Tag Archives: Arthur’s Pass

A ten-day small group South Island escape – with George

Christchurch to Fox Glacier

I’d always wanted to visit New Zealand’s South Island, so when I saw an advertisement for Grand Pacific Tours’ 10-day small group South Island escape I figured I’d hit pay dirt. Especially when I looked at the pictures of the bus interior. Now that’s my kind of bus. Business class leather seats, everybody with a window seat and only 20 people. Have a look here. We’d be visiting many of my ‘go-to’ sites – Mt Cook, Queenstown, Milford Sound, glaciers, lakes, wild rivers. The tour price included all but one dinner and all breakfasts. Dinner included a free drink. Lunch and most booze etc were at our own expense. It sounded perfect and we signed up.

But you know what they say about good intentions… ten days or so before we were due to start our adventure the company informed us the Ultimate coach we were meant to be using had been involved in an accident and would be off road for some months. But a substitute was offered. The Platinum coach configuration was 2 seats, an aisle then a single seat. Each person would still have a window seat and there would still be only twenty people on the coach. We would use that coach for six days, then the Ultimate coach for the last four days. We were also offered a refund as compensation for not having the Ultimate coach for the complete journey. I was impressed. Grand Pacific presented serious, professional customer service and I don’t think the company could have done a better job under the circumstances. I should also mention the classy travel pack we received – leather carry-on bags with hanging toiletry bags, and document wallets. Some of the other travel companies might want to sit up and take notice.

We flew across the ditch (the Tasman Sea for non-Antipodeans) on a Friday. It’s a comfortable 3 hours from Brisbane, with great views of the New Zealand Alps on the west coast before we landed at Christchurch on the east coast. I noted the absence of snow except in what must have been the very highest places, rather different from my visit last year.

The nice thing about tours is you don’t have to stress over details. We were met at the airport and taken to the George, a small luxury hotel opposite Hagley Park near Christchurch’s CBD. After pre-dinner drinks and a chance to become acquainted with our fellow travellers we had a first class three-course meal which would have pleased the judges on Masterchef. The party broke up early because we were getting our wake-up call at 5:45am. Tomorrow would be a full day.

And that was when I met George.

He was propped on my pillow with a little note explaining he’d had enough of swanning around in a hotel. He wanted to see more of the world. What could I say but yes? So you’ll see young George from time to time as we make our way around the South Island.

Our driver and tour guide, Dave, took us to the railway station to catch the Trans Alpine train. We’d ride the train up to Arthur’s Pass, where Dave would meet us with the coach. The railway line was carved through the mountains between Christchurch and Greymouth, mainly carrying coal and agricultural products but these days also tourists. I’d been on the train before when I visited in 2018 and certainly the pictures I took back then were better than the ones I took this time – simply because of the weather. As if in response to our arrival in Christchurch, the clouds had gathered around the peaks and slipped down into the valleys. Drizzle and mist often obscured the view but even so, the grandeur of alpine scenery in very late Autumn was a sight to behold, if not to photograph. But really, for another perspevctive, have a look at these. They’re not half bad, if I say so myself.

George enjoys the scenery

You can almost see the orcs on the far bank. Like Australia, none of New Zealand’s native trees are deciduous. The colour comes from imports.

A native raptor caught in flight.

The view was a lot like this.

We alighted from the train at Arthur’s Pass and reboarded our Platinum coach. Dave explained there was a lookout nearby which gives a great view of the viaduct which had replaced one of the most dangerous sections of the road. However, he pointed out that since we couldn’t see the lookout from down here (because of the mist) we wouldn’t be able to see down here from up there. So we carried on. But wait! I was there in 2018, so if you wish to check, click here. There were keas, too.

We paused for lunch at Hokitika, a village on the Tasman Sea. I’m sure it’s a lovely beach in Summer. While here we learned about New Zealand’s famous greenstone, pounamu, and how it is collected and cut. I was surprised to be told the material is extremely hard. It must have taken time and patience for the Maori to fashion the stone back in the days before diamond saws. Here’s a bit more about it.

We carried on south along the coast through green farmlands and the village of Franz Josef. Unfortunately, after the very heavy rains some weeks ago we couldn’t get anywhere near the foot of the Franz Josef glacier – the road had been washed away. So had the road over the Waiho River. When we heard about that event back home in Australia, we’d thought that disaster may have put a dent in our tour plans since it’s the only road to the coast but the NZ government acted quickly to replace the structure. The flooding at the time underlined the fact that Franz Josef the town is considered to be an accident waiting to happen since the village sits on the Alpine fault line. The residents would like to move the entire town but so far the Provincial Council isn’t budging. Read all about it here.

We arrived at the town of Fox Glacier in drizzly rain not long before sunset. A few of our number were hoping to take a helicopter ride (optional extra) up onto the glacier but the weather wasn’t playing the game, so that was cancelled. Dave mentioned a walk a short distance away which led into the rainforest. According to an intrepid fellow traveller, the place looked a lot like that scene in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo, Sam, Pip and Merry are hiding from the black rider. It might have been worth a walk in the rain.

The accommodation at the Distinction hotel was clean and comfortable. We enjoyed a few pre-dinner drinks sitting around the fire in the lounge before another excellent three-course meal.

We found early on that many of the tourist places employed young backpackers. Fox was no exception. Some of us were playing ‘pick the nationality’ and one pretty young redhead was judged to be Irish. So I asked her. She laughed. “I’m German. It’s the red hair, isn’t it?” Yes, but also her accent. It turned out she had relatives in Canada and that might have caused her accent to be a little less obviously German.

The bright morning gave hope to the keen flyers in our group – but Dave shook his head. ‘This will only last for a few minutes’. He was right. The clouds looked at each other and laughed, then snuggled back down on the hills.

Headed for the hills

The railway line from Springfield

Today we went up into the mountains. We were blessed with brilliant weather – blue skies and not much cloud, and the snow that had fallen the previous week had persisted. Transport was a little white van capable of seating 12. There were 11 adults and a child – 4 Americans, 2 other Australians and a young Indian couple with their daughter. The bus was quite cramped, but hey ho. You can’t always have a Volvo to yourself.

Our driver took us up to Springfield to catch the train up to Arthur’s Pass. It’s a new, comfortable train with large windows (and lots of reflection) although we could have walked up to the open carriage near the front to catch the view without windows. That struck me as a bit chilly. And I managed to get some good pics by bringing the camera close to the glass. The following 4 photos were all taken from the moving train.

An alpine lake and mountain peaks

Turquoise water an Autumn foliage

Meandering rivers

Just the sort of river to film the scenes as Frodo and co approach the Argonath

While I was busy with the camera B did some people watching. Three older-than-middle-aged, well-heeled American women (think designer jeans and botox) stood in a gaggle chatting together as the train passed through some amazing scenery. They compared nail polish designs and the best dental products for whiter teeth. As you do as the train passes by amazing scenery. It’s a spectacular trip, the train winding its way through the river valleys or climbing up the slopes.

We got off at Arthur’s Pass and drove on in the van after a minor drama at the station. B needed some food on the train trip, so we went up to the cafe car, where she bought a sandwich and coffee. Neither of us had cash with us, so she paid with a card. Unfortunately, up there in the mountains the signal to the internet is patchy, at best. The server took B’s card and assured her the transaction would be completed, and the card returned, by the time we got to Arthur’s Pass which is the only stop between Springfield and Greymouth, on the west coast. It’s very much a five-minute whistle stop so that people can alight. I got off the train and B went off to find somebody to get her card back. After a few minutes, the porter blew his whistle. No B. The train blew its whistle. No B. Any minute now she’d be off to Greymouth. I was starting to compose the phone call to B’s husband. “Um. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. B’s on her way to Greymouth. But she’ll get her credit card back…” But then she appeared, waving her card. Phew. Nobody had come looking for her (as promised), but she’d found somebody. Did I say phew?

The viaduct through the mountains

The original road before the viaduct was built. It was used until 1999!

We had a photo stop at a lookout with a view of the viaduct that has replaced part of the road through the mountains. While we were there we met New Zealand’s alpine parrot, the kea. They’re smart birds with the destructive habits of some of their Australian counterparts. Keas are known for picking the rubber out of windscreen wipers and door seals. Despite their fairly drab outer plumage, when they open their wings it’s a ‘wow’ moment. Check out the pictures on this page.

One of several keas. That plumage is great camouflage in the scrub

The kea popped into our van and nibbled the carpet

We stopped for lunch at Otira, a quaint little place that used to be much bigger in the days of steam, when many more people were needed to service the railway.  The rooms are full of sometimes interesting, sometimes just weird bits and pieces, such as a couple of stuffed possums, one posing with a toy rifle. Possums are introduced pests in NZ, so they’re not popular, but I thought they looked gross. Although some of the other pieces were genuine antiques, they all needed a dust, if not a clean. Otira used to be quite a large town when the steam locomotives made the trip through the mountains. They needed a lot more people than the modern diesels, so Otira dwindled into the past. Our driver told us that one person bought the whole town for $200,000. Stars in his eyes, he opened the town to disadvantaged people, who moved into the empty houses. But it only lasted until the first winter. This is a bleak spot.

Can’t get away from LOTR in NZ

Our driver had asked us to pick an item from the hotel’s lunch menu before we arrived – and he told us he thought the place – and the food –  was dead ordinary. He was right. B had a grey-looking beef burger, and I had whitebait patties (an Otira specialty). The patties are more like pancakes, pieces of fish mixed with egg and flour, and fried. Here’s a recipe. Two of them came served between two slices of bread (which I discarded) and some pretty revolting chips (fries). B made her revolting chips even more revolting by mistaking the sugar dispenser for the salt shaker. Oh well. She wasn’t going to eat them, anyway. I think the only person who appeared to enjoy lunch was the rather large young Aussie male who was there with his mum. He was the sort who’d eat anything.

The walk to Cave Stream

The entrance to Cave Stream

From Otira we headed on back down through the mountains towards Christchurch, stopping for photos where we could. One longer stop was at Cave Stream, where a stream flows through a 600m tunnel. Our driver told us five girls had died there, washed away by flood waters, but I couldn’t find any reference online to such an incident. Still, people have died attempting the walk through the cave – the water is cold, and chest deep. Here’s a story.

Back in the bus, next stop was the trip on a jet boat. That had to be cancelled because the river was too high from the recent rains. Seems the river brings down silt and rocks and as a result the place where the jet boat starts had only 3 inches of water. He couldn’t even launch it. Sad, but you can’t argue with Mother Nature. Having arrived home, Canterbury Leisure Tours has only refunded 75% of the fare. I’m not happy, and I am arguing with them.

We went off to a farm where farmer Kevin brought out working dog, Jeb, to bring the sheep over. He’s a cross between a NZ mover dog (like a cattle dog) and a rounder-upper (like a border collie). Kevin named NZ breeds in his pedigree but I don’t recall what they were, and I’d never heard of either. Suffice to say Jeb is an all-rounder who incidentally loves scratches and pats.

Jeb’s herded the sheep

Then Kevin sheared a sheep. The Yanks and the Indians were fascinated but B and I had seen it all before. I was interested in the pamphlet about a mix of merino wool with possum fur. Possums were brought to NZ to start a fur trade. Apparently they have hollow fur, a trait they share with polar bears. This makes the fur very light, and very warm. When mixed with wool it makes garments light, warm, and pill-resistant.

Kevin is shearing this six-month old lamb. It has never been shorn before.

The cup of tea and Kevin’s wife, Heather’s, home made bikkies and muffins was welcome.

It was a good day, but tiring. A little white van isn’t the most comfortable mode of transport, and on the way back the Americans were in conversation with each other and the Australians, all talking about different things from different directions. For us it was something of a dull roar.

Tomorrow we’re off to Akaroa. Meanwhile, here’s some more photos.