First things first...
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/Queenstown# (A few new shots in Queenstown)
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/RouteburnTrek# (Pics from our first walk)
http://picasaweb.google.com/rohrer.n/TeAnauKeplerWalkAndMilfordSoundNewZealand# (Pics of our second walk as well as in Milford Sound)
http://www.youtube.com/llamallama781 (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...?"
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.