The river along the road from Mount Cook to Queenstown, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

New Zealand: Queenstown

It was an all-day drive from the base of Mount Cook, at 12,349’, the highest peak in New Zealand, to Queenstown. You cannot imagine a more scenic route almost anywhere in the world. The route goes along a river and through lush, green rural countryside. New Zealand has 60 million areas of parkland, which is 20 percent of the country. No wonder it remains so beautiful and pristine.

Located 1,200 miles southeast of Australia and 6,500 miles southwest of California, New Zealand is part of Polynesia. It is a stepping-off place to Antarctica.

Queenstown is on the southern part of the South Island. There is a refreshing breeze even in summer. No place is more than 80 miles from the coast and nowhere are mountains out of view. Queenstown is not flat; it sits on the shore of a lake, and homes are on the sides of hills. There is a British air about all of New Zealand, as at one time it was part of the British Empire, and now it is an independent member of the Commonwealth. On the walls in government buildings you will find a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II as their monarch.

As I drove closer to Queenstown, the river funneled into a narrow gorge. I stopped in a small parking area and walked across a high suspension bridge over the gorge, where there once had been gold mines. Further along our drive, I saw another higher bridge, being used now for bungi jumping.

A vineyard cave near Queenstown, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

A vineyard cave near Queenstown, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

As the gorge opened up to a slightly hilly valley, there were vineyards along the roadside. Another day, I visited two of the vineyards on a wine tasting tour. One had a deep natural cave, a perfect natural refrigerator for storing barrels of wine for aging. The vineyards produce good wines and some are being recognized internationally.

On the highway were a few dead stoats and possums; these two animals were both introduced to New Zealand and have caused native land birds to become extinct.  Others are endangered, like the national bird, the kiwi.

A kiwi is an interesting bird to see. It lives in forests, and it is very shy and nocturnal. It is the size of a chicken, covered with shaggy dull brown feathers. It has a small head, short neck, and a long, flexible bill. It is the only bird that has nostrils at the tip of the bill, which it uses to find food: earthworms, berries, and insects. The female lays one to two big white eggs. The male sits on the nest for 75 days or until they hatch.

While I was in Queenstown, I went to a bird preserve in the center of town, where there were only two kiwis to see. They are kept in a building with a dark enclosure where visitors walk along a dark corridor, adjusting to the darkness before the door of the viewing room is opened. We are asked to be silent with little movement, as the kiwi is very shy.

After a few minutes, one of the kiwis came out from behind a small shrub, walking slowly on short stout legs, and I could see its long narrow bill and small beady eyes. You can’t come to New Zealand without seeing a kiwi. The kiwi is so rare now to see in the wild, as are so many other species of birds, amphibians, and animals. People are taking more and more space on the earth. What are you doing to make a difference?

I arrived at my destination in Queenstown before nightfall, and I was excited to begin my stay here. What adventures would happen next in this beautiful place?


(posted May 3, 2016)

Mount Cook, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

New Zealand: Mount Cook & the Southern Alps

At dawn, I signed out of my hotel in Christchurch. I carried my bags to my rental car in a very pebbly parking lot around the corner of the hotel. To my dismay, I found my car blocked by a car that was sitting about two feet from the rear end: there was nowhere for me to get out! There was no one around and I didn’t want to miss a lot of time, so I proceeded to maneuver my car.  A few inches forward, then a few inches back, until I was able to go up over a small embankment between two posts—only inches from each side of the car—then down over the sidewalk and curb to the street. Finally, free at last!

In addition to this experience in creative parking, I had to get used to the driver being on the right side in the car but driving on the left side of the road, just opposite of the USA and most other countries. I have driven alone in Australia, Ireland, and Great Britain, but it is something that I don’t do that often, so I had to stay focused. On this day, I was on my way out of town, heading southwest to Mount Cook.

New Zealand is not heavily populated, and not many cars were on the narrow, paved roads, compared to what I am used to back home. It was raining and the scenery is so beautiful. Everywhere you see green: there are pastures, trees, and shrubs, with a farm here and there, and cows and sheep grazing in the fields. There are rivers and streams and hills in all directions. New Zealand is so clean, too.

Lupine along the road to Mount Cook, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Lupine along the road to Mount Cook, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

For most of the day I drove from Christchurch, stopping for a coffee break and a church fair along the way. As I drove higher in elevation and closer to the Southern Alps, I caught glimpses of glaciers and snow-covered peaks. By late afternoon, I reached the Mount Cook National Park and checked into the Hermitage Hotel, a place of great history. Sir Edmund Hillary was a New Zealander. He hiked many times on Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, and in the Southern Alps; he was a trail blazer here. I learned a lot about Hillary when I trekked with Jamling Norgay in the Himalayas several years ago.  Hillary and Tanzing Norgay, Jamling’s father, were the first to summit Mt. Everest in 1953. This is one reason I was interested in coming here.

The weather was fair and the sky was clear; I enjoyed hiking in this perfect weather. I also had a ride on an Argo eight-wheel all-terrain vehicle, which took a rough route along a river into the center of the Southern Alps. My driver stopped and we walked up a steep little hill created by the murrain of a melting glacier hundreds of years ago. On the other side was a small glacier lake. I was not concerned about crawling over rocks, as there are no poisonous snakes, spiders, or dangerous animals in New Zealand. There are opossums and snooks, hawks and falcons. The vegetation is lovely and along the road to Mount Cook are fields of beautiful lupine, in shades from light pink to dark lavender.

Aside from hiking, I also took a helicopter ride over and around the peak of Mount Cook. Up and down and around the passes, all covered with ice and snow, and we came so close to hitting a peak—and then just in time, we rose above it! We landed on the upper part of the Franz Joseph Glacier. I walked around a bit and it was pretty awesome. There is some receding of the glaciers here, but not quite as severe as in Alaska. Although I have climbed on other high peaks, being here was a very special adventure.

(posted April 26, 2016)

Rebuilding in Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Christchurch, New Zealand

I sailed from Moorea to Tahiti in warm, fair weather. I would miss the beautiful South Pacific Islands, but I wanted to go to New Zealand. I took a flight from Papeete to Auckland; the Pacific Ocean is so huge that it still took almost six hours to go from Tahiti to New Zealand. There is so much to see and do in New Zealand that there is never enough time, so I decided to spend my time on the South Island. I took another flight to Christchurch and there exchanged currencies, picked up a rental car, and drove to my hotel. I was a bit put off because my cell phone wouldn’t work. Buggers, as they say there.

It was cooler here, as it is further south and closer to Antarctica. It was a change to walk on city sidewalks, and I went to the Botanical Gardens, one of the only places not touched by the February 2011 earthquake. The beautiful grand trees were all in good shape, but almost every square in the city was devastated. My son had flown into Christchurch the day before the earthquake, hiked outside the region, and a month later flew out of Christchurch.

Now it seems worse, as after the quake many of the buildings still standing were declared unsafe and had to be razed to the ground: 350,000 people living there were affected. Many lost their jobs and relocated to other places; only construction workers came to work in great numbers. Every section of the city is being rebuilt. I drove all around the city and saw entire sides of steep hills gone, where million dollar homes once stood—no trace remains.

Much of the city’s infrastructure was affected, including large numbers of streets, roads, gas stations, high-rise buildings, schools and hospitals, which are now gone or in disrepair. Many home owners are still waiting for insurance settlements.  Malls, markets, bridges, and part of the shipping port are still gone or in need of construction. The cathedral and 45 churches were also damaged.

This earthquake has caused so many problems. It will take an estimated 10 years to get things back to normal in Christchurch. In the heart of the city, where stately buildings once stood, there is now a shopping center with stores made out of colorful shipping containers, as you can see in my photo at the top of this blog post. It is a new look for this grand old city. One evening I had dinner on the trolley which goes around the city squares. It was pleasant to be with friendly companions, but sad to keep seeing the blocks of torn-down buildings.

My heart goes out to the people of Christchurch who are bravely rebuilding, and I wish them all the best.  Someday I would like to visit Christchurch again, and I envision that it will be a beautiful city once more.

(posted April 19, 2016)