Thursday, March 26, 2009

A pause just for fun

Just in case you all thought we weren't enjoying ourselves, here are some of our pictures to prove otherwise!

Enjoying the Christchurch Rain

Though Robin Likes to Consult the trail maps, Grant prefers to use the force and think like an Elk

Thirsty at Rain Camp

Robin Enjoys the Tasman Glacier

Robin thinks like a local and tries out the Marmite, "Suitable for Vegetarians"

Searching for the local wildlife in Oamaru, we found some of our own

Ulva Island Rope Swing

Successful Te Anau Fishing, "Suitable for Vegetarians"

A bit lost on the trail, Grant does the only thing he knows how

Robin is not impressed.

Robin tries out for the crew team


You can't beat a beautiful day for beers on Doubtful Sound!

Too much booze to bungy.

     Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown area

Well we finally escaped from the Fiordland, though just across the hills really. We ran into a patch of really nice weather so what did we do? That's right, we wasted it by driving around and getting a little boozy with our new Welsh friends.

We spent one night at a Queenstown holiday park (like a KOA campground) and wandered around the downtown area. Queenstown is well known as the adventure capital of New Zealand and is where bungy jumping was born. Bungy jumping is alive and well, along with many other adventure sports. It reminded us of Disneyland, and was overwhelming.

   "Disneyland Ride" aka jetboating on Shotover River

Grant really wanted to go to a microbrewery, but wouldn't believe me that there were none. We did find a branch of a Christchurch brewery, so settled for familiar brews. It was a local holiday, so most businesses were closed, and so was a weird mixture of a town teeming with rowdy tourists with nowhere to go.

A side note on New Zealand labor regulations. On public holidays, all businesses must close, or pay their employees time and a half plus additional compensation. This is mandatory, not customary or an extra perk for unions. Therefore, they either do close, or they tack on a 15% surcharge to your bill to make up for the high cost of labor.

We also took care of a few chores in the big town, including getting Robin a new camera since hers had died at the beginning of the trip, and broke again soon after we "fixed" it in Dunedin. Her old camera was awesome, but at four or five years old, was a little behind the new point and shoot Robin got. We then escaped to the small gold-mining town of Arrowtown where we enjoyed the nice weather and new brewery.

   Lunch at Arrowtown Brewery

The Arrow Brewing Company is a fledgling microbrewery that does a couple of really nice beers as well as some gourmet pub food. We really enjoyed all of their beers and they made Robin a really nice vegetarian pizza. It was nice to have a bit of a Seattle microbrewery experience on our little vacation. New Zealand is set to have an explosion of microbreweries like the Pacific Northwest did in the 80's-90's. With great local hops and grains, and creative people, the fledgling craft-breweries are off to a great start. Many, including the Arrow brewery, concentrate on local sustainable ingredients as well as great brew and food.

After our brewery lunch, we settled into a campground to work on our sunburns and play with Robin's new toy. Soon after we parked, a Welsh couple we met in Te Anau pulled in and we invited them over for drinks. After a few rounds of beers, our new friends contributed some NZ champagne and we all agreed it would be a fine idea to go out and find some more to drink along with some food.

   Some R&R in Arrowtown

After a few more bottles of wine and a nightcap of beer, we somehow wandered back to our little home of a van. The next morning, we all agreed that the second bottle of wine with dinner was a bit unnecessary. All we could manage was to drive to a lake to nap, have some brekkie, and mellow out.

Later that afternoon, we found the right mixture of hair-of-the-dog, coffee, sleep, and food to make the drive along Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, where much of Lord of the Rings was filmed. Actually, all around the Queenstown area is the Rings country, though we didn't go to any specific sites.

   Lake Wakatipu, drive to Glenorchy

We hiked along the other side of the Routeburn track, which provided for nice views of a river gorge and little valley.

   Routeburn Track

We got to see one of the Huts, which provide bunks and cooking facilities. They are nice, but not like what I hear Switzerland provides, i.e. cooked dinner and beer/wine for purchase. Including our hike to Key Summit, we hiked about 1/3 of the Routeburn track.

   Dart River, road to East end of Routeburn Track

After our hike, we tried to make some headway on the drive to Wanaka from Glenorchy and only made it just out of Queenstown. We had great plans for a scenic drive from Arrowtown to Wanaka, but heavy rain woke us up in the middle of the night fearing that the awning might rip apart from too much water weight. The twisty, steep road to Wanaka was very pretty, but the rainy weather didn't allow for the alleged spectacular views. Ah well, at least there's another new brewery to try in Wanaka, and hopefully some good hiking weather for the Mt Aspiring National Park.

   From the Bureau of Silly Walks

Monday, March 23, 2009

Doubtful about Milford? Not a chance.

First of all, WOW! The trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound and back is amazing!! We decided to drive over to Milford Sound and meet the kayak trip rather than take the charter bus for an extra fee. Boy was that a good idea! We don't really like the tour bus deal. They say to give yourself at least two hours to make the drive with no stops. We made the drive in 4 hours!! Plus, at the top of the pass there's a one-way tunnel with a stoplight that takes 15 minutes. We would have been really late to our 0800 kayak appointment if we hadn't gone the day before.

Now I think we mentioned the sand flies before but holy moly!! Those little buggers are ferocious! It was really windy and rainy the night before our kayak trip. The van was shaking so hard we couldn't sleep, and the rain came through the back window. We thought for sure the trip would be cancelled. But we got up and made the meeting and since the weather changes so fast, we were fine for the boat trip, albeit in the rain! They say that's the Milford Sound experience though so what the hell....

The kayak trip was really fun, and Robin took over the captain spot on the two-person kayak while Grant took care of camera duties. You can't row when you're taking pictures so Grant thought he was getting the better deal with less rowing. Grant can't see behind him to know how little Robin is rowing though so maybe it was more even than we thought? Our guide is planning on being a river guide in Montana this summer with his girlfriend who is from the Flathead lake area so that was fun talking about the Rockies with him.

Some of the interesting things we saw in Milford Sound were Mitre Peak, which comes straight out of the lake 1692 meters.

These mountains are so steep, that a funny thing happens: tree slides. The way vegetation forms on these rock faces, is first bits of moss cling to the cracks, and sides. Once that is stable, shrubs and trees start in intertwine with each other carpeting the slopes, but not really setting roots into the earth or rocks. Occasionally during a storm or what have you, a tree at the top will slip a little and bring everything down with it in an avalanche of trees. It takes 100 years for it to regenerate, meanwhile leaving huge scars in the landscape. There is also a permanent waterfall we kayaked right under that is three times the height of Niagra Falls.

That was cool, but Robin didn't have the nerve to steer us too close to it. One more intersting thing is when Cook sailed into Milford Sound there were so many birds that the sailors could hardly hear each other talk over them! Now something like 70% of NZ native species, mostly birds, are extinct do mostly to the introduction of the rabbit, rat, stoat, and possum. It was intersting for us to paddle along the same route as that great explorer, and to see that though the birds are gone, it still looks largely untouched by humans.

After the kayak trip we went back over the pass and down the highway a wee bit before stopping for a hike to some cool waterfalls. There we got an upclose look at how these waterfalls carve out the rock, leaving odd holes and formations. Most of these waterfalls are not permanent, but when it rains, tons of water comes gushing down the face of the mountains forming impromptu falls everywhere. We found a nice little campground to stay at where they had a museum that seemed like a practical joke. There was a shackle that was supposedly from Capt Cook's ship, though it just looked like a big rusty shackle. Neat anyway.

The next day we made a 3 hour hike to Key Summit, which is the beginning portion of New Zealand's famous Routeburn Track. There were numerous trampers, but the hike was well worth the view as the clouds had lifted and we could see so much more compared to the previous two days. It was really neat climbing out of the rainforest and above the treeline to a subalpine environment. It is all so dramatic; the weather, the steep mountains, the water, and the change of scenery, all changing over hours and minutes, driving, walking, or standing still.

We retired to Te Anau for pizza and a good clean-up of the van which desperately needed it. Then we booked a tour for Doubtful Sound. We tried to get on the kayak tour again but they were full, so we decided to take a day off and take a busdriver's holiday (boat cruise). First we went back to Manapouri for a 4 hour hike on the Circle Track. We had to hire a row-boat and row ourselves across the small river to get to the start of the hike. It was a nice pleasant walk on spongy leave strewn forest floor for about 30 minutes and then it was literally straight uphill for an hour and a half! There were no switchbacks of course, and at some points it was like climbing a ladder using the tree roots for rungs! But once again the view at the top was worth it.

The Doubtful Sound is pretty remote, so to get there you have to take a 40 minute boat ride across lake Manapouri, then a 22 km bus ride over the pass and down to the sound, and then we had a 2-3 hour boat ride on the sound out to the Tasman Sea. When we woke up the morning of the tour we were kind of glad that we weren't kayaking because there was frost on the picnic table and it was colder than we cared for. On the plus side, it was a beautiful clear day. They say you can't know the weather out on the Sound until you get there as the weather in Te Anua can be completely different. Well we were in luck as there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It is very rare to see the Doubtful Sound in such conditions and it was absolutely stunning! It was also quite striking as there were hardly any waterfalls at all compared to our time in Milford Sound as it hadn't rained in a few days.

According to our tour guide, the Doubtful Sound was named by Capt Cook when he remarked that if he sailed into the sound, it was doubtful there would be enough wind to carry his ship back out again. Consequently he never sailed into the sound. The sounds in the Fiordland are also all misnamed in that they are all fiords (created by glaciers) and not sounds(created by rivers). But the English apparently have no word for fiord since they have no glaciers really.

Along the tour we also got to see the Manapouri Power Station, which is quite a remarkable engineering site. The power station was built during the late 1960's to supply power for the aluminium smelting plant located down in Bluff. Aluminium is made by passing massive electric currents through the ore slurry to smelt out the pure metal. The NZ govt allowed the company to investigate the use of the hydro-electric power possible with the level of the lake above the sea. This caused an environmental outcry as the lake was planned to be flooded by 30 meters in order to make an efficient power plant. The enviro's won, and instead of raising the lake level, the companies dug a bunch of holes into the hard rock and located the power station below the lake, and underground, with an outflow tunnel to the Doubtful Sound. Anyhow, it's quite impressive to see this giant underground hydro-electric power plant that was created a by a lot of tunneling! And it is still used primarily for the aluminium smelting plant, with only 15% going to Kiwi's homes.

After a long day of touristing around, we stayed one more night in Manapouri before heading out of Fiordland and on to our next adventure in the zoo of Queenstown!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Windy Road

Since we last checked in we have done quite a bit. After leaving Dunedin, the wind and rain continued to pick up. During the drive to the Catlins it actually started snowing and hailing on us, and the wind pushed our sail of a van all over the road. We ended up skipping quite a few of the highlights of the Catlins while heading straight for a campground to chillout and warm up. The Whistling Frog did the trick. They had a little restaurant and real bar (where we got a taste of the Invercargill Brewery Beers Stanley Green and Pitch Black - the first real microbrews since Christchurch). We parked right next to the share-kitchen and made a very late lunch, then it was 16 hours in the van staying warm and dry and reading.

In the morning we headed to the Cathedral Caves. It took quite a bit of motivation to go out adventuring in the rain and wind. The caves are on private property so a fee was in order, but it was a nice hike down a forested hill, then a trek across the beach to get to the caves. You may have already guessed it, but the wind had continued to build overnight, so it was a little hard walking on the beach. On the plus side, the torrential rains kept the sand from blowing in our eyes! The hike through the trees wasn't too bad, but once exposed on the beach, it was really windy and nasty and by the time we got back to the van, we were soaked! We tried to keep slogging through the sights, but could only manage a real stop at the fossil forest beach at Curio Bay, which was really worth a look. 

                                                Fossil Forest

There we chatted up a D.O.C. ranger who was keeping an eye on the moulting penguins. As he put it about the weather, "Well, what do you expect when you come to the far ends of the Earth? You want the weather to be appropriate, right?" Well, sure. Considering how far south we are, the next stop being Antartica, I suppose this is the weather most people would expect (though it's highly unusual this time of year). Later, we read newspaper reports saying the winds in that area had reached 180 km/hour, and the ferry to Stewart Island had stopped running for a full day. So all in all we were sort of proud of ourselves for getting out there in the weather and keeping on with our touristing!

              Very Windy at the bottom of the Earth in New Zealand! 

After too many cold nights in the van, we'd had it, and got a hotel room for the night in Invercargill. While trying to re-supply in town, we found ourselves in the twilight zone as none of the grocery stores sold beer!! After our second store we had to ask what was going on and found out that there's some weird rule about selling alcohol so you can only get it at the Super Liquor or Liquorland! Plus, the local microbrewery can't sell their beer at these places since the big breweries have the power and push the little guy out.

                                                     Ulva Island Beach

The owner of the hotel convinced us to make reservations to spend a few nights on Stewart Island, the southern most Island of New Zealand, and a bird haven. The weather finally eased, then broke into blue skies and sunshine. Ulva Island within the main harbor of Steward Island was the real sanctuary. With birding book in hand, we spent four hours cautiously walking through the forest and spotted quite a few of the birds listed, though upon returning to Steward Island, we seemed to find the elusive Tui everywhere. No real kiwis though! We also finally spotted some penguins on the boat ride over.

Our hostel was positively awful, as they catered to large group tours. The first night was of course the Rugby team with girlfriends in tow, who wouldn't even let us in their group to drink piss (beer), so then they were just annoying. Then it was the group of wayward teenagers. The day we left, it was kids camp, with twenty or so little'uns running around wreaking havoc. My my. I say, if you go to Steward Island, spring for the nice hotel room above the bar.

The highlight of our trip was definitely quiz night at the only bar in town, which though famous all over the UK and colonies, is not an American tradition. We were paired up with a random couple, and had a great time trying to answer the UK oriented questions. The husband was an American expat and web designer, and he agreed that NZ internet does suck. They are about ten years behind America, and don't know what they are missing, so don't seem to care. I mean, how do they survive without Youtube? (ha ha) He continued saying America does not have the fastest and best internet, and we don't know what we are missing either. So that's the story with why it's such a pain for us to try to upload pictures. Our trivia team didn't come in dead last so that was fun, though I suspect the 5 jugs of beer we drank probably means we lowered our teammates' usual average. They have won quite a few times and guess what you win? That's right, about $40 bar tab!! What a beautiful thing! Plus, they always pass the whisky box around to collect everyone's spare change and donate it to some local worthy cause.

We had a nice ferry ride back to Bluff and drove to see the famous end of the road sign for the bottom of NZ and to go to the Drunken Sailor bar - but those sissies were closed at 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon when the ferry landed!! Stupid tourist gimmicks!! Where are the real drunken sailors? You can bet we did our part....


Back to Invercargill, and onwards to Te Anau, with a great stop at Lake Manapouri where we did it up Lake Mead style as long as we could stand the sand fleas. They were relentless, and the lake wasn't that warm, but it was nice to put our swimming suits on after three weeks of them being dead weight.

                                                           Lake Manapouri Picnic

We've booked a kayaking tour of Milford Sound, and then will try to see Doubtful Sound. We are considering doing the three day Routeburn track when the weather clears (another front has moved in and I am typing in the rain, though no wind, so I'm pretty stoked).

Until next time, Cheers!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rain rain, go away

Tuesday, March 10 Dunedin

One night in Dunedin. Rain. Walked to pretty tunnel beach just as we had two hours of clearing skies. Rain. Night in a hostel with a nice shower, but not so nice kitchen. I hate sleeping out of the van as you have to move everything! Today, rain, wind. Albatross viewing was a bust as there was a cruise ship tourist invasion. Too crappy to hike down to lovers leap and sandfly beach. So we are in the van, finishing our blog, will find an internet cafe, then tomorrow off to the Catlins, where we hope this two weeks of craptastic weather will turn into a few settled days of sunshine. Even the locals we spoke with were a bit put-off by the cold wet weather- they mentioned that it was more like May/June weather than early fall weather! So even though we're a little disappointed, so are the locals. Sorry to complain, but today it's hard to keep our spirits up. On the upside, laundry was cleaned, Robin's camera was fixed, Grant got a haircut, and we finally purchased the ever elusive hard-sided chilly-bin. D'oh! I forgot we have to go get ice!! Cheers.

Penguins or bust

9 March 2009
After leaving the Mt Cook area, we got one more good picture of Lake Pukaki and the stormy mountains we were escaping.
We made it a few kilometers south and found a nice little hike down a random road in some geologic formations called the Clay Cliffs - very picturesque setting with a nice river where lots of fishermen were out and about.

Then we spent a few hours driving east toward the coast and Oamaru. It was Saturday and the roads were 'packed' - even though there were some motorcycles out enjoying the nice sunny weather, we hardly saw any cars. There just aren't that many people in New Zealand, and most of 'em are on the North Island.

Oamaru is a nice little coastal town and has some penguin viewing areas - Robin was really excited about seeing some penguins so we got a camp spot in the downtown holiday park for the night. The campground was actually on the town botanical garden which is very nice and even has a croquet field - perfect for white clothes and champagne; now that's what I call a sport!!!

Well, we tried to go see the yellow eyed penguins but it was molting season so most were hunkered down on the cliff face waiting for their fur to change - apparently they don't eat for a few weeks while they molt, so there was very little activity - only a handful of them were actually out on the beach - we saw one but from a long way away. We could also see a couple on the cliff face, but they were hidden the grasses so no photos.

                     The penguins are out there, somewhere!

We went back to town for food and almost missed all the restaurants - they close early here for the most part, even on a Saturday night. After our meal we went to the local pub and met a local who chatted us up for a while and answered some of our New Zealand questions. He was from Auckland, and told us that the south island was obviously more rural but also had a bit of the "you're not from around here are you?" attitude. We decided that might have some truth to it. Other intersting things we learned from our local expert was that military service is not compulsory in NZ, marijuana is illegal and not taken lightly, there might be a bit of an alcohol abuse combined with physical abuse problem here, and that they lowered the drinking age from maybe 20 to 18 and he thought it was for the worse because now kids 11 and 12 are trying the drink a bit. But then again, he was a recovering meth addict so....

When we woke up in Oamaru we were running late for the 10 am checkout time, so we drove to the beach to make breakfast as the sun was shining. As Kris Kristofferson said, the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad so I had one more for dessert...
The beach is a nice place for such things. But, despite the color of water looking like the south pacific, and the water actually being the south pacific, it was damned cold! I guess a swim in Jackson Lake in July would have been about the same, but the windy cold air wasn't that inviting! Lots of cool rocks and fun wading though!

When we went to town looking for the cheese factory, the weather changed drastically - the temperature dropped about 15 degrees and it started raining so we decided to head south towards the Moeraki boulders and camp at a DOC campground which are much more like camping in the forest - very limited facilities but also much cheaper than paying for the holiday parks. We found a great little spot but it was raining and we had to cross two streams to get to the spot. The crossings or fords weren't wet when we crossed them at first. But it kept raining and raining and raining. What to do when it's cold and rainy and you've found your campsite for the night? That's right. Dig into the chilly bin for another beer!

 A few hours and a few kilometers after the sunny beach!

Well, after dark we got a late night knock on the campervan with a flashlight - not usually a good sign! It was the neighborhood farmer who asked if we knew about the possibility of the flash floods on the fords to the campground - he told us that a for'night ago, about 5 different campers got stuck at the campground for about 3 days after the water flooded! He told us the only way they escaped was after the locals hired a flatbed trailer to haul them and their vehicles across the fords! With beer in hand we decided we better get while the gettin' was good! The neighbor generously offered his cow paddock for us to pull-up in - but our poor little toyota was stuck in the wet green grass on a mostly level field and we didn't think a wet cow paddock on a hill would be good for us. We motored a short clip down the secondary road and pulled off near a sheep paddock. Grant could barely get to sleep.

When we awoke from the night of rain, it was still cold and blustery but we toughed it out and went to see the Moeraki boulders. Lucky for us that we had to sleep in a strange pullout instead of the campground because we got up earlier than we otherwise would have. We drove to the beach and boiled some water for our coffee. With coffee in hand, we walked down the beach and had the boulders and the early morning beach to ourselves apart from one other German lady - until we started back towards the van and then bammo! Tourist invasion! People everywhere, and a full parking lot. Just as we were pulling out, we saw the giant bus full of tourists pulling in - so we just missed the rush hour of the boulders, and we were there for low tide as well. I guess sometimes things work out for the best!