Tuesday, 1 November 2011

NZ South Island 2 - Methven to Dunedin

Mount Cook

 I left sleepy Methven early morning to make the long drive to Mt Cook. The first half of the journey was through the Canterbury plains - a near-flat expanse of land stretching from the east coast through to the edge of the Southern Alps around 50km inland. These mountains rise up very quickly from the plains, which apparently gives some skiers vertigo, as you can see the sea from the slopes beyond the flatness of the plains - you really get the feeling of being thousands of metres above sea-level.

I passed by the Two Thumb mountain range and had lunch at Lake Tekapo in the shadow of Mt John. The lake gets its colour from sediment, or rock-flour, in the water, rather than from ,say, cobalt compounds. When the rocky bottom of the glacier moved across the land and carved out the lake basin it ground out fine particles which were suspended in the glacial melt. Light refracts off the particles and gives it a milky turquoise appearance.
Lake Tekapo

The road to Mt Cook Village is stunning, with postcard views at each turn. The Mt Cook National Park is home to 22 of the 25 highest mountains in NZ, with Mt Cook itself being the highest at 3775m  (and also having the accolade of highest mountain in Australasia). Around a third of the park has a permanent blanket of snow and glacial ice which is a stunning sight, given its proximity to the coast. Mount Cook Village is a bit of a misnomer, being essentially a coffee shop and a boutique hotel serving the ski community, and was almost deserted save for a few ambitious skiers.

I took a side-trip down a nearby gravel track (which the Sunny didn't enjoy) to the Tasman Glacier. The road was like driving on the surface of the moon and the place looked more like a quarry than what I expected from NZ's largest glacier. However, the surface moraine is only a few metres deep and beneath it lies between 200-600m of glacial ice. Like most temperate glaciers it has been losing around 0.5% of its volume each year which has helped deposit the surface moraine and has swelled "Lake Tasman" significantly. I've put this in inverted commas because 20 years ago this "lake" didn't exist. NZ's glaciers have been retreating for the past 14,000 years or so - the top of the Tasman glacier was around 700m higher than where I took these photos back then.
Lake Tasman from the glacier

By now it was getting late so I headed back down the Mt Cook road to a small village called Twizel. The place was built to provide accommodation for the workers constructing a nearby hydroelectric power station and, location aside, is not the prettiest of places. The village was due to be abandoned in 1984 once the project was complete but the residents tenaciously held on. It's basically prefab housing around a central square, which has a strange mix of run down convenience stores and a couple of swanky cafes for the skiers who can't quite afford to stay at Mt Cook Village. I got chatting to a bunch of local lads who worked on nearby farms, who took me on a tour of "the pub" and "the bar", the latter being a pub that stayed open longer. "The pub" had a Working Men's Club feel - the lads had to convince the landlord that I wasn't any trouble before he'd serve me. The bar was a little more easy going and I was warned (advised) of the few girls that were easy (to put this in context there were only five girls in the bar). Both places were truly dead for a Friday night but I get the impression that the clientele don't change with the days of the week in Twizel.

Next up was Oamaru, a short drive back to the coast. It was pretty much the only place with any sort of life between Twizel and Dunedin, and consequently my best chance of finding a bar showing the England vs Scotland game so I popped in for a night. Oamaru has a collection of Victorian warehouses and pubs by the waterfront, but instead of going down the chintzy pensioner tourism route, it's somehow become the self-acclaimed steampunk capital of New Zealand.
Steampunk HQ, Oamaru
When I arrived in Dunedin the whole town was awash with the green of Ireland rugby fans. I had a ticket to the Ireland vs Italy game and had somehow managed to get some accommodation within walking distance of the stadium at short notice. Dunedin is a student city and has a reputation of being a raucous party place. Mix this with thousands of Irish fans and the place was heaving. The city has a tradition of holding an informal nude rugby game (I suppose it can't be anything other than informal) on matchdays for the games held here. 14 naked guys and 1 naked girl take on a fully-clothed team of, in this case, Irish and Italian fans (which to me sounds more like a gangbang than a sport). Fortunately I arrived too late to see it.
Dunedin train station

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