South Island -Week 5

Sunday 2nd March

Had a really chilled-out day in Akaroa. Drove down to town and enjoyed a lovely stroll along the sea front. Akaroa is the oldest town in Canterbury, and has a French heritage. Jean Francois Langlois, a French whaler, conceived the idea of a French colony here in 1838, and returned to France to recruit settlers. On his return in August 1840, however, he found the Union Jack flying on the hillside - he had been pipped to the post by the Treaty of Waitangi just a few months earlier. Had they arrived a little sooner, the entire South Island might have been a French colony.

Despite British sovereignty, the settlers decided to stay and built the small French town in this beautiful spot. In 1849, large scale British migration started to the area, but some of the French roots remain in the architecture and street and business names. We stopped for coffee and cake at L'Escargot Rouge.

The restored 1880 lighthouse was open to the public so we stopped by to take a look. The clockwork workings were all intact, and all the engineering was British made and imported.

Back at the cabin, we sat out on the verandah and looked out over the harbour. Tres Bon!

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Our view of the harbour from the verandah.

Monday 3rd March

Keen to get off the Banks Peninsula (named after the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks by James Cook in 1770) as an unpleasant weather system is heading for the east coast and the road off the peninsula could be closed. So we packed up and were on our way by 09:30. It was a little windy but not yet any sign of rain, sleet, hail or snow as promised!

We arrived at Christchurch city centre late morning, and had no trouble parking. This was because there is a lot of empty space where buildings used to be, currently being used as car parks. 80% of the buildings in the CBD (Central Business District) either fell in the earthquake of February 2011 or were condemned as unsafe as a result of it. Most of them have been demolished, some still remain, roped or fenced off, awaiting their turn. It is a sad sight.

We walked to Cathedral Square, where the remains of ChristChurch Cathedral stand, minus its tower, spire and rose window. Debate continues about its future, but in the meantime a transitional 'Cardboard Cathedral' has been constructed around the corner. Cardboard tubes, 2' in diameter form part of the construction, as do shipping containers and a polycarbon roof. Instead of a rose window, there are triangular stained glass windows.

We rode the tram, built in 1906, beautifully restored, from Cathedral Square to Christchurch Museum, where we spent a couple of hours enjoying the exhibits and lunch. When we emerged later it was raining so we caught a tram, slightly younger, built in the 1930's, back to the other end of the line. New Regent's Street, recently re-opened and Art Deco centre of the city was very quiet in the rain, so we stayed on and got off at Cathedral Junction, then walked a couple of blocks to see the 'Cardboard Cathedral'.

By now the wind and rain had picked up so we left the city centre, found the holiday park and checked into our cabin, which luckily had a car port next to it so we didn't get wet unloading our stuff, and settled down in the warm and dry.

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Cardboard Cathedral

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Cardboard tubes inside the transitional cathedral.

Tuesday 4th March

Overnight the weather had become gradually more unpleasant, with howling wind and heavy rain. This morning we had to pick our way through puddles to get to the shower block, and leaves and branches littered the road. We had planned to spend only one night here, but decided to hunker down for another couple of nights till the weather passes through.

We were not going to let the weather keep us indoors, however, so after breakfast we made our way back into the city centre. We were heading for Re:Start, an area where many of the city's shops whose premises had been 'red-zoned' had set themselves up for business using converted shipping containers. Among these shops is 'Quake City', an exhibition set up in shipping containers by Christchurch Museum, which tells the story of the earthquakes and their effects.

We not only learnt about the events of the earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011, and the effects on the lives of many of the people, but we also learnt about such things as soil liquefaction, which is caused by the shaking of the earth and is where soil loses strength or stiffness and behaves like a liquid. This caused extensive damage to buildings and roads following both major earthquakes and the 3,000+ aftershocks during the following year.

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Train tracks bent during the earthquake.

By the time we left the exhibition, the weather had deteriorated further and wind and torrential rain had the streets deserted. Back in the car we decided we needed another 'inside' activity, and Steve was keen to visit the New Zealand Air Force Museum, so off we went. We parked as close to the entrance as possible - yes, it WAS raining that hard! - and made it inside without getting completely wet through. Unfortunately, we had missed the last 'Behind the scenes' tour by 10 minutes, but in any case found enough to interest us (even me!) for the next couple of hours. We decided we would return in the morning for the tour, and braved the weather for the return trip to the cabin.

Wednesday 5th March

This morning we had to paddle to the loo block as everywhere was under water. One loo block in the park had been closed, and the washbasins in ours were reluctant to drain. We decided to have breakfast and then go out as planned, but play it by ear and turn back if the road conditions were bad.

The wind and rain continued unabated as we set off for a return trip to the New Zealand Air Force Museum. Traffic was quite slow with lots of water on the roads, but we made it just in time for the 11 o'clock 'Behind the scenes' tour. We were introduced to Bruce, our guide, and discovered we were the only two on the tour! We spent the next hour being shown around two of the hangars that are not part of the exhibits where there are planes either being worked on or waiting to be. Many of the people who restore the planes are volunteers, some of them for 5 days a week. Bruce was a very pleasant and informative guide and the tour was far more interesting than I personally had expected!

Back out in the rain, we decided to drive into Lyttleton, a small port town to the east of Christchurch. This turned out to be a rash decision because, as we discovered, many roads were flooded and in a couple of places rivers had burst their banks. According to Bruce, this is very unseasonal weather, the worst storm Christchurch has had for 50 years. Why are we not surprised....

We made it to Lyttleton, but as it was suffering quite badly from the weather, with torrents of water running down its steep streets, large pebbles and small boulders washed into the roads and even a couple of small landslips onto the road, we had a quick drive round and beat a hasty retreat.

We stopped to eat our picnic lunch once back in Christchurch, and then decided to look up what was on at the cinema. We found a Hoyts cinema complex not far from the camp with 15 screens and were spoilt for choice. When we arrived, however, we discovered that '12 Years as a Slave', had been taken off because they had water damage in that screen, and so too had 'Philomena', for the same reason. It seemed our plan to avoid the rain was to be foiled - by the rain - but 'The Book Thief' was still showing so we saw that, and were glad we did as it was an excellent film.

When we emerged two hours later the rain and wind had stopped. Hurrah! Maybe we will actually be able to make our trip over Arthur's Pass tomorrow.

Thursday 6th March

The last of the wind and rain passed through overnight and we woke to a bright, sunny morning and clear blue skies. Thank goodness for that. The poor people of Christchurch must be wondering what they've done. For us it meant we could at last head off over Arthur's Pass with some degree of certainty of seeing it!

And we were not disappointed. The first part of the journey was over the Canterbury plains,vast expanses of flat land, but always with the Southern Alps as the spectacular backdrop. Amazing to drive along a dead flat, straight road with trees each side framing the mountain at the centre. Then we started to climb, and the road alternated between series of bends and straight flat stretches.

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We stopped at Castle Hill to look at the limestone outcrops of all shapes and sizes, then a bit further along at Cave Stream, where we walked to look at each end of the cave, but didn't venture inside. The thought of wading in the pitch dark in waist deep freezing cold water did not really appeal, so we enjoyed the beautiful sunshine and watched the youngsters from a local school emerge wet and cold instead.

We had a picnic lunch in one of the most beautiful spots yet, and I wondered why I kept batting away fat bumble bees until Steve pointed out that my purple t-shirt was exactly the same shade as the flowers they were visiting!

We stopped in Arthur's Pass Village to have a look around the visitor's centre, then at the 'Death's Corner' lookout to get a good view of the Otira viaduct with the old road still visible in the valley beneath it. The viaduct won an award for its engineering, which was comforting to read as we were about to drive along it and it looked hairy to me. In fact, I was wondering if the old road might still be passable....

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We arrived safely back in Greymouth on the West coast an hour later, in spite of my reservations, having had a glorious day, which we topped off with a T-bone steak cooked par excellence by my resident chef Steve, and an evening stroll along the beach listening to the waves rolling in from the Tasman Sea.

Friday 7th March

Off back across the Alps again today, this time via Lewis Pass to Hanmer Springs. First, though, Steve wanted to make up for a serious omission he made on our first visit to Greymouth - to visit Monteith's brewery. So at 10:30 he donned a high-vis jacket and disappeared into the bowels of the brewery, while I made myself comfy in the cafe with a flat white and a choc-orange muffin. When he emerged an hour later clutching one of the several samples he had tried, it became clear that I would be driving through the pass later....

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Beer barrel urinals at Monteith's brewery.

And so I did, and a pleasant drive it was too, very scenic. Not in a 'wow' way though, like Arthur's Pass or even Haast Pass, just very pleasant. We arrived in Hanmer Springs late afternoon and checked into our cabin, then went for a stroll in the village to check out the thermal pools complex. There are three sulphur pools and twelve thermal pools, as well as a large freshwater heated pool with lazy river and a fun area with water slides. We decided to return the next morning and make a day of it.

Saturday 8th March

A really relaxing day. Lazy start, then off to the springs where we spent most of the day lounging around in pools of various sorts. The three sulphur pools were hot or very hot, and of course smelly, so we didn't stay too long in each, though we did return on and off. The spa pools were favourite, because they were comfortably hot, like being in the bath, and there were lots of bubbles, and only adults were allowed in them. There were three of them with different types of jets, so no need to get bored.

We emerged long enough to have lunch at the cafe, and then went back for more. By now Steve was really having trouble containing his longing to have a go on the water slides, so he forked out another $10 for a very fetching red wristband that allowed him as many goes as he wanted. And off he went. First was the slide where he sat on a huge rubber ring and slid down a tube into a huge bowl which he circled several times before slipping down the hole in the centre and then another tube before being spat out at the bottom. Such fun.

But that was not his favourite. The best was a completely covered-in and blacked-out twisty tube which he emerged from looking totally bewildered about which end was up. This one he couldn't get enough of, so I wandered off to float around the lazy river until he had worn himself out.

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