Update: **For those of you who have not been reading the full posts (we completely understand) you may have missed our photos page which has heaps more photos than are on this post. Head to the Week 1 InFocus page for a look at even more photos related to the post below!**
Hello! We’re a little over 3 weeks into our travels and finally finding a little time to get some things done – mostly because we’re on a 3 hour ferry ride from Picton to Wellington – but more importantly it has internet that is more reliable than the hostels!
We arrived in Queenstown NZ, our first stop, on February 15th. We had originally planned to stay on the North Island for a while until our buddy Joe could meet up with us but Malcolm found a marathon in Queenstown that looked too crazy to pass up. So we switched our plans around, adjusted our final destination and set off! The marathon was three days after we landed, on Saturday the 18th – we figured the three days before would be enough to get over jet lag and somewhat acclimate to the high 70 degree weather as we were leaving a relatively cold winter in Seattle with temps consistently hovering around freezing.
Day 1 – We flew in on beautiful weather and were able to see Aoraki, or Mt Cook from the plane windows. Landing in Queenstown is pretty neat – it’s a tiny airport nestled between steep mountain ridges in all directions. After getting our bags we headed into town to grab some food before check-in time at the Airbnb. Of course we had to try out New Zealand’s Mexican fare at Caribe Latin Kitchen for our first meal. It was delicious albeit translucent with oil. Olive oil is good fat, right? After our meal we checked in, showered, and met our host Vanessa and her roommates Morgan and Holly, and their pup Oakli who happens to enjoy chewing on small river rocks. All great people who love to snowboard – which when you boil it down just means they love to be outside just like us. They pointed us a great (and cheap!) takeout Thai place in town and recommended we walk with our food to a small boat that offers coffee, beer, and wine to grab a drink and eat there – it was a perfect start to experiencing NZ.
Day 2 – Our first full day we headed out to Arrowtown, a cute old gold mining town about a half hour out from Queenstown and spent the day walking around and exploring the old Chinese houses and other historical sites. We stopped by the grocery store on our way back into town to grab some snacks, some race fuel, and breakfast/dinner food. This is when we found out that sweet potatoes are called Kumara, and NZ loves their Kumara. We made a simple but tasty chicken and mixed vegetable dinner at the Airbnb as we watched the sun set over Lake Wakatipu.
Day 3 – It was check-in day and the final rest day for Malcolm’s marathon where he had to prove he had all the required cold weather and safety gear so we took this as an opportunity to explore the town itself. We loved their waterfront park filled with people soaking in the sun on green lawns, sandy beaches, a network of walking trails over and around small streams, a frisbee golf course, a rose garden, and a boules sports court. We ended the day relatively early to make a pre-race dinner of sweet potatoes, ground beef (or mince), and some veggies.
Day 4 – Race day. Malcolm caught a cab at 5:45 am to meet his shuttle to the marathon that started at 8:30am. Meanwhile Jessica slept in, went into town, got some coffee and then made her way to the finish line at Moke Lake by hitch hiking… yes that’s the only way she could get there with no bus service and taxis costing too much given it was 45 min away and we had no car. Apparently it’s the thing to do in New Zealand so she gave it a try. It was as success and she survived – after two rides nonetheless, first from Queenstown to start of the dirt road with a nice young man and his Jack Russel Terrier and then a couple from Argentina took her the rest of the way to Moke Lake. Jessica arrived right when the first marathoner crossed the finish line – she knew she had a while so sat and cheered everyone on and took in the beautiful surroundings. The marathon is called Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon and is 26.2 miles with an ascent of 8,530 feet and descent of 8,530 feet. The weather was in the high 70’s which is a big difference when you’re training in freezing temps – Malcolm’s last training run prior the marathon was on snow from Suncadia to Cle Elum. Malcolm finished it after a grueling 8 hours and 33 min, only 1hr 20min faster than his Rainier to Ruston 52mi race last June… A separate page will be posted for more info on the marathon for those interested. We hitched a ride with two other marathon runners, sisters, one of which was running this as her first marathon – what a choice first marathon! That night we celebrated with Queenstown’s famous Freburgers and some beers that we took to go (takeaway, not carryout like in the States) and sat on the edge of the lake to eat.
Day 5 – Recovery day. We decided to take it a little easy the next day and on the recommendation of our ride back to town from the race we took a boat tour of Lake Wakatipu with a 2 hour pit stop at Mt. Nicholas Farm, the third largest privately owned sheep farm in NZ! We got a small tour of their farm and learned a bit about the whole process starting with rounding up their 9,000 of their 30,000 sheep once a year for shearing before exporting their merino wool to China to be made into Icebreaker clothing. Unbelievably it takes only 10 days for seven men on horseback, along with 30 sheep dogs, to gather all 9,000 sheep that are free to roam over the 100,000 acres that comprises the farm – very impressive!
Day 6 – Flying back to Auckland to meet up with Joe and explore the central part of the North Island – and our first day with a RHD car! After landing in Auckland and getting our rental car, a white 2011 Toyota Yaris, we braved the left side of the road while driving on the right side of the car and headed west of Auckland to the small surf town of Piha. New Zealand obviously has a lot of beaches which are a main draw for tourists visiting the North Island. We quickly found out that New Zealand’s roads are pretty wild with more hairpin and tight turns, sudden ups and downs, and everything in-between – wilder than anything I have seen in the US and two steps up from the curvaceous roads of Central and North California. Think Chuckanut Road or Chumstick Hwy on steroids, and miles (or kilometers) and miles of it. Exciting for Malcolm driving around his (thankfully manual) Yaris – not so exciting and an exercise in faith for Jessica! Also, the speed limits on these roads are pretty fast for how technical they are. Needless to say it was an exciting introduction to driving in New Zealand! We safely arrived in Piha and grabbed a small bite for lunch at the only place to get food – fortunately it was pretty tasty – a bacon and egg cheese burger for Malcolm and a fish burger for Jessica. After lunch and a little time on the beach we headed to a nearby waterfall which was a short 20min hike, though the posted sign said 45 minutes. New Zealand’s posted hike (or walk) times are significantly longer than it would take any normal person to actually do. It was a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole – we spent a good hour or so swimming underneath the waterfall and hanging out up on top enjoying the view of what seemed like a scene from Jurassic Park. The flora in New Zealand is simply stunning. Ferns 10x the size of those in Washington mixed in with tropical palms and high reaching trees. We’re not wordsmiths so we won’t even try to describe the beauty – just take a look at the pictures and you’ll see what we mean. After enjoying the waterfall we headed to Auckland to check in at Jessica’s first hostel and drop our bags before heading back to the airport to pick up Joe. The hostel was pretty typical of what you might find in Europe with a lot of people from all over the world, shared bathrooms, mixed dorms, a communal kitchen, and postings all over the place for different activities and tours to do in the area. One new thing however was a list of vehicles for sale at the check in counter – a mix of camper vans, regular vans, and cars – all well aged and searching for a new backpacker to own for 1mo to a year and whatever adventures their new owner might have in store. Had we planned more time in NZ we would definitely have bought a vehicle to travel around and then sold it before leaving. It’s just as NZ as hitchhiking. After settling into the hostel we headed off in search of a good, decently priced dinner. Food in New Zealand, as we quickly found out, can be very expensive for only mediocre quality so research is key for a good, fairly priced meal. We ended heading toward what looked to be a great Vietnamese place (and we’re sure it was, would have gone back if we had more time) but ended up across the street at a Wok’N Noodle Bar and had a great little dinner. After dinner it was time to go pick up Joe who had just spent the whole day traveling to NZ from the Philippines where he had spent the previous week for a friend’s wedding.
Day 7 – Joe’s first real day in New Zealand. We headed back to the west coast where there are a plethora of gorgeous beaches and waterfalls to explore. We ended up driving the same road toward Piha that we took the day before so it was quite fun after becoming a bit acclimated to the driving. Joe enjoyed it as well. Our first stop was a waterfall just a short walk from the car park. We didn’t spend as much time at the main waterfall as we did at another hidden stream/waterfall up the hillside that we saw some locals head toward as we arrived. Knowing that locals obviously know better than tourists we were inclined to see what it was all about. This smaller waterfall emptied into a fairly deep swimming hole that was great for jumping off the rocks, or if you dared, a higher tree limb overhanging the pool. We weren’t as daring as the locals, but neither did we lose ‘our precious’ in the pool as one of the locals did after jumping off the highest point of the tree. Honestly thought it was a LOTR joke when he asked for help finding his ring that slipped off. Anyway, after spending a little time at the pool and learning a Maori (the native people of New Zealand) yell we headed on to the beach. By the way, this Maori yell (see picture below, tongues out) is great for helping open your sinuses a malady Joe was suffering due to a long week of wedding parties in the Philippines. The beach was beautiful – wide open, a mix of soft small grain white and black sand. It also happens to be where a portion the opening scenes of Xena: Warrior Princess was filmed – if that was your thing 20 years ago… We walked around and took some pictures of locals fishing from the rocks in the high wind. It was a pretty cool scene to be out there nearly alone with two fishermen waiting for a bite at the edge of huge cliffs and big crashing waves. After getting our fill of the beach we began our drive back toward the city but not before catching another hike toward a waterfall, this time with a good descent and of course a good climb on the way back. It was another hike through Jurassic Park territory though without any dangerous dinosaurs or otherwise scary animals – we barely caught glimpse of a single local blue feathered bird. We then headed back into Auckland and straight to the city center for checking out the sights and grabbing a bite to eat. We ended up walking around the waterfront and city center before grabbing dinner at The Brewers CoOp for some quality beer and fish. Joe had a burger. Poor Joe. Malcolm also got offered his first job in New Zealand and his first job as a bartender. He may take them up on it if it is still available a year from now. Joking aside it was a great way to wrap up the day. However, no joke, it is illegal for New Zealand supermarkets to sell alcohol (beer/wine – spirits are sold at liquor stores) past 11pm… odd to be so restrictive for a country that allows drinking at 18yrs of age… We found this out as we were grabbing groceries for the next couple of days and had we been one minute earlier, another beer for the hostel. Oh well.
Take a look at the pictures above for a quick visual summary of the notes above and head to the Week 1 InFocus page for a look at even more photos! Enjoy