It was time to leave the North Island. Even the weather gave a strong hint. Leaving Wellington it was raining and windy and the journey started on rough seas. Nothing to worry about, but not bumpy. On approaching the South Island, the clouds broke and the sun came out, the sea was smoother (even before reaching the sheltered area of Queen Charlotte Sound), giving a nice welcome.
On the way in, we encountered the Lynx ferry. (Not surprising, given the schedules of the ferries.) It's a regular car and passenger ferry, but it looks like somewhat sinister, like something a Bond villain would use.
In Picton I picked up the new rental car, after having driven 1957 km on the North Island. (You usually don't take rented cars from one island to the next, but return one car in Wellington and pick up a similar car in Picton.) Taking the scenic route, I arrived in Nelson late in the afternoon. There happened to be a Jazz festival in town and one of the bands was playing in the hotel I was staying in, so I decided to go there in the evening and listen.
That was a mistake.
It was a case of instant depression. It felt like "Murph and the Magictones" or a scene about some derelict, forsaken hotel, maybe a Wim Wenders movie. All gloom and decay. The band was playing in some corner next to the hotel bar, near the entrance of the restaurant. When they started playing, there was an audience of five people, two of them not even listening, but talking business and repeatedly talking loudly to people on the phone. An elderly pair dancing slowly and me sitting there and feeling out of place. The music didn't help much. Jazz is a pretty far field, but they were playing old, slow songs, mostly swing music that would have been fine with a big band and a dance hall with hundreds of people, but a small band, tucked away in some corner of a hotel, without much of an audience, playing these songs exactly, but rather lifeless, without improvisations or other interesting touches - it just felt odd. If a scene like this would appear in some TV episode, you'd know at once that this is some kind of hell. Either literally, where people are forced to listen to the same lifeless music over and over (or be forced to play that music) or some kind of personal hell, where people are stuck in their habits and perform the same meaningless routines over and over, because they can't think of anything else to do anymore. (Ok, I'm being overly dramatic here. So what?) So I left after a while, walked around Nelson a bit, enjoyed the nice evening, looked at the sunset, passed a couple of pubs where some Jazz bands where playing more lively kinds of music.
The major tourist attraction in Nelson is the "World of Wearable Art and Collectable Cars". The basic idea of this combination is quite cynical, patronizing and stereotypical.
Men can go to the car museum and women can watch clothes.
Once I got beyond being grouchy, it turned out to be an interesting museum, even though it is fairly small. The wearable art is an odd mixture. Some of the stuff is just that. It is art and you might be able to get into it and move around, but that's about it. It's wearable in the way a bicycle is wearable. A lot of the stuff looks great as a sculpture or maybe a stage costume for someone who has little more to do than cross the stage, but the definition of wearable art was a bit too open. I was much more interested in those bits of wearable art that resembled clothing, e.g. stuff you could wear and still sit down and have something to eat and still be artistic and original. Not much of that, but some things stood out, like a vest made from interwoven ties, or a jacket made from the inner tubings of bicycle tires, which, while it looked a bit like rubber fetish wear, had an interesting texture to it, a 'selfmade' look and the feeling of a silly idea taking seriously.
The car museum was a cut above a lot of other car museums, since they had some of the cars not just 'parked' there, but had arranged little scenes around some of them (featuring dummies with wearable art), making it look more interesting than just rows of cars. All in all the "World of Wearable Art and Collectable Cars" is an interesting place and worth a look (especially since there's little else in Nelson), but their basic concept still feels questionable, as well as their advertising. Their leaflet has quotes like "Best $15 we spent in New Zealand" and unless somebody had a very bad travel experience (or is leaving comments like "Best $12.90 we spent in New Zealand" and "Best $39.95 we spent in New Zealand" all over the country), he can't have seen or done much in New Zealand.
In the afternoon I went north again. Not back to the North Island, but about as far north as you can go on the South Island. I followed the road a couple of kilometers beyond the Cape Farewell junction to the parking lot at its end. From there it's a short walk along green hills to the beach. While it's a nice beach, it's a bit far away, so at first you wonder why the parking lot is so crowded. Until you go close to one of the smooth rocks lying close to the shore and notice that they aren't rocks at all but fur seals. (The fact that a most people at the beach seem to be taking pictures of smooth rocks should probably have been a hint.)
I was back in Nelson in the evening. It was the last evening of the year and I clearly didn't want to go to the hotel and listen to Jazz music again. Luckily there was also a small rock festival with local groups at the cricket grounds. So I welcomed the year 2004 on a warm summer night, under a cloudless sky, watching the stars, wearing jeans and a t-shirt and listening to groups like 1QA, Mother Guru and Fur Patrol. There are probably better ways to greet the New Year (like my sister did, who celebrated the New Year about half a day later on a frozen river in Finland at -38°C and one hour later in Sweden, on the other side of the river), but this one ranks fairly high.
On the first day of the new year I headed south again, towards Greymouth.
I didn't really intend to stop at Buller Gorge. I originally drove past it, since the main attractions were a swingbridge, which I didn't are much about, and a flying fox, which I didn't like much, either. (Btw, I hadn't come across the term "flying fox" before, except as a kind of fruit-bat. In Australia and New Zealand a flying fox is also any device where you stretch a wire over a gorge and then slide down the wire in some kind of contraption to the other side.) But the scenery looked nice, so I drove to the next parking spot to take some pictures.
Doing that, I noticed the jet boat and thought that it would be nice to do a jet boat tour here. So I drove back and got a ticket for the next jet boat tour, before realizing the inherent problem: I would need to get across the swingbridge (the longest in New Zealand), which I wasn't that happy to do. Even though the bridge looked quite safe and there was a safety wire mesh from the handrail to the footboards, so even if you slipped and fell down, you couldn't actually fall off the bridge, crossing the bridge wasn't fun (for me - most kids just ran across the bridge and enjoyed it), since it was not only swinging (not uncommon for a swingbridge), but the 'floor boards' were metal lattices instead of wooden boards, so looking at your feet, you did see the river down below. It's not really scary (I'm not that scared of heights), but is was uncomfortable.
The jet boat trip was great, however. Great scenery on both banks of the river, some smooth stretches, some rapids, a very shallow, crystal-clear river flowing into Buller River from the mountain, small waterfalls, perfect weather, a few 360° spins - everything a jet boat trip should have.
But after that, I had to get back over the bridge. And that is where a peculiar kind of vacation logic sets in. I looked at the flying fox and figured that it would be better to use that one to get back to the other side of the river. While hanging in some harness over the gorge didn't sound appealing, it would be over faster than walking over the bridge and I could just close my eyes and not have to do anything. In addition, I had already walked across the bridge, so I might as well do something different on the way back. So I decided: I would cross the river with the flying fox. It then turned out that there was a problem: You could only get the tickets for the flying fox on the other side of the river. So I had to cross the bridge again. And since, by then, I had set my mind on crossing with the flying fox, I had to go over the bridge one more time to go to the ride. So, by the odd twists of logic that happens only on vacations, my plan to avoid crossing the bridge again in effect meant crossing the bridge twice more instead of once.
The trip with the flying fox itself wasn't scary at all. Hanging in some kind of soft seat on a wire over the river felt (oddly) much safer than crossing the bridge. Just stopping was a bit abrupt, since there is no soft breaking mechanism, so you get thrown around a bit.
Next stop on the way were the pancake rocks. Not much to say about the place (except that it's full of german tourists, which came as a surprise at the time, since, while I noticed quite a few other german tourists in New Zealand and Tasmania so far, they were mostly individual travelers that were mixed with travelers from other places, while next to the pancake rocks, about 80% of the tourist were from Germany - I have no idea why), it's just interesting to look at.
I had been looking forward to the next day for some time (not quite as much as I looked forward to the next day, but nonetheless), but it didn't work out the way I expected.
There are two well known glaciers in New Zealand, which are located in the Southern Alps. And there is a company that offers sightseeing flights over these glaciers and also a short landing on one of the glaciers in a ski plane.
I've never been in a ski plane before, so landing on a glacier seemed like an interesting thing to do. So I tried to book a flight, but there were some problems, since they wouldn't be flying for just me. There was a flight in the morning, which was fully booked, but otherwise I was the only one wanting to fly that day. But most people book those sightseeing flights more or less spontaneously, so having no other reservations for that day didn't mean that they wouldn't have customers wanting to fly that day. So I called in the morning (no luck) and went to their office in the late morning (still no luck) and was asked to try again in the early afternoon. No problem. I was staying in that area and I wanted to walk to the glacier tongue anyway, so I might as well do that before flying.
The bottom of the glacier was rather boring, as was expected. A glacier running down a small valley carries a lot of dirt and small rocks. So while it looks fairly impressive from some distance, from close-up it looks like a pile of rubble with some white bits sticking out. Something that looks like a proper glacier can only be spotted further up in the distance (and if you're actually standing at the bottom, you can't even see that). But that's ok, that's just the way glaciers are. (And I would get a better view of the glacier from the plane later. And on the next day.)
What was fairly irritating was the way to the glacier. It felt just like a tourist attraction in the Alps in Germany or Austria. A large parking lot about two kilometers from the glacier, a number of busses, lots of tourists, lots of them speaking a south german or austrian dialect, a well marked pebble bath through, basically, a field of pebbles, 'danger' signs close to the glacier, 'extreme danger' signs and a do-not-cross rope a bit closer to the glacier... after Tasmania and the North Island this felt odd. It's the sort of organized tourism for the sake of organizing it, which I didn't expect to find here. I don't mind being restricted to specific paths for the sake of the environment, but having everyone go along the same path over the pebbles seemed wrong for New Zealand.
The people irritated me as well. It's a pet peeve of mine, but I'm always irritated by people being ridiculously prepared. It's at best an easy half-hour walk from the parking lot to the glacier. A nice walk through a valley, a couple of waterfalls on the sides, the first few minutes walking beside some green bushes. In short: A walk in the park on a sunny day. Seeing groups of people wearing mountain boots, collapsible high-tech walking sticks, small ergonomic back packs with rain gear, gore-tex jackets and fleece vests strapped to them, drinking bottles in quick release clips attached to their belts, i.e. people who got enough equipment to spend a week in the woods, just annoy me. Yes, weather conditions might change quickly, but even then the worst that could happen is that they'd have to walk half an hour in the rain and get wet. If you go out exploring, by all means carry all the best explorer gear you can afford. But having that kind of equipment for a simple walk just looked ostentatious.
Stuff like that just gets me on a soap box.
While walking back from the glacier, I noticed I was getting grumpy and annoyed. Which annoyed me even more, since I was in a great environment with a glacier, a glacial river, waterfalls, green hills, blue skies on a sunny day and I was about to ruin it for myself by silly ramblings. I also noted that, while the path was clearly marked with wooden poles, there was nothing that actually required you to follow the path. So I just went off the path and found me a little depression in the rubble from which the path couldn't be seen, sat down, and suddenly had the place all to myself. Or it least it felt like it.
Much better. It is a wonderful place after all.
After that I returned to the car and drove back to ask for the current status of the flight. The timing was perfect, but the news was mixed. There had been two guys from the Netherlands who also wanted a sightseeing flight, they also wanted to have a ski landing (they are also sightseeing flights without landings on offer and I didn't want one of those) and the flight would be in half an hour or so. The bad news was that in the morning it was too windy for the plane to land on the glacier and while, according to the weather report, the winds might subside, it wasn't predictable whether there would be a landing on the glacier before actually getting there.
When getting on the plane, the pilot asked us whether we had flown in a small plane before, we all had (I had been on a small water plane once), so he figured we knew what to expect and that it might be a slightly bumpy today due to the winds. When we reached the mountains (which are pretty close to the sea here, as you can see on some of the pictures), we got into a couple of interesting winds, since the wind got 'pushed' up the mountain sides, so every time we crossed another mountain ridge, the wind conditions changed and the plane jumped around to a certain extend. Nothing scary, but a bit of an unusual flight pattern. It only got irritating when the pilot announced (while going over one particular ridge) that there would be a turbulence ahead, "just so you're not surprised by it" and I was thinking "these weren't turbulences we've been flying through so far?". It was a bit of a drop, but since we were forewarned, it wasn't that bad.
Still, the short of it is: It was windy up there, so the pilot didn't even make an attempt at landing on skis, but decided directly to extend the sightseeing part a bit and skip the landing on the glacier altogether. We were all a quite disappointed, but we knew in advance that the landing might not happen. So we flew around a bit more (though not around Mt.Cook, since the wind on the other side of the mountain was even stronger) and then landed on normal wheels on the small airstrip near the coast.
So this was the second disappointment flight-wise. First the bi-plane flight in Rotorua didn't happen at all and now the ski-landing on a glacier had changed into a bumpy sightseeing flight. Luckily this was the last major 'thing gone wrong' in this vacation. And the next day already made up for it, so the frustration didn't linger.
Onwards to Fox Glacier...
Back to the North Island of New Zealand, part 2
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