Christchurch - Manapouri ... 04/02 - 15/02
On Wednesday morning, we take the same route as the train, direction: North. It rains all the way and Sylvie starts to feel tired. She hasn't driven for a while and 400km is quite a lot to start with, especially when driving on the wrong side of the road... oups, sorry, the left side of the road :op The last 30km are very windy but the Kiwis are nice enough to indicate the speed limit at each bend: 45... 35... 25 km/h! We start to worry, it will take us ages to go along the West coast!
We meet Marion and Matthieu at the Momorangi camping. We last saw them a year ago. Lucky them, they have rented a small van, fully equipped, what a comfort! Marion was our flatmate for a year in London and we are looking forward to have some good time together again. She has brought us a couple of presents, wow!!!: Psychology and Courrier International (asked by Sylvie but Ben usually steals them for a night or two), dark chocolate bars and caramels, some green clay for Sylvie's ankle and some spare inner tubes for Ben. We would have like some dried sausage (saucisson) and cheese but the import rules in New Zealand are very strict, too bad! Since we haven't celebrated Sylvie's birthday properly, we celebrate both Marion and Sylvie's birthdays.
The next day, we drive to Abel Tasman, a national park in the north west of the island. We spend an idyllic day on kayaks: shining sun, perfect blue sky and turquoise water are all there to please us. We don't know it yet but that will be one of the few sunny days we will actually get in New Zealand! A small penguin swims next to our kayaks, just enough time for us to take a picture. We picnic on a deserted sandy beach before carrying on with the tour of the islands and the park. In the evening, we have a huge BBQ and what will become our routine for the next 2 weeks or what we call in France 'l'apéro': beers and salt and vinegar crisps! As you probably have noticed, we did not come to New Zealand for the food. But at the same time we feel at home here, the supermarkets have the same product as in England and there are fish and chips everywhere. The only bad thing about Abel Tasman is the sand-flies. They are tiny, very quick and their bite is painful for days. They affect the whole of the west coast and are extremely difficult to kill as they are very small, quick and silent. Dreadful indeed! Ben's consolation is that, for once, even Sylvie gets attacked. The next day we follow the coastal route. It is a magnificent route with a couple of villages on top of beautiful blue creeks. It reminds us of the Mediterranean coast. We then follow the Bullers gorges, it looks like the Verdon gorges. We will actually often have that feeling of being either in Bretagne, the Alps, the Mediterranean coast... The flora remains a constant surprise, it is very different to what we are used to in Europe, thousands of ferns and tropical trees. New Zealand is half the size of France but the landscapes are just as diverse. On the way, we pass a country music festival in the middle of nowhere. With a bit more time, we probably would have stopped. In Cape Foulwind, we see our first seals. It is amazing and unusual to see animals in their natural habitat. Some small baby seals are trying to get to the sea but the rocks are pretty big for them and they struggle to climb. They change their game and decide to annoy an adult seal who is lazily sunbathing. Some seals paddle in the sea. They are so agile and fast once in the water.
Our next stop is Pancakes Rocks. The cliffs really look like a pile of staked pancakes. This is due to a combination of sedimentation and erosion that occurred millions of years ago. On the road, several signs indicate the presence of penguins but the road is actually hundreds of meters above the sea! Are they making fun of the tourists? The road sometimes exasperate us, it is very windy and that is already a challenge but that is not all. Nearly all bridges are one way only. Even though they are indicated, the visibility is not always very good and we hope the cars coming the other way are slowing down. But that is not the most dangerous thing about driving in New Zealand. The signs are always posted at the last minute, at the turn of the intersection or even after. Once we were driving on a main road at a 100km/h (the speed limit in NZ). In the distance we see signs indicating to the right and the left. It looks like the main road is bending right and continuing but at the last moment we see a 'Give-Way' sign, Sylvie brakes desperately and Matthieu avoids us at the last second. New Zealand could be named New Signland, there are signs everywhere. On the road, every turn is indicated with its recommended speed but the worse are without doubt all the road safety signs. They did a major crack down on speeding and drink-driving and it worked but we are not used to it. Sometimes we spend more time looking at the sign trying to understand its meaning than look at the road. Those signs and the constant bashing on TV are a bit demoralising. It seems there is a high risk of dying either in a car accident or of skin cancer.
We discover our first glaciers: Franz Josef (dedicated to the Hongro-Austrian emperor) and the Fox (dedicated to New Zealand's first prime minister). Signs showing the limit of the 2 glaciers in 1870 indicate that they have gone back several kilometres, it's scary!
We stop in Ross, it's raining like hell again. In Christchurch, Steve made us taste some special honey from here. The flowers only blossom once every three years but the result is sumptuous. Unfortunately they did not blossom this year so we go for Manuka honey, renowned for its healing properties. The old lady at the counter is extremely talkative and it takes us 15 minutes to escape!
We are very disappointed by Lake Matheson. The weather is not good enough and the reflection is not clear, the wind wrinkles the surface. It looked so beautiful on the postcards!
New Zealand is very tourism-oriented. Tracks are clearly indicated, the ground is usually covered with gravel or even wooden paths to indicate the way. There are i-sites in all touristy locations and we find them extremely competent and practical. They also usually have internet access. The brochures, maps, campground listings are extremely good too. The campgrounds range from the basic DOC campsites to the luxurious Top 10 with all the facilities, including kitchen and TV room.
We see a lot of cyclist on the road. Every time, Ben lets out a little sigh. Usually, we are on our bikes and other cyclists come to us and have a chat but in the car, it's like travelling incognito. We even see a recumbent and a mixed tandem (standing at the back and recumbent in the front) but we cannot stop as we are on the wrong side of the road.
We stay two days in Wanaka, a small town next to a beautiful blue lake and the mountains. We walk up to the Rob Roy glacier. It takes us 1 hour by car to get to the walking track, the road is not sealed and there are a couple of deep fords (small river crossings). The walk in the forest is wonderful: ferns, huge trees, coloured flowers. There are not many birds but the main occupier, the kea, is a funny one. A thousand years ago, when NZ was not populated, birds did not have predators and slowly lost their ability to fly. Most birds look like big balls of feathers on two very long stick-like legs: weka, pukeko and the famous kiwi. All those birds struggle to stay alive, the settlers brought with them a lot of predators like dogs, rats, cats, foxes... Every time humans tried to introduce new species they endangered other ones. Even the cute opossums are considered a pest and several shops sell their fur.
We picnic at the foot of the glacier. Pieces of ice fall from the glacier with a thundering noise, leaving a white trail behind them. Glaciers are constantly moving, ice accumulates itself at the top and melts at the bottom. If ice melts faster than it accumulates at the top, the glacier recedes, and it has been happening for a few years now.
We then go to Queenstown via the highest sealed road in New Zealand. It reminds us of the French Alps, the road is very windy and at the top the wind is extremely strong. After a quick picture, we go back down on the other side at 30km/h as the road is tightly sinuous. 2 cyclists are struggling to go up, not bad to travel in a car for once :o) We stop in Arrowtown, a small historical town. Historical usually means not more than a 150 years though :o) New Zealand is the last country to have been 'discovered' in the 19th century. The houses have a colonial style, small bungalows with wooden planks walls and corrugated iron roofs (it is funny since in Europe that would be for slums). There is also a small Chinese settlement. Chinese people immigrated to Australia in the 19th century to seek gold. They used to live in small stone houses, several of them in a single room. Even though it is summer, it is cold and we imagine how hard it must have been for those poor people during the winter.
Queenstown has been nicknamed the capital of fun and adventure! Rafting, bungy jumping, jet boat in the gorges, you name it... all the activities that would make your adrenaline go up the roof basically! We only stay for lunch and head for Te Anau, the starting point of the road to Milford Sound. It follows a valley between two chains of mountains like it is often the case here. Just before the fjord, we go through an awful tunnel: no lights and going steeply downhill. We are glad we are not on our bikes! We remember how scary the tunnels were in Turkey especially the one where Benoit crashed head first. We are very lucky, after so many days of rain, the sun is shining. We picnic in the car park in Matthieu and Marion's van (what a feeling). A big camper-van attracts our attention. The people parked it on 2 spots so that they can set their table and have lunch outside. There are a lot of people waiting for a parking space. How rude of them! The four of us start taking bets on what their nationality might be and we reach the same conclusion: French or Italian? Unfortunately, when Ben goes and checks, they are French! We then board a very small boat, much better than the big ones with 100 people in them. We are only 10, great! Milford Sound is in the Fjordland part of the south island. It is similar to the ones in Norway: high cliffs becoming narrower or larger at each turn like a boa constrictor. The boat gets really close to a whole family of seals sunbathing on the rocks and playing in the water. They don't seem bothered by the boat and the thousand of photos we take. A little bit further, a penguin is playing hide and seek with us, very clumsy on the rocks but once in the water, it's a real rocket. The captain is also having fun, trying to get the boat as close as possible to the waterfalls so that we get wet. Ben, Matthieu and Marion pretend to take a shower while Sylvie takes pictures of the rainbow.
On our way back, at the exit of the tunnel, several keas are waiting for us! They look like big greyish green parrots. They are very intelligent creatures. As soon as we stop to take a picture, one of them jumps on the car and another one on the bonnet. They start eating the rubber parts of the car like the screen-wipers. One of them gets in the car and sits on Sylvie's seat! Ben doesn't even have the time to take a picture, Sylvie is already on him. There won't be much left of the seats if we don't kick them out. When we leave, they stay on the top of the car. Ben has to go out and scare them. We heard so many stories about keas and how clever they are. The best one is about those two climbers who spent an evening in a hut on Mount Cook and when they woke up in the morning found they couldn't get out. The keas had learnt how to lock the door with the bolt! Another good one is the story of these trampers who went into a hut and wanted to sleep. When the keas started to knock on the roof, one of them started knocking back with a broom. Very sceptical, one of the keas stayed next to the window to check what was going on while the other one knocked on the roof again. As they couldn't explain to each other, they swapped positions and started knocking on the roof again. Not bad for a bird!
The same evening, we camp on the shore of Lake Gunn and meet Timothée et Teresa, friends of Marion and Matthieu. They are in New Zealand and alternate between picking fruits and touring the country. They have some funny stories about cherry-picking. To get rid of the birds, people try everything: speakers blasting the sound of prey birds, quads driving across the orchards with loud sirens... even shooting the birds! After the rain, the water stays on top of the cherries which then start rotting. So they send helicopters to dry the fruits!
We spend the week-end in Manapouri, in a lovely camp site. Old cars are scattered across the site and bungalows have been built like a small village. Marion and Matthieu only stay one evening and then leave for Dunedin on the east coast. We take a rest day!