It really is a long way to New Zealand. On this trip we flew from Boise to San Francisco to Auckland to Queenstown. Add in layovers of several hours between each flight and the trip took us a total of twenty eight hours, from when we left our house in Boise till we checked in at our hotel in Queenstown. Just the flight from San Frnacisco to Auckland is 6500 miles and takes thirteen hours. That's a long ride. At one point during that flight, after it seemed like we had been flying for a really long time, I checked my watch to see how long it had been since we took off. Turns out it was five hours. Ok, that's definitely a long time to be flying, almost the time that it would take to fly from New York to Los Angeles. Except that it meant that we still had eight hours of flight time left. That was discouraging. For those marathon overseas flights you need a completely different mindset than you do for a typical two or three hour US domestic flight.
When we arrived in Auckland we zoomed through passport control in just a few minutes. New Zealand has an impressive new self-help computerized kiosk system that took us three minutes at most to get through. Not like the you're-lucky-if-it's-only-forty-five-minutes for US passport control. When Donald Trump complains about the US having no border protection, he obviously never had to wait in line in the immigration hall at O'Hare airport with us peons.
Next came a biological inspection which took a lot longer. Because New Zealand is so far from any other land mass it has unique and exotic flora and fauna. But after being isolated for so long, the ecosystem is fragile and very vulnerable to aggressive species that humans introduce. To protect their natural biological heritage from invasive plants and animals, all equipment used for hiking or camping is inspected for foreign plant material and seeds. We had to declare our hiking boots and go through a special inspection line. It was really slow but we understood the purpose so we were ok with it. Things that might seem harmless, like pine trees, are a major problem in New Zealand forests.
Unlike passport control, the biological inspection was rather disorganized. We had already waited quite a while and were next in line when an indian gentleman, who was totally oblivious (or pretending to be) casually started walking to the head of the line. Normally I would have just grumbled to myself under my breath, but this time I said loudly "excuse me, the end of the line is back there", gave him a look to kill, and pointed to the end of the line. I'm not sure he understood any English but my meaning must have been clear. I guess after flying all night without sleep I looked like I was in a bad mood because he went to the back of the line. Maybe he thought I was going to assault him with the pair of hiking boots that I was holding.
When it was finally our turn the inspection went quickly. I knew about it ahead of time so I had thoroughly washed the soles of our boots before we left the US. The inspector was impressed and she even complimented us on it. A Gold Star for me.
For our last flight we had to get to the domestic terminal. Signs said that it was just a fifteen minute walk but it was raining so we opted for the free bus. It was a half hour before it even arrived and then it was very slow to load up, drive there and unload. We weren't worried because we had an eight hour layover in Auckland. It's good to have a safety margin when you to travel to distant foreign countries. Long international flights can be hours (or even days) late. Immigration and customs can be very slow. But eight hours was a bit much. We wanted to check if we could get an earlier flight to Queenstown. The airline counter was only for checking bags so we were staring at one of the kiosk check-in stations wondering how to figure out the flight schedule. Someone from Air New Zealand walked up to us and asked if we could use any assistance. She probably wondered if we understood English because we both just stared at her. I think we were in shock that an airline employee had volunteered to help. She quickly was able to switch us to a different flight that was four hours earlier. A Gold Star for Air New Zealand.
The end of our last flight was interesting. Queenstown is a mountain resort and the approach into the airport is along the narrow Kawarau Valley. We were in an Airbus A320, which is a good size aircraft, about the same size as a Boeing 737. Flanked by mountains on both sides higher than the altitude that we were flying, the pilot had to follow a winding path down the valley on final approach. I've flown into some scary airports before. Princess Juliana airport in St. Maarten is famous for it's low approach directly over a public beach. In Nepal I flew into Pokhara, a small airport in a steep Himalayan valley that only handles short-field turboprops. And my most exciting flight was taking off from Lukla in Nepal, where the plane literally flies off a cliff. And I did that back in 1990 when it was just a grass runway. So Queenstown wasn't that bad, although I wouldn't want to fly in on a foggy day when the surrounding mountains were hidden in clouds.
After checking into a hotel near the airport we drove into Queenstown and spent a few hours walking through town. It was fun to be back. It had been eight years since our last trip but things were familiar. We went by the Ultimate Hikes office, where we would start our Routeburn Hike in a few days. We recognized hotels we had stayed at before and shops and restaurants we had visited. One of our favorites on previous trips was The Cow. It is in a tiny, old stone building. It's not even on a main street. It's off of an alley, called Cow Lane, which in the nineteenth century is the route the cows took every day on their way to get milked. Hence the name of the restaurant. Sandy had a salad and I had a pizza. It was just as good as we remembered. Other people think that The Cow has great pizza too. At a bookstore in Boise, a few weeks before our trip, I came across a book on the best pizzerias in the world. I looked up Queenstown and sure enough, they listed The Cow. The critics agree.
Besides good pizza it has a lot of ambiance. It's virtually pitch dark inside, and the seating is on elaborate, old benches. The entire time that we were there they played rock and roll from the late sixties/early seventies: Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Animals, Rolling Stones, etc. I think the next time that I play Hearts and Minds, one of my favorite wargames that recreates the Vietnam war, I'll put on the same playlist to provide the proper atmosphere.
After dinner we walked by a new pizza place called Fat Badger's. Since Sandy is a Wisconsin Badger we thought the name was just too funny. We resolved to go there later in the trip when we came back to Queenstown. A tshirt from there would be a perfect gift for the relatives back in Madison.
By now we were really tired. Jet lag was getting to us and we had gotten little sleep during our overnight flight to New Zealand. We headed back to our hotel and turned in early. In the morning we would be heading south to spend a few days in Te Anau.