Thursday, December 10, 2015

10 Dec 15 – Day 11 (Christchurch)

Flight back was for 12 noon so we didn’t have to wake up early like other days. Got up about 8+am, then ate breakfast about 9+am. Checked out and then we headed to the airport. Again Cynthia had problem with sitting arrangements and we had to inform her of our seat numbers so that she could rearrange. After we were done checking in our luggage and stuff, we browsed the shops inside the airport and I bought a pack of three small bottles of kiwi fruit jams. I was a bit worry initially because I wasn’t sure if they can get past the security checks. The sales staff assured me that there wouldn’t be any problem. We then popped into another shop and I saw a pair of silver fern ear studs and told SWT that they might be suitable for her ears and would most likely go well with her silver fern pendant. She looked at them and fell in love. Quickly made her purchase and then popped into the toilet to change the ear studs. Soon it was time to go to the boarding gate for our flight home. After 10+ hours on the plane, I was back to my home country.

Thoughts: Overall it was a really wonderful trip. I can strike an item off my bucket list. I hope I can go visit NZ again on my own so that I can explore the country slowly. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

9 Dec 15 – Day 10 (Lake Tekapo and Christchurch)

Today we left the beautiful Lake Tekapo for Christchurch. Made a photo stop at the Fairlie Basin and then went to the Manuka honey shop called Farmers Corner recommended by Cynthia to get our honey. Like all other tourist shops, the staff round us up for an introduction to their products and informed us of the available promotions before we were left to do our shopping. Browsed around the shop quickly and picked up the things that I want. NZ is well-known for producing Manuka honey and only those labelled with UMF or MGO are the real-deal. Before my trip, BIL told me to buy royal jelly back in cartons and he said it with such ease. I was, on the other hand, appalled by his suggestion. I did not buy in cartons but I did buy two-years’ worth of royal jelly, three bottles 250g of UMF 20+ and two bottles 500g of UMF 10+ Manuka honey for little big sis. Also bought a pack of propolis lozenges for her side and a sheep soft toy for Lyn. For myself, I bought two bottles 500g of UMF 10+ Manuka honey.

Made payment at the casher and then the staff helped to pack the items into a small carton box. Wrote my name and other contactable details before leaving the box with Cynthia so I could go out to take more photos of the alpacas. There were quite a few of them and they were standing very near the fence because the other kids from the group were feeding them with feeds. One of the members passed SWT some feeds so that she could feed the alpacas while I helped to take photos of her. Collected my box of honey and loaded onto the coach before boarding to continue our journey into Christchurch. Travelled for around 1+ hour and we reached the bottom of Cashmere Hill. Alighted from the coach ahead of others, SWT and I quickly made our climb up the hill where it overlooked the landscape of Christchurch. Snapped some photos before the rest of the group reached the top. After we were done, SWT and I slowly made our way down, snapping photos along the way. 

Got back to the coach and we were brought to a shopping mall where we had lunch and an opportunity to do some shopping. As usual, we avoided eating at the food court and since today was considered the last day that we can lunch in NZ, we decided to eat something a little bit better. Hence, we popped into this café called Theobroma where I had a smoke salmon sandwich and a cup of hot dark chocolate. Lunch was good and satisfying. We then proceeded to the Pak’nSave to do our shopping. Bought a big pack of afghans biscuits and a pack of pineapple lumps for office since they were hailed as the must-eat items by the Kiwis. I bought a small pack of the afghans biscuits for myself. On top of that, I also bought some biscuits by the brand Griffins, a small bottle of easy-to-make pavlova mix and last but not least, my favorite, lamingtons. Searched for the avocado oil but could not find. Checked with the staff and turned out that the item was out of stock. Very disappointed and scolded myself silently for not getting it when I had the chance earlier on during the trip. Made payment and then saw a candy stall outside the supermarket. Bought two Chupa Chups fairy floss bubble gums for Ry and Lyn and a box of jelly beans for BIL.

Returned to the coach and we moved on to the next destination, the International Antarctic Centre, where we saw the feeding of the little blue penguins. Then we experienced the 4D extreme theater before moving on to experience the Antarctic storm. We had to put on plastic gloves over our shoes, put on long jackets before going into the room where temperature went down gradually to minus 18 degree Celsius with strong winds. It was a fun experience. Finally, we moved on to the hagglund ride. The ride was very bumpy but fun, just like roller coaster at some point in time. Done with all the activities and we still had some time to relook at the exhibits and take more photos.

Done with the International Antarctic Centre, we did a brief city tour of Christchurch where we saw many buildings were still in ruins after the 2011 big earthquake. The driver said that roads are slowly opening up after deemed safe for use. Some still remained close and hence traffic had to detour. He showed us where the Re:Start Container Mall was and some of the better graffiti in the city. Finally, we were brought to see the Transitional (Cardboard) Cathedral and along the way, passed by the place where the 185 empty white chairs were in memory of those who lost their lives during the earthquake. Stayed for a while to take some photos before going to the hotel which we were to stay for the night. The Re:Start Container Mall was actually near to our hotel but after eating dinner at the restaurant and returned to the room, we were too lazy to go out again. Besides, the mall was already closed so all the more we didn’t see the point of going just to take photos. Stayed in the room to do major packing and also tried to clear the food we had left such as the kiwi fruits and cherries

Thoughts: Didn’t really do much sightseeing today. Christchurch would have been a nice city to explore if not for the earthquake that destroyed most part of it back in 2011. It is a pity that they have not rebuilt much of the place yet. From what I know, they only settled on the insurance payout recently. So hopefully with the money, the rebuilding can start and complete soon.

8 Dec 15 – Day 9 (Lake Pukaki, Mt Cook and Lake Tekapo)

Had a box with the KFC bread roll and whipped potato leftover from yesterday dinner. Didn’t want to waste them and so finished them off before going to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Today we had the morning free and easy while some group members went for the half-day optional tour doing the four-wheel drive to see the film sites of the LOTR films. Went out to the town center about 9:30am and visited the Anglican Church which we saw two days ago. Took photos of the exterior before strolling to the waterfront area to take some photos and enjoy the nice sea views. Then went on to check out the chocolate shop called Patagonia that was recommended by Cynthia. As I was still full from breakfast, only SWT bought the dark chocolate ice cream cone to try. This time she was smart to ask for the kid size cone and she offered me a bite. The ice cream was very rich with the dark chocolate and not too sweet.

Explored the town center, popping into random shops to browse. SWT saw a Pandora shop and went in to check the items out. Apparently she was searching for ear studs in the shape of silver ferns. Unfortunately, she has a pair of small ears hence cannot take ear studs that are too big. She looked around some more and saw a pendent in the shape of silver fern. It looked pretty but so was the price tag. She hesitated and told the staff that she would think about it and then we went out of the shop. We then tried to look for the Fergburger shop that Cynthia was supposed to be getting the burgers. Saw a shop called Mrs Ferg which was quite empty, followed by Fergbaker which had a few patrons, finally we saw Fergburger with a snaking queue on the outside. Peeped inside the shop and saw Cynthia. Squeezed passed the crowd to get in and asked Cynthia if she needed help. She told us to just get our food and helped inform the rest that their food is ready for collection if we see them. SWT took the bag of food and we moved off to the chocolate shop, Patagonia, to look for a table. Settled down and SWT went to order a cup of hot chocolate to share. Made ourselves comfortable, took photos of our food before digging in. As per what Cynthia promised, she asked the staff from Fergburger to cut the burger into halves. The burger was good, so was the calamari and the hot chocolate. It would have been even better if the food was piping hot. The meal was just nice for me but a bit too much for SWT.

Soon we saw people from our tour group coming to the same place with their food. As there were not enough tables to go around, we shared our table with two older couples. They were really big eaters, instead of sharing the burgers, they ordered one each and on top of that, they went on to order a drink each and after eating, two of them ate the normal ice cream cone each. Since we were done with our food and we had rested enough, excused ourselves from the table and went to walk around the town for a bit. SWT said she would like to go back to the Pandora shop to buy the pendent, so we quickly looked for the shop based on our memory of its location. Managed to find it and SWT made her purchase. I found out that she likes to buy pendants and earrings. She was happy with her purchase which cost her NZ$45 and then we went over to Crowne Plaza where we were to meet up with the rest to board the coach. Since we were early, made use of the toilet facility in the hotel before crossing over to the waterfront to take some photos. Soon all the members were there and we boarded the coach to start our journey. On the way, we made a stop back at the Jones Fruit Stall Suncrest Orchard in Cromwell for the members who had order fruits to collect their orders. Since I didn’t order anything, I just took photos of the flowers around and bought another packet of almond nuts for little big sis.

After a two-hours journey, we reached Lake Pukaki visitor center where there was a Mount Cook Alpine Salmon Shop for visitors to purchase fresh salmon sashimi to eat. Bought a box to share with SWT and we looked for a table outside to eat. The salmon sashimi slices were thick and fresh. We enjoyed them while admiring the nice view of the lake as well as the Mount Cook from afar. We spent about 30-35 minutes there eating and taking photos of the lake, Mount Cook and the surroundings. We had a great time there. The drive told us earlier on that the catch from freshwater trout fishing cannot be sold, they had to be given away. And that freshwater trout cannot be farmed commercially. We then boarded the coach again to continue the journey to the Lake Tekapo where we would spend the night. It didn’t take long to reach the lake and the driver told us that near the Church of the Good Shepherd was a well-known bronze statue of a NZ Collie sheepdog. The statue was commissioned by Mackenzie Country residents in recognition of the indispensable role of the sheepdog in their livelihoods. The sculptor was Innes Elliott of Kaikoura. The model was a dog called Haig, belonging to a neighbor. It took about 15 months to finish. So after we alighted, SWT and I walked quickly to take a quick snap of the Church of the Good Shepherd before going over to the direction given by the driver to check out the statue. Took a shot of it before walking back to the church to take more photos of the surrounding as well as the lake. It was a clear blue sky and so the photos turned out really well. Peeped into the church because we were not allowed inside. The interior was small but still functional.

We spent about 15 minutes there before checking into our hotel called the Peppers Blue Water Resort. We were told that Lake Tekapo is part of a UNESCO Dark Sky Reserve because it is known for its clear nights and lack of light pollution. Lights from the nearby buildings and structures were purposely dimmed and shine downwards so that it is conducive for people to do stargazing. Lake Tekapo is also known to be a good spot to view the Southern Lights. Unfortunately, December was not the right month to do that. Cynthia told the group that we could walk out to the lake which was just across the road to do stargazing in the deep of the night if we were up to it. Secretly, I was hoping that I could stay awake long enough and that I would be able to persuade SWT to go out with me in the middle of the night to do that. Unpacked a little and we were out to join the rest to go to the restaurant further down the road for buffet dinner.

After we were done, SWT and I went for a stroll near the lake. There was a bridge across the river linking the town to the opposite land where the Church of the Good Shepherd stands. I was hoping to use that bridge to get over there to take more photos of the church or at least stand on the bridge to take photos of the church. Unfortunately, the bridge was out of bound so could only take photos of the church from far. Took some photos of the surroundings with the nice effect of the sunset. Then we slowly made our way back to the hotel. Cynthia told us that there are some alpacas, rabbits and so on in the hotel near the area where we were staying. So SWT and I walked over to search for them. It was already close to 9pm so we didn’t get to see any. Guessed they were asleep for the night.

By the time we got back to the room, it was already close to 10pm. I was tired and gave up the idea of stargazing. SWT was trying to drain the battery of her mobile phone so was still awake when I slept. Then in the middle of the night, I was woken up by noise from SWT who was trying to plug her mobile phone for charging. She told me that there were many stars in the sky and persuaded me to wear a jacket and joined her to go out to the balcony to take photos. Still half asleep but I was able to register what she was saying. So quickly put on my jacket, grabbed my Sony Nex-3 and tried to take some photos. The auto-mode gave me total blackness on the screen so I tried setting it to night mode and then used the railing to support the camera after pressing the shutter. It took a really long time to process the photo because of the really slow shutter speed. Managed to see some specks of white on the screen. Felt happy and then quickly ran back into the room because it was actually quite cold outside. Took off the jacket, kept the camera and went back to bed.

Thoughts: The food from Fergburger and hot chocolate from Patagonia were really delicious. They would have tasted better if they were hot enough. Still got to be grateful to have someone to help us get lunch without us having to crack our heads over what to eat. Saw two more beautiful lakes today and felt really, really happy that I was able to visit NZ to see all these breathtaking wonders of nature. NZ has always been one of the countries that I want to visit in my lifetime. I hope that I will be able to visit NZ again soon on my own so that I can spend more time per place to explore more. The starry night I saw outside the balcony of my hotel room was really indescribable. Photos simply cannot do justice to the wonderful sight. Like the song by Rihanna, the stars were just like “Diamonds in the sky”.

Monday, December 7, 2015

7 Dec 15 – Day 8 (Milford Sound)

Woke up early today for our Milford Sound day trip. Before the trip, many people told us that it is always raining at Milford Sound. We were also checking the weather forecast before the trip and initially, it showed that most of the days would be raining or overcast. So far, we were really blessed to have pretty good weather with only one day of rain and one to two days of overcast. So we prayed very hard that it would be a good weather day today. As Milford Sound day trip was an optional tour, some members didn’t join. However, we managed to have a big enough group such that we were able to use our own coach and driver for the tour.

Since we didn’t have the whole group, we were able to space ourselves out on the coach, hence I chose a seat two seats behind the driver side. The driver provided us with some fun facts during the journey, for instance, most of the streets in Queenstown are named after cities in Australia. We traveled for an hour plus before we get a quick comfort stop. Then we continued for another one and a half hour before reaching our first photo stop, the Eglinton Valley in Fiordland National Park along Milford Road to Milford Sound. Before we got down the coach, the driver warned us not to wander off too far, especially when there was another tour group at the same place, and that we were to return to the coach on time, otherwise we would run the risk of being left behind. Took some photos then SWT and I went back up the coach. Just as we were getting up, we saw a Caucasian lady being left behind by her tour group. Told our driver and he said that he would be picking her up on the way to bring her to the next photo stop where her tour group should be. Our driver quickly gathered the rest of the group with the help from Cynthia, picked up the lady and we were on the way to the next stop, the Mirror Lake. The lady thanked our driver before running to rejoin the rest of her group while we got down the coach to do a short walk around the lake to take photos. It was a beautiful sight and it would have made a great photo if not for the light drizzle causing multiple ripples on the lake.

Hopped onto the coach to continue the journey and along the way, the driver told us that we would pass by a waterfall. It appeared on the left side of the coach where SWT was seated so she managed to take photos while I admired the scenery on the right side. Reached the next photo stop and we saw a couple of kea on the ground. Most of us quickly took a few quick shots of the surroundings and then focus on the kea. According to the driver, the kea can be very aggressive and we saw that there and then. A couple of the kea flew on top of our coach and started pecking at it. Got back to the coach to the next stop, Mount Tutoko – Topuni. We got off the coach to walk a bit on the bridge as well as to take photos before getting up to the coach again to go to the place where we were supposed to take the cruise. Reached there about 11:15am and made used of the washroom facilities while Cynthia went to get the tickets. She told us that usually she was not able to board the cruise ship with the tour group, however, today she was allowed to get on to the cruise ship with us and she was even given a lunch voucher to collect her lunch onboard the ship.

As it was still too early for boarding, we took some photos around the place and then went out to the pier to take photos of the cruise ships. It was windy and cloudy with slight drizzle. Soon, we were told to form a queue for boarding and had to stand in the drizzle. Boarded the ship around 11:30am, shared a table with a family of four. Made ourselves comfortable and then took out our lunch, the boysenberry Danish, which we bought the evening before. Cynthia distributed some chocolate bars to the group while the ship was leaving the pier, hence, that added on to our lunch. Despite that, our lunch seemed rather miserable compared to the cup noodles meal that the other families were having. Finished our food and sat for a while, enjoying the view through the windows since we had difficulty getting out from our seats with the family eating their cup noodles. However, the family was taking far too long to prepare their cup noodles, so we had no choice but asked them politely to make way for us to get out. Once out, we put on our hats and pulled up the hoods of our outerwear and headed up to the upper deck to take photos.

The sky was overcast with slightly heavier drizzle which later on became light rain that forced us back to the lower deck where we had lunch earlier on. Sat around, drank some hot tea to wait for the rain to pass. After some time, the weather seemed to clear up and some passengers began to make their way up to the upper deck. Cynthia offered to look after our bags and so we put our stuff on the bench that she was sitting on and headed up again. The sky had indeed cleared up and showing nice blue sky which was picture perfect. SWT and I counted our blessings for the good weather. It was windy on the upper deck but we enjoyed the scenery very much and took many photos. The upper deck was really crowded with our tour members as well as some Koreans from another tour group. There were some broadcasting telling the passengers about the places that the ship passed by but, unfortunately, it was inaudible on the upper deck. Saw a number of waterfalls but they were more like streams because of the lack of gushing water. I could only imagine the magnificent sights if there was enough water to create the waterfalls. As most of the Koreans were crowding the front part of the upper deck, SWT and I moved to the back portion, partly to avoid them and partly to avoid the wind.

The ship went very close to some big boulders at one point in time and we could hear the broadcasting mentioned the word seals. Looked closely and there were indeed some seals resting on those boulders. Was glad to have my Sony Nex-3 with me so I was able to zoom-in to take photos of them. Soon we saw a better looking waterfall from afar and was told that the ship would steer really close to the waterfall for people to experience the waterfall. The passengers grew excited as the ship got closer and closer to the waterfall and many of us, including SWT and I, took many photos of the waterfall. When it was really close, I kept my Sony Nex-3 underneath my outerwear and took out my mobile phone to take photos. Being slightly daring, I went to the front part to experience the waterfall in close range and to take photos. Felt exhilarated and then rejoined SWT at the back. Took more photos of the waterfall as the ship steered away from it. We were really happy and glad that the day turned out to be good and enjoyable. Returned to the lower deck, joined Cynthia and the other members who did not go to the upper deck and SWT went on to show off her nice photos while making jokes. Thanked Cynthia for looking after our bags and soon the ship docked at the pier around 1+pm and we had to get off the ship.

Went to the carpark to look for our coach, boarded and soon we were on the way back to Queenstown. The driver continued his usual practice of providing us with information of NZ. He told us that we were very lucky because the day before there was a windstorm and the road to Milford Sound was closed. Along the way, he pointed out that NZ is prone to rock-slides and tree-slides. And since there are many occasions of rock-slides and usually there are not enough time to clear the rocks, what the Kiwis do was to just lay a road on top of the rocks and hence, the roads are usually quite bumpy. That explained why SWT was having difficult times on coach ride in this trip. After traveling for some time, we had a comfort stop closed to 3:30pm and opposite the shop was an open field with a few cute-looking alpacas. SWT, being the slightly unlucky one, was not able to snap front shots of the alpacas. Returned back to the shop to do a quick browse while waiting for the rest to get ready, SWT complained jokingly to Cynthia that she was not able to take nice shots of the alpacas. So Cynthia told SWT that she would get her chance in two-days’ time when we go to the Manuka honey shop that Cynthia recommended.

Continued the rest of the journey back and when we were near Queenstown, Cynthia reminded us the plan for the next day and she distributed the paper bags from the burger shop called Fergburger that she had recommended to us the day before. She had decided to order the burgers for us because we were such a nice bunch of people. She explained the process of ordering and paying again and also reminded us to get our souvenirs in Queenstown tonight before we leave tomorrow. She recommended that we get the Manuka honey hand cream that we saw in the various shops before from the DF Souvenir shop, especially since we have the discount coupons. However, she was quick to disclaim that provided that the hand cream was not out of stock due to the bulk purchase by one of the members. 

By the time we returned to Queenstown, it was already after 5:30pm. Asked to be dropped off at the town center so that we could buy the things that we had in mind from the day before as well as to get dinner from KFC which Cynthia recommended us to try. She said that the fried chickens are not as salty as those back home and that they are juicier. Walked around the town, popped into souvenir shops to check out the prices of the Manuka honey, royal jelly, hand creams and possum-merino products again. Confused by the vast price difference of the various royal jelly and concluded that it is best to get from the shop that Cynthia is going to bring us in two-days’ time. Saw some cute soft toys and took photos of them. SWT was contemplating whether to buy the chocolate from Koko Black but in the end, she gave up the idea due to the high price. Therefore, the next alternative was to go to the Remarkable Sweet Shop to get her chocolate fix instead. We bought three pieces of handmade chocolate each where mine contain alcohol and hers were of unusual flavors. On top of that, I also bought two long tubes of bubble gum for Ry.

Left the shop and we headed over to the DF Souvenir shop to get the Manuka honey hand cream that we had been seeing from the various shops before. Unfortunately, that brand of hand cream was really out of stock. Checked out the other brands and in the end, we decided to get the Alpine Manuka honey body lotion instead because that item was having a buy-5-get-1-free promotion. So we took a pack each. Not willing to leave without a product from the Wild Fern brand, I bought a tub of body butter. Went on to the section where the shop sells possum-merino products and found two beanies which look rather nice. Checked the tags for the percentages of possum and merino and got confused. SWT told me that higher percentage of merino means it can keep the wearer warmer. She walked off to see other things while I lingered in the section, trying to decide which beanie to buy. In the end, I decided to ask the sales staff for advice. Turned out that the higher percentage of possum means it can keep the wearer warmer. Told SWT about it and she said that it is better to trust the sales staff since they should know better. 

I had gotten all the things that I needed to buy but SWT was still shopping for stuff for her niece and some ex-colleagues. Walked with her, giving some suggestions here and there as well as helping her choose and check the items. Finally, we were all done and proceeded to make payment. Took out the discount coupon and got our 5% discount off the total price. Left the shop as happy customers and we went to look for the KFC to get our dinner. Browsed through the menu and SWT said she will get the chicken wrap kid’s meal. With no one to share a meal and not willing to let go of the chance to try the fried chicken, I ordered the 2pc Quarter Pack which consisted of 2 pieces of fried chicken, one regular fries, one bread roll, one whipped potato and a regular drink. Walked slowly back to our hotel, settled down and discussed about which burger and sides to order for the next day. In the end, we decided to order the venison burger called the Sweet Bambi and a box of 6-piece crumbed calamari to share since Cynthia warned us that the burger is relatively big and SWT is a small eater. Wrote our orders, the costs and the amount enclosed on the given envelope before putting the money inside. Called Cynthia in her room before walking over to pass her the envelope.

Knocked on her door and she invited us in but we stopped just enough to close the door behind us. SWT handed over the envelope and took the opportunity to complain jokingly that the Wild Fern hand creams were out of stock. As it turned out, Cynthia also didn’t get to buy as many as she had intended. She was only left with one when she visited the shop couple of days ago in the evening. Chatted a while more and I signaled to SWT to move off so as not to take up more of Cynthia’s time. Returned to our room, opened up the curtain to get a great view of the Lake Wakatipu, took photos of our food before sitting down to eat and chat. The fried chickens were indeed less salty, very tender and juicy. Fortunately for me, they were smaller in size too compared to those back home. However, I was still unable to finish all the food and so left with the bread roll and the whipped potato. Rest a while before taking my shower, packed an overnight bag for the next day as suggested by Cynthia and went to bed.

Thoughts: Was really glad that I joined the optional tour to Milford Sound and took the cruise. Even though the traveling hours were long, we got some great photo stops along the way in the Fiordland National Park. The sky was overcast with slight drizzle initially and even rained for a while, fortunately, the sky soon cleared up and gave us blue sky to compliment the beautiful scenery while we were on the cruise. Would have been great if we were able to hear the narration while cruising. After listening to the information given by the driver, I concluded that NZ has a lot of lakes, rivers, mountains, green rolling hills, glaciers, windstorms, tree-slides, rock-slides, sheep, and so on. The Kiwis live in the wonderful land of nature and at the same time face the various dangers post by the nature. I guess it is a love and hate situation.

Though was a bit disappointed that I could not get the Wild Fern hand creams, I was happy to have managed to get a possum-merino beanie. Dinner was great even though it was just KFC because we got to enjoy the meal leisurely at the comfort of our hotel room and admiring the wonderful view of the Lake Wakatipu.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

6 Dec 15 – Day 7 (Wanaka, Arrowtown and Queenstown)

This morning we woke up real early because we had to go for the helicopter ride before we depart for the scheduled itinerary. Ate breakfast and later passed our valuables, passports and room key to Cynthia. Then she brought us, together with the member who took photos of SWT and I the day before at the Fox Glacier, and his daughter to the shop that was opposite our hotel. The same shop that SWT and I popped in the evening before, the Alpine Adventures. Along the way, we bumped into another member who was taking his morning walk and having a smoke. Cynthia was telling us that two other members pulled out in the last minute and so the member, who was taking his morning walk, decided to join in. When we got into the shop, Cynthia spoke with the guy at the counter to check if the weather was suitable for helicopter ride and also the available routes. He replied saying that the shop had sent someone out to check so we had to wait for confirmation. Meanwhile, the member who joined us last minute, quickly went back to the hotel to get his outer jacket and came back to the shop. After we got the confirmation, the guy at the counter measured our weight and took down our names and contact numbers. We would be doing the Twin Glaciers route which cost NZ$295.

After that, another guy named Thomas, brought us, together with another Caucasian, to a mini-van and drove us to another place where the helicopter was. We were given brief instructions as to how to approach the helicopter and when not to get near it. Then we were told of the sitting arrangement while getting up to the helicopter. The Caucasian and the young girl sat on the front seats beside the pilot while the rest of us were seated at the back with SWT and me in the middle, flanked by the two male members. It was difficult to take photos with a big size guy blocking most of the window so left it to SWT to take photos on her side because the other guy seated beside her was slimmer. After a few turns here and there to show us the Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, we landed on Fox Glacier where we could see Mount Cook and Mount Tasman.

Got down with the help from the pilot and almost fell because I didn’t expect the snow to be so thick that it was up to my mid-calf and my jeans became wet again. Most of us had problem walking except for the little girl who was light and hence didn’t have the problem of sinking into the thick snow. SWT was quick to get the Caucasian to take photos for the two of us before we started to wander off. I didn’t wander too far from the helicopter because it was rather difficult to walk and was feeling a bit scared because I had these nudging feelings that one wrong step and I would fall off. Took photos of the surroundings and some photos of SWT. The slimmer member was nice and offered to take photos of me on his IPhone. SWT, being the mischievous one, started to throw snow balls and played with the little girl. We stayed on the glacier for around 10-15 minutes before getting back onto the helicopter for our return trip. This time I took more photos than before because I dare to lean over slightly to get better view.

Soon we landed and was led back to the mini-van and were taken back to the shop where we made our payments. Then Cynthia crossed the road to meet us and told us that our overnight bags and luggage had been loaded onto the coach. Boarded the coach, took our seats and Cynthia returned our belongings after she was done with headcounts. Left the hotel about 8:20am and we traveled for about two hours before getting a comfort break. After using the toilet, there were some exhibits in the place showing the culture of the Maori people. So took some time to browse through before going out to take photos of the surrounding sceneries. After we had all boarded the coach, we continued our journey for another 1+ hour before we stopped for lunch around 11:45am. The place was a family-own restaurant according to Cynthia, who has been patronizing it for a long time, and she said that the lunch crowd always kills. So she was hoping we could get there before 12 noon but unfortunately, a tour bus had arrived before us. She recommended us to try the hot honey-lemon-ginger drink and told us that we can just order the fish without the chips.

SWT was suffering from motion-sickness so she said she will skip lunch but will try the highly-recommended drink. As for me, I ordered just the fish and the hot honey-lemon-ginger drink as I had no idea how big the actual fish and chips meal would turn out to be. Made payment, collected my food and found SWT sitting alone at the end of a long table. Joined her and she was just done with her drink. So instead of sitting there to wait for me, she went outside to take photos while I ate alone. The fish was really good and so was the drink. After I had finished the meal, a thought struck and I ordered myself a single scoop boysenberry ice cream cone. Went back outside happily with my ice cream and found SWT. Showed off my ice cream to her and then she helped to take some photos of me with the ice cream. After I was done, went to take more photos of the surrounding. Shortly after, we set off again to our next destination, the Lake Wanaka. It didn’t take us long to get there and we had a brief photo stop of another 10 minutes before moving off again. We reached Lake Hawea in about 15 minutes and were given another 10 minutes to take photos before leaving again for Cromwell where we went to an orchard to get fruits.

The orchard was called Jones Fruit Stall Suncrest Orchard but we didn’t get to see the orchard but was led to the retail section instead. Cynthia recommended us to try the fresh fruit ice cream. Since I had an ice cream cone earlier, I didn’t try this round. SWT, on the other hand, bought a kiwi fruit flavor ice cream cone where I was offered a bite of it. We were allowed to sample the dried fruit stuff and nuts before purchasing and so we did. SWT ordered a box of green kiwi fruits and a box of cherries. Being in NZ, land of the kiwis, kiwi birds and kiwi fruits, there was no reason not to eat kiwi fruits. So I bought three golden kiwi fruits and SWT bought three green kiwi fruits. By right, one should try the original green kiwi fruits and not the hybrids but the green ones were really big so I opted for the golden ones instead. Browsed through the items sold and I ended up buying a pack of almond nuts because I know little big sis loves those. Soon everyone was happy with their orders and purchases, those who placed orders for fruits, we would go back to the orchard to collect them in a couple of days’ time.

Moving on, we went to Goldfields Jet for our jet-boating. I had done this before during the Jeju trip in 2010 but still I had these nervous feelings before the ride. Only brought my mobile phone and wallet along, made our payments, then we were brought to a shed to collect our lifejackets as well as long raincoats. We took a group photo before being led down to where the jet boat was. There were four rows on the jet boat, I followed SWT who took the third row and I was seated on the left end of the boat. The guy who drove the jet boat was a Canadian but I can’t recall his name now, though he was quite good looking. As soon as the boat started to move, my heart raced and when we were cued for the first spin, my heart raced even faster. However, as soon as the first spin was over, I craved for more. I was actually enjoying it even though I got wet during the process. The driver told us a few things about the river, made a few jokes, a staff was actually standing on a bridge to take photos of us during the ride. I was contemplating whether to dig out my mobile phone to take photos but it was stuffed too deep into my pocket. I could only hope that SWT took some good ones.

Soon the ride was over and we got out of the boat, climbed up the stairs, back to the shed to return the lifejackets and raincoats. Then back to the center where we freshened up ourselves before going to the counter to check out the photos taken. There were four photos altogether and because of the high costs, we didn’t buy them. One of the members bought all four and SWT borrowed the photos from him so that we could the photos of those photos using the mobile phone. Cheapskate, I know. Then we saw our jet boat driver and SWT suggested taking a photo with him. She had made a deep impression because she was the chatty one during the ride.

Back on the coach, Cynthia told us that there is a AJ Hackett Bungy Jump facility over at the Kawarau Bridge and since there was time, she got the driver to take us there to see other people jump. According to the driver, it is a baby bungy and this is where bungy jump originated. We got there about 4:15pm and there were a lot of people standing along the side rail waiting to see people do bungy jump. Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to wait very long. There was a couple preparing to do a twin jump. I tried to set my camera to recording mode, hoping to film the entire jumping process. I guessed the sun glared too much that I only found out that I didn’t manage to record it afterwards. I could only hope that SWT managed to get some good shots of it. We were soon herded off back to the coach where we continued to Arrowtown. According to Cynthia, the Arrow River in Arrowtown was featured in the LOTR films. I was guessing the scene where Arwen was carrying Frodo on her horse and using her elvish magic to summon the gush of river water towards the bunch of orcs.

Once we were there, we followed the direction given by Cynthia and saw the sign indicating a 4.2km loop walk which would take 45 minutes to 1 hour with the arrow pointing to the direction of the Arrow River. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that kind of time to spend else we would have attempted the walk. The river was really shallow without much water, maybe it was low tide or happened to have low quantity of water during this time of the year but the water was really clear. There were lots of greens around such as trees, shrubs and lupine flowers. Explored the surroundings and saw a family of three at the side of the river trying to pan some gold. Approached them to take a look and they decided to pack up and go. Took more photos, a couple of selfies and we were done. After spending the given 20 minutes along the river, we returned to the coach to continue to Queenstown where we spent the night. Queenstown lies next to the famous Lake Wakatipu, the longest lake and third largest in NZ. According to the driver, the water in the lake rises and falls and there is a Maori story behind it that links this to the heartbeat of a huge monster named Matau, who is said to be slumbering at the bottom of the lake.

During the journey, Cynthia brief us on the plans for the next two days and she told us about this popular shop that sells burgers in Queenstown. She said that for her past tours, she would offer to help get the burgers for the members as lunch on the day that they depart Queenstown. However, she was contemplating this time because during the last tour, she had an unpleasant experience. Usually she would distribute the paper bags with the menu printed as well as envelopes to the members so that they can choose what they want to order. Then members would write their orders, the total costs and the amount placed in the seal envelope. She would then collect the envelopes, go to the burger shop to make the purchases, distribute the food and then hand the envelopes with the change to the respective members. However, during her last tour, a group member asked her for the change even before eating the burger. She felt kind of insulted because the member acted as though Cynthia would cheat him of his money. So she hadn’t decided if she want to offer this service this round.

Checked into our hotel, settled down in our room and then went down to the lobby again to meet up with the rest to go for dinner. While waiting, SWT and I went to get a map of Queenstown from the reception counter. After everyone was there, we made our way into the town center. Our hotel was considered to be on slightly higher ground so we had to take some stairs to get down to the town center. Cynthia showed us the way and at the same time, highlighted some buildings and shops to us so that we would be able to use them to find our way back to the hotel. Got to the town center, she brought us to walk around to show us where some of the famous shops, such as Kathmandu, were and she told us that the sportswear from that shop is of pretty high quality, with the sales going on, it might be worth buying. That seemed to get the attention of some members. Continued on, she showed us the two shops that she recommended us for the burgers and hot chocolate. Finally, she showed us the place where we need to meet the day after tomorrow when we have to leave Queenstown.

Today’s dinner was Chinese dinner and again Cynthia seek SWT and my help again to split up to join other tables. After dinner, we walked around Queenstown on our own. The town center was not very big but there were a lot of shops, restaurants and café. We saw the Remarkable Sweet Shop that sells handmade chocolates, hard candies, gums, nougats and so on and I made a mental note of what I intend to buy the next day after the Milford Sound trip. There was also Koko Black that sells gourmet chocolates which SWT was eyeing on but found it too expensive. We also popped into a few souvenir shops to check out prices of the Manuka honey, royal jelly, hand creams and possum-merino products. Cynthia was really helpful, she actually went to this souvenir shop called DF Souvenir to get their discount coupons and distributed to us so that we will be entitled to 5% discount on our purchases. Because she told us that Queenstown is the best place to get all our souvenirs for the trip, therefore, we went to that shop and checked out the products there and made mental notes of the items we intend to buy the next day. Recalled there was a supermarket in Queenstown so we went to look for it. It was on the other end of the town, pretty small and very crowded. It was getting late and we slowly made our way back to the hotel. Before we reached the stairs, we passed by this 24-hour bakery shop and went in to get a boysenberry Danish each as tomorrow’s lunch. I also bought the L&P bottled drink which was on my must-eat list. Further down, we passed by the Anglican Church but it was closed. Got back, showered, settled down, packed for the next day and went to bed.

Thoughts: Today was a happy day, mostly. The helicopter ride to Fox Glacier was fun. As for lunch, it would have been great if I could eat the normal portion of the fish and chips instead of just the fish. But then again, it was compensated with the big boysenberry ice cream cone, so I shouldn’t be complaining. Lake Wanaka, Lake Hawea and Lake Wakatipu were really beautiful. I realized that NZ has a lot of lakes, rivers, mountains and glaciers. Lots of lovely green fields and rolling hills. Not forgetting lots of sheep too. This is the only trip that I see so much nature. Jet boating was really fun, especially when the jet boat was driven by a handsome guy. LOL. Arrow River was a bit of a disappointment or perhaps I wasn’t seeing the best part of the river at the right time. If only we were given more time, then we would have been able to do the loop walk to appreciate the views. Queenstown seems like a nice little town to chill in. With so many restaurants to choose from and facing good lake view. I wouldn’t mind staying in this town for a few days to enjoy the view and food.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

5 Dec 15 – Day 6 (Hokitika and Fox Glacier)

Today we went to the town of Hokitika to see the greenstones and glassblowing. We were dropped off in front of the shop called Westland Greenstone and were told to gather back at the same place after 45 minutes of free time. Cynthia told us that we could use the toilet facilities there and that we could pop into the workshop to see how the craftsmen turn pieces of greenstone, which the Maori called the pounamu, into beautiful pieces of jewelry. There were two craftsmen inside the workshop, one older and one younger. The group of us moved around them to see what they were doing and took photos of them while they were at work. Then we moved out of the workshop to browse the retail section. Most of the jewelry were either pendants of Maori designs with specific meanings or bangles or dangling earrings with hefty price tags. Those with affordable price tags were mostly greenstone chips that were leftovers from making the nicer jewelry.

I was hoping to get something affordable that I will wear often as a memento of this trip so I walked around the shop till I stopped in front of a counter where a basket of rings was. Inside were plain greenstone rings of fixed sizes and surprise, surprise, there were also beaded rings made with elastic strings which fit my pinky finger. Stood there to try on the rings and SWT was standing beside me, helping to pick out all the beaded rings. After trying on a few and asking her for opinions, I finally decided on my purchase and went to pay NZ$18.60 for it. Showed Cynthia my purchase and was surprised to know that she also wears pinky rings and she even has one on each pinky finger.

Left the shop feeling happy and we popped over to another shop that was recommended by Cynthia for their real fruit ice cream. We were told beforehand that the ice cream cone would be pretty big and were advised not to eat that at the last minute. The flavors of the ice cream available depended on the type of fruits and vegetables that the shop has for the day. As I was still full from breakfast, I didn’t buy the ice cream. For SWT, ice cream was no problem for her no matter the size and hence she bought herself a pumpkin flavor one as suggested by me. The cone was indeed huge and I helped her hold it while she made payment. The shop has an ancient looking cash register and SWT quickly took a few shots of it. The shop owner suggested sprinkling some spice powder onto the ice cream and so I did.

SWT offered me a bite from the ice cream and it was heavenly. The pumpkin flavor was strong and the spice powder brought out the flavor even more. We moved out of the shop, strolled along the main road and I suggested checking out the glassblowing studio since Hokitika is supposedly famous for that too. The shop was pretty big but no customers inside, only two sales staff were there cleaning some displays and arranging them. As SWT was still eating her ice cream, she was not allowed to go into the shop so I went in alone. Most of the displays were big size items with hefty price tags. Those that were smaller size such as cups, bowls and figurines also didn’t come cheap. The only affordable items were the clear glass spoons placed on the cashier counter. I was tempted to get one as memento but the rationale side got the better of me which I was pretty grateful.

Left the glassblowing studio, strolled along the main road again to see what other shops there were. Nothing much and we went back to the first shop where we were supposed to meet and wait for the coach to pick us up. As it was almost time, many members were already at the shop, some went to make use of the toilet facilities again. I went to a nearby greenstone shop to browse. There were no customers inside the shop and since from the previous shop I knew that average price of the items were at least three-digits, I zoomed down to the section where it said “Sales”. Same as the previous shop, sales items were those pendants made out of greenstone chips. Saw the earrings stand near the cashier counter and went over to take a look. It was there that I saw the pair of greenstone ear studs that I was eyeing on from the website before the trip. Quickly made payment and was trying to hurry up the cashier using my mental strength. Plonked the purchase into my bag and hurried out to rejoin the group.

The coach came and we all went onboard. After 2+ hours, we reached the town of Franz Josef for lunch and it started drizzling. Cynthia recommended a few restaurants to the group for lunch and those of us who would like to take the helicopter ride up to the Fox Glacier had to follow her to the tour agency office to check if the weather condition for the day was suitable for the ride. As it turned out, the weather condition was not suitable then and not for the rest of the day. So the few of us then followed Cynthia to this restaurant called Full of Beans to have western lunch. As we had no idea how big the portion was going to be so to be on the safe side, we decided to just order a plate of fish and chips to share and then decide if we need more food after we finish. Turned out, the portion was just nice for the both of us and the good lunch helped pushed the earlier unhappy incident to the back of my mind. It started to rain when we were about to move off but we did not use our ponchos. We braved the rain in our outer jackets.

Got to the pickup point but the coach was not in sight so we went into a shop to escape from the rain. Browsed the shop and saw a rack full of possom-merino wool cardigans with zippers. The cardigans were on sale selling at NZ$199. I was tempted to buy but in the end did not because I have quite a number of pullovers and little big sis doesn’t like clothes containing wool materials. Soon our coach arrived and we quickly went up to get out of the rain. After all the members were on board, we moved off to the next destination, the Fox Glacier. It didn’t take long to get there from the town of Franz Josef to Fox Glacier. As it was drizzling, Cynthia reminded us to put on ponchos if we had one. SWT and I brought ours down and we left our other belongings on the coach. There was toilet facility with shelter at the so-called entrance of the Fox Glacier so those of us, who were attempting to climb Fox Glacier, headed straight there to wait for Cynthia. Some of the members made used of the shelter to try to put on their ponchos while some made use of the toilet facilities. It was drizzling pretty heavily but I refused to put on poncho and managed with just my Timberland outer shell. SWT, on the other hand, put on hers, on top of her windbreaker while some of our group members used umbrellas. Since both SWT and I didn’t need to use the toilet, Cynthia told us that we can start the climb first and so we did.

The portion of the Fox Glacier which was after the so-called entrance was mostly flat. The ground was mostly covered with stones of various sizes and since it was drizzling, there were small streams of water here and there and a very big stream flow nearby. There was supposedly a designated walking path but it was not very obvious such that we kind of deviated from it for a while before moving back onto it again. Because the area is constantly moist, lots of moss grow on the rocks and thriving very well there. Soon, we came to a small stream with rushing water. We had to choose our footings on the rocks carefully in order to get across. 

Soon we came to a red sign that says “Glacier guided groups on past this point.” We had no idea what it means. Whether it meant that only guided groups can go beyond that sign or they cannot go beyond that sign. So we stood there for a while, took a selfie while trying to decide whether we should continue. Then behind us came a member holding an umbrella in one hand and with his daughter in the other. They went past us and continued walking. So we decided to follow them with me walking in front of SWT. Beyond the sign, the ground became elevated and hence came the climb. I had to give my full concentration on the climb because the ground was wet and rocky. One wrong step on a wet and loose stone means falling down, worse, I may slide down the rocky slope. The already difficult climb was made worse when there were signs telling people not to stop in the midst of the climb in case of falling rocks. I almost wanted to give up because I was so strained from concentrating, so tired and hot from the steep climb. I was mentally cursing myself for not working out diligently. I was breathing heavily and maybe even loudly; I couldn’t tell with my hood pulled down low. 

I was so relieved when I finally reached the top and by then, I could feel my skin sticky with perspiration, the lower parts of the sleeves of my long sleeve t-shirt, sweater and outer shell wet, possibly from the rain because the drizzling was getting heavier. Took some quick shots of the Fox Glacier using my mobile phone and then the member whom we saw earlier offered to take photos of SWT and I using SWT’s mobile phone. We offered the same gesture to him but he declined. After getting some rest, we decided to head down before the drizzling get any heavier than it already was. The climb down was worse than the climb up. I had to double my concentration and treaded very slowly. This time SWT went ahead of me and I let her. No point trying to follow her pace and run the risk of slipping off on a wet, rocky downward slope. We didn’t stop to rest till after we passed the sign that indicated no stopping. It probably didn’t take us very long to get down but it sure felt like forever. While continuing down the gradual slope, we saw some members of our group making their way up. Most were in ponchos and some took umbrellas. 

At the flatland area, we saw a worker using a shovel trying to fill up some streams that were getting wider due to the rushing water from the rain. Got back up the coach and saw a few members who didn’t make the climb. SWT and I took off our outer wears which were dripping wet and hung onto the hooks on the front seats. Near our coach was a stream with some rocks exposed. As we waited, we saw the rocks getting submerged by the rushing water filling up the stream due to the rain. Soon our group members came back, we started our journey to the hotel in the Fox Glacier village. The day before, Cynthia told SWT and I that we might want to consider packing an overnight bag instead of taking our big luggage for tonight’s stay. So we did just that and hence we were able to escape into our cosy room quickly after getting the key. Once inside, we checked the facilities to make sure things are in working condition before changing out of our wet jeans to lay them out near the heater. We also laid out our socks and outer wears to dry. We even plugged in the hairdryer and used it to blow dry the bottom of our jeans. While I was drying the jeans, SWT fed me with the potato chips that she bought few days back. 

Soon it was time for dinner and we knew what we are going to have because we had chosen our items the day before. I had smoke salmon salad (because I simply love eating salmon), grilled salmon and passionfruit cheesecake while SWT had tomato soup, roasted chicken and chocolate cake. It was a good meal but unfortunately, I was not able to finish my grilled salmon because I ate a whole bun with butter before the food was served. Big mistake. Cynthia was seated beside us and told us the arrangement for the next morning. As we will be doing our helicopter ride early in the morning, she suggested that we pass her our valuables and passports for safekeeping. On top of that, we will also pass her our room key so that she can help us do the checkout as well as transfer our overnight bags to the coach. After we were done eating about 7+pm, SWT and I went out for a walk. Popped into a shop that offers helicopter ride and also selling things related to hiking. We were so amazed by the things sold there and spent quite a lot of time in that shop just looking at things. As we need to get up early the next day to do our helicopter ride, we left the shop about 8+pm to return to our hotel room to rest for the night.

Thoughts: 45 minutes at the Hokitika was simply too short. Though the town looked small, I’m pretty sure it is bigger than it looks and should have lot more things to look at and explore. The greenstone jewellery sure look very pretty, so do the price tags. I was glad the rationale side of me is strong such that I didn’t buy things that I hardly wear. Lunch was great, it would have been even better if SWT can eat a normal portion then we could have had one proper portion each without sharing.

Climbing part of the Fox Glacier was really challenging, for me at least. It was even more challenging when I had to climb it on a rainy day. The part of the Fox Glacier that we saw was not very impressive. I hope I will get a good view tomorrow from the helicopter ride. Dinner was also very good. A pity that I was partially full from the big bun even before the main course was served. Note to self, must not finish bread or bun before main course is served the next time.

Friday, December 4, 2015

4 Dec 15 – Day 5 (Auckland, Christchurch, Punakaiki and Greymouth)

Today we took the domestic flight from Auckland to Christchurch. As it was self-check-in system, Cynthia briefed us on how to operate the kiosks while we were on the way to the airport. She told the group to wait for her at a designated meeting point after checking-in the luggage so that she can try to arrange for family members to be seated together. After that, we strolled slowly to the boarding gate and stood around because all the seats were taken. Cynthia came along and seek SWT and my help with the seating arrangement. Turned out that she had to split us up because she was not able to split the other families. So SWT and me took one aisle seat each. As most of the seats allocated to our group were near the back of the plane, we had to board the plane from the back. Got up the plane and we managed to find our seats quite easily. 

After everyone was boarded and seated, our plane took off. Snacks and drinks were distributed and as per what Cynthia recommended, we opted for the Cookie Time cookie, which was also one of the must-eat items on our list. The cookie was nice but a tad too sweet. So one item off the list but don’t think will be getting any to bring back home. Soon we reached Christchurch airport and we took quite a long time just to clear custom. After we were cleared, Cynthia told us to wait at a designated area because she had to receive another tour group who will be joining us for the rest of the South Island tour. Soon we boarded our new coach and made our way into Christchurch where we were to have lunch at a shopping mall. As usual, most of the group settled their lunch either at the food court or at the fast food restaurants. SWT and me just went to get a vegetarian burger and a hot chocolate each from a stall and ate sitting on a bench. Yes, I know… For someone who claim to be a foodie, I shouldn’t be eating this as lunch and I know I will probably be criticized for contradicting my blog title with my choice of food. 

Anyway, after eating, we soon gathered back at the coach and began our itinerary. Cynthia informed us that there was a change of plan. Instead of doing the sights in Christchurch as per the schedule, we headed straight towards Punakaiki to see the Pancake Rocks, which was almost four-hour’ journey. According to her, she said that the weather forecast for the next day is not good. It is going to be a wet day and according to the schedule for tomorrow, we were supposed to be doing Pancake Rocks in the morning and Fox Glacier in the afternoon which means outdoor activities which means we may have to wear ponchos the whole day. So to avoid that, she made the decision to make some changes to the schedule. Since it was a four-hour ride, most of us took the opportunity to sleep on the coach or watched the sceneries. The landscape of the South Island differs from the North Island; it is more mountainous than the North Island. We had a comfort stop at Arthur’s Pass after about two hours and reached the Pancake Rocks location around 5:40pm.

Cynthia went to buy tickets and told the group members to visit the toilets. The queue for toilet was long and so Cynthia told SWT and I to go ahead to see the Pancake Rocks which are a heavily eroded limestone area where the sea bursts through several vertical blowholes during high tides. The 'pancake'-layering of the limestone thus gave the name Pancake Rocks. We happily went on our way and along the way took photos. But soon, the rest of the group caught up and then it was beating them to get the best photos without getting bombed by them. Other than that, the Pancake Rocks were really an amazing view. However, I felt that they look more like kuah lapis than pancakes. Heh. Took lots of photos even though it would have been better if the weather was not so overcast. 

Left the place around 6+pm and we made our way to Greymouth where we will be spending the night. While traveling, Cynthia handed out some papers to the group for us to indicate the optional tours that we would like to do over the next few days as well as the dinner options that we want for tomorrow’s dinner. After a short discussion with SWT, we settled on the helicopter ride, jet-boating and the day trip to Milford Sound. We also decided on the dinner options and we passed the papers back to Cynthia before we got to the hotel. Reached our hotel, Kingsgate, which is just next to the Grey River, checked into the hotel, went up to the room, quickly settled down and went down to the restaurant to have buffet dinner. After SWT and I were done with dinner, we went to the reception counter to get a map before heading straight out to explore Greymouth.

As it was already 8+pm at night, most of the shops were closed and the streets quite deserted. Walked along Mawhera Quay and took photo of the clock tower before turning into Tainui Street. Along the way, we came across a big greenstone structure with water feature and we took photos of it. We then saw a railway track and then MacDonald’s. Popped into the shop to check out the menu and then walked across the street to check out the menu of KFC. Recalled that Cynthia recommended that we try the KFC few days later in Queenstown because the chicken is more tender and juicy compared to those back in Singapore. So we quickly made a mental note of what we are going to order few days later. Continued on and we saw Greymouth Evening Star, took photos of the wall murals.

Soon the sky darkened and it was after 9pm, slowly made our way back to the hotel and we saw the young adults from the fashion show family across the street photographing the wall murals at the Greymouth Evening Star. Nearing the hotel, we saw some interesting displays describing the Westlands Gold Rush back in the days as well as display of the tools used back then. After the row of displays, we saw a railway station with Countdown the supermarket nearby. Walked on and we came across a mobile toilet and a lone jogger. Finally, back along Mawhera Quay and we climbed up the steps of the clock tower to get a view of the Grey River before calling it a day.

Thoughts: Cynthia made a good call to visit the Pancake Rocks today even though it was overcast and was rather late when we got there. As usual, I would repeat the point that I wish we had more time to explore the place. Greymouth seems like a ghost town. Probably because we were seeing it in the late evening where most of the shops were closed and most people would have been home for the day already. Still, the place seems very small with very little activities. Wonder how Greymouth is by day.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

3 Dec 15 – Day 4 (Matamata and Auckland)

Today was the highlight of the trip, a visit to the Hobbiton. We got up early because of the traveling time required to get there. After breakfast, we still had a bit of time so we walked to the outside of the hotel near to the shore of the lake to catch the sunrise. Left around 7:45am for a one-hour journey to the destination where we had a two-hour tour of the Hobbiton. Along the way, we passed by the town called Tirau where many buildings, signboards and sculptures are made using discarded corrugated iron. I managed to snap two shots, one on the information center which is shaped like a giant dog and the adjacent Big Sheep Wool Gallery which is shaped like a sheep.

Soon we were in the area of Matamata where the landscape was mostly green with rolling hills and dotted with white sheep. According to our driver, Peter Jackson was searching for a suitable site to film his Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movies and subsequently The Hobbit movies; he came across the Alexander Farm and decided that it was the ideal place. He negotiated with the owner and then began to transform the site. Reached the ticketing area slightly after 9am, took a couple of snapshots with the Hobbiton signpost and quickly browsed the souvenir shop while waiting for our guide. Didn’t get to look closely enough and we were told to board the coach because the guide was there to start the tour. 

The coach drove a little further into the compound before we alighted again to start the tour on foot. There were a lot of hobbit holes and as we moved up the hill, we were introduced to different hobbit holes. The guide told us that we can tell the occupation of a hobbit from the decoration of his or her hobbit hole. She also told us some behind-the-scene stories and how some scenes were filmed. Here are a few that I can remember from the tour.
  • Very little CGI effects were used during the filming of LOTR, contrary to popular beliefs. Most were done using old-school tricks. For example, the scene where Gandalf and Frodo were sitting side-by-side on the carriage and Gandalf had to appear much larger than Frodo who is a hobbit. It was filmed such that Ian McKellen was seated quite a distance away in front of Elijah Wood. It was really testing the actors on their acting skills because they had to act like they were really next to each other when in fact they were not.
  • The NZ government could not offer financial help to Peter Jackson for his movie production but instead offered him an army at his disposal to set up the film site. In return, the NZ army who helped with the setting up of the film site was offered to act as orcs in the films.
  • The scene where Gandalf was in Bilbo’s house and accidentally knocked his head on the chandelier, that scene was not in the script. Ian McKellen really hit his head but as a good actor, he continued with the filming and Peter Jackson let the camera rolled and hence we saw that unscripted scene in the movie.
  • There were a few hobbit holes built in different percentage to a full grown adult so as to facilitate the filming. For instance, when Gandalf visited Bilbo, Ian McKellen was standing at a hobbit hole which was perhaps 60% of the actual size. When Bilbo was standing outside his house, Martin Freeman was standing outside a hobbit hole which was 100% in size.
  • Filming of the LOTR was hush hush back then and the NZ government had to declare the area as a no-fly zone. So when Peter Jackson filmed the fireworks scene in the first LOTR movie, the fireworks could be seen from miles away and people were wondering what was going on. 

As we walked further uphill, we saw hobbit holes that belong to hobbits working as gardener, hobbits that sell fish, preserved food, cheese and so on. We were given few minutes each stop to take photos of the surrounding. Due to the big group of us, good photos without getting bombed at were almost impossible. We were told that one of the hobbit holes is not allocated for use on special occasion such as wedding events. Continued with our ascend, the guide told us that the number of windows on a hobbit hole is an indication of how rich a hobbit is. Another indication is the location of his or her hobbit hole relative to the height of the hill. So Bilbo’s house is seated right on top of the hill and has 12 windows hence he is the riches hobbit in The Shire. We were not allowed to go into Bilbo’s house and were told that the interior scenes in the films were actually shot in a studio in Wellington.

After a few quick shots, we had to descend the hill. We were then led to where the Party Tree was to appreciate the size of the big tree as well as to take in the view of the whole hill with the various hobbit holes. Unfortunately, the view was spoilt by the numerous groups of visitors standing at the various hobbit holes doing the same tour as we had done. Over at where the Party Tree was, we were given more information about the Hobbiton such as it was not built to last initially. After the LOTR, most of the set was torn down except for a few hobbit holes. Then one day, a couple of visitors went to look for the owner of the Alexander Farm and asked to tour what was left of the film site. So the owner took them on a jeep to have a look around. After that, he thought it might be worthwhile to turn this into a business. Then came the filming of The Hobbit movies and the set was rebuilt in a more permanent fashion. Since then, the site was maintained by the guides who doubled up as maintenance crew in additional to the existing maintenance crew. They had to change the clothing hung at one of the hobbit holes regularly, prune the plants and so on. 

Finally we were led to the Green Dragon Pub to get our complimentary drink of either the Apple Cider or the Ginger Beer which was included in the tour. So SWT took the Ginger Beer while I took the Apple Cider just to try. Cynthia told us not to drink the whole cup because we it would be quite a while before we get a comfort break during the journey back to Auckland. So we took a sip of our own drink and each other’s drink, took some photos while inside the pub before going outside again to wait for the rest of the group. While waiting, we took more photos of the surrounding and then followed the guide back to where the coach dropped us in the morning. As we walked, we took some more photos and soon we were back to where the coach was.

Boarded the coach, dropped the guide at the place where we picked her up and then started our two-hour journey back to Auckland. Shared the lamington that we bought the day before and then SWT slept through the journey while I dozed off on and off. Reached the Sylvia Park Mall in Auckland where we were given a couple of hours to have lunch and to walk around the mall. Most of the group members headed to either the fast food restaurants or the food court while SWT and I chose to eat at this café called Muffin Break. I ordered the Sweet Chili Chicken Panni and a pot of Lemon Ginger Tea. After we were done eating, we walked around the mall before returning back to the coach.

Continued with a short Auckland city tour where we also toured around the Parnell Village on the coach. Finally we reached the place where we get to view the Auckland Harbor Bridge. We took photos of the bridge and the surrounding as well as the structure nearby. Then we boarded the coach again to head to Skycity hotel for check-in. Our hotel is just next to the Sky Tower where people can do activities such as Sky Jump, Sky Walk and so on. Cynthia told us that we wouldn’t have problem finding our way back to the hotel because we should be able to spot the Sky Tower easily. In addition, she also told us a good spot at the hotel to watch people do Sky Jump. As there was still some time before the scheduled buffet dinner, SWT and I popped out for a quick walkabout after settling down and getting a map from the reception.

Returned to the hotel for dinner and since it was buffet dinner, we were able to finish quickly and headed back out to explore the city. As we were given a short city tour earlier on, we were able to navigate pretty well on our own without referring to the map. Soon we found ourselves in the area near the Auckland Ferry Building. Since we were near water area and with the wind blowing quite strongly, we were shivering. To avoid the wind, we popped into a convenient store where SWT subsequently bought a boysenberry flavor ice cream cone. I took a bite from hers just to get a taste because we were both very curious how boysenberry taste like after seeing the flavor couple of days ago where we had our first ice cream. It tasted like raspberry yet not quite. Just very berry taste. We headed out of the shop and SWT started shivering even more because she was eating the ice cream. Walked around the area, saw many restaurants with many people having dinner. After SWT finished her ice cream, we decided to walk back to our hotel for the night since we need to get up early tomorrow for our flight to Christchurch.

We were unable to see the Sky Tower, fortunately, we had our map with us and so quickly referred to it and managed to walk back. Along the way, we saw signs indicating designated liquor ban area. Hrm… So Auckland is relatively safe to walk in the night given there are such areas, we won’t need to be afraid of meeting drunkards. Of course, there will be other dangers so one still need to be alert when out at night. Got back to the hotel, washed up, did the packing, settled the money matters and rest for the night.

Thoughts: Hobbiton tour was the highlight of the day, heck, I personally feel that it is the highlight of the trip but yet I only had about 2 hours there. I feel that they should have let us have say about 30 minutes to 1 hour of free time to walk around the place on top of the 1+hour tour. Also because of the short time, we didn’t have many good photos opportunities. Other than the short time spent at Hobbiton, I feel that the tour was very informative with so many behind-the-scenes fun facts and stuff. 

As for the Auckland Harbour Bridge, I feel that we didn’t have to take such a long photo stop for it. If we had shortened the time for this, we probably could have more time for the Hobbiton tour in the morning.