My friends Yuki and Jonathan came to visit Melbourne, and then the three of us took off for a week on the south island of New Zealand. Six days, four stops, and 1900 kilometers later (that's 1180 miles for you non-metric folks), we saw and did as much as we could pack in and ended up happy and exhausted. The south island is sparsely populated (the major highways are all two lane roads) and the oft-quoted statistic that there are more sheep than people is indeed a fact. We lucked out with absolutely gorgeous weather- it's late fall (or autumn, as they say in these parts) and it was a bit chilly but sunny and clear for our entire trip. We started off for a couple of days in Queenstown, which feels a lot like a ski town and is famous for adventure sports- bungee jumping, skydiving, zorbing, etc. We decided to partake in paragliding. Tandem, of course, as even in New Zealand, letting novices jump off of cliffs on their own in generally frowned upon. The day I went the winds were quite strong, so rather than running and jumping, once the parachute was unfurled we were pulled backwards and lifted off the ground. It was really fun! I'm not a big fan of the idea of free-falling, but this was much more like flying or floating through the air, and therefore quite enjoyable. In addition to the paragliding, we took a scenic drive up to Glenorchy and took the gondola up to the Skyline restaurant and had some fun on the luge track- an alpine slide, essentially a go kart track down the side of a mountain (see photo).
After that, we drove down to Milford Sound for an overnight cruise in the fiordlands. In addition to sheep, the south island has a lot of lakes and waterways surrounded by mountains. The boat set off in the late afternoon, and we did have the chance to kayak before the sun went down. After that, all of the passengers hung out for dinner and (many) drinks and then eventually retreated to our tiny beds.
The next day we had a looong drive back to Queensland and up the west coast, finally arriving at Fox Glacier. Based on a friend's recommendation, we signed up for an all day hike on the glacier. What goes on your feet and rhymes with tampons? Crampons! They actually work better than I had imagined, although my legs were pretty tired by the end of the day. We had a lovely meal at the Plateau Cafe- good food, a friendly staff, and a free glass of wine is enough to win me over any time.
We left bright and early the next morning for our last adventure, a cave exploration trip further up on the west coast. Decked out in wetsuits and flashlight helmets, we hiked up to the top of a cave and crossed the top level on foot until we came to an underground river and floated through on inner tubes. They don't have many bats in New Zealand, but the roof of the cave was covered in glow worms that look like stars, so we all turned off our lights and floated our way down to the cave's exit. It was really cool and nothing I've ever seen before.
We spent our last night in a cute little seaside town called Punakaiki. I was feeling a little bad that Yuki and Jonathan didn't get a chance to see the Great Ocean Road while they were in Melbourne, but sunset at Punakaiki was almost as good. After that, we drove across the center of the island through Arthur's Pass and made it to Christchurch in time for our flights home. The driving wasn't so bad- Yuki and Jonathan did fine driving on the left, and although Jonathan was by far the speediest driver, an ill-timed passing attempt led me to keep my title of the scariest driver. And luckily for us, the only animal we hit was already dead. (lots of roadkill on those windy mountain highways) The only snag of the trip happened right at the start, when Yuki got nabbed at customs for forgetting to declare her hiking boots- a $400 (!) fine. So look for us on Border Patrol, right behind the Vietnamese father and son with the enormous bag of mushrooms. Almost everyone we met was really nice and friendly, and good thing I'd been watching New Zealand's Next Top Model, because I could decipher the accents. I'd love to go back, especially to check out what the north island has to offer.