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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Will That Be Crushed or Cubes?

As beautiful as the scenery is in New Zealand, and while the wine and food have been quite tasty, the country’s best resource is the people.  Everyone we’ve encountered here has been quite helpful.  Any time we’ve needed directions, or had a question about what sight to see or how long to spend in a particular spot, that person has responded as though our inquiry was the most important thing in their life at that moment.  That was the case with the woman at the I-site booth in the town of Franz Josef, on the west coast of the South Island.  We had gotten there just after lunch time after a morning of driving from Hokitika, our first stop on the South Island.  The goal was to see the Franz Josef Glacier up close, but rain was threatening those plans.  The I-site woman (I don’t think Steve Jobs had anything to do with the I-site concept) responded to our question about where to stay by poring over the list of accommodations in town that would fit our family with a determined focus, quickly eliminating several before recommending one run by two guys named Billy and Mark.  As we walked into the office at the Alpine Motel, Billy greeted us with a warm smile that grew even wider when we shared our story of going around the world.  He asked where we had been so far, we mentioned starting in Fiji, and he said that he had spent six weeks in Fiji a few years back in the same town we stayed in, Savusavu.  Further comparing of notes revealed that he stayed in the same house we did just down the road from the Cousteau Resort.  That’s the second person we’ve encountered who has stayed in that house, making this big world of ours seems just a little smaller.

The sun threatened to break through the clouds, so we took the short drive to the car park for the Franz Josef Glacier, but just as we started up the path toward the ancient ice, it started to rain again.  Ben and Marley didn’t mind that much because it meant a trip to the Kiwi experience that was just around the corner from our motel.  They had four Kiwi chicks who were about three months old on display in a natural habitat exhibit, and we got a good look at them. They also had a very nice informational display about glaciers. Another false start by the sun resulted in another aborted attempt at taking a walk to the glacier, so we decided to leave that to the next day, when the forecast was brighter. 

The following morning the sun was shining brightly, revealing to us for the first time the magnificent snow-capped mountains.  An ambitious schedule of trying to make it to Milford Sound in the Fiordland region along the southwest coast had us pile back into the Nissan Bluebird with another 4-5 hours of driving ahead of us.  About 20 kilometers south of the Franz Josef Glacier is the Fox Glacier, and with blue skies all around, we followed the signs to the car park and learned that it was about an hour round trip on foot, or “hour return” as they say here, and we headed down the path toward the glacier. 

The gravelly path wound through a valley carved out over the centuries by the glacier, and ran adjacent to what’s called a smoky river, turned grey by the sediment washed from the crushing ice.  A couple of small streams needed to be carefully negotiated along the way, but the trek was eased by the views on both sides of the valley.  Waterfalls cascaded down hundreds of feet and evidence from previous landslides or slips were fascinating to look at. 

Annie and Marley fell behind Ben and me a bit, adjusting their sandals or accessorizing or something.  The boys got to the trail terminus first and I was engrossed in reading a newspaper article on display that told the tragic but cautionary tale of two brothers from India, visiting the region with their family.  The pair, in their 20s, ignored the many warning signs of not going beyond the safety barriers to get a closer view of the glacier.  As they got up to the face, a huge chunk of ice broke loose, killing them both.  

Almost on cue, just as I read that, we heard a rumble to our right, and looked over just in time to see a massive slab of ice break free and fall into the water below with a spectacular splash.  The crowd of about a dozen tourists on hand to see this display of climate change in action squealed in delight like girls at a Justin Bieber concert, and we all exchanged knowing glances that our carbon footprints had helped make this happen.  The event happened too fast for any of us to capture on camera, but it will be etched on the SD cards in our brains for quite some time.

With “Seeing a Chunk of Glacier Crash Into The Water” checked off our to-do list, it was back into the Bluebird to continue our trek to the south, hoping to get to Wanaka or maybe even Queenstown for the night.  Wanaka, pronounced like Hannukah, looked promising, with it’s lakefront location and several accommodations according to the guidebook Annie was consulting with.  It was noon by now and the next town along State Highway 6 was Haast, a little over 100 kilometers away.  That distance would take about an hour depending on how winding the road was, and we discovered it wasn’t too bad along those lines.  As we got close to Haast, we saw a roadside sign saying Whitebait Patties 1km ahead.  Whitebait is a local delicacy that we first sampled the night before at a restaurant in Franz Josef.  They are minnow-sized fish that hatch their eggs just offshore and then swim into the many streams and rivers flowing from the mountains into the Tasman Sea.  I’m not usually one for spontaneity when driving long distances, but the memory of the tasty whitebait pattie from the night before lured me in and we drove down a rocky road for about a half a kilometer and found Tony Kerr and his Curly Tree Whitebait Company.  He produced a container of whitebait fish in an egg mix and grilled us up a pair of patties on the spot. 

They were even better than what we had enjoyed the night before.  I could tell Annie was having a tough time deciding which she liked better:  the whitefish pattie, or Tony: with his rugby player build, toothy grin, friendly manner and New Zealand accent.  She continued to contemplate that as we got back on SH 6 and stopped for a quick lunch that was more appealing to the kids at a restaurant in Haast.  Keeping consistent with the helpful nature of the New Zealanders we had met so far, one of the workers there gave us some good suggestions about whether or not to stay in Queenstown or Wanaka, (she favored the latter) and raved about Milford Sound. 

Wanaka was now our desired destination, and the road there gave us more spectacular views.  We found an apartment for the night with three bedrooms which worked great, giving the kids a room to themselves for a night, possibly two.  Two nights became more likely as we immediately fell in love with Wanaka.  The city is nestled up against the lake of the same name and has something of a Lake Tahoe feel.  A Wi-fi hotspot just steps from the lake let us get the kids set up with an hour of internet time a piece to catch up on some Kahn Academy math, which is the free online program we are using for their home schooling during the trip.  Annie and I bought some internet time of our own at a nearby café where we caught up on email and Facebook and chatted with a British couple on holiday for a month in New Zealand, picking their brains about places to go for the rest of our time in the Kiwi country.  They had just been in Christchurch, our final New Zealand destination, and the woman in the couple shared some sobering stories and digital photos of the condition of the city, almost a year after the devastatiing earthquake. For the past few weeks, they’ve had almost daily aftershocks, some in the 5.0 range and the British woman we were talking to said it could be a pretty depressing place.  We had no choice but to go there, since we fly from Christchurch to Auckland and then to Melbourne as we transition from New Zealand to Australia.  But first we had to make a major decision on how to get to and experience Milford Sound, and it would have a serious impact on how we celebrated the twins’ birthday the following day.

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