Friday, May 28, 2010

Catching up on South Island Fun

The last six weeks on the South Island have been pretty laid back and enjoyable. After my week in Christchurch, where I was getting over a throat infection and didn't get out much, I jumped on the Stray bus for about a week and a half.

Stray runs a bus company with set routes across both islands taking travelers to various sites. I bought a pass a couple months ago that will let me cover most of the country without the hassle of planning transportation, booking hostels, or finding some of the main activities for the area. It's also handy for making friends pretty quickly, and having other folks to do things with.

I'll write in more detail about some of the places we went later, but the main bus route left Christchurch and headed north along the coast of the South Island, around the top, and then back down the rugged and rainy west coast toward Queenstown. I went on a nice day hike in Kaikoura with a girl from Norway, followed by part of the bus group cooking green Thai curry and burritos. We spent a lovely day in Picton, on the northern tip of the South Island, and then a perfect day on the Abel Tasman track where I got to walk the middle third of the 3 day hike with eight or so folks from Stray.

The following week was really really wet though, as we drove down the west coast. Due to the Southern Alps, and the moist Tasman Sea air, the west coast gets up to 18 feet of rain per year. Past the mountains, the south gets normal rainfalls, like 2-4 feet... I made a bone necklace in a small village, and spent a couple nights in Franz Joseph, the most popular glacier in NZ. I didn't get a chance to climb up it though, so I'll be back to Franz before I leave. We then spent a night at the entrance of Mt. Aspiring National Park before heading to Queenstown.

In Queenstown, I left the Stray group and stayed in town for about three weeks, trying to find work and otherwise taking it easy and keeping my expenses down. Some of my Stray friends were still in town pretty much until I finally left, and my buddy Blake from Atlanta has been living there since November. But aside from a couple day hikes, some ice skating, and plenty of going to pubs, there are fewer adventures to write about. It's the off season, between the adrenaline filled summer season (Queenstown is the original home of Bungy jumping, and has paragliding, jet boating, canyon swings, and all sorts of other crazy expensive thrill seeking things to do) and the winter ski season which starts up in about 3 weeks. I really like the town, though we'll see when it's in full swing. There's really nice mountains leading right to a big lake, and there's two ski fields half an hour away. It looks like what I'd imagine a small Swiss village on a lake would look like.

Once I said goodbye to Queenstown, I jumped on Stray again and headed to Fiordland National Park to take a short cruise on the Milford Sound. Fiordland is simply stunning. Huge tree covered jagged peaks running right into clear lakes, and almost no development anywhere. It reminds me of Yosemite and the Rockys in some ways, but it is much wetter (and has Fjords!) and far more remote. After our day in Fiordland, we went to Stewart Island off the far south tip of NZ. I walked around in the bird sanctuary of Ulva Island (by Stewart) and spent a night in the tiny town of Oban. Stewart only has about 250 people living on it, is about 90% protected by Rakiura National Park, and is a sanctuary to many species of birds and plants that have been endangered on the mainland due to development and mammal predators. It also is the only place where Kiwi birds are in abundance, but sadly I didn't see one in the wild.

When done with Stewart Island, we headed to Dunedin, where I spent another week taking it easy. Dunedin (~120k people) is home to the University of Otago (25,000 students) which is the oldest and most comprehensive University in NZ. It has a lively music and art scene, theatre, and plenty of pubs, so it most reminds me of Athens back home. But the big difference is that Dunedin is gridded like a city instead of spread out like Athens. So not much space between the city, campus, and resident housing. There's plenty of gardens on the outskirts though, and the city includes the steepest road in the world, Baldwin St. I plan on running up it when I head back there in a week or so.

Today though, I am back in Fiordland, in the sleepy town of Te Anau, the home base for three of the Great Walks and anything else involving this remote and gorgeous park. Tomorrow morning I'll be climbing the Kepler Track, a 60km 4 day circuit which starts by the lake and climbs almost a kilometer to the Luxmore saddle. Day two will be all in an alpine region above the treeline. There'll be snow on the ground, but with any luck it'll be a sunny day. Days three and four will be along two of the rivers back down in the tree canopy as I make my way back to Te Anau. Kepler is one of nine Great Walks, which are highly maintained by the Department of Conservation. While it'll be quite a work out (esp. day one) it'll be well marked. This is still the off season though, and one of the last weeks it can be done before avalanches become a concern (they aren't yet), so I want to tackle it while I have several days of rare Fiordland sunshine.

I hope all is going well back home. It must be nice and warm in Georgia by now. Here it's often chilly and sometimes rainy. Wish me luck on finding work once I'm done with Kepler, as soon enough my money will start to dwindle and I'll have to adapt to the grind.