Archive for the ‘Travel in Australasia’ Category

Our TranzAlpine trip had been booked over three weeks earlier, and we were confident it would go ahead.  On Saturday morning when we arrived at the station we were surprised to see two tour buses parked outside, and then to find very few people in the waiting room.  It turned out that the day’s Coastal Pacific train had been cancelled because of possible Covid 19 contamination, and those passengers were being taken to Picton by bus.  We were told that Tranz Alpine bookings were well down, but there were five passenger carriages on our train so social/physical distancing could be ensured.  The check-in person asked us to put contact details on the back of our boarding passes in case this was needed for Covid 19 follow-up.

Our carriage with approximately 50 seats had less than a dozen passengers.  The three of us were in a space with four seats and a table.  Across the aisle was a group of four tourists, less than one metre away!

Viaduct from train

Viaduct from train

I love train travel at any time and this amazingly spectacular route is always thrilling.  As we descended from Otira it started to rain, and the mist closed in in true West Coast fashion.  By the time we got to Greymouth it was raining steadily and we were glad our rooms at the Kingsgate Hotel were not far from the station.  Here the receptionist asked whether any of us had been overseas during the past month, and whether anyone was feeling unwell, and made a note of our answers.

Heavy rain reinforced our decision to have dinner at the Hotel.  The restaurant was not available to us because it was being kept exclusively for a Belgian tour group.  However the full menu was available in the bar area which had a good number of tables.  We were the only ones dining there and had the undivided attention of a sole barman/waiter.  The meal was excellent and we were happy to retire at 9pm.

Dinner at Kingsgate Hotel

We had heard Jacinda’s broadcast asking people over 70 to stay at home, and everyone to avoid non-essential domestic travel.  This means Cathryn’s North Island trip is cancelled, and she will fly home tomorrow.  It also means I can’t attend Te Reo classes or tutorials which are now moving online anyway.

Next morning we had breakfast at Sevenpenny, where every second table had a sign saying Permanently reserved – legal requirement – 1m physical distance, and we were asked to fill in a form with name, address, phone number, and email so we can be contacted if it’s later found someone with Covid19 has eaten there.  Lunch at Robert Harris had a similar requirement to register, and this is the last time we will eat out for the duration.

Signs at Sevenpenny Cafe

Sevenpenny was named after an effective consumer boycott in 1947 when local hotels moved to raise the price of beer from 6d to 7d.  The boycott led to local miners striking, and the nation reached crisis point with a shortage of coal nationwide which forced the Government to intervene.

Cathryn had introduced me, via her laptop, to The Crown on Netflix, and the prospect of having to stay home indefinitely induced me to buy a Vodafone TV box in Greymouth.  This is now all set up, so we have extra home entertainment.  We’ve learned today that the TranzAlpine service has been suspended until further notice, so our trip home yesterday was the last one for the forseeable future.

Among all this week’s sad news there are two encouraging items.  The first is that the Act changing abortion from a crime to a health issue has been passed.  The second is that a friend who has had severe ongoing leg problems has been told she is now eligible for the necessary prosthetic.  So good to have these rays of sunshine amid the gloom!

So glad we took the chance to roam
from now on we must stay at home

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Burke’s Pass Store

Burke’s Pass, 15 minutes’ drive from Tekapo, was the first Pakeha settlement in the MacKenzie Country, a social, business, and sporting centre.  It was named for Michael John Burke, an early land owner who was the first European to cross here in 1855.  I had wondered whether he was the same Burke who explored Australia with Wills, but apparently not.  The small village is worth exploring, and a heritage trail led me around those significant buildings that still exist, most of which have been lovingly restored.

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As I approached the old schoolhouse a large rabbit ran across my path – as is to be expected in the MacKenzie Country.  The small church had an array of fund-raising goods, trustingly displayed, and I bought some seeds suitable for a dry cottage garden.  The Three Creeks area houses a collection of old buildings, vehicles, and solid wooden furniture, with the only shop in the area which supplies coffee and ice creams.  I was glad we’d decided to make the trip back from Tekapo for a thorough visit rather than stopping briefly on the route home.  Beside Burke’s Pass, Tekapo village seems new and shallow-rooted.  The lake, mountains, and stars have always been there, but the only Tekapo link with early Pakeha settlers is the little stone church, less than a hundred years old.

A rabbit ran across the grass
a part of history at Burke’s Pass

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Pseudo Springs

The hot pools at Tekapo Springs were delightful.  Although there were many cars in the car park the complex was not at all crowded, certainly nothing like the numbers I’ve encountered at Hanmer Springs.  When you pay the entrance fee they place a band around your wrist and you can then wander anywhere around the pools and café.  Stephen, who didn’t wish to dip, paid no fee, and was able to sit at a shady café table and sip a beer.

Tekapo Springs

There are several pools with temperatures varying between 32 and 38 degrees, all large with convenient shelves to rest bottom and head on, plus falls of water to massage your back.  There are shade sails and it was idyllic to lie under sunny skies, surrounded by tall pine trees, with the lake nearby.

Ruth in pool

I was slightly surprised to see people with cellphones (presumably waterproof) and cameras (perhaps a GoPro).  One man was reading a paperback, something I’ve tried at Hanmer and found impractical.  There was no hint of minerals in the water, so I asked a staff member who told me there are actually no springs!  The ‘pure clean’ water comes from nearby mountain streams, they heat it to the required temperatures, and add enough chlorine to keep it clean.  Unlike Hanmer there is therefore no need to remove silver jewellery which might become tarnished.  I liked the device in the changing rooms for drying costumes, and a woman told me they now have these at Hanmer too.

The complex is a wonderful asset which must be popular all year round, but I think it’s misleading to call it Tekapo Springs.

The springs so-called are really pools
the title springs is one for fools.


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A friend told me her sister said there was nothing to do in Tekapo, but I beg to differ.  Our motel unit looked out onto the lake, and I was content to sit on a chair on the verandah and gaze at the blue water and shadowy mountains beyond.  We were close to the Dark Sky Project (on the left of photo below), the motel manager said that what had once been a million dollar view was now a million dollar building, but we still had a view.

View from motel

On our first night I went out at 10pm hoping to see the Milky Way but there was too much light from the ground.  I wondered if it would be better at the lake edge, but wasn’t game to walk down there in my night attire.  From our verandah we could see lots of stars and easily identify Orion’s Belt.  On the ground below the motel there was an elaborate ground-level sundial, but its function has been obscured by the Dark Sky building.

The first night we ate at the Dark Sky Diner, adequate, but overpriced.  Next morning we had breakfast at Doughboys Bakery, where poached eggs and mushrooms for $10 was good value.  There are plenty of shops and a comprehensive Four Square supermarket, which opens at 8am, and stocks the Press.  One day we breakfasted at The Greedy Cow which offered exotic breakfasts – curried cauliflower with poached eggs for me, and huevos rancheros for Stephen.

Breakfast at Greedy Cow

The best dinner we had in Tekapo was at MacKenzies Café Bar and Grill.  I had monkfish, and Stephen chose a chicken breast on a stone grill (i.e. he cooked the meat himself).  They thoughtfully gave him two sets of cutlery, one for the raw chicken and one for the cooked.  One night we’d tried to book a table at a different restaurant, to be told that they were fully booked but if we turned up at 7 they might fit us in.  We duly arrived, and were told there would be a 45 minute wait for a table.  When I said that was too long and we’d go to the nearby Chinese Restaurant the staff member said “Don’t go there, you’ll get food poisoning and the service is terrible.” We did choose somewhere else, but I was amazed that someone would make what might be considered a slanderous comment to complete strangers.

We sampled more than one café
all quite close to our place of stay


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From Tekapo village there’s a footbridge that leads across the Tekapo River to the Church of the Good Shepherd (built 1935), with a large car park with public toilets at the west end of the bridge.   Construction was done in Christchurch, the bridge was brought down in seven sections and in 2015 placed on the piers which had been built in 2013.  This was when it was officially opened by Jenny Shipley.  It wasn’t until early 2017 that everything was completed and the Footbridge Society handed ownership of the bridge to the MacKenzie District Council.  Hence the plaque on the bridge says ‘MacLaren Footbridge 2019’, Colin MacLaren being the architect and chair of the committee that worked to have the footbridge built.

Footbridge across river

The car park beside the church holds only a dozen cars and you can see how visitor numbers must have quickly outgrown it.  Most of the visitors appeared to be Asian, but none was wearing a mask.

Church on Lake Tekapo

Inside the church is plain and peaceful (no photos allowed), just a cross in the window and a vase of lilies to one side.  Half a dozen people were seated quietly in the pews, with contemplative music playing.  As I sat I thought of my father who loved the mountains.

Cards and packets of lupin seeds were available, and donations welcome.  I’ve read that this is the most photographed church in Aotearoa, and it’s easy to see why, especially within its exquisite setting.  The hills were brown and bare, the only obvious buildings those of Mt John Observatory.  I sat across the road, where the overwhelming feeling was of peace, with almost no wind on a fine sunny day.

Church from across the road

Next door to the church is the statue of a collie dog, so essential to the work of shepherds in the MacKenzie country.

Collie Dog Monument erected 1968

I turned my cellphone on once each day, mainly in case of a message from Ziggy’s holiday home at the cattery.  I also checked my emails daily – a few concerning my voluntary work needed a response – but otherwise I was digitally detached.  No Facebook, no Wordscraper, and no blogging.  At home I usually spend several hours daily on the computer.  At Tekapo I was content to sit and look at the lake, take walks, and read a book.  Occasionally I recorded my thoughts in a notebook, but didn’t feel poetically inspired except for creating the daily couplet for my poetry diary.

Lake Tekapo’s a place of peace
where outside interruptions cease

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We turned west at Rakaia and followed State Highway 72/Thompson’s Track (the Inland Scenic Route) through farmland.  There was little traffic, so we could keep a steady speed past golden poplars and sun-dappled gums.  Huge paddocks housed giant irrigators, but few of them were working.  There were some recently shorn sheep, but mainly dairy cattle.  As the day was fine we worried that so few had any shade.  Many were huddled close to the irrigators, perhaps hoping for a cooling spray.  We crossed the braided Rangitata, then over a one way bridge with no sign at all of water.

Lunch at Verde in Geraldine

At Geraldine we lunched in the beautiful garden at Verde, then headed for Fairlie and the Starlight Highway/Te Ara o Rehua.  Just out of Fairlie we were delighted to see a free range chicken farm.

Free range chickens

The Highway runs through hills and valleys, with a patchwork of gold, brown, and green, and marching lines of pines.  There are several places where you are invited to stop and take photos of the snowy mountains.

Snowy mountains ahead

Our final destination was Lake Tekapo and its beautiful blue water.

Lake Tekapo

When driving to the south and west
the inland route is just the best

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Hokitika Highlights

Our room at the Beachfront Hotel in Hokitika had a wonderful wide sea view.  We loved going to sleep with the gentle sound of roaring surf.

View from our hotel room

Underfloor heating in the bathroom was an unexpected treat.  It reminded me of the time I stayed at a motel in Nelson with a group of friends, and one of them left her pyjamas lying on the bathroom floor before we went out for dinner so they’d be warm when she came back.

We had two nights with one full day in Hokitika.  I found that many shops do not open on Tuesdays, and others were closed for the winter, but there was plenty to see.  I was pleased to buy some Colin McCahon stamps at the Post Shop, and investigated the two op shops, but found nothing there I wanted.

Wednesday morning was cloudy with rain, and I managed to explore further and visit the wonderful Hokitika Museum.  This is housed in a Carnegie Library building, one of eighteen that were funded in New Zealand.

Carnegie Building in Hokitika

There were many excellent historical displays, and an exhibition Prospects Fearful which debunked the idea that Thomas Brunner was an explorer.  In fact he relied on Maori guides to show him the way and teach him to make sandals (paraerae) to protect his feet once his shoes had worn out.  The building receptionist was friendly.  I wondered if she might be a volunteer, but found she’s paid for the four hours a day the building is open.  Renovations in the 1990s saw elaborate stone details replaced with polystyrene, but that’s not enough to meet the latest seismic standards.  The building is soon to close for at least a year for earthquake strengthening.

After this I lunched at Kitchen Hokitika where I got a yummy roast vegetable frittata with side salad for $12 – doing better than the day before for healthy eating.  The Kitchen has an eclectic mix of decor, with books (including a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica) and a display of disused cellphones.  In the afternoon the sun shone and I went further along the beach and the Heritage Walk, and took lots of photos.

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At Hokitika much to see
and much that interested me


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Tuesday was a perfect clear sunny day for travelling on the TranzAlpine.  It was ten years since we’d last been on this scenic train.  While we waited to board I noticed a sign that made me do a double take.


The mountains looked absolutely beautiful:

Snowy mountain near Craigieburn Station

There was snow beside the track in many places:

Snow beside the railway track

I put on headphones to listen to the commentary, which was clear and slow – a good model for my Avon Loop walk.  Usually I go four to five hours between breakfast and lunch, but travel stimulates the appetite, and I was feeling hungry by 9.30am despite having had porridge at 6am.  The cafe car had reasonably priced food plus I’d taken a flask of tea.  Healthy eating regimes are not easy to keep up on holiday.  The open air viewing carriage was shut for the first while because of black ice, but we were happy to stay in our warm carriage and enjoy the view through the wide windows.  We passed Cass Station, immortalised by Rita Angus, and learned that Cass now has a population of just one.

Bealey Hotel at centre

Arthur’s Pass

After a five minute stop at Arthur’s Pass we went through the Otira Tunnel which is eight and a half kilometres long.  Once we were through the scene was breathtaking, with snow on the trees, and we were soon amongst cloud.  There were pukeko, and some sheep, but they weren’t very woolly.  Perhaps they were the sweeter mountain sheep?  We saw no lambs on the westward journey, but when we returned two days later there were lambs gambolling in the fields, a delight to see.

This trip has a wonderful array of scenery, snowy mountains, rivers, viaducts, tunnels, and clouds.

Ruth & Stephen at Greymouth Railway Station

If you haven’t been on the TranzAlpine recently I would thoroughly recommend it.

This trip is truly stupendous
with scenery that’s tremendous.

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I first visited Australia in 1964, mainly because my brother had emigrated there with his family.  Since then I’d visited a number of times, travelling within Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, and Tasmania.  During these trips I’d seen few Aboriginal people.  In the early 2000s at a Conference in Melbourne I was surprised and pleased to find the local indigenous people briefly acknowledged.  It seemed that Australia was well behind Aotearoa in including indigenous people and customs.

This month I visited South Australia and Northern Territory and gained a wider perception of Aboriginal heritage.  On our Murray River cruise we visited the Ngaut Ngaut Aboriginal Conservation Park which is one of the most significant archaeological digs in Australia.  The tribal elders have returned both to protect their Dreaming place and to share its mysteries with others.  We had a guided boardwalk tour to view ancient rock carvings and learn about the Aboriginal history of the area.

Aboriginal carvings at Ngaut Ngaut

Aboriginal carvings

The sun symbol denotes that this was a women’s area

During a Murray riverbank walk we saw a tree from which Aboriginal people had made a bark canoe.

Canoe tree

You can see the scar on the left hand side of the trunk.  Canoes were constructed from a single piece of bark.  An outline was cut in a tree, and stone wedges were inserted around the edges and left there until the bark loosened.  The bark was softened with fire and folded and tied at both ends with plant-fibre string.   The tree continued to live without the piece of bark – great sustainability!

When The Ghan stopped at Katherine, the fourth largest settlement in the Northern Territory, we were able to take a cruise down the Katherine River through the Nitmiluk Gorge.  The name Nitmiluk means place of the cicada dreaming, and the land has recently been handed back to the indigenous Jawoyn people, who own and run the cruise boats.  The landscape in the gorge is incredibly beautiful.  One boat took us through the first gorge, then we walked over rocky terrain to where the boat for the second gorge was waiting.  Here are some views of the gorges:

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On the way back the guide pointed out a fresh-water crocodile lurking under a ledge.  He told us it’s usually safe to swim with freshwater ones.  It’s the salt water crocodiles that may attack.

Crocodile lurking under ledge

In Darwin we found there was a strong Aboriginal presence which was different from other Australian cities I’ve been in.  I enjoyed listening to the local Aboriginal radio station.  Darwin seemed very laid back, and very hot.  The population is only one-third that of Christchurch, and there is little traffic.


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When The Ghan stopped at Alice Springs I was whisked away in a mini bus with seven others for a camel ride in the outback with Pyndan Camel Tracks.  Two couples rode tandem, while the rest of us each had our own camel.  Mine was Tjala, a female born in 2003 at Mulga Park Station on the Northern Territory/South Australia border.  She sat down while I mounted, then we were warned to hold tight and lean back while the animal rose.

Me and my camel

The six camels were strung together and Ben the Cameleer led us on foot.  The pace was slow and steady with no need to hold on.  It was hot (41 degrees) and I kept brushing away flies, even though one man had kindly sprayed under the rim of my hat with fly-spray.   In Darwin I later saw people wearing nets that covered their head and neck, and I think one of these would have been useful.  We walked for an hour which was quite enough in that heat, and Ben kindly took photos of each of us.

Camel train in front

On the camel track

Tjala’s head

Camel train


When we returned and dismounted we were given cool wet cloths and cold lemonade or beer which were very welcome.  We were driven back to the train terminal where we were again given icy cold drinks while we waited to re-embark.

Alice Springs Station

Riding a camel is definitely something to cross off the bucket list.  This same day I ate kangaroo (like lean beef) at lunchtime, and a slice of crocodile sausage as dinner entree.  No camel on the menu I’m pleased to say, although we’d seen camel mince and diced camel on a stall at the Adelaide Central market.

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