May 10, 2008

The South Island

With all the traveling in our campervan, we haven't had much time to get to online and fill you in on our trip, so here's how we spent two weeks in South Island of New Zealand. Here's a map, so you can follow along.

Upon arrival, we put our priorities straight and headed for the wine region of Marlborough, to the town of Renwick in the northeast. The area is famous for its white grape varieties, especially Sauvignon Blanc, and we managed to visit two vineyards before calling it a day and heading west. Normally I would spend hours, or days even, visiting vineyards, but unfortunately I was the designated driver being the only one who could drive a manual shift, and I should mention that wine is way, way too expensive in New Zealand. A cheap bottle is $20!

Abel Tasman National Park was our next destination, located in the northwest of the island on the north coast. The place reminded me a lot of British Columbia in the summertime, with a nice coastal rainforest, and little coves with sandy beaches. The Abel Tasman track usually takes 2-3 days to hike along the coast, but we only had enough time for a day hike, and I can't wait to come back and hike the whole trail. A highlight for us was seeing a family of seals swim right by us in the shallows of the surf. I should also mention that we had an afternoon of fishing at a nearby salmon farm where we were able take home our catch. We couldn't wait, and had some fresh raw salmon sashimi, prepared by the farm, with one of the bottles from our winery visit. What an introduction to the south island!

From Abel Tasman, we headed southwest to the west coast, and to one of the prettiest drives I have ever done. Going from Westport to Greymouth was stunning. It reminded me a lot of northern California. We stopped to see the famous Pancake rocks, and the obligatory tour of the Monteiths brewery.

We then drove further south to see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. They are massive glaciers, that are actually advancing at about a pace of 1 meter a day (which in glacial time is really, really fast). We ponied up the cash and did a full day hike on the Fox Glacier with Fox Glacier Guiding. What a great day. The weather was sunny, and we got to crawl through some caves and crevasses. I have been on a number of glaciers while climbing mountains, but have never really walked around an ice fall like this. It was also Julie's first time on a glacier and wearing crampons (ice shoes). It was well worth every penny we spent. If you have limited time, or more cash to burn, you can do a heli hike, which is a helicopter ride onto the glacier and then a hike. I'll be back to try this one day.

From Fox Glacier we headed southeast over the Haast pass, by beautiful mountain lakes, to the alpine town of Wanaka. Home of mountain guides, and not as touristy as Queenstown, we spent our two days trying to go skydiving. The weather stopped us from our first jump, but we did see a movie at Cinema Paradiso, a famously cool theater that is more like a living room filled with mis-matched furniture, and even an old car.

We ended up spending more time in Queenstown than we anticipated. It's actually not a bad place to rest for a couple days. There are good restaurants and shops, and every adrenaline sport under the sun. We finally went skydiving for the first time. What a rush. I think everyone should try it once in their lives. We jumped tandem style (attached to a professional) from 12,000 feet, and it gave us about 45 seconds of free-fall. For the first 5 seconds or so, you get that rollercoaster feeling in your stomach, but once you reach terminal velocity, it is like you are floating...but the ground is getting closer with every passing second. We jumped with NZONE, who were great. I also went bungy jumping off the 43 meter (141 foot) Kawarau bridge on the way out of Queenstown. I figured I came all the way to New Zealand, I might as well jump from the world's first commercial bungy site with AJ Hackett Bungy, the people who started this crazy sport.

I guess this is a good time to tell you that we kind of, well, crashed our campervan. It wasn't a bad accident, thank goodness, but we were shaken up nonetheless. Basically, we skidded off a narrow, curvy, wet road, and into rock. We weren't going that fast, but the right side (driver's side) was banged up pretty good, and for the next week we drove around with a door that didn't close all the way. What a sight. I would like to say for the record that this was my first (and hopefully last) accident. I'd like to think I am a safe driver. I've never even had a speeding ticket. But be warned if you are driving around New Zealand. The roads are tough, and according to the guy who rented us our van, 1 out of 3 renters have accidents. Also, if anyone was wondering about New Zealanders, we had two cars stop within minutes of the crash to help us change our tyre that was blown. One guy even dirtied up his nice clothes without thinking. That's New Zealand hospitality for you.

From Queenstown, I drove 'Andy the wreck' to Glenorchy and hiked the Routeburn track for two days. Julie stayed in Queenstown to take care of Australian visa issues. The Routeburn was fantastic, and as of May 1st the backcountry hut fee dropped from $40 a night to $10. Definitely the best time to hike. It was a little chilly, but worth it. Overnight the weather changed from sunny to a snowstorm, but mountains look so much better blanketed in white, don't you think? Again, I wish I had more time to do this hike. You really need 3 days, and another driver. All the good hikes in New Zealand seem to be a one way direction, not many loops. When I come back to this area, I am going to do the full 3 days on the Routeburn, plus the Keplar, Rees-Dart, and Milford Sound tracks, which are also really popular multi-day hikes.

After trekking, I picked up Julie in Queenstown, and we made our way north, first to the old gold rush settlement of Arrowtown, and then to Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park. In 2001, I trekked across some valleys in Nepal, and a girl in our group kept saying how it reminded her of the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Up until this point, I had dismissed the thought, but Mt. Cook National Park is as beautiful as the Himalayas, and I guess that girl was right. The tiny town of Aoraki/Mt. Cook is in the National Park and is surrounded by peaks and glaciers, and dominated by the Aoraki/Mt. Cook summit (Aoraki means cloud piercer in Maori). We spent another chilly night here, and did a great morning day hike by glacial lakes with stunning 360 views of the mountains.

Unfortunately we said goodbye to the national park and drove the 5 hours to Christchurch, which was our final stop in New Zealand. Christchurch is a really great city. If you were to blend Denver and San Francisco, you would get Christchurch, but with much less people. Approximately 338,800 people live in the city, and if you are looking for the next outdoor adventure place to raise a family, head here. Here are our photos (part 1 and part 2) from the South Island.

I said goodbye to New Zealand and boarded a plane solo, bound for Melbourne, Australia where I am currently waiting for Julie to join me. She is still waiting on her Australian work/holiday visa, but we hoping that it will come in time for her flight here next Thursday.

If anyone has friends or family in Australia, or knows of any fantastic jobs for a couple of months, please let us know. We miss you all, and really appreciate the comments and emails from home, so thank you.


JulieAnn said...

Oh, I am so marking this as a favorite in my google reader. We're going to Melbourne Aug-Dec and it is my goal to visit New Zealand!!

We have family in Oz, but in Sydney. We visited last summer and LOVED it!! Apparently there's a big rivalry (NY vs LA) thing going on in Oz, and we're Sydney people. Sydney reminded us of San Fran (city built around the bay, focusing on nature) and Melbourne reminded us of either Seattle or a smaller version of NYC. Let us know how it goes :)

Unknown said...

We've been wanting to go to New Zealand for years. So far all we have is blog-envy. Thanks for letting us know about this trip and all the others as well.