29 February 2012

New Zealand 2012

Our route in New Zealand
South Island

Two and a half hours from Sydney, and, once again landing in Queenstown, for me, the third time in 14 months. As always the flight into the mountainous South Island is a truly spectacular one: this time we came in directly from the west, giving views of the entrance to Doubtful Sound and then Lake Te Anau, before tracking over Lake Wanaka and down through the narrow gorge into Queenstown. Quite wonderful, and always exciting.

Approach into Queenstown
We drove straight out of Queenstown, across the Crown Range, through Cardrona and then down into the town of Wanaka, beautifully set in bright sunshine with views across Lake Wanaka to the glaciers of the Mount Aspiring National Park. It takes your breath away.
A lazy walk into town from our pleasant overnight accommodation at Wanaka Homestead (recommended) for a beer in town (Wanaka Ale House), followed by a good, unpretentious, curry in the little Ashraf's restaurant.
A good but tiring day!
An early start next morning to climb Roys Peak, a straightforward but unrelenting ascent from about 300m to the summit at 1576m, a good pull! Made good progress under slightly cloudy skies, just over two hours to the top. Big zig zags take you up through the bush, populated by sheep and myriad rabbits, into more alpine country, eventually broaching the summit ridge at about 1300m. Here, on a small track out on to an extension of the main ridge, I was able to capture a great close-up shot of a New Zealand Falcon, apparently quite rare, and it only took flight after I got to within 2-3m of it. An iconic shot, even if I say so myself!

Early start on Roys Peak 
Lake Wanaka
New Zealand falcon on the summit ridge

Unfortunately, the clouds clamped down for the last 200m, so my summit vistas are imagination only! I hung around in splendid isolation for 20 minutes on the top, but the cloud showed no movement, so I turned for home, descending quickly on easy paths. At the spot where I had seen the falcon earlier, the view had improved, so I was able to see most of Lake Wanaka, and straight down on to Gendhu and Parkins Bay, and the Matukituki River. The higher mountains and glaciers around Mt Aspiring remained stubbornly in cloud, however.

Roys Peak, view from the summit (not!)
Lake Wanaka on descent from the summit

And, of course, the summit cleared when I got to the bottom...
So, just about four and a half hours later I was back at the car, ready to rehydrate and do some more sightseeing in the afternoon. Hooking up again with my significant other, we enjoyed a beer (Brewski - recommended) at Kai Whakapai, some good ice cream, then a drive up Mount Aspiring Road towards the glaciers, relishing great views in bright sunshine of the western flanks of Roys Peak across Parkins Bay.

Roys Peak from Lake Wanaka
Later, we enjoyed a great dinner at Relishes Café. A fine day indeed.
Next morning, travelled north towards Haast Pass, enjoying views of both Lake Hawea and the northern end of Lake Wanaka, although most of the mountain tops were obscured by cloud. Stunningly beautiful country though. Looked for the start of another walk I'll save for the future, Isthmus Peak, which will overlook both lakes beautifully. Another day....

Lake Hawea

We drove back from Makaroa, through Wanaka and over the Crown Range again to give the other half the chance for some retail therapy in Queenstown, the centre bustling with the usual backpacker brigade.

Towards Queenstown,  from the Crown Range Road
And then to our overnight stop, the newly opened Hilton, on the approach to Kelvin Heights and on a lakeside frontage. Nice room, great gym/pool complex, but hotel deserted and staff 'in your face'...looking for something to do methinks. Rain finished off the afternoon in a strengthening wind, but who cares...I love this part of the world.   

A deserted Hilton
Dinner with friends in Lake Hayes, a nice way to finish our visit to this part of New Zealand.
Next day, an early flight to Christchurch, about 40-50 minutes rather than a long day on the road, which is about 400kms of sustained driving. Cloudy most of the way, as was our drive north from Christchurch. Despite the weather, the scenery gets increasingly dramatic as you go northwards through North Canterbury, through the Cheviot region (and scenically very similar, with a lot of sheep farming and forestry) and finally on to the peninsula which houses Kaikoura, a small coastal town famed for its whale watching tours. Under normal weather conditions the town is visibly dwarfed by the mountains just inland (rising to about 2500m) but no views today. Walked into town from our overnight stop, the professionally run Anchor Motel (recommended), and found a local's pub, packed at about 1730 and drinking beer dispensed into jugs. Friendly folk, although not sure I'd want to be in there later on when the booze starts to take effect!

Anchor Motel, Kaikoura
Dinner at the White Morph restaurant, enjoyed good locally sourced, well cooked food, albeit pricey.
We chose not to do a whale watching tour. I've already seen whales aplenty, and my other half gets sea sick, recent reports on Kaikoura sightings have been limited (one sperm whale spotted yesterday) and the weather forecast looked indifferent, so on the road again to the Malborough wine region...plenty of yummy Sauvignon Blanc to look forward to!
Before leaving Kaikoura, I ventured up to the head of the peninsula that the town is based on. There's a huge backdrop of mountains, albeit somewhat covered in cloud this morning but it's a dramatic setting, nonetheless. At the end of the road, there's some interesting coastal rock formations and a resting place for fur seals, enabling relatively close-up photography.

Coastal scenery near Kaikoura

Fur seal, Kaikoura
Then northwards on the coastal road up towards Picton, the port for ferry crossings to the North Island (three hours, and often a bumpy ride, so, needless to say, we'll be taking a flight from Nelson later in the trip!). This is glorious country, wonderful and changing landscapes inland, and the road runs right up against the coast for miles. Noisy cicadas to our left, and the crashing Pacific waves and the odd fur seal colony to our right. Further north, before reaching the Marlborough wine growing region, there's huge sweeping vistas of dairy, beef cattle and sheep country in the Awatere region, sheep prominent in a belt of limestone landscapes...it looked like the White Peak on steroids!
The southern approach to the Marlborough region is really stunning, the verdant green of the many vineyards contrasting with the parched grassland of the surrounding hills to the south and the forested slopes of the mountains to the north of the wide Wairau valley.

Entering the Marlborough wine region
Blenheim is the key settlement here, nothing to write home about as a town, but an important transit point for ferry traffic working its way across to Nelson and south to Christchurch and beyond.
Before lunch we took another drive, this time up to Picton and west along the scenic Queen Charlotte Drive, which hugs the south coast of a section of Queen Charlotte Sound. A very windy road, with lots of lookouts, and the water and bays below contrasting the multitude of greens from the thick sub-tropical vegetation all around us. And some of the noisiest cicadas I've ever heard! Beautiful country, demanding driving!

Queen Charlotte Sound

Cicada...noisy little bugger!
Back from Havelock to the Wairau valley for lunch, and enjoyed a decent platter of cheeses and pâté at Geoge Michel vineyard near Renwick, washed down with a tasting of their wines. Good food, slow service.
Our accommodation for the night is on the Ryland Estate, a small fruit farm, growing cherry, apricots, grapefruit and apples. Nice room, overlooking beautiful gardens and very peaceful, virtually next to the Wairau River. Would recommend but looks like the owners are selling up...

Marlborough wine country

Wanted some simple food tonight, and, despite being in the middle of NZ's biggest producing wine region, actually fancied a beer. As luck would have it, we went in the opposite direction to Blenheim and found, would you believe it, an 'English Pub' in the small town of Renwick, the Cork & Keg. A great pint of Moa, albeit 5.5% abv, and pork pie with English mustard. Perfick. 

Like it!
A slow start this morning, enjoying a walk around the extensive orchard garden at Ryland, before setting off for an early tasting session at the nearby Cloudy Bay winery. Their standard Sauvignon Blanc is very much in vogue at present, but for me it presents too much gushing fruit to have much appeal. I was attracted, however, to their barrel fermented version called Te Koko, 2008 vintage, which had much greater complexity and appeal. Needless to say, a bottle was purchased to help us through the next couple of evenings. 

Cloudy Bay winery
Then on to the road again, north, then west for a couple of hours to Nelson, on the north coast of the South Island. This was a busy and ultimately very windy and hilly road through many forested mountains, and convoys formed behind the many motor caravans touring the region.
Nelson is a pleasant little town, busting away, with a rather awkwardly designed cathedral on a hill immediately south of the town centre. We had a late lunch at Melrose House in Nelson, good quality food and nice surroundings although we both felt that they had overly complicated the dishes.

Cathedral in Nelson
En route to our accommodation for the next two nights we stopped off at a bottle shop run by a new craft brewery in Nelson called Sprig & Fern, and 2L of their excellent Pale Ale were enthusiastically purchased.
We found ourselves on the beautiful Kina Peninsula half an hour later, and settled into our boutique B&B, the Almyra at Kina, for the duration of the day, enjoying hot sunshine on our deck with extensive views to the tidal lagoon behind the peninsula and the mountains to the south of us. Absolutely splendid. And, of course, the beer was broached. Yum. 

The fabulous Almyra at Kina
Next morning, dragging a reluctant wife, who gets seasick and doesn't really like walking unless she's following a little white ball, to a water taxi to walk a section of the famed Abel Tasman trail was going to be a challenge I thought, but in reality it was like leading a lamb to the slaughter. I think peer group pressure at home had something to do with it, and the fact I had given her the option to opt out (so she effectively volunteered back in...!) and I  prepared her breakfast...

Early morning at Almyra on the Kina Peninsula

After half an hour on the road west from Kina, through extensive commercial orchards growing kiwi fruit, nectarines and plums, we caught the water taxi from Kaiteriteri. It took one hour, and it was a fast catamaran on calm seas which called in on a couple of bays beforehand that avoided any sea sickness. 

Water taxi to Bark Bay, start of our Abel Tasman walk

Barks Bay was an attractive drop off and we powered up the track to lose the other souls who had landed with us. We had the track to ourselves a good part of the way, wending its way over  numerous ridges and then down into valleys draining into the sea, a good path albeit with limited views beyond the dense tropical vegetation, enormous ferns, vines and black truncked beech trees due to the high levels of tannin they contain. A suspension bridge crossing and occasional views of the many bays below us enlivened the walk on occasion, but this popular section, Bark Bay to Torrent Bay, is mainly a high level forest traverse and pretty easy walking on a well-surfaced track, although there are one or two steep ascents and descents.

On the Abel Tasman tramp, Bark Bay to Torrent Bay section

Falls River suspension bridge

The good lady performed well, only complaining once on one sustained uphill section, but was otherwise impressive on the hill...I expect the cost will be dear when we next go to a shopping mall!
An easy couple of hours found us in Torrents Bay, with a couple of hours to kill before our water taxi was due to pick us up. Anyhow, the time passed and, wading into the shallows we leapt on to the boat and were back in Kaiteriteri on schedule, ready for a quick pint of Sprig & Fern's excellent IPA in their Motueka pub before returning to our rather nice digs for the night.
An easy day, but very hot, probably the hottest day of our trip so far.

Approaching Torrents Bay

Leaving Torrents Bay

Madam's reward!
Tomorrow brings us to the North Island of New Zealand, with a short flight over the Cook Strait from Nelson to Wellington. Let's hope the weather holds for next week too...a big walk on the Tongariro Crossing planned for the end of next week (surprise, surprise, just me this time!).

North Island

Sunday now, and through the tiny Nelson airport for the 25 minute hop to New Zealand's capital, Wellington. This is greatly preferable to a drive back to Picton through the mountains and a three hour plus ferry across the usually windy and choppy Cook Strait.
It's an impressive approach into Wellington, across the headland and bays, with some magnificent property straddling the ridges all around the city.
Wellington was very busy with weekend traffic, but we were quickly parked up at our city centre hotel, the Mercure, with a room affording views over the CBD and harbour beyond.
Personally, I'm not that enamoured with the city centre...rather dowdy '60s concrete architecture is pervasive, and there's a certain scruffiness about some of the streets, the popular Cuba Street being one of them. The townscape improves as you approach the Lambton Harbour area, through the rather strangely designed Civic Square and along the quay to Te Papa, a rather good museum of all things New Zealand, with some good interactive exhibits...I liked the huge satellite map of NZ that you could literally walk over and study, and the earthquake simulation. Great museum for the kids...lots of buttons to push! The anti-whaling ship Bob Barker (seashepherd.org) was in port. Had a pint of Mac's hoppy Pilsner in the Mac Ale House at the bottom of Taranaki St...good but not as good as Sprig & Fern's magnificent Pale Ale.


Te Papa Museum, Wellington
So mixed feelings about Wellington, it was always intended to be a quick overnight stop en route to the Hawke's Bay vineyards, so I think one afternoon is quite sufficient.
A cloudy start to the following day, but we were quickly on our way north and east, fortunately in the opposite direction to the Wellington rush hour. There are two routes to choose on our way to the Hawke's Bay wine region, one via the Kapiti coast and then northeast passing by Palmerston North, or the route we elected to take, the inland route, initially through the Hutt Valley and then over the vertiginous Rimutaka Hill, a series of many hairpin bends up and over between two valley systems which deeply dissect heavily forested slopes.
We missed out on visiting the tourist town of Martinborough because we had a good four hour drive ahead of us, but stopped for a quick breakfast in the Victorian main street of Greytown, enjoying (or was it enduring?) strong coffee in a popular French bakery there. Then onwards through sheep and dairy country, passing through rolling hills with distant views to the huge Tararua Forest Park to our left, much of it shrouded in cloud as we were hit by frequent short showers along the way.
Although we didn't stop to go searching for the elusive kiwi, we passed through areas it inhabits, an area heavily felled by Scandinavian settlers in the late 19th century. Some attractive towns here, mainly serving as agricultural supply centres, some supplementing their economy with woollen and craft food offerings. We also passed the TUI Brewery, sporting a classic brew house with multiple floors.
The scenery never disappointed and eventually we entered into wine country one again, passing some well-known names like CJ Pask, Villa Maria, etc., this region accounting for 90% of New Zealand's wine output. We lunched at Te Awa, competent food washed down with their 2009 Cabernet Merlot. Sleepy eyes afterwards!
A short final push took us around the coastal town of Napier, now famed for its Art Deco reconstruction following the destruction of the town back in 1931 following a massive earthquake. Our next two nights are in the Esk Valley Lodge, 12 km north of Napier, beautifully located amidst its own vineyard and fruit orchards. Chill time! 

Hawke's Bay wine region: Chardonnay vines near Napier
Esk Valley Lodge
Suitably rested (apart from 4.1 level tremor at 0451 which woke me) we set out next day to tour the Art Deco architecture of nearby Napier, visit one of the top 50 golf courses in the world, Cape Kidnappers, and taste a little more local wine. Napier lived up to expectations, having been completely rebuilt in the early 1930s after a devastating 7.8 level earthquake which had levelled the town in 1931. Art Deco buildings dominate the city centre, and the whole town is tidy and well tended. I just wish the local planners had insisted that all the retail signage had been reproduced in Art Deco typefaces as well...modern bank and coffee chain logos rather weaken the overall effect.

Art Deco in Napier

We followed Marine Parade out of town, southwards to reach the awesomely located Cape Kidnappers Golf Club, just south of the attractive and affluent suburb of Havelock North. It's a private 8km gated approach to the diminutive but nicely appointed clubhouse, up through a canyon and bordering a big sheep station. A friendly, and thankfully unpretentious, staff welcomed us and the other half had the inevitable retail therapy in the pro shop. We met a young Swedish professional golfer, Pernilla Lindberg, who had just finished with a creditable 13th place in the NZ Women's Open in Christchurch a week earlier. Nice girl, and very chatty.
It's difficult to view the course from the approach road or the clubhouse, but it seemed to be the domain of wealthy Americans (like so many other world class locations). Green fees were NZD440 each, almost £250 for a round of golf, so we passed on this occasion. Perhaps I should go back to work?!
We then headed through really attractive countryside (and some beautiful homes) to the Craggy Hill wine cellars. Very contemporary and well designed buildings and a patient, well-informed tasting of their excellent Reisling (from their Martinborough vineyard), their locally grown and lightly oaked Chardonnay, and a couple of their Pinot Noirs, one from Martinborough vineyards and the other from the Otago region. Both very light in style, bu elegantly made and presented. Worth a repeat visit to enjoy their stunningly situated 'Terroir' restaurant.

Craggy Hills winery
There's clearly money being made in Hawke's Bay!

To finish our local tour, we ventured up the steep and exposed road to Te Mata Peak, which soars to 399m above sea level and offers great views over Hawke's Bay, Napier, Hastings and the surrounding mountains to the west and south. Well worth a hairy drive up and down the sealed road.

Views from Te Mata Peak, near Napier/Hastings

Overall, we liked this area. Civic pride is high, there's some beautiful property and wonderful countryside running down to the greeny blue waters of Hawke's Bay. And some good wineries and restaurants to visit. You may consider a small mortgage to finance golf at Cape Kidnappers, however!
We had dinner at the Restaurant Indonesia on Marine Parade in Napier. We had their 'Supreme' selection of dishes, kept warm on candle burners, called Risjttafel (literally 'rice table'), many of which were delicious and I helped it down with a beer called Force Pilsner, brewed by Hawke's Bay Independent Brewery....a pleasant pilsner in elegant 330ml bottles.
The food was fairly eclectic, as was the background music, but we found the atmosphere a bit dull...mainly other couples that made us feel young and slim, and had nothing to say to each other. The other half was gently chided for ogling a young Maori chap who had a quick evening meal, probably away on business. Ogling is allowed as long as I can continue to do it too...
A beautiful evening back at our little farm B&B....the sun gently setting over the hills to the  west of the vineyards, and the gentle evensong of the local cicadas. Nice.  

Esk Valley
The following day we ventured on to Taupo in the volcanic heartland of the North Island. But, before departure, our host provided a short tour of his Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc vineyards, explaining a little about local viniculture, and how hard it is to make money at present from wine-making.
Like my last visit to this region, the weather was not too promising, and following the road out of Napier we were soon into showers and then heavy rain by the time we arrived in the bustling tourist resort of Taupo itself. The journey across was still scenically dramatic, driving through huge sandstone and rock gorges, crossing the 50m high Mohaka River bridge, and observing the triple flow over Waipunga Falls. Much of the area approaching Taupo itself is under heavy commercial afforestation, mainly Monterey Pine growing in the Kaingaroa Plains, on ash soil deposited when the volcano situated in what is now Lake Taupo erupted back in 186AD. The dormant volcano, Mt Tauhara, which towers over the south eastern approach to Taupo was, unfortunately, obscured by cloud.
Taupo itself, rather like Rotorua, smells a little sulphury on the approach, but the lake is the largest body of freshwater in Australasia. The surrounding hills and volcanoes remained shrouded in cloud through the day, somewhat compromising the views from our lake view room in the Suncourt Hotel. Ho hum...
The poor weather means that, once again, my planned walk across the famous Tongariro Crossing will have to be aborted. All this way, again!
Taking lunch in Taupo, we were humbled by the two minute silence to mark the first anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake. A lazy afternoon followed.  
Filthy weather to start, as predicted, the following day. But the skies brightened enough for a walk to view the very popular Huka Falls and do a quick canter over to see the volcanic area of 'Craters of the Moon'. Huka Falls was an impressive sight following the heavy rain over the last 24 hours. The final evening was spent in a local Ashtanga Yoga group, hard work compared to my usual class! And after a quick dinner we were gifted with a splendid sunset across Lake Taupo, a nice way to finish our trip to New Zealand off.

Huka Falls

Sunset over Lake Taupo
Last day in NZ - an early start to drive up to the airport in Auckland, in brighter weather and attractive countryside north of Taupo, spotting many areas of vulcanicity, steaming away in the cool morning air. It gets a lot busier around and beyond Hamilton, but the express way soon gets you to the airport. And on-time flight to Sydney, a mere 2160km from Auckland, and then our final car hire and onwards for a long weekend with daughter and hubby in North Bondi.


New Zealand is a frustrating place to visit! Scenically it overloads the senses from the moment you enter it's airspace. Almost every part of the country's topography is fascinating, the ecology hugely varied, north and south, east and west. It's outstandingly beautiful at every turn.
So why frustrating? Well, for the amateur photographer with limited time, it's impossible to know where to start...the landscapes are huge, the colours amazing, and the sheer quantum of what you'd want to capture is overwhelming. So, revert to your eyes and hope for good long term memory if you're not tempted to move down to NZ permanently, something I think about seriously every time I come this way.
The weather on this and other visits has been mixed, but only what you should really expect in such a mountaineous country surrounded by the Tasman Sea to the west, the Southern Ocean to the south, and the Pacific to the east, but this year's visit has seen some extremes of rainfall, apparently due to La Niña, the periodic oscillation in the atmospheric and oceanic circulation of the Pacific. This was one of the causes of the flooding in Queensland and NSW observed earlier in the trip and for the North Island of NZ at least, La Niña conditions often bring more north-easterly winds, which tend to bring moist, rainy conditions. Well, we've certainly seen that since we arrived!
Accomodation standards in New Zealand have been high, and we've enjoyed unpretentious food, drink and hospitality throughout.
High points: Wanaka and the surrounding mountains, the Queenstown region (it's starting to feel like home), the road trip north of Kaikoura to Blenheim. The Almyra at Kina for it's luxurious standards and views, and the discovery of an emerging craft beer industry...look out for Moa and Sprig & Fern beers. We liked the quality feel of the Napier region.
Low points: the weather! And especially the (second) failed attempt at the Tongariro Crossing.
We'll be back!


Terry King said...

enjoyed reading this blog with some great photos, having madew a similar trip made this more enjoyable to read.
Well done Colin.

Terry King

Calogero said...

A bit of adventure for you on Mount Tongariro... Very good for you.