#mizealand: Aoraki/Mt. Cook, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Auckland

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

Our journey in the South Island continued as we made our way from Arthur’s Pass to Aoraki/Mount Cook. This drive was one of the most beautiful parts of our trip: cruising through the Canterbury and Otago regions was like being in a painting. Majestic mountains, rolling hills, blue skies, brightly-colored wildflowers, gorgeous glacial lakes, and plenty of cute sheep were the backdrop of our travel.

The weather changed dramatically when we got to Mount Cook — it was rainy, cloudy, and cold. All the things I read and researched for this trip warned to prepare for all four seasons in a day in New Zealand: they’re not kidding. We stayed at The Hermitage — a lovely hotel that was home of the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Center as well as the southern most planetarium in the world. Sir Edmund Hillary, if you didn’t know, was one of the first people ever to climb Mount Everest. He prepared for this summit by climbing Aoraki/Mount Cook — the tallest mountain in New Zealand. (By the way, if you’re wondering what’s up with this being referred to a Aoraki/Mount Cook, Aoraki is the Maori name of this mountain.)

Since the weather was still a little crummy in Mount Cook, we drove over to Lake Tekapo to see the Church of the Good Shepherd.  This was the first church built in the Mackenzie Basin and is one of the most photographed churches in New Zealand. It’s a tiny church perched right on the shores of Lake Tekapo, and is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Lake Tekapo contains glacial flour, which gives it the alarmingly blue color.

We sat inside the church for a few moments. It was quiet and peaceful with a faint background of choral music playing. While sitting in the pew, I looked up at the alter and saw a long, rectangular opening that showed the vast Southern Alps sitting behind the bright blue lake. I’ve had a few moments in my life where I’ve thought “surely this is what Heaven feels like”….this was one of them. That may sound cheesy to you, but I really have no other way to describe it.

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Church of the Good Shepherd

This was a nice reminder for me, that in all the mess and torment of the world, and all the anxiety and doubt and hurt that it sometimes brings (even to people who believe in God like myself), God’s dwelling is with humanity. I leaned over to Chris and told him I loved him, and reeled in the blessing of this trip, my family, my friends, my health, and so many other things in my life that I simply don’t deserve.

After a few minutes, one of the pastors of the church came over and dropped a small piece of paper in front of me. I picked it up and saw it was a nice little card with the church on it, contact information, as well as the verse Psalm 62:11:

“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress: I shall never be shaken.”

I couldn’t tell if she was being friendly by passing out scripture, or if she was passive-aggressively telling me to be quiet; either way, I’m glad she gave it to me.

Moonlight Drowns Out All but the Brightest Stars

Later that night, the weather cleared up and we were able to do one of the coolest things I have ever done.

At 9:00pm, we went to the planetarium. We met up with a nice gentleman named Rodney, one of the astronomers who worked at the alpine center. About fifteen people, including us, sat in the planetarium and watched a really neat video about the southern sky.

The southern sky contains constellations and stars I’ve never seen before. Doesn’t that blow your mind? It should.

Aoraki/Mount Cook is not only home to the tallest mountain in New Zealand — it’s also home to an International Dark Sky Reserve.

After the planetarium presentation, we put on large wind-proof overcoats, loaded into a van, and drove out the the dark sky reserve. We waited for the Sun to finish going down, and watched as the southern sky came to life.

We had crazy-high-powered binoculars and a telescope to view stars, galaxies, constellations, and other spectacular space objects. We saw the International Space Station pass over us. We got to take a look at different versions of constellations we’re used to seeing in the Northern Hemisphere — for example, we could see Orion, but he was upside down.

Guys, I could have stayed out there looking at the sky all night long.

I’ve never seen so many stars in my life. I could see the Milky Way and the Magellan Clouds with the naked eye. I was able to point out the location of the south celestial pole. It was astonishing and one of my absolute favorite things we’ve done on this trip. I’m pretty sure I had my mouth open with awe the entire time.

Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold

The next day of our time in Aoraki/Mount Cook began in a lovely way. We were able to finally see this from our room:

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That’s Aoraki/Mount Cook!

Shortly after lunch, we bundled up and boarded a bus for a Glacier Explorer tour. I had no idea what to expect with this, but ever since I took Earth Science lab in college, I’ve been fascinated by glaciers. This tour was of the Tasman glacier, New Zealand’s longest glacier.

We walked about a mile to the base of the glacier, and really felt like we were in Middle-Earth. In fact, the area surrounding us was used as the backdrop for Minas Tirith in the LOTR movies. We met our tour guide Martin (who was awesome), loaded jet boats and soared across the glacial lake. It was a way better boat experience than our previous one.

This was such a fun experience. We pulled up to icebergs that recently broke off from the glacier, and got to touch pieces of ice from it. In fact, I can proudly say I’ve eaten part of a glacier. Martin actually encouraged us to do so.

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Holding part of a glacier. Check that off my bucket list.

Step on to the Road and There’s No Telling Where You Might Be Swept Off To

After our fantastic time at Mount Cook, we drove to Queenstown. Queenstown is a lovely little town in the southwest Otago region. We were able to stay in a hotel that was within walking distance of everything we wanted to see and do, which was wonderful. We checked in and headed to the race expo for the first ever Queenstown International Marathon.

Christopher and I signed up as walkers for the 10k, simply because we knew we’d be tired from our trip and didn’t want to stress about training for a race. The expo was jam-packed with people from all over the world. We got our race bibs and headed back for a good night’s sleep.

The alarm went off at 5:00 am, and we walked to our shuttle to be taken to the starting line for the 10k. Unfortunately it rained all morning and off and on during the race, but it was still beautiful. We walked a lot of it, simply to enjoy the views around us. Queenstown really is a stunning city, and the race path was awesome — most of it was part of local trails around Lake Wakatipu. We did run a good bit, and of course ran to the finish line.

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After the race, we went back to the hotel to change clothes and shower — we were very muddy and wet from sweat and rain. The rain eventually cleared up, so we ventured into town and ate lunch at the world-famous Fergburger. I had one of the best burgers I’ve ever had (coming close to Morris Breedlove’s masterpieces). It was a hole-in-the-wall spot that had a line out the door 22 out of 24 hours a day. I wish I could bring one back for all of you — but take my advice: should you find yourself in Queenstown, eat a Fergburger or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.

Little by Little, One Travels Far

After our night in Queenstown, we drove to the Milford Sound. This was a long, winding drive through the mountains but it was beautiful (as usual). We made it to our cozy cabin and enjoyed absolutely spectacular views of the fjords and a nearby river. The next morning, we got up early and went on a two-hour kayaking trip. Christopher and I had never kayaked before, but were actually quite good at it. I think we could tackle a more challenging course, but I was thankful for the calm waters.

Kayaking among fjords was another one of those experiences where I felt like I was outside of my body; like what I was seeing wasn’t actually there. It was beautiful beyond words. We saw a rainbow and two penguins. About halfway through our trip, we beached the kayaks and hiked through the jungle (quite literally) to the base of one of the biggest waterfalls in the Milford Sound. Because the weather was so calm, we were able to get very close to it–it was stunning.

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The next day, we hiked part of the Routeburn Track to Key Summit. This was a gorgeous hike with beautiful views. It was also a steady climb the entire time — our soreness from kayaking with our fatigue from the trip made this track a little harder than it should have been. When we reached the top, some rain had moved in and we were standing in the middle of a cloud. Luckily we got our views right before the clouds moved in. It proceeded to rain for the rest of the day, so we relaxed in our cabin and watched the hundreds of waterfalls that form in the fjords. I probably had the best night of sleep I’ve had since we left Atlanta.

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Fly You Fools

I spent my 24th birthday in Queenstown, New Zealand. We left the Milford Sound and headed back, hoping to take a scenic helicopter ride around Queenstown and surrounding areas. The winds were too strong and the flight was postponed, so Christopher and I had a date night. We ate Mexican food (not too shabby, but no Bone Garden Cantina) and saw Mockingjay Part One. I figured with all the marvelous outdoor adventures we’ve had in the past three weeks, sitting in a theater for two hours wouldn’t be a bad thing. We loved the movie. It was very unsettling, however, to leave the theater and see BBC World News reports of all the riots and protests popping up all over America in regards to Ferguson.

The next day, the weather was perfect. We drove to the airport and loaded a helicopter. This was so unbelievably cool. We saw several of the filming areas for LOTR, and actually landed on top of a mountain that overlooked the Shotover river canyon. Again, this was another experience where I felt like I wasn’t experiencing “real life.” It was magical.

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The next day, we flew back to Auckland and bid a bittersweet adieu to the South Island. Christopher and I are both stuck in that weird feeling of not wanting to leave New Zealand while also being ready to go home. We were able to call our families, since it was Thanksgiving day in America, and felt some twinges of homesickness.

Once we were back in Auckland, Christopher discovered that the amazing Asian-infusion place we went to in Wellington was also in Auckland, so we ate dinner at Monsoon Poon and enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal of tandoori chicken.

Christopher has a nasty cold and I had a neck spasm for the first time ever last night. I think it’s safe to say that we are worn out. We’ve enjoyed a few days of strolling around Auckland, re-packing and re-checking our baggage weights, and relaxing.

And here I sit. Our last night in New Zealand. Christopher and I are deliriously happy and exhausted.

 

-Mary Chase

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