Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Edinburgh of the South

As we continue our tour of the South Island, we move back towards the coast passing through Twizel and Oamaru both for one night before arriving in Dunedin, the second largest city on the South Island. It wasn't a good start to our drive as I broke the tail light on our beloved Lancer reversing into a barrier which was below my line of sight in a car park...

The car did get fixed in the end after a lot of chasing around

Dunedin was originally founded by Scottish settlers in 1848, taking it's name from the Gaelic word of it's Scottish counterpart - as a result it is affectionately known as the "Edinburgh of the South". In the centre of the city is a statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns, many of the streets and suburbs carry the same names as the Scottish capital and the city even has it's own tartan. To be honest that's pretty much where the similarities end, but what Dunedin lacks in similarities to Edinburgh, it make certainly makes up for with steep hills boasting the steepest residential street in the world - Baldwin St.

At the heart of this historic city is the Octagon, which believe it or not is an octagonal shaped public space. Laid out in 1846, The Octagon holds together modern and historic buildings with some green spaces and trees. Robert Burns' statue presides over the area (although his head is mainly covered in bird crap!), symbolising the city's Scottish origins. The Municipal Chambers building dominates the Octagon, built in 1880 it is the handiwork of renowned Scottish-born architect Robert A. Lawson, whose work can be seen across the city. Beside the clock tower of the Municipal Chambers rise the twin spires of St Paul's Cathedral. This impressive Gothic Revival structure is entirely constructed from Oamaru stone (local limestone) and was consecrated in 1919. The twenty-metre high stone-vaulted ceiling is the only one of its kind in New Zealand.

St Paul's Cathedral and the Municipal Chambers

Not far away stands the 54-metre stone spire of the First Church of Otago. The church is recognised as one of the most impressive nineteenth-century churches in New Zealand, also designed by Robert A. Lawson. The neo-Gothic style church opened on 23rd November 1873, just 25 years after the first settlers arrived in Dunedin, and is built entirely from Oamaru stone. The spire, being the most dominant feature of the First Church, had an interesting construction history. Just before the opening in 1873 Lawson realised that the spire was 15ft (4.5 m) too short, and had a slight lean. As a result it had to be dismantled and rebuilt to the correct specifications and was finally completed in 1875. In all, the church remains both a memorial to Thomas Burns's mission (the nephew of Robert Burns) – who was the first minister – and a significant landmark of Dunedin.

The graceful spire can be seen across the city
This is regarded as Lawson's masterpiece 

The Scottish influence can also be seen in other fine churches such as Knox Church and there are plenty of Victorian and Edwardian buildings dotted throughout the city, fashioned from volcanic bluestone and pale limestone.

South of the Octagon is the stunning Dunedin Railway Station built in 1906, it is considered to be one of the most photographed buildings in New Zealand. Designed in the fashionable, Edwardian Baroque style, the architect George A. Troup (nicknamed "Gingerbread George") experimented with a collaboration of Classical and Neo-Gothic imagery, to create a grandiose building with a mixture of towers, turrets and minarets made from dark basalt and Oamaru limestone.

The 37-metre high Italianate clock tower at the south end of the station

The station platform for the Taieri Gorge Railway

Inside the main foyer of the station is a huge mosaic floor made up of almost 750,000 Minton tiles that celebrates steam engines. The majolica (tin-glazed pottery) on the foyer walls was made especially for the New Zealand Railway by the internationally renowned Royal Doulton stoneware and ceramic company.

An ornate Royal Doulton frieze runs around the ticket booths

This mosaic design portrays a locomotive on train tracks

On the upstairs balcony at both ends of the station there is a stained glass window that depicts an approaching train whose headlights beam from all angles.

The stained glass window celebrates the glory of steam trains

Dunedin Railway Station and ANZAC Square at night

Standing downwind of Rattray St you get an occasional waft of yeast from the historic Speight's Brewery, which is one of New Zealand's oldest breweries, occupying the same site since 1876. Beside the entrance is a water spigot fed by the same artisan water used to brew the beer. More often that not there were locals filling up several water bottles and containers, although the brewery asks you to make a small donation (see the photo below). Adjoining the brewery is the Speight's Ale House, which serves up excellent meals with its brews all within a relaxed pub setting.

If only it was beer!
All proceeds from the tap go to charity 
A copper dome schist fireplace is similar to the kettles in the brewery

The Ale House is an iconic venue within a unique historic brewery setting

As it happens we are in Dunedin for the Cadbury Chocolate Carnival where there are a series of chocolate themed events being held across the city over the week. At the Wall Street Mall there were chocolate portraits of former New Zealand Olympic athletes as part of the build up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The chocolate Olympic Hall of fame!

No one's going to mind if we broke a piece of chocolate off, are they?

Seeing as it's a week of chocolate related activities it would have been rude not to have taken a tour of Cadbury World. The Dunedin site is home to where all the New Zealand favourite chocolates are made: Pinky bars, Pineapple Lumps, Moro bars, Pebbles, Jaffas, etc - it's a chocaholics dream!

The entrance to Cadbury World on Cumberland Street

Moro Gold or Boost in the UK

Most chocolate made in Dunedin is only available in NZ

Might Perky Nana!

Unlike Cadbury World in Birmingham, which is more of an educational experience, you can go on a guided tour of the manufacturing area of the Dunedin factory. Donning a hairnet (it felt like being back at the kiwifruit packhouse in Kerikeri) we were given a 75-minute tour of the factory by an over-enthusiastic tour guide in his purple overalls. Following the scent of chocolate round the factory, we watched some videos on the history of the company and the production of certain products such as Jaffas, Roses and madly enough easter eggs for next year! Apparently, the colour purple they use (Pantone 2865c) for their packaging and branding is a registered trademark, which Cadbury has been using on it's chocolate wrappers for over 100 years!

At various stages we were given free samples of the chocolates only available in New Zealand. Once we reached the end of tour we saw a one-of-a-kind waterfall located in one of the old storage silos - the world's largest chocolate waterfall dumping a whopping tonne of liquid chocolate!

Lizzie at Crunchie mountain!

Vintage 1919 Model TT C-Cab Ford delivery truck

"Stop poking me!"

Located in the suburb of North East Valley 3.5 km from the city centre, Baldwin St is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the steepest street in the world. The street runs up the northern side of Signal Hill and is just 350 metres long but rises from 30m above sea level to 100m at the top. At it's maximum, the slope is approx. 19 degrees or 35% - so for every 2.86 metres travelled horizontally, the elevation rises by a metre. It is so steep that the steepest part of the road cannot be sealed with asphalt as tar would flow down the slope on a hot day.

I wonder if it bothers the local residents when people stop to take photos of their homes or if they just find it amusing?

The same view with the horizon straightened - now the house is slanted!

Lying flat in the road demonstrates how steep the street is!

It's hard work getting to the top...

The walk to the top was fairly forgiving and only took 5-7 minutes, there's even a drinking fountain at the top if you get thirsty! You can get an official certificate to say that you either ran, walked or even crawled this testing incline, however, the tourist shop was closed by the time we got back down to the bottom.

The dramatic view looking back down Baldwin St

Apparently the record for running to the top of the street and back down again is 1 minute 56 secs! This was set in 1994, during the annual "Gutbuster" footrace - the name speaks for itself! I was tempted to have a try to see how quickly I could do it but when I saw how steep the street was, I had second thoughts... I wasn't even sure how easy it would be to get back down without losing your balance and doing a faceplant!

Every year Baldwin St is the venue for an annual charity event where over 30,000 giant Cadbury's Jaffas (spherical orange candy coated chocolates) each printed with a number are released from the top of street and first one to the bottom is the winner! Unfortunately, the Jaffa race is at the very end of the chocolate carnvial and we'll be moving on to the Catlins before the end of the week.

On a completely different note, I was pleased to find out that my Persian cat friend "Puffy" (or George, as I've finally found what he's properly called and that he's also a lad) who we met at Elm Lodge Backpackers is still the resident cat living at the hostel with his friend "Socks" or his more sinister name, Killer!

"Mr Bond, I've been expecting you!" - Blofeld with George or "Puffy"

Cloud Piercer

It was an early start for our drive to Aoraki/ Mt Cook and the prospects of it being a clear day weren't looking good as there was still a lot of the low lying cloud hanging around from the previous, but we thought we should persevere as the weather forecast for the following day wasn't much better. The reason why it's important for us to see Aoraki/ Mt Cook was that we never got to see it first time round in New Zealand and it's also the highest peak in Australasia at 3,754m (however, I think this depends on the political definition of Australasia as Mt Wilhelm in Papua New Guinea is higher at 4,509m).

Driving out along State Highway 8, southwest towards Twizel we eventually reached Lake Pukaki, which is similar to Lake Takepo, in that its a glacier fed lake (sourced by the Tasman River) with pale-turquoise-blue water due to the "rock flour" suspended in the lake. At one point we were up so high in the mountains that we were driving through the clouds along the lakeside. Stopping off at the southern shore we tried to take some photos north towards Aoraki/ Mt Cook but the tops of the mountains were still hidden among the clouds - we weren't even sure if we were going to see the top of Mt Cook at all today....

It is possible to see Mt Cook 70km north from here, but not today...

Somewhere behind the bank of clouds is the Ben Ohau Range

Trying not to get too disheartened by the weather, we continued along State Highway 80 (Mount Cook Road) to get to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park, driving along the opposite side of Lake Pukaki. Before we knew it we reached a sea of white, but this wasn't snow - it was a flock of sheep! I wondered at what point we might come across a flock on our travels as I would have been disappointed not to have seen any in the rural areas!

A small number of New Zealand's 40 million sheep!

Insert your own sheep joke here or a "ewe-phemism"! Boom!

The sheep didn't want to stick around as the puns were so "baaad"!

The closer we got to Aoraki/Mt Cook the clearer the skies got and it seemed for once that our perseverance was going to pay off! Arriving in Aoraki/ Mt Cook village we noticed that the Hooker Valley and Tasman Valley roads were closed so we decided to get some more information at the Department of Conservation visitor centre. The visitor centre was very impressive as it had lots of informative displays and exhibits, as well as weather information and advice on walks and activities in the national park. Aoraki/ Mt Cook National Park is part of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area (Te Wāhipounamu - the place of greenstone). Of the 27 mountains over 3,050m in New Zealand, 19 of them are in this park.

Known as Aoraki to the Māori, or "Cloud Piercer" after an ancestral diety in Māori mythology, Mt Cook itself is more of a range of unimaginatively named peaks with the highest point being High Peak at 3,754m followed by Middle Peak at 3,742m and then Low Peak at 3,595m .

The visitor centre gives a spectacular axial view of Aoraki/ Mt Cook 

Stained glass window looking out towards the Sealy Range

We had hoped to do the Blue Lakes and Tasman Glacier View trail, plus the Hooker Valley Track, however due to road closures (because of snow) we would have had to walk back out to the Tasman Valley road from the village and a further 8 km to the start of the track, so we opted to do just the Hooker Valley Track (roughly 2 hours one way) and if we had time the Kea Point Track (1 hour one way) as well, which was along the way.

In the top right hand corner of the shot is Aoraki/ Mt Cook, 6.5km in the distance

The view looking back in the direction of the village

The ice crystals on the ground were absolutely huge

Deciding to do the Hooker Valley Track first as it's one of the most popular walks in the national park, we started off from the centre of the village walking the past the famous alpine hotel, The Hermitage. There's a bronze statue of a youthful Sir Edmund Hillary looking outwards to Aoraki/ Mt Cook, where he first climbed the South Ridge in 1948. Following the track past White Horse Hill campsite, Lizzie stumbled upon "Freda's Rock", which was the rock where self-taught Australian climber Freda du Faur posed for a photo whilst on her way to becoming the first woman to reach the summit of Aoraki/ Mt Cook on 3rd December 1910 with local guides Alec and Peter GrahamTheir venture was the second successful ascent of the west ridge of Aoraki/ Mt Cook and was completed in a record time of 14 hours return – this not only made Freda the first female to reach the peak of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, but also the first Australian!

Lizzie posing at Freda's Rock 

The first woman to conquer Mt Cook

The photo of Emmeline Freda du Faur by George Edward Mannering is a New Zealand work available in the public domain.

A little further along the path we reached the Alpine Memorial, which serves as a poignant reminder of how dangerous the mountains can be. There were numerous plaques in memory to people of all ages, nationalities and gender. The youngest person on the memorial was 18 years old and the most recent death was back in 2004.

Many climbers have lost their lives in Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park

The memorial serves as a great viewpoint to Mt Cook, a fitting tribute

When we reached the Mueller Lake viewpoint we can could see three smaller glaciers on the Main Divide: the Huddleston Glacier, Stocking Glacier (Te Waewae) and obviously the Mueller Glacier.

It was here that we also reached our first swing bridge of the walk, although I couldn't figure out why it was called that as it looked more like a suspension bridge made of wood and steel cables, however, it didn't half sway as we crossed over the turbulent Hooker River.

The first swing bridge of the walk above the icy Hooker River

Lizzie at the other end of the swing bridge with the Sealy Range behind

Making our way northeast through the valley above the frozen Mueller Lake, it was so calm and silent you could hear the ice creaking and cracking as it was slowly moving in the lake below - it was quite an eerie experience especially when we hadn't seen anyone else on the walk.

A panoramic view of the Mueller Glacier, Hooker River and moraine - click here to view in hi-res

Continuing on the track there was a distant rumbling sound in the mountains like a stampede down a hill and before we knew it there was a small avalanche taking place on the top of Mt Sefton! It was quite exciting and scary at the same time as we weren't expecting anything like that to happen through the valley. It wasn't as dramatic as it sounds but it did put us on edge for a little while.


Just before the second swing bridge, there were a couple of warning signs saying that the bluff section before the second bridge was icy and had dangerous drop offs! What we hadn't appreciated was how icy the path had become, and a couple of times we had to hold onto the hand rail with both hands just to pull ourselves up the stone steps without stopping in case of falling rocks! Lizzie wasn't impressed by this part of the trail but I don't think it was as bad as it looked - I thought the rickety second swing bridge was much worse...

There's a small warning on a sheet of paper about the icy bluff ahead!

No stopping for photos round the bluff

You can just about make out the hand rail keeping us from the river below

Shortly after crossing the second swing bridge we lost the path down by the river as all we could see were icy boulders. The DOC leaflet we picked up (Walks around Aoraki/ Mount Cook village) wasn't much help as it was a bit light on content and the map wasn't detailed enough - I guess the track at this point is more obvious during the summer.

Where do we go now?

Wind blowing snow off the peak of Mt Sefton

We were meant to continue beside the river but after quite a lot deliberating we found some stepping stones and the track became clear to us once again. Crossing over the frozen Stocking Stream to the shelter, it was another half an hour before we reached the terminal face of the glacier but when we reached the Hooker Lake it was a sight to behold. We were able to walk right up from the frozen lake edge 900m above sea level, looking up at the glacier and towards the peak of Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Avalanche warning? I laugh in the face of danger!

The Hooker Glacier approx. 11km in length (6-7 miles)

Reflections in the frozen Hooker Lake

The upper sections of the Hooker Glacier

Edging as close to the terminal face as possible, we walked under a pretty steep slope with some precarious looking rocks. You also could hear the sheets of ice splintering by the lake edge and the occasional distant groaning noise which I reckon was from the glacier but it was really creepy and we decided it was a good time to head back to the village - it was wilderness at it's best as we'd only seen three people on the whole walk!

By far the most impressive thing we've seen in New Zealand!

Down at the terminal face of the Hooker Glacier

Walking back towards the swing bridge

On the way back to the village we saw another avalanche off Mt Sefton but this time we were on the icy bluff after the swing bridge so I didn't have an opportunity to stop and take photos. By the time we reached the point where the Kea Point Track started, we decided not to bother as we had spent quite a lot of time on the Hooker Valley Track and we felt that Mueller Glacier wasn't that impressive - we weren't even sure if we had seen it...

Quite literally the indomitable face of Mt Cook

The opposite end of Lake Pukaki from the Hooker Valley

On the whole, it was a much better day than we could have imagined, although possibly not the safest way to enjoy seeing Aoraki/ Mt Cook. The track in particular was really icy on large parts of the walk and it wouldn't have gone amiss to have worn crampons on certain parts, especially on the bluff when we walked above the river towards the second swing bridge. Well at least survived the walk without falling flat on our arses!

Light-playing on the mountains during sunset