Stuck in Wanaka, New Zealand: Mother Nature’s Wrath Alters Our Plan

22 02 2013

Weighing on our minds the past few days was a series of Antarctic storms. These had smashed the western coast of the New Zealand’s South Island every few days since I arrived. And now our plans called for driving up that coast. It is beautiful and has the world renowned low elevation Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glaciers. But to get there, we’d have to cross the mountains. What would Mother Nature have in store for us?

Today we drive from Te Anau to Wanaka. Plans called for playing in Wanaka and then making an epic crossing of the Southern Alps via the Haast Pass to the coast. There are only two roads across the Southern Alps between here and Christchurch. The other is Arthur’s Pass. A recent storm had already closed the coastal highway but it had been repaired due to heroic efforts from New Zealand highway crews.

Now another storm approached, and upon our arrival in Wanaka, it unleashed its fury. It was pouring and due to continue for 12 hours. Our hostess at the Matterhorn South tried her best to find things for us to do, but other than movie theaters, there really wasn’t a lot to do other than walking the shopping area. The typically fantastic view of Lake Wanaka was completely obscured. Our room at the Matterhorn South needed some serious cleaning and updated bedding. At least the hostel was in downtown and had an upstairs with a library, fireplace and wide screen TV.  We spoke at length with a woman from Perth, Australia who was to climb Mount Aspiring. And a gentleman from Christchurch who had vivid descriptions of the earthquakes.

All we could do was make dinner in the kitchen and wait. Next morning, I checked via my iPhone and learned that the Haast Pass route was closed. In New Zealand, rain causes rivers and lakes to rise rapidly. Part of the road was built right next to Lake Wanaka – and the lake flooded out the road and was still rising. Worse, the other route across, further north, Arthur’s Pass, was also closed! Forecast was that maybe the lake would recede…but later in the day. Could we wait? No, because we had reservations in Abel Tasman National Park, on the northern tip of the island, in just 48 hours.

Disappointed, frustrated and in denial that something we’d looked forward to witnessing for months was slipping away, we pulled ourselves together and researched alternatives. I’d already experienced how the eastern side of the island can have much drier, warmer weather so I looked at the IMG_0137map and suggested we aim for Kaikoura. It’s a couple hours north of Christchurch, it’s on the beach, and has a peninsula worth hiking.

With that we headed to Kaikoura, and just like magic, on the eastern coast it was summer again! This lifted our spirits so much. We found a hostel and a room steps from the beach.

So, it was time for some late afternoon beach combing and then supper!

Lake Te Anau and the Kepler Track

19 02 2013

IMG_3423 The next day broke sunny with a little chill in the air. We wanted to get out into it, hike, breathe, check out the sights. Get our bodies moving. Our hotel manager suggested the Kepler Track because it is so close to town.

We were only planning on a three hour hike. That seemed to fit the bill. The Kepler Track is one of the many Great Walks of New Zealand. Most famous of these is the Milford Track. Also in the area is the Routeburn Track.

New Zealand’s “Great Walks” is a developed hiking and camping trail system designed so that the thousands of “trampers,” as they call them, can hike and spend the night on the trail with minimal impact on the environment. This means that many trails are much more maintained and developed that we might be accustomed to in America. And most times hikers or kayakers are required to either camp in designated campgrounds, or spend the night in a “trail hut.” These huts are reservation-based, and contain kitchen facilities. This means your “wildIMG_3425erness experience” will likely include nights shared with gregarious trampers from the world over. It’s just part of the Kiwi experience. The Great Walks, and lesser tracks, are found all over New Zealand and explore everything from glaciated mountains, lush semi tropical forests to warm coastal bays and inlets.

Want to see what this is all about: Get ready and watch this video!

See the Kepler Track in action!


IMG_0131The Kepler Track begins on Lake Te Anau, following a forested path near the water. Birds like the Tui or Bellbird call all during the hike cicadas also hum.

To hear the bell bird, listen to this video:

Another call is the Tui, in this video:


All along the trail there are southern beeches, and the unique black tree ferns. These tree ferns grow upwards of 25 feet and can also be found in Tasmania. They’re really cool!

When you go for a multi-day hike on New Zealand’s Great Walks system you are engaging in what Kiwis call tramping. Tramping in New Zealand is not the sort of slutty activity we might think of in The States. Rather, tramping is something of a combination of “trekking” and “camping.” You can stay in either designated campsites or huts. Huts have bunks, mattresses, heating, toilets, and cold running water. Even the campsites have toilets, sinks and a water supply. These are not first come-first-served-you need to book a space in advance! Fancy, glossy brochures on these famous hikes are available for free at information centers throughout New Zealand.

We did not make it above the forest on the Kepler Track. That will be another trip! Still a lovely day we had. Next we head for action packed Wanaka and the west coast of the South Island.

New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park and Doubtful Sound

18 02 2013

We spend the better part of a day driving the South Island between Twizel and Te Anau, which is the gateway to Fiordland National Park and Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound. We will be visiting three of the South Island’s largest lakes, Lake Wakatipu (New Zealand’s longest at 50 miles), Lake Te Anau (New Zealand’s largest lake by volume), and Lake Manapouri. We’re bypassing outdoor tourism hotspot Queenstown.


Lake Wakapitu

For a good portion of today’s journey we pass along Lake Wakatipu – which twists with the mountains. The area near Queenstown has lots of sailboats plying the waters nearby, and the mountains rise up straight out of the lake.

In mid afternoon we arrive in Te Anau and check in at the Red Tussock Motel. We’ve got an apartment – two bedrooms, kitchen, bath, and living room. It’s quite nice. Once more Angelique gets the queen and Elwin and I get the two twin beds in the other bedroom. On arrival it’s about 80 degrees with fair weather clouds. The Red Tussock Motel is 10 minutes walk from the shore of Lake Te Anau and the downtown area. It’s a very walkable town – and seems pretty much tourism dependent from what we can see. Paul Lepper and other Kiwis we’d met insisted that the best fiord to visit isn’t the famous Milford Sound, but rather the 10 times larger and less busy Doubtful Sound. To see Doubtful Sound, though, one cannot go alone. This is because one must cross Lake Manapouri, then take a lengthy road down to the sound. You can’t just walk or drive to it, like Milford Sound. We were set on seeing Doubtful Sound and booked a trip for the following day. There are two ways to see doubtful sound. You can book a trip with Real Journeys or you can book a sea kayak trip.

These are two entirely different ways of experiencing Doubtful Sound. We were 100% set on kayaking in New Zealand. Either way to see the Sound is expensive, $200-$300 a day. But we could kayak up north, either in Abel Tasman National Park, or/and in the Bay of Islands, where it is W-A-R-M and down here it’s guaranteed to be chilly and rainy part of the time. The Real Journeys trip isn’t private and of course noisier with a motorized craft. The choice was to be moot, because all the kayak tours were booked up. So Real Journeys it was to be. It was an ultra modern multi deck motor catamaran, and as such it could get around and cover most of Doubtful Sound in a few hours. Kayaking would be quiet – but you’d only explore one of the Sound’s fiords in a day.

So, Doubtful Sound Day Dawns. It’s going to be an all-day affair! The weather is sun/rain/cloud/sun all day, and that is exactly what we’ve been told it’s like in the fiords most of the year. It rains 236 inches a year in the fiords!

IMG_0127Since we stayed primarily in kitchen-equipped apartments, a typical day began with coffee or tea and then either muesli and fruit topped with yogurt, or sometimes eggs and toast. And we often made sack lunches which we ate during the day.

We take a boat across Lake Manapouri. Looking across this giant lake from the top deck, I’m reminded of my trip on Argentina’s Lago Nahuel Huapi in Argentina. It is rimmed with gorgeous peaks, many draped in fresh snow.

Once ashore we board a coach which climbs its way through the lush forest to a 700-ft high pass before steeply descending to Doubtful Sound’s Deep Cove, our embarkation point. The forest is super lush with waterfalls urgently relieving the mountainsides of their liquid burden.

View down to Deep Cove

Taking a trip with Real Journeys, I’m reminded of traveling with an airline. It’s a family-run company founded decades ago taking tourists to Doubtful Sound. In those days, guests walked 11 grueling hours all the way from Lake Manapouri to Deep Cove. Today, we ride a coach. The company has grown, and seems to have a near-monopoly on tourism in Fiordland. Uniformed staff sell you tickets at their terminals, and the boats are absolutely 21st century craft. It’s a far cry from some of the 3rd world adventure of on-your-own arranging to see an area. Still, as New Zealand is a magnet for throngs of visitors, I can understand – there is a need to manage the crowds! For example, the famous Milford Track sees 14,000 visitors a year! The Milford Sound itself sees 400,000!


Fiordland National Park’s seven fiords are all drowned glacial valleys. In past ice ages, ice thousands of feet thick moved off the mountains, carving these fiords to the west, and the steeply sloped arms of the lakes to the east. The underlying rock sits not far below the roots of the forests – the soil is not nutrient rich, nor thick. The plants, such as the famous 20-foot high black tree fern, have adapted to make use of the huge amount of rainfall.

IMG_0129Captain Cook, the British Global Explorer, named the place Doubtful Harbor because he did not think it would be possible to sail inside. Later Whalers gave it the present name.

It has a fascinatingly eery feeling with all the mists billowing off the impossibly steep valley walls.IMG_3414

Part of the Real Journeys itinerary was to visit the Manapouri Hydroelectric Power Station. It is frequently cited as New Zealand’s greatest engineering achievement. It is a completely underground power station – they dug giant tunnels connecting Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. Water runs through turning turbines. It is the largest hydroelectric plan in the country.

Ironically, the reason it was built may cease to exist. The project was commenced to provide electricity to an aluminum smelter – but that smelter may be closed due to cheaper aluminum from China. We were told the power station can supply enough power for the entire South Island, if necessary. The other irony is that while the production of electricity from Manapouri does not produce greenhouse gases, the Tiwai Point aluminum smelter at the other end is one of the worst polluters in New Zealand.