Rakiura … the land of glowing skies

October 2020

Somehow, I had not been to Stewart Island before, despite it being New Zealand’s 3rd largest island – and then I manage to go twice in one year lol.  There will be more about my second trip in another blog post (something to look forward to lol). I had also intended this to be one post, but after writing it, it seems better suited to two – I don’t want to bore you more than necessary lol.

For the first time since I returned to New Zealand in February as the world shut down, I was back at the airport and on a plane (I must admit I missed it) and it was a beautiful day for flying. Firstly a flight from Christchurch to Invercargill (around 1 hour 20 minutes), New Zealand’s most southerly city, and then the short hop from Invercargill to Oban, the only town on Rakiura (only 10-20 minutes depending on the wind).  The beautiful day lead to some lovely areial photos (I must always have the window seat for this reason!)

Invercargill is truly a small city airport and Stewart Island Flights is most definitely a small town airline.  They fly only between Stewart Island and Invercargill on their two Britten Norman Islanders which take just 10 passengers (including the pilot) – they also have a Piper Cherokee which is even smaller.  The pilots end up doing much of the work, including taking the passengers to the plane (we had to walk through the baggage area to get to the plane 😂), loading the baggage and of course do the inflight safety briefing. 

The flight was a little bumpy and we did not seem to be very high above the ocean …. but why would you go high when you are landing in 15 minutes!  It took us out over the small town of Bluff as we said  goodbye to the mainland (as we South Islanders like to call the South Island) and across Foveaux Strait on to the first amazing views of Stewart Island with its bush covered hills, perfect half- moon bays with clear  turquoise water.

We landed on the airstrip just outside of Oban and the plane was quickly unloaded (and reloaded for its quick turnaround and flight back to Invercargill) and we were bused in to the depot, a short walk from the South Sea Hotel where we were staying.   If you get the opportunity to travel to Stewart Island, I would highly recommend the flight – not only is it quick, you get amazing views and avoid having to travel to Bluff and then ferry (a far longer journey).

Stewart Island or Rakiura (meaning ‘glowing skies’ after the Aurora Australis you can sometimes see from the island) has a long history of Māori habitation (around the 13th century) and was then settled by European sealers and whalers from around 1800 and subsequently loggers who set up a number of large timber mills on the island.  It got its name Stewart Island from William Stewart, the first mate on one of the early sealer ships.  Thankfully in the 1890’s a large part of the island was protected from milling or development which leaves us with the beautiful bush covered island we see today.

Oban itself, is named after Oban in Scotland (which means little bay) and is based around Halfmoon Bay and has around 380 permanent inhabitants and as we wandered around the town (it does not take long) it was filled with bird song.  Although it was a beautiful sunny day, this gave an impression of a much warmer day than it was, and the wind was bitterly cold.  Despite this, the local children from the school (just across the road from the waterfront) were wearing shorts and t-shirts and playing in the water!! 

We stopped by the Department of Conservation (DoC) office to check out the local walking tracks and I was drawn to the beautiful carving they have outside.  It tells the tale of Kewa, a great whale who chewed through the South Island, separating Stewart Island/Rakiura and creating Te Ara a Kewa or the pathway of Kewa, also known as Foveaux Strait.

We had overheard an a conversation in a shop (there aren’t many of them) where a couple of the locals discussed how lovely the day was and that it didn’t happen very often! Upon hearing that, we were determined to make the most of it and headed out on a couple of the short walks around the town.  They were lovely walks and I was amazed with the amount of tuis were saw.  As usually, I spent far too long taking photos in the hope of that perfect shot.  I think I did ok lol

For dinner we headed to the local pub, one of the few places there is to eat outside of peak season (although there are not many more options in high season), and it was very busy.  We were lucky to get a table (as we had not booked) but managed to enjoy a good meal.   Not only was a good meal but it was a big one and we struggled with our full bellies up the hill behind the town to Observation Point to see the sunset over Paterson Inlet.   It was so beautiful and peaceful (except for the occasional tui or kereru) and well worth the struggle.  By this time, the wind has also dropped so it was significantly warmer.

On the way back to town it was clear the South Island Kaka (one of New Zealand’s native parrots) were out living it up for the evening.  1,2,3,4 on the trees … and lots flying around.  It was amazing to see.  And to round off the day – we headed to the wharf to spot a few little blue penguins coming in for the night.  Sadly, it was too dark for decent photos, but it was great to see them.

We were actually staying in the accommodation attached to the hotel (just across the road from the wharf) – we were in a motel style room out the back, but there are also options to stay in the pub building itself which might be a little noisy if you were not planning on joining the drinking in the pub just below you – that said, you would get to enjoy the sea view.

Our first morning on the island and we up to what looked like some amazing light.  Never one to miss out on a photo opportunity, I threw on my shoes and coat over my Pajamas and quickly walked the short walk to the water front and it was well worth it, the sunrise was beautiful – so moody and colourful.  The forecast was for rain and it looked like it might be coming later in the day but not yet, so we definitely wanted to get out early.  

We did two 2 walks – Fern Gully and Ryan’s Creek.  Both walks you can do from Oban and about 10 km in total.  The tracks were good with just a few small some muddy areas, thankfully nowhere near as bad as it was for some friends who had been here just a couple weeks before.  There were not so many birds on these walks, but we did spot a bellbird and some oyster catchers when we made it down to the sea… 

At one point it appeared to be raining bark on the track, we looked up to see a Kaka ripping apart a branch and throwing the discarded bits to the ground. Typical Kaka (and their cousin Kea) behavior and they are well known for their destructive nature!  Again, it was a bit dark for any decent photos but amazing to stand and watch for a while. 

Back in town and we had lunch at the small café – as I mentioned before, at this time of year there are only 3 places to ‘dine out’ and the small supermarket where you can buy sandwiches and groceries etc.  We were sure to spend money at each of them. 

We had been lucky to avoid rain so far (although the photo taken just after lunch certainly looks like the calm before the storm) but our luck ran out when we decided to check out the small souvenir shop – just as we got there, the rain started and it got heavier and heavier so we decided to make a run for it and get back to the room😂.  I won’t lie, the rain was a good excuse to relax for the afternoon.

Thankfully the rain cleared in time for our evening Kiwi spotting tour.  I know a few people who have been lucky to see a kiwi walking around the roads just out of town, but as we did not have a car and wanted to have a higher change of spotting the elusive national bird of New Zealand we booked a tour with Ulva’s Guided Walks.  We did not regret it.

As you may know, Kiwis are nocturnal and so our tour started at 9pm (of course the time varies depending on the time of the sunset throughout the year).   It’s worth noting that despite being nocturnal, it is actually possible to have a kiwi encounter in broad daylight, if you are incredibly lucky.  Some say this is because there are fewer predators here, but it may also be due to the fact that in mid-summer (their breeding season), there are very few hours of darkness this far south so they need to feed during the day as well.

There is a population of around 13,000 Stewart Island kiwi (a sub species of Tokoeka, one of the five species of Kiwi), found only on Stewart Island and are considered a threatened species.  Thankfully the island is currently free from possums, stoats and ferrets which is vital to the health of the population.

We met up with our guide and where driven only a short distance out of town, where we parked up and walked into a grassy area, just off the road.  Not far away we came across our first pair of kiwi (kiwis are generally monogamous and pair for long lengths of time).  We had red light torches to light the way – interesting it is the same technical we had used in Zimbabwe when hunting with lions, as the red light does not startle the game (and in this case the kiwi) like white light does.  And with this light we had a great view of the kiwi who do not seem particularly by our presence as they when on their way feeding, as some point coming quite close to us.

After this first encounter, we headed inside a predator proof fence (oddly set up the US based Dancing Star Foundation – Dancing Star Foundation – Biodiversity Conservation – Translocations) were we came across another pair of kiwi.  Interesting, the kiwi inside the fence where more skittish than the ones outside.  Apparently because they have less predators … and visitors in general and are therefore less habituated. 

It was a beautiful evening, after the afternoon rain.  The sky was full of stars (including shooting stars) and the calls of morepork and kiwi filled the air.  I cannot recommend the experience enough, and the chance to see our elusive national bird is one not to be missed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 …coming soon.

The wild, wild west

(August 2020)

On my last trip to the West Coast of the South Island I headed south to the glaciers, on this trip (this time solo) I headed on the road less travelled – heading north to Karamea, the northern most town on the road north.

It was going to be a long driving day for me on my own, so I headed out early which isn’t always a great idea as I went through a couple of areas of thick fog before heading into the mountains and through Lewis Pass.   I made sure I had a few stops to keep fresh, firstly in the small town of Reefton for some lunch and then again as I passed through Buller Gorge – made friends with a weka who clearly was after food (people must feed it the way it came running up to me 😔).  My final stop was another quick one in Westport before the final 1.5 hour drive through tiny towns (as with many of the west coast towns, many were once booming mining towns) and windy narrow roads.

After a total of about 5.5 hours of driving, I reached Karamea (population 700) and checked in at my cute Air BnB cottage in time for a nap (driving is exhausting you know) before heading down to the beach to find a sunset spot.  Back on the rugged west coast and I have the beaches to myself.  Talk about social distancing at its best!  Probably worth noting, New Zealand had had a community outbreak of COVID-19 a few days early.  Thankfully (for me) it was in Auckland, but in response the city had quickly been moved back into Level 3 (of the NZ Covid response) and the rest of the country into Level 2.  I was grateful I could still get away and had checked with the Air BnB hosts that they were ok with me still coming and to be honest, my whole trip was pretty much planned to be completely solo with little interaction anyway.

I had planned to end my day with a soak in my outdoor tub but unfortunately the lights around it were not working 😠 – I contacted the host and they had promised that they would be fixed for the next evening, as it was one of the main reasons for booking the accommodation. (It still looked pretty in the daylight without the lights.)  FYI, I will travel for lots of reasons, outdoor hot tubs are one of them lol.

I thought the windy roads between Karamea and Westport were tough going, but they were a walk in the park compared to the road I had to take into the Ōpārara Basin in the Kahurangi National Park.   The road was unsealed and one lane in many areas, oh and don’t forget all the blind corners!  Thankfully, I only passed one car on the way in.

Kahurangi National Park is New Zealand’s second largest national park, and one of the newest, created in 1996.  The area has massive importance due it its diverse flora and fauna, as well as it’s ancient geology.  Incredibly its flora is the most diverse of any national park in the country!!

I came to the Ōpārara Basin to see some of the 25 million year old limestone caves and arches but was met by beautiful bird song as I set of on the short walk to the Moria Gate.  The bush here was like a primeval lost world (being far enough north and low enough altitude to avoid the worst effects of the more recent ice ages) and the track had sections where hanging moss covered everything around the track and with the winter morning sunlight filtering through the trees it was stunning.  I was the only person on the track, and I loved it!

There were weka running around on the track, completely unafraid but probably trying to suss out what they could steal from me 🥴.  I have early childhood memories of thieving wekas (stealing shells we would leave outside) so they always bring a smile to my face.  I then had a visit from my first South Island robin, I was so excited I high-fived myself (so sad I know but hey, there was no one else around). 

The Moria Gate arch was well worth the scramble through the cave to get under it – oddly named back in 1984 after the gate in the Lord of the Rings trilogy – I have not read the books so I can’t comment on the similarity lol.  That aside, it was stunning, with tannin filled water – that is water that basically looks like tea from minerals leached out of the soil and stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

Back out on the tracking, they have cute Moa footprint stepping stones on part of the track.  Moa used to live in the area, and you can see bones in some places (although I sadly did not spot any).  Just in case you are not familiar with them, Moa are extinct cousins of Ostrich who used to roam New Zealand up until about 500 years ago.  There were numerous species, the largest of which could get up to about 2 metres in height!!!  I can only imagine what it would have been like to bump into one of those on a bush walk? lol

The walk to the Moria gate was only a short one but not surprisingly it took me much longer than it was supposed to as I keep stopping to listen to the birds and study the moss growing on the trees 😂.  No problem, I had all morning. 

The next spot on this short walk was the ‘Mirror Tarn’.  Now I was not sure what a tarn is, but I found a spot by the river where there was an incredible reflection.  There were no signs and it was not exactly on a track, more of a well-worn path – but nope 🤔 – it was not the Mirror Tarn which was further on the track but nowhere near as good as the first one – maybe still not enough sun? 

It was still nice, but I wish they had a bench or two at the nice spots so I could just sit for a bit and I needed to be careful of not trying to step out too far as the track just turned in to bog and then ‘tarn’ 🥴 (which turns out to be a small lake).

As I neared the end of the track a helicopter shattered the peace – they were bringing in rocks to extend the track, so you don’t have to walk along the road back to the car park. The workers seemed shocked to see me 😂.

Not surprisingly there was no phone reception in the area and in this scenario I use Maps.me.  As long as you download the required maps when you do have Wi-Fi/reception, it has all the walking tracks as well as roads so I could see where I was at any time.  I also used it a lot when travelling abroad (back when that was a thing) I did not have coverage. 

The next track I took was to the Ōpārara arch.  It was not such a good track – with some stairs, some muddy parts and some track maintenance going on.  My map seemed to show a look out past the arch but there did not appear to be any marked path, so after making a couple of attempts to go further I gave up on the rocky, slippery track! I spoke to a couple of the track workers who said I had gone as far as there was to go.

The Ōpārara arch is much bigger that the Moria arch (200 metres deep, 49 meters wide and 37 metres high) but as you can only go in halfway, you can’t really see the full effect like the other one.  It is reputed to be the largest limestone arch in Australasia so definitely worth the short walk, particularly when you are joined by a couple of cheeky robins – they always make everything worthwhile.

And so, from bush to beach and I headed to back to the sea and then headed north to the end of the road – as far north as you can drive on the West Coast.  It was an amazing drive as the road turns in to a dirt track, lined by wonderful Nikau palms.  At the end of the road is where you find the start of the Heaphy track, one of New Zealand’s great walks.

It was beautiful and warm by this time, despite being mid-winter and there were a few more people around (I mean like 5 people rather than the 2 I had seen in the morning lol) and about a gazillion sandflies 🤦🏻‍♀️. 

I had decided to walk a short part of the Heaphy track (about an hour) to a beach called Scott’s Beach and after I had seen it from the lookout I could not get there fast enough – the 30 minutes seemed to take forever – I kept looking at my watch am asking myself was I there yet?  lol

I spent a little time at in the picnic area near the beach, taking Miromiro (or Tomtit) photos and eating my scrogen (normally a mixture of nuts, dried fruit and small bits of chocolate to give some energy on hikes, though my was more just a bag of chocolate with a few nuts 😂)!!  I sat there till the sandflies got the better of me and I walked back through the Nikau Palm walk – although you can find Nikau palms all over the place on the coast it real gives a real tropical feel and smell – I just love it.  

Back at the car park/campground I sat at a bench to finish my lunch, closely watched by a weka – clearly the lack of mobile reception in the area means they had not received the COVID level changes and 2m social distancing requirements lol. 

Public Service Announcement: As I was spending the day on my own, in areas of no mobile reception, I made sure I had all weather clothing, some snacks and that my partner knew exactly where I was going and when I expected to be back just in case I had an accident of some sort.  Despite its beauty, the wilderness can also through you a curve ball when you least expect it, so it is important to be prepared for all eventualities.

I drove back to Karamea and stopped to check out a statue on the way into the town – it depicts Maori chief Te Maia ‘riding’ a Hōkioi or Haast Eagle, the biggest eagle that ever flew.  They had a wingspan of up to 3 metres and preyed on Moa (which I discussed earlier) amongst other things (including, allegedly, small children). They became extinct around the same time as the Moa.

The Hōkioi is the spiritual guardian of the Karamea estuary and the statue is of Te Maia Kahurangi – the man-eagle riding his Hōkioi ‘brother’.  In a nutshell, Te Maia ended up resting in a Hōkio nest, next to its egg, during one of his long hot walks.  When the egg hatched, he helped raise it and they became ‘brothers’ and it learnt to fly with Te Maia on it’s back, regularly flying around the area.

Back at my cottage and the tub lights had been fixed and I managed to get a 30 minute soak before the rain came down!  But believe me it was a magical 30 minutes under the lights and the beautiful flowers, listening to the Wekas calling in the distance.

The next morning and I was back on the road, heading back south towards Westport, Museum in Westport.  It’s hard to believe the how busy all the small towns I had just driven through used to be!

Just south of Westport and I made my way up to the Lighthouse at Cape Foulwind (named by Captain Cook due to the atrocious weather that obscured it from his view in 1770).  There is an easy walk from the Lighthouse to the seal colony at Tauranga Bay, but I decided just to head up to the Lighthouse from one end and then drive to the other end and walk into the seal colony from there.  It was a beautiful day and a beautiful track, and I was remaindered, yet again, what a beautiful country I am lucky enough to call home.   

I spent some time watching a few seal pups playing in a small pool just below the track, as the adults lazed in the sun, but a fellow walker pointed out a group of young seals in a pool on a small offshore island and I am so glad she did.  They were going crazy, jumping and diving and splashing about.  It was just at the limit of my camera zoom so there are no good photos, but I could have watched them playing for hours.

Of course, I could not watch them for hours as I had to drive a little further down the coast and check in to my next Air BnB cottage – and it was amazing.  Just a small, but perfectly formed studio room with a view out to sea.  I had a quick walk on the beach, stopping to watch a couple of surfers before returning to my room to enjoy the sunset from my deck with a glass of wine. 

As the sun set, the sky filled with thousands of stars and the Milky way was clear.  I had planned to try and take some star photos, but my camera was just not up for it.  I had downloaded an app on my phone to try and take photos with that – the outcome was better than the camera but still not great lol.  Despite the photography fail, it was amazing just sitting there in the darkness, listening to nature.  The sea and the wekas calling (from somewhere very close).  No light or noise pollution. (There are stars in this photo – honest lol)

The last day of my trip came around far too soon, and after a quick walk on the beach I was ready for the drive home.  At the last minute (literally at the intersection) I decided to take the southern route home which would take me along the Great Ocean Road and through Arthur’s Pass.  The route should have only taken me 10 minutes longer than the northern route, but with all the stops that was not the case 🤔😂

The diversion was definitely worth it as I got to stop at the Truman track.  A short track just off the road which takes you down to an amazing hidden beach.  Incredible rock formations and a small waterfall which was practically its own little ecosystem – oh and don’t forget the sandflies.  It was hard work working through the thick lay of tiny stones, but it was worth the effort – particularly when I saw penguin tracks.

I made another quick stop at Punakaiki to see the famous Pancake Rocks without the bus loads of international tourists and then on through the mountains (passing some great reflections in the alpine lakes) and homeward bound.

The Wild West

(July 2020)

When we started planning this trip, the thought was to take advantage of the cheap deals many of the camper van companies were running, trying to ignite some business as they were suffering without international tourists.  Unfortunately, or as it turns out, fortunately, I could not get a booking as they were quickly sold out … so, instead of a budget campervan, we ended up staying in a wonderful (but way less than budget) 2 bed apartment (more about that later).

This was definitely a real win for us.  If you are a regular reader, you will know that I often travel on my own, but other times with my partner, friends or other groups.  Even then, I am happy to go off and do my own thing – we don’t always have to do the same thing all the time right?  This is where the campervan may have been an issue as when I want to head off early for a morning walk, and my partner wanted to sleep in, I would have had to drag him out of bed to buckle up for the journey.   A less than ideal situation, for us anyway.

And so we left home and headed off in the sunshine toward the great divide (otherwise know as the Southern Alps).  It was a beautiful morning, and the mountains were looking stunning.  A quick stop for another one of those ‘world famous in New Zealand’ pies at the Sheffield Café – if you have not picked up on it, Kiwis love a good pie lol.

As we neared the mountains, the clouds started to roll in and by the time we reached Arthurs Pass village it was snowing!  I had spent some time deliberating whether we needed snow chains or not, and finally erred on the side of caution.  It was definitely the right decision as we would not have been able to go any further if we did not have them.

BUT … putting them on was another matter lol. When I had picked up the chains in the morning before leaving, the person had the shop had quickly showed me how to do it and thank goodness I had decided to video it!!  Even still, it was massively challengingly putting them on in the snow and after much struggling, we got them on and headed off slowly into the mountains.

We didn’t actually have to drive very far before we could take the chains off again (which turned out to be equally challenging but we got there in the end) and we could head down towards the west coast … through rain and then out in to blue skies again. 

The drive from Christchurch to Franz Josef (our destination) is around 5.5 hours and so we arrived around 2pm and checked in to our amazing room at the Rainforest Retreat.  As it was a birthday trip (for me), we had splashed out a deluxe room – 2 rooms, 2 bathrooms, living area and, the ‘pièce de résistance’ was our private hot tub on deck with a beautiful view of the mountains.  It was amazing to be able to lay in bed in the morning, watching the first sun hit the mountain tops.

Situated in the ‘Glacier Region” a UNESCO World Heritage area, Franz Josef, the town, is not surprisingly named after the nearby glacier, Franz Josef Glacier, which in turn is named after Franz Josef I of Austria by Julius von Haast.  Von Haast was a German geologist who explored and mapped much of the South Island in the mid 1800’s.  More recently, the official name of the town was changed to Franz Josef /Waiau.

The town is home to under 500 people, possibly less now given that its existence is based around tourism, but they struggle on, trying to fill the 3000+ tourist beds in the town.  I was glad that we were able to do our bit and support the hotels and restaurants in the area.

The next morning, we drove the short 30 minutes to nearby (and even smaller) Fox Glacier – another town named after it’s nearby glacier, this time named after Sir William Fox, New Zealand’s Prime Minister from 1869 to 1972. 

Just passed the town is Lake Matheson, one of the ‘must see’ sites in the area.  On a beautiful day like this one was, there are great reflections of the mountains in the lake.  The lake is surrounded by a beautiful reserve, with well maintained pathways and on this still, icy morning we were not disappointed – the reflections were AMAZING.

I may not have got to see Mt Cook a few weeks early when I was in the Mackenzie Country, but we got a perfect view on this day – of both Mt Cook and Mt Tasman.

After a coffee at the lovely café near the lake, overlooking views of the glacier and mountains, we headed back to Fox Glacier (the town) for some lunch – again, trying to spread our spending around the small businesses.

The afternoon took me to Ōkārito, 25 km from Franz Josef, in search of a sunset.  Now if you think Franz Josef and Fox Glacier are small towns, Ōkārito has a population of only 30 people today, though it was once a booming town with a population of 4000 people during the gold rush in the mid-1860s.  It’s hard to imagine what you see now as a bustling town, but I imagine it was something like the towns depicted in “the Luminaries”.

After a short walk up to a lookout point and along the beach, I made my way to the lagoon. During the spring/summer it is home to many species of wading birds, including the kotuku or White Heron (this is one of the few breeding areas in New Zealand). The Ōkārito wharf is a stunning backdrop to many photos I had seen and it did not disappoint. It also has a small display about the town in it’s heyday which was worth a look. There are also wild kiwi in the area, so I definitely think I need to come back for a longer visit to see some of the stunning birdlife.

Back in Franz Josef and we passed the busy restaurants and headed into Snakebite Brewery which for some reason was almost empty.  It was a shame as the food was great, the music was great, and the snakebites (a mix of Beer and Cider) were as good (or bad lol) as I remember from when I use to drink them in London in my youth lol. 

For our final morning in Franz Josef, I wanted to see the glacier (which you can barely see from the township), so I was up early and drove the short distance to the car park.  Unfortunately, I could not get very close as the river was too big to allow people to cross it, I so only saw from a distance. If I was 100 years earlier I would have been able to walk right up to the face of it and it was sad to see how much it had receded in the last 100 years or so.  Hard to believe that 18,000 years ago (really just a short time in geologically terms), the glacier extended to the sea, 19kms from today’s terminal face.

The Maori name for Franz Josef Glacier is Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere or The tears of Hine Hukatere, after a tragic love story.  From franzjosefglacier.com:

Hine Hukatere was extremely strong and fearless and loved climbing in the mountains. She persuaded her lover Wawe to climb with her. Wawe was less experienced in the mountains, but enjoyed accompanying his beloved.

An avalanche hit the lovers as they were climbing, and Wawe was swept from the peaks to his death. Hine Hukatere was heart-broken and her grief caused her to cry rivers of tears, which flowed down the mountain and were frozen by the gods. Her frozen tears of aroha (love) stay as a reminder of her grief and give the glacier its name – Kā Roimata ō Hine Hukatere (The tears of Hine Hukatere).

We had a late check out (12 noon is apparently West Coast 10am 😂 – ‘West Coast time’ is clearly similar to ‘Island time’), so there was time for one more quick soak in the hot tub (when you pay for the luxury of having your own personal hot tub, you use it at every opportunity right?) before packing up and hitting the road again.  We had planned to fill up on petrol before leaving Franz Josef but the fuel prices were almost 50 cents a litre more expensive than back home so we only put in enough to get to our next stop, Hokitika, where we hoped it would be cheaper – thankfully it was.

As we left Franz Josef, we picked up a hitch hiker – a girl from America who had been working in Auckland when lock down started. She was made redundant just after lockdown so decided to stay and travel rather than go home (though as I write this, she may have made it home). She had been waiting for about 1.5 hours (as there had not been much traffic) so glad we picked her up and she made it to Greymouth in time for her train back to Christchurch👍🏻.

The final night of our wild west mini break was spent in Hokitika – another town founded during the 1860’s gold rush when it was an important river port.  Today it brands itself as a ‘Cool Little Town’ – nothing like being your own cheerleader lol.  We had a lovely ocean view room, overlooking the wild coastline and of course a perfect viewing point for the sunset. 

The town has several heritage buildings around the town, but the most it’s most famous site, is the driftwood Hokitika sign along the waterfront.  I visited it at numerous times of the day to attempt to get the ‘perfect’ shot and I imagine it would be crazy if it was busy with the normal number of tourists.  As it was it was busy enough for me and somewhat annoying with families allowing their kids to climb on the fragile structure, breaking it in the process – though I am sure it is not the first time it has been broken!!! 

After dark I drove a few minutes out of town to Glow worm dell – to be honest it was somewhat of an anticlimax 🥴 – I guess it was technically a ‘dell’ and there were glow worms, but it was a tiny area, just off the main road with what appeared to be a handful of worms!!  If you have not seen them before, then perhaps it might be worth it, but if you have been lucky enough to see them in all their glory (as is possible elsewhere) then it is probably not worth the visit.

Our final morning was spent walking along the wild beach, it is beautiful in its wildness with wonderful views of the mountains on one side, and the Tasman sea on the other.  A great way to clear the cobwebs before the 3 hour drive back through the mountains – thankfully snow free this time lol.

What a great break and glad we could get out and support the local businesses who are struggling with a lack of tourists.

Khiva – saving the best for last

After a leisurely morning (not common on this trip so made the most of it) we boarded a bus for a 9am departure for our long day of driving to Khiva – around 8-9 hours.  Thankfully, it was a big 30 seater bus for only 14 people, so we had plenty of room to spread out and make ourselves comfortable.

Today’s drive took as through the Kyzylkum desert – Kyzylkum meaning ‘red sand’ in Turkic languages which covers an area of almost 300,000km2 over Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.  It sits between two rivers, Amu Barya and Syr Darya and for some time the road ran along the Amu Barya and we could see the border posts running along the Turkmen side of the river border.

Interestingly there is an autonomous region situated in the desert called Karakalpakstan, the capital of which is Nukus.  The Karakalpaks are closely related to the Kazaks but there is little written about their origins.  Despite being part of the Soviet Union during their occupation it was still considered an autonomous republic and because of this, and its remote location, very few Russians ever visited the region,. For these reasons, the area was apparently used to store ‘forbidden’ art during the Soviet period.  (Forbidden art being images that depicted sad people, cloudy skies, rich people 🤔 🤔 – because of course in the Soviet Union everyone was happy and equal, and the sun was always shining!)

The first 100km of the road was terrible but thankfully it improved after that when we reached the concrete part of the road.  A concrete road seemed odd at first but made a lot of sense as it does not melt in the high heat the desert can experience!  I was also surprised to find clean western toilets at roadside cafés/restaurants – basically in the middle of nowhere 🤔.  This was a very pleasant surprise. 

As with all good road trips in the region, we passed several Ladas, many stacked with so many heavy bags I was surprised they could move at all lol

The final hour took us back on a bad road as the desert turned into green fields as we approached the city of Khiva. 

When we arrived, we had some free time and I took the chance to start to explore.  Our hotel was close to the walls of the old or inner city (known as Itchan Kala) and the route in to the old city took me through a labyrinth of dirt streets with mud walls where people lived and were going about their normal business, children playing and people watering down the dust.  Many of the houses had chillies hanging outside the doors which apparently provide spiritual protection for those who live there.

Once through the houses, you arrive in the centre of the old city where you find the monuments, the traders and the paved streets and I was just in time for sunset so I stopped off for a beer to watch the setting sun – it was definitely worth the wait as it was spectacular behind the famous landmarks.

For dinner we were treated to a well-known Uzbek dish (and a speciality of Khiva) called Shivit Oshi.  Bright green noodles which have been infused with dill, giving them not only their colour but their tasty flavour.  (Clearly you can tell from the photo that I am more interested in eating the food than taking a photo of it!!  The photography is always an afterthought lol.)

The following day, the group walking tour was not starting until 10am so I jumped at another opportunity to get out early to explore on my own.  It was cool and peaceful and for me, the perfect time to be exploring, passing children going to school and street cleaners out and about sweeping the streets. And the best thing – virtually no tourists – I wish all day could be like this 😂🤦🏻‍♀️.  Apparently, the city receives less tourists than other Uzbek cities because of it’s out of the way location, but I think it is probably my favourite city we visited in Uzbekistan.

Khiva started life as a Silk Road caravan stop more than 2,500 years ago and the old city was the first site in the country to be listed by UNESCO on their World Heritage list. 

Legend has it, the city was founded by Shem, a son of Noah (of the Ark fame).  After the great flood, he was wandering in the desert and dreamt of 300 torches.   He believed this to be a good omen so he a dug well and built a fortress.  (Apparently, the well still exists today but it is in someone’s garden!) The name Khiva is said to have come from “Khey Vakh” – meaning “What a pleasure”, which is what people exclaimed when they tasted the water from Shem’s well!

Historically Khiva was ruled by a Genghisid dynasty (Huns who were descendants of Genghis Khan) and in the 17th century, it was home to a large slave market and it is thought that many of the slaves (mostly Persian) were used to construct the city walls we see today.

The current city walls sit around Itchan Kala (the inner city) and it is believed that the foundations were laid in the 10th century, however much of the current day walls (up to 10 metres in height and 6 metres thick in some places) date back to the 17th century.  Our local guide (Maxhfirat) told us that the width of the walls (at the top) was important as they allowed carriages to drive around them and deliver ammunition during battles.

There are 4 monumental gates into the Itchan Kala today – north, south, east and west.  People had to pay tax at the western gate to enter the inner city to sell the goods.  Oddly, this is still somewhat true today as tourists have to pay/purchase entrance tickets at the western gate to enter (though you can just walk through the others without a ticket check lol). 

Khiva was a centre for education so there are many madrassahs within the walls of the inner city, but there are no functioning Mosques or madrassahs today.    Our guide told us about the long process of education at the height of Khiva’s golden years.  It took 6 years of study to become a teacher and 10 years to be a judge!  During the final exam, the students had to ‘invent’ something – if they didn’t, they would have to study another 3 years.  Luckily all these years of education were free!

For our day of sightseeing, it was a pleasant 32c but it can get up to 50 and there is very little rain. (It can also get as low as -20C in the winter!) Most of the main monuments face north to catch a breeze for natural ventilation.

And so we started our guided tour of some of the 50+ historical monuments in the inner city and we started with what is the main symbol of Khiva – the beautiful, but unfinished blue tower (the fat one lol) – official name Kalta Minor (meaning Short Minaret).  It was supposed to be a great minaret, between 70-110m tall depending on your source, but when the Khan (Muhammad Amin Khan) died fighting in Iran in 1855, his brother who succeeded him, did not continue the build so it stayed at 29m and 14.5m diameter at the base.  It is also the only minaret in Central Asia completely covered in glazed tiles which is part of its beauty. 

There are many legends as to why it was not finished and the one our guide told us was that the Bukhara Khan was jealous of the Khiva Khan building the tallest minaret, so he asked the same master to build a taller one for him in Bukhara (in some stories he has already agreed to do this). The Khiva Khan heard about this and said he would kill the master when he was finished in Khiva so he could not build another one.  The master learnt of the threat and escaped the city – never to finish the Khiva minaret, nor to build one anywhere else.

The tiles are in 3 colours – Blue for the sky, white for the pure soul and turquoise for Islam and nature.  It is not a coincidence that these are the same colours on the Uzbek flag.  It was so beautiful and to be honest I don’t believe photos do it justice.  I kept finding myself drawn back to it to see it in different lights, from different actions.

Our next stop was one of the Khan palaces, the earliest one, built in the 17th century.  The palace effectively has 3 walls – the outer city walls, the inner city walls and then the palace walls. 

The grand reception hall was made up of several parts including an area where guests were reviewed and taught how to behave in front of the Khan who sat outside in the summer and inside in the winter.  It even has different entry doors depending on the status of the visitors.  Of course, the Khan had a special door just for him.  He even had a yurt in the outside area where he accepted people from nomadic tribes.

Our guide explained the incredible skill required to build and tile these rooms.  The tiles of these era were made by masters called ‘magicians’ – the tiles are not in line with each other to ensure the weight is equally dispersed but despite this the pattern appears as one – as if like magic!

Did you know that there are two types of mosques?  An everyday Mosque and a Friday Mosque – not surprisingly, the Friday Mosques tend to be bigger and grander as everyone prays together on the holy day, including the Khan. The Djuma (or Juma) Mosque is a unique example of a Friday mosque as it is one of the few Mosques without a domed roof and because it has 218 wooden columns supporting its roof.  As it lacks the domed roof, they used ceramic jars for acoustics so that capacity of 5,000 people could hear clearly!

The pillars are all different as they have been donated by different families/people over the years.  Apparently 4-5 pillars date back to the original 10th century structure, and 8 are from the 12th century.  One in particular (with a ying yang symbol) was donated in the 14th century by a Chinese Silk Road trader. 

There are several really interesting techniques used to maintain the columns throughout the years.   Firstly, the use of camel wool in middle between the column and the and pillar at the base.  Apparently, this not only helps protect the column in earthquakes as it absorbs some of the movement, but it also stops bugs getting into the wood as the camel wool has special smell that insects don’t like!  Secondly, a Mulberry tree is planted in the middle of the open area to help protect the pillars from humidity.

Unfortunately, the Mosque was used as a storage room during Soviet times and all the rice and wheat bought lots of termites so many of the columns have required replacement in more recent years.   That said, it was crazy to me, that wooden pillars from the 10th century are just left for people to touch … if something existed like this at home is would be inside an environmentally controlled barrier!!!

It really is a stunning and unique piece of ancient architecture and a perfect location of another pre wedding photo shoot with another stunning couple.   👍🏻

We next visited another palace and definitely the most elaborate.  Tash-Khauli, the main palace of the Khiva rulers, built between 1830-1838 for Allakuli-Khan.  Legend has it the Khan was not happy that it took 8 years to build as he wanted it finished in 2 years and numerous master builders lost their heads over the delay!

The whole palace is made up of a labyrinth of corridors making it difficult for any intruders to find their way in or out – thankfully, our guide knew her way around!  The corridors are cool, even in the heat due to the thickness of the walls and it was incredible as you keep walking out of the cool dark corridors into beautiful sun filled courtyards.  The Khan’s chambers and harem were reachable by just one secret corridor.  Not surprisingly, the Khan’s room is the largest and most elaborately decorated.

Speaking of the harem, did you know that the Khan could legally have only 4 wives, but of course he can supplement them with concubines (of which he had around 40).  Now that is certainly enough to keep a man busy, especially as he had to give all 4 of his legal wives equal attention as any of their children could be the future Khan!  Apparently, the Khan would choose his successor based on exam results!

The Concubines on the other hand had no rights and nor did their children, but they could study in madrassahs which is something they may not otherwise have been able to do.  Concubines, who were always very beautiful, were only ‘in service’ for 2-3 years on average.  They were very well paid, got expensive presents and in most cases could go on to have a good marriage with an upper class man.  For this reason, parents were often more than happy for their daughters to become Concubines to the Khan.  Concubines were also sourced from the slave market (which finished in 1873), these girls, often from Russia or other parts of Europe and upon the end of their ‘service’ were given their freedom.

From time to time, wives and concubines would get jealous and poison each other if they thought they were getting special treatment, hence why the Khan had a secret corridor to his room so they could not see who he was favouring.  If only the walls could talk in the Khan’s bedroom!

As with the first palace we visited, Tash-Hauli Palace had a large reception hall with separate small rooms for registering guests and teaching them how to stand and speak to the Khan.  Embedded around the interior walls of the courtyards are small green tiles.  These are pre-Islam, dating back to when Zoroastrianism was the state religion – apparently, they were original yellow, but the colour changed to green, so they were not destroyed by Muslims! 

Fun fact – the motto of the Zoroastrianism was “good thoughts, good words, good deeds” – you really cannot argue with that!  Despite being one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions, there are only around 120,000 followers of Zoroastrianism in the world today, mostly living in India, Iran and North America.  Did you know Freddy Mercury was a Zoroastrian?

I noticed that many of the doors were very low.  This not only helped moderate the temperature inside the room but as we had seen in the yurts in Kyrgyzstan, the low door frames also mean people must duck as they enter – a sign of respect.

We explored what was a city Mint and came across the Silk money of Korezm.   At the beginning of the 19th century there was a paper shortage and silk was a cheaper medium for printing money! It was also practical as it could be washed when it got dirty.  They also made coins from pure gold, silver and bronze as they did not know how to mix the metals!

In the Mint we also learnt about beard smuggling.  At the time, all men were expected to have beards, but it was found that some would steal gold powder smuggled in their beards!  When this was discovered, the mint workers were made to shave their beards off!  Funnily enough, this is clearly still a smuggling technical as when I googled it to try and find something more about it, a number of articles came up about people being caught trying to smuggle gold dust this way!

There are so many beautiful doors around the old city, and many were made at huge cost – our guide told us that some believe/believed that doors are the faces of the people.  I got a little obsessed with the doors, not just the fancy ones, but also the plainer ones around the small side streets 😂

All that sightseeing and learning, and it was only just lunch time!!  We had the afternoon free, but a couple of the group wanted to go to a particular carpet making shop/factory – one that was featured about in a book called “Carpet ride to Khiva” by Chris Alexander who had lived in the city for many years.  Now I have not read the book (though may have to do so in the future) but the visit was still very interesting.  Did you know it takes 6-8 months to make one rug?  No wonder they are expensive!

Fun-ish fact – Traditional khiva hats are made with sheep’s wool and are also worn in summer, despite them looking very warm (I guess they already knew of that great quality of sheep’s wool for keeping you warm in the winter and cool in the summer)!  Black and brown hats are for younger people and white for older people.   Only a Khan could wear a hat made from lamb’s wool!

And so, we arrived at another evening and another chance to see the sunset – this time from one of the watch towers on the city walls.  It was clearly the place to be as it was crowded and of course there was another pre wedding photo shoot!  The sunset was beautiful – and I took so many photos, there is no such thing as too many sunset photos right 🤔🤔😂😂😂??

Our last night in Uzbekistan was celebrated with another large meal, served in what was more of a family home than a restaurant, with traditional entertainment by a local family – children through to grandparents, singing and dancing.  What a great way to end what has been an amazing time in the country.