Sunday, May 8, 2011

Worldly Travels: New Zealand

What can I say about New Zealand other than: IT IS FREAKING AWESOME! I only spent 144 hours (6 days) in New Zealand, but I was able to make it around the entire south island and hit quite a few high points. I'll definitely have to go back, several times, to accomplish everything there is to do there, but I think I did alright for the short amount of time that I was there. Let's review.
April 2nd



I arrived in Christchurch on April 2nd without anything pre-booked. I had a rough idea of where I should go, but no idea what I was going to do when I got there. Renting a car was no different. I strolled up to the information counter and asked, "Where can I rent a car for cheap?" After being directed to an ad board with many local services listed and an airport phone, I put my passport, along with several others papers, down on the ledge and proceeded to I call several companies. Finding one that was reasonably priced and could pick me up at the airport, I went outside, got picked up, signed the papers, and proceeded south to Lake Tekapo.

About 20 minutes into my journey, I did a mental self-check, something I do quite often, probably as a minor case of OCD, and couldn't remember where I put my passport. I pulled off to the side of the road, just wanting to be secure that I knew where it was, and started looking through my backpack. After turning my backpack, luggage, and the rest of the car inside out, I called the car office, the airport, drove back and proceeded to freak out for about an hour. After leaving my number with the car agency and the airport (an Australian number, so it was international for them to call me, another important point in my journey), I went back to the car, noticed the GPS case on the seat, not knowing what it was, and brought it back into the car office thinking it must have been left there by the last person. When I went back in, the office lady was on the phone with the airport and told me, "Someone found your passport and turned it in!" I guess I got a little pseudo karma for the trying to turn in the GPS case. Anyways, I rushed over to the airport, picked up my passport, gave many thanks, and finally got on the road to begin my 3 hour journey to Lake Tekepo.
Lake Tekepo



Lake Tekepo is a beautiful place. A lake out in the middle of nowhere, it's one of those places that's so quiet that if you stopped rowing your kayak and glided to a stop, you wouldn't hear a thing. No airplanes, no cars, no wildlife even. Just sitting peacefully in the middle of the lake. I arrived about two hours before sunset at the Lake Tekepo YHA and with no plans, just like with the car, asked, "What is there to do here?" I was able to rent the kayak for those two hours of daylight and afterwards made a trek over to the hot springs where they have three pools ranging in temperature from 38-42 C (100-108 F). It was a fantastic way to end the day and the view of the lake from the pools was gorgeous. (Also of note: the night sky over lake Tekepo is in consideration for World Heritage status because you can see so many more stars without any light pollution for hundreds of miles.)
April 3rd

I went to bed early and woke up early the next morning because I had a lot to get accomplished. I knew I wanted to visit Mt. Cook, 1 hour away, and then move onto Queenstown, another 3 hours away. So at 7:30am, I rolled out of bed and began my journey.


Mt. Cook Valley


Mt. Cook Valley, one of the most famous mountain ranges in New Zealand, I knew I had to make a stop there. Like many of the places I visited, you could easily spend a week here and not do the same thing twice. As per my SOP, I found out about helicopter and plane tours throughout the valley when I got there. How awesome would that be!?!? Flying around the mountains and over glaciers! I immediately called three of the companies listed on the Mt. Cook YHA hostel message board and was told very unfortunate news: adverse weather conditions, including wind and rain, left both plane and helicopters grounded for the day. Major bummer.

I salvaged the stop and hiked the supposedly 2 hour round trip Red Tarns track in an hour and took some pictures.



This is a map of what you should see from the top of the Red Tarns mountain.



As you can see, it was very cloudy off in the distance...



Oh well, just another thing to do when I return.


Queenstown

After climbing in the Mt. Cook Valley, I made a very scenic drive to Queenstown. To be honest, the whole island has beautiful scenery, but this drive was my favorite. One of the things I decided on the drive: I have to come back here and rent a motorcycle. The roads are motorcycle heaven. Lots of curves with a healthy amount of straightaways and almost nobody to get in your way. Also, not a cop in sight.

The view anywhere in Queenstown is pretty amazing, but looking down over the lake with the mountains in the distance from the Skyline Restaurant & Bar is particularly stunning. This picture just doesn't do the colors justice.



Unlike the beginning of my trip, once I got to Queenstown, I already had an agenda. I had decided to book some extreme activities from Mt. Cook when I saw a pamphlet for the Canyon Swing. They offered a package deal including river-rafting, jet boating, and 4x4 off-roading. Well, that's basically what I did for the 24 hours that I was in Queesntown. First, was the Canyon Swing.
Canyon Swing

I was able to get in three jumps that day. Below is the river that I came river-rafting down the next day. We saw (and heard) somebody jump while we were on the river, which was pretty cool.


April 4th

I spent another night in a YHA and woke up early the next morning to begin the days adventure. It started with the 12 seater 4x4 drive through the canyon followed by a 50mph jet boat ride up the river, and ended with a river-raft ride through grade 4 rapids. All-in-all, a great way to spend the day. I held off on the 130m (430ft) Nevis bungee because I plan on jumping the 230m (760ft!) Macau Tower bungee jump in Hong Kong in July. Below are some selected photos from the day.

4x4 Drive

I swear the road was barely wider than the truck in most parts and it was a long way down off the edge of the cliff.


Jet Boating

Jetboating was a fun experience: driving 50mph through 1-2ft deep water doing 360s while nearly scraping the walls.


River Rafting

River-rafting was fun, though either we were too good, or the rapids "Grade 4" status needs to be re-evaluated.



After the rafting I had dinner up at the Skyline Restaurant & Bar pictured above and then left for a YHA at the Franz Josef Glacier. It was a night drive, so unfortunately there wasn't any good scenery. It was pitch black except for my headlights. I made a gas stop in the middle of nowhere at a pump that was open, though nobody was there. It was very eerie and felt straight out of a Stephen King novel:
"After refueling, Ethan put the gas cap back on and hung up the pump. He walked around the back of the car to the right side where the steering wheel was, he was just getting used this after driving down under for three months, and put the key in the ignition. He checked his mirrors out of habit and realized he left the gas flap open. "Well done," he thought, "that'll just bug me for the rest of the trip," his OCD coming out. He took the key out of the ignition, absent-mindedly clicking the electronic door lock while he walked back around, and closed the flap. As he walked back and put the key in the door, he was startled by a shriek just to his right and simultaneously, out of nowhere came..."

April 5th

It was another early morning awakening at a YHA. If you haven't noticed already, I stayed in one every night while I was in New Zealand. I highly recommend them and you should get a membership if you're going to be traveling abroad. They're all over the world and every single one has a minimum standard of lodging (which is pretty high) in order to be considered YHA certified. They are also really inexpensive which is great if you are traveling on a budget.

The whole day consisted of a glacier hike and climbs. I climbed to the top of a 50ft+ wall 5 times. The glacier was absolutely beautiful, and if ice climbing isn't your thing, you should at least hike one sometime in your life.

Ice Climbing


Glacier Photos

Looking at a mounting through a tunnel in the glacier.


A mini-mountain of glacial ice.



The End

Sadly, this is where the bulk of the adventure ends. I spent the night at Franz Josef again (therefore, this was the longest I'd been in the same place) and drove up the west coast in the morning. It was another beautiful drive and I stopped in Nelson at yet another YHA. I flew from Nelson to Wellington on the north island the next day (much cheaper to fly back to Sydney) where I met a super cute Kiwi flight attendant that's making a trip to the U.S. in the fall who I may happen to meet up with :) (Btw, I think it's a pre-requisite to being a Kiwi that you must regularly partake in a minimum of 3 extreme sports. A rule which this girl is no exception ;))

Anyways, that's enough for this adventure. I hope you enjoyed it and as a result are seriously considering visiting New Zealand. I know I'm going back and if all goes according to plan, I may live part of my life and/or retire there in the future.

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