My trip to New Zealand (NZ) was truly awesome. The people I met, the things I saw, the smells of the earth, the adventures I had, all of these things and so much more made this my best holiday ever. There is no way I can adequately describe what this trip meant to me with words or pictures. That said I will use words and pictures to do my best. After you read about each day of my trip you can go and look at the pictures for that day at: http://www.glacialwanderer.com/photos
There is too much information to try to put it all into a single post. Even if I had the time to write it, I'm not done analyzing my own thoughts and feelings from the trip. Plus reading it would take you guys too long (it turned out quite long as it is). This post will be a day by day summary of my trip. I might come back and add details or introspective via additional posts in the future, or I might just integrate these life events into future posts in more subtle ways, but whatever I do this post will give you a good feel for what I did on my holiday to NZ.
Most people would think that my 10+ semesters of university level mathematics I took for my degree in computer engineering would mean that I could handle simple addition. Somehow I managed to add 1+2+.5 and get 2.5 instead of 3.5. This resulted in me getting to the airport 45 minutes before my international flight instead of one hour and 45 minutes like I wanted. Anyways it all worked out fine because I made my flight. In fact I had the added bonus of being able to walk right onto my plane and not need to wait in any lines.
My first stop was LA where I had a monster eight hour layover. When I landed I called up a good friend from college to see if we could hang out. She was on her way to work, which took her close to the airport, so she picked me up. She works on the police department and being the last day of the month they needed to file all the arrests they had made that month. She mostly deals with prostitutes so I spent the day filing prostitute arrest reports. It was certainly unlike any work I've ever done. While a bit depressing, it was better than sitting in the airport all day, but I'm glad I don't have that job everyday.
I then got on a 13 hour flight to Auckland, NZ. Normally I can't sleep on planes, but I had only a few hours of sleep in the past 48 hours so I slept most of this flight. When not sleeping they had free movies on demand that passed the time quickly. This flight seemed much shorter than my flight to LA. Because of time zones and the International Date Line I didn't get off the plane until Dec 2nd, which made Dec 1st the shortest day of my life :)
I spent my first three hours after landing trying to find my luggage. I left the airport with the cloths on my back, a small carry on with a book/passport, and the reassurance that my bag was not in NZ. They promised me that they would try and find it. I was not going to let some missing luggage worry me so with a smile on my face and an eye for adventure I jumped on a bus to downtown Auckland. It was on that bus that I met Andy, one of the other 15 people on my trek tracks tour. It seems kind of crazy that I would meet him there. He was going to the hotel to check in his luggage, but since I was traveling light :-) I jumped off the bus a few stops earlier to explore some of the parks in Auckland. After meandering around Auckland for a day I was quite impressed with the city. I liked it more than most American cities because it was friendlier and had a smallish town feel to it. Little did I know that if I had to rank all of the NZ cities I visited at the end of my trip Auckland would probably have been my least favorite. I liked Auckland, it's just all the other cities were even better. At 8pm I collapsed onto my bed for the night due to a mix of not enough good sleep on the airplane and jet lag.
I woke up at a ridiculously early hour and lay in bed as part of an effort to get rid of my jet lag. It seemed to work since after this I was pretty much on NZ time.
That morning I got on the Chariot (our bus) and started getting to know the 14 others on the tour and our guide, Sue. During our drive to Paihia and the Bay of Islands, Sue stopped at three waterfalls. One of them even had a rope swing over the river. Since I still didn't have any luggage, I only had 2 shirts (bought an extra in Auckland), one pair of pants, my boxers and some sandals. I had to decide if I wanted to keep all my cloths dry or go on the rope swing. There wasn't really much of a choice since I can't resist the seductive call of a rope swing. I stripped down to my boxers and went for a few swings.
In the evening we got on a small ferry that was converted into a houseboat for 30 people. It was named the Rock. During our cruise out into the Bay of Islands they dragged a plastic duck behind the boat and we had a shooting competition was some air riffles. Next up was some fishing followed by a dinner of fresh seafood including the fish we had just caught. Later that night I went kayaking. The waters were loaded with so every stroke of the oars created a swirling glow. I looked up into the night's sky and it was eerie since the stars you see are different in the southern hemisphere, but the view was magnificent. There was no noticeable light pollution and the blacks of space were as black as can be imaged. That night I slept on the Rock.
After breakfast we went out snorkeling to some cool rock formations. I dove down to grab muscles off the bottom. Then I'd smash a few together to revel the muscle inside. There were fish swarming around me trying to grab the exposed muscles I had in my hands. It was quite amazing.
Later in the day I kayaked to a small island and took a short 15 minute hike to the summit of a hill on the island giving me a spectacular view of the dozens of surrounding islands. After a quick game of beach volleyball were we used driftwood for nets, I boarded the rock and sailed back to Paihia. I stayed at the Mouse Track hostel where the airline had dropped of my luggage. Yeah!
The people on the tour were divided into different cooking groups with each group cooking a few suppers. This was the first night my group, the kiwi, had to make supper. I can't remember what we cooked, but I do remember Anne-Marie causing me to start laughing during supper. It took me a few minutes to get my laughing fits under control before Sue could continue her explanation of what was happening the next day. I hadn't laughed myself to tears like that in a long time and it felt good. Sure most people in the group now thought I was a bit crazy, but I think most people who know me think I'm a bit crazy. It usually just takes them longer to figure it out.
The next day we drove to Waitomo Caves. Already at this stage in the trip it was pretty clear that there were smaller groups of people within the larger travel group that got along better together. I think that's only natural. I was happy that there were no feuds between these smaller groups. Before the trip my biggest concern was that there would be arguments between different people in the group that would sour my holiday experience. I was pleased I never saw this happen. I was told that some of this may have gone on behind closed doors which is a bit disappointing for those involved, but I'm still thankful that there was no large scale explosion.
At the caves I did two activities. The first was called black water rafting. This involved rafting on inner tubes in underwater caves. It was quite exciting and offered my first look at glow worms. The glow from glow worms looks similar to that of a firefly only it is a constant glow with no blinking. The glow attracts insects that are lost in the cave and the worms create little spider web strings that these insects fly into. The worms live off these caught insects. Next I did an abseil/repel down a crevasse full of glow worms. I remember looking around and thinking that the thousands upon thousands of glow worms created a view similar to that of the night sky.
The next morning I went Zorbing. For those of you not familiar with the glorious Zorb (I'm guessing that's almost everyone), the Zorb is a giant clear plastic ball that you go into and roll down a hill. I saw it in a movie many years ago and have wanted to do it ever since. I was not disappointed. There was a small amount of water in there with me which made it slippery and even more fun.
In the afternoon I went white water rafting on some category 5 rapids. Category 5 is the most difficult rating that exists for river rafting. These rapids even had a few waterfalls including a monster seven meter waterfall, which is the biggest waterfall on a commercial rafting track in the world. It was a wicked experience and our raft made it all the way without flipping, although one of the other two rafts with us did flip on the large waterfall. We collected all the bodies and everyone was fine.
In the evening I went to a Maori hagi (ground cooked meal) and cultural evening. The Maori are the native people on NZ. They sang and danced many of their traditional songs while dressed in traditional garb. It was all quite entertaining and taught me a lot about the Maori people.
I continued learning about the Maori people at Te Puia, which is a Maori cultural center. In Te Puia they have craft centers for the Maori people to preserve traditional weaving and wood carving skills from their Maori culture. Te Puia is built on a geothermal hot spot in NZ. This was not the first or last geothermally active area in NZ I visited. Much of NZ rose out of the sea due to volcanic activity and lots of geysers and hot springs are located around the country as a result. An interesting fact I heard was that the power grid in NZ runs on geothermal, hydro and natural gas power. In general the people of NZ seem to be more in touch with nature than Americans which makes them more conscious of the environment.
Next up I took a 47 meter plunge at the Taupo Bungee. While I was getting the giant rubber band attached to my feet, they asked if I wanted to get my head wet and I said sure. So they weighed me and dialed the tension to the wet head setting for my weight. Next thing I new I was standing on a platform looking at the river far below. I was extremely calm standing there. It was as if I was alone in the world and I stood looking over the wonders of the world. Jumping was not in my mind. Then my tranquility was broken when someone behind me said "jump". So I jumped. The split second where my feet left the platform is when I remember wondering what I was doing and then the falling started. Adrenaline pumped through my veins and I let forth a scream of excitement. As the fall continued doubts about the sensibility of jumping from a perfectly good platform came to mind. That and a few other thoughts were cut short as I saw the water approaching. My finger tips came within six inches of the water, but I never touched it. Later I realized they had weighed me with my sweatshirt on and I took it off because I wanted to keep it dry, which is probably why I didn't touch the water. Then I was slingshot back into the air for another ride. After a few more bounces I was lowered onto a raft. For the next half hour I was near bounce off the walls with energy.
Later in the day I saw a lot of amazing scenery as I rode through the mountains to Ohakune.
Over the past few days I had a cold and felt pretty miserable at times. I was getting better and it would be completely gone in a few days, but truth be told I was a little worried about the cold this morning. This was the day I was doing Tongariro Crossing which is said to be one of the best day hikes in the world. While my cold worried me I think only an illness requiring hospitalization would have stopped me from this hike. Because it's an exposed alpine hike along the rims of some ancient volcanoes weather conditions need to be pretty good or the crossing gets canceled. Luckily the weather turned out to be great and the hike was amazing! I don't have words to describe it and photos will only offer a pale mirage of what I actually saw. I have done a lot of hiking through my life, but I have a very short list of my best hikes that I'll remember for the rest of my life. The Tongariro Crossing is on that list.
On this day we drove from Ohakune to the capital of NZ, Wellington. Although I only got to spend a single night in Wellington I got the feeling that it is a good city. It seemed to be a culturally diverse and liberal thinking city. I'm not a huge city person, but of the big cities I've seen; Wellington was one of my favorite with Christchurch as a close second. In my afternoon in Wellington I hiked up Mt. Victoria which offered a great view of the city. I went to the free Te Papa museum, and walked around the botanic gardens. The part of this day I remember most isn't anything I did, but rather the people I spent it with. At this point in the trip I had developed friendships with some of the people on the tour and spending time walking around the city with these new friends was very enjoyable.
I woke up early to catch a ferry from Wellington on the north island to Picton on the south island. As we neared the south island I was blown away by the beauty of its coastline. It turned out that this beauty continued throughout the southern island. While the north island was a beautiful place, it was the south island that won over my heart. For the past three years if you had asked me where I thought the most beautiful place in the world was I would have said Glacier National Park. When this trip finished I was no longer sure if Glacier National Park or NZ was more beautiful. In my mind they're a tie.
After the breath takingly beautiful ferry rid to Picton, we drove to Nelson. Often times during the days I would take a short 1-3 hour hike. Most of these were extremely beautiful hikes, but to describe every one of these would take up too much time. Here I'll mention a two hour hike because is took me to the geometric center of NZ. The most beautiful views usual require hiking up and this was no exception. The views from this mountain were amazing. To get back to the hostel I followed an old sheep trail through the rolling hills surrounding Nelson.
The next day I spent in Abel Tasman national park. It's an amazing coastal park in NZ. There is a 3-4 day trek along the coast that I would love to hike, but I only had a single day there so I did a half day kayak and half day sail tour. This allowed me to see more of the park. It was amazing, but it is one of those many places in NZ I feel like I need to go back and visit in more depth someday.
That night a bunch of us played a card game called shithead. There are a ton of different variants of the game, but the basic idea is that you want to avoid being the last to get rid of your cards or you're the shithead. This page
explains more of the rules. We played a lot of shithead during this trip.
I spent a large part of my day traveling to Kaikoura. Once there I went on a whale watching tour. The boat was a high speed craft that went from whale to whale as they surfaced. I saw three whales and I got a decent picture of the signature tail flick as they dive back into the ocean depths for about an hour at a time. Even though it was a whale watching tour my favorite part was when we ran into a playful pod of dolphins. Dolphins sure seem to know how to enjoy life.
I woke up this fine Thursday morning and headed off to go for a swim with some seals. I donned a wetsuit and jumped into a small 7 meter boat. The boat was build like a little tank and once we got outside the protection of the bay I found out why. We were thrown around by waves that were much larger than our tiny boat. Imagine how a pinball must feel, add in waves splashing over the side and you'll have a good idea on how I felt. That said, I always thought being a pinball would be fun, so I had a blast on the boat ride :) We jumped off the boat in a sheltered cove where the seals were swimming around. Snorkeling with the seals was amazing. The more energy I expended into being playful with them, the more playful they were with me. It was a viscous cycle and after an hour of swimming with them I was exhausted. It amazed me how graceful and quick these pudgy animals were.
Next we drove over to Christchurch were I spent part of my evening eating some very spice Thai food. Christchurch is a very British city with its British names and British architecture.
On December 14th I traveled to the coastal town of Punakaiki. It doesn't feel like I've been mentioning just how beautiful NZ is enough. Everyday I saw multiple natural wonders that just left me staring with an awestruck feeling. NZ is such a beautiful country.
Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make all the difference. This day offered up a prime example. It was no grand adventure that I remember from this day. It was a small sand castle I built with one of the new friends I met in NZ. Actually it was a stone beach so it was more of a stone and stick monument since there was no sand to be had. Sometimes these simple memories are best.
Throughout this trip I was constantly amazed at the natural diversity in NZ. This day was a great example of NZ's diversity. In the morning I did a riverside hike that was an amazing trek through a rain forest. After lunch I went a kilometer down the road and did a short walk around the pancake rocks. These are rock formations that formed as sedimentary rock formed into layers just a few centimeters thick per layer with thousands of layers stacked upon each other. It is still a mystery how or why these rock formations formed. Then just a few more kilometers down the road I did a third hike along the coast with magnificent views of the coast. Three hikes within a few kilometers all offering completely different ecosystems and vistas.
Later that day we drove to Franz Josef which I was expecting to be a highlight of my drip due to the glacier hike I had planned. To say things didn't turn out exactly as I expected in Franz Josef would be a huge understatement.
The week before I arrived in Franz Josef it had rained every day except the day just before I arrived. If it rains too much old paths cut into the glacier get washed away and people can no longer hike on the glacier. The Franz Josef glacier had been closed to hikers for a few days because of all the rain, but on the previous day they had gotten some of the treks opened so my guided hike of the glacier was a go! Even though it was open for the day, it was raining cats and dogs as I set out to the hiking center where I rented some heavy duty rain gear and the required crampons for traversing the ice. Throughout the day it cycled from raining very hard to torrential downpours with most of the time being the later. Even though all the rain didn't make for the most comfortable hiking conditions, I was just happy to get the chance to be on the glacier. An added benefit of the rain is that it washes away the top layer of snow leaving only the blue translucent ice. All of this blue ice was simply amazing.
The Franz Josef glacier is one of the lowest altitude glaciers in the world with its ice reaching down to only a few hundred meters above sea level. We actually hiked to the start of the glacier on a riverbed surrounded by rain forest. The hike on the glacier started on set treks, but after an hour or two the guide for our group led us over ice that I image hadn't been touched in thousands of years. Sometimes there were ridges where we'd have to cut steps into the ice before we could continue. All the time surrounded by deep valleys and huge walls of the beautiful translucent blue ice. At one point we crawled through an ice cave. I was blown away by my time on the glacier, but when we tried to get off the glacier is where the real story begins.
I mentioned earlier that we had to walk through a river valley to get to the glacier. While walking through this valley we had to make a few knee deep river crossings. Due to all the rain throughout the day those knee deep river crossings were now a raging river that was completely impassable. Luckily there was an old jungle trail that had been created for emergencies just like this. It hadn't been used in about a year, but that was our way out. We had to basically scramble, craw, and drag ourselves up a steep muddy/rocky slow that went up a few hundred meters above the river. Then the path followed the river and eventually went down. Many years ago chains and ropes had been placed in critical places along the path. At times I was basically was pulling myself up the valley wall with those ropes and chains. Without these I'm quite sure the trail would not have been passable in the torrential rains we were having. After an hour trek through the jungle in pissing down rain we made it back to the river bed. However, the river had swollen even more in the past hour causing it to change course on the valley floor. Our escape route had been cut off again.
At this point the company running the guided hikes had called all its guides in to help and we probably had one guide for every person being guided off the glacier. From all these guides only two knew of another trek up through the jungle that could get us out. Nobody knew the last time this trail had been used. It turned out to be even more difficult than the first. About halfway through we had to go under a large waterfall. I was the second one in line and my friend stopped just as I was entering the falls while she was directly under it. I was stopped for only a second or so, but it felt like an eternity. Any questions about why she had stopped were answered after I took one more step and felt the full driving force of the waterfall on my head and back. Of all the things I did on this trip this waterfall was probably the most exciting and scary part of the trip. I later found out only half of our group made it under this waterfall. The other half was turned back because the guides decided it was too dangerous.
After walking over an even larger waterfall and then down the mud and rock valley wall we emerged once again to the river valley. At this point the river didn't resemble the morning river at all. It had grown man times its original size. Even after all this the river would not let us escape. Everyone could hear a loud knocking sound that was caused by the raging river rolling huge boulders along the valley floor. At this point the only option left was a helicopter rescue. Groups of four at a time hopped onto a rescue helicopter that flew us to a nearby road with a bus waiting to take us back to town. We were saved!
All the rain we had created some magnificent waterfalls to look at during the drive to Queenstown. I didn't take pictures of these waterfalls because I was having camera problems (it kind of got damp when I was under the waterfall). Luckily my camera did come back to life the next day.
I spent four nights in Queenstown and I needed it. At this stage in the trip I was feeling drained. It seemed like everything was being rushed. Spending four nights in one place helped recharge my emotional batteries. The facts that Queenstown and its surrounding areas were probably my favorite locations on the trip and that I had perfect weather was icing on the cake.
My first full day in Queenstown started with another bungee jump. This time it was the Nevis Bungee, which is the tallest bungee in all of NZ at 134 meters. Getting to this bungee involved taking a small cart suspended by a wire to a larger jumping platform that was also suspended by wires. This jumping platform was in the middle of a large canyon. The feelings I felt during this bungee were much the same as the previous one I described. I had a clear mind until my feet left the platform. As I started to fall I had one of those "oh, shit" moments. I did enjoy the longer free fall.
In the afternoon I went on The River Wild horse riding tour. If I were to pick one single activity that I enjoyed most this would be it. We rode the horses up along a river making a few crossings. The scenery was perfection. The guide let us take our house to a trot and I even tried a canter. I had been horse riding once before, but it wasn't anything like this. Horse riding has been on a list of things I wanted to learn for awhile, this experience just moved it to the top of my list.
On this morning I hiked to the summit of Ben Loman. I left early and didn't see a single person until was returning from the summit. I was a little worried about my beautiful views at the start of the hike because as I started going up I walked into thick cloud cover. It was just like walking around on a foggy day, but after I gained more altitude I passed through the clouds. It was so peaceful up there. I sat at the summit and all I saw were the mountain peaks poking through a thick carpet of clouds.
In the afternoon I went skydiving. Like bungee jumping I was quite calm before I jumped out of the plane. For the first few seconds I had that adrenaline rush, but during the majority of the 50 second freefall I enjoyed the view. It didn't feel like I was falling. It just felt windy. I couldn't have hoped for a more beautiful place to jump out of a plane. Once the shoot was out my tandem master let me control the sail. I think I enjoyed that bit just as much as the falling.
Most of my travel group went to Arrowtown this day, but it didn't sound all that interesting to me and I was emotionally exhausted by this part of the trip. I took a relaxing ride up the Queenstown gondola and spend the day lying around in the sun. It was a wonderful day.
On this day I traveled down to the Milford Sounds and boarded the Milford Wanderer. This was the second overnight cruise during my trip so I couldn't help but compare it to my first cruise on the Rock. As far as the ships go I like the Rock a lot more. It had a more homely and personalized feel compared to the more commercialized feel of the Milford Wanderer. The saving grace of the Wanderer was that the Milford Sounds are drop dead gorgeous. I couldn't help but enjoy myself when surrounded by such beauty.
I disembarked from the Milford Wanderer and started the longest driving day on the trip. It was nine hours of driving to Mt. Cook. After taking breaks for eating, some short hikes, and about a million toilet breaks the day was over. After all this driving I was at the most beautiful single mountain peek I saw on my trip to NZ.
In the morning I did my last great hike in NZ. It was around some mountains to get a better look at Mt Cook. I feel like a broken record here saying the hike was breathtakingly beautiful, but it was.
That afternoon I traveled back to Christchurch where I departed the airport at a ridiculously early hour the next morning. Sadly my trip to NZ was over, but it wasn't a goodbye forever. I have a feeling I'll be back there someday.