31 July 2011

The Day

Today started as The Day Our GPS Died. We went old school, and used maps to get ourselves from Oamaru down to Curio Bay, a tiny town on The South Island's southern coast. The end of the Earth, or at least the last stop before Antarctica. We checked into our cottage, made a dinner reservation at the only open Cafe within an hour's drive, and drove to the trailhead to see Curio Bay's Fossil Forest. That's when today became The Day We Jumped Tide Pools At A Pristine Beach From One Million-Year-Old Fossilized Tree Stump To Another.

Whatever else today might have been, it became one of the best travel days of our lives.

After our experience at Oamaru last night, we felt like we had a good strategy to see Curio Bay's penguins: stay warm in our cottage until after 4PM. Drink tea. Bundle up and head back to the beach before dark.

We got back to the beach at low tide about an hour before dusk, hopped from fossilized stump to fossilized stump again, and tried to figure out where to go to see penguins. Oamaru has a marked viewing area, but Curio Bay, other than the staircase to cut through the hills, gives no guidance other than "stay ten meters from penguins." So we found a boulder on one end of the beach beside a deep inlet, and decided to have a seat. Moments later, we spotted the first head bobbing in the water. We had a bird's eye view in Oamaru; in Curio Bay, we were front row center. Yellow Eyed Penguin #1 came out of the water maybe twenty meters away from us.

We couldn't believe our good luck, and it only got better. We saw penguins leave the water in other spots too, but another one came out right in front of us. And then another.

And then there were... five?

There were six or seven in front of us, two more behind us, and others all over the beach. We slowly backed away, afraid our rocky sofa might be between the penguins and their nests. Then, as we backed away, they moved too: right toward us.

We're posting this from the cafe-- the only place near Curio Bay with wifi-- and we're just about out of time. Did we ever really think a glacier might be the experience of this trip? The Yellow Eyed Penguins of Curio Bay were the experience of a lifetime.

Location:Curio Bay, NZ

30 July 2011

Little men, home from work.

Some things just weren't meant to be-- things like New Coke, Ross Perot's Presidency, and our hike on the Kea Trail.

On our third day at Mount Cook, we woke to clear blue skies. We got ourselves packed, ready, and fed in record time, and headed out to the Hermitage's parking lot to load our stuff into the trunk.

The eye disregards shininess when everything is shiny. Steve discovered the ice covering the entire parking lot only when he slid the last few feet to the car. The trail had frozen completely too, and so we decided it was time to admit defeat and get an early start to Oamaru.

Oamaru is on the east coast, and is home to a colony of Little Blue Penguins. It's also about thirty minutes from the famous Moeracki Boulders. And now, a couple of tangents.

1. Pronunciation: New Zealand place names are either British or Maori. The Maori names look unpronounceable at times, but the key is to think British. That is to say, disregard how the natives might have said them, and say them the way a bloke would say them over a pint of beer and some fish and chips. Pukaki is poo-khaki. Moeraki is moe-racky.

2. Planning: like to be spontaneous? It doesn't work so well in New Zealand, where many of the sights are made or broken by when you arrive. We saw the Pancake Rocks at mid-tide, but it would have been more spectacular at high tide, and it would have been a big nothing at low tide. Want to see penguins? There's a brief window to see them in the morning, and another brief window near dusk. Get used to nature's timetable here.

Unaware of nature's timetable, we arrived in Moeraki at high tide. We had to run up the side of the hill a couple of times to keep our hiking boots out of the waves, and some of the smaller boulders were obscured by the ocean, but we got the gist of Moeraki.

It's a nice walk along the beach, but it was far less memorable than many of the things we've seen here.

Back in Oamaru, we followed the signs to the beach to learn more about the Little Blue Penguin colony.

The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony is a commercial operation. For $25 per person, no cameras allowed, they'll usher you into grandstand seating at dusk to watch Blue Penguins come out of the ocean. We weren't opposed to paying the fee, but somehow, it felt a bit too much like Sea World. We decided to check in to our B&B and ask the innkeeper for advice. If the commercial operation was our best shot to see penguins in Oamaru, we'd do it. We arrived at this beautiful, sprawling 1900 craftsman, and tucked our stuff away in a corner room upstairs.

The owner, Austen, suggested a drive to the Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve on a bluff over the ocean. The hillside is home to a colony of Yellow Eyed Penguins-- a species we expected to see a bit further south. Armed with Austen's map and binoculars, we drove to the reserve at about 3:15. A sign warned visitors to be off the beach itself by 3:00. If people are between the penguins and their nests when they arrive, they get scared and head back out to sea. Not good. We hurried up the trail to be sure we'd see the penguins as they emerged.

At the top of the trail, we met him: the Dian Fossey of Yellow Eyed Penguins. We didn't get his name, but we got everything else. He lives in Oamaru. He's at the reserve every morning to watch the Penguins enter the water, and every evening to watch them waddle home. He counts them. He knows which ones nest where. He records their conversations with his camera phone. Most importantly, he keeps track of when they arrive each afternoon, and told us not to expect them until 4:45. He was kind of crazy and talked a lot about socialism, beef, and Bill Clinton's nuclear-armed rockets, but if he hadn't been there, we probably would have given up and assumed we'd missed the penguins. They arrived exactly when he said they'd arrive.

They bodysurf to shore, and bob up and down in the waves until they catch a big one that drops them on to the sand. Then they stand up, shake the sand off their suits, and waddle across the beach looking like little, tired men headed home after a long, hard day at the office. We saw eight or ten of them come ashore. Through Austen's binoculars, we could see every detail of their beautiful blond heads and tuxedoed bodies. Through our eyes and our cameras, they looked more like this. Click a picture. Find the penguin!

He-- the Dian Fossey guy-- said we might see twenty more come up the hill if we stayed another half hour, but after two hours on the frigid, windy bluff, even in warm jackets, our fingers and toes were numb. We'd have stayed anyway, but tomorrow we're headed to the beach in Curio Bay. There, the Penguins are habituated to humans and will walk right past you instead of running back into the ocean.

We have our fingers crossed for a close-up.

Location:Oamaru, New Zealand

28 July 2011

Follow that Sun

When we drove through the mountains from Wanaka yesterday, the skies were perfectly blue and clear and huge in every direction except one. Our destination, Mount Cook, looked like Eeyore off in the distance, shaded by rain clouds that seemed to start and end exactly at its borders.

In the hit parade of the world's scenic drives, New Zealand's Highway 8 is in a category all its own. We had no idea that the drive to Mount Cook would be so beautiful, but the region is unrelentingly breathtaking. Just as you habituate to 360 degrees of jagged, glistening, snow-covered mountains and scrape your jaw up off the floor of your rented Corolla, the road dumps you out beside the milky, celadon-green waters of Lake Pukaki. We had hoped to hike the Kea Point Trail when we got to Mount Cook, but the cloud cover only worsened. When we woke up to a solid white sky and sheeting rain, we figured we had two options: hang out at our lovely lodge, The Hermitage, or find the Sun and follow it elsewhere for the day. We chose the latter.

The sky was still grey when we left the mountain, but a faint rainbow ahead gave us hope.

And then, for the second time in a day, we reached Lake Pukaki.

We pulled off the road at least a dozen times. We snapped a few pictures, but mostly we gaped at the water. The sky looked blue toward the east, so we set our sights on Lake Tekapo.

New Zealand has just about exhausted our ability to describe various shades of blue and green. For Lake Pukaki, we settled on celadon. Lakes Wanaka and Hawea are indisputably azure. Lake Tekapo is turquoise. Backlit turquoise.

We enjoyed our walk at Lake Tekapo, but we decided to leave ourselves enough time for the Kea Trail, just in case Mount Cook's personal rain cloud lifted. As we approached the turnoff to the mountain, though, the sky darkened and strong winds jolted the car (and the trees) from side to side.

If the sun shines for us tomorrow morning, we'll stay long enough for that short trail. If it doesn't, then we're off bright and early to Oamaru and its many penguins.

Location:Terrace Rd,Mt Cook National Park,New Zealand

Mount Cook, Day One

Location:Terrace Rd,Mt Cook National Park,New Zealand

27 July 2011

Open letter

Dear New Zealand,

Glad to be here. Love your snowy mountains, your endless deserted beaches, your not-that-bad-actually sauvignon blanc, your amusingly-named waterways, and your friendly citizens. So how 'bout you consider springing for two lanes on a few more of your bridges? Just a suggestion.

Wanaka. It rhymes with Hanukkah.

We left Franz Josef after a night of pounding rain. When we reached Fox Glacier, about 30 km south of Franz Josef, the clouds were low and threatening. We drove up the short gravel road to the glacier lookout, stepped out, snapped a few photos of the nearly-invisible glacier, and hopped back in the car.

We drove south along the west coast through alternating periods of rain, mist, and gloom. If there were any spectacular views of the nearby mountains, they were obscured by clouds and fog. We stopped briefly at the Munro Beach track, but the time of day, the tide, and the weather conspired against us and we had no hope of spotting the Fjordland Crested Penguins that occasionally emerge from the surf.

So we drove on, stopping for gas and a dispiriting search for a healthy lunch in the scruffy little town of Haast. When we reached the lone cafe, the only thing on the menu that wasn't battered and deep fried was the spaghetti sandwich. New Zealand has fresh, innovative food at the high end, but at the fringes, it's thoroughly old school British. After a greasy pub meal the night before, we just couldn't handle it. We opted for an apple and some crackers in the car instead. We were getting a little grumpy.

Then we turned east and followed the Haast River valley up and over Haast pass. Although we drove through a snow-covered landscape for a few miles, the roads were clear and - as we've experienced throughout our trip so far - mostly deserted.

Within a few miles of the summit of the pass, it was clear that we'd passed from the tropical luxuriance (and near constant rain) of the west coast into a drier, sparer environment. The snow peaks surrounding us were no longer choked with vegetation - instead, long expanses of open range land were interspersed with occasional copses of trees. A Great Basin-type landscape, if you ignore the occasional stand of giant cabbage trees.

The unrelenting overcast thinned, shattered, and bright sunshine beamed down as we zoomed down the empty road. We found ourselves driving beside an enormous, deep blue lake, utterly empty for as far as the eye could see. Lake Wanaka, which stretches for over 40 km in length and over 10 km at its widest point. Looking at that enormous, empty body of water, I was reminded of Pyramid Lake in Nevada.

A quick left turn of the road and suddenly an entirely new vista presented itself to us: Lake Hawea lies in a glacier-carved valley parallel to Wanaka. It's not as large as Wanaka, but even more spectacular, with jagged, snow-covered peaks surrounding all but its narrow southern end. Under the sunny skies, the water in Lake Hawea was as blue as I've ever seen at Crater Lake. We stopped several times to gawk at the spectacular landscape.

We rolled down from the mountains and into the busy resort town of Wanaka. Our motel room (more on this later-- motels are a whole 'nother thing here) is typical NZ style: spacious, squeaky clean, and perfectly comfortable - and outside our back door, there's a narrow, rushing stream full of absolutely enormous trout.

After exploring Wanaka, which is a ski town through and through in the winter, we found a great little Indian place for dinner. We settled in by the fire with a bottle of Otago "Misha's Vineyard" Riesling, and raised a glass to our delicious curries-- which were neither battered nor deep fried.

That bottle of Riesling prompted us to add a detour through Otago to tomorrow's drive to Mount Cook. Riesling is often dismissed as sweet and unserious by casual wine lovers, but among hardcore oenophiles, it's treasured as the finest, most transparent in character, and longest-aging white wine in the world. The best examples usually come from Germany, Alsace, and Austria. We've yet to find a New World Riesling that can compete on quality or price with a $20 Mosel Kabinett, but the bottle we had last night hinted at a strong effort to do precisely that.

Off to Otago to test that idea.

Location:Upton St,Wanaka,New Zealand

26 July 2011

Rush Hour

Location:Hwy 6, New Zealand

Grey-Blue Ice

The western coast of New Zealand's South Island is a rainy place-- rainier, even, than the place we left to visit here. Before we arrived, we made a pact: if the weather was clear at the Franz Josef Glacier, we'd walk on the ice. If the weather wasn't clear, we'd walk to the ice. Steve did a little rain dance before we headed into the mountains.

It was partly cloudy when we arrived in Franz Josef, so we started with a short walk to Pete's Pond to get a view of the glacier in the distance.

The pond was frozen, and the glacial ice looked flat grey under the thick cloud cover, but there was no rain in sight. We hemmed and hawed over what to do-- should we wait for morning and hope for clear skies? We decided that the absence of rain was reason enough to cross the terminal moraine (I'm taking Steve's word that that's actually what you call the boulder field that leads to a glacier's snout; I apologize if it actually means something different, especially if it's the technical name for something gross like a cat's butt) this afternoon.

If the views weren't what we'd hoped for, we found unexpected pleasure in the way the Franz Glacier forest smelled-- honeyed, floral, salty, earthy, and grassy. Like so much of what we've seen here, the area is an odd juxtaposition of Alpine and tropical elements, with snowy peaks rising up over fern trees and palms. It was almost disappointing to leave the forest and walk across the rocks.

As we walked across the rocks, Steve commented on how unusual it felt to visit a glacier so close to sea level. I agreed, but then I realized that every glacier I've seen has been close to sea level. Southwest NZ, Glacier Bay AK, and the south coast of Iceland all have extreme enough climates that you don't need to scale a mountain to see an ice field.

When we reached the edge of the glacier about forty minutes later, we were rewarded with a hint of blue under all that white and and grey.

We snapped a few pictures, and turned to walk back. Of course, that's when the rain started. This time, we were prepared for it. We pulled on our gloves and our hoods, and stayed mostly dry.

I learned another survival skill out by the glacier, though. As we walked over the smooth trail, which has been meticulously cleared of larger rocks, I noticed a strange feeling in my legs. As I described it to Steve, it felt as though my muscles had somehow been drained of energy. He looked at me lovingly and sympathetically, the way you look at a child who mispronounces things, and explained that it was late afternoon and I hadn't eaten anything but a latte and half a banana all day. I was out of fuel.

Food isn't just stuff that's fun to make, pretty to photograph, and tasty to chew-- it's gasoline for people.

Who knew?

Location:Franz Glacier, New Zealand

25 July 2011


Monday. Lazy, scenic, sunny. We drove southwest from Nelson to Punakaiki, and saw pretty things along the way.

We stopped at a honey farm smack dab in the middle of nowhere, and picked up a few jars of potent Manuka honey. Manuka honey is prized by granola-types for its antibacterial properties. We just like that it's kind of minty.

We stopped at the Tua Dellaca Reserve, where Little Blue Penguins emerge at sunset.

We got to the Pancake Rocks at almost-high tide, and watched the surf pound against and in between massive, striated limestone formations.

And we made a donation. A couple of days before I left Portland, our dear friend Eve gave me two one-dollar bills for my cosmic protection. "Donate one in New Zealand," she explained. "And donate the other when you return." Eve suggested I hand the first dollar off to a New Zealand hobo, but we haven't seen one. We saw a shoeless backpacker, but based on the rest of his attire, we're pretty sure it was an affectation and not actual poverty. Anyway, I was very happy to see this display at Punakaiki.

Eve, the first part of our mission is complete, and we love you madly for wanting to keep us safe.

After our brief visit to the Pancake Rocks, we backtracked up the coast to a trail called the Truman Track. We timed our visit so that we'd get to the beach-- another one where the elusive Little Blue Penguins make their home-- close enough to sunset to see them, but not so close that the jungly trail would be pitch black on our way out. We didn't see any penguins, but the beach was stunning.

Next stop: the Franz Josef Glacier.

Location:Punakaiki, New Zealand

24 July 2011

Did we mention the view?

We've spent the last two nights at The Wheelhouse Inn, a group of self-contained vacation cottages in a residential neighborhood on a bluff overlooking the ocean in Nelson. Our hosts are Sally and Ralph Hetzel, expatriate Americans who left their home in Long Beach, CA, on a sailboat in 1974, sailed around the world, and then dropped their anchor permanently in New Zealand.

Sally and Ralph have created a remarkable lodging option in Nelson. Our rental unit could easily sleep six. It has a well-stocked kitchenette, a patio (with grill), spacious living areas, its own laundry room, and a million-dollar view at one-ten-thousandth the tariff.

That's the view from the livingroom. It's also the view from the kitchen and the bedroom, because the west-facing walls are almost entirely windows.

Ralph is also a ceramics artist. The kitchen is stocked with what we assume are his whimsical pieces, but his signature works are outside, peeking in from the bushes.