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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

 

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

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.

29. Mar, 2012

Huka Prawn Park: Giant Malayasian River Prawns Evade Capture

Our mission was simple.  I would lead a small task force of seafood lovers and infiltrate Huka Prawn Park to snatch as many prawns as we could in 3 hours and return to base.  Codenamed “Operation Huka Prawn Park Hunt” we knew the risks.  We’d strike deep into the world’s only geo-thermal prawn park and use all of our stealth and patience to snatch our “targets” under the watchful eyes of scores of families and visitors.

Intelligence informed us that the prawn population was huge in both size and number and occupied 6 hectares.  “We believe that there are up to a quarter of a million Macrobrachium Rosenbergii in the area and they’re causing mayhem” our Commanding Officer, Sue Currie, announced.  “We’ve seen large numbers of parents with their children congregating in the area between 09:30 & 17:00 every day, except on Christmas Day” she added.  “And they all seem to be having way too much fun”.

We were keen to get the job done.  Rachel greeted us and briefed us on what to expect from our adversaries.  She shared her knowledge of the park’s layout and our amphibious foes’ lifecycle and breeding habits.  “Giant Malaysian River Prawns grow rapidly and are ready to harvest at 8 months” she advised.  “We also know that they are very fond of ox heart” she added as she encouraged us to hand feed some baby prawns in the Nursery & Hatchery.

“You’ll need to remain calm and patient as they are known to hide under rocks and at the bottom of the pools” she added.  Knowing that we may be in for a long haul, we applied sunscreen, hats and sunglasses and then grabbed our weapons – bamboo canes with line and hooks.  With watches synchronised at 13:30, we descended on the park.

Rachel had briefed us well.  She’d told us to expect distractions and obstacles.  Our first task was to feed the Trout to keep them from alerting anyone.  The Treasure Hunt was a breeze and we successfully negotiated the Bush Walk by hugging the Waikato River’s water’s edge.  “So far, so good” my daughter whispered to my wife.  The Adventure Walkway would be a challenge.  Would “The Gauntlet” cause our undoing, I pondered.  And was the Water Piano & Water Compass a trap?  We weren’t weary but the covered Geothermal Foot Baths provided a welcome opportunity to stop for reconnaissance.

Children were shouting excitedly, so we knew we were close.

Our rods slipped silently into the water.  Patience would be imperative.

“I’ve caught one” shrieks Cerys sporting a smile that only a 13 year old trying to upstage their parents can have.  This is going to be easier than I thought, I told myself.  I was wrong.

Our solitary captive, who Cerys named Percy the Prawn, refused to reveal where other prawns were hiding.  I respected that and was willing to release him.  Too late!  Cerys had other thoughts – she’d popped him in the pot and said he tasted delicious!

Percy must have been a lone rebel as our attempt to capture other renegades was futile.  With our mission aborted, we returned to base with empty stomachs.  We discovered that we weren’t the only task force sent out today.  A battalion of children were proudly parading bucketfuls of their captives.  Overcoming our shattered pride, we headed straight to the park’s restaurant.

“We may have lost this encounter, but we have won the day” I thought.  We may not have given the residing prawn population a run for their money but we did have several hours of fun as a family.  Huka Prawn Park’s prawns haven’t seen the last of me yet!  Rest In Peace Percy!

Mark Gwilliam is a regular contributor to www.thenewzealandtravelguide.com

© Mark David Gwilliam

08. Jan, 2012

Maori History, Dolphins & Breath Taking Scenery in Paihia

The Bay of Islands has been a favourite holiday spot for generations of Kiwi families.  At its heart, lies the picturesque seaside village of Paihia, which offers a relaxed pace for locals and tourists alike.  During the summer months, visitors use it as a base to explore the area’s enchanting 144 islands and experience its rich history.

Needing to wind-down from a hectic Christmas, I organised a short get-away at the Club Paihia timeshare resort, which nestles conveniently in the hills overlooking Paihia’s waterfront.

Arriving mid-morning from the scenic 3 hour drive from our home in Auckland, my wife, 13 year old daughter and I excitedly checked in and immediately switched to “adventure mode”.  The walk to the wharf takes less than 5 minutes – giving us enough time to discuss the scope of what adventures lay in store for us.

Explore NZ’s Ocean Adventure

We dart from one tour operator’s office to another.  Won over by Explore NZ’s friendly staff, we quickly book the last 3 seats available on Ocean Adventure for an afternoon’s adrenalin rush.  We hastily make our way over to the berth, where Darren, the boat’s skipper greets us.  His hornet coloured rigid-hulled inflatable looks all set to put us through our paces with speeds up to 70 knots per hour.

Explore NZ Ocean Adventure, Bay of Islands

He promised us that afternoon sea swells would ensure that passengers on the bow would experience a bumpy and wet ride.  Cerys responded like any 13 year old at a theme-park – she nestled into one of the available seats at the front!

“C’mon Mum, it’ll be fun” was not what Karen wanted to hear as she nervously strapped herself in next to Cerys and I.

Our adventure begins with Darren keeping to the compulsory 5 knots per hour cruising limit as we leave the safety of wharf behind.  200 metres later, and with engines fully revved, we bounce up and down on the ocean.  Nervous laughs and groans rang out everywhere.  To my left, Cerys sported a grin from ear to ear.  Karen was not so happy!

En route to the Hole-In-The-Rock (“Motukokako”), we briefly stop at Cook’s Cove on Roberton Island.  Captain Cook first anchored here in 1769 during his first circumnavigation of New Zealand and a bronze plaque commemorates his visit.  The island also has a darker side.  In 1839, a young Maori became the first person to be hanged under New Zealand Law for killing the entire Roberton family after falling in love with their daughter and cultural differences preventing him from pursuing his love.

Darren edges us inside Cathedral Cave to reveal a giant sea cave, with 40 metre walls, where Maori warriors used to practice their haka (“war chants”) in the Cave’s 360 degree acoustic surrounds.  For a moment, we keep their tradition alive as we tested the capacity of our own lungs!

Hole in the Rock, Bay of Islands

The Hole in the Rock has been carved out over centuries by wind and the ocean and is another exquisite piece of Mother Nature’s architecture.  We cruise excitedly through it – like threading cotton through the eye of a needle.

Explore NZ promised us an exhilarating afternoon of fun and adventure on the ocean and we were not disappointed.  The early morning drive from Auckland and the afternoon’s sea air ensured the 3 of us slept soundly this evening.

Wakas, dolphins and tranquility

Waitangi’s Treaty Grounds holds a very special place in New Zealand history and is regarded as a national gathering place to be shared by all New Zealanders.  The Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document) was signed on February 6 1840 between Great Britain and many Maori Chiefs.

Te Whare Runanga, Bay of Islands (photo courtesy of the Waitangi Trust)

As we enter the treaty grounds on our 2nd day in the Bay of Islands, we feel a sense of pride.  The grounds are immaculately manicured and the impressive 35 metre-long Ngatokimatawhaorua waka (Maori ceremonial war canoe) takes pride of place on the oceanfront.

Te Whare Runanga is a meeting house built to commemorate the 1940 Treaty Centenary Celebrations and is symbol of Maori involvement in signing the Treaty.  We remove our shoes and explore its exquisite carvings, depicting Maori mythology and history.

Discover the Bay Cruise

Dolphin Discovery V pulls out of the wharf a little after 13:30.  It’s a purpose built boat and our home for 4 hours as we cruise around looking for dolphins and witnessing some incredible scenery.  The skipper and his crew run through a safety briefing and we nestle into our seats with hot coffee and muffins.

30 minutes into our cruise, and we’ve already experienced coves with charming names such as Twin Lagoon; Good-fellows Bay and Honeymoon Bay.  Then we spot our first bottle-nose dolphin; then another.  Soon we’re surrounded by dolphins playing in the boat’s bow waves.  It’s easy to understand why our fellow passengers and us are fascinated by them.

Twin Lagoons, Bay of Islands

Urupukapuka Island is beautiful.  The largest of the Bay Of Island’s 144 islands, it is steeped in Maori & European history, where visitors also discover wonderful beaches, walks and opportunities to snorkel & kayak in crystal clear waters.  It’s not surprising that a wedding party group has gathered in Otehei Bay to celebrate the special day of friends and family.  Our brief stop allows us enough time to enjoy the fine white sand between our toes and a drink overlooking the stunning bay.

We zig-zag our way around a few smaller yachts moored for the evening.  Sting-rays resembling large black diamond kites glide effortlessly in the shallow waters.  Dolphin Discovery V meanders her way slowly back to Paihia and we reflect on a wonderful afternoon.

Paihia is a great option for those looking to explore this beautiful region.  Its sub-tropical climate and location makes it a perfect starting point for exploring the Bay of Islands and gaining an insight into Maori culture.  Take a journey with Explore NZ and soak up its scattered islands or cross an item off your bucket list by swimming with dolphins.  If you’re looking for a way to surprise someone special, Paihia is the perfect place!

18. Feb, 2011

Revel in the Romance of Queenstown’s Old World Charm

Widely accepted as one of the most beautiful countries in the world, New Zealand boasts so many tourist attractions that beckon travellers from near and far.  Real Journeys will take you on an unforgettable trip on Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu.
 
Let the adventure begin aboard TSS Earnslaw
Step aboard the illustrious passenger steamship TSS Earnslaw and take a cruise back in time. Relive the sights and sounds of a bygone era as you ride the last coal-fired vessel in the southern hemisphere.  Arouse   your senses as you watch puffs of ash-grey smoke billow out from the ship’s giant smokestack, and listen to the hissing engines, and the chimes of authentic telegraph bells as the skipper rings directions.

Tickle your curiosity by browsing through historical photos at the Fo’c’sle Gallery.  Or grab a cup of coffee at the café before heading out onto the deck to gaze at the glorious alpine scenery as the ship glides majestically across Lake Wakatipu’s crystal blue waters.

Lasso in the fun at Walter Peak High Country Farm
Get ready because the fun is just about to start as you get out those work boots to celebrate farm life! Disembark the Earnslaw and visit the renowned Walter Peak High Country Farm on Lake Wakatipu’s western shores.  Savour the idyllic atmosphere as the local host graciously makes you feel right at home.

Walter Peak lets you experience the simple joys of country living. Pet and feed sheep and deer in their holding pens, and get up close to the magnificent Scottish Highland cattle with their long elegant horns and thick coats.

Explore the lush farm fields the old fashioned way – by riding a sturdy horse! Hold on tight to your saddle as your guide takes you around the verdant hills to a lookout that provides panoramic views of the lake and surrounding mountains.

Your rural adventure would not be complete without a front bench view of some spectacular sheep shearing. Be amazed as the farmer quickly shears a sheep right before your very eyes, and you can even learn to spin wool!

Wine and dine at Colonel’s Homestead
Round your day off at the historic Colonel’s Homestead, where you can amble around lush lakeside gardens and enjoy tea, and home baked scones and pikelets.  Or if you’re really hungry, dine on a succulent barbecue lunch, while enjoying the incredible views from the lakeside terrace.

As you board the TSS Earnslaw for your short journey back to Queenstown, sit back and relax in the warmth of a golden sunset and reflect on your day.  Visit http://www.realjourneys.co.nz for booking information and further details.