Our group has been expanding ever more. As well as Giovanna, we were also joined by Duncan all the way from Sydney. We knew when we made our goodbyes in Sydney that we would see Duncan again - he promised to come and show us around NZ, as he used to live in Wellington. We complicated matters by choosing Hanmer Springs as our destination - somewhere Duncan has never been. All the better, perhaps.
We needed two cars to move around, and that qualifies as a convoy where I come from. We didn't have the CBs, and Kris Kristofferson was nowhere to be seen, but we did have a bad attitude and scant regard for the law. No, that's not true either. Damn. Well, Duncan got a speeding ticket towards the end - does that count? Look - we're hard, and you'll just have to take our word for it.
What does Hanmer Springs have to offer that Alice Springs didn't? Springs. Thermal ones, sulphuric ones. Hot ones, cold ones. And water slides too. And on the Christchurch side of Hanmer Springs theres a place called Thrillseekers Canyon, where among the many activities on offer is Whitewater Rafting. Yes! You the readers of this blog (or 22 of you the readers of this blog - or actually about 10 of you, plus Sam my godson who has probably voted 12 times by now) have put Whitewater Rafting as the top must-do experience of New Zealand. And do you know what? I'm never asking you anything else again!!
Oh it started well alright. We were given the briefing by a wild-eyed Graham who made Sara laugh from the get-go. His front teeth were missing (we were too polite to ask if he lost them rafting) as were some other items like fear and perhaps judgement. We got suited up and then carried our raft down to the Waiau river. The trip was a Grade 2 'scenic', which is probably just one step up from a punt on Christchurch's Avon river. It's the rafting equivalent of a busy shopping day on Patrick's Street, Cork - you'll get thrown around a bit but nobody will get hurt (as opposed to the same street at night, which would be more of a Grade 4). As ever, we were lucky with the weather. Our drive from Christchurch was pleasantly sunlit and by the time we reached Thrillseekers Canyon the conditions looked ideal. But by the time we reached the water's edge and looked up at the sky, we realised that we had already seen the best the day had to offer. From here on in it would all be downhill, downstream, but - and this is the crucial part - upwind.
Five minutes into our family rafting experience, it became clear to our guide that we were going to take twice as long as normal to reach the end, such was the headwind we were dealing with. Five minutes after that, it started to rain. The temperature wasn't forgiving either - Sara, from behind a blonde scowl and gritted teeth, offered the observation that 'the whole world is an icecube'. Another five minutes passed and we were now trying to row backwards to avoid being hit in the eyes with hailstones. Duncan pointed out that the only form of precipitation we had missed was snow, and sure enough it began to snow. Sara had retreated into her coat to an extent that would make a tortoise proud, and a quick look at her aunt Giovanna's face demonstrated to me that not only would we have to deal with difficult weather conditions, but we were also carrying an Italian Time Bomb on board. Never mind Kris Kristofferson - we were missing Sylvester Stallone on this trip. It didn't help that Duncan and I were pretty much enjoying ourselves, and Graham's manic laughter down the back was tipping towards the hysterical. If something didn't happen soon - by which I don't mean more weather - it was going to get very ugly.
That something was a jet boat operated by Thrillseekers Canyon. It roared around the corner and pulled up alongside. Graham didn't even finish the sentence that began with "Does anyone want to transfer" when Gio and Sara were already onboard the jetboat, their paddles still spinning like tops in the centre of the raft, cartoon-style. The remaining four of us, and Graham, continued to paddle against the wind, the odds, and the prevailing flow of logic. We had pretty much got to the end of the trip when the jetboat reappeared. Gio didn't look much happier, and Sara was nowhere to be seen (she was out of sight, tucked into the lap of her aunt). The rest of us got on board the jetboat, the Thrillseekers got the raft onboard too, and off we went back to the relative warmth of the boathouse. But not before Giovanna delivered, using the kind of facial and manual body-language that come so naturally to Italians, her feedback to the proprietors.
We shivered up the road to Hanmer Springs, in search of hot water. We couldn't have picked a better place. It's a weekend getaway for lots of Kiwis and the price of the motels shows. If you want to rent a house there for a few days (much better value) then you'll have to book well in advance if you have weekends or school holidays in mind. Right across the road from our motel was the Thermal Springs, a complex of 12 different baths or pools, with temperatures ranging from 20 to 43 degrees. We suffered one last indignity of walking out of the changing rooms in freezing conditions in our 'cozzies' before settling into the pools, looking up to the sky and seeing once more, snow falling. From the comfort of 38 degree geothermal water, this time the snow was welcome.
The rest of our stay in Hanmer Springs was taken up with a long hike (including the second snowfight of our trip so far), a long brunch and another long and relaxing evening in the springs. If you come to New Zealand, make some time for Hanmer Springs.