New Zealand Odyssey Part IX – Pancakes, White Mountain and The Wonders of the South…

Feeling myself dissolving into the sands of Maraharu, the endless blue horizon before me and the exotic delights of the Abel Tasman rainforest, I felt once more the pull of the road.

Dragging myself away, my heart full of a strange tranquility I had never known, I rejoined my odyssey…afterall, who knew what wonders might lie around the next corner?

I took the winding hill roads and said goodbye to the sun-kissed vineyards of the Nelson and Marlborough regions. Passing through the thick coastal rainforests I joined the main highway and turned south towards the wildness of the South Island’s craggy coastlines and mountain ranges. That is New Zealand’s beauty and its magic…the drama of its ever-changing landscapes. Nowhere on earth, do you have a country only the size of Britain and yet with such varied geology. White sandy beaches and deserted islands, tropical jungles, active volcanoes, mountains, grasslands, fiordlands, moorland, temperate rainforests, huge freshwater lakes, giant sandhills…New Zealand has it all!

Leaving my rental car in Murchison, a small isolated town surrounded by towering hills in the heart of the Nelson Lakes National Park, I took a cheap bus and followed the highway west towards the coast, feeling the temperature visibly cool. With so few roads, dictated by the mountainous landscape, so many places I passed through felt like frontier towns, places completely out of time.

I hit the coast just south of Westport. Here the State Highway hugged the shoreline like a ribboning snake, giving the most amazing views out to sea. Again, with nothing but the wild ocean for thousands of miles, you were instantly reminded of just how remote New Zealand is and just how beautiful.

With the impenetrable forests of the Paparoa National Park on my left and long stretches of wind-blown beaches on my right, the landscape grew evermore wild and evermore spectacular. Not being much of a coach passenger, I stopped off at the suitably named Pancake Rocks and Blow Holes of Punakaiki. A weird and wonderful natural geological formation of…well…pancake stacked rocks, perched right on the water’s edge!

After whiling away most of the day, scrabbling over the rocks and trying not to fall into one of the many gaping holes that opened up before you, I caught another bus and continued south, my eyes inextricably drawn to the far off snowy peaks of the Southern Alps.

Trundling into Greymouth, the largest town I’d seen since leaving Nelson, I managed to find a lovely holiday cabin right on the beach, my base for the next few nights. Named after the mighty Grey River-Mawheranui, whose mouth Greymouth literally straddles, it was a strange sort of town. A mismatch somehow, of grey urban sprawl and border town with a dour kind of feel.

Nonetheless, my little beach hut was just the thing, going to sleep and waking with nothing but the sound of the waves! Utter bliss! Half the time I felt as if I had stumbled into Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or an Ingmar Bergman film, so hauntingly barren was the place!

Doing the touristy thing, I headed for the Kumara Junction and boarded a train on one of the world’s most spectacular train rides, the famous Arthur’s Pass. Linking Greymouth and the west coast of New Zealand to Christchurch in the east, it bestrides the country and takes in the most breathtaking scenery imaginable. What a trip! Following the valley floors, with mountainous peaks rising either side, the train climbed and took us up to the alpine heights of Arthur’s Pass, snaking its way through the lofty terrain, before plunging down to the flat Canterbury Plains surrounding Christchurch.

I spent a few hours wandering the very civilised and surprisingly English feeling city of Christchurch, before boarding the train for the spectacular return journey. One incredible journey I’ll never forget…but the best was to come.

Spending a few lazy days beach combing and exploring the area I set off again and headed for Hokitika, famous for its greenstone or jade, determined to buy some locally carved jewelery. But always, the looming mountains of the Southern Alps were calling to me in a way I just couldn’t explain.

And so, hauling my backpack and picking up another rental car, I succumbed to the pull of the mountains and headed towards the Franz Josef glacier. Taking the state highway once more, as it left the coast and wound its way inland over rushing rivers, valley basins and beside beautiful lakes, I felt myself falling in love once more with the sheer unspoilt majesty of the landscape.

Reaching West Coast, the nearest settlement to the glacier, I found a cheap place to stay and started my next adventure…

It was a bright February morning. The sky was the kind of electric blue you never really believe is real somehow. A perfect day. Cold but full of sunshine and possibilities.

I took my car, a run-down automatic transmission thing, down to this little air field…and then I saw it. The tiniest aeroplane I had ever seen! My banged up jalopy looked bigger!

Without much regard, I climbed into the small seat beside the pilot and off we went! Soaring  above the lower slopes of the Southern Alps. Trying desperately not to vomit all over the cock-pit, I stared out of the window, nodding at the pilot’s remarks while I kept my mouth firmly shut! (doesn’t happen often)

Rivers snaked beneath us. As we flew over the snow-capped mountains, Mount Cook loomed in the distance – New Zealand’s tallest mountain and the tallest in the Southern Hemisphere. Utterly stunning in its grandeur. Nausea disappeared. I looked on in astonishment as we circled Mount Cook’s flanks. I’d never seen anything so beautiful. All I could think of was…”I’ve found it! I’ve found my White Mountain!”

We left Mount Cook, Aoraki in Maori, and landed on a pristine snow field just above the Franz Josef glacier. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.

This was nature at its simplest and purest. Nothing but white and the startling blue above. The snow here had a covering of ice crystals which crunched beneath my feet as I left the plane and went walking. I followed the contours of the peaks around me and looked down to the glacier below with its gaping crevasses.

This was a once in a lifetime moment and the real stuff of magic.

With Mr. Agyk whispering in my head, the story of White Mountain began to unfold…

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New Zealand Odyssey Part VII – Volcanoes, Fendellin and the Road Less Travelled.

I left the bubbling visceral wonders of Rotorua and headed south, deeper into the heart of New Zealand’s North Island. Driving on long mostly empty roads in blissful sunshine with ‘The Cult’ blaring out of my rental car, I found myself with a constant smile on my face.

I headed towards Lake Taupo, a huge sunken supervolcano or caldera and not only the country’s largest  freshwater lake, but the largest in all of Australasia. The 485-square-mile caldera itself, not visible due to the lake waters, was the world’s largest known eruption in the past 70,000 years and tends to blow every 1,000 years. It’s overdue.

Stopping off first, I came to the extraordinary Huka Falls (Huka meaning ‘foam’ in Maori) and the Waikato River. One of New Zealand’s longest rivers, it suddenly narrows from 100m across to only 15m , as its squeezed into a granite canyon before dropping in a series of falls and rapids. The last waterfall being the most impressive, as approximately 220,000 litres per second tumbles over the final drop. Standing on a viewing platform perched just beside it, with the roar of the falls in my ears and the water vapour drenching me, was thrilling, but it was the astonishing colour of it which surprised me. The purest brightest blue.

I eventually left the falls, utterly soaked but gloriously happy and followed the highway south to the town of Taupo, nestling on the shores of Lake Taupo. The lake, more of an inland sea, is enormous, the town though, was small and welcoming. Cruising in an unhurried fashion along the lakefront and stopping for views, I found a cheap motel to call my base for the next few weeks. I dumped my equally enormous backpack, now getting almost too heavy with mementos to carry and checked into the Lakefront Motor Lodge. To my delight, my little room overlooked the lake and had the most stunning views.

I walked along the lakeshore losing myself in the beauty of it all and splashed out on a restaurant for my first evening meal. To describe Taupo as picturesque, is to do it a disservice. Watching spectacular sunsets over its shifting waters night after night, with the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park clearly visible in the distance, it became like a dream world for me and…a dream I didn’t want to wake from.

I spent lazy days exploring the town itself with its marinas and harbours, little shops and lack back bistros. Venturing out I visited the aptly named, the ‘Craters of the Moon’, a geothermal and volcanic lunar landscape that brought to life once more, just how powerful mother nature is. Then I tried some of the hot springs in the area. The sensation of having a very hot bubbling public bath, is strange to say the least, but oddly liberating (…no, I kept my bathing costume on at all times!).

But always, it was the volcanoes on the horizon that kept drawing me in. Packing some small provisions, I headed south, skirting around the eastern edge of the lake, towards the National Park.

Stopping halfway, I ventured off to the Kaingaroa Forest, the largest manmade forest in the world! Made entirely of plantation pines, with a few native ferns and species struggling to survive beneath the canopy, it was the strangest, spookiest forest I have ever visited. I loved the feeling of isolation but the silence was overwhelming, no birds, no animals. So alien to the rich diversity of the Waipoua Kauri Forest in the far north, or any of the woods I had wandered in.

Following the State Highway south as it hugged the lakeshore, I passed through Turangi at the southern most tip of Lake Taupo,  and entered the Tongariro National Park, one of only 28 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Trying to keep my excitement in check, I left the main highway or Desert Road as it’s known and came to the much smaller Lake Rotoaira. Sitting on the lake side I had a picnic lunch, watching black swans glide effortlessly as the mountainside behind vented sulphurous steam into the air. Everywhere I went, I found myself saying the same thing over and over, “I’ve found my Fendellin, I’ve found my Fendellin, ‘Lost Kingdom of Dragons!”

“Pass now beyond the mountains white

Where frosted rivers leap and spring,

Amongst the golden grasses light

Where fÿrrens dwell and soar and sing.

 

A land as old and fair as stars

Of snowy peaks and moonlit seas,

Of darkling woods we travel far

To gaze upon its silvery leaves.

 

Far East beyond heart’s lost desire

The birthplace of the eldest kin,

Through rising sun on wings of fire

Lies forgotten Fendellin.”

As I travelled further south, nothing could have prepared me for the awe-inspiring spectacle of Tongariro National Park’s crowning glory, its three active volcanoes, Mount Tongariro, the perfect cone of Mount Ngauruhoe and the monstrous size of the explosive giant, Mount Ruapehu!

Leaving the State Highway, I took the road less travelled into a world of epic fantasy and landscapes on a grandeur I could never have imagined before. Raw, untamed, magnificent and the true stuff of imagination!

Climbing the lower slopes of Mount Ruapehu, still steaming from eruptions only a few months before, camping beneath the stars in a sea of yellow gorse as I watched the sunsets bathe the volcanoes in gold…I found myself profoundly moved and in tears so many times, yet I have never felt freer.

Little did I realise while I was immersed in the whole majesty of it, that only a few years later, a certain Peter Jackson would use the same landscapes which had become such an inspiration to me and my first novel, ‘White Mountain’. As I travelled around, I kept seeing real-life locations for my ‘Darkling Trilogy’, suddenly brought to life in front of me. Watching the ‘Lord of the Rings’, some four years later, was made even more surreal and magical as a result, not only by recognising places I had visited but by seeing parts of my Fendellin used as their Mordor, my Kallorm used for their Fangorn! Very strange but thrilling!

But my awe-inspiring and magical odyssey was not over yet…

Inspiration for the soul…

Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis, by Vaughan Williams.

One of my favourite composers is Vaughan Williams, my favourite piece of music? Probably, ‘Lark Ascending’, but THIS comes a very close second…

Haunting, profoundly moving, enigmatic, powerful, beautiful…how could you not be inspired when you listen to this?

Now THIS is the theme music for White Mountain! Check it out: http://youtu.be/kxdOYgTXtH8