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Notes from a Volcano

From my vantage point on top of the spectacular Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand looked pretty good.

After spending almost two hours negotiating ice steps which had been cut for someone much taller than me, I was surveying the scene around me feeling exhilarated and unable to wipe the smile from my face. I had just climbed up a glacier and was about 500 metres above sea level. I was part of a 10-person half-day tour led by The Guiding Company. Our group had two guides – one which took the lead and another at the back to hurry up any stragglers. Two of the many guides from The Guiding Company leave for the glacier at 8am and carve out the steps each morning. They then join either the half-day or day group.

The Guiding Company supplies spiked shoes, woollen socks, gloves, hats and wet-weather gear which are fitted at the premises before the drive to the glacier in a bus that should have been pensioned off long ago. It only takes a few minutes to drive from the town to the glacier car park and then there is a short walk through a beautiful rainforest. This track leads to the riverbed which the glacier carved out of rock thousands of years ago. After a 40-minute walk along the river and a crossing between the Australian and Indo-Pacific plates, our group was staring up at the glacier’s terminal face.

Ropes attached to pegs had been driven into the ice to help us up the steeper stretches and once I gained my footing on the slippery ice I had little trouble. While on the glacier I walked through a stunning pale-blue ice cave, drank from a glacial spring and slid through a crevice. On the way down the weather closed in on us with an avalanche higher up the glacier and stinging hail storm but that was all part of the adventure.

This was only one day out my 16-day New Zealand fly/drive holiday in October 2000 with my husband. We spent eight days on each of the country’s islands with two days each in the major cities Auckland and Christchurch, and capital Wellington. The remainder of the time was spent driving several thousand kilometres covering countryside which ranged from white beaches and jagged mountains to thick forests and beautiful architecture.

Auckland seemed to be more a regional centre than a major city, compared to Sydney where we live. Sheep and cattle grazed on farms located right on the fringe of Auckland. A short drive from the city was One Tree Hill, an old Maori pa (battle fort) with one lone pine tree supported by wires. The view from the top of the pa was far-reaching and magnificent, explaining why the site was chosen in war. Auckland’s famous Sky Tower (or The Needle) also boasts a fantastic view across the city and outlying suburbs. The city’s harbour area is very cosmopolitan and a hot spot for eating at one of the many restaurants or cafes, which we enjoyed one night.

Next stop was the Bay of Islands at Paihia where we enjoyed a cruise out to the Hole in the Rock, seeing dolphins, seals and penguins along the way. The cruise company, King’s, gave us a taste of traditional Maori culture with a Powhiri, a challenge issued by a Maori warrior to the passenger chosen as the Chief, who on this occasion was my husband Nick. The warrior placed a fern leaf on the ground in front of Nick, who accepted the challenge by picking up the leaf. Later on in the cruise the warrior spoke about the traditional Maori tribes in the area and dragged Nick up to perform the Haka, a threatening dance often performed by New Zealand sports people before their game. Nick’s Australian interpretation of the Haka moves was a delight to the boat occupants. Bubbling mud pools were dotted all over Rotorua, evidence of its extremely volcanic nature. The New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute not only provided a great history of ancient Maori dwellings, religion and craft but also had the amazing Pohutu Geyser which erupts up to 25 times a day as high as 30 metres. The Institute is also a carving school for young New Zealanders wanting to hang on to their heritage. We were also very impressed to see the country’s endangered flightless bird the kiwi in an enclosure set up like a forest, the bird’s natural habitat.

A 15-minute drive from Rotorua lies the Buried Village, the remnants of Te Wairoa village left after the eruption of Mount Tarawera in June 1886. We walked around the village and saw artefacts dug from the mud and ash and ventured into some of the buried buildings. Archaeologists are still digging for buildings within the village. Wai-O-Tapu is another highly volcanic area on the way to Lake Taupo. It also has a geyser which erupts daily but what fascinated me was the colours produced by minerals such as sulphur, gold, silver and mercury in the thermal pools. A brilliant copper red bank gave way to bubbling turquoise water in one pool with bright yellow deposits lining another.

Wellington lived up to its name the “Windy City” but it was also a hilly city, cultural city and beautiful city. The free Te Papa museum was a great way to lose a few hours on a rainy morning. The exhibits were fantastic and had a wide-ranging appeal. Our last day on the North Island was spent shopping and exploring the harbour. The tram trip up to the Botanic Gardens was well worth the effort to see classic buildings and wonderful gardens with views across the harbour as a backdrop.

The weather had not been very good for the week we were on the North Island making the Interislander ferry trip from Wellington to Picton on the South Island quite an ordeal. Still we sat on the eighth floor to enjoy the view as we sailed out through the heads and into Cook Strait. Some opportunistic seagulls accompanied the ferry but were disappointed by the lack of fare provided. As we saw the first landmass of the South Island I was amazed to discover houses on these far-reaching islands which were only accessible by boat. I don’t know what the people living in these houses do if they feel like some chocolate at 10pm!

Picton Harbour was much smaller than I expected for a major port, but then again most towns which rate a mention on the New Zealand national map only have a few houses and a store or pub.

We skirted national park on the way to Westport on the South Island’s west coast and stopped to see a seal colony just outside the town. Families of sleek black seals sunned themselves on the rocks at the foot of the cliff Nick and I had just walked along. When the sun got too hot they just slid effortlessly into the water for a quick dip to cool down. The younger pups were still learning how to move along the rocks and kept close to their mothers. Driving along the coast we watched the rough seas as the waves crashed against rocks jutting out of the ocean, evidence the coastal cliffs have been subject to much erosion over the years.

One of New Zealand’s indiosyncracies was the number of one-way bridges making it necessary to stop and give way at regular intervals along the roads. This phenomenon was even more amazing just outside Greymouth where we crossed a one-way road/rail bridge. Not only did we have to give way to cars, but we also had to watch out for trains! This was a shock to the Aussie system.

The resort town Queenstown is geared towards extreme fun. Activities ranged from jet boat rides on Lake Wakatipu to tandem parachute jumps or a luge ride from Bob’s Peak high above the town. Even though it was late October the ski fields had experienced fresh dumps of snow that week and keen skiers had converged on Queenstown to take advantage of the white powder. The Remarkables mountain range edged one side of the Queenstown area and it looked spectacular set against the brilliant blue sky. This mountain range gave way to many other amazing peaks which we followed on the way to the Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound.

Milford Sound is actually incorrectly named because a sound is a sea-flooded valley but this was a fiord, a valley carved out by ice. The water in Milford Sound was 300 metres deep and the mountains rose for a mile from the water level. Never have a I felt so small in my life as when we took a Red Boat cruise through this magnificent fiord out to the Tasman Sea. The fiord contains salt water but also holds a layer of fresh water on top from the many metres of rainfall each year. These conditions make it perfect for deep water animal and plant life to live because sunlight cannot penetrate very far. An underwater observatory has been built alongside one of the sheer rock faces in Milford Sound. Inside the bottle-like observatory we saw fish, starfish, sea anemones and coral we will never see anywhere else in the world (unless we go deep water scuba diving). Larnach Castle is situated in the Scottish city of Dunedin. The castle was built more than 100 years ago by extremely wealthy banker/politician William Larnach and is open to the public. Ducks and chickens roamed the extensive gardens and delighted visitors to the property. Mr Larnach brought in tradesmen and materials from all over the globe to build his dream home on a hill overlooking Otago Harbour. Dunedin also boasts the World’s Steepest Street which we drove up, passing a woman pushing a pram. Brave walkers receive a certificate if they make it to the top.

Our last stop was Christchurch which was buzzing with keen Rugby fans in town for grand final between Wellington and Christchurch (Wellington won) and the Labour Day long weekend. This influx of people posed a problem finding accommodation, which we hadn’t experienced anywhere else in the country, but we found comfortable lodgings eventually. After our hectic two-week holiday we decided to take our last two days slowly taking in the tourist sights and shopping. Christchurch’s free Shuttle bus was a must to find our bearings in this beautiful city. On the Sunday morning we joined the locals at Riccarton Markets held at Riccarton Racecourse and spent the afternoon driving around the city’s port of Lyttleton and other seaside suburbs.

Our last few hours in New Zealand were spent hunting for presents for family and friends before we dropped our hire car off at the airport and boarded the plane for home. New Zealand is a nation of vast differences. In one day you can easily see a beach, rainforest, glacier and snow-capped mountains. The people are very welcoming (as long as they have recently beaten Australia in the cricket or rugby) and proud to show off their beautiful country.

Contact details: The Guiding Company, Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand, 0800 800 102 or The New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute, Hemo Road, Rotorua, New Zealand, (647) 348 9047 or Milford Sound Red Boat Cruises, Milford Sound, New Zealand, 0800 657 444. Larnach Castle, Otago Peninsula, Dunedin, New Zealand, (643) 476 1616.

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