Archive for March, 2011

New Zealand : Westland and Queenstown

March 29th, 2011

So this is the post where I try not to whine too much. However, the truth of the matter, was the days spend traveling down the west coast of the south island and Queenstown were the most challenging of the trip, in so many ways.  There were highlights, and moments of comedy throughout our suffering, which I will try to focus on, so that you don’t stop reading and click through to the next blog on your reader.

We left Arthur’s Pass and headed back to the west coast headed towards Westland National Park, and the infamous Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers.  These are also the names of the towns where the glaciers live, it’s all very confusing.  Along the way, we stopped in one of the coastal towns which is known for its greenstone (this is the Kiwi word for jade) jewelry production.  I got a very lovely piece.  Tom also stopped at a hardware store, because he had become slightly obsessed with the two tone New Zealand mailboxes and wanted to see if we could bring one home.

The weather was not great, but it wasn’t horrible either, and we wound our way down the coast in a steady drizzle.  This part of the country is very remote, and has very little population.  As I mentioned before, the Kiwis take advantage of this lack and save money by building bridges with only one lane.  It is a bit unnerving to approach a bridge and know that there is no way out if someone starts barreling down form the opposite direction straight at you.  This risk is somewhat moderated by the right of way signs that pop up about a km before the bridge, telling you whether you have right of way or not.  After that, it’s just a game of chicken, where you hope you read the sign right.  Yikes.

We eventually made it to the town of Franz Joseph Glacier, where we were planning to stay for the night, as it was about 3 hours from Arthur’s Pass.  We stopped by the Department of Conservation (DOC) office, which is essentially a very nice ranger station, to check on the trail conditions for the day, as we had planned several walks near and around both the Franz Joseph and the Fox Glaciers.  We were a bit surprised, however, when the rangers said that there had been record rainfall amounts over the past few days, and even more rain was expected.  All of the trails near Fox Glacier had been closed due to flooding, and they were only recommending a few trails near Franz Joseph due to flood risk.  We figured that we’d come to see glaciers up close and personal, and we would do what we could to make that happen, so we headed off for our “approved” trail.  With our rain gear.

The “hike” to the glacier was pretty much a flat walk along the receding glacier’s moraine, which pretty much looks like a lunar landscape, as the glacier has spent eons grinding the bedrock down to pebbles and sand.  We were able to get very close to the glacier its self, which was very cool.  The glacial ice is a bright, vibrant shade of blue, and there is a constant grinding and popping noise as the slow moving river of ice makes its presence known.

Soon we were soaked to the skin, and headed back to our car.  Since we were unable to do most of the hikes we had planned for the next day and a half, we needed to reassess our route.  We could have stayed in Franz Joseph that night, but there really seemed no point, as the town was tiny and there were no hikes to do.  So it was back into the car, and planned to drive as far as we could towards Queenstown that evening.

We made it to Wanaka, which is about another 3ish hours south of Franz Joseph.  The road went through some very wild country, with even more one lane bridges.  We were driving through the lower portions of the Southern Alps, and there were few other cars on the road.  We kept stopping to take in the dramatic scenery, which still managed to be breathtaking despite the rain.  One memorable stop was this lake, which was one of the windiest stops we made on the trip, and where a very unfortunate tour group had stopped to set up camp for the night.

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Eventually we made it Wanaka, where we spent about 45 minutes looking for a cheap hotel ,before Tom gave in, and we decided to treat ourselves to a night at a nice bed and breakfast.  We felt like we had earned it, and man, was this place swanky.  But, really, after several days in the rain, just having a roof over our head and a warm shower seemed like high times.

The next morning we drove further south through the passes to Queenstown.  This city is famed for it’s stunning alpine vistas and adrenaline packed adventures such as sky diving, bungee jumping, river surfing and canyoning.  We checked into the Southern Laughter Backpackers, (which is the Kiwi word for hostel), and requested a private double room.  They said they had only one available, and it was “in the back garden”.  Now, I think that when referencing your converted shipping container “room” which is sitting in the back parking lot, it’s a bit of a stretch to talk about it being “in the back garden”, but hey, who am I to judge.  Our room was just that, a converted shipping container in the parking lot, which happened to be rapidly filling with an alarmingly large puddle due to the aforementioned rain.  We decided to go for it though, because how many opportunities do one have to sleep in a converted shipping container?

We spent the afternoon and evening bumming around Queenstown in the rain, getting soggy, sampling some of the local brews and having a tasty dinner at a well reviewed Indian restaurant.  As a side note, do not go to New Zealand for the food.  In our experience they cook only two things well:  fish and chips and Indian food.  It’s pretty much all we lived on during our time there.  Now you know.  We had originally planned on doing a backpacking trip that night, but due to the epic amounts of rain falling from the sky, most of the trails were either under water or closed due to high flood risk.  In fact, a few folks that we talked to that were staying at our backpackers had actually just been evacuated off the famed Milford Track the day before due to the fact that the entire time they had been hiking on the trail, the water had been up to their waists or chests, and they had to be helicoptered away from their hut to avoid the rising waters.

At this point, we were sick of our plans being changed, we were sick of the rain, and just wanted to do something fun.  So we wandered into one of the outfitters that offered canyoning tours.  In America, we call this canyoneering, where you jump, swim, slip and slide your way down a river, and try to have fun and not drown yourself in the process.  We shelled out a rather large sum to book our fun for the following day, then splashed our way back to our container for the night.  The following morning, we woke up and were glad to see that the large puddle in the back “garden” had not yet overtaken our front porch, and eagerly got ourselves ready to go canyoning.  However, when we arrived at the outfitter, we were told that, of course, there had been so much rain overnight that the rivers were now at flood stage, and all trips had been canceled for the day.  I probably don’t have to mention that this was pretty much the low point of the trip.  We’ll just move on.

Because my husband is amazing, (and at this point pretty desperate), he yet again salvaged a BACK UP PLAN.  He read in our guidebook that there was a very interesting bird park in Queenstown that was mostly under cover, and he thought it might be worth checking out.  Now, I’m not that into birds, but New Zealand has some of the most unique birds in the world, so bird parks actually have some appeal.  They also had two breeding pairs of kiwis, which while being the national bird are actually quite rare, so we were anxious to see them.  Kiwis are nocturnal, so the kiwi houses are red, but you can make out the akward and somewhat silly shapes of these interesting birds in the photos.  Tom took some video where you can see them better, and hopefully I’ll be able to post some soon!

All in all, the west coast and Queenstown were far from the highlight of the trip, but they were a learning experience for us.  We have defiantly learned not to pin our hopes on one activity in a place, and to always, ALWAYS have a backup plan.  Preferably one that involves flightless birds, they’re always good for a laugh.

Up next, the odd spherical boulders, the blue penguin colony and Mt Cook National Park.

New Zealand: Arthur’s Pass National Park

March 27th, 2011

Many abject apologies for the total lack of blogging recently.  We had some server difficulties which made it impossible to access pictures for about a month. Things are back online now, and there should be more frequent updates!

After leaving Abel Tasman National Park on Christmas Eve, we drove south through the interior and finally along the west coast…..and drove, and drove, and drove.  The south island is far less populated that the north island, and this is evidenced by the total lack of traffic, the overabundance of sheep and cattle, and the one lane bridges, (more on these next time).  Our destination was Arthur’s Pass National Park. The weather was volatile, as usual, but we did get some partial clearing and a rainbow or two along the way.

After turning away from the coast, and heading back towards the center of the island, we were aiming straight for the Southern Alps.  This is the mountain range that runs the length of the south island.  It is large, remote, wild, virtually uninhabited and has very few passes over it.  As you may have guessed, Arthur’s Pass is one of them.  Eventually, we started our climb up through the mountains.  It was late in the day, and a mist and fog was laced through the valleys and snaked around the peaks.  We started looking for Gollum to poke his head around the next jagged rock outcropping looking for the One Ring.

We finally arrived at the tiny village of Arthur’s Pass, and tried to seek out a Christmas Eve service.  As it turns out, the tiny chapel in town only has services on Sunday mornings, and Christmas is no exception.  So no Christmas carols for us.  This was  a pretty big blow for me.  I had never been away from family before on Christmas, and never missed the Christmas Eve church service.  To me, it’s an integral part of Christmas, and I wasn’t going to get it this year.  There were tears and I threw a pretty big pity party for myself.  Luckily, I have an amazing husband, who not only dealt with the pity party, but had a BACKUP PLAN.  The backup plan, aside from heroically offering to drive another hour back to civilization after we had already set up camp and night had fallen, was to bust out dinner and the laptop.  While I moped, Tom chopped vegetables for pasta sauce.  Now remember, we were camping, so making nice food is a bit harder.  We had a very yummy dinner of pasta with fresh veggies, which helped lighten the mood.  To top it all off, Tom had loaded a bunch of Christmas movies onto the laptop that we brought with us, and we watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Charlie Brown’s Christmas. As silly as it sounds, eating yummy food and watching fun movies really did make Christmas Eve special.

The next morning, we had our own little mini-Christmas with presents that we had painstakingly brought all the way form home to exchange on Christmas morning.  Tom got me a two person travel game that we played throughout the rest of the trip called Mr. Jack Pocket.  I got him a new pair of underwear!  Hey, I knew it would be about half way through the trip when we exchanged gifts, and I wasn’t exactly sure what the laundry situation would be.  It was nice to have a bit of Christmas, even if it was sunny and very far from home.  (The photos of Christmas Eve and Day aren’t fantastic…but they do tell the story!)

After our oh so delicious breakfast of Cadbury “breakfast bars”, we headed out to the ranger station. For long, strenuous hikes, the rangers like for you to register your intentions, so that if you don’t come back, they know where to go looking for you.  The ranger station was open for only 20 minutes due to the fact that it was Christmas Day, so we needed to be prompt.  When researching the hikes for our trip, the one consistently mentioned in the Arthur’s Pass areas was the Avalanche Peak Trail linked with the Scott’s Track to make a loop.  Now, the Avalanche Peak Trail was considered “very challenging” and the Scott’s Track, “moderately challenging”.  Since it was December and we were feeling a bit out of shape, we decided to go out and back on the Scott’s Track.  This was our first experience with the fact that Kiwis TOTALLY understate the difficulty of their trails.

We knew we were in trouble when the “trail” seemed to be more or less a stream bed, complete with rocks, roots and boulders.  In fact, the word “trail” is a bit of an overstatement of the situation actually.  However, it started in lush beautiful forest full of weird looking plants and more fern trees, so at least we had nice scenery to look at as we hoofed it up and up and up.  Eventually we broke the tree line and were rewarded with jaw dropping views of the valley below and the mountains above.  The higher we climbed, the better the views.  We were right in the middle of the island, and had quite dramatic vistas where the mountains dropped off to the east and west, and where they climbed further to the sky towards the south.  Magnificent.


The higher we got, however, the more exposed the trail was, and the wind was really whipping.  There was some rain forecast to come into the pass in the afternoon, and we could literally watch the storm starting to come in from the west coast.  Eventually it got a bit too windy for this red head, and I called for a lunch stop to reassess our situation.  After dining on sandwiches and chicken flavoured chips, (yes, that’s a real thing, and yes, they are delicious), we decided that the summit was just not in the cards for the day.  It was still over a mile away with probably another 1,000 ft of elevation gain, and we could see the rain coming.  I think Tom would have been up for it if I was willing, but he wasn’t too fussed about turning around.  The views had been amazing, and we were ready to call it a day.

After our decent, the rain began, and we took refuge in the town of Arthur’s Pass on the front porch of a convenience store, which conveniently, (hehe), had wifi that we could use to call our parents via Google Voice.  Crazy technology these days!  While we rested our aching feet, we were visited by several curious kea.  These are the indigenous alpine parrot that lives in the Southern Alps of New Zealand.  They are incredibly intelligent, very curious and often quite mischievous.  They have been known to rip open tents, carry off hiking boots and unzip backpacks to get at hiker’s hidden treats.  They’re fun and quite beautiful.  It was fun to watch them fly and climb around.

We spent one last evening in Arthur’s Pass before heading back to the west coast.   Up next, Franz Joseph Glacier, Queenstown, the elusive kiwi bird and even more rain!  Stay tuned!