My last day in New Zealand, and a fairly relaxed day. I take the opportunity to get some shopping, and then tackle the Sky Tower.

My first unwelcome discovery is the glass-fronted elevator, which surprises me by suddenly exposing me to nothingness halfway up the Sky Tower's stem. After the bungy jumping episode, I assumed I was reasonably good with heights, but not so. Fantastic views of Auckland are on offer here, but I'm on edge the entire time.

The volcano simulator in the Auckland Museum is much safer. It's really pretty good as it places you in an Auckland house and procedes to wipe out the city.

Posted Thu Jul 8 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ

Overlander day; the rail journey the length of the North Island, described as one of the finest scenic rail journeys in the world. (I've forgotten who by. Possibly the New Zealand tourist board). It's another early morning start - a walk down the Terrace to the train station and a blessed relief when I get to hand my bag over to a bloke claiming to be the luggage man.

The New Zealand country does lose something in the rain. However, the engineering required to make this line happen remains impressive, with numerous viaducts and crazy schemes to enable the train to descend from the Central Plateau. The best known civil engineering feat, the Raurimu Spiral, is narrated in the detail necessary to understand where the line is going.

At this point, my notes give out. I assume I made it to Auckland's curiously named Britomart station and from there, to my gracious hosts. But I could have been marooned miles from civilisation, kidnapped by hillbillies and forced to work in their lint mines. We just don't know.

Posted Wed Jul 7 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ

I've been ordered by folks spread across three different continents to go to Wellington's Te Papa museum. So being an obedient sort of person, I head out along the waterfront, stopping only for banana and bacon pancakes. Wellington's waterfront would probably be lovely if it weren't for the rain. As it is, the museum is a welcome sight, if only as a break from the weather.

The first embuggerance is the guide book, which costs money in English. My paying muscle objects to this sufficiently that I pick up the free French language blurb.

The museum has a section on the Treaty of Waitomo, the document that underpins the relationship between the Maori and the European settlers in New Zealand. For all its acknowledged flaws and ambiguities, it's a platform which never existed for the relationship between the Aborigines and Europeans in Australia, and perhaps that goes at least some way to explaining the apparently easier place the Maori hold in New Zealand society.

The museum's multimedia area houses a satellite map of New Zealand on the floor with cloudless views of the entire country with the sole exception of the Coromandel Peninsula. The star of this "Our Space" corner is definitely the Wall, a slick display for playing with media and mashups. Despite all the technology behind it, it's not always easy to distinguish it from a toy.

The museum takes most of the day, so I leave directly for food and beer at a waterfront pub which claims brewpub status. In reality, it appears to be mostly decoration, but it's heartening that brewpub is good theme marketing over here.

Posted Tue Jul 6 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ

For today's journey, I'm ON THE TRAIN. I have a dreaded 7am departure, for which the train company happily run a free hotel shuttle. Christchurch station is freezing and forgotten - as far as I can tell, it only hosts about two trains a day. I successfully check my baggage through to the Wellington ferry terminal, and round up my allotted seat.

It's still dark as we pull out. And it quickly become obvious that the train is in no particular hurry - the South Island rail system is clearly just for gazing at the scenery (or will be when the sun rises).

The sun reveals that we're travelling through rolling hills and low density farmland, reminiscent of the Scottish Borders. Apart from the countryside, the similarities between this part of the world and Scotland are no accident. The coming of emigration to New Zealand coinceded with the Highland Clearances as crofters were dispossessed of the homes and livelihoods. It's no surprise that many chose to settle in a new land.

Back in the new land, the scenery really gets good when the hills give way to sea as we reach the spectacular Kaikoura coast. There's a long rocky coastal strip punctuated by outcrops offshore. The area is best know for its marine mammal life, and while winter is a poor time for viewing, we still see a good number of fur seals hanging out on the rocks.

The final segment of the trip is through the plains to the north. The train's commentary continues, marking the vineyards as we pass them. The journey winds to a close when we descend from the mountains into the town of Picton amid the impressive setting of the Marlborough Sounds.

Finding my way to my boat doesn't prove too difficult. Picton consists almost entirely of a rail terminus and a ferry port, so anyone leaving the train here is guaranteed to be heading in the right direction.

My rummage for a comfortable corner of the boat finds me in the bar (I know - I was shocked too) where Sophie and the Realistic Expectations are in the process of setting up. How better to spend a few hours on a ferry than exploring micro-brewery beers to the accompaniment of soul covers?

Apparently, there's a spectacular glacial landscape outside but, importantly, no beer.

The ferry terminal has a free shuttle to the train stations in Wellington, although my hotel is still a mile away, and up hill.

It's just gone 5 as I arrive, so too late to visit anything. All I need right now is food and sleep. I step out into town for long enough to get some low quality food to devour in my room.

Whereupon I discover that my coke has escaped and killed what was, up until I removed it from its case, my waterproof camera. Curses and naughty words.

Posted Mon Jul 5 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ

Free day in Christchurch and it turns out I'm still recovering from lost sleep, as I don't see much of the morning.

My first direction of the day is towards a bus for Christchurch's Antarctic Centre. The Magick Christchurch Bus Map gets me there without incident and I soon discover the dreadful truth: They have furries on staff.

It's actually not that bad - the centre is a celebration of Antarctic exploration on the site of the Kiwi, Italian and US stepping off points for their own Antarctic stations. The exhibition includes such wonders as a simulated storm complete with snow and howling winds, their own colony of blue penguins and a ride showing what a Hagglund Arctic Transporter is capable of. (Answer: 45 degree slopes, 2m crevases and tarmac).

The centre offers a suitably decorated penguin bus to the centre of town, which I employ to get to the art gallery. It turns out to host a couple of good exhibitions. There's a hall of kinetic sculpture playing with arcing electricity, which is always fun. Every thirty seconds the lobby is punctuated by a bzzzzzzt-crack.

But I find the best exhibition to be the one in my own pet medium, photography. It's a series of photographs on the theme of "Hidden America", shedding light on facets of the country which aren't generaly seen. It's a fascinating slice of Americana, taking in areas from forensic study of decomposing corpses to hymenoplasty.

After the art gallery, I find my way to the Canterbury Museum. There isn't a great deal of time left before it closes, but it's no great loss given that like so many museums in NZ, it's free. I buzz around it until I chucked out, but nothing really sticks in my mind as outstanding.

Getting back to the hotel is a short walk through the Botanic Gardens.

Posted Sun Jul 4 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ

Another perfectly freezing morning in Queenstown. I've got two flights today. The first picks me up outside a snowboarding shop and busses me up the into the Remarkables. As the pilots start assembling their craft, we punters are strapped into a harness, given the safety briefing and told precisely where to hold the pilot. I'm invited to upgrade my experience to include a period at the helm under the pilot's instruction. I promise to consider it carefully.

Launching the hang glider is a simple as the paraglider - just step, step and then we're dangling side-by-side from our harnesses in the chilly mountain air. Because this is New Zealand, the pilot has a camera on a stick to record the morning's entertainment. But you won't be seeing those photos any time soon given they want 30 squid for them.

Although I have left my underwater camera lying around for the ground crew to use.

It turn out that even without investing in the upgrade, my pilot offers me the steering wheel. In fact, it doesn't feel all that responsive to my touch. It does feel pretty failsafe though - it returns to straight and level flight if I let it free. While I don't push it too hard, it's clearly capable of more as the landing involves a couple of tight turns before rolling out to a stop on the grass.

So is it better than the paragliding? I'm not sure. I was looking forward to gliding in the prone position for a more authentic flying feeling than sitting in a seat. The best comparison I had beforehand was Alton Tower's Air, which I rode giggling like a small child the first time I experienced it. I can't say I had the same feeling from this glider, but perhaps that's a little unlikely after all the other experiences of Queenstown. It was still a great experience, and I'd strongly consider taking it up if I ever live somewhere with hills.

A ride back into town from the bottom of the hill connects me with a shuttle to the airport and the second flight of the day - back to Christchurch. I don't feel a lot of regret leaving this town. It's been an enjoyable visit, but I can't help considering that Queenstown doesn't have all that much of an identity beyond beyond its job as a kicking off point for adventure sports.

It's a fine journey back to Christchurch with another spectacular climb out of Queenstown. The Southern Alps give way to panoramic views over the Canterbury Plains.

Back in Christchurch, I get myself back to the Chateau on the Park and happily submit to the warm soft bed.

Later on I venture out towards the Art Gallery and discover that it's mobbed with school kids carrying paper lanterns. Clearly that's out for the time being, so I adjourn to the pub.

There's a samba band starting up as I leave it. Naturally I follow, and discover it leading a procession of lanterns from the Art Gallery to Christchurch's central Cathedral Square. Being a natural follower, I go with it and attempt to find out what it's all about.

As the MC tries and ultimately fails to herd the kids into forming a 2 of lanterns, he reveals that this is the opening ceremony of Christchurch's Kidsfest. Which is nice. I leave for more beer once the samba band's finished.

Posted Sat Jul 3 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ

Second (and final - I'm flying out tomorrow) attempt at getting to Milford Sound. Again, I'll know at 11:00 if it's on, so I have a leisurely breakfast before sauntering into the tour office.

It's another bright and sunny day in Queenstown, even clearer than yesterday. There's a remarkably good view of the mountains over the town and up the lake.

The same is apparently true of Milford because it's on.

After a taxi ride to the secret back bits of the airport you never normally see, we're introduced to our pilot and led through a side gate onto the apron. We're loaded onto the 10-seater which will take us out to the Sound. Solo traveller's privilege means I'm offered my choice of the front row seats. (It's hinted that I should pick the one without a steering column).

We're swiftly cleared to taxi across the field and the pilot goes through his checks as we bump over the glass towards the taxiway. Take-off is smooth, if noisy as he floors the twin props over the bright green waters of the lake to gain the height we need to take us over the mountains.

The ride over the mountain ridges is understandably lumpy in places, but not alarmingly so. It's a much more personal way of seeing the mountains, and we're able to see features like frozen lakes from just a few hundred metres away. I'm not afraid to admit that I'm taking an interest how the plane works as well. It's a fair bit more complex than the two-seater Cessnas I've flown before.

The entry to the Sound is dramatic as the pilot descends to fly low over a series of passes, with the last one opening out as the Sound appears under us. The flight travels the length of the Sound to lose altitude and bring us into what Milford laughingly calls an airport.

Milford itself consists largely of an airstrip, a cruise terminal and a few dozen campervan spaces.

We're helpfully bussed from the tarmac to the cruise terminal, which is a confusion of people and coaches. By remarkable coincedence, we've arrived at the same time as the coach parties from Queenstown, who've had four-five hours driving to my 40 minute flight. I'm asked by some if the flight was scary, perhaps looking for justification of their coach decision.

The higher slopes of the mountains surrounding the Sound are obscured by cloud. While our flight managed to avoid flying into it, it's blocking our view of the Sound's best known feature, Mitre Peak.

The cruise is pretty informal, with an occasional narrative and pointing out of features. We bag a dolphin playing in our wake and a small colony of fur seals. By the end of the cruise, the cloud clears enough to see Mitre Peak in all its glory.

The trip back takes a different route over its own share of falls, and quality examples of glacial landscape.

And 40 minutes later, we're back in Queenstown after a slightly rougher ride home. A smooth landing and taxi ride later, I'm back in town, wondering what the scaffolding and skip full of snow is doing dangling from a crane in the main square.

After dinner, it becomes clear what it's for; the Winter Festival's Rail Jam, which is apparently skaterboy for a succession of skiers and snowboarders freestyling down the the scaffolding and flinging themselves off the metal obstacles embedded in the snow. There are enough nasty wipeouts to keep me entertained in the bitter evening cold for the full hour, as the invited freestylers attempt to emasculate themselves on the exposed metalwork.

By the end, there's not much blood and precious little snow left on the top, not to mention a few bits of scaffolding missing after they've been taken out by poorly-aimed snowboarders.

Posted Fri Jul 2 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ

Into town for a breakfast of bacon and banana pancakes. It's a virtually cloudless day in Queenstown, bright and still. Perfect weather for flying.

But not at Milford, so the trip's off.

There's another cruise going at much the same time, this one around the lake. It's also a wee bit cheaper. It provides a pleasant hour and a half of pootling around the Frankton Arm of the lake, initially sat on the roof until I surcome to the biting wind and retreat inside the cabin. It's a nice informative tour as far as it goes. The level of detail on some of the individual houses on the lakeshore is probably pushing it a little, although some of the tales are quite interesting.

For example - the New Zealand rail company built a number of houses for its employees on the north shore of the water. Company rules dictated that anything they build must face north to gather the sun, so the houses were duly built facing north. This means they face the side of the hill and miss out on the view over Lake Wakatipu towards the Remarkables Range.

After lunch I crack and go jet boating with a well-known nearby operator. It's pretty production-line and their site by the Shotover River is surprisingly unlovely given it's the best-known boat in town.

Still, it's undeniably a good ride. It's a flatter hull than the Taupo boat, so the spins fling you around less. The gorge is narrower and the ride gets closer to the rocks.

The other innovation here is some witchcraft to take video of us getting thrown around and beaming it across to somewhere the punter can pay for it. The magic isn't working much today, but the crew are gamely pretending this is the exception.

By the time I get back into Queenstown, it's too late to book anything more for the day, so I stay to enjoy myself in the town. Which is when I discover that Queenstown is pretty dull when you're not off on some activity. I finish the evening in the pub, writing this for your amusement.

Posted Thu Jul 1 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ

The day starts with an early morning taxi to the airport. It's a smooth check in right up until I'm handed a letter from the airline detailing the chances of making it to Queenstown and the options available if we don't. The most likely, according to the security guy who appears to take a little too much pleasure in checking me for metal objects, is ending up back at Christchurch and getting on the bus.

I make my way to the gate more in hope than expectation, where I note the incoming aircraft is conspicuous by its absence. It turns up eventually and spits out some tired-looking passengers, which makes it our turn to try. This flight is full, but happily I have a window seat because the scenery for the hour long flight is spectacular. As we head south, the mountains protrude out of an opaque layer of what may be either fog or landscape.

It's all looking good as we gradually descend into the cloud with the mountains towering above us, and everything just goes white. We drop out of the fog over Lake Wakatipu and do a tight turn over the Frankton Arm of the lake to approach Queenstown Airport, giving great views of Queenstown. The runway has big drifts of snow visible piled up at the sides as the pilot plants us on the runway.

The airport isn't quite as tiny as Islay, but it's close. There's a shuttle to my accomodation which turns out to be an easy walk from town, so I leave my baggage with reception and walk down to the Adventure Capital of New Zealand.

It's a little cheesetastic, but it's also a reasonable way to orient yourself, so I head on up the gondola to the Skyline in the hope that the fog layer over the Remarkable Mountains (surely the finest name ever for a landscape feature) will lift. It's the same idea as the Rotorua Skyline - there are a couple of cement luge tracks down the mountain which aren't quite as extreme as they like to claim they are. The advanced track at Rotorua is much hairier.

My run down the scenic track is marred by a small child crashing spectacularly on a chicane in front of me. Happily I get to find out whether it's possible to down the length of the advanced one without braking (answer: no, you tip over on one of the corners).

During my time enjoying and photographing the scenery, I've been noticing a gradual stream of people flinging themselves off the mountain under a paraglider. I eventually crack and go to find out what the deal is.

It turns out they're offering tandem trips to the bottom, and more importantly, they have free beer vouchers for the nearest brewpub. I take them up on their offer.

There's a part of me is expecting this to be as terrifying as flinging myself off the bungy platform. But I'm ignoring it. And with good reason as it turns out - the experience is a long way from the bungy-related terror of swift and crunchy oblivion. It's more like a gentle stroll in the air between the mountains, and the pleasure of being released from the limit of two dimensions on the ground is surprisingly reminiscent of scuba diving. It's just very natural and comfortable dangling over Queenstown, and the pilot's thoughtfully brought along a camera on a stick to prove it.

Being New Zealand, he flings us around a bit to show what it can do, but in the main it's just chilled (and pretty chilly). The landing's also suitably laid back; a swoop down onto the school rugby pitch coming to a stop in a stall which allows me just to stand up. I'm grinning like a fool for the entire trip.

The gondola's closed for a function in the afternoon, so I don't get my return trip up. So the next job is to check out the brewpub. I'm on to my third pint before I remember I haven't used the voucher.

The other job for the day is to book a flight and cruise to Milford Sound for the morrow. The thought of getting up at six to spend eight hours on a bus getting to and from the Sound doesn't appeal.

Posted Wed Jun 30 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ

It's an early flight to Christchurch and Moni kindly drives me out to the airport on the Special Secret Route. The plane's all but empty, so I reallocate myself to an available window seat to watch the cloud cover and occasional coastline go by.

Today is a short entry because I'm now on work time. I'm spending the afternoon with my opposite number at the University of Canterbury, to discuss some possible collaboration. The campus is lovely, as is the beer and haggis on offer at the staff pub.

I don't see much of Christchurch beyond the hotel and a wander around the town centre, ending up at a Genuine Oirish Pub, which offers me Free Beer due to seating issues.

Posted Tue Jun 29 00:00:00 2010 Tags: NZ