Exploring New Zealand From the Left.


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Farther downstream, another arch is accessed via a steep walk into a dark cave.
At the western edge of this park a large cave complex with over 50 entrances exists. Closed to those without a permit, it contains fossils of several unique animals. Bones of giant eagles with 4 meter wingspans have been found there. Their favorite prey, the flightless moa have been found in abundance as well. Extinct for over 200 years, the eagles cut up their prey (often over 100lbs!) and brought them to their nests.
We had to settle for a couple of publicly-accessible caves farther east.
These caves have a rare cave-dwelling spider. With long legs, and a very long slow life, they are right at home in the cold, damp dark.
Laying large egg sacks which hang from the roof.
Their favorite food is the cave weta, which is similar to a cricket.
A much larger cave nearby was inundated by sediment when the glacier nearby melted about 15,000 years ago. Forcing the water to run near the ceiling, unusual formations were carved into the rock. Once the sediment washed out, a 20 meter tall cave with unusual decoration was left.
Centuries of flood and dry cycles have created large mud “pavers” on the floor.


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Abel Tasman Coast Track

By Jen.

We had some friends who had planned to come visit us in New Zealand while we were there. It was mostly an excuse to do a trip they had always wanted to do, but it was great to see them again. We decided to join them on their Abel Tasman Coast Track walk for 4 days and 3 nights. This track is the most popular Great Walk in NZ. Because of some mixups with their campervan rental, they arrived a day later than planned in Nelson, but they were still able to make it on time to do the walk. As we were doing last-minute packing before the walk, Jonathan measured everyone’s backpacks. Jonathan and I had the lightest; with mine a full 10 pounds lighter than everyone else! Fortunately, because of availability, the first 2 days were only about 4-6 km each, so they could take time to lighten their packs (much of the weight was the extra liquids they brought along).

4 Days of Food with 1 day of spares and snacks.
They had arranged a lovely water taxi ride to the far end of the track, after which we would walk back to the beginning, a total of 38 km. Sadly, after 10 minutes of being on the water taxi, we realized that I had forgotten my SD card for my camera and would be stuck taking pictures only with my phone for the next 4 days.
Crying face





Start of the walk when we are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

At the end of Day 1 when I was walking back from brushing my teeth, I thought I heard a weka in bushes, but then I saw something jump into the tree. I was really confused as wekas generally prefer the ground. Upon closer investigation, I saw a furry tail!

See the tail?

It was a brush-tailed possum! They are introduced here, and are considered a pest, killing many of the native birds.
Day 2 started early in the morning, when Jonathan realized there was a puddle INSIDE the tent by his feet. Upon further investigation, we discovered that at some point our under-tent tarp (footprint) that keeps us dry and moved out from under the tent on the uphill side. The rain that started in the night made a nice stream from that exposed section and funneled it under the tent directly under Jonathan’s sleeping pad. Fortunately, most things were in waterproof bags, so we just moved things out of the path and went back to sleep for a few hours. Unfortunately, that made us a bit slow in the morning, so we were rushing to get to the tidal flats that must be crossed only within 1-2 hours before and after low tide. Some of the people we passed said the water was already getting high and that we might not make it in time. But, when we got there, we discovered we had been concerned over nothing. The flats were still void of tide, it was only the streams that had any water in them. The rain continued most of the day, making it dreary to walk in it. But, it was another short day.


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Crossing tidal flats on Day 2.

Onetahuti Pool at the campground on Day 2.

A cave at that campground as well. It also sported some glow worms that we could show off to our guests.

Crossing tidal flats/river on Day 3.

Day 3 was the longest day, reaching 20+ km. After doing a detour for Cleopatra’s pools, the track split (the first of 6 for the rest of the day). One part of the group wanted to take the shortest route (up and over a mountain), while the other wanted to take the easier route. Majority vote said to take the shorter route, but when I started up, my knee started acting up, so I told them I needed to go the other route. My buddy joined me, while Jonathan and the others continued up the shorter route. Separated from the others and believing our route to be the better choice, we were determined to beat them to the camp. It didn’t take long for us to realize that I had no water (Jonathan carries ours) and the other group had no map.

Cleopatra’s Pool.

Swiftly walking, we came to the intersection of our two paths. We took a moment to investigate whether we could see any fresh tracks, but didn’t see any and thought we had definitely beat them, so we barreled on. Interestingly, none of the signs mentioned our campground. On the last track division, we had to make a best guess, and following the map, guessed heading right (south). After a while, we began to wonder if we had made the wrong choice. Following the map, I thought we would come across it around the next bend, but we ran into an older couple walking from the other direction and thought we would ask them if they had seen the signs for it. Sure enough, they had and as we were finishing off our conversation with them, I heard Jonathan’s voice. Instinctively, I turned to Erika and said, “That’s them! Run!” and we took flight, leaving the couple wondering what in the world was going on. Energized, we ran like we hadn’t been walking 19 km already that day and giggled along the way. As we ran, I realized the ridiculousness of running, but we decided we really wanted to beat them down to the campsite and act like we had been there forever already! Sensing we had gotten far enough in front, we slowed to a walk and came to our turnoff. As continued on down, I heard Jonathan again so we quickened our pace again. At the bottom, we quickly chose a picnic table and switched to our swimsuits. Strangely, they hadn’t caught up to us yet, so we decided to go for a swim.

One of the views on our easier path.
We finished our swim and rinsed off, but still no one else had joined us. Very confusing! I thought perhaps they might be waiting at the turnoff for the campground, since twice that day we had mentioned waiting at junctions, even though we had been clear we would meet at the campground. For my peace of mind, I left my friend to watch the stuff (told her I would be back in 15 min, but ended up taking 30min) and ran up to the top of steep track to the turnoff. Upon reaching the top, I saw none of our crew there, so I set up some markers and wrote a note in the dirt. There was someone there taking a breather and heading towards the way we had come, so I was asking her that if she saw a group of 4 Americans to tell them we had gone on to the campground. As she was leaving, we heard some people up the track and it was them! Turns out they had turned left where we had turned right at the last junction and spent a while trying to find the campsite and I had mistaken someone else’s voice for Jonathan’s. After one guy had ran ahead and Jonathan had walked up a hill to get reception, they discovered where they had made the wrong turn and corrected themselves (annoyingly only 700 m away, but had to backtrack upon the track for several kilometers). Now we will never know whose route was better! We do know that they ended up walking 3 km more than we did, haha!

The rest of walk finished uneventfully and we enjoyed a cooked meal at the trailhead as well as tasty Indian food for dinner with some lovely hosts in Nelson. The company we had made the walk great, but we did learn that we don’t feel too bad about skipping most of the great walks. The walks are nice and comparatively easy, but aren’t any more scenic than what we have been able to experience on other walks in NZ.

Sunrise on Day 4.

Parent and baby weka!


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Down the West Coast, Part 1
By Jen.

The next morning, we departed ways for a bit. Our friends had to do some hard driving all the way back across the island to Christchurch (6+ hours) to pick up a campervan (because of the mix-up they had only been issued an economy car for a week earlier) and planned to continue their travels to Mt Cook/Aoraki and then to Milford Sound. While we wanted to hang out with them, we did not want to do all that driving. So, we figured we would also head south via the West Coast, and see if we could catch up with them at Milford Sound, which we hadn’t visited yet. Before leaving, Jonathan repaired a few things in the van with parts our friends had brought us. We were happy to have a fully functioning vent fan again.

They also brought us a replacement colander so we could say goodbye to the one I had Jonathan piece back together for me.
Before heading to Nelson earlier in the week, we had tried to do Fox River Cave Walk, only to discover that access had been closed for 2 years already because of a landslide. We had considered still doing the walk until the closed section, but I wanted to wait until we could continue to the Ballroom Overhang. So, we made a beeline for the walk.


Like Oparara Basin, this area is also known for its limestone landscapes.


Upon seeing this, we realized why the Fox River Cave Walk was no longer open, even after 2 years. Not even sure the caves still exist!







Nikau Palms, native to NZ.

Nikau palm trunk.

A fantail.
After that we continued to wind our way down the coast. The coastal landscape reminded me a lot of Victoria’s or California’s. It is definitely worth a drive if you have the time.



Some of the road had washed away in the last storms to blow through.

A visit to Punakaiki Cavern.

And a visit to Pancake Rocks.



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Down the West Coast, Part 2
By Jen.

While checking the map of my list of places to visit, I realized that we hadn’t been to Hokitika Gorge yet, so we set off for it. My coordinates to it seemed a bit off, and sure enough, when we arrived at the point, we were in a cattle farm on a road nicknamed “John Deere”. Upon another search for it, we discovered a more likely destination and set off for there with better success for it. Turns out it is a charming little gorge with mesmerizing water.



Continuing further south, we came across the twin glaciers again and thought we would make a go of it. First off was Franz Josef Glacier (pronounced as “glassyer” in NZ). This one we got to walk up the river valley, close to the terminal face.



Someone had hauled a chunk of ice quite a ways from the glacier.

A large, fallen rock wedged in front of a waterfall.


It is a fairly large glacier!


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Unfortunately, Fox Glacier’s access road is still blocked by the landslide (aka slips here) that occurred during the first former cyclone. So, we didn’t really get any better view than what we saw last trip through here, which is sad as I think it is probably the more impressive glacier. I must say, it is a bit mind-bending to be looking at ice through a warm rainforest (although that day it was cold).


We made a stop at Ship Creek where there were 2 walks with interpretive panels. We learned that in 1867 a large piece of a ship’s hull washed up on these shores and rumors flew as to whose it was. Turns out it belonged to a ship that wrecked off the shores of Victoria, Australia, and washed across the Tasman sea to land there!



The beach stretches from here until Jackson bay (50 km), and sand continues reaches inland 10 km to the foot of the Southern Alps in the form of ancient dunes. This results in some of the nicest road sections in NZ!

The trees towering over all the others in this image are the tallest species in NZ, reaching up to 65m tall. Known as the kahikatea, they live up to 600 years old.

Sadly only 2% remain, as their fertile lowlands were cleared for farming and their wood for butter and cheese crates.



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Southern Lakes District
One of the most remote sections of highway in NZ is the Haast road. Connecting Haast on the west coast to Wanaka in the east, it wasn’t complete until the late 20th century. The lowest of the passes through the southern alps, Haast pass has a lookout track, which we decided to have a go at. Last time we passed through here, the rain and clouds blocked any views.




With the divide and west coast in our review mirror, we continued on into the southern lakes district.

The dry landscape stands in stark contrast to the rainforest west of the divide. Here the prevailing winds combine with towering peaks to wring the moisture for the great ocean winds.





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In the center of the lakes district are a series of fertile valleys, many with extensive fruit and wine farming. Cromwell has a giant fruit statue as a subtle clue.

Queenstown is the largest city in the immediate area, and it is a tourism hub. We avoid it as often as possible, but due to geography, we have been forced to take the 30+-minute slog through the pedestrian-and-tour-bus-clogged city center in order to reach the more remote inner ranges to the northwest.

Just outside the city, the main highway follows a river gorge towards Cromwell. On the east bank, a narrow, winding road provides some peace and good views.


The new bridge.

The historic suspension bridge (about 100 years old). Notice the bungee jumping platform at the center.



You may notice this scenery from the Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring. This is the Anduin river that the fellowship floats down just prior to Boromir's betrayal. They added two large statues to the sides via CGI.


With daylight left to burn, we drove up the Crown Range Road. Being the highest paved road in NZ, we hoped for a interesting drive.

Here we are at about 1076 meters.





Our parking spot for lunch was pretty good too.

Recommended books for Overlanding


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Invercargill Again

Our friends were going to Invercargill for the day, so we opted to stop over and say hello.

With the rain holding off we visited Demolition World. The work of a family-owned demolition company, the owners had spent decades collecting interesting artifacts from buildings they removed. In some cases moving entire buildings via truck. Equal parts strange and historic, it was definitely an experience.










With some time to burn, we wandered through one of the parks/gardens, which are scattered about the city.


A tui having a bath.




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The park map had a strange place called a “stumpery”. Of course we had to investigate.


Surprisingly, it is exactly what it sounds like. The stumps of dead or removed trees are deposited here. Often in creative ways. It was invented in England as a way to improve storm-damaged areas.




Who wouldn’t want a giant stump bench?

With the roar of a gale-force wind, the day ended with a standard southern sunset.


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Borland Saddle and Dunedin

By Jen.

After hearing our tales and showing them pictures about how awesome Mt Burns and Borland Saddle are, our friends decided to go there next. We loved the area and figured we would join them. First off, we did the nature walk at the entrance.

They had fun mushrooms!

Then, we attempted a drive down the Borland road again, hoping the tree had been cleared.





We came across a washed-out ford. It was no problem for us, but as I was watching the other van through the mirrors, I saw it suddenly tilt forward. I told Jonathan that they might have an issue… So we got out and went to see. By then, they had reversed out of it and were debating if they could make it across. We decided to relocate some rocks to make it easier. And, it worked! Onward we went.

It wasn’t long until we came to another washed-out ford (apparently they last former cyclone did quite a bit of damage to the roads here) and a few guys in a station wagon was working on making it passable for their car. We decided it might be a bit much for the other campervan and decided to turn around.


That night it got cold (32F)! We woke up to frost on the van, the first in about 5 months, probably 2nd time in about 1.5 years.



While our friends got up first thing to do the Mt Burns Tops Route, we took a little longer to get ready and decided to try the Green Lake track, as we had heard good things about it. The sun was barely up in the sky, but definitely not over the mountains when we started.


Frosted ferns.


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It wasn’t long before we descended from the forest to the tussocks in the valley.

Jonathan found and introduced me to frost whiskers! I had never heard of them before, much less seen them. Super cool how ice curls up out of the wet ground.

It didn’t take long for our shoes to get covered in frost and cold feet.

Can you see me in there? Grass up to my shoulders!
Walking through the tussocks was hard! The ground was moist, often with sitting water. The path was ill-defined. And the grass went up to my shoulders. Very quickly my feet were soaked and cold. At one point Jonathan completely disappeared from view as he stepped into a 3-ft-deep hole filled with water. So, we both had soaked feet. We tried to trudge on, but when I realized we weren’t as far as I thought we were and still had 3 of these tussock-filled valleys to go, I called it quits and we went back. I couldn’t stand the cold any more.




We went back to the warmth of the van and decided to await the return of our friends from their hike. We sent them on to Dunedin, while we finished cleaning the van. We planned to meet them the next day there, as it was St Patrick’s Day, and we had no desire to be in an university town that night. Shortly after we pulled onto the highway, the driver-side windshield wiper flipped off and was dangling between the A-pillar and the side-view mirror! Guess it had a fracture and finally gave way. Jonathan pulled over and swapped the wiper arms, and we ordered a new one that night.



When we reached Dunedin the next morning, I realized I hadn’t seen my hiking shoes for a while. After some search and discussion, we decided that when I had removed the rug to shake it out at the top of Borland Saddle, I had probably set the shoes on the ground and never retrieved them. So, we spent the day shoe shopping.


The architecture here is a lot of fun.

We had a package that we couldn’t pick up until Monday, so we said goodbye to our friends, who were heading north, getting ready to head back to the states. After getting our package, we decided to visit Mount Cargill. I have found an interesting phenomenon here. You can sometimes see sunrise colors late into the morning or early in the afternoon. I am guessing it has something to do with the latitude and the clouds upon clouds. I find it fascinating.

This was taken near 11 am.
We then went to Invercargill to stock up on our next adventure and pick up some shoes.


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Milford Sound
By Jen.

I have been looking to going to Stewart and Ulva Islands for a while now so that I can see the birds. With April just around the corner, we figured we ought to be finishing off our Southern Island adventures. I had hoped to go directly to Stewart Island from Dunedin and Invercargill, but the weather wasn’t playing nicely. So, instead we went to Milford Sound. We booked a cruise through Southern Discoveries so that we could get out on the water and also enjoy the underwater observatory. Because I took so long trying to pick out replacement shoes in Invercargill (I am not very good at shoe shopping and didn’t want to end up with a disaster), we didn’t get much of a chance to explore the road on the way. But, we got up early enough to stop and see The Chasm on the way in. The Chasm is a pretty cool formation where there is just a narrow slit in the rocks to let the river pass. Could have walked across in parts, even without a bridge.

Near the Homer’s Tunnel.



Next up was the cruise. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Everyone raves about Milford Sound, so I thought it would be amazing. It wasn’t really anything different from what we have been experiencing. And, the sun rarely shines there, as they get 6-7 meters of rainfall a year here! To be fair, though, I didn’t dress warmly enough and, thus, was really cold while out on the water. Comfort affects opinions. It didn’t rain, but the sun was hidden behind the clouds and the wind picked up even more the longer we were on the water. There were some really fun parts to it, though.

The famous view of Mitre Peak.

The once-a-week pod of dolphins came to visit while we were there.



We even saw a late-season Fiordland Crested Penguin, but sadly, I wasn’t able to get a good picture.


They kept taking the boat up and into the waterfalls. This one was a biggie: Bowen Falls. The water and wind gushing from these falls was incredible.

Then we entered the underwater observatory (kinda the reverse of an aquarium). A many-legged starfish having lunch.


Black coral (misnomer, as it is actually white) with a snake star in it. The snake star is a type of starfish that cleans the coral.
By the time we were back from the cruise, it was starting to rain, so we decided to call it day. On the way back, we saw the infamous kea that haunt this side of the Homer Tunnel.





A few facts about Milford Sound. First, it was carved by an enormous glacier. As you will see in later posts, almost 3000ft of ice covered areas of the fiordlands. Due to the extreme rainfall, the top 1-5 meters of the sound are tea stained fresh water. This blocks most of the sunlight, so the ocean water below is dark and cold. This results in many deep ocean species taking up residence at depths less than 30 meters.​


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Milford Sound Highway
By Jen.
Despite the snow when we crossed through the tunnel the day before, the next morning was clear and fine, so we decided that our first stop along Milford Sound Highway would be Key Summit.

Fresh dusting of snow.



I think this is a grey warbler.

Lake Marian lies in between those two mountains.
Then, we hopped over to walk up to Lake Marian.




On the way back down, we spotted a whio (blue duck) hunting its lunch in the river! These ducks are unique in that they prefer white water. They won’t hardly touch calm water. It sure was interesting watching it maneuver through the rapids.






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The next morning was also fine, so we decided to try Gertrude Saddle, a long hike up a steep pass that they decided would be easier to build a tunnel through than a road over. The entire hike was quite stunning, even though it was quite the punishing walk (steep climbs, bouldering, scrambling). Definitely my favorite walk so far.





The view from the top includes a peak into Milford Sound.


So, in the 3 days following my shoe purchase, we put them through a trial of fire, er, I mean, water, rock, and mud. I spent all 3 days in those shoes, and overall I don’t have much to complain about. They handled the water and mud fine, I had decent traction, and I didn’t get any blisters. However, not sure if it is the shoe’s fault or just too much walking, but the second day onward had my right Achilles tendon in pain. Any pressure on it resulted in pain. It is slowly getting better now, though, I think.


For the last day, we made a few visits along the road in that we didn’t get to do previously.
A visit to Mirror Lakes, but a duck kept them from being perfect mirrors.

New Zealand’s one “true” duck species, a scaup.


Overall, I would highly recommend Milford Road. What makes it great is that it is nearly pristine wilderness. The lookouts survey the glaciated mountains, valleys, and forests of the Fiordlands National Park, without sight of human touch, other than an occasional glimpse of the road. And, it goes on for miles. That is pretty rare in NZ. Normally you have to hike for a day or two to get that kind of view, if it is possible at all.