Monday, May 29, 2006

Day 13 - Arthur's Pass

6:30am. Another early start as we had an extremely long drive ahead of us and many places to stop along the way.

Today we were setting out across Arthur's Pass which is essentially the road that links Greymouth and Christchurch and goes through the village of Arthur's Pass which is famous for being New Zealand's highest town. It is reputed to be one of the country's most scenic drives and at and is the starting point for many spectacular short walks - a couple of which we hoped to tackle ourselves today.

A single-track bridge crossing what would be an expanse of water in winter:-

The clouds were high and some sun was breaking through which showed promise for being a dry day. I imagine at different times of year this drive would be breathtaking. Don't get me wrong it was still fantastic but I imagine the grandeur of the pass covered in a frosting of white snow would be an altogether humbling experience. As it stood on the day of our passage there were parts of the drive that were great vistas which were then interspersed with barren patches and interesting rocky formations.

The picture to the left shows a rocky part of Arthur's Pass which just had to have been a location for 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy. We have no proof for this but it did look all so familiar.

The following 3 images show how we were tracked and hunted down by a mysterious cloud during the early part of our journey across Arthur's Pass. Three separate places, same cloud. Weird.

Sometimes the road here just seems to go on forvever...

... It did eventually turn a corner, albeit only when it came across some water that it couldn't cross.

We arrived at Arthur's Pass around early lunchtime. Disappointingly by this time the weather had turned and it was starting to rain.

Arthur's Pass village consisted of two cafes, a ranger station and a general store with just a few other buildings offering accommodation spread sporadically around the vicinity.

Today it was a hive of activity - helicopter landings, parties of rangers, police and sniffer dogs. This was not the norm in Arthur's Pass, rather they were all here searching for the English woman I mentioned in yesterday's post. The alarm was raised when her rucksack was found on the trek but no sign of her whereabouts. It was certainly causing quite a commotion in the area and I was determined not to let Kate wander off out of sight in case foul play was involved.

The update to this story was that sadly a week or so later the woman's body was found and it is believed that she simply must fallen to her death.

As an attempt to shelter from the rain we headed straight for one of the cafes for a bite to eat. It was nasty and expensive and packed with tourists, but with very little choice what can you do. To make matters worse I bought Kate her favourite chocolate Dairy Milk to make up for the dismal lunch but this tasted foul also. Another bar at the tail end of the holiday was the same leading to the conclusion that somehow it was made differently over in New Zealand.

Unfortunately the rain didn't stop but we didn't come all this way to be deterred by rain - we're English of course! So we chose some short walks to tackle and were resigned to the fact that we were going to get very wet.

Our first walk was to culminate in the Devils Punchbowl Waterfall. This is a 1 hour return tramp and not too difficult. There are however quite a few steps to negotiate so don't expect it to be a complete breeze.

This is obviously one of the most popular walks and as a result much of the pathway here is properly maintained and some of it even has a wooden stairway. The end result is a reasonably dramatic waterfall the top of which can actually be seen from the main road, but a walk to the base of the waterfall is well worth doing in any weather, at any time of the year. There is even a viewing platform at the end, which when we visited was full of an adventure tour party having their photos taken in front of the gushing water. Not a peaceful tramp this one, but a good starter at least.

Returning back from the falls the path forks to the right just before the bridge back to the car park. This walk leads to Bridal Veil Creek and is approximately 1-2 hours return depending on your ability.

The claim from the literature you get in the ranger station is that it's an easy valley walk, but be warned there are some difficult, narrow and slippy parts to navigate. We bumped into an elderly gentleman with a walking stick (not literally, we're not that cruel), and he seemed to be doing ok.

The track starts by going through mountain beech forest before starting to climb alongside the mountain. There are a couple of small bridges spanning valleys to cross and about 25 mins in there is also a view back to the village from a lookout, we couldn't see back though as it was too misty.

It's a nice walk but I think the disappointment came for us at the end when we discovered it doesn't really lead anywhere apart from branching into another couple of tracks (day long ones mind, so there was no way we could carry on).

After a thorough soaking we continued in the car over the remainder of the pass. The weather remained bleak and the mountains shrouded in dark clouds. We briefly stopped at the Viaduct viewpoint and observed our first sighting of the infamous Keas before pushing on once again. No pictures here though as we couldn't really spend long enough out in the rain to get a decent shot of the birds.

The journey from here onwards was interesting but wet. As we continued beyond the viaduct the road steeply drops into a valley, cutting through the rocky mountain sides as it does so. What I found interesting here were the permanent waterfalls cascading down the mountains towards the road, whereby their flow is diverted over a man-made aquaduct. This carries the flow of water above the road and the flow of the traffic and allows it to cascade once again, continuing it's journey down the rest of the mountainside.

We had a couple more photo stops along the way but the rain pretty much put paid to the rest of our en-route sight-seeing and we eventually reached Hokitika around mid-afternoon.

Hokitika is a town which was first settled in 1860 after the discovery of gold on the West Coast. Although it still retains a frontier town look with its buildings it is now more famous for its greenstone or New Zealand Jade.

Our accommodation for the night was to be our cheapest in NZ. The Shining Star was an odd complex comprising of a mixture of motel, cabin and holiday park accommodation set overlooking the Tasman Sea. We booked a small ensuite cabin for the night. The first thing that struck us was that we were given a key to unlock the bathroom. It turns out that the same cabin is also rentable at a cheaper price but the toilet door remains shut. I wondered how many people had crumbled in frustration when confronted with the sight of an ensuite that they don't have the key for, and ended up paying the extra. I also wondered how many people had smashed the lock through sheer toilet desperation in the middle of the night.

The log cabin was very much reminiscent of a shed or a summer house but is was beautifully clean and spacious enough for a table and kitchen sink. It was a little on the chilly side but we found an electric radiator in the cupboard which soon warmed the room up. It was in fact fantastic value for money.

On the complex there was also the added extra of a miniature farm - complete with Alpacas, an Emu, Sheep, Goats, Ducks, a Newfoundland and an Old English Sheepdog. Mind you we saw little evidence of life as most the animals were taking shelter from the rain in little huts and barns built for them.

Despite the rain we thought we would head straight into the town centre to see what it offered, which was actually not a huge amount to be honest. We started with a cup of coffee in a tea house before looking around the more touristy shops selling mainly jewelry made from jade or the cheaper but similar looking greenstone.

To make up for the terrible weather I bought Kate a heart shaped necklace for her birthday, made of extravagant greenstone of course!

As the rain fell heavier we wandered around some of the restaurants to make a decision as to where we were going to eat that night. This took about 10 minutes as there really was only 3 or so that were worth looking at. There were a couple of nice ones but as we looked down the menu of a French-style restaurant the heavens really did open and made the decision for us. Tonight we'd be going no further than our cabin.

Grabbing some good old fashioned fish and chips from the local chippy (not a British homage thing, they really do have chippies over there), and a bottle of NZ red wine we headed back to eat at our cabin. I must mention before I move on the wealth of different kinds of fish available in the chip shop, much of which we'd never heard of and as there was no cod on the menu I had to embarrassingly ask the owner for advice. I really don't know what it was he recommended in the end, a "blue" something or other which was catch of the day but we took his advice and went home with it wrapped up in newspaper just like back in England.

When we got back to the cabin we set about dishing up the fish and chips, opening the can (yes a can!), of ketchup and pouring two large glasses of white New Zealand wine. Outside the wind was howling and the rain pouring but inside our snug cabin we felt stuffed, drunk and content as we watched 'The Blues Brothers' on the supplied TV.

Whilst we're on the subject of ketchup I must warn you of the most common brand you find over in NZ. 'Watties' ketchup has the look and branding of Heinz Ketchup but without any of the taste, it really is quite curious but ultimately cheap and nasty. Heinz can be found over there but it is often hidden in the supermarkets behind the locally produced Watties. Looking into it further it would appear Watties is part of Heinz World.

After the food the rain had slowed considerably so we thought we would take the opportunity to walk on the beach and enjoy the sunset. The beach was made from a dark sand and covered in an array of driftwood and stones, but what made it remarkable that night was the wind that was whipping up the sand into near enough a sand storm. You could barely walk unless you turned your back against the direction of the wind and the beach was littered with like-minded people walking backwards against the wind. A few photos of the setting sun later and we were hurrying back to the warmth of our cabin.

This video shows just what a sand storm was blowing across the beach.

The late movie, 'Aliens versus Predator' had now begun on the TV and we watched a little of it whilst we waited for the night to fall completely before venturing out again.

When it was dark enough the day was rounded off by a quick trip to the major tourist attraction of Hokitika - a visit to the local Glow Worm Dell. Well perhaps I exaggerate by calling it a MAJOR attraction but it was worth the visit for three reasons; it was free to enter, it was only across the road from our cabin and there is something truly magical to the experience.

It's a little weird and we felt a little uncomfortable walking into a pitch dark hole at the side of the road but we had at least armed ourselves with a torch first. The walk begins in a lay-by on the main road marked by a large signpost with a few critical details about glow worms i.e. Why do they glow? For those of you that are interested in the answer to this I can tell you from my vast knowledge acquired from the board that glow-worms only glow when they are hungry, the more hungry they are the brighter they glow. This attracts all kinds of insects into their waiting traps, they feed and then the glow disappears. The glow is caused by their digestive system giving off gases.

On with the walk, you then proceed up a fairly steep path in the pitch black. Even with our torch it was still an eerie experience as you can see very little and if you run into other people like we did you're bound to scare the crap out of both you and them as well.

At about 50m you abruptly come to the end of the path and a steep embankment. At this point switch off your torch and as if by magic as your eyes slowly become accustomed to the dark and what looks glittering stars appear from the darkness all around you. Glow-worms look similar to bright green LEDs but after closer inspection we convinced ourselves that they were in fact authentic glow worms doing as nature intended.

If you're lucky and you are the only ones there you can stand for hours in the peaceful silence just staring at the flickering lights in a hypnotic trance... We on the other hand soon got cold an went back to the warmth of the cabin and 'Aliens versus Predator'.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Day 12 - The Banks Peninsula

This was a day of stunning scenery and changeable weather. During the course of the day we went from cloudy, grey and wet to bright glorious sunshine with blue skies. Doesn't make for great sightseeing conditions as such but it was a photographers paradise with dramatic skies around every corner.

By this time I had realised that breakfast was never going to be on the agenda and had stocked up with things like manuka honey and bread. When you have so little time in such a beautiful place a thing like breakfast does become a bit of a luxury, so whatever I could cram into my mouth before leaving the hotel/motel/cabin was all I was ever going to get.

We had researched our route around the Banks Peninsula in advance of our arrival in NZ. Not knowing what the roads were like in general in NZ we had been concerned that some of the roads around Banks were described as unsealed and only suitable for large 4-wheel drive vehicles. Kate was concerned that these might not be well signposted as such and we might end up down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere with just sheep for company. Yet despite this trepidation we set off, eager to explore.

The first stop was Lyttelton Harbour. Lyttelton Harbour is a tiny place consisting mainly of docks and very little else. We only stopped briefly here at the side of the road. Nothing was open as it was still before 9am but the working docks had just begun to kick into life. Lyttleton harbour cannot exactly be described as picturesque but it did have character derived from its rough and ready nature. For us Lyttelton was a nice to see and we were only there really because it linked up with a coastal road which would take us the pretty route down to Banks.

From here we followed the road which lead us past Govenors Bay and on to Diamond Harbour. The road takes you on the opposite side of the harbour to Lyttelton and allows views back across the water towards it. It's actually a very small area of coast as the crow files but when driving it could take 45 minutes to an hour with stops for photos.

The dramtically changing weather during this part of the day allowed us to get some fatastic shots across the bay, which we would have missed had we gone the quick route from Christchurch to Akaroa (route 75).

Disappointingly there isn't actually that much to see and do when you get to Diamond Harbour, particularly for us as when we reached there it had begun to rain. There are a few short walks and this is apparently a hotspot for spotting the worlds smallest and rarest dolphin, the Hectors Dolphin (I dunno who Hector was but he's got a bunch of Dolphins named after him), so on a clear day I'm sure it would've been better. If you have a 4WD vehicle you have the opportunity of continuing along the road here, and following it all the way around the peninsula to Akaroa. Our vehicle was nowhere near capable enough for this journey so we headed back the way we came, capturing a few more photos along the way.

I mentioned it fleetingly before that ultimate destination for the day was Akaroa which lies at the heart of the peninsula. Now here's a tip for people planning on doing the same journey. To get back onto the SH-75 without going back to Christchurch, as you head back instead of taking the road back towards Govenors Bay take the fork in the road signposted Gebbie's Pass. This is a great shortcut and can shave 30 mins off your trip.

Back on the SH-75 our journey took us through many beautiful bays and tranquil villages. We stopped every hundred yards or so to take photograph after photograph of the landscape which was formed as a result of violent eruptions from three ancient volcanoes.

Travelling along the SH75 the first town of note we came across was Little River. Little River is a very small comunity, with only a smattering of tourist facilities. There's a store which features a cafe, bar and bakery and also an arts and crafts shop. Other than that there isn't much on offer apart from the fact it's a pretty little town.

Carrying on from Little River the road eventually crests at the Hilltop Tavern and I recommend that everybody should just pull over into the car park for a moment and admire the view. From here you get your first real glimpse of what Banks Peninsula has to offer, and you can see exactly where your journey will take you in the next half hour.

The steep descent from here takes you down into Barry's Bay, at the beginning of Akaroa Harbour. Here you can find Barry's Bay Cheese Factory, a traditional dairy which had it's roots planted right after the original settlers moved in. Here you can sample some of the many cheeses on offer, there's nowhere to sit and eat which is a shame but you can buy a few provisions and eat them on the way back to you car, just like we did. It's worth a stop at least.

Here's another tip. Don't leave your left over cheese rind in the car, sorry Ezy I don't think we ever took ours out of the ashtray.

Finally we reached Akaroa, the site of the only attempted settlement by the French in New Zealand. By this stage the weather turned for the worse and it started to rain. We therefore decided to park up and find somewhere dry to get some lunch and a hot drink.

Up to this point we'd met very little traffic on the ever-winding roads which snake uphill and then downhill like a giant rollercoaster track. However everyone on the peninsula was in Akaroa. It took a while to find a parking space and then by pure chance we found a table in a popular little cafe which was otherwise filled with a senior citizen coach trip and residents from a local care home (harsh but true).

Akaroa is a bit of a tourist trap and gets very busy. We were lucky to find a table anywhere, and on a sunny day this wouldn't have been a problem. Akaroa is full of French-style cafes and deli's, getting a take-out and finding somewhere pretty to sit isn't usually a problem here.

We wandered through the rest of Akaroa which was pleasant enough despite the weather. The French influence is still evident in the street names and cuisine of many restaurants but I suspect it was a tourist draw rather than any real sense of French pride. Nevertheless the buildings were very quaint, vibrantly painted and featured an array of art galleries and gift shops to wander around. In nicer weather it is possible to take boat trips around the harbour and adjoining bays which I imagine to be worthwhile. However, today they were all cancelled due to the wind and rain. Again Hectors Dolphin can be found around the bay here and there is a couple of tour companies which leave from Akaroa Harbour and allow you to swim with the dolphins, if you missed it in Kaikoura that is.

Akaroa is a pretty little place and very different to anywhere else on NZ.

We popped into the local store here for some breakfast provisions, and whilst we were queuing up to pay got into a conversation with a local about a missing British tourist. Apparently a middle-aged woman had gone on a day-hike in Arthur's Pass, and simply hadn't turned up at the other end. She'd been gone for a few days now, and it was a mystery as to what had happened. Locally it was all the talk, and people were genuinely worried as things like this never seem to happen in this part of the world. It was a bit of a concern for us too as Arthur's Pass was to be tomorrow's journey.

Our route back to Christchurch followed a new set of twisting roads around the north side of the peninsula, known as the Summit Road.

The Summit Road is a fully sealed road but unlike the SH75 much of it is single track. This is a stunning drive and time should be allowed for it. We were very lucky in that the weather made a sudden change for the better and we could fully appreciate the amazing vistas on offer. If you are anything like us you'll be stopping every few minutes to admire the view and grab a sneaky photo. The road here climbs so high you get a real birds-eye view of what the shape of the peninsula really looks like, it's truly incredible.

There is even an occasional house built right up here on the peaks, and it has to be said they must awake every day to one of the most spectacular views the world has to offer.

There are a few roads that adjoin this one, many of which led down to some spectacularly deserted bays. If you fancy a bit of quiet time out here in NZ these are the bays to head for, I can almost guarantee that you'll either be alone on these stunning beaches or have one other couple so far away on the same stretch of beach that you'll never know they are there.

We visited Okains Bay, Little Akaroa Bay and also drove around the clifftops in the surrounding area.

Heading off down these roads travellers should be warned that they are unsealed roads (loose stone), and a 5km trip down to each of them could take 20-30 minutes as you have to drive so slowly and carefully.

Okains Bay is a pleasant beachy cove, with houses lining the edge of the grassy dunes which overlook the sea itself. You could spend a while here at this almost tropical looking beach and it even reminded us of a past holiday we enjoyed in Tobago. At this point in the day the sun had decided to come out with only a few white fluffy clouds in the sky. We dipped our feet in the ocean and wished we had a hour or two (and a picnic) to sit and truly appreciate this bay but alas we had to move on.

5 minutes back up the road there is a turing off to the right which leads to Little Akaroa Bay. This is a windy, cliff top drive which overlooks a couple of private bays, one with a farm right on the beach and is a nice, slow drive.

Little Akaroa Bay seemed slightly larger than Okains and as a result there were at least 3 people to be found sunbathing. Again it's a very pretty cove and time could be well spent there.

If you are desperate for a toilet break there are some "amusing" facilities down at Little Akaroa Bay. The "open air" toilets on offer here have no roof as such, but there is a tin sheet over the one cubicle. I was amazed by how clean the toilets actually were.

The rest of our journey took us through farmland that rolled out to the ocean, where cows and sheep had the greatest views imaginable, and past houses which perched alone on gently rounded hills overlooking spectacular coastland.

It was a long, exhausting drive but worth it in every way. There are a number of scenic drives you can do around Banks Peninsula, which are signposted along the way. We chose to create our own but if you want more details of the four scenic drives available you can check out the Banks Peninsula website.

We arrived back in Christchurch early evening time and headed straight out to an Indian restaurant 5 minutes down the road. We wondered if we should have booked in advance but our fears were not justified as apart from a couple that came in half way through our meal we were the restaurants only patrons. The food was reasonably priced and of a good standard. A good end to the day.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Day 11 - Christchurch

Another early start but not quite like yesterday but our aim was to reach Christchurch early enough to give us most of the day to do the main sightseeing around the city.

It's a short trip really between the two places, not more than about 2 hours (and that's at NZ speeds). The drive south of Kaikoura is spectacular, probably one of the best drives we did over in NZ. For about 20 miles the road hugs the coastline and takes you alongside rocky beaches and through tunnels hollowed out of the mountainside. It's unmissable. We stopped a few times during this stretch with a whimsical idea of spotting some more dolphins but alas this wasn't to be the case and all we saw was the Dolphin Experience tour boats jetting across the water.

We had one "official" scheduled stop along the way at Cheviot and Gore Bay. Here we drove up he hill at the southern end of the beach to a view point overlooking "The Cathedrals". The Cathedrals are a set of cliff faces which through erosion were said to resemble pipes of a cathedral organ. They do as well. It's a bit like Bryce Canyon on a very small scale. It was a pleasant enough stop but nothing spectacular so we continued on our drive to Christchurch.

Our choice of motel here in Christchurch was perfect, both in terms of location and affordability. Bella Vista is a chain of motels over in NZ, but each one is a franchise and I guess some are great and some not so great depending on the owners.

We arrived at the motel around 10am but were fortunate enough to be able to check in straight away. As usual we were given a pint of milk from reception and had a nibble of the biscuits in the room. This was perhaps one of the smallest rooms we had during our stay but we were careful not to unpack much and for two nights it was hardly a problem and still had more than enough facilities - fridge, kettle, TV, ensuite etc... Actually the bathroom was almost as big as the bedroom, that is to say the bathroom was actually huge and we could've slept in there instead.

Christchurch is often described as reminiscent of the old English towns of Oxford and Cambridge with the Avon River flowing through the city centre. Almost every guide book features the stock image of a straw-hatted boater punting his passengers up the river, floating through the beautiful Christchurch Gardens. However we knew that we had a lot to see and do in our time here as although we were staying for two nights in the city we intended to drive out on an excursion on our second day.

Town was a short 15min walk away and with a map in our hands we decided to head straight out. Actually we didn't really need a map as we'd been told by the motel owner that we should just look out for the catherdral spire and head towards that. With that good advice we ended up in the main square of Christchurch, funnily enough named Cathedral Square.

Cathedral Square is a hive of activity. It reminded us of the style of square you get in a European city, particularly as the glorious weather had tempted the locals to find a nice spot in the square for a long, lazy chat.

The cathedral itself was just as beautiful inside as it was outside. Entry is free here but donations are recommended.

It was lunch time before we knew it, and we hadn't even made it out of the square before finding a fantastic little bagel cafe in a shady corner. The Yellow Rocket Cafe is a favourite of locals and tourists alike and even though there isn't much seating here the array of bagels (both savoury and sweet), on offer is awesome (hey I haven't said that in a while!).

Despite queuing for 15mins before being served we were lucky enough to get a table in the shade outside overlooking the square, which enabled us to watch the city's famous trams come and go whist enjoying our lunch.

The Christchurch Tramway is probably the best and most enjoyable way to see the city and straight after lunch we hopped aboard.

The trams follow a 2.5 kilometre loop around central Christchurch taking in the main sites. These include Cathedral Square where we caught it from, The Arts Centre, Botanic Gardens, Canterbury Museum, Punting on the Avon, Victoria Square, and New Regent Street to name just a few. The tram is a delightful way to get your bearings with insightful and light hearted commentary (supplied live by the over-heated drivers), and as we had an unlimited pass we did the entire circuit before deciding which stops we wanted to get off at. An Unlimited Pass means you can get on and off as many times as you like within the day. To get yet another discount we combined this with a gondola pass, which is also run by the same company. More on that later.

The first stop we alighted from the tram put us on the doorstep of the Christchurch Art Gallery. This is a free attraction and we can highly recommend it (hey it's free!).

We checked in our bags, picked up the guide and started our wander. We don't know much about art but there were some magnificent pieces on display as well as some unusual modern art pieces and installations. You could have easily spent an afternoon wandering around the building (the building itself is a work of art), but we had to push on after just over an hour.

Christchurch is a city that encourages its art and just over the road from the Art Gallery is an arts institute. Subsidised by the local university this is a large building sub-divided into little craft shops selling woollen products, wood crafted gifts, pottery and the usual tourist guff. It's more entertaining than seeing yet another Starbucks!

Back outside we were on the food trail again and we discovered a whole new way of making ice-cream. Whilst waiting for the next tram we found an ice-cream vendor who basically makes the ice-cream live before your very eyes. The concept is simple; he has a selection of fresh fruits (we picked boysenberry), and some home-made vanilla ice-cream, he takes a scoop of each, whacks it in the top of a machine, pulls a handle and hey presto it all gets mashed up together into a lovely cone. Now I know what you are thinking... what the heck is a Boysenberry? We were thinking the same too and yet with no knowledge of the afformentioned fruit we managed to enjoy it immensely. If you are curious as to what a boysenberry is you can check it out here.

We were only on the tram about 5 mins before we disembarked again at Christchurch Botanic Gardens. We spent a very pleasant hour walking around the immaculately kept gardens with flowers, herbaceous borders and shrubbery. We watched as couples punted down the Avon and slowly strolled along to the water garden through the scented gardens before eventually finding the exit. It was a lovely park and we were surprised how quiet it was really.

The next stop on the tram was New Regent Street. This is a pedestrianised area which was built in the Spanish Mission style in 1932. The trams are the only traffic on this street and it is full of small old-fashioned and quaint shops selling nick-nacks or delightful coffee shops with chairs and tables outside. The area proved an interesting distraction for half an hour and we bought a silver charm and thimble. Again there was no Starbucks in sight.

By this stage it was late afternoon and the shops were winding down and the restaurants and bars gearing up for the night ahead.

Heading back to the hotel we were suddenly struck by strong gusts of wind which came from nowhere (yes it was that unpredictable, instantly changable NZ weather kicking in again). From bright sunshine and blue skies the weather changed dramatically and it looked as though a storm was a brewing.

Now at this point sensible people would not head off for a gondola ride up the side of a mountain in a howling gale. However we are not sensible people and, more importantly this was our only opportunity to visit Christchurch's Gondola. The ride takes visitors up to the summit of an extinct volcano so we had no intention of missing out.

It was about a 15 min drive from the centre of Christchurch to the gondola station and by the time we got there it was already late afternoon and in a hour or so the sun would be setting - ideal for photographic opportunities.

Now, if you've been reading this blog from the beginning you'll know that I am not of fan of these gondola devices so you can imagine my worry standing at the bottom, watching the little carriages being battered around the the high winds.

The first third of the ride up the volcano in the gondola was pleasant enough and any reservations were distracted by taking photographs of the cable car, scenery and the obligatory couple shots. But as the gondola got higher we started to realise that the wind had become much stronger and the car started to sway to-and-fro whilst the wind whistled through the cracks in the seals of the windows and doors. This was a horrific experience for both of us and the worst bit was yet to come.

As we came out of the protection of the valley and onto the last third of the journey we were hit by gusts of wind so strong that our little gondola was being buffeted around like a leaf in a tornado. How the gondola held onto the cable we'll never know but the relief we felt as we crossed the threshold into the upper gondola station was immense... but this was soon shattered again by thoughts of having to go back down in the bloody thing.

We decided to try not to think about the situation that we were in. We thought they might have to shut the gondola down because of the weather but to our amazement although practically deserted at this time of night at the summit, those staff working did not seem the least bit concerned.

As the locals were so non-plussed about the whole affair we decided to take a walk along the summit path. Being such awful weather we thought we'd better play by the rules and stick to the paths so we followed the sign out the gondola building which pointed to the summit path and it lead us straight back into the building via another door. Confused we retraced our steps to see where we had gone wrong - but nothing. We eventually asked one of the guys operating the gondola who look disinterested and told us to jump over the safety rope guiding the path and walk where we liked but not to go too near the edge. In these windy conditions we had no intention of that.

The views from up here were magnificent, a full 360 degree vista of Christchurch, the Canterbury Plains and Lyttelton Harbour could be taken in. The weather was not initially ideal for great photographs but as the sun set the clouds began to form into interesting shapes and patterns. It was spectacular, particularly over the area known as the Banks Peninsula where we would be heading out to the next day.

As the light continued to drop we took shelter out of the wind in the closed cafeteria with a few other hardy travellers determined to stick it out to the end. As it happened fear overcame Kate and she was determined to leave before it got too dark. I on the other hand was convinced that as it dropped darker the wind would drop also, and with Kate firmly stuck in the cafe I took the opportunity for a few more shots.

Eventually we could delay it no longer. It was almost dark now, the wind hadn't dropped and the journey back down seemed even more horrendous but we placated ourselves in the thoughts of what wonderful meal could be waiting for us at the bottom.

We've been to the USA a number of times now (yes I know it's the wrong country but stick with me on this), and each time over there we track down our favourite diner - Denny's. Imagine our joy when we discovered one in Christchurch! We just had to go.

Denny's is a traditional American-style diner serving traditional American-style food in American-style quantities. It's fantastic at a value price, and the Denny's of NZ is no different.

For the meagre sum of around £12 we got 2 burgers, a chilli fries to share, coffee (bottomless!), and a pudding each. Very inexpensive and delicious. Plus the only place open this late as New Zealand likes it's early closing hours.

As we walked out to our car it was apparent that something had changed since we'd gone into Denny's. Yes, just as suddenly as it had arrived the wind had disappeared.