Travels with Lois and Jason

New Zealand

December 14, 2007 – January 8, 2008

Why NZ?  Our son had gone to NZ as an exchange student and told us great stories of the scenery.  In Lord of the Rings NZ was one of the “stars”.  It was a destination to which we had never been.

Able TasmanGiven our teaching schedules, we figured we could go for three weeks. Our goal was to see as much of the scenery as we could while moving at a “leisurely” pace.  And, we are delighted to say, we succeeded!  (This picture of Doubtful Sound, left, typified the grandeur we saw.)  Based on our research, we decided to focus on NZ’s national parks on the South Island (see NZ geography note below). Since Jason doesn’t drive, we wanted to use some form of transportation that would allow Lois to enjoy the scenery.  We explored organized tours, but could not find one that focused on what we wanted to see.  One respondent, Tourmasters, said that they do “independent tours.”  We told them where we wanted to go, how long we wanted to stay, and what category of rooms, and then they made all the arrangements using a nation wide bus system.  That enabled us to spend our time investigating specifically what we'd like to see.  After many email exchanges, we had an itinerary which took us to nine of NZ’s fourteen national parks (each was a feast for the eyes) and had us staying in very nice (in some cases luxury) hotels or B&Bs, and with all transportation and transfers pre-arranged.  Using Tourmasters turned out to be an outstanding decision and gave us the flexibility to make changes in the middle of our trip without any hassle.  Everything Tourmasters arranged was pre-paid.  They provided a voucher book for all our transportation and lodging.  It was really nice not having to think about costs as we went along.  Also, we found that the demand for tourist services is outstripping the supply, so having everything pre-arranged was critical.   In summary, we took an outstanding “tour” that included traveling by bus, boat and train, seeing dazzling scenery, and eating lots of outstanding meals.

NZ is comprised of many islands, but has two main:  North Island and South Island.  Overall it is about the same size as Great Britain (that is, England, Scotland and Wales). North and South are connected by a three hour ferry.  The South Island is split into East and West, with a very clear demarcation line:  The Southern Alps, a snow capped line of mountains running the entire length of the island.  There are only three passes connecting the East and West, and we went on all of them (one even twice).  In the Southern Alps more than 360 glaciers have been named.  On the West, 10 to 20 feet of rain fall each year (with lots of snow up top) while on the East, irrigation systems are needed to keep the crops alive.  West of the peaks you can see the snow caps from sea level, while the East has vast plains, rivers, and lakes stretching a hundred miles.  The East was pasture lands, tame and managed;  the West was rugged, wild rain forests with narrowly carved roads hugging the sea and land.  It was all awesome!

Eastern Plains
Lake Pukaki

West Coast
Rugged West
Pancake Rocks
South Island, Eastside
click pictures for full size view
South Island, Westside

Our flight from Los Angeles took us to Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island.  Our bus touring started the next day as we traveled southwest to Mount Cook National Park, where we had rain and lots of Mount Cookclouds.  Mount Cook is the highest peak in NZ, reaching over 12,000 feet.  Out of the three days we were there, one afternoon for a very few minutes the sky cleared and we Matheson Lakesaw Mount Cook in the setting sun (left).  That was something! 

We continued our journey south and west to Fjordland National Park.  We toured the Milford Sound and the Doubtful Sound, and visited the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, an amazing experience.  We thought glowworms were imaginary, but found they are really mystical. The glowworms live in dark damp places, like caves.  They attach themselves to the ceiling, and let down a sticky “fishing line.”  The light is to attract other insects and snare them. They then bring in their line and feast. We went into a cave with walkways and stairs, and very discreet lighting.  And here and there there were these tiny blue dots, the light source from the glowworms, like a night sky with blue stars.  After meandering a while we came to a “lake” and got into a little boat (this was all in total darkness for Jason, but Lois could see the boat).  Our guide used a chain to pull us along while above and around us, sometimes literally inches away, were these tiny little blue lights. (For great information and video on these amazing insects, check out the NZ encyclopedia.)

From Fjordland we traveled north and west, taking the Haast Pass to move from the East to the West.  We then started our twisty, curvy, impressive journey up the west coast with the Tasman Sea on our left and the NZ Alps on our right. This route took us to Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier, the two largest glaciers on the Westcoast.  These are extremely exciting glaciers as their top is over 10,000 feet in rugged granite peaks and they descend in about 20 miles to lush green rainforests about 500 feet above sea level.  These glaciers are growing at about a yard a day, which, by glacial terms, is winning a marathon in record time.  Our walk around Matheson Lake near Fox Glacier gave us another view of Mount Cook (photo above at right).

For Glacier Franz Joseph
Fox Glacier, and note people on the trail. Franz Joseph Glacier, where we had more rain the day we
visited than the 3 inches that fell in 2007 in Los Angeles

We found a new nickname for ourselves:  We’re the “glacier chasers!!!”  At least, that’s how we felt while pursuing one glacier after another.   From our hotel room in Mount Cook National Park we could see several glaciers, and we took an incredible boat ride to the terminal face of the Tasman Glacier.  We walked the river trails to get as close as we could to the Fox Glacier and Franz Joseph Glacier, and admired the incredible views of another dozen glaciers from various vantage points as we walked trails in Arthur's Pass National Park.  It was one glacier after another as we traveled from place to place.  And it was “deja vu” of our trip through the Norwegian fjords as we traveled by boat through the Milford and Doubtful Sounds (NZ “sound” = Norwegian “fjord”), picturesque water-filled granite valleys carved by glaciers that run into the Tasman Sea.

Ariel Looking
Arail 2
Ariel View Mount Cook, looking south;  note plains off to east
(upper left). Red line is road to Tasman Glacier Lake (home of
 the black icebergs).  This is same view as picture of
Mount Cook above.
Mount Cook looking east from Tasman Sea;  Fox and
Franz Joseph Glaciers come down these valleys. 
Note:  these photos are of a model in the Park
Visitor Center!!!  How we wish they were really real!

We continued traveling north until we reached the second pass from West to East, Arthur's Pass, which we crossed via the TranzAlpine TrainArthur Pass We returned the same way three days later, but spent the intervening days at the Wilderness Lodge Arthur’s Pass, a successful conversion of a sheep farm business into an ecological tourism/sheep farming venture.  Beside the stunning views from our room (as seen with high tea), during the nature walks we learned much about the ecological challenges facing NZ’s native fauna and flora.  A major goal of the Lodge owners is to demonstrate the successful transition of human cultivated lands back toward a state of native habitat.  

Upon returning to the West we continued our travels north via bus along the rugged West Coast, making a stop at the Pancake Rocks, fascinating natural rock formations pounded by the sea, and which puzzle scientist as to their origins.  Our next destination was the city of Nelson at the north end of the South Island, and used for access to Able Tasman National Park.  We had an excellent New Year’s Eve dinner at our hotel and planned to “walk the city” until midnight.  However, we were surprised to see that all the streets (all four of them) were blocked off to motor vehicle traffic and the police (regular and volunteer) were out in force.  The “tradition” in Nelson is to smash beer bottles to welcome in the New Year.  Accordingly, we decided to make an early night of it, and were surprised in the morning that the streets seemed quite clean.

We spentAble Tasman New Year’s Day 2008 at Able Tasman National Park, only reachable by water taxi.  The water taxi took us to one bay (and since it was low tide, dropped us 100 yards from shore in two feet of water – we had to quickly take off our shoes) and was supposed to pick us up three hours later at another bay.  We spent the three hours on a narrow (with steep drop offs), twisty, hilly, rocky, slithery trail (which included a very high suspension bridge that Lois crossed with eyes closed gripping the side ropes).  This was supposed to be an easy two hour walk.  We had even checked with a ranger at the visitor center to be sure the trail would be okay given Jason’s tunnel vision problem.  Lois, who has a fear of heights, was so worried about Jason tripping and falling, she didn't have time to worry about herself when there were those narrow and twisty drop offs.  (And, as you can see in the photo at left, the scenery was nice, really beautiful, inspite of the trail!)  For us, it was a walk and run at the end so that we wouldn't miss the boat.  But when we did reach the end of the trail, we saw our taxi leaving the bay.  We stood on the beach waving our hats franticly as it moved toward open water.  Fortunately, someone on-board the boat realized what was happeningLupin flowers and they came back for us. 

 Our last day on the South Island was traveling east through Lewis Pass, the third route from the West to the East, to arrive at the ferry terminal for our crossing to the North Island. There were two dominate scenic impressions of Lewis Pass:  velvet green mossy grass hillsides and clear cut pine forests.  Only a few hundred years ago NZ was blanketed with native beech trees.  Todays velvet hillsides are the result of clearing of the native flora for sheep and cattle farms (and now deer farms as well).  The pine forests (with all the trees in neat rows and columns, like a fruit orchard) were originally planted to keep the hills from sliding away after they were cleared of the native flora.  The pines are a faster growing tree than the native beech (which the pines are now displacing) and are harvested and replanted for pulp export.  The grasses and trees were but two of the major ecological calamities humans introduced to NZ.  Humans introduced mammals (there are no native NZ mammals), birds and plants, all of which have played havoc with the native birds and plants, pushing many to extinction, and even more to the endangered category.  One of the most frustrating of the ecological missteps is the lupin flower, which even the most environmentally passionate say they love and hate:  it is absolutely beautiful but grows like a weed everywhere displacing whatever is in its path.

We only had four days left on our Mt DoomvacationMt Doom as we crossed the channel from the South to the North Island and started our trek north to Mordor and Mount Doom  (Tongarrio National Park).  (As it happened, the four hour bus ride to the park was the worst travel experience of the trip, and we now realize it must have been part of some plan to get us in the right frame of mind for entering Mordor.) Mount Doom was nifty and we spent three days doing some of the most enjoyable walks of our entire trip, with water falls and vistas of grand dimension, in its shadow.  And, on one walk, we were “picked up” by a couple of "kiwis" (what NZ'rs call themselves) who insisted on driving us up to the chair lifts at the top of the mountain so we could see the view (which is great for a blind guy and a women with vertigo!).  Their joy at sharing their beautiful country was a fitting end to our journey.

 NZ offered three sights that were totally new for us, things we have never seen before:  black icebergs, glowworms (mentioned above), and silica rapids (a stream bed turned white by chemical reaction of aluminum, silica, and carbon dioxide).  The black icebergs were in Mount Cook National Park. We took a boat tour (six people per rubberized boat) of the terminal lake at the base of the Tasman Glacier. It took about 45 minutes to get from the “dock” to the terminal face of the glacier, and then, at full-power about 15 minutes to return to the dock.  But what we saw along the way was just incredible.  The mountains around the glacier are “schist,” essentially a mixture of mud and sand which you can crumble in your hands.  Over time, as the glacier moves down the valley, land slides of the schist fall on the glacier and are buried by the snow.  Then, as the ice reaches the end of the glacier and breaks off into the terminal lake, we have relatively “white” icebergs.  But, as the ice melts, huge amounts of schist are exposed and the bergs become black.  The bergs behind Lois are at least 100 yards away from the boat.  Remember, 9/10 of an iceberg is submerged, so if it is 10 feet above the water, it is 90 feet BELOW!  These things are huge (and the lake really deep)!

Lois and black
      icebergDuring our visit to NZ we met countless young people from around the world working in the restaurants and hotels.  When you asked “how long have you worked here?” the answer was inevitability "about one month."  NZ is a hikers/adventurers mecca, and it seems that young people come to take advantage of all that NZ has to offer.  It is very easy to get a one year visitor/work visa, so, as more than one person told us, "I work a few weeks to save up some money, and then move on and do a trek or backpacking for a few weeks, and then take another job again."   The people we encountered were exceptionally friendly.  It was just amazing how genuine people expressed their willingness and desire to be of service.  And it wasn't just a single individual, it was, almost without exception, everyone we encountered.  This even extended to the train crews.  We used a train for the last leg of our tavels from Tongarrio National Park to Auckland.  When our train pulled into the station, Jason asked the conductor, almost as a joke, if he could ride with the engineer up front.  He responded that he'd see what he could do.  And, sure enough, Jason was escorted to the front of the train for a ride in the cab for about 20 minutes! 

As we traveled through the various cities and towns we thought we were at a Hollywood movie lot for a 1950s western:  Small town feel, all the buildings have shade roofs extending over the sidewalks, buildings have that old architecture about them, mostly two story, brick with very pronounced columns, and lots of saloons.  Small
      town architectureWe saw very similar appearance throughout the country, with some "one horse towns" with just two or three one story wood framed buildings (a general store and cafe/saloon).  The major exceptions were the capital Wellington and largest city in NZ, Auckland, which were very modern. The roads in NZ were among the best we have ever traveled.  We don’t think we saw a single pothole or encountered any delays due to road issues (although we did get stopped by a shepherd herding his flock of a couple hundred sheep and two working dogs, pictured above). 

One of the things that made NZ so special was the number of really terrific walks we could do from our hotels.  Driving to a trail head was the exception rather than the rule.  Other than Wellington and Auckland, the cities were so small that it seemed we walked every major street, explored their waterfronts, and generally felt incredibility safe and relaxed.

One final note:  the time change from LA to NZ was nothing, just 3 hours (actually 21 hours).  We departed LAX on Friday, Dec 14th and arrived 14 hours later on Sunday, Dec 16th.  Oops—we lost Saturday the 15th along the way!!!  Of course, coming back we left NZ at 7:00 PM and arrived home at 10:00 AM the same day, so we had dinner twice on Monday, January 7th.

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Photo journalist:  Lois Frand
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January 24, 2008

Mills Brothers - Glow Worm
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer.
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer.
Lead us lest too far we wander.
Love's sweet voice is calling yonder.
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer.
Hey, there don't get dimmer, dimmer.
Light the path below, above.
And lead us on to love!