South Island, New Zealand: Nature Post

DSC04085_stitchEveryone we met in New Zealand said that the South Island has more spectacular scenery than the North Island, and I suppose it is grander in scale, but it really depends how much you like mountains, because that’s what most of it is.  Personally, I preferred the glow worm caves and all the crazy bubbly stink pools in the North Island, because you certainly don’t get glow worm caves and sulfur hell-stench everywhere (though the lack of the latter is probably a good thing), and to me, all mountains basically look the same, but sure, it was pretty, especially in places where the trees still had some fall colour left.  I will say that the South Island produces a ridiculous amount of rainbows.  Sometimes we saw four or five separate ones in a day.  I mean, it was almost too many, if there can be such a thing as too many rainbows.

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One of the main “mountain-appreciation” things we did was go on a cruise of Milford Sound.  I confess I had mixed feelings about this, mainly because it is so far from civilization; we had to spend two nights in Te Anau, which I hated more than anywhere else we stayed.  It was pretty much just a small tourist town, but it was the off season when we visited; being late autumn, it was too early for ski season, and too late for summer activities, so almost everything in the town was shut, except for their terrible supermarket and a just-OK chippy.  I can live off bread, hummus, chips, and ice cream for a surprisingly long period of time, but I at least demand a certain minimum quality of bread, and this supermarket bakery did not deliver.  Plus the place we were staying was not very clean, which didn’t help matters.  But Milford Sound is indeed rather majestic, and possibly worth putting up with the discomfort (well, not to me, but a less finicky person would be happy enough I think).

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As it was not particularly warm outside, we opted for the two hour cruise without kayaking, which I think was a wise decision (not least because if we took a three hour cruise, I would have been singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song the whole day).  Two hours was certainly plenty of time to appreciate the fiordland (I was starting to get sick of it by the time we turned back, especially after they parked the boat under a couple of waterfalls so we could sample the glacial water, which would have been fun if it was warmer, but as it was nearly winter when we were there, just left me cold and cranky).  We were fairly lucky in that it was a clear day, with no rain on the Sound, and we got to see seals and dolphins.  I may be alone in not really liking dolphins (I find them insufferably smug, except for poor Opo), but I guess it was cool that there were some around, since obviously they can’t guarantee that sort of thing.

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However, there was a local animal I was taken with: the mountain kea.  They are basically big parrots that live in the mountains, and though they look charmingly dumb, with their waddle and annoying “caw-caw,” they are apparently as intelligent as a 5 year old child.  As they were described to us at one point, “they can open your backpack, remove a plastic container containing cake, open the container, take the cake, reseal the container and put it back in your backpack, and then eat the cake on a ledge whilst laughing at you.” We were warned not to leave the car door open when driving up to the Sound, as they will steal things out of your car (they’re often described as “cheeky” which I assume is code for “obnoxious”).  We stopped at various points of interest on the way there (and because I was about to puke, it being a winding mountain road and all. “Scenic drives” are never for the motion-sickness prone, and New Zealand has a LOT of them) and they came right up to us on several occasions, though you’re obviously not meant to feed them or anything.  They’re great though.  By far my favourite bird of the trip (and New Zealand’s got a lot of weird birds).

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I was quite relieved when we left Te Anau and headed for Queenstown, Queenstown being a sort of extreme sport and resort town in the vein of Aspen (I say this having never been to Colorado) or something.  So it had an extremely well-stocked (albeit expensive) grocery store, NY Style pizza, a shop selling warm cookies, luxurious accommodation (with free hot chocolate); basically many things I deem essential to my happiness.  And it was quite picturesque (albeit of the mountainous variety), but I was most excited for the (very expensive) street luge track.  I’m not an extreme sports person, but I am quite happy to speed downhill in some kind of cart device (like that summer toboggan in Lake Bled).  I may have taken it a bit too seriously (I was loudly swearing at people who wouldn’t get out of my way, and I almost flipped the cart a couple times), but it was good fun, and you got to ride a chairlift up to the top each time.

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I was sad to leave Queenstown for Franz Josef Glacier, as it was an even tinier village than Te Anau, but we only spent a night there, and our motel room was surprisingly nice, so it was fine (and I had learned my lesson, and stocked up on food in Queenstown).  You can actually take a helicopter up onto the glacier and walk around, but that cost something insane like $370 per person, so we opted for the glacial valley walk, which gives good views of the rapidly retreating glacier without actually going up on it.  It is also not a particularly challenging walk, which suited me fine.

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One of my favourite spur-of-the-moment stops was this former mining town called Ross, which we encountered when driving from Franz Josef to Greymouth.  To be honest, we only stopped because I needed to pee (a common theme on road trips), but when I realised it was a mining town, with old miners’ cottages, I insisted we have a look around.  This ended up turning into a full-on rainforest walk that somehow managed to be almost entirely uphill, because we went the wrong way round, but I was determined to see the old cemetery, so we pressed on.

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The walk was strenuous, but very scenic, and there were still bits and pieces of the old mining equipment scattered about.  And the cemetery (on a hill of course) offered excellent views of the surrounding area, and lots of neat 19th century tombstones with interesting inscriptions.  Recommended.  They also have a small museum there, but it just looked like loads of laminated information sheets that I couldn’t be bothered to read, so we skipped it.

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My boyfriend being a geologist and all, we also saw a lot of rocks on this trip.  More than I would find ideal, to be honest.  There were some “pancake rocks” north of Greymouth in Punakaiki that I was disappointed to find did not actually look like pancakes, they were just layered.  And there were a lot of blowholes, if that kind of thing interests you.  We also saw some round boulders in Moeraki, on the Otago Coast, but that visit was mercifully cut short by the tide coming in literally all the way up the beach, forcing us to hightail it out of there in a hurry.

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Not really nature related, but there was a town called Springfield on the way back to Christchurch that had a giant pink iconic Homer Simpson doughnut right in the middle of it.  I had to wait irritatingly long for some stupid 20-something girls to finish taking five million selfies (we literally were waiting for twenty minutes, and I finally had to ask if they could step aside for a minute so I could grab a quick photo, whereupon they acted as if I was greatly inconveniencing them.  I should have just forcibly pushed them off through the doughnut hole), but it was still pretty cool for someone who loves classic Simpsons as much as I do (nothing beyond Season 9 please, and even that’s pushing it), though I wish they had actually had pink frosted doughnuts for sale.

I realise this post is much whinier than the North Island one, which is more a reflection on me and my dislike of being away from the amenities of a city or at least a large town than the South Island itself, which was, for the most part, full of friendly people and attractive terrain.  Anyway, this pretty much wraps up our time in New Zealand, but I’ve got more Antipodean adventures in Australia to report on next!


I wasn’t joking about all the rainbows.



North Island, New Zealand: Nature Post

DSC02733There’ll be a brief detour from museums this week, as I bring you two (yes, two!) posts on what most normal people go to New Zealand to see: natural wonders.  However, me being me, I have compressed everything nature-related into these two posts (one per island) so I can get back to museums and other things that don’t involve going outside as soon as possible.  As you might expect, we saw a lot that was scenic up on the North Island.  Not all just sheep, as this picture may have you believe (to be honest, we probably saw more cows than sheep because of how big the dairy industry is on the North Island, but there were still sheep.  Lots of them), but lots of other things as well, which I’ll talk a little about here (and show you photos, of course!).

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I already mentioned the kauri forests in my post about the Kauri Museum, but here’s a couple more photos.  Although all the walks we saw listed were fairly short (from 5-20 minutes), and you have to wash off your shoes before entering and leaving the trails, which made my jandals so unfortunately squeaky that everyone else in the forest was staring as me as I literally squeaked past them, I think they’re very worth visiting, especially to see Tane Mahuta and the other large trees.  Just be aware that if you’re prone to motion sickness, the road through the forests will not be your friend.

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I also briefly mentioned Opo the Friendly Dolphin in another post, but here is the actual statue paying tribute to her, in tiny little Opononi (really we only stopped so I could use the toilet), so discovering this was a nice bonus.  And speaking of public toilets, New Zealand has some surprisingly famous ones, like the Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa, where we also availed ourselves of the facilities.  They are genuinely worth stopping for (though perhaps not detouring for), even if you don’t need the loo.

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We spent a day in Russell; formerly known as the “hellhole of the South Pacific,” it is now very touristy and apparently full of wealthy British expats.  I did not visit their museum, because this was early on in the trip when I still balked at paying $10 for a tiny museum, but isn’t the bay gorgeous?

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We also saw a few waterfalls.  We visited the very pretty Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri (picture on the left) on a rainy day when there wasn’t much else to do, and they were still lovely.  Much more aggressive, and slightly less picturesque, were the Huka Falls outside Taupo.  When I say aggressive, I mean it, and these were also somewhat spoiled by the high concentration of tourists here.  Whereas Rainbow Falls was more or less deserted, as was the case at most of the attractions we visited in Northland (not that I’m complaining!).

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One of the things I was genuinely really excited about seeing (as isn’t always the case with nature-related stuff) was the glow worm caves in Waitomo. I mean, I love caves, and I enjoy glowing lights, so what wasn’t to like?  At the recommendation both of a guidebook, and someone who had actually been on the tour (and indirectly, David Attenborough, who filmed there twice), we booked our “cave experience” in advance with Spellbound.  They have a smaller operation than many of the other tour companies, and only take a max of twelve people per tour, which was a selling point for me with my hatred of crowds (they are admittedly pricy, at $75 per head, but so are all the other tours, and it is a good three and a half hours long).  Basically, the ceilings (and walls) of these caves glow because of these fly larvae who live inside and feed on juices (I think) from the insects who fly in.  They let down these little threads to catch the insects, and glow to attract them in the first place.  I didn’t include any pictures of the glowing, because it is very hard to photograph, but I’m pretty sure there’s some on the Spellbound website I linked to.  Trust me, it is pretty amazing.  They take you through on a small boat in complete darkness for a good half an hour so you have plenty of time to see and appreciate them.  I sense it would be quite romantic if you weren’t sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers.

They then give you a hot beverage of your choice (including hot chocolate, which will always be my hot beverage of choice if there’s no chai about) with biscuits, and take you inside the Weta Cave, which was the bit I was apprehensive about.  I mentioned cave wetas in my post on the Auckland Museum; essentially, they are ugly giant grasshoppery things with super long, skinny legs, kind of like a daddy-long-legs, only with a big fat gross grasshopper body.  From the name “Weta Cave,” I imagined they’d be crawling over everything in the place, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom style, but nope, they keep to themselves in one small corner, so even the bug-averse like me can deal.  Really, the Weta Cave was just a normal kind of cave, but with some moa bones and a few more glow worms hidden inside.  The whole experience was a really awesome time, and I highly recommend the Waitomo Caves to anyone who visits New Zealand.  I thought Spellbound were great, though I can’t attest to the quality of the other tour operators.  Oh, and make sure you stop for a “big azz” real fruit ice cream at the farm shop on the way into Waitomo.  Very tasty, and indeed big-ass (though I suspect they were going for “big as” rather than big-ass, that’s not going to stop me from calling them big-ass ice creams).

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We made the mistake of spending a night in Rotorua.  If it doesn’t bill itself as the stinkiest place on Earth, it probably should.  The whole town, and I mean the whole damn town, reeks of horrible sulphurous rotting eggs.  And you don’t even get used to the smell. You might briefly stop noticing it, but then you breathe in especially deeply, and there it is again.  Our motel was grim too, which didn’t help.  But anyway, the reason Rotorua is so stinky is because it is in a major volcanic activity zone, and there are these steaming mud pools all over town that give off the stench.  You can see some of them for free in the town park, which is probably worth doing if you can bear the odours, because staring down into the burping primordial ooze is really something.  The other picture is of the Rotorua Museum, which I did not go in (too anxious to escape the reek), but it is in such a beautiful colonial style building (a former bathhouse) that I wanted to show it to you anyway.

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Finally, there is the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, just outside Rotorua, which is also pretty incredible (I kept jokingly referring to it as a geologist’s wet dream, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong).  It bills itself as “the world’s youngest geothermal system” because the most recent volcanic eruption here was in the 1970s, and judging by all the steaming and burbling going on, I have to believe there’s going to be another one in the near future.  There are a number of walks you can do around it (well, really it’s all on the same trail, but you have options of different lengths if you take the bus back, and there’s also a “hike” off the main walking path).

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First, the good: I’m not really a rock person, but even I could appreciate the awesomeness of many of the geologic features (aka, hot geothermal action).  You could actually see the water boiling in some of the pools, and other pools were fun colours on account of minerals, or so surrounded with ferns they looked like dinosaurs could have lived there (though they couldn’t have, most of the park was formed following an exceptionally large eruption in 1917).  There were also points of interest what seemed like every ten metres or so throughout the park, so we didn’t have a chance to get bored, even though we did about two and a half hours of walking, which is about an hour and a half more than I find ideal.

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Now, the bad: it costs 37 NZD per person to get in, which seems like a fortune to pay for a walk you’re taking yourself.  Granted, the paths are very well maintained, especially relative to British trails I’ve walked on, but that’s still very expensive for a damn walk.  Also, they seem to grossly overestimate the difficulty of the trails, perhaps to decrease any liability if someone gets injured.  We rocked up wearing Converse, because I don’t even own special walking shoes.  I mean, Chuckie T’s are the only kind of sneakers I’ve owned since I was 13 (I went through a brief Vans skatery phase in middle school, but it didn’t last), and my feet are used to them; generally speaking, if I can’t do something athletic whilst wearing Converse, I’m not going to do it at all.  So, the girl selling tickets took one look at us, and advised us not to do the hike portion of the trail unless we had special hiking boots.  Being stubborn, and seeing the excellent condition of the rest of the trail, we did it anyway, and there is no way you need any kind of special footwear.  The whole path is well-packed dirt and gravel, and there’s steps up the steep parts.  In fact, climbing the millions of steps up to the trail was the only difficult part of the hike; the rest was level and easy.

The reason this annoys me is because I feel their attitude might put some people off, as it did me initially, when in fact you don’t need any special equipment to do this walk or “hike;” any comfortable shoes with some kind of tread will be sufficient.  Yes, even Converse high tops with no socks, as I proved (because I don’t mind having stinky feet).  So if you can stomach paying a fortune to do a walk, I think this is a very cool thing to do, especially because we didn’t see any other people on the trail until we were walking back up it (most people only walk down and get the bus back, and I can see why; the way back is mostly uphill), perhaps because the admissions desk lady had scared them all away by telling them how challenging the walk is.  If you have a reasonable level of fitness, you’ll do fine.

I suppose that’s it for the nature-y stuff we did on the North Island, but if you like mountains, stay tuned, as the South Island is coming up later this week!


Devon, UK: The Gnome Reserve!

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First, please don’t be scared off by the very sinister gnome in the opening picture.  Most of the gnomes here are rather more jolly.  Now, this post is a total blast from the past.  I visited the Gnome Reserve about three and a half years ago, and haven’t managed to return since, so I can only hope it is still as amazing as it was when I was there.  If not, I’m sorry!  But I had all the pictures sitting around, so I thought it was high time to inject a bit of humour and whimsy into the greyness of winter. (Although the Reserve is only open from late March- October, so you’ll have to wait til then to visit!)

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The Gnome Reserve is tucked away into one of the prettiest corners of England I’ve yet had the privilege of visiting, in North Devon, quite near to Bude.  I mean, really, they could illustrate “idyllic” with a picture of these gently rolling hills.  Judging by the local attractions, which include a sheep-themed amusement park and a cryptozoological library, there’s a lot of eccentrics in these parts (my kind of place!), but Ann, owner of the Gnome Reserve, probably takes the idiosyncratic biscuit.

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She’s pretty much made the Reserve her life’s work, in addition to producing gnome and pixie themed art, which is for sale in the gift shop.  Sometimes it can be hard to tell how much of the experience is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but that’s part of the fun!  Admission is only £3.75, which is frankly a bargain relative to how much you will enjoy this place if you visit with an open mind and a willingness to laugh at yourself.  Visitors are required to wear a gnome hat from Ann’s extensive collection, so as to not “embarrass the gnomes,” but they look surprisingly fetching, as I can clearly attest to.

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Once properly attired, you are free to enter the woods where the gnomes dwell, and let me tell you, Ann has collected some real gems of garden gnomes from all over the world; the oldest ones are 19th century gnomes made in Germany.  Yes, you are just wandering around a forest looking at lawn ornaments, but these are gnomes as you’ve never seen them before! I’ve included some of the highlights below.



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There are also some larger gnome tableaux (and I do love a good tableaux, not least because it’s a fun word to say), from the standard gnome picnics to a  helicopter and a gnome rocket, operated by GNASA, obviously.  And some random Teletubbies, though I don’t think they count as gnomes.

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In addition to simply admiring the gnomes, and having your photos taken with them, there are a few activities scattered throughout the woods like fishing for lucky numbers on the bottoms of rocks, and a thinking stump, where I guess you’re supposed to think about becoming a tree.  My boyfriend claimed he later played his “lucky numbers” in the lottery, and won 5 quid, so perhaps there’s some real gnome magic at work.

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Once you’ve finished with the gnomes, there is still a pixie garden to explore.  Unfortunately for me and my raging lepidopterophobia, it was also a butterfly garden, so I spent most of the time fleeing in terror whenever one of the winged hell-spawn fluttered near me, and hiding amongst the trees. However, if you are a normal person who does not fear butterflies, there’s a scavenger hunt to complete in this section where you must find the hidden pixies, which seemed quite challenging.  Even if you didn’t spend most of the time running away.

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(I am totally hiding from the butterflies in that picture.)

Fortunately, there was a convenient shed to hide in along the path (it looks like I’m walking out of an outhouse in the below picture, but I can assure you it was a shed! However, the bathroom there did also share the gnome theme, and had a gnome’s (g)nose serving as a toilet paper holder, whilst the gnome himself stared at me in a most unnerving manner), where visitors were encouraged to sign the walls.  There were already lots of winning comments, but my particular favourite had to be, “I’m 42 years old and live with my parents, and I love gnomes.”  (I was going to stick an exclamation point at the end, but it’s more disturbing as a flat statement, which I think is how it was written).

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After leaving the garden, we had a cream tea on the lawn in front of the gnome cottage, which had a stunning view of the surrounding countryside, as I couldn’t bear to part with my gnome hat just yet!  Really, the only way you are not going to enjoy this place is if you are a humourless turd or are afraid of gnomes (the latter problem I can understand, as some of the specimens here were fairly creepy; see the first gnome of the post); everyone else will have a blast!  5/5; a practically perfect afternoon.  And for a summary of some other weird places I love around England, please see my guest post over at Smitten by Britain!

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Blakeney Point, Norfolk: Seal Watching!

So, the deal with Blakeney Point is that it is a 3-mile long spit of sand and shingle in North Norfolk that protrudes into the sea.  The tip of it attracts both common and grey seals, which have pups at different times of the year, thereby maximising your chance of seeing cute baby seals that haven’t yet descended into the corpulent lethargy of adulthood.  The best way to see the seals is via one of the four boating companies that operate out of Morston Quay, though it’s advisable to book at least a day in advance, and collect your tickets on the day.  Blakeney Point is owned by the National Trust, which means there’s a £3 parking fee on top of the £10 per head boat ticket, so bring cash!

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We chose Temples Seal Trips (I was keen on Beans, after seeing Chris Packham featured on their website, but they were booked up), but they’re all the same price and offer similar trips, so I don’t think it really makes much difference who you pick.  Basically, you board the boat (ours had a 50-person capacity), which slowly putters to the end of the Point, and the boat circles around a few times so that everyone can get a good view of the seals.  Then, you have your choice of heading right back to shore, or getting out for half an hour on Blakeney Point for a look around.  We opted to disembark on the Point, as I was enticed by the adorable blue lifeboat house (circa 1898) that has been turned into a visitor’s centre (the information inside is mostly on the local flora and fauna).  There’s not much else on Blakeney Point, aside from some toilets (good news for the weak-bladdered among us) and a few huts owned by locals, but it’s fairly picturesque, offers coastal walking trails (if you have more time than we did), and the beach was quite pleasant.  The high point of the trip was probably spying Galton Blackiston (semi-famous chef) hauling his dinghy onto the shore, though obviously he’s no Chris Packham.  Still, it was a nice little outing, and something neat to do if you’re in the area (I suppose it isn’t every day you get to see seals in their natural habitat).  Now, I’ll shut up and leave you to enjoy the rest of the pictures. 🙂

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