Sunday, January 25, 2009

Routeburn, Kepler, Milford

Not a bad view!

First things first...
Pics: (A few new shots in Queenstown) (Pics from our first walk) (Pics of our second walk as well as in Milford Sound)

Vids: (finally a couple new additions)

I am going to try to keep this one short because if I start recounting too many details this post could be a full-blown novel. Things have been going well - we've been up to some cool stuff, as well as laying low in Queenstown in Henrik's awesome apartment. Highlights of the past few weeks have included hiking the Routeburn track, hiking the Kepler track, going hang gliding in Queenstown, and kayaking and diving in Milford Sound.

Before I start telling you about those fun adventures, first a brief amusing dialogue I had while I was trying to buy some new gloves.

Me: "Excuse me, what does MS mean on the size tag?"
Employee: "Means small"
Me: "It means small? Then what's the M for?"
Employee: "No it's means small"
Me: "What? It's the average size of all smalls or something?"
The employee started laughing at me, and said:
Employee: "No no no. A little boy grows up into a...?"
Me: "Man?"
Employee: "Yes, now plural..."

Clearly I am not used to the kiwi accent yet. All the 'eh' sounds like in men, ten, lend, etc are all pronounced as "ee".

I'm going to be brief with the Routeburn and Kepler descriptions - for a better walkthrough, I recommend going to my picasa album and check out the pictures and captions!

Routeburn Track

Our first 'Great Walk' was the Routeburn. It was an awesome track, and with better gear and prep than Ian and my Torres Del Paine trip, Leon and I were able to have a great time despite the huge amounts of rain.

We chose the Routeburn because it is one of the shorter walks at about 35km over 3 days. This was Leon's first major expedition since his knee surgery, so we wanted to take it easy to make sure it would hold up alright before we did the Kepler track.

Leon takes the lead as we start the Routeburn Track

The Routeburn track was unique in its contrasting habitats. We started in a thick, humid, foggy forest completely drenched in moss. The limbs of trees stuck out at bizzare angles, looking like hands with badly broken fingers. Of course it immediately reminded Leon and I of the Lord of the Rings - it's no wonder why they chose to film it in this country!

Day two we awoke to powerful rain on our tent, and as tempted as we were to try to wait it out, we knew that could take hours, so we got up and had breakfast in the comfort of a shelter next to the campsite (the campsites here are beautiful and well organized). We got out into the alpine zone which was beautiful with the rain because across the valley was an enormous stone mountain face with waterfalls pouring all over it.

At the highest point there was a shelter, and just as we got there the rain cleared up. We stopped for lunch and were lucky to see a helicopter bring in a few propane tanks to resupply the shelter which was quite cool. I took advantage of our brief break to take off my shoes as they had been thoroughly soaked due to the path being completely flooded. The rain returned on our descent, though, and the sharp sedimentary rocks took their toll on me when I slipped and landed with the full weight of my backpack and I on my hand. A quick rain water rinse and a couple bandaids later, however, and I was as good as knew. At the end of day two we descended back into the tree line and set up camp in one of the most gorgeous campsites I have ever seen.

Leon sets up the clothesline to dry out gear

Day three took us back through some similar forests as day one, and by two o'clock that afternoon we were headed back to Queenstown!

After a brief intermission there lasting a few nights, we were off to Te Anau.

Te Anau and the Kepler Track

Te Anau is a tiny little town southwest of Queenstown, in Fiordland. Leon and I got there at 7:15pm, and had 45 minutes before we had to be at the lake for our tour of the Glowworm Caves. In that 45 minutes we had to check in at our hotel, rent gear, and buy food for the trek - it was extremely hectic and involved sprinting around with shopping carts and looking like fools. We made it though, enjoyed the glow worms, and had just enough time to make half a dozen sandwiches and get a little sleep before catching the bus to our launching point.

For the Kepler Track we had huts booked for our two nights, because the campsites were sold out. It's amazing what a different feel the trek had doing it this way. There are positives and negatives to doing it this way, and while I'd say in general I prefer camping, huts are a good alternative - especially if the weather looks dubious. Since Leon's knee had no problems on the Routeburn, we were confident the 60km Kepler wouldn't be much worse.

Leon turns on his headlamp as we enter the caves

We had a nice long first day getting up and out of the tree line. After dropping our stuff off at the Luxmore hut we went to explore a nearby cave system. When we got there, though, we hit what we thought was a dead end pretty quickly, so we turned around. I heard from the hut warden that the forecast was bad for the next day, so I decided to do a quick hike to Luxmore peak to take in the view while it was still there. Afterwards, Leon and I devoured some Back-country Cuisine (dehydrated meals, not bad!) and relaxed for a bit.

I enjoy the view on day 1, because I knew the next day it wouldn't be so nice

As I was heading outside in the evening to hang out, a girl asked me if I was heading to the caves. I told her no, but that I wanted to go again - so Karna and I went back and explored much further into the caves. I had never been caving before, but it was a really cool experience. The pitch black combined with the rush of running water (the 2km of caves were carved by water through limestone) and cool damp air, along with having to squeeze through tight rocky openings made it an exhilerating physical adventure. After an hour and a half we still hadn't reached the end of the system, but decided it would be best if we turned around, as it was already 11PM and we had a long day ahead of us.

Day two was a lot of fun. Leon and I made it up Luxmore peak in the 90kph winds, and then on through a long alpine path along ridges between peaks. At the end of the alpine region we got to the switch-backs that the hut warden had told us about. I thought she had said there were 19 of them, Leon thought she said 91. Unfortunately, he was right, and by the time we finally arrived at the bottom at our next hut, our knees were ready for a break. We checked out a nearby waterfall, devoured more Back-country Cuisine, and went to sleep.

Click on this one for full effect

Day three was our longest day, but also the easiest, as there wasn't an elevation change. Not much to remark on - before we knew it we were back in Te Anau kicking our feet up, prepping for Milford Sound.

Milford Sound

New Zealand tourism clearly puts a big effort into publisizing Milford Sound as 'one of the most beautiful places in the world' and they're right! It's an amazing place - tall peaks 2km tall shooting vertically down and plunging right into the water, surrounded by waterfalls.

We dropped our stuff off at the Milford Lodge (the only place to stay in Milford), and went out for our kayak expedition which was great. Unfortunately, in our zeal to 'defeat' one of the waterfalls by charging as far as we could into it, we capsized (big surprise) in the 48' water. No big deal though, because the guide had spare fleeces into which we changed when we took a break at a rocky beach, and warmed up with a cup of hot cider.

Unfortunately the style and size of the spare fleece weren't exactly mine

The next day we went diving with a very small group (one British girl and two guides) which was awesome. The aquatic environment is totally unique there. It's one of the rainiest places in the world at 8 meters per year! That combined with snowmelt provides a layer 1-4 meters deep of cold fresh water on top of the denser salt water. The fresh water, which is stained with the tannin of the plants it flowed through to get there, absorbs light and leaves the salt water in the dark. This allows for life that normal can only be seen at 50+ meters of depth, at 10-20 meters. That doesn't mean it's not a deep place though - the average depth was over 200 meters! We did two dives which were cold (brutal to jump into the cold fresh water, but once you descend into the salt it was much warmer), but we saw cool things like lots of black coral, bizzare sea-stars, and a big octopus which interacted with us quite a bit before we left it alone.

Besides their extremely lame, extremely un-funny joke of telling us to jump into a 'thermal pool' which was actually just freezing cold water, our Egytpian guide and Kiwi driver were a lot of fun and had a wealth of knowledge to give us about the area.

We made it back to Henrik's apartment just in time to catch the Obama inauguration that night (we stayed up all night to see it) which was fun.

Obama emerges from the darkness

Ok! I think that about covers it. Except for hang gliding (which was totally awesome), the three of us have just been hanging out in Queenstown. I saw my second movie of the trip (in theatres) yesterday - 'Seven Pounds' with will Smith - which I liked. I'd say 8.2/10.

Tomorrow we are going to do some sort of activity on the Shotover river here in Queenstown, and then get a rental car to do a quick tour of the Southern island. Our brief itinerary is:
Day 1 (tomorrow, after the river excursion): Drive to Fox Glacier
Day 2:Do quick tour on Fox Glacier, then drive to Kaikoura
Day 3:Wake up early to do a dolphin tour + swim, then drive down to Christchurch and spend the day there
Day 4:Morning in Christchurch, drive to Mt.Cook Village, do a short day hike there
Day 5:Do another day hike maybe? Then back to Queenstown.

By the 1st of February we'll be off to Auckland. We're taking things one step at a time and haven't planned much past that.

I hope everyone has been well! Comments, questions, criticisms, you know what to do.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Is there an 'Old Zealand'?

Yes, I was screaming at the top of my lungs at this moment

Pics 'n Vids: (bunch of new pictures) (17 new pics from NZ) (2 vids, one from way back, and one recent one of me trying to play the didgeridoo)

Sydney revisited, and the start to my kiwi adventure!

Leon and I kicked off our return to Sydney successfully by attending a couchsurfing picnic on Balmoral beach. For those who aren't familiar with couchsurfing, it's an online community (almost a million strong worldwide) of worldly, friendly people. As a member, while traveling, you can find local members that have a couch free that you can crash on for a night or two, free of charge. In return, when you are home and want to be nice or meet some new people, you can list your own couch as empty, and people can message you to request your couch. That's only the beginning of couchsurfing though. Members understand that hotels and hostels don't give you a local's perspective of the city, so hosts frequently invite surfers out to hang out with them and their friends, or see the city.

Couchsurfing picnic on Balmoral Beach

The first thing that concerns everyone when they hear about couchsurfing is safety, and that's understandable. Besides a rather thorough verification process to confirm your identity and a vouching process by other members, there are also couchsurfing events (hosted by any member) where surfers can meet other surfers and hosts to get to know them better before one requests a couch to crash on. At the picnic we met a number of travelers and locals that we wound up spending a lot of time with for the rest of our stay in Sydney. A number of them had completed three-month+ trips all around the world exclusively using couchsurfing as accommodation.

Waiting in line for the botanical gardens

Before we knew it new year's eve had arrived! We met up with Paula, a friend from the CS picnic, and two of her friends to go wait in line to get into the botanical gardens next to the opera house. Without a doubt, this was the longest line I have ever waited in – it took 5 hours to get into the gardens, where we had the pleasure of...waiting for another 9 hours (for the fireworks)! It was a fun afternoon though – twenty thousand people all happy and socializing the time away until the new year. All together there were 1.5 million people around the harbor – Sydney is very proud of its fireworks, and I must admit it was a very impressive show.

Swarms of people looking forward to a new year


We had a few days before we were off to New Zealand, so we did two things that were left on the list: Renting & sailing a hobiecat, and walking the 10k 'Manly beach scenic walk'.

It had been too long since I last went out on a hobiecat

Sailing the hobiecat was tons of fun. I have sailed them a bunch and it was certainly the choppiest water and strongest winds I have endured. I also showed Leon how to sail and he is now obsessed with it – we are hoping to do it again many times in NZ.

Looking back and out during the Manly Beach Scenic Walk

The Manly beach scenic walk was also a great way to spend a day. Along the way we stopped for a quick swim in one of Sydney's salt-water pools which was one of my things-to-do while in Sydney. It left me with a great impression of Sydney – downtown and the surrounding suburbs all seemed so beautiful. I wish I had had more time to visit the Blue Mountains and other countryside, but I guess that's something to leave for next time!

Off to the land of the kiwi

We were up early to catch out flight but we just barely made it in time (we underestimated the amount of air traffic that goes out of sydney after new year's). I wanted to stay awake for the flight to see the New Zealand coast approaching, but I was asleep about 15 seconds after takeoff. I think I'm getting better at sleeping on planes now that I'm getting lots of practice – but my neck is paying the price (a chronic neck pain finally came back that I had over the summer). It was very cool waking up and opening the window to see huge jagged white-tipped peaks on the horizon, though (see my photo album for more).

I was greeted at customs with a mandatory shoe cleaning! Leon's boots passed inspection but mine were housing some dirt in the nooks of my treads, so they insisted on cleaning them. On our way out, I was happy to discover an icebreaker store right in the airport so I could replace some of the clothing I have lost (the list is rather long). I picked up a new T shirt, long sleeve shirt, and sweater which are all awesome (you can judge for yourself in the pictures).

Queenstown is great. We were warned that it is touristy – and it is – but that's ok as long as I'm not living there. It's a ski town in the winter, but still gets lots of tourism during the summer because it's fairly cool there, and there are many adventure/adrenaline oriented things to do. It's not big – 15,000 people in the low season, 60,000 in the high – but is surrounded by a beautiful glacial lake and a mountain chain appropriately named 'The Remarkables'.

We've only been here a couple days but have managed to have a great time. The first evening, after exploring the area on our own, we met up with Henrik – a 26 year old poker player/traveler that ditches Sweden during their long winters and travels to warmer, brighter destinations. He's been here a couple months now and told us many valuable tips about where to go and what to see. The three of us grabbed dinner, and have since spent a lot of time hanging out with him (any excuse to go to his awesome apartment overlooking Queenstown and the lake).

I'm the black thing plummeting towards the ground...

If Queenstown is most famous for one summer activity, it's for the bungy jumping (where it all started). I had been skydiving once and loved it, but had been sketched out about bungy jumping. Well, I was bored and in need of a rush, so I went ahead and booked the biggest jump they have here and it was completely mind-blowing. It was a 134 meter fall, and the first few seconds of it (before the cord tenses) felt like they lasted milliseconds and hours at the same time. As long as the company is reputable, I highly recommend it for anyone seeking a rush!

Today we met up with Henrik in the morning and hiked the Ben Lomond trail behind Queenstown. We had been told to allow 7-8 hours for it so we were a bit intimidated, especially when we saw the peak. However, it turned out to be a demanding but short hike. With a couple water breaks and a lunch break at the top, we were back to the gondola that returned to Queenstown after three and a half hours. The hike was a great way to warm up for Leon and my first trek ('Routeburn' trek, one of NZ's 'Great Walks') that we start on the eighth.

Panorama looking down to Queenstown from the summit of Ben Lomond

Leon, me, and Henrik, at the peak

We have a lot of things planned in the near future besides the treks. Before we leave the area we plan on spending a couple days at Milford Sound. It's supposed to be amazing there and we are hoping to fit in some kayaking and diving. After that, we'll explore the rest of the south island by car (or campervan!) before heading north and doing the same.

I hope all has been well with you guys – drop me a message letting me know what's new and how your new year's went!

Super quick update – it's 2:30 AM and we are getting up at 6 to catch the bus to start our trek so I have to get to sleep – today we spent nearly all of the day getting our rental gear, buying some new gear, arranging transport, and packing for the trek. Things are going well – I'll be back on the afternoon of the 10th (evening of the 9th for most of you) – talk to you guys then!