Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dunedin to the West Coast

We have found it so good, after a week or so of camping, to spend a bit of time in a home. And it always seems to happen on a rainy day, just when it is hard to imagine camping out another night. Being with our friends Brian and Helen was just what we needed. He runs the dorm (called a hostel here) for the Otego Boys School, she teaches at the university, and they put us up in the suite that parents use when they come to visit. Right next door were a couple of old CIT’s of mine, Scott and Chelsea, now married eight years and taking the Canadian winter to work for Brian for a New Zealand summer. Pretty good deal.

We did lots of just hanging out together, which meant eating pretty much non-stop. It was wonderful to see a glimpse of their life here, and to get to know Brian and Helen’s little girl Maya. Sarah and I took a morning to explore the Octagon, Dunedin’s town square, including a cathedral, an art gallery and a lamb burger and salad at a bistro. We went to Brian and Helen’s church and met many people, and they took us out to Otago Peninsula to watch the albatrosses, one of the few places in the world you can do that since these massive birds rarely come to land and spend most of their lives gliding over the sea. Danny met the Bishop of Otago during YWAM; we got an invitation from them to come for coffee, and found them to be kindred spirits. We were very glad for the company of all these precious people, and for the chance to regroup a bit before camping again. It was hard to go.

From here we drove into the Catlins, a district of beaches and hills that would take us to the southernmost parts of mainland New Zealand. After a few stops, we made for a DOC campsite someone had told us about. Spectacular surf beach with tall white cliffs on one end, a typical feature of the Catlins area. While we were setting up, I saw something moving on the beach. Binoculars confirmed that they were fur seals, mom and pup. I saw people walking fairly close to them and discovered that the NZ standard is no closer than 10 metres. So I got some pretty cool shots.

The next morning we continued south, through strong westerly winds. The high twisty road at one point revealed a long, sweeping beach; we found a way down to it and had lunch there. Our entertainment was a young family playing cricket, which looked very fun though I still have no idea what the game is about. Beaches are well used here. While they were playing, trucks drove by on the beach, people fished and gathered clams. I think we were the only ones just sitting in our chairs, like a couple of senior citizens. No comments on that one, thanks!

We took the back roads off this back road, often finding ourselves on gravel. At one point we found ourselves at the turnoff to Slope Point, which had not been in our plans, but once within six kilometers we couldn’t resist visiting the southernmost point of New Zealand (except for several small islands). We had been told it was simply a path through a farmer’s field, which is exactly what it was. But it was cool to stand there and know that there was nothing but water between us and the Antarctic. Still no penguins, though there are signs about them everywhere.

We had hoped to connect with a friend, Ben, in Invercargill, but discovered he was living in Auckland. So we simply stopped for groceries there and watched a few old buildings and churches go by. There was a window of good weather ahead of us, so we were a little anxious to get closer to Milford Sound. So we kept driving on this long driving day, and had to be content with a small, crowded but free campsite by a river just outside Te Anau.

Our plan the next day was to get as close to Milford Sound as we could, then do the cruise down the fiord the next day. But as we drew closer the day opened up into blue skies, and we decided that we should push through to the Sound that day. The mountains grew taller around us, with beautiful dry grassy plains between them, and then suddenly the valley dropped below us and we began to wind our way down. We spotted the entrance to a campsite Scott and Chelsea told us about, and we checked in so we would have a place to go at the end of the day, then carried on.

Soon we were traveling in the kinds of places I have only hiked in before, with rock faces high above us on either side ribboned with waterfalls. And then the valley ended at a rock face with a hole in it. Scariest tunnel ever. It has stoplights, because it only has room for one-way traffic, especially with all the tourist buses heading for the Sound. When you enter, it feels like your headlights are not even on, it is so dark. It is simply rough-cut out of the rock, a semi-circle that you need to stay in the middle of, lest you hit the ceiling on the sides. And it is a steep slope downhill, and water drips from the roof. It seems to go on forever because you can’t see the light at the other end until you are nearly there. Scott and Chelsea said they did it with fog in the tunnel, and it was the most frightening thing they have ever done.

When you get to the other end, you come out on a rock face that drops vertically below you on one side, and then you begin a series of hairpins that takes you to the valley far below. A most remarkable road. And then you arrive at the Sound.

Probably the picture you have in mind about New Zealand is a series of absurdly exaggerated peaks rising out of still waters that reflect them perfectly. It is no exaggeration, and the only difference for us was that it was too windy for still water reflections. We booked a time for our cruise and had our lunch with the view. After we booked, we discovered that there are many more options for a cruise than first meets the eye. But afterward we felt it was worth the price.

I am sure there are fiords in BC that match this or even beat Milford Sound, but they are sure not as accessible to the general public as this. We just couldn’t stop looking: peaks, waterfalls, rock faces, green-blue water, seals and birds, all combined into a feast for the eyes.

By the time our cruise returned, it was after 6:00 and we needed to get back to our campsite. But the sun was still bright and the mountains on the trip back so beautiful, we had to stop often. When we arrived at the tunnel, we discovered that the traffic lights only operate until 6:00 PM! At first, I wasn’t sure what to do, and then I just plunged up into the abyss. Again, headlights were useless, barely enough to see that, yes, we were still more or less in the middle of the road.

And then I saw headlights coming toward us! Wow, would there be enough room to get by? There was, though only because it was another small van like ours. I guess that is why the buses don’t travel after six. On the other side of the tunnel, we stopped and caught our breath, plus a few more photos of the world on the other side.

Once back at the campsite, we decided to stay another day, which promised to be a wet one, so we were grateful to have such a beautiful day for our cruise. Mind you, Danny did it in the pouring rain, and he said that the 500+ consequent waterfalls were amazing. So now our family has photos of the Sound in the rain and in the sun. We could not have asked for a better place to spend a rainy day. I attempted a hike up one of the valleys in the morning and got soaked. But the campsite was quiet, with very few people around, and it had a warm and comfortable kitchen/lounge. We sat in soft chairs in front of the fireplace all afternoon, dried out and rested from too much sensory stimulation.

The goal for the next day was Queenstown. I had thoughts of Banff or Whistler and was not really looking forward to the bustle. There was bustle, but we both really liked the Queenstown area. We thought it might be hard to find a campsite, but the nearest DOC site was a massive delta with plenty of room, and gorgeous scenery all around. The lakes here are most impressive colour – a lighter blue than most in the Canadian Rockies. We decided to spend another day exploring.

The next morning, we decided to take the gondola up the mountain next to the town. It proved to be higher than it first looked, taking you nearly vertically up to great views of the town and the lake stretching away in two directions. I settled Sarah with a herbal tea in the café, and determined to hike higher. Danny hiked from here right to the top of a fairly high mountain, a jaunt that the sign said was a five hour return. I didn’t want to leave Sarah that long, but I still wanted more than what the observation deck offered. So I started up the trail toward the mountain, all the time eying a ridge up to my right that I thought must afford some good views. After an hour or so, the trail finally climbed the ridge and I saw a faint trail angling back along it, while the mountain trail carried on ahead. I took the ridge trail. Wow. At first I though I would only go to the first good view. But the trail continued and at one point I could see that it carried on far ahead of me, back toward and far above the top of the gondola. So I carried on. There were a few sketchy parts, made especially tricky by the wind, but I stayed careful and picked my way along until the world just dropped away below me.

I arrived back at the gondola just about the time Sarah was starting to wonder about me. We decided to buy lunch up there: $12.99 for a marvelous pesto penne, which sounds like a lot until you remove the tax, tip (they don’t tip here) and exchange, making it about $7.50 in Canada. And the view was worth much more. We descended the gondola, and discovered we had left our lights on! A friendly maintenance man got us going again. We stopped to visit Queenstown park, which Danny said was full of roses.

We decided to stay the next night at another campsite by a small lake. It was a long drive in on a gravel road and was pretty, but I think I preferred the one the night before. The next day was Sunday, and we had decided to try to get to the service at New Life Church (recommended by a fellow at YWAM) in Wanaka, another tourist town 100 km away. We didn’t know what time it started, so we left early and hoped to get there in time. There was a shorter route, but it looked very high and on our map part of it was gravel, so we opted for the longer route. We pulled into town at about 20 minutes to 10:00, stopped at the info place by the beautiful lake, and found out that it started at 10:00 and was two blocks away.

We very quickly felt comfortable there, with the usual NZ warmth plus the connection of Jesus. The pastor’s wife came and chatted for a while, along with a few others. When the service started, a couple and their son sat beside us. It was wonderful to see the participation of everyone in the service, the freedom to speak up or pray or even sing. The pastor spoke briefly to those of us going through transition, encouraging us to forget what was behind us and to look forward to the new time God has ahead for us.

After the service, we started chatting with the couple beside us, John and Louise, who offered lots of suggestions on places we could visit, finishing up with an invitation to park our van in their yard for the night if we liked. We got their cell number, promising to text, and took in a few of the views while doing laundry and picking up groceries, and made our dinner by the lake, letting the family know we would be glad to park at their place that night.

They texted back to say they would be out for a while but would leave the back door open – come over and make ourselves at home. So we did, Their place was a bit out of town at yet another gorgeous lake, and we walked into their house hoping it really was the right one and that it wouldn’t be strangers facing arriving at the door, wondering who we are. It was nice to be in a home again. They arrived soon after, though John had to go into Wanaka to pick up their older son who worked at New World, the grocery store.

We started talking with Louise, and quickly discovered that the pastor’s word about transition was for all five of us sitting together that morning, not just us. Our stories connected at so many points, it was amazing. Louise told us that it was wonderful to hear about another couple going through the same kinds of things, especially the waiting and dealing with the moments of panic, and watching the grace of God at work. She was glad that there were other “weird” people in the eyes of the world, who could not understand transitions like ours. The next morning, the conversation continued with John, and it was very encouraging to wonder together what God had for us next.

They welcomed us to stay another night, and we told them we would let them know but would say farewell for now. They are people we could easily become friends with, and it was hard to go. They suggested that we take in the high road we had bypassed before and some of the sights on the other side, which we decided to do. The road winds gradually up through the mountains, and then you come to where the valley is now far below you, and you need to get there, winding and turning on India-like hairpins, but paved and at least twice as wide.

At the bottom is Arrowtown, an old gold-mining town and definite tourist trap. But we were quickly trapped anyway, and enjoyed looking at greenstone (jade) and gold nuggets for sale and lots of merino wool. Sarah really wanted to get me something, having missed a previous occasion for a present, and I found a wool hat I really liked. I hope I can get it all the way home without crushing it. Then it was all the way back up the mountain, down the other side, and – we decided – past our new friends’ home toward the west coast. We marveled at the blue, blue lakes, and camped in a beautiful place beside the north end of Lake Wanaka, where I finally managed to construct a small stone arch.

The next day broke bright and beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. For a long while, the road meandered between mountains increasing in height, then dropped down to the coast with the usual steep twists and turns. We thought it best to make for the glaciers while the sun shone, and soon were passing between surf on one side and towering white peaks on the other. But the mist was starting to obscure some of them, and by the time we arrived at Fox Glacier, the sun came through only intermittently.

There are two glaciers that wind down almost to the coast, and are easily accessible, this one and the Franz Joseph glacier. We took them both in and were duly impressed, but pretty tired and so we hoped that we could try at least one of them again the next day. It was hard to find a nice camping spot along the highway, so I peeked in the book and found a recommendation for a community site at Okito, a beach town that was once the site of movie shoot. Beautiful, and Sarah was consoled about the windy drive because the campground had showers. I went for a very long walk down the beach, finding two sleepy fur seals and my first greenstone. 

The next morning was cloudy, but we decided to go with the plan and return to the Franz Joseph Glacier. As we approached, we saw sun poking through near to the mountains, and I took the hike up the valley to the nose of the glacier.

They do guided treks right on the glacier, which would have been fun if not so expensive. I decided to park myself in a spot that would have a good view of the glacier if those darn clouds would just make way for the sun that was trying to break through. God told me to be patient, and I told him that I am getting better at waiting, and that proved worthwhile. The clouds parted, and I could see gigantic spires of ice at the top of the glacier. Better with binoculars, but not bad with the zoom lens on the camera.

That night we decided to make do with a large, open DOC campsite by a less pretty lake, but it was within walking distance of the beach and that evening that’s what I did. It was gorgeous and lonely and big breakers rolled up the beach. And I found more greenstone, which made me happy.

The next day was decision day. We needed to hear from Julie at YWAM about our suggestion regarding a visit there for a couple of days, hoping to take in a session or two with the new students. But when I checked at an Internet station, the message was that she was away for the week and students would not be arriving for a while yet. Disappointing, but we are learning to accept disappointment. What God closes no one can open, and what he opens no one can close (Revelation 3, letter to Philadephia).

We decided to continue north, so that we would retrace a piece of coastline we had really enjoyed, and stay at one of our favorite campgrounds, where I am right now catching up on this blog in a nice kitchen/lounge as it dumps rain outside. Not that I can post it yet – no Internet here! Maybe tomorrow. Before coming up here, we explored a bit of Hokitika, a centre for jade or greenstone carving, and found ourselves fascinated with the stuff, though it is found in British Columbia too. I really wanted to find some good pieces. We stopped for lunch at a beach just to the north, and at a place where a small steam cut across the beach I found some great specimens of New Zealand greenstone. I hope I can polish them up when I get home.

With the change in plans, we suddenly have some extra days on the South Island. I wonder where they will take us. We will let you know soon.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Picton to Mount Cook

Well, BC Ferries this was not. It was a relatively little boat that we were taking from the North to the South Island, from Wellington to Picton. And packed! It was good that we found seats quickly because soon they were all gone. We sailed out of Wellington Harbour and out into what I thought was the strait, but was just a long bay. When we finally got into the strait is was open water and a little rolly at first but soon we had pretty calm seas. I have heard that it can be a pretty nasty crossing, and I noticed barf bag stations all around the ship. I stayed mostly outside and took photos; Sarah took the precaution of Gravol and watching out the front, but it was fine. We were visited by dolphins at the end, who were obviously putting on a show for us!

The South Island looked much like the North to us at first. We took a “scenic” route to Nelson, and were soon winding back and forth on a very narrow road with great views of the channel. We stopped and had lunch overlooking the water and saw many more dolphins go by. We thought Nelson was a nice little town, spread along the water like towns on our Island. We headed to Megan’s house where we would have tea (dinner) and stay the night. She was a CIT in about 2006, and is now married and they live at the other end of her parent’s house. Super nice people, and it was great to catch up with Megan. We also got ourselves reorganized, as we will be camping for quite a while.

I really wanted to see the golden beaches and blue water of Abel Tasman Park just north of there. We thought the best way would be renting kayaks, but the wind was quite strong and every beach packed with people. Many Kiwi’s take off the first week of the New Year, and it was very evident that this was one of the places they like to stay. While traveling along another very twisty coastal road, I saw a sign for Split Apple Rock, and turned down the even twistier road. At the end was a path down to the beach – too difficult for Sarah, but I went and took many photos. It turns out that this was as good a way to see those fabulous beaches as any.

Sarah got to see a good beach a little later, where we watched a kite-boarder for a while, skirting a – tractor! It was pulling boats out of the water.

We decided to keep going up the north coast, and soon were driving up the steepest, winding highway I have ever seen. Takaka Hill (yes, that’s a real name) would be a great one for a car rally or bike race. Amazing. All the way up, with a great view at the top, and then all the way down. We found it difficult to find a campsite on this side of the hill. The DOC one was closed due to the road slipping, so all the other sites were packed. We finally found a tiny town with a small park by the beach, and we stayed there.

The next day we headed for the west coast. Interesting road – at one point it was one lane cut into a sheer cliff over the Bull River! It looked like one of the rivers they filmed in Lord of the Rings. And so we got to the coast. I think we were made for beaches and waves. We did a bit of business in Westport, then headed north to a campsite at the end of the road. Wow, it turned out to be our favorite so far – quiet and wild and miles of beach. A few sand flies too, but they left us alone on the beach. We decided to stay a couple nights, and loved the roar of the waves all night long. The next morning held clear blue skies, and I hiked the first hour of the Heaphy Track, through jungle-like rain forest to a gorgeous golden beach far from any road. In fact, there are no roads north of here until you get to the top of the island. We loved this place and spent long hours in our chairs on the beach, reading and watching the huge breakers that sometimes rolled right up to us, even though we were well back from the water.

We continued south along beautiful coastline and aquamarine water. Danny told us that we needed to stop at Pancake Rocks, and we actually ended up camping next to them in the nicest full-service campsite we have seen – full kitchen and laundry and free showers, not to speak of an amazing beach. Pancake Rocks are very cool, layers and layers of limestone stacked in huge weird piles and shapes.

We ended the day with a gorgeous sunset.

We made a late start the next morning, which was a little grey and threatening rain. Sarah has a cousin who lives somewhere in this area, and we tried and tried to get hold of her. We finally stayed so long around Greymouth (as exciting a town as it sounds) that we had to stay the night, again in a park by the beach. At least we had the sound of the waves night after night. We decided that we just needed to move on the next day, but regretted missing her cousin.

Our next stop was not far off, but wow, what a road! At the entrance to Arthur’s Pass it says that vehicles towing trailers are not recommended, and I can think of a few other vehicles that should not attempt the steep climb from the coast to the Pass. It was foggy all the way up, which added to the adventure, but as we came over the Pass the skies cleared and we saw New Zealand’s mountains for the first time! We decided to stay in the tiny village of Arthur’s Pass at a DOC campground, and I make ready to hit the trails.

The best one was to a poorly-named waterfall, Devil’s Punchbowl. Sorry, he can’t have it. The Maori have another name for it after a famous weaver, because the spray from this huge waterfall falls in feathery patterns. It is just gorgeous, and I stayed and took many photos. 

Then I decided to take the trail back up the Pass, which was cool enough because it opened up so I could see all the mountains around me, but I was pooped when I got to the top and was concerned that Sarah might worry about me being gone so long. Thankfully, I was able to hitch a ride back into the village.

We were camped right below a hutch that was built for a pair of Kea birds. They are a big native parrot, quite beautiful and fun to watch, but they also like to eat all the rubber off people’s cars. They left ours alone, but clearly didn’t like us camping there and make a bit of a fuss. They are a protected bird, as there are only about 5000 of them left. But they are as familiar with people as whiskey jacks. Only you are not supposed to feed them, or kill them for eating your car.

The next morning, we drove back up to the Pass and Sarah read while I hiked up to the Temple Basin Ski Area. I really don’t know how people get up there. I hiked up an undriveable road/trail for over an hour to get to the lodge, about 2000 feet about the van, and then discovered that the ski runs were two small rope tows. Anyway, the view was great and the exercise needed. But my feet were pretty tired when I got down. We continued east, visiting Cave Stream and Castle Hill, where scenes from Narnia and Lord of The Rings were filmed. Amazing limestone and granite formations that Danny used to love to clamber through. I chickened out on the cave walk – waist deep, freezing cold water with waterfalls for half a kilometer. Now I kinda wish I had done it. But it did give me more time to explore the Castle Hill area.

We hoped to find someone at the YWAM Base in Oxford, where both Ben and Danny were students. We knew they were on a break, but we stopped by and though no one was around we found a number to call. We arranged to go there the next day, and camped out in a humdrum DOC site in comparison to the ones where had just been. The next morning we stopped in at YWAM Oxford, and to our great surprise and delight, Julie-Ann was there! She was Danny’s outreach leader and the person we most hoped to see and least expected. She was very happy to meet us, and we talked and talked as she showed us around, and it was cool to get an insight on our boy’s experience from seeing the place, and especially Danny’s experience through meeting Julie. We are all the more glad that Ben and Danny got to come here, now that we met the quality of leaders they had. After spending the morning with Julie, we checked email, said farewell and thank you and went to a café/cooking school that Julie recommended, and shared a very expensive but delicious plate of fish and chips.

There were two places we wanted to see next, Lake Tepako and Mount Cook, both inland again. But we first wanted to see Christchurch, out of curiosity more than anything else. What an eye-opener. There was a headline in the paper recently that read, “Suggestion to Abandon Christchurch Draws Fire.” What a sad city – hit by earthquake after earthquake until, as the saying goes there, “If it can break it’s already broken.” We saw churches that were just shells, old ornate buildings with all their ornateness lying on the ground, and many places that were just piles of rubble. We couldn’t even get downtown where the worst damage happened – a section of six or seven blocks square is completely cordoned off due to more earthquakes in the last week. We didn’t see, but heard, that the worst problem now is “liquifaction,” where the supersaturated soil has just turned to ooze from all the shaking, so that it just constantly oozes up into the homes and buildings. Richmond take warning. I don’t know how this city will ever recover. Pray for the people of Christchurch.

Lake Tepako is just beautiful – light blue/green and surround by tall, bare mountains. We stopped at a place I have always wanted to see, and it messed with the way I had imagined it. I pictured The Church of the Good Shepherd as this tall and lonely building overlooking the lake and mountains in quite stillness. 

Actually, it is very tiny, constantly surrounded by tourists and backed by a small town. It still made for some nice pictures, and when we visited it the next morning and went inside, we found it quite wonderful. They still hold services there, Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian at the same time, and the caretaker told us that the ministers are constantly met with a congregation of blank faces staring at the incredible view out the plate glass window. No need for stained glass here. We stayed that night in another “civilized” campground, kinda busy but the showers and kitchen are a plus for sure. Went for some nice walks.

The next day we headed for Mount Cook Village, at the base of the highest mountain in New Zealand at 3754 metres (12316 feet). We first saw it from the end of Lake Pukaki which was a little amazing because the mountain’s Maori name is Aoraki or “Head in the Clouds.” It was a gorgeous drive up the lake, and we noted one farm out on a point that we thought we would like to own for a school. As we neared the town and the campsite after it, we couldn’t believe how close we were getting to huge mountains and snowfields. We took a turnoff to go see the Tasman Glacier – unfortunately for Sarah another steep hike she couldn’t do, so she had to be satisfied with my photos. It was interesting but not a beauty – it is buried deep in rock and gravel, and only where it drops off into the lake can you see ice. And icebergs!

The campsite was incredible – directly below Mount Sefton and beautiful snowfields and glaciers. I could hardly wait to get registered and Sarah settled with a book and the view before I went exploring. I hiked up Hooker Valley (yeah, the names are funny but they think the same about our place names, like Bowser and Fanny Bay!) which took me right to the base of Mount Cook and another glacier and more icebergs – absolutely wonderful. I came back with sore feet and a full heart.

The campground had a great shelter and washrooms, and the next day broke bright and beautiful, which convinced us to stay there a second night. Mount Cook got over its shyness and shone brilliantly in the morning sun. I hiked up to a viewpoint and took photos and explored the mountain with my binoculars and watched and took more photos. In the afternoon, Sarah walked as far as she could to take in the view, and then I went all the way up the Valley again to see the mountain up close and not veiled in wispy clouds. Very tired feet at the end but so worth it.

I have had many thoughts while hiking, about contentment vs. coveting. One might think that strange for someone who is not working and is traveling a country as beautiful as New Zealand. But coveting is easier for those who have much than for those who have little. Here we are, traveling in our little van, and I see people with luxury motorhomes, hiking with their families or driving up the lake in their ski boat, and it takes me very little effort to want that. But here is the conclusion I have come to:

The good that is withheld from me cannot compare to the good already given me.

The problem with coveting is that by very definition there would be something wrong with obtaining for myself the thing I desire. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” This doesn’t mean that I should not make an effort to get anything I don’t have – if that were true I would never even go grocery shopping. But it would be wrong to want or try to get what I should not have – that nice boat I can’t afford – or what belongs to another – that guy’s wife or house or whatever.

Instead, there is nothing better than to appreciate the good I have been given, or given the ability to achieve. And more than simply appreciate, it is even better to give thanks for that good. There is satisfaction and contentment and joy there. There is trust – that what I have been given is not only good, but for my good. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God is at work – even through my failures and other people’s designs against me – to give me what is good and bring about good in my life.

And to take it further, there is even greater joy in taking the good that I have been given, and giving it away. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And in another place, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” We cannot out-give God – he just keeps pouring it on.

So these are my thoughts, but also my experience right now. God is giving to us to the overflowing point, which brings me hope that we will soon be ready to overflow into the lives of people again. I pray that this time we will not fall into the mistake of running on empty for so long.

We are staying in Dunedin now, with Brian and Helen for those who know them, along with Scott and Chelsea for those who know those two! Catch us again on the next page of the journey…