Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand (February 2010)

Our last trip in New Zealand was to Arthur’s Pass, a small town located in the middle of the impressive Southern Alps. We left Christchurch early Friday morning, and on the bus ride after passing by many cattle, llama and ostrich farms, were able to get our first good view of the mountain range with the sun coming over the ridge. We arrived at about 10am, and after having a quick cappuccino (drip coffee is pretty uncommon in New Zealand, most people drink instant coffee at home and espresso drinks are the norm at cafes, to our tongues’ delight and our wallets’ dismay), we walked to the visitor’s center down the pass road.

Originally we had intended to camp at one of the huts that are a part of the country’s extensive camping system, but the trailheads to both of the closest hut paths were at least 15 kilometers in either direction–and that was before beginning your ascent into the mountain to hike to the hut. Not having a car and not being very experienced mountain trampers (ahem–not experienced at all), we decided to camp at the flat, open site between the main road and the train tracks, which left a little to be desired and made us marvel at how great Minnesota’s state park system is.

We set up the mini tent in the softest spot we could find and in no time we became acquainted with the Kea that live in the park– the world’s only alpine parrot, which can only be found in NZ’s south island. They have dark green feathers mostly, apart from their brilliant fiery orange underwing feathers, and a long, loud call. The Kea are smart, strong, and comically brave and inquisitive–they have been known to destroy tents with their hooked beaks merely out of curiosity, according to the signs in the information center. A little Kea and a big, fat, disheveled-looking Kea landed at our site, and the smaller one jumped up on Daniel’s bag and stuck his face right in, emerging with a toilet paper prize. Before leaving for a hike, we Kea-proofed our tent as best we could (we were rewarded with only a smallish hole in our water bag).

We hiked for hours both of the days we spent in Arthur’s Pass. On our first day, we tried what we thought was the shortest-looking hike, the Avalanche Peak trail. In raw distance it was probably fairly short, but we never made it to the end; a serious trail in New Zealand is much more vertical than horizontal. We turned back before it was too late, and returned to ground level to enjoy some of the “flatter” hikes out to the Devil’s Punchbowl and Bridal Veil Falls, both of which were beautiful.

Day two was much more exhausting. We decided to attempt Avalanche Peak again, only this time along the more reasonable Scott Track–where we could have descended from the peak if we had made it all the way up the Avalanche Peak trail. The overall amount of climb and estimated time was the same though, 1000m of altitude gain to the top, and a 4-hour trek one way. The first half of the hike, from 700m altitude where the road lay to the bushline at approximately 1300m, took us through narrow avalanche paths of fallen rock, over natural stairways of exposed root systems of beech trees overgrown with plush moss, across waterfall-fed streams and under some dangling feathery lichens that seemed to be right out of the pages of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. When we got to the bushline, where the trees and plants receded behind us the farther we hiked, the wind kicked up and the hike became a little more challenging. We scrambled over rocky paths on narrow-ish ridges with a precipitous drop in either direction, and we climbed high enough to be level with the line of snow on a nearby ridge. After a few false sightings of the peak (we could see it and it was so close, but then coming over the ridge would reveal more, steeper path) and coming to a point where the path looked much more daunting, we decided to have a snack and head back down: another four hours or so, which gave us an awesome view of a waterfall across the road, possibly one we had hiked to the day before, with a brilliant rainbow in its mist. We camped again that night and slept a little better having left our bags with our non valuable stuff in the shelter nearby, which made it possible to actually lie down in a straight line, sort of.

The next day we wandered around on the main road for a bit, and found some nice tourists from London who had rented a camper van who gave us a ride back into Christchurch. We stayed at Foley Towers, a sweet little garden-y backpacker with awesome rooms and staff (and also lots of little references to the show Fawlty Towers, which was amusing). We flew up to Auckland and had two relaxing nights with Nicole playing Zioncheck (Daniel’s family’s traditional Thanksgiving marathon card game) and Shanghai (Nicole’s family’s version of a similar game), and got to see the city Auckland at dusk with the streetlights coming on from the top of Mount Eden, where the air smelled like honey and we were surrounded by huffing and puffing mountain joggers. We took the bus to the airport on Wednesday afternoon, and began our journey to what was the first city entirely new to the both of us.

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