Fourth Letter from New Zealand

February 16-22, 2007

Outside the backpackers inn where we had breakfast after our long night in the forest there was a fleet of small planes loading up and taking off for scenic tours of the mountains and the fjordland areas. That’s something we definitely want to do while we’re here, although it is expensive. The alternative, though, is to drive several hundred kilometers into those areas and back out again. That might be OK if you had unlimited time, but we don’t. And I’m not sure it wouldn’t end up costing just as much, all things considered.

Meanwhile, though, we drove on following a winding mountain stream through the rest of the park to Wanaka, which we’d been told was a friendlier, less-developed lakeside tourist town than Queenstown. Having finally learned out lesson about finding a place to stay early, our first stop was the “i” station, a free tourist information center in all the major tourist areas that also books accommodations and attractions. Good thing we did. Even that early in the day it took an hour, but the lady finally found us a place to stay that turned out to be a real bargain. It was a beautifully furnished two-bedroom apartment in a brand-new building on a hill just outside the main part of town for $110 NZ a night! We took one look and decided to make it our three-day base to see the whole Southland area.

The town was basically a bunch of shops and cafes at one end of a scenic lake with a snow-capped mountain on the other end. In the winter, it’s probably like Breckenridge, Colorado – a good ski center but not the trendy venue, a pleasant, low-key kind of a place. Suits us fine.

Understandably, we didn’t do much that day except have a nice lunch in one of the cafes, lay in supplies for the apartment and bring in fish ‘n chips (absolutely terrific) from a shop around the corner for dinner, washed down with another crisp, cold NZ sauvignon blanc. A long, hot shower (that sure felt good after our night in the park!) and early to bed to catch up on the sleep we’d lost.

Up bright and early the next day for the major expedition to Milford Sound. The deal we’d booked was a flight in a six-seater Cessna 206 that would take us through the mountains and land at Milford Sound. There we’d get on a small cruise boat for a trip through the sound out to the Tasman Sea and back and we’d then fly back out on a different route through the mountains to Wanaka. Total cost was $300 NZ per person, which turned out to be maybe the best $300 we’d ever spent. What a spectacular trip, on a perfectly clear day. Our young female pilot flew us not over the mountains but among them, seemingly only yards above the glaciers sometimes. We looked down into crevasses of pale blue ice hundreds of feet deep and across at steep corrugated snow plains where some intrepid souls go heli-skiing. (Scary thought!) Razor-sharp rock ridges, deep blue snowmelt lakes draining into waterfalls hundreds of feet high – amazing sights, an unforgettable trip. The cruise was also memorable. Milford Sound is actually a fjord, misnamed by European explorers who didn’t know any better. (A sound is a river basin backfilled by the sea; a fjord is a U-shaped groove ground out by a glacier that’s been backfilled by the sea.) The cliffs are streaked with red (iron) and green (copper) and sparkled with quartz (a marker for gold). The boat eased up close to a colony of sea lions and later got near enough for us to take pictures of a rare penguin with swooping yellow eyebrows hiding at the edge of the bush. In narrower spots, coming around bluffs, the wind was ferocious. On a warm day like this the air rises and is replaced by colder air rushing in from the sea, channeled by the canyons into a veritable wind tunnel. Another unusual natural phenomenon of the sound: fresh water fish live near the surface, saltwater fish in layers below. Flying back out we saw something else interesting – the growth pattern of the vegetation. At Milford, they get 200 days of rain, nearly eight meters a year, and the forest is dense. On the other side of the mountains, just a few miles away, the annual rainfall is less than half-a-meter, so there are different trees and fewer of them. The Alpine Fault was also clearly visible, splitting a mountain on both sides. It’s right on the seam between the two sliding tectonic plates, one of which is the Pacific plate. (We’re on the western edge of that plate; the eastern edge causes the San Andreas Fault in California.) This place must be a geologist’s dream. It sure was a dream trip for us.

Arriving back in Wanaka, we found the Wanaka Beerworks, a craft brewery right on the airbase! What a great way to finish off the day. Good product, too. He’s had trouble getting much distribution, however. He thinks it’s partly because of the “tall poppy” syndrome. New Zealanders resent other New Zealanders who do too well, he says. I’ve heard that before, but I suspect it’s an excuse. When I listen to him talk, I hear part of the problem. “They don’t get it,” he says, speaking of his potential customers. “This is a Wanaka product made by Wanaka people; they should carry it.” Hmmmm. Throw it on the desk and it’ll sell itself, huh? Entitlement marketing? I don’t think so. I may use him as a case in class.
On the way back to the apartment we came across Sylv’s idea of seventh heaven: Stuart Landborough’s Puzzling World, seven acres devoted to mazes, illusions and puzzles of all sorts. There’s a puzzle café seating 100 with puzzles and games on all the tables for kids (like Sylvia!) to play with. Needless to say, we spent an hour there and would’ve stayed longer if they hadn’t closed.

Next day, we drove over to Queenstown, another even bigger tourist town on a lake. (And ski town in the winter. In fact, Queenstown is sort of Aspen to Wanaka’s Breckenridge, for those of you who’ve been to the Colorado Rockies.) Queenstown not only on the end of a pretty lake, it’s at the foot of a mountain. We took a gondola up to the base station. I took a chair lift up another few hundred feet and rode a luge sled back down. Another way to descend is to parasail down over the lake and the town into a soccer stadium. (An instructor rides with you to steer.) About halfway down the mountain next to the gondola line people are also bungee jumping off a tower. If you don’t know it’s there, it’s a little startling to suddenly hear this god-awful scream from someone plummeting past your gondola capsule. (Bungee jumping was invented in New Zealand, they often point out.) The guidebook says of Queenstown, “If you can think of a way to pay somebody to scare the crap out of you, it’s here!”

We’d taken the long way over from Wanaka, around the mountains along a river between the two lakes. We came back over the top, which was quite a climb. Half as far and spectacular but obviously from the signs we saw often impassable in the winter. The change in vegetation as we went up and over was fascinating, from green forests through mountain pasture (lots of sheep) to barren moors above the tree line and back down to vineyards nearer the town. Lonely country; we saw very few signs of human habitation for much of the way.

It was Chinese New Year, so we went in search of a Chinese restaurant in Wanaka. Surprisingly to us, there was only one, a grubby mostly take-out place where we were served the worst Chinese meal we’d ever eaten. Blech! Come to think of it, we haven’t seen many Asian faces down here in the South Island and the tourists seem to be Europeans – Brits and Germans, mostly. We’ll have to make up for that in Auckland.

Monday morning we started back north, driving up the center of the island along the eastern slopes of the Southern Alps. We had lunch at a lakeside picnic table with a glorious view of Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain at 12,345 feet. (That’s the figure we were given by a guide, doubly unforgettable because it’s the zip code for the GE plant in Schenectady.)

We were trying to get as far up toward the whale-watching center of Kaikoura as we could in one day, but we also were NOT going to sleep another night in the car, so when it got to be late afternoon we stopped at an attractive inn near Mt. Hutt overlooking the Rakaia Gorge. It was run by a big florid American (who came out here to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War) and his New Zealander wife, allegedly once a world-class skier, now about to undergo her fifth knee surgery. The lodge’s main season is winter – you can tell that by the way the unit is set up and by the instruction sheets on how and where to store skis and boots – but it also seems to function as a special occasion restaurant for people who live in the small towns around the valley. We got into a conversation with a local at the bar whose grandfather invented the jet boat, we’re told. (A jet boat is an extremely shallow-draft New Zealand craft – it only needs four inches of water – propelled by a turbine shooting a jet of water out the back.) He promises to meet us the next morning at 9AM to take us up the gorge in his boat, but perhaps he had too many of the lethal-looking yellow cocktails he was drinking – we were there, but he never showed. Dinner was OK; fresh but farm-raised salmon, nothing special, except for the nice view of the cliffs through the glass wall.

After waiting a half-hour for the jet boat scion, we continued on north. We stopped for lunch in the Star & Garter, a very English-looking pub/hotel in an English-looking village (we are not far from Christchurch, the most English city in New Zealand) and got into conversation with a friendly couple from the nearby spa town of Hamner Springs who recommended a B&B in Kaikoura; in fact, they tried to call the proprietor right then and there to book it for us, but he was out.

When we got into Kiakoura, we went to the information and booking center and wouldn’t you know it, the only place they could find for us was that very B&B! We were sorry we hadn’t stopped there ourselves on the way in and saved our host the commission. What a nice place, perched up on a hill with a great view of the whole town from the balcony outside our room. The landlord even provided a little bottle of sauvignon blanc to welcome us, free. He also said he’d just caught a couple of crayfish and that he’d bring us up a taste. Great, we said – we’d wanted to see what they were like, but half a crayfish (about the size of half a lobster) was $40 or more in a restaurant. Well, the “taste” he brought up was in fact half a crayfish! That washed down with the little bottle of wine made a perfectly good dinner, thank you very much. And it was ambrosial. Like lobster in consistency but perhaps even a bit sweeter.

The next morning the clouds were on the ground. We’d planned to go see the whales from the air in a single-engine plane, but they were grounded so we rang up the whale-watching tour boat company and luckily bagged the last two seats on a noon trip out. Turned out it was a much better way to do it anyway, even if it did cost us most of the day. We saw three different sperm whales who as though they were trained to perform for the camera all flipped their tails up and dove for us virtually on cue. Coming back, the boat was surrounded by dozens of frolicking dolphins. So Sylv was happy; she’d seen her whales and then some!

The delay meant we were late getting down the coast to Christchurch, though. Fortunately we’d booked ahead this time and after winding around trying to follow imperfect directions, found the place. Again, we got lucky. This very nice older lady took us in and got us settled – when she opened the drapes in our room, we found we were looking at her garden and beyond it the beach! – and she wouldn’t hear of our going back out to find a meal. She took us to a glassed-in lanai next to their indoor pool where her venerable husband was enjoying some wine and cheese. That would have done us fine, but she insisted on preparing a real supper. We all chatted away through two more bottles of wine ‘til nearly midnight. Breakfast the next morning was sumptuous, too. We said good-bye somewhat reluctantly – we could get used to that kind of treatment!

We only had a few hours in Christchurch, but thanks to a hop-on, hop-off tour trolley we saw quite a lot of the neat, proper city. One amusing thing we learned: the first rugby match here was in 1863 but they didn’t start to build the cathedral ‘til 1864, which tells you what New Zealand’s REAL religion is!

We turned in the rental car (we’d put nearly 2400 kilometers on it) and caught our plane back to Auckland, which was slightly delayed because there’d been three earthquakes in Auckland early in the evening! Unusual, they told us. We hope so, we replied!

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