Peace Corps Videos

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Steve and Stan’s New Zealand Adventure

One of the perks of being in Peace Corps is being able to travel to other places near your area of service.   For those of us in Tonga, it is often other South Pacific Islands or Australia and New Zealand.

I’ve just completed an almost three week stay in Kiwi Country with my friend and fellow volunteer Stan.  Early in the trip I remarked to Stan that I never figured I would go on vacation with someone half my age.  He answered by saying he never thought he would go on vacation with someone twice his age.  Touché’ Stan!  He turned out to be a great travel companion.

The trip was a first for both of us.  While I had spent a few hours at the Auckland Airport on my way back from Australia last year, this was the first time I got to see this remarkable country.

North Island New Zealand

Downtown AucklandWe had decided before we left that we would spend most of our time in New Zealand on the South Island.  We spent a night in Auckland, a night in Rotorua and two nights in Wellington before taking a three hour ferry ride to the South Island.

We both thoroughly enjoyed Wellington which is a vibrant city reminiscent of a Greek Island with houses built into the hills along the coast.   The city is active and has a very positive energy.  Waiotapu Geothermal Site

Before arriving in Wellington, we visited Waiotapu, which is a geothermal site on the North Island.

It was fascinating to see boiling hot water bubble from the ground and to see the steam rising from mud pools as we hiked around the area.    There is also a small geyser that is “started” every morning when they dump soap into it.  

The best meal I had during my entire vacation was on the North Fresh Mussels in a cream sauceIsland and happened quite by chance.   We had decided to take the back roads from Auckland to see more of the countryside.   Not far outside of Auckland we stopped at a small market to get some sandwiches.   The market did not make sandwiches but she suggested we try a place just down a small side road called Margaret’s Garden.   I ordered Mussels in a cream sauce with pasta and a nice glass of wine.My food was simply spectacular while Stan judged his good.

 

South Island New Zealand

Fall colors on the South IslandIt is fall in New Zealand and the further south we traveled, the more brilliant the colors.    Our first stop was Nelson, which is near many of the regions wineries.  We visited on a Monday through Wednesday and there was not much going on in the town. Boat near Abel Tasman Park We did meet up with our Peace Corps friends Scot and Karen who were visiting from Tonga as well. The highlight of our stay there was a hike along the Coast Track at  the Abel Tasman National Park.  The water levels between high tide and low tide are dramatic and a boat that floats at high tide will be completely aground at low tide.

Crayfish outside Kaikoura

Venturing further south, we stopped in Kaikoura where we ate some fresh crayfish from a roadside stand and where we were unable to see any seals at the seal colony south of town.    It snowed in the mountains while we were sleeping and we awoke the next morning to snow capped mountains all around us.

 

High above ChristchurchWe spend four nights in Christchurch with our friend and former Peace Corps volunteer Justin.  He moved to New Zealand after completing his service and now works there.  We caught a movie there and did some rock climbing.   We also had a fun night on the town with him showing us many of the hot spots.    We went to a place called Boogie Nights, which was an 80’s themed disco complete with lighted dance floor.   I may have been the only person in the place who actually remembered going to places like this in the 80’s.

At Mt. Cook, the views were spectacular on the day we arrived but we left early because the next day it rained…really the only day that the weather didn’t cooperate with us during the trip.

Mt Cook

Steve leaping from 15,000 feetQueenstown is great.  One of the best places we visited on the trip and also where we decided to jump out of a perfectly good airplane from 15,000 feet above the ground below.   It was a spectacular adventure which included a 60 second free fall.

   

The night before the jump we met probably the most “colorful” character of the trip.   We went into a small place called The Minibar .  Inside were just the bartender and one customer.  The customer looked like a homeless person and was mumbling his words together.   As we proceeded to talk with him, he went to a corner of the bar to get his chainsaw and fishing pole!  What?  That’s right, this guy was in a bar in Queenstown with a chainsaw and a fishing pole.   We later saw him walking down the street carrying his chainsaw and his fishing pole.   We don’t remember his name, but for the rest of the trip we laughed about our Queenstown encounter with “Chainsaw Man” and wondered why we didn’t take a photo.

There are a number of fiords on the South Island, the best known ofDoubtful Sound which is probably Milford Sound.  We skipped Milford and opted to go further south to a lesser know place called Doubtful Sound.    They only get sunshine here one out of every three days and getting to the sound is an adventure all by itself.  We first took a one hour boat ride across a lake.  From there, we took a 45 minute bus ride to the sound and then a three hour boat tour of the fiord.  While we didn’t see much rain, it was still overcast.   We did get to see some seals where the Sound empties into the Tasman sea.

Doubtful Sound got its name from James Cook, the famous explorer who was the first European to visit both New Zealand and Tonga.   While mapping the area he wrote on his charts that the area was a “Doubtful Harbor” and the name stuck.

One of the best places we stayed during our trip was at a small backpackers accommodation in Manapouri which is where you catch the first boat to get to Doubtful Sound.  The place is called Freestone Backpackers.  We shard a cabin with some German tourists.  We all had our own bedrooms but the common area has nice leather couches, a pot belly stove with plenty of firewood and a very nice shared kitchen.  You could look out and see the Lake from the front of our cabin.  

Probably the highlight of the entire trip was our last Saturday in New Zealand.  We debated whether we wanted to stay in Queenstown for a 4th night, go back to Mt. Cook and hope the weather would be better or go visit the glaciers.  The glaciers were a long drive but we eventually decided to head that way.

Franz Josef Glacier is on the West Coast of New Zealand and a long way from anywhere.  As we were driving north toward the glacier, we saw a sign that said “Last Gas for 120KM” and promptly filled up, not wanting to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere.   Stan and Steve at Franz Josepf Glacier

To get close to the glacier, you have to wade across “glacier cold” water but the chill on your feet is worth it.   We walked as far as we could past several great waterfalls until we reached a rope that said only experienced and guided tours should proceed.  We decided to go forward and what an adventure it was.  We used ropes to pull us up steep slopes and we waded through creek beds just to get to the glacier.     But that was nothing compared to the hike back.   We accidently stumbled upon the end of an adventure trail and took it back.  Here we pulled ourselves up on rocks using chains that we anchored into the rocks.  We found ladders for the really steep climbs and lots of scary terrain.   However, it was all worth it.  We got some great views of the glaciers and had a hike that normally you would have to pay to enjoy.    

Recommendations if you are coming to New Zealand

  • Until my trip to New Zealand, I had never stayed at a hostel or backpackers kind of accommodation.   I was surprised to find that you could get a pretty nice private room at these places.  In addition to the Freestone Backpackers mentioned above, another of our favorite places was at the YHA Wellington, where our twin room even had a French press with free ground coffee.   We would also highly recommend Freeman’s Bed and Breakfast in Auckland.  We spent out last night there and left for the airport at 5am so we didn’t get to sample the Breakfast.
  • There are a lot of New Zealand beers.  We tried many different kinds often sampling different beers every night.   My favorites were the Mac’s Brewjolais and the Montiefs Celtic.
  • We had several good meals and would recommend Margaret’s Garden, mentioned above plus Harborside Seafood in Auckland.  There is an Indian Restaurant in Queenstown at the top of the street across from the McCafe that was quite good and also the Mexican Restaurant on the second floor in an alleyway was good.  (I don’t remember the names of either of these.)  
  • We had a good experience with our rental car company, EZi Rentals and would use them again.   We made several changes during our trip and they were very accommodating and all of the staff we met were friendly.  Our first car was a Nissan March and it didn’t have a lot of power on the mountains.  But our other two cars were both Hyundai Getz and we liked both of them.
  • We used the Lonely Planet guidebook for New Zealand extensively.  It was published in September and most of the information was up to date.   We found it much better than the Fodor’s guide which we also had.  

    Places to Avoid in New Zealand

  • Two places to avoid staying if you are heading to New Zealand.  The first is Cactus Jack’s in Rotorua, which is a Western themed hostel.  The room was clean, but very small and the atmosphere was very weird.  We were also disappointed with our stay at the YHA Hostel in Franz Josef   The facility was not very clean and there was no water pressure in the  showers and the hot water ran out quickly.  
  • Our worst meal of the trip was in Queenstown at The Fishbone Grill.  This place is a top pick in the Lonely Planet Guidebook, but we thought it was really bad.  We decided to  give it a try because there was a sign out front that said “Bluff Oysters”.  We had eaten raw Bluff Oysters earlier in the trip so we decided to go there.   When we sat down, the waitress told us they were out of Bluff Oysters.  We suggested they take down the sign out front.  A while later we heard a table near us also asking for the Bluff Oysters.  The sign was still outside.    Stan’s food was tasteless…he has a fish special.  I tried the local Salmon.  It was extremely greasy…so much so that I couldn’t eat it.  We never saw our waitress again after she took our order…some other people delivered the food.  We finally got tired of waiting and went up to the front counter to get our bill.  I would not go back here.

Other Notes from the Trip

  • We both were impressed with New Zealand’s commitment to self sufficiency.  They use geothermal, solar and hydroelectric to generate most of their power.   Everywhere we stayed there were signs asking us to turn off the lights when we left to save power and the heaters were generally on a timer.  
  • Prices were pretty good as the dollar is strong right now.  We never paid more than US$60 dollars a night for a room and we paid just $US13 each to stay at the Freestone Backpackers mentioned above.  The price of a beer in a bar ranged from about $US2.00 to $US4.00.
  • We would often travel for many kilometers with no radio especially in the mountains.  When a station clicked in, no matter the format, we would listen to it.  We didn’t have a FM Modulator for an I-Pod and no CD’s.   While memorable, the worst song we heard, and thankfully we only heard it once,  was a song that sang the same sentences over and over again.  It went :

    We're just ordinary people
    We don't know which way to go
    Because we're ordinary people
    Maybe we should take it slow

  • You can see more photos from the trip, including photos of skydiving at my New Zealand Photo Gallery.  You can also click on any photo on this page to see an enlarged view.

Moon rising in Christchurch

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