A last trip around New Zealand

When I first told my friend Sam I was going to move to New Zealand, she replied “I am entirely serious: I am going to visit you… Will you bungy jump with me?”   In December we both were looking through travel guides on New Zealand and Australia, and we started really planning her trip and what we would be doing back in March.  Despite all the preparation, I was still a bit surprised when it was already time to go and meet her at the Auckland airport to head to Queenstown in the South Island.

Yes, the South Island.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me “It’s a pity you’re here so long and aren’t seeing the S Island” or “You’re into the outdoors and sports, you should have gotten a job in the South Island”, etc, etc, etc.  (I don’t regret my decision to come to Auckland, especially having had a job and a place to stay upon arrival, but I do think they are correct, South Island may have been more my style.)  Though I knew when I decided to come home that I wouldn’t be seeing the entire island this trip to NZ, I was determined and glad to be seeing at least part of it- it is so gorgeous!   Sam and I spent four days in the S Island, and boy were they “full on” as we say in NZ.

Despite being jet lagged and being on a plane for ages, Sam jumped right into exploration and adventure mode after we checked in to our backpackers.  Our first stop was to Ferg Burger.  I know a number of people who have Ferg Burgers as their Facebook profile pictures in New Zealand.  The restaurant comes up nearly every time the topic of burgers is mentioned in conversation… (“Have you ever had a Ferg Burger?”) Anna went every day over her holiday, as well as to their bakery for breakfast.  Needless to say, this was at the top of my list to get to when in Queenstown, and Sam is always up for a fun food excursion.  Below, us with what turned out to indeed be very good, very large burgers…  I had a tofu thai esque one, something I had never heard of before.

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We also enjoyed a cute Outdoor craft fair before moving on to Wanaka, a cute town outside Queenstown.  Sam had kindly arranged for us to take a helicopter tour of the area.  I haven’t been on a helicopter in a long time, and it was very cool to see the snow-topped mountains and lakes from this viewpoint.  We took a lot of pictures- below, some favorites:

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After this we stopped at Lake Wanaka to see “The Drunken Tree”- I had fallen in love with a photo at the art fair and the photographer told us where he had taken the shot.  Below, a picture that will very likely be framed and put on my wall in the near future:

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We drove back to Queenstown and just crashed at the backpackers, ready to explore and enjoy Queenstown the next day.

Sam and I enjoyed this day with no plans, and started by having breakfast at the highly recommended Joe’s Garage- avery cool and laid back atmosphere.  We walked the shops and streets of Queenstown, stopped at a few wineries for tastings in the nearby quaint Arrowtown, and watched others bungy off the infamous AJ Hackett Bridge.  (No, we didn’t.)  It was an incredibly fun day, one of those ones that has very few plans and things just turn out well and are appreciated.  We had dinner at the local pub and met some Australian guys who were there to snowboard and ski (Also no, we didn’t… another time.)  Sam was amazed to learn these Aussies had traveled through more of American than she or I had; they had done a 6 week travel holiday last year.  I am always impressed at how highly valued travel and holiday are in NZ and Australia, compared to the 2 weeks most American jobs allow… and was glad to see Sam have a similar reaction.

The following day we took a quick morning trip to the Kiwi Wildlife Park because frankly, I had been living in New Zealand for seven months and still not seen a kiwi.  Seeing a kiwi bird in the wild is actually very hard-they are nocturnal and live in the bush (forest).  They’re a really interesting choice of national bird, really- seeing at it can’t fly or do much, but the conservation efforts are nice.  We ended up seeing three kiwi birds, other native birds, and a show on conservation efforts.  A little girl sat in front of us who reminded me of one of my favourite children’s books: “Can Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?”  Look below for pictures and the answer:

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Then we  drove to Te Anau, a small town just outside Milford Sound, where we had a tour the following day.  By small town I mean very small… about 500 people, and this has doubled in only the past 4 years.  Te Anau only began having electricity in 1958 (exact year?), only the few blocks in city center have cell phone coverage, and there are portions of the town where there aren’t even land lines.  Our backpackers had no internet or phone access, and I was actually kind of happy to feel removed.  It did have breathtaking views of the mountains and neighbouring farms and a cozy lounge with a fireplace- fantastic.  Sam and I did our first hike of the week on the renowned Kepler Track.  Stunning.  Pictures below:

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We took a tour of Milford Sound the following morning.  Our guide was very knowledgeable and showed us lots of native NZ flora and fauna, the Mirror Lakes, and cool falls and geological features like chasms where the falls cut straight down through the rocks.  He took us on a few nice walks on the way, and Sam and I enjoyed getting to know a nice couple in group who were visiting from Australia.  He was an Aussie and she a Kiwi, in to ski with friends, and to see the Sound.  After we got on our boat to see the Sound it almost immediately began to pour down rain.  “Don’t worry about the weather”, we were told , “The Sound is majestic in the rain, and you can take better black and white photographs.”  “That sounds like a stretch for a silver lining” Sam and I noted… but… we went with it.  The Sound IS majestic, our pictures turned out OK, and we got soaked because we wanted to be out and see what was around us.  The waterfalls all run heavier with rain as well, so that was cool.  (If you go, though, and have a few days to choose when to go, choose a nice weather day).  We were supremely lucky to see seals and penguins on our tour, pictured below.  There’s something entirely refreshing and exciting about seeing animals in their natural habitats.

In our conversation with the couple from our tour we mentioned that we would soon be leaving the South Island to do the Tongariro Crossing on the North.  “Oh!” our new Kiwi friend of the cute couple replied, “My parents own a bed and breakfast just twenty minutes from the crossing!”  She collected our information and said she would put us in touch. Sweet as.

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After our tour we dried off a bit and saw a cool short film documentary on the Fiordland region.  It truly is a gorgeous place. In general, the South Island scenery often looks like a painted background rather than reality.  Confusingly beautiful.  We headed back to Queenstown for dinner and to use Sam’s GrabOne voucher for the Ice Bar- a bar literally made of ice.  Sam and I both love to take pictures and don’t love to stay out late or be very cold.  We therefore put on the parkas and gloves, walked around the -10 degree room taking pictures at the fun spots, enjoyed a free drink each, and promptly removed said parkas and gloves to head back to the backpackers for bed.  Spectacular.

Pics on Sam’s camera…

The next morning was our last on the South Island, so we decided to have a final lovely breakfast at another highly recommended spot- Vudu Café.  I loved it.  We then tramped up the hill to the top of the Queenstown gondola, where there are activities like a luge, rope courses and zip lines.  We just enjoyed the walk up and took the gondola back down, however, keen to have to time to be ready for our flight.   Below- pictures from our hike and the very rewarding skyline views:

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Then it was off to the airport to fly to Wellington to fly to Taupo.  Domestic flights are amazing in New Zealand.  In these cases we never even went through security, and literally scanned our own boarding passes as we walked on board.  We quickly learned there was no need to be more than 30 minutes early for our NZ domestic flights.

We got our rental car in Taupo and drove to our backpackers in Tongariro… a very nice one that was lodge style.  Here we prepared for the following day’s hike, made a quick dinner, and sat looking over our New Zealand guide books while eating pavlova to determine what we wanted to do with our upcoming free day in Taupo.  Memorable, simple fun.

The next day was just amazing.  The Tongariro Track is supposedly the Best One Day Walk in all of New Zealand- and it was on my “must do in NZ” list for months.  Sam is relatively new to hiking, and has a bum knee (hence the no skiing), but she rocked it out this entire vacation… how, I am not sure. (I suspect it might have something to do with her collegiate and then ironman athlete background, vacation excitement, and overall stubbornness…)  I was very nervous, and she was very cautious about being careful, as Tongariro is an alpine crossing and can be tricky in the winter.

And tricky it was!  Our guides warned us that the weather was finicky on our crossing day… and anything could happen.  The bad news was that the weather would be rough.  The good news- we would definitely get to use all of our alpine trekking toys!  It was a cool experience to be outfitted with an ice ax, crampons, and a helmet.  Tongariro is not a very high mountain, but it’s conditions can be tricky.  We started the tramp with an easy flat walk surrounded by gorgeous National Park scenery, sweating.   Soon enough, however, we were relying on our axes to steady our balance walking uphill, in White Out conditions- unable to see more than a few metres ahead of ourselves, freezing in the blustering wind.  Sam and I, again, are not the best with cold.  She told me more than a few times “Jen, I am cursing you right now”, and I was very frequently trying to keep my arms and body moving to regain feeling in my hands and moving during the breaks to try to stay warm.  We summited without any real problems, however… and saw nothing but white.  It was exciting to summit something however, and it made me want to do more ascents in the future.  We then headed downward and around the mountain to try to find a place sheltered from the wind to eat lunch.  Here we received some bad news.  Our guides conducted an Avalanche Test using a shovel to see how the snow would crease or crack below weight… the original and follow up tests both showed a good possibility that the weight of people walking on this snow could cause an avalanche.  “We can’t fully cross as we originally planned”, they said.  “We need to go back up.”

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The bad news: Steep up and downhills on ice.  The good news:  We get to summit twice! (?)  After lunch (during which I was directed to shovel snow just to keep my body warm and prevent hypothermia, I really am terrible with cold… it was a bit like a detention in the corner shoveling while the others stood talking and eating J), we headed back around towards the lakes, in case we could see them, and up.  Everyone was very happy because, wouldn’t you know it, the weather did begin to clear and we could actually see the National Park we were standing in for a while!  We took some pictures of what Lord of the Rings fans know to be Mordor and Mount Doom on our breaks ascending the summit again.  Our guide would stop, breathing heavy to take a break, and say “This sucks!”… which made us feel like it was a legitimately hard day to do the crossing, as it’s kind of their job to keep the “This is great” attitude.  We made it up, and then had to walk down.  Crampons are really amazing- I’ve made up lesson plans about them and read about them for various projects, but had never used them before.  Our guide described them well when she said “They make you feel like Spiderman- suddenly you can walk on anything.”  Sam was incredibly impressive on this feat, handling her knee injury carefully, overcoming her fear of heights looking at the steep icy slopes downhill, and conquering a pretty technical hike as one of her firsts.  Amazing.  We eventually got back down to the end of the snowline, removed the crampons, and enjoyed the rest of the walk back to the car park.  We met interesting people (lots of teachers!) from Belgium, Ireland, and England.  Our tour guides were very fun and interesting, and we came to appreciate them even more when the “Beer Fairy” left us each a present for the van ride home. I admit I was on a total high at the end of the day.  There are few things better than spending the day in a National Park, trying something hard and new, being active and seeing spectacular views.  Sharing it with a wonderful friend, making new ones, and getting a beer were incredible bonuses.  Sam and I both felt in the end that this was our favorite day of the trip so far. … and it was about to get better, as we were about to drive to our Milford Sound friend’s parent’s B&B, hot chocolates in hand!

Chris and Peter, owners of the Founders Bed and Breakfast in Turangi- were amazingly gracious to invite us to stay with them.  I really like backpackers- I like the idea of minimalist and communal living, meeting fun people, and being able to cook meals for yourself.  However, I beyond appreciated this opportunity to stay at a B&B- a real luxury!  The Founders is done just right- the beds are wonderful, as is the breakfast.  It had so many quaint small Kiwi touches like  bedside Whittakers chocolates and Manuka honey toiletries…   We came to see that our personable, easy-going, vibrant Milford Sound friend was also raised by personable, easy-going, vibrant parents.  We enjoyed sitting around their crackling fireplace or kitchen sharing stories of home and New Zealand (Peter is American), and discussing everything from life in a digital age to the joys of knitting.   Though we only spent a handful of hours in their company, we felt as though Chris and Peter became fast friends.

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The next morning was our “Free Day in Taupo”- and we decided to take our new friends’ advice on just what we should do.  We made a stop on the way out of town to their local thermal pools for a soak in the “Magic Healing Water” (I will miss being surrounded by other people who support homeopathic remedies and treatments!) and did their thermal walk.  We stopped for a nice lake view and to see the local Maori Marae (Meeting House/Church), and then… we went on to the day’s big plan.  As discussed back in D.C., Sam and I were determined to follow through with our bungy plans.  She had purchased a GrabOne deal for Taupo Bungy, so we were financially committed.  We had told some friends we would be doing it, so there was that commitment as well.  No chickening out allowed- it was bungy time.

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We’ve both been sky diving before and generally enjoy things that appear crazy/challenging/like adrenaline rushes.  Sam had been saying she wanted to bungy jump in New Zealand since she was ten years old.  So… we did.  I’m not sure I can describe the feelings of anxiety/fear/uncertainty well, so I’ll post the video of my jump with the hope it does.  I think it’s funny how people at the bungy all start to just lose their filter and openly spew out their fears, thoughts, and mind’s inner dialogue while contemplating their jump.

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Success- holding our “Certificates of Courage”

With that officially done, we continued on with our Taupo day.  We went to a nearby café that was recommended to us, with a cute mosaic garden and art gallery.  Then we went to sample NZ honey and port wines, saw Huka Falls, and checked in to our final backpackers.  We went to Burger Fuel, my favorite NZ restaurant /burger place, one last time.  (Hardest goodbye outside of those to people).  We stopped at a very cute French café just next to our backpackers, and it was truly like we took a trip to France in the middle of our NZ holiday.  I enjoyed listening to Sam recount her travels in Paris.  Another early night because that’s how Sam and I roll, and it was off to bed.

We had an early flight to Auckland from Taupo, and Khushboo graciously picked us up from the airport.  (Have I mentioned I’m lucky to have made friends here?!)  She chauffeured us to run a couple of errands and to show Sam Cornwall Park- so she could see the city views and I could show her my local biking spot.  Then we went back to Robin and Peter’s, where the family was having a nice lunch gathering (getting me excited to return home to MY family and OUR gatherings!!!!).  It was nice to have Sam meet my Kiwi hosts and family.  It was weird to say goodbye to Kevin and Louise, who in some ways I feel like I only just met and in others feel I’ve known for ages.  Sam and I then began the pack-weigh-repack-reweigh luggage game that would go on the next two days.  Khushboo’s birthday party was that night, so we went out in Ponsonby to celebrate my energetic, positive, and glamorous friend.  It was the last time I would see her, Juliana, and Tracy… so I ended up crying in the bar, which is never a good look, but I felt so glad and thankful to have made friends here that I will truly miss.  Luckily I know we will keep in touch- and who knows when I may see them Stateside, back in NZ… and I definitely want to take a trip to Ireland one day!  I was glad Sam got to meet them.

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And then it was my last full day and night in New Zealand (what?!).  Sam and I decided to make the most of it, and the weather cooperated.  We went to the French Market in Parnell, which is adorable, and picked up a few snacks for our final NZ tramp.  We went back to my favorite part of Auckland- out west by the wild beaches of Piha and Karikari, and did a hike in the Waitakere Ranges.  Below- pictures of Fairy Falls Track with its river crossings, falls, and skyline view.

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That afternoon I sold Sir Lancey Pants the Great to a nice Uni Student and we headed to Mission Bay to take Robin and Peter to dinner.  We enjoyed spending time together, reflecting on the time we’ve spent together, and pondering the future.  I am so blessed to have had their support and kindness during my time in NZ- they opened their home, hearts and arms to me, which meant so much with every small gesture and effort.  I hope to pay forward that kindness to someone one day, they are inspiring.  It was weird to think I soon won’t be in tune with their daily life happenings, but know we will keep in touch.

And the rest of the trip was the packup, the ending of phone plans, the cleaning of my room…  with one final run around the Orakei Basin with Sam and Oscar.  Sam was a great friend to spend some of her holiday helping me settle my wrap up, and will be enjoying the next two weeks in Auckland and Australia with her brother and cousin.  I really loved traveling with her- she is open minded, enjoys exploring, and up for adventure (during the day, and early tuck-ins at night!)  It was fun to talk with her about life back home and again made me excited to return to my wonderful life there!  It was a great way to end the NZ adventure!

My next blog will be on my reflections of my New Zealand journey…  sure to be stream-of-conscious and my own form of self-therapy/diarying!


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