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Queenstown, Dunedin

Queenstown, Dunedin

This was the longest drive on our itinerary, a 7 ½ hour drive to Queenstown. We decided we would stop and go, as we pleased. Early into the journey, we stopped at a place selling jade. We saw a marvelous bell chiselled out of deep green jade. It was beautiful. There were lots of other stones and shells and several interesting artifacts of which we bought a few things.

We approached Lake Wanaka at teatime so we decided to halt at Stuart Landsborough’s ‘The Puzzling World’ for tea and a much needed break. We were hungry and tired when we entered but the crazy architecture and amazing displays got the better of us and we were quickly immersed into trying to figure out the place.

The two most interesting areas were the Ames Forced Perspective Room and the Tilted House.
The technique of the illusion present in The Ames Room was used in The Lord of the Rings where exceptionally tall and short people were needed. The trick, I believe, is in replacing right angles in the design of the floor and ceiling, with trapezoids. The effect was marvellous. One appeared to grow and grow, as he/she moved from one end of what appeared to be a perfectly normal room to the other.

The second room was the Tilted House. Here, the room is tilted at an angle of 15 degrees. All the displays are normal, parallel to a straight floor and ceiling – but when you enter, your brain tells you that ‘straight’ is what the room is and everything else is tilted. The illusion was so powerful that I kept falling every few steps. It was hilarious!

Somewhere, among all the happy confusion, we remembered that we had stopped for a cup of tea and we were hungry, so we went to the Puzzling Café and between sips of tea and bites of muffins and scones, we frantically tried to solve all the puzzles lying around, each of us trying to outdo the other. It was as if we were back in school, competing with our fellow classmates!

We reached the lovely boutique hotel Queenstown House Hotel, late in the evening. Queenstown House was just that, a house, perched on top of one of the steep roads affording a lovely view of the lake and mountains. Our hostess was very friendly and helped us settle in and plan our time there.

Queenstown is the premier tourist destination in New Zealand. Some people call it the activity capital of the world. It is surrounded by the Southern Alps and rests on the shores of the lake Wakatipu giving the town the rare distinction of having mountains and a shoreline at the same time.

Lots of residential areas are in the hilly region and several roads are at a steep incline. The view one gets from any of these areas is quite fantastic. The lake is seen in the middle of the panorama and there are mountains all around with clouds floating just below the summits.

The morning following our arrival was overcast and rainy so to my great relief, the guys couldn’t go bungee jumping or skydiving. I must confess that I found those two sports very scary. Instead, we went for a ride on the Shotover Jet.

The Shotover Jet rides are located 6 kilometres away from Queenstown at Arthurs Point. They take you careening over the water canyons of Lake Wakatipu. It seemed to me that the boat was skimming the top of the water. To add to the momentum, our boatman Clive navigated the boat through several high-speed 360-degree turns and then immediately sent the boat almost crashing into the cliff -only to veer away at the last moment! We were living life on the edge! That ride must have been the fastest, bumpiest boat ride ever.

In the evening we decided to walk along the marina. We had heard of the ‘Minus 5 Degree Experience’ so we decided to take a look. The Minus 5 Degree is a pub that is completely made of ice. The furniture, the walls, the bar counter, even the glasses that one holds; are all made of ice. We had to pre-book our half hour slot so we did and we went in after we were given warm jackets to wear.

The interior looked like a winter fairyland. Everything was translucent ice! There were some fabulous ice sculptures. We were asked to set our ‘glasses’ down on mats because if we didn’t, they would slide off the counter and break, after all, ice on ice, slides! I had a non-alcoholic cranberry mocktail, which was delicious. The others had vodka-based cocktails. A half hour is about all that we could take of a -5 degree environment so we hurriedly rushed out when our time was up and stood in the warmth, slapping our hands together to get the blood circulating again. It was a lot of fun. Makes one wonder as to how do Eskimos deal with such a climate?

Very early next morning, a member of our party decided to go in for some aerobatics. He was out before we got up and was quite green when he returned. He said he had a very unique experience where the pilot of the plane took him up into the sky and executed all kinds of difficult manoeuvres. He faced six times the force of gravity as they did a vertical dive upwards and he claimed that his heart was nearly in his mouth when they dived vertically down. But he came off looking like a man who had accomplished something!

The rain continued that morning though we started having spells of sunshine. We took the Skyline Gondola, a cable car that took us to the top of a hill from where we got a spectacular view of the mountains and the lake. Over there we took a ski lift that took us higher up, to the beginning of the track of the Skyline Luge and we came hurtling down the track. The luge is a kind of mini sled on wheels and the ride downhill is very exciting.

The shopping experience in Queenstown was pleasant. There were lots of shops that sold Paua shell jewellery and most shops had merino wool garments. Many garments were a mix of merino wool, silk and possum fur. That made it very soft. The possum, which is protected in Australia, is considered a nuisance in New Zealand because it eats the kiwi bird eggs. Interestingly, flightless birds like the Kiwi and Penguin evolved because New Zealand was an isolated island environment for over 80 million years, free from any mammal predators. The birds simply did not need to fly away from anything!

When we woke up the next morning, it was bright and sunny and we were leaving for Dunedin. As a last ditch effort, we went down to the information centre and asked if we could take a helicopter ride and see the glaciers and probably do a snow landing. They answered in the affirmative and we were delighted. We packed our bags, loaded them in our car, checked out and left for the heliport. What followed was a spectacular 4 hour ride over the glaciers with one landing in knee deep snow and one landing when we stopped for a cup of coffee in a small little town somewhere below us. The panorama visible from a height of 12000 feet was to be seen to be believed. We flew among the clouds, over virgin snow covered peaks and over grass fields dotted with sheep. We flew around the tallest peak Mount Cook; we flew to the Franz Josef glacier for the snow landing and then finally returned to the heliport. It was late afternoon when we got into the car and began driving to Dunedin.

We reached Dunedin late in the evening after a 5-hour drive. If Westwood Lodge at Franz Josef was beautiful, Fletcher Lodge at Dunedin was spectacular. It looked like a mansion from a period movie, complete with suits of armour, huge chests and old fashioned, luxurious décor. Later on we discovered that the place is listed in New Zealand’s Historic Places Trust. Dunedin is New Zealand’s oldest city. In 1848, Scottish migrants established a town here and called it Edinburgh. Later on, the name was changed to ‘Dunedin’, which is the Celtic form of ‘Edinburgh’. Dunedin has a pronounced Scottish heritage. The city was slow to prosper initially but after the discovery of gold in Central Otago in the 1860s, Dunedin experienced rapid growth. The city of Dunedin has a population of around 120000. It claims to have the largest concentration of Victorian and Edwardian buildings. Indeed, wherever we looked, the buildings were predominantly Gothic, Palladian or Georgian in their architecture. The roads were broad and well laid and the city had a very clean and orderly feel to it.

Our hosts at the Fletcher Lodge pointed us in the direction of a vibrant Italian restaurant where they managed to get us a table for dinner even though it was packed. When we reached there, the restaurant was full of University students, I presume from the Otago University in Dunedin. The food served to us was excellent and the staff was very friendly.

The next day, we had to leave early in the morning because we began our journey home that evening. We packed our bags with heavy hearts, wishing we had had more time to spend at the Fletcher Lodge.

We were soon on our way to see the Larnach Castle, Dunedin’s only castle. The castle belonged to William Larnach until he took his life in Parliament House in 1898. After that the castle has been open for the public and as the pamphlets and literature will tell you, it houses many secrets. The sprawling gardens of the castle were simply beautiful. They overlooked the lake on one side and there was a forest on the other side.

We then stopped for lunch at the 1908 Café and Bar at Portobello in Dunedin. It had been a Post Office at the turn of the century and has a very old worldly feel about it. It was chilly so rather than sit in the garden, we chose to stay inside the restaurant.

The meal was scrumptious and the desserts were delectable. Thus renewed, we proceeded to the Penguin Place, which is the home of the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguin. Today, world over, there are no more than 4000 to 5000 of these birds and they are only found in New Zealand. These are the only penguin species that cannot be tamed. As a result, to protect them, Howard McGrouther set up this conservatory in 1985 with only 8 breeding pairs.

We were first taken to the penguin ‘hospital’ where the sick and injured birds were. There was one structure of a penguin with the wings held out that caught my attention. Wondering why they had this statue of a penguin amongst real ones, I asked our tour guide about it. To my surprise, he told me that that was no statue. It was a living, breathing penguin and had been standing like that for hours, to cool off and would probably stand like that for a few more hours! I mentally made a note of trying to stand that way when I felt hot in Mumbai!!

After that, we were taken into the covered trenches, which were built to hide us from the very shy penguins. We did sight a few of them in the wilderness. One of the penguins even obliged us by waddling out of the bush that he was cooling off in. The entire experience was informative and educating.

We then got back into our car and headed for the airport, to catch a flight to Auckland from where we would board a plane to come home to Mumbai. Each of us was lost in thought on the way, I suspect, promising ourselves that we would return soon.

ranz Alpine Scenic Railway

Christchurch Kaikoura Tranzalpine Scenic Railway

What would go through your mind if I told you about a place that had sparkling seas and snow capped mountains running side by side? A place where the sky was blue and the grass green, the air crisp and clean and the landscape dotted with lush foliage, displaying every colour on the palette? A place where there were several activities to be done and adventures to be had? A place where there were vast amounts of open space with friendly, helpful and cheerful people? Wouldn’t you call that Paradise?

I know a name for it – ‘New Zealand’!

New Zealand is said to be the youngest country on Earth. It was the last landmass discovered. The Maori people were the first people to migrate to New Zealand from across the Pacific. This happened as recently as a thousand years ago. Some anthropologists believe that the Maori originated from some place in Asia and travelled down to New Zealand, making it their home.

New Zealand is a country the size of the state of Colorado (USA). It comprises of two landmasses; the North Island and the South Island. In 1840, the Maori and the British Crown signed a treaty, the Treaty of Waitangi, which is New Zealand’s founding document.
Now, Queen Elizabeth II is the sovereign (1952). The Governor General is Anand Satyanand (2006) and the Prime Minister is John Key (2008).
We decided to visit New Zealand during the two-week break that we had coming up in April 2009.

I got busy amassing all the information I could on the country and the staff of Compact Travels ably aided me. As it eventually turned out, the itinerary they turned out for us, based on what we wanted to see and do, was so good, that we decided to follow that as our travel programme. After a flying time of about 15.5 hours (broken into 5.5 and 11 hours with a stopover at Hong Kong), we reached Auckland, the capital of New Zealand. We reached early in the morning. All the tiredness we expected to feel, somehow disappeared as soon as we stepped into the crisp air, so much so, we chose to walk the 20 minutes it took, to reach the domestic terminal for our flight to Christchurch.

Christchurch is a beautiful city, the international gateway to the South Island with a population of around 400000. It is believed to have been named after the famous Christ Church College in Oxford, U.K.
The city is compact and well laid out. The main square, where our hotel was situated was the Cathedral Square.
The Cathedral Square has a lovely quaint flea market, where one could find trousers, shirts, coats, hats, shoes, gloves and several other things.

The Art Centre and Art Gallery is located on the square. The weekends see spot performers and magicians performing for the public, out in the open, giving the weekend a very festive feel.

A bustling shopping area is less than a 5-minute walk away from the square. Also, at a very short distance is a lovely tree lined street with a stream on one side and pavement cafes on the other. It is a wonderful place to relax and have a cup of tea or coffee.

We visited the Antarctic Centre which was a place designed to give the visitor information about the Antarctic. One of the most interesting parts of the centre is a glass enclosure, called the Snow and Ice Experience. This is where one could experience an Antarctic storm.

We entered the enclosure after wearing the warm jackets and over shoes provided. The temperature inside was maintained at minus 8 degrees Celsius. Then, the wind started blowing, picking up a speed of over 25 kilometres per hour and creating a wind chill factor of minus 24 degrees Celsius. The drop in light levels, the howling wind and all the other noise effects created what I think will probably be the closest I ever get to experience a real Antarctic storm. It was certainly scary and I huddled into my jacket, trying to protect myself from the simulated onslaught of the freezing weather. This lasted for five minutes and the experience was exhilarating!

After that, we decided to go for a Hagglund ride. The Hagglund is an all terrain vehicle that is actually used in the Antarctica. The centre has created a course that duplicates traveling conditions in the Antarctic. The result was a wild ride that nearly threw us out of our seats and we got a taste of what those intrepid explorers to the Antarctic must be experiencing.

Of course the main attraction at the Antarctic Centre were the Little Blue Penguins. It was a treat to view these nocturnal little creatures. These birds here are the ones that have been rescued and now cared for. They were cute and comical with their jerky movements. One of them was limping about and then he turned to face us as if gently accusing us for making a mess of the environment!

That evening, we went for dinner to an Indian restaurant called the Raj Mahal. It was probably the most authentic Indian food I had ever eaten, away from home!

The next day, we hired a car and drove to Kaikoura, the seaside town from where we were going to go whale watching from a boat.

Kaikoura is a three-hour ride from Christchurch. It was a bright sunny day and the drive was spectacular. The route was very easy to follow and we had the efficient Global Positioning System (GPS) telling us how to proceed. The GPS had decided that it would not let us travel any faster than 100 kilometres per hour, much to the amused consternation of my husband, who was driving.

The true natural beauty of New Zealand began unfolding as we covered the distance. We took the scenic route which means we drove pretty much alongside the Pacific Ocean. The waves, crashing at some places, gently lapping at others, the call of seagulls and the rich greenery created an ambience that was breathtaking.

When we reached the Whale Spotting Station there was disappointment in store for us. The whales had moved out of the operational area so we could not see them. The operator suggested we take a cruise along the coastline and if we got lucky, we would be able to see some wildlife. Disappointed yet aware that the whales really had to do their thing and would not hang around just so we could spot them, we took the cruise.

25 minutes into the journey, the cruise guide spotted some activity and she asked the captain to take the boat in a particular direction. In a few minutes the boat stopped and we were asked to go out onto the viewing balconies and…oh…my…. gosh! There were 150 dolphins all around us, cavorting, jumping, twirling and zipping to and fro, everywhere we looked! I had never seen anything so fantastic. The dolphins were actually playing with one another. One of them put on a magnificent show for us by shooting vertically out of the water and twirling around before he dived back into the water.We were among the pod of dolphins for half an hour and all of us on that boat, had the time of our lives!

Later on we saw a few cliffs populated by seals and another couple of huge rocks dotted with sea birds.

On our return, the trusty GPS got us up to the door of our hotel, Kaikoura turned out to be a fantastic experience. The day after, we were joined by a couple of friends and the next morning we were picked up at the hotel lobby for a transfer to the railway station at 8 a.m. in the morning. We were taking the TranzAlpine Scenic Train journey to Greymouth and from there; we were going to Franz Josef to see the glacier. The TranzAlpine Scenic Train journey is rated to be one of the world’s great train journeys. It travels between Christchurch and Greymouth, spanning the distance between the Eastern and Western coastlines of New Zealand.

The train had comfortable seating arrangements and it had open viewing carriages for unobstructed viewing. We passed through the Canterbury plains and spectacular gorges and river valleys of the Waimakariri River. The train then climbed into the Southern Alps and then descended through a lush rich rainforest to reach the West coast town of Greymouth.

From Greymouth we drove to Franz Josef. We reached there at 7 p.m. in the evening and checked into the Westwood Lodge, a beautiful lodge, set among a bush garden with a view of the Southern Alps. The use of natural timber lent a very rustic feel to the place and the fragrance of the wood, permeated the air. It was raining hard but that did nothing to dampen our spirits and we soon set off to find a place for dinner.

We found a quaint little restaurant with food that was outstanding and staff that was most warm and friendly. There was a welcome fireplace and we had a good time standing around the fire, chatting with the owners and other customers.

The rain came down relentlessly but, being in what we figured was a rain forest area, it created a very unique and romantic atmosphere. All of us spent some ‘after – dinner’ quiet time next to the fireplace, sipping on something to drink and solving puzzles and then we retired for the day…Only to wake up to more rain!

We had planned to take the helicopter up to the Franz Josef glacier but the visibility was so poor that none of the operators were flying.