Mount Cook and Twizel, New Zealand

14 02 2013

Stupendous view from Lake Pukaki, near Twizel!

Elwin, Angelique and I departed Christchurch for our exploration of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, lakes and fiords. We were looking forward to stunning views, sapphire lakes, hikes, and glaciers. Our first stop would be Twizel, which is the little gateway town for Mount Cook, at 12,316 ft the highest peak in Australasia.

Now, New Zealand is beautiful. You may have heard. But it is the compactness of the country, and variety of climates, that makes it so different than any other in the world. On the road to Twizel we drove through plains, mountain passes, through an infinity of multicolored lupine fields, from the palms of the semi tropical coast to majestic glaciated peaks – in a matter of hours! What you may not know, is that so much of it has been cleared for agriculture. We were surprised that sometimes it seems every scrap of land not part of a reserve seems to be converted to agriculture. Even the forests covering the mountains are often all second generation pines grown for wood production. The Kiwis are acutely aware and have ramped up preservation on land and in coastal marine reserves as well.

We arrive in Twizel. Twizel, population 1,065, is definitely ground zero for Mt. Cook exploration. This town was originally founded entirely as housing for construction workers for the hydroelectric projects on the dams nearby. Today, the remaining houses and “dorms” serve as places for the outdoors crowd. Still small, Twizel has a limited lodging landscape, and I made reservations only a few days ahead. As such I had to make do with a hostel room for all three of us at High Country Lodge & Backpackers, shared unisex bath down the hall. And parking? Outside your window – literally – on the lawn. We did make friends with some other travelers. But, the place was dirty, the beds lumpy, and it was generally noisy both at night and in the morning. If you can imagine beer drinking buddies, showering backpackers, a woman voicing her orgasms behind the wall, and people outside your window unpacking their SUV all at the same time, that describes a night at this place! And at 5:30 a.m.? Cars loading up for a day on Mt Cook, engines running and doors opening and slamming. At least we made do watching “The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers” during all of this. So, if you plan on staying in Twizel, I recommend reserving your lodgings earlier and don’t stay at the backpackers hostel! You can, however, stay at their “lodge,” and have a real room and small porch / bathroom to yourself – IF you book further ahead.

Aside from our lodgings, Twizel is perfectly fine. It has a few restaurants, it’s quiet, there are two grocery stores, it’s walkable, and generally OK.

Left sided driving to Mt Cook...

Left sided driving to Mt Cook…

The plan is to hike some of the valleys near Mt. Cook. Unfortunately Elwin comes down sick, and decides to sleep it off. So, Angelique and I head up in 100% blue bird perfect weather to hike the Hooker Glacier area near Mt Cook, and hopefully the Tasman Glacier, too.

Like the glaciers in Patagonian Argentina we saw last year, these too create miles long sky blue lakes to the east. What we saw in Patagonia, by comparison, is almost unimaginable. Lake Argentina is 1,466 sq km, and Lake Pukaki is 179 sq km.  Still, these are impressive-and beautiful.

So we head out. The trail to the Hooker Glacier is really close to the tourist center in the valley, including the Hermitage Hotel, so there are lots of folks on the way. But that doesn’t matter. It’s really gorgeous.


It is so pretty. It’s really HOT, and we seek shelter from the sun in a little hut. There are “rivers” literally spouting from the sides of the mountains. That tells me that the rock is porous, allowing underground streams to form from the melt-water from the glaciers above.

We meet lots of Australians – something that would be repeated over and over during my month in New Zealand. And they’d always tell me that, though Australia is beautiful too, it’s so expensive that they fly to New Zealand for their holidays.


Across suspension bridges, up and up Angelique and I go, with the Hooker Glacier the goal. The trail has been re-worked a few times, and there’s an old suspension bridge, plus a to-be suspension bridge we pass as we go.

Down under the area closer to The Hermitage, there is a lake with ice bergs melting from the glaciers. It’s nowhere near the size of the Patagonia lakes – but it’s still cool!


Rod and Angelique

I wish Elwin were here because it’s really spectacular. He and Angelique spent the last month in Australia, and there’s nothing like this there. Well, he’s going to just have to see the pictures I guess.

The Hooker Glacier, at the terminus, is not spectacular. It is small (relative to the massive glaciers in Patagonia we saw) and covered in an insulating blanket of rocks. But it’s still a glacier!

So Mt Cook did not disappoint. If you head to New Zealand’s South Islands, definitely check it out.

IMG_3388Angelique and I also headed to the Tasman Glacier Terminus. On the way I realized O-M-G we are smack in the middle of The Lord of the Rings Battle for Gondor! There is NO question. I looked it up and verified. I don’t have pictures. But wow! They did film those scenes right there.


Spectacular Mt. Cook, and the Hooker Glacier (covered in rocks) underneath.

When we reach the trailhead I realize just how much of a magnet Mt. Cook is in January! The parking area is completely filled up and people are competing for spots. I actually got angry and left in a huff. I didn’t go on vacation to engage in an urban combat situation. Perhaps I should have been more patient! But I’d read that the Tasman Glacier’s terminus, like Hooker’s, is also gray and less-than-spectacular…that was my only consolation.

Back in Twizel, Elwin was improving! He’s a super hiker and I knew h0w hard it was for him to miss today’s hike!

Next up – road trip past Queenstown, New Zealand, to Te Anau and Fiordland National Park!

Christchurch New Zealand

11 02 2013

IMG_0088Today we were in Christchurch, New Zealand, where we were to meet with Oscar Manguy and Yurira Hernandez, two Mexican kayak guides I had met during the Loco Roundup Kayak Symposium in 2011. I’ve been Facebooking with them ever since. They work with National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), guiding in Alaska during the northern summer and New Zealand in the southern summer. Not a bad life! When in New Zealand, they live in Christchurch.

When I decided to head to New Zealand, I contacted Yurira and then, when I had definite dates, we were able to coordinate a visit! It was GREAT to see them on the other side of the world!

I hoped to paddle with them, but it seems the kayak facilities they use are not in Christchurch. So we’d spend time visiting in Christchurch and then figure out what to to. Elwin and I were curious about a city called Akaroa, which is on the Banks Peninsula, south of town. But Elwin, Angelique and myself really didn’t know much about Christchurch itself. So we would spend part of the day in downtown Christchurch.

Christchurch, founded in 1850, with about 345,000 people, is the 2nd largest city in New Zealand, and the biggest on the South Island. You wouldn’t know it by looking out from the central city – because the area is pretty flat and the buildings are not so tall. The fact is, Christchurch spreads out a lot. It’s got a wealth of cultural attractions, fine beaches, ample city parks and gardens, and heartbreakingly beautiful churches, which were devastated by two 2011 earthquakes.  It suffered a devastating 6.9 magnitude earthquake in February 2011 and a major aftershock six months later. I talked with some locals – they said one earthquake caused sideways shifting, while the other seemed to jolt upwards.

We first met for lunch, and then took a stroll around. The central business district was simply devastated. And much remains rubble, as building codes are to be updated before reconstruction can begin in earnest. Much of the old downtown was built on ground that was subject to liquefaction. Worse, many older classic buildings and churches were built of brick or stone. All around Christchurch once lovely churches lie in varying states of rebuilding process.


Seats still inside this theater!


We checked out a central business district shopping mall made of shipping containers. This was an interesting way to try to drum up some economic activity!

IMG_0091We passed a theater and what must have been a lively restaurant / bar district. Today, these buildings lay in various states of ruin.

Still, the city is vibrant and moving on. There are lovely walkways and gardens everywhere. If only I had pictures of all the lovely parts of Christchurch!

We’d reached about 2:00 in the afternoon…what would we like to do next? Let’s head to the Banks Peninsula and check out Akaroa. We’d heard it’s a beautiful, warm, with a French flair. So we piled into the Camry and headed over there! More next blog post!




Christchurch New Zealand, Left Sided Driving, Meeting Elwin and Angelique

9 02 2013

I flew out of Palmerston North, over the infamous Cook Strait and landed at Christchurch, New Zealand. Cook Strait is one of Earth’s most dangerous crossings. There was a storm approaching from Antarctica that day, and we were taking a slightly diverted route to avoid turbulence. I will never forget what I saw, looking down at the strait. I saw over 30-foot continuously breaking swells – you could see the foam piles behind the swells stretching for hundreds of yards! These swells were just running amok on fire! That would be super un-cool to be out there in any craft.

The flight left at 7:10 a.m. and landed at 8:30 so I was in Christchurch for the better part of the day. Elwin and Angelique were to land from Sydney, Australia about 3:30 p.m. They’d just spent a month in Australia. I rented our car for the month from Apex Rentals, and then set about finding our apartment at Avalon Motel & Suites. Needless to say I was more than a bit nervous about jumping in a car and driving on the left side of the road! The turn signals and windshield wiper activators were on opposite sides than in the USA, and of course the car is right-side drive. So when turning I would activate the wipers DUH. Or when getting into the car to drive come up on the left side, DUH.

Apex Car Rentals is a good deal in New Zealand. I rented a Toyota Camry with unlimited mileage and full collision coverage for a month for $1,450. It is $40/day for the car before insurance. It was not new – a 2006 – but the car was perfectly adequate for the curvy/hill-packed roads and comfortably sized for the three of us. Gasoline was approximately $115/tank. Most of New Zealand highways are only one lane in each direction – so you need to pass if you want to move on. The Camry had adequate power for passing, even with three of us and luggage. How did we work the money? Since I spent so much on the car, Angelique and Elwin would pay for the hotels and gas until their spending caught up with mine.

I got in behind the wheel. Holy bejezus. I hadn’t driven in a left sided country since 1983. There are lots of roundabouts in New Zealand and at first they can be a challenge! I took some time in some side neighborhoods to get used to what I was doing! I checked into our apartment which was pretty sweet. It had two bedrooms (one with twins and another with queen) and a living room equipped with kitchen and even a washing machine. Pretty up to date actually.

I had a few hours to kill so I headed to the waterfront. There are miles of beaches so I watched swimmers, bathers and surfers doing what they do. Here I was. The surf here was fairly challenging but folks just went at it.

It was time to go back to the airport to pick my co-wanderers up! Once they came through customs, it was a bit emotional to see them again! The last time we were together was in Buenos Aires! We had been all over Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia together, and now it was time to see the “other down under” the Kiwi side!

Tomorrow we’d meet up with my friends Yurira and Oscar, kayak guides I know who work here in the New Zealand summer. This was going to be great!

Happy New Year 2013 in Palmerston North New Zealand

8 02 2013

Early on the 31st we dropped Paul’s daughter Anthia off for a flight back to Melbourne. For New Year’s Eve, Paul, Liz and I would hit up a couple of their favorite places visited by local Kiwis, The Rose & Crown which is a very English style pub, and then closer to home for driving – The Bunnythorpe Tavern!

I was assured I’d meet lots of Kiwis and I was not disappointed! I was not just the only Yank, but the only foreigner in either place! Liz got into a very nice New Year’s Eve dress. I did not pack any “dressy” stuff for this trip so I was stuck with backpacker pants and Carhartt button down shirt. Not to matter. I was all comfortable when we arrived at the Rose & Crown. Nobody was in a tux! Paul is sort of a luminary in Palmy North. As soon as we stepped out of the truck people were greeting us warmly. There was a group of smokers outside, and everyone else gathered seated at a table inside. I was introduced and felt pretty much at home conversing with these friendly folks.


After a couple rounds of beer, we heard a commotion outside, and in comes a man in a kilt with a staff. He is leading a band of Scottish pipers – who soon piled in to the pub, playing up a storm! There were 15 or so of them.

This was great fun. So it seems this merry band does a New Year’s Eve tour, going from bar to bar until the stroke of midnight!

Then it was time to have something to eat, lest the brew go to the head. Ordering and paying for restaurant food in New Zealand is different than in America. Instead of sitting down and ordering food from a server, you order and pay for your meal from the bar. And you do not tip!

Paul suggests a Lamb Shank, so I order that and it’s really good. It comes with peas and mashed potatoes. Just what is perfect on New Year’s Eve.


Then it’s on to the Bunnythorpe Tavern.


The area called Bunnythorpe is a small crossroads of roads 6km from Palmerston North. Mostly residents, primarily folks who work in agricultural trades, visit the tavern to socialize.

The tavern is as unpretentious as you can imagine! Basically a cinder block structure with pool tables, bar, and a stage. It doesn’t matter if you are age 25 or 65, if you live in Bunnythorpe, you go there. Everyone knows you and probably more than you want! Hard to make a move in a small town without everyone knowing about it!

The band was trying as hard as possible to play some cover songs for what they thought the crowd wanted to hear, yet everyone was complaining and glad when they took a break. Seems they were locals, too, because folks were giving band members a hard time during the break.

I had a good time there. Lots to talk about with Kiwis, who have me plenty of advice on things to do on my trip! With that, we departed, driving extra careful on the way home as it was New Year’s Eve!

Paul and his family were wonderful hosts, and this really was a great way to start my New Zealand holiday. There is nothing like going to the other side of the world and meeting with friends. Now, I’d be flying to New Zealand’s South Island, to Christchurch, to meet with Elwin and Angelique – and we’d start our exploration.

Down Under Part 2: New Zealand 2012-13

31 01 2013


If you’ve followed this blog since 2011, you may recall I went to Patagonia in November. On that trip, I spent a lot of time with Elwin and Angelique, from The Netherlands. We had so much fun that in July of 2012 they asked me, “Hey Rod, want to get together for a trip to New Zealand this winter? Of course it will be SUMMER there!” That deserved some serious consideration! Especially since I have friends living there! First, Paul Lepper, a kayak designer for my old company Feelfree Kayaks, who’s encouraged me to visit for several years. And two other friends, Oscar Manguy and Yurira Hernandez, Mexican kayak guides I met at the Lower Columbia Kayak Roundup in 2011…they work for NOLS in New Zealand. I figured this has got to be the perfect time to visit New Zealand. So I said, “You bet I want to go!” And a plan was hatched.

I’d spend New Year’s 2013 with Paul Lepper and his wife Liz on the North Island. Then fly to Christchurch, on the South Island, to meet up with Elwin and Angelique. Then we’d all get together with Oscar and Yurira. Following that, the merry trio would wander all around both islands, through cities, fiords, beaches, rivers, glaciated peaks and volcanoes as well as geysers. And of course Mount Doom, plus all the other Lord of the Rings places! We’d hike, kayak and maybe sail! And learn how the Kiwis do things. Meeting all these friends down there seemed like such a far fetched thing. But not really! One just needs to plan it! And then the pieces fall into place.

In 2012 I sent word to Paul Lepper and Oscar and Yurira and we coordinated schedules. I’d land 12/28/2012 and then spend New Year’s up in Palmerston North with Paul and his family. Then fly to Christchurch on January 2nd and pick up Angelique and Elwin. Then on the 3rd we’d meet up with Oscar and spend the day together. Following that, Elwin, myself and Angelique would head south, beginning our exploration of New Zealand’s South Island!

As you may know, I live in Portland, Oregon, and New Zealand is on the other side of the International Data Line. It’s actually 22 hours ahead of Portland. For jet lag concerns, well, it turns out it’s not that bad. If you just ignore the day difference. Pretend that time in New Zealand is now minus three hours. So it is “tomorrow minus three hours from now.”

About New Zealand

New Zealand is very isolated from the rest of the world. A lot more than even Australia. New Zealand sits apart from Australia geologically – it’s right on top of the division of the Australasian Plate and Pacific Plate. Further, New Zealand is 1,300 miles from Australia. New Zealand has been separated from Australia for about 90 million years. Therefore, the flora and fauna native to the islands have not had outside influence for most of that time. Before man landed, birds and sea mammals were the primary fauna. Without competition, some birds evolved to be wingless. There were no rats and even today there are no snakes. Insects and spiders are present but they are not nearly as numerous as elsewhere – you won’t find insect screens on windows!

New Zealand is a Commonwealth country – and that means much English heritage. Rugby and cricket are popular, and sailboat racing is a national obsession. Gardens are neatly tended, and farms won’t have derelict vehicles on the property. Bars and pubs, even those targeted to young people – still have traditional pint-swilling patrons gathering for the neighborhood gossip. The driving is most definitely on the left-side. It has 4.45 million residents. And you will see plenty of Maori, especially on the North Island. But nobody of African descent.

New Zealand is packed with interesting landscape features in a small area. Check out these largest/highest facts for Australasia:

Other unique New Zealand trivia:

  • Tipping in restaurants is not expected
  • Many locals go barefoot
  • Typically it’s cars towing trailers, boats, RVs, not trucks
  • Diesel costs 50 cents less than gasoline
  • Many cars and trucks are available in a diesel version not available in the USA
  • Many cars come in a station wagon version not available in the USA
  • Backpacking often means staying in a hut on the trail instead of a tent
  • Sit-on-top kayaks are by far the most popular
  • 75% of forest was cleared by Maori or Europeans for agriculture
  • Lupine comes in blue, purple, white, yellow and pink
  • It had the tallest geyser in the world at 1,500ft
  • Tree ferns are common – ferns with 25ft trunks
  • Homegrown food is common – not rare at all
  • You will pay 40 cents to $2 to have ketchup on your french fries
  • You probably will never see anyone of African ancestry. In a month in the country, the only people of African ancestry I saw were travelers in the Auckland Airport.
  • You will probably see no native land mammals
  • You will not see any crows

So stay tuned for blogs about the recent trip to New Zealand! It is a wonderful country to visit. And parts of it definitely do look like Patagonia!