Monday, November 10, 2008

New Zealand: South Island

One thing that surprises me about New Zealand is that most people seem to hop down there as a side trip from Australia or for whatever reason they get to Auckland or maybe Wellington, but they completely skip the South Island, even though it is hands down the most beautiful of the two islands. Sparsely populated, it boasts landscapes from beaches to glaciers, activities from hiking to wine tasting, and amazing wildlife. With that in mind, we parceled our time to spend the majority in the south, but even the 15 days we had were nowhere near enough.

The ferry dropped us in Picton, from where we took a windy mountain road, the Queen Charlotte Drive, along the coast to Havelock, world capital of green-lipped mussels, and then to Renwick, the heart of the wine country. We spent a day visiting wineries and indulging our tastebuds before heading off to Abel Tasman National Park, one of the most popular hiking and kayaking destinations in the country. I made a small miscalculation and ended up compressing a 5-day hike into 3 days, which meant we were hiking 10-12 hours a day and were utterly exhausted, but it was gorgeous. Crystal clear, azure water, deserted sandy beaches, quiet forest paths... The most unique feature was the tidal crossings - a few points on the path are tidal flats, meaning that they empty out twice a day at low tide, which is the only time they can be crossed. So you put on your sandals and wade through rivulets of freezing water. When the tide goes out, it leaves thousands upon thousands of empty shells behind, mostly small clams, which led to the frequent cry - "there's a clam in my shoe!"... and we soon learned it's rather annoying to walk with a clam lodged in your shoe.

We headed down the western coast of the island to hit natural wonders such as the pancake rocks at Punakaike and the crazy possum-hater at Pukepura, passing through the local jade capital of Hokitika. The highlight, however, was arriving at Franz Josef to find an absolutely clear blue sky and giant, snow-capped mountains framing a picturesque ski town. We got a tip from someone and took off to try to reach Lake Matheson by sunset. After a very fast hike to the lake, we were rewarded with a view of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman glowing red in the sunset and reflected perfectly in the still lake.

This was nothing, however, in comparison to the next morning, when we took off in an 8-seater plane, just the two of us and the pilot, to do an hour-long flight over the tops of the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers and around the tops of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman. It was one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen. We did some hikes around the area, including to Gillespies Beach, a gorgeous, deserted beach covered in driftwood that had formed into fantastic shapes.

We spent the next day crossing from west to east over the high Arthur's Pass, ending at sunset in Oamaru, famous for its penguins. We coincidentally ate dinner in a restaurant whose foundations were full of roosting penguins, and we even had a penguin-cam to watch while we ate so we could keep tabs on the penguin sitting on his egg right underneath our table! At sunset we went over to the viewing platform for the blue penguins (the world's smallest penguins, at a max of 30cm in height), and sure enough after it got dark hundreds of them came waddling out of the water and up a hill, made more entertaining by the sea lion snoozing on the hill, who would jump up if they got too close, and cause the penguins to scatter. I had no idea penguins could move so fast! The blue penguins walk bent all the way over so it sort of looked like a cockroach invasion. By the time they were mostly on land, there was an incredibly loud racket from all the squawking penguins, which could be heard from pretty far away. We were told to check under our cars for penguins, as they tend to build their nests on the other side of the road from the ocean (not too smart, I guess). Sure enough, when we left we had to go slowly and carefully, as there were penguins everywhere - next to and crossing the road.

My birthday treat was a stay in Larnach Lodge, the country's only castle, and one with a very strange history. We were here on the Otago Peninsula for the wildlife, and we weren't disappointed. In the morning we took a boat tour to see fur seals and endangered New Zealand sea lions, as well as many kinds of birds, including the protected royal albatross, the world's only mainland colony of which was here in Otago. We followed that with a land tour, where we were amazed to come within 10 feet of yellow-eyed penguins and sea lions! It was amazing to watch the penguins emerge from the water and climb steep hills, where they nested and preened right next to the sheep grazing. It was truly an amazing experience to see all that wildlife in its natural habitat, and from so close, especially since we knew they were taking every precaution so that conservation came first and tourism second.

We continued our drive south to the Catlins, the very southernmost part of the island, a region full of isolated bays and gnarled forests. The wind was so strong you could not only feel it as you walked, but you saw its effects everywhere in the form of trees leaning dramatically over. We followed the Southern Scenic Route down along the coast and up again through Fiordland to Te Anau, which we used as a base to hike the Routeburn Track, a 3-day hike through the mountains. Although it rained on us pretty heavily for much of the time and we had some low visibility due to fog, when the clouds parted and the sun came out, the trek was beautiful. The path was often iced over, which led to some slipping and sliding, but also to lovely snow-covered plants and ferns-turned-icicles.

Back in Te Anau we visited the glowworm caves - the larva of a special kind of moth use bioluminescence to attract their prey, so you boat through the caves in absolute darkness, looking at the thousands of tiny blue lights on the ceiling. We also took a day-long cruise of Doubtful Sound, which was moody and misty indeed, though perhaps a bit too much so, as we didn't see much other than fog. The same happened when we tried to go to Milford Sound, and we had to abort our plans to see the sound at the last minute, as the mountains had completely disappeared in the fog! Somewhat to be expected at this time of year, but our luck had been so good the rest of the time, we couldn't help but hope.

So in summary, we took a bit of a gamble on the season, but on the whole October was a fine, if cold, time to be in New Zealand. We missed out on a couple of things we wanted to see, but we also missed the crowds. We felt that the country warrants months of wandering around, not the few days most people allot to it as a side trip, and the warmth and friendliness of the Kiwis made us want to stay as long as possible. It is a country that in every way lived up to our expectations and a destination with something for everyone. This was my first time in Oceania, so admittedly I don't have any comparisons in the region, but if you are going to make one trip all the way down there, I would definitely recommend choosing New Zealand.

Monday, November 03, 2008

New Zealand: North Island

Kia ora! After three weeks in New Zealand, D. and I are totally enamored with the country, which amazingly lived up to all the hype we had heard before going. What we knew beforehand was that there was breathtaking scenery and great hiking. What we learned was that the people are extremely friendly, the culture laid-back and relaxed, and the food excellent (you would think it would be like British food, but actually it’s more like all-day American breakfasts, gourmet coffee drinks, and international fusion cuisine). New Zealand is fast becoming known for its wines as well, and they have even established a "wine trail" for enthusiasts.

New Zealand is a relatively small island all the way at the edge of the world, underneath Australia. To give you an idea of how far away it is, it takes an equally long time (over 20 hours of flying) to go from Belgium via China to Auckland as it does to go via Los Angeles. One common misconception about New Zealand is that they have kangaroos and koalas like Australia. In fact, New Zealand has no native land mammals, only species introduced for hunting purposes (mainly possums, rabbits, and deer, plus stoats introduced to kill the overpopulated rabbits). It has a wealth of native birdlife, however, including the famous kiwi, most of which is now endangered as a result of the introduced pests. Although there are only 10 million people in the country (of which 9 million are on the much smaller North Island), there are over 40 million sheep. Cows and domesticated deer are also common sights in the endless countryside. The deer were domesticated after they were almost hunted to extinction by overzealous men in helicopters (Palin’s kiwi doppelgangers, I suppose).

We only spent 5 days on the North Island (New Zealand has two main islands and a few smaller ones), so since I’ve covered some background already, I’ll tell you about the North Island today and the South Island next time.

We landed in Auckland, exhausted after two days of traveling, and were immediately impressed by the atmosphere of the city. It is springtime right now in New Zealand, and we were greeted by blue skies and chilly air. Auckland is a reasonably-sized city, and we headed straight for breakfast on the trendy Vulcan Lane. We took the ferry to Devonport and wandered on beaches and volcanoes, before ascending the SkyTower, the highest tower in the southern hemisphere, where we got a great view of the city and our first exposure to the country’s extreme sports addiction, as we watched people leap off the top of the tower, connected to two thin wires via a harness and landing on a kind of trampoline.

The next day we headed south to Rotorua, famous for its thermal srings and mud pools and smelling of sulfur wherever you go. We detoured past Mamaku Blue, where we tasted some disappointing blueberry wine, though we give them credit for an original idea. By afternoon it was raining buckets, so we visited the nearby geysers and thermal pools at Te Puia and saw a touristy Maori song and dance show before calling it a day. The Maori are the native people of New Zealand, and despite the typically fraught history they have with the white settlers, the two groups seem to be living quite peacefully together now for the most part.

The real attraction of Rotorua for us was Wai-o-tapu, where we saw mud of all different colors. The famous Champagne Pool features green water and bright orange mud, surrounded by grayish mud with big pools of bright yellow. Mineral deposits that come from deep within the earth give the array of colors to the mud and the water. There was also a pool with impossibly azure water, and mud pools boiling up and spouting mud into beautiful shapes. The steam and the drizzle made it sometimes tough to see and to walk, but the unusual scenery made it well worth donning a raincoat and going anyway.

From here our plan was to hike the Tongariro Crossing, billed as the most beautiful day hike in all of New Zealand. We stopped at the lovely Lake Taupo on the way to the national park, but by afternoon the weather was not looking good, and by the time we reached our destination, it was so foggy that we couldn’t even see the mountains we knew were around us in all directions. Nonetheless, the forecast was good, so we arranged everything, fitted up our crampons (just in case), and set our alarms for 5am. Unfortunately the wind turned, and by the time we got up, all the ski shelters had been closed due to bad weather, and the bus company refused to drive us. Without any flexibility in our plans, we had to give up on the Crossing this time.

Instead we drove through the downpour to Martinborough, where the major attraction is, for once, indoors – this is the heart of the North Island’s wine country. We tasted a few vintages and some local cheese before heading down to Wellington, a very pleasant city as well. The following day we took a funicular up to the botanical gardens and wandered back down and around past some of the major sights before we boarded the ferry to take us to the South Island. Interestingly we found out that you actually end up no farther south than you began, because the South Island juts upward such that the ferry essentially just goes west. The ferry ride was quite beautiful, and we landed in Picton with gorgeous weather in the late afternoon.

The South Island was way more beautiful and wild than the North Island, but it deserves an entry of its own, so… to be continued…

Adventure map for 2009...