Friday, March 3, 2006 - The Longest Day - Queenstown to Auckland and Beyond

It was very cold this morning and extremely windy. Officially it was still summer, but winter comes on quick in latitudes this low. It snowed overnight in the higher elevations, and we could see fresh snow on the mountaintops. We packed up our backpacks and checked out of Aspen Lodge right at 10:00 a.m. That gave us around two hours before we needed to be at the airport, just enough time for one last scenic New Zealand drive.

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Lake Wakatipu, between Queenstown and Glenorchy

From Queenstown we drove 47 kilometers north and west along the shores of Lake Wakatipu to the tiny hamlet of Glenorchy, population 215. Spectacutular vistas abound all along the road, and we stopped off numerous times on the way, avidly taking pictures of the stunning blue lake and the snow-capped mountains beyond. It kept getting windier and colder and more stunningly beautiful the whole way.

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View from Bennett's Bluff

In Glenorchy we could only stand at the lakeshore for a few short minutes before the bitterly cold wind forced us back into the car. Driving through town, we saw the local children out on the playground frolicking in their short-pants. Those Kiwis!!!

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Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy

As we were leaving town, we passed a lone hitchhiker standing at the side of the road. He looked so cold I couldn't help but stop and pick him up. Likely the bloke wondered why I stopped the car so far past him, but I had to decide he didn't look like a murderer first. He turned out to be a harmless Aussie who'd been tramping in the valleys for a couple of weeks and was going to Queenstown to resupply. He stank up the car a bit, but we'd be turning it back in to Avis soon, so no worries.

12:00 noon on the dot we pulled into the Avis lot at the Queenstown airport (actually located in Frankton) and turned in our rental car. All told, we drove 1,526 kilometers on the South Island, which combined with the 923 kilometers we drove on the North Island, gave us a grand total of 2,449 kilometers (1,522 miles) of New Zealand left-side driving accomplished without a scratch!

As we entered the airport, the weather got even worse and it began to rain. We checked in with Qantas and sat down to wait. At 1:10 our 1:25 flight was cancelled. Due to the inclement weather, the plane we were to board couldn't land in Queenstown, and Qantas would be rebooking all passengers on later flights to Auckland. Priority, they said, would be given to those passengers with connecting flights, especially international flights. The problem for us, however, was that our later flight was booked on Air New Zealand, and Qantas had no way of knowing this. They announced that they'd rebook everyone and then call us when arrangements were made, but knowing our dilemma, I joined the scrum of impatient passengers crowding the customer service desk. By the time I finally busted through crowd to explain our situation, the next flight out was full and they'd put us on a flight arriving too late in Auckland for us to catch our flight to LA, which meant we'd then miss our flight to Cincinnati, and then miss our flight to Knoxville. It was a giant house of cards, and it was falling apart. If the first flight didn't work out, we'd arrive in Knoxville at least a day late. After a short panic attack on my part, the wonderful ladies of Qantas bumped two other people and booked us in their place! The new flight was on Air New Zealand, and they checked us in all the way to LA.

We left Queenstown at 2:55 and arrived in Auckland at 5:00. Initially we were uneasy about taking off from Queenstown when the weather was too bad to land, but the sun came out just before takeoff, and we were rewarded with one final South Island rainbow!

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Goodbye, South Island

In Auckland we had to pay a departure tax of NZ$25 each to leave the country. What are they going to do if we don't pay? Deport us? It's like a fine for visiting. Even with our late arrival, we had plenty of time for a Sbarro dinner and duty-free shopping before our 7:30 p.m. flight.

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Auckland from above

The flight from Auckland to LA completely sucked and is no way to spend 13 hours of your life. We left a little late, at 8:00 p.m., which is no big deal, but it was an inauspicious start. As we were taxiing to the runway, the flight attendants announced that this was the inaugural flight for this aircraft since being refitted. They made this announcement as if it was a good thing. It was not. The new on-demand video/entertainment system fitted in each seat back did not work from row 63 back. Sadly, we were seated in row 65. They rebooted the system repeatedly to no avail. Stupidly, the reading light is now tied in with this system, so those of us with no audio or video had no light to read by either. That left nothing to do for 13 hours but listen to my MP3 player and try to sleep. Thanks a lot, Air New Zealand.

The flight attendants had to do the safety briefing manually for those of us seated in the rear of the plane since the video didn't work. They'd never done this before, and it was hilarious. They were reading from the back of the card found in the seat pockets. I considered standing up and showing everyone how to use the seatbelt since the sky-waitresses seemed unsure. It was ridiculous to have a safety briefing anyhow. I mean, since the video doesn't work, I had little confidence that the emergency lighting or oxygen would work either, and it's anybody's guess as to whether there were actually life jackets under the seats or not.

It was a completely miserable flight. Just before landing, the flight attendants gave us NZ$60 in vouchers towards our next flight on Air New Zealand as an apology for the equipment failure, expiring in a year. These vouchers are worthless to us.

 

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