Day 2, kiwis and eels

March 16, NZ Time

It’s amazing to think that this was only day two of our actual time IN New Zealand. We feel like we’ve already done so much.

We started the day pretty early with an in-room breakfast of very rich yoghurt with pineapple and walnuts, based on our acquisitions at the market the previous day. While it was not going to last us all morning, it was enough (with a cuppa or two) to get us going. We knew what the food menu was on the train but also had some snacks, so we were hopeful we could make it through.

We checked out and awaited our ride to begin the first booked adventure of the trip: the TranzAlpine: A Great Journey of New Zealand.

Our Supershuttle arrived just after 7:25am, the appointed time, and already had one other couple on board. We picked up another pair on our way to the train station. The check-in line wasn’t too long and our agent was quite efficient, but, as with the entire day, social distancing was clearly not a thing. We figure the best we can do in this setting is just watch out for people with runny noses or those who look like they don’t feel well and try not to get too up close and personal. This was likely to be one of our only encounters with large crowds on this trip.

After we got our “boarding passes” we had to walk our bags down to the baggage car at the rear of the train. We were lucky that although all the literature warned us we should only check one bag each, we were able to check our additional carry-on duffel from the plane at no extra charge. Not so lucky was the way the bags were “checked.” Essentially, two agents took our bags and put them somewhere, with no bag checks handed to us. We crossed our fingers for what would us await at the other end.

We really lucked out with our seat assignments. Forward facing with a little table and a great view (the windows on the train are huge, but I’m sure that’s because the whole point is really the views). We also lucked out with our neighbors across the aisle. Two sisters and a sister in-law who were taking a trip together, all probably a little bit older than me. The sister-in-law lives in Christchurch but grew up on the eastern side of the mountains we were about to traverse, and she proved to be a fount of great information that supplemented the almost continuous commentary we could listen to on headphones during the journey. We learned about the trees, the wildlife, the industry, the geology, and so much more. Naturally Angie and I loved the scenery and the birds we saw along the way, including Paradise ducks, magpies, hawks, and the lovely Pûkeko. Although we saw tons of sheep, we learned along the way that sheep are no longer the dominant livestock or source of revenue that they were in the past. Apparently dairy and beef have taken over, not to mention tourism.

The scenery and climate were clearly very different on the two sides of the Alpen divide. More arid and rugged on the east and lush and moist on the west.

We were grateful after our meager breakfast that there was plentiful food available in the dining car, even if it was all prepackaged. We took three trips over the course of the four-hour journey, including for an egg sandwich for me along with some cups of “long black,” which we surmised to be equivalent to an Americano; chips and ginger beer for our mid-morning snack (along with peanuts we’d bought at the store the previous day), and then a shared order of stuffed chicken for lunch, since we assumed that after arriving in Greymouth at 1pm, we would want to get straight on the road.

While at this point New Zealand had officially recorded only 8 cases of COVID-19, it seems many people are not super worried about it, since social distancing clearly was not much of a thing on the ride. We did our best to be sensible at least. This was not the only reason why Angie avoided the open car at the front of the train, but it certainly didn’t help. She came back and said it was crazy and didn’t even venture onto it. Like our carriage, it was loud and full of people! Even though the open carriage was supposed to afford great views, she felt it was not worth the aggravation.

We arrived in Greymouth, the train’s final stop. We were very satisfied with the experience but also knew that the station lobby, where several car rental agencies were located, could well be a bit crazy. Angie opted to go and get the suitcases while I went off to check out our rental car. This division of labor was necessitated by Angie’s lack of interest in driving on the “wrong” side of the road, while I of course grew up driving on the left, so it is a bit more natural for me.

Once we had the car and the included GPS sorted out, we headed on our way. Our ultimate destination for the day was the town of Franz Josef Glacier, where we were to be staying at the Rainforest Retreat. However, we decided to make a side trip to the National Kiwi Centre in Hokitika. We suspected it was pretty cheesy, but the thought of a kiwi sighting of any type appealed to us. Since it was effectively on the way, it seemed worthwhile.

In the end, I’m really glad we took this side tour since up until we entered the Center and paid our $27 NZ, I had no clue that kiwis are nocturnal, so we would have had little chance of a sighting otherwise, unless we fancied a nighttime outing to try to find them, which we didn’t.

Although it really was rather commercial, we enjoyed cruising around the exhibits, which also included various fish, long-necked turtles, and a few types of lizard/iguanas. The kiwi enclosure is at the end of the tour and it takes a while to actually catch sight of the two kiwis in residence there in the darkened space. They are both about two years old and subsequently can be a bit playful, but in the end we were able to spy both of them and watch one of them scampering about in a corner. We had an even better view when we went back for one last look after the eel feeding (more in a sec) and Angie showed me a view of the enclosure that was not limited by a glass wall. One of them was now playing right underneath where we were standing. It was super cool! They’re also bigger than I expected by the way.

So yes, the feeding of the eels. Who knew this was a thing?

There is a big pool in the facility that is home to a large number of longfinned eels. It seems that most of them were found in an abandoned eel meat factory. Nearly all of the eels are females, because it seems they can live longer if they do not breed, though generally they don’t even breed till they’re about 60 years old! This type of eel normally makes a long trek to waters near Tonga to breed. Eels only breed once, and then they die. However, if they’re not able to breed (if for example they are trapped in a pool at an abandoned factory in Hokitika) they become sterile, but live much longer. The old eels in this pool were 80-120 years old. And also, big! They can grow to up to five feet in length! There are also younger eels that have been rescued for some reason that are also in the pool. They are much more voracious eaters, so they are fed several times a day and this is a public spectacle, in which a member of the staff explains some of the backstory I told above, and then invites visitors to feed the eels raw beef, serving it up with a long pair of tweezers. Since this is my birthday adventure, Angie encouraged me to have a go, so I joined the short line of people (mainly women, interestingly) to participate in this activity. It was a simple thing, but kind of fun.

With our visit to the Kiwi (and many other things) Centre concluded, we made our way to the supermarket across the road to stock up on a few supplies, including some Whittaker’s chocolate, which is a New Zealand institution. They hold about 40% of the market here and are known for their palm-oil-free chocolate.

We also picked up some apples and cheese for a snack, and resupplied our water before heading on toward Franz Josef. This 173-kilometer drive (107 miles) was a bit gnarly with many bends and narrow lanes. Usually, Angie drives the windy roads when we travel, because she’s more comfortable doing so, so it was a bit of a challenge for me to ride this road, especially in an unfamiliar vehicle. But, we made it with no significant damage to the vehicle, or our marriage!

Our overnight destination, the Rainforest Retreat, in the town of Franz Josef Glacier, is probably going to end up being the most luxurious place we stay on this trip. Our travel agent booked us into a Deluxe Tree Lodge, and it is pretty deluxe. It has a private deck, a comfy seating area, a gorgeous bathroom with a rain shower and underfloor heating, and a true sense of peace and privacy as we are nestled in the trees.

We both instantly found the setting to be reminiscent of one of the places we stayed in Costa Rica, the Arenal Springs Resort (also in a rain forest area).

Once we’d settled into our space, we walked down to the resort’s restaurant, Monsoon, for what proved to be an early dinner by local standards, since there were not many people eating when we got there, but most of the tables around us were full by the time we left, with more people arriving. We kept it simple, because we were both so tired (given that we’ve only been here a couple of days remember!). We ordered the same meal: fish and chips made with Hoki (also known as hake, blue grenadier, and a few other things). It was a good solid meat with a good but not too heavy batter, and the accompanying chips were also pretty good.

We were back in our lodge before 8. I had a little of the complementary wine that had been provided as part of our guest package and we collapsed into bed before much longer.

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