FiNZ 52 – Mt Doom

Our last major NZ bucket list item was to hike the Tongariro Crossing – New Zealand’s most popular day hike. Tongariro National Park is an amazing plot of land full of active volcanoes, craters, and piercing blue lakes. We knew we had to make it here before we left. Plus, Mt. Ngauruhoe was the inspiration of Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings. I couldn’t go home without being able to answer “yes” to everyone that asked us “did you see Mt Doom!?”


Tongariro National Park

Unfortunately, the trip from Christchurch is not easy. Tongariro National Park is in the middle of the north island. Luckily we had some leftover airpoints we weren’t sure what to do with other than use for some free flights (shoutout to Air New Zealand!). We convinced a couple of my colleagues to go a bit crazy with us and fly up to Wellington Friday night, drive the 4 hours to National Park, hike all day Saturday, drive back to Wellington Saturday night, and fly back to Christchurch at 7am on Sunday morning.

The predicted weather did not like our plan. A weather “trough” decided to flow over the north island Friday through Saturday. This meant Sunday was supposed to be beautiful, but alas…Sunday we would be flying home.

00Our shuttle was cancelled ahead of time but we figured we would still make it work. We drove up to National Park in the dark and some rain, and fell asleep at 1am. We awoke, opened the window shade to find this…

01aand more specifically this…

01bSure it wasn’t sunny, but it still made Keith say “holy crap!” when he opened the curtains. We both jaunted outside to take some photos next to the giant kiwi sculpture…because that’s what you do when you see a giant timber kiwi right?

0203Despite no rain, the New Zealand weather god–also known as “Metservice”–kept telling us it was going to rain 19 mm every 3 hours (that. is. a. lot.). Since the shuttle cancelled on us, and the Tongariro Crossing is one-way, we figured we’d either do an out and back, or Keith would walk with us half way and then run back to drive the car around… We arrived at the DOC info center at the start of the track and the on-site ranger suggested going west towards Tama Lakes. He said the top of the Tongariro Crossing would be windy and cold, maybe rainy, the Tama Lakes walk you still saw the same blue lakes, the volcanos, and it was still park of the Tongariro Northern Circuit (another Great Walk!). So eventually we were sold and gave up on doing the official “Tongariro Crossing”

04And we were off…


0606aAfter a couple hours we made it to our first blue lake, and continued up the adjacent ridge to make it to the upper Tama Lake and to stop for lunch.



09On the walk back to the visitor center the clouds parted a bit more for our money shot of the volcano.

10We were all really loving the lava flow areas…



Keith and the Flow

P1090015 P1090023Overall our journey was a success–our friends had a good time, the Flanders stepped foot on another Great Walk (that’s SIX out of nine for Jen!!), and everyone saw Mt Doom. We drove the 4 hours back to Wellie in the daylight and enjoyed a night meeting up with old friends and eating a hard-earned burger. Then it was up at the crack of dawn the next morning for this enjoyable flight back to the south island —

20This weekend is our LAST weekend! I can’t wait to write about that post next week!


FiNZ 42 – High over Middle Earth

I’ve been avoiding sorting through photos from this past weekend because there’s just so many. Alas, I managed to pick out a “select” few and collage the crap out of all of them so they’d fit somewhat nicely here.

Friday was a precious New Zealand holiday – Waitangi Day, aka “the 4th of July New Zealand style.” Luckily, that gave us a head start to drive down to Queenstown and meet up with Kathy and Don Friday morning. Friday ended up being one of the most intense activity days we’ve had here.

To back up a bit, a freak cold snap had come across the country and Queenstown temps dipped to near 0 Celsius the previous two days. That meant that 1) the surrounding mountains were covered in snow in the middle of summer and 2) I was really glad I checked the weather and brought my fleece and winter hat.

Fortunately for us, Friday started to thaw the town up. Our first stop was the Shotover Jet–an activity Keith and I’ve been waiting until warmer weather (the joke’s on us) to do. I’ve heard its one of the “must-do” activities in Queenstown PLUS Prince William and Princess Kate participated when they were in New Zealand last April! I may have required the exact seat Kate sat in… Albeit a pricey activity at $130/person, if you’re going to do SOMETHING adventurous in Queenstown, pick the Shotover!



Photos of our team and boat

We made it back to the center city just in time for…


which can only be further described through photos and video–


Central Queenstown Running of the Wools

Soon after we were picked up and whisked away to the airport to do a Fiordland helicopter tour with Glacier Southern Lakes helicopters! Kathy had really wanted to do a helicopter tour but the weather had cancelled every trip until we arrived. We were more then happy to join and what an incredible experience–we landed at 3 planned locations and had to pick up a couple at the beginning in Glenorchy (because why get driven to the airport when the helicopter can pick you up outside?). It was the first time I’ve been in a helicopter and it was quite the first time!


And we’re off!

Stop 1) Snow.

We were supposed to do a glacier landing but unfortunately the weather wasn’t going to cooperate. Although landing in secluded Fiordland on top of a snow-capped mountain was pretty epic in itself…



Stop 2) Beach.

We flew through Milford Sound, past all the tiny tour boats below, and landed on a deserted beach on the west coast. Once again, amazing–


Stop 3) Milford Sound

You can’t come to New Zealand and NOT see Milford Sound. Despite the flocks of people, it’s simply necessary. This was Keith’s first time out here — I’m glad we finally both made it!


Then we enjoyed a beautiful scenic ride back to Queenstown. I forgot to take more video along the way. The short clip below will have to do–


It’s noteworthy that our trusty pilot, Alfie, was the lead pilot in all the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit filming! I snuck a photo of him (far left) with Sir Peter Jackson. They’re surrounding the special camera they used while in flight.


What a day. Possibly the most exciting day I’ve had in New Zealand. We enjoyed a well earned beer, had a great dinner at Cow, and bar hopped a bit the rest of the night.

Saturday we split up and Kathy and Don headed back in their campervan and Keith and I did some exploring on our way home too. We decided to check out Arrowtown and finally got our sheep photo we’ve been looking out for!–


One of many excessive sheep+mountains photos

Then we decided to finally make the 10km journey to the clay cliffs. New Zealand has plenty of tiny tourist signs to natural wonders that people often zoom by. We figured we should finally check this place out and we’re glad we did. Check it out–


And of course we ended our journey with yet another beautiful blue lake Pukaki, the water color is always so fantastic. Below you can barely see Mt Cook in the background through the haze. On to our next adventure!



FiNZ 41 – Pats Nation

It’s rare we find other American’s in New Zealand let alone people from Massachusetts. So it was especially special to have some other local faces in town leading up to the Superbowl. Keith’s mom, Kathy, arrived with Don on Friday and we went right to work as tour guides. I don’t think they knew what they had gotten themselves into when we decided to drive them 2 hours outside of town and down a 40km long dirt road to get to Mt Sunday… (reminder – they had just gotten off the plane!). Unfortunately it was a little cloudy, but the views were still pretty “epic New Zealand.”

Mt Sunday is more like a little bump in the middle of a beautiful landscape–


On the path up to Mt Sunday

Despite it being off the beaten path it was a pretty popular filming location for Lord of the Rings – Edoras! Helms Deep was also filmed here as well. Some of the outer parts of structures were actually built on top of the hill (only for the movie) but most were CGI’d in. Check out the photo from the film below–

Flanders Hiking Photo of the Week –


Taking in the Views

At the summit trig, Don made sure we were all monumented there forever!


Spot Marked!


Jetlagged Troopers!

On the way back our visitors got a true New Zealand welcome. A farmer was out herding sheep so we got a good “only in NZ” experience of waiting for the sheep to cross the road…


Traffic Jam

Saturday the weather started getting better so we went on a wine tour throughout Canterbury. We were able to hit up some of our favorites — True & Daring, Lone Goat, and Straight Eight — all before dinner at one of our favorites — King of Snake!

Sunday was GORGEOUS. Therefore we picked that day to bring the crew to Akaroa. We did a lot of scenic driving to get the best photo opportunities.


Akaroa Bay Photo Opp


Summit Road Views

Then we continued to do a lot of relaxing, drinking, eating, and wandering along the shore.


Mother Son Bonding

Monday morning we said our temporary goodbyes to Kathy & Don until we see them again this upcoming weekend! We can’t wait to hear their stories of traveling around the island in a campervan over the next few days.

Pretty much the rest of Monday was devoted to the Superbowl. Being in the future we have to deal with work on Superbowl day. So luckily, as Americans we have a bit of lee-way with taking some personal time ūüôā

Keith, a few coworkers, and myself headed over to The Carlton at lunch for their Superbowl party they’d been advertising all month. The actual party room was a little overcrowded so we just made our own private party elsewhere.The Carlton provided Budweiser “specials,” aka $30 for 4 bottles…along with corn dogs and hot dog sliders.

And what a game am I right?! That was easily my favorite Superbowl ever. It was a fun environment to be in and the game just kept everyone entertained (including the non-Patriots/Seahawks fans) the entire time.

PicMonkey Collage

Superbowl Monday!

What a week thus far! This weekend is a 3-day weekend so we’re excited to meet up with Kathy & Don once again and have some more fun exploring.


FiNZ 18 – Absolutely Positively Wellington

Wellie Week! Keith, myself, and NINE other colleagues/spouses hopped on a plane or ferry on Friday to head to the capital–Wellington!


This was the first time EVER we went to an airport and didn’t have to deal with ANY security. Going there and back I never stepped through a metal detector at the airport. We showed up at the airport about 30 minutes before our flight, walked down to the tarmac, and hopped on the prop plane. Quite the easy trip! I’m going to organize this post with a lot of places we ate and visited, because we did a lot in our short 2 days!

Once we arrived we met up with a few others after checking into our hotel (Keith and I stayed at the Comfort Hotel — cheap and central location, but TINY and a bit dated) and headed for dinner on Cuba Street. We were starved so ended up at one of the first places we found and then headed over to Little Beer Quarter with the rest of the crew. The reason for the trip was Beervana; therefore, there were a lot of craft beer fans in the group. Little Beer Quarter was a great little spot with some unique beer options.

Saturday morning I had to try some Wellington coffee. Some of the best coffee in the world comes from Wellington so I searched out Customs¬†coffee shop for an epic flat white. They also roast the Coffee Supreme brand that can be found throughout most coffee shops¬†in the country. We then met up with a couple of colleagues¬†for breakfast at Felix Cafe; all of our dishes were pretty awesome. You also can’t really go wrong in New Zealand with their amazing egg and veggie brekkie dishes.



Everyone then went off to Beervana except for us. Yes, we were the black sheep couple that didn’t go to the beer fest and instead explored the city for the day. Unfortunately, the weather was awful. Wellington is known for being windy and rainy and it was both on Saturday. Our plans to walk/hike up Mt Victoria were thwarted. Instead we rode the cable car up the hill on the other side of the city. Much like the first time I was in Wellington — blogged about here. We wandered outside and saw a bit of the botanical gardens only for a few minutes. And then we started exploring…there are so many free activities to do in Wellington!


Cable Car Fun




Botanical Gardens

On the tram ride down we looked up the Parliament buildings and realized they give hourly free tours. After explaining to the security guards we weren’t German (they like guessing visitor’s nationalities) we hopped on the next tour. We went through the “beehive” (see photo with Jen below) which is the newest parliament building, and then through the older, classical style parliament building (photo with Keith below).


Jen & the Beehive


Keith (blending in front of the door) & Parliament

The BEST part of the tour was the BASE ISOLATORS! Since Wellington is right on top of the ring of fire they expect a lot of earthquakes (it was pretty surprising that Christchurch had “the big one” and not Wellington). Therefore, during some seismic upgrades to the Parliament buildings they literally cut the building from the foundations, raised it up, and set it on top of giant rubber and steel pads. These allow the building to move independently from the ground during an earthquake. It was like a structural engineer candy shop in that old, damp basement. I was probably the most excited member of the tour group.

base isolator

Other than the base isolators, it was interesting being able to go into the chambers and see some of the more significant meeting rooms. It¬†reminded me of being back in DC…with less security everywhere.

Post Parliament we headed over to a historic old church — Old St Pauls. Unlucky for us there was a crowd prepping for a wedding. So I felt a little awkward bursting in to take photos of the architecture. Lucky for us the rain was, sort of, dying down. We walked along the water and ran into a giant Japanese Festival. Again, Wellington has an amazing amount of free things to do. At this point we were starving and¬†ended up with some of the festival’s awkward, untasty¬†octopus dough balls (we probably should have asked what they were before purchase).


Japan Festival

Next we walked through the small portrait museum, and then headed over to the Museum of Wellington City & Sea. Still haven’t paid admission for anything in Wellington (other than a $7 ride up & down the cable car). The Museum was very well done, and gave Keith and I a pretty extensive history of New Zealand.


Museum of Wellington City & Sea; New Zealand – 1st country to let women vote!

We then took a break and headed to The Library before meeting up with the other 9 for dinner and rugby. The Library is not your typical library, it’s a bar, and just happens to have a lot of books and comfy chairs. It was a great, relaxing, place; I’d definitely look forward to coming back here.


Library Lounging

I made reservations for 11, a few days earlier, at Public–a popular sports bar in town. Other than getting served food a good hour after we ordered, the projector screens were awesome and the atmosphere while watching the game was great. Plus the All Blacks (New Zealand) crushed the Wallabies (Australia).

We continued the night with a bar crawl around the area. Stops included:

  • Malthouse¬†– good craft brews, right next to Public
  • Basque¬†– Fun! Had a great spanish vibe with a live band outside.
  • San Fran – turned around once they asked for $10 cover¬†and we realized it was a club…too much loud music… #old
  • The Matterhorn¬†– ended the night with some great whiskey cocktails @ Matterhorn.

Playing with Fire @ The Matterhorn

Sunday morning we had brunch at Sweet Mother’s Kitchen–the closest I’ve gotten in New Zealand to your typical American, eclectic, breakfast diner. This place loved New Orleans–so much bayou decor, and amazing food!

The rest of the day was devoted to Te Papa Рone of the best museums in Wellington if not the country and world. (saying a lot from a DC local!). We spent a good few hours exploring all the exhibits which included WOW (world of wearable art fashion) and an earthquake display with a real life shaking demonstration. And yes, we got to go see more base isolators that Te Papa is founded on!




World of Wearable Art

After meandering through the city some more, grabbing more coffee by the waterfront, visiting the City Gallery (not as cool as all the other museums we went to), and dining at the Cuba Street Bistro (a great last-minute find right next to our hotel), we hopped on the bus to go to the airport (note the bus is a great $9/person option when you don’t have extra bodies to split a cab with).

With all the Lord of the Rings press New Zealand gets, Wellington has literally titled its airport “The Middle of Middle Earth.” You can see the giant, lit-up, sign on the airport as you taxi down the runway. Keith had to grab a shot of the giant¬†Gollum flying over our heads as we waited to board…


Gollum invading the airport

Phew, lots of details! Next week there’s not too much going on right now, so we’ll have to find something interesting to do for next week’s post. Upcoming is going to Melbourne, Aussie¬†in September, and then we’ll be back in the States for vacation in October! Cheers.

New Zealand 27 – An Unexpected Journey

Get ready for a photo-heavy post. I’ve been putting this post off a few days because I wasn’t quite sure how I would write it. The Milford Track is 4 days, 33.5 miles of beauty, crazy weather, and entertaining times with new and old friends. I was at once considering the educational route, to inform the public exactly what the track was like, but after the fact that just doesn’t share the story. You have to do it to justify it. The pictures we have are just not good enough to fully explain, but they will have to do…

When my coworker said he was going to put together a trip to the Milford Track in Fiordland, I was the first one to jump on board. The New Zealand Great Walk is arguably the most beautiful hike in the world — one of those “must do before you die” type events. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fans, all of those sweeping mountainous landscape shots occur in Fiordland. The hiking (or tramping as Kiwi’s would say) season didn’t officially start until this past Tuesday, so we chose to complete this in the off-season. Lucky for us that meant cheaper hut fees, far fewer people to deal with, yet a lot more caution involved. We got together after-hours to discuss food preparation, safety gear, and avalanche safety. Those years in Girl Scouts just didn’t cut me out for this kind of stuff!

Luckily, once the departure day arrived, avalanche warnings were low to moderate which ended up meaning we didn’t need to worry too much when on the track. A key point to the Milford Track is that there is no easy way to get there–it is a one way route that involves dropping your vehicle in Te Anau, a bus ride to Te Anau downs boat dock, a 2-hour boat ride to the start, 4-day walk, boat ride through Milford sound to the nearest town, then an 1.5 hour bus drive back to the town of Te Anau. Although a lot of travel, it is a bit surreal realizing you really are far, far away from any civilization. Let the photo documentation begin (most photos courtesy of coworkers, especially in the snowy pass where I was far too concerned about staying warm and hydrated then taking out my camera to capture the moment)…

Coffee with a view – boat ride from Te Anau downs to the trail head

Like any good Department of Conservation, they like to make sure they overly caution the tourists–

Reasons not to do the track off-season…just made us all feel more intense

The first day involved a very short (5km) hike to the first hut. This all just ended up with us instantly bonding with the 8 other hikers on the trail with us and playing an entertaining game of Spoons where multiple losers agreed to complete some entertaining tasks–

Hut Games #1 – 4 person push up

Hut Games #2 – 6 people fitting into the toilet

Hut Games #3 – wheelbarrow races

Day #2 was a bit more like typical Fiordland–cold and rainy. We continued to follow the river through the amazing valley and several avalanche prone areas. This all meant that not all the bridges were in place and we got to put those gators to good use.

River Crossings

Bridge Crossings

After a very cold night in hut #2 (where I actually bartered with a coworker to give me their below freezing sleeping bag which I in turn agreed to carry over the pass the next day) we woke up not-so-ready to tackle the challenging day ahead. The night was full of torrential rain, sleet, and snow which meant we heard avalanches come down around us frequently and knew we’d be dealing with quite a bit of snow on day #3.

Starting to tramp up the switchbacks to the pass

Seeing the cross on top of the cairn memorial may have been my favorite site all day – to know we had finally made it to the pass and any danger of being pummeled with snow was gone. The memorial cairn is for McKinnon. He was a major part of helping create the track and unfortunately went missing one day on his Lake Te Anau boat ride to the trail head.

After trudging through the rain & snow, posing for the money shot in front of the Quintin MacKinnon Memorial Cairn

View from McKinnon Pass

All of us were pretty happy to see McKinnon shelter

Once we finally did encounter a dangerous area of the track, the DOC made sure to warn us. No chance of us taking this track, we headed down the “less scenic” emergency route which made me wonder how incredible the cut-off track must have been.

The disadvantages of doing the track during snow season

Day #4, it was all downhill from here, literally. Which meant a whole lot of waterfalls. As much as I hate to say it, I was actually sick of waterfalls by the end of this trip. They were everywhere!

Sutherland Falls – 5th tallest waterfall in the world

I couldn’t contain the excitement knowing this was my last can of preserved meat for a long time…

Canned food = a balanced tramper’s lunch

After a long 33.5 miles (New Zealanders used to work in feet & inches long, long ago), we finally made it to Sandfly Point–the end of the trail. Beforehand I made sure all major skin areas were covered and those exposed were globbed with DEET. Sandfly bites are no joke, I am still itching the 6 that got to me.

Survived the 33.5 miles never having to learn how to use the bright orange emergency locator beacon

Waiting for our ride to town at Sandfly Point

Final boat ride through Milford Sound

At the Sandfly Point shelter there were a few historical boards with old quotes. I’ll leave you with my favorite to conclude this weeks post–

“Fifteen years after leaving the Milford Track I repeatedly dream I’m still there…with these great mountains, waterfalls and forests and the river…The actual reality is something that is almost indescribable and I often say to people, ‘Have you walked the Milford Track?’ and when they say NO, I say well you must do it before you die…” – Dan Greany