23.12.2014 - 27.12.2014
We set off on our drive twisting and turning down the winding mountain road. Needless to say twenty minutes later Amy is sick but luckily we are near a garage and so can freshen up and prepare for our journey again. This time I go in the back with the kids armed with snacks galore and a very naff Christmas CD we bought in Kaikoura. Amy is feeling better and we sing jingle bells (accompanied by a chorus of New Zealand children) at the top of our voices as we drive on towards Christchurch and over part of the Canterbury Plains. We are in a festive mood, incredibly happy and I look at my little family and treasure this trip and time together.
We head west on the scenic route towards Lake Tekapo. This a beautiful drive along a straight road with rolling pastures either side giving way to more alpine scenery as we get to Burkes Pass. The sides are steep and dramatic, so involved are we with the views that we are at Lake Tekapo before we realise it. It is stunning with icy blue/turquoise coloured water which stretches way in to the distance with the dark green of the pines on the edge a stark contrast in colour. We climb out of the car and walk down a path to a rocky beach. Someone has started a stone wall enclosure and so the children have their picnic inside this whilst adding their layer of stones to the ramparts. Ray and I sit on a large boulder gazing out across the lake. What a picnic stop.
We drive on past a famous statue of a sheepdog (of all things) and head on along the road through the heart of the Mackenzie Basin. This is probably one of the most stunning drives I have ever done. Either side of the road are masses of lupins in pastel colours forming a carpet of colour stretching along the entire route. I try and photograph this sea of flowers but it simply does not do it justice. We head on for a few more kilometres and reach Lake Pukaki. If I thought Tekapo was beautiful nothing had prepared me for Pukaki. It is a glacial lake that is famous for its striking blue colour and it is literally breathtaking with the snow capped Mount Cook very clear and imposing in the background even though it is 80k away. Photographs and postcards to not do it justice. It is much more impressive in real life and on this sunny, cloudless day the blue colour is mesmerising.
We finally tear ourselves away and set off on the final drive to Queenstown. We head up through the Lindis Pass which is an amazing stretch of road and takes you through the highest point of the highway in the South Island. The road is winding and steep in places but this gives you dramatic views of the mountains either side. With slightly green children we head through the Kawarau gorge and stop in Cromwell to do a supermarket shop and allow Ray a chance to rest.
The supermarket is heaving as you can imagine a few days before Christmas and Amy does not help by pointing out every Christmas item in the store. Finally I get enough provisions to be able to self cater over Christmas (at vast cost as groceries are expensive here) and we drive the final twenty minutes to our villa.
Commonage Villas are a revelation and situated high on a hill above Queenstown. We were always concerned about what the villas would have been like but these fears are unfounded. Our home for the next five days is a pretty three storey house, immaculately done up and with stunning views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. They have decorated a Christmas tree for us and the children shriek with excitement when they see it. We turn on the TV and there is Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing the drummer boy (which is Ray's favourIte Christmas song) and in the words of another tune 'it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas'. We have four cards waiting to open - my uncle, sister and parents and then one from the Colegraves. It feels so wonderful to see their smiling faces on a card and lovely to be remembered so far from home. Whilst I cook spaghetti bolognaise the kids have discovered the villa has Sky TV (which is regarded as the 8th Wonder of the World) and do not move from the sofa.
Tuesday 23rd December
A rather grumpy taxi driver arrives at 9.30 to take us to the airport. Inside the car are signs forbidding pretty much everything - no smoking, no eating, no drinking, no feet on the seats, no swearing. I get awful giggles whilst Ray maintains dignity in the front and strikes up a form of conversation. We arrive at Glacier Southern Lakes, meet our helicopter pilot, Andy, and within a few minutes are strapped in and ready for our adventure.
Jack and Amy are chatting away through the microphones and the pilot is non too amused. He is used to genteel adults in his helicopter and not the boisterous enthusiasm of two children. He needs to concentrate on instructions from the flight tower and cuts us in to silence in a brusque antipodean way. Ray and I are rather self conscious and tell the kids to be quiet and then everyone is rather upset. So much for a trip of a lifetime. The thing we are learning about New Zealanders is that they are to the point and sometimes this can be interpreted as brusqueness, annoyance or rudeness. If you do not take offence you soon learn that it is just their manner and as they relax so the attitude softens. This is the case with Andy and we are soon all friends again and begin to enjoy the ride.
The flight is stunning and yet rather scarey. Flying in a small helicopter above mountains of this scale and with the scenery below so vast and rugged makes me feel very mortal and incredibly vulnerable and my imagination works overtime. This is not helped by the fact that the warm air that usually pushes the helicopter up tends to turn into a down draft as you fly over precipices and the land drops away dramatically. I grip my seat and say a few prayers. All of a sudden granite gives way to snow as we fly over the glacier. I had never realised how narrow crevasses are and yet how eerily deep. We fly over a particularly bottomless looking one and then land on the glacier itself, close to the highest peak in the mountain range, which is called the Remarkables. It is dazzling in this bright sunshine.
The thrill for all of us as we get out of the helicopter and walk in the snow is huge. We had dressed in shorts and canvas shoes that morning as it was 30 degrees but all of a sudden feel completely inappropriately attired as the chill of the snow begins to freeze our toes. The kids begin to whimper at the cold but we start a snow ball fight and soon all is forgotten amidst the laughter and fun. It is an incredible moment for us all to stand beside a helicopter on this mass of snow and ice and yet in temperatures more suited to sunbathing by a pool. We eventually climb back in but with grins that remain for the rest of the day.
As a complete contrast to our glacier we now fly down over a beach and watch seals sunbathing on the rocks and swimming in the sea. Extraordinary to be on snow one minute and down by a beach the next. We were going to set down on the beach but, at the advice of the pilot, give this a miss as the sand flies are out in force. Instead we head up the coast towards Milford Sound.
Milford Sound is actually not a sound (a large sea or Ocean inlet) but rather a fjord set within Fiordland National Park. It was named the world's top travel destination a few years ago and it is easy to see why. It is breathtaking and flying up the sound in the helicopter enables you to enjoy the sheer scale and beauty of it all. Having lived in Norway as a teenager the scenery is very reminiscent of some of the fjords there but here it is not only edged in steep cliffs but also dense rain forests. Apparently a unique effect happens as the high rainfall drains through these forests. The rainwater gets stained with tannins until the water becomes the colour of strong tea and it is in this marine environment below the water that the world's largest population of black coral can be found.
Milford Sound is 16km long and at the pinnacle is Mitre Peak rising 1692 metres above the water. We fly down its length trying to take in all the beauty and the children particularly love the vast waterfalls cascading down the steep sides. We fly over the small settlement of Milford Sound itself and then on up over the end of the sound and on to land by a small mountain lake. We all get out and climb the big boulders that frame the small lake. Here the water is also dark in colour and the vegetation low scrub with small pink flowers growing on the rock.
After ten minutes of exploring we set off again and head off to our pilot's favourite stop of the whole trip. To increase the drama of the moment he slowly flies the helicopter up the side of a mountain, almost hovering in the air, until suddenly the land falls away and there nestling in a hollow is the bluest lake I have ever seen. It is a glacial lake but unlike the icy blue we are used to this is a brilliant cobalt blue in colour. We are viewing it on a cloudless day with the sun blazing and it is only on these clear days that the colour is so intense and dramatic. No photograph does it justice (although I try) and we hover over it for a full five minutes just taking it all in.
Finally, tearing ourselves away we head off to land for lunch on the mountain ridge overlooking Glenorchy and Lake Wakatipu directly across from Blanket Bay Lodge. We have the whole place to ourselves and as the kids go off to explore Andy sets out one of the best picnic lunches I have ever seen. We sit, glass of chilled white local wine in hand, and soak in the view below. We are miles from anywhere in blissful solitude, it is a hot cloudless day and this has to be one of my favourite days ever. The only problem, and one Andy says many clients experience, is that it is almost sensory overload. We have flown over so much breathtaking scenery that I cannot take it all in and it is something that I will have to gently absorb.
That evening we head out to Arrowtown to see Don and Jan Spary, who are old friends of my parents. Don and Dad were in 9 Squadron together and when he finished in the services moved out here with his New Zealand wife and set up a helicopter company. It is rather poignant to see how their lives have differed from my parents. Like Mum and Dad they too lead a full and active social life and are surrounded by family and friends but somehow sitting in this stunning spot and with a warmer climate, life here has perhaps been the kinder of the two environments. We head to a local restaurant for supper and meet up with their son Fergus (an old friend of mine) and his daughter Edie. Amy is thrilled to make a new best friend and the girls disappear off hand in hand with poor Jack in tow whilst Ferg and I reminisce about times in London.
Christmas Eve and we spend the morning in our pyjamas making paper chains to decorate the house with and, I am afraid to say, watching Sky TV. Usually in England I would be running around like a mad thing getting ready for the big day but the joy of travelling is that everything is simplified and pressure free. We finally head off blinking into the bright sunshine and leaving Ray ensconced in a good book on the terrace we go off to explore Queenstown. We are boiling and retreat into the cool of Starbucks for an icy coffee and a game of blow football (a childish game of moving a scrunched up paper ball along the table towards a goal by blowing through straws). Afterwards we go shopping and leave a trail of things we want for 'Father Christmas' to buy. A complicated game which sees me handing money over in a clandestine way and arranging to pick bags up later. Finally, too tired to trudge back up the hill, we ring for Ray to collect us.
That night we have our Christmas supper (roast chicken etc) which disappointingly was somewhat bland. Despite New Zealand being a huge farming community the quality of the meat and some of the vegetables is frankly not great and lacks flavour. Still the children did not seem to care and are far more interested in the giant box of crackers we had purchased - silly jokes and plastic presents are all they really care about.
We lug a mattress up from their bedroom and set up their bed under the tree. They want Father Christmas to find them there. They soon fall asleep, arms wrapped around each other, their heads beneath the baubles. A sweet idea but rather complicated for Santa to tiptoe past them to put all the presents round the tree.
Needless to stay an early start made even earlier by the bright sunshine streaming into the room. Our first hot Christmas. Squeals of excitement as wrapping paper is ripped off and Father Christmas has successfully delivered the right things. The real joy here is that there is not the usual excessive pile of presents for the day to be centred around and everyone is much the nicer for it. Jack sets to building his lego and Mimi and I make a cat out of some modelling clay, pausing only for bacon sandwiches.
We Skype home and eventually head down town for a Christmas walk. Queenstown is packed with people. The beach is full of backpackers in bikinis and Christmas hats, the queues for ice cream long in this heat but everywhere a happy, slightly hippy crowd. Ice creams in hand we sit on the waterfront watching the world go by.
Later that day we head out to Arrowtown to join the Sparys for their Christmas. Three of the Sparys' five children are there with their kids and so we are a happy and chaotic group of 15. The children lie on skate boards and set off down a grassy hill at speed whilst we shelter from the heat and tuck into champagne. I sit with Jan podding a mountain of peas whilst the others take turns in the kitchen - everyone has a role. They have ham, lamb and turkey and not knowing which to have we load up plates with everything. It is a truly happy meal and we laugh hilariously at in family jokes and Alastair wearing a truly horrendous turquoise and pink jogging suit sent to him by his sister. An annual event to send him the worst outfit and this one is a sure contender for the crown. We watch the Queen's speech (rather surreal) and eat pavlova (a much better invention than our heavy Christmas pudding).
Finally at 9.00 we head for home after a really lovely Christmas. The Sparys had scooped us up and included us in all their family fun and we could not have been more grateful. It meant we did not feel so far away from family and Jack and Amy had had a ball. We Skype home and watch my sister and parents start their Christmas as we end ours.
Our final day in Queenstown and a relaxing one. We head out once more to Arrowtown in the afternoon but this time to explore the little town itself. We drop the children off with Ferg and set off child free to explore. Arrowtown grew up around the gold mining and you can still pan for gold in the river today. It is a picturesque town with white clapperboard houses and even a tiny (but rather good) museum. We stop for an ice cream and wander happily for an hour down the Main Street crammed with boutiques and little gift shops. We head back past two postcard pretty churches and pick up the children.
We have loved Queenstown and I could never tire of their views. We have been blessed with idyllic weather in which to explore it and it is hard to leave.
As we stand on the terrace the next morning we think back over our month in New Zealand. It has been a magical journey from the Bay of Islands down to Queenstown. We have flown over and driven through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world, we have been lucky enough to stay in some extraordinary lodges and experience the outdoor life first hand. There have been too many wonderful moments and sights to list, but hIghlights for me have to be Pink Beach, our sail through the Bay of Islands with the dolphins, the Maori welcome at Treetops, the view at Grasmere and our incredible helicopter flight over Milford Sound. The food has been of the highest quality but for us we feel too many places are trying to be inventive and haute cuisine rather than serving high quality produce in its simple form. We have been charmed by the people we have met and the kindness shown to us throughout our visit. Could I live here? In many ways yes - the quality of life is second to none and with their high standards of education it would be a great start in life for any child. As a New Zealand friend said "anyone living in a house without a great view in this country has to be mad" and that is true. You could certainly build the house of your dreams (stringent housing rules permitting) and as New Zealand only has a population of just under 5 million the overcrowding and demand on houses that we experience in the UK is not a problem here. What is an issue, however, is that the newer generations are not investing enough in the overall quality of their built environment. We also found the direction that many of the young are taking to be coarser and more materialistic one. Although I love this country and leave a bit of me behind, I could not commit to living here forever.