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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Ride of the Rings

A couple weeks ago we made a trip the nearby city of Queenstown. Queenstown attracts adrenaline junkies from all over the world in search of their next thrill. Whether it’s skydiving, bungee jumping, paragliding, or zorbing (rolling in a giant plastic ball down a hill – kind of like a hamster. Yes, people pay to do this.) Queenstown’s got it. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet saved up enough to take part in any of these activities. No, this trip we participated in a much less intense, if not dorkier, activity. We rode The Ride of the Rings.

Just north of Queenstown, in an area appropriately named Paradise, we visited several film sites of The Lord of the Rings trilogy while riding horseback. Since arriving in New Zealand, Cody had been adamant about visiting as many LOTR sites as possible. Though I may not share his passion for the films, this trip proved to be one of the coolest things we’ve done. And as usual, I cannot say enough about the natural beauty of this country.

After several days of rain, the day of The Ride turned out to be a gorgeous sunny day. Our spirits were high during the van ride from the stables to the location of The Ride. As we neared Paradise, it became obvious why this land would be a film director’s dream. Crystal-clear glacial waters, emerald rolling hills, picturesque snow-capped mountains: no computer imaging necessary. We learned then that Paradise had also been used for the recent X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie. Remember the scenes in which Hugh Jackman is hiding on the farm of the elderly couple…or more specifically, the scenes in which he is running through the fields naked? Turns out naked Wolverine was sprinting just meters away from the Battle of Isengard. Needless to say, this piqued Cody’s nerdy-ness to the max.

The Ride lasted about two hours and took us past the locations of fight scenes between Aragorn and the Ura’kai, to the edge of the forest of the ents, and the mountain in which they placed the digital image of the Tower of Isengard. (My apologies to our non-nerd readers. Like you, I found the naked Hugh Jackman scenes much more interesting.) And though we didn’t actually see any sword-wielding hobbits or elves running around, we were in the presence of one movie star. Oscar, the horse I rode that day, starred in the final LOTR film during the Battle of Gondor. Our guide explained that the director originally planned to use roughly 2,000 horses for this scene in which the Knights of Rohan charge towards The Forces of Mordor. But when that proved improbable, he settled for 200-300, which would then be made to look like 2,000 using digital imaging. Since the 200-300 horses would be copied and pasted and appear several times in one shot, they had to be “average-looking,” meaning average size, black or brown, and no distinguishing marks. They also had to be able to stand the loud noises of the battle scene and not be disturbed by the other hundreds of horses around. My baby Oscar made the cut and appears 10-20 times in a single scene.

We had such a great time on The Ride of Rings. But this wouldn’t be our last trip to Queenstown. In fact, we were back the very next weekend.

The following week we requested three days off for Thanksgiving and our 10k race. We may be in another country, but we were looking forward to spending the day honoring the American tradition of cooking all day and more importantly, indulging. Turkey isn’t common here but we managed to locate one in a grocery store in a bigger city a few hours away. And it only cost 45 bucks! We spent the whole morning preparing our first turkey as Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. We knew this year’s Thanksgiving wouldn’t be quite the same but we were determined to make it feel as normal as possible. We also prepared mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, rolls (alright, they were store-bought), and apple pie (“). (They don’t sell pumpkin in a can here; otherwise we would’ve definitely included pumpkin pie!) While we waited for our bird to finish cooking, we sipped beers and watched a couple football movies. It almost felt like home. Almost.

When the food was finally ready, we stuffed ourselves in true American style. We were so proud of ourselves. Afterward, we crawled over to the couch and promptly passed out in front of the TV.

The next day we headed back to Queenstown. We planned to spend the night as our race was held there early Saturday morning. When we arrived Friday afternoon we did some Christmas shopping downtown (oddly enough, I have never actually been shopping on “Black Friday” back home but it seemed strange that we weren’t surrounded by mobs of people pushing each other out of the way for Tickle-Me-Elmo.)

We went to bed early that night and awoke with butterflies in our tummies the next morning. Fortunately, it was another beautiful sunny day. At the race site, we signed in, received our numbers and looked around nervously at the other racers. I was positive that everyone knew immediately that we were amateurs. (We were the only ones in cotton t-shirts – that is, the only ones without fancy polypropylene sweat-wicking workout gear.) I was terrified and certain that by the time I crossed the finish line everyone would have already packed up and headed home. But there was no backing out now.

I ended up competing in the 5k as a couple injuries had hindered my training. (But I’m determined to complete a 10k in our next race!) Cody completed the 10k in just over an hour. Neither of us cared about our times, we just wanted to do it.

Afterwards, we both felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. So we decided to reward ourselves for all our hard work. This of course meant oversized cheeseburgers and beer. De-lish.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What the heck is a fiord, anyway?

It has been a busy month! We apologize for keeping everyone waiting for so long!

Recently, we made the trip to Milford Sound. Like almost all trips in New Zealand, the drive is half of the adventure. We started off the day taking the highway north towards Milford. Guess what? The view and the scenery were absolutely beautiful. The road was windy and narrow (you may have noticed is a common theme.) The drive may only take an hour and half but it seems that the terrain changes with every kilometer. One moment you’ll be on a small stretch of road that cuts through a plain with the mountains on the horizon, the next moment you’ll find yourself plunging into a patch of forest. To make the most of this breathtaking drive, there are several “lookout points,” or areas where you can pull over to take pictures. Actually, there are enough lookout points that some people suggest giving yourself up to 3 hours for the trip to Milford Sound.

During a stretch of road that began climbing through the mountains, there was a lookout point about 100 yards off the main road where we made our third or fourth stop for a photo opportunity. Needing to take care of some business, I scurried off past the tree line while Jen got the camera ready. On my way back, I began to worry because Jen was nowhere in sight. Nearing the car, I noticed that there were three birds hopping up and down on our car picking at the windshield wipers. This marked our first experience with the Kea.

Kea birds are extremely curious and sometimes aggressive birds that have been known to steal food and tear apart backpacks in search of food. They sort of resemble overgrown parrots with much sharper beaks. As these three birds hopped all over the car, I discovered that Jen was stuck inside it and was video taping them. A few other backpackers enjoyed taking pictures of the funny birds while I was able to shoo them off of the car. When the kea began bouncing around chasing each other and quickly became interested in another vehicle, Jen was able to escape captivity.

The lookout point was a cliff that looked off into the forest covered mountains, which we thought was a great opportunity for some jump pictures. We spent some time taking turns doing jump pictures with this beautiful background and huddling over the camera laughing at one another. When we were about to move along, Jen whispered to me to check out some other tourists that joined us at the lookout point. My jaw dropped when I noticed that the tourists were doing jump pictures! I stifled some laughter while this small group tried, very poorly I might add, to capture a jump picture time and time again. We got into the car and started to back out when Jen alerted me that the trend was catching on all over the place. Another group of tourists were also copying our “jump picture tradition.” Sometimes it’s hard being this cool.

We continued our way to the Milford Sound crossing a small mountain range where we drove through the famous Homer tunnel that cut straight through the mountains. Once we made it to Milford Sound, we quickly bought our tickets for a cruise and started on a short walk towards the bay. On the boat, we were able to really enjoy the overcast and cloudy weather. We weren’t that disappointed because we already knew what we were getting into. The Milford Sound is known for perpetual rainfall and is known as one of the wettest areas of the world. We found out, actually, that Milford Sound isn’t even a sound. It’s a fiord, which is a valley in the mountains that has been carved out by a glacier and reaches the ocean. The cruise continued out on one side for 40 minutes until it reached the ocean. Then it turned around and headed back to the bay along the opposite side. We made it to the ocean and began to turn around when the captain got on the intercom to tell us that everyone should rush to the left side of the boat to see penguins. Our penguin count is now up to three! The boat turned around once again to head back to the bay and passed by some amazing cliffs, mountains, and waterfalls. We also saw about a dozen more sea lions doing what they do best: nothing.

Once we stepped off the boat we began our journey back to Te Anau. With another 279 pictures in the bank, it was another adventure well worth it.