In 2012 I retired again and we are traveling in Europe. In 2009 Ron and I retired and we volunteered at Quaker Meeting House in Wellington, New Zealand for a year.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

South Island week three

It dawned bright and clear, so we were very optimistic about our trip to Mt Cook National Park. We had many good views of snowy mountain ranges as we drove north alongside Lake Pukaki, a dam-made lake from the rivers draining the glaciers, and therefore a striking pale blue from all the rock dust suspended in the water. There is a big lodge and village at the base of the Park, but it was built in the 50s and is not an imposing edifice like the lodge at Yosemite. Maybe it will seem so in one hundred years. The old lodge, which was fairly ramshackle anyway, was swept away in a flood. The new one is on higher ground. There is a whole center there devoted to Sir Edmund Hillary, but we contented ourselves with a picture with his statue.

For the morning, we took a hike up the Hooker Valley. The first stop is at an Alpine Memorial with the names of all the climbers who have died in the Park from 1882 to the present. It was surprisingly moving in its simplicity and the love expressed in many of the plaques. The path then proceeded on an easy grade and over some moraines to a view of Mueller Lake, created by the run-off from the smallish Mueller glacier. Then the path became rougher, although the grade was still comfortable, and we rounded a corner of a small mountain and there was Mt Cook, very striking and clear before us. Now the path was following the Hooker River, very loud and tumultuous. We crossed two swinging bridges. The river and the mountains made the hike very exhilarating. Is it the ions in the air? We stopped after the second bridge where there was a good view of the Hooker glacier, but it was still another 30-45 minutes to the lake behind the final moraine. Including the return half, we walked for 1.5 - 2 hours.

We then drove around to the valley on the other side of Mt Cook, where we had our picnic lunch along a little creek at the base of the next hike. This was a much steeper but shorter hike up the moraine that creates Lake Tasman at the foot of the Tasman glacier, the largest in the Park. It is a good sized lake. It looks like the far end is just a rock cliff, with the blue-white glacier rather high above it. But in fact the cliff is the leading edge of the glacier. It is so packed with rocks and boulders that you can barely see the ice. This is because the glacier has been receding. A hundred years earlier, the glacier was covering the spot where we were standing by over one hundred feet. I have always read that glaciers carve out their huge valleys by virtue of the rocks in the ice they contain - this view made that point very vividly. There were also icebergs floating in the lake. This hike was only about one - 1.5 hours total.

We had decided that it was too cold to camp in the park, so we drove on out past Lake Pukaki and then Lake Tekapo, a natural lake, and down Burke's Pass to the small but pleasant town of Fairlee. It definitely felt like we were out of the mountains and into warmer farm country. Fairlee is called the gateway to the Mackenzie Country, which is the high sheep grazing country above the pass. James Mackenzie was a sheep rustler who in 1855 caught the imagination of the NZers because he and his dog stole about a thousand sheep in one night from a rich station owner and then disappeared into the high country. He was, however, captured fairly soon, although he also escaped and was recaptured a couple of times. After two years of this he was deported back to Scotland and never heard of again. There is a statue to him and his dog in Fairlee. Sort of like Ned Kelly in Australia, except that he never killed anyone.

We had a leisurely morning in the Fairlee campground, partly because they were the first and only place with free internet. Finally, off we headed on a longish drive to Hanmer Springs, in the mountains north of Christchurch, on the road to Lewis Pass and the West Coast, or north to Nelson. On the way, we stopped at Peel Forest, a reserve of native trees, especially Totara. It was about a 30 minute walk to their Big Tree and back to a picnic lunch. Most of the day's drive was along the Inland Scenic Route, right at the base of the foothills above the Canterbury Plain. Sometimes the road was straight, sometimes windy through hills, and occasionally it would plunge down into a river gorge. Most of NZ highways, except the most major ones, still have one lane bridges across both big and little rivers. There is a sign telling you who has right of way. Some of these bridges were long enough that there was a passing bay in the middle in case two cars started across from different directions. Eventually, the highway came all the way back down to the ocean at Ashburton, north of Christchurch, and then headed back inland to the Lewis Pass. We went through a narrow river gorge, and then the land opened up into a wide valley, where we took a side road over the river to Hanmer Springs. That bridge had a platform for bungy jumping into the canyon, but no one was using it at the time. It was late enough when we arrived that we decided not to use the springs that evening (they closed at nine) but just to walk around and eat. Being clear, and at a bit of altitude, the stars were pretty bright, and it was nice to see the new moon back in the sky.

The next day we got senior tickets into the water park for $12 with one free return courtesy of our campground, which I thought was very reasonable. The park had about 12 pools of varying heat levels from 35 to 41 degrees centigrade, plus a swimming pool and water slide pool. So we spent a nice hour and a half moving between pools and swimming. It was clear but kind of cool, and my only complaint was that I got too cold in the changing room afterwards, which was totally unheated. But that was because I was trying to shampoo my hair and do all kinds of other things that it was not designed for. We had a nice Thai lunch and walked around one of the town trails up a creek. We went back to the hot springs for an hour before dinner, and felt that we had had a very relaxing day, but no photos.

The next day we drove back into Christchurch. We extended our camper van rental, deciding that it was easier to stay in the van for our whole journey than to switch over to a hostel. With a little bit of difficulty we maneuvered through the city traffic over to the botanical gardens. Since it was a Saturday, we could park all day for free. We ate our picnic lunch there and then walked through the gardens towards the town center, stopping at the conservatories to view some stunning begonias and orchids. The street from the Gardens to Cathedral Square in the city center is lined with museums and galleries, Saturday markets and buskers. The Square also had its own market. We went into the Cathedral first, which had many memorial plaques, some interesting windows and a side chapel with a peacock at the center top of the wood altar carvings, which seemed quite unusual. Ron collects images of peacocks, so eventually we got a photo, but that day we were without a camera. Sustained by a food cart which made soft ice cream with frozen fruit, we walked back to the museum and spent about an hour on the first floor. They have a lot of moa bones and replicas, and a pretty good exhibit on the early Maoris, although with lots of dioramas, which always bother me a little, because I think it is difficult to know how the people really looked. Particularly fun was the Paua House, a reconstruction of a house in Bluff at the south end of the South Island where Fred and Myrtle Flutey in their later years decorated their parlor and hallway with paua shells on all the walls and everywhere else. There was a marvelous video about them which is available on You Tube. They are real NZ characters, taking a hobby (polishing paua shells) and making the most of it, until they became world famous in New Zealand.

Sunday we went to Meeting for Worship in Christchurch and met the Resident Friends there, a couple about our age from England. At Meeting we only knew one person, but people were friendly and chatty. However, it made me miss my friends in Wellington. There is an easy-to-use bus route just outside the camper van park, so we don't have to drive into the city. We went to the new and modern art gallery, which had a nice range of exhibits. One interesting one was both a history of art collecting in NZ and a contrast of the way Pakeha and Maori experienced and portrayed each other. Another exhibit chronicled the portrayal of the nude in art, again particularly in New Zealand. Among the observations was that NZers particularly like to portray nude bathers. Then we went back to the Christchurch Museum to look at their Antarctica exhibit. It particularly focused on the various early explorations, many of which were launched from NZ, but it also had information about the animals and geology. All in all, Christchurch was more interesting and enjoyable than we first gave it credit for.

Our final destination in NZ turned out to be one of the prettiest - Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula. Banks is a big bump on the East Coast of NZ created by three volcanoes millions of years ago. The calderas have eroded into 2 big harbors and many small bays. First we drove south through Christchurch and through a tunnel to the town of Littleton, the working port for Christchurch and one of the two large harbors. This town turned out not to be as interesting as I hoped and very loud with truck traffic, so we drove on out around the harbor and eventually over a ridge to the far south side of the Peninsula. Then we drove around until we could drive over more hills, ridges and winding roads to finally arrive at Akaroa harbor and town in time for lunch. I think the only campground with a prettier view was in Milford Sound. It is a five minute walk from the campground into town and a fifteen minute aerobic walk back. We walked around the bay of the town to the lighthouse at the far end, which was moved there after its useful life at the headland of the harbor expired. It was built in 1879 and moved in 1980. A little bit further and we arrived at the Britomart Monument commemorating the planting of the British flag and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi by the local chiefs. Britomart, by the way, is not a department store but the name of the ship.

Akaroa's claim to fame is that it was settled by the French. About 1838, a French whaler thought it looked like an excellent harbor, so he bought some land from the local Maori. He returned to France and got funding to start a land company and gathered a group of settlers. The British got wind of this French venture and hurried down to Akaroa to lay their claim first. So when the French arrived, only three weeks later, they found the British flag already there. None the less, most of the settlers decided to stay, and the modern town exploits the French connection as best it can.

The next day was our main one for exploring Akaroa. We walked down different streets to the far end of town and the park above the lighthouse, which is also the location of the Anglican Cemetery at one end and the Roman Catholic and Dissenters at the other end. "Dissenters" apparently means Presbyterians, because those are the three churches in town. We enjoy looking at gravestones. After coffee and muffin - the town does NZ baking, not French - we went to the little Akaroa Museum. I think I have said elsewhere that even small NZ museums are surprisingly good. This one emphasized Maori history more than I expected. There was an attack on the local tribe by one of the northern tribes with Muskets in the 1830s which was aided by a British whaler. The reaction to this was partly responsible for the Treaty of Waitangi, which the Maori hoped would mean that the crown would start regulating its citizens better. Unfortunately, the settlers didn't want to be better regulated all that much. There was also an exhibit about Frank Worsley, born in Akaroa, who became the captain of Shackleton's ship on the ill-fated 1914 expedition, which became trapped in the sea ice. Thanks to Worsley's navigational skills, a small boat was able to make it over 800 miles of open sea to a whaling island where a ship was able to return to rescue the rest of the crew. After lunch, we visited all three small churches, all built between 1863 and 1886, and the site of the old French cemetery. There is a monument there with about thirty names, but the wooden gravestones disappeared long ago.

For our last full day in New Zealand, we drove back to Christchurch. We felt leisurely enough that we took the bus back into town for the afternoon and mostly just walked the streets, listened to buskers, and did a little souvenir shopping. What used to be the University of Canterbury, with pretty Gothic buildings, has been turned into an arts center with studios and galleries and shops. Among the few rooms devoted to the old University are some commemorating Lord Rutherford, one of their most famous students, a Nobel prize winner in physics for his work on the atom. Much to our surprise, graduation parties and picture taking were going on in the courtyards and restaurants.

The last day was all devoted to packing, returning the car, and waiting around in airports. We flew out of Christchurch at 5:30 with a lovely sunset with Venus shining in the sky. It stayed light enough that we could just make out the Abel Tasman Peninsula, Golden Bay, and Farewell Spit as we left the South Island.

Our year in New Zealand was definitely one of the best things that we have done!