Sunday, August 21, 2011

Packing up

Although I have about three or four sets of photos that I ought to write blogs around and post - I just can't quite get my head around it.

That's because we are scheduled to go home tomorrow.

And we're all packed up.  We have the alarm clock and the backup alarm clock set.  We've returned our borrowed toys, dropped the 'leave behind' clothes in the Salvation Army bin, washed the towels, taken out the recycling and trash.

We are ready to go home.

The weather looks all clear.  There are no ash clouds on the horizon.  So barring earthquakes and other natural disasters (and you KNOW I'm knocking on wood after writing that sentence) we will commence our 42 hour airport marathon tomorrow morning.

So, it is a good time to try to start summarizing some bigger picture impressions of New Zealand.

New Zealand is in many ways very culturally similar to the US.  We all speak English.  The original treaty that allowed Great Britain to colonize New Zealand was signed in the 1830's -- allowing the European settlers to begin development about the same time (and pace) as most of Texas, the midwest and even California.  There was a Gold Rush on the South Island's West Coast in the 1860's -- only about 10 years after the California Gold Rush.  So, we are both relatively young countries, settled recently, with lots of entrepreneurial talent.

Famous New Zealanders include Sir Edmund Hillary (first man to ascend Everest), and Sir Earnest Rutherford (Nobel prize winning father of nuclear physics).  It is somewhat ironic that Rutherford hails from New Zealand - and did his early research at the University of Canterbury, where Chris was teaching.  New Zealand is a completely nuclear-free nation, and ended a long-term alliance with the US in the early 80s because New Zealand would not allow US nuclear submarines into kiwi waters.

But in some ways, New Zealand is still different from the US.  There are only 4.3 million people in the entire country.  And 1/3 of them live in Aukland.  So to understand what this means - try imagining that California was deserted except for the population of urban LA - and that 2/3 of that population moved out and spread out over the entire rest of the state.

Relatively small population, very spread out.  And a huge country-wide reliance on tourism for business.

This leads to some good and bad differences.  In a sometimes frustrating way, the communications technology infrastructure is somewhat behind.  There is virtually no 'free public internet'.  And even when you pay for a wireless connection, you cannot expect it to be fast.  There is no Netflix, Hulu or other streaming.  And if I had actually rented a television, but not gotten 'Sky' (digital cable), I would have had approximately two channels to choose from.

But, many (most?) businesses in New Zealand are small businesses.  Restaurants are frequently family owned and run.  Hotels are often also family owned and run.  And there is no tip culture.  This means that business is done on a more personal level.  On average, I have found that the people who are working in the service and tourism area take care of you because they actually care whether or not you have a good experience -- not just because they are hoping for good tips.

But - despite how much I've loved the scenery, liked the culture, and enjoyed our experience - I am ready to go home.  I want my pillow.  I want my coffee maker.  I am ready for the kids to get back into their school routine.

So please cross your fingers that my next post is from Austin talking about how happy I am to be home.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Skiing canceled due to snow

We were going to go up to Mt. Hutt for another ski day.  The kids liked it so much last time that we had designated Monday, August 15 as our ski day.

The weather had a different plan.  It snowed.

Now you might think this would be a good thing for skiing.  But not when the snow paralyzes an entire country - so roads, mail, schools and even blood donation centers get shut down.  If you remember my photos from our trip to Mt. Hutt, those are not roads that you want to drive in bad weather.  Double, shoulderless, twisty, 500 ft-drop-offs with no guardrail.  Eek.

In fact, this is 'the storm of a lifetime' for New Zealand.  The North Island is getting snow for the first time in 40 years.  There is more snow in Christchurch than there was in the 'big storms' of 1992 and 2006.  (That should give you a good sense of how often it snows in Christchurch.)

In fact, I started to try to get the car out of the driveway to go pick up milk at the grocery store and almost got stuck.  So, no driving for us today.

Instead, we are tromping through the snow to the dairy (aka - Convenience store) to load up on more milk so we can make more hot cocoa.  And we are making snow girls.  Lots and lots of snow girls.
Snow Family

Putting on the final touches

Backyard snowgirls done!

This does bring to mind my own memories of being a little girl in Washington State and having snow days.  Going to my friends house and playing in the snow forts or snow tunnels that our brothers made.  Neighborhood-wide snowball fights.  Snowdrifts taller than me.

And most importantly, coming in afterwards for hot cocoa.

This is not an experience we get often in Texas.

But still, I'm certainly glad we were trying to ski today and not fly back to Texas.  It's not supposed to be better tomorrow - but I'm hoping it will all be cleared up by Monday!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Haast Pass and Wanaka

I know, it's been a week since my last post.

But I have to admit, as we get close to the end of our time in New Zealand, life in Austin has been creeping in.  And as I'm getting mentally ready to go home, it gets harder to write about our New Zealand adventures.

But, I do have to play catch up on some of our adventures.

In my last post, I mentioned that we leaving the glaciers and on our way south through the Haast Pass.  Choosing the Haast Pass turned out to be a good plan, since a storm had come in from the west and was dumping snow up north on Arthur's Pass - our northbound option.  But the south option was open.  This may seem weird, since you'd expect the southern pass to be colder and get more antarctic weather, but Arthur's Pass is the highest elevation pass in New Zealand.  So it might get snow earlier than the lower-elevation Haast.

As we left Franz Josef, the rain turned to snow and started sticking to the roads.  But just as we started to really worry about our drive, we went back down a hill and the roads were clear.  Then back up and got snow, then back down and found clear roads.  This continued three or four times, but after about 45 minutes, we had clear roads for the rest of our drive.

So, the Haast Pass is great.  If you're into waterfalls, snow covered mountains, picturesque scenery and all that.
Waterfall in Haast Pass 
In Haast Pass, first view of Lake Wanaka
Then, we got to Wanaka.  Wanaka is a lot like Queenstown minus the "tourism steroids".  It's a quiet place that seems to be mostly a launching pad for skiing and heli-skiing adventures.  We stayed there on our way back home, but instead of adventure tourism, we just let the kids catch up on playground and playtime that they were missing with all of our driving.
Lake Wanaka at Sunrise
Dinosaur Playground in Downtown Wanaka
Girls Playing on the Beach
After spending the night in Wanaka, we headed back towards Christchurch by covering the path back through Lindis Pass and  Lake Tekapo.  It was interesting to see it all with slightly less snow.  The roadside spot at Lindis Pass where I got snow up to my thighs a month ago was grass-covered four weeks later.
Lindis Pass Early July
Lindis Pass Early August

Once we got home, we managed to obtain deliverance from Hell.  And then we had to say goodbye to Chris' wonderful goddaughter, who took a break from her semester in Australia to have an adventure with us.

And then we've been back adventuring in Christchurch.  We are hoping to try skiing one last time tomorrow, so I need to go make sure that all the snow gear is clean and ready.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Before writing this post, I’d been trying really hard to work out a proper Princess Bride reference.  The kids have been watching this movie a fair amount this trip, and they can quote it like champs.

Since I felt like I was repeating myself so strongly by saying how amazing everything is in this country, I was trying to come up with some play on “HELLO!  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die.”

I didn’t think I had the line down right, but today, my little 3 ½ year old said in a perfect mimicry, “HELLO!  My name is Susan Mack.  New Zealand is beautiful.  Prepare to look at my blog.”

I guess someone got it down.

Well, today, I am not just talking about how amazingly beautiful things are.  As I mentioned in my last post, we drove 6 hours to the West Coast of New Zealand to go visit the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers this weekend.

We got in last night and immediately headed to get sunset at the Franz Josef Glacier, intending to do many more glacier walks today.
Franz Josef Glacier

One of the most interesting things about these two glaciers is that they are located in the middle of a rainforest.

Rainforest along the road near glaciers.

Although this leads to some fantastic scenery, it also presents a clear problem.  What does it do in rainforests?  Duh.  It RAINS!

We woke this morning to a torrential downpour.  I thought, “maybe this will clear up by this afternoon.” Chris went to the hotel office to check their opinion on the weather forecast.  They said that we could expect the rain to stop sometime tomorrow afternoon.  Like tomorrow-afternoon-about-the-last-possible-time-that-we-need-to-leave-to-head-back-to-Christchurch.  Like tomorrow-afternoon-when-we-have-already-paid-for-two-nights-at-this-hotel.


It’s not terribly safe to hike to the glaciers in the rain, the photography isn’t that great, and we didn’t have good enough raingear for the kids to enjoy themselves.  And if the kids ain’t happy, Mama ain’t happy.  And if Mama ain’t happy… well… you know the rest.

And there’s not that much to do in Franz Josef when it rains.  You can go look at kiwis at the wildlife center.  Already did that in Christchurch.  Or you can go see an Imax movie of glaciers.  Or you can stay in your hotel room and watch movies.  Or you can drink beer in the pub.

We decided to start with the Imax.  It was, well, disappointing.  Lots of west coast scenery, not a lot of glacier info.  But it did have some good scenes, and it was the only time I’ve gotten a private showing of an Imax movie, as we were the only ones in the theater.  Then, we went and got lunch at the pub.

We were contemplating either going to the wildlife center or hitting the hot pools afterwards, but… at that point, the rain had lightened up enough that we decided it was worth driving out to Fox Glacier and seeing if we could stand the hike. 

Good decision.  We did hike to the glacier (and were, once again, almost the only people there!) or at least as close as we could get.  As close as we could get was still 700m from the face.  But given the difficulties of getting the kids to stay on the well-marked safe trail, it was probably a good thing we didn’t get too close.  And it didn’t rain the entire way.
Fox Glacier

Fox Glacier Up Close

Clouds playing in Glacier Valley
Then, we did the great hike to Lake Matheson.  This is famous for the completely picturesque view of the mountains that can be seen reflected in the mirror pool.  It’s also a 2.6 km hike around the lake.
Although 2.6 km doesn’t seem like a long hike to the adults, when you have two tired children who already hiked a bit that day and you don’t have your jellybeans with you, it can be a long hike.  You know that I am the mother of girls because I told them that it was the fairy forest and when they said they didn’t want to walk, I suggested that we all flap our wings and fly.
Sarah and Anna on a Swinging Bridge in the "Fairy Forest"

View from Lake Matheson's Reflection Island

And it worked. We got our photos, everyone made it around the lake (even without jelly beans) and we could cart our tired children back to our hotel room.

The biggest benefit of the rain – the entire afternoon felt like a bonus treat, rather than something expected.  We’d already written off the day, so being able to see everything we saw felt like a surprise birthday present or maybe a snow day.

Anyway, I think we’re driving through the Haast Pass tomorrow, so there will probably be more of my ‘Inigo Montoya’-style "New Zealand is Beautiful" posts after that.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Giant Rocks and the Puke Pub

Today, we drove from the East Coast to the West Coast in order to go see the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers.  These are incredible glaciers, which move an average of 1 meter per day, but we will really explore them tomorrow.

Today is about the drive.

About an hour and a half out of Christchurch, we saw some interesting rocks by the side of the road.  And when I say interesting rocks, I’m not talking about gravel or pebbles.  These were SERIOUS rocks.  So, we pulled over at what turned out to be the Castle Hill Scenic Reserve.

First view of Castle Hill Scenic Reserve
Kissing Rocks
Back view towards road.  Note size of person vs. rocks.
Can you find the people in this photo?
These rocks are not the leftovers from some ancient civilization.  They are leftovers from the earth building itself.  They are soft limestone that has been shaped by millennia of glaciers, plates moving and rain.  There are some incredible shapes, ranging from sensual to just massive.

It is also an area where some scenes of Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were filmed.  I could see Aslan getting killed on one of these rocks.  And maybe Frodo, Strider and the other hobbits hiding from the Nasgul before Frodo was stabbed.  (Can you tell we rewatched Lord of the Rings upon arrival in New Zealand?)

Then, we went on through Arthur’s Pass -- the highest pass in New Zealand -- and I took the opportunity to get a photo of something we have seen a lot of in New Zealand – one lane bridges.  Seriously.  Would it really have been THAT much more expensive to build another lane?
Chris at Arthur's Pass

One lane bridge.
When coming up to the one lane bridges, you must watch carefully for the sign to show who is supposed to ‘Give Way’.  It’s generally whoever is going uphill, but the sign tells you which side must stop and wait.  Fortunately, there isn't that much traffic on these roads, at least not at this time of year, so there aren't huge lines waiting to get across the bridges.

After we got through Arthur’s Pass, we skipped through several towns, but had to stop at the Puke Pub.  That should be pronounced poo-kay, as it is located in the town of Pukekura, population 2.  It seems to be New Zealand’s answer to the Roadkill CafĂ©.  They mainly serve wild game, but they also serve possum.

That's Poo-kay to you.
Although it was closed for the winter, we did get to find their menu and some of their specialties across the street at the Bushman's center.  It offers one of the biggest specialties - possum pie.

Possum anyone?
Sign at the Bushman's Center

Please understand that possums in New Zealand are not quite like possums in the US.  Possums are a creature with very soft fur that got imported from Australia and have become a major pest.  They consume something like 21,000 tons of vegetation a year in New Zealand, are a serious threat to the native kiwi birds and are the target of an extensive governmental trapping campaign.

Whether they taste good or not is a question we decided to leave unexplored.  We merely got ‘toasties’ with wild deer and wild hare combined with mushrooms and onions.  The venison beat the rabbit anyday.

Tomorrow we explore glaciers, hopefully some more hot pools, and will have more West Coast phenomena to share.

But for now, I’m off to a glass of wine and leftover homemade paella in our hotel room in the town of Franz Josef.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Remains of the (Snow) Day

When we came home from Nelson, this was all we found of our snow day.


Goodbye Snowgirl.  It was fun while it lasted.  I will think of you fondly when we are back in the 107 degree farenheit Texas heat.

Christchurch Cathedral and Nelson

Here are photos of Christchurch Cathedral.

Christchurch Cathedral

Okay, okay, that’s not the Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch.  It’s the Christchurch Cathedral in Nelson.  We had to go all the way to Nelson in order to see Christchurch Cathedral intact.  Because Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch got decimated in the February earthquake, and I haven't even been able to get close enough to get a photo.

This cathedral construction started in 1925, and by the time it was completed in full art-deco style (40 years later), it was out of fashion.  The grounds on Cathedral Hill have some great examples of old native trees and other native (or not-so-native) plants.

A giant gum tree.  Note Chris and the girls at the base.
I have no idea what this flower is, but it's pretty.

Nelson itself is the gateway to adventure for the north part of the South Island.  It has three national parks in close proximity, is adjacent to the Marlboro wine region, and (most importantly for Chris) has quite a collection of craft breweries in town.  It also is one of the sunniest regions in New Zealand and sports a Mediterranean climate, despite being so close to snow.

Downtown Nelson
Nelson's South Street - an area maintained in the style of an 1860's worker's village.

One of the major sites in Nelson is the Nelson Provincial Museum.  It has a great collection of Maori and other cultural relics.  While we were there, they were doing a rugby exhibit called Hard on the Heels.  Given the name of the exhibit, I found it quite funny that the front door had a restriction on wearing stillettos..
Sign for Exhibit at Nelson Historical Museum
Sign prohibiting high heels at the exhibit.  It must live up to its name.

While in Nelson, we stayed at a place called the Arcadia motel.  It deserves mentioning because it was so far above expectations.  It’s a small, 1950’s construction motel on an out-of-the-way street with reasonable prices.  But the out-of-the-way street is a short walk to the Tahunanui beach park, several good cafes, and a great pub.  In the summer, you couldn’t ask for a better location.
Sarah on the beach at Nelson.

The owner of the Arcadia motel is a British former financial advisor who has spent his entire career travelling through Asia and Europe.  He and his wife wanted to settle in New Zealand and in order to obtain residency needed to start or buy a business.  They became motel-keepers.  So, he has a theory that he should run a hotel in which he would want his family to stay.

So, the beds were good.  The rooms were clean and updated.  And we felt more like we were his houseguests who happened to be paying for a room than that we were staying in a hotel.

All this was great – but not the reason why my kids wanted to spend all our Nelson time there.  He also has two children – girls – exactly the same ages as Sarah and Anna.  The minute we arrived, his girls were outside our door playing with our girls.

Our girls were sold.

We only had two days in Nelson, and it just wasn’t long enough.  With everything there, I think it would be my first pick for where to live if I was to emigrate to New Zealand.

But don’t worry, that’s not happening anytime soon.  In three weeks we are scheduled to get on an airplane back to Austin.  I’m not going to jinx it by saying anything else about it, given my previous flying experiences on this trip.