It’s been quiet for a while here, so let me start by saying hello to everyone… again! I missed blogging but man, it really is hard to get back on the wagon once you stop. I am applying for grad school and finally went on a longish trip (which is what this post is about) here in New Zealand, so sorry for my absence.
So, from April 8th – 25th, I went around both the North and the South Islands of New Zealand with Sid and Sarah. Lots of laughs ensued. I did manage to hit up 2 out of the 3 UNESCO sites in the country (the 3rd is, unfortunately, an almost inaccessible cluster of sub-Antarctic islands). For now though, I just wanted to take you guys on a short (okay, long-winded) overview what we did day by day. Let’s get this started…
April 8th (Day 0)
Preparation day! Sid and I did some shopping for groceries and bought camping pans in anticipation of a canoe trip known as The Whanganui Journey, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. We even invested on some solid hiking gear at Kathmandu (the clothing store, not the capital of Nepal which could still use your help!). We both got some pants, and Sid even got her first backpacking backpack. Not gonna lie, I am pretty jealous of that teal, 32L beauty. Back home, we planned out our meals (I was pretty Nazi about it, much to Sid’s chagrin) for the camping portion. It looked like we were all set to go!
April 9th (Day 1)
Being back in a society where travel means driving, I realized that I get really grumpy if I drive too long. Because of this, the Journey was scheduled to start on the 10th, and today, all we had to do was get to the starting point in Taumarunui. Upon arriving, we knew it wasn’t looking good. It was raining cats, and possibly even dogs. We were not allowed to camp as scheduled and instead, were offered bunk beds that were installed in a shipping container. That is definitely one of the weirdest places I’ve ever slept. We also met a pretty cool French couple who shared the container with us.
April 10th (Day 2)
Waking up to pouring rain isn’t a good indicator of smooth canoe trip. The trip was cancelled, but from what we heard, it was worse for those already on the journey as they were stranded with dwindling food supplies. We we bummed out, but decided to make the most of it by backtracking to Otorohanga to see the “Kiwi House.” Being nocturnal, kiwis very rarely spotted in the wild by novices like us, so this would be our chance. While nice, at $24 (18 USD) a person, it is pretty expensive for something you finish in about an hour. We wrapped up the day by heading to National Park Village, on the edge of Tongariro National Park (UNESCO Site #67 for me) and playing a round of miniature golf.
April 11th (Day 3)
We woke up early and headed for the trail-head of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the most pristine hiking tracks in New Zealand. The trail wraps around Mt. Ngaruhoe (which has the setting of Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings) and covers a pretty spectacular terrain. Unfortunately, this is a one-way trail so if you bring a car, you need to arrange transportation back to your vehicle. To save money, we decided as many do to just do half the crossing and head back. While we didn’t get to see the famous emerald pools, we got some great views most of the way. We headed to Taupo next.
April 12th (Day 4)
Taupo was one of the few places I knew about historically before ever coming to NZ. The Hatepe Eruption around 230 CE was so powerful that it was recorded by the Romans and the Chinese (on the other side of the planet) to have turned their skies a hazy red.
The modern town of Taupo was nice enough, but really caters mostly to adrenaline junkies with bungy jumps, rafting and sky diving, none of which are cheap. One free activity we visited was the Spa Thermal Park, a natural hot spring. I wish I got a picture of the dog chilling in the spa, because that was pretty amazing. We also got a glimpse of the Huka Falls, a beautifully bright teal waterfall most recently used in the filming of the second Hobbit movie.
April 13th (Day 5)
We were fooled into thinking that the rain would break for a while, so we visited an outdoor thermal park called Craters of the Moon. It was only $8, which wasn’t too bad, but locals note that years ago, there were many mudpools which have since disappeared. It is a shame it rained as I was often too scared to risk my camera for a picture. I love photography, but this ish is expensive!
After that, we decided to go back to see the Huka Falls. I’ve seen a million waterfalls in my time, but none as bright blue as this one right here. It seriously looked like a melting glacier, and going around NZ, you will continuously be impressed at how seriously the country takes conservation.
April 14th (Day 6)
This was supposed to be the day we kayaked around the Waikato River (pictured above on ‘Day 4’) and maybe even see some of those famous Maori carvings. Unfortunately, I have a spine/neck issue that flares up every now and again, leaving me in agonizing pain, and it chose THIS moment to pay me a visit. I almost cried as I drove back to Auckland, mostly from pain, but partly from missing this opportunity. You can’t win them all though, and the important part is to have a positive attitude. Usually, this problem lasts a week, or a few days at least, but I was feeling much better by the end of the day.
April 15th (Day 7)
After waking up around 4am, we headed to the airport to pick up Sarah who was flying in at 5. From there, we boarded our flight to Christchurch at around 10, and by noon, we had our first solid South Island meal (fish and chips of course). Christchurch itself was dead quiet, and the warnings people gave me saying “they are still recovering from the big earthquake” were no joke. The Cathedral and most of that square you often see in pictures still lie in ruins. We decided to use the day to load up on food, walk around town, and catch up. Tomorrow was a big day.
April 16th (Day 8)
Since we started planning our trip, I had been looking forward to this moment. No, scratch that. Since choosing to come to New Zealand, I was waiting for this. I imposed my will and scheduled a visit to Tekapo Lake without consulting my other two travel buddies. I knew they would love it, but I just didn’t know how to explain why visiting the world’s largest Dark Sky Reserve was important. Why rolling the dice on ‘just a chance’ was worth it. This is a place where the use of light is extremely limited for the purpose of providing fantastic stargazing. But, it was still daytime, the big moment would have to wait.
In the afternoon, we rented kayaks and paddled around the lake itself. It was amazingly clean and the peacefulness made me wish I visited sooner. I checked the forecast and booked a tour atop Mt. John with Earth and Sky (only one company, no point shopping around). This mountain is home to one of the most important space research sites in the southern hemisphere. Because of this, no one is allowed up there without a tour at night to prevent anyone from affecting the scientists’ work. $95 was steep, but worth it.
Not only could we see the Milky Way clearly, you could also spot the Magellanic Clouds, our two neighboring galaxies. You could also see a number of satellites with the naked eye, and we even used the big telescopes to see Jupiter, some nebulae… dammit get to the point AURORA BOREALIS!
Actually, the southern lights are known as Aurora Australis and can be seen in parts of Australia, New Zealand, South America, and of course, Antarctica. This was what I was waiting for. Truth be told, we only got a very very small glimpse (white pillars in the horizon), but I think we were lucky to see anything at all. It was amazing and I only hope to see the full display someday before I die. This alone made the trip worth while.
April 17th (Day 9)
By some minor miracle, the weather cleared up, and Sid convinced everyone NOT to skip Mt. Cook, which wasn’t originally on our itinerary. The small village on the foot of the southern alps was tiny but very charming, just like our YHA hostel which looked like a cabin.
The drive towards the mountain was spectacular as for the first time in my life, I saw some real glaciers. After checking in, we went straight to the Hooker Valley Trail and despite the rain (damn Lorenz), was even more amazing than the Alpine Crossing. The end of the trail was particularly wet, but we did see some glaciers just floating on the lake. You better believe I drank one and risking my semi-new camera, I even decided to take some pics in the rain by hiding under a large rock. It was as ridiculous as it sounds.
April 18th (Day 10)
The next morning, we decided to do the much shorter Tasman Glacier Trail. It was still pretty cool, but an incredibly loud Chinese tour group were hell bent on making it uncomfortable for everyone. The trail was worth it though.
After this, we hit the road once more, this time to Oamaru for a chance to see some wild penguins. We were told that we had two options. Either pay $28 to see a colony of fairy penguins at night, or go 30 mins outside of town for a chance to see the yellow eyed penguins, the rarest in the world. None of us are fans of unnecessary tours, so we rolled the dice and got lucky! In total, around 5 penguins showed up.
We did attempt to see the fairy penguins on a famous penguin crossing street, but I guess we were too early. Everyone else got all hungry and rowdy so we had dinner and called it a night.
April 19th (Day 11)
Oamaru turned out to be incredibly charming in the daytime too! The old town had some remarkable little shops, including one run by a travel book collector. He was so kind and it was a shame we didn’t stay longer because he invited us to a free screening the following day.
We must have had two breakfasts and two lunches because there were just too many yummy things to eat. Sarah got her whiskey tasting going too. By the afternoon though, everything was closing down so we headed to Queenstown.
April 20th (Day 12)
As my weather app correctly predicted (this time), it poured all day, so we took a day off. Sarah had never seen ‘Up’ so that was our movie the the day. I am pretty sure I cried again, but seriously, what kind of heartless monster doesn’t?
We finished up the day by going to the ‘Ice Bar.’ While it was cool, I expected it to be an actual bar where people come and go. Only those on the current time slot are allowed in and while there are quite a few sculptures, the bar itself is tiny and clearly made just for tourism. The cups are made out of ice though and the bartender had a heavy hand, so I guess you get your money’s worth.
April 21st (Day 13)
We drove the four and a half hours into Milford Sound and it was hard to keep my jaw shut. Abso-freeken-lutely stunning. After the tunnel, on the last 20 minutes driving, you are greeted with dozens of waterfalls that make the place seem so surreal. What could top that right? Perhaps the HUNDREDS of waterfalls on the fjord itself (Mildford ‘Sound’ is actually a fjord).
While I haven’t had time to analyze it yet in a more objective manner, I think this UNESCO Site (#68) beats out Angkor as simply the best. For the first time ever, I put the camera down at times because I didn’t want my eyes to miss anything. If you’ve ever seen National Geographic and wondered if it is ever actually THAT good. It is, in Fjordland, New Zealand.
April 22nd (Day 14)
We stayed the previous night in Te Anau as Sarah was scheduled to see the nearby glow worm caves. Since Sid and I went to Waitomo a few months ago, we skipped it and instead went on a hike to the beginning of the Kepler Track. We never made it, but did make some new bird friends. On the way was a free bird park which even had two resident Takahe, one of the rarest birds in the world. Think of it like a fat pukeko that can’t fly.
After this, we checked out Arrowtown. While the fall colors were stunning, the town itself seems to be entirely built (or preserved in this case) for tourism. It was still somewhat charming, but nowhere near as cool as Oamaru. We did stay for dinner and unfortunately, it was terrible. Sarah didn’t pass up the opportunity to get some more whiskey though.
April 23rd (Day 15)
I woke up everyone bright and early and we were at the foot of the Routeburn trail before noon. The Routeburn is another one of the nine Great Walks, and I hyped this track up so much that if it didn’t deliver, I was going to be in trouble. Suspension bridges, incredible lookouts, and water so clear you can see the ground is unmatched in any hike I’ve ever done. You guessed it, it one upped Hooker Valley and the Alpine Crossing!
We made it to our hut pretty early and enjoyed one of the most spectacular views ever. All I kept thinking was: “This is just ONE hut on ONE of New Zealand’s Great Walks…and they have NINE of them.” At night, the warden gave us a pep talk and had a contest of who could distinguish the most foreign languages. No one team could do it on their own, but given how most people were European, we combined our knowledge of Asian squiggly lines and won the prize, A BRAND NEW CA…chocolate.
April 24th (Day 16)
Initially, I was going to head up to the halfway point of the track on my own before heading back as I didn’t think the girls would be interested, but they insisted on joining. I got everyone up at 5 and we were ready to go only to realize that sunrise is sometime around 730.
We made it to the Harris Saddle, chilled a bit and headed back. The entire day had about 8 hours of hiking, and by the end, we were drenched in sweat. Luckily for me, I had Temeare who definitely had my back on that regard. I think we had Mexican that night, so I took it as a sign that everyone thanked me for picking this fantastic hike. You’re welcome guys. Sarah had some more whiskey.
April 25th (Day 17)
On our last day, we decided to just walk around Queenstown. Our flight was around 4pm, so we had plenty of time to kill. The Ferg Bakery lived up to the hype and had the best meat pies ever. We flew back and said our goodbyes as Sarah boarded her long flight back to The City and Sid and I took a cab home. I’ll admit that I wasn’t a true believer in New Zealand. Rotorua softened my hardened heart, but the South Island made me fall in love with travel all over again.