Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Arthur's Pass; east coast of South Island; back to home

After we had seen the glacier and done the 3 hikes combined into 1, it was time to move on.  All the other hikes involved uphill climbs and/or took 3 1/2 to 8 hours -- a little too physical for our leisurely tastes.  We backtracked down and around Mt. Hercules and headed north back towards Hokitaki.  Noticed a cow loose on the side of the road near Mt. Hercules and slowed down to almost a dead stop.  Sure enough, as soon as the cow noticed our car she ran directly in front of us.  Cows are not very intelligent in case you didn't know.  If they see a vehicle they usually run right in front of it. 

There were 3 local festivals taking place in Hokitaki that sounded fun.  But we decided on a quick lunch and to skip all the local festivities and get on across the island to the eastern side.  I took the opportunity to sample a whitebait sandwich for lunch in Hokitaki.  There were signs all up and down the highway touting whitebait and the guidebook recommended it.  So of course I had to try it.  Bill, being Bill, opted not to try a new culinary delight.  He said he wasn't eating anything with the word bait in its name.   I'm glad I tried it  but must say I truly do not see the appeal and don't understand why people think this is good.  It was just some tiny strips of white fish in a scrambled egg patty, served on plain white bread with no condiments.  The fish was so mild that all I tasted was scrambled egg.  Definitely not something I would recommend, regardless of what the guidebooks state.

There are 3 routes that traverse east to west across the island.  Our route of choice was the center one called Arthur's Pass.  This route is supposed to be the most scenic of the 3, and it certainly did not disappoint.  The views were spectacular.  The mountains on the western half of the island are very different than the mountains on the eastern half.  On the western half the mountains are more jagged, rough, steep and craggy.  Many were topped with snow.  Mt. Cook was the most spectacular of all and had the most snow still in place.  Remember it is the hottest month of the year right now, but there was still plenty of snow at the high altitudes.  There were several incredible gorges that made the road appear to be an engineering marvel.

Arthur's Pass is built loosely along the coach road route which was built by hand by some very tough men back in 1865.  The country needed a land route from the ports on the east coast  to the gold mines on the west  coast.   There are no ports on the western coast and there had to be a way to get the gold out.  I don't know how those men managed to build a coach road through that terrain.  It is so very steep and rough that it looks like an impossible task.  Many men died during this road construction but the road was completed.

Unbeknownst to us, Valentine's Day was also the Coast-to-Coast Race.  We had not heard about this and were surprised when we started encountering road signs warning us that bicyclers were on the road for the next 8 kilometers ahead of us.  We would drive that 8 kilometers and pass some bicyclers, then there would be another sign with the same warning.  This went on most of the way across the entire island.   Bicycle racing must be hugely popular in New Zealand because there were an awful lot of participants on this very difficult course.  Imagine bicycling over the Appalachian Mountains or the Rocky Mountains and you will get a good mental picture.  This is of absolutely no interest to either Bill or me, but we do have to admire their physical prowess to be able to cycle these steep mountains.
After we exited the mountainous area and reached flatter farmland we began noticing the vegetation fences marking property lines of the ranches and farms.  This looks ever so British.  Instead of a fence, people have planted trees or tall shrubs to mark their property lines.  The resulting walls of vegetation are usually clipped on sides and top to form a rectangular wall on the property line.  Must say it does make the hillsides more attractive than a normal barbed wire fence.

We arrived in Christchurch well before sunset.  Had a bit of difficulty finding a hotel room.  They were all booked because the Coast-to-Coast Race ended in Christchurch.   We finally found a room and decided there was no way we would attempt to go out to dinner on Valentine's Day in a city packed with visitors celebrating a race.  So we had a quiet night and stayed in.  I got online and booked the ferry from Picton to Wellington for the next evening at 6 p.m.

 In several places along the roadside of Arthur's Pass we noticed hand painted signs warning that "1080 kills everything."  We had never heard of 1080 so this peaked our interest.  I googled it and learned that 1080 is  sodium monofluoroacetate  and does in fact kill everything.  Apparently this poison is used in Australia and now in New Zealand and is becoming quite controversial.  Wonder now if we are also using this in the US.  Sort of reminds me of the DDT fiasco experienced during my childhood.

The drive up the eastern coast from Christchurch to Picton was completely different than our drive down on the western coast.   Most of the eastern coast reminded us of northern California except the beaches are totally black volcanic sand.  It was especially pretty around Kaikoura.  These were the blackest beaches we have seen anywhere.   And there were jagged rocks in the water dotting the coastline.   Near Kaikura there were roadside stands and small cafes selling crayfish or crawfish.   We wanted to stop but decided that as bland as all the food is in New Zealand that there was no way they would know how to cook crawfish properly spiced.  So we decided not to try it.  Found out later that what they were calling crawfish or crayfish was really lobster.  Now I wish we had stopped!  Been awhile since we have eaten lobster.

There are only a handful of hospitable bays on the eastern coast.  But the northern coast of the South Island is a completely different story.  It looks very much like British Columbia, with deep bays surrounded by steep densely-forested hills.  Looks like a wonderful place to gunkhole for weeks on end.  Once you drive out of Picton you are into wine country.  Many wineries to tour if that is one of your pastimes.

The trip took less time than we had anticipated and we arrived in Picton just as the 2:25 ferry was finishing loading.  Our tickets were for the 6:05 ferry but I figured it couldn't hurt to ask.  The ticket lady told me to hurry up and get loaded.  We were the last boat to get onto the ferry and were loaded onto the train deck.  This was a different ferry than the one we had ridden over from Wellington and it was not nearly as nice.  It was nice enough but not as new or luxurious as the previous one.  We walked up to a seating area where we found a television showing the final minutes of the Louis Vuitton Pacific Race. 

Imagine our shock a few minutes later when our friends Paul and Michele and their children walked down the stairs right in front of us.  We were not supposed to be on this ferry, and they were not supposed to be on this ferry.  What a coincidence for us to run into one another in a place where neither of us had planned to be.  Paul & Michele had been camping farther south than we had traveled on the island.  Unfortunately, Michele had injured her back and they were forced to call an early halt to their camping vacation.  She needed to get home to their boat to recuperate.  The 2 kids went to watch a movie and we 4 adults sat and visited for the entire 3 hour passage from Picton to Wellington.  It was great to catch up and hear the stories of the places they had visited.  They camped at DOCs, which are places operated by the Department of Conservation and are well off the beaten path that most tourists take.  Sounds like they had a great vacation.

When we arrived in Wellington the Grego family headed on northward and Bill and I drove downtown to the Cuba District.  We enjoyed the city so much last time that we decided to stay in the heart of young weird people and busy bars and restaurants  once again.   We walked the streets, watched the people, and had a barely so-so Mexican dinner cooked by 2 men who claimed they were really Mexicans.  The next morning we did a bit of shopping and then set out on Highway 1.  

Unfortunately, New Zealand does not mark their highways or roads with helpful signs like north or south or east or west.  Turned out we were on Highway 1 heading south and we needed to be on Highway 1 heading north.  We didn't discover our error until we reached the end of Highway 1 at the airport.  So we turned around and retraced our route.  Wasted almost 2 hours getting to the right road and heading in the right direction.  Good thing we didn't have a deadline for the day.  Our original plans were to take the eastern route back to Auckland.  This is called the wine route and we wanted to visit some of the wineries.  But the weather did not cooperate and touring wineries in the rain did not sound appealing, so we took Highway 1 back towards Auckland.

We stopped at Rotorua for the night.   Rotorua has a nice lake and is home to dozens and dozens of geysers.  BTW, the local Kiwis pronounce geysers just like we do in the USA.  Seems like only the UK folks call them geezers.  

The geysers around Rotorua do not follow any spouting schedule -- nothing like Old Faithful.  You never know when these geyser are going to spout.  They discovered a century or more ago that when soap is poured into a geyser that it will cause it to spout sometime within the next 24 hours.  So now to keep the tourists happy, one of the parks puts soap into their geysers daily so that the tourists will always see spouting during their park visit.  

Rotorua also has hot springs (most with accompanying sulphur smell), a sky tram (not for me!!), and a luge (again, not for me!!).

We stopped in Auckland and picked up our newly recovered Sport-a-Seats.  They are now green to match the new cockpit cushions and pillows.  Nice to have everything matching again.  We arrived back at the boat mid-afternoon.  Nice to be home again.

A few observations from the past couple of weeks:

1.)  We saw dozens of deer ranches.  That was surprising.  I am surprised that there is that large a market for venison.

2.) New Zealand supposedly produces 13 million lambs annually.  I think we saw 10 million of them during our road trip.  And at least 15 million cattle.  Saw only 4 head of those pretty Swiss cattle that are shiny black with a 2-ft white band around the stomach.  One ranch had 3 head and one ranch had only 1.  What is he going to do with only 1?  Would be a terrible shame to breed that special breed of cow with another type bull.

3.) Sheep come in surprising sizes, shapes and colors.  We have seen small dainty sheep, large clumsy sheep, beige sheep, pure white sheep, off-white sheep, white sheep with black faces, white sheep with back faces and black legs, totally black sheep, and one kind of sheep that looks like a huge shaggy sheepdog.   Wonder if they taste different?

4.) We saw several alpaca farms, but none had very many alpaca.

5.) Three times we saw penned animals that we could not identify.  The strangest ones looked like pure-white sheep but with very long necks like alpacas.  Sheepacas?

6.) Kiwis don't believe in the USA rule of "no shoes, no shirt, no service."  We have been surprised at how many people run around barefoot -- in supermarkets, in malls, and even in restaurants.  Sorry; that is just gross.  It is a little repulsive to see people walking around barefoot inside stores at the shopping malls.  Wonder why the retailers allow it.

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