It has been a whirlwind week! Dad and Marla were here so we spent six days traveling around the south island.
Day 1, Friday 18 March
Today we set out from Dunedin and headed northwest to Queenstown. It was about a four-hour drive and we passed fruit stands, cows, sheep, and wineries all along the way. We stopped for lunch in the little village of Roxburgh. As we walked down the main street we noticed that all the shops and cafés were closing at 2:00 pm so they could attend a funeral service. One of the locals must have passed away a few days before and it was a small enough town that everyone there must have known the person. We made it to a café just in time to buy sandwiches and get some ice cream.
We continued on our way through Alexandra and stopped for a bathroom break in Cromwell before plugging on to Queenstown. While on the road from Cromwell to Queenstown we drove along the Kawarau River with mountains on either side. We stopped along the way at a power station and saw how they generate energy for some of the region. We also passed by the Nevis Bungy - a 134 m jump above the Kawarau River. A little further down the road we came to a slight traffic jam and learned that there was roadwork being done ahead. This isn't rare in New Zealand; we'd been through roadwork every half hour for the past day. However, this roadwork was a bit different. Workers had put dynamite in a part of the mountain in order to clear away rocks that could fall onto the road. One of the sticks of dynamite hadn't gone off on time so they were going to give it another 15 minutes to go off before sending someone in to check it. After waiting for about 10 minutes we heard a large explosion go off. Then we watched a helicopter pick up huge buckets full of water out of the river. We think they were dumping water on the dust that developed after the dynamite explosion. A few buckets-full later we were allowed to drive through. The road was perfectly fine with no remnants of the rocks.
When we arrived in Queenstown we checked into our hostel and then walked around the town poking through souvenir shops and taking pictures. In the evening we took a ride on the Skyline Gondola up to Bob's Peak. We rode up over some sheep munching on the hillside grass and had a fantastic view of the city below as well as the Remarkables mountain range across the lake. It was drizzling when we got up there so there was a fantastic rainbow that would change places every now and then. We enjoyed the sites, taking lots of pictures, and checked out the gift shop before heading back down for dinner. Dad only freaked out a little on the way back down =) Apparently heights get a bit more scary as you get older.
We had dinner at the Lone Star restaurant that night: delicious food, American style, and a hilarious waiter. In our hostel that night we talked with a guy from Germany (Bremen to be exact, where Oma is from!!) and a guy from Virginia. The guy from Virginia and just done the Nevis Bungy that day and skydived the day before. He seemed pretty tired. We stayed in and read before going to sleep early in preparation for our big day ahead.
Day 2, Saturday 19 March
Dad and I woke up early in Queenstown to get some pictures of the mountains at sunrise. While it was still dark we broke down and stopped at Starbucks for breakfast. It was pretty similar to Starbucks at home =) The wind off the water was really strong that morning so we sat on a side street and ate, shielded by the buildings. After our quick breakfast the sun began to come up from behind the mountains and we had some beautiful views of the small harbor in Lake Wakatipu and the mountains across the lake.
Around 8:00 am we went and got Marla and headed from Queenstown to Te Anau. The drive to Te Anau was much more straight that the one from Dunedin to Queenstown. There were great views of distant mountains but this time we weren't actually driving in them. I even made it above 100 kph!
We stopped in Te Anau for a quick bite to eat and some gas. We munched our left overs from the night before while gazing across Lake Te Anau into Fiordland National Park. Lake Te Anau is the second largest lake in New Zealand (just a little smaller than Lake Taupo on the north island). Here we switched the reigns and Dad drove us through Fiordland National Park and up to Milford Sound.
The drive from Te Anau to Milford is only about 120 km and should normally take about an hour and a half but because of the way the road winds and all there is to see along the way, it took us much longer. We stopped off at numerous beaches, waterfalls and lakes. The mountains were amazing to look at because they jutted out of the river or lake, wherever they happened to be, without any transition or beach area. One of our stops was at Mirror Lake. The lake has perfectly clear water and you can see rainbow trout swimming around and ducks diving under for food. The signs also said that there were eels in the water but we didn't happen to see any.
As we drove further and further towards Milford the scenery changed a bit and more of the mountains had snow at the top. All the rivers and streams that we passed by were perfectly clear. At one roadside stop there was a sign that read, "Do not feed the kea". Keas are huge, curious parrots that live on the north part of the south island. They will pretty much get into anything and there are some pretty impressive YouTube videos of them tearing apart cars. They aren't very timid when it comes to human interaction so feeding them is discouraged or else they'll become even more 'friendly'.
Part of the road to Milford is through a huge one-lane tunnel called the Homer Tunnel. Construction on this tunnel began in 1935 because it would make it much easier for tourists to get to the Milford area. It was a difficult process and there were delays caused by area avalanches as well as World War II. It was finally completed in 1954 and at the time was just a dark one-lane road. There are traffic lights on either end to let drivers know when the tunnel is clear for them to go through. A tour bus fire caused them to upgrade the tunnel recently so now there are lights and fire extinguishers along the way. When we were inside the tunnel the lights emphasized the bare granite walls and really made us feel like we were in the depths of the Homer Saddle. While we were waiting for our green light on the east side of the tunnel we got some great pictures of the mountains around us and even spotted a kea hanging out by the people in line. These birds really aren't scared of anything!
After we got through the tunnel and made it into the tiny town of Milford and checked into our hostel before heading to the wharf for our cruise through Milford Sound. The weather for our evening cruise was uncommonly beautiful. Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand yet for us it was bright shining skies. Our cruise was through Mitre Peak cruise lines. It's a less popular line, which was great because we shared the small boat with only 16 other passengers. Milford Sound is one of the most commonly visited places in the world so many of the other tour boats were packed.
There was a chilly wind out on the water so we bundled up in our rain gear and headed out on the boat. The captain gave us a little history of the area and described the way Milford Sound was carved out by glacial activity (which really makes it a fjord, not a sound). We drove the boat along the mountainsides and pointed out the jade and iron oxide in the rocks. All along the rocks there were trees just barely hanging on. The trees tend to root onto each other and then when they get too heavy they tumble down on one another in a tree avalanche/domino effect. We could see bare areas of rock were there had been tree avalanches before.
In there sound there are two permanent waterfalls, Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls. After heavy rain there are tons of small, temporary waterfalls that cascade down the rocky sides of the sound but since it was such great weather when we were there, there were only a few different falls. The cruise captain pulled up close to the Lady Bowen Falls and warned us that he would be 'washing' the front deck of the boat. That happened to be where Marla, Dad and I were sitting with a few other passengers so all of us ran inside quick so we wouldn't get soaked... all of us except for Dad of course! We watched from the warm, dry cabin as the waterfall dumped on him. It was hard to see for a few seconds since there was so much water washing up on the windows but soon we saw a triumphant arm in the air and excited wave.
The captain moved on down the sound telling us more about the rock formations and the history of the area before turning around in the Tasman Sea. On our way back to the wharf we cruised along the other side of the sound and saw some seals basking in the sun on a large rock. We turned another corner and saw Stirling Falls. This time the captain decided to wash the boat again and yes, Dad got soaked again.
After our cruise we went out for dinner at the Blue Duck Café and Bar. It seemed like every person from the little town had come to that place for dinner. We laughed at some of the kids running/biking/crawling around the restaurant and also discussed how one patron looked exactly like Kirk Cameron. We watched some of the Highlanders vs. Crusaders rugby game that was going on in Dunedin (which my flatmates were at) and then headed to the Milford Lodge for the night.
We were in bed pretty early that night and were just reading some books when our 'roommates' came in. In many of the hostels you share a large dormitory room with other travelers. It's always interesting to get to know other people traveling around New Zealand. As fate would have it, the Kirk Cameron look alike walked into our dorm room and said hi. I almost fell out of my bunk. Turns out, Kirk and his friend were near the end of a trip through New Zealand and had come all the way from Holland. We stayed up and chatted with them about theirs and our experiences before heading to bed.
Day 3, Sunday 20 March
We woke up on Sunday to more beautiful weather and went down to the wharf again to get some sunrise pictures of Milford Sound and Mitre Peak. At 1,692 m, Mitre Peak is the most famous site in Milford Sound. We took dozens of photos and then decided that since it was so fantastic out, maybe we should check into a helicopter ride.
We introduced ourselves to the helicopter pilot, Brendan, and explained where we're from and why we're in New Zealand. When he heard we were from Wisconsin he told us that he was planning a business visit to Wisconsin in 10 days! What a small world!
Mitre Peak as seen from the car park
About an hour later we were in a helicopter up above Milford Sound and the surrounding area. Brendan flew us past mountains and over one huge waterfall. It was amazing to see everything up close, and I mean very close! He assured us that everything looked much closer than it actually was and that he was flying safely. After flying around the waterfall and over a huge lake Brendan landed us on top of the waterfall. We were able to jump out of the helicopter to take pictures of the scenery around us. I crawled close the edge of the rocks on my stomach and took a picture from over the top of the waterfall. It was a very long way down! We hopped back in the helicopter and flew down the waterfall. Brendan had us pointing face down so we could get a good look at all the scenery around us. It was unbelievable! Good thing we had seatbelts on because we would have all been squished to the front of the helicopter otherwise.
Next we flew over the sound and saw many of the same sites from the air that we had seen in the cruise below just the day before. We climbed up over the rocky walls of the sound and saw snow covered mountains right in front of us and way in the distance. We flew around some of these peaks and then came to a huge glacier among them. Brendan landed on the glacier and we got out to take more pictures and soak in our surroundings. It was my first time on a glacier and it was awe-inspiring. We were completely surrounded by mountains. As far as we could see there was snow and rocky peaks. After a few moments we hopped in the helicopter and headed back to the airport.
Once we were over the helipad, Brendan slowly lowered the helicopter and blew everything away in its path... including a baby stroller that was near. He assured us that he checked that it was empty first since it's his own child's stroller. =) We jumped out and thanked Brendan and the other people working at the airport. Dad and Brendan exchanged contact information so they could meet up while Brendan is in the States. As Brendan was helping Dad back out of our parking space his kids ran up to say hi - the same kids from the restaurant the night before! I'm serious when I say Milford is a teeny place! We backed out, said our goodbyes, and headed off down the road back toward Te Anau.
On the way back we stopped many times along the road to check out all the different sites. We stopped to take pictures of different rivers and streams as well as the mountain ranges. Looking at the pictures, it's hard to keep track of exactly what's what from the drive. We made it to Queenstown that afternoon and wandered around the city for a while. As we were walking past the infamous Fergburger, Dad stopped and pointed out a girl in the window. It was my flatmate Anna having dinner with her friend who was visiting. We went inside and heard all about their trip to Queenstown and their bungy experience! Sounded amazing!
We wandered around the city a bit more and then had fish n' chips for dinner, a New Zealand staple. Then we walked around to the shops before meeting up with Anna and her friend Amanda for a pint at the Irish pub near our hostel. After a few drinks Anna and Amanda went to another bar, Marla and Dad went to get some ice cream and I went back to the hostel to do some laundry.
Day 4, Monday 21 March
After a quick sleep at Absoloot Accommodation in Queenstown we packed up early and headed out for Franz Josef Glacier. Instead of taking the main highway up to Wanaka we drove the switchbacks through the Cardrona Area. We had to drive up one side of a steep mountain and then down the other. We had some incredible view of the sunrise over the mountains so we stopped along the way to take a few pictures. We passed countless sheep and cows along our way and even saw a few rams! It's not often that you see the rams but their horns look pretty cool so we took a mental note to get some pictures on the way back to Queenstown.
We drove through Wanaka and then up toward Lake Hawea. Lake Hawea was beautiful to drive along because there were mountains completely surrounding the lake. It's really unbelievable how many mountains there are when you're driving through New Zealand. The road cut across to Lake Wanaka and through the McKerrow Conservation Area. North of Lake Wanaka the road followed the Makarora River into Mount Aspiring National Park. Throughout the national park there were waterfalls and places to stop to take pictures. We stopped along a few falls including Fantail Falls and Thunder Creek Falls. The rode we were on curved west toward the ocean and we followed the Haast River as it carved out Haast Pass through the mountains. Along the river there were huge gravel flats that had been carved out from melting snow flowing through. In the spring when the snow melts it carries down huge amounts of rock from the mountains and deposits it along the riverbed. Then when there is less water flowing through, that rock remains along the sides of the rivers.
This road, along with many other roads in New Zealand, had hundreds (or at least what felt like hundreds) of one-lane bridges. They put signs up to indicate which direction has the right-of-way and then the other cars have to wait for their turn to cross. For the most part the road that we were on had few cars and it wasn't a problem. I was the most nervous when we came to a little tiny bridge and there would be a tour bus crossing right in front of us. The bridges were tiny and the busses so huge that it looked like they couldn't hold them!
While we were stopping at all the places along the Haast River we realized we were running a bit behind schedule and wouldn't be able to stop anymore along the way if we wanted to make it to Franz Josef in time for our glacier tour. We flew through the little town of Haast before turning north to drive along the coast. We passed by many different beaches and could see the Tasman Sea for much of the drive. The land became much more flat in this area and we passed by tons of bikers. It was a perfect day for a bike ride since it was sunny without any rain, something rare in that area of the country. The land near the ocean is much less green than the rest of the country. It was a stark contrast to the thick forests that cover the mountains and national parks we had just driven through.
We stopped along the way at a salmon farm where we had lunch. In the parking lot there was a disclaimer saying that the restaurant was not responsible for any damage done to cars by keas. It made me a little bit apprehensive to leave the car but hungry overtook my nerves. There were huge tanks of fish swimming around just below the restaurant deck. Some huge salmon and rainbow trout as well as some baby fish. I had a smoked salmon sandwich and it was pretty good! I figured I had to have salmon if we were going to eat at a salmon farm. =) When we went back to the car we saw that it was completely in tact. What a relief!
We continued on our way and made it to Franz Josef about an hour later. We checked into our hostel and then headed out to the guide station. There were 22 people on our tour and we had two guides to lead us. The tour company outfitted us with anything we didn't have including crampons, rain gear, warm clothes, and boots. We drove to the glacier view on a bright red school bus. It was about a 10-minute drive outside the small town of Franz Josef. We got to the car park and hiked for about 15 minutes to the bas of the glacier. The walk to the glacier was through the temperate rainforest and then out onto the rocks that the glacier drags down off the mountain. At the base of the glacier we split the group up. One group (our group) went with the guide from Switzerland. This group went first and went a bit quicker than the second group. Our guide, Julia, explained to us that she grew up in Switzerland and lived in the UK and France before coming to New Zealand on holiday. She loved it so much that she ended up staying and had been here for 5 years. Levi, a guy from Alaska who had been working in New Zealand for the past 8 months, guided the second group.
We hiked up a small hill covered in rocks to get to the base of the glacier. Our guides explained to us that in recent years the glacier had been receding. Glaciers go through a cycle of advancing and then receding and as recently as 2008 the glacier had previously been advancing. They pointed out a line on the mountain where the tree line started and told us that that line is where the glacier used to go up to. It has receded an impressive amount in just a few years. Scientists constantly study the movement of the glacier and the guides check everyday to make sure the paths are safe for tourists.
On the hill we stopped to put on our crampons and Julia explained how to use them. Next we walked a little further and then stepped out onto the ice. It was so easy to walk with the crampons! They dug right into the ice so we didn't slip at all. As we walked Julia led the way and smacked the path with her ice axe. This was to make sure that the path we were following was sturdy enough for us to walk across.
Franz Josef Glacier was discovered by the western world in 1865 by Julius von Haast. He named the glacier after his financier, Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria. The Maori word for the glacier is Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere which translates to "the tears of Hinehukatere". The glacier gets its name from a legend of its creation. The story explains that Hinehukatere was a woman who loved climbing in the mountains so she persuaded her lover, Wawe, to climb with her. Wawe wasn't as experienced at climbing as Hinehukatere but he was so in love with her that he agreed to climb with her. One day he was swept away by an avalanche and died. Hinehukatere was broken-hearted and cried many tears that froze to form the glacier.
Julia led us further up the glacier, through some small passageways and up to an area that was a little unstable. She secured some heavy wire into the ice for us to hold onto while we went through. We weren't allowed to stop on this ice because there was a greater chance of it collapsing beneath us. After this we walked out onto a large mass of flat ice. Every once in a while we could see small caves in the ice. Inside the caves the ice was a deep blue color because it had not been exposed to as much air and was colder than the ice on the surface. At one cave Julia secured a rope and let us crawl through from one side to the other. It was really wet inside the cave and we had to climb through on our hands and knees but it was fun to see the inside and excited to actually be inside the glacier!
After a few of us climbed through the cave and got our respective pictures we heading back to the flat area of the glacier to have a quick snack before heading down. While we were having our snack we took some pictures with Julia's pick axe and watched some other glacier guides practice their rescue techniques.
We headed down the glacier in a different direction than we came. This way we went through one huge crevasse in the glacier. It was very deep but got tight and we were pushed up against the ice from the front and from behind. We spent a little more time on the ice, taking pictures and walking around before heading back to the rocky trail we came up on. We got to the rocks, took off our crampons, and headed down to the flat valley that the glacier had carved out in previous years. It felt weird to walk with out the crampons. We had to focus on balance again and make sure we didn't slip on the rocks.
While we waited for the other group, Julia led us to the mouth of the glacier below. There is a huge river flowing out of the glacier. All the ice that melts as the glacier recedes back into the valley creates this river. The water is very cloudy because it carries down small bits of rock as it flows across the mountain surface. The rock is quite light so it doesn't float or sink but instead remains suspended in the water. Julia told us that you could tell if a river is flowing from the glacier because it will be grey from the rock dust, not clear like many people assume.
Next we met up with Levi's group and headed back to the bus and back to Franz Josef. After returning our crampons we went out to dinner and a restaurant in town. Dad decided to try the traditional New Zealand meal of bangers and mash. He said it was pretty good! While we were eating we saw Levi walking past the restaurant with his girlfriend. We caught up with him for a little bit and then headed back to the hostel.
That night we decided to go to see the glacier in the moonlight. It was supposed to be a full moon so we thought it would be a fantastic view since the sky was so clear. It took a long time for the moon to appear over the mountains but it eventually did... not before we spotted a possum, however. In New Zealand possums are huge pests. They were brought over by European settlers and since they have no natural predators they have become overpopulated and are a large threat to many of the native bird wildlife. These possums aren't like the North American opossum. In fact, ours are much more disgusting looking. These have brown fur all over and look a little bit like lemurs because they have huge eyes that bug out. When we saw the possum in the glacier lookout parking lot we shined the headlights at it and I stuck my head out and yelled at it. I assumed it would run away, like more wild animals would, but it just stopped and stared at me. After look into the headlights for a few minutes it began to wander off again into the weeds. I kept shouting to it so we could get a few pictures. After focusing on the possum for a while we noticed some more movement. We flicked on the light and there were two keas bouncing around the parking lot! They weren't afraid of the car lights either and they just stared at us as we tried to get some pictures. We weren't very successful with our cameras in the dark though.
That night we headed back to the hostel and passed out pretty quickly.
Day 5, Tuesday 22 March
Tuesday we headed out from Franz Josef early in the morning and went over to Fox Glacier. We just drove the little road up to the glacier lookout and got some quick views. These glaciers are two of three glaciers in the entire world that come down into a temperate rainforest. The other such glacier is in South America. It was cool to see Fox Glacier from the road because we were in there among the ferns and other green foliage checking out a huge mass of ice. We also saw a hot spring along the side of the road. In the early morning sunlight you could see the steam rising off the pool of warm water.
We headed out on the road back to Queenstown, this time taking as much time as we wanted to check things out. We stopped when we got to Maori Beach, just west of Jacob's River and looked out onto the Tasman Sea. On the beach there was a ton of driftwood and many perfectly white rocks that people had written their names and hometowns on. It was pretty cool to see that there had been so many people there from all over the world. We took a couple little white rocks with us as souvenirs.
A little further down the road we stopped at another little beach. Here we walked through the sand down to the beach and saw dolphins! There was a pod of about 8 or 10 dolphins swimming in really close to the shore. I sat and watched their dorsal fins as they swam back and forth across the beach for about 15 minutes. Unfortunately I left my camera in the car... figures! There was a smooth stream of water flowing into the ocean and it was full of smooth round rocks. We spent some time skipping rocks into the copper-colored water and then headed out on our way back toward Haast and Mount Aspiring National Park.
While we were driving through the park we stopped for a bathroom break and took some pictures of a quite stream trickling through the woods. Everywhere you turn there is more natural beauty here. It's unbelievable. As we were driving away from the rest stop, we looked across the street to an enormous snowcapped mountain with a green valley below it. It was stunning.
Our next stop was at the Blue Pools. We hiked into the forest for about 10 minutes and crossed a suspension bridge before getting to the pools. The water was a beautiful transparent turquoise color and the signs said there were Rainbow and Brown Trout that could be seen in the water, although we didn't spot any. The water in the pools was perfectly still and was connected to a small, clear river that moved a little more quickly through the mountains.
We kept driving through the park, past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, and through Wanaka. We took the small road through the mountains again and saw the rams (we got pictures this time!).
We stopped in the tiny town of Cardrona at the Cardrona Hotel for dinner. It was one of about three buildings along the road, including the ski resort, which was closed for the season. Here is how my dad described our dinner at the Cardrona Hotel: "As you walk in you see a large wooden bar. The wood floor is uneven and creeks. The bar tender greets you with "Cheers Mate". We ordered hard cider and a few snacks. We found seats around an old, heavy, wooded table near a huge stone fireplace with a crackling wood fire. The wood smoke was aromatic, rich and the air was warm. The room was dark. Dark wood molding and smoke stained walls absorbed most of the light from the few lamps and a single chandelier. Sunlight from the courtyard and flower garden cast beams through the smoky air. The walls were decorated with antique tools and farm items. At a table near us two couples were chatting about the days events. At another table in the adjacent room 5 older men were playing cards and enjoying their pints. I could have stayed there all night". It had a very intense 'small town' feel and seemed like everyone there knew everyone but us. It was a cool experience.
We headed back to our 'base' in Queenstown for our last night away. We spent the evening at a pub in town sipping pints and ciders while listening to a guitar player and his drummer friend playing different songs for passersby.
Day 6, Wednesday 23 March
Wednesday we headed out from Queenstown toward Dunedin. This time we were determined to find some wine and fresh fruit as we passed through the vineyards and orchards. We searched and searched for an open vineyard during our drive and drove up to a couple different houses but never ended up finding one.
We were a little bit luckier with the fruit. Just outside of Roxburgh we stopped at a small fruit stand and bought some peaches, plums, and apricot jelly. Of course we munched on these on the drive and then decided that they were so good we had to stop at another stand. We bought some more plums at this stand but they were a little different. We got some large purple plums, pretty standard, but we also bought some plums that were small, orange, and yellow. I think these were some of the most delicious plums I've ever eaten.
We stopped for lunch at the Kink in the Road Café in Milton. The main road through Milton has a kink right in the middle because back when they were laying the asphalt, two engineers worked from opposite sides of the town and decided to meet in the middle. Their measurements were off by about one entire road-width so they had to bend one section of the road so they could meet up.
That afternoon we took the side roads back to Dunedin and stopped along Tunnel Beach. We walked through a sheep paddock down to the sandstone cliffs of Tunnel Beach. There are many caves and cliffs that have been carved out by the ocean but the beach is also popular because in the 1870s John Cargill, a local politician, carved a tunnel through the rock down to the waterfront so his family could have private beach access. Now the area is open to the public and many people go there to see the sites.
That was our last stop before making it back into Dunedin. It was a great week full of many adventures and fun! On Thursday Marla and Dad explored Dunedin a bit more while I caught up on homework and classes. Friday they headed back to the states.