Monday, April 05, 2010

Japin' round the world: The (almost) extreme adventures of Dave, featuring Dave on ice.

So for the tail-end of the Easter weekend I came to Wanaka; which is south of Twizel, and then went on to Queenstown; which is another 150km further south of Wanaka, before hitting the South Island's west coast in Franz Josef.

It was a real relief to get to Wanaka, after being in the middle of nowhere that is Twizel, as there actually seemed to be a lot more happening round here; not least because there was an airshow here over the weekend. As a result I got to see a few old planes lingering around the sky before they were shipped back to their respective locations.

So what to say about Wanaka? Basically it's beautiful. The town is situated on the lakes of Lake Wanaka, and has great views of Mount Aspiring, which sits across the water. I didn't have a great deal of time here, only about a day and a bit, but you don't need a great deal of time here though. It's very small, despite being bigger than Twizel, and you've pretty much exhausted the activities (unless you're into adventure sports in a big way and have very deep pockets to afford a lot of said activities).

What I did do whilst here was visit a strange attraction called Puzzling World. It's like a religious shrine to visual illusions and puzzles and includes all sorts of visually confuddling objects and displays like a room which is built at a 15 degree angle and one which appears normal sized and gets smaller as you walk across it. There's also a rather tricky maze outside. The Jesus, or L.Ron Hubbard of the place is a chap called Stuart Landsborough. Who in the 70s decided to build a maze on the site of the current Puzzling World, and expanded it over the years. One thing I do have to say about the place is that Landsborough should have made the actual place more puzzling to find, like for example leaving a trail of criptic clues more fiendish than the last as the only means of finding puzzling world. It would have been in keeping with the feel of the place after all.

I also took a small hike up Mount Iron which is 250 meters high and offers amazing views of Lake Wanaka and surrounding landscapes. It takes about an hour to climb the mountain, and it is a bit steep, but the view is well worth it. After that I was pretty much done with place.

After my short stint in Wanaka I then headed to Queenstown, which is a pretty world renowned town, not least because the bungy jumping craze was invented there.

My first impressions of the town was that it was like an Aspen of the southern hemisphere. The town does function as ski resort in the winter months (our summer months), but for now there was no snow. Still you could have been forgiven for thinking there was some on the way, as here it was noticeably colder than anywhere I'd been in New Zealand so far. Still despite the chillier climbs, there's no getting over that Queenstown was one of the nicest towns I've stayed in so far, despite being a little bit too full of tourists of the extreme and day trip variety.

There is a hell of a lot to do here if you have the time and the money. Unfortunately there is a bit of a mark up, because it's Queenstown, for activities. Despite that I still had a go on the gondola up to the peak, where I enjoyed a spectacular panoramic view of the town and it's surrounding areas. I also had a try of the downhill luge they have at the top. Basically it's like riding a soap-box cart downhill, but it's pretty fun.

I also had a short cruise on Lake Wakatipu, which I discovered is the worlds second purest lake. It's so pure that you can drink it without any kind of treatment, it's supposed to be better than any bottled water. Also if you drop any electrical items in it they won't short circuit. I didn't want to carry out a test of that by dropping my camera in the water, so I just trusted the guide at his word.

I also got to see some people trying out the bungees and other extreme sports you can get up to here, such as paragliding; a giant swing; and jet boating. I must admit having seen people doing the bungee, I have no desire to have a go myself. I'm terrible around heights, and the idea of jumping off a very high platform doesn't sit very well as a result. I might have considered paragliding (you're attached to someone trained in that) but didn't have the time.

By now it was time to trade one Alpen cereal-box town for another, and I began the steady trek northwards, to the South Island's west coast and to the Franz Josef Glacier.

The West Coast is a bit of a culture-shock at first, because instead of alpine pines you are greeted with rain forest. This is because the west coast - or the wet coast as some locals refer to it - has quite a high level of rain fall, and is near the sea so doesn't get too frozen. Its weird to think also, that this is one of the Earths wettest regions and I enjoyed sunny weather the entire time I was there. Still it was still weird to be faced with a landscape which seemed quite familiar to Australia, although quite a lot more mountainous.

I was quite lucky on this journey, as we had some time to kill the bus driver took us to a Fox Glacier lookout, where we could see the Glacier from a distance. The easiest way to describe it, is that it looks like a frozen waterfall, but huge and flowing down a mountain. Admittively Fox Glacier wasn't a must see thing for me here, as I was going to do a walk on the Franz Josef glacier up the road, but I'm still glad I saw it.

Franz Josef town itself is really small. Therefore you're pretty much here for the glacier or nothing, as there isn't a lot here. For example there is only one ATM for the whole town, which I have yet to see anywhere. Also it would be an ATM that can't read my debit card. Stupid Murphy's law.

Well anyway, the real reason I was in Franz Josef was for the glacier. So anyway, Franz Josef glacier on a superficial level looks similar to Fox, I know glaciologists won't like me saying this but to me it does. Then again, appearances are deceptive when it comes to these giant ice lollies - which begs the question why hasn't Coke or Pepsi seen the PR opportunity of making their own glacier from their product. Imagine it if you will. A giant theme park type place called either the Coke or Pepsi glacier. All you need is several million cubic tons of cola, a small mountainous third world nation, which is looking for serious investment in tourism (I hear Nepal is interested), and a huge amount of geothermic force. Getting back onto the subject of real glaciers, and not made up PR stunt ones, appearances are deceptive, as even though they don't look big they are. It was hard to see it, but some points were in fact kilometers away, rather than maybe 500 meters as they looked to be.

My Franz Josef experience was pretty exciting as for the first time in my life it felt like I was a mountain climber of sorts. I was given some equipement like a jacket, boots and crampons and then we were taken up to the valley which leads to the glacier. So what is it like to walk on a glacier? Well imagine walking in an ice box which has leaked a bit, comes quite close. Because the guides you're with are always hacking into the ice so you can walk safely on the surface there is ice cube like debris everywhere. It did make me wish it was a hot day and I had a cold drink, as ice cubes were pretty plentiful there. It was very cold too - unsurprisingly as I was on ice - but this was mainly due to the windchill, and the fact the glacier is incredibly steep too. The landscape of the glacier is like something out of a dream (or for those struggling to imagine it, it's like the scene in Fight Club with the imaginary Penguin. Don't know that? Well then watch Fight Club, it's really a very good film). It really isn't like anything else in the world. It's like being parachuted to Antarctica, but with a more forgiving climate.

I was also very lucky on this trip, as I was able to go into an ice cave which had been hacked out of the ice only that morning. Supposedly this only happens every week out of a month on the half day trip which I was on, so it was very good timing.

Having done the Glacier I now had no reason to stay in Franz Josef, and it was really time to hit the North Island. What followed was a very long two days of travel, which I can only describe as 'the dash north' from Franz Josef to Nelson, and then Nelson to Wellington. Still this was a really scenic trip, and also the hostel in Nelson had a hot tub which was a happy bonus.

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