Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Picking Our Way North


Day 28:  Nelson to Picton, NZ.  After a very interesting conversation with our innkeeper Max this morning, we departed from Nelson around 8:30, under cloudless blue skies, still thinking about a Florida couple we had just heard about from Max.  Apparently they were naively operating from an American interstate highway mindset when they did their New Zealand planning, for they decided it was feasible to drive from Queenstown to Nelson in a day.  As the crow flies, the distance is about 350 miles.  But their rental car had no wings, so they had to travel by road, adding another 160 miles to their one-day journey.  Make no mistake, this drive bore no resemblance to the effortless 500-mile jaunt on the wide, straight, level ribbon of I-95 from Savannah to Miami.

This trip did have one facet in common with the Savannah-Miami route.  You could drive it on a single highway—the two-lane State Highway 6—but that's where the similarities ended.  Getting from Queenstown to Nelson requires traversing a half dozen mountain ranges, winding along hundreds of sharp curves and switchbacks, slithering along serpentine sections of coastal highway with sheer dropoffs and, as often as not, no guardrail as a safety net.  Throw in slow-downs for the many one-lane bridges and single-lane strips of road in the mountains, plus the novelty of left-lane driving, and it's obvious this trip will push past 12 hours.  And it did.

The hapless couple arrived at the hotel in Nelson near midnight, having driven through some of New Zealand's most beautiful scenery in the dark.  And before sunrise this morning, they sped off to Picton to catch a ferry to the North Island.  Having made similar kinds of miscalculations of our own, we felt really bad for them.  They flew halfway around the world to dash from place to place and miss much of what they came here to see.

After retracing our Monday route back to Havelock, the green-lipped mussel capital, we turned onto Queen Charlotte Drive, a 25-mile sinuous route edged with native forests.  The road continued winding lazily up and downhill past endless bays and coves and sounds, and even arms, until it meandered around one last bend into the town of Picton.

One-third of New Zealand's timber exports go to China, their second largest trading partner.
Just before we rolled into town we got a look at Waimahara Wharf in Shakespeare Bay, the exit port for some of the millions of logs exported from New Zealand each year.  And in Momonangi Bay, we spotted the Spirit of New Zealand, a 150-ft square rigger tall ship built for and used as the focus of a youth development program.

The core program accepts forty trainees, ages 15 to 18, from all over New Zealand.  Split evenly between male and female, the group is set afloat on a ten-day voyage to share the challenge of sailing a square rigger.  From their rigorous adventure, trainees reap confidence and friendships as well as a new set of skills.  And yes, more than a few bragging rights.

Spirit of New Zealand
Once in Picton, we checked into the Harbour View Motel, where our studio room featured a balcony overlooking the recently remodeled town marina.  Like many other tourists who visit Picton, we were there to catch the ferry from New Zealand's South Island to the North.  After a flavorful lunch at Le Cafe, a local bistro in the heart of town, we visited the ferry terminal to talk to the Hertz agent about the rental car process and to see the vessel we'll be riding to Wellington.

Picton port
We had heard that the international car rental companies do not permit their cars to cross from one of New Zealand's islands to the other.  As part of a single rental agreement, you drop off the car you've been driving on one island at the ferry terminal.  At your destination, the rental company has a similar car waiting at the terminal.  We were never able to determine the reasoning behind this rule, but it saved us the $100 ferry fare for the car, so we certainly did not object to the policy.

At the Picton port this afternoon, we spotted Sarah, a petite 30-something vagabond from Britain.  Wearing an 80-liter backpack on her back, a 25-liter one on her chest, and large tote bags on each shoulder, she was hard to miss. And her appearance stoked our curiosity about her travel story.  Surely she must be carrying a tent, sleeping bag and other camping gear with a load that large.  Wrong.

Sarah chuckled when we asked if she were camping, instead blaming her lengthy travel schedule for her excess baggage, which must have weighed 60 pounds or more.  She explained that she is in the final third of a nine-month trip, with three months in Southeast Asia, three in Australia, and three in New Zealand.  We were quite eager to hear about her adventures and why she would carry so much "stuff" around with her, but she had a ferry to catch, and since she laughed in response to Ken's inquiry about her penning a book about her travels, we'll never know.

Picton Town Marina
While I worked on the blog this afternoon, Ken crossed the Coathanger Bridge to Shelley Beach on the opposite side of the marina for a hike on the scenic Harbour View Trail.  Since we must report to the ferry terminal by 7 a.m. tomorrow, we turned in early to rest up for our North Island adventures.

Daily Stats:
  • Started in Nelson, ended in Picton
  • Mileage - 78  (Trip total: 14,986)
  • Weather - 39° to 57°, sunny
  • Overloaded British tourists - 1
  • Frenzied American tourists - 2
  • Gas price - $6.96/gallon

Monday, September 29, 2014

Salt of the Earth


Day 27:  Kaikoura to Nelson, NZ.  A cold morning greeted us in Kaikoura as we saw the temperature dip down to 35°.  A fresh coating of snow graced the peaks of the nearby Sewards and collaborated with a brilliant sun to create a stunning backdrop for our continuing drive north on SH-1.   It seemed a bit odd to watch the morning sun rising above the Pacific Ocean, which is on the west coast back home.

Our inadequate attempt to capture the beautiful scenery
About 14 miles north of Kaikoura, we pulled over at the Ohau Point Lookout to spy on the breeding colony of New Zealand fur seals that live there.  Judging by the air temp, the water sloshing into the rocky shoreline at high tide this morning must have been icy.  But these guys have a double fur coat and were not bothered, especially the young ones.  Dozens of the little guys were having a grand old time diving and frolicking in a semi-sheltered rock pool.  When an occasional high wave surged into their play area, it only seemed to jack up the excitement, like kids on a roller coaster.  In the fashion of their human counterparts, the adults lounged in the sun on nearby rocks, occasionally taking time from their napping to observe the antics of their children.

Seal pool at Ohau Point
As the road wound inland and then back to the coast, we entered yet another splendid area of plump verdant hills peppered with thousands of sheep.  A major center of sheep farming, New Zealand has the world's highest sheep population density.  According to a recent report, New Zealand is home to more than 30 million sheep, almost seven times its human population.  Ewe couldn't prove it by us and we're not trying to fleece you or pull the wool over your eyes, but we herd that a farmer near Christchurch rammed his way into the Guniness book with a world record flock numbering 384,143 sheep.  (Please don't lambaste us and forgive the baaaad puns.)

Have you any wool?
Nearing the town of Blenheim, our attention was diverted by signs to the Lake Grassmere Saltworks.  Snowy mountains of salt lured us down a side road to the plant where more than 60,000 tons of salt are harvested annually.  Sea water is pumped into the 1,700-acre lake during the summer when the Marlborough region's long hours of sun and strong winds begin the evaporation process that increases the water's salinity.  As nature does its work, the water is transferred to a series of concentrating ponds for further evaporation.  When the brine reaches saturation point, it goes into crystallization ponds for the final stage of dehydration.

Lake Grassmere Saltworks
At the crossroads in Blenheim, we turned west on SH-6 toward Nelson, our destination for the day.  We had entered yet another New Zealand wine-producing area, this one called the Wairau Valley region, New Zealand's premier and best known, with 130 wineries.  As in the area north of Christchurch yesterday, vineyards lined both side of the highway.  These were industrial-size wineries with multiple massive storage tanks and significant processing plants.

Wither Hill Winery
The further we drove into the Marlborough region, the higher the roadside views became as we drove through the Richmond Range.  After miles of pastured hillsides, we stopped for lunch in Havelock, the self-proclaimed 'Green-Lipped Mussel Capital of the World.'  We struggled to decide whether we should eat at the Havelock Cafe, the Havelock Lodge, the Havelock Inn, or one of the other creatively named restaurants, finally settling on one that offered some vegetarian options in addition to all those emerald shell mollusks.

Green-Lipped Mussels
Arriving in Nelson in the early afternoon, we decided to go seek a couple of letterboxes west of the town after checking in at The Sails hotel.  Our search for the first box took us to a park at the end of the narrow, twisting Riwaka Valley Road, where we set out on the Riweka Resurgence Trail.  The path was sheltered by a very dense, very moist rain forest.  Moisture was so thick your exhaled breath could be seen as vapor.  Near a picnic area off the trail, we followed a narrow track into the forest seeking a head-high stump leaning toward the river.  Though we located the stump, no treasure was hiding within or nearby.  Its close proximity to the river may well have been behind its disappearance.Though the letterbox was AWOL, we continued out the trail to a platform overlooking the cave where the Riwaka River bubbles up from its underground journey.

Riwaka Resurgence Trail
Our second letterbox target had not been reported as found in more than five years, so we held out little hope of locating it, but it had been planted in the popular beach town of Kaiteriteri (kie-teery-teery), just a few miles away.  With a name that charming, it was a must-see.  Alas, the box was also MIA, but the beach was quite attractive with a caravan village that looked to be at maximum capacity.

Kaiteriteri beach
Though our innkeeper's rapid fire list of recommendations when we checked in included a couple of restaurants that were not seafood-centered, we opted to continue our self-catering habit and picked up dinner supplies at the local New World supermarket on our way back to the hotel.

Tomorrow we have a short drive to the quaint coastal town of Picton, where we'll end our stay on New Zealand's South Island.
Daily Stats:
  • Started in Kaikoura, ended in Nelson
  • Mileage -  254    (Trip total: 14,908)
  • Weather - 35° to 62°, sunny
  • Grains of salt - 452,752,967,021,489,111
  • Missing letterboxes - 2
  • Green-lipped mussels - 18,402

More Photos from Today

The morning sun over the Pacific
Ohau Point
Really?  Outside the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Blenheim
A collection of new Toyotas parked in a pasture near the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre

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