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!

Friday, April 24, 2009

NZ Days 3 & 4: Queenstown

April 15, 5:26pm

After two days in Queenstown, I have to admit that it's a pretty cool place. The setting exudes natural beauty-- a mountain range called the Remarkables cradles Lake Wakitipu, and on its shores is this crazy, wild adventure town full of adrenaline junkies and partygoers. The whole place has a kind of fantastic, Seussian aura to it; where in the U.S. would you find an entire town completely dedicated to bungy jumping, parasailing, skydiving, jetboating, hanggliding, canyon swinging, fourwheeling, whitewater rafting, and anything else you can dream up?

Queenstown is not large; only a few streets form the entire downtown, which is entirely made up of souvenir shops, restaurants, and tour/adventure-activity booking agencies. Our hostel, the YHA Queenstown Central, was quite nice and more like a budget hotel than a hostel. Each 4-share room had a TV and ensuite bathroom, and there was a kitchen/lounge on the top floor with a great view of the lake. We met up with Heather at the hostel and set off for dinner at Fergburger, a famous burger place right next to our hostel. Heather then informed us that almost every single adventure activity in Queenstown was fully booked for Tuesday and Wednesday; since we hadn't made a prebooking, our options were very limited. We settled on an ATV tour that promised two hours of racing around on four-wheelers and spectacular 360-degree views of Queenstown and the Remarkables.

After a very filling dinner (best falafel burger I've ever had, hands down, and a bag of chips (=fries) the size of Steve's head), we returned to the YHA and met up with the last person in our 4-share room: Colm, from Ireland, who was traveling through New Zealand after quitting his job in Australia. On the way out of the hostel, we met a few more people-- John and Steve, Americans studying at Bond University. we chatted for a while . . . then I realized that John was wearing a THON sweatshirt (!!!!!). He did indeed go to Penn State, and knew a couple of my friends from home. We talked for a long time about football, frats, Canyon Pizza, and good old Happy Valley. It was so cool to have someone say "oh, so where do you live?" and actually be able to describe the landmarks and streets surrounding my neighborhood.

We ended up at a bar called Minus Five; it was a strange experience, but very cool (literally). The entire bar is made of ice, and is kept at -5 degrees celsius. You're provided with a hooded parka, gloves, and boots before you enter, and you're only allowed to be inside for 30 minutes. The walls are made of ice, the drinks are served in glasses made of ice, and ice sculptures filled the room. Weird, but cool.

The next day dawned early; the tour company picked us up from our hostel at 9:30 and we drove to a farm on the mountainside with four or five other people-- including, completely coincidentally, John and Steve from the previous night. small, small world. After a brief training session with the four-wheelers, two guides took us up over the mountain. For two hours, we ripped over rocky trails, through muddy creek beds, and up the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains, culminating in an amazing view of Queenstown. We emerged dusty but exhilerated by the ride, which ended up being the only actual adventure sport we did in Queenstown.

Lunch was PB&J in the hostel, some great conversation, and in general a relaxing time watching boats paddle lazily around the lake. We walked around downtown Queenstown (there's not much of it) looking for art galleries and souvenir shops and occasionally stopping for coffee until it was time to kook dinner, which was spaghetti (again; we explored the last bit of Queenstown and then (gasp) studied until we fell asleep.

We checked out of the hostel at 10am sharp, and after breakfast made our way to the gondola, which takes you up to a mountain peak above the town on a ski-lift type thing. At the top there are observation decks, a small cafe, a buffet restaurant, and what they call the luge. You sit in a small sled mounted on wheels, and you can steer and brake with a set of handlebars on the front. The luge cars race down a winding track, much like go-karts, and you cna buy as many rides as you want and just go over and over again.

We ate at the mountaintop cafe and rode the luge, and then it was unfortunately time to say goodbye to QUeenstown. We trotted down to Earl Street to pick up the car we had rented, a shiny red 2006 Toyota Corolla hatchback we affectionately dubbed "Carol." With parasailers hanging in the air above us and jetboats roaring through the lake beside us, we set off towards Milford Sound. The drive has been incredibly scenic so far; it's autumn here, so the leaves are changing and everything is absolutely gorgeous. Milford Sound is supposed to be some of the best scenery in New Zealand though, so I'll keep you posted!

Lake Tekapo, one of the most beautiful stops on the drive from Christchurch to Queenstown

Lake Tekapo again

Boats on Lake Tekapo

Heather says: my drink is GREEN. and made of ICE.

Heather and I are hardcore four-wheeling champs.

View of Queenstown from the top of the mountain

Lakeside wharf in Queenstown

Heather and Steve walking through Queenstown

Parasailers above Queenstown

View of Queenstown from the gondola platform

Bungee jumping off the mountainside


Where we ate. delicious.

Driving out of Queenstown-- lots of great views!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NZ Day 2: Christchurch/Kaikoura

April 13, 1:19pm

On Easter Sunday, I was up before the sun-- but this year, it was because I had a 7am bus to catch. Grabbing a quick breakfast from my stash of apples, muesli bars, and hot cross buns, I made my way to Cathedral Square once more. I caught the daily service from Christchurch to Picton, planning to get off at Kaikoura.

The drive was my first taste of the beautiful country I'd been promised . . . and it did not disappoint. After I woke from a brief nap, my eyes were assaulted with green as the road climbed and twisted its way through the steep mountainous terrain. As we drew near to Kaikoura, I could just barely see a glimpse of the majestic South Pacific, the morning light glinting off its surface like a handful of diamonds. As we descended to the harbor, a quaint seaside village popped up; it was so small that a two-minute drive would have taken us right through it. The sunlight coming in off the coast filled the entire town as if it were tangible-- as I stepped off of the bus I half-expected to feel the weight of it on my skin. It was truly beautiful.

I had just enough time to take a few photos before heading up the hill to a small seaside chapel that advertised "St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, Kaikoura -- Services 10:00am -- All welcome!" The steep walkway led up to a tiny church, whose stained-glass windows flooded the sanctuary with that same extraordinary light. Although the average age of the congregation was about sixty, it was really nice to be able to celebrate Easter with familiar hymns and scriptures. All fifteen or so attendees were fascinated by the presence of two denim-clad backpackers--a twenty-something, scruffy-looking German had also apparently stepped in off the street-- and, in their Easter best, invited us to have tea after the service. Unfortunately, I had to decline; my whale-watching boat was scheduled to depart at 11:45.

However, upon arriving at Whale Watch, I was told that the tour had been canceled, as the whales were "outside our operating range." Apparently, they send out sonar-equipped spotter planes to locate the whales before sending out boats full of eager tourists. And today, the whales had taken a holiday of their own and were outside the 30-mile radius the boats could handle. Although it was disappointing, I was glad they were honest and refunded my money. I signed up for a "Coastal Tour" that left an hour and a half later, was shorter, and much cheaper, in the hopes of seeing a bit more of the harbor and at least some wildlife. In the meantime, I made a picnic of PB&J, apples, and muesli bars on the stony beach, wandered through some art galleries on the modest main street, and stopped for ice cream.

Apparently, the geology of Kaikoura makes it ideal for marine life; the rock shelves and warm water created by the underlying fault somehow create favorable conditions for all sorts of creatures, including many varieties of whales and dolphins. Kaikoura is one of the most likely places in the world to see a sperm whale, and other commonly seen marine mammals include dusky dolphins, NZ fur seals, orca, and the rare Hector's dolphin, found only in New Zealand. The boat took about forty passengers and had two levels of observation decks.

Highlights of the trip were two huge wandering albatrosses-- the bird with the largest wingspan in the world, found only in the southern hemisphere-- and some other seabirds; a colony of seals, stretched out lazily over some huge rocks; and my favorite, an enormous pod of dusky dolphins. There must have been hundreds of them, leaping and twirling and just flying through the clear turquoise water, playing in the trails left by the boat or swimming alongside it. I must have had a huge, idiotic grin on my face for at least twenty minutes as the beautiful creatures frolicked around us.

The tour lasted about two hours in total, and by the time we got back to shore it was time to catch the bus back to Christchurch. Although I don't think I spoke more than ten words the entire day, it was very restful and satisfying to spend Easter in such a beautiful part of God's creation.

The bus back/evening in Christchurch was uneventful; cooked myself some spaghetti and couldn't bring myself to face my pile of schoolwork, so I curled up with a book until my friend Steve arrived at about midnight. He'll join me for the next leg of the trip-- onward to Queenstown!

Christchurch Cathedral

Kaikoura Harbor

More of Kaikoura

Albatross (picture is deceptive--that bird is huge)


jumping dolphin

Sunday, April 12, 2009

NZ Day 1: Melbourne/Christchurch

Note: I'll be handwriting blog entries from my easter break trip to New Zealand and posting them gradually, as I get computer/internet access. enjoy!

April 11, 9:51pm

After weeks of worrying and planning and copious amounts of time on the internet booking/researching . . . I'm finally in New Zealand! The last few weeks have been fairly stressful, with tons of uni work (and plenty of events at college to distract me from it), and I'm excited to get away for a bit. I did unfortunately have to bring some schoolwork, but there are lots of long bus rides/drives ahead so at least I won't be bored.

This morning my alarm went of at 4:45 am . . . ugh. After a quick shower and some last-minute packing, I trotted out the front gate at Trinity to catch the very first tram down Royal Parade/Elizabeth Street, munching on some apples and cheese and a muesli bar (=granola bar for all you statesiders). Two trams and a shuttle bus got me to Tullamarine airport with plenty of time to catch my 8:40am Jetstar flight to Christchurch. I checked no bags, travelling light with only my backpack half-full of schoolwork and a duffel bag full of essential clothes. I slept for the entire 2.5 hour flight, waking up as the plane broke through the clouds to reveal breathtaking panoramas of towering snowy crags, with smooth green patchwork plains rolling out like a carpet at their feet.

I got through customs without a hitch, withdrew some local currency, and boarded the public bus to the city center. $7 got me the 12km from the airport to Cathedral Square, at the center of Christchurch. From there it was only a brief and pleasant stroll to the New Excelsior Backpackers, three blocks away. The staff was friendly and full of banter as they checked me in and sent me to my 12-person dorm-style room, where I dropped my bags and headed to the supermarket. $25 got me all the food I'd need for the next two and a half days, including some hot cross buns for Easter tomorrow :)

And so, finding myself alone in a strange city once again, I grabbed the trusty Lonely Planet and set off on my own two feet, having only the faintest idea where I might be going. Picking up some falafel on my way back to Cathedral Square turned out to be a great idea . . . it was delicious and by this time (5pm) I was starving (although I was almost mobbed by hungry seagulls whilst eating it). Took a turn down Worcester street and made a mental note of the location of my bus pickup for tomorrow morning, conveniently located just outside cathedral square. Further exploration took me across the picturesque Avon River and past Oxford Terrace, a lovely strip apparently noted for its restaurants. Every twenty meters or so, there would be another building that looked like a church, but was in fact a shop or a gallery of some sort. I guess they don't call it Christchurch for nothing.

Christchurch strikes me as a very quiet, sleepy little town. As I walked about in the early evening, everything was closing down and the streets were quickly becoming deserted. Every seemingly interesting place was shut tight, and I was beginning to give up hope that I'd do anything that evening other than schoolwork at the hostel. Finally, I saw a tiny corner of a stained-glass window through some casually thrown-open doors . . . I'd stumbled upon Christchurch's Arts Centre, which was not the single modern-looking building I had imagined but a series of academic-gothic buildings, towers, and courtyards: extraordinarily reminiscent of Princeton, leaving me slightly nostalgic for home. Although most of the shops and exhibits had closed, I was more than content simply to walk around the vaulted archways and cloisters. There was, however, one artisan still peddling her beautiful handmade jewelry in one small room, a barely noticeable open door leading off the north courtyard. After I complimented her work, she struck up a conversation which turned out to be fascinating. I talked to this 50-something woman, a complete stranger, at length about my travels, my studies, and my career plans; from there the conversation turned to her daughter (a chemical engineer), her business, other study-abroad students she'd met, and even things she'd learned from the geneology of herself she'd recently paid someone to do. She asked my name and my heritage, and after noting my dark eyes, dark hair, and skin tone, assured me that if I traced back far enough I was likely to find something Middle Eastern. Because, after all, "you never know about these things."

From there I stopped for coffee at a small theater specialising in newly written plays, and then went to see a movie at a small cinema in the Arts Centre. The film, a slightly-better-than-mediocre indie flick entitled "Before the Rains," was set in 1930s Kerala (a place in South India that's near and dear to my heart-- shout out to my infy friends!). It featured what seemed to be a washed-up, one-dimensional love story of a forbidden affair between a married British planter and his married Indian serving girl. However, it redeemed itself slightly as it quickly devolved into a psychological mindgame of violence, tradgedy, and cover-ups. Wouldn't see it again, but it was worth thirteen bucks.

I quickly covered the sevenish blocks back to the hostel, where I intended to make myself some dinner. However, as soon as I got to the kitchen, another guy at the hostel flagged me down and started a conversation. Mark, from south England, had been here for six months and was looking to move here permanently, trying to find a job in "scaffolding." We talked about the world and how big it was, and he told stories of his time in Australia and Southeast Asia. We both agreed that travelling on a shoestring budget-- hostelling, backpacking, and budgeting your way around-- was really what made the experience of travel so compelling.

Since it's now about 11:00pm, I should think about heading for bed-- I have a 7am bus to catch! However, it's definitely been an interesting day. Whale watching in Kaikoura tomorrow; I can't wait!