Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are a chain of 15 main islands spread out across a vast expanse of the South Pacific.  Geographically the islands are about 1800 miles north-east of New Zealand and were formed by volcanic activity.  The islands are self-governed but retain close ties with New Zealand and use the NZD as currency.

The main island of Rarotonga is a heavily touristed island and an especially popular destination for Kiwis and Australians.  The island itself is striking, with high jungle peaks rising from the sea towards the center of the island.  The  main road on Rarotonga is just 32km long and circumnavigates the coast of the entire island.  Off the coast a barrier reef protects the shoreline from the large waves, forming a lagoon that has good snorkeling in places.
Looking from the beach inland on Rarotonga
Sunrise in Rarotonga
While Rarotonga was beautiful, it lacked the remote South Pacific experience that we had envisioned, so we set off for Aitutaki, a small atoll with a breathtaking lagoon and a laid back atmosphere.  Aitutaki has about 2000 inhabitants and just a few roads so we biked the entire island in just a few hours.
Flying into Aitutaki
The vast lagoon

Aitutaki's lagoon is famous for its expansive size and color. The lagoon is roughly an equilateral triangle with each side measuring about 12km. The average depth in the lagoon is a mere 5ft, but parts go as deep as 60ft. The shallow warm water and abundance of coral means that snorkeling is good. We went on an all day lagoon tour and were able to see some impressive fish and pristine uninhabited islands on the fringe of the reef.  It was surreal being 10km from the main island but standing in water only chest deep.

A Red-Tailed Tropic Bird nesting
A Giant Clam
An inquisitive Giant Trevally
A Giant Clam with neon

Hermit Crab
Ominous dark clouds
On Aitutaki we stayed in a single floor house that doubled as a hostel. The owners were Cooks Islanders that had lived and raised a family in New Zealand and moved back to Aitutaki to retire.  A perk of our lodging was its proximity to good local food.  The cuisine in The Cook Islands is based around what is abundant: fish, tropical fruit, and root vegetables.  Enormous tuna steaks with island salads and sides featuring fruits and sweet potatoes were a staple.  Palm trees, star fruit, avocado, and mango trees lined most properties making otherwise exotic fruit readily available, which locals were happy to share.
Sunset at the volleyball field
Aitutaki was really incredible.  The stunning beauty of the lagoon, local hospitality, and delicious food, made the island a most memorable experience.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Just a few hours north of Kaikoura is the town of Blenheim, the gateway to New Zealand's most famous wine regions, Marlborough. We took the opportunity to spend an afternoon going from winery to winery to do tastings.
Views from the Cloudy Bay vineyard

The vineyards stretch on for miles 
The tastings were delicious and fun. And they lacked the pretentious aire that might be associated with wine tasting in general. The area also produces delicious cheeses and manuka honey which is lauded for its immune boosting qualities.

The Marlborough region is also the home to the Marlborough sounds. The expansive inlets and bays on the northern tip of the south island. It is in Marlborough sound that the inter island ferry carries passengers from Wellington, New Zealands capital in the north island, to the Picton in the south island. The sounds are also an important aquaculture area where green shelled mussels and salmon are farmed.

Marlborough sound is also the site of the Queen Charlotte track, a famous multi-day hike with great views of the emerald green sounds. We decided to hike a 26km portion of the track in one day. This required a boat transfer in the morning leading to an all day hike back to our car eventually.

The hike was very nice, however, the overcast weather was very disappointing as the water color lacked the beautiful hues that make the sounds so stunning.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Kaikoura is a small pennisula next to a deep water bay on the east coast of New Zealand.  The deep waters around Kaikoura are rich with marine life including whales, dolphins, paua (abalone), and crayfish (rock lobster).  Until recently the town of Kaikoura inhabited by farmers and fisherman and today hosts weekenders from Christchurch and ecotourists.  Claire's parents own a bach (cottage) in Kaikoura so we met them there and spent five days in town.

The penninsula was the site of a traditional Maori Pa, a defensive fortification. In more recent times it has been used as farmland and around the coast there is a lovely and well maintained coastal path. During low tide you can walk around the penninsula in a few hours over tide pools and at other times an alternate path with fantastic views can be walked on the cliffs above. The pennisula is also an important breeding ground for seabirds.
Lucky cows
New Zealand flax on the cliff edge
Life in Kaikoura still revolves around the ocean.  Recreational diving and fishing are popular and fruitful for those with a tolerance for  frigid waters.  I was extremely keen to try my hand at snorkeling for paua and crayfish and fortunately Claire's family had a cache of wetsuits and equipment to pursue such endeavors   Our first attempt at seafood self-sufficiency was a snorkel trip just two blocks from the bach at small bay.
With two wetsuits on and a hood the cold waters were tolerable.  However, the bay was covered with seaweed and visibility was general poor making the job very difficult for novices.  We ended up going home empty handed.

We decided to try our hand at setting out an old lobster trap. We used a small rowboat to paddle out a hundred or so meters from the shore and set out the trap on three consecutive days, each day returning with nothing more than a freshly picked over bag of gleamingly white fish bones.

A sympathetic neighbor was kind enough to give us a large and delicious crayfish for our efforts. We were able to find paua fritters at a local food truck and we fulfilled the rest of our seafood quota by eating fish and chips on numerous occasions. Kaikoura was absolutely one of the highlights of the trip.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Southern East Coast

The drive from Fjordland across the island to the east coast is dominated by the sight of vast sheep pastures.  Miles and miles of green rolling hills covered with sheep.  In this sparsely populated area I was surprised to find that nearly every tiny town, seemingly not much more than a gas station and a fish and chips shop, would also have a golf course.  And Once reaching the coastline the view does not differ a great deal except the rolling hills are replaced by steep cliffs.  But tucked in between these farms is the Catlins National Park.

The Catlins, tucked in the south east corner of the south island feels remote at times.  But in reality is closely connected to the surrounding community that has been using the access roads and watershed to support agriculture for centuries.

Farmers use roads to herd sheep
The beginning of the Catlins River Walk
In addition to the forest tucked inland, the Catlins also encompass a windswept coastal area. Here you can see sea lions sleep the day away on the beaches next to deep sand dunes covered in high grass. The coast also has steep cliffs as exemplified by the often photographed Nugget Point.
A pollen covered bumble bee on a thistle
At Nugget point in addition to the great views you can see yellow eyed penguins nest and seal frolic in the surf.
The lighthouse at Nugget Point
Claire at Nugget Point
Driving north from the Catlins leads to Dunedin, home to the Baldwin street, the steepest street in the world!  It actually doesn't seem any steeper than many streets in San Francisco though.

Oddly spherical boulders

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Fjordland is the isolated and iconic region in the southwest corner of the south island. Dramatic mountain ranges emerge from meadows and cool glacial melt cuts river and waterfalls across the landscape. The drive into Fjordland begins in Te Anau where the road winds through meadow, forest, and mountain to Milford Sound and the Tasman Sea.

Fjordland is home to some of the most well known and beautiful tracks in New Zealand. During peak season tracks such as the Milford Track and the Routeburn Track sell out of bunk space in the Department of Conservation sites, which are the only places to sleep during the multiday hikes.  So Claire and I took the opportunity to do day hikes on some of these tracks.
Hiking up to Key Summit during a break in the weather
Key Summit on the Routeburn
The weather during a day hike on the Routeburn track highlighted the schizophrenic weather patterns in New Zealand. Once reaching the Key Summit we found ourselves basking in T-shirts in the sun, dodging hail, and seeking shelter from fierce wind and rain. But calm breaks in the weather made the views spectacular and well worth the suffering.
A refreshing swim in Lake Marian
The campsites in Fjordland are numerous and popular. Campsites are placed in gorgeous locations with rivers or lakes nearby to help campers get access to water. And while access to fresh water is essential for camping, it also means that the sites in are swarmed by sandflies, particularly at dusk. The flies made a point of making themselves comfortable in our van, biting during the daylight and sleeping happily next to the windows during the night.
The view from our campsite in the Eglington Valley
Eglington Valley at dusk
Beech Forest near the campsite
One of the most famous and photographed places in New Zealand is Milford Sound. Rising a mile from the waters edge Mitre Peak is an iconic image and the highest coastal cliff in the world. Visitors view the sound by taking a 2 hours cruise to the mouth of the sound and back. The photos don't do justice to the size and scale of the mountains and peaks surrounding the fjord.

Mitre Peak on the left dwarfs the cruise ship

The Kepler track was another beautiful day hike. The meandered through trout laden streams, beech forest, bogs, and lakes.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The West Coast & Otago

We began our road trip driving down the west coast of the south island. The first stop was Punakaiki, an odd geological formation that has risen from the sea floor. Punakaiki is known as the “pancake rocks” due to the rocks flattened appearance.
Sunset on the first night was spent at Punakaiki

The next stop was the glacier region. We viewed both Franz Josef and Fox Glacier in the same day. Franz Josef is impressive and stretches far up the mountain. Every few minutes a helicopter flys tourists and hikers high up on the glacier. Far below, large groups outfitted in snow gear are led by guides (iceaxes in-hand) to the face where they will hike up the glacier for a few hours. At Fox, the glacier seemed to be less commercialized and required an hour or so long walk to the Fox Glacier viewpoint. The view was great and you could view the glacier from a much higher viewpoint than at Franz Josef.
Franz Josef Glacier
Fox Glacier
The next stop was Lake Matheson, which is famous for the reflected views of Mt. Cook in the lake's dark waters, unfortunately for us, the mountain was shrouded by clouds the day we visited.  The lake circuit takes under 2 hours to complete but provides ample scenic viewpoints.

Cloud hide Mt Cook in the background
A fern frond unfurling

After lake Matheson the road began winding into the mountains with a quick roadside stop called the Blue Pools, which I remembered from my last visit. The Blue Pools are a congregation point for large trout during the winter months that swim up from lake Wanaka. The pools are deep, blue, and cold.

Following the highway we wove through the mountains and into the Wanaka area. As pulled into our campsite for the we noticed a problem with our car horn. The horn would inexplicably honk when we hit a pot hole or closed a car door. Later we figured out that it was any vibration that caused the non-stop blaring noise, but we only figured this out after waking up everyone at the campsite in the early morning to their delight.
A meadow passing into Wanaka
The first hike we did was in Mt Aspiring National Park to the Rob Roy glacier. The track starts at the end of brutal 25km teeth chattering unpaved road. The track track then weaves through sheep pastures, across a long a windy swing bridge and up above a large meadow bisected by a river. Then climbing rapidly it moves into beech and fern forests and finally to a viewpoint for the Rob Roy Glacier. The viewpoint is a great spot to stop and enjoy your lunch, which is what the Kea's are counting on.

A close-up of Rob Roy, a hanging glacier
The Kea is a large parrot and the only alpine parrot in the world. Kea's have built a reputation as clever and amusing birds that are undaunted by humans and will approach to get a snack. They are also notorious for destroying cars in parking lots by pulling at windshield wipers, mirrors, and anything they can get their beaks at.
A Kea with Rob Roy in the background