The Travels of a Journalist—14- TIKI-TOURING NEW ZEALAND: CROSSING THE ALPINES ON SOUTH ISLAND
Posted on February 27th, 2010

By Shelton A. Gunaratne  c 2010

 My son Junius was barely 2 years old when my wife Yoke-Sim and I took him on a two-week-long tour of New Zealand. We landed in Christchurch, the big city of the South Island, on a Saturday (12 Dec. 1981) at 4.30 p.m. although we left Brisbane, Qld. (Australia), at 10.30 a.m. and the Qantas flight itself took only three hours. But the New Zealand time zone was also ahead of Queensland by three hours. 

Our intention was to introduce Junius to the joys and sorrows of foreign travel from a very early age. Therefore, I arranged the Tiki Tour of New Zealand to celebrate his second birthday on 19 Jan. We left Auckland (New Zealand) back to Brisbane on 1 Jan. 1982. I suspect that because of the 18-day time gap between the two events Junius did not associate the tour with his birthday at all.

Tiki Tours, the company that organized the tour of our choice, had no objection to a 2-year-old joining the long excursion. And we had confidence that Junius had the mettle to withstand the strains of a two-week coach tour.

At the Christchurch Airport, we reported to the Tiki Tours Center, where a Mr. McIlwraith took us in a coach to Shirley Lodge on Marshlands Road, Shirley, northeast of the city, where we checked in. Our room had excellent facilities and we enjoyed a sumptuous dinner as well. Our first impression of New Zealand was very positive.

I laid back and read The Star newspaper. The quality and depth of its political analyses impressed and surprised me.

(The Shirley Lodge is still in operation and so are the Tiki Tours.)

Crossing Arthur’s Pass

Mt. Cook Coachlines’ “steerologist” (coach captain/driver) Merv Papakura commenced our Tiki Tour of the South Island Sunday morning.

First, Papakura gave us a short tour of Christchurch (current population 386,100), the second largest urban area of New Zealand, after Auckland. The estimated population of the entire country is 4.4 million (78 percent European/Other; 15 percent Maori; 9 Percent Asian; 7 percent Pacific Islander).

Among the points of interest in Christchurch are its Cathedral Square, which accommodates a speakers’ corner (an obvious replication of London’s Hyde Park Corner); the pedestrian-only urban mall along Cashel Street; and the Cultural Precinct that promotes arts, cultural and heritage attractions.

After a stop at Cathedral Square, Papakura gave us a panoramic view of the city by driving south on Colombo Street (next to Madras Street) from Hagley Park through Sydenham and Cashmere to the Sign of the Takahe and beyond to the scenic northern Summit Road at the southwestern edge of Victoria Park overlooking the bay. My diary entry doesn’t record how he got to Highway 73 for our 242-km ride northwest across the island’s mountainous middle to Greymouth (population 10,000) on the West Coast.

Our tea stop was at Springfield, the center of a farming and sheep-raising district, 64 km from Christchurch. The plains ended and the mountains took over from there. Less than   16 km ahead was Porters Pass (elevation 939 meters), close to Lake Lyndon, reaching which required a steep climb. The highway zigzagged uphill across the steep cliffs for almost 65 km when we reached Arthur’s Pass (elevation 922 km), where we tarried to eat lunch at a quaint Alpine restaurant. (In addition to Arthur’s Pass, two other passes””‚Haast and Lewis””‚enable motorists to cross the Alpine Mountains of the South Island).  Rainy weather greeted us here. Papakura steered the coach uphill with meticulous skill for another 15 km to Otira, wherefrom he focused on the gradual descent to the West Coast’s Kumara Junction, 63 km further to the west. Then he headed north (on Highway 6) some 15 km to Greymouth, located on the mouth of the River Grey. Ashley Motor Inn, where we checked in, was 2.5 km south of the town center. This motel is still in operation.

(Since our journey three decades ago, the New Zealand government has stabilized and improved the condition of Highway 73. For example, in 1999, the government completed the Otira Viaduct spanning 440 meters of unstable terrain at a cost of $45 million.)

After dinner, I walked north to explore the town. My walk got longer when I got lost north of Victoria Park. Back in the motel after the walking exercise, I relaxed reading The Weekend Star and the Saturday edition of the Greymouth Evening Star.

Franz Josef Glacier

We left Greymouth at 9 a.m. in rainy weather. Our first stop was the township of Hokitika (population 3,000), 38 km southwest of Greymouth on Highway 6. Founded in 1864 as a gold-mining center, Hokitika became the capital of the short-lived Westland Province from 1874-1876.  In the “ƒ”¹…”80s, the township was heavily dependent on dairying and sawmilling. We visited a glass-blowing factory and a greenstone-carving factory in the town.

Continuing our journey in the rain, we passed Lake Ianthe and stopped briefly at Hari Hari to see the La Fontaine Swamp where the Australian aviator Guy Menzies (1909-1940) crash-landed on 7 Jan. 1931when he flew the first solo trans-Tasman flight from Sydney to the West Coast of New Zealand.

The purpose of the day’s trip was to experience the Franz Josef Glacier, a major tourist attraction that draws in some 2,700 visitors a day. Therefore, on arrival in Franz Josef (population 330), 134 km from Hokitika, we checked in at the Westland Motor Inn.

The 12-km long glacier is located in the Westland National Park. To cite the Wikipedia:

 

Together with the Fox Glacier 20 km to the south, it [Franz Josef Glacier] is unique in descending from the Southern Alps to less than 300 meters above sea level, amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest.

The area surrounding the two glaciers is part of Te Wahipounamu, a World Heritage Site park. The river emerging from the glacier terminal of Franz Josef is known as the Waiho River.

Yoke-Sim and I decided that having traveled this far in the world, it was sheer folly for us not to experience the actual glacier. So we spent an extra $35 per head for a Heli-Hike tour of the glacier.   We had to put on boots and Alpine stock before we got on the helicopter to land on Luncheon Rock, about 800 meters above sea level. A guide helped us to walk on the glacier ice. It was an awesome experience for all three of us.

After dinner, we visited the Westland National Park Visitor Center to learn more about glaciers.

On the Way to Queenstown

Tuesday morning, Papakura transported us from Franz Josef to Queenstown for a two-night stay.

Although the distance between these two places was only 354 km on Highway 6, our detours along the way increased the day’s traveled distance by an extra 60 km. After leaving the motor inn heading south on Highway 6, we stopped briefly at the foot of the Franz Josef Glacier to pay our respects and acknowledge its majesty. However, by failing to spare even a moment to acknowledge its collaborative role to enhance our understanding of the glacial life cycle, we silently but arrogantly miffed Fox Glacier.

We stopped for rest at Lake Paringa and Knights Point, where we saw the plaque marking the opening of the Haast Pass by Prime Minister Keith Holyoake in November 1965. Highway 6, which is the main drag from one end of the South Island (Invercargill) to the other (Nelson) on the western side of the Alpine Range, takes on different names at different points. The stretch between Fox Glacier and Makarora bears the name Haast in three variations. At Haast Pass, Highway 6 crosses the Alpines.

At Haast Beach on West Coast, Highway 6 takes a sharp turn east in the vicinity of the Haast township, where we stopped at the restaurant for tea. The restaurateur served us complimentary scones to celebrate our crossing the border from Westland to Otago through the Gates of Haast and the steep Haast Pass (562 meters above sea level), where the highway would turn southward to Makarora at the northern end of the enchanting Lake Wanaka.

Our lunch stop was Wanaka, further to the south. The scenery of this lake region was breathtaking. On the stretch from Wanaka to Queenstown, we stopped at Nevis Bluff and Kawarau Bridge. In Queenstown (population 10,500), we checked in at the (now defunct) Mountaineer Establishment Hotel.

Queenstown is an international resort built around the Queenstown Bay, an inlet of Lake Wakatipu “that is shaped like a staggered lightning bolt” (Wikipedia). It has earned a reputation for adventure tourism (bungy jumping, whitewater rafting, mountain biking) and snow sports (skiing, skateboarding). TSS Earnslaw, a century-old coal-fired steamship, provided tours of the lake.

On our first night in Queenstown, we (Junius, Yoke-Sim and I) did a post-prandial walk in the town to see the jetty, the marine parade, the mall, Camp Street, Isle Street, etc. On our second night, we walked to the Queenstown Gardens, a patch of greenery that juts into the lake, where Junius had a lot of fun chasing after the ducks and other birds. Both evenings, I relaxed reading the excellent local newspaper, The Otago Daily Times.

Although our second day in Queenstown turned out to be cloudy and drizzly, we took a boat ride (on “Moana”) across Lake Wakatipu to the Walter Peak sheep and cattle station, where we had tea and short eats ($2 per person). On this three-hour excursion, we watched wool-spinning and sheep dog trials at the homestead. Costs have dramatically escalated since our 1981 trip as evident from the following cotemporary account of a visitor:

You can just ride the ship across the lake and back for NZ$40 (adult), you can ride across and get off at the Walter Peak Farm (a working sheep farm) to get a tour and sheep-shearing show for NZ$60 (adult) or with lunch included for NZ$82 (adult), you can also get a more historical tour of the farm for NZ$70, or you can do what we did, which was to ride across the lake and get off at Walter Peak Farm for a horseback ride for NZ$99 (adult) 

Back in town, we ate lunch on the mall, where a very amiable female barber gave me a $6 haircut. Later, we took a 445-meter Skyline Gondola ride ($3.50 per person) to the chalet overlooking the town. But the clouds marred our view of the vicinity. (Again, I have mentioned these 1981 prices only as a historical record.)

Next: Exploring the east of South Island

(The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.)

 Picture 1:  The writer, with his almost 2-year-old son Junius strapped onto his back, landed on Franz Josef Glacier by helicopter on Monday, 14 Dec. 1981.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 2:  Yoke-Sim and Junius  on a visit to Shantytown, a replica of a   “Gold Rush” town located south of Greymouth, on Sunday (13 Dec. 1981).

Figure 1: Crossing the Alpine Range on Highway 73 via Arthur’s Pass: G=Christchurch; F=Springfield; E=Porters Pass; D=Arthur’s Pass; C=Otira; B=Kumara Junction; A=Greymouth

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