Day 3 on the Trace

Our first stop on our last day on the Trace was Cyprus Swamp.  It was a quiet and pretty solitary walk since not many others seemed to be on the Trace at this time.  You really got a feel for how narrow the Trace was at this location.  You could see how they left remnants for the people to view but the areas around it were valuable farm land and had been turned to that use.

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One of the sites we wanted to visit were the Windsor ruins so we got off at the Port Gibson exit.  However, the way to the ruins was not clearly marked.  We did try to stop for lunch in Port Gibson but could not find a restaurant in the city.  We did find a small grocery store where we got some things to eat so all was not lost.  We did try to get to the Windsor ruins later in the day by another rout but it turns out after almost 15 miles the road was under construction and closed.

We made a stop at Mount Locust where they had a building that had served as a road house when the Trace was active.  In this day of interstate freeways it is hard to imagine that making 20 miles in a day was typical.

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Finally arriving in Natchez we had completed our 444 mile journey.  Natchez has preserved a lot of their historic buildings.  Along the Mississippi it has a pretty location.

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Our journey home was leisurely – at least until we were 20 miles South of Champaign Illinois.  Then we came into snow and it continued the rest of the way into Chicago.  For almost 2 years now I have had a small SUV with 4-wheel drive.  It does a good job in the snow.  Saw a number of cars that had gone off the road.  For the 23 years before this SUV I had sports cars.  In the snow they were downright dangerous.  That is what made me turn to the SUV.  I could not take the anxiety of driving in the snow in those cars.

Day 2 on the Trace

On our second day on the Trace we set foot into the two states I had yet to visit – Alabama and Mississippi.  This was something I had thought about doing for some time now – especially when I was down to just a handful of states.

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Shortly after passing into Alabama we stopped at Rock Spring.  This has a short walk past several beaver mounds on the river.  It was such a peaceful area.

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Our first stop in Mississippi was at Bear Creek Mound.  This was the first of several mound sites along the Trace we would stop at.  The pictures do not do justice to the effort that must have gone into their construction.  The piles of dirt were carried by hand – the wheel and beasts of burden were not available in this area at the time they were built.  Imagine the effort to organize the people to work for this abstract goal.

For lunch this day we went to the town of Baldwin.  Again limited choices while on the Trace.  This restaurant had two items on the menu – fried chicken and hamburger steak.  Salad was an item on another day.  As an omnivore it is easy for me but in these small towns if you have any restrictions there could be a problem.

For the evening we stopped in the town of Kosciuska.  Basically they had two motels – it has been a long time since I had a room for the evening that cost less than $70.  Not much choice for food either.

Driving the Natchez Trace

Our first night of the journey we stopped just south of Louisville, Kentucky.  One of the problems stopping outside of towns is the lack of dining options.  In this case the “best” option was the Waffle House.  My first time at one of these fine establishments and if I have my way it will be my last time - at least for dinner.

Driving through Nashville, Tennessee to enter the Natchez Trace had us driving down the street (West End) I used to take to get to work when I lived in Nashville.  Some of it looked the same, some different.  The different is probably more to be expected – we lived there 42 years ago!  The entrance to the Trace is in the town of Pasquo.  I should have realized it at this point but I did not – the signage for the entrance is not that prominent.  In the future I would use Google Maps to make sure I know what the entrance will look like.

I had made a list of the 20 sites recommended by our tour book.  There are certainly a large number of marked sites but if one were to stop at all of them it would take much longer.  The first of the sites on my list was at mile 438 – the double arch bridge.  We really did not get the view in the tour books – I am not sure where the road to the view was.  Being a creature of habit by 11:30 I was looking for a place for lunch.  It was obvious that all services would require leaving the Trace.  We ate lunch is a really small town called Leipers Fork at a restaurant called Country Boy.  It was very obvious that many in this small restaurant were regulars.  It was also obvious we were in the South because sweet tea was available.

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After lunch we made stops at Gordon House and ferry site, Jackson Falls, and the Meriwether Lewis memorial.  It is really remarkable to me that Lewis and Clark led a group of men on this great trek to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-1806.  Going into a great unknown like that seems to me to require a really special person.  Reading about the life of Lewis after this is kind of sad even to what may have been his eventual suicide in 1809.

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On trips like this I like to stop before it gets dark.  So we decided to spend the evening in Florence, Alabama.  This town is actually a distance from the Trace but it did get me into Alabama for the evening.

Completing visits to all 50 states

I just accomplished one of the travel goals I have had for a while – visit all 50 states.  Between December 18 and 24 of 2017 I finally visited the last two – Alabama and Mississippi.  We traveled the Natchez Trace Parkway from Nashville Tennessee to Natchez Misssissippi.  This 444 mile route also takes one through the north-west corner of Alabama.  At the time of year we did this trip it was definitely the off season.  The traffic was very light and most often we were the only person at each of the stops.

I think this goal to visit all 50 states was set when I started traveling to other countries.  I read or heard someone criticize travelers for visiting foreign countries without visiting their own country.  When I thought about the states I had visited already at that point it was quite a few.  This was helped by the fact that I had lived in 6 states.  Then I was able to visit a lot of other states by road tripping to one of the professional meetings I attended semi regularly.  They were held at that time on college campuses throughout the country.

One of the things that surprised me on this trip was that my cars GPS points of interest feature was in error at times.  The second day of the trip we were going to stay in Florence Alabama.  The GPS listed a Marriott but there was no hotel at the location.  Fortunately there were other hotels a couple of miles away.  Another time it was getting time for lunch so we looked at the GPS and it said a place was available in Port Gibson Mississippi.  The restaurant was closed and when we looked for other recommendations the second one was nonexistent and even the grocery store we decided to get food at was not there.  Nowadays of course you could choose to look up these things on your phone but in some of the areas we were in cell phone service was nonexistent.

Going for the insects

At the botanical garden again.  Beats going to the gym for my cardio exercise.  The birds of course are a major attraction.  But on this day it was not all that interesting.  But the insects seem to want some portraits so I obliged.  I would love to do this in my yard but my neighbors would be freaked out seeing me set up my camera and chasing insects.  The nice thing about the botanical garden is that there are always others doing the same thing.

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Earlier this year

This picture is of a horned grebe from April of this year at the Chicago Botanical Garden.  I find it amusing that the fish is almost as big as the bird but he did get it down.  Throughout the year they have a variety of species who appear.  It is nice to be able to wonder around a space early in the morning without having to keep on the alert for potential trouble.

Bald Eagle!

The other week I had a great thrill at the Chicago Botanical Garden - I saw a bald eagle!  Now I had seen bald eagles on a trip to Alaska years ago but I had not seen one since.  I do know they do have them along the Mississippi River during the winter but standing outside in the cold is not really my thing.  Here in Chicago in the Summer! 

First Uber ride

I am probably one of the few people who had yet to use Uber.  I had my reasons.  I really dislike leaving my credit cards on file anywhere. I know they encrypt data and employ firewalls but still…if my credit card number is not there it will not be taken if the system is hacked.  I feel for the cab driver.  Often this is the first step for immigrants and it gives them an income.  Finally I just do not take a cab all that often.  I love to drive and in the city I live in I drive myself.  I do take a cab to the airport but from the suburb I live in this is quite easy and they have a very nice app that allows me to schedule a ride in advance.  For all the times I have done this they arrive at the designated time.

But I finally broke.  I was traveling to a destination a ways from the airport I was going to land in.  I was told that the cab fare was significantly higher than an Uber ride.  Even more problematic was going to be the return trip – what cab company to use?  How to contact them?  What was it going to cost?  I have also had bad cab experiences – fares that seemed much higher than they should be, cab drivers who became mean when they realized you were going to a destination where they would not be able to easily pick up another fare.

I found the experience to be great.  At the airport I picked up my luggage, went into the app and scheduled my journey, found out what it was going to cost and what car would be showing up in minutes.  On the return journey I scheduled in advance and the car was there when I wanted.  I actually like that this is all done with the credit card because a long cab ride for cash could wipe out what I was carrying.

Will I be doing this when I travel?  Most definitely.  No more trying to figure out what cab company to use.  No more trying to communicate with a dispatcher.

In my home city?  Probably not.

Miscellaneous final items about New Zealand

Candy

I admit I am a candy lover.  I recommend you get a bag of Pascall Airplanes.  They are really good.  I tried a number of other varieties from the company and did like the gummy worms.  But the airplanes are the best.

Weight limit Queenstown to Auckland

It was clearly posted that there was a 7 kg limit for carry-ons for the plane and they even came on the speakers and made the announcement.  I know my camera equipment was more than that and it made me very nervous.  I took out one of my lenses and put it in my jacket pocket and put the camera and another lens around my neck.  Turns out they did not weight anyones luggage as far as I could tell but there was a scale at the boarding desk.

Screens

One of the things that surprised me is that screens were not on the windows or doors at any of the places we stayed.  From the nature of the places it seemed that this could be generalized to say that the norm is no screens.  They do have flies and I am sure they have mosquitoes.  I know in my house I would not open the windows and remove the screens.  When we have had the screens off in earlier homes surprising things have made their way inside.  Not my favorite thing.

Bathrooms

A pleasant surprise was the quality of the public restrooms.  When one is out for the day it is not unusual to have a need for a restroom.  In America this usually means finding a gas station or fast food restaurant and using their facilities.  Now these exist in New Zealand but they also have very nice public restrooms.  They also have signs indicating the presence of restrooms off the major roads.

Coffee

I have been a coffee drinker since high school.  I enjoy a cup of coffee after a meal.  I find a cup of coffee relaxing and it certainly does not interfere with my sleep.  Turns out New Zealand has what they call a long black.  It is two shots of expresso with some hot water to make a cup.  A flat white has an additional bit of milk.  This is made to order so it takes a bit – not like a premade pot of coffee here in America.  This can be found pretty much anyplace.  We were at several Sunday farmers markets and a number of booths were set up with their expresso makers.

Credit cards

They use credit cards (with the chip) EVERYWHERE and for EVERYTHING.  I am still used to paying for small purchases with cash.  In New Zealand people pay for a cup of coffee with their credit card.  In fact I saw cash being used only rarely.  As always when you travel out of your usual area make sure you let your credit card company know – the last thing you want is to have you card blocked when you are out of the country.

Milford Sound

One of the must do trips on the South Island is Milford Sound.  It is only 46 miles west of Queenstown but the road does not go in that direction.  The route is 178 miles and takes 3 h and 50 min.  Obviously not a direct route.

The boat ride on the Sound is about 2 hours and takes you through the Sound to the Tasman Sea where they turn around and come back.  A number of companies offer what seems to be exactly the same excursion  The scenery is stunning and if you like waterfalls you will be in heaven.  Because of the distance from Queenstown you do not arrive all that early and you cannot leave that late or you will be driving in the dark.  If you have a full tank of gas you do not have to fill up until Te Anau on the way back but this is one of the routs where you are going a long time without seeing a gas station so plan ahead.

Queenstown

The drive to Queenstown from Christchurch is long but does pass through beautiful scenery.

The town of Queenstown in in a beautiful setting on Lake Wakatipu.  Queenstown does have a reputation as an adventure city and one can find plenty of offers for various excursions.  As one might expect this also draws many backpackers and the downtown area has hostels and places to eat one would expect.

One beautiful drive from Queenstown is to Glenorchy.  The road hugs the mountain which goes right into Lake Wakatipu.  Unfortunately the weather was not super cooperative as we had rain for much of the day but really enjoyed what we were able to see. 

Another beautiful drive we took is to Wanaka via Cardrona.  We continued on 6 up past Lake Hawea to the Blue Pool trail.  There we found a nice hiking trail up to what were supposed to be blue pools.  We were told the recent rains had spoiled the effect.

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We also ventured to Arrowtown which is quite close.  It has an area devoted to the Chinese who came for the gold rush.

Christchurch

The drive from Hokitika to Christchurch takes you through Arthur’s Pass.  This is another beautiful drive.  The road however had suffered a slide the previous week and was only open for 10 minutes at the top of each hour.  As luck would have it we just missed the open period so had to wait 50 minutes for the next opening.  I cannot think of a place in America where if a major road were closed for 50 minutes you would not have a huge backup of very angry drivers.  Here it was very pleasant with people getting out of their cars and talking and nowhere near as many cars as one might have anticipated.

Christchurch is another city which has hit hard by recent earthquakes.  In this case in 2010 and 2011 major earthquakes damaged many buildings.  You can still see buildings partially destroyed.  Driving downtown is a challenge because of all the detours.

We did take a gondola to get views of the city and surrounding area.  You could even do walks from there.  Another excursion was to the botanical garden.  It was quite busy and had very nice flowers but I have been spoiled by the Chicago Botanical Garden which is much nicer.

Hokitika

We took our time going from Picton to Hokitika – 12 hours in all.  We went west to the town of Westport before heading down the coast along the Tasman Sea.  We stopped at Cape Foulwind and in Punakaiki for the Pancake Rocks.  Both are nice stopping places and the walks broke up the car ride.

We had originally intended to go to Kaikoura on the east coast but a magnitude 7.8 earthquake on November 14, 2016 forced us to change our plans.  Even when we were in New Zealand at the end of January the roads leading into Kaikoura from the north and south were still a problem and people were asked not to head there unless necessary.

Hokitika does not have all that much going on.  One interesting aspect was the house we were renting required that we take the trash to the city dump before leaving.  It is, however, a convenient jumping off point for the Franz Joseph Glacier.  Although I can see how the hike to the glacier would be very pretty with all kinds of waterfalls around when we were there it was raining lightly and a little on the chilly side.  We did the walk to the glacier but did not linger as we were cold and drenched.

Picton

Picton is a small city (population 4,487).  In a few minutes you can visit all the stores and restaurants.  But it is a good jumping off point for the South Island.

We went on a 4 hour eco wildlife tour which was very enjoyable.  The first 2 hours were cruising up the sound leading into Picton viewing fur seals and various species of birds including several species of shags.  We then stopped on the island of Matuara which has been turned into a bird sanctuary.  They got rid of all the mammals and reintroduced various bird species.  Saw a number of species along a walk to the top of the island – an incline for the entire 30 minutes required to reach the top.  Very nice views once you got to the top.

We also went to several wineries in the Marlborough area for wine tasting.  What is interesting is that they do not use corks on the wines in New Zealand – they have screw cap bottles.  There are numerous reasons for this but as I understand it for wines meant to be consumed young there is no need to have the wine breath as it ages.  They are also able to avoid the loss due to bad corks.  And as a consumer I cannot begin to tell the number of times I have messed up getting the cork out of a bottle.

Another side trip we made was to the town of Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park.  The national park is about 1 hour from Nelson.  At the National Park you can see how large the tides are in this area.  Boats are no longer afloat and they use tractors to bring kayakers and others back to land.  On the way back we were on Queen Charlotte Drive.  This is a very twisty road.  We had done it during the day but driving back this time we did it at night, in the dark.  Of course there are no lights.  So you are looking for the edge of the cliff – kind of white knuckle by the end.

Our final little excursion was to take a water taxi to the Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary for a 2 h walk.  Heard many birds calling but did not see much.  Taking a water taxi was neat in that you arrange for a time for your return and there is you taxi.  I do not know what they do if you do not show up and how you would contact them but it worked out for us.

Taking the ferry between the North and South Islands

To get to the South Island we took the ferry which runs from Wellington to Picton.  We returned our car at the ferry terminal in Wellington.  Although you can take cars on the ferry the rental companies do not wish you to do so.  To me it was odd in that you park your car in a certain area of the lot and drop you keys in a return box.  I felt some degree of anxiety about the car company saying there were issues with the car but it works out fine.  On the other end in Picton the car rental agencies are right outside the terminal doors.

The ferry terminal in Wellington is not near anything of interest so once you are there you are stuck.  They did have a little snack counter but not much else.

The ferry ride was nice and smooth.  I stayed on deck most of the time to catch the views and to take pictures.  We had opted for the upgrade and so had plush seats.  The upgrade also includes food and drinks.  Since I do not drink all that much and did not wish to drink that early in the day we did not eat and drink the extra cost.

Martinborough/Wellington

On the drive from Napier to Martinborough (about 1 h 13 minutes from Wellington) we stopped at the Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Center.  A big part of their effort is conservation and working on preserving the native wildlife.  Like many other places the introduction of mice, rats and other mammals has devastated the native birds.  In a number of large enclosures they had native endangered birds.

In Martinborough we stayed in a house made of straw bales.  At least according to the literature these can last if made correctly (preventing moisture).  Martinborough is an interesting town.  It has a resident population of 1600.  In the town center are a surprising number of very nice restaurants.  This whole area is wine country and a number of vineyards are here.

The drive from Martinborough to Wellington is 81 km over a very twisty mountain road.  Takes a degree of concentration with all the turns on the narrow lanes.  One day we could not go into Wellington because the winds made the driving treacherous winds of over 60 mph.

Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and sits on the Cook Strait.  The area is known for its strong winds. Our first adventure into Wellington the weather was not great so we went to the Museum of New Zealand rather than the botanical garden.  Although I would rather be seeing the city than a museum this was a fine alternative.  A lot about the history of course.  I can not imagine the first people arriving here over 800 years ago.  It would have require long travels over open ocean.  I mean how long do you travel without seeing anything before turning around and if you do turn around how do you find you way back.

After the museum we went to Mount Victoria Lookout.  This offers very scenic views of the city.

On another excursion to Wellington we traveled along the ocean to Te Kopahu Visitor Center.  At the end of the road you can walk along the beach which made for a nice day.

Another excursion was to Cape Palliser on the South-East coast of the North Island.  This is a scenic drive and not widely taken.  I should mention that the last part of the drive is over gravel roads.  Just have to take it slow. 

At the end there is a lighthouse – it is over 250 steps to the lighthouse.  With the wind and my fear of heights I only made it half way.  On the way back to Martinborough we stopped at Lake Ferry for lunch.  The Lake Ferry Hotel is noted for their fish and chips so we ate there.  A quite nice beach area is there with various birds and fur seals making for a very pleasant and restful time.

Napier

Napier is about a 3 hour drive from Rotorua on the east coast of New Zealand in the Hawke’s Bay region.  This is where we learned the lesson about getting gas again.  On the drive, the region from Taupo towards Napier has NO gas stations (about 90 miles).  Even the gas stations in Taupo are not so obvious.  We actually back tracked to Taupo to get gas because we were unsure if we had enough.  And if you do run into problems you cannot even call because there is no cell service.

Napier was destroyed by an earthquake on February 3, 1931.  It was rebuilt in the Art Deco style of the time and that is the big attraction of the downtown area of the city.  It is also noted at a wine area.

Hobbiton

Hobbiton

One of the things I had really looked forward to before the trip was a visit to Hobbiton, the movie set used by Peter Jackson for the making of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  I know this is completely artificial but …  I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while in college – my friend Joe had suggested I would enjoy them and I really did.

The location is near the city of Matamata.  Many tour buses will take you to the site but since we had a vehicle we drove there.  It is in a very pretty rural location.  Buses take you in groups from the parking area to the actual site and a guide takes you through.

I really enjoyed the tour.  They have maintained it very well.

Rotorua

Rotorua is in the Bay of Plenty region on the North Island and about a 3 h drive from Auckland.  It is famed for its thermal activity.  It is also noted for its sulfur smell, but this was not that noticeable (I must admit I do not have the most acute sense of smell).

At the Maroi Burried Village you get an idea of what the town was like before the eruption of Mt. Tarawera in 1886.  Apparently the tourist used to come for the hot springs and to see the White and Pink Terraces.  These were destroyed in the eruption and the tale is told at the village.

We also visited the Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village.  The major part of the tour was seeing the geysers and hot springs.

They also have a cultural performance but we missed it.  I have very mixed feelings about cultural shows.  On the one hand it seems to be so artificial because they perform dances or acts that are culturally significant for them for tourists.  But on the other hand I once was talking to an elder on another trip who was responsible for his village’s cultural show and he explained how this was how they were able to pass their rituals to the younger generation.  The opportunities for the true purpose of the ritual were now very limited and modern life had made their enactment very rare.

Side trips from Auckland

We ventured north from Auckland to Whangarei. A pleasant drive with rolling fields and trees.  After lunch our stop was Whangarei Falls.  A lot of people also there.  Nice little walk from the parking lot to the base of the falls.

From there we continued North-East to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.  It was here in 1840 that the Maori chiefs signed a treaty with the British Crown.  The fact that the wording of the treaty in English and Maori do not agree was pointed out as one of the reasons for a number of the problems between the Maori and the British.  The buildings and boats we saw came much later but the narration of the guide was quite interesting.

It was a long way from Waitangi Treaty Grounds to our apartment in Auckland and we wanted to get to the grocery store before it closed.  Just made it but on the final few miles back to the apartment our gas light comes on – this totally freaked me out as I never let the gas get that low.

Another side trip we made was to the Miranda Shorebird Centre.  We were really there at the wrong time of day and saw nothing but it did allow us to see more of the area.

From the Shorebird Centre we continue up the Coromandel Peninsula.  This is a very pretty drive.  We turned around at the town of Coromandel which is quite small.