OUR NEW ZEALAND ADVENTURE
February 3-27, 2005
By Chris and Heather Thiry
“We left drunk and early on the night of February 3. After spending 12 hours in the air and 3 on the plane, we arrived in New Zealand.”
–a paraphrase of Groucho Marx
[NOTES: all dollar amounts are in NZ dollars (1.38 = 1 US dollar). It was summer in NZ—their August. The links are to pictures corresponding to the story. All pictures were taken by us, except those labeled “P”—they are scans from postcards & “M” were taken by Megan Kopetzky. We took over 500 digital pictures, and only a few are featured here.]
For a slide show of the best digital pictures we took, click
(links to these photos are also sprinkled throughout this write-up)
For a slide show of the weird and wacky signs and sights we saw, click HERE. (these photos are NOT featured in this write-up)
To see the ROUTE of our journey, click HERE.
Our trip to New Zealand was almost 3 years in the making. Soon after we got engaged, we planned to go there for our honeymoon. Our scheduled trip (February 2004) was derailed by Chris’ foot injury, thus we postponed our journey until February 2005.
We did an extensive amount of planning, researching most of our trip via the web. We concluded that we were going to visit only the South Island, and for the duration, we would rent a car. We made reservations for 2/3 of our nights in NZ. This was imperative because places like the Lodge at Milford Sound and the Kepler Track booked up well ahead of time.
We were very fortunate in that Chris’ mom is retired and was able to house and dog-sit the entire time we were to be in New Zealand. This was incredibly nice and greatly eased our worries about our house and Banjo the Dog.
The Flight and Arrival
We left Denver in the late afternoon of Thursday, February 3, 2005. We flew American Airlines (their prices were half that of United, etc.). “Check in 2 hours before you fly internationally.” That was joke. It took us no more than 5 extra minutes to check in. We brought with us 2 daypacks (our carry-ons), 2 backpacks (stuffed in oversized dufflebags) and an extra dufflebag (also stuffed in one of the other dufflebags). Our checked luggage weighed about 40 pounds per bag. Because we were renting a car, we knew that we could pack heavy.
The flight to LAX was uneventful. We had a 3 hour layover. Dull! We actually flew Quantas to Auckland. The seats, even for Heather, were small and mean. However, Quantas did offer 5 simultaneous movies, plus music and videogames. We did not know ahead of time that 747s are equipped with bassinets. We found this out only when the woman in front of us folded down the bassinet and placed her small child in it. Joy. Needless to say, we did not sleep well on the plane.
After 12.5 hours on the plane, we arrived in Auckland, NZ. We left Denver at 4:15pm on February 3, and landed in Auckland at 6am on February 5. We missed February 4 all together. The customs guy was rude to us because we did not have a place to stay the first night. We were going to Christchurch, population 330,000; we figured there would be plenty of hotels. New Zealanders are paranoid about people bringing in fresh food—they do not want their country contaminated! In fact, 2 weeks before, Hilary Swank got busted for trying to bring in an apple--$150 fine.
Because our plane was a little late, we missed our connection to Christchurch. This was not a worry because another plane left 1 hour later. It was hot in Auckland and humid. It was obvious that both of us brought too many warm clothes and not enough summer things. The flight to Christchurch was fine, but overcast.
Upon arriving in Christchurch, we got our rental car—a Toyota Corolla! We own a Corolla, so we thought this would be good because we would be familiar with how the car operates. It was the smallest version of this car we had ever seen, yet, this, according to New Zealand standards, was a mid-size. Both of our large bags could not fit in the hatchback trunk (while our Corolla at home easily held both plus some other things). Then there was driving on the left. Not difficult to do if there was traffic present. Chris sometimes got confused in parking lots. Living in Golden, Colorado gave us one big advantage—we knew how to drive in traffic circles, which were common in NZ.
We went duly and directly to the NZ AA (like our AAA) office. It turns out that the US AAA card is good in NZ. The nice lady gave us a ton of maps, tour books and even booked our first night in a hotel. From there we went to a Walmartesque store to buy a cooler (a “chilly-bin”) and a new watch for Chris (which he promptly broke, but it still works [the watch died 3 months after returning to the USA]). Afterwards we went to the grocery store and got our first shock of the trip; the food prices were higher than we expected. Oh well, what ya gonna do? They did have some odd things, like chilled dog food .
Christchurch, the Banks Peninsula, and the Drive North
We stayed our first night at the Holiday Hotel in downtown Christchurch. It was run by a nice German couple. When we checked in, they gave us a small carton of milk “for your tea.” The room/apartment could sleep 8 without doing anything. It had 3 levels and a full kitchen. For $85 a night, we couldn’t complain.
We walked around Christchurch and had lunch. We sent Heather’s parents an email to let them know we had arrived safely. This was the only time we used email in NZ. We visited the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. They were fantastic. The trees and plants looked so similar yet so different [087, 098, 111, 120, 126]. We went to bed early. The time shift was only 4 hours. Despite the lengthy and uncomfortable flight, we were not rattled by jetlag, although we did sleep well those first few nights.
In the morning (Sunday, February 6—Waitangi Day—NZ’s national day) we packed up and went out to breakfast at Belgian Beer Café . It was really good. We left Christchurch and drove toward the Banks Peninsula (east of the city). We stopped at Summer Beach and saw a dog chasing sticks out into the ocean . He reminded us of Banjo. We drove up to Godley Head . This was a narrow, twisty Hell Highway. It was about 1.5 car-widths wide. Traffic went in both directions. The drop off was steep. The road was gravel. There were blind turns. There were no guard rails. AND we drove on the left for only the second time in our lives (the first being the day before)!! Needless to say, the blood did not return to Chris’ knuckles until several hours after we left the road. Regardless of the drive, we had a nice hike. The scenery reminded Heather of Marin County, California—golden, rolling hills and the ocean .
After Godley Head, we drove down through Lyttleton, then over Dyers Pass, back to Christchurch (ChiChu) or (ChCh). We headed north on highway 1. At Waipara, we turned off on to highway 7, and headed north on highway 70. It was a small, windy backroad. We loved it--beautiful land with plenty of sheep. We ended up in Kaikoura, where we had dinner, and bought towels, which we had forgotten.
Kaikoura Coast Track
From there, we headed south toward Conway Flat, and the Kaikoura Coast Track “One of New Zealand’s Finest Private Walks” [KAIKOURA MAP]. Tracks (or hiking trails) are very popular in NZ. Most of the National Parks have tracks and most of these tracks have huts. Many of the huts have water, bathrooms, and cooking facilities, so walkers are able to travel with lighter loads. About 18 years ago, some farmers and ranchers on the Banks Peninsula got together and created a private track. The entire trail and all the huts were on private lands. It is now a multi-million dollar operation. The idea has been copied by other farmers and land owners. The Kaikoura Coast Track was established in 1990. The Kepler Track, which we did later, cost $75 a person for 3 nights; the Kaikoura Coast Track cost $130 for 3 nights AND they moved our luggage so we only had to carry day packs! Food and linen were extra. Also, being a private tramp, the number of hikers was limited to 10 per day (there were a total 6 of us on the tramp during our time). Our first night was spent at the “Staging Post”. It reminded us of sleep-away camp .
We awoke early the next day (Monday, February 7) and were driven down the road about 20 minutes. A weird thing happened on the way; the driver saw some trash by the side of the road, pulled over and picked it up. This was a typical NZ thing to do, although we didn’t know it at the time. The hike was a circuit—a large loop. The day was hot and humid—more so than what we had anticipated. The hike itself was not difficult. Coming from Colorado, we noticed how easy it was to breathe in the lower elevations [159, 185]. We hiked through some scrublands, a dense forest, and finally up over a ridge. The views were nice, but we often could hear the traffic from highway 1. The ridge was great . We could see out to the ocean, and up and down the coast. We hiked to the top of Skull Peak, and stopped for lunch at the Skull Peak Shelter. The Shelter had a spectacular view from its porch . The hike down from there was hot, hot, hot. We ran into some angry cows who threatened us. This caused us to leap a fence to avoid them. By the time we arrived at our destination, Ngaroma, we were tired and dehydrated. The Loft at Ngaroma was fantastic . It was made out of wood. It had high ceilings and a nice kitchen. The main room had a great view north up the coast. We took a dip in the pool.
The next morning (Tuesday, February 8) was spectacular. The sun rose over the sea and gave everything a golden color [202, 209]. The farmer whose place we were staying at apologized for the shotgun blasts in the middle of the night. I heard one, but it wasn’t that loud. He explained that his dog had treed 2 possums, and would not shut up until the possums were dealt with. The farmer shot 1 possum at 10pm and another 3am. The one at 3am didn’t fall out of the tree and the dog still kept barking, so the farmer had to shoot again so as to knock it out of the tree. A word about possums: there are 4 million people in NZ, 24 million sheep and 60 million possums. The possums were brought to NZ from Australia in the 1930’s so as to be farmed for fur. The possums escaped and are now taking over the place. They are destroying most of the ecosystems of the islands. They are considered a pest (or “Peest” as the Kiwis would say) and we were advised to run them over if we saw them on the road.
The second day of the hike was the most spectacular. It began with a scenic 5 mile beach walk. The beach was abutted by large cliffs at times . We saw 4 Fur Seals (sea lions in reality) up close . One looked like had come ashore to die—it barely moved and was coughing and sneezing. Our lunch spot was spectacular—one of the best ever [KAIKOURA PANORAMA]. Eventually we turned inland [254, 255] and walked through a forest that was returning to native NZ plants. It was wild and jungley . We past several huge trees that were over 800 years old. We ended our day with a walk down a ridge to the Whare at Medina . This was a small cabin with a very low ceiling. We were entertained at the pool by a pug puppy.
Our third and last day (Wednesday, February 9) began in the fog [284, 285]. It was coastal fog and we hiked in it for at least 2 hours. We finally broke out of it, just before we got to Mount Wilson . Most of this days’ hike was on farm roads. We walked through many herds of sheep and cows, and in much sheep and cow poop. We got done with our hike early. We took showers and ate our lunch. Our luggage arrived and we left the Staging Post—where we had began the Kaikoura Coast Track. All in all, it is a nice hike. We would recommend it, especially for those who want some long day hikes, but do not want to carry everything on their backs.
Hanmer Springs, the Drive West, and the West Coast
We drove a small side road over to Waiau, then south on 70, and east on 7. We turned off at Hanmer Springs, our destination for the evening. It was a hot day—too hot to go to the hot springs. We stayed at a “Holiday Park”; the American equivalent would be a KOA campground. This place did have rooms, which Heather promptly nicknamed “cinderblock hell” . We had to pay extra for a room with electricity. While the room did come with a kitchen, and flies, it did not have a refrigerator or bedding. Also, the bathrooms were in a common building. We later learned to look for places with “in suite” which meant there was a private bath. We swam in the Hanmer River. After dinner, we went to the hot springs. They were nice but not very hot. The landscaping was awesome—rocks and trees . It was an impressive place to see. After the hot springs, Chris bought his first Bundaburg Ginger Beer (made in Australia). It is the finest Ginger Beer ever—you can really taste the ginger.
We left early the next morning (Thursday, February 10). We drove west on highway 7, and turned north on highway 65. The ride was lovely. The valleys were wide and mountains were tall, but the pass was low. We eventually turned west on highway 6. This was an insanely narrow road that was a major thoroughfare between the east and west coast. At Buller Gorge, the road was carved out of the side of a cliff and was ONE LANE! [P01] The speed limit was 15km and we meet a truck on a blind turn! Fortunately, he backed up.
We made it out to the West Coast around noon. We ate lunch at Cape Foulwind . The West Coast is large; it is over 430 km between Westport (where we arrived on the coast) and Haast (where left it), yet only 35,000 people live there. The environment is so harsh that when the Europeans arrived, only 100 Maori (NZ natives) lived there full time. We saw the seals at Cape Foulwind, then drove north into Westport to go to the grocery store. From there we headed south. The drive was spectacular and we stopped often to admire the views and take pictures. We visited Pancake Rocks in Paparoa National Park [338, 342]. They were spectacular and our pictures do not do them justice.
Greymouth and Cave Rafting
We made our way down to Greymouth in the late afternoon. We stayed for two nights at a lovely bed and breakfast, the Ardwyn House . It was a huge, old house. The town of Greymouth fits its name for it is very grey. We ate dinner out that night at Restaurant 124.
The following morning, (Friday, February 11) we walked around town after a very filling breakfast. We exchanged money (you get a higher rate for traveler’s checks than for cash) [MONEY]. Sir Edmund Hilary was on the $5 bill. There are no $1 or $2 bills, only coins.
Later in the day we went cave rafting. We have no pictures from this adventure because of the water would have ruined our cameras if we had taken them with us. The tour company outfitted us with wetsuits and big boots. We were put on the back of this large truck (it reminded us of a cattle truck), and drove into the rainforest. After hiking through the jungle for ½ an hour [P03], we arrived at the cave [P02]. The hike was actually very cool; the company’s boots and gear allowed us to walk through big puddles of mud and on narrow footbridges. We hiked down into a cave. Both of us had never been spelunking before. A river had carved the cave and we had to walk in the river for much of the time. At one point we jumped off a ledge into 8 foot deep water. Eventually, we were put on inner-tubes and floated in the cave. With our headlamps off, we could see the glow-worms. These tiny creatures lit up the walls and ceiling of the cave like stars in the nights’ sky. With the lights off and floating in the water, it was a little scary. Eventually, we made our way back to the mouth of cave via a very narrow passage. We ended our trip with a dip in the tour company’s hot tub. All in all, it was a great experience. That night we had a dinner of sole at Jones’. We ate a lot of local fish on our trip. Because the fish was so good, Chris did not try the lamb, NZ's national dish.
Franz Josef Glacier
We awoke (Saturday, February 12) to rain and dreary weather for which the West Coast is famous. We headed south on highway 6. We passed over the most insane bridge ever. No one and no guide book warned us that NZ is full of one-lane bridges. These freaked us out at first, but we got used to them. On the longer bridges, there were “passing bays”—places where the bridges widened to 2 lanes for about 30 feet. This particular bridge was not just long, not just one-lane, but also acted as the RAILROAD bridge!! [348, M01] We knew who the had right-of-way.
We traveled south until we got to Franz Josef. This is purely a tourist town abutting the Franz Josef Glacier which flows down from Mount Cook (the highest peak in NZ and the place where Sir Edmund Hilary perfected his mountain climbing techniques) [351, P07]. We decided to take a guided hiking tour on Franz Josef Glacier. There were about 15 people in our group. It rained off and on during our trip. We hiked about 20 minutes out to the glacier. Then we climbed up the side of a very steep moraine. At the top, we traversed over to and walked on the glacier. Fortunately the guide company supplied cramp-ons, otherwise we would have slipped and fallen down. The shades of blue we saw on the glacier are awesome [360, 363]. At one point we scooted through a little crevasse; it was very wet and cold, which was how we remained until we got to our hotel in the town of Fox Glacier (about 15 miles south). On our way back from the glacier, we saw a Kea up close. These are “cheeky mountain parrots” [369, P16]. They are green and very smart. They live with their mothers until the age of 6, learning everything possible. They know how to undo zippers and get into packs. They are not malicious, just curious. That night we stayed at the Rainforest Motel, and spent much of the evening trying to dry all of our wet clothes.
Lake Matheson, Fox Glacier, Haast, and Jackson Head
The next morning (Sunday, February 13), we went to Lake Matheson. This is the most photographed lake in all of New Zealand because the large peaks of the Southern Alps, including Mount Cook are reflected in the calm, morning waters. It is lovely. We took a lot of pictures [383, 389, P04, P05, P06]. Our arrival time of 8:30am was perfect because the lake was still, and we beat the tour buses by about 30 minutes. When we left, the parking lot was full. After the lake, we headed to Fox Glacier. We hiked about ½ hour to the base of it. The roaring river emanating from its base was fascinating; it was so powerful, we could hear the river moving large rocks [392, 398, P08, P09].
We drove south from Fox Glacier, stopping at Lake Paringa for lunch. We also stopped at Knights Point, which had awesome views of the coast . Soon after, we crossed the bridge over the Haast River; it was very long, and one lane, of course. We made it to Haast at 2pm and realized that we should have made different plans. The World Heritage Hotel, while nice, was very expensive, and in the middle of nowhere. We could have easily driven on to Wanaka (another 4 hours). But, being strangers in NZ, and planning our trip months in advance, we didn’t know. The only thing to do was drive down to Jackson Head, a failed immigrant colony about 45 minutes down a side road. We hiked out to the beach and later walked on the dock . That night we had “fish n’ chips”; Chris thought it was great, Heather got sick off the grease.
Haast to Wanaka
The weather closed in the next morning (Monday, February 14). It rained for most of our drive to Wanaka. We stopped along the way at several waterfalls including Roaring Billy, Thunder Creek Falls, and Fantail Falls. New Zealand, when humans first arrived, must have been a land of waterfalls, birds, trees and little else. The Blue Pools were very nice . We did have to cross a “swing bridge” to get to them. A swing bridge is a long, pedestrian, suspension bridge. It moves (swings) when you walk on it. It gets a little scary at times . The drive along Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea was nice, but the rain dampened our enthusiasm to stop and take pictures.
We arrived in Wanaka around noon and had a nice lunch at Wanakai. While eating, we heard “Love Hurts” as performed by Cher. This was weird, being Valentines Day. Cher seemed to always be on the radio in NZ. We couldn’t explain it. It was on of the most disappointing things about the country. Although some tried to fight Cher’s influence . Afterwards, we hiked up Mount Iron, an urban park. Mount Iron is a hill right next to town and afforded us great views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountains. At the top, we were convinced by these young people that, “When you go to New Zealand, you definitely need a picture of yourself jumping in the air”  The weather for our hike was good. It was overcast, but no rain, and not very cold . The ride to Queenstown from Wanaka was beautiful and reminded us of Rohan (from Lord of the Rings). The road down to Queenstown was very windy and very steep. Heather was frustrated with the other drivers and the way the road was built (too narrow).
Queenstown and Ben Lomand
We arrived in Queenstown in the late afternoon [M02]. Our room at the Cranbury Court was great . It was a nice apartment with a full kitchen, and washer/dryer. We went to the grocery store and walked around town a little. Queenstown is the “Adventure capital of New Zealand”. It is where bungee jumping was invented. It is possible to do jet-boat riding, mountain biking, bungee jumping, and para-sailing all in the same day.
We started early the next day (Tuesday, February 15) to hike to the top of Ben Lomand. The first part of the hike went straight up through a dense forest. After breaking through to treeline, we met the crowds of people . It turns out that everyone was taking the gondola from the bottom to about half way up to the peak. We were the ONLY people that day to hike from the very bottom at Lake Wakatipu to the top of Ben Lomand (an elevation gain of about 1,400 meters or 4,200 feet). Once out of the trees, the hike reminded us of a 14er back in Colorado; it was steep and you could see the top the whole time. The biggest difference was that there was grass at the top of this mountain . After our hike, we walked around Queenstown. We traded some money, and did a little souvenir shopping. That night we at @Thai. It was excellent.
Lake Wakatipu, Routburn, and Deer Park
The following morning (Wednesday, February 16) we drove north along Lake Wakatipu. It was spectacular, although the road was very funky with many parts only one lane wide. We saw a few rainbows over the lake [472, 475, 476]. We drove through Glenorchy, and to the Routeburn Track’s trailhead. For those Lord of the Rings fans, we drove right past Isengard . The Routeburn is one the most famous trails in the world and is considered one of the most beautiful. We hiked out to Routeburn Flats, the location of the first hut. The path took us through temperate rainforest and across a few swing bridges [482, 487]. We ate lunch at the Flats.
After driving back down the lake, we went to Deer Park. It is a large, private park, on a peninsula next to Queenstown. It is largely devoid of trees. Many scenes from Lord of the Rings: Two Towers were filmed there (the retreat from Edoras to Helms Deep) [498, 501]. Also the park was a petting zoo. Many sheep and some very stubborn goats inhabited the park . We were also surprised to see buffalo. Several people each year are killed in Yellowstone by buffalo; here you could roll down your window and pet them. The scenery was great. We had excellent views of the surrounding areas . At the top of the park was a very weird movie set. It was a prison constructed in the mid-1980’s for the Disney movie, “The Escape” .
The Drive to Milford Sound
Thursday, February 17 was a long day in the car. We drove south from Queenstown on highway 6. We eventually turned off on to highway 94. The road was the straightest, and widest of any we drove on in NZ. At Te Anau we headed north along the Milford Road. It is considered one of the most spectacular roads in all of New Zealand. We drove next to Lake Te Anau, and gazed at the mountains on the opposite shore [TE ANAU PANORAMA]. The Eglinton Valley was U-shaped and stunning [508, 513]. The Mirror Lakes were beautiful despite being overrun with Japanese tourists. The Homer Tunnel was something else. It is one lane wide! [P10] They have stop lights, so it was no scary thing. But there is a steep grade in the tunnel and we picked up a lot of speed. It empties on to a very windy part of the road. It was also pouring rain. Needless to say, it was a bit scary. We stopped off at The Chasm which lived up to its name. This is a place where the river carved out a narrow and twisty chasm .
We arrived at the Milford Sound Lodge in the mid-afternoon [578—view from the parking lot]. The Lodge is what is called in NZ as a “Backpacker”. A backpacker can range from a room in a house, to a large hostel (like Milford Sound). The Lodge is the only place to stay in Milford Sound. We had a private room, which was nice. There were common bathrooms, and a common kitchen. The place was bustling with activity. Most of the guests seemed to be German. The electrical power in the area is so limited, they shut the lights down at 11pm.
We took the last boat trip of the day in Milford Sound. The boat was only half full, which was relaxing not fight the crowds. The amount of rain in the Sound area is tremendous, averaging over 250 days a year. Because of this, Milford Sound is full of waterfalls. The biggest permanent falls is 3 times the height of Niagara . It rained off and on during the trip. We were fortunate in that it stopped raining when we saw the fur seals and the dolphins, thus we were able to stand on top of the boat, rather than inside [536, 555, 577, P11, P12, P13]. At one point, the captain took the bow right under a huge waterfall. We both stood under it and are happy to report that our rain gear works very well.
“A beautiful and clear day,” was the proclamation made by the local guide the next morning (Friday, February 18). While this statement was true regarding Milford Sound, it was not true regarding the rest of the world which would have labeled the day “overcast, dank, and a chance of rain”. We took a half day kayaking trip on the Sound. It was Heather’s first time in a sea kayak; Chris had done it a few times. The weather actually cooperated. It drizzled a little, but not enough to be bothersome. The guide company fitted us with lots of poly-propylene, and water-proof clothes. The water in the Sound was surprisingly warm. We kayaked about 14 km. Heather sat in the back and did the steering. We saw fur seals and a few waterfalls up close. It was also interesting to be right up next to the walls of the Sound. Kayaking in Milford Sound gives you a different perspective, one that cannot be had on a tour boat .
Afterwards, we went for a little walk, and just took it easy [590, 593, 597]. We spent the rest of day relaxing at the Lodge. We overheard people talking about walking the Milford Track; it sounded awful. The Milford Track is supposed to be the greatest walking track in the world (no, really). What you don’t hear is that it rains on the Milford Track, and then it rains some more, then it rains even more. You hike in mud and water the whole way. It did not sound like our definition of fun.
The Drive to Te Anau
Surprise, surprise, it was raining the next morning (Saturday, February 19). We were very shocked by the number of people who were camping. They were crazy! We left Milford Sound and headed towards drier territory. We stopped off at the Chasm again, because it was so cool. Homer Tunnel provided us an interesting problem. We got up to the tunnel and there was a car waiting . Traffic was coming out of the tunnel. BUT there was no signal light. How were we going to get through a one-lane tunnel without getting killed by on-coming traffic? We sat there for about 5 minutes. Suddenly, a Kiwi (New Zealanders call themselves "Kiwis") in a truck pulled up behind us. I told him that the light was out. He said, “It looks clear now,” and squealed off into the tunnel. Immediately we jumped in our car and followed, figuring that the on-coming traffic will hit this fool and not us. But the Kiwi drove too fast and we were unable to catch him. Midway through the tunnel we met opposing traffic. We slowed to a crawl. Did we also mention that the tunnel leaks? The whole incident was heart-bounding fun. At the exit of the tunnel, we turned off into the parking area so as to take a little hike . Chris noticed that the signal light on this side of the tunnel was also out. He picked up the emergency phone and called it in, thinking that the situation was dangerous. “The signal lights are out at the Homer Tunnel.” “Ah yes, well the lights only work between 9am and 6pm.” “Don’t you think you should put a sign saying that? We didn’t know that. We sat there for 10 minutes.” “Hmm. A sign. That might be a good idea.”
We drove the rest of the highway without haste. We stopped off at Marion Falls, and other places to take pictures . We arrived in Te Anau around 1pm. We spent the night at Rosie’s Backpacker. Essentially we rented a room in a house. It was similar to a b&b without the breakfast, and we could use the kitchen, which had recently remodeled by the owners. Rosie's was a great place to stay [623—view from the backyard]. We had a nice chat with a Brit who had hiked extensively throughout New Zealand. After we had lunch, we walked into town. The next day we would be starting the Kepler Track, and we needed to find a place to stay the night we came off the trail. We visited a number of places and found a hotel. We did a little food shopping and returned to Rosie’s. The owners recommended a movie about Fjordland National Park (Ata Whenua--Shadowland), adjacent to Te Anau. It was produced locally and the town of Te Anau built a movie theater just to show it. We went out to dinner, then to the movie. It was great. Shot mostly by helicopter, it has some wild scenes of places we could never get to by foot. The film is a cheap way to see Fjordland by air. If you are ever in Te Anau, we recommend you see it. After this, we stayed for the next movie, “Team America: World Police.” It was odd to see a satire about the US in a foreign country, but we enjoyed the film. When we got back to our room, we packed our bags.
The Kepler Track
Maps of the Kepler Track [SMALL, LARGE].
We were up early the next day (Sunday, February 20), and went out to breakfast. We drove over to the hotel where we would stay when we came off the trail. We walked across the street to the Department of Conservation (DOC) office and got our permits for the Kepler Track. We had made the reservations back in August, which was a wise move. They only allow 60 people in each hut and it is important to reserve a bunk. We started our journey with a 45 minute walk along the lake . We walked past the Te Anau Wildlife Centre which houses many takahe. These flightless birds were thought to be extinct, but were found in the 1930’s in a remote valley. We continued parallel to the road until we got to the Control Gates of the dam at the head of Lake Te Anau. Crossing over, we entered Fiordland National Park. The trail swung north and walked through a thick, temperate rain forest, just yards away from the lake . At Brod Bay, we stopped for a rest on the beach . Some people take a shuttle boat from Te Anau to Brod Bay and skip about 5 miles of the Kepler Track. From the bay, the trail turned inland and upwards. We wound our way through the forest. At one point we had to climb a set of stairs to get up a cliff. The Kiwis did a great job at building trails. We encountered numerous boardwalks (covered with chicken wire so as to stop slippage). Eventually, we got out of the trees and saw the view . It was magnificent. The day was mostly clear (a little haze), and we could see in every direction. We stopped for a long break to admire the view. We were surprised at all the people coming down. For reasons that will be explained later, DOC only likes people to do the Kepler in a counter-clockwise direction. It turns out that a lot of people day-hike on the Kepler. In the spring they run a race around the whole thing 60 km (1.5 marathons) in about 6 hours.
After hiking through the tussock grassland , we reached the Mount Luxmore Hut at 3:30pm. The location of the hut could not be better. The views from the porch and commons room were incredible. The huts, in general, were divided into 2 areas. First was a common room with picnic tables, a few sinks, and gas burners. The second is the bunk area, which included the sinks, and flush toilets (while there was no hot water, it was good to wash up at the end of each day). At this hut there were 2 large rooms full of bunkbeds. All the bunkbeds had heavy, plastic-covered mattresses (no sleeping pads needed). Some of the bunks were single, while others could sleep four. We chose the group one because we could be together. The people who plopped down next to us later in the day were a couple from Spain with their 17 month-old daughter! We were magnets to babies—first the plane, now this hut. While her parents did do a good job of hushing her, she did wake up every hour, on the hour. The ironic part was that this was the best night of sleep we got while on the Kepler Track.
After getting situated at the hut, we went off to the Luxmore Caves , an easy 20 minute walk away. We briefly entered the cave but it was very slippery and steep, and we forgot our flashlights, so we did not stay long. Back at the hut we had a brief nature talk from the Warden of the hut. She also collected our reservation tickets, and explained things about where we staying. After dinner, we sat around talking to the other trampers. Many were from Germany, or Israel. There were a couple of other Americans, and few Australians. The average age seemed to be 24. This contrasted with the people we saw who came off the Milford Track; their average age was around 50. We got to know a woman from California, Aimee. She was studying for a year in Auckland, and was taking a trip with her friends from the USA who had come to visit. We also spoke with an Austrian couple (Isabelle and Christian) who were great/insane hikers. Unfortunately, we had the “pleasure” of talking with another American who was one of the most obnoxious people we met in all of NZ. He said he was a big environmentalist, yet was camping illegally on fragile alpine tundra, and left his food stuffs for others to clean up. The sunset was beautiful . We expected to get cold that night, but we did not.
We woke up (Monday, February 21) to fog. We waited and waited for it to clear, but it didn’t. We left at 9:30am and marched on our way. It was a bit eerie, but interesting. Just below the peak of Mount Luxmore, we came out of the clouds. In traversing the side of the mountain we were treated to a spectacular sight—the clouds were lying low near the lakes, thus making the mountains look like they were suspended. We were mightily impressed [673, 684, 687, KEPLER PANORAMA]. We made the side trip to the summit and had a nice view. Although we left, for us, late that morning, we seemed to be ahead of the majority of other trampers. Much of the rest of the day was spent going up and down the spine of a ridge. The trail, unlike most we had ever been on, was directly on top of the ridge. From a distance it reminded us of the Great Wall of China, which, it turns out, was the nickname of this area [697, 702]. The sun beat down on us. While the first day seemed easy, the second day was deceptively difficult. But we had good weather. Often the clouds, wind, and rain roll in on the ridge, making the going very difficult. In fact, 4 days prior, it had snowed on the ridge.
At last we made it to the stairs descending the ridge (“yes, precious, the stairs”). These were incredible and were perhaps the greatest bit of trail building we had ever seen. The stairs are about 3 feet wide, and very steep . It would have been very, very difficult to go up them; our knees would have been toast if we tried. The stairs were seemingly endless (okay, they went on for about a mile). At the end was a very steep, switch-backed trail to the valley floor. All told, we dropped more than 800 meters (2,500 feet) in 5km (3 miles).
We arrived at Iris Burn Hut in the early afternoon. Our new friend, Aimee, got there soon afterwards, and the 3 of us headed to Iris Burn Falls, about 15 minutes away. We were hoping to take a little swim so as to cool down and wipe some of the grime off. Alas, the water was too cold for our liking, so we merely dangled our feet and splashed our faces. At dinner that night we again spoke with the Austrian couple (Isabella and Christian). Chris lent a pot to some Germans and he persuaded them to teach him how to play a German card game called “doublekopff.” Our sleep was not restful due to people snoring. Our earplugs were ineffective.
We got an early start the next day (Tuesday, February 22), which proved advantageous. The hike paralleled the Iris Burn River. We walked through a dense forest that was occasionally broken by meadows [722, 726, 727]. We had to take 2 detours (1 major) because the bridges had been destroyed by falling trees and rocks . Eventually, we made it to the shores of Lake Manapuri, which is lovely [751, 759, MANAPURI PANORAMA]. The hike that day was easy and seemingly short. We arrived at Moturau Hut around 12:30pm. The hut is situated right across the trail from the lake, and one had a great view of the lake from the porch. We sat on the beach and ate our lunch. The beach was a fine one with nice sand. Eventually, Chris braved sticking his feet in the water. It was cool but not cold. Soon a German guy came up and said, “Of course we must go swimming,” and dove right in. Chris followed. Eventually, about 20 people, including Heather, went for a dip. The sun had come out and the wind had died down, the temperature was perfect. We spent most of the afternoon reading by the beach. Occasionally, a speed boat would drive by and the operator would stop and point to us and the Hut. We felt like were we some exotic animals that the tourists had come to see. We waved.
Most of the people hiked out to Rainbow Bridge, and thus off the Track that day. The Hut was only half full, which was nice. The Hut hostess was an older, British woman who enjoyed talking with everyone. It rained a few drops that night, which motivated us to go to bed early, in order to wake up early, and finish the Track.
We were up and out of the Hut by 7:30am (Wednesday, February 23). It was threatening to rain, but never did. In fact the weather cleared as the day progressed. The hike that day was long and mostly dull. There were very few views. Most of it was flat, in the forest, and paralleled the Waiau River [780, 782]. By the time we returned to the Control Gates, we were ready to be done, but we still had 45 minutes to hike. This seemed to last for hours and was not a good way to end, what until then had been a fantastic hike. The surface was hard and ground was flat. When we arrived at our hotel, we were very happy to finish.
After we checked into our hotel, the Red Tussock, and we took showers and did some laundry. We were, surprising for us, wiped out. We spent a lazy afternoon waiting for the laundry to be done and souvenir shopping. One thing that surprised us about NZ was the price of sweaters. We assumed that because so much wool was produced there, that sweaters would be cheap. We were wrong. A really nice sweater ran about $250. Since neither of us wear them that often, we felt it was not a thing to pick up. We did, however, buy a beautiful book about the Southland (the area we were in). We went to bed early.
Southern Scenic Route, Moeraki, and Oamaru
Drive, drive, drive is all we did the next day (Thursday, February 24). We headed south out of Te Anau, stopping off to take our pictures at the Kepler Track trailhead . We followed the Southern Scenic Route (highway 99) down to the coast. The terrain was rolling and very beautiful. It rained most of the day, but we didn’t mind. We were struck with the emptiness of this part of NZ. Although we saw none that day, we thought that the road would have been good for bike trip. We saw many people on bike trips, hauling all their gear with them, but we decided we would not like doing it in New Zealand. The biggest reason was that the roads were so narrow. Rarely did we see a shoulder. Also cars drive like mad on the twisty sections.
We eventually left the ocean, by passing Invercargill, to take highway 98 to highway 1 . We followed 1 through Gore and on to Clinton (they have a sign that says “The Presidential Highway, Clinton-Gore.” The towns were there long before the politicians came along. It was ironic, because this highway was in the most politically conservative section of NZ). We made our way through Dunedin, and up the coast. We stopped off at Moeraki to see the famous round boulders on the shore. They were pretty cool [816, 820, 824].
We stayed the night in Wainanakarua at the Olive Grove Lodge, another backpacker . This is the only “certified” organic backpacker in New Zealand. The people that ran it, Kim and Lyn, were very nice. There kids were funny. When asked if he was on summer break, the youngest replied that he was home-schooled, but the “teacher was on strike.” The place was beautiful—the common room was the best of any backpacker we stayed at . We soaked in the hot tub. Kim recommended we eat at Fleurs back down in Moeraki. It was one of the best meals we have ever eaten. The fish was fresh—right off the boats that pulled in next to the restaurant. The bread was awesome—we had never had curry bread before. It turns out that Fleurs is widely recognized as one of the best places to eat in NZ, and is one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s favorites.
We ended our long day with a trip to the Oamaru blue penguin colony [P17]. Every night the penguins return home from the sea. The town has established a rookery, and sells tickets so people can watch the birds waddle to shore. No pictures were permitted. It was interesting. The penguins were very loud. Just as we were leaving, one walked up out of the sea, and right next to the fence. We followed it. As it approached is nest/hole, it was attacked by 2 other penguins. They did not want this one to go home. They wrestled for about 10 minutes. On several occasions, the one bird got its head into its nest, but was suddenly dragged out by the other two. It was amusing.
The next day (Friday, February 25) involved another long drive. After stopping off in Oamaru for quick peek, we headed north on highway 1. Eventually, we left the highway and traversed over to the Banks Peninsula, just east of Christchurch. The road was crazy—narrow and windy. We stayed at our last backpacker, Bon Accord, in Akaroa. It was a nice place—small and right downtown. We went for a little hike in the surrounding hill. The path went straight up and straight down, but the view was nice [868, 874, 876]. That night, we ate out.
We decided to go sea kayaking again during our last full day (Saturday, February 26) in New Zealand. We drove out to this other backpacker. The road was dirt and steep. Once there, they transported us by truck back down to the ocean, driving on even steeper and more rocky road. We were put in single kayaks, and we paddled out to the middle of Akaroa Harbour. Our goal was to see dolphins. At first they were not cooperative, but we eventually found them. These were Dusky Dolphins, the smallest dolphins in the world [P15]. We saw well over a dozen. Often we paddled as they swam next to us. They came so close to our kayaks that we could touch them if we had wanted. After that we went to a cave on the coast. We paddled into it. It was cool and a little scary. The ride back was difficult because were we moving against the wind.
Afterwards, we stopped at a Maori meeting house to take pictures . Going back through Akaroa, we had lunch. Chris ate at Akaroa Fish n’ Chips. It was the best! The fish was fresh. The line was long and the price was low. It receives the highest recommendation from us. We drove back along the Banks Peninsula, on the Summit Road . This went along the top of a ridge. But for the fog, we could have seen Christchurch. We made our way back to the Godly Head Road, where we stopped to take pictures. We also stopped at Summer Beach, where we had visited the second day we were in New Zealand. Driving back into Christchurch we went to a grocery store to buy food that would be our gifts for friends and family. We bought lots of yummy sauces from Southeast Asia, chocolate covered ginger and kiwi fruit, and some wine. All the grocery stores in NZ have an excellent selection of wine.
Back to Christchurch
We spent our last night where we spent our first, at the Holiday Hotel. After getting settled, we walked downtown for dinner. The town was jumping. We wanted to eat at the Mythai Monkey Bar because we like Thai food, and the name was cool . Turns out that this place had a waitlist. To pass the time, we walked around downtown Christchurch. Once we arrived back at the bar, we read the reviews on the wall and were pleased to see that this establishment was rated the best Thai restaurant in all of New Zealand. The food was great. After getting stuffed we walked around a little more, but wound up back at the Monkey Bar. We chatted with the bartender and a young guy who worked there. After some time, it was revealed that the young guy was the owner. He was from Australia and his family was in the business.
Our last day in New Zealand (Sunday, February 27) began with us packing. We loaded all of our stuff in to the 3 dufflebags we brought with us. They seemed too heavy and we were concerned that the airline would charge us extra for the weight. After loading up the car and checking out, we went to brunch at the Belgian Beer Café again. Heather swore it was the best poached salmon she had ever eaten, while Chris raved about the Belgian waffle. We walked back to the hotel and got into car and drove south to Lincoln. On our plane from Denver to LAX we met a woman, Megan, who was a student at Colorado State University. She was going to spend a semester at the Lincoln College outside of Christchurch. We had agreed to stop off to see her on the way out of town and let her barrow our guidebooks and maps. We also gave her our extra food, and various sundry items. Megan had a huge dorm room, enough for 3 people.
We made our way out to the airport, bought gas for the last time and dropped the car off. We had driven nearly 2,000 miles in 3 weeks. We got to the airport quite early, so we visited the International Antarctica Centre, which was at the airport. Christchurch is the jump off point to Antarctica for both New Zealand and the United States. The Centre had some nice exhibits (including a “cold” room, where the temperature was 23F). We did learn that 80 below, with normal clothes on, a person would die in about 1 minute. It was an interesting place.
The Journey Home
We left Christchurch at 4:30pm that Sunday and arrived back in Denver at 5:57pm that Sunday. Our trip was the reverse of our arrival. We flew to Auckland. Again, the land was covered in clouds. In Auckland we walked over to the international terminal. Our tickets said the plane would leave at 7:40pm, but the board said 6:50pm, so we rushed to the gate. Before getting through security, you had to pay a $50 per person exit fee, which was odd. The airport is privately owned, and it has no taxing authority, so it can only levee fees at the airport. Going through security was no problem. Heather was hungry, so she stopped to get a slice of pizza. There were only 3 slices left at that moment. The man at the head of the line bought one. This American (who made us feel all proud) had no NZ money, so he wanted to pay for his $5 piece of pizza with a $10 USA bill. While the clerk did accommodate him, he also handed the patron $5 NZ in change. The American was expecting US currency. Not wanting the $5 NZ, the silly man jumped back in line and bought what was now the last slice of pizza. Heather went hungry. The plane was late taking off. We had bulkhead seats which meant no leg room and center consoles that could not lift up. The flight home was long, but baby-free. The Quantas attendants’ uniforms were the most ugly things; they looked like a 1970’s polyester, disco outfit. We watched a few movies and tried to sleep.
Upon arriving back in LA, we had to go through customs. Despite the line, it was relatively easy. We were asked no hard questions and our baggage was not inspected. We did have to wait about 30 minutes for our bags to show up. Because of this, we missed an earlier flight to Denver, thus we caught our scheduled flight, which left 3 hours later. LAX is really, really boring. We read the paper. We ate at Chili’s. Eventually we were on our flight. The weather was great so we had nice views. Arriving on time, we were greeted at baggage claim by our friend Rene (Chris’ mom was circling the airport waiting for us to arrive).
We had survived our trip during the communication age without watching tv or calling home. We checked our email only once, on that first day.
Upon arriving home, we had a ton of mail. Chris had over 600 emails.
Banjo the Dog was freaked out. Our first night home, he slept in the closet, either hiding or sulking.
Here are some random thoughts and observations we had about New Zealand:
Let us know if you have any questions or comments about our trip: