Mountains and Hills, Buses and Trains – Part 3

The culmination of my scenic journey in New Zealand was the day trip I took from Queenstown to Milford Sound, one of the most famous fjords in Fiordland National Park because it is one of the most accessible. From Queenstown to Milford Sound as the crow flies is rather a small distance, but since there happen to be a lot of mountains in the way, heading to Milford Sound via Te Anau takes the entire morning on a bus or in a car (around 5 or 6 hours with photo breaks). That of course was peanuts considering some of the bus journeys I’d already been on this trip, so it didn’t really phase me!

We were heading out of the Queenstown area by 7:30. It was still dark, so we didn’t get to see much for the next couple of hours. The scenery on the way to Te Anau is pretty, but nothing compared to the later part of the trip once we made it into the mountains. However, we could see lots of the dramatic low cloud cover that gave New Zealand its Maori name (Land of the Long White Cloud), thanks to the specially designed buses that have huge windows. (Unfortunately there is some reflection since these pictures were taken on the moving bus.)

After Te Anau, we headed into the mountains, taking several stops for pictures along the way. Our first stop was on a plain with dramatic mountains in the background.

We stopped at the Mirror Lakes, which were less dramatic than our next scenic stop where we got a better view of misty mountains reflected in the water.


We had several other photo ops as well. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

We saw some kea (alpine parrots) at one of the stops where we were able to fill up our water bottles with glacial stream water if we so chose. Kea are really intelligent and curious birds who have a destructive fascination with rubber, and they are quite good at pulling out the rubber around doors in cars (as we saw to a mini-van driver’s dismay).

Eventually we went through a tunnel (at a really steep grade) and emerged to even more dramatic views.

And finally to Milford Sound itself, where we enjoyed a two hour cruise. We saw bottle-nose dolphins who played in the wake of the boat, waterfalls and multiple rainbows (the skipper even got those of us on the outer decks wet with waterfall spray, we got so close!), and seals. It was spectacular.

The trip home was beautiful but relatively anti-climactic – no photo stops, and a bus full of tired travelers.

Mountains and Hills, Buses and Trains – Part 2

I’m not sure why nobody touts the bus trip from Christchurch to Queenstown as a scenic trip. Maybe because it’s eight hours, interrupted only briefly by comfort stops? Eight hours of paralleling and then going through gorgeous mountain scenery. The trip may even be more scenic than the Tranzalpine! With good weather conditions, you can even see Mt Cook. Sadly, it hid behind a cloud as we circled a lake (I think Lake Pukaki), but we still saw some other beautiful mountains around the lake.

We started out on the Canterbury Plains:

And then headed inland:

We drove into bad weather, which turned into a downpour around Lake Tekapo but then headed away from us. We could still see the lake’s remarkable color.

We continued on through mountains. Mount Cook is hiding behind the white clouds on the right I believe:


But the scenery between Lake Pukaki and Queenstown was still sublime.



Walking through Christchurch

Tuesday was my day to spend exploring Christchurch.

I briefly ducked into the Canterbury Museum but didn’t have much time before meeting my new friend (D) from Sunday’s bus ride, so I don’t really have much of an impression of it.

I met D and she proceeded to show me some of the notable spots and street art in the city center, and put in context some of what was there before the earthquakes. It was a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the city. Tourists and travellers often make quick judgements as they pass through a place, and unfortunately a snap judgement about Christchurch would likely be one of dismay that there is so much rebuilding to do. And that is a fair assessment. Christchurch in five or ten years will be a different place from what it is now, and is no doubt a different place now than it was. However, there are definitely still things to see, and there is a vibrant if still recovering city.

I mentioned a few days ago that it’s interesting to see the interim art and installations around the city. One temporary building that is on every tourist list is the Cardboard Cathedral, an interim structure built with what looks like huge hollow cardboard dowels as part of the support. The interior is rather Scandinavian modern, and it’s overall a light-filled, peaceful place. Lovely in its own right, yet very different from their old Cathedral, which five years on remains open to birds and the elements as they still have not decided what to do with it. The city and many residents want it restored, but apparently the church wants a new cathedral and so didn’t allow it to be protected from the elements. In the meanwhile, it remains in limbo, and seems like a painful reminder to citizens of Christchurch.


As I mentioned, there is a fair amount of street art and pop-up installations. D showed me a bar in a bus, that started in the aftermath of the quake and is still going strong. Other pop-ups are moving into more permanent structures (for example, some of the shops in re: START) or, in the case of street art, are getting covered up by new construction. It’s a rapidly evolving city, it seems, though it does have a long way to go to rebuild.

One installation is a set of white painted chairs, one for each person who lost their life in the quake. There are baby carriers and wheelchairs as well. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried, especially after reading the message in the visitor book left by a couple of kids.

Christchurch is still a city of gardens. After my friend left, I spent some time in the lovely Botanic Gardens. They may be my favorite amongst all the botanical gardens I have visited thus far.

I then walked around some of the areas I had visited earlier and managed to go in circles because of construction closing sidewalks. Oh well.

Mountains and Hills, Buses and Trains – Part 1

On Monday, I took the Tranzalpine train across New Zealand’s Southern Alps, from Christchurch to Greymouth and back again. Doing so took me across the flat Canterbury plains (shaped like a wedge rising imperceptibly but substantially towards the mountains), through the “high country” where merino sheep graze in summer and Alpine tussocks abound, and through vistas of craggy snow-capped peaks (though less snow capped than usual for this time of year). The views between Christchurch and Arthur’s Pass were glorious! The train has a viewing car with no windows that I spent some time in despite the cold. The wind from the speed of the train at times brought tears to my eyes, but much of the time I spent out there was exhilarating.

From Arthur’s Pass, we then went through one of the longest tunnels in the world and emerged in a completely different landscape, and on a different tectonic plate. The mountains were covered in different trees on the western half, and shrouded in clouds and rain. Unfortunately I couldn’t really see much of anything due to poor visibility.

I had about thirty minutes in Greymouth, enough time to get some postcards and a pounamu (greenstone, or jade) pendant and to get thoroughly damp walking from the station into the town doing so.

The return was similar in terms of weather. It got dark before we arrived back at Christchurch so some of the viewing was sadly cut short.

I did enjoy seeing the difference between the east and west of the mountains, but if I had had less time in Christchurch, I think I would just have booked from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass. All the way to Greymouth and back does make for a long day. Not that I could tell because of the western clouds and rain in the west, but it also seems that the more dramatic scenery is on the east.

Also, since it is low season, there was plenty of room on the train, window seats to spare. I had booked from the US because I had been worried I wouldn’t get a seat (and therefore payed a premium as anyone without a New Zealand IP address does) but I would have been fine booking here. I am glad I had the security of knowing I had my booking, however, as I would have been dreadfully disappointed not to go. There was some breathtaking scenery!

The Long and Winding Road to Christchurch

On Sunday, I took the Intercity bus from Picton to Christchurch.


Leaving Picton on a rainy morning

It was another pretty journey, with the area around Kaikoura passing a seal colony that spread over a few miles of coastline. You could see the seals on the rocks by the sea, but also up on the grass above the beach, right next to the road! It was delightful!

Some of the beaches we passed had what looked like grey sand (a similar color to gravel) and I’m wondering whether they are examples of the black sand beaches they have in New Zealand.


A nice lady sat next to me between Kaikoura and Christchurch and we chatted for much of that leg of the trip. When I asked her what she would suggest I do on Tuesday when exploring the city, she offered to show me around!

I arrived at my B&B mid-afternoon, walking from the bus station via a hip little shopping center where the stores are located in shipping containers, called re:start. This is part of Christchurch’s interim renewal plan after the earthquakes.


I took a couple of hours walk in the evening. Rebuilding is everywhere, with street art and city urban art sprinkled around. I hadn’t realized how much construction was still going on, five years after the earthquakes. Literally every other block had either a construction site or an empty lot or, occasionally, a building propped up with external supports, especially in the City Center area.  You are continually changing what side of the street you walk on because of the construction. It was rather sobering. I can’t wait to the city on Tuesday with a Christchurch resident. The city inspires great loyalty – people keep telling me how special it is – but with the construction right now it takes a little more digging to find that charm. Even in a quick walk, though, the charm of the new – and old -Christchurch is becoming evident. I get the impression the new is a little quirkier than the old.

When I went out for dinner, I discussed the construction a bit with the waitress (along with the fact that I’m still not used to restaurants with table service in New Zealand expecting you to go up to the register when you’re ready for your bill). She said that the major difference between now and a few years ago is that instead of tearing down damaged buildings, they are now putting new buildings up. Much more hopeful, but I am still aghast and saddened by all the destruction I see, especially in the areas where they have before and after photos, like Cathedral Square.

Wine and Music

On Saturday, I took another country walk in the morning, trying unsuccessfully to find one that would give me a view of the Sound. I climbed and climbed but the tree growth didn’t clear out and I decided not to go to the end of the hike as it was getting muddy and slippery. I took a quick walk at harbor level then headed back to the B&B for my crackers and cheese lunch. I needed food in my stomach before getting picked up for a half day of wine tasting!

We had a good group of people: an Australian couple, a New Zealand couple, a couple of new college grads from the States, and yours truly.

We visited four vineyards. The first, Cloudy Bay, had a fantastic Sauvignon Blanc. They do export to the US, so I held off buying a bottle as it’s hard to carry wine around in luggage. We tried some other good wines as well: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc. The area is just so beautiful, too, a flood plain in the middle of various hills and mountains. We could even see a bit of the snow capped Southern Alps.

At the next, Framingham Wines, we tried a different selection of wines, though of course we had Sauvignon Blanc at each vineyard. (It’s the varietal that put Marlborough on the world wine map.) We tried two Rieslings, one their standard and one a dry Riesling that was delicious and really unusual. (I did buy a bottle of that to bring back!)

We then went to Giesen, which I liked least of all the vineyards, and a fourth location whose name I forget.

We wrapped up with a quick stop at a chocolate factory.

I headed back to my room to rest before dinner. For dinner, I figured I should go somewhere where I could watch my first ever rugby match. Wales was playing New Zealand in their second of three test matches, and it’s a really big deal in New Zealand.

I went to Oxley’s, where I chatted with some older local gentlemen and watched the match. (New Zealand won.) I also ran into one of the ladies who had been on my wine tour and we watched together for awhile.

I ran into the two young American women at Oxley’s, and we headed to the Irish pub down the road to listen to their live music. One of the gentlemen I’d chatted with at Oxley’s came as well, and we all had fun dancing to the last few songs (including Twist and Shout!) Unexpected, but a great way to end the night.

Gateway to the South Island

On Friday, I left the North Island via the ferry from Wellington to Picton. I’d heard great things about how beautiful the scenery is on this crossing as you head into the Queen Charlotte Sound, and was excited to find that it was a beautiful – if quite cold – day.

I went out to the observation deck, located at the rear of this particular ferry, to admire the view out the Wellington harbor.


It was quite windy so I sought refuge inside in the lookout lounge, which faced forward and had floor to ceiling glass windows in the middle. I was lucky enough to get a seat in front of one of them, which made for a prime viewing spot (if not a prime photo spot due to reflections on the glass).

Wellington harbor seems to be protected by a couple of arms of land, so we headed towards one then turned to make our way out to the Cook Strait.

Across the Strait we could barely see the South Island, some snow capped peaks visible to our left. We turned right, however, and headed towards what looked like a solid shoreline.


Somewhere in the middle of the crossing, the scone cart came around, with freshly baked scones. I could get used to that on my travels!

Once we got quite close, we could see there was a break in the cliffs, which let us enter the Sounds. It was gloriously beautiful!

Close to Picton, we saw a mammal in the water, most likely a seal.

I walked from the ferry to my B&B. I had been upgraded from the B&B I had originally booked to another property owned by the same people, as they were doing work on the first. The new property was beautiful – but since it was winter, I found, I was actually the only person in the entire building (including the owner not being there)! The owner had arranged to have a friend or colleague meet me and get me settled in. That lovely lady had even set up a fruit plate and pastry for me in case I was hungry.

Despite it being a little strange to be alone in the B&B, it was actually really restful and peaceful. Just what I needed after all the early mornings!

I took a country walk before it got dark. It’s a beautiful area, very hilly. (Not surprisingly, that’s a pretty common refrain in new Zealand!) The most breathtaking view, however, was straight out of the harbor into the Sound.

Windy Wellington

I really enjoyed my day in Wellington. It’s got a pretty and compact CBD close to the water, while a little farther out there are wooden Victorian houses on the surrounding hills (like my B&B). They reminded me a little of San Francisco.

I started out by walking down through the town to the i-site to get some information about the various things I might want to do that day. I was debating on how to prioritize going to the Weta Workshop, the folks behind a lot of make-up, props, and non-CGI special effects for movies like the Lord of the Rings. I wanted to see it, but I also wanted to get a feel for the city of Wellington.


I decided I would wait to book Weta Cave till after I had explored some more, so I headed out along the beautiful harborside walk to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand. I spent much more time than anticipated there!




I then walked along the waterfront, headed to the iconic Wellington cable car that goes up to the Botanic Gardens, but it was out of service. Instead, I caught a bus and then walked down through the gardens back into town.

I stopped back at the i-site but found that the Weta Cave tours were all booked for the day. Luckily I wasn’t too disappointed as this would let me walk along the harbor to Oriental Terrace, a beautiful walk.

There was a night noodle market that I enjoyed walking through on my way. I found a lovely little restaurant with a water view where I stopped for a very early dinner or late lunch (only having had tea and cake at Te Papa), and I sat drinking wine and watching the sun set.

Rotorua to Wellington via Mt Doom

Wednesday was a bus day, spent traveling down the middle of the North Island via Highway 1.

The trip out of Rotorua was again reminiscent of the Shire, with all these oddly shaped, very lush green hills, plumes of steam visible.

Then we got to Taupo and the lake. Snowy volcanoes in the distance, part of Tongiriro National Park (near where the volcano that was used as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies is located). The lake itself had waves and was this deep blue color except right near the shore, where it was greeny-blue, like an ocean.


As we went around the lake, there were cliffs visible, making such a striking landscape.


I believe in this part, we were still on the geo-thermal explorer highway, but after we left the lake and paralleled those snow-capped volcanoes, we emerged from the forest-covered hills onto the dessert road. We were surrounded by scrubby plains, the majestic mountains towering in the distance.


Then we re-emerged into hills, some seeming knobbly like they were covered by sheeps’ fleece, and dry, so they were a straw color. And they were spotted with sheep and some cattle, as were the greener hills we emerged onto.

We had lunch at a remote rest stop where I had a tasty lamb and mint sauce sandwich (seemed apt since we were in sheep country), and then continued on through hills until we headed closer to the coast. I must admit I fell asleep for part of this, waking an hour before we got Wellington. I was in time to see us hug the coastline and then turn inland through Wellington suburbs.

I ventured out into the city for dinner, trying some green lip mussels. (They really do have a green color around the edge of shell, and are much bigger and somewhat chewier than the mussels you get in the US or Europe.)


From what I’ve seen so far, I really like Wellington!

Arsenic and Old… Traditions

I spent a wonderful, sulfur-smelling, jam packed day in Rotorua on Tuesday.

It started with me visiting two different geo-thermal areas, Wai-O-Tapu before lunch and Waimangu after. The area is located within a “super volcano” or caldera, which explains all the geo-thermal activity.

On our way to the “parks”, we stopped at a boiling mud hole:

Before entering Wai-O-Tapu, we watched their geyser be induced by one of the guides throwing some ecologically friendly surfactant. The geyser is fairly regular without the surfactant, but that means it will go every 24-72 hours, disappointing for visitors.

Wai-O-Tapu has pools of various colors caused by different mineral and metal deposits (such as arsenic, antimony, and sulfur). You actually wouldn’t want to spend too much time next to some of the fumeroles(?) at the bottom of the path, due to the heavy metals or other elements in the vapor. But in the short term, it’s well worth a visit, as you see these pools of water with different colors you’d never expect. Here’s the most striking:


Because it was a cold day, the steam was intense, and the water levels were also fairly low, which meant it was a bit hard to see all the colors you might see on another day. Apparently each day the colors can be different. A German girl on my shuttle and I joined a guided walk, though I left it part way to go further on the path before my transfer to Waimangu.

Waimangu is totally different. Unlike Wai-O-Tapu, where much of the track goes through rock, the trail in Waimangu descends somewhat steeply through bush. It’s like a walk in the woods where giant ferns grow and the lakes steam and bubble, and you expect to come across a dinosaur around the corner.

I met a nice couple while walking through Waimangu and we ended up walking together for much of it. That made this city girl more comfortable – I like knowing there is at least one other human being around, especially when walking through bush where it would be relatively easy to twist an ankle and not have anyone around to help. Apparently the guy is in a band called the Thomas Brothers. (There, I’ve now put in a plug for the band! Always interesting to see someone’s performance when you’ve randomly met them.)

Waimangu is a long enough trail that they suggest walking out and taking a bus back. There are three bus stops and I’d originally thought I would have time to go to the end, but it seemed like we were cutting it close by the time we got to the second stop, and I was worried I wouldn’t make it back to the shuttle on time. Luckily the bus passed us at that stop and the driver said he’d wait for us at the third stop so we could see the lake, we just needed to hurry a bit. He was so nice!


After that, I got back on the shuttle and made a flying visit to a tasting room for a boutique winery called Volcanic Hills, that a friend had recommended. It is located at the top of a hill at the edge of Rotorua, and you take a gondola up there. On the way up, I remembered how much I hate heights, but on the way down, after tasting five different fantastic wines, I did a lot better! I wish I could have brought back several bottles but I was running short on time before my Maori cultural performance and dinner and I didn’t want to carry bottles for the next two weeks. However, I am now regretting that decision. Oh well, the view, the wine, and the person leading the tasting all contributed to a lovely if short experience.

I headed back down the hill, rejoined the German girl I’d met on the shuttle to Wai-O-Tapu, and we headed a little down the road to Mitai, a Maori cultural performance and dinner (a hangi, where meat and kumara – sweet potatoes – are steamed in the ground).

It was a great experience, very polished and aimed at tourists but still well worth seeing. The dances were similar to what I had seen in Auckland. They had us delegate a “chief”, who was designated since he called himself out as the only vegetarian there! (Both Australia and New Zealand are such meat-loving countries!) He was such a good sport! Part of the tradition (incorporated into the show) was that the Mitai tribe would offer a song, and then our “tribe” would as well. There was a college group there who was ready and apparently prepped to sing, but our “chief” actually had a Native American flute and decided to play it! At the end of the performance, before dinner, they also had us practice part of a haka (war dance).  It was a lovely performance and a lot of fun, and the dinner after was tasty.

I had sprung for the additional night walk through a zoo/sanctuary to see the kiwis, who are nocturnal. I figured it might be the only chance I had to see live kiwi birds, and I’m glad I went. I also saw some glowworms at the beginning of the walk, tiny blue pinpricks of light over a pond. If (hopefully when) I return to New Zealand, I want to see the glowworms in Waitomo Caves. These whetted my appetite to see more!