September 29, 2012

Adjective Overload

From the West Coast of the South Island, we followed the blue candy-colored Haast River until we hit Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka…and entered a whole new New Zealand. Central Otago is a stark difference from the rainforests and lush vegetation we had seen so far. There are golden grasslands. There are gorgeous lakes with mountains rising straight up from the shores. This was the beginning of adjective overload. This was the South Island grandeur that we had been hearing about!

Wanaka would be a great place to live if you don’t have to worry about the whole job thing. Jim, who runs a joint bike and housewares shop (???), tells us it’s a hard place to make a living. He’s going to be our litmus test if and when we come up with an idea that would be perfect for Wanaka. For now I'll just keep fixating about my little country dream home.

Wanaka is normally sunny most days out of the year…except the two days that we visited. We did a rainy hike up Diamond Lake to Rocky Mountain Point for amazing vistas over Lake Wanaka. There should have been 360 degree views, but the clouds were covering the mountains. On the other hand we probably saw eight rainbows…and Shania Twain’s sprawling acreage.

From the relaxed shores of Wanaka it was a short drive to the adrenaline scene in Queenstown

The vibe is like that of a Colorado ski town, with Warren Miller movies on loop in burger bars. Queenstown is for crazies. The city has branded itself as the adventure capital of the world, and at any moment, you can look around and see someone flying over, racing down, or throwing themselves off of something. We wanted to try something we’ve never done before, so we went jetboating down the Shotover River.

Jetboats were invented in New Zealand in the 1950's and are propelled by a jet of water ejected from the back. They can run through as little as 100 millimeters of water, maneuver on a dime, and have stadium seating. The drivers are basically like race car drivers on water with 800 horsepower speed boats. Our driver zoomed us up to 80 kilometers/hour past cliff walls that we could reach out and touch. He threw 360s with tree branches and rocks all around. We got wet. We found out afterwards that our driver used to be a hairdresser. That’s quite a career jump…we were extra grateful that we made it out safely after learning that little fun fact.

About 10 miles outside of Queenstown is the Kawerau Gorge Suspension Bridge, where AJ Hackett invented commercial bungee jumping in 1988. We had no desire to bungee ourselves, but we sure did want to watch other people throw themselves from the place where it all began. We drove out there in pouring rain thinking that nobody would be jumping on such a miserable day. But sure enough, we found a constant pipeline of jumpers. One right after another…over and done in about 2 minutes total. 

North of Queenstown is where the majority of the Lord of the Rings  and The Hobbit  movies were filmed. We watched baby lambs run and play among the hilly hobbit houses. Life here looks simple and happy.

This is also the start of another Great Walk called the Routeburn Track. We did a 5-hour hike alongside a crystal clear aqua river up to the Falls Hut before turning around.

After the hike we hightailed it out of the Queenstown area in search of sun. It was like we were storm chasers, except we were on the pursuit of good weather. We dropped all of our plans and headed for Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park. Of the national park’s 15 fiords, Milford Sound is arguably the most famous destination in all of New Zealand. Ironically, it’s also one of the hardest to get to.

The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is known as one of the world’s great drives. It is two hours of bright blue rivers, glacial cut valleys, plunging waterfalls, and steep mountain faces which make you go WOW. From the lookout at Key Summit, I wanted to hug Mount Christina she was so beautiful.

Right before getting to Milford Sound, you have to descend through the most ghetto tunnel we’ve ever seen – no lanes, pitch black, and water rushing in on the sides. This time of year the drive is also littered with avalanche debris…yikes!

Trying to chase down good weather here is relative. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places in the world. On average it rains 264 inches a year, and we’ve heard it can get up to 551 inches! On a day when it’s raining buckets, the drive alone has hundreds of waterfalls that are hundreds of meters high.

Milford Sound is actually inaccurately named because it was formed by a glacier (fiord) and not a river (sound). That’s pretty obvious when you see just how steep the mountains rise out of the water.

Here was an amazing thing for us to think about. In Yosemite Valley, we could see everything that the glacier carved. We stood in the valley and we knew we were at the bottom. Since the Milford Sound is not drained, we could only see HALF of what the glacier carved. If it ever drained, those steep mountains would look twice as tall. Now that would be a sight to see!   

We took a cruise around Milford Sound on a very blustery day to see it up close. There are waterfalls everywhere, and in some places the wind is so strong that they blow upwards instead of downwards. 
Towards the end of the cruise we passed by Bowen Falls, which has been closed to hikers for the last 10 years due to rock fall concerns. When the captain of our boat told us to jump the barrier, we figured it was okay. This was by far our highlight of the Milford Sound.

There have been a handful of times in New Zealand when it as actually almost hurt to turn our backs on something because it was that beautiful. This was one of those moments. Beyond adjectives.

September 24, 2012

Road Trippin’ The West Coast

Whether it deserves the highest recognition or not, the South Island’s West Coast is probably the most popular of all New Zealand tourist destinations. I didn’t even realize what a broad spectrum of things that we saw until I sat down to write this...

Eight of New Zealand’s most popular hiking trails are classified as “Great Walks”. The Great Walks usually take 3-4 days to complete and have huts for sleeping along the trail. We didn’t have 3 days to dedicate to one hike, so we decided to sample sections of a couple of different Great Walks. Abel Tasman National Park is one of the most popular, particularly because it’s easy to combine hiking the bush and kayaking the blue waters into one trip.

We started with a 6-hour kayak along the southern end of the Abel Tasman track from Marahau to Stillwater Bay.

The stretch of coast that we kayaked is notoriously crowded, but we only ever saw 3 other kayaks the entire time. Oh, the joys of traveling during the shoulder season! It was peaceful and beautiful.

Adele Island lies just offshore and harbors a colony of fur seals. From water level in our kayak, we observed them for a good hour while they played, contorted, and spun themselves right in front of us. We were so close we could have reached out and touched them with our paddles.

We followed that up with a 5-hour hike along the northern end of the Abel Tasman track from Totaranui to Separation Point. Once again, complete solitude on one of the most popular tracks in the country. The most company we had all day was when we rounded a corner and ran straight into a hissing seal who had made his way up onto the trail. He scared the bejesus out of us!

We’d hike through the rainforest bush, pop out onto a white sand beach, head back into the bush, and just kept alternating like that the entire way.

The highlight was definitely the turn-around at stunning Separation Point.

Before saying goodbye to Abel Tasman, we had to make a stop at Rawhiti Cave. This is where special lighting circumstances have given way to…oh, I don’t know...millions of stalactites. The pictures just don’t do this place justice. You can’t even begin to see all of the tiny little ones, which are jostled in-between the medium-sized ones, which are dwarfed by the large ones in this picture.

As with the North Island, there are countless short hikes along the roadside that we found too enticing. We did the quick and easy Grove Scenic Reserve jungle hike just in time for a gorgeous sunset. 

We also hit up the Charming Creek Walkway, which leads you through timber and coal mining ruins, past waterfalls, and over swing bridges. 

After these fun little distractions, we were finally making our way down famed SH6.

In between the two West Coast anchor towns of Westport and Greymouth, there’s a terrific stop at one of New Zealand’s most touristy spots, Pancake Rocks.

These layered rock formations are interesting enough on their own, but at high tide things get interesting. The scary West Coast waves begin to pound and the blowholes go OFF!

The ground rumbles as the water bursts through the rocks. Instead of running as the water was coming after us, we stuck out our tongues. Pancake Rocks are to be seen, heard, felt, and tasted!

Further south, we started getting into glacier territory. We could tell because the rivers are the most amazing blue, like at Hokitika Gorge

When a glacier moves, rocks get ground down into a fine powder called glacial flour. It’s the flour which gives the water its distinctive color. Oh, and my fear of swing bridges has really waned with all of this practice.

At last the clouds parted long enough for us to catch a glimpse of the Southern Alps. From this spot we could see the western faces of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. 

It would be almost two weeks before we would visit them more closely from their eastern sides (more to come on these in a later post). But it also meant that we had finally reached Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier, something we had been using as a benchmark for over a year.

These are just two of New Zealand’s many glaciers, but they’re the most well known because of their accessibility…only 250 meters above sea level! It’s one of the only places where you can see glacier and rainforest together. 

These are some of the world’s fastest moving glaciers, and they’ve also been known to buck the trend by advancing instead of receding with a good couple of winters (although they’re both receding at the moment).

Franz Josef was our first stop, and boy was it disappointing! It has not been a good year for poor Franz, who hasn’t been this recessed since 1970. The snow has been bad, the mouth has become really unstable, and there was a rock slide 5 days before we visited. It really wasn’t worth our time to hike to the obstructed viewpoint. This picture perfectly captures how we were feeling about Franz and the Department of Conservation’s way too conservative stance on the public viewing barriers.

Luckily, Fox is only a 30-minute drive away. But we got there and confirmed a valuable lesson. Glaciers are BOR-ING! They just sit there looking like Vail ski runs in mid-May. To get any excitement out of these slow-moving slugs, you’ve gotta go up on them. So we suited up in crampons and took to the ice with the help of a guide.

There are not-so-glamorous sides to glacial hiking, like how much rock debris you actually have to wade through. The highlights are the crevasses and seracs, which look like huge upside-down icicles.

The Holy Grail is pristine blue ice.

The South Island’s West Coast took us from the blue waters of Abel Tasman to the blue ice of Fox Glacier. If you can’t make up your mind between a beach vacation or a mountain vacation, you could just forget about your indecision in the place that has it all.

September 19, 2012

Putting The Country In Wine Country

We had been planning for months to take the car ferry from Wellington on the North Island to Picton on the South Island. But then we hit the whole, “we don’t have Internet in our campervan” snag and waited too long to buy the tickets. This left us with the lovely remaining option of a 2:45am ferry departure. Lucky for us, we roll around the country with a fold-down bed. We spent the entire 3-hour, motion sickness inducing ferry across the Cook Straight as sleeping stowaways in the cargo hold.

Thank goodness we got that extra rest because our first day on the South Island was fantastic. First off, the sun was shining! After the rainy weather we had on the North Island, this was already enough to make our first day a success.

Picton rolls out the welcome mat with a picture-perfect location on the Marlborough Sound.

We drove along the Queen Charlotte and Pelorus Sounds until we reached Havelock, the self-proclaimed “Green-Lipped Mussel Capital of the World”. Their mussel sampler platter was one fun plate of food to dissect.

Our ultimate goal for the day was the world-famous Marlborough Wine Region. The unassuming small towns of Blenheim and Renwick produce 60% of all New Zealand wines – primarily Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Because we visited in early Spring, there were no leaves on the vines...but also no snobby crowds to arm wrestle for a 1 ounce pour. Even more memorable than the wine will be the notion that Marlborough puts the “country” in wine country. We have never seen this anywhere else in the world…sheep grazing the vineyards.

Have you ever seen a happier looking sheep?

Our first stop was Seresin, where the winery dog Gemma’s favorite toys are the big rubber barrel corks.

Every winery in this region loves to tell you that they put New Zealand wines on the map”, but we’re pretty sure that the Sauvignon Blanc from Cloudy Bay actually did so in the 1980s.

Lawson's Dry Hills has won lots of awards and loves to show you so with their too-much-flare-on-one-bottle stickers.

And our final stop was Hunter’s Wines, a winery with an intriguing back-story. The managing director, Jane Hunter, became one of the most successful woman winemakers in the world after her husband died in car accident. She picked up the pieces of their early-days winery and hasn’t looked back. Hunter’s Wines also pulled the most brilliant marketing move of all time when they successfully sold Steve a Merlot-Sangiovese blend by describing it as “pizza in a bottle”.

What wine region wouldn’t be complete without a neighboring artsy community? For Marlborough, that town is Nelson

Before arriving, we didn’t know that Nelson is also the home of the One Who Ruled Them All. But we quickly learned that Nelson’s local jeweler was tapped to created the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings  movies. By the way, Steve helped me write this paragraph. I’m not kidding anyone…I’ve never been able to stay awake through 30 minutes of Lord of the Rings.