Saturday, April 13, 2013

Discovering a New World in New Zealand (Part 2)

River water rushes over bone white rocks, so clear the bottom is completely visible, so clean you can drink straight from the rapids. The mountains rise up from the water below, emerging as if from no where, creating a scene that cannot be real, but is one of the most natural landscapes in the world. The beech trees cling to the rock faces, creating lush, green hanging forests that are home to an array of flora and fauna. This is Te Anau, New Zealand, nestled among the Murchison Mountains and next to Lake Te Anau. This is where I spent the most time on my recent trip to Australia and New Zealand, and where there is an endless array of sights and activities that could have kept me there even longer.

Te Anau and adjacent Milford Sound are spectacular...and one of my favorite places that we visited while in New Zealand.

After our night in Mount Cook, we grabbed a quick breakfast before hitting the road again. Today was a long day of driving down to Te Anau. We made our way out of the Mackenzie region, and into the Otago area. Along the way, we took a detour over to Arrowtown, a small gold mining town known for its rich history, gorgeous scenery and relaxing atmosphere. Since we did not have a lot of time, we stuck to main street, which boasted most of the town's stores and restaurants. It definitely reminded me of the small mountain towns of Colorado, and it made me miss home just a little. We shopped around for a little bit, picked up a couple souvenirs, and then grabbed some sandwiches for the road.

Within the next couple hours, we arrived in Te Anau, a township located on the banks of Lake Te Anau, the largest fresh water lake in the South Island. We checked into our motel, a quaint, clean facility, with kitchenettes and sitting areas in each room. Since we were staying here for three nights, it was nice to have a little bit more space. We decided to head over to the grocery store to buy some sandwich-making supplies, as well as some snacks to keep in the fridge, just to keep some of our eating-out bills down (a tactic I highly recommend, especially if your hotel room has a small kitchen and you're on a budget).

Later, my parents and I ventured over to the Real Journeys office, where we hopped a ship over to the famous glowworm caves. The boat took us over to the western shores of the lake, while the driver gave us some background information on the area and the caves. By geological standards, the vaces are 12,000 years old--pretty young, actually--and were carved out by the river flowing through them. We were divided into smaller groups of 12, as the caves are very narrow and difficult to navigate if too many people are in there at one time. We had to crouch down very low to get through the entrance, but once inside, the limestone passages were high enough that we could stand. The roaring water echoed off the rock, making it pretty loud, so the guide had to yell when pointing out certain highlights of the cave. My dad took a drink directly from a streaming of dripping water from the roof of the cave. Yes, the water is clean enough that you can do that. A rarity in this world.

We could see little specks of light around the caves, indicating the presence of the glowworms. At one point, we actually got a glimpse of one of them creating a stream of mucus that hangs down to capture prey. Kind of gross and cool at the same time. We walked passed a raging underground waterfall, through tight corridors, until we reached a pair of small boats. Once on board, the lights were shut off, casting us into pitch blackness. But up above, the glimmer of the glowworms became clearly visible, creating a mini universe. We floated aimlessly--or at least it felt that way--gazing at the lights, until we made a full circle back to the makeshift port. We made our way back out of the cave and over to the cabin for some complimentary coffee and tea before reboarding the ship to take us back to the city. We spent the evening relaxing, since we had to get up early in the morning for our next activity.

Bright and early the next day, we headed out to Milford Sound, a two hour drive from Te Anau. The clouds thickened in the sky, and I could not help but worry that rain was inevitable. Along our drive, we stopped at the Mirror Lakes. As the name suggests, the lakes are so still and clear that everything is reflected back, making it look like there are doubles of everything.

Just as we were preparing to go through the tunnel to enter Milford Sound, the rain really started to come down. After verifying our reservation for the 2.5-hour cruise of the sound, we waited on the soaking dock for our ship to open so we could grab the best viewing spot. The ship had ample seating, but we wanted to be right up front, and close to the door to make quick dashes out on the deck. Thick fog welcomed us as the boat pulled away, hiding those famous views we had been so eager to see. Needless to say, we were bummed. But all the locals will tell you that the rain was a good thing, as the area was going though a major drought. Still, I was struggling to find the silver lining...and then it appeared...out of the mist like some magical omen. A magnificent waterfall.

The water rushed down the rocks, through the thick forests of beech trees, their shallow roots holding on for dear life, because at any moment, a whole line of them could detach and slide right into the water, creating what one of our guides referred to as a "travalanche." Despite the cold and rain, I ran out onto the deck to get a better look--and snap a much-needed picture. Captivated by the cascading current, all of us gazed in wonder, disregarding that fact that we were getting drenched. That was what I needed, that was my silver lining.

At least 10 more waterfalls appeared during the cruise, a true gift considering most of the falls had not been seen for months due to the dryness. We even got to steal a look at some sea lions competing over who would be king of the rock, which I was thoroughly entertained by.

After the cruise, we headed back to Te Anau and spent the rest of the afternoon shopping and relaxing. We had a nice pizza dinner on the main shopping strip, and then crashed.

Our last full day in Te Anau, we took a one-day hike along the first portion of the Milford Track. It is a well known tramping route between Glade Wharf at the tip of Lake Te Anau and Sandfly Point next to Milford Sound, and runs 53.5 km. During summer peak season between late October and late April, access to the track is in high demand, and, as a result is highly regulated. It must be completed in four days, and walkers must keep going because of limited capacities at huts along the route.

Four days was not available to us, so we had to settle for a one-day nature walk. After a quick coach trip to Te Anau Downs, and a relaxing cruise across the lake, we began our walk along the Glade Burn toward Glade House. But first, we took a slight detour and climbed up a steep path to get a better view of the lake, and take a drink from the pristine river water.

We had a delicious lunch back down at Glade House, and then crossed the Clinton River along a swing bridge. Part of me wanted to sway the bridge back and forth, but there were some older folks on our walk, so I thought better of it. Our guide pointed out different plants along the way, and provided information on the native birds, if we happened to see any. You see, New Zealand used to be known as a land of birds, with so many different species the forests used to be deafeningly loud. There were no native mammals on the islands, so birds could florish without worrying about predators. Then humans arrived and brought with them rats, weasels and other such animals that began hunting birds or eating their eggs. Before long, many species became extinct, and New Zealand's forests are now called the silent forests. The area is working very hard to revitalize the bird population, and the efforts seem to be working, as we heard a decent amount of noise from the trees.

We learned about a wide variety of fauna on our walk, including a tree that produces berries so poisonous, that consuming them results in death almost instantly. We were also introduced to the Horopito, or the pepper tree, which features spicy leaves that are commonly being used in sauces and dressings for cooking in New Zealand. Our guide told us it was safe to eat right from the branch, and, since my mom and I love spicey food, we went for it. And it definitely had a bite to it. I think it even burned my tongue a little.

The rest of the walk went by quickly, and before I knew it, we were turning back. Even though it wasn't the most strenuous walk I've ever done, I still felt tired when we got on the boat. It was nice to sit in the back, watching the engine create a ripple of waves, gazing at the mountain ranges fade in the distance. I glanced at my parents next to me, clasping hands, subtly displaying their love and commitment after all these years with a simple gesture. Soon, we would be docking, heading back to the hotel to pack, and enjoying our last dinner out in Te Anau. The next morning, we would be loading up the car to drive to Queenstown for the last portion of our trip. But for that moment, all that was around us was the peacefulness of the mountains.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Discovering a New World in New Zealand (Part 1)

The streets were deserted, except for the scraps of paper that blew across the cracked cement sidewalks. Trash piled up next to vacant, vandalized buildings, and battered fences hinged down close to the ground, failing to keep out the trespassers they were designed to keep from entering. Structures were crumbling along every road, creating a dismal environment. Then, out of the dusty, grey haze, there appeared a patch of green next to a shimmering rush of water. An old, historic stone bridge transcended the river, reminding visitors of the glory that once was Christchurch, a wonderous city that is just starting to get its spirit back.

My parents and I arrived in Christchurch on a chilly, cloudy Tuesday afternoon. After picking up our rental car, we drove the short distance into the city center to a quaint bed and breakfast. Once checked in, we ventured out to explore the area. For those of you who do not know or may have forgotten, Christchurch was hit by a massive earthquake in February 2011, severely damaging the city and killing 185 people. Two years later, Christchurch is still recovering from the devastation, and the severity of the disaster can be seen throughout the streets. The cathedral sits in shambles, awaiting necessary funds to rebuild and restore it to its previous glory; while many of the buildings are crumbled and abandoned, creating an ethereal atmosphere that is truly saddening. It made me wonder what Christchurch used to be like; a once vibrant and lively city left in ruin.

Even though the city has a long way to go, there are definitely signs of improvement; even innovation and growth. Just a couple blocks away from the cathedral is what residents call the container mall. It is an outdoor shopping area made completely out of storage containers. Each shop is a separate container, and some are even stacked on top of one another to create rooftop patios outside coffee shops and cafes. There are a number of local artists and business owners with stores there, and locals and tourists alike flock to the modern strip, giving it an energy unseen in the rest of the city. And it is impeccably clean, a starck contrast to other areas of downtown. Just across the river from the container mall is another area that appears to have recently been remodeled, and includes museums and restaurants. Since it was nearing dinner time, we settled ourselves into one of these establishments, a nice little restaurant called Fiddlesticks. We enjoyed a nice dinner and then walked back to the hotel.

As we were packing up to leave in the morning, my dad realized he had left his iPad on the plane over from Sydney, sitting discreetly in the front pocket of his seat. So began a long night of calls to customer service offices, baggage claim desks, and airport and airline personel. Some people tried their best to help, while others shrugged it off, and some places were unreachable. It was certainly aggravating not having decent customer service, especially with a situation like this when a valuable, personal item is lost. Airline websites should have information about who to contact in these situations, and employees should know exactly what to tell passengers instead of redirecting them to ten different phone numbers--some that are not even active. (Rather than continue this rant, I will just tell you the good news: The next morning, someone from the airline did contact my dad to let him know his iPad was at the Christchurch airport--what a relief.)

We had a nice breakfast at the hotel, and I am officially obsessed with the coffee in New Zealand--so good. While my dad ran to the airport, my mom and I explored the botanic gardens, as Christchurch is known as the garden city. The flowers were a little out of season, but still gorgeous. I never knew there were so many species of dahlias. My dad joined us on our walk through the gardens, and then we decided to hit the road, since we had a long drive ahead of us to get to Mount Cook, the next stop on our adventure through New Zealand.

Driving is one of the best ways to see the incredible scenery of the country, although, I will admit, the first hour or so was relatively boring. Lots of flat, farmland and dull attractions, nothing worth taking a picture of, surprisingly. It was not until we turned off the main highway that the landscape began to transform, with rolling hills, green pastures and sweeping valleys. The road curved and dipped, making for some much more entertaining driving for my dad--if only he had a manual transmission.

About mid-day, we stopped for a bite to eat on the banks of Lake Tekapo, a pristine, bright blue lake situated in the Mackenzie Basin. We enjoyed a nice meal on a patio overlooking the water, as well as the Church of the Good Shepherd. We got back on the road and continued south without stopping until we reached Mount Cook. Also called Aoraki, Mount Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand, and is located in the Southern Alps. Driving through the valley, I looked on in amazement at the sheer size and beauty of the mountains, while my parents displayed their geological expertise, pointing out unique features in the rocks, hills and glaciers. (Don't ask me to repeat the terms or explanations, please.)

We quickly checked into our room at The Hermitage Hotel, changed our clothes, and went for a speedy hike along one of the walking trails up to the nearest glacier. It was actually warm enough to wear shorts and a t-shirt, and I certainly welcomed the sun beating down on my pale skin as we trekked up to our destination. Once there, we took a few essential photos, and then headed back to the hotel, as we had dinner reservations to make.

We went down to the dining room, where we enjoyed a nice cocktail in front of floor to ceiling windows that gave us a wonderful view of the sun setting over the mountain range. There were a number of tour groups in the restuarant--most of them from Asia--so the buffet was extremely crowded. We had to wait it out for a little while before finally grabbing some food.  Fair warning though, this is the only restaurant at the hotel, and all they have is a buffet, and it is pretty pricey--way too much considering the amount of food we each had. So unless it is included in your room cost, I recommend walking down the road to the village and finding something a little cheaper.

After dinner, we took part in a star gazing excursion, one of the many activities the hotel offers guests. Our guide led us into the planetarium to give us a (not quite) brief overview of the formation of the universe, our galaxy and the solar system. He also gave us an idea of the constellations we would see outside. While this should have been a 20-minute talk, it turned into close to an hour, and I was struggling to keep my eyes open. I appreciated our guide's knowledge, but he certainly liked hearing himself talk. Once outside, though, my attitude changed somewhat. Even though it was chilly, and I was ready to pass out, the immense sky laid out before me made it difficult to focus on the negative. Living in the city, I see very few stars, if any. But out in the valley of Mount Cook, there were literally billions dotting the sky, it didn't look real. We looked through two different telescopes that gave us a closer look at the clusters of stars, with Saturn being the grand finale of the night. I could actually see the rings through the telescope!

I went to bed that night content with my first few days in New Zealand and my lovely night spent among the stars.