10 Jun 2008

South Island, NZ: A Lord of the Rings Adventure

Stopped for Lunch

Last fall, when I decided to spend my spring semester in Australia, my friend Tom decided that he was going to study abroad in Auckland, New Zealand, which is located on the north island. I'd heard from many people about the beauty of New Zealand, especially the mountainous south island, so Tom and I made (vague) plans to meet up there and do some hiking. Unlike most half-cooked ideas, this one actually happened. Granted, the final plan was not much more well-defined; it only included meeting up at the Christchurch airport, renting a Wicked camper van, and heading wherever the wind took us. Not surprisingly, the weekend turned out to be one of the best vacations I have ever taken.

I met Tom at the international arrivals terminal in Christchurch on a rainy Thursday afternoon in May. I withdrew some Kiwi dollars from the ATM; they are a similar plastic material to the Australian notes, but have more subdued colors and have pictures of wildlife instead of random British people on them. We caught a bus to Christchurch and walked to the Wicked van depot, where I got my first experience with driving on the left side of the road. It couldn't have been in worse conditions: middle of a city, rainy and foggy, but I managed to pull it off, in no small part to Tom's handy copilot map-reading skills.

Our first task was to load up on gas and food for the weekend: sandwich materials, cheese, eggs, pancake mix, juice, ginger beer, real beer, and a few other assorted items. The van had a kitchen and stove on it, so we knew that we would be able to cook some of our food. With these essentials accomplished, we decided to drive around searching for a place to park for the night - somewhere secluded, but not sketchy. It also had to be accessible later on during the night, which ruled out parking garages. We found a gravel parking area in the Botanical gardens, situated nicely next to public bathrooms. Score! The van lady had suggested to make up the bed while it was still light and we were still sober, so we heeded her advice (which we were grateful of later), and we were pleasantly surprised to find a fleece blanket and a comforter to keep us warm. As we were about to leave, we saw two men trying to break into the only other car in the lot, which caused us a bit of alarm. We loitered a bit, wondering if we were going to get back later that night and be unhappy with our choice of parking spot. We were pretty sure that they had just locked themselves out, because one of the dudes was quite old, but they were using a crowbar, which gave us cause for concern. Luckily, a locksmith van drove up, and we headed into the city much relieved.

Dinner was at the Bog, a bar that also has an outlet in Auckland which caused Tom to reccommend it. We were also drawn in by the fire near the door, as it was a cold, wet night. My steak was delicious, as was my first New Zealand beer. Filled up and warm, we headed out to see what kind of New Zealand nightlife we could find. Answer: not much. We canvassed the whole city multiple times, mostly finding small, intimate couples bars. We played billiards at a really dodgy place where gangs of teenagers kept walking in and out of the back door. The night took a decidedly upward turn, however, when we found the Grumpy Mole Saloon, an American Old West-style joint with a roaring fire, a talkative female bartender, and delicious lemony-honey beers on tap. We stayed there until the dance club next door got going, then moved over there to get our groove on. Tom loved the dancing, but I dragged him out of there because I wasn't getting a good vibe from the mostly Kiwi crowd and I wanted to get on the road early the next morning.

Mountain Lake

Driving Towards Mountains

Well, that didn't really happen, but we did end up getting out of Christchurch by midday. We decided to head for Arthur's Pass, where we hoped to find some good mountains to climb. As soon as we got out of the city, I felt immensely better. I'm sure Christchurch has its good moments, but the previous night was not one of them. Once we got out of the city, we noticed that the trees were changing color, the smell of fall was in the air, and eventually there were mountains on the horizon. Even in the fog, it was a beautiful sight, and we had to stop to take pictures.

Orange Pines

On the way, we passed Castle Hill, an area where glaciers had left huge rocks scattered on the hillside. Tom had brought his climbing gear, but we decided to try and stop on the way back because we couldn't find a parking spot, and it was already late in the day. You can see the rocks on the hill in the right side of the picture, and also some neat orange pines which provided a stunning contrast with the green ones. We stopped for sandwiches at a gorgeous mountain lake. The peanut-butter and jelly and cheese (yes, it's good) sandwiches and ginger beer tasted incredible in such stunning beauty.

Arthur's Pass Entrance

Back on the road, we finally made it to Arthur's Pass. To honor an old Kieft family tradition, we stopped to take a picture by the entrance sign. It was incredible to us how few people we had seen on the road, and this held true for our entire vacation. We were on Rte. 73, one of the only roads to cross the south island from east to west, and we were passing less than 20 cars an hour. Besides making us feel like we had jumped into Lord of the Rings, it gave the weekend such a personal experience, not having to share it with billions of other tourists. And of course, it cemented my view that a camper van is the only way to see the south island properly. The road also had tons of long, one-lane bridges over dried-up river beds. Tom and I wondered if they were a lot more violent during the spring thaw, or maybe they were left from a few hundred years ago when New Zealand was experiencing large glacial melt.

One-Lane Bridge

Top of the Ski Hill

Arthur's Pass Waterfall

We continued on into Arthur's Pass Village, population of around 50, maybe less, and stopped at the visitor center to see if there were a few short hikes we could tackle. We headed out to the 300m Devil's Punchbowl Falls, which was around 30 minutes round-trip, a good warmup. Then we hiked up to Temple Basin ski area, which took more than two hours and provided good views of the valley. We climbed a little past the ski lodge, up a scree slope of small rocks, and the effort was justly rewarded by getting to "ski" in our sneakers down the easily-eroded rock slope.

Feeling tired, we stopped back in town at Arthur's Cafe and Restaurant and ordered two hot-chocolates, my brilliant idea. They were brought over to us while we collapsed on two fireside couches. I took one sip, and that was all that was needed to realize that I had just tasted the best hot chocolate of my life. It had a large, foamy head on it and it was of the perfect sweetness. We ordered dinner there as well, and since we didn't want to leave and head back into the cold wilderness, we played a round of billiards and some cribbage as well. Tom probably hopes I forgot, but I skunked him in the first round of cribbage!


The next morning, we made the pancakes in the lodge near our campsite. We met a nice Israeli girl who was traveling around by herself for a few months in the southern hemisphere, and gave her one of our admittedly delicious pancakes, topped with raspberry jam. We had hoped to hike up Avalanche Peak that day, but the weather looked crummy, and it was even colder in the morning than it had been the previous night, so we decided to see what lay westward. We drove over a huge viaduct, and there was a lookout before the crossing showing the original, treacherous road carved in the side of the mountain that was traversed in the past by horses.

As soon as we got out of Arthur's pass, the clouds broke, the sun shone through, and it was like we were in a different world. When we stopped and got out of the van, we realized that the temperature had risen about 30 degrees as well, a pleasant surprise. We drove through a number of tiny towns, reached the west coast and the Pacific ocean, and headed south towards glacier country.

Franz Josef Glacier

We stopped at two glaciers that were about thirty minutes drive apart, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. We did hikes to each, getting as close as we could. We saw climbers on the Franz Josef Glacier, but neither Tom nor I wanted to pay to climb on some ice, as there is plenty of that in Vermont and Montana. One of the coolest parts of seeing the glaciers was learning about how active they are. We passed signs on the access roads of each that denoted where the glacier faces were in 1750, and each was kilometers further out than it is today. Incredible!

That night, we drove back to Arthur's Pass, still hoping to attempt Avalanche peak in the morning. Petrol had gotten more and more expensive as we had gotten further away from Christchurch, so we foolishly decided to hold off on purchasing some. End result: we ended up stranded in a small town where the petrol station was already closed, not to open again until Monday morning. We inquired at the local pub, where the bartender told us that we could find the owner of the petrol station in the house behind it. We had to pay him $20 to open it up for us, but a crisis was averted. Back in the village, we stopped at a pub to watch some rugby, and headed to bed.

We woke up the next morning, made oatmeal, again in the lodge, and went over to the visitor's center with Avalanche Peak firmly fixed in our minds. Although it was cloudy, with morning snow showers, the weather report said it might clear by the afternoon, so we decided to attempt the hike, going up the less steep Scott's track in case we had to turn back. After purchasing gloves (best $9 I've ever spent) we headed up the road with sandwiches, cameras, and plenty of extra clothes.


The track was difficult enough, and we were glad that we didn't attempt the steep version. We were out of breath most of the way, as it was a 2800m climb that only took two hours one way. On the trail, we encountered the Endless Stair of rocks, and above the subalpine level we stopped to do the Fellowship of the Ring pose (above).

Avalanche Peak Summit

Soon it got really cold, and by the top everything was covered with a centimeter of snow. There were gusting winds and snow showers. Visibility kept changing as the clouds moved overhead. A few times we debated going back, but since we could reliably see at least a few trail markers ahead, we decided to keep going. The last 200m of the hike were crazy. We were on a narrow, snow-covered ridge, and one slip may have sent either of us tumbling down the steep cliffs on either side. Taking much care, we made it across the Pass of Caradhras (alright, admittedly nerdy). Summiting felt really good, although we didn't stay long because it was cold! You can tell by the picture that there wasn't much of a view to enjoy either.

Visions of Arthur's hot chocolate in our minds, we headed back down, stopping only to devour a sandwich in a wind-shielded spot. We made it intact, sporting no visible injuries, and feeling quite proud of ourselves, having done the entire hike in less than four hours. We got the aforementioned hot chocolates, which tasted just as good as the first time. On the way out, we knew we needed to commemorate the occasion with a picture. I caught a much-needed shower - $2 for 6 minutes, and we headed back to Christchurch. That night, since we were extremely tired and sick of cold weather, we decided to spend our time inside a nice, warm movie theatre watching the new Indiana Jones, a fitting movie for the end of an epic weekend.

Best Hot Chocolate in Town

I couldn't have imagined that we'd do so much in such a short time, but we managed to create from scratch one of the best vacations I've ever been on. The combination of driving around with no aim in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, eating and sleeping in the back of a van, and a few killer hikes was unbeatable. I've got a few more pictures at Flickr, and if you want another, slightly more colorful account of the trip you can check out my friend Tom's version.