Fabulous New Zealand (Second to Last Blog)

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March 1st 2006
Published: March 5th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

Lake TekapoLake TekapoLake Tekapo

The lakes in this region had the most irridescant blue water we'd ever seen. The color is the result of glacial water deposits.
New Zealand (written from Christchurch and Bondi)
(Yes, another long vacation blog, but hey, it's my second to last one, indulge me!)

There's a commercial running down here in New Zealand promoting dairy farming as a way of life. The ad features people from various former careers talking about their new glamorous life as a dairy farmer. There is the ex-pharmacist, ex-fire-fighter, ex-shop manager and ex-teacher all saying how they'd never go back now that they have this career as a dairy farmer. The thing is, New Zealand is such a fabulous place, so breath-takingly beautiful at every turn, that Les and I wondered how we might fare as an ex-consultant and an ex-grad student/writer. We'd be good dairy farmers right?

What a country! Maybe we were a little sun scorched coming off our six months at the beach. But to us, being in a high alpine setting where the air was actually cold at night and warm by day, where there was not a drop of humidity, and where there were certainly no bugs, it was heaven on earth.

We spent almost a week in Queenstown in a little apartment we rented from a local hotel. Queenstown

Cute, but shortlived.
is nestled (see! the mountain air makes using a verb like ‘nestled’ totally appropriate and not corny) up against Lake Wakatipu surrounded on every side by high, super jagged mountains. We had various ranges all about us, but the whole of them were part of the Southern Alps.

These down-under Alps are much more rugged and barren than their northern counterparts. They have less meadow and forest and more blowing heath and scrub brush. Further, the country is just so empty that hardly any land is settled. There are just tracts as far as the eye can see along the mountains and lake shores where there is simply no sign of civilization save perhaps the passing goat or sheep. I suppose with a ratio of 4 million people to 80 million sheep, that's not so hard to believe.

During this late summer period Queenstown is a happening place - but in a very small town, fairly upscale, way. All the stores are either touristy boutiques or adventure activity offices. So if you like to purchase wool sweaters, or, if you like to jump off bridges and ride down waterfalls, it’s the town for you. It’s also packed out.
Overlooking Lake WakatipuOverlooking Lake WakatipuOverlooking Lake Wakatipu

This is at the top of the Sky Gondola looking back on the lake and town.
No room, whatsoever, at the inn. I had spent a long time trying to find a 2 bedroom unit for us that was both near town and affordable, but during this peak season it was not easy. So when a hotel I inquired at said they had a unit just 900 meters out of town, though in a small retail centre, I was interested and ended up booking it.

The bottom line is, our apartment was in what we call a strip mall. Sure, an upscale one, but still a strip mall. Further, it wasn't a cutesy strip mall with bagel shops and cafes and perhaps a small restaurant, (though there was one coffee shop with bizarre hours that seemed to cater to people who didn’t actually drink coffee), rather it was a mall devoted to furniture and home wares and something else we couldn't quite put our finger on till later. But it was quiet, and backed right up against the side of a mountain that had actual goats roaming up and down. So with a glass of wine in hand, we could easily sit on our balcony and stare at the mountain and let the furniture stores fade into the background.

Exploring the Region
We spent our first morning in Queenstown freezing. Flip-flops were out. Bondi beach-ware was all wrong. We were back in more familiar territory: the world of polar fleece. Our first explorative jaunt into town (the full 900 metres down the road) landed us at an outdoor shop. We spent a small fortune on hats and mittens for Abby and jackets and socks for us. We were back in our fashion comfort zone and it felt great. Plus, there was a Starbucks on the way.

Fleeced up, and hot beverages in hand, we tackled the town. With all the sheep down here, wool is a hot commodity. Wool can apparently be made into anything: sweaters, socks, gloves, hats, doilies, whatever. I resisted since I really do own about 50 wool sweaters in Boston, but it was fun to see a whole new line of tourist bebobs. Instead of surfboards, we oohed and ahhed at sheep skin carpets and jade Maori necklaces.

We also did a quick, but essential, parental scan for playgrounds. We quickly secured two, both on the pristine lake, and tucked that info away for the afternoons. But our
Our apartmentOur apartmentOur apartment

Our "mall" apartment is the last set of buildings to the left. We had that whole mountain as our view . . . and of course the other stores.
major first-day activity was to ride the gondola to the top of the lake side mountain that loomed over town. At the top there was a whole scenic enterprise complete with two luge rides, two bungee jumping options, two restaurants and of course, a gift shop.

The views were incredible. The weather couldn’t have been any more clear or dry and we could see forever in all directions. It was of course scary at the top, but well worth it to see the whole region below us.

That evening we discovered Winnies - our soon to be favourite restaurant in Queenstown. It is a gormet pizza pub complete with a roaring fire and the most friendly servers of all time. By friendly I mean they brought out a full box of children’s toys and endeared themselves to us for all eternity. The pizza was also truly incredible. We ate at, or ordered from, Winnies almost every night we were in Queenstown. We even bought Winnies tee shirts.

On our second day in Queenstown, per the suggestion of a friend (thanks Em!), we took a drive out to the town of Glenorchy and to Diamond Lake. It was
Roaring MegRoaring MegRoaring Meg

Roaring Meg was that little ho-hum waterfall in the background. Frankly Les and Abby were more interesting.
another stunning day with nary a cloud in sight; another virtually empty landscape. More lakes, mountains and streams, and this time we were able to throw in some bonafide Lord of the Ring film sites. I was excited to see some of the shot locations, but even the most resistant person (Les) can’t help but catch some of the fever when in New Zealand. If you turn a corner you will find yourself at a LOTR site, and they are all so magnificent that it’s hard to not get into it just a little bit. So Les gamely listened to me try to recreate where Lothlorien might have been, and perhaps was that view over there part of Amon Hen? But mostly Les was teaching Abby how to skip rocks in the sparkling stream and lake.

The town of Glenorchy is small on the scale of about 10 buildings, but it packs a punch in terms of scenery and peacefulness. We had lunch at an outside café in what felt like someone’s backyard. Bees buzzed among the flowers and Abby skipped about in the grass while we ate huge sandwiches and chatted with some locales. Time moved slowly and calmly and the air smelled like apples.

Deer Park: aka Lord of the Rings Land and Luge Rides
The next day we decided to try out Deer Park. The write up in our tour guide sounded like it might be nice for kids - you got to buy some pellet food and feed it to wandering animals like sheep and goats. We figured Abby would like it and we’d be outside enjoying the mountain air. Sure a petting zoo wasn’t wild or crazy, but hey, we were parents of a toddler, and we were on vacation.

Well, some copy writer somewhere needs to find themselves a new job. Their write up hardly did Deer Park justice. I don’t know about the last petting zoo you went to, but I’ve personally never been to one that spans an entire mountain with views that are breathtaking, let alone one that has not just your basic goat and sheep, but also deer, stags, yaks, llamas, horses and even some buffalo. It was like being let loose in the old Wild West . . . or in Middle Earth. We learned (I promise I didn’t know this in advance) that Deer Park was a major site for filming the second LOTR movie.

Once again we had the park mostly to ourselves with the exception of a few LOTR walking tours. These were fun to watch since the guides would whip out photos from the movie and then show their customers that they were standing on that very spot. It sounds a little dorky, but I was thrilled and eavesdropped as much as possible.

There was also, inexplicably, a huge Korean prison that had been built for Disney’s movie 'The Rescue' back in the ‘80s. I’m not sure who thought that was a good idea. Building one would be fine I suppose, but it was a bit odd that they didn’t dissemble it. Nothing like a big old scary Korean prison to add some color to the views of the Southern Alps.

We eventually made our way to the top of the park’s mountain and had a picnic in our car. It was far too windy outside, further the car was surrounded by goats. But it was one of the best picnics of all time - Abby loved being free to play in the car and we loved just sitting
Beautiful Deer ParkBeautiful Deer ParkBeautiful Deer Park

LOTR fans, you may recognize this from the scene when the Rohans trekked away from their homes. Where Les and Abby are was the exact filming location.
and staring at the lakes and mountains below.

That afternoon we tackled the luge back up at the top of the Sky Gondola. At first I wasn’t going to do it, but it wasn’t a luge like you see in the Olympics. It was more like riding down a track on a long tricycle. Granted the tracks were steep and twisty, but it felt completely safe, and even fun, so I gave it a whirl.

The twist in this story is that Abby also gave it a whirl. I’m not sure what gripped us. Obviously six months on this side of the planet has effected our parental judgment. Things that are dangerous, after six months dealing with Huntsman and the like, seem now more just daring. And so after only a short discussion and the full-out enthusiasm of the luge staffers, we threw a helmet on Abby, and took her up to the luge top. This meant taking Abby on an old fashioned chair lift up, up and away. Again, we obviously have been down here too long; in American children under 25 would not have been allowed to do this.

But she survived the chair lift
Esther Falls Off AragornEsther Falls Off AragornEsther Falls Off Aragorn

Again, LOTR fans, when Aragorn was chased off the cliff by the Wargs . . .
and, tightly wedged between Les’ legs, she rode down the luge. She faired fine. I on the other hand, trying to video tape all the shenanigans while also steering my own luge, had a rather choppy descent and I’m fairly sure no one will want to watch that movie.

Finally, Les took a last luge ride on the ‘fast’ course. All I can say is that Abby and I barely saw him. We stood at a point on the track where the riders had to quickly negotiate a steep, tight turn before continuing on the plummet. When Les came roaring past and presumably saw the upcoming turn, we heard a strangled cry and then he was gone, whipping down at ridiculous speeds.

Fishiness Uncovered At the Strip Mall
That evening as we returned to our apartment we discussed our growing suspicions that something was ‘going on’ down at the other end of our little home-at-the-mall. Each morning and evening our ever present shadow bus of Japanese tourists would cruise in. We couldn’t make out what they were doing - was there some secret hotel located in the strip mall? Our little complex was hardly a tourist stop unless you needed a couch or perhaps an industrial kitchen oven.

So we drove by slowly. At the very end of the mall was a store called Deer Flat. But there was no indication of what it was though this was where we kept seeing the Japanese tourists. What was it? Was it a secret wool store that offered bulk rates through some Japanese black market connection? I hopped out of the car and darted over to peer inside.

Well. This one you simply will not see coming.

Turns out the ol’ Deer Flat is not a secret hotel or smuggling ring for wool. Rather, Deer Flat sells . . . .wait for it . . . freeze dried deer-blood capsules.

That’s right. Cuz you just never know when you might need some deer blood conveniently frozen in a small swallowable capsule. The one sign that was on the door, once up close enough to read it, was a newspaper article where a Dr. Kim Sung Soo espoused all the ways that deer blood could help a person. Good for energy, rich in iron etc.

Guess what, so is a smoothie with a shot of protein! And a smoothie tastes like fruity raspberry instead of, oh I don’t know, blood!

Milford Sound and More Exploring
The following day, Monday, we drove to Milford Sound. Milford Sound is one of 14 fjords that run through the mountains out to the ocean. It’s also the biggest of the fjords and I was very excited to see it. The drive alone was about 5 hours and in order to make our 10:30am boat ride we had to get up at 4:45am. Ugh. To make things worse, for the first time since we’d arrived, it was raining. I kept hoping it would clear, but it didn’t, in fact it only rained harder.

Despite the rain, the drive was fabulous. The mountains are just so huge here, and the corresponding valleys and meadows so vast. Around every turn we wanted to stop to take a picture, but with a squirmy little girl in the back and a boat to catch, we just kept moving. The road was tricky and often narrowed to one lane for both sides of traffic around the sides of mountains. As if that wasn’t nerve-wracking enough, the final stretch included a one lane road beneath
Milford SoundMilford SoundMilford Sound

It's hard to describe how huge these mountains were around us, but for scale that boat is a medium sized cruise ship. At one point the mountains rise one mile straight up from the water.
the mountains through the Homer tunnel which had virtually no lights, lots of apparent leaks, and a steep, slippery decline.

As much as I had wanted to see the tops of the peaks along the fjord, the rain meant that we were able to see the waterfalls. When it is not raining there are only 5 active waterfalls, with the rain, there were over 500. They ran and streamed and flowed in every direction. The wind was so strong that it actually blew the waterfalls back up so that some of them never made it to the ground. It was amazing. The walls of the mountains were so high that it was hard to imagine that they kept going well past the clouds above us.

The boat ride was 2.5 hours long and we mostly took turns going outside since it was incredibly windy and bumpy. Abby was mostly content to play at our table below though she made a few forays into the wild weather. Once out into the ocean, the same Tasman Sea that borders Bondi Beach, we rocked and rolled all over the place. At one point the captain actually hoisted the sails so we could sail for a bit, but thankfully the ocean part of the ride was short-lived and we headed back into the sound.

Although it was disappointing that it rained the whole time, I believe it was equally spectacular and well worth the drive, plus it gave us an activity for our one rainy day.

On our last day in Queenstown we visited two more neighbouring towns. Lake Wanaka and Arrowtown. We first drove to Lake Wanaka via the ‘scenic route’ which took us through a high, steep and narrow pass in the mountains. We were way up there and had some great views. The mountains were bare of any forests and instead were covered in a golden sort of waving scrub plant. We could look for miles and miles at the high peaks and valleys and they were all covered in this carpet of gold.

Lake Wanaka was very much like Queenstown minus the tourism. It sat right on the lake and had some lovely parks and beaches as well as a small town with some boutique-style stores. It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful place than Queenstown, but Wanaka would probably be such a town. We
Waterfalls Blowing UpWaterfalls Blowing UpWaterfalls Blowing Up

Many of the waterfalls never made it down, this of course contributed to the cloud cover but it was cool to see.
had brekkie by the lake and dreamed of our lives as dairy farmers.

Our second stop, Arrowtown, was originally a gold town, and has done a very nice job restoring the main street to its former glory. True, the stores now sell wool sweaters, jade and candy instead of gold, but the frontier-style façade was very charming and tastefully done. We found a great pub with an empty garden and were able to sit and relax while Abby played in the grass. Any town with a nice child-friendly dining situation, is a town for us

But all dreams must come to an end, and ours ended the next day. We were so sad to leave Queenstown with its crisp, fresh air and the sound of braying goats and sheep. It was the perfect vacation spot for simply unwinding and romping about. But we were on our way to Christchurch were we would spend the final day of our vacation.

Christchurch and Antarctica (written from Bondi)

We really only spent a day and a half in Christchurch, but it seemed like a nice city. We stayed in this funky hotel called LivingSpace. It’s some sort
Primitive ForestPrimitive ForestPrimitive Forest

The forests along the fjord are closely related to the primitive forests of a young earth. So much so that they often film dinosaur movies here in this area.
of new fangled hostel/apartment/hotel living concept where people can stay for 6 months, or just a night. You might like to sleep in a bunk room, you might like your own room, or you may want a 2 bedroom apartment like we had. It’s mix and match - something for everyone. I thought it was pretty cool, though Les thought it was more ‘interesting’ than anything else. But the price was right, and our apartment had two floors and a balcony all in a hip IKEA style. The best part was it was right in the center of town.

Christchurch was a nice small city with the normal urban contrasts of wayward youths in black punk-wear against the best Royal Botanical Gardens we’ve seen yet. It had a very strong high-end art community and I suppose correspondingly a very strong street-artist community. It felt small and compact and like it might get very, very cold in the winter. But it had lovely cafes, pubs and art galleries all which looked like they'd be very cozy come the deep freeze.

The main event for us in Christchurch was the indulgence of my obsession with all things Antarctic. Christchurch is the launching point for all missions to the southern most continent. New Zealand is the closest country to Antarctica and Christchurch (well technically our drive to Milford) would be the closest yet that I’d been with a mere 2,333 miles separating us.

The actual US and NZ government programs are based at the Christchurch airport, and a museum attraction of sorts has been built there for people like me. Granted the “Antarctica Attraction” is pretty contrived, but it was chock full of artefacts, videos and information about life down there from the earliest explorers to the modern day people there right now.

We bought a combo ticket so that we could ride on a Hagglund which is the caterpillary type tractor/truck that is used at Antarctica bases. Once again in a moment of parental spaciness, we opted to take Abby with us on the Hagglund. The operators told us that it was perfectly suitable for all children over three, but under three was up to the parents.

What they should have said is that the Hagglund is perfectly suitable for all people who haven’t had a meal in the past 24 hours. Who knew a Hagglund would
The Strip Mall ApartmentThe Strip Mall ApartmentThe Strip Mall Apartment

It really did have a great view straight out from the balcony. Down at the end that is just barely in sight is the store that sells the You Know What!
be like riding in a washing machine?? I held Abby in a firm grip, with her head and neck tucked safely into my arm, while holding myself still by gripping one of the foam covered bars. But no matter how I braced, we lurched and rocked and whipped everywhere as the driver took us on a faux-Antarctic drive. Up hills, over crevasses, down hills (this was all done on an obstacle course behind the USA Flight Hanger), through 8 feet of water and around the inside of holes doing doughnuts - - a nauseating favourite of the driver’s.

Whew. So the lesson is, if I get to visit Antarctica someday, I’ll take some Dramamine. Good to know.

I had a blast walking through the rest of the exhibit, and could have easily spent four hours reading all the little signs that Abby had no patience for. I did gear up and enter the Artic Storm room while Les kept Abby. It was cold and windy. It felt like Boston and I decided there was no point in rushing that sort of bad weather so I exited the ‘storm’ a bit early.

We of course toured the actual
The Hagglund RideThe Hagglund RideThe Hagglund Ride

When we rode this we were in the back of the second car. It could not have been more lurchy. Note the USA Antarctica Program hanger behind us - it was pretty cool I have to admit.
Christchurch church which sits right in the center of town in Cathedral Square. It is a magnificent Anglican church with some of the most ornate artwork and tiling that I’ve seen since the churches in Jerusalem. But again, quiet churches are not a place to linger with a toddler so we only did a quick loop and then made our exit.

Finally, we hit a Mexican restaurant and chilled out to celebrate our last night of vacation. By that I mean we inhaled our dinner and chugged our margaritas in 30 minutes - the window of time that Abby would calmly sit and munch on chips and apples. But 30 min is 30 minutes and it was the perfect last dinner of our trip.

We leave for America tomorrow, Monday, March 6. We just spent our last evening at a BBQ with some friends down at the beach. Abby and I wore Frangipani’s in our hair and we stayed out till dark.

We didn’t get the business class upgrade on our marathon flight tomorrow, so it’s questionable as to whether we’ll actually make it to the US or whether perhaps we’ll get flung out over Hawaii by
Royal Botanical GardensRoyal Botanical GardensRoyal Botanical Gardens

You just never know where those Sequoias will turn up!
irritated co-passengers.

I’ll post one final wrap-up blog from Boston once we are settled. So until then . . .


5th March 2006

Pure New Zealand
Hey Es and Les - So glad you had a great trip to NZ. Reading your blog made Ken and I want to plan a 3rd trip down there...it's our most favorite destination ever. Gotta love Winnes with the bucket o' toys and wait staff that acts like they really don't hear your children screaming : ) Hope the flight goes well and we can't wait to see you all here in Boston soon!
6th March 2006

Esther - it has been a real pleasure reading your blogs for the last few months. I have always looked forward to the next instalment and they have really brightened up my working days. I wish you, Les and Abby health and happiness always. Tim...
6th March 2006

Glamorous World of Dairy Farming

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