Sunday, April 29, 2012

Last day: sounds like Milford

After Kepler we were thoroughly exhausted. We tried to explore Te Anau, but everything closed by five. We went back to the hostel and proceeded to eat everything in sight before crashing for the night.

The next day we'd booked a trip to the Milford Sound, Fiordland's most popular fiord. Thousands of people flock there daily in peak season. Milford Road (the only paved way to get there) is crammed with tour buses, camper vans, and shitty rental cars clunking through glacier-carved mountains and valleys.
It's got a reputation of being overcrowded and full of irritating tourists, like a natural Disneyworld. Unlike a trip to Disney, the trip to Milford was cheap and definitely stood up to the hype.
The drive there was lovely. It would've been better in a convertible.
Eventually the road pops out at a tiny harbor on the edge of the sound. You can take an hour-long cruise on the water, go kayaking, or stay overnight. The boats leave in intervals of half an hour. The water doesn't get too crowded and gives the illusion that there aren't busloads of Asians and Germans waiting in line on the shore. 

I grabbed my camera, shoved my way to the front of a boat, and got ready to be a mega-tourist. 
That's triangular mountain is Mitre Peak. It's on all the postcards.
We forced a kind couple from Minnesota to take this picture for us.
I might have just been caught up in the Milford Sound fervor, but I thought the whole experience was pretty magical.

My journey was ending. I had a plane ticket from Queenstown to Wellington for the next day. Sigh. Time to start living a real life again.
The South Island was wonderful. We had great weather, met some great people, and saw really terrific sights. But I feel bad for neglecting the North Island. So I've booked a flight to Auckland in June for a big North Island adventure (and not on a tour bus this time).

Saturday, April 28, 2012

part 4: Kepler Track

After Queenstown Lauren and I caught a bus further south to Te Anau, a little town at the edge of Fiordland National Park. We heaved our food-laden packs onto our backs. Then we set off into the wild. Sort of.
The Kepler is one of NZ's Great Walks - a manicured 40-mile trail up a mountain, along the ridge, and down through the bush. The trail is perfectly clear, and the alpine section even has stairs and handrails. The Department of Conservation offers 3 huts along the way with running water, mattresses, and gas stoves. It's not exactly roughing it.

We'd booked all the huts a few months in advance. But soon we realized that we probably could have done the whole track in three days instead of four. Each day we started at 9:00 and reached the next hut at around 2:00 with plenty of time to sit around and scratch our sandfly bites.

Still. That's not to say that the experience wasn't astoundingly beautiful.

We had amazing weather at the first hut, which sits up above the town of Te Anau.
We did some casual caving that night.
At this point, we realized we should've packed matches and hiking-friendly food. The fresh carrots and canned tuna seemed like such a good idea at the beginning. But they turned out to be really heavy and smelly. Thankfully our packs got lighter as we got down to eating. And there were lots of friendly Germans on the trail who were willing to share their matches.

We had a fantastic sunrise view the next morning. I took at least twenty thousand pictures of it.
Then we headed off to walk the alpine section in mystical fog.
I wore those compression tights for four days. Not a good idea.
The next two days were an easy downhill walk through the bush back to town.
The last hut was on the side of another ridiculously lovely NZ lake, where we attempted to wash some grime off ourselves.
And the next day we stumbled back into the civilized world (aka: where you can buy cake).

It was a pretty good time. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Part 3: Queenstown

When you talk to other tourists in NZ, Queenstown is like a point on a pilgrimage road - some kind of Holy Land of outdoor activity that might hold Sir Edmund Hilary's ashes inside a quad helmet. Everyone's going to Queenstown. Or they're on their way home, and they're broke. 

Considering the hype, I was pleasantly surprised at how small it was. Downtown Queenstown is a half-mile grid of a few busy streets packed with cafés and outdoor shops snuggled up against sapphire-blue Lake Wakitipu. Sailboats and jetboats cavort around the harbor. There's a brick walkway full of street performers along the lakeside where tourists in hiking packs wander around with ice cream cones. At the edge of town there's a botanical garden on the peninsula with a limestone walking path that extends out to the airport. People are relaxed and smiling - even the tourist-harassed café workers and bike shop guys. It felt like a Colorado ski resort town without as many pretentious Americans. 

Gold and green mountains jut up around the city. Five minutes from downtown there's a network of pristine hiking trails so fantastic it's stupid (you can even get to the famous Routeburn track). Most of the hiking trails are mountain-bike-friendly, there's a freeride park hidden in the woods east of town, and a gondola that takes a bunch of smelly downhillers to the top of a big hill so they can show off their baggy shorts to tourists. Paragliders jump off the top of the gondola hill and float into town.

A couple hours' drive away are historic Arrowtown, Lake Wanaka, Mount Aspiring, and Fiordland National Park - home to some of New Zealand's most stunning scenery and awesome, accessible hiking.

I was smitten.

Lauren and I spent four days hanging there out to recover from the bus trip. We did a lot of eating. On the first day, we met up with our program advisor Jane - a Queenstown native - at a fantastic ice cream place on the water. We bought groceries at the supermarket and luxuriated in being able to use the hostel fridge. We sampled a more few cafés, went on a bar tour, and ate at the famous Fergburger.
Trevor and Lauren had something called the "Mr. Big Stuff" - a half pound of beef with bacon and cheese. My single-patty brie cheeseburger and its gluten free bun looked a little malnourished in comparison. 
I hadn't had a good burger in New Zealand. Their beef tends to taste a bit different, maybe because NZ cows eat cleaner grass. But I can attest that those burgers were pretty damn awesome. I also realize now that getting a diet Coke with a burger the size of my head was a pretty dumb idea. 

To offset all the eating and alcohol consumption, we walked up the hill by the gondola and watched grown men giggle to themselves on the luge track. 

I also ran around town every day. One of my favorite runs was the Queenstown Hill Time Track. 
It starts outside of town close to the hostel where we stayed. The track switches back and forth through the pines and opens up on a high point where the trees and hills cancel out the noises of the town.   A couple vagrant Merinos had been grazing in the grass when I ran up, but they'd moved on when Lauren and I hiked up later to take pictures. 
Criminy. This place is awesome. 

In retrospect we didn't take advantage of Queenstown. We didn't go Bungy jumping, skydiving, canyoning, fish-feeding, zoo visiting, jetboating, golfing, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, or kayaking (I can do those for free at home). I never got around to doing any bike riding since nobody else was keen on going with me. 

But that's okay with me. I didn't end up broke, and Lauren and I were well-rested and well-fed on the fifth day when we got up at 5:30 to start our long walk on the Kepler Track. 

I do plan to go back to Queenstown sometime, provided it's not too snowy in June. In that case, maybe I'll rent some skis. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Part 2: not the most efficient mode of travel

At 8:04 the next morning, Lauren and I were sitting on our backpacks in front of the Nelson Youth Hostel and sweating. It was hot, I was wearing cotton, and the bus was late. Did we miss it? Surely we would've seen a huge blue bus go roaring past. We'd never get to Queenstown at this rate.

With a mechanical roar, the bus rounded the corner and ground to a stop in front of us. We shoved our bags into the boot underneath and the driver (a wry, silver-haired guy named Alan who lives on a house boat when he's not driving tourists around the country) ticked off our names on a chart. The bus was half-full of sleepy-looking people. There were two of our friends from Arcadia were there, a few Germans, some British guys and a girl, and one lady from Brazil. We flopped into a pair of seats next to some Swedish girls. I was still exhausted. A four-hour bus ride sounded nice. The bus lurched forward and we were on the road.
I shut my eyes and leaned against the window.

"So today we're on our way to Greymouth," said Alan. "If you want to book your hostels you can do it now. Lovely city, Greymouth. We'll be doing a tour at Monteith's Brewery if you'd like to sign up."

The bus got quiet. I shut my eyes again.

"Greymouth also offeres quad biking and ATV rides, if you're into that kind of thing. I'll send around a clipboard and you can tick your names off for whichever activity you'd like to do."

Silence. Naptime.

"And on the way there, we'll be going over this little hill called the Hope Saddle. Let's hope the bus makes it. After that we'll stop for some photos at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks."

In half an hour we stopped for coffee at a café next to a farm. I got a cup of tea and watched a chicken scratch around by the bus tires. It was 8:30. I figured we'd get to Greymouth by 1:30 or 2 at the latest. We packed back onto the bus.

In a few minutes my stomach started to churn and cramp. Oh hell. I'd eaten something wrong. Was there wheat in that Chinese food I'd eaten the night before? Probably. I prayed we'd get to Graymouth fast. I tried not to think about killing myself while gluten knives were stabbing my stomach. I was on vacation in New Zealand. I should be loving it.

As we wound our way South down the coast and into the hills, we stopped more and more. We stopped for pictures at Cape Foulwind. We stopped for a walk through the bush. We stopped at the Pancake Rocks. We walked through the bush again. We looked at beaches. Between each stop, Alan would interrupt my nap with a fun fact about opossum traps or New Zealand weather. After a couple hours, I gave up on sleep and talked to the Swedish girls about skydiving.

We got to Greymouth at 4:00. I staggered off the bus and we checked into a hostel called Noah's Ark. I got the monkey room. Good lord, you've got to be kidding me.
I had to get out of there. I attempted a run around the town, which consisted of a few houses and a supermarket scattered around a train station. I limped back into the hostel half an hour later, defeated and clutching my stomach. I flopped onto my bed. A stuffed gorilla was staring at me from the mantel. It was getting really hard to keep up my love affair with New Zealand.

The brewery tour was cancelled that night, so we had a beer tasting and a nice dinner at a sports bar full of senior citizens. It wasn't a bad deal, even though I couldn't eat the bread or drink the beer.
The trip picked up steam after that night. My cramps faded each day as the gluten crawled through my system. As we headed further South, the roads got thinner and windier. The landscape turned rugged, wild, and colorful. I started loving the photo stops. I forced myself out of bed each morning to go for a run at sunrise before the bus pulled away for the day at 8:00.

We stopped in a few old mining towns along the way. Some of us tried to relax, but we had to get back on the bus after ten minutes or so.

We spent one night in Franz Josef and walked around on a sea-level glacier.

There wasn't much to do in Franz Josef. There were a couple bars, a few hiking trails, and a supermarket. It was like Ohiopyle if the Yough River were replaced with a big hunk of ice. But they did have a pretty sweet sunrise.
Then we made our way to Wanaka with ample photo stops and lots of New Zealand trivia in between. We said a final farewell to the coast line, saw some impossibly blue rivers, and got shouldered out of the way by excitable Asian tourists.

We got to Wanaka around 4:00. I went for a run on the lakeside hung out while some German hippies played the guitar on the sand.
Just like in Nelson, I wished we'd had more time to chill in Wanaka. There were lots of cute cafés and shops in town, and I heard that there was some great hiking and mountain biking just outside of town. But we were getting antsy and sick of being in transit, so we decided to truck on to Queenstown as fast as possible.

The next day's drive was astounding. Our first morning stop was at a bridge over a river.
Lauren wanted to throw herself off. I tried to take a video but failed at using the camera and got this sweet shot instead.
Jesus, what good form.

We stopped over in Arrowtown, another 1900's mining town with lots of pretty trees and cafés.

Then it was a quick shot down to Queenstown.

We said farewell to Alan, hefted our backpacks, and set off to check into a hostel for four blisfully bus-free days.

Thank goodness. The bus was nice, but being tied to a bus schedule is kind of stressful. And we had to be around a whole lot of people all the time. I'd much rather travel by car with one or two other people and a loose itinerary. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Part 1: Wellington to Nelson and completely knackered

I've been back in Wellington for a couple days now. I recharged myself with a few cups of non-instant coffee and some walking around by the waterfront. I finally feel like I can face the idea of summarizing the last two weeks. Here's the first bit.

On Good Friday I woke up at dawn, shoved a few extra shirts and granola bars into my overstuffed hiking pack, downed a cup of coffee, and ran out into the morning mist to the bus station. I looked around the busy platform. Lauren pushed through the crowd, sweaty and sleep-deprived. Her hiking boots and sleeping bag flopped from the gear loops on her enormous pack. We boarded the shuttle to the ferry and started our adventure.

The ferry was hot and packed with people traveling for the Easter holidays. A middle-aged cricket team was drinking Coronas and getting rowdy at the bar. It was 8:30 in the morning.
We hid from the crowd in the reclining chairs at the front of the boat. I tried to read a travel brochure while little kids kicked the back of my seat.
Three hours later we docked in Picton, jumped on another bus, and drove south to Nelson where we would catch the Magic Bus the next morning. The sun was shining in Nelson (sunshine capital of NZ, apparently). A girl was standing on the sidewalk wearing a body-sized sign painted with flowers and birds. She told us a backpackers called The Palace had two open beds and free breakfast. We were fried. Free breakfast sounded wonderful. We staggered up the street to the hostel, a cozy old Victorian converted into a temporary home for dirtbag hippies and German travelers.
But we were too late. All the beds were full. The manager, a soft spoken 30-something English hippie with long hair and a headscarf, ran off to check something. He bounced back to the reception desk and gave us some options. "Well. If you want, you can stay in my van. Her name is Annie, and she's only fifteen dollars a night. I just changed the duvet cover and everything." A bed and free breakfast for just fifteen bucks? Sweet as.
Here's Annie, our home for the night. She had some questionable upholstery.
We unpacked our things in Annie and wandered around. Nelson's a sweet little city with a few small shopping streets, a Gothic-style church, a couple campgrounds, and a terrific view of the Tasman Bay. We went for a run to the geographical center of NZ - a point up on a hill overlooking Nelson - and prowled the town for some cheap dinner. We managed to find cheap Chinese food to eat in the botanical garden while the sun set.

When we got back to the Palace, the staff and a bunch of semi-permanent German visitors were having a boxed wine party in the staff house. We tried to hang with them, but we were too exhausted to keep up with the Germans and their weird techno music. Our unfortunate friend Trevor couldn't find a hostel, so he crashed in our van. At midnight the three of us snuggled up in the back of Annie and fell asleep. It was one of many very romantic evenings.
Free breakfast the next morning did not disappoint. We filled up on cereal, toast, and instant coffee and chatted with some of the other folks staying there. This lady got caught up in Nelson for two weeks.
I wish we could have had more time to hang out there. The folks at The Palace were all genuinely great people, and the sunshine wasn't bad either. But the journey had to continue if we were ever going to get to Queenstown in a week. We packed up and headed out to meet up with the Magic Bus.