New Zealand, Part 2

9 November: In which my knees endure hell, but we sleep in Paradise.
We were up at 8:00 and on the road by 9:00, having been picked up at Scallywags by the folks at Dart Stables.  I was still sick as a dog, sinuswise, but that didn’t dampen my spirits, and of course Kate’s spirits were utterly undampenable in any event, what with a two day horse trek in front of us.  Just the drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy was wonderful, as we followed the mountain’s edge with a blue lake spread out to our left.  The van stopped at one particularly nice spot so we could take pictures.  We did, and here’s the pic.

On the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy (click to enlarge)
On the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy (click to enlarge)

Glenorchy is a tiny rural community with a population of about 200 people.  There are 36 school students (or varying ages), all in a single class, and every adult in the town owns a horse.   Horses are Glenorchy’s thing – in fact, once a year a couple thousand people show up in town for a big day of informal horse racing.   The van drove us to the Dart Stables HQ, where with little preamble we were assigned horses and introduced to our guides.  My horse was Sully, a brown Clydesdale-Thoroughbred mix who (more impressively) was ridden by a Rider of Rohan in Return of the King.  Kate got a huge mostly-Clydesdale beast named Brian.  And off we went!

It wasn’t quite the not-forgetting associated with bicycle riding, but most horse-riding basics came back to me after a short while.  Kate, as she always is when on horseback, was reliable, competent and overjoyed.   For the first hour or so we were part of a group of six riders, mostly walking and occasionally trotting.  (Nothing brings back the memory of how to post like not posting!  Ouch!)  My knees, already wobbly from the Milford Track, started aching right away.  Fortunately I had stunningly splendiferous scenery (a phrase directly from my journal) to keep me distracted.

Sully mugs for the camera
Sully mugs for the camera

Soon Kate and I split from the main group (since we were the only ones on the overnight) along with our guide, Kelly.  We rode leisurely through the wide green Rees valley, dotted with sheep and lupines, between snow-capped peaks.   Wildlife was all around us.  Birds called “oyster catchers” would defend their nests by charging us noisily and then swerving off at the last minute.   We saw several pairs of paradise ducks, after which the area – Paradise –  is named.  Some hares appeared suddenly and went haring off at our approach.  And of course there were lots of sheep and lambs, baaaaaa-ing happily. For our only break in the day’s seven hours of riding, Kelly stopped us at a nice spot on a riverbank and set out a fine lunch on a blanket.  Afterward we followed the river for a stretch, crossing and recrossing the Rees river.  My knees took a turn for the worse after lunch and started aching furiously, so I didn’t trot or canter much.  Kate got quite a few canters in on Brian, by letting Kelly and I get ahead and then running to catch up.    Kate also tried jumping a log on some fairly flat ground, but Brian wasn’t really up for that, sending Kate tumbling to the ground.   Sully, being a movie-star, didn’t like to get his feet wet or even muddy.  He was willing to try scraping me off on trees to keep his hooves dry, but other than that we got along fairly well.

View of the Rees Valley as we had lunch
View of the Rees Valley as we had lunch

Near the end of the day we walked along the shores of Diamond Lake and then into the edge of Mt. Aspiring National Park.  This was a lovely silver beech forest, with dripping bead-curtains of water falling down mossy cliffs through dappled sunlight.  (It was also the location where the battle of Amon Hen  — where Boromir was slain — was filmed in the Fellowship of the Ring.)  We wound our way through this forest for another hour or so, and finally into a clearing named “Garden of Eden.”  It was a charming spot of field with a tiny house where we would spend the night.  (I do mean tiny – a small kitchen and two small bedrooms.)

The first order of business was heating water for tea and de-tacking the horses.  Then (after tea) Kelly and Kate took the horses to their paddock, giving Kate the chance to ride bareback.  It was very stylish.  I wandered around the cabin taking pictures until the girls came back, and I chopped some wood while Kelly prepared us an amazing dinner.   We feasted on tomato soup, thick, hearty bread, salad, potatoes, steak, apple pie, juice and wine, prepared by our guide with only the tiny cabin stove.  Kelly was absolutely fantastic throughout the day, pointing out all sorts of interesting things, taking care of the horses, and offering us good company without being intrusive.  She was an equestrian, zoologist, geographer, historian, maid and cook all rolled into one.

The three of us chatted merrily over our candlelit dinner, and afterward Kate and I had hot showers, since by some ingenious trick of engineering the kitchen fire also heated a hot water tank.  I finished up the day’s journal entry by candlelight, listening to Kelly do the washing up in the kitchen.

One of my goals for the trip (typical of northern hemisphere tourists, I’m sure) was to see the Southern Cross.  I was hoping this would be a good night for it, but the sun refused to set at a reasonable hour, and then the brightest moon I ever saw rose over the trees, washing out the sky with moonlight.

Our tiny cottage in the Garden of Eden
Our tiny cottage in the Garden of Eden

10 November: In which, for the second straight day, I manage not to fall off my horse.
We were greeted in the morning by the smell of frying bacon. Kelly had been up for a while before us, cooking a marvelous English breakfast, and having already fed the horses. (Have I mentioned how spectacular she was?) There was bacon, sausage, cooked tomato, baked beans, scrambled egg, toast, as well as cereal and juice. Thus we set out on our second day of riding well fortified.

Kate and Kelly (taken at lunch, previous day)
Kate and Kelly (taken at lunch, previous day)

It was a bit cloudy, breezy, and notably cooler than it had been the previous day, but that didn’t dull our enjoyment in the slightest.   The scenery – pastures of sheep backed up by snow-clad mountains – was just as jaw-dropping.   Kate’s horse tended to fall behind, but that was okay because it a) gave me an excuse to stop every so often to rest my still-aching knees, and b) gave Kate the opportunity to canter, as a means of catching up.  We knew we had to cross the Dart River somewhere, and the manager of Dart Stables had warned Kelly that the water might be too high.  But Kelly was up to the task, spotting a likely crossing place where we were able (by lifting our legs high to keep them out of the water, admittedly) to ford the river on the first try.

Riding in the Dart Valley
Riding in the Dart Valley

Our journey back to Dart Stables took us along the edge of Mt. Aspiring Nat’l Park, and past the Routeburn Station, which gave us a good view up the Routeburn Valley.   The highlight for Kate was the sight of a two-day-old foal, clopping along awkwardly after his mother in a large field.  We crossed a long, windy bridge where we had to hunch low over our horses’ backs to stay on, and stopped in a gully of tall grass for another good lunch.   Fortunately, the answer to the question “What will happen to my knees when I dismount?”  was not “snap like brittle twigs,” which would have been my first guess.  After a repast of ham & cheese, salad, leftover sausage sandwiches, crisps, juice and hot chocolate, we rode some more along the riverbed.

Sully:  "Did you get my good side?  Ok, I'll be in my trailer."
Sully: “Did you get my good side? Okay, I’ll be in my trailer.”

Toward the end of the day, Kate and I switched horses, and Brian was much nicer for my knees.  Kelly told us some more about Sully – that he was an extra in two different scenes in Return of the King, one of which was a big battle scene.   Yes, we truly were in the presence of greatness.  But all good things must come to an end, and finally we came full circle.  After a quick goodbye to Kelly, we were packed into a waiting van and driven back to Queenstown and Scallywags.   It was a slow and painful walk up the many stairs, but the hot showers made it worth the slog.  Refreshed, we walked down into town for dinner at the Thai Siam, and then stopped in a tacky gift shop on the way back, where Kate bought an updated version of the Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook.   Then it was back up the hill, knees complaining all the while, to bed.

11 November: In which we get soaked on a sunny day.
At 7:30 the next morning our alarm went off. A cruel mistake? No! While we eschewed the myriad bungee-jumps and scary canyon-rockets offered by the Queenstown adrenaline market, we were unable to resist a whitewater rafting trip down the Kuwaru River. (In the Fellowship of the Ring, this was the river on which they filmed the Argonath – those two huge statues.) The bus from Queenstown Rafting picked us up at 8:15, and let me tell you, the Te Anau Glow Worm people had nothing on these guys in terms of tourist-churning efficiency. We were first taken to a downtown office where our hands were stamped, and then driven to what I can best describe as a “rafter processing plant.” In almost no time at all they outfitted fourteen of us with wetsuits, jackets, life-vests, crash-helmets and booties. Thus attired we climbed back into the van, and were treated to a polished-to-a-shine safety pitch with exactly the requisite 3.7 jokes per minute designed both to put us at our ease and get us excited about the rafting. (And we had to sign a waiver saying we wouldn’t sue them if we drowned, etc.) Hey, look, here we are high above the river. Out of the van, obligatory photos, more safety info, march, march, march…whoa! The river! We piled into one of two big rubber rafts, scrunched our feet under the bulbous lip to keep steady, and the craft pitched down an alarmingly steep slope into the water. Off we went!

The ride itself was an hour long, through impressive rock canyons that included, we’re pretty sure, the spot where the Argonath were added in digitally to the movie. (An aside: although we were encouraged to leave all our valuables in lockers back at the Processing Plant, I chose to wear my wedding ring, which is a replica of the One Ring used in the films, even made by the same jeweler. My thoughts were a) that there was no way the ring was falling off, and that b) if it did fall off, I’d always have the story to tell about how the Ring slipped treacherously from my finger and drifted down to the bottom of the Anduin, there to rest for untold centuries. It’s funny if you’re familiar with Tolkien, unless you’re my wife.)

The water was an eerie opaque green. There were some fun but mild rapids en route, interspersed with raft-on-raft splashing battles. The guides, one on each vessel, filled the time by trying to knock tourists from the opposing raft into the water. The first 85% of the trip was so relatively calm that we were caught a bit off guard by the final rapid, the “Chinese Dog Leg.” It was pretty huge, knocking our raft up to nearly vertical as it crashed about. We were all soaked, though no one fell out, and my ring stayed on. That marked the end of the trip. Back out of the river, back in the van, back to the Processing Plant to change and have a snack (“nibbles,” they called it:  sausage roll, fruit, cookie, tea or coffee), and back to Queenstown.  There we were, a mere four hours later, two more tourist-units chewed up and spat out by the Great Queenstown Fun Machine.

We declined the $35 photo of what we were told was our raft, entirely obscured by spray from the Chinese Dog Leg.

It being only noon we had the rest of the day for loafing and knee-recuperation. We went next door to an Internet Café (dead-cat-swingingly common in Queenstown) to surf, read, and send out an e-mail update of our trip. For balance we also bought pens and postcards at a small shop, before heading to our rental-car place to make sure all was in order for the next day. Alas that we couldn’t find out; the office had a “back in 5 minutes” sign on a door that stayed unperturbed for the next 90 minutes, time we spent at the café one building down. Over bruschetta we browsed various guidebooks and discussed the plan for the next day, deciding in the end on penguins in Dunedin. A few minutes on the pay-phone and all arrangements were made, leaving us with some quiet hours to bask in the sunshine on a grassy spot by the river, writing our postcards to the sound of quacking ducks.

With the day moving dinnerwards we walked back into town and noticed the new (at the time) Matrix movie was playing at the cinema. We had enough time for ice cream (“hokey pokey” flavor – caramel based, and so much beloved by Kate… and what’s wrong with dessert before dinner on one’s vacation?) before the movie, and afterward had Japanese food for dinner. Then, for the final time, it was up the hill to our lodging, where (right before bed, when we remembered to look) we found the clouds had moved in to hide the Southern Cross. Still, a good day.

(We have no pictures for this day’s entry.  But since I can’t very well let you go a whole page with only words to look at, here are some interior pictures of our hut at the Garden of Eden:)

Kitchen (both of the above pics are taken from the far corners of the rooms)
Kitchen (both of the above pics are taken from the far corners of the rooms)
Deluxe facilities
Deluxe facilities

12 November: In which I see penguins and am terrified, though not at the same time.
To our great fortune we found a real live employee on hand the next morning at Omega Car Rental. She gave us some instruction about driving in New Zealand (not much to it, though there was one odd right-of-way rule that ran counter to our instincts) and handed us the keys to a small, sturdy automobile.

A few words about driving on the left: while it’s unnerving at first, it’s amazing how critical context is for driver orientation. (In other words, it’s much easier to do what everyone else is doing, even if it’s weird.) And traffic in New Zealand is much, much lighter, even in some of the larger cities, than bad traffic in Boston. But we did find that there were two serious difficulties inherent to the system. One was that it was tricky to stay centered in one’s lane, because the steering wheel was on the right side of the car. American drivers instinctively learn that their own viewpoint is a bit left of center, but in New Zealand the natural result of following that instinct is a car hanging over the lane boundary by a good two feet. Not good.

The second problem was that the $#!@ windshield wipers were where the $#@! turn signal should be, and vice-versa.  If you thought we’d have figured that out by the 73rd time we tried to signal and instead started the wipers going, you’d be wrong. Argh.

So, off we went, leaving Queenstown by the only road out, wipers dancing merrily whenever we switched lanes. The passenger had an important job, which was to utter the magic phrase “drive on the left!” whenever we turned more than 45 degrees. The driver had enough to worry about, what with all the traffic going the wrong way and turning the wipers off. We stopped in Cromwell to take a picture of some giant fruit (not a typo) on the side of the road, and to supply ourselves with snacks for the journey to Dunedin.

How can you not stop to take a picture of giant fruit?
How can you not stop to take a picture of giant fruit?

The drive after that took us through strangely brown (for New Zealand) and barren hills, with occasional purple flowers and turquoise rivers. Kate wanted to cut through on a smaller road that went through the Ida Valley, where bits of Rohan were filmed in the Lord of the Rings movies. This turned out to be a rough (at times grimly so) dirt road, but our rental car (the “Traveling Saloon,” as I called it, since it said “Saloon” on the back) was up for it, and it wasn’t too long before we squeezed across a one-lane wooden bridge and onto pavement again. Around us were the scruffy green-and-brown folded lands of Rohan, strewn with boulders and rocky outcroppings, and awash with the scent of lavender. We stopped for a photo, though it was so windy the Saloon nearly had a door ripped off when Kate stepped out.

The Ida Valley, where much of Rohan was filmed
The Ida Valley, where much of Rohan was filmed

We ate a meal in a tiny town.  (We wrote “Omerhan” in our journal, though we can’t verify the name.)  Lunch was toasted sandwiches in a small tavern that played Garth Brooks music on the radio, and whose walls were adorned with posters for Speights Beer and the All Blacks.  Further on the countryside became green and lush, the severe brown folds giving way to rounded hills covered in sheep.  I drove on while Kate dozed (we shared the driving as much as possible), and late in the day we reached the Otago Peninsula where awaited (unbeknownst to me) my greatest challenge.   We were aiming for “McFarmers Backpackers,” and the road along the peninsula was winding, narrow, and for someone used to driving on the right, pretty freakin’ terrifying.  For over forty minutes it was blind curve after blind curve on a road with no shoulder or guard rail between the road’s edge and a short drop into the bay.  The other side was just as unforgiving – a steep cliff.  There was no margin for error, and see my earlier comment about staying centered in the lane.

In the parking lot of McFarmers I pried my tense fingers loose from the Saloon’s poor steering wheel.  As if the universe understood my immediate need for physical therapy, a big fluffy cat greeted us on the way to check in.  A few pets, a few purrrrrs, and all cares were forgotten.  After dropping off our stuff in our room (and McFarmers is a wonderfully comfy, homey, happy little place) we went for some fish-n-chips (cheap, good, and wrapped in newspapers) and ate on a little bench while seagulls jockeyed for position.

After that we drove to Penguin Place in time for the 6:45 tour, last of the day.   I’m going to get this out of the way now:  “penguincredible.”  There, I said it, now let’s move on.

Bad wordplay aside, the penguin tour was astonishingly cool.  About a dozen of us were taken by van to the top of a gentle cliff looking out over the ocean.   Dug into the hillside were many little “penguin houses” to which the penguins would return after a day spent in the water.   It looked like a little penguin Hobbiton.   But penguins are shy of people-sized creatures, so it does no good for humans to go stomping down the hill onto the beach.  Instead the Penguin Place people have dug a huge maze of trenches inside the hill, connecting a network of little underground rooms out of which penguins can be safely observed.  The idea is that a penguin can see your face through the same small gaps you’re using to watch them, but they think you’re only the size of the gap, and so don’t mind.

Yellow-eyed penguins at Penguin Place
Yellow-eyed penguins at Penguin Place

So the sharp-eyed tour guide would watch the ocean, and when he spotted a penguin or two heading shoreward we’d all go dashing off through the trench maze, heading for the observation room where we’d get the best view.  The system works fantastically, and we were treated to many close-ups of the little yellow-eyed critters. Occasionally they’d walk on boardwalks directly over our heads so that we could hear the sound of their little penguin feet.  As a bonus the tour guide explained the complicated social lives of the penguins, which involved a lot of love triangles, infidelity, scorned adolescent males, and general heartbreak. But by and large the penguins seemed a contented lot, so we shed no tears for them.

Penguin up close
Penguin up close

Back at McFarmers we watched some trashy American TV and went to sleep. I would have gone to bed sooner but for the cat. (I wrote in my journal:  “Help!  11:30 P.M., cat on lap, can’t get up!”)

13 November: In which we barely avoid blowing the whole vacation budget in the gift shop.

View from the hill above McFarmers (click to enlarge)
View from the hill above McFarmers (click to enlarge)

It was cold the next morning. Kate had a stiff neck so we went for a morning walk up the hill behind McFarmers (ostensibly to look for Menuka trees, from which comes Menuka honey, though we didn’t see any). Afterward Kate drove the Saloon on a high road through some hilly green terrain that was the most Hobbiton-like we’d seen. The ride out of the Otago Peninsula wasn’t quite as harrowing as the ride in, since we were on the cliff side and not the bay side, but it was still a non-trivial feat of wrong-side driving for Kate. Once off the Peninsula we headed into the city of Dunedin, parked on a street by a rail station, and walked toward the distant purple tower than signified Cadbury World.

Ah, Cadbury. If only the States had chocolate like that.  (You may be thinking: “but Cadbury bars are for sale in America!” but that’s not truly accurate. The stuff you can buy in New Zealand is made with milk from local cows, and the cows are everything. In New Zealand, the cheese is better. The ice cream is better. And, ooooooh, the chocolate is much  better.  It makes Hershey bars and the like taste like chewy cardboard.)

We joined a 10:30 A.M. tour and enjoyed a wonderful tour of the Cadbury factory. We were made privy to the plant’s inner workings – pipes, conveyer belts, presses, mixers, and weird custom machinery that turned raw ingredients into dozens of different chocolates and confections. We gazed in wonder at a huge warehouse stacked high with shrink-wrapped palettes of chocolate boxes, like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark but with more sugar.

Best of all were the free samples. Early on I held the door open for the rest of the tour group and was treated to a white chocolate Cadbury crème egg for my trouble. Of course, once the kids figured out the payoff, no adult had to touch a door for the rest of the tour.  Even so, the rest of us were handed more chocolates along the way, as rewards for such demanding challenges as climbing a short flight of stairs, and not getting lost. The tour concluded inside the huge purple tank itself, where the Cadbury folks had (entirely for the sake of tourists) engineered a Wonka-esque chocolate waterfall.  In just a few seconds a ton (literally) of chocolate thundered down from high above into a large bin. Pretty cool.

Then… the gift shop.  There’s not much to explain, really. Cheap, fantastic chocolate.   Dozens of varieties.  Two tourists with sweet-teeth and honeymooners’ disregard for fiscal sanity. Cut to a scene half an hour later: Kate and I, staggering from Cadbury World under the weight of enough chocolate to last us for weeks, with huge smiles on our faces. To our credit we stopped at a café for a real lunch instead of just eating out of our gift shop bags.

(Not made of real chocolate.  Unfortunately.)
(Not made of real chocolate. Unfortunately.)

The rail station near which we had parked was apparently one of the official “five things to see when you’re in New Zealand,” but it didn’t seem to have any chocolate, so we only stayed a minute or two. With the Saloon straining under the weight of our newly-acquired goods we departed Dunedin, driving along a coast road high above the city. Once we turned inland the highway became flat and fast, with the usual assortment of great views.

We drove through several small towns whose names began with “O,” stopped for a bite in the mid-afternoon, and then I took the wheel just before the road became curvy again and the rain started up.

View of distant Dunedin
View of distant Dunedin

We drove past three different dams that divided up a huge turquoise lake (and which, if memory serves, provide all the electricity for the South Island), then turned north to the town of Twizel.  (This rhymes with the last two syllables of “reprisal.” It’s also the name we gave our now-deceased cat.)  Twizel is a small, pleasant burgh that was particularly impacted by the Lord of the Rings movies. At the town information center we talked at length with Graham, a friendly man who had played the role of an orc in each of the three films. (In the first he’s in the intro, burning a village. In the second he’s raiding Rohan.  In the third he’s a flag-bearer who dies on camera.) Graham also reported having dinner with Bernard Hill (who played King Théoden) without even realizing it, and that Peter Jackson himself borrowed a round picnic table from his mother. The cast of the movies loved Twizel, since not only did the locals not jack prices, but they even offered discounts.

Graham the orc
Graham the orc

Anyhow, Graham told us that tours of the nearby Pellenor Fields weren’t running for another month, but that it wasn’t hard to drive there, and that it’s just a field, really. We followed his directions out of town and soon were standing on the edge of the grassy sward on which the great battle of Middle Earth was fought before the gates of Gondor. A couple of guys from the DOC noticed us hanging around and let us through a gate to get a closer look. One of them claimed to have played Legolas in the movies, though I expressed some skepticism.  (He was over fifty and not much of a match for Orlando Bloom.)

“Don’t I look like Legolas?” he asked.  “Bugger.”

If it helps, imagine 100,000 orcs and a herd of war oliphaunts.
If it helps, imagine 100,000 orcs and a herd of war oliphaunts.

The rest of the day was uneventful; we drove from Twizel to Glentanner Park, last stop before Mount Cook. We got the key to our cabin, bought some detergent, ate a hearty meal of BBQ, fries and salad, and went to sleep. Having seen New Zealand’s tallest waterfall, we looked forward tomorrow to seeing the country’s highest peak.

14 November: In which we’re lucky they let us in.
The weather gods smiled on us again, with sun shining on Mount Cook and the surrounding park.  (This is a rarity, apparently.)   We couldn’t book a second night at Glentanner, but the local YHA had a last minute cancellation right before we called, so we were able to enjoy the day without worrying about where we’d sleep that night.  And, ah, what a day.

The road to Mt. Cook (click to enlarge)
The road to Mt. Cook (click to enlarge)

Just the view from our cabin was astounding, and things only got better.

View from our doorstep -- Mt. Cook, straight ahead.
View from our doorstep — Mt. Cook, straight ahead.

We drove into Mt. Cook Village and picked a good-looking hike from a local trail map – the Sealy Tarns Track.   It was 40 minutes of flat walking, followed by almost two hours of straight-up stair climbing.   We stopped frequently on the ascent, both to catch our breaths and to enjoy the stunning views looking out over the valley.  Far below us we could see the village, and specifically the Hermitage, which is one of the fanciest (and priciest) hotels in the country.

Looking down from the Sealy Tarns Track.  The Hermitage is the black building at the lower right.
Looking down from the Sealy Tarns Track. The Hermitage is the black building at the lower right.

At the top of the hike we were still nowhere near as high as the summit of Mt. Cook itself, but we enjoyed a great look at the peak across the valley, with white clouds pouring like smoke over a smaller mountain only to break and scatter against the side of Cook.

Mt. Cook, its peak barely obscured by cloud
Mt. Cook, its peak barely obscured by cloud

The descent was fast and easy thanks to our titanium hiking poles (“Yay hiking poles!” wrote Kate in the journal.) We lunched at a the “Old Mountaineers Café,” where Kate enjoyed a Speights and found it good. Afterward we checked into the YHA and tried (in vain) to find lodging in Christchurch for the night after. Well, we’d find something.  We showered, sent some more e-mail, and then headed over to the Hermitage for the most indulgent meal of our lives.

It was lucky they let us in the place at all, really. Understand that we didn’t pack any nice clothes. We had hiking stuff. Even after making ourselves as presentable as possible, we would still have looked scruffy in a McDonalds, let alone the posh elegance of the Hermitage. But despite us looking like haggard vagabonds off the street, the staff of the Hermitage restaurant treated us, and fed us, like royalty.

Kate wrote in the journal:  “Candles and tablecloths and menus without prices.”  We started out with duck liver parfait, then shared a pair of extravagant entrees. One was fancy lasagna with “truffled rocket salad.” The other was (and I made sure we memorized this so we could write it down after) “char-grilled venison cutlets with vanilla-infused garlic jus, served with mushroom goulash, pear-pecan nut blini, and sweet roasted garlic pearls.”  It was every bit as good as it sounds, and worth every penny even not knowing how many pennies that actually was.  For dessert we chose a cheese plate.  (See previous comment about New Zealand cows and the cheese there from).  Absolute bliss.

More attempts to find a place to stay the night after were thwarted, but there was no need to panic; our next scheduled activity wasn’t for another couple of days.  Tomorrow we’d forge ahead toward Christchurch and hope something would turn up. Little did I suspect what awesome spectacle we would see the next day…

15 November: In which my mind is well and truly boggled.
Rain and clouds obscured all views of Mt. Cook as we drove south out of the park, but the air soon warmed and cleared.  We stopped to photograph the dazzlingly blue Lake Pukaki against a mountainous backdrop.

Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki

In Twizel we stopped for food and gas, briefly observed a local doughnut-eating contest, and made some changes to our plans. (Instead of staying in Christchurch that evening, we moved our car rental return back a day and arranged for lodging at a place called Stronechrube. This was in Mt. Somers, temptingly close to Mt. Potts where Edoras was filmed in Two Towers and Return of the King.)  Our path to Stronechrube took us through the small town of Geraldine, where we happened to arrive on the day of their annual “Arts and Plants” festival.  We wandered through the stalls for a bit, observing local arts and plants before having some heavenly ice-cream and free cheese samples at the Talbot Forest Cheese Factory. Lastly we stopped at a store called “The Giant Jersey,” where, according to one of our guidebooks, we could see the World’s Largest Jersey.  We went in, and here is where my mind was boggled almost right out of head.

It had nothing to do with the jersey.

Oh, the jersey was pretty neat.  Here it is:

World's largest jersey
World’s largest jersey

But while we admired the over-sized sweater, I noticed that a small podium was set up by a door at the back of the shop. For a small price, I was told by the shop owner’s wife, we could buy a ticket and go to the back room to see her husband’s craft project.  Well, sure, while we’re here…

Forget the Dunedin Rail Station. What we saw in that back room should be on the list of Five Things You Must See In New Zealand, Or Heck, The Whole Southern Hemisphere.

Mounted on the wall in numerous sections was a recreation of the famed Bayeux  Tapestry, which depicts the Battle of Hastings of 1066.

Michael A. Linton stands in front of his life's work.
Michael A. Linton stands in front of his life’s work.

But here’s the boggling bit:  its creator, Michael A. Linton, has constructed it out of 1.5 million tiny steel bits clipped from knitting machine wheels.

Great googly moogly!
Great googly moogly!

He had painstakingly clipped off the metal bits, one by one, pushed them together, then carefully laid masking tape over them in strips, just to make the “canvas” on which he then painted a faithful rendition of the Tapestry. Understand that each piece is about 1/100th of an inch in area, and the whole thing is a foot high and over a hundred feet long. It took Mr. Linton ten years just to make the backing, and then another ten years to paint it. And as if that weren’t impressive enough, the man is a puzzle nut, and has encoded an elaborate puzzle into the work itself. He sells a CD containing high-res images of his Tapestry that you could use theoretically to find and solve the hidden puzzle. The CD also contains a bunch of small games, dozens of Alphametic Puzzles, and a 3D rotatable “Magic Cube,” which is like a Rubik’s Cube, except that a) instead of being 3x3x3, it’s 8x8x8, b) each of the resulting 512 faces has one of the numbers between 1 and 512, and c) All of the numbers on any row, column or diagonal sum to the same amount, even if you rotate the thing like a Rubik’s Cube. And he figured it out himself, using no math or trial-and-error, but by what he called “visual patterning.”

The guy is a mad genius.  A personable, friendly mad genius who hardly sleeps and loves to talk about his family, his work, movies, and 11th century history. You can see bits of his flabbergasting creation at  (And if you click on the “puzzles” link and go to the Hall of Fame, you’ll see I was the second person to solve all 105 of the Alphametic Puzzles on his CD.  Woot!)

Somehow Kate dragged me out of that place.  I left knowing I had probably witnessed the most incredible example of personal obsession and perseverance I was likely to see in my lifetime. In a month full of waterfalls, mountains, fields, rivers, oceans and beaches, nothing that nature offered up could surpass in majesty the sight of Michael A. Linton’s magnum opus.

Right.  So, after Geraldine, we drove toward Mt. Somers, stopping at the Peel Forest to do the short “Big Tree Walk.”  There sure was a big tree, though it was no Bayeux Tapestry.

Right, enough, I know.

Yup.  Sure is a big tree.
Yup. Sure is a big tree.

Our chalet at Stronechrube was the finest lodging of the trip: spacious, with a garage, small kitchen, comfy bed, and a sliding glass door onto a lovely garden lawn. All it lacked was 1.5 million tiny pieces of…

Okay, sorry. I’m really done now.

Anyhow, we called to reserve our bus tickets for the following day, cleaned ourselves up, and headed to the dining room for a dinner that turned out to rival the Hermitage’s offerings for pure culinary satisfaction. It featured garlic bread, salmon, lamb, grain-fed beef, chocolate mousse, and a mouth-watering whiskey cake.  (We ooh-ed and ahh-ed so much about the whiskey cake that the kindly owner gave us seconds for free, along with coffee and hot chocolate afterward.)

Back at the chalet we watched the rugby semifinal game between New Zealand and Australia.  As I said, the All-Blacks were one of the favorites to win the whole tourney.  In pool play they had demolished all opposition:  70-7 over Italy; 68-6 over Canada; 91-7 over Tonga; and 53-37 over Wales.  In the quarters they had soundly thumped South Africa.  But on this blackest of nights, the All Blacks fell to their chief rival Australia, 22-10, in an exciting but disappointing match.

Like that day in Milford Sound, this day also gets a postscript, though more enjoyable than a room mix-up.  Kate woke me up at 4:30 in the morning and pointed upward out the window.  It was a clear night sky speckled with stars, and among them was the constellation of the Southern Cross, visible at last.

16 November: In which we say the word “cheesemonger” in an uncontrived context.
We breakfasted the next morning with our shell-shocked hosts, so aghast at the All-Blacks downfall that they forgot our toast. (A serious gaffe in the guest house business, apparently.) We bid a fond adieu to Stronechrube and drove the Saloon to Christchurch by way of Mt. Sunday. This detour was one of Kate’s highlights, and for good reason.

Our maps and guidebooks led us onto a bumpy dirt road snaking through a wild land. Short puffball tussocks danced in synchronized clusters to a sharp gusting wind.  The Saloon was hard put to it on such a crummy surface, but both it and we were rewarded for our perseverance, as an hour later we rounded a hill and could see in the distance the unmistakable out-jutting of rock that is Mt. Sunday. Edoras! (As you might guess by now, Edoras is yet one more prominent location in the Lord of the Rings movies.)

Edoras is the small hill in the foreground. (click to enlarge)
Edoras is the small hill in the foreground. (click to enlarge)

The road didn’t actually go right to the hill itself, but we drove on for another half an hour while Edoras loomed closer all the time.  We were able to come within a couple of miles, and only decided to turn around when it was clear the road wasn’t getting us any closer. Even without the movie-location angle it would have been a breathtaking sight: a wide brown plain ringed by snowy mountains, and a small steep hill rising dramatically in the ring’s center. We took some pictures, once again the wind almost tore apart the Saloon, and then we headed back down the road. (Kate kept wanting to stop and look back; I’m sure she was imagining the Rohan horse-lords thundering across the field to the distant hill.)

If you've seen The Two Towers, you'll understand this picture.
If you’ve seen The Two Towers, you’ll understand this picture.

Once we reached pavement again, the drive into Christchurch was smooth and fast. We stopped for gas at the city’s border, and while paying in the attached store we saw the blaring headlines on the local newspapers. “End of the World!” proclaimed one, above a photo of dejected New Zealand rugby players. “World Chumps” lamented a second, below a similar picture. Truly this was day of mourning.

At the Christchurch branch of Omega Car Rental we said our grateful farewells to the Saloon, hoisted our packs, and walked into town. We had a couple of hours before our bus ride to Kaikoura, most of which were spent at the city Arts Center. On a lawn there we saw a van labeled “Cheesemonger,” which was, as you might expect, filled with cheese. Have I mentioned… yes, of course, I have mentioned the cheese. We bought some bleu cheese from Oamaru and an aged Gouda from Hamilton, along with some good fresh bread. This we munched on happily while waiting the last few minutes at the bus depot.

The world needs more cheesmongers, clearly.
The world needs more cheesemongers, clearly.

Kaikoura is a lovely little coastal town with a beach made not of sand but of smooth round stones. We dropped our packs at the Bad Jelly Backpackers, named for an odd little children’s story, of which they had a copy on hand for patrons to read. Back in town we ate our dinner of fish, chips and toasted sandwiches on the beach, watching a glorious purple and pink sunset.

Sunset over Kaikoura
Sunset over Kaikoura


<== Back to Day 1     On to Day 3==>

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: