Tag Archives: newzealand

New Zealand: Exiting Queenstown

The flight from Queenstown to Auckland is delayed due to some dicey looking weather. We sit around in the airport cafe. We sit around in the terminal. The weather, if anything, seems to be getting worse. We finally board. Then we sit around in the plane. Dave and I begin to wonder if we’re going to have to make this flight tomorrow, right before the Big Flight home. Not a pleasant thought.

Eventually, the pilot turns on the intercom and says a number of interesting things.

Pilot: The ground crew is currently offloading some bags.

This is alarming. I ponder the possibility us of not being able to change into clean clothes (and underwear! and socks!) before checking out of the Auckland hotel and possibly having to take the Big Flight home. I’m pretty sure U.S. Customs would be forced to detain us as a biohazard.

Pilot: We’re really sorry about the inconvenience, but we’re too heavy to land at the Queenstown airport.

Queenstown? I know I’ve been travelling a lot, and everything’s starting to run together, but aren’t we IN Queenstown? And aren’t we supposed to land somewhere else?

Pilot: You see, because Queenstown is surrounded by mountains, the law requires that we get above a certain altitude before entering cloud cover…

Oh my. Sounds like a good law.

Pilot: There is a open patch above the lake, so we’re going to try to circle around and see if we can gain enough altitude.


Pilot: And if we don’t make it, we’ll have to land back here. That’s why we’re offloading the bags. Again

If we don’t make it? I don’t like the sound of that.

Pilot: Oh, and we’ll be cutting back the engines pretty sharply after we get airborne. Don’t be alarmed… that’s pretty much par for the course for Queenstown airport.


Some of you may never have had the experience of flying in a great big 747 while it’s doing a tight figure eights around a hole in the clouds. You’re missing out. The engines rev up and we charge meaningfully across the lake, then (at the last possible moment), the engines cut back sharply and we make a sharp bank to the left. Then more engines and another charge, followed by the engines cutting back and a hard right. I lose track of the number of revolutions we’ve made, but eventually we get up and on our way. Hurrah!

P.S. Happily, our bags were also subjected to the spectacular maneuvers and arrive at baggage claim shortly after we do. We (and our socks and underwear and toothbrushes) make our way to the airport.

New Zealand: Queenstown


My arms hurt.

My shoulders hurt.

My legs hurt. Why? I have no idea. They didn’t do any work yesterday.

I couldn’t lift the coffeepot this morning. It hurts to type. Stupid kayak. It’s a good thing that Dave and I have an easy day ahead of us.

We are spending a few hours in Queenstown today before flying to Auckland tonight. We are spending a few hours in Auckland tomorrow before flying home tomorrow. The vacation is winding to a close. Fortunately, I still have lots of sabbatical time left (sorry, Dave!) in which to goof off, travel home to see my parents, and generally have a good time.

P.S. Queenstown is, for those of you keeping track, yet another charming community on the side of a sparkling lake ringed with mountains. Sigh. Doesn’t anybody want to build anywhere else on the South Island? How about a squat, ugly little city on a featureless plain? Really, how many views can a person take?

New Zealand: Milford Sound

Dave and I are picked up at our hotel early, early in the morning by the good people of Rosco’s Milford Sound Kayaks. After a long and very scenic drive to the coast, we’re off to explore the fiords by kayak. The kayaking group consists of me, Dave, and an entire school of teenagers from Colorado. They put us in thermal underwear covered bright horizontal stripes. We look like decoys from the Where’s Waldo books. They put us in purple jackets, purple kayak skirts, and purple life jackets. This doesn’t improve the look. We dance around a great deal in an attempt to get away from the sandflies*. Dave and I are sealed into our yellow, two person kayak and pushed out into the sea.

Dave and I have never kayaked before. Sea kayaks are very stable, and since we’re basically on an inlet, the water is very calm. But in the back of my mind, I’m always aware of the fact that should the kayak capsize, we’ll both need to (a) keep our wits about us, (b) locate the pull tab on the kayak skirt, (c) wriggle out of the kayak, and (d) get to the surface. All of this will have to happen in water that they tell us is about 9°C. (At the time, I just know this is cold. Now, with the benefit of a calculator, I know is 48°F.) I know Dave is going to have additional trouble with (c), as I watched him cram his long legs in the cockpit, and I suspect that extraction is going to require four strong guides and a shoehorn. My working assumption is that a capsize of any kind is going to result in the immediate death of one or both of us. Which would probably spoil our holiday.

As we start out (with extreme caution, due to my absolute terror of capsizing), we both realize instantly that we are in a bit of trouble. Apparently, paddling a kayak requires that one use one’s arm, shoulder, back, and abdominal muscles, and we don’t happen to have any. (And I thought I packed everything.) At least we’re in a two person kayak, so that we are literally “in the same boat”. If I’m tired and he has a spurt of energy, he can do the paddling. If he’s tired and I have a spurt of energy, I can do the paddling. Thanks to that, and thanks to the fact that I’m much more efficient at steering the kayak than the 12-16 year olds in the other kayaks (shocker!), we manage to muddle through.

We break for lunch on the water, and discover first hand how tricky it is to eat with one hand while using the other to hold the kayaks together side by side in a “raft” formation for stability. Along these lines, Dave and I both discover the joys of developing an itch that lies somewhere underneath the kayak skirt, and being unable to get to it effectively. And occasional attacks by swarms of sandflies* in the shallow sections cause mad spasms of swatting that threaten to overturn us completely.

But the fiords themselves are amazing. The cliffs are enormous, and were carved out by a series of glaciers. They are all solid granite. On the road to Milford Sound, we passed through a tunnel that was over a kilometer long, and had no supports whatsoever. The whole thing is just rough hewn rock, which can support its own weight very nicely. There are evergreens and fern trees growing all over the cliffs. The roots manage to hold onto the nooks and crannies, and to each other. We see one section where there has been a tree avalanche, where the trees became too large for the tangle of roots to support, and the whole thing came crashing down into the water. There are spectacular waterfalls. There are white herons and loons. There was one basking sea lion that was trying his best to ignore us. Every once in a while, one of the Milford Sound cruise boats goes by, carrying all of the people who were too unfit (smart?) to see the fiords under their own power. The wakes from these boats add a little excitement, especially given my concerns about capsizing and death.

Because everything is so big, it’s really difficult to gauge distances on the fiord. We see a waterfall that looks close, but is 20 km away. At the midway point, we cross from one side of the channel to the other, and it takes a good 30 minutes of hard labor.

All in all, the experience is magical.

When we return, we head over to Air Fiordland for our flight to Queenstown. This 30-40 minute flight will save us a 4+ hour bus ride, as the only roads that go from Milford Sound to Queenstown have to swing far, far to the south to go around the mountains. When we arrive at the airport, we discover that it consists of a runway, an itty bitty air control tower, a couple of fields, a scattering of teeny aircraft and helicopters, and a bunch of pilots leaning on a fence and shooting the breeze. Oh, and a billion trillion sandflies*, of course, because this is Milford Sound and they are EVERYWHERE. Our pilot takes pity on us and lets us sit in the Air Fiorland van until the rest of the passengers arrive, where we only have to contend with the sandflies that have already gotten in the car.

Our aircraft for the day is a Cessna 280, with seats for the pilot and copilot and four passengers. On this particular occasion, there is just a pilot. And there are five passengers. When he asks for somebody to sit in front, everybody looked appropriately horrified, except me. I’m not sure what possesses me, but I find myself leaping forward and saying “Ooh! Me!”. I begin to have second thoughts during takeoff, when the pilot pulls back on the stick that controls the flaps and the corresponding one on my side moves almost into my lap. There are dials and buttons and pedals and flashing lights and a carbon monoxide detector and a door unlocking mechanism and a big aircraft-steering stick and I am being very, very, very careful not to touch anything. Very, very careful. I stop regretting my decision once we were in the air, though, as I have the best views.

The flight is extraordinary. The Cessna has a top speed of 180 knots and we are flying at about 140 knots and 7000 feet. I know the former because vital Cessna stats are written on a plaque right in front of me, and I know the latter because this is the sort of important pilot information that is displayed on cockpit dials. I also keep an eye on the oil and suction and RPMs and the carbon monoxide detector, but more out of a sense of responsibility. The pilot, after all, is frequently busy craning his head around to look out one side window or the other and point out interesting features of the terrain to our passengers. I keep an eye on the higher peaks to make sure we aren’t getting too close. And I make sure the oil and RPMs and such all stay within the acceptable limits that were published next to them.

I am frequently distracted from my paranoid copilot duties by the truly magnificent views. The plane moves so slowly that it feels like we are floating along, helicopter-fashion. The average height of the peaks in this range is 7000 feet, so we fly over some and around others. We see amazing snow capped mountains, high valleys and low valleys, and waterfalls. There is a perfectly round basin full of blue water, level with the plane that has a tiny opening on one side, where water cascades down a HUGE vertical drop. We see Lake Te Anau in the distance. We descend over Lake Wakatipu when approaching Queenstown. It is glorious.

We are all a little perplexed (and alarmed) when we pass over the single paved Queenstown airport runway and begin to approach it at a 90° angle. (I compare notes with some of the other passengers after the flight.) Apparently, the pilot has elected to land on the grass and cross over the runway. Still, the landing is smooth and we make it in one piece into the terminal and on our way.

* The sandfly is the greatest insect menace that I have ever encountered. It is the size of a gnat but bites like a mosquito. Like a gnat, it prefers to hunt in a pack of about 300 billion of its brothers and sisters. It doesn’t appear to be overly bothered by bug spray, has no problems biting through thick clothing, likes to fly into eyeballs, ears and (especially!) noses, and is generally very unpleasant. Every time you swat them away, you come away with a couple of dead ones. And every time you kill one, you make the world a slightly better place. If I never see another sandfly, it will be too soon.

New Zealand: Te Anau

We spend our last driving day getting from Wanaka to Te Anau. It will be nice to be able to ditch the car, especially as we have nearly run out of songs in my iPod’s 1980’s playlist with which to play “Name That Tune”. Dave is having to work too hard to skip over tracks that we’ve already guessed.

Te Anau is yet another beautiful community on the side of a sparkling lake rimmed with hills. Yeah, whatever. This afternoon is devoted to blogging and strolling around at leisure. We need to get to bed early, as we’re being picked up very early tomorrow morning to go kayaking in Milford Sound.

There are only a few days left before we fly home. We’re still having lots of fun, but more and more, I’m catching myself having vivid fantasies about my Tivo. And sleeping in my own bed. And driving on the right side of the road again. So it won’t be too painful to head home. (Especially as I’ll still have three weeks of sabbatical time left! Woo hoo!)

New Zealand: Wanaka (still)

We have a lovely low-key day in Wanaka. We start out at Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World, which has a timber labyrinth (complete with some two story passages, which make it “3D”) and a set of Illusion Rooms. The maze is a fun (and exceedingly goofy) way to kill some time. Naturally, since we are both computer scientists, we walk the maze in an organized fashion by adhering to the “right hand rule”. Maybe this took some of the fun out of it.

The illusion rooms are legitimately interesting. These include the usual complement of holograms and painted illusions, but also a “Hall of Following Faces”, which has rows and rows of concave famous faces that appear to follow you around the room. It has a really nifty (and creepy) visual effect; it reminded me somehow of the architect’s room in Matrix Revolutions.

There are also a couple of rooms set at a 45 degree angle that really effectively screw with your sense of balance. We, and everyone else in the exhibit, spend much time giggling and stumbling, watching water and pool balls (and a chair ride!) seem to run uphill.

Finally, we get to play with one of those tilted perspective rooms that make it look like Dave is teeny and I am very, very tall. Like Godzilla. I find this very satisfying.

We spend the afternoon on a nice long walk around the lake, trying to muster up some appreciation for the spectacular scenery.

New Zealand: Wanaka

Along the drive to Haast and then Wanaka, we notice that we are starting to get burned out on spectacular New Zealand scenery. Instead of properly oohing and ahhing over each new picturesque coastal view, soaring mountain and sparkling lake, we are beginning seriously to take these things for granted. Dave continues, however, to be amused and entertained as I continue to point out every flock of sheep (“Hey look! Sheep!”). Sure, he sighs and looks annoyed, and occasionally throws something, but I know he secretly loves it.

We stay at one of the huge and beautifully appointed Lakeside Apartments, with yet another stunning view of lake and snow capped mountains. Same old, same old. We decide to go to dinner and a show at Cinema Paradiso, a quirky little theater furnished with old sofas and recliners with a cafe that serves dinner during the intermission.

Unfortunately, the movie showing is Alexander. This is a bad movie. Bad. Really bad. Three-hours-of-my-life-I’ll-never-get-back bad. This movie has an excess of half-naked men clad in leather, an overused and exceedingly cheesy “eagle cam”, and really painful dialog. With the addition of a couple of ferrets, it might have been mistaken for Beastmaster. (This may not be a fair comparison… I remember Beastmaster as being much more watchable.) There was laughter in the theater during Hephaistion’s death scene. There was palpable relief in the theater during Alexander’s death scene. (Which may have been a little premature, as there was yet more pretentious and dull narrative to wade through.) Ugh.

New Zealand: Franz Josef (still)

We wake up on Sunday morning and look out the window at the glacier, only to discover that it has gone missing, along with the mountain that it is supposed to be draped over. In its place is a featureless gray mist, of the sort that eats helicopters alive. Sure enough, our neato helihiking trip has been cancelled, and instead of scampering over surreal ice formations in a remote section of glacier, we have to settle for a more mundane hike up to the terminus. The walk is nice, but I am very disappointed.

New Zealand: Franz Josef

Dave and I drive south to Franz Josef playing “name that tune” using the 80s playlist on my iPod. It occurs to me that I haven’t yet told the saga of the iPod.

Five minutes before the cab was due to pick us up at our house and take us to the airport for our initial flight to Auckland, my iPod had a seizure. Maybe it freaked out because Dave switched users on the Mac while it was syncing. More likely, I probably lifted it from the cradle at some point while it was writing something important. At any rate, the iPod got wiped clean. Empty. Zero songs. Nada. And with a more-than-20Gb collection of music, there wasn’t even time for iTunes to figure out which songs needed to be added, let alone put anything back on there. I’d still be able to use the iPod to offload pictures from my camera, but I wouldn’t be able to try out the iTrip to play music in the car. I was devastated.

After the first week, I finally ran out of space on my camera, so I decided to dump the pictures onto the iPod. I attached the camera to the USB cable to the Belkin transferring thingy (thanks, Winsha!) to the iPod and pressed the button. For some time, the transferring is covered in flashing lights a la Close Encounters. Then it becomes quiet. I’m trying to see if it worked when I notice that the iPod is down more than 20Gb. The pictures wouldn’t be anywhere near that big, so I look at the menu. IT’S A MIRACLE! THE SONGS ARE BACK! THE IPOD HAS BEEN FAITH HEALED WITH THE LAYING ON OF BELKIN TRANSFERRING THINGY! WOO HOO!

Needless to say, Dave and I have been happily listening to music in the car ever since. (Or perhaps I should say that I’ve been happily listening to music, since I’m doing all of the driving, and thus get to choose the tunes.) Some of you might be interested to know that the iTrip works like a charm here, since the radio station density is really, really low. (Thanks, Jack!) (For the iTrip, not the low radio station density, which AFAIK he isn’t directly responsible for.)

Back to the driving. Couple of interesting observations. One, NZers feel pretty comfortable with multi-use bridges. There are positively scads of one lane bridges (which are fine as long as you understand the yield rules). More nerve-wracking were the railroad trestles. These handle cars in both directions as well as trains (presumably in both directions). I’m not quite sure of the rule here, but common sense says traffic of all kinds is going to yield to any train that gets anywhere near the thing. Yikes. At least you don’t have a moment of concerns about weight limits when 3 or 4 cars pile on at the same time.

Another observation. A cow crossing sign shows a cow’s silhouette on a yellow diamond. A pedestrian crossing sign shows the silhouette of two people on a yellow diamond. But a sheep crossing sign shows the silhouette of a sheep on an orange diamond, as if to suggest that the warning is actually to indicate “sheep at work”. I know sheep are important to the economy here, but are they actually responsible for doing road work? How do they operate the machinery?

Another observation. A “wh” in a Maori word is typically pronounced like “f”, but (based on regional differences) can be pronounced like “w”. It’s confusing. When we pass Whataroa, Dave summed up the difficulties with “We’ve reached ‘wataroa’. Or ‘fataroa’. Or whatever the wuck it is.”

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we’re taking a helicopter up to the top of Franz Josef glacier to hike around. If you don’t hear from us again, send up one of those St. Bernards with the barrel of rum.

New Zealand: TranzAlpine and Punakaiki

We arise early in the morning to catch the TranzAlpine, a very scenic train ride from Christchurch on the east coast through the South Alps to Greymouth on the west. The scenery is staggering. I entertain myself by pointing out every flock of sheep to Dave (“Hey look! Sheep!”), which he finds endlessly amusing. We also really enjoy eavesdropping on a journey-long conversation between two Australian couples and a British family, in which they discuss the Chunnel and narrow boats, funny things the British son said when he was 6 years old (much to his embarrassment), pollution patterns in London and Sydney, the latest in photography equipment, how much the internet has improved travel, and everything in between.

When we arrive in Greymouth, the Hertz agent is at the station to meet people with Hertz reservations… in this case, a couple from Berkeley (small world!) and us. The agent has brought both rental cars with her. She drives the Berkeley couple back to the Hertz facility to fill out the paperwork. I drive the other car. The woman actually hands me the keys before I sign any paperwork or show any ID. This strikes me as a little weird. Dave tries to talk me into making a break for it, but we eventually decide to follow along.

We head up to Punakaiki to take a look at the Pancake Rocks and stay the night. The coastal road between Greymouth and Punakaiki is amazing. Amazing. Amazing, amazing, amazing. I’ve driven on CA 1, and I’ve driven around Kauai, Maui, and Oahu, and I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. There are volcanic-looking cliffs covered with rainforest-y vegetation, and there are beautifully arranged and eroded rocky outcrops and islands just offshore, complete with clinging mist and crashing waves. Wow.

The Pancake Rocks are more of these outcrops and islands that are comprised of layers of limestone and layers of mudstone. The mudstone erodes away, leaving something that with enough imagination looks like a stack of pancakes. These are partially eroded to form natural bridges, caverns, blowholes, and every striking other-worldly form imaginable. I go nuts with the camera. I usually try to limit the number of landscape shots I take, since I’ve seen from my parents’ collections that photographs with family members in them are so much more interesting in the long run. I just can’t help myself. I am apparently not the only person having this problem, as I overhear a British woman saying “My God. I’ve taken 13 “rock” pictures already.”.

New Zealand: Christchurch

After one last round of minigolf at the hotel, Dave and I head out for Rotorua airport to fly out to the South Island. The airport itself is much smaller than the one in Urbana-Champaign, IL, but quite a bit bigger than the one in Norfolk, Nebraska. I puzzle over the hordes of people running around dressed in green, wondering if they’re supporting some sort of local sports team, until it dawns on me that it is St. Patrick’s Day. I, happily, am coincidentally already wearing a green shirt, so I just pinch Dave in the arm and go on with my day.

It takes an absurd amount of time to get everybody situated on the plane. One couple sits down without consulting their seat number. When it occurs to them to look, they can’t find the information anywhere. Another has misread the seat number on their ticket and have sat in the wrong place. I have no idea if this is par for the course on these domestic flights or if everyone has gotten an early start on the green beer.

When we arrive in Christchurch, we check into the Rydges Hotel. We get our room key and head up to the top floor. We discover that (a) the elevator requires a room key to go to the top floor and (b) our room number is posted in front of the only set of double doors on the entire floor. Doors that are labelled “Royal Suite”. We open one of the double doors to see a dining room table. And an aquarium full of fish. We head back down to the lobby to see if they’ve made some sort of (expensive) mistake. As it turns out, our room rate wasn’t so hot, so they very kindly upgraded us to a bigger room. The biggest room, actually. It’s tragic that we are only in town for one night, but we try to make the most of it. There are snippets of conversation like
Rebecca: “I’m watching our fish reflected in our television.”
Dave: “One of our televisions.”
Rebecca: “Oh, yeah.”
Rebecca: “Which view do you like better? The one from our living room, the one from our dining room, or the one from our bedroom?”