06.09.2010 - 10.09.2010 13 °C
Having taken a quick look around Picton on our arrival on the South island, although very quaint we decided to drive immediately South West to Nelson as we had a packed schedule planned for our tour of the South island and we were eager to make progress. Having arrived at our campsite in darkness, the next morning we found Nelson to be a lovely town with busy shopping streets, many arts and craft shops & cafes and a laid back atmosphere. From our guide book we had learnt that Nelson is the sunniest place in New Zealand, with over 2,500 hours of annual sunshine, so rather sceptical we arrived expecting Manchester drizzle and were pleasantly surprised by indeed, lovely sunny warm weather. After enjoying exploring Nelson we set off again in the direction of Greymouth. On route we stopped at Murchison to walk across New Zealand's longest swing bridge, which crosses a river gorge. Christchurch aftershocks were being felt across the South island that day and this was certainly in mind as we made our way across the swing bridge as quickly as we dared - stopping only for photo's to prove we'd done it!! We then completed a short nature walk on the other side of the river, which had a sign showing how high the floods had been a few years earlier - a sign which was above our heads and we were at the top of the river gorge - unbelievable to think that waters had been flowing this high when we could see how low the water was at the bottom of the valley when we were there. The remains of wrecked machinery in the surrounding area proving how much damage had been caused by the floods. After completing the loop walk we had to tackle the swing bridge once again to get back. We drove on to Greymouth and stayed at a rather bizarre campervan site that doubled as a car sales pitch at the back of a petrol station.
We did not spend much time in Greymouth, as the reason for us staying there was to have access to drive to Arthur's Pass the next morning. The road to Arthur's Pass was very steep and windy and very slow going at times. However the spectacular mountain scenery on route made it worthwhile as we travelled on a road on the edges of the national park. The Transalpine Train Railyway line runs along this route - named in the top 10 most scenic railyways in the world, albeit due to track damage further to the earthquake it was not running that day. We stopped at a couple of 'scenic lookouts' for photo's and saw for the first time 'Kea' birds, a bird that is apparently unique to the South island of New Zealand - that were very searching aggressively for food. They were on top of vehicles as soon as they pulled up and trying to find a way in through any open windows etc.
Arthur's pass was a small mountain village with a couple of restaurants and a shop. There were signs up warning of the potential damage that may have been caused to the surrounding trekking routes by the Christchurch earthquake and aftershocks. In particular avalanche warnings were very high. With this in mind we grabbed some lunch and after several photographs we headed back towards the West coast and on to our next destination - 'Hokitika'.
Hokitika was previously mined extensively for gold....until it ran out that is and it is now a small town famous for selling crafts. In particular it is famous for its Greenstone or Jade and there are opportunities to see how the stone is turned into decorative jewellery and furnishings in the craftshop workshops. We visited the Jade factory reading the amusing signs such as 'please don't feed our machine operators' and worked our way through the viewing areas and chatted to a craftsman who clearly loved his job! The Hokitika locals were very friendly and relaxed, the town was very nice and the sunny weather and beach views even better.
We drove South to Franz Josef Glacier, once again enjoying fantastic scenery on route. We found a campsite which was set in the rainforest and had character in abundance. Happy hour in the log cabin style bar was very well received by Chris and the open fire enjoyed equally so by Nic. The bar was the busiest we have seen in New Zealand and packed with young backpackers. In the bar with the youngest population we have been in so far we met an Australian 'Queensland' couple who were in there forties, also travelling New Zealand and they were a real pair of characters. Rex challenged Chris to pool and heckled anyone not from Australia in the process, particularly local Kiwi's and a Scottish bloke who was wearing a kilt, fairplay! Rex informed us that he had been 'heli-hunting' earlier in the day, apparently given a machine gun mid-air to try and shoot some game from a great height - although luckily for the wildlife he had been unsuccessful! It's hard to believe that random people can go up in a helicopter with a machine gun however he did say that it's not legal and it cost him 800 bucks! Meanwhile his partner informed Nic that she was going to do the big bungee jump in Queenstown naked - as it's free to do it naked! Chris entered a game of Killer pool in which there were 22 starters and he finished 5th just outside the prize places - one of which was a 'big swing bungee' so it was probably for the best not to have won it!
The next day we went on a walk to see the Franz Josef Glacier, passing signs marking where the glacier had been in the not so distant past and with explainations how the glacier is moving. We walked across a huge barren river bed, where the river Waiho appeared merely a trickle when we first saw the valley from distance. However, up close it was clear that the river was much bigger than a mere trickle. We crossed the river on giant boulders acting as stepping stones and followed markers to the base of the glacier passing waterfalls and boulder mountains on route. It was an awesome sight, an immense mass of ice stretching in volume from the top of the mountains all the way down to the river bed at the bottom of the valley. We were lucky as the weather had been sunny on the approach and as we reached it and after spending some time enjoying the scenery and taking photo's we started to return along the same path and the weather changed in an instant. Dark clouds rolled over the mountains and heavy rainfall gave us a good soaking as we walked back, ducking 'just in case' whenever we saw a helicopter above!