With little more than two weeks remaining, I put the brakes on "seeing & doing everything possible" and decided it was time to be on vacation! I was nearing Christchurch (my departure city), and opted to spend a length of time in the mountains at Mount Cook National Park, then a leisurely week as a tourist in Christchurch.
From Queenstown, I had three more stops via the Stray bus, the first -- Gunn's Camp -- is one of my favorite places, that yes, I wish I had a few more days to enjoy. Located within the woods of Fjordland National Park, the camp is surrounded by walking/hiking tracks with spectacular views, but I loved it for what it didn't offer. There was no phone service, no wifi, and from 10pm-7am, no electricity. While I find the history of this naturally beautiful place interesting, being away from it all, and sleeping in one of the original 1930's "trailers" is an experience ingrained in my brain forever.
After a productive weekend (laundry, haircut, food shop, read a book!) in Invercargill, the southernmost city on the Island, I arrived at Mount Cook for five days. This Park is not only home to the highest peak in New Zealand (12,218') but is also the largest dark sky reserve in the world. While I was sad to say "so long" to a couple of Stray friends, I was ready to travel solo, perhaps meet new people, and have no agenda but hiking my days away!
Mount Cook village is just as I'd hoped it would be -- fairly undeveloped, but with a few places to stay and a great visitor's center. During my time, I met some wonderful people, enjoyed cooking meals, slept well, and just plain relaxed in the evenings. But, I also did what I came for and hiked all 7 accessible tracks from the brief Glencoe Stream walk, to the popular Hooker Valley track over swing bridges to the glacier lake, to the steep and stepped Sealy Tarns hike that offers panoramic views of the mountains and lakes. I would do this again in a heartbeat!
From here, a stop at Lake Tekapo and an overnight in Peel Forest (now farmland) are a bit of a blur as I was already feeling the end in sight. Yet, I had a full week ahead of me to play tourist, reconnect with a couple of Stray pals, meet some new, friendly faces, and see the ins and outs of Christchurch. That said, I knew the city had a serious earthquake in 2011 that destroyed large sections and killed nearly 200 people, but I was not prepared for the devastation that remains and the rebuilding that is still in progress.
I did visit the fundraising museum that details both the horror of the day and the optimism of the people, but it is the experience with the Christchurch Cathedral that reflects all of it for me. During the quake, the tower of this neo-Gothic Cathedral collapsed, and the aftershocks cracked the whole Cathedral. While it is in reconstruction, the congregation meets at the "cardboard Cathedral", built to 130% of the current earthquake code by a Japanese "emergency architect". It's amazing, so if you'd like to know more, click here.
Yet, life goes on quite well amidst this city that looks and feels very much like England. I spent my time at the Canterbury and Art Museums, walked the Botanical Gardens and by the Avon River, chatted with fellow hostelers, and people watched at a cafe with coffee & cheesy scones. On my last day in New Zealand, I hopped a local bus to head to the seaside just one last time.
SIDEBAR: Kia Ora! There are numerous little details I hope to remember about this trip that I haven't been able to weave into the 4-part narrative, so I'm going to mention them here in case my brain goes to mush. Qantas is a fantastic airline to fly and worth the extra dollars for food and service and comfort. New Zealand is expensive with $5 cups of coffee and $10 beers, but thankfully, the exchange rate was good! The Stray bus was confining for me after years of traveling solo, but it was a good choice for experiencing a very-inclusive itinerary in a short amount of time. Shopping for food was an experience as I don't know the metric system well enough! but the kiwis, chocolate, biscuits, salmon, sweet potatoes, cheese and yogurt are amazing -- there are 4 types of plain yogurt based on the percentage of cream you desire. Sheep farming remains but dairy farming is equally popular these days. While it was late spring into early summer, the weather was unpredictable by location, and much cooler & wetter than expected. Tourism is now the #1 industry in NZ so I'm glad I didn't travel in summer; too busy? If you see a pie shop, don't go in for blueberry, but you can expect steak & mushroom or a veggie option! You never have to frantically search for a public restroom in NZ as they are available, clean, and technologically astute. You'll rarely hear a car horn blow or a FOB beep, and seldom see a person walking while staring at a phone (except for the transplants in Auckland). While most fellow travelers were Europeans, I'm amazed at what I learned about Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and South Korea from women I met on this trip. Yes, I'm ready to begin 2019 now. Ka pai? Ka pai.