By the Light of Glow Worms: New Zealand 1983

13 Mar

January 1983

New Zealand

New Year’s Day we flew out of Hobart to Christchurch. The weather was clear over N.Z. so we got a good view of the Southern Alps. It was a fantastic sight. Some of them still had snow on them. Budget Rent-a-Car picked us up at the airport, took us to their office, where we got a Toyota Corona wagon. We found a motel and went to look for a place to eat. We walked around the downtown section. The wind was very cool but it wasn’t too bad in the sun. The city center is Cathedral Square and the area around the Cathedral reminded us somewhat of European cities. We ate at a place called “The Jail” which the boys enjoyed. The partitions are bars and a noose hung over the table at which we ate (at the insistence of Toby and Dwight). The customers are also allowed to write graffiti on the walls in chalk. We also found a place selling “American hotdogs,” which was the closest thing to the real McCoy I’ve seen since we left the states. Later that evening Dwight and I went for a walk in the park across from the motel. We walked along the Avon River and noticed a lot of ducks on it, which we ran into later on our trip.

January 2nd we drove to Hokitika over Arthur’s Pass. The first 100 km were through flat farm or pasture land before the road started into the mountains. There are many, many streams with rock streambeds so the water is incredibly clear, in places appearing to be greenish blue. The road was not bad except there are quite a few one-lane bridges and signs warning of wandering stock. (I felt like we were back in Queensland.) The road rose gradually to Arthur’s Pass and like I said, for the most part, was not too bad. We stopped at the visitor’s center at the Pass and saw a movie of stage coaches going across the pass in the old days. It was hard to believe it was possible. Past the pass the road descends rapidly with many steep curves and descents. The road eventually leveled off before we reached the west coast where we turned south to Hokitika. This small town is famous for its greenstone factories. Greenstone is a type of jade (nephrite) and most of this particular type is found in the district around Hokitika. After getting settled we walked along the beach for awhile. There was a tremendous amount of driftwood , as well as lots of rocks which kept Dwight busy. We visited the greenstone factory (and the next day Dorothy went back and bought some), and then visited a museum. That night we drove a short way out of town to see a glowworm dell. We walked back through an area between high banks to a circular area into which fell a small waterfall. At first we saw nothing and were about to leave when some people pointed out a small blue.pinpoint of light in one spot under a plant. As it got darker, more and more of the little lights showed up.

The next morning we left Hokitika and visited the Blue Spur Gold Mine. There are lots of old tunnels you can walk back into and with water dripping down from the ceiling and no light except from a dim flashlight it was eerie enough, but when I shone the light on the wall and saw a large strange bug, I decided I didn’t need to see any more mine shafts. We wandered around looking at an old prospector’s shed, a windlass over a mine shaft, numerous mine shafts, and a rock dam the miners built to provide their water. I took the kids for a ride in an old ore cart. We also watched a guy demonstrate a gravity-fed “sluice,” then we got to the part the kids had waited for — panning for gold. Thanks to the help of the guy there, each kid left the proud owner of some small flakes of gold.

We drove on down the coast, up and down mountains, along winding roads and across many one-lane bridges, one of which was different – railroad tracks ran across it. At one point we turned off the main road and drove back to the Okarito Lagoon (10 km of gravel road) to see the white herons that nest there part of the year. We saw one, so it was successful. We drove on to Franz Josef Glacier. We couldn’t see it for clouds. We started to drive back the road to the glacier, but the road was being rebuilt and was in pretty bad condition and trying to go through a stream, I hit the car bottom on the stream bed, forcibly – what a racket. So I decided to turn around. We drove on to Fox Glacier and settled in a motel and headed for the glacier itself. We drove back a dirt road as far as we could and walked from there. On the way back to the glacier signs along the road mark the points at which the glacier has terminated in years past. It’s amazing how much it has receded since 1790, and even since 1960 it’s quite a bit shorter. We walked far enough that we were able to get a good view of the lower part of the glacier. To have walked up onto it would have required much more effort and no one really wanted to do so, so we looked at it, took pictures, the kids threw rocks in the very rapid stream coming off the mountain. I fished some pieces of ice out of the stream for the kids and we headed back. Toby carried a piece of ice back but it melted before we got to the car. The valley carved out by the glacier is bounded by quite steep walls and numerous long waterfalls come down off the mountain to empty into the stream which flows over a stream bed composed entirely of rocks. On the way back to the main road we stopped at one place where a wooden, cable footbridge crosses the stream (or now more like a river). The bridge bounced up and down and sideways and it’s a very strange feeling (fear?) crossing it. We made it across and walked through a beautiful rain forest — fantastic ferns, moss covered rocks and trees and lovely little streams. I was able to thoroughly enjoy it knowing N.Z. has no snakes. We climbed a hill which has a good view of the entire glacier. Although the top of the mountain was still cloud covered we were able to see a good bit of the top part of the glacier. That night we saw more glowworms in a spot near the motel.

The rain finally caught up with us the next day (Jan 4th). We spent the day driving from Fox Glacier to Queenstown (33.0 km). During parts of the trip on the road we played a guessing game of how many km to the next town. The road was two way except for about 30 one-way bridges and some narrow curves up and down the mountains which were marked “single lane.” The scenery was varied, but there were few straight sections; some through mountains, some dark tree-lined corridors, sections running right along the rocky coastline, broad valleys with streams and fields full of sheep. It rained hard for part of the trip causing countless waterfalls off the mountains. There was a picture at almost every turn, but we only took a couple of shots. There was one section 50-60 km of gravel road including sharp narrow single-lane curves. I almost got wiped out once by a bus and by a car shortly thereafter. Fortunately, I was on the inside, next to the mountain, instead of next to the cliff. We stopped in Wanaka for lunch and it was a beautiful location, on a lake, but is a favorite vacation spot with swarms of people. Toby and Dwight fed ducks and went down a slide in a playground that was built in the form of a dinosaur. Toby through that was great. We finally got to Queenstown after a 5 and a half hour trip. We didn’t do much in Queenstown that day. We did find a very American-type restaurant were almost everyone was satisfied with the food (Toby didn’t like their hot dogs). That night we finally got to see at least part (episodes 3 and 4) of “A Town Like Alice.”

January 5th was not a big day for sightseeing. We drove to a small town about 20 km away, called Arrowtown, which used to be a gold mining town. It is one block of little shops and a nice little museum. Back in Queenstown we took the cable car ride up to the top of one of the mountains from which you can view the entire Queenstown area including practically the entire lake on which Queenstown is located. Later that day the weather fumed extremely cool.

January 6th was almost a total loss except we got to Te Anau about noon and were able to find a motel (we had no reservations). We tried to get on the boat to the glowworm caves but it was having mechanical problems so it was cancelled. Then the weather turned bad and it rained off and on all day and was cold enough that we needed our jackets. One man told us it was the worst summer in the 20 years he had lived there (my black cloud strikes again). We did go to a trout observatory (I was not impressed). Later in the day we tried to get on the boat again but it was fall.

The next day we drove to Milford Sound. We woke to cold wet weather with fresh snow in the mountains. Dwight had a terrible congested cold and put on his dying routine. The first part of the trip to the Sound was not too bad — paved road, relatively flat, and then some short distance of unsealed road. We finally got into the mountains. At one place there was a valley full of pink and purple wild flowers by the Mirror Lakes. It was obvious that the lakes were very clear because there is a sign on the far side which has “Mirror Lakes” printed on it in reverse so it reflects in the lakes. It didn’t that day due to the rain. The rain and low clouds only allowed glimpses of the mountains. The road finally started to go up and by the time we reached Homer Tunnel it was snowing! The tunnel is only one lane wide so the traffic goes in one direction for 25 minutes of each hour followed by a 5-minute break before the traffic flows in the other direction. We had to wait for about 5 minutes before we could go through and while waiting a Kea landed on our car and began-to investigate it. He first landed on the hood, jumped to the mirror and looked in and then jumped onto the roof and peered in over the edge to look in. They are very curious birds. Dorothy-opened the window a crack and held out a piece of bread and he took it. After coming out of the tunnel we began the descent around very sharp curves down into Milford Sound. When we got there some of the bread was still on the roof.

After settling in the Milford Hotel, we took the 2-hour cruise out into the Sound, clear out to the Tasman Sea. Even with the rain, the view was fantastic. The clouds occasionally broke giving glimpses of snow-capped mountains rising almost vertically out of the Fiord. There are several permanent waterfalls, one over 500 feet. But with the rain there were many, many waterfalls, some running for thousands of feet down the sides of the mountains. It was a beautiful trip and standing there on top of the boat shivering in the rain I felt that the whole trip was worthwhile just to have seen Milford Sound. (That was Jack’s opinion.)

We didn’t see any of the dolphins which sometimes swim by the boat, but we did see one seal laying on a rock. The rest of the day we spent in the hotel because it rained, sometimes poured, all day. The one day record rainfall for Milford Sound is over 20 inches and the total rainfall for 1982 was over 339 inches. I heard later in the day that it was still snowing in the mountains by the tunnel. I ate in the hotel restaurant and had a delicious fish dinner- grouper with anchovy butter. Then apple pie with whipped cream and ice cream. One of my truly memorable meals. We spent the rest of the evening loafing around the hotel — one TV channel (probably a tape), other entertainment included lawn bowling on the carpet in the hotel lounge.

We awoke the morning of Jan 8th in Milford Sound concerned about the road conditions at Homer Tunnel so we got on the road as soon as possible. When we got to within a couple of km of the tunnel, the road had two inches of slush and was very, very slippery. Fortunately, there were no other cars on the road to worry about on the hairpin curves leading up to the tunnel. The road wasn’t nearly as bad on the other side of the tunnel, and eventually the weather cleared up. We were then able to see the entire range of mountains leading back toward the Sound and amazingly they were all snow-capped thanks to the unseasonable weather. As a matter of fact, after we got back to Te Anau, we could see snow-capped mountains all around the area. On the way back to Te Anau, we stopped several times to take pictures, including Mirror Lakes.

In Te Anau we finally took the boat over to the glowworm caves. The boat motored up the lake for 35 minutes to the caves, which are located on the other side of the lake. We all piled off the boat into a little cottage where one of the guides gave a talk on these living caves, which caves were used by a Maori tribe to hide for years from another hostile tribe. They eventually left there to become the lost tribe. Then the caves were lost for years and years, but were mentioned in Maori legend and were finally rediscovered not too many years ago. Groups of 14 people left 10 minutes apart to go into the caves. We walked to the entrance and had to stoop over for about the first 30 feet, then up past a 5-ft waterfall. From there we got in a boat which was pulled along hand over hand using a chain strung along the cave. We got out and walked some more. The water rushes through the cave very, very fast and at one place it swirls into a whirlpool before falling 16 feet and continuing on down the cave. The highlight of the caves, of course, is the glowworm: area. You climb into another boat and that one is pulled through, in total darkness and surrounding you are thousands of glowworms. The rocks are sometimes so close that if you’d try to stand up in the boat you would hit your head on the cave walls. With the rain the area had been getting there was quite a bit of water dripping from the roof. The part of the caves that we saw was a very small part of the entire system. You need a permit to go further, and besides you have to go underwater to go any further. There is one small stalactite (1.5 inches) in the cave which is 350 years old. That was the extent of our sightseeing that day.

The next day we drove from Te Anau to Dunedin in a little over three hours (about 290 km). The land almost the whole way was basically pastoral with sheep, sheep and more sheep. We crossed another one-laned road/railway bridge. Dorothy and I liked Dunedin so much we both feel that we could live there. It’s a good size town (120,000) – not too big or too small, and is a college town (Otago University with about 6000 students). The town is built on a number of hills surrounding a beautiful blue harbor. We drove up to Larnach Castle via a road running across a series of hills and the view was fantastic. Larnach Castle is a neat old place that was built in the mid 1800’s but had fallen into disrepair. It was bought in the 1960’s and apparently restoration has. been going on ever since. It’s in pretty good shape now but still needs work. We toured it and climbed to the tower from which there are excellent views of the coastline and harbor. The outstanding characteristic of the house is wood carving (furniture, panels, ceilings) done by one man who was employed there for some time.

We left there and drove down to the harbor side of the coast. (We were on the Otago Peninsula and the Pacific is on the other side.) We stopped at an aquarium run by the Otago U. It has a very good variety offish and other marine life. We continued on down the coast, stopping to look at an old Maori church, and finally reaching the tip of the peninsula, where there is a protected Royal Albatross Colony. Unfortunately it is only open a couple of days a week and then only to small tours so as not to disturb the birds. The tour is expensive and we heard the birds are still hard to see. Around the curve from the Albatross colony is a farm which borders a part of the coastline where seals and penguins live. We drove the 3 km of dirt road up and down some steep hills, through wandering sheep and horses, until we reached a parking area near the coastline. I hadn’t really expected much but there on a rock lay 10 or more seals and walking around the hill we almost stumbled over one. I took a picture of the kids close to him and he sat up and acted like he was posing! We also saw a whole colony of strange looking birds called Shags which were roosting on the side of a cliff. We then walked over to an area up on the side of a hill overlooking a long flat beach which backed up to a steep sandy bank. On the beach waddling back and forth between the water and the bank were four, possibly more, penguins. Unlike the seals, we were quite a distance from them so we couldn’t see them all that well. The amazing thing was that the penguins struggle up that steep bank to roost in the plants at the top of it. We finally drove back to town. The tide was out leaving large flat areas, and there were thousands of sea birds either looking for morsels in the sand or circling overhead looking for food.

The next day (Jan 10th) we roamed around Dunedin, going to the bank, post office, book stores, tourist bureau and finally stopped at Qantas to confirm our flight back to Australia. They supposedly had no record of our booking. I left them to sort it out and later that day I got a message through our motel that we were confirmed on the plane. At the tourist bureau we got tickets for an excursion train which was to run up the coast to a beach that afternoon. We returned to the motel and changed to shorts and bathing suits and returned to the train station. The train left promptly at 1 o’clock. It ran all along the coast for an hour and a half, up and down hills, through tunnels and along the edge of a 300 m cliff overlooking the water. We finally got to the beach town and got off the train, but we still had to walk about 1/2 mile to the beach. The kids thoroughly enjoyed it. Toby had a ball in the surf, and Dwight and Dorothy had a good time looking for shells. (I took pictures and also looked for shells.) We found some little round shells that have what looks like mother of pearl on them. When we returned to town, we stopped at Pizza Hut for a pizza. (Unlike Australian pizza places, they actually had beef and onion pizzas.) We took the pizza back to the motel and ate it in front of the TV, while Toby and Dorothy ate sandwiches. That night we saw the last two segments of “A Town Like Alice.”

A note on Australian and N.Z. motels – most of them only have showers (no tubs). They do have refrigerators which is great for keeping drinks. Since Toby is really too small for showers, I came up with a method (plastic bag over the drain held down by a soft drink can) to fill up the -shower floor (which is usually several inches deep) and Toby uses it as a tub. A couple of places had full sized bath tubs and Toby was overjoyed.

January 11th we went to the Otago Museum, made a quick stop to double check on the plane tickets and to pick up a book Toby had asked for and then headed north. The road was good. We passed through a number of small towns and drove along the coast for a bit. We stopped for the night in Timaru and there we visited another animal park. It was not all that impressive. The only thing that stuck out for us city folk was watching a brand new lamb struggling to its feet for the first time, and seeing a good sized elk with a fantastic set of antlers. (Teddy Roosevelt gave some to N.Z. and they were almost ovenrun with them.) We also saw the movie “Slap Shot” at the motel.

The next day we drove to Christchurch. There were more small towns to pass through and traffic got heavier and faster. It was a beautiful day in Christchurch – warm and sunny. We rented two-man boats and spent an hour paddling up and down the Avon River through the botanical gardens. The river is only a foot or so deep. There are fish in it and lots and lots of ducks. At some places trees overhang the river (which is about 15 to 20 feet wide) so you end up ducking branches. There were many boats on the river and a lot of the people were not good at using the two bladed oars so collisions were frequent. Dwight acted as a coxswain to the utter dismay of his mother. We finished wet and tired. We spent the evening watching videos at the motel.

The next day was wet and cold. We drove to the QE II Park (where the Commonwealth Games had been held in 1974) to see the hydroslide at the in-door pool. Dwight declined to go in. Right next to the pool was a kids drive-it place. They had mini-racers, mini-bikes and mini construction equipment. Dwight and Toby got on a mini-racer together. Toby sat in front and drove while Dwight worked the accelerator. That went okay until the accelerator stuck and Toby ran them into a wall. That finished that ride. Then Dwight had a turn by himself. The rest of the day was spent shopping and arguing about what we were going to do. The boys watched two videos at the motel while Dorothy and I went shopping unsuccessfully.

Jan 14th was a much more successful day. We drove down to the botanical gardens, parked there and walked to the museum. The gardens are really beautiful and many flowers were in bloom. The museum had a very interesting Antarctic exhibit and some fantastic Maori carvings. Another section was built in the style of old (1890’s or so) Christchurch. It had a cobblestone “street with shops on both sides of the street. ‘Each shop or shop window was fall of merchandise from that time. We left the museum and walked back toward the parking area, but detoured to a beautiful play area. There were lots of people – kids playing, people having picnic lunches. I left the kids to play, Dorothy to hold the fort and went for sandwiches, which we ate there. Sandwiches with just filling and fresh bread purchased in halves are very popular and prevalent in New Zealand. After lunch we spent two hours downtown on a very successful shopping spree. From there we drove to yet another animal reserve, the big feature of which was one of those areas in which you drive in amongst lions roaming free. While the park was not that great, none of us had gone through one of those areas before. The lions didn’t approach the car but we drove within 10 feet of one cat lying in the grass looking at us. That was too much for Toby and he yelled at me to drive on. Back in town we fed some ducks on the Avon, turned in the car (2300 km) and were taken to the airport. Reluctantly (at least for me) we left N.Z. The trip to ‘Melbourne was on a 747 and was very smooth. We stayed overnight in Melbourne and there we watched Johnny Carson live on TV. The trip back to Alice the next day (Jan 15th) was somewhat rough – we wondered if the pilot was learning.

P.S. Although the weather on the west coast was miserable for the majority of the time we were there, we were still lucky, because the roads were at least still passable. After we left there it continued to rain until roads and bridges were washed out stranding people at various places along the west coast, and an earthslide closed the road to Milford Sound for a couple of days, stranding people there also. Queenstown also had problems. The lake rose to a record level, – flooding some of the shops nearest to the water. Also the glowworm caves at Te Anau had to be closed due to flooding.

Notes during the typing in this format in 2011….

Prince Edward walked the Milford Track around the time we were (or just before we were there) and there is a myth that bad weather occurs when a member of the Royal Family is in N.Z.

I also didn’t mention that when we were in the glowworm caves in Te Anau I heard whispering in the dark. It was Toby and when I asked what he was saying he told me he was counting the glowworms. And according to Toby he liked the ham sandwiches in N.Z. but didn’t like the ham sandwiches when we got back in Australia.

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Posted by on March 13, 2012 in Travel


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