New Zealand- Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 379 (189)
Tuesday 22nd March (2005)
The house that we have been occupying for the past three days has given us a lovely little bit of seclusion and provided us with a cosy and peaceful atmosphere but we had to bid it farewell today. We still had lots of time on our hands even after eating breakfast and checking out before we had to return the rental car so we decided to head towards the airport and have a look at the Antarctic Centre attraction, which would end up being our last South Island activity.
The Centre doubles up as a part tourist attraction and part jumping off point for scientists that are bound for the Antarctic. The tourist part that we went to see is comprised of a museum-like series of exhibits all under a single roof, from which anything and everything you ever wanted to know about the Antarctic and the life that exists there can be learned about in a fun and exciting way. In addition to the main exhibit centre, there is also the chance to take a bit of a joy ride as a passenger in one of the bizarre snowmobile contraptions that are commonly used throughout the world’s driest, windiest and coldest continent. We each paid the student discounted rate of NZ$30 (€17,40) for a combination ticket to include entrance to the main attraction as well as a ride in the all-terrain snowmobile. Sandy had found a set of discount coupons buried in with the car rental agreement papers. Tucked away in with those was a coupon for a free audio tour that went along with the cost of admission. In fact, we found a number of discount coupons that we might very well have been able to use as we’ve been touring around the country. We’ve kept them just in case there is anything up on the North Island that we can use them for. Our snowmobile ride wasn’t scheduled for nearly an hour so we spent a while looking around inside the main attraction building initially. One of the more interesting things inside is a simulated Antarctic storm room. You have to wear a thick jacket and rubber shoe covers (to protect the snow from getting dirty) before going inside. It’s extremely chilly in there and they’ve built it to look like a base camp. Every half an hour or so, the lights slowly dim and a sudden Antarctic storm is simulated with freezing cold, high winds screaming through the room. It’s quite humbling inside and leaving the chamber for the relative warmth of the interior of the main building was certainly going to be a welcome relief. We both had a lot of fun pretending to be penguins waddling around inside. After the cold finally drove us back out, we carried on around the museum and watched short films about whales, penguins and other sea birds of the Antarctic and had fun exploring all sorts of interesting facts about the continent.
Eventually, it was time for us to take our snowmobile ride and we were allowed to leave the exhibit building temporarily to do so. After a short while standing outside the main building, this very odd looking, two-part, caterpillar track driven vehicle came rushing towards us. There isn’t any other vehicle that I’ve ever seen before with which to compare it against. It’s sort of like a cross between a tank and a, well, frankly, something that belongs in a Thunderbirds episode – a bad one. These are the machines that move people and supplies around the ice sheets down in Antarctica and we were going to take a spin in one to see just what it’s like. The all-terrain vehicle operates on land but is also amphibious and can even float. It can scale forty-five degree inclines forwards and backwards and up to thirty-one degrees of an incline to the side. It can cross deep crevices up to several meters wide without falling through and it’s exceedingly agile given that it looks likes like an unruly monster. Not only did we learn all of these facts via the running commentary from the driver but also we actually experienced it all for ourselves as we hitched a ride whilst the driver took it through its paces on a nearby obstacle course. It was great fun!
Our thrill ride was over and done with before too long and we went back into the main exhibit building to complete the rest of our circuit of learning and exploration. After spending several hours at the Antarctic Centre altogether, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Time was a ticking, however, so we drove slightly back into town for a bite to eat. We found another ATM form which to make another huge withdrawal of cash to exchange into US Dollars and, as luck would have it, the bank itself did have plenty of US Dollars in cash currently in stock so I changed exactly NZ$1,940 into exactly US$1,400. This now gives us a total of US$2,300 in cash to add to our US$1,100 in traveller’s checks and I’m hoping this will be sufficient to cover our needs for Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
From every country we visit, I collect one of every coin and bank note in common circulation and the bank teller was nice enough to find a couple of crisp, new notes for me. He even managed to find us a millennium edition NZ$10 note to add to our collection.
We dropped off the rental car at the EZY drop-off point and took their shuttle over to the airport. It was still a bit early and we weren’t yet allowed to check in so we spent an hour or so twiddling our thumbs upstairs in one of the waiting areas. I started to get very concerned when we heard a couple of announcements informing passengers that some flights to Wellington this afternoon were being cancelled. There has apparently been some very thick fog looming over the airport runways and the airport itself has closed down several times throughout the day. On a few occasions, I went back to the check-in desks to ask about our flight but it was too early to tell. One of the check-in clerks was telling me that it didn’t look good but there was still a chance that the aircraft would be allowed to leave, bound for Wellington – talk about non-committal! He was prepared to check us into a later flight into Auckland and we did toy with that idea for a while. I even called the car rental agency through which we had the reservation for tomorrow as well as a few hostels in Auckland to make some pseudo reservations. We decided to go through to the gate and wait there as long as we could with the plan being to make a dash back to the check-in desk again to book ourselves onto one of the Auckland flights just in case the cancellation announcement did come. Getting through the security checkpoint was interesting. We’re carrying a supermarket bag with all our foodstuffs and they apparently weren’t keen on the idea of us taking on a small cooking oil aerosol can into the aircraft cabin. That was confiscated from us, for which we received a receipt instead. I doubt we’ll be able to bake just as well with the receipt.
By now, the full load of Wellington destined passengers were all waiting at the gate wondering if we were going to get off the ground or not. Every five to fifteen minutes or so, a new announcement was made that simply informed that there was going to be another short delay with the flight. The departure of one of only two Auckland bound flights for the evening during this wait did my nerves no good at all. Then, for some reason, a very strange announcement was made. Apparently, they were asking for five volunteers to offload their luggage and re-book for a later flight tomorrow. This flight was now cleared for departure but only if the weight could be reduced. What that was all about, I have no idea. I offered for Sandy and me to be volunteers on the proviso that the airline took care of our accommodation for the night but their generosity wasn’t extending that far. Eventually, however, five people did volunteer to take a later flight and we were finally on our way. It was a very short flight and we started to descend almost immediately after we had completed our ascent. The whole of Wellington was engulfed in a haze of fog when we landed.
Whilst on board, we chatted with a girl in our row about how to get out of the airport and into the city. She very helpfully provided us with a bus timetable but in the end, we simply took a taxi. The ride to our hostel clocked in at just under NZ$17 (€9,86) so I gave our friendly Somalian driver a NZ$20 (€11,60) note and told him to keep the change. According to him, there was no news of the gunman that was apparently still at large somewhere in Wellington – nice! The girl on the plane also advised that we go and see the Te Papa museum. In fact, this is the prime reason why we’ve come to Wellington to begin with and we shall make that our primary goal tomorrow.
The taxi driver dropped us off right in front of our hostel but we had a bit of a steep climb up the drive and neighbouring alley to get to the main entrance. The stand-in receptionist was a bit high-strung but we were eventually given a room key and we made ourselves at home. At NZ$50 (€29) per night for the double room, it’s a bit better than the NZ$55 (€32) average that we’ve been paying throughout New Zealand thus far. After a short walk there and back to a nearby fast food joint around the corner, we settled in for the night.