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Entries about family travel

The South Island Begins

... and the Franz Josef Glacier

64 °F

We departed the Ferry in Picton on the Northern tip of the South Island and headed toward the Abel Tasman National Park. The Park is supposed to be spectacular when the weather is good, with beautiful aqua blue bays and lovely beaches, perfect for kayaking, hiking, and just lounging in the sun. As luck would have it though, on the way toward Abel Tasman, it started to rain and it became apparent that it was the beginning of a real storm. We ended up pulling into a holiday park in Nelson, a pretty big town about 100km from Abel Tasman. I couldn’t bare driving another two hours in the rain. The roads to Nelson from the Ferry had been the curviest of the trip and we were averaging about 40km per hour. It’s a strange feeling to drive by looking out your side window, or in some extreme corners, looking over your shoulder just to see what the next stretch of road looks like. As we ate dinner in the camper, we began rethinking our visit to Abel Tasman entirely. It would not be fun in a pouring rain, so we decided to head for our next stop, the Franz Josef Glacier. The next day we drove through a steady and at times heavy rain for about 400km. The roads were better but still I white knuckled it with some pretty scary traffic, and even a single lane bridge that actually was shared by the railroad – and this was the good road. We arrived in the tiny town of Franz Josef in the early evening.

The Franz Josef Glacier
We pulled into the “Rain Forest Holiday Park” in Franz Josef just as the skies were starting to part and the rain slowed to a minute drizzle. Now, you might be asking why would something in a town with a Glacier be called “rain forest” anything? It’s a pretty crazy thing, but the central west side of New Zealand gets hammered by rain. The mountains rise to 10,000 feet within a few km of the coast, so Tasman Sea storms dump literally meters of rain as the clouds get pushed upward by the mountain range. The saying in town is “We measure our rain in meters”, and we heard that a few times as we were told that they get over 5 meters of rain every year. This rain has sprouted a beautiful and lush rain forest over the years with beautiful ferns, grasses, massive and mossy trees, broad leafed and otherwise. Our Camper felt like a fern bar inside – which was pretty cool. You would have no idea that a massive and still advancing Glacier is only 3 km from town.

Hiking the Glacier was the reason we came here. Our first day in town, we went to the Glacier museum and Imax and learned about the area and the Glacier. We booked a guided hike for the next day. The hike was called a “3/4 day hike” which put you on the Glacier for about 4 hours. Luck was on our side this day for weather. In a town that gets over 15 feet of rain a year, this morning’s sky was a stunning blue, interrupted only by misty clouds clinging to the mountain sides. We met the guides and our fellow hikers that morning and put on the hiking gear provided. The guiding company provided boots, a jacket and crampons (spike attachments) for walking on the ice. We piled onto a bus that took us over the milky blue glacial river to the park entrance, chattering excitedly, where we all disembarked and began tramping toward the base of the glacier. Unfortunately, the path to the glacier had been washed out by heavy rains, so we walked on newly cut paths, that required us to scale up and down ladders affixed to rock faces, just to get to the river bed. Most of this walk was in lush rain forest, with cliffs covered with waterfalls, vegetation and ferns, climbing up to the now-clearing mist above. We then tramped for about 2km across the river and toward the Glacier base. Huge ice blocks, some the size of cars, lay in the river from an explosion last week where the snout of the Glacier gave way to a flood of water and Ice. Our guide paused and pointed to the face of the glacier to show us some tiny little black dots that turned out to be hikers making their way across the glacier ahead of us. “We will be there in an hour or two” we were told.

We strapped and re-strapped our crampons on to our boots and began slogging up the glacier. The face of the Glacier was covered in shale and was a difficult trudge. It looked like a mountain of Rock, but just under the layer of Rock was frozen ice. Ice that is the densest on the planet. So dense that it glows blue when uncovered by snow or rock. We climbed up perhaps 100 feet before we reached ice that you might viscerally associate with a glacier. From here, we climbed a ladder of ice and clung to a chain that had been hammered into the ice. We climbed for hundreds of meters, between crags, over crevasses using a ladder, even through a cave, and we continued upward. We stopped quite often, catching our wind, as the guide pointed out glacier facts. He showed us how high the Glacier had been over the past decades and how far it had advanced in the past few years. The glacier was advancing meters per day only a few years ago, but had slowed now, yet it was still advancing. In the ice age of course it had reached the ocean which was about 10 km to the west. A glacier is like a frozen waterfall we were told, pushing itself down the mountain and the more snow that accumulates on the top of the mountain, the more mass to push the glacier along.

We reached the peak of our trek, and rested by a little glacial waterfall where we filled our water bottles with real glacier water – which was tasty and cool to say the least. We could look up toward the mountain’s peaks and see the glacier flowing downward. There were cliffs of ice above us, and it was nearly impossible to judge the scale of these cliffs until a helicopter appeared in front of one, looking more like a gnat on a refrigerator door than a helicopter carrying hikers. It was hard to believe that we were on a glacier and near sea level with crampons on our feet and plenty of air filling our lungs, when only three months earlier we were hiking in Tibet at 17,000 feet, wearing our tennis shoes, but gasping for air.

It felt like the hike back to the Bus would never end, and while it was only 9km total, it seemed so long with rented boots and crampons on our feet. It had taken its toll on all of the hikers, and the bus was eerily silent on the way back to town, with each of the hikers looking glazed over and tired. Now, the guides and the crew that had been clearing and cutting ice paths that day chattered excitedly, while all us hikers sat slack jawed and exhausted, remembering the beauty of whatwe had seen that day and what our aching feet had accomplished.

Posted by Blakei 08:56 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Finishing off the North Island

Taupo, Tongariro and Wellington

sunny 65 °F

After viewing the geyser at Wai-O-Tapu, we took a short two hour drive south to Lake Taupo and stopped for lunch. Lake Taupo is huge, deep, crystal clear, and absolutely gorgeous. Hard to believe, but it is larger and deeper than Lake Tahoe. Lake Taupo was a volcano at one point just like Lake Rotorua. When Taupo exploded 18 thousand years ago, it covered New Zealand in a hundred of feet of ash, and the ash even covered Australia. You can see the thick layer of ash in the river beds and on canyon faces. The magnitude of the explosion was apparently 100,000 times larger than Mt St. Helens. The Tongariro National Park borders the south shore of Lake Taupo and contains within it a chain of jagged and ominous peaks that stretch to 7,000 feet and offer a spectacular and foreboding view from the Lake. One of these mountains you might recognize as Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. We ate lunch in the little town of Taupo which sits on the northern shore of the lake to take in the views.

After lunch we intended to head down to Tongariro to hike the Tongariro crossing, a 17km tramp across the park that is widely believed to be the best one day hike in New Zealand, trekking through shale desert, glaciers, forests, and calderas. However, after we ate lunch and strolled the Taupo town center, we enquired about the “crossing” and were told that “in this heat” the trek would incredibly hard and a very fit employee in a sporting goods store told us that even he wouldn’t do it in heat like this. Completely coincidentally, (I swear this was coincidence), it turns out that a race was being held at the Taupo race track. It wasn’t a little race you would expect to fit the size of the town, but rather, a series of races including the New Zealand Porsche GT3 Cup, the New Zealand V8s, and the A1GP international formula race, which had just received Ferrari sponsorship. This was the real deal. We decided to stay in town to check into our options. It seemed there was much to do. We stayed at a great big holiday park that had, pools, saunas, trampolines, and other little things the kids loved. By the end of the day, we decided to ditch the hike. Carol, Parker and Griffin would go white water rafting, and Blake would go see a day of racing. It was a qualifying day at the track so the crowds would be small.

That morning Blake hitch hiked to the race, and Carol and the boys were picked up at the holiday park and driven to Tongariro area for their rafting trip. The day was awesome for everyone, with Blake squeezing past security into the Porsche Paddock, and Carol and the boys squeezing through some Class 3 rapids that were a whole lot of work. The raft didn’t flip, but the kids and Carol described some close calls and heavy paddling to keep the raft upright. It was pretty hairy. Carol said the water was crystal clear and she saw trout in the water the size of large salmon. Sorry Mike Hillygus, they didn’t catch, nor release any.

After Taupo, we drove about 400km to Wellington, which is on the southern tip of the North Island. The landscape changed through this 400km dramatically. The highways on the north end of the North Island wind their way through dense forests while the south end of the island reminded us at times of the high desert, and at other times the rolling hills of Ireland, and at even other times the lave fields of Hawaii. The roads were never wider then two lanes, and our little camper van was passed by cars and trucks with reckless abandon. We were treated to awesome coastal views as we approached Wellington and you could see the mountain ranges of New Zealand’s South Island in the distance. We pulled into Wellington and decided to stay at a hotel in the middle of the City so we could experience the downtown area. We were only in Wellington for two nights, but we didn’t want to have to take a bus in from a holiday park outside the city each day.

We loved Wellington. It reminded us all a bit of the Seattle downtown, and maybe even a little of Hong Kong, but it was infinitely more approachable and walk able. It had a great water front, wonderful family amenities, fantastic restaurants, a museum, sail boats that dotted the water front, a working harbor with sturdy ships, all framed by hills punctuated with Victorian homes that complemented the modest skyline. It also had a killer skate park right in the heart of the city. We really liked this place. We also lucked out as the weather was wonderful.

Ferry to the South Island
The last morning in Wellington, we gathered our things, moved back into the motor home, and drove to the ferry terminal which we would take to the South Island. We were in a long line of Camper Vans and cars that were using the sole four wheel connection between the north and south islands. There were campers, buses, horse trailers, and even Ferraris piling onto the Ferry for the 3 hour ride between the North and South Islands. The ferry was large, comfortable and had pretty much every creature comfort you would want - on a ferry. The weather was wonderful, the seas were calm, and a penguin paddled into Griffin’s view. Perhaps some good foreshadowing for the South Island? We sat on the outside deck of the boat at a table and absorbed some sun and the magnificent view as the North Island shrank in the distance and the South island rose before us.

Posted by Blakei 04:08 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Rotorua and Waitomo

Geothermal and Underground Wonders… and the Zorb


We left the Coromandel peninsula and headed south for the town Rotorua which sits between the east and west coasts on the southerly part on the north island. Rotorua is known for two things. First, the town sits within an old caldera which is still an intensely active geothermal area and is affectionately called “fartopolis” because of the stench of all the rising sulfur gas. There is a large lake, with a lava dome island in the center, that is largely fed by geothermal hot springs. Hot springs of boiling water and mud can easily be found throughout the town and there is a rich and recent history of volcanic eruptions from the active volcanic peaks that sit on the edge of this caldera. We were told by locals that it isn’t at all uncommon for a homeowner to wake up to a new “pool” in their yard that has opened up and sports bubbling and stinky mud or water. Some homes we walked by on the way to town actually had harnessed the water or steam to heat their houses or pools. The second thing Rotorua is known for is adventure “sports” venues. Zorbing, Bungy, Giant Swings, Skydiving, Luges, Jet Boats, and other activities are plentiful in town, not unlike Queenstown on the south island. The main business in Rotorua is tourism and we heard languages from all over the planet.

Our Holiday Park in Rotorua was quite nice and featured (surprise) hot springs right on site. We don’t know if that was accidental or not. There were three pools that were fed by geothermal springs, all cooled to different temperatures, and there was a geothermal creek bordering the park. There was also a natural “steam cooker” where you could cook vegetables, right from a steam vent. We didn’t do this, but in retrospect wish we had. The park was pretty fragrant, but we didn’t notice it after a while.

We took some time to walk to the Rotorua museum which was only a few kilometers from our holiday park. The museum was long ago used as a healing spa where natural sulfur and mud baths would nurse virtually every skin or orthopedic ailment back to health. The museum sat within a gorgeous park with beautiful rose gardens along the banks of Lake Rotorua, next to a giant thermal pool that fed the lake. It was stinky – but cool, highlighting the geography of the area, the history of the building, and featured a special exhibit dedicated to the New Zealanders who fought in World War II. Being a tourist town, there were awesome restaurants and many hotels within walking distance.

We actually came to Rotorua to experience something Parker had read about called “Zorbing”. Zorbing is a pretty cool experience that I must say isn’t like anything you’ve likely done before and apparently is only done in Rotorua. A Zorb is a giant air-filled ball about 10 feet tall, that suspends another giant ball within it. Through the wonder of air tight zippers, and 1,000 rubber bands, the inner ball stays in the center of the outer ball. There is a hatch that allows you to climb into the inner ball, and you can choose to either be strapped onto the wall of the inner ball, or float freely within it along with about 20 gallons of water. Why in god’s name would you climb inside a Zorb? The Zorbmeisters push you down a giant hill and you roll all the way to the bottom. Zorb Rotorua has straight line and zig zag tracks and when the ball rolls down the hill, you are bounced and spun about like a pair of tennis shoes in a dryer. It’s fun to do and it’s pretty fun to watch as well. We did it alone, with each other and no one got as much as a scratch.

We had intended to pull up our poll tents, and move to Waitomo, only 120km to the west, but we decided to take a bus and return that same day. Waitomo is famous for its beautiful caves and a phenomena known as glow worms. I won’t go into in detail, but suffice it to say that these little critters actually “glow” a phosphorescent green, hang on to the ceiling of the cave, and attract food with the little light. In a pitch black cave they look like stars on a moonless night. Did I mention that the caves are filled with water? I didn’t think so. They are, and we had a few choices to make about how we would view these caves. You could abseil, (rope slide), into the caves, climb and swim the caves (with an inner tube), float the cave in a boat, or walk on an elevated path. Because Griffin was under age, Carol and Griffin took the boat, and Parker and I chose to climb-swim. Both the experiences were very cool. We all wished that Griffin and Carol would have done the climb-swim experience because Grif was easily a strong enough swimmer. We had to squeeze through water filled tunnels, jump off little waterfalls and float in our inner tubes through the caves. We had on 5 mil wetsuits and even with those on, it was very cold – and extremely dark. The only illumination came from the glow worms and the lights on our helmets, (which got pretty banged up on the sides of the caves. It was a blast and a real wonder. The caves were carved from under water rivers, not from volcanic activity. In some places, there were water holes that reached to the surface from 180 feet below, and it is not unusual for these holes to simply “open up”. Carol and Grif’s tour guide told them that they had to remove a cow from the caves a few days earlier because the cow fell into a new “sink hole” falling to it’s death. That same tour guide told of a good friend of hers that had a pretty little pond on their property, and one morning they awoke to find their pond replaced by a giant sink hole. It is even said that farmers (the entire cave area is covered by grazing lands) can’t stand sink holes because they lose cows. They just lose em…

We left Rotorua and headed south for our next destination. On the way there, we stopped at a national park called Wai-O-Tapu only 50 km outside of Rotorua which stands for ”sacred waters” in Maori. It is a pretty big park, but the geothermal touring area is only 18sq km. We had heard that a geyser spouts at 10:15 each day so we arrived right around then to see this. We toured the park and watched the geyser unload in front of an appreciative amphitheatre. The 18 sq km were very desolate and it looked like a moonscape, but only steps away was lush forest. The colors of the waters were pretty incredible, and some of the thermal pools were huge. The touring path needs to be moved relatively often because craters open up and swallow it. The geyser actually had to be prompted by one of the park rangers to shoot into the sky. He did this by throwing a few soap bars into the geyser mouth to release the surface tension in the water below, which is something that Old Faithful does all by itself. We asked the park ranger later in the day what the differences were between the two. He told us that besides being about the same size, and having the same amount of water, there are some technical differences that allow old faithful to erupt predictably, while this geyser requires prompting. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that we appreciate old faithful much more than we did in the past.

Posted by Blakei 12:08 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Whangamata & Opoutere:

Good friends, not so good surf, and views to die for

sunny 70 °F

We hooked up with the Sweaseys again down in Whangamata (pronounced Fangamata). They were staying at a friend’s house and we were staying at a nearby holiday park. We spent all the days there together looking for surf, surfing, walking, skating, playing games, eating or just doing laundry. Whangamata is on the Coromandel Peninsula, a beautiful area just a few hours southeast of Auckland. The town itself has a permanent population of only 4,000, but during the holidays it swells to 40,000 of mostly vacationing Aucklanders. It’s a very pretty place and feels as if it’s been carved out of a rain forest. It has. Commercial forests with quick growing pine trees now cover many of the hills. We were told by some locals that they grow three times faster here than they do in the US due to the near-perfect growing weather, and they stand proudly and geometrically, like giant rows of corn on the hillsides. It is a hilly area. Strike that. It is an extremely hilly area. It even seems mountainous, though the peaks don’t carry much altitude. A 50 km drive will take you well over an hour just wrapping your way around all the hills. Of course the logging trucks can do it in 10 minutes. The hilliness gave the peninsula a feeling of real remoteness. What am I talking about? This place IS remote.

The waves were nice, but small, and the beaches were great. The water was colder than the north of the island, and it gave you a sense that you were part of a larger food chain, more so than in Australia or the US, especially when you were out in the water a 100 meters or so. It’s hard to explain the feeling, but seeing schools of fish in the 100s or 1,000s, racing underneath and around you and your board makes you feel like something larger is chasing them, and you’re just in the way. Hal actually had a penguin swim by him while he was in the waves. I wonder what finds that little guy tasty? A local that I was talking to in a laundry mat described encountering orcas while surfing and told me about the look of terror on the face of all the surfers as the 5 foot high sail approached. He said it was really cool to be out in the water with the pod every other surfer swam to shore he said. I would have too me thinks.

Truth be told, we actually stayed in Opoutere, which is 15km north of Whangamata, and boasts maybe 100 permanent residents, and you have to pass a one lane bridge to get there. The one lane bridge actually isn’t that incredible. We’ve encountered many of those on the main highway – no kidding. Anyway, Opoutere was unbelievably quaint and picturesque. Opoutere is nestled on a lush hillside running along a tidal estuary that fills and empties with the tide. We shot a few pictures from the balcony of a the nice little house our friends were staying in so you can get a sense for the lushness and the tidal fluctuation. The sand spit off in the distance and the estuary are great for grabbing green lip muscles and while we didn’t go hunting, you could see people walking with buckets, nabbing their limit of 50 per day. This was the last time we will see the Sweaseys on the trip most probably, and we all said our goodbyes along side the van. The boys were very sad.

Posted by Blakei 22:17 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Baylys Beach and the Aha moment

Kauri trees and an unforgettable coast line

sunny 68 °F

After leaving the bay of Islands, and not really falling in love with either Auckland or Pakiri beach, we were starting to wonder “Why all the fuss about New Zealand, and it’s beauty?” We had heard it was just about the prettiest place on earth, and even the Aussies who have quite the rivalry with the Kiwis told us this. We didn’t get it. We drove from the bay of Islands and ventured out on the typical roads we were becoming accustomed to; winding and tight. We stopped in a little town that was obviously not doing too well from an employment and commerce perspective to hit the grocery store and we found a nice but abused skate park, where it seemed most of the Maori (the town was nearly 100% Maori) kids hung out. This was a pretty sketchy place and contributed to our “why all the fuss” thinking. After saying goodbye to the local boys in the skatepark. We drove just about 15km further and GULP… it happened. It was like having your first “real Guinness” in Ireland after hearing about it forever and maybe even tasting it from afar, which is never quite the same. Here was the New Zealand we had been hearing all about, and it was gorgeous. We rounded a bend and saw a lake that was the most uncommon aqua blue you could imagine. It was almost surreal as a surfer carved turns behind a little outboard as he was towed. Another bend and we saw a huge sand mountain behind the lake and then one more bend, and we saw the mouth of the lake as it entered the sea… Nope this wasn’t a lake at all, it was Hokianga Harbor and it ran right to the Tasman Sea. It was spectacular and we stopped at a scenic look out and hiked a bit just to drink it all in, watching the tide overtake the Harbor as it rose.

We were treated with views like this all the way down to the Kauri forest which was equally stunning and featured some of the largest trees on earth, dating back a thousand or so years. Very few remain, having fallen victim to man’s appetite for all things wood. The forest was unbelievable, considering it was right next to the road, and we hiked in just a few minutes to find one of the largest remaining Kauri trees in the world. It’s size was stunning and it is the “best tree-house tree ever conceived” according to Carol, and it’s impossible to argue with that, with the exception of that fake Swiss Family Robinson Tree House at Disneyland. Check this thing out. Parker took a picture of another as it towered over the forest.
From here we drove about an hour to our next camp site on Baylys beach which was simply beautiful, and sat atop one of the longest and flattest beaches we’ve ever seen. We checked the surf out from near our camp site and had to take a closer look. You could actually see cars on the beach checking out the surf, (it is completely legal to drive on the beach). In spite of Carol’s pleading with me (really telling more than pleading) to NOT take the motor home onto the beach, and commit an environmental sin, I did anyway, just so I could take this picture. But it was so cool driving on a beach, even just for a minute. I am a bad environmentalist.

Posted by Blakei 16:43 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

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