New Zealand – The Best Bits 2019 – South Island

 

Entering the Queen Charlotte Sound

The ferry across Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton is a three and half hour journey full of interest. From the moment you set sail you see the Wellington waterfront shrink in the distance and as you drift out of the harbour and into Fitzroy Bay. You are never very far from land, even when in the middle of Cook Strait. The sea can be interesting in bad weather, partly because there are conflicting currents being squeezed between the islands. Today it was relatively calm. All the time the rugged coast of South Island is getting nearer. For the last hour of the crossing we travel slowly up Marlborough Sound, never far from land on either shore. The water is beautifully blue. On the shore there are some handsome waterside homes. At the head of the sound is Picton, a lovely coastal town; the gateway to South Island.

Tina and Paul

With time to explore and enjoy Picton, Tina, Paul and I decide on an impulse, to take a 45- minute scenic flight over the Sounds. The Marlborough Sounds are a series of drowned valleys created by rising sea levels. They are long strands of water separated by long ridges of forested hillsides. The small airfield of Pelorus Air is a few miles inland. Arriving at the allotted time, the procedure before climbing aboard is very relaxed.

Picton

Paperwork done, we climbed aboard our Cessna 172, with me taking the co-pilot’s seat while Tina and Paul took the two rear seats. Flying north, we flew over Picton and over the still, blue waters of Queen Charlotte Sound. We had told our pilot that we were going to be walking the Queen Charlotte Track, so he took us to overlook places where we would be walking.  Flying over the first ridge we were taken over Kenepuru Sound. Here, the water was a lighter, greener shade of blue because it is not as deep as the Queen Charlotte Sound and the water is less exposed to ocean influences. Then we flew over Pelorus Sound and out to the islands on the outer edge of the sounds. Until we reached those outer edges, the hills were heavily wooded down to the water’s edge, whilst the islands tended to be treeless.

Our flight took us to a bay on the outer edge of the sounds, named Port Gore. As we flew our pilot told us the story of the Russian cruise ship, MS Mikhail Lermantov, which sank there on February 16th 1986 in somewhat bizarre circumstances. The New Zealand ship’s pilot, who was guiding the ship out of the sounds took it through a gap between the mainland and rocky outcrops where no ship should go. The inevitable happened, and a 25m gash split the hull. At first a mayday call went out and nearby shipping changed their courses to come to the rescue. However, when the crew managed to steer the crippled ship into the calm waters of Port Gore, with the intention of beaching her on the sandy beach, the mayday call was withdrawn, and the rescue ships resumed their original courses.

The Mikhail Lermantov ran aground about a ship’s length from the shore. The captain, believing that the incoming tide would push it closer to shore, did not drop the anchors. What he hoped for and expected did not happen. Instead, the ship drifted back out into the middle of the bay, keeled over on to its side and sank in 38m of water. A Dunkirk-like flotilla of small boats came to the rescue and, all but one of her 738 passengers and crew were rescued. After that the incident became a mystery as the Russian Embassy took over and a bureaucratic cloak was thrown over the sunken ship. The ship’s pilot, who had made a huge error of judgement, was suspended for two years before resuming his job as a pilot.

The ship was 23.5m wide, and, as much as I scanned the water as we flew over the site, I could not see even the faintest outline of a large ship lying on its side. What a fascinating story.

From the outer edges of the sounds we had fantastic clear views and a long way to the north we could make out the distinctive shape of Mt. Taranaki half way up North Island’s west coast. We had now reached the limit of our flight, so we headed back towards Picton, revelling in the fabulous views of the sounds below.

It had cost us each $159 (c. £80), and as an impulse purchase, it was incredible value for money. Would I do it again? I most certainly would!

That night we ate at the Picton Yacht Club Hotel, which, although very quiet, provided us with a superb meal. Claire maintained that her Porterhouse steak was the best steak she had ever had. We were so impressed with the food that we invited the chef into the restaurant so that we could thank him personally. It turned out that the head chef was off that night, but we were joined by a Brazilian chef and his wife who were both on duty that evening and were responsible for giving us such good fare.

The following morning, we left any unwanted kit and the minibus at Aldan Lodge Motel and took the Beachcomber water taxi out to Ship Cove for the start of our trek along the Queen Charlotte Track, a 71km walk, to be covered in four days. While we waited for the boat to take us on the journey, we were fascinated by a stingray swimming around the jetty, among the moored boats. All we needed to carry was a day pack as our reduced luggage was transported each day by water taxi from one overnight stop to the next.

En route we stopped and circled a salmon farm. We were not the only ones circling it, for there were a number of seals interested in finding a way in to the heavily protected floating farm. We were told stories of how seals find their way in and gorge themselves. The farmers increase the defences for such attacks, but the seals never give up. The farmers and the seals play a constant game of cat and mouse. Also, standing on posts between each of the pens, waiting for any opportunity, were numerous cormorants. Before we reached our destination we also called in at Motuara Island, a scenic reserve opposite Ship Cove.

Ship Cove is the place that James Cook favoured every time he wanted to rest his crew, make repairs and restock his ships with food and water. It is where he made most contact with Maori who were eager to trade with him, and it was a base from which he explored further. There is a memorial to him at the back of the beach.

Having explored the historical site and gleaned as much information as we could take in we set off on the 13km section of the track to Endeavour Inlet. As soon as we left the beach we were in forest, and that is very much the theme of the walk. Much of the time we were in virgin forest, with only glimpses of the blue waters below, or from high points, more distant vistas. Just when we thought we might have an opportunity to go to the water’s edge in Resolution Bay, signage clearly told us that it was private land. There was no access to the sea.

All along the route we were accompanied by cicadas, with their high pitched, constant hum. Anybody who walks this trail begins to understand what it must be like to live with tinnitus! We also came across several weka, a ground bird about the size of a chicken. They blocked our path and showed no fear. If we stopped for a rest or a snack, it was not long before a weka joined us in the hope that we might drop a few crumbs.

A weka

Occasionally, between the trees, we achieved some wonderful views of the blue sounds fringed with thick forest. It was just a little frustrating that these views were so infrequent. For most of the journey we had to limit our horizons to our immediate vicinity. There was plenty of variety in the trees that we saw and although most of the flowers had gone beyond their best, there were still some to maintain our interest. Just before we reached Furneaux Lodge at Endeavour Inlet, I took a short detour, climbing up to see a huge rimu tree. A platform has been built around the tree to protect it from an increasing number of admirers. What is fantastic about this tree is that it is more than 1000 years old and has a circumference of 6.2m.

Sunset from Furneaux Lodge

Furneaux Lodge is a former home that has been converted into an accommodation lodge. The original house where the bar and restaurant are, has the original panelled walls and décor to match. It all looks a little dated but its position on the edge of the sound is to die for. The accommodation spreads out in bungalows of varying size catering for every pocket. We learned that it has been purchased by a Marlborough business group and they have plans to redevelop the site. That includes knocking down the rooms we were staying in, to build a waterfront restaurant and bar, converting the existing facilities into a conference centre.

The walk from Endeavour Inlet to Punga Cove was more of the same, although we were not quite so much under the canopy of trees. Hence, we were exposed to the strong rays of the sun, but we did get more expansive views, and for a while we watched a couple of seals frolicking in the sound. The conditions were perfect, and, without any wind, the water was glass-like.

Punga Cove

It did not take us long to cover the short distance of the day and we were comfortably in Punga Cove by lunch time. This gave us plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful waterfront with its beach, jetty, bar and restaurant. To be honest, once we were settled there, we did not feel the urge to go back to our rooms as it was a very steep climb to the top of the resort. The sea was warm and, diving off the end of the jetty gave a new dimension to our enjoyment. Afterwards we watched stingrays swim immediately in front of the bar and around the jetty!

The third day of our trek was the long one from Punga Cove to The Portage, a distance of about 24km. It is affectionately known as “the big day”. To get back on to the track we had to climb up from Punga Cove to Kenepura Saddle. Fortunately, our accommodation was near the top of the resort, so we didn’t have quite so far to go. From the saddle we had views back over the trail we had covered the previous two days and views into the Kenepura Valley. The waters of Kenepura Sound were some distance down the valley so, instead of looking down on the water, we looked down on late summer farmland.

View from Eatwell’s Outlook

The route followed the ridge all the way round between the Queen Charlotte Sound and the Kenepura Valley. Because of the density of the forest, the views were limited. However, we came across a track leading off from the main track, climbing up to Eatwells Lookout. The path up was steep, but it was so worth the effort for the views. The sun was still fairly low in the sky and the angle created a silver sheen across the surface of the sound. It was the most perfect spot to gaze upon the beauty of the area and easily made up for all the time we had spent among the trees.

Nearing The Portage and Kenepura Sound

The rest of the walk passed uneventfully. The last hour or so seemed to drag a little as we knew we were close to the Torea Saddle from which we would drop down to The Portage,  but it was a long time coming. After about seven hours of sweaty labour, we reached the saddle and The Portage. I last visited The Portage in 2012 when Ben and Kelly got married on the lawn sweeping down to Kenepura Sound. I remember it being lively, although that could have been because of the wedding. Recently it has had a refurbishment and it all seemed a bit cold and clinical. The facilities are excellent, but they lacked soul and warmth.

To our surprise the next day was dull and damp. Cloud hung about the tops of the ridges. It did not bode too well for our last 21km of the Queen Charlotte Track. We had to make a prompt start as we were to be picked up from Anakiwa at 3.30pm. The start of our day necessitated the longest climb of the whole walk. Not only did we have to climb back up to the Torea Saddle in order to regain the track but then we had the long climb up to the summit of Shamrock Ridge, which seemed much further than its 407m above the sound. The summit had been in cloud, since we set out, but it miraculously cleared for our brief time up there, sadly views were very restricted by the general murkiness of the day. As we descended, the clouds returned to shroud the summit once more.

Finishers

As the morning progressed and we got closer to our destination, the weather was improving. Much of our conversation on the last half of the day centred around animal poo. There were some examples on the track, which could have been either very tidy cows or large pigs. We never did get to the bottom of the conundrum, despite involving locals in our conversation. We saw cows in fields below the path and we were made aware that there were wild pigs in the forest. Who the culprits were for fouling on the path, we shall never know. In glorious sunshine, we arrived in good time, soon after 1.00pm. Thankfully, the little caravan café at the end of the trail opened at 1.30 and we were able to take some refreshment and wile away our time comfortably, waiting for our water taxi to take us back to Picton.

Back in Picton, I contacted Angela to see if she would like to join us in Marahau for three nights while we enjoyed the Abel Tasman National Park. It was also our wedding anniversary weekend, so it seemed like a good plan. We agreed to pick her up from Nelson Airport as we drove through the next day.

A visit to Nelson was well worth it. It was a Saturday and the main square in town was given over to a large street market, which, on the whole, seemed to sell quality items from ethnic foods to crafts and everything in between. I managed to buy a Maori jade pendent for Angela called a Rau Kumara which represents two lives intertwined in an eternal bond of friendship and loyalty. Sloppy, I know, but apt

With time to kill we tried to find a beach and a vineyard to satisfy the needs of all the group. We failed to find the beach we were looking for and the vineyard we chose did not excite the taste buds, so we returned to the airport for a cup of tea while we waited for Angela to arrive.

The house in Marahau was perfect for our needs and was a couple of hundred metres inland from the waterfront road. To make it more fun, it had a full size snooker table, at which I found Mike practising on numerous occasions.

We had nothing specific planned for our stay in the Abel Tasman National Park. Whilst I was keen for the group to see and do as much as they could in the time, I was also conscious that it was an opportunity to recharge the batteries a bit. To that end, we spent our first morning relaxing on the beach and swimming at Split Apple Rock Bay. It is so named because of the large spherical boulder split cleanly in two which sits on a reef in the bay. It is a remarkable feature and it is only when you swim out to it, that you really appreciate how big it is, and how sharp the shells are that adorn the rocks at its base. Some weeks after the visit, my feet still bear the scars from trying to clamber up on to the rocks.

Later in the day I suggested driving north to see more of the National Park. It proved a bit of an epic journey, but it did involve visiting Hawkes Lookout, more deserted beaches and a memorial to mark Abel Tasman’s visit to New Zealand in 1642, long before Cook. We had quite a late dinner that night.

Water taxi

We were back on the walking trail, but first we had to take a water taxi from Marahau to Anchorage Bay. For some reason there was a little confusion about our booking and, instead of boarding our water taxi in the car park and being towed to the launching ramp by tractor, we were taken to board at the ramp. There is something surreal about driving along the road in a boat, something we were all looking forward to experiencing. Before we went to Anchorage Bay we visited Split Apple Rock and then Adele Island, a haven for birds and marine mammals. There were plenty of seals and pups lounging around on the rocks by the water’s edge. Afterwards we went straight to Anchorage Bay, a very sheltered spot with a sweeping arc of a beach.

The Abel Tasman Track follows the length of the coast, but we were picking it up to walk the last 19km back to Marahau. As soon as stepped off the boat we bumped into Paul who had taken a couple of days off from the group to go kayaking and camping. He was bouncing with enthusiasm.

Climbing up from Anchorage Bay

Although we were walking amongst vegetation it was much less dense than in the Marlborough Sounds and we had plenty of opportunity to gaze on the blue seas and golden beaches. At every opportunity we descended to the beach to take a closer look. Unlike many of the beaches we had experienced so far on this trip, they were not deserted. They weren’t particularly crowded either, despite it being a perfect beach day. It takes some effort to reach them, either by land or by kayak, so they are never unpleasantly busy. The golden sand is beautiful to both look at and walk on. We spent a very pleasant hour during lunch enjoying the beach at Stilwell Bay, the wading birds on the shoreline and the knowledge that we were in a most beautiful of locations.

As we neared Marahau we had a choice of sticking to the route or cutting off a corner by taking a short cut across the expansive beach now that the tide was out. At first, I declined the idea but seeing Tina stride out across the beach I thought I would give it a go. None of the rest were aware of what we were doing. Unlike all the other beaches we had seen during the course of the walk, this was not golden sand but grey with patches of mud and pools of water left behind after the tide had gone out.  It became an exercise in navigating the driest route, but it eventually became impossible and I ended up wading through water that ensured my footwear was thoroughly soaked.

That night Angela and I took time off from the group to celebrate our wedding anniversary at Hooked on Marahau, the restaurant/café/bar on the waterfront. A great meal and the Rau Kumar was well received.

The next day, having dropped Angela off at Nelson Airport, we headed south west, eventually following the Buller River and gorge to Westport where we picked up Highway 6, which runs the length of the west coast of South Island. Here the coast is a lot wilder, with grey, sandy beaches rather than golden. What makes this coast so remarkable is the amount of woodland debris that litters the beach above the high tide mark. It is unbelievable how much there is, and where did it come from?

We had some distance to cover, so we did not delay and continued south to the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks. These are really best seen at high tide when there is a rough sea, so that the water is forced up through blow holes. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with low tide and there was not much of a swell. Also, it had become cloudy now that we were on the west coast, so the colours of the rocks were muted. It is another example of the diverse geological structure of New Zealand.

Continuing south, we reached the outskirts of Hokitika. We were staying at Birdsong YHA, an independent hostel but still under the wing of the parent organisation. The owner/warden, originally from Cheshire, suggested we eat out at the Royal Mail Hotel as they do a 2 for 1 on a Tuesday night. Looking at it from the outside, without recommendation, we would probably sort out somewhere else to eat, but the car park was full, so it can’t be that bad. It was heaving inside but as we had booked a table, there was room for us. The food was excellent, and they even had non-alcoholic beer for me, the driver. By the time we had finished our meal the pub had almost emptied. The kitchens were closed, and everybody had had their fill. There were just a few hardened drinkers left at the bar.

Before we returned to Birdsong, we walked up from the pub for a couple of hundred metres to find a small tunnel into the roadside bank. Crouching down we crawled through into a “Lord of the Rings” world, a little dell overshadowed by thick trees. Light was fading outside but in here it was already dark. Except it wasn’t, for clinging to the earth mounds and the tree trunks were hundreds of glow worms, like miniature head torches, twinkling in every direction. Magical.

The west coast is renowned for dull and wet days. We woke up to just that the next morning. Before we headed down to Franz Joseph, we wanted to explore Hokitika a little and also visit the stunning Hokitika Gorge.

In late January, Hokitika hosts a festival of wood sculpture based on the beach, using nothing but drift wood. Everything has been stripped from the wood, all rough edges, all colour, apart from grey, it having been pounded by water and wind. Despite a few weeks since the festival there were still many makeshift sculptures along the beach, now at the mercy of the strong winds coming in from the west across the Tasman Sea. There is also a boat on the same shoreline, a memorial to the victims of rough seas, which, during the gold rush of the 1860s a ship floundered on these very shores once every ten weeks.

We headed inland to the beautiful Hokitika Gorge. At least, I told the group it was beautiful. I have a very clear image in my head of pristine, blue waters passing through the gorge. How disappointing to find on a grey, damp day, the waters were also grey and silty. We had taken a detour for this. At least the coffee bought from the caravan café near the carpark was good.

The Historic Empire Hotel

Continuing south, we next visited the gold rush town of Ross, where you can still try your hand at panning in the creek that flows through the town. Ross holds the Guinness World Record for the most number of people panning for gold in the same place at the same time on November 5th 2016. The whole town is really a museum, with many buildings from the 1860s restored and holding displays – the gaol, typical houses from the period the chapel, the pub, still operating today and a very informative visitor centre. From there we took the water trail, a short walk amongst the gold mining area where there are still relics from the mine workings. It is all very interesting and, if I am to believe what we were told in the visitor centre, Ross is still sitting on a fortune. If that is the case, I cannot understand why there is so little activity.

Franz Josef was our next destination and the glacier of the same name. We arrived at our Airbnb by mid-afternoon. It was close to one of the many helicopter scenic flight centres in the area and Tina and I were keen to enquire if there was any chance of us taking a flight. The weather had improved significantly but the mountains were still shrouded in cloud. Unfortunately, the flight we wanted to take up to Mt. Cook was off the agenda. We could take a flight that headed further north into the mountains, where they were clear of cloud, but it would not have been the same. We decided to give it a miss.

Franz Josef Glacier

Instead we drove up to the car park and then walked up to the Franz Josef Glacier. I decided that the cloud might well clear as evening fell, and we would get, probably, the best views we could expect. Who knows what the weather would be doing in the morning? All the time, as we walked towards the glacier, clouds were lifting, revealing more and more of the upper part of the glacier. I have been here before and we were getting the best views I have had, so it turned out to be a good decision, particularly, as the next morning the clouds had returned, and the views were a little murky. Nevertheless, we still went to visit Fox Glacier in the rain.

Brenda find her man at Fox Glacier

I’m glad we did, for the next day we heard that there had been a massive landslide taking out the road that led up to Fox Glacier. It is going to be inaccessible for some considerable time, and there is some debate as to whether the authorities will even bother to rebuild it. At the same time, another landslide took out 400m of the SH6, the main highway we had travelled along to get to this part of South Island. Again, it highlighted the perfect timing of my itinerary. A day later and we would have had to make a very long detour in order to reach Wanaka, our next destination.

As we climbed up towards the Haast Pass, the vegetation was green and lush, thriving on enormous amounts of rainfall. But, having crossed the pass, there was an immediate change. The ground was parched and the grass yellow and straw-like. We were well and truly in a rain shadow area.

We eventually reached Lake Wanaka, a long, crooked finger of water than fills the valley for many a mile. When we stopped to appreciate its beauty, bathed in windy sunshine, we looked up towards the head of the lake and the mountains beyond where it was full of rain. Hopefully, for the next few days, at least, we could rely on some decent weather.

Crossing a small pass, we left Lake Wanaka behind, to follow along the shore of the, equally beautiful, Lake Hawea. This took us almost into Wanaka, a town at the head of the lake with the same name.

Wanaka sunrise

Wanaka is a lovely town, perhaps a little sleepy, but it is surrounded by beautiful mountains. Which one were we going to climb? I had originally thought we might climb Roy’s Peak but had been put off it by someone who knows the area well. He had recommended the Rob Roy Track as the best walk in the area, but, if I am honest, having done a little research, I was not convinced. It meant driving on unmade roads and across rivers, and I was not keen to take my hired bus. Had I done my research a little more thoroughly, I would have discovered that there is a bus service to take and collect you from the walk.

Looking down on Lake Hawea

Instead, I chose Isthmus Peak, a peak of 1386m on an isthmus between Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. It was a glorious day. It proved to be a long, often hard, climb but, all the time there were outstanding views of Lake Hawea below, which spurred you on, knowing that the views would only get better.

When we reached the summit ridge there was a small, insignificant peak to our left. I visited it because, at that stage, I was not sure I could be bothered to walk to Isthmus Peak twenty minutes or so to the right along the ridge. I was wearing new boots, which I had not bothered to break in, and I was developing blisters. I don’t think there was anything wrong with the boots; I had got my sock combination wrong.

Panoramic from the top of Isthmus Peak

As we came over the top we were hit by a fierce wind, doing its very best to knock us over. It was difficult to stand upright and even more so to hold a cameral still. Having been to this summit, common sense prevailed, and I went on to visit the summit of Isthmus Peak, where there was hardly a breath of wind. The lack of wind ensured that I could spend some time up there soaking up the view before heading back down. I’m glad I chose this walk over all others. It is an outstanding day’s walk.

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown

It would be easy to spend a week in Wanaka, exploring all the different walking opportunities on offer, but we did not have that luxury as we headed off on a relatively short drive to Queenstown, the adventure capital of South Island. Queenstown is in the most stunning of locations. It sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by beautiful mountains with names like ‘The Remarkables’. They are truly remarkable.

Tina and Brenda left us for a few days of their own exploration, particularly of Doubtful Sound.

With time to spare in the afternoon, I decided to take a trip on a jet boat on the Karawau and Shotover Rivers. I’ve jet boated before on the Shotover River but further upstream. I could never understand why, when you were hurtling along towards cliffs and boulders in 3 inches of water, they gave you a life jacket and no helmet! By comparison, this, as enjoyable as it was, was somewhat tamer than my previous experience.

Having posted some pictures on Facebook, I received messages asking if I was OK. On the news were reports of a jet boat accident on the Shotover River, with casualties.

For the next three days we were carrying our own kit so, after a serious sort out and an analysis of only essential needs for the Routeburn Track, we headed off to the Routeburn Shelter via Glenorchy. In Glenorchy, I met the vehicle relocation people and also visited Mrs Woolley’s General store for a coffee. But it wasn’t just a coffee, was it? They sell pies and I chose the most delicious pork and apple pie, with crackling. It is the best pie I have ever had. I didn’t need it. I hadn’t long had breakfast. But I wanted it.

The Routeburn Track is a 32km. route across the Mt. Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. It takes you through beech forest, alpine moorland and into craggy outcrops. I had chosen for us to do the walk in three days. It can obviously be done in less but the whole point was to enjoy the experience and not make it a challenge. Not knowing exactly what time we would leave Queenstown, how long it would take to get to the start, what the weather conditions would be like on the day, I chose the easy option of walking to Routeburn Flats Hut, a mere 6.5km from the Shelter.

It was easy, pleasant walking through wonderful beech forests, laden with hanging mosses above a carpet of thick, verdant moss. Birdsong filled the air. Beneath us the Routeburn, a myriad of blue and green pools between white, fast-flowing sections of river. At one bridge, we paused to watch a properly equipped group, one by one, slide down a rock into a pool of foaming water. Despite dawdling, we reached the hut by early afternoon. Still with energy to spare, Mike and I went off to explore the valley opposite the hut towards some snow-capped peaks. As I was wearing flip flops, I did not expect to get far. In the end, prudence got the better of me and I turned back.

That night, the hut was only half full and we had a room to ourselves.

The next day dawned just as bright and with about 14km of mountain walking to do, we were very grateful. From the Flats Hut it is a steady climb up through more beech forest. It was too nice to rush it. No need to worry, we were regularly ambushed by the New Zealand Black Robin, an extremely tame bird that mistakes boot laces for worms. We saw many of them on this early section of the walk and if you remained still they would come right up to you. Claire managed to get some photos of one perched on my foot, pecking away at my laces. It is so rewarding to get so close to nature.

After passing Routeburn Falls Hut we emerged from the forest on to open hillside. We were still climbing but we could see the way ahead and the slight depression of Harris Saddle, the high point of the route, we were aiming for. I scanned the hillsides for kea, but as hard as I looked I could not see any. We were now walking among tussocky grass with rocky outcrops, a favourite haunt for these fascinating, yet very naughty, birds. Before reaching the saddle the path skirts high above Lake Harris.

Conical Hill panorama 1

On Harris Saddle there is a shelter. It often rains in these mountains and the hut offers a little respite in such conditions. No need for respite today, but it does give you somewhere secure to leave your rucksack while you climb Conical Hill. It is only worth taking the steep climb up if you are guaranteed a good view from the top. Today was perfect and worth the effort. What a view. Completely surrounded by mountains, you look down the length of the Hollyford Valley to Lake McKerrow and beyond to Martin’s Bay and the Tasman Sea even further away. While Mike and I were climbing up there was a steady stream of people coming down, but when we got to the summit, we had it to ourselves. As we began our descent, so more people began arriving. It meant that our pictures were not polluted with other people in them.

Conical Hill panorama 2

All the way up to Harris Saddle we were in the Mt. Aspiring National Park. From the saddle onwards, we had passed into Fiordland National Park, and would remain so for the rest of the walk. From Harris Saddle we traversed the hillside for a long way before beginning the descent to Lake Mackenzie Hut.

Lake Mackenzie Hut is much larger than the Flats hut, sleeping 48 people in two dormitories. By the time we arrived, all the bottom bunks had gone. I could have chosen the long bunk on the other wall but that puts you in even closer proximity with your neighbours. Choosing a top bunk by the door, I prepared my bed for the night and then went out to enjoy the sunshine while sitting by the lake. Some brave, or foolish, people went swimming in the lake.

Lake Mackenzie Hut

There is not a lot to do in these huts once you have eaten and socialised a little other than go to bed. It was still quite early, and I knew I would not get through the night without needing to get up for a pee. Sure enough, at 01.39 I got the message. Climbing down from my bunk I discovered noisily, that somebody had placed a metal dustpan and brush at the bottom of my ladder. The clatter reverberated through the dormitory and bodies stirred. Returning, relieved, I avoided the obstacle and climbed back on to my bunk. The mattresses are covered in some sort of shiny material that squeaks a lot when you move around on it. I could not find the entrance to my sleeping bag and, eventually, a “Shhhhhhh,” told me to give up. I lay there with my sleeping bag covering me as much as possible too frightened to move but spent the next hour listening to a constant stream of people, some of whom made far more noise than me, troop off to the loo and back. In one of the noisier moments I managed to get back into my bag and nod off to sleep. Community living!

The next morning, for the first forty-five minutes, we climbed gently up from the Mackenzie Hut, before traversing around the hillside, passing the 174m Earland Falls, which are more impressive in wet rather than fine weather. I know which I prefer. We took a short break at Lake Howden Hut prior to walking the last section up, and down, to the Divide, where our minibus would be waiting for us. We could have taken a detour up to Key Summit for panoramic views, but I was conscious that we needed to think about what was to follow the end of the walk, on to Milford Sound.

The minibus was there at the Divide. I am very impressed with the vehicle relocation service. What is most impressive is that, having taken the long drive round to the Divide, if they do not have a vehicle to relocate to the Shelter, they run back to Glenorchy over the Routeburn Track, the same journey we had spent three days walking.

Milford Sound

The drive from the Divide to Milford Sound takes you through some amazing mountain scenery, literally as the road tunnels through one of them.

With a mean annual rainfall of 6,412 mm (252 in) each year, a high level even for the West Coast, Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand and one of the wettest in the world. As we approached there was no sign of rain, just glorious sunshine. Wow! How lucky are we?

I was hoping that we could find some lunch in Milford to enjoy before our cruise, destined for 4.30. I hadn’t realised that there are no food outlets. Even the coffee machine was out of order. It is simply a large jetty with a number of providers selling cruises around the sound. They want to get people in, on the boats, and back out again. There is not the capacity for lots of people milling around. A brave decision, but the right one. How many of the UK’s beauty spots have been spoilt by commercialism of the wrong sort?

Visiting the cruise desk, I asked if there was a possibility of us catching an earlier one. Not a problem and we were transferred on to the 2.45 trip. This would make life a lot easier.

As it turned out there were not that many on the cruise and we were able to take prime spot on the bow of the boat. Immediately we left our birth and headed off we saw the first of many spectacular sights, the Lady Elizabeth Bowen Falls, just around the corner. They are Milford’s biggest falls with a drop of 162m. They are the only constant and reliable waterfall in the area and play a significant role in the life of Milford Sound, being the only source of electricity. In seriously wet weather they can quadruple their volume of water, while in uncharacteristic dry spells, the electricity may go off for a while. They are spectacular, particularly because they hit a ledge on the way down to give it an impressive pluming effect. Interestingly, when I was talking to a crew member, he said he preferred the cruise when it was wet because the waterfalls are so much more impressive. I could not find fault with the falls on this day.

Mitre Peak

The cruise followed the southerly side of the sound, passing under the steep slopes of the majestic Mitre Peak. We paused briefly to watch some climbers on a precipitously difficult pitch, below which lazed some seals.

Gradually the open Tasman Sea was getting closer. When conditions are less favourable, the cruise circuit tends to be much smaller, the boats turning to head back long before they reach open water. Today, the conditions were so good we headed beyond the headland on either side and turned much further out to sea.

On the return, we observed more seals lounging around on rocks, fixtures until the high tide makes it much easier for them to get off and they can embark on another fishing exercise.

One of the favourite fall is Stirling Falls, which captains like to take their boats under. Having been warned to step inside, he nudged the boat under the full force of the fall. When I last visited Milford, it was very wet, and we did not venture quite so close. Perhaps we were benefitting from the excellent conditions. Claire mistakenly left her bag on deck and it took several days for it to dry out thoroughly.

After nearly two hours on the water we returned to the quay and we set off on the long journey back to Queenstown, stopping at Te Anau for some supper. Te Anau is in a beautiful area with a lake surrounded by mountains. It is a centre from which many activities can occur and is possibly somewhere I could focus more attention  on in a future trip.

By the time we reached the Lakeside YHA in Queenstown it had been a long, yet very satisfying, day and we were all ready to settle down.

More luck greeted us the next morning. Rain! No, we didn’t really want any rain, but we would all rather have it on a travelling day rather than an activity day.

Meeting up again with Tina and Brenda, we headed east to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsular. As we did so the rain eased, the sun came out, but we were left with some very strong winds.

We were booked in to the Royal Albatross Centre right at the end of the peninsular. It is the only mainland colony of albatross in the world. While we were waiting for the experience to start, the power went off. It meant we could not watch the planned film, so our guide talked to us about the life of an albatross. It was fascinating to learn that they can live up to sixty years. They are faithful partners returning to each other every two years to produce a single chick. Only if one of the partners dies does the other eventually seek a new partner.

Then we went up to the viewing hide, which looks out on to the tufty grass sloping down towards the sea. Amongst the tufts, parent birds could be seen sitting with a single chick, while older juveniles were enjoying the wind, swooping and gliding. It was magical to watch. They enjoy the winds, the stronger the better.

We moved from the hide to an ex-military lookout which brought us even closer to the ground nesting birds. When close to them they have incredibly strong beaks and they are huge. In the air they are so graceful and to watch them synchronise their routines is beyond belief.

After we had finished we were warned that the opportunity to watch the penguins coming ashore later in the evening was in jeopardy. They rely on electricity and the power lines were still down, brought down by the very strong winds.

As we drove back to Portobello, all the seabirds were huddled together facing into the wind in order to make themselves streamlined. If they had been standing sideways on they would have been blown over. Larger spoonbills and oyster catchers carried on feeding oblivious to the wind.

Windswept beach

I received an email to tell me that the Penguin Experience had been cancelled. After a fish and chip supper we went off to Allan’s Beach on the other side of the peninsular, where sea lions are often ashore. It was no less windy on this side of the peninsular and grains of sand scurried in waves across the beach. It was very bracing, but we did not find any sea lions. I think if we had been more vigilant and searched among the sand dunes we might have found some.

On the way back from the beach I suggested that we might go down to see if we can at least hear the Little Blue Penguins come ashore. Rather than sitting around in the motel, we decided to go. When we got there the car park was full and the lights were on! All we missed was the talk before heading out on to the platform to wait and watch them come ashore. Facing straight into the wind we waited. Eventually, a couple of scout penguins came ashore, soon followed by a raft of over thirty penguins. Initially, they gather their thoughts by just standing on the beach, preening themselves, before heading up the beach to their waiting young, who, by now, are noisily calling for them. By the time they had all gone to their burrows and reunited with their chicks, we were feeling buffeted and cold. Time to go back to the accommodation for a beer or two.

Before leaving the Otago Peninsular, we gave Allan’s Beach one more chance to show us some sea lions. This time we were more thorough in our search and followed flipper prints up the beach into the dunes. There, sleeping in the dunes, was a pup, sheltered and comfortable. Realising we were there it lifted its head and looked at us with huge, doleful eyes. We decided to retreat rather than putting it in a stressful situation.

Satisfied that we had seen one, we strolled along the beach, when a female adult emerged from the sea. To begin with she rolled around on the water’s edge, in no hurry to find her young. She did not mind us being there watching her. Eventually she began to walk up the beach on front flippers but after a few steps it became too much and another roll around on the beach was what was needed. We left her to it.

Dunedin deserved a bit of our attention, so I gave the group an hour to explore the centre. I visited the cathedral, wandered about the largely deserted streets, and visited an exhibition of ambitious plans for the development of Dunedin’s waterfront. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it.

The drive up to Christchurch across the Canterbury Plains is quick on a good road. We stopped for a break to take a look at the Moeraki Boulders. Maori legend tells that the boulders are remains of calabashes, kumaras and eel baskets that washed ashore after the legendary canoe, the Araiteuru was wrecked at nearby Shag Point. In reality they are mud balls that have hardened underground over millions of years, and, as the coastline erodes, they appear and fall on to the beach. Once exposed to the air and water they begin to disintegrate. It doesn’t help that tourists clamber all over them.

We arrived in Christchurch in time to hit the rush hour, and, almost for the first time, we crawled our way to our motel, again comfortable accommodation. In the evening we walked into the heart of the town, past the ruined cathedral and through to Regent’s Street. I said we walked through the heart of the town, but there really isn’t one any more, not since the 2011 earthquake. After eating we walked back via the cardboard cathedral and the 185 chairs which depict every life lost in that earthquake. In the light of what has happened recently, I am sure that there will soon be fitting memorials to those who were victims of such an atrocity.

We woke up on our last full day in New Zealand to more glorious sunshine. We were booked on to a whale watching trip in Kaikoura, a three-hour drive to the north of Christchurch. Kaikoura was hit by an earthquake in 2016. The closer we got, the more evidence we saw of the effects. The road that runs along the coast, and the adjacent railway line, were severely damaged and work is still going on to rebuild them. While we waited at various sets of roadwork traffic lights we watched the seals lounging around on the rocks or playing in the water.

Heading out to sea with the Kaikoura Range behind

With time to have a bite of lunch and to take a brief look at the main street in Kaikoura, we eventually checked in for our two-hour boat trip to see whales. The conditions were perfect, the sea was pretty flat, the air was clear giving us great visibility and we had a knowledgeable crew. It was not long before, about four miles off shore, we spotted our first Sperm Whale, spout blowing as it breathed deeply after, perhaps, 45 minutes feeding a 500m below the surface. It began to arch its back in preparation to dive, and in doing so, revealed its fluke before disappearing. What a fabulous experience! I was disappointed that my camera had broken, and I only had my phone to record it. The pictures were so poor, they were not worth sharing.

After some searching we found a second whale and it went through the same process of restoring oxygen to its body before diving. I decided I wanted to watch this with my eyes rather than through the camera on my phone, so I set it to video, pointed it at the whale and watched. After some time, it dived and was gone. I looked to see what the result was on my phone to discover I had not been pointing it in the right direction and I had several minutes of the sea!

Later we saw a pod of dolphins heading out to sea to feed. They were fantastic, the way they swam around the bows of our boat, coming up between the twin hulls. After entertaining us for some time they headed off. Standing at the bow, I was still on the lookout for dolphin when there was a commotion in the water. We had disturbed a Blue shark, which appeared to be sleeping and only realised we were on top of it at the last minute. It was about eight feet long and, once it was awake, was off like a shot.

Before leaving Kaikoura, we ate in one of the restaurants in the main street, and then hit the road back to Christchurch.

And that was it. In the morning we headed off to the airport, bid a fond farewell to the minibus that had served us so well for a little over 5000km and jumped on a plane to Auckland. The weather favoured us yet again, giving us incredible views of the land, the bays and the sea beneath us. The views of Taranaki were particularly impressive.

At Auckland I said farewell to the group who were transferring for their international flights home, while I went back to family for more DIY and child care.

I was really pleased with how the trip went. All the arrangements fell smoothly into place and New Zealand had delivered. I already have plans for a return trip. I know which elements I would revise and repeat, and which new elements I would include. You can never tire of New Zealand. It has so much to offer. So, if you are interested, keep one eye open on future developments with Adventure Guide.

Gill Spilsbury

Gill was teaching at King’s School, Worcester, when we met as colleagues. She was “Old School”, there to teach, to fill young minds with useful information, not just to pass exams, but for life. She did not suffer fools lightly, and could bring anybody down with her sharp tongue, keen and honest observation and appreciation of the truth. Underneath this exterior, she had an absolute heart of gold. She was dedicated to the children in her care, stimulating them into learning, and in return they loved her. She brought a passion into her teaching, whether it was through her love of the French language, her artistic qualities, which often expressed themselves in her exotic appearance, or by appreciating far flung cultures. I remember her introducing the children to Indian food. They prepared a variety of spicy dishes. Despite being told to wash hands after touching chillies, one boy rubbed his eye, much to his discomfort. He learnt his lesson the hard way but it will be something he will never forget.

In 1996, as I was preparing to take a group of parents from King’s to the Himalaya, Gill’s beloved husband, Roger passed away. He had suggested to Gill that she might like to join my trip. It would give her something to think about and to look forward to after he had gone. So, in 1997, Gill joined the trip to Langtang, and it was to prove a life-changing event in her life. Whilst she was not the fittest person in the group, she was never lacking in determination, and she coped with the physicality of the trek by immersing herself in the lives, the culture and the language of our Sherpa crew. She got to know them pretty well and they her. While the rest of the group climbed Kyanjin Ri, Gill stayed in camp. A new toilet hole had been dug and Gill was the first to make use of it. Unfortunately, the ground around the hole was unstable and as Gill squatted it gave way. Gill grabbed the poles of the toilet tent for support, to prevent her from falling into the hole. In doing so she lost balance, pulled the tent down and was witnessed by the Sherpas lying on her back with her legs in the air. Was she embarrassed? Certainly not! She found the whole episode highly amusing. So did the Sherpas, once they knew she was alright, and so did we, when we heard the tale on our return from the summit.

On another occasion, one of our Sherpas was kidnapped, on the premise that we had stolen a dog. We hadn’t of course. Gill had been walking with the Sherpa when the incident occurred and, without any thought for her own welfare, waded in with the rather rough and ready crowd that had gathered. At the end of the day, common sense prevailed, and Gill and the Sherpa continued to camp without harm.

There was one young Sherpa, Pradip Rai, who really caught Gill’s attention. The teacher in her saw a very bright 17 year-old with potential. Gill took Pradip under her wing. It would prove to be a very strong and lasting relationship. She said, “There’s always room in one’s heart for another son.”

Gill came back from that trip and resigned from teaching. She had found something, not to replace Roger, but to fill the void left by him.

As soon as she could, she went back to Nepal, to stay with Pradip and his family. There they talked and talked, improving Pradip’s English while Gill learned Nepali. In 1998 they set up a trekking company, Access-Himalaya, organising trekking groups to the Himalaya and employing Pradip’s extended family to manage things when he was not there. Soon, Pradip enrolled on to a degree course at Worcester University.  Whilst still studying for his degree, he and Gill would market their business, give presentations and network both here and in France. Between them they built up a very good business where the ethos was to support local communities in the area where they trekked. They use some of the profits to support the very poorest of Nepali society, through the charity they set up, Jamarko, whose aim is to alleviate absolute and relative poverty. It is an organisation “of underprivileged people, working for underprivileged people and managed by underprivileged people.” Gill was very keen to stand up for these forgotten elements of Nepali society and they was passionate about the work being done.

Gill and Pradip would spend about six months each year in Nepal and six months in the UK. She continued to support and encourage Pradip’s own educational development and he took a Masters degree at Birmingham.

Gill was not getting any younger, and she did have family in the UK that deserved her attention. She adored her grandchildren, and they her. She was always interested in them and, at the same time, she was interesting to them – an extraordinary grandmother. Gill was always very special to her family.

In June of this year, just before she was due to return to the UK, she suffered a massive stroke. Pradip could see exactly what was happening to her and got her to the hospital very quickly. His speedy reaction probably saved her life, but the effects of the stroke were devastating. Complications meant that she could not come back to the UK, so her sons went to visit her. I think everybody knew that Gill, despite being a fighter, despite being an incredibly strong woman, was not going to recover from this.

Eventually, there was nothing more that the hospital in Kathmandu could do for her. Anticipating this moment, Pradip and his family had prepared their home for looking after Gill. And look after her they did, right until the end.

There are two families grieving for Gill today. Her English family know and understand that after Roger’s death she found a channel for her energy and a determination to continue to do something of real value with her life. And there is Pradip’s family who accepted Gill as one of their own for the last twenty-one years. She will be sorely missed.

To all of us who knew her, she was a woman of enormous strength, courage, wisdom and love. It is a privilege to have known her.

 

Auschwitz and Birkenau

A guided tour is only as good as the guide.

After an hour and a half’s journey through the countryside of Lesser Poland, we arrived at the expansive, already full car park for Auschwitz Concentration Camp. At the entrance we were met by our guide, Anna, and were quickly whisked through security, collected our radio receivers and head sets and embarked upon a tour of the site where one of the world’s most inhumane atrocities took place.

We paused at the entrance, under the sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei” “Work Sets You Free”. It was a chilling place for us who knew what lay beyond the gate but for the many who came here, initially, might have had some hope. On either side of the gate impenetrable double fences of vicious, electrified barbed wire spread around the whole camp. Every so often a guard house towered above the fence, making it impossible to escape undetected. Beyond, in geometric precision, brick barracks stood, stark and uninviting. Before the war, this had been a Polish military barracks, saving the Germans the necessity to start the camp from scratch.

Passing through the gate the story of Auschwitz unfolded with Anna’s clearly spoken commentary. The fact that we were each wearing headphones meant that we missed nothing and everything she said was as if to you only. She took us into a number of the buildings, building up a picture of the horrors that they faced. In one, it was set out as a dormitory, one side just having straw on the floor, while the other had straw mattresses. There was not a gap between and each room was grossly overcrowded. There were toilets and washing facilities, of sorts, in an adjacent room, but they were not sufficient for such numbers and did not prevent the spread of numerous, often fatal, diseases.

When the Germans had the Jews, and other undesirable sections of society brought here by the train load, they had everything taken from them, their cases, shoes, brushes, pots and pans, glasses, even artificial limbs. Huge piles of these artefacts were displayed in some of the barracks. Seeing these we began to understand the scale of what went on here and specific notices on some of the walls put it into numbers. In total 1.3 million Jews from across Nazi occupied Europe, Polish political prisoners, Roma gypsies, Russian prisoners of war and other ethnic minorities were transported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. About 1.1 million were murdered. It is an unimaginable figure.

Between blocks 10 and 11 there was an enclosed courtyard where certain prisoners were brought to be shot by firing squad. Initially, a firing squad executed prisoners near the camp at places where gravel had been extracted—the so-called “gravel pits.” From the autumn of 1941 to the autumn of 1943, the majority of executions were carried out in the walled-off yard of block 11, in front of a specially built “Death Wall.”

The condemned prisoners had to strip naked in block 11, on the ground floor. Any women among them disrobed in separate rooms. The women were then led into the courtyard and shot first. The condemned prisoners were led to the wall in pairs. The SS executioner walked up from behind and shot them in the back of the head with a small-caliber rifle. Designated prisoners threw the corpses onto trucks or carts that delivered them to the crematoria. Many of the people killed in this way were never entered in the camp records. Anna told us that the youngest to die in this way was a nine year old girl.

In another block, along the central corridor, there were photographs of prisoners with heads shaved, wearing the striped prison uniform with triangles sewn on to them. The colour of the triangle denoted the kind of prisoner they were – red for political, green for criminal, pink for homosexual and so on. The photographs, three deep along the full length of each wall, showed a gallery of misery. They were nearly all young men and women, deemed fit and able enough to work rather than go straight to the gas chamber. Underneath each picture it gave their name, age, occupation – farmer, baker, carpenter etc., the date they were registered in the camp and the date they died, usually within three months of entry. It was so chilling to look into the vacant eyes of these human beings as we passed down the corridor.

In Block 4 there was a room full of bales of hair taken from women and girls who had their heads shaved upon entry to the camp, or it was retrieved from the corpses before they were cremated.  They found 7000kg of matted discoloured hair when the camp was liberated. This is just a fraction of what was taken, the rest having been sent to Bavaria to make into hair cloth. It does not bear thinking about.

Then we visited the gas chambers where hundreds at a time were herded into a block to have a shower. Before they showered they had to disrobe and were then forced into the chamber. Once they were all in cyanide crystals were dropped in through a number of vents in the ceiling. The vents were then closed and the crystals set about their work of killing everybody in the room. The crystals reacted with oxygen and gradually filled the room with poisonous gas from the floor upwards. As people died, others climbed on their bodies in the vain attempt to get at the less toxic air near the ceiling. There was nothing they could do and no where for them to go. After about half an hour everybody in the chamber was dead and there would be a pyramid of tangled bodies rising to the ceiling. They were then cleared to the crematorium next door and the bodies burnt, leaving nothing but ash to dispose of.

One has to ask the question, how did the guards feel about what they were doing? They had little choice. The German propaganda machine convinced them that they were cleansing the world of all undesirable ethnic groups, the Jews being the most hated. They believed what they were doing was right, and, in any case, they had no alternative than to obey orders or be shot. Some guards, it is known, asked for transfers back to the front, but were denied, being forced to endure years cruelty on an unbelievable scale. How could they sleep at night?

After three hours our tour of Auschwitz 1 came to an end and we were given a ten minute break before we moved on the Birkenau.

The Germans built Birkenau from scratch and it spread as far as the eyes could see. Disecting the camp was the railway line that brought train load after train load of prisoners locked into wagons. Many had been so for several days with the ultimate outcome that they travelled in absolute squalor. Many died before they got to the camp.

As they were forced out of the wagons, they were met by a welcoming committee of SS soldiers. The commander was also there to meet them. The prisoners were lined up in front of him and were ordered to file past, a cursory glance and a wave of his hand determined their fate; wave to one side and they would go immediately to the gas chamber, the other the labour camp. The majority were so weak and ill after the journey that they were sent to the gas chambers at the far end of the camp. These were destroyed by the Germans as they fled the camp just before the liberation by the Soviet army in January 1945, in an attempt to cover up the evidence. The destruction hid nothing and the full horrors of the previous five years soon became apparent.

5 to a bunk!

As we visited the huts where those spared the gas chamber lived, I couldn’t help feel that those who failed to make the grade for labour might have had the better deal. Their agony was soon over, while those that were forced to work in the most appalling conditions, also lived in the most appalling conditions until the effects of hard labour, starvation and poor sanitary and living conditions killed them. If that did not happen, they would just have easily been sent to the gas chamber once their usefulness ceased.

Anna

I wondered how Anna could do this job. Surely, reliving the stories of Auschwitz regularly must have an effect. She told us she guided for three days a week, the rest of the time she works in the archive office. She has a personal reason for being there as some of her family went into Auschwitz and never came out. However gruesome the story is the world needs to be reminded what went on during those dark years. You would hope that we learn from it but looking at other parts of the world where there has been conflict, I’m not sure we all have. Look and Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans, they all have gruesome stories to tell.

As gruesome and harrowing the visit had been, it is a visit that must be taken at least once in order to try to understand and come to terms with a very dark episode of the 20th C. Anna, with her clear delivery, her empathy and her passion made it a very special experience.

 

 

 

Krakow

Having arrived at the airport in Krakow, we had to wait for the incoming flight from Birmingham, bringing four new group members to join us, replacing the four travelling home.

The Cloth Hall

I had arranged for transport to take us all into town and the Kossak Hotel. It was a bright, sunny and warm morning. Predictably, the hotel had not prepared our rooms so we headed off to the magnificent square in the centre of town for an early lunch. At 200 x 200 square metres it is the largest medieval square in Europe. It really is beautiful, with elegant buildings all around it. In front of the majority were umbrellas and tables bringing the restaurants out into the square. In the centre, almost dissecting the square in half is the Cloth Hall, now a multitude of colourful stalls focusing mainly on souvenirs and jewellery.

Standing alone towards one end of the Cloth Hall is the Wieza Ratuszowa, the Town Hall Tower. You had the feeling that this was just part of a once much bigger building but there was no evidence of that. On the other side of the Cloth Hall in the opposite corner, set at an angle, thus breaking up the symmetry of the square, is St Mary’s Church, brick built and standing tall with its two differently crowned towers. On the hour, every hour, a bugler blows his horn from windows at the very top of the left hand tower, re-enacting the tradition of an ancient Krakow Legend.

There was too much to see and take in in one go, but we did make time to visit the small church of St Adalbert’s, standing alone in one corner, at an angle, breaking up the symmetry of the buildings around the perimeter. The reason why it stands out is that it was built in the 11thC, which means it pre-dates the square. It is a mix of pre-Roman, Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. As soon as you walk in you can tell it is old. You drop down two metres as the floor level is that much lower than the rest of the square.

Back at the hotel we enjoyed watching the light fade over the city from the rooftop terrace bar while enjoying a drink or two. The low sunlight on the castle was particularly good, highlighting all its features.

While some went out in search of an evening meal a few of us donned down jackets and braved the falling temperatures on the roof to enjoy a particularly good meal and a couple of bottles of red wine. We were at least warm on the inside even if the outside was a little chilled. After the early start of the morning, an early night was needed so we retired to our rooms.

The following morning the majority of us went on an organised tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Because it was a comprehensive and chilling experience, I would prefer writing about it in a separate post.

By the time we returned to the hotel in the late afternoon, we were all pretty tired, both physically and mentally. After a suitable chill out time, Angela and I drifted towards the square in search of somewhere to eat. We didn’t really want to eat on the square again, but explore some of the narrow back streets of the old town. These are full of tucked away little bars and bistros full of Krakovians and tourists alike. The atmosphere was buzzing.

Vodka – the glasses are much smaller than they appear! Honest

After much deliberation, umming and ahhhing, we finally took the plunge and entered the narrow door of Cafe Camelot. It was quite busy but not overflowing. We were directed to the smallest table where two people could possibly eat but it turned out not to be a problem. Our table was in the middle of the room and we were largely surrounded by smart young locals. While we made up our minds what to eat we sampled a vodka each – very enjoyable. This was quickly followed by a delicious meal and a glass of wine or two. Service was good, atmosphere and ambience were good; the artwork on the walls and in the niches provided extra inspiration for conversation. Unfortunately we did not time our visit with live music, otherwise we might have had reason to spend much longer there.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny. A shame really as we were going to spend quite some time underground at the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Salt was first mined here in the 13thC and continued well into the 20thC. The economy of Krakow and the whole of Lesser Poland depended heavily on the income it generated. In 1978 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I was expecting more of this.

I was really looking forward to visiting the mines as the pictures I had seen were impressive and exciting. Unfortunately, it did not live up to expectation. There were impressive highlights but these were punctuated by long periods where there was not a lot to see. It did not help that we were kept waiting for at least half an hour before we were allowed to enter. I suspect that they stagger entry so that there is a staggered progress throughout the mine tour. At the beginning of the day it is inevitable that you are probably going to have to wait longer.

Once we were in, the descent into the mine was impressive; no cage lowering us into the depths, but a wooden staircase. Looking down over the handrail from near the top, we could not see the bottom. It seemed to go on forever. Going down, constantly turning left down the flights of stairs made you feel quite giddy at times. Eventually, we reached the point where we left the stairs to enter a tunnel. This was lined with interlocking tree trunks that supported both the walls and the ceilings. The amount of timber we saw underground during the tour was phenomenal, but then Poland has a lot of woodland. Much of the tour was spent walking along many of these tunnels with not a lot of visual interest. Our guide was talking into a microphone and we were listening with a headset. In the confines of tunnels it meant that unless you were standing close to her it was difficult to see what she was talking about.

Everything was rather grey

When we did enter the many caverns they were quite dull. The rock is grey and fairly featureless, unlike a natural cave that has been forming over millions of years.
Despite my negative thoughts about the mine there can be no doubting the incredible endeavour of the hundreds of men who worked in it. It was only towards the end of its life as a working mine that machinery was available and used. For much of its existence the only way the salt could be extracted was entirely by manpower.

After two and a half hours underground, we emerged into the warm sunshine and eventually headed back into Krakow, where we had free time until our departure late the next day.

One of the many elaborate altars during a service

Taking a long late lunch in the square in warm sunshine, we pondered what to do next. I had initially been interested in taking a horse and carriage tour around the city but having looked into it, it was very expensive and also there was no commentary. It was a means to be seen rather than a means to see. Instead, Angela and I took a tuk-tuk tour of the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz. Our driver, Paul, had his iPhone connected to a speaker and, every so often, taking his eyes off the road, he programmed it to give us snippets of information about particular buildings. It was a relaxed tour and we could get off wherever and whenever we wanted to venture inside the buildings.

It was refreshing to see a city where there was no jostling for position on the roads. Everybody seemed to be very civil to each other, giving way at junctions, allowing pedestrians to cross without the fear of being knocked down. Within the Old Town, traffic moved very sedately, which made a pleasant change.

Kazimierz was distinctive with its narrow cobbled streets, monasteries, synagogues, and old shop frontages from a bygone age. Funky restaurants and cafes now occupy those old, traditional shop fronts. It was here, outside the 600 year old Synagoga Stara, that we met Claire, who had borrowed a bicycle from the hotel and was taking herself on a tour of the city. That just highlights how safe the roads were.

The Synagog Stara is no longer a functioning synagogue but a museum telling the story of everyday Jewish life.

In the evening we all ventured back to Kazimierz for our last night meal together at Klezmer Hois. This is a Jewish, but not full kosher, restaurant in the building that used to house the ritual bath. The restaurant is furnished like a bourgeois dining room from the early 20thC with old, dark furniture and embroidered tablecloths.

Mmmmm!

I made an interesting choice from the menu, particularly the starter. I chose Carp, Jewish Style. First of all, I had to get my head around the fact that I was eating, what I considered to be, an ornamental fish rather than a traditional fish for the table. It was a dense meat with an organic, earthy flavour to it. What I struggled more with was the plateful of jelly that it was sitting on. It was absolutely swimming in a jelly not dissimilar to that you get with pork pies. At least with pork pies it is only a small amount; my whole plate was covered in the stuff and I had to leave most of it. The roasted goose leg I had for my main was much better.

However, the highlight of the evening was not the food but the concert that took place just over my right shoulder. A trio of young people, a double base player, an accordionist and a violinist played two sets while we ate. They were superb and the girl playing the violin knew how to make her instrument sing. I realised, watching her, why I never got the same effect when I played the violin as a child. I didn’t move my body in rhythm with the music. I stood stock still in a state of intense concentration. She was so relaxed it was beautiful to both watch and listen.

A much smaller, but no less attractive church interior

Our last day in Krakow, we decided to explore on foot. We wanted to look at some of the churches and also to visit the cathedral within the castle. We visited numerous churches. I am never sure whether photographs are allowable. They are certainly not allowed in the most spectacular of church interiors, St. Mary’s on the edge of the square. It is magnificent. The altars in all of the churches are huge, and numerous, extremely ornate and mesmerising. The detail in them is astonishing. I am not used to such ornate and elaborate centre pieces and I found myself sitting and looking at them for long spells.

Choosing to have our last lunch in Krakow on the square, yet again, we chose a front row table looking out on to the area where the horse and carriages park, touting for business. I found this a fascinating spectacle. Each pair or ornately decorated horses and gleaming white carriage is cared for by a very smartly outfitted, often very attractive, woman. While parked in line, they talk to passers by trying to lure them into their carriage for what is actually quite an expensive ride. Obviously, the more people you can get into a carriage the more cost effective it becomes.

I was fascinated by their technique. As soon as clients had taken the bait and climbed aboard, a less attractive, often scruffily dressed, male jumped up next to the girl and took over the reigns. This did not happen every time but most times. There seemed to be no communication between the driver(s) and the clients; it was simply a ride around the streets. I would want more for my money. I know our tuk-tuk tour was not as glamorous but we did talk to our driver, we did have a commentary and we were able to get out to visit places of interest.

In the afternoon we walked around the Planty, a green area that surrounds the old town where the medieval walls once stood. This led us to Wawel and the ramp which leads up to the castle with a huge variety of architectural styles, as additions and alterations had been made with each incumbent king. The highlight for me was the courtyard, a Renaissance style building designed and built by artists from Florence. It was full of grace, elegance and style; such a pleasure to gaze upon.

Leaving the castle we dropped down to the river just in time to catch the dragon breathing fire. This metal statue, standing at the mouth to its cave, celebrates the legend associated with it. Legend has it that a dragon livIng in the cave devoured the town’s virgins until it was outwitted by a clever trick. The story is probably based around the fact that pre-historic animal bones were found in the cave.

That was it. No more time to enjoy Krakow. It is a beautiful city with so much to offer. We had been there for four days and I think, with the exception of Auschwitz and the salt mines, we had really only scratched the surface. There is plenty still to see and we could look at some of the places we visited in greater detail. Sometimes, a long weekend in a city is long enough. Not Krakow. I would happily return for another long weekend of exploration.

Slovakia and the Tatras Mountains

A strong tail wind took us to Krakow, enabling us to land at least twenty minutes ahead of schedule. We were equally quick passing through the airport to be met by Mike, who had travelled overland, and Marcel, our Slovak guide. We then journeyed across the border and over the mountains from Poland into Slovakia. It was instantly noticeable that Poland looked more affluent than Slovakia, with bigger and smarter houses, smoother roads and smarter cars. In many respects Slovakia was, on first impressions, more appealing, quaint and attractive. Another feature of the journey on the Polish side of the border were the many billboards along the roadside. Most of them seemed to be advertising clinics for cosmetic surgery and were quite explicit in their art work!

After about four hours on the road we arrived at the mountain resort of Novy Smokovec and the Reitmayer Guesthouse. Having settled we relaxed, did a bit of shopping for lunch snacks and tried out the local beer, Saris.

Breakfast!

After an excellent dinner we all felt we had some catching up of sleep to do after such an early start. By 8.30 I was in bed and immediately asleep. After a good ten hours I got up and prepared myself for breakfast at 7.00am. It was the most amazing spread of buffet items. It was not a huge table but it was groaning with food of enormous variety. No wonder we were offered the chance of making up packed lunches for a mere €3. It was all really good, as I hope the picture will testify.

The Green Lake

With darkening skies we left the hotel to drive a short distance to the start point of our walk, at a car park just outside the village of Tatranske Matliare.The climb up was not steep but Marcel set a good pace. Every so often, he would stop to give everybody a chance to catch up and give us juicy bits of information about the geography, geology, flora and fauna. At the first of these stops it started to rain and it gradually became heavier and heavier. Initially we were travelling under trees, which sheltered us slightly until they became drenched, whereupon they dropped heavily on to us. The gradient remained pretty constant throughout the climb and we arrived at the Green Lake and refuge after nearly three hours of climbing. It gave us welcome respite from the weather and the opportunity for a steaming bowl of goulash. My waterproofs have failed me yet again, despite re-proofing them just before we came out. It was impossible to get near the wood burner to dry off for the number of people gathered round it. At least I was warm on the inside, particularly after Marcel had supplied us with little glasses of local fire water.

White Lake surrounded by white mountains

By the time we left the hut the rain had ceased and the clouds began to lift revealing precipitous rock faces leading up to a jagged skyline of freshly snowed upon summits. Wow, it was beautiful.

From the Green Lake we climbed further passing Triangle Lake to the White Lake. Marcel pointed out the Red Valley, behind some crags, where there is Blue Lake. Everything seems to be colour coordinated!

We now had a choice. As we had been walking pretty quickly, partly due to the poor weather before lunch, we could continue and descend by a different route, rather than returning the way we had come. It would be longer but much more preferable than retracing our steps. This would take us down the divide between the limestone White Tatra and the granite High Tatra.

Was it a stag or a bear?

The National Park wardens have closed the paths in the White Tatra in order to help improve and sustain the wildlife. On these slopes Chamois and bears live and are thriving without human interference. As we descended we heard a roaring sound from the slopes opposite. Was it a rutting stag or a bear. We scanned the hillside for any sign of movement but saw none. Another roar confirmed that the sound was coming out of woodland. I would like to think it was a bear.

Reaching another hut, renowned for garlic soup, we had another break before heading down to the road and our waiting minibus. By now we had covered 13.5 miles and climbed 1200m. Not a bad warm up day, but it did give Marcel the opportunity to see us and assess us for some of the harder days to come.

On a much brighter morning a landrover picked us up in Tatranská Poliank and took us up 600m to the Horsky Hotel and the starting point for our climb. Ahead of us was a small lake with a waterfall sliding down the rocks from a hanging valley above. We were heading for Polsky Hreben (Polish Col). It was a steady climb over rocks all the way to the col. As we climbed, non-threatening clouds began to gather about the summits.

Glenys makes it look easy

Just before reaching the col we came across a section where we had to scramble across rocky outcrops. Chains had been secured to the rock because there was an element of exposure. In many respects it was easier to avoid the chains and rely solely on the rock, which had ample hand holds and was extremely grippy under foot. Also, if you were lacking confidence there was a tendency to lean into the rock rather than relying on the chain to support you. It was quite busy up near the col with people, like us, climbing up and others descending.

Gathered on the pass

From the pass we had views to the plains of Poland to the north and Slovakia to the south. It made you realise just what a narrow chain of mountains the Tatras are. Either side of the col the rock climbed steeply to summits. While we rested and took some refreshment, we contemplated climbing the summit of Vychodna Vysoka (2429m) on the eastern side of the col. it looked steep and fairly exposed in places. I wasn’t sure how my knee would cope with the descent and as we had 1250m of descent from the col without the additional 250m from the peak, I regrettably decided not to go to the summit. It proved a wise decision as I was in some pain and discomfort during the descent. As it turned out, just four of the group ventured up to the summit, thoroughly enjoying both the challenge and the achievement.
While the climbers headed up the rest of us began to make our way down. Negotiating the chained section was much more difficult on the descent as there was a greater feeling of exposure. I still, by and large, found it easier to avoid the chains.

View from the summit of Vychodna Vysoka 2429m

As we descended further, tiredness began to creep in and there were a number of stumbles on the uneven, rocky paths. I think part of the problem was that people were walking too close to each other and did not have a clear vision of where they were going and did not give themselves enough time to adjust. Nevertheless, we all made it safely to the cafe behind the Horsky Hotel while we waited for the summiteers to join us. Once they did so we continued with our knee wrenching descent to our hotel.

During the evening, as we listened to Steve rabbit on about concrete, numbing our brains, my knee swelled and stiffened. By the morning it was no better so I was forced to take a rest day.

While I was hobbling into town for a coffee, thirteen members of the group were trudging through ever deeper snow in the mountains. Then, having returned to our guest house, I learned that five had abandoned the walk and were back in the cafe I had recently visited. I hobbled out to join them.

The Met Office website told us that the sun was shining in the High Tatras. There was no mention of snow, yet it did not stop all day. Soon after lunch a message came through that Michelle had taken a tumble and that the rest of the group were returning. She had hurt her arm but she was OK. When they arrived at about 3.00pm, Marcel took her off to the hospital for a checkup. Fortunately, nothing broken but her arm was very sore.

The conditions up in the mountains had been getting progressively worse, with sufficient snow lying to cause doubt as to what was firm ground and what was a hole or crack filled with snow.

Sampling the Tatratea

The early end to the day meant we had more time to kill in the guesthouse so David produced a variety of flavoured Tetra Teas for us to try. These varied from 22 – 72% proof. They were warming from the inside out. Beers in the dining room by the fire, dinner and lots of laughter saw us through the rest of the evening, while the snow continued to fall in the mountains above.

The following morning the promise of wall to wall sunshine on the Met Office weather app, was quickly dashed when I drew back the curtains to a thin blanket of snow and it falling heavily from leaden skies.

After breakfast we drove for about an hour to the village of Cerveny Klastor on the banks of the Dunajec River, the middle of which forms the border between Slovakia and Poland. Here we were to meet up with our rafts for a ninety minute journey down through the Dunajec Gorge. The rafts can best be described as a series of wooden canoes lashed together to create a very stable platform on which to travel. Two raftsmen help guide the raft front and back using long poles. Ours were a characterful pair with massive hands, probably the result of years handling the wooden poles. The one managing the front of ours was a real character, although he looked as if he could have featured in a novel or a film. He had long hair tied in two plaits, a bushy beard, a twinkle in his eye and a wicked sense of humour. As we travelled he would pass snippets of information to Marcel, who would translate into English, stories about the legends of the gorge.

It really was a spectacular limestone feature, with huge vertical cliffs rising straight out of the river for as much as 300m. We meandered through the gorge for 6 miles before coming ashore on the Slovakian bank where the border veered away from the river. Had we stayed on we would have eventually reached Krakow. It might have been great to continue but it was so cold on the river. I had four layers on and I was still cold. Winter is definitely on its way in Slovakia.

It was hoped that we could have cycled back to Cerveny Klastor, along a cycle/walkway by the river. Unfortunately it was too late in the season and the bicycle hire company had shut up shop for the winter.

The two churches of Kezmarok

After a lovely goulash lunch, we drove to the town of Kezmarok where there are two interesting Protestant churches adjacent to each other. They pride of Kežmarok. This Protestant church was built in 1717 next to an older sacral stone building from 1593, which today is a sacristy. This unique wooden building made of yew and red spruce wood was built without using a single metal component. The Baroque interior of the church is also made of wood. Of immense artistic value is also the church organ with wooden pipes.

By way of a contrast, the following morning, I pulled the curtains back to reveal clear blue skies and emerging sunshine. The grass glimmered white with early morning frost and the clouds that had hung around the mountains like a necklace for the last two days had evaporated, revealing significant falls of snow on the higher slopes.

Eleven of us opted to walk up the Sucha Bela Gorge in the Slovak Paradise National Park south of Poprad. As we drove south we began to get views of the full range of the High Tatras and they looked spectacular, a skyline of jagged snowy peaks against the blue sky – stunning.

In the height of the season the Sucha Bela Gorge is very crowded and the walk up can take as much as five hours because of having to wait while people ahead scale the ladders. Today, there was hardly another soul about and we virtually had the whole gorge to ourselves.

It starts off very gently, walking up the river bed with only a trickle of water flowing down. The Cliffs either side rise steeply and the sun could only reach the trees much higher above our heads. Hence, the temperature in the gorge was only a few degrees above freezing. Littered all the way up were the remnants of trees washed down when the gorge had been full of water and closed to tourists. There was no way it would’ve safe if there were significant volume of fast flowing water.

Despite the cold air temperature, the exertion generated enough heat around our bodies and we were soon sweating.

The lower section of the gorge tended to have wooden walkways – tree trunks laid flattish with wooden slats across them. Higher up these became metalled steps held into the rock with reinforcing rods drilled into the rock. And then, where the river plunged over a waterfall, we had metal ladders to climb. The angle of these varied considerably from vertical to 45 degree angles. It was really good and everybody thoroughly enjoyed the journey. There were no histrionics, no hesitation, just a determination to enjoy the experience.

Each village seemed to be totally self-contained

After about two and a half hours we emerged at the top of the gorge. The mixed forest was beautiful and every so often we got glimpses of the full length of the High Tatras. It was such a relief to have such a perfect day. The path gradually descended to the valley below, a valley that could be no where other than Slovakia. Looking out across it from our lofty position each village seemed to be self-contained. There was nothing between them, no random houses or barns, just fields and then the next village. It held a beauty all of its own and was unique to our experiences in the UK.

As we emerged from the forest into the hamlet of Podlesok, we struggled to find a place for lunch. All, bar one, of the restaurants had closed for the end of the season, with signs on their doors saying they were reopening in March. However, we found one, and had an excellent lunch for very little money indeed. We had a traditional Slovak dish of potato pancake filled with chicken and pork, followed by apple strudel, washed down with half a litre of Saris, all for €8! The cheapness of food and drink in Slovakia is amazing. Beer in the hotel is €1.8. Buy it in a supermarket and it is €0.6! I bought an ice cream for €0.5. It is amazing how much further your money goes in this country, so much so that it has to be worth a return visit at some point in the future.

As we finished lunch the minibus brought the remainder of the group to join us and we all headed of to the walled town of Levoca.

Levoca Town hall and St James’s Church

Levoca, a small town of about 14,000 people is almost entirely surrounded by its medieval walls and was once one of the Royal towns of the Hungarian Kingdom. It has a particularly attractive main square with the Gothic church of St James, containing the world’s highest wooden alter, reaching a height of 18.6m. It was designed by the famous artist Master Paul, a resident of the town and after whom the square is now named. Adjacent to the church is the 15thC Town Hall, although it is no longer used as such, and houses a museum today.

The small piece of architecture that interested and amused us most was the Cage of Shame. There were numerous misdemeanours that could lead yo to spending a night a the cage from gossiping, cheating on your wife/husband, bad manners, being drunk in a public place and, if you were a woman, out during the hours of darkness. A spell in the cage, where you were the ridicule of all those who know you, where people were allowed to spit or throw stones at you, would soon bring you into line. It had to be done. We insisted all the females in the group spent some time in the cage, just long enough for a photo or two. In these days of equality, the men then posed in the cage for pictures. I think we were the better actors!

I guess it was too much to expect two consecutive perfect days. While the sun shone in the valleys to the south, cloud hung heavily about the High Tatras. Disappointingly, it was also raining by the time we reached our start point for the day at Popradskom Pleso, a lake under Mount Rysy, Poland’s highest peak. Although some of the snow had melted there was still quite a lot covering the rocky path. Our itinerary hoped we would climb Mt. Rosy but due to the weather our aim now was to walk up to Velke Hincovo Pleso, at about 2200m. It was pretty miserable walking; having layered up for the rain we were sweating profusely, so either way we got wet.

I think this justifies some deciding to return early

Emerging from the forest, the path began to steepen and the quantity of snow increased. Melt water ran freely down the path. Although nobody said anything, there was a feeling that not everybody was enjoying the walk, and were already nervously thinking about the descent in potentially difficult conditions. At one of the rest stops, I offered the opportunity for an early descent, which was gratefully taken up. Whilst I would normally have wanted to continue, I was concerned as to how my knee was going to hold up. The higher I climbed, the more likely I was going to have trouble, so I slowly lead five of the group down to Popradskom Pleso and the cafe.

Picnic view

Having recovered and warmed up a little in the cafe, we took a stroll around the lake, pausing long enough to enjoy a picnic in the emerging sunshine. From there we visited the symbolic cemetery just south of the lake which commemorates those who have worked and perished in the mountains.

Returning to the hotel, we awaited the rest of the group descending from Hincovo Pleso. We did not have to wait long as the conditions up at the lake did not warrant them spending long there. It was wet, windy, cold and had limited visibility. Why would you want to stay longer than necessary in such conditions?

Once they had had time for some refreshment and adjustment to their outer clothing we set off down the hill in glorious sunshine. If only we had had this type of weather earlier in the day. Our destination was Strbske Pleso, a ski resort with ultra modern apartments, ski lifts and two ski jumping ramps. It is also the terminus for the tramway that would take us back to our accommodation.

Marcel spent the evening with us as we celebrated the end of a very mixed but excellent week in the Tatras Mountains.

The following morning we had an early start. The Reitmeyer provided us with a full breakfast service at 5.30! On the journey to Krakow we were joined by Jarka who runs Rajec Travel. Marcel was unable to be with us for this last journey. For the first half of the journey we dozed but during the second half Jarka talked to us about all things Slovakian. It was very informative and is perhaps something that Marcel might have done during our journeys each day. In the end she praised our collaboration, saying that I was “very simple”. This caused great hilarity amongst the group. What she meant was that working with me had been very simple and that the joint organisation had gone very smoothly. The group preferred their own version.

Despite the problems I have had with my dodgy knee, I have thoroughly enjoyed this encounter with a new mountain range, and have seen enough to want to return, next time with a fully functioning knee! No doubt I will be contacting Jarka and Rajec Travel in due course.