Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Devil's Punchbowl Falls

Devil's Punchbowl Falls, New Zealand (May 31, 2008)

When we arrived at the Arthur's pass village it was raining. After parking next to the visitor center (which was closed), we found refuge in the Wobbly Kea Cafe & Bar, where we got some food and something warm to drink. If you search on the internet you will find some reviews of the cafe (even though, mind you, this is a small saloon at the end of -Middle- Earth... power of the internet) complaining about the dismal service. We actually didn’t have any issue. Sure the service maybe wasn’t the fastest but really, who cares? We were in a holiday, right? Plus, it was wet outside.

The Falls
name of the place is a good excuse to talk about the eponymous bird, the kea, that apparently is quite common at the pass. I say apparently because I am not sure we met any, even though we saw some large birds flying along the road that may fit the description. On the other hand it was raining, and keas are all but stupid and were probably hiding in some dry place. Keas, in fact, are quite smart, to the point of being annoying. They fear nothing (and humans even less), so they are commonly seen stealing whatever it pleases them from tourists backpacks. Closing the zippers does not help, they know how to open them with their beaks. They are large green parrots, and when not hunting tourists they like to steal the rubber parts from parked cars, like the wipers and the seals around the windows. Due to its character the kea has been persecuted in the past, and it is a vulnerable species. Fortunately is now protected, even though the New Zealand government had to promise compensation and relocation of troublesome birds to appease the people living in the areas where the parrots are common.

The Falls
When we finished our lunch we went for a short walk to the Devil's Punchbowl Falls, which are at the end of a 15 minutes trail. The trail crosses the river at the center of a glacial valley, and then climbs on a dense rainforest where everything is completely covered by mosses and ferns. It is not difficult to see why the fern is the cultural icon of New Zealand: it grows everywhere in the island's forests. At that point it was only drizzling, and the thick canopy above the trail was enough to prevent us from getting wet. The fall is shown in the background of the photo above. What I really liked of the place, more than the fall, was a huge tree in front of it, with a complicated fractal structure. The part shown in the photo is just one of the branches. It reminded me of the trees in Japanese gardens. You can see more of the majestic tree in the little photos above and on the left.

It soon started to rain again, so we went back to the car to complete our daily drive. Originally the plan was to arrive as far as Haast, almost 350 km further down the road from Arthur’s pass along the West coast. That was clearly too much, so we stopped at the Fox Glacier village. When we arrived there it was pouring, and dark. And I was dead tired for all the driving, so all we could do was to find a motel where to spend the night, and a place still serving fish & chips at that late hour.

Approaching Devil's Punchbowl Falls, New Zealand (May 31, 2008)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Arthur's Pass

Arthur's Pass, New Zealand (May 31, 2008)

When Mayli finally finished her Neutrino 2008 conference, we left Christchurch for Arthur's pass. We drove for a few hours up Route 73, until we reached the pass, crossing the Southern Alps from the east to the west side of the island. As you can see in the photo above, the weather was very cloudy. Still, as we were approaching the pass, we could see spectacular mountains flanking the road. 

Hiking trailheads
Arthur's pass is named after the surveyor Arthur Dudley Dobson, who found his way across in 1864. While a scenic road now allows to leisurely cross the pass, at Dobson's time the many gorges on the western side of the passage made the crossing not so easy: to cross the Otira Gorge he actually had to leave his horse at the top, and lower his dog with a rope.
The passage was of course well known to Maori's hunting parties, that used it regularly to cross from one side to the other of the island. The pass is at the center of a natural park, that include many peaks over 2,000 meters, the highest of which is Mount Murchison at 2,400 meters. The area is hiking (tramping!) paradise, with many trails crossing the U-shaped valley, directed towards the snow-capped mountains. in a beautiful landscape.

The mighty peaks
We stopped briefly at the pass to take some pictures. While I was taking my photos I was called by the occupants of a car stopped along the road, just in front of us. It turned out that the people calling me were a nice couple of retired New Zealanders from Christchurch, driving through Arthur’s pass on a photographic expedition (they were particularly attracted by the mighty peaks on the side of the road (in the photo on the left). They had Nikons (a D100, a D300 and a D1) and were very happy to see that I also had a Nikon. They were really nice guys and we had a very pleasant conversation. Among the various tips they gave us, they insisted that we should add to our destination a cove not far along the route, where we could have a chance to see penguins... but this is a story for another post. Mayli after some time got bored of waiting, and took a picture of me talking with them (I had it on a previous iteration of this blog, but it was lost when the computer hosting it suddenly died).

Despite the bad weather, there were a lot of people leaving the cars and going for a hike. A lot of people were walking in the direction of the weird rock formation you can see on the left side of the panorama below, made of a line of boulders standing like sentinels watching the pass.

Arthur's Pass, New Zealand (May 31, 2008)

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Leisure Drive

Route 77, New Zealand (May 30, 2008)

While New Zealand cars are the same as in any other country (apart for the steering-wheel on right side), I met there an unordinary number of cute old cars. The day I was touring the Inland Scenic Route 72 (which is actually passing by route 77 and 73 also) I met a procession of these restored jewels leisurely driving around. Well, not a real procession: I found them in separate places, seemingly driving in random directions. I counted at least 20 of them, all driven by ladies and gentlemen with a costume matching the same epoch of the car. On my way back to Christchurch I found them again on an open stretch of road, with the superb snow capped Southern Alps as background.

A red beauty
Writing about old cars reminded me of the New Zealand roads. I was quite impressed by them, and by the amount of maintenance that is continuously done to keep them in prefect shape. In our 3,000 km of driving we found work crews everywhere, patching the pavements, enlarging the width of the roads, repairing their sides. Even though the South island is sparsely populated, it has a huge touristic traffic in summer and during the skiing season, when the pavement suffers from the ice and snow of severe winters. Despite all this abuse all the roads I saw were really well maintained, without the continuous litany of potholes and cracks so typical in the US (and Italy... and Venezuela, just to mention the countries I know best). The only perplexing thing is that most of these roads, whenever they had to cross a body of water, be a large river or a minuscule stream, have narrow bridges where only one car can pass at one time. You have to stop, check that nobody is coming from the other side, and then cross. These one-way bridges are also along main roads, which I assume in summer must have quite a lot of traffic. Still, driving on those roads was a real pleasure and great fun (as long as one remembers that “left is good”).

Olive green
Leisurely driving along these roads was probably the best part of our New Zealand vacation. We really didn’t plan the trip. We decided beforehand which parts of the Island we wanted to see, and we drew a rough itinerary based on the number of days available. But we allowed ourselves to change the program any time we liked, based on how much we wanted to drive. We never reserved in advance. True, it was low tourist season, but we never had any problem in finding the bed & breakfast or motel where to sleep, even arriving past dinner time. So we just drove at our leisure, stopping all the time I wanted to take a picture, spending time sitting in cozy coffee places we found along the way, making last minute deviations just because “the road looked nice”. I generally drove quite slowly enjoying the landscape, which generally didn’t drive the locals crazy as they were also going around without any hurry. Arriving late often meant reduced dining choices, as restaurants generally closed their kitchen quite early. Pubs were however serving fish & chips until late, and this was our main food for the entire trip (and the beer was very decent too).

Route 77, New Zealand (May 30, 2008)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Making Friends

Rakaia River Valley, New Zealand (May 30, 2008)

As much as I liked Route 72, at some point during my drive I started to long for something less “domesticated” that the gentle countryside of New Zealand Pacific coast. My intention was to turn into the Coleridge road just before Rakaia Gorge, to get to Lake Coleridge. Obviously that’s not what I did, as I never arrived to any lake. I instead ended up on a road getting soon unpaved (“unsealed” as a New Zealander would say), which was going through a beautiful glacial valley. Now that I look at the map, it is clear that I got the Blackford Road, that then became the Double Hill Run Road, which climbs the shoulder of the Rakaia river on the opposite side of Lake Coleridge.

My new friends
The road goes on forever, on the shoulder of the valley, where ribbons of glacial water are braided in front of the usual majestic mountains. My Ford Focus was still going great, so I just kept climbing the dirt road. Now and then I stopped, because the valley was really beautiful. You can see it in the top photo, and in the panoramic at the end of this article. And I was basically alone the whole time, with the exception of a pickup truck of some farmer that passed me midway, a hiker (sorry “tramper” because in New Zealand you don’t hike, you go “tramping”), and some other friends I met along the way (pictured at the left). These cows were at the far end of their pasture, While I was taking photos of the gorgeous scenery during one of my stops. They noticed, and moved closer and closer, until I had trouble fitting all of them in the frame. I guess they were feeling alone and wanted some company. I stayed there for a little while, then we said goodbye and I went driving up the valley again.

New Zealand is certainly a country with a lot of farm animals. Until not too many years ago there were over 70 million sheep; now the sheep are less than 40 million, still about 12 sheep every human inhabitant. The decrease in number of sheep is due to competition with other types of farm animals, including my cow friends, but also deers, ostriches, llamas and other exotic species. I can assure you that finding a llama or an ostrich in the hill country of New Zealand can be a quite unexpected encounter, but it did happen to us. There are about 10 million cattle in NZ (equally divided between beef and dairy cattle), which still makes for a respectable 3 cattle each human. One can only hope that all these animals will not go the Orwellian way (how many pigs are there in NZ?).

Rakaia River Valley, New Zealand (May 30, 2008)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Inland Scenic Route 72

Route 72, New Zealand (May 30, 2008)

The second day with the car but still without Mayli (busy she was at her conference) I went driving along the Inland Scenic Route 72. The route goes South from Christchurch, passing at the feet of the Southern Alps until it reaches a (very) small town called Geraldine. From there one can go back towards the coast (on the ugly Route 1), to return to Christchurch just in time for dinner.

Country Road
Between the two small towns of Kirwee and Darfield, Route 72 is parallel to the railway that crosses the Southern Alps to reach the Tasmanian sea through Arthur’s pass. That’s where I stopped to take this picture: the scenery was reminding me so much of Switzerland that I couldn’t resist taking this shot! The drive was nice and enjoyable, and was worth doing. This was the second day driving on the left, so I was already more comfortable, even though each time I stopped to take a picture, or any time I saw a car coming towards me on the right, I had to force myself to think that it was ok... I was on the correct side of the road. In fact I developed this mantra subconscious mumbling, now and then without prompt, “left is good... left is good... and right is bad”. For once, I wasn't even making a political statement. I found it useful to keep myself alert and avoid drifting on the other side, even though in the days to come it would drive crazy a very worried Mayli (which for the rest of the trip would keep closing her eyes each time we were crossing another car).

Route 70, New Zealand (May 30, 2008)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Alpine Pacific Triangle

Route 70, New Zealand (May 29, 2008)

Do you remember the green meadows crowned by white mountains in the Lord of the Rings Movie? Well, it is no mystery that the movie was shot in New Zealand, fueling a renewed touristic industry of movie fans wanting to see Middle Earth with their own eyes. What I wasn’t fully prepared at, however, was to discover that the kind of landscapes immortalized in the movie are actually real. New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful as depicted in the Jacksonian visual epic (or equivalently in the watercolors by Alan Lee and John Howe). Being there at the beginning of winter helped. Not just because there were not many tourists around (too late for the warm summer but still to early for the skiing season), but also because fresh snow on top of these mountains gives them a whole different dimension.

Gorge around Route 70
I took this picture while driving on Route 70, between Waipara and Kaikoura. The route is part of the Alpine Pacific Triangle
, a wine region north of Christchurch at the feet of the Southern Alps, facing the open Pacific. The area is a known touristic destination, not just for its wineries, but also because of thermal springs, and many opportunities for gentle hiking and marine mammals (whales and dolphins) sightseeing. One can follow Route 70 up to Kaikoura, and then come back to Christchurch along the coast, on Route 1. Route 70 must be full of cars in Summer, but as I was driving on it on the eve of winter, it was an almost uninterrupted empty road, with very little other cars interrupting the illusion of really driving in the land of the Hobbits, and Elves. Route 1, on the other end, was pretty trafficked, and annoying. If I had known I would have probably driven on Route 70 also on the way back, but Route 1 was however faster, and allowed me to get back to Christchurch before the early sunset, in time for Mayli's conference dinner.

Route 70, New Zealand (May 29, 2008)

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Renting a Car in New Zealand

Route 70, New Zealand (May 29, 2008)

The day after Akaroa I rented the car that we would keep for the next week. Before leaving Boston we found a local Christchurch rental car company, that turned out to be quite good. Sometimes choosing blindly from the internet has its own risk: you never know what is really on the other side of your internet connection. This time instead we got the real thing.

Route 70

First of all, in New Zealand you don’t rent a car. You hire it. So, if you search on google for new zealand car hire, one of the first links you get is the Apex car rental company. It is local (they say... the kiwi way), but big enough to have different locations in both islands. The first thing we liked was that one can chose the car to rent (sorry, I mean hire). Not just the model, but the car itself, with the mileage on it. We chose a Ford Focus automatic. I am usually for manual shifts, but given the added complication of driving on the left, I thought an automatic shift was not a bad idea. Fortunately the Focus had one of those semi-automatic shifts where you can directly select the gear, which turned out to be a quite useful feature (decent compromise for the lack of control of automatic shifts) when later on in the trip I had to drive through mountains and unpaved roads. The people at the rental agency were very nice (as most New Zealanders, I should add), and helpful. Somehow our request for a GPS unit (remember this trip was in 2008, before GPS was ubiquitous on smartphones) and snow chains was forgotten in our internet registration, but the guy at the agency went out of his way to find a unit for me. I even got a travel guide for free (you can actually download it from the web site). And for the environment conscious among us, the company plants a number of acres of new trees every year, to try to offset the CO2 emissions generated by their cars (at least they did that at the time, I can't find a mention of it on their current web site)!

The trip to Akaroa was just a pause in Mayli conference, which had two more days to go. So I went alone to rent the car, and spent the next couple of days driving around Christchurch, in the beautiful hills and plains at the feet of the Southern Alps. Farmland (and a lot of sheep), with one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. But that’s a new story for next time...

Route 70, New Zealand (May 29, 2008)