Wednesday, 9 November 2011

NZ South Island 4 - Queenstown, west coast and out

Queenstown from ~15,000ft

After the trip to Milford Sound I drove to Queenstown, which has a reputation of being the adrenaline seekers' capital of NZ. Here you can throw your body from the top of, out of, or through practically anything and what's more, it's a beautiful place to do any of the above. On entering the city the demographic suddenly changes - the average age seems to plummet to somewhere in the early 20s.

I limited myself to a skydive in the interests of preventing my bank balance running dry in the space of a weekend. For some reason I had an aversion to throwing myself off a canyon attached to a rope, but was ok with the idea of being thrown out of a plane at 16,000 ft. Maybe it's that ground appears to rush up a lot quicker on a bungy jump. We arrive at the airfield in the morning and go through the safety briefing, which was way shorter than I had expected - essentially "put your head back, curl your legs around the plane like a banana shape, hold on to your harness and enjoy". My group were all newbies to skydiving and didn't know what to expect so we all listened intently, full of nervous energy while the technicians folded used parachutes behind us (I'm going to call them technicians and not "work-experience guys" to make it feel safer). There was something strangely unnerving about them re-folding a chute - I think I'd feel better if they did that in another room so in my head each one was factory-fresh and ready to work, without manual intervention, but I was too pumped up to really care.

20 of us packed into the tiny plane, sat on the floor, legs wrapped around the person in front like an airborne bobsleigh team, and strapped to our professional who would do all the hard work. We took off and climbed for what seemed like forever, all the time I was thinking about the harness. I scuba dive and I've seen the average scuba rental equipment. There are problems with regulators, tanks and buoyancy jackets all the time, but they're usually tiny things that can be fixed with a good ol' fashioned hammer hit or just sorted out once you're underwater, and you just make do. If something goes wrong down there then chances are there's plenty of help nearby and fairly easy failsafes if there isn't. With skydiving I felt like there was not much going on behind the scenes. I relinquished all control to my tandem partner and just hoped for the best.

The plane door opened and we lurched to the side as the pilot fought the change in aerodynamics. We'd reached 10,000ft and the first tandem pair unceremoniously slid to the open hatch on their arses, in the manner of a dog with a bad case of worms and everyone else watched in anticipation. In a few seconds it was over. A quick 3-count and the instructor threw himself out of the door. The wind changed timbre slightly and they had disappeared from view. Everyone in the plane gasped. I think we all thought there'd be more involved, but I guess in essence we're just throwing ourselves out of a plane... there's not much skill involved in the falling part.

We reached 16,000ft and my turn was up. A quick 3-count and we were falling. The sound of the rushing air thankfully drowned out my screaming like a girl. The biggest thrill was definitely in the first few seconds before reaching terminal velocity, when my brain registered I was falling but somehow not landing yet. I had 60 seconds of freefall at 125mph and it was all over too quickly. The parachute came was deployed (thank goodness) and I got chance to really savour the view. After the noise of the free-fall, this was total calm and only the slightest of rustling of the chute to break the silence... and the fast beating of my heart in my ears. It was an amazing rush and something I'd do again, but I fear that once you've tried it, the experience just won't be the same the next time.

The following day, still on a bit of a high from the dive, I went on a wine tour of the region, mostly because I needed a good session on the grapes to relax. It was nice to be driven around this time, rather than using a somewhat wobbly bike like back in the Marlborough region and the group was a good laugh... what I remember anyway...
A very wet walk to Fox Glacier
Fox Glacier
Queenstown was a great city but I had to take the final leg of my NZ journey up the west coast and back to North Island. Somehow I'd managed to get an ear infection as I left Queenstown which ordinarily would have kept me in bed for a few days but I had over 700 miles to cover in less than a week and places to see along the way. Fortunately for me this happened while I was travelling through a less interesting part of the country. I decided to drive over to the Franz-Joseph and Fox glaciers. For glaciers these two move pretty quickly, especially Franz-Joesph which has managed advancement rates of 70cm per day in the past. When I arrived the walkways over to the Fox glacier were strewn with boulders from recent landslides and park wardens were busy trying to place rocks in a small river that had appeared very quickly, so people wouldn't have to wade through. The glacial landscape is extremely dynamic. I had the impression that glaciers move on a geological time-scale, whose effects wouldn't be noticeable from day to day. The glorious weather was starting to disappear and the west coast became its usual self, with gloomy overcast mornings and patchy rain. I couldn't beat the odds for that long.

That evening I slept in Hokitika, a small town with nothing to do. Well, there was an exhibtion on Whitebait but I stick by my original statement. The hotel was heavily discounted as they were doing loud building work in some of the rooms. I happened to be the only person in the place at the time. The owner did warn me it'd be noisy, with a persistence that made me think that he didn't want any business at all. I couldn't hear anything through my left ear anyway so if I turned to the right the building work just disappeared - there are definite advantages to having middle-ear infections. It's not just Hokitika, all the west coast towns are bleak and generally uninteresting. Haast, is a dive, with just one cafe, which only offered burgers or whitebait (see a pattern here?), Greymouth is an industrial town which is inviting as its name suggests, and Karamea's prime tourist attraction seems to be an estuary.

I sauntered further up the coast and passing through Punakaiki, famous for its odd "pancake rock" formations, popping peanut M&Ms and painkillers in equal measure and decided to make a bee-line for the nearest city, which happened to be lovely Nelson. Nelson is a very chilled place at the geographical centre of the country, with an al fresco coffee scene, good food and wine, and has one of the most pleasing climates in NZ, getting lots and lots of sunshine.  All in all, a good place to recover.

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki
I said goodbye to the Sunny in Picton and jumped back on the Interislander ferry to Wellington, where it was a quick overnight and a morning train to Auckland. NZ doesn't have much of a national train service and the Wellington to Auckland route is run exclusively as tourist attraction rather than an efficient form of transport. While it was nice to see all the sights I passed in the car in a much more relaxed way, 12 hours of rolling commentary over the tannoy was a bit much. The highlight, a few hours north of Wellington, was when the guard asked us to look out for the local nutter who, every day, waves a red plastic bag at the train as it passes his hut.

A month in NZ was a good amount of time to see the main sights and it didn't feel rushed, but I think 6 weeks would have been ideal to try some longer walks and see a bit more of this incredibly picturesque country. By now I was ready to get back to warmer climes and hit the beach. Luckily Fiji was up next...

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