Big Question Marks

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sandflies, Mountains, Rugby, and Sleeping Seals... A Few More NZ Adventures

[Oct 8-11, 2011]  Dunedin was a cute town to stay in, but we had a schedule to keep, so the next morning we continued on, but before we left town checked out Baldwin Street, the world's steepest street. It might be something of a quietly-kept secret, as none of us were previously aware that Dunedin was home to the world-record setting steep street, but it didn't disappoint. We parked at the very bottom of (the flattest part) and watched tiny, ant-like tourists climbing up what looked like one of those Hot Wheels ramps for toy cars from the '80s. We all happily admitted we were far too lazy to try walking it ourselves, but got a taste of what was probably the world's second-steepest street, later on in Queenstown (but more on that later).

Our original road trip plan had us tracing the southern coast all the way around to Te Anau, a bit inland, taking in the Catlins and Invercargill along the way. But as we'd just spent the last three days almost entirely in the car, we decided to cut quickly across the island to Te Anau and allow for an extra day to relax in Queenstown, where Stephane and Jenny visited not long before and found to be lovely. Note to anyone planning a driving exploration of New Zealand: it may look like short drives on a map, but it's best to take it slowly and allow yourself the time to enjoy the sights outside of the car! That said, the daylight hours are long, even in October, and you can easily drive well into the evening and think it's still 4pm... we still carry a bit of that Aussie night-driving fear from our many 'roo-dodging' experiences years back.

Allez Les Bleus!
An ecstatic win
Te Anau is a tiny but very touristy town in NZ's Fjordland region, built on the incredibly pretty (are we even surprised anymore?) Lake Te Anau. It's the main jumping-off spot for visiting Milford and Doubtful Sounds, two fjords many visitors explore by boat, but still a good 2.5 hour drive from Milford Sound-- an area of very remote and inaccessible wilderness. But before our trek out to the fjords, we spent the evening in The Moose, where in fact, where the entire town and all of its tourists had congregated inside to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals. The game was especially important to our travelling party, as France was facing off against England in what was sure to be an exciting game. With the help of Jenny & Stephane's red, blue and white wigs and paraphernalia, we got in touch with our long-lost French roots and cheered on "Les Bleus", surprisingly, with quite an unproportionate number of passionate French supporters for the size of Te Anau. We subsequently learned the French national anthem and a few sports cheers, and when they beat England, the entire bar went crazy. It was so much fun to watch (and not really all that hard to understand) and it must have been around the time that we got really, really hooked on rugby...

But onto more adventures! That next morning we hopped in the car and set off on Milford Road, where we wound between mountains, for the first hour, higher and higher until we reached patches of snow (which we couldn't resist a frolic in), and entered into the Homer Tunnel-- a 1.2km tunnel that veers seemingly endlessly through a mountain, on a downward slope, which was a strange feeling. The tunnel is an incredible feat of engineering and construction, started as a job-creation scheme during the Great Depression, it took nearly 20 years to dig, and only recently was widened to accommodate two lanes of vehicles.

Mirror Lake
On the other side of the Homer Tunnel, the mountains appeared to go on forever to the still-hidden fjords. The highway continued to wind downwards, with plenty of great stops to check out, like Mirror Lake, until we reached Milford Sound. That's where we had our first encounter with the irritating New Zealand sandfly: here we were, innocently emerging from the car when suddenly we were ambushed! It appeared others were having the same problems, so we took a few hurried photos with the amazing (but hard to concretrate on) backdrop of Milford Sound, and dashed to the boats, where thankfully someone had thought to build a large structure made of glass, where we could enjoy the views without swatting. Luckily, thanks to the chilly temperatures we wore many layers of clothing, which the sandflies couldn't bite through, but Dayle still managed to find one persistently sucking blood out from between two of her fingers-- a bite which didn't disappear or cease itching for more than two weeks following the visit.
Glorious Milford Sound
But we suppose, if the sandfly terror was our admission fee to get down into the gorgeous natural scenery in Fjordland, well, it was worth it. We set off on our 2-hour boat cruise from the end of Milford Sound to the ocean (15 km), watching the weather change numerous times from sunny to cloudy to rainy to sunny. Seals swam alongside out boat as we shrieked with delight. The captain steered the boat underneath waterfalls plummetting down the cliffs on either side of the fjord and right up to impressive rock formations, and shared impressive facts about the area. Probably one of the highlights was Seal Rock, one of the only parts of the fjord (it was massive cliffs everywhere) accessible to seals climbing out of the water to rest, and we learned the incredible cuteness power of a mass of sleeping seals on a rock. It was a pretty great afternoon.

Waterfall fun

Following our sandfly dash back to the car (a pity we couldn't stroll more slowly through the lush fern-filled coastal rainforest), we made a dash back to Te Anau, and then onwards to Queenstown, to be done with the driving already. After a little bit of hunting, we found a sweet, sweet place to rest our feet for the next few days with fabulous views of Lake Wakatipu in the centre of town. We didn't think about the fact that the near-vertical walk down Turner Street to the heart of Queenstown also meant a horrific trudge up at the end of the night, but it was rugby time again (this time New Zealand vs. Argentina) and so finding a big screen was mandatory. It was another good game--and unexpectedly AMAZING food at the Ballarat Trading Company-- and we took it as a good omen for our trip to continue in the best of fates.

We spent the next few days doing silly tourist things in Queenstown: eating impossibly massive burgers at the legendary Fergburger, wandering around Lake Wakatipu, taking the Skyline gondola for views high above Queenstown (and having a blast riding the luge around the tracks on the peak), and playing a ridiculous but adorable mini-golf course made up of a miniature robotic town, sampling a good variety of local wines, and relaxing in our awesome two-storey townhouse (much nicer than any of the apartments any of us have lived in). It was good times for our last few days, before Stephane and Jenny left us to take in more live rugby on the North Island....
Mmmm, Fergburger for breakfast.
The Luge
Jenny putts for the win


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Darragh McCurragh said...

Enviable journey! I just wonder if these sandflies might not be blocked/driven off by clover or citronella oil or a combination thereof?

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