Thursday, May 28, 2015

Off to Fiordland: Doubtful Sound

At least it is a nice ride on the ferry.
The southwest area of South Island is knows as Fiordland. The whole area is Fiordland National Park established in 1952 and covers an area of 1.2 million hectares – or about 4,633 square miles! It is uninhabited and difficult to access with limited roads and dense bush and mountains. In the earliest years, the Maori hunted, fished and gathered pounamu here for hundreds of years.

This Captain is tired. Too much driving and now an early
morning and long bus ride to a ferry and a bus and a ferry!
In 1773, Captain Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to visit the area. Cook drew maps and described the area and soon whalers and sealers arrived. However, they found it too hostile: steep mountain terrain, incredible isolation and the wettest climate in New Zealand – and today it is infested with those awful little sandflies (namu) that have eaten me alive. Even the Maori couldn’t live with the sandflies and left the area! Cook actually named it Doubtful Sound because he was doubtful that he would have the right winds to sail out so he never really explored this fiord.

As a result, the area was never developed as the same conditions exist today. There are a couple of small towns on the edge of Fiordland and the beautiful glacial Lake Manapouri. In order to get to Doubtful Sound, we took a ferry 30 km across the lake to a waiting bus. This was after a 2.5 hour bus ride from Queenstown, but the bus was much better than driving early in the morning or staying overnight at the end of the trip. Once on the second bus, we traveled through Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove, which is the entrance to Doubtful Sound.

The terrain is rugged with steep mountains, deep glacier-shaped valleys and hundreds of waterfalls. The bush is a blanket of dense sub-tropical rainforest. Unfortunately for us, it rained most of the day so we did not see much wildlife on the road or water. However, the rain brought to life hundreds of waterfalls everywhere you looked! Spectacular!

This is truly untouched wilderness as only a couple of people live in a camp that is near the Manapouri Hydro-electric Power Station there. It gets so much rain that it is not a pleasant place to be on a regular basis. The complex geology of the area has evolved over the last 500 million years.

Doubtful Sound itself was pristine, quiet except for the sounds of nature and a visual feast. It is 421 meters deep making it one of the deepest fiords. It has three distinct arms branching off the main body of water that runs in about 40 kilometers from the open ocean. Doubtful Sound is three times the length and ten times the area of Milford Sound, the other more popular tour destination.

If you look closely, you can see the fur seals on the rock.
The tour boat took us into a couple of arms and all the way out to the Tasman Sea. On rocks near the Tasman Sea, we saw a number of fur seals basking in the sun when it finally came out. It is not uncommon to have rain on a fiord tour.  Unfortunately, we did not see any of the 60-some bottlenose dolphins that live in Doubtful Sound and it is the wrong season for the Fiordland Crested Penguins.

Although a very long and rainy day, it was well worth the time. At one point the Captain turned off the engine and asked us to refrain from talking. The silence of the fiord was deafening. Other than a few birds and the falling water, it was silent. You could just take in nature with the sights, sounds, smells and the air on your face. It is not often that we are so still and just absorb what is around us!


By the way, these are not really Sounds! Technically, they are fiords - very large and imposing fiords. A Sound is often formed by the sea flooding a valley. Sometimes one is produced by a glacier carving out a valley on the coast and then receding. Such glaciers formed sounds have steep vertical walls that extend deep underwater. This means a boat can go up close to the wall without hitting bottom. The term "fjord" is used in most of the world, but in New Zealand, it is spelled "fiord." The Sounds in New Zealand are really fiords created by glaciers.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Queenstown: NZ’s Buzzing Adrenalin Capital

A nice ride along the rivers in the valleys.
You can kill or maim yourself in any number of ways here! In addition to being taken out on the roads, there are numerous opportunities to risk life and limb. And the Kiwis come here just for that reason! It makes Rotorua look like a place for sissies.

I had booked a beautiful two bedroom condominium without realizing what we were getting. I could have just moved in and stayed permanently! It was on the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakatipu, the lake on which the town sits. Our large balcony was right on the water’s edge. And we made good use of the bathtub to relieve sore muscles and the laundry facilities to clean up after our adventures – and the mouse!

The area is known as Queenstown and the Southern Lakes. Queenstown is small enough to cover on foot, but the Lake Wakatipu is huge. And it is very cold – only averaging 11 degrees Centigrade in the middle of summer. The view across the lakes offers a sight of The Remarkables, which is the snow skiing area.

There is Queenstown in the distance! It looked close,
but was nearly two hours of winding roads away!
Having driven by the area in summer on dry pavement, I can guarantee that it is not an easy weekend drive up for a day of skiing. I think you would want to stay a while since it takes half a day in good weather to get there on the switchbacks and skinny roads. I can’t imagine it covered with snow and the wind blowing!
Farmland near Queenstown.
Of course, Vicki was keen to find a particular jet boat ride: Shotover Jet Boats. This is an adrenalin-spiking ride on the Shotover River through the Shotover Canyon. She had heard about it from friends and Prince William and Duchess Kate had been here a couple of years ago. Naturally, the venue promoted their visit in their advertising and PR literature.

The view from our balcony - spectacular morning and night!
The Shotover River is an old gold mining area giving it a nickname of “The Richest River in the World.” The first miners were extracting over 10 kilograms of gold a day, which drew thousands from Australia and throughout New Zealand seeking their fortune. It only lasted from 1862 until 1864!

Sunset across the lake.
Actually, it turned out to be a thrilling ride through a very narrow canyon. I swear we were going to hit the rocks on every turn as it was so narrow and winding. Those drivers are very skilled in bringing you close enough to the rock walls to touch them, but not crash into them. I highly recommend this jet boat company in Queenstown.

We actually went under this bridge several
times and it felt like we were going to hit it!
There is every kind of adventure activity available in Queenstown: jet boats, mountain biking, kayaking, whitewater rafting, canoeing, packrafting, river surfing, whitewater sledging, paraflights, bungee (they spell it: bungy) jumping, canyon swings, ziptreks, skydiving, paragliding, hand gliding, helicopter treks, luge, go-karts, 4WD safaris, rock-climbing, horseback riding, and abseiling  - not to forget wildlife encounters, eco-tours, walks and treks, farm visits, scenic flights and aerobatics, hot air ballooning, scenic cruises, fishing or a stroll in a botanical garden or around the town! 


I guess we are going to get wet on this one!

We are waving goodbye to everyone. Hope we return!

That little strip of water is what we flew along in and out
of curves and rock walls while spinning around at times.
Are you exhausted just reading the list of activities? As I have said earlier, Kiwis are big on outdoor activities – the more thrilling, the better! One could spend several weeks here just trying a few of these. In fact, Queenstown in the favorite vacation spot of Kiwis because there is so much to do.

For us, it was a chance to slow down and rest after a fast tour down from Auckland. We covered a lot of kilometers and say most of the things one should see in NZ on the way. Queenstown is also the base from which we took our Doubtful Sound tour.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

No Stopping: Falling Rocks

The parking lot is somewhere way beyond that last bend!
We have seen those words on signs in many places. Along the winding hilly mountainous roads they are frequent reminders. You can see where they are attempting to hold back or catch the rocks before they make it to the highway. However, when the sign refers to a position on a tramping route, how does one protect the human body from falling rocks?

I love that the signage is in both English and Maori.
After celebrating our bounty from hunting and gathering in Hokitika at the jade stores, we were off to see the New Zealand Glaciers about 150 km south of Hokitika. These are the highlights of the West Coast of NZ. Both the Fox and the Franz Joseph Glaciers (Waiau) are unusual as this is the only place in the world where the glaciers descend this far down into the rainforest area. They have come down the Southern Alps to a mere 7.5 miles from the sea. These are the premier glaciers in the area, but there are sixty some in New Zealand.

At the face of the Fox Glacier.
The glaciers rest between two mountains so they taper down to two narrow valleys. Unfortunately, they are advancing at a rapid rate and huge chunks of ices are breaking off the terminal faces and floating downstream during floods. The Franz Joseph Glacier plunges 8,859 feet from the alpine peaks to just 984 feet above sea level at the terminal face.
Yea! Right! Not!
Of course, there is a legend about the glaciers. A beautiful young woman, Hinehukatere, loved the mountains so much that she encouraged her lover, Tawe, to climb alongside her. He fell to his death and Hinehukatere cried so copiously that her tears formed the glaciers, known to the Maori as Ka Riomata o Hinehukatere or “The Tears of the Avalanche Girl.”

There are several ways to view the terminal faces of the glaciers: helicopter or airplane (very expensive), guided tours (i.e., long hikes) or tramping on your own and kayaking. Some of the hikes are 3-4 miles and mostly uphill. This is where we saw the signs: No Stopping: Falling Rocks!

A view of the shoreline at the Blue Pools
Well, let me tell you I did not heed the signs! It was matter of possibly being killed by falling rocks or dying from lack of oxygen or a heart attack! Although it was a fairly steady and not too steep of an incline, the hike up to the face of the Fox Glacier was long and strenuous. The sign usually appeared just as I was approaching the steepest sections and needed a rest. Timing is everything. Or is it location, location, location? About that time I was wishing I had taken the heli-hike where you fly to the top of the glacier and get out on the top. I only needed to hike on glacier.

The water is so pristine and blue.
It was welcome relief to be back in the car heading to Haast. This is the last town before you head east crossing the 150 km long Haast Pass to Wanaka. This transalpine route from the west side of the Southern Alps to the east side is the only crossing in the area. It is lower than Arthur’s Pass and is the furthest south of the three transalpine routes. It is good to make this drive early in the day as it is somewhat slow and tiresome until the road straightens out.

Selfie: Our shadows from the bridge!
There is little of interest in between except for the Blue Pools at the mouth of the Haast River where the water is so pure and icy cold that it appears aquamarine in color and you can see all the way to the bottom. The reflection of the pristine water off the rocks on the bottom give it the name Blue Pools. To get to it, there are three swinging footbridges to cross and a couple of hikes through the rainforest. From here, once you cross the divide, the rainforest turns into parched, rolling grasslands of the central area.

And about the mouse: he is still with us! We have brushed away his turds - YUCK! I put an Oreo cookie in a baggie and placed it on the floor of the driver's side. When I checked it before leaving Haast, I noticed that the cookie was missing! Hummmmm!

Hiking through the forest to the swinging bridges.
I asked Larry to see if the baggie was under the seat (I sure was not about to stick my hand under there!) Well, he found the bag minus the cookie. our little "friend" is getting further and further from his home in Arthur's Pass. Vicki and I are not happy!!!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Death Comes from the Right and ...

The drive along the Tasman Sea was beautiful!
It was a beautiful drive across the top of the mountains and down through the valleys. Easy for me to say, as I am not behind the wheel. We arrived in Greymouth with the plan to go directly north for about 45 minutes to see the famous Pancake Rocks. Everyone said it is a MUST DO even though I had no idea what to expect. Once again, it was a hike from the road into the area near the Tasman Sea where the rock formations drew the crowd.

The scenery is breathtaking everywhere!

Very interesting natural formations.
The area is actually the Punakaiki & Paparoa National Park, lying midway between Greymouth and Westport on the upper west side of the South Island. Punakaiki is a small settlement next to the park and is most known as a stop for ice cream and a quick hike to Dolomite Point to see the Pancake Rocks and blowholes. The rock formations were caused by a layering-weathering process called stylobedding. This has caused the limestone to look like thick piles of pancakes. When the tide is high or the wind is strong, the sea surges in and sprays up through holes in the rocks. There is a nice 15-30 minute walk that loops from the highway out to the rocks and blowholes. It was worth the extra time and drive. 

The interesting layering accounts for the name Pancake Rocks.

One of the many blowholes where the waves come
crashing in and surge up through holes in the rocks!
Our overnight accommodations were in Hokitika, a town known for its New Zealand jade and the many artist who carve it. I had planned this stop so I would have time to shop. I don’t shop for souvenirs often, but I do like to pick up unique pieces of jewelry as I travel. Since this is the NZ jade center, it seemed like the best place to see that special piece – or two!

It is important to educate yourself about the jade before falling in love with a piece. And price signals many things: less known carver or jade that has actually been imported from British Columbia! I didn’t sail halfway around the world to buy something that came from North America! The price for items carved in the New Zealand Nephrite is priced much higher.

One of the jade artists at work.

Look at this settee and chair made of jade!

What is interesting is the pendant meanings. The carvers have a number of traditional shapes that they enhance with their own artistic approach. However, the basic meanings of the shape stay the same. For example:
- The fish hook (Hei Matau) is representative of prosperity and good health for the wearer. It also represents strength and determination, as well as promising safe passage over water. (Yes, I have a fish hook piece, but it is made of Paua or abalone shell, not jade.)
- Spiral (Koru) shapes are derived from the unfurling fern frond depicting new beginnings, growth and harmony. The spiral can also express the promise of a meaningful relationship.
- Twists or Crossover designs are a seamless design that can involve a single or several turns. It represents the bonding of a special friendship or relationship. 
- The Toki shape was originally used as a carving tool, developed as a ceremonial, inherited Taonga (treasure). It symbolizes strength and courage.

- The Manaia is a spiritual guardian and the carrier of supernatural powers. It is traditionally depicted with the head of a bird, the body of a man, and the tail of the fish. These represent sky, earth and sea and the balance between them.

There are others such as the whale tail and all have a specific meaning to the Maori people. The pendants are traditionally worn on a black braided cord. I asked if they put them on silver or gold chains and the response from the native was “this is our gold – the jade.” I guess I will leave mine on the cords.

After Vicki and I had inflicted some financial pain in the jewelry stores, we headed down to the beach after dinner to view the remains of an art competition. It was a sculpture competition with everything being made from drift wood and other found beach items. Some were amazingly large and interesting even though the wind had had its way with the sculptures for over a week.

This town is full of artists of all types and it would have been fun to spend another day snooping around. They are well known for their Wildfoods Festival held in early March. I am glad we were out of there! They attract over 20,000 people whom they refer to as “curious and brave gourmands” as they eat a “whole lot of things you would usually either run away from or flick out of your hair!” YUCK!

And so you are still wondering about death, huh? Well, the next morning when Vicki went to put her things in the van, there was a brown mouse staring at her.

You don’t know the trait my mother passed on to us: we freak at mice! As she did in the parking lot. Of course, the mouse dove somewhere to be safe. Somewhere in the car that is!!! We must have picked him up in the rural Arthur’s Pass area where we had left the cabin doors open for hours. He had been in everything in the car!
So you see, not only does death come from the right, but it comes from under the seat. If one of us were to see that little creature and scream while the guys were driving, for sure, we would have gone off a cliff!