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New Zealand Swan Song

Our time in New Zealand was coming to an end. We could feel it as the Christchurch airport called our name and ExploreMore wanted to rent Bazils to yet another paying customer. But we weren’t quite ready so the Catlin Coast and Mount Cook became our swan song.

Campsite at Slope PointThe pain saying adios to Milford Sound was tempered knowing the drive was marvelous. Bazils agreed to seven hours non-stop in fifth gear and so we arrived in the seldom visited southeast coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The Catlin Coast is characterized by lush hills of green, endless stretches of rugged coast, and a steady wind. Arriving late, priority number one was to locate an overnight spot. Judging by the area’s remoteness, this didn’t seem to be a problem. Finding a gravel parking lot perched above a sheer cliff that overlooked the Pacific Ocean, we were ecstatic. Even the “DANGER Beware of Cliff” sign added novelty to the spot. All was well until 11:03 PM. “Ash, can you sleep in this?” I inquired. “No, I have not slept a wink.” The wind was gusting so hard that it seemed capable of rocking the campervan right over the cliff. My brilliant thought was to move Bazils into the wind so that the steel passenger side acted less like a sail. It worked for twenty minutes until the wind shifted direction and we both scrambled into the cab, fired up the V-6 engine, and located a protected gully to park. But this spot would not suffice either as the road was narrow and the campervan’s bumper hung out over the broken asphalt by five feet. Another ten minutes searching the black night yielded a suitable position where the wind could merely knock over Bazils, but stop short of rolling her into the raging sea. Combined sleep between us on this restless night: 140 minutes +/- 20.

Herding Sheep on ATV Wind Swept Trees Over Barn Catlin Coast

Looking like welterweight fighters after a tough bout, we drove the next day along the Catlin Coast and stretched our legs on several short hikes. The name “Jack’s Blowhole” was intriguing enough for us and while the actual sight isn’t so great, the hiking was fulfilling. With intermittent rain and countless sheep keeping us company, we were rolling with the punches. But when rain, sheep feces, and a gap in the trail meet, you are either acknowledge defeat or go down swinging. We got some good laughs crossing the fifteen feet of mud/poop and an even better time cleaning the brown sludge from our Salomon Trail Runners that afternoon.

Jack's Blowhole Trail Sheep Poop Or Mud... Take Your Pick Sheep On The March

Roaring BayBetter luck would find us further north along the Catlin Coast at Nugget Point. Ash had been talking incessantly about seeing penguins in their natural habitat. Our best opportunity was a short hike to Roaring Bay to spy the rare yellow-eyed penguin. From a “hide” you keep a keen focus on the shrub abutting the rocky beach. Low and behold, a young mother came waddling toward the ocean to fetch some fresh seafood for her youngsters burrowed away in the tall grass. Ash was ecstatic. At the tip of Nugget Point lies its namesake. The massive rock formations were impressive as was the hike along the cliff edge. Before departing the Catlin Coast, two playful seals performed an odd mating ritual then posed beautifully for some pictures. Even the Kiwi animals promote tourism!

Yellow-Eyed Penguin Going Fishing Nugget Point Playful Seals

Imaginary Hole-In-OneThe following day, en route to Mt. Cook, we passed through yet another valley producing outstanding Kiwi wine. We could not pass up the opportunity, so we ducked into the Northburn Station Vineyard in Cromwell. The vino was as expectantly fantastic, but I found the Par Three golf hole nestled amongst the vines to be even more exceptional. With an imaginary Ping pitching wedge and a rock filling in for a Titleist Pro V1, it was easy pickings for my first hole-in-one.

Sir Edmund Hillary StatueHaving read quite a bit about Sir Edmund Hillary (first person to summit Mount Everest in 1953), I longed to see the mountain he trained on (late 1940s) and the alpine center bearing his name. Driving to Mt. Cook is yet again, a real treat. The cool blue water of Lake Pukaki isn’t too bad a sight as the odometer climbs during the 55 kilometer jaunt. Then as we made a winding left turn, Mt. Cook came into focus on this brilliant afternoon full of sun. Several stops later to absorb the immaculate surroundings, we came to the most crowded Department of Conservation campsite yet near The Hermitage. One can see why as it is positioned beneath Mt. Cook and its neighboring snow capped peaks. The sunset was sensational then the black sky revealed innumerable stars, some even shooting.

Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki Lake Pukaki and Ash Mount Cook  

Well rested in the mountain air, the weather had made a change for the worse the next morning. Known to the Maori people as Aoraki, or Cloud Piercer, New Zealand’s tallest peak at 12,316 feet was shrouded in thick gray clouds. The rain and wind prevented any hiking so we spent the day at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre. Not only does it house one of the best collections of the famed Kiwi alpinist’s gear, but it offers mind blowing features about the universe in a domed digital planetarium. Though the swarming clouds refused to reveal Mt. Cook on this day, we were entertained like third graders on a field trip. Sometime while hiking Argentina’s Patagonia, I developed a desire to camp/hike more and Mt. Cook added fuel to the fire. What do you say Ash? Climb Mount Kilimanjaro on our way to achieving the Seven Summits?

Surrounding Peaks At Dusk Southen Alps Sky At Sunset Greg with Lake Pukaki Behind

Three weeks came and went in a flash. New Zealand left such an impression on us that we vow to visit once again with friends or family. Without a doubt, this magical country full of caves, mountains, beaches, wine, vistas, adventure sports, hills, and open road ranks high on our round-the-world trip.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. Book early for New Zealand campervans. The high season runs from December – March and many companies sell out during this period. We got lucky when we booked just two weeks out. Utilize one of the campervan aggregators (http://cheapmotorhomes.co.nz/) to book. If your selection is not available, they will offer a similar product via email. This saves the headache of emailing every rental provider separately.
  2. When booking a campervan, be sure the quoted price includes everything. A company’s quote might seem like a deal, but when you factor in insurance, return fees, additional driver fee, additional kilometers, etc. the price can escalate. Also consider a diesel engine over unleaded if you plan to drive excessive kilometers or rent for over a month… the fuel savings can outweigh the additional upfront costs.
  3. Most campervans utilize manual transmissions.  Limited amounts are available in automatic and will cost more.  If going the manual route, some know-how is suggested to avoid complete embarrassment when pulling out of the rental agency parking lot as we saw.     

A Look Inside Bazils

Come on in folks, everyone gets a look.  Step right up!  Take a tour of the world’s best campervan.  Maybe our next adventure will be inside a three ring circus.  Greg will charm snakes with Bazils’ water hose and Ash will perform contortionist positions inside the campervan’s nooks and crannies. 

We logged 5,362 kilometers attaining a dismal 8.14 liters/kilometer.  We consumed 659 liters of petrol at an average cost of $1.70 per liter.  Below is a pictoral tour of our home on wheels. 

The Driving Cockpit (that is what campervan pilots call it), water and LPG (cooking gas) tanks, and Greg’s daily task of filling the H2O:

Driving Cockpit Workin' For The Week Water and LPG Tanks    

Storage above table/bed, kitchen with Driving Cockpit behind, and cabinets, fridge, and stove:

Storage Above Table/Bed Kitchen with Driving Cockpit Behind Cabinets, Fridge, Stove

What comes out of a tiny kitchen on wheels can be surprising: steak dinner with red wine, blueberry flapjacks, and a continental breakfast:

Steak Dinner with Red Wine Blueberry Flapjacks... Score! Coffee Like Sludge

Bazils backside is beautiful… shots with the hatch popped, table in place, and Ash writing in pretty cursive in the journal.

Bazils Backside Table Ash Writing

The multi-functional table/bed area.  It can be used as a bench and when the sun sets the table doubles as a bed frame.  Ash loved to read prior to sleep, oh, and run down the campervan battery.

 Bench Bed Ash Reading... Running Down the Campervan Batteries

Campervans come in all shapes and sizes.  Makes and models.  New and old.  Bazils was perfect for us in every way and it was quite hard to say goodbye. Sob.

So Many Options Ain't She a Beaut Clark?  Hard to Say Goodbye

- Greg and Ash

Majesty of Milford Sound

One twisting road in, one twisting road out. But what ended up truly twisted were our minds. How on Earth could a place so incredible exist?

Lake HaweaThe mountain villages of New Zealand’s Southern Alps were tough to leave. There is the hip town of Wanaka that seems to be Queenstown’s little brother. Less people, but just as exciting. Not to mention you can rediscover your youth and imagination at Puzzle World. The Great Maze is 1.5 kilometers long and the average undertaking requires three times that distance. We were average on this day. The room of illusions made our brains ache. Lake Hawea’s shores were passed en route to Queenstown, the sensational adventure capital. Jet boating, zorbing, bungy, sky diving, white water rafting… all yours if credit card debt is not intimidating. Our most cherished campsite was a 45 minute drive outside Queenstown on Lake Moke. While not the easiest place to find, perhaps that is what makes this gem unspoiled. Alas, we tore ourselves away and motored to the famed Milford Sound.

Mature Illusions! Lake Moke - Best Campsite Ever

Already overwhelmed with the incredible beauty rushing past Bazils as we navigated New Zealand’s twisting roadways, we were unprepared for imminent sensory overload. Without a shadow of a doubt, the two lane highway leading to/from Milford Sound is the South Island’s most scenic drive. Pull over, initiate hazard lights, scan the vista, tip nose up like a mutt, inhale sweet aromatic smells, take mental snapshots. Rinse, repeat… 35+ times. A rambling mountain creek seemingly followed us for hours, its shores surrounded by magnificent purple flower blooms. When the creek abandoned us, a rushing river of white foam accompanied us with evergreen trees standing tall. Then the pristine forest was relieved by a marsh that reflected the snow capped peaks. Then fog enveloped us and small droplets appeared on the windshield. Rats!

Driving to Milford Sound Rushing River Mirror Lakes

Rain nor menacing clouds could ruin the experience. Rather, Mother Nature was simply flexing her muscles and turned an already stunning canvas into a masterpiece. Mountaintops choking in dense fog and countless waterfalls appearing from the heavens. Ash and I took turns hollering, “holy smokes, oooh check that out, whoa.” All five senses working overtime. Next we came to a tunnel that resembled the entrance to a bomb shelter and after ten minutes the signal invited us in for a look. Though the tunnel was a bit unnerving due to lack of lighting and heaps of moisture, the darkness made the exit that more dramatic. Here we were, surrounded on all four sides with sheer cliffs of rock topped with ancient snow. How much more of this can we take?

Waterfall Veiled in Clouds Tunnel to Milford Sound View From Other Side of Tunnel 

Caught up in the drive itself, we nearly forgot our intended destination. Pulling into the main parking lot of Milford Sound, our eyes pulsated. The combination of late afternoon light, fog, and blackish water created a moment neither of us will ever forget. Mountains jutting out from watery depths, waterfalls providing background noise, the air a mix of recent rain and the sea. After learning the only campground in Milford Sound was full, we gladly settled in along the shore for the night. Who cares we smelled like yetis.

Full of Mystery Milford Sound From Tasman Sea Mountains

By morning the battle between sunshine and clouds was settled. Rays of light appeared abundant making Milford Sound look wholly different under mostly sunny skies. It was hard to decide which we preferred: veil of mysterious clouds or sunkissed vistas? Regardless, we boarded a seaworthy vessel and floated in a place once occupied by glaciers. Seeing large boats dwarfed by waterfalls and mountains emphasized the enormity of our surroundings. Hugging the southern coast of the sound, the mixture of the dark sea, cascading water, and towering mountains was mesmerizing. At one point, as I was running around the boat acting like a National Geographic photographer, my eyes met Ashley’s and our mutual wonderment was recognized.

Ahoy! Mountains Surround Us Crusing the Sound

Slowly, the width of Milford Sound grew larger and the Tasman Sea appeared. The whitecaps cresting in the open ocean reminded us of the protection provided by the snow covered mountains on either side. Now moving along the northern coastline and back towards the boat slip, numerous seals contended for prime sunbathing space on the odd boulder. Passing waterfall after crashing waterfall, four kayakers overflowing with ingenuity had fashioned a downwind sail out of a yellow tarp tied to their oars. The boat captain skillfully maneuvered the vessel into port with the paying customers exhibiting faces of a recent religious experience. Milford Sounds is that enchanting.

Seal Showoff Mitre Peak Sailing

Morning brought even more sunshine the next day and short hikes allowed elevated views of nature’s beauty. The tide had moved out, which provided the opportunity to explore the sound’s seabed of round stones covered in slick green moss. From this vantage point, Mitre Peak stood proudly among the other towering peaks. The chilly water with an Antarctica origin provided a welcome drink and a brisk head shower.

From the Shore Waterfall Milford Sound From Shore

One more mental snapshot, one more breath of the mountain/sea air, and one more soundbite of lapping water and the gentle wind. We bid adieu to this wondrous place vowing to someday come back and witness the majesty once more.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. There is exactly one campground in Milford Sound and is booked solid by 9:00 AM everyday. The nearest alternative is one hour in the direction just traveled. Though prohibited, the parking lots fronting Milford Sound are full of campervans. There is no need to retrace your steps because the “no overnight parking” policy is rarely enforced. If a shower is what you are after, the lone campground charges a modest amount to use their facilities.
  2. Do yourself a favor and plan ample time for the drive back and forth to Milford Sound. Numerous points of interest like The Chasm and Mirror Lakes are worth a quick hike. Not to mention, you will feel compelled to absorb your surroundings every ten minutes.
  3. Several Department of Conservation campsites can be found about one hour outside Milford Sound. These are among the most scenic and remote. From these campsites, it is possible to take day trips to Milford Sound and avoid the crowds.

3… 2… 1… Action: 440 Foot Bungy Jump

Watch and listen as we recount how New Zealand’s highest bungy jump scared the dickens out of Greg and barely raised Ashley’s heart rate.

Greg is up first and is all nerves:

Gravity proved strong on the way down and now that same force is draining all of Greg’s O+ blood to his cranium:

Ashley’s smile is genuine… she has no fear:

Taking in the private canyon views, Ash reflects during the ride back to the gondola:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) After coughing up the necessary cash to own our experience on DVD, we regrettably discovered that the disc didn’t contain files that could be copied to computer.  Thus, the video below is taken from this tedious sequence of events: hook up external DVD player, position video camera to computer screen size, record video, save on thumb drive, upload in Internet Cafe to Flickr, post to FOF Blog.  Save yourself these headaches by ensuring that your adventure footage on DVD can in fact be copied onto a computer.  If not, the excursion operator may have an online option.

Elastic As A Lifeline

“Sweet as Bro.”  That’s the carefree Kiwi term tossed around like an American Football.  But our hearts and minds were not carefree at the moment.  Not when hundreds of rubber bands are affixed to your ankles and 700 feet below you lies a shallow creek with jagged rocks ready to impale you.  3…2…1…Jump!

Suspended Gondola View From Trolley Gondola and Trolley

Ash’s Bungy Experience

Reach!This time last year, my friend Jacalu said to me, “Ash, you have no fear.”  If only that were true.  I fear Greg’s gaseous mornings, dinosaurs, and dirty cutlery.  Bungy jumping never made my heart palpatate like dancing to “Stairway to Heaven” in 7th Grade with Evin Beck.  Once New Zealand made our shortlist of must see countries, I longed to throw myself off a Kiwi bridge, platform, or gondola.  That longing transformed quickly to a tight knot in my stomach after watching a brunette gal scream bloody murder as she bolted downward head first.  And this was from the viewing platform affixed to solid rock.  Boarding the cart which ferries thrill seekers to the actual jump gondola added fuel to the fire.  The blustery wind (our 12:00pm slot was rescheduled for 2:30pm due to gusts), the increasing height, and tight quarters were a potent mix!  Once on the gondola, my nerves cleared like a late afternoon thunderstorm.  Watching Greg prepare to jump made my heart race, but once he was back safely, everything was hunky-dory.  Even while being fitted into ankle harnesses and receiving imperative instructions, I was cool, calm, and collected.

Really?  Two Thumbs Up? Cool Customer We Have Liftoff

Shuffling to the plank edge didn’t even create anxiety.  Three seconds later, all bets were off.  Falling, falling, falling.  The rocky stream below and the surrounding canyon rushing towards my blue eyes of terror.  Panic.  Wondering if the bungy rope would ever engage, I experienced something never felt before.  My body had an overwhelming feeling of preparing for a shock.  This seemingly infinite fall was my kryptonite.  But oh so softly, my descent slowed and my confused body joyfully joined the increasingly slackened rope.  Upon realizing the bungy had been engaged, both my hands instinctively were placed on my head and I breathed for the first time.  On the second bungy, I performed the midair situp and released my shackled ankles and flipped around into a comfortable repelling position.  The canyon walls and river below no longer resembled heartless killers.  Back on the platform, my thoughts/feelings were processed and I came to understand that in panic situations like this, your brain lacks the required time to make rational decisions.  Your body simply reacts.  The intense feeling of bungy jumping is wholly different from skydiving because the proximity of the ground makes eventual outcomes happen in an instant.  The experience was unforgettable, but one I plan not to repeat.  When wanting an adrenaline rush at terminal velocity, I will stick to skydiving.  Strange as that might be.

Rapid Descent Gulp Sweet As Bro

Greg’s Bungy Experience

Exhale NowAshley just loves to recount the tears welling up in my eyes when recounting my experience.  Oh how she loves embellishing a tale!  For the record, this is not an accurate account.  However, riding the “trolley” across the abyss below to the gondola suspended between two towering mountains, I was having serious second thoughts.  If AJ Hacket (bungy operator) would have said, “you may opt out, 100% refund, you are a sissy,” who knows what I would have done.  But they didn’t and here I was standing on a floating hulk of steel, my thoughts confused due to the reverberating Top 40 music blaring over tiny Bose speakers.  Order of bungy jumper is done by weight, so Ash watched intently as my harness and ankles were rigged with the elastic rope.  Sitting in the dentist chair, as they called it, I was near panic.  The time had come.  Ankles knotted together, my feet shuffled themselves to the edge of the thin plank.  Foolishly, I took one glance down.  Then applied all focus to the mountain top ahead and listened closely to instructions from the curly haired Jump Master.  Sensing my sincere fright, he turned the screws on me by messing with the countdown and assuring me it had been a long day, that he wasn’t sure the rigging was correct.  Hilarious.

Face of Excitement Do What??? Not One More Step 

3…2…1… My knees bent then sprung.  My shaking arms formed a crippled swan dive as I screamed at the top of lungs.  The most terrified I have ever been.  It had been ninety minutes of nerves since we departed Queenstown and they were dashed in a blink.  Pure terror now pure bliss.  The free feeling was like no other and as I plummeted to the Earth, I didn’t want it to end.  Gently, I came to a stop and slowly bounced toward the origin of the jump.  Clapping, screams of joy, huge smile.  I had conquered my #1 fear (not sure what has replaced it).  On the second recoil the jumper is supposed to release their ankle harness and flip around into a seated position. No such luck for me and with every drop of blood rushing to my head, I was pulled back to the gondola, upside down, for what seemed like an eternity.  Back on the jumping platform, I spied Ashley and gave her a smile from ear to ear, my eyes now severely bloodshot.  Once we decided to pursue our dream of traveling the world, bungy jumping in Queenstown was cemented as a must do.  Now twelve months of worry was over.  Way over!

AHHHHHH No Turning Back Ant in the Sky

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Greg – If you have a fear, tackle it head on.  Easier said then done, so I thought.  It was a liberating experience, one that I will draw in the future when needed.
2) Ash – Don’t be intimidated by other jumpers nor let their fears cloud your mind.  Focus on the jump itself, step up to the platform, do not hesitate, then make the leap!  Hesitation is paralyzing, as we saw first hand.

Water Table Claims ‘No Vacancy’

This is the perfect place to retire as a meteorologist.  40% chance of rain, partly cloudy.  This is my forecast for the next 365 days, tune in next year.  In fact, the South Island’s West Coast is lashed with rain almost year round at a predictable rate. 

Detour Ahead Swelled River  Caution

40%?  Try 72+ hours of straight precipitation.  With the unrelenting rain pouring from the gray sky for three days, the Kiwi soil could absorb no more.  The water table claimed ‘no vacancy’ as fields turned to swamps and roads became streams.  At one such washout along the two-lane highway, we watched an ambulance push a helplessly stalled station wagon from a watery grave.  Creek banks failed to corral the onslaught of water as tall trees were reduced to mere shrubs due to the height of the rushing brown tide.  It was a remarkable sight one moment and worrisome the next.  But the merciless clouds above could not care less.

Cape Foulwind Cliffs Cape Foulwind Cape Foulwind Sky

Regardless, we took in the coastline at Cape Foulwind watching seal pups bark and splash.  The Cape is just one of many spots along the coast blessed with staggering cliffs being pounded by the Tasman Sea.  Further South, we directed Bazils onto a deserted beach at Dolomite Point and made a luxurious lunch of ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches.  The sea was angry on this day.  With the wind howling, rain falling horizontally, and waves crashing like the equity market on Black Friday, the spectacle was viewed from our dry campervan bed.  As Ash watched, I dawned my GoLite rain jacket and went in for a closer look at the surf.  Bad idea.  Driving in just boxers as my “go to” shorts dried in the back was not my cup of tea.  Though Ash got a good laugh.  Ha ha. 

Dolomite Point Waves Dolomite Point Dolomite Point Waves and More Waves

Still motoring South, we reached the much talked about Pancake Rocks.  How this geological phenomenon came to be is still unexplained.  Once again, the parkas were deployed.  In addition to the rocks that begged for Mrs. Buttersworth, there are several blowholes that fiercely propel water upwards at high tide.  Sadly, we missed the nature show by a few hours.  It was a quick stop as the weather was unrelenting, particularly the wind.  Wet again.

Pancake Rocks Blowhole Forced Smile, Obviously

Southbound once more, hoping the intensity of the rain hadn’t decimated the Franz Joseph Glacier.  Our pace had slowed considerably because many of the roads developed a phobia of rainwater management.  Having talked with fellow travelers who had experienced both the Kiwi and Argentinian glaciers, our expectations were tempered.  But any glacier is an incredible site and the controversy surrounding these “advancing” masses of ancient ice piqued our interest.  To our delight, the observation point of Franz Joseph was a mere fifteen minute hike through dense forest.  We marveled at the crawling body of ice and watched trekkers the size of ants traverse the jagged surface.  Leaving the car park en route to Fox Glacier, we picked up our first of many hitchhikers, none of which turned out to be calculating killers.

Franz Josef Glacier Glacial River Franz Josef Glacier

If Finnish Chris and I were having a wet t-shirt contest, he won hands down.  After hiking New Zealand’s Southern Alps for four days, we should have wrung him out and created a profitable bottled water business.  Ash even offered Chris one of her prized cookies from the Makana Chocolate Factory.  Once again, the point of observation was a quick walk.  Though the lion’s share of Fox Glacier is obstructed due to a pesky mountain, one can still admire its beauty.  Different from Franz Joseph, Fox Glacier has a wide glacial stream that captured out attention.  Its wild nature keeps the National Park staff busy as it changes path frequently and landslides only frustrate the situation.  The cement colored water carried large chunks of ice downstream while smooth rocks fought to hold on.

Glacial Ice River Ashley's Pseudo Engagement Ring Cold As Ice  

Ash thought better of my idea to preserve a piece of glacial ice in Bazils’ fridge and with that we drove to New Zealand’s most photographed inland body of water, Lake Matheson.  Has the rain been mentioned?  The hiking around this rather small lake was sensational, but Mother Nature ruined any hope of snow-capped mountain reflections on the still water.  I was bummed and fed up with the rain, though no amount of complaining would usher in blue clear skies.

Lake Matheson Hike Lake Matheson... Supposed to Have Sweet Reflection Sad Face

So my daily forecast of 40% chance of showers would have suffered under the actual conditions.  It seems meteorology won’t pave our way into the golden years. 

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Having had an unforgettable journey around the incredible glaciers of Argentina Patagonia (http://followourfootsteps.com/2009/11/22/a-real-page-turner/, http://followourfootsteps.com/2009/11/13/patagonia-el-calafate/), we opted to save money and not take a trek onto Franz Joseph or Fox Glaciers.  In our judgment, most glacier day-trips are similar and unless a lengthy period of time has passed since your last icy adventure, your money is better spent elsewhere.
2) When driving over a section of road turned stream be sure to turn off your automobile’s HVAC.  The air intake pipe associated with this system can suck in water thereby flooding your engine and drowning your budget.  This lesson courtesy of our friend, The Dog, who flooded his family’s BMW convertible while crossing an inundated dip in Cincinnati.

Farewell North, Hello South

All Aboard Cook Strait Cruising Cook Strait

2,000 kilometers were logged as we explored the North Island along beaches, muddy dirt roads, asphalt, and green pastures. Next was the vehicle bay of the 450 foot Bluebridge Ferry. Ash and I both fancied driving the campervan onto a boat, that was until we engaged the parking break, stepped onto the metal deck and took in wafts of stale urine. Once comfortable in the passenger area, we settled in for the three hour ride across the Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island. Though the rain and clouds were persistent, the scenery was worth the price of admission.

Framingham PrisonFleece sleeves covering our noses, we fired up Bazils and drove down the steel ferry plank onto the South Island. One quick look at our trusty atlas and we were off to Marlborough wine country. Having started New Zealand’s booming wine exporting industry, the area is known for Sauvignon Blanc. The region’s capital, Blenheim, is flanked by numerous vineyards so we started with one of New Zealand’s largest exporters, Cloud Bay. The grounds and tasting room were top notch, but the wine… not so much. Framingham’s grape goodness made up for the previous winery’s shortcomings. The wine cellar was reminiscent of a medieval dungeon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Last wine stop was Bladen, voted Marlborough’s #1 cellar door. The charming tasting room that adjoined the family’s humble abode was surrounded by blossoming vines. Twas a blissful setting to whet our pallets once more. Before embarking on our jaunt up the South Island’s Northwest coast, we feasted on every imaginable creation at Makana Chocolate Factory.

Marlborough Wine Country Cloudy Bay Vineyard Cloudy Bay Vineyard Grounds

Golden Bay, the Northern tip culminating with the world’s longest sandbar at Farewell Spit, is a scenic drive with few vehicles navigating the hilly and twisty terrain. After an hour of seemingly endless uphill hairpins, it was down the equally steep backside of the mountain towards Able Tasman National Park. In the distance was billowing white smoke. Somehow amongst the verdant green hillside, a small fire had broken out that threatened nearby homes. After a long day of driving, we settled into a campsite on Parapara Beach. Wine glasses in hand, we strolled along the sand and rock as the sun turned the blue sky into a beautiful array of pinks and purples. A nightcap was had around a child’s abandoned campfire.

Golden Bay Fire on the Hillside Parapara Beach Sunset

With a warm cup of Joe providing wind for our sails, it was off to Te Waikoropupu (Pupu Springs) early the next morning. The remarkable springs known for the clear water holds spiritual significance to the Maori People. They used the pure water to bless departing and returning travelers, thus the history of the spring struck a chord. Besides the spiritual importance, the water holds the world record for fresh water visibility: 207 feet. If that wasn’t impressive enough, this clarity is achieved while water is discharged from underground caverns at a rate of 3,000 gallons per second, enough to fill Ashley’s coveted bathtub 40 times. On such a sunny day, the white sand bottom of the eight springs magnificently reflected blues and greens. A magical place.

Pupu Springs Pupu Springs Water Clarity Pupu Springs

As Bazils headed for the West coast, we hugged the Buller River, New Zealand’s longest stretch of inland water. This expanse of road offered amazing views, yet again. The Buller River meandered alongside the asphalt pavement as it approached the Tasman Sea in Westport. Progress was slow to our destination when we felt compelled to stop every ten minutes to soak in the scenery. At every turn, we collectively gasped at how picturesque this country can be whether sunny or dumping rain (more on that in the next blog entry).

Buller River Buller River Beng Buller River

Pulling into Westport as the skies opened up, it was clear this day was not meant for hiking. Anxious to be relieved from our tight quarters in Bazils, the sage advice of a local was sought. Next thing we know, the sweet smell of barley and hops was in the air. Touring New Zealand’s oldest craft beer maker, Monteith’s, was a rewarding experience. Our friendly Kiwi guide showed us the thirteen steps to produce what we hoped were delicious suds. Thankfully, the tour climaxed at the brewery bar where the sampling of eight varieties took place. Jackpot. Ash had a hard time keeping up with myself and four other beer aficionados as the tasting amounts were hefty. Once through the tedious process of taste testing, one by one we found our way behind the bar and poured our favorite pint. Ash loved the Cider and I preferred Monteith’s Black. What better way to finish a brewery tour than some fish and chips? Unwrapping the Westport News, our fingers now black from ink, we dug into the local catch, salted to perfection.

Monteith's Brewery Monteith's Brewery Tour Monteith's Brewery Tasting

Hello South Island.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) There are two ferry companies operating the Cook Strait: Bluebridge and Interislander. Bluebridge is generally cheaper. Regardless of the operator, booking early will save money, but reduce your flexibility. You must pay for each person (about $35) in addition to a vehicle (about $225 for a 22 foot campervan) if you have one. Don’t be duped by campervan rental companies offering you a discount on the Cook Strait, purchase directly with the ferry operator.
2) When checking into a campground in the evening, inquire if there is a late arrival price. In towns where you have multiple options, some Holiday Parks will offer a reduced rate assuming they have spots to fill.

3…2…1… Action: New Zealand (Part I of II)

The beauty of New Zealand surpassed our expectations.  Of the places visited to date, Argentina and this incredible nation have left a lasting impression.  We hope these videos exhibit the variety of landscapes New Zealand offers.

1) Driving to New Zealand’s tallest Mountain, the majestic Mt. Cook with Lake Pukaki adding sparkle.  Don’t adjust your computer monitor, the shaking is Ash’s nervous habit when I drive.

2) Our favorite campsite of all: Lake Moke outside Queenstown.  The fog, sheep, and windy roads when arriving at night tested our nerves.  But my oh my was the view in the morning worth it! 

3) The rocky North Island coast at sunset along Cape Foulwind.  Greg on entrance vocals, Ash on Canon SX10IS. 

- Greg and Ashley

Wine Cellar On Wheels

Our campervan lacked a theme.  Sure, she had a rad name: Bazils.  But at the end of the day, she was an ordinary home on wheels.  She wanted an identity.  Enter wine connoisseur, snob, and gulper: Ashley Miller.

Martinborough Fields of GrapesSeven days on the North Island went by in a flash and too many kilometers were logged.  A day with absolutely no driving was in order and Ash found just the spot: Martinborough.  This inviting municipality is located just outside Wellington where the North Island terminates.  A peculiar component and one of Ashley’s favorite past times drew us to this quaint town.  The avenues are named after places the founder had visited including some US States.  Oh, and there are numerous vineyards.  As my buddy Can Can wrote me via electronic mail, it seems our destinations all have something in common… wine.  Ashley’s purple teeth certainly verify this fact.  With Ashley foaming at the mouth, Bazils stopped short of a fence abutting a polo field and we hit the pavement after quick showers… it had been a few days!

The Wine Cellar on WheelsBe it Napa, California or Mendoza, Argentina, wine producing areas share a common problem: one must drive or ride bicycles because of the distance between cellar doors.  Each mode of transportation presents its own problems like budgetary constraints, DUI, and safety.  Ahhh, the shoe-string-express cures all ills!  A handy “Wine Tour” brochure provided a colorful map and an ambitious assault plan on four wineries was created.  The first battlefield was cleverly named Martinborough Vineyard, but the grape juice was anything but bland.  Despite me pointing out that Bazils was quickly becoming a wine cellar on wheels due to tastings a few days prior, Ash couldn’t leave without their 2008 Te Tera Pinot Noir.  Let it be said: we already had five bottles of vino on board.

We Should Have Just Purchased The Barrel Martinborough Vineyard Martinborough Vineyard Flowers

Not needing a designated driver (Ash refused to drive Bazils, so this was a moot point), we tasted ten wines at Margraine.  Starting with champagne and ending with port, our taste buds were on a runaway train.  At this point, we were hoping the vineyard name was not indicative of our general health in the morning.  During the tasting, several Europeans and the wine provider herself started ganging up on us two Americans, saying we as a nation don’t enjoy laughing at ourselves.  Never before had I thought Jeff Foxworthy would be helpful when defending America’s reputation.  Boy did he suffice.  Our heads held high, we departed with a Pinot Rose.  Ash insisted this one would be consumed on a Fijian beach.

Ata Rangi Vineyard Rose Bush Ata Rangi Vineyard Vines Ata Rangi Pillow Top Mattress  

A leisurely stroll down one of Martinborough’s rustic streets and we arrived at Ata Rangi, one of the original cellar doors in this simple town.  Walking up the drive to the vineyard was sensational with wildflowers blooming and rose bushes marking the start of each row of grapevines.  Interestingly, wine producers plant rose bushes here to protect the fruit because if disease begins to spread, the beautiful flower will show signs first.  Once the distracting environment released us, six wines met our awaiting pallets.  Once again, it was hard for Ashley to simply walk away.  Lest the two previously purchased bottles were getting lonely, a 2007 Celebre variety provided some company. 

Vynfield On The MoveAlready impressed with the quality of wine produced in this picturesque region of New Zealand, the best vineyard was the finale.  Again, the approaching walk was a delight with horses and an eternity of grapevines.  Vynfield was situated at the foot of rolling green hills and a cream colored home looked incredibly inviting.  Before imbibing on more fruit goodness, we learned how the domicile came to be.  Similar to how Ashley’s parents created their home in Kansas, the house was moved in separate pieces from the country and reassembled at its present location.  Quite amazing really.  Wanting to enjoy the pleasant aesthetics, we chose to drink from flights outside in the garden area.  Perhaps all the wine and fresh air had gone to my head, because this time it was yours truly that wanted the 2007 Pinot Noir Reserve.  It was a real treat on Christmas Day in the South Pacific.

Vynfield Vineyard Vynfield Vineyard - Wine Flights Vynfield Vineyard Grapevines

Four bottles of wine to add to our growing collection… that was enough for one day.  So we headed into town to find some street signs.  That is what you do after wine tasting, of course.  This city boy from Cincinnati, Ohio and country gal from Claflin, Kansas must be meant for each other.  Low and behold, the streets of Ohio and Kansas intersected!  Ash was so excited that she climbed on top of the neighboring white picket fence to get her petite body under the KS sign.  Not wanting to be imprisoned for loitering, our time beneath the street signs was limited to ten minutes. 

Intersection of Love O H... I O We Aren't In Kansas Anymore

With bag ‘o wine in tow, we joyfully meandered back to Bazils where Ash cooked green pepper burgers and pasta for dinner.  One guess what she served to drink. 

- Greg and Ash    

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Most vineyards in Martinborough charge a fair price of $5 NZ per person to taste their wine.  However, they will waive that fee if you purchase a bottle.  Thus, that $17 NZ vintage doesn’t seem so expensive when you count your tasting fee.  All but one winery we visited waived both of our tasting fees with a purchase.  Thus, a $7 NZ bottle of wine from the cellar door is dang good. 
2) We purchased ten bottles of wine while in New Zealand.  It is that good.  But the ones we drank in Fiji or later in New Zealand developed a slight vinegar taste as a result of storing them in a hot campervan.  If cruising around with wine in a vehicle for an extended period of time, find a cool/dark place to house them. 
3) New Zealand’s most popular wine region is Blenheim on the South Island.  While the product there is good (we purchased three bottles… put the wallet away Ashley), we both prefer Martinborough not only for the quality of wine, but the layout as well.

Middle Earth

Hobbits reside inside rolling green hills.  That is a fact not worth disputing.  Frodo Baggins grew up in an area that Ashley describes as “perfect, a place only found in my dreams.”  But the incredible setting for The Lord of the Rings and Ash’s imaginative slumber is oh so real.  And underneath New Zealand’s picturesque countryside is a whole other world.  A Lost World.

NZ Countryside Fence and Beyond NZ Countryside with Cattle   

Mt. RuapehuAfter spending a few days exploring the North Island’s northern coasts it was high time to discover the interior.  As our credit card statement racked up petrol line items the further south we motored, the more beautiful the hills became.  Sheep, cows, and hairs dotted the green vastness surrounding our stress-free souls.  Near Lake Taupo in the North Island’s geographic center, Mount Ruapehu provided a splendid backdrop at over 9,100 feet tall.  I learned my lesson in Chile… no more climbing active volcanoes. From higher elevations, one could see ponds intersecting wire fences and clusters of trees where farm animals would seek refuge from the sun above.  The kilometers indicated southbound progress was being made, but the incredible beauty was static.  If we were amazed by the rolling surface, a surprise was waiting just below. 

Drinking Vino in BazilsUpon reaching the tiny Kiwi town of Waitomo, the fact finding mission began.  So many things to do below the Earth’s crust, but so little time and money.  Three stops and three different recommendations of how to enjoy the limestone caves and underwater rivers.  What is better than a human being’s personal suggestion?  Video evidence.  Upon seeing the Lost World excursion with our own eyes, we ponied up the cash and rebuffed the plethora of other options like black water rafting (sounds better than it actually is).  The friendly staff of Waitomo Adventures even offered us their toilets and parking lot for the night.  That was our backup plan if we didn’t locate a camping spot in the hills.  Locate we did!  With just the lush hillside, an occasional cow, and sprinkling rain providing company, Ash and I drank merlot and ate dinner with Bazils’ hatch ajar.  Early to bed, early to rise.

Boots Hanging Ten LONG Way Down

With a cup of New Zealand’s cheapest coffee in hand from Bazils’ gas stove, we arrived at Waitomo Adventures and met a family of six from Brisbane, Australia that would round out our excursion group.  Ash couldn’t help but smile as this young family was reminiscent of her’s back home in Kansas.  In particular, the fearless eleven year-old boy whose personality had a striking likeness to Ashley’s kid brother, Bryce.  The eight of us boarded the 4×4 van and drove through a rather ordinary looking farm.  Fitting for boots, harness, and helmet was quick and it was first time we heard the oh so popular Kiwi  phrase: sweet as bro.  The gentleman guide directed this at Ashley after he fitted her harness and I thought he added an extra “s” to “as.”  Some hearty laughs and a short time later we all plodded into the green field until reaching a thick patch of trees.  Then down some slippery rock steps until a steel platform came into view hugging the side of an immensely deep limestone sinkhole. 

Collared Greens Angels From Heaven Abseiling

One by one we were locked into the abseil device and leaned out over the abyss below.  With 330+ feet between us and the mossy bottom, our inhibitions were relaxed and down we went.  Surprisingly, there is nothing to stop us from sliding off the end of the rope besides the weight of the rope itself.  Thus, the top portion was slow going while we had to wrap out feet around the rope length towards the bottom to create additional friction.  The thirty minute repel was incredible.  Once it was clear a short plunge to our death was not inevitable, the ferns and vines clinging to the sinkhole walls presented themselves.  To be suspended high above another world below and every color of green in our periphery was a unique experience to be certain.  Within 100 feet of the now evident river below, the plants gave way to a bald limestone cave that reached far into the darkness.  As if Waitomo Adventures had done this before, the rope length ended where the cave’s floor began.  Feet planted firmly back on rock, the roof of the limestone fortress looked as if one thousand Suns shown through a small tear in the night sky.

Tear in the Night Sky Mossy Beam Me Up

GlowwormsHelmet lights switched to the “on” position, the eight spelunkers trekked over the limestone boulders that once formed the cave’s ceiling.  The underground river splashed along over our right shoulders as we moved deeper into the cave, natural light giving way to darkness.  The skylight provided from the sinkhole entrance made for some interesting silhouette photos.  Careful with each step, we huddled together under a small overhang and shuttered our headlamps.  As our eyes adjusted to the light deprived environment, tiny blue specks of light began to appear.  Glowworms!  They formed constellations against the rock exterior from which they hung.  Silently watching, twenty minutes surely passed before it was time to leave.  But how the heck do you get out of a cave you just abseiled into without a walking exit? 

Mysterious... Ashley Ladder of Death Exit At Last!

Up a 100+ foot slippery ladder is how.  Ash and I were number five and six to climb, respectively.  The second of two guides went up fourth, but not before showing us how to lock our harness into the safety rope.  We waited in the dampness while the others climbed.  When other climbers would reach the top, they would lower the rope back down.  “Splat.” That is the noise a rope makes when it hits a cave floor and is ready to be utilized.  Adding to the nerve racking experience, the mud and dampness created a formidable lubricant on the ladder rungs.  Every 20 feet or so the metal structure was fastened to the limestone wall, just enough space to let the ladder sway and put a jolt into your heart.  Finally at the top, we walked a bit further in the cavern until a slightly graded path provided an exit from the Lost World.     

As they say: true beauty is what lies within, it is not what is on the outside that matters.  But it doesn’t hurt to have both.

- Greg and Ash    

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Taking excursions where your own digital camera is disallowed can be pricey and frustrating. If you really want pictures, they have you in a pinch to purchase from the tour operator.  Due to the dampness and abseil harness, cameras were disallowed on the Lost World.  However, before we booked the trip we negotiated the inclusion of all photographs on one DVD.  This saved us in excess of $80.
2) Men: when doing anything that requires a harness, spend as much time necessary to get your “junk” situated.  Nothing ruins a good time like being squeezed by a vice.

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