Christchurch, New Zealand
A full day in Christchurch today and plenty of things to be doing so no time to waste. All the action round here seemed to centre around Cathedral Square, and as this is only 10 mins walk from the hotel, we headed off down there. It’s a holiday here and the place was very quiet, with just a few people about at 9.30am. However, we weren’t hanging about and first trip out was to the International Antarctic Centre, which is located near the airport. We caught the shuttle bus, and as we were the only passengers the driver gave us a bit of an impromptu city tour on the way. I must say that Christchurch is seriously nice and most of the people nicer.
The International Antarctic Centre (IAC) is directly opposite where the American and New Zealand Antarctic ‘base camps’ are. There were quite a few US Air Force cargo aircraft parked round their massive section of the airport. Even the NZ Air Force only had a little tin hut in comparison. I’m guessing that the British Antarctic Survey are based somewhere like South Africa since their station is on the other side of the continent? I am told that Prince Edward & Sophie will be visiting the IAC in November as part of his trip to NZ, so we beat you Eddie!
Anyway, we got there just before they fed the penguins, so big rush right through the centre to the penguin enclosure. These are Little Blue Penguins, native NZ penguins and the world’s smallest. The enclosure is a big tank and the keepers get in there and feed them by hand. I saw one penguin consume 10 fish before staggering away to try and digest them all. It’s a wonder they still floated! From there one of us (ahem) went into the snow and ice experience – this required borrowing overshoes and a thick jacket and entering through double doors into a large room, complete with a skidoo, igloo and ice slopes. The temperature inside was about -8 degrees when I went in, but after a few minutes the lights dimmed and an Antarctic blizzard began raging with winds up to 40km/h. It was somewhat chilly. The windchill went down to way below -20 degrees and frankly I was glad to get back out for a cup of coffee and a bun.
Next up was a trip on the Hagglund. I have to get me one of these. A wee tracked vehicle built by the Swedes for polar exploration, it can go just about anywhere. I sat in the cab with the driver, and with various noisy kids were safely tucked in the trailer at the rear, we set off for the special obstacle course round the back of the IAC. Sorry, no photos from the trip – too much effort to hold on! We climbed over hillocks the size of a house with 45 degree slopes (and the same down the other side), made crazy turns and jumped over a 3 foot wide ‘crevasse’. We did all of this pretty much without slowing down. For a finale we went through the lake, which is much deeper than the vehicle, so it had to ‘swim’ most of the way. I am glad to say it didn’t leak despite water coming up nearly to the windows. The petrolhead in me says this is an ace bit of kit and would totally own the Snake Pass in winter!
After we’d had a good look round some of the more sedate stuff at the IAC, we caught the Penguin Express back to Cathedral Square. I was glad to see loads of people were now in the square and all the shops and cafes round had opened up too. A spot of dinner, and we went into the Southern Experience. Now this is largely Another Bloody Aquarium and IMHO here’s only so many of them you want to see in a lifetime, unless maybe you’re a cat. However, they do have a USP – they have some real kiwis. I read somewhere that the vast majority of New Zealanders have never seen a kiwi, so it felt wrong to come all this way and miss the opportunity. After a while looking at the fish, mostly to allow our eyes to acclimatise to the low light, a keeper took just four of us at a time into the kiwi enclosure. There’s absolutely no photography or even mobile phones allowed in there since these birds are very sensitive. It was hushed tones throughout. The enclosure is lit to simulate moonlight as kiwi are nocturnal – in the real nighttime huge banks of overhead lights simulate daytime so the birds go in their burrows and get some kip. The enclosure was planted out like a native forest. At first we couldn’t see anything, then suddenly one of the birds strolled right up to the glass – they are a lot bigger than I thought! About the size of a domestic chicken, except fluffy dark brown and with the long beak of course. The bird was totally unconcerned, rummaging around for food. A few minutes later a second bird joined the first. They are really quite comical-looking to European eyes. In a way it was quite moving to see them in the sombre light, going about their business completely unaware how precarious things are for kiwis in the wild these days.
After the kiwis there was a bit of a whistlestop tour of the centre. Down to the banks of the River Avon to see the punts (Wendy; no thanks. Me: done that in Cambridge). Along to the Botanic Gardens and the museum, just for a look from the outside really. Then back to the hotel via the Cathedral itself. A proper, if slightly bijou cathedral this time – none of your bungalows from Nelson. I think Christchurch is my favourite city so far and South Island has been a revelation. I better start saving so I can come back and see the Island for longer! As we walked back to the hotel we noticed that the clouds were rolling in and it was getting a bit cooler. After a lovely sunny day, as I write this it’s raining. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.