Archive for December, 2007

So Long, New Zealand!

Monday, December 10th, 2007

We ended our stay in New Zealand with a great trip to a small island on the east coast of the North Island, Tiritiri Matangi, and then a final day exploring Auckland. Both days were “heaps of fun,” as they say in New Zealand, and a great way to conclude our stay in this country.

Tiritiri 291 Tiritiri Matangi is a wildlife sanctuary reachable by ferry. The day got off with a bang when we saw one of our favorite birds, a Sacred Kingfisher, eating one of our favorite animals, a lizard (a Copper Skink). Ymmm! All fall, we’ve been trying to find a way to balance nature hikes focused on seeing birds (relatively easy to set up) with nature hikes focused on reptiles and amphibians (harder), and finally came up with the perfect solution!

Tiritiri 344 The island is a gorgeous spot, and we had a terrific time hiking around it. We were accompanied by one of the volunteer naturalists (Spencer) who was very knowledgeable and made the exploration quite educational. There are some great birds there that we missed on this trip (including the Takahe and the Kokapo), but we did spot a Morepork (a type of New Zealand owl) and its baby, which was unusual.

Auckland 223 While in the Auckland area, we focused on getting packed for our return to North America, but found time to visit an aquarium and the Auckland Museum. Like zoos, I’m not sure we’ll ever generate as much enthusiasm for aquariums as we did before our trip. There was an Antarctica exhibit, though, which was quite interesting. And at the Auckland Museum, there was an excellent exhibit on Charles Darwin, which we all found fascinating. Since we plan on being in the Galapagos and Antarctica after the turn of the year, it was a great way to end our stay in Asia and Oceania, and get ready for South America and Antarctica!

There was something very unusual for us on our last day of this part of our trip — rain. We realized that, somewhat incredibly, we haven’t had a real day of rain in three and one-half months. The rain had no impact on our schedule, since we were packing and checking out some museums. But it was probably good preparation for December in Seattle :-( .

Originally, we were planning to spend time in Fiji after New Zealand. It’s awfully hard to pass by Fiji, but that’s what we decided to do. It was going to take us the better part of a day to get there, we’d have three days there on the beach, and then three different flight legs to get to Seattle. When we weighed the appeal of three days on the beach versus the complications in travel logistics, we decided to save Fiji for another time, and hopped on a direct flight from Auckland to Vancouver, British Columbia, where the kids are going skiing and building snow forts, and Elizabeth and I are getting organized for Christmas.

Feel free to check out our Tiritiri Matangi photos.

A Good Walk, Spoiled (Sort Of)

Friday, December 7th, 2007

Milford 068 We set off on our Milford Track hike with great expectations. I had done the hike eighteen years ago, and remembered it as being pretty easy. Well, when we attended our briefing, the distances seem to grown over the years, and we faced three days of hiking, with distances of 10 miles, 9 miles over a 4,000 foot pass and back down, and 13 miles over rocky terrain. The good news was that the weather forecast was promising. The bad news was that, because of avalanche risk, the descent of the pass would have to be on the super-steep emergency trail, and there’d be no chance to see the Sutherland Falls (the fifth highest waterfall in the world).

Milford 033 We drove to Te Anau, and got on the one-hour boat to the trailhead, with all of our hiking stuff in our four backpacks. Then we hiked a very short mile into Glade Lodge, where we were able to explore the surroundings. Sterling even jumped in the Clinton (not Hillary, thankfully) River for a swim. And we hung out with another dad and his eleven-year-old son who, along with his wife and other child, were spending a full year in New Zealand but were from Arlington, Virginia. I also looked at the log book from 1989, and found my entry (as well as Mike and Tom Hill’s, two people I met from Boston on that trip and went on to become good friends with).

Milford 064 We set off at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, geared up for the first phase of our hike. I had carefully made sure to bring my pack, my camera, my binoculars, and . . . my painful heel injury from last summer! While in Jamestown, Rhode Island, last summer, I hurt my left heel and had to drop all athletic activities for almost a month, and made several visits to my foot doctor, including a cortisoneMilford 085 shot. Well, my left heel had been fine all fall, but about half-way through the hike, I was hurting. Every step on my left leg felt like I was walking on a knife — not a machete, mind you, but at least the biggest blade of a Swiss Army Knife. I made it into the lodge that night, but couldn’t walk particularly well. I iced it all evening, and decided to see how it felt in the morning.

Milford 294 I’m sure a painful left heel colored my view of the hike, but I’m not sure any of us would have been having a great time even if my foot had been perfect. The Milford Track hike is a great hike through some of the most gorgeous territory imaginable, but the experience doesn’t feel like you’re in nature. We had so much distance to cover, and a tight schedule, that there wasn’t time for exploring a river bank, following a bird, looking for a gecko, or even pausing for a great photo. And if day one was in somewhat unsatisfying, the other days would have been that much more difficult, in many respects.

Milford 120 When I woke up the next morning, I had a hard time walking to the bathroom — not a great sign prior to the hardest day on the track. We spoke with the guides (who were terrific!) who described a second option. Take the supply helicopter to Milford (a ten minute helicopter ride, but eliminating 16 hours of hiking!). Well, that helicopter option worked for us, we got some great views, waved to the hikers, and completed the track in record time :-) . Given that my heel still hurts two days later, I’m glad I took the “easy way out,” even though I hated to pack it in.

Milford 186 We explored the Milford Sound area for a couple of hours, with a nice leisurely hike along the Sound. Then, we took a helicopter back to Queenstown, stopping for lunch on the top of Mount Humboldt. The views were spectacular, and the kids took advantage of the snow to get in some fabulous summer “sledding” (see sledding videos of Gibson and Sterling), which was great preparation for our return to North America for Christmas. After returning Milford 245 to Queenstown, we strolled around the downtown area, concluding a great day. So our Milford Sound experience wasn’t what we expected, but ended up working out terrifically for us. We got to experience what the hike is like, got some great views of the area, and didn’t come out of it unable to walk for the next six months — a pretty good outcome all around.

Feel free to look at my photos from Milford. It’s a big collection, but then the area is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever limped through in my life.

The Spectacular South Island

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

We spent a three days in Abel Tasman National Park, one of the top spots globally for sea kayaking. In addition to kayaking, this area is terrific for tramping (New Zealand-ese for “hiking”) and exploring by motorboat or helicopter. That kept us plenty busy during our time here.

Abel Tasman 418 Our highlight was coming back one afternoon late from a day of kayaking and hiking. We got a lift back to our lodge on a motorboat and decided to head home with a more offshore route. Our hunch that this route would be interesting paid off, as we came across a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins, about one hundred of them! We spent about a half an hour cruising at a medium speed (8 knots or so), and the dolphins followed our wake the whole time. Some cameAbel Tasman 417 way out of the water with their jumps, and others just tucked in behind us and drafted on the boat. At times we’d see two, three, four, and even five dolphins jump out of the water at the same time. It was unreal! The best pictures of the day were taken by Gibson (I tried!), including the ones above and to the right. I have about 100 pictures of the ocean with a big bubbly area right where the dolphin just re-entered the water :-( .

Abel Tasman 196 We also did our share of sea kayaking in Abel Tasman, in all sorts of ways. The kids took some light kayaks out in a cove one afternoon, and loved it! On a different day, we went out further in two-person kayaks, which was a tad less successful until we put the adults in one kayak and the kids in the other. Somehow, that made it a whole lot more fun for everyone! Kayaking, as we found out, is a lot of work, but we got some very close-up views of New Zealand Fur Seals and the Little Blue Penguin, so that was exciting. And the scenery in Abel Tasman is just beyond words — it’s so beautiful.

Abel Tasman 194 We took a helicopter to and from our lodge, which gave us great views of the Tasman coast. Our pilot explained that much of the land along the coast was farmland two decades ago, but has now been developed into some sizable beach houses. There are even private homes in Abel Tasman National Park, although no one seems to mind. Anyway, this area of New Zealand has clearly been “discovered,” and the tourism services business here is pretty mature.

Abel Tasman 256 No time at the beach would be complete for our kids without building a structure of some kind. If Elizabeth and I ever want to go away for a few months and make sure our kids stay out of trouble, we’ll just leave them at a beach that has lots of driftwood. We spent hours down at the beach by our lodge, and there was lots of raw material to work with, with a tee-pee and a not-terribly-seaworthy raft being built during our stay.

Abel Tasman 307 After our stay in Abel Tasman, we flew on a crystal clear day south along the “Southern Alps” to Queenstown. The views of the mountains were just incredible, especially Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand (see below). We could see snow-capped peaks, glaciers, glacial lakes, and rivers from our plane, which was quite a sight! Abel Tasman 315 The South Island of New Zealand is formed largely by the collision of tectonic plates, and the Southern Alps are the result. It’s quite a contrast from the North Island, which was formed almost entiirely by volcanic activity. The islands are quite close together, but geologically are worlds apart. It’s been great to see both of them in such a short time frame.

After landing smoothly in Queenstown, we spent the better part of the day exploring Queenstown and the surrounding areas. I had been to Queenstown in 1989, and it has changed considerably since then. Now, Queenstown seems more like a Vail or Aspen (see below) than the tiny little town I visited years back. I wouldn’t say the change has been for the better, though, and we’re moving right along on to the Milford Track. We did Abel Tasman 379 take time to see a bungy jump from the place where bungy jumping originated. Be sure to check out the video, and ask yourself if you’d be willing to do it (I wouldn’t!). Anyway, we’re now square in the middle of extreme sports territory, with lots of tourists, and all sorts of wild activities. But within twenty-four hours, we’ll be on the peaceful and isolated Milford Track.

I have to admit to an interesting alignment between technology and nature tonight. Our Queenstown hotel, the Azur (a great spot), has wireless internet access, but the signal is weak in the room (tin roof). The only place I could get a decent signal is out on the deck, which overlooks Lake Wakatipu and the mountains surrounding Queenstown. So I’ve been writing this blog on the deck well after dark on a late Spring, cloudless Southern Hemisphere night. The stars tonight are impossible to describe, so numerous and bright. And the only sounds I can hear are a light breeze blowing through the trees and occasional ripples on the lake. Everyone else in my family is asleep, and I’m outside, in my bathrobe, writing a blog, and gazing at the Orion’s Belt. It’s just been that kind of a trip.

Feel free to check out our Abel Tasman and Queenstown photos.