Archive for March, 2013


Okay–so this is turning into a Part II of III.  Just too much to write about on the S. Island!

Milford Sound:   Fun fact. The “sound” is actually a fjord, which means it was created by glacial activity. It was mistakenly named by the early explorers and in the intervening centuries, nobody has seen fit to rectify the misnomer, although the greater region has been aptly named “Fjordland”.

After wrapping up our fantastic Key Summit Track hike, we optimistically headed through the Homer Tunnel around 6pm our first evening in the Sound in the hopes that the single campsite would have availability as freedom camping is strictly verbotten in the Sound.  Unfortunately, this was the first time we found no vacancies so we had to hurry back through the Homer Tunnel, which closes at 7pm, to avoid being forced to freedom camp and risk fines.

The 1.2 km tunnel’s history is fascinating. Work began on it in 1935 with a barebone crew of five men armed only with picks and wheelbarrows, which just blows my mind. It was the midst of the Depression so the relief workers likely were happy to even have the job, but the conditions must have been horrendous, with the incessant sandflies, little sunlight, constant rain,  regular avalanches and frustratingly slow daily progress.   Despite these challenges, they were able to bore through the other side within 5 years, but the actual tunnel didn’t open to the public until 1954 due to the war and another destructive avalanche.

We made it back through before the tunnel closed and ended up staying at the basic campsite at Lake Gunn, which was packed (due to shortage of other options) and a sandfly haven.  The lake view was lovely although I had to cover every inch of exposed skin to enjoy it and after 20 minutes ended up calling it an early night in the van.

The next morning we headed back through the Homer Tunnel (3rd time lucky) and drove straight to the carpark at the road’s end.  Upon exiting the van, SWARMS of sandflies assaulted us within seconds and put paid to any notions of an enjoyable hike. On the positive side, the weather was gorgeous–clear blue skies in all directions.  We ended up taking a Milford Sound nature cruise, which exceeded our expectations with its up close views of kaleidoscope-creating waterfalls,  dolphins leaping beside our boat and towering cliffs.  And with the added bonus of sandflies being too slow to keep up with us!   The nature cruise included a stop at the Milford Sound Discovery Centre, which has an underwater observatory that was cool to check out.

Dunedin:  A charming university town (home to the Univ. of Otago) of approx. 100K that we almost bypassed (but am glad we did not).  It lays claim to the world’s steepest street (although as a SF resident, I think SF has a couple of very close competitors) and more importantly for the chocoholics in my family, a Cadbury factory!  We got to live out our Willy Wonka fantasies for an hour (including the excitement of a chocolate fountain), were gifted a treat bag of chocolates and got to see Jonathan don the required beard cap, which was worth the price of admission alone!

Caving!

Caving!

2013-02-20 17.22.52 2013-02-20 14.53.59

Mt Cook on a perfect day

Mt Cook on a perfect day

Swimming in Lake Pukaki

Swimming in Lake Pukaki

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo

Gourmet dinner of pot noodles

Gourmet dinner of pot noodles

Mt Cook

Mt Cook

McKenzie Country

McKenzie Country

Kea eating Taranga

Kea eating Taranga

Clay cliffs

Clay cliffs

Curio Bay

Curio Bay

Fjordland

Fjordland

Dolphins in Milford Sound

Dolphins in Milford Sound

Towards Milford Sound

Towards Milford Sound

Curio Bay: We camped at this gorgeous spot on the southern tip of the island, where we spotted dolphins surfing the waves only 20 feet from shore while we ate ice-creams from the campsite shop and later visited the world’s rarest penguin, the yellow-eyed hoiho.  Unfortunately, as dusk settled in, the sandflies descended.

Clifden Caves:  The first of two aborted caving experiences.  We traveled about 25 feet inside the cave, but turned back as we felt a bit uncomfortable taking Z any further given that we only had 2 headlamps.  Would definitely check the caves out on a return visit though.

Nugget Point Lighthouse:  A vertigo-inducing stroll to the lighthouse, but well worth it for the dramatic views.

Moeraki Boulders:  We wandered on the beach for about an hour as Z & Jonathan climbed these unusually large, spherical boulders that dotted the beach.

Clay Cliffs: Located  west of Omarama down a 10km gravel road (always fun in our rickety Taranga), we had a great time scrambling up the scree paths surrounded by these dramatic pinnacles formed of clay.  The place was blissfully free of other tourists until another car arrived as we were leaving.  Again, I’m struck by just how few people populate the S. Island, even with all of the camper van tourism.

Lake Pukaki: Primo freedom camping location although we were at first reluctant to stay given the gale-strenth winds.  Fortunately, they abated and it turned into a gorgeous evening, warm enough to tempt Jonathan with a swim in the glacial lake.

Fountain of chocolate. Check out Jonathan's beard cap!

Fountain of chocolate. Check out Jonathan’s beard cap!

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A couple of weeks have passed since saying goodbye to Taranga, and I’m still trying to sort through and process all of the adventures we had.  Jonathan and I both started off keeping daily journals, but I only made it to Day 12 before I fell hopelessly behind and had to copy and paste chunks of his journal entries into mine (which kind of defeats the purpose). By Day 16, I’d resigned myself to the fact that he’d be the sole chronicler of our camper van days (a critical job when every day brings a new location and new adventures and it soon becomes difficult to remember even where we’d eaten lunch the day before).  Throw into the mix the impossibility of my memory being able to distinguish Maori names like Makarora from Moeraki and I’d be hard-pressed to confidently name destinations other than  “Newton” and “Queenstown” without Jonathan’s journal as my crib-sheet.  So, thank you, Jonathan, for your meticulous I-Pad journaling.

First, some important stats:

  • 33 days, 32 nights.
  • Total mileage: 6255 kilometers, with Jonathan at the wheel for about 2 hours of that (during which time he managed to crash into the truck of the owner of the auto repair shop we visited for a Taranga checkup)!

This translated into some serious road-time, as we rarely stayed in a place for more than one night.  I still have callouses from the steering wheel.

So what moments stand out from the S. Island?

  • Monteith’s brewery: A highlight in an otherwise unexpectedly blah Westport to Greymouth drive (reputed to be one of the finest in the world but don’t believe all the hype). Don’t get me wrong–it’s attractive, but overrated. At one point we pulled off the coastal road (reminiscent of California’s Highway 1) so that we could soak in the view while we had a snack and some coffee.  We immediately realized that we couldn’t keep the van door open for more than a few seconds unless we wanted to invite a serious case of sandfly infestation and keeping the doors closed converted the van into a sauna rather quickly.  It was a short stop.
  • Helicopter tour of the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers:  Zara and I got to sit up front with the pilot and we were one of the last flights before the weather closed in for the day.
  • West coast wildlife center:  For true kiwi fans, the opportunity to see (in simulated night-time conditions) three Rowi, the rarest kiwi in the world with fewer than 400 left.  Pricey but worth it to hear Zara’s impassioned speech later in the afternoon on the importance of protecting endangered animals.
  • Buller Gorge Swing Bridge: The longest swing bridge in NZ (only Jonathan and Zara made it across)
  • Punakaiki Pancake Rocks: Fascinating but Zara was disappointed that they didn’t smell like syrup and we miscalculated timing, so missed the “must see” blowholes triggered by high tide.
  • Hokitika Gorge: Another swing bridge (but much less swingy so even manageable by wimps like me) over turquoise waters.
  • Hokitika Beach: Cool driftwood art on beach.
  • Puzzling World at Wanaka IMPORTANT:  We beat Jonathan at a game!!!  Zara and I paired up to challenge Jonathan to the Great Maze and we won!  As it may be another decade before I beat Jonathan at a logic game, I have to milk this victory for all it’s worth.

 (Stay Tuned for Part II…)

The West Coast lives up to its reputation as the rainiest part of NZ

The West Coast lives up to its reputation as the rainiest part of NZ

Walk to Fox Glacier

Walk to Fox Glacier

On top of Fox Glacier

On top of Fox Glacier

Co-pilots!

Co-pilots!

Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef Glacier

Hokitika Beach

Hokitika Beach

Hokitika Gorge

Hokitika Gorge

More pancakes

More pancakes

Pancake Rocks

Pancake Rocks

Westport to Greymouth Drive

Westport to Greymouth Drive

Monteith's in Greymouth

Monteith’s in Greymouth

As far as I made it on the swing bridge

As far as I made it on the swing bridge

Buller Gorge Swing Bridge

Buller Gorge Swing Bridge

Guest post courtesy of Jonathan … I’m sure the list will grow during our remaining weeks here.

  1. Chutneys. Rather like a savory jam, one of my favorite memories from childhood is my grandmother’s ‘apple and raisin chutney’, but despite much searching I’ve been unable to find the equivalent in any of our SF supermarkets, apart from the omnipresent mango chutney (it turns out chutney is of Indian origin). Imagine my delight when the first thing I saw in an NZ supermarket was a whole area full of chutneys of all shapes and sizes!
  2. Baked beans. It gets better … those who know me have heard me express my ongoing surprise that Heinz Baked Beans, a part of most breakfasts throughout the UK and a staple flavor, are not easily available anywhere in the US (the US equivalent is less common and understandably so to me since it tastes quite different). Four shelves full! Even a version with curry flavor!
  3. Supermarket selection generally feels more similar to UK. Not that I am wedded to UK foods by any means, having largely lived without them for more than 20 years, but there is a broad set of foods that are common in the English-speaking world generally, but for whatever reason have not made it to the US. In common with Australia, the NZ selection is much closer to the UK.
  4. Sandwich spreads! It amazes me that ‘English pate’ has not become a choice of discerning gourmands globally.
  5. The mountains!! Mountains everywhere!! I love mountains – in fact, the mountains of Japan were my original reason for going there. This country has the most attractive I’ve ever seen, and more of them.
  6. Really nice bacon. Time to mention another food item … Something I’ve never understood is why US bacon is so fatty compared to UK bacon, which is more a slice of meat with a bit of fat on the side. US-style bacon is available in the UK (as ‘streaky bacon’), but not vice versa, and asking for ‘UK-style bacon’ meats with looks of incomprehension (groan, sorry …) . Most people then say ‘isn’t it Canadian bacon’ (it isn’t) or smoked German bacon (nope) or back bacon (yes, this is the closest I’ve got, but it seems to be a certain cut).
  7. Service stations on motorways. Certainly beats a little cluster of fast food joints.
  8. Road widths more like US. None of that whizzing by each other at 160mph UK-style (no, we don’t drive at 160mph, at least not all the time, but if you have two cars each going at 80mph in opposite directions …). Actually, not a lot of whizzing goes on in NZ anyway, but if it did there’d be roads wide enough for it.
  9. Lots of trees, and a nice mix. What a verdant country!
  10. So green! So varied! The sheer range of green stuff (sorry mum for the lack of specificity) in the outdoors is just amazing. Individually all the various plants are things I’ve seen elsewhere, but in many different countries, and never combined.
  11. Sea color a lovely azure blue. The sea blue here is somewhere in-between the darker colors of the US or northern Europe, and the tropical colors I really love, but quite unique and appealing.
  12. Big waves on the east coast, especially the north of northland. Would be great territory for surfing! Makes for a spectacular coastline too.
  13. Fish and chips. England’s former national dish (before chicken tikka masala) is available everywhere!! And endearingly called ‘fish and chups’ (at least that’s how it sounds). No French fries here! In fact, there are no French fries anywhere – that’s just a strange US naming convention (apparently it originated from a US book called ‘Cookery for Maids of All Work’).
  14. Pubs / taverns. Yay!! Pubs are such a nice idea on so many levels. Much more friendly and welcoming than the more hard-core ‘bars’, more social, and with food. Your all-in-one pit stop.
  15. Freedom camping. Apart from the slightly odd term, this is such a great concept – formally allowing you to park your campervan anywhere. Of our 32 nights we spent 8 freedom camping, and they were easily the 8 most memorable nights – right above the cliffs of Cathedral Cove, in the howling wind of Mangawhai Heads, just feet from the raging such of the Meatpacker surf break, overlooking Lake Pukaki with a completely unobstructed view of Mt Cook, just to name a few).
  16. Little cafes everywhere. Seemingly in every little town and village there is an attractive little cafe which serves all day breakfasts, lunches and often dinners, as well as gourmet coffee. Awesome.
  17. High water pressure! One of my personal metrics for a high standard of living, the pressure here is universally high, even in the hole-in-the-wall campsites. Presumably something to do with lots of rain and lots of high mountains with fast-flowing rivers …
  18. Toasties. Toasted sandwiches with you-name-it in them. Great snack!
  19. Honor system honey shop. Ah, to live in a land where the debate is not ‘whether guns get more people killed’ but ‘do we actually need a lock on the door of our large supply of honey or should we just let people help themselves and pay for what they take’.
  20. Few chain stores in small towns. This is the opposite of the land of the brand – it’s not that brands are different here, which is also true, but that almost everywhere small local retailers are still thriving.
  21. So few people everywhere. It’s a truism that there are more sheep than people here, and while I didn’t personally do any counting, it’s extremely noticeable
  22. No ‘nanny notices’. On slides, playgrounds, high walkways above raging torrents, 600 feet canyons you can jump into, there are never any of the US-style liability disclaimers. Here, you are treated like an adult – if you choose to play on a slide and you fall off, it would be an unfortunate fact of life not cause to try and achieve early retirement through bankrupting the unfortunate maker of the slide.
  23. Give ways! Roundabouts! I’ve thought for years that it makes more sense and would save time to slow down but not have to stop if there are no other cars, not to mention the consequences for emissions etc from the extra revving needed to start from a stop … If there are hundreds of millions of cars on the road all the time and they are all stopping all the time, that’s got to add up … Just saying …
  24. Scotch eggs. Such a great concept; it’s a shame the Scottish haven’t caught on to the marketing yet. A hard-boiled egg inside a breaded sausage sphere. Yum.
  25. Super well signposted. Even signs for cycle tracks. The signage here is fantastic.
  26. Super friendly people. What a nice country. Maybe it comes from having low taxes, a high standard of living, a good self-deprecating sense of humor, and a fantastic place to live.
  27. Pies! Sausage rolls!! More awesome British yumminess.
  28. No hidden extras on bills (CA tax, ‘SF health tax’, tips). No tips as expectation, but as real reward. More common are contribution boxes for local charities. I’ve always hated the fact that when you are presented with the price in a store or restaurant in the US you have to add extra fees on in your head to get the real cost. Why not just present what it actually costs? Likewise if tipping is a standard percentage, rather than truly merit-based, why not scrap it and tack it onto the bill?
  29. Safe! See 7 year olds walking and cycling to school alone.
  30. The call of the Australian magpie. This has to be heard to be believed – it’s the most amazing other worldly sound. We were woken from a spectacular mountain-top freedom camp by a pair calling to each other, and luckily I was able to ask two local farmers what was making the noise.
  31. Efficient booking systems (toll road, inter island ferry). You pay online, before during or after you actually go through the toll booth. No people spending their lives in little cubicles taking your cash, which does not exactly seem like a 21st century occupation.
  32. Quality of footpaths (Abel Tasman, Rainbow Mtn, Key Summit just to name a few). Really nicely maintained – unbelievable given the huge distances they cover.
  33. Beer served cold! And some really nice craft ales (eg Monteith’s Summer Ale, Radler, Tuatara Ardennes) too. Sorry, I just can’t get with the English room temperature thing (yes, I know it’s cellar temperature, and England is a cold place, but semi-warm and flat is just not my thing).
  34. The accent. I really like the sound of this accent. It has the same musical lilt as South African English, which is my second favorite, and the same friendly aphorisms as Australian, which is my third. I always thought Murray in Flight of the Conchords was a caricature, but apparently not …
  35. Great visitor facilities. (Abel Tasman, Punakaiki, Milford Sound to name a few.) Every hike and park has fantastic signposts, loos, and other facilities.
  36. People can’t sue each other willy nilly for ridiculous amounts. Building on #22, but apparently here there are strict caps on the levels of damages you can get in the event of problems, and all liability issues are handled by a centralized body. Is it really sensible to have damages set by a 12 person body of completely untrained people, based on their wanting to be extreme in their fifteen minutes of fame, and the insane numbers they’ve heard elsewhere on the news?
  37. No deductibles on vehicle insurance. The system seems to be more similar to the UK, where insurance is required by law for rentals, and you can pay extra to eliminate the deductible.
  38. Public healthcare system. Does this need any explanation? You can walk into a medical facility and get treatment, and you don’t have to worry about your savings being wiped out. Sounds like the definition of a government’s responsibility to me.
  39. Yorkies! The best chocolate in the world, available in all major supermarkets …
  40. Visas. They actually have an entrepreneur visa here!! (Not what is referred to in the US as an entrepreneur visa, but is actually the million dollar investor visa …)
  41. NZ hikers say hello. Can get tiresome on crowded paths, but it’s nice to be friendly.
  42. Pork has crackling!! For some strange reason, the best bit of pork is cut off by default in US butchers, so you never get the delicious and satisfying experience of crunching the crackling …
  43. Can get a tan!! As in, there’s sun, and it’s bright … not exactly tropical, but quite different to the UK and (a lot of the time) San Francisco …
  44. People get my jokes! Possibly the most important thing on this entire list for me, it is wonderful to be in a place where my inane wisecracks are actually met with laughter rather than strange looks more deserved by a cat dragging a mangled bird in from the rain.
  45. NZ names are even better than English/Welsh/Scottish names to make jokes out of. Waikawa – be a man, I say! Why Otago? Because you really ought to go there … Oh to go to Otoko … Well, you get the gist. See #44.
  46. Can legally drink at any age!! (Yep, not kidding.) Nanny state US is one of the worst in the world … but that’s because it’s the land of the … ahem … free …
  47. Walking cities. Every city we visited was easily walkable, and designed with walkers in mind.
  48. People can walk barefoot! At first I assumed this was because New Zealanders are generally tough on the outside, but over time I’ve realized it’s because this place is so clean you can actually walk on the pavements without fear of treating on infected hypodermic needles or dog poo. What a different world to San Francisco …
  49. Wide streets – but with the extra room used for wider grassy areas not wider roads. In other words, leafy treelined streets are the norm, and towns look green not gray.
  50. Taverns with outdoor seating. I love having a beer (see #33) and watching the world go by, and you can’t beat doing that outside, where the world actually goes by. Taverns in New Zealand seem to have outdoor seating by default, despite all the dire warnings about the bad weather that people usually mention in relation to NZ (in fact we’ve had one day of rain in our so-far 45 days here, but this does seem to be unusual). I’ve never understood why SF doesn’t have more outdoor seating – the weather is really not that bad. Although it could possibly be partly #49 (or it could just be the really bad management).
  51. 2degrees 3G mobile broadband – 11Mbps downstream, faster than AT&T’s notional ‘4G’ in San Francisco, and over 2x faster than I was ever able to get AT&T to provide over a DSL modem to our SF home … And all this for less money than my US mobile plan: about USD 50 for 12GB a month. (Unfortunately, 2degrees is not available in many places yet, and the other options are not as good, and wifi in general is not widely available.)
  52. The post offices! Friendly, clean, not at all scary … quite the opposite of those in another country I’m familiar with …
  53. Green man is green. Ie, the little green man that says ‘go’ to pedestrians. What is it with having a green light for cars and a white man for walkers? Never understood the point of complicating things. Not to mention the fact that green is a completely non-racially-charged color, unless you’re an alien. (Actually, I am known as an ‘alien’ in the US; a very unfriendly thing to say I’ve always thought.)
  54. Sausage selection!! The list wouldn’t be complete without yet another food item. For some reason sausages are just not very exciting in the US, unless you really hunt. Here they are everywhere and really good. And no horsemeat! Well, I don’t know that for sure; I haven’t seen many horses. But why would you bother with horses when there are this many sheep ..
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