Saturday, May 27, 2017

New Zealand day 9: Arthur's pass

There was going to be a change in our plan due to weather. A cyclone was about to hit North Island which would bring lot of rain in some areas of south. And a low pressure on Tasman sea was also bringing in some rains. While there was no way to avoid rains, it was possible to have minimal impact from it. Abel Tasman was dropped from our plan and few places in Canterbury were added!! Thanks to, I could cancel couple of days before the journey without penalty.

A mountain in Arthur's pass
Our first visit of the day was to Frans Joseph Glacier. Situated just 25 km from Fox glacier, it looks very similar. Can be considered as a “twin” glacier. We did a quick visit to the view point which gave a nice view of the glacier.

Franz Joseph glacier
We made a brief stop at Hokitika for refueling and to buy some food items. It is one of the biggest town in Westland. 

Franz Joseph glacier
We were now climbing Arthur’s pass. The pass from west coast side was very steep and went though dense forests. The steepest section ended at Otira viaduct, considered as a civil engineering feet. As you can see in the picture, it is built over a section of unstable area prone to avalanche and landslides.

Otira viaduct
We had our late lunch at the view point overlooking the viaduct. It also provided a view of the pass.

Arthur's pass road

After the top of the pass, we reached the small township of Arthur’s pass. There were many impressive trails. We choose Devil Punchfowl waterfalls. It looked great from the road.

Devil punchfowl waterfalls
The path to the falls was long while included a steep climb which almost went to the top of the falls only to bring us down to the base!! But the hike was worth the effort. The waterfall looked stunning at the base!!

Base of the falls
We spent some time at the visitor center to understand the history of the pass. Tanu spent some time drawing!!

Closer view of the falls
While the western section of the pass was very steep, the eastern part was wide open and gradual. It provided some of the stunning views of the mountains.

Arthur's pass on eastern side
There was a snowfall at the higher section of the mountains recently. Not part of my original plan, I was glad that I included Arthur’s pass in the itinerary. It was so beautiful. The eastern section of the pass must not be missed at all. I lost count of the number of stops made to enjoy the scenery.

Arthur's pass
The final stop was Castle hill. The sunlight was fading as I went down to see the place. This place was amazing. Wished we had more time to wander around the area. 

Castle hill
It was fully dark when we reached Christchurch. I chalked out the plans for the next few days.

Road in Arthur's pass

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

New Zealand day 8: Fox glacier

It would be another eventful day. The destination was Fox glacier, one of the two main glaciers in Westland. We had booked helicopter ride to the top of Fox Glacier. We started early morning from Haast and it was a pleasant driving for 2 hours on the scenic road devoid of any vehicles.

View from Mt. Cook
Since there was some time before the helicopter ride, we went to our hotel (Rainforest Motel) that was nearby. The rooms as expected were not ready but the lady in the reception promised to get it done by 11AM when we come back from helicopter ride. That was very nice of her considering the check-in time of 2PM.

Glacier Helicopters in Fox township
There are few ways to enjoy the Fox glacier. Cheapest option is to hike to see the mouth of the glacier. That does not cost any money. Another option is to hike to the mouth itself with the help of the guide. The expensive option is to ride on an helicopter that lands on top of the glacier. There is no way one can trek on the glacier. It requires mountaineering skills and the glacier is extremely volatile and not safe. Being normal human beings, we chose the helicopter ride. Not everyday we get an opportunity to stand on top of a glacier.

Fox township
For us, it was our first helicopter ride and we were excited. As part of pre boarding we were briefed by the staff on dos and don’ts of the ride. Apart from camera, no other bags or equipments were allowed. Not even selfie stick (we did not had any!). Exactly on time, we were taken to the helipad where we waited for couple of mins before our helicopter landed.

"Our" chopper
It was too noisy inside the chopper. In order to hear the instructions from the pilot, we had to put our headsets. That reduced the noise a lot.

Fox glacier
I was astonished at the speed which the helicopter gained the altitude. You do not experience that in an airplane but helicopter provides the raw feel of it. Very soon we had crossed the temperate rain forests, grasslands and were flying over the fox glacier. We were astonished to see mountain goats walking on the glacier!!

A circle of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman was made. It was a treat to watch these huge mountains. We had not seen those views even from Mt. Cook village due to cloudy weather.

Hooker lake, Pukaki lake and Mt. Cook village!!
The helicopter then landed on a flat land above the glacier. It was the safe spot where there was no movement of the ice. It can be called as an ice field rather than a glacier. But it provided amazing views of the surroundings.

Ice fields of Fox glacier
It was photo time. It was great that weather was on our side that day. Not a common sight in Westland!! 

Family photograph!!
Tanu was super excited and jumped with joy in the ice field.

All nice things should end and we had to climb back to helicopter and within few minutes we were back at the base.

The vast snow fields of Fox glacier
Our room was ready when we came back to the hotel. Dumping our bags, we set out for Matheson lake. It was the place to see the reflection of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman. But our luck with weather ran out that time as the mountains were covered by clouds and the lake was rough due to wind. To really understand how it would have looked in clear weather, just click the link here.

Lake Mathesan
The weather remained in that state for the entire day. We were lucky for the helicopter ride to the glacier.

View of Fox glacier
After lunch, Chaya and I decided to hike to see the mouth of the glacier while my mother and Tanu decided to relax in room. We drove for about 6 km to reach the parking lot. On the way, we saw a board mentioning that the glacier was reaching till that point some 200 years back. It is not very far away in time for these glaciers to completely disappear. 

Hike to Fox glacier
It was a simple walk next to the stream for most of the time. The last stretch was very steep but manageable. 

The "last" stretch
The trail ended at the view point where we see the glacier.

Glacier as seen from the view point
Hitch hiking is very common in New Zealand. We had seen many people waving at us throughout our journey for drop but as we could stop as we were running full. At Fox Glacier we met a German and a Canadian trekkers who were looking for a vehicle. They had been hiking for last 2 days. We dropped them to the township.

Stream flowing from glacier. Not very far from Tasman sea!!
Evening was spent walking in the small beautiful town of Fox Glacier. It was a great and memorable day.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

New Zealand day 7: Travel to west coast

We were moving to the next phase of our trip in New Zealand. Westland, the most sparsely populated district would be our next destination for next 2-3 days. The southern alps next to the Tasman sea with temperate rainforest is strikingly similar to our western ghats. But with snow clad mountains and glacier, it can be considered as a mix of western ghats and Himalayas!!

Snow clad mountains of westland
The first part of the journey was to retrace the path to Queenstown. The Wakapitu lake was again our companion for a good part of the drive. It required several stops as the lake was looking spectacular in the early morning. Tanu felt that it was time to get some portraits for her.

Tanu at Wakatipu lake
 The route we were taking was Te Anau —> Queenstown —> Arrowtown —> Wanaka —> Haast Paps —> Haast.

Wakatipu lake
At Arrowtown, we took a shortcut via Crown range road. At 3,677 feet , it is the highest main road in New Zealand. The road was steep as series of switchbacks quickly took us to the top. 

Switchbacks at Crown range road
Wanaka looked like a picturesque town. For us it was time to refuel the car as the petrol stations were far and few between.

At Crown range road lookout
We were again passing next to the lake!! This time it was lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka. Lot of places to stop and enjoy. They journey was very slow but we has no issues!!

Lake Hawea
It was time to stop at one of the lookouts for lunch. The place was mesmerizing. Each time, when we thought that we had seen enough of lakes, there would be another beautiful one!!

Pristine lakes of New Zealand
We were now at Makaroa, the last settlement before Haast. Between them was the Haast pass, one of the three passes that crossed over to Westland. It was completely a forest drive. 

Forests of Haast pass
There were few places to stop on Haast pass. One of them blue pools. It was an easy 10-15 minutes walk that ended at the crystal clear water. We got the first “taste” of sandflies of Westland!! We had to be on alert to ensure that we had no bites.

Blue pools
We did a quick stop at Fantail falls. It was just two minutes walk. 

Fantail falls
Haast seemed to be smaller than the normal village in India!! Our place of stay “Bay road motel” was 15 km further from Haast. It was completely away from all the civilization. It was the most isolated place we stayed in New Zealand.

Our hotel at haast
We made a visit to Haast beach in the evening. We had to cross a small private farm before reaching the beach. A sheep was peacefully grazing in the field.

Sheep at Haast
Like many places in New Zealand, we were the only ones at the place!! Time to enjoy the solitude.
Haast beach

Thursday, May 18, 2017

New Zealand day 6: Milford Sound

Milford Sound is usually described with adjectives like “one of the most beautiful place on earth” and “8th natural wonder of the world”. It is definitely on the itinerary of every traveler to New Zealand. Needless to say we were very excited on the previous day. For a change, the weather was expected to be sunny on that day. What else we need?

Milford Sound
Milford Sound is about 120 km from Te Anau. With lot of spots to cover on the way, we estimated about 2 to 2.5 hours of journey. 

Mountains on the way to Milford Sound
The first part of the journey was uneventful. Things started getting interesting as we stopped at Eglinton valley for some views.

Eglinton valley
Then came the mirror lakes. Needless to say it provided some nice reflection of the mountains nearby.

Mirror lakes
The scenery got better and better as the road passed through the mountains. We had climbed up to the highest point of the journey to cross 1.2 km long Homer tunnel. Since only one way traffic was allowed in this tunnel, we had to wait for our turn. It is said that traffic is allowed both sides during winter and spring due to avalanche risk for the vehicles waiting both sides. 

Waiting at Homer tunnel
The road then continuously went down to reach the sea level at Milford Sound. For the first time in New Zealand, I faced parking issue. I could not find any parking place even after searching for some time. I remembered a deviation a km before Milford Sound that seem to had some empty places. I dropped my family and drove back to the deviation. I could fine some place to park but had to walk back 2 km to the entrance. Luckily, I had put some buffer time and we could manage to reach the boat ride on time. 

Mountain view
As we walked from the parking lot to the Jetty, the beauty of the Sound was seen. Before New Zealand trip, I was wondering what was the meaning of “Sound” in the context of Milford Sound. Basically in geographical terms, Sound is a large sea or ocean inlet larger than a bay and wider than a fjord.

Milford Sound
Cruise is one of the best and popular way to enjoy Milford Sound. Many operators provide this service and the journey usually takes 1.5 to 2 hours. Most of them go till the mouth of the Sound and return back. I had booked “Jucy cruise” couple of days ago on internet. It was a very simple process.

"Jucy" boat
The beauty of the place gets magnified as the boat makes its journey. When it rains, hundreds of waterfalls appear from nowhere and pour the water into the Sound. But on sunny days, two permanent waterfalls steal the show!!

Bowen falls
From the boat, mountains look huge and the waterfalls looked small though there were nearly 150 meters tall. You can then imagine the height of the mountains!!

Stirling falls which is 146 meters high
Milford Sound is beautiful irrespective of the weather. Each weather condition gives a different perspective of the place. It rains a lot in Milford Sound and even the tour guide mentioned it as a rare event to see perfect sunshine. That was good!!

Milford Sound from jetty
As the commentary continued we were immersed by the beauty of this place. The photographs do not do the justice at all!! It has to be experienced.

Mountains at Milford Sound
At the mouth of the Sound, we could see the coast of Westland. The Tasman sea looked amazing.

Tasman sea and the mountains
We were lucky to see Antacrtic fur seals, permanent resident of Milford Sound.

Antarctic fur seals
While returning back, the boat went very close to Stirling falls. So close that that we were splashed with the water from the falls.

Stirling falls
The base of the falls looked beautiful and the water was very clear.

The two hours on boat had passed very quickly. Food and drinks were supplied inside the boat (for extra cost, tea/coffee is free) but we mostly stayed on the deck for better views.

Stirling falls

Final words

If I plan again, I would consider going with tour operators though it was a nice drive to Milford Sound. Parking is a real problem in this area and we need to time it well with cruise timings. Buses looked very comfortable. The tours can be organized from Queenstown. They also stop at the viewpoints all along the way. But will be a long day from Queenstown(600+ km round trip).