26 January 2008

New Zealand…the land where hobbits and Kiwi’s roam...

I arrived in New Zealand on Christmas Eve Day after juggling around a few flights out of Tokyo and managed to make a connection in Auckland that allotted me roughly an hour to land in Auckland, claim my bag, clear customs, clear quarantine, transfer from the International Terminal to the Domestic Terminal, and get checked in while attempting to beat the 30 minute prior to departure cutoff that the airlines impose on domestic flights. All of this mind you while having not really slept due to a bad case of ejecting my dinner into a toilet in a room smaller than my old broom closet, at 35,000 feet or more while traveling at speeds over 500 mph. No small task, but you've gotta do what you've gotta do when you get food poisoning on a redeye flight across the Pacific. Oh the joys of travel…..


This however was not the beginning of my trip to New Zealand. To get the big picture, we've got to go back. It all started over a year ago in New York City while, with my friend Maia, we were sitting at my travel agent's desk plotting my course around the world, for the first time. I had plans of spending around 11 days in New Zealand racing across the country seeing all that I could see before hopping over to Australia for about 2 or 3 weeks. Both Maia and Annika (who both have been to NZ before), emphatically told me that I was not allowed to go. I was a bit stumped as everyone that I know who as ever been told me that I absolutely have to go, so curiously I asked why it was that I was not allowed? They both agreed that it simply was not enough time. To which I replied, there's never enough time! But with that said, Maia told me that her plans would bring her to NZ for the month of Dec. 2007 (We were having this discussion in January of that year). So we agreed that I would bypass NZ this time around and after my around the world trip, I would try and find time to get away from work and spend a month down near Oz at the end of the year. Well, as luck would have it, after my global excursion, I made the conscious decision to not find any sort of employment, forego the income and leave on another journey around the world. After all, despite what cats of the world think, you really only do live once! Wouldn't you know it that this second around the world would lead me to New Zealand for roughly 6 weeks, both ample time to see the country and experience the culture, while also satisfying both my traveling friends and travel agent (whom btw is a good person to keep happy when you find yourself in a bind half way around the globe!). Thus we return to Christmas Eve Day 2007, and me racing to get to Queenstown where I was greeted by not only Maia and her boyfriend Random, but by about 10 of their friends from around town for a BBQ up the hill at Eric & Pip's place with a spectacular view of the lake. This was immediately followed up by a pot luck lunch / dinner at Maia's house on Christmas Day for all of the traveling kids who have found themselves far from home during the holidays. It was great to be with a bunch of people in the same situation that I was in, feeling the holiday blues. So to combat the doldrums of being away from family during the holidays, they arranged a Secret Santa along with the pot luck and spent the evening watching the first 2 movies in the Back to the Future trilogy. I'm not sure where Back to the Future comes into play at Christmas time, I would have guessed something more like the Die Hard series seeing that it's placed around the holidays, but who was I to question it! And with that, I was firmly planted in New Zealand.

After being treated to snow on the mountain peaks on Christmas Day, one of the first things that I noticed was the intense sun. As I'm sure everyone is about to say, the sun's just as intense where ever you are in the world as it is in NZ. What you may or may not be aware of is the giant hole in the ozone cause by man made emissions over the years resulting in about 40% stronger UV rays over NZ, helping contribute to Kiwi's tans year round. While I'm sure many of them thank us profusely for this, most religiously apply sunscreen, probably because NZ has some of the highest rates of melanoma anywhere on the planet. Along with searching for the shady spots on an almost constant basis, I opt for the latter of the two choices and apply sunscreen at the hint that I was going to out and about for any period of time. If you can get past how intense the sun is, NZ really is a breathtakingly beautiful place. No wonder the Lord of the Rings was filmed here.
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Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand. If you're not an active, outdoorsy type of person, you might as well not even come to Queenstown as you'll surely be shunned by all for not being willing to jump off a mountainside only tethered by a large rubber band. Within my first few days in town I was introduced to both Frisbee Golf as well as Ultimate Frisbee, repelling and climbing, mountain biking and multiple hikes in and around town. Added to that we took a day trip over to Wanaka which is a neighboring town where they were holding an air show for a few days. Wouldn't you know it that I bumped into a bunch of skydivers from around the world that I've met over the years. Jumpers from France, Austria, USA, New Zealand and Australia were flown down to NZ for a couple jumps each day. It was nice to get a little taste of jumping while traveling and fun to randomly surprise a bunch of old friends half way around the world! That is always a good thing!
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Wanting to get out of Queenstown and see what else NZ had to offer, I managed to enlist one of Maia's co-workers at the outdoor sports store for a journey over to Milford Sound. Now while Maia is here to see the country, she isn't working at the gear store for the money, she's working there for the discounts. Don't be fooled, NZ is an expensive place to visit and to play! Anywhoo, Laura and I made it out to Milford in time to catch the last cruise of the sound for the day which included pulling the boat right up to the edges of the fjords and even under a few waterfalls. The next morning we woke early climbed into a kayak and made our way out on the sound. As much as I hate the early mornings, there is something to be said about being out on the water when it looks like glass and paddling up to rocks where seals are taking a break of the stresses of life and basking at the edge of the sound. As my friend Carrie would say……'it sure didn't suck!'
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My next little trip out and away, I managed to get my hands on Maia's Subaru Legacy wagon and took it down to Dunedin and the Catlin's. This trip was a treat as I teamed up with a fellow couch surfer and as we pride our way away from the penthouse couch surfing we landed in the center of town, we made out way around Dunedin's peninsula to see albatross, penguins and the like. Our last and surely our best wildlife encounter was after we hiked down to Sand Fly Beach were we watched two sea lions battle it out over a female. After a few minutes of blows while viciously attacking each other, the female made her way over to the two males and chose 'the winner'. With that, the loser turned and made haste back into the ocean. It simply was not his day. The great thing about this experience is that I had my camera in my hands and I shot away. Unfortunately it was almost directly into the sun, so the pictures didn't turn out that great, but you can still see the battle and the selection that followed. As we were making our way back up to the car we ran across a couple of Kiwi teens who were taunting a very unhappy sea lion. I couldn't help but just snap off a bunch of shots waiting for the sea lion to triumph. After all, there are signs posted all over the place warning you to keep your distance and do not mess with these animals as they will maul you. What can I say….I was rooting for the sea lion, either I'm a cold hearted bastard or a firm believer in Darwinism. Either way I figured I could get a great shot that would be a cover story in the papers the next day setting an example to teens all over Kiwiland, thus paying for my NZ trip in one photo shoot! But alas…..the annoying kids were quicker than the sea lion. Better luck next time sea lion! I'll be ready!
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I also have a confession to make. While I was in Dunedin, I saw ads for a Cadbury Chocolate Factory Tour. If you eat chocolate down here, it's most likely Cadbury's. And as those close to me will undoubtedly know, I have a bit of a sweet tooth. Ok, I have a ridiculously strong sweet tooth. I have my mom to thank for that one. But blame aside, I devour chocolate whenever it is in front of me like it's the last food on earth. With that said, the factory tour was a must. I could not wait to find me a few Umpa Lumpas to stuff in my bag and take home as souvenirs. I am quite disappointed to report that while the factory did actually have a two story chocolate 'water' fall, there were NO Umpa Lumpas to be found. I inquired about getting my money back due to lack of Umpa Lumpas, but I was simply asked to leave. I tell you all of this as a warning. If you ever find yourself in Dunedin, New Zealand, don't fall for the same trickery that I fell for. The Umpa Lumpas are there….somewhere, but you will not see them on the factory tour. I guess you'll just have to keep buying candy bars in hopes of finding a golden ticket. Oh well….it was not meant to be.
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After returning to Queenstown from Dunedin, a group of us went for a climb on a rock face that was perched on the lake. Seeing that you had to hike down to the top of the rock face, the only way to start your climb was to repel down to just above the water, clip into one of the anchors there while you swapped over your climbing rope so that you were on belay. Then you could unclip and start your climb up. Just to give you some background, I had never been climbing before outdoors. While I have been probably a dozen times to rock gyms, I've never climbed 'real rock'. It was a bit different trying to grip, but it was still tons of fun! Not sure I'll be signing up for many outdoor rock excursions as of yet, but I'm sure I will do it again one of these days.
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My next jaunt away from Queenstown included a drive up the west coast which brought me right past the Fox Glacier. Opting to take a guided tour, boots and crampons were handed out and off we went. There are only three spots in the world where you have to hike through a rain forest to get to a glacier and this is one of those spots. Seeing that the glacier averages 180 days of precipitation per year, I lucked out with an absolutely gorgeous day and blue skies littered with white puff clouds. A perfect day to hike on some ice that dates back long before I do! When you get to the edge of the glacier and are about to climb on, the group stops, puts on the crampons, don fleece coats and hats, even though you are sweating from the sun and the hike. Before you know it, the temperature drops almost 5 degrees celsius immediately, even more once you get out to the center of the ice. The guides are constantly chipping away new steps into the ice for the tourists to make there way across. There are also several spots along the trail that are considered very active rock fall areas. So much so that the guide company has rigged a system on the rocks that they think pose a hazard to us wee tourists. The way the system works is one of the guide heads out to the middle of the 'danger zone' and flips on the system (which consists of a box with several wires connected to it and a solitary light). The thinking is, if the light goes out, the wires have dislodged and the rocks are on there way to greet you. Upon seeing the light extinguish, the guide is supposed to yell 'RUN', in which case you start running as fast as you can in hopes of avoiding your untimely death or severe maiming from a large boulder or several large boulders. In either case, if you see the guide sprinting past you yelling 'run', it's probably in your best interests to follow, unless of course he is in the process of being crushed by said large boulder. Regardless of the dangers, the hike is well worth it, but next time I think I will opt for the guided ice climbing. Now that sounds like a challenge! Either that or I just like the idea of swinging a huge ice axe, not sure which.
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And that my friends, was the first half of my journey in New Zealand. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! It's a long time to be in one country for me, but I think it will be worth it in the long run. Next up, a glimpse of the north island, helicopters fighting a forest fire and ohhhhh so much more.