Thursday, May 9, 2013

New Zealand: The activities

Near daily posts? I should go on vacation more often just so I have something to write about.

This post is largely for me to capture some memories of my favorite things about NZ. I am forgetting things. Just the South Island of New Zealand requires weeks and weeks of exploring.We were in New Zealand from April 14 - April 27 and that was not nearly enough time to experience all that we wanted to. It's not a big island, but driving between the different regions takes a lot of time and every region has so much to offer, you want to be able to see them all! Here are some highlights.

Ohau seal colony:
This place was magical. The seal colony is basically a seal hangout on the northeastern shore of the South Island. The adult seals hang out on the rocks beside the ocean. The baby seals will scoot themselves up a creek to a pool at the base of a waterfall and hang out together. After a 5 minute walk from the oceanside, you find yourself at the base of this beautiful waterfall and there's literally dozens of seals waddling around the rocks just feet away from you and frolicking in the pool. It is phenomenal. Unfortunately, it was getting dark out when we went and we couldn't get great pictures, but we have a dark video that shows the mass of baby seal bodies playing in the water. It's amazing. I could not get over the cuteness and the joy of the seals. You can read more about the seal colony here.

Mt. John Observatory
The middle part of NZ is recognized by the International Dark Sky Association as an especially dark place (I'm sure there's a more official term for it), devoid of artificial light, and it was chosen as the site for the Mt. John University Observatory partially for this reason. Nick signed us up for a tour that included a 15ish minute windy drive up a steep hill in a bus. And for the last half of the drive, the bus only had parking lights on. I was a bit uneasy. But after that, it was wonderful. We got to look through 2 "normal" telescopes as well  as a big, motororized one. The Wikipedia article has more specifics. The guides were informative and showed us "ooo pretty colors" astronomical features as well as ones that were more science-y. When we got back in the bus to go down the mountain, only having the parking lights on seemed more than sufficient. Having our eyes adjust to that level of darkness was really cool. 

New Zealanders love their hiking. During every casual drive around the country we'd encounter signs alongside the road that indicated trailheads for very short as well as very long hikes. My favorite was Roundhill Ski Area, which we found completely by accident. We were driving around and found a sign for a 5k hike to the ski area, and decided to do it. It was quite the climb, somewhere around 1000ft to the base of the ski area, then we did a steeper portion from the base to the top of the main ski hill which was another 300 meters. Phew. It was technically easy because we were walking on roads, but difficult because it was around 2 hours of straight uphill then another hour downhill. Very worth it to get a view of Tekapo from high up.

Helicopter Flight Glacier Landing
It's cheating to include this since it was part of our wedding package, but, as I said to Nick when we were up in the air, I felt like I was on a Discovery Channel show when we were flying over mountain passes and glacial ice formations. It was beyond beautiful. Even though the helicopter didn't agree with my stomach, I could easily get past that and just soak in the scenery. It is expensive but an adrenaline rush in addition to giving us such a unique perspective of the mountain.

Marlborough Wine Trail:
One rainy day, our planned boating excursion was cancelled. We made the best of it by going wine tasting instead! The Marlborough region of New Zealand is famous mainly for their Sauvignon Blanc but we tasted several reds too that were great! My favorite winery was Herzog Winery. We happened upon it while driving around. The young woman pouring our wine was informative but not judgmental. Great experience overall. We bought Gruner Veltliner from them (a wine I'd never even had before- fruity, acidic and crisp). My other favorite was Lawson's Dry Hills. Our guide was very helpful again (there are unhelpful ones, like the woman at a winery that will not be named that wouldn't let me taste wines out of their "proper" order but didn't tell me that when I blindly started in the middle of the bunch. Come on.). We bought a Pinot Noir from them that was pretty good.

We also, by luck, saw a brewery during our driving around. Moa Brewery was stuck right in the middle of wine country (their brochure explains that the founder made wine but took to brewing beer as well). I was trying to stay away from too much wheat, but we still had a beer tasting and it was great. Sadly, they only distribute one of their beers to the States and it was not our favorite. My favorite was the Hoppit, which combines small, furry footed folk with hops. My two favorite things. Jk, it's just a super hoppy beer which of course I loved. We bought some Weka Cider from them because cider is kind to my tummy and their formulation was particularly delicious.

Smash Palace in Christchurch:
Yeah, it's a bar, but it was a very unique experience. They have a website you can check out. This place was a bar that was destroyed in the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011 and has been replaced by a bus! An American couple that we met by chance while kayaking recommended this place. I definitely wanted to go, but after driving around Christchurch for a few minutes, I really couldn't figure out how anyone could ever find anything in that city in its current state. The city was devastated by the 2 earthquakes and they are still rebuilding. A lot of the main "downtown" area is still blocked off. While I can see how lively the city may once have been, as tourists, it was a lot to handle. I'm not complaining about a city that is still rebuilding after multiple natural disasters, I just wasn't prepared for it. Miraculously, we found the bar the other couple had mentioned- by chance, it was across the street from the Thai restaurant our campground owner suggested.

The bus/bar atmosphere is a lot of fun. They had 55 gallon drums with fire lits inside for warmth, as well as some covered areas with heat lamps. I saw someone carrying a hot drink when we walked up and the bartender told me it was mulled wine. That is pretty much my favorite warm beverage. I had a mulled cider and then mulled wine and they were both delicious. Nick was delighted by their unusual beer selection- they had brands we didn't see anywhere else in NZ.

Te Anau Glowworm Caves:
This experience could also definitely be called magical... if you don't have anxiety issues. We went on a short with a guide, boarded a boat, and then it got very dark, very quiet, and very unsettling. I think caves are beautiful and interesting, but I have to stifle feelings of uneasiness whenever I'm in a cave because if I think too much about how deep underground I am, or how far from an exit I am, I can quickly get in an icky anxiety spiral. The tour, unfortunately, took those feelings and added the complete darkness, silence, sitting very close to strangers, moving around on a boat, complete lack of a frame of reference for distance and time elapsed and.... I freaked out.

What am I leaving out? Oh, the totally awesome glowworms (these are not my pictures!):
What it looks like in the lighted part of the cave- lots of insects glowing up a storm on the wall (source)

Tons and tons of glowworms and their little insect catching devices hanging down. (source)

Nick loved the tour and he pointed out particularly impressive groupings of the little guys. It really was beautiful, and I wish I hadn't been so freaked out by it. I'm glad Nick had a great time and in retrospect, I can really appreciate how unique and special the whole thing was. 

Kayaking in Milford Sound:
Seriously, the best. The best ever. It helps that Milford Sound is heavenly (not my pics, again):
It was cloudy and misty about half our time there...(source)

...And glorious and sunny the other half!(source)

Nick and I had done a kayaking trip in Ireland that I really loved, and I didn't think this could top it, especially since we were on day 10 of traveling and I was tired and it had rained pretty much every day and we were really, really in the middle of nowhere. We drove around the night before our trip and saw enough crazy rock formations to know we were in a fantastic area, but the gloomy weather made me grumpy and dubious that being out on the water for 8 hours the next day would be pleasant.

I was proven very wrong. We were in a group of 6 total, with a young New Zealander as our guide. Surprisingly, all 6 of us on the tour were American. Extra-surprisingly, Nick and I were the only two there with normal, full-time jobs. The others were in varying stages of traveling around the world, which amazed me. My Type A-ness could not wrap itself around not knowing where I'd be sleeping in 2 days. Or 2 weeks or 2 months. My mind was blown. They were all really nice and laid-back and made for great kayaking companions.

Despite the rain, the protective gear we got from the tour company and the motion of kayaking kept us pretty warm. The views were breathtaking from land, even with low-hanging clouds, and once we got on the water we got an even better view. Milford Sound is not technically a Sound, as it was formed by glaciers, The rock faces we were kayaking next to went straight down into the water, and the slopes reached steeply upward and were covered in greenery. Our guide told us that the area gets around 9 m of rain a year. That's ~27 feet! This explains all the greenery and also why when the sun peeked out, our guide was delighted and began snapping pictures along with all of us tourists. It was glorious. There were several rainbows that were as vibrant as I have ever seen. The kayaking portion was slow and meandering, with lots of time for pictures. We stopped for lunch, got to hear a lot about the area, and got to learn about each others' lives. Combining that with the beauty of it all and it made for a pretty perfect day.

I used the word "experience" too many times. I sound like Roger Sterling talking about LSD. I am sure I am forgetting something. Also, some of my very favorite moments weren't "experiences" but those moments when I realized how lucky I am to have this time with my new husband in New Zealand, just seeing the world. Magical experience. Juuuuust kidding. Super duper magical experience is more like it. #winkyface #self-deprecationdoesn'ttranslatetotyping #hashtagsaredumbstopit

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