See the wondrous Franz Josef Glacier and die

A pastiche of word images on the lines of Claude Monet's impressions would serve the mood better.

A holiday in New Zealand was on our bucket list, but somehow never materialised. The box was ticked on neighbouring Australia but Kiwi land kept eluding us. The better half and I decided to do something about it before we reached the stage of being carted around in wheelchairs at airports. A workable plan was hatched, and we were winging our way to Christchurch. It was a tight 10 day itinerary, confined to the South Island with Christchurch and Queenstown as our base camps, whence we launched our gentle assault on this green and pleasant land (not to be confused with William Blake’s land of the same description). We opted for organised coach tours criss-crossing the island.

Navigating the terrain is challenging, distances long though the roads are in good trim, the coaches well appointed. The drivers double up as tour guides, and one of them even sang a few local ditties for us.

Eschewing a detailed listing, it will suffice to say we did the Lord of the Rings Edoras trek, the Wanaka wine tour, the breathtaking Milford Sound fjords, the magnificent Franz Josef Glacier et al. A pastiche of word images on the lines of Claude Monet’s impressions would serve the mood better.

Aeons ago, I heard David Frost satirise David Lean’s epic, Lawrence of Arabia. It went something like this - ‘Lawrence of Arabia’s got everything. Camels, sand, Peter O’Toole, sand, camels, Omar Sharif, camels, sand….’ That image resonated while traversing the length and breadth of South Island. New Zealand’s got everything. Mountains, lakes, sheep, cattle, Edmund Hillary, cattle, sheep, lakes, mountains…… On our long bus rides, the reverberating bucolic scenes, excluding Hillary, had a soporific effect. The daily crack of dawn rising meant we drowsed off periodically in a pleasant stupor.

Every couple of hours we would stop at a small township for a tea and toilet break. The population in such whistle stop towns barely exceeded four or five thousand. On one occasion our coach driver became quite animated when we stopped at a hamlet, population crossing 10,000! We burst into rapturous applause. There are more sheep than humans in New Zealand!

A word on our coach drivers. They were all exceptionally knowledgeable and practiced raconteurs. Expertise on the history and geography of the land was an essential part of their job description, but breaking into song? That took the cake. One of them happened to be an Englishman who rabbited on about cricket, John Cleese and Tony Hancock. We became soul mates!

Milford Sound’s fjords were spectacular as we sailed around the awe-inspiring mountainous formations across vast expanses of lake flowing into the Tasman Sea or wherever they flow into, spotting inert seals sunbathing on the rocks, elusive dolphins providing us with rare darshans, stunning variety of birds and being spray-showered by foamy waterfalls. Mobile cameras clicking

Chinese New Year coincided with our trip, and you could not throw a stone without beaning one of our Oriental chums. The place was crawling with them. Shops employed Chinese attendants to cater to this influx, shop signs for the most part, were bi-lingual - English and Mandarin. A liberal sprinkling of Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans was palpable, not that you could tell them apart. It got to a point where it was hard to spot a local yokel. The New Zealanders are by nature a retiring lot, and they appeared to have retired en masse, leaving the field free for their high spending foreign guests to make merry.

Indians were hopelessly outnumbered, though we chanced on a busload of Gujaratis. Most of the city bus and taxi drivers were Punjabis. Front desk management at leading hotels saw Indians dominating. Indians generally made a beeline for familiar eating sanctuaries like the Bombay Mahal or Delhi Durbar. My wife and I do not hold with this idea of chasing masala dosas and aaloo paranthas abroad. The best meal we had was chicken pies accompanied by fried chips washed down with Coke. Wholesome, tasty and cheap. Fish and chips were toothsome as well. The catch was fresh. Still on taxi drivers, we came across a friendly Sikh who called himself Garry Singh. Evidently he was ‘christened’ Angrez Singh, thanks to his very fair complexion. In New Zealand, Angrez was corrupted to Angry Singh which did not sit well with him. Finally chrysalis, and he transmogrified into Garry. Also encountered a politically aware driver from Afghanistan who raged against Pakistan’s chicanery, and was cautiously guarded about India. Finally, there was a taciturn Malaysian, who gave it as his opinion that the Kiwis were bone lazy and things took too long to happen, and was critical of the Government’s torpor. So, coaches or taxis, the drivers were an articulate window through which we saw a very different country than the picture postcard, scenic New Zealand.

The climactic part of our trip was a visit to the Franz Josef Glacier. A bright-as-a-button guide Lisa, kept us scintillating company through the 4 kilometre trek, trudging across rough terrain, hill and dale, with periodic spells of gust and rain, and finally, the magnificent glacier gobsmackingly revealing itself. If not matching Everest on a clear day, Franz Josef Glacier came close to it. The chirpy and well-informed Lisa kept up a non-stop chatter about the surrounding flora and fauna. She is aspiring to become a botanist. One time she traipsed down to the river bed and returned with a huge block of ice, doubtless a chip off the glacier. We cradled it in our arms like a baby. A great photo op. Lisa was not finished. She fished out cups and a flask from her knapsack, poured us each some hot chocolate with a cookie to go. Wonder woman!

The tour ended with a train ride on the Tranz Alpine Railway from
Greymouth to Christchurch. A spectacular ride with breathtaking views, though the train was a slow chugger. The following day, we were back on the long flight via Singapore to Bangalore. Tired but happy.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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