Queenstown quickie

It’s an easy and gorgeous drive from Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park, to Queenstown, the capital of adrenaline sports. We will not be bungy jumping, skydiving, paragliding, jet boating or any of the other high speed or high altitude adventures offered in nearly every storefront but we will appreciate the continued stunning beauty of this part of the world. 

As we drove I noticed that the place names suddenly changed from Scottish to Irish, a phenomenon we see wherever Europeans emigrated to new territory, that they choose a place that feels like the home they left behind.

The drive reminds us that park boundaries are arbitrary and the landscape continues well beyond the exit sign. Once we entered the small town of Queenstown, jam-packed with young backpackers, families with small children and now us, we sought out a cozy pub where we could soak up the youthful energy and plan our day. Travelers at the Fiordland Lodge where we’d stayed in Te Anau suggested the luge, or at least the gondola to the top of the mountain. Once Jack heard “top of the mountain” he would not be denied. 

We timed our ascent so we could see the town at magic hour. We watched as cyclists and lugers and paragliders all rode to various points on the mountain, then continued hiking up to the launch area where we waited and waited and waited to see the tandem paragliders launch. Then we heard a call that the flights were canceled because of too much wind over the water and we turned away disappointed, only to see one after the other solo pilots glide over the valley. We assumed the concession flights were canceled for patron safety but the individual experienced pilots took off anyway from another launch site we couldn’t see from our vantage point. They were beautiful to watch in the golden light. 

On our walk back to our hostel I ran up a hillside to a small cemetery, as I often do. Most of the graves marked people born in Tipperary, confirming my earlier thought. “It’s a long way,” I said to Jack, and we went back to our cozy home for the night. 

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Pining for the fjords

Fiordland National Park is New Zealand’s largest, and so beautiful it almost hurts. We visited only the top teeny little bit, the most touristed, most developed area, and yet the scale of the landscape diminishes the intrusion of humans to the point where we felt we were having a private spiritual experience despite the bus loads of other travelers.

You can drive all the way into the park to where the boat tours begin, about two hours, but our friends had said, “Relax, take the bus” and we’re glad we did. Appreciating the ever-changing perspective of moving through steep mountains on twisty roads requires your full attention and it was wonderful to have someone else do the driving. Our small van stopped often for short walks and photo ops, any one of which would have been reward enough for visiting this special place. 

Our tour started early in the morning which meant despite it being Easter Sunday we were able to board an earlier tour boat than the after-lunch one usually filled to capacity with busloads that originate in Queenstown, further away. We were maybe at one quarter capacity, with plenty of space and a quiet group. We also opted for a longer cruise than the standard. Both tours make the same circuit, along one shore of the fjord, kiss the Tasman Sea, turn around and cruise back in along the other shore. We just took longer, stopping periodically to soak in the majesty of the place. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Note the kayakers or boats for scale in several photos.

After our cruise we still had another two hours of driving through the park with more stops to walk or just breathe in the crisp mountain air and try to fit the scenery into the itty bitty camera lens. That effort was doomed to failure but the experience is burned into our memories and Fiordland earns a spot on our list of most beautiful places alongside Fatu Hiva and Hallstatt. 

In the evening we went to the movie theatre in Te Anau and watched a 30-minute film of Fiordland photographed almost entirely from the air, since most of the park is otherwise inaccessible. The scale is nearly unimaginable and the variety of landscapes is breathtaking. The play of light on sea, sky and mountains is constantly changing; you could spend a lifetime here and every day would be different. Sadly though, we must move on.


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That bright thing in the sky

Something was different when we awoke. It wasn’t raining. We hadn’t planned much for the day, beaten down as we were by the sodden weather and anticipating the cornerstone of our whirlwind South Island tour, Milford Sound, scheduled for the next day in Fiordland National Park. Before we left Invercargill we felt obliged to make the pilgrimage to E. Hayes, a massive hardware and housewares store with an impressive collection of classic Indian and other motorcycles and a few cars. 

The signature piece is the World’s Fastest Indian, one of the replicas of an Indian Scout motorbike specially engineered to break the land speed record. The story of Burt Munro’s record attempt at the Bonneville Salt Flats is told in The World’s Fastest Indian, the movie the replicas were created for. 

There are some wacky early ideas to motorize bicycles. Not sure about this one. 

It was fun to see the bikes, but the sunshine was beckoning and we were keen to get on the road. We just let the road take us and stopped wherever the mood struck us to appreciate the expansive views and the dry weather. 

Gemstone Beach had me digging through the high tide line for pretty rocks and wishing I had a tumbler to polish them.

There are plenty of suspension and swing bridges in New Zealand but this is the longest, built in 1899 with a wood deck. 

We had a hard time staying in the car but eventually we could see the mountains of Fiordland and the rivers and lakes that carved the landscape. 

We ended the day at our home for the next couple of nights, the Fiordland National Park Lodge, in a room with this view. For hill people who live at sea level these mountain scenes feed our souls. I can’t stop grinning.

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In search of a little wisdom 

Our wipers are still slapping the same tune, it’s just a different day. We thought that before leaving charming Dunedin we’d check out the town’s famous railway station. Built in 1903 with local blue stone, mosaic tile, and perfectly manicured gardens, it’s impressive but with all the fog, rain, and spray (FRS) you inevitably rush just to get back in a dry car. 

Today featured our usual trifecta (FRS) plus, as an extra added bonus, miles and miles of unsealed, sloppy, washboard roads in Cyclone Cook’s pouring rain. 

I can’t recommend traveling in this weather but we were determined to make it to New Zealand’s southernmost point whether we could see it or not. As it turns out, mostly not. First up was something called the petrified forest. I don’t know, you be the judge.

After a muddy slog, feeling like a rally driver, we reached an innocent-looking gravel car park with an all business looking gate posted with a sign that demanded to be kept closed. With no discernible path we quickly closed the gate and noticed a person far off in the FRS. This must be the place. 

First order of business was dancing around all of the sheep dung, which was everywhere, and then avoiding a thousand pairs of starring eyes. I find this creepy. While buying my water-resistant jacket we had the foresight to pick up a tiny folding umbrella and when I deployed it I sensed a certain tension in the sheep. All over the field was evidence of inattentive footprints sliding through sheep shit patties. The sheep may look up but I’m looking down! 

It seemed like years but like all treks, you get there eventually, maybe a little wiser but a lot wetter. Even in the rain at 46 degrees 40 minutes 40 seconds South, Slope Point is an awesome place and is as far south as you can go on South Island.

On the way to Bluff Point, I couldn’t tell you when, I noticed the little Yaris wasn’t bouncing and shuddering anymore. Pavement, it’s a beautiful thing. We found two Bluff Points, one apparently illegitimate but we don’t judge. 

Invercargill finally hove into view and that’s where we sleep tonight. There are rumors for a dryer day tomorrow with Cyclone Cook moving off. One can only hope.

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Beach party

As you know, we are low-rent travelers. We eat cheap, sleep cheap and eschew expensive tours and concessions that don’t fit into our meager budget. Even in the Galapagos, despite complaints we’d heard that you can’t see anything without paying for tours, we managed to thoroughly enjoy three distinctly different islands largely on our own and only shelled out for a couple of inexpensive “taxi tours” and one long guided volcano hike in Isabella. We are living proof that you can see the world without breaking the bank.

That said, we knew when we came to the South Island we’d at least have to spring for a Milford Sound cruise, the only way to appreciate the world-famous fjord, and on the advice of friends on Full Circle we also wrung out of our pocketbook a guided wildlife tour to the Otago peninsula, home to royal albatross and small colonies of other rare and endangered wildlife. That was our planned activity for the day in Dunedin, a charming Scottish flavored city that deserves much more time than we were able to give it. 

We spent time in the morning at a budget department store where I bought inexpensive wellies, an umbrella and disposable rain ponchos, and we augmented our road trip in-room meal kit of sporks and Aeropress coffeemaker by buying plastic cereal bowls and paper towels. 

Our tour group included a quiet German couple, a young French family of four and an Englishman, and our guide was Dutch. We are so accustomed now to being the minority Americans that we almost feel exotic. 

Our tour started with a quick drive by of Lanarch castle to pick up the French family, then a wet slog to the end of the Otago peninsula and the Royal Albatross Center where the rain stopped long enough for us to observe royal albatross in flight. They are magnificent, one of the two largest albatross species, with wingspans of three meters. As we watched two birds swoop and glide overhead, our guide Roel described their lifecycle, migration route and behavior. We could have watched for hours but we had more to see before dark. 

The rain held off as we entered a private reserve and hiked down to the rocky beach where we could watch New Zealand fur seal mothers and pups from a small platform. We’d been up close and personal with sea lions in the Galapagos, as in they were on our boat, so this wasn’t the once-in-a-lifetime thrill for us that it was perhaps for the others, but Roel told us how these fur seals had been hunted to extinction from the mainland in the last century and are now making a comeback.  

Again, we could have watched the young pups tussle and practice swimming for much longer but Roel wrangled us back up the cliff, across a soggy meadow and down a steep slope to a sand beach where we found ourselves at high tide. 

That meant it wasn’t safe to walk along the beach because we’d be too close to the Hooker sea lions we came to see, so we followed Roel and picked our way through the moguls of grass-covered dunes. Hookers are the rarest of the five species of sea lions and native to New Zealand. They were hunted to extinction on the mainland hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans but like the fur seals they’re re-establishing small colonies on this coast, migrating from the subarctic islands. They are huge. Males can grow to nearly ten feet long and weigh almost half a ton. We saw mostly males and only one female. Roel said it was unusual to see a female; they usually stay with their pups. (Note that Roel, the New Zealander, is in shirt sleeves while the rest of us are in full cold-and-wet-weather kit.) 

We continued picking our way through the dunes until we reached a small blind at the bottom of a steep slope where a few sheep grazed. Roel, with his practiced eye, pointed out two yellow-eyed penguins almost immediately, then three more on a farther slope. These are the rarest of all penguins and the largest living in temperate regions, nearly 2 feet tall. They are found only here in New Zealand, and they do not migrate, but rather go to sea every day to feed and return to roost in the bush in the late afternoon. 

This highly protected colony consists of about 60 birds and we saw six. The last one swam in while we watched, and he struggled to clear the rocky ledge at the shoreline, which Roel said had shifted in the storms over the past week. Our camera is not up to this kind of photography but we were thrilled to see them, even as the rain started again in earnest. 

Roel finally dragged us away, back across the dunes, up the slopes and across the meadow to the van. 

It was a quiet ride back along the peninsula to town as we were all lost in our own thoughts. Jack and I urged our weary bones toward our hotel until the smell of a real wood fire lured us into a cozy pub where we shed our soggy outerwear and warmed up by the hearth with pizza and beer. Was the tour worth the hit to our bank account? Absolutely. As too many species struggle to survive, we feel privileged to have seen these rare creatures in their natural habitats. 

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Slip sliding away

With the windshield wipers slapping time I seemed to sluggishly break through the fog in my brain into a kind of hazy state of consciousness, suddenly aware that I was driving ok, but on the wrong side of the road. In times like this I find it important not to do anything hasty. Through the fog, rain, and spray I could barely make out the red tail lights I’d been following just ahead of us. No reason to panic so I just kept repeating my Down Under mantra, “Keep Left!” which I’m finding works pretty well for most everything in my life these days.

One wind-whipped blustery dinghy ride, a bus ride, a train ride, a 90-minute flight, a shuttle ride to a motel clear across Brisbane, a 4:am wake up call for another airport shuttle ride back across Brisbane, a 3-1/2 hour flight across the Tasman sea, and finally a two hour rain soaked drive in a little white Toyota Yaris, has had it’s way with me and it hasn’t been pretty. Improperly caffeinated, we pulled into something brand new called The Farmer Center just at the edge of town and found a minor miracle. In an austere, stark, almost Dansk-like, nearly empty interior a cute young Chinese cashier said yes they have coffee, how would you like it? At least I’m sure she thought she was speaking English and used some of those very same sounds. That’s when I saw it. A pot of brewed coffee. You see, Dear Escapees, the Kiwis have got it into their minds that the epitome of good taste and refinement is a thing called a long black, instead of an effing cup of coffee. It’s a fiddly expensive thing where you get a tiny cup of espresso with an accompanying glass of water and you mix in enough water to approximate a cup of coffee. It costs double and you have to do the work yourself. 

So as I say, after several halting fits and starts I resorted to pointing and pantomime, I was not to be denied and while trying to interpret her blank stares I came to the realization that the Kiwis can’t understand me just as much as I can’t understand them. Perfect.

Properly caffeinated now the stark reality of driving all day in the fog, rain, and spray — let’s agree to call it FRS — began to weigh upon me. Marce, my personal concierge, cheerfully pointed out the high points along the way like ‘that would be coastline filled with lovely ocean surf if it weren’t for this fog’ and ‘that over there is a field of wet sheep, all doomed, see the way their tails hang down?’

I haven’t mentioned that we Escapees have joined another shopping quest and this time M. has determined that I really should have a waterproof jacket, but at a price that reflects good value, as the Aussies say. Should have just brought my foulies.
Soon after a few hours of splashing about, we pulled into Oamaru, not today’s main event but kind of a quirky fun stop we’re prone to from time to time. It’s called “Steam Punk HQ” and from M’s disbelieving stare when I questioned what it was I’ve got to assume everyone knows about this phenomenon but me. It’s kind of found Victorian Industrial Futuristic art…with a twist.

After a long damp drive to Moeraki in worsening conditions we realized that the long list of criteria for a more substantial waterproof jacket for me would have to get more flexible and as luck would have it, you enter the Moeraki Boulders Beach through, wait for it, the gift shop. After a long search we found that water resistant would have to do. We suited up at the car. Boots, water proof pants, jackets, and hats. Some of the crew opted for gloves and scarves. It started to rain in earnest as we slip-slided down the steep water-logged moss-covered steps down the cliff toward the beach. I imagine they have a nice beach here but it’s FRS and high tide so there’s not much beach to see or walk on. 

We’re not good with tide tables even at the best of times but it’s not like we have a choice so it’s slog down the sodden beach, take the photo, tick the box, and head back to the car. A few more hours of FRS driving found us up on the third floor of the Dunedin Law Courts Hotel buried under every blanket they had, with both electric blanket controls turned up to 10.

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Tiptoeing into Kiwistan

Last year, defying dire written warnings against it, we overstayed our tourist visas because the marine weather didn’t cooperate when it came time to leave New Zealand and sail to Fiji. I’m generally a rule follower so I was a little concerned that it would be put on our permanent record and when we showed up at passport control this time alarms would go off, red lights would flash and we’d be deported on the next plane to wherever we came from. In the event I stuck my passport in the e-reader machine and before I even took my hand away I was informed that I’d been granted a tourist visa, the gate opened and I was in. Jack, on the other hand, was not so lucky. As soon as he inserted his passport a border agent came over and guided him to a manned gate where he was asked a lot of questions, some of which he couldn’t answer, since I’d made most of the travel arrangements. I stood by, offering subtle prompts a few times, especially when the almost incomprehensible Kiwi accent got the best of him. I felt like Nancy Reagan talking Ronnie through an unfamiliar communion ceremony except that I’m taller and my head’s not so big. Eventually the big stamp came down on Jack’s passport and he was in too. Whew!

We knew from looking out the window during landing that it was wet outside but as we walked past the optimistically sunny scenic murals in the terminal and outside to find the rental car we weren’t prepared for the bone chilling rising damp. Who, we wondered, is responsible for this dire weather during our vacation? Strongly worded letter to come.

We only planned an hour drive to end the day, enough to get us away from the traffic and construction delays of Christchurch and staged for the long drive the next day. Jack is completely converted to left side driving and we found our motel room in the quiet farming town of Ashburton with no problems. After another hilarious convo with the motel owner about our yachting lifestyle (“My husband has a yacht. I hate it!”) we got into our room, cranked the heat up and pulled more fleece out of the luggage.

It was at this point that I discovered my precious Trader Joe’s Moisturizing Face Lotion (Broad Spectrum SPF15), which is irreplaceable on this side of the globe, had opened up during flight and moisturized the inside of my LLBean travel tote and one pair of Bose Quiet Comfort 2 Noise Canceling Headphones. Why do they insist on packaging with those press-flip caps instead of a positive locking top? Strongly worded letter to follow. Right after I clean up the mess. 

We suited up again and drove to a grocery store for breakfast supplies, then to Robbie’s Bar & Bistro for a nightcap and a nosh. Well, a nosh for Jack. It was lucky I wasn’t hungry because there wasn’t one thing without meat on the menu, and I’m reminded that we are again in New Zealand and surrounded by doomed farm animals. Jack had the beef schnitzel, listed on the menu under Light Meals. I’ve grown used to Australia where vegetarians are accommodated and even catered to, rather than seen as an aberration. I love New Zealand but being vego here is a challenge, and I suspect will be even more so in the farmy South Island. Strongly worded letter — ahhh nuts. 


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Every adventure starts with a wet bottom

Last year we spent more than six months in New Zealand and in all that time we never made it to the South Island. Boat work, budget woes, the easy living in Whangarei all conspired to keep us from answering the call to explore the world of Peter Jackson. 
This year we’ve decided to spend an extra year in Australia and despite some expensive boat maintenance and the wallet-draining high life of Sydney we said what the hell and booked a flight back to the Land of the Long White Cloud. We originally thought we’d hire a self-contained campervan which would allow us to park nearly anywhere and appreciate the big scenery away from holiday crowds, but when we passed the equinox and autumn moved in we agreed that chilly nights in an aluminum can, even a heated one, didn’t sound as inviting as a toasty motel room. We ran the numbers too, and the differential between a car+lodging vs. campervan+higher fuel costs led us to the conclusion that the campervan is a false economy. In warmer weather we might have done it. But this time it’ll be Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road, minus the Givenchy and the MG-TD, much to Jack’s disappointment. We packed fleece and booked a Yaris. 

The day before we left Jack was keen to watch the Chinese Grand Prix and worked it out with a local sports bar to commandeer one of the big screens for the race. Our friends Sherm and Mia and Bruce and Di joined us for drinks and pizza and we had a fun send off. 

Di offered to dinghy us and our luggage ashore in the morning, but after one of the most perfect sunny days we’ve had in weeks, departure day dawned windy and choppy. We loaded up the dinghy with our luggage and our trash and got so wet slamming across the channel to pick up Di that we waved her off and told her we’d lock the dinghy at the dock and she could pick it up later when it calmed down. I’m pretty sure she looked relieved but it was hard to tell through the salt spray. We were soaked by the time we got ashore and so was our luggage. Then came an hour-long bus ride to town and a half-hour train ride to the airport. What a way to start a vacation!

We booked our flights with frequent traveler miles we’d been saving for years and that were about to expire, and our journey to Christchurch involved an overnight layover in Brisbane. Airlines have strange ways. I booked it at a time when we’d have an afternoon and evening to dip our toes in a new Aussie city and we were really looking forward to it but by the time we arrived at our hotel we were both spent. When we checked in we shared with the clerk, as we always do, that we live on a boat. He looked up from his monitor with raised eyebrows. “Really?” he said. “That’s so cool!” 

“We sailed here from New York.” 

“Are you kidding!?” We had his attention. 

“It took five years.” 

That was the coup de gras. 

“Oh my god!” He clutched his chest. “You must have eaten a lot of fish!”

We love the reactions we get from non-sailors when we share what we’re doing. This young man was so affected that while he was checking us in he’d pause in mid-sentence, clutch his chest again and breathe, “Oh my god!” over and over. We kept adding details, like we have a full kitchen with a freezer, and that we once were at sea for 42 days straight. Each new piece made him more and more verklempt and he never fully regained his composure. It took a long time to complete the check in but he gave us a room on the top floor with a fantastic river view. 

Our check-in was completed with stuttering directions to two areas where we could find options for dinner and a reminder to use the key card to operate the elevator and also to activate the electricity in the room. We definitely needed the refresher course in modern travel conveniences. Nevertheless we managed to navigate to the top floor and unlock our room without major mishap, kicked off our shoes and sunk into a pillow-topped king size bed with a big sigh. After a few minutes I suggested that since we had to get up at 5am to catch our flight to Christchurch, I’d almost prefer to find takeout food nearby and come back to this comfy room and watch TV, which we never get to do. 

“I like the way you think,” Jack said and we walked around the corner for a kebab and a spinach and feta pie and spent the next three hours watching Househunters International and Island Hunters. Yes, we are pathetic. 

We both slept fitfully for some reason, but all hope of a restful night went out the window when at 3am something unidentifiable  started beeping. First it was the iPad, then before I could figure out what was happening the cell phone rang. It was our bank, calling to finalize a wire transfer to pay the rigger. The cool thing is for the first time I’d set up call forwarding from our Skype number to our local cell phone so the banker thought she was calling Annapolis but it transferred to our cell phone in Brisbane and it only cost us 4¢ a minute. Why didn’t I think to do this before?! 

Five am had us up and packing and by 6 we were out on the street waiting for the van back to the airport. South Island, hide the silver. The Escapees are on the way. 


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The view from the back porch.

Maybanke Cove, Pittwater Bay Australia, Saturday races.

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Dirty dozen

Ok, it’s a baker’s dozen. Oddly, once Jack chased them away they went and bothered someone else and didn’t come back. 

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