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April 19, 2009
Day 1: Christchurch
Our first day was a half day in Christchurch, our starting point on the South Island. The town was a bit disappointing compared to the very charming description in the guidebook, but they have nice botanical gardens where we walked for a couple of hours to stretch our legs from the long journey. We also walked along the Avon River and through the downtown, parts of which look very English. It is also here that David began his beer tasting tour around New Zealand.
Day 2: Banks Peninsula / Akaroa / dolphins
We drove to the Banks Peninsula just south of Christchurch where we took a boat trip from the small French-style village of Akaroa to go swim with dolphins. That’s right, we put on wet suits (of course, David took a sideways pregnant shot of me in this) and we were taken out into the middle of a bay where we swam with dolphins. They had dorsal fins like mickey mouse ears. We only saw a few, but did get in the water with them, and it was very cool to watch them swim leisurely among us. The peninsula looks just like the brownish rolling hills of California (like when you drive south from SF on 280).
We spent the rest of the day driving south along the coast, stopping only to see the Moeraki Boulders (a group of large smooth boulders strewn on the beach). We drove all the way down to Dunedin, where we stayed at a small motel in Portobello on the Otago Peninsula. We got there past 10pm and went straight to sleep as we had to get up at 5am the next morning (yes, that includes me!).
Day 3: Otago Peninsula / penguins / drive west
At 5:45am, we were some ways down the shore where we joined a small group for a guided walk to see the penguins on their “way to work”. We walked over dunes, then along the beach for 20 minutes, and then up other dunes into a wooden hut where we hid and waited. In a few minutes, one and then another yellow-eyed penguin started descending a steep cliff near us, hopping and skipping all the way down, across the sand and into the water to go fishing for the day. We saw maybe 6-7 different penguins do this over the course of 1.5 hours, and they were so cute! The poor guys are really not equipped for hiking on steep slopes, so they looked quite comical doing this and it took them about 30 minutes each. A young one came down, bit by bit, hoping to catch up with his parents who had come and gone a while ago, and when he made it all the way down, he decided today was not yet the day he was going to make it all the way to the sea, so he turned around and hopped all the way back up again, not knowing how close to the water he had gotten.
Then we drove across the island to the west coast to Te Anau, the gateway town for the Fiordlands National Park, our next destination. The inland part of this trip was full of sheep and cows, as the rest of our trip. Te Anau provided a good spot to grab last minute camping supplies, a nice meal and internet connection.
Day 3-4: Milford Sound
The 2-hour drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound was beautiful, in a deep glacial valley with increasingly high rocky ridges above us on both sides. When we reached the top of the Sound, we pitched our tent near the backpacker lodge, put on lots of insect repellent (sand flies are vicious!) and went for an evening stroll to see the water and cliffs. (We even cooked our dinner along this stroll.) It was low tide and we got a very different view of the place than the next morning when we were embarking on a small cruise to see the whole length of the sound. The sound is really a continuation of the valley through which we arrived, with more vertical cliffs and waterfalls, both falling straight into the blue water. Quite stunning!
We spent the afternoon driving back up the glacial valley, back through Te Anau and onto Queenstown (to the north). A very pretty drive.
Day 5: Queenstown
Queenstown lies on the shore of a beautiful blue lake, is quite cute and has lots of good restaurants. It is also considered New Zealand’s center for adrenaline sports.
The first night just had time for a walk and dinner (at the Botswana Butchery, the name says it all), but the second day we went exploring. We climbed Queenstown Hill above town for some spectacular views of the town, lake and mountains (it’s a ski center in the winter). I was quite interested by the fact that the hike reminded me of Czech forests, complete with red poisonous mushrooms (muchomurka), thistle, bells and other plants normally found in the Czech Republic (jerabiny, divizny …). Yet the overall landscape is a lot more like California with golden or browning hills after a dry summer. After the hike, we visited a small private farm with peacocks and an animal “safari” (an enclosed park with deer, llamas, sheep, pigs, yaks, bison, and ducks). They sold animal feed and we made 1 donkey, 3 pigs and some 30 ducks and chickens quite happy. Later, we had more lamb for dinner – David was in seventh heaven.
Day 6: Queenstown and Arrowtown
On this day, David jumped 43 meters into the Kawarau River. We drove some miles out of Queenstown to a narrow gorge of this river, the site of the first ever commercial bungie jump in the world. My easy excuse of not being able to do this while pregnant crumbled when we read the sign at the cashier that pregnant women can still jump but should notify the staff. I had to admit I was just plain too scared to do it. But David went down, with a nice bravado scream (Whoo-hoo!), and got dunked head first into the river up to his knees.
Afterwards, we did a 3-hour walk around a pretty lake, en route to Arrowtown, a quaint village with a historic looking main street, apparently shut down for lunch hour. We stopped in a deli shop (the only open food stop at that time) and got a really good sandwich. The lady there was otherwise in the process of preparing some 50 mini cups of beetroot chutney for a picnic she was catering, and the chutney looked really good (I’m mentioning this for a reason – read on). Then we walked along the river for an hour and watched a dog try to swim across the quick stream to his owner about 15 times, always turning back just as he almost made it – poor guy. NZ seems to have quite an active culture as we see a lot of people jogging, walking and even glimpsed them exercising in their own homes. There were a bunch of people doing this same river walk/run. Afterwards, we (=David) had a bad beer before returning to Queenstown. We finished off the day with wine tasting at a fancy store featuring New Zealand wines. It was a pretty relaxing day.
Day 7: Queenstown and Wanaka
The next morning in Queenstown we tried a new breakfast cafe to get the last taste of this town. Really, somehow this town is full of really good places to eat, all very fresh and healthy and yummy. After breakfast, we visited a farmer’s market in front of the church. One of the stands was selling stuff from the lady that made us our sandwich in Arrowtown the previous day. Some of her beetroot chutney was on sale, so we bought a container of it, along with some bread from a different stand and apricots and cheese from yet two other stands (there were only 8 stands total, so we cleared them out quite well). As the last thing in Queenstown, we did a quick loop through the town park and gardens, which jut out into the lake and offer pretty views of the Queenstown waterfront.
From Queenstown, we went to Wanaka and spent a half day there. We chose a smaller road across a mountain pass instead of the main road linking the two towns. It was narrow and twisted and just plain beautiful (and of course fun for David to drive). Near Wanaka, we did a 3-hour hike with scenic views of the beautiful Lake Wanaka. In fact, we ate our picnic lunch of bread, chutney and cheese at a great view spot. We then returned to Wanaka and had dinner at a brewery before heading further north along Lake Wanaka, another lake and through a mountain valley. We stayed at a B&B in Makarora, a tiny village pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Day 8: Up the west coast from Makarora to Punakaiki
In the morning we continued west to the coast and then up north again. It was raining heavily (and I mean reeeally heavily) all day, which was a shame because we think there could have been some very scenic spots along the way otherwise. We passed near the Fox and then Franz Josef Glaciers and tried to visit these. But the road to the first was washed away by mudslides, and the second proved not worth visiting, particularly in the heavy downpour. We did brave the rain and hike a short way to a view point in only to be quite disappointed. After having seen glaciers in Alaska and on Mt. Rainier, this was not all that impressive. However, this is supposed to be the only two glaciers in the world that descend this far down to sea level and end in a rainforest. Given the weather, we did not go the rest of the way to see the glacier up close and we drove up further north along the coast.
It kept raining and raining, but it was a very beautiful lush green drive, sometimes through rainforest, sometimes along the sea shore. Just as we reached Punakaiki, the sun finally came out again. Punakaiki is known for its “pancake rocks”, sea cliff formations that look like tall stacks of pancakes. A cliff walkway meanders through, and we got some nice sunshine photos there. Under close observation from a curious weka (kiwi-like bird), we pitched our tent at the local campground, right near the shore, went for a stroll on the beach, had dinner at the local pub, and then fell asleep to the sound of the waves — and more rain. Our little tent held up quite nicely though!
Day 9: Punakaiki to Abel Tasman National Park
We got up in light rain and ate breakfast at a local cafe where David had very disappointing pancakes (you figure they’d have good pancakes near the pancake rocks!). But at least they had a cute kitty curled up on the floor near our table. We followed the coast up for a little while longer, hitting patches of rain and patches of sunshine, and then turned inland to drive kitty corner to the north coast. We were mostly following the Buller River “gorge” that we expected to be steep and dramatic based on the guidebook description. Not very dramatic, but still a beautiful forested valley. We made a stop at a hanging bridge (which wasn’t all that exciting) and arrived in Motueka, the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, around 4pm in beautiful sunshine.
A few hours of internet and booking agents later, we had our plans for the next couple of days all settled. We then drove another 15 minutes north to Kaiteriteri where we put up our little two-person tent in the midst of a vast, loud and brightly illuminated campground otherwise full of RVs with fake grass spread in front and TV glaring inside. Not our style of camping experience, but it was quite a convenient place to leave our car overnight and to access the water taxi departure spot the next morning.
Days 10-11: Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman is stretched along a beautiful coastline with forested green hills, sandy beaches, rocky peninsulas and islands, and Mediterranean-style blue water. There is no development in the park except for a few basic huts and campgrounds tucked away in the forest near most beaches. The various beaches are connected by a coastal trail, one of the Great Walks of New Zealand. It takes about 3-4 days to do, but since I was pregnant and couldn’t carry a big pack, we chose to do just a portion of it. The general plan was to take the water taxi up the coast into one of the bays, drop off a big pack and then continue on the water taxi with just a day pack further up the coast and hike back to the tent the same afternoon. We’d then camp overnight and and take the water taxi back the next day.
The water taxi ride itself was beautiful, giving us a view of the park from the water that we would not have gotten from the trail alone. We made several stops for people accessing or leaving the trail at different points, and we dropped our pack at the Anchorage stop, continuing on the water taxi several stops further north to Tonga Quarry. The trail between here and Anchorage was spectacular, climbing up and down across ridges and into bays with beautiful beaches. The sunny higher-up spots were almost a Mediterranean climate with dry sandy soil and little pine-like trees, while the more shaded valleys were a bit more like a rainforest with goofy fern trees.
We had to take it pretty slowly, so it took us about 4-5 hours to reach Anchorage. This included a side hike to Cleopatra’s Pool, a quiet spot up one of the creeks. When we arrived at Anchorage, our bag was still there and we camped just steps away from the beach, on the side of a crooked little brook. We cooked our dinner on the beach during sunset, went for a walk and just generally enjoyed this little piece of paradise.
In the morning we both went for a dip in the sea, but just a dip as the water was pretty cold. We also went for another short hike: to the next beach south of us and back. David was clearly not worn out by this turtle-paced exercise, so he went for another 1-hour side walk, turned into a jog, over the ridge to Watering Cove, missing out on midday naptime. And then we took the water taxi back to Kaiteriteri where we collected our car and went back down to Motueka. Here we did another internet stop to plan our next steps: a drive north around the inland side of the park and another hike on the north end of the park.
We then set out to follow this plan, driving north to Takaka where we were to stay for the night. In the evening we made a quick side trip from Takaka to another little town with a brewery known for its Captain Cooker Manuka Beer. Apparently, when Captain Cook first landed in New Zealand, his crew was suffering from scurvy, which beer can alleviate. Since he had no hops, he made beer from a local bush called manuka, and this is the one brewery that still brews this type of beer today. We both tried it and really liked it.
Day 12: Abel Tasman National Park, drive to Marlborough Sounds
We got up on the early side to drive from Takaka to the northern edge of the park. Here we left our car near the shore and picked up a bus that goes into the park to a campsite some miles north of Tonga Quarry where we started our southward hike a couple of days before. From this campsite (Totaranui) we headed north, through Separation Point (a side-hike to a rocky point that separates the north-south shore of the park from the east-west shore), and then west back to our car. This was a 5-hour hike for us with similarly beautiful views to the previous one. The added bonus here was the Separation Point side trip. We climbed down some rocks to a cliff just above the water and watched several sea lions play just a few feet below us as we ate our picnic lunch.
In the afternoon we drove back through Takaka and Motueka and then east towards the other major national park in the north part of the island: Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park. The road was nice and curvy, and as we approached the Sounds, we got nice views of the water (though nearly in the dark). We reached our next stopover, Picton, pretty late at night.
Days 13-14: Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park
Our plan here was similar to our first hike in Abel Tasman, though with a bit of luxury twist. We left our car in Picton, took a water taxi up the Sound to the furthest possible landing spot, Ships Cove. From there we hiked back south along the Queen Charlotte coastal trail to the Furneaux Lodge, and then took the water taxi the rest of the way to Picton the next day.
It rained during our water taxi ride and parts of the hike from Ships Cove, so we got to see a different mood of the coastline than our sunny experience in Abel Tasman. But we still got to see the same spectacular views of blue water and beaches along the way, and we got to shower off the mud upon arrival at the lodge. Furneaux was the luxury twist on our hiking experience. Converted from a family resort to a small resort for tourists (and weddings), it was just a perfect spot to relax with a glass (or half-glass, for some) of wine. We played Scrabble (with dire results for the Iva/Bean team), walked around and after dark we went back out to the hiking trail to see glowworms (they look just like lightening bugs in the dark).
The next morning we rented out a double kayak and spent an hour or two on the water. We crossed the bay onto a small beach where we ate a picnic lunch. Apparently, we shared it with a weka because we saw one gingerly walking around, and then our carrot cake suddenly disappeared.
We headed back to Picton on the afternoon water taxi (actually, the local mail boat that delivers mail to residences strewn along the sound). We had dinner in Picton and then drove south to Blenheim where we stayed at a B&B. Blenheim is the center of the Marlborough wine region, but we didn’t have time to visit any wineries, and the town itself was blah. We spent much of the evening unpacking the car and repacking everything for air travel.
Day 15: Blenheim to Christchurch
Our last day (sniff-sniff) we drove south along the east coast, completing our circle around the South Island. We made a couple of nice rest stops, but otherwise went straight through to Christchurch. The one last thing we had time for was the Antarctica Exploration Center. Christchurch has been the starting place of many Antarctica explorations, and has a functioning support base near the airport. Connected to it is an exhibit for tourists where they have some penguins and a room with artificial snow storms. It could have been really interesting but somehow it was more of a tourist trap than we expected.
Then we returned our car, took a shuttle to the airport and went home to a lonely kitty.
Oh yes, and Bean’s good. We think she liked the trip.