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July 18, 2007
12th-13th January – Maruia Springs to Fox Glacier (208 miles)
The journey from Maruia Springs was fairly straightforward. Gorgeous sun greeted us in the town of Greymouth, where we dined in a strange but trendy café-bar – it used 7” records for order numbers! We topped up on petrol, checked our bank balances and rode on through Hokitiki to Fox Glacier.
The hostel was fair enough, plenty of videos (yeh no DVD player in our little section of the complex), free tea and cheap internet. We ended up watching The Talented Mr. Ripley with a few fellow travellers (an American girl and a Scottish girl) as we both had booked the same morning trek on that big icy block less than a mile away.
The previous evening had been wet, despite all the sunshine during the day, and it didn’t bode well for the 7-hour expedition ahead. However, it was fairly clear but not quite bright as the morning came. The centre was opposite our hostel and it didn’t take long to sign up and collect our military grade leather walking boots for the day.
A good old fashioned British bus that looked like it came out of the fifties took us around the corner to the site of the glacier. It’s hard really to describe what it’s like purely in words. But if you look at some of the later photos for the dots that look like people. They really are people, and this glacier is really, really big. Even the cliffs at the sides were impressive, sheer to almost vertical, a huge chasm inbetween exactly where we were wandering up.
Our guide led us over a trickling stream up the less steep side of the valley, towards one of the passageways onto the glacier. It gave us great views of the valley but it also brought the first sprinklings of rain. By the time we reached the glacier, and it was time to put our spiky shoes on (okay, they’re called crampons), a shower was in full effect.
Under any circumstances this would be a strange experience but this was surreal beyond belief. Moments ago walking though some grassy forest, and then on to a great expanse of ice, every step and stair had been hacked away only a minute before by our guide. We were walking along where the even earlier guided tour had been, but even their tracks had been melted and reformed into new formations, and had to be reformed again by sharp metal forced points to make sure we had some way of continuing forwards. This mass, this creature, was continuously changing and rearranging itself, the guides often recalled how you could wake up one morning after, and the paths would have changed completely from the day before.
Today, our path was hard-going. Heavy raingear was on by now, and the cold was beginning to show itself. About an hour into the trek on the glacier, and we had to turn back. The rain was torrential, even our guides were losing their optimism, but it was still an amazing adventure out there. All the way back off the ice, we had to fight it, carving new steps, stomping our feet into the ground for sure footing, biting our teeth against the cold. Even off the ice, we reached the trickling stream we had merely ignored on the way over, which had now turned to a roaring river. By this time, getting wet had no meaning, nothing could be wet that wasn’t already so. We simply marched through the torrent, oblivious to any change in the current that had happened.
Apparently our ordeal was worthy of free beverages when we arrived back at the station, the weather still not letting up after all the barrage we had taken. It was all that we could do to just limp back off to the hostel, beaten by the icy fortress, and wallow in some typical self-pitying English comedy in the form of Blackadder…
July 15, 2007
11th-12th January – From Kaikoura to Maruia Springs (118 miles)
After the relative high of grabbing some water time with some amazing sea mammals, I met up with Florian (who had just finished the dolphin encounter), said goodbye to Sam, and our hosts at Cray Cottage, and hit the road with a vengeance.
We had a vague idea of what we were going to do and where. We had booked a glacier hike for the morning of the 13th (we’re not superstitious folk) so we had to go cross-country to the west coast to make our appointment happen. We decided a good halfway point would be the haven of Maruia Springs. A privately owned set of spas and hot pools, where if you go for the (unadvertised) camping site, you get free access to in the evening and morning after. The weather was a little overcast still, a few spots of rain interrupted our coffee break but didn’t dampen our spirits as we found an amusing sign name to pose stupidly in front of.
As we arrived at Maruia Springs, the clouds just managed to part enough to show a bit of that bright blue sky we’d been desperately lacking. It was also enough time to put the tent up and figure out what we actually got for our money.
What we got, was quite a lot. The first area, was a series of large outdoor rock pools, naturally heated by the hot springs by the mountain but also a very unnerving murky black colour. The colour wasn’t the first thing to hit you though, it was that beautiful sulphurous smell that accompanies all things geothermal. Then the next things to hit you (or bite you) were the sandflies. Anything above water was fair game for these little minions of evil.
Eventually, we gave up with the pools, and took an invigorating massage (it literally felt like pebbles rolling down your back) from a cold waterfall nearby to clean up (it helped keep the sandflies away as well). The weather had turned again, so we moved swiftly on to the other main section of the spa, the Japanese bath house.
Japanese bath houses are different. You have to use these strange little showers before and after entering the pools, and you get this little stool to sit on, and a bowl for pouring water over you. But it was a complete haven away from the rain and sandflies. It was complete luxury to lounge in a hot pool gazing out at the mountains through a huge window listening to the pitter patter of the rain on the glass. I’m surprised I never shrivelled after staying so long in these pools, but it was beginning to get dark and we hadn’t eaten yet.
Our late meal was again a triumph for sandflies, we were reduced to eating our meal in the car, beer in the drinks holders and squishing bugs against the windows. It was a mutual consensus that we’d leg it to the bar inside the complex and stay there for as a long as was deemed reasonable (by the staff at least) before making a break back to the tent.
The morning after was much brighter, and lot more pleasant, though still not without its share of those little nightmares. We had planned an early departure, but sod that, we still had free access to the bath house, and that became an almost definite requirement in preparation for the next leg of the trip, across to Greymouth, and down the west coast to the glaciers…
July 13, 2007
11th January – Kaikoura Peninsula
As I said in the previous entry, I booked in a seal swim not much longer after the dolphin encounter. Florian had arrived and he was on the dolphin trip while me and Sam took part in this. It was a lot less busy, a bit more personal and ultimately just as interesting.
Instead of heading out to the sea, our motorized dingy took our small group out to the very tip of the rocky ground that makes up the Kaikoura Peninsula, which I had ambled along during the previous week, albeit a little further inland. On land, seals can be seen as pretty rough and lazy creatures, but there’s much to be said when you catch one taking a dive. First though, we had to get near them.
We disembarked the boat in all the appropriate gear and made our way to a small inlet between the rocks. In an attempt to not disturb any of these huge seals, we effectively commando crawled through shallow water towards the little islands they appeared to inhabit. It was pretty tough on the hands and knees, even with a wetsuit on, and with the tide trying to nudge you into the walls, it was a more enduring experience to the open water meeting with the dolphins.
We reached a deeper pool in amidst the rocks, and as we were looking around for some that were ready for a dip, two started fighting right ahead of us. Lots of growling and slapping later, one pushed the other into the water and it rushed off to perch on another island before we had chance to take notice. It wasn’t long though before our guide started pointing out seals that were tired of not getting any sun (it was quite overcast on that day) and decided to jump in. I ended up out of the rocky outcrop altogether watching one seal as it glided about underwater, trails of bubbles as it swept past, almost directly aiming for me at one point.
We had another underwater camera, and I managed to get one great picture again to illustrate just how huge their eyes are underwater. I’m quite sure it was another fluke, because this was taken as it just swerved away from me during another imminent head-on collision. Either way, it’s fair to say that on land, these creatures may seem little morose and uninspiring, but that isn’t their game. Underwater, it’s a completely different scene, and another fantastic one at that.
July 12, 2007
9th January – Offshore Kaikoura Peninsula
5 o’clock is not a normal time to wake up, but on that day I was going to squeeze into a wetsuit and jump in to deep water to swim with dolphins. With my student loan in tow, it didn’t take long for me to start spending it, I had also booked a similar seal swimming event on the 11th, because Florian had arrived, and that meant it was time for me to go on a road trip. But that comes later, for now, it was time to get wet.
The sun was still preparing to rise when me and Emma (a Scottish girl from Perth – yes the other one – who got to Cray Cottage a few days before and had started working three jobs since then) arrived at the ‘Dolphin Encounter’ centre. There were a few other people milling around as the sun peeked out from behind the peninsula and the staff finally opened the doors. A whole troop of swimmers eventually gather to collect their second skins for the morning. Getting into a wetsuit is a tight fit because these ones are a bit thicker to give an almost lifejacket-esque quality. And for the time being, it was also warm. There was 10mm between me and the water so I was hoping it would stay like that.
After a brief about safety and expectation – they pointed out you were there to entertain THEM, not the other way around – we were carted off to separate boats. Ours happened to be the smallest and quickest, but unfortunately also the lightest, as it bounced over the swells making Em a bit queasy. There were no spectators on this boat as was usual with the larger vessels so looking like a ridiculous rubber seal wasn’t exclusive to anyone.
The boat first spotted a pod of Hector’s dolphins, they are smaller, and have a more rounded ‘Mickey Mouse’ fin shape. They are apparently quite rare for the area so we did best not to disturb them. Our target was to find the dusky dolphin, larger, and more acrobatic…
Finally our time came, hoods were donned, goggles strapped on and snorkels clasped between jaws. The klaxon on the boat signalled our time to jump ship. I was one of the first to slide in, face straight down I kicked away from the boat. It was hard work. Large flippers and buoyant wetsuits make for a good floatation aid, but damn was it difficult to manoeuvre. When the dolphins finally came after a bit of flapping around, they darted around, making a mockery of my feeble attempts to try and swim in a circle, or any attempt at trying to dive. It was fascinating how agile they were, coming but an arm’s length away and then shooting off again. All the tactics were put in place to attract them, swimming in circles, diving, singing through your snorkel (that got a few laughs from some of the spectators in the other boats) but as any intelligent species would be, the dolphins got a little bored with our antics after a while and took flight.
We managed three separate occasions to meet up with the pod of Dusky dolphins, and I managed on only one occasion to grab an underwater photo worth keeping, they were that frisky. Em had been a little too queasy by the second trip off-boat, and so by the time we all returned for the final time she was not in a pleasant state. However, it was by no means over yet. There was still the aftershow dolphin party.
Our boat joined the others and we found a huge pod of dolphins on the way back up the shore. Over 200 of the magnificent creatures were swimming, jumping, diving under the boat, and generally just being amazing to watch. They seemed to be having competitions with flips and jumps simply for their own amusement, none of this was staged, there was no bait, no encouragement, it just happened there in front of us. If I can figure it out, I’ll post a video I took of them to show the action, but for now, here’s a set of shots from the spectacle (bigger versions in the Kiwi Summer gallery)...
After all that, I was pretty excited about the rest of the summer, because it definitely only the first spectacle of many…
July 09, 2007
1st-8th January – Kaikoura
A dodgy student loan payment schedule (i.e. with the English term dates rather than with the NZ dates) left me facing the new year with not a lot of money at all. My money would go through on the 7th, which would end up being the 8th here by the time it came to the UK. Until then, I had to make do with whatever entertainment I could get.
Me and Ellie fought through the new year’s hangover to try and catch the first sunrise of the year, but it turned out to be overcast. So instead that morning I decide to take it upon myself to acquaint myself with my mechanical companion for the coming week, the mountain bike. It was still pretty gloomy though for the first two days, so I just scouted out the distance of shops, the seal colony, the pub, the beach… etc. A reconnaissance mission if you will.
By the third, the weather had decided to get it’s arse in gear and be gorgeously hot. It was great cycling, feeling like I’m ten years old, trying to remember if I could still cycle none-handed (how good did that feel the first time?). I made it back to the seal colony for a coastal walk and had my first encounter with one of the little buggers. One thing you should know about seals is that usually you smell ‘em before you can see ‘em. This first time however, I was completely oblivious to anything, and before I know it, this seals pops its head up beside me and burps in my face. A lesson I doubt I’ll ever forget.
Another thing about the coastal walk was the bird population. Some more warning signs for you, if an oyster-catcher (that’s the little black one with an orange beak) starts bleating and walking away from you, you should probably follow it instead of walking away. It’s actually leading you away from its nest. If not, it will proceed to take flight and divebomb you repeatedly until you take the hint. I can tell you that these ‘hints’ were taken quite a lot on this first walk. And when a large gull starts doing it, just hide behind a rock or something, they are seriously dangerous…
Despite these naturally disturbing encounters, it was an extremely pleasant and diverse walk, as all the pictures show. The one above was from taking the cliff-top route back and the mountains in the background looked to be simply floating on the cloud strip (as well as being covered in snow!). A fantastic view.
The next few days I went inland, towards these mountains, in particular Mt. Fyffe. Unfortunately, I had neither money to get a lift, nor energy to cycle up to the summit walk, which would have been ideal. I did instead manage to cycle up a bloody great hill for some fantastic views of the peninsula, and enjoy a cycle (or roll) down the Roman-esque straight roads that lead back down the mountain, feeling the bigger rush from huge lorries that have to share the same tiny road as the rest of us.
The good weather didn’t last all week, on the seventh it was back to the relative gloom for a day, and my cycle up to the lookout was a bit fruitless compared to the previous days’ efforts. However, on the 8th the heat returned, and decided to take a trek on foot over the top where I went previously on two wheels. Amusingly, Sam took this exact moment to get trapped in a field of cows, and I got several distressed mobile calls halfway down one side of the hill. By the time I had got my bike and found where Sam was, she had thrown a bike over an electric fence, been electrocuted climbing that electric fence, and ‘chased’ by angry butch lesbian cows. Apparently. She was distracted five minutes later by a rock (she’s a geologist) so I assume it can’t have been that bad…
That afternoon I decided would be spent on the beach, giving my skin a bit of ‘sun time’ and photographing birds (in this case, the Shag) drying out (or showing off) their wings. In the morning, I had booked a dolphin swim with my imminent inflow of cash, so rest was essential…
It was at five in the morning…