Friday, January 8, 2016

New Zealand, South Island

In Wellington, we boarded a ferry to take us to the South Island.  The kids were very excited to drive the van, which we christened Lord Alphard, onto the ferry.  Once situated we sat back and enjoyed the three and a half hour journey.  The views along the way were amazing.  I absolutely love seeing the scenery from the water.  The view sailing away from Wellington looked just like a postcard.  I had expected some rough seas in the channel between the North and South Islands, but thankfully the water was very calm.  The captain announced that there were a couple of whales off of the starboard side but once we got there they had dove back down and we missed them.  As we approached the South Island, the scenery was stunning, lush green, high hills that go straight into the sea.  The channels into Picton were rather narrow and I was impressed at how easily the captain navigated the ferry into these small channels with such finesse.  Along the way, there were a few houses that dotted the hillsides and it seemed like a really great view to be able to enjoy every day.  

Caroline on the ferry boat

Passing another ferry on the way to Picton

Lush pastures everywhere!
Once we arrived in Picton we had a short drive to Blenheim to stay for the night.  We grabbed a great meal at an Indian restaurant and headed to our motel.  One thing we have learned is that in New Zealand they don't really have hotels except in Auckland.  Motels, motor courts and holiday parks are what are common.  When Justin and I booked our places to stay we needed to fill in some transit gaps and booked a few motels and holiday parks (campgrounds).  My experiences with motels are a little sketchy, so my bar was set pretty low for the place we booked in Blenheim. Justin and I had once booked a motel in Durango, named the Iron Horse, and it was a scary, filthy, transient populated place that did not match the outdated photos online.   Much to my pleasure the Elena Court Motel was awesome, this was no Iron Horse.  It had been newly renovated and it was really nice.  So what I have learned is that our definition of motels is very different from the definition of motels in New Zealand.  We had a lovely night and continued our journey to Christchurch.  Along the drive we stopped and saw tons of seals laying on the beaches.  The waitress from the night before had told us about the seals and we were all delighted to get to see them.  In fact, they were literally just a few feet away from us.   We had been told not to get too close because they can be pretty aggressive and can attack, and oddly enough they are very fast moving.  We kept our distance and just watched the seals. There were quite a few babies and it was fun watching them play and swim in tiny sea  pools.  We also saw a couple of males fight over their territory, men!  

Lots of Sea Lions
Sea Lions lounging on the rocks
We continued down the coast to Kaikoura and stopped for some delicious fish and chips.  I love that you got to pick between 12 different kinds of fish.  We picked a few different kinds and they were all good but I think my favorite was Tarakihi.  It is a moist fish that has a really mild, buttery flavor, yum.   The chips were crispy and perfectly salted.  What a great lunch!  We walked around Kaikoura after lunch and ended up on this great rocky beach.  The stones were so smooth that they felt soft. Most of them were gray but a few here and there were pure white.  I collected a pocket full of them to bring home.  My favorite "souvenirs" are pictures and shells or in this case rocks. We got back to Lord Alphard and finished the drive into Christchurch.

The rocky beach at Kaikoura
In Christchurch, I took Rachel, Caleb Joel and Danielle to see the new Star Wars movie.  We also spent some time visiting the city.  We had a wonderful time at the botanic garden.  We explored different zones of flowers and trees, the rose garden was my favorite, but I think Eden's favorite was the playground zone. In 2011, there was a major earthquake in Christchurch and driving around the city you can still see the effects of it.  There are a ton of new buildings and houses, but the cathedral and lots of government buildings are still in ruins.  About a week previous to our visit in Christchurch, I had heard in the news that the government had just received their insurance money to rebuild.  I couldn't believe that it had taken that long and they had only been given 1/3 of the money that they had requested.  So rebuilding will probably take even longer than they are hoping for and not everything will be able to be reconstructed.  In the older part of the city you could see where entire blocks had completely crumbled and where only a wall or a portion of a façade remained.  The devastation was huge including the loss of 185 people, but everywhere you go you see examples of the resilience of the residents.  On New Year's Eve we took a drive to Lyttleton to see the Bay and the pretty views.  We also celebrated the New Year in Christchurch and it was really fun to think that we were in a part of the world that celebrated the  New Year first. Everyone, except Eden stayed up until midnight to ring in 2016 and had a little bubbly drink to toast. That was really fun.  

Christchurch Botanic Gardens
In the rose garden
Beautiful Roses
On top of a huge tree stump
Joel at the botanic gardens
The bay near Lyttleton
Happy New Years!

The following day, we made our way further south to Dunedin, pronounced "done Eden".  Now food here is pretty expensive, expect if you go to a fast food place.   So we grabbed a few pizzas en route at Domino's (who knew) and ate lunch at a park, in of all places, along Caroline Bay.  So after we ate we walked over to the bay to check it out.  Once in Dunedin we checked into our "Holiday Park" lodging.  It was unique to say the least.  They had painted each cabin a different cartoon character, theme, or superhero.  Ours was a log cabin theme, so pretty benign to say the least.  Across from us was Sponge Bob, Batman, and Scooby Doo cabins, a little weird.  The campground was right next to a beach, so that was nice.  We spent a few days visiting Dunedin including the Otago Peninsula.  At the Otago Peninsula, there are tons of seagulls and if you are lucky you can see Royal Albatross, Yellow-Eyed Penguins, and Little Penguins.  Unfortunately, we only got to see LOTS of seagulls and a few New Zealand Fur Seals, that are actually sea lions, even though they call them seals.  We had the best laugh because when we got out of the car, Joel was immediately bombed by a sea gull on his jacket sleeve.  There was bird poop everywhere, so getting hit was highly likely.  The rest of the time Eden kept saying, "OK guys, I'm just terrified of the poop and the birds, let's go to the car."  Luckily, once we left the center after about 30 minutes of walking around, Joel was the only poop victim.  

Beach near our campground in Dunedin
Otago pennisula
We headed into the town center and had lunch at a restaurant called "Ratbags", great pizza, terrible name.  Rachel and I learned that Dunedin was settled by the Scottish and was supposed to be the new Edinburgh, Scotland.  In fact, the name Dunedin comes from the old Gaelic word for Edinburgh.  The city layout is identical to Edinburgh, and in doing so, they did not take into account the topography of the area.  So, there are some pretty steep streets here including the steepest street in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.  Needless to say we headed over to Baldwin street to check it out.  I was driving and decided that we needed to drive up it.  Honestly my confidence in Lord Alphard was uncertain since he had struggled on several mountains.  For a large van he has only a 4 cylinder engine, but I figured let's give it a try.  We started up and it was going rather well then towards the top we started to slow and Justin said, "Give it a little more gas."  I said, "I've got it floored!" Justin just burst out laughing.  We barely made it up, but thankfully we made it.   Once at the top I turned it around to head back down. It was definitely very steep, and everyone said that they were nervous.  I was just relieved we made it and we can say we drove up and down the steepest  street in the world, in a 4 banger nonetheless.  

Train Station at Dunedin designed in an Edwardian Baroque style
View Down Baldwin Street.  It is steeper than it looks.
Rachel at the top of Baldwin streeet
After our adventures in Dunedin, we drove to Te Anau.  This is basically the closest city you can get to, in order to visit Milford Sound, which is still a 2 hour drive away.  Justin's dad, Robert, told us whatever we do in New Zealand, make sure to visit Milford Sound, and we were NOT disappointed. We had a wonderful drive there.  The views were stunning with lush green forests and beautiful waterfalls and rivers along the entire drive.  Towards the end of the drive there is what I dubbed, as the sketchiest tunnel in the world, Homer tunnel.  It is only wide enough for one lane of traffic, so there is a stop signal to allow traffic to alternate.  The traffic signal runs from 6am to 8pm, and says, "Proceed with caution when signal is not operating."  Huh, not sure how you would navigate that outside of operating hours since this tunnel was 1.4 kilometers long and you could not see if there was traffic coming from the opposite direction.   We were going to make sure to get back through way before 8pm, because none of us wanted to figure out how to navigate the tunnel outside of operating hours. Not even sure why they could not have the signal operate 24/7.  Once inside the tunnel, it looked unfinished, with its walls roughly jack-hammered out, and uneven in size and the pavement patchy at best with hardly any light and water dripping everywhere.  Robert confirmed that, that was the state of the tunnel when he and Norma had visited Milford Sound over 43 years ago.  

Rachel by Lake Gunn on the way to Milford Sound
Road to Milford Sound
View near Homer Tunnel
View from scenic lookout
Waterfall near the road to Milford Sound
Once in Milford Sound, we boarded our boat to tour the sound and head out to the Tasman Sea.  This area was carved out by glaciers and large, majestic fjords were left behind.  The scenery was amazing!  There were gorgeous and tall waterfalls, one of which the boat approached and if you were standing on the deck, which we were, you got wet by the waterfalls spray.  The fjords were so tall and had sheer faces that are very rugged. We were very fortunate that the weather was perfect and the sky was clear with only a few high clouds now and then, so it was pretty marvelous to see each peak against a perfectly blue sky. We all decided to stand out on the deck at the front of the boat as we headed out towards the Tasman Sea.  Rachel was very clever and had braided her hair, I on the other hand, had left it down and once we had finished the boat tour, my hair was so tangled by the wind  that I could not even put my hand in it, ouch.  We also got to see some seals lounging on the rocks taking in the sunshine.  The boat tour was so fun and Milford Sound is a truly astounding place that I could see Robert's insistence on making this place a must see in New Zealand.  

View of Milford Sound
Milford Sound from the boat
Sterling Falls in Milford Sound
One of the many coves in Milford Sound
On our drive back to Te Anau we stopped along the way to do a quick hike to a place called the "Chasm," where the river carved a chasm in the rock, there were even some potholes along the sides. We also stopped at a sign where the 45 degrees south latitude was marked.  This is the furthest south we will have traveled ever, pretty neat. 

Hike to the Chasm
The Chasm

45 degrees South!
The following day we headed into town and rented a Quadra cycle to ride around  the small town. This was a very unique experience and we had a great time biking around.  Eden was seated in the front and loved waving to the cars that passed us by.  We also decided to visit a glow worm cave. We took a boat ride across Lake Te Anau and visited a cave that had a river running through it.  Before entering the cave we watched a short video where they explained the stages of the glow worm and why they glowed.  So, this is a soft-bodied worm with luminescent organs in the abdomen used to attract bugs to eat.  Our guide told us that they are really maggots but are called worms because who wants to visit a maggot cave, fair enough.  The inside of the cave was amazing.  I really enjoyed that way that the river had carved out the cave itself.  Then we boarded a small boat and the guide turned off the lights and he pulled us along a section of the cave where a majority of the glow worms were located.  My first impression was that it looked like the sky filled with millions of stars, and it was a very unique thing to see.  Then as we approached a section of the cave where I needed to bend down so I would not touch the ceiling I kept thinking maggots, maggots, maggots, gross.  Glowing maggots, but maggots nonetheless.  I kind of wish that we had seen the video AFTER we had visited the cave.  I seemed to have been the only one that was a little grossed out by it.  Once back in Te Anau we headed over to Myles Better Pies for a quick dinner of a New Zealand specialty of meat pies, sort of like a pot pie.  We tried lamb, steak, venison and chicken pies and they were all fantastic.  They had lots of flavor and the meat was moist, tender and delicious.  In Te Anau we stayed at another holiday park.  Finding places in New Zealand proved to be rather difficult and in some areas our choices were limited.  This place in particular had no bathroom in the room and we had to walk over to the shared facilities.  No big deal, except in the middle of the night when it was rather cold and inconvenient.  I did need to make the journey several times but as luck would have it I was rewarded by a stunning night sky full of the brightest stars.  Who needs maggots.  

Riding the Quadra Cycle
On lake Te Anau en route to the glow worm cave
At the entrance of the glow worm cave
The following day we headed to Queenstown and had a fun time walking around this town.  Justin and I felt like it reminded us of Estes Park, CO.  Although it was very crowded it had a fun, quirky vibe with its main industry being tourism.  It had tourist prices and was probably the most expensive place we've stayed so far.  We took the steepest gondola that I have ever ridden up to a scenic viewpoint.  It was pretty awesome to see Queenstown below with the lake and the surrounding mountains.  At the top there was also a really neat luge track.  This was nothing like a luge I have done in the past, with the biggest difference being that the track was wide and you needed to steer yourself down, as opposed to having the track guide you down.  Everyone had a wonderful time, but I was surprised at Eden's absolute joy and enthusiasm, she is still asking to go back to the luge.  

View of the lake and Queenstown below from the top of the luge track
Joel and Caleb racing down on a luge
Caroline and Eden heading down the luge track

At the wharf in Queenstown
This "value" apartment was fully booked even at $650 per night
The following day we dropped Rachel off at the airport for her long flights back to Colorado.  It was so good to have her with us and very bittersweet to have her leave again.   We had such a wonderful time with her and loved being able to celebrate the holidays as a complete family in New Zealand. 

After the airport we started our very long drive to Franz Josef.  From Queenstown to Franz Josef the population drops significantly and there are a couple of sparsely inhabited "towns" along the way. The drive was beautiful and very winding.  I could not believe how many one lane bridges we crossed, over 30, I lost count.  By the way, crossing some of these bridges is a little sketchy, at one point, not only was it one lane for cars but it also had train tracks for the train! No train signal either, you just needed to do your due diligence and make sure the train was not approaching. Crazy! The following day, we hiked to the Franz Josef glacier and had a great time seeing the glacier and surrounding nature.  The river from the glacier was very gray as it must have been full of silt.  This was very different from all the other rivers we saw which all were so crystal clear.  There were many waterfalls in the valley on the way up to the glacier.   We were able to learn more about glaciers on our hike and it was neat to and see one carving out a valley like many of the ones we had previously seen.  

After the hike, we loaded back into Lord Alphard for our 6 hour drive to Wakefield.  We stayed at a renovated barn and the kids had the chance to play soccer in the yard.  The next day we had to leave at 5AM to get to Picton to board the 8AM ferry back to the North Island.  

Pleasant Falls near the road to Franz Josef Glacier

Waterfalls on the trail up to the glacier 

Hiking up to the glacier

Franz Josef Glacier

Close up of the glacier

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