Waitomo caves, kiwis in Otorohanga and Hamilton gardens

One of our last adventures in New Zealand was set close to the town of Te Kuiti, in Waitomo caves. I have booked 5 hour excursion into one of the caves within the enormous cave system at Waitomo. The caves here are known for their glowworms which, well they glow in the dark :). The tour started with outfitting us into thick wetsuits with raggedy clothes over them, high rubber boots with holes in them, helmet with a light on top and of course with a rapelling harness, so we could get down the rope at the entrance into the cave and then back up at the end of our excursion. The cave itself was very long and a small river was running through it. First we walked up one end for few minutes and then turned our lights off and walked in dark in a single file back. The roof of the cave was filled with green fluorescent worms which gave it a night sky like appearence with millions of stars shining bright. After the worm spectacle we set on big inflatable tubes and were supposed to let the current drive us down the river, however, it was more paddling than drifting. After a few minutes, we got off, had a small snack and then crawled through a few holes and crevasses in the cave and that was it. I'd say that from the 5 hours, we have probably spent maybe 2 or so actually doing something productive, the rest was spent waiting, driving or dressing :). If it wouldn't be for the worms, I'd say that this attraction is definitely not worth it, unless you have never been in a cave before. Then at the end they had the nerve to ask us to purchase some pictures of ourselves that the guide took during our trip. So, I guess you can tell what my decision was on that one since there are no pics here :). Well, business is business in these days.

The next attraction we embarked upon in this area was the Kiwi House in Otorohanga, which is basically a New Zealand bird Zoo. Since we weren't lucky enough to spot the kiwi bird in New Zealand (not even on the Steward Island), we had to go and look at one, eventhough it was in the zoo. They have about 20 kiwis here, but only 4 are kept on display. Due to the fack that kiwi sleeps about 20 hours a day, they have 2 of them showing in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. They really are as cute as a button, quite intriguing and very funny and clumsy when they run. We definitely enjoyed the visit here and there is of course much more to this place than just kiwis :).

Our last stop before returning back to Auckland was in Hamilton where we visited renowned Hamilton gardens. One of the most interesting exhibits was a set of gardens from different parts of the world such as Italy, China, Japan, India, America etc. Everything was beautifully sculpted into the different garden styles. It was a good place to reminisce about some of the places we have seen during our journey. After 2 hours of garden walks, we headed straight for Auckland to finish of our trip in New Zealand.

Mt. Taranaki and the Surf Hwy

It was about time we said goodbye to the colder south island and got on the ferry towards Wellington. With that in mind, we spent a quick night in Picton and then early in the morning set out on the Cook strait journey for the last time. The trip was quite good and we got to see some small penguins in the Wellington harbor swimming around the boat, which was quite neat. In Wellington, we just quickly dropped by the "Cozy Cakeshop" one more time to get some good munchies and then headed out towards the Taranaki region. We spent one more night in a campground near a lake at Wanganui and the following day ended in New Plymouth where we hoped to stay a while before setting off again.

New Plymouth sits on a peninsula which is dominated by a Mt. Taranaki volcano. The volcano literally sticks out and can be seen for many miles around the peninsula. Obviously, we wanted to climb it :), so already the next morning we drove the bottom of the volcano which is about 20 min drive from New Plymouth. What surprised us was the sudden change in weather. New Plymouth was warm and sunny, but near the mountain it was misty and a lot cooler. Anyhow, we got our packs on, plenty of water and food and set out for 6-8 return journey up the volcano. Unfortunately, Jenni was not feeling too good the day before and it didn't get much better after a couple of kilometers of walking, so she decided to go back down and wait until I conquered the volcano for both of us. The going was quite easy at the beginning, but after about 2 hrs of walking, the terrain suddenly started to change, starting with 100s of steps and then fine lava rock where one step equals half a step sliding back and finishing with literally climbing up steep lava rock using both arms,legs and knees. The weather was changing as the climb progressed, first there was mist and rain, but once above the clouds, the sun was shining in all its glory. Neverthless after 4 hours of many cramps in my thighs (with 10 kg pack on my back) I was standing in the snowy crater and then a few minutes later reached the summit. From there, I could see the neverending cloud cover spreading for miles and miles, but at some points the fields and villages were visible. It was possible to even see Mt. Ruapehu which we visited during our Tongariro crossing trip. After a few kilos of drink and food, I started the treaterous descend which was quite difficult at the top, but fortunately took only 2 hours with no sprained ankles. The pain in knees and muscles the next two days was a very small price to pay for the feeling of conquering this towering giant of a volcano. :)

Obviously, the next day was a rest day, but the day after that I was booked for a short surfing lesson with one of the local clubs. The Taranaki region is renowned for their surf and the road that runs around the peninsula also carries the descriptive name of Surf Highway. Unfortunately, the weather was quite crap, rain and wind from weird directions. After a short instruction on dry land, we set off to conquer the waves on our 9 ft boards. Together with couple of german tourists we were the only ones in the surf for miles and miles. However, I still had fun and would gladly do it again. Too bad, I do not live near the ocean :). The water element is just amazing.

Christchurch, Hanmer Springs and Kaikoura

We spent our Easter in Christchurch, which is by far the biggest city in the South Island. The aggressive traffic was the first indicator of the fact that we had definitely entered a bigger city. People shouting and honking, giving the finger to slower cars. What happened to the "let's go surfing, relax and have a beer" -kiwis? Apparently "holiday stress" is the same in all corners of the world.

In Christchurch we toured the town and did a day trip to the beautiful Akaroa peninsula. However, one of the most memorable places we visited was the Antarctic Center, a research center dedicated to the icy penguin continent. We got into the atmosphere already the night before, as we had dinner with a kiwi-friend Harley, who had actually worked in Scott Base for some months. Interesting stories indeed, we nearly forgot to eat. And THAT, my friends, never happens:)

Though we were warned that the Antarctic Center can be a bit touristy, it turned out to be quite a kick and we spent a lot of time there. Considering we come from cold countries ourselves, it was funny to spend five minutes in a "snow & ice experience" with a bunch of tourists from warmer climates - first we all got thick jackets and went to a cold room to stare at a thermometer as it went all the way down to -17 celsius degrees. While the Asian tourists ran out one by one, we started to dream about cross-country skiing and christmas.

The amount of information in the Antarctic Center was huge. Quite a few surprises as well - for example, did you know that Antarctica is the dryest and windiest continent on Earth? And I bet nobody knows (or cares hehe) that Finland has its own research center in the continent called "Aboa". We watched a lot of videos about the animals and daily life in the reserach stations and working there sure isn't for everyone's psyche. Insomnia and isolation are hard to handle.

As we walked out of the center we suddenly saw the plane that flies to Antarctica from Christchurch a few times a week (and in wintertime it doesn't go there at all). The carpark for Antarctic Center is right next to Christchurch airport so the timing couldn't have been better.

After Christchurch we drove to spa town Hanmer Springs, where we spent the evening soaking our bones in the hot pools. The night was freezing again so we decided to head towards the sunny coastal town Kaikoura and spend a few days there before crossing the Cook straight.

The biggest attraction in Kaikoura are the whale cruises. Plenty of different whale species and dolphins swim in the warm coastal waters, so different companies offer whale watching cruises, swimming with the dolphins or seals etc. The downside is the price list, which made us settle for some coastal hiking and checking out one of the seal colonies. The scenery was really nice and quite different from anything that we had seen before. The seals were also hilarious, absolutely marvellous creatures. Laying on their sides and giggling at tourists and their thousand cameras.

Towards the North and the warmth

After Stewart Island we drove to Dunedin, also known as "the Edinburgh of the South". It has the same feel to it, old architecture and parks combined with a lot of rain. Dunedin is also a student town by heart and the local University gets to boast about being the oldest one in New Zealand.

Overall the West Coast of the South Island is known for its animals. In theory it's perfectly possible to, for example, go surfing and on the way say hello to enormous sea lions, albatrosses and tiny penguins. There are loads of interesting animals in the area and they are also fairly accessible. We did a day trip to Otago peninsula, but apparently we are not very lucky when it comes to animal sightings. Once again we got back empty-handed. However, the peninsula was very beautiful.

From Dunedin we left for the village of Twizel, which is often a good base for trips to Mount Cook. In Twizel it would have also been possible to spend some kind of a 'Lord of the Rings' theme day, since many battle scenes for the movies were filmed in the area. You would get to cry your heart out and run in the fields with a huge helmet and beautiful big swords! Tempting yes, but in the end decided to save the energy and money for other activities, such as playing battle warriors with the godsons:)

Mount Cook (in Maori 'Aoraki') is the highest mountain in New Zealand with its respectable 3754 meters. We got extremely lucky with the weather as we drove there, not a cloud in the sky! Usually travellers talk about Mount Cook under the topic "so how many times did you guys drive up there before you actually saw it?", as the tip is often covered with clouds. We walked around for 3 hours in a sunny and hot (!) weather, and Libor got so excited that he even went swimming in a glacial lake. Brrrrr!

Gore, Invercargill and Stewart Island

Following the Milford Sound epic journey, the next stop was a small city of Gore where the weather has been much milder, so we enjoyed a good warm night sleep.

From Gore it was a short drive to Invercargill where we were lucky enough to find a couple of second hand bookshops and exchanged our read books for other ones. Second hand bookshops are so handy, we'll have to make sure we know where one is wherever we end up after the trip. After restocking on a good read, we headed to Bluff and got our packs ready for a couple of days on Stewart Island.

The trip there takes about an hour, so not so shabby, but there are very limited accommodation options on the island itself, so if you have a tent (as we did), it makes it a hassle free trip. It turned out that the weather there was much milder than we thought and we hit the jackpot with a day full of sun. In the morning we embarked on a tramp to Ackers lighthouse where pengiuns come out in the evening and during the day they live in their burrows. Of course we didn't see any, but were lucky to spot a friendly Weka passing by. In the evening after a short rest, we embarked on a Horseshoe bay track (both of the tracks took about 2-3 hrs) in small hopes to see some kiwis as they are supposedly plentiful on the island. Well, our sharp eyes didn't spot any, so we will have to make a trip to some kiwi house on our way back north. I suppose, one would have to take at least a few day tramp to the other side of the island to have a better chance of spotting one.


Ok. Our butts are freezing.

Energized by our lazy days in Queenstown, we left for Fiordland. This huge National Park is famous for its fabulous mountain scenery and Norwegian-like fiords called the Milford Sound. From now on, it shall also be known as a place where we broke several "How many layers of clothes can you have on" -records. After being able to see my breath at 5 p.m I put on every piece of clothing I had for the night and I must say, resemblance to a sumo-wrestler was striking:)

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that both of us were still breathing the following morning. We woke up before sunrise and started our final drive towards Milford sound to get to our boat. On the way we stopped to marvel at native and rare Kea mountain birds and while we were taking pictures and saying how cute they were, one jumped on our open car door and pecked a huge hole in it. Right! Not so cute anymore!

The drive to Milford Sound from the nearest town Te Anau is an experience itself. Superb mountains, lakes and glaciers. One also passes through the Homer tunnel, a one-kilometer-long road tunnel which also runs steeply downhill - a spooky place, claustrophobic's nightmare. A bit like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom.

At Milford we hopped on a ferry that cruised around the lake for 2 hours, slowing down at waterfalls and offering great views on 1692m Mitre Peak. Milford Sound is a great cruise even rain or shine, waterfalls are more intense during the rain but the mountain views are naturally better when it's clear. We scored a nice balance, saw some nice waterfalls and the mountains. Not bad at all!

Lake Wanaka, Arrowtown and Queenstown

From glaciers to a beautiful lake with a wonderful scenery, this is how one could describe our journey for the last few days. Lake Wanaka is a wonderful place to hang out for a few days. There are numerous activities that one can do, from kayaking to hiking to just chilling out at the lake. The weather wasn't too kind to us during our stay as it was quite cold, so we chose to get up to date with our blog and later in the evening visit the local cinematography marble the Cinema Paradiso. This cosy little place has couches for seats and it also provides food, so we felt like at home watching the world acclaimed movie Kite Runner (which was brilliant as well).

The next day we were awakened by the annual mountain bike race the Motatapu Icebreaker 2007 where over 2500 cyclist and runners embark on the journey from Wanaka to Arrowtown which supposedly leads through Shania Twain's property in New Zealand and the track is only opened one day in a year. It was quite interesting as the contestants were arriving at our campground, where the start was, already at 6 am. Since there were so much turmoil going around we headed on one of the peaceful walks around the lake and then headed down to Arrowtown for our next advanture.

Unfortunately, due to the race, all accommodations were quite overbooked, so we didn't waste much time and headed down to the trendy Queenstown with the idea to head back up to Arrowtown later. And we did just that. Arrowtown is a small gold mining town with wild west like looking buildings. The gold fever has never left the town as small chunks of gold are still found once in a long while in the river on one side of the city. The local tourist information center takes advantage of this phenomenon and rents out pans and small shovels ($3), so we didn't hesitate a second and got our selves equipped and started our gold chase down the river. After 2 hours of panning with no real results apart from cold hands, we were satisfied with our efforts and returned back to the city for some ice cream instead :). Arrowtown also has a small reconstructed Chinese gold miner's settlement with explanation boards as to how a Chinese immigrant lived in the 1800s in Arrowtown.

In Queenstown we decided to take a bit easy this time and rent a tourist flat even though this place is very well known for its adrenaline rush overpriced attractions such as bungy jumping, skydiving etc. However,it seems that the 5 month journey has taken its toll on us, so we needed some more rest before embarking on the final stretch of our travels.

Greymouth, Barrytown and glaciers Franz Josef and Fox

Since we had quite a busy and strenous days at Abel Tasman track, we chose to chill out for a bit in a small town of Greymouth on the west coast of the South island. The weather has been quite ideal for this type of activity for the last couple of days, rain rain rain, so we settled by the Sky Movies channel and relaxed. What can I tell you, it was very much needed after all this time camping around and eating canned food :).

After our recoup, we headed a few kilometers north of Greymouth to a small cozy village of Barrytown. One of the local kiwi families has thought of a great business venture. They run a hands on workshop on how to make a knife starting at the fire and hammer all the way to a nicely sharp and polished product that is yours to keep. The full day of knife making craftsmanship was a tremendous success in our eyes and definitely worth the money (about 60 euro) as the knives are worth more than that since they are hand made and not to speak of the sentimental value. Just check out the prototypes in about half way through the process during the day on the image. I'd rate this experience amongst the best so far on our almost 5 month trip now. Damn, the time flies.

When we were equipped with sharp knives in our backpacks, the next destination were the well known glaciers of Franz Josef and Fox. Funny thing is that the Fox glacier was renamed from the Maori name "Te Moeka o Tuawe" by Sir William Fox who visited it one day and decided to rename it (why can't people just leave stuff as is, the glacier already had a name :)). Anywho, the scenery here is just amazing. There are a tons of guided tour operators that will take you on the actual glacier itself, however, for the prices they were advertising it is really not worth it. You can get for free all the way to the foot of the glacier, so one can definitely get a good view of the massive chunk of ice with a river running below it.

Abel Tasman adventure

Nelson region is known for its sunshine and apple orchards. However, we spent most of our Nelson time listening to rain falling on our tent. We also encountered a new animal, a sandfly (we refer to them as 'bitches'). These tiny harmless-looking buggers give you a nasty bite which will itch for a week, forming awful red bumps all over the skin. They are highly intelligent too, as they seem to know how to find that 1 centimeter area of skin where repellent has not been applied to and start their feast! So people - It seems that we are dealing with some kind of a devil fly, the superhero of all mosquitos.

Originally the plan was to stay in the area for a good few weeks, me working away in one of the apple orchards and making us filthy rich. However, after a considerable amount of phone calls it became quite evident that my timing sucks and currently all the positions have been filled. I wasn't too devastated by the fact though, especially when I heard how bad the money actually is. Maybe I will work later somewhere else, or maybe we just stick to canned meat and forget about it:) Anyway, we decided to head up towards Abel Tasman National Park to do some hiking and kayaking.

Abel Tasman track is a fairly popular 51 km hike, which normally takes about 3-4 days to hike. We decided to combine kayaking with hiking and spend 2 days in the area. The track is known for sandy beaches, rainforests and tides, so you must plan your walks carefully and take your shoes off a few times.

The weather was sunny as we started kayaking from Marahau to Bark Bay. However, we were slightly worried about our timetable; we got our kayak an hour later than we were told, and we only had about 4 hours to complete quite a strenuous route. The kayak company also showed no mercy, the kayak had better be in Bark Bay by 3 p.m or they would charge us an extra fee. So off we went, paddling like some olympic champions. I suppose the idea is to paddle fairly slowly and admire the bays, birds and seals along the way...perhaps have a picnic lunch and go for a swim... However, we only took one 15 minute break and passed one seal colony, the rest of the time we were fighting the waves and grunting. Seriously tough work!

We camped in a lovely beach right next to Bark Bay and slept like a baby. The next morning we started our hike towards Awaroa Bay, where we would get a watertaxi back to Marahau that afternoon. We passed some amazing beaches with white sand and plunged into rainforests in between. We heard that normally one can see dolphins and stingrays swimming in the warm bays, but we were not that lucky this time. However, the water taxi took us to see a seal colony nearby. It was quite unique, I have never seen anything like that! There were only females with their 3 month old pups, apparently the males only visit the area in November for some...erm...'seal luuuurrrve'.