New Zealand (continued)
Today was mostly a driving day. Nelson to Charlestown just South of Westport. So far all the major interstate roads we have been on are two lanes; that’s one in each direction, with no divider other than a painted line. The speed limit is 100 km/h, about 60 m/h. A lot of the bridges are one lane; that’s one lane total. The really long one-lane bridges have “passing bays”. Today, we experienced a one-lane curve around the mountain. It was insane! The interstate road went to one lane for both directions, blind around a curve with a 100 foot + drop to one side. But one of the benefits of New Zealand in the dead of its winter is that the roads are virtually empty. The drive today felt like we were in a state park the entire time. The road and scenery were pristine. Apparently the campervan people like to form a small community. Drivers of passing campervans wave to each other, kind of like Jeep drivers in AZ. I never waste my time waving to them if they are only driving a 2-berth Just kidding! We arrived in Charlestown around 6 pm, after dark. With the office closed we help ourselves to an empty site and pay via the honor system on the way out in the morning.
So why come to the tiny town of Charlestown? For the only blackwater rafting on the South island of’course. We must be crazy to float down an underground river in the winter because Terry and I were the only two on the trip! We were both very impressed with the trip and the company, Underworld Adventures. We took a short train ride through rainforest closest to the cave entrance. The “Train” was a tiny toy-looking mini-train with 3 small cars each capable of holding 4 passengers. There at the remote station we donned our wetsuits, neoprene socks, booties, gloves, and helmets. We walked with our inner tubes through the rain forest to the cave entrance. We walked through a good bit of the cave covering 3 levels. Our guide Matt (very knowledgeable) explained all sorts of interesting cave tid-bits to us. Then, on the third level and youngest part of the cave, we hopped on our tubes and into the bone-chilling cold water of the underground river. We had our helmet lights off and were floating down the river in total darkness when we saw the green glow of the glow worms. Looked like the Milky Way. Absolutely incredible. The glow worms line the cave ceiling for a stretch about 30 feet long.
Matt suggested we visit the Pancake Rocks and so we did. Pancake Rocks is a short coastal loop walk passing blowholes and pancake rocks. Check out the photos, it is easier than me trying to explain. The views were again unbelievable. The upkeep of these parks is impressive. The parks are immaculate and facilities are as natural as possible; dirt or gravel paths instead of concrete, wooden railings instead of aluminum. Just when I figured I got a photo of every type of landscape possible, the scenery completely changes on us. Pastures of deer, and now some cute redish-brown, furry, raccoon-looking creature roaming the roads at night. We saw two so far that were alive and about a dozen road kills (Shhh, I told Terry they were just sleeping). We still don’t know what they are. We continued south, back into colder territories, down the winding road past Franz Josef Glacier (we will return tomorrow) to the town of Fox Glacier. After a late dinner and a glass of local wine, we crawled up into the cubby hole above the drivers cab we call the bedroom to catch some Z’s.
We spent the day exploring Fox Glacier. We started with a trek around Matheson Lake with spectacular views of Mt. Tasman and Mt. Cook. It was nice to do an early morning stroll and we had the entire trail to ourselves. Then we drove through town and took the trail through the rainforest to the Chalet lookout for a peek at Fox Glacier. The rainforest here, as well as all the rainforests we have visited in NZ, are what I imagined a rainforest would be. The trees and rocks are covered with moss, tiny ferns, and other growth to create a fuzzy or hairy look to everything. Vines and plants dangle from the canopy and the shades of green are incredibility vivid. We put in a good 4 hours treking before returning to Franz Josef Glacier for the night.
With ice axes in hand we conquered the Franz Josef Glacier today. We had another great day of weather. Our day started at 10 am when we suited up and ingressed the helicopter. We were flown over the glacier for a couple scenic views before landing on the glacier. We donned our crampons and began our 2-hour trek on the volatile glacier surface. We occasionally heard the rumbling of the glacier moving and changing in the distance. We treked through blue crevasses, arches, and caves. We had the best time just taking photos. Between the two of us we took over 400 photos in 2 hours Our guide Goose would occasionally check on us. “How are you guys going” -- that’s what the kiwis say. Once off the ice, we drove to the small town of Haast for the night putting off the winding mountainous roads to Wanaka and Queenstown until tomorrow.
Today was a driving day. Haast to Wanaka or Queenstown if we could make it that far. We might have had a couple of photos of sheep or cows as I am sure you are accustom to by now. But not much else to report. However, the West side got the rain they desperately needed. It rained all night. But the road to Queenstown, as I mentioned previously, winds through the mountains; so they got snow. Turned out we had a pretty harrowing experience. We got stuck in the snow and ice. We had enough gas, enough food and water to spend the night. That was not the issue. The road changed from just wet to icy suddenly on the worst stretch of Route 6; we were stopped on a curve and on an incline. I tried to move the campervan forward and then tried to back it up, but the campervan kept sliding closer and closer to the guard rail. We were about 2 feet from the guard rail when we changed the plan; we had to put on the chains where we were. Terry was great! She walked back down the road and directed traffic for the entire hour I spent putting on the chains and directed oncoming traffic. She told cars to slow down and stop if necessary. Several cars stopped behind us, stuck themselves, and were waiting. I got the chains on as fast as possible but the process took a while. I stopped and jumped behind the guard rail whenever cars were passing just in case they skidded into us. The scariest was the 18-wheeler that came barreling around the curve. He went around us and kept going. It was really the worst place for us to be but we had no choice. Other than safety, my top priority was getting the heck out of there. I got the chains on and we did just that. Rather than turn back we continued on. Chains worked great and we chugged along at 20-25 km/h. We passed people on the side of the road and I am sure they all had their own stories. We only stopped long enough to see if we could help in any way and to make sure no one was in any real danger.
We arrived at the small town Makarora just in time to be stopped by authorities and we were told that due to an accident further down, the road was closed for an hour or so. We later found out that the way we just came was closed for the night because the snow plow was stuck behind the accident site. With no where to go we were advised to have a coffee in the cafe. We sat by the fire sipping coffee and talking to other travellers for a couple hours. Later we found out that the road was not being opened and we had to spend the night. Luckily the town had a campervan park with a powered-site. We switched to beer and five of us started playing Texas Holdem using salt and pepper packets as chips. We played for about an hour when the power went out. The staff brought out candles and when we called for a guitar, someone actually had one. So we sang songs by candle light by the fire place. About an hour later, the power came back on. I noticed Terry was gone and when I went into the other room she was there singing karaoke. So we gave up our fire place seats and joined by two more, we sang karaoke until almost midnight. Trust me, we did a disservice to a lot of good songs that certainly didn’t deserve it. But a great time was had by all... of’course we had to include a photo with cows or sheep. And since we couldn’t find any sheep, you get cows this time.
We were told the road to Wanaka was still closed in the morning. The previous day 4 girls skidded off the road and plunged into the lake with their rental car. One girl drowned. That was the accident that had closed the road. After getting bits of info from travellers and careful consideration we decided to press on to Wanaka anyway. Our chains handled the snow and ice just fine. After 20 km the road completely cleared up and I removed the chains. The journey to Wanaka was uneventful. In Wanaka we planned our remaining time in New Zealand and planned the timing of our arrival back in Christchurch for our outbound flight.
Today we really needed to get to Queenstown. The tickets to Tonga we purchased were send to the Queenstown office where we needed to pick them up and they could not be re-issued to another office. Otherwise we would have cancelled our visit to Queenstown altogether because of the weather conditions. We were told that having chains was required for the road to Queenstown but we cruised throught without a hitch. Barely a flake of snow on the road! Before we left Wanaka, we visted Puzzle World. Friends that know me may wonder if they built this place explicitly for my visit. Mazes, optical illusions, puzzles, all under one roof! Very cool place. We included some photos and video. Then off to Queenstown. The good news is that, unknowingly, we arrived in Queenstown in the middle of their Annual Winter Festival. The bad news is that all events, ironically enough, were cancelled due to receiving “too much snow”. In the end I think the Kiwis are just a little snow shy.
We still love Blenhiem and then Wanaka, but Queenstown made #1 on our list of favorites! It is like a small apres-ski town with people walking around carrying snowboards and drinking coffee in the cold. There is even a Starbucks for Terry. Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. Anything involving trading your cash for a shot of adrenaline can be done here. Tonight we did The Ledge Sky Swing. In your harness you are put in position. You pull a rip cord and drop 20 meters before swinging out another 50 meters or so. We did it at night over the Queenstown city lights. It was really just a warm up for tomorrow. Sadly, we have a schedule to meet and must leave tomorrow. But before we do, we will make our near-death experience -- chaining up the van on Route 6 -- seem like a walk in the park with the highest bungy jump in the Southern Hemisphere; the Nevis river bungy jump measuring in at 134 meters (440 feet).
To be continued...
- Oh no, it’s over ;(
- There be whales here!
- Bad, bad Leroy
- Killing time near Suva
- Handicap Diver Below!