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'.


Blogger The Uncle said...

Over in the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum, where I post occasionally there was a scientific answer to those pesky clouds that were following us.

Kainui informed me that "The unusual clouds 'following you' in the Southern Alps are Cumulus Lenticularis, or wave clouds, or more fully 'standing lee-wave clouds' They are orographic, ie formed by the deflection of the air mass upwards by a mountain range, followed in the lee of the hills by a series of bouyant 'bounces' - at the crest of each bounce cloud forms, and appears to remain stationary since the bounce is 'tied' to the hill. The cloud continuously grows at the leading edge and evaporates at the trailing edge. Beloved by glider pilots because the upward air currents on the up side of the bounce are very smooth, very strong, and can go for many miles - in NZ pilots have flown over 1200 km in this kind of lift...

Wave systems are found all over the world - the best ones known to the gliding fraternity are NZ, Andes, Western US, European Alps, and northern UK (at Long Mynd)"

Thanks Kainui, I'm glad it's a natural thing.

11:20 pm  
Blogger The Uncle said...

Over on the Trip Advisor forums I rattled Zappers cage by saying bad things about Watties Ketchup.

In its defence he said "And by the way, Watties Tomato Sauce is a Kiwi institution, this is the sauce all Kiwi kids are brought up on, spread on anything and everything. Your Heinz doesn't get a look in..........even though Heinz now owns most of Watties. It would be a very bad marketing move to remove it, believe me!"

Fair point, mate, fair point.

7:06 pm  
Blogger The Uncle said...

Also on the Trip Advisor forums came this response from Jewels about the unappetising bar of Dairy Milk.

"Caburys Dairy Milk is VERY different to our UK brand. For a start is doesn't contain the same milk content and its made to withstand higher temperatures so it has different ingredients so it doesn't melt! Its the same in Australia too!
I seem to think its also made by a different company with an agreement with Cadburys to be made under license using their name."

That explains a lot, thanks Jewels.

5:50 pm  
Blogger Boer said...

The "rocky part of Arthur's Pass" you mentioned is called Castle Hill, I spent a week there in March climbing those boulders.

Although I don't think Lord of the Ring was shot here, just a few km down the road is a place called Flockhill, a large part of Naria the movie was filmed there.

7:40 pm  

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