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Home : New Zealand 2003 : Christmas in Christchurch

December 25, 2003

Christmas in Christchurch

Nicci and I and another American couple, Kalman and Sarah, who we met on an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound (more on that later) have been guests of a Kiwi family for the last couple of days. The van Roon’s house is on a sheep farm just outside Christchurch. One of Nicci’s highschool friends had met and stayed with the van Roon’s a few years ago while on an extended stay in New Zealand and at his suggestion, we had contacted Bronwyn to ask advice about visiting Christchurch over the Christmas holiday and she asked us to stay with her family.

Since my last update we drove from Wanaka to Queenstown to stay for one night. We rode on the Shotover River jet boat the afternoon of our arrival in Queenstown. These boats hold around 20 people are jet-propelled and have a shallow, 4-inch draft at speed. This means that the pilot can zip up and down the river inches from the shore and rock walls. It’s somewhat expensive, but the 30 minute ride is definitely a blast. This was our one thrill-splurge in Queenstown, New Zealand’s (if not the world’s) capital of death-defying, and expensive, activities where you can bungee jump from the first commercial jump operator, skydive, get strapped to a small, tethered airplane and spin around over a gorge, abseil, go rafting or kayaking and on and on.

We also had a thoroughly awful buffet dinner in the lodge at the top of the gondola above Queenstown. The sunset views were splendid, however.

Leaving Queenstown, we drove to Lake Manapouri in Fiordland in the extreme south of the South Island to start an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound. Probably everyone who knows anything about New Zealand has heard of Milford Sound (which we were to also visit briefly after Doubtful), but if one were to choose between cruising on one of the two fiords, I would definitely suggest Doubtful over Milford. While Milford has spectacularly steep mountains which plunge right into the sea, countless waterfalls and the famous Mitre Peak, it is also tiny in comparison to Doubtful and since one can drive to Milford (an fine drive in itself), it gets all the tourists and has many more boats and cruise ships. Doubtful Sound, which would be more accurately named Doubtful Fiord, is remote and rather inaccessible and only one cruise ship regularly sails the Fiord. An hour-long boat trip across Lake Manapouri, then another hour-long bus ride over a mountain pass takes you to Deep Cove where you board a small cruise ship for the overnight exploration of the fiord. Nicci and I had opted for a less expensive quad-share bunk room and we were paired up with another American couple, Kalman and Sarah, who are on their two-month-long honeymoon in New Zealand and Australia.

This was easily the highlight of our trip. The weather was rainy and misty going out to sea and the lush walls of the fiord arms were wrapped in wispy tendrils of cloud. We sailed out into the rough Tasman Sea to briefly view seals on the rocky islands at the mouth of the fiord before returning to the shelter within. After an afternoon snack of delicious soups we stopped in a quiet cove and disembarked to either kayak or ride in two small tender craft with the ship’s nature guides. Nicci and I and Sarah and Kalman decided to go kayaking. Aside from being attacked by biting sand flies, or black flies, kayaking on the calm, cold waters of the fiord was magical.

Considering some of the downright terrible meals we’ve had here in New Zealand, it was a nice surprise to find that the evening buffet was top-notch. Just about everything we tried was fresh, expertly prepared and quite tasty. After dinner we sipped glasses of port wine and struggled through a game of Trivial Pursuit - it was a New Zealand and Australia edition and nearly all the questions were NZ/Aus-centric.

The next morning we woke to clear skies and after breakfast (another great meal) we cruised back toward Deep Cove, stopping once or twice when dolphins were sighted. We also sailed into the Hall Arm, a very remote and sheltered arm of the fiord, stopped the engines and cut the main power to the ship in order to experience the early morning calm and quiet. The water was as smooth as glass and reflected the mountains and sky like a mirror and with no sounds from the ship we could hear all the birds calling in the forest around us. It was actually nice to experience the fiord in both the more typical rainy weather and under sunny skies.

Upon returning to Manapouri we made plans to meet up with Kalman and Sarah a few days later on the east coast since we were both heading there in a few days. We also talked to Bronwyn to confirm our eventual arrival in Christchurch and she invited Kalman and Sarah to stay over Christmas as well. We then drove to Lake Te Anau to check into the Top Ten Holiday Park there (a chain of camping/RV parks with self-catering cabins) before driving up to Milford for a quick look around. The drive to Milford was actually the best part of this side trip. We made a long stop at a field of wild lupines and a few more stops to admire (and photograph) the mountains, waterfalls and cheeky Kea birds (large alpine parrots who love to pull bits of trim and rubber off your car) along the way. I must say that Fiordland seemed the most like Middle Earth of anywhere we had visited in New Zealand, and for good reason as I understand that quite a few Lord of the Rings shooting locations were here.

Leaving Fiordland we drove to Dunedin on the east coast. We had planned on visiting the Otago Peninsula and a colony of yellow-eyed penguins here as well as the seals and albatross colony at Taiaroa Head the next day, but when we found out that the tours actually leave at 3:30 p.m. and return after dark, since the penguins return to the beach around sunset after fishing at sea all day, we hopped on the bus that afternoon instead. A rather gray, windy and cold morning in Dunedin turned sunny and warm and we enjoyed the five-plus hour tour around the peninsula.

After a night in Dunedin we drove north up the coast, stopping at Moeraki to see the weirdly spherical boulders on the beach here, to Oamaru. We stayed at the very Victorian Criterion Hotel among the beautiful old limestone buildings in the historic section of town. Our stop here was mainly to see the large colony of blue penguins which nest around the harbour. Every night just after sundown they come ashore and waddle up to their nests to feed their young. I was hoping to photograph them, but we discovered that photography was not allowed (a recent change, actually) at the main colony viewing area. I did manage to record their raucous squawking with my sound recording rig, however.

We spent the following morning exploring Oamaru’s historic district and many antique shops before driving north Bronwyn and Adrian’s house near Christchurch. We arrived on Dec. 22 and have spent the last few days exploring around Christchurch. We took a day trip out to Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, a pretty little resort town originally settle by the French. We’ve tramped around the farm here to see the sheep and horses and Bronwyn’s in-laws’ beautiful gardens. Kalman and Sarah arrived on the 23rd as well and helped us prepare a nice dinner of Salmon Wellington, roast chicken and grilled flank steak on Christmas Eve (yesterday). Last night we all drove into Christchurch and listened to Christmas Eve carols on the Avon River at Victoria Park.

I’m finally caught up, it seems. It’s Christmas Day here - Christmas Eve day at home in the U.S. We’re helping Bronwyn prepare dinner at the moment. We fly to Auckland tomorrow around noon and then to Los Angeles at midnight and finally on to Atlanta. And hopefully I’ll have time soon to begin posting images from our trip.


Posted by Scott at December 25, 2003 09:54 AM
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