Ok, ok. I know. I am terrible at this blog. Seriously. But here's a long one to make up for it!
Classes at the University of Auckland ended the first week of June, and with nothing but exams to look forward to, I needed an escape. My friend Haylee and I decided to fly down to the South Island for a week of adventures to get away from the big city for a little while before having to return to take finals. What follows is an account of our trip...
We left Auckland at 9:30 AM on Monday, June 7th and flew into the city of Christchurch. After picking up our rental car (which we named "Elizabeth," as it was the Queen's birthday the day we got it), we headed into town. This was my first time being in the city, and we had all day to drive to our next destination, so we decided to explore for a while before heading out. We headed to the city's namesake, the ChristChurch Cathedral, and took a look inside. It was a gorgeous old cathedral, and the artwork and architecture was simply breathtaking.
We climbed a long flight of stairs to the cathedral tower, and headed outside to get a look at the city. It was ridiculously windy up there, but the view of Christchurch was excellent! After we left the cathedral, we stopped in the square to watch a couple of men playing on a giant chessboard. Of course we couldn't just stand by and watch, so we decided to get involved.
After a quick lunch, we hopped in the car and headed north, toward the seaside city of Kaikoura, famous for its whale-watching tours (which we were scheduled for the following day). Along the way we stopped to get some fresh air along the coast, and saw some beautiful scenery. We made it to Kaikoura just before dark, and we were able to find a nifty hostel to stay in for the night. After checking in, we headed next door for a delicious dinner of fish and chips, a Kiwi standard. After dinner we went back to the hostel and watched a really old, incredibly low-quality VHS of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade before heading to bed for an early sleep. Not a bad way to spend the evening. :-)
We rolled out of bed early in the morning and went to a cafe down the street for a quick breakfast. We then headed to the whale watch center to confirm that our adventure was still on for the day.
The whale watch had been cancelled due to "rough seas." We were majorly bummed, but at least we got a full refund! Determined not to let the bad news get us down, we decided to hop in the car and get ahead of schedule by driving to Punakaiki several hours earlier than we had planned. The drive there was around 5 hours, but it was gorgeous...well...mostly. When we got into the mountains it started to snow...hard. I thought I had left snow behind when I came here, but apparently not. Anywho, we made it through the snow, and as soon as we were out of it, it was sunny and 70 degrees again. And I thought MICHIGAN had erratic weather.
Speaking of driving, I forgot to mention: I DROVE on this trip. A lot. On the LEFT side of the road. It was difficult at first to adjust, but I eventually got used to it. Of course, I'll probably have to re-learn how to drive in America now, so T.C. folks, stay clear of me on the road for the first few weeks.
We made it to Punakaiki right at sunset, and we hopped out of the car and raced to see the famed "pancake rocks" and blowholes. These rocks were a natural land formation that looked like, well, stacks of pancakes. There were holes in the rock face where the waves would crash and shoot up into the air. It was awesome, and really a beautiful way to watch the sun set. We continued along to a town called Greymouth, where we quickly found a nice little hostel for the night. We grabbed a quick bite and made small talk with some Australians who were also staying there. We went to bed around 9 PM, feeling thoroughly pooped from our long day.
We woke up early, but since we essentially had an extra day on our hands (due to the whale watch cancellation), we weren't sure what to do. We decided to head south, and along the way, we came across a little place called Shantytown. It turns out it was an old gold mining town from way back in the day which had been restored into an authentic historical experience. We spent the day there panning for gold, taking old-timey pictures in costumes, and riding on old steam train. I felt like a six-year-old, but I had the time of my life. After Shantytown, we headed to a place called Woods Creek, and took a beautiful 45 minute walk through the forest. I have never seen a forest so naturally gorgeous. I kept saying it looked like an enchanted forest, and I half expected pixies to pop out at every turn. Along the walk, we went into some old mining caves and even got a chance to see some glowworms up close in their natural habitat. Very cool. After Woods Creek, we drove further south to Fox Glacier for the night and headed to bed around 8 PM.
We had some time to kill in the morning before our glacier hike, so we drive a little way to Lake Matheson and decided to do a walk around the lake. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and the weather was just perfect. After our walk, we stopped in at the cafe next to the lake, and had the most delicious potato wedges I have ever eaten. Honestly. They were so, so good. As we were heading back to Fox, we saw a gorgeous rainbow, the perfect cherry on top of a lovely morning.
We checked in at the glacier hike headquarters and got all our gear on, and then it was off to Fox Glacier. When we arrived there, I was in awe. The glacier was MASSIVE. I mean that thing was HUUUUUGE. We hiked up into the woods next to the glacer, and after 45 minutes or so, we reached a point where we were able to walk onto the surface. We got alpenstocks (walking sticks) and put on our crampons (basically like cleats) and headed onto the glacier. The first thing I noticed was how BLUE it was. It was gorgeous out there. We hiked for quite a while, and it eventually started to rain. My camera got wet, and when it started taking foggy pictures, I thought for certain it was a goner. However, when we got back to the car, I put it on the heater, and it was soon back to normal. Close call.
After the glacier, we headed south again. It became apparent that we were almost out of gas, and there wasn't another gas station for miles. We had no choice but to pull into a small town on the side of the road, and, upon finding out that all of their accommodations were full for the night, we were forced to sleep in our tiny little car. Needless to say, it was not the most comfortable night of our trip.
The following morning we woke up early and drove on fumes to the town's gas station. Unfortunately, it didn't open until 8:00 AM, so we had to sit and wait for a while. When it finally did open, they told us there had been a power outage all along the West coast, and they wouldn't be able to pump any gas.
By a stroke of luck, the power was back on within the hour, and we hightailed it out of there. After driving for most of the day, we finally made it to the Catlins, a beautiful region toward the bottom of the South Island that featured many natural landmarks, such as caves and waterfalls. We headed toward the Cathedral Caves first, but when we arrived,we found they were closed for the day. I wasn't aware that you could "close" a cave, but apparently you can. Anyway, we headed to our next destination, the Purakaunui Falls, which we found after a short hike through yet another lovely forest. The falls themselves were very pretty, and it was nice to finally get out of the car for a bit. After the falls, we headed to our final bit of scenery for the day, Nugget Point. This area was named for the "nugget-like" rocks that jutted out into the ocean at the end of a long peninsula. At the top of Nugget Point there was an old lighthouse, which looked awesome against the setting sun. The view from the end of the point was astounding, unlike anything I've ever seen. There was nothing but ocean for miles and miles, and I felt so small and insignificant when faced with such a massive expanse of water. Truly a humbling experience, and not one I will ever forget.
After Nugget Point, Haylee and I headed to the city of Dunedin to stay with my friend Liz for the night. We went to a cool little pub and Haylee bought me my birthday dinner that she had promised me exactly 2 months prior (Friday was the 11th). A very relaxing end to a very long day.
We woke up early in the morning and, after a quick breakfast, we headed about 15 minutes outside of Dunedin to a little place called Tunnel Beach. As the legend goes, a man carved a tunnel in the rocks by himself so that his wife and daughter would have access to a private beach. We followed a long trail through pastures of sheep all the way down to a rocky area near the ocean, and headed down into the tunnel. The beach itself was amazing. It was completely secluded, and it looked as though no one had ever set foot there. The water was crystal clear, and as the sun was still rising, the way the early morning light was cast on everything was breathtaking. We ran around down there for a while, got (unintentionally) soaking wet, and then headed back up through the tunnel.
On our way back up, we noticed that a large rock jutting out into the ocean looked just like Pride Rock from The Lion King. Obviously we did the only thing we could do: bundled up our coats like a baby Simba and struck Rafiki-like poses atop it.
After Tunnel Beach, we drove to Lake Tekapo, famous for its beautiful blue water. I have never seen water that shade of blue, and it was an amazing feeling. Standing there beneath mountains staring out over the bluest water I have ever seen, I felt so small, and so ALIVE. Granted, it was freezing cold and the wind was wailing, but it was still an incredibly invigorating experience.
We headed to the skiing village of Methven for the night, and ate a delicious meal at the Blue Pub (which the man who ran the hostel recommended over the Brown Pub. Those were the actual names. Awesome). After dinner we watched Bruce Almighty and then went to bed.
Haylee and I awoke on Sunday to a heavy snowfall. Our car was completely covered in snow, and we started to worry about how we were going to get to Mt. Hutt, our skiing destination for the day, but we decided to chance it and not worry about snow tires. Luckily, the people at Mt. Hutt anticipate idiots like us, and they have snow tires available for rental on the way up the mountain. Thank goodness they REQURE them, cuase there is now way I would have made it up without them. I had no idea this would be the most nerve-wracking and stressful driving of my life. The path up the mountain was barely big enough for ONE car, let alone two-way traffic. One either side of me, there was a steep drop of, oh, a couple HUNDRED feet or so. No big deal. And did I mention the road was covered with snow and ice? And it was snowing HEAVILY the whole time I was driving? And the drive was about 45 MINUTES!!??
So, after cheating death for nearly an hour, we FINALLY made it to the ski resort located on top of Mt. Hutt. After getting our lift passes and gear, we were ready to hit the slopes! Well...the bunny hill. Did I mention that this was my first time skiing in about 6 years? And Haylee's first time EVER? We decided to take it slow starting out, but after a few runs down the bunny hill, we were ready for the big time! We hopped on a chairlift and headed to the top of the mountain, basking in the beautiful sunlight and freshly falling snow. It was a gorgeous day out, and the hills were perfect for skiing on. We stayed for 4 hours or so, and had a great time enjoying the fresh mountain air and the fantastic hills. After we were finished skiing, we had another terrifying drive back down the mountain. We finally made it out, and hit the road for Christchurch, our final destination of the trip. We rolled into Christchurch pretty late, got some dinner, and headed to bed.
We had to wake up pretty early to check out of the hostel, so we went across the street and ate at the ChristChurch Cathedral cafe. We didn't have much else to do, so we decided to just go to the airport and wait around for our afternoon flight. At the airport, we went up on the roof and watched a few planes take off. Boredom was setting in, and with hours to go, we thought we were done for. Luckily, we discovered several of our friends at the gate who were also returning from the South Island to Auckland, so we passed the time sharing stories of our adventures. Our flight was delayed several times, but we finally were able to board and headed back to Auckland late in the evening. It was a wonderful trip, and a great way to have one last thrilling adventure before my time in New Zealand was up.
That's all for now, and I promise, the conclusion of this blog will come soon. Thanks for sticking with me. :-)