New Zealand (South Island) - November 2007 Megamail

We left off in Part 1 approaching the Marlborough Sounds of the South Island of New Zealand. The Marlborough Sounds were definitely an area that we wanted to check out, but it just was never convenient to do so. This is because it is comprised of very long and knarly fingers of land sticking out into the sea. This makes getting anywhere a very slow process. If we had an extra day, we probably would have taken it here. As I stated in Part 1, they have a lot of seakayaking in the area, but they also have a lot of hiking and bike riding as well.

We decided to load up on some groceries in the bustling metropolis of Picton before continuing our journey. Actually, I am mocking because Picton, although bustling, certainly couldn't be confused with a metropolis. Blink and you'll miss it.

Our route to Westport first took us south to Blenheim, which did look a little more happening, and then straight west through the numerous vineyards of Marlborough. If you like Sauvingon Blanc, then you are probably aware that a lot of it comes from New Zealand, and in particular, from Marlborough.

We passed by dozens of vineyards, all were very contemporary looking. One could spend two weeks just in Marlborough doing wine tasting and just barely scratch the surface I would think. One nice feature a lot of the vineyards employed were to plant a rose bush at the end of each row of vines. It made the drive much more enjoyable.

But this part of the drive, although very easy, gets tiresome fast because it looks the same for a couple of hours. Not until you reach St. Arnaud and Nelson Lakes National Park do things get interesting. And in fact they get very interesting and make you wish for the straight as an arrow highway you were on before.

Nelson Lakes NP is a good place to stop and take a break. It is right off the main road and provides some amazing views of Lake Rotoiti and the hills and mountains that hem it in. And what was truly amazing was how late we were there and how much light there still was. Thank goodness for those long Kiwi days!

If you ever find yourself on this road heading west, you should note that not long after S. Arnaud you cross a bridge. Take a good look because you'll be following that river the rest of the way until you hit the ocean! Yes, the road gets very curvy here on out, particularly when you reach Buller Gorge.

I'm still undecided if was good or bad that it was dark out when were driving through there. I'm sure if we saw exactly how precarious the road sits along the gorge, we would have been extremely nervous.

Actually, let's back up a little bit. Before we arrived to the gorge, and while we still had light, we passed through an area that was in full bloom with some plant that had yellow flowers. They reminded me of forsythias and they were all over the river valley for as far as the eye could see. Breathtaking!

Anyway, transportation day ended with our arrival to the Seal Colony Holiday Park. This place probably rated as one of the lower holiday parks we stayed at, but it was very convenient to visit the Seal Colony (hence its name) which we would be visiting next on...

Underwater Rafting Day

Despite a long day the day before, we had another long day ahead of us today. It started out by confirming that we could do the underwater rafting trip. Once that was done we headed west to Cape Foulwind. There is a trail that is along the top of the bluffs that goes from the Cape Foulwind lighthouse to a seal colony.

Naturally, most people park near the seal colony, as did we, and there was even a mobile refreshments booth at hand when we arrived, which Sam obtained some much needed coffee.

The seal colony is just a couple minutes walk from the parking lot and provides two viewing platforms to which to view them. When you first arrive you are disappointed, but after looking for a couple of minutes, you start to see the seals. They are very well camouflaged against the rocks so you need to look for something seal shaped and sluggishly moving.

There were probably a dozen or so seals of all shapes and sizes getting a tan when we were there. A few were also swimming near by. As you are on the bluff overlooking the rocks down below, there is no way to get closer to the seals than the platform... which is a good thing. But be sure to bring your powerful zoom lens or binoculars with you.

As it was a gorgeous day, we decided to do the entire walk. This provides amazing views of the ocean and rocky shoreline. At some point you see a peninsula that looks like it had it's bluff shaved off and indeed, you find out that it was shaved off at the beginning of the 20th century when a quarry operated there.

Now, that peninsula as it turns out, provides an opportunity to get close to the water and possibly some seals. Having seen a trail switchbacking its way down to this outlet, we followed the path and made our way down. We saw a rough dirt road, which makes sense as it once was a quarry, and felt it would make a nice destination for a picnic lunch if one had a 4x4.

As we were heading back up the bluff we happened to see a seal swimming just offshore and floating in and around the rocks with the waves. I got much closer in order to take a movie. Keep in mind, that I could have walked all the way to the water, but opted to give the tubby guy some breathing room.

Well, what do you know, but just when I thought he was about to swim off, he up and jumped onto the rocks. And then started to move closer to me! Not wanting to surprise the guy I made plenty of noise to alert him to my presence. He wasn't bothered and even started to some Top Model poses for me. Very awesome experience.

We saw a couple more seals lounging on the rocks before we headed back up. So remember, at Cape Foulwind, the best seal action is actually NOT at the designated seal colony!

As we had plenty of time before our afternoon blackwater rafting experience, more on that later, we opted to head into Westport and see what the bustling city had to offer. Boy, let me tell you, these west coast cities aren't that large. In fact, Picton wasn't all that large either. Until we went to Queenstown, pretty much all of the cities are small. The East Coast cities, on the other hand, are all pretty sizable and offer significant cultural opportunities.

Anyway, we grabbed a bite to eat at some hole-in-the-wall joint. We both got some variety of pasty... they have these all over the country. Pretty standard fare. I got one with lamb that wasn't that good.

Our next stop was the underwater rafting in Charleston, about half an hour south of Westport. It was easy to find and after filling out some waivers, we got ourselves our wetsuits and other blackwater rafting gear.

Oh, so what is blackwater rafting you ask? Basically, it is just tubing, but underground in a cave. Sounds cool, doesn't it? That is why we couldn't pass up the opportunity to do it. The more popular destination for this is in Waitomo on the North Island, but that was kind of out of the way so we decided to do it here instead.

The gear consists of a thick two piece wet suit, with booties, life jacket and lighted helmet, a must have! Not just the light, but the helmet because if you are tall, you will probably hit your head at least once.

Then it was a short van ride down to what is called Festival Park, located in PNP. This is a sort of natural limestone bluff amphitheater and was used for that purpose in the 80's and 90's when they had a sort of annual Woodstock musical festival. Basically several thousand people camping out and grooving to some tunes and probably doing illicit activities. Sounds like my kind of party!

Not surprisingly, they smoked all their profits away. But I imagine that in about another 15 years, they'll try to bring it back.

A surprise awaited us in Festival Park. No, not a long lost hippy, but a train! Not a big locomotive, something more along the lines of what you see at a small amusement park. But it was kind of cool to ride the train up the river valley taking in the incredible limestone cliffs along the way.

We then donned our wetsuits, picked up our inner tubes and began a short hike to the cave entrance. This was the worst part because it was warm and sunny out that day and here we are in ultra thick wet suits. Ug! To wrap up the hike however, you climb something like one hundred steps to reach the cave entrance. Talk about sweat!

Then began our cave exploration. This was pretty much a guided tour to various features of the cave and how they are made and yada, yada, yada. Having been in caves before, this was old news to me so I didn't find those details that interesting, but the history of how this particular cave was discovered and explored I did find interesting.

Apparently, the original explorer brought his dog with him in the event that if he got stuck or injured he could send the dog to get help. Now, unless the dog is named Benji or Lassie, we all know the dog would probably have just sat their and stayed with the guy until the bitter end, but the sentiment was nice. But this little side story was necessary because it really brings it home when you see dog tracks in the cave and you know that they've been there for fifty or so years.

The caving portion of this excursion was not too strenuous and did not involve any tight fits (we were carrying inner tubes after all), but did require you to bend over several times as you moved through a low passage.

Along the way you get some other humorous anecdotes and a thorough understanding of the glow worm. Glow worms are insects which are kind of like lightening bugs in that they emit light. But the glow worms do it to attract food as they are kind of like spiders and lay a web to trap their pray.

Eventually you make it down to the put in point and start floating down the underground river. You are all interlocked with the other travelers so you are one big centipede floating down this stream. The guide then asks everybody to turn off their lights and viola, you are instantly amazed by the beauty of thousands upon thousands of glow worms. It is literally like looking up at the clearest night sky you have ever seen. Just brilliant!

I was a bit disappointed in the duration of the underground rafting portion of the trip. Or should I say, it was not as long as I was expecting. I thought we would be floating down there for a couple hours, but it isn't that far at all. But to be fair, I don't think any of the other underwater rafting experiences around New Zealand would be any different.

After we emerged from the cave, we continued floating downstream back to our changing area, and then back to the train, and the van, etc.

During the entire trip they took dozens of photos and sent you on your way with a commemorative photo thingy kind of like you get at Busch Gardens on the rollercoasters. But better yet, if you go to their web site, you can download the originals once you get home. That is simply awesome.

In the end, as I indicated, I would have liked to have more 'bottom time'; however I would still recommend the activity just because it is so unique.

Having no time to waste as the sun was setting fast, we headed about another half an hour drive further south to what is called Pancake Rocks. This is another limestone formation that has been eroded by ocean waves and has resulted some rather impressive blow holes.

Of course, the seemingly simple task of a half an hour drive proved difficult, not only because I was driving, but because the coast is simply breathtaking. If we weren't in such a rush to beat the sunset, we probably would have stopped even more and taken it all in. But we wanted *some* light when we were at the Pancakes.

The parking for this attraction is literally right off the highway. It seemed a little dangerous and I imagine it can be pretty hectic when it is crowded. As it was, there weren't too many people around, which made for enjoying the area all the better.

Because the sun was so low, not a lot of our photos do the Pancake rocks justice. And in fact, I would recommend you visit them in the morning in order to get optimal lighting for photographs. The trail to see the formations is a loop trail from the parking lot, however, I would suggest once reaching the last of the platforms, reverse directions and take in the view in reverse order. Who knows, you might see something you didn't see the first time.

The rest of the day was driving to Franz Josef in Westland National Park for...

Glacier Day

But before we get onto these diminishing diamonds of ice, let's talk about our holiday park, ambitiously named the Franz Josef Holiday Park. We arrived fairly late and were greeted with a fairly full campground. We kept driving and driving and driving and finally found a spot. Upon waking the next day we realized there were several other spots, but that didn't stop us for worrying the night before. Anyway, my point is that you might need to call ahead for this one in the busy season.

The facilities here all looked fairly recently renovated, yet somehow even this place somehow didn't get the memo about providing some sort of barrier to prevent all the water in the shower from spilling into the changing area. Boy, that drove me nuts the entire trip. Few holiday parks got that point right. A cheap curtain would do wonders.

Upon our departure we realized our camper was leaking some pretty serious oil. Or at least it looked serious to us. Though we constantly measuring the oil after that day, it never really looked like it was getting any lower. Hmmm.

Our first stop was, tada, Franz Josef Glacier. As you approach the parking lot, you pass a sign that says, 'In 1750, the glacier was here' Then, after several kilometers you reach the parking lot. A couple more kilometers, and you reach the glacier face. Talk about seeing global warming in action!

You can almost walk up and touch the face of the glacier if it weren't for tour guides steering you clear. I think this is done for two reasons: 1) they are giving guides to people to actually walk on the glacier so some shmuck doing it for free would tarnish their business and 2) giving all the loose boulders sitting on top of the glacier, they probably do have a legitimate worry for your safety.

I'm not sure how much those guided tours cost because we didn't do one, and as far as I could tell, you could only do them on Franz Josef Glacier, but it looks like it would be pretty cool. They've carved steps into the ice and everything and we saw hikers pretty far up there so I'd look into it.

My first impressions were of awe. I mean, even in their diminished states, glaciers are impressively sized creatures. My next thought was, boy, are these things nasty looking. They are not the pristine white things you imagine, but they are full of dirt and rock and look like old melting snow in the spring time. Yuck. Finally, my thought turned to, man, that is a hell of a lot of snow and ice to melt in 250 years. That's a shame. Meanwhile, I secretly imagine if the fiction in The Day After Tomorrow could just be a little closer to fact then another ice age would probably yield some excellent skiing opportunities. Hmmm.

I imagine the glacier would have appeared more breathtaking if we actually had decent weather. As it was, although it wasn't raining, it was permanently overcast the entire day and the clouds hung low and blocked any and all views of the mountains off in the distance.

This weather made our next stop to Lake Matheson the disappointment that it was. This lake is supposed to proved breathtaking reflected views of the Mount Cook and the other mountains. On crappy days you get not so breathtaking views of gray ominmous clouds. Still, the trip to Lake Metheson wasn't a total loss.

After our hike around the lake, we needed some liquid courage to carry on. Sam got a hot chocolate while I got a beer. Though, after seeing her hot chocolate, I was seriously jealous. If you've seen the Simpsons movie, do you remember the scene where Flanders makes Bart a hot chocolate? The hot chocolate Sam got looked like they put the same amount of effort into it as Flanders did so that means you are almost afraid to touch such a masterpiece!

Our final stop for the day was Fox Glacier, not far down the road. In addition to a much shorter trail to glacier face, we opted to take a longer hike along one of the valley ridges up to an old camping lodge. This was a fun hike that required a lot of jumping from rock to rock across streams and in the end provided some stunning views of the glacier. I can only imagine how much better they would have been with clear skys!

Oh, and by the way, the road to this hike specifically mentions that campervans would not do well on it but that is horsehockey. Our Tui did just fine.

The next three hours or so we drove to the next day's destination, Mount Aspiring National Park. This is another place where we deviated from our original plan. We were going to camp in a limited facility (i.e. no showers and possibly no toilet) campground for the night on the north side of Haast Pass. This was because there were a lot of small hikes we were interested in along the pass and this place was ideally located.

Instead, we drove all the way to Makaroa which is maybe 20-30 km further than desired, but did offer an actual holiday park. This turned out to be a good choice.

Not because of the holiday park mind you. That was on the opposite extreme of the one we stayed in the night before. This was pretty much a sheep field that had a few power outlets sprinkled about. Very rustic! But we were far from the only ones present.

One the drive in, we noticed a little cafe that seemed to have some life to it so we walked over to see what was happening. The place was happening, that was what was happening! We couldn't believe it. Here we are in the middle of nowhere, in a 'town' that pretty much was the holiday park, a national park visitors center, and some helicopter tours, and nothing else, and here we find karoke night packed with a boisterous crowd of college students.

We stayed for a couple of beers listening to an unusual mix of karoke tunes including Don't Cry for me Argentina, The Final Countdown, We Like to Party and I Will Always Love You. Not your typical karaoke fare, let me tell you!

Mount Aspiring National Park

We awoke to an absolutely gorgeous and actually hot day. We availed ourselves to the fully equipped kitchen (not just sinks and burners, but actual pots, pans and plates as well), overheard the war stories from all of the hungover college kids, and then made our way back to Haast Pass.

We did numerous hikes along the road there, but none were of any particular long distance or difficulty. And most were to see waterfalls. We drove all the way back to Thunder Creek Falls, which is definitely worth a look.

Don't pass up the Gates of Haast, which you will see from the road is a bridge, but park on either side of the bridge and you will be treated to some fantastic boulder scrambles to be beside a roaring mountain river.

There is a trail at the top of Haast Pass that is not nearly as long or as tough as they make it out to be, but does provide the spectacular views promised. Cameron Creek was so-so.

The Blue Pools walk is also worth a journey and would be an excellent place to have lunch if it weren't for all of the bugs biting you. The rope bridge is a nice touch.

We then drove to Wanaka, a very trendy and up and coming town on the south shore of Lake Wanaka. The road goes along the shore of Lake Wanaka for quite a ways before jumping over to Lake Hawea. Both lakes provide some awesome scenery and there are many scenic views along the way that will entice you.

In Wanaka we needed to fuel up and get some more groceries. This required us to get more familiar with Wanaka than perhaps other towns. Whereas other towns seemed small and rather sleepy, Wanaka appeared to be considerably larger and provided some semblance of night life. The houses too seemed to be much more modern in style than elsewhere we had seen. It reminded me of Boulder, Colorado in some respects.

But we had one more, big hike scheduled for the day. This was along the road west from Wanaka. There are several hikes along this road including Hospital Flat, which we considered, but we opted for Rocky Mount, which according to its brief description, provided spectacular views, as opposed to the simply 'awesome' views that Hospital Flat provided.

It did not fail to deliver. It is probably a three hour hike round trip, but was not terribly difficult. There are steep sections, but none are too long. And those spectacular views... were with us the entire way up and down. In fact, when we reached the top, we were so overwhelmed we didn't know what to take a picture of first.

Because it was actually hot, and sunny, we took a small siesta at the top in order to recharge ourselves. We didn't really want to let go of such a fabulous day, but we had a several hour drive ahead of us to reach Te Anau and the gateway of Fiordland National Park.

Along the way, just before you reach the ourskirts of Queenstown, you pass though an extremely steep and curvy road. The training wheels definitely came off that day I drove. Holy cow!

We didn't stop in Queenstown because we were going to come back through it on our way to Christchurch, so we pressed on to Te Anau and the Te Anau Holiday Park. We again arrived late, but this place was truly huge and had plenty of sites available. We parked near a couple of very cheery older women who were ecstatic to notice that we shared the same brand of camper. As they seemed a bit drunk and we a bit tired, we went to sleep.

Milford Sound

The thing you need to keep in mind about Milford Sound and the Fiordland National Park is that it rains. It rains a lot. Think of your concept of a lot, and then triple it and triple it once more for good measure. You think I exaggerate, don't you? Well no. Fiordland is rained upon over 300 days of the year and in those 300 days it amounts to over 30 feet of rain. That is a hell of a lot of water.

So, if you are in that part of New Zealand, you can expect to get wet and there isn't much you can really do about it. So why would you go there? Because it's bloody beautiful, that's why. Amazing really. If we thought we saw a lot of waterfalls the day before in Mount Aspiring, it was but a drop in the ocean compared to Fiordland.

I imagine a perfect day would be buckets of rain in the morning followed by a crystal clear afternoon. That should permit maximum waterfall viewing (because all but a few are only running when it rains) with maximum enjoyment. But I wouldn't bet a whole lot of money on those perfect conditions. Not surprisingly, we had plenty of rain and wind during our trip, but compared to the conditions we experienced the next day in Doubtful Sound, it was downright gorgeous.

The other thing about Milford Sound you should be aware of. There is only one way in and one way out and it involves a one-way tunnel. It is also the only location in Fiordland accessible by road so that means it can be very crowded.

We went early to avoid most of the crowds, but even then, expect to wait up to 15 minutes at the entrance of the tunnel as oncoming traffic makes it way through. Don't worry, you will have plenty of waterfalls to look at and Keas (parrot-like birds) to accost you. Seriously, Keas are like the panhandlers of the Fiordlands. The only thing missing is a 'spare nuts' sign.

The principal activity in Milford Sound is to take a two hour cruise on one of the many tour boats. There are like four different operators, all in an airport-like terminal. Prices varied a little bit, but be sure to look for coupons in the free tour books you find in tourist-propaganda stands. We ended up going with Red Line because it was the next one departing.

Despite a crowded terminal, the boat was almost empty. There were some Spaniards (big surprise) that we shared the observation deck with, but there was seating for a couple hundred and there was maybe a dozen of us. There was a good smelling buffet brewing on a lower deck and I think some Japanese bus got in on that action, but surprisingly, they never came up to the top deck to take in the excellent scenery.

And awesome it was. As I said, it was raining at first, but started to clear up during the return portion of the trip and it was very windy at times. But again, compared to the next day, we had some pretty good conditions considering.

All the boats do pretty much same route. Don't be surprised to see some dolphins swimming in the sound. Then there are penguins, the smallest species of penguin in the world. Don't forget the binoculars! And a seal colony. Plus a close-up view of one of the waterfalls.

You'll probably see some seakayakers, the crazy bastards, out there too. I wouldn't recommend the place for seakayaking because of the aforementioned rain oversaturation. And let's not forget the waterfalls. Holy crap! All shapes and sizes. And when the clouds hang low they look like they come from heaven. Some waterfalls don't even reach the surface of the sound because they are blown into smithereens by the wind. Breathtaking.

All in all, quite worth the trip. Along the way back we also stopped in at some of the scenic stops we saw along the way when we drove in. You can't miss these as there are plenty of cars and busses parked there. The best two of these are The Chasm and Mirror Lakes. Don't pass up the diving ducks that you can see on the crystal clear Mirror Lakes.

We also stopped at the Divide, which is the trailhead for a number of trails. We started to hike up to Key Summit, but turned back before reaching the top because we asked people coming down if one could see anything from the top. Remember, we were there on one of the 300 rainy days in Fiordland. They said, no, you can't see anything from the top, but if you we went up just before the cloud, you still get some good views. And so that is what we did.

As Te Anau was a somewhat happening little pueblo, we decided to grab an honest to goodness dinner. Something we haven't done since Rotorua, if you recall. After doing some souvenir shopping, we perused the menus of a number of establishments and finally settled upon The Fat Duck.

Our experience at The Duck was a mixed one. The food was delicious. I can no longer remember Sam's dish, but I went for the standard rack of lamb. Mmmm, meat! Yes, everything we tried was awesome. The service on the otherhand, although not bad, was s o v e r y s l o w.

Finally, we headed off to our lodging for the night, the Possum Lodge in Manapouri, a tiny little town about a 20 minutes drive south of Te Anau. This was by far our smallest place we stayed as they only had room for at most maybe eight campervans. We phoned ahead our reservation just for that reason and I think there was only one open spot the next day. We could have stayed in Te Anau again if we wanted to, but we like diversity and besides, Manapouri was the departure point for our trip to...

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is the other most frequently visited place in Fiordlands. But if it gets 1% of the visitors that Milford Sound receives, I would be surprised. It is very remote and only became accessible when an access road was built for a hydroelectric plant constructed nearby.

The only way for the common tourist to visit Doubtful Sound is through a company called Real Journeys and it is a full day affair and will set you back about $250/person. It involves about an hour long boat ride across Lake Manapouri, followed by an hour long bus ride. Then a three hour cruise in Doubtful Sound, with a return trip via bus and boat, with a side journey to the hydroelectric plant.

Overall the experience was very nice, and the guides are very well informed and make the experience much more enjoyable, however it did rain non-stop and the boat moves along a pretty good clip to cover the vast distance of the sound so the wind on deck was substantial. This combination means you will spend a lot of time inside looking out the windows, which doesn't allow the full splendor of Doubtful Sound to be realized.

The cruise involved the obligatory pod of dolphins, seal and penguin colonies, but also included a whale sighting that the boat took a quick detour to track down. Also there were countless waterfalls (I would hope so given how much it was raining), one of which the boat maneuvered so that the water would fall onto the top of the deck.

Before we could do that though, we had to muscle out a group of very soggy seakayakers (those people are crazy!) who sought shelter under the overhang the waterfall provided. They did not give up easily though and fought back with water guns that bounced harmlessly off the bow of the ship. Good fun.

It would have been nice to have a little break in the weather in order to take in the scenery more thoroughly, but it was not to be.

The bus ride back takes you into the depths of the hydroelectric plant, which is a James Bond villain hideout if ever there was one. Unlike most hydroelectric facilities, this one does not utilize a dam, but instead was constructed by carving out a huge underground cavern in which to place the turbine generators. The water then falls from Lake Manapouri, through the generators and then out to Doubtful Sound. The amount of rock removed to make this and the depths involved are truly impressive.

After our cruise, we drove a couple of hours back to Queenstown, our lodging location for the evening. This was also a Friday night and we heard that Queenstown was a happening place so we figured it would be good to spend a night in civilization for once and tear it up a little. Yes, we planned it that way. I love it when a plan comes together.

We ended up at the Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park. This was the most expensive place we stayed, the largest, the fullest and it was the only place that required us to pump the showers with money to use them. But they can get away will all this nickeling and diming because it is located a block from the center of town so its convenience cannot be overlooked.

After saying hi to our Spanish neighbors (they were really all over the place), we headed to town to see exactly how lively the city was. It immediately reminded me of ski town out west like Breckenridge or Vail. It had that vibe going on. It was not just because of the all the mountains surrounding the place either, though I hear the skiing in the area is excellent.

Stores were actually open so we took the opportunity to do some more souvenir shopping and then stopped at a place called the Boiler Room or Furnace or something along those lines for a drink.

We spent too much time there because before we knew it, the restaurants started closing so after making a mad dash to see what was still open, we settled upon a place called Finz where we partook of some serviceable seafood entrees. We then went to another place called the Minibar, and then hit what advertised itself as a brew pub, but I think it was really just a microbrew outfit specialized in Mac's beers. Mac's were my favorite beers in New Zealand. They definitely had a microbrew quality about them. But both Monteiths and Speights, the two big boys if you will, were also quite tasty.

I'm not sure what time we stumbled home, but 1am sounds about right.

Again, we decided to stray from our original agenda. What we were originally going to do was drive up to Mount Cook and do some hikes around there. Mount Cook was on the other side of the mountains from the glaciers we visited earlier. Perhaps it was the overcast weather we experienced in that area the last time that swayed us, but we were not as eager to return.

The other option we were considering was to visit Dunedin, pronounced 'done eden' and taking in a little of New Zealand civilization. We left it to mother nature to decide. The night before we stopped into an Internet cafe and checked the weather at Mount Cook. If it was nice, we would go there, otherwise we would go to...


Which is what happened. And actually, it turned out pretty good because at some point that day my leg really started to bother me so I'm glad that happened close to a bar instead of at the top of some remote mountain trail.

Dunedin feels like a university town, and it is indeed home of Otago University. The grounds of the university were nice and I imagine what the grounds of the old universities of England must be like or even the Ivy League schools here in the states. But most of our time was spent around The Octagon, which is in the heart of downtown.

First we stopped by the railway station, which is a masterpiece both inside and out. Very nice architecture so don't pass it up. We also checked out St. Paul's Cathedral and First Church before heading to the local Velvet Burger for some cheap eats. Finally something reasonably priced! And they were pretty good too.

The tour of the city pretty much took the morning and then some of the afternoon. The bulk of the afternoon, however, was spent exploring the Otago Peninsula (they have a lot of peninsula's in NZ if you haven't figured that out yet). The highlight was to be a visit to Penguin Place, but more on that later.

First we stopped by Glenfalloch, which is an estate with gardens, but that place turned out to be pretty pricey so we instead headed towards Larnach Castle, another estate with gardens, that we elected to do just the gardens tour. This is a self-guided tour of some very colorful and unique plants and flowers. The castle is located at the top of a hill and it provides breathtaking views of Dunedin, the rest of the Otago Peninsula, as well as the coastline to the north.

We then made our way to Penguin Place, which is located near the tip of the Otago Peninsula. The story behind Penguin Place is that a farmer one day found a colony of yellow-eyed penguins on his property. Instead of viewing the endangered species as a pest, he gave the land to the penguins and a research institute has sprung up to ensure their survival and provides the public some excellent tours of the penguin's home.

What they have done is construct a series of blinds connected by covered trenches so that visitors can go to just a few feet from the penguins' nests and get some views of them that would not be possible otherwise. Very, very cool. Oh, and they have a seal colony too.

When we went we got to see some of the 'husbands' come trotting out of the ocean after a hard day's work heading back to their nests. But some of them had to rest for a long period of time at the local watering hole because their bodies were superheated from swimming around all day in the cold ocean water that they need to rest before walking home for the night. Very funny.

Although I wasn't particularly thrilled with our guide, I would definitely recommend a visit to Penguin Place. But you do have to call to make a reservation ahead of time as it is very popular, even out of season.


Our last day in New Zealand (aren't you glad to hear that!) was spent driving along the east coast for a good four or so hours to Christchurch, the largest city on the south island, and our departure point for the trip home.

Though one place you will definitely want to stop along the way is Moeraki. Here you will find an odd collection of nearly perfectly spherical boulders sitting on the beach. Depending upon what time of day you arrive, the boulders will either be subjected to the pounding waves, or as when we went during low tide, completely exposed so you can walk amongst them.

There were a number of people here, yet it was not so crowded that we snapped most of our photos so that it appeared we had the place entirely to ourselves. While we were there, some horses were trotting by getting their feet wet. That was one activity that would have been fun to do, but we just couldn't squeeze it in: horseback riding.

On the way out, be sure to say high to Norm and Cliff, the two very large deer hanging out by the fence looking for handouts. These deer were enormous. Dad, honestly, give up deer hunting in Wisconsin and just come here to get some.

Before returning our campervan, we dropped off all our suitcases at our hotel, the still under construction Hotel So. As it was still unfinished, we got some really good rates on it and the rooms were very large... though some things didn't quite work... like the bathroom door for instance. But the decor was very trendy and I see much success for this hotel once it fully opens.

This was also the hottest day of our stay. I don't know how warm it was, but people were cranking the AC so that should give you an idea.

The rest of the day we spent walking around the downtown area making frequent stops at bars and restaurants that were open. There are a number of fine businesses of this nature along Oxford Terrace that offer outside seating and a tranquil setting along the Avon River.

We didn't stay out terribly late though because we needed to catch a cab at 6am for our 8am flight the next morning.

Wrapping Up

Some things to note about the trip back. The first is that upon departing New Zealand you will have to pay some sort of export tax. The annoying thing is that they do not include this with your ticket so you need to pay for it separately. And the line for doing so is as long as it is for checking in.

However, Sam astutely realized that you can also pay for it at the ATM machine so be sure to look for one of those so you don't spend half and hour in the other line.

Our return trip went through Melbourne instead of Sydney. Big yip. And then we arrived in LA at 7am. Our connecting flight was at 1am to Dallas. That 18 hour layover prompted us to inquire if there were some seats open on earlier flights. Although the lady at the ticket booth didn't say yes or no, she furiously typed away and then gave us some tickets a few minutes later proclaiming that we would be one on the 10am out of LA. Cool!

So we jumped on that flight and had like the 5pm flight to Richmond. So we were waiting for that and they started to board. Then I looked to see what seats we had and... hmmm, where are the seat numbers here. This doesn't sound good. So I quickly go up to the desk and the lady said, oh, because you are on standby.

Standby!? Who said anything about standby? If the lady at the ticket counter said anything about standby we probably would have spent the day doing something in LA. Instead, now we had to spend the night in Dallas. Which, in the end wasn't a bad deal because we got some super low rate and just crashed, hard. All the sleep we missed out on was made up for that night. My lord did we sleep well.

So... now that you know about all the stuff that we did see in New Zealand, what were the things that we wanted to see, but didn't have time for?

Well, geographically listed from north to south would be:

  • Ninety Mile Beach - the north tip of the north island
  • Bay of Island - seakayaking and scuba diving
  • Coromandel Peninsula - awesome views
  • East Cape - awesome views
  • Waitomo - underground caverns
  • Mount Egmont - volcano and national park
  • Abel Tasman National Park - seakayaking
  • Marlborough Sounds - seakayaking
  • Arthur's Pass National Park - mountain views and hiking
  • Mount Cook - hiking
  • Steward Island - off the southern tip of southern island

And a lot, lot more. Oh well, maybe after we visit all the places in Europe in the next three years we'll be ready for another trip here!


The bustling seaport of Picton.


The tranquil waters of Nelson Lakes National Park.


Sam and the old quarry.


A seal mugs for the camera.


Sam and Eric prepare for black water rafting.


Pancake Rocks.


Little did we know, but this would be the best photo of the Franz Josef Glacier.


Sam at Franz Josef Glacier.


Beer and Hot Chocolate, Mmmm.


Eric at the face of Fox Glacier.


Some place not worth mentioning.


Eric stands at the Gates of Haast.


Sam with a sucky view on the way up Rocky Mount.


Mount Aspiring National Park from the top of Rocky Mount.


Some of the countless waterfalls in Milford Sound.


A really cool waterfall.


Obligatory Seal Colony.


Looking back at Milford Sound.


Seakayakers seeking shelter from the rain underneath a waterfall.


I love this photo.


Queenstown, New Zealand


Train station in Dunedin.


Larnach Castle in Bloom.


The Penguin Colony at Penguin Place.


The Tui enjoys the view on the Otago Peninsula.


Moeraki Boulders.


Come back soon!