We've wrapped up our month in New Zealand, feeling both sad to leave a glorious country and excited & ready for the next chapters in Australia and Asia. We finished our south island travels with a bang. And a zip.
The end of our journey across the South Island took us to some more remote locations. First, we headed down to the Fjordlands National Park and the Milford Sound. The name pretty much says it all – Fjords, fjords and more fjords.
Here we did 18km of another New Zealand “Great Walk”, called the Kepler Track. The track was beautiful and challenging, with a lot of elevation. It started with an 8:30am water taxi ride across a gorgeous blue lake to reach the base of the trail. From there, we hoped to climb up up up all the way to the summit of Mt. Luxmore. That is IF we were making good time and could make it back down to the lake by 4:30pm to catch the last water taxi back. If we missed the taxi, we had an additional 10 kilometer walk back to town. Spoiler alert: We missed the boat. We caught a bit of summit fever and decided to push on to the top, with time running out quickly. It was further than we expected. We made it to the summit, and it was awesome, and then trudged back down, dreading the extra 10km walk out of the park. But because Kiwis are SO awesome, we managed to hitch a ride with a suuuper nice guy on his boat instead! We boatch-hiked! And THANK GOD we did, because my legs were straight dead at the end of the day. Even without that 10K, I was in rough shape. Without our boatly benefactor, I may have been crippled for a week.
The next day we rested our legs with a morning boat ride through the Milford Sound, land of the fjords. The drive to Milford Sound is 2 hours from the nearest town, with stunning views the entire way. From glacially-formed valleys to snow-capped mountains, the landscape of the Southern Alps does not disappoint. We stopped along the way to gawk at mountains and lakes and meandered our way back to our hostel all afternoon. The coolest part of the remote ride out to Milford Sound is a massive tunnel through a mountain ridge. It's 1 kilometer in length, one way (cars alternate based on an elaborate signal system), and has quite a good slant to it. It's like a giant tunnel-slide. It feels like you've entered a mining shaft in Disney's Thunder Mountain. Except there is no track and you are in charge of the car in this pitch black ride.
Also I have to mention our amazing hostel in Te Anau, called YHA Hostel. It was an all-ages, international hive of good energy and relaxation. Given the location near the national park, everyone there was a trekker, cyclist or kayaker. And for once, we weren't the youngest people in the hostel! There were tons of travelers from early 20's through 70's, and everywhere in between. Besides great accommodations, the hotel truly won by heart by a full recycling system, even composting the guests food scraps! And where do they use the compost? Oh, in their “edible garden” which is in their courtyard, planted with fresh herbs, lettuces and veggies that were all available to guests for a our meals! So we picked off some mint sprigs and made a fizzy peach-mint soda with fresh fruit we'd bought that day. Heaven. We highly recommend YHAs based on this experience, and lucky for us they are everywhere!
Next we headed back to Queenstown. We did another day-hike section of a Great Walk, called the Routeburn Track, which ended up being our most beautiful trek in NZ. It was the perfect amount of challenging--lots of ups and downs but no huge uphill slogs (like Kepler Track). It rewarded hikers with amazing views of rivers winding through chartreuse grass valleys, snow-capped mountains, and beautiful forest. We wished we had more time to do the entire track, which usually takes three days.
Q-town is a food town, and also had awesome meals at local eateries. We scored another Fergberger, tasted some amazing NZ lamb, went to a high-tech wine bar, and ate way too much fancy gelato. We also did a 4 hour “zip-trek” which was a ziplining course. It was so fun! Queenstown is famous for extreme sports, and we debated the giant Nevis bungee or sky-diving but a) these activities are big time budget-busters, and b) when I finally worked up the nerve to do one of them, mother-nature would not cooperate. Rats. Guess I'll have to almost plunge to my death another time.
In need of burning off all those burgers, we headed up to Mt. Cook, the highest peak in NZ, for some more hiking. It's an epic mountain, and we got a rare perfect, postcard-worthy day for our hike to the base. It was a much easier trail than we realized (for once) and only lasted half a day. It gave amazing views almost the entire hike, which ended at the base of the mountain, in front of a milky blue glacial lake. Major wow factor views. We'd like to come back one day and attempt the summit.
CATLINS (and Penguins!)
One of the goals of extending our time in NZ was to get off the beaten path. This is where the Catlins came in. The Catlins are the southernmost section of the south island of New Zealand. They barely have a tourism industry. They barely have towns. In fact, the largest town there boasts a population of 303. You read that right. 303. Many people consider The Catlins the last unspoiled area of NZ, and it's motto is “Where the forest meets the sea”. There are beautiful, lush rainforests that do, in fact, butt up to the rocky aquamarine shoreline. The accommodations there are sparse; we stayed in a bare-bones holiday park and rented a tiny cabin that consisted of a bed. Aaaand that's it.
The Catlins is best known for abundant wildlife, and we attempted to seek it all out. The big draw is the yellow-eyed penguin, the rarest penguin in the world. The Catlins boast a nesting colony of about 9 pairs of penguins (out of 200 pairs worldwide). So Chris and I waited outside on a cliff in the wind and cold for over 2 hours to catch a glimpse of these little guys coming back from a hard day at sea, which usually happens just before sunset. But on the day we waited for them, they were late. Did you know that penguins can be very tardy? Apparently the Park Ranger said they were “behind schedule” the past few days and coming home later than usual. Tough week at the office, I guess. Luckily, our patience paid off and we got to see about 5 adult penguins and 2 chicks, and even got to witness the chicks being fed, less than 10 feet from us! It was one of the most incredible wildlife encounters I've ever witnessed. By the way, penguin chicks are ENORMOUS. They're bigger than the parents! Apparently they fatten up big time just before they molt all their soft brown baby feathers, and form their sleeker waterproof tuxedo feathers. Another cool fact: the yellow-eyed penguin is the 3rd largest specie of penguin! They were about as tall as your average 3-year old kid.
The other famed wildlife in the Catlins are the Hector Dolphins. An entire pod lives there, and it's supposedly incredibly easy to spot them playing in the surf, and dolphin-seekers can even swim with them in their home-base bay. The dolphins are friendly and curious by nature and will come “play” with swimmers readily. Unfortunately, we tried for them three times with no luck. The first time we spent two hours combing the beach without even the slightest glimpse of them. The second time we caught a few flashes of dorsal fin, but that's it. The third time, not a sign of them again. And on the third attempt, when I was hell-bent on wading in to the ocean no matter how cold it was... I was foiled. Due to an incoming storm, the sea was very rough and there was a riptide, so swimming was not a smart idea at all. I was pretty disappointed as this is now four times we've tried to see these magical creatures to no avail. Dolphins, where are you?? I'm beginning to think they don't exist in real life and only exist in the ankle tattoos of college girls.
We rounded out our time in the remote Catlins with some smaller excursions... We drove the entire coastline, walked up to an old lighthouse along jagged sea cliffs, found some sea lions, and most notably hiked down to the southernmost point on the South Island, Slope Point at 46°40'40''S!
Our final pit stop on our way out of town was at the Lost Gypsy Gallery. This place was a Wonderland of Weird. It's an old bus and a garden, and it's packed to the gills with the artist's offbeat funny automata. It's all interactive, so the viewers gets to make the gadgets “go”. So from pedaling a bike that turns on a television screen, to pushing a button that squirts water at you, to tiny hand-wound metal sculptures, it was a wacky place to spend an hour. Definitely felt like the creation of a modern-day Doc Brown, and he even had a wall of ticking clocks to bring that parallel all the way home.
DONE EATIN' (aka DUNEDIN)
Our second to last stop in New Zealand was Dunedin (Pronounced "done-eatin"). Dunedin is a funky college town, with a topography similar to San Fran. It's hilly as heck, and and set on a peninsula. Our time here was mostly spent enjoying the Otago Peninsula, which features seaside cliffs, white sand beaches, and sea lions! (Larger and scarier than the fur seals we saw.) And we did make it to see another specie of penguin, the Blue Penguin. (Also known as the Fairy Penguin because of their adorable small size!) Another evening spent waiting in the chilly sea air for the penguins to come home. This experience was different because there are hundreds of them at once, all scurrying up the sand dunes to their burrows. It's an amazing sight. They do a quick-waddle mostly, and sometimes slide on the sand on their slick white bellies. They also make the loudest noises and the babies feeding get quite aggressive. It was another wonderful wildlife encounter, but a little less impressive than the Yellow-eyed penguins, mainly just because it was so dark out and hard to see the penguins. The pictures are less impressive because of this.
Our last stop on the NZ circuit was Christchurch. Due to the earthquakes here in 2010 and 2011, this was a bit of a sad note to leave this incredible country on. We'll do a photo post about the city because it's really interesting to see what's happened there. Christchurch is also a very sleepy city, something we were surprised to see since it's the largest city on the south island. We arrived at 9:45 on a Sunday night and hadn't had dinner, so wanted to hit a casual pub for some good food and drinks. Our concierge was zero help. (She directed us to Denny's. Thanks.) We drove around, seeing nothing but dark windows and lifeless streets. The few open places we saw were down to serving drinks only. Finally, we saw a warm and inviting Irish pub with a friendly doorman called The Bog. We went inside, and jackpot! Decent beer, a solid late-night snack menu, and a pretty good crowd of merrymakers, mostly watching the Australian Open on the television. There is was something familiar and consistent about this experience, further solidifying our feelings that we can always count on a good Irish pub. From wetting the whistle to filling your belly to just having a friendly conversation. You can always count on an Irish pub.