#21 NZ: Fiordland of the South Island, January 6 -
Continuing South on the West Coast
The South Island has more square miles than the North Island but only about one million of New Zealand's total population of a little over 4 million lives there. And almost half of the people on the South Island live in one of its 2 largest cities: Christchurch or Invercargill. We didn't know how the 40 million sheep were split between the 2 islands, but the lower human population density in the south would undoubtedly impact our daily services availability and therefore route selection.
We were reminded of the South Island's smaller
population as we arrived in the coastal town of Westport as the
welcoming billboard boldly told of its population of 6,000--for the region, not
the town. That was Westport, one of the "cities" and as we headed
south we were moving into increasingly remote areas, even though we were
still always on the main highway.
The increasing isolation was punctuated by frequent signs stating "Last petrol for 100 km" (60 miles) and our guide book's reminder that the next bank was a couple of hundred miles ahead. It was a bigger reach each day to find lodging, with our preferred 30 to 40 mile days giving way to 50 and 60 mile efforts.
And it was on the west coast that novel conventions began appearing, like coin-operated garbage disposal bins. Motel information sheets informed us that there were only 2 TV stations and 1 radio station available in the area and that they had no daily newspapers. We were also advised that the telephone system would be shut-down during storms to prevent damage. If you didn't like the standard sliced bread for sale in the store, you could order your favorite brand 2 days in advance "not counting weekends" if you were lingering long enough.
Only in the outback would the local advise for dealing with
the sand flies be to embrace the opportunity be a part of the ecosystem. And that rather than begrudge the rain,
the promo literature encouraged everyone to "just do those outdoor activities anyway" (though people did stare as
we ate our lunch on a bench in a downpour.) And amazingly, the day's
online weather report became available
at the info center between 3:30 and 4 pm -- a little late for planning
purposes. In contrast, equally small Turangi on the North Island where we laid over an extra day waiting for the
weather to improve, was receiving its second daily online report from the same
government agency by that time. Yes, we were in the "wop-wops".
Fortunately, we knew we were headed for the boon-docks, so as we could, we stocked up on staples. We squirreled away a week's supply of our favorite pasta sauce (that was all the store had in stock), a 2 week supply of bulgur for hearty, hot breakfasts, and a bit bigger supply than that of our favorite, equally hard to find chocolate. Our favorite European brand of non-DEET bug spray also emerged from the depths of our panniers and was immediately put into heavy service.
Franz Josef Glacier
The Franz Josef Glacier and the nearby Fox Glacier were among those frequently mentioned New Zealand tourist sights that made early entries onto our "must see" list. Once we got closer, we learned that part of the reason for their popularity was strictly for the lodging: without the lodging they spawned, it would be impossible for the Kiwis to do the popular driving loop that included the west coast. Actually seeing the glaciers was secondary to many.
And once we were
at the glaciers, we were stunned to learn that despite the inferred
accolades from their frequent mention, they were short on credentials. We
assumed that they were the longest, biggest, the oldest, the deepest, or some
other kind of "-est" but we found no such information in our careful
research. They are but 2
of about 360 glaciers in New Zealand--2 that are conveniently located on the west
coast driving loop.
But "Franz & Fox" are notable as they are more active glaciers than many of the other in the world. Huge regional rainfall amounts in the Southern Alps and especially large open areas at their upper ends means that they accumulate an unusual amount of ice at their tops. Because of the large storehouse of ice and the steepness of the terrain, Franz Josef glacier can advance or recede over 1 yard in a day--10 times faster than a typical European glacier.
But like so many outdoor activities in New Zealand, one must pay a guide to proceed and here it was to proceed onto the glaciers. In Iceland and the European Alps, we just trotted out there on our own, but here you pay $90-140NZ for a half or full day guided experience. Yes, you get extras like equipment usage (boots, crampons, jacket, and pants) but nonetheless the big admission charge does get your attention. And as always, one is gambling on the highly unpredictable weather as you reserve your spot in a guided group.
We had reserved a room for 4 nights at Franz, giving us 3 days from which to make our best guess as to a good weather day for our glacier outing. We read between the lines in the 3 day forecast of rain and wind and picked the middle day, having arrived in the rain. And "Oh my, but did it rain" our first night at Franz. It felt like we were getting too much of their annual average of 13' of rain. Over 70" of rain is the record for a 3 day interval--they know it was more than that, but the rain gauge overflowed and they don't know by how much. And though we saw our share of drizzle, we also experienced the downpours that are the usual way they receive their rain.
That evening and the next day we nervously watched both the
flooded lawn and the rising creek in front of our motel and wondered if it would
ever stop. On our walk in the rain out to a view point of the foot of the glacier
in the morning, we
chatted with some of the drenched folks returning from their half day glacier
walk and hoped we wouldn't be so unlucky.
Amazingly, and in conflict with the weather forecast, the following day was glorious. We had picked the best weather day and had sunny skies in the morning for our glacier outing. The clouds rolled in and a little drizzle made an appearance as the temperatures dropped in the afternoon, but overall we had stunning weather on the glacier.
Our guided glacier walk in the crevasses and on the surfaces of the glacier wasn't a fantastic experience but it is one we were glad to have had. Like other New Zealand outings with big ticket prices, there was a sizeable gap between what we paid and what we felt like we got for the money. But that being said, it was an infinitely better experience that it would have been in the rain.
The rain at Franz Josef made us anxious to get out of the area, though we'd be in it for at least another week. The lush landscape didn't look that much different from the less wet areas and admiring the scenery was often limited by the fog and low clouds. Managing the moisture indoors was its own challenge too. We often lacked adequate ventilation in the rooms to remove the steam from showers, cooking, and drying laundry. Opening the windows to air out our rooms wasn't workable because of the press of biting bugs waiting to get in the room.
Amazingly, we never had a room with window screens until we were almost out of the sand fly zone. In 1 town I tried to buy my own roll of wire or textile mesh to tape over a window for a portable screen, but none was available in town. And the ever-present smell of mold in the cupboards and corners of the always-damp rooms added to our impatience with the region.
Making Peace with the Activity Prices
Paying the price for our guided walk on Franz Josef Glacier came a little easier as we had become more firm in our resolve to pay the premium to do new activities while in the country. We came to New Zealand for the presumed great biking and to see what the country was about. We knew we wouldn't be fed by our usual traveler delights of numerous fine museums, the challenges of learning a new language, or wrapping our brains around ancient history. We wondered what New Zealand would have to make it special and we learned that the adult-theme-park-styled outdoor activities were one of the country's strong suits.
Our first dip into the ridiculously priced activities had been at Rotorua on the North Island where we paid the standard $120-130NZ (mid $80'sUS) entry fee to take a 40 minute walk into a crater after a ride out to the site. Then we paid the same standard fee for full-day group kayaking activities in Abel Tasman Park. The glacier walk was slightly more at $140NZ, but we were definitely seeing the pattern and didn't flinch too much at the price--you either pay to participate or you only imagine what it would be like.
The New Zealand tourism industry has done an impressive job of carving out a niche for itself as a
first-timer's outdoor activity place and we decided to take advantage of it. You can come to New Zealand with no
experience and little or no gear and still have a huge range of experiences. The
passive, walk-through at an outdoor site like the Rotorua geysers usually costs around $25NZ
but to do anything where they require you to be supervised or use equipment
instantly bumps the price into at least the $130NZ range. For that price, you could be
buying as little as a 1-2 minute experience on a bungy cord or you might get a full
day outing on the water or a glacier. And of course, the sky is literally the
limit, with helicopter views of a glacier running $235NZ for 20 minutes to other
aerial activities that are $1000NZ for the day.
It all comes at hefty prices, but the activities are phenomenally easy to access. Usually reservations the day before are sufficient for just about anything if you have that credit card handy. And we even called for a shuttle bus/water taxi combo one morning and we were on the bus 10 minutes later--the bus had started an hour ago at another city but happened to be passing by our motel.
And lack of equipment isn't a barrier either. The companies doing the guided glacier walks will toss in waterproof jackets and pants and a pair of boots in addition to the crampons every guest is issued. For less packaged outings like the Tongariro Crossing on the North Island, you can rent just about anything you didn't bring, including packs, boots, hats, jackets and mittens. Outdoor shops in some towns will rent you tents, sleeping bags and cook stoves by the day. Non-denim pants, a bottle of water and a tube of sunscreen are the basic supplies to get you to the starting line of almost any outdoor activity in New Zealand.
The availability of rentable equipment didn't tip the balance for us in signing on for activities, though the fact that New Zealand is English speaking made it very inviting to push our edge out a bit as the shared language (and culture) added to our sense of safety. We did find the easy availability of new sports experiences inviting and dabbled in several new activities. And with some activities, as on the glacier, we did venture farther than we would have on our own.
We did, mostly by chance, manage to pare the costs down here and there. Our all day rock climbing outing from Wanaka was half the price it would have been from nearby Queenstown. Our half-day kayak rental from Anakiwa was half of what it would have been from nearby Picton. But you have to go down the road to find price breaks as magically all the operators for a given event in a given area charge exactly the same prices, like the glaciers walks down south and the water taxis up north.
After arriving in New Zealand, glow worms were added to my short list of things unique to New Zealand that I hoped to see, along with kiwi birds. They weren't on the "must see" list as the first brochures I saw regarding them were $180NZ bus trips to a well known cave--and that was before we understood how often high price tags were tacked on to activities in New Zealand. We managed to see a cluster in a small cave in the Abel Tasman Park up north on the South Island for free and some again in a little dell at Fox Glacier for a donation of $2NZ each.
Glow-worms are bizarre little creatures that live in dark,
damp nooks in forests and caves. At night, the larvae of the fungus gnat
produce a pinpoint of bright light to attract insects towards their sticky
strands that function like a spider's web. Curious insects get paralyzed and
stuck in the strands and then the glow-worm munches them down. The hungrier the
worm, the brighter its light so the most needy in the colony generally dine
Both clusters we saw created a fantasy-like experience, making us feel like we were surrounded by the tiniest of stars in a night sky but stars that are only a few feet away. Their lights don't photograph well, so one must just enjoy the moment and leave it at that. Though we did go back to the dell near Fox Glacier the next drizzly morning to see what there was to see of them in the daylight, which was their sticky strands that are invisible in the dark, both to us and the bugs.
Haast is one of those incredibly inconsequential "wide spots in the road" but it is on the tip of every South Island traveler's tongue because it is one of the few identifiable places for hundreds of miles. It's where the north-south road on the west coast turns the corner and heads east. Surprisingly, this turn in the road occurs little more than half way down the west coast as the southern end of the South Island has only "out and back" roads and no through roads.
Incredibly, Haast was only linked up to the road system in the 1960's--yes, that's right--the 1960's. Haast received limited air service in the 1930's and until then its major link with the outside world was by boat. Cattle dropped off in the ocean were forced to swim ashore, so even the boat service was a little rough.
The newness of the road towards Haast revealed itself in an unexpected way, which was the suddenly odd assortment of names on every little creek that crossed under the road. Every drainage ditch, culvert, and creek in New Zealand seemed to either have a name or number or both and my cyclist's mind that's always hungry for entertainment read every one. On the day we rode to Haast, the names switched from having a historical ring to sounding more like someone sat down and wrote out a long list of words and just stuck them on as they came to them. "Gunboat" could easily be historical in many countries, but not likely in this part of New Zealand. "Windbag" seemed like a reach, as did "Hostel" in an area traditionally short on habitation. "Collie" might have been credible as "Dead Collie Gulch", but just "Collie" seemed hollow. Then there was the systematic series of plant names that smacked of the creeks all being named in the same week instead of over the decades by the locals.
Haast is an important link in the modern road system, but still retains its outpost quality. I was counting on its store to re-provision as we just weren't prepared to carry all the fresh produce we would want to eat for 4 or 5 days, as even stashes for 48 hour intervals load us down. But we were in Haast a day early as the truck bringing the next batch of produce wouldn't arrive until hours after we left the next morning. So I had my pick from 6 oranges on their last legs and there were no fresh dinner vegetables at all to choose from. I snapped up the 1 bag of terribly expensive frozen vegetables which was, as I expected, freezer burned. The next night canned beets would have to do. Prices on what they did have were at least double of those at the last store. But despite the top prices on both food and lodging we, like many others, were graciously grateful for what Haast had to offer.
Climbing the wrong way--the steeper grades--over Haast Pass was the price we had to pay do get out of the wet west coast and to share our blood with fewer sand flies. We debated long and hard as to whether to bike the pass or take a shuttle bus. Some cyclist's reported that their guide books claimed it was one of the most beautiful stretches of road on the island and was not to be missed. But it had its challenges. We decided to take the bus only if it was stormy as steep climbing on a long day was enough to contend with--sensory-distorting weather elements would be too much.
Lodging in the whole southern end of the South Island was in short supply and it was an 80km or about 50 mile ride from Haast to the next warm bed. Unfortunately for us, it was a 50 km or about 30 mile ride just to the base of the pass, meaning we'd do the stiff climbing in the afternoon after we'd already done what is often a full day ride for us. And worse yet, almost half of the 3000' elevation gain would occur rolling up and down over and over again just getting to the starting point of the big climb.
We knew the steep part was really steep, but none of the guide books or other cyclists could put a number on it for us. Once we were into it, we understood that it was one of the steeper sustained climbs we'd ever done, with over 1 mile being at uninterrupted 10-15% grades. Well, the grade was uninterrupted but we however stopped a number of times to catch our breath and get our heart rates down during the stint. During one such stop we waved at the group of 20 or so Americans from a Vermont-based biking company as they made their way up the pass on a shuttle bus with their bikes on a roof rack.
Our 100+ pounds each of bike and gear and lack of regular
training in the 15% range was enough to intensely feel the effects of the effort.
We both were driven to pause when the physiological stress generated a
characteristic but odd sensation of being dissociated from the tops of our
heads. Definitely time for more oxygen.
Another sign of being overtaxed was overcorrecting for a wobble, resulting in weaving around over too much of the road. We'd press on until the warning signs compelled us to find a spot on the road where we could both stop and have a prayer of restarting. Restarting on a steep, narrow road is a skill but it does take some cooperation from both the road designers and the traffic. The steepness of the most difficult stretch of road was underscored by spotting the only emergency ramp for runaway vehicles that we'd seen in New Zealand.
As expected, we began leaving the coastal weather behind us before we even crested the pass: the solid bands of clouds gave way to clouds with distinct edges; the water-laden gray colored clouds shifted to cottony white ones; and the humidity of the air rearranged by the winds was suddenly lower. For the first time in weeks, we actually got a little hot in the afternoon.
The next morning after the big climb, we awoke to brilliant blue skies, little wind and only a few sand flies. It looked like summer had finally arrived. The mountain views weren't spectacular, but we savored the overall experience of pleasant scenery, nice weather, and light traffic. Not long after leaving our overnight village of Makarora, our legs gave their first signs of still suffering from the previous day's efforts as the 5% grades were a struggle. Luckily the discomfort eased over the next hour as there was a string of 10% grades in our future--grades that were at the limit of what we could do that day.
But the joys of the day were systematically diminished as we approached our lay-over town of Wanaka. The beautiful skies turned dark and we couldn't out run the sprinkles. Luckily we did pull in to our reserved motel room before the downpour hit. But just before that, we had our worst encounter ever with a belligerent driver on the road.
We were proceeding with the right-of-way across one of New Zealand's many one-way bridges when an oncoming truck barreled onto the bridge instead of waiting in the appointed side lane. We were in the middle of the narrow bridge so our presence wouldn't be missed and he faced off with us, in the middle of the lane. There was no way we could get around him. After some very spontaneously emitted profanity on my part, he yielded, barely being able to make room for us to pass. The lower traffic levels on the South Island had definitely made biking there safer than on the North Island, but this underscored the hostility we had felt on the road from many Kiwi drivers, drivers that wouldn't budge to give us a safety margin.
Though we just couldn't shake some of the aggravations about biking in New Zealand, we did get the hang of doing the activity circuit. We dabbled with planning our itinerary around activities on the North Island at the Tongariro Crossing, but it was on the South Island we refined it to an art.
Traveling during the high season as we were made lodging an
issue, so bookings for rooms had to be made 3-10 days in advance, depending on
the area. Planning for an outdoor activity made that a gamble, as the weather was
forever a wildcard. So, we finally learned to book 3 or 4 nights in each
activity town, which would give us 2 or 3 days from which to guess about the
best weather day once there. The forecasts in New Zealand are less reliable than many other
places because of their more complicated circumstances, but we fortunately also
got more than our share of lucky guesses. That system had
us lingering about once every week or 10 days for a South Island activity and
after walking on the Franz Josef Glacier, next came rock climbing in Wanaka.
Rock climbing certainly isn't on the "A List" for fit New Zealand tourists like the glacier walk and the Tongariro Crossing, but it edged up on our list just because it was there. Our Via Ferrata experiences last summer in the Italian Dolomites piqued our interest in climbing and we got a little training at Portland's Rock Gym in October. We extended that indoor climbing experience by spending a couple of afternoons on indoor climbing walls in New Zealand, so it seemed like it was time to move back outdoors to the authentic, parent sport. The New Zealand sports theme park atmosphere made it easy, so why make our first outdoor climb here?
One of our reasons for taking in some of these first-time
sports activities in New Zealand was the opportunity to do them with
English-as-a-first-language folks but in Wanaka we were unexpectedly lead by a Spaniard
with a heavy accent.
"Oh well, at least the cultural setting was familiar". True to the first-timer's
package deal in New Zealand, the guide picked us up at our motel and hauled us
and the 2 other wannabees out to the fabled climbing areas in the surrounding
hills. We all
rummaged through the bin of predictably uncomfortable climbing shoes and were issued our
harnesses, carabineers, and helmets from the back of the van and we were off to
the rock faces.
We got what we wanted, which was a coached opportunity to climb on living rock instead of plastic knobs. In some ways, we preferred the indoor rock gym experience where more of your time is spent climbing and less of it getting there and setting up. Indoor climbing also has the advantage of one not getting blasted by the sun or rain or being blinded by sighting your route directly into the sun. But of course, the fresh air and grand views made being outdoors more fun.
My other-country bias leapt out with each hand hold as I found my self worrying about coming face to face with a rattle snake. Not that that has ever happened to me, but 'rattlers were occasionally found on the little hill in my Oregon hometown of Eugene and were a part of the "caution in the wilderness" training I received, beginning as a child. "Putting your hands into rock crevasses that you can't see" was high on the list of things you just don't do and here I was doing it, over and over again. The informed adult in my head had to say "But there are no snakes in New Zealand" with each hidden grasp made. It was a surprising distraction to be constantly countering that appropriate-back-home training that was totally irrelevant in New Zealand.
The other surprise in climbing outdoors was that comforting hand holds were much more difficult to find than on the indoor courses. I was told that the schist rock in the area added to that particular challenge as it only provided little knobs--had we been on the rocks around Auckland, the hand holds would have been the more familiar, big shapes to grasp .
But as expected, our introductory outdoor rock climbing was a success. The home-based business efficiently and professionally delivered what we thought we were buying and it was only a little above the standard daily rate for New Zealand. It felt like our planned stop-over in Wanaka gave us another punch on our "New Zealand First Timer's Activity Card" as we slowly made our way around the island.
The end of our first month of South Island travels had me agreeing with a young German tourist we spoke with early in our trip who confessed that she preferred the North Island to the South, despite the prevailing opinion being the opposite. She was quick to say that she couldn't identify why she felt that way, but it was a clear conclusion on her part.
Our slow mode of travel gives us more time to ponder such
pressing questions as "Why is the North Island more interesting than the South?"
and I settled on the reason being the greater variety of scenery on the North Island. The look of the
land from one day to the next was more varied on the North Island than the South
Island. And, like a good photograph, a given scan of the landscape on the North
Island contained a better balance between objects of interest in the foreground,
mid-ground, and background than the South Island. The South Island
panoramas and views often lacked much of distinction in the mid-ground and
little varied in what we did see from moment to moment. Big mountains off in the
distance and trees or grasses closer at hand were the common South Island
theme, with little for the imagination to latch on to.
But my South Island stereotype shifted as we rode from Wanaka to Queenstown via the Crown Range road. For part of the journey, the steep hills were practically in our laps like in Scotland, with all of the hillside details in clear focus. The brilliant lupines in white, pink, purple and blue were right there at our feet, not off in the distance.
It was a tough pull to the summit of the Crown Range pass, which is the highest sealed road in New Zealand at 1076m or about 3500' but the newness of New Zealand as a country was underscored at the top. There a commemorative plaque noted that the route began as a Maori trail and then it became a road, but the surface was sealed for the first time in the year 2000.
And it was at the summit that the "in your face" hills and lupines gave way to the steep-sided valleys filled with lush green fields and sparkling rivers. The severely switch-backed road we'd soon be cruising down punctuated the steepness of it all. And until we approached Queenstown, all of our views of the South Island mountains for the last couple of weeks were 'yawners'. We'd only gotten glimpses of the Southern Alps when they were far away and once we got closer to them, they were usually shrouded in clouds. But here in the Queenstown region with its typically clearer skies, we enjoyed endlessly staring at the series of dramatic, jagged peaks.
I had thought the name of the Queenstown area's mountains, "The Remarkables," to be rather childish, but that all changed once I saw them. They really were remarkable compared to the other mountains we'd seen in New Zealand, as I found myself remarking about them multiple times an hour while in their presence. Their extreme steepness meant that it was easy to be close enough to appreciate the roughness of their terrain and the drama of their presence, and the heavily textured surfaces kept my eyes riveted on them.
Arriving in Town
Riding through downtown Queenstown after 8 hours on the road made me sympathetic with the criticisms we'd heard and read of its commercialism. As Bill put it, the effect of central Queenstown's ambiance was like when we arrived in downtown Las Vegas after camping and biking for a week in Death Valley--sensory overload. And heaven forbid, but modern 3 storey buildings stuffed with aggressive retail marketing vigorously competing for your attention was quite a contrast to many sleepy South Island towns that still sport their plain, smooth, turn of the 20th century facades with fewer windows.
We didn't linger in the commercial core as we were pooped
from the big riding day that finished with a rare hot afternoon and we instead
made a beeline for our reserved hotel room. We had to push our bikes up the
short steep hill that approached 20% grades, but it was worth it.
What turned out to be a luxury hotel at the going rate for motels was a thrill. Inexplicably, the manager upgraded our room to include a view of the lake and a free, in-room washing machine. The bathtub and CNN on the tube were already delighting us, but the overall soothing ambiance of the room had us plotting to spend all of our layover day savoring its comforts rather than hiking as planned. Oh, and that $30 bottle of wine on the counter sure looked tempting. The luxurious room was an added bonus as it coincided with our 28th wedding anniversary and it countered what was expected to be grim accommodations in a couple of days in a too-cheap campground cabin in the middle of nowhere.
Love It or Hate It
Few people are indifferent to Queenstown--they either love it or hate it. Surely the crowds that pour into it in the winter when it wears its ski resort face must love it for the many trendy bars and cafes available to nurture them after a day on the slopes. And the fact that the place is swarming with adrenalin junkies that converge for the dizzying array of summer activities that could suck thousands of dollars out of your pockets in a few days time speaks volumes about their perspective.
But others we spoke with got out of town as quickly as they could. Several were so repulsed that they shortened their planned stay in the town; others with the same opinion were staying way out on the fringes and briefly ducking into town for the essentials.
We were among the schizophrenic few that were simultaneously drawn to it and repelled by it. Of course, our opinion was in part colored by being there on our 4th day in a row without rain--possibly the longest dry spell we'd had since arriving in the country. And then there was the killer deal we stumbled into on our luxury hotel room--the most soothing room we'd had in our 6 years of travel. And looking out at the very remarkable Remarkables from our comfy hotel room without having to cope with rain or sand flies made Queenstown seem like a fine place to be.
Should we have been in need of parts or gear, Queenstown would have looked like a gift indeed. In addition to the activities merchants, the town was brimming with outdoors and sports stores. Display models of tents were set-up on the sidewalk, just so you wouldn't miss the point. We didn't go in, but I suspect that between the array of shops most any pressing outdoor gear problem could be solved, which is a huge benefit to the tourist with a vacation riding on specialty equipment in this relatively remote area.
Even though elements of our Queenstown stay were deeply pleasing to us, there was no denying that throbbing retail scene that set new standards in manufacturing needs rather than satisfying the basics. In other New Zealand small towns, the storefronts were a familiar mix of hardware stores, clothing shops, and other "meet your daily needs" places. In Queenstown, those shops are dwarfed by promoters of an amazing mix of activities.
Missing your Harley or never had one--there was a Harley Davidson rental and tour group shop on Queenstown's main street. And the array of things being promoted to do in the air above Queenstown attached to a string was astounding. You could tandem paraglide, hang glide, or skydive with a pro managing the technical details. You could float with the help of a parachute while being towed around the lake by a boat. There was the truly bizarre wingless aircraft hanging from a tether and canyon cable that would let you buzz around and do loop-de-loops. Or if you just want the thrill without the risk, the flight simulator would do the trick. Queenstown is home to the original bungy jumps, so they were every where, as were body-friendlier looking harness-styled jumps that keep you more upright.
It was a mind-boggling
array of thrills, with the cheapest being a couple of minutes on a bungy for around $150NZ.
Gliding for 10 minutes would run closer to $200NZ but be sure to bring
your own fleece jacket 'cause if you buy one from the parasailing folks, it will
set you back $350NZ. The most minutes for your dollar were on the flight
simulator where $225NZ buys you an hour. It was hard to assign a winner for the
"Most Outrageous Pricing Award", but the $29NZ charged of spectators of one of the events
would have to be a contender.
It was a toss-up between Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound for our last planned group activity, with us finally picking the cheaper of the 2 fjords for the greater drama of its steeper sides. We based at the pretty lakeside town of Te Anau to further reduce the cost of the bus ride and the length of time on the roads to the water. The 75 mile bus ride to the Sound from Te Anau was highly rated and indeed we enjoyed it more than the 2 hour boat ride in the Sound itself.
These Sound outings are yet another of the very well organized and efficient conveyor belt activities available in New Zealand. As at other sights, the very personable and easy-going drivers and guides take the sharp edges off the mass-production feeling, but the numbers tell the story. The Milford Sound tourists have been doubling in numbers every 5 years for an unstated length of time. On a busy day, there are over a 100 buses a day hauling visitors from Te Anau or Queenstown to make the boat trip into the Sound.
We were lucky as our driver estimated that only about 40
buses of all sizes were making the ritual journey on our appointed day for one
of the 35 boat trips. At one
of the numerous stops for a short scenic walk or look at the peaks, our driver
said he'd seen as many as 18 buses waiting for their passengers on busier days. Even he agreed
that being heel-to-toe on the little nature walk was no fun for anyone.
The bus ride from the east side of the Southern Alps up over a low pass and down the other side held our interest with the sheer valley walls, the currently rain-fed skinny waterfalls, and sightings of debris from recent avalanches. The drama of the rocky and rugged terrain is always of interest to us and the especially hard rock in this area retained the sharp lines created by the glaciers despite thousands of years of erosive forces. And getting a close-up look at the notoriously destruction alpine parrots, the kea's, was an extra treat. We however dreaded being thrown back into the wet weather and sand flies so typical of the west coast.
The centerpiece activity--the over 2 hour boat trip on the Sound--was much lower on content for us than the bus ride. The main gimmick on the boat was repeated often, which was the captain nosing the bow of the boat within a few yards of the vertical rock faces to get close to a waterfall. The spray of the waterfall increased the giggles as travelers now got wet from the waterfall as well as the alternating drizzle and rain. Waterfalls are the main attraction and all of the promoters insist that a rainy day is the best day to see the Sound as there are more waterfalls. I guess we are party-poopers, but we'd have preferred dry weather and blue skies to take in the scenery at the expense of the waterfall sightings.
So, another punch on our imaginary New Zealand Activity Card: we'd seen Milford
Sound. Once again, it was an interesting experience but seemed both over-rated
and over priced for what we got at the standard daily rate of $135NZ per person. We were glad
we'd taken the general advise in only planning to visit 1 of the 2 Sounds.
That Wild New Zealand Weather
Being in New Zealand and especially on the west coast of the South Island was an eye-popping education in meteorology. Despite buying a book on the subject, we were still at the stage of having more questions than answers while on the west coast, but our appreciation of its complexity had sky rocketed during our stay.
Oregon is on the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is on the Pacific Ocean; Oregon is in the "Roaring 40's" latitudes for strong winds and so is New Zealand; and the weather in both Oregon and New Zealand are affected by cold polar air and warm, moist air from the tropics: it seemed like it shouldn't be any harder to predict weather in New Zealand than in Oregon but it is and its a nightmare.
We intently stared at the briefly displayed weather maps on the nights we had access to TV news and were aghast at what we saw. Some nights there was an assortment of 5 different low and high pressure systems jostling for dominance over New Zealand. Grasping the array of pressure systems was hard enough, but then it was the collisions at their borders that would create the weather we felt. We listened to the description of multiple troughs and fronts depicted with pink and blue lines with attached triangles and half circles; we studied the labyrinth of compressing or expanding isobars; and we watched the time lapsed projections and still were clueless as to whether to expect rain or shine the next day in our area. And of course, we could easily have both and both multiple times and our informed guess was almost as good as the pro's.
It is apparently the presence of the massive and dry continent of Australia to the west of New Zealand that makes its weather so different than Oregon's as the US Pacific Northwest lacks a similar companion land mass. The air cruising over the enormous lands of Australia heats up and then hits a warm current in the Tasman Sea as it heads west, loading up with moisture in a way that only hot air can. That moisture laden warm air slams into the roughly north-south-oriented New Zealand mountain ranges and is forced to suddenly rise. The rising air catches a chill and blammo--dumps most of the volumes of water that can be held by warm air and not by cooler air. That results in New Zealand having some of the highest rainfall areas in the world and being the second stormiest country in the world. In addition, in New Zealand's wettest areas, much of the water is deposited in downpours of inches in hours. We saw warnings of possible 3-4" downpours in 3 to 6 hours several times while in New Zealand, and surprisingly, not just near the mountains.
Once again I wished I had kept a little calendar to track the number of days with rain as we traveled. It always seemed too grumpy and obsessed at the time, but it would have made for an interesting look back as both November and December had been worse than average for New Zealand this year. I was left guessing that in the our first month on the South Island we must have had rain 5 or 6 out of every 7 days. Luckily we weren't out in it every time. Several torrential downpours that occurred while we were on the west coast fell for 10-12 hours, but mostly overnight. We might catch the beginning or the end on the bikes, but not feel the full force (or volume) of it.
Several of the gully-washers were on days we laid over for hiking, like at the inland Nelson Lakes in the north and at the Franz Josef glacier. Those times, we trimmed back our plans and settled for a fitness walk and doing chores rather than the hike that we'd anticipated. And many of our riding days were in alternating drizzle, showers, downpours and drier spells, which iwa far superior to all day rain.
It's mid-January now, which is mid-July weather in the Northern Hemisphere and the TV meteorologist's are beginning to talk about summer in the past tense. We were still hoping for an improving trend for our last 6 weeks in the country when the weather is typically "more settled" but are now worried that they've written off the summer of '07.
Where We Are Now, January 25, 2007: Invercargill
In early November, Invercargill was but a hypothetical, southern-most destination for us on New Zealand's South Island and here we are. But of course, it isn't really a destination but a point to loop around as we begin our journey north up the South Island. The original plan was to cruise up the east coast, taking in a couple of cities and some marine life viewpoints marked on our map. But Map Man is in a dither as several South Island Kiwi's have urged us to tour north on the inland roads, taking some routes he already decided against. Lodging availability information from the tourist office folks in Invercargill may be the deciding factor in our route.
We have a little over 4 weeks to make our way back to the Picton ferry at the northern tip of the South Island. From Picton we'll take the ferry to Wellington and after a couple more sightseeing days there, we'll hop a 12 hour train to Auckland, skipping the difficult traffic on the return trip on the North Island. We'll be back home on March 1.