Monday, August 5, 2013

Touring South Island, New Zealand

Hiking at Fox Glacier
   The thought of visiting Kiwi-land started when I initially laid out a plan to do my Alpine Mountaineering training near Mt. Aspiring (-a plan which I later scrapped for a cheaper Nepal alternative). NZ offers very good mountaineering opportunities, and its highest mountain – Mt. Cook is a formidable challenge that even 8000m summiteers will find climbing it to be very difficult.

It was after my Y2K project way back 2000 (i.e. fixing the famous bug) that I finally decided to realize a Kiwi visit. I packed my bag and headed for South Island of New Zealand or “the middle earth”. It was spring, and fresh snow prevented climbers and trekkers from assaulting the Kiwi mountains. Being a ‘mountain person’ - what I did at least was to hike the glacier on the western side of South Island – Fox Glacier. I used boots with built-in crampons for the walk-up. It was my first time to touch and walk on a pure blue giant of flowing ice, a glacier flowing down from the mountains towards its base near the sea. An alpine mountain, a glacier and a clear blue ocean were around me--it was amazing. I looked at the natural beauty and was in a state of pleasant disbelief. This combination was impossible in a Himalayan landscape.

Indeed, more sheep here than humans

Here are some more picture-stories that I remember…

On the very first day, I decided to skip Christchurch tour (that was done on the latter part of my trip) and headed straight to Kaikoura. This was a town in the northeast of the island. (For reference – Christchurch, the main city of South Island, is in the lower-middle east of the island, & South Island is just a little bit bigger than Luzon mainland). My first glimpse of the country side was by bus; I saw countless sheep in the endless greeneries, and miles upon miles of seemingly deserted agricultural land. Of course it’s true that there are more sheep in NZ than humans (sheep are, by the way an introduced, non-native species). And so are the mammal pests, which are in the search-and-destroy program of the government. For background, NZ is a “land without teeth” given the absence of resident mammals (and snakes), life evolved after its separation from the mainland some 80mn years ago. And ground bird life flourished given absence of mammalian predators. But I’m digressing…

Beautiful flowers almost everywhere

Kaikoura ! Wow! This place was previously the largest whaling station in the world. That was before they ban whaling. (Only Norway and Japan continue to hunt and kill these poor adorable giants). It has the largest congestion, traffic, show, source, activity, magic of the largest specie of mammal ever to live in this planet. Sperms, humps, orcas, blues, right whales, you name it, they all visit this party place. Why? I read somewhere that the deepest underwater vertical drop-off in Kaikoura bay is around 900m, and this is where the great ocean currents meet, helping with the welling up of smaller food-creatures – which was the main reason for whales to frequent this ‘seafood restaurant’.
Sea birds near the seal colony

Unfortunately for me, given off-season, the weather didn’t cooperate. I was stuck in the town for 2 days with no sea tour operating given 2m-swell. Argh! Went so far away to at least see those majestic flukes gliding the ocean surface, or if lucky- maybe a breach as whale ‘jumps’ above surface to breathe and play.

Visiting seal colony, and saying
hello to one up-close
 The hotel owner advised me to simply see the seal colony, he lent his bike and I went for a ride-and-see-the-seals. At least I did something nice, stalking a baby seal and having a picture nearly 2m away was a blast. ;)

Easy climbing by helicopter in Aoraki mountains
 Then I went south to Aoraki/Mount Cook. No plans to climb. But since NZ offers just about any kind of adventure tour – I decided to ‘heli-climb’, the fastest way of getting on top of a mountain haha! Given limited time, I only stayed in Mount Cook Village / Hermitage Hotel area for a couple of days, before moving onwards.

Milford Sound cruise

I tried to be a ‘normal tourist’ by taking a Milford sound cruise. The landscape was nice – I imagined how Captain Cook must have felt when he discovered the entry-way to the sound, a real discovery indeed. I recall seeing more tourist boats, a lot of waterfalls, and scenic view of steep cliffs. Now for one to appreciate this place – let me cut-paste Wikipedia’s description of a "sound" or fjord - “Geologically, a fjord (/ˈfjɔərd/ or i/ˈfiːɔərd/; also spelled fiord) is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created in a valley carved by glacial activity. The word comes to English from Icelandic, but related words are used in several Scandinavian languages, in many cases to refer to any long narrow body of water other than the more specific meaning it has in English.”

Vicinity also offered scenic Milford trek – if you have enough time, a luxury that I didn’t have.

Next up, a glacier hike in Fox glacier. Local companies here offered many activities including ice climbing. I decided to ‘experience ice’ and headed up the glacier only to confirm what I already know – I love mountains!

 A quick run in Mt Cook area

Next, although Queenstown is considered ‘very commercial and touristy’ by backpackers – it is still a must-see if one headed south of NZ. Of course the meals in the nice restos cost high, but the place offered adventure tours and many non-nature activities such as bungee jumping, sky diving, among other things.

Kiwi bird art in Queenstown
 Here I saw the biggest kiwi bird in my life – well a sculpture at least. I recall doing fast and supposedly scary jet boating as the pilot maneuvers through the river ‘almost hitting’ the walls and big boulders.

Jet Boating was an adrenalin ride

And what’s New Zealand without a farm visit!? For some reason – I liked this part of my trip. I saw sheep’s wool “processing” where this guy efficiently shaved off the wool of a surprisingly cooperative animal (and understood sheep’s survival physiology better), saw different types of sheep, the type of wool they offer, and the sheep’s lifecycle (i.e. after 2-3 years of ‘wool harvest’ , the meat comes next), amazed by the intelligent sheep dogs herding sheep, and how their masters use whistles that human’s can’t hear (but dogs can).

Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo

I can’t recall if I've visited Lake Tekapo from Christchurch or Queenstown – but anyway, I did. What’s plenty in South Island are lakes. Glacial lakes! Here, the early kiwi people carved the famous "Church of the Good Shepherd". The tiny church built on the shores of Lake Tekapo, combined with perfect view of the lake and mountains made it a photographers’ default subject of interest. Alongside the church is a bronze statue of the MacKenzie Sheep Dog. In honor of the – (collie) sheep dogs of course. Back in the days, running the farm was a nightmare without the help of these loyal companions. ;)

A farm visit includes a lamb hug

It was already raining hard for several days when I visited Tene Anau. I was supposed to see glow worms in some caves but form some weather reason – I wasn’t lucky to witness this alien worms. After my shortened trip to Tene Anau, I went back to Christchurch for a proper city tour.

And just like any trip, it eventually came to an end, or perhaps my money supply ran out first. I packed my stuff and said my ba-byes to the land of sheep and kiwis.

Worth it?  Yes!
Cost?  med-to-high, backpacking possible. Cheapest mode is on a bike (i.e. bike tour).
Recommended period: 2weeks to 1month.  Even longer if north island is included, or if one is doing a bike tour (the roads are nice)
Annoyance: customs and immigration!  Don't bring any organic material to be safe. Buy ticket via credit card  (I was questioned why I used cash, why I didn't have day-by-day schedule, and why I purchased my ticket a week before - profile of a 'bad guy' apparently).

Tour Opportunity:  A lot! adventure travel mostly, little bit of native Maori legends.

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