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Queenstown and Milford Sound

IMG 3059Today we left Wanaka and make our way down to Queenstown: my final stop on the Kiwi Experience. We drove for about 20 minutes to “The Puzzling World,” a tourist trap full of optical illusions and a labyrinth nth (see also giant maze) that we couldn’t manage to tackle in the course of 45 minutes. It was a good time, and reminded me of being a kid again.

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We drove a few more hours to Queenstown, checked into Nomads backpackers (one of the nicest hostels we’d stayed in yet), then headed out on the town. The next few days were spent wandering around the town during the day, Fergburger (the local burger joint that The Bareback Bar and Grill in San Diego is based on), and partying at night. There isn’t a whole lot else to do at the moment (ski season hasn’t started yet), so I just sort went with it. Heidi, Jack, and I decided that we wanted to check out Milford Sound, so we chipped in and hired a car for a day. The drive took about 4 hours and brought us through some stunning scenery. Thanks to Krysha and Stu, I had a connection with Kahu (they’re friend who happens to captain one of the tour boats). He was kind enough to hook us all up with free passes for the cruise around the sound. After a few hours on the boat, some breathtaking views, and a really cool experience with a pod of dolphins, we piled back into the car and began our return to Queenstown. We ended up picking up a hitchhiker from Paraguay and driving him back to Queenstown with us. He was very greatful, and helped to provide some fun conversation on the long ride home.  A  few more nights trying my hardest to relax and not go out drinking (a ridiculously hard task at our hostel) and my Queenstown experience had come to an end.

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Frans Josef Glacier

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Today we arrived in Franz Josef, a sleepy little town at the base of an enormous glacier. I booked a full day hike on the Franz Josef glacier, so after grabbing a bite to eat and doing a bit of prep-work for the day ahead, it was off to bed. The next morning started bright and early, and to my surprise (and extreme gratitude) the sun was shining! The forecast had called for rain, and after weeks in the cold and wet weather, the idea of spending the entire day hiking in rain was not exactly one that I met with enthusiasm. After eating a solid breakfast, I met up with the rest of the crew, and headed down to the guide company to prep for our hike. After a brief overview of the day ahead, we were outfitted with crampons, boots, rain pants, and jackets, then hopped on the bus and took off toward the glacier!

The first 45 minutes were spent walking along the valley floor, surrounded by the towering mountains and the numerous waterfalls running off their faces. The view was spectacular, and would only continue to get better as the day progressed. Once we reached the base of the glacier, we stopped to strap on our crampons and test our skill at walking on ice. Led by our guide (carrying a pick axe and shaping the trail as we walked) we made our way out onto the glacier. The next several hours were spent hiking, crawling, and generally exploring the ice and all of its’ varying features. The deep blue ice was breath taking, and truly an experience that I won’t forget.

If you do ever make it to Franz Josef, make sure you book the full day hike. A lot of people fear that this will be too much work, or that they simply aren’t in shape for a full day of hiking, but trust me when I tell you that you can do it. If you do opt for the half day tour, you will spend most of the morning walking in the valley, then will find yourself sorely disappointed after realizing that the tour has to turn around shortly after you finally step foot on the glacier.

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RIver Valley – New Zealand

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River Valley is  destination that often missed by most travelers, and I find that quite sad as it has honestly been one of my favorite stops of the trip thus far! It is only a few hours from Taupo, so if you find yourself in the area, then this is a must. The drive is very scenic (assuming you are coming from Taupo), first taking you around the banks of Lake Taupo, then through the mountains of the Tongariro National Park, and finally winding through the hills  and fields of the River Valley. Your destination: The River Valley Adventure Lodge; a small, family-owned lodge on the banks of the Rangitikei River.The lodge is quiet and comfortable, and has a small bar, a guest-kitchen, and fully staffed kitchen serving up some absolutely amazing meals (we had a roast dinner while we were there). Beyond this, they also offer a number of guided activities such as whitewater rafting and horse trekking (see also horseback riding), as well as a number of good hikes and leisure activities.

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Our bus pulled into the River Valley lodge just before dusk, and we were quickly shown to our rooms where we dropped our bags and returned to the lodge for some R&R before dinner. At 6PM the cook served up a proper roast supper of roast beef, garlic mashed potatoes, a mixed vegetable medley, rolls, cabbage, and gravy. Everything on the table was made from scratch, and I don’t expect I’ll have a better meal for some time… After dinner, we sat around the large stone fireplace in the center of the main lodge, played some guitar, had a few beers, then called it a night.

Having gone to bed a bit too early the night before, I woke up around 5AM and just could seem to get back to sleep. I had to be up and ready to go by 8 for rafting, so this wasn’t the end of the world. I packed my bags, made a bit of breakfast, then met up with Tom, our rafting guide. After a brief overview we all grabbed our wet-suits, helmets, and other gear and made for the river. Bear in mind, Tom was the only one in our boat that had any rafting experience, and we were about to head down one of the few rivers in NZ that offer grade 5 rapids (this wouldn’t be allowed in the states). We all piled into the boat and Tom gave us some instruction on how to properly row, duck, jump, as well as a few other commands we would need to know to safely navigate the rapids, and with that we were off! Over the next 2 hours we made our awy through some absolutely breathtaking canyons, surviving the rapids, and stopping along the way to jump off a 40 foot tall boulder into the freezing cold river. It is truly an experience I will never forget…

After returning from the rafting trip, I had just enough time to grab a (much needed) hot shower, and a bite to eat before boarding the bus for Wellington…


Wellington

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I’m not quite sure why, but I find city’s, alive and buzzing with people, to be some of the most depressing places on earth. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being in the city, I just find it strange that when I am the most surrounded by people is when I feel the most alone…

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We arrived in Wellington (aka windy Wellington) last night and nothing much to report from the evening. We hung around the hostel for a bit, then bummed around the neighborhood and found some dinner before heading off to bed. The next morning started with a blustery walk around town, stopping to pick up a few extra warming layers before we get further south, and into colder weather. I spent most of the morning exploring the city, then met up with Jack and Heidi to check out the Te Papa museum. The museum was great! There were 7 floors of exhibits covering everything from ecology to local history, and to make things even better, it was free!

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After the museum, I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I headed back to the hostel to do some laundry and rest up for tomorrow.


Waitomo Round 2

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I once again found myself up at the ass-crack of dawn today (this is becoming somewhat of a trend). With a few hours to kill before the bus was scheduled to depart, I walked to the grocery store and picked up some grub for later on in the day. On the way back to the hostel, I grabbed a cup of coffee and a sausage roll for breakfast. Sausage rolls seem to be pretty standard fare breakfast food, and, though a bit on the greasy side, are quite tasty! With breakfast and my caffeine fix handled, I grabbed my bags and went outside to find the bus. When I got downstairs there were 12 other people, my new bus-mates, already waiting. I was somewhat glad that the group was on the small-side as it made it much easier to get to know everyone. After some quick introductions, our drive “Mar” showed up, and we all boarded the bus and began our journey to Waitomo.

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Everyone on the bus was extremely nice, and within a half-hour I knew everyone quite well. About a half-hour into our trip to Waitomo, we stopped off at a ranch to see a “Sheep Show.” 4 of us decided to attend the show: Jan and Paul (a retired couple from Australia), Joanne (a spinning instructor from Sydney), and myself. Now normally this isn’t the type of thing I would do, but when in Rome (or NZ)… The show was quite comical. We got to learn about all the different types of sheep, see how they are sheared, and watch an amazing demonstration of how sheep dogs are used for herding. In the middle of the show, I was pulled up on stage with 3 other audience members. We were each handed a baby bottle with a bit of milk in it, and were then informed that at the count of three we were all to have a drinking contest. When the count reached three, the presenter shouted STOP, then proceeded to unleash a small group of baby goats onto the stage. The drinking contest was a joke, and the bottles were there for us to feed the goats.The smallest of the goats, a tiny little guy not much bigger than a chuihuhua and covered in soft black fur, came tumbling towards me on very unsteady legs. I tried to feed him, but he was so excited the bottle kept missing his mouth and splashing milk on his face. The whole experience was great! Towards the end of the show they brought the dogs out on stage to show off their herding skills, this was by far the most impressive part of the show! They demonstrated how a single dog can herd upwards of 2000 sheep, they are able to do this by climbing on the backs of the sheep to make their way through the herd! To demonstrate, they had the dogs run back and forth across the backs of the sheep, and at one point the dog simply stopped and layed down on the back of one sheep, hilarious. After the sheep show, we all got back on the bus and continued our ride to Waitomo, making one more brief stop to see the longest swing bridge in New Zealand.

We arrived at the hostel in the mid-afternoon. The weather in Waitomo was quite a bit warmer than Rotorua, and the sun was shining. I decided to take full advantage of the weather and went for a run up a scenic trail near the hostel, passing through cow pastures along the way. The view from the top was spectacular! On the way back down the trail, I stopped to do a bit of bouldering on the remains of some rather sizeable formations in the middle of the pasture. After a long hot shower, I joined the rest of my bus-mates in their room for a beer and some conversation. Later we grabbed dinner down at Curly’s pub, then finished off the night with a couple more beers back at the hostel.

Tomorrow we’re off to Taupo: “Adventure Capital of the North.”


The Quick and Dirty on Cellphones Abroad

While traveling outside of the U.S. you will most likely find that having a cellphone can be quite helpful. Personally, I didn’t need any fancy bells and whistles, I just needed a very simple phone that would allow me to keep in touch with people I met on the road, call hostels and tour companies, and send/receive the occasional text. Unlike the U.S., most (if not all) other countries use cell phones that accept SIM cards, and from what I can tell, these phones are all also “unlocked.” What this means is that you can buy a phone in NZ, pop in a SIM card from and NZ company which will give you and NZ phone number, then when you move on to a new country, you simply get a new SIM card which gives you a new number. This way, you can take your phone from country to country, and you simply have to pay a small fee for a new SIM card.

In New Zealand (where I obtained my phone) there are three major providers to choose from: 2 degrees, vodoafone, and telecomm. All three of these companies offer phones, and various types of service. I ended up choosing Vodafone since they offered what they call an “add-on” package which allowed me to pay a flat amount of $35 for 100 minutes. The minutes allowed me to call any phone in NZ without having to worry about per minute usage fees which was nice. To me, this seemed to be the best option.

That’s really all there is to it. If you want to take care of this before you leave, you can pickup a cheap phone online (ebay). You just have to make sure it is globally unlocked, and accepts a SIM card. Nokia makes a great phone and will most often meet both these requirements.


Waitomo and Rotorua

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I woke up early this morning so I could hit the hotel gym before hitting the road. After packing our bags, Christine and I walked across the street to a small cafe for a bit of coffee and my first internet connection in the last 8 days. We spent the better part of a half hour catching up on emails and enjoying our coffee before returning to the hotel to pack up the car. After getting our bags, and ourselves, situated, we hit the road to Waitomo. The next few hours were filled with winding roads, green pastures, and rolling hillsides.

We arrived in Waitomo around 1PM. Fog draped landscape like a heavy blanket, and it began to rain lightly. After finding that the tours at the Blackwater Rafting company were full, we continued down the road to Waitomo Adventures, where we booked or 4 hour Blackwater Rafting tour.

The tour was amazing! The full tour at the Blackwater Rafting company turned out to be a blessing as the smaller Waitomo Adventures offered a much more personal and fun tour. The guides were great, pushing us to really dig in and explore the caves. We spent the 4 hours of our tour crawling, swimming, and tubing our way through the caverns. This has been one of my favorite experiences of the trip thus far, and I would highly recommend that anyone visiting New Zealand take the time to do it!

After our caving experience, we had a great meal at Curly’s Pub, then decided to drive on to Rotorua. It was pitch black, pouring rain, and the gps had decided that the best route to Rotorua was through winding, back-country roads. Every 3km or so we would take a left turn, then a right, then another left. I was damn near convinced we were going in circles. If you were to draw our route out on a map, I would imagine it would resemble something like you might see drawn with an ethca-sketch. Needless to say, this route took a lot longer than we had originally expected (the pouring rain and the fact that we were doing no more than 35mph the entire way only multiplied this). After about 3 hours of zig-zagging through the dark farmland, we finally came upon a town where I pulled over for a much needed cup of coffee. While in the gas-station, I had a chat with a very nice lady who confirmed that we had indeed taken “the back way” to Rotorua, and was kind enough to give me some rather detailed instructions for the rest of our trip. After about another 45m minutes we arrived in Rotorua, found a motel, and turned in for the night.

The next morning, I once again found myself up before the dawn. With time to kill, I decided to take a dip in the motels thermal spa. This was basically no more than a small tiled pool filled with water from the local hot springs. The water was warm, and smelled strongly of sulfur. There was a sign posted on the wall, instructing users “no dipping, diving, or splashing” to avoid getting some type of meningitis. It displayed a small wave with a smiley face above the water, and frowny face below. The whole thing was a bit comical, and I wish I had brought my camera to take a picture. I soaked for a while; the water felt good and helped ease my muscles a bit.

Christine and I enjoyed a nice breakfast at Capers cafe, then went for a stroll in the Kuirau park (a free thermal park near the city center). After exploring the parks bubbling springs and snapping a few photos, it was time for Christine and I to part ways so she could make her way back to Auckland where she would be catching a flight back to LA later in the afternoon. She dropped me at the Base hostel, and hit the road.

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I was officially on my own now, and the gravity of things were really starting to set in. To combat the initial feeling of loneliness, I played some Mumford and Sons on my iPod and set out to wander about town. I spent the rest of the afternoon poking around the city, picking up some groceries, and finally figuring out how the whole cellphone system works abroad. Later in the evening, I stopped at the Lava bar (part of the Base hostel in Rotorua) where I took advantage of a nightly special they offered: a huge plate of bangers and mash and a pint for only $10! After dinner, I contacted the Kiwi Experience and arranged to hop on the bus in the morning which would take me straight back to Waitomo, before heading on to Taupo. Tomorrow morning is my first day on the bus, and I’m looking forward to making some new friends…

Ordering coffee in NZ and AUS:

  • Filter Coffee: This is just a standard cup of coffee (what you would get if you ordered a cup of coffee in America).
  • Long Black: Double shot of Espresso with water (this is essentially like a cup of normal coffee).
  • Long White: Double shot of Espresso with Foam

 


The Final Departure

The final days before my departure can best be described as being a bit like watching my own funeral. My closest friends gathered to wish me farewell, sharing kind words and warm smiles, all carrying a very noticeable weight of sadness. While it warmed my heart to know that I have people in my life who care enough to be saddened by my departure, it also made leaving much harder than I could have anticipated. Nevertheless, I made it through. After choking through a few tearful goodbyes (and one last much needed drink at Craft and Commerce), Zac dropped me at Terminal 1 of the San Diego Airport. My adventure had officially begun.

I made my way through a surprisingly empty corridor, and placed my bag on the scale at the ticket counter. 25.5 pounds, not too bad. After reviewing my ticket, the ticket agent explained that I was in the wrong terminal, and that I would need to catch a shuttle bus to the commuter terminal to catch my flight to Los Angeles. Ignoring the fact that no where on any of my ticketing information was there any hint of the fact that I needed to go to the commuter terminal (it instead plainly listed “United” as the only indicator of where I should go), I followed her instructions and hopped on the next shuttle. Upon arriving at the commuter terminal I was again pleasantly surprised to find an empty terminal, and was promptly greeted by a few very friendly and almost overly-helpful gate agents. With my bag officially checked, I breezed through security and boarded my flight to L.A.

The flight to Los Angeles was short and bumpy. I have never flown on such a small aircraft before, and had to duck quite a bit to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling. Despite the tiny stature of the plane, we landed safely about 30 minutes after take off (this sure beat the hell out of battling L.A. traffic). After another brief shuttle ride, and second short security line I now find myself at Terminal 2 of the Los Angeles International Airport, listening to “In the Air Tonight” playing quietly over the speakers of a wonderfully average diner. Just over 2 hours til my 9 hour flight to Raratonga, and I’m trying desperately to fill the time to avoid allowing myself to think too much…


The Countdown

As my last days in San Diego quickly slip away, I am finding myself feeling surprisingly ambivalent to the changes that are about to, and have already occurred in my life. I suppose this lack of feeling could be due to the major, and rather unexpected, changes and opportunities which have presented themselves over the past few months. Instead of spending my final days tying up loose ends, and preparing myself to sell off my worldly possessions and uproot my life, I instead found myself traveling to Las Vegas, Brazil, and Yosemite, all the while growing closer to a certain someone who has managed to take an even deeper hold in my heart. So much for a leisurely exit from a city that, beyond my friends, held very few ties. It really is funny (see also annoying), how people have a way of entering your life at the most inopportune of moments. I have a feeling that once I plant my ass on that plane, with all tasks completed, I will finally start to analyze/realize/feel all the things that I have simply not had the time to ponder.  I digress..

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