Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sydney in Pictures

Here are a few pictures of my trip to Sydney a few weeks ago. I'm home now and I'll try to post a final entry within the next few days.

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Look what we found!!

Opera house :)

"Look! A sailboat! can't you see it?"

Bronte beach

Coolest pool ever! (in Bondi)

Walkway along Bondi beach

Nice overlook at Bondi

Walking from Bronte to Bondi

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Whitsunday Islands-- Part II

Update: I'm DONE with finals! currently packing to leave Australia, although I'm not going to go into how I feel about that right now. Picking up where I left off in my last entry about the fabulously tropical Whitsunday Islands . . .

We awoke at 6:30am on the second day of our cruise (at least, those of us sleeping in the saloon area did, since it was time to set the table for breakfast). Apparently this is the best time of day to see turtles because it's when they come up for their first breath of the day after spending the night sleeping on the bottom of the ocean. An audible puff of air can be heard carrying across the water as they exhale the stale air, take in a deep breath or two, and then dive once more. I saw at least three turtles within fifteen minutes or so . . . incredible.

After breakfast, we headed to the famous Whitehaven beach. The sand is sugar-white, 98% silica, and so fine that there's an urban legend that NASA stole a bit of it to use for the Hubble Telescope. Whatever happened in the past, it's now illegal to take sand from Whitehaven beach. However, we spent a fun morning there lying in the sun, playing soccer, and wading in the surf looking for stingrays. CJ spent the entire morning posing people and taking pictures like the ones below; apparently the sand is so uniform in color and texture that you can manipulate depth perception easily. We had the beach almost to ourselves, save one or two other boats of tourists; our boys (and Julie, who plays for Brandeis) challenged another boat to a game of soccer and won handily :) As we had lunch and motored to our next snorkel spot, I stretched out on the nets in the front of the boat and finished C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters (fantastic book!) and started on F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, which I haven't yet read and supposed that I should.

We soon arrived at Luncheon Bay, another snorkeling spot popular with overnight dive boats. I think I saw more marine life here than I saw in any other spot over the trip. Not only were there tons of interesting coral formations (it's a relatively shallow area, and completely protected), but I saw anemones with clownfish (Nemo!), a colorful nudibranch, tons of graceful angelfish, many seemingly-smiling parrotfish, opening and shutting giant clams, a long, thin, silver flutefish, and best of all: a school of cuttlefish. Cuttlefish, if you don't know, look kind of like mini squid; however, they're amazingly intelligent, can change color rapidly, and are fast. I caught a glimpse of a school of about twenty cuttlefish moving together, perfectly camouflaged againsed the dusky brown of the sea floor, moving rapidly across my field of vision. I immediately poked my head above water to inform my fellow snorkelers, quickly calling them over and eagerly submerging again . . . but they had disappeared, in the space of about three seconds. Luckily, I saw the same school again about ten minutes later, and this time called Julie over to see in time. These magnificent animals were definitely my favorite thing to see over the course of the trip.

Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent lazing about on the boat (and/or plunging into the onboard jacuzzi after snorkeling in the freezing late-afternoon water). We moved to a nearby spot for another dive before the sun set; although Cookie wanted to anchor in the popular Wrasse Bay, the moorings were all occupied and we went for nearby Manta Ray bay. Apparently they can't normally moor here because of the winds and pounding surf, but the sea was calm and so we set up shop a few dozen meters from a forbidding rocky outcrop. This was the most isolated of our dive spots, but one of my favorites; although the fish here were pretty much the same as the other places; the proximity to the open ocean led to the formation of some pretty amazing coral structures. I was one of the only snorkelers who took the initiative to put on the wetsuit one more time that day, stepping straight off the back of the boat. It was a bit spooky because the water was very deep here and at times you couldn't see the bottom or any coral directly beneath you. However, close to the rocky outcrop was very shallow, claustrophobically so-- I swam on the surface of the water with coral almost touching my belly, and I think my body reacted as if I were crawling through a very small space (since of course the upward direction is no longer an option), and I almost started to hyperventilate from nerves because I couldn't find a way out of the shallow area. It seems to me that claustrophobia is a very unpleasant feeling.

I returned to the boat to find a lovely surprise-- a giant Maori wrasse had tailed us from Wrasse Bay and was hanging around the back of the boat, hoping for tidbits (they have unfortunately been conditioned to expect food from boats). We cruised out of the bay just in time to see the sunset, which was as beautiful (if not more so) as the preceding evening. Another dinner on the barbecue, another cool underwater film, and another heated discussion (this time about U.S. policy and politics-- not my forte, but sometimes you just can't let stereotypes/misconceptions lie). I also got to have another good talk with Cookie, the skipper. He basically lives on the flybridge, the highest part of the boat; he steers the boat from there, and every night he sets up a swag (sleeping bag/tarp) and sleeps under the stars, and sits up and plays his guitar (which he very kindly let me borrow whenever I wanted, once he found out that I was decently good). He'd lived all his life near the ocean and nature, hunting and fishing and sailing. He told me that he believed that there was something about human nature that was intricately tied to the sea; that no one could be happy unless they lived near water, that it was part of us. I told him that I lived in a landlocked state and had done so for twenty years, and he looked at me with such great pity in his eyes that I thought I might crumble under its weight. It's an interesting thought to ponder; certainly we are intrigued by the sea, and we fear it. Perhaps it's simply an extension of the age-old fear of and fascination with the unknown, which manifests itself in darkness or death or the future. Strange the way common threads run through all these things.

Our last morning we once again got up early to see turtles, and this time swim with them. By 7am I had donned my wetsuit and mask and was in the water searching for turtles, but after half an hour or so with no luck (not even interesting fish!) I was becoming discouraged. We had only a few more minutes to snorkel, since we had to be back at the marina by 11am and it was a good 2.5 hours of hard motoring back to Airlie Beach. I was cold and disappointed and thought to myself "God, please? I just want to see a turtle. That's all I want, that would just make this trip." Moments later, I heard a shriek from Julie and immediately swam over to find-- you guessed it, a turtle! They're really hard to find, and are loved even by those like Cookie, CJ, and Alycia, who dive with them all the time. As we slowly followed a few meters above the turtle, a bit of the bottom of the ocean started to move . . . and we had found another turtle, about three times larger than the first. It rose slowly and majestically off of the sea floor and swam parallel to the shore. We followed, awestruck, and swam with the turtle for about five minutes. It began to rise, very slowly, towards the surface; I got the feeling that it was trying to come up for air and we were in its way. However, it soon had no choice but to surface right beside us--only a few meters away!!!!-- to take a breath. Words can't describe how incredible the experience was.

The turtle dove, and we returned to the boat to strip off our gear and start packing our things as the boat headed back to Airlie beach. The divers reported that they had seen a reef shark, which was pretty cool; we had been swimming only a few hundred meters away from a 9-foot shark! We arrived at the marina, and in a somewhat anticlimactic twist, said our goodbyes and went on our way. Julie and I still had a few hours before our flight, so we walked along the beach and visited a festival that was set up there, with various booths of craftspeople and a live band that reminded me quite a lot of the Phyrst Phamily. I called my family only to find out that my sister had gotten engaged (!!!!), which put a perfect final touch on an amazing holiday. We departed from Proserpine Airport and made our way back to gloomy Melbourne, ridden with rain and final exams-- but with some very sunny memories to keep us warm :)

P.S. I will (hopefully) post one more entry about my recent trip to Sydney before I leave Australia in less than 36 hours :(

note: I took almost none of these pictures.

Julie playing soccer on Whitehaven Beach

A turtle surfacing to breathe



a nudibranch; the one I saw was prettier

Fan coral

Maori wrasse, so called for the patterns on its face


The ubiquitous parrot fish; you can hear its beak scrape the coral as it eats when you're underwater with it :)

Jacuzzi on board the Powerplay

Julie and I at Whitehaven

Matt and Liz

Neirin and company

a diver-- not sure who it is?

looking into the sunset

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tropical Paradise . . . the Whitsundays

okay, okay, so it's been a month and a half since my last update. Classes/finals/college sort of took over my life. Here's a bit of an update from my recent trip to the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland...

Travel Bucket List (abridged):
cSing in Notre Dame
cFloat down the Amazon
cBackpack across Southeast Asia
cHave a snowball fight in Antarctica
gSnorkel and scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef

Last week I spent a serene, sunsoaked four days in the Whitsunday Islands-- a tropical beach paradise in Queensland known for its sugar-white beaches, beautiful snorkeling, and hedonistic lifestyle. It was exactly what I needed: to get away from gray, gloomy Melbourne for a while and forget about all the studying I should have been doing. So my friend Julie and I packed our bags and set off for a 9am flight to Proserpine airport.

We arrived in Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsundays, just after 3:30pm on Wednesday. Walking down the main street, I couldn't help but marvel at the palm trees and warm weather (around 80F). When we arrived at our hostel (Magnum's Backpackers), we had to search a bit for reception . . . then we found it at the back of a tree-lined boardwalk full of bars, cafes, and backpackers. Getting to our room was like hiking through a jungle, as the 8-bed "rooms" turned out to be small freestanding cottages along a winding path through the rainforest; ourrs had a small fountain in front of it, and was full of occupants from England, Denmark, and Spain.

We dropped our heavy backpacks (and bags of textbooks) off at the hostel and set off for a walk along the beach, noting the long posted lists of "hazardous marine creatures" (note: there are many, many things that can kill you in Australia). However, we resigned ourselves to a few hours of study before dinner, as we both had exams coming up quickly.

As I got to know Julie (we'd met only a week previously, through a mutual friend), we discovered that we had quite a lot in common, including a passion for music, a strong academic drive, and similar tastes in just about everything-- including food. Both of us were perfectly content to take a loaf of bread, a hunk of Brie, some grapes, and a bottle of wine out to the beach for an idyllic picnic supper, complete with an angsty teenage guitarist serenading the birds a few meters away.

We returned to the boardwalk outside Magnum's just in time to catch one of the "State-of-Origin" rugby games, in which the various professional players play for their home states rather than independent teams. Since it was Queensland vs. New South Wales, the game was on every television and even projected onto a large screen that had been hung between two bars, over the now jam-packed boardwalk. Most people (including, unintentionally, myself) were decked out in Queensland maroon, but there were a few NSW supporters as well.

While watching the game, we met another pair of Americans: Brad, from the University of Arkansas, and John, from the University of Kansas (?). They had both recently completed tours in Iraq and were in Australia for a break between their second and third years of school. As we talked, I discovered that John and I had almost exactly the same taste in reading; with each favorite book we revealed, the other inevitably echoed "me too!" Brad and Julie, meanwhile (who claim that they "don't read"), rolled their eyes at our dorkiness. Our woodland cottage called, however, as we had to depart early the next morning for our cruise.

Checkin was scheduled for 9:30am, so we paid our remaining balance and signed a few liability forms at the downtown office before heading over to the marina. When we arrived, there were hundreds of boats moored; sailing the Whitsundays is very popular and a huge source of tourist revenue. Our boat, the Powerplay, was a streamlined catamaran that looked built for speed. We looked around the dock at the 17 other passengers with whom we would share the voyage, and the three-person crew ushered us onto our temporary home.

The boat was not enormous, but had more than enough room for its 22 passengers. The back of the boat had an open-air saloon and galley, where we ate, and a covered area where you could sit and talk and watch the water; the front was comprised of a deck and two nets, in which you could suspend yourself just above the rushing water. Below it all were the bathrooms and sleeping quarters; above us was a small flybridge from which our skipper, Cookie, steered the boat; you were always welcome to go upstairs to soak up the sun or even just to chat. The other members of the crew were CJ, the hostess/photographer/cook, and Alycia, the dive instructor.

Oddly, when all was said and done, there were no Australians on the boat. The two female members of the crew hailed from Canada; Cookie, who took no nonsense, cracked sarcastic jokes, and had a mouth (not unexpectedly) like a sailor, came from New Zealand. Of the passengers, one couple was from Denmark, of course Julie and I from the States, and a whopping 15 passengers from England. There were at least five separate parties, but the British invasion had definitely arrived! I got to know several of these people over the next few days, and it was a very interesting cast of characters. There was Dan, a long-haired, tatooed jokester from London; Rob, Alex, and Bobby, a trio of clowns from Manchester (side note: the Manchester accent is one of the most difficult I've ever had to understand, and it's still technically English!); Donna and Stevie, traveling around Australia together; Ed and Jemima, who moved from London to Sydney a few months ago, just because they felt like it; Neirin and his trio of girlfriends, who became known collectively as "Team Nemo" as they attempted to get their scuba certifications; Matt, a recent graduate in marine biology who hoped to work in conservation; and Liz, Matt's girlfriend with whom he was traveling for a year.

We spent a fantastic few days swimming, sunning, and watching fish and turtles and the like. The first afternoon, I decided I would try scuba diving for the first time . . . it was amazing. Seeing the fish and coral up that close was unbelievable and strange; it was, as cliche as it sounds, like being part of another world. We spent that afternoon diving and snorkeling in Blue Pearl Bay, the "aquarium" of the Whitsundays and purportedly the fishiest spot.

Afternoon tea and snacks were served back onboard the Powerplay, giving us a chance to relax and socialize with the other passengers as the boat cruised swiftly south towards our next destination. We watched the sun set over the water, the orange rays reflecting magnificently over the tropical sea and filling the swiftly darkening sky with brilliant reds and pinks.

As soon as we dropped anchor for the night, the crew started the barbecue that was attached to the back of the boat (?!??? . . . typical australia) and grilled chicken for dinner (that is, for everyone else; I got pasta). The always-blunt Cookie thanked me profusely, because whenever he has "vegemeterribles" on board, he gets a break from the monotonous set menu, which apparently repeats every two days. The food was definitely much better than I had expected for such a small and limited kitchen.

After dinner, the crew rolled down a screen and a projector and proceeded to show a slideshow of photos from the afternoon, including some great underwater shots. Apparently CJ and Alycia would be armed with cameras for the duration of the trip. The slideshow was followed by a showing of a documentary called Sharkwater-- a really fascinating film, and one I'd highly recommend. The first half gives some great information about sharks and does some mythbusting: sharks are nothing like the vicious monsters society paints them to be. In fact, vending machines kill more people every year than sharks do. Sharks will only very rarely attack people, and even then they quickly realize their mistake and swim away. The second half of the film contains some shocking footage and also quite a few dirty secrets about illegal shark fishing, mostly fueled by the high demand for shark fin soup in China. Because of the enormous profitability of the fin trade (shark fin soup costs upwards of $100 per bowl), many corrupt governments ignore illegal fishing.

The result has been devastating to the world's shark population, and is wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. The wasteful and usually illegal process of shark finning consists of cutting the fins (up to $300/pound) off of a shark (almost worthless), often while it is still alive, and discarding the rest. The sharks, unable to swim, sink to the bottom and either suffocate or bleed to death, as they need to swim to breathe. Since the fin constitutes only 2-5% of the shark's body weight, this is incredibly wasteful and environmentally damaging on many levels. Shark poaching also may be a huge contributor to global warming: by removing the sharks, smaller fish may overpopulate and feed on the phytoplankton that convert much of the world's carbon dioxide supply to oxygen. The problem is, we don't really know what removing sharks will do to our own existence, but we're killing them by the millions, decimating most shark populations by 50% or more. In short: we've got a problem.

After the documentary, I had a pretty deep conversation with the crew about the issues presented in the film, and conversation in general, agreeing to talk to PULP (Princeton U. Language Project) about maybe finding some way to help with the filmmaker's current project, which is translating the documentary into Chinese to try to lessen the demand for shark fin soup. Conversations gradually died all around the boat, and we headed to bed. The younger set of passengers, including Julie and myself, slept in the saloon area (which somehow converted into a bedroom large enough for eight people). The rocking of the boat, despite my head full of interesting and disturbing thoughts, lulled me into a deep sleep.

(in the middle of finals guys, can't spare that much time!)

Airlie beach . . . or Tuscan villa?

Sunset over the harbor

Our hostel??!

Julie on board the Powerplay

Snorkeling: Me, Bobby, Dan, Rob, Alex, and Julie

Getting ready to scuba dive! Liz, me, and Julie.

a diver with Priscilla, the giant wrasse of Blue Pearl Bay
(note: she was preceded by Elvis, who died . . . this one is assumed to be his offspring)

Giant clam

Sunset over the water


Trailer for Sharkwater-- check it out!

Friday, May 8, 2009

NZ Days 7, 8, and 9: Punakaiki/Christchurch/Akaroa

April 20, 5:23am

It sounds trite, but it's true-- all good things must come to an end. It's been a fantastic trip to an incredible country, but I think I'm ready to resume life as usual in Australia. Which is good, considering that I have class in about 5 hours.

Our last few days in NZ were full of surprises. After the highway-collapsing debacle, we ran into even more trouble when we arrived in Punakaiki. Our hostel was pretty small, and owned/run by one German dude named Lutz who was fairly uptight. He was already upset that we arrived late due to the weather and road conditions, so we humbly checked in at 10pm and he shut the door behind us and closed reception for the night. However, when we opened the door to our 6-bed room, we found that 4 of the beds were already taken. Except, there were three of us. Uh oh. We asked around, and each of the four residents swore that they were supposed to be there (although we couldn't be sure, as none spoke English very well). Steve eventually solved the dilemma by very graciously volunteering to sleep in the lounge on the couch. I may have mentioned that Steve is a top-notch, high-quality individual. Props to Steve.

Bed troubles aside, Punakaiki was a great stop on our trip. It's very isolated and remote-- there's no petrol station, supermarket, or really anything there. There was no light pollution whatsoever, and the rain had finally slacked off a bit, so the stars were completely unobscured. I don't think I've ever seen so many stars. Imagine a clear night, with plenty of bright white stars, and then fill in the spaces with slightly fainter stars. Then keep filling in the spaces with fainter and fainter stars until, when you squint, the sky looks almost like it's been whitewashed. That's how many stars there were.

We were awakened by Lutz at 7am, as he roared into our room like a tornado of hellish German fury. Apparently he had discovered Steve on the couch, who had then told him the situation, so Lutz was determined to find the freeloader. He woke everyone up and eventually found the culprit: a youngish Dutch guy with a particularly vacant expression. The guy had apparently just stayed an extra night without paying, although we had confronted him the preceding night about whether or not he was supposed to be there. Anyway, Lutz was furious and almost marched him upstairs to confront Steve and reimburse him. It was great fun; I wasn't even grumpy at being woken early.

Now that we were all well and truly awake, we decided to go for a walk on the beach, which was literally right on the doorstep of the hostel. The morning light coming in from over the mountains was really beautiful, and the constant mist made everything seem ethereal and sort of surreal. It was a pretty beach, but not really one I'd want to swim on. For breakfast, we bought some homemade muffins from Lutz . . . some sort of wholemeal chocolate bran concoction, which was delicious. Lutz apologized for the confusion and gave Steve most of his money back, and we checked out. It was a lovely hostel, really.

On our way out of town, we stopped to see the main attraction of Punakaiki: the famous "pancake rocks," layered limestone rock formations just offshore. Bridges ran out onto the 20- tall rock towers, and you could watch the surf rage through the channels it had cut into them. Apparently, limestone isn't naturally formed in layers like that, and scientists don't know exactly why the rocks at Punakaiki look like-- well, pancakes.

We struck out for Christchurch over the same narrow, winding roads we'd experienced throughout NZ. However, as we crossed over the northern part of the island, driving east, the landscape began to change once more. The mountain passes were interspersed with pastures-- full of sheep, of course-- and decently long straightaways, sprinkled with many more small towns and signs of civilization than we'd been seeing on the West Coast. Unfortunately, this led to our second nasty surprise. On a fairly deserted, 5km long stretch of straight highway, we're cruising along at a fairly normal pace, blasting some Red Hot Chili Peppers through Carol's stereo, when suddenly lights start flashing . . . we were, in fact, getting pulled over by a kiwi cop. Steve had been doing 123 in a 100km zone, roughly the numerical/mental equivalent of going 75 in a 65 zone. Everyone does it, especially on a long straight road where you can see for a long way in both directions. It's not reckless, it's not unsafe. But nevertheless, Steve got socked with a NZ$170 fine. As the cop said, "it's just too fast, eh bro?"

Thoroughly chastised, we continued driving to Christchurch. We made a brief stop at Hanmer Springs, a famous hot springs area north of Christchurch. However, we decided actually getting in the hot springs wasn't worth it and after looking around a bit, continued on our way. We reached Christchurch at about 6pm, checked into our hostel, and because it was our last night all together, went out for dinner to a nice sushi place. Heather then led us on a single-minded and determined hunt for an asian grocery store that carried a particular kind of japanese ice-cream dessert that she insisted was absolutely delicious . . . she was right. and, despite asking at least three Japanese people, we STILL do not know what it is called. It was ice cream wrapped in some kind of gummy coating . . . anyone?

We finished off the night by going out to an Irish pub recommended by the hostel staff, and had a blast with just the three of us walking around Christchurch at night. It was midnight by the time we got back to the hostel, just as the people our own age were starting to come out-- then came nasty surprise #3. Once again, there were only two beds left in our large 12-bed dorm-style room. No one answered the bell at the hostel desk; no one was there to help us. Once again, I got the best side of the deal as Steve and Heather agreed to share (have I mentioned that I really love these guys? you are the best). As we got ready for bed . . . you guessed it, nasty surprise #4. Heather rechecked her plane ticket and found out that her plane was in fact leaving at 6am, not 8:15am. Which meant we had to be at the airport in about 4 hours. Wonderful.

The next morning (only a few hours later) Steve and I drove Heather to the airport, since she had a review session Monday morning that she couldn't miss and thus needed to be back Sunday. Steve and I, however, had one more day in New Zealand . . . so of course we spend the first several hours sleeping. Once we had recovered from our 4am run to the airport, we walked around the city a little and saw some things, including my favorite place in Christchurch-- the Arts Centre. There was a bustling outdoor crafts market of interesting and unusual items; all were far above a student budget, of course, but beautiful to look at. There was also an interesting, interactive exhibit on Ernest Rutherford, who was apparently from New Zealand! go figure.

In the afternoon, we drove to Akaroa, a about an hour away. The beautiful harbor was nestled between huge volcanic mountains, all as green as we had come to expect from this amazing country. We arrived just in time to catch the late-afternoon sun glinting off of tranquil waters, with hundreds of sailboats silhouetted against the horizon. Even though we stayed in town just long enough for a cup of coffee on the waterfront, it was absolutely worth the two-hour round trip.

We got back to Christchurch with just enough daylight left to stop by the grocery store, trying to figure out how to tie our various remaining food supply into something that resembled dinner, ending up with some kind of stir-fry/curry/rice/noodle something-or-other. We spent one last night out on the terrace, in heated discussion with two gay guys from Brisbane about American politics, healthcare, and television. Being American while abroad is a very interesting experience. People generally tend either to attack your country, or make excuses for it (like they feel bad for you, or something). Neither of these types of people usually see America in a positive light. The choice it presents is interesting: either sweep it under the rug and agree with them, trying to minimize conversation about it, or stand up for your country's economic, political, and social model. I typically do a mix of both: I admit America's flaws, but I won't be railroaded into downsizing my opinions.

Since we had another early morning ahead, we said good night early, packed our things, and went to sleep (now that we had enough beds). 3:30am saw us on our way to the airport to return the rental car and check in for our 6:15 flight back to Melbourne, where we met up with several other American friends who'd been in NZ that week; they hadn't even bothered to book a hostel that night, but opted to sleep in the airport instead. By 8am we had touched down in Melbourne, and by 9am I was in my first lecture of the day.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip, and I'm very glad I went. I had a ton of fun, got some great photos, made some wonderful memories and some lifelong friends. I don't know what my next destination will be (Australia is a big place!) but you can be sure I'll write about it when I find the time!

Our backyard at the Beach Hostel

Pancake rocks at Punakaiki

Steve and his speeding ticket

Rutherford's Nobel in chemistry-- pretty sure it's a replica, but still!

Lyttleton harbor, on the way to Akaroa

Butterfly in Akaroa

Boats at Akaroa

more boats

saying goodbye to Carol :(

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

NZ Days 5 & 6: Milford Sound and Fox/Franz Josef Glaciers

April 17, 10:36pm

I feel like it's been ages since I've written . . . it's actually only been two days, but we've packed so much into them that it seems like at least a week. We've put over 1200km on our rental car, driving up and down the west coast of the South Island and seeing an extraordinary variety of geography, including mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, and beaches, with plenty of steep, terrifying hairpin turns in between.

Most of our drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound was made during the day, which meant that we were constantly marvelling at the beautiful scenery in which we were immersed. There were rolling farmlands full of more sheep than I'd ever seen in my entire life; lush green mountains sometimes capped with snow; and so many lakes and rivers that I began to think that all the land in New Zealand was only in existence to provide borders for them. It's also the beginning of autumn here, so the leaves are starting to change and the countryside is flooded with color-- burgundies, bronzes and ochres just beginning to superimpose themselves on a landscape already made up of literally hundreds of shades of green.

As dusk settled in, the land began to change . . . the golden pastures disappeared and the mountains rose even higher, becoming more sheer and majestic with each passing mile. Small rivulets of water appeared on the cliff faces, cascading straight down-- some large enough to be termed genuine waterfalls. However, with the gathering darkness came an unwelcome guest: rain. A persistent drizzle gradually increased to a steady thrum against Carol's red roof, making the already difficult-to-navigate roads almost impossible to drive. Through the ever-thickening fog, we could barely make out huge waterfalls coming out of the towering mountains, obscured by mist and driving rain. Finally, we entered a rough tunnel hewn out of the mountainside. The tunnel went downhill, giving a distinctly Stygian impression, which added to the already-eerie feeling created by being the only car for miles along a winding two-lane road through the dark and misty valleys.

The tunnel lasted for some time, but when we came out on the other side we were struck completely dumb. A huge open green valley rolled out before us, almost prehistoric in the wildness of its natural beauty. However, the darkness made it almost impossible to see anything shortly thereafter. We followed the road--unknowingly passing countless huge waterfalls and rushing rivers--until it reached the harbor, but couldn't see anything except a Great Gatsby-style green light at the end of the pier, so we turned around and backtracked to the evening's accommodation: the Milford Sound Lodge, a backpackers and campsite near the wharf. It was very much a lodge, quite rustic, like a summer camp; think log cabins and low, squat dormitory buildings with a main kitchen/bathroom/lounge area. The staff were very knowledgeable and helpful, answering all our questions about where to hike and what we should do the next day if it was still raining, and whether or not we should pay for a cruise boat to take us out into the Sound.

The next morning, we woke to a torrential downpour-- so much for hiking at sunrise. In the end, we decided that it was worth it to pay NZ$45 for a 9:00am cruise around the Sound, which included a continental breakfast . . . and it was the best $45 I've ever spent. Words cannot describe the incredible beauty of Milford Sound, even in pouring rain and harsh winds. I really can't write about it-- I would be doing you a disservice. You'll just have to look at the pictures. But I can say with confidence that it is the most beautiful place I have ever encountered, in all my travels.

Ironically, the sun came out just as it was time to leave Milford Sound. However, since we had an eight-hour drive ahead, we couldn't really stay past eleven, Although we managed to snap a few good photos on the way out (in daylight this time!) we wanted to get underway to Fox Glacier, our next stop. We passed through Te Anau, a decent-sized town, on the way, where we ate meat (vegetable!) pies and bought a few things we'd need for the glacier hike. We were also fairly liberal with photo stops and detours, resulting in a pretty leisurely travelling pace. I had my first-ever experience driving on the left side of the road. Unfortunately, (unbeknownst to us), I had volunteered to take on the most terrifying stretch of road I've ever driven--hairpin turns up a steep cliff face with almost no guard rail, all overlooking Queenstown as we passed by it once more.

We reached our hostel-- the Ivory Towers Backpackers-- at about 9:30pm. Dinner was soup and grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches, delicious after our long day on the road. We basically had our own apartment, as there were no other guests in our building. We did, however, make friends with another traveller-- Gilad, from Israel, was taking some time to travel before starting university in October. He'd been travelling NZ for 4.5 months, and had seen almost every small town and attraction on both islands.

Plans for a sunrise hike to Lake Matheson were foiled once more by-- you guessed it-- rain. THe rain had followed us from Milford Sound and was now intent on both drenching both Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. We drove quickly to Franz Josef, calling frantically ahead to see if our scheduled glacier hike had been canceled. We'll have to wait and see, they said. And so we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, we were rescheduled for the 10:30am hike, rather than the 8:e0am, but they didn't know whether even that one would still go due to the absolutely dreadful weather.

And then came the fatal blow that finally sent my carefully-laid plans crashing to the ground . . . the highway just north of Franz Josef had collapsed due to recent heavy rains, and was closed. In the States, this wouldn't be a huge obstacle; but since this is New Zealand, there's usually only one way to get from one place to another. Our progress north was completely blocked, and there was no way to get to Punakaiki, our next stop. We had to figure out a way to get to Christchurch by Saturday night, and where to stay that night since it looked like we couldn't get to Punakaiki. All the while, the rain continued, oblivious to our petty problems.

In the midst of heated deliberations over what we should do, in came some good news: our glacier hike, unthinkably, was still on! We were subsequently fitted with waterproof pants, a rain jacket, boots, hats, gloves, and everything we would need (including crampons-- see below). It was still pouring, and I didn't relish the idea of doin a four-hour hike on a glacier in the rain, but we had come all this way and I wasn't about to let a bit of drizzle keep me from what little remained of my carefully crafted itinerary. We boarded a bus and set off for a hike on Franz Josef glacier, the steepest commercially guided glacier in the world.

And it was wet, and cold, and at times miserable-- but I'm glad we did it. We walked through a verifiable jungle for some time before emerging into the glacial valley. As Steve said, "it's like freakin' Jurassic Park!" I half-expected a few dinosaurs to lumber around the corner. The valley featured a wide stone riverbed with a flooded river racing through it, and was bordered by the same sorts of mountains we'd seen in Milford Sound-- very steep, covered in lush green trees, with a copious amount of waterfalls poking out periodically.

There's something humbling and yet astounding about a glacier. I think it has a lot to do with the idea of so much history in one place-- with speeded-up geological time. You can see the striae on the rocks from the advancing and retreating glacier, and you can look at boulders the size of a medium-sized car and listen in disbelief as your guide tells you they fell last week. Strange, but exhilerating.

The hike TO the glacier was actually the hardest part of the trek. At the base of the massive wall of ice, we fitted our boots with crampons: spiked metal frames that are strapped to your feet. As you walk, they dig into the ice, giving you better traction, and you can't really climb at all without them. Our guide went ahead of us with a pickax, renewing the pre-cut stairs and pathways that were quickly washing away beneath the constant assault of the elements. We climbed slowly but surely up the almost-sheer face of the glacier, slipping and sliding past caves, wells, deep fissures, and crevasses so deep that they go halfway down into the 100m thick glacier (100m is the equivalent of a 30-story building). The ice is blue, not white, since it's so dense that it's over 90% water instead of the usual 50%/50% water-air ice that forms over puddles and lakes.

The rain did not let up one little bit for our four-hour hike; in fact, the guide said that if the weather had been any worse at all they would not have taken groups out. As it was, we were taking detours to avoid landslides and extra care with certain glacier paths. But as wet and cold as it was, it was still a great experience that I'm glad I did it.

And to top it all off, when we returned to town we found that they had miraculously rebuilt one lane of the highway, and we would be able to get to Punakaiki that night as planned! We were overjoyerd-- but also famished and in desperate need of a hot shower. So after raiding a nearby cafe for sandwiches and sausage rolls, we actually drove the 25km SOUTH back to Fox and just walked into Ivory Towers to use their showers (hey, we did stay there the previous night). By the time we left for Punakaiki, it was easily 6pm and starting to get dark. 2.5 hours of hard driving got us to Hokitika, where we stopped for groceries and delicious Indian food, and by 10pm we'd made it to Punakaiki.

Our hostel here is right on the beach, which is amazing. The town is very small-- no supermarket or petrol station here at ll-- and there are more stars than I think I've ever seen. I'm looking forward to a walk on the beach tomorrow and a slightly less frenzied day as we reach the last leg of our trip :(

Waterfall in Milford Sound

The end of the Sound-- the Tasman sea


Me, Heather, and Steve

A common sight on the walls of Milford Sound

A chasm with a rushing river; roadside stop on the way out of M.S.

Another chance photo stop on the way out of M.S.

Late-afternoon sun shining off lake Wakitipu

Driving out of Queenstown, overlooking the valley

Sky at sunset


on our way into the glacier

Franz Josef Glacier

Wet and cold but still having fun!