Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Touring the South Island

Sunrise in Kaikorua
They pronounce Kaikorua as Calcutta. We are on a whale watching trip, they talk about the region and quite often they say Calcutta. And I wonder what are the whales doing in India. Eventually I get it and start enjoying our experience. It was a complete success, it almost seemed scripted, like the whales would know where to wait, the dolphins would play when it was their turn, the albatrosses would fly when there wasn't much else going on. And in the intermission we approached the shore to see some other birds and some New Zealand sea lions. We saw four whales, pretty close, and they all did their perfect move with the tail, the iconic image that is so hard to catch on camera. We only have a hundred pictures now.

Albatross in Kaikorua

This was the first day on the road. We left Christchurch as planned, we rented a campervan nicknamed the Big Bear, the lady joked about not having a chance to go over the speed limit. The truck is huge, slow and very noisy, but in the back it has all the comforts, six beds, 8-10 seats, three tables, two heaters, plenty of plugs, airconditioning (we would never need that here), a full kitchen, a full micro sized bathroom. It is 11 years old and has 422,000 km! At the beginning it just didn't seem to work, I was trying to get it in the fourth gear but it was making too much noise, like I put it in the second; the fifth even worse. I realized that I would never have a chance to reach the speed limit of 100 km/h (about 60 mph). The long line of cars behind me was getting impatient. Long story short, after about an hour I realized that I was in the fifth gear all along, the first only goes to 5 km/h, the second to ten, the third up to 15-20. After that is the fourth gear up to 40 and then the fifth all the way. At 90 the car makes a huge noise, and at 97 it gets to about 3000 rpm. It will take another day to see the sign plastered on the windshield, in front of my eyes, "the maximum legal speed for this vehicle is 90 km/h".

Maximum speed posted on the windshield

After the first 100 km, we come to a construction area and a car passes us at full speed, throws a rock behind and cracks my windshield!
Anyhow, especially in a group of five, this is the way to go around New Zealand, we are completely independent, we could stop wherever, we don't have to reserve rooms in motels. We have the van for 14 days, 13 nights. We would choose to stay in official camper grounds, use their kitchens, bathrooms and power supplies. It is about $70 per night (they charge per person) but worth the money. After the first night in Kaikorua we turn inside to cross the mountains toward the west coast. Amazing landscapes even in the rain. It would be the main enchantment throughout our trip. Never boring, always changing, always surprising and at least beautiful. Sometimes much more than beautiful, superlatives, pictures or movies cannot capture. The vegetation changes as we keep going. The trees, the forests, the hills, the mountains, the creeks, the rivers, the lakes, the oceans and especially the clouds and the sun rays going through them combine in an infinity of variations. The road is always in perfect condition, hardly any people or any cars. After a while I get used to the noisy truck and start feeling comfortable.
New Zealand landscape
Deer, just deer

New Zealand. Again

The second day to Hanmer Springs was short because of rain. The third day was long, crossing the mountains through Lewis pass, getting to Punakaiki, Greymouth and in the end to Hokitika. We loved the pancake rocks, the ocean coast and the perfect weather. It was so clear that we could see Mountain Cook and Tasman in the background. By my calculation it would be another 200 km on the road until we get there, maybe 100 km as the crow flies, still we could see them. Incredible.

Detail of the above picture, the mountains are in the middle background

In Hokitika we caught the sunset over the ocean and next day we visited the little village. We had a surprisingly good experience at the National Kiwi Center, we learned about the kiwi, the tuatara and the eels, the children helped to feed them. As we left, we took a couple of hitchhikers, Ben (19) and Lesley (18), Canadians, who were on a six month tour of New Zealand. Independently. They were traveling this section together. They were lost in the back of the caravan, talking with our children. After two hours we arrived at our next destination and said good bye to them.

Sunset in Hokitika

Turning 180 from the picture above, moonrise in Hokitika

Next morning, sunrise again

Feeding eels. Yes, feeding eels.

No comment

The west coast of the Southern island of New Zealand has six huge National parks. Together they were declared a World Heritage site mostly because of their natural wonders. There is a little cultural component, these being also traditional areas for the maori, honestly I think that part is just politics. But the nature is great and special. There are several glaciers that are unique, the main ones being the Franz Josef and the Fox glaciers. They are at the lowest altitudes and latitudes, they are easily accessible and commercialized. They have been an attraction for the tourists even from the 19th century. We visited Franz Joseph on the afternoon of that fourth day, with the schedule open for the following days. There was a chance that we would want to spend more time, do some organized trips or other experiences, like skydiving, parasailing, helicopter rides, etc. The regular trip, 90 minutes walk, was a bit disappointing, we couldn't really get a good view. I pushed to cross the barrier and go further. It was strongly discouraged but not forbidden. It paid off and it was enough, we were ready for the next one.

Franz Joseph

We left late the next morning, only 29 km to the Fox Glacier. Soon we saw a couple of hitchhikers, I stopped to pick them, they were the same. Lesley and Ben would spend the next 10 hours with us, great companions, at some point when I interrupted her talk with Leslie, Maria said that "they have the time of their lives." We toured together the Lake Matheson, went together to the Fox Glacier and rode the next 300 km south on the West coast toward Haast and back East through the mountains to Wanaka. We left them in the center of the village, they had friends there and they planned to stay longer.
Fox Glacier

Mount Cook

Lake Wanaka

The sixth day, Sunday, we rested. It was raining all the time, I would have wanted a short, 1-2 hours trek up the mountains, but it was impossible. The rest and the peace and quietness of an empty campground helped us recharge our batteries.
Monday we were back on the road. It was a little over an hour to Queenstown, but it was a beautiful and challenging road. After a few hours in the city we took off to Te Anau, the gateway to the Milford Sound.
If I would have to name one reason for coming to New Zealand, this would be the one. There are a number of great fiords in this area, many of them improperly called sounds. Milford is the most famous one, it is much more accessible then the others, it is large enough for cruise ships to enter, and it is the end of the Milford track, a four-day, 53 km walk, that is generally considered the most beautiful trek in the world. That would not have been an option for us, we are not quite that enthusiastic about physical activity and it requires reservations months in advance. But the road to Milford is also considered one of the most beautiful in the world. It was recommended to us to just take a bus, it is dangerous to drive on that road, it is so beautiful that drivers lose control of the car and jump in the gorges while looking at the scenery. The bus drivers get special training and have a special permit to be allowed to drive this road. Yes, but the cost for the us would have been more than NZ$400 (compared to the $65 for gas that we put in our truck). We drove, on the eighth day, leaving Te Anau in the late morning. We had a cruise at 3 pm and we did the 122 km in almost five hours. We stopped numerous times along the way, taking pictures or just admiring the surroundings. It was a gorgeous day, really a little too perfect. In the sound the weather can change dramatically, it rains here every day, up to 7 meters of water per year, and the rain enhances the landscape with numerous waterfalls. As usual, the shadows and the clouds add to the beauty of the land. But on our trip to Milford Sound there wasn't even one little cloud. It was probably the best day they had in ages and unfortunately our pictures are not that great. The waterfalls were almost dry, the sun was reflected in the water and blocked the view. Still, it was a good 90 minutes cruise, and a quick two hour ride back to the village of Te Anau.
On the way to Milford Sound

Milford Sound, ground level

I had this picture on my desktop for two years. Now it's mine, I got to take it myself.

On our boat we met again with a family of Indians from Delhi, we first saw them at the Franz Josef Glacier. Ioan had a long discussion with them about school and our trip. The mother is an immunologist in New Delhi. The son, a young adult, graciously helped us take some family pictures.

Actually there are two sounds. Besides Milford, they allow tourists on the Doubtful Sound, much bigger, much less accessible, much further away. People would like one more than another, we got contradicting advice from fellow travelers and we decided that the only right way to go about it is to see with our own eyes. The trip to Doubtful can be made only in organized groups, it involves a boat trip of 40 minutes, a bus trip of 40 minutes, over the Wilmot pass, then the cruise itself and then the return. As a free addition there is another hour spent visiting the Manapouri power station. The story is pretty good, they figured out even in 1904 that they can use the natural drop of 174 meters between the Lake Manapouri and the Doubtful Sound and produce electricity. It was built in the 70s. The construction was influenced by the first public movement to protect the environment in the history of New Zealand, and probably one of the first in the world. Eventually, the politicians gave in and the station was built underground and it has to maintain the level of the lake within it's natural limits. It rains here between 5 and 6 meters per year, there is plenty of water, but obviously there are variations and they have to adjust to that. It is a very remote corner of the country, there are hardly any people here, the electricity produced represents 14% of the whole New Zealand output, it would easily cover the needs of the South Island. It all goes to an aluminum swelter in Bluff, some 200 km away.
Manapouri power station

Wilmot pass, the lowest in the Southern Alps

Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound meets Tasman Sea. Captain Cook spent one month in this spot.

Yes, this is in New Zealand.

It was a long and beautiful day and in the end our vote for the best goes to Doubtful Sound, even if the cost of the trip is three times more. We learned during our trip that, behind a certain mountain, there is a beautiful lake, gorgeous scenery. You can only see it with a private helicopter. Somehow Steven Spielberg heard about it and he decided to film the Jurassic Park there. They came with a lot of equipment and set everything up. Then it started to rain. The crew and the actors waited patiently for the filming to start. After a month of continuous downpour, Spielberg lost his patience and decided to move everybody to Hawaii!

History in New Zealand, once there was a train in Lumsden, now they have a hotel. On our way to Dunedin

Next day we turned East, toward Dunedin, the second biggest city of the South Island. It has a special meaning for me, I heard a lot about it during my psychiatric training, studies on mental illness were done here in the 70s and the results represent a big part of what we know about psychiatric epidemiology. It is a town of a little over 100000 people, it is said to be more Scottish than Scotland itself. We didn't see much of that, there were some preparations for St. Patrick's day in the center, otherwise, not much. The train station is advertised as the most photographed building in New Zealand, built at the end of the 19th century - it's nice. I couldn't stop thinking that my native little town has probably a couple hundred buildings much more impressive than that but nobody seems to notice. Another draw to Dunedin is the official "steepest street in the world." We got to its base and I was the only one interested in climbing all the way, it was good exercise. The store that sold certificates for the successful climbers was open, but there wasn't any attendant.
Train station in Dunedin

Yes, St. Patrick's Day in Dunedin. Quite a bargain.

Dunedin, the steepest street in the world

The visit to Otago peninsula, was a good half day trip from Dunedin. It was a tough but beautiful road along the coast. We felt many times that we and our van would end up in the ocean, I think it was tougher than the Milford road. We saw some great landscapes and we learned about the albatross. To top it all, the Big Bear got to show what it can do on one of the steep streets of Dunedin. A normal street, that seemed to be the shortest way back to our holiday park, suddenly became quite abrupt. The truck just couldn't go anymore, we were slipping backwards, the engine would stop in the the second gear. Eventually we got through in the first (!) with 3-5 miles per hour. We were sweating in the front seats and only later I would learn from Maria how frightening it was all in the back.
Albatross over Otago
Windy but beautiful

Sunset, tree, ocean, Ileana.

We were all pretty tired by then, short nights, long drives and an overload of beautiful images have got to us. We decided to return to Christchurch earlier. It was good to spend a few more hours in the city, we were able to visit the Canterbury Museum, learn about the Maori heritage, about the Moriori abuses and about the first English settlers. Again, like with many history lessons, I wonder, what if? The Maori arrived on these lands about 800 years ago and had everything handed to them. It took them 300 years to kill and eat all the moa birds on the islands, and after that they started to get into agriculture, fishing and wars between their tribes. They might have killed each other by now if the europeans wouldn't have arrived to beat them all. The Moriori have an interesting story, apparently they derive from a Maori tribe that emigrated on the Chatham Islands, a place where nobody in the right mind would want to live. About 870 km east of New Zealand, the climate is described as "incessant winds, constant cloud cover, little sunshine, wet winters and humid summers." Living in isolation for several hundred years they developed a peaceful and equalitarian society based on hunting, fishing and gathering economy. Discovered in 1791 by the boat Chatham, they were affected by the loss of their sealing source, the lack of immunity to the european illnesses, the fall into slavery to some Maori settlers (in the 19th century), and the public perception promoted by some European scientists and the Maori mythology that the Moriori are an inferior race (in the 20th century). Apparently they were effectively "eradicated" by 1930. Recently some anthropologists were able to identify a handful of remaining Moriori who mostly have no idea about their inheritance and are well mixed in the New Zealand society. Great museum! We also learned some more about Antarctica, about the birds of New Zealand, about the three major earthquakes that shook the South Island last year and saw a house decorated in thousands of shells!
Up the coast after Dunedin
Somebody didn't plan things right. It wasn't flood or rainy season.

Botanical Garden in Christchurch

Finally, we get to go to a museum!
The famous house of shells

We retrieved Ioan's replacement iTouch and donated our winter clothes to the Salvation Army, in just the same bag as we got them. We never had a chance to wear them, but I still think it was a good $40 expense. We spent the last night in a hotel next to the airport and at 6 a.m. we said good bye to New Zealand.

1 comment:

  1. The mountains speak to me. The images are beautiful. Thank you for taking me along. :) 'Hope you all are well.

    Mary Ellen


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