The time around Easter, besides being a challenge if you want wine with your dinner, is also a big travel time here. When we were booking things after we arrived in early April we often heard “that is pretty busy with the school holidays.” Apparently almost every school in New Zealand and many in Australia have the week before and after Easter off, so there are lots of people travelling to certain areas, this in addition to the many international tourists roaming around the country. Our timing put us approaching some very popular places during that period, so we did have to get a little creative to find places to stay that weren’t crazy costly. For the Easter weekend, we ended up staying in a small agricultural city about an hour inland from the southern coast because it looked well situated for short drives to some of the sights we wanted to check out. Gore ended up being exactly what we needed for that weekend, we got a good place to stay and learned some fun things! Not only is Gore the brown trout capital of the world, but it was also home to Creamoata, a popular hot cereal that boasted a large marketing budget during the Depression and had as their mascot “Sgt. Dan.” The local I Site had a little museum attached with lots of Creamoata memorabilia as well as exhibits about the local moonshine and many Victorian era clothes and tools.
From Gore we headed up into the Southern Alps region and Queenstown. The town sits in a valley at the end of one of the longest lakes in New Zealand. It is a beautiful place and everyone had heard of it and comes to visit. It was a charming town, with lots to do especially for adventure seekers. They have skydiving, para gliding, mountain biking, hiking, jet boats, and those little speedboats that look like sharks and sit just under the water line. We stayed in a smaller town just outside of Queenstown proper and the clerk who checked us in gave us advice on using the transit system that was a lifesaver for the few days we were there. The traffic was very busy in and out of town, so we just hopped on the bus! That was also nice when we found the local wine shop that offered tastings of many local and New Zealand wines. While we were there enjoying tasting some wine I noticed a young man with a Case Western Reserve sweatshirt. Of course, I accosted him and got details. He is studying in Auckland for the semester and his parents were visiting from… Lancaster, Ohio a mere 30 minutes down the road from home. The world is a lovely and small place when you are willing to talk to strangers.
While in Queenstown we took the gondola up to the top of a mountain to check out the views. While we were deciding on what time to venture up there Dan said, let’s go now (it was about 10:30 am), we can pay too much for a mediocre lunch that will be worth it for the view. And it totally was, the sandwich was slightly better than mediocre and not horribly overpriced and the view was spectacular. They had a variety of activities you could watch when you could tear your eyes away from the lake and the mountain view. A concrete luge/sled track was very popular and there was a beginner track and a more advanced track, you could sit and watch folks coming down each of them. It didn’t take long for us to figure out which was the beginner’s, and which one was for the more advanced sledder. Some folks went so slow I could walk the track faster than they were sliding down it. We also saw bungee jumpers and paragliders. Everyone was having a good time! On another walk closer to our hotel one morning we noticed several small planes in flying over the valley, and then we noticed a small object falling below the plane. It was a skydiver and we could see them leaving the plane, falling for a long way and then watched the chutes open. That was cool.
From Queenstown we headed west to the Fiordlands National Park area. We had booked two trips for there so we could cruise around a couple of the famous landmarks on the southwest coast. We stayed in Te Anua which was a lovely town, also gets a lot of tourists, but not nearly as big or busy as Queenstown. It was cloudy and a bit rainy that afternoon and there was a lot of rain overnight and we woke up to snow covered mountain tops! After breakfast we boarded a bus to take us down the road so we could board a boat to take us across the lake so we could board another bus to take us over the mountains so we could board another boat to take us around Doubtful Sound! All that bussing and boating was awesome.
We had a little rain and sun as we crossed the lake and a rainbow hung around for a good part of the trip. The dock on the other side of the lake was near a hydroelectric power plant that was built in the 1960’s to power an aluminum smelter down near Bluff. In fact, the smokestack from that smelter is visible from Stewart Island and Dan and I had seen it when we were there so we had some context about how far they were moving that power. One of several interesting things about the power plant is that they collect water from the lake, run it down tunnels and through turbines, there is not a dam. Then they take the water out tunnels and release it into Doubtful Sound. There was objection to the plant because of concerns about the impact on the lake water levels, so there was agreement to run the plant while maintaining the water levels within the normal and natural lake levels. This is a pretty unique power plant. While they maintain the water levels on the lake, they dramatically reduced the flow of the river that is sourced by the lake and we didn’t hear how that was received.
The whole area is mostly granite mountains, which gave us two interesting things to observe on our trip. The first and most picturesque was that all the rain from the previous night meant there were literally hundreds of temporary waterfalls flowing down the mountains near the lake and in the sound. You heard running water the whole day, even over the boat engines. The other thing you see are the scares left from tree avalanches. Because the rock is granite, first you get a layer of moss, then other vegetation and finally trees. But the roots are not very deep, so sometimes some trees begin to fall and create an avalanche. It takes a hundred years or so to revegetate to the previous state. So, there was lots of that evidence to see. Alas, we did not get to witness one happen, but there is always next time!
Doubtful Sound is bigger but less visited than Milford Sound, which was our second excursion for this area. For that trip we only had one bus and one boat, but another great experience. We took the bus north and into the Fiordlands park along a road that included a long tunnel painstakingly drilled through the mountains by some very hardy workers under pretty rough conditions. The views were amazing and we had more waterfalls, including a number of temporary ones. It was pretty cloudy and rainy on the drive but as we pulled up to the boat dock the sun came out and things cleared up. We spent the next several hours ohhing and ahhing at all the great sights that included several temporary and permanent waterfalls, including one supplied by a creek that followed a small fault line in the mountains. That fault line is responsible for many small earthquakes, but they require a seismological tool to know about them. Milford Sound also gives you a great view of a large glacier draining into a temperate rain forest and ending in a deep sound carved by previous glaciers. There aren’t too many other places you can see that!
Te Anua also has a bird sanctuary where we learned about conservation efforts for several bird species. A lot of conservation in New Zealand is about getting rid of introduced mammals like Stoats (a type of ferret), foxes, possum, rats and mice. So, they are doing a lot of trapping and poisoning of these animals and have managed to get a number of islands to be “predator free.” One person described conservation in New Zealand as spending a lot of time killing things. Alas, it is fighting an uphill battle as more than half of the native species, mostly birds, are already extinct.
From Te Anua we headed north toward two of New Zealand’s most famous glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef. The road to this area had been closed for almost a month after a major storm in March had caused a river to take out several access roads and the bridge. We saw news coverage of a guy in the area who had a dump truck and he was ferrying cars across the much less flooded river at one point.
The glaciers both come down into deep valleys along a beautiful mountain range. We lucked out with a few hours of clear weather and were able to get great views from across the valley near a lovely lake that provides great reflections of Fox Glacier. Alas, we could not hike to the glaciers because the trails and access roads were pretty well taken out the previous month. We did take a walk up the trail until we got to the trail closed sign – which they put up right where it was almost redundant. The trail also had a lovely side trail where there were glow worms, so we waited until close to sunset, and as it got darker we (ok, Dan) spotted small lights among the moss growing in roots of a fallen tree, talk about fairy lights! Alas, we were not able to get any photos. You will have to trust me on how awesome it was!!