Friday, 31 March 2017

An exciting balloon flight and beautiful drive to Hokitika

PHIL: Day 46/1 April

Is this a good date on which to make a balloon flight in a difficult location in marginal conditions? This is the question we ask ourselves as we peer into the gloom at 0600 trying to track a helium-filled party balloon with a searchlight. A strong north-westerly is forecast which would quickly take us to Lyttleton, Christchurch’s deep-water port, surrounded by ocean and with few if any suitable landing sites.

Getting the balloon ready at the farm
The ‘pi-ball’ heads initially west, however, before curving to the south. If we can emulate its track we could stay on the western fringe of the Port Hills and land in open pasture. 

Andy has already invited the octogenarian former owner of his farm to fly, for the first time, from her old home, so there is some moral pressure. Allie & I want to get April in our log books just in case later attempts are thwarted by weather, which adds to the temptation.

The balloon is fully prepared when a strong gust of wind in the ‘wrong’ direction makes us all glance skyward. By now we are in a ‘go-for-it’ mood and a final test balloon convinces us we can make a safe flight providing we stay very low and creep into the next valley to the south.

I am nominated as pilot-in-command and we are airborne by 6.55 as I juggle the need to avoid tall trees with the desire to stay in the lowest possible airstream. I get the mix about right and we track slightly west of south at a fair clip (about 20kph). Andy keeps his passenger entertained with a commentary on all the properties we pass over.

fabulous landscape during our first drive heading South
After 20 minutes I see an empty grass field and, despite Andy’s blandishments to press on to nearer a farmhouse I decide that the ‘bird-in-hand’ principle is preferable and put the balloon neatly into the welcoming greensward.

The old lady is beside herself with excitement and Allie & I have got April ‘in the bag’, so honour is satisfied. Looking at our track on the map afterwards it is salutary to note how only a few degrees difference in the wind could have resulted in a less happy outcome.

Andy has offered us the use of his ‘ute’(Kiwi for flatbed truck) to drive around South Island for the next week so we eat a swift celebratory breakfast and leave for the west coast via Arthur’s Pass. Miraculously the fine weather follows us westward to arrive at Hokitika for an unobstructed sunset over the Tasman Sea

The empty beach at Hokitika
Allie has her lunchtime ‘walk’ to some impressive waterfalls (with me in tow) but on arrival at the beach is overcome with her usual need to take further exercise in the sea.

Eating out in Hokitika is not to be recommended either for ambience or quality as we discover at dinner and breakfast.

ALLIE: DAY 46: Sunday, 1st of April
A balloon flight in country nr 24, crossing the alps and overnight in Hokitika

Early get up to check the weather. We managed to convince Andy that he should try to fly out of his property, something that he somehow hasn’t go around doing in two years! The weather looks strange. Some pi-balls go off towards the hills, some drift along the valley. We want the latter to happen. 

And amazingly wishful thinking does seem to help. But as we rig the balloon in one of the fields a strong gust towards the hills nearly destroys our hopes of getting into the air on the first of a new month. Still, at 6.55 Phil (the pilot), Andy, Amelia, Robert and Betty (an old lady who used to be the owner of Andy’s property) and me are up in the air and drift swiftly across the first mountain ridge towards the south. 
happy Mrs Betty after the short flight

The direction is not brilliant as it means going toward the huge lake and eventually to the sea. So after 20 minutes Phil chooses to land in a big field. 

We drag for about 40meters on the ground and then stop all of us laying on top of each other having difficulties in knowing how to detangle ourselves without squashing each other. But what a great achievement! And Betty is just thrilled. ”I had always wanted to fly in a balloon”, she says, “I love adventure and thrills”.  Amazing words to hear from a 75 year old lady.

After a hefty breakfast Phil and I set off to travel across the Southern Alps towards to West coast of New Zealand. The alps are reached after only an hours drive but then the roads winds up and the countryside changes its appearance. Barren mountains surround us and a few rain clouds remind you that indeed we are now at about 3000ft of altitude. 

Fantastic scenery and empty roads!
We take a rest a the Arthur’s Pass and top up with caffeine and hot scones. Then it’s time for a bit of exercise and a climb up to the 105m high waterfall of  ‘Devil’s Punchbowl’.

Trees covered with moss and lichen. ‘Lord of the rings’ was filmed in this area and we can just see how the magician and all the weird figures climbed around this wild mystic forest.
Allie enjoying a walk at the waterfall
At 4pm we finally reach the former gold mining town of Hokitika. Great to see the water again. This time a wild and empty coast without any vegetation. It was a dangerous landing site for most of the early settlers. 

In the late 19th century more then 80 ships had stranded here, every fortnight a boat would find it’s end here along the coast. But nothing could stop the miners from streaming into this deserted bit of New Zealand in the hope of finding gold or jade. 

Walking around the town tells it’s history: I pass the Gibson Quay Custom House from 1897, the clock tower from 1902, Wong’s Wok, Millies Café, The Regent Theatre showing ‘Marie Antoinette’, the ‘Greenstone Jade factory’ and the ‘Gold Room’! 

We by the way have booked ourselves into the former Southland Hotel now the new ‘Beachfront Hotel’ featuring a modern block building overlooking the sea. We indulge ourselves with staying at a room with a balcony and devout the rest of the afternoon to writing (3 days to catch up!) and walking around the town – and Gin and Tonic drinking at sunset time!

our 'fancy' beach front hotel
Hokitika hasn’t got the most exciting range of restaurants. In fact, there are exactly three pubs to choose from. We end up in the quite cosy looking ‘Tin Shed Gallergy and Café’ and maybe should have given more emphasis to the fact that it says ‘café’. 

The waitress came up to us and nearly collapsed at our table excusing her exhaustion with the fact that the owner had just given birth and that she was on her feet since early morning.

I fancied the ‘seafood chowder’ but they had run out. So I try the curry pumpkin soup but that turns out to be a disaster as is the garlic bread (she has to run first to the nearby supermarket to buy it!). We end up swapping food, I eat Phil’s mushrooms he my stone solid soup! 

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