A Travellerspoint blog

Crossing the Alps

Thursday 29th October 2015

semi-overcast 15 °C

We had a fairly early start this morning as the Transalpine Train that would take us across the South Island to Greymouth was scheduled to leave Christchurch at 8:15am. We decided to have breakfast on the train and so all we had to do was pack up our things and check out in time for the taxi that we had arranged to pick us up at 7:15am. He was the friendliest taxi driver we have had so far on our trip and he soon got talking to us about his experience of the earthquake. He said that his wife had been particularly affected and that until recently she would cry every time she felt a tremor. He also told us that approximately 10,000 people had left the city since the quake struck. The population is now slowly on the increase and more and more people connected with the rebuild have come to live here. He seemed hopeful that many of these people would settle and stay permanently perhaps giving new life and young people to the city. He dropped us off in plenty of time and again we said a heartfelt goodbye to him and wished him well. The train was in the station and we checked in and as soon as the baggage handlers were ready we stored our large bags in the baggage car. Our seats were in a great position, on the right hand side of the train we had requested (for the best views) and near to the open observation car.

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This meant we were quite a way from the buffet car but you can't have everything! We settled in our seats and Nigel went and got us some breakfast as soon as they started serving. For the first half an hour or so after we left the station we were travelling across the flat landscape of the Canterbury Plain, passing agricultural land and the odd milk processing plant. The railway line then starts to climb as it makes its way through the northern foothills of the Southern Alps. At first it was hilly with lots of gorse, and then the hills became higher and we were travelling along gorges and crossing over spectacular bridges with milky blue meltwater streams below.

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Once the scenery became more interesting I went up into the open air observation car along with many other passengers and it became a bit of free for all with people jockeying for the best position on the ever changing most scenic side of the train. The hills gradually got higher and we could see snow capped mountains in the distance. As we approached Arthur's Pass the train line ran alongside the Bealey River.

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We stopped for a while in the station and at that point nearly 100 people left the train, presumably with the intention of exploring the area. The township of Arthur's Pass is 740 metres above sea level and has some good views of the surrounding mountains.

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One of the reasons that the train has to stop for a while is that almost immediately after leaving the station the train enters the Otira Tunnel. This is 8.5 kilometres long and inside the track descends at a gradient of 1 in 33 meaning that the town of Otira is 250 metres lower than Arthur's Pass. In order to control the descent two more locomotives join the one that hauled the train from Christchurch. There is also a fan and door system in order to take away any fumes. For this reason the observation car is closed for the whole time that the train is in the tunnel. Otira station was interesting and slightly weird not only was there an old Fiat parked there but also a figure of a monk with one arm laying beside it!

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Some of the buildings in the very small town were also extremely colourful. The mountains slowly gave way to hills, and the gorse that was a feature of the eastern side of the range returned. The valleys became wider and we went past a lake and then the line ran alongside the Grey River until we got into the town of Greymouth.
High

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Once we had collected our bags from the luggage car we went to the Avis desk to get our hire car. This took much longer than we expected and we had been upgraded in that they had given us a a four wheel drive vehicle, not something we would normally want to drive but something of a bonus on some of the roads in New Zealand. Given that we had been advised that there weren't any shops near where we were staying we needed to go to the supermarket and get enough food to last us for the three days that we would be there.

The drive up to Punakaiki took us about 35 minutes and we were pretty pleased when we arrived. We had a lovely little cottage which had partial view of the sea, and as if to remind us of its presence it could be heard as a permanent background roar. Once we had settled in we drove the short distance to see the Pancakes Rocks and blowholes. The view was stunning and we had great fun watching the blowholes spouting.

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We both felt that it was the most dramatic coastline we had seen since we had been travelling, probably trumping even the great ocean road in Australia. It had been a great day and we relaxed in the evening and had a home cooked risotto for dinner washed down with a glass of wine.

Posted by Gill's Travels 01:41 Archived in New Zealand Tagged mountains trains ocean new_zealand Comments (0)

Christchurch: the Earthquake that Shook a City

Wednesday 28th October 2015

rain 17 °C

We only had two nights in the city which meant that we had just one short day to explore. We had some breakfast and then made the easy walk into the city centre where we were intending to do a free city walk. Once we got near the Cathedral the damage to buildings became evident. Apart from being shored up it looked as though nothing had been done to repair it since the earthquake struck on the 22nd February 2011.

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The weather was overcast and drizzly and it gave the city centre an understandably gloomy air. We went and got a coffee from a mobile stand in the square and got talking to the people running it. They had been out of the city centre on the day the big one struck and it was lucky they were, not only would they have been showered in glass and possibly masonry but they also spoke of the awful looting that took place in the days that followed. The army tried to keep control but they spoke of a jewellers that was completely cleaned out. Fortunately people have been able to claim for the damage and theft on their insurance. The woman spoke of the lasting impact of the quake and how any loud noise will instantly make them fearful. They also said that all three of their children had since left Christchurch, not just because of the fear of earthquakes but because of the impact it has had on the city. It was good talking to them about their experience and thoughts about the tragedy and it seemed cathartic for them. However you also feel conscious that you might be stirring up unwanted memories at the same time. By then it was time for our tour and so we said our goodbyes and wished them well and made our way to the Chalice (erected for the millennium) which was the agreed meeting point.

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Michael our guide duly arrived at the appointed time and introduced himself to the eight people that had turned up for the tour that morning. He also had been out of town on the day of the earthquake coming back a couple of days later. He was incredibly knowledgable about his home city and the walking tour included elements of pre-quake history, information about the architecture as well as some very human and very tragic stories about the quake. What I hadn't appreciated was that the tremors began on the 4th of September 2010 and continued until and after the main earthquake. The initial one was in fact the strongest, but it was quite a bit deeper and so did less damage and no one was killed, in contrast to the 2011 quake. Michael told us about people trapped in an office building when the stairwells collapsed. Some of them tied fire hoses together and abseiled down the outside of the building whilst the rest went up onto the roof from where they were eventually rescued by crane. Michael also took us the the site of the Canterbury Television Building (CTV) where 115 people lost their lives. Most of the dead where on the lower two or three floors and were crushed when the whole building collapsed in on itself leaving a pile of rubble only a couple of metres high. many of the injured were language school pupils and he read out an account by a Japanese student who survived but lost a leg. It was all very emotional and despite the fact that Michael must go there nearly everyday it was clear that it still touched him in a massive way. We also went to the chair memorial where there is a chair (some donated by family members) for every one of the 185 people that died. This really brought the death toll home, and seeing a baby car seat and a high hair was particularly poignant.

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Not all of the tour was sad though, there were examples of optimism and a desire to rebuild. There were the official projects like the temporary 'cardboard cathedral', gardens planted on wasteland left from buildings demolished but not yet rebuilt.

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There is the reStart shopping mall constructed soon after the quake out of old shipping containers and the art and street murals which have 'lifted' many of the damaged and abandoned buildings.

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It was a profoundly impactive tour and at the end of it we were happy to give Michael a tip, which is the only money he gets for doing these tours. He was off for coffee after the tour and he invited people to join him. As we were both wet and cold we took him up on his offer and we went to a reStart cafe and ordered our drinks. It was slightly strange sitting in a second storey container and I felt a bit sorry for the staff who had to carry everyone's orders up an external staircase in the rain.

Michael told us a bit more about himself and how he came to set up his business in Christchurch having seen such enterprises in Europe. After we had finished our drinks we wished him well and we went our separate ways. We then went to get one of the circular tourist trams that runs round the city centre as we thought we had got wet enough walking in the rain. We went as far as the Canterbury Museum but when we got off the bus there was a small break in the cloud so we decided to take advantage of this and get the shuttle bus that goes from there to the Christchurch Gondola. When we got there the rain was still holding off so we had a bit of a view going up and down although unfortunately the top was still shrouded in cloud.

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We got the next available shuttle back to the museum and went and had a look inside. It had a great eclectic collection from Moa bird skeletons, Maori artefacts, exhibits relating to the first settlers, and mock up of shops (including a penny farthing you could sit on).

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It also had an interesting exhibition about some of the Antarctic explorers. There was a great exhibition on mirrors and we had great fun playing with these

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and there was also a replica of a house that had been decorated by its owners in abalone shells (quite bizarre). Both of us had a great time there and it was good to get out of the rain. Once we had finished we had one more circuit on the tram before getting off and making our way back to our apartment.

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When then got talking to the female manager and she also spoke to us about her experience of the earthquake and how terrified she was. It is a testament to the architects of the building that it survived undamaged, but she spoke of how upset and scared she had been a couple of days prior to our visit when there was a small tremor. She said that if there was ever another biggish quake she would leave the city and not come back. She also lent us a copy of a book full of photographs taken by Christchurch Fire Service photographers hours and days after the quake. It made chilling viewing. We had found it a very moving day and I felt a genuine warmth for the people who had been through so much and were still so troubled by what had happened. We went out later for a meal but I think we both felt a little subdued.

Posted by Gill's Travels 15:03 Archived in New Zealand Tagged churches new_zealand christchurch graffiti earthquake Comments (0)

A Wet and Windy Day En-route to Christchurch

Tuesday 27th October 2015

rain 15 °C

We had set our alarms for just after six just in case the weather had improved enough for us to go whale watching. However it was every bit as bad as the weather forecasts had predicted with winds of 40 kilometres an hour with gusts more than double that. To make matters worse it was also raining hard. On that basis we were pretty sure that the whale watching tours would be off. I didn't even bother to get up and dressed but decided to lie in instead. We both felt that even if the boats were running we didn't want to go out, expecting that it would be very choppy indeed. Once it got to 7 o'clock Nigel was able to ring the office and although they hadn't got the captains definitive decision they were sure that no boats would be going out that day. It was so disappointing as whale watching was the sole reason that we had stopped off for two nights in Kaikoura.

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In the end the apartment had proved to be very good and the town had some very nice stores so we had got lots of shopping done. Resigned to not being able to do much at all, we packed up most of our things and then went to the cafe a couple of doors down for hearty breakfast knowing that this would be our main meal of the day. We were very lucky in that the owner of our apartment had said that we could stay all morning if we wanted to as they had no one else due in that day. I think this was done in part as compensation for the confusion caused by a very recent change over in ownership and some obstructiveness by the previous owner. Whatever the politics of the situation we were glad to have somewhere we could stay with our bags until it was time to leave for our train. Marie at the apartment had very kindly said that she would get someone to take us to the station and she was as good as her word. When we arrived there laden with our bags the weather was still looking as miserable as it had done first thing in the morning although the wind had dropped quite considerably.

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This leg of our train journey was a little longer than the one from Picton the Kaikoura but it started as the other one had finished with the line running alongside the ocean. It looked pretty inhospitable as we looked out to sea and although I have quite good sea legs I was pretty pleased that the whale watching trip hadn't gone ahead.

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After about an hour or so the track turned inland and we started to climb up into the hills. The scenery was very pretty with lots of gorse covering the hillside in yellow. My understanding is that this plant is not native to New Zealand and is a bit of a pest in that it crowds out some of the native species, however it does make for a pretty spectacular backdrop.

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We also passed a number of farms, mostly with sheep and cattle grazing and we saw a lot of somewhat outdated looking farm vehicles.

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At one point we had to stop for a while waiting for signals to change and there was a light aircraft buzzing directly overhead. I'm not quite sure what the pilot was doing but it provided us with some entertainment for a while. The land then flattened out as we started to pass over the Canterbury Plain and we crossed a number of wide moraine strewn rivers.

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All too soon we were entering the outskirts of Christchurch which was an indication that our very enjoyable journey was coming to an end. I must admit I was looking out for the inevitable remnants of the 2011 earthquake but as we were on the train none was evident. When we pulled up in the station we collected our bags and quickly found ourselves a taxi to take us to our accommodation which was just outside the city CBD. The apartment was quite small, and the bedroom had only a small high window which made the room seem quite dark, but it was nicely furnished and the lounge/ kitchen area though compact had everything we needed. The managers were very friendly and helpful and so we felt immediately relaxed. We settled into our room, ate a snack (we didn't want any more after our large and rather late breakfast) and spent the rest of the evening watching a film.

Posted by Gill's Travels 14:00 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes trains rivers ocean new_zealand kaikoura Comments (0)

Back and Forth to the Whaleway Station

Monday 26th October 2015

sunny 18 °C

Today has been a day of mixed blessings. We woke up to a lovely sunny morning with the most amazing view of snowed capped mountains that we hadn't even appreciated were there.

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The sea looked as calm as can be and so we felt really optimistic about the whale watching trip we had booked for the morning. We had a relaxed breakfast on the balcony and then walked up to the Whale Watching Centre at the Whaleway Station (their pun not mine). Shortly before we were due to get the shuttle to take us to the boat an announcement was made saying that although the water was calm in the bay, out to sea it was quite rough. Apparently the 7:30am sailing had ended up with lots of people being ill. To make matters worse they had to travel out further than normal in order to see any whales at all. On this basis the captain had decided to cancel the 10am and 10:30 sailings. We were obviously disappointed and spent some time trying to decide what to do. There was the option of doing an inshore trip but in the end we decided to hold off in the hope that the weather conditions would improve enough that the boat would be able to go out at 1pm. Although the weather forecast for tomorrow (Tuesday) was even worse we also booked in for the 7:30am trip then (the 10am one was already fully booked and we were getting a train out of Kaikoura at 3:30pm so wouldn't be able to go in and afternoon sailing).

We walked back into town and had a coffee to drown our sorrows and then we mooched around town looking in some of the very nice gift shops. I even bought some small Christmas gifts for family, given that we wouldn't be back in the UK until the middle of December. When it got near to 1pm we made our way back to the Whale Watching offices, but sadly we were to be disappointed again as there were announcements posted saying that there would be no sailings for the rest of the day. Feeling doubly disappointed whilst totally understanding that they have to take account of the weather conditions and the safety of everyone (and as if to prove the point today a whale watching boat sunk off Vancouver with some loss of life). We did debate the possibility of hiring a car so that we could explore beyond the town but in the end that didn't seem very practical or cost effective. In the end we just had something to eat and explored the town a bit more. We then walked back along the sea front admiring the views of the ocean and mountains to the north and the more gentle bluff to the south.

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We went to have a quick look at what was beyond our apartments which included a dolphin watch tour office, gift shop and cafe and there was also an interesting Art Deco cinema.

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We were feeling a bit tired having wandered around all day and so feeling slightly we went back to the apartment and had another quiet evening in.

Posted by Gill's Travels 12:54 Archived in New Zealand Tagged ocean new_zealand kaikoura whale_watching art_deco Comments (0)

Back to the Pacific Ocean

Sunday 25th October 2015

sunny 18 °C

We woke up to the most beautiful of the sun rising over the Sound and it felt as though this really set us up for the day.

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This morning we had to make the short drive back to Picton, but before that we had a lovely breakfast to eat cooked by Susie. We all sat down and ate together which was nice and although it is a bit of a cliche, it really did feel as though we were friends of the family. Once we had finished eating we loaded our things into the car and having said goodbye to Martin and Susie, made our way back to Linkwater to finalise things with Verena who was going to make my ring. We found her and we sorted out the size I needed and paid for the ring in cash as this seemed to be the simplest option. It looked like everyone was having a great time so it would have been good to stay longer but with a train to catch we needed to get on our way.

We returned to Queen Charlottes Drive and set off in the direction of Picton. As we were driving around the bay we parked up for a few minutes and couldn't help but look back at the house in its stunning position overlooking the Sound.

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We also stopped at Governor's Bay lookout and again at Shakespeare Bay, overlooking Waimahara Wharf, which is the lumber loading point for Picton. Once we got round the headland we could see that we were nearing Picton and so we stopped again to look at the view of the town and the harbour.

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As we had a little time to spare we drove briefly up to the bay on the other side of the town before returning and parking up so that we could go and grab a coffee. We then made our way back to the ferry terminal in order to return the hire car.

Unfortunately Nigel had some hassle and was charged an extra $80 for allegedly having the car for longer than the five days we had booked it for (which we hadn't) and for picking it up from the wharf rather than the town, despite this being where our voucher had told us to collect it. As we had the train to catch we didn't have time to argue the point but agreed that we would query this once we had the time. We arrived at the station at the agreed check in time and collected our tickets, got our rucksacks put in the luggage compartment and then found our seats. We had rung up a few day earlier to register our seating preference and although we hadn't been able to get ones near the open observation car we were on the side of the train we had requested. We then settled down to enjoy the journey. Once out of Picton the train line ran next to or near the road we had driven along a few days earlier on our way to the Abel Tasman. The main difference was that this time we weren't able to stop and buy any wine!

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Once we had passed through the Marlborough wine region we started to climb slowly as we travelled through some of the higher valleys in the region. Vineyards gave way to fields of sheep and then to the shores of Lake Grassmere which has been adapted to make it suitable for the production of salt.

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Once we had crossed the Waima River the railway line ran close to the Pacific Ocean sometimes with the state highway in between and at other times we were travelling right next to the beach. We also crossed the Clarence River, with its wide gravel bed.

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After about two and a half hours we arrived in the town of Kaikoura. The station was a bit of a walk from our accommodation (with all of our luggage) and we had already made arrangements to be picked up by the shuttle service that operates in the town. A short journey bought us to our apartment which was very well fitted out but the dull drizzly weather didn't do anything to lift our mood and neither did the problems that we then had connecting to the wifi. This was something that shouldn't be that important, but ends up being so because it causes problems with trying to confirm bookings and arranging excursions, not to mention the difficulties it causes in trying to keep in contact with family and friends. Nigel went off for a bit of an explore and bought some milk to top up our provisions. By the time we had settled in it was gone 8pm and so we really did not fancy making the twenty minute walk back into town in the rain and so we made ourselves a light supper out of some of the supplies we had and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

Posted by Gill's Travels 01:15 Archived in New Zealand Tagged trains ocean new_zealand picton Comments (0)

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