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04. May, 2013

Taieri Gorge Railways – one of the world’s great train trips

I braced myself against the safety rail at the end of the carriage and squinted as the wind and splashes of rain caught my face. Nevertheless, I was determined to take a photo. The train was rumbling through a steep ravine. Tufts of green vegetation peeked out from the fissures in the rock and trailed down the precipitous rock-face. Despite a day of changeable weather, this view was a stunner!

As part of our two-week tour of New Zealand’s South Island, we had stopped in Dunedin. Top of our list of things to see and do was the Taieri Gorge Railways train ride – the Dunedin to Pukerangi summer trip. This excursion was a first for all of us, and a great choice since my wife’s parents had joined us on this holiday. My father-in-law is a railway enthusiast and had worked on the railways back in the UK.

The Taieri Gorge train ride is on the AA’s 101 things for Kiwis to do – and since I’m 75% of my way through the list – I decided it was high time I bought myself a ticket! We were staying in Dunedin for two nights and our trip was scheduled for 14 January. On an overcast afternoon, we drove to the station and parked nearby; ready for the 14:30 departure.

What a better way to start a scenic train ride than at Dunedin’s majestic railway station. Built in Flemish renaissance style, this grand building’s facade is chequered white and grey in dark basalt and Oamaru limestone. We walked through the booking hall, over the exquisite mosaic floor and out onto a long platform. A mustard-coloured train greeted us. The carriages were old and wooden; restored rolling stock from the 1920s. Staff scuttled around, as the last preparations were made before departure. We climbed on board and listened to Dave – one of the train hands – who gave us a few pointers about the best spots for taking photos during the trip. I thought about another journey on a single gauge railway that I had taken from Palma to Soller in Majorca, years ago. That trip had been spectacular. Would this one be as good?

The train’s whistle echoed along the platform. Then, we were off, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, rumbling through Dunedin’s western suburbs. On the way, we passed the old Carisbrook Stadium – nicknamed ‘the house of pain’ – as the All Blacks rarely lost there. These days, rugby matches take place in the gleaming new Forsyth Barr Stadium near the harbour.

Outside the train windows, the scenery began to change. We sank back against our velour seats and watched rain splatter against the glass. The train was packed with tour groups and American cruise ship passengers. I strained to listen to the interesting running commentary; difficult over the chatter of a KirraTour group and the laughter of a British couple in the seat behind us.  The tempting aroma of coffee drifted through the carriage as an attendant wheeled a refreshment cart towards us.

Green hills slid by, studded with beech and southern ratas. Birds of prey wheeled overhead and the woolly, white dots of sheep contrasted against the velvet-green.  Wrought iron viaducts spanned rugged ravines – landscape we would never have had access to by road.  As the train rattled over one of the bridges, we gazed down at the 100 metre drop. Far below, I could see a river snaking its way through the belly of the gorge.

The Taieri Gorge line stretches sixty kilometres, from Dunedin to Middlemarch, and was started in 1879. It ran for less than a century until its closure in 1990. A trust bought this tract of line off the Otago Central Railway, so that once the line closed, it was able to preserve the line and run it as a tourist venture. Much blood and sweat would have gone into building the railway line over such rocky, steep terrain, and the tunnels were all dug by hand. These days, this is the only section of rail remaining in Central Otago. In 1993, the rest of the Central Otago network, from Middlemarch to Clyde, was handed over to the Department of Conversation and turned into the Central Otago Rail Trail.

By the time we reached Hindon, the sun was peeking through the clouds. The air was crisp, clean, and laced with the faint smell of diesel. After a short break, we were off again and heading for Pukerangi.  Two-hundred and fifty metres above sea level, ‘Pukerangi’ means ‘Hills of Heaven’ in Māori.  An old, clapboard station, painted cream and white, with an inviting red door, greeted us there – a testament to days gone by. The train driver climbed down from the engine and joined us for this stop. He cut an unforgettable figure in a blue boiler suit and a magnificent white moustache and beard.

Pukerangi marked the end of the line for us, but on other excursions the train travels as far as Middlemarch. The Taieri George trip cuts through wild country that kept our eyes glued to the window.  A return fare to Pukerangi is $86 while a return trip to Middlemarch is $99. For those wishing to explore Central Otago from either of these stops, you can also buy one-way tickets, for $57 and $66 respectively. Taieri Gorge Railways also sells train/coach tickets from Dunedin to Queenstown for $148. Children’s fares are available on all these routes.

Was the Taieri Gorge excursion as good as that trip I took in Spain all those years ago – absolutely! The combination of value for money; incredible, dramatic scenery and a nostalgic trip into New Zealand’s past all make this trip a ‘must’ for any visitor to Dunedin.

For more information on this excursion visit the Taieri Gorge Railway website:
www.taieri.co.nz
Email: reserve@taieri.co.nz
Telephone: +64 3 477 4449

Excursions depart from:
The Dunedin Railway Station
Anzac Square
Dunedin
New Zealand

12. Apr, 2013

Discover the Hidden Gems of Fiordland

Nestled in the western corner of New Zealand’s South Island, Fiordland National Park is a World Heritage site and is the renowned home of breath-taking Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. This region of New Zealand is present to a striking and dramatic landscape, making it the top destination to visit in New Zealand. A traditional Maori legend suggests that TuTeRakiWhanoa, a Godly being, sculpted the fiords himself. It is hard to imagine what geographical events could lead to such a captivating landscape, but this element of wonder makes the fiords even more spectacular. TeAnau is the closet town to the fiords and offers a mysterious underground world of thousands of shimmering glow-worms.

Milford Sound: The Most Visited Place In New Zealand

Milford Sound is the only fiord that is accessible by road, but the best way to explore it is on a Milford Sound Nature Cruise as it allows you to get up close and personal to the diverse wildlife found here, including playful dolphins and seals. If you visit during the right season you can see the extremely rare and treasured Fiordland crested penguins. As you travel down the narrow 22-kilometer fiord, a mesmerizing hedge of cliffs, peaks, thick native forest and stunning waterfalls will surround you. This region of New Zealand is often visited by rain, which causes an eerie ambiance as the mist softens the towering peaks.

Doubtful Sound: The Sound of Pure Silence

While Milford Sound is the most visited of the fiords, Doubtful Sound has a lot to offer – it is three times the size of Milford Sound and has the advantage of no inhabitants and no helicopters or planes flying overhead. Doubtful Sound is dubbed the Sound of Silence, which will only be broken by the sound of a cascading waterfall or the sweet melody of birdsong. This silence is what sets Doubtful Sound apart from the other fiords and provides you with the tranquillity to really appreciate the breath-taking scenery. Because of the vastness and sheer size of Doubtful Sound, it’s important you select a tour that will allow you to properly explore this natural wonder. The Doubtful Sound Wilderness Cruise has been specially designed to showcase the highlights of this fiord, while tailoring each day to the weather conditions and wildlife sightings.

When To Visit The Sounds

Although the fiords are striking all year round, visiting in the late summer months to beginning of autumn is recommended to ensure the best weather conditions possible. March, April and May are a great time to visit as you will miss the peak tourist season, allowing you a little more privacy to savour the spectacular beauty of Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound.  The Fiordlands are known to have four seasons in one day; it is not unusual to go from sunshine to rain in what feels like minutes, so pack appropriately.

The Hidden Wonders of TeAnau

TeAnau is the closet town to the Fiordland National park and is a sleepy, small town. Many visitors to the region use it as a base for visiting the Sounds, but neglect to explore one of its greatest secrets: the glow-worm caves. These caves have been carved over 12,000 years by the force of the river flowing through them and are home to special glow-worms that are unique to New Zealand. To visit the glow-worm caves; you will enjoy a short cruise to the Western Shores of TeAnau Lake, before taking a much smaller boat through the caves.

As you enter the caves you’ll hear the trashing sound of heavy water flow. The caves are gently lit up so you can see the striking shape of the limestone and the incredible detail that the water has itched into the caves. As you head further into the caves, silence creeps in and the ceiling of the cave is lit up with thousands of little glittering glow-worms. Visiting the glow-worms will delight travellers of all ages, but especially is great for children who will be delighted by the star-like appearance of the sparkly glow-worms.

No trip to New Zealand would be complete without visiting one of the extraordinary fiords, whether you choose Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound or spoil yourself with a visit to both. While in the area, make sure you don’t pass up the special and natural wonder of visiting TeAnau caves and their illuminated inhabitants. These places all offer you a distinctively New Zealand experience, while showcasing some of the best natural wonders in the world.

To discover more about excursions to Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and TeAnau’sGlowworm Caves visit: www.realjourneys.co.nz

 

06. Apr, 2013

Airlie Beach & The Whitsundays – Tropical Paradise

Sail on the warm winds through 74 islands in the very heart of the Great Barrier Reef.  Drop anchor and discover white secluded beaches.  And, of course, dive the heart of the enormous Great Barrier Reef. The Whitsunday Islands are the essential experience for anyone who is fascinated by coral reefs and all seekers of paradise.

Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach & The Whitsundays

Whitehaven Beach

Airlie Beach is often the starting point for Whitsundays holiday makers with its bustling village atmosphere, teaming with divers and tourists from around the world. There are marine biologists, novice Japanese students, partying European backpackers, North American honeymooners, Aussie families, Kiwi sailors and more. It pumps with enthusiasm as people take to the reef by day and party the night away.

There is a large range of accommodation from stylish resort hotels on the water to serviced apartments on the hillside, from boutique bed and breakfast to backpacker hostel, camping sites and caravan parks. The town achieves a gentle balance between luxury and adventure that gives is kind of a loveable laconic feel.

If you aren’t sure what part of the reef or island to head to first, there’s plenty of advice being swapped on the beach and in cafes.  Travel agents and tour guides offer option to Jet Ski or kayak through the tropical islands.  Or for a bird’s eye hire a seaplane, helicopter or a sky dive.

If you or one of your loved ones aren’t crazy about using your sea legs or don’t fancy getting wet to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef, underwater viewing chambers, glass bottom boats and coral semi-submersibles offer an alternative.

Sailing and Diving the Great Barrier Reef

Set sail in the warm waters powered by the gentle breeze of the Coral Sea.  As the mainland fades behind you, the grandeur of the sea looms and soon engulfs you. Take a deep sea breath and enjoy the freedom of being master of the sea.

Most of the Whitsunday Islands are uninhabited and it’s easy to find an unspoilt white beach to pull into.

It’s time to take the plunge. The Great Barrier Reef is home to tens of thousands of species of brilliantly coloured fish and coral reef species. There is an infinite variety of inconceivably beautiful colours that can only be seen in this alternative underwater world.

There are 1,400 coral reef fish species and 630 species of star fish to mesmerise you. There are also 14 species of sea snakes.

Marine Turtle

Marine Turtle

Watch out for one of the seven species of marine turtles with their gawky determined as they paddle the tide. Then there are the 133 eerie shark species looming about (harmlessly). The graceful rays seem to gently flap, float and hover like spaceships.  Thousands of exotic creatures go about their daily lives among the reef before your very eyes.

Back on the boat keep your eyes peeled for some of the 30 species of whales and dolphins that are known to frolic and entertain tourists.

Airlie Beach and Hamilton Island also offer a base for fishing charters to the waters of the outer Great Barrier Reef.  Keen fisherman can chase tuna, mackerel and coral trout. But most sailfish and all the legendary black marlin will have to be tagged and released. The Great Barrier Reef is a giant protected marine park, after all.

Sleeping on the Whitsunday Islands

For families and romantics, sleeping on the islands is a great all-inclusive choice while exploring the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsunday region. Most of the island resorts are fringed by coral reefs at their doorstep and all have the translucent sands and lapping lagoons just waiting to be lazed in.  Just eight islands offer accommodation but they do it with style and precision.  There are eco-style, family friendly, activity based (golfing, fishing), food and wine focused or pure luxury.

The Last Dot in the Sand

You might be wondering what can surpass what you’ve already seen and experienced on the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef. The answer- Whitehaven Beach.

Whitehaven Beach is widely considered be one of the most beautiful on the planet- if not the most beautiful. It stretches for seven stunning kilometres of perfection. The sand is almost 100% silica which gives it the lucid white that looks completely surreal against the blue sea. Stepping ashore and sinking into the powder-fine sand, you’ve reached paradise. Search over.

31. Mar, 2013

Spectacular Beauty of Milford Sound Unfolds at Altitude

With spectacular waterfalls, dramatic sheer cliffs, lush rainforest and piercing blue water, New Zealand’s Milford Sound is the pinnacle of natural beauty.

Nestled on the south west of New Zealand’s South Island, Milford Sound’s dramatic primeval landscape is a particularly special creation of nature.

Subsequently it comes as no surprise that a visit to this secluded piece of paradise is a highlight for both New Zealanders and international visitors alike. Consistently rated as one of the most beautiful places in the world by travel writers and publications, it was judged the world’s top travel destination in a 2008 TripAdvisor survey. Rudyard Kipling also once described Milford Sound as the ‘eighth natural wonder of the world’.

The most recognised fiord in the region, Milford Sound runs for approximately 16km from the open Tasman sea to the head of the fiord.  Close to a million tourists visit every year to marvel at the geological forces that during the Ice Age created sheer cliffs which plunge into the fiord at depths of 100-450 metres.

Despite the proliferation of natural elements which are each striking in their own right, many believe that Milford Sound’s crowning jewel is in fact the impressive Mitre Peak. Rising up to 1,693m, the prominent mountain actually consists of five individual summits and looks particularly magnificent when it stands proud snowcapped in winter.

While some argue that the two hour journey to Milford Sound taking the alpine Milford Road from Te Anau (119km) is the best way for the region to unveil its beauty, it is in fact flying from Queenstown that offers a breathtaking and unrivalled vista that only can only be experienced at altitude.

Milford Sound Scenic Flights offers the best of both worlds with its fly-cruise-fly combo package which lets you absorb the sheer scale and beauty of the landscape from both the sky and on the water.

Elbowing for a good vantage point is never a problem with this reputable tour operator as every passenger gets their own window seat on the plane. The perfect solution for those arguments about who is going to sit in the aisle seat!

Departing from Queenstown, the flight to Milford Sound offers a distinctive advantage by offering unobstructed views of the other picturesque lakes, mountains and fiords in the World Heritage Fiordland National Park.

Once you arrive at Milford Sound, a leisurely two hour boat trip lets you soak up the scenery from up close and explore all of the nooks and crannies of the fiord. On a fine day, the mirrored surface of the water reflects the surrounding majestic peaks leaving you with an indelible and unforgettable image.

The region’s unique eco-system makes Milford Sound one of the wettest places in New Zealand – raining 182 days of the year. The result of this weather pattern is a breathtaking underwater environment which supports many thriving marine wildlife including seals, penguins and dolphins which can often be seen from the cruise. Milford Sound also sustains the world’s biggest population of around seven million black coral trees, some of which are up to 200 years old and form a majority of the lush rainforest which surround the fiord.

During periods of high rainfall, a deluge of temporary waterfalls bore down from cliff faces, creating a magical spectacle along the fiord and the Milford Road. There are also two permanent waterfalls year-round; Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls.

On the return leg back to Queenstown, the flight path takes you over Sutherland Falls and shimmering glaciers of Fiordland’s National Park before cruising back over the Southern Alps and Lake Wakatipu.

Milford Sound is named after Milford Haven in Wales while the Maori name is ‘Piopiotahi’ which means a single piopio, a now extinct thrush-like bird. This dates back to a Maori legend about when Maui attempted to gain immortality for mankind. When he died as a result, it is alleged that a piopio flew to Milford Sound in mourning.

A visit to Milford Sound will leave you safe with the knowledge that you have experienced one of the most pristine and naturally beautiful destinations in the world.

Where is Milford Sound?
295km from Queenstown (4 hours 15 mins drive time)
121km from Te Anau (2 hours 15 mins drive time)

Milford Sounds Scenic Flights (Fly-Cruise-Fly)
Duration – approximately 4 hours (prices vary depending on season)

For more information visit www.milfordflights.co.nz

28. Mar, 2013

Cairns – A haven for peace and tranquility

Balmy…the moment you step off of the plane in Cairns and smell the moist sweet tropical breeze you know you’re in North Queensland.

Sure,you can take a boat trip and scuba dive in the World Heritage Listed Great Barrier Reef, but there are more than enough things in to see and do.

In, Around & Above Cairns

Cairns’ famous Esplanade Lagoon, which overlooks the Barrier Reef, is a place where you’ll hear every accent in the United Nations and tempt your taste buds with all types of food.  It’s packed with market stalls, cafes and bars. If you look beyond the modern facades, you’ll also get a sense of the old stone colonial architecture and a reminder that not that many years ago Cairns was an outpost only for the hardcore diver and even earlier – a Japanese pearl diving town.

South-West of Cairns, on the Tully River, there are rapids for rafting all year.North-West of Cairns’ must-see sights is Kuranda Village which sits on top of a mountain.  You can get there by train passing some picturesque sugar cane farms. The train stops at Barron Gorge for the not-so-feint-hearted to view the 250 metre high Barron Falls.

There’s also fishing in the rivers and all the usual helicopter rides, bungee jumps and balloon rides that can help you get a great panoramic view from above the unique lines of geography (the reef, the beaches and the rainforest).

Cairn’s beaches

Cairn’s beach

Palm Cove Beach

A great place to stay when your first arrive is Holloways Beach with all the tropical clichés of coconut trees overhanging golden sands. Hidden in the jungle (yes you are still in Cairns) are Balinese style resorts, as well as family run B&Bs.

There are cafés and restaurants with some offering dining right next to the ocean’s edge.  Because it’s on the East Coast of Australia, you’ll catch the golden sunrise rather than the sunset.  The reflections on the calm Coral Sea are a spectacular site at night.

Trinity Beach is just a little further north.  Buildings here are low-rise and the emerald palm trees line the often empty but stunning beach. Clifton Beach, further north, offers more of the same again.

Palm Cove beach is a tranquil spot for dip. All the beaches here have nets to keep away those dreaded stingrays between November and May. The coast is bursting with wildlife including all kinds of rays and jellyfish, friendly and unfriendly (but most not deadly) and is part of the uniqueness as you are reminded that the sea, beach and jungle is their territory and we are just privileged guests.

The Daintree Forest

The world’s oldest rainforest is just a whisper away.  Some call the Daintree Forest“the oxygen factory”.  The variety of colours of the millions of plants, many dating back to the dawn of time, and of the mosaic of insects, marsupials and reptiles that have to be seen to be believed.

Spot a shy tree kangaroo that lives high in the canopy or the green tree frog. The bats and sugar gliders are also pretty spacey, and of course there are some creepy crocodiles peeking their beady black eyes up at you from the water (and probably licking their lips underneath the water).

Daintree Forest Green Tree Frog

Daintree Forest Green Tree Frog

If you really want to get into the Daintree Forest it’s recommended you hire an indigenous tour operator who can really explain the qualities of the place and put it into its ancient perspective. There are also some magnificent luxury eco resorts to stay in.

Winding Down (or Up)

At this point you’re about half way to Port Douglas and nearing the legendary Ellis beach (which is a half hour north of Cairns).  Ellis Beach was and for some is still the ultimate beach.  It’s a vast expanse of pristine sand as far as the eye can see, lined with miles of dotted coconut trees. This world heritage listed beach is surrounded by national park and most of the accommodation is about keeping that feeling of nature and space.

You might just pause a while here – as it may seem that time has totally stood still- and yet you’ve already done and seen so much. Then it may occur to you that with all this interacting with nature and breathing in the tranquillity you haven’t even headed out to the reef yet!

 

17. Mar, 2013

Dunedin – a city of chocolate, hops and albatrosses

If you’re a chocoholic, beer connoisseur or budding David Attenborough, then Dunedin would be an excellent destination for you.  My family confess to being at least 2 out of the 3!

We only had two days and chose to focus on Cadbury World’s Tasting Tour, Speights’ Brewery Tour and a guided tour at the Royal Albatross Centre.  Yet, Dunedin has a lot more to offer than just these highlights.  It has a stunning setting. Enveloped by towering but extinct volcanoes, and spread out like a horse-shoe around its harbour, Dunedin is New Zealand’s and the Southern Hemisphere’s best preserved Victorian city.

Cadbury World

The Cadbury Chocolate factory stands proud in flashes of its world famous purple colour on Cumberland Street, in Dunedin’s centre.  The factory produces most of New Zealand’s chocolate, and the heady aroma wafts through nearby streets enticing people of all ages to rush to the nearest corner store for a chocolate fix.

Most people get excited about chocolate – and we were no exception. The five of us – me, my wife, daughter and my wife’s parents from the UK – eagerly queued for tickets. Unfortunately, not everyone shared our enthusiasm. Our tour guide had only arrived back from her summer holiday the day before and had a bad case of the grumps – perhaps he was suffering from a severe bout of chocolate withdrawals  He hurried us through the tour like we were a bunch of naughty kids.  Breathing in the sweet scent of hot chocolate, we frog-marched through the factory and caught glimpses of the production process as we went.

Disappointingly, the full tour was replaced with a much shortened version as the factory slowly returned to full production after the summer holiday shutdown.  The complimentary small ‘goody bag’ of choccies and samples of  creamy warm chocolate kept us occupied.

Speights Brewery.

Located at the bottom of Rattray Street, the brewery started during the Gold Rush in the late 1800’s. It’s now New Zealand’s largest brewery.  In the past gold nuggets attracted visitors to Dunedin; nowadays the only gold found is the liquid variety that flows from the taps!

Cerys and me at Speights

Speights is the local beer – its slogan: ‘Pride of the South’. Quite simply, if you don’t drink Speights you’re not a true ‘southern man’! The brewery is currently undergoing an extensive upgrade, but won’t be moving from its current site as it sits on a water-bore hole. Speights uses this mineral water for brewing its award-winning beers. Locals fill their water bottles for free (although the brewery does ask for a donation) from a tap on the street outside. The tour is packed full of interesting facts and history about beer – including the origin of words like ‘boozer’ (Egyptian) and ‘to skull’ a beer (Anglo-Saxon). My 14 year old daughter, Cerys, enjoyed pulling her first pint as we sampled some amber liquid.

Royal Albatross Centre.

The road out to Taiaroa Head, on the tip of the Otago Peninsula, hugs a picturesque coastline, with views across the harbour. The centre itself huddles against the skyline on a wind-swept cliff-edge.  Albatrosses love it here, due to the cold southern winds – and it’s the only mainland colony of Royal Albatross in the world.

We took a guided tour and saw plenty of the majestic seabirds soaring overhead. Their huge wingspans are, indeed, awe-inspiring. During the tour, we learnt that common household rubbish and long-line fishing hooks kill way too many birds – a tragedy when you consider how rare and magnificent these birds are.

Visitors to the centre can also do tours of nearby Fort Taiaroa; the headland has fortifications and a lighthouse. The fort was built in the shadow of the threat of Russian invasion in the late 1880s and later used for training during the First and Second World Wars. The Fort’s highlight is the fully-restored Armstrong Disappearing Gun – the only of its kind in the world.

The World's Steepest Street - Baldwin Street, Dunedin

Our brief stay in Dunedin reminded me how much this city has to offer.  Although our time was limited we still managed to pack in a few extra sights, including Baldwin Street (the world’s steepest street, with a gradient of 1:2:86) and the serenity and quiet beauty of Dunedin’s Chinese Garden.  Whether visitors are looking for a city break with a difference, or a relaxing long weekend, the city’s strengths lie in its variety of things to see and do.
Learn about the history and production of chocolate and beer (and get to sample some) and watch mighty albatrosses glide overhead. All in a weekend’s work in Dunedin!

Contact details

Cadbury World Tasting Tour:  280 Cumberland Street, Dunedin – Website: www.cadburyworld.co.nz
Speights Brewery Tour:  200 Rattray Street, Dunedin – Website: www.speights.co.nz/Brewery-Tours.aspx
Royal Albatross Centre:  1260 Harington Point Rd, Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula – Website: www.albatross.org.nz

25. Jan, 2013

The curse of Hinenuitepo on Milford Sound

Air Milford has formed a significant presence in The Southern Hemisphere’s adventure capital as a premiere operator to Milford Sound.  Mark Gwilliam checks out why Air Milford’s intimate knowledge of the Queenstown area ensures that guests who fly with them leave with an unforgettable experience that Milford Sound is voted as one of the world’s ultimate “must see” destinations.

Quite simply, Milford Sound rewards those who linger.

It is home to New Zealand’s highest waterfalls in one of the wettest parts of the world.

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound

Milford Sound is an area of unrivalled beauty and extraordinary remoteness, where towering cliffs disappear into clouds.  It’s an area of bottomless depths, where what you observe above the water is mirrored below the surface.  It’s a place where scores of waterfalls gush uncontrollably from fractures in rock faces, projecting themselves like grey ribbons fanned by gentle breezes.

But first, you have to get there.

“Hop into the co-pilot’s seat if you like” our Air Milford pilot, Matt Cameron, invites me with typical Kiwi friendliness, before giving a short safety briefing.  It’s Russ & Sarah Paylor’s last full day in New Zealand before they fly back to the UK.  Neville Smith and his wife,Sally, are also on their first ever sojourn to New Zealand and also hail from the UK – co-incidentally all 4 are from the same town – Tonbridge, Kent.

This should be a good omen.  Looking back, it was, because for the next four hours, the five of us would come together for an experience of a lifetime.

A few years ago, I booked a similar fly-cruise-fly trip with my family for my 40th birthday.  The mountain ranges were snow-capped but foggy June weather conditions prevented us from landing at Milford Sound and enjoying the cruise.  Now I was back, alone, and ready to put the record straight that Milford Sound is one of the loveliest – and remotest – places on earth.

“Welcome to my office” Matt proudly boasts after receiving flight clearance over the plane’s crackly radio for our short hop to Milford.

The plane accelerates along the tarmac and I feel a sudden sense of exhilaration.  “We’ll shortly be flying over Arthur’s Point & Skippers Canyon” Matt advised, “and you’ll get the chance to see the Shotover River, which was one of the richest gold bearing rivers in the world.  We’ll have you landing in Milford Sound in about 35 minutes” Matt adds, pulling back the throttle on our single engine 6-seater Cessna 206.  “Sit back and enjoy the views”.

“Milford Sound receives up to 180 days of rain each year, so today’s flying conditions are perfect” Matt announces.  The sun rose early on a beautiful January morning, blessed with clear blue skies with just a few specks of clouds.

Flying at 110 knots per hour, the plane climbs effortlessly to just under 2,500 metres and crosses the impressive and rocky Richardson & Humboldt Mountain Ranges.  Over the next 35 minutes our plane becomes an aluminium eagle as we act out Gandalf, and soar like a wizard surveying the Lord of The Ring’s Middle Earth.

“Look to your left and you can see Lothlorien Forest, Isengard & Ithlien Camp” Matt says.  It’s not difficult to see why Peter Jackson chose such jaw-dropping mountain terrain as we retrace the steps of wizards, hobbits, elves, and orcs.

More hidden landscapes unfold below, revealing glacier lakes, waterfalls, dark valleys and cloud-piercing summits.  I dare not blink.  My head darts left to right as Matt describes the force of nature that created this geographical masterpiece.

Approach to Milford Sound via plane

There is a sense of awe as Milford Sound comes into view, and a small landing resembling a small black liquorice strip, amid a hue of green vegetation and blue water appears.  Mitre Peak has an immediate impact as Matt flies us out to the Tasman Sea to circle and descend gently.  The mountains rise like a steel wall on either side of the Sound, as we set foot on the tarmac.

“We call them the curse of the West Coast” Matt explains as sand-flies, the size of grape pips but with voracious appetites for human flesh, start to take an interest in us.  Matt observes that the Great Britain & New Zealand synchronised sand-fly swatting teams are no match for these tiny foes and suggests “Follow me.  They won’t bother us if we keep walking because they’re slow and can’t fly fast enough to keep up with us”

He was right and a short walk to the boat jetty to board the Milford Adventurer, a small boutique vessel with capacity for 150 passengers, was welcome respite.

It’s a four-hour drive, by road, from Queenstown, so tourists arriving by bus and cars crowd the late morning/early afternoon sailings on Milford Sound.  Boarding is quick, and a headcount confirms that only 14 of us will enjoy Milford Sound’s serenity on the 09:15 cruise.  Everyone scrambles to secure prime position on the boat’s sunny decks, but soon find out there is ample room for everyone to share in the awe-inspiring views.

Out on the Sound, it’s easy to see why the Sound’s nature and unsurpassed beauty has become a World Heritage site.  According to Maori legend, a demigod called Tu-te-raki-whanoa hacked out fiords with his adze (axe), starting on New Zealand’s South Island where he created jagged coast lines.  By the time Tu-te-raki-whanoa had arrived at Milford Sound, he’d perfected his skill and carved out the magnificent fiord, which Rudyard Kipling later called ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World”.  It’s also said that Tu-te-raki-whanoa’s goddess, Hinenuitep0 was so impressed with the beauty of his carving that she created the sandfly to prevent humans from lingering in the area for too long.

Tu-te-raki-whanoa’s masterpiece is best viewed from the boat’s upper deck.  It’s hard to mentally compute the size of anything in this 16 kilometre long amphitheatre of sheer granite cliffs, waterfalls, mountains.

Only the sound of the boat’s engines and thundering waterfalls break the silence of the morning.  At 160 metres, Bowen Falls leaps out from a hanging valley in the Darren Mountain Range to produce a sparkling white arc.

Sheer vertical granite cliffs dominate the skyline and plummet into the fiord’s icy clear waters, while the iconic Mitre Peak, at 1,692m, stands proudly upright like a gigantic sentry watching over this amazing fiord.

“It’s just so stunning, isn’t it?” asks a European,  with an accent I assume is Dutch but delivered in fluent confident English, as he wrestles with his binoculars and state-of-the-art digital camera.

It’s easy to respond and in a nanosecond I reply “certainly is”.  No matter how many photos one takes, nothing can replace the magnitude of being there.  There’s a feeling of being a minnow in this ocean of beauty, swimming amid this unrivalled amphitheatre of towering cliffs and cascading waterfalls.

Stirling falls, at 146m and more than twice the height of Niagara Falls, offers the perfect opportunity to get up close.  Spray from the thundering waterfall crashes on the foredeck forcing everyone to dash for cover.

Mount Pembroke, Milford Sound

Then there’s Mount Pembroke at 2,000m, sitting proudly as the tallest mountain to look over the fiord.

But there’s plenty of life surrounding it.

Fur seals and dolphins inhabit the deep waters.  Cruising slowly out to the Tasman Sea and back down the Sound’s southern arm, a couple of Common Dolphins emerge.  A camera clicking frenzy ensues as people whoop and holler as the playful dolphins romp by, swirling and twirling around the boat.  Seal Rock also provides an opportunity to photograph New Zealand fur seals.

“I’ve never seen seals basking in the sun before except in a zoo” proclaims a middle aged woman wearing the biggest pair of sunglasses I have ever seen.

Impenetrable, ancient forests provide thick canopies; fallen tree trunks decay in the moist air offering a platform for tiny saplings to grow and shrubby lichens and mosses form carpets of vibrant greens, yellows and reds.

Kayakers hug the shoreline on one of the fiord’s sheltered arms.  The number of tour operator boats operating is strictly limited and no shore landing is permitted.

As much as everyone wants to continue this spectacular journey, we would have to settle for permanently framing the experience in our minds, as the boat arrives back at the boat terminal.

“Who is ready to go back to Queenstown?” asks Matt, knowing the true answer.  The five of us conveniently pretend that we don’t hear him, instead trying to soak up a final look at Mitre Peak whilst on terra firma.  I’m sure that Matt would also stay all day if he could.

“Just one question” Neville enquires, as the engine gurgles to life.  “I missed a bit – can we do that again?” he continues with a playful smile and typical British humour.

Seals in Milford Sound

The tiny airstrip recedes and the tarmac fades as we fly directly over the deep blue waters that only 30 minutes ago we were sailing on.  We pass Bowen Waterfalls and track north, gliding over gigantic schist cliff faces towards the highest waterfall in the area.  Lake Quill pours a steady gush of water from its jug like lip to form the impressive Sutherland Falls – the highest in New Zealand.  Its first drop is an impressive 229 metres, the second is equally as impressive at 248m and the third drop is 103m.  When it’s full, these glaciers fed falls arch in one spectacular leap of 580m.

“It’s like a mirror” exclaims Sarah referring to Lake Adelaide as it sits in a bowl of steep mountains.

An Air Milford fly-cruise-fly flight to Milford Sound is just one of the many amazing experiences New Zealand has to offer.  But when a small plane flies over rugged landscape and lands on a short airstrip within metres of the fiord, that journey becomes a trip of a lifetime.

But all good things must come to an end. We touch down a little before midday and I say goodbye to my newfound friends.

It seemed a cliché when Air Milford promised to whisk us to and from Queenstown, offer a 90-minute cruise and do it all in just under four hours. But that’s exactly what happened, and it was much better than spending it on a sweltering, crowded coach trip.

There was so much to see and the memories still burn fresh in my mind.

Sarah & Russ tease me that they are jealous that I have so much beauty on my doorstep.

I couldn’t agree more.

I travelled as a guest with Air Milford.  A fly-cruise-fly trip starts as little as $459 per adult.  They are situated at Queenstown Airport and can be reached on Phone: +64 3 442 2351.

© 2013 Mark David Gwilliam – All Rights Reserved.

 

 

15. Jun, 2012

Rafting New Zealand serve up a white-water knuckle ride on Tongariro River

Rafting New Zealand serve up a white-water knuckle ride on Tongariro River

“Any final tips?” Vladimir nervously asks our guide, Lee – not entirely sure that he really expects an honest answer. With a smile the width of the Tongariro River, the response is quick and delivered with typical Kiwi humour – “Just stay in the raft”.

Bobbing up and down like excited toddlers on a fairground carousel, the sounds of gurgling white water heightens our senses. This was it. There is no time for shirking responsibilities. We paddle intensely as if our lives depend on it as we crash through the first of over 50 white water rapids.

White-water rafting in Tongariro River
White-water rafting in Tongariro River

Tongariro River’s gentle white-water rapids are ideal for aquatic newbies like me. White-water rafting might not be an exact science with different meanings to its I, II, III, (all the way to a VI) classifications, since different countries have their own “ideas” of what constitutes what. But, whatever class you chose, you’re going to have to learn teamwork; you’re going to get wet; and you’re going to embarrass the living hell out of yourself. We could have chosen one of Rafting New Zealand’s more extreme options but opted for the class III, which still promised 2.5 hours of white knuckle adventure.

With life-jackets and helmets secured, my wife, 13-year old daughter and I introduce ourselves to our fellow adventure seekers who include Vladimir, an Australian university professor, and his two teenage children. Decked out in boots, wetsuits, blue/green/black fleece jackets (it’s supposed to be warmer than cotton), red life-jackets, and lime-green and red helmets it is hard to tell anyone apart. I guess when you look like a rainbow-stuffed bratwurst that’s bound to happen.

Didn’t I say you’d somehow manage to embarrass yourself? Who cares what you look like? Take it up with the Fashion Police – I had a river to tame. More specifically the Tongariro River, which nestles in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island, not too far from Turangi.

Our first lesson in teamwork involved us carrying the raft from the bus to the banks of the crystal clear Tongariro River. No slacking on carry-duty. We reach the riverbank. Lee shouts instructions on what to do, but it is hard to pay attention to anything other than the steep volcanic cliffs framing the river. Pushing off from the river bank, the current quickly drags us away from the comfort of terra firma. “Fast forward” roars Lee.

We paddle hard and furious through the first whirl-pool. Then silence – the calm before the storm. Sounds of hissing and roaring water catch our attention. “Hold on tight” Lee bellows in an effort to prevent the ignominy of one his guests receiving an early soaking. Our chorus of squeals and gasps boomed and echo as we successfully navigate our first obstacle.

When we we’re not buckarooing the many rapids, the tranquillity and sheer beauty of the landscape takes our minds off the job in hand. We bob and weave silently through a corridor of sheer pumice rock faces and my neck is still stiff from gazing skyward.

We even find time to paddle to the riverbank and climb a small waterfall and dive feet first into the river.

Refuelled with hot chocolate we continue to paddle left and right through smaller rapids. Suddenly, the river dog-legs around a corner and a much bigger and even angrier rapid would surely test our new-found skills. We clutch our paddles as firmly as we can and we’re soon back in mother nature’s grip and in the midst of a violent washing machine. We thrash and jolt up and down in our raft like rodeo stars in a bull-riding contest. A good soaking ensures that everyone stays wet but thankfully no one goes “man-overboard” and we simultaneously wave our paddles in a team high five.

The final few rapids ensures our raft continues to twist and turn wildly as water swirls around like a washing machine on its fastest spin setting. Losing my balance, I slip and swallow a good amount of Kiwi H2O and cling tightly to the ropes as the raft spins and is relentlessly pounded.

Lee leads us confidently through our final push as we paddle as hard as we have all day. Riding through our final rapid we feel like peas trapped in a saucepan of boiling water but realistically I guess it’s quite tame by New Zealand white water standards.

White-water rafting might not be for everyone, but anyone with a sense of adventure should give it a shot. Nothing but a white-water rafting trip transforms you from a leisurely float one minute to being hammered around on some sort of waterslide on steroids moment.

I look at Cerys and she looks like she has paddled so hard that I know it will be hours before she taps out any text messages to her friends!

Our aches and pains are quickly soothed with hot showers, complimentary drinks and hot dogs in Rafting New Zealand’s sleek, modern HQ. I was already planning my next white water adventure.

I travelled the Tongariro River with Rafting New Zealand (0064 (7) 3860352); www.raftingnewzealand.com. The Tongariro White-Water River Trip costs $109 per adult for an action packed afternoon and includes all safety equipment, hot drinks and snacks.

28. May, 2012

The Gold Coast: A mecca for adrenalin rush & super-heroes

Australia’s Gold Coast boasts an endless playground for families and has become a mecca for theme-park addicts.  If you’re looking to brave some of the world’s tallest & fastest rides, interact with nature’s finest animals or simply looking for some aquatic adventure, you won’t be disappointed.

Australia’s theme park capital boasts the Southern Hemisphere’s largest and most varied selection of theme parks. Stroll with a Bengal Tiger, defy laws of gravity or swim with dolphins. The Gold Coast’s array of choices for fun and adventure are endless and promises to leave you with long memories and even bigger smiles.  Here’s my overview of what’s on offer.

Dreamworld

Wipeout

Hold onto your breakfast as you tackle the “Big 7”. You’ll need nerves of steel and conquer your fear to tackle Australia’s tallest and fastest thrill rides. To earn your rite of passage, you’ll scream louder than you have ever done before and need the courage of an astronaut on a mission to the moon. You’ll defy gravity as you dangle upside down, be propelled faster than a bullet and plunge from the sky at breakneck speeds.

If white knuckle rides are not your “cup of tea”, stroll through the new DreamWorks Experience for as many themed rides, live stage shows and attractions as your excited little ones can bear. Meet Shrek, Princess Fiona & Puss in Boots in Shrek’s Faire Faire Away. Join in the fun as King Julien rules over his kingdom in Madagascar Madness or catch the legendary Po in Po’s Garden.

Animal lovers can watch a Bengal Tiger scale 6 metre high trees or catapult 3 metres in the air as they demonstrate their remarkable agility. With 2 daily presentations at Tiger Island you’ll be able to observe the tigers up close as they swim, play and wrestle with their handlers.

Location: 17 kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 79.99 Children – AUD 49.99
Website: www.dreamworld.com.au

Sea World

Imagine - Sea World

Discover an aquatic world of fun and frolics at Sea World. Dare to swim with sharks in Shark Bay in the world’s largest man-made lagoon system for sharks. Grab a photo with sea-lions Buddy & Clawde, the mischievous stars in “Fish Detectives”. Witness  the dolphins’ grace and agility as they playfully interact with the audience or get up close with the world’s largest land meat-eaters in Polar Bear Shores. There’s also Penguin Encounter, Ray Reef and much more to ensure that you have an action packed day observing our friends from the ocean!

Location: 2.8kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 79.99 Children – AUD 49.99
Website: www.seaworld.myfun.com.au

White Water World

Super Tubes Hydro Coaster - photo courtesy of Whitewater World

Pack your Speedos, “Boardies” or “swimmers” and get ready for a day of “flesh meets fibreglass” at White Water World.  Join the long line of teenage lemmings as the trap door on White Water World’s latest ride, “The Wedgie”, opens and sends bodies plummeting 5 storeys vertically.

Hope for a little “Irish luck” as your 4 leaf clover tube propels you into a super-sized funnel in “The Green Room” or get caught up in the tentacles of the world’s only eight lane Octopus Racer. The Blue Ringed Octopus (or more affectionately known as BRO to the locals) will transform you and your and friends into frenzied competitors as you race to glory. If you’re scared of the dark save your best high pitched shrieks for The Little Rippers. Close your eyes and feel the force of a water propelled corkscrew ride before plunging into the awaiting pool.

White Water World also caters for the less adventurous and budding water stunt artists. Wiggle Bay provides a safe & wet haven for young protégés to let off steam on the water cannons and mini water-slides as they splash and play under the watchful eyes of lifeguards.

Location: 17 kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 49.99 Children – AUD 29.99
Website: www.whitewaterworld.com.au

Warner Bros Movie World

Meet your favourite super-heroes and film stars in a world of fun and fantasy. Strap yourself in and hang on to your hats as Warner Bros. Movie World challenges the faintest of hearts. Combat your darkest fears and brace yourself for a stomach churning ride as you encounter The Joker on Arkham Asylum. Experience the Southern Hemisphere’s steepest drop on The Green Lantern or accelerate to 100 kilometres per hour in less than 2 seconds on Superman Escape.

Superman Escape

Mingle with Bugs Bunnyand other Loony Tunes characters as you wander through Movie World’s Kids’ WB Fun Zone. Jump aboard a Tijuana Taxi, hop aboard Yosemite Sam or ride on Australia’s only family roller-coaster. Don’t miss the smell of burned rubber or sound of screeching brakes in Hollywood Stunt Drive as you join the set of alive Hollywood movie production. Feel the danger and sense of adventure as you take a 4D Journey to The Centre of the Earth.

Location: 13kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 79.99 Children – AUD 49.99
Website:www.movieworld.myfun.com.au

Wet n Wild

Begin your adventure on a rubber tube on a slow flowing river as you lazily circumnavigate your way round the park’s sub-tropical gardens. Kick off your shoes on Calypso Beach before racing over to Aqua Loop to experience an exhilarating vertical descent into transparent looping slides.

Tackle the Rocky Mountains as you slide down The River Rapids or experience a wipe-out on Surfrider or if you need a bigger adrenalin rush plunge 11 metres at 50 kilometres per hour on the Kamikaze. Blast 40 metres into The Tornado as you wrestle in the eye of a storm or challenge the 200 metres of twist and turns on the Mach 5 sidewinders.

Buccaneer Bay - photo courtesy of Wet n Wild

Little pirates can hoist their sails in Buccaneer Bay. Based on a pirate theme, children enter their own aquatic world of imagination and excitement. Parents beware – stay alert for the giant bucket which frequently spills its load onto the scores of mischievous and giggling children beneath it.

Location: 13 kms north of Surfers Paradise; admission: Adults – AUD 59.99 Children – AUD 34.99
Website: www.wetnwild.myfun.com.au

 

It’s easy to see why the Gold Coast is a popular choice for families and thrill-seekers. It dares you to have fun. It invites you to interact with its wildlife and it encourages you to confront your fears. Discover its charm for yourself.

21. Apr, 2012

All’s fair in love and war on King Tutt’s Putt Putt mini-golf courses

“Mine’s the orange one” Cerys demands with a mischievous cheeky smile.“I’ll have the lilac one” adds Cerys’ friend Laura. The remaining choice hangs in the balance and my wife Karen saves me some embarrassment as she grabs the “hot-pink” ball and leaves me with the more masculine mustard yellow one.
King Tutt’s Putt Putt is in bustling Surfers Paradise on Australia’s Gold Coast and offers the perfect respite from a day at the beach or a heart-pumping afternoon on roller-coasters.  54 holes of mini-golf may not scream “classy” to most people.  But my competition has been issuing me ultimatums all day. We take our mini-golf seriously in our family!

Laura assures us that she hasn’t played mini-golf for ages.  I feel confident. I kn0w Karen is only playing to keep the peace, so that leaves my arch-rival Cerys, who shares the same competitive gene as me. “Keep your head straight and your knees slightly bent” I whisper to myself–certain that I’ll have a head start on my teenage daughter.

Laura’s “alleged” first game in ages, sees her overcoming King Tutankhamen’s curse as she sinks a short putt for a par on the 1st hole. “This’ll be more difficult than I thought” I mumble to myself.

Over the next 12 holes Cerys and Laura both sink hole-in-ones. I suddenly recall Aesop’s hare and the tortoise fable. “Stay patient” I motivate myself. It works.  We enter the Egyptian course’s “glow-in-the dark” tombs.

Perhaps it’s the dark spaces and King Tutankhamen’s loyal cobra that causes my adversaries to drop shots. It might be my playful coughing and spluttering just as they stoop to take their shots. I’m not ashamed – I’ve a game to win!

King Tutt’s Putt Putt has 2 indoor courses and 1 outside challenge.  I retain some pride on their 18 holes Egyptian course with a 5 over par 41. Now it’s time to challenge the world of dinosaurs and exploration in Jurassic park.

Almost immediately I have to start thinking hard about shot selection. “Play through or around the piping” and “should I bank left or right” I mutter, as well as wondering how I’d avoid T-Rex’s imposing stare.  But no-one listens.  My competition is not giving up any secrets and they want revenge.

For the next 18 holes we trade holes-in-one and some idle chit-chat about the life-like models and statues under the watchful gaze of prehistoric dinosaurs. I’m sure there is a little cheating going on. The mandatory one-club head relief from an obstacle becomes three on several occasions and I’m sure that scores are being “adjusted”.  But no-one says a word.  We aren’t playing normal golf rules – we are on holiday.  Or so I thought.

Cerys demands a recount. Karen insists that her adding up is as good as any A grade year 13 student and insists that her decision is final. My hole-in-one on the 17th ensured that I pulled a stroke back and tie with Cerys on 42 – 6 over par.

This is not the Australian Open. There will be no play-off, sponsor cheques to collect, nor lines of autograph hunters awaiting me – only shouts of “can we go home now please?” I accept that 36 holes are enough for one night and settle for a customary “19thhole” refreshment.

There’s plenty of parking at King Tutt’s Putt Putt, the courses are well designed and will suit all ages, and the 54 holes won’t leave a big hole in your pocket. I know I’ll never be good enough to join Tiger Woods on the professional circuit but I’ll continue to indulge in a little more family rivalry.  And I’ll keep a close eye on my daughter’s ball tampering!