While in Europe spring is finally bringing the first warm days, here on the Southern hemisphere, autumn has arrived. Even though we got much more sun here than we would during an average summer in Belgium, the days are shortening fast and at night the temperatures fall quickly. The colours in the woods are amazing and on the top of the mountains the first snow has arrived. By half May a lot of roads will start to close due to snow or avalanche danger. By June the skiing season will be kicked off all around the country. Everybody is now preparing for winter. For us it was a very strange feeling. We noticed that we also started to mentally prepare for winter, cold and darkness. We started thinking about and planning those activities (like skiing) that make winter a bit more bearable, only to realize that we will soon be in Europe again for summer. It really messes with your head
After Caro had had her dose of penguin fun the plan was to go to Dunedin and the Otago peninsula. Dunedin is probably my favourite city in NZ. A very pleasant city with a lot of Scottish influences (Dunedin means ‘new Edinburgh’), great surfing and gorgeous nature on the peninsula. We spent a day driving and hiking around the peninsula and were hoping to see a bit more of town the next day before heading all the way to the west coast for Milford Sound. But once again we changed our plans last minute after checking the weather forecast. It said that the next day (our travel day) would be the only good day in the next 10 days. As the weather in this part of the country is very fickle and as I had not seen anything of the great fjord due to bad weather last time, we decided to instead of having a leisurely drive the next day to get over there as soon as possible. We started driving that same evening until the sun set. The next morning we got up at 5.30 am and started driving. At about 9.30 we arrived at Te Anau, the last town before crossing the mountains towards the fjord. We were not at all happy to see that the weather there was really bad (rain and low cloud/mist). What had happened to the “fine weather” forecast? The tourist information now also had a prediction of 2 days of rain. Since last time Milford Sound had been a real disappointment (we could hardly see anything of the fjord) due to bad weather, we were seriously considering to skip the 2hr drive out there. Luckily the nice lady at tourist info site, seeing our disappointment, got online and checked a webcam near the fjord because “it’s a bit of micro climate down there” and guess what…blue sky and sun. Not even 100 km as the crow flies but with a mountain range (or a divide as it’s aptly called in NZ) in between and a whole different story for us. We now hurried to our van, loaded up on diesel and some groceries and started racing. After a bit more than an hour and nearly two thirds of the way we were still in thick clouds and rain. Just when we started to wonder if there had been a malfunction with the webcam, all clouds disappeared and one of the most spectacular journeys through the mountains we have ever seen, began.
By noon we arrived at the actual fjord and we almost immediately boarded a small boat to cruise through it. Cliffs soaring straight up from the sea, peaks covered in glaciers, waterfalls and wildlife all around. Simply amazing! Last time when I was there in the rain I only saw a third of all this. You often hear and read that the fjord is at its most beautiful when it rains but I can confirm that it is one big fat lie! The icing on the cake was that while we were cruising we got the see the rare blue penguin that we had missed the days before.
That night as we were camping at another beautiful campsite next to a mountain lake we made a little prayer to the weather gods to keep the bad weather on the other side of the mountains for just another day as we were hoping to do some hiking in the region. The next morning was pretty clouded but we drove out to the starting point of the hike anyway, hoping it would clear out. We wanted to do a hike to the ‘Gertrude Saddle’ an unmarked hike “for experienced and fit hikers only”. Right after we had parked our van, a man rushed to us and presented himself as the warden of a hut a couple of hundred meters further. He had noticed a car had been on the parking lot all night and he suspected some people had not come back from their hike the day before. He had called for them on the trail but no answer had come. Just before we arrived he had seen some people descending very slowly. As he could not leave his post, he asked whether we were going up the trail and whether we could check out if they were OK. If not we should come back or signal to start a rescue operation. We quickly threw some extra food in our backpacks and started the hike. I started rushing as fast as I could to the spot where they had been spotted. After a while I could also see two figures moving down the steep flanks of the mountain. They didn’t seem injured but I rushed on anyway. Eventually I got to the two young backpackers. They were not injured and tried to play it cool but it was clear that they had been pretty scared. We offered them some of our food and they explained that they had left too late and had been surprised by the dark and had started to get lost. They had been very cold and looked pretty shocked but insisted they were OK. Looking at their clothes (jeans pants and no proper rain gear) we think that they had been very lucky that it had not rained or snowed as was predicted. Otherwise their hike could have ended very badly. Although the guide books and authorities do a lot of campaigning about safety in the mountains in NZ, we have seen so many people that were not properly equipped to do the hikes they were doing. Guys and girls in only tennis shoes, t shirts and shorts or jeans on glaciers or high up in the mountains. I guess they need to learn it the hard way. But every year heaps of them get in trouble and need to be rescued. You start to understand why some Kiwi’s have enough of all the “bloody dumb tourists” in their country. As the couple insisted they were OK and the rest of the hike back was pretty easy to find your way we gave the warden a big OK sign, hoping he was still peering through his binoculars and went on with our hike. It was indeed not the most easy hike to find your way and definitely not something you would want to do in the dark. But the views from above over the two valleys and all the way up the fjord were brilliant.
The last days of our time in NZ we wanted to spend hiking around Queenstown and Wanaka but the weather started to deteriorate quickly and this time there was no escaping possible because this time the whole country got hit by some real ‘autumn weather’. We didn’t let it bother us too much and made the most of the weather that was dealt to us. I had planned another hike up a mountain in Wanaka but it was completely covered in clouds. As we are not really fond of hiking up a mountain just for the sport of it, we decided to drop the hike. If there are no views to be expected, it is hard to stay motivated. Instead we went for some nice ‘autumn walks’ near the Wanaka lake.
The region around Queenstown is known as a wine region especially famous for its Pinot Noir. During a visit to a winery we found out that this wine requires a very specific climate that combines both a lot of sun but also colder temperatures. This combination is apparently only found in a couple of regions in the world. Just like our winery visit in Chile the tour of the vineyard and caves taught us a great deal on the local wine and the so called ‘new world wines’ (e.g. why they don’t use cork) and about wine growing in colder climates in general. The harvest which is completely done by hand was going on as we were there and frost was serious threat during the next weeks. As temperatures were now dropping fast (end of April here is the equivalent of end of October on the Northern hemisphere) all the vineyards in the region were ready to intervene. We learned that frost only appears when cold air settles on the ground. To prevent this from happening before the harvest is finished they are sprinkling the vines with water near the ground. Another more drastic way to keep the air moving and prevent frost is to fly helicopters over the vineyards. So all the vineyards have helicopters on ‘stand by’ during this time of the year. The visit was definitely a nice thing to do on a not so bright day.
Another great thing to do near Queenstown on a day where the mountains are not an option is to visit a little place called Arrowtown. This town was the epicentre of a big gold rush that took place in the 19th century. These days only tourists are seen wading through the river with a gold pan trying to find some fortune. But back then people came all the way from China. In town an open air exhibition of a former ‘Chinese camp’ gave some great insights in how these man had to survive with the bare minimum and surrounded by very racist European and Kiwi gold diggers. Even though they were only allowed to work on land that had already been given up by the other diggers, they were still very productive.
These ‘bad weather’ activities had been very interesting and fun but I had one more hike on my list that I really wanted to tick off: climbing Ben Lomond near central Queenstown. 7 years ago I gave it a shot but did not make it to the top. Back then I wanted to make the most of a rare sunny day and tried to combine a morning ‘riversurfing’ (like ‘white water rafting’ without a raft but with a small body board: very energy consuming!) with an afternoon hiking up the mountain. Halfway the hike I had to come back because I had no energy left and I would not get back before dark if I continued. This time I wanted to ‘bag’ the summit. A half day of decent weather was all that I needed. And I got right before we left the country. The hike was actually not that hard or long and the views were once again breathtakingly beautiful.
While we flew out of Queenstown and had a last look at the lake and the mountains of NZ, we were both really glad with our choice to include the country in our world trip. It had been a bit of question mark, because we would be here in autumn and given my bad weather experience last time, I was scared to witness the same scenario. We actually found out that weather-wise autumn is often a much better time to visit NZ than spring (less rain and more sun). Moreover after the peak season (or ‘silly season’) ends in March, you are also able to get some good deals and there are hardly any crowds around. But by the end of April the summer is really over in NZ and in order to stick to the ‘concept’ of our world trip “escaping the winter”, we needed to start moving towards the equator for warmer climates. And that’s exactly what we were planning to do with one more month in Vanuatu and the Philippines. In order to get to Vanuatu we would pass via Sydney in Australia. Australia was not on our list this time. Not only did we run out of time but it would also be too expensive to travel around there now. Their economy is really booming and prices soar up. The weak euro and a very strong Aussie dollar only make matters worse. That being said we did foresee to stay a couple of days in Sydney before and after our side trip to Vanuatu. We were in luck as on our 1st passage in Sydney, Isa a university friend of Caro was spending her lasts day in town and offered us a place to stay. As it was Anzac day (a bit like our Nov 11th celebrations) there were plenty of military parades in town in the morning. In the afternoon there was something going on in a lot of the bars in town. These places were completely packed with people that were cheering like crazy. It was some kind of game that involved a couple of coins, a guy yelling something and a lot of alcohol. We never really found out what they were doing but they seemed to have a lot of fun.