On Christmas Day we headed further South making our way to Queenstown and then directly onto the small town of Wanaka which is just a beautiful one-hour drive from the airport. Yes, the roads are curvy (hello mountains – we’ll get to that later) but the views were nothing short of amazing. In fact, it seems like the entire South Island is post card material when the weather cooperates (if it doesn’t …. well, that’s another story – again, we’ll get to that later). The blue hues of the water, the mountain backdrops, the lush green of pastures, the charm of small towns – it is literally just how you picture it.
Wanaka quickly became a favourite spot – a cute little town with lots of charms and tons of things to do. We spent our days riding bicycles (an energetic kids’ suggestion on things to do which quickly turned into “how much longer are we riding bikes today” whining until they discovered that we could indeed take breaks at playgrounds and lake fronts along our tour), hiking, exploring the Puzzling World where I – again – got lost in the maze, wine tasting at the beautiful Archangel winery, balancing a few kiwis (our fun souvenir game) and hanging out at a lavender and honey farm.
We made the trip back to Queenstown a few more times enjoying the beautiful scenery along the way on the oh, so curvy road while trying to drown out the complaints from the very whiny backseat passenger who found that he needed to complain about every freaking thing pretty much for the entire drive. We may have lost our loving patience at the end when we were just about to sort out where to park when he complained – once again – about everything in the world and oh yeah, maybe his tummy hurt, too.
We may – may – have asked him (oh, so politely) to please deal with it until it became clear that he was indeed very, very carsick. Cue in a quick detour to the near-by/ish grocery store for cleaning supplies and a pit stop at a clothing shop and we were ready to take on the beauty of Queenstown with its lazy waterfront, pedestrian zones, and stores galore. And Luca recovered to enjoy riding the luge over and over and over again.
A note about weather in South Island: we were warned well ahead of time to expect sudden changes in temperatures in the South so we always brought an extra layer – you know, just in case. It turns out that that extra layer was definitely not warm enough when our leisurely stroll along the waterfront suddenly turned windy with dropping temperatures. Laughing at the weather’s temperament, we stopped for lunch where the waitstaff already prepared blankets for under-dressed guests.
The weather cleared up the next day which was very important as we had plans to visit Milford Sound. Our options were to drive 10+ hours through windy mountain roads or to hop onto a tiny, tiny airplane for a 30-minute flight over the mountains. We were happy to have chosen option B especially in light of Luca’s tummy troubles with South Island roads.
So the next morning we headed back to Queenstown hoping and keeping our fingers crossed along the way that the flight would proceed as scheduled (flights are often canceled on small planes because of the winds). Lucky for us, we had the most perfect weather for our flight and cruise along the Sound – what an amazing experience.
We then headed North to explore two glaciers on the West Coast over New Year’s Eve. Yes, roads were again very curvy and Luca had some more tummy troubles despite Benadryl but this time managed to tell us to pull over in time and we, fortunately, chose to listen to his wise words (for once). And yes, in case you’re wondering, at that point driving on the left was second nature – we had the blinkers and windshield wipers figured out and were far less likely to drop off on the left side of the road. The only thing I continually had a hard time managing was parking – I usually back up into parking spots (having learned that valuable lesson in Mongolia to always make sure you can easily get out of a parking spot) but reverse parking while seated on the other side turned into a task I could not complete (much like the million mazes in the land down under!). Oh well.
We scheduled two days to visit both glaciers – one for each day. Luca and John were signed up for a heli-hike on the bigger glacier, Franz Josef, and one of them could not wait for this special outing. Juliana and I were signed up for a 3-hour hike to the glacier with a small group since Juliana was too young to fly in the helicopter and also, let’s be real here, for us to save some money as these outings can quickly empty your vacation budget.
We stayed close to the smaller glacier (Fox glacier) so hiked the 30 minutes to and from the view point on the day we arrived. It was cooler here, overcast, at times drizzling a tad bit only to give room to the sun and rising temperatures. We must have changed layers of clothing a handful of times easily – ah, we thought, South Island’s unstable weather at its best.
We woke up the next day to light drizzling rain that looked like it was about to pass. Sadly, when we checked in for the helicopter tour, we were told it was canceled due to the weather – news that could only be made better with a ginormous chocolate chip cookie for sad Luca. Oh well, we thought – let’s just all do the hike together as we were told the hike was still on.
What ensued was one of the saddest days in blog history … and to not open up sore wounds, let’s just say that the weather changed for the worse 30 minutes into our 3+ hour hike – torrential rain with dropping temperature that left everyone shivering and soaked 3 out of 4 of us down to our underwear. We seriously rung out water from the kids’ socks after our hike. I can’t remember ever being so cold and soaked from rain before in my life. Thankfully we were able to warm up in the thermal pools after our hike and after a quick shopping trip to the gift shop, the kids at least had dry shirts to put on.
After everyone had been warmed up and semi-dried, it slowly dawned on me to check on my camera that I had wrapped under several cases and layers of clothing in my backpack.
It was a sad, sad discovery…. the New Zealand rain drenched my entire backpack inside and out…. and also my camera. All sorts of panicked resuscitations and googling ensued but no luck. New Zealand – 1; camera – 0.
That may have soured my mood for
the night a long time… (insert picture of very sad Nicole stroking her beloved SLR camera). I did mention that the weather was so bad that when we actually arrived at the viewing point for the glacier, we could not make anything substantial out. Oh, the joys of traveling.
In the new year, we drove to Christchurch spending our time on an Alpaca farm. We had a fantastic outing to near-by Akaroa where we saw dozens of dolphins and seals during our harbor cruise. The cruise remains the kids’ favourite thing we did…. closely followed by the Queenstown luge.
Christchurch was hit by two serious earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and Kaikoura, just 2 hours north of Christchurch, experienced one of the most severe earthquakes in New Zealand’s history in 2016. All the locals we met on the East Coast spoke about the earthquakes and the effects they had on their lives and homes. One can’t really comprehend these disasters until you find yourself strolling through Christchurch’s inner city which was completely destroyed – some remnants of buildings and new rises show the level of devastation.
We drove to Kaikoura for whale watching (amazing! And shout-out to the motion sickness bracelets that got the kids (and me) through pretty harsh waters) and were shocked to learn that the 7.8 magnitude earthquake elevated the ocean floor by 7 meters – 7 meters! In fact the road we took had only recently re-opened as the ground literally fell apart underneath it. We were greeted with so much gratitude for traveling and bringing business to this part of the Island.
As we finished our visit on the East Coast, we flew to Auckland for a night to stock up on souvenirs in the forms of flags and stuffed kiwis before traveling back North in time to celebrate Juliana’s birthday on a plane – again!
Now it’s back to our old routine here in the cold of Mongolia. Yes, it’s still very much the winter with temperatures hovering in the -20 and -30C range.
But it’s not the cold that gets to me adjusting back to our “normal” life – it’s the horrendous air pollution. Our AQI has reached over 2,000 (2,000!!!) on a few occasions in the past few weeks (200 and above is considered unhealthy where as 500+ is hazardous for reference). It’s bad…. worse than bad, actually.
On the upside it allows me lots of time at home breathing clean, filtered air while I research new cameras.
And, bad air also gives me an excuse to not go out and drive… it turns out that I needed some time to adjust to driving on the right side again … at least I found the windshield wipers in no time.