Day 22: Fox Glacier

We woke up today to the sound of rain on the campervan roof. Not just sprinkles, but on and off downpours interspersed with mist or no rain at all. It didn’t bode well for our glacier hike. So we decided to wait it out, and see if the weather improved, since there was an afternoon hike option we could take advantage of.  This was wishful thinking, since the west coast of the South Island is the rainiest place in New Zealand; the town at the base of the glacier gets 5,100mm of rain a year (over 16 feet!), with even more as you gain altitude. Much much more than home (Boston gets ~1,000mm a year).

So it looked like it was letting up in the morning, so we decided to have a hike in the rainforest. There was this neat forest hike, which involved a lot of downhill and uphill treking, with wonderful dense plant life on both sides of the trail, and a really long, bouncy suspension bridge over a glacial river at the end. It did start to rain again while we were hiking, but what do you expect in the rainforest?

We were somewhat moist after our hike, but feeling generally fit and up for a half-day glacier hike. Eli was feeling better by this point (if still a little tired), and I wasn’t feeling sick yet, so we thought we’d do it.  We drove to the bottom of the glacier before the tour to check it out, and so Eli could collect some glacier pieces to fill his Nalgene with.  He’s thinking he’ll bring them back to the States with him (in liquid form, of course).

So we had a quick bite of lunch, packed our pack (with rain-resistant cover, thank goodness), and got outfitted for the trek at the tour headquarters.  Leather boots, rain pants, rain coats, wool socks, wool mittens, and a spare pack.  Plus, Eli broke down and bought himself a new cap so I could have mine back 🙂  The tour company bussed us the short distance to the base of the glacier, and it was time for our hike.  It was about an hour hike to the glacier, an hour on the ice, and an hour hike back, in theory.

In my defense, they said that this trip was for people in moderate health, and was the easiest trip they offered.  The rest were for people in good or excellent health.  Even though I was starting to feel a bit under the weather, I felt I was still in moderate health by my American standards. Apparently New Zealanders have different standards of health.

We started the trip with a nice, relatively flat hike to the base of the glacier. We got to see the streams running into the creek, and they explained a lot about the history of the glacier, how it retreated and advanced, how the surrounding valley was evolving, etc. They had just had 150mm of rain a few days prior, which had completely changed the valley and glacier. There had been lots of rockslides, and the whole cave at the foot of the glacier had closed off and the water pressure had blown an entirely new cave open next to it, much much larger than the original! Our guides told us that this is the most extreme the glacier has looked in recent history, and is a really great time to see it!  We were stoked!!  Here’s a pic of the cave, with some people standing really far away from it; probably at least a quarter mile closer to me than the ice.

So after we got some history and viewed the glacier from below, we were ready to hike up, up, up, to a point away from the face of the glacier to venture onto it. (The face is very active, and dangerous to walk on). So we went up… 800 stairs plus lots of steep path. Our guide kept saying we were picking up the pace so we could have more time on the ice… I wasn’t sure I was even going to make it to the ice.  Just about when I was ready to give up and just sit my butt down on the path, it leveled out.  Then we walked along a fairly narrow ledge with a long drop, and a safety chain to be sure we’d make it safely, and a few more steps and we were there!  I made it to the glacier!!

So we put on our crampons, picked up our alpenstocks (rods with metal spike on the end), and walked out onto the ice. It was much easier than I anticipated to walk on, since they had made nice paths for us of rough, flat ice, and the crampons made our boots stick to the surface pretty well.  We hiked past crevaces, holes, streams, and got to see the layering from processes up at the mountaintop where the ice formed.  We had a nice snack of melted ice, and filled our water bottle, since the ice is very clean, and posed for photos 🙂

We took a bunch of photos of the glacier, lots more on my photo site:

Then after an hour on the ice, and a lot more information from our guides, we trekked back, downhill and down the stairs, and back to the flat plain at the base of the glacier.  The sun was lower in the sky, and aimed directly at the ice cave, which heated the ice, so we hung around there for a while, watching pieces of the cave (some car sized, and some larger!) fall from the roof and make huge splashes in the stream.  We also got to chat with some nice folks and the guides.  Eli mentioned that he worked at sites where humans had buggered everything up… which is the truth, and the British/NZ vocabulary is a much nicer way of putting it than we use back home!

After this, Eli had apparently not had enough punishment for the day, so we took a 15 minute uphill hike to see the other local glacier, the Franz Josef (we hiked on the Fox glacier).

After this, I finally put my foot down, and refused to walk farther than a few feet as a time. So we drove down the city to find a holiday park.  However, they were ridiculously overpriced, so we decided to just drive all the way to Greymouth (well, Eli decided he could do the driving, I was bushed).  We made it there by 10, got a spot at a holiday park, and got a good night’s sleep. It was a great day, but I’m still not sure how we fit so much in!

New Zealand Signage

While I wait for our day 22 pictures to upload, I just want to make a comment on New Zealand road signs. They are wonderful! Many are exactly the same or very similar to signs we see in the states, but the ones that are different are really great.

Then there are signs that are much more direct than those we see in the States; I wish ours were as direct. Like their drunk driving road signs, and road safety signs. Not like MA’s “Over the limit, under arrest” signs, these leave nothing out!

Then there are the comical signs. They’re probably not meant to be funny, but they crack me up.

This sign is EVERYWHERE in New Zealand where we’ve been, second only to speed limit signs. It confused me at first, but once you see if a few times it makes perfect sense. It does not mean that neighboring cars will try to take you out! They’re constantly re-sealing sections of the highways with a gravelly topcoat, which sprays up as you drive by.

This one just looks comical when you first see it. But it makes perfect sense, since there are so many areas where the ground could collapse downhill underneath you.

There’s also a great sign that indicates that pieces of glacier may spontaneously fall and cause huge waves or flooding that could be dangerous! I’ll find the sign soon, since the ferry is leaving!

Edit (12/16/09): I found my own picture of the falling glacial ice sign 🙂

Day 21: Drive to Glaciers

We left Murchison in the AM and drove to Fox Glacier. On the way, we made a stop in Greymouth to check out the Jade museum and exhibit that our guidebook suggested, but it had been bought out and converted into a gallery since publication. We did get a chance to visit a small coop of Jadeworkers, and looked at some lovely things.

We also made a few other stops along the way, although it was starting to rain pretty consistently, so they were shorter stops than we planned. We first stopped at a random beach we saw while driving, which had smooth pebbles instead of sand, and collected some rocks and shells.  It was also quite windy, so the sea was very active and interesting to watch.

Our next stop was planned, at the Pancake rocks. They’re comprised of very distinct layers, formed by stylobedding (which I can’t find a good definition for online, but it relates to the water pressure during formation of the rock from dead marine creatures over long periods of time).   We were there at the wrong tide; at high tide, there are huge spouts of water that come through the blowholes in the rocks.

The pictures are a little dark because of the weather (I’ll fix in photoshop later), so if you click on them you can see larger sizes for more detail.

We arrived at the Fox Glacier holiday park at a very reasonable hour, and got a great parking spot, where our hatch opened underneath the overhang at the bathroom/kitchen building. This was key to our stay, since it rained pretty hard from when we arrived until we left. This was probably the cleanest and most modern park we stayed in.

Not much else to say about today; Eli’s feeling better, but I’m feeling like I’m getting sick, which is usually how it works. As long as it’s not raining too hard we’ll probably still try to do a glacier walk tomorrow. The west coast of NZ is the rainiest area of the country; the glacial region gets around 5100mm of rain a year (over 200 inches!). So the guide company is well prepared to deal with it!

Day 20: Abel Tasman

This morning, we packed up camp and headed one town south to Kaiteriteri to take a cruise of Abel Tasman park. We had planned to kayak, but it was a quite windy day, and at this point Eli was still sick, so we didn’t want to chance it. So we hung out on the beach in the morning (wearing appropriate sunscreen… the sun is MUCH more intense here than it ever is back home). There were construction guys moving sand from one end of the beach to the other. Alex would have loved it! We got some fun shells, and had a delicious lunch at a local cafe (we ended up having HAM paninis instead of LAMB paninis, because of our difficult American accent, but they were still good!).

Our boat tour of the park was a good idea; it was super-breezy on the water, and we were thankful to be on a larger boat. We had great views of the golden-sand beaches, mountains, rock formations, and all the other beautiful things that the coast had to offer. We also saw some fur seals playing in the water around one of the islands (there were lots of islands, from small single boulders to pretty sizeable ones).

We were still in the harbor when I took this pic of Eli, so it hadn’t gotten rough and windy yet!

It had gotten a little windier when Eli took the pic of me. My wonderful floppy jungle hat from my Florida trip wasn’t quite the appropriate headwear for such a windy day (it spent most of the day covering my eyes or blown back onto my head), but someone was wearing my baseball hat!

Here’s one of our pictures of the beautiful coast. The water is a clean-looking teal-blue, and the shoreline alternates beautiful sandy beaches with really interesting giant rocks. It was a good cruise!

After the cruise we were going to try to drive to Greymouth. Well, I was trying to drive while Mel snoozed in the passenger seat. (These antibiotics are making Mel sleepy). We made it as far as Murchison, where we stopped for dinner at a small cafe. The plan was to continue on, but the fine New Zealand wine and cooking put a halt to that plan 🙂 We made it down the street after dinner, and stayed at the local holiday park. Mel couldn’t get the doorknobs to function properly… it was hilarious. We had a lovely night’s snooze to prepare us for the rest of the driving to the glacier tomorrow.

Day 19: Driving to Abel Tasman

At 7AM, Mel bounded out of bed, ready to get an early start on the day.  While typing away on the computer, with Eli’s hacking coughs in the background, she decided that the plan had changed. Instead of setting out early to Abel Tasman to go on an afternoon kayaking tour, we would sleep in, and make our way there slowly. So, she went back to bed until 9:30 when the alarm went off again (we needed to check out by 10).

We started an ambling  course toward Abel Tasman National Park shortly after 10, and were making pretty good time.  After an hour, Eli pulled out the guidebook to find a place for lunch. Within seconds of finding a place, I drove right past it (hadn’t even looked to see where we were yet, and there it was!).

It was a cute place called the Jester House Cafe, which was right off the main road on a piece of property prettily tucked away in the forest. There was a stream running across the front with a little footbridge, and a sign that said “Tame Eels”. We were curious what this meant, and it meant exactly that. The shop sold eel food (some sort of pink paste) that you could feed to the eels on popsicle sticks while standing on the riverbank.  There was a group of young kids and mothers there, feeding the eels and having a good time.

We walked the grounds a bit, then went inside for lunch. We had a delicious bread/cheese/meat platter, where everything was home-made on site, and the most delicious cup of tea I’ve had in a long while. We contemplated carrot cake for dessert, but due to the volume of lunch, decided we were already full.

While on our way out, we picked up a pamphlet full of addresses of local artisan. So we decided to detour (backwards) and visit a few of them.  We went to a wood-turning studio with some lovely bowls, and the pottery studio of Anna Bartlett, who does very unique glazework with a lot of 3D texture.

We continued on our way, and took a short, 10km winding road out to the coast (over a mountain, of course), to get the the national park. The camp is right on the beach, although our cabin doesn’t have an ocean view (we got another cabin so Eli can continue to recouperate!). While Eli napped this afternoon, I went for a swim in the ocean, which wasn’t nearly as cold as I was expecting based on what I’d heard. It’s the temperature of Cape Cod Bay in the summertime.

After a short swim and an ice cream, I came back to find Eli awake, and unable to further snooze. So we decided to have a movie night. First we watched the Dreamworks animated movie Monsters vs. Aliens. It was quite entertaining. Then we got together a bit of supper from leftovers in the camper (more cheese/bread/meat, fruit, quesadillas, and fresh lime soda!), and ate it while watching Disney/Pixar’s movie Up.  This one was really good, and really made us appreciate how lucky we are in life, with so many great friends and family to share it with.  We miss you all, and will see you again in less than 2 more weeks!

Day 18: Ferry Ride South

Eli has been feeling more under the weather with each passing day, so we’ve been taking it easy. We slept in this morning and caught up on our blogging, then drove out to catch the ferry from the North Island to the South Island. It’s about a 3 hour ferry ride, which ends with over an hour cruising through the beautiful Marlborough Sound. We drove our campervan onto the vehicle deck, then watched the scenery (and snoozed) from the protected deck. It was quite a windy day outside! Eli estimated a 40 knot wind; the ferry was listing quite heavily to the side, and there was quite the swell in addition to the white caps.

After a safe ferry ride of enjoying the teal-blue water, and beautiful coastal mountains, we landed in Picton and drove ourselves off the ferry. We decided to take the scenic, winding route to Nelson, instead of the longer highway route, so spent about an hour admiring the coastline as the road meandered its way around the mountains.

There were parking areas all along the route, where you could stop and admire the scenery. The sound has tongues of land interspersed with long waterways, and most of the land is mountainous. From our travels, we gather that logging is a major industry on this part of the island; we saw not only a giant lumber stash at the port (following picture), but also huge areas of the hillsides that were obviously deforested for lumber harvest. There are also very obvious vegetation patches where logging has occurred in the past. At least they seem to do it sustainably; there were huge monocultures of idential pine trees with pointed canopies, obviously planted in rows years ago, interspersed with the rounded treetops of the native assorted vegetation.

Eli had a grand time driving the curving road; we took some video, but without the g-forces, it fails to capture the curvy nature and fun of driving around here. Plus, you come around a corner, and all of a sudden are treated to a breathtaking view. It was quite lovely.

We got into town and found the campground (despite the best efforts of the GPS to get us lost), and got a lovely ensuite room (with its own bathroom and surprisingly comfortable beds). We had dinner at a fabulous Turkish Kabob place, recommended by the guide, which made incredibly tasty food, and had Coke in glass bottles!

Day 17: Wai-O-Tapu

Today we started the morning with the short drive back to Wai-O-Tapu from our campground. This site is famous because of the high concentration of geothermal activity in a relatively small area.

We made it just in time to watch them induce the geyser to do it’s morning show; shooting hot water about 2m into the air. They dump soap into it to lower the surface tension of the water so it’ll perform on command; makes for good tourism, although I wouldn’t classify it as a natural wonder.

So after this we went to the park proper, and did the several kilometer long walk around the park. There were some people around, but no where near the crowds you’d see at a US national park, which was wonderful. Plus, most of them are speaking other languages, so are easy to tune out 🙂

I (Mel) have never been to a volcanic/geothermal area before, and Eli’s only been to volcanic areas, so this was all new stuff for us, and was really amazing. It didn’t smell too bad, so we could take our time and enjoy the sights. Everything was so many colors; orange from antimony, yellow from sulfur (they spell it sulphur here), red/brown from iron oxides, black from carbon, etc. There were geysers, mud pools, hot springs, thermal pools, geothermal lakes, craters… all manner of new things to see. They had great pathways that took you right next to all these things.  We took about a zillion pictures (or rather, I did since Eli was feeling lousy).  Here are just a few.  We also took some great videos of bubbling mud, but they’re too big to upload for now.  We have a 1GB cap for the entire time we’re here, so I’m trying to ration my picture/video uploads (hard job!).

You can’t quite tell, but the lake is green, teal, and yellow in different patches. I can’t remember the name right now (10 minutes to catch the ferry!), but it’s got a bunch of thermal springs and upwelling-type things into it that bring in the colored minerals.

The color doesn’t show up well on our netbook, but this lake is NEON yellow.  Bright, almost blindingly yellow from all the sulfur in it. It was right next to these great yellow sulfur caves.

This is a lame picture of boiling mud. These pits are so cool; huge pits of mud with air bubbling up all through them, making them look like they’re boiling with bits of super-hot mud shooting everywhere. I took some good videos of it that we’ll upload later.

We drove south all the way to Wellington after this, so we could get really good sleep in before catching the ferry. Along the way, we drove past some snow covered mountains, which I think are near Tongariro, where we are going to hike on our way back north.

Day 16: Rotorua (Geothermal Baby!)

Today we got up at a sane hour, since Eli’s started to feel under the weather (congested, tired, and achy). It’s a good thing we had a relaxed day planned.

There’s a hotspot under Rotorua, which makes it very geothermally active, and a great place to see all sorts of great geology. Even feeling lousy, Eli enjoyed himself here.

We started with a tour of a modern-day Mauri village, the native people to this area. They lived in these areas originally, cooking their food in the thermal vents, and bathing and cooking in the thermal pools. And treating their skin regularly with the mud from the mud pools!  Below is a picture of them cooking their corn for dinner in one of the pools in their village. The village itself is one of their ancestral villages, and members of the tribe still live there, but it’s been modernized in many ways, so resembles a cross between an ancestral and modern village.

Cooking corn in a thermal pool

Cooking corn in a thermal pool

After our village tour, we went back to Rotorua to get a tour of the Jade factory, and watch them make Jade pieces. Unfortunately, our tour company got confused, and the jade-maker takes Sundays off, so we had to miss this tour. But we did watch a video on Jade carving, and browsed their shop. Then we wandered around the district a while, and stopped at a craft fair. It was exactly like craft fairs on the Cape, with retired folks selling nice hand-made stuff for prices that were way too low 🙂  Unfortunately, we doubted our ability to get pottery home safely, with 10 more days in NZ and 5 more flights, because they had some beautiful pieces. We also took a walk around a large lake in the area, through a wetland where we saw lots of great birds.

Our final activity of the night was a Maori village demonstration and dinner. This was at a different “village”, which was specially created to mimic the look and layout of their ancestral villages. We got to see the ritual for visiting tribes, and a show of native songs and dances. Then they served us a buffet dinner that was cooked below ground in the traditional manner, which was quite tasty and reminiscent of Thanksgiving dinner (potatoes, sweet potatoes, chicken, lamb, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce…). Then we wandered around the village before heading back. Our tour guide was a hoot, and we did karaoke on the busride back (with lots of Christmas carols).  I (Mel) decided that Maori wood figures are nearly as good as gargoyles, and photographed some. Interestingly, many had their tongues sticking out, which was a sign of something or other… if it was sticking out crooked it was a sign of welcome.

After all this excitement, we drove for a while toward Wai-o-tomo, but it didn’t end up having anywhere to stay! So we drove onward until we found a caravan park, and stayed their for the night.

Day 15: Waitomo Caves

Since today was supposed to be a gloomy day, we decided it would be the perfect day to visit the glow-worm caves in Waitomo. They are completely tourist-ized, but as such are a quite safe way to see these New Zealand natives. The glow worms are actually larvae for the fungus midge. The midges sit on the ceiling, and drop sticky threads to catch food. The light they emit lights up their thread and attracts prey.

We chose to do a ‘blackwater rafting’ trip, where you have an inner tube, and you tube down the river inside the cave, looking up in the dark at the glow-worm colonies. We were in the cave for about an hour with a group of 12 folks and 3 guides. We spent a bit of time hiking in the cave, then the guides helped us over some small waterfalls, before we peacefully floated through the rest of the cave, checking out the ‘worms’.  It was a little like looking up into the night sky with no light pollution, except these worms were brighter and there were a lot more of them. It was really great; not just the worms, but also the caving. It was over much too quickly, and we took a short hike out of the forest back to the vans.

We ordered the picture CD from the tour company, and it has some great photos on it, including some of us in the cave (in our adorable hard hats and wetsuits… the water was 12°C!). However, it’s a CD, and our netbook doesn’t have a CD drive, so we can’t upload those pictures until we get home.  But in the meantime, we also took a hike around the caves, and took a picture of the stream coming out of one.

After all this caving and exploring, we got back in the van and drove to our next destination, Rotorua. It’s a geothermally active area, but fortunately our campsite was far enough out of town that it didn’t smell like sulfur all night!

On the way, we stopped at the Kiwi house. It was closed 🙁 but we took a picture with the giant kiwi statue anyhow!

Day 14: Driving and more Sheep

After we finished our dive day (and hung out with our British friends until midnight), we slept in, then drove south. We made a stop-off at Sheepworld, to ferret out the reason behind the pink sheep, and see a little of what they had to offer.

We got there just in time for their daily show. We got to see one of their sheephandlers go through the routine with the dogs, rounding up and herding the sheep. Those dogs are amazing!  Then he had people from the audience help him with some demonstrations. There were only 5 of us, so we all got to participate. First, a woman from Europe had to separate the sheep out by color; she had a rough time of it. Then her husband and I (Mel) got to try our hand at shearing a sheep. It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, since he held it down for us, but I did come away smelling like a sheep. Also, as soon as you touch their wool, your hands are covered in lanolin, which makes them silky smooth. Then we got to feed some lambs, and see lambs in various colors.

At this point, it was pouring out, so we grabbed umbrellas and toured the grounds to check out the other animals they keep there, and hung out in the shop for a while, waiting for the rain to stop. Since it didn’t, we dashed to the car after a bit, and continued our drive south. We made it south of Auckland to Hamilton at a reasonable hour, and stopped there for the night, with the plan of checking the weather in the AM before planning the next few days.

Oh, and the mystery of the pink sheep. The farm hands had dyed a small group of sheep red and blue, which are the colors of the local rugby team, before a rugby match a while back. They used vegetable dye, which washes right out and doesn’t hurt the wool or sheep. Their boss came back and got upset with them, and made them wash it out. So the next time he left, as a practical joke, they dyed a group neon pink and put them in the pen at the entrance to the park. The boss got back and was very upset, until he started getting calls from his neighbors, saying what a clever marketing scheme he’d come up with.  Apparently, so many people were stopping to photograph the sheep, that the neighbors noticed! They also got higher ticket sales from the extra people brought in. So now they keep some pink sheep around as their signature 🙂

Day 13: Diving in the Poor Knights Islands

First off, I apologize for the lack of updates recently. First of all, internet access is spotty at many of the parks where we are camping, and in some, prohibitively expensive. Second, I (Eli) have, as predicted, gotten good and sick. We’ve had to cancel our planned Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike for today, and instead moved our Cook Straight Ferry reservation up to 1PM. We’ll have a relaxing day crossing the straight and driving part-way to the glaciers on the South Island.

Anyhow, the Poor Knights. We went diving with Dive! Tutukaka, which is the largest operation heading out to the Poor Knights. Our group was great, just a captain and 2 crew, with about 12 divers. Several of the divers had big time photography gear with them, which was a first for any of my trips. The first site we headed out to is called “The Tunnel” or the “Eastern Arch”. Its a large archway/tunnel through the island, and had a huge school of pink snapper swimming in the middle of it when we arrived. The diving was fantastic! Tons of snapper, blue and pink mau mau, large short- and long-tailed stingrays, and all sorts of fish were cruising up and down the walls and floor of the tunnel. Once we finished that dive, we had lunch and a cruise about the islands, stopping at the world’s largest sea cave (by volume) Riko Riko Cave. After lunch, we headed out to the Northern Arch for a second dive. Mel and I went out alone this time, and spotted a ton of great sea life. She spotted a Moray Eel hiding in the rocks, and there were bunches of nudibranchs on the vertical walls.

All in all, the Poor Knights was by far the best temperate diving I’ve ever done.  Mel seconds this, emphatically.

We also made friends with a couple from Australia, Nicky and Brian. We spent a bit of time chatting with them afterward, and they provided us with some information about their itinerary. That was immensely helpful, and helped us limit ours to something reasonable.

The Poor Knights themselves were beautiful, rocky islands with all sorts of arches and outcroppings, like the one above. One of our dives was through an arch like this, and in between dives they took us around in the boat to look at the islands themselves while we had our lunch.

We didn’t have an underwater camera, so us on the boat with the islands in the background is the closest we could get.  We’ve got some more pictures which we’ll upload to the photo site later. It was an amazing day!

Tasty coca-cola :)

A quick note on soda overseas. They don’t drink a lot of it, but what they do tastes so amazingly good, that soda in the States pales in comparison. They make it all with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, and it tastes crisp with no aftertaste. It’s made this way everywhere we’ve been, and in India they even use glass bottles. MMMMMM. Tasty! I’ll miss this when we get back home.