Saturday, December 19, 2009

NZ - Coromandel

The plan was to hike the Coromandel Walkway a bit from Fletcher Bay.  The lady who runs the Jacaranda Lodge assured me that I really didn’t have to do the whole thing, as the latter half is more a bushwalk than a source of panoramic vistas.  I was delayed a bit getting out, though, by yet another German.  One of the other guests at the lodge was a sound engineer (not an acoustic engineer; this guy worked more with music but also dabbled in more business-like aspects of the music industry).  He laughed when I said that everyone I keep running into is either German or Dutch, as he lives only a few kilometers from the Dutch border.

It was a long drive up to Fletcher Bay, partly because the majority of the trip is on unsealed roadways, and also because for a portion of the time I was right behind a herd of cattle slowly ambling down the street.  The farmer (shepherd, I suppose?) followed on an ATV whilst his dog kept the cows in line.  It was a pretty entertaining show despite the delay it was causing.

Along the way I came by numerous vehicles traveling in the opposite direction.  We all passed each other by just fine despite the narrow road and sheer cliffsides, with the exception of one… even though we seemed to be maneuvering around each other just fine without any undo delay, he seemed quite perturbed and insisted on simultaneously honking the horn whilst giving me the finger.  Of course, these actions generally require the use of both hands, leaving none for the wheel, which may not be the most advisable action on a road such as this.

Off the edge he went.  Well, not completely off the cliff; rather, just his front tires went dangling whilst the bulk of the car remained on sturdy ground.  Of course, with a front wheel drive car, that was nonetheless a problematic situation for him.  I had slowed briefly until I realized he hadn’t gone over the edge, and then I just smiled and continued on.  I’d return later to pass by a now-empty car still in the same place.

My hike along the Coromandel Walkway was rather shortlived given my perceived need to keep moving southward to Thames.  The views were worth the short walk, and I wished I’d had a bit more time to have made it to the lookout & back.  My return drive went considerably faster given the reduced need to stop & take photos as well as the lack of a herd of cattle in front of me.

There was one point, however, where I spotted a car approaching from the opposite direction just before I neared a blind curve.  Knowing he was coming, I pulled aside at a good spot just before the curve & awaited his passing.  Suddenly a different vehicle towing a boat came by… confused, I started up and rounded the corner.  There he was, sort of pulled aside but still largely in the middle of the road.  There was another good siding for me which let me get totally off the road, so I moved over and waved him to continue.

It was an Indian guy driving and what appeared to be a white woman as a passenger… my heart skipped a beat when he tapped the accelerator without turning the wheel, causing the car to lurch nearer to the sheer cliff.  The woman instantly threw her arms up in a fit whilst the driver immediately got back on the brake.  He waved me on, and so I went.  The road isn’t a difficult drive if you take your time and stay alert, but something tells me this guy simply didn’t have the driving skills to take it on even with care… I’m not entirely sure he had the driving skills for a normal road, for that matter.

Something else I’ve noticed throughout the duration of my trip is that the birds here are absolutely psycho.  I’m not just referring to mayhem-loving magpies or too-friendly kea, but to the fact that birds here seem to have a deathwish when it comes to cars.  Back home we joke that “Rusty’s in the club” whenever a bird dives down but survives… here it’s not a club; it’s an organized religion.  All the birds come within inches of their lives before suddenly executing crazy acrobatic maneuvers to escape to safety (usually).  They’re like demented fighter pilots with a bit too much alcohol.  Er, then again I guess fighter pilots shouldn’t have any alcohol at all… so… yeah.

The drive down to Thames passes by some spectacular views, and it didn’t take too long before I’d arrived into town, gotten some tasty Indian food, and checked into the backpacker’s.  From there I just lounged my final evening away, chatting with a German girl from Baden-Württemberg along with two English guys.  I think the Canadian girl at reception may have developed a quick crush on me… either that or she’s just really sociable.

Friday, December 18, 2009

NZ - Rotorua

Zorbing!  Our first and only task for this morning is to zorb!  It was expensive for a 30-second or so gig, but I can’t deny it’s something that just had to be done.  Gitti and I both did the water one and the zig-zag course.

That is, when you zorb you have two choices: strapped in & dry, where you just get really really dizzy; or you can just sit inside unstrapped, getting tossed about in water.  The latter lets you roll and flip & also try to stand up… only to fall right back down.

The zig-zag course means just that: when the gate opens, you throw yourself against the side of the hamster ball & send yourself down a graded back-and-forth hillside.  The other option is to go straight down, but then a 30-second trip takes only 15 seconds… the only perk about that one is if you want to roll down at the same time as someone else in another zorb; but nah we chose to zig-zag it.

You leap into the zorb Superman-style.  When you get out, you emerge feet first… and with all the water in there with you, it looked a lot like giving birth.  Ahh, the zorby womb.

Gitti and I walked around town a bit ‘til 11am, when it was her actual time to work this day – even though yesterday she’d thought she started at 5pm.  So at 11 I bid her farewell and got in the car to head up to the Coromandel Peninsula.  First a brief stop in Te Aroha, then all the way up to Hahei to check out Cathedral Cove.  The Cove involved a pretty quick hike and was completely worth it: not just for the cute international co-eds enjoying the beach, but also for the beautiful geologic formations in all directions.

Cathedral Cove was definitely worth the diversion, and following that I took the 309 Road across the peninsula to Coromandel Town.  Much of the 309 Road is unsealed and extremely twisty, guaranteeing a fun drive.  Along the way I stopped at a Kauri grove – I almost passed it by until it occurred to me that I’d come to New Zealand and hadn’t seen their iconic trees.

My first glimpse of kauri trees was quite the rewarding experience: they’re huge and have a certain beauty that is tough to describe.  So I’ll describe it with an LotR reference, since I think it’s obligatory to do at least one such reference each day.  The Kauri felt a lot like the Mallorn trees of Lothlórien, and to stand directly beside them staring upwards was quite the sensation.  I really like the Siamese Kauri, which started out as two separate trees which eventually fused together.

I nearly forgot where I’d booked a room for the night.  I ended up driving right past the place – the Jacaranda Lodge – before turning back and pulling up the driveway to see if my name was in the books.  I was quite surprised when I heard a voice from the garden go “Is that Andrew?”  My response was along the lines of “Well I guess I have the right place, then.”  The enthusiastic and sociable owner excitedly showed me around.  When she showed me my room, she noted a mosquito repelling thingamajig for the power outlet, to which I dismissed it saying that I’ll be fine.  Oh crikey, I came to regret those words.

That night I slept horribly for the first several hours.  I could feel myself twisting and turning and scratching and scratching.  I awoke scratching my forehead and shoulders vigorously, and all of a sudden I heard a faint buzz in my ear.  A blasted mosquito.  I spent the next 30 minutes or so dousing myself in antiseptic to control the itching, and also hunting for the mosquito.  Looking in the mirror, the thing had been treating me like an open buffet: every bit of skin exposed above the covers had massive bumps from bites.

It came to an end with a clap.  One clap and I saw a little speck go hurtling downward.  Inspection confirmed it as a rather leggy mosquito, but I couldn’t get it out of my head that there must’ve been others in there with me.  The one I killed didn’t look like it had been gorging much, and yet clearly I’d been a soup kitchen for hungry critters.  So my mind manifested imaginary buzzing & convinced itself I was itchy all over, even though I increasingly suspect there really was only one mosquito.  I came to feel like I was a madman: randomly swinging and swatting at the air before returning to a fit of calm.

Eventually I wrapped myself up so tightly in the sheets that I knew nothing could get at my body, and I secured my head so that I felt confident enough that I’d hear anything attempting to land on my head.  Eventually I mentally turned off each itch, and next thing I knew I was waking up to my mobile’s alarm: it was morning & I’d actually slept.  I didn’t feel itchy at all anymore, and most of the itchiness & bumps had already dissipated and subdued.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

NZ - Tongariro; Taupo

My initial intent was to spend two days around Tongariro, but Gitti ended up having to work Thursday.  So we were up early to get on the road for her to start work at 11.  Arriving back in Rotorua pretty early, we bummed about the house a bit before I dropped her off at the bar.  I should’ve stuck around after dropping her off, as I later learned that she had her schedule mixed up: she actually didn’t start work ‘til about 3:30 or so.  Oops.

Leaving Gitti behind, I immediately made my way back to where I came from: through Taupo and back to Tongariro National Park.  Whereas yesterday we drove along its west side, this time around I drove along its east side; and this time I came with the knowledge of which mountain was Mount Doom (though in retrospect, simply looking at the mountains could’ve given it away pretty easily).

After going partway along Desert Road, I turned back and then went around the west side of Lake Taupo & back to Rotorua.  The west side of Lake Taupo offered zilch as far as interesting destinations go, along with very little view of the lake itself.  It was a relaxing drive, though.  My route took me by a bunch of redwoods just east of town – the trees were pretty, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to delve much further past the redwoods.

In Taupo, I stopped by Huka Falls.  The falls are impressive if you really like waterfalls, but aren’t a must-see destination by any means.  It’s neat to see how they’ve carved a high-speed gorge just a couple meters down from the lookouts.  The falls are even more notable, however, for the fact that they are home to the only pay toilets I’ve seen in the entire country.

It was 8:30 when I stopped by the Belgian Bar to check on Gitti.  I met the Swiss guy she’d been talking about and then let her be at work, to return at about 10-ish.  Fortunately the town kept me occupied exactly an hour and a half: souvenir shopping, ice cream, and then some Indian food for dinner.  Yes, ice cream first – dagnabit it’s good ice cream, and everytime I’d swing by the place it’d be closed already.  So I was happy to get a second taste of that ice cream, having gone about 2 weeks without it.

I picked up Gitti and the rest of the night was generally spent bumming around at the house watching TV.  Along with Ash, we stayed up watching some documentary show following a police unit that tracks missing persons, of which one was a backpacker in Australia.  Go figure that it ends with a “on the next episode” degree of closure, except in their summary of the next episode they totally neglected to mention the backpacker story they’d been developing this whole show.  So that was a let-down… we all dispersed to bed as soon as our hearts were broken by the end of the show and its lack of closinating closing sorts of closure.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

NZ - Tongariro

South to Tongariro, home of Mt. Doom – otherwise known as Mt. Ngauruhoe.  Not wanting to freeze Gitti, much of the drive was with the windows up.  Hence, neither of us was particularly cognizant of just how cold it actually was out there.  Granted, it was nothing compared to the snowlands back home, but it certainly wasn’t summer-like.  We left the car already bundled up in winter gear as we made our way toward the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

I’d stripped off much of my winter gear soon enough, but as soon as began ascending I soon had it back on.  First it started sleeting.  Then it started snowing.  All the while there was monstrous wind.  Then there was brilliant warming sunshine.  We started lunch just as the sun broke through, and just as we zipped up our bags after finishing our food the blue sky gave way to rain.  The rain turned to snow… and more snow… and more snow.  It was snowing during summer in December… there are just so many things wrong with that sentence.

On several occasions we thought about turning back, but each time we kept going.  It just kept snowing.  One good thing was that the wind was at our back much of the way, though I was dreading the return when the wind’s direction was no longer so convenient.  We came upon another German guy continuing on despite wearing jeans & a hoodie… and here we’re dressed up in winter gear.  He joined us as we kept going up and up, eventually hitting the summit of the track; but wussing out of branching out to explore other summits considering that the views weren’t particularly stellar.

I kind of feel bad about skipping the final ascent of Mt. Doom, considering there was only about an hour left to go for that… but firstly I didn’t realize it was Mt. Doom at the time, and secondly: the hobbits didn’t climb to the summit, either.  A part of me did kind of wish I’d brought the ring from my LotR Risk game so I could throw it into Mt. Ngauruhoe’s crater.  I wonder if anyone else has ever done that.

The hike’s return was faster, but certainly colder & wetter.  We were accumulating snow on ourselves by the time we got down to the large crater through which the path traverses.  Soon after, we were in warming sunshine.  And by the time we were back the carpark: the mountains were almost cloudless.  Go figure.  As arduous as the snow & wind were, however, we couldn’t deny that getting snowed on was part of the excitement.

After the hike it was a very short drive to Whakapapa Village, where we’d booked a room at the Skotel.  We grabbed some food at the tavern just down the road – one of three dining options in town.  I ordered penne pasta and Gitti ordered wedges.  Thinking she’d ordered veggies, I ended up eating much of her meal.  Finding my pasta to be far too sauce-heavy, I ate the pasta itself & let her take on the far more dominant vegetable sauce.  So we ended up preferring the other’s meal… at least it worked out well.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NZ - Waitomo Caves

Today I had a goal: get up early and go to the caves.  It wasn’t long before that goal was refined & shortened only to “go to the caves”.  I booked the longest of cave tours – a 5-hour expedition.  This expedition ended up being the best part of the trip thus far, despite not enjoying the day’s cloudless sunshine for several hours.

At the office for the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company I was introduced to our 11am tour group.  There were two American guys from Texas, both computer engineers; and an English girl who taught science to middle/high school-aged students.  We got into ever-fashionable wetsuits & helmets with lights, got a bit of practice on abseiling/rappelling (thankfully something I’ve done in the past & was pretty comfortable with), and minutes later were getting ready to plunge into a black hole.

I was second to go.  I watched as one of the Americans disappeared first, and then I just happened to be standing nearest to the platform when it came time for the next one up.  Things went smoothly right up until I took my second foot off the platform.  That was when it occurred to me that I had one of my fingers stuck between the rappel rack & the rope… fortunately there were some rocks right at the start which I could bounce about on; except to get closer to them – just a few inches – made the pinch just that much tighter.  A good lesson for belaying is not to use your own appendages for friction.

The pinch wasn’t horrendous yet since I caught it before it became so, so I let out a bit of rope & gave in to a tighter pinch.  In exchange I managed to tap my toes on a nearby rock.  Just a light tap was all I needed to release some of the pressure & let me free my finger.  Then zoom away I went – after clearing those first couple rocks, it was a large empty cavern.  A flat rock face began to near, but as it was soaked one couldn’t “walk” down it like in the movies; you just had to tap off it periodically.  My landing was apparently one of the smoothest they’d ever seen… not bad considering I hadn’t rappelled since my sophomore year of college.

A flying fox, or zipline, was the next stop.  For this I was first to go, mostly because I absolutely love ziplines.  We used to have one in the woods behind my grandparents’ house in New England & I’d always loved it.  Even the little stubby ones at some playgrounds entertain me.  My only concern, here, was that there clearly appeared to be a rock protruding into my path.  And then I was told to turn off my headlamp.

I hit the first rock just as I left the ledge, which meant if was a slow hit & didn’t hurt at all – I think it might be an intentional nudge just to get your fear going, since from then on you think you’re hurtling through the dark at a whole barrage of ever angrier boulders.  What you don’t realize is that you’re in a huge cavern after that – sort of like the abseiling journey.  You come to a swinging end as one of the two guides helps you down… and then I got to watch the next three come shrieking through the dark.

After a quick stop for hot chocolate and a cookie, we donned rubber inner tubes and leapt into the water.  For this I was last to go.  The first up was one of our guides, who did it flawlessly.  You’re supposed to jump off whilst holding your tube behind you, with the intent of splashing down back/butt-first and coming back to the surface in-tube.  The American who followed did not succeed, separating man from tube in spectacular fashion.

The other two did it flawlessly, and apparently so did I.  However, I wouldn’t know it since for the first 30 seconds all I could think of was how I just leapt into black water, submerged myself completely from the ensuing impact, and was now absolutely frozen and floating in a tube.

In our tubes we did a mix of pulling ourselves along a rope, paddling with our hands, and walking alongside our tubes.  I excelled at the rope, catching up to folks in the process but also managing to soak every part of my body since I really really got into it.  The hand paddling I was also pretty speedy with, but one of the Texans couldn’t quite seem to get a good motion down & I’d often pause to wait for him.  The walking parts weren’t shabby, except it’d give you opportunity for your hands to warm & dry – becoming every so comfy again just before it’s time to hop back in and get soaked again.

With a group of only four of us tourists, we made our first checkpoint extremely early.  A typical group size is apparently about eight at least.  So we kept on going down the stream all the way to where it came in via a hole far smaller than any of us could’ve ever managed.  Then it was relaxation time: we hopped into our tubes, linked arms around each other’s feet, and our guide pulled our tube-train along as if a lazy man’s river ride.

This whole time we’d periodically stop to observe the glowworms, but this tube-train provided plenty of opportunity to really absorb their presence.  What I saw back at the glaciers didn’t even compare to this: it was like Lumine Hall from the game Earthbound.  The glaciers were like staring at a night sky from within a city, but these caves were like staring at the night sky from the dark side of the Moon.

Once we returned to where we’d jumped in, our guide took another gander at the time and noted that we were still way ahead of schedule.  So we kept on going.  From here we started doing quite a bit more spelunking and less-so touristing.  My hands were quickly cut-up from grabbing onto rockfaces, and that’s a good thing: the sign of a good adventure.  We squirmed through numerous small passages, including one where I took the lead.  I’m always one to dismiss claustrophobia, but partway through I can’t deny that the thought “what if I get myself into a spot that I can’t get out of?” did cross my mind… fortunately it was only a split-second later where I breathed in, squeezed my arm around myself, and was soon pulling myself out.  One of the Americans & the English girl both lost a boot inside it, though both were able to reach back in & grab it.  We dubbed it the boot-eater.

One segment had us all turn off our lights and navigate through the caves.  Normally groups only do it for about 30 seconds, but we went on for several minutes… possibly as retribution for the ease with which we navigated one of the earlier passageways which is supposed to be riddled with uneven flooring – hence its comparison to a drunk walk.  Going several minutes without lights is actually pretty easy when you keep talking, since you can then just follow the sound of the voice of whomever is in front of you.  …So it’s easy so long as you’re not in the lead.  …Lemmings; all of us lemmings.

Toward the end of our journey, I waited at an intersection for the rest of the group to catch up.  One of the Texans was first to join me, and I joked that we’ll have to go through the tiny hole that the stream was coming through.  Would you know it, once our tour guide caught up he pointed down the big tunnel and said that’s where all the tour groups go; and then pointed at the small stream-hole I was kidding about & said that’s where we’re going.

I took the lead once again, trusting that it wasn’t a joke he hadn’t quite gotten to the punchline yet.  Face first into the water, I held my breath until I felt that my helmet wasn’t bashing against rock anymore.  Face back up; it was actually a pretty roomy pull to get the rest of my body to follow.  I used that helmet a lot…  Our next step was to ascend a waterfall.  The guide pointed each foothold and handhold, and in reality the climb was only a 5.1 or 5.2 (read: very easy).  It was only the cold water (which was actually starting to feel pretty good by this point) gushing at you which made it seem trickier; but the waterfall was only about 2-3 meters high and we all got by in a breeze.  A second waterfall was just like the first, and shortly thereafter we were back outside… back in the bright and searing hot outdoors… we missed our caves.

Back at base, we socialized a bit over tomato soup and bagels, staring at amusing sketches drawn by past patrons & adding a few of our own.  Upon parting ways, I immediately headed out toward Rotorua to pickup Gitti.  Along the way I stopped by the Hamilton Gardens – a lovely stop for anyone in the area.  It provides a fascinating history of various types of garden formats, providing far more interest and information than I’d ever really thought there was.  If only the town were nearly so nice… cars everywhere and an utter lack of parking for my car, hence my decision to skip my dinner intentions for Hamilton.

From the gardens I came upon my first native eucalyptus tree.  I think I now have a new tree to add to my favorites listing… willows are still #1, but eucalyptus is now vying with sakura / cherry blossoms for #2 / #3.

Alas, Gitti didn’t finish work until 10pm, hence I wandered about Rotorua for a couple hours & we ultimately slept at her place.  She was renting a room from a local guy – Ash – and I gotta say: what a sweet deal.  Dirt-cheap rent, nice house, not a shabby commute (it’s even doable by bike; or a longer walk), and Ash even drove her around, provided food, laundry machines, internet, and so forth.

Monday, December 14, 2009

NZ - Taranaki

I awoke in Wanganui, though days later it would also be correct to call it Whanganui thanks to several years of intensive deliberation only to agree that both are OK.  Democracy in action!  It’s kind of sad that with my experience in the public sector, I completely understand the bureaucracy behind spending years to sort this out, as trivial as it may sound.

My drive first brought me to the skateboard park, but it appeared to be undergoing intense work & I didn’t have the desire to approach too closely.  Hence my next destination was to find city’s elevator.  That is, a tunnel dug into a hill with an elevator going to the top – apparently it was initially intended to serve residential development up top or something like that.  Personally, I just thought it sounded like the elevator in Graz, Austria, which I remember thinking was neato in every imaginable way.

I seemed to have a bit of difficulty finding this elevator, as my first turn took me onto a street which drove up to the top, bypassing the elevator entirely.  The second turn took me onto some industrial cul-de-sac.  Then I noticed that signs pointing me into the very obvious little pull-off directly opposite the bridge over the river… so yeah I parked there & hopped out.  Then I saw a staircase right beside a sign for the elevator… I was a bit confused, but started up the stairs thinking it would take me to the elevator access.

Before I knew it, I’d ascended all the stairs and was at the top, and a few more stairs later I was on top of the elevator shaft admiring the views over the city.  Shrieking children in the adjacent water tower (or I assume it was once a water tower) kept me where I was for a bit, awaiting the clearing of the school field trip.  As the greater portion of wee ones began to pile out at the bottom, I made my way over & went up to the top of the water tower for even higher views.  The metal mesh at the top kind of made it feel like I was standing inside a Tesla coil.

I pondered whether I should take the elevator down or not, seeing as I’d already ascended the stairs & descending really didn’t pose much hassle.  I was thinking that I might as well just take the stairs since it’s easy to do & provides some exercise.  Then I remembered that I’m not here to go up and down stairs, I’m here to see the bloody elevator… so I quickly made my way over before maniacal children got there to join me.

One short ride with a less-than-enthused elevator operator later, I emerged into a long white tunnel.  At the end of the tunnel, around a few meters of pathway, I emerge back at the carpark.  How did I miss it the elevator before going up the stairs??  I look to my left, and right there is the sign, with the stairs just on the other side.  I step forward and look back, noting the gigantic touristy wooden structure I just emerged from with “elevator” written in bright letters overhead.  OK so perception wasn’t leaping hurdles this morning.

The greater part of my day was, once again, to be spent in the car.  From Wanganui I’d head around the west side of Mt. Taranaki and then onto Waitomo Caves.  First I need to complement Wanganui: this could very well be the first typical Kiwi town which actually looks nice.  I mean, it has all the same chain stores as every other town and for all intents and purposes appeared to function the same, but its tree-lined boulevards added a charm that all the other cities seemed to be lacking.  It kind of made me wish I could’ve spent another day.

Hawera was the next stop, really just so I could climb up its water tower.  It was indeed a nice water tower, making me a bit curious as to why a country younger than America has more historic-looking water towers than we do.  The town itself was ho-hum, once again just a cookie-cutter Kiwi town.  It made me think that I almost look forward to a town with a strip club or brothel, really just because they at least provide different-looking storefronts since not every city seems to have one.  Even if the storefront consists of scantily clad women or just a sheer black face, it at least seems an improvement over the cacophony of advertisements every other storefront wields.  So, um… bravo to New Zealand’s sex industry?

Looping around Taranaki was generally uneventful apart from some lovely views of the cloud-topped volcano.  The lighthouse at Cape Egmont was a particular treat, as it wasn’t some little stubby thing on top of a high bluff; but rather a taller tower on top of a shorter bluff.  Having grown up in the shadow of Barnegat Light – a more virile lighthouse rising from almost sea level – I personally prefer lighthouses that are actual towers, and Cape Egmont delivered with its cute red-doored, white-walled building.

My trip past New Plymouth included a quick diversion up Paritutu Hill.  While a short climb, I have to admit that it took a bit of oomph to make it up top.  It was really more a sprint than an endurance run, with some legitimate scrambling up nigh-vertical rockfaces to make it to the summit.  The views weren’t great, but I did like it because the views were different.  The lane around Taranaki itself is rather bland, apart from said volcano.  The industrial area around Paritutu, however, provided an alternate interest given my fascination with the underworkings of society – particularly industry.  A scrap yard & power plant were particular highlights to stare down upon.  Simple pleasures, I know.

The remainder of the drive up to Waitomo Caves was uneventful by every definition.  This stretch has little of interest with regards to scenery, but fortunately you move pretty quickly along the map.  I finally remembered to write about something I’d noticed in my very first couple days in New Zealand (unless I’ve already written about this, in which case I forgot that I succeeded at remembering).  That is, almost all freight trucks I see in New Zealand are pulling two trailers.

Most people reading this might think that’s a pretty boring observation, but the transportation-fan in me wonders whether it’s more efficient to pull one trailer faster as in America; or two trailers slower as is done here.  I’d probably put my money on the latter, but then again long-haul trucking in New Zealand certainly has a different definition than long-haul trucking in America.

The Lonely Planet Guide described the Waitomo Caves Hotel as a cross between “the hotel from The Shining and the Bates Motel”.  With a description like that and not-too-shabby prices, I just had to give it a shot.  My first impression upon laying eyes upon it was that the description was pretty spot-on.  Once I stepped into the entry I thought it was even truer.  When I entered my room I felt that the description was perfect.  Best night’s sleep I ever had.  Someday I’m going to open a lodging facility beside a lake named Crystal Lake, along a road named Elm Street, and I’m going to name it the Bates Overlook Lodge.  Every guest gets a complementary chainsaw.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

NZ - Kaikura --> Wanganui

Today was merely a travel day, so I wish I had a bit more to say.  I’ll start with the drive out of Kaikura: the drive into and out of this town is truly a pleasant one.  The road weaves along with the shoreline, whilst a railway takes to a more ordered straight route; tunnels piercing the terrain.  There wasn’t too much traffic, but plenty of folks out early fishing along the shore.  They say the early bird catches the worm, but the early fish catches the worm, too.

Just as the coast fades into the distance: the vineyards of the Marlborough region begin appearing in view… not quite as amazing as vineyards in, say, Tuscany; but still enough to keep the drive from becoming stale.

I ended up arriving in Picton not just early for my ferry, but early for the earlier ferry.  I got in at about 11:30 – including a stop for some food along the way – and ended up catching the ferry leaving an hour before my scheduled ride.  The Interislander service is undoubtedly nicer than the Bluebridge service – the interior is more posh and the exterior provides more freedom of movement between port & starboard sides.  Views to the front and rear are possible with Interislander, but only through windowed areas whereby front row seats are taken quickly; and windows don’t provide the best throughput for photos.

The wind on my ferry ride a couple weeks ago was memorable, but today it was outright craziness.  The nearer we got to Wellington, the more it picked up; and as we entered the sounds the wind was pushing people across the deck.  It quickly emptied to one dedicated smoker, a woman who enjoyed leaning into the wind, and myself; then a couple stragglers remaining within the cabin & periodically trying to venture out only to be brutally reminded of the wind.  I was actually a cabin-dweller, myself, for awhile – only emerging to nab some photos; but I eventually located a nice spot wherby I could sit on the deck & be totally clear of the wind.  I’d hear it in all directions & feel it tugging at my toes, but I was otherwise in a warm & calm world of my own – in a great spot to lean over, into the wind again, nab some photos, and then return to my happy little seat.

Wellington proper was still a tad breezy, but was nothing like the hurricane only a couple hundred meters away.  The sun was shining brightly, or during its intermittent coverings by cloud: the clouds would be whisked away in seconds.  As weather was better this time around than during my last visit to the city, I opted to explore its streets briefly – Courtenay Place, Cuba Street… I even picked up some sorely-needed reading material for the many times I lack a power supply for my laptop: The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan.  Unfortunately, I came up empty-handed whilst searching for Slaughterhouse-Five and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!  There was a massive selection of Tolkien & Douglas Adams, though… the former of which should certainly not be unexpected.

The drive to Wanganui was pretty lackluster, with terrain offering little splendor.  The sun, however, made some work of the otherwise uninteresting hills: as the sun neared the horizon, the slight curvatures in the hills became massive roaming shadows.  I started hitting the rumblestrips alongside my lane a bit more frequently once the sun cleared the clouds & lit up the countryside.

As I was leaving Wellington, I passed by the very first police officer I’ve seen this entire trip with the radar gun out.  Granted, there was presumable one as I was leaving Christchurch, but officially I didn’t spot any radar gun & officially I didn’t even see them on the prowl: as I passed by, the officer had just pulled over someone who had passed me by but moments before.  I was actually kind of impressed at how quickly they must’ve pulled him over.  I was also a bit uneasy as the guy that was pulled over was only going perhaps 10 km/h over the limit… he didn’t strike me as an aggressive speeder; just someone passing me by out of preference for going a little faster.  My opinion, as a traffic engineer, is that that’s not appropriate enforcement: that’s just an inappropriate speed limit.

Upon arrival in Wanganui, my arbitrarily-chosen midway stopping point en route to Taranaki, I came upon the Anndion Lodge – more like a homestay than a hostel, if you can disregard the numbers on the doors.  Free internet is one particular glory element, along with getting a 3-bed room to myself.  It’s the perfect size for one person, but stuffing three people in here would be a bit tricky.  The communal facilities are tough to match, though, and its décor really is more that of someone’s home than traveler’s lodging.

The showers put out enough pressure that it might throw lesser folk into the wall, but I interpret that as a really really good massage. On the other hand, you’re likely to hit the wall, anyway, on account of the small size of the shower stalls.  Imagine Bender’s apartment from Futurama, albeit without the robot but with one American-sized Fry.

Other folk in the building include a family whereby the husband is an artist, and then another dude who’s an artist.  They’re working on a local skate park just down the road whereby troubled youths are coming together to design & paint the décor at the facility.  I spoke with that latter dude for awhile – it sounded pretty interesting and, memory serving, I hope to swing by it tomorrow morning.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

NZ - Banks Peninsula, Kaikura

I awoke and thought I was once again in a deluge from skies.  When I finally woke up – at about 9am – and looked outside: I found an almost cloudless sky… but a gale like none other.  I made my way out of the hostel and first southward toward Lyttelton.  My first goal along this drive, along Dyers Pass Road and Summit Road, was to not kill any bicyclists.  An admiral goal, I know.

They were absolutely everywhere… fortunately, they behaved as model bicyclist, as opposed to the one guy I passed by during my drive to Aoraki / Mt. Cook.  Along that drive: I passed a slew of cyclists apparently traveling together (they all had identical orange vests), but spread out over the span of several kilometers.  The second batch of them I came upon had some guy who insisted on meandering in all directions, across all lanes, apparently oblivious to a car attempting to pass in the right lane.  I’m all for bicyclist’s rights on the road, but you gotta at least drive responsibly & I’ll do the same.

Back to my drive along the south of Christchurch: Summit Drive was certainly cyclists’ territory moreso than motorists’.  It’s certainly not a commuter route, and even less so on a weekend morning.  It was a fantastic drive with amazing views, but the forceful winds were even more pronounced at this height.  At one point, while standing on some rocks taking photos, a gust pushed me right over: sending me falling backwards (I fortunately steadied myself just enough to fall in a semi-controlled fashion… as controlled as an unexpected tumble can be).

Just as I was leaving the hostel, hayfever hit me like a flyswatter on its prey.  Those who know me probably know that I’m really not particularly allergic to anything, and when allergy season rolls around: I am pretty much unaffected.  So I certainly wasn’t prepared for the runny nose & marathon sneezing that I got to experience today.  When I got to my final destination of Kaikura, I couldn’t help but laugh as I sat in the common area & joined in with the symphony of sneezing.  I’d come to find it’d been a South Island-wide phenomenon all of a sudden.

Rolling through Lyttelton and on to Governors Bay, I’d hoped to pickup lunch in the latter; but let it be after seeing the prices.  When I got to Akaroa they weren’t much better.  Apart from some cashews I’ve been munching on whilst driving, I didn’t have a thing to eat until dinner.

The drive around Banks Peninsula – specifically to Akaroa – was amazing.  I particularly liked the unsealed road I took to get to Pigeon Bay, and then the views down both sides of the ridge from Summit Road (a different Summit Road than the one in Christchurch).

Bravo to Akaroa for finally providing a Kiwi town with its own identity.  Granted, history has a bit of a role in that: this was where the French founded a colony back in the day.  While it was eventually absorbed into English New Zealand, it still retains a different feel than the rest of New Zealand… I can’t say it necessarily felt French, but at least it didn’t feel so English-American.

During my quest for cheap food, one of the descendents of the original French settlers – an official Town Crier (which apparently takes a lot of formal training) – helped show me around & lead me on my quest.  I ultimately gave up on the quest, not because I couldn’t find any cheap food (I found some around $15, which is pretty cheap in this country) but because the kitchens in the cheaper places weren’t open.  Ahh, foiled once again by NZ’s quirky operating hours.

I gunned it up to Kaikura, not stopping at all along the way.  I’d initially been planning to skip Kaikura, but I figured I’d try and make as much headway as I could toward Picton in preparation for taking a ferry back to the north island.  Upon arrival, I actually became quite glad that I opted to stop by Kaikura.  It’s a very scenic small town wedged onto a peninsula & surrounded by either mountains or sea – exactly my sort of place.  The town itself has the same sort of stores as any other NZ town, but at least the geography forces it to contort a little bit, helping it looks just a little bit more distinct.  There are some great lookouts just above the town, too, great for both sunrise and sunset (though I only partook in the latter and have no intentions for the former).

My room, at the Lazy Shag, was almost all to myself; but in the last minutes of reception’s opening hours three French guys arrived.  They seem nice enough, but I have a natural disliking of anyone that wears designer popped collar sorts of clothes, and these three certainly were.  One additional demerit was that one of them, if standing around in North Jersey, could have easily been mistaken for a guido.  Not a compatible personality for me at all... hence my choice to take on a more reclusive persona for the night.

Friday, December 11, 2009

NZ - Aoraki / Mt Cook --> Christchurch

My wakeup time was determined by what it’d look like outside the window.  So when the first person awoke, I peered out and saw absolutely nothing… I could barely even make out the flowers on the hill about a meter away from the window.  Back to sleep.  The next person’s alarm went off and in a split-second they’d managed to nail their hands against the wall with cat-like reflexes (albeit dog-like delicacy) to turn it off.  I check the window: still in a cloud.  I resign myself to laying in bed til 9am, when I force myself up so I can eat breakfast and checkout by 10.

A breakfast of an orange, a lemon, and an apple – all of which I’d been carting around with me since Franz Josef and figured I should probably eat sooner rather than later.  I first drove down Hooker Valley Road (insert sophomoric giggle here), but hit the end and peered toward the multi-hour trail I was pondering about hiking, then turned back once I decided spending several hours to climb about in a cloud wasn’t particularly tantalizing.

The next drive took me toward the Tasman Glacier, where a hike spanning minutes rather than hours was a bit more promising.  The Blue Lakes en route weren’t particularly blue or interesting, though they were certainly lakes.  Fortunately it occupied only about a minute of my time.  Up at the ridge overlooking the glacier, I couldn’t help but smirk at an informational sign reading “Where’s the glacier?” as I stared into cloud.

My position was right on top of a low cloud, but some distance beneath some higher clouds.  Within minutes, the sun broke through those higher clouds… not in the sense of blue sky, but certainly enough to cast shadows.  In the span of about 5-10 minutes, the sun wreaked havoc upon the lower clouds: before my very eyes I watched as mountains and glacier emerged into view.  I got the photos I’d sought, and by the time I reached the bottom the lower clouds had all but disappeared.  I could see the summits of the surrounding mountains along with blue sky.  Not bad for a day that was supposed to be lackluster all day long.

I went back to the village to pickup my camera battery & charger, which I’d managed to forget.  I hopefully looked back toward Aoraki / Mt. Cook, but its peak was still shrouded in cloud – I could see about as much as I’d seen the previous day.  Oh well, worth a shot.

My ultimate destination was Christchurch, but I stopped at Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo once again to get some more photos.  I had a tasty lunch of chicken kebabs in Lake Tekapo before continuing on with my long drive to Christchurch.  Along that drive I opted to take the “Inland Scenic Route”, signed as Route 72 (albeit not Motorway 72).  This roadway felt a lot like Rt. 72 in New Jersey: a totally straight road with naught much to look at.  While I don’t know how interesting the alternative would have been – to stay on the motorways – I feel like anything else would’ve been an improvement.  At least I managed to find some decent radio stations so close to Christchurch.

This marked the second time I’d really bothered with the radio, with the first time being when either Gitti or Svenja had tried to find something decent on.  By and large, I’ve been traveling with only two sounds: the breeze by the open windows, and my own singing.  Right up until my short hike to Tasman Glacier, I’d had David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” stuck in my head.  I started pondering how it had been in my head almost endlessly, when all of a sudden: poof, it was gone.  I can’t even think of how it goes anymore… not at all; not even one note.  To replace it I have Bowie’s “Golden Years” as well as the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You”.  Er, actually now that I revisit this as I write it – I haven’t the faintest idea what song I originally had stuck in my head, but it wasn’t “Diamond Dogs” … I’m pretty sure it was Bowie, though.

Finding the hostel was a breeze, and while the room has only one outlet: at least there’s a power strip.  Unfortunately, it’s inconveniently located by the door & far from the beds; hence one must sit on the floor for anything involving a laptop.  The location is excellent, though – a short walk fro the city center.

Journeying into downtown, I just did a quick tour to nab some photos before getting some Turkish nearby (at a place aptly named Topkapi) and then heading to the cathedral to catch a Christmas concert.  It still just doesn’t quite feel like Christmas, despite the so-themed concert, the trees, the snowman decorations, and Santa’s ubiquitous presence.  Maybe it’s my constant sweating from heat and humidity (though moreso the latter).

The concert in the cathedral was a delight and went a long way toward improving my impression of New Zealand cities.  Christchurch is like the other cities in that it looks almost exactly like any other city.  I mean at least American cities have a little bit of variety; Kiwi cities are like suburbs with some taller buildings thrown in.  However, this was the first dose of culture I’d really had here in New Zealand.  It made me realize why I love European cities so much: there are concerts galore at any time of year.  Plenty of free things to keep one occupied, particularly those who don’t do the bar scene and can be a bit bored come evening time.

Tonight’s roommates include a Dutch girl who is working to support travel: a hairdresser whenever she opts to start working again.  Then there is a Polish couple as well as two English guys from near-ish to Birmingham (though not Birmies) – this is the first night in beds for the two English guys in awhile; they’d been sleeping in a stationwagon for several nights.  All three guys have massive massive beards, and even I’m a bit unkempt at the moment.  I can’t help but ponder if there’s some deep philosophical meaning behind that, but I’ll instead say it’s probably just coincidence.  Er, and also that two guys living out of a stationwagon probably haven’t had much chance to shave.

I do have to mention that at our hostel, right beside the door of the mixed bathrooms was a condom vending machine.  I’ve never seen one of these in a hostel before, so I couldn’t help but laugh at how I was staying at such a fully-stocked location.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

NZ - Te Anau --> Aoraki / Mt Cook

Despite forecasts for a day of amazing, the morning was rather cloudy and dreary, hence I slept in til 9am.  When I finally mobilized and left the hostel, I picked up a pizza in town & opted to skip Kepler Track – instead making an immediate route for Queenstown & Wanaka.

By the time I finished my pizza, the skies had gone from awful to lovely.  That pretty sums up the whole day’s driving: views could not have been more spectacular through this perfect countryside.  The drive took me up toward Queenstown, but I ultimately bypassed it to continue on to Wanaka via the Crown Range Road.

In Wanaka I opted to take a diversion west toward the Mt. Aspiring National Park.  This was a beautiful trek around some scenic lakes and then through a valley’s pastures along an unsealed road.  It was when I hit a ford that I finally turned back.  The road’s bridge had washed out recently, and I looked at the adjacent ford pondering whether or not I should give the rental car a run for its money.  I ultimately opted against it, not out of concern for the car per se; but for concern that I could get stranded there for a long time – knocking out spare time on an already too-short trip.

Back in Wanaka, I stopped by a place proffering Mediterranean cuisine, but turned away once I saw that its prices were double what were given in my Lonely Planet Guide.  Bummer, too, as they had a whole bunch of tasty-sounding pasta.  My lunch instead consisted of some strawberries and a soda.  Filling it was not, but tasty sustenance nonetheless.

The drive to Aoraki (Mt. Cook) kept snowcapped mountains always on my left, and a distant mountain range always on my right.  As I approached the turn-off for Aoraki, however, I took note that the weather was getting steadily more cloudy & dreary.  I passed the turn-off in preference of first visiting Lake Tekapo – a destination Lindsey had been consistently egging me to visit.

On the way toward Lake Tekapo, immediately after the Aoraki turnoff, was Lake Pukaki.  I’d never seen such a brilliant blue in a lake before.  It looked like someone took Sherwin-Williams’ “Cover the Earth” motto a bit too seriously.  Between the lakes, alpine flowers (lavender or lilac, maybe?) covered the roadside with pinks and purples, inundating the highway with a wonderful aroma.  Lake Tekapo served much the same impression as Lake Pukaki: a magical blue color.

Throughout this journey between the lakes, the mountains to my left were increasingly shrouded in cloud; and the further mountains to my right had clouds just rolling over and down their faces.  A very light sprinkle accompanied me throughout the journey, with my return from Lake Tekapo bringing me back toward the sunlight.

The drive toward Aoraki was also fantastic: it followed alongside Lake Pukaki and offered consistent splendor.  Even better: considering that I was arriving in the late afternoon / early evening: all the tourists were long gone and I had the road all to myself.  Everyday I find myself disliking New Zealand’s speed limits more and more.

A post from back in the early days – my first or second day in Auckland – said that the speed limits seemed to be perfectly set.  Well now that I’ve gotten the hang of driving on the left, I can say I was totally wrong on that one.  All roads are a default of 100 km/h unless otherwise signed, and they’re generally otherwise signed whenever you are in a town/village/city/etc; or if passing through a work zone.

I’m generally OK driving 50 or 80 through a town as per what’s posted, since the signs are posted right at the limits – no more; no less – I can respect that.   I’ve come to only appreciate the 30 km/h work zones; I’ll slow down a bit for the 50’s, but will ignore the 70’s.  Then there’s the default 100 km/h speed limit… I can’t even get myself to do that when I’m trying to.  My natural speed consistently hovers between 110 and 120.  Fortunately I haven’t seen a single police officer doing speed enforcement, though the Americans & Dutch from back at Franz Josef had been having quite the opposite of fortunes.

At Aoraki / Mt. Cook, it was a breeze to find my hostel (especially considering the rather scarcity of buildings in the first place) and soon enough I’d unloaded in the room.  Our room faced directly toward Aoraki’s face, and I could see a good share of it; but clouds obscured the peak.

I immediately set out in search of dinner, and I again note that I had a rather skimpy lunch.  There aren’t many options in town to begin with, but Lonely Planet seemed to indicate that a café on the other side of town had good food and reasonable prices; and by “reasonable” I’m including that I can understand if they’re a bit higher considering the isolation of the area.  When the prices here were also double that in my guidebook, with the cheapest meal running about $30, I chose starvation over exploitation.

Imagine my delight when I retuned to the hostel and spotted that they have a variety of foodstuffs for decent prices.  I bought some pasta and tomato sauce for about $6 and soon enough had a meal ready to eat.  My roommates consisted of two Danes, a girl whom I forget where she was from, two French people I didn’t get a chance to talk to, and one mystery person who slept beneath me.  Er, on the lower bunk, that is.

My evening was spent in the TV room – not initially to watch TV, but I did happen to walk in just as someone had put in the Snatch DVD.  My reason for being there was because there was a power outlet, giving me the opportunity to transfer photos and catch up on writing a bit.  I don’t quite get why so many backpackers hostels seem content with providing only one power outlet in a room of 6 or 8 bunks.  At least most hostels provide two outlets in one panel, but our room had only one single outlet.  One.  For eight beds.  Every YHA hostel I stay at is just as bad, though most other hostels aren’t much better.

While in the TV room I met two guys from Slovenia.  One guy spoke English pretty well and was a very avid photographer.  I was in awe at his photos which made use of a polarizer; I now realize I have to get one, myself.  This guy had a shaved head like me – it’s nice to know I’m not the only one out there.  The other guy spoke a little bit of English and looked kind of like a lighter-skinned, longer-haired Onur.

They both seemed particularly excited that I’d actually heard of Slovenia, and they were even more enthused when I said I’d even been to Ljubljana – though I admitted that my experience was only from passing through by train.  They used my laptop to transfer photos whilst folks in the adjacent room, as one guy put it, were transferring beer.  We got to talking about a slew of your usual traveler’s dialogue, but one part that was entertaining was when he was describing his experience with an automatic transmission in New Zealand: “VROOM-vroom-VROOM-vroom” as it keeps changing gears whilst going uphill.  I immediately recognized his description: I asked if he had a Nissan, saw the smile, and continued “Sunny?”  The same car as I – I could certainly commiserate.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

NZ - Te Anau, Milford Sound

The morning was dreary.  Knowing that a dreary day had been forecast, I arranged to stay a second night and took that opportunity to sleep in until about 10:30.  I then sat about in bed ‘til about 1pm figuring out where all I want to go within the remaining time of my trip.  Right around then the clouds began to thin a bit… this was unexpected.  I grabbed my backpack and skedaddled out the door: first destined for town to eat some lunch (an OK pizza).

Right up until I had hopped in my car upon finishing my meal, I’d been intending to do the nearby Kepler Track.  All of a sudden, however, the mood hit me to go to Milford Sound, instead.  And so I went.

The drive between Te Anau and Milford Sound could take the cake in the best of road trips I’ve had thus far in New Zealand, and by all estimates there’s a good chance it could keep that position.  The drive between Haast and Kingston (via Hawea, Wanaka, and Queenstown) is another contender, along with the coastal drive between Westport and Greymouth.

The first segment of the drive skirts Lake Te Anau, which has mountains on the west side of the lake and very soft hills to the east.  In between were some very scenic pastures with intermittent small forests (similar in size to the Pine Barrens along Rt 72 in New Jersey).

The second segment is a more heavily forested region within a valley, with mountains towering above the tree line on each side; and mountains on one side even holding a bit of snow.  The views down the valley provide some stellar photo ops of snowcapped mountaintops, which are the location of the next segment.

Along the first two segments: brilliant alpine flowers of yellow, pink, and purple lit up along the streambeds.  The scent of all these flowers created the most amazing potpourri: part flower; part forest.

Without necessarily realizing it, I drove through a cloudy portion of the valley which was actually the ascent up to the more alpine section of the roadway.  This segment includes the Homer Tunnel, a hole through the mountain located beside blankets of melting snow.  Kea inhabit the areas on each side of the tunnel, where cars queue up for the signal to give them the go-ahead through the alternating one-way tunnel.  The kea seek food from passersby, resulting in some very social and inquisitive kea.  On the Milford Sound side of the tunnel was a fantastic switchback roadway which was a blast to drive both up and down.

Waterfalls in the vicinity were frequent and massive, owing to the seemingly endless rain over the past several weeks; and the further influx of rain overnight.  When I say that there were frequent waterfalls, I seriously mean every several meters… and not just water trickling down the side of a cliff wall; actual raging gushing water.

The fourth segment, on the other side of Homer Tunnel, included a drive through thick forest until suddenly arriving at Milford Sound.  The Chasm en route was a neat diversion for a couple minutes.  I unfortunately skipped climbing up to Key Summit on account of it being in a cloud.

Milford Sound was indeed a stunningly beautiful place.  To revert to geekdom again, which in my opinion is totally warranted in this country, I’d best equate this to Tolkien’s Grey Havens.  It just felt so much like it: the Elven port west of the Shire.  I began to ponder: do the elves have sandflies?  How do they treat them… do they live harmoniously with them as they do the rest of nature, or do they frantically wave their arms through the air in a vain attempt to eradicate the entire species; or at least the portion of it within a 1-ft vicinity?  I personally went with the latter.

So Milford Sound really does have an absolutely stunning landscape.  However, as many people, books, websites, etc. have warned: sandflies cannot be ignored.  Fortunately, they weren’t biting me at all – I didn’t get a single bite.  I’d later learn that others weren’t nearly so fortunate… as with mosquitoes, I often don’t seem to be too tasty to bugs.  However, that didn’t stop the blasted insects from swarming all around me every time I’d pause for a moment.  You ever walk through a cloud of gnats, and you feel the tickle of them all over?  I had a cloud of sandflies just stalking me throughout my duration at the Sound.  Soon enough I could even taste them every time I’d swallow – I couldn’t even walk without breathing some in.  But through it all: no bites.

My drive back went considerably faster than the drive out, apart from a couple stops to get some photos of the setting sun’s light.  Back in Te Anau I grabbed some more pasta al nonno (same thing I had the previous night) and returned to Bob & Maxine’s to relax the rest of the evening… and to clear out the mass of photos I’d accumulated over the day.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

NZ - Franz Josef --> Te Anau

I got up at my first awakening, which was current with our two German roommates’ movement.  My goal was to figure out where I was going today – an action I’d been woefully procrastinating on for so long that now the time had come that I had to figure it out.  I knew I was going south, but how far?  What was I doing along the way?

The night before, I think I had the same mental disconnect that I had last year whilst with Svitlana and Anastasia.  That is, the realization that we have too many differences.  Jojo’s interests are just too different from mine.  It’s when I hit this realization when I suddenly become very quiet & introverted, as I come to realize that I’m letting socialization hold me back from what I want to do.

To discuss differences more specifically: Jojo has absolutely zero desire to hike around New Zealand.  I figure she’ll eventually mature out of that – she’s still young – but for my own vacation’s demands it just wasn’t going to work out to stay with her anymore.  Svenja, on the other hand, seemed almost my equal as far as hiking: she joined me the previous day the whole way through, and we shared the same degree of earnestness as well as subsequent soreness.

Of course, I couldn’t just stay with one and not the other.  Hence, the previous night I decided it was time to get them to their final destination; and I’d intentionally separate myself.  Even if I was going to stay in Queenstown, I’d take to different accommodation.

Our departure started out with a beautiful day, even though weather reports were calling for rain today and tomorrow.  When we arrived at Fox Glacier it was cloudy, but clear sky could still be seen in the distance.  We did a quick hike up to the glacier’s terminus & then back again.  It wasn’t too far back on the road when the rain began.  It made it a bit of an arduous drive, though cashews & orange juice helped keep my as wide-eyed as I could be.

It was around Lake Hawea when glimpses of sunshine began to appear, and before we knew it blue sky was overtaking dark.  How fitting in the land of Mordor.  Er… geeky comments aside, the sun couldn’t have arrived at a better time: just as we were arriving at all the lakes.  We did pitstops in Hawea and Wanaka before ultimately ending up in Queenstown.

My problem with New Zealand is that every single town looks exactly the same.  You have your town center, consisting of single-floor retail along one street (or for “big” cities: a couple grid streets), and then it’s surrounded by some single-floor houses.  Granted, that could also be its benefit: it only further encourages you to get out and explores its beautiful countryside instead of sitting in town.

I lead from that into Queenstown because it’s really not terribly different, though a couple buildings did have a bit more architectural charm.  The commercial core, however, wasn’t much better than any other city’s, town’s, or village’s.  Its surrounding landscape, however, proffered quite a bit more defense for the city against any disparaging remarks.  The surrounding mountains and lakes created a lovely image, especially from the top of the gondola – which whisks people up to an adventuring playground for enthusiasts of more extreme sports.

After bidding the girls farewell & riding the gondola, I was back on the road toward Te Anau.  The SH6 afforded yet more amazing lake and mountain views, though after passing by the lake it ended up turning into rather monotonous small hills covered with livestock.  Still scenic, but not nearly as spectacular.

I rolled into Te Anau at just about exactly 8pm.  It didn’t take much effort to find Bob & Maxine’s, my lodging for the next two nights.  This place is amazing: it’s run by an enthusiastic couple (guess what their names are!) who really seem to love getting to meet the variety of people that pass on through.  It’s set on a farm located right beside what looks like it’s gearing up to be a subdivision – so for the moment it’s in beautiful countryside.

Backpacker accommodations are in what may have very well been a barn at some point in its history: the massive open communal area, with its 2-story cathedral ceiling, certainly create an inviting & casual atmosphere.  Internet is cheap & on the honor system (that earns kudos from me), and the television has yet to be turned on (yet  more kudos).  This could very well be in the running as among the most inviting hostels I’ve yet come across.  It’s location also couldn’t be better for getting a headstart to Milford, whenever the weather provides.

Monday, December 7, 2009

NZ - Franz Josef Glacier

My day began at about 6am.  An alarm was going off… and going off… and wouldn’t stop.  Then the German girl got up, spent a horrendous amount of time in the bathroom, I think her alarm went off again at some point, and overall the timeline gets a bit sketchy when I’m half-awake / half-asleep.  I peered out the window and saw brilliant sunshine, so I tried to ask the girl what time it was; but all I got was an angry-looking mumble of a whole bunch of words.

After some milling about, Svenja and I opted to do the 5.5 hr Roberts Point Track alongside the glacier, whereas Jojo & Jordan went for the ::cough:: 1 hour glowworm cave track.  Clearly I have my opinions over who wussed out, though to be fair Jordan has been here before & has already been around the glacier.

Our trek was rather painful, though now that I sit here and notice that my legs really aren’t sore at all: I now realize it actually wasn’t so bad.  It was just hot and humid, and I needed far more than about half a liter of water in my pack.  It’s a bit aggravating to pass by nice mountain stream after stream & not be able to drink from it due to nasty microscopic stuff in it… but at least the water made for some refreshing cold as I’d splashed it along my arms.

Svenja and I had some fun chats, of which a decent share revolved around Jojo.  Poor Jordan: I think he really likes Jojo (granted, who wouldn’t?), but I suspect he’s not yet aware that she already has a boyfriend.  Apparently her boyfriend is a really really nice guy, and guys keep hitting on Jojo on the premise that the boyfriends is far away: but she’s thus far stayed true.

Jojo really just likes to be friends with people.  The problem is that she’s flirtatious and makes excellent eye contact, so it’s certainly understandable that every man she speaks to is going to think that she’s absolutely infatuated with them.  Heck, I’d been thinking much the same thing up until I started to think that she just isn’t quite aware of the impression she casts upon men; and my conversation with Svenja only confirmed those suspicions.  I told Svenja to share with Jojo the phrase “you’re like a brother to me” to kindly quash the hopes & dreams of every man she comes across, as I’ve been trying to think of her more like a sister just to keep my own mind straight.

The track itself was a bit of a challenge in that it went up and down to almost no end.  Every step was slippy, with a potentially lethal ending should you make a mistake.  There were several swing bridges along the way, including one with a maximum load of 1 person.  There was a wooden walkway at one point which gave me a touch of vertigo, and a segment of some borderline bouldering just past a sign saying “experienced hikers only, you’re going to die, blah blah blah”.

The top of the track afforded a decent view over the glacier, though memories of Switzerland are still fresh & I’ll never forget the perfect views I’d had back then.  So while the views were only OK, I can’t deny that the hike itself was some great exercise.  Granted, the calories I’d burned were more than likely compensated by the cheesy spätzle and Magnum ice cream bar I ate not too long after returning to town.

There was some lounging about the hostel following, which also included meeting our two new roommates.  That meant we were apparently up to 8 people and 6 beds… that’s when we realized that the Americans & Dutch guy only hired one bed.  So Jordan ended up in their campervan and we acquired two new roommates – a guy & girl from Germany.  They looked very much alike: I wasn’t sure if they were related or just a perfect pairing; though in retrospect the girl seemed to be around me a lot & was frequently trying to initiate conversation… perhaps I shouldn’t have just assumed she was with the guy; she had a cute “geek girl” sort of look.

The lot of us (sans Jersey girl & Dutch guy) departed together to walk up the street a bit & down a forest track, reported to be host to glowworms.  Our trek soon turned up just that: in the uprighted roots of a fallen tree they appeared as if a nighttime sky.  This sparked my memory in that I’d actually been wanting to go see the real nighttime sky for quite awhile now… hence right after I drove down to Okarito, a beachside village near Franz Josef.

This place is a “bring a torch” sort of town, owing to its almost zero nighttime lighting.  The beach is even less than zero, with the celestial sky providing my illumination whilst out there.  Without a moon, it was so dark that Jupiter cast a noticeable glow upon the seas.  The large and small Magellanic Clouds were readily visible – appearing as if real terrestrial puffs of cloud overhead.  The spiral arms & core of the Milky Way were unfortunately hidden just barely over the horizon, along with the Southern Cross.

While I could just barely see the dimmest bands of our galaxy’s reach, I did immediately spot Orion’s Belt.  However, I had a bit of trouble figuring out where Sirius was… usually the easiest thing to find, and undoubtedly my favorite star.  There was an unimaginably bright star to the right of Orion which I couldn’t quite identify, but later into the evening an astronomer just happened to arrive and noted that that bright star was indeed Sirius.  His explanation also helped clarify my confusion as to why Betelgeuse – Orion’s fiery redhead – was at the bottom.  When you cross to the southern hemisphere: northern hemisphere constellations apparently become inverted.

Best I can figure, it’s not because of any weird optical effect; rather, it’s just that you’re standing upside-down from what you’re used to.  However, I’m scratching my head as to how it might look nearer to the equator… or wherever the inversion occurs…

Sunday, December 6, 2009

NZ - Franz Josef Glacier

Rain!  RAIN!!!  The bane of my travel.  When I’m in the northern hemisphere, my presence seems to bring nothing but daylight.  I can visit areas during their wettest of seasons and see nothing but sunshine.  Yet in the southern hemisphere, my powers are reversed: now rain follows me wherever I go.

Today just became a day to bum about and enjoy each other’s company, or in my case to sit on the computer and write about the past several days of goings on.  Tramping about the glacier doesn’t look like a possibility today, as this isn’t just a light rain that I could care less about: this is an outright downpour.  At least the waterfalls and such along the hiking routes ought to be spectacular once I finally do get on the trails.

After much delay, we got ourselves out the door to go visit Hoktika & buy some jade stuff.  Or more specifically, I bought a jade rock whilst the girls bought postcards.  On the way there, I’d been kidding about that it’ll probably be sunny in Hoktika whilst rainy at the glaciers… fate is cruel in that I ended up being right.  Hoktika was beautiful with hardly a cloud in the sky, apart from the clouds up in the mountains.

After enjoying some garlic bread by the shoreline, we made our way back to the car; and it was then that I learned that I’d left the headlights on.  I’m used to the headlights turning off along with the car, so I didn’t even think about it.  I also wouldn’t have thought that only an hour’s walk around town would yield a dead battery.  We got a couple to give us a jump, but the best part was that on the opposite side of the roundabout: another car was getting a jump.

Our return to town yielded some clouds, but an otherwise spectacular sunny evening.  We came to find that we had four more roommates, despite only three remaining beds.  There was a German girl from, if I remember right, Hamburg.  She had gotten a degree in law but was now considering taking on a new career field, as she was bored beyond belief with law.  Her time in New Zealand was just to relax.  Since she was quite cute, I tried to strike up conversation, but distractions kept ending any chance; and she was gone early the next morning.

The other two roommates consisted of some kids from Cairnes, Australia, whom had just finished a semester abroad there.  Two Americans: Jordan from Minnesota and a girl from Monmouth County, New Jersey; and also a guy from Holland.  Our previously spacey room suddenly became quite a bit tighter.

The girls and I ended up playing pool with Gus and the Dutch guy… it was pretty pitiful.  First it was Jojo & myself against Jordan & the Dutch guy; then Jordan & I versus Jojo & Svenja (America vs Germany); and then a rematch albeit with Holland allying with Germany.  My team lost each time… but it was bloody close each time.  We all sucked quite equally.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

NZ - The West Coast

This morning was fantastic – the best I’ve had yet.  That’s mostly because I could see the sun.  I could see blue sky.  I felt warm.  The rain was over!!  Granted, yesterday’s rain felt pretty good whilst tramping, but certainly wasn’t conducive toward good photos.  Our spirits were high as we rolled out of town and southwest toward Westport.  Our first stop would be Tauranga Bay, the location of a seal colony.

Spotting the seals was one thing, but the walk beyond that point was yet another pleasant trek.  A short walk took us by horses & up to a lighthouse, and having grown up beside a lighthouse I have a bit of an infatuation with them.  The horses held an infatuation by Jojo, who immediately went running up to their fence, and soon enough had hopped the fence & was chatting with and petting them.  Svenja and I let her be as we continued to the lighthouse, and returned to hear that Jojo had apparently tried (or seriously thought) about mounting one to ride it.  Ahh, girls and their horses…

Continuing, we passed through Greymouth – with a beautiful location but an otherwise nondescript town – and on through Hoktika – which actually had a bit nicer of a downtown as compared to other Kiwi centers.  The whole drive along the coast was spectacular, with every curve bringing an even more amazing view.  The views were further pronounced by the crystal clear sky all around, apart from the menacing clouds hanging on the mountains.  The weather and views combined to make this the best New Zealand road trip yet.

When we arrived in Franz Josef Glacier’s eponymous village, just shy of 9pm and minutes away from reception’s closing time, we learned that this time around we actually did have a room to ourselves.  Six bunks, but we were the only three in there.  The room was completely self-contained: kitchen, breakfast table, an excellent (if not too good) heater, and even a television with a grand four channels.  More critically: a spa – though it’s broken here & we have to head to a neighboring hostel; but I can live with that.

We all took bottom bunks when we first walked in, but almost instantly we all came to the same realization: the bottom bunks were a tight fit.  You couldn’t even sit up without bashing your head on the bunk above.  Hence, we all relocated to the top bunk: living in our own world high above the room.  With cathedral ceilings, it’s a spacey world.