Sunday, January 31, 2016

New Zealand 2016 Day 25. The last day.

Well, all good things must come to an end. I had a four and a half hours flight to Tahiti, two hours of layover, and then a seven and a half hours flight to Los Angeles. I had made the pledge to watch movies until my eyes turned into little squares, but only managed to squeeze in five movies before I fell asleep. The arrival in LAX was OK (the whole automated passport control system is a multi-million dollars failure, and seems to get slower every time I go through), and the trip to Sacramento was quick and painless. Faby, DJ, and Ronaldito picked me at the airport, and looking at my smiling grandson I felt the happiness of being back home.


New Zealand 2016 Day 24. Flying back home

Waitomo Caves has . . . well . . . caves, and although we didn’t go into any of the commercial caves we did take a great walk through a cliff-bound valley that formed when the ceiling of a subterranean river collapsed. It was a short walk, but a very pretty one. That reminds me that Anna has been busy compiling the statistics of our trip: She figured we have driven 5,300 km, at an average of 243 km per day, and that we walked about 149.8 km in this trip, with a daily average of about 6.8 km/day. On 22 days of travel, she woke at an average of 7:35 am (on her own, and without me prompting her), and ate a grand total of about 8.7 kg of salad and tomatoes, and about 13.2 kg of fruit. Oh, and she has not touched a cigarette for 22 days!

It has been great traveling with Anna, who has all the makings of a great traveler. I will certainly miss my travel companion, and look forward to reading about his adventures in India, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

After a feverish morning packing and cleaning the van, and taking our small hike, we got on our way around 10:30 am. After 80 km we reached the town of Hamilton, where I blew off my last New Zealand dollars in a couple of books. Another 120 km brought us to Auckland International Airport, around 2 pm, in plenty of time for my 4 pm departure for Tahiti, and from there to Los Angeles and then Sacramento. Anna is staying for three more days in New Zealand, so she will keep the van and will be in ultimate charge of returning it to the rental agency. On January 29 she will be taking off for New Delhi, and she will be in India for six weeks. I press my thumbs for her (a German expression for “I wish her good luck”) and look forward to hearing about her adventures in this exotic and mysterious land. Buen Camino, Anna!

New Zealand 2016 Day 23. Wellington to Mt. Taranaki

Saying goodbye to KC, Tim, and Alvi was a sweet sorrow. I am very glad we got to visit with them and share, even for a short day, their home and their surroundings. I need not say that they sent with us a whole boatload of greetings and hugs to the Owl Creek family.

We were set on visiting Mt. Taranaki, which is the perfect setting for The Lonely Mountain of The Hobbit. It is a very symmetrical stratovolcano that has grown to enormous proportion at the end of a short alignment of older and smaller volcanoes, forming its own peninsula along the west coast of the North Island. It totally reminded me of La Malinche, in central Mexico, with its enormous size, its beautiful symmetry, and its small dacitic domes poking at low elevations (my 30-second theory is that they are leaks from a growing silicic magma chamber growing under the volcano). We dutifully hiked along the lower elevations, which are covered by a dense “bush” of trees and tall ferns that completely obscure the presence of the mountain (but in exchange we got to see many streams and a handsome waterfall.

By 4 pm we were down, and decided to gain some distance toward Auckland, where tomorrow I will need to take the flight back home. It was a magical trip through Middle Earth under the balmy golden rays of the afternoon sun. The central portion of the island is a mild-mannered landscape that speaks in mild tones and is covered by a rustling carpet of sweet smelling grass. Everywhere around us were the small comical hills that are so favored by Hobbits for their burrows (not nasty dark and humid burrows, like those of rabbits, but airy and sunny burrows with well supplied larders). Everywhere around us was the sun gilded Shire.

Eventually we made it to the small town of Waitomo Caves, where Anna and I treated ourselves to a celebratory dinner to toast a perfect trip. 

New Zealand 2016 Day 22. Back home in Wellington

By the time the ferry had docked and we waited for our turn to disembark it was already 11:30 pm, so we pulled in at the house of KC and Tim Little by midnight. KC had left the porch door unlocked for us, and it was with a sigh of relief that we finally laid down in bed in “our” room.

Later that morning we found out that Tim was still in the field, and would come back in the late afternoon, so KC became our tour guide for a day in the town. Our first stop was the Weta Workshop. What is a “weta”? It is a very large and spiny cricket/locust, and if you look at it in close-up it looks like a being from another world. That is exactly what the Weta Workshop specializes in. They are the designers of all sorts of extraordinary beings one encounters in movies, like the aliens in Avatar or the trolls in The Hobbit, and are the foremost special effects studio in New Zealand. I didn’t know such a thing existed outside of Hollywood, but it turns out these guys are among the top in the world. We only visited the small museum they have in the lobby but I was very impressed with their work. Of course their greatest call to fame are the armors, weapons, and scary characters of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but they also did The Adventures of TinTin, and the new releases of King Kong and The Thunderbirds, to mention but a few.

Afterward we went souvenir shopping and visited the Farmers’ Market in downtown, where Anna had a yummy Greek souvlaki, and KC and I had delicious Indonesian noodle stir fries. The market forms along the waterfront, and has great deals in veggies (spelled “veges” down under) and exotic food.

The early afternoon was devoted to shopping for a pair of new boots for Anna. Hers came unglued, and she figured that New Zealand, with all its hiking enthusiasts, was a better market than India. Indeed, in about a couple of blocks we found a half dozen sports shops that were having great deals in their end of the summer sales. Unfortunately our little Anna has expensive tastes, so she had to pay full price for the boots that fit her really well (Anna’s prayer” Dear Lord, I beg you, either give me lots of money or take away my expensive tastes”). In the meantime I wandered through the big downtown bookstore, and felt totally at ease with the universe.

Back home KC prepared a delicious curry pumpkin soup and a cold barley salad that were to die for, and as soon as Tim arrived we sat down for a very convivial meal. One of the topics of conversation was the referendum, to be held on March 24, on whether the old flag should be kept, or a new design adopted. The issue is controversial because, although many are not opposed to change, they are only given one option for a new design (mind you, they started with 20 alternate designs, that then some committee whittled down to 5 designs based on some limited polling, and finally to the one alternate design. Folks here are not very happy with having selection by committee, so after spending 24 million NZ dollars in this process they are likely to have the vote be for no change simply because of discontent with the procedure. Incidentally, the alternate design has two diagonal fields, separated by a silver fern, the latter being a common logo in anything Kiwi and representing their love for nature. The upper field is black, which is the national sports color. The lower field is blue, to represent the surrounding ocean, and on it is the Southern Cross in red and white, to retain part of the old flag and the colors of the British Commonwealth. I think it is a handsome design, but fortunately what I think is of interest to anyone.

After dinner we sat down to see one of the best movies I have seen in a long time: The World’s Fastest Indian. It is a 2005 film starring Anthony Hopkins as an old Kiwi who transforms a 1946 Indian motorcycle into a high speed thunderbolt, and with great trouble takes it to the US to run in the Boneville Flats and impose a speed record. As Tim put it, it is a great “feel good” movie that I strongly recommend to all my friends and family.

New Zealand 2016 Day 21. Goodbye South Island

We spent the night in Cable Bay, one of the thousands of inlets in the sounds that form the northern end of South Island. Our plan was to hike around there for the best part of the day, until it was time to take the ferry for North Island at 5:45 pm. Well, it turns out we are still a bit tired from the hike we did yesterday, and were not in shape to tackle any of the steep slopes that characterize the ridges that separate the sounds. We did our best, however, and after driving an incredibly twisty road along one of the ridges we actually caught a part of the Queen Charlotte Track. Still, it was a lazy day, and after getting back to the car we whittled away the afternoon in Picton.

There was a special festival going on at the waterfront, so the place was pretty lively and music was in the air. It is a pretty touristy city, with the complement of tourist-trap shops that accompanies all seaside resorts. I actually found a facsimile copy of the 1769 map that Captain James Cook made of both islands, which I think will look great once I frame it and hang it in the adventure room. Another highlight was the Whaling and Maritime Museum, which has plenty of good exhibits from the time when whaling was a big industry for the inhabitants of the South Island. Some of the whaling was done by small boats, not unlike the way in which whaling was done in the Azores, and the Maoris were apparently among the most skilled whalers.

We finally got on the ferry at 6:45 pm, fortunately with enough light for us to see the passage through the sound, and after night fell we retired to the inside of the big boat, from which I am writing this entry. We are scheduled to arrive in Wellington at 11 pm. Groan.  

New Zealand 2016 Day 20. Hiking in the Abel Tasman National Park

Today we did the prettiest hike of our trip. It was not spectacular like the others we have made, it was just pretty. The Abel Tasman National Park is developed on a deeply weathered pluton, whose sides have been carved by the ocean into a half dozen of beautiful, perfect bays, and the hike goes all along the steep coastal slopes, along the 100 to 200 m contour lines for about 50 km. We did the first 12.5 km to Anchorage Bay and back, so this is the longest hike we have done as well.

The trail is pretty even, shielded from the sun by the luxuriant vegetation, and has fantastic views of the coast, the Cook Strait, and the Marlborough Sound. In contrast with the Tasman Sea, with its strong westerly winds, the Cook Strait is well protected by the Golden Bay peninsula and has pleasant slack water. The water is crystalline and has a deep blue hue.

After 3 hours of “hiking” (more like strolling, rally) we arrived to Anchorage Bay, where we had a refreshing swim and ate the munchies we had brought with us. It is a paradise bay that only lacks a small seafood shack like the ones found in the bays of Mexico to make it perfect.

The way back was another perfect stroll, and at the end of it was a conveniently located pub where we rewarded ourselves with a pint of cold beer. Ah…

A short drive brought us to the small town of Motueka, where we completed our Kiwi education by having a traditional Friday dinner of Fish and Chips, here pronounced “Fush ‘n Chups”. Now that I think about it, changing “i” into “u” is a minor peculiarity of Kiwi English. The really big change is pronouncing all “e” as “ee”, so they say “yees” instead of “yes” or “peet” instead of “pet”. It is a small thing, but it forces you to be on the alert when they talk to you (which they do all the time, because they are one of the friendliest folks I have ever met).  

New Zealand 2016 Day 19. Greymouth to Abel Tasman National Park

A little incident marred the quiet of the morning. Anna had forgotten her jacket the previous night at the kitchen of the campground, so she was happy to see it the following morning as we prepared for showers and breakfast (she is paranoid someone is going to steal her things, and I keep telling her that no one wants our used stuff). To our surprise, by the time we had finished breakfast someone had actually taken her jacket! She figured maybe someone had taken it to the front desk, as a lost and found item. No, it was not there, but the guy in charge said he would look through the security tapes (I didn’t know Big Brother was watching us in the kitchen). Lo and behold, there it was: a woman with four children had lifted the jacket, checked it out, and then simply taken it with her. Anna was furious, but the guy told her to wait and went to get the jacket himself. The lady claimed she had taken it by mistake, but according to the tape she took a careful look at it before pocketing it. The graffiti in our van put it succinctly: “Thou shall not steal. God is watching, you thieving bastard”.

Today was a travel day. We were driving about 300 km from the west coast to the north coast. The west coast is spectacular, with tall mountains coming to the edge of the water and jagged coastal cliffs. The west coast is bathed by the waters of the Sea of Tasman, named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who in the early 1600’s became the first European to set eyes in Tasmania and the South Island of New Zealand. In practical terms, however, the Sea of Tasman is part of the Circum-Antarctic Ocean, famous for its rough seas due to the Roaring 40’s (the westerly winds that are practically unimpeded by a major landmass at 40 to 50 degrees south latitude), so it is no big surprise that coastal erosion is such an active geologic process here.

As the highway turned inland, however, we crossed as pretty a country as any you could imagine. Broad fluvial valleys support large pasture fields, dotted with sheep, cows, and deer (yes, here deer are raised as a meat animal in herds of 30 to 50 individuals). The hills are not as rugged and are covered by a mix of pines and deciduous trees, only generally similar to the ones we are used back home. New Zealand is a paradise to botanists, who get to identify a new species every few steps. The last 60 km we followed the valley of the Motukea River, which is definitely a place Anna could live. Once we reached the coast it was but a short drive to Marahau, which claims to be the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park.

We arrived at low tide, and I was surprised to see a large number of boats resting on the muddy floor of a large, dry bay. A few children were playing in the mud, sinking in it down to their knees. I could also see a good number of people looking for mussels and clams. By the time we had found a camping place the tide had turned, and in an astonishing 10 minutes the muddy bay became a shallow harbor, and the clam diggers were replaced by tourists in bathing suits (including one A. Kobberger).

New Zealand 2016 Day 18. Punakaiki

Anna was up super early (6:30 am!) and she woke me up while getting out of the van. So I also got up only to find out that it was raining again! I had made plans to rent a bike to do a 30 km trek, but I had to reschedule for the afternoon. So we had an early breakfast and got ready to do … nothing. What are two eager tourists supposed to do at 8 am under a steady rain? Anna decided to call a friend in Germany, which kept her busy for about an hour and a half (yes, 90 minutes of gabbing over the phone!), while I computed for a while and then read.

We finally got going about 9:30 am, intent of visiting Punakaiki, 50 km north along the coast. In going through the town, which is built on both sides of the place where the Grey River empties into the ocean (hence the name of Greymouth), I noticed that we were now in sedimentary rocks. Clearly, then, the Alpine fault cuts into the land, and we were seeing the sedimentary sequence that is being overthrusted by the metamorphic rocks of the Southern Alps. In the way we saw thick packages of limestones and black mudstones, which to me would suggest possible oil resources offshore to the west.

Punakaiki is a short but very rugged segment of the coast, where thinly laminated dolostones have been cut by the waves into a series of pinnacles, giving the impression that they are several tall stacks of pancakes. An interesting factoid for all of you geologists, is that the lamination appears to be a diagenetic feature rather than a depositional one.

From there we made a very pretty hike along the Pororari River, which cuts across the 35 million year old sedimentary sequence. It reminded me a lot of the rivers of the Huasteca, covered by a luxuriant vegetation. It is actually a karstic region, with caves and sinkholes, but it would be hard to tell under such a cover of green. By the time we got back from our 2-hour hike Anna was ready to eat a horse, so we hurried back to our base camp to have a belated lunch.

The rain finally quit around 3 pm, so I went for my bike ride. The nice gentleman in the reception desk drove me and my bike, for an agreed fee, 30 km out of the city, to a place where I could link with the Westcoast Bike Trail, and from there I biked back to town, following dirt roads across the forest and later a coastal track, until eventually I got back to the campground. It was very enjoyable, and I could have kept going to downtown, but to be honest the last 10 km were kind of painful because the bike I rented had a mean narrow seat hard as rock, and my derriere was by then getting very sensitive to pressure. I love bicycling, but I definitely need a broad padded seat!

New Zealand 2016 Day 17. Franz Josef glacier

The rain did not ease off! In fact, it was raining pretty hard as we woke up and had breakfast. What to do? We could spend the day immersed in the hot pools, but it seemed a pity to waste a whole day doing nothing. Fortunately around 10 am it stopped raining, so we quickly took off to see the glacier, hoping the lull in the rain would last for at least a couple of hours.

In this part of the South Island, the Alpine fault runs pretty close to the coast. Thus, to the west of the fault you have a very narrow coastal plain, whereas to the east of the fault you have 9,000-ft mountains that support valley glaciers. The mountains are rising at a fast rate of 10 to 20 mm per year, and by now what is exposed in them are their high grade metamorphic cores (which would have originally been at depths of 20 km).

The Franz Josef glacier is named after the Austrian emperor, which would seem an odd choice for a mountain in a British colony. It turns out that the surveyor who mapped this part of the island was Austrian, and one way or other managed to slip in the homage to his emperor. Nowadays you drive four kilometers in a gentle mountain road to get to the valley, walk maybe a couple of kilometers over the flat alluvial deposits, and finally climb for another kilometer to a vista point on the top of the last terminal moraine. The glacier is in retreat, like most glaciers around the world, but way up there we could see the dirty terminus of the glacier, and behind it the crevasses that cut across it exposing deep blue ice. By then the rain had started again, so we turned around intent on escaping the bad weather. In the parking lot we saw a couple of kea. This wild parrot is really a raptor bird, with a mean looking beak, which likes to rummage through anything left unattended: backpacks, open hatches on camper vans, the rubber seals on windows, or hanging clothes.

We continued our way north along the coast to the Okarito coastal lagoon. This part of the coast was the locus of the 1847 gold fever, which attracted any able body to the black beaches around Okarito, to exploit the placer gold found in the beach sands. From here they moved steadily north along the coast, but the lagoon remained the “best port” available to them. It is actually a rather miserable tiny harbor, because the entry to the lagoon is often clogged by sand moving north by longshore transport. Today it has the honor of being the largest estuary in the north coast, although the little community is pretty much dead as it is about 20 km from the highway.

Farther north we found good weather! The sun felt so good that Anna, who was driving, had to stop at the cemetery of a small town to sunbathe for 20 minutes among the tombs (did I mention that she is a bit strange?). We finally made it to Greymouth, a nice small city by the coast where we found the Top 10 campground right away, right at the beach. Anna lost no time getting into her bathing suit and heading for the beach, while I took my leisure putting clothes to wash and going town to shop for our dinner. It is so nice here that we have decided to spend two nights.

New Zealand 2016 Day 16. Matukituki to Franz Josef Glacier

I woke up quite early in the morning, and was having my second cup of coffee when this monstrous bull come ambling by, just a few feet from the van. We had parked by a row of trees, about 50 ft from the turquoise river, and apparently this pretty spot is where he likes to have his morning pasture. I was planning on crossing the river and exploring the path to the east fork, but I did it tentatively thinking that the bull might scare Anna. No, he was happily eating grass, so I put it out of my mind and went for a crisp morning walk, while the clouds started to gather ominously over the valley. It started to drizzle. Not too bad, but I had to turn back because of the fords we still had to cross to get back. When I got back to camp I found Anna in a flutter. Yes, the bull had surprised her, but he had also become curious about the table, the chairs, the stove, the sugar, and the coffee, and he had made a big mess.

We headed back as soon as everything was clean, had breakfast in Wanaka, were disappointed that they didn’t have a hot tub in the community pool, and finally headed north, with the plan of crossing the Southern Alps and reaching the coast. It was a very pretty drive, and we stopped in a couple of places (Thunder Falls, Roaring Billy Falls), but the weather kept deteriorating as we moved north. Finally we arrived in the little town of Franz Josef Glacier under a light rain.

Now, we have been staying at a chain of camping places called Top 10, and we have been paying between NZ$18 and NZ$23 per person per night. We have been pretty happy with the amenities, so we were glad to see one in this town. But the price here had soared to $40 per person! Forget it. We made a couple of phone calls and found another place at a much better price (but without amenities such as a kitchen or a reading room). Anna crossed the street an had a long session in the Glacier Hot Pool, while I took a shower and read under the veranda of the grill patio. Then it started to rain, and rain, and rain. We had a late dinner and went to bed, trying not to think on what we would do in the morning if the rain didn’t ease off.

New Zealand 2016 Day 15. Matukituki

We are back in Mt. Aspiring National Park, but this time on the east side. From Wanaka we took the paved road up the Matukituki River, which all of a sudden turned into a gravel road with jarring washboard. Still, we persevered and pretty soon were immersed in the landscape of The Hobbit. Remember when Bilbo and the dwarves are being chased by orcs mounted on wolves through knolls covered by some weird moss? Well, that is exactly what we have on the shoulders of the steep flanks of the Matukituki valley. The rocks are gneisses with pretty constant foliation directions.

The Matukituki valley forks upstream into two different forks. We followed the west fork, crossing a series of fords, until eventually we made it to the end of the road, in view of snow-clad Mt. Aspiring. Anna had to prepare herself for the hike, so I went ahead and had a magical walk up a broad valley, always getting closer and closer to the mountains but never actually getting there. After a couple of hours I turned around but didn’t see Anna anywhere. When I got to the car I realized that she must have taken the side trip up to the Rob Roy glacier. It took her another hour to get back, but she was pretty happy with her hike as well. We were both in such good spirits that we decided to spend the night in the valley, with the lose plan to hike up the east fork of the Matukituki.

New Zealand 2016 Day 14. Back to Queenstown and forward to Wanaka

After a lazy start, and under a cloudy sky, we drove back through Te Anau and Queenstown. Anna wanted to take the funicular up to the hill overlooking Queenstown, so up we went to enjoy beautiful views of the lake, which from this altitude looks like the leg, thigh, and body of a person resting on his side. A Maori legend tells about a princess who had been kidnapped by a giant. Her father offered her hand in marriage to the warrior who would rescue her, and so it came to happen that a warrior stole the princess back and married her. However, the giant was in a rage and started devastating the country, so the clever warrior waited until he was asleep and started a forest fire that burnt the giant to such an extent that all that was left of him was the impression he had made in the ground as he slept. The sky cried after the giant, and in no time the tears filled the depression to form the lake.

Up on the mountain we took a hiking loop that took us past some kids in a toboggan ride, and past a group of crazy people who were launching themselves in parapente (a modified parachute) unto the chasm at our feet. An even crazier group was bungy jumping!

Anna wanted to walk down the mountain, but I chickened out. It is really steep and I could see it was going to be very hard on the knees, so instead I rode the funicular back down. Of course I got there a lot earlier than she did, which gave me the chance to observe a continuous stream of mountain bikers, who as soon as they had gotten down got in the queue to take the gondola up the mountain to do it again and again (the gondolas have special hooks to carry the bikes). Sounds like a fun but very dangerous extreme sport to me.

Leaving Queenstown we crossed a very arid mountain range into the valley of Wanaka, at the shore of Lake Wanaka. Remember we were but 200 km from the place of the thousand waterfalls. Well, that was on the windward side of the mountains, whereas here we are on the leeside, where very little rain falls. In fact, the local newspaper was despairing about the drought they are having this year. And what about the lake? Yes, the lake is a big one and has a lot of water, but you would have to pump that water up into the fields, and apparently there is no ready infrastructure to do so. Quite a land of contrasts!

We still had a good deal of the afternoon left, so we decided to go for a walk up Mt. Iron, from which reportedly there are great views of Lake Wanaka and its surroundings. Mt. Iron is a typical roche moutonee, a glacial land form. It is formed by hard gneiss, and when it was covered by glacial ice it resisted the flow of the glacier, with the result that it developed a gentle slope on the upglacier side, and an abrupt “ice plucked” slope on the downglacier side. The view, as promised, was spectacular.

New Zealand 2016 Day 13. The Milford Track

The weather has turned. Before we went to bed last night we saw ominous clouds gathering, and during the night we heard the sound of rain and howling wind. What will the day look like?

    It rained and it rained and rained and rained
   The average was well maintained
   And when the tracks were simply bogs
   It started raining cats and dogs.

   After a drought of half an hour
   We had a most refreshing shower
   And then most curious thing of all
   A gentle rain began to fall.

   Next day was also fairly dry
   Save for a deluge from the sky,
   Which wetted the party to the skin,
   And after that the rain set in.

            A Fiordlands Tramper, 1984

Yes, it was very wet, but nonetheless we headed north toward Milford Sound hoping against hope that the weather would turn. The 120 km Milford Track/drive was, for the first 70 km, like driving through the foothills of California; pretty, yes, but not overly spectacular. Ah, but then the road started climbing up a glacial valley and we were absolutely speechless. Now, I admire Yosemite Valley like any other good Californian, but it pales in comparison with the valleys of the New Zealand Alps. Out of the mist arose vertical walls without end, and from each water gushed in a myriad of waterfalls that hurled vertically unto the valley floor, almost making a continuous curtain of water on both sides of the valley. Eventually we reached the cirque, and crossed from the Pacific watershed into the Indian Ocean watershed through a long tunnel, only to find the same deluge issuing from the walls of the Milford valley/fjord. I have never seen so much cascading water in my life!

Dizzy with the spectacle we reached the head of Milford Sound, but shied at taking a cruise down the sound on account of the weather. Instead we had lunch at the Visitors’ Center, played cards for about an hour, and took a nap in our trusty camper van. There was no sign that the rain would abate anytime soon, so we turned around and went through the spectacle of the innumerable waterfalls until we reached the foothills. Here the rain was not as intense, so we found a nice campground and prepared to hole for the night. It turns out that the rain stopped shortly after we arrived, the sky cleared, and we actually had a bit of sun in the late afternoon, which made preparing dinner a lot easier.  

New Zealand 2016 Day 12. The Kepler Tramp.

Damn! Just when we thought we had the camping thing figured out I found a ticket on our windshield. We were being fined, NZ$ 200, for violation of the Freedom Camping statute. I was speechless. How can you violate a statute that says that you can camp pretty much wherever you want? There were 10 other camper vans parked in the same lot, and only we and another camper had gotten a ticket! OK, so the others were bigger campers than us, but if it was a matter of size I felt we had been badly discriminated against.

Back into Queenstown to attempt to argue the ticket at the Council Office. A nice young lady greeted us with a smile, and without losing it explained to us that the Freedom Camping rule only applies to self-contained campers (check) that have a toilet (oops) and have a special decal certifying them as self-contained (double oops). Bummer! This piece of education was not only expensive, but now we are paranoid about where we park for fear of another fine.

This reminds me to mention that some things in New Zealand seem very expensive. In New Zealand dollars we have: A pack of cigarretes $25, a beer $8, gasoline $7/gallon, a coke $3, a cup of coffee $4. I have to continuously remind by self to multiply the values by 0.75 to turn it into US dollars, but I am still on a bit of shock about the prices. To be fair I should add the counterpoint that most museums are free, and that camping fees in public campgrounds are very reasonable (NZ$10 to NZ$15).

Leaving our problems behind we took the 150 km ride to Te Anau, where the headquarters of the Fjordlands National Park is located, at the shore of the fifth, and largest, of the big lakes, Lake Manapouri. We decided to do the first leg of the Kepler Tramp, but just then Anna realized that her ear had been plugged for several days, an fearing an ear infection decided to go to the doctor. The local clinic made room for her at 12:30, but she had to wait until 1:30 pm to be seen. The doctor checked her up and reassured her that all was well, and told her she was just experiencing the leftover effects of a cold. With this assurance in mind we finally made it to the trail head, and spent three happy hours tramping through an open forest along the shores of the lake. I guess we should call it a rainforest, with ferns that grew to the size of small trees, but to our good fortune the day was sunny and beautiful, so we got the benefit of a Cretaceous landscape shining under the sun.

Still a bit spooked by the fine we got last night we decided to splurge on a campground where we can do laundry and connect to the internet.

New Zealand 2016 Day 11. The Roteburn Tramp

We were planning on visiting the Mount Aspiring National Park later on, but inspection of the map convinced us that the closest approach to the southern portion of the map was from Queenstown. This charming city is located at the shores of Lake Wakatipu (the fourth of the five great lakes), and is the absolute epicenter of all type of recreational activities (paragliding, bungy jumping, canoeing, motor boating, and many more). Following the lakeshore to the north the road eventually turns into a dirt track, which eventually takes the traveler to the starting point of the Roteburn Tramp, one of a half dozen 4-day trails that the tourist bureau of New Zealand has been promoting heavily. Anna and I are not prepared for a 4-day trip on foot, but we like the idea of walking at least the first half day for bragging rights. A half day is not enough to get into the high country, but we already did that in the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, and in Mt. Cook, so we are happy enjoying the hike through the lower elevations.

In this case the first leg of the Roteburn Tramp took us through “the bush”. This is the local name given to a forest with a rather tight understory of ferns and brushy vegetation. Eventually we reached Silver Lake, where Anna decided to turn back. I kept walking for another hour, hoping for new sights, but the brush is dense and I never got out of it.

On the way back we stopped in Queenstown, bummed around the busy streets of downtown, which are loaded with sports shops, outdoor clothing stores, and tourist bureaus where you can spend a small fortune signing up for all sorts of adventures. Afterward we went to the local swimming pool, where for a modest fee I was able to take a shower, sit in the hot pool reading for an hour, take another shower, and finally get out warm and content with the world.

By now we have the camping routine down pat, and after dinner sought our rest without a care in the world.  

New Zealand 2016 Day 10. Aoraki (Mt. Cook)

I woke up early in the morning, to a warm sunny morning that gave the lake an incredible turquoise color. Lake Pukaki is the second of a series of six enormous lakes that drain the Southern Alps. Just like it happens with the Sierra Nevada, the Alps hold the winter water in frozen storage as snow, and release it gradually during the spring into these enormous reservoirs, from where part of it is used to generate hydroelectric power, and another (very minor) part is used for irrigation. I have seen some irrigated agriculture, but not much. Most of the ag operations seem to rely on rain, which is reasonably abundant throughout the year. The good news is that these conditions leave much of the water for environmental and recreation purposes.

Going back to Lake Pukaki, way back there, at the upstream end of the 50 km lake, I could see the snow-covered crags of Aoraki, the sacred mountain of the Maoris, which is also known as Mt. Cook, after the famous English explorer (though I am pretty sure he never set eyes on this particular mountain). Aoraki was our goal for the day!

While Anna dozed in the back I drove the 50 km to the park headquarters, where we had breakfast in preparation for the hike. Unfortunately Anna felt sick after breakfast, so she stayed behind to sleep off her malaise while I headed for the high country. My first hike was a short one, up one of the lateral moraines to peer into the glacial valley that originates out of Mt. Safton, another magnificent peak along the chain of Aoraki. Unfortunately another of the peaks hid Aoraki from view, so I had to get down and take a different path to get closer to Aoraki. I was not disappointed, every step brought me closer to this beautiful mountain and I felt I was in heaven. This is precisely what I had come to New Zealand for!

All good things must come to an end, however, so I finally came back to the car, and Anna and I had a late lunch at a shelter where they even had showers! Well fed and refreshed we got back on the road, this time headed for Queenstown (another 200 km away). We got there on time to buy stuff for dinner, eat at the side of the river, and then spend the night at a convenient parking lot. I should mention that in New Zealand self-contained camping vehicles can park pretty much anywhere they want, so we were feeling pretty smug about our little camping van. 

New Zealand 2016 Day 9. Swimming with dolphins.

Anna may only be 28 years old, but she already has a bucket list the size of my arm, and among the top items was to swim with dolphins, which just happens to be one of the attractions offered to innocent tourists here in Akaroa. So at 6 am in the morning I took her to the peer and wished her the best of lucks for her 3-hour adventure. She did get to see dolphins, and was a few feet from them in the water, but they did not circle around her, nor did she get to tag on the fin of one and swim. Schade! She also saw penguins, which was kind of cool. In the meantime I took a leisurely shower, had a big breakfast, and did laundry.

After I picked her up from the wharf we headed back to Christchurch, intent on spending a few hours visiting the downtown area. It feels like a very British city, and in the past must have had many stone churches, government buildings, and schools. Unfortunately these stone buildings fared poorly during the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, so now there are quite a few empty blocks and sites where ultramodern steel and glass buildings are being erected.

The museum somehow survived, and I spent a happy hour wandering through its galleries. It is a small, eclectic museum, which tells you about the first Maori settlers, dinosaurs, their Egyptian mummy, and old Christchurch in one breath. There was also a very cool special exhibit on Leonardo Da Vinci, his paintings, his fantastic machines, and his gruesome but very detailed anatomical studies.

The rest of the city looks modern and comfortable, and overall shines with optimism and prosperity, as if decided not to let the earthquake damage get the better of it.

In a bit of panic for the time lost window shopping, we took off about 4 pm, headed for the central portion of the island. I had written in the schedule that we were going to send the night in Lake Pukaki, 200 km away, and we made it. We still had another hour of light, time enough to fix a nice dinner. Since Anna has dangerous leanings toward vegetarianism we have been eating lots of salad and veggies, but I always make sure that there is some animal protein included in the menu. We parked our little van under a clump of trees overlooking the lake, and slept soundly without a care on the world. 

New Zealand 2016 Day 8. Christchurch and the Banks Peninsula

We kept pushing south until we arrived to Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand. The folks here experienced a pretty strong earthquake in September 2010, and another 8 months later, in April 2011. The one-two punch caused extensive damage throughout the city, and as we crossed it we gaped in admiration to the number of new buildings being erected. We intend to explore Christchurch in more detail tomorrow, but for today contented ourselves with a very yummy sushi lunch, and our standard foray through the New World supermarket (we have become addicted to this particular chain).

The plan for the afternoon was to hike through the Banks Peninsula (thus named by Capt. James Cook in 1770, to honor the naturalist on board, Sir Joseph Banks). It was a good 70 km between Christchurch and Akaroa. The latter is a charming coastal city established by the French in 1840, which still retains much of its French flavor. From here a steep narrow dirt road climbs at an incredible angle toward the highlands. I had no idea about the steepness of these mountains, which were formed by a group of three volcanoes that have now been deeply eroded (in fact, the Akaroa Harbor was formed when the ocean breached the southern flank of the largest volcano—think Nevado de Toluca—and  invaded its crater). We did go for a walk way up on the crest, but it was at best a half-hearted attempt to what would have been a killer hike. 

New Zealand 2016 Day 7. From Wellington to the South Island.

Early in the morning we took the ferry, across the Cook Strait, to hop from the North to the South Island. The ferry ride is pretty expensive (about US$225), so we decided to make the most of it by hanging out on deck, seeing the sights. Coming out of the Wellington harbor was fun, because we were able to look out into the town. Then there is the crossing of the strait, where there is not much to see, and finally the ferry enters into the Marlborough Sounds, and then the scenery becomes spectacular. You can imagine the tip of the South Island as a hand with extended fingers, with the space between the fingers being the long reentrants of the ocean unto the land. The ferry rides for nearly one hour down the Queen Charlotte Sound, in between two of the ridges (the fingers in my simple model), which thus afford a magnificent panorama to both starboard and larboard. Reminds me of the Chilean Archipelago or the Inland Passage of western Canada.

We landed about noon in Picton, and from there took the scenic Queen Charlotte Drive until we found a suitable beach, where I lazed under a tree reading, while Anna went for a quick dip and a sunbathing session. Back in the car we headed south, to Kaikoura, which is a touristy town along the east coast. It is a great place to watch the seals and all sorts of seabirds. We took this opportunity to go on a short hike along the coastal cliffs, and more than ever it hit me that New Zealand and California have many things in common. For example, both are long and narrow, extend from 35 to 43 degrees latitude in their respective hemispheres, have active faults, and have a thinly laminated mudstone (the Monterey Formation in the case of California) that causes the coastal cliffs to be very light in color.

We spent the night at one of the many rest areas outside of Kaikoura, where one can park for free (but where often there are no toilets, showers, or sources of fresh water. I think we are going to try to hit a formal campground every other night, just so we don’t get too stinky.  

New Zealand 2016 Day 6. Windy Wellington

We woke to the roaring sound of a gale pounding against the house! “Not to worry”, said KC, “it is just a bit of wind. Quite normal for a summer day in Wellington.” The family was off early, because KC had to take Alvi to the ophthalmologist, and Tim had to prepare for the field work he is starting in a couple of days, so Anna and I had the time to wash clothes and have breakfast before heading for downtown. Our goal was to visit the First World War Museum, and then the Te Papa New Zealand Museum.

The WW I Museum is a present from the Kiwi director of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Peter Jackson, so it is done with all the mastercraft of a movie set. You enter through the winding streets of a French town, where between the boulangerie and the charcuterie you learn about the events that led to WW I. One interesting factoid is associated to the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian archduke in Serbia that triggered the war:  It turns out that the assassin and his band of 5 bad guys botched the attempt, and the bomb they had thrown bounced off the car and injured some minor characters. The assassin, badly shaken, went into a pub to steady his nerves. In the meantime, the archduke was taken to a safe place, but figured that the least he could do was to pay a visit to the people who had been injured. So he gets in his car, and follows an escort car to the hospital. But then the escort car takes a wrong turn and finds itself in a dead end alley, with the car of the archduke and his wife stopping behind them. At this moment the original assassin was stepping out of the pub, which happened to be in that very ally, and he sees the archduke right in front of him; so he pulls out his gun and neatly shoots both the archduke and his wife, thus triggering a bloody conflict in which nearly a million soldiers from both sides perished.

The flow of the museum takes you through the trenches, the battlefields, the big guns, and even a full size tank rolling over a German trench. It is magnificently done, with plenty of side displays and a good collection of little known facts about the war.

Finally, the exhibition ends with a big display about the battles of Gallipoli, in Turkey, where the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) was given the task to occupy the peninsula of Gallipoli to control the shipping lane of the Dardanelles. The Kiwis and Aussies are very proud of the impenetrable front they presented to the Ottoman Empire from April to December 1915, scrabbling to the steep sides of a valley while the Turkish soldiers attacked time and time again. Unfortunately the slaughter was for naught, and after 8 months of hard fighting the ANZAC forces had to beat a retreat and abandon the ground so ferociously held. 87,000 Ottoman soldiers died in the conflict, as well as 44,000 Allied soldiers, including 6,000 Aussies and 3,000 Kiwis.

Thoroughly depressed as to the brutality of WW I, Anna and I faced the roaring gale once again, and worked our way to the Te Papa museum, of which the Wellingtonians are rightfully proud. Like the other museums of the city it is free (but parking anywhere near the museum is NZ$4 per hour), and truly enormous. Six exhibition floors offer to the attention of the interested visitor all aspects of New Zealand’s history. The displays are a bit labyrinthic, but you get lots of cool information about the geologic history of New Zealand, its animals and flora, the Maori culture, and the growth of the modern country through colonization and immigration. There were also special exhibitions about cinematography and animation, and about Gallipoli, but you had to pay for those so I didn’t see them.

After a delicious dinner of artichoke and mushroom home-made pizzas we sat down to see a Kiwi movie, “Boy”. It was funny but at the same time heart-wrenching. It is the story of a Maori boy and his brother, who live with their grandma and four other little cousins. Suddenly grandma has to go to Wellington to a funeral and leaves the whole gaggle of kids in the care of 12-year old Boy. Boy is a dreamer, who expects his hero of a father to come back some day. Well, dad comes back but is a gang banger and drunk, who drags his son into all sorts of mischief and trouble. It is a poignant story because it seems the Maoris are a long way toward getting out of the lowest economic rung of the country, suffer chronic alcoholism and gang-related violence, and very often neglect or mistreat their children. Similar fates to those of the first inhabitants in other countries colonized by the Europeans!

New Zealand 2016 Day 5. Wanganui to Wellington

Anna woke up feeling out of sorts. She probably got too much sun yesterday, and today she feels flustered and a bit feverish. Note to herself: Get a hat!

We spent the morning visiting the beach of Wanganui, called Castlecliff, which is formed by black volcanic sand and a profusion of wood carved by waves and wind into all sorts of artsy shapes. Truly, Mother Nature is a fabulous artist. Dutifully Anna dipped a finger in the Cook Strait, another small step in the self-appointed task of having dipped a finger or a tow in all the oceans and seas of the world.

A lazy ride of about 3 hours brought us into Wellington, at the south end of the North Island. The city is located in a ria coast, where elongated fluvial valleys, carved along a swarm of active faults, have been flooded by the sea level rise of the last 18,000 years. Fortunately for the modern city, the founders reserved the skyline as a green belt and this has stopped urban encroachment. Each valley is thus a small neighborhood with its own personality and charm.

We are visiting KC and Tim Little here, and thanks to Anna’s amazing navigating skills we arrived at their doorstep at 3:55 pm (we were expected at 4 pm). KC and their son Alvi were at home, and Tim arrived an hour later for a happy reunion. I think the last time I had seen Tim was at Faby and DJ’s wedding, ten years ago, and I had probably not seen KC for 20 years, so we had lots of news to catch on. They happen to live on a ridgeline, overlooking Island Bay on the Cook Strait. It is a lovely location, with lots of sun, but also with sweeping wind (Windy Wellington is the way Kiwis refer to this charming city).

After a great dinner Anna excused herself and went to bed, to finish nursing her mild sun stroke, and KC, Tim and I went for a car ride. Alvi had friends over, for a Dungeons and Dragons kind of game where each of the gamers develops a part of the plot (no computers involved), so he didn’t come with us. Kc drove us to the top of Victoria Hill, where you get a terrific view of Wellington, and its fish-hook shaped harbor. A Maori legend tells about the mythical hero who went out fishing and pulled the North Island out of the sea, which is why Wellington has the shape of a hooked fish. From there we went to the Botanical Gardens, looked at the landscape, and had a fortifying cup of tea at a local pub. We were waiting for nightfall, because as we walked into the pitch black paths of the gardens we were immersed into a magic scene of small points of light generated by a multitude of glowworms. A very nice way to end the day!

New Zealand 2016 Day 4. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

We woke up to a very crispy but sunny morning, perfect for our second tramp of the trip, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. We started walking in the wee hours of the morning (7:30 am, which according to Anna is uncivilized), heading for the pass between Mt. Tongariro (last active in 2012) to the north and Mt. Ngauruhoe (renamed Mt. Doom for the saga of Lord of the Rings) to the south. Farther to the south is Mt. Ruapehu, a glaciated and snow clad volcano that reminded me a lot of Iztaccihuatl in Mexico (come to think about it, Mt. Ngauruhoe looks a lot like Popocatepetl, although the Mexican volcanoes are much larger).

This is the most famous tramp in the north island, so we had to share it with about 2,000 other people, but if one concentrates on the spectacular views the throng of humanity shrinks into a small line of ants. It turns out many had left their cars on the other side of the range, and had been shuttled to our side, intent on doing the whole crossing. We, however, only did half, to the highest point of the crossing, and from there headed back. One would think that going down would be an easy task, but we realized that we had indeed walked a very long way, and that going down steep slopes is hard on the knees. We finally reached our trusty camper van, more tired than we would like to acknowledge, rescued a family who needed a jump, and headed toward the west coast. We figured we deserved a break (and desperately needed a hot shower), so after reaching the city of Wanganui checked ourselves into what ended being a luxury campground with endless hot water in the showers, swimming pool, and a beautiful view of the Whanganui River.

New Zealand 2016 Day 3. Lakes Rotorua and Taupo.

The following day we drove through Lake Rotorua, had lunch, and visited the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, which from time immemorial has been inhabited by Maoris who built their homes among the plumes of steam and bubbling pools. Of course they figured out that the boiling water could be used to cook their veggies, and boxes cut into the steaming ground provide communal pressure cookers for the more sophisticated dishes. We also got to see a demonstration of Maori song and dance, including the intimidating display of horrible gestures, tongue waggling, and chest slapping with which the Maori warriors intimidate their opponents. Alas, that didn’t stop the British from conquering the island, and from 1840 to 1948 the Maoris and their lands were under  trusteeship of the British. Now, however, they have successfully regain some of their land back, and the rents they receive make for a tidy sum.

In the afternoon we drove around Lake Taupo, which is a beautiful and enormous caldera lake, and pushed into the foothills of Tongariro National Park, where we spent a chilly night.

New Zealand 2016 Day 2. Getting our camping van in Auckland.

I was at the yard of Wicked Campers bright and early at 7 am, but, alas, I was the only one there. One of the workers came at 8 am, and from him I learned that they opened at 9 am. At 8:30 I learned that our van would not be available until 3 pm, so I texted Anna to take a taxi from the airport and come to the yard. At 10 am we learned that we were getting another van (a bummer, because the first one had a unicorn and was “happier” than the one we got afterward, whose name is Doom).

At 10:30 am we finally started our adventure, and headed west to Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, where we took a wonderful of hikes around the coastal cliffs near the town of Piha, followed by a tramp (Kiwi for “hike”) up to the waterfall. We spent the night there, and got the excitement of seeing the hospital helicopter come and pick up a tourist who had luxated his shoulder up in the waterfall and couldn’t get down.

New Zealand 2016 Day 1. Tahiti and arrival in Auckland

Not too bad. Nine hours is just enough to see a movie (Minions) and get a nice snooze, but not long enough to get saddle sore. We landed in Papeete (pronounced pa-PEH-t) at 6 am, in sight of a small jagged ridge of eroded volcanic rocks. Outside of that I did not get to see a lot of Tahiti. As far as I can tell is an earthly paradise not unlike Hawaii, but in French. The locals belong to the attractive Polynesian race, with slender beautiful girls who grow up to become portly matrons, and smiling men as large as refrigerators.

The next leg of the trip started at 8 am, and in a bit less than 6 hours deposited me in the Auckland airport. Going through customs was a bit of a drag, because the Kiwis are very serious about keeping fruit and animal pests out of their islands I got 800 NZ dollars out of the ATM (at a rate of US$0.75 per NZ$1.00) right away, and for NZ$16 took the SkyBus from the airport to the city. The bus left me four blocks from my hotel, so a half hour later I was out in the street, walking down Queen St. and eagerly taking in a first glance at Auckland and its people. Diversity is what first comes to mind, for you see people of many colors and ethnicities milling around: Whites, Maories, Southeast Asian, Chinese, Japanese, and Indians. Fortunately for the visitor, they have all brought with them their cultures and foods, so there is no shortage of places to eat exotic food (including a Mexican restaurant, of course).

My promenade down Queen St. brought me to the wharf, where the most bewildering array of yachts and large sailing boats appears to have congregated. If you ever are in a market for a luxury boat, you might want to consider coming here to find the best selection and prices. With so many posh boats it is not surprising to find a very posh “fish market”, which is an understatement for a series of fancy seafood restaurants.

Overall a handsome town, which reminds me a little of Vancouver and Victoria in Canada. But now is time to get to bed, because tomorrow will be a long day.

New Zealand 2016 Day 0. LAX

I am finally in LAX, after nearly 24 hours of travel from my parent’s home in Monclova Mexico, and facing another 24 hours of travel before reaching my final destination in Auckland, New Zealand. I knew there was a reason why I had not gone there before. I am exhausted and I have not even started. I made the last leg, between San Antonio and Los Angeles, in the middle seat and in intimate contact with a very obese young man that had me pinned against the man on my left. But I really should not complain: My travel companion for this adventure, Anna Kobberger, left yesterday from Frankfurt, and will go through Istanbul, Beijing, and Guangzhou before arriving in Auckland, after 72 hours of travel!

From LAX, where I will have sat for nearly 6 hours, I will be heading to beautiful Tahiti (but, alas, will only be there for about 2 hours, longing for the paradise beyond the walls of the airport), where I will arrive at 6 am on Saturday January 2, after 9 hours of plane travel. I managed to wrestle an aisle seat from Air Tahiti, which originally wanted me to travel for said 9 hours in the middle of a set of 5 seats, so it should be an easy flight. The second leg of the trip will take another 6 hours (aisle seat again J), and will take me over the International Date Line, so I will instantly become a day older and land on Sunday January 3 in Auckland. Older and wiser I will start my adventure there.