A week later…
Nearly a week ago I returned from an extensive trip which took me to four countries, two continents (not including my home continent), and both hemispheres. It was quite a journey but an experience I will never forget.
Let me first lay out a few things about this trip first because you will probably think I am a little crazy by the end of it. The challenge I set for myself for this trip was to cover as many miles and see as many places I could in a two week time frame. If you choose to continue reading my posts about my trip in the weeks to come, you will see both the challenges this trip presented me and the choices that had to be made, but also the excitement and appreciation I gained from it. It was not a leisurely trip by any means, nor was I expecting it to be. But it was my goal and challenge to show that preparation and efficiency can get you to a lot of neat places in a short time frame. Okay I admit, The Amazing Race played a part in inspiring me to do this.
This visit to the South Island of New Zealand was my first. I have always wanted to visit this seemingly beautiful place and spent months leading up to this trip reading and researching about it. Lord of the Rings marathons were also in the mix. New Zealand forms the southwest corner of the Polynesian Triangle, which encompasses the numerous islands and cultures of the Polynesian people including the Maori, which call New Zealand (or Aotearoa in the native language) home.
Getting to New Zealand is pretty straightforward. Usually from the United States, one would hop a plane on the west coast and fly non-stop to the largest city in New Zealand, Auckland, where you could transfer to other flights around the country’s two main islands. In order for my itinerary to work with all the places I was going, it was best to book through Virgin Australia and would require a layover in Brisbane, Australia along the way. This added a few hours to the journey, but it wasn’t bad as Virgin Australia is a nice airline to fly on. It could also be that I had an empty row of seats to my self to spread out on the 14 hour flight. I had also skipped an entire day by crossing the International Dateline. I had left Los Angeles on March 9th and when I landed in Brisbane, it was March 11th. I never got to experience March 10th. I hope someone enjoyed it in my place. Upon arriving in Brisbane, I changed planes to fly to Queenstown, a town on the South Island.
Queenstown has only a small airport and limited flights. The far majority of people flying to the South Island fly to the much larger airport in Christchurch, also the island’s largest city. This would have added several hours of driving to get where I wanted to go though. So I flew right into Queenstown. To put it in perspective, the South Island (that’s its official English name, the Maori name is Te Waipounamu) is about 2/3 the size of Utah, my home state, in square miles. It is the 12th largest island on the planet, making it larger than islands like Cuba and Ireland. The island is very rural. Only two cities on the island have a population over 100,000. When you also consider the island is very mountainous with a wide variety of other landscapes, one can see it would take a long time to get from one part of the island to the other.
My first impressions of New Zealand were that aside of the scattered towns and farmland, it is left quite untouched by humans. On the South Island, you won’t find freeways, large ports, skyscrapers, or other large man made objects or at least very few of them. The South Island is quite rural whereas the North Island is a little more populated and is home to Auckland, the largest city in Polynesia and Wellington, the capital.
In comparison to the rest of the world and when it was inhabited by humans, New Zealand was a late bloomer. It wasn’t until the 14th century when the Maori occupied the islands. Which is quite remarkable when you consider the large size of the islands and that other parts of Polynesia were occupied hundreds of years before then and are located even more remotely. Around the same time humans finally stepped foot on the pristine land the Ottoman Empire was beginning to take shape on the other side of the world, the Aztecs started settling large city-states in present day Mexico, the Vikings had already visited the North American continent, and the European Renaissance was beginning. It wasn’t until the 17th century when Europeans made landfall here, first by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, then by Captain James Cook of Britain in the latter half of the 1700’s. Unlike many other Polynesian islands, Europeans became the dominant ethnicity and today the Maori account for 15% of the population.
New Zealand is very protective of its land, plant, and wildlife and rightfully so. People arriving into New Zealand from other countries are forbidden from bringing in certain foods, plants, seeds, or anything that could alter the ecosystem. Belongings which were ever used in the outdoors of another country are subject to inspection for soil or other contaminants and must be completely clean before being given the ok to leave the customs area of the airport.
Queenstown is known for being a mecca for adventurists. It is home to all sorts of adrenaline pumping activities and is well situated for outdoor enthusiasts to have a base of operations in a well-appointed city while they explore the area. Flying into Queenstown was a thrill in itself as you pass over countless lakes, glaciers, rivers, mountains, and other beautiful landscapes. It felt like flying into a different world. It is no wonder why this area was heavily used in representing Middle Earth in The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. I couldn’t wait to get out and explore.
I arrived late in the afternoon and was quite jet-lagged. It seemed having my own row on the long flight across the ocean still didn’t guarantee any sleep. So the plan was to spend most the evening in Queenstown where accommodations were and just get the lay of the land. I opted to partake in one activity though, which was to take the Skyline Gondola up to the observation area overlooking the city from a nearby mountain. From there, one could simply eat at the restaurants or admire the beautiful views or you could partake in bungee jumping or a luge type activity back down the mountain. The weather was perfect. It was late summer in the Southern Hemisphere and a few trees were just barely starting to show some autumn color.
The Skyline complex is also a good place to start off on a number of hiking trails around the area. I decided I would hike through the Ben Lomond Track area. I hiked through some dense forest areas hoping to find a spot that opened up to be able to see the sunset, which was fast approaching. I decided to run up the trail as I could see there would be an opening towards the top of the mountain. By now I was more than drained. But I had a stunning view of the area surrounding Queenstown with Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkable Mountains (that’s the name of them), and the city was just below me. Very few people were around but an occasional hiker would come say hi as I was sitting, resting, and getting my camera out to take some pictures before sunset. Two para-gliders also had hiked up behind me and launched themselves off the mountain and flew off onto the horizon.
I knew I probably should get back down the mountain as I wasn’t really prepared to be hiking at night. I wasn’t even planning on doing a hike in the first place, but I couldn’t resist. I took a few pictures on the way back…
It became night anyway. I sat on the side of a hill looking down on the town as the sky kept getting darker and the stars began to pop out. I had my camera set up on a tripod and was taking some long exposure shots here and there. As I sat playing with shutter and aperture settings, a couple who was out exploring the area came up to me, intrigued with my camera. They were a polite but curious couple visiting from China. They spoke little English and I certainly spoke no words of their language so communication was challenging. But I was able gather they were wondering what I was taking a picture of, as my camera was at that point pointed somewhat upwards. I told them I was taking pictures of the stars as I motioned my arm across the sky. They looked upwards and both reacted somewhat amazed at what they saw, like it was something they weren’t used to. I asked them if they were able to see stars at night where they lived in China and the man told me no, which was the answer I expected given the light pollution in China and in many urbanized areas of the world where you cannot see the stars at all. But New Zealand offers some of the most beautiful night skies anywhere.
After exchanging pleasantries for a few minutes, we said goodbye to each other. I returned to my camera and shortly after I noticed an object casually moving across the sky. It wasn’t the brightest object in the sky but it was the only one moving. I quickly re-positioned the tripod and began taking a long exposure photo of what I believed was the International Space Station flying overhead. As the shutter remained open on the camera, I pulled my phone out and opened the Star Walk app which confirmed my suspicions, it was in fact the ISS. Part of me regrets not chasing down the Chinese couple I had just bid farewell to so I could point it out to them but it wasn’t worth the risk. After watching the station move so effortlessly from one end of the horizon to the other, suddenly being 8,000 miles from home didn’t seem so far to me.
By the time I made my way to the bottom of the mountain and started strolling through the Queenstown streets, it was well past 10:00. After some much needed dinner, I finally got some rest before the next day’s demanding schedule.
More from New Zealand to come…