I’m not so sure it’s really worth all the hassle. On the same journey we also stumbled across the Shrek the sheep museum, which is maybe my new favourite museum of all time. For all of those of you going ‘who the hell is Shrek the sheep?’ he was a sheep, his name was Shrek, and he escaped into the central Otago bush for 6 years and was found in 2004 with the biggest wool coat on record. He then became super famous because of his coat and was sheared twice for charity, the second time (for some strange reason) on an iceberg. The Shrek the sheep museum was basically just two rooms attached to a cafe with various drawings and pictures of Shrek, news clippings and part of his wool coat in a display case. Now, I know this doesn’t sound all that interesting, but the museum was made one hundred times more amazing when we came across a taxidermy sheep that, it turns out, may or may not be Shrek. In the words of the waitress from the neighbouring cafe, who appeared while we were pondering the identity of the sheep ‘we presume it’s Shrek but none of us have ever been able to work it out for sure, and no one really seems to know’.
Of course, Shrek the sheep is in no way sufficient to fulfil my history desires and thankfully I did manage to get in a few more museums during my time. While we were up in the Bay of Islands we visited the Waitangi Treaty Ground, where the Maori and British settlers signed the famous Waitangi treaty in the 1840s. We arrived a bit late in the day so didn’t have chance to explore the museum, but the free guided tour, by a local Maori guide, was brilliant and insightful, and there was also a good Maori cultural show in a recreated wharenui (carved meeting house). Our guide, while knowledgable and enthusiastic, was very positive about the treaty, its problems and the lasting repercussions, so it was quite nice to visit the National Museum in Auckland a few days later and get a slightly more cynical analysis of the effects of Europeans arriving in New Zealand.
I’ve now prattled on for way too long so I’m going to end part 1 here and return, at some point, with part 2 where I’ll cover the ridiculous number of lakes in New Zealand, the joys of camping, Lord of the Rings and the strange fact that New Zealand has basically no native wildlife, except for a few stupid and lazy birds.
Hostel wifi is a bit patchy so I can’t promise when part 2 will be along, but it is coming at some point in 2017!
Leah Out X
p.s. if you’re awed by my photography skills you can follow my progress around New Zealand, Australia and Asia on Instagram. I’m sure it’ll be thrilling!