New Zealand

New Zealand, Part 3: The South Island

Donna and I spent about 2 weeks on New Zealand’s gorgeous South Island.  We drove nearly 3,000 kilometers but afterward still felt that somehow we had only scratched the surface of  what one Kiwi I met called God’s Country because of its extreme beauty!  The key decision point for us after arriving on the ferry to Picton late on Monday afternoon was which way to drive south to Queenstown: along the west coast or along east coast.   We ended up taking the eastern coast route mainly because it meant we’d be partaking in more wine tasting the following day. This also would mean that when the time came to head north back to Picton in order to catch the ferry back to the North Island, we’d take the western route, which was said to be a more grandiose drive as the Southern Alps rise starkly from the Tasman Sea and the cliffside roadway looks akin to Big Sur — saving the best for last!   Really, either way would’ve been awesome and most of all we were stoked to start exploring the South Island.

Our route through the South Island

Our route through the South Island

 

Marlborough

The town of Blenheim is only 30 minutes south of Picton in the heart of Marlborough wine country, a region that produces most of New Zealand’s finest Sauvignon Blanc wines.   Donna was very excited to check out the winery of her favorite white wine, Cloudy Bay, so that was the top of our “to do” list.  Meanwhile, I went on the hunt for some mountain biking trails.  There was no disappointment for either of us!  Right near the town center we found an inexpensive hostel that we stayed at for two nights and that afforded us beds to sleep in and a large kitchen to make a few meals.  Next door to the hostel was a bike rental shop, where I learned that Blenheim, like any respectable New Zealand town, had a mountain bike park.

So by mid-morning on Tuesday we had mountain bikes rented and set to hit the mountain bike park. It was a clear but very windy day and it felt like we were biking uphill along a flat riverbed just to reach the mountain bike park.  Once at the park the trees and hill itself sheltered us from the wind and we did a few laps up and down through some fun trails without ever encountering any other riders.  After the ride we found lunch at a Thai restaurant and then back at the bike shop we decided it would be fun to swap our mountain bikes for a tandem bike that we could ride through the vineyards.  I am bummed we didn’t get a photo of the two of us on the tandem bike, but I can attest that riding a tandem bike is an awesome way to check out flat wine countryside with your favorite girl.  Our goal for the ride was to find Cloudy Bay and hopefully squeeze in a tasting before the winery closed, but our cell phones were out of batteries and without the navigational aid I got us hopelessly lost and we never found the vineyard.  It would have to wait for the next day…

The following day was a the real-deal wine tasting experience.  We started off with the main event: a tasting at Cloudy Bay, where we also came away with a good compliment of whites to take back to America with us for holiday sharing purposes.  After that we headed to Sherwood Estate, but the tasting room was closed for renovations, although there was a consolation prize: an open cheese tasting room.  We walked away with several cheeses, including an incredible aged bleu and a musty cheddar.  Next up was a taste of some incredible sparkling wines at No1 Family Estate followed by a visit to the Moa Brewery, where I tasted some great beers and walked away with a few hard to find IPAs.  We lunched at the posh Allan Scott vineyard and received a free tasting with meal.  Finally — and at this point I was feeling a little buzzed — we headed to the first and largest of the Marlborough vineyards, Bancroft Estate, where we enjoyed a scenic overlook of the Marlborough valley and tasted a few more kinds of sauvignon blanc.  What a day in the vineyards!

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!)

 

Making our way to Queenstown 

With Donna behind the wheel late that afternoon, we drove south without a clear destination in mind.  After a few hours we made it to Kaikoura and along the way we were treated to a gorgeous coastline that in many places was a brilliant aqua color and groomed by light offshore winds.  We passed many surf spots along the way, but there was absolutely no swell in the water, it was Lake Pacific.  Kaikoura was a sleepy beachside town and thus fish-n’-chips was our call for dinner and it was a delicious experience.   During the meal we discussed where we wanted to end up that evening and after some Google-ing we decided that a small town called Hanmer Springs would be worth checking out the next day, where we could do some mountain biking in the forests surrounding the town and then afterward soak our bones in the hot spring park.  The drive was long and we took an inland scenic route that afforded great vistas as the sun was setting.  I snapped a few pics of cute lambs too and by just after 9pm we made it to our campervan park and relaxed. 

In Hanmer Springs the next morning we rented bikes and contemplated which trails we’d want to find and ride.  The mountain bike shop offered a package that included a van ride to the top of the mountain behind town and then you’d get to ride back down to Hamner; it seemed like a great ride but was way overpriced, so we decided we’d just ride up and down ourselves!  A gruelling 8km climb of over 2,000 feet on a dirt road brought us to the high country behind the Hamner Range where we followed a road along the Clarence River until we forked off to descend back into Hamner.  The trail ride down on yet another logging road was not that awesome; Donna and I had clearly been spoiled by the awesome tracks at places like Rotorua, but it was a long ride with fantastic views of the Hanmer Valley.  Overall the ride took us just over 4 hours.  Oh, and then the hot springs awaited us and they were fantastically refreshing and relaxing.  I even snuck a ride on the waterslide!

We spent the rest of the afternoon continuing south and we freedom camped at a random site along the road.  It was a quiet place by a river, but both Donna and I got a little eaten by mosquitos in the short time we spent outside.  Amazingly, this was our first and only encounter with man-eating insects in New Zealand; they are usually not something to be concerned about.

We completed the final leg of our drive to Queenstown that Friday.  We passed through more epic scenery and even passed through the pasture land where our favorite merino wool clothing, Icebreaker, comes from.  We took a break from driving at the head of Lake Tekapo and made some reservations for adventures in Queenstown: rafting, mountain biking, and ATV riding.  One trick we learned was to check www.bookme.co.nz for discounted activites; we saved a couple hundred bucks by doing this for rafting and ATV riding.   By the time we made it to Queenstown it was dusk and after a brief foray in town it started raining so we drove to a campground about 10km south of the town.  We’d been tracking the weather closely and it looked like it’d be tricky partaking in the activities we wanted to do for the next week given a few systems forecasted to be moving through, but we were optimistic for periods of favorable conditions.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!)

 

Milford Sound 

At the campervan park south of Queenstown it rained most of the night.  It wasn’t raining when we drove back into town to the rafting guide meeting spot, but we were informed that because of the torrential downpour the previous night, the Shotover River was too high and therefore it was unsafe to raft that day.  The normal flow for the Shotover River is about 20-30 cubic meters per second (m/s), the max flow they will still allow rafting on is about 75 cubic m/s but because of the rain the previous day the river was flowing nearly 150 cubic m/s!  We had to come up with a new plan so we hung out at one of the adventure planning stores and the friendly guides helped us figure out a plan.  We had heard that checking out the Doubtful Sound in Fjordland was a worthwhile trip, but the availability for trips to Doubtful was non-existent, so instead we booked a sea kayaking trip for the following morning in Milford Sound.  Even though Milford Sound is only about 50 miles away from Queenstown as the crow flies, to get there via car one must instead drive all the way around Lake Wakatipu to the town of Te Anau and then follow Lake Te Anau north into Fjordland, through the epic Homer Tunnel and then down into Milford Sound.  We left immediately and the entire journey took well over 4 hours, but it included spectacular scenery as we weaved through glacier carved fjord valleys.  We made frequent stops along the way to take photos and gasp at insanely high waterfalls gushing from all aspects of rock; the recent rain ensured all waterfalls were gushing near their fullest.  At one stop we also encountered a number of rather tame kea birds.  I commented to Donna after first seeing one that it looked kind of like a parrot and it turns out that these highly intelligent birds are the world’s only alpine parrot.  By the time we made it to Milford Sound it was dusk and we were lucky to secure the last two bunk spots at the Milford Lodge.  After getting settled we went on a jogging tour of Milford Sound; the area was so small that we basically checked everything out, from the airport to the docks to the expansive wetland park, within about an hour of running around.  It felt great to stretch the legs after being in the campervan for so many hours over the previous two days!

 Sea kayaking the next day was an awesome experience and the weather was perfect.  We woke early and were on the water by 8am.  Being on the water early was worthwhile because early it was completely glassy and later on during the trip a seabreeze kicked up that made the kayaking much trickier.  I brought my GoPro and snapped a bunch of pics of the tranquil setting.  Highlights included kayaking through “tree barrels” that hung over the water and seeing 2 penguins walking around that were nesting in the sound for the winter. I’d recommend the trip we did with Roscoes Sea Kayaks to anyone visiting Milford Sound.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!)

 

Queenstown Adventures

We drove back to Queenstown and this time took up residence in a private room at a hostel called The Southern Laughter that is very close to the main drag.  We ended up spending 3 nights in a row here and it was worth it to relax in relative luxury and be able to cook meals in the kitchen.

The next day was an epic one with fantastic blue skies.  In the morning we went rafting on the Shotover River.  The river flow had fallen to about 50 cubic m/s and the rapids were super fun.  The drive in was also very interesting and sketchy as it was a old gold mining road that was narrow and wound down along steep cliffs lacking any kind of safety guardrails.  The road was used during the big gold rush in the 1800s by thousands of prospectors seeking fortune.  Apparently the stretch of the Shotover River we were about to float down had produced more gold than just about any river in the world and our guide told us that even to this day some of his friends had found small gold nuggets while panning for gold!  The highlight of the rafting trip was a tunnel we floated through that ended in the biggest rapid of the day.  The tunnel was created by gold miners who sought to divert the entire river so they could easily get gold from the riverbed, but they miscalculated so only half the river was diverted.  At least their efforts now provide tourists like us with a novel experience!

That afternoon we went 4-wheeling in the hills overlooking Queenstown.  Donna was tickle-pink with excitement, as she always is whenever we do any type of motorsport like jet-skiing or ATVing, and she raced along the hills with a huge smile on her face the entire time.  The guide was impressed with our riding skills and took us along some more advanced tracks, where we got to speed through huge mud puddles that splashed up enormous amounts of dirty water.  The bigger the splashes we made, the more the guide was impressed.  The vistas included the spectacular range of The Incredibles, which the guide informed us was the inspiration behind the Coors Beer logo; I kind of saw what he was saying but also felt like this was a classic Kiwi joke to tell Americans. 

The next day we had scheduled a mountain biking excursion at Rabbit Ridge, which was in the Gibbston Valley near Queenstown.  We had a lot of fun biking the deserted park.  We paid for a package that included 5 rides up to the top of the park in a van, which minimized the amount we need to pedal uphill.  The trails were rather technical with lots of banked berms on steep terrain and it was good practice for improving our riding.  At one point I totally slipped out and ate crap, my first real fall of the entire trip, but luckily I rolled it out and avoided any injury beyond a few minor scrapes.  The guide also got a fantastic photo of Donna coming around a berm that I am guessing may be in their next brochure or something.  After the ride we stopped by the Gibbston Valley Winery for a tasting of their Pinot Noirs, but we didn’t really like their wines all that much, the first time I’d actually been disappointed by New Zealand wine during the entire trip. 

Back in Queenstown by early afternoon, the rain started to come down.  We fuelled up at the infamous Fergburger. Anyone who has visited Queenstown has probably checked out Fergburger and I can attest that the taste of the burger really does live up to the hype: it is super good and by far the best burger in town.  There is also always a line out the door so expect a wait!  We spent the rainy afternoon playing Blackjack at the local casino and after over 2 hours of play we wound up making about $25, which felt like a great outcome.

During some of the gaps in our time I managed to get 2 rounds of frisbee golf in.  There is an 18-hole course in Queenstown that was pretty good, weaving through a forest and with a few “ace holes” and I was stoked to get to toss a few rounds.  Donna played with me during the first round and she definitely has a natural talent for throwing discs, although I wonder if I’ll ever get her to become passionate about the sport like I am, haha.

The next day was Wednesday, November 26th.  We’d been in the South Island for well over a week at this point and we knew we need to start making our back north before too long, but there was still one more major adventure to be had in Queenstown.  When we arrived, I challenged Donna that if she wanted to try either bungy jumping or skydiving I’d happily pay for it, my thinking being that given her inability to jump off a 20 foot high rock into the sea back in Cabo a few years back, that the likelihood of her wanted to do either of those former activities was pretty low.  But I wanted to encourage her risk taking side and I was stoked when we woke up that morning and she said she wanted to go bungy jumping!  In the Queenstown area there are several bungy jumps to do, but my philosophy is “go big or go home”, so there was no doubt in my mind that we’d have to do the Nevis Bungy, which at 134m is one of the top 10 highest in the world.  There was nervous excitement for both of us as the time for our jumps approached but in the end we both charged out there for the most thrilling 10 seconds of our entire trip.  The photos and videos speak for themselves!

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!) 

VIDEOS OF THE BUNGEE JUMPS

DONNA — we bought this one from the bungy company

http://www.youtube.com/AxL2FqLqFIA

BRANDON — self made from his GoPro camera

http://www.youtube.com/prSUO3iEIPs

 

 

Wanaka 

We had heard from multiple people that Wanaka was their favorite town and definitely worth checking out, so after the buzz from bungy jumping wore off, plus another round of Fergburgers, we made our way to Wanaka.  We arrived late in the afternoon and found a campervan site using the ever convenient NZ Campervan app.

The next morning we went and played the Wanaka golf golf course in Lisborn , which was brand new and I had learned about from a posting I found at the start of the Queenstown disc golf course.  The course was rather boring as it mostly covered treeless, hilly terrain, but it was kind of fun for its simplicity and I took down a solid 3-under par.

Afterward I rented a mountain bike in order to check out the Wanaka’s Sticky Forest mountain bike trail network.  Donna wasn’t feeling well, so she opted to stay in town and work on a blog post while I checked rode.   Overall I was impressed with the trails and spent a solid 3 hours exploring Sticky Forest.  There was some very advanced riding to be had and I found two runs that had awesome medium sized jumps that gave me a good thrill.  I came back thoroughly exhausted, but our plan was to start driving north so we left Wanaka after I returned the bike.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!) 

 

Driving North 

Based on conversations we’d had with a number of people while in Queenstown, we decided we wanted to check out Able Tasman National Park, which was way up on the northwest tip of the South Island.  This meant we needed to really get moving and drive well over 1,000kms from Wanaka along the west coast in order to get to the park and still make our ferry ride back to the North Island.  We wouldn’t have much time to do any real sight-seeing, but we hoped the views from the road would be as spectacular as people had said.

From Wanaka we ended up making it to about 30 miles south of the Fox Glacier before we ran out of light and found a campervan park to spend the night in.  The next morning we decided to check out the Fox Glacier, which was a short drive off the main road and then about a 30-minute hike to an overlook where the glacier terminated in a spiky mess of calving ice.  I think this was my first time seeing a glacier like this and it was impressive, and even more so when one considered that the entire huge valley we were in was carved by the slow moving ice.  The Glacier has been retreating quicker every decade since measurements had begun in the mid 1800s; in general the world’s glaciers seem to be humanity’s most stark reminder that climate change is happening.

From the Fox Glacier we pretty much bee-lined straight up to Able Tasman in an epic 8 hour drive.  The weather was somewhat cloudy and gloomy for most of the ride, which is actually fairly common for the area given the west side of the South Island consistently receives more rainfall that just about anyplace in the world.  We did stop for dinner in a small town called Murchison where I had one of those classic “it’s a small world” moments when I saw two lady kayak guides at the restaurant we had just walked into.  I was curious about what kind of rafting was in the area so I struck up a conversation and it turned out that these two girls knew a friend of mine from the U.K., Sara James, who had come through New Zealand a year and a half prior for a few months of kayaking.  I sent the picture I took with Sophia and Meg to Sara and she was stoked!  Once at Able Tasman we stayed in campervan park right on the beach and got a good nights rest in preparation for the long hike we planned to do the next day.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!) 

 

Able Tasman

The Able Tasman National Park contains another one of New Zealand’s “Great Treks”.  The park butts up against the Tasman Bay and is known for gorgeous white, sandy beaches and aqua blue water.  The hiking trail runs along the coast from the hamlet of Marahau in the south to about Wainui Bay in the north with a total length of about 50 kilometers that would take 2 or 3 days to hike in its entirety.  The following day we needed to catch the early ferry from Picton to the North Island, so we’d only be able to complete one stretch of the trail, but this wasn’t a problem because water taxis run to ferry people to and from pretty much any point along the trail where they need to go.  So we signed up to be dropped off near Bark Bay and planned to hike about 20 kilometers back to Marahau.  Compared to the gruelling Tangiriro Alpine Crossing, hiking in Able Tasman was a pleasant walk in the park.  The views were gorgeous and the beaches amazing and we were able to shave off 5 kilometers of the hike by taking a shortcut afforded us due to an unusually low tide.  Along the trail about every 100 meters or so we would see an animal trap designed to catch sloats or possums; these invasive species would devastate the indigenous bird’s nest’s and so conservation groups in New Zealand work tirelessly to try to remove the predators in order to induce the native birds to return o the mainland bush from the coastal islands where they only live now.

After the hike Donna enjoyed a glass of cider and myself a refreshing beer.  We were actually fairly tired after the hike, I guess we were working harder than we realized as Donna set a furiously fast pace.  We drove towards Picton and stayed one last night at a campervan site on the way.   The next morning we quickly made it to Picton and onto the ferry back to the North Island.

(below is a gallery, click first pic then cycle through the photos!)

THE END

 

And with that our New Zealand adventure quickly came to a close.  Back on the North Island I was stoked to get at least one surf session in before we caught a plane back to SF.

 

WE WILL BE BACK TO NEW ZEALAND, IT IS THE MOST AMAZING COUNTRY WE’VE BEEN TO.  EVERYONE SHOULD CHECK IT OUT FOR THEMSELVES !!!   And we hope that by reading our blog posts about New Zealand, you can learn from our experience and craft your own epic adventure!

 

Advertisements
Categories: Able Tasman, Marlborough, Milford Sound, Queenstown, Wanaka | 5 Comments

New Zealand, Part 2: The North Island

 

For much of November 2014 Donna and I were two adventurous and outdoors minded people living out of a van with 54,000 miles of New Zealand’s two lane roads ready to take us wherever we thought fun and excitement awaited.   We didn’t have a concrete plan because we thought a stiff itinerary would stifle us. Instead we had a rough idea that we wanted to mountain bike in as many places as possible while driving from Auckland to Queenstown and back. Of course we also knew that there would be much more than just mountain biking to do and part of the fun of each evening in the van was planning the next day’s route and adventure. I have to praise technology for making everything so easy: on our phones we had GPS + Google maps to ensure we’d never get lost, we had the Camper NZ app to ensure we’d find a campsite to safely park the van, we had the Internet to discover activities, locations, and for checking weather, and we could always use the local phone number to call business owners and inquire about when conditions would be best for their adventure offering. Some of our best recommendations actually came the old fashioned way, by talking to locals and fellow travelers about the awesome stuff they’d done. Below I describe the week or so of our travels through New Zealand’s North Island in the small campervan Donna described so well in our previous post.

 

Our route through the North Island

Our route through the North Island

Matamata

 

We left Auckland on a Monday afternoon after obtaining the campervan and picking up a few items downtown. While in Auckland I had at first imagined heading to the tip of Northland in order to surf a large incoming SW swell at the right points of Shipwreck Bay, but at the last minute scrubbed that plan as the incoming swell would be ripped apart by onshore winds from the very storm responsible for the waves. A second idea was to head to Coromandel for gorgeous beaches and mountain biking, but upon talking to a bike rental shop in that area, he recommended to me that the best mountain biking in the North Island was in a place called Rotorua. Donna’s ears perked up upon hearing this and so we decided to head southeast toward Rotorua.

 

After a few hours we found ourselves in the hamlet of Matamata. Being our first day on the road we desired to find a place to park the van before it was dark and so Donna fired up the NZ Camper app and found a place nearby. On our drive through town we saw a very hobbit-like building with a sign reading “Hobbiton Tours” and so it was that we’d struck upon our first activity for the road trip: a tour of The Shire setting Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie trilogies.

north island-1

This very obvious building in Matamata perked my interest that we may be close to The Shire.

 

The tour seemed pricey at NZD 75 each, but it was worth it. The clouds parted during our tour, which made for nice photos, and it was a hoot checking out how intricately the Hobbiton set had been created. Plus it was pretty cool to randomly post onto social media a few pictures of ourselves in such a recognizable location. My roommate Trevor identified The Shire location within seconds of seeing the photo.

 

Donna and I posing in front of a Hobbit hole.

Donna and I posing in front of a Hobbit hole.

Hobbiton, straight from the movies!

Hobbiton, straight from the movies!

The site of Hobbiton is on the Alexander's Farm.  This is pretty much a sheep paradise!

The site of Hobbiton is on the Alexander’s Farm. This is pretty much a sheep paradise!

In the Green Dragon Tavern I sampled both the Hobbit Stout and the Hobbit Ale, double fisting

In the Green Dragon Tavern I sampled both the Hobbit Stout and the Hobbit Ale, double fisting

Posing in front of the hobbit lake and Green Dragon Tavern

Posing in front of the hobbit lake and Green Dragon Tavern

When Donna is really happy, she does cartwheels!

When Donna is really happy, she does cartwheels!

Rotorua

 

After the Hobbiton tour we drove straight to the mountain bike park near Rotorua. We were not disappointed, this was by far the best mountain bike park I’d ever been to and overall Donna and I agreed it was our favorite in all of we visited in New Zealand. The cost was only 45 NZD for each of us to rent full suspension bikes for a half day. The shop owner gave us a map and showed us few good routes through the park, explaining that each trail was marked as one-way, either up-hill or downhill, so that you are assured never to have to deal with oncoming traffic. I wonder why I haven’t seen this anywhere in the US?!  The trails flowed wonderfully though the Whakarewarewa Forest of mixed of fern and pine groves. Dirt logging roads often made for easy ascents. We biked hard for several hours and returned exhausted but stoked.

At first Donna was abhorred that logging was so prevalent in the pine forests we saw while mountain biking in Rotorua and throughout New Zealand. But to our surprise we learned pine trees are in fact an invasive species in New Zealand, introduced in the time of English colonization because pine trees grow quickly and are perfect for harvesting wood for construction.   The invasiveness of the pines means that to the Kiwis it is not so sad that large swaths of pine forests are routinely planted and cut down in a largely sustainable forestry industry. The forests native to New Zealand look different: there are no pine trees and instead you’ll see a more Jurassic looking fauna dominated by ferns and more twisted, smaller trees. In some places you can find a dramatic line of demarcation where a pine tree grove meets a native forest, both seemingly edging out the other for dominance. In other locations naturalists even poison pine trees in an attempt to rid restore the land to its original state! Once we learned this we were less alarmed by the logging, athough for us it was still hard not to be sad when seeing land scarred by cut down pine forests.

Pine tree logging in New Zealand is not viewed as too environmentally unsound since pine trees are an invasive species, but nonetheless leaves the land looking scarred

Pine tree logging in New Zealand is not viewed as too environmentally unsound since pine trees are an invasive species, but nonetheless leaves the land looking scarred

At a great lookout point in the Rotorua Mountain Bike Park.  Lake Rotorua and the town are in the background.

At a great lookout point in the Rotorua Mountain Bike Park. Lake Rotorua and the town are in the background.

 

At a coffee shop in town the next day saw a painting of a beautiful lake and learned from an employee that this was Lake Tarawera and that it was nearby. In this way we decided to set off on a drive to find Lake Tarawera, and we also found two other beautiful lakes, called the Green and Blue lakes. At some point I learned of the Tarawera Waterfall and I became intrigued so Donna and I decided to check that out too. To get to the waterfall we had to drive to the small town of Karewua and then the next morning drive into the national forest and to do a short hike to the falls. The site of the waterfall is a sacred place to the Maori people, who were especially fascinated by the waterfall eminating directly from the side of the large rocks.  This is caused by underground lava flows having carved tunnels that the stream descends into just before coming to the rock ledge.

Donna and I selfie overlooking the Blue Lake

Donna and I selfie overlooking the Blue Lake

 

Balancing on the shore of the Blue Lake

Balancing on the shore of the Blue Lake

Donna in front of Tarawera Falls

Donna in front of Tarawera Falls

Lake Tarawera

Lake Tarawera

After the waterfall hike we couldn’t resist the temptation to go for another half day in Rotorua’s mountain bike park. It was so fun! Immediately after finishing the ride we hit the road towards our next destination.

 

Tongariro Crossing

 

The next adventure we set out for ourselves was to make the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  I first heard about the trek at Hobbiton, where it was pointed out that the alpine landscape of Tongagiro National Park was used in Lord of the Rings as the backdrop for the evil land of Mordor. Later I found out the trek is one of New Zealands 7 “Great Hikes”: read about them all here at this link.   The single day Tongariro hike is a 20km route that weaves up, over and between volcanic peaks in an alpine environment. As the highest part of the North Island the vistas are awesome and you encounter unique sulfuric lakes that are a brilliant blue color as well as areas of active volcanic acitivity.   We linked up with a tour bus company that dropped us at the foot of the trail and picked us up 7 hours later after we made the crossing. The weather was far from perfect as it started off cloudy and with strong, icy winds just before we passed the highest point.  Fortunately, things cleared up as soon as we arrived to the lakes and for the second half the weather was mild and pleasant as we descended from the alpine into the temperate forest below. The tour operated told us we had actually been lucky with the weather, as few had made the cross the past 5 days due to snow and bad conditions. We were stoked!

During the ascent it was windy and there was poor visibility

During the ascent it was windy and there was poor visibility

The sulfuric lakes were a brilliant blue/green color.

The sulfuric lakes were a brilliant blue/green color.

We love alpine environements!

We love alpine environements!

The vista on the descent was fantastic

The vista on the descent was fantastic

This is just before the fog cleared

This is just before the fog cleared… we were lucky that it did, as it revealed the fantastic scenery

From the highest point

Panoramic vista of the red crater

Areas of the mountain harbor active volcanic vents

Areas of the mountain harbor active volcanic vents

 

After the hike we treated ourselves to our first night in a hotel, where we took long, hot showers, and relaxed after a long day. Donna made friends with Queenie, the resident mouse-killer of the hotel, while I had a beer at the local pub where I learned more about New Zealand from the owner and bartender.

When Donna first met Queenie while we were sizing for boots to rent for the Crossing

When Donna first met Queenie while we were sizing for boots to rent for the Crossing

Donna and Queenie getting along well

Donna and Queenie getting along well

 

Wellington

 

By this point we were four days into our road trip and we’d only made it half way down the North Island, so it was time to make some way south. That morning during breakfast Donna and I met two ladies our age, one from Norway and the other from Spain, who were trying to catch a bus that day to Wellington in hopes of catching the Rugby League Final* that night, with Australia challenging New Zealand for the title. Donna’s friend Prashant encouraged us to check a game out and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, so we came up with our next plan: drive down to Wellington to watch our first rugby game.

 

Nice sheep-y landscape on the drive from National Park to Wellington

Nice sheep-y landscape on the drive from National Park to Wellington

Everything worked out perfectly. As soon as Donna and I showed up we drove straight to the stadium and bought our tickets. Once in town we found a campervan park, literally right in the downtown waterfront area – only in New Zealand! We explored the downtown scene a little then headed to the game. The pre-game show included the Kiwis doing a Haka dance, which is a Maori war chant meant to instill fear into the Kangaroos. The game itself was fast-paced and we were both amazed with what momentum the players would hurl themselves with at one another.   In an exciting game that came down the last minute, the Kiwis won! So we headed back into town with the crowd and checked out a few bars before calling it a successful night of New Zealand culture.

 

Just after we bought our tickets for the Rugby League Finals.

Just after we bought our tickets for the Rugby League Finals.

 

Wellington reminded me of SF, with a reminiscent downtown are just adjacent to a beautiful Bay.

Wellington reminded me of SF, with a reminiscent downtown are just adjacent to a beautiful Bay.

 

Hordes of Kiwi Fans heading to the rugby match.

Hordes of Kiwi Fans heading to the rugby match.

It was impressive checking out how fast these guys collided with one another, not even wearing any pads

It was impressive checking out how fast these guys collided with one another, not even wearing any pads

Stoked that the Kiwis won!

Stoked that the Kiwis won!

The next morning before heading out to wine country, we grabbed fresh produce at the Wellington farmer's market.

The next morning before heading out to wine country, we grabbed fresh produce at the Wellington farmer’s market.

This Sea Shepard boat was parked in Wellington Harbor. We talked to a crew member who told us their most potent weapon against the Japanese whalers was hurling rotten butter onto the poacher's ships

This Sea Shepard boat was parked in Wellington Harbor. We talked to a crew member who told us their most potent weapon against the Japanese whalers was hurling rotten butter onto the poacher’s ships

Martinborough

 

While in Wellington we purchased a ferry ticket to take the van and ourselves to the South Island. However, our ticket was for Monday afternoon, so we had a day to kill, so we decided to head to the North Island’s premier Sauvignon Blanc wine country.   We learned that there would be a wine tasting festival in a famous wine town called Martinborough, only about 2 hours drive from Wellington. When we arrived we saw that the event was clearly awesome, the weather was nice and everyone was dressed up for wine tasting with buses to shuttle people to the various wineries. However, Donna felt the price was too high at NZD 75 just to attend, plus at least another NZD 100 more in “tasting tickets”, so instead Donna led us off to visit a few wineries in the nearby town of Masterton instead.  Near Masterton we found 2 quaint wineries: Gladstone Vineyards and Johner Estate. The experience at these wineries was better for us because not only were they completely, but also in both cases we had the undivided attention of the wine representative who enthusiastically took us through any wines we wanted to taste from their winery. We walked away a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Gladstone and a Pinot Noir from Johner, both of which we drank in the van through during the road trip.

 

Fantastic New Zealand wine country: Martinborough & Masterton

Fantastic New Zealand wine country: Martinborough & Masterton

Gladstone Vineyard

Gladstone Vineyard

In front of the vines at Johner Estate

In front of the vines at Johner Estate

That evening we pulled into a freedom campsite at a park in Carterton. We walked around the large lake and observed a huge variety of waterfowl, including white swans, black swans (yes, they exist!), ducks, and various types of ugly geese. The next morning while we made breakfast we fed the ducks and I got some cute photos Donna feeding a mother duck and her four ducklings – so precious!

 

Swan mother with 3 chicks on her back in the pond

Swan mother with 3 chicks on her back in the pond

Big time duck feeding went down this morning.  Donna couldn't resist the cuteness.

Big time duck feeding went down this morning. Donna couldn’t resist the cuteness.

Duckling shot #1

Duckling shot #1

Duckling shot #2

Duckling shot #2

A baby ... something ... that we found in the grass

A baby … something … that we found in the grass

After the duck-feeding morning, we drove back to Wellington and drove our campervan onto the Ferry to Picton. For our small van plus us to cross to the South Island with us cost about NZD 250. The Ferry ride was on an overcast morning but I enjoyed a breakfast IPA and couldn’t keep my eyes off the scenery as we we glided through the Sounds towards the more spectacular of the islands of Aotearoa.

Looking towards Wellington over the stern of the large ferry that brought us and our campervan to the South Island

Looking towards Wellington over the stern of the large ferry that brought us and our campervan to the South Island

Double Hopped IPA for the ferry ride

Double Hopped IPA for the ferry ride

Gliding into the Sounds near Picton

Gliding into the Sounds near Picton

 

Raglan

 

At this point in the narrative, I’ll skip over all of the South Island, which will be covered in the next post, but in keeping with this being the “North Island” post, I will pick up once we returned to the North Island after spending nearly 2 weeks on the South Island.   We were back on the North Island for less than 48 hours, needing to drive back north to Auckland in order to return the van and catch a flight to San Francisco.

 

Epic rainbow (with a hint of double rainbow in the upper left) that we found during our long drive north from Wellington to Raglan

Awesomely brilliant rainbow (with a hint of double rainbow in the upper left) that we found during our long drive north from Wellington to Raglan

Nearing the last day of our New Zealand trip I still hadn’t surfed, but I finally saw a good window of weather and swell for New Zealand’s most famous break, Raglan. For pretty much the entire time we were on the road, New Zealand was in a weather pattern that would see a low sweep to the NW across both islands, dropping inches of precipitation and bringing strong SW winds, so that most any west coast spot would be blown out. After the storm and rain we would see a day or two of decent weather before the next system moved in. Meanwhile late spring is the worst season for east coast waves as there were no storms below Fiji, in the Coral Sea or in the Pacific west of New Zealand.   The window of good surf I saw meant I’d be surfing in the morning and heading to the airport that afternoon and I was stoked of the idea of leaving on a high note.

 

We crossed from the South Island back to the north island and spent all day driving straight north to Raglan. We parked our campervan for its final stop right in town and spent the early morning packing all our gear and cleaning the van in preparation for leaving that afternoon. On the way to Raglan I stopped by a surf shop and rented a fun looking fish and a wetsuit. We pulled off onto the first vista and I had my first view of the perfect point-break setup that produces such good waves at Raglan. I could see surfers dotting the lineups from Manu Bay all the way and well over a mile though Indicators.

Looking over the entirety of Raglan.  Manu Bay is the first point and then there are several more as you continue west

Looking over the entirety of Raglan. Manu Bay is the first point and then there are several more as you continue west

 

Because I didn’t have much time I just opted for the easiest to find but also most crowded lineup at Manu Bay. Donna was happy to be by the beach and took a few photos with my big SLR camera. The weather was bring and sunny and the waves were small and eventually blown out, but still I got some fun, long rides.

 

Suiting up for a surf!

Suiting up for a surf!

It was crowded and required some aggressive surfing

It was crowded and required some aggressive surfing

Fun cutback

Fun cutback

Down the line way on the inside

Down the line way on the inside

 

We drove back to Auckland, dropped the van off and got a ride to the airport. With that our epic New Zealand road trip was over … but you haven’t heard many of the best parts yet, so stay tuned for the real meat of our adventure: The South Island and Queenstown!

Categories: Martinborough, National Park, New Zealand, Rotorua, Wellington | 2 Comments

New Zealand, Part 1

Auckland

Brandon and I arrived in Auckland on November 7th to begin our last adventure traveling together before we move to France in January. We agreed to go big in New Zealand for the next four weeks, and aside from our “budget” campervan, we followed through with that promise.

Brandon and I spent the first 4 days in the trendy Ponsonby area in Auckland to tour around the country’s largest city by population and roughly sketch out our plan to tour the rest of NZ. NZ has a total population of about 4.5 million and about 1.5 million are living in Auckland. The number of sheep in NZ, on the other hand, tops over 60 million – approximately 13 to 1. One would think that wool is NZ’s greatest export, but it’s actually dairy! As we witnessed firsthand while driving some 5,000 kilometers throughout the country, the livestock in NZ live happy lives in large green pastures they can roam freely. I can’t help but share these stats because we had just come from Shanghai (city population 24 million) and Singapore (city population 5.5 million). Compare NZ’s landmass of 100,000 square miles to Singapore’s of 277 square miles, it was like night and day to what we experienced a few short weeks ago.

 

NZ aukland and campervan-1

Prashant and me jumping for the camera to capture an INSEAD moment in Auckland!

 

View of Auckland

View of Auckland

 

NZ aukland and campervan-3

Marina in Auckland near the location of the America’s Cup in 2000 and 2003.  Some big nice yachts in there!

 

NZ aukland and campervan-4

Another part of the marina housed some beautiful sailing yachts … these are more Brandon and my style!

 

 

In early October, while spending some time in San Francisco, I was able to meet the only classmate going to INSEAD from New Zealand as he just happened to be passing through the city before embarking on an epic road-trip around the US. His name was Prashant. It was over dinner in the Mission with Prashant and a few other INSEAD classmates that we planned to meet up again a month later in Auckland, where Brandon and I didn’t know anyone. How lucky is that?? Call me biased, but INSEAD is proving to admit very personable, friendly, intelligent, fun and sharp candidates from around the world. 😉

 

Brandon and I met up with Prashant on our second day in Auckland where we went on a tour to check out the views from various vista points around the city. It was absolutely beautiful. We took an obligatory INSEAD moments photo to let our class know that there were at least two of us celebrating our pre-INSEAD days in NZ! Prashant also brought us to a marina that held some incredible yachts and sailboats docked in the same location that had been the center of the 2000 and 2003 America’s Cup races. Later we stopped off along a beach to have a couple of drinks and to enjoy our first (of many) NZ burgers. I was pretty quickly falling in love with NZ. We had a great time with Prashant and learned a ton about NZ. He left us with many ideas of things to do and must-see places both in Auckland and around NZ. I’m still trying to convince him to start the program in France, but unfortunately my time is running short and I may just have to wait until Brandon and I move to Singapore the second half of next year.

That night, Brandon and I walked over to the Sky Tower in the center of Auckland to check out sunset views over the cityscape. We topped off the night with about as romantic a dinner as I could ever squeeze out of Brandon, a bottle of wine with an amazing meal on a slowly spinning platform overlooking the city. Many brownie points were earned that evening (thanks for the rec Prashant!!).

 

NZ aukland and campervan-5

Dinner at the revolving restaurant at the top of the SkyTower overlooking Auckland!

 

 

Life in a Campervan

 

The next day, it was time to pick up our campervan, which would act as both our transportation and home for many nights around New Zealand. We settled on a budget that would cost ~$1,150 for 23 days, including unlimited mileage. It was a cozy, trusty, eye-sore of a vehicle which we would come to love. It had a huge sticker of an Australian rugby player, obvious due to the yellow shirt and green trousers, stuck to its side which more than once arose the playful contempt of the Kiwis. The van was minimally stocked with sheets, pans, plates and few other essentials. When I say cozy, I mean it was a tight squeeze for us both to sleep in the back … when we put the cushions down, only one of us could comfortably lie on our backs, while the other would have to sacrifice and sleep on his/her shoulder until the other was ready to flip onto his/her side. After the first few nights, we grew accustomed to sleeping in the van and it became natural and surprisingly, comfortable. This would be a first for us – living out of a minivan on the road for over 3 weeks. The best part of living out of a campervan was the freedom that it afforded us; we woke up in a different part of NZ every morning until we reached Queenstown.

NZ aukland and campervan-22

Our home on wheels – the Amazing Campervan!

 

NZ aukland and campervan-20

Roadtripping to Milford Sound in the camper van!

 

NZ aukland and campervan-21

GoPro selfie during a stretch of the NZ drive!

 

Seeing that many visitors in NZ choose to roadtrip around the two islands via car or campervan, NZ has made roadtripping very easy and convenient. Brandon downloaded a Camping NZ app to his phone, which gave us all the information we needed to find a place to park our van and crash every night no matter where in NZ we were. The campsites ranged from full service motels offering basic private rooms for about ~$80 to so-called “freedom camping” sites that were more like free picnic sites on the side of the road. Most nights, Brandon and I posted up on what they call “unpowered vehicle sites”, which simply meant we paid for a flat square patch of grass to sleep in our van. The price for the night ranged from $20 – $40 per night, which gave us access to a communal kitchen, bathroom and hot showers. A handful of nights, mainly when Brandon and I thought one more elbow to the face might cause a physical fight between us, we decided to get a small motel room for a few more inches of sleeping space. A couple of times we also chose to “freedom camp”, but this was a little risky in our budget campervan because in order to legally freedom camp one is required to have a “self-contained” sticker on your vehicle, which certifies that you have a working toilet on board. Overall, after experiencing campervan roadtripping around NZ, I can vouch that traveling by campervan is a great way to see NZ; the roads are great and there are campsites/motels every few kilometers along most roads and anyplace remotely frequently by travelers.

Many mornings we made our own breakfasts directly from the back of the van or kitchen (if the campsites provided one) and enjoyed a cup of coffee together to kickstart our day. Brandon learned to master the art of on-the-road gourmet coffee using his Jetboil plus its handy plunger press accessory. Our meals were basic: scrambled cheesy eggs with veggies and toast or oatmeal with local honey and bananas. I have learned to love camping for the way it temporarily strips complexity from daily life: cooking basic meals with your partner, enjoying the art of conversing without distractions from the internet or TV and sleeping as much as you want!

 

 

 

NZ aukland and campervan-10

Enjoying one of Brandon’s morning brews from our freedom camping site!

 

NZ aukland and campervan-11

Breakfast of champions from the back of the van!

 

NZ aukland and campervan-12

Living the good life from our camper van!

 

On our first night with the campervan after departing from Auckland, we pulled into a small museum’s parking lot, which allowed campers to crash overnight. Brandon and I were hunched over trying to pull the sheets over the seat cushions while swatting flies off our legs to make our bed for the night. Not even 10 minutes later, a McMansion on wheels decided to drive in and park right next to us! The Britz was a luxury self-contained mobile home with the bed on the roof, stovetop and microwave, power outlets, a bathroom, and even a primitive shower. This thing was fully stocked, putting our little guy to shame! What our guy had was character, 340,000 km of experience on the NZ roads and most importantly us, so after a good laugh and a hint of jealousy, we settled into our sleeping bags and crashed for the night.  Later on we couldn’t resist the temptation to analyze the pros and cons of our budget campervan decision against the other, more luxurious campervan options. It turns out that a decent motorhome like the Britz would run more like $150+ per day in the high summer seasons versus the $50 we were paying. A bigger campervan would comfortably sleep 3 or maybe 4 adults.   You’d get the option to save some money by freedom camping (legally), but my guess is most nights you’d still end up at a campground and thus paying $30-50 per night for a powered site. Also, gas would cost more and the vehicle itself would be slower and less maneuverable to drive, which is an important consideration in the harsh and windy road conditions that NZ can present. In the end we were happy with our decision to go budget for the two of us on this trip. Doing so incentivized us to spend more time away from our van to explore the beautiful country and the extra money spent on the luxury of a big van would’ve been wasted. If we come back to tour NZ with other people or a family, the bigger campervans will make much more sense.

 

NZ aukland and campervan-7

We took turns driving, here is Brandon doing his thing…

 

NZ aukland and campervan-18

… and here I am putting some KMs on the van!

NZ aukland and campervan-8

Our sleeping area in the van was overly comfy, but we learned to love it. And those Curtains!

NZ aukland and campervan-9

Brandon drinking a local brew one fine evening in the van

NZ aukland and campervan-16

After picking up some tasty sauvignon blanc in wine country, we got to enjoy it in the van

NZ aukland and campervan-14

At another freedom campsite we had some pleasant morning company in 4 ducklings that were eager for my bread gifts

NZ aukland and campervan-15

I included this pic because who doesn’t want to see baby swans on their momma’s back!

NZ aukland and campervan-17

Just us and one “self-contained” motorhome freedom camping somewhere in the South Island

NZ aukland and campervan-19

Our campsite lakeside near Queenstown

 

The next few posts will chronicle our adventures around the North and South Islands of NZ !!

Categories: Auckland, New Zealand | 3 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.

The Radical Sabbatical

Donna + Brandon

Bromdog's Blog

The life of Matt Bromley

Andreessen Horowitz

Software Is Eating the World

TechCrunch

Startup and Technology News

It's a Rice Life

Adventures in SE Asia

The Good Life Rides Again

Tom and Barabara's Travel Blog