Saturday, March 14, 2009

Haere Mai to South Island!

Click to view South Island photo slideshow on smugmug New Zealand markets itself to the world using South Island like Canada markets itself using BC. So, after much hype and anticipation I finally got to experience the New Zealand that Julie’s been in love with for the past 4 years. Her feelings are justifiable – this place is amazing. The grandeur, the serenity and quiet awesomeness of the place makes you wish you knew more synonyms for “awesome”, because after a couple days of saying “wow, that’s awesome” a whole heckuva lot you begin to search for more words. And after a couple hundred pictures of mountains, fjords, rivers and lakes you reckon you should stop, but at every turn there’s another fantastic postcard-worthy view that begs to be framed.

Day 1: Friday 6 March

Julie & I arrived in Christchurch from Auckland via Quantas Air on Friday afternoon. We checked in to the Stonehurst mega-hostel and were soon re-united with my mom who made her own way down south. A popular Thai restaurant was our dinner destination. We hesitated claiming a table until we noticed two large groups of people converging on us on the sidewalk, aiming for the restaurant. Julie quickly ducked inside and asked for a table before they were all given away. We landed a small table by the window and promptly noticed that the place was a BYO (Bring-Your-Own [wine] licensed establishments are fairly common down here). I passed along my order and volunteered to fetch us a bottle of wine. Little did I know that the nearest wine shop was nearly 1km away; over 1km after factoring in the various directions I went trying to find it! In the end the Thai food did not disappoint (rarely does!) and put me into another spice-induced sweat. After dinner we wandered around Cathedral Square taking in some of the sights that mom had seen during the day. She was quite excited to show off the town she had explored only a few hours before.

Day 2: Saturday 7 March

Our friends Megan & Ted were flying in from Melbourne this arvo, so in the meantime we took a quick tour of CHC. There’s a neat little tram that rides around the downtown that gives you a pretty good taste of the city. With the tram ticket we got ourselves a punting ride too. Now I’m still not quite sure what the term “punting” Punting on the Avon, CHC means: the guy driving our boat said he was a “punter” because he was taking us Punting on the Avon. But the term “punter” is commonly used down here to describe a person at a football game or at a bar (basically a customer of some sort). The ride down the river was quite pleasant in the sun, gliding through a large park, watching the ducks in the water.

We’re liking CHC more and more, especially with the great weather we had today adding to the ambiance. There was a little market on near the museum, with buskers spread out all along the block and jazz bands and classical quartets tucked into courtyards of the Arts Centre.

When Megan & Ted showed up we greeted them with some custom Waiting on our pizzas at Winnie Bagoes pizzas from a “pizza bar” called Winnie Bagoes (pretty good – I recommend it) before packing their rental car full and taking off. Mom was left on her own once again to make her way North while we ventured further south to the opposite coast.

Christchurch is picturesquely set in a plain surrounded by mountains. It makes for a very scenic drive. The area is also home to a lot of agriculture and we drove through the little town of Ashburton where MacDon has its sole Kiwi dealer. (It was after hours so I didn’t stop in to say hello.) After that it’s valley after beautiful valley until you’re suddenly up in the mountains and our first overnight stop – Lake Tekapo (pronounced tee-ka-poo). Ted whipped up his special dish of tuna & rice for dinner, so we all huddled around eating Ted's cooking satisfied us all! outside since their hostel was extremely quiet and we felt a bit self-conscious. Julie & I were staying up the road at a holiday park in a fancy cabin, happy to have a heated blanket to keep us warm. We were dressed improperly coming from the +27 in CHC to the +15 here!

Day 3: Sunday 8 March

GORGEOUS! An amazing sunrise over the mountains and Lake Tekapo greeted us this morning. Julie reprimanded me for laughing at the “peasants” below us trudging to the showers in the morning while we sat on our balcony drinking coffee. (The campervan spots were just below us on the hill so it was all the backpacker kids.)

Today was all driving, hours and hours of driving. Granted it’s all quite scenic and grand, but after seeing mountains and valleys for a long time it still gets boring. We stopped at lake Pukaki to take a gander over to New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook (Aoraki in Maori) at 3754m. Depending upon who got to drive provided either more entertainment to some (Megan & I) or unsettling nausea for others (Julie & Ted) since many roads down here are quite curvy. All of us put the Mazda 6 through its paces.

Our destination today was Milford Sound, located on the western side of the country in the wild and dramatic Fiordland World Heritage Area. Popping out through the Homer Tunnel we were greeted with heavy grey skies and drizzle – quite a contrast to the sunshine we had entering the tunnel.

We checked in to the Milford Sound Lodge and hoped for good weather tomorrow.

Day 4: Monday 9 March

A skiff of snow covered the mountain tops this morning – the season’s first! But better than that was the clear sunny sky illuminating that fresh snow. Tara from Fiordland Sea Kayaks met us at the lodge to take us to the water. It’s obviously a lot cooler here than it was the last time we went kayaking up in the Coromandel, so we all got a lesson in humility as we donned long johns, fleeces and splash skirts. Heading out on to the still waters the awesomeness of the place hits you as you try to take it all in. The vertical walls of the towering mountains rise straight out of the water; waterfalls sprout There's a waterfall far in the distance that's 7km awayfrom some of the cliffs; and an occasional bird call disrupts the silence as you paddle along. The size of the place distorts your perception. A waterfall that looks like it’s only a mile away is in fact 7km! this is because everything else is so big that you don’t realize that the waterfall is also that big. The only problem about kayaking for an entire morning in an area that doesn't have much of a shoreline is that toilet-breaks are few’n’far between. Unfortunately one of our heroes in this story fell victim to this and had to make a hasty dash for the beach, almost tipping over in his rush.

Milford Sound is in fact a fiord; carved by glaciers not by rivers and this is very evident in the polished sides of the mountains and lends to the majesty of the place. The water is also quite deep, but since it contains so much particulate matter (the water is the colour of tea) it fools deep-water creatures into thinking they’re deep down where they’re not. As such, divers like the sound since it allows them to view these creatures without having to go so deep. We didn’t do any scuba diving though. The 4 hours of kayaking tired us out enough!

Back at the lodge the groupweta bug of us went out for an evening stroll to check out some glow worms. We saw some of these little larvae glowing away, but we also spotted a big “weta”.

Day 5: Tuesday 10 March

The weather was totally different today; heavy rains created waterfalls everywhere on the cliffs around the lodge and churned up the rivers. Poor Megan & Ted got a little wet in their small tent out in the storm overnight but got a lot wet while trying to pack it all up in the morning!

Just up the road from our lodge,Chasm the Cleddau River has carved unique formations in the rock to form “the Chasm”. It’s super cool, and something that a camera just cannot capture as the water plunges through the rock that now resembles Swiss cheese. The rainforest rainforest waterfall around here reminds me of Vancouver Island, and Megan and I tried to capture any of the small waterfalls splashing in the forest. After this we hit the road for the 2.5hr drive from Milford Sound to Te Anau, taking in the scenery as it changed from rain-soaked mountains, alpine meadows, and then down into rolling hills and sheep pastures. All the while we’re wondering if the snow line is going to come down to our level…

In the town of Te Anau, a keen helicopter pilot has created a film about the Fiordlands area and with it built a special movie theatre to show it. It’s a great film and pretty much captures the essence of the area (we’ve got a copy of it and are taking it back to Canada). Funny thing! So you can buy snacks at the theatre and Julie was hungry so she got some chips and dip. The film is pretty quiet (birds chirping and such) so I’m sitting beside Julie and all I can hear is “crr-runch, crunch, crunch, crunch” as she chomps on the chips! I’m trying to lean away from her (“I don’t know this inconsiderate person munching away!”) and I’m pretty sure she missed some of the show, but nowhere near as much as the Asian couple behind us who fell asleep waiting for the show to start and I'm sure slept right on through most of the show.

Day 6: Wednesday 11 March

We stayed at the Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers last night (nice place!) and headed to Queenstown. There’s this burger joint in QT called Ferg Burger – super popular, and rightly so. The burgers are pretty damned good! Megan and Ted went back here numerous times during our stay here.

There are heaps of treks around here – we picked the Rob Roy Trackat the top of the Rob Roy Track in Mt.Aspiring National Park near Wanaka. It took us a while to get out there and had to hustle up the mountain in order to get up and down before dark. At the top you get a great view of the Rob Roy Glacier hanging above a big cliff.

The climb up here is a good challenge but it’s still easy, and I had to take it as an appeasement of my desire to the grand Milford Track walk which takes days to do. The scenery around here is amazing: the big valleys, the herds of sheep on the roads, the glacier-fed rivers, the forests and then the snow-capped mountains. Did I mention we got the New Zealand experience by driving through a herd of sheep being ‘mustered’ down the road? yeah. pretty neat. And then we did it again!

Day 7: Thursday 12 March

What happened today?

Julie went to the spa. She had a great time, had a great massage, but can’t remember the name of the lady who did it so couldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Megan & Ted jumped off the Nevis highwire bungy jump. At 134m it’s the highest in NZ. Megan jumped off no problem – she’s some sort of adrenaline freak we reckon. Ted was rightly scared of it but tipped of the edge with minimal encouragement.

Andrew took the car up and down the switch-back roads around the hills, tossing the car around but relishing in the fact that nobody was telling him to slow down.

We reconvened in town and discovered a wine tasting store. This place is brilliant: there are these little dispenser machines around the store for each variety of wine. You get a glass and a little swipe-card. You go around to these dispensers and select which wine you’d like to taste. The system then charges your card an amount according to which wine you tasted. You can sit in the arm chairs, have a snack, basically chill-out while tasting the wines at your leisure. Julie discovered what would become one of her favourite wines: Rockburn Pinot Noir from Central Otago.

Day 8: Friday 13 March

It’s Friday the thirteenth – would you jump out of a plane today? I did. bloody awesome i tell ya. WOW!

Today was adventure day! Megan & Andrew went skydiving and Julie went hang-gliding. Ted got a tattoo.

I teamed up with another fellow we’d met in Borneo who happened to be a skydive instructor here in Queenstown. JP’s a cool guy and took Megan & I up to 15,000ft to plunge earthwards at terminal velocity. When you first drop out of the plane your senses are totally overwhelmed: your stomach hits your throat, the cold tenses you up and the wind takes your breath away. About 5-10 seconds later your body comes to its senses and realizes you’re OK and you begin to enjoy the ride. That’s a normal jump. Mine went a bit different. After JP released us from the plane (I’m sure he let go on “2” instead of “3”) the wind immediately removed the goggles from my face. As such I totally forgot the position I was to hold in order to improve manoeuvrability – a reverse banana. Instead, my legs are stuck straight out and my arms are waving around my head trying to figure out where my goggles went. Luckily I had asked JP to fall backwards away from the plane and even without goggles I managed to view the plane flying away from us – uber cool. And when we’d got into the freefall position JP noticed that it was my goggles flapping in his face and put them back on for me, thus saving my eyes and permitting me to enjoy the view. And what a view!!! The skies Skydiving over the Remarkables cleared up for us and the Remarkables were remarkable, Lake Wakatipu was so blue, and the fields stretched out like the familiar quilt of back home. Then, suddenly, your groin gets squeezed as the chute opens and the harness takes hold and the world comes to a peaceful stop. You can ask your instructor to take you down nice and slow, or to do some spins to add some excitement. Naturally I picked “spins”. The trick here is to make the chute turn you around so you can see everything around you, instead of just one direction. But then at the of the spin, the instructor can close (open? dunno) the chute and drop you a few feet, throwing your stomach back into Woo weee!!  JP & Andrew your throat, just when you’d got it back into normal operating position. Freakin’ sweet. After about 100 seconds, you’re back safely on terra firma and sporting a grin the size of the Southern Alps.

We spent the rest of the day enjoying the sunny day on the deck of our sweet-as penthouse crib at Reaver’s Lodge. Went for a short walk out at Bob’s Cove before zipping back to town for a BBQ at JP’s to meet his fiancĂ©e Clare. It was a great way to wrap up our week here on the South Island.

This place is AWESOME!!

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