Dunedin, New Zealand, December 12
New Zealand (Part 3)
After leaving Taupo, we headed out towards the coast of the North Island. We drove through the Hawke's Bay wine country, arriving in the city of Napier by midafternoon. Napier is noted for it's art deco style of architecture. We took a quick stroll along the bizarre black gravel beach and then drove south. After a few hours of rolling hills and winding mountain roads (where Dave was scolded often for driving too fast, hugging the curves, and not keeping his eyes on the road), we arrived safely in Wellington by dusk.
Since our ferry, the Lynx, was leaving at 8:00 the following morning, we camped out overnight in the parking lot adjacent to the ferry terminal. This turned out to be not only convenient, but economically beneficial. Since we had arrived there late and left early, we didn't have to pay for parking. Winner! Before long, the neon yellow and orange uniformed ferry surgeons had implanted our campervan into the bowels of the ferry (along with quite a few others). We then tapewormed our way to the cushy upper levels of the ferry to bathe in the clean restroom sinks. After an argument over ordering latte, we settled into our seats and made ready for the voyage across the Cook Strait. We had been warned by a friendly Kiwi along the way that if the captain says the water looks a bit "choppy", that means hang on for dear life. He had also reassured us that a ferry had not sunk in the strait for at least twenty years. Sue passed out the Dramamine and we were on our way. Entertainment was provided by a large group of Asians sitting next to us playing non-stop, high-decibel bingo as we tried to sleep. After we gave up on that, we amused ourselves by watching people stumbling about like drunkards as they learned the bipedal-locomotion-on-a-moving-boat dance.
Three hours later we had successfully navigated Cook Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, to our berth at Picton on New Zealand's South Island. After making our way back to the campervan, and waiting for the slacker who parked in front of us to return to his vehicle, the ferry excreted us back onto the pavement.
As it was a Sunday morning, Sue had found out directions to the Picton Elim Church. The congregation was diverse, with both Maori people and European descendents well represented. A group of young volunteers from an organization called Marine Reach (www.marinereach.com) were also visiting the church that day to give a presentation on their ministry. Marine Reach, part of Youth With A Mission (YWAM), is dedicated to providing free dental and eye care to the people of developing Pacific Island nations. To accomplish this, they are outfitting a new ship, the M/Y Pacific Link, with medical facilities including operating rooms and the crew was on a promotional tour to raise money to complete the renovations. Using this vessel, they are able to easily berth in foreign ports and provide these medical services to people who otherwise would not be able to afford them. After an emotional service of touching individual testimonies by the crew describing their callings to serve the Lord as missionaries, the members of the church held a luncheon. The buffet consisted mainly of finger sandwiches made of spaghetti or egg salad, pizza, sausage stew, and a variety of cookies and cake for dessert. We were very appreciative for a free meal! We must admit that it was a ration of what our home church cooks up when they host a luncheon. We do miss those homemade empanadas, arroz con pollo y carne, y mas arroz... Muchas gracias Riverside! After lunch, the Marine Reach crew held an open house on board their ship, so we decided to head over and take the tour. It was quite interesting to see how the crew lives and works together in such a confined area. They were very enthusiastic about an upcoming voyage to the Fiji Islands and the Phillipines. At one point of the tour, we watched a video presentation on the history and future goals of the Marine Reach program. Afterward, an older gentleman asked why they did not offer their services here in New Zealand. Our tour guide, a well spoken, college-aged woman named Sophia from Sweden, explained that there was simply not a need for such free health care in New Zealand. The man half-jokingly followed with "Try being a pensioner in New Zealand!" to which Sophia poignantly replied "Try being a mother or a child in the Phillipines."
Later in the afternoon we rolled out of Picton, heading northwest across the top of the South Island toward Abel Tasman National Park. Around dusk, we arrived in Marahau, the gateway village to the beautiful Abel Tasman Coastal Track. After learning that we would need to take a water taxi to the good portion of the track for thirty-something dollars each, we checked the map and decided to drive all the way around to the other side of the park to hike a less-travelled, free trail. En route, the rain started coming down. A few hours later, in the pitch dark, Sue had managed to get us through some narrow, winding, dirt and gravel roads, despite the warning signs stating that they may not be suitable for campervans. The final destination was a place called Totaranui, where we camped for the night.
We awoke in the morning to a continuing deluge and dreary skies. However, we were treated to the sight of several Pukekos, also known as the Foot-Handed Purple Swamphen (see picture) roaming around the camp. We learned from the nearby ranger station that the trail we were planning to hike was impassable due to the wet weather. The forecast also predicted rain for the next ten days. We decided to leave Abel Tasman and head south along the west coast in search of drier conditions. The scenery gradually changed from mountainous to lush green coastal rain forest as we drove along the coastline. The negative skies persisted and a thick fog set in, making the drive slow-going. The road was often flanked by steep cliffs; one side ascending, and the other dropping precipitously to the rocky beach. At dusk we found a small, sandy clearing off to the side of the road. We camped there and the rain let up long enough for us to wander around and explore the tidal pools on the beach and an old train bridge, across which we found an interesting natural stone tunnel in the brush.
The following morning we made our way a bit farther down the coast to Punakaiki where we explored some of the sights of Paparoa National Park amid a torrential downpour. At Dolomite Point the big attractions are the Pancake Rocks and Blowholes. These are best viewed at high tide, which we were a bit early for, so we passed the time by exploring some nearby limestone caverns. The caverns were quite extensive and not a little bit dangerous, but visitors are free to explore at their own risk. While creeping about like a couple of Gore-Tex Gollums, we stumbled upon another couple exploring the caverns. After a few minutes of conversation, we realized that they were the same couple who had been renting a campervan on the morning we had rented ours in Auckland two weeks earlier. Small world... well, small New Zealand.
We emerged from the caverns covered in mud and, for once, were glad of the rain to clean ourselves off. Making our way back to Dolomite Point, we checked out the Pancake Rocks, which are limestone rock formations which have been weathered by a process known as stylobedding. The Blowhole is a cavern formed by the action of the ocean such that the water is forced up and out like a geyser during high tide surges. (Unfortunately, because of the heavy rain, I could not get any pictures of these for the website.)
Continuing south to the town of Greymouth, we stopped for groceries and to check our email. We received a message from our travel agent, Eric, letting us know that since we had missed our resheduled flight from Melbourne to Auckland, the airline had automatically cancelled our flight from Christchurch to Sydney. Not good. I called Air New Zealand and they advised us to take our tickets to any airline flight center. And can you believe it - there happened to be one at the tiny airport in Hokitika, a few towns to the south. Since the airport is only open when a flight is arriving or departing, we would have to wait until the following morning to get the matter sorted out. We camped that night in Hokitika on the "scenic lookout point" where the Hokitika River runs angrily into the Tasman Sea. (Though it wasn't very scenic due to the rain and gloom.)
The next morning we arrived at the Hokitika Airport early, and even though the departing flight that morning had been cancelled due to bad weather, the Air New Zealand travel desk was staffed by a pleasant middle-aged woman. Within a few minutes she had our tickets reinstated. During further conversation, I learned that she was not only a travel agent, but a part time tour guide. When groups of retired American couples arrive for a holiday, she entertains the ladies while the men are off trout fishing. Therefore, she possessed a dearth of insider New Zealand sightseeing and dining information. ("You know how those American women love their lunches...") A half hour later, I left the travel desk with a small page of scribbled notes of not-to-be-missed places.
Since the morning flight had been cancelled, the whole airport operation seemed about to close down for the day (Sue and I were the only non-employees in the place). We quickly grabbed our towels and toothbrushes from the campervan and took advantage of the clean airport restrooms. Fifteen minutes later, I came out to find the terminal completely deserted. Assuming Sue had already gone back to the parking lot, I went to the exit only to find the large double doors deadbolted shut. I laughed to myself as I realized the airport employees had left and locked up while I was still in the restroom. I turned the latch to unlock the deadbolt and pushed the door open. Immediately, a shrill siren began screaming. Quite shocked, I froze for a few seconds, trying to decide if it was better to wait and explain, or just make a run for it. Just then , Sue emerged from the ladies restroom looking equally confused. Before I had a chance to present my list of options, another door opened and two maintenance men burst in, ready for action. Seeing us, they immediately comprehended the situation, to my relief. One of them disappeared to shut the alarm while the other shuffled us out to the parking lot with a "No worries, mate!".
Having had enough of the bad weather on the west coast (later we learned it is also known as the "wet coast"), we decided to follow the friendly travel agent's advice and head over to the east coast. We drove through the Victoria Forest Park and then made our way over the northern end of the Southern Alps via the Lewis Pass. As we continued to descend into the Hanmer Forest Park, we began to catch glimpses of blue sky which raised our spirits tremendously. By late afternoon, we reached the cozy thermal resort town of Hanmer Springs. We stopped in at the visitors center to get a trail map of the surrounding area, then headed out in search of a good place to park the campervan for the night. We ended up driving out of town on a narrow gravel road for several kilometers up a mountain. We finally found a suitable (i.e. safe) place to park at Jack's Pass, but unfortunately we were also in some low clouds which were erasing any scenic views. We were tired and hungry which lead to a frustrating argument - I wanted to cut our losses and stay put at that "good enough" spot, while Sue wanted to keep going to search for a more scenic site. Eventually, I gave in thinking "I'll show her!" and a couple minutes later the road descended out of the clouds into a beautiful mountain valley under a clear blue sky. Sue graciously remained silent as I was busy eating my words. We found a clearing off the road near a small creek and the whole valley was covered with bright yellow flowers. We basked in the warm sunshine for a while, then Sue cooked up a Thai chicken dish. (Not too shabby for campervan cuisine!)
After dinner, we took a walk further down into the valley and explored the banks of the Clarence River. As we were wandering around the large piles of rocks and tussock growing along the riverbank, two seagull-sized birds with black and white coloring and long orange beaks began assaulting us. At first they were just squawking very loudly, apparently unhappy with our presence. As we lingered, they began circling overhead, occasionally making straight for us, passing just a few feet overhead. We moved out of their territory and they settled down, sending a few warning squawks after us. This was not to be the last encounter with what we later learned to be the capricious pied oystercatcher.
The next day we set out on what appeared to be the most scenic of the area hikes, the Mount Isobel Track. According to the map, the trail would lead through a forest of European and Japanese larches before entering subalpine scrub and finally over a ridge in the Hanmer Range to the summit of Mount Isobel at 1324 meters (4344 feet). The ascent proved quite gruelling, as we had to pick our way up some steep rocky terrain. (At least for me... Sue seemed to have a better time with it.)
Along the way, we encountered a very muddy stretch of trail over which a small wooden bridge was in the process of being built. Only the vertical timber supports were in place, spaced a few feet apart. After some debate about whether to try to skirt the muddy section through the brush or hop from log to log six feet in the air across the unfinished bridge, we set off - I opted for the low road while Sue tried a balancing act on the high road. A few minutes later we were both safely across. Sue was clean and tidy and I, of course, had a foot full of mud.
Upon reaching the top of the ridge we were greeted by a very strong wind coming up from the valley on the other side such that it was blowing against us sideways. It was so strong that we were able to put our backs against it and lean in, allowing the wind to support us without falling down. We amused ourselves for several minutes by seeing who could recline into the wind chair furthest. A couple of dark clouds in the otherwise clear sky began letting out a bit of fine drizzle. That would have been refreshing except for the gale force wind which was accelerating the tiny drops so fast that they were like pinpricks hitting our bodies. Quickly bundling up in our rain gear, we continued through the onslaught for another kilometer to the summit. We were able to find a bit of cover among the rocks and scrub to have lunch and take in the magnificientview of the Hanmer Valley.
Coming down off the ridge, we descended through the forest along a different route bringing us to the Dog Stream Waterfall Track. Beyond that, we reached the bottom of the valley once again and after becoming slightly lost in a maze of logging roads, we made our way back to the campervan at the trailhead. Postponing dinner, we drove back into the Hanmer Springs village and treated ourselves to a good soaking in the thermal pools followed by a well-deserved shower. Afterward, we returned to our secret valley camping spot over Jack's Pass to spend the night.
From Hanmer Springs, we headed toward the coast to the town of Kaikoura. After checking in at the visitor center to get a map and sort through the area's activities, we drove out to the Kaikoura Peninsula to have a look at the New Zealand fur seal colony there. The tide was low when we arrived so we were able to actually walk out to the rocks where the seals lie around when they're not feeding. There were a few out there and it was possible to get quite close to them except for one thing: the most nauseatingly putrid odor we have ever smelled. Being on the receiving end of a seal yawn is enough to make you run away, gagging and gasping for air. After learning to hold our breath before foraying into the toxic zone for a quick picture, we headed back into town. As it was late in the day and we were desperately needing to do laundry, we checked in at the Goose Bay Camping Ground. The proprietor, a Captain Kangaroo sort of fellow named Neville (which we later affectionately changed to Snivel), was really glad to have us. He pointed out all the camp facilities on a map and told us to park the campervan anywhere we liked.
A few minutes later we were in the laundry room and Sue was sorting out the operation of the washing machine. Before long, she realized that the alleged hot water was actually quite cold, so I was off to the office to enlist the aid of our good friend Snivel. He came down for a look and after puttering around a bit he announced that "sometimes these things take a while to heat up" and we should basically just let it run. He would check back with us in a little while. Half an hour later Sue resorted to filling the washing machine with hot water from a sink tap using a pot and we saw no more of Snivel that day.
The next day we planned on covering the two peninsula walkway tracks by first walking from the seal colony along the shore to the village of South Bay and then returning via a clifftop hike. The shoreline walk is only passable at low tide and unfortunately we had a late start in the morning so we ended up having to start with the clifftop hike. The trail wandered through cow and sheep paddocks, affording great views of the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges to the west and the rocky beaches and coves below to the east. We ate lunch on a dock in South Bay, then began the return hike along the shore. We soon discovered that the tide, though slowly receding, was still quite high. The amount of dry land between the waves and the limestone cliffs gradually decreased until we were at an impasse. A large section of steep, smooth rock was jutting out into the water in front of us. Our options were to turn back, wade or swim through cold water of undetermined depth, or climb over. After much surveying, crawling, hesitating, yelling, and scientific timing of the incoming waves, Sue managed to scramble over the rock to the other side while remaining reasonably dry. Another similar episode and I had joined her. With much celebration and sense of accomplishment, we continued along the narrow shoreline and a few meters later we rounded a bend to find a larger, more insurmountable rock blocking our way. Sue quickly switched back into business mode and propped herself up on the rock just enough to see that even if we could get over the rock, there was only water on the other side. Finding that answer unsatisfactory, I had to look for myself. As I delicately tried to slither up the rock to the position Sue had been in, the soft limestone beneath me crumbled, sending me sliding down toward the water. No major damage except some scratched hands and soggy shoes.
Surveying our new set of limited options, it seemed like we might be able to climb up the cliff to a small ridge about fifty feet up and them walk along the clifftop, through the brush, finding our way back to the beach on the other side of the impasse. The cliffside where we were stuck was not as steep as previous spots and the limestone had several rough sections and scattered brush growing out of it, making plausible hand and footholds. While Sue filmed the undertaking in doubtful amusement, I managed to scratch and claw my way up to the top of the ridge, becoming covered with chalky limestone dust in the process. Triumphantly, I stood up to survey what I had perceived from the bottom to be an easy walk along the top of the ridge. To my dismay, I discovered that there arose another hundred feet of sheer limestone cliff behind me, just out of sight from the shoreline below. Basically, I was just standing on a ledge in the larger overall cliffside. Just a few feet away a red-billed seagull was sitting in a nest giving me fairly nasty looks. I quickly apologized and called out to Sue that this was a deadend and I'd be coming back down. This proved easier said than done, but after searching for the best route followed by some creative sliding on my rear end, I made it back down unharmed. This whole climbing episode had taken almost an hour and as I was cleaning myself off, Sue observed that the tide had gone out enough for us to simply walk around the rock obstacle. We laughed at our wasted efforts and continued the shoreline hike.
Past that point the beach began to widen and the tide continued to recede. We were walking through a large field of rock eroded by the ocean when suddenly my nostrils filled with a noxious stench which froze me in my tracks. After recovering my senses I signalled to Sue, who was several feet behind me, to stop. Just ten feet in front of me a large, stinking blob of a fur seal was basking in the afternoon sun, it's brown coat blending with the rocks. Holding our breaths, we moved forward slowly. The seal lazily opened an eye, but was quite uninterested in our presence. It hardly twitched as we passed by. Apparently, as long as you don't get in between a seal and their escape route - the ocean - they are quite passive. As we continued on we realized that we were walking through another seal colony. Over the next few hundred meters we saw maybe twenty or thirty seals, some very close by and others lounging on large rocks off in the water.
Farther along, the air became breathable again, untainted by seal stink, and we came across another wildlife habitat. Several large rock formations were practically covered with seagulls such that barely any rock could be seen. As we approached they made quite a fuss. Practically holding our ears to get past the feathered cacophony, we continued. The beach became more sandy and the water was filled with massive growths of bull kelp, which resembles long greenish-brown octopus tentacles. Walking next to the water and seeing the thousands of kelp plants pulsating just below the surface gave us a somewhat uneasy feeling. However, instead of being dragged under by an unseen sea monster, we were greeted by the shrill screech of our old friend, the oystercatcher. Once again, they were a pair, this time with completely black feathers, their long orange beaks glowing in the sun. We figured that we must be near their nesting place because it did not take long for them to begin their aerial assault. At one point I am sure that if I did not duck, one of them would have flown straight into my head! We moved on quickly and the birds returned to base.
Tired and hungry, we returned to the campground to find good old Snivel hosting a Saturday night Christmas Party for some of his local pensioner friends in the camp common area. We stopped by for a chat and inquired as to whether there was a church in town to attend the next morning. No one seemed to know, but Snivel happily directed us to the nearest phone book. We returned to our campervan to eat dinner and then treated ourselves to dessert at a cafe in town. Later, as we were going to sleep, I'm fairly sure that I heard the sounds of a piano and a showtune sing-a-long wafting through the campground.
In the morning we found our way to the Kaikoura New Life Center and after service we headed out on an all day drive to Mount Cook National Park. This involved travelling back inland to the Southern Alps, which was somewhat out of the way of our present course, but we decided it was probably worth seeing. Mount Cook is the tallest peak in New Zealand at 3754 meters (12316 feet).
As we approached the mountainous area, the scenery became fantastic with purple, pink, and white foxglove flowers lining the road and snow capped peaks on the horizon. We stopped along the way at Lake Tekapo to take in the view of the Alps. The water had a strangely bright bluish-grey color caused by "rock flour", which is fine particles of rock suspended in the melting glaciers that feed the lake. We drove on until sunset and camped overnight at a rest area near the shore of Lake Pukaki.
In the morning we rose early and drove the remaining 25 kilometers to Mount Cook village. After performing our visitor center ritual of sink bathing and map checking, we headed out of the village on the Hooker Valley Walk. This track lead past the Mueller Glacier, then across two large swing bridges over Stocking Stream to the terminus of Hooker Glacier, with Mount Cook overlooking the whole valley. Unfortunately, clouds were covering the tops of the mountains and the Hooker Glacier had receded up the valley to a point not visible from the walking track. As we returned to the village after the four hour hike, the clouds cleared somewhat and the afternoon sun shone through. We gave two German backpackers a ride out of the park and then turned southeast towards the coast once again.
Past the town of Oamaru we pulled into a conservation area called Shag Point to spend the night. After dinner, we followed a muddy trail to a lookout on top of a cove which a sign had stated was a yellow-eyed penguin colony. We didn't see any penguins on the beach, but through the fading twilight we thought we saw one in a clearing a couple of hundred feet into the thick brush of flax plants and tussock. I tried to make my way toward the clearing, but did not get very far due to the dense brush and wet ground. Just as I was giving up, I happened to look down and there, just a few feet away, was a baby penguin sitting quietly under a bush. Not having any regurgitated fish on me, all I could do was watch in amazement. It was already quite dark, so after a minute I picked my way back to the trail and found Sue. As we returned to the campervan, we could hear the adult penguins off in the brush, loudly trumpeting their arrival back to their nests.
On the beach in Napier
The Foothanded Purple Swamphen, or Pukeko
Looking toward Golden Bay near Abel Tasman National Park
Sea cave near Paparoa National Park
(Caverns near Dolomite Point)
Akaura Gun Club
Victoria Forest Park
And you've won...a brand new campervan!
Secret Camping Spot, near Hanmer Springs
The Long White Cloud approaches...
This pied oystercatcher means business...
Summit of Mount Isobel, Hanmer Springs Range
Sub-alpine ridge on Mount Isobel Track
Dog Stream Waterfall, Hanmer Springs
Sue holding her breath
I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today!
Today, I think I'll have the fish.
Go ahead, make my day.
I'm saaaailiiiing awaaaaaaayyyyyy...
Sorry, I don't give interviews.
Sneak attack! Get the gas mask!!
Sea caves, Kaikoura Peninsula
After the rain on the way to Mount Cook
Lake Tekapo (Southern Alps)
Church of the Good Shephard (Lake Tekapo)
New Zealand - Land of the Long White Cloud
Mueller Glacier (Mount Cook National Park)
Hooker Valley Track, Mount Cook National Park
Stocking Stream, Hooker Valley Track
Mount Cook National Park
Swing bridge over Stocking Stream, Hooker Valley Track, Mount Cook National Park
(Can you see Sue standing on the bridge?)
The chicken or the egg?