New Zealand 2009

"If you want England, see Christchurch. If you want NZ see Westport."

So said the billboard on the way to the west coast; and so it is. Our arrival (omitting the flights and layovers at LAX and Auckland) was to Christchurch and the Rolleston House that is next to the Canterbury Museum and the Arts Centre (once the University of Canterbury). There is also a very large and beautiful green/gardens complete with Victorian fountain and the Avon River running through it; nearly all the trees and flowers are exotics, however, brought over during the period when New Zealand thought it was UK down under. When I asked the hostel concierge for a restaurant that served "typical New Zealand food" the best I could get after a considerable pause was "fish and chips." That said, there are certainly Kiwi variations on foods, including Maori names. The Christchurch city centre has free shuttle buses and we made several trips; walking is remarkably free of hassles, also. The inexpensive source for groceries is the Pak-and-Save chain in larger towns; bags are 5 cents and most people have "eco-bags" some of which were available for free at the hostel. The other good choice is the New World supermarkets which have an environmentally conscious approach, and not much difference in price. The ubiquitous Four Square convenience stores are a bit more expensive.

Rolleston YHA was as nice as last time I was there: clean rooms, large kitchen, hot showers...very nice. We got a "double" throughout this trip; a little more money, but greater privacy. Omega car rental is walking distance, reasonably priced, and has a responsive yet “no worries” attitude. Our little white Corolla did very well throughout the trip. Driving out of town the next morning was fairly easy, following the “one way system” through town and north. Learning to drive on the left flows well except for turning into the proper lane. Since my last trip, large forward arrows are on the correct (left) side of the road leaving many intersections and roadsides in response to head on collisions caused by tourists in the wrong lane. I had an interesting conversation with a “local” who felt “If they can’t do it, they shouldn’t drive!” Kiwis are generally polite drivers, and the rules of the road incorporate taking turns, although this is relatively opaque to the neophyte. Kiwis are not as willing to sacrifice land for huge shoulders and medians to roads as much as Yanks, and the roads are adequate, well maintained, and require good driving and attention; cell phones are not a good idea here. Because much of NZ is hilly to mountainous, frequent turns with some of the hairpin variety are necessary. Speed limits are 100 kph on the road, 50 or lower through towns and elsewhere well marked; there are electronic speed monitors and photo tickets are issued. Petrol was NZ$ 1.65 per liter with pumps that allow you to punch in an exact dollar amount or fill. Clean public toilets (not rest rooms) are widely available, but not frequently in retail stores.

The smooth, green hills give evidence to the millions of sheep in NZ. Not as many as before polyester caused the price of wool to plummet, but lamb is a major export, hence I am told relatively expensive in NZ. September (Spring here) is lambing and shearing season and the numerous lambs cavorting in the fields often brought smiles to our faces. Snow capped mountains are often beyond the hills.

Our destination today was Kaikoura on the northeast coast of South Island. We took a scenic side trip to Gore Bay, a nice drive to a very small settlement on a beautiful bay. On the way, we met a couple from Melbourne whom we later met at a café and had a good lunch and a good talk. Salads are available, but meat pies or toasted sandwiches are standard fare for many Kiwis. Kaikoura is on a peninsula, a former volcano on a shear fault that left a deep trench offshore, hence the frequent whales, seals and marine birds who eat the abundant fish. The Kaikoura YHA is wonderfully situated with a view of the bay and mountain range inland with kitchen/dining room windows looking out on it. A short drive took us to the point with seals sleeping on the rocks; this is not breeding season, so the large males are not as territorial, and we saw mostly females and juveniles. Karen saw a Guinness on tap sign so we stopped in a small timbered pub with Irish memorabilia on the walls. The beer was good and we struck up a conversation with the bartender, being the only ones in the place in the afternoon. The owner is a Brit who spent time in Ireland and is appealing to the reported frequency of Irish tourists. The bartender was chagrined that the Guinness distributor was stopping by to test the quality of their product (seriously!) and he would have to try the beer when it was installed…. He doesn’t drink. Crayfish (rock lobster) is trapped locally and expensive; he couldn’t see why because it is not that hard to get. We saw small boats checking their pots off the point. Paella was also on the menu but “even more dear.” We bought a bit of fresh monk fish that was as good as the Hoki the night before. We ate much better and cheaper in the hostels, cooking our dinners and enjoying a cheap bottle of great New Zealand white wine!

In the morning, we went kayaking among the seals and through a flock of shearwaters with Matt, the owner of Kaikoura Kayaks, his only tour guests that day. It was still early in the season. He did an excellent job of guiding us among the rocks, although it was a relatively calm day and we were on the south bay, leeward of the winds. Karen and I were able to paddle the double well together. A great experience and one we will repeat now that we know we paddle well together!

Heading north out of town, we saw a Subway sandwich shop, which we frequent in the States for their good, healthy choices; one difference is that they didn’t know what spinach or banana peppers were, evidently not common there. Also walked next door to a coffee stand run by young Irish brothers only a few months in the country. As in Australia, a long black (espresso with hot water) or flat white is the common coffee, whereas filtered coffee is rare but more available than my last trip when it was only at McDonalds.

Traveling north, we went through mountains and vineyards to the Marlborough area. The city is Blenheim which is metropolitan and seems like suburbs. Instead of going north to Picton (catch the ferry to north island there), we turned east and went through a farmland valley up to Haveford on the sounds. The Queen Charlotte Drive, a narrow and twisty but beautiful drive goes east to Anakiwa and our next stay. Anakiwa Lodge is an affiliate hostel at the start of the Queen Charlotte Track, birthplace of Outward Bound. Nice facilities and we hiked a few kilometers out. We hope to do more hiking on our next visit, and to stay longer in this beautiful, well-appointed hostel on the sounds.

We skipped the Nelson / Abel Tasman area this time and headed across the island to Punakaiki on the west coast. On the way, we crossed several passes and valleys, the Buller Gorge and river being one. Lots of space. Out in the country for sure.

Closer to the coast, things are closer together. We didn't make it to Westport, but I know what they meant. The Punakaiki YHA affiliate is in the bush a short walk from the Truman Track and the beach. The lodge has many small cabins that would be nice, but a bit more expensive; being in the lodge is nice. The Track has some interpretive signs and a good low tide! Although the cooking facilities were nice, and they had a "tiny store," we about here developed our two measures of hostel adequacy: did they have a vegetable peeler and a french press for coffee. Many drink tea here. This place had neither. Anakiwa both. Kaiakoura neither, but a view that made up for it. While enjoying the veranda, a "local" drove up to talk (hit on) the female manager, and I was able to join the conversation while he thought I was a "woofer," a worker at the hostel for room and board. Hence I was able to hear the mixed feelings of people in a tourist economy (love 'em, hate 'em, they're so stupid). Also found out that the rest of the island is getting a faster internet backbone, but the small population of the west coast didn't warrant it yet; not good for them.

The original plan had us staying two nights at Punakaiki, then a looong day to Wanaka. We rethought that, and reserved at Franz Josef and Queenstown instead, making two comfortable travel days. It turned out well. We realize that we should have taken several more weeks to cover where we went; maybe next lifetime.

We toured the pancake rocks in the morning...a nicely done place...but the tide was down and the surges were low. The west coast has the most jade for sale; lovely stuff, but out of our budget, generally. Found a nice piece in Picton for Karen on the last trip. Lots of scenery, mountains, beaches on the way down to Franz Josef where we stayed at the large YHA (vege peeler, no french press) and hiked up to the glaciers.

The road south to Haast requires attention for the turns and speed changes required, but a beautiful drive. Our goal was Queenstown that night, but we stopped as often as we liked. Several times stopped at the same place as an Indian couple intent on talking to us, the first time while we were having a "discussion" so we begged off. Later found out they were on their honeymoon. Nice folks; intense. We missed part of the normal interactions at hostels on this trip because it was so early in their season. We had several place to ourselves.

Over or rather in the mountains are many resevoirs responsible for the huge hydroelectric production of South Island. Otherwise dry and high land. We found a short cut from Wanaka to Queenstown that was good and scenic. The descent into Queenstown--adventure capitol--was complete with hang gliders soaring off a hill. Our YHA hostel (peeler and press) was on the lake and nice, but on the larger side. We walked the gardens and enjoyed the lake and mountains in this very scenic town. Took a pass on the gondola, a restaurant on top of a hill overlooking Queenstown. Lots of shops.

Early the next morning found us on the road that looked like Montana. Still lots of snow in the mountains. We spent some time in Te Anau and headed toward Milford, a very interesting road with 15k avalanch prone (no stopping) and a 1.2 k tunnel. There is a run on April 1st (winter there) through the tunnel....nude. It is getting to be a popular fund raiser for the town of Milford. We had a wait for our tour boat and it was raining (frequently is), but the cafe by the parking lot has good, inexpensive food and a bar. I was worried about the accomodations, but they turned out to be excellent for comfort, guiding, and food. We saw Fiordland Crested Penguins which are rare, seals and much other wildlife on the sound. The rain the first day meant lots of waterfalls.

The morning was shiny and Mitre Peak was beautiful, as was the rest of the sound. In the car, we backtracked out and across the island again; sheep country, lots of it. Sadly had to pass up Invercargil and the Catlins area to make Kaka Point in time to see the yellow eyed penquins at dusk; actually this time of year, they come in earlier, but we say several, anyway, with many more later in the trip. The Fernlea is backpackers in an older house on the cliff overlooking the ocean in Kaka Point (peeler, no press). Fernlea is a traditional backpackers hostel: a house converted to lodging with communal cooking and bath, often with the ownere living next door. Kaka Point is far south, with a climate in the roaring 40's, so March (early Spring) had cold winds at the Nugget Point lighthouse; still a great hike and view. There is a good viewing hut on the beach so as not to spook the penguins. Gene has been there in Spring and Fall now; the best viewing is Summer, but then there are all those people to deal with....

On to Dunedin (large shipping, manufacturing and university town) and out on the Otago Peninsula (quite another story...sylvan and scenic). Besides the scenery, the wildlife abounds on and just off the peninsula. We took a very good tour boat out past the Albatross Center (good, pricey) on the point, say many, many shags, seals, gulls, and out in the ocean, several types of albatross. We then weakened and sped off to do the last tour of the day at the Penguin Place (cheaper and better than the competitor, IMHO). They have done a substantial replanting of native species of vegetation which, at the bequest of the farmer who noticed penguin numbers dropping and donated the beach, leaves space for them and a great viewing opportunity for us. And the penguins are incredible. Gives birdwatching a new meaning. We saw mostly yellow-eyed penguins, but some blue penguins, both going to and in their shelters.

We stayed at the Bus Stop Backpackers, another BBH backpackers and nice in a great location. Again, we were the only habitants, and had a great, fresh caught cod dinner.

Morning was an easy drive through Dunedin, with a stop in the University area. The post offices here are often also a branch of the NZ bank...what an idea to jump start US Postal offices, althoug I doubt we have the service orientation any more. Our destination was Oamaru, up the east coast a couple of hours, and a nice drive with beach views occasionally. Stopped in a small town library for internet access and learned this was one of the first European settlement areas. So much to learn, if only one looks.

More to come.....