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.