Yellowstone and the West

Although home is Maryland, Wisconsin was our start point for a quick trip to Yellowstone. We were in Wisconsin to settle some family business, and had several days of “wait time” to conclude the dealings. Reather than waste the miles already invested, dear wife and I decided to make the trip she’d been wanting – a visit to Yellowstone National Park.

I had been there as a kid as the family made its way to Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair. It was a two-week journey that rivaled “Vacation” in its continuous hilarity that is part of family lore these years later. DW had never been there before – so it was a trip both nostalgic and new.

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Riders headed to Milwaukee for Harley-Davidson’s 115th Anniversary were frequently seen.

Ordinarily I would have been in Milwaukee for the Harley-Davidson 115th anniversary, but there was little that attracted me this year. Elton John wasn’t appearing. And I had the Jucy, our campervan, as my ride, not my bike. Appearances at biker events may have been awkward. The fun part was meeting so many of the riders headed to Milwaukee. One came all the way from Alaska.

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Our Jucy Campervan

We left on a Sunday night and made it to Myer Big Lake State Park near Albert Lea, Minnesota. It was a bit of a jaunt off the I-state, and worth the detour. When we arrived the gate office was closed, so we had to deal with the state’s reservation system by phone. The direct-dial telephone was bolted to the wall about four feet off the ground, with a metal-shielded handset cord about 12 inches long. It was not the most comfortable position in which to talk to the reservation specialist. It took time to establish an obligatory account and arrange the night’s stay with a credit card, many questions and answers needed. One question was which site we preferred…How should I know? I finally asked the young lady to pick one near a shower/toilet and in sight of the lake. After all this, we discovered were were nearly the campground’s only patrons that Sunday night. The grounds themselves were naturally quiet. It was a pleasant night.

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Badlands Wildlife

Along the way we stopped at the Mitchell (SD) Corn Palace, the last of the “palaces” that displayed agricultural produce throughout the Midwest in the early 20th Century. The murals made of corn, grain straws and other materials were still cool to behold. They’re changed every other year. The Corn Palace is best known as the professional birthplace of Lawrence Welk and Myron Floren. (I know most of you know who these two are – otherwise, Google it!)

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Mitchell, SD

 

The destination Monday was the Badlands. As a child I found them B-O-R-I-N-G! Seems we drove forever looking at these giant globs of mud. We pulled in about 4 PM in a howling 40-50 mph wind with threatening skies. The campground was nearly full of mostly transients. Once again, our pass got us a nice discount. We drove around a bit to see the beautiful sunset over the hills and through the clouds. When we returned the winds made it impossible to make dinner, so we went around the corner to the lodge. The food was good, the prices fair, and the service enthusiastic and friendly. I had a tasty bison burger, and Janet an “Indian taco”, which she enjoyed.

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Minute Man Missile in its silo outside Rapid City, SD

 

We did the loop of the Badlands, stopping to take a few short hikes and came out at I-90, near the Minuteman Missile National Monument, which included a decomissioned nuke missile silo such as dotted the plains during the Cold War (and still today). The visitors center was interesting, although I’m not in total agreement with the history as presented. Still, it was well worth the visit.

We also visited the Ranch Store, where we had the chance to visit the expansive prairie dog town and the “Six-Ton Prairie Dog”. Missing was the cages of rattlers I recall from my youth. Then it was off to Wall Drug for a glass of ice water and lunch – the famous roast beef and gravy sandwich. It was actually a fun diversion.

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The World Famous Six Ton Prairie Dog at the Ranch Store

Our overnight destination was Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills. Stayed at Kemp’s Campground outside Keystone, very convenient to Mt. Rushmore. Cost $28 for a tent site and no site amenities beyond a picnic table. WiFi was variable, mostly none in the tenting area.

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Mt. Rushmore, SD

We took in the night illumination program at the monument – highly recommended. We also met a bunch of Indonesian police officers and an Egyptian rider on their way to Milwaukee. Nice guys all.

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Eye of the Needle rock formation, Black Hills, SD

 

The next day we drove through the Black Hills and Custer State Park. Beautiful, slow going. I have driven the Dragon’s Tail in NC and Australia’s Great Ocean Drive…this ranks with them in both beauty and the need for full-attention driving. Along the way we drove through Deadwood and Lead without stopping. Both had become unabashed tourist traps, featuring casinos and “watering holes.” As a boy we passed through during some heavy rain storms that undercut many of the roads, requiring the state to put out stakes to prevent driving over little-supported asphalt overhangs. I’d seen Wild Bill’s and Clamity Jane’s graves. DW wasn’t particularly interested. As a Harley guy, I had to check out Sturgis, legendary home of one of the three largest national biker rallies. Okay…we were soon back on I-90 without a stop.

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Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

We struck out for Devil’s Tower National Park, Wyoming, arriving in late afternoon. We got a campsite that had an obstructed-by-trees view of the Tower, again costing just $10, and drove over to the visitor’s center. There are two trails from there around the Tower. We chose the shorter 1.6 mile route that essentially hugged the base. The views were worth the walk around the moderate path. It was interesting to watch the numerous climbers descending as the sun dipped lower.

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Last Stand Hill, Little Big Horn Battlefield N.P., Montana

Our next stop is a place I’d wanted to visit since boyhood – Little Big Horn Battlefield N.P. in Montana.  Between the movies and the heroic story of Custer and his command, it grabbed my interest. Besides, I graduated from Custer High School and later found my great-grandfather rode with Custer in the Shenandoah during the Civil War. Anyways, here we were. The Park Service does a good job explaining the battle from a carefully “neutral” standpoint, not to offend either side. The essential truth is that the Sioux Wars were between two nations, one far advanced technologically and expanding, the other far better equipped tactically for plains warfare and ultimately doomed.

The battle’s official story explains away how a large contingent of U.S. Cavalry could be wiped out by an overwhelming force of aborigines. Thing is, much of the story does not necessarily square with eyewitness accounts and modern archaeological finds. (Sounds like modern day accounts of any disaster with potential political consequences.) One interesting theory is that Custer was mortally wounded at the very outset of the fight, leading an attempt to cross a river ford guarded by indians to make his attack on the village, about which he had questionable intelligence. Custer always fought from the front – check his Civil War record. There is indian testimony supporting this theory. His incapacitation would help explain the force’s disjointed retreat up to “Last Stand Hill”. It is rumored that his brother Tom ensured he was not taken captive. On the other hand, the official story is pretty much the Errol Flynn version, with Custer among the last to go down, firing to the end at the thousands of warriors overrunning his high ground position and its 42 defenders. Whatever you think, walking and driving the grounds is incredibly interesting and, for me, a personal key to better understanding a piece of American history.

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One of several geyser basins around Yellowstone N.P.

We arrived at Yellowstone National Park, our goal Thursday as the Labor Day weekend approached. Thinking was that if we arrived early we might score a site through the weekend. (Our fallback was grabbing a Forest Service site outside the park.) We arrived as dusk was descending. The West Gate entry, apparently open 24 hours, was unoccupied, with a note to pay fees on the way out. We hardly drove a mile inside before our way was blocked by a porcupine. I expected to see much wildlife, and there was the first. My dear wife noted she wanted to see buffalo.

We continued down the road and the darkness was soon upon us. I was going downhill towards a lake and saw two sets of headlights stopped down below – I may have been going about 35 mph. As we approached one of the vehicles slowly flashed its headlights twice – I dimmed my high beams. At the bottom of the hill was a right-hand turn…where is suddenly saw a life-sized buffalo head in my windshield! It was like something out of a holographic Disney ride. My wife was heading for the basement as I swerved left. Somehow I missed the ginormous animal and the parked ATVs. With that, as her nerves calmed, I turned around to have a look at what we had just seen. The ATVs were goe, and the bison contentedly munched grass along the road. No other traffic was in sight.

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A campsite visitor

We got a site at the Bridge Bay campground, again only $10. The lady said there were no sites for Friday, but to check back in the morning. We were given a tiny tent site, with a cutout to park. I was glad to get to bed after a quick meal of beef stew over rice. Had been a long, exciting day!

The next morning we were going out to tour the South loop road, which features the geyser basins and Old Faithful. On the way out we came upon another Jucy camper – with two young German women. We compared notes as their unit was the newer version, with the crank-up “Penthouse” and a small solar panel to help keep the house battery charged. Otherwise, pretty much identical. Of course, theirs had the Jucy stickers all over it. They said they were constantly asked for “tours”. We would see them often during the day. At the front desk we were happy to get another night’s stay confirmed, although we had to move. We got our permit and headed off.

After breakfast our first stop was the Yellowstone General Store on the shores of Lake Yellowstone. The people manning the shop were work-campers from Oklahoma. I grabbed a half dozen organic free range eggs and a half pound (8 ounces) of regular Oscar Meyer bacon. $13! The nice Okie lady assured me they had no cheaper eggs from exploited chickens, nor no-name bacon. Okay, my fault for not stopping before we got to the park. She asked what we hoped to see, and I said we came hoping the caldera would blow. Her friend said it was overdue…you never know.

The drive around the loop was wonderful. Our first stop was a small thermal spring just outside the campground. My dear wife wanted to feel the hot water – and where it ran into the lake, she indeed did. It was less than bath water warm, cooling as it meandered 10 yards to the lake. Along the way there was very little traffic and much to see. Speed limit is generally 35 mph. We pulled into Old Faithful visitors center and it erupted minutes later. It was one of the few areas that had phone and internet service. (I needed it badly to catch up on that business I had mentioned earlier.) Otherwise, there is virtually no service of any kind, certainly not ATT.

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And in this corner… Real campsite excitement!

By evening we had completed the loop and happy with the day winding down. We stopped to get some firewood ($8 for a boxful). As we were leaving a fellow came up and said there was a bull elk fight going on in the campground. Okay…we drove around to our site…and guess what? Yup, the campsite over from ours was nature’s Madison Square Garden! And hanging around as the referee was a bison. There was antler rack clanging and banging for awhile, and then the main event left us, a draw. The bison stayed, munching away as the night fell. Of course, the nice people would all warn us to stay far back from the bison…really? Seems he was an old hand at this, showing no interest in the campers around him. We made a simple meal and started the fire. The wood was dry and hard, and would burn with a sporadic flame, mainly after you vigorously fanned it awhile. (It was so difficult to keep lit that our frustrated neighbor came in the morning and offered his for the taking.) I wondered whether it was partly the altitude, at about 8,500 feet.

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Mammoth Hot Springs – Disappointment

We were going to tour the north loop, but had to secure a place for the night. Bridge Bay had nothing for the weekend, so we stopped up the road at Norris and got a site for Saturday night. The North loop is much different – more scenic than the South, with fewer geyser but many other hydrothermal features. We stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs, where I was expecting to see this beautiful cascade of steaming water…and saw a white, mostly dry formation. I asked the ranger on duty, and was told that she is often asked that question. The answer is that the formation has grown so much over the years that the water flow appears to be less when it is actually the same, and cannot cover the larger formation as it did 50 years ago. So the color faded to white… Disappointed.

We stopped at the store there for some snacks. The work-camper at checkout told us he and his wife were full-timers, following the work to cover their stay. Next stop for them was further south as the stores were closing for the season.

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A buffalo herd grazing at Yellowstone.

The “highlight” of our 1962 trip was the transmission failure of our ’62 Rambler Classic station wagon near Roosevelt Lodge. We stopped at the Lodge for lunch, not hoping to re-enact the episode, which would entail a backwards ride at the end of a tow truck hook to Mammoth Hot Springs! Our lunch was very good, and reasonably priced. The waitress, from Pennsylvania, told us the next cell service was down the road at a ranger station. She said she was happy to be in a place without phone or internet service as it kept her life simple.

We continued around the loop, admiring the petrified tree trunk and the numerous other sights. The best sight was all around us. The landscape was gorgeous, with mountains, ponds and forests surrounding meadows of golden grass and colorful flowers – all under the fabled and cloudless Big Sky.

The day’s other highlight was the Yellowstone River Canyon. It was more gorgeous than I remembered. The vibrant yellow stone cut deeply over eons by the river, with the falls in the distance. The nearest view of the falls was closed due to construction, but it really didn’t matter.

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Yellowstone River Canyon

We got back to the campground and prepared a simple evening repast, relaxing around a campfire until we noticed there was no one stirring anywhere after nine o’clock. We burned the last of the gifted wood and went to bed. The next morning a fellow asked whether we felt the ground shake and heard the loud woosh. No…what was that? The Steamboat Geyser put on one of its irregular eruptions. It’s supposedly the world’s tallest currently-active geyser, spewing 300 feet! Well, I slept through it, as it seems most everyone else did, too.

Before we got on the road we had to watch our neighbor try to pull out the 5th-wheel rig he stuffed into a undersized and tight site. I really came to hate these outrageous and ginormous rigs on the curvy park roads, so I will admit to a round of Schadenfreude. He and his lady provided a fair amount of entertainment as they brushed trees, a bear-proof food safe, picnic table, fire ring…just about everything around them before they got their rig out and down the narrow campground lane. Their fairly new dualie monster truck had a few more running scrapes on its doors and quarter panels upon departure.

We left Yellowstone via the West Entrance. Along the way there was a 14 mile traffic stoppage on the in-bound lane – as idiots stopped in the middle of the road to get out of their cars and take pictures of a single grazing bison. It was amazing! I’m told that’s not a rare occurrence, either.

We left the park and headed south to the Grand Tetons. Beautiful scenery the entire way. We were seemingly the only vehicle for much of the ride. Many small towns…so small they had no gas station. I was driving the upper half of my gauge. Price was as high as $3.49 where there was fuel.

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Wide Open Spaces

After a DQ feast at Jackon for lunch, we took US 26/20 through Riverton and around Casper, making it all the way to Ogallala, Nebraska. The campground, Sleepy Sunflower RV Park, was just off I-80. It was convenient, and the new management was eager to please. The price was also right – $18.

The rest of the ride was easy enough. Stopped to visit relatives in Omaha area, then lit out returning to Wisconsin.

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Evel Knievel Display at The National Motorcycle Museum

A stop was made at The National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. If you are a motorcycle fan, it’s a “must stop”. Whatever you my have ridden, it’s likely there’s one to get you all nostalgic. It’s not the Smithsonian, but it has a wide variety of historic bikes, ephemera and paraphernalia on display, even a few of Evel Knievel’s x-rays.

For being a bit of a dash we saw much and enjoyed the trip. It was also beneficial that the only rain we really encountered was on the last 500 miles headed back.

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T+60 – Back in the Air: Queenstown to Wellington

We made a short hop on Air New Zealand from Queenstown to Wellington, New Zealand.  The flight was quick (about an hour) and easy, no need to drive back north to take a ferry across to the North Island – much simpler, less expensive, and faster to fly up and rent another car.  It didn’t take us long to gather our baggage, pack it in our rental car and get to our motel, the Apollo Lodge Motel, in the heart of town.  It was a pleasant place tucked just off the main drag, with restaurants and a supermarket in easy walking distance.

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We were out and about looking for dinner at 5 p.m. since we missed lunch and only had a snack on the plane.  We went first to the Bangalore Polo Club for drinks.  It’s celebrates a fictional polo team, with eclectic Victorian-themed decor.  A small pitcher of gin and tonic was only $7 (cheap).  Beer was also reasonable, and the bar offered a good selection on tap.  Our bartender was familiar with the Washington, DC, area, and was a generous chap. 300988-13729-14

Next, we set out to find something more substantial to fill our stomachs.  Dwayne and Carla opted for beef pot pies with mashed potatoes and a pitcher of beer at one of the many pubs which lined the street.  Later they walked about, seeing the historic cricket stadium, founded in 1866 to fill a swamp, that has hosted many “important” sporting events over the years.  The home team Wellington Firebirds go back to 1876…and the Green Bay Packers are only celebrating their 100th season this year! 9398732

Janet and I went for Mongolian BBQ at the Genghis Khan restaurant further down the street.  The food was substantial and the selection wonderful…real meat in copious quantities…all one could eat!  The wait for the cook to “BBQ” your fixin’s on the giant “shield” was never long.  Needless to say, we left happy campers.heromongolianbbqwellington-900x244

T+59 Days – Milford Sound

(Apologies are in order…for the delay in completing this account.  No long explanation, just to say life occasionally interferes with the best of intentions.)

There are few places I’ve been that live up to the travelogue hype.   In some cases it’s just that visitors have overrun the site to detract from enjoyment of its glories, or time has taken a toll to diminish things.  Milford Sound did not fail to impress.

We left the Lodge at 0600, long before sunrise with the thermometer at 31 degrees (F), which led to iced-over windows and no scraper.  Being a northern boy, I reached into my wallet to take my Rome public transport card and clean off the windows.  Credit cards do more than cost money – and risking the Rome card was no risk whatever to damage the strip or chip.  Meanwhile, the others loaded the car in the near total darkness, and away we went, retracing our earlier drive and going further to the Sound to catch a 10 o’clock boat tour.

Once we passed the 45th parallel we were beginning to see new country as the sun began to rise, still remaining below the mountains that lined both sides of the Eglinton Valley as we approached the tunnel ahead that finally allowed road traffic to reach the Sound.

Once at Milford Sound we bought our tickets for the morning scenic cruise.  I also had a much needed cup of coffee.  Even from the visitor center, one could see the Sound’s beauty.  It was a perfectly still day, and the water was indeed serving as a mirror.

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Milford Sound Harbour

We walked to the dock and eventually boarded the boat, which started down the sound.  From the very beginning one marveled at the natural beauty and serenity of the place.  It had rained quite a bit recently, so we were treated to endless waterfalls cascading down the steep cliffs.

The boat pulled over so that we could put out a cup to catch some of the fresh falling water.  Of course, it generally meant a drenching in the process.

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Janet goes for her cup of waterfall refreshment.

We sailed out to where the sound meets the Tasman Sea, and one could immediately feel the churn.  There we turned around for the return, stopping at the underwater viewing platform.

From Milford we returned to Queenstown, where we had a cute little cottage at the Settlers Cottage Motel outside the city for our overnight before leaving for the North Island and Wellington.

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T+57 and T+ 58 Days – Onward to Milford Sound

(An apology is in order.  It has been awhile since I last posted here.  My only excuse is that life goes on, conflicting commitments occasionally interfering with getting things done.  I also had some difficulties getting organized after we arrived home.  Nonetheless, here we go again…sorry about all that.)

We departed Queenstown at our usual 10 a.m. for the 200 kilometer (120 mile) trip to Fiordland National Park Lodge where we would spend the night before heading on to Milford Sound – one of my most anticipated destinations on this trip. Our beautiful weather continued with temperatures in the high 60s and partly cloudy skies. We drove out of Q’town along the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu to the Lodge on pristine Lake Te Anau with the sun shining and mountain scenery surrounding us. 

(Rant warning!) The drive was actually pretty easy, but one thing got under my skin a bit.  Speed traps.  No, I didn’t get a ticket, but I heeded earlier advice and kept my car at or under the limit to avoid post-trip hassle (and added expense) from the car rental company.  But what the hell are the cops doing with their radar and cameras on sparsely traveled highways on a weekday afternoon? Nothing better to do?  When does the “Big Brother” stuff finally collide in the minds of reasonable people with the notions of essential personal liberty, i.e. living outside of perpetual police surveillance?  I’m not advocating law breaking or wild 170 KPH rides.  What I am also not advocating is the deployment of unblinking “eyes” with, so I am told, exceptionally low tolerances to catch on film people essentially doing nothing dangerous or threatening to society.  While the cameras I saw were at least attached to the police cars, many others are hidden along the way, or so I was told.  Their only point is to “terrorize” good-enough drivers into shrinking boxes while extracting a few dollars from them, and perhaps otherwise adding minor misery to their lives…for what?  To me, ranking New Zealand (or Australia) ahead of the US in freedom rankings is nonsense – although I can see the day Americans will accept the same tyranny, as well as further lowering blood-alcohol levels to near zero.  (Off rant.)

With daylight remaining after checking in at the Lodge, we drove further to scout the route to Milford Sound.  Along the way we stopped at various points of interest – or, so the brochure said.  The road opened up as we entered the Eglinton Valley, which is a huge, green plain between mountains with a river flowing through it.  Like something out of a movie.

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Eglinton Valley

At Mirror Lake a slight breeze blowing created ripples on the water ruining the mirror effect.  And so it goes.  Further up the road we came to the sign demarking the 45th parallel south. 

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Mirror Lake…not much reflection…imagine those mountains reflected by still water.

The 45th parallel north runs about where Green Bay, Wisconsin, is located, and 45 degrees is halfway between the Equator and the respective Pole.  We couldn’t do any better than that, so it was time to turn around and head back.P1060416

On our way back to the lodge we watched a shepherd and his dogs push a flock of sheep to another pasture. It was amazing how the shepherd controlled his dogs with different whistled signals. Within a few minutes, hundreds of sheep were circled up and moved through a gate into the other pasture. It was cool to see how the flock and the dogs worked to create the flow.

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One of several huge sheep farms.

The night at the Lodge was pleasant.  I went down to the shore of Lake Wakatipu and took some sunset pictures.  The changing golden light was interesting on the hills and mountains in the distance.  The lake itself was nearly deserted by humans.  That really struck me as odd, such a recreational resource with such little use – even at peak there was seemingly nothing on the lake but the waterfowl.

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Sunset at Lake Wakatipu

 


T+55 and T+56 Days…Down New Zealand’s West Coast, Through Glacier Country and the Southern Alps

We drove down Highway 6 from Greymouth to the Franz Josef Glacier along the Tasman Sea. One of the fun things about driving in rural NZ is that in rural areas one lane bridges are the norm, some built in the first years of the highway (early ’60s) and needing some maintenance. The trip down was mostly under gray, drizzly skies.  It is hard to believe, but some places here get over 20 feet of rain per year! While we have seen rain some every day here, the rain has not interfered with our sightseeing, usually stopping when we were out and about. The drive to the glaciers was short, only about 125 miles, leaving us time for sightseeing.  Waterfalls were around every corner.  (Could we not litter the natural landscape with “cairns”?)

Among the major south island attractions are the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.  They are the products of humid air off the Tasman Sea climbing the mountains and hitting cold winter air at altitude to produce snow at the tops.  The collected snow then compresses over many years, becoming that beautiful “blue ice” underneath the gray upper layers, and being pushed downhill in sun-protected channels created over eons.  In comparison with others I’ve seen, they weren’t particularly impressive, according to photos significantly smaller than 50 years ago.  That’s not to say they weren’t worth a visit.  The area around them is scenic, and one appreciates the power of glaciers, even as they retreat, leaving behind their till fields and altered terrain.

We spent the night at the Montrose Hostel in Franz Josef.  For us old folks, this was our first experience with a hostel, or “backpacker” as known down there.  My cousin Donna suggested using these as a budget measure, and it proved an excellent suggestion.  The facilities were modern, certainly not rustic.  The clientele was all ages, although early-20s females seemed to predominate.  In our instances, we each had private twin-bedded rooms with showers.  (There are also dormitory rooms with as many as eight sleeping in bunk beds among “strangers.”)  The prices for our rooms were about half a hotel room rate.  If you just wanted a dorm bed, the prices were about US$20-25 per night.  Hostel management was very friendly and helpful.  They even put out a large kettle of fresh vegetable soup to enjoy at night.  There were three separate buildings to this hostel, and each provided multiple areas to congregate or just “hide away”.  Kitchen was fully equipped and very useful, especially considering the price of restaurant meals.  We bought a few delicious meat pies at the nearby grocery, along with breakfast fixings, and watched a bit of telly before off to bed.

T+57 Days – Through the Mountains to Queenstown

We drove 200 miles today.  That’s not a long drive in the States but here, with the roads twisting and turning through the mountains you might travel at 40 miles per hour – usually less. The crazy part is that the speed limit is 100 KPH (62 MPH)!  And these roads don’t have much to keep you up the mountain if you go off the edge. The lanes are narrow, shoulders non-existent.  And these are better roads than Australia under similar circumstances.  Toss in that left-side driving…it’s close to harrowing in spots.

The weather was gray, but still “dry” as we drove along, still along Highway 6 through the “Southern Alps.”  We stopped for lunch with our fixings – bread, ham and cheese – and to view the scenery. At Fantail Falls the water took on a distinctive aqua marine color.  It was not the glacial blue or chalky; this color came from minerals leached during its runoff from snowfall and rainfall high in the mountains.  Later we saw lakes filled with this same water.  Beautiful!

There were spots of snow in the mountains that survived summer, December through February.  These are not the Rockies.  The highest mountains run about 9,000 feet, although Mt. Cook, the highest, rises 12,218 ft – way short of those “14ers” in Colorado.  We passed several equipment shops and signs for several ski resorts, but saw no ski runs from the highway.

Queenstown is New Zealand’s ski center, an attractive city busiest in winter and summer. Boating and fishing are popular summertime activities on Lake Wakatipu, which runs 50 miles and is New Zealand’s longest lake.  (It is also over 1300 feet deep in spots!)  Queensland only has about 15,000 population (37,000 if you count the entire region) .  That said, it is tightly packed in to a narrow band along the lake.  Housing there is very expensive – much costing in excess of a million US dollars.

We stayed at an apartment within walking distance of downtown, which included a large grocery.  One of the best bargains in New Zealand is a store-roasted chicken. They are uniformly delicious, with crispy browned skin.  Not like so many of the American rotis birds.  For about US$10 you can feed four well.  Or, you can get a burger for one.  (One thing we could not find down under was “instant” potatoes.  I could find all sorts of other such stuff, but not those.  I wonder why.)

After dinner, we wandered through town. A Scottish Pipe and Drum band was playing on the pedestrian main drag, complete with dancers. Apparently they do this for “practice”, and to make a few bucks with the hat out for contributions.  Queenstown was otherwise a typical tourist destination with people dining outside, lots of lights and shops open.  My brother was reminded of ski towns out in Colorado, like Vail or Aspen.  The waterfront was nice, offering wild speedboat rides and such during the day.  Along the boardwalk were more restaurants and souvenir joints.  Even a few folks looking to camp on the beach.  It was pleasant enough, but not enough to hold me there for long.

The whole thing down here is scenery and nature – the mountains and waterways, from mountain streams to fjords.  It’s well worth the trip.  And some of the best is supposedly yet to come.

T+53 and T+54 Days…Christchurch to Greymouth New Zealand

We were up at 0430 to get to the Sydney airport in time for our 0845 flight to New Zealand, taking the earliest airport shuttle from the hotel to the airport. Checking in was quick and easy since few people were at the airport so early. Thanks to our Priority Pass membership, we had a huge breakfast at the airport before boarding our giant, double-deck Emirates Airbus A380.Emirates350

People don’t realize that the distance between Australia and New Zealand is significant – about 1350 miles across “The Ditch”. The flight to Christchurch took about 4 hours, and crossed two time zones. The Christchurch airport was small compared to others we’ve encountered. We picked up our rental car, a Toyota Corolla, and drove a a few miles to our “Sweet and Cozy” B&B, which was very well located for both our evening there and getting out of town the next morning.  Like so many others, we were provided a bed, but breakfast (beyond coffee) was on us.  The apartment was above a garage and very comfortable.  The landlady was Chinese and her two sons active boys about 12 and 9.  She was very helpful.  She also warned us that the New Zealand police closely enforced the speed limit.  Unless traveling in a pack, it was best to not even exceed the limit by a smidgen.

We all agreed that Australia was expensive, but New Zealand even worse at first blush. We ate dinner at the Lone Star Restaurant – no, not the US chain. Dwayne and I both had the pork spare ribs; Janet a small sirloin steak. The food was fine; however, the prices were outrageous. The bill came to more than NZ$100!! (US$75) How people go out for a simple family dinner is a mystery to me.  Even burgers and fries were priced at least 50 percent higher than comparable in the States.

After we ate we picked up some breakfast foods, milk, and snacks at the supermarket before heading back to our rooms.We saved quite a bit by doing this, and by using the kitchens and barbecues at our hostels down the road.

T+54 Days – Greymouth and POW!!!

We departed Christchurch at 10 heading west to Greymouth on the New Zealand West Coast. We drove through Alpine National Park via Allen’s Gap. The total distance we covered today was about 250 kilometers (150 miles). We started out across the flat plain of the Waimakariri River Valley where sheep and cattle graze and fruits and vegetables are grown. As the hills grew, grazing became the primary farming activity. We saw some logging on the heavily forested hills and mountains.

 

It was much like driving in the American West. The western side of the mountains were different; the increased rainfall there creates a much greener and lush landscape.  Despite the gray weather, it was a great day for a run to Greymouth where we met the Tasman Sea. Our motel was just over the dune from the beach, where we were told one could find jade washed up by the waves.

 

 

We drove into Greymouth to buy groceries.  Among other goodies we bought steaks for grilling – four nice ones for just NZ$17 (US$12.50).

We drove back to the motel just out of town.  As we approached our place there was a painted “island” on the road.  I stayed to the left and slowed from about 45 mph, with my directional on. As I made the turn and heard a heavy “BAM!” behind us.  Seems a fellow in truck rear-ended the guy who had been following us.  Figuring there was nothing I could do, and honestly having no desire to get involved, I continued on to our room.  Shortly some fellow came and accused me of causing his accident.  Of course, he was the fellow who rammed the car from behind.  He was carrying on about a three-second rule for one’s directional, how my brake lights came on before the directionals. and how he had told his boy traveling with him that “that guy” is going to cause an accident.  My initial response was, “Nonsense.”  I asked him what the purpose of brake lights were – perhaps to warn following drivers the car in front is slowing or stopping.  Said whether the brake lights or directionals came on first was immaterial.  And that if my driving indicated I was to cause an accident, asked why didn’t he exercise greater caution while following…he walked away. 

Of course, I was visited by the police shortly thereafter.  I explained what had happened, and it apparently fit what the “victim” told them.  The police said there were frequently accidents at the site – that drivers were beginning to speed up as the limit rose right after the spot. We conversed awhile and they said not to worry – wasn’t my fault.  So. I got on with grilling the steaks. 

That night the skies opened up and rain poured.  We had been lucky with the weather, and overnight rain sure beat rain during the day.  The next morning was gray, but that’s the common state on Tasman coast.  Think Pacific Northwest.

 

T+51, T+52 and T+53 Days – Canberra and Sydney

While planning this stage of the trip it became evident that my preferred route from Mongans Bridge to the east was just not going to work.  So, for one night only, we were going to work on a tightrope.  The route necessarily included some motorway driving, which I tried to avoid whenever possible.

I digress for a moment.  Planning a route is a bit more than pointing to places on a  map and connecting the dots to get there.  In my opinion, if you really don’t care about the journey, that part where you witness the mundane as part of the adventure, then jump on the motorways and drive like hell.  What’s the difference?  But touring requires balances, especially the amount of time spent in the car.  Personally. I like to muse over the ordinary while driving (or sitting on a bus). 

We left Mongans Bridge about 10 AM and headed north to avoid another day of laborious mountain driving.  Mr. Google said it was to be 252 miles to Canberra.  My brother lives in Leavenworth, Kansas, the sister city to Wagga Wagga, and he wanted to visit to get a picture of the “sign” commemorating the relationship for the folks back home.  Now that would have added but 25 miles to our trip, but somewhere around Gerogery we got involved in a detour that lead to nowhere anyone could figure.  Oddly, in Australia they mark detours with colored squares – white in this case.  We never saw another detour direction sign.  Eventually we found our way to Wagga Wagga…where we discovered there is no apparent sign nor any other public display commemorating that Leavenworth, Kansas, and Wagga Wagga are sister cities. We finished our run to Canberra, Australia’s capital city, via motorway.

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Not a total waste…we ran into this giant Merino sheep.

Driving in Canberra is quite a challenge. The city’s main street, Northbourne Avenue, is torn up for subway construction. Side streets are closed willy-nilly. We ended up at Regatta Point Park on the Molonglo River overlooking the Government”complex”.  We got our bearings and got turned around out of town up Northbourne Avenue looking for a place to eat and find wi-fi.  We found a shopping area and parked.  A woman there suggested the Ibis budget hotel nearby for an overnight.  We went to a McDonald’s and made the room reservations on-line from there. 

After I booked the two rooms and dinner at McD’s (or Maccas, as the Aussies say) we drove over.  It was Motel 6 stuff.  Small rooms.  Paper thin walls.  Sketchy clientele.  AU$68.  It was a long, tiring day.  The least fun of all to date.

I was ready to blow Canberra early.  I did not relish driving through a city whose plan struck me as confusing before being torn up driving on the “wrong side”.  Instead the others wanted to see Australia’s capital city.  There was a tour bus that would take us on the sightseeing loop for $10. 

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Our Canberra Tour Bus

It started at the Regatta Point Park, so we knew the directions to get there and out.  Arriving early, we hung around the visitors center until time to meet the bus.  It arrived looking to me like a retired city transit bus. 

We boarded and went for the ride – over the bridge, past the National Library and Archives, Treasury, and various gardens before we turned toward the New Parliament Building, and around back to the old Parliament Building, around the embassy neighborhood, down the War Memorial boulevard…and then for a stop downtown for a 30 minute layover.  Canberra very much reminded me of Columbia, Maryland, a planned city where Janet and I live, with many parallel features.  Back on the bus, we made our way back to the park and departed in our rental car for Sydney. 

The drive was largely uneventful until we drew nearer Sydney.  Then we hit a tollway.  Mel at the rental company, Ace, told us that the charges would simply be added to the credit card, no service charge.  So, we followed the signs to the airport and our Ibis Budget hotel just outside SYD.

There was extensive construction around the airport which made it challenging to get to the terminals.  Traffic cones were everywhere, and it was hurry and wait as we drew nearer.  When we reached the entry to the airport there was a jumble of lane markings, orange cones, cops directing traffic…rendering our Google Maps “GPS” useless.  The access road to our hotel was blocked off.  We figured we could make a turn further up.  Wrong! 

The road did not allow a right turn into the access road.  Stuck on the road we were about to enter the toll-motorway with no idea how we would get turned around.  We were at an intersection.  There was no sign prohibiting a U-turn.  After we conferred and concurred, I made the turn on green, waiting for traffic to clear before merging into the lane.  Immediately, the blue lights of a police car came on…BUSTED! 

In Maryland what I did was entirely legal.  I found a place to pull off the road and the officer approached.  We had a short conversation, begun with he had my turn on film, where I explained what I did and why.  He took my license and returned to his car.  Honestly, I expected the usual stern safety “reminder” and a drive-away.  The officer returned with this orange thing in his hand, which he shoved in my face.  Between traffic noise and his Aussie accent, I had trouble understanding his instructions.  I asked if he wanted me to blow into the end…turned out I was to count to five aloud.  Somehow this thing checks for alcohol…and not having had a drop…he asked for my “address in Australia” and my email address.  He left and returned.  He told he was issuing me a citation. Really?  How much is the fine?  AU$257 (US$205)!!  They don’t give you anything to commemorate the pinch – they send you an email, which he said should already be in my inbox.  I told hi I fully expected him to have exercised his discretion to not issue given the circumstances.  “If I were in the States, wouldn’t I be expected to know the traffic laws?”, was his reply.  I should have pulled into the neighborhood to make my turn.  The newspapers made a big deal out of the messed up traffic at the entry.  A traffic management supervisor told me that they were prohibited from putting up directional signs to help motorists get to the hotels and other businesses on the access road.  The police admitted it was a traffic meltdown – it also happened at the beginning of their Labor Day three-day weekend.

Two police officers I spoke to said, leaving the country, they would just ignore the ticket.  Yeah, and then I get hit with a huge service charge by the car rental company when the cops suspend the car’s registration, etc.  Truly, everyone there hates the cops when it comes to their overzealous traffic enforcement – including the cops themselves.  The fines are excessive for nothing offenses.  Honestly, I wonder whether the cops have any discretion down there.  Forgive my minor rant, but Australia (and New Zealand) are traffic camera happy. We were told that if the limit is 100 kph, driving 101 kph could get you a camera speeding ticket.  The game is apparently to hide the cameras to catch the unwary.  Then they drop speed limits from 100 kph (62 mph) to 30 kph  (18 mph) for “construction zones”  in short order.  Unless one stands on the brakes, it is likely the vehicle will exceed 30 when it hits the sign.  (Often there is no actual construction.)  In other cases they run up to 100 leaving town, and immediately thereafter hit a construction zone 30.  I tried hard to comply…but I wouldn’t be surprised if I get some cheap photo citation.  This is Big Brother’s Robocop police force – and it’s likely coming to America in the name of “traffic safety.”

The Ibis Budget at SYD typifies the type of hotel I hate dealing with.  Increasingly, these places are becoming like airlines, nickel and diming customers for what ought to be included or complimentary.  Parking…$25.  Airport shuttle…$7.   One guy was at the desk complaining that his air conditioning was out.  They “rented” him an electric fan.  Bottles of water were $2.  Just vacuuming the clients’ dough.

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ibis Budget Hotel, Sydney Airport

Dinner that night was at KFC, which was actually pretty good. 

The next day we headed into Sydney via a motorbus that gave us a good idea of the environs.  Arriving downtown at the main rail station stop, we discovered the area ripped up and under construction.  The poor bus attendant on duty to direct people through the mess was befuddled, apparently not knowing the area well.  Eventually we waled through the station and found the #1 Hop-on/off bus stop.

After paying our fares we took seats on the upper deck for the long ride to see all the sights.  Of course we saw the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, icons of Sydney.  Lunch was at the purportedly oldest pub in Sydney, the Fortunes of War just beyond the Circular Quay in The Rocks district, which opened in 1828.  Food was burgers and shepherd’s pie.  Beer was cold.  What more can one ask? 

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The Babes of Bondi Beach!
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Enjoying the sun on the top deck of the Hop-on/off bus
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Nothing better than a kangaroo steak and beer.

We then took the second bus down to Bondi Beach, Australia’s answer to Venice Beach near Los Angeles.  All the bronzed people were there to see and be seen.  A few surfers…very much the beach scene.  It was running late and we caught the last bus making the circuit back to the train station – catching a glimpse of the city skyline and harbour from one of Sydney’s most desirable neighborhoods.  There, despite the befuddled bus attendant, we found our bus stop and headed home to prepare for our next leg…New Zealand.