I was really excited to visit Queenstown because Raj has told me so much about his 6+ months living there when he was in NZ for about a year in 1999. He was a bit nervous to return and see how much it has changed because much of the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in the surrounding area and the tourism rates have skyrocketed in the last decade. We planned on staying 3 nights there so that we could experience the nightlife and have time to sample some of the adrenalin-junkie activities, as well as take a day trip to Milford Sound (fiord lands). When we arrived it was a beautiful sunny day so we parked the car by the lake and wandered around for a while. Raj reminisced about various spots he used to hang out and grieved a bit to find that several places were gone. After checking out various motels we found a place that was offering a 70% discount for their penthouse studio unit so we scored a great place overlooking the lake and only a block for the town. (view from our room the right)
Unfortunately, by this time Raj was feeling pretty sick as I had given him my cold (again, not swine flu), so we took advantage of how nice the apartment was and stayed in a good part of the first couple of days and ventured out only to explore the town a bit. Raj decided it was about time for him to get a haircut and sadly that was our biggest adventure for the first 2 days (pathetic considering we were staying in the place where bungy jumping was invented). On our 3rd day there we booked a full day bus tour to Milford Sound, which was 4 hours away so we preferred someone else to do the driving. It left early in the morning and stopped several times on the way there to give us the chance to get out of the bus and take pictures. We went through the town of Te Anua, saw some nice wildlife, saw the Mirror Lakes and got a good sense of the history of the area as well. It was nice to just sit back and relax and for both of us to be able to look out the window. We were also lucky that the bus was only about a third full. When we arrived at Milford we boarded a cruise ship that held approximately 200 people for the 1.5 hours cruise. It was a dry yet cold day but that didn’t stop us from rushing to the front of the ship in hopes of seeing dolphins and having good views of the many waterfalls we passed along the way and the famous Mitre Peak. Sadly, we did not see any dolphins and later heard that it is much less common to have them playing in the wake than it used to be. The waterfalls were lovely though and we got close enough for the mist to get us wet and to put the camera away! It was Raj’s favorite day in NZ so far.
We decided to extend our stay in Q’town by one more night so that we could book at least one adventure activity. There were so many to choose from: bungy, sky diving, 4wd safaris, jet-boating, LOTR (lord of the rings) safaris, hang-gliding, parasailing, etc.; the options went on and on. In the end, we decided on a Jet-boat ride through the canyons. The drive there was in a large van and stopped several times to point out LOTR filming sites such as where Helm’s Deep was filmed. The drive also took us through a terrifying section of gravel road on a cliff face that was at times so narrow and steep that when looking out the window we could not see the road to be sure the tire would be on land and instead saw straight down into the canyon. After seeing washed out roads throughout our drive, this was a less than pleasant adrenaline rush in my opinion; Raj, however, thought my horror was hilarious (he was not the one sitting by the window). Ultimately, the drive was more entertaining than the jet boating. We had expected to be scared and screaming from doing 360 degree turns at high speed and with the canyon walls quite close, but it just didn’t do the trick 😦
Next we headed to Dunedin on the SE coast of the south island to visit my old friend Brian. We were thrilled to discover that he lives right on a beautiful beach where you see as many dogs and horses as people, if you see anything at all! When we arrived, Brian and his girlfriend Eleanor took us to one of their favorite spots on the Otago peninsula to see penguins and sea lions and timed it perfectly for us see a lovely sunset as well. We then got quite a workout as we climbed back up the extremely steep dunes with very soft sand that we sank deeply into with each step. The rest of stay with Brian offered us so more much needed R&R and the opportunity to cook a meal; may seem strange but I was really excited to have use of a full kitchen after over 6 weeks of eating out and the occasional motel kitchenette.
We decided to take a couple of days to explore The Catlins which are about 2 hours south of Dunedin. Since we were missing horseback riding we did some research and found a great place that offered full day horseback riding at their Organic Farm (we would call it a ranch as they farmed cattle and sheep). For about six hours we saw beautiful sites, galloped in fields and on beaches with sea lions, and learned info on farming. We also got to enjoy watching their litter of six puppies play with each other and with the horses. Then we drove to Curio Bay for the sunset and stayed at a motel where we had views of the ocean from our bed! Not a bad day, huh? Unfortunately, the next day the weather was cold and rainy so we decided to try and outrun the rain in order to see some waterfalls and caves. We successfully saw three great waterfalls and due to the threatening weather had them all to ourselves and even lucked out with the rain stopping while we were there, but the cathedral caves were closed due to the bad weather.
Brian recommended we head to Kaikoura next as he used to live there studying whales and knew we’d enjoy the abundant sea life. So, we took his advice and headed north along the coast so that we could stop for a couple of nights there before catching the ferry back to the north island.
Quick notes on NZ in compared to South America: The main similarity between South America and NZ is the complete abundance of spectacular scenery! Everywhere we go has something fantastic whether it is the colors of the trees, spectacular coastline, wildlife, green pastures, mountains and forests, or more unusual spots like glaciers or caves. Everything is so beautiful and there is so much to see! However, the main difference is a seeming lack of culture here. Perhaps it is just that it is similar to the UK in many ways that it doesn’t strike us as distinct but we miss the obvious differences we experienced in Chile and Argentina (as well as the nightlife because there is nothing going on anywhere here) and the sense of adventure it brought to our travels.