email from New Zealand: #5 January-February 2008

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I can’t believe it’s my last night here in New Zealand. It’s been one very wonderful, magic trip.

I apologize for not writing for a while, but I’ve been on the isolated west coast and in the back country where there is no internet or cell phone service. At times it was even difficult to find a pay phone to call home.

After leaving Milford Sound, we drove through the Haas Pass and up to the town of Okarito, population 31. I found a call box at the community campground and tried to call from there but the buttons on the keypad kept sticking and I gave up after three attempts to make a call and much swearing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOkarito is a tiny beach village located some miles off the main road on the Tasman Sea. It’s home to Author Keri Hulme and New Zealand’s most famous nature photographer, Andris Apse. It is also the home of our lead guide Shawn, who along with his wife Rebecca and son Tannin, run the Okarito Beach House where we stayed for two nights.

I loved Okarito. If you can’t relax there, then you might as well give up! Look out to the front and there’s the beach, look out the back and the mountains and Franz Josef Glacier are practically leaning over you.

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A view of the tiny town of Okarito on the west coast of New Zealand from Okarito Trig

It was a great location to stay as we had easy access to the glacier the next day when we did a hike there. Of course it was another classic case of Kiwi understatement… a few kilometers along a river. Ya, right! I should have remembered that whoever built New Zealand had the nasty habit of putting mountains next to everything, including rivers and whoever built the trails just couldn’t resist putting them all over those mountains! Needless to say it was another case of undulation at its finest.

I also got hit by some kind of stinging bush. The area where it swiped my arm was instantly on fire and I got a big bunch of hives there. Then it got all prickly and numb. It was very strange. When I talked to the guide about it later she said that if you get it bad enough, you may have to be hospitalized. Great!! Luckily the hives went down the next day and I was left with the numb feeling for a few days. Maybe it just moved down from my brain to my arm!

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A river crossing on the way to Franz Josef Glacier

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The toe of Franz Josef Glacier. I love the stupid people warning signs to the right.

Anyway, the Waiho river is formed from the melt from Franz Josef Glacier which we eventually hiked up to. The sky was cloudy but then cleared and I was blown away by how big the glacier was. It is one of the few glaciers in the world that is still growing and is very unusual in that it drops to almost sea level. The spires on top look tiny but are actually 60 feet tall! And the color… hmmm I guess you’d call it aqua blue with a lot of dirt on it. I had this urge to get a hose and clean it up! You could almost feel it’s power though. My first glacier ever! Wicked Awesome!

The next day we went kayaking in the Okarito Lagoon and the rivers that feed it. The tide was going out as we were paddling in. I’m glad I had a big breakfast as I burned every morsel fighting the tide. Once we got past that, it was fine and we saw lots of bird life including white herons and spoon bills. The folks that rented out the kayaks neglected to tell us that the outgoing tide took most of the water and we had to do a long portage through knee deep water to get back to the main channel to get back. Was I ever ready for lunch!

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Paddle in, walk out

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In the afternoon a few us went for a walk to Okarito Trig which is an overlook where could see the town and the estuary where we had paddled earlier. We continued on to Three Mile Beach (more undulation, of course) where I had a hot rock spa treatment. Not really in a spa, but the beach was covered with flat, oval rocks warmed by the sun. I couldn’t resist laying them on my legs and absorbing their heat.

Next day, it was back in the bus and up the coast to Punakaiki, home of the pancake rocks and blowholes, but first we made a stop at Hokatika, which is famous for its New Zealand carved jade. The Maori carved the local greenstone into tools, weapons and jewelry. The tradition continues today and of course I had to support the local industry. My entire souvenir budget was spent there that day. Let’s just say I now have something lovely to help me remember my trip.

And on the pancake rocks… hard to describe. They are towers of layered limestone created by eons of waves washing over them. I guess you could say they look like stacks of pancakes in places. The blowholes are fissures in the rock that blow water and mist up when the waves come in. It reminded me a bit of Thunder Hole at home with the same ocean fury.

 

That night we had fish and chips (pronounced fush and chups by locals) outside at a local eaterie. The sandflies were horrendous and my feet got chewed. Those little buggers are like our black flies only they bites itch for an eternity! I ended up sliding my feet into the sleeves of my jacket to keep them from eating me alive. I sure looked strange but it did the job.

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A stunning view along the NZ west coast

The next day we traveled to St. Arnaud to Nelson Lakes National Park to begin our three day backpacking trip.

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Our first day of hiking was relatively easy six-miler along Lake Rotoiti to Lakehead Hut. This hut was quite a bit different than the posh ones I stayed at on the Routeburn Trek. It’s a basic unattended DOC (Department of Conservation) hut with outhouses and no showers. I got around the lack of showers by taking a swim in the lake but the outhouses were another story. While I prefer a nice flush toilet, I’m ok with the “long drop” if necessary, However, these facilities were infested with bees and hornets. If you held the door open long enough they would all fly out. Once inside you’d think you were safe until you noticed them coming in the air holes near the floor. It certainly urged you to hurry about your business!

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The hut was hot inside but you couldn’t sit outside without getting devoured by the sandflies. And the sleeping situation was different than any I’ve experienced before. Usually you have your own individual bunk kind of like the bunk beds you had as a kid. In this case, there were two long platforms, one atop the other with mattresses side by side. I slept with a stranger lying two feet beside me. I did introduce myself first of course. Somehow I managed to get a few hours of sleep between the heat, the snoring and the people getting up to pee in the night.

stream crossingI was happy to hit the trail the next morning with another six mile hike ahead. First thing, we did a river crossing. Luckily the level was down and we all stayed dry. We walked and walked and walked for what seemed like forever. I was getting worried as I knew we had a considerable elevation gain that day and we hadn’t done any of yet. When we popped out of the trees I could see why. Ahead was the mountain face we had to scale. If you craned your neck and looked straight up you could see the top.

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Shawn, one of our guides, assisting at a water crossing. Our Active New Zealand guides were awesome!

I told myself that it was no harder than climbing Katahdin and when I got to the top there was a hut. I didn’t even have to climb down afterward. It was steep and rocky, following aside a waterfall for the way up. I just went slow and kept looking back. As I rose, the view got better and better.

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Finally I reached the top and when I got to the hut I was smiling. That hike was much like Katahdin and I loved it. There’s something to be said for learning to hike in Maine where switchbacks are unheard of. The trail builders at home follow the yankee rule: the closest distance between two points is a straight line, even if that straight line goes directly up a steep mountain.

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The Angelus Hut at 1650 meters elevation (5,400 feet)

The Angelus Hut is a staffed hut and much nicer than Lakehead. It was clean and had hornet-free outhouses. Also at a mile high, there aren’t many sandflies either. The hut sits on the edge of lake in a glacial cirque.

I had a wash, a very brief wash mind you, in the lake. While there was no ice in the water, I’m sure it had melted only minutes before. The water was so cold I had a headache for about an hour after.

My sleep was not much better that night. I had a symphony of snorers all around me. I tried listening to my i-pod but I found that the volume needed to drown out the noise was so loud it wouldn’t allow me to sleep. I should have joined one my travel mates who hauled his mattress out to the kitchen and slept on the floor. I fell asleep only to be awoken by the one o’clock grand exodus to the outhouses to be followed by a five am version as well.

The morning was misty when we headed out over Robert’s Ridge. It’s probably a good thing our view was obscured as we walked the ridge line of the mountain range. In places it reminded me much of Knife Edge on Katahdin, perhaps not as narrow though.

Once we were through the roughest parts, I motored down through the switchbacks, pausing only to slip and fall on a board in the trail. When I hit, it stuck me right in the ribs. When I stood up, it hurt to move and breathe. Not good… but I know that there is nothing you can do for a cracked rib so I just took a fist full of Advil and soldiered on.

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The Marlborough Region produces the finest Sauvignon Blancs in the world

When we all got down from the mountain we drove on to the Marlborough region in the north of the island to visit a winery. The Marlborough vineyards are famous for their white wines and they produce some the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc. Forrest Estate produces both whites and reds but we all were drawn to the whites. Our purchases to accompany dinner tonight included a 2007 Sav Blanc, a Gewurtaminer and a Reisling. Rest assured all were greatly enjoyed.

 

 

The bed and breakfast where we are staying is owned by a lovely older couple who cooked a huge buffet dinner for us. They have a giant white cockatoo in the living room who greets you with “Hello, darling” every time you come in. He eats people food including chicken which is a bit weird, and dances to music too. The B&B is named after him (Creighton) and has his picture on the sign.

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Well, must get my gear organized for the flight back tomorrow. We are supposed to do a “swim with the seals” thing in the morning but I think I’ll pass. I may not be able to move tomorrow! Besides, I have visions of great white sharks, swimming with seals who swim with me. Isn’t seal their favorite meal? And what does a person look like in a black wet suit but a seal?

Its been a wonderful twenty-five days. Before I came I would occasionally meet someone who had traveled here. When I told them I was going, they would absolutely gush praise for the country and it’s people. Now I see why. Every corner is filled with majestic mountains, turquoise blue water, lush green forests, mosses, and trees. The air is clean. The skies are boldly blue. Even the rocks are beautiful here. The Kiwi people are so warm and welcoming. They always ask how you are and actually care to hear the answer! I’m sad to leave but feel blessed to have experienced it all. I thank you all for supporting me and helping me make my dream come true.

See you all soon! Karen

*** In January of 2008, I ventured by myself halfway around the world to New Zealand. This was before blogs and smartphones. When I could, I would go to an internet café, purchase an internet use time card and type frantically hoping to finish my email before time ran out. Other than fixing some obvious spelling mistakes, the following is as written in 2008. As tempted as I am to edit and embellish, I want to maintain the moment as it was then. I have added pictures, some of mine, some of my travel mates. I apologize that I can’t give credit since I’ve long since forgotten which was whose, but I am thankful I have them to relive this wonderful adventure. ***

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