Byron Bay – Australia

Byron Bay   Australia

This afternoon I caught a ride with the Oz Experience bus to get from Spot X to Byron Bay (about 2 hours away). Pretty much everyone on the bus fell asleep within minutes of our departure (apparently everyone had a late one the night before) except for the driver (a cool Aussie chic), a Scottish lad named Michael, and myself. We all congregated in the front of the bus, and took turns swapping stories and expanding each others musical horizons via our iPods. The pleasant company made the ride go very quickly and we arrived in Byron around 6:30PM. Our driver was kind enough to supply me with an Oz Experience VIP wrist band, which gave me access to the Oz Experience table at “Cheeky Monkeys” (an infamous bar and restaurant in Byron Bay) , and would prove quite useful in the days to come. I grabbed my bags and made plans to meet up with Michael (my new Scottish friend), and his buddy Steve at Cheeky Monkeys for dinner and beers a bit later that evening. As it turns out, we all ended up at the same hostel (Nomads Byron Bay), and even ended up in the same room that night, which made everything a bit easier.

After dropping our bags and cleaning up a bit, we ventured out for our first taste of the famed Cheeky Monkeys. When we arrived at the bar, the place was pretty much empty, save the table full of people from the Oz Experience. We grabbed a seat with our (their) fellow bus-mates, where we were immediately greeted with free jugs of beer. Apparently the Oz Experience table (in return for showing up early enough for dinner) received from jugs of beer for the table until around 9PM. It was around this time that I noticed I was surrounded by maple leaves, and people decorated in Canadian flags. It was Canada Day! To show support for our little brother to the North, I dawned some sporty Canadian flag sunglasses (which were provided by our waitress). The beer began to flow, and things proceeded to get a bit rowdy. It was around this time that the host announced that they were going to have a contest for a free skydive. The game: “heads or tails.” The premise was simple: Each contestant would place their hands on either their head, or their “tail,” the host would then flip a coin, and if you had guessed incorrectly, you were asked to remove a piece of clothing (or optionally bow out of the competition). As no Canadians volunteered for the game, the host asked if any American (who he referred to as Canada’s big brother) would represent them. Before I really had a chance to think about it, my hand shot up and joined the other contestants on stage. When in Rome.. After a few rounds, I was standing strong, and hadn’t lost a single article of clothing. The poor bastard next to me was down to his boxers, which he then lost, and was forced to ask the audience if someone could lend him their hat so that he could cover his junk and continue on (as a legal matter you were not allowed to get nude below the waist). The game continued; however, my good fortune did not. A few more rounds found me in nothing but my boxers (and some Canadian flag stickers covering my nipples, I thought this a nice touch). I was one of the last three competitors when I finally lost  my boxers (no one would borrow me a hat, not that I blame them), so I was forced to bow out of the competition with my underwear (say nothing for my dignity) intact. When all was said and done a cute (and topless) girl, unsurprisingly was declared the winner. After the competition was over, the host announced that the restaurant was now closed and the club was now open. This meant that it was time for everyone to drink up and start dancing on the tables, this is what Cheeky Monkeys is famous for. As the story goes, the owner (sick of going to bars where dancing on the tables was frowned upon) opened the bar with the specific goal of making dancing on table tops its’ main attraction. He added diamond plate and other reinforcements to the tables, and the legend was born. We danced until late into the evening, then stopped by a local bakery (which was highly recommended by our bus driver, and is open 23 hours a day) sample a “Paris Brest” (also recommended by our driver). As we found out, the Paris Brest has a thing layer of pastry on the bottom, a ridiculously thick layer of custard in the middle, and is topped off with chocolate and a cherry, It was insanely rich, but really good!

The next morning was, needless to say, a bit rough. I wandered around town for a bit and found some breakfast, before returning to the hostel. I was asked to move rooms since there was an error with my reservation (a task that I would need to repeat again before the work was through). Later on, I joined the guys, and a bunch of other people from the hostel, for a game of beach volleyball, and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the beach and enjoying the sunshine (this was after all the first time I’d seen sun and warmth in a few weeks). We returned to Cheeky Monkeys for dinner and drinks that evening, though I called it a night much earlier than the night before.

Byron Bay   Australia

Sunday morning. I got up early and met up with the Scots to take a tour bus out to Nimban.  Nimban is an old hippie town that was originally founded to host the first jazz festival in New South Wales back in the 60’s. After the festival, the hippies never left, and the town that remains is known for being very “pot friendly” if not “pot pushy.”  It’s one of those places you just have to visit to experience (even if you’re not after any elicit goods, it’s still a fun trip). We started our day with a winding journey through country roads, listening to classic rock and Bob Marley blaring through the stereo (this would continue for the entire trip). 2 hours of driving found us in Nimban. As we soon discovered, the town is not much more than a single street about 2 blocks in length, littered with shops selling hemp goods of all kinds, a “hemp museum,” (which displays a history of the marijuana movement in the states, as well as that of the town), and various cafes and coffee shops. While walking down the street, you are often approached by various characters selling “cookies” and “weed.” Before departing our bus, the driver gave a lengthy speech warning about the strength and effects of these cookies, and shared some stories of past passengers who did not head his warning. One such story included a 21 year old Israeli who was ex-military (aka a hard ass). He consumed three cookies (the recommendation is no more than one half) and ended up spending the four hour return trip at the front of the bus crying his eyes out because he was convinced that the rest of the passengers were Pakistani and were going to kill him. Needless to say most people proceeded with caution. We spent an hour (more than enough time) walking around town and grabbing a bit of lunch, then returned to the bus for our return trip. We stopped for a picnic on the way back, and with 2 hours having past, it started to become quite apparent who had indulged in Nimban, and who had not. After our picnic we took a short walk to a nearby waterfall, then all piled back onto the bus for another 2 hours of rock and reggae. Upon returning to town, we all decided that a night off from Cheeky Monkeys was probably a good idea, so we opted to head to the Cinema and check out Transformers 3. One of the Scottish lads slept through the entire movie (you can probably guess why)…

Byron Bay   Australia

Having celebrated Canada Day a few days before, it was now time to celebrate a “real” holiday (I kid): The 4th of July! I rallied the troops and spent the entire day hanging out at the beach. In the evening we went to Cheeky Monkeys, where they had Jim Beam on special in honor of us whiskey chugging Americans. Needless to say it was a good night.

Byron Bay   Australia

Over the course of the next few days, I spent a bit more time exploring Byron Bay. I walked along the beach, and through the parks and coastal forests to visit the Lighthouse. I watched the surfers riding huge waves off of what can only be described as one of the most perfect surf spots I have ever seen. I visited various restaurants and cafe’s, and generally just kicked back and took it all in. Along the way, I met Dean: a fellow American, who (as luck would have it) was also traveling to Cairns on the same flight as I was.  After a full week in Byron Bay, I made my way to the airport (joined by my new friend) and caught my flight North to Carins, where I would soon learn to breathe underwater.

Spot X Surf Camp – Australia

 

What a morning! After having a rather anxious dream about missing a flight, I woke up startled. It was 6:10AM and I had 5 minutes to pack my bag, check out of my hostel, and run 6 blocks to the neighboring hostel where I was scheduled to meet up with the Mojorsurf team and begin my surf adventure. I flipped on the light (which my dorm-mates thankfully were very understanding about), and, not having enough time to think about things such as dignity, proceeded to strip down and give them quite an eyeful while trying to manage to get my pants on (still half awake and quite unbalanced). After successfully managing to clothe myself, I forced all of my belongings (“all” being a hopeful term) into my pack, grabbed my food bags out of the kitchen, and pausing only momentarily to drop my key at the front desk, took off in a full sprint down the street and through central station, arriving at Wake Up Sydney to the beautiful site of the Mojosurf bus!

I was immediately greeted by Nat: a scruffy guy with shaggy, dirty-blonde hair, and a very warm personality. Nat is the founder of Mojosurf, and would also be our bus driver for most of the day. After everyone was on-board, we fired up the bus, cranked some Bob Marley, and began our trip up the coast from Sydney up Spot X. About an hour into our trip, we made a quick breakfast stop, and upon returning to the road, watched “Endless Summer 2″ to set the mood for the week to come. Upon arriving at Spot X, we threw our bags in the common room, and immediately grabbed some boards and headed out to the surf. The wind was cold, the water was warm, and the sun was shining, overall a good day to surf! The waves were quite small, but it was actually kind of perfect for a bunch of beginners. We spent the next two hours trying our best to catch some waves, most often failing miserably. The few waves that we did catch though were enough to keep us pumped up and pushing forward, a truly exhilarating feeling! After surfing, we returned to camp, cold, hungry, and generally exhausted. After dinner and a few beers with new friends (and failing to get a fire going), we called it a night.

Our second day greeted us with clouds, rain, wind, and generally anything that would make one feel cold when wet. We got up at 8 for breakfast, and were in our wetties and on the beach by 9. After a quick warm up, we plunged into the surf to take our second try and surfing. I had pinched a nerve in my back on day one, so I found it a bit frustrating (see also painful) trying to get up on my board. Each time I’d try to jump up, my back would pinch, my legs would go limp, and I would fall off the board. This didn’t exactly encourage the learning process, but I did my best to push through. By the time we finished our morning session we were all freezing and exhausted. We returned to camp, grabbed a quick shower, then collapsed and slept for the next hour until lunch. Lunch was good, but didn’t seem to quite give us the energy boost we had hoped for (the thought of putting on a cold wetsuit and going back out to freeze again didn’t exactly provide much inspiration either). Regardless of how we felt, we pushed through it and jumped back into the water. After another 2 hours my back was really starting to bug me, but I was doing the best I could to enjoy the experience. The afternoon brought a much needed yoga class (instructed by the Yoga for Surfers DVD), which I hoped would also help to sort out my back. During the evening, we ate dinner, had a few beers, then watched a rather intense limbo competition (which I gracefully sat out). I decided to head to bed early and rest up for the next day of surfing.

Day 3: After a good nights rest, I was still quite exhausted, but ready to get back out in the water. Breakfast, wetsuits, surf. The waves were quite choppy this morning, and we were getting pounded by the surf. Despite this fact, the morning was a lot of fun! The sun even made a few (much needed) appearances! We finished our sessions with a fun group swim, diving through waves, attempting front flips into the surf, and watching in amazement as Rob (aka Handsome Rob, our instructor) somehow swam in the waves as if he was part dolphin..

Day 4:
- 9AM session, another cold, cloudy morning, with pretty huge swells. Once again, got my ass seriously handed to me by the waves. It was more an exercise in paddling, and managing to get out past the waves, than it was in surfing. I basically spent the better part of two hours getting smashed by wave after wave and just trying to stay afloat. That being said, it was good fun, and I am getting more comfortable sitting on my board. 
- Afternoon session: Still tired from the morning, and struggling to drag myself out in the cold (see also rain, see also wind, see also huge, choppy waves) we once again jumped in and hoped for the best. Fista (my instructor) took me “out the back” past the break to help me find a few good waves to try and ride.  I once again found myself getting tossed around like a ragdoll in the wild surf. I got sucked under a few times and properly thrown through the wash, finding myself disoriented from having so much water forced up my nose and into my ears. At the end of the day I managed to catch one huge wave, and rode it all the way in, feeling quite comfortable on my board once I managed to find my footing. This single wave made the hours of getting beaten down by the ocean worth it. I felt the high, the zen of surfing for the first time, and I loved it!

Day 5: My right ear is properly fucked from yesterdays beating, so I’ve opted to sit out the last session this morning. I’ve been up most of the night with a stabbing pain in my ears and really don’t want to push it any more at this point. It’s been a good week at Spot X, an experience I will truly cherish in years to come. This afternoon I catch the bus up to Byron bay where I plan to spend the next week kicking back (and praying for some sunshine and warm weather).

Melbourne

After 2 days of waiting on mother nature to issue my pardon and allow flights to continue, I have finally found myself in Melbourne! I was feeling a bit down tonight when I finally landed, and after a lengthy shuttle trip to my hostel, I resolved to pick myself up and venture out into the city. After a brief conversation with the hostel staff, I decided to check out the Brunswick neighborhood. With my coat and scarf wrapped around me as tightly as I could manage, I headed out into the cold, dark night. After about 3/4 of a mile I started seeing a variety of shops (all of which were closed), restaurants, and a large number of cafes. Brunswick had an immediately obvious “hip” vibe to it, and, as I would later discover, was the “hipster” area of town. I continued my trek, pausing occasionally to peer through a shop window, or admire some graffiti, until finally arriving at my destination: Bimbo Deluxe Pizza. Bimbo’s multiple stories are littered with couches, coffee tables, and chairs, and felt more of an old victorian home than a bar and restaurant: I loved it! I ordered a pizza (on special for $4) and a beer (not on special for $8), and began chatting up a guy who was placing his order beside me. After conversing for a few minutes, I had found that Chris (my new bar buddy) had just taken his final exam for paramedics school and was out celebrating with his classmates. He invited me to join them, and we spent the next hour or so chatting and enjoying a few beers. After we had finished our beers, one of the girls in the group (known as “Russia” due to the fact that she was from Russia) exclaimed “I want to go get a lap dance then go home and go to bed. Let’s go to the strip club!” First night off to a good start. We all jumped in the car and headed downtown to her favorite club, stopping at the ATM along the way so she could get some cash to pay for her pleasure. Chris and I decided that we didn’t really want to pay the $20 cover at the club, so he suggested we instead head to the Crown Casino on the harbor which boasts $4.50 drinks. At this point I was just sort of following the evening wherever it took me, so I agreed to join him. The casino was quite nice, and reminded a lot of vegas. I had one last drink with Chris, and after watching him drop $300 into a slot machine in the course of 30 minutes, decided to call it a night. Upon returning to my room, I was greeted by my new roomates Ariel and Danielle, both of whom are from LA. If this wasn’t coincidence enough, Ariel’s family is from Minnesota, and the lady (who’s name I didn’t catch) sleeping on the bunk above me was also from Minnesota. It continues to amaze me just how small the world is.

Day 2. Joined by my new friends from LA, I set out to explore the CBD (central business district): the heart of the city. We hopped on the free public tram (which runs a loop around the entire CBD) and made our first stop at the Victoria Market. The market is comprised of a large number of booths, selling everything from clothing, to souvenirs, to produce, and basically resembles a huge flea market. After a bit of poking around the maze of booths (basically all selling the same things), we jumped back on the tram and headed to South Melbourne to check out Eureka Tower. The tower is the highest viewpoint in Melbourne and provides 360 degree views of the entire city. Needless to say, the views were spectacular, and really helped to give an understanding of how the city and surrounding areas were layed out. Once we’d had our fill of the views, we set out to explore a bit more of the city. Melbourne CBD reminds me a bit of the best parts of New York City and San Francisco all rolled into one, without any of the grunge or seedy bits. The streets are connected by small alleyways, which are littered with cafes and graffiti. This was one of my favorite things about Melbourne: no matter how much you explored, there always seemed to be a new alleyway, cafe, or bar you had yet to discover. The other thing I noticed about the city is just how fashionable all its’ inhabitants are. It was almost a bit strange; almost every person you passed was dressed quite chic, and they all seemed to have the same general sense of style. It was almost as if everyone had gotten together and said “ok, this is how we’re going to dress,” and everyone just agreed. That being said, I feel quite at home here. In fact, this is possibly the first city I’ve found thus far on my trip that I could see myself living in.

Melbourne

 

Melbourne

After spending most of the afternoon exploring the city, the girls and I parted ways for a bit and planned to meet up a bit later for dinner. I continued wandering aimlessly and eventually found myself in a rather unique shopping mall. The building had a huge, cone-shaped, glass roof, and in the center of the interior stood a large brick building. Apparently this building was once used to create lead shot for firearms and was maintained for historical purposes (it now houses a number of chain clothing stores). I met the girls back at the hostel around 7 and, on the advice of the hostel staff, we made our way to a restaurant in Chinatown called “Mr. Dumpling House” for dinner. The line was already quite long by the time we arrived, but we resolved to wait it out, assuming that given the sizable crowd it must be worth the wait. The wait  turned out to be a bit more frustrating than any of us anticipated. The problem was that there were only 3 people in our party, and many of the tables in the restaurant sat 6 or more. Rather than breaking up the tables and seating us (along with the other party of 3 ahead of us), the hostess decided to instead seat 8 larger parties ahead of us, while we sat idly by and watched. After a little over an hour we finally got seated. We were all quite hungry at this point and placed our order straight away: 3 plates of dumplings, and one order of spring rolls (bringing the total number of dishes to 4 for those of you following along). The waitress returned about 10 minutes later with our first plate of dumplings which we excitedly consumed within a few minutes. We then sat and watched as she brought tray after tray to all the surrounding tables, yet the remainder of our order never came. After almost an hour had passed, the waitress approached me and asked if we had received the rest of our order. I told her we had not, and again repeated the items that were still missing. Another 10 minutes went by, and she again returned to ask whether we had received the missing dishes. I, once again, informed her that we had not. Another 15 minutes and the dishes finally arrived! Now full, and rather content despite the horrible service, we prepared to leave. It was at this point that the manager approached me and began asking about how many dishes we had received. I repeated multiple times that we had received exactly what we had ordered and expressed my unhappiness with the wait, but he was somehow unsatisfied with the situation. As it turned out, he thought that we had received the dishes more than once and were trying to scam them. He asked me to join him downstairs, then requested that I sit and review a security tape with him to determine whether or not we had received the dishes more than once. After 10 minutes of watching him fast forward and rewind the security tape, he simply said “ok, that’s fine.” Obviously I was less than happy with this, but at that point I just wanted to leave and continue with my night. After waiting for our bill (which did not arrive), we went downstairs to the manager, who quickly printed it out for us (in the full amount, no discounts, no apologies). We paid and left. On a side note, the dumplings were amazing, and quite cheap, and despite all the bullshit we had to put up with I would still recommend this place. Next up was a stop at The Croft Institute, a small, hard to find, cocktail lounge not far from the dumpling house (I had done a bit of research and supposedly this place was supposed to have the best craft cocktails in Melbourne). Wandering through a few dark, graffiti-covered alleyways we found ourselves at a dead-end, the only thing in sight was a small, illuminated sign reading “The Croft Institute.” This was the place! After battling through the crowd, and having a good conversation with the bartender (a 20 year old guy named Chris who plans on heading to SD after he turns 21), I ordered a drink called “The Mad Professor,” and the girls ordered something with absence which was served in a rocks glass with a syringe in it (minus the needle). The drinks were quite good, but the place was packed, and at $20 per drink, we decided to head on to our next stop: “Section 8.” Section 8 is an outdoor bar (down yet another alley) surrounded by a wire fence, with a few tables, and a bar. It was great! We hung out there for a while, enjoying another tasty beverage, then decided to call it a night.

Melbourne

Melbourne

Melbourne

Melbourne

Melbourne

Day 3. The girls took off for Tasmania today, and I spent the entire day wandering around the city. Melbourne CBD is a very lively place to hang out. Street performers and musicians fill the sidewalks, and there people everywhere. I found a Scotch & Soda store (one of my favorite brands) and snagged myself a fancy new shirt (I’ve been feeling like a bit of slob wearing nothing but t-shirts and the same fleece day after day). After spending the entire day walking, I made dinner with one of my new dorm mates, then decided to head to bed.

Day 4. My friend Nikesh has been sending me all of these “friend suggestions” on facebook, and I finally worked out that he was trying to connect me with friends of his who live in Melbourne. I sent them each messages, and managed to connect with Dyxie, who invited me to join her and a friend in Port Melbourne for brunch. I gratefully accepted, and hopped on the train to meet them. We enjoyed a nice breakfast, then they showed me around the area a bit. Afterwards, I walked from Port Melbourne to St. Kilda where I caught the train back downtown and returned to my hostel.

Day 5. I woke up long before the sun, walking a half-mile to a neighboring hostel to catch a bus that would take me on a tour of the great ocean road, and the twelve apostles. The day was long, the weather was cold, and the sites were beautiful. To be perfectly honest though, after living on the west coast for nearly 8 years, the site of the Australian coastline wasn’t as stunning as it might otherwise be. After 12 hours tooling about on the bus, I found myself back at the hostel, and made it another early night.

 

Melbourne

Melbourne

Day 6. My last day in Melbourne. In the morning I went on a tour of the old Gaol (aka Jail), and learned about the history of Australia’s most famous criminals. I then killed a few hours bumming around the park, watching a movie, and hanging with a few friends from the hostel. I wrapped up the day by finishing up some laundry, and joining some friends from the great ocean road tour for dinner and the Little Creatures Dining Hall. After returning to the hostel, I found that the morning flights (including mine) had been canceled due to the same ash cloud that had me stuck in Christchurch (it strikes again!). I re-booked my shuttle to the airport, and have decided to just head to the airport tomorrow afternoon and hope for the best…

Melbourne

Change

I’m finding it difficult to just let go of the worries and concerns of my ever day life and truly sync into the rhythm of my trip. While I am meeting a lot of great people, loneliness and separation from those I care about are an issue that I am constantly battling. I’m not really sure why I cling so tightly to things over which I have no control, but I know that I need to let go more and let the cards fall where they may. It’s funny how life can throw you off balance like that. It seems that every time I feel that my feet are firmly planted, and I am comfortable and confident on my own, something (see also someone) comes into my path that sends me tumbling, gasping for breath, and trying to find my footing. Given enough time, I become entwined with this entity, as if anchored by their presence. I suppose that is what love is. Letting someone into your life, joining, becoming one. The difficult part is not losing yourself in the process. Not becoming reliant; symbiotic. How do we overcome feelings of jealousy, fear, anxiety, longing, need. How can we become intimate with others, allowing them to see us for who we truly are, at our best and worst, bare, naked, exposed, without also becoming completely vulnerable? Maybe that’s the whole idea: when it’s real, true, love, that none of these things matter because you are just so thankful to have that person in your life at all, whether they continue to be there or not. Or perhaps it is quite the opposite, and these feelings just don’t arise when it is right. Patterns are emerging, and my eyes are being opened ever-wider. Will I find the courage, the answers, the reasons to induce change? I hope so.

- Written at 30,00 feet. Things seem so much simpler here…

 

 

 

Queenstown and Milford Sound

Queenstown and Milford SoundToday 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.

Queenstown and Milford Sound

 

Queenstown and Milford Sound

Queenstown and Milford Sound

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.

Queenstown and Milford Sound

 

Queenstown and Milford Sound

Queenstown and Milford Sound

Queenstown and Milford Sound

Frans Josef Glacier

Frans Josef Glacier

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.

Frans Josef Glacier Frans Josef Glacier

Lake Mahanipua

Lake Mahanipua

Tonight we stopped at Lake Mahanipua, home of the infamous “Pu Pub.” The pub got its’ name partly due to its’ location (at lake MahaniPUa, and partly due to the fact that it’s built in a building that once housed public toilets. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Les, a very spry 87 year old man with shaggy white beard and a rather crotchety demeanor (pretty much me in 59 years). Les is the long time owner of the Pu Pub and the attached hotel where we would be spending our evening. He gave us the run-down on the rules, told a few off-color (see also awkward) jokes and stories, then sent us off to find our rooms.

One of Les’ stories started by informing us about the cameras he had placed around the hotel and bar. He went on to describe a very special evening he had captured on film involving a guy standing in the corner of the bar with his pants around his ankles and a girl around his waist. To quote Les, he was “getting a nobber.” What did he do with this film you ask? Well, he printed out still photos of the event and pasted them all over the bar so that everyone could share in the magic. The moral of the story: Les sees all, and if you decide to “get funny” he’ll put that shit on Youtube and make you famous (his words) lol. Les is a legend!

Lake Mahanipua

We found our rooms, dropped off our bags, then set out on a walk with Kat to see the Lake and the Tasman Sea. The lake was stunning: a huge pool of mirrored glass surrounded by lush green mountains. We spent a bit of time taking some photos, and taking in the views, then proceeded back across the highway just in time to see the sun set on the Tasman Sea. After our walk we returned to the hotel, and joined the rest of the crew for a home cooked meal of steak, vegetables, corn on the cob, and Les’ famous venison stew: it was amazing!

Lake Mahanipua

After dinner it was time for the big party. As a way to promote the pub, and encourage a bit of good fun, Les’ and the Kiwi Experience team put on a themed party in the pub each time the bus stops there (which is pretty much every night). Our theme was the letter “P.” Dressed as pirates, police officers, and my costume “Pin the tail on the donkey,” we all headed to the pub got the party started. Someone suggested we all go around and take turns quickly introducing ourselves, stating our name, where we are from, and our favorite sexual position (this proved to be interesting). I was also quite surprised to hear how many ladies report “reverse cowgirl” to be their favorite. This fact also provided a good bit of fun when Senna (a very attractive blonde girl from Holland) shared that she did not know what reverse cowgirl was. The reason this was fun was because Heidi decided that the best way to explain was by simply laying Senna down in the middle of the bar and showing her. Needless to say hilarity (amongst other things) ensued. After more than enough cocktails had been consumed, we wrapped up our evening at the Pu Pub and headed off to bed.

Lake Mahanipua Lake Mahanipua

RIver Valley – New Zealand

RIver Valley   New Zealand

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.

RIver Valley   New Zealand

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

Wellington

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…

Wellington

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!

Wellington

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

Waitomo Round 2

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.

Waitomo Round 2

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.”