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.
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.