Archive for the 'Travel' Category

New Zealand - Day 15 SEALS!! and wine

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 22nd, 2013

Our morning activity was to be seal-swimming up in Kaikoura. We had talked to the tour-guides the day before and they said they weren’t sure what conditions were going to be like so we should call around 8:30am to check. Of course, getting to Kaikoura required us to leave Christchurch at 6:30am, so we were going to show up no matter the conditions. We actually had some good driving conditions on the way up, as it was early enough that a majority of the trucks and camper vans were off the road, and since we were on Highway 1 (the biggest road in NZ) there were lots of passing lanes for us to get around the few slow vehicles we did encounter (like almost every other road in NZ, SH1 is one lane in either direction, so passing without an extra lane can be interesting).

Got into town a bit before 9am and checked-in at the seal swim office. It is a brother/sister run company and the sister was a bit pessimistic about our chance to see seals (due to the stormy weather that was potentially blowing in), but the brother who was going to be taking us out felt better about it. The excursion was not fully booked, only us and a German couple who were traveling with their mother(-in-law). The five of us got into our wetsuits and were fitted for masks and fins. We also had our waterproof case for our small camera and we set about getting that setup only to discover that we couldn’t actually fit the camera into the case. It was an older model camera with a new model case, but according to the website it was supposed to work. Nothing we could do about it, though, so we had no way to take photos in the water.

The first spot along the reef we stopped there was a single seal our splashing about, but by the time we were all over the side and into the water, it had decided we were too much bother and moved on. Back into the boat and we cruised down around the next bend in the reef to a bit of the bay that was more sheltered. There were a bunch of seals sunning themselves up on the rocks and we spotted one or two in the water. We all slipped over the edge of the boat and started moving towards the seals. The rules of swimming with the seals were pretty easy. Don’t touch the seals. Don’t swim directly toward the seals. Don’t make yourself taller than the seals (this is interpreted as a challenge and might lead to the seal kicking your ass). As the approached the seals, they evidently decided that we looked like a good time, so the next forty minutes were spent swimming around the protected area of the reef with the seals.

Seals are way more agile than humans could ever hope to be in the water, so you will only ever get as close to the seal as it wants you to get. And these guys were happy to get very close. I got stare into the (enormous) eyes of a seal from less than 6 inches a way. One of the younger/smaller ones delighted in playing chicken with me, so it would swim right at me until I flinched and then shoot away, probably laughing at me in its own seal way. They were also playing with each other and occasionally leaping out of the water right in front of us. The ocean here was no more than 10 feet deep and the bottom was covered in a luscious kelp forest filled with fish of all sizes, so even when the seals were busy elsewhere, there was lots to look at. It was fantastic.

I was the first one out of the water, because my poor circulation in my hands, combined with the lack of gloves, and the cold ocean water meant that I had started to lose feeling in my fingers. But this meant that I was able to snatch the camera out of the dry bag and shoot a couple shots of Beth out in the water with the seals. As the rest of the group swam back to the boat, the seals followed, evidently trying to encourage us to stay. Once everyone had gotten on the board, the seals decided we were no longer interesting and swam off to do their seal things. Back to the company offices where we had hot showers and then we were off to continue our journey.

The next stop was to be up in Blenheim and Renwick, the heart of Marlborough wine country, probably the most famous of the NZ wine regions. We had a map of the wineries we had printed off the official region website, but it proved to be 2 years out of date. The first two wineries we had picked to visit, both of which claimed to be open at 10am were in fact firmly shut when we arrived. We were a bit confused, so we just turned into the next winery that we saw that had an open sign, which was Giesen, even though it was not on our map at all. This proved fortuitous because even though their wine wasn’t that good, they had a copy of the 2013 winery map. Now why they never bothered to update the one on the website, I do not know, but this would prove to be a recurring pattern. Armed with our new map we proceeded to hit up Nautilus Estate and Wairau River in quick succession, though we were not particularly impressed with either. Every winery in this reason seemed concerned with making Pinot Noirs, but the style of Pinots they were making were not really not my taste.

After three wineries we were feeling somewhat disappointed, but them we stopped at Forrest. This was another mad scientist winery, similar to our experience up in Nelson, where the wine-maker made whatever he felt like with little regard to the conventions of the region. Their default tasting cost a few bucks and allowed you to choose 5 wines, but when you stick a list of 18 or so diverse and intriguing wines in front of me, I’m going to want to taste more than that. We ended up with a really good guy behind the counter guiding our tasting and as we talked with him about what we liked and didn’t, he kept pouring more and more wine for us. It all worked out in the end because we left with 4 bottles of wine, including their Chenin Blanc and at least one of their desert wines. One of our favorite wine stops on the whole trip.

Next was Gibson Bridge, which was the Pinot Gris ’specialist’ of the region ,which seemed to mean that they made a multitude of mediocre Pinot Gris. We had had far better interpretations of that grape down in Central Ortago and their tiny tasting room got pretty crowded as more people kept showing up, so we fled as soon as we were able. The last two stops were two of the bigger wineries in the area, Cloudy Bay and Drylands. Cloudy Bay was pretty nice and I think we ended up with a bottle of something there (we currently have more than 2 cases of wine going, so without pulling out all the bottles to look at them, it is hard to remember what we’ve got), but Drylands was pretty disappointing. It was still before 5pm, so we tried to hit Saint Clair and Allan Scott, which both technically closed at 5, but both places turned us away. We were not pleased, but decided that their wine most likely sucked anyway.

Post wine-tasting we checked into the backpackers we were staying at (in Renwick) and then drove down into Blenheim for dinner. We got some decent Thai food and then since it was St. Patrick’s Day, we walked down the street to the local Irish pub and had a beer for traditions sake. Or at least, I had an Irish beer for traditions sake and Beth had a local IPA because she wanted something hoppy. There was some fun live music so we stuck around for a little while longer before walking back to the car and driving back to Renwick to end our night. Once again, surprisingly enough, we had to be up early.

New Zealand - Day 14 Yet More Wine and Christchurch

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 22nd, 2013

Morning came soon enough and we were once again on the road early. We had an afternoon wine tour booked in Christchuch and Beth wanted to hit a couple other wineries on the way up. I made a counter-suggestion. The Black Estate winery that belonged to Jo, whom we had met on the Routeborn trail, was less than an hour north of Christchurch, so rather then spend our time tasting south of the city, we could go north and checkout her place. It meant a decent chunk more driving, but I figured it would be fun to check out a place we had a personal connection to (and this was our only real chance to get up there). Beth was not amused. Alterations to the plan did not fall into the realm of things that she was willing to countenance this early in the morning (it helps to remember that when she went to Disney with her parents, she made a minute-by-minute schedule to ensure that MAXIMUM FUN was achieved. I’m still stunned that she doesn’t have any German heritage given her love of schedules). It is a sign of her great love for me that I am still alive and as we approached Christchurch after 2 hours of driving she was actually considering the deviation.

We did stop at the first winery south of Christchurch that she had on the schedule, Melton Estate. Their wine was, to put it nicely, shit. It started with a sparkling pink riesling which was a hideous as any American white zinfandel you’d find at a sorority party. The rest of their wines were not as vomit-inducing, but ugh. Furthermore the woman doing the tasting poured us all 6 wines and then vanished into the back never to return. We were the only people there so we finished our tasting and looked around rather bemusedly, before settling on the plan of running away before she returned. We made an attempt to find the second winery on Beth’s list, but it did not appear to exist any more. At this point, Beth threw up her hands and agreed to go to Black Estate. We were hoping there would be a couple other wineries up there we could hit before retracing our steps back down to Christchurch for our guided tour. Something funny happened, though. Black Estate turned out to be up in the Waipara Valley, which was also where the wineries we were going to visit on the tour were. We were confused as to what we were going to do now. It seemed silly to drive all the way back to Christchurch just to drive back up on the tour bus, but we had already paid for the tour so we weren’t sure if we wanted to eat the cost.

While we deliberated, we visited Black Estate for some wine (it was Beth’s day to drink). They were a small winery (obviously family-owned, since we had met the owner) and we got a really nice tour from Tim, who told us a lot about their wine-making process and future plans (including their new plantings of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc which should start yielding in a couple years). They only had three wines to taste that day and we also ordered some local hand-made truffles (chocolate and caramel/sea-salt). The wines were good, but nothing that we loved enough to buy. But we did hangout for a while enjoying the view from their terrace. The young lady who worked at the tasting counter had an amazing suggestion for us; rather than driving back down to Christchuch, we could just meet the wine tour at the first vineyard. We called the tour company and they said that would be fine. So now we could keep tasting until 2:15 instead of having to drive back to town. Success!!

We checked the list of vineyards the tour was supposed to visit, so we could avoid those, so our next stop was Greystone. They were actually two wineries, since they had just bought Muddy Waters, an all organic vineyard down the road, and we tasted a chunk of their wines, but once again nothing really stood out to us (?). As we were talking about the vineyards, the woman running the tasting mentioned that former owner/wine-maker of Muddy Waters had sold it to concentrate on brewing beer and ran the Brew Moon brewpub a few kilometers down the road. We had noted it on the way in and decided that after this recommendation, we needed to make it there. There were two more small wineries we hit on the way down, Fiddler’s Grove and Terrace Edge. Again, the wine was fine, but nothing that really blew us away. Lunch was sandwiches in the car (Gibbston cheese, tomato, and avocado). It was Beth’s day of tasting and she was starting to get a little woozy at this point, but there was MORE TO TASTE. There was just time to squeeze in the brewery before meeting our tour, so we drove five minutes back to the south and pulled into Brew Moon. They had four standard brews (a pale, an IPA, a brown, and a stout) plus a chili-infused seasonal beer. My favorite was the brown, which was incredibly malty and not too hoppy: just great flavor from start to finish. Beth liked the brown, the stout, and really enjoyed the chili beer. We picked up a bottle of the brown for later, despite the best efforts of the bartender to sell us a 2 liter growler (too much beer!).

It was about a ten minute drive back up to Waipara Springs Winery, where we were to meet the rest of our tour group. By 2:30pm, they still hadn’t arrived so we conferred with the lady behind the counter who confirmed our group was booked and offered to start our tasting. We aren’t ones to turn down wine, so we started the tasting. Just around 2:45pm, as we were finishing our tasting, the rest of our group showed up. We were not impressed. The rest of the group was an older couple from the UK who said nothing and a couple from Australia who said way too much. Think of your stereotypical over-loud American overseas and then make them more oblivious and you’ve got your typical Aussie traveler (I have met some lovely Australians in the American national parks, so they’re not all like that). Our tour guide was a disinterested Kiwi who seemed more concerned with chatting with his buddies running other tours than talking to us about wine. In addition to their tasting, the group was schedule to have lunch at Waipara Springs. I insisted we stay for a bit and try to socialize with the group, but I soon came around to Beth’s point-of-view that this sucked (and we were missing out on valuable tasting time watching other people eat). So Beth had a quiet chat with the tour-guide and ended-up with tasting vouchers for the places we were supposed to go and we set out on our own. Free again!

Unfortunately, the company had changed their list of wineries, so Greystone was on the list and Torlesse was off. First stop was going to be Torlesse then. I remembered this place fondly from my last visit to the area, but I wasn’t as impressed this time. We did pick up a bottle of the Sangiovese Rose, since it was definitely different for NZ and on-sale, but that was for drinking here, not bringing back. After that we figured we’d hit the two remaining wineries on the tour (also the two largest wineries in the area). Mud House was first and though we tasted quite a few of their wines (multiple Riesling and Gerwurtz, as well as some of their Pinots) we were pretty unimpressed. The rest of our tour arrived as we were on our way out and we were once again thankful we weren’t with them. Last winery of the day was Pegasus Bay. We tasted their basic range and except for a delightful Sauv Blanc/Sémillon nothing was too impressive. They also had some of their reserve range for tasting and this went a bit better. We liked a variety of these wines and settled on getting bottles of their Bel Canto Dry Riesling and their Encore Late Harvest Riesling (from one end of the sugar scale to the other). We also met a father and sun from Southern Jersey who were out in NZ for a couple weeks fishing, so we chatted with them a bit. Our tour group showed up, did their tasting, and left all in the time that we were tasting and talking. We finished up our purchases a smidge after 5pm and then it was back in the car for the drive back down to Christchurch. Even though they had left ten minutes before us, we caught and passed the tour van, so in every possible way we won.

Beth, meanwhile, was very happy from all the beer and wine, so she curled up and took a nap on the drive back. I woke her up as we approached Christchurch and we found the apartment we were renting a room in with only some minimal difficulty (I might have driven right past it and had to go around the block). Our hosts were Tim and Aoife (?), a NZ couple who had lived in New York for a couple years (we had found the place on AirBNB) but were back in NZ now. We brought all our stuff in and chatted with our hosts a little. They recommended the same place that Jo had recommended for dinner—a place called Smash Palace. It had started in the aftermath of the earthquake as a kind of protest against how long the rebuilding was taking. It was a bus, ruined by the quake, that they put up on blocks, gutted, and turned into a street restaurant. Since that time it has evolved, adding another broken bus as indoor seating and a large number of outdoor tables complete with gas heaters for warmth.

It was a bit of walk to get from where we were staying to the restaurant and our path took us right through the heart of the ruined Central Business District. Despite several years of rebuilding the center of Christchurch is still a wreck. It had only been a week or so before that Gloucester Street had reopened which had finally provided a path through the middle of the CBD (previously you had to walk all the way around it, essentially cutting the city in half). On one hand, it was stunning how much was yet to be rebuilt (and there were huge sections that were blocked off that still needed to be demolished before being rebuilt) given that it was years. On the other hand, considering that almost 90% of the center of the city needed to be repaired or rebuilt after the quakes, it was pretty amazing how much still existed radiating out around the ‘red zone’. The ruins themselves were pretty striking. Some buildings were completely gone, with only a facade remaining. The big cathedral was mostly rebuilt, but the stain glass was all blown out and the rear of the church was still covered in massive supports to keep it from collapsing. There were a couple blocks that looked almost normal, but were fenced off as structurally unsafe until they could be demolished.

Smash Palace was awesome. It reminded me a lot of The Lot in NYC, from that one summer when it existed under the north end of the High Line. It took up most of a street corner in a space enclosed by tall piles of plastic packing crates. In the center of the space was a gutted bus that was now a full bar, complete with taps and friendly NZ bartenders. The kitchen was in a small shed they had built next to the bus. We ordered two of their burgers (the fish burger and the portobello mushroom), a beer for me (Beth was still not up for drinking more), and a plate of potato wedges with a sour cream/chili sauce. Everything was excellent. We ate and then walked back through the CBD. We stopped off at the outdoor bar that had been built entirely from shipping pallets, right after the earthquake, as a place for all the recovery volunteers to congregate and hangout, and for locals to come to search for missing people, etc. It was a really cool space and they were supposed to have live music, but there wasn’t any live music so we didn’t stick around. Once back at our place, we talked with our hosts for awhile until they went upstairs to watch a movie and then we read for a while before falling asleep early, since we had another early wake-up coming.

New Zealand - Day 13 All the Wine

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 22nd, 2013

Beth wanted to hit a couple wineries before our 11:30 lunch reservations, so we got up way earlier then we had really had to. Packing up the car went pretty quickly and we were off on our drive up to the Gibbston region of Central Otago. Since we had left so early, we arrived in Arrowtown (the town on the southwest of the region) around 9:15am, when none of the wineries opened until 10. We headed into downtown Arrowtown to find the brewery that was supposed to be there (in the vain hope it might be open early for breakfast), but it apparently had gone out of business. Huh. So we wandered around Arrowtown a bit aimlessly, until we stopped a French cafe. I was suspicious, but as we walked in we heard the waitress and owner talking with each other in French, so we figured it might be authentic. We got savory buckwheat crepes filled with egg and cheese and some green tea—a most satisfying breakfast.

By the time we were done eating, it was just about 10, so we headed back to the car and drove up to Peregrine. Peregrine had a beautiful tasting room, including a lovely stone cottage outside that they used for weddings (we saw a lot of couples today that were looking at venues). They also sponsor the raptor rescue program up in Rotorua (that we’ll be visiting later) and recent released two NZ falcons onto their winery grounds, where they seem to be settling in fine. We tasted their full range of wines—Pinot Gris, Sauv Blanc, 2 Rieslings, a Gewurztraminer, 2 Pinot Noirs, and their late harvest. Our favorite was still the Dry Riesling we had had the night before, so we picked up a couple bottles of that. At only 4 grams of residual sugar per liter,, it was incredibly dry for a Riesling, but that really let the flavors from the grape and the soil shine through. We are both usually fans of sweeter Rieslings, so we were surprised at how much we liked this wine.

From there we worked our way back towards Arrowtown and Amisfield Wines. The next stop was Gibbston Valley. This was a bit more of a commercial winery with a variety of different tasting flights available for a fee. I opted for their 4 Pinot flight. I liked several of them, including their ultra-super reserve one with was over NZ$100, but Beth was not particularly enamored of any, so we left without buying anything. We would have bought at least a bottle of the Reserve Chardonnay we had had the night before, but they were sold out of it. Right next door was Gibbston Cheese and we enjoyed our tasting there more, walking away with two different local cheeses, a smokey one that Beth loved and a garlic-chive Gouda that Beth also loved.

It was a smidge after 11 so we drove back to Amisfield. We did a pre-lunch tasting which included a really good Champagne style sparkler and the usual Rieslings and Pinots. Nothing jumped out to us as must have, though we were definitely going to get the Fume Blanc which we had had the night before. We were seated out in their beautiful garden for lunch and despite Beth’s misgivings about doing another tasting menu, we went with their 4 course lunch with dessert and a glass of wine. Naturally we got the Fume Blanc as our wine. The first course was a potato and garlic puree served cold with charred sourdough toast. Despite it confusing me greatly (since it really looked like something that was served warm), we really liked it. The second course was even better, house-made pasta in local olive oil and topped with heirloom tomatoes. Beth had been craving pasta ever since our unfortunately gnocchi the night before so she was super pleased.

Our first main was their lemon cod with black grapes, walnuts, and a raspberry vinaigrette. Awesome. And this was followed by their house-smoked salmon served with a salad of mixed lettuce leaves with a honey dressing. Once again, delicious. They brought us two different desserts. The first was a honey and thyme pannacotta served with some roasted apricots and nuts. The other was an almond and chocolate torte served with vanilla bean ice cream. We were very pleased with both, with Beth declaring the chocolate one her favorite, though in the days to come she would talk more about the pannacotta. We picked-up a couple bottles of the Fume Blanc on the way out and left extremely satisfied.

We made one more stop in the Gibbston area, a small family owned place named Chard Farms that was located at the end of the long, windy gravel road. We choose them over the other places in the area because someone had mentioned that they sold shipping boxes and we needed a couple to start packing our wine acquisitions up (the plan being to take back 2 cases as checked luggage). We did their full tasting, which included some interesting experimental wines, like their Judge & Jury Chardonnay and a Dry Riesling, but nothing really wowed us. We did buy two empty shipping boxes from him before retracing our drive down the gravel and back onto Highway 6.

From Gibbston we had about a half-hour drive to the next concentration of wineries in Bannockburn. Mount Difficulty had been recommended to us by the Kiwi ladies on the Routeborn, so we stopped there first. They had a wide selection to taste and we went through all of it (8 wines in total, including 3 Pinot Noirs). They were the first winery we ran into that made a Chenin Blanc, so we were excited to taste a white that wasn’t one of the traditional area wines. They also had an excellent Pinot Rosé and we ended up with a bottle of each. Some of you may be getting concerned with the large amount of wine we had been tasting combined with the driving, but at all the places we went we only got a single-tasting for the non-driver and the driver contented themselves with tiny sips (so that we could agree on purchases). Today was my day to be the passenger, so I was getting nicely happy by this point. From Mt. Difficulty we went on to Akarua which is probably the largest vineyard in Bannockburn. 6 wines to taste here and we ended up with a Chardonnay and their non-reserve Pinot (finally a Pinot that Beth liked). I was consistently surprised with how good the Chardonnays in Central Ortago were, since I usually despise pretty much all Chards. It helped that the NZ wine-makers either excluded oak altogether or just lightly oaked the grapes, so that you you never got that board-chewing flavor that I tend to associate with California Chardonnay. We ran into some Americans there that Beth wasn’t a huge fan of, so we checked-out quickly, which gave us a chance to hit Ceres wines on the way out of Bannockburn. Smaller, family-owned place with only three wines currently tasting and we weren’t a fan of any of them.

It was getting a little later in the day and Beth wanted to make sure we got to Wooing Tree before it closed so we headed across the river into Cromwell. Tasted everything they had at Wooing Tree and loved all of it, top to bottom. We ended up walking away with only three bottles which was a testament to Beth’s sense of restraint (since I would have just bought all the wine)–their Beetle Juice Pinot Noir, the Blondie (a white Pinot Noir) and their Chardonnay. It was getting closer to closing time, but we figured we might be able to slip in one more tasting and made it to Aurum just in time. Aurum had a beautiful grounds, with the cellar door surrounded by a fragrant flower garden. The wine was also excellent and while we didn’t love it as much as Wooing Tree, we did end up with another two bottles, including their 18 karat late-harvest desert wine.

Nine wineries in three different divisions on Central Ortago. We were pretty pleased with ourselves, but it was not time to rest yet. We had more than two hours more to drive up to Lake Tekapo. The town was not particularly interesting, except for the fact that it is regulated dark-zone with a giant observatory on the hill above (supposed to be best star-gazing in NZ). They had an evening event that we were planning to go on, but had not booked (since there were no refunds in case of clouds). And of course, for the first time in our trip, clouds rolled in for the evening. We were glad we hadn’t booked the tour, but sad that we were going to miss the chance to see the incredible southern sky through their fancy telescopes. We got dinner at Kohan Restaurant, a Japanese place that was apparently the only decent eatery in town. The food was pretty good (a Soba Noodle soup for me, and a salmon sashimi don for Beth). After my long day of wine-tasting I opted out of any further drinks, though I did have a little green tea after the meal. We were staying in a cute little backpackers a couple minutes outside of town and we drove back up there after dinner. Bedtime can soon after. Beth woke up at 4am to go outside and look at the stars, which she reported as great though no better than what we had seen up in Abel Tasmin. I chose to sleep.

New Zealand - Day 12 Queenstown

Posted in NZ2013, Travel, Uncategorized on March 22nd, 2013

Sleep was glorious. We made it as least as late as 9:30 before finally waking up. And then it was possible to have a leisurely morning enjoying the view from our balcony, without having to rush to drive somwhere. We finally made it up and out of the room a bit after 11 for some exploration of Queenstown before our rafting trip. First stop was a local fish-and-chips food truck that parked right about the corner from us. They were frying up fresh-caught local blue cod so we got a double order of that and ate looking out over the lake. Then it was off to do some shopping or at least window-shopping, since Queenstown is rather the fancy, expensive town. There were some amazing clothing shops selling gorgeous 100% NZ wool clothing, but the prices were just a bit too high for us. We also scouted out bars and restaurants for the evening, but did not see anything that looked too amazing.

We made a brief stop back at our room to drop off everything we didn’t need and then strolled up to Shotover Street to Queenstown Rafting. There was a brief safety talk (in short, listen to your guide, don’t be an idiot) and then they piled us into a van and drove us to the base camp. We got geared up with wet suits, life jackets, and helmets before climbing into a second van. This van took us up river to the launch point for rafting. It was a big van and had a long trailer holding the rafts attached to the back of it. The road to the launch point is a narrow-ass twisty-as-hell gravel road that used to be the old miners road, during the gold rush days in Queenstown (second most gold found in a river after the Yukon). Driving it should probably be considered an extreme sport, especially when you’ve got a full van and a trailer to haul around. There is at least one turn where the road is so narrow that not all the van’s tires are actually on the road.

In order to keep people from thinking too much about the plunge to certain death that lurks mere centimeters away, the rafting guides kept up a running patter that is half safety instructions and half impromptu stand-up comedy (usually at the expense of the Australians). There were a couple really good jokes told, the best being:
Q: What does a Kiwi call a sheep in high grass?
A: A satisfying encounter.
And so forth. Eventually, we arrived at the launch-point and were split up into groups. Each raft was supposed to only have 5 people in it (except in cases where there was a group of 6 they didn’t want to split up), but there were some language issues with this Korean guy who managed to erroneously end up in our raft (so we had 6 and someone else had 4). Our guide was Stephano, from Argentina, who spent his winters working in NZ and his summers in Switzerland. Not a terrible life.

The first part of the river is relatively tame and the guides use it to teach you all the commands you’ll need to survive. The most important ones are “Forward” and “Get Down”. If you don’t paddle hard when you hear “Forward”, you’ll probably hear “Get Down” since your raft isn’t going to hit the rapids the right way. Choi, our renegade Korean, had very limited English skills, necessitating some extra work needed with commands like “Jump Right” and “Hold On”, but eventually it seemed like everyone was getting it. The bane of this part of the trip were the sandflies which were out in force today. Since we were mostly covered in thick neoprene, there was limited target areas for the flies to attack, so they swarmed all over our hands. Our guide’s suggestion of keeping your hands wet and relatively still did work to alleviate some of it, but both Beth and I ended up with bites on our wrists and fingers.

Stephano was not pleased with having an overly heavy raft, so after the first small rapid, he conferred with the trip leader and ended up giving away one of extra people. Our final raft make-up was Beth and I in the front, Choi in the center, and then a couple from Australia in the back (Ting, who was originally from Malaysia, and her boyfriend, who might have said 4 words the entire trip). The main part of the trip were the rapids that occur in the second part of the river. When the river is running higher (like when my sister and I rafted it 5 years ago), most of these rapids are class 4 and 5. The day we went the river was running a bit lower (which was at least partially related to the drought conditions) so nothing was worse than a class 4. But the lower river did make it a more technically challenging trip, since there were so many more exposed rocks that had to be navigated around.

Ting provided the entertainment for the trip, since she started screaming before we hit any rapid with the volume and intensity increasing as the motion of the raft did. But despite her vocal proclivities and Choi’s marginal comprehension, the crew did a good job of paddling and Stephano did a great job of steering and we hit every rapid perfectly. The rafts all stay close together, giving you a view of the other rafts running the rapids as well, so we saw a bunch of groups that did not do as well as we did. No raft flipped and there was only one unintentional over-board situation (and the girl who fell out was shaken up, but nothing worse), but quite a few of them got stuck in at least one of the rapids which necessitated from interesting acrobatics to free them.

There were 6 named rapids in all (Cascade, Toilet, Oh Shit, Pinball, and two more I can’t remember), plus a 170m dark tunnel (originally built as an unsuccessful attempt at diverting the river for mining purposes). After we finished shooting all the rapids, we drifted a bit more downstream before finally arriving back at the base camp. Stephano spent the last part of the trip talking about all the injuries that he’d seen on the river; the most common were broken noses and wrists suffered when failing out of the raft, but when the river was running really fast, people get hurt in all kinds of ways. Beth was horrified by the litany of accidents he ran over and did not seem to think the risk was worth the reward of the trip (though she did have fun on the river, minus the fly bites). Hot showers back at the rafting place and then back on the bus to go back to Queenstown. We walked back to Nomads’ and started looking at places for dinner. There wasn’t anything that seemed amazing, so we decided to head back to The Bunker and give their tasting menu a try.

This did not end up being the best of decisions: while the wine pairings they did were superb, the food itself ended up being very disappointing, especially for the price that we paid. The initial amuse was possibly the best thing of the evening, a shotglass of cold tomato borscht with smoked mussels and an heirloom tomato bruschetta, served with a local sparkling wine made in the Champagne style. The sparkler was pretty damn near perfect, the soup spicy and smokey, and the tomatoes soaked in local olive oil. We were off to a good start, but that did not last long. The next course was local crayfish with gnocchi. The crayfish were not very good and the sauce they were in was completely forgettable (I in fact do not remember what it was). The wine was a stunning Fume Blanc from Amisfield Wine Company, so at least it wasn’t a total loss of a course. We moved onto the second appetizer course a bit more downspirited. This was local abalone served in a sort of pieroggi in a cream sauce. The abalone wasn’t bad—nice and chewy as fresh abalone should be—but it wasn’t really good either. The wine was another stunner, though, the Reserve Chardonnay from Gibbston Valley. I’m not a fan of almost all Chardonnay’s but this one was exceptionally well done. A quick intermezzo which was grapefruit sorbet topped with a stonefruit compote was lovely and then we got our main. It was local salmon (locally-farmed, since wild salmon really isn’t a thing in NZ) with some green veggies in a red pepper sauce. Again, not bad, but not anything special either, but once again the wine was the star—a Dry Riesling from Peregrine that balanced perfectly with the fish. Then it was a cheese course, which was basically the same cheese plate we had had the night before, but with only 2 cheeses not 3. Beth was outraged. The wine was the Amisfield Late Harvest Riesling, which went really well with the cheese. The final course was their crème brûlée, which was pretty terrible. A good crème brûlée should be caramelized on top and a taut custard underneath. This one was burnt on the top and rather soggy in the center. We were not impressed. The wine was a Pinot Noir desert wine from Wooing Tree which we were fans of.

After the disappointing dinner we weren’t much motivated to go out further, so we wandered back to Nomads’ and made an early night of it. The next day we were off to visit the wineries of Central Otago, including all the ones whose wines we had enjoyed so much at dinner. We also had lunch reservations at Amisfield, which was supposed to be one of the best winery restaurants in the country, so we were looking forward to a better culinary experience.

New Zealand - Day 11 Routeborn Day 3

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 16th, 2013

We took our last morning a bit more leisurely, since we had our shortest and easiest day of hiking ahead of us. After our normal chocolately yogurt goodness for breakfast we shouldered our packs and started off down the trail. The hut was right around treeline, so we quickly descended back into a beech forest. Since we had crossed the ridgeline the day before, we were now on the side of the mountains away from the ocean so there was definitely less moisture in this forest. The beeches were not as old and the moss was less luxuriously layered on the trees. It was still quite beautiful and we saw more birds on this last day then we had on the first day. The trail was pretty decent for the most part, with only a few areas that involved some steep scrambles down and as it followed the general path of the river that flowed out of the falls, there were numerous swing-bridges for us to sway across.

We got off the trail pretty early, around 11am and our bus wasn’t arriving until 2pm, so we had plenty of time to kill. Unfortunately, there were also plenty of sandflies hanging around at the DOC shelter at the start/end of the trek. We slathered ourselves in bug spray, which helped some, but we still got quite a few bites over the next 3 hours. Otherwise, we occupied ourselves with our e-readers (which are a godsend on multi-day hikes, since real books have the bad tendency of weighing quite a lot. Ths bus rolled up mostly on time and we were back in Queenstown in about 2 hours (there had been a brief stop in another small town along the way). The bus back to Te Anau did not depart for a good half-hour, so Beth was off to Nomads’ to check us in and I went off to Fergburger. Fergburger is a Queenstown institution which serves up rather giant burgers of all sorts, as well as excellent fries till 5am every night. I picked up their two veggie options, one a grilled tofu burger and the other a felafel burger, and we hurriedly ate them on a bench at the bus stop (no food on the bus). They were very good, though probably would have been more enjoyable with slightly longer to eat.

The bus rid down to Te Anau was another two hours and then once we rescued our car from the secure parking lot it was time to reverse the exact same route we had just come back up to Queenstown. Not the most awesome of travel experiences, but there really wasn’t much of a better way to structure this part of the trip. It was just around 9pm when we arrived by in Queenstown. We parked the car in the garage near Nomads’ and went up to our room to drop our gear and shower. Nomads’ is a chain of hostels across NZ, Australia, and Fiji which definitely caters to the college-aged set that is partying their way across Australasia. But they also have some slightly more upscale offerings for those willing to pay a bit more (which Beth and I were), so our room was up on the quieter top floor (away from the communal bunkrooms and kitchens), with a king-sized bed, en suite bathroom, and a lovely balcony view out over Church Street with a view of the lake and the mountains. Not too shabby.

We got changed and headed-out to experience some of the Queenstown nightlife. Our first stop was The World Bar, a Queenstown institution that functions as a seven-day-a-week party location for the dissolute college-aged crowd. Their specialty is fancy mixed drinks served in teapots, though describing them as something special is probably stretching the truth a bit far. Beth and I each got a teapot (SHOW YOUR NOMADS’ KEY AND GET $5 OFF ALL TEAPOTS) and neither of us was impressed with the drink quality (though I don’t quite think that was the point). I enjoyed the people watching, but Beth was horrified by the crowd. She was heard to declaim, “I think everyone in here has horribly failed at life,” which might have been just a bit harsh, since many of them were too young to have failed completely yet. The fact that the DJ was earnestly spinning a set of music that had been marginally cool in the US over a decade ago did not help to endear us to the place. So as soon as we finished our teapots it was time to move on to some place better.

Jo had recommended a bar called The Bunker to us and we had gotten directions to it from someone at Nomads’. On the way I picked up a slice of some of the worst pizza I’ve ever had (and I’ve had some terrible pizza in the my life), but at least it didn’t kill me and made me less hungry. The Bunker was located around the back of Cows Lane, tucked away from most of the normal traffic in Queenstown. It had a restaurant downstairs, and then a bar up on the second level, with an outdoor firepit and an indoor fireplace. We sank into the deep leather couch by the fire and ordered some fancy cocktails and a cheese plate. Definitely a much different vibe and one that we enjoyed more. I have no problems with being fancy. We stayed for three rounds of cocktails, which were all pretty good, though not up the high standards of the NYC places we like to frequent (which was sad given that we were paying NYC prices for the drinks). The way I judge cocktails bars these days is by whether they can make a Sazerac and then how close in quality it is to the one from The Shanty (the best Sazerac I’ve had in NYC so far). The Bunker succeed on the first count, but the drink itself was only so-so. The German Chocolate-Cherry Martini I had later was a bit nicer. By the time we were done, it was after midnight, so home to bed where we finally had a morning to sleep in as late as we wanted.

New Zealand - Day 10 Routeborn Day 2

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 16th, 2013

of organic yogurt with dark chocolate mixed in. Most of our friends were actually doing the trek in the opposite direction, so they headed off towards the Divide, while we were headed up to Routeborn Falls. The second day of hiking was pretty different from the first. From the lake, the trail climbed steeply up to the top of the ridgeline, well above tree line, and stayed up there. This meant that we were hiking along the top of one side of the Hollyford valley, with continuous ridiculous views of the mountains on the other side. We stopped fairly frequently to take photos, but at some point you just throw up your hands and keep hiking because everything looks so amazing. We arrived at Harris Saddle, the junction between Fiordland National Park (where we had started) and Mt. Aspiring National Park (where the Routeborn finished), a little bit before noon and since we had lots of time we decided to take the side-track up to Conical Hill. There was a little shelter at the Saddle to leave your packs in, which was important because there were numerous keas clustered around the Saddle all of whom would have been happy to eat things from inside the packs or probably just eat the packs themselves (the ranger at Routeborn Falls would warn everyone to take their boots inside at night because keas had been known to eat the rubber webbing off them).

The climb up to Conical Hill was a real doozy. Probably twice as steep as the climb up to Key Summit and a bit longer as well. We were both very tired when we arrived at the top, but the views were spectacular in all directions. You could even see all the way out to ocean (technically Martins Bay, which is an inlet off the Tasmin Sea). The hike back down was almost as bad, due to the steep slope and uncertain footing, but we made it back down in good order. After that exertion it was time for lunch, which we ate on the deck of the Harris Saddle shelter. Similar to our lunch the day before, but with tofu instead of smoked salmon and pumpkin hummus instead of red pepper. As we finished up eating, the guided tour group arrived at the Saddle, and since we did not want to be stuck behind them, we packed-up quickly and hiked onward. The entire second part of the trail wound above and along a series of small pools, cascades, and steams which would eventually turn into Routeborn Falls so we had beautiful water details all the way down to our hut.

The hut was incredibly nice, with a huge wrap-around porch that afforded views out over the nearby mountains and only a few steps below the falls themselves. Our rapid hiking that day meant we were some of the first people to arrive, giving us the pick of the bunks. The bunks in this hut were all arranged in pods of four, with an upper and lower bunk on each side of the pod and a narrow walkway down the middle. We chose two lower bunks in a pod at the end of the bunkhouse, so we were close to the door (for good air circulation) and next to as few other people as possible (good for avoiding snorers). We were a little sad that there was no place where we could sleep next to each other, as we had the night before, but overall we were very happy with our bunk location.

Once sleeping arrangements were sorted out, it was off to see the falls. The falls were really a series of little falls, each one emptying into pools of various depths. There was a steep little trail that led down to the falls area and a hike of about a minute brought you to the deepest pool, which was fed by a 30-foot cascade. Since all the water feeding into these falls was snow melt, the water was seriously cold, but I dove in for a (very brief) swim. Beth waded in and splashed around a little, but was worried about her top not drying well so she didn’t go all the way in like I did. After my swimming escapades, I sat out on a rock in the sun to dry and read my book, while Beth went splashing off downstream to explore other parts of the falls. Eventually we headed back up the hut, where Beth took a nap and I laid out on the porch to continue drying (one drawback to having only a single pair of pants with me meant that I had to be wearing the pants the entire time they were drying, meaning I had to occasionally lie in awkward positions to expose the wet parts to the sun).

We did dinner a little earlier this night, which was a salmon dill risotto with the same accoutrements as the night before, and the local ranger did his presentation around 7:30pm. Most of the hikers were new to us, since they were all coming the opposite way, but the three Kiwi women that Beth had befriended were there, so we chatted a bit more with them. We also talked with a couple from Portland who were nice, but also seemed a little bit odd (not quite sure what it was, just a little odd). Overall, the group of hikers at this hut wasn’t as social as the previous night, so while we did stay up to see the stars come out, we were in bed quickly after.

New Zealand - Day 9 Routeborn Day 1

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 16th, 2013

The next morning we woke up and drove down to the DOC office where the bus to Routeborn stopped. Beth dropped me there with the bags and then drove the car off to the secure parking lot on the other side of town. We all boarded the bus around 9am and then drove off, stopping at the parking lot to pick up Beth. It took about two hours to get up to the Divide where our trek started. The bus went to Te Anau Downs first, where it dropped off all the hikers who were doing the Milford Trek (the most famous Great Walk in NZ, which has been fulled booked when we tried to register for it) before turning north and heading back toward Milford (same drive we had just done the day before). A little after 11 we arrived the Divide and the few remaining hikers piled off the bus.

The first day of hiking on the Routeborn was some of the most beautiful hiking I’ve ever done. The trail wound its way steadily uphill through gorgeous silver beech forests. The trees came in a wide variety of ages, including some that were 400 and 500 years old, and the older they were the thicker the carpeting of moss on them. Small cascades ran down the sides of the trail periodically, crossed by small bridges or spilling underneath the trail through culverts. Ferns and other small leafy plants sprouted up around larger beeches and shared space with more moss that attached itself to rock faces and other moist surfaces. The climb was challenging with its constant uphill, but never too rigorous and always very beautiful.

Right before the first hut on the trail (at Lake Howden) there was a turn off for the Key Summit side-trip. We dropped our packs at the base of the Summit trail and headed up for the view. Once on the side-trail, the track completely changed. It got decently steeper and rose up above the tree line and suddenly we were in an alpine scrubland, with high grasses and small flowering plants. The trail was completely exposed and much warmer than hiking under the beech canopy, so we were thankful that we had dropped our packs. The view from the summit was spectacular, with vistas up three different valleys and views of many of the surrounding peaks, including Mt. Christina, the tallest mountain in the Hollyford range. In addition there was a beautiful mountain pool at the top, which reflected the clouds and all the mountains around us. We shot lots of pictures and enjoyed the sun, but opted against spending an extra half-hour or so on an extended nature walk. Getting back down went very quickly due to the steep nature of the trail and we were soon reunited with our packs and hiking down to the Lake Howden hut.

Our plan was to sit by the lake and eat lunch, but this was thwarted by the cloud of sand flies that descended on us as soon as we sat. We beat a hasty retreat to the porch of the hut and were able to eat a mostly peaceable lunch there. Our lunch that day was cajun smoked salmon with roasted red pepper hummus, some pita bread, some raw green peppers, and apples. Definitely a step-up from the pb&j we had been eating on Abel Tasmin. After lunch we continued our hike and discovered that the trail ran into a large two-stage waterfall (Earland Falls). We had not noticed it on any of the maps so it was a nice surprise and we took lots of pictures. This was the destination for a lot of the day hikers that we had seen on the trail, so once we passed the falls, the walk got a lot less crowded (not that it was particularly busy to begin with). The trail continued to climb steadily up till about 20 minutes before Lake Mackenzie at which point it dropped down to the the lake.

The first building you come to is the private lodge, where the hikers who pay $2000 to Real Journeys for a guided Routeborn experience get to stay. It has sheets and pillows, ensuite baths with showers, and a chef to cook you dinner. The DOC hut where we were staying (with none of the above amenities, but which cost 20 times less) was an additional few minutes of hiking, but was right above the lake. It was a two building setup, with the kitchen area on the first floor of the main building and one set of bunks immediately above it and then a second set of bunks in an auxiliary building to the side, with the toilets in between the two. Since all the good spots in the main building were taken, we ended up in the secondary building, where the bunks were grouped in rows of 4. This location proved fortuitous for two reasons. First, there only ended up being 3 people sleeping in our row, so there was an empty bunk between me and the person on the end. And second there was apparently a helacious snorer in the other room, while our space was pretty quiet the entire night.

We claimed our bunks and unpacked a little and then headed down to the lake. We hadn’t brought swimsuits, but since my hiking pants are quick-dry, I just dove into the lake for a quick swim. Beth wandered instead, going off to explore the second, larger lake that was behind Mackenzie and also up to the campground to get a view of the lake from above. After my swim I lay in the sun on the shore to dry and chatted with some of the other hikers who were staying there. We had a really great bunch of people at the hut that night. We met Jo, who owned a small winery up in the Christchurch area and had lots of great suggestions of where to go for food and drink in Queenstown and Christchurch. She was on the trail with a group of her friends, whom we also met, but whose names I did not retain. There was also an older American guy named William, who used to be a trial lawyer specializing in industrial accidents, but who had retired and now spent his time traveling the world and hiking as much as possible. There was a quiet dude from South Carolina as well whose name I never quite got. But we all sat on the beach, enjoying the sun, and talking about a wide-ranging set of subjects, from American politics to the “Southern Man” advertising campaign that Speights beer runs in NZ (similar to the now defunct Marlboro Man from American advertising lore).

Several hours passed pleasantly that way before the sun started to dip a little lower and people started heading back up to the hut. The huts on Routeborn were all equipped with gas cooking stoves, so we were able to prepare hot food without having to carry our own cooker. Dinner that night was a tomato and feta risotto, mango, plums, and avocado, with dark chocolate and hot tea for dessert. During dinner we talked a bit with three Kiwi women that Beth had befriended who were old university friends who tried to get together every year to do something fun in NZ. In addition to the gas cookers, the Routeborn kitchen/dining area also had electric lights which were run off batteries that were charged by solar panels during the day. So there was decent light until about 10pm, which encouraged socialization. After dinner I got taught a Russian card game by a group of Israelis and we played till a little after 9. The DOC Ranger appeared at this point and gave his little speech, which started with fire safety and ended as a stand-up routine mostly centered around the failings of the fancy lodge and the people who stayed there. There was much hilarity to be had at their expense. By the time he was done talking, it was getting near to 10pm, so we finished up one last game of cards and all headed off to bed. On the way over to our bunks, we spent a few minutes staring up at the intense star fields in the night sky before earplugs and eyemasks on and into sleep

New Zealand - Day 8 Milford Sound

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 14th, 2013

We were due up in Milford Sound (a 2+ hour drive from Te Anau) at 9am the next morning for our cruise, so we did not get much sleep. We got even less because Beth’s Blackberry decided to be evil and somehow set itself an hour ahead. So when the alarm went off at 6:45am it was really 5:45am, so we were up, dressed, and in the car before we released that it was actually an hour before we had to leave. It was nice to get an extra hour of sleep, but I think I would have preferred to have it more naturally. The drive up to the the sound went pretty smoothly. It was early enough that most of the tourists were not on the road so we could make very good time. We had smooth sailing up to the big tunnel at the top of the hills.

Since the tunnel is one-way only, we arrived at a red light. As we pulled up to join the line of cars there was thump on the roof of our car. Beth and I exchanged a worried look when there was another thump and some scratching on the hood of our Prius and a kea peered in the windshield at us. For the inexperienced, a kea is the large wild parrot of New Zealand, that really looks like a cross between your normal large parrot and a hawk. They have claws and a beak that inspire fear in even experienced Kiwi rangers and a penchant for eating rubber, especially the sort that is used to seal the windows on cars. Thankfully this kea (and its two friends which joined it) did not make a meal of our car. Instead they just jumped around on our car and the other stopped cars for the few minutes until the light changed and we were able to drive on into the tunnel.

After the end of the tunnel we had smooth sailing down into Milford where we parked and walked over to the ferry terminal. What we immediately noticed was that the entire area was plagued sand flys. Imagine mosquitoes, but smaller and probably more determined to suck your blood, with bites that swell and itch more than mosquitos’. Now imagine clouds of them that descend upon you when you exit you car. This is what being outside at Milford Sound was like. The Maori have a legend about the sandflies. They way that the flies are a ‘gift’ from the god of the underworld, a reminder that no one should stay in Paradise too long. While there might not be a god involved, we were quite in agreement that the flies disinclined us from spending longer outside than needed. Our cruise was due to depart at 9:15 so we waited inside for as long as possible then motivated ourselves down the docks to our ship and found indoor seats that were as protected from the flies as it got.

Once the cruise left the harbor and headed out into the Sound, the flies decreased in intensity and we were able to head out onto the bow of the ship take pictures. The Sound was incredibly beautiful, with its steep walls covered in moss and trees and the picturesque waterfalls that cascaded down. Everything was a bit restrained due to the drought that was afflicting the entire country, but with the morning sun peaking over the eastern edge of the Sound, we had beautiful views all the way out to the Tasmin Sea. The way back was a bit less fun, since we hugged the east side of the Sound, which meant the sun was not high enough to warm us, but we did get to sail directly underneath one of the waterfalls.

After the cruise we sprinted to our car (damn flies) and drove back down towards Te Anau. We stopped briefly after the tunnel, but the kea had moved on, so we did not stick around either. On the drive back down we stopped a few times to take some short hikes out to see the sights of Fiordland. The best was probably Mirror Lake, which lived up to its name providing amazing reflections of the mountains. We were planning to have an early night, so when we got back we did some laundry in the holiday park and then headed into the town of Te Anau to do our grocery shopping for our hike ahead and get some dinner. We settled on Redcliff cafe for supper, which was apparently the dining destination of choice for the Lord of Rings cast during shooting down in the Fiordlands. It was an adorable little cafe built into what had once been a large single-story house, with an enclosed deck around the back. We had some amazing fried goat cheese with pine nuts, caramelized onions, and a fruit terrine for a starter, and then local-caught blue cod with new potatoes for our main. After dinner we went back to our triangle hut where we finished up packing for the Routeborn trek before falling asleep delightfully early.

New Zealand - Day 7 Ice Climbing

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 14th, 2013

The reason we were waking up so early was so that we could do a quick side trip to Lake Matheson before our ice climbing adventure. The lake was supposed to be one of the most picturesque locations in the area, especially at dawn and dusk when the surrounding mountains have mirror-quality reflections. Unfortunately, it was a foggy morning so we did not see much. As dawn came, the fog cleared a little and we did get some nice pictures of the trees around the lake reflecting in the water, but it never got clear enough for us to see the mountains. We were on a schedule, so there was no time to wait around. We hiked the 10 minutes back to our car and drove into town to meet our glacier guides.

We had booked a full-day ice-climbing adventure trip on Fox Glacier. These are the smallest, most intensive trips that they do, with only 4 climbers and 2 guides. Our guides were Sean from Minnesote and Deano who was a native Kiwi. The other couple with us were also Americans, here on their honeymoon (we’ve met a fair number of just-marrieds here). We got all geared up with boots, crampons, climbing gloves and harnesses and then piled into a van that took us up to the glacier. Once we were up on the ice, we put on all our gear and they gave us ice axes as well. We then hiked up onto the glacier to find a good climbing wall. Walking on glaciers with crampons is a ridiculous amount of fun. Once you learn to trust your crampons to hold you, you can bound around without every really having to worry about your footing (note, the guides don’t like it if you go bounding around by yourself). Despite this, our guides were very careful with us, pausing to carve out steps in the ice in places where they thought the footing was too steep.

As we hiked to the first climbing wall, they started to teach us the basics of ice-climbing. On the front of the crampon there are four spikes, two of which point straight ahead and two of with angle downward at about 45 degrees. The goal when climbing is to kick your foot into the ice in an upward motion (like trying to kick a field goal with a football) driving all four spikes into the ice. If you do this successfully with both feet, you can then stand-up on the crampons with nothing else to support you. As our guides demonstrated, on simple walls, you can walk right up them using this technique. Needless-to-say, none of us were anywhere nears as nonchalant about this as our guides were, but we managed to eek out a passable approximation during training. The next lesson was about using the ice axes. The point of the axes is not to pull yourself up the wall, but to provide balance and stability. On easier climbs, you first kick both feet into the wall, shoulder-width apart and horizontally level. You then reach up and drive the ice axes into the wall fairly close together. Once they are in, you kick your feet up the ice until they are about where your knees were. Then you stand-up on your crampons, work the axes our of the wall and drive them in again higher. Repeat until you reach the top of the climb. If at any point you’re using your forearms to pull yourself up, you’re doing it wrong.

Totally simple in theory, definitely more complex in practice when you’re hanging from a rope trying to force yourself up a wall of ice. It took them a while to setup the climbs (since they had to go up to the top of the wall and screw pins into the ice to secure the safety ropes too), so we ate out lunches while waiting for the first wall to be set. It took quite awhile and since we were in the shade, we eventually got pretty chilly. But finally it was ready. They trained us in how to belay for our partner (which is how you take in the slack on the safety rope to ensure that if the climber slips, they do not fall far). They had two climbs setup, so each team was climbing at the same time, while our guides watched and offered advice. I climbed first and it went a lot better than I had remembered from our brief climbing in Iceland. While I was only putting what we had been taught into practice about 60% of the time, it was still way easier doing it the ‘right’ way. I slipped a few times climbing up, but by the time we switched ropes and did our second climb, I was slipping a lot less and climbing much better. I made it to the top of both the initial climbs and so did Beth.

After our guides took down the ropes we hiked back down the glacier to the next climbing spot. The wall here was about twice as high (around 50 feet or so) and both climbs had some interesting natural challenges. The climb on the left extended down into a hole, so that at the end of the climb as you were being lowered down by your partner, you could get lowered an extra 7 feet or so into the hole and then have to the climb out. The climb on the right had three different paths up it, including one that was like a chimney, where you had to climb with your feet on different sides of a split in the ice, as well as a small overhang near the top.

Since we were at the top of the climb, we had to get down to the base, so one at a time, they attached a line to us and had us walk backwards over the edge of the wall. Once we were clear of the rim, they could then lower us down. The other two members of our party were not particularly excited about having to walk over the edge of the cliff, but we all made it down fine.

I was first climber in our group again and we started on the left climb. The climb up was probably the most fun of the day, since it was challenging without being intensely difficult. I slipped once or twice, but for the most part did very well. Got lowered into the hole on the way down and got pretty stuck. Due to the constrained nature of the space, it was very hard to use the ice axes, which meant you had to climb almost entirely with your feet. It took a lot of slipping and cursing to get up and out. We switched-up and Beth climbed the wall. She started out really strong, but fatigued her forearms by pulling herself up with her ice axes too much and didn’t make it to the top. The descent did not go much better since her crappy belaying partner (i.e., me) managed to let out the rope too quickly and she dropped a fair bit and banged against the wall. Thankfully there was no really injury besides some bruises.

We then switched walls and I tried to climb up the ice chimney. Didn’t work. After three false starts, I switched to one of the alternative routes. Made it up to the top on that route, though the overhang gave me quite a bit of trouble and slipped quite a few times. The fact it was my fourth climb and I was overusing my forearms also contributed, since I was pretty fatigued. But I made it and Beth managed to only moderately slam me into the wall on the way down. Beth’s turn was next and with some extra instruction from Sean she climbed really well up to the overhang, which unfortunately defeated her.

Our guides then gave us a choice of doing some more climbs on the wall we were on or hiking down off the glacier and around to its base to see a cool ice cave. Since we were all pretty tired, we opted for the ice cave, which was the right choice. It was a really cool tunnel through the glacier which most people never saw (since it was done under the glacier where tours do not usually go) and which will probably be gone in a week or so. We took lots of pictures in the cave and then tramped back to the parking lot where a bus picked us up and took us back to town. We changed out of our ice-climbing gear, got in our car, and set off on another epic drive.

On the way down the coast, we stopped to hike out to the Blue Pools. It was a fairly quick hike out to a pretty view of the pools, but the water level was incredibly low. This was something we had noticed throughout our drive down the coast. New Zealand is in the midst of a massive drought; areas which normally get rain 20 days a month have not had rain in over a month and everything is suffering. We noticed it somewhat on Abel Tasmin, where the non-tidal rivers were not what they could have been, but it was far more recognizable on our drive down the coast. Fields which normally would have been green and lush were brown and dead. Many of the fields had improvised irrigation equipment in them, something that has never been part of farming in NZ. Since the water level was so low the pools had a vast stony beach which enterprising travelers had filled with stone cairns and sculptures, so we wandered a little looking at what people had constructed.

From the Blue Pools is was about two hours more into Queenstown. We arrived there around 9pm and got dinner at a recommended Thai restaurant, @Thailand. Queenstown was a bit of a change from what we’ve been used to in our travel. As our Dutch friend Ursula put it, Queenstown is full of youngsters spending Mommy and Daddy’s money. Which is at least partially true. Queenstown is definitely a party town and there are definitely a good number of people there who are not existing on their own dime. It is also an upscale resort town, so there are a goodly number of people who are very much existing on their own extensive means: it is not coincidence that there is Louis Vuitton shop amongst other exclusive shopfronts here. And there is also a large group of youngsters in Queenstown who are living off their own means, working in hostels or with the numerous tourist service companies. But it is undeniable that the city exists in a state of perpetual partying and indulgence.

We got our dinner to go and sat out on a bench along the pier to eat (red curry for me and tofu thai basil for Beth). During dinner we were only accosted once, by a group of drunken Australian girls (ladies?) who wanted their picture taken while they groped a statue of the founder of Queenstown and his sheep in vaguely inappropriate ways. Once our meal was done it was time to continue our travels. My eyes were done, so Beth got to continue driving (she had already navigated the treacherous mountain pass that lead down from the hills into Queenstown) all the way down to Te Anau (another 2 hours). The holiday park we were staying in was closed by the time we arrived, but we had made prior arrangements, so there were keys waiting for us when we rolled in around midnight. We drove into the park, found our magical triangular hut, and passed out.

New Zealand: Day 6 - Abel Tasmin Day 3

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 14th, 2013

We still woke-up decently early the next morning; the huts are small and communal enough that once the first group of people wakes-up it starts a chain reaction as the noise of their packing rousts other people. Beth was not up for more hiking, but we had hours before our pick-up, so I left my pack and hiked about an hour round-trip to a really cool swing-bridge. When I got back we had breakfast and then headed down to the beach to wait for our taxi. Despite it being around 9:15am, the beach was filled with activity as taxis showed-up to drop off day hikers and kayakers. While we missed the one from our company, we talked to the captain of another taxi and discovered that the companies cross-honor reservations and that he was about to head back to Marahau in an empty taxi. We jumped aboard and had a quick run down the coast which had us in town in less than a half-hour. Here we got to experience one of the fun events that we had missed by taking a taxi from outside town on our way out to Abel Tasmin. In order to get the taxi out of the water, they backed a tractor with a trailer hitch on it down the jetty into the water. The boat then drives up onto the trailer bed and is strapped in and the tractor drives up out of the water. We road down the road in the boat, being pulled along by a tractor, all the way back to the taxi headquarter, which happened to be about a 5 minute walk from where our car was parked. In all ways, this taxi adventure had proved a worthwhile endeavor. We were now off the trail hours ahead of our original time and just a quick walk from our car.

The rest of the day was rather mundane. We drove south and then drove south some more. We stopped at a pretty pullout for lunch and ate the last of our peanut butter and jelly. And then drove some more. A bit after 5pm we arrived in the little town of Franz Joseph–named after the glacier which it sits at the base of. We checked-in to our hostel (Montrose Backpackers, coincidentally the same place that my sister and I had stayed on our trip 5 years ago) and took glorious showers. We were both tired and Beth’s feet hurt so we decided to have an early dinner. We ate at Blue Ice Cafe, a place that I had eaten at previously and really liked. Dinner was green-lipped mussels in a cream sauce for a starter and then fish-and-chips with salad for our entree. Dessert was a Grand Marnier Chocolate Mud Cake. We got a couple different local beers, including one that we really liked, the Monsoon Strong Pilsner. Monsoon is up in Christchurch, so we’ll see if we can work a visit there in when we swing through there later in the town. Post-dinner it was bedtime, since we were waking up at 5:45am the next morning to drive down to the town of Fox Glacier.