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 cafĂ©, 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.

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