Monday, January 10, 2011

From Te Anau to Te Nikau

I write this on the verandah of our little bungalow tucked into the rainforest at "Te Nikau Retreat," located in the stunningly beautiful and charmingly named west coast town of Punakaiki. The air is filled with the busy songs of birds and the gentle lull of the ocean, which, we discovered yesterday evening, is only a five-minute’s walk away.

Here’s a rundown of what’s happened since our last post:

Three days ago we left Te Anau and drove several hours to Queenstown, a lakeside cornucopia of more ways to terrify yourself for inordinate amounts of money than anywhere else on earth. It’s got bungy jumping, skydiving, hang gliding, etc. We settled on parasailing, which, on Queenstown’s terror scale of 1 to 10, is perhaps a 2. Up in the air we had an unbeatable view of the town, lake, and mountains (named, like some 1950s singing group, "The Remarkables"), and although the jerking rope made the initial ascent somewhat nerve-wracking, the ride soon became surprisingly peaceful. Parasailing was an unplanned indulgence, so we decided on a low budget dinner: reduced-to-sell meat pies eaten on a park bench in the city gardens. Having grown up near the Sun Valley resort in Idaho, Philip felt immediately at home in stylish and outdoorsy Queenstown. I enjoyed the town too, but after spending an afternoon there, both of us were ready to leave behind the posh, adrenaline seeking crowds and return to the typically low key New Zealand that we’ve come to love.

The day before yesterday we bade Queenstown goodbye and drove through spectacular mountain scenery on our way to the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers on the South Island’s west coast. We ate lunch by a picture-perfect river, stopped to see magnificent Fox Glacier, and walked around a lake with stunning views of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman (sorry for all the superlative adjectives, but this really is a superlative country). We also got a good look at a weka, one of New Zealand’s flightless birds. The day was topped off by a soak in glacial hot pools that were reminiscent of (if not quite equal to) onsen in Japan. Then it was back to the Franz Josef hostel for the night.

Yesterday morning was spent hiking Franz Josef Glacier, one of only three "warm" glaciers in the world (the second being Fox Glacier just down the road and the other located in Argentina). It starts high up in the freezing New Zealand Alps and makes its way down to a rainforest where it never snows—not even in the depths of winter. It was bizarre to start our hike in warm, dense rainforest and within an hour be walking, with the aid of crampons, on a massive river of ice. Making our way across the glacier’s rugged icescape was a jaw-dropping experience, made all the better by our expert (and charming) guide Ben, who occasionally swung his pickaxe in rapid circles to cut away steps in the ice so our group could pass. Apparently it takes three months of training to use a pickaxe properly (the "wax on, wax off" scene in the Karate Kid comes to mind). Prior to his job as a guide, Ben prospected for gold near his hometown of Kumara and collected moss in the New Zealand bush for export to Japan. To collect the moss, he was lowered into the bush by rope from a helicopter. We also learned that he’d never left the west coast of the South Island except for a short trip to Wellington, on the southern tip of the North Island. This tendency not to travel too far within their own country seems pretty typical of New Zealanders, at least based on the conversations with Kiwis we’ve had so far. A lot of North Islanders tell us they haven’t made it to the South Island and the same goes for South Islanders in reverse. Because every corner of New Zealand is so beautiful in its own way, it seems Kiwis are content to stay just where they are. I guess it’s appropriate they’re nicknamed after a flightless bird . . .

After descending the glacier, we got back in the car and headed up the (insert your own superlative adjective) coast up to Punakaiki, where we marveled at the wave-pounded stone formations before making dinner in the retreat's communal kitchen and heading to bed in our private rainforest bungalow. Now that I’ve finished my cup of tea along with this blog entry, it’s time to leave this peaceful verandah and drive back to Christchurch for our last night in New Zealand. Then it’s off to Sydney!

See photos of everything I've described in the post below!


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