A Quiet Week in Christchurch

16-21/2/16. We had a number of things to do before flying to Australia. These included cleaning the tent, sourcing bikes boxes and packing bikes and luggage. None of these ought to take much time in themselves but each was potentially time consuming if things didn’t go our way – for example bad weather preventing us getting the tent dry.

As it turned out all went swimmingly with the first bike shop tried having boxes available (in return for a very reasonable $5 donation to charity – obviously we were not the first to ask and good on them for their altruism) and hot, sunny weather at the beginning of the week.

This left us with “spare” days in the second half of the week. Christchurch is an interesting place but I’m not sure it has enough to offer to fill a week of full-on tourist stuff if you are restricted to the city itself. However, we are in the very privileged position of being “time-rich” compared to normal tourists while being “cash-poor” (relative to what we are used, but still very lucky to many, many people). So we have been taking a very relaxed stance of doing some “work”, some touristy stuff, some reading, some “chillaxing” – basically just living.

And it has been very pleasant! We really are blessed in being able to do this! The only real excitement has been the continuation of aftershocks. These have been occurring pretty much every couple of hours since last Sunday according to a website that monitors these things (www.geonet.org.nz). We have not generally noticed these, other than two in the last couple of days which measured 4.4 and 3.8. In themselves, they were OK but the experience of the larger one less than a week ago has made us slightly nervous. To be perfectly honest, we will be somewhat relieved to be away from the uncertainty. I guess if you live here you become philosophical about this risk but, as a visitor, it is certainly disconcerting!

Tomorrow (Sunday) we fly to Sydney which will be a new country for Christine. She is both excited about the prospect of exploring somewhere new and apprehensive about the heat and distances between places. Stephen is looking forward to sharing with her what little he has seen of the country in 4 or 5 business trips as well as seeing a little more of the vastness.

Christine’s Thoughts on New Zealand

So farewell New Zealand. We have loved you and we want to come back before very long! What have my most memorable bits been? The cycling highlights were cycling from Raetihi and along the Wanganui River Road, so quiet, so beautiful and lots of downhill; across Tongoriro National Park with views of snow capped mountain and active volcanoes; cycling across the South Island from Blenheim to Reefton through often lovely and remote areas with mainly gentle inclines. Best places we visited were Akaroa, in the caldera of an ancient volcano in fantastic weather; Ohinimutu, the origin of Rotorua and seeing geothermal activity in people’s gardens; Cape Reinga and 90 mile beach in the far north; and St. Arnaud, the Alpine village in the Nelson lakes. Other highlights were seeing the ancient, giant and majestic Kauri trees in Waipoua forest and visiting the wonderful Kauri museum, and taking the TranzAlpine railway from Greymouth to Christchurch. Visiting different churches each week and sharing in the worship, especially the ones with a large Maori influence. The friendly helpful people of New Zealand have been brilliant, and travelling has been so easy, and the campsites are great. Even the weather has been pretty good. A final memorable, though less positive experience was the 5.7 earthquake we felt in Christchurch. All in all a wonderful 3 months!

ABC (Akaroa and Back to Christchurch)

11-13/2/16. And now to fill in the gap in the narrative.….

You left us in Akaroa about to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We had a lovely, restful day wandering around the town and along the sea shore followed by an excellent meal in the brasserie (trés français!) just over the road from where we were staying.

The town was much busier than the previous afternoon/evening because a large cruise ship had come into the harbour before we woke. By the time Stephen was up for his morning constitutional (before Christine stirred) the tenders were busy ferrying passengers to the wharf to either look at the town or get on the many coaches (at least 25 judging by numbers posted on the windscreens) to go to Christchurch or elsewhere. It looked to be a slick operation – as it needed to be with up to 2,700 passengers on board.

Friday was to be less restful as we had to get back over the hills to Little River – for one of us at least! Christine had spotted a bus service to Christchurch that stopped in Little River and, in chatting with the driver, discovered that they would take bikes. So she decided that she had proved that she could do the climbs and there was nothing to be gained by doing it again! And, because the bus left at 3.45 it gave her another day in the pretty “French” town.

To make Stephen’s task a little easier she took one of his panniers strapped to the back of her bike. We agreed that he would go to the campsite, erect the tent, leave his remaining bags there and cycle back to meet the bus to help Christine with her bags plus the other one of his. Does that sound like a fair division of labour to you??!!

The next day was the return to Christchurch along the rail track that we had taken on Tuesday. Of course the wind, which had been in our faces on the way out, had changed direction so it wasn’t helping us! Having consulted the map we took a slightly different route for the final part of the trip – leaving the city and getting to the rail track proper had not been particularly inspiring and was not the most direct route.

Earthquake!

14&15/2/16. You may have heard that an earthquake struck Christchurch on Sunday. We can confirm that. Thankfully, it would appear that nobody was seriously injured but it has to to be said it was pretty disconcerting!

We returned to Christchurch on Saturday (post re that to follow soon – apologies for the hiatus) and were in the botanic gardens enjoying the sunshine. First, we heard a noise – not loud but all around – that was like a plane flying overhead or the wind blowing through the leaves. Then the ground moved. It felt like we were standing on jelly. It seemed to last quite a long time (several seconds at least) but, in reality, I am sure it was all over very quickly.

We had experienced a minor tremor in Whanganui a few weeks ago and also in PNG, but this was on a different scale. It was quite disconcerting and Stephen, in particular, experienced some lightheadedness. Around us there was no panic but people stopped and looked at each other. We spoke to one couple who were from California. They seemed more worried than us. (A symptom of their more local concerns?)

We gather that this made the BBC World News (according to our Bahraini correspondents) – perhaps because of the imminence of the fifth anniversary of the Big One, which caused widespread damage and loss of life, and the dramatic film footage of some cliffs falling into the sea. We heard more masonry fell from the cathedral here (the one that was badly damaged 5 years ago but otherwise it didn’t seem to be too big a deal here – it was the third item on Sky News (Aus & NZ) and the lady at the campsite reception was pretty blase about it.

It was a 5.7 quake which doesn’t seem too far off the 6.3 of the Big One even taking account of the logarithmic nature of the scale. It has been followed by numerous aftershocks which we haven’t felt but account for the couple of incidents of lightheadedness that we (again Stephen in particular – he’s a sensitive soul!!!) experienced.

Other than this big excitement, what have we been doing?

On Sunday morning, Christine went to the service at the Cardboard Cathedral (the temporary one) which, when asked afterwards by a member of the congregation, she described as “disappointing” because they ran out of orders of service, there were no hymnbooks, and no overhead display so she didn’t really know what was going on. She had the opportunity to express her views to a couple of other people when being “passed around”. But she did think that the cathedral itself was beautiful and brilliant.

As mentioned in the blurb on the earthquake, we looked round the botanic gardens. They are excellent! Up there with Kew and Wisley. And free. We were particularly impressed by the rose garden and some magnificent “specimen” trees.

Monday was spent on drudgery! Laundry and tent and bike cleaning in preparation for Australian biodiversity regulations. Not much fun but it had to be done.

Allo, Allo from Akaro

9&10/2/16. The plan came to fruition and we are in Akaroa, the main town on the Bank’s Peninsula. The peninsula was formed by two enormous volcanic eruptions 8 million years ago and is circular with an inlet of the sea through to the centre of the crater. Akaroa is on the inlet and the views across the water to the walls of the crater are just stunning! No doubt our photos (when uploaded) will not do it justice so you might be better off googling Akaroa!

When we set off on Tuesday the sky was pretty grey and we headed alongside main roads (mostly separate cycle tracks or hard shoulders) until we reached the Little RIver Rail Trail. This was generally well signposted, except for the section leaving Lincoln (a rapidly growing dormitory town we would guess) where we took a couple of wrong turnings in the absence if any signs.

After a stretch on quiet country roads the trail joined the old railway track itself and the surface was mostly firm gravel although there were sections where it was looser and gave Christine the heeby-geebies! Although it was pan flat we had a headwind most of the way and, with long exposed stretches beside Lake Ellesmere, it was tough going at times.

Arriving at Little River, we went past the turning to the campsite as we were in need of a drink, having seen no cafes or similar since late morning. The cafe in the village would “only serve takeaways” but we were allowed to sit at the tables to consume the drinks and delicious cakes! Work tbat one out if you can! We’re still trying.

The campsite was rather quirky – think Fanny’s Farm if you know the zany cafe/shop near Reigate – with armchairs and sofas in the covered, but open to the elements, kitchen/sitting area and little paths leading off to small campsites and cabins in the trees. Although there were taos for the water signs said that it should be boiled before drinking – just like many if the remote DoC sites.

It was a day without hills until the final section up to the campsite – total climbing of 95m with 75 of those in the last 2.5 km of a 65 km total.

The next morning, we descended the 75m to Little River where we topped up our water bottles with bottled stuff as well as topping up our caffeine or chocolate levels.

The contrast in profile could not be more marked. After Tuesday’s 95m of climbing in 65 km, Wednesday saw us going up almost 800m in 33km. The main climb was 470m to the “lip” of the crater to reach Akaroa in 7km. It was tough but there were some spectacular views from the top in both directions – back towards the hills that the rail trail had kindly skirted and in front the turquoise sea in the inlet. Of course the road immediately went down the other side straight to sea level! That was not the end of the climbing as the road went round the edge of the inlet with 4 or 5 “headlands” on the way, the last of which was particularly step reaching 13% at timed.

But it was worth it! Akaroa is lovely if a little twee. It makes a great play of its Frenchness. It was where a group of French settlers landed in 1840 to establish a colony – only to find that the British had signed the Treaty of Waitiki with all the Maori tribes only 3 months earlier! Many of the street names are French such as Rue Lavaud (although we did see a Smith Street! We get everywhere!!), there are tricolours flying and several bistros and brasseries. We are staying at the Chez Le Mer Backpackers where we have the best room in the house for the next two nights.

(Tomorrow we will tell you why we are treating ourselves!)

Goodbye to Greymouth and Hello to Christchurch

6-8/2/16. As anticipated Saturday saw us leave the bags behind at the campsite and take the cycle trail along the coast and then inland to Kumara. It is the West Coast Wilderness track, one of NZ’s equivalent of the Sustrans National Cycle Network in the UK.

To be perfectly frank, it was a good day’s cycling but not as good as we were hoping. It started beautifully alonside the beach with the waves crashing against the pebbles. There was a sign warning that dogs were a danger to the penguins but we saw neither. Christine was not disappointed that there were no dogs but we both wished we could have seen penguins.

The route then turned away from the beach to run on a track alongside the main road for a spell before a short (say 1 km) stretch actually on the road. It then headed inland towards Kumara along an old tramway, presumably from the days of forest clearance when these crude tramways were built to get the timber out of the bush to road, rail or sea.

It was a gentle but steady climb on a gravel surface and we were pleased not to be carrying 20-25 kg of “stuff” with us. At one point the track crossed a deep chasm with a tiny stream at the bottom using a very new looking suspension bridge – obviously constructed specially for the cycle trail. There was a sign saying that the maximum load is 10 people and it was only when we stopped in the middle for photos that we realised that it swayed significantly if the weight was slightly off centre.

We soon reached Kumara where, with the temperature steadily rising, we bought very welcome cold drinks and had a choice of the NZ national specialty, meat pies. We plumped for a bog standard, and very tasty, Chicken & Mushroom and a different, obviously more acquired taste, Chicken Pizza(!). There were several noticeboards and signs explaining the town”s history as a gold rush site and home of NZ”s longest serving Prime Minister, “King Dick” (Richard Seddon).

Turning round, the ride back to the tent was better (probably because it was gently downhill!) where we rewarded ourselves with most enjoyable meal of grilled vegetables and steak cooked on the barbie. (Many of the campsites have BBQ’s use of which, like the kitchens, is included in the cost. We may have said it before but the facilities at many of the commercial campsites (not the DoC ones – but this is compensated for by even lower cost) put those at European sites (including our one experience of a UK site) to shame for similar, or cheaper cost.

While Christine was in church the next morning Stephen made himself (sort of) useful food shopping and trying (but failing) to check the bikes in for the afternoon’s train journey to Christchurch. We had been told to take the bikes to the station any time after 9 o’clock but it transpired that they would only be stored on the platform and we would have to return once the railway staff (as opposed to the tourist information office staff) turned up at 12.15 to really deal with formalities! To vent his frustration he went for an extra dose of caffeine!!

The train runs on a single round trip from Christchurch to Greymouth and back every day taking about 4.5 hours each way.  However, if the weather is too hot the speed is restricted for safety reasons (probably due to expansion of the rails?) and so timings can be a little “variable”.  With the 30°+ temperatures in Greymouth journeys werw taking about 30 minutes ectra each way so we were glad that we had pre-booked our campsite in Christchurch as it was after 7 o’clock when we arrived.

The line crosses the Southern Alps and reaches xxx metres above sea level. It passes through an 8.5 km tunnel which, usually, is not level as the builders on the west side were slower in the construction than their counterparts! After we had booked our tickets to Christchurch we had talked to some cyclists who had explained that their plan was to take the train as far as Arthur’s Pass (the highest point) and then cycle down the other side. Stephen, especially, was impressed on hearing this idea but actually it is not quite as smart as it sounds because, while the train journey up from the west coast is very pretty, the views down the other side are something else with spectacular river crossings and jaw dropping cliff faces almost all the way to the Canterbury Plain. The road and the railway followed pretty much the same route up but, after the top, they diverged so perhaps the views from the road were equally lovely – we don’t know, but we were happy with our decision.

The campsite in Christchurch felt a little cramped in comparison to others at which we had stayed, but it’s excellent for a city centre site and a very pleasant owner showed us to our site (very much a first).

Although Monday was a national public holiday, the centre of Christchurch was bustling. However, we were left slightly uncomfortable that some of the interest (and ours?) was a dark interest in the effect of the 2010/1 earthquakes, the aftermath of which was widespread with many shored-up buildings and fenced off roads. Although there was little visible rubble, the empty lots brought to mind similar sights from last summer when we were crossing Croatia.

Having said this, we would like to reserve judgment on Christchurch because we will have more time here before we fly out to Australia on 21 February. Our plan (that unusual, for us, word again!) is to spend some time on Bank’s Peninsula to the south east of the city before returning to ready the bikes, equipment and ourselves for Oz!

A Restful Couple of Days

4&5/2/16. After the exertions of the last few days we have been taking some time to catch our breath and do some “housekeeping”.

In addition, the West Coast has been giving us a very gentle indication of how it has earned its reputation for being “damp” in that we have had short, sharp showers both mornings (Thursday & Friday). However, we understand that we have been very lucky (at least so far – touch wood) because a month or so ago the weather was dreadful – as confirned by friends Jay and Tim (our Christmas hosts) and an old boy (Greymouth born and bred) who we got chatting to earlier today who said the rain was as heavy as he could remember.

It sounds boring (to use the vernacular) but we seem to have spent the last couple of days on little more than laundry and accessing the internet in the public library  (free but, once all the backpackers arrive, ssssssllllloooooowwww) interspersed with taking in the sights of Greymouth (such as they are) and food shopping! Having said that, we have also maintained Christine’s walking regime by “yomping” about 20 km into town and back each day.

“So, what are the sights of Greymouth?” I hear you ask.

Well…… There are a couple of very tasteful monuments to coal miners who lost their lives in accidents, the most recent of which was 29 killed in 2010. (Do you remember hearing about that? We do not.) And apart from them, there is the railway to Christchurch (which we will be taking – see below),  the river, the almost disused harbour, and not a lot else, to be honest.

Greymouth seems to be very transitory based on our observation of the high turnover rate at the campsite – somewhere people stop for a night between the many sights on the West Coast.

Having said that, we have seen more touring cyclists here than anywhere else in NZ. This may be because Greymouth has access to all three of the passes between the east and west coasts over the Southern Alps. But, as mentioned above, we are cheating (!) by taking the train over to Christchurch on Sunday.  We do not fancy arm wrestling for space with drivers of big heavy trucks and camper vans up steep, windy roads for the best part of 90 km. And, anyway, the trip over Arthur’s Pass is supposed to be one of the world’s best short rail journeys.

Before that, tomorrow is back on our bikes for a short “out and back” trip along a cycle route which passes within 10 feet of our tent – without luggage! It should be blissful!.