Sunday, February 26, 2012


One of the hundreds of single-lane bridges in New Zealand

 It wasn’t too far of a drive from our campsite at Lake Monowai to the small village of Manapouri that sits at the eastern edge of Lake Manapouri.  We inquired about cruises to Doubtful Sound but they were well outside our budget so we drove on to Te Anau, about 20 kilometers to the north.  There we pulled into a Department of Conservation (DOC) information center and talked with one of their staff.  The woman we spoke with said that there really isn’t much of a choice but to go on the cruise we had just recently dismissed.  She also pointed out some campsites and hikes nearby but was pretty adamant that we had to take the Doubtful Sound cruise.  We picnicked right there and talked about our options, then drove back to Manapouri.  A holiday park was at the north end of the village so we pulled in and very slowly drove through.  It was different from most holiday parks as there weren’t specific areas for tents, motorhomes, etc – you could pretty much just pitch your tent wherever you wanted.

There were several people checking in at the same time so I patiently waited my turn in the lobby.  Most holiday parks have some method of restricting how long your hot showers can be – some use an automatic timer, some even use a keypad where you enter a code you’re given when you check in.  At this holiday park, there’s a row of numbered switches above the sinks in the bathrooms that correspond to the numbered shower stalls.  You push the button of the shower you’re going to use and you get hot water for seven minutes.  Joelle, the 78 year-old ex-pat from San Francisco who has lived in New Zealand for the last forty years, was explaining this to a Dutch man but, for some reason, she was speaking in German.  “Did you understand what I just said,” Joelle asked in English.  “Yes,” replied the Dutch man in pretty good English,  “I go into the bathroom, face the sinks and shout ‘Hot water for seven minutes!’”

The late afternoon was warm and sunny but it made the communal kitchen hot.  Couples and families from all over the world visit New Zealand and the gathering that evening was a typical mix of travelers trying to get through their evening meal.  If I was smarter, I would have bought spaghetti sauce but, no, I had to make mine from scratch, which took too long.  Finally, our meal consumed and cleaned up, we headed back to our tent as we had chosen an early morning departure for a cruise down Doubtful Sound.

Note the Fuel Rate

The sound of our alarm clock the next morning at 0530 wove it’s way into my dreams but it didn’t take me long to get up to the communal kitchen and get my coffee and Ruthie’s tea brewed.  Daylight was just breaking as the bus from the cruise line picked us up at the holiday park and dropped us off at the terminal.  Within a few minutes we were pulling away from the dock on a brand new ship (less than 260 hours on the twin MAN V12 turbocharged diesels), steaming at 22 knots for the west end of Lake Manapouri.  Forty-five minutes later, we reached the other end and we boarded modern tour buses that took us to the headwaters of Doubtful Sound.  Here we boarded yet another very modern, comfortable ship and again pulled away from the dock as the clouds were just pouring over the tops of the tall peaks that surrounded us.

It was light enough now to see that the day was going to be partly cloudy and there were large shafts of sunlight illuminating the sheer cliffs while other areas remained dark.  The running commentary told us that Doubtful Sound was not really a ‘sound’ at all but rather a fiord as it was caused by glacier activity.  When Captain James Cook sailed by in 1770, he wasn’t convinced that it would be a harbor at all so he wrote a note on the chart he was drawing that said ‘Doubtful’ and never did enter it. 

We slowly cruised to the opening of the fiord and the Tasman Sea, the cliffs towering 4,000 feet above us.  The enormity was not lost on us.  On our return, the captain drove us up Crooked Arm to a beautiful, remote spot.  At this point he shut down the engines and generators and the commentator asked everyone to be silent for a few moments – no photographs, no walking around – just silence.  At first I thought it was kind of corny but I was instantly grateful and appreciated the marvel and magnitude.  I could see why Doubtful Sound’s nickname is the ‘Sound of Silence’.

Crooked Arm

With over seven meters of annual rainfall, fresh water abounds in the form of waterfalls, streams and creeks.  It also keeps Lake Manapouri very full so in the early 1960s, it was decided to dam up the lake, allow it to rise 30 meters and put in a hydroelectric power station.  The people of New Zealand strongly opposed the proposition so the dam idea was abandoned but a power station was still built.  A team of 5,000 men worked for years, essentially drilling through rock by hand.  A two kilometer-long tunnel was built as part of the hydroelectric station and our tour bus took us all the way to the viewing platform where we could see the seven massive turbines working.  The station generates over 500 megawatts of electricity.

Manapouri Power Station

The next day I was in a store in Te Anau, chatting with a clerk.  “I don’t know why you came to New Zealand,” she said when she found out I was from California, “you’ve got everything in North America that we have here except that it’s bigger and better there.”  To a point, she was right but our trip up Doubtful Sound was unlike anything I had ever seen and clearly one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

New Zealand's South Island, Continued

The View From Our Room On Stewart Island

Our ferry was met by Robin, the manager of the Bay Motel, where we would spend the next two nights. He drove us and the four other guests that had sailed over with us around the microscopic town of Oban, home to 340 full-time residents and up to 40,000 visitors in any given year. Robin pointed out the restaurants to avoid and gave us advice on which tours were worthwhile. Our room turned out to be a sumptuous affair, especially when compared to the cramped quarters of our tent and the view of the bay from our room was nothing short of the ultimate picture postcard of a small, calm fishing village. New Zealand, as an island nation, lays claim to quite a few other islands, Stewart Island being one of them and the nation's third largest. It's roughly the same land mass as the country of Singapore but unlike Singapore, 85% is a wildlife reserve. The small town of Oban is one of the most southerly towns in the world and Antarctica isn't that far away.

Once settled, we began to walk around. Our first stop was at the Department of Conservation's information center, which was just a few steps from our room. A very helpful woman told us about what we could expect to see - the only problem being was that everything on her list of 'must see' places and things involved hiring a guide or boat, which was all outrageously expensive. In the end, we just went on hikes around the village and didn't see anything that we couldn't have seen on the North or South Island. We were glad we went but it holds no magical memories of the rare bird or unique geographical formations and, on top of that, it did consume a significant percentage of our travel budget.

Invercargill Was Burt Munroe's Home - The World's Fastest Indian

Once back across to the South Island, we pitched our tent at a holiday park right in the middle of the town of Invercargill. We walked from there to a pizza restaurant where we met our friend Bob on the MacGregor 65, Braveheart, which is currently tied up at Marsden Point. It was fun to connect with him as he 'jumped' from Mexico around the same time we did. He had driven down the west side of the South Island and we listened closely to his experiences, especially those where he encountered New Zealand's most vicious bird of prey, the dreaded Sand Fly.

Monowai Lake

It was raining the next morning was we broke camp and that was depressing. There's no way to dry out the things that are wet and no way to keep the things that are dry from getting wet. On our way out of town we stopped at a Starbucks but their coffee wasn't as good as we remembered it from the States. As we arced around the southwestern corner of the Island, we gradually picked up a northerly course towards the famous Fiordland and Southern Alps. Our guide book told us of a campsite 17 kilometers down a dirt road so we decided to check it out. With a tall cloud of dust coming up from the back of our minivan, we found our way to the south end of Monowai Lake and a charming little campsite. Even though it was as primitive as any campsite could be, we kind of felt like we had hit the jackpot as it had almost everything we wanted: No one around, right beside a beautiful lake, a flat spot for our tent and it was quiet. That afternoon gave us a good hike, later an excellent dinner and it was followed by a peaceful night's sleep. We had another nice, short hike in the morning with steaming cups of coffee in our hands as we watched the mist rise off the lake's surface. Breaking camp once more and heading out, this time towards our entrance to Fiordland.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

New Zealand's South Island

We have been driving and camping around the South Island for almost two weeks now and since we've checked into a 'civilized' room, I can find no excuses for avoiding a posting. Right now we're in a 'Holiday Park' in Hokitika on the west coast and just about exactly opposite of Christchurch. I could write for a long time about Holiday Parks but I think I'll save that for another post when there's nothing else going on.

Cloudy Bay Winery

We caught an early morning ferry from Wellington and even though the wind was blowing at about thirty knots, our crossing to Picton was relatively calm and our excitement was almost palpable. From there we drove to Nelson along the most twisting road I've ever been on and rendezvoused with our friends, Michael and Gloria, on their beautiful Beneteau 50 Paikia Mist. We spent two nights as their guests on board and got a great tour of the town. Departing from there at the crack of 10:30 or so had us following the road back towards the east side of the island and the area called Marlborough - more specifically the famous wine-producing town of Blenheim. Years ago during one of our bashes up the west coast of Baja, we 'buddy boated' with a 56' Nordhavn trawler called Cloudy Bay which also turns out to be the name of a well-known New Zealand winery. I had suspected that the owners of the boat had once owned the winery and sold it, using the profits to buy a luxury yacht. That became our first stop of our wine-tasting tour but there was no connection between the winery and our buddy's boat. Regardless, we languished in the lavish wine tasting room, sampling every kind of wine they make and enjoying every drop. By this time we were feeling quite happy and with a devil-may-care attitude we purchased several bottles that were well outside of our meager budget. We asked the very kind woman who was helping us to recommend some other vineyards and we sampled more delicious wine and bought still more bottles, including a wonderful dry rose.
A Minaret Moved to the Ground Until It's Building Can Be Stabilized - Christchurch
With great reluctance, we moved on and pointed the bow of our trusty Toyota towards Christchurch. It turned out to be a long drive and we finally picked out a holiday park near the coast but still a few miles from town. As holiday parks go, it was a little more basic than most but it had a nice grass area on which to pitch our tent. Almost all of the camper sites were occupied and in a conversation that took place the next morning at the communal kitchen, we found out that most of the people living in those campers were the displaced residents from Christchurch's massive earthquake just a year before. Whereas we had planned to spend a full day visiting Christchurch we only spent a couple of hours as most of the places the guide books spoke of were in the city's 'Red Zone' and no access was possible. It was sad. Instead we drove out to Akaroa, a small town on the end of the Banks Peninsula that was supposed to be 'charming' but there were two cruise ships in town that day and it struck us as more of a zoo than a quaint seafaring town. We instructed our GPS to find us the closest campground and it directed us to a wind-blown spit of land on the south end of Lake Ellesmere: Hidden behind acres of farmland, this has been the most remote and primitive site at which we've camped - no only was it free but there was no one around for miles.
Remote Campsite at Lake Ellesmere
Train Station in Dunedin

Our next stop, apart from a brief single-malt-scotch tasting in Oamaru, was the university town of Dunedin and we thought we had lucked out by getting the best spot on which to pitch our tent at the holiday park only to find out that we were just a few meters from a busy road that carried traffic all night long. Other than that, we thoroughly enjoyed the town with it's rococo architecture, the Speight's Brewery and the Cadbury Chocolate Factory. We also toured the local museum and strolled through the university's campus, our first time at being on a college campus in a long time. Still, we found more than enough to do to keep us busy for two nights (despite being camped next to the road) but after that we were glad to get underway again and continue our trek south.

The Captain Let Me Dock the Ferry - just kidding!

We found our way through Invercargill and on to the small town of Bluff where we pitched our tent in a very nice community campground. We broke camp early the next morning, packed what we would need for two days, put our van in a secure parking lot and boarded a ferry to Stewart Island. Since there were only a few passengers on the ferry at that early hour, I engaged the skipper in a conversation: 'You must see some pretty rough weather on this route.' It's not uncommon to see sixty knots of wind. 'At what point do you cancel the trip?' We don't sail if the seas are more than six meters (19 feet).. 'Do the windshield wipers ever have trouble keeping up?' Sometimes you can't see a thing . . .. However, on our crossing the sea was as calm as one could ask for, especially considering that the Pacific Ocean, the Tasman Sea and the Southern Ocean all meet at this spot.