Christchurch

 

David Whitley pretends to follow in the footsteps of Scott and Amundsen on New Zealand’s South Island.

 

 

During the winter months, it can get a little chilly in New Zealand – that white stuff on those mountains isn’t paint, you know. But for a taste of something really cold, you have to venture further south, to the frozen wilderness of Antarctica. However, if being surrounded by scientists, having to wear a gigantic coat all the time and having only penguins for entertainment doesn’t seem like a sustainable barrel of laughs to you, then Christchurch has a brilliant cheat’s option.

 

The International Antarctic Centre is a little more than a cool tourist attraction. Sitting by the airport, this giant complex is the base not only for New Zealand’s Antarctic research missions, but for their American and Italian counterparts too. 70% of visitors to the Antarctic go there from Christchurch, so the centre is really as close as you can get without actually being there. The serious work is done in the gleaming white buildings set back from the visitor’s centre, but most people don’t come here for research and training – they come to feel ice storms and look at thoroughly loveable penguins.

 

The visitor experience begins with the science part, explaining what all those duffel coat-fancying geeky types are doing lolling around on the ice. Or more importantly, how. There are no permanent runways in the Antarctic, so people are constantly having to fashion one from the ice. As you can expect, the Dreamliner won’t be landing there any time soon, and the planes are horribly cramped. They make Jetstar look like full luxury first class, but are instantly supercool purely because they have skis as part of the landing gear.

 

Next comes a mock-up of an Antarctic scene, complete with sleds, plastic penguins, and a massive Snowmaster truck. And the snow starts falling as you wander through, which is a taste of things to come. The atmosphere is built with booming readings from Captain Scott’s diary, which get gradually more pessimistic and doom-laden. Well, I guess the famous South Pole explorer can be forgiven for not being overly cheery, given the circumstances. A clear highlight of the Centre is the Antarctic Storm, which gives a proper idea just how nippy it can get. It takes place inside a large, glass-panelled room with an igloo and tent to shelter in (and, incongruously, a slide for kids). The floor is covered in fake snow and the temperature is a parky minus five degrees. 

 

It’s only going to get worse, and that’s why we’ve been given snow storm coats and overshoes to don. Gradually, the temperature drops and a wind machine ramps up the chill factor. As it gets down to minus 18.7, a mental note is made that the Scott Base is not an ideal spot for an idyllic beach holiday.

Still, the Russian scientists get it worst – a sign nearby says that it’s currently a scarcely credible minus 48 degrees at their Vostok base. And that sort of temperature requires a little more than a scarf and electric heater in the corner of the bedroom.

 

Next comes the cute bit. There’s not been a single person in human history that doesn’t go “awww” at the sight of a penguin, and the Antarctic Centre has its own colony of the adorable furballs. The ones kept at the centre are incapable of living in the wild – they all have disabilities. They’re Little Blue Penguins, which can also be found on New Zealand’s South Island as well as Antarctica, and all have been given names. This is presumably to increase the attachment factor before you’re fed information on how they can be choked by plastic rings from drink can packaging or savagely mauled by pet dogs taken for a walk along a beach.

 

There is also a bit of a penguin stat barrage, and it’s great pub trivia weaponry. Did you know that penguins have a small gland above the eye to filter the salt out of sea water? Or that Pingu and pals swim the equivalent of 1,000 laps of an Olympic-sized pool every day? To offset the cute factor, the centre also offers the chance to get a bit of an adrenalin rush with a ride on a Hagglund. Understandably, the average Nissan Micra doesn’t quite do the trick over frozen wastelands, so special vehicles are needed. 

 

The Hagglund looks like a truck and a tank have had a baby with growth deficiencies, but its tracks and general sturdiness mean it can handle most terrains. Very slowly, admittedly, but its creators were evidently quite into Aesop’s tortoise and hare yarn. The 15 minute ride goes over a specially designed course outside the centre, and has a touch of the fairground about it. Passengers are strapped in (rather uncomfortably), and then thrown round corners at precarious angles, up and down steep hills and through large murky brown puddles. All jolly good fun, unless sat next to a fat American woman who continually moans that it seems a bit dangerous.

 

More photos here

  

Winter sports

 

New Zealand’s best options for taking to the snow and ice without hurtling down hills with skis
 
The superb skiing is undoubtedly one of the main reasons to visit New Zealand in the winter, but not all of us fancy hurtling down mountains with strips of wood strapped to our feet. Luckily, there are plenty of ways of getting out there amongst the white stuff without having to be a traditional Alpine skier. 
 
This is New Zealand – and if there’s some way of getting a thrill and adrenalin rush, the Kiwis have thought of it. And this applies to snow sports as well as throwing themselves off tall buildings and cliffs.

Snowboarding
 
The obvious non-skiing activity is snowboarding, which is almost more popular than its older brother these days. Resorts in New Zealand are well equipped for snowboarders. Particularly good areas for snowboarders include Coronet Peak near Queenstown and Treble Cone near Wanaka. The latter has manmade half pipes designed specifically for snowboarders.

Meanwhile, Tukino on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, North Island is excellent for those who fancy learning. Snowboarding lessons are attractively priced, while most of the slopes are perfect for beginners.

Nordic Skiing
 
Yes, OK it’s skiing, but not as most of us know it. Nordic, or cross-country skiing derivates from how skiing originated.

Back in the olden days, skiing wasn’t a jolly good lark for decadent holidaymakers who enjoy a bit of a thrill – it was a practical means of getting around for the Scandinavians. For the Sami people of northern Finland, Norway and Sweden it was pretty much the only way to get from A to B. The skis were even put to military use later on.

Nordic skiing is a rather different adventure from the Alpine downhill version, and can best be described as bushwalking with skis on. And with New Zealand’s gorgeous mountain scenery, it’s a fantastic way to explore.

Undoubtedly the best place to try it is at the Waiorau Snow Farm, 35km from Wanaka and perched high above the lake. It has 50km of dedicated trails, and offer tuition to eager novices.

Snowshoeing
 
Of course, it is possible to do proper bushwalking in the snow without using skis and poles at all – just strap a couple of tennis rackets to your feet.

Ok – crude stereotype... Modern snowshoes bear little resemblance to the traditional ones, which may as well have been brandished in black and white footage of Wimbledon. The 21st century snowshoe is a triumph of design and often remarkably high tech, but the principle remains the same. By creating a larger surface area, the weight is more evenly distributed, and prevents walkers sinking into the snow. Subsequently, strapping the snowshoes on is a brilliant way of seeing areas that would be otherwise inaccessible during winter.

Alpine Recreation runs two to five day snowshoe treks through the Southern Alps.

Ice skating
 
Another footwear option is the ice skate, and while you might not be at Torvill and Dean standard, managing the basic stutter walk across the ice isn’t quite as hard as it may initially seem. And besides, the odd fall is character-building, yes?

It’s possible to have a go at skating in various locations across the country, but arguably the best bet is at the Tekapo Park. It’s at Lake Tekapo in Canterbury, around 2.5 hours drive from Christchurch and has one of the world’s most spectacular ice rinks. At 26m by 56m, it’s international-sized and the outdoor setting adds to the excitement.

Skate rental prices are relatively cheap and group lessons are available for those wanting to spend slightly less time on their backside.
 
 
 
Snowmobiling
 
Of course, the coolest people on the piste aren’t those on skis or snowboards – they’re the ones at the helm of those big red beasts that bound across the snow at high speed.

Snowmobiles (or skidoos) were again originally designed as a form of transport, partly to get to remote areas quickly and partly to rescue bungling skiers. But now riding them is something of a sport too, and an exhilarating one at that.

The best place to experience it is on a high plateau in the Old Woman Range near Queenstown with Nevis Snowmobile Adventure. There are 360 degree views up there, and the package includes a 12 minute helicopter ride from Queenstown airport.

From the plateau, visitors are given special thermal gear, and then set off through mind-boggling scenery with some mighty sexy machinery beneath them.

Ice climbing
 
To feel like a proper adventurer in the mould of Kiwi legend Sir Edmund Hillary, then it’s hard to beat cracking open the ice axe and crampons. Forget all that sissy walking lark, ice climbing is what proper mountaineers have to do in order to conquer the toughest peaks.
 
The two best places to learn – and go on an ice adventure – are the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on the West Coast of the South Island. Yes, it’s cold (the clues are in the �?ice’ and �?glacier’ parts) but its rare for anyone to come back from either not raving about the experience. 
 
Fox Guides leads day-long ice climbing expeditions on the Fox Glacier.

You can get New Zealand included as a stopover on a Globehopper RTW or a Navigator RTW or on our New Zealand via Australia deal here

 

by David Whitley