Tuesday, March 27, 2012

New Zealand- South Island

Even though I've written five previous posts about New Zealand, I still have so much to say about it.  I was worried that it wouldn't hold the same wonder and excitement the second time around. Especially since we had just been to so many unique and exotic places. My fear was that we had become jaded and had lost our ability to be amazed by anything. It had been almost a full year since I left New Zealand. I had been sent to the North Island last year for work but didn't ever make it to the South Island so we purposely chose to start our trip on the South Island. If you've read my previous post on Australia then you know that we had to show proof of an outbound flight. This was booked in haste at the Sydney International Airport. In hindsight, I regretted booking our departure from New Zealand at just two and a half weeks later. It's just not enough time to see all of the amazing things there are to see. In defense of New Zealand's immigration policy, if we hadn't been forced to book an outbound ticket, we'd probably never want to leave.

Our entrance into New Zealand was just as chaotic as our exit out of Australia. We flew from Sydney to Wellington and had an eight-hour layover before our thirty-minute flight to Christchurch. That's right, an eight-hour layover for a thirty-minute flight. But when you book flights just two days before your departure, sometimes your options are very limited. It was midnight when we entered Wellington International Airport. New Zealand has one of the strictest policies in regards to what is allowed to be brought into their country but it's what keeps New Zealand so unspoiled and free of potentially harmful invasive species that can destroy their entire ecosystem. Fines for not declaring prohibited items start at $400. We weren't sure about certain items in our possession so we declared everything and then asked officials just to be sure. They inspected our bags and took some packets of honey and apples that we had forgotten about. They also inspected our sneakers. If you have any dirt or mud on your shoes and you've recently been in contact with animals, then your shoes can be taken away. I knew about this since my co-worker had his golf shoes cut to pieces and thrown in the garbage last year so Darren made sure to clean all the dirt off of our shoes and they passed inspection. We were then given a chance to double-check our bags to make sure we still didn't have any prohibited items that we had forgotten about.

Darren is known to have a problem with food hoarding. He collected packets of condiments, bread rolls, crackers, tea bags, etc...from all over the world. At home, he always likes to keep a pepper or sometimes a carrot in the refrigerator. He never eats it and it usually rots and then he buys another one and the cycle continues on and on. I call it his "comfort vegetable". It makes him feel safe just to know it's there. He is always thinking about food which he claims has to do with fear of another Potato Famine. I don't accept this as a valid excuse considering he was born 120 years after the end of the famine. So knowing that he has this eating disorder, I asked him to please check his bag one more time. If the customs officials found any food then we'd be fined $400. So he checked his bag and sure enough, in addition to the apples and honey, he had stashed a full box of pasta and an entire bunch of carrots. If he had a jar of sauce it would have been a complete pasta dinner. Luckily, he declared it before they searched any further. They confiscated the carrots but let us keep the pasta. Darren was a little bit anxious now that he had no comfort vegetable but he remained strong and handled it quite well.

We had about seven more hours to go before our flight to Christchurch and the airport was now closed. I had never been in an empty airport before and it felt kind of eerie. We really wanted to go to sleep and we didn't know where we could go. We showed our tickets to an airport official and he escorted us in an elevator to one of the main terminals. All of the shops were gated and the cafes were all closed. He showed us some benches where we could go to sleep. There were only about seven other people at the airport. We got only three hours of sleep before being woken up and asked to move on when the airport was open again. Then we had to check-in and wait for our next flight. We left Australia on January 7th and when we arrived in Christchurch it was 8am Sunday, January 8th.

We had reserved a Jucy camper van-one of the few things we actually were smart enough to book in advance on our world trip. We picked one of the more economical options so it wasn't so much a camper van as a modified minivan. There were cushions in the back that fit together like puzzle pieces to make a bed. Ours was a little wonky and kept falling apart in the middle of the night so Darren would wake up and find himself stuck in a hole. It also had a pump sink, a small refrigerator, and a butane stove. It came with towels, sheets, a blanket, cookware, dishes, and a DVD player. This would be our car and home for the next two weeks.

You may have already forgotten about the devastating earthquake that hit Christchurch last year but I was in New Zealand at the time and it's definitely something I will never forget. The week before this second trip back to NZ, Christchurch suffered several more earthquakes. Given my magnetic attraction to natural disasters, we chose to do Christchurch a favor and leave as quickly as possible. We drove southwest from Christchurch towards Queenstown. We were so exhausted that we had to pull over at a rest stop and sleep for a couple of hours before continuing. It was raining and it was also unseasonably cold considering it was January and mid-summer in NZ. Back in the United States, they were having a record warm winter but on this side of the world, they were having a record cold summer. So if you live in North America and you're wondering where winter went, it got lost and wound up in New Zealand.

Lake Tekapo
When it stopped raining we drove past the most unbelievable lake I've ever seen called Lake Tekapo. It was ice blue and surrounded by snow-capped mountains and fields of wild lavender. I was relieved to discover that we had not become jaded after all. It was just my first day back in New Zealand and it was already blowing my mind. There are just not enough adjectives to describe New Zealand but I'm going to use the word "unbelievable" a lot because what I've seen just does not seem real. Even though I had described what New Zealand was like to Darren, he realized that words are just not adequate. Even though I told him how beautiful it was, he still couldn't believe it when he saw it for his own eyes. He described New Zealand as one big botanical garden with a few little towns here and there. I'd say that's a pretty accurate description but don't forget to include the 40 million sheep. We drove on and there was another lake that was just like the first but even bigger called Lake Pukaki. It was incredible. We were too tired to keep driving to Queenstown and so we stopped for the night in a little one-street town called Twizel. 
Lake Pukaki

It cost $16 per person to park the Jucy van in a non-powered site at the campsite in Twizel but there are strict laws against "Freedom Camping" in most parts of New Zealand. It's not like Australia where you can just pull your car into a rest area and sleep for the night. Fines for Freedom Camping can be $200 and it's difficult to be inconspicuous when driving a lime green and purple van so we abided by the rules. The reason for the strict rules is to keep the land clean and free of pollutants. You can only camp at a legal campsite (which can cost anywhere from $18-$30 per person for a non-powered site) or a designated Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite (these are usually between $0-$8 per person but are just basic plots of land with maybe a vault toilet and maybe a water spout). Our site was not a DOC site so it was pricier but at least it had showers and a kitchen where we could cook dinner.

We made it to Queenstown the next day by 1 pm. The first campsite we found wanted $56 just to park the van so we drove to Frankton, which is just on the outskirts of Queenstown and found a holiday park with a spot right on the lake for $36. This was an amazing deal considering what we'd have to pay for a hotel room with a view like this!
Lake Wakatipu
Queenstown is a charming and vibrant little city. I wouldn't even classify it as a city though. It was more like a small ski town. It had tons of activities for outdoor adventure enthusiasts and also lots of interesting shops and restaurants. It had great energy. While in town, we found a payphone and booked a guided glacier climb for the following day. That's correct. We were actually learning from our previous experiences and booking things ahead of time. This is not always easy to do without a phone but we chose to not have a phone because we wanted to fully experience everywhere we visited without the constant distraction of text messages and phone calls. I was capable of living without a mobile phone attached to my head for the first 24 years of my life and after a couple days of phone withdrawals, we both felt happier and freer without one. So we tried to book our trip from a payphone and just as I was giving her my credit card number, the phone disconnected. We had to scrounge up more change and call back. I find that figuring out how to use foreign payphones is all part of the cultural experience because they are all a bit different and the currency is always confusing. Just the challenge of trying to use a foreign payphone is an adventure. We finally got through again and booked our glacier climb. There are only 2 companies that conduct guided glacier tours. We chose the more expensive one for the simple reason that it included free admission to the Glacier Hot Pools afterwards and the pools would also have showers that we could use so it was a great deal.

We also visited the information center while we were in Queenstown. Every town in New Zealand has a free information center where you can get free maps and ask questions to a live human being. It is truly the most tourist-friendly and easiest country to navigate in the whole world. We asked for a map of all of the Department of Conservation campsites and they directed us up the street to the DOC information center where we got information and maps to every DOC campsite in the country. New Zealand is just so easy.

On our way to Franz Josef Glacier, there was a sign that said "Last chance to get petrol for 141 km." In New Zealand, you can drive for hours without seeing another car or petrol station. When you see a sign like this, you stop and fill up your tank because the mountains are steep and winding and you will use up all your petrol before you make it to the next station (as I learned on my previous trip. Read the post: New Zealand-Tauranga & the Coromandel Peninsula). When you don't have a phone to call for help, this can be dangerous. There's just one "highway" connecting each little town. The highways are just one-lane roads with no shoulder and no traffic or street lights. We only encountered one traffic light in all the south island. The towns are usually just one street long and you can drive through them so fast that if you blink you will miss it. 

The west coast of the south island gets more rainfall per year than Ireland and despite the constant rainfall we had experienced, there was a drought in Franz Josef. The Council's solution to the water shortage was to fill the reservoir with untreated water so all drinking water had to be boiled. We ran out of butane while cooking dinner so we had no clean water to drink or wash dishes with. Because of the water shortage, we only stayed one night.
Franz Josef Glacier

We went on our glacier climb the next morning. The tour company provided us with raincoats, "over-trousers", wool socks, boots, and crampons. This was really convenient because we had shipped our winter gear home from Australia. We took a short bus ride and then hiked through the rain forest into the glacier valley. Because the glacier was so massive and the valley so wide, it looked like it was just a ten-minute walk away. It was actually an optical illusion and took us about forty-five minutes to hike to the base. At a certain point, people are not allowed to continue without a guide. It is an active living glacier and the ice could break and rocks or ice could (and did) fall. People have gone over the barrier without guides and gotten killed. Paying for the guided tour was worth every penny. You can't see, touch, or walk on the glacier from the barrier and it was an absolutely amazing experience to climb up the glacier and crawl through the icy caverns. It was one of the most memorable times of our entire world trip. It was so fun and bizarre to be walking on a glacier surrounded by rainforest in the middle of summer. New Zealand is like a fairy tale.  Relaxing in the outdoor hot pools that night surrounded by rain forest was the perfect way to end the day and soothe our sore and cold muscles after the glacier climb. And we got to take a shower!

We drove that night to a town called Hokitika and arrived at the DOC campsite around 11pm. The directions on the DOC map simply said, "across from the hotel." This cracked me up yet despite the total darkness, the town was so small that the site was easy to find, right across from the hotel just like the directions said. 

Our next destination was Abel Tasman National Park. We were packing up the van and getting ready to leave in the morning when an old man just walked up to Darren and started to chat, seemingly oblivious to the pouring rain. He asked Darren where we were headed and what route we planned on taking. Our plan was to take what looked like a shortcut on the map via State Highway 7 but Darren said he wasn't sure. The man said that taking the coastal route via State Highway 6 was much more scenic whereas SH 7 was all farmland and we'd be missing all the great views and it wasn't really that much quicker. Then he just said, "have a nice trip" and went away. Good thing we listened to that mysterious stranger because the route up the coast was spectacular. We stopped in a little town in the middle of nowhere called Puakaiki and walked to some cliffs to see the Pancake Rocks. It was absolutely amazing. The rocks are literally layered like pancakes. Scientists know that they are millions of years old but have no idea how they were formed. Just another New Zealand magical mystery.
Pancake Rocks

The Blow Hole
There were rock formations called the "Teapot" and the "Blow Hole." When the waves crash against the rocks, the spray shoots up through the holes formed in them and it looks like steam blowing out. It was fascinating.

There was so much beautiful scenery to admire that we stopped several more times along the way and weren't expecting to make it to Abel Tasman until the next day but we wound up arriving around 7 o'clock that night. We figured we'd keep driving and try to find the DOC campsite. The DOC book said it was 11km down a narrow unpaved road. We drove up through the mountains for a long time and I was starting to think we were lost because there was nothing around and just then I spotted the turn-off. The road was seriously steep and narrow and on the cliff's edge. It was just dirt and gravel and could only fit one car. We drove and drove and there was nothing around. I was not feeling good about this campsite. We passed a sign that said "washout" next to where a rockslide had occurred. The forecast was calling for more heavy rain which could easily cause another landslide. If the road was washed out or blocked by fallen rocks, we'd be trapped in the middle of nowhere with no phone to call for help. Once the road got wide enough we turned the car around and headed back the way we came. We never did find the campsite either.

Abel Tasman National Park
We took an alternate route into Abel Tasman via the coast into the town of Kaiteriteri and found a $25 campsite called Bethany Christian Camp. It was packed with hundreds of families that were living there for their entire summer break and there were kids everywhere. We just wanted to cook dinner because by that time it was 8:30 and we were tired and very hungry. The kitchen was so busy that there was a long line to wash dishes. Camping is supposed to be relaxing but with all the tents and kids running wild it looked more like a circus. It was a safe place to stay for the night but we had no plans to stay another especially since they charged 50 cents for a 6-minute shower. It rained so hard that night that the water came through our slightly opened windows and soaked our sheets and blankets. Sleeping in the van every night was already getting old. We got out of there first thing the next morning and didn't bother to take our 6-minute showers. We found a new campsite in the next town over that had just a few sites and was incredibly quiet. It was also only $20 and the showers were free. Next, we had to find a payphone to book our car ferry to the north island for that weekend (notice the booking in advance again!). Their computers were down and they asked if they could call us back. We told them we didn't have a phone and they could not comprehend this. It was as if we told them the sky was yellow. We had to keep finding payphones and change and calling back until they could finally confirm our reservation. 

Coquille Bay
We drove back to Abel Tasman and hiked the coastal route to Coquille Bay. As usual, it was unbelievably beautiful. Cars are not allowed in Abel Tasman but you can get a permit and camp overnight at one of the many campsites in the park and hike through the entire route from one end to the other. Outside the entrance to the park, there is a really interesting sculpture garden exhibiting the work of local artists.

We stayed another day and rented sea kayaks before driving on to the town of Picton which is where we needed to catch the ferry to the north island. 

We found a DOC campsite on a gorgeous lake just a half-hour from Picton. I made tacos using our little butane stove, we swung on a rope swing and watched ducks while another camper played guitar. It was another perfect New Zealand night filled with millions of stars.

We met an interesting American man named Steve who was also traveling the world and wanted to form a group to fight for the right to freedom camp in New Zealand. He had gotten caught and was fined $200. Almost all of the DOC campsites are unmanned. You put your money in an envelope and dropped it in a box. It's typically on the honor system but once in a while, they do come around to check that you have paid your fee. We noticed many people would wake up and leave very quickly in the mornings before the officials came to check the box. I have to admit that I respect their efforts to keep the land unpolluted but it often did not feel worth the money to pay just to park our van on a patch of grass when there was no running water or restrooms. 

We were up early the next morning to catch the ferry. The weather was clear and mild and the sky was a brilliant blue. We lined up our green and purple Jucy van with rows of magnificent antique cars that were headed to a car show in Whangamata. Poor Jucy was feeling fat and ugly but then the other car owners became jealous when we were making coffee on our little stove while waiting to board the ferry. The ferry ride was three hours but the ride was so scenic, relaxing, and enjoyable that the time went by very quickly. 

In an effort to make this post a reasonable length, I will be writing a separate post about the north island. Please come back soon to read more or you can Subscribe to this blog by clicking the Posts button in your right-hand sidebar or click Follow on the top left corner of your screen.
In the meantime, click one of the links below to read some of my previous posts about New Zealand:

Adventures in Kiwi Land

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