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So Long, South Island

I checked out of my motel room and left the small port town of Hokitika early in the morning and continued driving north on Highway 6, a narrow and winding road, while slowly snaking my way up the west coast of the South Island.  I spent about an hour in the town of Westport and drove along the Buller River Canyon for another hour, then I headed inland a ways to Nelson Lakes National Park.  This being a Friday afternoon in a National Park in New Zealand in January, I was expecting to see huge crowds and a packed campground.


I was surprised, however, to find only a handful of folks in the park and a campground that was mostly empty, so I enjoyed a pleasant night there while camping near Lake Rotoiti.  It felt great to finally get some use out of the folding chair, water jug and sleeping pad that I'd bought in Auckland a month earlier, now that I've toted that stuff all over New Zealand.  Nelson Lakes is a nice park and something like a smaller version of Glacier National Park in Montana, with snowcapped mountains, pretty alpine lakes, and a great Visitor Center with a friendly staff. 



Above left:  Driving north on the West Coast of the South Island.  Ferns like these are just about everywhere in New Zealand, and some are taller than houses.

Above center:  The Pancake Rocks viewpoint at Paparoa National Park.

Above right:  This is why they call them Pancake Rocks.  Neither scientists nor Aunt Jemima know how they formed.



Above left:  The fern-enshrouded Highway 6 on the west coast.

Above center:  A tight squeeze.  Compared to the U.S., the roads in New Zealand are really narrow (though most are wider than this one) and are very winding.  It can take all day just to drive 200 miles.  That's one reason why New Zealand seems a lot bigger than it really is, at least compared to the wide-open states in the American west.

Above right:  The Buller River.



Above left:  The weather was finally nice enough to camp.  This is at Nelson Lakes National Park.

Above right:  Lake Rotoiti at Nelson Lakes National Park.  This area was covered with ice during the last glaciation, about 10,000 years ago.


The next morning I packed up my tent, got in the car and drove up to the vibrant city of Nelson, located on the northern coast of the South Island.  Nelson boasts that it's the sunniest city in New Zealand and, sure enough, it was warm and sunny when I got there.  I checked into a mom-and-pop motel that afternoon, then drove a few miles to Motueka where I hoped to do some sea kayaking near Abel Tasman National Park, apparently one of the most spectacular national parks in New Zealand.  Ah, but with beauty comes popularity and unfortunately all of the kayak trips for that day were filled that's the price you pay for serendipity, I guess.  I consoled myself by staying up until midnight while watching the New Zealand Black Caps play (and beat) Australia in cricket. 


Above:  On the car deck of the Interislander Ferry, heading back to North Island.

The next morning was sunny, warm and glorious, and after returning some e-mails, I drove a few hours north to Picton which, as you may recall, is the ferry terminus for the South Island.  It was good to return to Picton after my 33-day trip around the South Island.  I checked in, once again, at the pleasant Broadway Motel and got some takeout at Lord Thompson's, which is undoubtedly the best fish and chips place in New Zealand (having eaten in just about every fish and chips place in this country, I should know).  That evening, you guessed it, I watched some more Black Caps cricket on T.V.  Good thing I'm not in a rut, huh?


I had a few hours to kill the next morning before the ferry to Wellington arrived, so I drove down to an empty park near the Picton beach so I could update my website.  As I was typing away at a picnic table, the park caretaker, a friendly elderly gentleman, came by with a broom and we started talking as he swept.  We chatted for 20 minutes as he told me about New Zealand and I told him about America, then he smiled and bid me goodbye.  That's the way it is in New Zealand people often come right up to you and start talking as if they've known you all your life.


After writing a few more website stories, I packed up my laptop computer, drove over to the ferry landing and boarded the ferry.  On this ride I was taking the older, slower, and cheaper Inter-Islander Ferry instead of the sleek, new Lynx, which I had taken on my southbound crossing on Christmas Day (see News: January 1, 2002).  The Inter-Islander is a bit rusty and, at 20 years old, was definitely showing its age, but it has a lot more charm and personality than the newfangled Lynx.  I decided that I preferred old, slow and cheap (perhaps because I'm also old, slow, and cheap).  I lounged on the sun deck while watching the scenery pass by at 20 knots and said a quiet goodbye to beautiful South Island, which had been my beautiful-albeit-soggy home for the past month.


During my 33 days on the South Island, I saw just about every corner of the island and visited every sizable town (and a lot of small ones).  Overall, my experience there was pretty positive.  Yes, it did rain a lot and it was a lot more crowded than I imagined it would be.  In fact, it was more crowded than just about anywhere I've been in the U.S., even during the summers.  But heck, it's a beautiful place, the scenic variety boggled my mind, and the people were exceptionally friendly.  I'll definitely come back to the South Island someday just not in December or January.



Above left:  Since my last name is Leu, I got a kick out of this "superloo" in Nelson.

Above center:  Sunbathers at Pelorus Bridge.

Above right:  My roof has moss on it.  This roof has mussels.



Above left:  Kenepuru Sound on the northern tip of the South Island.  This is near the site where Captain Cook's crew ran into cannibals in 1769.

Above center:  Heading north on a beautiful, warm afternoon.

Above right:  After traveling around the South Island for a month, I returned to the pleasant town of Picton.  I had reservations here for the ferry the next morning to take me back to the North Island.



Above left:  One of the two Inter-islander ferries coming into Picton.

Above right:  "Three pieces of flake and one scoop, please."  My first stop in Picton was for fish and chips.  This is Lord Thompson's Fish and Chips shop in Picton, which serves the best fish and chips in New Zealand.  I asked the owner (left) why their fish and chips were so good.  His secret, he told me, is using hotter oil than most other shops.  Whatever they're doing it really works.  



Above left:  The next morning, waiting for the ferry to take me back to the North Island.

Above center:  Leaving Picton and the South Island, heading north.

Above right:  Queen Charlotte Sound on the South Island.



Above left:  On the Interislander Ferry during the three-hour ride to Wellington.

Above center:  Saying goodbye to the beautiful South Island.

Above right:  And saying hello once again to Wellington, on the North Island.

And Hello, North Island

After a pleasant ferry ride across the windy and choppy Cook Strait, I returned to the North Island and, thanks to a tip in my Lonely Planet guidebook, found a campground at peaceful Rimutaki Forest Park.  Rimutaki is a wonderful place located about 20 kilometers east of Wellington with a stupendous trail through a tropical rain forest, which I explored the next morning.  The park is run by DOC (pronounced "Dock," as in Department of Conservation), the main federal land agency in New Zealand.  I love stumbling across hidden jewels and this one definitely qualified.


After my morning hike, I drove up the western coast of North Island, passing by the golf course at Paraparaumu near Wellington, where Tiger Woods had played in the New Zealand Open just a few weeks earlier.  Unfortunately for Tiger, it was cold and rainy during the four-day event and, in his first visit to New Zealand, he didn't do so well.  Tiger, let me welcome you to New Zealand weather.  Actually it was sunny and hot when I drove by.  Call me silly (many people do), but wearing shorts and a t-shirt in January was something I quite enjoyed.



Above left Camping at Rimutaki Forest Park near Wellington.  This is a typical campground in New Zealand:  very few facilities and just a patch of grass where you can pitch your tent.  On the other hand, it cost only US$1.50 a night.

Above center:  Hiking signs at Rimutaki the next morning.  The Orongorongo Track sounded pretty intriguing especially since I couldn't pronounce it.

Above right:  Hiking through the jungle of the beautiful Orangorango River valley.  This was one of the best hikes I've taken in New Zealand so far.  It wasn't nearly as crowded as more famous places like Milford Sound or Abel Tasman National Park (and no reservations required, either).

North to Taupo

As I drove into Palmerston North (pop. 67,000) that afternoon, I decided to stop and see Massey University, one of the largest universities in New Zealand.   I really enjoy visiting universities and college towns, and I was so impressed with Massey University that I decided to stay in Palmerston North for a couple of days to update my website.  I'm not exactly sure where "Palmerston South" or just plain old Palmerston is, but I would guess that they're somewhere south of Palmerston North.  Anyway, I liked Palmerston North a lot.  Not only does it have a college town flavor but it also has, like many cities in New Zealand, a beautiful square in the middle of town with a large, grassy park and shade trees.  


Above:  The wonderful Park Inn was my home for two nights in Palmerston North while I got caught up with my website.  Nita is your host.

One of the hassles of traveling on the road is having to find a place to stay every night.  Fortunately, I had stopped during the previous month at the Automobile Association (AA) office in Auckland and got some travel literature, all of which was free, since the New Zealand AA has a reciprocity agreement with AAA (the American Automobile Association).  During my travels around New Zealand, my AA motel guide became indispensable and I opened it every afternoon and scanned the listings for the town I was in.  After a month and a half of use, my motel guide was getting pretty tattered, but once again, I pulled it out and looked for a place to stay.


The Park Inn got my vote, so I found it on the map and drove over late that afternoon.  The receptionist there was a cheerful, sandy-haired woman named Nita who was in her 40s.  As so often happens when I talk to motel owners, our conversation soon turned to the New Zealand Black Caps cricket team.  After a friendly chat, Nita gave me the key to a nice room on the top floor of a two-story building with a pleasant view of the area.  Nita also directed me to the best fish and chips shop in town, so I got a large order there along with a Lemon & Paeroa ("L & P") soft drink, which is like carbonated lemonade.  There's nothing like L & P in the U.S. unfortunately.


I spent a few days in Palmerston North updating my website, then I checked out of my motel room and had another pleasant talk at the front desk with Nita.  Just before I stepped out of the office, she handed me a piece of paper.  She knew that I liked cricket so she'd written down for me the remaining schedule for the Black Caps cricket team so I could watch them on television.  Once again, it's typical New Zealand hospitality.



Above left:  Massey University in the city of Palmerston North is the second-largest university in New Zealand.  And it's the prettiest campus I've seen here so far.

Above center:  A town square in Palmerston North

Above right:  And another town square in Palmerston North.  It's a very pleasant town.


After giving Nita a cheery wave, I headed up the coast to see Mt. Taranaki.  If you've seen any pictures of New Zealand, you've probably seen Mt. Taranaki, which resembles Mt. Fuji in Japan and is one of the most picturesque mountains in the country.  Unfortunately though, it was shrouded in clouds during most of the day, though the clouds did part briefly enough for me to take a few pictures of it.


Above:  Wanganui is one of the oldest cities in New Zealand.  It's a bit run down but has a pleasant and vibrant downtown area.  That's the Wanganui River, the longest navigable river in New Zealand.

I drove all the way around Mt. Taranaki that afternoon and then headed to the historic town of Wanganui on the coast, where I landed at the Aeroplane Inn, another small, cheap mom-and-pop motel.  Wanganui seemed like an interesting old port city, so the next morning I spent a couple of hours strolling through the vibrant downtown.  Wanganui is like a well-used couch down in the basement:  not real flashy but comfortable and with a lot of charm (and, it seemed, a lot of stories to tell).


From Wanganui, I drove north to Tongariro National Park, New Zealand's oldest national park and the home of several dormant volcanoes, the largest of which, Mt. Ruapehe, erupted just a few years ago.  This area of the central North Island, including Tongariro and the cities of Taupo and Rotorua, is the most volcanic area in New Zealand.


Taupo (pronounced "TOE-poe") is a pleasant resort town on the shores of Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand and one of its most picturesque, so I thought this would be a good place to settle in for a couple of days and continue updating my website.  Taupo is also one of the more pronounceable Maori place-names that I've run into so far, and it was a welcome relief after dealing with hundreds of names like Whangirangiparanui or the like, none of which I can remember for more than five minutes.   


Along with updating my website during my two days in Taupo and, yes, eating more fish and chips and watching more Black Caps cricket I also got a chance to see some of sights here.  With all the geothermal activity around Taupo, including geysers, mudpots, and fumaroles, this area reminded me of Yellowstone National Park.  Unfortunately though, and unlike Yellowstone, the most spectacular geothermal sites here are privately owned and charge admission.  Nevertheless, it's an interesting area and I wish I had more time to see it, but I'm leaving New Zealand in a few days and still have a lot of traveling to do, so it's back on the road.



Above left:  On Highway 3, north of Palmerston North.

Above center:  Mt. Taranaki, also known as Mt. Egmont, is 7,500' high and resembles Mt. Fuji in Japan.  It's often covered with clouds so I was lucky to see it well, part of it.

Above right: New World is one of the largest grocery chains in New Zealand.  I'm restocking here in New Plymouth with kiwi fruit, "Bulk Chips" (the closest thing here to Doritos), and "tomato sauce" (i.e., ketchup).  They don't have canned chili in New Zealand, though, which is one of my staples.  And, sad to say, they only have Coke here and not Pepsi.



Above left: Driving down Highway 3 on the west coast of the North Island.

Above center:  Downtown Wanganui has an abundance of charming architecture.  It's a fascinating old port town.

Above right:  Although the roads in New Zealand are narrow, winding and slow to drive on, they're kept in very good condition.  I've seen road crews everywhere during my travels.



Above left:  A kiwi crossing in Tongariro National Park.  That's volcanic Mt. Ngaurohoe in the distance.

Above center:  I've been in New Zealand for nearly two months but this is the only Kiwi bird I've seen stuffed and mounted in the Tongariro Visitor Center.  Kiwis are endangered and their survival is uncertain.  Unfortunately, domestic dogs and cats and weasel-like stoats kill a lot of kiwis while they're still chicks.  New Zealanders really love their kiwis, the same way that Americans feel about bald eagles.

Above right:  Beautiful Ruka Falls near Taupo, a few miles from where I'm writing this.



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