Sunday, January 25, 2015

A beautiful day at Hachi Kogen

Saturday was my best skiing day ever in Japan.  It was sunny and the temperature was just above freezing, so for once I stayed warm.  Even hot!  My hands were sweating!  It was awesome!  The Hammerschmitts and Douglas's came with us, so we had friends along to make it even more fun.  Mike spent the morning helping teach the kids that had never skied before.  Beaver seemed impressed by this and commented to Kristin and I, "Dad is an engineer AND a ski teacher!  I need to tell Mrs. Ito (his teacher) that my dad is an engineer and a ski teacher."

Last night Beaver had been tucked in bed and Mike and I were downstairs.  The kitchen door opened and Beaver peeked his head through.  "Beaver, you need to go to sleep.  Go upstairs to your bed."  I firmly reprimanded him.  "I just need to tell you one thing." Beaver protested, coming up beside me.  "Okay.  Tell me one thing." I said.  He looked at me seriously and said, "There are so many choices about what I should be when I grow up.  How do I know if I should be a police officer, or a scientist, or a ski jumper?"  Oh, the dilemmas of an almost 7 year old.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

And some pictures...

On the ferry to Devonport - Beaver's been working out!

These pretty pohutakawa trees are all over the North Island.

Auckland city skyline

Entrance to a tunnel on North Head

A starfish on Cheltenham Beach

Mike and Beaver way out on the beach

Gazing up at the kauri trees

Tree ferns!

On the trail to Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove

Agrodome - yes, the dog is standing on a sheep.

A kiwi grove

This gives you some idea of how big the camper was.

After performing the haka

Looking down at Wellington from Mount Victoria

On the Interislander ferry

Driftwood huts on the beach

Black sand, blue water

Fur seals

Whale watching.  

That's the back of a sperm whale.  Somehow we didn't get a single decent picture while whale watching.

If you are a cow, New Zealand is the place to be.

The Wild West Coast

Possibly my favorite picture ever.

Franz Josef glacier

Fiordland National Park

Bedding down in the spongy grass at our campsite

Pretty flowers everywhere!

Milford Sound

An example of the mossy forests of New Zealand

Looks like they are best friends, doesn't it?

Curio Bay, Southland

We climbed the steepest street in the world!

Moeraki boulders

Beautiful, blue Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki and mountains

I could not stop taking pictures of this lake

Beginning our hike on the Hooker Valley track

Mount Cook in the background

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New Zealand Travelogue

Disclaimer:  It seems that this blog has turned into my travel journal.  This post is nothing but a travelogue, and probably not a terribly interesting one at that.

New Zealand.  This was our dream trip.  The big one we have been wanting to do and saving up for pretty much ever since we got to Japan.  For awhile we weren't sure we were going to make it, but we decided a few months ago that it was now or never, and so we went for it.  I was pretty daunted by the long flight - 5 or 6 hours to Bangkok, followed by 12 hours to Auckland - as I don't enjoy flying at all.  The trip there went better than I expected.  I was actually able to sleep for a good number of hours on the plane, so we were off to a good start.  Well, except for the very end of the flight when I was suddenly hit with motion sickness and thought I was going to pass out or throw up and I didn't know what was going on until the symptoms of motion sickness were explained to me on our whale watching tour, but that's a story for later.

New Zealand has very strict rules about bringing anything organic into the country.  I never declare packaged food when I go to Japan or the US, but there are all kinds of signs in the airport warning that anything that can be eaten needs to be declared, and if you're caught not declaring something you will face dire consequences.  We did declare everything that we had with us, but all the warnings had me a little nervous.  As our bags went through the x-ray machine, we were surprised that it was Beaver's bag that was picked up.  I was pretty sure there was no food in it.  The security people opened his backpack and pulled out........his little stuffed bear.  They looked at it and chuckled, Mike assured them it wasn't alive, and we went on our way.

We landed in Auckland on Christmas Eve and eventually found the bus that took us to the Holiday Inn where we would spend the next two nights.  We attempted going to a night market, but were led astray by our bus driver (not intentionally, I'm sure) and then we weren't able to purchase the 24 hour bus passes that we wanted.  After awhile, we decided to just return to the hotel and ordered room service.  It was a bit of a disappointment, but we were tired anyway.

Here's proof we were tired.  Christmas day we all slept in until nearly 10:00!  I was shocked the kids didn't wake up earlier.  At that point we had to rush off to breakfast because it ended at 10:00, so the kids didn't get to really see their Christmas presents until after breakfast.  We spent some time relaxing in the room, and then boarded a city bus for our Christmas Day outing.  We took a ferry across the harbor to Devonport, a seaside village with a lots of pretty Victorian style houses.  We walked along the waterfront to Northhead.  This hill was a strategic military lookout in WWI and before, when the Russians were threatening New Zealand.  There are tunnels built throughout the hill that can be explored, and one remaining example of the huge guns they had there to fire on enemies.  Of course the kids thoroughly enjoyed the tunnels, plus there was lots of grass and steep hills that people slide down on pieces of cardboard.  It looks pretty messy because they just leave the cardboard there, but at least that means we were able to do some sliding without having to bring our own.

We walked from Northhead down to Cheltenham Beach.  Lots of tide pools to explore, and you can walk out for such a long way with the water never getting higher than ankle deep.  From up above, it looks like a nice, sandy beach, but when you actually get down to it, the beach is composed completely of broken shells.  Not so comfortable on the feet.  The kids found lots of mussels, a starfish, crabs, and a live clam that snapped at them for awhile and made them laugh their heads off.

We returned to our hotel for Christmas dinner.  Thanks to my Australian/British friend here, I've been introduced to sticky toffee pudding, so I ordered that for my Christmas dessert.  It was nice, but the one my friend made a few weeks ago was better!

The day after Christmas we picked up our camper van, and the adventure began!  We drove a couple of hours from Auckland to the Coromandel Peninsula.  We stopped on the way to see a grove of Kauri trees.  These trees are native to New Zealand and are some of the oldest and biggest trees in the world.  We weren't able to see the really big ones because they are way north of Auckland, and we just didn't have time.  I told Mike he had to choose between the big trees and Milford Sound.  :)  We did get to see some smaller ones in Coromandel, however, and even the small ones are pretty big.  Then we drove on to Cathedral Cove.  It was pretty crowded there, but we got super lucky and scored a parking space right in the lot.  It was about a 45 minute walk to Cathedral Cove from the parking lot, but it was pretty, and the beach itself was absolutely beautiful.  Bear loved the big waves.  We realized that most of the beaches we have visited have been quiet, swimming beaches.  Our kids had never experienced crashing ocean waves.  These ones were just big enough to be exciting without being dangerous.  I mostly stayed out of the water.  It was much cooler in New Zealand than we expected!

After a couple of hours, we left Cathedral Cove and drove to Dicky Flat, our first campsite on the trip.  It was pretty much just a grass parking lot, but it was a place to sleep.  The next morning it was on to Rotorua.  Our first stop there was the Agrodome.  Agrodome features New Zealand agriculture.  We watched the farm show, where they showed us something like 14 different breeds of sheep and one dairy cow.  Of course I couldn't resist volunteering to go up to milk the cow!  They also showed us two different breeds of sheep dog.  The border collie, of course, and another dog I had never heard of that never stops barking.  After the show they did a demonstration with the border collie, and then we piled on a wagon behind a tractor to tour the farm and feed some sheep, alpacas, and deer.  Our animal loving kids had a good time.

We stayed at a holiday park that night and went to a Maori show and dinner.  It was fun and educational.  Rotorua is a town with lots of geothermal activity, and the traditional way to cook food was underground using the heat from the earth.  After the show, we watched them remove our dinner from the underground ovens and then had a delicious feast.  After Rotorua we had to book it down south to Wellington.  That was a long drive, but Mike and I enjoyed the scenery.  The North Island is lovely, with green hills dotted with livestock.  Of course you imagine sheep, but on the North Island, we saw far more dairy cows.  And cows in New Zealand really do graze on green pastures, just like the pictures on milk cartons!  The greenery was broken up at one point for a while with an unexpected desert-like landscape where the military does training.  We were warned by numerous signs to stay on the road and to expect explosions on either side of the road at any time.  We didn't see any, though, and made it safely through to more green on the other side.

Our main destination in Wellington was Te Papa Museum.  Bear became very interested in New Zealand two years ago when his grade 4 teacher, who is a Kiwi, told him about a colossal squid that is displayed at this museum.  After we explored the museum, we hiked up Mount Victoria for a view of the city, ate fish and chips for lunch, and then walked along the waterfront and stopped at a beach for awhile, but again, it was really too cold to swim.

That was the end of our North Island tour.  The next morning we boarded the Interislander Ferry and crossed to the South Island.  Upon arrival, we had to head straight along the coast to get to Kaikoura. We did make a couple of stops.  Once to watch the ocean waves and once to see fur seals.  We got to Kaikoura by 3:30 to check in for our whale watching tour.  The boys, Beaver in particular, love to watch the PBS show Wild Kratts.  One of Beaver's favorite episodes is about sperm whales and giant squid.  We had seen the giant squid in Wellington, and now was our chance to see sperm whales.  We had a great tour.  We saw two giant sperm whales and dozens of dusky dolphins, plus albatross and other sea birds.  You don't see much of the whales.  Just their backs above the water, the spray from their blowhole, and the tail fluke when they decide to dive back down, but it was still awesome.  And the dolphins were so fun - jumping out of the water and even doing flips.  I didn't get to see too much of the dolphins though, because at that point I was inside with Beaver, who was exhausted and had fallen asleep, and I was suffering from some serious seasickness, in spite of the pill I had taken beforehand to avoid seasickness.  Beaver woke up just as the seasickness was reaching its worst.  I grabbed the provided throw-up bag and Beaver asked me, "What is it, Mommy?"  I couldn't reply because I was busy throwing up.  Mike was looking on in helpless concern, but by then Beaver had figured out what was going on and he reassured Mike by commenting calmly, "She's just seasick.  Don't worry!"

I was glad to be back on land after our whale watching adventure, and we began our trek toward the west coast.  We had planned to go to a campsite near Hamner Springs, but it was getting late and we were still a good ways off.  We started to look for a place to freedom camp, but then we came across a ski lodge that had power hook-ups for camper vans for only NZ$25.  That's a steal, so we stopped there for the night.  Darkness was coming later and later the farther south we got, so we had time for a little hike before bed.

The next morning was pleasant enough, but as we drove west, we could see storm clouds ahead.  Our plan for that day was a visit to Punakaiki Rocks on the west coast, and then to stay in Hokitika that night - New Year's Eve.  At some point the rain began in earnest, and when we reached the point of turning north to the Rocks, or south toward Hokitika, it was showing no signs of letting up.  We chose south.  One of the kid's requirements for our trip was to see a kiwi, and there was a place in Hokitika where we could do that.  We arrived in Hokitika and parked across the road from the kiwi sanctuary.  Well, we did briefly catch a dim view of the kiwi in its nocturnal realm, but the sanctuary was less than pristine.  It had some tanks of fish and other creatures, one of which contained a dead salamander.  There was also a "lake" where we could attempt catching crayfish, but they weren't biting for us.  I think the kids still enjoyed it well enough, so no harm done!

By this point the rain had let up, and after we checked in at our beachside holiday park, the kids got their swimsuits on and we trekked down to the beach.  Here is where the real fun began.  It is with good reason that Kiwis refer to the Wild West Coast.  As we stood facing the water, the ocean rose before us so that it's level surface was easily a few meters over our heads.  Mountainous waves rolled over each other and came crashing onto the beach.  All that action churned up sea foam galore that swirled across the beach and surrounded us.  It all made for some seriously frothy fun!

After some time spent running from the waves and churning through the sea foam, Beaver suddenly went running up the beach and wouldn't come back.  He was cold and ready to return to the camper van.  It was such a sudden transition that I was surprised, but later he explained to me that he had gotten some sea foam in his mouth, and I guess the taste was bad enough that it sent him running!  He and I stuck around looking for shelter on the beach for him, but none was to be found.  Finally we convinced Dad and Bear to head back for dinner, albeit very reluctantly on Bear's part.  I believe the sea foam was his favorite part of our whole trip.  After dinner, we hung around until dark, when we crossed the main road to Hokitika's glow worm dell.  When we first arrived, it wasn't dark enough yet, but before too long we could see little lights twinkling on the mountainside all around us.  There is something so magical about bioluminescence.  It made me miss the fire flies back in Illinois.

From Hokitika we continued along the west coast, stopping to view Franz Josef glacier and then hike to Lake Matheson, with its rust-brown water that, when still, makes a perfect reflection of Mt. Cook on its surface.  The water wasn't very still that day, but Mt. Cook was hidden by clouds anyway, so it didn't matter.  Then it was on through Haast pass, with one final stop at the Blue Pools before we arrived at our campsite along the shores of Lake Hawea that night.  I should make a note about the forests we were hiking through.  Many of the forests in New Zealand are temperate rain forests, so they are usually green and lush, dense with tall, mossy trees, tree ferns, and ground ferns.  Very Tolkienesque, I would say. :)

The next morning we went to the city of Wanaka to visit Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World - a stop Bear had requested after reading about it in one of our guidebooks.  I don't even really know how to describe it, so I've copied this from their website:  For over forty years Puzzling World has been messing with people’s heads no matter what age, nationality or experience. With a mix of bizarre buildings, rooms of illusion and the world-famous Great Maze this attraction is designed to baffle your brain and challenge your perceptions of reality.

So, there you go.  We experienced a fair amount of mind boggling and the maze was a real maze - not one you can get out of very easily!  It was a fun stop.  

Now it was on to Queenstown - the adventure capital of the world!  Queenstown is about an hour's drive from Wanaka.  I think it was around 1:00 when we arrived.  It is certainly a picturesque location, situated charmingly on a sparkling, blue lake.  It was quickly obvious that this is the foremost destination for a majority of New Zealand tourists.  It was busy and crowded and wherever we drove, we could see no chance of finding parking for our behemoth camper van at that time of day.  Eventually we found our way up a hill and out of the main town at a city park that had a small parking lot.  We stopped there for lunch and to let the kids play a little.  There was a trail that you could take to walk into Queenstown, and we walked along it for a ways, but in the end decided that we didn't have the time get into town and do the activities we had planned.  We had to be in a campground near to Milford Sound by that evening.  We decided to forego our intended plans and move on.  

So, we set out for Fiordland National Park.  I went into New Zealand wondering how the beauty I had heard about would compare to my beloved Rocky Mountains.  We had seen many pretty sites in New Zealand up to this point, but I had yet to see any scenery that I would describe as spectacular, or anything that equaled the magnificent Sawtooths.  That finally changed in Fiordland National Park.  I still wouldn't say the Sawtooths were surpassed, but they were perhaps equaled!  Here we drove through a canopy of moss covered trees.  Now and then the forest would open up into expansive stretches of green meadow, framed by towering, granite faced mountains capped with glacial-blue snow.  One lane bridges took us over rivers cascading over rocks.  Lupines in full bloom covered many of the meadows in a beautiful purple and pink.  Here was the New Zealand I had heard about.  

We spent that night at a meadow campsite among lupines and spongy grass that the kids loved laying on.  Bear wished it was warm enough that he could sleep out on that soft grass.  The next morning we went on to Milford sound.  It was a perfect morning for a cruise on the sound - clear and bright, with barely any wind.  The sound was beautiful.  A must-see in New Zealand in my opinion.  

Milford Sound was our last scheduled activity.  We had intended to return to Queenstown, but we decided to go south instead.  We drove to Invercargill and spent the night at a lovely holiday park there.  It was our favorite holiday park of the trip.  Nice showers, a nice kitchen in a rustic barn, and sheep, a goat, and alpacas for the kids to feed and pet.  While cooking dinner in the communal kitchen, we met a very nice family with two sons touring New Zealand from Napier, on the North Island.  We got talking, and ended up spending a good three hours chatting with them in the barn, while our kids played a board game and their 12-year-old son read a story to Beaver.  There are so many nice people in the world!

We attended church in Invercargill the next morning, and the branch president sent Mike along with a big list of things to do and see in the Southland.  We took one of his suggestions and stopped along the coast at a lighthouse.  It was my favorite kind of coast as far as scenery goes.  Grassy and windswept, with a lighthouse on a rocky outcropping and waves crashing into the shore.  The branch president had told us it was the place to see sea lions.  Mike went down along the beach to look, while the kids and headed toward the lighthouse and found a sea lion resting on the beach, and another one in the water.  Luke also got swooped at by a black oystercatcher with red eyes when we inadvertently walked too close to its nest.  

Our destination that day was Curio Bay, upon the recommendation of a family we had met at a holiday park earlier in our trip.  Curio Bay was only a couple of hours from Invercargill, so we arrived with plenty of time to explore the seashore.  This is where Hector dolphins can often be seen. It was one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen - a wide, sandy beach curving around a glittering blue bay.  The water was very cold, however, and the outside temperature wasn't warm enough to make the cold water appealing.  After playing on the shore for awhile, Mike spotted some dolphins and went running out into the water.  Bear and I followed him, but Beaver was building a sand castle way up on the beach away from the water, and I didn't like to leave him too far behind.  Mike got close enough he could have touched the dolphins if they weren't so fast, and when Bear got out to him, they were still within a couple of meters.  I saw them from the shore.  Awesome. Bear and Mike were cold after that, so we went back to the camper to warm up and have dinner.  Then we walked down the road a short way to a petrified forest along the beach where penguins come up at night to their nests.  They were a long ways off, but with our binoculars we could see them waddling and hopping along the beach.  

That night the wind blew fiercely.  I was sleeping in the top berth of the camper and I felt like we might blow right over!  I was pretty sure that tornadoes don't happen in New Zealand, but at some point in the night, I was wondering if I should get out my phone and google it to make sure.  I didn't, though, and the camper didn't blow over, so all was well.

Before we got to New Zealand, we had made a couple of inquiries about horseback riding, but hadn't heard back from the place we contacted.  That turned out to be providential, because that place was near Queenstown, so we would have been forced to stick our original plan if we had made a reservation there.  Mike was rather determined that I should go horseback riding in New Zealand though.  He found a place not far from Curio Bay and sent an email that night to see if they might have any availability the next day.  He didn't get a reply, but, being the determined sort that he is when looking out for his family, he decided to just show up the next morning.  It couldn't hurt to ask, after all.  When we pulled in to the farm, a group was just getting ready to depart on a ride and they had one space available.  I had not intended to go without my family, but Mike insisted and the kids really didn't mind.  So, I went for a pleasant ride through a sheep and beef farm, except my horse was rather ornery.  It was still nice, though, and felt like a real ride.  At some point here, we also took a hike to a pretty waterfall.  I'm losing track of when we did what!

We drove on to Dunedin and hiked up Baldwin Street - the steepest street in the world.  That night we stayed at a very out-of-the-way DOC campsite.  The next morning was a stop to see the Moeraki Boulders on the beach.  At first, from a distance, I wasn't too impressed, but when we got up close they were actually pretty cool and we got some fun pictures.  That day we also drove through Oamaru - a charming little town with a large number of Victorian Era buildings.  We drove past some sister missionaries on their bikes and called out and waved, then were able to talk to them briefly at a stop light.  Oamaru is also famous for its little blue penguin population.  We drove up to the penguin center at about noon and got out, knowing that the penguins come in at dusk, so we likely wouldn't see any.  I noticed an older gentleman working with a shovel watching us, but didn't think much of it.  As Bear walked out to the road to take a picture of a penguin crossing sign, the man came toward him and said, "Do you want to see a penguin, laddie?  Come over here and I'll show you one."  Bear didn't know quite how to respond, but Mike and I walked over and the man led us to a bunch of big, concrete blocks and showed us where a little blue penguin had made its nest among them.  He was an old Scotsman who had been living in New Zealand for 50 years, we learned.  We chatted for awhile and checked out the little penguin, and then, since we had just seen more than we had even hoped thanks to the Scotsman, we returned to our camper, ate lunch, and continued on our way.

If I remember correctly, we drove to White Horse Hill campground that night.  It was purported to have some great alpine scenery and a hike with views of Mt. Cook.  I was somewhat skeptical, because our views of Mt. Cook from the west coast had been nice, but as I mentioned, nothing compared to the alpine scenery we experience in the Rockies every summer.  I certainly ended up being glad we went.  It was spectacular!  First we came upon beautiful, blue Lake Pukaki.  I have never seen such a color in a lake before.  As you drive along the lakeshore, you make a turn, and there are the snow-capped mountains beyond the blue, blue lake.  It was stunning.  The next morning we went for a hike along the Hooker Valley Track, which leads through beautiful mountain scenery to a glacial fed lake with views of Mt. Cook.  As we began our hike, we kept hearing rumbling that sounded like thunder, in spite of the clear, blue skies.  I wondered if it had to do with the snow on the mountains, and after hearing it several times, I asked Mike if he knew what it was.  Just at that moment we happened to look up at the mountain and we could see an avalanche occurring high up toward the peak.  Amazing.  I don't know why I didn't think to look at the mountain before that point, because all the rumbling must have been related to the same area, and the avalanche we saw must have been the end of it.  We didn't hear any more the rest of the day.

Lake Pukaki is spectacular blue, and glacial snow is bluish, but glacial rivers and lakes are muddy gray - the color of wet concrete.  The track we were hiking crossed multiple high, swing bridges over a river of rushing gray water, ending at a gray lake with huge chunks of ice floating in it and Mt. Cook beyond.  We ate lunch there and stayed a while so the kids could throw rocks.  One interesting thing that happened on that hike - Mike happened to be wearing a CAT shirt and hat, and as we were beginning our hike a woman we passed, stopped us and asked, "Do you work for Caterpillar?"  He responded affirmatively, and it turned out she and her husband also work for CAT and were visiting New Zealand from Aurora.  Good thing Mike was branded, or we would have never known.

When we got back we drove on past Lake Tekapo - also a beautiful blue lake, toward Christchurch.  Our trip was nearly finished.  We only had one more night out.  Mike had arranged for one last adventure for us, though.  We stayed at a camp in the town of Springfield that night, and the next morning went jet boating on the Waimakariri River.  A super fun way to end our trip!  After jet boating, we reached our final destination at a holiday park in Christchurch and returned our camper van there.  We all got showered, repacked our bags, ordered pizza, and went to bed.  Bright and early the next morning we got a taxi to the airport, flew to Auckland, and then on to Bangkok and finally, 28 hours after arriving at the Christchurch airport, we landed in Osaka.  Such an adventure, so glad to be home!

It was really a great trip.  Maybe not perfect, but I'm not sure I would choose to do it differently.  We covered a lot of ground and were able to see most of the country, but it would be nice to go back and be able to spend more time in a few locations.  There was much that we had to miss for lack of time.  We had a handy little device that came with the camper van called tourist radio.  It attached to the windshield and used a GPS signal to track our location.  As we approached towns or other points of interest, it would tell us a brief history of the area, as well as things to do there.  It was cool, but it also made us realize how much we were missing!  The last half of the trip, we turned it off, and I think we had a better time without it!  Ignorance is bliss.  There is so much to do and see in New Zealand, small country that it is.  We really only skimmed the surface.  I wish we could have had more time, but I guess it just gives us motivation to return again someday!