January 15, 2007

Adventures in Middle Earth, Part Two: South Island and Back Again

Part One is here.

So; having crossed over to the South Island on the day after Christmas, we had at that point eight full days left in the country, the last of which we had to finish up in Auckland by 4:00 in order to return our car and prepare for our early flight out on the morning of the 3rd. Aside from our first days in Auckland, we had yet to stay in the same place two nights in a row, and despite a good time in Waitomo were still feeling like we were spreading ourselves too thin; the prospect of more or less everything had been closed from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day also contributed to the thought that our remaining time here in Middle Earth was, shall we say... precious.

With this in mind during the course of our ferry ride across the Cook Strait we decided to plant ourselves down in a good-looking place for at least two days in order to take part in some more of the many adventure tourist activities New Zealand has to offer. A promising candidate appeared in the form of Kaikoura, a small little crayfishing town on a peninsula jutting out from the northeast coast of the South Island that has turned itself into a center for whale-watching, fur seal-watching, dolphin swimming, and other aquatic activities. Only a short drive from Picton later we were there, and looking around found ourselves a very comfortable backpacker's hostel, The Albatross, which at one point served as the town's Post Office and telephone exchange (the huge post office safe vault door is still there in the common lounge). The friendly proprietor set us up in the special "Turkish-style" dorms — again, all to ourselves! —where curtains shelter each bunk. We stayed in a number of nice places during our travels through Enzedd but this was definitely one of the nicest, hence the direct recommendation (for what it's worth) here. Also, the Subway sandwich man there in Kaikoura is extremely friendly as well.

Well, dolphin swimming turned out to be booked out for the next week, but as the Lonely Planet did warn us of that we weren't too set back by it. Instead we decided to go horseback riding, another first for me, but not for Ms. Riddarfjarden who was looking forward to the chance to go riding again. Accompanied by our guide Linda and a very energetic dog named Zack, our two mounts, Madam and Winston ("Winnie") took us along a path in the shadow of Mount Fyffe, over some rocky riverbeds and around several acres of land. The horses were well-behaved, which was good, because I mostly concentrated on staying upright (especially when we tried some bone-jarring trotting; now I know why cowboys were always so ornery, as sore as that left me). It's weird to be riding something that you don't need to guide precisely along, but rather is an intelligent animal that knows where to go and how to watch its footing on its own. A neat experience, and something I'd be interested in trying again I think.

We returned to town and took a long (and hot) walk along the rocky peninsula tip on whose edges the seals regularly bask; then it was back to the Albatross for a refreshing shower (and much-needed laundry run) and a late dinner at a local seafood restaurant that also, it must be said, did a delicious rack of lamb. The live cover band playing made a few questionable selections but all in all it was a nice finish to the day.

With dolphin swimming booked out we decided we might as well bid our farewells to Kaikoura and carry on; having already made reservations in Christchurch for New Year's Eve, we resolved to cross over to the other side of the island, before doubling back again for our reserved night there. A four-hour or so drive through Lewis Pass took us over the spine of the South Island and to the West Coast, where we made a short drive northward to the Punakaiki "pancake rocks", surf-pounded stacks of limestone that jut out into the Tasman Sea. Heading back south, we stopped in Hokitika, a major jade-working town that was unfortunately almost entirely closed for the holidays. We did chat with a few fellow backpackers in our hostel whose car problems were even worse than ours (a hare had apparently jumped into, and subsequently shattered, their windshield, temporarily stranding them there) and who had enough stories about Australian spiders to make me reconsider just how badly I want to see Coober Pedy anytime soon (well, I still do.. maybe in winter, though).

There was a nice little "grotto" of glowworms on the edge of town that night, far fewer than in the caves of Waitomo but still very beautiful (when the other noisy tourists left it, that is). We also spotted a possum, "New Zealand's number one enemy!", hiding there in the dark. We saw nocturnal critters of a different type the next morning when we visited a local zoo (things are open, finally!) and saw a couple of... cute, whuffling little kiwis! Any comparisons made to fluffy footballs just begging to be kicked will be omitted from this public recounting for the sake of decorum. But they were cute.

So the main reason we had come to this side of the island was not the chance to see kiwis, but rather — glaciers. Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers lay just a little further south of us, only about a half hour apart from each other, and I was keen to go hiking as we could — helicopter tours and serious mountain climbing expeditions are all available there but I figured a day to take in the walking trails that skirt the terminus at each would be plenty. Unfortunately, by the time we reached Franz, it was raining steadily with no signs of let-up, forcing us to take stock of our plans and consider whether we wanted to stick around and wait out the rain.

The forecast we got from two German girls who attempted to proposition us for a lift — "anywhere but here" —was not encouraging; it had been like this for several days and many of the tracks and trails were closed from the rain. In a testament either to their hitchhiking skills or our extreme decent-ness, we told them we would have to think what our next move was going to be but if we were going to leave, we would stop by their hostel and offer them a ride our way. It continued to rain through lunch and we finally settled on taking a short walk up to Sentinel Rock overlooking the tip of Franz Josef glacier. It lightened a little during this part and we were able to make out a bit of the glacier; soaked but having at least seen something, we decided to cut our losses and head back to Christchurch early, bump up our reservation there by one and use the extra day elsewhere. Fox would have to wait for another time. The German girls back in town thanked us but said they weren't planning on going as far as Christchurch; that and a delay for filling up the gas tank meant that just as we were leaving Franz Josef town... the sun broke out!

45 seconds or so of deliberation and we swiftly resolved to wheel around and head for Fox as fast as we could, hoping to beat the next downpour. Hiking our way through light mists, we made our way up the scree-filled canyon that the glacier had gouged out over the past century, coming within only a few hundred meters of a massive wall of blue ice that was truly awesome to see. Someday I'll have to back and see it under clearer skies, but I'm very glad we were able to see what we did. Then it was back across the Southern Alps again, along the twisting slopes of Arthur's Pass, a long mountains drive but, it must be said, a beautiful one to make in dusk-light. We pulled into Christchurch late in the evening (after passing through another pounding rainstorm on the outskirts, that, unfortunately, would follow us for the next few days) but found our reservations welcome and waiting for us. No energy for dinner — straight to bed.

We had a nice big brunch in a downtown Christchurch cafe; still raining, and cold, we went to check out the Air Force Museum for a change of pace. We spent a good deal of time there, marveling at what a different experience it must've been to be a far-flung citizen in the service of the British Empire back in the first half of the 20th century — and discussing the crucial national defense issue of which is cooler, jets or helicopters. Opinions on our committee differed and final judgement was postponed pending further study. By the afternoon as we left it had cleared off — though still cold — so we were able to walk through downtown Christchurch, passing by the famous cathedral as well as some pleasant botanical gardens that seemed to be having some kind of UFO problem. For dinner we splurged on some Mexican, which sadly does not seem to be found for cheap anywhere outside of North America. It was good (and spicy) though.

The next day was New Year's Eve and we decided to press back up north, reaching Picton in a few hours and catching a ferry north back to Wellington. This experience was considerably livelier than our crossing south a few days back; four to five meter swells had the boat churning and rolling for most of the three hours, sending things rolling and flying all over in the cabin lounge and most of the passengers to the seasick bags in short order. I managed to keep my feet pretty well and shut down the panic impulse as best I could whenever I saw the ocean surface rolling out underneath the side porthole across the room; the ferry crew seemed fairly blase about the whole thing so I passed the time listening to their conversations and skimming the Lonely Planet for ideas to fill our as-yet-unplanned New Year's Day.

We finally made it into Wellington and yet more pouring rain. Driving around in search of a place to say it soon became apparent that our decision make reservations for the holiday had been a good idea — except that we had made them in Christchurch, and had bumped them up to the 30th, so now we were out of luck. We finally made it back to the hotel we had spent Christmas in and got the last room in the house, a spacious triple well worth the NZ$99. We had good Indian food for dinner but did not end up staying out to midnight with the rest of Wellington's population; which was too bad, but we were also pretty soaked and tired as well.

2007 dawned gray and rainy, but we had a goal — see Mount Doom! Tongariro National Park in the center of the North Island is home to Mount Ngauruhoe, which played the role of Mordor's fiery mountain in Lord of the Rings. We reached it by noon, and while it was still cool and misty (leaving comparisons to the screen version, not to mention clear photos, somewhat hard to make) we were able to get in a good hour or so of hiking along the rocky scrub desert that surrounds its flanks. Unfortunately no orcs in sight, but it was something.

We stopped in the small town of Turangi, ate Chinese takeout, and slept the night in a crowded dorm before alighting early the next morning for Auckland. There we spent our last day in country doing a bit of grocery shopping — my fennel needs have been unmet here in Japan thus far — and returning the car after securing a spot in a backpackers and a shuttle bus out to the airport at the crack of dawn the next morning in order to make our 9:00 AM flight. We saw Borat in theaters (since we figured it's doubtful it'll be making it here any time soon) which was admittedly funny albeit extremely cringe-inducing... which I guess is mostly the point. Then it was off to bed for the last time in New Zealand.

The flight on to Hong Kong was as long as the one down, but starting off in the morning when we were still awake helped make it more bearable; the reasonably good selection of movies (except Miami Vice, which was as awful as The Departed was good) helped too.

By the time we made it to HK we were pretty tired, though, and with a full 24 hours layover we needed a place to spend the night. We found one in Chungking Mansions, a "backpacker ghetto" whose unique character which the Lonely Planet alternated between praising and warning against. Unfortunately we were too busy dodging touts to catch any pictures of the place; the most immediate comparison I have was the building in downtown Dhaka we changed money in during my trip to Bangladesh last May, an urban experience like no other I've had to date; this is probably partly due to the fact that many of Chungking's tenants appeared to be immigrants from South Asia, including (judging from the writing on a number of the storefronts) Bangladesh itself. The bottom floor was given over to all manner of shops, mostly serving this immigrant community, while the above 16 floors were packed with all manner cheap flats, budget guest rooms, and flophouses. We wandered through for a bit, finally prying off the last and most persistent tout; picking a place more or less at random out of our guidebook, we went up to check out the Osaka Guesthouse, and when the young African man on duty — who didn't look to be more than a teenager — called in the manager, who should he be but our persistent fellow from downstairs. Well, the place wasn't bad and it certainly was cheap, so we took it, and proceeded to stretch out and nap.

Our failure to reset the clock for local time meant that nap lasted a good deal longer than we had intended, and we ended up stepping out near midnight onto the streets of Kowloon, Hong Kong, which made for an interesting visual tableau of the kind I imagine most people associate with my current home of Japan; very Blade-Runner, in parts, our Mansions most especially included. We didn't stay out too very late, stopping at a 7-11 for some snacks and doing a bit of window shopping in the closed Nathan Street storefronts.

The next day we took a tram line up a very steep ascent to the top of Victoria Peak, where thick haze brought south by prevailing winds from mainland China obscured what the guidebook assured us was probably a very impressive view of Hong Kong. We got lunch in a very crowded restaurant — we were seated at a table with other patrons, something that I had always been advised to prepare for in Japan but which to date has never happened to me here — and then made our way back to the airport for our 1:00 flight home. Another stopover in Taipei, touchdown in Fukuoka, and a pass through Japanese customs (Inspector: "Do you speak Japanese?" Me: "Uh, sukoshi." ["a little"] Inspector: "What's in this box?" Me: "Omiyage." Inspector: "No drugs?" Me: "No." Inspector: "Ok, thank you." *waves us through*). An hour on the train and then it's home sweet Karatsu, with the first day of the new semester waiting for me the next day.

It's hard to wrap something like this up with a neat conclusion but I think it's fair to say that New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places I've travelled to; and there is also far too much there to fit into a mere two weeks. If you can go, do, but be sure to take good care of it while you're there, because I plan to go back.

(But my next stop is... Mongolia.)

1 comment:

Peter said...

thanks so much for posting this blog on my wonderful country. It was an interesting and refreshing read with great photos. When next I'm in glacier country - I'll post a pic for you...