Wednesday, January 30, 2013

New Zealand (Part 1)

Aotearoa meaning 'The land of the long white cloud' is Australia's neighbour. To assume that New Zealand and its customs are therefore similar to Australia is unfounded. It's different and in more ways than one. The Maori culture has a much bigger impact on how you experience New Zealand than the Aboriginal culture has in Australia. The Maori culture is also much more aggressive and much more expressive than the humbler Aboriginal one. The Maori culture is based on war, battle and conflict. The Aboriginal culture on being one with nature. Nature wise the differences are vast too. New Zealand is riddled with high mountains, volcanos and has lots of seismic activity. It boasts wild flowing rivers, sharp ragged mountain ridges and some of the most scenic alpine like landscapes in the world. Being a long and relatively narrow island it does not have the arid landscapes of Australia, but plenty of lush rain forests and dense temperate forests.

We wanted New Zealand to be the first proper part of the trip. We hadn't been to New Zealand for 14 years and I wondered how much it had changed. We were gobsmacked! As you will read further on it had changed beyond belief. Before we could enjoy travelling through New Zealand we had a little obstacle called 'shipping the bikes' to overcome. I've written a separate post called Shipping your bike to New Zealand, for those who are interested. 
We started our trip in Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand, simply for climate reasons. The southern part of the South Island and the West Coast can have some foul weather, so we really wanted to be there in the middle of summer. We arrived early December, so we should have been able to be at the southern tip in the height of summer. Quarantine and Taurus shipping had stuffed that up big time, which resulted in the bikes not being released before the Christmas break, which meant the testing facility was now closed for the summer break until January 8th. We ended up having 5 weeks delay(!) because of their careless attitude. Still, we were lucky that New Zealand enjoyed a good summer so we could still enjoy every inch of New Zealand's beautiful South Island. 

Christchurch used to be a beautiful city. Used to be. It was hit by two big earthquakes about two years before we arrived, which had destroyed part of the city centre. Well, that's what we thought. The collapse of the famous Cathedral is of course well documented on TV. What's not that well known, is that most of the city centre was demolished and was now a fenced off 'no-go' zone. Three years later, the damage done by the earthquakes was still not being repaired.
Big 40ft containers were stacked on top of each other to form a wall to hold the buildings up. Riding past it gave us a shock, it looked like Beirut… Like it was bombed yesterday or something. It was weird and scary at the same time. The unbelievable forces of an earthquake, the destruction and the severity of the results simply do not show on a TV screen. Now that we were in the middle of it, it struck us like a hammer. A big hammer. The roads were heavily damaged too. Bridges had been pushed up, out of the ground, roads with big gaping holes and equally big heaves in them and plenty of roads still blocked because of earthquake damage. Yet all this had happened three years ago! We saw whole suburbs that were still fenced off, thousands of houses still uninhabitable and met people that were struggling to make ends meet as insurance companies still hadn't paid for the damage. 

As a result of so many people being unable to live in their own house, there was a shortage in accommodation. Housing prices had skyrocketed country wide and rental properties were almost impossible to come by. We found families living on campgrounds, simply because they had nowhere else to go. We listened to their stories, their horror stories, and more and more got the feeling this was not a civilised 'western' government. Which government would allow this to escalade to such an extend? Whatever you may think of the severity of the earthquakes and the resulting damage, I feel no government should allow this to be still unresolved three years later.

We soon found that housing prices weren't the only thing that had reached insane levels. How about charging 66 dollars for a camping spot for a tent… without electricity and just a simple 1950s toilet and shower block? Food prices were high too, as was petrol at $2,20 - 2.30 a litre ($ 8.30 - 8.70 per US Gallon). It surprised me, because 14 years ago New Zealand hadn't been expensive at all compared to Australia, my diary of that trip showed me it was considerably cheaper. So what had happened here? According to a Canadian couple we met along the way New Zealand had made 3  successful movies and the tourism industry now thought they were Hollywood… Still, camping in Department of Conservation campsites was relatively inexpensive. No showers and pit or vault toilets, but mostly beautiful spots. 

We rode from Christchurch to Arthur's Pass, the highest pass over the Southern Alps. The landscape is bizarre. We had seen many mountain ranges before, but this was different. As if the top of the mountains somehow didn't fit with the lower half. I couldn't quite put my finger on why it was so different, until I read that the mountains in New Zealand are still growing. They are among the fastest rising mountains in the world. Add to that lots of volcanic activity and several active fault lines across the country and you get some weird landscapes. The rock formations look almost melted and decisively ancient in places, while the peaks are sharp and ragged as if they are much newer.

Being on a motorcycle means we're right in the middle of the landscape; 360° of unparalleled beauty. Landscapes usually remind me of something I've seen earlier, but not here. This is unique. Despite being here in summer the mountains were still snow capped too.

We had lunch along a large mountain lake. The water is crystal clear. The mountain peaks around it reflect in the mirror like surface. A Chinese family made the usual silly pictures in the usual silly 'look how much fun we're having' poses. We walked to the Devil's Punchbowl; a beautiful waterfall which plunged into a series of bowl-like lakes.
On the way back, there was even more beautiful 'nature' to be seen; a beautiful backpacking girl was bathing herself in the river, completely naked… welcome to New Zealand I guess!  
Once across the pass we entered the West Coast, also known as the Wet Coast. The high mountains of the Southern Alps form a barrier for the clouds rolling in from the west, giving Canterbury and Christchurch a relatively dry climate, as the clouds drop their contents on the western side of the mountains. As we had noticed, it does rain a lot on the West Coast! Arthur's Pass is such a beautiful ride that we decided to turn around and rode the same road back again as well. The trip back to Christchurch became somewhat of a steeple-chase; as the sun was settling slowly, we stopped a lot for photos. 

Going south from Christchurch, along the scenic 72 and the even more scenic 8, we headed for the lakes Tekapo and Pukaki. Mt Cook is New Zealand's highest mountain. At just over 3,700 metres, its peak is covered in snow year round. The whole range where Mt Cook is situated, is spectacular. There is no other word for it. We stayed a couple of nights, did several amazing walks and were stunned by the views.  It was one of those moments where I realised where I was, but yet couldn't somehow get a grip on it. It's so unbelievably beautiful!

The spectacular scenery continues all the way to Wanaka, and even more so along beautiful Lake Wanaka. It has become a very touristy spot with high campground prices in town, but still worth a visit. Camping can be done seriously less expensive just before Wanaka at the turn-off to Albert town and Lake Hawea. Wanaka has a big playground right at the edge of the lake.

We have a photo of Mike at the dinosaur-slide, made when he was just 2 years old. Now, 14 years later, we took the same photo again… The scenery in New Zealand's South Island is spectacular. There isn't much traffic to spoil it either. The ride north from Wanaka towards Haast on the West Coast is another amazing one… this was only the beginning of our trip. The first step.
The hassles with shipping were long forgotten, as was the planning of it all. We were doing it now! We were living the dream, doing the trip! I took some photos of my motorcycle. The Triumph Bonneville for which I had made a pannier rack and fitted aluminium panniers to. The motorcycle that all the experts said wasn't suitable for this, was here and doing it. I looked at it, covered in dirt and muck and was so happy I had pushed on and taken it on this trip.

Haast, on the west coast, is known for two things; rain and sandflies. We had them both. The sandflies are so abundant and well known, that the shops in Haast have stickers for sale 'I've survived the sandflies at Haast'. The scenery is amazing though. Lush rain forests, rugged mountains, wild flowing rivers and beautiful camping spots. The rain stopped in the evening, the wind died out and we made stunning photos at the lake we were camping at… before the sandflies woke up and chased us into the tents! 

Further up from Haast are the Fox and Fransz Josef Glaciers. Any glacier is of course beautiful to see and the glaciers in New Zealand are no exception. Despite the weather not helping at all! Maybe not the largest in the world or the easiest to access, but still well worth a visit. The rain had set in properly by now and wasn't even remotely thinking on giving up. Just before entering the aptly named town of Greymouth we encountered a famous bridge. Well known for all the wrong reasons. Its 'fame' comes from the many many motorcyclists that have gone down there… The bridge has a railway track running through the middle of it and is too narrow to be able to ride alongside the track. You have to cross the tracks and ride in the middle. It was raining Kiwis and Possums, the tracks were slippery and there is no straight view onto the bridge… despite taking it easy, Jeanette went down… hard!

Luckily the man behind her knew the dangerous bridge and had kept well clear. Mike and myself had crossed the bridge already and had to return. We straightened the bike out, which had a lot of damage. Jeanette wasn't happy, her beautiful and only 3 months old Bonneville Black damaged. Once straightened out to a point where it was rideable again we crossed the bridge again. I offered to cross the bridge for her but she was not having any of it and did it herself! On the other side of the bridge were construction workers who could possibly help me with a couple of serious tools needed to straighten the bike out. By that time the heavens really opened. When it rains on the wet west coast... it rains! We took refuge in one of the sheds the construction workers had setup. Only then did we hear of the bridge's reputation. Jeanette was told she was lucky… as most motorcyclists that went down there ended up in hospital…! Unbelievable that nothing is done about a bridge like that…
To sort the damage out properly we rode back over Arthurs Pass once more to Christchurch, to a friend with a decent workshop… to be continued!