EDIT: We finally found a good connection, so this post has been updated with new photos as of the afternoon of 20 April, Pacific standard time. There are new pics in the photo gallery, too.
After our amazing time in Australia, we were off to New Zealand. The first polynesian settlers or Maori named it Aotearoa which translates into English as “the land of the long white cloud”. This was a country we both had wanted to visit since we were in high school so it was very exciting to board the plane from Sydney to Auckland. Upon arriving in Auckland we had a layover for a few hours before boarding our next flight to Christchurch, which is on the east coast of the south island. It was a good thing that Adam opened the laptop to check out if we had a wi-fi signal because we had been told the wrong time when we landed and now we had one hour less of a layover than we had bargained for. We confirmed this with an old man when we were eating our little meat pies (very popular in Aus. and N.Z.) in the domestic terminal, so we began eating more quickly and set off for the security check.
The flight to Christchurch was less than an hour, so we were there before we knew it. We had reservations at the Stonehurst Hostel so we were able to catch an overpriced shuttle from the airport and we were there in no time. Upon arriving we were starving so we went out to find some dinner. Christchurch seemed to be a pretty cute little town, but also big for N.Z.’s south island. It is known as the most European looking of N.Z.’s cities, and seemed to look a bit to us like a town in Colorado. We walked around a bit, and finally settled on an Indian restaurant that was advertising ten-dollar meals that came with naan and rice. Since ten bucks is pretty cheap for N.Z. we went ahead and took the deal and ordered a chicken masala and a butter chicken. The meals turned out to be huge and they were enough for the next morning as well, so it saved us a late night trip to the grocery store. Once back at our hostel we enjoyed our huge Indian food meals while other people looked and drooled. We ended up talking with a young German couple who were traveling and working in Aus. and N.Z. for the year. We chatted about the best ways to see the country and about how to free camp (find places to camp where you neither have to pay, or get fined).
After a good nights sleep, we jumped out of bed and made arrangements for a taxi to pick us up and take us to the office where we were to rent our camper van. Adam spent quite a bit of time researching the camper van. There are so many different companies, and also several different sizes. We finally found a killer deal on a Fiat Diesel with a kitchen, toilet, shower, and a table and lounge that folded out into a bed. We definitely wanted to go budget with the camper van, but also didn’t really want to go with the company “Wicked”, that rents out old mini vans with super loud graphics all over them. We were just too afraid to end up with the van with pigs humping each other or the one with breasts randomly painted all over it. They also tend to have phrases on them that refer to either tasteless sexual innuendos, extreme far left political viewpoints, or to binge drinking and drugs. Not the kind of messages we want to be giving as we drive on the wrong side of the road in a semi-foreign country.
The couple in this van did not look very happy
Once we arrived at the rental garage and saw our van parked out front we noticed something funny about it right away. The bathroom was by the sliding door, blocking most of it, and making it harder for the driver to see (since the driver sits on the right). We first asked if there was anyway that we could possibly get a van that was put together correctly, and both women in the office said that there was no chance- WE WERE STUCK WITH THE SHORT BUS!! So the short bus did end up having a few more short falls as well, such as the missing cover on the stove, and a bed that is way to short. But really all in all, it was pretty nice and the best thing about it was that it was a place to call our own. After six months of traveling, this was ours and we were even thrilled to go to the grocery store and stock it up with all of our favorite food.
We decided to go ahead and leave Christchurch after we were finished with our grocery run. We looked on the map and decided we wanted some good scenery right away, so we headed towards Mt. Cook. We were both a bit apprehensive about driving a manual vehicle that was so big on the wrong side of the road, but by the first day driving the short bus we both agreed that it really drove pretty nicely and with a little help from each other being on that other side of the road, it wasn’t so bad. The views of Mt. Cook didn’t disappoint at all, we stopped for the night at Lake Tekapo and found a great lakeside spot (and no signs that read ‘no camping’),so we decided to stay for the night. It was a quiet evening, but by morning there were tour buses coming through with tourists combing the lakeside area, mostly because there is a tiny little chapel there that makes a really great photo op.
After leaving our lakeside retreat we decided to make the jaunt up into Mt. Cook National Park to get even better views and maybe even see Sir Edmund Hillary’s museum. Once we arrived at the end of the road we were greeted with stunning views of Mt. Cook and the other mountains in the southern Alps that surround it. We had a great home cooked lunch in the parking lot thanks to the short bus (I have to say that it is pretty great to always have a kitchen with you while traveling, maybe the novelty will eventually wear off, but for now we are enjoying it). We went in to check out the museum, but my gosh they wanted twenty bucks each! It was a national park, so we assumed it would be free, but N.Z. does not run their parks in the same way we do in the states as we would quickly find out. They do not charge a entrance fee to get into the park as we do in the U.S., but once you are in the parks they seem to charge for everything, and even limit access to some of the hikes to particular tour companies. We tend to be pro-capitalism and private companies, but it just didn’t seem to be working so well in a natural setting such as this.
After lunch, we decided to take a short hike (or “tramp”, as the Kiwis say). We walked and got some great shots of Mt. Cook and the glaciers that descend on its base. Another thing that is different about the “tramping” trails in N.Z. is that instead of posting the distance of the walk, they instead post the average time it takes people to complete. We found out that we walk a bit faster than average usually and that the times are not that helpful.
We decided after our hike was over that we wanted to press on to Queenstown. Queenstown was a place that we had been told about by travelers and read about in travel brochures. It is known as the adventure capital of the world, as it offers numerous “”extreme activities”, such as bungy jumping (which was invented in Queenstown), paragliding, down-hill mountain biking, river rafting, jet boating (also invented in Queenstown), abseiling, and so on. Driving into the town, it looks very lovely. It is set on a gorgeous lake, which seems to be a very popular trend in New Zealand. We also noticed that it looked incredibly upscale and touristy even at night. We don’t usually mind upscale, but we tend to go for more quirky and quaint when looking for a place to do outdoor activities. We ended up spending the night on a rural road where we thought we were out of everyone’s way, but kept having locals honk at us all night long as they drove by.
We decided to leave our make shift camping spot early that morning and drove to a park on the lake to have breakfast. We ended up chatting with another couple in a camper van who were native Kiwis, but living in the U.K. about the honking, and they told us that they were going to eat and get out of Queenstown as soon as possible because they thought that the locals were full of themselves. That, and seeing road signs with bullet marks on them, led us to believe Kiwi rednecks and American rednecks are cut from the same cloth. They even get the same kind of attitude that communicates, “You damn foreigners get out of my country and go back where you came from!” We even had a guy give us the finger as he was driving by, and we were doing absolutely nothing, just sitting in the short bus. Really though, for the most part kiwis are very warm and hospitable and will go out of their way to make you feel welcome. It was just an interesting thing to find this attitude outside of the US.
When we walked into town, we planned to check out a few bike shops about renting mountain bikes (a sport that we have missed like crazy since being away from our beloved trails and Santa Cruz mountain bikes in ABQ), going for a jet boat ride, and find out about cruises in Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. We found the bike shop first, and we had a guy in the shop offer us a couple of 6k shuttle runs in the local area for NZ$129!!! The proprietor was even OFFENDED when we said that sounded expensive for 7.5 miles of mountain biking! We just couldn’t help but look shocked, and thought that maybe we should go into business for ourselves in New Mexico with a similar deal. The jet boat ride on the Shotover River was NZ$109 for a 25 minute ride, which we took because we were in Queenstown and thought we should do something thrilling there. It was fun, but seemed a bit more like an amusement park ride than an outdoor adventure. We did like how maneuverable the boat was and how close it could get to the canyon walls while still going 50 mph! What topped the whole tourist trap thing about it though was the NZ$59 video of the ride and picture they try to sell you at the end. Too bad, too- we were sitting right in front of the camera, so it would’ve made an excellent keepsake if it weren’t so ridiculously priced.
After arriving back in Queenstown, we decided to take a look at some of the restaurants, especially a Mexican place that had caught our eyes the day before. We took a look at the menu that was conveniently posted outside and looked for some of our favorite items, like a burrito that was $25 and fajitas that were $30. We just couldn’t pay those prices for Mexican food, since often in the U.S. the price of Mexican food is not proportional to its tastiness. We decided to retreat back to the short bus and enjoy a great home-cooked lunch instead.
That night we decided that another night in Queenstown was not what we wanted to do so we headed up the road towards Glenorchy. I had read in the guidebook that the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy was one of the most scenic in the world. As we pulled out of Queenstown we both kind of thought to ourselves, okay the guidebook says its beautiful, but I’ll only believe it if I see it. Well, just a few k’s up the road and WOW! , snowy capped mountains began to show themselves beyond Lake Wakatipu. We stopped at a viewpoint and it just AWED us. It was such a clear and still evening and the lake looked like glass as there were absolutely no ripples in it. We ended up camping next to the lake at a perfect little spot. A couple of native kiwis from the north island were also there, and had been there fishing for several days already. They had caught several trout in the lake and had been enjoying cooking them up in their camper van each evening. They were even nice enough to give the short bus a jump start the next morning when we had drained more of the juice from it that we had anticipated. What was the most amazing about this spot though was the show in the sky we had that night. I am not sure when the last time was that we saw as many stars as we saw that night, it made it even more fun since we were in the southern hemisphere and were able to see the southern cross as well as the Clouds of Magellan.
View from the same campsite as above at night. Clouds of Magellan!
We now decided to hit the road and go to Milford Sound. Even though as the crow flies, Milford Sound is only about 25 miles over the mountains from Queenstown, you are forced to take a 160 mile detour to avoid the $400 plane ride there. So on this drive you get a chance to see plenty of sheep, cows, and domesticated deer. Driving into Fiordland National Park is a bit more interesting though. We decided to pull out after awhile and check out one of the viewpoints and although we enjoyed the viewpoint very much and the prehistoric looking forest, the coolest thing happened as we got in the car to leave. There was a very loud thunking on the roof, so Adam went to look and was surprised to see a very large parrot on the roof casually staring right back at him! We had read that there was the world’s only alpine parrot in the area that is locally known as the Kea. This bird was very funny and came down and sat on the open door to the short bus for quite awhile, waiting for us to feed it (which is strictly forbidden). Some other travelers arrived and commented to us to be careful because Keas are very smart, and they like to chew on the rubber parts of cars. As soon as they made the rubber comment, the bird began picking at the tires to the short bus! Good thing that tires are thick and strong, and that the Kea wasn’t as interested in the weather stripping! After awhile we had taken all of the pictures we could of this bird, so we parted ways and made our way into the park even further.
It really was a gorgeous drive, with waterfalls on the edges of cliffs and the road just seemed to meander through the mountains. We eventually came to a tunnel in the mountains, and were forced to wait fifteen minutes for our side to open up. Because of the tour buses and their enormous size, during the day there can only be traffic in one direction. Inside it looked like an old mining tunnel, not really finished off or lighted very well, and was a bit spookey. On the other side of the tunnel, we stopped at a trail that was labeled “The Chasm”. A few seconds into the trail we were awed by the place. The rainforest was absolutely stunning and idyllic. There were several different species of ferns here and some of them were enormous. Just a few more meters down the trail was “The Chasm” which was a very narrow passageway in the rock where massive amounts of water flows through and falls into a waterfall. It was noisy and incredible!
(About an hour after complaining that New Zealand looked just like home, and wondering where the primeval-looking forests were, we found this!)
After “The Chasm” we quickly made our way to Milford Sound. We took a little walk just as the sun was going down on the sound and found it incredibly peaceful and beautiful, but also knew that we needed to find a spot to stay for the night. Since we didn’t see any remote roads along the way, we were pretty resigned to the fact that we were going to need to stay in a “camping park” for the night. In Milford Sound there is only really one option on the west side of the tunnel so we had to stay at the park that charges $18 a person. $36 a night to park is a bit insane in our frugal opinions, and the only response we could get from the employees of the place regarding this matter was that we were in a national park and they were forced to pay a 5% tax to the park system. What a racket that was! It is just a bit uncomfortable when there is another campervan parked a few feet from you, so you end up closing all of the curtains while you are enjoying your meal and feeling a bit like a hermit because of this.
The next morning we awoke to enjoy a delicious breakfast in the short bus before boarding our cruise of the Milford Sound. We decided to take the “encounter cruise” since it is a smaller boat and allows less people on board. Once on the boat it did seem rather empty and we later found out that a whole tour bus that was scheduled to board, arrived ten minutes late and the boat was forced to leave to keep the schedule. Good for us! It was a beautiful day for the sound, and the sky was as clear as a bell! We were a bit worried about that since the area receives seven meters (21 feet) of rain annually. We also noticed that we were by far the youngest people on board, in fact our parents might have also been the youngest as well. The captain did a great job of giving us great information about the geology and history of the sound and giving us great encounters. Some of the encounters included bringing the boat so close to the walls of the fiord that you could touch the rock and plants on it. Oh yeah, I should mention that the Milford Sound is technically a fiord, but since fjord is a Norwegian word that was unknown to the people who named it, it is still known as Milford Sound. Technically, a sound is formed by a river and a fjord by a glacier. The Milford Sound was formed by a glacier. The captain took us the whole length of the fiord and back. On our way back we had the very best “encounter”. As we approached a 100 foot waterfall the captain made an announcement that he wanted everyone outside as we approached the falls, but also to take care of electrical equipment. The captain slowly approached, and drove right under the waterfall!! I was enjoying myself so much and was so preoccupied with the ice cold water pelting my face, and the amazing sight of seeing water falling from such a height that I didn’t even notice that everyone else on the boat had dashed inside for cover. As we drove out of the falls Adam tapped on the window he was taking photos from and asked me to pose as I continued to get drenched.
While driving out of the national park we decided to stop and take a bit of a hike. We were drawn to a spot on a very idyllic stream where the only reason the water looked green at all and not just completely clear was because the minerals in the rocks had a green hue to them. As we sat enjoying the place we also noticed that the birds were not afraid of us in the same way that birds back home are. They were much more inquisitive and would come much closer. The more time we spent there the more we were seeing. We both agreed that this “encounter” was the best part of our day.
We had been noticing for a few days that the short bus was leaking oil and we were having to check the levels regularly. At fifteen dollars a liter for replacement oil, the costs were really going to add up. We decided to go ahead and call the van company and ask if it would be possible to get the short bus fixed. Adam ended up talking with the mechanic and he apologized straight away saying that he changed the oil in all of the vans a week ago and he noticed that he put the wrong cap back on one of them, but didn’t have any way of knowing which of the vehicles was wrong. He then gave us a name of a shop to take the short bus to so it could get fixed, and before we knew it it was fixed, and we were back on the road.
We decided to spend the night in Wanaka after hearing that it was a pretty laid back town. It was a truly beautiful, on a pristine lake (of course) and was much more quiet than Queenstown. We ended up driving out of town for a ways, by a couple of sites from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The scenery was spectacular! As we drove, we were trying to find a good place to park for the night, it was pretty frustrating because every nook and cranny or even pull out along the road had a sign that said “No Camping”. Finally after driving for a while we came to a ski area, and we could get a bit off the main road and park for the night. Since most of New Zealand is grazing country, we had many nights where the only sounds we heard were those of sheep and cattle moaning. It was quite humorous really.
Our journey continued north to Manapouri where we enjoyed another lakeside camping spot and Shawn enjoyed a morning hair washing in the lake. Whooo! Very refreshing.
We then moved on to make our way through Mt. Aspiring National Park. We found a quiet place to rest our heads for the night and then woke up early the next morning to take the hike around Lake Matheson, where the morning hours bring beautiful reflections of the southern Alps on its glassy waters.
Later in the day we took some time to walk through the unreal fern forests. We couldn’t help thinking that just around the corner we would see a brachiosaurus munching on the tops of the trees. These ferns were huge, some well over 20 feet, they were so big that they resembled palm trees more than ferns. You had to get closer and look at the fronds to recognize that these really were huge ferns. There were also many other smaller species of ferns and vegetation on the floor of the forest that really made the forest look amazingly lush and green.
The next day we woke early for our day of glaciers. New Zealand has the only two glaciers in the world that descend into a rainforest. These are the Fox glacier and the Franz Joseph glacier, and they are only a few miles from each other. We decided to get up early and see both of these massive blocks of ice. There is an opportunity while at these places to do glacier hikes, but they require that you take a guide, which is really pretty expensive. Since we have both done some mountaineering with my dad in the Cascade Range and have walked on many glaciers, we decided we didn’t really want to pay for this experience. Also, Adam had come down with a cold and wasn’t feeling his best.
That night we managed to find a place to park the short bus right on the beach in the tiny village of Barrytown. It was great to listen to the waves all night, and wake up and see the beautiful beach. We took a little extra time for breakfast and enjoying the view.
A couple weeks before when we were in Sydney, Adam called his grandmother Mari to say hello. During their conversation it came up that we were going to New Zealand. Mari was quite happy because her sister, Sharon lives there, which Adam did not know. He wrote down her number and gave her a call right away. We made arrangements to see her in Nelson, which is on the north coast of the south island.
It was really nice for Adam and his aunt to reunite again. They hadn’t seen each other since Adam’s great-grandmother passed away in the early 90’s. It was great to be able to have a real house to rest in.
By this time we both had colds and the amazing weather that we had been enjoying as we toured New Zealand was changing to rain. We enjoyed catching up with Sharon and drinking some nice local wines with her in the evenings.Now that we have nearly completed our tour of the south island, we will spend sometime in the Marlborough region for a day or so and then take the ferry across to the to Wellington to spend sometime in the north island.