New Zealand: Auckland

New Zealand is the birthplace of adventure tourism. Specifically, Queenstown is home to the world’s first commercial bungee jump, Rotorua invented Zorbing, and Auckland is home to SkyCity. As our days in this adrenaline-fueled country came to an end, we had one last day of crazy adventure seeking left before relaxing in wine country to polish off the trip.

Before departing Rotorua, Sean somehow convinced me to stop at OGO Rotorua. OGO is the original Zorb and in 2006 they sold the rights to a different company but continued operating under the new name. It’s confusing but worth mentioning because sometimes people know what Zorbing is, no one knows what OGO is, and many people don’t know what on earth I’m talking about. It’s ok.

So what exactly is OGO/Zorbing? Well, it’s difficult to explain. You basically roll down a hill in a large transparent plastic orb with a little bit of water and get very disoriented and may end up punching your spouse in the face. Sounds…fun? It actually was a total blast and I completely destroyed Sean when we went separately and raced.

From Rotorua we drove up to Auckland. After ditching the car at the airport we went to our hotel for a little bit of downtime before jumping off the tallest building in New Zealand.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m pretty terrified of heights. I have a huge issue with those glass floor experiences because every time I really feel like I’m stepping into thin air. This time, I would willingly(ish) literally step into thin air and free fall 630 feet (192 meters). And this was my idea.

Unlike when we were repelling, I was unable to mask my terror as I prepped for this jump. However, we did look awesome in our 90’s superhero flight suits.

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It was pretty incredible if I do say so myself. I’m not ready to go skydiving anytime soon, but the adrenaline rush was pretty addictive. With the jump, you get free access to the observation deck, so we went back up while we waited for our dinner reservation.

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If you are in Auckland, you must eat at Depot Eatery. After living in Annapolis for 2.5 years, we developed a taste for seafood. Then we moved to the landlocked Tajikistan and have been craving seafood ever since. We’d been eating our fair share throughout this trip, but Depot has the best mussels I’ve ever tasted.

Also.

I’ll say this slowly so it can really sink in.

Wine. On. Tap.

Yes, really.

Totally worth waiting an hour for a table.

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Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Ramada, Auckland (the one on Federal Street) – great location! So much within walking distance.
  • Where We Ate: Depot Eatery, Auckland; Auckland Seafood School, Auckland – I have a major bone to pick with the Auckland Seafood School. The reason they didn’t get the same treatment at Depot Eatery above is because we got in a fight with the staff. We ordered the seafood sampler platter which was amazing but apparently they put peanuts on the calamari and I’m highly allergic to them. It was frustrating to me that they didn’t list a MAJOR ALLERGEN on the list of ingredients, because who puts peanuts on seafood?! The staff was also not very responsive to my concerns and the manager only came over to check on me when we insisted to speak with him. Not exactly stellar service.
  • OGO Rotorua – this is the original Zorbing company and has been a certified adventure operator since the register began in November 2014. There have been reports of other companies being investigated by authorities, but none involving OGO Rotorua.
  • SkyJump/SkyWalk – for the lesser thrill-seekers, you can also walk around the outside of the Sky Tower. Don’t fear you’ll be fully teatherd to the building with no chance of falling off.
  • SkyCity Auckland
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New Zealand: Rotorua

There really is no place on earth quite like Rotorua. Where else are you going to wake up to the sweet smell of sulfur in your geothermal-heated hotel room to go bathe in hot springs and walk past boiling mud? No where that I can think of. I believe the guidebook even referred to Rotorua as stinky and unique.

We had two days here and it was a lovely break after all the driving we did during our first few days on the North Island. Our first day we spent wandering around town taking in the sights. Normally “taking in the sights” would mean picturesque landscapes or cityscapes with beautiful architecture. In Rotorua it means boiling lakes, bubbling mud, and weird geothermal formations.

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Rotorua is not only known for it’s geothermal activity. It’s also a huge tourist town with lots of great souvenir shopping. Especially the famous New Zealand greenstone, also known as pounamu or jade.

Greenstone is significant in Maori culture. It is considered a treasure and signifies prestige. Today artists carve greenstone into pendants, earrings, statues, and other decorative items. The shapes of these carvings are also significant and each symbolizes a different virtue including the koru (spiral) which symbolizes harmony, and the hei matu (fish hook) which symbolizes strength and good luck.

After shopping we went to relax in the historic Polynesian Spa. We treated ourselves to a private pool (which was not so private thanks to about a million chatty seagulls) to unwind. Still aching from the rafting, hiking, and caving, relaxing in mineral rich water was exactly what we needed.

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On our second day in Rotorua, we spent the evening at the Tamaki Maori Village for a full cultural experience. The Maori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. The migrated from eastern Polynesia sometime between 1250 and 1300 CE. They have their own language, rich mythology, unique crafts, and vivid performing arts.

The evening began with the traditional welcoming ceremony before we were invited into the village where we learned about the Maori way of life including dance, games, crafts, and the Haka, the traditional war cry, dance, or challenge. I do have photographic evidence of Sean performing the Haka, but I have been strictly forbidden from posting any of it here (or anywhere), so I’ll leave you with a few photos of the professionals.

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After this introduction to the Maori culture, we were treated to a performance in the village meeting house by our hosts. This performance included poi, the art of swinging tethered weights through a variety of rhythmical and geometric patterns, often used to depict the wing patterns of favorite birds. The poi was done in conjunction with authentic songs and dance.

We then feasted on the traditional hangi dinner which had been prepared for hours by our gracious hosts. The food had been cooked in a pit oven using heated rocks. While this practice is less common with today’s modern technology, it is still used for special occasions.

Unfortunately I don’t have too many decent pictures to share with you since it got dark quite quickly and we were in the back for much of the tour. Plus, I was more focused on the experience than snapping photos to be perfectly honest.

Once we returned to the hotel, we hopped in the geothermal hot tub to wind down for the evening. Not a bad way to end our fantastic few days in this stinky, unique town.

Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Ambassador Thermal Motel, Rotorua
  • Where We Ate: Eat Street, Rotorua – I don’t remember exactly which restaurant we ate at in Rotorua, but not because it was forgettable! Eat street has about a dozen restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating. We waffled between several and I can’t remember which one we decided on. You can’t really go wrong here.
  • Greenstone: Mountain Jade – we ended up buying a statue from this store. There are two locations in Rotorua. This jade is amazing, but be prepared to spend quite a bit for the larger pieces.
  • Polynesian Spa
  • Maori Cultural Experience: Tamaki Maori Village

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New Zealand: Waitomo Caves and Hobbiton

Now I know the title of this one is weird. Two very different things crammed together: black water caving with glow worms and frolicking around a movie set for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Opposite as these two things are they did happen on the same day, and it was only a little crazy.

After an excellent night sleep (we were exhausted from Tongariro the day before), we awoke bright and early to drive to Waitomo, a town famous for the network of caves running below ground that happen to be home to glow worms.

This would be our third and final wet suit adventure. We choose to do one of the longer tours which involved abseiling (repelling) down a 130 foot shaft to enter the caves. I, again, was terrified – though it doesn’t translate into the pictures. Apparently I fake it pretty well.

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After surviving the descent, we made our way through the caves. This involved zip-lining, tubing, wading through waist deep water, and climbing up two waterfalls to get out. It really was an exciting trip. Oh, and we did see some glow worms which was pretty incredible.

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From here, we ate a quick lunch in town, then left for Hobbiton and some Lord of the Rings magic.

The Hobbiton movie set is actually part of the Alexander family farm, a 1,200 acre property of rolling grassland. Peter Jackson first saw the farm from an aerial scouting trip and fell in love with it.

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When Lord of the Rings was filmed, the set was made of disposable materials and was completely restored to it’s original state once filming finished. When they returned for The Hobbit, the Alexander family negotiated to have the set constructed from permanent materials so that it could remain as a fixture for New Zealand and the world.

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Apparently, the family has been giving their own tours to interested folks in between Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit where all they were doing was pointing at hills.

I promise the tour now is much more impressive than those early days.

Travel Notes:

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New Zealand: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Normally on Christmas morning, Sean and I would be with one of our families opening presents. At the very least, we’d be at home in Dushanbe with the furbabies watching them tear through their presents because yes we are those crazy pet parents who get their babies gifts on Christmas. Fight me about it.

This past year was just a little different. Not only was it summer weather since we were in the Southern Hemisphere, we also picked December 25 to complete the 19.4 kilometer (12 mile) Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

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Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park and dual World Heritage area. Within the park there are several Maori religious sites and many of the parks summits are considered sacred. It’s also home to three active volcanoes  Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro.

The terrain is quite, well, for lack of better word, weird. Besides the three volcanoes, there are large craters that look like a Martian landscape, sulfur pools, and areas of volcanic ash that look otherworldly.

Kind of like Mordor if you catch my drift.

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We were both really excited to tackle this hike. It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. Aside from the 19.4 kilometer distance stamp there are portions of the hike that go straight up, then straight down, then straight up again. Plus there’s optional summits of two of the three volcanoes.

About two hours in to the right you see a turnoff for Mt. Ngauruhoe, the more impressive of the two volcanoes you can climb. It’s also one of two mountains used in the Lord of the Rings films for Mount Doom. At this point in the hike we were feeling pretty good so we decided to go for it.

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If you’re wondering what it’s like to climb up Mount Doom allow me to enlighten you. You know that scene in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King where Sam stands up and says the epic “I can’t carry if for you, but I can carry you!” line? Yeah. That’s bullshit. The fact that he is able to stand while climbing Mount Doom is a total lie.

Basically you’re trudging up loose volcanic ash that feels like you’re on a treadmill. There’s no marked trail and no way to get good footing. Plus the ash gets everywhere. Your shoes, your hair, your eyes. Everywhere.

Once you finish the loose ash portion you are “rewarded” with solid(ish) ground. Trouble is the rock ledge is steep and sharp so you end up destroying your hands as you scramble the rest of the way. Awesome. The whole trudge took four hours up and back.

I will say, the view from the top was worth it. Nothing like eating Christmas lunch on the outer rim of an active volcano.

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Once we finished the Ngauruhoe summit, we still had about four hours worth of the hike to finish. This meant climbing up and down the rims of the South Crater, Red Crater, and skirting around the Emerald and Blue Lakes. Definitely a weird but beautiful landscape.

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The last three hours of this hike were what did me in. We descended a full three hours to the car park. I could feel my left foot deteriorating, and with about an hour left I knew my toenails were in jeopardy. Somehow descending hurt more than the four-hour summit of Ngauruhoe, and by the time we rounded the last bend I was ecstatic to see the car.

We then drove about an hour to our hotel. We had another early morning the next day so we were trying to split the distance between the National Park and Waitomo. After Christmas dinner of sandwiches (which was awesome by the way) feeling finally returned to my feet and we completely passed out.

Take that Sauron.

Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Forgotten World Motel, Taumarunui
  • Tongariro National Park Info
  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing Info
  • There are several ways to do this hike. We went in the Mangatepopo to Ketetahi direction which is the more popular route. We parked the car at Ketetahi and then paid for a bus to drop us off at Mangatepopo to start the hike. You can also park at Mangatepopo and have a bus return you to the start once you finish. Or go in the opposite direction entirely.
  • Like I said before, this hike is not for the faint of heart. It’s intense and there is no drinkable water anywhere along the route. Just do your research and you’ll be fine.
  • There are a few huts along the route where you can stay overnight if you feel so inclined.
  • This was probably the most excursion-heavy part of the trip. We did whitewater rafting, the Alpine Crossing, black water rafting/caving, and Hobbiton in the span of three days. I’m not saying I don’t recommend it, but this was definitely the most challenging part of the itinerary.

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New Zealand: Wellington, White Water Rafting, and Taupo

After 1.5 weeks driving around the beautiful South Island of New Zealand, Sean and I ditched the rental car and hopped aboard the Blue Bridge ferry bound for the North Island. I’ll write more about our last few days on the South Island later – suffice it to say, we spent two days winery hopping in Marlborough and it was glorious.

We arrived in Wellington quite late so we didn’t do any exploring on the first night. Plus we were caught in a torrential downpour and were soaked by the time we reached the hotel. The next morning the rain had let up slightly so we set out to explore New Zealand’s capitol city.

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We didn’t have a ton of time here since we needed to make the 2 hour drive to River Valley Lodge in time for dinner. We did manage to explore the botanical gardens, waterfront area, and eat at The Chippery, a  fish and chips hole in the wall where you can choose your fish, choose your breading, choose your sauce, and choose your kind of chips. After 18 months in Tajikistan with very little choices, you had me at choose your fish. It was delicious.

As we left Wellington, we experienced traffic for the first time since arriving to New Zealand. The North Island is much more densely populated than the South, and it was rush hour the day before Christmas Eve so probably even worse than normal. We made it to River Valley Lodge just in time for dinner.

The next morning we awoke bright and early for wet suit adventure number two. This time we would be tackling Grade V white water rapids. I was more than a little terrified.

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Apparently, I’m an adrenaline junkie. Once we made it through the first few easy rapids and Sean and I got the hang of the very strange “back-paddling” we had a blast. Our boat was definitely the fun boat of the two since our guide let us jump out and swim one of the easy patches. Here are some more pictures of our funny faces for your enjoyment.

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After lunch with some of our boat-mates we set out for Taupo, a neat little town situated on another beautiful lake.

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We took a 15 minute drive up to the lookout and Huka Falls, then decided to spend the last of our downtime that day at the geothermal hot springs before calling it an early night.

We had a volcano to tackle the next day.

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Travel Notes:

New Zealand: Kaikoura and the Dusky Dolphins

It’s been my dream to swim with dolphins since I knew that was such a thing. They are beautiful, intelligent, playful animals. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with them?!

Then, in 2010, I saw The Cove. My lifelong dream of swimming with dolphins was gone. There was no way I would support an industry that partakes in a yearly slaughter of some of my favorite animals. I would just have to admire them from afar.

Fast forward to 2016. In the beginning stages of planning for this trip, Sean and I ordered a Lonely Planet guidebook off Amazon to give us a bit of direction as we attempted to tackle these two islands. After a week or so, he came to me and said seriously, “in Kaikoura you can swim with wild Dusky Dolphins.” I, like any sane, grown adult, proceeded to hyperventilate.

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Getting to Kaikoura was an adventure.We ended up flipping the entire itinerary to land in Kaikoura on the right day for the dolphin swim since Encounter Kaikoura doesn’t run the tours each day. No problem! Everything else seemed to fall in line nicely, it just made the first day a little more stressful. Nothing we couldn’t prepare for.

What we couldn’t prepare for came in the form of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake two minutes after midnight on November 14, 2016.

If you look at the geology of New Zealand, you’ll see the islands sit right on top of several active fault lines. This quake was unique in that the initial epicenter activated several of these fissures, and as the quake jumped from fault to fault the waves amplified with the worst shaking happening in Kaikoura.

There was major damage. We woke up on November 14 to reports of massive road closures to the north and south of the city. There were your “typical” landslides of course, but the craziest images were of Highway 1 along the coastline. The seabed and coastline had risen. In some places as high as 10 meters. Things that were once underwater were now suddenly exposed, and roads that once connected now jumped 20 feet in the air.

In spite of the news, we tired to remain optimistic. We got in touch with our B&B and Encounter Kaikoura a few days after the quake and were relieved to hear everyone was doing fine. With the risen seabed, Encounter was nervous to see if the dolphins relocated due to the changes. About a week after the quake they were happy to report the dolphins were there, and seemed very happy to see their human friends. Tours resumed (only once a day to account for high tide) and they would be happy to have us as long as we could get there.

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With all the good news coming out of Kaikoura, we were determined. Trouble was, the roads were still in terrible shape. Our best hope was Inland Route 70. It had sustained the least amount of damage and there was a slim chance it would reopen in time.

We watched the travel updates like hawks. We wanted to wait until the last possible minute to cancel. Two weeks before our date (December 19), they reopened the road for caravans only. You had to register with the government and be part of a convoy that left at 6:00 a.m. and departed at 6:00 p.m. or something like that. Of course, there was a chance of getting stuck. Of course, there was a chance of not getting in to the convoy that day. Our chances were not looking good.

As we were planning this trip and the list of excursions got longer and longer, Sean and I discussed our “must-do’s.” For him, it was white-water rafting, hiking, and a Maori cultural experience. For me, there was only one: swim with dolphins.

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Then, somehow, the stars aligned. We woke up in Oamaru to a new travel update. Beginning December 19, Inland Route 70 would be open. No more convoys, no more registering, just open for business. We confirmed with our B&B and with Encounter Kaikoura: we were coming.

On the morning of December 20, 2016, my lifelong dream was fulfilled. I donned a wet suit (super sexy), willingly dove into the open Pacific Ocean, and spend just under one hour playing with wild Dusky Dolphins.

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It was an incredible experience. What made it even more special to me was that these dolphins were hanging out with us because they wanted to. No one was enticing them into the area. They were there of their own will and seemed to have just as much fun as we did.

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Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Inn the Bay, Kaikoura
  • Where We Ate: Zephyr
  • Dolphin Swim/Viewing Tours: Encounter Kaikoura. They also do seal, whale, and albatross encounters.
  • Kaikoura is absolutely beautiful. The saddest part of our time there was not having enough of it! There’s so much wildlife just hanging out on this peninsula just waiting to hang out with humans (safely). New Zealand really has wildlife encounters and conservation down pat.

New Zealand: Christchurch

So I’m falling quite behind on my New Zealand blogs. There’s some stuff going on in my personal life right now that’s eating up a lot of my free time. Nothing bad! Actually really exciting and I hope I’ll be able to talk more about it this spring. It’s just one of those things I don’t want to jinx and talk about too soon.

Anyway.

After our wise decision to abort the Mueller Hut hike in Mount Cook due to weather, we spent that day driving to Christchurch for an overnight. Although I am disappointed we missed out on the hike, I’m very glad we ended up overnighting in Christchurch since the original plan was to drive all the way to Kaikoura which would have made for a pretty long, dreadful day of driving.

Christchurch is one of the largest cities on the South Island. It’s also one of the most vulnerable to earthquakes. From 2010-2012 the region was hit by several large quakes that caused a devastating amount of damage. These quakes brought down numerous buildings, and completely destroyed the underground infrastructure of the city. When we visited in December 2016, it was clear the city was still undergoing massive repairs even four years later.

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Even though the city is still reeling from these quakes, you can feel the resilience of it’s people upon arrival. These quakes caused the residents to pull together and get creative. One of the recommended sites to see is the famous Re:Start Mall built entirely out of connex boxes. There’s also a group called Gap Filler that organizes art installations to fill the large open spaces in the city.

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We didn’t have a ton of time here in Christchurch but I’m glad we got a little more time than expected. I’d definitely like to come back in 5-10 years and see how things have progressed.

Hang in there Christchurch, you guys got this.

Travel Tips:

  • Where We Stayed: Focus Motel
  • Where We Ate: The Cuban
  • Re:Start Mall
  • Gap Filler
  • On the way into town we stopped at the famous Cookie Time store. Cookie Time is pretty much New Zealand’s equivalent of Chips Ahoy but like 100 times better. If you stop at their store, you can pick up factory direct cookies, and even snag a fresh one right out of the oven. We bought SO. MANY. COOKIES.
  • Christchurch also has an amazing botanical garden with a beautiful rose area. Worth a visit; plus it’s free!

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New Zealand: Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo

After a few days of city hopping, Sean and I were ready to commune with nature. We spent the morning and early afternoon of our fourth day on the South Island in Oamaru before driving approximately 200 kilometers (125 miles) to the Mount Cook Village.

Mount Cook, also known as Aoraki, is the tallest peak in New Zealand. It rises 3,764 m (12,349 ft) above sea level. According to Maori legend, Aoraki was a young boy who, along with his three brothers, were the sons of Rakinui, the Sky Father. On their voyage around the Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, their canoe became stranded on a reef. Aoraki and his brothers climbed onto the top of their canoe. However, the south wind froze them and turned them to stone. Aoraki, the tallest, became the highest peak, and his brothers created the rest of Southern Alps.

The drive along Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook Village is absolutely stunning if you’re able enough to catch it on a clear day. Mount Cook is notoriously shy and often covered in mist. We were lucky, though, and as we drove north from Twizel got our first glimpse of this breathtaking mountain.

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Even though we arrived to our hostel quite late (6:00 p.m.) we were still determined to hike the three hour Hooker Valley Track that evening. One great thing about the South Island in the summer is that the sun stays out quite late and we had about three more hours of daylight to work with. Just enough time for the Valley.

Hooker Valley Track is a fairly easy hike that winds its way to Hooker Lake which happens to be full of pieces of glacier. The only thing that made this hike a tad crazy was the winds. Gusts reached about 30-40 mph and it really felt like we were going to be blown off the path a few times. As we returned to the start, the last few rays of sunlight cast a pink hue on the peak which I was eager to capture on film.

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Unfortunately, the weather did not work in our favor the rest of our time in the Mount Cook Village. We were supposed to do a stargazing tour that night, but those strong winds had blown a band of high clouds into the area and our trip was cancelled. The tiny bit of sky we could see was beautiful, but the guide didn’t feel like the full tour was worth it.

The next day we were supposed to do the Muller Hut hike. It’s one of those tracks where you spend the day trekking up, stay overnight, then return the next day. We woke up that morning to rain and wind and a sense of foreboding. As we entered the visitor center to check in, we were greeted with this warning:

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Choosing life, we cancelled our stay at Mueller Hut and set out for Lake Tekapo and Christchurch. This was the one issue with our jam-packed itinerary: no room to improvise.

Lake Tekapo is home to one of the largest dark sky reserves in the world. They have a university-run observatory on top of Mount John. We didn’t have time to tour the observatory, but we did drive up for the cafe. Here I ate the most amazing salmon bagel ever. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Lake Tekapo has a few unique sights. The first, of course, is the lake itself. Shockingly blue water that seems to stretch forever. On the bank, sits the tiny and old Church of the Good Shepard which features a huge picture window over the alter. I’m not sure how anyone can concentrate with that view. Surrounding the lake, thousands of purple lupine flowers bloom. These famous weeds are another defining feature of the stunningly beautiful Lake Tekapo area.

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Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Youth Hostel (YHA), Mount Cook Village
  • Where We Ate: Astro-Cafe, Lake Tekapo
  • Stargazing Tour in Mount Cook: Big Sky Stargazing
  • Hooker Valley Track
  • Mueller Hut Track
  • If you can, this is the part of the itinerary where you might want to build a little wiggle room. We weren’t devastated to miss anything since we managed to squeeze in the Hooker Valley Track, but without that it would have been a huge loss.

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New Zealand: Queenstown, Dunedin, and Oamaru

You may be wondering why I’m lumping three cities together in one blog post. A few reasons, really. One, if I blogged about every city individually I would have to change the name of this blog to KMCNewZealand: a place where we only talk about one trip forever and ever. And two, if I blogged about each of these cities on their own each post would be incredibly short, just like our time there.

We didn’t spend a great deal of time in Queenstown. It was primarily our landing place as we bounced around the area to Milford Sound, Dunedin, and Oamaru. It’s sad really, since Queenstown is absolutely adorable and has a lot of fun things to offer including luge, bungee jumping, and skiing in the winter. It’s definitely on the list of places to return to whenever we get back down that way.

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The thing about Queenstown is it feels a lot like what I would image a little mountain town in Colorado would feel like. Appropriate, since it’s apparently a sister city to Aspen. It has a cute little downtown area that’s quite touristy but, hey, we’re tourists after all. The scenery is breathtaking with a large lake and snow-covered mountains.

After spending the night here, we headed over to Dunedin. On the way, we hit the southernmost part of our trip just due to the way the road went. I think I got more enjoyment out of that then Sean did.

We also didn’t spend a lot of time in Dunedin itself. We went there with the goal of hiking Tunnel Beach. And let me tell you, it was worth it.

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This is a rather odd hike. The guidebook says “15 minutes down, 45 minutes back” which seemed very weird to me. Why would their be a huge discrepancy in an out-and-back hike?

Terrain. Terrain is the answer.

It’s pretty much straight down on the way out, so on the way back it’s pretty much straight up. We weren’t really phased but if you’re looking for a leisurely stroll along the beach this isn’t a hike for you.

Once we got out to the peninsula it really felt like we were on the edge of the world. There weren’t many people out there with us and between the wind and the endless ocean you suddenly realize you’re standing on a tiny island in the middle of the Southern Pacific and about 3,000 miles south lies Antarctica. I have a fascination with the White Continent, and this was the closest I’ve come to date.

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Then we headed to Oamaru for penguins. Yes, you read that right. There’s a blue penguin conservation project in Oamaru where you can pay to watch these little clumsy birds come ashore at night and return to their nests. We were lucky and visited on a night where over 200 birds washed ashore, stumbled up the beach, and hobbled to their little homes.

Unfortunately no photography was allowed during the viewing, but my favorite part was actually walking back to the entrance. They have you wind through the colony itself on a boardwalk and as you go there are penguins literally inches from  your feet. They paid us no attention but it was fun to get that close to the guys.

We stayed at this old Victorian-style hotel/bar in town. After grabbing a drink we headed to our room to turn in for the night. Suddenly we heard penguins shrieking outside our window. Apparently some of them nest in the cracks of the wall in the building next door. Normal things, you know.

The next day we wandered around town before taking off for Mount Cook. Did you know Oamaru is the Steampunk Capital of New Zealand? Neither did we. After a bit of coaxing from Sean I agreed to humor him on a trip to the Steampunk HQ museum. It was actually pretty cool, I’ll admit.

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Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Ramada, Queenstown; The Criterion, Oamaru
  • Where We Ate: Fergburger, Queenstown – supposedly the world’s best burgers (I don’t think it’s a false claim)
  • Penguin Viewing: Blue Penguin Colony
  • All Things Steampunk: Steampunk HQ
  • Driving in New Zealand is easy, but on the South Island, be prepared to spend a lot of time doing it. Even though two stops look close together on a map, there are likely mountains in between which means you have to go all the way around. Luckily, it’s beautiful scenery.

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New Zealand: Milford Sound

The first stop on our whirlwind trip to New Zealand was Milford Sound. It actually was supposed to be the very last thing we did, but circumstances – that I’ll get to in a different post – caused us to flip our entire itinerary around and start in the south.

After a quick flight to Auckland from Sydney we immediately grabbed our bags and checked in to our Air New Zealand flight to Queenstown. By the time we touched down it was already after 9:00 p.m. and we had a nearly two hour drive to Te Anau before we could call it quits for the day. And, of course, the next day we had a two hour drive to Milford Sound to make our kayaking trip at 8:00 a.m. This itinerary is not for the faint of heart people!

Our Bed & Breakfast was so accommodating and understanding of our crazy schedule. I’m sure we aren’t the first – or the last – to sprint around the South Island. They met us at 11:30 at night to check us in, and were up at 6:00 a.m. with a warm breakfast and tea prepared just for us. Also, they have a sweet, snugly cat. What more do you want?

After a rainy, windy, drive to Milford Sound, we learned kayaking was cancelled for the day. The winds were way to strong and unpredictable it simply wasn’t safe. Disappointed but not defeated, we went to the welcome center to regroup. Luckily there was a cruise leaving in about 45 minutes so we quickly bought tickets and headed to the boat dock.

Once on the water, it was extremely obvious why kayaking was not allowed that day. I’ve never see such an angry ocean or so much hail in my life. For someone who has never (yes, really, never) kayaked before, I was quite happy to be safely on the boat that morning.

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If you happen to hit Milford Sound on a day like we did, try not to be too disappointed. It’s still stunningly beautiful, and you get to see things you wouldn’t on a clear and sunny day. When it rains, hundreds of temporary waterfalls work their way down the mountains to deposit rainwater into the sound. Plus, when the sun does peek out, you get some neat contrast on the mountains. The day definitely did not feel like a loss.

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On the way out of the national park, we stopped a few times along the way to see a few highlights including “The Chasm” cut by the Cleddau River and Mirror Lakes. It was still rainy and we were getting cold so we didn’t spend as much time as we’d like out there. Definitely on the list of things to do when we return.

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Travel Notes:

  • Where We Stayed: Alpine Rock Cottage, Te Anau
  • Cruise Company: Southern Discoveries
  • Kayak Company: Rosco’s Milford Kayaks
  • New Zealand is full of information centers call iSites. Event the tiniest towns we went through had them. Super helpful staff and lots of maps and brochures for the taking.
  • Even though we hadn’t planned going “backwards” when we went south to north, it worked out really well. We felt like we were constantly heading in the opposite directions of the crowds which was nice.

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