October 9, 2012

A Snowy & Shaky Farewell

From the South Island’s East Coast, we made one last turn towards the mountains into Mackenzie Country. We had our sights set on New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt. Cook (12,316 feet). We first saw the top of Mt. Cook from the west when we visited Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers. It was a whole different scene as we came at the base of it from the east with baby-blue Lake Pukaki in the foreground.

We very patiently waited out two days in the rain and snow at Mt. Cook Village so that we could play in the valleys below this behemoth. We watched some movies in the campervan, we roasted some marshmallows in the village hotel, and we learned more about New Zealand’s most beloved countryman. Sir Edmond Hillary – who became the first person in the world to summit Mount Everest in 1953 – trained on Mount Cook for both his Everest and Antarctic expeditions. We've gotten to see great artifacts of his like his passport, ice axe, crampons, and sunglasses throughout several museums around the country.

Finally the weather was supposed to let up for ONE DAY, so we made plans to blitz as much as humanly possible.

Tasman Glacier is not touristy at all, and yet it was so much better than the more popular glaciers on the West Coast. There's more of it to see, the mouth is very prominent, it's fronted by a milky blue glacial lake, and the lake has icebergs!

Hooker Valley is an awesome little hike with Mt. Cook reigning over. 

But whoa, we did not sign up for snow!

Steve was finally able to reel in an iceberg, and on the way back down, we even saw an avalanche on Mt. Sefton. 

On our drive out of the Mt. Cook area, we got to spend some time around Lake Tekapo. Seeing blue glacial water like this just never gets old! 

Further north along the Southern Alps, people spend a lot of money to take a scenic train ride over Arthur's Pass and down into the West Coast. The train tracks follow the road, so we decided to drive it.  Maybe if you had never seen a mountain before this would be something special, but we thought it was just pretty normal. Good thing there are some nice stops along the way…

At Castle Hill there's a lot of rock climbing, but you could also play the all-time coolest game of hide-and-go-seek.

Cave Stream is where you can wade upstream through an underground river. 

Unlike in Clifden, this is known to be a fairly non-technical cave, but we had two things working against us. First, the DOC (Department of Conservation) is pretty clear that this cave should only be attempted when the water in the first pool is no more than waist-high. Well, it was definitely waist-high on Steve and more like abdomen-high on me. High water means the river is rushing, which means our non-technical cave just got a whole lot scarier.

Also it's springtime, and so that's not just any water. It's glacial run-off. We spent 55 minutes submerged in knee to waist-high water that is only slightly above freezing. It was probably the dumbest decision that we made in New Zealand. Steve had a great time, but I think I'm not cut out for caving. The worry of getting trapped underground just scares me too much. I'm hanging my caving shoes up for awhile.

There were other things to see along Arthur's Pass, but we never made it to them. We camped 6 kilometers from the top of the pass, and the next morning we woke up to a full-on spring snow storm.   

We retreated to our final stop, Christchurch.  I can remember the first time I had ever heard of Christchurch. It was on the news two years ago when they got hit with a 7.1 earthquake. That was September 2010, and the year that followed dealt them somewhere around 2,500 aftershocks. The aftershocks of February 2011 (185 people died) and December 2011 have collectively devastated the city. This is their downtown.

This is the first time that we've personally seen a major city just completely leveled. The entire heart of their downtown, called “The Red Zone”, is fenced and off limits. Everything is being rebuilt in New Zealand's second biggest city.

This means that there really isn't much to do. It's hard to even find an open restaurant. We did enjoy the city's gorgeous botanical gardens. 

We also poked around their new shopping mall which is built out of shipping containers. That's how they're operating these days. 

Right before we arrived in Christchurch, we had read very brief reports about the recent earthquakes in Columbia and Japan. Christchurch is the last place I wanted to be when there's a bunch of Ring of Fire activity going on. Sure enough at 11:53am on October 10, a 4.3 earthquake started shaking the walls while we were at the library. We LOVED New Zealand, but now get us out of here!!

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