Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sealions, Scooters and Spirits!

Set in the heart of inspiring countryside, YHA Catlins Thomas’s Lodge is the gateway to some of New Zealand’s most stunning scenery. The Catlins is renowned for its beauty and a couple of days in this deserted paradise will refresh your spirits. The hostel itself is based in the tiny town of Owaka, which has one bar, a supermarket and is only ten minutes drive from the nearest surf break.

When my partner (Felipe) and I arrived at our lodgings, the first thing that struck us was the sheer size of the place. With its wide corridors and sky scraping ceilings, there was more than enough room to swing a cat or ten. To my utter delight, the first thing I found was a huge games room with a pool table and darts board.

The next best thing was our room, a comfy double with a super modern bathroom and heated towel rails. Our window opened out onto a large field, where mooing cows provided bedtime hymns and the morning sun cast itself over grassy pastures. Now, being situated at the far end of the huge building, a walk back to our bedroom could have felt like a hike – if it wasn’t for the mini scooters that the owner provides! Whizzing down the corridor after a game of indoor bowls made me feel like a kid again.

In fact, I was extremely impressed with all of the facilities: a huge well equipped kitchen, internet facilities and a warren of chill out areas, all of which can be used by guests who choose to stay at Thomas’s camping grounds. What impressed me most though was the cleanliness of the place. Not a hair could be found in the bathroom sink or a squashed pea on the kitchen floor. It was immaculate!

Whilst bus trips can be arranged, having your own transport (preferably a 4WD) will help you get the best out of your trip to the Catlins. This gives you the freedom to explore the whole region at your own chilled out pace.

We spent the first night relaxing then arose early and drove to Kaka Point where a refreshing stretch of beach helped to blow away the morning cobwebs. We followed this with one of the many bushwalks, making sure that we sucked up as much of the fresh woody air as possible.

The next part of our trip took us to Nugget Point where outlying rocks are home to seals and penguins. We stood at the 1896 lighthouse and strained our eyes, trying to find life. We managed to spot a few moving black blobs, which I’m sure were sea-lion pups.

We then ventured on to Curio Bay, where huge tangles of seaweed spread over the flat volcanic rock then eerily retreat back into the sea with the crashing of the tide. This place is strangely intriguing and had us exploring for hours.

That night, we cracked open a bottle of wine and sat chatting with the friendly owner, Craig. Somewhere in the conversation, he decided to inform us that the Lodge was once a hospital. Immediately the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and of course I couldn’t help but ask if there were any ghosts. “Well, I’ve had a few taps on my shoulder” the owner laughed.

The next day, as we strolled across the stunning Cannibal Bay, Felipe casually told me that he’d seen the figure of a lady stood next to me on the first night in our room. As I let out a loud ‘what?’ a dozing sea-lion popped up his head to see what all the fuss was about.

By the time we reached the Purakaunui falls, Felipe was still adamant that he wasn’t joking. I guess I’ll never know if the ghost was real or just his idea of a ‘joke’, but what I do know is that the Catlins is one of the most beautiful spots I have visited in New Zealand. Two days is essential and more would be heaven. Of course the Lodge comes highly recommended. Just make sure you take your ghost-buster gun!

YHA Catlins Thomas’ Lodge can be booked at http://www.yha.co.nz/ or by calling 0800 278 299.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Swimming with Dolphins

When my friend suggested that we swim with dolphins on our trip to Kaikoura, I almost balked at the idea. Alongside boyfriends buying you teddy bears, splashing around with the ocean's gentle critters was way up there in the cheesiness stakes in my opinion. At the risk of damaging my ego, I now admit that swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura is one of the most magical things I've ever done and I'm forever grateful that my friend persuaded me to go.

Situated on the stunning East coast of the South Island, Kaikoura (meaning "meal of crayfish") is a tiny village whose shores are awash with huge wads of glistening seaweed. With its snow-capped mountains in the distance and bright murals adorning the walls, it exudes the air of a fairytale town and one would not be surprised if mermaid were to emerge from the sea.

We decided to stay at the YHA Kaikoura Maui hostel, which is just outside the main town centre and sits opposite the shores of the lapping sea. It's a cute cosy hostel with a very relaxed vibe and excellent value for money.

We organised our trip with Dolphin Encounter through the friendly staff at the YHA. We awoke the next day to find that the sky was filled with dark looming clouds and I scorned my poor friend for making me part with my hard earned cash. Part of me was praying that the trip would be cancelled but when we arrived at the Encounter centre it was not to be so. In spite of a sea-sick weather warning, enthusiastic guests were waiting in line, happily purchasing sickness-prevention tablets from over-zealous staff.

Too soon, we were all lead through to the back of the building where we were kitted out in an all-over-wetsuit, and feeling like eel-man from Scooby Doo, we were lead into the back room where we sat to watch a video about how to interact with the dusky dolphins:

Point 1: Strictly no touching!

Point 2: To get their attention, look them in the eye whilst spinning in circles, making high pitched noises.

I couldn't wait to put this into practice.

Out at sea the grey clouds thickened as the swell bobbed us up and down. Luckily the boat was quite roomy and sturdy and with the distraction of the albatrosses, I managed to successfully keep my breakfast down.

Once the right spot was located, I felt a rush of excitement as hundreds of black blobs and fins darted past the boat. We were given a float and on the blow of a horn we entered the water from a sitting position at the back of the boat. A second blow would indicate that we should return.

Immediately upon entering the water hundreds of dashing dolphins appeared before my snorkel. Anxious to get the most out of my experience, I began to make noises (which were akin to a monkey being attacked) whilst catching the dolphins eyes and forcing my flippers to spin me around in circles. Much to my sheer delight they loved it! Suddenly I had two calves playfully swimming by my side in a continual loop and after they'd zoomed off more followed.

After roughly half an hour of this erratic behaviour, I sadly faced up to the fact that my throat couldn't handle any more screeching and that my indulgent spinning had in fact left me feeling quite green. I boarded the boat where the crew had a good supply of sick buckets but with only a short journey back I was able to hang on to my food.

The whole experience left me quite overwhelmed. The sun eventually broke through that day but rain should not put you off, as the trip was enjoyable in spite of this. So next time you're in Kaikoura, slip on your flippers and go for a dip with the dolphins.

For more information about Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura and pricing, visit www.dolphin.co.nz/kaikoura

YHA Kaikoura Maui can be booked at www.yha.co.nz or by calling 0800 278 299.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ride of the Rings

"So, Sue?" I asked with a quiver in my voice. "This Ride of the Rings trip is set in Paradise (the actual name of the place!) and takes you to the stunning movie locations of the Lord of the Rings?".

"Yes" she replied. "And if you're lucky, you may get to ride a horse that starred in on one of the films".

It was the famous horses that clinched if for me and with that in mind, I went off to buy an autograph book that would be big enough to fit a muddy hoof print.

Return transport from Queenstown was provided by a friendly bus driver called Trevor. After a quick stop in Glenorchy to pick up some hard hats and boots, we were driven to a large field with tall glossy horses and were met by two guides. After working out our riding abilities (totally crap to Bronco Bill) we were assigned horses and helped on to our furry mounts. To my sheer delight, I was on a horse called Red who had been in Return of the King. I continually patted his neck and giggled at him as he eyed me cautiously out of the corner of his big watery eye.
Before long, our guide Megan began to lead the way on a huge black horse called Boris. As we set off, she told us that our horses would form a line of natural order. "Red likes to be in front" she told us. "Merlin likes to be in the middle and Pip… well Pip has a mind of his own." She stated as Pip wandered off down the wrong track.

Red did like to be up front, just in reach of Boris's bum which he slyly nipped and then was whipped in the face by Boris's burly tail. It was then I discovered that these gallant horses were actually more like kindergarten kids than the sophisticated mammals I thought they were.

Their childish ways included eating mud, (in fact eating anything in sight off the floor), if one peed, they all peed and being scared by monsters (trees stumps). Luckily, they were a lot easier to control than a bunch of five year olds! Entering a beech forest (or the golden woods of Lothlorien) was a welcome relief from the hot sun that beat down from a cloudless sky. Shards of light poked through the branches and created a wonderful fairytale like setting. As Megan gave us a continual commentary about the Lord of Rings scenes we were able to admire our surroundings whilst walking at a peaceful pace.

Coming up out of the forest, we were met with a truly breathtaking view. Stretching out for miles, soft swirls of turquoise water, flowed and wound amongst a white sandy bed of the Dart River whilst towering pines and snowcapped mountains (or the Wizard's Vale and the mighty peak of Methedras) stood proudly in the background. It's an extremely special place where orcs, wizards and talking trees could easily exist. Heading back into the beech forest, Megan talked to us about the flora and fauna and more interestingly, began to reveal the secret antics of the actors whilst on location. Red lowered his ears in disapproval as she exposed the doings of his famous fellow co-workers!
The whole trip was amazing from start to finish. The beautiful drive to Glenorchy, the hour and a half horse ride in true Paradise, the professional guides, and not forgetting the lollies that were given as a treat at the end!

Dart Stables have many various trips available. You can book all of these through both Central and Lakefront YHA in Queenstown. Check out their website for more information: www.dartstables.com

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Adventure Walks

When a company called Adventure Walks invited me on one of their trips I could hardly contain my excitement. Their slogan ‘see paradise, not people’, evoked images of stunning scenery, lush forest, crystal clear lakes and fairies dancing on lilies. So when my housemate who, unlike me, is an experienced walker mentioned ‘gators’ I became slightly concerned.

“But I thought they only lived in Australia? Do you think they’ll bite me?”

When she told me she was referring to protective gear that you strap onto the bottom of your legs, and not the scaly creatures with big teeth that live in rivers, I have to say I was quite relieved. With this in mind, I made a wise decision to head to the experts, Outside Sports (Queenstown), who kitted me out with all the essential gear to survive a night in the wilderness.

I was picked up early the next morning by our guide, Andy, and we headed off to Te Anau where we would begin our trip to Lake McIvor and meet up with our group of 10. By the time we arrived, huge dark clouds floated menacingly above us and a storm was forming over our destination.

With that in mind, Andy had several alternatives up his sleeve. A quick decision was made to do the Back Valley track and head out to Hope Arm Hut where we would camp next to the beautiful Lake Manapouri. Once we’d decided what to do, the weather miraculously cleared up and we were able to do a fifteen minute flight in a small floater plane over Fiordland National Park and were dropped off on a remote beach.

After a good fat lunch of cheese and ham sandwiches, we began our trek. It was an easy walk but bearing in mind you have to carry a big rucksack with tents, sleeping bags and food, you do need to be reasonably fit. We walked for around 3 or 4 hours through lush shaded forest, whilst looking out for deer and wild pigs.

The rain set in just as we reached our destination so we quickly popped up our tents. By the time the heavy rain came we were snuggled into the cosy Hope Arm hut cooking steaks and drinking wine.

In the morning we were greeted by clear blue skies so we spent some time on the tranquil shores of the lake then tucked into a big breakfast of sausages and beans washed down with tons of coffee. After this we headed off into the forest for the next part of the trip. As we walked, steam rose from thick green moss as beams of sunlight shone through the trees, creating a mystical setting and I half expected Frodo to appear before me.

After clambering over steel wire bridges and relaxing in the sun at Back Valley hut, we then set off for a walk around the swamps – although it did feel as though we were walking right through them! The mud was very mushy and nearly everyone left behind a boot at one point! It was quite an adventure jumping across streams, balancing on logs and struggling through off road jungle in an attempt to avoid the muddy path, but it was great. We walked for around five hours that day and ended with a boat ride back to Manapouri.

Having felt that my waterproofs hadn’t worked hard enough, I decided to give them a real test. At the Pop In cafĂ© at Te Anau, desperate for a hot drink, I ordered a large hot chocolate. Not able to wait, I popped on a lid and started gulping down my lovely, well deserved drink. When I still couldn’t taste it after a few seconds, I looked down to find brown liquid streaming down my jacket and down the insides of both my legs. In my rush to get the hot drink into my cold body, I hadn’t put the lid on properly and therefore unknowingly became the test dummy for Outside Sports waterproof jacket and pants. They worked!

This trip is perfect for adventurous types who prefer to be away from big crowds. We only saw two other people on our trek. There is a list of essential items on the Adventure Walks website. Backpacks and gaiters (things that strap around your calves to protect them from scratches and not the things that swim in rivers and bite you) can be rented from Andy. The rest of your gear can be rented from Outside Sports and is excellent quality, as I proved!

Trips can be booked through both the Queenstown YHA’s. For more information, check out the website: www.adventurewalks.co.nz