Chapter 10 - Ashburton to Franz Josef to Queenstown

23 Feb 2013 -

We had to have our bags ready at 6.30 am so that we could leave at 7.30 am in order to get to Darfield station to board the legendary Christchurch to Greymouth 'TranzAlpine Railway' for a magnificent trip through the Southern Alps. The views were stupendous but I found taking piccies through the windows was not easy due to reflections. I moved from our ultra modern air-conditioned carriage through about six others until I reached an open viewing platform and there managed to get some great photos. I had to keep an eye on the time as it had taken over five minutes walking to reach the viewing carriage and I had to get back to our carriage before it stopped at 'Arthur's Pass'. Some folk on previous trips had failed to get off the train in time and had been carried on to the end of the line at Greymouth!

Maurie had driven our coach up from Darfield and we found him waiting for us at 'Arthur's Pass'. We climbed aboard and continued our journey across the Alps climbing up the mountain along a winding road towards Hokitika on the West Coast where we stopped for lunch. Mike and I had a very cheap and surprisingly nice takeaway fish 'n' chip meal from the local 'chippy'. Whilst there Maurie diagnosed a problem with a faulty brake hose on the coach and had to summon a mechanic from Greymouth, a good hour away, to get it repaired. We amused ourselves in the town by visiting the beach, eating plum ice cream (me) and having a beer (Mike) as well as visiting the Jade Factory in the town. 'Jade' is actually a greenstone which is found in the Southern Alps formed in a fault line and washed down the rivers. It has been used for hundreds of years by the Maori to make tools. It is a very hard stone and is much prized. After an hour and a half delay the hose was successfully replaced and we all set off again. We had been scheduled to fly by helicopter over the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers that afternoon but unfortunately the weather had deteriorated on the glaciers and all flying had been cancelled since late morning. Our flight was rescheduled for the early the next day. It was just as well as we would not have made our time slot anyway due to the unscheduled stop caused by the brake hose. Fate was kind to us, once again.

We passed through Ross, a thriving gold mining town before rising costs made extraction uneconomical. There are still two active mining operations there, however, but for how long they can survive no-one is sure.

The whole of the South Island is very low in population, and often we travelled long distances without seeing anyone and there were very few cars on the road. So different from England! The weather is also a problem in a lot of areas, with storms causing massive flooding and damage - one of the bridges en route today had been washed away just after Christmas last year and it took a week to reopen the road. We arrived at the wonderful 'Te Waonui Forest Retreat' which was an 'Eco-hotel' for a single night's stay - we just had time to freshen up before going into the dining room for a four course 'Gourmet Dinner'. It was delicious. We were very tired so yet another early night, in bed by 9.30 pm as yes, you've guessed, there was another early start due in the morning!

24 Feb 2013

Up at 5.30 am at 'Te Waonui' in Franz Josef as we were due to fly at 7.45 am. The day dawned bright and sunny with virtually no wind - perfect flying weather. We walked into the town to the offices of 'The Helicopter Line' where we were each weighed and then put in groups of six. We then walked down to the helipads to wait for our aircraft to arrive. Only fifteen of us had decided to fly as this was at our own expense, but we felt that it was too good an opportunity to pass up on. The flight was absolutely fantastic, in fact it was A-MAZ-ING! We had about half an hour in total including a landing by our Eurocopter AS355 Ecureuil 2 ('Twin Squirrel') right on the top of the Fox Glacier where we spent about ten minutes on the ice taking some great photos. Visibility was as good as it gets. Apparently each winter around forty metres of snow falls at the top of the glacier! We had departed from the Franz Josef heliport and our pilot landed us in Fox Town at the end of the flight. The descent was quite steep as we were arriving rather later than intended. My ears were really hurting by the time we landed...

We were met by Maurie and his trusty coach and headed off for our next adventure - a high speed jet-boat ride on the mighty Haast River! That too was great fun, we were on the water for about an hour, travelling at around thirty knots and finishing with several 360 degree spins! All in all, a completely adrenaline fuelled morning! Who needs 'Bungee Jumping'...?!

We continued through spectacular scenery in the mountains stopping briefly at Lake Wanaka and passing Lake Hawea before arriving at Queenstown where we were to have a three night stay at the Hotel St Moritz, our longest stop of the tour. We had been booked into suites - a huge bedroom/bathroom with a kitchen (equipped with a washer/dryer!) and a sitting room which opened out onto a small private garden space complete with table and chairs, all very luxurious! We were both so tired that we did nothing for the rest of the day, we opened a bottle of the wine bought at one of the wineries a few days ago and had a packet of crisps each for supper. I wrestled with the washer/dryer. Mike retired to bed to dream of flying in the mountains whilst I was still trying to sort the machine out!

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