|It looks suspiciously like my home state|
of Colorado, but this is really New Zealand
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|
|Looking down a split second after leaving|
the plane, wondering whether or not
this was truly a good decision
|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|
|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
|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.
fresh and colorful veggies and NZ lamb|
as part of my rather impressive buffet dinner
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.
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!