Sunday, July 27, 2014

Te Waipounamu: New Zealand's South Island – Part 1 of 2

It looks suspiciously like my home state
of Colorado, but this is really New Zealand
I'm sure more than a few global wanderers have New Zealand plugged in prominently on a travel bucket list. (And for the record, I detest the term "bucket list" for truly unknown reasons, but at least everyone knows what it means, I suppose.) In a way, New Zealand is the civilized world's last frontier: Isolated, remote, and a complete study in contrasts. A far-flung island nation, near virtually nothing, yet a country which not only offers stunning natural beauty, but one which offers a phenomenally well-developed infrastructure, second-to-none modernity, and a travel experience that draws on contemporary comfort and wild rugged adventure and nature in equal measure.

I had the chance to venture south to New Zealand recently, during the advent of the Kiwi autumn – that's early spring for us northern latitude folks. I had to make some decisions about which of the two principal islands to spend most of my time exploring, and as I wanted a blend of scenic beauty and the outstanding adventure tourism for which the country is rightly known, it made choosing the South Island a pretty easy one. Called Te Waipounamu in the native Māori language, meaning "the waters of greenstone," the South Island has a substantially larger landmass than the North Island, yet less than a quarter of New Zealand's 4.5 million residents call it home. With plenty of wide-open spaces, mountains, glaciers, and forests, and just a million people in total, South Island is definitely the cure for those in need of a respite from big-city congestion.

One of many scenic, pastoral landscapes dotting the South Island

Nearing Queenstown, the snow-capped mountain views
from the plane were magnificent

Note the small glacial lake in the bottom right

Waiting for snow... I arrived in April, about the beginning of the
New Zealand autumn, so not all of the mountain ranges bore snow

The Remarkables, a jagged mountain range
that dominates the Queenstown-area landscape

A view of the edge of Queenstown
on approach to landing at the airport

The park in Queenstown next to my hotel

I arrived in Auckland, on the top bit of the North Island, very late at night after a pretty long (10-hour) flight from KL. I stayed overnight at an airport hotel there, sleeping at about 1 a.m., then caught an early morning flight on Air New Zealand down to Queenstown, which is in the southern half of the South Island, in the beautiful Central Otago region. Two hours later, after flying over the snow-capped Southern Alps, I arrived at the airport and was taken to my hotel, a terrific place called Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel. With little time to spare, I checked in, dropped off my bags, and was whisked off to my first adventure appointment – skydiving! Needless to say, at this point I was a bit jet-lagged, certainly glassy-eyed, and more or less just being swept along by the inertia of my itinerary.

The Cessna that took us up
Once on board the Cessna Caravan with a half-dozen fellow jumpers, the side door was rolled closed, its clear acrylic slats affording me a spectacular view of Queenstown and the surrounding mountains as we leapt off the grass runway and climbed to our jump altitude of over 15,000 feet. Still, I was fine, and though I accepted the tube of supplemental oxygen that was offered, I didn't feel I needed it. My breathing was fine, and my nerves were calm. I've spent many hours in small airplanes, including my own beloved Piper Cherokee that I sold before moving to Malaysia. But I always stayed very much inside those planes, something that was not to be the case this time. My distinct lack of amusement at being the first one out of the plane was met with dismissive laughter and the Plexiglas door was rolled up, and suddenly, along with a blast of cold air, there was the world, tiny and remote, nearly three miles below us. And it was then that the first thrill of terror raced through me.

Looking down a split second after leaving
the plane, wondering whether or not
this was truly a good decision
Though I’ve spent a lot of time in the air, both as a passenger and a pilot, nothing in my experience had prepared me for the sensation of being in the frame of an open door of an airplane in flight. I reckon it's something that you get used to after a few jumps, but on the first, it's just categorically wrong, a situation that's irreconcilable with logic (and the sense of self-preservation). Cold high-altitude air screamed into the plane and my mind embraced the horror as I looked straight down. But there was barely any time for the apprehension to fully register, nor was there to be any hesitation. My jumpmaster and I simply rotated ourselves slightly towards the door and there we were, hanging out of the airplane. Head back, legs tucked slightly under the fuselage, a couple of preparatory rocking movements, and then, we simply fell from the airplane, the only thing separating us from certain death being the precious contents of a compact pack on the jumpmaster’s back. A split-second of weightlessness and my heart leapt instantly into my throat, following by the inexorable claws of gravity seizing us, then taking hold. We rocketed to Earth, accelerating to terminal velocity, some 200 kph (120 mph), in a matter of seconds. And then, free fall.

Holy $#*%!!! Gravity works!

A small drogue chute is deployed early in the free fall
to stabilize the descent – and look at that scenery!

High above New Zealand and falling fast...
this was just after passing through 10,000 feet

We stayed in that chilly and wind-buffeted free fall for a full minute, plummeting a startling two miles straight down in that short time. When we reached roughly 6,000 feet, the jumpmaster deployed the main chute, and as that big, beautiful parachute unfurled above us, I felt a surge of relief... but not for the reason you might suspect. Free falling at 120 miles an hour produces quite a wind chill, so I was more than happy to slow down and warm up a bit! And in so doing, I was able to just look around and take it all in... and what a panorama. For five wonderful minutes, we drifted ever downward, taking in the stunning scenery of New Zealand’s Lake Wakatipu region. My jumpmaster handed me the “reins” to the chute and let me fly us, pulling one side and then the other to steer us gracefully around the clear blue sky. It was remarkable… a magnificent experience to be suspended there in mid-air like a bird, free and alive.

Stunning views from 6,700 feet, moments before the main chute
was deployed for a leisurely completion to the jump

Touchdown! Coming in for a gentle landing on terra firma

The landing was smooth and effortless, a testament to the skill and experience of my jumpmaster (who at that time had over 26,000 jumps logged). A final volley of photos on the ground, and the experience was over as suddenly as it had begun. What an introduction to my week in New Zealand!

After the jump! Sweet!

Pinot noir grapes
at Amisfield
That evening, I had dinner at Amisfield Winery & Bistro just outside of Queenstown, which, a week or two later, hosted no less than Prince William and Kate Middleton on the royal couple's tour of New Zealand. We opted for the NZ$120 (just over US$100) "Trust the Chef" set meal, a four-course wine-paired option that gives the chef free rein to wow you with dishes made with the fresh produce and ingredients of the day. It definitely wasn't the best meal I had on the trip, to be honest, but it was okay, and the wine was excellent, as was the scenery and general ambiance. If I were to return, I'd just order off the menu and forego "trusting the chef." Charcuterie and cheese boards are always a good choice at winery restaurants (or anywhere, really), and I think that's what I'd elect to order here next time, too.

Amisfield Winery and Bistro

Some of the vines at Amisfield Winery, late afternoon

We trusted the chef and this was one of our courses...
I can't even recall what it was. Looks reasonably
pretty on the plate, but it wasn't memorable at all

I suppose nothing else on the trip made quite the impression of jumping out of an airplane, but that didn't make any of it any less memorable. The next adventure, decidedly more tame, was to be an overnight cruise on Milford Sound. We took a scenic coach from Queenstown around the southern half of the immense Lake Wakatipu through the valley to Te Anau (a small town which also sits on another massive lake), then on from there through the mountains to Milford. The distance from Queenstown to Milford is quite short as the crow flies, but as there is no direct land route, the driving distance is fairly extreme: a leisurely journey by scenic coach can easily take five or six hours. It was a comfortable trip, I met some interesting people on the bus, and the journey yielded some beautiful photos, as nearly the entire route was incredibly scenic.

The land route from Queenstown to
Milford is shown here in red; air routes
are shown in yellow

Part of the southern arm of the immense Lake Wakatipu

From here, we left the Wakatipu area and headed into
the valleys leading to Te Anau and Piopiotahi,
the Māori name for Milford Sound

Fertile farmland backdropped by imposing mountains... just gorgeous

Another shot from Lake Wakatipu

Along Route 6 in the Otago region

As immense as Lake Wakatipu is, Lake Te Anau is even larger: it is the
largest lake in the South Island by surface area, and the largest lake in
the entirety of Australasia by freshwater volume

A floatplane rests on the glassy surface of Lake Te Anau

After Te Anau, the looming mountains of the Fiordland region beckoned

And here is our distinctively wedge-shaped coach;
the livery makes the effect more pronounced, I think,
but the bus really is shaped that way, too!

Some of the glacially sculpted mountains of the
untamed Fiordland region

On a short hike during a planned
stop, we found this waterfall
and iridescent blue pool

A vast and humbling landscape leading to the final portion of the
journey: through the Homer Tunnel and on to Milford Sound
(Look at the tiny vehicles in comparison for a sense of scale!)

At the east portal of the Homer Tunnel, on the Milford
Sound Highway, a vast glacier creeps down a nearby

Here's a wider view, showing the numerous small
waterfalls resulting from the glacial melting

The east portal of the 1.2-km Homer
Tunnel. Inside, the tunnel is completely
unlined (raw granite), wet, and very poorly
lit, so it's rather creepy

Descending on the west side of the tunnel, we stopped
and explored a lush forest that felt quite primeval

There's not much in the photo for
scale, but this fern was easily
six feet (nearly 2m) across

One of my favorite photos from the forest, the Cleddau River rushing by
on its journey to Deepwater Basin, then Milford Sound, and
finally the Tasman Sea

And finally, our long overland journey nears its end, and the dramatic,
shrouded peaks of Milford Sound come into view

Another photo showcasing the vastness of the Fiordland landscape
as a scenic flight takes off in the waning afternoon sunlight

The Milford Mariner in the harbor; the iconicMitre Peak
can be seen clearly in the background
We arrived at the harbor in Milford around 4pm and before long, had set out to sea aboard the Milford Mariner cruise ship, a vessel built in a heritage style, giving a traditional appearance but offering distinctly modern comforts and amenities. I was assigned a nice stateroom fore and starboard, and once I deposited my overnight bag there, spent most of my time on deck and in the spacious dining area. Before sundown, we were given the opportunity to take sea kayaks or small tender craft out on the beautiful Milford Sound. Low clouds had come in, giving everything a surreal sense of foreboding. No rain developed, just an eerie atmospheric ambiance. We explored several coves and enjoyed the cool, damp sea air as we plied leisurely around on the open water, never wandering too far from the Mariner.

Ropes and chains and floating orange doughnuts...
how can you not love the nautical life?

Here's my cabin... more than sufficient
for an overnight cruise

Leaving port and heading to sea

The first of many impressive waterfalls we saw

Good weather as we headed out

Looking off the stern of the ship as we left the confines of the sound

Paddling around in the water under a thick, low cloud canopy; no idea
who the guy on the left was – he was not part of our group

Looking to the densely forested shoreline from the small boats

In time, we made our way back to the ship, where we got ourselves tidied up for the dinner after sundown. However, before that, we were afforded a real delight.A small group of bottlenose dolphins took up a post off the Mariner's port bow, riding the bow wave, leaping and twirling with astonishing power and grace. From what one of the onboard naturalists told us, there was one female and three males, one substantially larger than the others. The large male was doing all he could to impress and woo the female, apparently, with the smaller males hanging back, perhaps watching his smooth moves, hoping to learn from the senior male in the group. The dolphins stayed with us for over an hour, making the crew's urgings to come to dinner go largely unheeded for at least the first 15 minutes or so! After all, you can eat any old time, but it's not every day you get to be in the company of these magnificent oceangoing mammals. Getting proper photos was a challenge for three reasons: we were on a boat going about 15-20 kts at the time, it was right around sundown, so light was very low, and there was rarely any notice when the dolphins were about to leap from the water. Out of about a dozen or so shots, only a handful ended up being of any use!

I was assigned at a table with some other voyagers and we all hit it off very well – a pair of Canadians and two Brits who had emigrated to Australia were on hand, so with that contingent and me from America, all of us at sea in New Zealand, pretty much had the entirety of the native English-speaking world covered! I wish I had gotten someone to take a picture of all of us; in hindsight, it's disappointing to not have any good photos of the people I met along the way on this trip.

In any case, though, it was a remarkably good buffet dinner – this was actually a harbinger of the rest of the trip's culinary offerings. With so much clean air, pure water, and unspoiled land, and virtually no native pests to chemically eradicate, the freshness and quality of the food in New Zealand is amazing. It's not cheap, it must be said – eating out here can really dent a traveler's budget – but the caliber of food I ate at almost every meal was beyond reproach. Even a buffet dinner on a ship at sea blew me away.

Remarkably fresh and colorful veggies and NZ lamb
as part of my rather impressive buffet dinner

I didn't partake in anything from this
part of the dessert table, but it
certainly looked great

This is where I focused my post-meal attention...

Fresh fruit, nuts, and cheeses – excellent!

After a restful night's sleep, breakfast the next morning was just about as impressive as dinner the night before. As we cruised Milford Sound, we saw numerous waterfalls, a wide variety of seabirds, and a platoon of playful fur seals cavorting in the chilly waters. The plan on my itinerary called for me taking a scenic private plane flight back to Queenstown, but uncooperative clouds and questionable weather coming in off the sea stymied that, so it was back on board the bus for a long ride back. On the plus side, we encountered a pair of cheeky Kea parrots on the west side approach to Homer Tunnel. Wet from the persistent mist, the parrots waddled around on the roadside and on top of cars waiting their turn to go through the tunnel. Apparently quite accustomed to parrot paparazzi, the birds did plenty of strutting and mugging for the cameras. I also got to spend a bit more time in Te Anau on the return journey, and it's a thoroughly charming town, one of the two gateways to the region. I picked up three or four bottles of various New Zealand wines here, too.

One of the many waterfalls we
saw in Milford Sound, this one
shortly after sunrise

A delicious breakfast with more fresh fruit

Fur seals socializing on the rocks

This one reminds me of a dog scratching an itch

A seal pup checking out the humans
passing by

Stirling Falls, also called Waimanu Falls,
is one of Milford Sound's two
permanent waterfalls, plunging
151m (almost 500 feet)

Getting closer to Stirling Falls... it's supposed to be good
luck (or something) to navigate into the mist from a waterfall,
so that's what our captain did

Misty veils of morning clouds in Milford Sound

Another magnificent waterfall glimpsed as we
were nearing port

A wet Kea on the road at Homer Tunnel

Another Kea, the world's southernmost parrot species

Dealing with the parrot paparazzi... 
all in a day's work for this Kea

Lakeside scene in laid-back Te Anau

Walking around Te Anau during our time there, this was a
typical neighborhood scene on a mostly cloudy early autumn day

I think I'll stop this entry here and put the rest of the trip into a second entry. It's already written, and the photos selected, it's just too long overall for one blog post! I'll still need to caption the photos and get everything laid out. In the next part, though, I'll cover the rest of my time in Queenstown – ziplining and a tour of several wineries among the highlights – and the trip by car from Queenstown to Christchurch. Stay tuned!


Charmaine said...

Cool pix and very serene environment. Christchurch will be added to the list of places I will visit in the future. Thanks for the travel ideas and tips here.

barbmerchant said...

Just went back and looked at photos enlarged---absolutely breathtaking!! Good job as usual.