We said "see you later" to the South Island earlier this month. For the last three weeks we have been staying at a winery in Levin, on New Zealand's North Island. I'll talk about the winery in a later post. Here, I'm going to recapture some exciting North Island side-trips we took:
That's all for now! Check back soon for a skinny on our third and final WWOOF adventure at the delightful Celtic Winery. Did I mention that we love New Zealand?
Milford, Milford, Milford. How will words do you justice? I'm not sure they can, but I'll try my best.
New Zealand has nine so-called Great Walks, all of which are multiple-day hikes through the country's finest wilderness. The Milford Track is one of them, although I must say "great" is a bit of an understatement as this hike is often referred to as one of the WORLD's most scenic and all-around best hikes - which also means it is quite popular. In fact, we reserved our place on the trail in August 2015! It was well worth the wait as this hike was, I kid you not, the absolute most gorgeous scenery I have ever seen on Earth. Ever.
The Mildford Track is located in Fiordland National Park, on the southwestern edge of the South Island and connects Te Anau Lake with iconic Milford Sound via 33 miles of back-country tail. The trail is well-maintained and punctuated by three huts and day-shelters for hikers, the former being dorm-style accommodations complete with running water, wood stoves and gas cookers where hikers gather to warm up, dry off, and rest during the four-day, three-night hike.
We had an easy first day of three miles, but days #2, #3 and #4 were longer hikes, ranging from nine to eleven miles, sometimes with dramatic altitude changes. Our most difficult, but rewarding day was nine miles with nearly 4600 feet of elevation change over rocky, steep terrain as hikers clear Mackinnon Pass. At the pass, you get a 360-degree view of windswept glacial peaks and valleys whose geometric grandeur invigorates a primordial sense of awe, all while in the company of the crafty alpine parrot, the Kea. The descent is rough, but leads through lush, temperate rain forest and winds around gushing rivers and seriously underrated cascades.
For me, the most magical moment of the hike came late morning on day two. Following a day of rain and a chilly night, raindrops clung to their leafy hosts, undisturbed. The trail had lead us into a valley and while the sun had been up for hours, the walls were so steep that only the rays of midday would shine on the earth below. When we arrived, the sun began peeking over the ridge, casting perfectly angled light onto each dewdrop making every leaf, flower petal, blade of grass, and spider web a prismatic kaleidoscope. Suddenly, the valley danced with color and brilliance in a beautifully ephemeral show. In that moment, all stood present and still.
Hiking in Milford delighted the senses! Every step was worth the planning and anticipation, even if it did rain half the time. Oh, yes, apparently it rains a lot in Milford (7 METERS per year in many places), a casual fact our guidebook underplayed - fortunately we had rain jackets, pack covers and lots of extra socks. Anyway, we were very impressed with the back-country infrastructure, in addition to the views. We were also exceptionally lucky to hike in the company of fun, interesting people from all over New Zealand and the world. The Milford Track absolutely deserves its reverence as one of the world's Great Walks, and you should definitely do it too! Just plan well ahead because it gets booked out early.
Though we loved living the vineyard life in Alexandra, we had to move on. There was too much left to see in the rest of NZ's south island to stay at Grey Ridge any longer. So we packed up and headed east, towards the coast and Dunedin.
Before stopping into the city, we hit up the Moeraki Boulders and the Otago Peninsula. The boulders are a strange set of large, round rocks half buried right on the beach, great for a quick photo op, but only at low tide. Meanwhile, the Otago Peninsula to the east of Dunedin is a rugged, wind-swept coastline full of beautiful scenery. It is also home to colonies of sea lions and the rare yellow-eyed penguin, both of which we were lucky enough to see.
When we finally got to Dunedin, we were happy to see what a fun university town it is, full of students (of course), plus the hip bars and restaurants, museums and galleries that you expect from an American university town. We both really enjoyed the Art Gallery and the Otago Museum, as well as the multiple strolls we took around town, taking in the city's cool vibe and copious large scale murals.
Our next stop in the south of the south was The Catlins. Situated among rolling hills accessorized with oblivious and hungry sheep, the Catlins boasts scraggly, windswept coastline, hikes, waterfalls - we saw the Purakanui, Horseshoe, McLean and Matai Waterfalls! - and more for those hearty enough to brave the "Roaring 40s" or an Antarctic Southerly. One minute you're happily wandering down to Slope Point or the Nuggets, the next minute you're being power-washed by freezing drizzle blowing up from the churning, grey Southern Ocean. Plan accordingly, and bring extra clothes.
Following the Catlins, we scheduled a stop in Invercargill, the Southland's major population center (with a whopping 50,000 people) and ten times as many sheep. We had heard from locals that there isn't much to do or see here, and I think they were right. For a sizable town (by NZ standards), Invercargill is sleepy but a nice pit-stop to recharge and catch-up with the real world. Nearby is Bluff, one of the oldest European settlements. Otherwise, there's not much to do apart from enjoying some downtime and a cup of hot tea.
Next up is a four-day hike along the world-class Milford Track. We are very excited about this and will have lots to report on, and scores of photos to share! Check back soon for our last entry from New Zealand's South Island.
Ryan and Cristina's travel blog, detailing our adventures in US National Parks and overseas in New Zealand and SE Asia.
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