The Mad Month
During our stay in Motueka, a cunning plan was hatched. The summer swarms of backpackers were in full flight and we quickly found that to stay one step ahead of the game, booking accommodation well in advance was the only way to save tears and tantrums - and Alex found it a bit stressful too!
With this in mind, we devised the 'mad month' an expertly assembled strategy which would see us criss-cross the South Island, visiting every place of interest we'd marked out as a 'must see'. The plan was ridiculously simple, after sorting the itinerary we'd book every accommodation then sit back and smugly congratulate each other on our skill and foresight - which is what happened, sort of...
It was only at the 'break out the cigars' stage when we realised something was amiss. Yeah, we did get the feeling everything was a bit rushed but, hey, there's a lot to see and it's a big place. But after checking our dates again we realised the 'mad month' had become the mad five and a half weeks, somehow we'd acquired an extra 9 days, that we hadnt accounted for, doh!
On the drive to Kaikoura, our first stop on the East coast, we clocked up our first 1000kms. We drove through the Lewis Pass, marvelling at the Alps and the vast wide plains beyond. Kaikoura itself was very picturesque with it's sweeping bay, pebbled beach and the backdrop of the seaward Kaikoura mountains.
Although we were booked into another backpackers, we were relieved to find we'd been allocated a room in what appeared to be the 'old fogies' annex across the road from the all night philosophical debates which would no doubt be taking place in the main building. The house was like a living museum, it was like a 'how we lived in the 50s restoration with bakerlite switches, dark wood fireplaces and panelling on the walls. Still it was cosy and the people were great too, particularly the German couple who were riding a tandem around the South Island for 6 weeks.
Kaikoura is well known for its abundance of marine life and we hoped to swim with dolphins, unfortunately for us, the dolphins' on-shore representatives informed us that they were particularly busy at this time of year and couldnt possibly fit us into their schedule for a swim for at least another six weeks!
Instead we turned our attentions to Mount Fyffe, a mile high and virtually guaranteed to have no tour buses at the top. It was a tough, unrelenting climb up the shoulder of the mountain but the views from the top were well worth the effort. A wide plain stretched out before us with Kaikoura visible in the distance and, if you turned 180 degrees you could see the Kaikoura ranges, magnificently rugged across the valley and beyond. At the summit, we were joined by two British lady doctors who'd also happened to be staying in our hostel. One of them told us how one day, elsewhere in NZ, she'd come across a young backpacker slouched in front of the TV, which in turn was in front of a huge window framing a fantastic New Zealand landscape. Despite it being a beautiful sunny day outside he was totally engrossed in the television. And what was he watching? A documentary highlighting the beauty of New Zealands' great outdoors!
Prolonged bouts of gazing at the idiot box weren't on our itinerary and we were soon on our way to Akaroa, hidden away around the coast from Christchurch. The town was pretty, the street names reflecting the origins of the French settlers who first arrived in 1840. We found the Mount Vernon Lodge, complete with horses and a tame deer and moved in with our ever expanding mountain of gear. The communal kitchen provided a chance to meet our fellow guests and everyone seemed pleasant enough, particularly the Canadian guy who looked like a cross between Abe Lincoln, Philip Schofield and Johnny Knoxville, and bizarrely he was coming to the end of his studies at Keele University in Stoke!
Although it was possible to swim with the dolphins and watch penguins here, our extreme regime took us to Stony Bay Peak via the 'Round the Mountains' walk. The views down to Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula were stunning but, after the Mount Fyffe slogathon (our leg muscles were still in shock!) it was almost a walk too far. It was a 7 hour monster and by the time we reached Akaroa Alex threw in the towel. There were still another 2kms to go, uphill all the way back to the hostel, so, fortified by a Hokey Pokey ice cream, I set off on my own and returned in the car to pick up my incapacitated passenger!
The mad month was continuing apace and the next destination we rolled into was the historic coastal town of Oamaru - famous for it's well preserved limestone buildings and penguin colonies. The Empire Backpackers was cosy, clean and right in the centre of the action - or it would have been if the place wasn't in a state of inertia when we arrived, probably because pretty much everyone was closed for the Christmas and New Year holidays. Fortunately the penguins didn't know this and it was business as usual for them, which mainly consisted of them surfing in on the waves as night approached after a hard days fishing, then waddling over the beach and back to their nests and families. So our New Years Eve celebrations went as follows - a pint and a hotpot in the Criterion Pub, up to the Irish Bar for another pint, stumbling around a deserted woodstore in the dark looking for incoming penguins then back to the Irish Bar to see in the New Year with the friendly Kiwis. We did spot some penguins but it was so dark they were barely silhouettes, occasionally they'd be illuminated by the streetlights as they broke cover and careered across the stock yard and into the bushes. Along the coast it was a similar story with the Yellow Eyed fellas, only this time they were difficult to spot because they were frustratingly far away.
Anyone planning a trip to Oamaru should be aware of a new and interesting feature in the town, namely the 'Pissing Clock'. The clock has been there for quite a number of years but was only named as the 'pissing clock' during our stay. It was named by my frustrated fellow travelling companion who was heard to cry 'I'm bloody sick of that pissing clock' at 4.30am one morning as it chimed loudly to mark the passing of yet another 15 minutes.
Next stop on the whirlwind tour was Dunedin and when we arrived, there seemed to be some kind of oddball convention taking place. Apprentice delinquents cruised by, their superloud exhausts roaring and impressing no-one, as being a public holiday, the streets were deserted.
The day after we arrived was my birthday so, as is tradition, I was King for the day and Alex was at my behest (well, kind of) and my every whim would be fulfilled. Being the wild and crazy guy I am, I desired nothing more than a beer and a curry, oh yes, the rock'n'roll lifestyle once more! First though, we headed to St. Clair Beach where we watched some hardy surfers and slowly came to the boil under the blazing hot sunshine. Magically, Alex conjured up jam and cream scones from out of nowhere as a birthday surprise and even went for tea to wash it down with, bless! In the afternoon, we went round the Speights brewery and enjoyed several glasses of their finest brews in the brewery bar. That night we went for a curry so my birthday was complete, we even enjoyed a bottle of champagne, BYO heaven!
On the way from Oamaru we'd passed the Moeraki boulders, huge, perfectly spherical, stone boulders with tortoise shell patterning, but the tide was coming in so we couldnt get down to the beach. Alex was keen on seeing them so, after my special cream tea, I promised we'd take the 100km round trip to see them. Apparently loads of tour bused stop there but when we arrived it was late and there was virtually no-one around. The boulders were formed by thousands of years of erosion and looked weird, arranged in a line along the beach. They looked like sculptures. After a stroll along the beach it was back to Dunedin to get our gear together for the trip across to Fiordland and the first of the Great Walks - Te Anau and the Kepler Track!