Train hopping and whale watching on the South Island -part II without Nick
29.01.2007 - 06.02.2007 27 °C
Maja and I had another 8 days or so left and having spent the last week travelling around the southern tip and the central part of the North Island we decided to give the South Island a once-over- well not quite...
We crossed Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton on the ferry and hopped on TranzCoastal train that took us through the farmfields and vineyards and along the coast to Kaikoura - known as the whales' favourite hangout with a food rich trench that lies just few kilometres away from its shores.
We arrived in the early afternoon, dropped our bags and headed to the sea. As the motel we stayed in was just across the road from the beach, that was exactly where you could find us few minutes after and pretty much until the evening (except for a stroll to the internet cafe and the local shops for some food):
Next morning we got up early, picked up our bags and aimed for The Whale Watch Station hoping to be able to say that we'd seen a whale just a few hours after.
The weather was perfect and all looked promising!
The Kaikoura Whale Watch station is a very well organised place, with informative films preparig you for the adventure ahead and a great choice of souvenirs -we opted for a book and a t-shirt for Maja which she keenly wore for her first encounter with the real thing!
Shortly we got on the boat and were cutting the waves in search of the beautiful giant.The "state of the art" boat had all that's needed on board with a huge screeen inside explaining just about everything about the place, why it is so popular amongst the whales, dolphins and other sea creatures. It also went into details about the whales and their habits.
Once we reached the appropriate depths, the search began and our eyes sparkled with even more excitement and anticipation.We didn't have to wait long until we could see something long, black and shiney floating on the surface. As we came closer it was clear this was a whale getting ready for his/hers next immersion and so the buzz kicked in and the camera flashes went off.
It wasn't that easy for me as I had to look after our camera as well as keep tabs on Maja curiously hanging over the rail. At the end I managed to take some snaps as well as catch a glimpse of the whale not only through the camera lenses.
Here is some whale action for you:
Maja seemed a bit confused at first as I think she was expecting the whole whale just cruising on the sea surface with the fountain on the top of its head spraying the water around. It took me some time to persuade her that what we were all watching was in fact - the whale!
She didn't have any doubts about the playful dolphins though and wanted to join them in the water for a splash and a quick chatter!Next time Maja!
After that we boarded the train and carried on along the coast to Christchurch.
Apart from admiring the views I manage to have a read while Maja had a little snooze and dreamt about the new friends she had met earlier -the whales and the whale of a time we'd had.
Forgot to mention about the train itself. It was a slow old fashioned type of train but with comfortable seats, large panoramic windows,a little table and plenty of legroom.There was an open air carriage with no windows on the sides for viewing and photographing and a buffet carriage serving all sorts of drinks and snacks. There was also a little but interesting commentary throughout the journey.
After the succesfull morning with the whales and a very relaxing journey still along the coast,we arrived in Christchurch in the evening and decided to have a wander around the city centre while looking for a place to eat.
We found that our motel was a little bit further out from the centre then promised on the website but having accumulated some energy while sitting on the train we didn't mind the walk. We only had this and another evening in Christchurch so had to try to see as much as we could although pretty much in the dark.
My impressions of Christchurch were exactly as described in one of the books I had read about NZ -"a transplant from England" and "the most English city outside of England",with many notable buildings and monuments that recall its colonial heritage as well as parks and gardens.
We headed straight to the heart of the city -The Cathedral Square with its famous cathedral which we could only view from the outside as it was being restored.
We settled for a while in the restaurant by the square and watched the Christchurch life go by. Although it was the heart of the city with few reastaurants, bars, a hotel and a backpackers next to it, it seemed pretty quiet with few people passing by and an old fashioned tram circling around which I promised Maja to go on on our way back.Nice way to end the day!
Next day -we had an early morning again, caught a taxi to the train station to embark on yet another train -exactly the same as TranzCoastal one with the difference in name TranzAlpine and the route it was taking. Having come from North to South Island, this time we were to travel across the island on what is known to be one of the most scenic train journeys in the world!
The passage is 223 kms long and it took 4 and a half hours to get from the east coast to the west coast. .At first the train led us through the patchworks of fields and farmlands of Canterbury Plains and gorges and river valleys of Waimakariri River to climb into The Southern Alps with a brief stop at the highest point enroute -The Arthur Pass resting 737 metres above the sea level and finally descent through the lush and rainforest.
Although it was a summer season and the mountains tops looked grey opposite to snowcapped as seen during the winter season, it was still a great journey! The scenery managed to take our breath away as we sat glued to the windows for nearly the entire journey. There were other attractions on the way, we dived in a few tunnels , went over high viaducts and passed by coalmines with the early mining settlements looking now more like ghost towns.
We arrived in Greymouth-the largest town on the West Coast but how different to Christchurch on the other side. I must admit I didn't like it very much. Although it is by the coast it is in fact located by the Grey (!!!!) river leading to the sea which makes it a bit tricky to get to see it. As the weather wasn't great we set for a little walk around the town but except for Honda dealership, a supermarket, a warehouse and a church it didn't have anything special on offer. One of the museums there is was closed but we managed to visit an art gallery with an exhibition of the local art at the shooting prices! I think we would have much nicer memories if the weather was better and we had a car to move around.
Greymouth was the furthest south spot we got to on our journey. Knowing that just a couple of hours away were the gems of the South Island -Mount Cook with the highest mountain in NZ, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers and more -made us wish we had more time to explore it properly. As we were due to be back on the train midday next day, we only managed to take a taxi (there was no train or bus available at the early hours in the morning) to Punakaiki -a small coastal settlement famous for the Pancake Rocks and blowholes located nearby.
Although it was a flying visit it was well worth it to experience what miracles nature is capable of creating itself. We loved it!
Shortly after that we were dropped at the station to take a train back to Christchurch. I was hoping to take more photos on the way back as hadn't really taken any on the way there but the weather was pretty bad so we stayed inside the carriage most of the way reading, colouring and chatting. Maja was still buzzying with excitement and bursting with energy but managed to sit in one spot colouring and making up stories. She had not only entertained herself and me but the whole carriage and people kept coming up to me praising her for both her good behaviour and creative imagination. I must say it again -she had made a great travel companion and made sure we had never wasted a minute for doing nothing -every minute of the journey had been filled with some sort of action or words!
Back in Christchurch, we went to the cathedral square for a ride on the old restored tram. It wasn't a very long route just aroud the square with a driver indicating different sights and points of interest etc. Maja loved it especially when she was invited to sit in front of the train and pull the old fashioned gong bell.
Not long after we went back to the motel and went to sleep. Next morning we continued our journey on the train to Picton and got a ferry to Welligton where Phil was awaiting us to take us to their new stunning home!
We stayed 2 more days in Wellington I think and just chilled out (as if we were doing anything else for the past 2 weeks anyway) with our friends. We went to visit the local Zoo with the kids and spent some time on the beach and a cafe in Scorching Bay (where the Lord of the Rings cast and crew used to hang out while being over in NZ doing the film).
On our last day Monika and Ralph drove down and we all cruised off the Wellington Harbour to one of the surrounding bays although I am not sure which one it was -I think it was Oriental Bay but it could have been any other.
We had another very productive day of sitting in the park tucking into some delicious cakes and washing it off with coffee and just relaxing on the beach making the most of our loosey goosey times together.
On the way back Maja and Henri kept poking into the captain's cockpit until he gave up and invited them to sit in and "steer" the boat back to the port.
We had an AWESOME holiday in New Zealand and no wonder that more and more people choose it as a place to live. It is a beautiful country with most attractions still made by nature that keep the tourists coming and locals beaming. It was a constant feast for our eyes as well as our lungs. We didn't have to travel very far to come across beautiful not necessarily any extraordinary views and breathe the fresh air.
It proves again that the simplest are the most important and beautiful things in life!!!
And I am glad to say that we haven't even made it to the best spots on NZ visitors' list - the very top of North Island and the very bottom one of South Island...which gives us a prefect excuse to come back again!
I just hope not to leave it for too long...
Next time we hope to see and learn a bit more about Maori heritage as this time we only saw recently made carvings in the rock while cruising on the boat around the lake:
Until next time!