Thursday, June 10, 2010

Attack from the South. Mad dash from Wellington to Auckland on the North Island.

To get the most bang for our buck with Sarah, we packed our itinerary with as many stops as we could and planned to drive the Bluebird. And because we are all broke young adults, we needed to cut as many corners as we could. We already bought two ferry tickets and a vehicle ticket, so the first corner we cut was finding a way to get Sarah on the ferry without a ticket.

After we got back from the Queen Charlotte Track, we relaxed, packed and squeezed in a few hours of sleep before we drove down to the ferry a little before 5 in the morning (the earliest tickets are the cheapest). With Sarah snug in the trunk, we waited in line to drive onto the boat. Sleepiness was not an issue due to how nervous we were of getting caught. Although we only waited in line for about 30 minutes, you can imagine that it felt like three hours while you intermittently ask Sarah if she's OK while staring straight ahead. Sure enough, we see a worker walking to the driver window of every car in line. Already sweating bullets, we tried to act cool and inform Sarah (while staring forward) so it didn't seem like we had a talking trunk when the man came to our window. Much to our relief, the man just asked about our luggage and carried on. After the nerve racking 30 minutes, Sarah crawled through the back seat and walked up to the upper deck where we were able to catch a few more hours of sleep. You can cross off being a coyote smuggling Mexicans across the border off my potential career list.

Our first adventure was a John Mayer concert in Wellington. We met up with Sophie, a girl we worked with at Seabreeze, to get some necessary games of beer pong in before the concert. Sophie claimed that she really wanted to play, but when we arrived, there wasn't a beer, table, or even cup in sight. So Sophie and I went out on a beer run in the pouring rain. Unfortunately Wellington isn't Iowa City, so I had to run in the rain to three stores for beer pong supplies while Sophie waited in PIzza Hut for our food. With a stack of pizzas and beer pong supplies, we scurried back into the van. Once back, I quickly constructed a table out of a door I found in the alleyway and Sophie's dresser that we dragged into the hallway. Eating our 'large' pizza, we were able to get a few games in before our cab came to take us to the concert. We found our seats at the concert soon enough for Sophie and Jen to make some signs before the show started. By 'make some signs', I mean they found some newspapers and wrote "JOHN! THIS IS MY 13TH CONCERT!" over three pages with a black felt tip marker. The concert started and we quickly became unhappy with how far back our seats were. No more than 5 minutes into the concert, we hurried up to the front and stood in the walkways in between the blocks of seats. What the hell, right? Worse case, we get escorted back into our paid seats. But, after sizing up the security detail (consisting of mostly middle aged women), our spots up front were secured. The 'security' attempted several times to ask our group to leave, but we stood strong and were able to enjoy the entire concert from the front row. The only other problems we encountered were people complaining of Jen's 'announcement' blocking their view while John refused to acknowledge Jen's 13th concert.

The next day, we thanked Sophie for the place to stay and began our drive to Taupo. We arrived at Taupo after a quick five hour drive with a list of things to do in the area. Most of all, we wanted to take the Tongariro Crossing which some boast as being the best day walk in the world. Unfortunately, the day we planned on doing it, the walk it was cancelled due to unfavorable walking conditions. We were, however, able to do everything else we had in mind. Like Sarah and I bungee jumping at ten in the morning for example. We came to the building wondering where we would be shuttled off to, what bridge we would be jumping off of, cliff, etc. We checked in and turned around and actually saw that behind the building was a man-made walkway that extended about 60 feet out over a sheer cliff alongside the river that runs through Taupo. We walked with our passes to the station at the end of the walkway and sat down. I volunteered to go first so the man rattle off instructions and rules like he has repeated the same speech hundreds of times before while he fastened my ankles to the bungee cord. Before I knew it, my toes were at the edge of this walkway and the only thing I remembered him saying was, "Just fall. More you wait, the worse it is." So I leaned forward and dropped off the ledge. With my heart still going a mile a minute, I was taken down on a boat on the river. The boat dropped me off the side while I got to see Sarah step to the edge and take the plunge as well. As requested, she was able to dip further down and actually get dunked in the river while she yo-yo'd to a standstill. Later, we were also able to take a day walk and soak in some thermal hot springs before retiring back to the hostel for supper. The next day was the day we wanted to do the Tongariro crossing. But, when we started our drive to Rotorua, we couldn't help but notice the perfect weather outside. Turned out to be perfect walking conditions after all, even despite the forecast. The drive started off with a bitter tone.

Rotorua is known for it's beauty spas and pampering facilities. The town is located around a very active hot thermal springs which are utilized at several of the local beauty spas. If you aren't interested in the spas, the town is known for it's distinct smell of sulfur. A town reeking like eggs or farts. Jen and Sarah took this opportunity to go to a day spa and were able to bond and relax. I, however, spent the afternoon checking out the local stores while turning each corner to a new wave of stench. The locals told me it was an exceptionally bad day. That evening we went to a Maori cultural experience. Maori is the native people of New Zealand and are still a large part of the country's culture. We took a short bus ride out to the site and waited to be checked in. Once in the dining hall area, we sat down with a beer and waited for the event to start while the room filled with tourists from all over the world. Once everyone was seated, the speaker came out and introduced himself as something along the lines of 'Kuhsinbing'. He announced that before we were to meet the Maori tribe, he needed a representative, a chief, for the group of roughly eighty people waiting for the experience. A few people spoke up to volunteer anyone but themselves when Sarah shoots her hand up just to point directly at me. Just my luck, I became the chief of the 13 winds. The event had me leading everyone, greeting everyone, meeting the chief of the tribe on stage(in Maori fashion, of course), and scoring front row seats for 'the chief and his family' for the Haka (Maori dance). Thanks Sarah.

Our next stop was Tauranga and Mount Maunganui. We spent some time in Tauranga, but were more interested in Mount Maunganui, it's neighboring town. Mount Monganui is a coastal town that marked our successful crossing of the North Island from the southernmost tip to the northeast shore. Exploring the town, we were able to take in the absolute beauty of the south Pacific Ocean. We spent some time on the beach and also took a day walk around the dormant volcano known as Mount Maunganui. You guessed it, the views from the edge of the volcano with the setting sun were breathtaking.

Because Jen and Sarah got to enjoy a nice little day spa, I was able to convince them to take a small detour to a town called Matamata. This might ring a few bells with some geeks out there, but for the rest of you, Matamata is the home of Hobbiton from the Lord of the Rings. It was Jen and Sarah to take their turn spending the afternoon walking the town as I took a day trip into the country to explore the town of Hobbiton. The country side next to Hobbiton was chosen because they needed absolutely no signs of the 21st century for the movie. Once I got off the bus, I noticed why the spot was chosen. Rolling green hills, beautiful country side, enormous old trees, and not a telephone pole or highway to been seen in any direction. We walked along and the guided filled my head full of trivia. Passing hobbit holes and paths, we came upon the great party tree (the large tree where Bilbo Baggins had his 111th birthday party). Next time you watch the Fellowship of the Ring, remember that I have stood under that tree. I definitely had a great time and got my "nerdy high" walking through the movie set, but to spare most of you reading this, just ask if you want me to go into further detail about this chapter of our journey.

With only a few days left in Sarah's trip to New Zealand, we had time for one more stop. We drove out to the Coromandel Peninsula to a town called Whitianga. Although we arrived late and in the dark, we had a stroke of luck with our hostel. Because of the off season, the hostel upgraded us to an en suite private room just for the three of us. It was like having our own beach house for NZ$23 per person. The owner of the hostel also paid us a visit in the morning to offer us a boat ride through the famous Cathedral Coves along the Coromandel Peninsula, an experience some might pay over a hundred dollars for. We got to experience it for a mere NZ$30.

Our main goal of our trip out to Whitianga was to scuba dive together. Although the visibility wasn't the greatest, it was an amazing experience. We also splurged and spent money to use the underwater digital camera and took around 250 pictures during the two dives. This was also the first experience for Jen and I to dive with the surf current. Our initial reaction was to fight it and try to stay in one place as it pushed and pulled us. We floundered around for a bit, but became comfortable with the current and quit fighting it to go with the flow, you might say. We swam with fish and even found a crab all the while clicking away on the under water camera.

The next day we arrived in Auckland the night before Sarah had to fly out. Instead of getting some much needed sleep for the early airport drive, we decided to go out and have a few beers with Will (an old roommate of mine from the college days) to celebrate Sarah's New Zealand adventure. Not wanting the night to end, we hopped around to a few downtown bars before getting a gourmet meal at Burger King.

The next morning came around much sooner than we thought as I woke up to Sarah tapping me telling me to wake up. I rolled over, furious, to look at her standing next to the bunk bed and asked her, "WHAT?". "It's time to wake up, Cody." Confused, angry, I asked, "WHY??". "Well, I thought you guys were still taking me to the airport." A few cogs turned in my head and reality set in, "Ooooooohhhhh...", I moaned. I apologized a few times as we got our act together and drove Sarah to the airport for a final farewell. Goodbyes were said, hugs were hugged, and we left Sarah at the airport. Sarah's chapter in New Zealand was over. All before the sun rose in the sky and not a moment was wasted.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Cody, Jeni and Sarah Take on the Queen

After nearly 4 months of perfecting our barista skills behind the counter at the Seabreeze Cafe and countless trips in the Bluebird between Picton and our teeny apartment in the country, it was time to move on. We cheers-ed our coworkers and said our goodbyes at a staff party held before we left.

We spent our last week bunking at our boss' place (Thanks Jules!) as our lease ran out a week before we planned to leave. Jules' home is set in the gorgeous Marlborough Sounds - we felt like our vacation had already begun! But by late April, my sister, Sarah, had arrived and our travels began anew.

Sarah met us in Picton on a Thursday and by Friday morning she had shaken any trace of jetlag and was ready to begin the Queen Charlotte Track. This 3-night-4-day track through the Marlborough Sounds is similar to the Kepler Track Cody and I completed in December. Both are ranked among New Zealand's "Nine Great Walks." The Queen Charlotte Track, however, is not a loop and requires transportation to the beginning of the track and, of course, at the end. And while the Queen Charlotte Track is longer (71 kms) than the Kepler (60 kms) it does not climb to nearly as high of altitude and is ranked as moderate (with the Kepler at advanced-moderate). That being said, it was still an exhausting, hilly, sweaty and blister-filled hike. And this time, instead of staying in the cabins provided by the DOC, we slept on the ground (in a tent, of course).

We began the track by taking a water taxi out to the end of the Marlborough Sounds. The sun was shining and morale was high as we began the first leg of the hike. Sarah and I couldn't stop talking - we couldn't believe it had been almost a year since we'd last seen each other - we had so much to catch up on! I'm sure Cody felt a bit left out but he didn't show it and seemed entertained by Sarah's stories. A mere 7 hours later we arrived at our first campsite. Fortunately, the water taxi ticket included luggage pick-up/drop-off at all of our campsites - no more aching collarbones! We found our bags at the nearby dock and set up camp.

Cody and I had managed to borrow a tent from a coworker (thanks Danielle!) and together, Cody and Sarah tackled setting it up for the first time while I "prepared" dinner. By nightfall we were enjoying hot bowls of Campbell's soup in the patio of what turned out to be a circus tent. And, since we didn't have to lug around our huge packs, we stuffed a few luxuries in, including a 40 oz. bottle of beer which Cody promptly buried in the sand on the beach so the ocean water would cool it down. Exhausted and dehydrated, we passed out around 8 pm.

The morning of the second day was as bright and sunny as the first. We dumped our bags back on the dock and headed off into the sunlight. The trail climbed through forest, crossed through private farm land, and brushed passed small beaches. Each clearing brought new breathtaking views of the Sounds. Crystal blue water and deep, green vegetation as far as the eye could see. This hike was unique to the others we've done across New Zealand.

We stopped for breaks when we needed to - scarfing down nuts, granola bars, and fruit as necessary - but at some point in the second day we ran out of water. On our lunch break we stopped at an area marked on the map as a water source. The signs next to the tap, however, warned that the water should be boiled before consumption. Parched and without our camping grill/equipment, we decided to take our chances. Some other hikers also on their lunch break tried to talk us out of drinking the possibly contaminated water and even offered one of their water bottles. But we were only a couple of hours into the 8 hour hike and we knew that one water bottle just wouldn't cut it. To lighten the mood, we made jokes about our possibly impending doom the rest of the afternoon. Luckily, none of us came down with diarrhea or nausea and were able to continue laughing about our situation and refilling our water bottles when necessary.

By the third morning the clouds had found us. We awoke sore and blistered but looked forward to a much shorter hike - only 4 hours! We arrived at our campsite by midday only to find out that our bags wouldn't be dropped off until late in the afternoon. Without anything to do, we decided to carry on to a nearby hotel resort (there are many along this track, catering to those who like a little luxury with their nature) to see if they had a bar or pool to entertain us for the next 4 hours until our bags arrived. It was raining by this time and the hotel we stumbled upon did not, in fact, have a bar or pool, but a small gift shop stuffed with tacky souvenirs and overpriced groceries.

Determined to find the silver lining, Cody spotted a handful of bottles of beer for sale in the cooler. We removed our dripping raincoats and plopped down in the lawn furniture situated in the middle of the shop, awkwardly indicating to the hotel manager that we planned on hanging around for awhile. She left us to our beers while our eyes scanned row up on row bric-a-brac crap. Buried somewhere on a bottom shelf, Sarah discovered our source of entertainment for the next few hours, an ancient Jenga set and Pictionary board game. Jackpot!

We rose the final day tired, achy, and anxious to not only finish the track (and the inevitable rush of feeling accomplished) but also to get home and shower. We finished the final 3-4 hours in drizzle and found ourselves in a similar predicament as the day before. We reached the end of the track/ meeting point for the water taxi

to pick us up with hours to spare. We were simply to exhausted to walk to the nearby town to look for a cafe or somewhere to pass the time. Instead, we spotted an advertisement for a hostel just a few blocks down with patio seating and cafe! We couldn't believe our luck!

When we arrived at the hostel, however, we learned pretty quickly that they had been a little deceptive in their advertising. By "cafe" they meant that you could sit in their "lobby" (which was really more like sitting in a stranger's living room) and buy expensive beers from the front desk. Needless to say, we made ourselves right at home. I think the hostel owner was just thankful to have some business. As we sipped our beers, I noticed on their vacancy board that they had a hot tub for guests to use. We enquired with the hostel owner and for just $5 a piece, we were able to soak our aching bodies for the next hour before our boat ride home. It was blissful. And it was exactly what we needed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Whales and Wekas

 After fighting for two days off together (and getting our boss to cover a shift), we were finally able to go on a short trip together to Kaikoura.  Kaikora is a 2 hour drive south of Picton and is known for whale watching.  We spent our first day just taking our time driving through the stunning landscapes to Kaikora, checking out the town, and taking a day hike on the edge of town.  It was a beautiful day and we heard that taking this hike would bring us to an area populated with sea lions.  We pulled the car up to the beginning of the trail and put on our back packs when we noticed that we didn't need to go far to see the sea lions.  They were laying around about ten feet from the parking lot!  We heard the walk was beautiful so we decided to go ahead and hike anyways.  So, we took some pictures, got our fill of sea lions and started on the track.

  The trail was a steep incline and leveled off and went along the coast line for two hours.  We had a steep cliff to our left that sloped down to the crashing waves and to our right we had... cows.  The trail went alongside and through some private farm land where cows just graze and stare out at the ocean and the occasional hiker every day.  We couldn't help telling the cows that they had it so much better than their cousins in Iowa.

 Just like the rest of New Zealand, it was absolutely beautiful.  We were about three quarters through the track when we came to a stair case that led down the cliff to a path on the beach.  We climbed down and took the opportunity to have our lunch, explore the beach and climb some rocks before we turned around and headed back home.

  The next day we had made appointments to go whale watching!  It was something that neither of us have done before and needless to say, we were excited.  Before we got on the boat, we were warned of about sea sickness with the current swell in the ocean.  Just to be safe, we took a couple ginger pills although neither of us claimed to be prone to seasickness.  Here's some foreshadowing: What does a boy from the landlocked state of Iowa know about seasickness?

  If you were wondering how exactly does one go whale watching, let me tell you.  Because using sonar to detect the location of a whale disrupts and may confuse a whale in it's natural habitat, you're left to educated guesses and luck.  So, if you can imagine, whale watching mostly is listening for a whales own sonar, guessing where it might surface based on the time of day and previous sightings, looking all around the ocean on the deck of the boat, and darting from location to location.  To entertain those on board, there is a crew member with a great presentation on the flat screen and an information rich speech about whales.  If you have any questions about whales, you'll have to refer to Jen because I was the only one on board with his head between his knees in a cold sweat trying not to interrupt the speaker with me retching in the aisle.

  Getting out to the site and darting from location to location searching for whales went on for nearly an hour when we finally go word from the other boat of a sighting!    Once our boat got to the surfaced sperm whale, everyone scrambled out on deck, camera in hand.  Thanks to Jen, we were able to get some great pictures of the whale while it was surfaced and while I was battling waves of nausea and being on the brink of puking over the side of the boat.  Jen snapped photos as quickly as possible until the sperm whale finally collected enough oxygen to make another dive.

  One of our only other breaks from work was our trip to the Abel Tasman Track.  The Abel Tasman Track is also one of the Great Walks of New Zealand and typically takes 3-4 days hike one way.  We talked to some of the people we worked with and they suggested that we drive to the halfway point of the track known as Totaranui.  Borrowing some extra camping gear, we started our journey.  After nearly three hours of driving, we arrived at the closest small town to the track.  We stopped for lunch (and a beer) before we got directions to our campsite.  

If it weren't for the specific directions and map, we probably would of gotten lost of given up.  Shortly after we left town, the road turned to gravel, winded this way and that,  and ascended and descended so radically that it tested the Nissan Bluebird's will to live.  We arrived at a well developed campsite that had the potential of hosting hundreds of campers during peak season.  We checked in and noticed that we were two of around ten total campers in the whole camp grounds.  So we continued on to claim a camping bay that normally could host more than eight tents, all to ourselves.

  Trying to make the most of our time, we quickly got settled in, glanced at a map, and made the decision to make a hour hike (round trip) to a nearby beach.  We strolled though the  trail for nearly ten minutes before we started climbing a steep hill.  Neither of us were excited about this incline, but we were told that there was a hill to hike over before we got to the beach and it couldn't be that bad since the hike was supposed to be one hour round trip, right?  Well, every turn we took continued to climb upwards.  We trudged onwards but with waning spirits.  We were hiking directly uphill for nearly 30 minutes when we thought something was wrong.  Frustrated and sweating profusely, we decided to hike a few minutes longer because the hill should start descending soon.  Fifteen more minutes pass and we finally recognize that we had to of taken a wrong turn.  Frustrated, we turned around and backtracked.  Once on level ground, we started walking towards the camp ground looking at the signs more carefully.  Turns out, we did take a wrong turn.  We were on the path for Grog Hill, and Advanced mountain biking path.

  Laughing at ourselves (and cursing the unclear signage), we continued walking back to camp when we found the correct path to the beach.  Looking at the time, we knew that if we were to go to the beach and get back to the campsite before dark, we would only have around ten minutes on the beach.  So, after another 30 minutes of hiking, we fully enjoyed our wonderful ten minutes of beach time.  Yes, it was worth it.

  Once back at the camp site, we had just enough daylight to scrounge up some fire wood, set up our tent, and start making dinner.  We had a gourmet meal of potatoes, steak and a bottle of wine next to a crackling fire.  Near the end of meal, we started to hear rustling in the dark.  Dismissing it thinking that it's 'just the wind', we finished our meal and started playing some cribbage.  A few minutes later, we continued to hear rustling in the dark, but the sounds were getting closer and closer.  When

 the rustling got within 10 feet of our fire, we whipped around and turned on our lamp to see... a weka.  Now, a weka isn't a camp monster, it is simply a really friendly native bird the size of a chicken that enjoys raiding campsites for a free meal.  Slightly annoyed and with some rattled nerves, we shooed it away.  We spent the rest of the night drinking the rest of our wine and playing some games.  However, we had to take several breaks to shoo away the persistant weka which dared to get within arms reach several times during the night.

  The next day, we got up early and started hiking the other direction on the Abel Tasman track.  The hike went on for fifteen minutes before it reached a beautiful beach where we played some frisbee in the morning sun.  The trail went along the beach for a while until it was completely blocked off with rocks and boulders.  Looking around, we didn't see a path leading back into the woods or a path leading anywhere at all.  What we did notice, was an orange disk anchored into one of the largest boulders twenty feet above the beach. 

I went ahead and climbed along the boulders poking out of the ocean to notice that around that large boulder with the orange marker were some wooden stairs.  The whole thing was odd because we didn't notice any developed path, we just had to climb up all the rocks to this staircase that led back into the woods.  Once we got on the staircase, we continued on the track.  We walked along the track for another hour or two when we decided to turn around and head back to camp.  On our way back we came along the staircase on the boulder and came to the realization that we may of left for the track a little too early in the morning.  When we encountered this spot early in the morning we were walking the beach at high tide.  Now that we were walking back, the tide has gone down and revealed a much easier path up and down the boulders.  Who knew?  As we walked back to camp, we noticed the skies getting overcast and we were just able to eat lunch, pack up, and head back to Picton before it started raining.  Perfect timing to end a perfect couple days off.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Life in Picton

Our sincere apologies for the delay in posts! We had a new blog about our life in Picton ready to post about a month ago and then our computer crashed! We are still in the process of getting it fixed so at the moment, our internet access is limited to 30 minute time slots when we're able to reserve a space at the computers at the public library. We've been working like crazy since arriving in Picton so we aren't able to get to a computer as often as we like!

We've been in Picton for about 2 1/2 months now and are so happy we chose to this as our next "home"! Things were rocky at first. We spent the first few days working for accomodation at a hostel but quickly discovered that the amount of work (20 hours a week each) was way to much for the accomodation provided (a mattress on the floor of a dirty apartment). And our new bosses, however friendly and nice to talk to, were a little crazy. We left after 3 days.

We found a furnished apartment just 5 minutes outside of town. It is actually an old motel but the rooms (with kitchens and bathrooms, of course) are rented out as apartments.

Its not much but the rent is decent and we are really happy to have our own place. The owners of the motel apparently own some farm land next to the building and apparently give their chickens and sheep free reign of the parking lot. Its pretty hilarious climbing into your car while a chicken approaches you to see if you've got food. (Sidenote: they can't tell the difference between food and fingernail clippings.)

In January, we began working at a 5-star restaurant called "Escape to Picton." We saw an advertisement that they were hiring and began work the day after our interview. After all our traveling and putting a deposit on our apartment we were pretty broke so we couldn't believe our luck at finding jobs right away. We found out pretty quickly, however, why there were vacancies at "Escape." The boss is a total nutjob and impossible to work for. The work wasn't bad though, and we did enjoy our other coworkers. But the boss was always breathing down our necks about something. It was way more stress than we needed.

One day, after another infuriating shift at "Escape," we stopped for a beer during happy hour at a cafe called Seabreeze. Just for the heck of it, we asked if they were hiring. As it turned out they were losing 3 staff members the following week and were, in fact, hiring. We couldn't believe our luck! We quickly gave notice at "Escape" and began working at Seabreeze the next week.

Since the end of January we've been working 40-60 hours a week at Seabreeze. Its been crazy but we're really enjoying it. Our boss is really laidback and fun to work with. And we love our coworkers. We work some morning/lunch shifts which involve making coffees (we're both trained baristas now, ha!), running food out to tables, picking up dirty dishes, working at the cash register, etc.

In the afternoons we work happy hour - pouring beers and glasses of wine. And in the evenings we switch to table service - i.e. we work as waiters taking orders at the table, etc. Its been an incredibly busy past 6 weeks but we are working hard now so we can do some more traveling!

We're planning on staying in Picton until mid-April when my sister, Sarah, is coming to visit. We'll be traveling with her up through the North island which we haven't seen yet. By mid-May we'll be heading to Australia for about 4 weeks! And after Australia, we'll be coming home! I can't believe time is flying by so quickly!

We haven't done much traveling outside of Picton since we arrived (we haven't hardly had any time off!) but we have taken a few day trips and I promise to write more about those trips soon!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Te Anau: The Last Chapter

All good things must come to an end and fortunately, so has our time in Te Anau. We had originally planned on staying until the end of March but due to some unforeseen circumstances (namely our seriously unprofessional bosses and crazy landlord) we’ve decided to head out early. Much to the annoyance of our employers, we put in our 3 weeks notice on December 2nd, meaning we’d be finished working by the 23rd - just in time for the holidays.

We’d been going back and forth about when we would leave (or could afford to leave) Te Anau for a while (shortly after we arrived, in fact). To sum up our experience in Te Anau, I’ll just say that it wasn’t what we expected. Cody and I both have years of experience in restaurant work and we’ve never seen anything like the operation they’ve got (barely) running at the steak house and cafĂ©. The words sloppy, disorganized, unsanitary, and total clusterf*ck (sorry, Mom) come to mind.

Needless to say, we are glad to be finished with our jobs and are looking forward to the next chapter of our journey. On a positive note, after weeks of struggling with the language barrier, we did end up befriending a few of our German coworkers. In fact, shortly before departing, we introduced a few of them to the all-American pastime of beer pong. Also, a couple from Wales, Becca and Tom, began working with us just a week before we left (replacing us as the token English speakers). We got along really well with them and hope to meet up with them again while we’re all still in NZ.

On the morning of the 24th, we left Te Anau and never looked back. Just 3 ½ hours later, we arrived in Wanaka, where we would be spending Christmas. Wanaka is a small town situated next to another of New Zealand’s beautiful glacial lakes. We spent the afternoon checking out the town and walking around the lake’s shore. That evening (Christmas eve) we went to see Sherlock Holmes in one of the coolest movie theaters we’ve ever seen. Instead of seats, they have comfy couches, recliners and even an old Volkswagen Bug in the middle of the theater. Even cooler, moviegoers can order wine, beer, pizza, ice cream and homemade cookies at the snack bar.

A few weeks back we purchased Christmas stockings and wrapping paper so Christmas morning would feel as normal as possible. That morning we woke up in a hostel in the middle of a foreign country but as we opened presents, prepared a big Christmas breakfast and spoke on the phone with our families, we felt a little closer to home. That afternoon, however, instead of building snowmen or going sledding, we went for a hike in the sunshine. An hour and a half uphill provided an incredible view of Lake Wanaka. We returned to the hostel late that afternoon to snack on Christmas cookies (Thanks Mom, Aunt Cheri and Anna!) and prepare our Christmas dinner.

We left Wanaka the next day and headed north along the west coast. We passed several beaches and drove through a rainforest before reaching our next stop. We spent two nights in a small town called Franz Josef, which is famous for its enormous glacier. While checking into our hostel we signed up for a full day’s hike with the Franz Josef Glacier Guides. The next morning we were outfitted with rain coats, boots and “clampons” (spikes to attach to the boots to aid in walking on the ice) and were off to conquer a glacier.

Without recalling all of the details we were given that day, a brief explanation of how the Franz Josef glacier survives in the middle of a rainforest: The largest portion of the immensely thick glacier rests at the top of the surrounding mountains where it accumulates snow year-round. The snow packs down into ice and this buildup is what feeds the glacier and keeps it alive, so to speak. At the base of the glacier, where we began our ascent, there is a stream of water (melted ice) flowing to the sea. Water and ice are constantly moving throughout the glacier and our guides assured us that it doesn’t look the same from one day to the next.

In order to maneuver about the glacier, our ice-pick-wielding guide carved out steps for us. It was unreal. For 6 hours, we hiked up and down, across and over, and through tiny crevices. We sat and ate lunch - on a glacier!! It was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done.

The next day we continued our journey north. The highway along the west coast is absolutely gorgeous. I mean palm-tree-covered-cliffs-deep-blue-water-white-sandy-beaches-gorgeous.

After a few hours we made a stop at the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki. The Pancake Rocks are huge cliffs jetting off from the shore. They get their name from the fine lines dividing the layers of rock they are made of. Thin layer upon thin layer makes them look, miraculously, like they are made of pancakes. It’s quite a sight.

Our final stops were in Nelson and Picton. Both towns lie at the top of the south island and we spent our time exploring each to see which one we’d like to spend the next few months. (Spoiler alert: We chose Picton.)

But our trip didn’t stop there. We took a ferry from Picton to the southernmost city on the north island, Wellington. We arrived in New Zealand’s capitol city on the 31st. In Wellington, we met up with my cousin, Kevin, and his wife, Morgan (who happened to be vacationing in NZ) and a few of their friends for New Year’s. It was so great to bring in the New Year with some familiar faces! We went to dinner and made the most of Wellington’s nightlife. We all had a great time.

By the next day, Kevin and Morgan were continuing their travels to Thailand and Cody and I were heading back to Picton. Getting settled in Picton hasn’t gone quite as smoothly as it did in Timaru or Te Anau but I’ll leave that for another entry.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Great Outdoors Part II

(Belated happy holidays friends and family! We hope this finds everyone happy, healthy and warm back home! We are a bit behind on our blog entries but we promise to catch everyone up on our most recent adventures very soon!)

In our final days off in Te Anau, we decided (last minute) to take a two-day kayak trip through Doubtful Sound. We’d heard that kayaking through the fiords (instead of taking a cruise) was something we shouldn’t miss. The catch? The trip departed at six in the morning. Have I ever mentioned that we’re not a morning people?

The morning of the trip, we woke up excited, anxious and earlier than we have in months. Doubtful Sound is tucked deep into the Fiordland National Park, so kayaking didn’t start until a ½ hour van ride, an hour long boat ride, and about another 45-minute van ride. During this time we got to know the small group we’d be spending the next two days with. We were glad to find out that we weren’t the only ones with zero kayaking experience. Our guide was very experienced and loved the outdoors, but unfortunately didn’t have a whole lot of patience for the six amateurs that made up our group. Once at the kayak site, our guide gave us basic instructions and helped us pack our two-person kayaks with camping gear while we were eaten alive by sandflies. A mere four and a half hours after we had left Te Anau, we were taking our first kayak strokes into Doubtful Sound.

After getting adjusted to the kayak and working on synchronous strokes for nearly an hour, team Palmer was smoothly kayaking deeper and deeper into Doubtful Sound. We continued to kayak and make occasional stops to listen to our guide lecture about Doubtful Sound, its history and legends. Fact of the day: Just like Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound is actually a fiord, not a sound.

We continued to kayak through the sound/fiord’s calm waters when the rain started. We were initially irritated, but as our guide pointed out, we should embrace the rain because we had to keep in mind that Doubtful Sound is blanketed in a rain forest (oh, and we’ll also be kayaking for hours in it).

After a few hours we arrived at a small beach, which our guide announced is our campsite. As a group, we beached the kayaks and began to unload our lunch. Unfortunately, we were plagued by sandflies. We walked into the forest for about twenty yards to our campsite while attempting to swat away the sandflies. It was futile.

We all huddled in a tent made of bug netting where we cooked ourselves some soup and tore through our premade PB and J sandwiches. Still shivering, we made small talk with our co-kayakers while we sipped on some hot chocolate.

Although we were already cold and sore, our guide rallied us up for an afternoon kayak. We kayaked into a smaller arm of the sound where we were able to explore on our own. It is hard to explain how large Doubtful Sound is, especially from the perspective of a kayak at sea level. We would kayak towards an area we were curious about and after five minutes of paddling, we felt like we haven’t moved at all. We continued to explore the perimeter of the arm passing waterfalls and fallen trees and trying to absorb everything around us. We continue to express how beautiful everything in New Zealand is, but our pictures and weak descriptions hardly do Doubtful Sound justice. After about fifteen minutes of exploration we were instructed to group up and head back to camp.

Back at the beach, we had to carry our kayaks out of sight and pitch our tents before we could get anything to eat. With a slight drizzle and the usual swarm of sand flies, Jen and I tried our best to put our tent up as fast as we could so that we could enjoy the feeling of dry clothes again. Tent finished, Jen jumped inside to change. Freezing to death, I decided I could change at least my pants. Mistake. Sandflies peppered my legs and when my big hand would swat seven dead, fourteen would replace the void. Jen soon was successfully in dry clothes but stated her legs were also attacked even inside the tent. Great.

Back in the community bug tent, we cooked ourselves some dinner and drank a complimentary bag-o-wine out of small plastic Dixie cups. We spent a few hours talking to our group and having a few more servings of wine before we had to bag up our food and head to our luxurious accommodation.

We woke up to our guide announcing that water was boiling for breakfast (for coffee, oatmeal, etc.) While dragging our feet to the bug tent, we were informed that during the night a native bird (the weka) had torn through someone’s food bag. My heart sank as I realized that it was ours. I cleaned up the mess and assessed the damage; we lost the rest of our PB and J’s leaving us with trail mix and granola bars for the rest of the day. After breakfast, we paddled back into Doubtful Sound.

The only thing that stopped us from complaining about our coldness, sore backs, tight shoulders, weak arms and a small wine hangover was the breathtaking view of the fiord on the calm morning waters. We continued paddling for nearly six hours stopping only for a few lectures and at another beach where we had snacks and some more hot chocolate. Once we were back to the beach where we started, we were able to exchange some contact information with our newly made friends and head back to Te Anau.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Great Outdoors

In our final weeks in Te Anau, we did two of the most incredible things I’ve ever done: completed a 3-day hiking trip and kayaked/camped in a national park. Neither Cody or I consider ourselves outdoorsy but in New Zealand it’s hard not to be. Everywhere you turn there is another opportunity to explore the outdoors, witness extraordinary scenery and challenge yourself physically. And that is exactly what we did when we completed the Kepler Track and kayaked Doubtful Sound.

Of the thousands of hiking/walking trails in New Zealand, the Kepler Track is one of New Zealand’s Nine Great Walks (those voted to be the most beautiful, challenging, etc.) All of these trails are well marked and maintained by the Department of Conservation (kind of like our DNR). There are hundreds of day-walks but many of the hikes delve deep into the mountains and forests. In order to complete these lengthier hikes, you must (pay to) book a space in the cabins along the trail with the DOC. Most cabins contain bunk beds, running water and toilets, kitchen tables/chairs and gas stoves. This means you must carry your clothing, sleeping bag, food, and cookware all on your back. Though we packed only essentials, lugging all our crap up a mountain seemed damn near impossible for these two novice outdoorsmen. If we had also managed to drag our diary along with us, it might have read something like this:

Day One: The DOC estimates a 6-hour hike to the first cabin. We begin around 11 am. It is a beautiful, sunny day and we are feeling optimistic. The first two hours follow the shore of Lake Te Anau and the land is mostly flat. We are constantly adjusting our enormous backpacks but we quickly learn that trying to make them comfortable is futile.

The ascent to Mount Luxmore begins and doesn’t let up over the next 2-½ hours. We begin shedding layers down to our shorts and t-shirts. Minutes later our shirts are drenched in sweat. We take several short breaks to catch our breath and sip water. We stop for lunch as we near the bush line – where the forest ends and reveals an incredible view of the surrounding mountains and lakes. Once we’ve reached the edge of the forest, the cold wind whips around us and the trail flattens. A half hour later we reach the cabin and cannot wait for dinner. Tonight’s menu: a packet of instant chicken noodle soup and a bag of dehydrated chicken, veggies and rice (astronaut food, anyone?). We crawl into our sleeping bags around 10 pm.

Day Two: We wake up to the sound of other hikers packing up around 7 am (sadly, the earliest either of us has been up since arriving in NZ). Our calves are stiff as we climb out of bed and eat our breakfast of granola bars and fruit. The cabin is busy as hikers hustle to start today’s hike in hopes of beating the rain that should be here by early afternoon. We follow suit and are soon out the door.
The first step of today’s hike is uphill. I am immediately sweating under the multiple layers I’ve piled on to combat the wind at Luxmore’s peak. Just ten minutes in we’re stopping to catch our breath and shed layers. The view is ridiculous and gets better and better as we continue hiking. About an hour in we’ve reached the peak and have thrown the first snowballs of the day.
The trail winds around to the other side of Mount Luxmore where it is cold, windy and beginning to drizzle. Layers go back on. Hats and mittens make first appearance. We welcome the small decent leading to a narrow ridge that leads to another mountain peak. We cross several of these ridges throughout the day. The view is spectacular – miles and miles of seemingly untouched nature. If you forget about the handful of other hikers you’ve seen that day it feels as if you’re the only person in the world.
After a stop for lunch, we begin descending. We’ve been looking forward to going downhill all day. Boy, were we in for a surprise. Turns out going downhill is just as difficult, if not more, than going up. After about 45 minutes of steep decline, my legs feel like jelly. And hour later and my joints are aching. I know Cody is sick of hearing me whine, but shouldn’t we be to the next cabin by now?

We finally reach the river valley where the next cabin is located after 6 hours and 45 minutes of hiking. We lie down for a nap before dinner and pass out almost instantly. My muscles are unbelievably sore by dinnertime. Soup and dehydrated beef and rice are not enough to fill us up but we have to make the rest of our food last. My stomach growls as I climb back into my sleeping back and try to count how many calories we burned today.

Day Three: I’m in pain from the moment I open my eyes. Absolutely every inch of me hurts. My collarbones are sore and swollen where my backpack rests. My hands and neck are covered in sandfly bites (perhaps the only bugs worse than mosquitoes, these suckers don’t make any noise to warn you of their presence, they don’t move when you swat at them, and their bites last for weeks). I wince in pain and catch a whiff of myself (yuck) as I make my way to breakfast. Granola and fruit is incredibly unsatisfying to my battered body.
Today’s hike is the longest but it’s also the flattest. Honestly at this point my body can’t even tell the difference. Every step hurts and with my last ounce of optimism I tell myself, “Mind over matter.” I force Cody to talk to me about anything and everything in order to distract me. He does his best but there’s no way of ignoring the physical pain and exhaustion we’re both suffering.
For about the last 3-1/2 hours we’re surround by forest and the scenery is, quite frankly, boring compared to the breathtaking landscape of yesterday’s alpine hike. We’re both pretty miserable but have no other option but to forge on. When we reach the edge of Lake Manapouri, we find a beach, sit in the sun and relax for a few minutes. It is the highlight of our day.
With an hour and a half left of the hike, we tease each other about all the delicious fatty food we will eat when we get back to Te Anau. If anything could make us move faster at that point it was the promise of burgers and beer. After 7 hours and 15 minutes, we arrive at Rainbow Reach. We’ve hiked 32 miles in the 3 days. We take a bus back to our car in a parking lot at the beginning of the track. We drive straight to a bar/restaurant and indulge.

The Kepler Track was an experience like we’ve never had. We walked with limps for the next week. And we’re still scratching at a dozen or so sandfly bites. But all of the pain and suffering was worth it. It always is.