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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Feb 7 – 11, 2010 – Pancake Rocks, The Superbowl, Greenstone & Glaciers

Driving down the western side of New Zealand's South Island is a visual surfeit of natural wonders. We made several stops along the way just to get out of the car and look.  There is a lot to look at, so the journey shouldn't be hurried. Just over the halfway point of our drive we came to Punakaiki, home of the Pancake Rocks and blowholes.  It is an amazing phenomenon just along the shore of the Tasman Sea – these formations resemble giant stacks of pancakes, and are all formed in this one area.  Apparently they exemplify a culmination of seismic action, rain, winds and ocean waves, which formed these incredible natural structures and the blowholes that are apparent during high tide.  We missed the blowhole activity, having arrived at a low tide, but we have seen many blowholes before, so the real attraction for us was the rocks and the caves.  Following a short hike through the area, and a quick lunch at the local cafĂ© (specializing in pancakes of course!), we piled back into the car to continue our scenic drive.  Passing through Greymouth, we finally arrived in Hokitika said to be known for its authentic greenstone and a reputation for being a Wild West town. Oh Boy!

It was drizzling when we arrived, so we checked into a little motor lodge on the highway, just a few blocks from the center of town and settled in until the rain abated and then Frank and I enjoyed a stroll through town to see what it was all about.  Hokitika is comprised of just a few streets and a lovely beach area and some arts shops. There is a greenstone shop every dozen yards.  Busloads of tourists came pouring into town, dumping hopeful shoppers in front of their favorite jewelry depot looking for the best deal in New Zealand jade.  We soon discovered that most of the "good deals" are for lesser quality jade that is shipped in from other countries.  The New Zealand greenstone is a big part of Maori culture; the carvings have meaning and mystical attributes for the believer.  According to Earl and Marsha, it also must be given to you, not purchased for yourself.

On our stroll we discovered a small movie theater that was showing "Avatar" in 3-D that evening at 6 PM, so we purchased tickets and then set out searching for a place to watch the Superbowl the following day.  In New Zealand the Superbowl is not something that is highly advertised nor vigorously watched, in fact, the word "football" holds an altogether different meaning here – it is more often referred to as "Gridiron".  Of course it would not appear on one of our 3 Sky-TV channels in our hotel room.  I decided to hit the grocery store leaving Frank to bar-hop with Earl in hopes of finding a place to watch the game.  They hit the jackpot, finding a pub that would air it for us because it would be showing at mid-day on a Monday, which is not exactly a time when Kiwis are packing into the sports bar to watch TV.  Having settled that, Frank and I parlayed over to the movie theater.  The theater was historically old and still had a stage, red velvet seats and curtains, taking me back in time to my childhood in Longview, Texas.  It was comfy, though, and the manager showed us how to carefully treat the very nice, $100/pair, 3-D glasses each of us was given.  We enjoyed ourselves tremendously, snacking on some of the food I was still carrying from the grocery store.  This theater had recently been reopened and hadn't yet installed a popcorn machine.  Can you imagine a movie without popcorn?!?  We settled for cashews.  Afterward we ordered a pizza from the local – best in town spot – that is the only pizza in town.  It was strange pizza that did not impress.  We think the Wild West town of Hokitika has succumbed to the Hippie movement, and the pizza was a little too eclectic for our taste.

The next morning brought the drizzles again, so we took our time getting up and out but managed to make it to the pub in time for Superbowl pre-game.  That didn't happen.  There was no pregame and there were no Superbowl commercials.  In fact, when there were commercial breaks, the Australian affiliate ESPN team just sat silent showing a panned out sky view of the field.  This went on for nearly the entire first half, when someone had a blast of brilliance and figured that they should probably plug in some of the local ads for a little revenue.  Things that make you go, "Hmmm", and scratch your head.  The game was exciting though and we enjoyed every last minute of it, including the half time performance of The Who. We are so happy the Saints won!  Following the game, Frank and I went to a few of the reputable greenstone shops.  I looked at a few pendants and then deferred to Frank.  He chose for me a lovely one that he tucked away to give me for Valentine's Day.  After our shopping excursion, we strolled to the beach and around the small town.  We didn't quite pick up on the Wild West theme, so perhaps we blinked.

The next day we were on the road again, this time over to glacier-land.  We had had good luck driving into town and finding nice accommodations up until now.  Tourist season was full on.  At Franz Joseph we found lots of red No Vacancy signs.  We searched and searched, and finally, backtracking out of town a few kilometers, found a little gem of a two-bedroom cabin in a very small establishment that had just opened a few months ago.  It was elegant and roomy for the 4 of us.  After tossing our stuff into the cabin we drove out to the Franz Joseph Glacier.  It was a cloudy day but we were intent on hiking to the mouth of the glacier, donned in our rain jackets.   The parking lot was a fair distance from the actual glacier and along the path were signs showing where the ice field once had been.  It has receded quite a long way, however, in recent years it has actually advanced somewhat.  Just as the trail makes a sharp turn and a downward pitch, you finally see the ice pack.  The riverbed and the river are colored a very pale gray.  It is sad to see where the raging river once was, yet is now just really a stream where we walked down the riverbed to the mouth of the Franz Josef Glacier.  It was magnificent!  At the mouth of the river, waters rushed out through a hollow in the ice.  There were waterfalls on both sides of the riverbed and lots and lots of beautiful rocks and stones.  We took loads of photos.  We were only able to walk up to the end of the ice field unescorted.  Had we made an advance reservation we could have actually hiked out onto and down the glacier, starting at the top.  There were a few groups of young people just coming out of their daylong hike as we approached.  They had started out before daybreak.  No thank you.  They said it was fun but expensive and you have to pack in your own food and drinks, etc., etc.  We were happy to have done it the way we did.  We enjoyed the nice long hike back out and then as we were leaving; the heavens opened up and poured and poured!

Next we drove out to the Fox Glacier – another beauty that is only about 25 kilometers down the road form Franz Josef.  This glacier cannot be seen up close without paying for a guide.  This we did not know until we arrived, parked and walked (in the rain) to the barrier, which won't even allow you a tiny little peek!  We found a road that would take us up to a view point where we could see it.  Again, it was spectacular!  We were really, really happy that we had not paid several hundreds of dollars each to go hike the glacier in the pouring, cold rain. 

In spite of the fact that we were staying in a cabin with a well-appointed kitchen, on the drive back into town we were pooped and so decided to out to dinner at an excellent local restaurant called "Alice May's".  Then we returned to the cabin, turned on the TV (we have been overdosing on TV since we can't get it on the boat), until we all zoned out.  It had been a great day indeed.