Journal of a visit to New Zealand, via Singapore

The Land of the Long White Cloud
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This page last updated: 23rd January 2006.
Day 5: High Country Explorer Map

Day 5 As we are being picked up early in the morning, we've ordered breakfast in our room. It arrives promptly. Delicious bacon and eggs and pancakes with maple syrup. The idea of serving pancakes alongside a traditional cooked breakfast is something we haven't encountered before, but seems to be a regular practice in New Zealand.

We are picked up at 8.15 a.m. by a shuttle van which transports us to the railway station to start our High Country Explorer trip, taking the tour in the opposite direction to the usual advertised route. Together with a couple from Perth, Western Australia, we settle into our seats on the Tranz-Alpine train to Arthur's Pass.

After leaving the suburbs and the relatively flat Canterbury Plains, the train crosses wild mountain country through tunnels and on spindly viaducts that span the Waimakariri river. The area having had very low rainfall in the past few months, there is very little water to be seen in the river — instead there are huge areas of pebbles, washed down from the mountains over hundreds of years.

The train itself is in two parts each consisting of five or six coaches. Between them is a locked guard's van on either side of which is an open observation carriage. This allows passengers to view the scenery and take photographs without a sheet of glass in the way. As the train lurches and clatters along, walking up and down the train calls for nimble feet. Most of the time a strong wind blows through the observation platform so it isn't a place to linger in for long. Nonetheless for much of the most scenic stretches, it is quite crowded with photographers.

Dave Ussher meets us at Arthur's Pass. In his 4WD Range-rover type vehicle, he drives us up the road to a lookout point above the new Otira Gorge Viaduct. The old road, now closed, wound a tortuous way over the mountainside. The little carpark is home to the Kea, (Nestor notabilis), sometimes known as the New Zealand alpine parrot. Often accused of, though rarely seen, killing sheep, it is a fearless bird that will attack the tyres and windscreen wipers of parked cars, even when still occupied. See additional comment from Suzy Miller.

Dave turns his car round here and drives us back through Arthur's Pass village and past Lake Pearson to Flock Hill Sheep Station. Here we stop for lunch. Christine teaches the proprietor how to make a passable shandy using "dark" beer. The three course meal is excellent and afterwards we watch some paragliders on the Craigieburn Mountain Range.

All too soon it is time to set out on the next part of the journey over the breadth of the Flock Hill Sheep Station, Dave's wife Chris doing the work of opening and closing the gates along the track. We don't actually see too many sheep as they are mostly hiding themselves in the long bracken. After some distance we join a gravel road leading from Cass to Avoca. At one time there was coal-mining in the area and there was a great deal of activity going on alongside the railway. All that is left at Avoca, apart from some rusty relics, is an old miner's cottage. Occasionally used by trampers it is not quite uninhabitable but contains much dilapidated furniture and fittings.

Leaving Avoca we cross the railway, ford a stream and climb up into the hills from where are splendid views of the mountains beyond Arthur's Pass and of the railway, its viaducts and tunnels. In due course we arrive at Petticoat Junction. Once a quite substantial village housing railway construction workers and their families — now all that remains is a little green hut, a one-hole dunny (carsey, loo) sitting on top of the hill. The highest in New Zealand, it is still quite functional.

From Petticoat Junction, a recently constructed trackway leads through a forest to Pigs Point on the Waimakariri River. Here Dave and Chris park their vehicle to join the rest of us for the next stage in the journey. We all put on life-jackets and climb aboard the waiting jet-boat.

The jet-boat is a New Zealand invention designed to operate in the shallow river gorges that abound here. Rod Bennett, organiser of the High Country Explorer, takes us first up-river to a fishing spot. Our Australian companion tries his hand for a short while but the fish are not biting. We then head down-stream, stopping to view the underside of one of the railway viaducts to marvel at this quite outstanding engineering achievement.

At the request of the Australian female aboard, Rod does a "360" — i.e. a full about turn in the river. As this is our first jet-boat experience, we are unprepared for the G-forces released during this manouver and find it slightly unpleasant. Christine, who is at the edge of the boat gets quite soaked. Apart from this, we quite enjoy speeding down the gorge, rounding the bends as if on a motorbike only inches from the gravel. Rod eventually drives the boat into what looks like a sort of large canvas hold-all. This is attached to a tractor which, when coupled-up, pulls the boat and its occupants up the bank and along to a riverside lodge.

Here we disembark. After the exhilarating ride, we are able to calm down with a cup of tea and a piece of cake. As I am wearing two shirts, Christine is able to change out of her wet T-shirts into one of mine. We are now on the Oxford side of the Waimakariri River, ready for Rod to return us to Christchurch by coach. About half a mile down the road Christine realises she's lost her sunglasses. Back at the riverside lodge they are eventually found in the ladies loo.

The return trip in the coach is through relatively flat farming country and, for us, who are more or less falling asleep by this time, the least interesting part of the journey. I am glad that we did the trip in reverse. I feel that what we learnt about the building of the railway, from Dave's commentary on the run over the sheep station, made more impression on us because we had already experienced the train ride. Also, had Christine got wet from the jet-boat on the outward trip, she couldn't have changed into something dry until we reached Flock Hill.

It has been an exciting and fascinating day, giving us a chance to get into an area, even few New Zealanders have had an opportunity to visit.

The Maori word 'kea' is onomatopoeic, just in case you didn't hear one screeching!

We have seen film footage (infra-red) of them killing sheep. It is thought that they probably predated in similar fashion on the moa before its extinction.

They nest during the depths of winter in mountain burrows, with snow and icicles all around, and we have seen footage of them predating on the young of sooty shearwaters, which also nest in burrows in the Kaikoura region. They obviously need protein to rear their chicks, and are exceedingly good parents.

They have been denoted the world's cleverest bird, after recent intelligence tests by a New Zealand scientist, in which they had to work out how to get morsels of food. The test was made increasingly difficult, and it was incredible to see how these wild birds worked out systems of pulleys and shutters. They cocked their heads as they applied themselves to the problem, and then with lightning speed and impressive manual dexterity they claimed the prize.

My husband, Alex said that when he was working in a mountain ski hut in the 1960s, they used to regularly tap on the window for a piece of butter, and if it didn't appear quickly enough, they used to run screeching up and down the corrugated iron, and throw snowballs through the upper sash window to emphasis their point.

On mountaineering or shooting trips keas would often drag boots and rifles away, and many a tramper has had to retrieve important items dragged by keas over a bluff!

— Suzy Miller (Franz Josef Glacier)

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Journal - Day 6 Photographs - Day 5