Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Travelogue: New Zealand 2015

I love my home, my farm, and my life on the farm. I appreciate and am grateful for the small things and the large, but still, I was looking forward to some time away from the farm. Leave home, leave the familiar, travel far afield. Only then can the routine experience -- caring for my animals, walking in the woods, preparing meals, even saying hello to strangers -- become new all over again. Mission accomplished!

The basic data on our trip to New Zealand

  • A full month end-to-end, with 4 weeks on the ground in NZ
  • 10 days on the North Island, including Wellington, Tongariro National Park, and Napier/ Hawke's Bay before ferrying across Cook's Strait to Picton
  • 18 days on the South Island, including Mapua/Abel Tasman, Dunedin, Cromwell/Central Otago, Queenstown, the Milford Track in Fiordlands National Park, Wanaka, and Aoraki/Mt. Cook
  • 7 stays over 19 nights in either a private room in an Airbnb host's home or in a self-contained cottage. The interaction with our hosts, and the chance to stay in real Kiwi homes made a huge impact on our overall experience. 
  • Could we actually have walked/hiked more than 100 miles in NZ? I think we did!

Once we decided that we were going to New Zealand, the first -- actually the only -- thing we booked were reservations for the 5-day experience of hiking the Milford Track, called one of the finest walks in the world. It is a 33.5 mile track set in Fiordlands National Park, amid the rain-forested river valleys in the Southern Alps. We knew that we would be carrying backpacks, albeit without having to carry food or shelter because we were hiking from lodge to well-equipped lodge. We knew there were 3 long days of walking on mostly flat-to-moderate terrain (plus one long ascent and descent), and we knew that we were likely to have rain. This gave us something to train for, and for 6 months, we hiked every Monday morning, working up to a distance of 12 miles in mostly hilly parks. The training hikes gave us some goals and we diligently geared up for the "tramp" that we expected to be a NZ highlight.

On December 1, thirty of us assembled in Queenstown, NZ, for a 3-hour bus ride to Lake Te Anau. Then we boarded a boat to go across the lake to the start of the Milford Track.

A one mile walk took us to our first lodge, the Glade House. The group split up into smaller ones to go on a 90 minute "orientation" and nature hike, during which it started raining. And it kept raining, all night and into the next morning. The Clinton River, just outside of our lodge, had risen nearly to the top of its banks, and waterfalls had sprung up everywhere overnight. And so started Day 2.

Our guides were on the radio with park rangers and weather services, and we delayed departure for an hour to let the water level drop. We finally got the "GO" signal, but were told that we would be walking as a single group, with the guides interspersed to check for safe passage. In the pouring rain, we set out. One of the funniest scenes of the day was the opening of the umbrellas by three of our Japanese walkers.

At first we were stepping around and then in small puddles. We progressed to walking through shoe-top level water. But the still-rising river was quickly overtaking the track. We were soon wading through knee deep and then thigh deep streams. It became clear, just over a mile in, that we couldn't proceed, so we turned around and headed back to the Glade House, where the staff had scones and hot drinks ready for us.

As there would be a new group checking in that day, we couldn't stay, but we also couldn't safely walk. The news came that we would be carried by helicopter to our next lodge. As logistical maneuvers were happening behind the scenes, we spent time in the warm dry lodge, getting to know our fellow walkers (6 of us Americans, 6 from NZ, 4 from Australia, 6 from Japan, 4 from Spain, and 4 from Singapore) as our wet gear hung in the amazing "drying room" at the lodge. By noon, the sun came out, and while we were disappointed to miss the day's 10 mile walk, we were getting psyched for the "free" chopper ride!

It was a 6-person helicopter, so it made 6 runs between the two lodges to ferry us to the Pompolona Lodge. John and I got seats up front with the pilot, and John captured the scene from on high as best he could. Photos can't quite show how amazing the scenery was, but here are a couple of the shots anyway!

The Pompolona Lodge was nestled in the jungle at the base of a rock wall, and waterfalls were running like mad. Everyone was eager to get back on track the next morning for the 9+ mile hike up the MacKinnon Pass at 3400' and then back down a rocky descent to Quinton Lodge. This was one of the most beautiful hikes I've ever been on, with lush ferns and wildflowers, beautiful rock, countless waterfalls, many native birds, and jaw-dropping scenery, turn after turn.

At the top, a memorial to Quinton MacKinnon.

The descent was equally beautiful but mentally tough because the extremely rocky path made for very challenging footing and required a lot of concentration. We were rewarded with many (more) waterfalls, reached the Lodge early, and then took an optional 90 minute loop hike up to Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in NZ.

The final day on track was a lightly-rolling 10 mile walk through the Arthur Valley all the way to the Milford Sound at the aptly-named Sandfly point. It was a beautiful walk with some bursts of rain, some sun, and plenty of lush green flora and gushing waterfalls. At the end, a small boat brought us across the water to our final night's lodging at Mitre Peak. In the morning, we boarded a large boat for a scenic cruise of the Milford Sound. We were told that a sunny, clear morning is relatively rare in these parts. We lucked out!

In addition to the spectacular Milford Track, we completed several other incredible hikes. Most notable was the epic 12 mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island during our first week. This hike is weather-dependent, and it had been closed for the two prior days with high winds and major thunderstorms. On our date, there were hundreds of independent walkers strung along the track. We caught a shuttle bus from our hotel inside the national park to the start, and we were picked up 6 hours later at the other end. We made some new friends along the way, and hiked most of it with a young Belgian couple, Sandie and Mario. We connected quickly and easily with them and I have a strong hunch we will see each other again.

We also hiked the Rob Roy Glacier Track on Mt. Aspiring, just after Milford, where we were treated to both spectacular scenery, sparse crowd, and a thrilling avalanche, which John captured on video. The following day we completed the Hooker Valley Track in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Both of these hikes featured glaciers, but in Aoraki, we were able to plainly see the fast-shrinking glacier. Beautiful and heart-breaking.

Our physical activities did venture beyond the fabulous hiking. We spent two days bicycling, and were very impressed with the well-marked and maintained bicycle trails. Many were completely off-road, some ventured onto roads for portions of the ride. I understand that the last decade has seen a large expansion of bicycle trails and tourism, and we were glad to take advantage. All NZ cyclists must wear helmets.

Lest you think that we did not have days of indulgence in wine and beer and food, fear not! We explored craft beer and small breweries all over the country. We visited many wineries, across several regions -- Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay on the North Island, Nelson and Central Otago on the South. We bought more than a case, but succumbed to the "normal" condition under which the Kiwis operate: drinking the wine within 90 minutes of purchase! Six bottles made it home in our luggage, and that doesn't count the bottle of Pinot Noir that broke in my suitcase midway through the trip.

In New Zealand, winery tasting rooms are called "Cellar Doors." And many, if not most Cellar Doors have restaurants on site (rare in California.) It was all very good.

Finally, some random deep thoughts, observations, and minutiae

Conservation: The Department of Conservation (DOC) is omnipresent in New Zealand open space and cultural institutions. The green signs are posted everywhere and it takes its duty of protecting and restoring more than 12,000 archaeological, historical, cultural, and natural sites very seriously. Their programs provide people with the opportunities to engage with these treasures. And they do a remarkable job. Every museum and park we visited and every trail walked was in tip-top condition. The trails are aggressively maintained and kept available to all who visit. I don't know what their budget is, but I do know that all access to these sites was free of charge for all.

Seasonal differences: It is summer in NZ, and further south of the equator than I realized. Queenstown, for example, is at about the same latitude south as Seattle is north. It was light by 5:30 am and stayed light until nearly 10 pm. Temperatures and topography were similar to SF Bay Area.

Night sky: I saw the Southern Cross, pointed out to me by our AirBnb host on a clear night at his home on the Pacific coast, south of Dunedin. Spectacular! I got to sing him a few lines of the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, which he enjoyed, but didn't seem to know. (When you see the Southern Cross for the first time/You understand now why you came this way/'Cause the truth you might be runnin' from is so small/But it's as big as the promise, the promise of a comin' day)

Life with less WiFi: during 12 days, I had either little or no access to the Internet, so I mindfully tuned out of most news coverage, including the ongoing stream of US election/campaign coverage and mass shootings, Facebook, and Words with Friends matches. I admit that I missed knowing what was going on personally for my friends, and I missed being able to share more frequently the funny day-to-day travel anecdotes. But I was actually blissfully unaware of world news and faux news-like items. The media void was actually a gift that helped keep me more "present" and less anxious about happenings outside of my small sphere.

The Donald: Kiwis, Aussies, and Europeans are amused and fascinated and in disbelief by the prospect of Trump as a presidential candidate. I told most Kiwis that if he gets elected, I will soon be their next-door neighbor. For the record, they are unanimously laughing at the fact that this guy is still the front-runner in the GOP primaries.

The national flag: For several weeks there has been a national (non-binding) referendum being voted upon by New Zealanders, the opportunity to select from among 5 new designs for the national flag. The winner will then go up against the current national flag in a national vote. The existing flag still has the Union Jack in the upper left hand corner. No surprise that older Kiwis still feel a kinship or nostalgia for their British Commonwealth heritage.

Practicing acceptance and gratitude: on a one-way flight we took to travel from Nelson to Dunedin on the South Island, we packed a number of wine bottles into our checked luggage. Upon arrival, and while waiting at the rental car counter, I smelled that smell... the unmistakable bouquet of red wine. I quickly opened my suitcase to discover that a bottle of pinot noir had broken, and much of my clothing was soaked in wine. After just a few seconds of lamenting the mess and the loss, I started making a list of what I was grateful for:
·      The bottle had been in a bag and then wrapped in a shirt, so any broken glass remained in the (soaked!) bag and not in my suitcase
·      Many of my clothes, and all of the things that I had borrowed from friends for the trek, had been packed into John's larger bag, and thus escaped the wine.
·      When we arrived at our lodging, the Airbnb host immediately showed me to her washer, into which I quickly dumped my clothes for a cold rinse.
·      Two light colored shirts were completely wine-stained. They were old favorites (old as in more than 10 years old) that while not wearable for the rest of the trip, they did become lovely additions to my farming clothes pile.
·      Several of my Icebreaker base layer tops now feature a "tie-dye" pattern, and every time I put one on, I get to remember my trip to New Zealand!
·      Lesson: there's no reason to cry over spilled wine

Meeting and befriending people: What is it about traveling that makes us more open to noticing and talking and listening to the people around us? Both John and I were much more engaged than usual with the people we met, and we even sought them out during our adventures. That included our fellow hikers and diners, farmers in their market tents, musicians, friends of friends that we sought out while "in their neighborhood," and a handful of Airbnb hosts that hosted our stays in their homes.

Before this trip, both of us been avoiders of B&B inns, perceiving them as too-cute kinds of places where interaction with other guests and the innkeeper, over breakfast or wine, is simply a part of the deal. But as we prepared for our first three days in NZ, I thought it would be fun to stay in a cool urban neighborhood in Wellington, and I thought it actually WOULD be cool to have some close contact with someone we could pepper with questions and who would be our own in-the-know-local Kiwi. So I searched through the Airbnb listings for a private room.

There were dozens of choices, but I was psyched about one in the Central Business District, close to caf├ęs, restaurants, breweries and shops. Walking distance to the waterfront and national museum and botanic garden. After a message exchange with "Amanda," I booked 3 nights in their apartment: a "private room with en suite" and breakfast fixings in the kitchen. And a kitten named Hobbes! The room + bath turned out to be fabulous, the vintage building well-refurbished and in a great in-town location. But spending a little time with a young married late-20s-professionals couple and their 6 month old kitten; getting to know them and learning a lot about New Zealand: as the commercial says, "priceless." We repeated this Airbnb process for most of the towns we stayed in over the month. We stayed in people's homes three more times during the month, and getting to know our hosts was just an amazing addition to our experience in the country. At our Airbnb farmstay, we harvested all our own dinner ingredients from their gardens. And then made it into a dinner party by inviting our hosts to join us! We learned a lot about their life as second-career farmers, and bonded over the shared agrarian lifestyle and of course a bottle or two of the local wine...

Driving on the left and Petrol stops: John did all the driving. It took a while before we each automatically entered the proper car door, and for John to stop turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signals. The gas prices averaged about $1.90 NZD ($1.26 in US$) per liter, which equates to about $4.80 a gallon. The highest speed limit in NZ is 100 km/h, or 62.5 mph. This is the speed on most roads that are outside of a town center. 

Almost all roads are only two lanes wide, and everyone is pretty mellow about letting faster cars pass them. On the South Island, we were only on a divided highway for 6 km. Up north, it may have been 20 km. And that is NOT because we were seeking out the scenic byways! There are really no traffic lights except in the densest part of the biggest cities. Most towns have no traffic lights or even stop signs, and the "highways" go right through town. Rather, intersections are controlled by roundabouts, which seemed to work very efficiently. Our GPS lady, whom I named Helen, pronounced the word as ROUND-A-BOUT, with equal and emphatic accent on each syllable. 

Travel Security, or lack thereof: We had tickets for a ferry crossing from the North to the South Island, a 3.5 hour trip on a gigantic auto/truck/passenger-carrying vessel. We arrived early to check in and check our luggage, as you can only carry on 2 small items, just like on most airplanes. They did not ask us for identification, and there was no inspection of any kind, whether personal or property. It was the exact same when we took a one-way Air New Zealand (domestic) flight from Nelson to Dunedin! They didn't ask for ID and didn't make us go through security of any kind.

Metric system: was only recently adopted by NZ and Australia in the 1960s. It really is much more logical, but I still practiced my math skills many times a day converting from kilometers (pronounced KILL-oh-meters, as opposed to the European kill-AH-mitters) to miles and degrees Celsius to degrees Fahrenheit.

Geeky math tips: each kilometer is 5/8 or 0.625 mile. My quick way to convert: start with the number of kilometers and first take half (that's equal to 4/8) and then add 1/4 of that half (1/4 of 1/2 equals 1/8). So a 12 km hike is 7.5 miles: 6 miles (4/8 or half of 12) plus 1.5 miles (1/4 of 6.) And a 272 km drive is 136 plus 34, or 170 miles. Got it?!

Interestingly, I use wine bottle sizing to figure out liquid amounts, being quite familiar with a 750 ml bottle being 25.2 ounces. So a gallon, or 128 ounces, is just slightly more than 5 wine bottles or 3.75 liters. I also got to teach my kayaking guide how to convert from degrees Celsius: he had a tough time with 9/5X + 32! 

$NZD to $US: Each New Zealand dollar is exchanged at about 66 cents to the US dollar. So every price in NZ dollars was automatically discounted by 1/3. In addition, there is no tipping in NZ, and GST taxes are included in all prices. So the price you see on a menu or on a price tag is the exact amount you pay. And it seemed like almost everything was a really good value.

EFT-POS: Electronic Funds Transfer / Point of Sale is how nearly ALL things are paid for in all establishments in NZ. Very few people use cash. So their equivalent ATM card is used everywhere, with the user selecting whether the funds are deducted from their checking or savings account. The same machine is also a Credit card reader for the (still somewhat rare in USA) chipped cards. There were some places that only took EFTPOS; that is, didn't accept credit cards, so for a few things, including two privately-rented cottages, we had to use our U.S. ATM card to withdraw cash. Speaking of cash, the smallest paper bill is a $5 and there are $2 and $1 coins. The smallest coin is a 20-cent piece, and there is also a 50 cent piece. Interestingly, cash usage is rare enough among Kiwis that the business traveler (in his 30s) sitting next to me on the flight wasn't sure what the smallest coin was!

Baa: There really are sheep everywhere. Everywhere! Almost all the sheep were white. And since it is the beginning of their summer, there are lambs, lambs, lambs all over the pastures. What I didn't expect to see were so many cattle. Apparently in the last 20 years, the sheep population is down by nearly half as ranchers have added cows to boost their bottom line: export of beef and dairy, especially to China, is huge. I did see a sign in one pasture that said "Beef and lamb chops at work"

Toilets: I forgot to look and see whether the water circulates in the bowl in the "opposite" direction that it does in the northern hemisphere. But I was glad to learn that the NZ toilets are "normal" seat-type units with normal toilet paper. What was remarkably advanced about nearly every throne I encountered was that the flushing was accomplished by a button, not a handle, and 99% of them had two buttons: one for a small and one for a larger volume of flushing water. Why isn't every toilet everywhere doing this, especially in drought regions like the American West?

I also saw two unintentionally funny signs (well, funny to me!) in toilet stalls. One, in a public toilet, said, "In New Zealand, used toilet paper is placed in the toilet, not in the rubbish bin." The other one, also in a public bathroom, showed the proper way to use the toilet!

I feel a little odd closing out this travelogue with bathroom humor! On the other hand, what is the joy of travel if not to see and learn and experience things beyond the usual, the familiar? I did accomplish all those things, so much that I am already plotting how to do this again, and soon! I am grateful that the natural annual "rhythms" on the farm give us extended periods of time to get away after Harvest. And grateful that our budget can accommodate the expense as well. And finally, I am grateful for the friends who offer to come stay here (to take care of the animals) while we get out of Dodge!

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