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Archive for February, 2008

It’s the books. It has always been about the books. But when you can’t step into the pages and see the world for yourself, you have to settle for the movie. I always knew I would hunt for Lord of the Rings scenery when I reached New Zealand. It started when I reached Queenstown…

The Fellowship of the Ring

While Sarah is not the manic LotR fan I am, she was happy to indulge my little quests. Armed with an autographed copy of Ian Brodie’s “Location Guidebook,” Sarah, myself and fellow LotR fanatic Ryan set out to discover the rings for ourselves. The result was a task more difficult than we ever could have imagined – is this how Frodo and the rest of the fellowship felt once they left the safety of Rivendell?

There were minor setbacks – like the four-wheel drive only road on the way to the Ford of Bruinen (where Arwen defeats the Black Riders) or the private, pay-to-enter land of Deer Park Heights (where Aragon is atacked en route to Helm’s Depp in Rohan). There were successes though. We found the Pillars of Argonath on the river Kaweru; it was one of the main things I wanted to see on my trip to NZ.

And so, the fellowship came to an unfortunate but necessary conclusion: the only way to see Middle Earth is with a guide.

The Two Towers

And what better than the four-legged kind? Dart Stables is located in Glenorchy, about 45 minutes outside of Queenstown. There’s no cell signal and a population of 250, but it is a movie-maker’s paradise. And that’s exactly what it is called: Paradise.

After an exhilarating morning ride cantering along the braided rivers around Glenorchy, I saddled up for the “Ride of the Rings.” This two-hour ride took me up to a viewpoint where the site of Isengard, Saruman’s tower, was clearly and obviously visible. The scenery is spectacular up there. The Dart River viewed from above weaves intricate patterns in the grey-brown silt and snow-capped Mt. Aspiring National Park looms in the distance.

As if the river scenery wasn’t enough, the trail took us through stunning beech forests. The first forest, dominated by towering red beech trees, was the home of Amon Hen (where Boromir is killed by the Uruk-hai in the first movie). The second forest, however, was the more sparsely decorated winter beech forest, and the stunning home of Lothlorien (where Galadriel resides). Even though the forest looks quite different in the movie (2500 spray-painted leaves will do that), the same ethereal presence is evident. To be able to travel through it on horseback is something else completely.

The Return of the King

LotR isn’t the only movie to be made in that area. In fact, on my ride I was taken past the “hot” set of the new X-men film “Wolverine.” Watch for a farmhouse being blown up and a huge motorcycle stunt – I was there! No extra work unfortunately – I could’ve done, but I don’t have a work visa – gutted! Alas!

Also, our guide reenacted a scene from the upcoming “Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” movie. The Prince is on horseback through the forest (where I was) when he is attacked and rescued by Trufflehunter the badger – another scene to look out for!

Sarah and I have been saying all along how absolutely out of this world New Zealand is. It’s no surprsie that so much “fantasy” is made here too!

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Cooking up a storm!

I am now back in Queenstown, after a short detour around the bottom end of the South Island. Since Sarah is going to be leaving the South Island on the 28th, we wanted to make sure she got in as much as possible beforehand. The result was a loop up to Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, before heading down to Dunedin tomorrow where Sarah will leave me on a jet plane…

Grand Adventurers

The drive to Mount Cook took us past some unusual geographical features of New Zealand. One stop was at the very strange “Moeraki boulders,” which are giant boulders washed up on the beach. They are completely out of place with anything else on the shoreline, and it is not sure what causes them to exist. Another stop was at the Elephant Rocks, where Aslan’s Camp from the Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe was filmed. Sarah and I horsed about on the rocks for a while, trying to figure out which one was Aslan’s rock. We didn’t succeed, but it was fun trying. We ended up camping in Omarama, a very quiet town surrounded by mountains, with beautiful sunsets.

The next day we continued up to Mt. Cook itself. We had already seen it reflected in Lake Matheson, but as it loomed over the highway in all its snow-covered glory, we truly got the best impression of the biggest mountain in Australasia. In Mt. Cook village is the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre. There is a very rugged bronze statue of him in the most famous hotel in New Zealand, the Hermitage Hotel. After having our photo taken with the most famous of mountaineers, we were inspired to do a little trekking ourselves! We headed up the “Kea trail” to a former glacier, at the base of Mt. Cook. As one of the most dangerous mountains to climb in the world, we weren’t going to tackle anything more difficult than that… but we left little rock sculptures on the side of the path, just to prove we were once there.

We spent the night in our tent in Glentanner, about 25km outside of Mt. Cook Village itself. There, we were treated to a magnificent sunset over Mt. Cook, its peak blushing pink for the last hours of sunlight.

Unfortunately, I was hoping to have an interesting star gazing tale to tell. Lake Tekapo has a renowned observatory on top of a nearby mountain, and we were booked on a nighttime stargazing tour. Due to severe winds and a bright moon, our tour was cancelled… I may get another chance to try on the way back up, but Lake Tekapo is a town with very little to offer other than the tour. Waiting around for 11pm again may not be a good option.

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Sarah and I have become Queens of the highways. With Sunny as our chariot and our tent “Castle II,” we have journeyed along some of New Zealand’s most scenic routes. And, being royalty of rad roadtrips, it only makes sense that our first stop is…

Queenstown

The screams from the bungi jumpers (skydivers/jetboaters/paragliders) can be heard frmo the car as we finish the mountain road from Wanaka. Its no surprise, considering this is the adrenaline capital of the universe. What is surprising is that I (and my rapidly shrinking wallet) is not tempted at all – Africa out-adrenalined me, at least for now.

Instead, we indulge in some smashing nights out and some free nights accom – courtesy of Sarah’s university friend, Dave. Thanks Dave! We couldn’t resist one awesome adrenaline activity though – the Shotover Jet. This powerful jet boat zips through narrow canyons, doing 360degree spins at 80 km/h. Only one word can sum up this experience: sweeeet. And the guy’s who drive the boats must have the best jobs in the world.

Queenstown wouldn’t be Queenstown without a pulse-racing, heart-attack inducing game of frisbee golf! There is a fully laid-out frisbee golf course in the botanic gardens, complete with tees and baskets for holes. I joined in with the Stray bus crew who were there and me and Lofty came thisclose to winning. Ok, so it wasn’t that close, but it was fun!

Sound Off!

The highway to Milford Sound is a world heritage road – ideal for a roadtrip! Driving through Fiordland National Park is a magical experience. We stopped at mirrored lakes, long tunnels and at every beautiful vista along the way.

Arriving at Milford, the sun was shining and the sky a picture perfect blue. Our booking was for a boat cruise the following morning. But not wanting to miss out on such a stunning day, we allowed our characteristic spontaneity to get the best of us and did it right away. It was so worth it. We saw sealions, bottlenose dolphins and got ducked under a waterfall the equivalent in height of a 50-storey building.

Gliding along Milford Sound is supposed to be a defining moment for anyone’s trip to New Zealand. Once again, as we have come to expect, the hype does not disappoint. It’s hard to imagine a place more breathtaking – Mitre Peak rising out of sparkling waters, the glacier atop Mt. Pembroke still clinging to life after millions of years. It is going to disappear within the next decade. It is, after all, Milford Fiord, not Milford Sound. Sounds are carved out by rivers; fiords, by glaciers. The glaciers recede, and maybe one day they will come back.

The Road is Long…

Today we completed the Southern Scenic route from start (Te Anau) to finish (Dunedin). We didn’t exactly mean to… we meant to stop at Stewart Island. But Stewart Island was full and we hadn’t booked accomodation (smart, I know), so we zipped through the rugged Catlans Coast to Dunedin. The roads were twisted and Sunny often struggled against the wind, but we made it through. The next few days will see us head up to the highest peak in New Zealand: Mt. Cook. Looks like we might need a few more blankets inside good old Castle II. Like any castle, it is plenty drafty in there, and Sarah and I often wake up with noses frozen to our pillows.

And hopefully, a shorter drive day tomorrow.

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Feels like home…

The sight of Franz Josef glacier crawling down into the rainforest is unreal. We are sitting at the base of it, and from this close it looks like a jumble of rocks and debris rather than a huge sheet of ice. That view is soon about to change. Our guide, Cliff (no pun intended… that was his actual name), demonstrates how to strap the clampons onto our feet and soon we’re making more noise walking than the clackers in The Devil Wears Prada. They have dressed us up in full head-to-toe ice climbing gear: toques, mittens, gore tex jackets, snow pants and big black boots. It’s warm down here and I’m dressed to face the snowstorm room in the Antarctic Centre. (See: Sarah’s blog entry)

Somehow I manage to find myself in the ‘fastest’ group out of six, despite being less than confident in my hiking abilities. Luckily for me (or rather, for the other people in my group who would have surely been slowed by me), we stop quite often as Cliff hacks steps into the ice with a pick-axe. It looks like back breaking work, but he doesn’t break a sweat.

The glacier is somewhat dirtier than I expect, snow and ice mixed with dirt and rubble. Cliff tries to impress me by saying that the glacier gets somewhere between 14 and 15m of snow at the top, whereas the average Canadian ski hill might get 3-4m. I think of my friends and fam back home in Canada and I’m sure they feel like they’ve been dumped in 14-15m of snow, and they don’t live at the top of a glacier. Hiking the glacier is my little homage to them and what I’m missing. As we get further up, the dirt slowly gives way to stunning blue and white ice. We slip slide through tunnels and caverns and under ice arches and the view is magnificent. At one point, all the groups are forced to stop as Cliff and some of the other guides hack a pathway into the ice. The hole we have to manoeuver through reminds me of the “letterbox” in the Cangol Caves in South Africa. See Ostriches and Caves.

It doesn’t snow while we are there. It does rain though. A lot. In fact, by the end of the 8-hour hike I am soaked to the bone, as is my backpack with an unfortunate number of electronics in it (including my phone and my camera). My phone is dead and the camera’s viewscreen is misty. Over the following couple of days the camera has dried to useable status, but its still not great.

Yesterday we arrived in Queenstown, passing through Wanaka. The scenery is stunning, but what is new? I can’t even be mad at New Zealand for breaking my most expensive possessions. They can be replaced. But this experience? Never.

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After leaving Kaikoura, we headed up to Blenheim to the wine district of New Zealand. I made a quick pitstop at the Cloudy Bay vineyard in order to take some pictures. I remember it being my dad’s favourite wine for a long time so I thought I should check it out while I was in the neighbourhood! We had a delicious lunch at the Wairau vineyard before moving on to Marau – the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park.

Not Vagabonding… or Hobo-ing… but Tramping

Tramping is a kiwi national pasttime. For me, “tramping” brings up vague connotations of riding the rails with all one’s belongings tucked up in a handkerchief on a stick. Turns out, tramping is all about exploring some of the most beautiful parts of the country using the cheapest form of transportation possible: your feet.

Abel Tasman includes one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks.” The entire walk takes about 3-4 days to travel in total, with campsites and cabins along the way. After listening to stories about the best sections of the walk, we decided to only walk a small section of it (a 7-hour section nonetheless!). We stayed in a campsite (Old Macdonald’s Farm) in Marahau, where we met up with a friend who is travelling on the Stray Bus. An aquataxi took us all up the coast to Bark Bay. The water is crystal clear and a gorgeous turquoise colour. The sand is white and pristine, leading up to jungle-like rainforest. The paths here are well-maintained and obviously well used. We met many people along the way who were carrying their entire backpacks and tramping the whole track… and couldn’t help being glad we weren’t them.

At Anchorage Bay, we stopped and ate our picnic lunch. The scenery was stunning. This was not my vision of New Zealand. I knew it would be gorgeous, but I expected more rolling green hills and more placid English countryside imagery. Certainly not the idyllic beaches and sparkling seas that we saw in Abel Tasman. Sometimes it seems like New Zealand has it all!

As it was high tide, we had to walk the long way around Anchorage Bay, adding about an hour to the walk. A short detour (i.e. wrong turning) and a few hours later, we arrived back in Marahau exhausted and ready to hightail it back to Hanmer Springs for more bubbling water and a massage.

The West Coast

Unfortunately, we can’t stop and see everything. Even though we have a car, we are under some time constraints to get to Dunedin in time for Sarah’s flight to Auckland and to make sure that we get to see as much as possible of the South Island together. So we zipped down the West Coast yesterday, stopping for the Pancake Rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki (unfortunately it was the wrong tide for the blow holes) but generally heading straight for Franz Josef glacier.

Today, we woke up early and headed out to Lake Matheson, where there were rumoured mirror-like views of Mt. Cook. We weren’t disappointed. Mt Cook and Mt Tasman are snow capped and we had perfect photographs of the mountains reflected in the water. We stopped off at Fox glacier too, just to have a look. On our drive back, we were caught in a truly “New Zealand” roadblock: sheep crossing the road.

Tomorrow we explore Franz Josef glacier in detail. I’m embarking on an 8-hour full day ice hike… luckily the campground we are staying at has a hot tub suitable to soothing aching joints upon return! So far, Sarah and I have been so impressed and so awed by everything we have seen in New Zealand. Can it really only get better from here?

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The mountains plunge into the ocean at Kaikoura, their peaks rosy in the sunrise. They are blushing, unnerved by the lavish attention the sun pours upon them this morning. The boat zips along the water, churning up the calm blue seas with its wake of white froth. And in amongst it, black dorsal fins appear; the dusky dolphins are playing, teasing and enticing us into the sea.

It’s 5:30am. Sarah and I are shivering in our wetsuits. After an awkward night camping, taking a dip in the freezing Pacific Ocean hardly appeals. But once the horn blows on our boat, we are all told to slip into the water as quickly as possible and swim swim swim to the dolphins, who are a few metres away. My face is glued to the water and it isn’t long before I spy my first dolphin. I squeal with delight but that’s good! We have been told to squeal and sing and laugh to attract the dolphins’ attention. Soon, I am surrounded. There are dolphins above, dolphins below, dolphins spinning me in circles as I catch their eye and play their favourite game: Make the funny people dizzy! As we have been told, we are there to entertain the dolphins, not vice versa. There is a chance they won’t play. And then there are once-in-a-lifetime chances, like today, when the dolphins are so cheery and playful that they can’t get enough of you. They are close enough to touch, but we don’t. They are close enough to see every little scratch on their skin, to watch their splash as they perform their acrobatic stunts, to see them nibble on jellyfish as they snatch one in front of your face. Sarah and I have an underwater camera, and the pictures will either be fabulous or terrible. They were everywhere, but they were so fast.

By 9am, we are exhausted. With the blessing of our skipper Hank, I climb out onto the prow of the boat, throw my legs over the side and start snapping photos. The dusky dolphins are the acrobats of the ocean, and they are in full performance mode this morning. They are somersaulting and jumping in huge groups. There are over 200 dolphins in the vicinity of our boat and there are three boats in the water in total. One of the other boats has a pod of 300 dolphins swimming near it. I have never been in an environment with such an abundance of active, visible marine life. The dolphin encounter in Monkey Mia doesn’t even come close to comparing in terms of sheer numbers of dolphins. Albatross soar overhead too, king of the birds.

I would recommend this trip to anyone; it was fabulous and worth every second of the early morning wake up. We used Dolphin Encounter, and their website is: http://www.dolphin.co.nz/kaikoura/ .

Road Trips with Sunny

Sunny is our constant companion for the next 2 1/2 months! He is the one that will take us around the south island, keep us safe and carry our stuff. Already he has seen much of Christchurch and took us from Ch-ch to Hanmer Springs, a beautiful Alpine village where hot springs are the main feature. We drove through the stunning Lewis Pass, and caught our first glimpse of the magnificent views New Zealand is known for. But it was an afternoon of relaxation in the hot sulphur pools (yes, they were smelly, but it was very warm and soothing) that was just what was in order. We indulged, and happily. It was then a short journey to Kaikoura, where we had a seafood barbeque on the beach with freshly caught scallops, mussels, whitebait and the local delicacy, crayfish. Delicious! It was here that we caught up with friends Adam and Dave, whom we met in South Africa, caught up with in Melbourne and Sydney and now had dinner with in New Zealand. It may be that we will see them again in South East Asia, just to show the serendipitous nature of travel. Indeed!

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Australia has been a dizzying couple of months, a roundabout of adventures and mishaps and windfalls. I still find it strange to divide my life into geographical regions. There is “Africa,” the past, the most wondrous, the most strange. There is “Australia,” the present, the full-of-good-friends and the feels-like-home. Now there will be “New Zealand,” the future; it is the place where I will reenact all my favourite Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia scenes and experience travelling on my own for a month. Somewhere in the very distant future looms “Asia,” but I can’t even begin to think about that, because to think about that means that this trip is coming to a close and as much as I miss and long for home, that is a thought too devastating to linger on.

Driving to Distraction

The vastness of Australia and the number of kilometres I have travelled astonishes me still. We started in Perth and did both coasts and still we only saw a fraction of things I wanted to see. Darwin and the Northern territories remain a mystery. Tasmania. Uluru/Ayers Rock. Adelaide. All these places we could not fit in to our already tightly-packed itinerary cry out for me to come back and visit at a later date. Not to mention returning to the East coast to re-experience the places that were ruined by rain or closed to us completely: Cairns. The Whitsundays. Fraser Island. The Gold Coast.

Sarah and I took advantage of all forms of transportation. We did the typical backpacker thing and used the tour buses on the West Coast. We crisscrossed the country by airplane. We experienced the oft-crippling effort of being stuck to a Greyhound bus schedule. And, let’s not forget (or please, let’s) the rental car incident in Rockhampton.

Every drive in Australia is long and the cities far flung from each other. But we did well.

You Guys Made Australia for Us

It isn’t amazing landscapes or cool cities that makes Australia great for us. It is the people. The Australians that we have met here have all proven their reputation as charitable, friendly and open people, multiplied by a million. Sarah and I owe so much to Leahanne and her family in Melbourne, to Chris and his spare bedrooms in Brisbane and to Sarah’s neighbours from back home, Leigh and Irene, in Coffs Harbour. Every Australian we have met has been willing to led us a helping hand in our time of need and have surprised us with their generosity (David and Alex, from Brisbane, and their superbox at the Australian Open being no small exception).

But what is difficult to explain to people who haven’t yet travelled is the sense of community amongst the backpackers in Oz. Backpackers are so well taken care of in Australia; the hostels are cheap and cheerful and plentiful. And everywhere you go, you meet great travellers, united by the common goal of having the best trips ever. I can’t list off everyone I’ve met in Oz, but I have made lifelong friends here, and that was unexpected. Even being so far from home at Christmas and New Years, the people we spent those special days with made it worthwhile. To those people: I know we’ll be seeing each other again, somewhere in this ever shrinking world.

Australia Highlights

Anything I’ve blogged about has been a highlight. But moments that stand out include:

  • Finding an elusive quokka on Rottnest Island with Jason.
  • Watching the fairy penguins dash up the beach on Phillip Island.
  • Neighbours Night.
  • Sitting listening to the carols at Darling Harbour with Sarah on Christmas Eve.
  • New Year’s Eve fireworks down at Nelson’s Park with Sarah, Colin and a bunch of other friends.
  • Seeing the eagle ray while scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Watching Tsonga live entering Rod Laver Arena from the box at the men’s final of Australian Open

Yeah, it’s been good. And now: onto New Zealand!

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