Wow, these travel journals are long. At least this one has photos. Just scroll through to see it all, or click below if you want to focus on certain spots (listed in the order I travelled them):
Through the North Island by Rail
Flight Over the South Island
Invercargill, Sandy Point and the Road to Te Anau
Lake Te Anau and the Rugby
Through the Southern Alps
The Canterbury High Country
Sunday, 2 November
At 5:30 I woke, and left the house at 7:20 for my first flight from Philadelphia to Detroit. That was fine, a short trip. On the second flight (Detroit to LAX) I had a free seat next to me and the other side was the aisle, so I had some room to stretch out. I slept -- actually rather well -- for the first half, then wrote and just sat for the second. And then we landed in LAX.
It didn't take me long to find where I needed to go, but then I had 9 hours or so to kill while waiting for my Auckland flight. Won't get into how I did that here. But I was almost offended that so many other people are going to New Zealand too; it's like I want it to be my trip and mine alone. And it is, it is... I know that, but all the same it felt somehow too mass-produced to be herded onto a plane with so many people. But that's the nature of planes and such. Seems to be the nature of life in this phase of the world. Maybe it's what we do between herdings, and how we make unique combinations of herdings, that makes our lives our own.
Our flight departed at midnight, and here I shall make the Second of November end.
Monday, 3 November
This was the disappearing day of the trip...
Tuesday, 4 November
We sifted through some cloud cover to get to the landing. The approach was the most stunning I've ever seen on a plane, with the possible exception of Hong Kong just because in Hong Kong our plane flew so very close to the buildings. But back in Auckland... wrinkles of the brightest green under us as we sunk down. The sun was shining and even the Customs experience was enjoyable, people so friendly. They gave us free coffee. Everyone with an openness to them, like the way they open their mouths when they speak here.
I rented my cellphone, found a working ATM, and eventually found the cheapest bus that goes to the city. I boarded that. We went through the outskirts -- I had no idea then of where we were but am somewhat proud of having some knowledge of the city layout now that I've been in it a few hours -- and we came to my hostel.
The hostel doesn't have any character; it's basically like a dorm. But I was just waking up a bit, depositing my stuff, and going out again.
I took a Link bus, which I'd noted in the one brochure I had picked up in the airport (chosen for its maps). I got off in the center of the city, where there are wharves and whatnot. I walked to the end of Princess Wharf, looked at the harbor, was reminded of San Francisco a bit. I then worked my way in the direction of the InterCity Coachlines ticket office to get my tickets for later, but on the way I stopped in for lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall "diner." I had a lamb burger with mint sauce, quite good and very messy, for very little money. Sheep are cheap here.
Then onward, I did my bus ticket thing and then just chose a street that looked pretty and walked on it. Eventually I found another bus stop and, wanting to sit, took the bus again. This time it dropped me near Victoria Park -- or, I should say, near the Western Park. This was supposed to be right across from Victoria Park according to my map but I never found Victoria Park, only construction sites. Maybe Victoria Park is no more. Or my map is just bad. But the Western Park was still lovely; basically it's a deep cut of ground into the side of a hill, and it's full of all sorts of trees. I especially liked the ones that grew up in the roots of others, as if the older tree with the spreading roots was embracing and protecting the younger tree.
one of those embrace-y trees.
In my wanderings looking for Victoria Park I noticed a little ways off a big green hill, the top of which appeared to be the highest point around. I decided that I should find my way up it. So I started to walk toward it, found myself walking on a big motorway. They have these big long bridges, high up above something, and you think when you look at it that they must be above a deep cleft in the ground, some kind of river or canyon, but it's actually another motorway down there -- this is not so different from the US except that the cleft through which the lower motorway passes is so very deep and steep-sided, and surrounded in green, which is most deceptive of all. Across one such bridge I walked, and I lost sight of my hill a couple of times. Finally I found myself on Mt. Eden Road and realized it was Mt. Eden I was aiming for. It started to look mighty high for climing on foot. I saw a couple of buses away at the top and asked around for a public bus that went up to the top. None.
Finally two ladies told me that only tour buses go up there, those were the buses I saw. They said I should walk, I pointed out that it'd be a bit of a hike, and they said "it's good for your bum!" Couldn't argue there. So following their directions I set off to walk up Mt. Eden.
It wasn't actually such a bad hike, and it was very, very beautiful up there. On the way up I'd turn a corner and see the glistening central city and the blue, blue harbor below, or I'd look up at the greenest, softest-looking long grass, as if someone had just made a mountain of nothing but grass, for the cows to roll about in. I did walk within a few feet of a bunch of cows grazing on the mountain, and as I've never been that close to cows I was a little nervous. They could send me flying down the hill with one butt of the head. But of course they were more afraid of me, and they looked at me very nervously when I stopped to take a photo.
I got to the top and none of my photos really came out, but it was a grand panoramic vision: the harbor and the islands, the city and the surrounding land and hills, with the wind trying to take me off the mountain all the while. Lots and lots of bungalow houses on the side of the mountain opposite the built-up "central business district." I was especially fascinated by the mountain's crater (it's an old volcano). It was covered in that soft, long green grass, deep down into the mountain with stones and dirt at the very bottom. I don't think I've ever stood on the edge of a volcano before and I was pretty thrilled when I realized I was now doing so.
I went down on the other side, so as to cover new ground. Not as spectacular as the harbor and city-ward side, but still lots of gorgeous plants and lovely huge old trees. I found a swing on one of those trees, near the bottom. There was a long rope -- I estimated 45 or 50 feet, conservatively -- hanging from a big branch (so this is a big tree, to have tree-thick branches at that height) and one has to climb up some steps in order to mount the swing. It was great fun, very relaxing and I did it several times, feeling like a little kid.
A quick note that the people here are insane. They love their outdoor sport so. I saw people jogging up and down the mountain, with visibly huge leg muscles. And if such fine outdoors are so easily accessible, why not be that way? Maybe I'd even be that way. It's like in the city folk are country folk too, because the city is built so close with the country. Auckland's really not so big, and it's the biggest city in the country. It's easy for everything -- the city and nature -- to be within walking or biking distance.
I got to the bottom of Mt. Eden in a light drizzle that quickly passed. The sun shone right through the drizzle. These passing rains must have been the way of the day; I saw two other, heavier storms when I was inside my hostel room, but the sun was shining all the while. Now here at the bottom of this small mountain I had serious trouble finding my way out of the labyrinth of bungalow "private communities" (alas, it is looking all too similar to the sprawl I saw from my plane over Los Angeles) to get back to the city. Finally I found a way, and better yet, a bus route. I was too tired for further walking and am now actually worried that the one pair of shoes I brought with me (my Docs were just too heavy!) will wear out. So the bus came, and it dropped me close to my hostel. I bought some stuff at a convenince store and went to the hostel, thinking to shower and leave again. Once I showered, though, that was it. It was so good to get clean, and the next beautiful step was of course to get horizontal. I did inside things and conked out around 21.30. Exhausting myself so much in the day gave me a great night's sleep.
Through the North Island by Rail
Wednesday, 5 November
I was going to take a bus to the train station (which, by the way, is no longer at the railway station but at a new complex called the Britomart) for my 8:30 train this morning, but it was a nice bright morning and I was rested and my pack didn't feel so heavy, so I walked. I love my backpack. I asked one bloke for directions and he told me Auckland is the "hole of New Zealand" -- if this is the hole, how much better must the rest of it be?, I thought. I found the Britomart, found my train, found my seat. A window with no-one next to me, in the last car which meant easy access to the rear viewing lounge, with large windows all around.
It was a good, long, zen trip. I saw so many big green hills that came right up next to us... Most of the time we were running on the single available track that cuts its way through and over the hills. There are occasional spots were there were two tracks, so trains can pass each other. You could tell that the conductors -- who gave us little scenic and historical notes over the PA system once in a while -- were proud of the history and the way that the "main trunk line" was built. There were several tunnels, 14 viaducts, and lots of narrow spots where all we could see on either side were steep slopes of bush rising from the track. For me the whole thing was so relaxing and stunning at the same time. We went by the North Island's biggest mountain and New Zealands's largest active volcano, named Ruapehu, and saw his two sisters (I think according to Maori legend the three big volcanos on the north island are siblings) in the distance. I couldn't take photos because of the windows and motion of the train, but now when I close my eyes I can see the cliffs and mountains and of course the green green hills with the many many sheep (and sometimes cows, deer and even ostriches) on them. I noticed no people with the livestock. Only fences.
The morning we went along at a good speed, but then at some point in the early afternoon (after I stopped for a nap during a 45-minute-long crew change stop) they informed us that there were "heat restrictions" on, meaning the tracks were hot and we could only go about 40km per hour. So we were going to be late. I called Rika (my friend in Wellington) to tell her, and then settled in for the rest of the long ride. But it was so zen, just staring out the window, that I was hardly aware of the time passing. I just saw the beauty, let my mind wander, and curled up in my seat for a short nap. We pulled into Wellington two hours late.
I found Rika and Rhys, her boyfriend, and we walked the short distance over to their place. We talked for a while; they met when they were both working security for the Sydney Olympics. They've lived in the USA and Australia, and most recently here for only eight months. Rhys is from Auckland and says that he hates it because it's "too big." I laughed at that, but it's true that outside of the central city, which is tiny, there is a lot of American-style sprawl with those bungalow housing developments I got caught in. Apparently Wellington doesn't really have that. Both Rika and Rhys seem to really like it here in Wellington, and they have a gorgeous apartment that's well-located. Now Rika works a very boring job with the New Zealand Customs Department; she's allowed to because she and Rhave been together for long enough that they're common-law partners here, and she has residency.
Thursday, 6 November
Again I slept very, very well, and then headed out to see Wellington.
Wellington is really quite small, which meant that it was no problem to see a lot of it on foot. I headed to the waterfront for a bit, then made my way over to the Te Papa Museum, the Museum of new zealand. There were lots of interesting things; highlights for me were the base isolaters (kiwi invention in which buildings stand on blocks made of steel and rubber so that they don't fall apart in earthquakes, but rather kind of wiggle from side to side -- they're like sideways shock absorbers), the virtual sheep shearing (i didn't have to pay to do it, since it was funny enough to watch), and a lot of the Maori stuff (though I still find it weird to see whole buildings, like one meeting house that was there, in a museum).
Then it was off to other parts of the city. I had a smoothie for lunch at the dixon street deli, which was pretty interesting for people-watching. A lot of young hipsters in Wellington, it seems. Average age is maybe 30 and everyone seems to have some money and be wearing the latest.
Only at 4pm did the cable car replacement shuttle start running -- the actual cable car, which goes up to a city overlook, was closed for repairs. So there was the shuttle. I had halfway climbed the hill on my own feet when I realized I just didn't know how to get up to the top, and didn't want to wear myself out trying. So I got the replacement shuttle and went up, but it wasn't nearly as good a view as Mt. Eden had been.
After that I met up with Rika at a little spot right near the cable car terminus for plum daquiris, which were very interesting and yummy. Rhys joined us and we talked about New Zealand's education system (pretty much english) and housing... Apparently flats are kind of uncool here and everyone only wants houses, which is normal in suburban America but not my experience with cities. Flats are starting to be a little more accepted in the younger generation. But people here love their gardens, and you basically need a house to have a garden.
We went on from there for a walk, through the hip streets of the city, until we found another hip bar, which was quite close to the square where they hold the LotR premiers. In fact they have to simultaneously premiere the LotR movies in 2 theatres on different sides of the square, because either alone is too small for the first-run crowd. So we sat outside on the sidewalk overlooking the square, and then went inside and had some local beer (Macs Gold, quite good). Rhys and I talked about the issues between the whites and Maori here; he feels that the white folks have apologised and that the Maori are taking advantage of their "oppressed people" status to get more than is really their due. Of course, he is white. All I know is that the Maori I see are generally in more blue-collar positions, along with immigrants from Asia. Regardless of who expects what at this stage, there are marked differences in social position.
We then moved on to the next spot, which was a Malaysian restaurant. A lot of that in Wellington, and in Auckland for that matter -- there's a pretty large Asian immigrant population here. I had some very good lamb, of course.
Flight Over the South Island
Friday, 7 November
At 5am we all woke and Rhys drove me along the waterfront to the airport, definitely the prettiest airport drive I've ever seen. I didn't even go through security -- in theory there was security but I didn't go through it, my bag never went through an x-ray -- and just before 7am we boarded. The plane was small enough that I didn't have room for my big (but small) bag, so they stuck it in the back. And so on to Christchurch. There was a bit of a delay before my next flight, so some nice old ladies weighed me and my stuff for a weight survey for the safety administration. I sat, made some freephone calls to change booking details for future, and then we got on our Invercargill-bound plane.
That was the smallest plane I've ever been on (other than a tiny glider once)... I counted 19 seats including both pilots, and there was space across from me for 2 more (i was in the back).
our wee plane from Christchurch to Invercargill
We flew up, over the Canterbury plains, utterly gorgeous with the big Southern alps in the background. The rivers seem rivers of mud, intertwined with the bluest water ever, right into the ocean, really remarkable. I tried to take photos of the rivers mottled in browd mud and bright blue water, and the green plains, and snow-capped mountains in the distance, but who knows if they will come out with the plane window in the way.
A shot from the wee plane. The "braided river" below is, I think, the Rakaia, mud and silt and turquoise water. In the background are the snow-capped Southern Alps.
Invercargill, Sandy Point, and the Road to Te Anau
We bumped and jiggled our way through a wall of cloud and then touched down in Invercargill. I took a taxi and dropped my stuff off at the Tuatara Backpackers (named for a New Zealand lizard that's apparently actually a dinosaur. It can sit perfectly still for hours with its eyes open.) and headed out for my next adventure.
The weather initially seemed fine, so I found a bike store that let me hire a bike (the pricetag stayed on it all day, it would be $375 to buy it used...) and headed for a place called Sandy Point, recommended by the hostel for a good mountain bike ride. Not 30 seconds after I got going it started to rain. And then I got turned around and lost my way twice before getting out of Invercargill. The rain stopped, started again, this time accompanied by hail. Pea-sized, not so bad I guess. I biked on, got myself going in the right direction finally, and headed out of Invercargill.
And then began the wind. It was horrible, like biking uphill (and not a small hill) all the time. Very strong wind. Apparently I missed the Wellington wind while I was there, but I think I got a fair share today. I pushed ahead, though, and stopped alongside a river (after I lost my way for the last time) for my protein-bar lunch. Finally I arrived at Sandy Point Domain (park). A couple of nice guys gave me directions around the park and even gave me their water (I was out of water and very thirsty, and they were headed home away from the rain.) and I biked on. Into the park, along the river, into the wind, and then it got easier. The bike seat was a bad shape and none too soft, and so I suffered from a sore bum. But I went on.
It was nice, rained a bit more on and off, and when it rained especially hard I took cover under the fir trees. Eventually I got to MacGregor's Beach, 17km from Invercargill and probably as far south as I'll ever go in my lifetime.
along the Oreti River bank at Sandy Point
Then I turned around and it was back into the wind for 7km, until I got out of the Domain. So hard. I wanted the stupid wind to stop but I was pressing on and trying to be thankful for the challenge. Once I was out, the wind was sort of at my back, but mostly at my side, so that was no fun either.
Finally arrived, exhausted and very wet, in Invercargill. I went with an American girl in my room named Stefanie to a cheap restaurant and got cheap (not very good) food. Later in the evening she and I went to see Matrix: Revolutions.
Saturday, 8 November
I woke at about 8, and then I pretty much had nothing to do in Invercargill for a while. I got more postcards, got Lord of the Rings stamps, just issued on the 5th (including a complete set of them for myself) and wrote the postcards, and wrote, and wrote, and thought, and mailed the cards. Taking it easy. I got lunch at the cafe attached to our hostel, which really does seem the best such cafe in town. Shortly afterward my "scenic shuttle" ride to Te Anau came.
An incredible ride. The scenery was stunning, of course, and we took several stops to photograph Te Waewae Bay and the mountains.
driftwood by Te Waewae Bay
Another shot along the Te Waewae Bay; note the snowy peaks in the distance. This might be my favorite photo from the trip.
The driver and his wife were in the front seats. The driver, whose name is Craig, was hilarious, he told us all these facts, blasted "townies" who "don't let their hands get dirty or their boots get wet." Told us about how almost every man, woman and child (except of course for a lot of the townies) goes duck hunting in december here, and there are all these little huts out on the water of the lakes and ponds where they'll wait out the ducks. He told me about the caves in lake Te Anau (i was hoping to see the glowworm caves there), which were actually undiscovered by whites for so long because their entrance was underwater. He talked about the rivers and how they flow. He pointed out a couple of LotR filming locations.
For the first half of the trip a German guy and a Swiss girl were in the car; they've been dating for seven years and Craig kept hinting blatantly about marriage. They were going hiking on the Hump Ridge Track -- sometime I'd like to come back and go hiking. On the second leg of the trip we had 2 bikers -- guy from England, girl from Norway -- and another Norweigian girl, a hiker. They mostly talked amongst themselves and I talked with Craig, but my brief chats with them made me want (of course) to come back and bike around. I want to do it all.
Meanwhile we're hauling a trailer full of beer for a Te Anau pub, called the Moose, run by a friend of Craig's. Craig recommended the pub as a good spot to watch tonight's quarterfinal World Cup Rugby game between New Zealand and South Africa.
Lake Te Anau and the Rugby
I dropped off my stuff when we got to Te Anau, and I found that my glowworm caves tour was cancelled -- caves were flooded. So instead I hired a bike and cylced 'round the southern tip of Lake Te Anau. 1.5 hours took me to the control gates (for a power station further down) and back, with plenty of stops to see the gorgeous lake from various angles. It was a trail, not paved, and because my bum still ached from the other day the lady who lent me the bike put a soft seat on this one. It was still painful, but not nearly so bad and I could stand it. After a while it just stopped hurting. I actually enjoyed the bumpy ride. I felt mostly like I was all alone in the bush by the lake, which was just how I wanted it. I stood on the gates and then came back.
my bike, a bit of the Bush, Lake Te Anau, and the Kepler Mountains
After dropping the bike at the home of the daughter of the lady who hires bikes (her tent, from which she hires the bikes, was closed by that time) I took a walk and then sat on the lakeside to wait for the sun to go behind the mountains. I wrote postcards and then found a good stump to sit on. I kind of meditated there until I couldn't see the sun anymore and then after a quick change of clothes I headed for the rugby game at the pub.
Lake Te Anau at sunset
That was great. The place was very crowded. I got two DB Draughts (the most easily accessible New Zealand beer) and after halftime I just sat on the floor in the front of the room, right under the big screen hanging from the wall. The All Blacks (New Zealand rugby team) did brilliantly, beating South Africa 29-9. The pub was certainly a wonderful place to be while New Zealand dominated in the second half. I enjoyed the actual game of rugby quite a bit as well. It's much more fast-moving than, say, American football or soccer, and more brutal than hockey. Toward the end I even sort of understood it.
Sunday, 9 November
Where did I wake up? oh, yeah, Te Anau, around 7am. I had time to kill before my next bus came, so I walked around town. Found a cafe and had breakfast very good breakfast, very very good coffee. Flat white, they call it here, if you have milk. I wrote up the last of my postcards and headed back to the hostel trying to figure out how to finally book my ticket. The guy at the bus office in Auckland had said that I'd be okay not booking ahead, they don't fill up, but then the lady at the hostel said it was "quite busy at the moment" and got me all nervous. But I got on the phone and made all my necessary bookings without a problem.
Lake Te Anau again...
We departed at 10.30 and the bus wasn't even full. The driver was very informative and the ride was incredible, of course. We stopped several times for photos. My favourite bit was probably seeing the avalanches that had fallen and now were huge piles of tons of snow at the bases of the mountains. We weren't allowed to stop in that area for fear of more avalanches coming down on us, so I tried to snap something through the windows.
the remains of an avalanche, taken through the bus window
At 1.15 we arrived at Milford Sound, or Piopiotahi. All the other people got on to afternoon boat tours and were going back to Te Anau or Queenstown that same afternoon, but my overnight boat ride wasn't leaving until 5pm. So my next adventures for the day began.
First I walked from the harbor over to the closest thing there is to a town -- a cafe and hotel and carpark. I could get online there, which was unexpected. Then I started really walking. I had my pack on my back and all that, but I tramped out to the water -- ignoring the built-up path that follows the shore but does not run right next to the water.
Milford Sound from the beach of the fjord. Mitre Peak (the world's tallest sea mountain, 700m below the sea and another 700 up) is in the background on the right.
I did see awesome views, but I think that in some situations I enjoy the walking itself. The big stones, little stones, lichen, sand under my feet. At one point the only way to get from one jutting beach to another was to ford a kind of stream, which did have some stones for stepping, but still my feet got wet. I wrung out my socks and went on. The best way to get back now was to walk inland to the aiport, which was kinda scary with all the "no trespassing" signs, but where else could I go? rather than being shot on sight, I got a free shuttle from the airport back to the harbor. My boat was just coming in, so I got to put my stuff on and met the crew. I had 1.5 hours until boarding time. So more walking.
This time I took the shuttle to the airport and walked on to Milford lodge, a motel and campground that had access to the tutuko river below. I climbed down some rocks and there it was, so incredibly clear (i refilled my water bottle, which I'd already filled once earlier in a mountain stream -- such perfect, clear, cold water) and rushing and deep and blue. There is a fine turquoise rock dust that gets trapped in the glaciers, and then it's so fine that it continues to float in the water, making it the brightest turquoise. It's not the light, it's really the streams themselves.
the Hollyford River, which runs into the fjord
I climbed back and walked this time all the way back to the harbor. I met a German guy there who said he remembered seeing me yesterday. We talked a bit and then boarded the boat.
We departed with some pumpkin soup (too much pepper, but I've noticed that there's a lot of pumpkin soup in New Zealand for some reason) to warm our bellies before we all went on deck into the wind. Windy it was, but I didn't care, and I went to the bow of the ship and just enjoyed it. We even went partly under a waterfall and I got the spray. We went nearly to the end of the fjord and then turned round to make our way into a little cove, where we're spending the night.
Then they whipped out the kayaks. I've never done it before, but was determined, and as it turned out it was quite easy, as the water was calm. I did that for an hour or so, getting right up close to the shore, and going way out away from it as well. I got to go up into the mouth of a river coming down from a mountain waterfall and the rocks scraped the bottom of the kayak. It was absolutely wonderful, and in fact I was sea kayaking but in fresh water. All the rainfall in the area -- about 7m a year -- means that tons of fresh water is always coming down from the mountains and actually creates a 40m-deep layer of fresh water in the fjord. It means some very unique marine life down there. For me, it meant I could dip my hands in and drink, and all these gorgeous mountains were towering over me... It was incredible. The name of my kayak was 'Perception.'
one of the sea mountains (it may be Mitre Peak) from the surface of the water
Then was the dinner, and our table was a bunch of lone rangers: the German, an Australian guy, and a strange Japanese girl. So we talked of our various countries. After dinner I escaped to lie on the deck for a few minutes while the cove became dark. When others started coming out, I went belowdecks to write before going to bed, and above me there was a little festival of song going on... A bunch of English people. A guy playing piano, a lady singing badly but joyfully, and a whole lot of laughter. I tried to go to bed at 10pm in spite of that (my thin bunk in our little berth that sleeps four), but I didn't fall asleep 'til they stopped around 10.30.
Monday, 10 November
At 5.30am I woke, so that I'd be able to sit out on deck and watch the fjord become light. It was drizzling of course, but I got a good meditative 45 minutes or so as the grey light gradually filtered in more and more. Then it started really raining, around the time that they started serving breakfast. So I went in, had breakfast with the Auzzie guy who ate dinner with us last night, and his fellow Auzzie friend.
We stood out on deck as the ship headed back out of the fjord, and saw some amazing ominous sea mountains rising above us as we made our way out to the Tasman Sea. Of course I had to stand all the way in the front of the ship, enjoying the rocking of the waves and trying to use t'ai chi balance to stay standing without holding on to the railings.
a bird in the morning mist as we head back into the fjord from the Tasman Sea
We were out on the open sea for a bit and then turned around and came back. We went under another waterfall -- this one from the Hanging Valley. My Auzzie buddies and I postulated what might be in the valley... A dinosaur colony, heaven, an alien landing site, an undiscovered tribe of monkeys. Then I got my stuff together just before we docked around 9am.
the Hanging Valley, alien base of operations
Now, annoyingly, it looked like I was going to have to wait six hours in rainy Milford before my bus to Queenstown came, which would get me to Queenstown well into the evening. But the Auzzies had a hired car. So I went with them... I really did trust them. They had to get a flight back to Wellington from Queenstown, so it worked well for me. Finally, now that we were all to be in the same car for a few hours, we introduced ourselves: they're Greg and Paul, both programmers, Greg just finishing up a contract in Wellington and Paul visiting him here. Greg is a Radiohead fan so we all had fun sitting in the car looking at scenery and listening to good music.
The road again was striking. Sheep, reindeer, cows, on green hills with the southern alps in the background, once we got out of the mountains and avalanche zones ourselves. A lot of tussocks -- long blonde tufts of grass. Then on to Queenstown. The approach along the Wakatipu lake was lovely, with more of that turquoise water and, of course, the mountains in the background.
Lake Wakatipu on the road to Queenstown; you can see the road winding along the right side of the lake.
After a stop at the airport so Greg could check on their flight we went on into town, they dropped me off...
See, now that I was getting into Queenstown hours earlier than I had planned, I had time to bungy jump. So the guys dropped me at the booking office and I booked to leave at 3pm. I made my way to my hostel (a bit of a hike from the center, but right on the lake and very nice) and I changed into stuff I didn't mind getting wet, and then headed back to town for my ride to the famous Kawarau bridge, home of the first commercial bungy site by the A.J. Hackett company.
I was terrified, utterly. On the bus ride over I managed to just not think about it (actually I fell asleep briefly a couple of times) but then I saw the bridge and swallowed hard. We weighed ourselves, gave our information and went to the bridge. I got in my harness -- by now I was stripped to my tank top and waterproof pants, and it was cold in the wind. I tried to relax. I talked with a Swiss girl, another first-timer, who made me go first. So I went. The attendant strapped my feet in, and I wiggled to the little ledge, and I was very scared and honestly didn't think I would be able to jump as I was supposed to. I just didn't think I could look and see below me, and still jump. The guy helping me was very reassuring and all these thoughts zipped through my mind as I wriggled to the edge out there. Then he counted down 5-4-3-2-1 and I just did it, just like that.
The fall was awesome. Very short, but somehow long as well. The easiest thing is to fall. I even felt like if the bungy broke I'd just land in a dive in the water and I'd be fine. But the bungy caught me, and my body whipped around (no pain in that at all, just a relaxed curving change of direction) and then immediately the water was on me and my arms and head went in with a splash. Brilliant. I'd specified a head-wetting. So I bounced up and down a couple of times and then grabbed the pole so that they guys on the dinghy could pull me down into it and take my gear off.
Then I pretty much ran top-speed straight up the side of the gorge, back up the 43m (135 feet or so) to the top, it was that invigourating. I watched my video, which was awful, and then gathered my stuff and watched a few others go as we waited for our coach-load to get back to town.
I walked home with a quick stop at the store for some bread and cheese for supper. Talked with a cyclist from canada that I met a couple of hostels back, I think in Te Anau. Dropped my stuff, changed into my bungy t-shirt and went for a tramp by the lake. I thought to hitch for glenorchy, but instead just followed a track along (and above) lake Wakatipu. That was lovely, me and the trees and the birds, and I went for some root and bush climbing off the path too. Got to sunshine bay, which was pretty, and I would've stayed and sat there a while but that I had to get back to the A.J. Hackett offices to pick up my photos.
I turned 'round, was a bit footsore and I got a lift with a couple from Auckland, back to the outskirts of Queenstown. I got my photos at half-price (thanks to my YHA membership) and then walked back home. I sat by the lake while it got dark. The lovely remarkables mountain range across the lake. I had hoped to see the moon rise, but I think it was too cloudy.
dusk over Lake Wakatipu, right in front of my hostel
Tuesday, 11 November
I woke bright and early at 6.30 so as to be ready in time for my bus, which was supposed to pick me up from the hostel. I had some time after I got ready, so I walked by the lake a bit. My bus came around 7.30.
Through the Southern Alps
That was the rest of the day, pretty much... Being on the bus. Of course the scenery (especially in the beginning when we were still in the mountainous area, and in the end when we were in the comforting Canterbury plains, and the very middle at Mt. Cook... Okay, that pretty much was all of it, then) was great. I was a long time in that zen state where I'm just staring out the window at the hills and sheep and so on.
We made a lot of stops to stretch our legs, see the little towns, maybe take some photos. There weren't many people on the bus but everytime we got off I tried to go in another direction from the rest of them. So I got to see the insides and guts of some towns, tiny farming villages or towns that didn't even exist before the vast hydroelectric system that was set up among the glacial rivers about 40 year ago.
Mt. Cook took my breath away not so much because of the mountain (highest in New Zealand) but because of the flat valley below it. Fairly open, windswept, with gnarled trees and tussocks, and just peeking round it I could see glaciers digging between the mountains, and I could see the ice-capped mountains when the clouds cleared a bit.
the gnarled trees and the snow-capped foothills of Mt. Cook
This was after a 20-minute walk, and we only had 55 minutes of a lunch break in Mt. Cook village, so I couldn't go further there, though I wanted to. For food throughout the day I picked up bits and pieces along the way: dried fruit, smoothie, cheese.
At 6.15pm we got to Christchurch. My hostel was easy to find, and I checked in and dumped my stuff. The staff -- and especially the manager, Robyn -- is great. Robyn got a message that my 4WD (Four-wheel-drive; the ubiquitous Land Rovers here are actually used for what the SUV ads in the States say you can use your SUV for, and people just refer to them as four-wheel-drives.) tour tomorrow was cancelled due to the wind, and she actually suggested that I accompany her on a winery tour. I'm hoping the tour will be okay for Thursday, though, so I didn't want to spend the money, and wanted to have a day in Christchurch. I'm just switching my exploring-Christchurch day and my 4WD day.
I showered (this hostel gives you towels! cool!) and did email and headed back out, to see Kill Bill. I had to walk through the not-best part of town to get there, which was an interesting contrast to the more touristy parts. Lots of young tough Maori blokes. I ate at a Burger King -- another slice of life -- and I smiled at a middle-aged white man and a 13 or 14-year-old barefoot Maori boy having Burger King dinner together.
Then on to the movie, which was of course incredibly violent but fun to watch. I walked home and tried to make up my bed in the dark without disturbing my roommates (only two, and there are only four beds in the room... I love this hostel!).
Wednesday, 12 November
I allowed myself a lie-in, woke at 9.00. Then I strolled over to New Regent Street, where there are some cafes, for a muffin and flat white for breakfast, sitting outside, which was lovely. I took a ride on the tram that goes around the city center. Actually it'd be faster to walk than to take the tram, I think, but the commentary was somewhat interesting. I stopped at Cathedral Square to have a look at the famous Christchurch Cathedral, which wasn't really all that thrilling. My favorite bit was a Maori tapestry mural that included a prayer. Then back on the tram out to the botanical gardens.
First I looked at the Christchurch museum, which was actually quite interesting. Lots more Maori stuff, a bit about the early settlers, a big section on Antarctica, and a lot of other stuff that I ignored. Then on to the gardens. Half of the city seems to be garden or park. I walked along the river for a while, then looked at particular gardens. The rose gardnen, native New Zealand plants garden, rock garden, a greenhouse with lots of fun plants, the bonzai trees. My favorte was probably the "fragrant garden," where trees selected for their smells were planted. That was where I stopped for lunch and a very brief nap in the sun (gotta watch that sun, and the thin ozone layer). I walked on and tried to sleep in the shade by the river, but now I was too cold. Still it was lovely to sit and watch the ducks, and the leaves in the wind. Then onward.
I got on to the tram again and took it back to the hostel, where I actually fell right asleep in the midafternoon. It was all the sun I guess. I headed next door for some cheap fish and chips, which were messy but very very good.
Then I took a walk and the tram back around again, for lack of something else to do. Back to the hostel, and then off to get the bus that would take me to the gondola that goes up above the city. I got to the gondola base and just after I arrived the operator got a call to stop the tram because it was too windy. She told me to wait, though, since it would probably be able to start up again in a few minutes. So I waited about 20 minutes and it did indeed start. The ride up was gorgeous. It was extremely windy when I got to the top, so that a coule of times on the observation deck I felt that I would be blown off. Of course everything was beautiful as the sun went down. I walked around and around the viewing platform in the wind until I finally went inside to have a rest, and just looked. I talked with some folks from the bethlehem, pa area, which was funny.
The gondola stopped again for the extreme wind, and I was starting to get nervous that I'd not make the last return bus to Christchurch if I didn't get down there soon. I went down to ask the top operator if I should walk down, but he said that was too dangerous and that when the sun fully went down the wind would die down too. He even offered me a free drink from the restaurant while I waited. I didn't feel right taking him up on it, but I did like the idea of a drink, so I ordered myself a Monteith's black. Monteith's is very good New Zealand beer.
I had to finish it quickly, though, because next thing I knew, the gondola was running. I went down just ahead of two Auzzie couples. I got to the bottom and still had to wait half an hour for the bus to come... So I was all prepared to sit there again but the Auzzies offered me a ride back to Christchurch... As long as I didn't mind going through the tunnel and having a look at Lyttleton first. Of course not! so we went there, saw the little town all in the dark, which wasn't much to see. Company was good though. We went back to Christchurch and they dropped me off right at my door.
The Canterbury High Country
Thursday, 13 November
At about 7.00 I woke, a bit earlier than I had planned because my stomach was not feeling right at all. Of course I was worried about the bouncy 4WD tour today. I couldn't even stand without feeling queasy. I won't get into the details, but I lost my fish from yesterday. After that I was able to hold some water down, and dress myself... I got more bottled water at reception -- gotta stay hydrated -- before heading off on the tour.
First Mark, the driver, and I headed to Methven, where their office is located, and we stopped there a bit. By that time I was feeling well enough to eat. Their little tour company shares an office with another company that does fishing trips and heliskiing and so on, and I got to talk with one guy there about how he is going to train a little puppy to be an avalanche search dog. I asked if that meant she would go find avalanches. But, um, no, she'll find people buried in avalanches. Pretty cool.
The other two passengers for the day came, the co-owners of the YHA hostel in Methven. Andrea was the woman's name, I forget the guy's. We headed out, first on the good paved ("sealed") road.
One reason I had chosen this company and trip was that they go to the "Edoras" location from LotR, but there was to be a lot of off-roading that's just as interesting and gorgeous of itself. Fording rivers and whatnot. The weather, meanwhile, was fabulous for the first half of the day. I gradually started to realize that all of the backcountry, high country of Canterbury has that same flavour that I loved so much about the "Edoras" location... That desolate, windy, feeling with the flat lands formed by ancient riverbeds around the mountains. [LATER NOTE for LotR fans: Almost all of the non-Mordor shots of Return of the King was apparently filmed in the Caterbury High Country. As gorgeous as they are, the movies do not convey the desperate, expansive, rugged and colorful beauty of this place...}
relics from the limestone quarry where we had our morning tea
We stopped for morning tea at an old limestone quarry and then went off on the "unsealed shingle track" (unpaved gravel road). We eventually came to a lookout point whence we could see Mt. Sunday ("Edoras") and the surrounding mountains quite well. But we were still quite far from it, and we weren't going any closer. Mark said it gets less dramatic as you get closer to it, but it was my disappointment of the day... We didn't really so much go to it as go to a place from which you can clearly see it. If I had my druthers, I'd go all the way across the valley and climb right up the mountain myself, so that I could stand on it and feel what it feels like. It was all private land, but the two farmers whose land we were on all day today (they own a lot of land) give permission for this tour company to be on their land. Someday I'd like to get the proper permissions and get a 4WD and stand on Mt. Sunday myself. But not this time. I can at least say that Mt. Sunday is much smaller than it looks in the films. And there's a river that runs right alongside it (behind it in the Edoras shots), which is very difficult to see in the films unless you know to look for it.
A beautiful flat valley in the Canterbury high country. You can just make out the tiny hillock of green and brown just right of center in the photo; that's Mt. Sunday, or "Edoras."
All the rest of the landscape in the area was just as majestic, I thought. We stayed on unsealed track for most of the rest of the day, first following the shingle and then going off even that, to follow the farmers' tracks through the mud. The farmers' names were Philip and Tom Todhunter. We saw hardly any people working the farms all day.
We stopped for lunch at a hikers'/hunters' hut at the base of a hillock. When we arrived the sun was still shining beautifully, and I climbed part-way up the hillock to take in the surrounding view. Unbelievable. Another of those wide, flat riverbed valleys that lead right up to the sides of the mountains, flat and then steep.
One of the "braided rivers" we forded; the silt is clearly visible here, and is also what makes those grey streaks you see on the side of the mountains.
The rich Canterbury plains were actually formed by all the shingle getting slowly washed off the tops of the mountains, and then deposited progressively further and further out into the pacific ocean by the rivers. Vegetation developed, and the soil of the Canterbury plains. Because of the way the plains were formed, with the layers of different things being washed down, the soil is actually highly variable and even in one paddock there can be a clear demarcation between different kinds of soil -- this one stony, this one light brown, this one deep brown... Very cool. The Great Canterbury Bight, a shallow part of land that reaches out far under the surface of the ocean, is the plains still taking shape, all that stuff being deposited by the rivers and growing the plains bit by bit.
We were seeing the plains and the mountains in ways that nobody but the farmers, really, gets to see them.
So many colors in one place. In the foreground are the "tussocks" that are all over the place in Canterbury; in the background, another river and more high country.
By the time we were done with lunch the rain had started. We got back ahead of it for a bit, but for most of the rest of the afternoon it was either cloudy or drizzling. Now we started seeing tons of stock. Often sheep or cows would fill up the track and we'd have to go very slowly until they all ran away. We even saw a stag in the middle of the track, which greatly shocked everyone, especially Mark who used to go deer hunting when they were still plentiful. Now, though, they're rare, and the last thing he expected was to see a stag right in the middle of the track. Of course, the stag bolted. We looked for him later but never saw him again.
At one point I was taking a photo of sheep and standing on the running board... And I lost my balance and fell backward into the grass. The area was covered with sheep poo, but I checked myself very carefully and didn't find any on me. I felt blessed again. Between that fall and the climbing, though, my jeans got some grass stains.
We stopped off at Tom Toddhunter's sheep station, and then went along the track above the big floodplain of the Rakaia River, where we would have gone jetboating except that the water was too high. Just as well, because now it really started to rain. Then came sleety snow! the weather got worse as we approached civilization and got on the sealed roads. At Mt. Somers Station mark dropped off the other two passengers who were going to be taken back to Methven, and then he and I went on to Christchurch.
Mark was fun to talk with. They just got the company started and so far I don't think anyone else is doing quite what they do. Nor probably could they since they'd need the farmers' permissions. But Mark and company need to work on marketing right now, and they know it. He wants to expand and I really hope it works out well for them. I gave him some tips on how to improve their brochures, and I definitely would recommend their company to anyone.
He dropped me at my hostel (poor guy now had to go back to Methven!) around 6.30pm, and I did email and then went looking for some kind of red meat for dinner. My stomach still was not feeling 100% great, but a lot better, and I actually wanted meat, so I guess that's a good sign. So as not to spend too much money, though, I just got a burger at Burger King. I showered when I got home and went to bed early, around 21.30. Early start tomorrow.
Friday, 14 November
Now, this is The Long Day. At 05.00 I woke, quickly got around, and then waited a few minutes for my airport shuttle to show up. It did, and somehow was already full of male Americans filling up the little van with too much cologne. Then one of them asked me, "So, are you going to the south pole too?" I thought it was a joke, but it wasn't. Thse guys are mostly from small-town America and are going for four months to the south pole to do support work -- the guy I was talking with will be a plumber there! So that was pretty wild. He said there's about 400 people there, and maybe a dozen women... He seemed to think I should go sometime. I'd get a lot of attention. So that was an interesting start to the day.
We got to the Christchurch airport and I got out for domestic departures while they stayed on to go to their special terminal, where they would get their extra luggage and gear and board to go on down. Christchurch is considered the "international gateway to the south pole" -- because flights there tend to depart from Christchurch.
As I awaited my plane I looked out and saw in the growing light that the mountain ranges where we'd been yesterday were covered in fresh snow!
from the window of the plane, the Canterbury Plains with the freshly-snowed mountains in the distance
The plane was a bit late leaving because they had to replace some battery. I thought I'd not make my connection from one short hop to the next, but they did hold the Auckland-bound plane for us in windy Wellington. We boarded... But then had to deplane because this one now needed a mechanical fix of some sort! this is why I changed to the earlier flight this morning, rather than but my international connection in jeopardy.
Finally we did get to Auckland. Hurry up and wait... Now I had five or six hours to sit. I read, did email, grabbed a bite. Finally to the gate, and I read some more. Just before we boarded I just sat there zenfully. I was sad to leave, as I just fell in love with this place so much, but I think the trip was exactly the right length. I think that I go places to discover aspects of God, and to feast my senses and understanding and soul on more and more reasons to worship Him.
For this time... Well, I'm not sure if I ever really was aware of nature before. Everywhere I've gone, I've focused on the people, the culture, as being made in God's image. And it's been great. The people in New Zealand were wonderful of course, and I do enjoy the culture, but I think the best part of the culture (for me) was the relation of it to the land. It's farmers, or tour companies, or adventure sports that are all intimately connected to Nature. I never experienced that connection very strongly in my life, and on this trip I felt like new doors of appreciation for what God hath wrought, were unlocked within me. The farmer and the jetboat inventor and the mountain climber all demonstrate some taste of the creative, passionate energy of God in what He has created. And Nature too reflects the image and personality of God, in its peace, grandeur, nourishment, danger, beauty, and in its being fresh each day but also always remaining fundamentally the same. People have been noticing this forever, it seems to have only just dawned on me.
So I reflected on that, and we boarded. Other than standing behind Anna Paquin in the Passport Control line in LAX, the travels were uneventful. They were just long. A lot of time in airports, and then going from LAX to Detroit to Philly again. When I finally landed in Philadelphia around 10pm I was trying to look for my next flight. But no, I was home.
A final traveller's warning, from the Wellington airport. I especially enjoy the little white explosions that denote mangling of body parts.
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