Jason and I have done a lot since I last wrote a complete entry, so I’m going to do my best to summarize our experiences, reactions and excursions over the last week or more. We’ve seen microclimates and geographical landscapes that vary from the golden beaches of the South Island’s northwest coast, to the wild and windy dunes of the northern West Coast, the massive layered granite pillars at Punakaiki, the temperate rainforest that surrounds Fox and Franz Josef glaciers about halfway down the island, and the arid high desert that begins after crossing eastward over the Southern Alps. It’s quite an experience running through three of these regions in one days’ driving distance, and it’s not hard to do that in New Zealand.
We took an overnight cruise in Fiordland last night on the Milford Wanderer on Milford Sound (actually a fiord), and the half-mile high sheer cliffs and avalanche-scarred tree cover were something to remember. There was snow all over the ground on the very steep road into Milford, with signposted avalanche warnings every half-kilometer or so, warning drivers not to stop. Today we climbed out of there and into gorgeous pastureland and limestone hillsides as we crossed east across Otago to Invercargill in the far southern end of the South Island, where we caught our first glimpse of the ocean in the Roaring Forties. We’re down below 45 degrees south now, and the wind was whipping at around 45 mph today off the water, but the air temperature was actually pretty comfortable if your could get away from the wind.
It’s not to say we don’t have natural sights as spectacular as New Zealand’s back in the States, because I believe that in the enormous expanse that our nation comprises, the U.S. could certainly come close to matching many of New Zealand’s breathtaking vistas, but here they are so much closer together, and many times so much more unspoiled. A person can go a day walking tracks or driving roads in the off-season and only see one or two other cars on the West Coast. Tracks are well-maintained, with facilities provided, and we have yet to see litter anywhere. The Department of Conservation does an amazing job. So good in fact that we have trouble getting very far on any given day because were constantly pulling off at small walking-tracks or viewpoints to check out some point of interest indicated on the DOC’s green and yellow road signs.
Accommodation in smaller towns, with the exception of large tourist centers like Queenstown and Wellington, has tended to be largely based in small privately-owned inns and self-catered units instead of high-rise Marriotts or Holiday Inns. It adds to the character of the place, staying in unique places and meeting the New Zealanders, or “Kiwis,” who own and run them. Every place has a different feel, with it’s own sets of bonuses and “idiosyncrasies.” In Nelson we stayed at a hostel that had hotel-quality double rooms and served delicious chocolate lava cake with ice cream every night at 8 p.m. The Innlet had composting toilets. Neptune’s in Greymouth had coal-heated hot water and bathtubs to avail ourselves of. Three days ago we were at a very homey backpackers in Queenstown with free wireless internet and a great living room, but we ended up in a dorm with a roommate Jason has since dubbed “the midnight masturbator.” We gladly changed rooms the next day when we heard some bookings had gotten messed up and we had to switch to a different dorm. Tonight we’re at the Timber Tops Motor Park in Invercargill with shabbier facilities, but we’ll be sleeping in the comfort of our own vehicle, after a dinner of the backpackers’ favorite, spaghetti bolognaise.
Speaking of sleeping in our vehicle, we’ve finally started camping! We left Collingwood after visiting spectacular Wharariki Beach and Farewell Spit, stopping in Motueka and grabbing me some new hiking boots, since my soles bit the dust along the Abel Tasman Coast Track. We headed South to SH6 along the Buller River, drove until sunset, then stayed at a DOC campground near Inangahua before reaching the coast, cooking with our new camp burner and rigging up our newly acquired camp mattresses. It turns our the mattresses are about half a width too wide to fit in the back, thanks to the wheel wells. We just wedged them in anyway, and surprisingly, we slept pretty well. We’d killed the battery again in Takaka a few days before by leaving the lights on, so I was pretty touchy about using the reading lights in the car, but our headlamps sufficed. Jason also unplugged all those annoying little door ding alarms while we were there.
We awoke bright and early and continued west to Westport, then south along the coast roast, SH6. It was pretty overcast and rainy as the West Coast tends to be, but we stopped off at Pancake Rocks and walked the 20-min track, which is free, though donations are requested. It was low tide, so none of the blowholes were going, but the formations are pretty stunning. They descend dramatically down to the water and are made of stylobedded granite, layered so they look like hundreds of pancakes in a tower. On a sunny day at high tide, I imagine the photos would be incredible. From Punakaiki we drove south to Greymouth, the mouth of the Grey River and the largest (really the only) city on the West Coast. Greymouth is a big coal town, and the trains, industrial look, and coal-fired heating systems reminded us of this at every turn. An award-winning New Zealand craft-brewery, Monteith’s, is in Greymouth, so we tossed in and went for a fascinating tour and very discounted $30 dinner for two.
Weather in Greymouth was appalling the next day, but we’d done our laundry and booked tickets for a glacier hike the day after, so we had to get moving. We made it to Franz Josef mid-afternoon, and were granted the only semi-dry weather of the day to make the hike to the glacier terminus. Signs at the moraine entry said the track was closed, but we spoke with some Kiwis we saw coming back across the gates, and they said it was fine so long as tour groups were out there. They’d seen several, so we went. The walk to the base of the glacier was about 45-min, and I got to test out my new waterproof hiking boots twice along the way. Good news is, they worked! At the base, a huge muddy river was gushing out from under the ice, and keas, the world’s only alpine parrot, were hopping around on the green and orange moss-covered rocks. The glacier is surrounded by sheer cliffs covered in green moss and trees, and because it had been raining, there were waterfalls everywhere cascading down the sides of the ravine.
In preparation for our half-day hike on Fox Glacier, we camped at Fox Glacier town after a visit to Lake Matheson, famed for it’s reflective qualities and view of Mt. Cook. The next morning we were very thankful to have made the hike to the terminus at Franz, because the rain was coming down in sheets. When we drove to take a look at Fox, it was so socked in we couldn’t even see the glacier. We decided to cancel our trip and just keep moving, putting Fox on the list for a return visit.
We continued South along SH6 to the Haast Pass, turning inland toward Wanaka. The drive was incredible, because it had been so wet and rainy that along the pass, cascades were pouring down on the roadsides and the mountain faces. East of the pass, the weather changed drastically, dropping us into an area that looked very similar to Colorado or Utah in the spring. Snowcapped mountains were dotted with tussock grasses at the bases, with pasture land all through the valleys. We came upon some breathtaking glacial lakes (created by melting glaciers years ago), and had to stop. The views and colors in this part of the country were awesome. Wanaka is set on one of these lakes, and when we arrived, local boats were going out for their Thursday night racing as a small cloud blew in, pelting everyone with hail, then moving out. The town had the feeling of a small alpine ski village, only it has no snow, and rarely if ever does. The ski resorts in NZ tend to be outside the resort towns, high atop the mountain. Skiers bus or drive in daily. There were plenty of aprés skiers, however, and we used their cues to guide us to Kai Whaka Pai, a small but stylish bar/cafe with unbeatable lake views upstairs, that houses a radio booth where they do live dj sets on the radio in the evenings. We stayed at a dorm at Mountain View Backpackers, then grabbed a trail ride at Backcountry Saddles on the way to Queenstown in the morning.
Backcountry Saddles does trail rides for riders of all experience levels in the high country below Cardrona, one of the area’s ski resorts. Jason and I were the only riders on our trip, which worked out great. Two guides and one of their dogs came along, and we all had a relaxed morning trotting and cantering along the hillsides on Cardrona sheep station. About halfway in, we came upon an ewe laying on the ground, looking pregnant and distressed. We dismounted and tried to see if we could help her, but she was pretty far past help. She baa’d twice before we approached, but when we came closer, her eyes were glazed and nonresponsive, though her heart was still beating and her lamb was occasionally moving inside her belly. The horses came over and nudged her with their noses, and we tried to turn her upright, but her neck was totally limp. She died just as we were leaving. There was no farmer to contact, because the sheep stations are shared pastureland and the animals on them are simply tagged and color coded or numbered. Something else we saw along the way were herds of grazing red deer, raised in New Zealand as livestock on farms in fenced paddocks. They aren’t native here so this beats having them running in the wild on several levels. The meat is referred to as cervena, and tastes less gamey than wild venison.
We had a delicious burger lunch in the back yard at the historic Cardrona Hotel, built in the 1860s during the gold rush era, the continued on to Queenstown, where we landed at The Last Resort, a comfy little hostel with only 14 beds and a very central location. Jason and I stayed 4 nights, adventuring during the day and catching up on photo processing most nights. We rented gear and took a bus to ski/snowboard Cardrona’s last weekend of the season on Saturday, which felt like late-March in the Rockies. We couldn’t believe they were already closing, but apparently the seasons are pretty set down here and staying open for snow doesn’t tend to make the mountains any money. Cardrona has 3 snow parks, 2 half pipes and a range of slope difficulties, so it was fun for both Jason and I, and great news, I didn’t break anything this time! We actually spent most of the day skiing/snowboarding together, making for a nice day on the mountain for us both. We met a local guy named Mike on the bus back to Queenstown, and he invited us to dinner, so we brought fried apples and ice cream and joined him for a fish pie dinner at his little cabin above the lake. These cabins are also called baches or cribs, and their part of an old NZ tradition whereby families keep a little second house somewhere to get away on the weekends or holidays. They’re very small and simple, but they do the job, and their one of the most affordable ways to get housing while living in Queenstown, if you’re willing to deal with the small living space and lack of insulation. Sadly, the city council has called the land lease in and plans to bulldoze all of Queenstowns baches and replace them with high-rises in 2015. So much for that little piece of history.
My 29th birthday was Sunday, so it was “Lara’s choice” for Queenstown activity number two. I picked a jet-boating tour in Skipper’s Canyon, way down Skipper’s Road, dubbed New Zealand’s most dangerous road, and off-limits to all rental cars. The drive was down a single-lane dirt road blasted out with black powder from the 1860s-1880s by miners working to create an easy route down to the Shotover River, the world’s biggest gold-producing river until the Yukon hit in Canada. The cliffs along the road are sheer with no guardrails, and passing vehicles must reverse until they can find a passing spot if they meet at an inopportune place. At the peak of the gold rush, about 2000 people lived at the settlement at the end of Skipper’s Road, but they reached it on horseback. Today there are only about 6 residents in the settlement, and they supply all their own power and water for their homes. Jet boating was all it’s cracked up to be—high-speed, shallow water, thrilling spins in close quarters, the whole deal. If you haven’t heard of it, check out the Skipper’s Jet website. We thought it was the best deal for jet boating in Queenstown, because while it’s the same price as the more well-known Shotover Jet, you get the Skipper’s Road tour as part of the deal.
For my birthday dinner, we went out with an American couple, Holly and Dave, from San Diego, whom we’d met on the boat ride. It was Holly’s birthday too, and it was cool to have a little taste of home culture after being away so long. We went to Prime, which is on the lakefront in Queenstown, and I had some very yummy salmon. Jason had a steak. Pricing was very reasonable, so we followed it with some beverages at the Buffalo Club with some folks from our hostel. We didn’t stay out too far past our bedtimes, but it was a perfect day. Thanks to Jason for making it happen so smoothly.
On Tuesday we took off early from Queenstown and headed south along the “Southern Scenic Route” to Te Anau, sharing our ride with a Philly boy named Jonathan who was headed down to interview at a lodge in Fiordland. Upon landing in Te Anau, we found out there was a special going on the Milford Wanderer, Real Journeys’ overnight fiord cruise, so we jumped back in the car and booked it to Milford. Road conditions were ideal, with no ice or avalanche warnings in effect, so we made the sometimes 2.5-hour drive in 1.5 hours, giving us 20 minutes to spare before boarding. We had a somewhat clear cruise out last night, but overnight the clouds moved in and this morning’s cruise was hazy and moody. I decided I liked it better that way. The walls look more imposing and there are waterfalls gushing down everywhere sine the rock faces provide no soil for drainage. The food was awesome and though the cabins were cramped, Jason and I ended up being the only ones in our 4-bunk quarters, so we were comfortable and each slept well. We saw endangered Fiordland crested penguins last night and this morning, as well as a dolphin and some sea lions this morning. One sea lion was thrashing a squid around on the surface while eating it, which felt a lot like a National Geographic moment. We had really wanted to go diving while on the fiord with Tawaki Dive, the only operator, but the prices were approaching astronomical. We intend to come back and do this one at the same time we do the glaciers, because we know it’s a once-in-a-lifetime type dive, but this time we opted for the $30 visit to the Deep Underwater Observatory instead. Milford is one of the only places in the world divers can see black and red corals in the wild, because the tannic freshwater layer of water in the fiord filters out most of the sunlight in the salt layer, and the corals think they are deeper than they actually are, making them accessible to divers. The Underwater Observatory has a stairwell that goes 11m underwater and allows visitors to look out into the fiord and see some black corals as well as any wildlife that may be passing by.
We debarked from out cruise at around 10:30 am and drove to Invercargill from there, stopping in Te Anau for lunch. It was a spectacular day of changing landscapes, and has us excited to start our drive to Dunedin along the Catlins Coast in the morning. We plan to get our front brake pads replaced first though, because all this mountain driving has started our wear indicators screeching. Yuck.