Queenstown has many nice cafes, restaurants and bars, but this town is really all about adrenaline. It’s a major ski town and even now, at the very end of the season (most of the hills close on Sunday), you see many people just walking around town with their snowboards. Even if they’re not carrying a board, they’re probably wearing those baggy, plaid, I-don’t-care-what-old-people-think-of-me snowboarder clothes. If you look up in the sky, you’ll see at least a handful of paragliders sailing above the city. And when you get back to your hostel and ask the others what they did all day, you’re probably going to hear something like, “I jumped off such-and-such bridge!” or “I went skydiving, it was wicked!”. If your heart wasn’t racing at some point during the day in Queenstown, you’re not doing it right.
We started off our fun by taking the Skyline Gondola up a mountain right near our hostel. It was a nice, sunny day and the views of the city, lake and mountains were really cool. Then we raced down the luge (a long, winding cement race track) in little one person carts. The carts don’t have any motors or anything, they just use gravity, but you can still control the speed. There are two courses, a scenic one that is more relaxed and an advanced one that has many sharp drops and turns. It was really fun!
The next day we took a trip to Arrowtown, a little town about twenty minutes away. It was formed during a brief gold rush in the late 1800s and they’ve preserved many of the huts where the miners used to live. Now the town has many cute little shops and cafes. We spent most of our day browsing through the random boutiques and checking out the historical sites. The museum is supposed to be pretty interesting as well, but since it’s not free we decided to pass on it.
You might be wondering if we were tempted to do any of the above-mentioned extreme sports. After spending a few days surrounded by all the hype, it’s not a matter of if, but what and when. The paragliding was pretty appealing and we thought about doing that for a while. But then we settled on bungy jumping because it was invented right here in Queenstown. There are several bungy sites, so we decided to stick with the historical theme and jump from the very first one, the Kawarau Bridge. I’m not going to lie, standing on the edge of that platform and looking down at the river is terrifying. Neither of us chickened out, though. It was definitely a rush and a great way to end our time in Queenstown.
Today we went hiking on the Franz Josef glacier. Due to the dangers of hiking on the glacier (among others, rockfalls, avalanches, and hidden crevices) it must be done with an experienced guide. We did a half-day tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides, a very good company that provides very knowledgeable guides and all the equipment necessary.
We started off hiking through the valley leading up to the glacier. Apparently it’s been retreating at a very quick pace the past decade. The glacier is very much alive, and can move up to 70cm per day. When we finally reached the terminal end, we crossed over ropes with very scary warning signs and began our hike up a tall field of loose rock which actually contained the glacier underneath. Once we reached the ice, we got a quick lesson in how to attach and use our crampons, and took to the ice.
There were patches of very deep blue ice, but according to Nikki not enough. This was partially due to it being the dry season, and partially because earlier in the year there was a big rockfall that covered the ice in dust and debris. Our guides had to cut steps into the ice in some places. We also walked through a crevice that was so narrow we had to keep one foot in front of the other and shuffle forward.
The guide was very knowledgeable and showed us numerous features of the constantly moving ice, such as waves that are caused by the wind and sun, and pockets of air that form right under our feet from the immense pressure of the ice flowing down from above. We also stood on a valley that will soon break and expose the river flowing underneath. It’s interesting to think of how powerful the glaciers that covered North America must have been, if even this (relatively) small glacier is so powerful.
Our tour also included a free pass to a glacial hot pool (just a large hot tub) so we took advantage of that and relaxed for a while. Then we got drinks at a bar with an incredible view of the Southern Alps. All in all, a fun and interesting day on our first glacier.
We recently spent four days and three nights hiking in Abel Tasman National Park. The hike is classified as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, meaning it’s one of the best in the country. It follows part of the northern coast of the South Island. (The South Island is way better than the North Island, by the way.) As far as scenery, it was, of course, beautiful. The path mainly went from golden beach to beach, cutting back up the cliffs and through the rain forest in between, with stunning overhead views of the bright blue ocean. Our overall experience, however, was a little more rural than I prefer.
We slept in bunks in DOC huts that didn’t have electricity or warm water. Reading by candle light, not showering, starting a fire in the wood-burning stove for heat and eating beef jerky for dinner was kind of fun the first night, but I got pretty sick of it after that. We had really good hiking weather during the days, mostly sunny and cool. At night, though, it got really cold and we didn’t have a sleeping bag. Long underwear, wool socks, sweaters, coats, hat and gloves are definitely not the most comfortable pajamas.
Another feature/inconvenience of Abel Tasman is the tidal crossings. The tides bring drastic changes to the water levels in the park. Certain paths are only accessible around low tide, so we had to consult a tide table when we were planning our hike. The first day we had to wade through knee deep, cold water on a mucky beach with sharp shells for about twenty minutes. Needless to say, I was not a happy camper at the time.
Still, the park was worth all the trouble and we had a lot of fun. We hiked about four hours a day and saw many waterfalls and streams, along with the above mentioned beaches and forest. There were many steep uphills and downhills, but it was a really peaceful walk. Winter is low season here, so we didn’t see many other walkers. Our first night we had the hut all to ourselves. The second night we shared the hut with a nice Irish girl and the third night we hung out with a really funny group of Australians. We’ve already met a lot of really cool people.
At least now even the most basic hostels seem very warm and welcoming!
New Plymouth is a very nice town on the coast with a pretty beach and boardwalk. But since it was pouring, we didn’t get a chance to enjoy that. We still had to trudge through the rain and pick up our tickets from the will-call window, though.
While we were walking downtown, we saw that most of the stores were rooting for the USA rugby team. Nearly all the shops had American flags and red, white and blue streamers hanging in the windows. Maybe they just felt like someone had to cheer for us, because, while there were hordes of Ireland supporters, there were hardly any USA fans. Or maybe they felt like they had to cheer for us, since it was September 11th and all.
The atmosphere before the game was not as crazy or intense as I had pictured it. I was imagining huge tailgates and tents filled with fans drinking beer–a Wisconsin football game, basically. Since there wasn’t much going on outside, we just stayed in our hostel until it was time to go. Then I stuck an American flag out the back of my shirt and we headed out the door.
The game itself was actually quite fun and the rain stopped for most of it. We had standing-room only seats in the north end, so it felt like being in the student section of Camp Randall. We didn’t really know what was going on in the game, so the people standing next to us started explaining everything. The US put up a good fight in the beginning, but we ended up losing 21-10.
Then we went out to the bars with the guys from the game. We had a pretty eclectic group: us, an older gentleman from New Zealand (Roger), a thirty-something Irishman (Dave, who kept complaining that he “got stuck with all the yanks”), and a young US Navy recruit (Adam). All of the bars were absolutely nuts. They were packed full of green-clad Ireland fans singing various songs and celebrating. It really felt like we had actually been transported to Ireland. Luckily, the Irish were all very nice to us. In a couple of the bars, we were the only Americans, but everyone kept coming up and talking to us. We had a really fun group and a great night.
The next day wasn’t quite as fun, but it never is, is it?
Sickness has struck: when Nikki woke up for the drive to Taupo, she wasn’t feeling very well. Which meant her day in Taupo was largely spent sleeping and trying to recover.
However, I decided to venture out into the hills of Lake Taupo alone, in search of Huka Falls. The gal working at the reception desk strongly suggested I take an hour-long walking tour through town out to Huka Falls, instead of driving. The route looked great on a map–just follow the dotted line along the river. However, the start of the trail was unmarked, so after a half hour walking on what I thought was the trail, I had to backtrack. When I got on the path, there was trash all over the place, it wasn’t really that pretty of a river, and it largely passed by a sewage treatment plant. The trail also made numerous annoying forks, which were not on the map and were not marked. In the end, I gave up and went back to the hostel.
In the end, I gave in and took the car to Huka Falls. The water, infused with bubbles from the fast-moving rapids, was an unnaturally light blue. The falls were spectacular, well worth the trouble of getting there.
The next morning we left Taupo for Tongariro National Park, which was Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. We decided to take a five hour hike to the Tama Lakes, at the foot of Mt. Ngauruhoe, a.k.a. Mount Doom. Don’t worry, there was no spewing lava or prowling orcs. The scenery for most of the hike was a barren, desert-like land of alpine shrubs, and rolling ridges leading up to the base of the mountains. We saw Taranaki Falls on the way. The mountains were mostly hidden in thick clouds, but managed to come out a couple times during our hike. We were exhausted by the end of the long hike, and glad to be back.
Here are some photos of these couple days. Tongariro National Park is also our first UNESCO World Heritage Site on this trip.