(DISCLAIMER: This one is really long. But it’s worth it.) Well, we started the final week (week-plus, really) of our trip with a bang: a five-day trek on the Milford Track. It’s one of the most popular and famous hikes in New Zealand and, because we don’t have any gear (again, I remind you of our failed shipment), we did the hike through a company. It’s actually a very regulated park – only 90 hikers can be on each part each day – so it was really lovely and quiet! The company we used was amazing and we were so happy we used them. (But you’ll see why, throughout the post…) Our first day, we finalized everything in our hotel in Queenstown (they let us store our bags and car, which was super helpful), had breakfast there and walked down to the hike office. We needed to rent walking poles for me and check a bag in (they offer to send a bag to our last stop!), so we got there a little early. We started meeting the guides – there were four for the trip – and all of the participants were wearing name tags so we started mingling with everyone. We then got on the bus and rode for 2.5 hours to Te Anau, a cute town, for lunch. We rode to the entrance of the park, where we took a 30-minute boat ride to the beginning of the track. We got off of the boat, got our packs and walked one mile to our first lodge. Along the way, we talked to one of the guides, Oliver, who was super nice (and I’m not just saying that now that we’re Facebook friends!) 😉 and had actually traveled to Malawi! We got settled in our room, which was very cozy, and went to the lounge for drinks and to chat with people. Dinner was lovely and we sat with a mother-daughter pair, Catherine & June, who were so nice and fun. The guides did a slide show to go over the plan for the next day, which was super informative, and we all started heading to bed. It was a great (and easy!) first day! And we still managed to walk 3.7 miles that day!
Day 2, we woke up when the generator kicked on – they recommended leaving the lights on in the rooms when the power goes out in the evening and then that can be your ‘alarm’ when the power turns back on in the morning – and got ready for the day. They’d asked that everyone come to make lunch so that breakfast could be served after, so we went through the awesome sandwich- and salad-making stations and put together a tasty meal! (Seriously, have I mentioned that this hiking trip was ridiculous?!?) We went back to the room to get our packs and had breakfast in the lounge before heading out for the day. Everyone was going at their own pace – which was super encouraged and respected – and we really enjoyed it! It was a really well-organized track with clear mile markers (which corresponded to our awesome track map that showed where we’d be walking each day, the distance we’d be going, etc.) and we had opportunities to rest, go to the bathroom, etc. (Some were drop toilets and some were actual flush toilets. Amazing.) It had been cloudy all morning and it started to actually rain a bit before lunch so we, begrudgingly, put our raincoats on and trucked along to the lunch stop. We did the optional detour on the path, which took us to a ‘hidden lake’ that was formed by a huge avalanche – amazing. We had a little bit of uphill climbing and I was very toasty in my raincoat so I adjusted my clothes, pulled out my hiking poles (to practice) and we finally arrived at the lodge. This lodge had an amazing view and we were really excited that the kea (an endangered bird that is said to have the intelligence of a four-year old*) lived nearby so we could see them. We showered and went to the washing station to wash our clothes. They had sinks with soap and plugs and then we put them in the ‘drying room.’ (These were, basically, saunas with super-powered fans; so smart.) We went to the lounge to have tea, scones (which, the founder of the lodge started making since its creation) and played board games until dinner. Dinner was awesome and we sat at long tables, chatting and getting to know each other better. We then had the briefing for the next day – THE BIG DAY – and played games for a bit longer before going to bed. 11.3 miles!!
On day 3, we woke up much earlier, got ready and did the same morning routine as the day before. Everyone was a bit more anxious because we’d be climbing 800+ meters and descending 900+ meters so we all went at our own pace and tried to not get too tired and hot, too early. It was pretty difficult – it was a really steep incline – but we got to the (almost) top and were given tea and biscuits, which was such a relief. The area we were in was a pass between two mountains and it was so beautiful. We were told it’s foggy there four out of five days in a row so we felt so lucky to have it be sunny and blue while we were there. We hiked another 30 minutes up to get to the lunch spot, which had an incredible view of the valley. We then started the descent and everyone really staggered their departure so we could all have enough time to get down. Jon and I were alone most of the time and I was really utilizing my poles to help with the steep steps (maybe too much sometimes; I should’ve just gotten on my butt more). We passed waterfalls, beautiful pools, etc. Even though the rain the day before wasn’t ideal, it certainly made the waterfalls more full!! We finally got to the lodge and had just enough time to change socks, take off a layer and head out for an optional side trip to the Sutherland Waterfalls with one of the guides. We were pretty tired and it was practically 45 minutes of uphill climbing, but it took us to five meters away from the largest waterfall in NZ, which was unreal. We stayed for a bit, got slightly soaked from the spray and then headed back to our room, exhausted. We showered, did laundry and had a really nice dinner. We had another briefing on the much chiller day ahead, then sat around and talked for a bit before everyone struggled back to their rooms. This day was the most we walked the whole trip – 15.4 miles!! [WOWZA!]
Day 4, we woke up early, again, and got ready. The hike got going pretty quickly and it was mostly going to be a flat hike so we weren’t too stressed about wearing all of the thermal layers, etc. that we’d bought. But, it had started raining so I spent most of the day trying to decide if I wanted to put my raincoat on or not. Blech. Since the hike that day was going be 13+ miles, one of the awesome guides, Chloe, helped me care for the blisters that had formed on the hike the day before. Yay. The walk felt pretty long – there was less to see because of the rain – but we had some spectacular waterfalls right along the route that broke up the day. We spotted the last mile marker – 33 – and knew we were really close. (Only 0.6 miles to go!) We finally got to the last hut, signed the arrivals board the staff had set up, and took our packs off for a few blissful minutes until it was time to get on the boat. We took a short ride across the Milford Sound and got dropped off at the ferry terminal – where we’d be taking a cruise from the next day – and took a short bus ride to the last lodge. We got settled in our room, I assessed the damage on my foot (got a bonus cut on one of my other toes!) and went downstairs to have a drink. (Or several drinks…) We talked for a while, had snacks and sat down to dinner, this time with one of the guides at each table. It was a great, celebratory meal (rack of lamb, heyo!!) and everyone was in a great mood. We went back to the lounge after the guides gave some moving and touching speeches, where we drank and talked until late. What a fun night!! And we walked 14.9 miles that day!! (So, 46.8 miles for the whole trek!)
On the last day, we woke up (not too early!), got ready, gave our packs back to the staff and made lunch for the bus ride back to Queenstown. We walked to the ferry terminal and got on to ride around Milford Sound. It was beautiful and, luckily, the sky cleared up a bit and we had beautiful views. We rode down to the Tasman Sea and came back, chatting, taking pictures of each other and seeing seals, birds and amazing waterfalls along the way. We got on the bus and had an easy ride back to Te Anau to eat our packed lunch. We got back on the bus and rode back to the hike HQ, having to say bye to everyone once we arrived. We were actually feeling pretty sad to say bye, after having bonded with some folks and spending a lot of time together. 😦 We then went back to the hotel we’d stayed at before the hike, got settled and planned the rest of the trip, since we didn’t have anything booked (until the very last night of our trip). It was good to sit and be off of our feet in a comfortable setting. We went to dinner at a really cute, small Japanese tapas place and everything was really yummy. We then got gelato at Mrs. Ferg Gelateria, a great place next to a very busy burger joint (that we never made it to), and had a nice, sloooowwww stroll back to the hotel. We went to bed early, hoping to have some of the soreness subside while we rested. (Still managed to walk 3.4 miles, though…)
The next morning, we woke up, had breakfast at the hotel and checked out. We drove south and arrived in Dunedin (New Zealand’s oldest city), checked in to our AirBnB – a basement apartment in the house of a very sweet lady who was very helpful – and walked to town to find lunch. We then walked to the train station via The Octagon, the city’s ‘central square,’ which had lots of cute shops and restaurants. We got to the train station (NZ’s busiest, housed in a very ornate-looking building) to board our train to the Taieri Gorge. We had assigned seats and it was a super cute, old-school train. There was very interesting commentary along the way, too, which was awesome. When we got back to the old train station, we walked a nice Italian restaurant for dinner and then went back to the apartment to do laundry and go to bed. We did 3.2 miles that day!
The morning after that, we woke up, got ready and headed out to the Otago Peninsula to see the beautiful views and try to go on a walk. But, there was crazy fog and the two walks we headed to were clouded over. We also tried to go Larnach Castle – NZ’s only castle – but it was so cloudy there we wouldn’t have seen their famous gardens. So, we drove to the little town of Portobello and sat by the water, drinking tea and coffee, and taking in the views. Then, we drove to the Royal Albatross Centre for a tour. The guide told us about their breeding patterns – they fly 1,500 km per day at times at up to 120 km/hr! – and go all of the way around Antarctica for the first five years of their lives. They eventually touch land for the first time (since hatching) and settle in this area for breeding, where they hatch one egg, every other year. We saw a few sitting on their nests – they’ll hatch in January or so – and they’ll sit there for up to 10 days at a time without food or water, until their mate switches with them. It was super neat and we felt very lucky to see them. We had a quick lunch in Portobello and then went to the Taito Otago Settlers Museum, which showcased Dunedin’s history – super cool museum. We then went to the Dunedin Chinese Garden, which was beautiful and was formed to honor the contributions of the Chinese people who came to NZ. Shanghai is their sister city so it was equally meaningful since we have family there! We walked around, took pictures and enjoyed seeing the super cute ducks in the lily pond. Then, we went to our scheduled tour of the Speight’s brewery and it was really neat. They explained all of the aspects of the brewing process, showed us the facilities and let us taste all of the beers at the end. Our tour guide was 19 and actually said that she can’t remember how old she is sometimes – OY VEY. (That she forgets because she’s ‘so old.’ Oy to the vey, indeed.) We went to dinner at Speight’s Ale House, just outside of the brewery, which was slightly touristy but tasty. We got a bubble tea for me at a place near where we were staying (dessert, of course!) and went to bed. 2.8 miles!
The next day, we packed up and headed out for our drive back to the north (of the South Island), stopping at the Moeraki Boulders, a random beach that has these massive, spherical boulders that are honeycomb-like in the center and composed of minerals. They were super cool! We stopped for lunch in a small town called Twizel and chose Shawty’s Cafe (for obvious reasons), on our way to Mount Cook (our final destination before we were to fly out from Christchurch and NZ’s tallest mountain). We got to our lodge right in the middle of the park, checked into our room and got ready to go on a hike. We walked to a lookout called Kea Point to get a closer view of Mount Cook and the Mueller Glacier, which was just lovely. Then, we went back, got changed and went to get a drink at the bar before dinner, which had amazing views of the mountains. We watched “Lady Bird” in our room and went to bed. That day was 4.6 miles – not too shabby!
The following day, we got ready and headed out for a walk to see the Tasman Glacier, New Zealand’s largest glacier (now 24 km long and that’s after receding a ton)! After, we went on a little bush walk to see birds and a great view of Mount Cook. We returned to the hotel and ate at their lunch buffet – YUM – and we even ran into one of our friends from our Milford trip! We then headed back out and hiked in the Hooker Valley for the afternoon. It was a nice three-hour return hike with great views of Mount Cook, the Mueller Lake (go Bob, go!!) and the Hooker Glacier. There were three massive suspension bridges going over little streams (the streams were lime-green in color – crazy!). We were feeling a little tired by the end – the sun was strong and right on us – so we got in the car after we finished to go take some more photos of the glacier lakes – they were BRIGHT BLUE – and took in the views one last time. We came back, cleaned up and went to dinner at a bar in the area. We went back to the room, got a game to play in the lounge, then went back to pack up and go to bed. 9.8 miles walked!!
Our last (real) day, we finished packing and headed out for our drive to Christchurch. We arrived in time to check in to our hotel at the airport and then drive into town. We got a sushi lunch and then gelato next door at an awesome place called Rollickin Gelato Cafe. We then visited Quake City, a museum about the 2010 & 2011 earthquakes. It was really moving and interesting, especially given how much of the science they explained. We then went to pay a parking ticket from Franz Josef (oops – they weren’t kidding about only parking in the direction of traffic!) and parked at the Botanic Gardens, a lovely place to walk around. We made our last stop the Canterbury Museum, a place that focuses on Maori culture – we saw a really cool exhibit on greenstone (which even had a Maori artist making pieces!) – and the history of New Zealand, especially the Christchurch area. It was another great, informative and free museum!! We went to return the rental car – our home for four weeks! – and took the shuttle back to the hotel. We had an early dinner at the hotel and went to bed. 3.9 miles on our last day!
It was quite an amazing trip. I almost can’t believe it’s over – it feels like it just flew by!! If you haven’t read the posts on Weeks 1, 2 and 3, please do so. They’re great reads for when you’re in the tub, on the toilet and/or on your commute to/from work. (Just guessing…) I know we’ve said this a lot but we felt really lucky to have gotten to take this journey. We’ll carry the memories with us for a very long time. We also want to say thanks to everyone who helped us with the plan our trip to this diverse, robust and amazing place: Noa, Nadav, Evyatar, Nitai, Eran, David, Carla, Manda and Becca. (Sorry if I missed anyone!) Next up: I’ll write about how it was to move back to the U.S., quite an interesting experience!
– By Naama
**We walked 73 miles this stretch!**
TOTAL WALKED THE WHOLE TRIP: 163.6 MILES
*One of our guides said that keas have the intelligence of a four-year old New Zealand kid or a 13-year-old Australian kid. (The rivalry is strong!!) 🙂