A journey into the dark

 

 

On New Zealand’s South Island, David Whitley joins the hunt for planets in distant solar systems

Down below, the lights from the village of Lake Tekapo shine up towards the heavens. Or, rather more importantly, they don’t. They shine down towards the ground. Special lighting has been installed and covered so that it is focused downwards. In these parts, they want to keep as much human-produced light out of the sky as possible.

 We’re on Mount John, trying to guide ourselves along the paths and avoid the rabbit holes of the open ground with little red light torches.  Normal torches, or mobile phones, would give out a white light that interferes with the instruments of the observatory.

It is not our planet that’s of interest here – it the billions orbiting stars several billion light years away. The skies above Lake Tekapo were recognised as an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012, and it was the first to be given a gold standard. The name’s something of a misnomer, as it’s the natural brightness of the skies here that make it special. You’d be hard-pushed to find anywhere better on earth from which to stare at the stars.

The Mount John Observatory is operated by the University of Canterbury in partnership with the University of Nagoya in Japan. As a sideline to assist with funding, they open the gates at night, allowing tourists to be given a guided tour of the skies above.

The site was partially chosen for its stable weather. The Southern Alps form a handy cloud-catching barrier, and Lake Tekapo to the east benefits from fairly consistently clear skies.

Alas, fairly consistently doesn’t mean permanent. And while a few stars are breaking through the wisps, the stargazing tour has morphed into the back-up option – the behind-the-scenes observatory tour. Which, as it happens, is much more interesting.

There are some phenomenally large telescopes up on the hill, and the first one we visit looks like some sort of weapon that should be kept under wraps in a Bond villain’s lair. It’s the McLellan telescope and it’s set up to pinpoint something in the sky, then follow it round. A 275kg mirror, made of special ceramics that don’t expand and contract with the temperature, allows for remarkably clear observations of stars billions of light years away. “This is basically time travel,” says one of the guides. “Everything we can see in space is coming from the past.”

Further up the hill is MOA, an even bigger telescope, and one that has a very specific job to do. It is looking for exo-planets around distant solar systems. It focuses on star-dense sections of the sky, regularly capturing images of them. What they’re looking for is differences in those images. If one of the dots doesn’t follow the usual patterns, it’s a decent indication that there’s a planet there. That information is passed on to researchers elsewhere who can then take a closer look.

It generates a phenomenal amount of data, and the clearest evidence of that is the room next to it where the evidence is analysed. We’ve all had enormous cold weather coats on outside, but everyone’s peeling down to base layers and sweating profusely. There’s a roaring, furnace-like heat in the room, and it’s coming from the cupboard at the side. “That’s not the boiler,” we’re told. “That’s the supercomputer processing all the readings.”

This room, on a remote hill in New Zealand, will probably be the starting point for us discovering life on another planet. It’s probably worth the sweat.

 

Disclosure: David visited the Mount John Observatory on a tour with Earth and Sky, as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

 

by David Whitley   

 

 

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

New Zealand

Winter sports in New Zealand for people who don’t like skiing

 

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

 

One castle, and a lot of controversy

 

Just outside Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, is one man’s dream castle. But that dream turned into a nightmare, as David Whitley finds out

You don’t, it seems, need to be a member of the aristocracy to have your own castle. It never stopped William Larnach, after all.

New Zealand may seem like an odd place to find a castle. It has no history of medieval warfare and no reason to assume it will come under siege from trebuchets at any point soon. But Larnach, an Australian-born banker who came over to Otago during the gold rush in 1860s, saw a perfect spot on the Otago Peninsula and decided he wanted to build one there.

Larnach Castle, of course, is suitably ludicrous. Fabric wallpapers and intricately carved wood-panelling were shipped in from England, the supposed verandah was glassed over when they realised that the south of New Zealand doesn’t quite have an Australian climate and a tower was built to ensure they had a prime position to take in the views.

But traipsing through the castle to see the rooms and old furniture is only moderately interesting, despite the extraordinary efforts of the current owner to track down all the original pieces that were sold off when Larnach’s children sold the estate. What really makes the castle worth a visit is the story of the Larnach family. And frankly, you’d not be surprised if one of them was haunting the place.

It all started going a bit weird after a family trip to London, where William’s wife Eliza gave birth to their sixth child, Gladys. When they came back from London, Eliza’s sister Mary joined them and came to live in the castle.

Alas, Eliza had grown to hate the isolation of the place and being left alone while Larnach was in Wellington, strutting his stuff as a power-behind-the-throne sort of MP. So she got a townhouse in Dunedin, where she promptly died at the age of 38.

Larnach didn’t have too far to look for a new wife, and married Mary, promoting all manner of tutting from respected members of society. It also was the start of legal wranglings over Larnach’s will – suffice to say the children didn’t want Mary getting her hands on anything.

But then Mary died, again aged 38, and Larnach took a third wife – Connie – soon afterwards. But there was a substantial age gap between the castle-building MP and his new wife. She was closer to his children’s age than he was.

It seems one of the children spotted this. Rumours started circling that Larnach’s son, Douglas, was having an illicit affair with his stepmother. Keeping it in the family had become something of a family tradition.

The tale goes that Larnach didn’t know about this affair until he received an anonymous letter warning of it. And he shot himself dead inside the New Zealand parliament building the day afterwards.

He died intestate, so this triggered off huge rows about the inheritance. Connie and Douglas lined up against the other kids, who eventually won. Although a fat lot of good it did them, as they inherited a pittance – unsurprisingly for someone who sees fit to build himself a castle, Larnach had been living beyond his means for quite some time and was virtually bankrupt.

The Larnach children decided to get rid of their dad’s castle soon afterwards. Luckily neither it or the story behind it have crumbled into obsolescence.

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

by David Whitley

  

  

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

The Stewart Island ferry: New Zealand’s greatest stomach test


Proud of his ability to withhold sea-sickness, David Whitley took on his greatest challenge – the ferry across the Foveaux Strait


The forewarning had been ample. Before stepping on the catamaran, I knew that if one boat trip was going to force me to reconsider my opinion of my constitution, this would be it.

While not claiming an iron stomach, I have generally been sick about once every three years during my adult life – and this includes some fearsome binge drinking as a student and backpacker. Sea sickness, though? I’ve a pretty darned strong record. I vaguely remember a small maritime upchuck as a child, but beyond that I’ve been a model of seaborne fortitude.

The Foveaux Strait between New Zealand’s South Island and Stewart Island, a 39km stretch of often vicious, wind-swept sea, has a long track record of destroying such reputations. Smack bang in the middle of the Roaring Forties – a latitude that gives albatrosses much delight and sailors the tremors – the Strait is something only reluctantly tackled by the Stewart Islanders themselves.

It only took a few minutes for things to get somewhat lurchy. The skipper had set course across some might big swells, the catamaran bounding upwards and downwards like a carriage on a big dipper. Huge dousings of spray splashed violently all the way up the glass windows, everyone inside rather thankful that they didn’t have to be out on deck. And any thoughts of going to the bar for a pint were quickly disregarded.

Spotting the regulars was a fairly simple task. One old guy slurped merrily at his coffee looking entirely unperturbed. The skipper stared out to the horizon with sturdy determination. The couple in front seemed to enter a well-honed meditation technique.

Elsewhere, however, the inexperience was shining through like a beacon. One woman and her daughter sat out at the back, clearly hoping that fresh air would make things less grotesque, yet failing to follow the standard advice of looking out directly at the horizon. The Japanese couple in the middle didn’t seem to have any strategy at all. They simply looked terrified.

There was a crushing inevitability hanging in the air. Once someone’s stomach gave way, everyone’s would.

After about 20 minutes, the first victim fell. The Japanese woman reached for the sick bag, and sent the wafting smell of vomit across the boat. She spent the next 40 minutes making her way through an impressive collection of bags, most dutifully handed to her by her husband until he too succumbed.

Behind, the bravery of a couple taking four children on the ferry quickly started to look like foolhardiness. The crying started, the stomachs churned and the junior travellers started adding to the victim count. At one delightful moment, one poor boy missed the sick bag and coated his mother’s hand.

As the journey began to draw to an end, I was left thankful that the one hour catamaran trip had replaced the two-to-three hour ferry ordeal of days gone by. My stomach was giving notice. I wasn’t going to last too much longer. Around 50% of the passengers had gone, and I was pretty sure I’d be next.

Then came merciful relief. The battering calmed as the catamaran eased into port at Bluff. I was a survivor. Brimming with pride, as I stepped off, I asked one of the crew how bad that journey was, comparatively.

“Ah, only about a four out of ten,” came the nonchalant reply.

 
Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

by David Whitley

  

 

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

Tongariro Crossing?

 

 

After conflicting reports, David Whitley takes on the Tongariro Crossing (well, half of it) on New Zealand’s North Island.

 


“The Tongariro Crossing is for pussies”, I had been told elsewhere in New Zealand. “If you want to spend your day in a queue of people walking across a mountain, then great. But it’s really not that much of a challenge.”

 


The Tongariro Crossing is the big boy, sat high on the pedestal waiting to be shot at. It has long been one of New Zealand’s prescribed must-dos, and this status means it attracts both flak and tens of thousands of people wanting to take it on every year.

 


When half of it is closed due to volcanic activity – as is currently the case – there must be a temptation to file it in the overrated basket and skip it.

 


It’s when you get to the south crater that you realise succumbing to that temptation would have been a terrible mistake. Yes, you’ve hardly got it to yourself and, yes, the severity of the uphill grind to get there is vastly overstated. But my word, the scene is magnificent.

 


The South Crater is a vast flat, dust-blown field. A white track, created by footfall crosses the centre of it, and tufts of hardy grass manage to poke through an otherwise totally barren landscape. It looks like the sort of giant amphitheatre that would be used for some ultra-bloodthirsty Colosseum-style entertainment by an evil galactic emperor in a sci-fi film.

 


To the left, Mount Tongariro slowly climbs towards its summit. To the right, Ngauruhoe soars upwards, the perfect volcanic cone. It’s merely a vent of Tongariro, but it is higher. Small figures can be seen on its slopes, attempting to crawl up the brutal scree at a 45 degree angle. It’s a dangerous undertaking – rocks regularly tumble down into the would-be climbers’ path.

 


The figures are humans, but I half expect them to be Hobbits. Ngauruhoe doubled as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films. Peter Jackson and co had to do surprisingly little to make it look so deadly and forbidding.

 


The rest of Mordor comes into view as we climb along the ridge that leads out of South Crater. Over to the west is the Oturere Valley, a black and bumpy place formed by centuries of spilling lava.

 


Mordor is not the goal, though – the Red Crater summit is. And the views from there are so remarkable that I want to yabber about them to everyone I’ve ever met, whilst simultaneously weeping and drooling. Behind, the iron oxide stains the Red Crater a deep crimson. A sweep round brings into view Ngaurohoe, and Tongariro’s summit. But it’s the no-go zone ahead that’s the cherry on top. Inside the stark central crater, the Emerald Lakes dazzle with seemingly impossible intensity – the blue and green colours alarmingly vivid.

 


Beyond, looking deceptively close, but an hour’s walk away, is the Blue Lake. And behind it is the reason we can go no further. A white cloud rises above the water. It’s the Te Maari crater, which erupted twice in 2012 and is now being carefully monitored as it continues to let off steam.

 


It’s a reminder of where this landscape of lava flows, rusty orange rivers and bleak, rocky plains came from. And it’s a reminder that it has not finished changing.

 


We have to turn back. It’s not yet safe to make the full crossing. But despite occasionally having to wait for other people to go past or get out of the way of your photo, and despite not being the grand physical endurance test some people build it up to be, there are few places on earth that can compare. It’s not a walk into the unknown and it’s not a walk into solitude, but it’s a walk into something truly special.

 


Disclosure: David went on the Tongariro Crossing as a guest of Adrift Guided Outdoor Adventures and Destination Great Lake Taupo. He stayed in Taupo as a guest of YHA Taupo.

by David Whitley

 

 

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