On our first day in Christchurch we took the bus into town. The metro bus system is brand new and excellent, so we were surprised to see how little the city had recovered from the devastation that had hit the city five years previously. Much to the frustration of the locals, the rebuilding of the centre had only recently begun. Artists had been given free range to decorate the scene, but there was still an air of desolation. We walked through to the park and lay on the grass, which was soft and cool like in England, and listened to a live band playing rock and blues covers.
Next day we caught a bus up to the Port Hills which divide Christchurch from the port of Littleton, and took a walk around the crater rim. The bus had done most of the climb for us but we were still left with some work to do on the well marked path. En route we met John, who was of English origin, and carried a southern counties accent with a New Zealand lilt, picked up during his forty years living there. He was a carer for his wife, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. As dedicated as he was, he had identified the need to get away on his own and commune with nature for a few hours every now and then. As we reached the crest of the hills and took in the view of Governor’s Bay, it was easy to understand why. For Nikki this was a revelation; from my experiences twenty eight years previous, I knew that there was plenty more where that came from. And so it proved.
The Yellow bus took us to a beach at New Brighton the following day. Unlike the original Brighton beach, there was sand instead of pebbles. Their was also a pier, and very generous helpings of ice cream on offer. I went for a splash around in the waves, and considering that there was nothing but sea between our beach and Antarctica, the water temperature was quite reasonable.
Having explored the metropolitan area on the buses, we picked up a cheap rental car from Omega and drove out to Akaroa, where we found a bowling green, and some very helpful gentlemen who explained how to play flat green bowls to us. We were used to playing crown green bowls back in the UK, which seemed quite exotic to our bowling hosts. They went off for an afternoon drink and left us to it. I shall not reveal who won the game. We took the hill roads on the return to Christchurch, where we took in more stunning scenery.
We had given some thought as to the best way of getting around the South Island. Hostal, motel and bed and breakfast accommodation was expensive (after seven months in India and South East Asia everything seemed expensive) and was mostly booked up, seeing as the country was in the middle of a tourism boom; so we bought a four birth tent from The Warehouse, some sleeping bags, and a road atlas with Department of Conservation (DOC) campsites marked on. All this went into the boot of the car, along with some groceries bought from Pak’n’Save (the cheapest supermarket in NZ), and off we went.
Our first camping destination would be Lake McGregor, which was tucked in between Lakes Tekapo and Alexandria. Along the way, we had picked up Alex and Lea, a young German couple who were taking full advantage of the South Island’s alpine environments. After making camp, we split up to explore the area.
We befriended Graham , who was the committee member for our site, and he invited us over for a cup of coffee after tea. He spent the summer months tending to the needs of the campers and the site, housed in an old but well appointed caravan, which was sheltered by the trees on the north edge of the camp. Not wanting to turn up empty handed, we brought a pack of biscuits. We asked Graham if they were to his liking. He informed us that they were his favourites. And so we were introduced to the wonders of Griffin’s Gingernuts. Attempting to bite off a piece of a dry biscuit needs to be approached with caution, as they are incredibly robust. My preferred method of consumption was to dunk into the coffee that Graham had laid on, and suck out the gingery goodness from the wet part of the biscuit. This could be done multiple times with no residue left at the bottom of the coffee cup. We were now well in with our host, who was a retired bus driver from Christchurch. He told us that he loved doing his volunteer work for the DOC, and meeting the people coming through the site. We felt lucky to have met him. He was ‘good as gold’, to coin a well used New Zealand phrase. We finished the packet the following morning over breakfast.
The skies during the night had been particularly clear, with more stars visible than we had experienced before. I took out my monocular to have a look at one, only to see many more surrounding it. The cloudy band of the Milky Way was clearly laid across the night sky – magical.
Next day we took a walk around the lake, followed by a swim. The waters of Lake McGregor are not as cold as the larger Alexandria and Tekapo, and I was able to swim across it in about ten minutes. Once out, we packed up, said our goodbyes to Graham and set off towards Lake Pukaki and the The White Horse Hill campsite, which was situated in The Mount Cook National Park, and had stunning views of New Zealand’s highest peak. Alex and Lea decided to come with us, as they were keen to hike up to Mueller Hut. They made us a tasty pasta meal on the first night in camp, which was perfect preparation for the next day’s activities.
Daybreak was serene, with peace in the valley and clear skies. We got ourselves ready in good time, and set off on The Sealy Tarns Track, which led us out gently from the campsite. Then we reached the steps (of which there were 4,000), which took us through the clouds to another majestic view of Mount Cook. From there we made our way to Kea Point from where we had our first sight of an avalanche on the other side of the valley. We had heard them echoing through the terrain during the night, but had not been sure what they were. The sound of thunder, but thankfully with no storm. It was mad to be watching this snow based spectacle on such a hot summer’s day.
We continued up a steep rocky slope for an hour or so, until we reached the ridge upon which the hut was situated. After the three hour 3,400 foot ascent it looked beautiful in every way. We were greeted by our German friends (who had been slightly more punctual than us), and sat down to eat the sandwiches that we had carried up the hill. Having made good time, there was no hurry to get down, so we had a wonder around the area. The alpine flora were thriving, and our luck with the weather had made it easy for us to appreciate the pristine scenery. Before we left for the descent, we took on some more water from the tank, which I topped up with snow to make it more refreshing. The hike up had been thirsty work.
By the time we made it back to camp, we were more than ready for a lie down, but after a full day of hiking in the blazing sunshine I needed to fill up the water containers first. One of the camp ducks had been hanging around the tap all day. It was a wise duck.