Milford Sound

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There is one good way to see Milford Sound, well two, ok three and yes, we did them all!  Months before arriving in New Zealand Paul booked two splurge items, a shark dive in Bluff (more on that later) and a plane, boat, helicopter tour of Milford Sound.  Both activities required a fair amount of persuasion on his part as danger at premium is not my idea of a good time.  I’m pretty sure he knowingly and conveniently omitted information about a deadly helicopter crash on nearby Fox Glacier a few weeks prior; details I learn from my seatmate on the plane ride over.  As for the cost, to this day I still don’t know exactly how much this experience set us back.  Paul’s calculation of the conversion rate from US to New Zealand dollars seems to improve with each swipe of the Visa.  But we’re on vacation and it’s already paid for, so I’m not going to worry about it.

IMG_0264Our day starts with a 9am call from the front desk.  First stop the Queenstown airport.  From Queenstown, Milford Sound is a winding three and a half hour drive, but just over a 20 minute flight (30 minutes if you take the scenic route).  Kerri picks us up in the lobby and we arrive at the hanger a short time later.  Air Milford is a family owned business. Both father and son fly.  After greeting his mother (Kerri) with a quick hug Captain Arthur joins us for a safety briefing.  Looks like it’s going to be full flight so someone is going to have to sit copilot.   Paul’s hand shoots up.  Guess that means I’ll be riding solo.

We board the IMG_020514 passenger Cessna, Paul in the front and me in the first row right behind the pilot.  This is good, one engine, one pilot and Paul as the backup.  And it looks like our “copilot” is more interested in suctioning his GoPro to the window at just the right angle than figuring out what a copilot actually does.  As Captain Arthur preforms one last check of the plane’s exterior I notice a gold placard just below the control column: Thy Mercy, O Lord, Is In The Heavens, And Thy Faithfulness, Reacheth Unto The Clouds, Psalm 36v5.  I say a little prayer.  Small planes always make me a bit nervous.

IMG_0212Once I get past the small plane thing and the fact Captain Arthur likes to fly uncomfortably close to the ice capped mountains in order to give us “a proper view” I relax a bit.  His voice is very soothing.   It also helps that the skies are relatively calm and that we haven’t experienced any turbulence.

The progression from the lush Queenstown hillside to snow-capped peaks is a brilliant contrast.  Mountains grow nearer, terrain steeper, and the forest fades into a barren land of jagged rock pocketed with glassy pools of melted snow.  As we crest the top I look down at the magnificent mountains powdered with frozen tops and try to take it all in.  Endless pristine wilderness as far as the eye can see.  A splendid sequence of unending three-sixty panorama.

We arrive at the auction IMG_0260house (aka the Milford Sound Visitor Terminal).  At the end of the runway is a large contemporary building framed in metal with gigantic glass windows.  We disembark and gravitate toward the natural flow of people heading toward the terminal.  Capitan Arthur brings up the rear. The experience makes me feel a bit like a New Zealand sheep being herded in from pasture.  The trickle of tourists pools at the entrance.  Pilots and bus drivers herd the flock through the sliding glass doors in preparation for sale to the eager vendors inside.  The terminal swells with people bunched like little flocks waiting wide eyed for instruction as representatives from the cruise ships push through making their selections.

IMG_0266Card in hand we follow the other red sheep down a ramp leading onto our ship, The Pride of Milford.  Blue sheep make their way on too, but are lead to the main deck.  Here they are presented with black shiny bento boxes filled with neatly arranged pockets of sushi, veggies and orange wedges.  We spend the first few minutes outside on the upper most deck, but I get cold shortly after takeoff and retreat inside away from the wind.  Paul stays behind.

I find a makeshift seat just outside the bridge and strike up conversation with the captain.  After a few formalities he launches into the fascinating history of the sound periodically stopping to say a few words to the other passengers on the intercom.  He would like to broadcast more but resists the desire to do so.  The passengers get a bit fussy when his commentary is not followed up with the Korean translation.  He hits a button, sits back and smiles.  A monotone voice in an unfamiliar tongue fills the silence directing our attention to the fjords.

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Ah! The Fjords.  A fun word indeed sure to get you strange looks as most have no idea what they are (present company included until this trip).  A long narrow inlet carved into the mountains by massive glaciers travelling down to the sea.

IMG_0294My favorite part of the cruise is trying to spot fur seals on shore.  They are remarkably hard to see as they blend in beautifully with the rocks.  What’s not camouflaged is their terrible odor; like eggs cooking on an old car tire.  Each time I get a whiff I hold my breath point my camera towards shore, hoping to root them out with the zoom lens.  Our captain tells us these are young males that have been kicked out of the heard.  The youngsters retreat to Milford Sound in order to grow strong and hopefully win a harem of females next breeding season.  To me these fur seals look more like fuzzy rocks than gladiators preparing for combat.  Physical exertion is limited to the IMG_0317occasional scratch behind the ear or a ninety degree turn to sun the other side.

Paul favors the waterfalls.  Dwarfed by the enormous mountains most are actually three times the height of Niagara Falls.  Just past The Lion (a 4,300-foot mountain in the shape of a crouching feline) our captain directs our attention to The Four Sisters; a series of falls that appear together following heavy rain.  This magical water is said to hold powers of enteral youth.  Following the Korean translation the deck fills with tourists dancing and snapping photos beneath the frigid water.  We return to shore to meet Butch our last vendor of the day.

IMG_0354Riding in a helicopter is an unusual and somewhat frightening experience.  I liken it to sitting on a washing machine, the kind that churns upright with an agitator in the center.  As the final rinse commences the laundry room door closes with an unsuspecting click and the voracious gushing intensifies bouncing from one wall to another in a futile attempt to escape.  Inside the belly of the machine the wet load purges itself of the remaining suds clinging to the side of the drum in a giant wad creating an interrupting “woom“ with each rotation.  Faster and faster it goes into an uncontrollable whirl as wobbly legs give way under stable ground.

This is serious business.  The safely belt pins my shoulders tight against the palpitating seat.  Headset securely fastened I nod in agreement.  I have no idea what Butch said, but I’m pretty sure yes it the correct answer.  The whirling intensifies and I grip Paul’s hand as the helicopter begins to rock back and forth.  This was a really bad idea.  Next thing I know we’re airborne.

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A short time later Butch opens the door and I peer out into this wild new terrain.  Deafened by the howling noise of the helicopter turbines I follow the others out into the silence.  A thin layer of ice covers the thick fluffy snow.  IMG_0387I crunch through it with deep, heavy steps as wet slushy snow moistens my toes and tickles my ankles.  As I look out into snowy horizon I am blinded by its brightness.  When my eyes finally adjust I can only stand still and try to take it all in.  It is almost too much.  This is quite simply one of the most picturesque places in the world. Yep, worth every penny!

 

Queenstown NZ Part II

IMG_3418We spend the first four nights of our trip in Queenstown.  It should have been five but was almost three thanks to a pilots strike at Air Tahiti.  “No worries” as the Kiwis say.  We had a restful night at the Crown Plaza in LA and even managed to squeeze in lunch with Aunt Mary Beth before catching a 7:55pm flight directly to Auckland on Air New Zealand.  One hour on the tarmac, twelve long hours in the air, another thirty minutes waiting for an available gate, followed by thirty minutes in customs and we are finally there! Well, sort of.

We stand broken and exhausted at the mercy of a cheery customer service agent trying to rebook our missed flight to Queenstown.  A small silver Christmas tree blocks my view of her screen.  Christmas music fills the silence as she toggles the mouse back and forth across the desk shaking her head disapprovingly with each click.  The impatient couple behind us inches closer.  The wife drops her bags with a grown.  Her husband crosses his arms and clears his throat disapproving.  I pretend not to notice.  The line grows as four more unhappy travelers join the cause, dreams of happy holidays abroad crushed under over booked flights and lost baggage.  I hate Christmas music.  We’ve missed our connection by 40 minutes thanks to two guys with Visa issues who held up the plane in LA and never even boarded.  With our only option to Queenstown being a 2pm departure the following day, we opt for a flight to Dunedin instead.

IMG_0203I could have sworn she said the flight left at 11:15am but over our 8:00am lunch we realize the departure time is actually 15:15; seven hours from now.  Christmas music fills the silence once again.  After exploring every inch of the Auckland airport, the adjoining hotel and consuming our second overpriced mediocre lunch of the day we finally board.  When we arrive in Dunedin two hours later we’ve been awake for thirty-five hours straight.  As we wait out front for our rental car Paul chuckles.  We’re both glad he sprung for the extra car insurance.  He turns on the windshield wipers signaling his intention to merge right as we pull out onto the left-hand side of the road and begin our three-and-a-half-hour journey to the hotel.  Next time I hope he’ll use the turn signal.

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The Doubletree Queenstown is just as expected clean, modern and free (we’re staying on points of course!).  Gold and diamond members have access to all the amenities at the Hilton across the street including a great IMG_3497hot tub and a top notch breakfast.  We have a nice view of lake Wakatipu from our third floor balcony.  The hotel is about fifteen minutes from city central.  The first two days we drive; on the third day we take the hotel shuttle.  It’s also located less than two miles from the airport; convenient for those who actually get to fly to Queenstown.

IMG_0015In a city full of backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts where a clean pair of dark jeans represents the high mark of formality, traversing the Queenstown garden made me feel surprisingly underdressed.  Magnificent piles of soft fluffy petals fanned perfectly atop well tamed stems in an explosion of regal femininity. Their airy velveteen edges rising gently toward the summer rays exposing the remnants of morning dew.  This is truly one of the most beautiful rose gardens IMG_0450I’ve ever seen.  Voluminous blooms in in blushing shades of red, pink, yellow and white.  I love them all but the Patty Stephens is by far my favorite.  Paul finds the perfect bloom and snaps a picture.  I lay on the lawn and take in the sun.  We enjoy the Queenstown Gardens so much that we actually come back for a second visit two days later.

IMG_0197Athletics aren’t really my thing, but I do consider myself relativity fit.  However, a hundred steps into the Queenstown Hill hike I thought I was going to die.  Two important notes about this trail.  First, it begins at Belfast Terrace not the end of Malaghan Street as noted on the map.  Second, I don’t care what the sign says this “hill” is really a mountain.  If you’re looking for a leisurely hike, stick with the Queenstown Gardens.  We make the drive up the winding road to the end of Malaghan and find a cul-de-sac in a residential neighborhood with exactly four parking places, three of which are available.  How convenient!  A small sign points to an opening in the overgrown bush blanketed with hard packed gravel.  About thirty steps in we round the corner and are presented with about sixty stairs, each with at least a 12-inch rise.  Paul bounds ahead as I lumber behind, the distance between us increasing with each step.  About ten paces in exhausted and gasping for air I find myself bent over at the waist hands on hips, eyeballs to the ground trying to cough up a breath. Tottering side to side like a whisky fed hen foraging for food I waddle up.  This position albeit a bit strange is the only way I can muster the steep incline and ensure gravity doesn’t play any unsuspecting tricks.

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Paul stops at every overlook, climbs every rock and reads every sign.  I trudge slowly behind promising to take in the views on the descent.  We finally reach the top in what feels like record speed.  Paul checks his phone.  In total from the actual start of the trail it takes about 40 minutes.  IMG_0181 (2)The sign at the bottom estimates one and a half to two and a half hours to the top and back.  Sitting on a rock at the highest point of Queenstown Hill I take in the views for the very first time.  Spectacular!  During our decent I join Paul at each overlook for more views of the area and even climb into the Basket of Dreams for a quick photo.

Queenstown NZ Part I

Satisfied with the tautness of AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0002-Cam02 (2)the ankle strap he reaches for the first of two carabiners and clips it into the nylon loop positioned perfectly between the legs, just slightly above the bridge of the feet.  Snap! His hands continue up the nylon strap right over left inching uncomfortably close to the crotch.  The right hand releases springing up to the belly then hooking down toward the navel.  His thumb extends forward breaking open the second clip.  The carabineer collides with the metal D-ring and closes back upon itself.  Snap! Snap! One final tug on the harness confirms a snug fit around the waist.  Two painful hops toward the ledge; feet heavy with hesitation, legs jelly with nerves.  One final look down . . . way down.  His outstretched hand points towards a platform on the adjacent mountain side.  One final picture.  One final breath.  Peripheral vision wains to the drum of a single heartbeat.  One… Two… Three… Bungy!  Not A Chance.  Fortunately, my moment of clarity came well before this point.  My twenty-minute trip from Queenstown to Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge was simply to document Paul’s Bungy jumping experience.  And that’s exactly what I did.

AJ HackettIMG_0061 Bungy is a brilliant example of social media marketing at its best, drawing thrill seekers from around the world thirsting for a sip of excitement and the sharable content to commemorate the moment.  Appealing to emotions of those looking for a visceral high and the desire to join an “elite” club of the truly nuts.  Bungy jumping is a rush of excitement for mind, body and wallet to the tune of about $10 a second.  Through the top of the giant bee hive we go down the long spiral ramp which hugs the inner wall of the dome.  Massive flat screen TVs line the walls depicting raw expressions of adrenaline madness amplified with pulsating techno music.  Equally as cool as the facility are the crew employed.  At the bottom of the bee hive we are led to a desk by a rugged Kiwi sporting a partially groomed beard and a lip ring.  His dreadlocks, pulled loosely back, expose the sides closely sheered three or so inches above his ears.  Few occupations lend themselves well to this hair style, IMG_0062fortunately for him Bungy jumping instructor is one of them.  After signing his life away Paul is weighed and marked with two numbers, his weight on his left hand and his photo number on his right.  A quick swipe of the Visa and we were ready to go.  Jump or no jump the Bungy experience is non-refundable from this point forward.

At this point we spilt.  Paul goes to the bridge to get fitted for his harness.  I head to the photo deck to join the other spectators, most of which are Korean.  As I write this Korea is experiencing an economic boom.  The New Zealand Tourism Consulate has wisely responded with a full on advertising campaign designed to make Korean travel fluid.  Korean translated maps and brochures dot every visitor center and almost all guides we meet can say hello, goodbye and thank you in Korean; many know much more.  At least for the time Korean in Queenstown is as common as Spanish in Florida.

In the AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0004-Rovingfive days we’ve been here I’ve come to love Korean tourists.  In fact, should there be a list on the best tourist worldwide I do believe Koreans would rank at the top.  With amenable dispositions and adventurous spirits they are great at lines (forming them and standing in them for long periods), as well as some of the first to volunteer for the chance to try something new.  Want to dance under the frigid waters of the Milford Sound Falls?  Sure why not!  Cheesy lanyards and logoed hats provided by tour companies, others toss in the trash, they wear happily.  Yes, their eager nature makes them quick to crowd to the front but they are so jovial and polite it’s hard to find fault.  Besides, the tallest among them is still a good six inches shorter than me so by all means crowd ahead. Surrounded by Korea tourists I watch the barrage of jumpers hurl themselves from the bridge one right after another.  The entire process takes about 5 minutes and each reaction is the same providing me with ample mAJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0007-Rovingaterial to assess the typical Bungy jumping experience without actually having to take the plunge.  In describing the sheer and uncontrollable panic experienced by the jumper in the 20 seconds leading up to the fall, I draw on my one and only skydive experience (never again!).  Hey, every great story includes a bit of creative licensing.

AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0008-RovingWith each jump my comrades cheer with delight, their $3,000 cameras fixated on the platform ready to capture every shot.  I’m pretty sure they have one or two friends at the top but they take pictures of every single jumper with unrelenting focus and enthusiasm.  Finally, Paul enters the shoot and the hook up process beings.  I step closer to the rail.  Eyeball to the lens I zoom in for a close-up view of the process and snap a few quick photos.  After passing inspection Paul grabs the metal bar, pulls himself to his feet and rotates 180 degrees.  Still holding on to the bar he takes two backwards hops to the edge of the platform, looks down, and stops.  What is he doing?  Every Korean camera goes up, cell phones and iPads too.  The chatter intensifies.  After a satisfying nod at the angry waters below he looks out toward the observation desk and scans for me.  I wave.  Yes, I’m paying attention.  Don’t want to miss this and have to pay for a second jump. AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0010-Roving I can feel the Korean on my left looking at me for a response.  I shake my head.  Yep, it looks like he is going to jump backwards, that’s not surprising.  He reciprocates with something in Korean.  I nod and he jumps with delight.  Having broken the language barrier, I motion for him to move so I can steady my arm on the rail.  He complies.

AJH-KB-20151217-099-001-0012-RovingTwo more hops on the platform.  Heels suspended in midair Paul rises on the balls of his feet.  A GoPro mounted securely to his wrist to capture the full decent.  Back arched, arm splayed, he rolls his head back and he gazes into the heavens above.  One small jump and he falls into the sky.  The ride is intense but fast, so fast he is in and out of the water before I have a chance to process it.  Good thing, I had no idea this was part of the plan.  What looks like a hard splash from my vantage point he assures me was just a light dip in the water.  As he nears the river the enormous rubber band takes hold slowing his decent.  The band recoils and releases several more times before the ride finally comes to an end.  Paul is left hanging upside down about 10 feet above the water waiting for two men in a life boat to break him free.  As he lay flat in the boat I lean over the sideIMG_0139 of the platform and we make eye contact once again.  I wave and he gives me two thumbs up.  He joins me a few minutes later outside the beehive quite pleased with his accomplishment and soaking wet from the waist up.  I’m glad it’s over.  He’s happy they threw in a “free” dry t-shirt.  Welcome to New Zealand indeed.  It’s sure to be an exciting three weeks.