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.