The South Island

We had originally planned to spend well over a month in New Zealand (which Kiwis pronounce ‘New Zillund’).  The eclipse in Australia changed that, as did the timing and availability of home exchanges.  We spent a mere three weeks in New Zealand, and only nine days on the South Island – not nearly enough time.   Our South Island base was a gorgeous home perched on a hillside with a spectacular view of the South Pacific just south of Christchurch, roughly in the middle of the South Island.
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Our Home in Christchurch

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Our Deck — Breakfast with a View

This perch was a precarious one.  In February of 2011 a devastating earthquake centered in Christchurch destroyed many of the historic downtown buildings, including much of Christchurch’s historic cathedral.

IMG_9942Remains of Christchurch Cathedral

Devastation - Downtown Christchurch

Devastation – Downtown Christchurch

The quake had rippled and buckled roads throughout the region, and driving was at times slow and precarious.  Sections of many of the hillside homes surrounding the city are now dangling over the edges of cliffs newly created by the earthquake and its aftershocks.    The cliff-top home in which we stayed had narrowly avoided disaster.  Parts of the driveway just below the house had disintegrated, and cracks were evident in the walls of the home.  Despite the ravages of the earthquake Christchurch remains a delightful city that still maintains a very British flavor.  We spent part of an afternoon “punting” on the Avon River, which courses through the center of town.

Punting on the Avon

Punting on the Avon

 

Our idea was mainly to use the home in Christchurch as our base for exploring the lakes, mountains and coastlines of the South Island.  New Zealand looks tiny on a world map, but it would take fifteen hours to drive the length of the South Island alone.  We didn’t have enough time to visit some highly recommended parks on the northern and southern edges of the South Island; so we had to be very selective.   What we did see there was absolutely beautiful.  As we leave, it’s clear that we have a lot of unfinished business to do tramping about in New Zillund.

Our final foray away from Christchurch was a trip to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Major storms had battered the western half of the South Island during a good part of our stay there, causing tremendous flooding in the west and summer snowfalls in the mountains.  These were the remnants of the hurricane that had caused so much devastation in Fiji – our next destination.    It was only a few days before our departure from New Zealand when the weather finally cleared enough for us to attempt a trip to the Southern Alps.  They were distant enough from our place in Christchurch that we decided to make it a two-day camping trip, using equipment very graciously loaned to us by Nigel and Desiree, with whom we were doing our home exchange in Christchurch.   Our primary destination was Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, but Nigel mentioned that we might want to stop for a bit in Tekapo on the way to Mt. Cook.

Tekapo is on the southern shore of Lake Tekapo, and as we rounded a hillside and got our first view of the lake, the color was so vivid that it looked almost unnatural, as though the lake were a solid substance.  It simply compelled us to stay.

Lake Tekapo

Lake Tekapo

Although we were an hour away from Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, we found a campground at the edge of the lake and pitched our tent on a bluff overlooking the blue-green waters.

Lake Tekapo Camprground

Lake Tekapo Camprground

Lake Tekapo Camper

Lake Tekapo Camper

The Southern Alps were visible in the distance on the far end of the lake, and the snow level had been so low in the recent storms that even the smaller hills surrounding the lake had gotten a heavy dusting.  It was glorious.

View of Southern Alps from Lake Tekapo

View of Southern Alps from Lake Tekapo

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Lonely Planet had mentioned that there was a café with a ‘to-die-for’ 360-degree view atop nearby Mt. John; so we started the drive up.   Although the drive was less than ten miles, it took us the better part of an hour because we had to keep stopping to take photos of flower fields, the lake and the surrounding mountains.

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By the time we arrived at the top, gale-force winds were blowing, forcing all the visitors to cram into the tiny glass-walled café for shelter.  I tried to order us a light lunch, but, after an experience like that portrayed by John Cleese in the Monty Python “Cheese Shop” skit, I eventually discovered (after a good deal of fruitless guessing) that only two items on their menu were actually available – coffee and scones.  This eliminated my usual indecisiveness about ordering café fare.  As soon as our “lunch” arrived we were ordered off of the mountain because the winds were forcing the authorities to close the road that provides access to the Mt. John.  We gulped down the coffee and scones, rushed out and tried to take a few photos in the windstorm, and then again from the car windows as we negotiated the switchbacks down the mountain.

Lake Tekapo from the road to Mt. John

Lake Tekapo from the road to Mt. John

Returning to the campground, we went for a jog along the rim of Lake Tekapo, followed by a long soak in the adjacent hotsprings with a view of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the lake.

The next morning we made our way towards Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, but again the going was slow because the vistas we encountered along the way were utterly distracting, beginning with Lake Pukaki, which seemed even more vivid than Lake Tekapo, an intensity we hadn’ t seen since our visit to Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies.

Looking at Lake Pukaki

Looking at Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki is fed by waters from the glaciers of the southern Alps, which deposit the silt that suspends in the lake, turning it a stunning turquoise.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki

From the southern end of the lake there was a view to the north end, which was dominated by the rather formidable, glacier-clad, Mt. Cook.  At over 12,000 feet Mt. Cook is the highest peak in New Zealand, rising to its full height from a plain that is only a few hundred meters above sea level.

Mt. Cook from Lake Pukaki

Mt. Cook from Lake Pukaki

Recent storm activity had been so intense that the dam and spillway at the southern end of Lake Pukaki were overflowing, and the beautiful turquoise water was pounding into a broad valley, creating a turquoise torrent, the Pukaki River, which plunged over falls and then disappeared around a bend, painting the landscape blue.

Spillway, Lake Pukaki

Spillway, Lake Pukaki

Pukaki River

Pukaki River

Despite the fact that this was the rainy season on the South Island, tourists had risked bad weather simply for the chance of catching a view of Mt. Cook and its sister mountains.  The mountain gods were with us, providing what New Zealanders call “fine weather”  with deep blue skies.

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

The trail up Hooker Valley took us past 10,300-foot Mt. Sefton.

Mt. Sefton

Mt. Sefton

Hooker Valley Tramper

Hooker Valley Tramper

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Then it meandered up the Hooker River all the way to the terminus of the Hook glacier and others that fed into it.  We crossed two long suspension bridges, under which the gray-white river thundered and boiled.

Suspension Bridge, Hooker River

Suspension Bridge, Hooker River

Staring down the valley, I shuddered to think of what it might be like to run a river raft or kayak down such a raging torrent.

After the second footbridge we were met with a full-on view of Mt. Cook, whose huge, commanding presence dominated the horizon.  Massive glaciers covered the mountainsides and spilled from the feet of Mt. Cook.  This was why we had come to New Zealand.

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook

The trail was crowded – even after the going had become precarious, and sections of the trails had become stream beds channeling the run-off from the recent storms.  I was especially impressed by the tenacity of a middle-aged Asian woman who attempted the rocky, mucky three-hour trek dressed like Tina Turner in a red satin jacket and high-heeled boots.  I hadn’t realized that ankles could twist in so many directions before.

On our return trip to Christchurch, we realized how much of the South Island we would not be able to see on this trip, including Abel Tasman National Park in the north and Milford Sound in the south.  Our sample had been small, but exquisite.  New Zillund is a place to which we absolutely must return. 
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Middle Earth

 

We arrived in New Zealand not long after the world premiere showing of “The Hobbit” in Wellington’s Embassy Theatre.

Gandalf at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington

Gandalf at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington

Like the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit (which will also be stretched into a trilogy of 3-hour-long films….yikes!) was filmed in New Zealand.  Peter Jackson’s films have helped make New Zealand the new tourist destination, especially for nature buffs.  I have to admit that the scenery we saw in Lord of the Rings is one of the things that brought us to these islands.  When we arrived at Wellington’s airport, it was apparent that New Zealand has fully embraced the films.  Huge sculptures of characters from The Hobbit populate the Wellington airport.

Gollum, at Wellington Airport

Gollum, at Wellington Airport

Wellington’s most famous museum, Te Papa, displays gargantuan sculptures of the three trolls, who, because of their impeccable culinary knowledge of the proper herbs to use in cooking dwarves over a spit, turned out to be Lois’ favorite characters from The Hobbit.  I liked them too, but only because I thought the dwarves deserved to be eaten.

Troll, at Te Papa Museum

Troll, at Te Papa Museum

Signs throughout Wellington, including one in the “backpacker style” hotel/house of ill repute where we stayed our first night, proclaim:  “Welcome to the middle of Middle Earth.”  Since Wellington is at the south end of New Zealand’s North Island, it’s as close as one gets to the middle of New Zealand.  On our map of New Zealand, we found not only the names of cities, highways, and national parks, but also the locations where various scenes in the Lord of the Rings had been filmed.  We had arranged a home-exchange in a house about an hour north of Wellington in a beach town named Otaki, which can only be understood by Kiwis (i.e. New Zealanders) when pronounced “Oh Tacky.”

Sunset, Otaki Beach

Sunset, Otaki Beach

Not far outside of Otaki lies the Otaki River Gorge where, as indicated on our map, one could find the location of a scene featuring the outskirts of the Shire.  Apparently there are “Lord of the Rings/Hobbit” locale tours of New Zealand for the most serious Tolkien geeks (and I use this term with the utmost respect).   Since I’m now retired I was thinking of returning to New Zealand at some point to make a few extra bucks by setting up a company called “Geek Tramps and Tracks.”  If you think this would be a job pimping for nerd call girls on freight cars, you obviously aren’t familiar with Kiwi lingo.  “Tramp” is Kiwi for hiking/backpacking, and “track” means trail or footpath…..sorry to mislead or cause any undue excitement or interest.

One of the more surprising realizations that we have had in New Zealand is how similar Middle Earth is to Northern California, our home….if indeed we have such a thing at the moment.

Sonoma???  Not!  Waipara Valley, NZ

Sonoma County, California??? Not! Waipara Valley, NZ

Meadow in Otaki River GorgeMeadow in Otaki River Gorge

Actually there’s a bit of Ireland in New Zealand as well, given the brilliant green hillsides, the dragons, and the little halflings with furry feet and pointy ears…. not to mention the dead guys wielding swords.

View of Akaroa Harbor

View of Akaroa Harbor in New Zealand, looking downright Irish

Akaroa Harbor

Akaroa Harbor

Still, there are differences.  One does not find these hues in the coastal waters of Northern California and Ireland.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Beach at Kaikoura

Beach at Kaikoura

And although this river valley may have the general look of a river valley in Northern California,

Otaki River Gorge

Otaki River Gorge

the proliferation of tree ferns was a dead give away that we’re not home yet.

Tree Frern

Tree Fern

The forests may look familiar, but you just don’t find tree species with names like rimu, pukatea, kahikatea, and rewarewa in Ireland or California.

Rainforest Tree Ferns

Speaking of Kiwi lingo, many of the towns in New Zealand have Maori names — with which I’m having extreme difficulty.  In the greater Wellington area, we encountered towns with names like Paekakariki, Waikanae, Paraparaumu, and Wanganui.  The Kiwis were of little help here; we heard them pronounce Waikanae in three different ways, and they referred to Paraparaumu simply as Parapram. The Maoris were originally from Polynesia, and had begun settling the islands of New Zealand in the 13th Century….hence, the Polynesian names.  Nonetheless, New Zealand is as far south of the equator as the southern border of Oregon is north of the equator.  For me, having towns this far from the tropics with Polynesian names was like seeing Oregonian loggers wearing flowered sarongs with Tahitian Gardenias in their hair.

While on the North Island, like Bilbo Baggins, we decided to have “an adventure.”  This consisted of a long drive to the Wanganui River, an evening’s camp-out, and a jetboat trip upriver, followed by a canoe trip downstream.  The Wanganui River gorge had been described as one of the most beautiful places on the North Island.  The drive up the canyon was breathtaking.

Wanganui River Canyon

Wanganui River Canyon

Wanganui River Canyon

Wanganui River Canyon

Although the idea of racing wildly upstream and disturbing the tranquility of pristine riparian habitat offended a number of my more naturalistic sensibilities, I got over it.  It was a blast.

In the Jetboat

In the Jetboat

Our driver, Thomas, is Maori and had been raised in the Wanganui River canyon where his family had farmed for generations.   As we slalomed upriver at breakneck speeds, he would occasionally bring the jetboat to a stop and treat us to some natural history, Maori lore, or family stories.  He also would give us encouragement about canoeing the rapids.  “Thees one heah we call Foofty-Foofty….cause you only got a foofty perceent  chance of comin’ through the rapid uproight…..No worries, though…you can always chicken aout, and drag the canoe through that shalla section ovah theah…..  If ya do troy ta run it…. well…. see that wayve theah with all the backwarsh?   Just mayke suah ta hit it stright and you’ll be foine.  No worries.”

The rapid was only a Class Two rapid, and I’d guided whitewater rafts on Class Four rivers.  There was no way Lois and I were going to drag the freakin’ canoe through the shallows in order to avoid running “Fifty-fifty.”

The jetboat took us as far upstream as the trailhead leading up a 2-mile pathway to the Bridge to Nowhere.

On the Trail to the Bridge to Nowhere

On the Path to Nowhere

The Bridge to Nowhere had been constructed in 1935 as part of a depression era program to encourage farming in the Wanganui River Valley.  The main transportation in the valley had consisted of river boats (including steamboats), and there had been plans to construct several roads connecting these farming communities to the river transportation network.  The bridge had been built in anticipation of the future construction of these roads.

In Front of the Bridge to Nowhere

In Front of the Bridge to Nowhere

It then became clear that the area was not especially suitable for farming, and the farmers began abandoning their farms, one by one.  By 1942 only three farms remained.  The government abandoned its plan to construct roads into the area, and the environment reverted back to rainforest.  Only the bridge remained, and still stands as a monument to poor planning.  We ate lunch on the bridge as Thomas filled us in on its history and pointed out the eels swirling in the currents of the Mangapurua Stream that flowed 125 feet below the bridge upon which we were standing, the bridge now known as the Bridge to Nowhere.

The jetboat dropped us off 10 miles upstream from our starting point on the Wanganui River.  We were looking forward to the canoe trip, which would enable us to get a closer look at the canyon and take some photos, a few of which appear below.

Waterfall, Wanganui RiverWaterfall, Wanganui River

Wanganui River Tributary

Wanganui River Tributary

Wanganui River Reflection

Wanganui River Reflection

If you do canoeing, kayaking or rafting, you’ll know that the fact that we were able to take the above photos from the canoe is an indication of the level of confidence we had that we would not experience any mishaps that might immerse our cameras.  For the most part, the Wanganui River was rapid free.  We paddled through miles of flatwater, and encountered only a riffle or two before we came upon Fifty-fifty.  By then, Lois and I knew that it would be no problem for us to hit the wave straight.  No worries.  The canoe slipped into the tongue of the rapid perfectly, and Lois and I were a well-oiled machine, hitting the wave perfectly straight…..at which point I heard a shriek from Lois as the front of the canoe (Lois included) disappeared under the wave.  Knowing that we had followed Thomas’ instructions to the letter, I had no doubt that the front of the canoe would re-emerge uneventfully from the waters.  It emerged, but not uneventfully.  Even though we’d hit the wave perfectly straight, the amount of water that had found its way into our canoe was beyond the capacity of this particular canoe to manage, and it began sloshing left and right until the canoe rather effortlessly capsized.   I was astonished.   After 15 minutes wrestling the canoe onto a midstream rock and dumping out the contents, we settled our moistened and bedraggled behinds back into the canoe and began assessing the damage.  Two cameras had experienced full immersion, and my prescription sunglasses were nowhere to be seen.  Lois described it as the price we paid for hubris.   I think from now on I’m sticking with white-water rafting.

Modern fashion technology is the only reason I was able to post the above photos of the Wanganui River.  I had never had good fortune with cameras while traveling, but thanks to an hour under Lois’ blow-dryer, my camera (and all the photos on it) survived. Lois’ camera survived as well.  Like Bilbo, we returned to our village bruised, but just a little wiser….and humbler.

Canoeing the WanganuiCanoeing the Wanganui