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Alex Kent

43 Blog Entries
1 Trip
41 Photos


On the Varieties of Nature

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Point Break

Fernhill, New Zealand

From the world of puzzles to the world of outdoor adventures by day and partying by night. Queenstown had been much hyped as most people's (travellers') favourite Kiwi town and I, not being a huge fan of the 'travelling for aprtying' school of thought, was prepared to be disappointed. Not at all. Queenstown's beautiful waterside setting, perched beneath rolling green hills and, more distantly, the moutnian range charmingly called 'The Remarkables' is fantastic - a sheltered harbour mirrors tree-lined beaches and the town buzzes with good shops, fun bars, travellers and locals high on adrenaline and life, and the best burger joint you could wish for. Fergburger, we salute you.

It simply wouldn't do to stay in Queenstown and not throw yourself off or out of something from a great high, and having been denied all ather skydiving opportunities to date by persistent bad weather, I was determined that now was my time. You can imagine my delight therefore, or perhaps you can't, when i awoke one morning to clear blue skies and sunshine and ran downstairs to the booking office to make arrangements. Alan was less delighted when I roused him from his hungover snoring to tell him that in 3 hours he would be throwing himself out of a plane at 12,000ft. Mark opted to do the Nevis bungee jump instead - from 134m giving 8.5 seconds of freefall - the appeal fo which I will never understand. Perhaps it is the sheer distance from the ground at the moment of the jump which makes the risk inconceivable, but for some reason it never for a second occurred to me to be afraid, while Alan was a nervous wreck, desperately trying to find someone else in our group who would empathise. We suited up in devilishly attractive all in one jump suits, goggles and leather flying cap and met our jump partners (instructors who are doing on average 10 jumps a day!) and walked out to our little plane with the obligatory fanged shark painted on its nose cone. Squeezed less gracefully than sardines into its tiny interior, Alan grimaced with every slight turbulance while I excitedly chatted to Scott, my instructor, as he strapped me to his harness. Admiring the gorgeous view, we quickly reached altitude and the pilot nodded his ok to the first party. Now this guy was a qualified solo jumper who had several hundred 'pleasure jumps' under his belt, and looked vastly underdressed in a hoodie and shorts, his tiny backpack chute barely big enough to hold a picnic and no comedy leather skull cap or goggles to his name. To Alan's absolute horror he flung open the door and unceremoniously hurled himself out, leaving a glaringly dramatic space where there had once been a person. Al, of course, was next! Shooting a final look of desperation in my direction and, I suspect, muttering a stream of expletives and blasphemies, he manoevered himself to the door ....

Last to jump, I lowered myself out of the plane door until I was dangling over the void, held in place only by my instructor still sitting on the rim, and had a few breathtaking seconds to take in the rush of air and the immediacy of the enormous view before we rocked forwards, my stomach flew to my mouth and quickly returned, and I was screaming with amazed excitement and pleasure, "Oh my god this is SOOO beautiful!" You are so far away from the ground that you have no real impression of falling as it doesn't appear ro get any closer, but the sheer speed of free fall buffets you like a giant wind machine and drowns out all other noise and, as if supported by the air rather than falling through it, I grinned for 45 seconds and marvelled at the scenery.

After what felt simultaneously like a spit-second and an eternity, my instructor tapped me on the shoulder and pulled the shoot, and just like that all noise was silenced. Gradually I became aware of the canopy billowing gently above me and as we glided (glid/glode?) our way earthwards Scott pointed out various features of the landscape and threw in a few dramatic spirals just for fun. As I picked out the finve canopies below me, the landing site came in to focus, the sound of birds drifted our way and the heat of the day enveloped me. All too soon we were landing, but did so in style, with both of us joggin got a standing halt, earning a round of applause from the other instructors. Awesome.

To be continued ....

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 13, 2007 from Fernhill, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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Fox Glacier (mint anyone?)

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Arriving amid more sheets of driving rain and clad in jeans and rain jackets, we huddled in our prospective tour operator's cafe and debated the appeal of trekking for several hours on a large block of ice in the pouring rain and chilly wind with shit visibility and another long drive ahead. Ultimately we decided we shoudl really man up and that we would probably regret it if we didn't go. How often do you get to walk on a glacier after all?

An excellent, excellent decision.

Luke, our guide, a caricature of the youthful ourdoorsy kiwi: flowing golden locks; matching golden tan; calves the size of tree trunks; leather walkabout hat sealed to his head; and boundless enthusiasm, kitted us out with leather boots and waterproof trousers and raved about the glacier when viewed in these conditions; the normally glaring sunlight which turns the ice a blinding white is absent, allowing the beautiful seams of denser ice to glow blue. the run-off, instead of being a small stream, was covering a massive area of the valley floor, adn the air resounded with the thunderour groans of huge blocks of ice being rolled along in its flow. An already enormous cave, never there under normal conditions, was growing on the face of the glacier, and an excitable Luke practically pranced with the anticipation of seeing massive sheets of ice fall from the cave ceiling to the river floor. meanwhile we trekked up hundreds of steps carved from the valley side through the rainforest adn scrambled over treacherous rocky crossings throgh torrents of water until we eventually emerged at the edge of the glacier and strapped on our crampons to begin the ascent. An immediate drop on the ambient temperature saw the whole group scrambling to remove waterproof layers and don warm ones without letting too much rain in, while we all practiced our stamping technique - essential if you didn't want to join once member of our party, on your arse at the bottom of a crevasse feeling pretty bloody silly. As we climbed up ot the top of the ice flow I couldn't help feeling rahter intrepid - a sensation massively hightened by the inclement weather which made everything slightly uncomfortable and challenging, and probably improved the experience. The gritty view through sheeting rain to ice, rocks and river as made more peculiar by its backdrop of luscious temperate forest, and without exception we were thrilled to be up there. By the time we started the trek back we were drenched, andwalking in captive puddles - the knackered leather boots doing a good impression of a one-way valve, but everyone was far too elated to care. Throwing caution to the wind we waded knee deep through the streams, and when one was deemed too dangerous to cross we diverted downhill and reverted to childhood as we scrambled down muddy banks, muscled through trees and bushes, and squelched along ankle deep bogs. Just as we emerged at the valley floor, muddy, soaked and very pleased wiht ourselves, an ENORMOUS chunk of ice peeled off the cave roof and crashed dramatically to the floor, splashing water metres into the air and sending Luke into raptures of delight.

Back in town we dried off, warmed up and wolfed down a much needed pub meal and decided to put more miles behind us on our journey south.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 12, 2007 from Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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Where Have All The People Gone?

Wanaka, New Zealand, New Zealand

Amdittedly it was already dark when we set off, but it wasn't particularly late, and we were driving down the main north-south highway on the south island, so it was with increasing disbelief that we eventually counted a total of 9 cars going in the opposite direction ... in over FOUR HOURS of driving!! That's New Zealand for you. To my continuing regret (it always makes me shudder) I managed to kill a possum out for an evening stroll, but luckily was able to safely avoid another and so, dazed and exhausted after a huge day of driving, trekking and more driving, we reached the Lakeside town of Wanaka at about midnight. Having been out of Mobile range for nigh on two days, we hadn't got around to pre-booking any accommodation which rapidly changed from an "Oh never mind" situation to an "Oh shit" one as we ricocheted from one "No vacancy" to another, via a couple of "F*** off it's midnights"s along the way. Eventually the boys found a hotel foyer with comfortable sofas and resolved to sleep there while I took the passenger seat of the car, but a short while after I had got comfortable they re-appeared having located the night manager and negotiated a triple room.

Wanaka had a lot of autumnal potential - a pretty tree-ringed lake backing on to more mountains, but the following morning dawned grey and drizzly so we pressed on to Stuart Landsborough's Puzzling World, where we spent a fun few hours negotiating mazes; marvelling at all sorts of brilliant optical illusions; and giving ourselves brain ache trying to solve myriad puzzles and games. It was all too much for Alan, who fell asleep in the cafe and started snoring. Comedy.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 12, 2007 from Wanaka, New Zealand, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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The Middle of Nowhere

Punakaiki, New Zealand

After our session on the water we started the huge drive down to Punakaiki, and while the boys dozed I enjoyed an idyllic drive through some of my favourite scenery from the trip - along the Owen River, which meanders its way through broad, flat flood plains fringed by beautiful banks of verdant willows and other trees, tumbling its wide, golden-clear waters over a shallow pebbly bed and sandy shores. A few homestay guesthouses along its course would have made a fabulous place to stop off and enjoy the area, but just to drive through with the company of my own thoughts and two silent passengers was an incredible lovely experience.

The scenery changed as we entered the Buller Gorge - striking rather than tranquil, but equally beautiful. Here turquiose waters pour through a dramatic forested valley, churning over rocks and creating dramatic flashes of contrasting colour as you drive along its course. We stopped to cross the hairy Buller Gorge Suspension Bridge and stretch our legs with a little stroll through the forest on the other side and then pressed on towards the coast.

When we arrived in Punakaiki the weather had closed in and the stormy grey sky, choppy sea and chilly, horizontal rain were more than anti-climactic. Then discovering that all shops and eateries in the vicinity were closed and the nearest supermarket a 50 minute drive away we nearly despaired, but we managed to cobble together a meal by buying up the entirety of the meagre offerings behind reception (along the lines of tuna, instant noodles, beans and an egg). The evening was utterly redeemed by our discovery of a fabulous hot-tub on the lawn where I soaked for an hour and a half, the cold wind and rain and the brooding sea view making the warmth and comfort even more enjoyable!

The following morning the weather was just as grim so we forsook a visit to the nearby 'Pancake Rocks' (I don't know ... if you go, let me know!) and, via breakfast in the impossibly uninspiring Greymouth, headed towards an afternoon trek on the Fox Glacier.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 11, 2007 from Punakaiki, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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Home Sweet Home

Nelson, New Zealand

From Wellington we caught the inter-island ferry into Picton and were blessed with a beautiful day, which not only made my first (and last) real impression of the capital city a good one, but made the entire crossing from the pillar box red tugs in the harbour to the grand beauty of Marlborough Sound as we entered the south island absolutely beautiful. New Zealand is full of 'sounds', particularly in the south western fjordland and unfortunately, due to our tight schedule, this was the only one we got to experience. Milford Sound, down in the fjordland, is the most famous and the treks around it are reckoned to be some of the world's most beautiful. Definitely one for the future. As it was, the glittering dark waters of the Marlborough meeting its dramatic plunging forested slopes gave me more than enought to gaze at in awe. Houses perched on tiny private beaches seemed dwarfed by the green mass towering above them - hills so steep and densely grown that in most cases not even an access road connected the houses to civilization - a boat being the only means of transport.

In Picton we bee-lined for a nearby rental company and very easily negotiated a great rate on another car for two weeks, opting for a manual this time which caused lots of initial confusion as we each took our turn at the wheel! Plunging straight back in to the twisting turns of another coastal road, we headed for Nelson, which our Auckland hosts had recommended, and enjoyed more staggering scenery along the way.

[Note - I am aware that superlatives and hyper-enthusiastic adjectives may start to sound tediously formulaic, but it is impossible to witness the landscape of New Zealand without marvelling, constantly. At every turn, particularly on the south island, are vistas of incredible beauty, grandeur and remoteness. It is as if someone had been given a model countryside set and has picked all the best mountains and forests, beaches and rivers and indulgently pieced them all together in one little corner of the globe, utterly forgetting to add people to the mix.]

So, to Nelson, a sweet little town with a pleasantly bustling atmosphere, and home to my favourite hostel from my time in New Zealand. At 'Accents on the Park' you feel rather as if you are staying in someone's home with a smart, clean but very homely feel to the living room, landings and bedrooms; warm, well-lit, comfortable bathrooms; and downstairs the most wonderful bar. When I walked in, the REAL, LIVE Christmas tree, the English country pub feel, and the casual local atmosphere immediately choked me with a wonderfully sentimental nostalgia. Gerry, a one-time Bristolian, served up delicious wallet-friendly food and a cider, and all three of us were very happy. If you go to Nelson, stay there.

At the local pool, where we had been drawn by a craving for exercise, a characteristically friendly Kiwi turned our goggle-buying mission into a bubbly but surreal 10-minute chat, and we exhausted ourselves doing some lengths. The sun even came out for our walk home! Finally we had shaken off the north island blues.

The next day we drove west to the Abel Tasman National Park - an absolute dream of remote, driftwood strewn beaches and gloriously green rainforest. We arrived too late to do our intended kayak up the coast and walk back, but instead opted to take one of the coastal paths through the park for a few hours and get a water taxi back. It is a stunning place. The following day we returned to give some kayaking a go, and visited the impressively incongruous 'split-apple rock' and a few pretty coves around Marahau. Abel Tasman is another place that merits a few days trekking and camping, and there were some great beach-side cabins which can be reserved in advance and really tempted me to return one day and do it thoroughly.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 9, 2007 from Nelson, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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Wellington, New Zealand

Due to the boys having rather stringent requirements about where they spend their weekends - basically demanding a large settlement well populated by females, beer and dancing venues, we spent a couple of days here but shamefully I have little to report. After a month of fairly non-stop travelling I decided to treat myself to a short while of nothingness and consequently over-indulged on our first night, slept a lot, and saw very little of New Zealand's capital city. The hostel, however, was definitely noneworthy - a huge YHA, it was more like a Travelodge that a hostel and probably somewhat characterless, but absolutely spotless, and the communal kitchen was worthy of a professional chef. I couldn't stop marvelling at the 'salon professional' hairdryers in the bathrooms, and at the electronic key-cards which automatically locked you out of your room after 10am if you hadn't paid the next night's fee!

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 7, 2007 from Wellington, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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Come Again Another Day

Taupo, New Zealand

It was still raining when we reached Taupo, which ruled out our sky dive hopes.

Besides a satisfyingly torrential waterfall in the same beautiful turquoise of my Guatemalan favourite, Semuc Champey, there was nothing more to see.

I mean to do central north island New Zealand no disservice, but it wasn't gripping us. Plus, having seen the waterfall we were drenched to the skin as the sky mercilessly bucketed down everything it had.

We left.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 6, 2007 from Taupo, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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Rain, Rain Go Away

Rotorua, New Zealand

The guidebook made a flippant aside about the smell lingering over this volcanic vent of a town. We laughed it off.

Then we arrived and took it a little more seriously.

Quite why anyone would choose to live in a town that smells perpetually of eggy farts is beyond me. Perhaps it's the proximity to pools of bubbling clay-ey sulphuric mud. Perhaps not.

Anyway, besides the smell Rotorua offers a wealth of outdoor activities from the standard - white water rafting, to the bizarre - mud bathing for instance. We were tempted by the zorbing (strap yourself into a huge inflatable sphere and roll down a hill) ... until we saw the hill, all gently descending 20 metres of it, and decided that it really wasnt worth paying over ₤1 a second for.

Plus it was raining.

So we left.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 5, 2007 from Rotorua, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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I Gotta Get Me a Beach House

Coromandel, New Zealand

Well rested, well fed, and with the amazingly generous offer of the use of their beach house on the Coromandel Peninsular, we parted company with our hosts, and with Auckland, and headed east. After a couple of days' driving around we thought we had begun to get used to New Zealand roads, but nothing could prepare us for the coastal route along the peninsular through Coromandel Town, where we stopped for lunch and a wander around, and on over the headland to Matarangi. Seemingly 50% of the bends had 25kmh advisory speed limits, and often even that was optimisitic. So we twisted and turned our way along glorious white beaches, sapphire waters and awe-inspiring native forests and blessed the automatic gearbox in our hire car. Some of the views afforded out over the islands off the Coromandel bay were staggering - I fell in love with the peninsular immediately.

Once at Matarangi we made ourselves at home for a few days while we explored the local sights - the stunning white arches and stacks of Cathedral Cove; the bizarre subterranean volcanic springs at 'Hot Water Beach'; the bustling little town of Whitianga. It was a few days of absolute bliss - long dawn walks along the beach, cup of tea in hand; delicious barbeques and relaxed outdoor suppers; boozy Monopoly marathons; clear Mediterranean light; clean, broad beaches and green inpenetrable hills. I would love to have stayed longer and walked myself into a deep sleep every day but, as ever, the clock was ticking.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 3, 2007 from Coromandel, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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Too Much to See, Too Little Time

Omapere, New Zealand

From the Bay of Islands we drove a north-western loop round to the beautiful scenery of the west coast and stopped for a scrumptious fish burger from a cafe that didn't sell any soft drinks as they were available at the service station next door - what a wonderfully community-minded business plan! Munching it down in the beautiful environs of Omepere, I suffered once again the biggest frustration of travelling - the more you see, the more you realise there is to be seen. Here, green wooded slopes sweep down to a vivid blue inlet which is backed against huge slopes of Golden sand - apparently a favourite spot for sandboarding, where you hurtle down the slopes and in to the water (amazing!), but unfortunately we didn't have the time to stop and give it a go. Continuing cross country to rejoin Highway 1 for our journey back to Auckland, we drove through endless remote little homesteads set in stunning surroundings and marvelled, not for the last time, at how unpopulated New Zealand is.

Back in Auckland our returned hosts whipped up a fabulous meal, reminding all three of us how much we missed home cooking, and spent the evening entertaining us with stories of their travels and giving us hints and tips for our onward journey.

permalink written by  Alex Kent on December 2, 2007 from Omapere, New Zealand
from the travel blog: On the Varieties of Nature
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