An Overhead View of the South Island

With full acknowledgement that this one is really a “guest post”, and with many thanks to Keith Chin from Singapore who created this video during his recent visit to the South Island, I wanted to share a link to a short video that was shared with us by the host of one of our recent B&B stays.  Keith was a recent guest of theirs who used a drone to capture many of the sites of the South Island, including several shots of biking the Queen Charlotte Track (per the last blog post).

The video is about 3.5 mins long, and  while we admittedly didn’t do the bungee jumping or kayaking, the scenes are otherwise familiar as many we experienced on the South Island, including the Queen Charlotte Track, Kaikoura, Doubtful Sound,and the Routeburn Track.  I thought it was spectacular, and hope you enjoy it (and thanks again Keith – kids today!):

 

Biking the Queen Charlotte Track, and Farewell to the South Island!

After finishing our explores in Abel Tasman, we arrived in Picton on the northern tip of the South Island at the beginning of the week, ready to trade our tramping shoes for our next adventure – a 3-day bike trek on the Queen Charlotte Track.  The 70K track winds up and down a series of ridges that reach through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds with its stunning turquoise-blue inlets that stretch north and east of the tip of the South Island.  The track is another of the nine NZ “Great Walks”, but one that also opens up for bikers in the fall (i.e. March!) after the peak of summer tramping has passed.  In retrospect, we probably should have been more cautious about taking on this one – especially considering how many raised eyebrows we got from the locals when we said that we were planning to bike the track.  But sometimes, it’s just best not to know (or at least, for Lee not to know…!).

While we were hoping for a continuation of our weather good luck streak, we woke to gray skies and a light rain on day 1 of the trip, prompting a discussion with the bike rental agent about whether it was better to walk the first day, vs. attempting to bike the largely-clay-based (and prone-to-slipping) track.   But after catching the water taxi out of Picton to the start of the track, we threw caution to the wind, put on our rain gear, and hopped on the bikes – thinking, how bad could it be…???

We quickly found out just exactly how bad (and realized why everyone else we saw riding the track was at least 15 years younger than us!), but were rewarded with an exhilarating – if somewhat muddy, rocky, and – OK – at times, treacherous, ride.   We hadn’t really done much mountain biking before this trip, but am pretty sure we quickly advanced from novice to solid intermediate by sheer necessity, admittedly doing our fair share of pushing the bikes up the steepest and/or rockiest sections.

After five hours of some of the most challenging – and exhilarating! – biking we’ve ever done, and riding through a plethora of mud and mists, we were grateful to arrive at Punga Cove, wet and as muddy as a pair of 12 year olds, but otherwise intact.

We felt like we were miles from nowhere, but were delighted to find our little lodging oasis complete with hot tea, hot tub, and one of the most incredible dinners we’ve enjoyed here yet (complete with white linen table cloths!).

Luckily, day 2 brought clearing weather, which was particularly appreciated as we headed out for 25K of what we had been forewarned would be “the most arduous day” of the ride.  We quickly realized that the description was in part defined by long stretches of rocky uphill climbing – much of which involved (for us at least!) more pushing than pedaling.  The return of sunshine, however, also brought stunning views of the Marlborough Sounds alternatively to our left and right…

…constantly tempting us to take our eyes off the many challenges on the path ahead, including many sections and twisting turns that bordered on amazingly sheer drops (methinks this was definitely more risky than the skydiving!).  Luckily we made it to our next stop in Portage near Torea Bay, and again had a comfortable lodge to wash up and recover for the night.

The third and final day dawned to even brighter skies and more sunshine, though once again started with more steady uphill climbing for the first few hours.  Once we finished the ascent, the views along the ridgeline made it worth the pushing, though, and we again faced the challenge of keeping our eyes on the track – prompting lots of stops to enjoy a safer view of the surroundings, including a famous stop at “Eatwells” (no idea where the name comes from) with their iconic signposts to destinations around the world.

We ended the day with a long and rewarding downhill stretch, taking a stop for lunch and a rest on the shore (don’t worry – he’s still alive!)…IMG_2675

… and riding into our final stop in the tiny town of Anakiwa (interestingly, one of the NZ headquarters for Outward Bound expeditions).  From there, we caught a water taxi for the short ride back to Picton to rest up for one last night before heading out for the North Island.

During the hour or so that we spent waiting for our return ride, we were fortunate to connect with a lovely couple from Australia with whom we had been leap-frogging along the trail (they walking and us biking).  We’ve been continuously amazed during our time here how friendly most folks are, and how easy it’s been to connect with fellow travelers.  This time the couple included a family physician who’s been working on improving primary health care in their home of New South Wales  (bingo!) who offered to connect me with a primary care leader in the Midlands area of the North Island – right up my alley! (and hopefully more on that later!)

This morning brought more bright skies (now especially appreciated!) as we caught the Interislander Ferry for our 3-hr crossing from Picton to Wellington.

We’re eager to spend our last 12 days exploring the North Island, though definitely also feeling much gratitude and some sadness to be leaving the amazing sights and adventures of the South Island after our incredible four weeks there.

Tramping in Abel Tasman

Having finished our travels on the east coast, Lee & I turned northward to explore the northern tip of the South Island.  We headed to Abel Tasman National Park, a beautiful stretch of beaches and native forests named for the Dutch explorer who was the first European to visit NZ in 1642, and home of one of the country’s nine “Great Walks”. Since only the two ends of the 60K track are accessible by car, we joined a host of other day hikers and backpackers and boarded a water taxi just outside of the far end of the track at the Motueka, and headed out for Torrent Bay to do a ~15K “tramp” (Kiwi-speak for anything from a day of casual hiking, to weeks of remote backpacking).

En route to our drop-off point, we passed more spectacular scenery along the way, including “Split Apple Rock”, a huge granite boulder split neatly down the middle by two gods, according to local Maori legend.  After arriving at Torrent Bay, we headed out for a spectacular day of walking, crossing golden sandy beaches, passing through temperate rain forests, past rocky streams, and over dramatic cliffs – just a sampling of the magic of Abel Tasman.

In visiting the park, we were struck once again with the amazing commitment that NZ has made to preserving its natural beauty – not only with its 13 national parks, but also the seemingly-endless number of tracks, reserves, huts, and campsites supported by the Dept of Conservation  – a national investment that now attracts more than 3.5 million visitors per year from around the globe (a number even more impressive given that the population of the entire country numbers only 4.5 million).

And of course, since all those trampers need to camp somewhere… they appear to have covered the country in the most amazing collection of camper vans we’ve ever seen.  In addition to the ever-present and flashy purple and green”Jucy” vans, as well as the standard issue of Britz, Mighty, Maui, and Happy Camper brands, the country seems to be blanketed in a wild array of camper vans of all color, size, and decor.  It’s been almost enough to tempt us into trying one (until we remembered our 56yo bodies are very fond of a real bed at night – especially after all that tramping).  Maybe our next trip to NZ!

 

East Coast Explorations

After leaving the MacKenzie region, Lee & I ventured eastward to explore some of the coastal towns before continuing our northward trek.  We headed to Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, a beautiful region just south of Christchurch that was formed by the collapse of two volcanoes, leaving a unique landscape of hills, bays, and ridges with sweeping landscapes.

From there we headed north to Kaikoura, a coastal town known for its abundance of seabirds, seals, whales, and dolphins (and more recently, for being the scene of NZs most recent serious earthquake November 2016, disrupting the major coastal route in and out of the town, and stranding the town residents for weeks).  We enjoyed views of the region on the Peninsula Walk, enjoying local seafood along the way, and checking out the seal colony at Point Kean.

(yes, that is a seal and a cat in the same frame – can’t explain it, but symbiosis at its best!)

But the real attraction of the area and the highlight of the week, by far, was the opportunity to do a swim with the dolphins. After waiting for a few days for the weather to clear, we were delighted to wake up to sunny skies and calm seas, and headed out for “Dolphin Encounter”.  After a short cruise out into the harbor, we were thrilled to see the hallmark sign – i.e. the dorsal fins marking a pod of not a few…

…but hundreds of dusky dolphins, incredibly energetic and playful creatures that inhabit the deep water canyons off of Kaikoura.

While Lee elected to stay with the hardy group of boat-based observers (he’s just not a water guy!), I donned the requisite wet suit and flippers to join a group of snorkeling dolphin-swimmers, and plunged in for an amazing adventure.

To say the experience was amazing would be an understatement.  With nothing more to entice them than our presence and their natural curiosity,  the dolphins surrounded and entertained us with their whole-hearted exuberance.  We spent the next hour swimming in and around with hundreds of these amazing creatures as they literally swam with, over, and above us, often within arm’s distance.  While some were swimming playfully in circles around us…

…others leaped repeatedly out of the water, doing flips and acrobatics – apparently just for the fun of it!  Definitely another experience of a lifetime!IMG_2445

The Mackenzie District: Lake Tekapo & Mt. Cook

After visiting Christchurch for several days, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend a few more days exploring the dramatic scenery of the Mackenzie District of the South Island.  We headed to Lake Tekapo, one of the amazing turquoise-blue lakes in the region that get their distinctive color from the glaciers that formed them, scouring the lake bottom and creating a fine silt or “glacial flour” that reflects sunlight to create the distinctive bright blue colorimg_4360

Thanks to its wide open skies and isolation, the region is also recognized as part of the “International Dark Sky Reserve”, making it one of the best places in the world for stargazing. We were able to take advantage of a late-night tour at the Tekapo Springs, basking in the glory of a crystal-clear night to enjoy the stars of the southern hemisphere  (i.e., or as I just learned, one half of our northern night sky, with constellations upside-down, and the other half with constellations only visible from the southern half of the globe!) while soaking in a natural hot pool – hard to beat! We weren’t able to capture photos from that experience, unfortunately, but suffice it to say it was memorable!

We enjoyed a beautiful hike the next day along the lake front to the top of Mt. John…

…and even ran across a mountain-top assembly of benches that was just clearly waiting for (or had just hosted?) a wedding  – unfortunately I just couldn’t get Lee to renew our vows while we were there!
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We went from there for a dramatic evening drive past Lake Pukaki, another glacier-carved turquoise expanse at the base of Aoraki, or Mt. Cook, and on into Mt. Cook National Park.

We had time for only a short visit in the park, but enjoyed a beautiful evening and dinner with a panoramic view of Mt. Cook, followed by a dramatic sunset over the mountains on our drive home.  A fitting departure to this incredibly beautiful part of the country!

 

Christchurch Explored

After another dramatic drive crossing back to the east coast via Arthur’s Pass, Lee and I decided to explore Christchurch.  Located in the center of the South Island, the city is NZ’s second largest population center and was previously known as a cultural and university center with a distinctly British flavor (complete with the River Avon lined by Oxford and Cambridge Terraces); sadly, the city was dramatically redefined in 2011 when it was hit by one of NZ’s largest earthquakes, registering 6.3 on the Richter scale and tragically killing 185 people. We started our visit by viewing the recently-dedicated memorial wall, a strikingly simple and beautiful white marble wall listing the names of each of the victims (eerily reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial).

The quake also caused structural damage to virtually every building in the area, putting the city into major rebuilding mode for the past six years.  While the impact of the quake is still painfully apparent, particularly in the city center…

…at the same time, it was striking to see the innovation, energy, and commitment to rebuilding the city and the community.  This ranged from the “ReSTART” section of the city center, a block of buildings assembled by city leaders shortly after the quake to quickly recreate a thriving commercial center using colorful shipping containers…

…to a beautiful children’s playground that we were told attracts over 1000 kids and parents into the city each weekend, to numerous art projects built on sites still awaiting reconstruction.

The spirit of the city comes across as strongly and amazingly resilient, and not surprisingly, young people and construction workers are everywhere, filling the city parks during lunch time with their bright yellow and orange vests.

img_4318We had rented bikes for our tour around the city, and were able to extend the day for a ride out to Sumner, a beautiful beachfront community along the city’s Pacific coastline.  A great end to another amazing day here!

 

 

Fox Glacier Adventures

Having made it to the west coast, we were eager to explore the glaciers, Fox and Franz-Josef, remarkable for their easy access, flowing out of the mountains of the Southern Alps nearly to sea level where they meet the temperate rain forests. We decided to join one of the Fox Glacier tours, taking a short (but stunning!) helicopter ride up for a 3-hour walk on the glacier face.

We were lucky to have yet another clear, sunny day, and as we set off (complete with crampons!), were treated to an incredible set of sights as the sun hit the ice and illuminated an amazing array of ice ridges, crevasses, caves, and compression arches.

The ride back came too quickly!

But the day wasn’t done yet – time for the next adventure: sky-diving!  Much to Lee’s dismay, I decided that if there ever was a time to take advantage of fair skies and incredible views to do a tandem skydive over the glacier and Southern Alps, this was it!  I strapped on the gear and partnered up with my very patient tandem (i.e. professional) sky-diving partner, and headed up into the wild blue yonder.

At just over 13,000′ (and luckily, without much opportunity for turning back), I did as I was told – i.e. stuck my legs out the hatch, held onto my harness, and kept my head back and eyes open while getting a firm push out the door.  The experience of free-falling for just over a minute (~8000′) was undeniably one of the most incredible experiences of a lifetime – complete with full view of the Tasman Sea, Southern Alps, and Fox Glacier all one amazing scope. Happily the parachute engaged at 5000′ as planned, and it was smooth sailing back to earth.  Hard to beat a day like that!

East Coast to West Coast

After a day of exploring Dunedin, Lee & I picked up a rental car and headed to Wanaka en route to the west coast & the Tasman Sea.  Our first (albeit brief) visit to Wanaka with the kids had been cool & cloudy, so we were delighted to find that summer had returned to this beautiful small lakeside community. We were also happy to reconnect with Abby and her friend, Hope, who had just finished a challenging tramp over the Gillespie Pass and were grateful for a warm bed & home cooking at our B&B (them cooking for us – what could be better!).

We made the most of our day there with a short hike up to Diamond Lake and an amazing vista of Lake Wanaka, complete with some drama as a helicopter circled in to rescue an injured hiker (Lee seems to attract these things!).

We headed out the next day to make the harrowing drive through the mountains and over the Haast Pass to the west coast (stealing Abby for a few days as she wanted to see the glaciers) and were rewarded with some amazing views, including views of Mt. Cook that appear shortly after leaving Wanaka.  Along the way we also passed Lake Hawea (first photo on left, below) where we’re told Reese Witherspoon & Oprah Winfrey are currently filming the Disney movie, A Wrinkle in Time (one of my childhood favorites) – though we somehow managed to miss seeing them in person (they must have lost my cell…!).

We continued up the west coast to the tiny town of Fox Glacier and enjoyed more spectacular views of Mt Cook & Mt Tasman from Lake Matheson before settling in for the night to get ready for some glacier adventures!

Biking the Otago Rail Trail

After seeing off Sam & Abby last Sunday and spending one more day in Queenstown, Lee & I headed out on Tuesday for a 4-day bike ride on the Otago Rail Trail, a 152K bike path (sounds so much more impressive in kilometers!) in the central part of the South Island, just south and east of Queenstown.

The ride starts out of the old mining town of Clyde, and winds across the central Otago region on an old railroad bed built in the mid-1800’s in the midst of the region’s gold rush.  We rode through a beautiful and rapidly changing countryside, moving from the mountains and greenery of the south land, to rolling hills with farmlands and sheep pastures, to open grasslands and mountain ridges – noting some striking resemblances to many areas of the US mid/southwest.

We enjoyed the solitude of the open spaces, the dramatic scenery, and meeting up with other riders at the stopping points; we estimated there were about 30-40 riders/day, mostly of a similar demographic, and mostly Kiwi’s, though with a few Australians in the mix – and all incredibly friendly.  We particularly enjoyed traveling through the tiny old railroad towns – many of them not much more than a few homes and a general store.

The rail trail and cyclists have brought a regrowth of tourism to the area, and we were pleasantly surprised at the charming and surprisingly comfortable accommodations in the tiny towns/stations of Omakau (where we just happened to stay across the street from a junk shop – what a coincidence…!), Wedderburn, and Kokonga.

 

And as with most of our travel in NZ to date, we found that the sheep were again way more plentiful than the people. Sheep farming is one of the most important agricultural businesses in the country (second only to dairy farming), and the 4.5M Kiwis are outnumbered by far by the estimated 28M sheep – apparently making it the country with the highest density of sheep per area in the world (including these few out the back window of our room one night!).

After four days of very pleasant riding (we somehow managed to extend this incredible stretch of good weather, and turns out that an amazing amount of the trail is downhill – a pleasant contrast to Maine!), we ended the trail in the tiny town of Middlemarch…img_3917… where we took a shuttle to the old station in Pukerangi to pick up a ride on the historic Dunedin Railway that travels across the remaining 60 miles of the original railroad track across dramatic Taieri Gorge.

We finished the trip at the beautiful historic train station at Dunedin where we’ll spend a few days exploring before trading in our two wheels for four, and heading back up to the west coast to do more exploring and hiking.
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Routeburn Track

One of the highlights of our trip thus far was doing the three-day Routeburn Track – an amazing ~25 mile trek (or “tramp” as the Kiwis appropriately call it) that is one of the nine NZ “Great Walks”, and the last family outing of our week together on the South Island (hard to believe it’s only been a week!).  We joined a group of 24 people doing a guided trip with Ultimate Hikes (gets very high marks!), and departed from Te ‘Anau to start the trip at the Divide.  We somehow managed to snag a virtually-unheard stretch of good weather for the full three days, and enjoyed yet more incredible sights along the way. Day one included a climb up to Key Summit, lunch at Lake Howden Hut, and a dramatic walk past Earland Falls…

…before descending to Lake Mackenzie and the welcome site of our lodge (complete with hot showers and a bunk room with the best view imaginable – too old for that camping stuff!).

Day 2 took us on a quick climb above Lake Mackenzie to reach more incredible views at Ocean Peak Corner, looking down the Hollyford Valley with distant views all the way to the Tasman Sea (another perfect clear blue sky day!).

We enjoyed views of the alpine flora (mountain daisies, gentians, & edelweiss)…

…as well as the snow-topped peaks at the Harris Saddle where we stopped for lunch, before climbing Conical Hill for an amazing panorama of the surrounding peaks.

After descending to Lake Harris & following the start of the Routeburn River, we spent the second night at Routeburn Falls Hut – another spectacular spot.

Day 3 ended with a steady descent into the Routeburn Valley, following water so clear and clean that we were encouraged to fill our drinking bottles directly from the stream – amazing!

After lunch at the river (and a bracing dip into the freezing cold water by the young folk – god bless ’em)…

…we ended the day with a peaceful descent to Road End.  We headed back to Queenstown filled with gratitude for this amazing experience, and said goodbye to the kids (Sam flying back to the US, and Abby, meeting up with friends to hike and explore for the next few months).  A memorable week, to be sure!