Hikes and Puzzles and Dolphins, oh my!

Monday we were northward-bound.  After an early lunch in Te Anau, I successfully drove us from to Arrowtown, just north of Queenstown.  The astute reader will notice we seem to be backtracking, and there is quite a bit of that here in New Zealand—there just aren’t that many roads!  Arrowtown is a historic gold mining town, and many of the little mining cottages have been preserved and turned into shops.  A fun place to browse for an hour; Penelope found her much anticipated tiny bottle of Paua shells and I purchased a pair of earrings (always one of my favorite souvenirs!). 

We switched drivers in Arrowtown and soon discovered that the drive from Arrowtown to Wanaka involved crossing what seemed like quite a mountain.  The views were tremendous, as you can see.  But you’ll have to imagine me squeaking in terror as we approached hairpin turn after hairpin turn—while Penelope was simultaneously saying “Go faster, Daddy!” and laughing with delight.

We arrived in Wanaka in late afternoon, and I have to agree with our guidebooks that the town feels exactly like Queenstown’s little sister.  Smaller, but still the ski-town vibe, filled with backpackers and tourists.  We settled in at our cabin, which is no longer a Top10 property and has subsequently been renamed Mt Aspiring Holiday Park.  But still a fine place for two nights’ stay.  Penelope was particularly pleased to hear that this park has a pool, especially since it will be in the 80s during our visit.   Dinner that night was at the Red Star Burger Bar and was so tasty we’re considering returning for round two…   The evening ended with pool and playground time, and some of the penultimate chapters of The Hobbit.

Although my folks (who have been to New Zealand three times, each trip lasting several months) recommended the Rob Roy track to us as “one of the best day hikes” they’ve ever been on—which is really saying something—we decided it was too ambitious for certain members of our family….  So on Tuesday morning we opted for two shorter hikes instead: the Mt Iron track and the Waterfall Creek Trail.  The first had terrific views of the whole valley and Lake Wanaka, while the second headed around the lake and allowed us to see That Wanaka Tree.  Yes, it’s really called that.  And #thatwanakatree on Instagram has over 37K posts (so far). 

Home to our cabin for lunch, then we headed to Puzzling World for the afternoon.  I wouldn’t say it’s a must-see attraction, but it was certainly a fun way to spend a few hours.  We liked the inside optical Illusion Rooms best, especially the Tilted House rooms and the Roman Latrine entrance to the bathrooms.  The Great Maze outside was tough, though, and we bailed via an emergency exit after about half an hour.  Just before we left, we visited the gift shop—where Penelope was tickled to realize that the attraction’s initials were her own as well.

We headed back to Red Star Burger Bar for dinner, and then an early evening at home—schoolwork and blogging and a family game of Uno before bedtime. 

Wednesday was our longest day of driving of the entire NZ trip—from Wanaka to Kaikoura—and we were on the road for more than nine hours.  Fortunately, we had lots of beautiful country to see on the way.  We also knew just where to stop for our breaks: the fabulous playground (with ziplines big enough for parents!) next to the grocery store in Lake Tekapo, the enormous i-Site and gift store in Geraldine, and an amazing Indian dinner at Maharaja, an Indian restaurant in Christchurch.  And as a bonus, I finished reading aloud The Hobbit to Penelope (and Jeremy) as the long driving day came to an end.  We arrived at the Top 10 Holiday Park in Kaikoura around 8:30pm, and Penelope managed to squeeze in some playtime at the jumping pillow before bedtime rolled around.

Thursday morning we got up early for our Dolphin Encounter cruise.  Kaikoura is famous for its oceanic wildlife, from whales to dolphins to seabirds.  The dusky dolphins are among the inhabitants of this gorgeous area, and they are famous for their friendly, inquisitive, and acrobatic nature.  There’s just one company here that takes folks out to swim with the dolphins, and it’s a wetsuit, snorkeling kind of adventure.  The dolphins are not fed or enticed to come over toward the boat and the swimmers, but they generally do—and in the process, put on an amazing performance.  Needless to say, we were pretty excited for the morning!

Penelope and I opted for the role of spectators aboard the vessel; Jeremy, less keen to sail, decided to stay home.  After a brief wait while the swimmers donned their wetsuits and heard safety instructions, we were all bussed over to the South Bay, about ten minutes away from the tiny downtown.  We boarded our boat: three spectators and sixteen swimmers along with one skipper and two guides. We sailed for about 25 minutes until we spotted our first pod of dolphins—they tend to roam in pods of a hundred to nearly a thousand.  We had a “smaller” group of a hundred or so, and their constant activity made for a non-stop show for the next two hours.  While the swimmers came in and out of the water, surrounded by the curious dolphins, one of the guides showed us the best place to stand.  And so Penelope and I spent the rest of the voyage at the bow of the boat, where the dolphins liked to “surf” the pressure waves when the boat was moving… and play when we were floating along.

I took dozens of photos and videos, but I also managed to put the camera away from time to time, just to enjoy the spectacle unfolding before us.  In addition to the dusky dolphins, we saw common dolphins racing by, a few New Zealand fur seals swimming, and several albatross bobbing along on the surface of the sea.

But one short video is definitely worth sharing… I actually caught one of the many dolphin somersaults! 

Later that afternoon Penelope and Jeremy spent some time at the holiday park pool while I explored Kaikoura’s shops solo.  Always willing to do my part for the local economy.  😉

After dinner at home, we capped the day with a walk down near the peninsula trail, where we hopped off the trail and wandered out on the rocks of low tide.  A bit of tidepooling, but mostly just appreciating the amazing sunset unfolding before us.

Just another wonderful day in New Zealand.

Te Anau and Milford Sound

We arrived Friday afternoon in Te Anau, and Penelope immediately set off for the holiday park playground.  We are staying in holiday parks on this first leg of my sabbatical for just this reason—it’s still summer school holidays here in NZ, and there are lots of kids around for Penelope to play with at each of our stops.  She spent the next few hours running around with a small pack of Kiwi and French kids, while we settled in to our new cabin. 

I’m in charge of all of the packing and unpacking, which means I have transformed into the family Google.  Everyone asks me when they need to find something.  But I actually don’t mind, because it satisfies my type-A personality to know where everything is.  🙂 Jeremy is in charge of the cooking and washing up, and last night’s dinner was another delicious dish: meatballs in Bolognese sauce.  I could get used to this division of labor!

Saturday morning we slept late, read for a bit, then headed into Te Anau to see the Department of Conservation center and its displays about Fiordland and walk through the tiny downtown of Te Anau.  Today was an “administrative day,” a term my folks coined for a day off from sightseeing to relax, catch up on tasks, and plan for the week ahead.  They’ve been traveling the world since they retired ten and a half years ago, so they know a thing or two about maintaining sanity on long trips.  We’ve built in at least one off-day a week during our time in New Zealand, and I’m so glad.

After lunch at home, we had an eagerly-anticipated treat: the great New Zealand candy sampler buffet! 

As we traveled over the past week, we’ve picked up various unusual candies: Whittaker Nelson Pear & Manuka Honey chocolate, the mysteriously-named Pink Smokers, and lots more.  We set them aside until today, when we laid all of them out and had a taste of each in turn.  Many were enjoyable, but our favorites were the dime-store candies: Beacon Strawberry Fizzers, a kind of taffy, and the Swizzers Doubles Lolly, which I actually remember first having sampled in England when I was a teenager.

After emerging from our sugar coma, we each indulged in some favorite pastimes: Jeremy spent some time coding, Penelope found new friends at the holiday park playground, and I read the New Zealand poets issue of Poetry magazine, as recommended to me by Castilleja’s fabulous librarian.

We rounded out the day by heading to the small but gorgeously appointed Te Anau cinema to see a short documentary movie about Fiordland National Park.  A lovely way to anticipate some of Sunday’s adventures.

Oh!  And I also have a new vocabulary acquisition: TRUNDLER.  Pronounced “trundlah” here in NZ. A useful sort of word.

Sunday we woke early and hit the road right away—we had a 10:30am cruise to catch, and the road there was said to take at least two hours without stops.  The principle reason to stay in Te Anau for most folks is its relative proximity to Milford Sound, one of the beautiful fiords of Fiordland National Park.  You can travel there by helicopter, by foot on the Milford Track, or by the Milford Road, finished in 1954.  We elected to take the last option and thoroughly enjoyed the drive.  The land around the road goes through quite remarkable changes—from pastureland near Te Anau to forest and then to rainforest, all within and around the mountains of the Southern Alps.

Our plan was to drive straight to the Sound, take our mid-morning cruise, and then make our way leisurely back along the same road, stopping in the afternoon at the various short hikes and sights.  We saw very little traffic on the way to the Sound, which was lovely, and the vistas were spectacular.  We arrived with plenty of time to spare and in short order boarded the Milford Mariner, operated by Real Journeys.  After considering all of the options, we chose the Nature Cruise, aboard which our commentary would be provided by a naturalist. 

Milford Sound was stunning.  We were so lucky with the weather—it’d been raining all night the night before, so dozens and dozens of waterfalls were running, but as you can see from the photos, we had sunny blue skies dotted with clouds. 

We saw two pods of bottlenose dolphins swim by, three different groups of New Zealand fur seals basking on rocks, and countless birds wheeling in the sky.  But Penelope’s favorite part was probably when the skipper steered us directly under one of the larger waterfalls.  I have to agree… that part was pretty awesome.  🙂

It didn’t start raining again until mid-way through our drive back to Te Anau—and even then we had only intermittent showers.  We were able to make stops and short hikes at the bridge over the Tutoko River, the Chasm, and Mirror Lakes—all landmarks along the Milford Road. 

When we arrived back at the holiday park, we had a few hours of relaxing before our dinner reservation at the Fat Duck in town (where Jeremy was to devour his first bowl of New Zealand green-lipped mussels).

Penelope was delighted to discover that the little boy she’d seen on our boat that morning was also staying at our holiday park, and they spent the rest of the early evening running around, coloring, and enacting “mysterious ninja battles”—even resuming for an extra hour after our dinner in town.  It’s light so late into the evening that we have adopted a somewhat laxer approach to bedtime, and Penelope is often up until 9:30pm.  Fortunately, our mornings are typically less harried than the usual school day at home, and she can sleep in a bit. 

Monday morning we packed up and Penelope bid a somewhat teary farewell to her new friend Francesco, whose family is from Milan (though they now live in Hong Kong).  She is gathering quite a range of global friends along the trip!

On to Queenstown

Monday morning we headed south on the motorway, bound for Queenstown. We stopped at an overlook of unbelievably-blue Lake Pukaki for a picnic lunch and a bit of running around, then continued south. I’m proud to report that I drove for about two hours of the trip and without a single incident… though Jeremy did remark from time to time on my inability to stay off of the left shoulder. I contended that the shoulder is safer than the middle of the road, where the other cars are whizzing by.

We settled into the Queenstown Lakeview holiday park, then set out to explore the CBD (central business district) and grab some dinner. After a delicious meal at Flame, we meandered around town for a bit, window shopping and picking up planning brochures at the tourist information centre. The evening ended with time split between the playground and the laundry room.

Since we aren’t planning to bungee jump or other insanity, the lure of Queenstown for us is mostly its gorgeous views of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu and its proximity to Glenorchy and the Routeburn Track.

Tuesday we decided to hike around part of the lake, along the path in Queenstown Gardens. Gorgeous weather was with us all day, despite the prediction of rain in the forecast.

At the beginning of the Gardens path, the local Rotary Club had set up a small stand selling duck food (dried peas and seeds). Penelope was quite charmed by the way the ducklings ate right out of her hand.

After lunch in town, Penelope and I headed for the Skyline Gondola. Jeremy, alas, is not a fan of heights, so he opted for an afternoon at the holiday park instead. We purchased our tickets and headed for the top.

After checking out the views and reading about the history of the Skyline Gondola, we decided it was now or never. Helmets on, we boarded the chairlift for the next level: the Luge track.

After a brief training on how to steer and, more importantly, how to brake, we were off.  And it was FABULOUS!   Four thumbs up.  Amazing views, speedy turns… and Penelope screamed with joy all the way down.

We went on the track three times and could have gone three more.  Before leaving the top of the mountain, we paused to watch a bungee jump, which Penelope said looked like “the most fun ever.”  I quickly assured her that you have to be 18 to jump (I’m not actually sure this is a NZ law, but I think it should be our family policy).  We rode the gondola back down, taking in the spectacular views, and headed home to the holiday park.  

Wednesday the promised rain finally fell, so we spent the day browsing the Queenstown shops, doing another load of laundry, and heading to the local cinema to see Mary Poppins Returns.  In the early evening, we were surprised by a sudden hailstorm and later found out that several trees had come down, blocking a main road in town.  These NZ summer storms are no joke!  But we were delighted to see the light dusting of snow on the mountains out of our window.

Thursday morning we got up bright and early to head out for our first big hike of the trip, the first part of the Routeburn Track.  The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and hikers who do the whole trek usually take three or four days.  For thru-hikers, there are several “huts” along the way: gorgeously maintained accommodations with flush toilets and gas ranges, bunkbeds and campsites.

We spent more time than expected getting there, as part of the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy was closed due to tree and power line damage from the storm the day before.  But soon enough we were on our way again, and we ate our picnic lunch in the carpark before setting out.

We noted on the sign that our destination, the first Hut on the Track, was 1.5 hours away. Since we would head back on the same path, it would be a lovely 3 hour walk in the woods.  I should perhaps add here that the sign failed to mention that the Flats Hut was 7.5km away.  So off we went, happily oblivious to the length of the almost 10 mile hike we’d just begun.

And what a hike it was!  Within the first half an hour, we’d spotted Eyvind Earle trees (Jeremy), a fairy grotto (Rebecca), and enormous mushrooms (Penelope).

But, alas, about an hour into the hike, Penelope had completely exhausted her stores of enthusiasm, patience, and fortitude.  (I hope, gentle Reader, you appreciate my use of euphemisms here.  Travel with a seven year old is not always sunshine and rainbows.)  Jeremy, realizing that my long-awaited hike through Lothlorien was in jeopardy, generously volunteered to return with Penelope to the carpark and allow me to carry on solo.

And so on I climbed, through fern-filled forests and sunlit glades, over thundering cataracts, and finally onto a wide alluvial plain and the long-awaited Routeburn Flats Hut.

It was, quite simply, the best day hike I’ve ever been on.  I can see why so many scenes from Lord of the Rings were filmed here—it really is a magical place…. Hopefully by the time my next sabbatical rolls around, Penelope will be ready to do the full three-day tramp. 🙂  I can’t wait to come back, though my knees were an eensy bit sore that evening.  My FitBit reported that I climbed the equivalent of 122 staircases, so I can see why.

On our drive back to Glenorchy, we stopped to snap a pic of this most quintessential Kiwi view.  Mountains, lake, sheep. 

And then from Glenorchy to Queenstown, all along Lake Wakatipu, with stops along the way to enjoy the stunning views—and to capture a few family selfies.

Friday morning we packed up once again and drove out to Te Anau. The sun is shining and we have an eagerly-anticipated cruise on Milford Sound ahead of us!

First Days in New Zealand

Our whirlwind of packing and planning completed at last, we headed to SFO on January 15th for our evening flight. Excitement was definitely in the air as we boarded the plane bound for Fiji!

After our layover in Fiji, we landed in Christchurch on January 17th, beginning our six weeks of travels in the Antipodes. Penelope paused to pose with one of the painted poles at the Christchurch airport, and then we headed to our hotel and a delicious steakhouse dinner at Bloody Mary’s. That evening she told everyone we encountered (from the customs agent to to the waitress), “You have a New Zealand accent!” You’ll have to imagine her tones of surprise with each encounter. 🙂

Friday morning we started the day with brunch at a local cafe (where Penelope discovered bacon is a term used rather loosely in New Zealand), then headed to the Botanic Garden. A wonderful reminder that we’re in the middle of summer here! The hydrangeas were especially beautiful….

Afterwards we headed to the Margaret Mahy Park, which is the largest children’s playground south of the equator. Penelope gives it two thumbs up! We ended the day with a round of mini-golf and a delicious dinner at Thai Kitchen.

Saturday morning we repacked our bags and went to pick up our car, eager to head out of town to see more of New Zealand. As we left the garage on the left side of the street, Jeremy drove with unaccustomed caution (for which I was QUITE grateful). Before leaving the city, however, we stopped at the local grocery store to lay in supplies for our travels. We’ll mostly be staying in holiday parks and doing our own cooking, so we needed to stock up! And to be honest, browsing grocery stores is one of my absolute favorite things to do when traveling. There are so many kind of condiments here that should be available at home.

My new favorite road trip snack:

En route, Penelope read the book we bought for her that afternoon…

…all 489 pages of it. Fortunately, one of Penelope’s new travel toys is her very own Kindle. Otherwise we’d be in real trouble…

After a little over three hours of driving through lovely cow- and sheep-spotted countryside, we arrived at Lake Tekapo. It was absolutely pouring rain on the drive in, but just after dinner Penelope spotted a rainbow out our cabin window, and sure enough the sun had come out and the turquoise lake water was shimmering. Absolutely lovely!

Sunday morning we explored Lake Tekapo and environs, visiting the Church of the Good Shepherd and heading to the top of Mount John to see the views. A beautiful day, but very windy!

So in the afternoon we decided to spend a few hours at the Tekapo Hot Springs. Then we stayed up way past Penelope’s bedtime to see the night sky, since Lake Tekapo is an International Dark Sky Reserve. Alas, the almost-full moon and cloudy sky obscured most of the stars, but it was still a gorgeous view.

On Monday morning we bid a fond farewell to our first holiday park cabin– especially our “outdoor” toilet–and hit the road again, this time heading south to Queenstown. Stay tuned to see whether or not we are brave enough to ride the Skyline Luge!!