Thursday, April 12, 2007

South Island Continued

Ever have one of those weeks when everything in the entire world is going on in such a rapid pace that you feel like you'll never catch up with just describing it all? This is one of those weeks- in the past few days I have done everything you can imagine. I have climbed through ice caves. I have had a (fake) birthday party. I have even flown.

Ok, for the sake of everything I am starting at the beginning, lest some details be lost. Which would be pretty tragic, wouldn't it? All pictures are forthcoming at a later date when I am not sitting in a cyber cafe in Queenstown trying to frantically write everything down!

Monday: Nelson-Greymouth

This day was a lot of driving down the West Coast of the South Island, which involved the beginning of the pretty scenery. The weather was nice too, which helps! This stretch of the road was primarily hugging the coast of the Tasman, which runs between mountains on one side and (more often than not) cliffs on the other- I'm told it's very similar to the Great Ocean Road in Australia, and is considered one of the top ten drives in the world. Really pretty! We even stopped at a seal colony to look at the seals basking in the sun, and stopped at the Pancake Rocks which are awesome geological formations from sandstone at the edge of the sea. They're basically flat gray rocks stacked up that are being slowly eroded, and when the tide comes in there are spectacular spurts of water careening into the air through some blowholes. Great stuff!

We then arrived in Greymouth, which is a tiny former coal-mining community on the West Coast (just like what I'm used to seeing back home!). After settling into our interesting hostel known as Noah's Ark (each room was decorated with a different animal theme, we were in the "Tiger Room" and had tiger drapes, bedspreads, wallpaper, posters, and gigantic stuffed animal) we headed over to the Monteith's Brewery for our brewery tour as there isn't much else to do in town! It was definetely good though- for a mere NZ$20 we got a nice and culturally enlightening tour of the brewery, followed by free samples of all seven of the Monteith brews... then a ten minute free-for-all at the taps... then all-you-can-eat sausage dinner with a free "Kiwi pint" of our favorite... yeah, fun night!

Tuesday: Greymouth- Franz Joseph

Unfortunately this morning we got some bad news- Erin had a family emergency back at home and made new plans to take the train to Christchurch then fly to Auckland then back to the States. (At least that's what I hope happened, we haven't heard from her since...) So after a few big hugs and best wishes, Amy and I rejoined the group for the ride down to Franz Joseph Glacier.

The weather was cloudy and a bit more wet than the previous day which is rather expected actually- this entire area is rainforest, and they get 4m of rain on the coast every year! This didn't make the mountains any less spectacular though- I started realizing just what people mean by New Zealand scenery because all the mountains are spectacularly tall and steep. The best description I can make is to say it looks very similar to the sort of mountains you see drawn in Chinese food restaurants on the walls. So we went through spectacular wilderness and towns with only two people in them (I kid you not), and arrived in Franz Joseph village with enough time to scramble and get to the half day hike on the glacier itself.

Now let me tell you up front, this was really really cool! The glacier is unique in the world because it is one of only two that reach down to rainforest level (the other being Fox Glacier 20km down the street), and is a World Heritage Site. They also filmed part of Lord of the Rings here too- remember that scene where they lit the beacons?

By the way, Franz Joseph is also unique in that it is currently growing at a rate of 70cm a day. To rephrase, you could show up tomorrow and things would be different! You really get a feeling for ice flowing too, which is a neat sight to behold.

The other cool thing about this glacier is it's rather easy to go and scramble around the ice flow, and they do guided tours to let you do this complete with special boots and crampons for your feet and such. I really liked the crampons by the way- you feel sort of cool wandering around with an ultra grip on steep ice, and it's very reassuring too!

But as I said before, I loved the glacier. It was really a neat thing to see in spectacular scenery, and climbing through ice caves and crevasses was just awesome! You don't really realize just how nifty an ice cave is until you've been in one with ice all around you and watched the deep blue tinge, honestly...

Wednesday: Franz Joseph- Queenstown

I think this day counts as one of the best in my life. Definitely top ten at least!

We started off with more rain which turned to cloud and, later on, partly cloudy sunshine. But this stretch of road was just gorgeous in the most sincere way I can say it- the mountains were deep green and so steep that they counted as cliffs in most places, and they were covered with thin white lines that were countless waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet (they'd normally be streams I think but it was just too steep to they were all waterfalls!). It was like completely unlike anything else in the entire world, and so beautiful... if you are a pilgrim of nature in any form, you need to come to the South Island. It gives you the same feelings of grandeur that you get looking at the Milky Way on a deep, dark night.

In the afternoon the rainforest abruptly gave way to true alpine surroundings complete with glacial lakes that reminded me a little of New Hampshire. The highlight of the afternoon, of course, was... well it deserves a post on its own! Hold on, once I'm done with this I'll describe it in detail.

Towards the evening we arrived in Queenstown which is just like a ski town in the American West to me, honestly. It was cold too- it froze during the night, and all the surrounding mountains were sprinkled with snow when we woke up this morning! The trees are all appropriately autumn-like too and changing color which is nice... they're primarily just yellow here though as it's pretty much all beech trees.

But anyway, the night was the most fun I'd had in awhile. See, everyone in our tour group had put in $5 for the chance to have their name in a birthday draw- whoever had their name pulled would have a (fake) birthday celebration that night at our party complete with cake, card, and all the trimmings.

Anyway, you're reading this far so I'm sure you can guess what's next. Can you believe out of all the people there my name was pulled? It's quite fun to be the birthday girl even when it's not actually you're birthday!

Thursday- Milford Sound

Milford Sound is another one of those world-famous places in New Zealand that you just sort of have to go to. It's the law, or should be... it's a 4 hour drive from Queenstown, so most people go out with a tour group, take a short cruise on the Sound, then drive back. A long, but completely beautiful and worth it, day.

It was sunny in Queenstown but subsequently got cloudier as we arrived to the Sound, and started raining the second we got off the bus. You honestly didn't care though was the incredible thing- great shading on the mountains, and roaring waterfalls!

Anyway, I need to detail this more later but the cyber cafe is closing, so that's it for now. Catch you guys later!