December 22, 2009 to Jan 4, 2010
By Mary Moran
In idle musings that defined that summer, Jack and I entertained the tantalizing lure of an escape to Australia, taking advantage of Conor and Jennie’s extended sojourn there. As we perused the geography of the South Pacific, the idea gradually morphed into a rendezvous in Oz’s exotic neighbor, New Zealand. The Christmas holidays provided the perfect opportunity… our cold and bleak would be their warm and bright; the blessings of visiting the back side of the globe. We surveyed the lay of the land, calculating travel times and distances, and then prioritized destinations based on guides, testimonials and hearsay. Our renderings of the trip’s ambitious agenda required months of research, redirection, and revisits to i-Site, (Kiwi tourist information centers) to craft the final itinerary for the 15-day holiday. Or was it 14 days; even determining the trip’s duration was a challenge. All we knew was that it required a considerable investment of time and planning and a new SLR camera. So it was with some exception when asked, several days into our journey, by a cheeky waitress in a tourist outpost if, in fact, we had “even looked at a map.”
Thanks to the magic of the International Date Line, it took two days to compass the thirteen hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland. We had left home under a cloud of plaster dust and renovation indecision. Our living room was in a state of transformation with the promise of a completed makeover upon our return. We think we remembered the hastily chosen shade of yellow for the wall’s new coat of paint. Or was it gold. Anyway, we departed with the impression that the living room would have a fresh welcoming glow upon our return. Sienie kindly drove us to the airport in her capacious Toyota Rav 4 within which we could barely fit our pyramid of luggage, the same luggage we were about to donkey half way around the world. (Jack ensured that BOTH of his laptops were packed and equitably distributed in his and her backpacks.) The flight from Buffalo to Cleveland was delayed, as was Cleveland to LAX. (Almost forgot my Tumi bag on the shuttle between the Continental and International terminals at LAX. THAT would have been a problem.) But as there was a three hour lull before the overnight flight to Auckland we were never in jeopardy of missing the flight. Our seats were in the four-seat-wide middle row in the back, conveniently close to bathrooms and meal service. Our two seat mates from Ann Arbor were about to spend three weeks traveling in both North and South Islands, seeking wonderments and exchanging marriage vows. We wished them luck and happiness and the unfulfilled promise of reuniting with them somewhere down the road.
Kiwis have an affinity to refer to their country’s geographic neighborhoods as “land”; Westland, Northland, Fiordland. I admire both the simplicity and distinctive suggestions of these characterizations, as the artistry of the terrain and scenery is as fantastic as the imagination can take you, kind of like, well, Disneyland. So, with a reverent nod to Walt Disney and other terra-philes, let me tell you about…
We arrived in the City of Sails at 5:30 the morning. Proceeding through Customs was uneventful except for the sanitizing of our hiking boots (Kiwis have a fetish about foreign dirt). All our bags were accounted for and in sound condition. (We had six. Before the end of the trip, we would have seven, thanks in part to the ubiquitous Kathmandu.) Yet even with some decent sleep on the plane, the first delicious cup of Flat White coffee was a welcomed injection of caffeine and sugar. The Auckland airport was small, well-marked and very manageable. An airport shuttle took us to the downtown harbor; the direction, we assumed, to the Bayswater Marina where our home for the next couple of days was docked. Sure enough, at the end of the shuttle line we hopped off the bus and in a few steps boarded a ferry transporting us directly to the marina. Most of the ferry passengers were commuters just coming into the city for the start of their work day; the last one before the long, warm Christmas/Summer holiday. I envied their mode of commute. After a jiffy ferry ride, we hoisted up our backpacks and dragged our luggage in search of the marina office. Bob, from Bayswater, was there to meet us and eager to assist. By way of introduction and orientation, Bob invited us on a short area tour, driving us to the top of North Head, one of the forty-eight volcanoes upon which Auckland is built. The revolving view boasted a maritime playground; the Tasman Sea to the west and Hauraki Gulf to the east. Bob is an experienced sailor familiar with Auckland waters, and recommended several favorable routes and destinations. We would stay within the hem of the Hauraki Gulf, which offers an abundance of islands and bays for scouting. The word “scenic” was never mentioned as its lame implication underserves the sensational. I was already thinking two days of sailing was not going to be enough.
Needing to stock up on provisions, Bob directed us to the “better” of the two neighborhood supermarkets. As efficient meal planners and shoppers, Jack and I had earlier prepared a grocery list, and maybe some day we’ll find it. So we shopped on the fly; steaks, potatoes and asparagus for Christmas dinner grilling, breakfast foods, cold cuts, bread, assorted mustard packs, cheese and crackers, soft drinks and COFFEE. We also spotted a small capacity French press coffee maker. We had to have it, even though it wasn’t Navy issue.
Bob returned us to the marina, and Jack and I began the process of unpacking, sorting, stowing, and prepping for a preliminary practice sail.
Mary: Jack, I don’t have your laptop in my bag.
Jack: Well, you better have it!
Mary: Well, I don’t.
OK. Before apprehension swelled into pure panic, we called Air New Zealand baggage claim and reported a forgotten laptop on Flight #5 arriving that morning from LA. Fortunately, they indeed had the computer and we could pick it up, “whenever”, at baggage claim. “Whenever” for us was immediately, so we boarded the ferry back across the harbor, caught the shuttle to the airport, retrieved the derelict computer and began circling back to the marina. Now somewhat familiar with the route, we opted for a walkabout around the busy downtown. And as we strolled along, what do you suppose was the first shop we encountered; the sporting and camping store Kathmandu, the EMS-Why-Pay-Less chain of Australasia. We spent a couple of hours practicing wise consumerism, strictly limiting our purchases to heretofore unknown essentials. By the time we left the store (who knew what time it really was within our convoluted body clocks), it was local dinnertime. We were hungry, and being late afternoon the day before Christmas, retailers and restaurants would soon be closing. We scuffed around the harbor noting the roster for our dining options and settled on German sausages languishing in a vendor’s cart. But they were delicious. What wouldn’t taste delectable while sitting on a park bench at the Auckland harbor on a tropical Christmas Eve?
We caught the last ferry back to the marina, computer well secured. Since we still had plenty of daylight left (dusk was around 10:30), and Conor and Jennie’s flight arrival was yet a couple of hours away, Jack coaxed our boat out of its berth and guided it into the harbor, “just to get the feel”. Finished feeling, he deftly glided it back into its glove of a slip. Well done, Skipper.
At about midnight, after the ritual of customs and a long taxi ride, Conor and Jennie arrived at the marina. I was thrilled to see them, and relieved that our long distance travel coordinations overcame their innate complications. After greetings, a tour, and a general catch-up, we all said goodnight, surrendering to the yawns of jet lag.
As the morning dawned, Jack slinked the sailboat out of the marina. Suitably empowered at the helm, he commanded us to hoist the head, or something, while he tinkered with the navigational gear and fiddled with the charts. We cruised past the New Zealand Naval Fleet, noted for its inconsequential port and armada. Our destination was Rangitoto, one of Hauraki Gulf’s volcanic islands, and our assignment was to climb to its summit. Marina Bob had cautioned an early start, as the days tend to heat up quickly. Well apprised, we moored in Rangitoto Bay, paddled the skiff to shore, and started our hike at a sweltering 1:00 in the afternoon.
Rangitoto is one of the beautiful necklace islands that decorate North Island’s throne, Auckland. Its distinctive symmetrical cone shape, peaking at 850 feet, makes it a visible landmark. At a youthful 600 years old, Rangitoto is the most recent and the largest of the 50 volcanoes of the Auckland Volcanic Field. There are no streams on the island so plants rely solely on rainfall for moisture. It has the world’s largest forest of pōhutukawa trees, beautiful evergreens that produce vibrant red blooms in December, hence the nickname Christmas tree.
The hike mostly wandered through fields of coal-black lava and sparse vegetation. We hiked along, increasingly on an uphill grade, for about two hours, passing markers indicating we were going in the right direction (up), and measuring the distance to the summit in time. The first sign indicated 45 minutes to the peak, then a half hour later another sign measured 40 minutes, or so it seemed. We happened upon an agreeable but sweaty park ranger who refilled our water bottles and warned us to be wary of dehydration. It was a hot, dusty walk, but rewarded with glimpses of the ever diminishing surrounding islands and the pristine blue sea. I wheezed up the last arid quarter mile by way of a well constructed wooden walkway and stairs. At the summit the view was phenomenal with amazing visual clarity. We could see our little toy boat below us in the bay. After soaking up the vista we retraced our steps down to the dinghy and paddled back to the boat. That is, except Conor, who decided a soothing swim was in order. Jennie and Jack soon joined him in the delightfully clear water, and I am here to report that they declared it “refreshing”.
We up anchored, and with charts consulted, sashayed around the gulf in search of a west-facing cove. Decision by committee was Islington Bay, a beautiful inlet, solitary but not isolated with about five or six homes on the bluff above the beach. A couple of other boats eventually joined us and a lone figure strolled along the shore. Otherwise we had the place to ourselves. Jack, Conor and Jennie went for another swim, after which we grilled our delicious Christmas steak dinner. Once the logy sun set, the clear night sky afforded us the incredible sighting of the celebrated Southern Cross, reminding me that it was, after all, Christmas, and an excellent one at that. After exchanging presents, (that is, redistributing some of our cargo), we retired to our cabins and allowed the boat’s gentle sway to sooth us to sleep.
The next morning we were underway by 7:00 am. Since there was only a light breeze, we motored back to the marina, meandering across the Gulf in wide sweeps and scoping out the verso of yesterday’s islands. Upon docking, Marina Bob looked on in disbelief as we unloaded prodigious amounts of gear for the vehicular part of our trip, then he summoned a cab to cart us bag and baggage to the airport. Now, cars in New Zealand are generally not very spacious; a Toyota Camry is considered a luxury model. I don’t know what this cabbie was driving, but it had not yet ripened into a Toyota Camry. Yet somehow we managed to cram ourselves and all our gear into this tinker toy of a car. If we were uncomfortably crowded, we didn’t notice, as the driver had us thoroughly entertained by his political ranting. His very elderly mother back in Palestine had her home “stolen” from her by “those Jews”. Similar woeful tales involving his dozen siblings and clutch of children filled the airport ride time while Jack encouraged his bluster and our amusement by asking him a thousand questions. Surprise.
As mentioned, we had over packed. For our flight to Christchurch Jack and I were travelling on JetStar, whose luggage limitations were more restrictive than Conor and Jennie’s Air New Zealand. So at the airport there was a four-way shuffle to redistribute luggage in order to avoid any checked baggage fee. Once well proportioned, we departed, and even though we were on separate flights, we arrived at Christchurch almost simultaneously. There, a courtesy van drove us the 2 miles to Apex Car “Hire”, where we “uplifted” our… Toyota Camry! We arranged and rearranged our caboodle in the fun sized trunk until there was room for Jennie and me in the back seat, with a few excess backpacks cradling our feet, and Jack and Conor in front. And even though there are about two highways in all of New Zealand, (north-south and east-west) Gadget-Man Jack opted for a GPS. Conor’s previous experience of driving a vehicle with confused steerage qualified him as our designated driver. Yet we had barely left the parking lot before; a) we made a wrong turn, and b) unbiddable Jack pulled out his secreted Bruce Springsteen CDs and popped one in the player. Conor, Jennie and I just looked at each other… the wrong turn we could rectify. Did he smuggle any Van Morrison’s with him, too?
Our destination was coastal Dunedin. According to our handy laminated maps and mileage charts, it was a five hour drive straight south on Highway One. But first, we made the required stops at a Kathmandu followed by McDonald’s. (Jack must have had these locations programmed into the GPS.) Both visits took longer than decently necessary as Kathmandu had way too much cool stuff and there was a communication hiccup at McDonald’s. Jack ordered his signature Big Mac with ketchup (aka tomato sauce) and cheese only. “Ketchup and cheese only?” asked the incredulous counter girl. “Yes, ketchup and cheese only!” So that is what he got, ketchup and cheese on a bun. No burger.
We arrived in New Zealand’s oldest and South Island’s second largest city around 8:00 pm. The first part of the drive was rather unremarkable until we reached the town of Timaru, where Highway One edged nearer to the coast. The pastoral, rolling hills, patchwork farmland of the Canterbury Plains had given way to the pastoral, rolling hills, patchwork farmland of Otago, with the added benefit of spectacular Pacific views. Approaching Dunedin from a headland, we twisted down steep sidewinding roads to the town center. Our GPS steered us directly to the Chapel Apartments, where we would spend our first night in South Island. The apartments, on Moray Place off the main square, were fashioned from the oldest church in Dunedin. We entered the arched front doors and found a welcoming message on a blackboard that announced Apartment Five was ready for Mary and her party. No key. No locks. Apartment 5 was two-stories; a pair of bedrooms on the first floor and a living room/kitchen/dining area on the second. The rooms were clean, spacious and well appointed, although some of the appointments were geared for rangier guests. The microwave, for example. When warming my coffee, the rotating tray needed to stop with the cup at the front so I could reach it. I had to jump to see myself in the bathroom mirror. The clothes dryer, too, was difficult to reach. Yes, a clothes dryer, housed over the washing machine. We were to discover that most guest lodgings, as a matter of course, provide laundry facilities. Kiwi accommodations are full service; the expected assorted toiletries along with laundry and fully equipped kitchens. What they lack is heat. The Chapel Apartments had only one space heater as central heating is still a novelty in New Zealand. It’s only recently that new construction is required to have central heating and double-glazed windows. But no worries. It’s was never cold, just a little damp.
We were hungry, having barely eaten since the Where’s the Beef McDonalds in Christchurch. After showers (talk about well-equipped!) and a load of laundry, we dined at a tapas restaurant, where the amicable waitress/student introduced us to the refreshing lemon-lime with bitters, a new favorite drink. We wandered around the Scottish-influenced town in a light rain for a wee bit. Dunedin is a college town, and as it was the day after Christmas, there was very little activity. So we strolled back to the Chapel Apartments, did more laundry, watched an episode of Flight of the Concords on Conor’s computer and went to bed.
The next morning we had no trouble locating delicious flat white coffee to start the day. We checked out the photo opt of the world’s steepest street, another of Dunedin’s distinctions. (At its maximum, the slope of Baldwin Street is approximately 35%.) We then followed the recommendation of our Chapel Apartments manager, Jon, and ventured out to Taiaroa Head at the end of Otago Peninsula.
The 15 mile peninsula is a thumb-shaped headland branching off South Island’s east flank. Conor, again our driver, took the Portobello Road, meandering its way through narrow, winding coastal lanes decorated with incredible vistas. Taiaroa Head is home to the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony. We watched the soaring giants as their seven-foot wing span caught the Pacific air currents. Also on Taiaroa Head is a reserve of a different sort, Perry’s Nature’s Wonders. Shepherd/Ranger Perry Reid has transformed his seaside pastureland into a refuge for tiny blue penguins, shy yellow-eyed penguins, cormorants, dolphins and fur seals in an attempt to protect them from ferrets, feral cats and human indifference. (We heard a lot about problems with feral cats.) To demonstrate, Perry guided us on an eight-wheeled buggy tour of the range, careening up and down roads that more resembled chutes, all the while waxing poetic about the beauty and uniqueness of the land and sea and his vocation as its protector. We stopped at a look-out point with a 720 degree view… “720 degrees because it’s so nice you look twice”. It’s true; the promise of New Zealand’s geographic diversity was evidenced by sweeping vistas of the raw Pacific coastline, pristine beaches, snow-capped alpine peaks, grassy plains, and uncommon wildlife. His narrative for “nature’s wonders” was so enthusiastic that I fully expected an end-of-the-tour shakedown. But he was genuinely impassioned about his domain and his stewardship of its protection. We enjoyed nose to nose close-ups with seals and their newborn pups and a rare yellow-eyed penguin, unique to New Zealand, waddling up the beach. We saw no dolphins, as advertised, but we did encounter unusual shore birds like the spotted shags in their cliff-side grottos and massive tangles of wide ribbons of seaweed. And the sea. There is something about the cast and hue of New Zealand’s lakes and seas; the waters shimmer with a pearly azure-green and are glazed with a peachy blush, if peaches were blue.
For the drive back to Dunedin we chose the inland Highcliff Road, perched on the spine of the peninsula, and this, too, was spectacular. There were coastal views bordered by steep pastureland crowded with, yes, sheep. And tiny villages tucked away from, well, everything. (Everything except sheep.) It was another drive where every turn in the road yielded a dramatic and spectacular view. We may have some photos.
On to Milford Sound. The drive across the breadth of the South Island and over its alpine divide would take about six hours, plus vista visits. The map indicated that the road would be fairly flat and straight, so Conor, Jennie and I surreptitiously nodded in agreement that now was as good as ever for Jack to try his left-side-of-the-road driving skills. Jack’s driving aptitude is fine; it’s his technique that is troubling. As soon as he was behind the wheel, he started his usual distracting behaviors; futzing with the radio, rubbernecking, swiveling to talk to the back seat passengers and thusly traversing the highway in swooping arcs. And now he had a GPS to fidget with. He fished around for his CDs and slipped Bruce into the player. Conor, Jennie and I groaned. I was in the front seat next to Driver Jack. One of us focused his attention on the scenery while the other concentrated on the road. I was a wreck. Some highway bridges in New Zealand are too narrow to accommodate double lanes. When approaching one of these constricted bridges, a sign would indicate which direction had the right of way. Jack, signage aside, preferred having the right of way. Did I say I was a wreck? So before long Conor, Jennie and I uniformly decided we were starving and really needed a bathroom stop. Approaching the next town, the driver obliged us and pulled over. After lunching on pizza, Jack conceded and tossed Conor the keys. I exhaled. As Conor started down the road he absent-mindedly turned on the radio, and Bruce. I mouthed “Conor, ix-nay on the usic-may.” He whispered, “Sorry. Rookie mistake.”
We traveled on Route One west to the town of Gore, passing through the hamlet of Clinton. Yes, there was a sign indicating that we were on the Presidential Route: the Clinton-Gore Highway. At Gore, Route One veered south to Invercargill, but we picked up Route 94, continuing west to Te Anau and then northward to Milford Sound. We cruised along, enjoying the giddy sweet nothings of wayfarers on a road trip. The Te Anau-Milford Sound Highway is 120 kilometers, less than a two hour drive, and is celebrated as one of the world’s finest drives. The route passed through tiny towns that were unspoiled by traffic lights, gas stations, billboards and convenience stores. (Thankfully our chilly bin was packed with delicious Tim Tams and refreshing beverages.) We started this drive at dusk and continued well past sunset. The bright waxing moon teased us with glimpses of spectacular scenery. We drove through the celebrated Homer Tunnel, both an engineering marvel and a logistical nightmare. The Homer Tunnel was built during the Depression and had its share of mishaps, flaws and casualties. Although the tunnel is wide enough for cars to pass each other, encounters involving larger vehicles pose a problem. But traffic is tourist tidal, flowing towards Milford Sound in the morning and returning to Te Anau in the afternoon. Traffic lights at the tunnel’s entrances control the direction of the flow only during the peak summer season, since the risk of avalanches make it unsafe to stop in the winter. Yes, while waiting for a green light, you could be buried by a wall of snow. Now although these types of road hazards may be unremarkable in Nepal or Nederland, it’s clearly not typical in Raleigh Durham, whose winter climate closely matches that of nearby Te Anau. It’s another example of New Zealand’s climatic diversity.
Milford Sound enjoys being one of the most spectacular travel destinations, yet there is scant evidence of the associated ego and glitter. Our choices for overnight accommodations were limited to two; the Milford Sound Lodge or an overnight boat cruise. At about midnight we arrived at the humble Lodge that is possibly the world’s best located hostel. Our tidy room was furnished with two sets of bunk beds and not much else. Jennie and I took the bottom bunks, and Jack and Conor climbed the vertical ladders to the upper bunks. No Flight of the Concords for us tonight. Falling asleep was not a problem, although Jennie later reported that Jack’s snoring had an interesting range of cadence and pitch.
In the morning we woke eager to explore the fabled Milford Sound. We had coffee and breakfast from the meager offerings at the Lodge, and then drove a mile down a gravel road to the put-in. The Town of Milford, population 160, consists of the Lodge, a pocket of a harbor, a few out buildings, and that’s about it. Thanks to the establishment in 1990 of the World Heritage Area, any new construction is prohibited; an impressive choice between commercialism and conservation. The World Heritage Area incorporates the parks of Fiordland, Mt Aspiring, and Mt Cook/Westland, creating 6.4 million acres of parkland, or 10% of New Zealand’s total land area.
Milford Sound is nestled in Fiordland National Park, the wildest, wettest and most remote part of New Zealand. It is also the most breathtaking. The formation of Fiordland is an 80 million year old geologic voyage through the Pacific Ocean. It lies close to an alpine fault where two major plates of the earth’s crust meet. It has been twisted, buckled, and tilted. It has been buried beneath ocean sediments, and then thrust above the surface for wind, sun, and ice to carve and erode. It has been fragmented by faults, rocked by earthquakes, and frozen by mile thick ice caps. The marvelous movement of glaciers gouged out the granite rock to form deep, steep U-shaped valleys, many of which are now lakes or fiords. Some of these fiords slice inland for up to 25 miles. There is little in the way of soil on the fiords’ near-vertical slopes, so whatever vegetation manages to grab a toehold is susceptible to frequent tree avalanches, deforesting the granite walls.
The half-day trip was organized by Fiordland Wilderness Experience, and this was our introduction to kayaking. Our guide demonstrated paddling and safety techniques including the ever important righting of an overturned kayak. We layered on the apparel and gear, starting with polypro long johns followed by a wet suit vest, more polypro, rain gear, kayak skirt, life vest and hats. The notorious sandflies, black flies to us, were getting in every last juicy bite before our tender flesh was encased in polypro. There were eight paddlers in our party, guided by Tara, (“Starts with a T, as in turtle”, with her arms arched over her head, shell-like.) I remember a jovial, well travelled couple from Winnipeg and another American gentleman with a malcontent nonverbal female partner. The day started out chilly and overcast, but as we were collecting our polypro and lessons, the clouds feathered and glimpses of blue sky emerged. The sea was calm, but Tara predicted a clearing sky and rising temperatures would strengthen the winds. She was right.
Launching the kayaks at about 9:00 am, our view was dominated by the iconic Mitre Peak rising 5500 feet in the mist. Other densely vegetated buttes soared skyward. Because of snowmelt and heavy annual rainfall, a 10 to 13 foot layer of fresh water blankets the deep underlying salt water. The vastness of the landscape seemed to distort one’s sense of scope. One spectacular waterfall appeared to be just a few hundred yards down the fiord. It was six miles away. We paddled for a couple of hours, necks craning and cameras clicking. We stopped for lunch at a small pebbly beach and I was amazed that there was any beach area at all, as the cliffs appeared as unrelenting towers of granite. Tara provided coffee and hot chocolate while we munched on our bagged sandwiches. We all chatted amicably, as strangers do when temporarily linked in locus. We then gathered up the picnic paraphernalia and continued surveying the Sound.
When we had reached the apogee of our route, with photos and lunch taken, we started our return paddle. At one point Conor and Jennie lost the use of their kayak’s rudder, forcing them to maneuver with just their paddles, a daunting task in the stiff winds. By now these winds, blowing unobstructed off the Tasman Sea, reached gale force, with swells an impressive six feet plus. Conor and Jennie were paddling directly in front of us, yet at times they were obscured from view by the surge of the waves. Tara was blasé. She instructed us to raft the four kayaks together while she retrieved a nylon sheet from her pack. Each of the four corner paddlers took a point of the “sail”, and the rest of us joined our boats together by holding on to each other’s gunnels. With the wind at our backs we sliced through the swells with amazing alacrity. At around 3:00, we were back on the beach, wet, tired, hungry and thrilled. We thanked Tara for her calm guidance and wished her luck with her global career plans.
Initially our ambitions were to complete the day with a bike ride through the Hollyford Valley. But now it seemed we already owned a full roster of activity, so instead we enjoyed a delightful drive back to Queenstown via Te Anau, stopping often to appreciate the dramatic scenery that had glinted at us the night before. When we emerged from the Homer Tunnel, we joined the other startled travelers by cavorting in the snow. Even though we are highly familiar with snow sightings, it was nonetheless quite curious to make snowballs just minutes away from the tropics of Milford Sound.
Arriving in Te Anau in late afternoon, we poked around long enough to view a documentary showcasing the grandeur of Fiordland in a theater constructed solely for this movie. The video was produced by a local film artist and photographed with the assistance of crew members from Lord of the Rings. It was visually quite compelling, so much so that we purchased two DVD’s, one for us and one for Conor and Jennie. No matter that the formatting of the DVD rendered it unplayable on our American players. Te Anau is a picturesque small town sitting on its namesake lake. As the gateway to the fiords and some spectacular tramps, you would expect the town fathers to foster a commercial mindset geared for gearing adventurers and tourists. But it’s just a folksy little town on a beautiful lake with its own custom-made theater. And clean bathrooms.
The halcyon drive to Queenstown chronicled New Zealand’s phenomena of topographical concentration. Fiordland’s dense, lush rain forests yielded to the grassy, sheep-grazing meadows and fens of Otago, which in turn surrendered to the mountains and ski fields of Queenstown. Queenstown is on Lake Wakatipa, a curious shaped lake that resembles an east-facing chair, with the town perched on the seat. From Te Anau we drove east passing through Mossburn and Lumsden, then turned north at Kingston and followed the “legs” of the lake up its east side to Francton, where the route and the lake veered west to Queenstown. Lake Wakatipa shimmered with that incandescent periwinkle glow; think malachite green meets Miami Dolphins blue. Here the road was nestled between the lake, with the occasional meandering fishing boat, and the serene snow-covered Remarkables Mountains, casting quiet shadows on the meadows. Queenstown and its environs enjoy one of the most majestic settings to be found. After Queenstown, the lake and a secondary road continue west for about five miles before bending north for 30 miles more (the chair back), ending at Glenorchy. Time limitations prevented us from exploring Glenorchy, known to be a truly beautiful area (by now this phrase was becoming rather tiresome, though not inaccurate.) As part of the Routeburn Tract, one can hike from Glenorchy across the Richardson Mountains to the Matukituki River valley. Later, we would visit this river valley without the treachery of a mountain crossing.
Fidgety Queenstown is dubbed the Adventure Capital of the World. “Outdoor enthusiasts” may choose from bungee jumping (born here), white-water rafting, jet boating on the nearby Dart and Shotover rivers (love those names), hang gliding, sky diving, snow skiing, or, more to my liking, strolling and snacking. We would choose to flex our thrill-seeking muscles with a lazy ride up the Skyline Gondola to the top of Bob’s Peak.
We checked into the Scenic Inn and Suites on Stewart Street. Our one bedroom suite had a massive king size bed (for Jack and me), and a lovely but lumpy sofa bed (for Conor and Jennie). Like the Chapel apartments in Dunedin, it had a full kitchen complete with laundry facilities, and a great bathroom with LOTS of sample-size toiletries. I hoarded them. We showered and started a load of laundry, then went off to dinner. Queenstown is a place for young, vigorous people. Yet, even at that, there were only a few places open for a middle of the week late dinner. We chose The Cow Restaurant, an Italian tavern that had been recommended by the locals. We all enjoyed hearty plates of spaghetti with plenty of crusty bread. After dinner we strolled around the tiny town center and picturesque harbor. The harbor is home to NZL 14, the comely racing yacht that competed in the 1992 America’s Cup in San Diego. Once that was in Jack’s viewfinder, his attention was inextricable. He would have been occupied for the remainder of the evening had it not been for the call of another siren; the Patagonia Ice Cream Shop. (What was the name of that ice cream parlor again?) While savoring delicious ice cream, we watched an amazing fiery sunset reflected on Lake Wakatipa and then ambled back to the hotel. After another episode of Flight of the Concords, and a final load of laundry, we went to bed.
Queenstown to Haast
For those of us who are layabouts, the next day was a gift, although we would sadly bid Jennie goodbye. So the day was ours to fritter. A local Starbucks supplied the required coffee. That being insufficient, we had breakfast at Joe’s Garage, another recommended eatery. Joe is a relocated Canadian and therefore a huge hockey fan. He has found, though, that Kiwis have little tolerance for the violence of hockey, (choosing, instead, the violence of rugby), but his hockey postered “Garage” pays homage to the sport. Breakfast was ample and delicious, the French toast being especially tasty. Sometime during breakfast Jack wandered off in search of cell phone reception to respond to an earlier text message from Dylan. Dylan had reported that our family room was flooded, a seemingly bi-annual event. But this time the moisture was impacting the integrity of the new hardwood flooring stacked in our renovating living room. No worries. Jack was able to contact the two most obliging craftsmen that ever strapped on a tool belt, Jeff Grenzebach and John Tiffany. Jack also called our insurance agent, Tom Finn, an avid Lake Erie sailor. (Tom Finn: “You were just sailing where?”) Jack was very composed and in control of the crisis, and only briefly considered flying home to personally manage the situation. Thankfully, he did not.
After breakfast and the abating flood panic, we suited up for the adventurous Queenstown Skyline Gondola ride. The near vertical ascent to Bob’s Peak skims over grazing sheep, and topping at 2400 feet, pans a remarkable view of the Remarkables. From the observation deck there were options for the adventurer to luge, bungee jump, paraglide or hike down the mountain on a rock-strewn trail. We chose to take pictures. The view was quite spectacular with Queenstown seated at the edge of glistening Lake Wakatipa and the backdrop of snowy mountains. Afterward, we wandered through town, making a critical stop at the overcrowded Patagonia Ice Cream Shop and then exhausting the resources of the Kathmandu store and the I-Site information center, then headed to the airport. (“Ten minutes away. Fifteen if there is traffic.”) The store-front Queenstown airport looked inconsequential next to the monster jets that lined the runways, one of which would whisk Jennie away. We woefully said goodbye and relinquished her back to Brisbane. There would be many times in the remaining days that I would greatly miss her.
With our next destination an easy four hour zigzag back to the west coast, Jack, Conor and I headed up Route 6 towards Wanaka. Our map indicated an unnamed diagonal “short cut” that would eventually rejoin Route 6. This turned out to be the spectacular Crown Range Road, and is the highest paved road in New Zealand, reaching an altitude of 3700 feet. We made incremental progress as the road climbed to the summit of the Crown Range. We stopped often, in awe, and photographed the phenomenal high def views of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipa, river valleys, villages, mountains and pastures, all accompanied by the fortissimo of teeth-rattling winds. This was the only time I was not sad Dylan missed the trip, as he would have been intolerant of our innumerable photo stops. We passed through the town of Cardrona, really little more than a hitching post, that was developed during the 1860’s gold rush and is now the base town for major ski fields.
About an hour north of Queenstown we paused to visit the charming town of Wanaka, snug on the southeast shore of its namesake lake. Wanaka strives to identify with Queenstown as an outdoor adventurer’s destination, but its meager population of 4,500 limits its capabilities, though not its allure. It’s adorable. The town has a Lilliputian main street with restaurants and sporting goods stores. We watched a sole windsurfer being buffeted by the energetic winds. Stalling our departure, we lingered with coffee, a fruit smoothie and a futile search for electronics for the frail GPS.
I had read that the road from Wanaka to Haast would be sensational, and, yes it was. Lakes Wanaka and Hawea run parallel until both bump into the foothills of the majestic Southern Alps. Those crazy tectonic plates that were behaving badly in Fiordland are also responsible for this vast and uppity spine of the South Island. Route 6 continued to snake north, rimming one lake and then the other. We drove through magnificent verdant valleys along isolated shores and shimmering lakes to the town of Makarora, marking the end of the lake country.
Again, the luscious glow of the lakes is difficult to describe, but a Patagonia clothing stylist might call it something like “Tahitian Frost”. The weather to date has been mercifully considerate. New Zealand’s weather suffers more from its reputation than its execution, but we were, after all, still enjoying the kindness of the leeward rain shadow effect. As we continued traveling through Mt Aspiring National Park, the rushing Makarora and Haast rivers ushered us to the crossing of the mountains, at 6500 feet, by way of the Haast Pass. Once through the Haast Tunnel, we swirled down the glide side to the region of Westland. Westland’s telltale landscape on the windward side promised no luxury. If Haast has any beauty, you’d have to call it raw. It felt like we were at the edge of the frontier.
Our accommodation in coastal Haast was the Heartland Hotel. Earlier I had attempted to get directions to the hotel, but was told by the owner that there really weren’t any directions, that Haast was a small town and, predictably, “You can’t miss it.” I now think that the Heartland Hotel IS Haast. We arrived as the sun was setting and the wind-driven rain was screeching off the Tasman Sea. Haast, population 300, is remote enough that it does not enjoy many standard conveniences, like electricity. A notice in our room apologized for the lack of a microwave or refrigerator, as the town is “off the grid”. (Apparently a generator somewhere on the grounds provides basic power.) After checking in to our room we dashed to the adjoining restaurant just before its lock down. The owners graciously heated up giant bowls of savory chowder, which I accompanied with a frittered whitebait salad, a Kiwi specialty whose allure gratefully remains indigenous. By now it was too dark, too late and too stormy to do anything but return to our room. So not needing a grid, we huddled around Conor’s computer to watch another episode of Flight of the Concords, but I fell asleep before Germaine and Bret would be rejected by their latest lovelies.
Haast to Okarito
Westland is a land of extensive mountains, deep gorges, thundering waterfalls and remote beaches. The vast interior of this corner of New Zealand is impenetrable except by ancient Maoris tracks that today are touted as arduous, but breathtaking, tramps. The few towns that dot the western coast were established in the mid-nineteenth century as fishing villages or gold mining settlements; today they serve to cater to the “outdoor enthusiasts”. Route 6, the route by which we traveled this northwest drive across the Canterbury Plains, takes a right turn at Haast and continues north along the winding, hilly Tasman coast. For several miles we had noticed a chain of cairns fringing the highway. We stopped and constructed a couple of tiny stone towers, like stoic post-its, validating our brief presence in this rugged, windswept coastline.
Continuing north we reached the towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier (yes, those were the names of the towns, like Niagara Falls and Death Valley). Each claim singular views of and personal encounters with their respective glaciers. We hiked the trails to both, along with other “enthusiasts”, some of whom wore shorts and Kelly Webster-style flip flops. The glacial ice holds massive amounts of rock, giving the face of the glaciers a grey sooty appearance. The river beds draining the snowmelt are coated with a grey gunpowder-like residue from the receding glaciers. These glaciers are unique in that they descend from an elevation of 7800 feet to less than 1000 feet above sea level where they nudge at the lushness of the temperate rainforest. The glaciers exhibit a cyclic pattern of advance and retreat, driven by the differences in the amount of snow melt at the base and snowfall on the upper snowfields. Heavy snows over the past several years account for the advancement of the glaciers, and one can hear the groaning evidence of this movement. Miniscule groups of guided tours, barely discernible, lunked across the vast icy mantle of the glaciers. Casual visitors, like us, are not allowed past the roped off areas without a guide. Did you know that Jack is a glacier guide?
The villages of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are similar to the other small towns that draw tourists, like Wanaka and Te Anau; a main street with shops advertising postcards, ice cream and guided tours. We moseyed in and out of the shops, eventually purchasing the required minutia. One store had a T-shirt with an image of a surly wide-eyed bird of prey and read “Irritable Owl Syndrome”. I do not know how we ever resisted buying it.
After lollygagging at Twin Peaks, we continued north to Okarito, one of the destinations on my list. Okarito is not on the average tourists radar screen, but I was intrigued by its remoteness and climatic extremes; it is the only place in the world where glaciers soar a mere 1000 feet above a tropical sea level. Of the 40,000 people who live on the entire west coast, 30 of them call Okarito home. It’s about 6 miles down a dirt road off Highway 6, and one of the many towns with a history of fishing and mining, its heyday long past, or yet to come. But it typifies the dramatic landscape unique to New Zealand; lush rain forests cloaked by the snowcapped Southern Alps; a virtual seasonal sampler. If there is poetry in diversity, it would be manifest in this diametric landscape. Conor and I strolled along the beach with its black sand and striated rocks while Jack was engrossed by the town’s tiny grass airstrip. Our homestay host suggested an easy hike up to the Okarito Trig Station for premium views of the land-sea-mountain-scape. The “easy hike” was a steep climb up a dirt trail with moss-covered steps carved from the rocky terrain. The view from the Trig gave proof once more that climates in New Zealand bump into each other without warning or excuse. We lingered for a while with a threesome who had skipped by us as we were panting up the trail. They may have been young and spritely, but they were in sorry need of one of the three showers that awaited us back at our ambitiously named Okarito Beach House and Royal Hostel (furnished with an equally ambitious dining set). Their aura whiffed that real travelers don’t bother with hygiene.
Beside a trek up the Trig, Okarito offers other tourist activities, none of which we pursued. There is a very beautiful kayak trip on the Okarito lagoon that follows a river into the rainforest. Plentiful sightings of exceptional flora and fauna guaranteed. Another is the Okarito Kiwi Tours whose participants venture into the bush at night, quasi-guaranteeing kiwi sightings. Limited to 8 participants at $50 each, thank you very much.
Now aggressively hungry, we drove back to Franz Josef, the more established of the two towns. The waitresses we encountered on the trip were young and puckish, and hail from all over the world. This particular sassy minx, as earlier referenced, overheard our plans for the next day. She heard that we would be driving south, back to Wanaka, but she somehow thought our destination was the northern town of Greymouth, (the hazard of compounding waiting tables with eavesdropping). She stared at us, dumbfounded, noting, I’m sure, the perpetual ignorance of tourists. When we asked our trademark “How long does it take to drive…” she poked her fists into her hips, cocked her head, scrunched her eyes and asked, in bewilderment, “Have you even looked at a map?”
After dinner we toured the one street in town, ducking into shops and the sole grocery store, where we purchased supplies for the next day’s overnight hike. Glaciers, lagoons, mountains and rare birds aside, there is another remarkable attraction in this tiny town; its public restroom, EXELOO. To date, my personal experience with public conveniences in New Zealand had been quite positive, but this one goes beyond the norm. EXCELOO looks like a standard public privy, but don’t expect to linger inside catching up on the latest rugby standings. Upon entering the pristine stainless steel chamber, the door is automatically closed and bolted. The startled user is then informed by a surround-sound baronial voice that your visit shall not linger past ten minutes. After the alerted ten minutes, a wash down system is deployed, presumably whether the user has exited or not. The “no-touch” approach addresses hygienic services for fundamental bodily functions and is advanced enough to cleanse a comatose quadriplegic, or a stump. Not wanting to mimic a Buick in a car wash, I did not hang around to test the system’s efficiencies.
Upon returning to our homestay, we unsuccessfully looked for a heat source to soften the evening chill. Once we realized there was no furnace, we searched for wood for the fire place. Giving up on that hunt, we cozied up to Jack’s computer for another episode of Flight of the Concords, and went to bed.
New Year’s Eve, 2009
Okarito to Mt. Aspiring
The next morning Conor, ingenious lad that he is, found take-out coffee in a town that virtually has no commercial establishments. Back on the road, we retraced our route south through the glacier towns, along the coast through Haast (stopped at the i-Site center; Jack bought a book on weather), the Haast Pass and again that spectacular drive along the gorgeous lake shores to the Town of Wanaka. After a quick lunch, we readied for our overnight tramp.
Kiwis don’t hike, they tramp. Tramping is defined as hiking in the back country, usually overnight and carrying a backpack. There are thousands of tramp routes mapped out in hundreds of tramping books, so the selection of the perfect (for us) tramp proved to be almost more arduous and time consuming than the hike itself. Nine tramps in New Zealand are universally recognized as “Great Walks”, three of them in Fiordland National Park. The Milford Trail, the most famous, winds through the “region of the perpendicular”, where the mountains are split from their summits to within a few feet of sea level. The track is so popular that it is hiked only from south to north to minimize the impact on the environment. (I don’t know how that works, either.) The Routeburn Track, with soaring mountains, huge valleys, waterfalls and jewel-like lakes, links the Mount Aspiring National Park with Fiordland National Park, both adjunct parklands to the World Heritage Area. The Kepler Track, unlike the Great Walks which evolved from Maori trails or pioneer exploration routes, was custom-made in 1988, carefully planned to show all the best features of Fiordland. It hosts the annual Kepler Challenge, a running race whose participants traverse 37 mountainous miles in less than five hours. Enjoyment of all three popular tramps requires many months of advance bookings, disqualifying them from inclusion in our savvy but dilatory itineraries.
Jack, assisted by the crackerjack team at the i-Site Genius Bar, took great care in solidifying our inchoate plans, selecting a panoramic yet undemanding hike for our assorted party of three. The overnight tramp to Mount Aspiring Hut was a perfect choice. The trail, following a broad level river valley, also offered a more challenging optional side trip to Pearl Flat. There an intrepid tramper could continue, if one so wished, to cross Cascade Saddle, at 4500 feet, one of the most beautiful alpine crossings in New Zealand.
Our track started at Raspberry Creek, a 30 mile drive northwest of Wanaka. The drive from Wanaka followed an ever deteriorating road that went from paved to gravel to dirt to submerged, and from two lanes to less than one. Vehicles encountering each other on the narrow track would joist for passing position, but fording the unspanned streams proved to be even more daunting. (Before attempting a crossing, we would observe other vehicles progress to gage the water’s depth and fix a site on hidden obstacles.) The true hazards, however, were not the encounters with unspanned waterways, cows, sheep or one very territorial bull, but the boulders in the road; hence we got a flat tire. While Jack and Conor burrowed in the overstuffed trunk for the spare, I took my leave and wandered around the river bank. We were following the west branch of the Matukituki River, across farmland and beech forest flats. There were only two things that interrupted this blissfully bucolic scene, Jack and Conor grunting at the spare tire and some ridiculously incongruous motor boats careening down the river. I was greatly amused when one of the disorderly racing boat beached itself on a sand bar.
Donut spare in place, we continued on our way, ending at the Raspberry Creek Car Park. A sign at the trail head indicated an easy hike to Mt. Aspiring Hut of 2 to 2 1/2 hours. (Kiwis are very clever as they measure distance in time, so metric-inept but cash-healthy Americans can relate.) We sorted our provisions and distributed them into two papa-sized and one doll-sized backpacks. Although we had passes for the Mt. Aspiring hut, it did not ensure a sheltered place to sleep, thereby prompting a discussion of the potential need for a tent. Conor must have had flashbacks of his eight-year-old self suffering the consequences of foregoing a tent on a winter camping trip, for he strongly lobbied to bring it. Jack relented. So Jack and Conor carried packs as heavy as small dense planets while my pack was burdened with a map and some lip balm.
As we passed through the initial stile that marked the start of the hike, I looked ahead and said to Conor “I want to hike through this valley.” And that’s what we did. Here the Matukituki River went from a narrow rushing torrent to a broad, braided waterway. It was a beautiful hike; both dramatic and serene. The river valley was shadowed by the Rob Roy Glacier punching through the snow covered peaks of the Richardson Mountains. The trail was broad, flat and well travelled. The scruffy foothills granted starklybeautiful views of the well-browsed terrain. Sheep nudged us as they grazed, barely acknowledging our presence. At one stile, a stray lamb was on the motherless side of the fence, but thanks to Shepherd Jack, ewe and Bambi were reunited. The steep rock face on our left (south) was crenellated with innumerable waterfalls. And for every gorgeous waterfall there was be a creek to ford. Initially I skipped across tumbling creeks from rock to rock, but after a while I resigned myself to soggy boots. About two hours into the walk we cresting one of the few elevations. Conor pointed and announced, “There it is!” Mount Aspiring Hut looked to be about a mile away. But the structure turned out to be the closed Cascade Hut, so we soldiered on for about another half hour, and at 7:30 in the evening, we reached the hut.
The “hut” more resembled a von Trapp family get-away. The large main room of the alpine style stone and wood chalet was equipped with a full boarding house kitchen, sturdy plank tables and a huge stone fireplace. A wide continuous cushioned bench lined the windowed wall and the windows framed the grand view of Mt Aspiring (9,000 feet). A side room provided slats of beds; 2 levels of long platforms with serious vinyl mattresses nestled side by side. Bunk bed style vertical ladders allowed access to the top level. Not exactly really sleeping rough, but no pretense of cushy, modesty or privacy. We were the last of the ten or so tenants for the evening, and the evening just happened to be New Year’ Eve. We staked our claim to three beds; Jack and I on a two-man top bunk against one wall and Conor on one of several serial bunks just across a narrow gap. Except for an individual vacancy here and there, all the luxury lower bunks had been claimed. The outhouse, with running water and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, was just a few steps from the lodge.
Jack prepared our delicious freeze-dried Backcountry dinner while we mingled with our hut-mates. Especially charming were the Sally and Elsa, aged 67 and 70 respectively, intrepid trampers spending their retirement years exploring South Island. We also shared the hut with a young, mauling German couple and two rather stern women from Christchurch. Of these two, the black French woman was not shy about sharing her snarly opinions. Also settling in for the evening was Zuzanne, a young Berliner travelling solo. Troubadour Jack affably worked the room quizzing all with his standard queries. (“Where are you from?” “What kind of boots are those?” “What’s your favorite Springsteen album?”) Jack has this maddening trait of treating others with attentiveness, benevolence and compassion. Nobody likes that in a person. He also asked the hut warden if New Year’s Eve rowdiness would be a concerned for us exhausted buckaroos. She all but dismissed this, as well she might. By 11:00 we were, to a person, in bed and asleep. The clear night promised an illuminating full moon, but the lingering twilight dimmed its impact.
New Year’s Day, 2010
Mt. Aspiring to Lake Manipouri
By 7:30 the next morning we were digging into our sturdy breakfast of porridge and Starbucks instant coffee. As everyone readied themselves for the day, the warden provided the current weather conditions. Strong winds and possible snow in the higher elevations would require caution for those planning to ascend the Cascade Saddle route. Now let me just quote a passage from our “Tramping in New Zealand” guide book.
Warning: Cascade Saddle should not be attempted by inexperience trampers or during adverse weather. The snow-grass slopes on the Matukituki side are very steep in places, and become treacherous when wet or covered by fresh snow. Trampers have fallen to their death on this route.
It was New Year’s Day, or July 1st on our side of the globe. And we could look toward the peaks just a few hundred meters from where we stood and watch the clouds forming killer snow.
Given the forecast, everyone adjusted for safer tramping routes. Now, instead of the three-hour side trek to Pearl Flat, Jack, Conor and I would do a U-turn and head back through the valley to the Raspberry Car Park. Zuzanne’s itinerary had been to cross the Cascade Saddle on to Glenorchy, but instead she chose the saner option and accompanied us back to Queenstown where a bus would take her to Glenorchy and her awaiting car. It was, again, a beautiful, but very windy day. The lateral spray from the waterfalls gave testimony to the power of the whipping winds. Using Zuzanne’s walking sticks I better negotiated the rocky streams. Jack made a bovine buddy, no doubt the beast’s marquee moment for the New Year. Later, going through Customs, we would deny any close contact with farm animals.
Back in Queenstown we set out to repair the flat tire before tackling any more long drives. The Apex Car Hire office in town directed us to their repair shop “by the airport”, and those were pretty much the directions. By the airport. It took some skill to ferret out the location of the nondescript shop, and Justin, its cranky mechanic. Initially I was annoyed that we were made to fritter away precious tourist time dallying at a greasy garage, but Jack has another irritating habit of fleshing out merit and humor in the least of us. So our encounter with fractious Justin was as memorable as any. Justin, a Brit with the continence of an aggrieved hound, possessed a lot of irreverent notions of New Zealand in general and its citizenry in particular. Just ask him. New Zealand is backward, like a third world country. Never marry a Kiwi, because doing so is tantamount to marrying her mother. Justin’s Japanese wife can’t afford the high cost of living in Queenstown so instead lives in affordable Tokyo. (Huh?) And the populace is not very bright. Why, have you ever talked to one of them? We asked for a recommendation for a good restaurant in Queenstown, and Justin replied that there are no good restaurants in Queenstown. Reluctantly he sent us to Hamill’s, where we enjoyed both a tasty pizza and being served by yet another cheeky waitress. Afterwards, we shopped at the local supermarket and camping store, prepping for the next day’s kayak trip in Doubtful Sound. Also, while we still had cell phone reception, Jack called Jeff for an update on the progress of the house repair/disrepair. Happily, Jeff reported that the paneling in the family room was salvageable, saving the need to replace it a third time.
Doubtful Sound is a lesser known, more remote and “less spectacular” fiord than Milford Sound, but, unlike Milford, it a-fiord-ed us an enticing overnight kayak trip. So after dinner we drove west for four hours back to Fiordland and Lake Manipouri, the starting point for our passage. Although we had traveled this route before, we still marveled at the scenery. The pastures and fields were bordered with protective wind barriers of tall, sculpted trees and hedges. The scenery was interrupted only by an occasional house. No barns, silos or other familiar farm structures. As evening approached, the setting sun commissioned gathering clouds and accelerating winds, an ominous portend for the next day’s journey.
The office of the Manipouri Lakeview Motor Inn was closed by the time we arrived, so we picked up our key at a nearby restaurant. Our room was basic, like the stoic Heartland Hotel in Haast. As was now a familiar routine, we laundered clothes while kitting ourselves for the next day. In anticipation of Fiordland’s bipolar clime, we packed copious amounts of clothing and gear that would then be stashed into the tiny holds of leaky kayaks. It was quite late by the time we went to bed, especially after another episode of Flight of the Concords.
Lake Manipouri to Doubtful Sound
The fitful night roared with wailing winds and slashing rain. By morning, suspecting the Doubtful Sound excursion would be in doubt, I cautiously opened the curtains to note the weather conditions. Framed by our window, the dawning sun highlighted the few remaining pink-tinged clouds and a full moon perched above snowy mountains, all as a backdrop for a pristine cerulean-blue lake. It was a most spectacular vista and our own abstinent “double rainbow” stunner. The weather, it would seem, was cooperating.
Fiordland Expeditions runs on a tight schedule. Our guide, Jeremy, was to deliver us promptly to the ferry for the Lake Manapouri crossing. Much earlier Jeremy had picked up fellow kayaker Anya in Te Anau, so they both had little patience for our morning logjam of settling motel and car particulars. Once aboard Jeremy’s minibus, we drove the short ride to the dock on Pearl Harbour where we transferred our gear to the impatient ferry. On board we breakfasted on snacks from our pre-packed pantry and savored the ferry’s mediocre coffee. After an 18 mile lake crossing to the valley of the West Arm, we again transferred our gear to another bus that would carriage us over the Main Divide by way of Wilmot Pass and through dense rain forest to Deep Cove. The road, one of the few roads that traverse Fiordland, can only be accessed from either West Arm or Doubtful Sound. West Arm and Doubtful Sound can only be reached by boat or plane, attributing to the unspoilt isolation of the Sound.
By now it was about 10:00 am, taking 3 hours just to get to the starting point. But along the way we became acquainted with the five other kayakers. Anya, an engineer from Germany, was traveling solo, so she paired up with Conor as his kayak partner. Anya “puts together airplanes”. Of the remaining four, three were also German, lured to New Zealand by resident Kiwi, Bridgette. These two couples were in their mid to late twenties and Anya and Jeremy were about 30, challenging Jack and me to man-up with the spry and dauntless youths. Jeremy gave us the standard (by now) introduction to kayaking and polypropylene. We were outfitted with: polypro long sleeve T-shirts, full wet suits, heavier polypro shirts, bright yellow waterproof jackets, royal blue kayak skirts, life vests and three hats appropriate for three different weather conditions; cold, rain and sun. We looked like a line-up of rubber duckies. We were assigned our kayaks (Jack noted these kayaks were an upgrade from those in Milford Sound) and stored our bundles in the holds. We then set off for the watery womb of Deep Cove.
As it turns out, Milford Sound was the opening act for Doubtful Sound.
Doubtful Sound was so named by a briefly cautious Captain Cook who avoided the Tasman Sea inlet as he was uncertain of its navigability. There are three distinct arms to the Sound and we were to explore the remote Hall Arm, piercing 20 miles inland from the Sea. In the mid 1960’s the then Governor-General of New Zealand, described the Sound:
“There are just a few areas left in the world where no human has ever set foot. That one of them should be in a country so civilized and so advanced as New Zealand may seem incredible, unless one has visited the south-west corner of the South Island. Jagged razor backed mountains rear their heads into the sky. More than 200 days of rain a year ensure not a tree branch is left bare and brown, moss and epiphytes drape every nook. The forest is intensely green. This is big country… one day peaceful, a study in green and blue, the next melancholy and misty, with low cloud veiling the tops… an awesome place, with its granite precipices, its hanging valleys, its earthquake faults and its thundering cascades.”
We paddled the five mile length of Hall Arm and with every few strokes taken, a new majestic vista emerged. Some areas of New Zealand are spectacular, while Fiordland is not quite so mundane. It felt like we were interlopers in God’s cherished cathedral. Canyon walls tumbled straight into the depths of the peaceful water and a few mountain peaks were still cloaked in snow. And then there were the waterfalls. The waterfall census in Fiordland probably equals the sheep count in Canterbury. The Mary/Jack kayak team straggled behind the others because one of us could not put the damn camera away. And thankfully so. The mystic communion of land and sea renders an inarticulate speech of the soul. After three hours of becalming lily dipping, we paused for lunch in a rare indentation in the cliff’s solid granite wall. As the group settled in a clearing in the woods, I found myself ridiculously tangled in the tendrils of the dense jungle thicket. Cleaving my way in, I rejoined the group for delicious luncheon sandwich specials of chicken and cheese, ham and cheese and jelly and cream cheese. Alas, the flabby, briny arm of Oscar Mayer had not yet reached these shores, otherwise we would have choked on bologna and cheese, Jack’s picnic larder go-to. Now thickened by this lunchbox cuisine, Jack and I continued to paddle and poke around the sidelines of the fiord while Conor and Anya scouted the end of Hall Arm. Awestruck by our surroundings, Jack gave Jeremy kudos for his exquisite workstation.
With the glorious afternoon fading, we pulled into another clearing in the rocky façade. The low tide revealed a wide rocky beach with a trickling stream bordering its southern edge. After we beached the kayaks and unloaded our gear, we were allocated tents and sleeping bags and directed to our sites. As a bow to the elderly, Jack and I were given the only site with a raised wooden platform. Handicapped accessible. The tent was “cozy” and the thermal rests abbreviated. The elevated privy on site was no EXCELOO, but its very presence seemed remarkable. The “no new buildings” edict that accompanied World Heritage Park status loop-holed structures that minimize tourism’s environmental impact, so the unique throne-like outhouse had been sanctioned as an ecological defense from popular public excursions. Yet Doubtful Sound’s isolation restricts all but local outfitters conducting guided tours; both of them. The privy also serves as a beacon for armies of charming sandflies. Now, picture this. You are not only clothed in several layers, but one of those layers, the base layer, is dank neck-to-ankle undersized rubber. It doesn’t peel off or roll back up easily. The flies know this, so they just bide their time, hanging out in the high-rise toilet pavilion, and strike when one’s guard, and pants, are down. Swatting them away while you are reupholstering yourself is quite challenging. The sandflies are there for good. They are now part of your anatomy; two-dimensional souvenir specks from Doubtful Sound.
Once settled and in dry clothes, we met for dinner in the communal tent. The tent was equipped with fresh water, a gas stove and squat molded plastic chairs providing the guests seated comfort while cooking and eating. For dinner the German coalition rehydrated instant mashed potatoes, mixing them with canned peas and oil-packed tuna. The Semlers feasted on minty grilled lamb sausages served on a hard roll with fried onions and red peppers. Delicious, even without the elusive ketchup. After dinner Jeremy, a student of the Māori people, gave a candid approach to their history, culture and traditions. Māori culture was as familiar to me as the dative case, and until now, held about as much interest. The Māori, like many indigenous people forced into colonization, did not go gently into that good night.
The treacherous Tasman Sea deterred early navigational exploration, the reason given for New Zealand’s holdout as the last place on the planet to be reached by humans. The Māori migrated to the twin islands around 950 AD, probably arriving in canoes from southeast Asia, although Thor Heyerdahl would like us to believe they arrived from America. Except for bats and marine animals, the Māori found no indigenous mammals. They survived by fishing and hunting the native Moa, rendering the giant flightless bird extinct. Territorial tribal wars were commonplace. Māori warriors were fierce in battle and the fate of their captives involved cannibalism and having their sorry heads shrunk as trophies.
Historians describes the Māori as “the last major human community on earth untouched and unaffected by the wider world.” The first Europeans found a culture that was stone age but with heightened artistic craftsmanship. Even before obtaining European tools the Māori produced extremely beautiful works of art which were considered well advanced for a primitive people.
Dutch explorer Able Tasman (1642) and British cartographer James Cook (1769) are credited with the eventual waves of Western immigration in the mid 1800’s, resulting in anewed territorial uprisings, again characterized by the Māori’s fierceness and savagery. The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi gave the Māori the rights of British subjects with guaranteed property rights and tribal autonomy in return for accepting British government and sovereignty. However the Treaty was inaccurately translated resulting in the misconception that each party retained its own sovereignty.
Today the Māori comprise just over 14% of the country’s 4 million-plus population and inhabit not quite 19% of its dainty 103,500 square miles. They have successfully retained their cultural identity while being assimilated into Anglo society and politics. However, like many minorities, they continue to suffer from racial imbalance and health, social, economic and educational disadvantages.
Now that we well feed and well informed campers, we cleared the canteen, rinsing our REI campware directly in the stream. Yes, directly in the stream. We also drank the pure, giardia-free water directly from stream. And then before preparing for the night and crimping our calcifying selves into Cub Scout pup tents, Jeremy alerted us for the next day’s weather. His radio contact with Ricky, his mate at home base, forecast rain, starting around 4:00 am.
Doubtful Sound to Queenstown
It is well noted that to best enjoy Fiordland, you have to experience it in the rain. That night, I had stayed up long enough to glimpse the one glow worm Anya found in a rotted tree trunk. Tireless Jack and Conor lingered, witnessing our rocky beach being swallowed by the swiftly rising tide. Sleeping tough, I heard Jack get up for a bathroom trip at 3:50 am, returning at 4:00. At 4:01, it started to rain, lightly at first, and then increasing in intensity throughout the night. When Jeremy woke us at 6:00 am, our little meandering stream had swollen into an aggressive torrent. Jack, Conor and I fortified ourselves with a breakfast of porridge and fruit. Our German mates tucked into beans and bread; the staple of prison gruel. After breakfast we broke camp, packed up, and climbed one last time up the stairs to the outhouse, then squirmed into our wet, rubber wardrobe. We launched about 9:00 am.
Fiordland in the rain is a symphony for the senses. The loamy, piney scents of the tropical forest punctuated the air as the waterfalls were transformed, just like our camp stream, into powerful thunderous cascades. And waterfalls sprang from every conceivable gap in the rock face. The weather notwithstanding, or more likely because of it, the day was glorious and the paddling was delightful. Jeremy approached one waterfall that, thanks to a promontory ledge, spilled into the basin several feet from the base of the cliff, and then he paddled under it. At first I thought his steering and wits had failed him until he did it again. He then beckoned, archly daring us to follow. The dousing was like a fire hose blast and an affirmation of the stability, buoyancy and resilience of the kayaks and kayakers. We bandied around the Disney-like thrill ride until it was time to head back to Deep Cove.
The rain continued. With steady westerly winds and a bruising sky, the word from Command Central Deep Cove was caution. The punching winds from the open sea had halted other expeditions from embarking, so Jeremy judged it wise to delay crossing the channel until the predicted moderation of the winds. We gratefully seized the chance to further admire and photograph the effluence from the transformed canyon walls. Waiting on a rocky site (snack, anyone?), Jeremy eventually was advised, partly because we all showed willing, that we would bully our kayaks across the channel. And so we did. At times the substantial waves blocked out visual contact with our mates. But once we turned east and the winds were to our backs, the four kayaks rafted together, hoisted a “sail” and, like Milford Sound, scudded back to the put in, posing for the tourists on their outlandish barges plowing out to the fiords. We landed in mid afternoon just as the rains stopped and the winds subsided. Ricky and his group were only now setting out for their two-day adventure. We beached our kayaks, removed and stacked our water clothing, emptied the boats, changed, and prepared for the 45 minute return across Wilmot Pass to the ferry. Later Jack declared this the best day of the trip.
Since the moody weather shortcutted our return paddle, (omitting the skirting of Elizabeth Island), we had about an hour at liberty before the scheduled ferry departure. So Jeremy detoured his minibus to give us a glance of the outtakes of a massive underground power station, a tourist destination of its own. Built in the 1960’s and, due in part to its isolated location, is yet another feat of engineering, putting most of South Island on the grid; except, evidently, Haast. Now once again on the ferry crossing Lake Manapouri, the eight kayakers exchanged e-mail addresses, writing them in Jeremy’s notebook. Jack, camera ever ready, cleverly photographed the notebook page for our copy. At the dock in Pearl Harbour we farewelled with promises to stay in touch. Jeremy drove Anya back to Te Anau. Anya was sweet on Jeremy, and as the two were pulling away in the minibus, Jeremy’s plaintive expression suggested his reluctance for involvement in this particular romance.
We drove the two plus hours back to Queenstown and checked in to the Scenic Hotel. The room wasn’t as cushy as our previous stay, but it still had plenty of shampoo samples for my collection. We took speedy showers and threw a couple loads of laundry in the machines across the way. Our dining choice was Speight’s, a cousin to the restaurant in Franz Josef where we had been advised to consult maps. I had lamb, Jack had steak and Conor had chicken in phyllo. Somehow, our meal was not as savory as the one we enjoyed the night before, where we dined under hanging mosses and the brilliant Southern Cross.
Conor’s flight to Brisbane departed Christchurch at 3:50 the next afternoon. Still not knowing any better, at dinner we wondered aloud how long the drive to Christchurch would take, as even the estimated drive times on maps and charts varied significantly. Our plucky Irish waitress at Speight’s speculated it would take about three hours. Only three hours? We were thrilled. Then she brogued, arms akimbo, “Well, I don’t really know, now, do I, not being from here. Let me ask the bartender.” The bartender came back with a confident “eight hours”. Our waitress, aware of a flight to catch, sassed back, “Good luck with that one.” After dinner we larked about the crowded lakefront for a final memory fix of the stunning saw-toothed mountains and crystalline lake. And for a final fix of the gastronomic kind, we joined the other indulgees in a long queue at the Patagonia Ice Cream shop. The wait was well worth it, as my scoop of Tramontana was deliciously gooey with caramel. Jack slipped away for one last assignation with the America’s Cup yacht. And as he sidled by caressing the hull, I sensed him regarding me with a melancholy gaze that implied, “There but for you….”
We then returned to our Scenic Inn room, laundry completed, and watched an episode of, yes, Flight of the Concords.
Queenstown to Los Angeles
Monday was going to be a long day. We packed the car for a final time, got over-caffeinated and were on the road and by 8:45. The GPS directions concurred with those from locals we consulted along the way. We had to “go over the mountains”, not surprising because just about anywhere you travel in New Zealand requires traversing mountains. Jack had the camera packed away, so we stayed on schedule. The drive took five hours and twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to drive from Buffalo to our house in the Adirondacks, but without Thruway treadmill tedium. We drove north on Route 8, encountering fresh vantages of the flora and topography. To the west, the noble Southern Alps appeared as giant snowy embankments fendering us north. Mt. Cook, at 12,300 feet the country’s highest peak, predictably pierced through the clouds. We drove through tiny Twizel, the destination for adventurers and skiers and yet still about 40 miles from the mountain’s base. The mountains we were told to pass over could have been the St. Bathans Range, the Hawkdun Range, or the Grampian Mountains, but I think it was the Thumb Range. We crossed the summit at Burke Pass, and then made our final decent to the Canterbury Plains, Route 1 and sea level, where only 9 days earlier we were Bill and Ted starting out on our Excellent Adventure. The rest of the trip, all of about 45 minutes, was a series of small towns that merged into suburbs that condensed into the city of Christchurch. We arrived in ample time for Conor’s flight but not enough time to visit the International Antarctic Center, just next door to the airport. Also gnawing at Jack’s curiosity was the American Military Antarctic Operations Station that was barricaded with scary-wicked razor wire fencing and clearly off limits to civilians. It’s here that the US military maintains Operation Deep Freeze, and Christchurch is the only Australasian city to host a foreign base. Conor and I lured Jack away from The Forbidden Zone before he could muster serious schemes to thwart its security.
We said good-bye to Conor. Jack walked with him to the terminal while I circled the airport, avoiding those surly no-parking/no-standing bullies. This was my initial attempt at left-side driving and in the five times I circled the airport’s roundabout, I failed each time to spit out in the correct lane, further affirming our chauffeuring dependence on Conor. Fortunately, at least in that regard, our remaining time in New Zealand was limited. After Conor’s departure, Jack and I visited the Christchurch Botanical Gardens and then drove east for a final tryst with the sea. So on this last day, late afternoon of Monday, January 4, we wandered around the beach at New Brighton, lingered on the pier and gazed east over the Pacific. To the north, the wide sandy beach stretched and dimmed into the haze, and to the south, Christchurch anchored the neck of the rolling Banks Peninsula; a stand-out image for a final coastal impression.
I could never understand shopping as a vacation activity. Guide books dedicate whole sections to it with advice for the best bargains at local markets. Yet, here we were on our last day and this is how we spent our time; shopping. And we did not go to a Kathmandu store. We went to TWO Kathmandu stores. Since discovering this EMS of the South Seas, I believe we shopped at every one of its locations in New Zealand, at least in South Island. And I blushingly report that I purchased something in each one of them.
We needed more luggage. Not finding the precise piece in the first store, we suffered on to a second one. Here, Jack bought a dandy maroon and gray Kathmandu backpack and I purchased a purse with matching wallet, à la Jennie, and a pair of striped long johns, à la Sally the Elder from Mt. Aspiring hut. By now the store was closing and so it was with kind encouragement that we were gently ushered towards fiscal economy and the bolting front doors.
At 7:00 pm we JetStarred from Christchurch to Auckland and then departed Auckland at 11:00 pm. The flight home was uneventful, save for the Christmas Day Britches Bomber whose hi-jinks over Detroit dramatically fouled airport security and his skivvies, and our tediously pompous seat mate, the self anointed genius of Fortune Magazine, Bob Lindsor. (Who?) Arriving into the maw of the Los Angeles airport at 2:00 pm that very same day, (bless the authority of the International Date Line) we checked into the LA Westin to readapt ourselves to the Occident. An amusing tourist trolley entertained us with a lazy ride to the beach. So on this day, again late afternoon of Monday, January 4, we wandered around Huntington Beach, lingered on the pier and gazed west over the Pacific. And as a just finale and to punctuate the moment, a pod of dolphins arced by.
If there is any cosmic or providential interpretation for this concurring east/west Pacific piering, (also note, the latitude of Los Angeles is 34 degrees north while the latitude of topsy-turvy Christchurch is a reversed 43 degrees south), I hope it’s indicative of an eventual return to this fabulous part of the world. And in anticipation of revisiting the Land of Wow, my nifty Kathmandu bag is ready-packed with striped long johns, a surplus of laminated maps and a powerful reverence for nature’s reign.
In memory of Sammy.
In care of Matuki.
With gratitude to the State of New York.
Gallery: Aukland Sailing
Gallery: Kayak Camping