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New Zealand, 2012

a travel blog by bhkann

Two weeks in the land of Kiwis with Vivi
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Kia Ora!

New York, United States

This blog will be made up of posts and ramblings from our trip to New Zealand. I will try to update throughout the next two weeks as time and wi-fi access permits. Will try to add photos too, but will probably be difficult until we return. There won't be much proofreading, so apologies for spelling mistakes or run-on sentences. Now off to the other side...

permalink written by  bhkann on December 2, 2012 from New York, United States
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Enter Auckland

Auckland, New Zealand

If there's any kind of jetlag that is "good" jetlag, than this is likely it. Traveling to New Zealand, you cross the international date line and are thrust forward 12 hours in the blink of an eye. Add a few more for good measure, and you're looking at an 18 hour positive difference. When trying to think of how you stand relative to your home time, an easier equation to wrap your head around is 6 hours back, one day forward. The point is, it is now 4am (on Monday) - the perfect time for blog rambling, and more importantly, prepping for an early start to our day hikes.

We touched down in Auckland yesterday. From the moment we stepped into the Air New Zealand terminal at LAX, we were reminded that we were heading on a middle-earth adventure. Everyone knows The Lord of the Rings trilogy and upcoming Hobbit movies were filmed here. What people may not know is how intrenched those movies are in the tourism industry here, at least from outside the borders of the country. Stepping up to the ticketing booth, the floor is painted with thick green Shire-grass and Hobbit feet. On the plane, the security announcement is delivered via a video starting a cast of a fake Aragorn, Legolas, orcs, elves, hobbits, and golems, and a very real Peter Jackson (ok, enough geeking out for now). Arriving in Auckland, the walls are lined with gorgeous photo-murals of fairy tale mountains, lakes, and forests - they are all real New Zealand, but the effect is that, with some imagination, you yourself feel like a Hobbit on the cusp of adventure (strong work, New Zealand tourism industry).

The funny thing is, when you step out of the airport and into the Auckland surroundings, it looks more like a quaint American suburb than anything else. Auckland, the largest and most cosmopolitan of the cities in New Zealand is far from the postcard middle-earth-inspiring setting. It is a nice, clean city, with some interesting features. Auckland sits atop a large Volcanic field that is "active", which basically means that in last 1000 years there has been some activity, but you wouldn't know it except for the countless number of hills. Auckland also lies on an isthmus of land that is surrounded by water on most sides. The climate and look of Auckland resemble San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest. It is mild in temperature, and at least on the day we arrived, overcast, rainy, and windy - they don't call it the "City of Sails" for nothing.

We arrived in the morning, having had a few hours of sleep on the plane (Vivi more than me - I was too busy watching the awesome selection of in flight TV/movies). We checked into our motel - it is on the outskirts of Auckland in a nice suburb, right next to the Eden Park Rugby Field (unfortunately no matches were being held). We strapped on our hiking boots and hit the city. We first walked to the top of Mt. Eden, one of the cities many "volcanic" peaks - I use quotes because it's not what you imagine a volcanic peak to look like - it is essentially a hill covered with grass and foliage, with a crater at the top. We stopped to get coffee along the way - coffee culture is apparently huge here and there are tons of these nice coffee shops everywhere. We then walked into the city center and to the wharf, stopping to have "Auckland's Best Fish and Chips" (according to the chalkboard outside the restaurant). We continued walking through the area of Ponsonby, a strip lined with interesting bars, restaurants, and hippie/hipster shops, and finally made it back to our motel, a round trip of around 8 miles for the day. For dinner we had Thai food - another thing we are starting to realize is that there seems to be know distinct New Zealand cuisine - which makes sense, as it is a relatively young island nation of largely European immigrants mixed with the native Maori and others.

This morning we pick up our rental car and ditch the city life for the duration this trip. Auckland seems like a nice, livable city - but that's not what you endure 10,000+ miles and 20+ hours in a plane to experience. Today we hit the road - south to the central volcanic zone of the North Island and the one of the key reasons we even included the North Island in our itinerary: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

permalink written by  bhkann on December 2, 2012 from Auckland, New Zealand
from the travel blog: New Zealand, 2012
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The Volcanic Plateau

Taupo, New Zealand

We set out from Auckland Monday morning and headed south in our rental car. Driving on the left side of the road was a bit harrowing at first, but after a couple high-stress hours of confusion and a close call or two, I got the handle of it. As we headed south the New Zealand countryside changed from average suburban, to gorgeous lush green countryside (think the Shire), to sweeping, barren mountains. The were a lot of "wow" moments and me continually pestering Vivi to take pictures out the car window.

We passed through Hamilton and reached our first destination, Taupo. Taupo rests on a massive inland lake in the Center of the North Island. It is a town that sees a lot adventure-travelers looking to skydive, bungee jump, and water-sport, but, being part of the volcanic plateau, also has its share of geothermal attractions which was our main purpose. We visited a thermal area deep into the outskirts of town called Orakei Koraki. It sits on private Maori Land and is stunning. You take a boat ride across a River to reach an area filled with hot springs, Sulphur pools, mud pits, silica terraces, and one of only two geothermal caves in the world. We felt like we were in the Lost World (minus the dinosaurs). Pictures hopefully to follow...

We ate lunch in Taupo and stocked up on protein bars, water, and "scroggin" (what Kiwis call trail-mix) in preparation for next day's main event: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

permalink written by  bhkann on December 3, 2012 from Taupo, New Zealand
from the travel blog: New Zealand, 2012
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Walking on the Moon

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

On November 21st, 2012 the Te Maori crater that sits on top of Mount Tongariro erupted with a 10 minute explosion of smoke and ash. This was the second of two eruptions in the past few months, a sign that this volcano may be becoming more active. Mount Tongariro is situated in Tongariro National Park, smack in the middle of New Zealand's North Island and volcanic plateau. This plateau is part of the Pacific's "ring of fire," a highly geothermally active zone that straddles tectonic plates. It is also the site of what many say is one of the greatest single-day treks in the world: the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (TAC). The venting Te Maori crater sits alongside this crossing, and thus the New Zealand DOC shut down the track following the eruption. This almost made us cancel, but we discovered a few days before leaving that much of the track had been reopened and so we decide to keep our plans. The TAC is a 19.4km (12 mile) one-day hike across some of New Zealand's most incredible scenery. It passes along/through three volcanoes - Tongariro, Ngaurohoe (Mt. Doom from LOTR), and Ruapehu.

We stayed in small town called National Park, woke up early and reached the turn-off to the crossing a little before 7am. The morning was filled with dense fog as we slowly crept towards the start of the trail. I certain points it was difficult to see past a few yards in front of the car. It added to the air of mystery and excitement to the adventure - though also a little scary. A few minutes into the drive the fog burned off and we were greeted with incredible views of the three peaks and the volcanic landscape around them. We park and started in the trek.

Words and even photos cannot do justice to the views and natural beauty experienced on the TAC, so I'll (try to) keep it brief - it starts through a mountain valley with streams, waterfalls, and volcanic rocks and tracks uphill to a massive crater with a lake. From there, you can choose to continue or add on a 3hr side trip up to the summit of Mt. Ngaurohoe. We elected for the side trip and started the straight vertical climb up the mountain face to the top. This was the hardest hike I've ever attempted - up a lava flow - think of hiking up a steep mountain of sand and loose rock - and about 2/3 of the way up, with our legs burning and the winds blasting, we decided to return to the crossing so we wouldn't be too tired/miserable to finish. We walked through the crater up to another ridge where we were greeted by a red volcanic cliff.

We kept on and finally reached the end of what was open on the crossing: the emerald lakes. They are bright turquoise lakes that dot the inside of the crater. There is also a massive blue lake in the distance, Mt. Doom behind, and mysterious, primordial-looking volcanic mud fields below. To add to all of this, behind the lakes on the horizon you could see the steam bellowing up from the still-venting Te Maori crater - little bonus for the travelers who did not cancel their trip. It really felt other-worldly, like a distant planet, or the moon, and I've never seen any scenery on earth quite like it.

We completed the round trip exhausted, sore, and hungry after about 7hrs and 30min and returned back to town. I imagine we will be very sore in all types of place tomorrow. Fortunately, tomorrow is a "chill" day. We leave the North Island for good, and fly to the South Island where we will spend the bulk of our trip. We'll start in wine country .

permalink written by  bhkann on December 4, 2012 from Tongariro National Park, New Zealand
from the travel blog: New Zealand, 2012
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Marlborough Wine Country

Renwick, New Zealand

A short flight on a small dual-prop plane and we were touching down in Blenheim, a city at the Northeast of the South Island and gateway to the Marlborough wine region. New Zealand has a relatively young wine-making history that really took off in the 1970s. The most famous of their wines is Savignon Blanc, but they also known for Pinot Noir. The countryside in this area is beautiful. We rented a car and drove around the region exploring the sweeping sunny wine fields and lush mountains surrounding them. We checked into our hostel, Watson's Way - a very chill place with friendly owners, hammocks and picnic tables outside. We decided to treat ourselves to dinner at one of the Vineyards - Hans Herzog - we had a delicious meal and great bottle of wine.

The next morning we visited a vineyard, did a wine tasting, and then took off southward down the coastline to the marine wildlife capital of New Zealand - Kaikoura.

permalink written by  bhkann on December 5, 2012 from Renwick, New Zealand
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Seals Gone Wild in Kaikoura

Kaikoura, New Zealand

As we drove the 140km or so down the coast, we began to get a taste of the insane, awe-inspiring beauty of the South Island. Lush green countryside, within the backdrop of alpine, snow-capped mountains on our right, with bright Emerald Ocean, beach cliffs to our left. Most of the conversation down to Kaikoura consisted of "wow," "holy-$&@!", and "please watch the road!" -Vivi (when my eyes strayed too far). Along the way, Vivi spotted seals to along the beach, so we pulled off to the side of the road and it turned out we had stumbled upon a seal breeding colony. We snapped a bunch of pictures of the New Zealand Fur Seals, before continuing along our way.

Finally we arrived in Kaikoura and settled into our hostel, the Albatross, which turned out to be quite close to a hippie commune - we walked into a guitar jam session and people twirling bow-staffs on the front lawn. We decided to go out on a highly-recommended walk of Kaikoura's peninsula track. The walk took us past the town Center, fishing villages and a giant Fur Seal colony where you could walk right up to the bathing seals.

The track continued along the peninsula, yielding some of the most unbelievable scenery I've ever seen in my life.

Gorgeous beach cliffs, on top of which were thick, high grass pastures dotted with violet wild flowers and limestone rock structures. All of this again, with the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It was surreal, out of a movie, or the Garden of Eden, like it had been designed and painted. Around every corner, a Kodak moment.

Needless to say my camera battery died about 3/4ths through the walk. We returned to the town Center, had a meal of fish and chips (the town is big on fish/seafood), and crashed early for our swim with dolphins the next day.

permalink written by  bhkann on December 6, 2012 from Kaikoura, New Zealand
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Dusky Dolphins in Kaikoura

Kaikoura, New Zealand

Kaikoura lies on a peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. It's waters and geological nature have a few characteristics that make it New Zealand's Premier marine wildlife destination. Its Shoreline runs very close to a vast and extremely deep underwater canyon. It is also the hub of intersecting Ocean currents. Cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep levels of the canyon encounter warm currents from the North and are propelled toward the surface quite close to land. These unique nutrient-laden shallow waters initiate the marine food-chain in a place where it usually does not exist. This means there is a surplus of large marine sea creatures - seals, whales, and dolphins - just off the shore. It also means that we get to swim with them.

We signed up for a swim with the wild dusky dolphins, of which there are around 2,000 in local waters. A short boat ride took us out around the or peninsula until a pod of dolphins was spotted. At this point we got on our snorkel gear and jumped in. Within minutes there were dozens of curious dolphins swimming around us, checking us out, and following our movements. It was incredible - amazing how, without any enticing, training, or persuasion (expect for us making lots of noise and movement to pique their interest), the dolphins would approach us. Using Vivi's parents spiffy waterproof GoPro video camera (thanks guys!), we were able to get some great HD footage of all this happening. After the swim, up on the boat, we followed around a pod of what appeared to be hundreds of dolphins who would race around the boat, sometimes performing impromptu jumps and tricks. Very cool.

We returned to town and grabbed lunch before heading further south and west, leaving the coast and heading inland to the South alpine Mountain region.

permalink written by  bhkann on December 8, 2012 from Kaikoura, New Zealand
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Arthur's Pass - From East to West

Craigieburn, New Zealand

We left Kaikoura and drove down the East coast towards Christ Church, taking a hard right into Arthur's Pass, an alpine crossing that connects the Islands East and West coasts. You may have noticed that many of the cities/routes/regions in New Zealand have two different titles: English and Maori. The Maori people make up close to 10% of the population of the country and were the first Settlers - arriving around 1200 AD from various areas of Polynesia. Their cultural influence is seen throughout. A common name used for the country is the Maori name, Aotearoa, which translates to "Land of the Long White Cloud." Prior to 1200AD, New Zealand lived in virtual isolation, encountering no humans or even land mammals, since it Split from the giant land mass Gondwanaland millions of years ago. Its evolutionary isolation, along with its position in the Pacific's Ring of Fire and its unique weather patterns, gives New Zealand many of its fascinating displays of nature at its finest.

The drive from coastal Kaikoura through Arthur's Pass is a prime example of this. The drive was stunning and we transitioned from Crystal blue beaches and rainforest to grassland, to otherworldly, vast alpine Highlands in matter of hours. By evening we had reached the Arthur Pass township at the Center of the Island, a single strip of houses with a few hostels and a cafe or two nestled in the mountains. We spent a night here and did a nice day hike the following day called Temple Basin. Gorgeous alpine scenery.

We continued through the pass and saw an even quicker change back to lush rainforest as we approached the west coast highway. Here, were absent the cliffs of the east coast - this was flat, desolate beach land. We stopped for lunch in a small town called Hokitika and then on through the rainforest to our next main attraction, Fox Glacier.

permalink written by  bhkann on December 9, 2012 from Craigieburn, New Zealand
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Glacier Climbing

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

The Westland of New Zealand's South Island is filled with lush rainforest, and glacial-carved valleys.

Two easily accessible glaciers remain in this area Fox and Franz Josef - and they form a hub for tourists and adventure activities. We did a short walk to view Franz Josef and then continued on to Fox for one of these activities - ice climbing.

We stayed in a cabin and made some store bought ravioli in the communal kitchen for dinner. The next day we met our guide and began our preparation for the day of climbing. They suited us up with harness, climbing gloves, crampons, and, of course, badass ice axes, and we trekked up the face of the glacier, past gorgeous ice falls and ravines to a suitable spot to set up a climb.

The Fox glacier, like the Franz Josef and the U.S. economy is currently in a recession-period that began around 2009. Geologists think it is in part due to global warming, but also specific New Zealand weather patterns like increased rainfall. They aren't sure how long it will continue but the glacier has been receding in the 100s of meters per year. This makes hiking it a dynamic challenge where the guides have change trail design and devise new ways to explore the glacier. It also makes the glaciers themselves look less impressive. However, not all hope is lost - there have been recession periods in the past even more drastic than currently, that have rebounded with periods of great growth - as recently as in the early 2000s - so who knows what the future holds. For our purposes, there was plenty of ice to go around. Our guide set up pulley mechanisms right into the ice and we began to practice our newly-learned skills. It was a lot of fun and a bit challenging. We got to do 5-6 climbs of varying difficulty before the evening rolled through, including a climb out of a glacial hole that we first were instructed to climb into. Elliot, you would be proud. Very cool! Needless to say, we were sore in strange places the next day.

We woke up the next morning and had breakfast at a cafe by the nearby Lake Matheson - a lake famous for its picturesque reflecting of Mount Cook (New Zealand's highest peak) in its still waters. We did a short walk around the lake and took in the view before jumping back in the car for one of our mega-drive days down the west coast and back inland to Queenstown.

permalink written by  bhkann on December 10, 2012 from Fox Glacier, New Zealand
from the travel blog: New Zealand, 2012
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South to Queenstown

Queenstown, New Zealand

We continued down the increasingly scenic West Coast highway which winds along the shoreline with desolate, rocky beach to the right, hilly rainforest to the left, and occasional dives into pristine farmland valleys and sheep-and-cow meadows (man, are there a lot of sheep here).

One of the greatest things about New Zealand driving (aside from the astounding scenery) is you are often the only car within eye-shot on the road. It definitely gives an end-of-the-world type feeling, especially when you look out into the ocean and realize that if you could see far enough, Antarctica would be visible over the horizon.

We stopped in the tiny town of Haast for a quick pit-stop and sampled the local favorite white-bait pattie on bread with butter for lunch. The pattie is essentially a slew of minnows squashed together and fried - slimy yet satisfying?

From there the road leads inland, back through the Southern Alps. It gets windier, and the road passes around gorgeous, massive, deep blue mountain lakes. The camera was constantly firing. The road to Queenstown twists downhill through switch-backs with stunning green mountain valley below.

Queenstown itself is enveloped in cinematic beauty - sitting snugly by the massive lake Wakatipu, it is pushed up to the shore by green mountain peaks behind it, only outmatched by the view across the lake if "The Remarkables" a barren, indigo, rocky, snow-capped mountain range. This begged the question, "Where are we?" (A repeating theme throughout our trip).

We checked into our hostel (with private bathrooms and a lakeside view!!), strolled around town, had dinner, and took in some of the active Queenstown nightlife - even a cover band that I swear stole my old band's setlist. The town dwarfs all others in terms of its international tourist cachet, which we found a little off-putting after spending so much time in the quiet serenity of the rest of New Zealand. There are hordes of 18-22 Brits and Aussies and East Asians prowling the streets, drunk, immature, inconsiderate, and energized post-skydive, bungee jump, or whatever other high-adrenaline activity they dared (man, I sound old now...). Bottom line is, being centrally located in town, we got very poor sleep the next two nights. On the other hand, the food was great and we had some great meals including sushi, fish, and middle eastern.

The next morning we took the skyline gondola to the top of the nearby peak and did a few "luge" runs (an alpine slide), while trying to decide if we would try something more extreme (to be continued...).

We also walked around the garden park. We left Queenstown after two days, thankful for the city-comforts but ready to jump back into the less-disturbed wilderness of New Zealand.

permalink written by  bhkann on December 11, 2012 from Queenstown, New Zealand
from the travel blog: New Zealand, 2012
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