Thursday, May 23, 2019

R&R New Zealand 2019 - The South Island

A couple recent gatherings with friends we haven't seen in a while was spent recalling and waxing poetic about our trip to New Zealand. Such great memories and stories to tell. After these conversations, I realized I had not written about it in my "diary" and that I better get to it as my summer travel season is days away.

Our trip across the Cook Straight landed us in Picton, the doormat to the South Island and wine country. Our first steps on land were on a small beached inlet where tourists and locals lounged and took in the unfiltered sun (there's a hole over the ozone over NZ). Of course the first thing we do is start looking for shells. Instead we found an instagram worthy arrangement of stones so yes, we took a photo.

Picton was a sleepy little port town. It had a quaint little shopping district about two blocks by two blocks with art galleries, knick knack traps and pubs. One of its main "attractions" was the Edwin Fox museum. The Edwin Fox is the world's second oldest surviving merchant sailing ship and the only surviving ship that transported convicts to Australia. We had time to kill before checking into our rental so we took the tour. The ship was dry-docked under a large hanger but we could walk around the main floor as well as in the belly. It was pretty crazy to imagine people living in such cramped quarters for weeks and weeks at sea.

After the tour and some ice cream, we checked into our rental which was a condo overlooking a marina. The shore was busy with many birds hanging out before the tide came in. We went for a nice hike close by to wear off the sea legs and to work up our appetite for dinner. 

The next day we did what you do in the Marlborough region: drink wine. More specifically, and more fun, we took a wine tour by bicycle through a local guide service in a town about 45 minutes away. At first I was afraid it would be lame and foo-foo but it was actually quite fun and the sommeliers were awesome to listen to about the history of their wines and all the nuances of the samples we drank. Yeah, wake and drink was a new thing to me and pretty awesome (but only on vacation, right?) Thankfully, we were offered water with our wine so as to not get too tipsy. We stopped once at a winery that had an outdoor cafe where we snacked off of a beautiful charcuterie board full of wine-friendly meats, cheeses and sweets, and of course more wine. ;)

This region of NZ is world renown for its whites, mainly Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris (not Grigio) which as this Wiki article says, came out of nowhere in the 2000s. The area is home to acres and acres of vineyards, much like we have acres and acres of corn or soybean fields. The cool, moist climate, mostly the result of winds blowing inland from the sea, makes for perfect grape growing conditions. I really enjoyed the tour and the wine, of course. 

Our next stop on the map was Kaikoura. Well known for its natural whale habitats (and whale tours) this was one of the first things I booked once we determined our travel plan. We were so looking forward to this but mother nature said not today! All the tours for that day were cancelled (full refund) due to high winds and rough seas so we made the best of it. The town had a pretty interesting museum and once the weather subsided, we took a walk along the shores. An earthquake in 2016 shook this part of the island, raising the sea floor a couple meters (I learned that at the museum), thus forcing the water's edge to start anywhere from 50 - 200 yards out from what was the shoreline. So when we climbed down the steps from the parking area, we were literally on the seafloor. It was so interesting with many shells, seaweed, small bugs and fish caught in shallow puddles. The actual beach was made up of black, smooth volcanic rocks with occasional white ones scattered about. We crawled around rocks that had been underwater for who knows how long and it was just a surreal experience that certainly wasn't planned. Those are the best ones!

By the time we checked into our hotel, I was full on sick with whatever April had. Though our historic hotel was on the beach with lots of views, all I wanted to do was see the inside of my eyelids. I didn't care that I could hear the lunch crowd moving their chairs and stacking dishes below our room in the hotel's restaurant. Nor did I care that our room didn't have a bathroom and had to use the one off the hallway. I stuck in my earplugs, downed some meds and took a nap. By late afternoon, I was feeling better and we found a hiking route somewhat close by, about a half hour drive through the country. The route was an out and back that pretty much just up for an hour on what was more like an ATV track. My knee was feeling pretty good on the way up. I was worried on the descent because it was so steep and loose so I took my time. By the end, it was feeling fine and I was almost able to walk with a normal gait. Huzzah! We had so much more physical exploring to come and knowing my knee was getting better was such a relief! 

Upon our return we ate at an authentic Indian restaurant and it was some of the best we've ever had! During our meal, we decided we'd get up early the next day and watch the sunrise before hitting the road, and if we timed it right, we'd be able to see the sun set on the other coast! The sun rise was amazing. We were hoping to see the famous seals up close but now that the sea bed was higher, and the water's edge farther out, we were reduced to seeing them from afar, but we did get a nice good morning from the locals!

From Kaikoura and all that is coastal living, we headed inland, to tour a working sheep farm. Long story short, we were bringing Sweater home to meet his brothers and sisters! If you know us, you know we love sheep so this was something Ryan wanted to do for sure! So in my research I found a working sheep farm, aptly named, Middle Rock, that gave tours. We didn't know what to expect when we pulled into a well-manicured lane, lined with evergreens, shrubs and flowers. We were welcomed warmly by Lyn Nell and her grown daughter and grandson. And I mean truly welcomed as if we were old friends and they had been awaiting our arrival. They brought us into their home where we were introduced to the "farmer" and learned he was the third generation to farm the land. He was a soft-spoken man, tall and lean, who told us all about the farm and the farming industry all the while driving us around in his new Toyota Land Cruiser. And we weren't taking quaint country lanes. We were going straight up grassy, lumpy hillsides. And while us city folk were white knuckling the door handles and double checking our seat belts, ol Farmer Bruce was waxing poetic about the thousands of ewes he raises. He took us around most of the property, stopping at the edge of a milky blue river to let us walk around the shore. It was stunning. I told Bruce, to us, he was living in a National Park. After our drive around, we returned to the house, where Lyn had set out many bottle of local wine. Of course we had to please our hosts and have some. They led us out to their back patio where they had lamb chops on the grill. The rest of the time was spent just conversing about whatever came up and it was just lovely. No forced words or odd silences. They did get some Trump jabs in but all in good fun. They were a warm, welcoming family, gracious and proud of their livelihood. It was a wonderful experience that I won't soon forget. (And we did get to introduce Sweater to one of his brother sheep)!

We had a long drive ahead to get to the west coast and our wonderful hosts gave us some good advice to cut out some of the drive. Along the way we stopped for a hike at The Devil's Pool, a tall waterfall with a deep pool at the bottom. The hike was a bit strenuous as it was mainly a wooden walkway made of hundreds of steps. By the time we got to the top, we could see the falls that cascaded in ribbons down the canyon wall but we couldn't see the pool. Ryan noticed a trail leading away from the top landing so we climbed over the rail and went to see what we could see. My knee was feeling great but I still was being overly cautious, not wanting to tweak it by doing something dumb. When we made it to the top of the overgrown cow path, we found the pool alright and so did the skinny dippers that were splashing around. They paid us no mind. In fact, there was another group of youngin's starting to undress to also splash around. That was our que to get out of there!!! Upon our return, we didn't see the Eybergs so we went back to the car where we found them trying to take pictures of a local bird that was chewing on a car's weather stripping around a window. There were signs not to feed the birds nor leave valuables unattended as they will take them. Todd said when they got back to the car, it was chewing on our antenna! What a dick bird! 

The drive from there was straight out of Lord of the Rings. Huge glacial valleys surrounded by dark, craggy peaks of the Southern Alps put me right in the scenes where they would ride horseback at top speed to get to their next destination before the bad guys came. I could just picture giant flying dragons lofting from the mountain tops. There was a tourist trap along the way that had a giant Golem on the front of it. Supposedly there was a giant Gandalf on the property as well but we didn't stop to see it. Had we known this area was so amazing, we all agreed we wished we had planned to stop for a day but the sun was setting and we had to get to Hokitika to see it set.

We made it with 15 minutes to spare. And it wasn't a grand sunset but still pretty cool. And to our luck, another Instagram moment where New Zealand was spelled out with driftwood right on the beach. But before we could even get to the beach we were practically accosted by a local who mind-dumped why he lived there (hey, I'm American too) and finally as he left, gave both Todd and April green stones that he claimed were actual jade aka "green stone" as its locally called. Seems we had hit ground zero for jade carving, now a minor industry in a town that was once famous for mining gold among other things. The beach was also well known for the exorbitant amount of driftwood that makes its way to its shores. So much, that locals have sculpture contests with it.

Our rental condo was right on the beach and also across the street from a forest where glow worms lived in a grotto. We heard about such creatures and read about them but not sure what it would be like to actually see them...well, see their excretory organs, actually. And I have to admit, it was pretty damn cool. It was likened to looking up into a starry sky, only closer. There were other people in the grato, and the worms will retreat if there is a lot of noise or wind or light, so everyone was whispering and pointing their phones to the ground to see where to walk. At times there'd be no sound or light and we could see thousands of tiny, glowing pin-pricks of blue light. It was pretty impressive and a great way to end a very long, memorable day.

The next morning Ryan and I got up early to see the sun rise on the beach. And just our luck and good timing, we saw an actual Keewee bird, which is really rare, especially in the daylight since they are nocturnal.

Next on the itinerary was a couple nights in Franz Joseph, to see its famous glacier that used to flow right down to the sea. But nowadays with ever warming climate, the glaciers are retracted far back into the mountains and can only be visited by guide. Helicopter tours were a thing there and it was obvious. The sound of choppers buzzing tourists was something we had to get used to. It wasn't until the weather turned cloudy did we get some respite from the constant noise pollution. 

Upon arriving in town, our plans to hike to the glacier were thwarted. The issue was the only bridge from town to the glacier trails was under construction and they shut it down to traffic just as we arrived for an hour. So instead of wasting time in line, we parked the car in a nearby lot and went to the nearest info center to get some intel on where we could hike on this side of the bridge. After a nice cup of coffee, we headed out on a hike that would take us through some pretty dense rain forests and to a bridge that dead-ended on the other side of a shallow river that was also being dug out by some heavy machinery (so much for being away from the industrialized life). And though the hike was short, it was beautiful and rich with color and plant life unlike anything I've ever seen. We went back the way we came and then took a different trail the info center told us about that eventually took us to an abandoned mining tunnel that would be full of calf-high water. We all brought hiking sandals to change into and so glad we did. Even though the tunnel was short, we had to walk through the water, which was very COLD! But the cool part was there were glow worms in the tunnel and because it wasn't very high, we could see them close up. It made for a pretty spectacular hike and on top of that, I found a rock in the shape of Nebraska on the way. Ryan's mom collects them so I carried it all the way to the tunnel and back (and eventually home).

We were back by mid afternoon, wet and tired of being wet. We checked into our hotel which would have had an amazing view of the glacier had it not been for the low clouds that were currently the cause of all the fun killing. Not wanting to waste the daylight, Todd and April went into town to see some baby kritters and soak in a hot tub. Ryan and I opted for some more exploring so with the bridge open, we drove over to the glacier parking lot. We hiked a short way and could see the glacier at a distance, but because it was pretty late in the day, we decided it probably wasn't a good idea to try to hike to it so did a shorter hike, which actually was pretty cool. We came upon this interactive contraption, which when you cranked it, would play recordings of local birds. It was awesome. And then at the end of the trail we were on, we heard the very distinct song of a bird that sounded like R2D2. We had heard it earlier in the day when we were hiking but couldn't ever see the source. But this time, as a light rain started to fall, we were in a small clearing next to a small pond. We heard the song and within a few seconds the bird appeared on a branch above us. Ryan took a recording. It's so awesome how it seems to take a big gulp of air and then belts out this computer-sounding call! We were so stoked! What luck! We walked back to the car in the rain but the forest was so dense, we really didn't get rained on that much. We were the only ones on the trail. We took our time and noticed all the details, the smells and the textures. It was a wondrous place that once only existed in our minds. But to be there and physically experience it was another thing altogether. I'll always look back on that day fondly.

Turn up the volume!
The next morning we woke again to low clouds so hiking to Franz Josef glacier wasn't to be but not too far down the road was another, Fox Glacier. The travel books said it was equally spectacular and less crowded than FJ. That was enough for us and off we went. We arrived to an almost empty lot. The trail looked to be more of a service road built along the edge of a dried up river bed, which I assumed was where the glacier had once resided. About an hour later we were at the stopping point and could go no further without a guide. We could see the glacier but it just looked like an old dirty snow pile, like what we see at home after the snow plows have gone through the neighborhoods. Meh. But the valley that we hiked through was amazing! Sheer black, jagged walls stood at attention over the valley. A narrow river of snow melt flowed downstream from the glacier in the middle of the rocky field. Every so often a sign on the trail would say "this is where the glacier ended" and give the date. At one time it was almost to the main road that we drove in on. From our vantage point, it was barely visible from 700 feet away and only accessible by heli or guided hikes. From where I stood, it didn't seem worth the cost for either, but I have to admit, I was curious as to what it looked like higher up. 

As we hiked back to the car, the barrage of tourists was coming at us. We were glad to be going the other way. (We really wanted NZ to ourselves). 

Our next destination was Wanaka but we took our time getting there as we had a free day to explore, with no commitments. So when we stopped for a coffee at what we thought was just another roadside cafe, and discovered it was also a salmon hatchery, we decided to have our lunch to stay. Outside of the rickety wood structure were 4 hexagon shaped tanks with large nets hanging over the sides. We watched as others through fish food over the railing into one of the tanks causing the waters dark, smooth surface to suddenly come to life with hundreds of salmon vying for the nibbles. And just like that, they'd all disappear below the surface and all was calm.

We had a wonderful lunch of fresh salmon sandwiches. I bought some souvenirs as well in the gift shop next door. As we left, April decided she wanted to feed the fish. While watching her, we chatted it up with a couple of the workers and learned there were thousands of salmon in each of the tanks. It didn't seem possible!! And each tank was for the salmon at different stages. It was so cool. Kinda smelly but very interesting! So glad we stopped.

As we continued down the coast, most of the views were of forested hillsides. A couple times when we were close to the water, we pulled over to explore a beach or a view of the Tasman Sea. One had a viewing tower and some pretty cool rocks on the shore. You never know what you might see at these little inlets, so it was always worth a look. 

Soon enough the highway went inland and again we were surrounded by forests and rolling hills. When the horizon finally opened up, we were awarded the views of a giant lake and then another. The hills seemed, with not beaches, seemed to be growing right out of the water. It was breathtaking. The town of Wanaka was butted up against one of the bodies of water, Lake Wanaka NZ's 4th largest lake and not far from it was Lake Hawea. Lake Wanaka was glacier fed, its deepest point some 300 meters. That's deep! 

Our rental was right off their little shopping and restaurant district, similar to the Old Market, and walking distance to a tiny lot of various food trucks. SCORE! Being able to walk around was such a nice relief after being in the car for hours. We found a hiking trail close by that gave us a view of the town and the lakes. It seemed clear to us this was ground zero for big adventure activities. The town seemed younger and had a hip vibe. Lots of people zipping around on skateboards and bikes. We felt right at home! After a nice meal at an Indian restaurant, we relaxed at the house. It had a wonderful sun porch perfect for just that kind of activity.

The next day was our big day out and honestly, the one I was the most nervous about. We signed up for a guided canyoning excursion. When we arrived at the outfitters office on the beach, it was closed up and locked. Seemed we were a bit early. The sun was out so we hung out and watched the water. Soon enough the doors opened and we were greeted by a guide. More people started showing up and we were informed that all the canyoning routes were cancelled due to rain except for the easiest route. There had been a pretty strong storm the night before and the water runoff was just too dangerous or the crossings just too high. The four of us were able to still have our own guide while the rest of the group, about a dozen or so, went with two other guides. We drove for about 45 minutes through some farmland until we went through a cow gate and pulled off the road. There, we stood while the guides pulled out all the gear. We were sized up and each given harnesses, wet suits, undergarments, helmets, etc. The showed us how to wrap them all up in the wet suit to create a makeshift backpack. We had to hike up a steep, grassy cow pasture and it was hot. They didn't want us hiking up in the hot sun in all those layers that were meant to keep us warm! 

As the four of us and our guide, who was this little stocky woman from Argentina, and a total badass, made our way up the field, the sun beat down. She would stop a few times to give us some tips and to let the group above us move on before we got to the next meeting point. At the final stop before "dropping into the canyon" which, by the way, we couldn't even see as it was in treeline, it was our last chance to pee before getting into the wet suites. Peeing on a steep hillside in the presence of strangers is just a funny situation. The tall grass hid our hinees luckily. I have to say, putting on a skin-tight wetsuit with a bum shoulder is freaking impossible. Ryan had to help me and it was even hard for him!

After a few more meters of hiking, we entered tree line and we could hear the water roaring like an airplane engine. Our guide had given us some sign language earlier for just this reason. We would not always be able to hear her commands. 

There aren't enough words in my vocabulary to describe this experience. I was terrified. I had full confidence in my guide but zero in myself. Thankfully, Todd was canyoning like a champ, going first of every descent, so at least I knew someone could keep me from drowning. Or at the very least, laugh as I went under for the last time. But in all seriousness, I was so freaking glad we didn't do the other route we signed up for, which was more intermediate level, whatever that meant. This was already over our heads but our guide was in total control. We were always attached to a rope (except for the time that I unhooked before hooking back in and got my ass chewed for it). 

The first and hardest rapel was the first one. We had to rap down the wall next to a gushing fall and then midway, she would give us the signal to kick off the wall really hard to get to the other side of the fall, where we would continue to rap down to the pool at the bottom. Todd made it look easy but I knew that sideways effort was going to be my undoing and after watching April struggle, my thoughts were getting less and less positive. When it was my turn, I stood on the edge, leaned back and leaped. My feet hit the wall and after a few raps, she gave me the signal to swing over. I pushed off as hard as I could and didn't make it, only to get pummeled with water. I started to panic. I swung back to the wall and tried again. Our guide said there was a lip in the middle of the fall where water was being pushed over creating an arc or a bubble and if we could make it there, we could rest before continuing on. When I made it to the bubble, I was a mental wreck. I was hyperventilating. I couldn't see and of course it was so loud! I hung there for probably 30 seconds while I calmed myself down by taking long breaths. My attempt to get the other side of the waterfall wasn't graceful but I finally made it and down into pool. All I wanted was to be out of the water. I swam towards the Eybergs who were hanging onto a rock with arms extended. I was so glad for them!!!

The remaining rapels, slides and scrambles were just as exhilarating. At one time we sat down in the rushing fall at the edge of slanted wall and our guide said lay down, put our hands on our chests and under no circumstances were we to extend them or look down or do anything else until we hit the water. And hit we did. It was probably a 20 foot slide down and I hit with such force! Later, when asked why we weren't supposed to look down, she said because our body would most likely follow causing a face plant or belly flop. Glad I did what I was told. 

After a few hours, we came to the end of the adventure. We ziplined from one side of the canyon to the other and then again and before walking back out of the woods where we started. I was so glad to not only be done but also relieved that my knee did great! And my shoulder wasn't as much as an issue as I thought it would be. I figured if I was going to injure my knee again, it was going to be scrambling over wet, slippery rocks. And I wasn't sure if I was going to have difficulty repelling but it all worked out just fine. 

Arriving back at the van, an array of lunch foods lay on tarps on the ground for us to grab. It was a bit low budget for such an expensive experience, eating in a cow pasture basically, but we didn't have a choice and I was starving!

Later that night we celebrated on the beach with much better ambiance: a burrito from the neighborhood food truck and some Feagan-made cocktails and local beer. After dinner, we strolled the beach and watched the sunset. We were in love with Wanaka and felt like we bonded with it more than the others.

The next morning was a long drive to our next destination but we broke it up with stops along the way. One was the famous Bradrona started as a breast cancer awareness stunt that went viral. Thousands of bras adorn this fence along the main highway.

We just had to stop at this viewpoint!

Our next adventure: Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park, one of the wettest places on earth, getting upwards of 250 inches of rain a year. Natural and temporary waterfalls are its draw, as well as its purity and remoteness. After a rain, hundreds of waterfalls can be seen cascading down rock faces, as the rain-soaked moss from above release all but what they can hold. 

We rented a place in the town of Te Aneau. It was a sleepy little tourist town on a small lake and the typical business district full of little tourist shops and restaurants. We walked off our car ride with a stroll to the lakefront via the neighborhoods, which were clean and quiet, with many yards landscaped with beautiful flowers and tropical plants. It was very green, expectedly, and had a clean smell to the air. On our trek around the hood, we found, of course, an awesome food truck that we returned to again. 

Our guided ship tour started early the next morning and we were instructed to get there early to avoid the traffic. One road in and one road out. The drive was pretty, lots of green rolling hills and then we entered a tunnel that went down, down, down and upon exiting, it was as if we had traveled through a portal back to the ice ages. Rolling hills were replace by grand, black walls. And because it had rained a bit the night before, a few waterfalls were visible. The road continued down, switchbacking in and out of the canyon. I stuck my head and phone out the window more than once because I couldn't always see the top of the canyon sitting in the car and I didn't want to miss a thing. 

We finally reached the bottom and the road flattened out. We found the parking lot, which to our surprise, was empty but for one other car. We had beaten the mass of humanity that was to come so we gathered up everything we were going to need and made our way to the marina. The doors were closed and luckily, it was a gorgeous morning. Aside from a couple other people, we had the area to ourselves and took full advantage it. The moon was still in the sky as the sun had yet to rise above the edge of the cliffs. The bird songs and insects were a joyful noise, bringing us completely present in the moment. If we held our breath, time would stop and we could imagine what it may have been like before Captain Cook found this place.

Soon the doors to the tour company opened and we quickly found our ticket counter and got all of that handled before the rest of the world descended upon it. Eventually, we were wandered outside to the docks to our waiting vessel. There were about a dozen or so tour boats, ours being pretty large with a top deck and main level. Our tour came with breakfast and it was the first thing we did when we boarded so we could enjoy the rest of the time outside. We learned a lot about the Sound itself, which is actually a fiord, and it's unique in that it's fed by not only the sea but also by glaciers causing a phenomenon known as deep water emergence, where fish and wildlife who normally live in deep, cold depths, live at shallower depths in the Sound because the cold glacial water mimics the same temperatures. The second part of our tour was visiting the The Milford Discovery Centre & Underwater Observatory, a floating museum of sorts, where we not only launched kanoes into the sound but also were able to walk down a spiral starcase into a round, windowed room that looked out into the murky water. The guides were clear that they don't feed the animals that live there. They strictly observe, so whatever comes in view is natural. We saw all kinds of fish, coral, snails and jellyfish. It was all very very cool. 

We were done by lunch time and because it was sunny, we decided to take advantage and go on a hike or two. We grabbed a sandwich at a little cafe and drove to a trail head that took us over a gushing gorge. (After our canyoning trip a few days ago, I'll never look at a waterfall the same way again). It was a short out and back so we decided to do a longer hike to get up above treeline. And the views were beyond words. The colors, the plantlife, the air, the sounds...all new and all wondrous. It all just confirmed that we wanted to stay longer, see more and go deeper into this mysterious place that time forgot, and thankfully, despite seeing up to a million visitors a year, man hasn't managed to destroy.

Our final stop on this tour down under was Queenstown. After being away from humanity for a bit, it was a bit of a let-down to be in such a busy town but at the same time, there was a lot to do and see. The town is built on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, with most of the quaint entertainment district at its shores with the neighborhoods built above it on steep slopes of the Remarkables mountain range. Think San Francisco, but on a small-town scale. The roads in the neighborhoods went straight up or switch-backed to accommodate the slope, which made for awesome views from our rental! We had five days here and the menu of to-dos was long and full of firsts! 

First on the list was making my dream come true: bungee jumping off of the bridge where the adventure sport was invented. I read about it in Outside Magazine over twenty years ago and had hoped one day I could go there and do it. I've already parachute jumped and loved it so I knew this would be on par. Before we even checked into our rental, we decided to do this first to take advantage of a warm, sunny day. Upon arrival, there wasn't much to see but once through the doors of the AJ Hackett Bungy visitor center, it was all thrills and Disney-esque eye candy. We had to walk down a winding walk-way to the floor of the place where you could see out to the wooden bridge and the gorge. Inside where tv monitors showing live action of the jumpers and footage of other jumpers who were purchasing their videos. At $200 a jump, this place was bleeding money and it was glorious! And also confidence inspiring. They weren't sparing a dime and my hope is that also applied to their safety protocol. They weighed me when I checked in and then again when I went out to staging point where they filmed each participant to get them in the zone. Thumping club music was cranked to 11 and even at ten in the morning, the mood was energetic. As I stood in line, two women in front of me were having second thoughts. One finally jumped (the mom) which finally prompted the daughter to follow her down. Then it was my turn. I sat down on a bench while a team of two got me locked and loaded, each checking the work of the other. I liked that I was tethered to one of them the entire time until I got out on the diving board. Once there, I waved to the camera that was mounted above me and then to the one that was mounted next to me and also to Ryan who was standing at a viewpoint on the side of the canyon. I peeked over the edge and for the first time, I got a bit queasy but no turning back now! Standing out there, I told the guide I'd like to touch the water, and though they can't guarantee that I would, I had to prepare so he said to keep my hands above my head (shoulder didn't like that) and to tuck my chin to my chest (no face planting). He counted back from 5 and after one, I bent my knees and dove off into the abyss. I naturally shut my eyes and waited for the water to meet me but that never happened. When I finally peeked out of one eye, I was already bungeeing back up towards the bridge. Oh! I thought, that was really smooth. I was expecting more of a jolt but that never happened. The video looks kinda violent as I rag doll mid-air but it didn't feel that way to me. Maybe because I was laughing so much. It was so much fun. When I finally stopped boinging around, I was rescued by the two guys sitting in a raft. I want that job! They hoisted a long PVC pipe up to me as I was hanging like Spider Man, until I could grab hold. Then I was lowered down into the arms of a Frenchman who, in his best swooning English, was saying, "Come to me, my baby." I was a giggling toddler, drunk on adrenaline. As soon as I saw Ryan I ran up to meet him and his hug. Not sure who was the most relieved. HA! Afterwards, we of course, bought the entire photo/video package to be relived again and again. Totes worth it. Jumping from that bridge was a huge check mark on my life's bucket list. Not sure what can top it but I should probably try to find out!

The time in QT was more freeform. With so many outfitters in the area (seriously, there were more outfitter stores than actual stores) we left it open to whatever we were feeling that day. April's cold came back with a vengeance and they guys were now suffering as well. We didn't let it stop us! On a day that April gave in and rested, Ryan and I went for a long hike up a popular route called the Queenstown Track. It wound its way above town through forests of large evergreens that were brought to NZ to help give it a more ski-town look. Unfortunately, they overtook the native trees and killed all the fauna so there was a program underway to get rid of them and there were signs allowing people to pull out sapplings that they were growing along the trail. The climb was easy and wide. We came upon a cairn garden, where many stacked stone sculptures, put there by hikers of bygone days, stood in remembrance of their makers. Some of the large trees had tiny doors nailed to them and if they opened, lay notes and trinkets; tokens to the forest gods? Anyway, made for cool instagram photos! 

At the top of the hike was a remarkable view of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. A giant sculpture was at the top named the Basket of Dreams and the view beyond it framed those dreams beautifully. It was one of my favorite views of the trip. Also, there were goats up there and we had a fun time trying to get close to them for photos!

Some other adventures we had involved water and air. We did a Jet Boat ride through a canyon on a shallow, winding river. What is a jet boat ride? Well, in short, picture flying down a twisting river at high speed, directly into a wall of a canyon or a large rock, only to turn at the last possible second and avoid sudden death. Do that about 15 times as well as turning 360s at said speed and then turn around and do it again on the way back. OMG that was AMAZEBALLS! I was laughing and screaming, happy and terrified all at once and all I could think of was how I wished my 84 year old dad could be there. Wow, that was a riot. And I have to note that April was being a sport. She was not feeling good at all, yet was a trooper through the whole thing! 

We did another hike up to the top of where the gondola drops the world off. OMG, that place was a zoo but understandably. Not only were there parajumpers launching off one side but mountain bikers were dropping in on the other. Not to mention the go-cart track that everyone (but me) took turns doing. Though the view again was ridiculous, so were the crowds and I wanted to get out of there yesterday. We took the gondola down and walked around a bit until the rain forced us back to the house.

On our last day, we didn't have anything planned. April was feeling more like herself but wasn't up for anything to extreme. So how about hang gliding? Though she wasn't on board with that plan, she was cool with going on the same hike up the Queenstown Hill Track while the rest of us made plans to launch ourselves off the side of a hill. Because when in Rome, er, New Zealand! 

I have to say, hang gliding, if I lived in a more mountainous state, could easily become my new mountain biking habit. It was really fun, quite calming actually, almost meditative once we got off the ground. I was surprised that Ryan, who's afraid of heights, agreed to try it and admitting later that day, he was scoping the internet for costs for a hang glider. Yeah, it was that cool! All I can say is it's exactly like you thought it would be like as a little kid, which I pretty much turned into as we flew over the hillsides. It was a great ending to a magical dream trip.

And we certainly didn't want it to end. The trip home was not something we were looking forward to and it sucked. We spent that last remaining hours before our drive to the airport outside. Once past the check in gate, it was air travel hell! As we landed in the US, we were told our connecting flight was cancelled so we had to spend 10 hours in San Francisco before the next one. So instead of walking like the dead around the airport, we opted for an Uber to the Warf and despite the cold and rain, we walked around, drank coffee, looked at seals, stopped at a pub famous for hot toddys (perfecto) and topped it all off with a giant boat of sushi, because you know, San Fran! We finally made it back home about 12 hours later than planned. It was lunch time here and snow on the ground. I went directly to work so I could stay awake (I was out of vacation time actually) and try to get my biological clock back on US time.

It wasn't until days later that I really was able to bring the whole trip into focus. I relived it all each time we shared a story or a photo. If we are ever to go back, we'd definitely go the route of just the South Island and all backcountry. Seeing it the way we did, as tourists, was not our usual way but it was the best way to see as much as we could, which was the plan. The country is set up for tourists. In fact, it was pretty rare that we met a local. Most were from somewhere else, drawn by the mystery, the magic and the natural beauty. I can relate.