Friday, November 30, 2007

Mountains to fiords, penguins and dolphins

Queenstown is a stunningly located town. Nestled between ridges of snow-capped mountains, next to a huge weaving, winding lake.

In winter you can ski; in summer, you can bungy, white water raft, skydive, paraglide... the list is endless.

We pootled in our little Spaceship to a DOC conservation campsite next to the lake. It was beautiful - a large stony, wild patch of land about a 15 minute drive from the town. Campers dotted themselves at respectable distances apart - some away from the stream gushing down from the snowy mountain behind us, a few edging the lake like us.

But they all had one advantage over our Spaceship - they could get in and close the doors, use the lights and play cards, drink wine and cook dinner. We had our cooker swung out of the door, sat hunched inside or stood outside batting away the sandflies. We were bitten. A lot. So much so that even a pretty sunset was pretty pointless.

There was plenty to do and see in town - drinking, eating Fergburgers (they really are good), and climbing 1,500 ft up a mountain (in a cable car), to look at the view.

Alex and Kath took to the waters in a jet boat to do 360 degree turns and such like but money prevented me. I was so tempted to do another sjydive, a paraglide or bungy though...

The money was being saved, however, for a trip to Fiordland. A massive national park full of inlets with towering mountains, huge cascading waterfalls and SEVEN METRES OF RAIN A YEAR.

They simply don't bother with millimetres or centimetres. Well, would you if you received the UK's annual rainfall in ONE DAY?!

We decided to visit the less well-known Doubtful Sound rather than the hugely popular Milford Sound (they are, in fact, fiords not sounds - a sound is a flooded valley: a fiord has been carved by glaciers).

ANd so we opted for an overnight cruise along with some blue rinses and binoculared, raincoat-clad weirdos - who all turned out to be rather nice. Apart from the ones who pushed their way to the front of the buffet...

It was the most amazing trip.

It had been raining for five days but, as we approached the fiord, the sun made an attempt to pierce the heavy, burdened grey skies. And succeeded. And so, we were treated to, if not a sun-baked then a sun-warmed, afternoon skirting the edges of the fiord, exploring inlets and peering up at huge cascades of waterfalls - all impermanent. Gallons of water poured from way up high - some as tall as any waterfall you will see around the world. One was said to be falling from 900 metres above us.

We ventured into one arm in kayaks - dipping our paddles into the still water and losening the scarves bundled around our necks as we forged along the walls of the fiord. The sun was hot and we were content to stream along at a lesuirely pace looking up at waterfalls running from the sheer cliffs above us.

All too soon, we had to file back to the boat where we dried off in time for hot soup.

That afternoon we powered out to the place the firod met the roaring Abel Tasman sea - characterised by huge waves bashing the rocks. Here, we saw dozens of seals lazing on stony outcrops.

And then, somehow, the nature guide spotted a Fiordland crested penguin - the rarestt penguin in the world. There are just 2,000 left and they are about 40cm high. We edged close to the tree-covered rocks and eventually made out a tiny blue spot - which was our penguin. He was very tiny and very hard to spot. Well, we could check penguin off our list but we felt a little disappointed not to have seen it closer or more clearly. You could hardly see it was a penguin at all.

But we made our way into a different part of the fiord and into a sheltered arm for dinner. As night drew in, we were commanded out onto the deck where we sat or stood in silence - motors off, lights down - we looked into the twighlight and heard - nothing.

Later that night, Kath, Alex and I went up onto deck again and listened to the birds calling - eventually nature guide Dan joined us and we heard a Kiwi and Wekas.

Night was pecaeful - the three of us had been upgraded to an ensuite cabin - but I woke early to shower and ran upstairs to see the cold first light of the new day. It was breathtakingly beautiful...

The day was misty, cold and wet but it just gave Fiordland a slightly different character.

We saw bottlenost dolphins swimnming into the fiord arm we had just left and later, some came to grab a free ride - surfing on the waves cresting at the bow.

And then we saw some more penguins. Not one or two, but nine. And this time we were able to see them fully - down to the yellow cresting over their eyes. We watched a pair waddling over rocks towards the water and then turned a corner around the island to see another seven. It was just incredible to watch them and I felt really priviledged to see these birds in the wild. Infact, there are none in capitivity.

And then, too soon, it was time to return. But not before we saw a rainbow arced low over the fiord. All rushing to take photos, we suddenly saw a pair of dophins and watched in wonder as they swam right underneath the rainbow - pure magic.

And so, as we returned to Cosmo the spaceship, we didn't want the journey to end. We clambered back in and decided to take the picturessque drive to Milford Sound - through snowy peaks, seeing the huge, green and rather vicious Keas (parrots) and across plains.

And then it was back along the road, camping at Te Anu and then heading towards Christchurch. We wound past Mt Cook, skirting lakes of a vivid blue hue, over mountain passes and past nasty policeman who fined me for driving a little fast...

Christchurch was our last stop and we made the most of our time here by souvenir shopping, riding the tram (a lot), going to craft shops and having dinner by the beach.

And before we knew it, it was Friday, November 30th and I had a 31-hour journey back to Birmingham. A tiring journey that involved a refuelling at Sydney (but flying in at night with the Opera House and harbour bridge made it somewhat worthwhile), a three hour stop at Dubai where I could use the business class lounge, and a seven hour stint back to the UK in business class. I'm never ever travelling another way...

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