Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fox Glacier: DOs and DON'Ts

Here is a brief and handy tourist safety guide to Fox Glacier:

DON'T assume that after spending the best part of a week driving round corners that require full steering lock, left, then right, then left, then right, you deserve a break. The road to Fox contains around 389,792,483 more 1st gear corners, some of them so sharp you could shave with them.

DO make sure you wear the correct footware for the terminal walk. If your girlfriend accidentally goes ankle-deep into a glacial stream whilst traversing some particularly unstable stepping stones, make every effort not to laugh.

If, upon arriving at your hostel, you find that a Cessna, mistaking Fox airfield for Franz Josef, has crashed into a pylon, and taken out the power for the whole town, DO stockpile duvets and blankets from unused beds and DO use gas rings to heat saucepans of water for hot water bottles. You may also like to have a conversation with fellow backpackers in absolute darkness or, for the more enterprising, by the light of a laptop or mobile phone.

The next day, once power is restored, if you are going on a heli-hike, DON'T be alarmed if the pilot appears to be about 14 (youngsters catch on very quick). Also DON'T ask the pilot if you can have a go at flying it because you once saw an episode of Airwolf and wondered how hard it could be. Or, once you reach the glacier, DON'T ask if you can lower yourself off the skis and drop the last 10m, because you also saw an episode of the A-Team and wondered how dangerous it could be.

DO put your crampons on the right way. DON'T make reference to the fact they resembles a cross between a muzzle and an implement of sexual torture. DON'T refer to them as tampons. Even though this is funny.

DO find out where everyone in your group is from. DO express surprise when you meet a couple on honeymoon from Coalville (yes! honest!). And then DO express surprise when another woman overhearing that conversation says she has a penfriend in Hugglescoat (yes! I couldn't believe it either!)

DO be prepared to be adventurous. If the guide takes you down into an ice ravine by a rope/ice-pins she's just hammered in, take the opportunity to follow her. If, once at the bottom, and in an ice cave the size of a large built-in wardrobe, she advises to lie on your back and slide through an impossiby tight aperture, DO follow her, because you don't want to get left behind.

After 2 and half hours on the ice, when you get back home to DO have some Supernoodles and an afternoon nap, because you will be knackered

DO post your photos on your blog:


Like Twizel, Haast was always meant to be just a stopover. And, like Twizel, upon arrival we realised spending anything more than one day here would be difficult.

When I say there was nothing wrong with Haast, this was primarily because there's not enough for there to be anything wrong with. And, similarly, when I say it was nothing to write home about this, in turn, is because I doubt the post van/mail coach comes through here with any alarming regularity, so it would be ultimately fruitless.

With a population fewer than the dwindling bars on my mobile signal, Haast's self-proclaimed "township" status belies its size, significance and remoteness. It seemed only fitting, therefore, that for the second time in my life I found myself in accommodation eerily redolent of The Overlook Hotel from The Shining, with its 1970's faux-alpine furnishings and long beige and paisely corridors. There was even a child's plastic pushbike in the hall.

The kitchen was equally hilarious and looked like a set from an episode of Tomorrow's World from 40 years ago: "Welcome to the Kitchen Of The Future. By the year 1978 every home will have one of these - the Microwave Oven. It's a compact 14 square feet and can cook anything from a Sunday dinner, to a 14-course banquet"

But despite Haast Lodge's timewarp qualities, it was that sense of isolation and wilderness that became its appeal. A trip to nearby Jackson Bay revealed the tiniest fishing village at the most Southerly point on the West Coast's main arterial route - literally the road just petered out into nothing. It consisted of a few shacks, a wooden pier with accompanying seal, and a portacabin fish restaurant called The Cray Pot, advertised infrequently on roadside blackboards all along the 50km road in. A road which was effectively a huge geographical cul-de-sac.

Later, a stop at Haast Beach during the twilight hour, revealed a desolate shale beach littered with all kinds of oceanic bric-a-brac. The sun set. The waves crashed. The wind blustered. Magic.

Haast Beach Photos.........

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Te Anau

From Queestown it was a 2 hour drive to Te Anau, base for our trip to Milford.

Initially, I was concerned about our accommodation as we had opted for a "homestay", kind of like a cross between a hostel and a foster home. A "Fostel", maybe?

I had visions of sitting with a family in their own front room, having to watch the NZ equivalent of Gardener's Question time, listening to the clock tick, and coughing every time you wanted to fart.

On arrival the Christian fridge magnets did nothing to dispel that notion, but it soon transpired that hostess, Rosie, was the most hospitable and easy-going of people, her home welcoming, her room cosy and her cake-baking first-class.

Alarmingly, as I was playing Nothing Else Matters by Metallica on the guitar, I heard her singing along from the kitchen. That must be one progressive church she attends. I restrained from pushing her into joining in on any Rage Against The Machine.

An early start the next morning meant we were on the road by 6.30. After a winding two hour track through snow-capped mountains and tunnels (in reality a cave with a hole at both ends), the visitors centre loomed out of the mist.

We boarded a boat with only around 8 other people, and drifted off through the haze, past giant rocky outcrops and tree-laden crags.

Grand, towering yet serene, Milford is undoubtedly impressive. Yet Lou summed it up accurately by dubbing it the Ayres Rock of New Zealand. And that much is true: the lengthy drive to counter its remoteness requires committment, and the terrain along the way is so magnificent, that by the time you reach the Sound, it's simply the best example of what you've seen on your way in, rather than the like nothing you've ever seen before.

Still, I wasn't going to come all this way and not see it. And see it I did. And I'm glad I did.


First thing next morning, a quick trip to Mt Cook village to NOT see Mt Cook due to cloud, and then on to Queenstown to meet up with Pink Houser Chris.

We met at the world famous Fergburger, a quality burger establishment with a reputation stretching as far as the UK, and home to such classics as the Cockadoodle Oink, the chicken and bacon burger.

I was instantly taken by Queenstown. With ski-boots full of character, it's compact, clean and friendly and commands stunning views of The Remarkables and Coronet Peak. And whilst it's usually populated by people wearing idiotic ski hats and using phrases like "great powder today" and "have you seen my new gold-plated snowboard bindings", it still doesn't feel exclusive or pretentious.

The next day Lou and I were off up the hairiest of winding mountain tracks in a 4x4 bus to the summit of The Remarkables for a beginners ski-lesson. Unfortunately, however, although we did have a great day, it was no thanks to Diana, the worst ski-ing instructor in the world.

The only lesson we learned that day was never trust a Spaniard on skis.

Her crimes included:

* Waffling on in a thick Fast-Show-Channel-9 style eth-eth-eth accent. Slightly racist perhaps, but when you consider her sole task is to COMMUNICATE with people and CONVEY information, the fact that she couldn't pronounce the word "lean", or "wedge" or even "skis", was a serious problem. No one says Spaniards shouldn't ski. But a Spaniard who can't speak English teaching ski-ing ...that's different.

That was the least of it, however.....

* Texting some bloke she'd met the night before. Often whilst in the middle of a sentence: "OK, so eeeef you turn berry berry hard....(beep beep)....one moment................(giggle) (giggle)........"
At one point I'd fallen across the Travellator-type thing, returning skiers to the stop of the slope, and she didn't even notice because she was arsing about with her phone.

* Beginning the next wave of instruction for the few people who had made it back up to the top of the slope whilst half the group was still floundering on their backs like upturned ladybirds at the bottom.

* Forgetting who was in her group. She hardly spoke to Louise for the entire 3 hours.

* Issuing esoteric, non-sensical instructions. When I asked her what was wrong with my "snow-plough" manoeuvre, she responded "Tonight, take your girlfriend out in the moonlight and dance"

What does that even mean?

Aaaaaanyway, the next day we decided to abandon instruction and headed over to Coronet Peak for some self-tuition. And thank god we did. We learned more the second day without instruction than we did the previous day with instruction.

Purely by trial and error and practice, by the end of the day we had mastered left and right turns and even moved up to the next slope.

Still not a patch on Chris, however, who zipped in and out and round us on his super-duper new snowboard.

Queenstown. I love you.


And so to Christchurch to pick up our hirecar. With 1.3 litres of pure power, representing the pinnacle of Japanese engineering, ladies and gentlemen I give to you the Diahatsu Sirion.

I was labouring under the misapprehension it was pronounced the Sir Iron, which sounded like a steel-clad Arthurian nobleman, proud and robust. In fact it's pronounced Syrian, a race of people next on George Bush's hitlist. Never mind.

Not the first vehicular-related mistake we made that day. The second, arguably more significant, was not taking the extra $17 a day insurance to cover tyre bursts and windscreen chips, as within 20 minutes of leaving Christchurch a passing lorry opposite hoofed a rock into the windscreen, leaving a sink-plug sized welt in the windscreen. So that's $350 up my shirt to start with.

But 3 hours and 250km later we realised why we were here, as the first snow-capped mountains were revealed, followed by Lake Pukaki, with its water so clear, and reflection so perfect, that if you stood on your head only the loose change falling up your nose would give away which way was up. Our first taste of proper New Zealand. And it tasted good.

By 7 o clock we had reached our destination. Eerily quiet, poorly lit and seemingly made entirely out of timber, Twizel itself was one of those towns where, if aliens landed, you probably wouldn't find out about it for about 6 weeks.

It was only ever intended as a pit-stop and not a bad place, but the sound of duelling banjos was ever-present in our ears.

The Long Awaited Update...

What with internet cafes in New Zealand being more expensive, per minute, than the Iraq War, updates have been few and far between. What follows then is not so much an update, but more part one of a datadump, after saving up for a few weeks and selling one of my kidneys to pay time on a PC.

It begins in, appropriately, at the beginning.........