Travel Journal: New Zealand
Words and Photos by David Lee
Strange to say, but our trip to New Zealand was really on a bit of a whim. After nearly six months living and traveling in Asia, we wanted our next big trip to be special but relatively easy (few language barriers, predictable food, etc). We knew that I would be traveling on business in Australia and New Zealand but did not know which. We were all set for Australia but had not researched New Zealand very much, so when the decision came, we were in a rush to make plans. The good news about NZ is it is hard to go wrong. The bad news is that there is so much to see that making choices can be devastatingly difficult.
Because my business trip ended on a Monday in Auckland, we spent three days in the city over a weekend. Called the "City of Sails" it reminded us a lot of Seattle, where were living when we got married, so we felt very at home.
Sammie was still quite young, so we needed to make sure she had a good experience. She loves animals, so on the Saturday, we visited the Kelly Tarlton Antarctic Adventure. It was a small, specialized aquarium with a lot of charm. Sammie enjoyed the Antarctic Adventure ride through the penguin tank and glass encased tunnel where sharks, mantas, eels and other fish swim all around as you walk through it. We had fun watching the divers feed the fish. I particularly enjoyed the historical recreation of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic outpost.
Later, we sat out and had drinks on Viaduct Harbor which is the ubiquitous central development along the water where tourists are sent to keep them away from true local culture. All cities seem to have them now, and this was a pretty nice one and a least we were not familiar with the chain restaurants.
But, Heidi was not going to be in the "City of Sails" without at least being on a boat. She spotted a small sailboat along the docks where a group of men were having a Bar-BQ. Turning up her charm she walked down and asked if she could come aboard. They happily complied handing her a beer. About thirty minutes later, she casually asked if her husband (the worried looking fellow up at the cafe) and daughter (the girl in pigtails playing with the stuffed turtle) could join them. Surprisingly, they were enthusiastic about it. Turns out, they all worked for a local yacht making company, and the owner of the boat was on his bachelor party. They were not, at this point, getting too wild, just casually drinking beers. They were illegally docked, and eventually the police asked them to move the boat. This pissed them off, but thrilled us, as we got a free tour of the harbor. Once they found a new place to dock, they set off to hit the bars and other fine institutions of Auckland. It was at this point that we left them to enjoy. We have to say that they were a good group of guys.
On Sunday, we caught a fast ferry to Waiheke which is a small island about forty-five minutes off Auckland. There is not much to do there which is the charm. One could, perhaps, visit a vineyard or go on a bike ride, but we chose just to spend a day at the beach. We simply hung out looked at the horizon and played on the sand. The amazing thing about the island is the difference in the environment. While Auckland felt like the Pacific Northwest, Waiheke seemed more tropical. An afternoon there was almost like a nice day in the Caribbean, according to Heidi. We remained until sunset eating bread, cheese, and salami and sampling local wine. A great, relaxing day trip.
Wanaka and Hawea
We flew to the South Island the next day, passed through Queenstown for a night, and headed out to Wanaka where we stayed at the Wanaka Homestead. The Homestead is a small lodge with two large cottages run by a very friendly. It is not as rustic as we would have imagined, just off the two lane highway, but it was clean and well run with good service. We stayed for five days which was probably not regular for them as we saw the guest list turnover several times during our stay.
We choose Wanaka because it is a bit off the beaten path, but it became clear that it was quickly becoming the beaten path and for good reason. The area is simply stunning. One will never run out of nature here. April is just the beginning of autumn in New Zealand, and the leaves were beginning to turn. The days were warm with chilly nights, a perfect escape from the constant heat and humidity of Singapore.
The first day out, Heidi was determined to go fishing. I am not a fisherman by any means, but she grew up with it. She had waited patiently for ten years for an opportunity, so what the heck. At the suggestion of our inn keepers, we set up a guided trip with Harry Urquardt.
Harry is bit of a local celebrity and a real taste of New Zealand flavor. As far as we could tell, his life consisted of fishing and reading James Michener novels. Having never left New Zealand, he knew a lot about the world abroad. On our last day at the airport, I bought a magazine with an article about land development in the area. Harry's picture was in it, and he was quoted. Turns out that his family is loaded. We are not sure if Harry benefited from the sale of family land, but it would be a hell of a story if he was. As it was, his fishing strategy netted us nine catches in three hours on the neighboring lake Hawea. The largest was Heidi's at three pounds. Fishing with Harry is definitely a recommended experience.
West Coast Drive
On the third day in Wanaka the weather turned dark and cloudy, so we hopped into the rented Lee-family-vehicle and headed west toward the coast. This led us directly into the rain storm. The rains were heavy to say the least and waterfalls off the mountains were spilling directly onto the road in some places. At one point, we stopped and counted fourteen waterfalls coming of one section of hillside. We took a picture but could only get about half in the frame.
It was a good drive in spite of or even because of the rain. After getting over the mountain pass, the topography became rain forest. We made it all the way to Haas which is a little beach community on the coast. Had we continued for another two hours, we would have made it to Fox Glacier. But a trip to New Zealand can be full of "could've gones" as there is just so much to see. As it was, Sammie was tired of the car, and we were all hungry so we stopped in Haas at a little airfield cafe for a late lunch. There we met up with a large elk that apparently lived in a paddock there. We also met a family from Australia that had a girl Sammie's age. When we turned around from the lunch counter, Sammie was sitting at the family's table. We had acquired travel companions for the rest of the afternoon.
On the advice of our new friends (a woman traveling with her ex-husband's parents, very odd), we stopped at the Blue Pools. It had stopped raining but the rising water must have changed something since we saw no pools and they were certainly not blue. The park had a nice little nature walk that lead us across a suspension bridge. Heidi did not like the swinging, but Sammie was keen to run across at full speed
Queenstown and Glenorchy
We flew to Queenstown on the first day out of Auckland and spent only one night. Unfortunately, the weather was not particularly good, so when we toured the town it did not give a very good first impression on this cloudy, wet day. A fair amount of congestion for a small town and a lot of construction made the town seem even less appealing.
Fortunately, we made another visit through on our last day and got a completely different impression. We had decided to travel back from Wanaka and make our way to see Glenorchy. This is an easy two hour trip but what we saw in that few hours was something to remember.
This is the point in the narrative where I take the easy way out and say that the South Island of New Zealand is not a place that can be described. It must be seen. We took over 200 pictures during the week and none of them seems satisfactory. There is a view at every turn of the road and this particular drive was among the best we have ever been experienced.
The drive from Wanaka took us over the ridge above Queenstown and then north to Glenorchy where many of the most spectacular scenes from Lord of the Rings were shot. We had lunch in Glenorchy and met up with some folks who had been in our lodge in Wanaka. As it turned out, they had worked on charter boats in the Caribbean just as Heidi had and knew many of the same people and ports of call. Add this to the lady in the barber shop from Glendale, Arizona and the Kiwi motorcyclist who had been to Spokane, and we find opportunity to invoke the "small world" cliché.
We left that same day from Queenstown airport to Auckland where we split again, Heidi and Sammie back to Singapore and me to Shanghai on more business trips. Since our time there, we have had a number of friends move to NZ. We look forward to visiting them and exploring more of this land as we know that we did not event touch the beauty of it.