• Stories from New Zealand: The Departure

    We had already driven two hours away from the Christchurch airport when we found out the unfortunate news. Our airline moved our flight back. An entire day. Our departure was now less than 12 hours away. As you can imagine, our future bookings and travel plans were officially a huge mess. If the airline was a person, I would have been tempted to plot revenge… like dying all their shirts pink, or snipping off all of their pant pockets.

    Needless to say, our time was cut short in Kaikoura- a seaside town best known for whale-watching and all manners of sea-life encounters. Luckily, the owners of our charming bed and breakfast (where we were, again, the sole occupants) had excellent advice for our unexpectedly brief visit. The next morning, we took a quick drive in hopes of catching a glimpse of a New Zealand fur seal colony.

    We had two chances to see the seals: Directly off of the coastal highway, or across the road by a waterfall down a forest path. The baby seals sometimes played in the later area, so we heard.

    You could say serendipity had found us, again. At Ohau Point, there were seals of all sizes bathing in the frothy waves of the South Pacific Ocean.

    There was time to spare, so we said, Why, not. We’re here already, and wandered down the forest path. It was simply opposite the point, afterall.

    “Unbelieveable!!! You’re in for a real treat!” exclaimed an apparently flabbergasted man who we passed along the way. Hm. I shifted my eyes over to David’s, raising my eyebrows.

    However, it didn’t take long for us to start understanding the man’s reactions. First, there were a handful of seal pups in the stream. Hands down, it was the closest we had ever been to such an animal. Then, we saw a seal sitting in the middle of the forest. By himself. Weird. And then, we arrived at the waterfall…

    Oh, my goodness. So many seals!

    There were more seal pups than I could count, and they were splashing and jumping and playing like truly wild children. We could have very feasibly touched them. However, I imagined my finger as a fish, and decided to keep my hands to myself.

    Nearly every New Zealand experience we found was unexpected. We knew a beautiful land awaited, but my! what a trip this turned out to be. It was all a sort of weird and wonderful time.

    Thus, we had many kiwi visions dancing in our heads for our journey back… A trek which became a 42-hour calendar day.

    It was time to turn right-side-up again.

  • Stories from New Zealand: Part VII

    Driving, driving, driving, and more driving. To fully experience New Zealand, you are obligated to take a serious road trip. At least, it gave us plenty of time to practice driving on the left side. We started to actually turn on the blinker instead of the windshield wipers!
    After another stint on the highway, we arrived in our Fiordland hub- Te Anou. It was the off-season, and we had the entire Cosy Kiwi “bed ‘n’ breakfast” to ourselves. We did everything there was to do in town: We saw the scenic short film of Fiordland, Ata Whenua - Shadowlands; We had coffee and another pumpkin pastry in the town’s sole cafe; And, we checked the conditions of Milford Road- the only driving path to Milford Sound.

    Luckily, we had exceptional weather for the season and the drive proved to be another highlight. We found numerous forms of terra, fauna, and flora along our way.

    Milford Sound is actually incorrectly named, as it is not a sound at all. I will allow you to look up that definition on your own, if you’re curious. Milford Sound is a genuine fjord, formed by glaciers tearing through the earth.

    To sum up our experience, Milford Sound was spectacular. We saw dolphins, seals, waterfalls (and rainbows exposed through their mist) amongst the awesomely carved passageways to the Tasman Sea. Words pale in comparison to the physical visions of the fjord.

    Afterwards, we had a light trapse through a moss-covered fairy forest. A serendipitous finding that easily sat amidst my most enjoyed New Zealand moments.

    To maximise our time, we took a flight up from Queenstown to Christchurch. It was our first zero-security flight experience to our memory. Neither our carry-on luggage, or ourselves were screened or inspected. Unbelievable and honestly confusing.

    Upon arrival in Christchurch, we got back in a rental car and drove north to Kaikoura. We anticipated spending two night in the coastal town… Yet, we had no idea of the looming kerfuffle in our very near future.  

  • Stories from New Zealand: Part VI

    Wrapping up our adventures in the North Island, we made a quick visit to the Coromandel Peninsula. We saw the Hot Water Beach, where at low tide you can dig yourself a natural hot tub in the sand. We enjoyed scenic views all along the coast, including ones seen from a short hike to Gemstone Bay.

    Then, it was off to the South Island!

    We had heard especially glowing reviews of the South, and were eager to see it for ourselves.

    Our first stop after landing in Christchurch was the small town of Lake Tekapo. Twinkling and glittering reviews might have been most appropriate for this destination. The town is situated within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve- over 1,000,000 acres dedicated to being free of artificial light pollution. Thus, the star-gazing was phenomenal and never to be forgotten. We could plainly see the Milky Way and an unusually brilliant Mars and Saturn.

    One night, we drove even deeper into the countryside n persuit of stars, and nearly scared the bugeezums out of ourselves. “Why is there a tiny shed right there? There’s nothing around for miles…” A small, ratty structure stood completely alone in the darkness. A chain, that might have held a bell at one time, swung menacingly above the door. I pretended to be brave enough to inspect the little hut, but decided against it when I was about 5 feet away.

    As the night’s sky is my favorite natural wonder, all spookiness endured was more than worthwhile.

    There was the sky, then there was the inland sea. Lake Tekapo is an actual body of water, for which the town is named. And, it was our first demonstration of how glacier lakes exceeded our expectations.

    The lake was big, beautiful, and blue. We were nearly blown away. I mean this literally, as we viewed the lake from atop Mt. John where the wind was unbelievably strong. It was the type of icy wind that makes your nose run profusely. But also the type to be kind enough to blow so forcefully that it acts as a tissue- blowing nose-water clean off your face. "Why, thank you, Wind," one might say begrudgingly.  

    We were advised to also pay a visit to Lake Pukaki, another glacier lake. Perhaps it was the right day, time, and temperature, but Lake Pukaki was perfectly incredible. It was a shade of blue water that we had never seen before. Like a cocktail of cool turquoise, aquamarine, and frothy seafoam.

    It was truly a day of bewilderment. In a stone’s throw, we left the azure lakes and hazy blue mountains to find an utterly new landscape. As if we had driven directly into a wormhole, and popped out in another land. Yet, we simply were transversing the Lindis Pass- a valley covered in New Zealand’s iconic tussocks, which made the mountains look as if they were made from camels’ backs rather than of earth.

    Every day, another place, unplanned, amazed, in the Land of the Kiwis.

  • Stories from New Zealand: Part II

    The landscape in New Zealand was incredibly varied. In a single afternoon, we could drive through green pastures and rolling hills, expansive tussock grasslands, and forests befitting the Jurassic period. We couldn’t have imagined that this would only be a sampling of all the scenery New Zealand would show us.

    Our temporary base was near the National Park. Most visitor there came for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of New Zealand’s most spectacular tramping-tracks, also known as the filming site of Mordor. Due to the freezing weather and my wariness towards the serious hike, we declined the 19.5 kilometer/12 mile trek.

    After breezing through our travel guide for alternative, near-by attractions, something quickly caught my eye- Craters of the Moon. I nearly skipped the description, due to the irresistible name. If you were to ask David or myself if we’d go to outer space, being aware of all its hazards, we would always say yes. This being said, we were on our way to the Moon.

    We arrived at the scenic reserve to find a stretch of land smoking like a city rooftop-view in winter. Scores of geothermal vents were exhaling puffs of steam, as pockets of boiling mud spotted the soil. Strolling along the protective wooden walkway, minding the danger signs for "unstable thermal areas," we passed through intermittent steambaths and clouds lightly perfumed by sulfur.

    Our amusement level peaked even higher once we found the giant craters. The largest was a huge scoop of earth brimming with gurgling and bubbling puddles of mud, swirls of hissing steam, and curious colors. Another crater was a cauldron brewing a thick, muddy potion. The sights were unbelieveable. I felt like a wizard was surely nearby.  

    Whether we felt like we were in a fantastical land of magic, on the moon, or some other planet, New Zealand’s sights were impressive and surprising. And, what was more unbelievable, was that this was simply the beginning.

  • Stories from New Zealand: Part I

    We awoke in New Zealand to our first Autumn morning of the year, in the month of April.  It was crisp and sunny weather. A perfect day to spend underground. 
    We were scheduled for a rafting tour in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, an adventure that would include subterranean tubing, climbing, clambering, and leaping.

    Once we arrived at the site, the first step was to put on our wetsuits. Neoprene overalls, jacket, and booties. Each piece was damp from previous use, and extremely cold. My jacket seemed to have been last worn by a small human with powerful body odour. I was increasingly grateful for the one-piece swimsuit I wore, minimizing the amount of direct skin-to-suit contact. The moist booties were bad enough, believe me. But, they had to be snuggly laced into rubber boots. It was all very squishy and unsettling.

    Due to my facial expressions and body language that drew the attention of our guides, I got an extra accessory for my caving costume. A kidney warmer! That’s not what they called it, but it was an insulated belt that wrapped around your kidneys to help maintain a safe body temperature. It looked like a strange combination of one giant ankle weight and a wrestling championship belt.

    Before we went underground, we practiced for our “waterfall jumps” by leaping off a platform into a river outside. Stand with your back towards the water, hold your tube directly behind your bum, aaaaand JUMP!  Somehow I was selected to provide the leaping demonstration for our group.

    The characters of our crew added additional spice to our experience. There was Summer, our new friend of the day- a sweet Chinese girl who went on the expedition solo. A genuinely terrified Indian woman who made us all a bit nervous. A sprinkling of British and German tourists. Then, a jovial Japanese man whose frequent thumbs-up made everything better. 

    Inside the cave, we found the trekking to be challenging enough to feel exciting. The cave boasted slippery rocks and unexpected holes under the rushing water. We climbed with our inner tubes over one shoulder, but still have plenty of time sitting inside them.

    Once we had been afloat, our guides told us to extinguish our helmet lights. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness, as tiny pin-prick dots of greenish-blue light came into vision. It was a miniature galaxy installed across the limestone architecture. In reality, the starlight was bioluminescent glowworms.

    To my understanding, the glowworms are the larvae of a type of fungus gnat. They create sticky, illuminated threads of silk which they use as snares. These caught insects as well as the attention of our own eyes.

    Later on, one of our guides produced a jar of goodies. “Do you want a fishie?” he asked, as I noticed everyone munching on something.
    Yeah, I do! Cave snack! It was a little chocolate fish-shaped treat. Upon my first nibble, I discovered a strawberry marshmallow interior. I decided it tasted yucky, so I just used the fishie as an oar for the remainder of the float.

    After being sixty-five meters underground, the sunshine returned at the mouth of the cave.

    The experience seemed to have whett David’s appetite for more adventurous exploits, but we were both happy to find a warm snack at the end of the tour. Until later notice, New Zealand’s spectacular subterranean wonders and tomato soup would suffice.