Archive for the ‘New Zealand’ Category

The Riverton Races

Monday, April 26th, 2010

2 – 4 April 2010, New Zealand

New Zealand’s natural beauty more than exceeded our expectations but something was missing.  Throughout the course of our road trip, we had met many travelers but hadn’t spent a lot of time with  any Kiwis.  Fortunately, that was about to change.  A friend that I met while living in Japan is from New Zealand and she invited us to spend some time at her family’s crib (aka cabin) in Riverton, a town of about 2,000.  Riverton is located at the bottom of the south island New Zealand’s Southland region.   As fate would have it, our arrival coincided with the town’s most infamous event, the Riverton Races!  Held over Easter weekend each year, they are the largest horse races in Southland.

We arrived the day before the races and were thrilled to be greeted by my friend Gina as we pulled into town.  Most people who travel can relate to the joy of arriving in a new place to a familiar face and not having to scour through a guidebook looking for accommodation, bus routes, train timetables or maps.   After dropping our stuff off at the crib, we headed to a nearby restaurant for dinner with Gina’s family.  Most of the restaurants we had seen that day were closed for Good Friday but Riverton’s restaurants stayed open to accommodate people coming into town for the races.  Jason and I were surprised to discover that patrons were required to pay a 15% surcharge on all meals but I guess that’s the norm in New Zealand when restaurants remain open on holidays.  That night we got a peaceful night’s sleep in top-notch accommodation.  We would, once again, like to thank Gina and her husband, Shaun, for giving up their bed and making us feel right at home.

On race day, we woke to cold temperatures and rain.   By this point, we were starting to feel jinxed especially after being told that, prior to our arrival, it hadn’t rained for the last couple of months.  Refusing to let the adverse weather win, we donned our race day attire and set out for the track with Gina’s friends and family.  Gina had rented a tent for the races and managed to score the one closest to the finish line.  We spent most of the day in the tent but each time a race started, we would pop open an umbrella and run out to the fence for a better view of the jockeys and their horses as they came bounding down the straightaway towards the finish line.  Initially, Jason was excited at the prospect of potentially doubling our trip funds by betting on the right horse.  Thankfully, common sense prevailed and we only ended up placing one bet.  Our total loss for the day was NZ$3.

After the last race of the day, we headed to the local RSA for dinner, live music and dancing.  The RSA is similar to the VFW in the United States and our experience there was probably not that different from any night out in small town USA.  In other words, an evening at the RSA is probably something that very few foreigners have the opportunity to experience.  It was the perfect finale to our weekend of Kiwi culture in small town New Zealand.  The next morning, we took a look at the calendar and it really began to sink in that we only had four full days left in the country.  Wanting to make the best use of our limited time, we said good-bye to our gracious hosts and headed northeast.

Doubtful Sound

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

31 March - 1 April 2010, New Zealand

Cruises on Milford Sound, with its majestic fjords, are one of the most popular tourist activities in New Zealand. Recalling our experience with another of New Zealand’s most popular tourist activities, we elected for a more serene cruise on Doubtful Sound. Doubtful Sound has similar scenery to Milford Sound, but is significantly larger and more remote. We started the tour with a boat trip across Lake Manapouri to West Arm. We then travelled by bus along the Wilmot Pass road to Deep Cove and boarded the Fiordland Navigator for our overnight cruse.

The light rain that started to fall during the bus ride grew heavier as the boat departed the dock. The rain shrouded the peaks of the fiords but gave rise to hundreds of waterfalls, with most pouring into the dark water below but a few scattered into mist by the strong winds. After a couple of hours of cruising the fjord we sailed into a cove and were given the opportunity to explore the area in kayaks. We tentatively left the comfort of the Fiordland Navigator and set out into the unrelenting rain. Paddling the coastline, we sought closer views of the surrounding rainforest. After 45 mildly chilling minutes in the kayaks we returned to the boat for dinner.

To save money in New Zealand we bought groceries and cooked most of our meals. Lunches often consisted of bread, cheese, and some fruit, while we typically ate pasta or stir fry for dinner. Eating delicious food is one reason I particularly love to travel; in that regard the combination of our budget and my cooking skills were a real setback for New Zealand. Fortunately we forgot all about that for the 18 hours we were aboard the Fiordland Navigator. There was always an ample supply of coffee and tea, muffins were served shortly after boarding, and we had soup for a midafternoon snack. The buffet dinner was easily the best meal we ate in New Zealand, with a variety of salads and vegetables, prime rib, lamb, smoked salmon and an equally impressive dessert spread. With food like that we probably could have stayed moored at the dock and I still would have considered the tour worthwhile.

After dinner the ship’s nature guide presented some information about the history and ecology of Doubtful Sound. This optional activity was attended by us and the other science nerds. Captain James Cook explored the area in 1770 and, uncertain that it was navigable under sail, gave Doubtful Sound its name. The waters are home to varieties of marine life that normally grow in much deeper, darker depths. They  thrive in Doubtful Sound because rainfall filters through the surrounding vegetation and carries tannins to the water below.  This creates a dark surface layer of fresh water, reducing the amount of light that reaches the salt water.

The following morning, awaking to continuing showers, we ate breakfast and set sail for the return trip. Along the way we spotted several members of a small resident population of bottlenose dolphins. On arrival at Deep Cove we boarded the bus back to West Arm, and took a brief tour of the nearby hydroelectric power station. Manapouri  Power Station is unique among hydroelectric installations because it relies on the natural elevation difference between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound, rather than a high dam to provide sufficient head for the turbines. Late in the afternoon we returned to our car and headed inland and further south, again in search of blue skies.

See more pictures from our Doubtful Sound cruise in the Gallery.

Fair Weather in Wanaka

Friday, April 16th, 2010

27 – 29 March 2010, New Zealand

Traveling down the west coast, we logged a lot of kilometers in a short amount of time.  We were tired of driving and needed a place to kick back for a few days.  Wanaka, situated at the southern end of Lake Wanaka and surrounded by the Southern Alps,  proved to be a perfect place to do just that.

We arrived at our hostel in Wanaka after another day of driving through gorgeous scenery in the Haast Pass.  Joining us on our road trip were two French hitchhikers that we picked up just outside of Fox Glacier.  Standing in the pouring rain for three hours, they were thrilled that we stopped for them.  It was fun to share their excitement as we stopped at a number of roadside waterfalls and one random roadside attraction that felt like a tribute to the travelers that had come before us.  As we rounded a bend in the road, markers made of rocks and sticks began to appear out of the mist.  We stepped out of the car to take a closer look and saw that visitors from all over the globe had written their names, hometown and date of their visit on these markers that seemed to go on for miles.  It was ironic to see that someone from Madison had passed by earlier that same day.

Arriving in Wanaka, we cooked some food and settled in for a comfortable night at one of the nicest hostels we had stayed at thus far.  We felt particularly spoiled since our room had its own attached bathroom.  Backpacker luxury = private bathroom.  Looking out over the lake from the common area, we patted ourselves on the back for deciding to temporarily put the road trip on hold and spend three nights in this idyllic location.

The next morning, after a quick breakfast, we loaded up our daypacks with lunch, rain jackets and plenty of water before paying a visit to the local Department of Conservation (DOC) office.  Similar to National Park Visitor Centers in the United States, rangers at the DOC have a wealth of information about nearby hiking (or tramping as the Kiwis say).  After speaking with them, we decided to hike the Rob Roy Valley Track known for its stunning scenery, glacier views and many waterfalls.

Like many popular, accessible hikes in New Zealand, this one had its fair share of people on the trail but it wasn’t crowded enough to take away from the tranquility of the experience.  The first part of the hike took us across a swing bridge and upward through beech forest and alpine vegetation.  After reaching the top, we were rewarded with views of the Rob Roy Glacier.  We tried to photograph this stunning landscape but it was difficult to capture due to the sun’s position and the expansiveness of the views.  After giving up, we absorbed our surroundings over a picnic lunch and then headed back down to the trailhead.

Although the sun was shining the next morning, we still opted to spend the day indoors at a couple of Wanaka’s unique attractions.  Our first stop was Puzzling World, famous for its 3D maze and numerous optical illusion rooms.  Happy to have an excuse to act like kids, we raced through the maze, finishing it in about 40 minutes.  We then visited the optical illusion rooms, one of which left us feeling a bit motion sick so we headed into the puzzle room for some challenging entertainment.

Once our brains no longer ached, we visited the Toy and Transport Museum.  After a few minutes exploring we decided that a more apt moniker might be the “Stuff that Guys Like Museum”.  We browsed through hundreds of display cases of vintage toys then headed outside to find 4 hangars packed absolutely full of cars, trucks, motorcycles, fire trucks, airplanes and construction equipment.  This was not the type of museum that most people imagine when they think of museums.  Most of the items on display were not labeled, many were covered in dust and the vast majority looked like they had simply been parked haphazardly throughout the space.  One of the museum’s two employees informed us that everything on display had come from someone’s personal collection.  Apparently, the owner has a bit of an obsession for things with engines and he purchased most of the items at auctions.   As you can imagine, Jason was in heaven.  He probably could’ve spent hours wandering through the crowded hangars but someone must have been watching over me that day; we only had 90 minutes to wander around before the museum shut its doors for the day.

Our last night in Wanaka passed by too quickly as we mapped out our route for the rest of New Zealand and began to discuss plans for our next destination, the Philippines.  The next morning we woke early so that I would have time for a quick run around the lake before heading further south and back towards the coast to the region known as Fiordland.