Spotted outside the Department of Conservation in Wanaka, New Zealand. I guess the DoC staff don’t have an espresso machine?
Despite N fighting a nagging cold (manflu perchance?), we headed off from Queenstown a few days before we were scheduled to fly home so I could see New Zealand’s famed west coast (including the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, cleverly reference in Karen Russell’s book of short stories). From Queenstown, we headed northwest-ish through the Crown Range for a quick coffee in the hippie town of Wanaka, and then contoured past Lake Hawea, a long lake formed by (like so many other lakes here) glacial activity. The road took us over the Haast Pass, a surprisingly low elevation (2,400 feet approximately) pass. The ‘highway’ (two lanes is the most you’ll find here) goes through Mt. Aspiring National Park, and there are a ton of short to mid-length hikes accessible from the road. Our first stop was to the Blue Pools, a short walk to some creatively named pools.
After such a short mellow hike, we figured the new trail to the top of Haast Pass would be a nice complement, not realizing how short it was. Trails in NZ are not marked by mileage (or kilometrage as the case would be) but time, which is frustratingly inaccurate, as we inevitably did the walks and hikes in half the time. The Haast Pass walk was no exception, even with the continuous steep uphill climb. It only took 15 minutes to reach the ‘top’, which was not a summit per se, just a plateau that only provided us a peek at Mt. Brewster and its glacier.
The Haast Pass Highway ends up on the West Coast, by the Tasman Sea. This side of the island has a decidedly different feel, more like Alaska meets Hawaii, where tropical greenery abuts glaciers. A seeming contradiction, but it works. Because Mt. Cook and the other peaks of the Southern Alps rise up so steeply from the coast, it’s usually cloudy, even when it’s clear on the eastern side. Thus we only got glimpses of the 3000 meter peaks that rise up above the glaciers.
But I did get to see both the Fox and Franz Josef, which were equally amazing, if not a tad touristy. In the town of Fox, where we stayed the night, we noticed that there were an awful lot of couples walking around. No families and no real groups of friends (bar the one group behind us at dinner with the loud American girl telling her mates that she’s originally from Placerville).
The Haast highway on the west coast is slow going, as it’s incredibly windy and you’re either going up or down. I drove a stretch of this, and was thankful for the automatic transmission, as it would have been a lot more interesting without it. Our little orange spaceship did quite well, though its garish orange wasn’t the brightest camper van out there (that would be this little number). Hard to believe, no?
So I’m back home after a marathon traveling session (12 hour flight plus 7 hour drive), and while I have plenty of photos to share, this one is one of my favorite. My pal F convinced me to check out the men’s toilets at the Sofitel so I could get these photos.
Since our last trip to New Zealand two years ago, I’ve noticed a huge growth in the cottage industry catering to high end merino wool products. While Icebreaker wool clothing has gained a name for itself in the U.S., there’s a whole slew of similar wool brands in this country, and it seems that nearly every storefront that’s not selling the ubiquitous greenstone jewellery has some form of 100%. It’s lovely stuff, too – just painfully pricey (even with the dollar’s strength here). I did capitulate today, having learned from a friend that an NZ women’s clothing store had merino wool tops on sale. So for about half the price of the gorgeous bell-sleeved surplice top I was ogling at another store I now have a slightly heavier weight less chic but more functional souvenir. And seeing as it was below freezing here last night (spring in Queenstown has thus far brought more snow than they saw most of the winter, along with a lot of rain) , it’ll be useful tonight.
I always feel so bumpkin when I’m in Queenstown, though it’s not because I’m not wearing Armani, excessive makeup or a fur coat. It’s more a subtle style thing. Kiwi style and design is totally different to the many places I’ve visited, including such “fashion capitals” as Paris and New York. To my untrained eye it’s this fabulous melange of so much – I see classic lines, vintage cool, urban edge and a touch of whimsy. There are a ton of local designer boutiques in Queenstown, and there’s a palpable pride about these designs – I‘ve had more than one shop clerk tell me that their products are locally made. Beyond the unique (and beautifully made) clothing, there are also a number of design shops promoting New Zealand designers, including Saben and Jill Main. Heck, even the national tourism board has an official souvenir shop that stocks some credibly cool looking products that don’t look mass-produced in China (even if they are).
And then there’s the architecture, which both N and I really like. Too bad there’s no hope in hell that anything like this will be built in McMansion-Cabin Tahoe.
As I stood with a recently reconnected-with friend (thanks to Facebook) on the balcony of the Queenstown Resort College at a book signing reception for a local chef’s new recipe book, happily enjoying the evening sun off Lake Wakatipu and a crisp glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, I realized that this was what vacation is all about.
Having already explored quite a bit of the Queenstown area, we decided to head deeper into the central Otago part of the South Island. It’s supposedly drier, being further away from the Southern Alps, and this climate is conducive to both wine making and sheep and deer growing, as evidenced by the abundant herds of both along the drive.
Neither of us was feeling energetic enough to ride or hike, so we opted for a day of mellow sightseeing. After lunch in Alexandra (the Kiwis prefer to shorten all names, so Alexandra is Alex, the southern city of Invercargill is Invers, kindergarten is kindy…etc.), we headed to the old gold mining town of St. Bathans. Unlike, say, Bodie in the Eastern Sierra, St. Bathans still has a few residents (approximately 25) who live among the abandoned and now historically preserved buildings. One of the few still being used is the local hotel, where you can not only stay in the supposedly haunted room, but can borrow the owner’s dog , Jack, who serves as an enthusiastic (if quiet) tour guide. Jack accompanied us as we wandered past the buildings and to the lake – Blue Lake – that was a direct result of the deep mining operations. The pamphlet provided by the tourist office doesn’t explain how said lake came to be, but we assumed that something must have either been dammed or caved in. Jack wasn’t much help on this either.
From there we headed to the relative metropolis of Naseby, home to a privately owned forest that had numerous trails heralded by mountain bikers. The town of Naseby is quite tiny, with one hotel (historic, natch), the Royal, that we opted for, seeing as it was unseasonably cold and camping in our spaceship wasn’t all that appealing. Apparently it’s a haven for both mountain bikers and people riding the Central Otago Rail Trail, but given the time of year (early spring) and weather (butt-cold with snow flurries), there were only a handful of people.
The highlight of that night was by far the keeping it real Guy Fawkes fireworks display at the central park. It appeared a few guys had appointed themselves fireworks setter-offers, but obviously had no flair for either showmanship or lighting the bloody things. With no musical accompaniment on the local radio, we shivered in our van watching the occasional sparkler go off and wondering if the local fire department’s presence would be able to do anything if something – like the large trees surrounding the park – caught fire.
With the torrential rains finally subsiding and the sun making a long-awaited reappearance, we decided to head east to find some mountain biking trails. Nearer to Queenstown, our mountain biking experiences had been more akin to agricultural cyclo-cross, riding through and past cows and their manure, carrying the bike over numerous gates, and veering around bogged out parts of the trail. That’s not my favorite kind of riding, so we thought the drier parts of the Otaga region (not unlike the Eastern Sierra) would provide fewer opportunities to walk through mud…and around cows blocking the trail.
Near the town of Cromwell (40 minutes away from Queenstown), we found a wilderness area (called Department of Conservation here) with a trail that climbed up towards a few peaks. While the guide book described the climb as ‘gnarly’, we didn’t realize quite how steep the kiwi’s build their 4WD roads. Suffice to say there was a lot of pushing the bike up. While the views of nearby Lake Dunston and the higher (still snow-capped) peaks were gorgeous (and admiring them allowed us to catch our breath), by the time we ascended 1700 feet we realized the trail wasn’t really going to flatten out. So down we went, and the trail was quite fun, even though it wasn’t the singletrack we love.
Since this anaerobic jaunt finished so early, the next stop was the town of Alexandra (Alex) another 30 km southwest. Lake Dunston is a long dammed affair, and the road follows it to the town of Clyde where it ends abruptly in an enormous hydroelectric dam. The valley widens, and it’s apparent you’ve arrived in wine country without even consulting the wine trail map.
In Alex, we found a local bike shop (LBS), and the guys there gave us some useful information on where singletrack trails were. Since I was still skeptical that smooth, fun, fast trails with flow even existed here, N suggested we try the River trail that followed the Clutha River up to Clyde. I’m glad we did, as it was a 12 km trail that had banked turns and fun bits, all under a canopy of willows.
It was nice to see that flowy singletrack does exist here. And apparently there’s more of that to be found near Alex. Can’t wait!
This is day 3 of our vacation in New Zealand, and in such a short time we’ve done a few glorious mountain bike rides, been completely drenched by rain in the Mt. Aspiring National Park (during an aborted attempt to reach the Routeburn Hut), enjoyed our friend’s view of the snow-covered Remarkables, and seen lots and lots of sheep and their frolicking lambs both by and on the road. I really think that Soleil is part sheep, seeing how closely the playful lambs resemble her (pink ears, prancing gait, white…). Which would account for so much.
Perhaps the quintessential experience thus far was watching the Flight of the Conchords with our friend (who’d never seen it before) on national NZ television. The guy who plays Murray must have been the head steward on our flight over, since the voice, accent and penchant for reminding us about our lap rugs and keeping our seats up during meal service were just too close to be a coincidence.
Since a picture says a thousand words, and my words are jumbled from some wine tonight…..