The grass is always greener on the other side. No where does this expression hold more truth than Antarctica where grass has not existed for eons. Not surprisingly, visitors to the white continent spend much time daydreaming of their return to a place where the grass is greener both literally and metaphorically. And since Christchurch, New Zealand is the port of call for Antarctic redeployers, it’s only fitting that many dreams take shape in the land of the Kiwis.
Vegetation, warmth, and water all occupied my post-McMurdo fantasies, so after I returned from the Ice, I promptly began my journey to explore the idyllic coast and beaches of New Zealand’s south island. My plan was to tour the south island of New Zealand for 4 weeks in a counter-clockwise direction with a focus on the warm coastline in the northern part of the island followed by exploration of the world renowned, rugged mountains in the southern part of the island. Half way through the trip, my Colorado kayaking buddy, Robert Baca, would join me on the west coast with hopes of some Kiwi kayaking followed by hiking and plenty of adventure. Apart from meeting Robert on February 18th and flying out of Christchurch on March 5, my itinerary was completely open and I was all ears to suggestions from others who had already enjoyed this wonderful island.
I began my journey on February 7th by heading to the small coastal town of Kaikoura a few hours north of Christchurch and was fortunate to enlist the company of two Antarctic friends for a few days of company and readjustment to life in the real world. Our days were blissfully lazy, but we still managed to explore the rocky shores via surfboard and hike through the forested hillside before they headed back to the States.
After their departure, I found myself on my own for the first time in months as I continued to follow the road north. The romantic notion of independent travel is always balanced in reality with intermittent feelings of loneliness, but fortunately for me, a quick stop on the coastal drive led to a dozen New Zealand fur seals that captured my attention fully and marked the beginning of my solo travels.
I continued north along the coast to the Marlborough region known for its warm, sunny weather, vineyards, and maze of waterways. While perusing the Lonely Planet guidebook in McMurdo, I came upon a description of a coastal hiking trail in the Marlborough Sounds that offered the best of wilderness and civility. The Queen Charlotte Track meanders along steep, vegetated hillsides for several days of enjoyable hiking. But rather than carrying food and camping gear for the entire duration, the trail takes advantage of numerous, isolated hotels that are only accessible by boat or trail. Among the hotels, the Furneaux Lodge particularly piqued my interest with descriptions of its soft grass lawns that lead to the water and its mouth-watering restaurant and bar.
So on February 10th, I departed the port town of Picton on a water taxi to the start of the Queen Charlotte Track in historic Ship Cove where Captain Cook moored his ships on several occasions in the 1770’s. With little need for food or sleeping gear, I set forth from the cove with a light pack on my back and began an immediate ascent of the heavily forested hillside that was dotted by grand old beech trees among New Zealand’s national symbol, the prolific fern. After noticing a distinct lack of animal and even insect life, a deafening cacophony filled the air from locusts that were at once everywhere and nowhere. Several hours of hiking later, I came upon an idyllic flat, low location at the sheltered end of Endeavor Inlet which housed Furneaux Lodge. I must admit that the cool, wet weather didn’t match my daydream of lounging on the grass by the water, but it did provide an ideal reason to escape to the gorgeous Victorian retreat where I read my book, played the piano, and enjoyed a satisfying meal of mussels, seafood chowder, and Sauvignon Blanc before retiring to my bed in the stone barn known as The Croft. The following day’s weather hinted at improving conditions, but the sun never really made its presence known during several more hours of hiking before I boarded the water taxi back to Picton and my next destination.
The locals all claimed that rain and overcast weather were completely uncharacteristic for the Marlborough region during their summer, but when I told them I was driving to Nelson to the west, they all but guaranteed fair conditions in “Sunny Nelson”. Compared to the isolation of Antarctica, the tiny towns of Kaikoura and Picton, and the solitude of the Queen Charlotte Track, Nelson felt like a bustling hub-bub and reminded me a bit of suburban Boulder, Colorado. It only served as a pit stop in my journey, but I took advantage of the blue skies and warm temperatures by fulfilling a long-time dream to soar through the sky in a paraglider. The experience was completely surreal with the ground moving slowly below me as I was suspended beneath the large aerofoil with an expert pilot at the controls. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, it was not the life changing moment that I thought might divert my spare time towards a new hobby.
Nowhere on New Zealand’s south island is better known for warm, sunny beaches than Abel Tasman. The national park is named for the Dutch commander who first discovered the south island in 1642 and extends north along the coast away from Nelson and affords incredible opportunities for exploration by foot or sea kayak. Spaced thoughtfully along the coast are a network of Department of Conservation (DOC) huts that eliminate the need to carry a tent or sleeping pad allowing for light travel and enhanced enjoyment of the tropical setting and azure waters. On February 13th, I boarded a water taxi from the small town of Marahau in order to shorten the track length into a timeframe before Robert’s arrival. An hour later, I began tramping at low tide in Bark Bay and made haste to reach the Onetahui tidal crossing before it became impassable. In contrast to my previous hike, the weather was beautiful and I was definitely not disappointed in the famous aqua marine waters. As another example of the civility that I enjoyed along New Zealand’s tracks, I stopped mid-day at the barely accessible Awaroa Lodge for a beer and allowed myself to relax a bit. However, the stop allowed time for the tide to rise which resulted in having to wade through water for a kilometer to reach Awaroa Hut where I spent the night sheltered from the rain.
I rose early the following morning in order to make the 1 kilometer crossing of Awaroa Inlet at low tide which would be absolutely impossible when high tide adds 10-12 feet of depth to the inlet. With no time commitments and soothing overcast skies in the morning, my mind completely relaxed for the first time in months as I hiked through primitive forest high above the water. Throughout the day’s hike, landslides were evident as a result of more than 20 inches of rain on Christmas day. As I moved north, my body protested with an upset stomach that slowed me to a near standstill and ultimately forced my to rest in the sand at Anapai Cove as the sun returned to the sky. Still under the weather, I trudged on towards my next hut, but was forced to rest in the shade of two huge sequoias that stood as sentries on the beach in beautiful Mutton Cove. By 6pm, I reached Whariwharangi Hut, cleaned myself up, quickly fell asleep in the spooky old farmhouse.
My stomach felt remarkably better on my third day, and I headed south retracing my steps in order to reach the water taxi at Totaranui. However, I followed a welcome detour to Separation Point that stands as a high, rocky promontory above the water and is home to seals and cormorants. The sun was out in force for most of the day, and my sweaty t-shirt attested to the fact that I finally found the warmth that I longed for in Antarctica. As I spent the last hours wandering back towards Totaranui, I came upon secluded sand beaches that were out of a dream and took advantage of the incredible setting with a quick dip into the blue waters in tiny cove next to Anapai before my rendezvous with the water taxi.
Having completed my exploration of the northern coastal region, I headed south along a picturesque back road that wound its way along a river and through organic farms before finally arriving at the remote town of Murchison. Generally unknown by tourists, the little hamlet is centrally located among dozens of whitewater rivers and is home to the only company that rents whitewater kayaks on the south island. On February 16, I met up with legendary kayaker Mick Hopkinson at his grassy retreat, the New Zealand Kayak School and promptly began to arrange rental of kayaking equipment. With his assistance, I met three kayakers from Idaho who were in the area and coordinated to join them on a few stretches of the local Buller River. The green waters and mellow rapids of the Class 3 O’Sullivans and Earthquake stretches of the river provided a perfect transition back into a kayak after months away from the sport. But with low flows in the area and nowhere else to rent a boat on the south island, my pleasant day on the Buller turned out to be my only whitewater kayaking experience in New Zealand.
The next day I followed the Buller River along its course once again, but this time I was in my little white Nissan rental car and continued until I reached the west coast near Westport. I continued south along a coastal road that Lonely Planet declared as one of the planet’s 10 best road trips. Suffice it to say, the views were absolutely spectacular and I found myself stopping the car constantly to snap photos. Robert arrived the same day and hopped a bus west across Arthur’s Pass, so I proceeded onward to Greymouth for our rendezvous. With a few hours to kill in the coastal town, I made my way to the small surf beach and after a few minutes of small chat found myself surfing the small waves under the warm sunshine on a borrowed surfboard and wetsuit! My surf session soon ended and I found Robert in the nearly abandoned downtown of Greymouth. The spectacular coastline had made quite an impression on me, so we hopped in the car and headed north to revisit the sites under the evening light. The Punakaiki Rocks are limestone that has been worn away to resemble stacks of pancakes among the crashing surf and provide wonderful photographic opportunities at any time of day, but particularly at sunset.
Although I had a few activities in mind for my New Zealand trip, this was one of the few vacations where I was open to random opportunities as they presented themselves. And so when Robert suggested that it might be fun to hike to some caves near Punakaiki, I figured, “Why not?” and wound up having one of the coolest experiences of the entire trip. Fox River Cave is reached by a 4 mile hike along and through the Fox River, followed by a short, but steep ascent of the limestone valley walls. Apart from a few cliff overhangs and a guided tour of Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park, I had never explored a cave and was in for quite a treat. The official opening matched one’s expectations, but around the corner I found another small entrance and decided to explore it while Robert proceeded down the main passage. A minute later, I reached an impassable constriction but suspected that it would lead to the main tunnel. I shouted to Robert who was able to hear me on the other side of the impasse and eventually had him verify that he could see a few rays of my headlamp beyond the constriction. I stared at the tiny opening and then at my torso and began to contemplate what seemed impossible. A minute later, I shouted to Robert that I was going to attempt to lay my body on its side and squeeze through the claustrophobic aperture. He obviously disapproved, but at least if I got stuck, he would be able to hike out to get help. The squeeze was absolutely ridiculous, but moments later, I was on the other side, muddy but safe! My mind was blown and I felt like I could really get into this whole caving sport. Almost immediately thereafter, we witnessed stalactites clinging to the ceiling and stalagmites standing proudly on the floor of the tunnel. With every twist and turn, the cave revealed new mysteries and beautiful sights that left me fully entranced. Although we had been told that the cave was only 150 meters deep, we somehow managed to spend over 2 hours exploring its reaches including a hidden passage that seemed to rarely see visitors. I was absolutely thrilled about the experience even well after we left the cave and was fortunate that Fox River was just the first of several cave explorations during our New Zealand visit.
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On February 20, we continued south along the coast and made obligatory visits to the touristy Frans Josef and Fox glaciers. The following day began with a steady rain that we hoped would recede in appreciation of the long day we had ahead of ourselves hiking the Copland Track. But as fate would have it, the rain maintained its constant onslaught for the duration of our long day on the trail which resembled a streambed much more than a track through the woods. The landscape of the south island’s west coast is home to temperate rain forest, and 8 hours of hiking through the temporary streams and soaked to the bone gave us a true appreciation for the term rain forest. A little more than half way through the hike, we rounded a corner and were shocked to see where the trail led. The path abruptly ended at the edge of a raging class V creek and didn’t resume until 200 feet across the ravine. In between, a shaky, metal foot bridge was suspended above the torrents of Architect Creek. We traveled one at a time across the bridge knowing that a fall would be fatal, but trusting that engineers had properly designed the structure. Having spent countless hours staring at rapids from shore and from my kayak, it was fascinating to examine them from directly above. A few hours later, we came upon a second swing bridge that was lofted 80 feet above Shiels Creek. I was shocked that none of the rangers had even mentioned these litigious bridges and could easily imagine an acrophobic hiker reaching the bridges and immediately turning back rather than continuing on. It would be a shame to turn around so close to Welcome Flats though, since a wonderful hut and natural hot springs reward the weary traveler who makes it past the perils of the trail. Soaking in the hot springs with a glass of red wine and watching waterfalls on the steep valley walls made the entire hike worth it. And when we hiked back out the following day, I was struck with a weird feeling. I realized that despite the temporary misery of hiking through the rain, I had truly enjoyed the experience and felt that hiking in fair weather was not nearly as satisfying as experiencing the land when it was alive with its essence.
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With blisters on our feet and sore legs, we drove south to the lakeside town of Wanaka hoping to escape the rain, but instead resorted to relaxing for the day and accepting the incessant fall of water from the sky. On February 24th, we left Wanaka and drove along a dirt road complete with water crossings into Aspiring National Park. The road coursed through spectacular fields of sheep set among cliff walls and glaciers in the distance. When the road ended, we shouldered our packs once again and headed up a stunningly beautiful trail for two hours to Rob Roy Glacier where we cracked open Speight’s beers and picnicked in the sun directly beneath the glacier.
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Traveling south from Wanaka, we spent an obligatory day at the adrenaline capital, Queenstown. In the morning, we took an action packed ride on a jet boat through Shotover Canyon. After lazing away the early afternoon on a green lawn in town listening to live acoustic music, we checked out some adventurous souls who plummeted off Kawarau Bridge where bungy jumping was born in 1988, and then it was back in the car moving south to the town of Te Anau.
On February 26th, we changed course and drove northwest along a spur road directly into the heart of Fjordlands National Park to one of New Zealand’s most famous natural landmarks, Milford Sound. Cloudy skies and rain followed us once again but were to be expected in the third rainiest location on the planet. Fortunately, the rain and clouds lifted when we reached the sound and those that remained provided a mystical presence to the special place. The next morning, we woke before sunrise and gathered with a small group to explore Milford Sound by sea kayak. The morning was cloudy, but the water was absolutely still with no wind or waves to impede our progress. Half way out of the fjord, we paddled directly under a waterfall that was hundreds of feet high that created powerful winds that could easily flip an inattentive kayaker. Fortunately, we stayed upright and continued our paddle through the fjord towards the sea and were treated with views of fur seals as the sun slowly returned to the sky. By 1pm, we had completely exited the fjord and were picked up by a motor boat that whisked us back to the start. At that point, the clouds had completely lifted and we were treated to unimpeded views of Milford Sound including impressive Miter Peak high above all.
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We awoke early on February 28th and boarded the first water taxi under cloudy skies across Lake Te Anau to Brod Beach to begin our hike of the 4 day long Kepler Track. The trail immediately ascended the reaches of the mountain range, and we proceeded with slow, lethargic plodding through forest for 3 hours before reaching tree line. Just before leaving the forest, the sky seemed to open, the sun began to shine, and we realized that the clouds had not cleared, rather we had climbed above them. Above tree line were beautiful alpine tussocked grasslands with great views of Lake Te Anau below and mountains as far as far as the eye could see. A short distance further along the trail sat Luxmore Hut with all of the aforementioned views which we enjoyed from picnic tables with our lunches and Speights beer. The following day’s forecast called for rain, so at the warden’s prompting we continued further up the trail to Luxmore Summit to photograph the mountain ranges while they were still visible. After dinner, most of the hut visitors read their books or turned in to bed, but Robert and I took our second side trip of the day in order to explore Luxmore Caves. Stories of the caves from others in the hut did not inspire confidence, but since we were experienced cavers, we knew we would be up to the challenge. We hiked and squeezed our way down the main passage for an hour before eventually reaching terminus of the channel and heading back for a restful night in the hut.
True to the forecast, the next day was rainy and cold and conspiring to spoil our day of hiking above treeline. Fortunately, the rain and wind remained light during the trek and the visibility actually afforded nice views of the surrounding landscape. After 5 hours of hiking including a steep, switchbacked descent, we reached Iris Burn Hut and settled in just as the rain began to really pour down from the sky. The third day of the Kepler Track meandered slightly downhill through mossy forest with ferns covering the ground. The uneventful day led to Manapouri Hut on the shores of the lake of the same name where we relaxed and chatted with the hut mates we had befriended the previous several days. We began the final day of the track early in the morning and made it to Rainbow Reach where I hitched a ride back to town retrieve the car so we could make haste to our next destination to the south.
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Enjoy the 360 panorama from Luxmore Summit!
With only a few days left in New Zealand and having just completed the Kepler Track, we sped south to tour the remote coastal region known as the Catlins. As we neared the coast, we couldn’t help but stop at the roadside Clifden Caves, but the 45 minute exploration revealed graffiti and wear and tear that our previous caves were not subject to in their remote locations. Pushing on, we made it to Curio Bay just before sunset and were able to view petrified trees in the sea rocks and a few yellow eyed penguins while an Antarctic southerly pounded the coast with rain and wind. The next morning, we explored Slope Point that enjoys its claim as the southern most point of the south island then hopped into the car and moved east until we reach Surat Bay where we explored the beach and photographed sea lions. Driving further east, we made our last stop in the Catlins at Nugget Point where we hiked to the lighthouse and photographed scenery and sea lions hundreds of feet below at the base of the cliffs. We then departed the desolate Catlins and slowly began our return to civilization when we reached the university town of Dunedin. Having selected Speights as my official New Zealand beer, I couldn’t resist the brewery tour which concluded with 30 minutes of open bar that prepped us for a fun night on the town to celebrate with the locals who had just won an intense rugby game.
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After 4 weeks of exploring New Zealand’s south island and 2.5 months away from home, I found myself back in Christchurch where I began my Antarctic and New Zealand journey. Typically, the end of my travels are filled with with sadness of departure and wishes for just one more day, but as I boarded the plane in Christchurch, I was overcome with excitement to finally be returning home. In spite of the amazing adventures I had in Antarctica and New Zealand, I longed for the place that I truly feel happiest. Of all the aspects of this amazing journey, I realized that what mattered most was that I was able to walk away from my day-to-day routine, step into a completely different world, and return more grateful than ever to the life that I have been blessed with in Colorado and the good ole U-S-of-A.