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Day 11: Surf and Turf

July 24, 2010 4 comments

10 June, 2010

Wow, I am completely exhausted. The trip is almost over (I’m sitting in the airport about to board the plane to Wellington), but I still have a massive cram session for my biology exam remaining. As of 4:30pm tomorrow, though, I’m done until my physics exam two weeks later.

We got up this morning and basically scrambled all day. By 8am, we were out of our camping spot and driving towards Greymouth. While it was slightly out of our way, we needed to check the condition of Arthur’s Pass (Route 73). This road passes through the mountains and is routinely closed due to snow. Luckily, there was no problem (“but make sure to take it slow, and you remember that you could get turned around if the forecast changes,”) and we headed out.

The drive was incredibly beautiful. We started out with some rain, but it died out after a while and gave way to blue skies. Unfortunately, we were a bit pressed for time, so we didn’t get to stop much. (I only ended up taking one or two pictures, despite the spectacular scenery.)

Arthur's Pass

Despite the fact that Arthur's Pass was completely gorgeous, I only got one decent photo out of the drive. We were a bit rushed trying to get to Christchurch in time to drop off our van and didn't get a chance to stop for pictures.

We actually got pretty lucky making it back to Christchurch on time. Our van was due back at 2pm (though I got it extended to 3pm). We left at 8am, and it was set to take 4 hours…in perfect conditions and if you knew the road. On top of that, we still had to pack everything away and find out how to get to the drop-off depot. We did all this, plus cooking and eating lunch, in the parking lot of a restaurant just outside of Christchurch.

We ended up with a little extra time and tried stopping by the airport to see if we could check our bags early so we didn’t have to carry them around Christchurch all afternoon. Unfortunately, after wandering aimlessly and dealing with some annoyingly long lines, we weren’t allowed.

When we dropped the van off, we were a bit nervous about the damage report. We didn’t get into an accident or anything, but we did get a chip in the windshield. We were driving down a main road (Route 6) which had some “grit” (cinders—those little rocks to prevent you from sliding on ice). A campervan passing on the other side was going a little too fast, and we ended up with a sizable chink in our windshield. Luckily, it was near another, less prominent chip, and the guy checking damage mistook one for the other. In other words, despite the chip and the insurance that didn’t cover the windshield, we didn’t pay a penny, and the crewman initialed off an “All ok!”

After dropping the van off, we took a free shuttle to Cathedral Square, the town center of Christchurch. We found a Base Backpackers that let us store our bags, and we explored the city. Katrina got a ring, a small, sterling silver band with a shiny shell in the center, at the Cathedral Square markets.

A Little Ring

A ring that Kat got down in Christchurch. The main setting is a shiny, multicolored seashell.

We also took a trip to the Christchurch Art Gallery, looking at the Observation/Action/Reflection collection. The main piece in this collection was an attachment of two long, counter-rotating rods. As they rotated, live wires on the ends of the rods pulled across a copper strip on the wall and created a mini Tesla arc.

Christchurch Art Gallery

The art gallery in Christchurch. It's one of the most modern I've seen.

We walked around the city a bit more, but we were losing sun, and it was getting cold. I was feeling pretty sick from a combination of head congestion and (what I just realized) was pretty strong dehydration. I grabbed a 250mL bottle of water and chugged it. This held me over for a little while, but what I really needed was some food.

We ended up at The Tap Room on Oxford Terrace. I chugged some more water, and we ordered seafood chowder as a starter. This was not your typical US chowder. Besides being nearly enough for the two of us as a meal, it was filled with huge chunks of fish, scallops, and prawns. It even had two whole, shell-on mussels floating on top. Delicious!

Seafood Chowder

Our appetizer at The Tap Room in Christchurch. It was one of the heartiest seafood chowders I've ever eaten. It was corn and potato based and had huge chunks of seafood in it. Everything from fish and squid to scallops and even full mussels on top.

For dinner, they were having an early bird special: 1/2 off their Stonegrill meals. Your meal comes out on a 400° C stone, almost fully raw. You can cook the meat just how you like, along with a variety of sauces. I got the Surf and Turf: a 200g steak, 2 prawns, and 2 scallops. Kat ended up with the Ocean Fare: a lobster tail, 2 prawns, 2 scallops, and 2 mussels. For the $14 NZD ($10 USD) that they each cost, it would have been a steal just for the raw meat!

Although stuffed and completely satisfied, the food was too delicious to pass up dessert. We finished with a white chocolate raspberry tartlet with an almond crust and a scoop of plum ice cream, one of the tastiest desserts I’ve had in a while.

And that brings me here to the end of our trip. By this point, I’ve already boarded the flight, and we actually just started our decent into Wellington.

In the Airport

We spent 15 minutes trying to take this picture of ourselves at Mojo in the airport. We ended up with 30+ photos and only got a few to turn out.

This trip, I can easily say, was (and probably will be for a long time) the most amazing trip I’ve ever taken. When else can I say that I’ve gone skydiving, climbed a glacier, and cruised through one of the most beautiful National Parks in the world? And all of this, even the driving, was through the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to find a place where you can go from a coastal dream to sheep farms to snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and more in the span of one day’s drive. (Not to mention my amazing companion through this whole thing.)

Still, I can say I’m a little glad to be getting back. I’m starting to get sick; I think that’s about all my body can take of sleeping in a cold, confined, and slightly damp van. (Don’t get me wrong—our van was wonderfully comfortable in itself. But New Zealand nights can get pretty chilly this time of year.)

My last word of advice: take the trip to New Zealand, especially the South Island, at some point in your life. I know I’ve said this a thousand times, but I have to say it again. Out of all the people I talk to, nearly all of them, be they from North America, Brazil, Europe, or Asia, have said that New Zealand is, by far, the most beautiful place they’ve ever seen. If you can make the trip, you’ll be glad you did. Who knows, you just may never want to head back home.

-Brandon M. Koger

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)

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Day 10: Weeeeeeeeeee!

July 23, 2010 Leave a comment

09 June, 2010

And today held yet another amazing adventure: skydiving.

Katrina and I had a time set to skydive at 11:15am. We ate a quick breakfast in our van and grabbed coffee at a little café before leaving.

The original plan was to skydive in Queenstown. It’s the adventure capital of New Zealand, and most people will either dive there or in Taupo on the North Island. Just as I was about to book in Queenstown, though, I randomly stumbled across Skydive NZ, a skydiving company based out of Fox Glacier. Besides allowing you to skydive over the most beautiful scenery in the country (including Mount Cook and the glaciers), they let you take your own camera on the dive with you. Sadly, they don’t allow DSLRs, but I took my little Flip video camera and was able to videotape everything after our chute opened up.

We pulled up to the hanger and checked in. Within five minutes, we were given a very quick briefing and shoved on a plane. The plan was tiny, the same size as the one I used to skydive near State College—just big enough to hold a pilot and four passengers seated on the floor.

On the Skydiving Plane

We were allowed to take our camera up on the plane with us before our skydive. Of course, I wasn't allowed to take my DSLR on the dive with me, but I would have been able to take a point and shoot if I had one. (I ended up taking my small videocamera on the dive with me, which was still great.)

The ride up was beautiful, circling around the Fox Glacier valley, Mount Cook, and the other mountains in the area. You could also see the coast of the Tasman Sea. Needless to say, I took quite a few pictures through the window of the airplane.

Out the Airplane Window

A panorama I took using three shots out the window of our skydiving plane.

Mount Cook

The summit of Mount Cook, as viewed from our plane.

As we were about to hit 12,000 feet, I put my camera away and got ready to jump. The instant the altimeter read 12,000, the door swung open, and Kat and her instructor disappeared out into the perfectly blue sky. My instructor helped me towards the door. My head went back against his shoulder, my legs back in the “banana shape.” As he sat on the edge of the plane with his legs dangling out, my entire body was suspended in the air, held up only by my attachment to him. He swung forward, and we fell out into the open air.

A few of the thoughts that ran through my head during the 45-second freefall: “Wow, this is cool. I should scream. Wow, it’s cold. Wonder if I should have worn boots; the air is going right through my running shoes. Oh, my mouth is open. What if I swallow a bug? I remember seeing people skydiving once with their mouth opened. They looked silly. Oh, a chute below. Is that Kat? Of course it is, who else is parachuting from this exact spot at this exact moment. She’s far down. Hmm, wonder when he’s going to pull the chute?”

And he did pull the chute. I was yanked upwards and felt my body become weightless for a second before continuing my descent, this time much slower than before. My instructor pulled my goggles off, and I took out my video camera to film the rest. (As of the time of writing this, I have no idea if my video is any good, as I haven’t watched it yet. I tried to get the scenery, as well as a few shots of my face. I also watched Kat land below, and myself skim across the grass as I landed.)

It was quite a fantastic experience, but I think the initial shock of it is gone since I did it the first time in State College. Comparing the two, I think I honestly liked State College (technically Reedsville, PA) better. While this had amazing scenery, the staff at skydive NZ was a bit cold. Kat said her instructor was friendly, but mine barely talked. I felt like I was rushed through, like they were just trying to turn a profit and didn’t care if you enjoyed the experience or not. They even made a snide remark when we told them that we didn’t want to order pictures or videos. (“I thought the recession was over? Guess not!”) (And don’t get me wrong, the jump itself was still utterly amazing, but the staff and mood in Reedsville were much more inviting, making for a more enjoyable experience overall.)

Within 45 minutes, we were back in our car. We took some photos of the town (which we hadn’t done in the previous two days of being here).

Glacial Junction

This is in the center of town in Fox Glacier. The two glaciers are to either side, and the picturesque Lake Matheson cuts right down the middle.

We also took the 5-minute trip to Lake Matheson, right outside of town. Wow, totally worth it. It’s “one of New Zealand’s most famous lakes,” and for a good reason. It is perfectly still, and it acts like a mirror, giving a brilliant reflection of Mount Cook and some of the surrounding mountains.

Fence

And only dingy fence I found heading towards Lake Matheson. Kat continued towards the lake, but I stayed here for a few minutes to take pictures, sprinting (and getting completely out of breath) to catch back up to her.

Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson, one of the most photographed lakes in New Zealand. You can see Mount Cook and some of its neighboring mountains in the distance, but unfortunately they were mostly covered under clouds for this photo.

After that, we took a quick trip to Fox’s neighbor, Franz Joseph. This time it wasn’t to see the glacier, but the boundary of two tectonic plates: the Indo-Australian and the Pacific. One point of the fault line lies right under a gas station: this seems recipe for disaster. Kat also spotted the boundary in the Franz Joseph Glacier Valley: a giant crack in the wall with different types of rock on each side. (Kat is a geologist, so she was pretty much in heaven in all of New Zealand, but especially here.)

Faulty Petrol

This petrol station lies right on the fault line between the Pacific and the Indo-Australian tectonic plates. Seems a little dangerous if the plates decided to make a decent sized move. (Taken by Kat)

From there we took the drive to Greymouth for the night. We stopped at a few places along the way to take pictures, but nothing worth mentioning by name. Although, at one of the stops, Kat accidentally touched an electric fence. Needless to say, her arm is not feeling the greatest right now.

Self Reflection

A reflection of myself in Lake Mapourika. We stopped here just after leaving Franz Joseph to grab a bite to eat.

Final South Island Sunset

We were trying to find a decent place to see the sunset, but were so landlocked that we couldn't find anywhere. It seemed that anywhere that would be decent for a photo was private and fenced off. (This is also the place where Kat touched the electric fence.)

Lake Ianthe

Lake Ianthe. We stopped here for a few moments to take photos on our way back up. I think we interrupted something going on in a car by the lake.

There really is nothing interesting in Greymouth, and we didn’t even bother going into town. We’re just camped in a picnic area outside of town, set to wake up and finish the drive to Christchurch tomorrow morning. We hope to take Arthur’s Pass, though it’s possible that it could be closed due to snow, and we’d have to readjust our schedule. Our car needs to be back by 2pm either way.

Crazy how fast this trip has gone: 24 hours left until I’m back in Wellington.

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)

Day 9: Ice Cold

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

08 June, 2010

Add another to the list of the most awesome things that I’ve done on this trip.

We went glacier hiking on Fox Glacier today. The weather was absolutely sublime; the rain from last night completely disappeared, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Unfortunately, the glacier is almost completely in shadow this time of year, and we only go to spend a tiny bit of time enjoying that sun.

Whoa!

Up at the highest point on the glacier. More on this later.

We chose to use a group called Fox Guides, doing the full-day Nimble Fox glacier hike. This 8-hour hike spent about 2 hours heading up to the ice, 4-5 hours on the ice, and an hour getting back. They also offered half-day hikes, short walks, and even heli-tours of the glaciers. I would highly recommend this hike, especially over the half-day one. For only $50 extra (for a totally cost of $150/person), you get an extra 3-4 hours on the ice and, you get to see some really cool features. It also allows you to actually do some semi-adventurous stuff, as compared to the very tame half-day.

The Town of Fox

The building for Fox Guides, the guiding company that took us on our hike of Fox Glacier.

(Also, we chose to hike Fox Glacier instead of Franz Joseph Glacier for a few reasons. First, it’s slightly bigger. But most importantly, it’s less touristy. Our group had a total of six people, as compared to the 15 of Franz. Also, we were the only full-day group, as compared to three groups (each of 15 people) at a time on Franz this time of year. Our instructor also said that Franz has a set tour path—we got to make our own track depending on what the instructor thought was cool that day, especially important since the glacial features change daily.)

We started out in town, getting suited up. I was the only one in our group whose boots were “probably alright,” and didn’t have to use a rental pair. We got crampons, those little spikes that attach to your shoes to help you dig into the ice. From there, it was a quick 10-minute drive to the glacier, and we were on our way.

At the start of our hike, we had a short, 1km walk to the “terminal face,” or front, of the glacier. This is as far as you can get without a guide. The walk is pretty boring, through a rocky valley, but the view of the glacier is still fantastic.

The Glacier Crew

Kodak point, one of the highest points on our hike to go hiking on Fox Glacier. Our guide in the front, and the rest of our group on the left.

We passed through a fence (“Recommend to proceed only with a guide,”) and walked up through a wooded pass. Because of the changing nature of the glacier, the terminal face is far too dangerous to climb straight up. With the glacier moving at 3 ft/day, ice falls off constantly, and pieces can easily be the size of a house. Instead, we climbed about 600 stairs up the side of the accompanying mountain to the ice access point.

Here we put on our crampons and learned to use them. It’s surprisingly like walking regularly, except you need to kick forward as you step down to help get the spikes into the ice. They hold on really tightly, even in the hard ice that forms during the winter. (In the summer, some of the ice melts, making it much easier to dig your feet in.)

Crampons

Kat in her crampons, provided by Fox Guides so we didn't slip and slide all over the ice.

We walked onto the ice just as the morning half-day group was leaving. We climbed up some stairs that they had precut in the ice (though they need to be reshaped daily due to melting and shifting ice). Within 5 minutes we had reached the top of the stairs; this is as far as the half-day group gets to go.

Steps in the Ice

The beginning of the hike on Fox Glacier. If you look closely, you can see stairs cut into the ice by the guides.

We paused for a moment as our guide (Shaun) explained some of the geology. Apparently the upper section of the glacier gets more than 50 meters (150 feet) of snow each year. As this builds up, the weight gets too much and it compresses into ice. Each 50 meters of snow compresses to only one meter of ice. If the rate of ice buildup is faster than the rate of erosion, the glacier advances, as it has done over the past 18 months. Otherwise, if the erosion is quicker, the glacier reheats. Because of global warming, nearly every glacier in the world has retreated over the past 20 years. Only three areas have advancing glaciers: Peru, Iceland, and Western New Zealand.

We started down the face of the glacier, blazing our own path. In areas where the terrain was too tough for inexperienced people such as ourselves, Shaun would cut stairs in the ice with a few quick blows from his ice-pick.

Picking

Shaun had to stop a lot to cut steps for us in the ice with his pick.

We passed by some moulins, giant holes created by the melting ice turning into running water. We even passed a few “people-catchers,” moulins just big enough for a person. A person that falls down can easily be trapped and suffocate before a rescue team can get there. (These moulins are shaped sort of like a funnel. As the person falls down with a full breath, their chest is expanded and they get stuck. When they breathe out, however, their chest compresses again, letting them fall a bit further into the hole. Unfortunately, now they don’t have enough room to expand their chest to take another breath, thus the suffocation.)

Straddling the Abyss

Shaun, our guide, straddling one of the deep crevasses (so that we didn't fall in).

After a quick lunch, we were met by another guide, Jeff. Together, Shaun and Jeff took us down into some of the crevasses along the lower face. These huge cracks in the ice can be dangerous down on the terminal face, but are quite stable (at least for a few days) higher up where we were. We climbed through with 15-20 feet of ice on either side of us. It was quite impressive.

Down into the Crevasses

Taking a hike down into the crevasses near the terminal face of the glacier.

Holes Above and Below

One of the most narrow points we had to climb through. It would have been really cool to climb down through that hole below, but it was always best to stick to the main path.

As we came to the front of the glacier, the sun popped out from behind the mountain, helping to heat up our frigid bodies. We lounged in the sun for a few minutes, trying to soak it up before it disappeared behind the mountains again.

All the Ice Upping

The sun was out for a short amount of time. This is down lower on the glacier, getting near the terminal face. Notice how the ice is getting more and more rough. If you look closely, you can see Jeff, one of our tour guides, playing on a ridge. He was knocking big chunks of ice into a huge crevasse. Whether it was to prevent it from falling on others or if he was just having fun is hard to say.

Soon we took off again, back up the glacial face. We came across a tunnel just big enough to crawl through. (This was also formed by running water.) We climbed through and explored a little bit, and had to climb back out using a rope ladder.

In the Ice Hole

Kat climbing down into the ice hole. There was a small cave in there off to the right, but the tunnel continued straight ahead to open back up to the surface.

There was also a much bigger tunnel. Apparently it was about 50 feet long a few months ago, but has since worn down quite a bit and is down to about 20 feet.

Ice Cave

The bigger cave. It was just big enough for two people at a time. Notice how blue everything is from the color of the ice.

We finished up the hike by climbing up to the highest point of the day. While it was by no means the highest point on the glacier, it still gave spectacular views. (To reach the real highest point requires a helicopter.) We even saw a crew of guys practicing climbing on the ice, something we had considered doing ourselves instead of the hike.

Ice Climbers

Some ice climbers training with a technical school of some sort. Fox Guides also offered climbing on the ice, but they tended off towards other areas of the glacier.

Glacier climbing was absolutely phenomenal and has definitely been the highlight of my trip so far. I would highly recommend it to anyone to give it a go, especially if you’re keen for hiking and adventure. And if you’re ever coming down to New Zealand, give Fox Glacier a visit. It’s the best $150 NZ ($100 USD) you’ll ever spend, and it’ll give you the adventure of a lifetime.

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)

Day 8: Another Sunset

July 21, 2010 Leave a comment

07 June, 2010

Happy Queen’s Birthday!

In honor of this British (and affiliate country) holiday, Katrina and I went out to breakfast. We chose Bob’s Weigh, a small café in downtown Queenstown recommended by my Fodor’s guidebook. I asked the cashier for his recommendation and ended up with a bacon, avocado, and spinach omelet with toast and homemade chutney (along with a flat white to drink). Kat had focaccia French toast with pure maple syrup and a berry sauce (and a mocha to drink). After we ordered, Kat turned to me and said, “That cashier totally checked you out.” …He was a guy. I guess that’s a compliment?

French Toast in the Morning

We ate breakfast at Bob's Weigh, a delicious eatery in Queenstown.

It was still rainy and cloudy, so we opted to skip the Sky Gondola and just walked around town instead. We ended up in The Remarkables Sweet Shop. I bought a dark chocolate crème filled mouse, and Kat got a coffee crème chocolate. The chocolate was ok, but the sample of tiramisu fudge that we tried was amazing.

Queenstown Wharf

Taken as we were walking around Queenstown.

Segway Tour

We noticed this Segway tour as we were walking around the wharf.

Laughability

(Taken by Kat)

Chocolate Snacks

Chocolates from The Remarkables Sweet Shop: a chocolate cream filled mouse and a coffee cream chocolate.

We left Queenstown (without a third Fergburger) and headed towards Wanaka. We took the same route that I took my last South Island trip, along Crown Range Road. This road starts out with crazy switchbacks that require you to go 15 kmh around the bends. This time, though, the mountains were completely covered with snow, and the side of the road was piled at least 6 inches deep. (That’s a lot in New Zealand.)

Crown Range Road

Wanaka was cute, and we got a few pictures of Lake Wanaka, but there wasn’t really much else there.

Smiley at Lake Wanaka

Kat standing in front of Lake Wanaka.

Big Ole' Yatch

One of the few boats on Lake Wanaka. Being winter, it wasn't exactly prime boating season.

The drive to Fox Glacier was a long, but pretty one. The view across Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka were totally different with the snow covered mountains this time. Luckily, there wasn’t really any snow or ice on the roads, and we had no problems driving it.

We crossed a huge, one-lane bridge (with 2 passing bays) near Haast over the Haast River as the sun was setting. We ended up pulling into a parking lot, climbed down near the water, and witnessed one of the most brilliant sunsets to date. It’s tough to choose between this one and the one in Te Anau.

Haast River

We stopped at this point on the Haast River for another one of the most beautiful sunsets I've seen in my life.

Sunset at Haast

Prime Time

At the same place, while we were taking photos, we noticed that the wind started to pick up. It whipped across the water and created huge ripples. Suddenly, upriver from us, a 20-30 meter whirlwind formed, pulling up water and swirling it around in a mini-tornado. There were two, the first of which just narrowly missed Kat, and the second of which went straight for me. I was standing out on a sandbar, and cyclone created waves that gave me wet feet, but I was otherwise unscathed. (Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of them because I was too dumbfounded and worried about protecting my camera.)

The rest of the drive to Fox Glacier was in the dark, and there was nothing memorable for this reason. When we did get to Fox, though, we went to use the bathroom. Katrina went first, but came out running after just a few seconds. She said there were “50 bajillion spiders each 2 inches wide,” and refused to use it. (She ended up going at a bar instead.)

We cooked and ate dinner at Lake Matheson (just Satay chicken again) and are now parked on the side of the road, as usual. We’re supposed to hike the glacier tomorrow. It’s raining right now, but I really hope it dies down. Otherwise, tomorrow could be a long and uncomfortable day.

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)

Day 7: Rainy, Rainy Queenstown

July 20, 2010 Leave a comment

06 June, 2010

I woke up this morning raring to go for a fun, action-packed day in the Queenstown area. The goal was to shower at Base (a hostel), go up on the Skyline Gondola and go luging. We then planned to travel out to Glenorchy, Kinloch, and Paradise for the rest of the day.

Our first plan was ruined as we walked into Base in the morning. The lady behind the counter (with a mean look and a black eye) told us that they “don’t do that anymore” (allow showering without a room) for security reasons. The guy at the desk last night (who told us we’d be able to) apparently hadn’t heard this new rule. So, instead we drove to Queenstown’s sports complex just outside of town and got a shower there. While the showers were mediocre, the rest of the facility looked amazing. It had the biggest, most impressive indoor pool I’ve ever seen, complete with water fountains and multiple waterslides.

Leaving the facility, it started to rain fairly hard. Not a downpour, but not something easy enough to walk around in when it’s 40 degrees out. We were hoping it would pass, but the rain held up all day. Because of this, I only got a few pictures, and I’ll be surprised if I get one or two keepers out of them.

We bummed around for the next few hours. First we parked in Queenstown and made some phone calls to try and confirm bookings for ice climbing and skydiving, but didn’t get an answer from either. We then drove 15 minutes to 12-mile delta, a campsite along Lake Wakatipu and filming location for Ithilien in Lord of the Rings. We almost got stuck again in some of the thick brush and definitely had some bushes scratch along the sides of our van as we tried navigating the narrow roadways. We parked near the water and stayed for a while as we napped, read, and ate lunch (tomato soup and 3-cheese grilled cheese with havarti, cheddar and Edam).

Despite the continuing rain, we decided to continue and try to get to Kinloch and Paradise. The drive to Kinloch was fairly easy. The rain didn’t prove to be a problem, even on the windy Queenstown-Glenorchy Road. (Another car wasn’t so lucky; we saw that their car had gone off a mini, 10-ft cliff…probably sometime last night.)

As we were pulling into Kinloch, the rain was turning to sleet and then to snow. The Kinloch campground was just as I remember it, though completely deserted and not nearly as beautiful as it was during the summer. The view was very limited, and a layer of mist covered the lake. Also, turns out that the Port-a-potty toilet used by the campground was set on a sinkhole, and the entire thing is now sunk 3 feet into the ground.

Sunken PottyTaken in Kinloch, one of my favorite campsites from the last time I was down south.  Turns out the toilet was built on a sinkhole and has since fallen into the ground.

The drive to Paradise was a bit trickier. Paradise lies through Mount Aspiring National Park, the setting for Lothlorien in LOTR. The trees in the park were tightly packed and rose so high that it really did feel like you were in the movies. We took a few pictures and turned around before reading the end of the road. We didn’t want to get stuck again, especially since the roads were getting tighter, windier, and more snow-covered.

Lothlorien

The road to Paradise, out past Glenorchy. This forest served as the setting for Lothlorien, the home of the elves in Lord of the Rings.

Leaving Paradise, I noticed a really cool photograph waiting to be taken: a bridge straddling a stream with a misty glacier rising high in the background. I pulled off the road to park, but my mirror was so fogged up I couldn’t really see where I was going. I backed into a muddy ditch, and my tires were spinning helplessly.

After 10 minutes of trying to get out, we gave up. We had no cell reception, it was a 30-minute drive to the closest town, and this was nowhere near the main drag. We didn’t expect anyone to pass, so we were fully ready to climb in and spend the night there.

Just as I was about to climb in the van, a 4WD truck came down the road. It had the license plate “FR0DOS”—a LOTR tour group. The driver asked what the problem was, and I told him that we were stuck. He told me that it was company policy not to pull anyone out with the truck (because of insurance issues in the past), but that he would tell the garage when he got to town.

The truck drove off a few feet before stopping again. The driver got out. “You know,” he began, “It’s Sunday and there won’t be anyone at the garage in Glenorchy. I could tell someone in Queenstown, but they wouldn’t get here for hours. I can’t just leave you here. My head is telling me to leave you, but my heart is saying no.”

He pulled out a rope that he attached to our bumper. After making sure we understood that it might damage the bumper (and that he wasn’t responsible for that damage), he gave us a tug with his truck, and we were out in no time. No bumper damage either. “I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you shouldn’t have been down in that hole,” he said before leaving. He bid us a great rest of our holiday and drove away with many thanks from Kat and me. What an adventure.

Needless to say, we took the rest of the drive to Queenstown slow and easy, vowing to never again attempt anything close to off-roading again.

We walked around Queenstown for a while, looking at the chintzy souvenirs—lawn chair covers made of NZ sheep wool, kiwi bird dolls, tons of dirty and erotic t-shirts, and lots of lotions. (Though none could compare to the placenta cream that I saw when I was with my parent back in Welly.) I ended up buying a beanie, something I’ve been looking for for a while, but I could never seem to find the right one.

Brandon 3

My new beanie (taken the next day by Kat).

We ended the night the same way we did last night. We grabbed Fergburger (me a Southern Swine—beef burger with bacon and avocado—and Kat just some fries, all washed down with a tall glass of Speight’s). Just as delicious as last night, and I’m even considering stopping again for lunch tomorrow.

Now we’re parked in the same place we parked last night. Easy to get to for us, but far enough off the main road to not be bothered. We’re hoping to try the gondola again tomorrow. Hopefully it’ll be nice; the rain has stopped at least.

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)

Day 6: The Best of The Best

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

05 June, 2010

I swore to myself that I would cut way down on pictures this trip. But then again, I had never been to Fiordland before, and I had no idea how gorgeous it would be. Between yesterday and today, I have nearly 600 pictures—just in the Fiordland area.

Our original plan was to climb Gertrude Saddle (an intense, 3.5 km, 5-hour hike that gives fantastic views of Milford) and then head back to Queenstown. Instead, we decided to take a boat tour of Milford. For ~$60, we got a two-hour tour of the beautiful Milford Sound, complete with tour guide and tea/coffee.

The day was a bit dreary looking; fog hung low and a lot of the sky was covered with clouds. The sun wasn’t showing, and it even threatened to rain. Still, I knew that the boat tour would be great. We hopped on the boat at 9:45am and began our tour.

Milford Sound

Taken from the boat heading out on our tour of Milford Sound.

Our boat was the Lady Bowen, named after the huge waterfall that is one of the main characteristics of the sound. The company it was with did a really good job. The crew was friendly, and the tour guide was knowledgeable about both the wildlife and geography/geology of the area. And best of all, the boat was fairly empty. There were less than 15 passengers, even though the boat had a capacity of 85. This made for great views without having to fight for a spot.

We took off into the harbor, complete with mist and fog surrounding the mountains. The water was perfectly still, looking almost like a mirror, so the ride was very gentle and easy. We got good views of Bowen Falls before heading out to the area of the sound you can’t see from the shore.

Looking Backwards

Looking back across the side of our boat.

Milford Sound is actually a fjord, a glacier carved valley that got filled with ocean water. Because the rock in the area is so hard, the cliffs held their shape and didn’t cave down. You can almost see the glacier marks as you look at the cliffs. The coolest part is that the peaks that you see are not the entire mountain; they begin below on the floor of the sound. If you count the part underwater, it makes the mountains in Milford some of the tallest in the country.

Because they are so steep, there is not much wildlife in the mountains. The water, though, is filled. While we didn’t see much on our journey, the tour guide said that it’s not uncommon to see sea lions, seals, eels, giant jellyfish, or even dolphins. Because there’s so much rain in Milford (about 30 ft/year), there’s a layer of fresh water that sits on the surface of the salt water, making for a unique habitat. Fresh water animals ride on the top layer, while ocean animals swim just below that. Because of the diffraction of light, though, little light gets below ~40 meters, and it’s completely dark below there—much like the very deepest parts of the oceans.

We're on a Boat

Katrina is very bright.

The vegetation grows thick since it’s a temperate rainforest, even on the rock cliffs. Moss starts to grow from the moisture, and trees plant the beginnings of their roots in there. As they grow, they can’t dig into the rock, so they form a sort of interwoven web that holds them together. (It reminds me a lot of the network of trees in Avatar.) While this helps the trees to grow, the downside is that a single tree can bring down the entire mountainside’s vegetation in a single tree avalanche. This leaves a huge scar on the side of the mountain, and it takes ~150 years to grow back.

The best part of the trip was about halfway through. Rain started to fall above us, but the sun peaked out just over the ocean. We got to see some beautiful rainbows forming between the cliffs. This, combined with the mist that was still hanging around, made for the single most spectacular thing I have ever seen.

Rainbow over Milford

The weather was just perfect for our tour. There was just enough misty rain that, combined with the bit of sun that peaked out, led to a bunch of rainbows along the tour. This particular one was spectacular, but my camera was not able to capture it anywhere near its initial splendor.

The other highlights of our trip:

-We pulled up to a rock where a bunch of young seals tend to congregate. They get pushed away from their usual ground by the older males and hang here for a while until the older males leave or calm down.

Backflips

Seal Rock

-We also saw Stirling Falls, the other of the two permanent waterfalls. We pulled up close to this and got to look straight up. My lens got soaked, but it was totally worth the pictures.

Stirling Falls v2

Our boat got right up next to the falls, allowing me to get quite a shot. Unfortunately, I also got a lens full of water, which you can really see towards the top of this shot.

After we returned, Kat and I drove back towards Te Anau, saying goodbye to Milford. We stopped at The Chasm, an area where the river carved deep into the rock, making a huge gorge. Even better, some areas of rock were softer than others, and large boulders had holes snaking through them through which water flowed, with the rest of the boulder remaining intact. The main path didn’t give a very good view, but a small dirt path off to the right gave much better views, taking you dangerously close to the edge of the chasm.

The Chasm Waterfall

The waterfall spilling out of The Chasm.

Our other stop was at the Gertrude Valley, the start of the Gertrude Saddle hike that we were originally going to do. While we didn’t have time for the whole hike, we did walk to the end of the flat section, the part just before the path heads into alpine territory. I didn’t take my camera, but it was a fantastic sight. It was weird being at the end of a valley: like a peninsula, but instead of being surrounded by water on three sides, we were surrounded by high mountains.

We drove back to Te Anau, hoping to get some coffee from the Sandfly Café. Unfortunately, it had closed just 10 minutes earlier. Still, we found a seafood stand and picked up some seafood chowder. We ate this while watching one of the best (and definitely pinkest) sunsets of my life. Three months ago in Kinloch, a German traveler said that he witnessed a sunset in Fiordland “so colorful that it made [him] physically ill.” I now understand what he meant.

On the Lake

Before the seafood chowder.

Lake Te Anau

During the seafood chowder.

Sunset on the Lake 2

After the seafood chowder.

We spent the next two hours driving to Queenstown. We walked around a bit before heading into Fergburger, what (I’ve been told) is the best burger in the world. And I have to say, it held up to its reputation.

I was surprised to find that Fergburger only had a small number of beef burgers, the rest being chicken, fish, tofu…you name it. Kat got the original beef Fergburger, and I (off the recommendation of the cashier) got a Cockadoodle Oink. It was, by far, the best thing I have ever tasted. The sandwich consisted of a huge, breaded chicken breast, American streaky bacon, avocado, tomato, red onion, and aioli, all on a bun about the size of my head—and all for $12 NZD. You can’t beat that.

Fergburger

Fergburger, home of the best burger I've eaten in my life. I ate there twice in two days, and am regretting not eating there a third time.

We ended up running into Jamie (my flatmate) and some other friends. I knew she was in the area, but never expected to run into them. That makes the third time I’ve seen someone that I know in a strange part of New Zealand, something I don’t even get at home. Just shows how small of a country it is.

I have to say, these past two days were filled with some of the best things I’ve experience in my life. The best latte, the most beautiful location, the best sunset, and the best burger. And it’s only two days out of our 10-day trip.

If nothing else, I have to say that everyone needs to make a trip to Fiordland, New Zealand at least once in their life. If you can see the rest of the country, that’s even better. But Fiordland National Park, South Island, New Zealand is by far the most amazing place I’ve ever been.

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)

Day 5: On to Milford!

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

04 June, 2010

Turns out we picked a pretty nice spot to pull over.  After being honked at by a bunch of passing trucks, we woke up to find two really cool things.  1) Out of our side window was a range of snow-capped mountains, and 2) It was warm out—like really warm—enough to be in a t-shirt when the wind wasn’t blowing.

We ate a quick breakfast of eggs and bread and were on our way.  We had another hour or so to Te Anau, so we passed the time listening to Eddie Vedder in the Into the Wild soundtrack.  It set the mood perfectly.

We pulled over at one point to take pictures along a river.  When pulling in to park, though, I pulled our front tires into mud and got stuck.  A few quick turns of the wheel and a burst of gas got us out, luckily.

Fiordland

On our way to Te Anau, Kat and I stopped on the side of the road to take some photos looking into Fiordland. This is where we got stuck.

By the time we got to Te Anau, it was nearly lunch time.  A quick trip to the grocery store got us stocked for the next few days.  We saw a nice looking lunch stop, The Sandfly Café, across the street.  I got a flat white and Kat got “the best latte I’ve ever had.”  (It’s true, I even agreed with her.)  It had just enough coffee and the smoothest vanilla I’ve ever tasted.

Sandfly Cafe

Once we got into Te Anau, we grabbed some coffee at the Sandfly Cafe--it had the best latte that Kat or I have ever had.

We walked around town a bit, especially down by Lake Te Anau.  It was very pretty and the sun was hitting in just the right way for some great shots.

Seaplane

Lake Te Anau, and one of the seaplanes that could take you on an air tour of the area.

The drive to Milford is only 120km (80 miles), but it takes just about 2 hours.  The first half is easy, but it quickly gets windy and icy, drastically slowing the trip down.  Still, it is by far the most beautiful drive I’ve ever done.  You start out along Lake Te Anau with rolling hills.  As you enter Fiordland National Park, though, the rainforest quickly takes over.  Great expanses of dry riverbed (at least this time of year) stretch out beneath the vast mountains of The Southern Alps.  Some areas are permanently frosted because they never see the sun, and others are so warm that you could get a suntan there.  One of the most diverse areas I’ve ever seen.

Only a Boat

The boat that heads towards the start of the Milford Track lands at this dock. Not sure if this is the ferry that takes you or not.

Reflections

The Mirror Lakes, one of the stops along the way to Milford.

At one of the lookouts at which we stopped, a large bird swooped down from the trees just as I got out of the car.  I tried to take a picture, but he was too quick.  When I turned around, though, he had plopped himself down right on top of our van and sat firmly.

Kat and I took tons of pictures of him, not sure what type of bird it was.  At a cross between a parrot and the kaka I saw at Zealandia, I assumed it was unique to New Zealand.  We played with him a little while longer before saying goodbye to Kyle (our name for him) and driving off.  (We later found out that it is a Kea—a mountain parrot.)

Pensive

Kyle, our Kea.

Stare-down

Though we didn't know it at the time, we found out that you're not supposed to feed the kea. Not only does it screw up their diet, but it makes them less afraid of humans, sometimes leading to their death or (more likely) them eating the rubber molding on your car door frames. Apparently it's a tasty treat for them. (Taken by Kat)

To get to Milford Sound, you have to drive through the Homer Tunnel, a 1000+ meter tunnel cut through the mountain.  It’s too small for steady 2-way traffic, so stop lights at either end alternate every 15 minutes.  While waiting for the light to change on our side, we took a chance to explore a huge (mansion-sized) block of ice that had fallen off from one of the mountains into a nearby valley.

After getting through, it’s like a portal, and you’re transported to a place even more beautiful than the one you came from.  The road sloped down in sharp bends as gorges and peaks alternated around you.

Heading Towards Milford

The view after getting through the Homer Tunnel and down the bottom of the valley.

When we finally arrived at Milford Sound, it was nearing sunset.  We hurried out of the car and walked the 15 minutes from the car park to the actual sound to try and see it.  Though you can’t quite see the sunset on the horizon as I had hoped, I still got a few nice shots.

Milford Sound

One of the most photographed areas of New Zealand.

Milford

So many tour boats in the harbor at Milford.

We cooked a quick spaghetti dinner and then went back out to the water for some pictures.  By this time, it was dark and the stars were out, so I took my tripod and remote, hoping to take some long exposures.  We walked out to a spot we had been earlier in the day, only to realize that the tide had gone way out.  It looked as though half of the sound had dried up, but it was so dark that it was difficult to tell for sure.  Still, it felt eerie to be in a spot that had been covered in 2-feet of water just a few hours earlier—like I was doing something wrong and the sea would soon come back in to punish me.

I took a series of long (>5 minute) exposures.  Out of the four that I took, I got one great one from a shot that took just under 10 minutes.  You can see the star movement very clearly, appearing as shooting stars.

Starry Night

Kat and I walked out to a sandbar in the middle of the the sound and took this ~10 min. exposure. I wish I had more time to try a longer shot, but it was getting cold and the tide was coming in. Also, I was mostly shooting in the dark on this, as I couldn't really see anything through the viewfinder and didn't get an idea of what I was looking at until at least a 5-minute exposure.

The nearest DOC site was back through the Homer Tunnel, at least an hour back towards Te Anau.  So, once again, we looked for somewhere on the side of the road to park.  Most of the car parks here have signs for no overnight camping, so it was a little more difficult.  We finally found one that looked good, so we pulled over.  We weren’t quite off the road as far as I would have liked, so I backed up to try and get further off.

And I got stuck.

Again.

This one took a lot more finesse to get out of, and took us a good 5 minutes of fidgeting.  The good news is that if we were stuck, we could just sleep there (albeit on a weird slope).  No worries though, as we got out just fine.

Now we have found a much more secure location—a mini-car park just down the road.  This one is pavement, so we won’t get stuck.  (That was our rule after this: no more trying to sleep in anything that isn’t pavement.)  It’s pretty far off the road, and seeing as the closest two towns—each with population < 100—are more than 2 hours apart, I don’t think we’ll be getting too many people driving by overnight.  It’s looking to be a decent, albeit cold, night.

See the full set on Flickr! (Photos will be uploaded as I go through each day.)