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New Zealand trip 2009 – Part 1

These notes were written by Eric and amended by Jean. Eric took most of the photos and Jean took others. All photos were selected, cropped, and inserted into this file by Jean. Factual information was taken from various sources including tourist brochures; we do not guarantee its accuracy.

Click on a photo to see a full size version. Not recommended for readers on dialup connections — some of these files are between 1 and 2 MB. Photo album from this part of the trip (more photos than shown on this page) is here.

Sunday 1 February: Preparations

A category 1 tropical cyclone (Ellie) is about 200 km off the coast from Innisfail. Expected to make landfall between Cairns and Townsville, around Hinchinbrook Island area, Monday morning. Updates during the day predict landfall later Monday morning. By midnight it had weakened to an ex-cyclone, crossing the coast at Mission Beach around midnight. Heavy rainfall expected between Innisfall and Mackay.

It rained lightly yesterday, and overnight. We had about 100 mm in the rain gauge by morning. It’s now 6 p.m. and the rain is bucketing down.

We wasted a bit of the morning taking balcony furniture inside so it is not thrown around by the winds. Between furniture and packing, we are down to zero available space. All too typical in a small apartment, especially with many boxes of books packed (for moving house after we return from this trip). Eric disassembled a small glass table so we could fit an outdoor lounge inside in the morning.

The TV channels are all out of action, both free to air and satellite. Static on one channel suggests that this is a single point failure. Probably the resort distribution amplifier, or perhaps the cable runs failed during the rain.

Monday 2 February: Airlie Beach to Brisbane

Our bags were packed, but we unpacked them and put everything in plastic bags, with a plastic bag around them all, then repacked. Ex-tropical cyclone Ellie has left widespread rain all about the area. No way the bags are not going to get drenched while waiting to go to the airport and on the plane. The luggage areas are basically open air, and thus open to torrential rain.

Weather overcast, temp 27C, humidity 40%, 75 mm rain since yesterday on our balcony.

We scheduled a taxi for 1 p.m. from reception. We feared the rain would make a closer pickup in the street a bit damp. We had to put the bags in the car between showers. We drove to reception, unloaded the bags, took the car back and parked it, and dashed back to reception.

Myrtle Creek was already close to flowing over the road. Hamilton Plains was half flooded, but only about 10 cm deep. None of the creeks along the Bruce Highway were flooding the road (yet), although most had burst their banks. We arrived at Whitsunday Coast Airport in plenty of time.

The incoming flight from Brisbane went overhead. Then it went overhead at a much lower altitude. Eric was out in the rain looking at the clouds, and did not catch even a glimpse of it. Unable to land, the plane returned to Brisbane with its load of passengers. (Our airport does not have the facilities to allow planes to land in this sort of weather.) As this plane was to take waiting passengers (including us) to Brisbane, it seemed unlikely that we’d get away until a lot later, if at all, today.

Following a long wait while someone in Virgin Blue decided what to do, several difficult to hear announcements from the very staff at the airport told us to exit the security holding pen, collect our bags from the rain-exposed trolley outside (there is a roof, just no sides), and form a queue. The airport isn’t large enough for a whole plane load (with luggage) to form a queue. All you can form is a mob.

People going only as far as Brisbane went to the front of the queue and received vouchers entitling us to a flight out of Mackay (the nearest airport with bad-weather landing facilities), after taking a bus to Mackay. That group included us, as our next flight is early Tuesday. We took our bags to the bus just arriving at the other end of the terminal (that is only about 40 metres), and were on the road to Mackay, 150 km south of Airlie Beach, before 4 p.m.

The bus driver is the regular on the Mackay run. He played his nice DVD of water … with fish in it … on sunny days. Pleasant music, no annoying commentary. We note numerous 4WD vehicles parked on the edge of the highway. The locals are out fishing the flooded creeks for barramundi. Today is the second day of the barramundi season, and they bite well in flooded conditions.

The rivers in Mackay had not risen to flood level yet, and we reached the airport before 5:30. Good time for that drive. The Virgin Blue staff were not expecting 38 bus passengers determined to dump their bags.

Mackay airport does not have a lot of facilities, but more than Whitsunday Coast. The food service place is larger. Jean picked up some ham, cheese and tomato foccacia. They microwaved the interior to get it hot, and then put them in the sandwich press. Since I had not had lunch, I thought it was delicious. Airport prices of course, $13.90 for two.

While at the airport, we heard that the road to Airlie Beach had been cut by flood water around 5 p.m.

The flight to Brisbane was uneventful. This was our first flight in the new, small two + two seat E190 that Virgin Blue use for lighter flights. It looked like it took less than 100 passengers. Seemed comfortable enough.

Our luggage was wet. Soaked through. The handle of Eric’s bag felt like a wet bath sponge. It had started at Proserpine airport, but somewhere between the bus and Brisbane, they had really picked up the rain. All the luggage loading facilities for planes are out in the open, so there is little chance for dry luggage when you have rain.

Taxi from the airport to our hotel. Jean had picked up a cheap room at the Park Regis at North Quay, across the city from the airport. We had figured on arriving late afternoon, having dinner, checking out the place. Instead we arrived at 9 p.m. The On Quay restaurant had just closed, no room service, and the one time a mini bar would have been welcome, there was none. We spread out our damp things in the hope they would dry at least somehwhat overnight. Fortunately the plastic bags had minimised the damage.

We deliberately check some of the better class hotels and self-contained apartments when they have specials, to see which we might like for future visits. The Park Regis Suites, 293 North Quay, Brisbane had some obviously great views straight along the river, overlooking the bridge. It had a kitchen, but we had no food and it was too late to buy any.

Tuesday 3 February: Brisbane to Christchurch

We arranged a 5 a.m. wakeup call, too early when no breakfast was available. So we were ready in the lobby well before the taxi arrived to collect us at 6 a.m. for the drive to Brisbane airport international terminal. We were at the airport around 6:30 a.m.

We exchanged some Australian currency for New Zealand at Brisbane airport. The local banks back home had not had any New Zealand on hand. Lousy rate. We hope to do better in New Zealand.

Queue to get rid of baggage. Queue to get breakfast at Subway. Queue for security theatre. Queue for the queue to get in the queue. Queue for Australian passport inspection at immigration prior to departure (they were actually quick and friendly). Queue at Gate 77 to board the plane at 8:20 a.m. Queue for the loo. Queue to get off the plane.

Pacific Blue, offshoot of Virgin Blue, was our airline for flight. They were using a regular 737-800, which looked tiny next to the Qantas 747 Jumbos. The flight was full. Took off on time. Talkative young NZ bloke in the aisle seat, but he slept through much of the flight.

We arrived at Christchurch around 3:15 p.m. New Zealand time, after a 3 hour flight, with a 3 hour time change. As we came in to land, we passed over the impressive food bowl area of the Canterbury Plains. Their gentle gradient of 1/50 makes them idea for agriculture. The plains stretch 160 km, and are generally over 50 km wide.

Immigration was quick. However, the exit X-ray for Quarantine showed Jean’s boots. There was a fair wait until someone was able to take a look at the boots and declare they were clean. Bank of New Zealand gave a much better exchange rate, so changed some more cash.

We were met by a nice driver from Southern Connections who drove us to the Hotel Ibis at 107 Hereford Street in central Christchurch, right next to the magnificent Cathedral Square and near the Avon River and the Art precinct. We passed the extensive Botanic Gardens and through the 450 acre Hagley Park on the way.

The driver remarked that Christchurch, the largest city on the south island, was planned in Britain as a Church colony before being built. It was named by founders Lord Lyttleton and Sir Robert Godley after the College in Oxford. Three of the first four ships of the new colony arrived within a day of each other, a tribute to their seamanship, while the last was delayed a few weeks by sail problems. The original landing site was named Lyttleton, and is a major port.

Arrived at Hotel Ibis around 4:30 p.m. After we checked in, Jean recalled she was expecting delivery of a mobile phone. Down to reception. No package for Jean. Nothing from the delivery company. Back to the room. Jean phones company. Finally gets local number, but the tracking number Jean has is not in the correct sequence. They will be closing soon also. Tries to phone Lyn, who sent it on Friday. No luck.

Christchurch cathedralWe went for a walk in the still bright evening light. Seems strange (to us tropical dwellers) that it is not dark here until after 8 p.m. Walk through Cathedral Square taking photos. The Anglican cathedral was planned as the centre of the city, and constructed between 1864 and 1901.

Trams take tourists for scenic rides. The trams look just like the ones Eric remembers from when he was going to primary school in Sydney over 50 years ago.

Park along Avon River, ChristchurchDown to the Avon River, where there is a statue of Robert Falcon Scott. You can even go punting on the river, as we noted some tourists were doing. The ducks start waddling towards Jean, looking hopeful. Memorial arch, dedicated to the fallen of two World Wars.

Dined at the Hotel Ibis $20 bistro night. Great food. Jean had a giant rib eye steak. Eric had the lamb chops. Everything on the menu was plain food nicely served. We had a very nice fruity Montana Sauvignon Blanc with dinner. So sue us for not having a red.

Wrecked is the only way to describe us. Eric went out for a walk before dinner. Although he walked off the edge of our map, he never found a bottle shop to get Jean a pre-dinner drink. He did find a Dick Smith store (closed), several bookshops, including a three floor Smiths, a Coffee Club, and a Roneo shop! Yes, an actual shop with the name of an ink stencil reproduction method. Do they actually stock Roneo equipment and supplies these days?

After dinner Eric’s searching (initially via phone book) for a bottle shop worked better. Across Cathedral Square was Liquor Express. On the way back he found an internet shop with cheap WiFi access. At Liquor Express he bought a couple of bottles of the Montana we had for dinner, plus a couple of their chardonnay. Heading back to the hotel he took a shortcut, and found yet another WiFi access point, just out the back of the hotel. Jean used the more costly Ethernet in the room anyhow.

Wednesday 4 February: Edoras Day Tour

We had a Continental breakfast at the hotel, instead of wandering around looking for someplace open. Jean managed to track her missing parcel by phoning the express delivery service. At least, the delivery place claim it is on their truck this morning. Seems it was stuck on the north island until Monday. As we waited for collection by our day tour, the delivery service truck arrived at the Ibis Hotel. Jean took delivery of the parcel. Eric rushed it up to our hotel room.

Edoras Day Tour by Hassle Free Tours. Their Landrover collected us around 9 p.m. The driver and guide was Rex, probably older than us, and an absolutely wonderful tour guide. Not a moment went by without him being informative about what we were seeing. His timing was also great, legacy of over 400 such tours. The rest of our group were all much younger than us, and consisted for two Swiss men, two German women, a British couple, and two separate Japanese men, one with a Very Serious Camera. Eric got a fair bit of stick from Rex for being the only one in the group not to have seen Lord of the Rings.

Rex drove past the wonderful park that occupies so much of Christchurch. It is the third largest such park in a major city, beaten in size only by Central Park in New York, and Hyde Park in London.

We headed out of Christchurch inland across the fields and past windbreak tree hedges of the food basket that is the Canterbury Plains. Sheep, of course. More cattle per field in denser populations than anyone from Australia expects. At one point we saw alpaca, smaller than llamas. Deer are also farmed for venison.

Our initial aim was Mt Somers. On the way you could clearly see how two successive waves of glaciers had bulldozed out the river valleys that scored the flat plains we had travelled through. We had a snack stop and toilet break while Rex collected our lunch.

Mt Sunday in distant valleyRemote Mt Potts High Country Station was our access point to Mt Sunday. This seemingly untouched low mountain was transformed into Edoras, capital city of the Rohan from Lord of the Rings. Mt Sunday is surrounded on all sides by taller mountains, shrouded in low cloud.

We had an adventurous drive through cold clear mountain streams and up a steep goat track that turned out to be more a cow path. Eventually we could go no further, and set out on foot for the peak. It was around a 15 minute walk. With the aid of her walking stick, Jean managed to scale it.

Despite the dodgy weather (overcast, with occasional drizzle), the view was wonderful. Our guide Rex produced various photos from Lord of the Rings, and showed where each scene was shot, relative to the surrounding mountains.

Edoras was purpose-built over 9 months for the film, shooting totalled only about 8 good days, and then the whole thing was torn down, and the land restored. We saw only one surveyor’s nail and one anchor bolt hole to give evidence on any building ever existing. Of course, some of the buildings existed only inside computers, and others were mainly plywood and polyester rocks. The magic of make believe.

Helms Deep on leftSo we saw the Misty Mountains, and the backdrop to Helms Deep. We learnt that the dwarf was over six foot tall. His short, non-speaking double got a heap of work. The army got to play a lot of extras, including Orcs. There were over 20,000 extras used in the movies.

Some of the young men showed their strength by carrying two prop swords and a battle axe to the peak, where they acted out movie parts. Our guide Rex posed some of the people in the position of the actors, so we could photograph them with the same backgrounds. The props Hassle Free Tours provided included Aragorn’s Sword, Eowyn’s Sword, and Gimli’s Axe.

Hassle Free Travel have a base at a former sheep-shearing shed at Mt Potts High Country Station. There we had a wonderful, albeit late, lunch provided by the little shop we had stopped at on the way. We had no idea a giant slice of chocolate cake would be provided. It went well with the sparkling wine.

The base camp had the various props we took along. It also have a nice bench seat with Gandalf and his staff seated on it, not unlike Ronald McDonald. They had a nice Flag of Rohan. Various merchandise was for sale. Jean bought one of the LotR location guides, as some of our other tours will feature these locations.

Our guide Rex did not talk non-stop during our return. Instead he played some interesting background DVDs about LotR. We did take a different route back, which gave a chance to see more of the countryside and indeed Christchurch itself. We arrived back at out hotel around 6 p.m. after a most enjoyable tour, and collapsed.

Around 7 p.m. we roused enough to search for dinner. After all the food on the tour, we settled on sharing a kebab in a box from a souvlaki place around the corner from the Ibis hotel. It was pretty good too. Plus we had the remains of the bottle of wine from dinner the previous night.

Jean worked on the contents of her parcel, a pre-paid mobile phone. Alas, the magic incantations for actually getting it to connect seemed not to match the reality of doing so, but she succeeded. We don’t expect or intend to use this phone, but Jean likes to have one available for unexpected situations. Though considering the sparse coverage on the island, the situation had better not be very far away from a town.

Thursday 5 February: Christchurch to Aoraki Mt Cook

A driver from Nationwide Car Rentals met us in the lobby at 9 a.m. and drove us over the scenic route out of town to their office near Christchurch Airport. By 9:45 we were on the road in a slightly battered silver Nissan Pulsar with either a 1.6 litre engine and 111,134 kilometres on the clock. It was a strange experience to sink down, down, down into the low slung seats of a normal car, after driving our Forester for so long. Luckily despite the size it had plenty of boot space for our large suitcases.

Canterbury PlainsWe headed along route 1 southwest parallel to the coast along the Canterbury Plains through Rakaia and Ashburton. At Rakaia we crossed the longest bridge in New Zealand, the 1770 metre Rakaia River bridge, built in 1939.

We stopped at a supermarket in Ashburton around 11 a.m. to collect some plates, some (plastic) wine glasses, some crackers and some breakfast cereal. Jean got a large date scone as a snack, and somehow it got to 11:40 a.m. before we departed the area.

We continued through Rangitata and inland to Geraldine. The Nationwide driver had suggested stopping at some favoured cafe here for a meal, but alas we could not find the place. We did manage a welcome toilet stop.

Lake TakapoRoute 79 took us through curved roads to Fairlie, Kimbell and Burke’s Pass. There were some great places for scenic photos of distant mountains. Then we came upon the magnificent blue waters of Lake Takapo. We made a lot of stops to photograph the water and the surrounding mountains. One side track took us to the tiny Church of the Good Shepherd. The altar windows frames the lake and the mountains, but as there was a wedding in progress, we could not check this. We also looked at the hydroelectric dam.

We stopped for fuel at Lake Takapo, then continued across the Mackenzie Basin for another 50 or so kilometres through even more twists and turns. We was delighted to learn that James MacKenzie and his collie dog Friday were sheep stealers.

The glacial Lake Pukaki was just as blue, but even larger. Another hydroelectric dam. We continued along the western edge of Lake Pukaki into the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. The mountain scenery is magnificent.

Mount Cook Village is at the dry head of Lake Pukati. The Hermitage Hotel has amazing views of Mount Cook through a mountain pass. Even the parking lot and the glass-sided elevator had an amazing view. We soon had our key to a self-contained chalet 200 metres away. At the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre we confirmed our tour booking for the following morning.

We checked the Snowline Lounge, the Alpine buffet restaurant, and the Panorama Restaurant. We decided we could not do justice to the fine looking buffet at the Alpine, and made a booking for the Panorama Restaurant instead.

The area beside the chalet for our parking spot was conveniently near the doorway, up a narrow steeply rising alley with sleepers and vegetation close to the sides. We backed the car into this, so it would get easier to get the luggage out later. No way a passenger could open the door in any place we could position the car. We settled in, and had a small celebratory glass of wine.

Mt Cook view from HermitageIt was soon time to walk up the path back to the hotel for dinner. Our selections from the Panorama Restaurant were outstanding, as was the view of the 3754 metre Mount Cook. The meal was preceded by a complimentary sample of sliced roast duck on Asian noodles, and followed by a small pastry.

Jean had poppy seed scented venison Denver leg, served on capsicum and kumara enhanced potato mush, accompanied by a pumpkin crepe. Eric had lamb loin with a vegetable souffle. We followed the main meal with the dessert special, a small rich chocolate dish, almost like a fudge, with a small expresso coffee icecream, and some tiny cubes of a rich citrus jelly. We had a Sacred Hill of Central Otago, the Wine Thief Series, Pinot Noir 2006, to complement the meal, and asked the restaurant to hold the remaining wine for our return. It was certainly the best meal we have had this trip, and probably the best in the past several years. We made a booking for the following evening also.

We collapsed soon after returning to the chalet. We discovered we were within range of a WiFi hotspot from a previously unknown restaurant/snack bar a little distance up the hill from us.

Continued in Part 2.

Page last updated 20 June 2009.