Thursday, June 7, 2012

New Zealand, part 2 (2012)

In early February, after finishing our first round of boat upgrades, we headed south from the Bay of Islands to Hawke’s Bay.  Our plan was to sail down and spend a few months in Napier, where our good friends Matt and April and their son Frazer live.   This is a 500 mile trip and a good opportunity to test out the new gear we had installed. Originally, we were going to day hop down and visit some islands along the way, but projects took longer than expected, and the weather didn’t cooperate for a week after that.  Andrew’s brother, Adam, was due to meet us in Napier in mid February, so by the time we had a good weather window we decided it would be better to sail through, without stopping. 

We left Opua on February 8th, and enjoyed a nice sail for the first day until the winds died.   We motored for 12 hours until the NW winds filled in at around 15 knots, and Saviah sailed happily downwind for the next 36 hours.   As we neared the East Cape at nightfall on the third day, the winds died again, and we motored our way around the cape.  We didn’t mind the lack of wind, as the East Cape is well known to get some really nasty conditions.  The next morning the SE winds began to fill in, and quickly built to SE 15-20.  Saviah was close-hauled and pounding into the seas.  We beat our way slowly down the coast, nearing the Mahia Peninsula at nightfall.  Since we were short-tacking our way down the coast and relatively close to our destination, we both stayed up through the night.  It was one of the roughest patches we have experienced yet, and we had some sizeable waves break over the cabin top. 

The next morning, we had SW 10-15 knot winds as we made our way across Hawke Bay.  By the end of the four day trip, we had experienced wind from just about every direction and from flat calm to 20+ knots.  We were really starting to appreciate the tradewind sailing that we had done since leaving Mexico.  Around noon on February 12th, we pulled up to the Napier Sailing Club, with Matt, April, and Frazer waiting at the dock to welcome us. 
We spent the next few days catching up with Matt and April and getting Saviah cleaned up and ready for another person living aboard.  Adam would be visiting us for three weeks, and we would use the boat as a homebase between trips around the North and South Island.  Matt and April were nice enough to let us borrow one of their cars for the next couple months, so Andrew was also getting some lessons on driving on the left side of the road as well as a few of the unique New Zealand laws.  Di’s driver license has expired, so she didn’t spend any time driving while we were there.  Generally, it wasn’t difficult driving in New Zealand as traffic is much lighter than the US, and drivers were much more forgiving when we did make a mistake.   But they did have some unusual rules about which car had the right-of-way at certain intersections that seemed counter intuitive (they actually changed these rules toward the end of our stay). 

We were both looking forward to traveling by land around New Zealand when Adam arrived early on February 17th , with a full itinerary.  The first day was set aside for sleep after the long plane ride, but he wasn’t tired, so we took advantage of the sunny day and made our way to Te Mata Peak , a 30 minute drive from the marina.  Te Mata Peak is south of Napier and rises to 1,300ft. There is a popular lookout at the summit, as well as several trails for hikers and mountain bikers.  As the highest peak in the area, we could see a long way over the Heretaunga Plains and Hawke's Bay.  We spent a few hours hiking around and enjoying the spectacular views.

Te Mata Peak
The next day was Saturday and the first day of Art Deco Weekend.  The city of Napier was hit by a major earthquake in 1931.  The center of the town was destroyed by the earthquake and ensuing fires and was rebuilt in the Art Deco style that was popular at the time.  It now claims to be the “Art Deco Capital of the World”, and Art Deco Weekend happened to coincide with Adam’s arrival.
There were all sorts of activities like concerts, parades with cars from the 20’s and 30’s and events like the “great Gatsby picnic”.  We headed into downtown to walk around and check out the parade.  We were a little surprised at how many people came from all over New Zealand in their old cars and dressed in the clothes of the era.  It was a really nice day for it, too.

Art Deco Weekend parade
We spent several days looking around Napier and getting ready for our trip to the South Island.  We left on February 19th and headed south to Wellington, where we had flights booked to Queenstown the following day.  On our way down, we decided that we had time for a detour to see the Putangirua Pinnacles, located on the south coast of the North Island.  The Pinnacles are a large number of earth pillars formed by years of wind and water erosion.  It is about a 30 minute hike through a valley to get to the base of them, and then from there you can continue on a 10 minute hike up to a lookout.  Apparently these were in the Lord of the Rings movies at some point.  It was a nice quick hike, but turned out to be a bit more of a detour than expected as the roads were narrow and winding.  We ended up getting to Wellington later than anticipated.

Putangirua Pinnacles
We checked in at a hostel downtown and then walked around the waterfront that evening.  It was a blustery day, as is typical in Wellington, but we decided that we really liked the city, and would have to spend some more time here on our way back through.  The following morning, we were off to the airport to catch a flight to Queenstown on the South Island.
Queenstown is a resort town in the southwest of the South Island.  It claims to be the “Adventure Capital of the World”, and we quickly found out why.  It seemed that just about any adventure sport can be done here.  It is the birthplace of commercial bungee jumping, but you can also do skydiving, paragliding, jet boating, whitewater rafting and dozens of other adventure sports.  It is definitely a haven for the adrenaline junky, but also a very “touristy” town. 

We spent some time walking around the town, and then rode the Skyline Gondola up to Bob’s Peak, where there is an observation deck, restaurant, and luge.  From the top of Bob’s Peak, they have three separate luge tracks where you can race down the hill on toboggans with wheels.  We started on the beginner track, which everybody has to go down on their first run, and then moved on to the advanced tracks.  We had a lot of fun, and you could really get going fast, even on the beginner track.    

After a couple days in Queenstown, we caught a bus to Te Anau, several hours away.  Te Anau is the commercial hub for the Fiordland National Park, almost 3 million acres of beautiful parkland, with 14 fiords and five major lakes.  There are three treks in the park that they call “Great Walks”.  We originally wanted to do the Milford Track, but they only allow so many hikers on the trails per day and when we tried booking three months in advance, they were already full.  So we decided to do the Kepler Track instead.  The night before starting the trek, we stopped by the grocery store to buy food for the next four days.  Although we would be staying in huts, we weren’t certain what kind of cooking facilities they had, so we decided to just make it easy and buy sandwich stuff and snack foods.
The Kepler Track is a 37 mile circular trail which travels through some of the spectacular scenery of the Fiordland National Park.  The first day of the hike was about 10 miles.  We got up early and headed to Subway and each got foot-long subs for the trail.  We didn’t have room for them in our bags so we had to tie them to the outside of our packs and got some pretty funny looks on the trail.  We started from the visitor center, following the shores of Lake Te Anau.  We stopped to eat our sandwiches near the campsite at Brod Bay, but the sandflies kept us moving.  That was our first run in with the sandflies, which are smaller than mosquitoes but have a mean bite that really stings and then itches for weeks.

From there, the track climbs up past limestone bluffs above the tree line.  The day was mostly clear until we reached the clouds past the tree line.  Some of the clouds cleared as we approached the Luxmore Hut (elevation 3,560 ft), exposing some beautiful views of the lakes below.  
The Luxmore Hut was the largest on this trail, and had 55 bunks.  It had a large cooking center, with 10 ranges and sinks on one side, and tables and benches on the other.  It was relief to drop off our gear, and we claimed our bunks, three bunks in a group of four.  We then grabbed our headlamps and set off to explore one of the 30 nearby caves, but after walking inside one for about five minutes, we decided we were too tired and headed back to the hut.  Upon returning, we were disappointed to find that the foulest smelling of all of the hikers picked the other bunk next to us.  He then took off his socks and hung them out on the ladder for all to smell. 

Kepler Track
The first night it started raining and didn’t stop for the next 36 hours.  We could also hear the wind howling outside the hut and didn’t look forward to getting out of bed.   The ranger at the hut informed us that the conditions would remain the same all day, so we put on our rain gear, covered our packs with garbage bags, and set out to cover the 9.1 miles to the next hut.  Unfortunately, this bad weather meant we had no views of one of the most stunning sections of the Kepler Track along the ridgeline.  No pictures either since it was too wet to get the camera out.

The first few hours were cold and wet walking along the ridgeline.   It rained really hard, with 40-50 mile an hour winds.   The trail on this section is very exposed, so we had to tread carefully and make sure to keep our balance as the winds whipped around us.  Our plan was to keep going as fast as we could without stopping to reach the protection of the tree line as soon as possible.
It took a few hours to reach the trees, and we began to feel our fingers again.  The rain lightened, and we started down the 93 switchbacks on this section of the trail.  It was steep and hard on the knees, but every time we passed a group of hikers going up, we were thankful to have the worst behind us. 

We made good time and were one of the first groups to arrive at the Iris Burn Hut (elevation 1,631 ft).  Despite our rain gear, we were soaked all the way through and exhausted.  We claimed our bunks, and hung all of our wet gear around the fire to dry.  There were 50 bunks in this hut, and the cooking/eating area was much smaller.  By the time all the hikers had arrived, wet clothes, sleeping bags, and towels, covered most of the inside.  The whole place smelled badly.
After a rather miserable day of hiking, the ranger’s forecast called for more of the same.  That convinced us to trim a day off the trip.  This meant skipping the next hut and doing two days of hiking in one.  We would try to catch a shuttle at Rainbow Reach, 13.8 miles away.  It would be a long day, but we could have a hot shower and a real bed the next night.  This was especially appealing as we put on our still damp clothes from the previous day.

Since we had a long way to go, we were the first to leave in the morning, again with all our rain gear on.  The track doesn’t have much elevation change on this section, and with only a few sprinkles of rain, it turned out to be pleasant hiking.  Shortly after we left the hut, we came upon a group of keas, which are mountain parrots.  They are playful but also can be a menace, and they were not the least bit afraid of us as we approached.  The ranger told us they had to close one of the campsites for two weeks one year because of the birds.  Apparently they like to attack backpacks and camping gear (even while they are on your back) and rip them to shreds.  Fortunately, they left us alone, but we were watching over our shoulders until they were out of sight.
We reached Lake Manapouri about five hours after we left and followed the shoreline to the last hut.  We made a quick stop to let the ranger know we wouldn’t be staying that night, and then continued on.  The last three miles from the hut to Rainbow Reach were long and slow, as we were completely exhausted and every muscle in our bodies was aching.  But we pushed through it and finally reached the Rainbow Reach swing bridge, and got on the shuttle back to Te Anau.  We ended up only doing 33 miles of the 37, but it was a full three days and we were tired.  We were glad to have the hike behind us.  I’m sure it is a really nice when the weather cooperates, but when it doesn’t, it can be pretty miserable.

That night, we went out for a pizza dinner, which was a real treat after three days of sandwiches.  The following day we spent recovering and doing laundry before hitting the road again.  The next stop was Christchurch.