New Zealand 2024 - Part 2

January 26, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Click here for Part 1.

We stay in Aoraki near Mt Cook in the Aoraki Court Motel. We had a late second lunch upon arrival, watching two avalanches coming down from the remaining snow on the mountain.


We do the Hermitage Big Sky Stargazing at 0:30 am with clear skies in the unique location beneath the mountains in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. The two guides explain by pointing with lasers into the sky. They also had two telescopes on tracking mounts. We learn that the closest star system in the night sky is called Alpha Centauri, and it is one of the pointers that help us find the Southern Cross. The light you see from it has taken nearly 4.5 years to reach the Earth! In addition to the Milky Way, there are two other galaxies to look for on nights in New Zealand, called the Magellanic Clouds. We went to bed at 2:30 am.


In the morning (well, 10 am), we did the Hooker Valley Track but turned around after 1.5 hours (about half the way in). The swinging bridges were a bit scary, and no one obeyed the 20-person limit as the track was super crowded.

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We read at one spot, “The rumble and crash: Shhh! Listen of an ever-changing landscape: Can you hear the rocks and snow tumbling down from the mountains above? The rushing of water? It is the sound of change-of glaciers retreating and mountains being torn down by water and ice. A hundred years ago, the Mueller Glacier filled the valley floor. You could have walked onto the glacier from near here. Today the glacier is all but hidden up the valley. Glacial ice left behind is still visible at the far end of the lake. Piles of rock rubble (moraine) dropped by the glacier mark its past extent.” 

On Tuesday, 2 January, after Checkout, we met up at the Activity Retail Centre in the Hermitage lobby at 7:30 for the Glacier Explorer. Our guide tells us a bit about Aoraki: 300 people live in the village during the summer and only 100 in the winter, as there are almost no winter activities available. The area is government owned and all services are run by eight companies. The highest mountain is Mt Cook, which is 3724 metres high. It is also called the Cloud Piercer, as its peak is above the clouds for every two of three days. We are told that the Waitaki Hydroelectric Power System connects the three big lakes by man-made canals. Two lakes have a bluish colour from the glacier water. The contributing rivers have a milky, chalky colour from the rock ground up by the glaciers. However, the big particles sink to the bottom while the smaller ones stay at the surface. We learn that the last ice age was about 18,000 years ago, with the Tasman Glacier about 100 km long and 4 km wide. During the glacier’s movements, it “plugs” big rocks as glacier till and deposits these on the floor after melting as “abandoned glacier till”—sometimes up to 400 m deep. The valley receives up to 7 metres of rain per year, resulting in, among many other things, the Wakefield Waterfall, which is the highest waterfall in the park.

After a short bus ride and a 20-minute walk, we embark on small zodiacs with outboard motors in groups of 12 people with a guide/skipper. We are told that the Tasman Glacier is currently 27 km long, the longest in NZ. Its black surface comes from all the water melting while the till stays at the top, forming now a 2-3 metre layer of rocks and gravel. The glacier was 100 meters high only 80 years ago at the terminal phase (and there was no “Tasman Lake) and now is only 30 metres high. It retreats 150 meters per year at the 1.5 km wide terminal phase. Interestingly, there are another 270 metres of ice below the water's surface, which sometimes results in big breakaways, creating an ice shelf reaching 200 metres under the surface. We stayed 600 metres away from the calving area.


We also stopped at some floating icebergs to observe the bluish ice crystals from close up. I have the GoPro with me and record some short videos.

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After returning to the car, we started our drive to Wanaka, where we have an Airbnb in Albert Town. We stop by in Twizel at the High Country Salmon Farm. We have a Salmon Plank with various samples of their salmon dishes, from sushi to salmon pate.


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After arriving in Albert Town and unpacking, we drove the two kilometres into Wanaka, where Gisela went shopping while I sat at Lake Wanaka writing these lines. We have dinner at Bombay Palace’s second-floor balcony, allowing us an unobstructed view of the Lake. The food is delicious, and the service provided by the friendly staff is superior. I leave a nice review on Google.


The next morning, Wednesday, we go for a hike at Diamond Lake Conservation Area. The climb is steep, but we are rewarded with an excellent view of Diamond Lake and Lake Wanaka. “Diamond Lake Conservation Area is part of a spectacular mass of rock shaped by glacial action. Native forests and shrubland nestled into bluff systems add an attractive component to the landscape. The lake is impressive with its dramatic backdrop of high schist cliffs. The summit of Rocky Mountain (775m) provides excellent views over Lake Wanaka and its two largest islands, Mou Waho and Mou Tapu. From this vantage point to the west rise the peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park with the distinct shape of Mt Aspiring/Tititea dominating the sky line.”

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In dense traffic, we stopped at Lake Hawea before returning to Airbnb. We go to the nearby Clutha River for a picnic in the evening. Across the river is a densely packed campground, but our side of the river is thankfully deserted.

The next morning, we drove 100 km to Queenstown to our hotel, Villa Del Lago, with a view of Lake Wakatipu, just 2 minutes drive from Queenstown.


After arriving, we walk 3.4 km to eat at Pedro’s By The Lake. I have a glass of El Coto (Rioja -VIURA Easy drinking dry white with a rounded texture and notes of pear.)

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We have a variety of different tapas. We watch people do fake skydiving.

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We then go to Queenstown into the Kiwi and Birdlife Park. We watch the Kiwi show: “Kiwi numbers have plummeted - from millions 200 years ago, to about 70,000 today. Many of the places they lived are now cities, towns or farms. Kiwis are killed by stoats, dogs, cats, ferrets, pigs and possums.” “Kiwi are Unusual, More Like a Mammal Than a Bird: Kiwi is New Zealand's most ancient bird and a biological oddity. Because New Zealand had only three native land mammals (tiny bats), kiwi evolved to fill a mammal's niche. Unique features of kiwi are feathers are shaggy, like coarse hair; bones are heavy and marrow-filled; they have a mammal's low body temperature;  live in burrows; chicks hatch fully feathered, but they take 3 - 5 years to attain adult size; only bird with nostrils at the tip of their bill.”

At 4 pm, we watched the general animal show with a Tuatara, New Zealand's Living Fossil: “When it's cold, tuatara go into a form of hibernation called torpor. They retreat to their burrows, barely move and slow their breathing and heartbeat right down to save energy.” They can get 150 years old and do not belong to the family of reptiles, lizards, or crocodiles but form their own family. They have one individual Tuatara in another zoo, which is 130 years old. The tuatara has a third eye, a photoreceptor, on its forehead.

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They then showed us Australian Lorikeets that were introduced into NZ.

The other introduced species is opossum of which there are 80 million in NZ now. They are trapped, and then their fur is mixed with Merino Wool for socks and other wool products. Later, we see socks in a local store. “Possum Merino: 33% NZ Possum Fur, 44% NZ Merino, 7% Silk, 16% Synthetic Cushioning. The sole and heel areas are cushioned with a plush zone for enhanced comfort and wear.“


They also show us a Weka and Kereru at the show. Wekas are flightless birds with a great homing instinct. They can walk great distances and swim across rivers and streams, some have been known to swim distances of up to a kilometer to get home. Agricultural development and the introduction of mammalian predators were the reasons for a drop in the number of Weka in the late last century. But the biggest problem was between 1915 and 1925 when many vanished…many probably due to disease.”

We also see a Kea in an enclosure and read: “Kea have the same problem-solving (and mess-making) ability as a 4-year-old child! We are given many toys and enrichments to play with so we don't get bored.” We read, “The young Kea learn by mimicking what their parents do and playing with each other. Once they are two or three years old and on their own, Kea spend a few years hanging around in Kea gangs. These are the Kea's 'teenage' years, and it is these gangs that are most often seen around places such as ski fields.” “Kea are cheeky and inquisitive, the clown of birds and the only alpine parrot in the world - definitely worth protecting!”

We tasted different kinds of honey and learned that bees make 22,700 trips to produce a jar of Manuka honey.

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We learn about the Haast’s Eagle, the now-extinct biggest bird ever that lived on Earth with a 3.5 m wingspan. “Believed to have gone extinct in 1400. The largest predator among New Zealand's animals, it is believed to have weighed up to 17.8kg with a 3 metre wingspan. Its feet & claws were as large as a modern-day tiger's. Moa were the eagle's main food source, but Maori tales suggest they attacked human children. The extinction of the moa led to the extinction of the eagle.”

We learn about NZ birds and how they are protected: “New Zealand.. land of the flightless birds? 32 of the 60 species of flightless birds worldwide are from NZ - that number has now halved to just 16, due to extinction. New Zealand is spending millions of dollars to create a safe haven for our native species.”

On Friday, we start at 6 am with a tour to Milford Sound Our tour guide, Cameron, picks us up from a hotel 20 min walk away from ours. Cam talks a lot; some of it seems odd, like that Albatrosses are extinct except in New Zealand, that Americans pay $100k to hunt deer on NZ farms, and that Fungi caused the development of humans because when monkeys ate magic mushrooms it opened up their minds and allowed them to discover things.

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We stop at Garston, a district that “was established in 1858, made up of two sheep stations - Glenquoich and Greenvale. Garston is renowned for being the most inland village in New Zealand and is nestled in the Upper Mataura Valley in the Southern Lakes district. It was named after a suburb of Liverpool in England. The valley in which Garston lies is flanked by the Eyre Mountains (1968 metres) to the west and the Slate Range (942 m) and Hector Mountains (1675 m) to the east.”

We stop at Lake Te Anau, the second largest lake in NZ. “While we may not see them, the dark waters conceal a wealth of underwater life, including both introduced and native fish. The natives: New Zealand's long-finned eel/tuna is one of the largest freshwater eels in the world, growing up to 2 metres long. Adult eels breed only once, at the end of their long lives, travelling thousands of kilometres from New Zealand to spawn deep in the Pacific Ocean. Young eels make the return journey. How they find their way upriver to this remote place is a wonder. Koaro are among the native fish whose juveniles are collectively called whitebait. Unlike some of its relatives, the koaro can spend its whole life in freshwater and is well suited to rivers like the Eglinton/Upokororo. Newcomers: Trout are also likely to live in Mirror Lakes, although they tend to prefer faster-flowing waters. Brown trout were introduced to Fiordland in 1867 as an angling fish; rainbow trout followed in the 1880s.“

We also stop for breakfast and get packed lunch. We see the white flowering Manuka trees which make the Manuka honey, well, with the help from the bees. We learn that Beech trees are “climbing” up the mountains with their roots. As they are all vertically interconnected, tree avalanches rip out trees on a stripe of mountain denuding it from vegetation. It takes 150 to 400 years until it is covered again.

We arrive at Fiordland National Park, the biggest national park in NZ, and one of the largest in the world. We stop at Mirror Lakes and at Falls Creek, a beautiful stream and waterfall. At one stop, we see Keas and take pictures of them eating and flying. 

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Shortly before arriving, “the road climbs through a cascade-tastic valley to the Homer Tunnel, 101km from Te Anau and framed by a high-walled, ice-carved amphitheatre. Begun as a relief project in the 1930s and completed in 1953, the tunnel is one way (traffic lights direct vehicle flow - patience required). … Dark, rough-hewn and dripping with water, the 1270m-long tunnel”.

When we come out of the tunnel, we see the “Wall of 1000 Waterfalls“. When we arrive at the Milford Sound, we embark our ship, the Milford Cruises. The captain, Roger who was born in Stuttgart, explains that the top layer of the water is freshwater with tannins (brownish) and the lower sections consist of saltwater. When there is no rain for 3 weeks, the Fjord water turns blue. We see a pod of Dolphins and some Fur Seals.

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We learn that the Fjord was formed by glaciers. It is 300 m deep, but at the entrance to ocean it is only 60 m deep. I chat with Roger, the captain, who has been doing this job for 30 years—one week working and one week off.  We then start our 4-hour drive back. “Milford Sound receives an estimated one million annual visitors which is an almighty challenge to keep its beauty pristine. But out on the water, all human activity - cruise ships, divers, kayakers - seems dwarfed into insignificance.”


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We encounter dolphins.

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On Saturday, we do a wine tour with Altitude Premium Small Group Travel. “Throughout the day, you can enjoy tasting over 18 spectacular cool-climate wines, with the option of a scrumptious lunch. You will be well looked after and hosted by an Altitude wine guide and cellar staff, and educated and entertained with local winemaking facts and stories. Your Wine Tasting Journey Begins: Start your day being met by your wine-certified guide at or near your Queenstown accommodation. From there, we’ll travel a short distance to the Gibbston wine region, home to top-rated wineries, award-winning winemakers, and, of course, delicious Pinot Noir. Gibbston Valley Winery: Our first location is the iconic Gibbston Valley Winery. Gibbston Valley is one of the region’s founding wineries and it’s here that we will join a guided tour through New Zealand’s largest underground wine cave and enjoy tastings of some of their world-famous wines."

"Kinross: Kinross is a fantastic location to try a range of different wines from multiple winemakers. Along with producing their own, they will also showcase wines from smaller producers and share their incredible stories. After your wine tasting, we allow extra time to enjoy lunch. Kinross has a range of delicious dishes on its menu, including pizzas, platters, smaller bites, and mains. This is ordered and paid directly on the day, giving you the flexibility to order what you would like based on your taste and budget."

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"The Church Cellar Door: We finish our tasting tour at The Church Tasting Room. This is a picturesque location, in a small refurbished church sitting on large sweeping grounds. This is the tasting room for Mt Edward Wines, who are a family-run producer in Gibbston growing small batches from single vineyard sites. Their wines include Pinot Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay, and Chenin.”

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Later, we have dinner at finz Seafood & Grill Restaurant. Gisela had half a crayfish, and I had pan-seared scallops and a whole sole.

As the sunset is only at 21:35 pm at the 43 degree latitude in Queenstown, we walk back to the hotel when there was still light outside.

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After checking out, we have breakfast at The Boatshed and a stroll through the nearby Marina. We returned the rental car (initially, there was no empty parking spot at Sixt) and then checked in (20 min for baggage drop and 30 min for security).

More pictures here


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This is a photographic diary of our adventures in Australia with emphasis on Sydney and its surroundings.
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