Sunday, February 22, 2009


Greetings from Fiordland, an enormous national park that takes up the entire SW corner of the South Island of New Zealand. It's roughly 50 miles wide and 150 miles long, and the coast is deeply indented by deep, deep fiords. You can link to a detailed map here at

For all its size, it's not an easy place to access. You can enter from the sea, of course, but there are no ports within 50 miles of the first fiord, so only a handful of cruise ships come in en route from NZ to Australia, and few other sightseeing boats by that route. By land your options are quite limited unless you're into 3- to 5-day backpacking over 3,000' climbs. Louise did that 15 years ago and it was quite a challenge in her 40's, both from the climbing and from the sandflies who wait along the trail to welcome you in numbers equal to bike fans along the Tour de France route.

Needless to say, we chose the easier way of accessing two of the fiords, Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. They're called "sounds" because the sealers and whalers got here first and were not sophisticated geographers. There are fourteen fiords in all, but only those two can be accessed easily.
We kept disassembling the bike until it was in small enough parts to fit into the trunk of our rental car, then drove 180 km from Queenstown to the small town of Te Anau on
Lake Te Anau. Hard to imagine from this photo, but the lake is itself a freshwater fiord carved so deep by the glaciers that you could hide the Empire State Building on the bottom, standing straight up, and no one would know. We picked up some groceries and drove part-way to Milford Sound, stopping for photos of the peaceful Eglington Valley.

We spent the night at some cabins in a scenic spot called Knob's Flat and got some early-morning pictures the next day of the valley and a few of the tall mountains thereabout.

As we continued, the road climbed up to 3,000' and the tree line, and the scenery became quite alpine indeed. The road reached this enormous rock ampitheater and headed right for the wall, pierced by one small hole, the Homer Tunnel. It was started in the Depression as a work project, interrupted by WWII, and finished in 1953. To keep costs down, it was built single lane, with a traffic light to control the 1.2 km ride through in alternating 15-minute waves. That's our rental car first up, waiting for the green light.

Once through you descend those 3,000' to sea level very quickly, following the Cleddau River. At the bottom was the Milford Wanderer waiting for us,
and this view of the head of Milford Sound and the Cleddau Valley running off to the right. Ahead lay a second view westward to cloud-tipped Mitre Peak, rising 1682m (over 5,000') from sea level itself.

The map shows Milford Sound, which we explored by boat from the end of the road out to the mouth of the Sound, about 14 miles each way.
There were numerous waterfalls of staggering height -- two of these are about 500' each, hard to capture a sense of without a 50-story building nearby to give scale.

The boat had a lot of decks and the weather stayed dry for most though not all of the 2 1/2 hour voyage. Nonetheless, that's considered very good luck for Fiordland, since it rains about 70% of the time, with an annual rainfall of 4 to 7 meters, depending on where you are.

Besides many seabirds, we also saw fur seals basking in two places on opposite sides of the Sound.
We also saw constant examples of a phenomenon we had never heard of before, "tree avalanches." The ground is very rocky with a thin covering of soil.
When trees get large and the ground gets wet enough -- which it obviously does a lot in these parts -- a tree high up may start to topple over. The roots are so shallow and intertwined, however, that the one tree will pull up its neighbors, and soon the whole hillside is tumbling down into the Sound. The close-up scar on one of these pictures was the site of a tree avalanche maybe two or three decades ago, while the distant one with bare rock occurred four weeks before our visit.
It will be covered in mosses and lichens in the coming few years, then with small plants, larger plants, and finally trees by the time our grandchildren are old folks.

The land shoots almost vertically out of the water here, and one crazy lady some years ago actually sky-dived off this cliff and managed to pull the parachute cord in time to tell the tale. We'll close out on Milford Sound with one more photo of this spectacular place.

We drove from Milford Sound back out to civilization in the form of Te Anau, 120 km away, and on to the nearby town of Manapouri, on Manapouri Lake. Yes, another freshwater fiord, even deeper than Lake Te Anau, and fairly moody the next morning when we took the boat across. It rained all day, but fairly lightly for the most part and with occasional pauses, so it was far from unpleasant, though it was fairly cool, high 50's F.
After a 45-minute cruise across the lake, we hopped off the boat and onto a bus for a 22 km drive over 2,100' high Wilmot Pass and the descent to Doubtful Sound. The first glimpse of Doubtful foretold another interesting day.

This is a much bigger fiord than Milford, about 25 miles from the sea to the head of the fiord. As the map shows, it also has numerous arms extending a few miles each from the main channel.
In our three-hour cruise on a faster boat than the day before we reached the mouth of the Sound and explored about half of narrow Crooked Arm, seen here, with many tree avalanche sites visible there as well.

We also passed an island with a "hotel" for fishermen. You're seeing the entire establishment, right there!
They pull in for a break from the weather on the Tasman but this is a National Park, so on the way in and out they can only admire the scenery like the rest of us tourists. And what scenery it is! We also saw another seal hangout,
and had a brief encounter with some bottlenose dolphins. They were not into showing off this particular day, so all we saw were a few fins breaking the surface a hundred meters away.

One of the great things about a visit to Doubtful Sound is the peace and solitude. In Crooked Arm the captain turned off the motor and generator for about 2 minutes, and we enjoyed hearing the waterfalls all around and the birds. Unlike Milford Sound, we also saw virtually no other boats,
until we encountered this school group getting a wet start to some sort of adventure from the hostel that sits at the head of the Sound just for such trips, mainly by middle schoolers.

We explained that only two of the fiords are easily accessible. Milford of course is by the road built mostly in the 1930's. Access to Doubtful Sound would still be by a three-day hike over the Southern Alps but for a hydro scheme that came to fruition in the 1960s. The original plan was to raise Lake Manapouri to enhance the power-generating, but that generated its own force field of environmentalist objection, and the episode is widely seen as the beginning of the environmental movement in New Zealand. An aroused electorate threw out the party in power and the incoming government ordered Lake Manapouri kept at its natural height.

What was done, however, was still monumental. A power station was built 750' underground, and water from Lake Manapouri that used to flow out to the southeast via a river is now channeled down to the generators and out a 10-km tunnel to Doubtful Sound, which sits 600' lower than Lake Manapouri. When you consider that most dams consider a 50' drop rather worthwhile, you can just imagine how much more power they get from this one!

But to build it, they needed material, and the easiest way to get it was over Wilmot Pass. They spent two years just constructing the road up and over the 2,100' pass, and when the hydro project was completed six years later the road was just sitting there, not really needed anymore. The government took it over, and now a handful of tour operators and private individuals willing to barge their cars and boat trailers over Lake Manapouri can access it as well. On the ride back we lucked out to get a seat behind the driver, and it's an exciting drive to be sure.
Back on the shores of Lake Manapouri, the bus drove over to a tunnel entrance, stepped out to get clearance from the hydro authorities, and the gates opened. We next drove down the 2 km-long tunnel, the curving yellow tube in the diagram,
descending those 750' to visit the "machine hall" where the generators crank out their megawatts. Now, this is a very thinly populated part of NZ. Where does this enormous amount of power go?
About 85% is earmarked for an aluminum smelter, largest in the southern hemisphere, that is located at the port of Bluff some 175 km away.

So, thanks to the hydro people for building that road, and to the environmentalists for keeping them in line so that Lake Manapouri is the jewel it is today. We're now headed to the east coast of the South Island to visit Dunedin and Christchurch, among other places. Write to you next from there!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Challenges Physical, Fiscal and Logistical

Well, it's been an interesting 10 days since we headed out of the town of Haast for the mountains, with three challenges to deal with. And just a reminder to our readers dealing with the challenge of seeing detail in the pictures given the format Blogger gives us: you can enlarge any photo by clicking on it, then return to the blog with the back button of your browser.

Haast Pass was a beautiful ride, but a bit harder than we expected. Amazing how much bigger and steeper the pass got since Louise rode over it with her daughter Lisa 15 years ago, even starting 30 km closer to the pass this time! Our ride began in the town that is the last place to get food or water for the next 80 km, Haast. We filled up every available water bottle, carried a bottle of juice, and brought along a can of pears for extra liquid as well as energy, and hydration was not an issue. Temperatures of 20-22 C (68-72 F) helped, and we even had a very light tailwind, not enough to push us along but at least not a hindrance. The first 50 km followed the wide Haast Valley,
mostly flat with occasional short rises we could do without getting into the granny gear, passing stunning waterfalls every few miles,
many descending 50 to 100 m in freefall from the glacially carved side of our valley. At lunch we had done 50 of our 80 km, but only 100 of the 563 m of climbing that had to be done.

The first physical challenge, however, was not the climb after lunch, but simply getting through lunch undevoured by the sandflies. The technique was to eat standing and holding the food with one hand, keeping the other hand and both legs free for sandfly control. Somehow we managed to free up a hand to take a shot of the gorgeous setting. It was certainly one of the most athletic lunches we've ever had!

Soon after the lunch break we were at the Gates of Haast, where the climb really started to bite. The road barely hung onto the side of the hill as it rose up at a more than 10% grade, and kept it up for 2-3 km.

It was time for our special weapon, "28th gear"
(an old joke explained many, many blog entries ago -- suffice it to say, the bike itself has 27 gear choices). Finally the climb relented into a manageable 1 or 2% grade, though still twisty as all get-out,

and at last we reached the summit, which had gained a meter from the 563 advertised elsewhere. On the way down we looked back for one view,

and stopped a second time for a very rewarding 20-minute hike to the Blue Pools, which were as advertised.

All in all, we felt fairly good about the day, tired as we were. The next day was 65 km to the town of Wanaka, past the upper reaches of Lake Wanaka and then over "the Neck" to nearby Lake Hawea. That's Lake Wanaka in the first shot, and again behind Louise, who's at the top of the Neck in the second.

Lake H wasn't quite as large but was just as impressive as Lake W, and quite moody in the fourth picture.

Although we had a tail wind most of the ride, up to 25 mph/40kph for a few glorious kilometers at the start of the day, it was a very tough day due to the climbing. We had booked 2 nights in Wanaka because Louise remembered it as a lovely town, and it is, but we mostly used the extra day to regain the will to live. Well, maybe that exaggerates a tad, but we were dog-tired! Nonetheless, we did do a short walk to the lake to capture the stunning view to the north from its little beach.

Since crossing Haast Pass we have been east of the Southern Alps, i.e. leeward of the moist Tasman Sea winds that drench the west side of the mountains. We kept remarking to each other how much it reminded us of the mountains around Wenatchee or Lake Chelan in our native Washington State, or of places we've seen east of the Rockies, such as in Montana.

When we got to Cromwell, which at 400 mm of rain a year is drier even than Wenatchee, we rested in Old Cromwell, a street made up of buildings rescued from the rising waters when the Clutha Valley was dammed for hydro about a decade ago. Ironically, rain caught up with us here the next morning, in one of the driest places in New Zealand, after we had successfully dodged it through the wet Westland! Well, rain wimps that we are, we hung out in the town library and then in a cafe until 2 pm, when the rain had passed on, and kept our rainjackets unused once again.

We were now 70 km from Queenstown but decided to break it up into 50 km and 20 km segments to spend a night in quaint Arrowtown, yet another gold rush town but almost certainly the most well-preserved. There is a small downtown with the old post office, assay office
and town shops now selling woolens and jade jewelry (NZ's most precious stone, also called pounamou from the Maori) plus the sorts of things that upscale boutiques sell everywhere you find them.
Arrowtown also has rescued what is now called The Chinese Settlement, a part of town where Chinese goldminers once lived segregated from the rest of town, but with the advantage of having a Chinese store and a community of kinsmen to help deal with being strangers in a strange land. In 1983 the government sponsored an archeological dig and restoration of some of the remaining buildings, and informative signs along a short walk helped explain why they came, how they lived, and how they came to drift away. The building Louise is peeking in and the one two over were homes, the one in between was a storage shed of some sort.
There were many other interesting walks we would have liked to do in Arrowtown but for the limits of time, and this is one place we will return to if or when we get back to New Zealand.

Finally we were on the road our bike book told us was "relatively flat" from Arrowtown to Queenstown. The book also didn't predict the headwind, so it was a pretty tough 24 km ride, but that's only 15 miles, and at last we were at our destination! As we mentioned in our last blog entry, this is the "adventure capital" of NZ, and in fact on the way between Cromwell and Arrowtown one day earlier we passed the place where it all started. The Kawarau Gorge is -- well -- gorgeous,
and in the early 1980's an enterprising young nut came up with the idea of jumping off an abandoned bridge in the gorge with elastic bungy cords attached to his feet. Not quite sure how he turned this into a business empire, let alone survived the world's first bungy jump, but it was already a Big Deal in 1994 when Louise's daughter Lisa took the plunge. That was on a hot late-summer day. On this revisit it was 17C/63F, and was clouded over. But in the course of a 25-minute stop we watched 3 women and 2 men jump off the darned thing.

Five of those minutes were occupied in watching an employee "talk down" a customer, pardon the pun, and for a while we weren't sure she was going to jump, but sure enough she joined the rest of 'em in leaping off.

Don't know if it was peer pressure or thinking "Golly, I just plunked down over US$80 for this thing, I might as well do it!"
BTW, after you stop bouncing, they add extra cord to lower you into a nearby boat to get reeled in, where for a few moments you are truly "Down Under!"

We referenced three challenges in the title of this entry, and the first challenge was one we felt we had met enough of as we rode into Queenstown. The climbing and the miles were starting to get to us, and the route ahead should we choose to continue southward was going to get far more remote, and be far from flat. We decided Queenstown was an honorable final biking destination, and the 1100 km we rode to get here were something we could feel good about. We headed into town to get some cash to help celebrate, and ran smack into challenge number two.

To understand what happened next, you have to remember that living on the road for almost two years poses some challenges. One of them is what to do about mail. Most of the folks who used to mail us important things like credit card statements now email them to us. But you have to have mail go somewhere, so we chose the home of one of our children, and the mail collects there quite nicely. We went through it twice last year when visiting, and there was virtually nothing that we didn't already know about, and the rest was stuff we didn't need to know about.

However, an unassuming letter reached this destination sometime since last September, containing a debit card from our bank to replace the atm card we carried with us, since our bank had decided to phase out the atm card. Well ... they put an instruction into the worldwide atm system that the card should be collected by any atm it got inserted into after such-and-such a date. Seems that date went by recently, and one of the atms in Queenstown did as instructed, and swallowed our card!

Yowp!!! NOW what do we do??? In fact, for the next unsettled 12 hours, until it was daytime in Seattle, we didn't even know why the card was taken. All we knew was the atm message: "contact your bank." The bank reassured us next morning that all was well with our account, figured out why the card had disappeared, and gave us a number to call for Visa Card Services. Long story short, we will have a new temporary debit card delivered to a hotel we're staying at a week from now.
In the meantime, before we commit to anything that costs money, we ask first if they accept credit cards, so we can save the few dollars of cash we have left in the wallet for emergency use. And, with our credit card, we did enjoy a nice Korean feast for Valentine's Day!

Which leads us to the final challenge, putting together an itinerary for the remaining 30 days we will be in NZ. We had previously planned the last week, just prior to when we reboard the Volendam, so that meant working out the remainder and making the necessary bookings. It's just astounding how much time and effort it takes to do this, but after reworking the plans umpteen different ways, then changing them a few more times, we've settled on renting a car and driving somewhat further south to Te Anau and Fiordlands National Park, then north to Abel Tasman National Park at the other end of South Island, with a number of interesting stops en route. We'll explain the route and maybe even have a map in the next blog, not to mention what we hope will be some terrific pictures from the deep, remote fiords of New Zealand's southwest coast. We'll close with a shot of our British tandem friends Lin and Bernard,
who have circled the South Island in the opposite direction from us and met us again here in Queenstown, and of the mountain range just southeast of town with the wonderful name of "The Remarkables."