Wednesday, February 25, 2009

One month later...

Frodo, Sam, and Gollum hike to Mount Doom

Disclaimer: this post is long. Too long.

First up, pics:

3 new albums! Some of the pictures are awesome, if you have time I recommend checking them out! (all albums)

Sorry for the delay! From now on expect weekly updates so my posts don't have to be so absurdly long. We've had a few busy weeks. Let me jump right in.

Road Trip!

Our roadtrip. If you're observant you can get a sneak peak into what else I browse on the web in my spare time...

Because our road trip was to be so short with a large proportion of the trip as driving, we opted for the car that would give us the most enjoyable driving experience:

The trunk didn't fit much, but it was a short trip, so with laptops, a couple changes of clothes, and plenty of snacks for the road, Leon and I set off for Fox Glacier

The glacier itself was much smaller than El Calafate in Argentina, but it was just as much fun to walk on it, and equally impressive in other ways. A bit frightening was that two young backpackers were quickly and mercilessly crushed by a chunk of falling ice the size of a garage off the terminal face, where they wanted to get a photo of themselves in front of the glacier. I was surprised there weren't more signs warning of the danger – the guides frequently took it upon themselves to yell at people touching the face of the glacier, telling them to get away.

Yes, my pants are tucked into my socks

That afternoon we had our longest drive, so we had just a quick lunch and set off for the other side of the island – to Christchurch!

Christchurch, being the biggest city on the south island, was, well, actually not very big. We checked into our hostel (an old converted prison) and the neighborhood reminded us of the neighborhoods around Boston – Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Framingham – it was a lot different from Queenstown and Fiordland. We happened to arrive during the Busking festival – so the city was very much alive with amazing street performers and curious locals. We spent a full day watching the best of the acts, and were woken up early the next morning by a phone call from Kaikoura dolphin encounters. There was availability for the 12:30 tour – it was 9:30 when they called, and it was a two and a half hour drive. We were very tired, but knew it was not frequent that you could swim with dolphins in the wild, so we decided to make the drive (in the opposite direction of where we were going later) to try to make it on time. We did, just barely, and it was worth it!

After a quick briefing video on how to get the dolphins to interact with you (tips included spinning around, making eye contact, surface diving, and making ridiculous sounds), we set off to find some dolphins. I was nervous about getting seasick – I have in the past – but the ride out was perfectly fine. Perhaps this was the beginning of me getting over my seasickness? WRONG! The combination of thick wetsuit gear, spinning around underwater, and increasing sea swells proved to be too much for me to handle. Lets just say...the ride back wasn't pretty. Leon was a champ though, and got some great pictures and videos of the pod of ~200 dolphins while I was paralyzed in the corner.

The dolphins following us as we leave

We were pretty drained from the excursion and got carried away eating lunch and going online at the local internet cafe – before we knew it it was 5:30 and we had a 6 hour drive ahead of us to get to the base of Mt. Cook. In a way it worked out well though, because when it got to be close to midnight, we pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and had a terrific view of the stars – among the best I've ever seen.

Me in front of the base of Mt.Cook. The picture doesn't do the immensity of the mountain justice. Those glaciers spoke to me 'If you try to climb me, I will try to kill you'

By the end of the next day we had to be back in Queenstown, but we were determined to fit in a day hike at the base of Mt. Cook, so we made the short drive over to it through its beautiful valley and stopped in at the department of conservation to get tips on where to go. We did a short two hour hike which was beautiful, and were back in good time to make it back to Henrick's place to relax before heading up to Auckland the next day! Our road trip lasted about 96 hours and we covered just over 1800km.

Up to the north island!

Leon and I spent our first day in Auckland walking around and taking it easy. Auckland is a nice city but it gets a bad rep because it is the only real city in New Zealand. Everyone told us that it wasn't even worth going there – I agree it does not 'feel' like New Zealand, because the rest of the country is so amazing in its landscape and feel. Nonetheless, Auckland is nice, and I wish we had had more time to see its suburbs and beaches.

We picked up Ian in our new rental car at the airport the next day. It was great to see him – unexpected, but welcome! Alicia's apartment in Mt. Maunganui was our next destination – she had been living there for a few months and invited us to meet up with her, so of course we took her up on the offer. Driving through the rolling hills of the north island was such a contrast to the south island trip. The south island sits on the meeting point of two continental shelves colliding with one another, while the north island sits on two that are separating. Nowhere else would I say that geology is cool – but I might make an exception for New Zealand!

During the few days at Alicia's we were able to fit a lot in – renting a couple hobie cats (accidentally sailed one into a race going on, that was embarrassing), driving to see the Rotarua mud pits/hot baths, and going to secluded waterfalls with some of her local friends.

We picked up a brochure in her apartment about the 'Tongariro Crossing' which is where some of Mordor was filmed in LoTR, so we reached a consensus in about five seconds that we had to do it. We drove to Taupo (smack in the middle of the north island), booked the hike (we decided to do the longer version – 'the northern circuit'), spent a couple hours trying to find LotR costumes but couldn't find any (I'll leave it to you to decide if that was a joke...), got food to make for the trip, and watched most of 'The Two Towers' to pump us up for our hike the next morning. And so it was, at 5:30AM the next morning, Gollum (Leon), Sam (Ian), and Frodo (I) departed for their journey.

The trek was short in terms of time, but long in terms of distance. We were disappointed at first by the crowds. The more popular day hike, the Tongariro Crossing, advertised as 'The best day hike in the world', attracted crowds of people. We had more time to play with, though, so we added the side trips up to the summit cone of Mt. Doom (Mt. Ngaurahoe, and no I don't know how to pronounce that), and to the summit of Mt. Tongariro.

Deep red rocks all around - great scenery

Mt. Doom was brutal – it was steep, extremely foggy, and there was no path. The ground was made up entirely of loose rock so for every two feet you stepped forward you slid back one and a half. The most unsettling part was hearing 'ROCKS!!!!' up ahead of you in the fog and having to wait, ready to jump to either side to dodge the sometimes basketball-sized rocks potentially plummeting towards you. Thankfully we had no close calls, but saw someone on the way down who did.

Panorama of the cone - click for full effect!

The cone at the summit was very impressive. At first we couldn't see the opposite side of it, but after a few minutes the fog cleared and we were rewarded with an amazing view. We wished we had brought a ring to throw into the cone.

We rest at the beautiful 'Emerald Lakes'

We arrived at Oturere hut at around half past five, and after claiming the last three bunks I headed straight for the nearby stream to get clean. The other guys were too hungry, so they offered to start cooking dinner (pasta, canned tuna, pre-chopped garlic+mushrooms, and red pepper sauce) while I went to the stream which I immediately took them up on! We spent the rest of the evening eating, relaxing, and talking with the hut warden, a girl from Oregon.

We had to be on the trail by 7AM the next morning to meet our pickup at 3PM, so we called it an early night. Ian was sound asleep by 8:30, Leon at ten, and I soon after him (I was too engaged in my new Crichton novel). I had my alarm set at 2AM to get up to stargaze with Gollum and Sam, but I woke up at 12:30 and looked out the window and saw it was completely overcast. Again I woke up at 1:30 and it was still, so I just turned my alarm off. But then I woke up at 4 and looked out the window and almost had to squint the stars were so bright! We got up (and managed to wake pretty much everyone else up when I slammed my head into one of the beams above my bunk) and headed outside for about fifteen minutes to take it all in.

The twenty kilometers of hiking on the second day were not too spectacular. It was nice, and the view of Mt. Doom and Mt. Ruapehu (the active volcano nearby) was great, but it was unchanging for the whole day, so there wasn't much variety – just the desert. We got a quick celebration lunch of Lamb wraps, and were back in Taupo 36 hours after we had first departed. We covered about 40k over the two days though, so it was a good and challenging circuit.

Panorama of the valley at the end of the hike - click for full effect!

We spent a day back at Alicia's recovering, doing laundry, and planning out or next adventure – more scuba! We took another one-way rental from her town to up past Auckland to our first dive destination – the Poor Knights.

We were very excited to dive the Poor Knights because Jacques Cousteau had rated them one of the top ten dive sites in the world. Leon and I did two dives there (Ian did one as his introductory dive which he enjoyed) that were really spectacular. Our first was along a wall with a max depth of about 18 meters. Leon and I split off from the guided group so we could stay down longer (in a group you have to surface all together when the most air-hungry person reaches the turn-around point). We saw a few stingrays, plenty of triplefins, a few small morays, and my favorite, a nudibranch (sea slug). Our second dive was through 'Blue maomao arch' which was a really fun dive through an arch (the top of the arch was out of water, so it wasn't a cave) that was packed with, you guessed it, blue maomao – schools of hundreds. Leon and I made it a fun dive rather than a serious dive and spent most of it playing around in the arch, swimming upside-down into the schools of fish.

Leon and I get ready to hop in to the Poor Knights

After the dives, we made our way up the coast almost to the northern-most point of the north island, at the Bay of Islands. We spent the night at a very chill hostel in Paihia. In the morning, Leon and I got picked up for scuba while Ian went in search of renting a hobie cat and finding a dolphin-swimming tour.

Our first dive was probably the best of the six we did on the north island. It was on the sunken Rainbow Warrior in 27 meters of water. I really like diving wrecks because as you descend you just see blue until the boat appears as a huge dark figure – very cool feeling. We swam the full length of the boat with a few small swims into it. It was still very intact but ocean life thrived on it. It was covered in coral and whenever you poked your head into a window or door of the boat you could see enormous schools of fish just hanging out inside. You can read up on the boat's history here.

The second dive wasn't quite as spectacular but was still fun. It was a shallower dive that we spent most of pulling ourselves through a meter-high kelp forest. It was fun to see the little fish and critters run away when you pushed their kelp roof off to the side.

Part of the reason these dives were so fun was the group – a group of three young guys that clearly were having just as much fun as we were. In the poor knights it was a group of about 15, but here there was only one other diver – an older creepy/awkward woman that didn't wind up diving for reasons unknown to us. So then it was just the guides, Leon, and me. After the trip we met up with Ian and headed to our third and last destination of this mini-road trip – Goat Island.

We spent the night at a very cool converted sawmill (now a brewery/hostel) – their fresh red snapper was probably the most delicious fish I've ever had. The next morning we headed to the dive shop next door and found out our dive site had been rescheduled from the Goat Island Marine Preserve to a different site. We took their word for it that it was just as good (it wasn't). It was a small group – Leon, Ian, a Spanish guy I forget the name of, our one guide, and me. It was a well run excursion, but the dive site was not very exciting. It was still fun though, and it was good practice for navigating underwater (I got our group a bit lost on the first dive). On the second dive towards the end, Leon pointed excitedly toward some coral on the ground – I was confused at first, but quickly realized that it was not coral, but an old weight belt that had been overgrown with sea plants! The two of us tried to lift it – but that required filling our BCD's (the things that control your buoyancy) with air, which meant if either of us dropped the heavy weight belt, he would shoot up to the surface which is very dangerous – so we decided it wasn't that important. After those two dives we were done with our activities for the trip, and returned to Auckland to prepare for Melbourne.

For my birthday, Ian and Leon generously took me out on one of the America's Cup racing yachts with a group which was really amazing. The weather wasn't great, but it didn't really matter because higher winds meant the boat could really get going. I was very surprised to hear that no customer had ever fallen overboard, because the boat was leaning a HUGE amount and there was little preventing you from falling. We had three amazing dinners for our last three nights together there, and then Ian was off on his long trip from Auckland to Sydney to London to Boston to Toronto! Leon and I spent our last day seeing a David Byrne concert which was awesome – he played his old classics as well as his excellent latest album – before heading off to Melbourne.


Melbourne has been amazing – up until this point, I wouldn't have considered living in any of the places I had visited, but Melbourne is really different. It's a combination of things, but it all comes together nicely and just feels like a great relaxed but fun place to live. The public transit is excellent (dedicated tram lines that don't compete with traffic), the downtown is great (small at about five by ten blocks, but clean, and is filled with hole-in-the-wall restaurants), and the people are relaxed and friendly.

A downtown Melbourne intersection

I would give long descriptions to the things we've done here, but this blog update has been delayed so long that it has gotten obnoxiously long. So, I will just glaze over what we've done, which is a shame because some of the activities here have been by far the most influential of the trip, but necessary I think.

Our first few days were laid back in South Yarra (neighborhood) – very cool cafes and trendy fashion shops. It reminded me a lot of a clean, happy, updated Palermo in Buenos Aires. After that we moved to a couple hostels in the CBD and spent most of our time at the sustainable living festival (which was amazing), as well as going to the largest short film festival in the world (hosted in the botanical gardens of Melbourne), going to two outdoor cinemas (one on the roof of a 6 story building with the Melbourne skyline behind it), and getting to know some locals through and, the two most useful sites for any traveler. Today we volunteered for an environmental conservation group, picking weeds and mulching in part of the botanical gardens, and now I am getting ready to go to Hong Kong!

Panorama of Tropfest in Melbourne - click for full effect!

Panorama of the rooftop cinema - click for full effect!

Leon is hanging back a week or so to see more of Melbourne and will catch up with me in a few weeks in Beijing.

Sorry this took so absurdly long to update! I will try to update as a weekly thing now, so a)you don't have to wait so long and b)so the post doesn't have to cover so much ground!

I hope everyone is well, comments questions and criticisms encouraged!