January 30 to February 4 - South Island
Lewis Pass, Christchurch, Kaikoura
Left Greymouth on the west coast this morning and headed for the east coast via the Lewis Pass. This is quite unlike the route through the Arthur Pass which was our previous east-west traverse across the island. Arthur Pass is all about massive mountains and going up, up, up ...then down, down, down. Lewis Pass follows a meandering course along a succession of rivers so we were almost constantly in a valley looking up. Much easier on a vehicle and it’s brakes, that’s for sure. A very pleasant drive, but not one you would write up as “spectacular” as you would the Arthur Pass route.
Shortly after we passed the town of Stillwater, we came on a very tall, round, brick chimney. This marks the Brunner Mine Site, an old coal mine that by 1885 was shipping twice as much coal as any other mine in the country. It’s a sad site, the location of New Zealand’s worst mining disaster, with 69 dead.
You can visit the mine site by crossing an old suspension bridge and are welcome to poke around. There are two mine shafts, both are boarded up and you are warned not to enter, although Steve noted that someone had torn a hole through the barrier so they could go in. Breaking into an old mine shaft full of gas and water ...and the grave of 69 mine already? Sounds brilliant.
What was brilliant were the most beautiful orangey-red flowers lining the road down to the mine.
Other than that, the route is somewhat unremarkable, travelling along riverbeds, the foothills an ongoing unfolding of burnt golden scrub.
Most of New Zealand is rural in nature, so people have mailboxes out at the road. Most driveways sport the standard issue post box but now and again we'd see something that expressed the owners creativty. Today was such a day. Check out the strange critter to the left. Yes, it is a mail box.
Travelling through the Lewis Pass we came on two sets of thermal hot springs, one at Maruia Springs, the other at Hanmer Springs. The latter are located in a resort town of the same name.
In terms of thrills and chills, Maruia Springs has lots to offer, all at big prices. When we were there the temps were pushing 40 degrees ...and yet people were flocking to the gates of the thermal pools, suits on, towels slung over their shoulders. Didn’t seem like a great plan for the day, but perhaps there is something I am missing. Stinking hot day – stinking hot thermal pools? We stopped in for ice cream cones and carried on.
Tonight we are booked into a Top Ten at the north end of Christchurch. This is a very busy locale, tons of cabins and campervans. A group of musicians gathered in the outdoor dining area and were happily playing Celtic style music. As the evening wore on, the numbers grew with additional fiddles, guitars, a squeezebox, a flute. Lovely sound, wafting through the open window of my cabin here.
Tomorrow we are heading for the Antarctica Centre and then downtown Christchurch.
Since the 1950s, Christchurch has been the base for the US Antarctic program which flies out of Christchurch airport for their base at McMurdo. As well, the Kiwis have their own installation there at Scott base. Over 140 flights per year are made between Christchurch and these bases.
The Antarctic Centre explores what it is like to live and work in the Antarctic – lots of excellent videos and displays. One of the more interactive displays has you climbing into overshoes and a big parka to walk about in a room full of snow and ice that is kept to –5 degrees C. They rev up the wind machines and turn down the lights, simulating an Antarctic storm at –25 degrees C. It’s very good – and especially exciting to all the visitors coming from countries where they never get anywhere near snow or below zero blizzard conditions.
They also have a Hägglunds Ride, which is a jaunt in the five-ton tracked buggy that is used to get around in Antarctica. You strap in and they take you back and forth over a mud course, up and down very steep inclines, traverse man-made crevasses, float in mudholes, etc. Steve said it was hoaky but I thought it was fun and probably a pretty good simulation of travel over bumpy, broken icefields.
If you buy a ticket for both the general displays and the Hägglunds Ride you get 10% off with one of the many different discount coupons floating around. That makes the Hägglunds Ride only $6 extra. I thought it was worth it. Total ticket price with the discount we got from showing our Top Ten membership was $31. Everything has a “discount” price here. There are coupons in all the tourism booklets and brochures, so it’s worthwhile to clip them out and keep track of them. No sense paying 10% more than everyone else going in.
We had lunch in the cafe there ...by the time we got there it was 2:00 and all the hot stuff looked pretty “held over” and dried out. I expect it is better if you go at lunchtime. My cold tuna sandwich was very good and only $4.95.
Drove into town after that and found free parking on Gloucester Street by the Arts Centre. Pretty proud of ourselves for that as parking is generally metered in Christchurch. How they missed that street I don’t know.
We walked up to Cathedral Square. This is the ‘centre’ of town so to speak, with a myriad of major streets converging there. There is a large and reasonably attractive cathedral as well as a large, open square with leafy trees, gardens and lots of places to sit. There is an ongoing chess game with a giant chess set, a resident public speaker and a succession of buskers. This afternoon we were also gifted with a performance of young girls doing Celtic Dancing and the Irish Step Dancing.
The Visitors Centre is also here and we were looking for information on accomodations in Wellington. We called our regular Top Ten 0-800 number and were told that Wellington was basically sold out because it was not only a long weekend, but the Wellington Sevens, an important rugby tournament. Sure enough, everywhere we called was sold out ...including bunks in youth hostels.
We will arrive in Wellington at 5 pm on Saturday. We could keep driving north and get beyond the weekend visitors and the fully-booked accommodations, but that would mean missing Wellington and we had promised ourselves a good visit on our return through here. So we persist working our way through accommodation listings, and finally find an opening about 40 minutes out of the CBD. Good enough.
We carry on walking through Christchurch, dodging tourist trams and crazy drivers. They give you no quarter, these Kiwis. Nice people but without doubt the most aggressive drivers I have come across anywhere in the world thus far.
There’s a more peaceful scene down on the Avon River as old-fashioned punters pole tourists down the Avon River ...there seem to be no lack of customers.
We walk past the shiny new art gallery. In a city that is built in Gothic-style weathered stone and looks, for the most part, like a turn-of-the-century British college campus, this modernist glass and metal salute to the future does look out of place. Apparently it was highly controversial and I can see why.
Continue on to the Canterbury Musuem. I was hoping to see their Antarctic Exhibit which it is apparently renowned for ...but that too will have to wait for another visit. The museum sits adjacent to the Botanic Garden and these are exceptional. The fountain, in particular, is a real work of art and the gardens are obviously a favoured haunt for locals who were reclining, reading, playing games, chasing children, and generally enjoying the early evening warmth of the summer day.
We continued on to Dux de Lux, an excellent restaurant and microbrewery in the same block as the Arts Centre. We passed a totally enjoyable evening there with our friends, Dave and Elspeth.
This morning we stop into Gore Bay. This is a really pretty beach about 8 km off the highway between Christchurch and Kaikouru. What makes this terrain more than a pretty beach are the siltstone cliffs that have been eroded by the wind into stalagmite-like fingers that look somewhat like the pipes of a cathedral organ. You can see these best if you stop at the lookout at the top of the hill, before you fully descend to the beach.
From the beach you don’t see those but you do see these magnificently coloured cliffs, heavily banded with different coloured clays. There are several caves, although Steve stayed close to the entrance of them as the whole structure looked very crumbly. Where the water had washed over the clay and the sun had baked it, the formations were strange and beautiful.
We also found some paua shells here and enjoyed watching an Oyster Catcher at work, limping along with only one foot.
First impressions of Kaikoura are that it is a real tourist town – primarily devoted to water activities, like whale watching, swimming with seals and dolphins, kayaking, nature cruises, etc. Many restaurants, cafes, bars, and galleries.
The whale watching is more than $100 per person. We’ve seen lots of whales in the past, both from boats and from shore so we’ll keep our money in our pockets today. There is a place up the coast that offers a very good vantage for watching whales so we’ll go have a gander from shore. The other thing Kaikoura is famous for is swimming with dolphins. Even if I wanted to do that, today would not be the day as the weather is windy, and cold. We are back to jeans and fleeces and sitting inside with the door shut.
Tomorrow we head for Picton and the ferry back to Wellington and the North Island.