A Travellerspoint blog

December 2009

NZ - Top of the south Island

Christchurch to Able Tasman


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It was not that long after we landed in Christchurch that Meghan and I found ourselves in Jail. A penitentiary that was originally built in 1874 and decommissioned in 1999 had been remodeled into a backpackers hostel. The rooms were the original cells kited out with new floors and comfy beds. Somehow it did not feel creepy at all and was actually one of the cleanest and most well equipped hostels we have been in.

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Jailhouse accommodation

From here we picked up our “home on wheels “ We were surprised to find a slightly larger and generally nicer van waiting for us. Our plan for the South Island, which we figured out as we were pulling out of town, was to do a counterclockwise loop of the island.

Our first stop was the ocean side town of Kaikoura. The big attraction here is a picture perfect peninsula jutting out into the south pacific and backed by the snow covered peaks of the seaward Kaikoura range. This was our first glimpse of the NZ mountains we craved after the disappointing weather in the north island. Our road atlas quotes a 1936 National Geographic article saying “Here in an area approximately the size of Colorado are grouped the snow-mantled peaks of Switzerland, geysers of Yellowstone, Volcanic cones of Java and Japan, and the Lakes of Italy: the mineral springs of Czechoslovakia, the fjords of Norway, sea coasts of Maine and California, and waterfalls higher than Yosemite” So far NG is right on! The coast here certainly reminds me of Big Sur and the mountains are phenomenal rising over 7,500 feet almost right out of the ocean. Kaikoura is known as one of the few places were such tall mountains are so close to the ocean and here the ocean is prolific with whales, dolphins, seals, penguins, and albatross.
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Next, on to New Zealand’s Wine country and the small town of Renwick. We found a really nice hostel that allowed for campervans to park in their lot and use the facilities. It was owned and operated by an older couple who where 4th generation in the “village”. We felt well taken care of like staying with Grandma and Grandpa. We slowed things down and just lay around all afternoon and put off the wine tour by bicycle for the next day. We met a really nice couple from Holland and an Irishman and we stayed up late together drinking wine and enjoying good conversation.

Vino Anyone? We picked up our rental bikes around noon, a vast improvement from the bikes in Aitutaki, and headed out to sample the local wines. Marlborough Country is known for its Sauvignon Blanc and the vineyards produce mostly white wines. Really, the only red we found was a Pinot Noir. The wine was good and most of the wineries had free tastings. Each taste was small but after 8 or 10 it adds up and before long we were feeling buzzed, after lunch and some tastings of schnapps for desert we were back to the hostel for a mid afternoon nap.

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Moving on we visited the harbor town of Picton, were the ferries from the north island come. Then to a really winding road up one of the many peninsulas of the Marlboro Sounds to a sweet campsite on a cove. This was a good deal out of our way but we wanted to get ourselves in a good position to hike the Queen Charlotte Track the next day. The Queen Charlotte Track is immensely popular but most visitors only do the first few kilometers.
The Queen Charlotte Track, a 73 km track that runs along on of the many finger like peninsulas that makes up the Marlborough Sounds. A maze of Islands and land masses were the water seeps its way inland. This track can be done on foot or by bike with three to four nights. There are plenty of B&Bs and backpacker type places so it can be done without a tent or camping gear. This would make for a different type of multi day hiking experience but I think that I would probably prefer the seclusion of more remote hikes.

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On to Nelson and from what we read and saw we have this the Boulder of NZ! Next stop, old McDonalds Farm! This was a neat little campground/campervan park in an open field alongside a river with showers and a little outdoor kitchen area. It was the last stop at the end of the road that brought you to Able Tasman National Park. This was a nice enough place however a large school group was also camping and they were very loud. When I went to take a shower I stopped by the toilet, while reliving myself I heard one of the chaperones telling the kids they had exactly 10 minutes to get showered. Hearing this I did what I could to finish up quickly and made a run into an oncoming gang of little kids running madly to get one of the few showers. I immediately jumped into a full sprint to outrun the little buggers and got to the showers first. Only one little girl had enough head start and steam to beat me! As I showered little kids kept knocking and tugging at the shower stall door telling me I had only two minutes to shower thinking that I was part of their group!.

The next morning we set out on a independent two day Kayaking adventure along the coast. Sorry to be longwinded but I am just going to give you what I have in my journal:

11/25/09 - Abel Tasman Kayak, Day 1 We woke early to get to the Abel Tasman Base. The mornings routine would be to get outfitted for gear, go over the basics, and head to the water to demonstrate we were capable of paddling the kayak. They loaded all the boats as well as all of us into a two car train pulled by a farm tractor and pulled us out onto the long beach to the waters edge. It was a traffic jam of tractors pulling trailers coming in an out on the low tide sandbar.

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Once in the water I did have a few issues operating the ruder for some reason, but after we got out on our own I quickly had it all figured out. We returned to shore to wait for a water taxi to the drop off point from which we would paddle back. The boat ride was enjoyable and defiantly more than just a taxi ride. The driver was very personable and pointed out a blue penguin, brought us by the Island that was home to a protected seal colony, pointed out all the bays, and even brought us up alongside a sunfish? I had never herd of this fish before and in his 20 years there he had never seen one and was quite exited about it. From the drop off point we quickly set out in our fiberglass ocean kayak to the north, in the opposite direction of were we were heading, to Shag bay. After passing another blue penguin we arrived at two narrow channels leading into an inland lagoon only accessible at high tide. We carefully navigated the boat in and discovered a peaceful cove with crystal clear and perfectly still water. There is a good amount of exploring to do here and we paddle around for a little while before finding a female seal all alone in the protected waters. The seal swam about and continued to take up peculiar poses in the water and swimming quite awkwardly all around the boat and the lagoon. This was a special moment and we took time to stay and enjoy this magical place. From here we paddled out and across a channel to the Island were the protected seal colony was and found another little inlet that was packed with seals. There were a few big males swimming about and laying on the rocks, a female with a newborn pup, and a few more roughhousing (or having Sex) in and about the surf. From here more paddling took us back across the open sea to Mosquito bay were we would camp for the night. A small island centered in the middle of the bay was our backdrop to the open ocean and our camp was only a few feet of the shore. At first it appeared that we would only share this campsite with a few other campers but before to long a guided group of Speedo clad Germans came paddling in. The one upside of this was that the Guide was actually really cool and we spent a good portion of the evening chatting with her about NZ.
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Blue Penguin
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Shag Bay
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Fur Seal and Pup
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Anyone for some Escargot?
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Sunset from the cove we camped at.

11/26/09 Kayak Day 2 - We set out early in calm weather for the long paddle home. Today would be about three times longer than our previous day and we were exited to have the calm water. The winds slowly picked up till we got into a situation were I felt like we were getting blown out to see and for a moment I was a bit worried about the day to come. After a long hard paddle we pulled over to a crescent cove with a trail to an excellent overlook. We then tackled the “Mad Mile“. This section is apparently always windy and the longest stretch without a place to land. For us it was a lot nicer than the section leading up to it. The winds picked up again and it was back to big sea swells as we paddled around another bend trying to get to another empty beach to stop for lunch. We paddle out to another island that was “pest free” (no pesky possums or rabbits!) so lent it self to be a bird sanctuary. From here on, it was hard paddling for almost two hours before we got to the take out. We were both exhausted and covered in salt from the splashing waves when we got back. We learned that that many people had bailed out and either walked or took a water taxi back! All in all it was a great adventure and great to camp in NZ.
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Posted by pmunson 18:31 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

The West Coast

Soggy Dreams of Postcard Peaks


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Ahh the Beautiful West Coast!
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The drive south from Westport to Hast pass has been said to be one of the top ten scenic drives in the world. We allowed 5 days to slowly make our way down the coast to fully soak it all in in all it’s glory. The northern west coast resembles Big Sur and the California coastline with powerful surf torturing the rocky coastline. The high snow caped peaks, including NZ’s highest, Mount Cook, hang out right over the ocean. Nowhere else on earth can glaciers of such size be found so close to the ocean as in Franz Joseph and Fox Glacier. Many excellent tracks make their way steeply inland including the Copland Track up to Welcome Flats were you can soak in thermal hot pools right outside a backcountry hut. You may think the pictures above are good enough to be postcards and, well, they are. The west coast lived up to its reputation of being cold and wet and the icy grip of rain clouds never let us admire these lofty peaks. Many hours spent in the damp van lead to an irresistible urgent to flee the west for better weather.
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Get Me Out of this Van!!!!
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Penguin Crossing! Penguins brave the rocky coast and the pounding surf to nest in the trees along this road. I guess they also take up residence under peoples homes.
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Rain - Fill in the lyrics to your favorite song about the rain.

We enjoyed ourselves despite the rain and followed the tourist train of coach busses and campervans into Punakaiki. At high tide with a swell just so the Pancake rocks come alive with numerous blow holes. The rocks are called pancakes due to there layered look. Apparently geologists don’t have a great explanation to the cause of the this rare formation. We timed our arrival at the park with high tide and were not disappointed.

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Pancake Rocks

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Pancake Rocks

Unable to shake the beaten path, not many roads to choose from. We followed the coast to Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers. These glaciers are unique to their proximity to the coast and it was a bit surreal to walk through super lush temperate rain forest to huge masses of ice. Unfortunately we weren’t the only ones with that idea and as we walked slowly in and out a people the view of Franz Joseph we had a first big taste of the number of tourists that visit this place each year. We must have arrived with the tour buses because the place was hopping. Glaciers I am sure are truly magnificent if one had the time, expertise and money to explore the ice, (their certainly were pricey tours) but viewing from afar they appear as a piles of dirty snow.
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Trail to overlook of Fox Glacier

Posted by pmunson 14:37 Archived in New Zealand Comments (2)

Willy Wanaka and the Queenstown

Mmmmm…. Puzzling.


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Let the sun shine, let the sun shine, the sun shine.

Leaving the wet coast behind us we made it over Hast Pass after a night with our new friends the sand flies. Really, the sand flies in NZ are horrible. We descended into a whole new world of sunshine, dry clothes, and lots of big grins.

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NZ by sidecar? Sign us up!

Wanaka is the smaller more laid back version of the adrenaline packed Queenstown and was right up our alley. Wanaka was to Steamboat Springs as Queenstown was to Aspen or Vail. As soon as we pulled into town I knew I was going to like it here and wanted to set out on a big outside adventure. There was a hike right outside of town that I thought would stretch my legs that were suffering from campervan fever. Without much thought, food, or water I set out on what would turn out to be a climb of just under 4,000 feet straight up. Rays Peak treated me to some much needed exercise, great views of Lake Wanaka and Aspiring National park, and some extremely sore legs!

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I passed this guy on the climb and he admitted to carrying his bike for more than ½ of the climb.

Some of the people we met back on the Cook Islands had recommended a trip to puzzling world which is home to a giant maze, optical illusion rooms, and all things puzzling! Laugh all you want... we are dweebs on parade. This place was a ton of fun for kids of all ages. It just so happened that we had reunited with Matt and George that morning and they, being our first and only passengers, piled in the van and joined us for a day of fun. We got queasy in the optical illusion rooms that challenged your perseption, raced each other through the giant maze, and hung out in the game room trying to solve logic puzzles for a good part of the day.
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Giant Meghan and Mini me
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It looks empty but I think Matt may still be lost in the Maze!
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We spent three days in Wanaka before heading to Queenstown. Another steep and winding scenic road brought us up and over a pass before descending what I labeled as New Zealand’s mini Alp Duez (were is my road bike when I need it?) into Queenstown. Like Wanaka on speed Queenstown is an in your face outdoor adventure enthusiasts Valhalla. The downtown area is bustling with bars and restaurants (a local from Wanaka whom I played ultimate frisbee with told us something like 60 bars for a town of 10,000) and tour operators aplenty to take you bungee jumping, sky diving, jet boating, paragliding, abseiling, canyoning... you name it. This is were the almighty dollar goes to die. A loose credit card in this town would find itself striped of its magnetic stripe and laying naked in a loose ATM by dawn, totally spent. It was hard for us to refuse all the discounted marino wool products and adventure tours, but we persevered.
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The Remarkables as viewed from Queenstown
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Queenstown Sunset

We got tipped off that the weather forecast in the legendary Milford Sound, a place that gets 250 days of rain a year, was to be good for a few days so we decided skip out of Queenstown earlier than planned and drove to Milford Sound for an overnight (See our next posting). Disappointed about leaving QT early (although totally, completely worth it) we stayed another night after returning from Milford. This time we found a Department of Conservation Campsite by the lake and decided to head straight through town directly to our spot for the night.
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View of the Remarkables from the back of the van

We breezed out of Queenstown without much activity the next day. I had been telling myself that I wanted to do a bungee jump in NZ and Queenstown was the sight of the first commercial bungee jump and the only place in NZ (maybe the world?) that you could bungee jump over a river bridge with a water. It was Expensive, really expensive, and I decided to let it go. BUT! As fate would have it, our drive back to the west coast just so happened to pass right by the bridge. We could see it from the road and it was at that point I knew it was my destiny. Their was a queue of people on the bridge waiting to take the plunge. Some young, some old. One couple did a tandem bungee and two guys backed out after stepping up to the ledge. The pressure built while waiting on the bridge and then got more intense while being strapped in. I expected to get rigged up in some fancy harness that had been approved by 5 different safety experts but this was not the case. I did have a backup harness on but the primary device to keep all 180 pounds of me tethered to the rubber band was a towel, a small piece of nylon cord, and a Velcro strap. The guy who set me up simply wrapped the towel around my ankles, wound the nylon cord around the towel and then through my legs a few times, wrapped the Velcro strap around it all, and then clipped me into the bungee cord. Up on my feet and walking like a penguin to the edge I looked down 43 meters or 141 feet (not a huge drop but still intimidating). 3,2,1 and I jumped. At first it was all slow motion. I saw all of the river, turquoise and blue, cutting through the steep canyon walls below. Then suddenly I felt the speed of my decent and felt like I would hit the water way to fast and I immediately braced for impact. Before I knew it I gently touched the water, just like easing yourself into a pool, and as soon as I felt the cool embrace of the river I was back up in the air again this time swinging wildly up and down back and fourth. At one moment all I saw was the blue sky, then the rock walls, then the blue river. Over and over for what felt a lot longer than it really was. As my perception focused back in on the river and I got a feeling for were I was I recognized that I was being lowered to the recovery boat were hanging upside down I reached out to be pulled in and brought back to shore. Was it worth it? Hell Yeah it was worth it! Not sure if I would sell out a 2 day budget for a 60 second ride again but I am glad that I did it.
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Posted by pmunson 03:11 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Milford Sound

Cruising on a (what day is it?) Afternoon


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It is 300 KM from Queenstown to Milford Sound and we had been told it takes anywhere from 3 to 6 hours to make the drive???. We set out early just incase it was the latter and made the first 200k to Ta Annu in a little over two hours. And expected to be in Milford in another hour or so. This is were the drive got interesting and we started to slow down.
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Wide open plains with snow capped mountains in the background narrowed to winding rivers through the glacier sculpted valleys as we worked our way closer to the sound. We had read that this road can be congested with a “conga line” of campervans and tour busses but it was really not all that busy. Every corner had me stepping on the brakes and swerving off the road as I reached for my camera.
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We slowly made our way up this stunning highway and when we thought it could not get any better we started climbing steeply to the Homer Tunnel. Piercing a glacier carved amphitheatre so saturated with waterfalls it almost takes on the appearance of a water wall, the Homer Tunnel is a dark earthen passageway over rough road dripping with water. Before entering the Tunnel we spotted the magic bus and the red headed Mathew out taking pictures. We new the boys would be heading to Queenstown and possibly out to Milford Sound so we were not surprised to meet them here again after seeing them in Waneka.
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Magic Bus
Before moving on we were entertained by the Kea. Described as the naughty teenager of the parrot world this is an alpine parrot, possibly the worlds only alpine parrot if memory serves, and has a curios personality. From what we saw they would fly in and land on your car. If the window was down they would stick their head in and if nothing looked interesting would peck at the rubber lining on your door. We saw one almost take off with some guys keys (why he offered them up to the bird is still beyond me) and had been told that they like to steal hats and can unwrap candy!
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The Curios Kea
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The Curios Kea and the equally curios Meghan

The Homer Tunnel is 1207 Meters and it felt like a long time before we returned to the light and the spectacular Cleddau Valley were we would finally descend to the sea and the Milford sound.
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Homer Tunnel
Back on the road we dropped steeply into the valley. I could not believe with the type of high alpine scenery that was right outside our window that it was possible that we were descending to sea level. We came around countless switchbacks past more and more waterfalls washing down the impossibly steep mountainside as we made our way to the sound. Milford Sound is a hub for tourists and 4 operators run cruises in the sound. We were warned about how busy it would be and advised to take either the first or last boat of the day before/after the busses had arrived/departed. We did just that and were lucky enough to share a boat built for 90 people with no more than 30.
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Meghan, Our Boat, And Miter Peak
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Milford Sound is home to Miter peak, a 1692 meter spire rising straight out of the ocean. This is said to be the Maroon Bells of NZ, the most photographed peak. It is just the start of the vertical cliff walls rising over 4,000 feet directly out of the sound. The vegetation and trees cling to these cliffs making a vertical forest that when overburdened with growth and moisture can be subject to tree avalanches!
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The effect of the ice ages is also plainly evident here were three distinct levels are know as giant steps (queue the Coltrane) showing the tremendous forces of nature. The waterfalls here are also very impressive and had we come when the sun was not shining and the mountains were covered in rain clouds we would have been treated to many many more waterfalls. This is another feature that Milford sound is famous for. The area gets over 7 meters of rain annually and typically the steep walls of the sound are just alive with water as it makes it way into the sound.
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For being one of NZ biggest tourist attractions and a magnet for the big tour busses we felt like we were able to enjoy this area of NZ at our own pace, on our own terms, and without the pressure of all the big tour operators. At one point in our trip we thought we would avoid this area and we both came away from the experience so glad that we did not. A special Thanks goes out to My Aunt Gene advised us to spend as much time as possiblie in New Zealand and not to miss Milford Sound. We moved out that night and camped in one of the many DOC campsites along the way with our friends the sandflies.
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A day hike on the Routeburn track was on the menu for the next day. This is considered on of NZ’s great walks and to do any camping along this route requires negotiating a maze of DOC permits and regulations as well as obtaining the necessary reservations for the often overbooked huts along the way. However, a day hike is free and requires no more than arriving the trailhead with the will to walk. We set out climbing throughout temperate rainforest. For me it had been weird to see the rain forest vegetation in and around the high Alpine scenery we are used to seeing in Colorado’s arid climate. Especially after coming from the cook islands were we experienced tropical rain forest vegetation. None the less we made our way through the damp Beachwood forest were we felt as if we were walking through a recently used sponge. Glimpses of the high peaks would flirt with us through the trees before we hit tree line and could see our objective high ahead of us. We would be heading to key summit but not before dropping back down into the forest to check out one of the DOC’s huts. After all of our experiences with 10th mountain divisions hut system in CO we were not all that impressed but this was one of hundred of huts in NZ so we did not hold any bias. From here we walked up above tree line for views of three river valleys and a 360 degree view of snow covered peaks.
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Posted by pmunson 08:21 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Penguins and Peninsulas

Back to Christchurch… our last days in New Zealand


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With our last days in New Zealand at hand we decided to slow things down and just really enjoy ourselves. We had been on the move so much and feeling like we would be missing out if we were not constantly heading somewhere to do something. With this spirit we decided to skip the southern scenic route and head directly to the east coast to a town that had Penguin Fever. There were two penguin colonies in the area. A blue penguin colony with about 200 penguins that come ashore every night and a yellow eyed penguin colony were only 15 or 20 come ashore. Apparently these penguins are really low in number and close to extinction. We decided to head to the beach were the Yellow Eyed Penguins were. A few hours before dusk the penguins come ashore to feed their young and nest. It was cold, windy, and we were probably 100 feet above the beach were we were supposed to see a tiny bird come ashore. I was getting a little grumpy and wanted to move on when it all started to happen. Their was a naturalist there who was monitoring the penguin activity and he had binoculars that he let us use to spy a penguin in the bush on the cliff face above the beach, then one came ashore, and then one was spotted right below a viewing platform only a short distance away. We went over and were treated to an up close and personal experience with this peculiar looking penguin. Purple feat, a red beak, and yellow eyes! Truly weird.

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YEP… Yellow Eyed Penguin
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After this we spent 3 lazy days on the Banks Peninsula surrounded by lush green rolling hills, plenty of Sheep, and more steep narrow and winding roads. Banks peninsula is a bulbous peninsula with many pretty inlets across its entire circumference. We would have achieved maximum relaxation had it not been for an all out allergy attack that we both suffered from. We quickly abandoned ship to head to Christchurch on the third day when the wind picked up and things really got bad.

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Daaa… Which way do I go?

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Bah Bah Black Sheep
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Banks Peninsula
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Gas Station

Two nights in Christchurch exploring the city and getting ready to return the van and head off to Sidney. We really loved NZ despite our problems with the weather. Driving the van was really fun although frustrating at times. We clearly went way over budget in NZ spending about $150 a day. Hopefully this will be offset by the time we spend in Asia, India, and volunteering in Nepal. On that note while NZ was incredibly beautiful and a sort of highlight real of what we like to do in the states it did feel really close to home. The cultural aspect of our trip around the world has not even gotten of the ground and we have been traveling about 6 weeks already. We are off to Sydney were things will most likely be really similar and not until Singapore will we really start to be challenged. The long road ahead is looking more and more appealing as life on the road becomes more normal and we are both eager to move on.
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Sol Square, Christchurch

Posted by pmunson 23:56 Archived in New Zealand Comments (3)

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