Again, we do not really have any plans for this leg of the trip. All we know is that people says there's lots to do on the south island and not as much on the north island. That's why we have more time allocated to the south island.
We find ourselves a bit under-qualified to write about New Zealand. We lack the skill required to express the beauty of this country. We will certainly try our best. However, no matter how great of a picture you build in your mind, we can all but guarantee that this country will be better than what you picture. Dawn read an article that John Travolta wrote for a local travel magazine in NZ, and he said that driving through New Zealand is like driving through a painting. This is probably the best description we have seen of this beautiful land. If you have the opportunity, put a trip to New Zealand high on your list of travel destinations!!
12/04: We arrive in Christchurch at about 1:00am. Although the flight was only 3 hours long, we somehow jumped 3 time zones. So, our body clocks are a bit out of whack.
12/05: Explored the downtown area a bit. Went into the Christchurch Cathedral and climbed to the top of the tower. Had some nice views of the city. After collecting some brochures from the tourist information office, we caught a free shuttle to a tram location. We rode the tram up to the top of a small hill/mountain. This was our first real view of the land. In the southerly direction, we saw the secluded bay at Lyttelton with its greenish water. To the west were snow-capped mountains. To the southwest, we saw the curving coast, a blue bay with windsurfers, and more snow-capped mountains further south. The mountains are very abrupt and tall for being so close to the coast. We hiked down from the tram. The first part of the hike was through knee-high wavy grasses and colorful flowers. Quite pretty. The latter part of the hike was on a trail past some cows. After returning to town, we bought tickets to a playing of "Kiss Me Kate" by a local theater company. The musical is about a group of actors performing Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew". So, it's kind of like a musical within a musical. The show started at 8:00. It had a few slow moments, but was generally funny and entertaining. The highlight was a pair of older gentlemen who played Chicago-style gangsters. They took on ad-hoc roles in "The Taming of the Shrew" so they could keep an eye on the lead actress. They just tried to blend into the dance routines. One of them shot at some bird noise in the background. Total comedy.
We went outside for intermission at 9:30. It was still light outside!!! We were shocked. The sun had set, but the sky still had lots of light in it. At this time of year, it's not really dark until 10:00. You can read a book in your car until well after 9:00. This is a good feature. Sunrise comes sometime around 5:30. The nights are short because NZ is so close to the south pole.
12/06: Picked up the camper van that we reserved the day before. We decided that a camper van would work best since we wanted to see much of the island but we did not really have a plan. Lots of people rent vans in NZ, especially on the south island. The van was pretty nice. Had a toilet, shower, sink, microwave, a stove, and all the tools needed for cooking. Don could stand up in it, so it was pretty tall. The bench seats in the back converted into a double bed. Quite comfy overall.
We headed north to Kaikura. This small town is known for whale watching, cage diving with great whites, and swimming with dolphins. We signed up for a whale watching trip the day before. The boat was pretty nice. They warned us several times about large swells. They did not disappoint. We sat on top anyway so we could see better. When the boat rolled, we probably rocked 30 feet side to side. One time, Don barely avoided falling into the lap of the person in the seat facing him.
The boat is mostly searching for sperm whales, although others may be spotted. The sperm whales hang out in this area because there's a deep water (8,000-10,000 feet) trough about a half mile off shore. The whales dive for 30-40 minutes at a time and then surface for about 10 minutes to build up their oxygen again. This is when we search for them. The boats know where whales have surfaced previously, so they search those areas when the whale is due to surface again. We saw two whales on our trip. It was pretty exciting. The big thrill is when the whale dives, bringing it's entire tail out of the water as it heads straight down. One interesting fact is that scientists believe that the whales use a burst from their sonar to stun their prey so they can catch them. This theory comes from underwater recordings and the fact that sperm whales have been found with fish in their stomach that the whale could never catch otherwise (e.g., tuna, marlin, etc.). The sound from the whale's sonar is the equivalent of the noise you would hear standing directly behind a 747 with the engines on full. We also saw three species of albatross and several dusky dolphins. It was neat to see the ocean animals in great blue water with large white mountains in the background.
We picked up some groceries for our Brady-like camper and headed for the west coast. The drive was amazing. We quickly climbed into the mountains. We encountered sweeping views with many shades of green grass, lots of sheep, and vibrant yellow flowers. We could see forever and there was almost nobody on the roads. We stayed at a camper park in Hanmer Springs for the night. They have natural hot springs in the town, but we arrived too late to try them out.
12/07: Drove in rain for a few hours to Greymouth. Bought Don a fleece top. We mistakenly sent our warm clothes home with the family from Australia. We did not realize how cool it would be in NZ. Oops. We went south for a few more hours until we reached the Franz Joseph Glacier. We booked in for a morning hike on the Fox Glacier with a guide, and then set out to at least see the Franz Joseph Glacier. The hike to the front of the glacier was very easy. We did not go onto the glacier since you need a guide to do that. However, we got lots of photos of the glacier. It was impressive, stretching up the mountain in the distance. The ice is blue in color. A milk-colored river flows out from the glacier. The valley is lined with waterfalls.
After driving to the Fox Glacier, we decided to explore Lake Matheson. Why not ..... it was only 8:30 so there was still over an hour of light left. The lake is a popular photo spot in NZ. In many stores, you see pictures of the western Alps reflecting in the lake. When there is no wind, the lake perfectly reflects the mountains. The signs said it would take 45 minutes to reach the photo spot. We practically ran to reach it in 22 minutes. The more light, the better since it lights up the snow on the mountains. We burned through about 4 rolls of film trying to get that perfect shot. None of them look as good as the one in the store, but several came out looking pretty good. When holding a picture in your hand, it sometimes take a second or two to figure out which way is the top and which is the reflection.
The sunset was the best we saw on the trip. It turned the entire sky a deep orange color. It even lit up the cows in the field, which Don tried unsuccessfully to pet.
12/08: We started the morning by returning to Lake Matheson in hopes to get some better photos of the mountains. Our guide book said to go in the morning because there's less wind, which means better reflections in the water. There was slightly less wind, but the light on the mountains was not as good. A bit before sunset is probably best as the sun will paint colors on the mountains. We rattled off another 2-3 rolls of film and then headed out to catch our 9:00am hike on Fox Glacier.
The bus took us to the glacier where we divided into two groups. We were in the group that was to be lead by a guide named Glenn. The first stop was a large mound of dirt, where Glenn described the basics of glaciers and the history of the Fox Glacier. He also informed us that the mound of dirt we were standing on was actually ice about a meter down. This was fascinating since the glacier was a few hundred meters up the mountain from us. This mound, called the terminal moraine, was the pile that the glacier had pushed down the mountain previously. The dirt was insulating the ice so it melted very slowly.
Access to the glacier is via a hike through the rainforest that borders the glacier. Glenn told us there are only three places where a rainforest borders a glacier. Fox Glacier, Franz Joseph Glacier (about 20km away), and a spot in Chile. This occurs because the mountains are so close to the sea (about 15km) and they are pretty tall (over 12,000 feet). The wet weather comes in from the Tasman Sea (below Australia and close to Antarctica) and runs into the mountains. To get over the mountains, it must drop moisture to gain altitude. The annual rainfall on the west side of the mountains is over 300 inches (according to our book). The upper parts of the mountains probably get a lot more rainfall.
Unlike the Franz Joseph, access to the Fox Glacier is a strenuous exercise. We hike through the rainforest, gaining a decent amount of altitude. In a couple of sections, we must hang onto ropes or metal bars as a precaution from falling 100+ meters. The trail is pretty wide but it's never comfy to look down a mountain right next to your trail. The hike does provide some nice views of the valley and the effects of the glacier on it's last great advance in 1750.
At last, we reached the glacier. Before getting on the glacier, we put on our crampons. They were just small devices that strapped onto our boots and sat in front of our heel. After a brief tutorial on how to walk with the crampons, we were off. We climbed an ice staircase to the top. Glenn used his pick-axe to further carve out the stair where necessary. It was very pretty on the ice. Some parts were dirty as rocks and mud were pushed up to the top, but many parts were shiny and blue. We hiked around for about an hour. Everyone ate some glacier ice. Glenn also took us to an ice cave where we all got to climb through and pose for some photos. Glenn took pictures of some couples, and noted that he would like to see the pictures he takes someday. So, we gave him one of our MOAV business cards and told him to check out the site sometime. We received an e-mail from him already, so we know he will get to see the photos. Thanks Glenn for a great hike .... and for the photo!!
After a nap in the campervan, we headed out for Queenstown, adventure capital of the world. This was probably our best drive of the trip. In 3-4 hours, we crossed 17 rivers by our count. Some were milky from the runoff while others were as clear as glass. Almost all of them descended from some magnificent valley. If we had taken pictures of everything that was worthy of a picture, we might still be making our way to Queenstown. We stopped for dinner and learned that a new back route had been opened that cut the remaining time to Queenstown in half. Dawn had the pleasure of driving on this largely dirt road that had no guardrails to protect someone from the drops that were often several hundred feet. A bit unnerving. We made it to Queenstown at about 10:30, only a half hour or so after full darkness. We love the long days!!!!
12/09: The camper park we stayed in had a tour office, so we booked ourselves in for the Pipeline 4 combo at 8:00am. We booked at about 7:45, so we had to hustle down to catch the bus. They loaded us onto the bus for the trip to the Pipeline bungy jump. There were about 8 nervous people (all bungy rookies) on the bus and a few more who were not jumping. We climbed a hill and started down Skippers Canyon road. We saw a sign indicating that rental cars were not allowed on the road. The rental place had told us this, but we did not know exactly why. We soon learned. The road was originally built around 1864 so miners could bring their wagons to the river. There was a big gold rush in 1864. It looked to us like the road had not been improved much since then. The drop is often over 1,000 feet and there's barely room for a single car. We go around many hairpin turns where nobody can see the other side of the turn until we make it around. To make matters worse, the driver is a bit too comfortable with the road. He's often looking in the mirror, talking to passengers, gesturing with one hand while driving with the other. At one point he actually made a gesture with both hands. Ugh!!! After about 10 minutes on the road, nobody is worried about jumping because they are too scared of the drive. Towards the end, the driver stops at a spot where we can look down to the river. He tells us it's about 100 meters, which is what we are going to jump from. All jumping fears are now back in full force.
At the bungy site, we are all weighed in. This is done so they can calculate the correct length and size of the bungy cord. While waiting for the jump guides, we all got explore the "bridge". The suspension bridge was also built around 1864 .... and were not sure how much has been done since then. It was built to carry a pipe across the river for use in blasting away rocks for mining. The bride is about 4-5 feet across. When we walk on the bridge, it bounces. The river is very small from this height.
They do the jumps in order from lightest to heaviest. Anyone care to guess who gets to go last?! We enjoyed watching the other people jump. After the jump, you hang upside down as they lower you into a jet boat in the river. The boat drops you off and then you hike for about 20 minutes back up to the opposite side of the bridge.
Dawn's turn comes up. She sits in the dentists chair on the bridge while they prepare for her jump. There's a video camera above the chair to capture her thoughts. We bought the videos. (Note: The movie files are about 10MB. We'd be glad to send either or both via e-mail if someone has large connection bandwidth.) The guides strapped Dawn's feet in. They put a large towel around her feet, with the loose ends placed between her ankles. They then strap the towel on and attach the bungy. Time for the Pipeline Shuffle, where Dawn must hop across the bride, duck under a rail and shuffle out on the small ledge with the river far below. It's Go Time!!! They ask Dawn to lean forward, away from the rail. Then they ask again because she did not move. Finally she stands straight up, toes over the edge. They remind her to dive out (vs. falling straight) for the "best bounce". Then the countdown. 5-4-3-2-1 ....... and off she goes. Not much of a dive, but gravity did not mind. We hear her screaming all the way down. She freefalls for 4 seconds and then stretches the bungy for a bit longer. Then up she comes on the other side of the bridge. After she bounces around for a minute or two, they begin to lower her to the boat, where she is safely rescued. Dawn waited on the beach so she could see Don jump.
After everyone else has gone, it's finally Don's turn. A prior jumper takes our camera so we could get photos of Don. Same drill for the most part. The only difference is that the guides slide over a trash can and pull out a different bungy cord. Apparently this is the "big boy" cord for the gravitationally challenged. When the time comes, Don manages to dive a bit. Not easy with rubbery legs! The swear word that uncontrollably escaped on the way down was thankfully not caught on video. Since Don was last, we do not have to climb back up. Instead, we get a free jet boat ride to the jet boat site, where we meet the others.
Next comes the official jet boating part of the trip. The boat rockets down the river and some very high speed. We often come within a foot or so of the rock edge of the canyon. The boat only requires 8 inches of water so we can go just about anywhere. On the river, we see several pieces of old mining equipment. We also go under the Pipeline bridge and get a different view of where we jumped. Coming back downriver, the driver turns a couple of 360s, which gets the poor guy in row 2 pretty wet. Jet boating was definitely a unique and fun experience. Only downside is that we have to return on Skippers Canyon road with our driver who likes to talk with his hands.
After lunch, we board the bus again. First stop is the rafting company's headquarters. They set us up with helmets, wetsuits, splash coats, lifejackets, and booties. Pretty warm clothes for a sunny day. After a delay on the bus, we are taken to a landing site and dropped off. We all wait our turn for a helicopter ride to the rafting site. It's hot, but waiting is better than riding the bus on Skippers Canyon road again. The helicopter ride is only 5 minutes long, but it is quite fun. The pilot makes a couple of turns where we actually seem to go beyond 90 degrees to the side (i.e., our heads are slightly below our feet). We wish we could have flown for longer.
Finally, it's time for rafting. They spend a great deal of time explaining safety and rafting techniques. They seem much more cautious than the people in Zimbabwe. The rafting is fun, but not very scary. It's pretty lazy rafting in general, with pretty basic rapids. Don wishes he knew how good the Zambezi was when he was there. The end of the raft was the best. We went through a 70 meter tunnel that was once used to divert water for mining. We have to duck in the tunnel to avoid hitting our heads. It's very dark in the middle, with only faint light in front of us. When we come out of the tunnel, we immediately hit our biggest rapid. This is where they take the photos that they sell you later. We made it without falling out. the Pipeline 4 Combo is now complete. What a day!!!!!
12/10: We are scheduled for a flight to Milford Sound today to take a cruise on the fiords that are said to be like those in the Nordic countries. Unfortunately, the flight was canceled due to weather. Seemed like mild weather to cancel, but there was nothing we could do. We decided to just gather up our stuff and head back to Christchurch. We're doing much of our Christmas shopping in New Zealand, so an extra day won't hurt too much.
The drive is again very nice, with lots of snow-capped mountains, colorful flowers, and many lakes and rivers. We stopped near one field of flowers that had cows standing in flowers up to their shoulders. A pretty funny sight. We stopped for a while at Lake Tekapo. This lake is turquoise in color and it borders the Alps. Provided some nice views, although the mountains were largely covered by clouds.
We made it to Christchurch near sunset and watched a movie, Charlie's Angels. Cheese factor 10!! We parked at a beach for the night and let the sounds of the sea ease us to sleep.
12/11: Spent the day shopping for Christmas gifts ..... and a few things for us too. Filled up the camper with gas again. Don got to 11 liters when he finally realized that he was putting unleaded fuel in a diesel tank. Oops! We called the company, and they said it would be alright since so few liters had been put in. Could have been ugly.
12/12: Had to take the camper back at 7:00am. They charge an extra day if it arrives after 7:00, even though we did not pick it up until 11:00am on the first day. Luckily, we grabbed an earlier flight to Auckland.