Archive for December, 2010

31st December
written by Hazel

I’m extremely excited about this post!

One of my Christmas gifts from Justin was a late night observatory trip to the world’s southernmost research observatory!  You can read about the tour here, or about the observatory here or here.  With all of our recent rain we were a bit worried that we wouldn’t be able to see much on the tour.  The tour company even gave us a $15 discount because there were a few clouds in the sky.  It turned out to be an awesome experience though.

We set out on the tour at 11:45 pm and didn’t get back until almost 2 am.  We were given huge red parkas to keep warm and then they took us up to the observatory on a big bus and then used really bright laser pointers to show us some of the constellations and explain some of the things we could see.  Jupiter was incredibly bright.  I thought it was interesting that the only constellation I could pick out from home, Orion, is upside down here in the southern hemisphere!

After the introduction we split up and could look through telescopes that they lined up to interesting things or try our hand at night photography.  Of course I went right to the photography!  It turned out that I was the only one in the group who lasted more than a couple of minutes taking photos so I got an explaining person to myself helping me out and telling me what I could see!  I even got to mount my camera on the tracking boom that moves at the same speed as the earth rotates so that the stars don’t appear smeared in the photos.  Before I used the boom I was getting streaky stars with a one minute exposure – the earth moves fast!

Upside-down Orion!

This was one of the pictures using the tracking boom. You can see the bright red supergiant Betelgeuse (his shoulder, but at the bottom left in this photo) and the blue supergiant Rigel (top right) and the pinkish Orion Nebula (in his sword).  Click on the photo to zoom in to see better!

Southern Cross

There’s a lot you can see in this photo!  The Southern Cross is in the middle at the bottom – pretty distinctive!  I had so much fun taking these photos and absolutely loved the whole experience!

Mt. John Observatory

We went back up the next day and did a circuit hike around the observatory so we could get a look at it in the daytime.  The views were spectacular, but notice that the clouds were already rolling back in.

We’re just outside Queenstown for new year’s eve tonight.  Hope everyone at home has a safe and happy New Year!!!

29th December
written by Hazel

Christmas Eve at the Octagon

We’ve had a pretty busy time of it, and as always my internet time is running out, but I’ll hit the highlights.  We had a wonderful Christmas in Christchurch with a delicious dinner out on Christmas Eve at a restaurant with live music and then went to the late night Christmas service at the Cathedral.

Christmas Eve at Christchurch Cathedral

Christmas Day we went for a punt ride (they don’t let you punt your own because the current is very fast) and got to see the city from the Avon, which runs right through the middle.  Really nice!  Then we had BBQ lamb.  In New Zealand many people do BBQ for Christmas dinner because it’s so nice outside.

The next day we set off for the Banks Peninsula and had an incredibly gorgeous drive.  The weather was perfect and the views were amazing.

Birds are everywhere!

Banks Peninsula Views

Unfortunately, the next day the weather took a turn for the worse and it started absolutely pouring.  The views were still good when we could see them, but the clouds were so low that there wasn’t much to see.  We tried to make the most of any breaks in the rain, but didn’t feel like we saw the best of Lake Tekapo.

Very BLUE Lake Tekapo in the rain

Horse in wildflowers


The next day it was still pouring, but we decided to head up to Mt. Cook with the hope that the weather forecast was accurate and the rain would break.  It wasn’t promising.


We did a hike, and got sopping wet, attempted another and had to turn back because of flooding.  All of the trails were underwater and so was most of the campground.  We hunkered down with books, and I didn’t even realize that the weather was changing.  Luckily, Justin was on the watch and we quickly did a repeat of the first walk we had tried.  You can see the difference above and below!

Same view 4 hours later!

Mt. Cook is FABULOUS.  The campground was really good, the mountain is so, so beautiful and we had a really good hike this morning (if somewhat crowded – one of the busiest places we’ve been in New Zealand).

Mt. Cook

This afternoon we headed back to Lake Tekapo and are enjoying the continuing sun.  At midnight tonight we’re going on an observatory tour where we will get to use university telescopes and find out about the Southern Hemisphere sky – so we’re extra happy that the skies are clear!

So beautiful now the sun is out!

29th December
written by Justin

Seems like my posts are having some themed titles. This post won’t have as much variety as the previous ones, but hopefully it’s still an interesting one.  We’ve had two natural disasters happen near us so far, neither serious but both audible and visible to us.

  • The first was an earthquake in Christchurch on Christmas night and the morning of boxing day.  According to GeoNet, we were awakened 4 times, by earthquakes of magnitude 4.2,3.8,3.7, and 2.7.  But the big daddy happened while we were eating breakfast: a 4.9 at 10:30am Boxing Day.  We were ready for that one when it happened, though being in a building is a bit of a different experience than being in the van where it’s on shocks and nothing is swaying around.
  • The second was an avalanche!  Yesterday we went up to Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park, but it was raining all day.  However, in late afternoon the storm broke and bright sunlight was given to the area for the last 4 hours of sunlight or so.  This sudden warming up brought down pieces of glacier from the mountain right as we were watching it!  A safe distance of course but it was still audible and quite a spectacle!


Okay, so neither were really natural disasters, but both were impressive enough to comment.  Don’t worry, we’re in no danger here.  Now we’re in the placid Lake Tekapo region, an enormous lake made turquoise blue by finely ground rock particles suspended in the water by the glacier.

20th December
written by Justin

Since many of you know that we’re a couple of snobs when we’re drinking, I thought I’d outline the experiences we’ve had with beer while we’ve been here.  As you may know, New Zealand is well-regarded for its wines, but it also has a selection of tasty local breweries.  We’ve tried:

  • Steinlager – this was a part of our away party.  A reasonable lager for export, and drinkable, but not a beer I’d seek out in Belgium.
  • Mac’s – This beer was found mostly on the North Island so far, and in supermarkets.  They have a full range of beers from their pilsner to their “Black Mac”.  I preferred their red bitter, and Hazel liked Mac’s Gold.
  • Speight’s – We’ve only had their “Gold Medal”, an unremarkable but tasty ale.
  • Tui – This is a local beer brewed in the south of the North Island.  Very popular judging by the number of pubs that have a sign branded Tui instead of branded with their own name.  Tastes remarkably like Newcastle!
  • West Coast Brewery – We went to the brewery of this one, and tasted their range of beers there, but we weren’t too impressed.  Their two lagers were our favorite.
  • Monteith’s – We also went to this brewery, which was much cooler, but we were unable to do a tour due to time restrictions.  We did buy a variety six-pack that we’re working our way through, though!  Some very tasty beers.

Some beer photos along the way:

Monteith's Brewery/Museum

West Coast Brewery Tasting

More on the wine later!

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20th December
written by Hazel
This might be a long one because we’ve been busy!  I’ll hit the highlights.  We’ve had several days of amazing weather which has allowed us to get in some really great hiking.  We’ve also had several days of torrential rain and horrible sandflies.
We had an awesome uphill hike to Rawhiti Cave.  It was absolutely huge and full of awesome cave stuff.


It was HUGE!

We camped at a great campsite at Karamea (the middle of nowhere – very NW of South Island) and had lots of fun adventures, including being offered a bacon sandwich on the beach by a Brit and a Kiwi who were out fishing.  We hung around and a family pulled up in a Jeep.  After a chat they took off only to back the Jeep over and onto a log – STUCK!  They ended up having to dig it out while we stood observing.  It was very, very funny.  Minutes later the fishing rod went crazy and they pulled in a very large red snapper.  Awesome.

That campsite was at the start of one of the Great Walks – the Heaphy Track. We hiked just the very beginning of it, but it was incredibly beautiful.

Awesome view from the beginning of the Heaphy Track!

The next day we went to the Oparara Basin to see the Limestone Arches.

Gates of Moria Arch

Apparently this arch was named even before LoTR was filmed in New Zealand.  It was awesome because you had to climb in through the back of the arch and then could walk around inside.  A little drippy, but so cool!!!

Oparara Arch - too large to photograph!

The Oparara Arch is the really famous one.  It’s over 200 meters long, and pretty much impossible to photograph.  You can go right up inside it and a river runs through the middle.  The arches were really worth the long gravel road up to them!

These birds would hop right up to us in the woods

Today we went to the Franz Josef Glacier.  They have a path to the glacier that lets you get right up to the base of it.  It was pouring with rain and fairly misty, but an awesome short tramp across the rocks to the base.  We got some good pictures and then pretty much swam back to the car.

Us at Franz Josef Glacier

We got right up close to it - no zoom needed!

We decided yesterday it was about time to do something about Christmas, so we went to The Warehouse (like Target or Wal-Mart) and got some gear.  Mini Tree, Tinsel, CD of Christmas songs and we’re much more in the Christmas spirit.  Our van is all decked out.  We named the tree Sir Edmund Christmastree in honor of New Zealand’s great mountaineer.  I’m hoping to find an ice-pick ornament to complete his look.

Sir Edmund Christmastree

So that’s the update from here.  We’re heading up into the mountains tomorrow and then over to Christchurch for Christmas.

18th December
written by Hazel

Click for most recent New Zealand Gallery

Some of these have been on Smugmug for a while, but this gallery is complete now – so check it out if you haven’t!

16th December
written by Hazel

It’s much more challenging than I had thought it would be to upload photos from the road.  Getting a couple of days worth of photos up can take 4-5 hours on slow internet connections and it’s expensive to have that much time on the web.  So I’m going to have to switch to uploading highlights to the blog and getting albums up much more slowly.

Here are a few from our jetboat/geothermal expedition.

Jet boats are awesome!

Cool looking, but stinky

You had to stay on the walkways because the ground is so unstable

And here’s one of the view from Mt. Victoria – in Wellington.

View of Wellington

After our very pleasant day in Wellington we got the ferry to the south island.  It was a smooth ride (apparently it can sometimes be very rough) and we got some really pretty views coming into the south island.

First Views of South Island

So far, the south island has been wonderful.  We spent two nights in a very nice campsite (with hot showers!) and have done several hikes.  The scenery is incredible.

Justin views the scenery

Golden Bay Beach

The roads here are generally much slower than roads in the USA because they were built to go with the land.  And the land is very dramatic!  They range from this:


To this:

Nice, but Windy Road

Ok, sometimes they are straight – but it was definitely optimism, not reality that caused them to make the top speed on our van 160 km/hour!

Tonight we’re in Blenheim after an awesome tour of the Marlborough wine country.  We went for the posh route on this one and had a van pick us up at our campsite and take us to the wineries.  Much, much, much cheaper than this type of thing in the USA and worth every penny since we got to taste lots of delicious wines.

13th December
written by Hazel

Still loving New Zealand – this will have to be a quick post because I have 11 minutes left on my internet quota.

Yesterday we went on a jetboat excursion which was so much fun.  They jetted us to a geothermal park which we got to walk around for a while and then did a fun fast jet back up the river.

Then we drove out to the coast to the Hawk’s Bay region and were able to do a tasting at Esk Valley Vineyard.  Really yummy wines.

Today we made it to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital and went to the museum there.  We were also able to meet up with an old friend of mine from high school – she’s here getting a PhD.  Nice to see a familiar face and catch up.

Tomorrow we’re off to the south island, so getting up at 6 am to catch the ferry.

11th December
written by Hazel

Click for Photo Gallery

10th December
written by Hazel

We’ve been busy since the last post!  Unfortunately we’ve both had colds, but they are pretty mild and haven’t slowed us down much.

Highlights include (in chronological order):

Hike from Hahei to Cathedral Cove.  This hike was in the rain, so we didn’t get any pictures, but the scenery was fabulous.

Exploring Karangahake Gorge.  This gorge was mined heavily and is full of ruins of mines and tunnels they’ve restored for people to explore.  It is also very beautiful.

The Gorge

Mining Tunnel Window

Exploring Tunnels

Orange Rocks!

We went on a hike that was along an old mining pipe and it reminded us of the old computer game Myst.

Follow the pipe

Bridge from the Mines

Camping at Matata DOC camp (I had the Lion King stuck in my head all night).

Exploring Lake Okataina and hiking up the Whakapoungakau Trig.  This was a pretty steep climb, but we got awesome views across the lakes.

Beautiful Lake View

View from the Top

Camping at Kakaho DOC Camp.  When we arrived here we thought we didn’t have the right change for a campsite so we asked some other campers if they could make change.  They let us know that a whole 4-wheeler club was coming in to the (at that time completely empty) campground and told us that 500 meters on there was another campsite.  We went to check it out and had it completely to ourselves, creek and all.


Jumping in the creek instead of a morning shower – this was COLD!

We drove into Taupo (a fairly large town) today to do laundry, get our pictures uploaded and so on.

We’re getting into the hang of living from the van.  It’s well equipped with kitchen tools and our little stove is great for making rice, baked beans, grilled cheese, tea, and the like.  We also have a little cold box that refrigerates our veggies and cheese and chocolate.  The bed is comfy and it’s quite cozy in there.

Driving on the left is not really a problem anymore, so we’re just cruising around taking in the sights.

Thanks to everyone who has left us comments.  We read them all and really appreciate keeping in touch with everyone at home!  I’ll add photos when they finish uploading.

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