NZ - the tour begins!

Well, I'm back home now, yet still have 4 weeks of travels to document!  At least now I'm back on a pc, so picture uploading and typing and everything like that is a bit easier.  Plus, part two of my great adventure is just about to commence (5 weeks in the UK!), so this week at my mom's house should be a perfect time to catch up!

As I said back in the Melbourne post, I knew I wanted to do a tour of the south island of NZ in order to be back amongst some fun people, and just to relieve the pressure of making every decision and arrangement on my own.  I found a perfect option that started in Christchurch, which is the cheapest city to fly into, so off I went!  Sadly, I wouldn't have ANY time to actually explore Christchurch, which is really too bad because I actually have a work colleague there, but it couldn't be helped.  I arrived well after midnight (NZ time) and was to be picked up by the tour the next morning at around 9am.  The hostel I got to stay in that night was called "The Jailhouse" because it was an actual jail that has been refurbished.  But, well, I stayed in a cell!  I'm sure if you arrive in the day & stay a while it's funny, but arriving alone, in the middle of the night, and locking yourself behind a steel door is a little odd.  And sure, the bed was comfortable, the neighboring bathroom was nice, but there's just something about the sound of the lock in the door that was creeepy!  Fun little experience though.  My room:

The next morning I met Lana (our tour leader) and then Craig (our driver/guide) and grabbed a seat in the back of the bus.  At first glance, the group of about 25 looked a little young, and quite female, but nice.  Turns out that Lana and Craig were AWESOME, and the group was fun and contained quite a few really cool people who I hope to call friends for a long time.  :)  There were some duds (as there always are), but for the most part, it really was a nice, fun group of 18 to 30-somethings who were looking to enjoy what NZ has to offer.  Really diverse group, with one other Californienne, some Canadians, several Brits, a few various other Europeans, and even a couple of Aussies.  A few couples, but mostly either singles or girls travelling with friends.  Exactly what I was looking for, really.  We immediately set out from Christchurch to head to the west coast, over the central mountain range.  First thing we passed through was the town of Springfield, which hosted the premiere of the Simpson's Movie and features a giant doughnut.  Heh!  
The very first stop we made in the foothills was already a movie location site - the setting of the grand finale of "The Lion Witch & the Wardrobe", as well as something else that I can't remember now.  Already - very, very pretty.  But basically, assume everything is pretty - I really can't think of an unattractive part of NZ... I mean, maybe those plains outside of Christchurch, but those didn't last long, and were mostly filled with sheep!

After the plains gave way to mountains, we wound our way up to Arthur's pass through mountains that looked for all the world like Mordor & Mount Doom (but they aren't).  Incredibly steep, filled with rock-slide scars, but filled with lush rainforest-like forests at the bottom.  Practically the whole way to the coast was like this.  We stopped at an overlook of a viaduct they had to build b/c the road kept getting destroyed, which: gorgeous, but we also got to meet our first native NZ bird:  the Kia (because, as Craig so eloquently explained, it makes the sound of "keeeyaaaaa").  Kias are basically curious, fairly large green parrots - this particular young one was quite entertaining! 

After a stop on the coast for lunch in Hokitika, the place where jade is dug up (not mined, and they call it "greenstone), we headed down the coast towards the glaciers.  Before actually stopping in our hotel near the base of the Fox Glacier, we made a stop at the highly anticipated (for me) Lake Matheson.  I was highly annoying and kept announcing to these strangers that it was "my" lake, ect, but unfortunately, on a fairly cloudy day, we didn't have quite the normal gorgeous reflections with mountains in the back.  Also, this is basically a glorified pond, but still pretty and cool to see the family name everywhere.  :)

Then we checked into what we were assured would be our most basic of accomodation (it was a fairly crap hostel, to be honest), and had a lovely lamb dinner.  Then came the true bonding experience of our first day: the glow worm hike.  Craig gathered the interested ones together and we set off down the road towards a woodsy path.  Once we started on the path and left the last streetlight behind, he would allow no lights at all.  No flashlights, not even the occasional cellphone to help us light the way.  This way, our eyes would adjust and we'd see more of the glow worms.  Well, the problem is that it was pitch dark, and we're on a narrow path through the woods, complete with bridges, some of which didn't even have rails.  We fully made a train, holding the shoulders of the person in front of you (and remember that we met this morning, for the most part).  It was hilarious - we were bumping into branches, freaking out over slight changes on the ground, and then us in the back would occasionally have to yell out "slow-down!" as the train would get a bit stretched.  Finally, we reached the center of the little forrest, and all were amazed at all the little spots of light we could see.  Hundreds of little dots were in front of us, on what looked like some sort of hexagonal lattice  (all we could see where the lights).  We got an explanation of these strange little creatures, and then, finally, Craig turned on his flashlight to show us where they actually were:  on a giant overturned tree's exposed root system, completely covered with moss.  It's hard to explain how cool it was, and even harder to actually get a photo, but we all loved it.  Back home for one last cider & a bit more getting to know each other chatter, but we had an early start the next day, and I was about 2 hours ahead of OZ time, so it was off to bed fairly early.

In the morning, it was glacier exploration time!