“Kia Ora, ladies and gentlemen, in a few minutes we will begin our descent into Christchurch..” Outside, the scenery had changed from the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean to the jagged shoreline of the South Island to the vast open plains of Canterbury. I hadn’t even landed but was already impressed with the landscapes of New Zealand.
New Zealand or Aotearao (The Maori name for New Zealand, which translates to “The Land of the Long White Cloud”) had been on the top of my travel bucket-list for a long time and I was beyond excited when everything fell into place and I could make a trip happen. I would be spending a little more than 4 weeks in New Zealand and my main goal was to explore the mountainous regions of the Southern Alps and Fiordlands, and indulge in some tourist-y things along the way. I had a general idea of the areas I wanted to visit but had kept a pretty open and flexible schedule to visit these places.
I would be hitch-hiking or taking buses throughout my journey to minimize costs and have the required flexibility. And I would be starting my adventure in Christchurch…
Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand, situated on the flat Canterbury Plains on the east coast of the island. It was reputed to be a bustling, vibrant city of 300,000 people but a series of earthquakes in 2011-12 devastated the city, killing 185 people and leaving most buildings in the Business District abandoned, cordoned off or demolished. Sadly, the downtown area is now just a shell of it’s former self and many parts of it resemble a ghost town.
On the brighter side, the city is doing it’s best to rebound from this disaster and many innovative ideas are being tried out to restore it’s old vibrant nature. For example, Re:start Mall is collection of quirky restaurants and stores, all housed in shipping containers, or open-air libraries and putt-putt courses have been erected on sites where old office towers have been demolished. The city-scape itself has become a canvas for budding artists and creative-types, with abandoned buildings or bare walls housing murals, museums and exhibits. I spent an entire day walking throughout the business district, checking out these art-and-craft artifacts. Also, The Canterbury Museum and the Art Gallery are worth a visit and the Botanical Gardens, adjoining the museum are a nice place to relax or walk around on a sunny day. However, after nightfall the city turns deathly quiet and apart from a few bars on Victoria and Kilmore Streets, the place is desolate.
After a day of exploration and buying supplies for the upcoming trip into the hills, along with a few drinks with newly made hostel friends, I was ready to head out of the big city. I would not see traffic lights or 4 lane roads for a long time after that. Next stop, Tekapo.
Tekapo is a small one-street town (two streets if you consider the dirt road that leads to a water-park) situated on the side of it’s namesake, Lake Tekapo, a huge lake nestled in a region where the Canterbury Plains rise up to meet the Southern Alps. You can see huge snow-capped peaks towering over the aquamarine waters of the lake.
Tekapo’s claim to fame is that it lies in what is called a “Dark Sky Reserve”, which means that there is very little to no ambient light present in the sky and you can see millions of stars at night. Because of this, Tekapo houses a couple of excellent observatories and a huge tourist industry for star-gazers, photographers and even inquisitive tourists. There are plenty of star-gazing tours that take tourists to certain hills for an awesome star gazing experience. The more independent (or frugal) visitors, like me, can go to a beach or climb any of the surrounding hills to get an equally awesome but non-guided experience. I went up a hill to watch the sunset and wait for night-fall and then later in the night to a beach about 10 minutes from my hostel, to get both experiences. It was an almost surreal experience to be away from the crowds and watch millions of stars in the sky, like diamonds on black velvet. We even saw the milky way for a while. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a tripod or a good platform to take photos, or maybe I was fortunate because I could enjoy the show without pottering about on my camera.
There are also a couple of other sights, in Tekapo, that are frequented, like the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Sheep Dog Statue. The church in particular makes for a great photo, especially at night, as a foreground for a starry background. But if you do want that shot, don’t go right after nightfall because you will have to compete with a hundred other photographers. Instead, go at 2am or so and have the whole thing to yourself. I learned from experience. Irrespective of time of day, the church is a great place to visit. Also, a hike or drive up to St Johns Observatory is a good way to get a 360 panorama of the area, with views of the lake, the Alps and the plains.
Mount Cook National Park:
After a day and night in Tekapo, I was raring to get into Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and do some actual hiking. I hitch-hiked with my room-mate from Tekapo and a short-ish drive and some spectacular scenery later, I was in Mount Cook Village, the base of the National Park. Read about my adventures in Mount Cook National Park here