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July 18, 2007

Fox Glacier Mints

Fox Glacier 1

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.

The reason I wore a hat for the rest of the day Danger Danger

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.

Dots for people More dots for people

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.

Before the rain Fox Glacier 6

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.

Fox Glacier 8

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.

Fox Glacier 10 Fox Glacier 10

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

Hot Springs and Sandflies

Maruia Springs 5

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.

Maruia Springs 1 Maruia Springs 1

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.

Maruia Springs 3 Maruia Springs 4

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

Seal Shots

DolphinsNSeals 9

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.

DolphinsNSeals 12

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.

DolphinsNSeals 3

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

Dolphin Encounter!

DolphinsNSeals 4

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…

DolphinsNSeals 8

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.

DolphinsNSeals 11

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)...

DolphinsNSeals 7 DolphinsNSeals 6
DolphinsNSeals 2 DolphinsNSeals 10

After all that, I was pretty excited about the rest of the summer, because it definitely only the first spectacle of many…

July 01, 2007

A Kiwi Christmas (Part 2)

Christmas 3

25-26th December – Half Moon Bay, Auckland

So, what better place to rejoin the adventures as Christmas Day?
There was still a meal to be made and plenty of things to be sorted, so the morning was a panic of hoovering and cleaning before the Coopers extended family came along (both Dennis’ and Beverley’s brothers plus family). All minus Jens’ friend Vaughn, both unfortunately and amusingly, as it turns out I’d meet almost his entire family before himself.

Thankfully, the turkey had properly defrosted overnight, so I just had to fiddle with its innards and clear it out for all the stuffing before cooking it. After packing it all properly, I realised I had nothing to close the ‘backend’ up, and nothing to tie the legs together. A quick bolt around the house revealed no suitable string of any use, so I resorted to two office paper clips as a kind of brace, which apparently work a treat (that’s Kiwi engineering ingenuity for you). I shuffled it into the oven, and joined the others in making the place a worthy spot for a feast.

Christmas 4

And what a feast it was (as you can see above). A prawn salad starter prepared by Word on the table was that my turkey was the best of the two we had, but I won’t push for any accolades. Needless to say, it was all gorgeous, and Dennis brought out some millennium primed champagne to sweeten the occasion a little more. Even Jens’ and Jonas’ Stolen went down well, regardless of what his expression in this photo might be telling you. I think it’s probably because this is the ‘before’ shot, and when everyone actually liked it, a much more satisfied Jens appeared.

Christmas 6Christmas 7

After that, drinks in the lounge accompanied the obligatory present opening ceremony. We weren’t expecting the crate of Beck’s, but it went down very nicely all the same. And as quickly as all the other days seem to have gone, together with a full belly, and everyone primed for sleep, the Kiwi Christmas was over. It was my first Christmas away from my own family and friends, but still one that felt like home, so I’d like to thank the Coopers especially for making it so memorable.

It’s probably a testament to the day’s enjoyment that it took us the whole of the next day to get over it, and finally get our arses in gear to begin the next leg of the trek, where I’d finally get down towards the South Island (after parting company with Jens, Jonas and the Coopers) ready for the new year…

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