Tuesday, December 30, 2003
After a big BBQ dinner on Christmas day with the Van Roons, we all exchanged presents and enjoyed the remainder of the day around the house and farm. We flew from Christchurch to Auckland the next day, Boxing Day in New Zealand, and had a few hours free before our midnight flight to Los Angeles. We took the ferry across the harbour to Devonport and wandered around looking at the mostly closed shops of this quaint little suburb/village. Back downtown we did some last-minute souvenir shopping and sightseeing, had a kebab-shop dinner and hopped on the bus back to the airport to claim our stored luggage and catch our flight.
We arrived back in Atlanta early Saturday morning, around 1 a.m. Our flight from Los Angeles was delayed an hour or so and then it took over an hour for all our luggage to appear on the baggage carousel in Atlanta! Lucky for us a good friend and neighbor was up late Friday night and kindly agreed to come to the airport and pick us up - we had way too much luggage to attempt riding the train and a cab ride home costs about $60.
It’s nice to be sleeping in one’s own comfortable bed again after weeks of travel, even if there’s an uninvited guest sharing your home: a rodent of some sort has taken up residence in our walls while we were away. It’s also nice to have our dog, Alice, back again (thanks Tiffany and Carol for taking good care of her).
We had a wonderful time touring around New Zealand. I think three and a half weeks is just about the right amount of time to see the highlights of the country, though we did feel rushed from time to time. It can be quite exhausting when you only stay a night or two in each location, but New Zealand has so much to offer on both islands that you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t keep moving.
I think our favorite activity on this trip was sailing on Doubtful Sound. It was just so pristine, isolated and beautiful and really met my expectations of what the New Zealand wilds would be like. Sailing the Bay of Islands and diving on the Poor Knights Islands were close runners’ up for me, as well as flying in a helicopter over Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers.
All of these excursions added up to a rather large sum of money, especially considering the currenly weak U.S. dollar. We actually found the trip to be somewhat more expensive than we imagined it would be, partly due to all the pricey activities, but also due in large part to the cost of meals, which were nearly as expensive, if not more expensive, than cafe and restaurant meals at home in Atlanta. We could have saved some by cooking and picnicing more often, and we could have saved even more by staying at more of the very reasonably priced holiday parks so popular with camper-van drivers and backpackers. Some of the B&B’s we chose, however, were quite nice and were relatively good value compared to the same quality accomodations at home. In any case, it was a fine trip and we have many good memories of the places we visited and the people we met - No worries!
Thursday, December 25, 2003
Christmas in Christchurch
Nicci and I and another American couple, Kalman and Sarah, who we met on an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound (more on that later) have been guests of a Kiwi family for the last couple of days. The van Roon’s house is on a sheep farm just outside Christchurch. One of Nicci’s highschool friends had met and stayed with the van Roon’s a few years ago while on an extended stay in New Zealand and at his suggestion, we had contacted Bronwyn to ask advice about visiting Christchurch over the Christmas holiday and she asked us to stay with her family.
Since my last update we drove from Wanaka to Queenstown to stay for one night. We rode on the Shotover River jet boat the afternoon of our arrival in Queenstown. These boats hold around 20 people are jet-propelled and have a shallow, 4-inch draft at speed. This means that the pilot can zip up and down the river inches from the shore and rock walls. It’s somewhat expensive, but the 30 minute ride is definitely a blast. This was our one thrill-splurge in Queenstown, New Zealand’s (if not the world’s) capital of death-defying, and expensive, activities where you can bungee jump from the first commercial jump operator, skydive, get strapped to a small, tethered airplane and spin around over a gorge, abseil, go rafting or kayaking and on and on.
We also had a thoroughly awful buffet dinner in the lodge at the top of the gondola above Queenstown. The sunset views were splendid, however.
Leaving Queenstown, we drove to Lake Manapouri in Fiordland in the extreme south of the South Island to start an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound. Probably everyone who knows anything about New Zealand has heard of Milford Sound (which we were to also visit briefly after Doubtful), but if one were to choose between cruising on one of the two fiords, I would definitely suggest Doubtful over Milford. While Milford has spectacularly steep mountains which plunge right into the sea, countless waterfalls and the famous Mitre Peak, it is also tiny in comparison to Doubtful and since one can drive to Milford (an fine drive in itself), it gets all the tourists and has many more boats and cruise ships. Doubtful Sound, which would be more accurately named Doubtful Fiord, is remote and rather inaccessible and only one cruise ship regularly sails the Fiord. An hour-long boat trip across Lake Manapouri, then another hour-long bus ride over a mountain pass takes you to Deep Cove where you board a small cruise ship for the overnight exploration of the fiord. Nicci and I had opted for a less expensive quad-share bunk room and we were paired up with another American couple, Kalman and Sarah, who are on their two-month-long honeymoon in New Zealand and Australia.
This was easily the highlight of our trip. The weather was rainy and misty going out to sea and the lush walls of the fiord arms were wrapped in wispy tendrils of cloud. We sailed out into the rough Tasman Sea to briefly view seals on the rocky islands at the mouth of the fiord before returning to the shelter within. After an afternoon snack of delicious soups we stopped in a quiet cove and disembarked to either kayak or ride in two small tender craft with the ship’s nature guides. Nicci and I and Sarah and Kalman decided to go kayaking. Aside from being attacked by biting sand flies, or black flies, kayaking on the calm, cold waters of the fiord was magical.
Considering some of the downright terrible meals we’ve had here in New Zealand, it was a nice surprise to find that the evening buffet was top-notch. Just about everything we tried was fresh, expertly prepared and quite tasty. After dinner we sipped glasses of port wine and struggled through a game of Trivial Pursuit - it was a New Zealand and Australia edition and nearly all the questions were NZ/Aus-centric.
The next morning we woke to clear skies and after breakfast (another great meal) we cruised back toward Deep Cove, stopping once or twice when dolphins were sighted. We also sailed into the Hall Arm, a very remote and sheltered arm of the fiord, stopped the engines and cut the main power to the ship in order to experience the early morning calm and quiet. The water was as smooth as glass and reflected the mountains and sky like a mirror and with no sounds from the ship we could hear all the birds calling in the forest around us. It was actually nice to experience the fiord in both the more typical rainy weather and under sunny skies.
Upon returning to Manapouri we made plans to meet up with Kalman and Sarah a few days later on the east coast since we were both heading there in a few days. We also talked to Bronwyn to confirm our eventual arrival in Christchurch and she invited Kalman and Sarah to stay over Christmas as well. We then drove to Lake Te Anau to check into the Top Ten Holiday Park there (a chain of camping/RV parks with self-catering cabins) before driving up to Milford for a quick look around. The drive to Milford was actually the best part of this side trip. We made a long stop at a field of wild lupines and a few more stops to admire (and photograph) the mountains, waterfalls and cheeky Kea birds (large alpine parrots who love to pull bits of trim and rubber off your car) along the way. I must say that Fiordland seemed the most like Middle Earth of anywhere we had visited in New Zealand, and for good reason as I understand that quite a few Lord of the Rings shooting locations were here.
Leaving Fiordland we drove to Dunedin on the east coast. We had planned on visiting the Otago Peninsula and a colony of yellow-eyed penguins here as well as the seals and albatross colony at Taiaroa Head the next day, but when we found out that the tours actually leave at 3:30 p.m. and return after dark, since the penguins return to the beach around sunset after fishing at sea all day, we hopped on the bus that afternoon instead. A rather gray, windy and cold morning in Dunedin turned sunny and warm and we enjoyed the five-plus hour tour around the peninsula.
After a night in Dunedin we drove north up the coast, stopping at Moeraki to see the weirdly spherical boulders on the beach here, to Oamaru. We stayed at the very Victorian Criterion Hotel among the beautiful old limestone buildings in the historic section of town. Our stop here was mainly to see the large colony of blue penguins which nest around the harbour. Every night just after sundown they come ashore and waddle up to their nests to feed their young. I was hoping to photograph them, but we discovered that photography was not allowed (a recent change, actually) at the main colony viewing area. I did manage to record their raucous squawking with my sound recording rig, however.
We spent the following morning exploring Oamaru’s historic district and many antique shops before driving north Bronwyn and Adrian’s house near Christchurch. We arrived on Dec. 22 and have spent the last few days exploring around Christchurch. We took a day trip out to Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, a pretty little resort town originally settle by the French. We’ve tramped around the farm here to see the sheep and horses and Bronwyn’s in-laws’ beautiful gardens. Kalman and Sarah arrived on the 23rd as well and helped us prepare a nice dinner of Salmon Wellington, roast chicken and grilled flank steak on Christmas Eve (yesterday). Last night we all drove into Christchurch and listened to Christmas Eve carols on the Avon River at Victoria Park.
I’m finally caught up, it seems. It’s Christmas Day here - Christmas Eve day at home in the U.S. We’re helping Bronwyn prepare dinner at the moment. We fly to Auckland tomorrow around noon and then to Los Angeles at midnight and finally on to Atlanta. And hopefully I’ll have time soon to begin posting images from our trip.
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update here. We have been so busy these last few days that we haven’t found time to stop at an internet cafe until this afternoon in Wanaka. Here’s a very brief report on where we’ve been and what we’ve done:
We crossed Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton on a blustery but clear, sunny morning. Reaching the South Island we wound our way through Marlborough Sound among lush, green rainforest-covered hills to Picton. Disembarking, we picked up another car and drove inland to a fantastic homestay near Blemheim in the wine-growing region of Marlborough. The English owners of Antares homestay also run a bicycle rental and tour company from there home and guests are allowed to take bikes out to ride around to the vineyards.
Since we had taken the 8 a.m. ferry from Wellington that morning, we arrived in Marlborough in the early afternoon with enough time for a swim in the pool and a nice lunch at a nearby vineyard. After lunch we biked down the road to another vineyard and sampled their wine, olive oils cheeses and schnapps. The bikes, incidently, were even equiped the special paniers with wine bottle holders. That evening we grilled our dinner at Antares.
The next day we visited another couple wineries before driving west through Nelson to Abel Tasman National Park, a coastal park with forested mountains and islands and some of New Zealands best beaches. Before leaving on our trip I had read another web travelogue about Abel Tasman which mentioned a nearby farmstay, Kairuru Farm, in glowing terms. We arrived late in the evening and found our way up Takaka Hill above Abel Tasman to the main farmhouse at Kairuru just before sundown. Kairuru has three cottages to rent, but only two of them are actually on the main farm and have views down the valley and out to the ocean. The description of one of these cottages in the travelogue was what inspired us to stay here, but we discovered that our booking, made through a tourist office in Nelson, was for the third cottage at the top of the hill. This cottage was very cute, with flowering vines draped around the eaves and an adjacent barn and paddock with two little lambs munching grass, and it did have a fine view of the surrounding rocky hills and scrub, but it wasn’t on the main farm and it didn’t have quite the same specacular ocean view as the other two cottages. The owner later explained to us that she normally tells people about these differences, but we had let the tourist information office make reservation. In any case, we really enjoyed our two nights at Kairuru and we drove down the hill to the main farmhouse to walk around the sheep paddocks and play with the baby goats (one actually jumped up on Nicci’s back when she knelt down!), tame sheep and angora goat, pet pig and working sheep dogs. And on our second night at the hilltop cottage, we had such a clear night with a late moonrise that we could see the Milky Way and streaking meteors.
Between our two nights at Kairuru we went on a long day hike along the coastal track in Abel Tasman. The Park is set up with camping facilities and huts spaced a few hours walk apart all along the coast and you can hire a water taxi to either take you out to a beach drop off and walk back to Marahau, the closest town to the park, or you can hike out from town and arrange to be picked up later at one of the beaches. We took a water taxi out at 10:30 a.m. and spent about 6 hours hiking back to Marahau. This is a stunningly beautiful place and if we had more time, we could have stayed here much longer. Nicci did ruin her feet with blisters, however.
From Abel Tasman we spent a very long day driving south along the west coast to Franz Joseph glacier, stopping from time to time along the way to see the sights. Franz Joseph and nearby Fox Glacier are very near the ocean. In fact, they are the closest glaciers to the ocean at this latititude. It is really quite interesting to see a massive glacier flowing down from the snow-capped mountains into lush, almost tropical rainforest below.
We overnighted in Franz Joseph township and took a fantastic helicopter tour up to the two glaciers the next morning. This is absolutely the best way to experience the mountains and glaciers since the helicopter swoops in close to the ice and lands above the glaciers on the hard snow-pack for a quick walk around. Better still would be to go on a “heli-hike” where you have a few hours to climb around and explore crevasses and ice caves with a guide, but they were all booked for the next two days and we had to settle for the tour flight instead.
We left the glaciers yesterday morning and drove on down the coast through Haast, a spectacular drive, and turned inland toward the alpine village and winter ski resort of Wanaka. The drive up Haast Pass took us from the relatively humid and green rainforests of the coast up though a deep river valley to the much drier highlands among the Southern Alps. We arrived at Lake Wanaka last night as the sun set. It’s gorgeous weather today and the moutain ranges around the lake are still snow-capped and glistening in the sun this morning. We will be leaving shortly for Queenstown where we are scheduled for a jet-boat ride up the Shotover river this afternoon.
Tomorrow we will take an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound. That’s all for now.
Thursday, December 11, 2003
Of Alpacas, Sheep, Gannets and Nasty Weather
Since my last entry we’ve been doing a lot of travelling - about 1,500 kms worth to be exact. The nice thing about driving in New Zealand is that there are no busy super-highways (the only controlled-access, divided highways seem to be near Auckland and Wellington), just two lane roads which meander through the countryside from town to town and encourage the traveller to explore and see the local sights. The not-so-nice thing about driving in New Zealand is that there are no busy super-highways! It’s a two edged-sword, really. There isn’t much traffic to speak of except around Auckland at rush hour, but you quickly realize that it will probably take much longer than you think to get from point A to B when planning out your route on a map. All the slow logging trucks coming down from the mountains don’t help much either.
To catch everyone up on where we’ve been: On one of those aforementioned twisty, two-lane roads near Tutukaka up in the Northland, we decided to take a turn down a gravel lane at a sign marked ‘Rocky Bay Apacas, Store and Accomodation’. This sounded intriguing enough, and as it turns out, Rocky Bay Apacas is a beautiful seaside farm with plenty of Alpacas, those South American llama-like creatures with expensive, luxurious fur, and beef cattle. An American family owns the farm - they stopped in New Zealand ten years ago while on a round-the-world sailing expedition and never left.
Rocky Bay is situated among a series of green hills which drop down to the ocean below and even though it was foggy and rainy for much of our time here, the property was still stunning. It was fun to tramp around the paddocks with the alpacas. Mocha, a chocolate-brown female took a liking to Nicci and kept nuzzling her shoulder and bosom.
The dive trip to the Poor Knights Islands, which are about 1.5 hours by boat from the Tutukaka marina, was quite an experience as well. The water here is rather cold so we had to wear full, 7-mil wetsuits including hoods and even with all that rubber on we still got cold by the end of each dive. The cold waters, however, provide a very nutrient-rich soup for sea creatures around the small, rocky islands. There are huge kelp beds and rock walls covered with all manner of weird and colorful plants and creatures. It is very different from diving on coloral reefs in warm, tropical waters, and just as fascinating.
After leaving Tutukaka and the Alpaca farm, we drove south intending to visit the volcanoes near lake Taupo in central North Island. Unfortunately, the wet weather worsened to a downpour by the time we reached Taupo and didn’t let up for the next day and a half. When we woke the next morning we couldn’t see across the lake, much less the mountain range and volcanoes at the other end of it, so we decided to pack up and drive to Napier on the east coast. At least we could go wine tasting at the vineyards around Hawke’s Bay if it didn’t clear up.
The soggy drive to Napier wasn’t a complete loss since the impossibly green mountains and hills along the way were actually quite beautiful swathed in wispy fog and clouds. Though I’ve never been to Ireland, I imagine the sheep farms of the North Island look pretty Irish. And speaking of sheep, it seems the further south we drive the more and more of them we see. They are literally everywhere, simply ubiquitous.
This morning we left our B&B in Napier and drove a few miles south to Cape Kidnappers to join a Gannet Safari. Translated, we rode in a comforable minibus through a huge sheep and cattle farm, and soon to be controversial, but world-class golf course and lodge, out to the high cliffs about the cape at the end of Hawke’s Bay to visit the nesting colonies of gannets, a type of booby with a large wingspan, clumsy landing technique and a bright, yellow skullcap. Thousands of these squawking sea birds migrate here every year in August to breed, nest and rear their fledglings. By the time we made it to the end of the cape the sun finally burned through the clouds. We really weren’t expecting too much from this outing, but it actually turned out to be quite fun watching the male gannets strut around and challenge one another or the fuzzy white, and freakishly large, chicks cry for food or the graceful sailing parents make decidedly ungraceful landings on the cliff top.
We’re in Wellington tonight after a nice vineyard lunch and a four-hour (but purportedly three-hour) drive south. We’re only staying the night, thankfully, since our hastily chosen B&B is rather grim (but cheap, at least) and has a surly host. We turn in our car tomorrow morning and will take the 8 am ferry across to the South Island. We’re praying the good weather will last. Cheers.
Saturday, December 06, 2003
Sailing the Bay of Islands
No sooner had Evan, captain of the R. Tucker Thompson, an 85-foot, square topsail schooner built in the backyard of his father’s house, promised us all that “there’ll be no rain today” the sky opened up on us. Under angry clouds and a light drizzle we motored out from the pier at Russell in the Bay of Islands hoping the weather would change for the better.
The Thompson’s all-woman crew (only three plus captain Evan) hoisted up the sails, the rain thankfully stopped and the strong winds on this blustery day had us plowing through choppy seas out into the bay. Soon the sun burned through the clouds and haze and we were sailing along at a good clip. It was all exciting enough to make you want to talk like a pirate - and the crew actually did from time to time as we tacked back and forth out to one of the bay’s many islands.
Neither Nicci nor I really enjoy rocking and rolling on rough water, but today the chop didn’t seem to bother us much. I actually didn’t feel seasick at all, though staying on the top deck with eyes on the horizon helped, I’m sure. Rather, we scarfed down scones with jam and fresh whipped cream with tea and coffee as we left Russell behind, then clambered out and rode on the bowsprit like Kate and Leo.
After a couple hours of swift sailing we dropped anchor at Moturua Island to explore the beach and tidal pools while the crew prepared a BBQ lunch. We showed a Dutch couple and their two-year-old where to find anemones, starfish and urchins and they showed us how to crack open and eat oysters which clung to the rocks. Their little girl slurped them down and kept begging for more. They were good, but a little too salty.
After an hour or so the ship’s dinghy shuttled everyone back for lunch and drinks. The wind picked up again after lunch and we made even better time heading back to port, the deck tipping enough to take on a little water once we were beyond the shelter of Moturua’s bay. By four o’clock we had returned to Russell a little sunburnt but happy.
We walked around the little village of Russell before taking the ferry back to Paihia where we are staying these past two nights. Tomorrow we head for Tutukaka for a diving trip to Poor Knights Island.