Sunday, October 23, 2005

the very top of new zealand

I have seen where two oceans collide, and it was beautiful. You could actually see the change in colour of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and there was even a random wave, right out in the middle of the sea. It was incredible. This all took place at Cape Reinga, the most northern tip of New Zealand. It was an amazingly beautiful and spiritual place - the Maoris believe that it is where souls come when people die to depart from the world. It was a very typical, end of the world kind of place - windswept, cliffs, crashing seas. Perfect.

I went up with a company called Awesome Adventures, who were okay, but, like most tour companies, tried to do way too much, and so you only got to spend a little time each place, which was disappointing. It was part of my cut-price Kiwi Experience pass, so I guess it was value for money, but I would be pissed if I had payed top dolla for it. It was a very long day, with a ton of time in the coach, although driving along Ninety Mile Beach was cool - it's a recreational highway in New Zealand, and it actually closer to 90km, but still cool. We also went sandboarding, which was fun until a dumbass Swiss guy tried to do it from this really steep place where there was no stopping area, and knocked himself out. We helped him when he came to, and the DOC got him in an ambulance. I helped him, but had no sympathy.

Tonight its back to Auckland, and then a couple of days tidying things up before Israel. Too exciting to be true, apart from the minor detail of 3 flights to get through to get there. Eeesh.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

hangi and volcanoes

It's my last week in New Zealand, and so I am attempting to cram as much as I can into each day, despite being completely exhausted. Sometimes, I have to admit, travelling does wear you out, but then again, I am kidding myself with the logic that if I am really, really tired, then I might sleep on my innumerable flights to Israel. Either that, or I will be so exhausted that I will sleep for 10 days and poor Ori's family will think that the Irish are lazy layabouts. Which mightn't be too far from the truth, but it wasn't me who said it.

Anyway, what have I been doing? Well, firstly, the finest day hike in NZ for a start. The Tongariro Crossing bills itself pretty highly, and the fact that you have to get up at 5.30am to get a bus at 6.20 from Taupo means that it had better be worth all that effort, but my god, it was. I went with Farideh, a girl I met in Christchurch, who is currently being employed as a kayaking guide for the summer in Taupo - nice work if you can get it. Actually, she told me I would make a great guide, so maybe I'll jack in my lucrative career in financial IT and become an "ever-summerer". Anyways, I was in safe hands, since she is all trained in lots of wilderness guiding, although she managed to identify some mist as a lake, fall over on the volcanic rock, and we both thought that Lake Taupo was the ocean. (Well, it is the largest lake in NZ, and, as we keep getting reminded, you can fit Singapore inside it.) Anyways, despite these clear setbacks, we had a fabulous day. The weather was clear enough to see Taranaki, a beautiful cone-shaped volcano in the far distance, which was incredible. It did look like Mt Fuji, and has been used as a stand-in for it. The hike itself was fun - there was one super-hard bit at the beginning, the aptly named Devil's Staircase, and then after that, it was just amazing volcanic landscape for miles. We could see the snow-covered Ruapehe, Tongariro, and another volcano who's name I can never remember, apart from it was used as Mt Doom in LOTR. Having said that, I could see no resemblance, again. I need to go watch those movies again and see whether I recognise the landscapes. I think I may have said this before, but I have a theory that the whole LOTR being shot in NZ is actually a grandiose scheme by the New Zealand tourism board which holds no truth whatsover. It's worked out very well for them.

The trail took us across a couple of volcanic craters, which were incredibly with steaming back and red rock, and then down to a triptych of emerald lakes, which were stunningly beautiful, and then to a blue lake. All these lakes were coloured because of their incredible chemical toxicity, although I had to wonder how many Maori and Westerners died of arsenic poisoning before people worked out not to swim or drink from those amazing waters. Finally, there was 4hrs of wandering through native bush, which looked rather like Scotland, and we were home. What a fantastic day. The sun shone, the craic was good, and we were pleasantly worn out when we were done. Even the trip home was eventful, with a light aircraft crashing into a house just 5mins before we drove past it. Rather scary looking crash site, but both the pilot and his passenger survived.

Last night I got to Rotorua (which my bus driver just loved saying), and then headed straight to a hangi and cultural experience. A hangi is a traditional Maori meal cooked underground by heated stones, but before we got to eat, we watched an hour of traditional dances and exercises. Wow. If I had arrived in the eighteenth century and been confronted by a Maori warrior dancing and being all ceremonial in front of me, I would have been on the first boat off. I'm surprised NZ has any Europeans at all. Those dudes were scary. It was an amazing sight though, and definitely to be recommened. The food was amazing as well (lamb! sweet potato! chocolate log!) and we even got to see glow-worms. A great night indeed.

This morning (see? It never stops) I went to Wai-o-Tapo Thermal Wonderland, which was very interesting - amazing colours, and lots of bubbling mud pools and hot hot water. It did remind me of Yellowstone though, and the geyser was pretty touristy (they added soap to it!). Still worth heading out to though. Finally, this afternoon I gave myself a rest by heading to Starbucks and having a nice wee capuccino. And tomorrow, the rushing around starts again, by heading to Auckland via the glow-worm caves at Waitomo. I'm excited about that. Pretty blue lights everywhere!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

the more time I spend here, the better it gets

It's true. Everything about New Zealand just gets better and better. I have just spent an amazing couple of days in Abel Tasman National Park, doing one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever done - the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. It helped that the sun was shining the entire time, accentuating the golden sands of the utterly empty golden beaches and the amazing green of the calm calm waters. The track was almost deserted, and it was just me, meandering along a fairly easy track that hugged the coast, dropping down into amazing coves and estuaries (these weren't quite as much fun since they involved getting wet, wet feet), then rising up again to the cliffs to give a perfect bird's eye view of the coastline. It was a truly inspiring walk, and easy enough to take 2hours off in the middle to laze on a beach, contemplating how wonderful life was and to do some reading. How perfect. I then arrived at the spartan but comfortable DOC hut to bunk down for the night with other trekkers. I was quite surprised by how long people were taking to do the hike, but then again, my pack was pretty light, so I guess I could go faster. Although some may not believe it, I really can travel light when I absolutely have to. Anyways, no electricity meant an early night (the beach was beautiful in the dark, but I always prefer starlight to moonlight - the only disappointment of the trip. And if that's the only disappointment, well then things are good!), and my trusty blue kazoo kept me cosy all night. Ironically enough, waking up the next morning proved to be my biggest lie-in in a long time, since I didn't haul my ass out of my sleeping bag until 8.30am. Well, my kayaking team weren't picking me up until 9.30, and with no towel, I wasn't exactly in a position to linger in the shower. The kayaking team, Kaiteriteri Kayaks, were fantastic. My guide was an enthusiastic and exuberant guy called Tassie, and there were another 7 of us kayaking. We ended up covering about 18km, which I thought was pretty impressive. The coastline was completely beautiful, calm in the coves, and blustery out at sea. It was actually the closest I have ever come to capsizing a sea-kayak, with the waves being about 3ft. Still, a ton of fun, particularly if you timed the paddling right to catch the wave. We were well-fed and happy little paddlers as we covered the coast, checking out tiny private beaches and Split Apple Rock, all whilst telling (making up) Maori legends about the naming of all the beaches. A really fun day, which was suitably exhausting.

I got the bus and ferry up to Wellington today, and it is just a wonderful city. Of course, I think that any city which has a street of bohemian cafes playing cool music and serving fair trade coffee is awesome, but this one also has great shops and apparently an amazing museum - Te Papa, which I am checking out tomorrow. Unfortunately, because of weather restraints, I am burning up to Taupo tomorrow afternoon to try and do the Tongariro crossing on Tuesday, when there is a weather window. Otherwise, it simply wouldn't be happening, but that's a good thing - the faster I get north, the more likely I am to be able to see the far north, which I am really trying to do, if I have enough time. Ah, time, such a pressing restraint with only 10 more days in New Zealand. I already have a list as long as my arm of all the things I want to do when I come back.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

reading list

Travelling alone makes you really value your books. Furthermore, they become a kind of economy. Every book read can be traded for a new book, albeit the choice of second-hand books is most definitely random. I want to try and keep a track of what I've read, and I am certainly open to suggestions about things to look out for. The books so far, in order, are:

1. The Promise of Happiness: Justin Cartwright.
2. Bergdorf Blondes: Plum Sykes.
3. The Cutting Room: Louise Welsh.
4. The Other Side of the Story: Marian Keyes.
5. Generation Kill: Evan Wright.
6. The Snow Leopard: Peter Matthiesson.
7. Angels and Demons: Dan Brown.
8. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Jean-Dominique Bauby.
9. The Reader: Bernard Schlink.
10. Dance Dance Dance: Haruki Murakami.
11. Where the Heart is: Billie Letts.
12. The Russian Debutante's Handbook: Gary Shteyngart.
13. Boo Hoo: Ernst Malmsten.
14. Absolute Friends: John Le Carre.
15. The Lost Continent: Bill Bryson.
16. Spies: Michael Frayn.
17. The Sportswriter: Richard Ford.
18. The Handmaid's Tale: Margaret Atwood.
19. The Right Stuff: Tom Wolfe.
20. The Lovely Bones: Alice Sebold.
21. The Love Secrets of Don Juan: Tim Lott.
22. The Witches of Eastwick: John Updike.
23. Travels With Charley: John Steinbeck.
24. The Quiet American: Graham Greene.
25. The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nightime: Mark Haddon.
26. A Long Way Down: Nick Hornby.
27. The Line of Beauty: Alan Hollinghurst.
28. The Rule of Four: Ian Caldwell.
29. Tuesdays with Morrie: Mitch Albom.
30. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle: Haruki Murakami.
31. The Secret Life of Bees: Sue Monk Kidd.
32. Transmission: Hari Kunzru.
33. Oryx and Crake: Margaret Atwood.
34. Independence Day: Richard Ford.
35. Birdsong: Sebastian Faulks.
36. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Carson McCullers.
37. 50 Things You Want to Know About World Issues: Keith Suter.
38. The Stone Diaries: Carol Shields.
39. A Lesson Before Dying" Ernest Gaines.
40. Atonement: Ian McEwan.
41. The Alphabet Sisters: Monica McInerney.
42. The Kite Runner: Khaled Hosseini
43. The Little Lady Agency: Hester Browne.
44. I Don't Know How She Does It: Allison Pearson.
45. I Am Charlotte Simmons: Tom Wolfe.
46. Sophie's Choice: William Styron.
47. The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Milan Kundera.


For the first time since I have been in New Zealand, I actually had too many clothes on. How shocking. Today was definitely skirts and sandals weather, but I was in my canvas trews instead. Wowee. Well, the bus driver did tell me that Nelson was the sun capital of New Zealand, and he wasn't wrong. It was glorious today. The only shame was the fact that I was in town and not in Abel Tasman, where I head to tomorrow for an overnight hiking and kayaking trip. Fingers crossed the good weather holds.

Nelson has got to be one of the most liveable towns I have ever seen. Everywhere you look it is just green! The town is built on small hills that rise out of the coastline, and lots of the green forest has been left in place, which makes it incredibly picturesque. Furthermore, the town has way too much temptation on the commercial front (yes, my credit card took another beating, and I have yet more books to weigh down my backpack), as well as vineyards and galleries to tempt the more culturally minded. I had such a good day wandering the streets, having coffee, buying books (definitely my favourite thing to purchase), and then stopping into Queens Gardens, of which my Grampa would have been pleased about. There were mainly roses in the gardens though, and not enough rhodedendrons for his taste. Many of my childhood memories consist of being taken round various National Trust gardens in Northern Ireland and checking out vast bushes of rhodedendrons. I have to admit they are not my favourite plant, but he was a big fan.

Tomorrow I have to get up at 6am to be picked up at 7am for the Abel Tasman trip. This morning was my first lie-in in forever, and even then, I only lasted until 9.15am. I think it is clearly a sign of growing up that I can't lie in bed forever. I actually rather miss it. Although, I am sure, if I try really really hard, I will be able to do it again. But not whilt I am in New Zealand - too many things to do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Today I deliberately fell into a crevasse

Well, I actually allowed myself to be lowered into the crevasse on a rope, with the intention of climbing out of it. I had actually paid for this experience, and better than that, was enjoying it. Ice-climbing has definitely been a highlight of my time in New Zealand, and Fox has been a pretty good place to me.

I've been in Fox about four days now, and yesterday I managed to get out in the chopper for the heli-hike. This was so cool - we got to see beautiful blue caves and archways, as well as deeep crevasses and amazing seracs being pushed up from the ice, all tinged blue from the sun. The ice was clean and free from dirt, and also, maybe best of all, we got to ride in a helicopter. This is rapidly becoming my favourite form of transport, and in order to continue this expensive habit, I will either have to join the armed forces (unlikely), become rich and famous (even less likely) or become one of those people who goes up in helicopters to look at traffic congestion (an interesting career choice which I hadn't considered up until now). I don't think there are many helicopters in the hectic world of financial IT. Still, you never know.

We had about an hour and a half of ice-time, which doesn't sound like much, but we didn't have to go through any crappy moraine, just beautiful clean ice, and furthermore, it was driving rain, so we were getting pretty chilled, despite the 10 zillion layers that had been kindly loaned to us by Alpine Guides. So an hour and a half was plenty of time to wander about, take beautiful photographs, and get a feel for the sheer size and power of the Fox Glacier.

But I really hadn't had enough here, had I? So, this morning I dragged myself out of bed at another ungodly hour (lie-ins just aren't happening in New Zealand - even when I slept through my flight I woke at only 9.05) to be a little bit more daring and see the ice with a completely different perception. Abel was our guide, and he was fantastic. He kitted us up with our crampons, ice axes, harnesses, helmets, backpacks, Columbia windproofs, (why rip my jacket with an ice axe when I can rip somebody else's instead?) and more warm clothes. Once we were adequately kitted out, it was out to the glacier, where he taught us basic moves, such as french technique and using our toes and axes. Then, we attempted faces. The first one was pretty cool and pretty easy - just a simple wall of about 20m, no real features to deal with on it - all pretty nice. Then, it all got a bit more complicated. The next climb we did was really awesome. We (there was only two of us learning - the other guy was a 6'4" German guy who had already climbed, so I didn't feel too bad about sucking compared to him) abseiled into a crevasse that was about 25m deep and only about 1.5m wide at its narrowest point, and then climbed up. It was plenty of fun, and a lot more challenging, particularly since I was entertainment for a day climb, who I know were willing me to fall. I only did that trying to come up over the overhanging lip at the top. Fine and dandy. We had a damn hard climb after that involving a funky leap to start with, and then, on the final climb, my arms just died. I could have cried with frustration, pain, exhaustion, anger, everything, but instead I just had to quit, which sucked. I mean, I shouldn't really feel any shame about it, but it's hard to try and tell your arms to do something and they quite simply wouldn't move. Abel lowered me off the climb, and when I reached stable ice, my whole body was shaking with fatigue. That was the last climb though, and it was a completely thoroughly rewarding day. I do have to admit that I am tempted to go again when I get back to Scotland, or maybe at the glaciers in Patagonia. I am sure that pleases my mother greatly.

Tomorrow I'm sitting up a bus for 12hours to get to Nelson, which I am actually looking foward to, since my whole body is pretty damn exhausted. My knees are completely bruised for falling off the ice onto them. They are going to be blue tomorrow I am sure. Once I get to Nelson, I am planning on doing the Abel Tasman trek, but I am undecided how much I will kayak and how much I will walk. I guess it all depends on the weather, which will, in all honestly, be most likely rain. Like the rest of New Zealand so far!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

when mobile phone batteries die...

You get stuck with a day of doing nothing. Last night my mobile phone battery died, meaning that the alarm didn't go off the next morning. (This is a big design fault, because on my previous nokia, even if the battery died, there was enough juice in it to set the alarm off.) I woke up at 9.05, precisely the time I was supposed to be boarding a funky little helicopter to go sweeping over the Fox Glacier. It was even a beautifully sunny clear day. I was not a happy bunny, although I clearly needed the sleep. I signed up for the 12noon flight, but of course since then, in true NewZee fashion, the weather has closed in and it has been raining for hours. So the day has been spent reading a book instead, which had actually been rather pleasurable. Sometimes, it is nice to just sit and read and chill. Furthermore, the book I'm reading, Birdsong, definitely needed a couple of hours dedication to actually get into it.

Almost everything I have wanted to do in New Zealand has been cancelled due to weather - Siberia Expeditions, the heli-hiking, the Routeburn Track. A heli-trek up to Chancellor's Dome was cancelled because of filming on the upper glaciers, and the train to Arthur's Pass, one of the top five great train journeys in the world is also not on whilst they build a tunnel. I'm pretty upset about that one, since I am a bit of a train geek. Still, I've been having an amazing time here, and basically this is a trip for learning where I want to go next time. I also have more time on the North Island, which will be fun too, since originally I only had a week there. Now I'll have about two. I'll just have to come back in the middle of summer here, and book all my hut passes months in advance. Oh, and save about $5000 for all the fun things I have missed out on. Ah, my poor wee credit card!

Friday, October 07, 2005

mountains and mountains and sounds/fjords

I've been in New Zealand for almost two weeks, but it feels like so much longer, because I have been doing so much. It is such an incredibly beautiful country, although the bus system sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

After leaving Christchurch from Kaikoura, I headed down to Mt Cook, which is the highest mountain in NZ. I stayed in one of the nicest backpackers I have been in - the YHA in the park itself, and it had a funky, stuck in the middle of nowhere atmosphere, and therefore everyone was pretty sociable. I think the cameraderie of being stuck in a national park in the absolute pouring rain had something to do with it though. Still, the next day cleared halfway through my hike up the Hooker Valley, and I had some amazing view of Mt Cook and the surrounding peaks. Fabulous. Although my feet have eiher changed shape, or my boots have, because they have started to blister me, despite the fact they caused me no trouble in the Himalayas at all. Strange.

After my illustrious hike it was another bus ride to Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of the world, or the capital of stupid sports, whichever you prefer. I wandered into the Southern Laughter backpacker, and immediately met someone who wanted to go hiking, and six people who wanted to go drinking, so it was a fine start, although the hangover the next day was none too pleasant. After a day of lolling around feeling vaguely sorry for myself, I signed up for the rite of passage that is bungy jumping with AJ Hackett, and a jetboat down the shotover river, just to make sure that I managed to scare myself as stupid as possible in the shortest amount of time. Bunjying off the kawarau bridge turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it would be, although being the second person of the day is not advisable, because you have no idea how long the experience will be (about 10seconds, of which maybe 3 are the initial freefall), or how you are going to be rescued from the cord (ungracefully hauled into a boat). It was a whole lot of fun, and I didn't get dunked, which is what I asked for. The only bad thing was discovering that I have gained 6kg (6kg!!!!) since I was in Thailand. How horrendous.

With that sobering thought in mind, I headed down to Te Anau, the gateway to Milford Sound with Richard. The plan was to do some hikes, maybe on the Routeburn track, but the weather wasn't really happening for us, so we took a cruise on Milford Sound, which was incredible. We drove down in the pouring rain, watching thousands of waterfalls stream of the sheer granite rockfaces, before the landscape opened up into the sound, which is actually a fjord. It was completely shrouded in mist, and continued to be for the first half of the cruise, until we came out onto the Tasman Sea. We then looked back, and the sun was shining, the fog was lifting, and the full force of the sound, with Mitre Peak, a mile high, forcing its way out of the deep water. It was completely spectacular. It is said that really there are two Milford Sounds - Milford in the sun, and Milford in the rain. The joy of the changeable weather of Southland is that it was possible for us to see both within a 2hr period, and then to drive back along the same drive, seeing incredible alpine peaks which had previously been hidden just added to the magic of the day.

Some activity had to be undertaken in Te Anau, so Richard and I did a day hike on the Kepler Track, which is actually a 3 day hike. It was fun to be actually hiking again, since the weather was good - cold, but good. Having said that, there were a lot of trees on the hike. Hiking just made me want to do more, but weather and transport are big issues down here, and neither of them were working out well for us. Still, I already know that I am coming back here in a couple of years, so hiking will be given another chance.

If you can't hike, what is the best way of seeing the Sound? In a tiny plastic unstable boat right at sea level (although Richard and Johnny did have to ask the altitude!). Sea-kayaking on Milford Sound was an incredible, beautiful experience, with highlights being 4 bottlenose dolphins playing with us for 45mins, and spotting a penguin swimming along. The lowpoints would definitely be the snow, the hail, and the rain that were a constant the whole time we were out, although we were exceptionally cosy in our 8zillion layers as provided by the kayaking company (Fiordland Wilderness). We were out for about 3 or 4hours, which was a mite too long, and my wrists are now absolutely agony for some reason. And again, once we were off the water, in only an hour, the weather cleared to become absolutely beautiful.

So, I am all done with Southland, and have come up to Wanaka, the last town before Mt Aspiring National Park. I was very excited about doing a Rob Roy Valley trek, but the weather is looking a little messy, so maybe I'll go horseriding or something else instead. Spring seems to be a pretty changeable time of year down at this part of the world, so sun one day, snow the next. One thing I know for sure is that I am going for a couple of drinks tonight with two guys I met in my backpacker, the Purple Cow. We'll be heading to Shooters, the local nightspot. Fun times.