10 February 2014… Wheelin’ in New Zealand, Week 1
We hit the ground running. The morning after our arrival, our prospective van arrived at our hotel. We had done a virtual handshake deal online with some travelers that were finishing their trip just as we were about to begin ours. Provided the van was what they said it was, we were prepared to take it off their hands right away and start our adventure. It worked out well for them, too, since they didn’t have to spend valuable vacation time dealing with the sale of the van. And for a 20-year-old, it’s in the shape we expected. It needs a radiator flush and it goes about the speed of an old van of his age, but that’s to be expected. On the plus side, it comes completely kitted out: bedding, kitchenware, solar shower, inverter for charging electronics, a cooler, storage doodads, the works. Oh, and a fishing rod and mini-surfboard! So we did all the necessary paperwork, threw all our crap in the back and off we went.
Of course, the van needed a name for our epic adventure and we wanted it to smack of Kiwi. New Zealand is really marketing the Lord of the Rings theme (“Middle Earth Tourism”) as illustrated by our pre-flight safety briefing, for example. The narrator and flight attendants were elves while the passengers were a mix of elves, hobbits, orcs and wraiths. Even Peter Jackson and his real-life sons made cameo appearances. So we turned to the epic LOTR for inspiration and came up with Vandalf the Grey. Older, but sturdy and reliable (we’re hoping!); and maybe even a little bit magical. But we weren’t done yet. Every wizard needs a helper (read: every backpacker van needs a GPS!) and we are now the owners of our very first smarter-than-us phone. Yep, check your watches, people -hell has indeed frozen over! Pride aside, the Wizard’s Helper has been awesome for navigating in the cities. And, it’s an unlocked phone so in two months’ time we can dub it the Wizard of Oz!
But what of this tiger? Glad you asked! Travis and I went a-plundering the thrift shops looking for some extra pillows to prop ourselves on for pre-nighty-night reading. Enter: giant human-sized stuffed tiger. I couldn’t believe Travis was serious but we paid our $8 and it’s been money well spent, even before we made it back to the van. It spooked the guy in the grocery store, made café patrons chuckle and passersby grin. He’s been quite the conversation starter. An added perk is that we don’t have to worry about the security of the van. I mean, come on: Tiger. He sits in the driver’s seat while we sleep, peers out the back window while we’re driving and makes the occasional appearance on the roof when we’re parked for the night (“Honey, did you let the cat out?”). He also makes a really comfy snuggly pillow, but don’t tell anyone –he has his reputation to consider! He will probably be the best $8 we’ll spend on the whole trip and possibly increase the resale value of the van (if I can convince Travis that he’s too big for carry-on). Regardless, he’s already given us more than $8 worth of laughs so he’s been well worth it.
Our first week touring was spent on the north island exclusively and we had fun visiting old friends. While the Calico Jack Crew opted for Australia as a hidey-hole for cyclone season, we were in the minority as a much larger fleet of boats headed south to NZ instead. As a result, we have a lot of cruising friends that we’ll be reconnecting with on our travels here. Two of them are right in Auckland and they were super helpful in helping us get our feet under us. We also have a couple of old friends from our Cayman days living on the north island and it was great seeing them again. Jeremy and Dalila were great hosts and took us to all their local hotspots around Tairua. Whitianga is just up the road as is Hot Water Beach where you can dig your own dirty little spring-fed thermal pool at low tide! The beach was packed but Travis staked his claim on a little piece of it and dug himself a pool for one with our broken “lucky shovel” that was bequeathed to us (we’ll see how that shovel fares in gold-fossicking country!). Another interesting thing about this area: it’s full of bee hives! Jeremy’s profession is that of beekeeper and he’s had this great job at a prominent honey operation for a couple of years now. Bee society is interesting stuff and he filled us in on all the bee gossip. Local manuka honey is prized for its nutritional and healing properties and he sent us along with a jarful for our travels –it’s great in my morning tea!
There was some rain on our parade, however. We had pretty crummy weather for most of the week and it put a damper on our outdoor activities, needless to say. Conditions weren’t looking to improve so we decided to just keep driving south until we found sunshine and that’s what we set out to do. Unfortunately, our radiator started acting up sooner than we expected, giving us some graver concerns than the uncooperative weather! Poor old Vandalf was huffing and puffing up the hills and we had to pull over in some pretty tight areas to let him cool down. Also, the starter began to malfunction –a little unnerving in some of the remote places we’re camping! As luck would have it, we were rolling into a long weekend and there wasn’t a thing we could do to make Vandalf’s life easier. So we nursed him all the way into Wellington and found a garage that could look at him and hopefully make things right in time for us to make our appointment for the ferry. $400 later, the starter was fixed and the radiator flushed but the problem is probably not solved. We’ll have to run it further to see for sure, but it’s not looking good –the radiator needs pulling apart and given a proper cleaning. Ugh. But on a positive note, the starter works again, we made our ferry, and the trip across to the south island that we’d heard so many white-knuckled tales about was a breeze. “Conditions will be less than ideal in the Strait today,” said the announcer but as far as we were concerned, the dreaded Cook Strait was no big deal. Fingers crossed we’ll have the same luck on the way back up.
Now we sit in Picton and our south island adventure begins. We have sunshine and a van and a plan.
15 February 2014… Boats, Seals and Wine Country
We just can’t get away from boats, it seems.
Before leaving Picton, we visited the Edwin Fox Museum. Built in 1853, the Edwin Fox is the 9th oldest ship in the world and has a long resume: passenger ship, troop and supply ship in the Crimean War, trading ship, convict transport to Australia, transporter of immigrants to New Zealand, and much more. With the advent of refrigeration, they outfitted her to transport lamb. Then they cut holes in her and used her to transport coal. Needless to say, she’s a tired old girl but a group of enthusiasts purchased her for a shilling, towed her back from the grave and now she sits at dry-dock as a tourist attraction. The museum hosts a film about her adventures and a lot of memorabilia, plus you can actually go right inside the boat to check her out and walk outside around her poor battered keel. It’s an interesting piece of history.
And then it was time to get moving. Wine Country, baby! Marlborough’s excellent conditions make it one of the premier wine producers of the world and we weren’t about to miss out on a tour! Near Blenheim is a little community called Renwick where the wineries are so close together that you can tour them by bicycle, which is exactly what we did. We found a great little business that set us up with comfy two-wheelers, helmets, water bottles and even carriers so that we could tote our purchases back. They also offer a service where they’ll pick you up if you’ve “purchased too much”, ahem. Yeah. So Jo helped us plan our route based on the wines we wanted to try and off we went with our little map. Travis and I prefer red for the most part but this is white wine territory and they do a fantastic job of it. It was a great education and we managed 5 cellar doors and one stellar lunch before we called ‘er quits which was a good day out. We arrived back with three yummy bottles of white and smiles on our faces.
Departing Blenheim turned out to be a chore, but not for the reasons you think (hic!). We started south and Vandalf began overheating again. Since we were about to embark on hilly terrain we thought it best to head back to the “radiator specialist” we’d spotted on the way out of town and we were glad we did. He got us in first thing the following morning and had the whole thing apart, cleaned and back together again within 3 hours, all with a reasonable price tag (we got hosed at the last place!). It turns out Vandalf had quite the handicap –the radiator was only operating at about 10%, it was so dirty and clogged! Running like a champ again, we headed out of town once more only to turn around and head back to Blenheim to get the phone looked at! Yeesh! I think we may have gotten a lemon but there’s not a lot that can be done with our travel timeframe so it’ll have to be dealt with later. Onward!!
Our next stop was Kaikoura, a very special place for spotting marine mammals. Dolphins and New Zealand fur seals are all permanent residents here and whales and various other species migrate through the area making it a wonderland if you’re into fun sea critters. It is the only place in the world where you’ll find the hector’s dolphin (the smallest dolphin) and if you’re lucky, you’ll even spot a little blue penguin. The albatross, petrels and shearwaters also call this home.
You know you reaaallllly want to see seals to immerse yourself in the Pacific on the south island! “Trust the technology!” our guide told us as he schooled us on how “horrible” the first few seconds were going to feel, plunging into the icy ocean, before the fancy wetsuits started doing their work. Mother of Your Chosen Deity, it was cold!!! But totally worth it and speaking of your Deity, the clouds pretty much parted for us, too. Dogged by bad weather all week, it was the first day they had anything scheduled at all. It was cloudy in the morning, sunny with good visibility for the 2 hours we were out, then overcast again. We really lucked out as the seals were in attendance as well. After a night’s feeding, they sun themselves on the rocks until they get too hot, then they go for a swim to cool off. It’s in the water that they become confident and playful as they darted around and peered at us with their huge eyes. They got so close that they bumped into us and splashed us as they dove! Amazing creatures, they are, and we felt very lucky to see them.
Later we found a nice restaurant for appetizers and wine on Valentine’s Day but best of all –they had two roaring fireplaces to warm our tender Florida bones! We enjoyed the company of some fellow travelers, moved on to jam night at the local pub, and returned home warm and content. What a great week so far.
18 February 2014… Wood is Good
We knew that the Christchurch area had been struck by earthquakes a few years back but we had no idea how shocking the devastation was. The first quake was in September 2010, a 7.1 that originated 38 miles away and lasted for about 40 seconds. It caused considerable damage to buildings and infrastructure in the region but the residents considered themselves lucky as nobody was killed (which was due largely to the fact that the quake occurred in the middle of the night). Despite many aftershocks, they began to rebuild and recovery was underway.
In February 2011, the region was hit with a second quake. While it registered at a magnitude of only 6.3 this time, it originated from only 7km away and only 6km below the surface which is very shallow for a quake (the September 2010 quake was at a depth of 11km, which was also considered shallow). But it was also the type of quake it was that factors into the devastation it caused. While the first one caused more of a side-to-side motion of buildings and trees, the second quake was more like an explosion. To illustrate, let me cite the saddest story we heard, which was that of the Canterbury Television Building. Witnesses said that the building shot up off the ground, then landed. After shooting up a second time it didn’t land –it just kept going, dissolving into the ground. Miraculously, there were survivors who were on the 5th floor of the building but 115 others died. Altogether, 185 died in the quake and 11,500 were injured. It was 12:50pm, just towards the end of lunchtime and the downtown district was busy.
The second quake lasted only 23 seconds; experts say that if it had lasted only 10 seconds more, the downtown area would have been completely leveled. As it is, 70% of their buildings are lost, either destroyed in the actual quake or no longer safe and will need to be torn down. Among them are 220 of their heritage buildings which didn’t fare well as they’re almost all made of brick. “Wood is Good!” is the new mantra in Christchurch. Wood flexes and bends and those buildings fared much better.
It’s taking a long time to rebuild for many reasons. Firstly, they had two more smaller quakes in June and December of the same year and aftershocks for many months after that (at this point, many locals were fed up and moved away -who can blame them?). Then there’s the business of removing the debris -IF the building actually fell down. Other buildings look fine until someone points out the slight lean to them. These need to be demo’d carefully floor by floor –to use explosives would cause more earthquakes (they tried it once, and only once!). The progress of some buildings is held up in court as parties struggle over what to save and what to write off (the landmark Anglican Church, for example). Then there’s the issue of manpower and expense. Many people are still without homes because there aren’t enough construction companies to go around. And all of this at a $48 billion dollar price tag, the city can’t afford it all and it’s working hard to get foreign investors in.
The Orient Theatre. Thankfully, nobody was inside.
Despite ALL of this, the vibe in the city is pretty good and the people recognize that they have a unique opportunity to rebuild their entire downtown area to suit their needs. All health care facilities will be located in the same area, as will sporting arenas, arts buildings, etc. There will be a lot more green space downtown, a) because they can’t afford to redevelop it all, and b) some areas will never be fit to build on again as the soil remains too unstable. But most of this is still in the works and walking through parts of the city centre is like walking through an eerie ghost town as shops look like they should be open and they’re not.
But not all of it is spooky. The locals have come up with some pretty clever ways to get things up and running again and to just generally make the area more pleasant to be in. “Gap Fillers” is a program where they’ve set up random, temporary things in spaces that are as yet undeveloped. Some are art displays but others are interactive such as the popular Dance-O-Mat (hey, if it’s good enough for Prince Charles…!) or the Blue Pallet Pavilion where you can grab a drink or a bite to eat but they also have a stage and host regular events. You can check out the Gap Filler website here –it’s all pretty creative stuff.
Many business owners are thinking outside the box, too, and developed the Re:Start shopping centre: dolled up shipping containers house their shops as an interim measure. We went inside one for a coffee and the vibe was fantastic as the guy making my cappuccino gave me the biggest grin and beamed, “We’re back!!” Another strange temporary city feature is the cardboard cathedral! A Japanese architect who specializes in post-disaster design created this church to be used until the new one is built. It really is made of cardboard tubing but has been treated to be fire and water resistant and is expected to last 40 years or so. While it acts primarily as a replacement for the Anglican Cathedral, it is also being used as a public space for concerts and other events.
It’s unfortunate that a trip to Christchurch these days centers almost exclusively around the devastation of the quakes but it can be no other way, really. Even now it affects their daily lives in one way or another but it’s great to see how they seem to be in good spirits and rebuilding is underway.
The Banks Peninsula is a large knob of land that protrudes out from the Christchurch area. It was formed by two volcanic eruptions and the various bays and inlets give it a shape like that of a cog wheel. It makes for some pretty dramatic scenery and Summit Road took us along a crater’s rim at great elevation on a twisty, hair-raising ride, stopping when we safely could for photos of the picturesque bays carved into the rock below. Also interesting is its history. In 1838, a French whaling captain negotiated the purchase of the land from the local indigenous Maoris. He went back to France and returned two years later with settlers intending to make the area home. However, unbeknownst to them, the British had signed the nationwide Treaty of Waitangi with the Maoris in their absence and so days before their arrival, panicked British officials sent out their warship to raise their flag and claim ownership. Had the French arrived just a little sooner, New Zealand might be a very different place right now (and Australia too, as the French just barely missed out there, as well). In any case, the settlers stayed and the town of Akaroa strives to maintain a French influence. It is a quaint little town and we strolled around its parks for the afternoon, checking out the history at the local sites.
On the way out, we stopped in at Barry’s Cheese in hopes of seeing a live demo of their operation. However, they only make cheese every two days, and wouldn’t you know it wasn’t THAT day. Still, we stocked up on some quality dairy for the road.
23 February 2014… Going Alpine
After the big city, we headed for inland adventure. Our first stop was at Rakaia Gorge for a day hike and it was beautiful. Our huffing and puffing was rewarded with stunning views of the rugged gorge and the blue river running through it, all with a backdrop of the mountain ranges we were about to visit. We were off to a great start!
We ambled over gravel roads to Lake Clearwater for the night. The campground certainly was not the idyllic secluded area we were led to believe it was but it was close to our destination for the next day: Mount Sunday. The trip out there was purported to be beautiful in its own right, but the icing on the cake is that Mount Sunday was used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings –as the Rohan city of Edoras. They built the village, including Golden Hall, right on top of it and apparently some of the concrete still remains from the set. Nearby is the gap in the mountains where Helm’s Deep was CGI’d in. Now, we’re not chasing around every LOTR location like true geeks, but it was close by and a tourist destination in its own right, even pre-megamovie. Unfortunately, we awoke to a rainy, glum day but we decided to make the trip anyway, at least to get a photo (hiking was out). And despite its size, Mount Sunday is rather unique looking. It’s what’s called a “roche moutonnee” which means that it’s an island of rock left behind when glaciers swept the valley during the last ice age. This makes it only a 100m/328ft high, lonely bump on the vast valley floor but set against a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains alongside the mighty Rangitata River, we decided that it had been a worthwhile trip despite the rain. If you think about it, Middle Earth wasn’t sunny until all the baddies were vanquished so it seemed appropriate.
Running away from rainclouds again, we headed a little further south to the Peel Forest. Even in the rain, a forest is a forest, right? Well, that’s only partly true in this case. This one is pretty special as it is among the country’s most important indigenous conifer forests. It’s full of beautiful hikes but its showpiece is a totara tree that’s 31m/102ft tall and it was only a short hike to find it. It would have taken several of us to hug it all the way around its trunk –it’s 8.4m/27.5ft around!- but of course we had to try anyway. It’s humbling to share company with a living being that’s 1000 years old (plants & trees are people, too!). New Zealand is taking great care to protect its forests and good on ‘em, as they have only about one quarter the trees that they used to, amazingly enough. Thanks to we humans, of course.
From there we headed straight west into the mountains. First stop: Lake Tekapo, which is famous for its beautiful blue lake and it didn’t disappoint. For you Canadians, think somewhere between the colours of Lakes Moraine and Louise (and just as cold!). We checked into our camping spot and headed straight to the hotsprings for a good soak! Three separate pools at three different temperatures in the beautiful mountain setting overlooking the lake, the sore muscles from the week’s earlier rigorous hike were melted away.
Thanks to its remoteness and clear skies above, the Lake Tekapo area has been awarded the status of Gold-tier International Dark Sky Reserve and as such is a primo place for stargazing (second-best in the world, I’m told). One local operation has long had the market cornered on this business and charges a fortune to gather with the rest of the sheep and take turns staring through one telescope. While I’m sure that’s good enough for some people, we did a little more research and found someone who gave us a lot more bang for our buck. His name is Fraser Gunn and he offers a more personal, customized experience. And get this: he specializes in astrophotography! Basically pay for his time, his telescope and his camera if you’re interested in the photography aspect. HELLO! Sign us up!! After a couple days’ waiting (and a bit of backtracking) (and a lot of nailbiting!) we had perfect conditions for peering at the stars and planets and nebulas and galaxies and, and, and. He even taught me how to use my own camera to capture photos of the night sky. While I would need to stock up on some more/better technology to truly pursue this hobby (better camera, better editor, a telescope… and oh yeah: a home that doesn’t move!) it was a fun introduction. We took some pix with his gear and he sent us off with both prints and digital copies.
The quaint Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo
A little deeper into the Southern Alps and we come to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, part of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area. Aoraki Mount Cook itself is Australasia’s highest peak at 3755m/12319ft but the park boasts 22 other mountains over 3000m/9842ft; naturally the focus of this area has always been climbing, and the adventurous from the world over have come to step up to the challenge. Aoraki Mount Cook was first summited in 1884.
Did you know that Sir Edmund Hillary was a Kiwi? Neither did we, and Aoraki Mount Cook was his training ground before tackling Everest. In fact, he said that the two mountains have a lot of similar challenges –with the obvious exception of size. The local museum and planetarium bears Sir Edmund’s name and we spent the rainy periods watching short films about the stars & the universe as well as longer feature films about primeval NZ, Sir Edmund’s life & accomplishments and a sobering film called “Mountain Rescuers” which really brought into focus how dangerous this area is for climbers, calling it “one of the most dangerous alpine undertakings in the world”. More than a third of Aoraki Mount Cook is covered in a blanket of permanent snow and glacial ice and conditions can change in a heartbeat. A volunteer rescue crew stands by to assist the injured and stranded and while the staff is highly trained, their rescue stories don’t always have happy endings. Some people are just nuts (says the chick sailing vast expanses of water on a 35ft sailboat).
Our mountaineering endeavours were more modest but we packed for sudden changes of weather nonetheless when we headed off on our hikes. There are some great tracks here, our favourite of which was the Hooker Valley Trail. Ninety minutes through the valley afforded us stunning views of Aoraki Mount Cook on a picture-perfect day. Reaching its base, we arrived upon Hooker Lake, fed by a glacier of the same name. We visited two glaciers here and they’re not the picturesque, pristine white sheets you’d be expecting. While they’re an impressive sweep of ice, they have been melting from the top down in recent decades so they’re littered with remnant dirt and rock making them look ugly. Nonetheless, fun icebergs big and small bobbed around on the lake and what does one do with all that available ice? We claimed a clean chunk before heading back to the campsite, that’s what. It was a speedier return trip and Travis’ shoe was full of runoff by the time we made it back but it was a great payoff for cocktail hour.
He does a lot of really cool stuff with a telescope and a camera like star trails and timelapse animation.
And if you’re ever in the area, I would highly, highly recommend this activity. I know it will be one of the highlights of our trip.
Photo by Fraser Gunn
The camping in this area was interesting. For being such a touristy area, we were surprised by the lack of commodities (food, fuel, ice) and what few there were, were pricey indeed. The only campground right in town was government-run so not that expensive but it was really just a glorified parking lot. The disparity among campers became quite obvious in the meagre conditions. The winds picked up to a forecasted 80km/49miles per hour knocking down tents -I sure wouldn’t have pitched one under those trees! Then the rain came. We felt bad for those guys. On the other end of the spectrum are the self-contained campervans that have seating for relaxing, probably heating, and I’m sure they didn’t have to settle for chips & salsa for dinner, either! In our middle-of-the-road accommodations, Vandalf was buffeted around all night and when we woke up in the morning we could see our breath INSIDE the van!! Usually our body heat is enough to keep the small space warm but that wasn’t the case this time. Stepping outside, we looked up to a mountain that was much whiter than it had been the day before. Snow!! Novel, but it was time to get outta there!
Tiger continues to entertain. We had kids taking photos with him this week. I also had a woman cautiously approach me streetside, curious, while Travis was in a nearby shop. After we had spoken for a few minutes, she confessed that she had thought I was either very clever, or very nuts. Either way, nobody was likely to approach a single woman traveler with a stuffed tiger in her van! Yup, best security system ever.
‘Berg & Tonic and the ever-popular Hooker & Coke. Quite the treat when ice is scarce!