The Last Hurrah! (Dunedin to CHC)

Waking up before the sun, Greg and I stepped out under the milky way and loaded up the car to the sounds of the pounding surf before driving the 30 minutes to the Dunedin airport (which is in Dunedin only in spirit). After dropping my bag and surveying the small airport, Greg and I had one final coffee before I went through security and he settled down with a book to wait for his dad’s arrival on a later flight. I walked through security and was on the plane before noticing that this may have been my first purely domestic flight I’ve taken outside of the US, and in New Zealand they do not check your ID before letting on the plane. After an entertaining safety video and a short (bumpy) flight, I texted my friend Graeme and waited outside of the Wellington airport for him to pull up in his new STI. We took the long route to his office to see Wellington, and after getting situated and given a Google Maps printout, I headed out to explore the city, taking the cable car up to the top of the city and hiking through the botanical gardens. After riding down, the weather took a turn for the worse, so I headed to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand (Wellington is the capitol). After a few hours learning about the natural wildlife that lives in NZ and the surrounding waters, and all about the fault-lines that I felt during the small (4.1) earthquake in Dunedin, I trekked through the capitol buildings to meet with Graeme for lunch and give a short talk to him and his co-workers about my research. Heading to Graeme’s place where he kindly put me up in his daughter’s room (who was away for the weekend, andĀ very into One Direction) we headed out for dinner and to experience the nightlife in the city.

After a night surrounded by posters of pop-idols, Graeme handed me a spare set of keys and took off for a weekend away, leaving me to explore on foot until another friend met me for breakfast on the coast. He then drove me to meet with some folks who were mountain biking for the day at the Makara bike park. After an hour of climbing, we finally reached the top and were rewarded with a wonderful 360 degree view of the Wellington area, then we hopped on the bikes and tore down in less than 20 minutes. I was deposited back at Graeme’s covered in mud and in dire need of a shower.

Awakening early, I left the shire of One Direction and took an early cab through the city to the ferry terminal where I deposited by bag and grabbed a meager breakfast at the only place open at 7AM on a Sunday, McDs. In NZ, they make espresso drinks and serve more “classy” fare, so I settled for a mocha and some raisin-bread toast. Whilst walking back to the ferry, I started chatting with another ferry passenger who happened to be going to Nelson and was happy to offer a ride! I boarded the ferry happy in my knowledge that I had hitched a ride before I even had left the north island. A gray and windy 3 hours passed quickly as I demolished the book “Ready Player One” by E. Cline and dozed. At the Picton terminal, I grabbed my bag and loaded into my ride as we took the norther route to Nelson that curved right along the sea. Arriving in Nelson a few hours later (and swapping many vegan recipes), I thanked him and checked-in to the hostel before exploring Nelson (not terribly interesting on a Sunday evening). Deciding to be social, I ordered take-out and bought a cheap bottle of Nelson wine to share in the hostel’s dining room where we traded stories and tips about traveling around NZ.

Another early morning was in store for me as I awoke and packed up, preparing for a hike, sail and sea-kayak, when the shuttle dropped me off at Abel Tasman National Park, I was informed that the sailing was a no-go, and I was upgraded for free for a whole-day’s worth of sea-kayaking through the marine reserve. Climbing up into a water taxi that was loaded double-decker with kayaks, I got to know my bowman, Bradley, a fellow American spending three months in NZ as part of his gap year before returning to the US for university. We were dropped (6 of us and 1 guide) on a pristine white-sand beach separating the deep green bush from the turquoise-blue sea. After a few quick safety instructions, we were underway, paddling from bay to bay, kayaking alongside sea lions and other marine wildlife as our guide explained some interesting details about Abel Tasman. Coming in to beach the kayaks for lunch, we floated over giant stingrays and skates, eerily gliding along the bottom. The guide explained that had Steve Irwin been wearing sunscreen when he had gotten stuck, he would have been safe, as it would have protected him the harmful rays (ba dum dish!). A beach lunch and some cave and waterfalls held my interest while some of our group laced up and started trekking overland. We saddled up and headed out to explore more bays, bluffs and islands, before eventually reaching the end of our trip and took a short water taxi back to the landing.

After a shower and a shave, I went out in search of a meal befitting my amazing day and one of my last nights in NZ. I found just that at a place down the road called Hopgood’s where the food was fresh, the wine local and the service friendly. Exhausted, I returned to the hostel for some well-deserved rest.

Sleeping in a bit later than the last few days was very pleasant, then I walked over to the bus stop to catch the bus to Christchurch via Blenheim. A very lovely, but windy bus ride it was, but I was soon checked in to my room in Christchurch and off exploring, seeing the cardboard cathedral and some of the construction that was still happening in the aftermath of the earthquake a few years before.

My final morning, I got up, went for a short run around the city to stretch my legs before packing my things and shuttling to the airport, my trip finally complete. Still many hours of flying and transiting across the globe ahead, I hope to return to this beautiful country again soon.

From Mordor to Scotland (Queenstown to Dunedin)

Waking up to our final morning in Queenstown, Greg and I met with Jose for a coffee down on the waterfront before heading back to Arrowtown Bikes to run a few errands and chat with Matt before driving to Alexandria for a fish burger break before finishing the trip to Dunedin. On the way out of Queenstown, we stopped at the first commercial bungee jumping operation in NZ and watched a few brave souls jump 140′ ending in a small splash as their head got submerged in the icy river. Watching the countryside change as it moved from a rocky, dryer climate to more rolling hills and green pastures announced our arrival to Dunedin. Getting cleaned up briefly and scalding my mouth (again) on some pumpkin soup before zipping downtown to watch a Maori dance show. The show was a mix of traditional (Haka) and more modern Maori-inspired twists on contemporary songs. After our dose of culture and sophistication, we strolled across the octagon to grab a local micro-brew before tucking in for the night.

After dropping the clothes into the laundry for a much needed wash, we strolled down the hill to the Dunedin beach taking in the surf and sand before a breakfast overlooking the see. Sufficiently sated, we hung up the clothes and headed out to the peninsula to attempt (unsuccessfully) spy some penguins, instead settling for some seals napping on the rocks. A winding drive back to Greg’s we grabbed some take-out Thai and sat eating it enjoying the sunset over Dunedin before an early night in before my morning flight to Wellington.

South Island Adventuring (Wanaka to Queenstown)

Waking up and grabbing another venison pie in Wanaka started the morning off right. Returning to camp, we took down the tent and got packed up before heading to Mt. Iron, where most of the group went climbing again, but Greg and I did a hike up to the summit for a few goofy pictures and breath-taking 360 degree panoramas. Once back to the car, we bid farewell to our new-found climbing friends and hit the road, taking the Crown Range road over to Queenstown, a gorgeous city on the shores of a massive glacial lake. Meeting some of Greg’s friends in town, we took off to Glenorchy to see the far side of the lake and where many scenes from Lord of the Rings was shot. Back in town, a nice dinner by the water before returning to Jose’s place to sleep.

After a relaxing morning, I got the bad news that due to high winds and clouds, the flight I had booked to Milford Sound had been canceled, so I tagged along with Greg on a few social visits and got to see more of the town before getting a flight on a different airline for a Milford scenic flight. Settling into a small Cessna, we took to the sky, watching Queenstown shrink below us, and headed towards the mountains capped in ice and snow. After a breathtaking half-hour of dodging mountains and seeing waterfalls and lakes from above, we arrived and descended into Milford Sound with our cameras at the ready. Milford sounds is a fjord cutting to the see, with depths of over 1000′ and mountains rising to a mile above the water. A striking view surrounded by swirling clouds and dappled sunlight. After circling a few more times, we headed back via a more southern route towards Te Anu lake before descending back to Queenstown.

Meeting Greg at the airport, we headed to nearby Arrowtown for a drink and some excellent ice cream from Patagonia, before driving the “road” to Skipper’s Canyon. Road is in quotes because it is more of a narrow track carved into the side of the cliffs and in some places through the rocks. Eventually reaching a spot where the car couldn’t go any further, we set out on foot to enjoy the views of the sunset and the plunging canyon walls before returning to Queenstown for a night in.

Waking up to wet and gray skies, we decided to catch up on some work and run some errands in town before Greg and I hiked up Queenstown Hill, stopping in the Basket of Dreams to soak in the views. From there we quickly stopped back to change into mountain biking attire and headed for Arrowtown to ride Coronet Peak to Bush Creek with Matt, the owner of Arrowtown Bikes. After driving to the top of the ski hill, we pushed the bikes through the snow for about 30 minutes before Matt and Greg started riding down some seriously steep and exposed terrain in the drizzle while I walked down to a section of trail I could actually ride. Once we made it down to the ridge above Arrowtown, we hit some single-track that I felt comfortable to really let go and soon was hooting and hollering down the trail zipping overĀ fields, through the trees and splashing across the creek. After 50 minutes of adrenaline, we ended up emerging in Arrowtown center and biked to Matt’s to change and warm up.

New Zealand Ho! (CHC -> Wanaka)

Greetings from Queenstown! I’ve finally had a moment to relax and reflect after what has been thus far a chock-full time in NZ and have been having a blast! After flying into Christchurch via Singapore (excellent airport and Singapore Air is top-notch!), I emerged from my travels to clear blue skies and a crisp spring breeze. After about 10 minutes beside highway 1 with my thumb out, an old car pulls up and conveniently is going to my goal, Dunedin. 4-5 hours later we pull around and into the grey, stormy weather that is typical for Dunedin (settled by the Scots, it must have reminded them of home). Dunedin was designed with the same layout as Edinburgh, but the architects didn’t account for hills, so some streets reminded me of San Francisco. After a quick bite to eat, my buddy Greg (from Machermo in Nepal) loaded up his Subaru Legacy with climbing gear, camping equipment and mountain bikes and headed for Wanaka.

Pitching our tent in the dark at a riverside campground in Wanaka I immediately fell asleep when I finished zipping up my sleeping bag. Greg and I awoke the next morning ravenous, so we headed into town for some snacks at the grocery store and a venison pie on the the shores of the beautiful Lake Wanaka. Getting back with the group at the campsite, we drove a short distance past snow-capped peaks and green rolling hills to Hospital Flats, a gorgeous climbing area where we promptly roped up and climbed for the day. There was a significant spectrum of skills in the group, but there were routes for everyone. I didn’t climb my best, as I was getting used to the new rating system and the extremely sharp rocks, but had a great time.

Returning to Wanaka for dinner, Greg, Martin and I sat out overlooking the lake and a few sailboats coming back into the marina while eating fresh seafood before returning to the tent and getting some sleep.


Japanese Typhoon of a Trip!

Hello avid readers!

I am writing to you from my hotel room in Tokyo on the eve of my departure from this foreign land, but I wanted to take some time to capture my experiences to both remind myself of my journey, and to hopefully provide some insights for you on what to see, what to miss, and how to survive.

After a tiring, and long flight to Tokyo (NRT) via Calgary, I immediately hopped on the next Narita Express using my newly-exchanged JR pass bound for Shinjuku, which claims to be the busiest train station in the world (I believe it!). After grabbing a quick triangle of rice from a convenience store at the station and fiddling with the wrapping (tip: pull tab #1 ALL THE WAY until it comes off), I changed trains for a limited express to Matsumoto, a more rural city that I planned to use as my base of operations and a jumping-off point for the Chuo (central) alps. In Matsumoto, a short stroll with my gear brought me to Matsumoto Backpackers, a small hostel run by an Irish gent and his wife, who not only provided a roof over my head (for a reasonable fee), but also travel advice and companionship during my time in the city.

After a good night sleep (after my 24 hours of travel, I would have had a good night sleep on a rock), I headed out to scope out the town, and catch a glimpse of the Matsumoto castle, a gorgeous old fort from the 1500s. I happened to be in town for a local festival, so the main street was lined with parade floats, which instead of moving down the road as part of a parade, were parked in a line the entire day, with people walking from one to the next and praying.

After more rice triangles for breakfast (the filling is always a surprise if you can’t read Japanese!), I took the bus to a road into the local foothills that is closed to auto traffic and hiked the 6km to a lake at the top of the mountain, returning through Awsama, I took a dip in a relaxing Onsen then took a bus back to my hostel. After a (not so very) brief nap, Brian (the hotel owner) and I headed into town for a night of food-stall food and fireworks.

After a less deep night sleep, I returned to Matsumoto Castle for a tour of the grounds and inside, be warned, the stairs in this castle are STEEP, and you will be wearing socks on the slippery wood flooring. Learning about ancient Warring States Japanese history complete, I headed for the train station and took the hilariously slow local train to Komagane and bused to the HI Hostel there.

Early the next morning, a long windy bus, filled to the gills with Japanese tourists (I was the only westerner I saw all day) to the base of the rope-way. My slot on the cable car was about 45 minutes from my arrival at the station, so I hiked around behind the station and found a beautiful waterfall and generally enjoyed the fall foliage.

Finally, it was time to queue up in a polite and orderly fashion and cram into the car for a scenic trip up to about 2,600m, making it the highest cable-car in Japan. A steep but pleasant hike followed to reach the highest peak in the Chuo Alps, and a lovely view was enjoyed by myself and the 100s of other Japanese hikers there as well. The air was very stinky and a cloud of ash was visible from the volcanic eruption that happened not too far off.

More hiking and pictures followed by the return cable car and bus journey, then a train to Osaka, part of which was via bullet train. In Osaka, I went to see the “Vegas of Japan” with swanky clubs and neon lights, but instead opted for a stop at a bar owned by a Boulderite and some English speech for a change. In Osaka, there are two local specialties: takoyaki and box sushi, neither of which I liked. Takoyaki is an octopus dumpling which was too doughy for my tastes, and the box sushi is pressed into a brick before being sliced, leaving the rice a bit on the mushy side.

The next morning I got up early to explore Osaka, took the metro to the Osaka castle (not worth the entrance fee, just walk around the grounds) and explored before heading to the Osaka Aquarium, one of the largest in the world. As it was a gray day due to the typhoon, this was a perfect day to spend the afternoon, along with the rest of Osaka that had the same idea. Seeing seals, otters dolphins and even a 1,000kg whale shark was pretty cool and a good way to learn and stay dry. A short bullet train ride from Osaka left me in Kyoto, where I had a nice bowl of ramen, and hit the hay early.

The following morning was the peak of the typhoon activity in Kyoto, it rained and was windy for about an hour before clearing into a wonderful day. I got my bus pass and ventured to Gion to explore historic temples, shrines and stopped at Hachidaime Gihei, a popular restaurant that specializes in the selection and proper (traditional) preparation of rice. While I wasn’t able to detect a magical difference in the rice, the food was nonetheless tasty, so refreshed I headed for downtown Kyoto and kept trekking.

The following morning, I arose early and headed straight for the Inari temple, in hopes of beating the crowds. As luck would have it, getting there at 6:30am was the perfect time to have the shrine to myself. The Inari temple is one of the most sacred in all of Japan, and is home to 1000s of toriis, or wooden arches. A lengthy trek up Mt. Inari was very enjoyable in the cool of morning, and the quiet as I walked deeper into the forest was a nice change of pace.

From there a two hour bullet train took me to the big city, Tokyo, where I tried to wrap my head around the subway system with its multiple competing providers and tangle of lines and stations. Eventually finding my hotel, I dumped my luggage and walked to the fish market area for a sushi lunch. Returning to my hotel for a long shower and nap, I took the subway to see the crowds at Shibuya (busiest cross-walk in the world) and Shinjuku.

That all brings me to today, in which I awoke, had a conveyor belt sushi breakfast and headed to Shinjuku via Ginza to head up the to the 45th floor observation deck of the Tokyo Metro Office Building (city hall). Seeing a large park sticking out like a sore thumb in the urban landscape home to some 35 million people, I headed for Yoygi park and escaped into the quiet sounds of the forest until arriving at a shrine for a beloved emperor. Returning back to the observation deck to catch a glimpse of the lunar eclipse, I hopped a subway to Roppongi to see the “rowdy” nightlife in an otherwise polite country (I’ve heard a car horn twice during this trip).

Now I my wrap up my post and hit the sack for an early morning watching the tuna auctions before flying to Christchurch tomorrow mid-morning.