Sheep Spotting in New Zealand

Tales of sheepishness from down under

The original plan as conceived by Claudia and sent to me in email some numerous months ago:

Date: Mon, 24 Apr 2000 12:18:07 -0700 (PDT)
From: Claudia Anfuso <claudia at>
To: Michael Bayne <mdb at>
Subject: ok so we HAVE to go


A week of snow boarding at a very out of the way place called Mount Potts where they took you and twelve of your closest friends (little did we know that they would indeed be our closest friends after being cooped up in the lodge with them for three days) up a mountain on a Sno Cat (no not a snow cat, a Sno Cat). Powder to the people, they say.

This sounded like a fine idea to me, so I agreed straight away. Besides, I've always wanted to go to New Zealand.

The eagle has landed
We arrived in Christchurch and hopped on a bus to Methven where we would catch a transfer to Mt. Potts. The mountains loomed in the distance covered in tasty snow.

The whole place was quite rural. From the air, it looked like a patchwork of farmland for as far as the eye could see. A closer inspection didn't seem too contradictory.

Suddenly, a flock of sheep descended upon us. I knew there were sheep in New Zealand, but I didn't expect such a welcoming party.

As you can see, the one a little right of center is sticking his tongue out at us. I think this is a sign of sheeply greeting.

We had to sit around in Methven for a few hours waiting for the bus to Mt. Potts. Methven was a shining example of a one horse town. Fortunately, we were soon departed and got to see some amazing country side on our way out.

As we got closer, I noticed what looked like a little village atop a small hill in the center of the valley. "Gee," I thought to myself, "New Zealand is taking quaintness to a level I didn't think possible." Then the driver told me that the "little village" was a film set for the Lord of the Rings production which happened to be taking place (in part) about a stones throw from the Mt. Potts lodge. More on that later.

We finally made it to Mt. Potts and got pointed in the direction of our cozy little room. It's not the Four Seasons but we didn't come for the luxurious accomodations.

On the other hand, the view from the window did wonders for the overall value proposition.

Our first day in paradise
The next morning, we were greeted by a lovely rainbow across the valley. At this point I was fully convinced that New Zealand is actually a magical wonderland and not just some country in the southern hemisphere.

We were unable to go riding this morning due to bad weather (in the past, bad weather meant good snow boarding, but apparently in these parts when it's snowing on the mountain you can't see anything for lack of trees and you risk falling off some large cliff or meeting some other untimely demise, like running into a sheep). So to pass the time, I took some reconnaissance photos of the Lord of the Rings set and started hatching a plan to go take a closer look.

Meanwhile, just up the hill behind the lodge, a herd of deer wandered by. Apparently Mt. Potts is also a farm of sorts and in New Zealand, they ranch deer just like they do cattle in the U.S. Having partaken of the beast in my youth, I didn't sample any of the venison dishes later in the trip when we discovered actual restaurants. I did think it was quite civil of the deer to all stop and pose for the photograph. It's not only the New Zealanders that are friendly down here.

Unable to snow board, we wandered off for a walk which provided a fine opportunity for an in situ photo of the Mt. Potts lodge. Nice and rustic.

Are we there yet Papa Smurf?
Another day of "bad weather" and no snow boarding. Today we went out for a tramp (by this time we'd discovered that they don't walk down here, they tramp), and I took a picture of the elusive mountain on which I someday hoped to snow board. The backside of the peak in the middle of the photograph is apparently where they take us up.

Having had an entire day to plan, the mission on this tramp was to sneak as close as possible to the Tolkien set and take some pictures.

Getting closer. It's becoming apparent why they chose this location. It looks like something out of The Lord of the Rings. Three cheers for the location scouts.

We discovered a very strange phenomenon that didn't happen everywhere but did occasionally cropped up again later in the trip. The snow abruptly stops at a particular elevation as if someone tipped the mountains upside down and dipped them in powdered sugar.

Our infiltration was proceeding apace. We got closer to the enemy headquarters and started looking around for a way to sneak under their guard.

They cleverly posted sheep sentinels all around the area to warn of any intruders on the set.

Having spotted us, they ran off to convey the warning.

Unfortunately, between the sheep and the menacing looking guy driving around on some piece of heavy equipment, we were unable to get very close to the set. This is the clearest picture I have of the main installation which is alleged to be the city of Edoras in the Kingdom of Rohan.

There's also a smaller set down the hill a wee bit. It's all pretty dang cool. I look forward to seeing this stuff up close in the movie.

I am reminded of the whole point of this trip which is to do some snow boarding. The pristine white mountains are so tempting. If only we could go up and ride on them. Soon say the people back at the lodge who decipher the weather reports.

On the way back, we're treated with a nice sunset (it was actually way cooler than this but I haven't figured out how to get my camera to reproduce the colors of a sunset very well).

Could this be the day?
We wake up the next morning to a clear and beautiful day and everyone is positively ecstatic about the prospect of finally going up riding.

The valley is absolutely stunning in the clear morning light.

Breakfast even tasted better knowing that the long wait was over and we would soon be on our own private mountain covered with pristine powder.

But as fate would have it, that elusive triangular peak would host no visitors this day, or any day for the rest of the season because the guys who went up to clear the road came back with news that an avalanche had taken out the cat shed and the snow cat with it. They had some lovely video footage of a huge pile of snow with some twisted metal sticking out from under it. It seems that quaint, magical New Zealand has a cynical side after all.

So we packed our bags.

And hopped on the bus back to Methven. It seems we would have to seek our snow boarding pleasures elsewhere. Our week of cat riding in New Zealand will have to wait for another trip.

Fortunately, our spirits were not dampened by this turn of events. Instead we picked up our chins, stuck out our tongues and made plans to rent a car and drive around until we found somewhere where we could snow board.

A driving we will go
So rent a car we did and drive all over the place we did. First we tried a half-day of riding at a resort near Methven called Mount Hutt. Then we broke north and stopped at a hot springs for the night where we inhaled a lot of sulfur fumes and soothed our aching muscles. On the second day of our meanderings, we happened across this nice river bed.

Unlike the previous day, today we made the effort to take some (not so candid) photographs.

There were babbling brooks.

And really cool lichen.

And even an ugly bubble monster that threatened to break loose and roam the country side freeing sheep from the tyranny that's been limiting their potential for centuries.

Driving down the west coast
Having spent the previous night in the neighborhood of the Fox Glacier, we were intent on arranging for a helicopter tour of it this morning. Unfortunately, we missed the bus by five minutes and there were no further tours that day due to bad weather (the weather seems to be a real limiting factor in this country). So I consoled myself by taking a picture of a strange bird that was perched in a tree on the walk back from the glacier tour office. It's not a very good photograph, but it was fine consolation at the time.

We drove on south, ostensibly down the coast, but it wasn't until many hours later that we finally saw some beach.

The beaches here really reminded me of growing up in Alaska where the sand is gray and the mosquitos run rampant. We had to flee in short order as I was being eaten alive.

But not before I had a chance to photograph some fairly uninteresting rocks. This picture sort of reminds me of one I had back on my Amiga that demonstrated its "amazing graphics capabilities". Only this one isn't quite as cool.

Well, OK, I haven't left quite yet. I took a quick self-portrait before finally beating a hasty retreat from the mosquitos. But if you look closely, you can see the little bastards hovering all around my head. Aiya!

We stopped again at some riverbed or other and I decided that it would be nice to have a picture of some sand dunes.

I thought maybe if I got real close to the ground I could make them look like huge dunes from some north African desert. It seems I was wrong.

Even further down the road, we stopped to check out a nifty waterfall, of which I took a very blurry picture.

But it was accompanied by some cool rocks, of which I took a very clear picture.

Somewhere in the vicinity of Wanaka
The previous evening, we arrived in Wanaka which is situated between a number of good snow fields (which is what the Kiwis call ski resorts) and the next morning we hired a helicopter straight away to take us up for some heliboarding. We'll have our damned pristine powder one way or other.

And pristine it was. At no other time in my life have I felt more like I was in a snow boarding video and I'm not even a very good snow boarder.

This is Josh. He was our guide. He did things like make sure we didn't trigger an avalanche or get our heads cut off by the rotors of the helicopter.

Here's a fine example of a run we did. Notice the start of the tracks waaaaaay up at the top of the mountain.

Here's a closeup. You can barely see peoples' heads poking out near the top.

Down comes Claudia (we had to go one at a time down this one to prevent avalanches).

Here's a wider angle on that. Down, down, down.

Still going.

Almost there.

And she made it. What a run, folks. This is how snow boarding was meant to be.

Here I pause for a quick photo of the amazing mountainscape all around us.

In the middle of the day, we all met on the side of the mountain for lunch. They parked the chopper precariously on a ridge. This, however, was nothing compared to some of the landings we had done earlier. There were times when Josh advised us to "stay back from that edge there". "Or you'll fall about three thousand feet to your death," I added in my mind. Given that we saw the massive, towering cliff on our way up the mountain, he didn't need to mention it twice.

At some point during lunch we were visited by a very inquisitive bird. It's apparently called a Kea and it has extremely bright orange feathers under its wings (of which I didn't get a good picture, alas). He waltzed right in to see what was up until one of the guides shooed him off. I'm sure he came back for the leftovers once we departed.

Nothing quite conveys the feeling of being in a helicopter, zooming down through steep valleys and swooping back up over ear bursting peaks, but I took a few pictures anyway just in case.

Mmm... snow.

Somewhere off yonder is the cozy town of Wanaka, from whence we came.

"Pull up! Pull up!"

These choppers really are amazing things. If I wasn't constantly overwhelmed by a feeling of imminent death, I'd ride in them more often.

Fortunately we made it back safely and I once again had reason to be thankful that I didn't go out like John Denver (sure, he was in a plane, but it's close enough).

Treble Cone
The day after heliboarding, we went to a resort called Cardrona. I was tired of lugging my camera around so you get no pictures of that. The day after that we went to a resort called Treble Cone and I did bring my camera, so you're in luck.

This is it, folks. An authentic New Zealand ski resort. Fascinating isn't it?

Up at the top it's pretty much like any other ski resort, except without the trees. After a day of riding in the pristine powder, the hard crunchy snow at the resorts was less than stellar. It did turn into an interesting sort of slush by the end of the day.

After lunch I decided to ditch my camera, but I stumbled across more keas in the parking lot. They were dutifully trying to dismantle some guy's roof rack.

This one hopped over to another car to get started on its roof rack.

The best part about these resorts is that you literally drive right up the side of the mountain to get to them. You start out at elevation zero along with the rest of the island and you head right on up a windy mountain road. After about half an hour, you cross the snow line and shortly thereafter, you're at the resort. It makes for some interesting views. You almost feel like you're going to fall off the mountain.

Queenstown and The Remarkables
The day after Treble Cone we headed to Queenstown and the quaint factor shot back through the roof.

Out the window of our hotel room there was a nice little harbor with cute little boats and nice dramatic mountains rising in the background. Oh and they threw in another rainbow for good measure.

I think this is what cannery row used to look like before it was turned into a strip mall for gift shops. Anyhow, we went riding one last day at a resort called The Remarkables. I'll spare you the puns on how "remarkable" it was (or rather wasn't). After that it was 28 hours of travel as we flew from Queenstown to Christchurch to Auckland to Los Angeles and then back to San Francisco (for me anyway).

I always like to have a good farewell shot and I wanted to get a good closeup of a sheep before I left but didn't get the chance. So I'm stealing one from an earlier day and you'll just have to play along.

So long New Zealand and thanks for all the sheep. See you on the next adventure.

©2000 Michael Bayne