Queenstown, Wanaka, Hawea, Te Anau, Milford Sound, and the South Island
22.10.2015 - 26.10.2015 40 °F
Anyone who travels a good amount will tell you that being a smart traveler takes planning, research, and adaptability. As those of you who have followed me on previous adventures know, my trips usually involve countries where English is not the primary language, the land is treacherous to get over, and as shown recently in the last post, the activities are not for the faint of heart. The original plan on coming to the South Island of New Zealand was to spend a day in Queenstown and then head out early the next day for the three-day, 25 mile Routeburn hike. This particular hike does not require any technical equipment, but you do need to a baseline level of fitness to pack your belongings and camping gear through the mountains from one site to the next.
Sometimes the weather cooperates on these journeys, and sometimes it doesn't. I was monitoring the weather very closely for the three weeks prior to this stop, and there were forecasts of sleet, snow, and high winds. I kept checking hoping it would let up, but a few days before we arrived on the South Island, there were five "considerable" avalanche paths that were on the track with an advisory that "avalanche skills are essential." While I like to hike, I have zero avalanche skills, and it's not worth the danger of facing a force of nature that usually always bests the humans on the other side. We checked the weather each day all the way until the day we flew in, and there had been no change. We decided to be smart travelers, let the data inform our decision, and modify our plans on the South Island.
Our back-up plan included renting a car and doing various day hikes throughout the South Island. After taking a truly picturesque flight from Auckland to Queenstown, and a quick trip to the sweet shop in the airport, we walked over to the car rental place to book our transport.
This would normally be something rather pedestrian in the United States, but Kiwis drive on the left side of the road and use roundabouts. On top of that, most of the cars are manual transmissions. Since Danielle is not yet equipped to drive a manual transmission, that left me with the driving duties. I had driven on the left side of the road with my friend Susanna Baker in Southern Africa, but it had been about six years and I was a tad rusty. Thankfully, the biggest mistake I made was turning on the windshield wipers when I actually intended to signal for a turn and initially going below the speed limit to the ire of the locals.
Amazing views from 30,000 feet. Thank you to Adam and Tanya for the flight!
Wait, wait, is that called "farts"?
Danielle standing next to our steel chariot
We slowly got to our hotel, windshield much cleaner, and were absolutely astounded by the views. After we gawked at the views for a good amount of time, we took the ski lift up to the top of the mountain and took in even more panoramic sites. The top of the mountain had the usual trappings of any ski resort, shop, restaurant, and patio for eating. This one was unique in that it also had a luge slide for adventure seekers. Mind you, this isn't the luge in the Olympics where people slide like madmen/women down a slide at ridiculous speeds. This luge set-up was concrete and had little soapbox cars (ironic given the last post) that you used to pilot yourself down the track. Think of it like Mario Kart, except using the power of gravity. Danielle and I decided to give it a try, and we smiled like kids the whole way down it was so fun. We collected the obligatory photo, she made fun of how slow I went (MUCH slower), and then we progressed back down the mountain.
The view from our hotel room - Thank you, Alyssa and Emad!
The room itself
View from the top of the mountain behind Queenstown
Us at the top
The luge track
Have you ever seen more childlike happiness?
The ski resort also randomly had a Jelly Belly store, and this portrait was just outside the store
A view from the restaurant at dinner
Sunset from our room
The next day, we drove an hour north to the town of Wanaka based on recommendations from Raphy Landovitz and Judy Currier. Each had recommended this city in separate conversations, and if we couldn't complete the original hike, I thought we would be sure to find some great hikes in this area. We went to a place called Rippon Winery when we got into town and Danielle got to try a number of pinot noirs from the region. She bought a bottle, and we sat out by the vineyards with a cheese plate and enjoyed the views.
Good morning, Queenstown!
Matt trying marmite (New Zealand's version of veggemite), it was equally terrible
On the road to Wanaka
Sampling the local flavor. Thank you, Brett Daly and Wendy Ventuleth!
With our cheese plate and the bottle of wine for Danielle
The view from the vineyards
An old truck parked at the vineyard
We made our way over to a place called Diamond Lake for a nice hike that locals reported had a good view of Lake Wanaka. Danielle getting over her cold, and me on my first full day of having a cold, slowly lumbered up the pass. We took a good number of breaks to take in the views and clear our nasal passages and made it to the summit an hour and a half later. The hike had great views on a relatively clear day, and a beautiful wind spectacle across one of the lakes (see video).
We had to climb up more steps than Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Vol. 2
Danielle looks like she hates me in this picture
The wind making it's way across the lake's surface
The lookout point
We next went about 15 minutes northeast of Wanaka to a town called Lake Hawea. The wind was blowing fiercely through the mountain pass making waves across the lake. We thought Hawea was even prettier than Wanaka and took a thirty minute stroll along the shores. We collectively decided that this adventure was turning out great and prematurely made retirement plans for the area.
The multiple shades of blue of Lake Hawea
The mountains behind Lake Hawea
Dinner that night came courtesy of a restaurant called Federal, located in the middle of tiny Wanaka. The chef made us fish tacos that were better than anything I have ever had in San Diego (sacrilege for some of you reading this, but true), a very smooth shrimp curry, and a nice pan-seared sol with asparagus. I also had this amazing drink called Black Currant which resembled a blackberry soda.
Black Currant, I'm definitely going to try to find this when I get to the United States
The next day, we traveled from Wanaka to the town of Te Anau in the Southwestern part of the island. The drive took about three hours, and we pulled over more than a few times so that I could play tourist. Once we got there, the illness that Danielle initially picked up had hit me full force. I had to take a nap I was so tired, and awoke three hours later for dinner. Since I was not a fan of moving much at that point, we decided to walk over to the local cinema and see "The Martian." The movie theater had roomy seats and was packed with mostly locals, but I did notice a man wearing a shirt that said "UC San Diego Dad." I asked about his son, and he had graduated from Revelle College as a biology major in 2008, same as I had. It never ceases to amaze me how small of a world we live in.
The road to Te Anau
Danielle with her popcorn, ice cream, and pinot noir = happy lady
Determined to see more of the South Island, despite my sickness, I signed us up for a six mile kayak trip on the Milford Sound the next day. The drive is about two hours north of Te Anau, and it takes you past wonderful scenery. We went through a tunnel that was terrifying since you actually could not see the light on the other side, and it was poorly lit. It reminded me of Indiana Jones going through the abandoned mine shaft in "The Temple of Doom." Once we got to the other side, breath-taking panoramas surrounded us, similar to the feeling of coming around the bend to get one's first glimpse of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
Although the scenery was amazing, the trip wasn't a smart idea in my condition. We were barely keeping up with the group, but the tour guide was very kind and patient with us. I would definitely recommend Roscoe's Kayak Adventures, but you do need to be in shape (and not sick) to maximize your fun on this experience.
The road to Milford Sound
The sun cresting over the horizon
This tunnel was terrifying
And the award for the most stylish outfit goes to....
A view of Milford Sound from the Kayak
The clouds lifting
Waterfalls trickling down the mountain
We decided to spend our last day in the area hiking the first leg of the Routeburn Track. This is the one spot that did not have avalanche warnings, and we did the three hour hike up to Key Summit. The sky was definitely not as clear as the day of our kayak adventure, but we enjoyed the walk as the wind whipped around the mountainside.
There's that avalanche warning again
Thank you, Mike Parsons, Jim Booth, and Mark McGrath for the hikes!
The road to the top
Danielle at the top of Key Summit
Lake Marion in the distance
Our visit to the South Island consisted of two days of hiking and one day of kayaking had thoroughly tested our bodies. Although our original plans hadn't worked out the way we planned, we got to see Wanaka and Hawea, kayak the Milford Sound, and see a lot more of the South Island than we had originally planned. In total, we traveled 990 kilometers, or about 615 miles, on our road trip. This is roughly the equivalent of going one way from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. We both agreed that our back-up plan ended up being better than the original plan, and we promised each other we would be back.
I began this post talking about what it entails to be a smart traveler. While back-up plans are essential, a good attitude is equally important. The original plan didn't work out, we adapted, and we had a great time all the same since we were determined to have fun no matter what. Sometimes the detour in life ends up being the course your were meant to take all along.
The end of our unexpected journey - off to Fiji!