New Zealand: Day 5 - Abel Tasmin Day 2

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 14th, 2013

The next morning came way too early. We had a loooong day of hiking ahead of us, which meant waking up at 5:50am. We grabbed our gear and headed downstairs to repack everything (trying to be courteous hiking buddies unlike the Germans sharing our chamber). After some brief struggles with our sleeping bags (they are almost too fluffy to fit into our packs) we were out the door and heading south. Without the Separation Point detour, we made very good time and rolled up into Totaranui in around 2 hours 15, instead of the estimated 3. We at our breakfast at the Ranger Station there before continuing south. Time was very important on this day because we had two crossings that could only be made during low tide. The low tide mark for the day was 12:20pm, which gave us a window of around 10am to 3pm to get through both crossings.

The first of the two crossings was the tidal bay at Awaroa. About an hour-and-a-half after we left Totaranui, we found ourselves staring across a vast flood plain, covered mostly in ankle-deep water. Boots came off and watershoes went on and we started across. The footing was a wet sand/mud mix intermingled with hundreds of empty shells—pretty much what you’d expect to find at the bottom of a shallow bay. There was some animal life present in remaining tidal pools, mostly small crabs and the like. Very little bird life during the time we were there, but it was supposed to increase as the water came back in. About three-quarters of the way across the bay, the water got significantly deeper (above the knee) so we had to stop and roll-up our pants to keep them out of the water. Beth’s watershoes proved to be abject failures, as they were trapping sand and shells against her soles and making it very painful to walk. She had to stop multiple times in the deeper section to try and clean them out. Balancing on one leg in the middle of knee-high cold water with a 30+ pound pack on your back is not a fun activity. She might have been a little cranky.

But we made it across and dried/cleaned our feet in the grass on the other side. There was a DOC hut there where a lot of the people we had stayed with last night were stopping, but we were pushing on towards Bark Bay, another 4 something hours of hiking. As we came off the flats, we ran into Ursula and Dan going the other way. There was a hilarious (for me) misunderstanding when Ursula asked us how far it was to the campsite with the W. Now I thought she meant Whariwharangi, where we had started, but she really meant Waiharakeke. So I told her it was more than 3 hours away (which was how long it had taken us to get down) and the look on her face was a combination of incredulous disgust and resignation. However we cleared up the misunderstanding, which meant they really had less than an hour left of hiking. We exchanged email addresses and talked about trying to find a way to meet up on the North Island later in our trips.

We got slightly lost coming off the flats, but found the trail and headed up to Awaroa Lodge. This is where the fancy people came to stay, complete with ensuite bathrooms and a restaurant/bar. I wanted to buy two bottles of beer to drink on the beach after we finished our hike, but they refused to sell them to me with the caps on. So angry. We got briefly turned around again trying to find our way out of the Lodge complex, but were back on the trail soon enough. After that, it was just straight hiking. Up hills and down across beaches. Beth’s feet had predictably started to blister, so she wasn’t in the best of moods and we weren’t making the best of time. The second timed crossing was a tidal river down at Onetahuti. We made it there around 2 (with an hour or so to spare before the tide came in far enough to make crossing impossible) and it was a very quick crossing, followed by an incredibly long beach hike in the sun. At the other end, we retreated into the shade of a campground and had a late lunch. We were finally able to hike without worrying about an extra time table.

From there it was about two hours into Bark Bay. There was a low tide track we could have tried to take that would have cut around 10 minutes off the hike, but we weren’t sure if it was passable, so we opted to just push forward on the high tide track. We got the hut and selected our bunks. There were no single bunks here, but we snagged two places next to each other in the row of bunks. We walked down across the tidal flats to the beach and dipped our feet in the water. In the short amount of time we were down there, the tide continued to aggressively roll in and we had to walk much farther out around the flats to make it back to the hut. They had a shower off in the woods and we went out to have a bracingly cold wilderness shower. We sat and talked about the rest of our trip. The next day was supposed to be close to 8 hours of hiking followed by almost 6 hours of driving down to Franz Joseph. Even assuming we were on the trail by 5am (which would have meant 2 hours of hiking with headlamps), we wouldn’t arrive back in Marahau until 1pm and that was assuming that Beth’s feet held up. As an alternative, we called around to the different water taxi places in Marahau and found one that would pick us up from Bark Bay at 11:30am the next morning and have us back in Marahau by noon. Seemed like the best bet, so we booked our package.

Having that dealt with was a huge weight off our shoulders, so it was time to have dinner. Similar to the night before, but with tofu instead of mussels. Since we did not have an early wake-up the next morning, we stayed up later and then wandered down onto the tidal flats to look-up at the magnificent night sky. From the darkness of the park, you could see the Milky Way in all its glory stretching from beach to mountains. We tried to take some pictures, but without a tripod to aim at specific things, I don’t think they came out too well. And then bed.

New Zealand: Day 4 - Abel Tasmin Day 1

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 14th, 2013

Our plan for the trek was to take a ferry as far north as possible, hike to the top most part of the trek and then turn around and come back. We also planned to do this in a super-aggressive 2.5 days. Our ferry was due to pick us up at 9:50 in the morning, but the particular ferry we had booked (which had the benefits of being larger, with a bar and restroom on-board, rather than the tiny little water taxis) was unable to fit into the harbor at Marahau. In order to catch the ferry, we had to hike an hour into the park and wait at Apple Tree Bay. When we had looked at this trek, it had been described as a mostly flat beach walk, which soon proved to be rather disingenuous. Yes, the parts of the trail on the beaches were flat, but also in sand, so the footing was difficult. The rest of the trek, however, consisted of very steep ascents up into the headlands, followed by very steep descents down onto the next beach. In this manner, you hopped from beach to beach, never gaining any overall elevation (so, mostly flat on average, I guess), but constantly exerting significant effort.

It was beautiful, though. The ocean was an adjective-defying shade of turquoise/teal/aquamarine green-blue that looked more beautiful than anything you can capture in a still image. The beaches were slender golden strips of fine sand that gave way to the Jurassican rain forest filling the hills sweeping up from ocean. There were birds singing in the forest and soft sunlight dappling everything through the ferns. In short, paradise. We got to our beach a little early, so we pulled up some driftwood and ate breakfast while waiting for the ferry. As we waited, small watertaxis arrived and disgorged groups of tourists who would talk the two hours (for them) back to Marahau for their small taste of Abel Tasmin. 9:50am rolled around and our ferry had not. Beth is not always the most patient of people, so she phoned the ferry company and was told that our clock was fast (it might have been) and that the ferry would should up (it did). Since the ferry was larger and unable to get all the way up onto the shore, we boarded by way of a mechanical gangplank, that was extended from the boat on to the beach. Once aboard, we grabbed seats on the upper deck and enjoyed the ride up the coast.

A majority of the people on the ferry were getting dropped off at various points along the Abel Tasmin coast, to do a kayaking trip or a day hike adventure. A few were staying on the ferry round-trip, just taking in the sites without every setting foot on land. The cruise was very nice; we got to see a majority of the track that we’d be hiking over the next few days, as well as some fur seals and penguins at Tonga Island. After about an hour-and-a-half, the ferry reached its final stop of Totarnui, where we disembarked. From there, the plan was to hike north to Separation Point (the most northwest part of the coast) and then swing around along the coast to the east to the DOC hut at Whariwharangi where we would be spending the night. The hills up on this end of the trek were significantly higher than they had been on the opening few kilometers and our initial fast pace soon decreased to a more measured stroll.

After about 2 something hours, at Mutton Cove beach (which was probably the most beautiful of all the beaches we visited in Abel Tasmin and had a fantastic campsite right on the water), we stopped for lunch (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with lots of fruit) and then we split off the main trail to head up to the Separation Point. The trail up started along the beach and then transitioned into a shore-line boulder field crossing (and we were lucky the tide was mostly out since it might not have otherwise been passable) before climbing straight-up the backside of the hill, before curving around and depositing you on a lookout over the point. Down below, we could see fur seals frolicking in the water, but our view from above seemed to be superior to the view down below, so we opted against heading down to the actual point. Instead we took lots of pictures of the seals and then picked our packs back up and hiked, mostly downhill finally, for another hour or so until we got to our hut. The huts are a quintessential part of the NZ Great Treks. The ones in Abel Tasmin are fairly basic, so they have bathrooms with flush toilets (a surprising facet of the outdoor life in NZ—everything is a flush toilet with a septic system. Have not seen an actual US-style port-a-potty yet), an unheated shower out in the woods, shared bunks with simple mattresses, and drinkable water. Everything else, including lighting for the evening and any cooking supplies you have to bring yourself.

We were tired by the time we arrived. Taranaki had taken a lot out of us and our packs were pretty heavy with all the food and associated gear that we were carrying (definitely heavier then when we were hiking in France), not to mention the constant up-and-down of the trail. So we chose our bunks (we ended up with singles in the same room but not next to each other), collapsed briefly, and then changed into our swim gear and went down to play in the Pacific Ocean for a while. It wasn’t too cold, definitely warmer than the Pacific is along the California coast but not warm like the Atlantic in summer. It was very refreshing after a hot day on the trail. We were both hungry by the time we arrived back at the cabin, so we ate dinner on the early side (6pm-ish). BBQ smoked mussels, some organic NZ cheese, bread, tomatoes, mango, and of course good chocolate. What it really needed was some beer to go with it, but we had not thought to pack any in, so we were out of luck. And then we decided to try and go to bed early. This was partially thwarted by some late arriving Germans who ended up in the same room as us and then by the insistence of one said German to use their headlamp as a reading light by shining it directly into my face. Beth had thought ahead enough to bring earplugs and an eye mask, so she slept pretty well. I eventually managed to drift off after other people settled down.

New Zealand: Day 3 - Wine and Friends

Posted in NZ2013, Travel, Uncategorized on March 14th, 2013

At 6:15am we woke up. Beth looked at me and said, “It’s 6:15am. What’s going on?” She does not always wake-up well. But she was fully rebooted within a few minutes and we scurried about getting everything packed up. We were out the door before our host awoke and off to sit in the long line for the ferry. Parked the car on the lower deck and headed off the to the upper deck to enjoy the cruise across the straits. Spent a good chunk of the uninteresting part of the cruise working on this blog then went up to the observation deck to watch us pull into Picton.

From Picton we drove west, initially snaking our way around Queen Charlotte Sound. We stopped a couple times to take photos; this was the first time that we really got the full effect of the New Zealand wild beauty, with the iridescent blue water curling up against sandy spits of beaches, while tree-covered mountains loom overhead. The road itself was as narrow and windy as any good NZ road tends to be. We made pretty good time and were down off the coastal mountains and into the heart of the Nelson region before too long. It was coming on lunch time, so we stopped off at a brew pub (?) for lunch. We had a couple salads (one with fried goat cheese, the other with local fish cakes) and a sampler of the beer they brewed there. 6 different beers, all of which were pretty decent. My favorite was the pale ale, while Beth’s was the hoppy red.

Then it was down into the heart of Nelson wine-country to find some wineries. The area is crawling with them and it was already getting somewhat into afternoon, so we had to be selective in the ones that we visited. The guide to the region that we had wasn’t very helpful since the one line descriptions of the places all sounded similar, so we just went with the ones that were closest to our route. First stop was at Richmond Plains & Te Mania. Two wineries in one tasting room! Efficiency! Te Mania was the first (and still one of the only) organic winery in the region and Richmond Plains is in the middle of its organic conversion. The woman working in the tasting room was the owner of Te Mania. She had come out to the region with her husband in 1990 with the intention of starting a winery, bought some land, and 23 years later is still there. We tried six wines there, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Reisling, a Gerwurtz, a Blanc de Noir (a white Pinot Noir), a Pinot rose, and a Resiling desert wine. Nothing was spectacular and we were pretty disappointed with the desert wine (a recurring theme in this region). We ended up getting a bottle of the Resiling and headed on.

Next stop was Seigfried Winery, which was a much bigger and more corporate environment. They had a fancy estate building and the woman doing the tasting was just an employee, not one of the wine-makers. Tasted their estate Sauv. Blanc (which we ended up buying), a Gerwurtz, a Wurtzer (a hybrid of Gerwurtz and something else which we both thought was inferior), their true Pinot, and a desert wine. Except for the one that we bought, we were pretty disappointed with the wines. Many of the wines from this region seemed to lack the character and definition that you tend to get from the more mature wineries over in the Marlborough area. A lot of good aromas, but in general the wine did not seem to live up its nose.

We were undeterred and headed on to Rimu Bay. True to its name, the winery sat up on a hill, with a stunning view down into the bay. It was a small tasting room and we had it all to ourselves. The woman working there wasn’t associated with the winery per se. One of her friends had made a lot of money working in derivatives and bought a couple hectacres of vines in the region. But he quickly realized that he had no interests in dealing with the land, so she and her husband volunteered to live on the land and take care of the vines in exchange for a chunk of the wine. Meanwhile, this guy Patrick whose parents were wine-makers in Napa decided he wanted to start a winery in Nelson, so he bought the land that became Rimu Bay, which happens to be right near the plot that our tasting room attendant lived on. Since she and her husband knew nothing about making wine, they trade work at Rimu Bay for Patrick’s help in making their wine. We never met Patrick but from the stories about him, he seemed like a mad chemist who mostly ran the vineyard for his own enjoyment; the tasting room was out of stuff because he had showed up a day or so before and taken the last few bottles for himself. For the most part, the wine was pretty average (and both Pinots were disappointing), but his Chardonnay was really exceptional. Way less oaky and more gentle that what you’d typically get in Cali. So we bought a bottle of that.

It was getting close to the end of the tasting day (since almost everything closed by 4:30), but there was one more place nearby (Glovers) that was open to 5. The description was extremely generic, but we figure what the hell. We drove up and noticed one other car in the lot (which might have held 3 cars if they squeezed really hard). We walked into the tasting room, which was empty, and were confronted with a wooden table whose entire surface was covered in a sea of bottles, mostly unlabeled. As we waited, the winemaker wandered out from the back with his other two guests; he had been showing them his brewing apparatus and they were sampling the beer that he had made. The tasting did not have much rhyme or reason. He poked around the table until he found something that looked interesting and then poured it out for us. We tasted a couple whites, including a really solid Sauv Blanc and then moved onto reds. The first Cab he poured for us was phenomenal, an experiment he had done which resulted in a much lighter and delicate wine. A complete revelation compared to the tannic-y oak monsters from Cali. Then a couple more Cabs (none good as the first) and then he pulls out the limoncello that he made. Only 60g of sugar per liter compared to the 300g that you normally get in the Italian version, so much more the bitter lemon flavor came through. Delicious. And then he goes into a backroom and comes back with something that “[he had] just threw together recently” and hadn’t even gotten around to labeling any of them. It was a rose Cabernet and it too was amazing.

During all these tastings we had been chatting with the other couple that was there. Their names were Ursula and Dan, from Amsterdam, and they were spending a month in NZ after spending two in Australia. She was a medical student and had front-loaded her courses to give herself a semester off to travel and was making the most of it. We chatted about wine and politics and travel and the failures of the US education system. Ursula’s English was basically flawless, despite the fact that she’d never been to the US or the UK, which she attributed to a strict English aunt who used to wrap her knuckles whenever she did not speak English. Though I doubt the aunt is the one who taught her to drop slang like ‘asshole douchebags’ with the nonchalance of a well-practiced America. The ‘tasting’ went on for over an hour, well after the winery was officially closed. We discovered that our Dutch friends were headed the same place we were, off to hike the Abel Tasmin trek, so we might run into them again. Then we discovered that they didn’t had a place to stay down in Marahau, so we gave them the address of the place we had booked and we decided that we’d try to meet up for dinner.

We finally left Glovers with three bottles of his crazy concoctions and continued our coast drive. We made a brief stop to pick up food for the next three days and then rolled into The Barn where we were staying for the night. Our adorable ‘room’ was a tiny little cabin that held a bed and our luggage and nothing more. As we were finishing checking-in, Ursula and Dan rolled up and rented a camp site (since all the cabins were booked). We spent an hour or so getting our packs all set for the trek and then drove down to the beach to eat dinner. The menu was smoked salmon, NZ cheese, avocado, rye bread, nectarines, chocolate cookies, and a bottle of wine which we ate as the sun slowly set (though not over the ocean, alas). Ursula and Dan showed-up again and we talked some more while watching the stars start to come out. The sky down in NZ is just stunning; on most nights in most places you can see the entire Milky Way spreading out through the entire sky. Drove back to The Barn and it was time for sleep, because we had an early wake-up the next morning to get to our ferry into Abel Tasmin.

New Zealand: Day 2 - A walk in Hell

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 4th, 2013

Up the next morning at 7:30 and you could just see the cone of Mt. Taranki looming over us. The park guides all listed this hike as taking 8 to 9 hours to complete, but it was only around 13km and NZ frequently over-estimates how long hikes take, so we were confident we would be done in far less time. What we did not realize was that this was not a hike, but a veritable slog through Hell, that would break both body and mind. The first 4 kilometers up were steep, but nothing particularly abnormal. Beth had the unique experience of having to wait for me as I struggled up some of the steeper ascents; just fruits of her working out for the last 6 months while I basically sat on my ass and ran once a week. We arrived at the mountain lodge feeling pretty good about ourselves, since we were decently ahead of the projected schedule. Right above the lodge, the trail turned into a steep staircase that wound its way up a nearly sheer hillside. It was painful climbing, but a picnic with what was about to come.

The view from below Taranaki

The view from below Taranaki

Weather station on the slopes of the volcano.

Weather station on the slopes of the volcano.

Once past the stairs, it was nearly a kilometer of scrambling straight-up through a scree field. Now scree is a loose aggregation of dirt and rock, and in typical NZ fashion, there was no real path or helpers, just a few poles that indicated the general route. Every step you took, the ground slipped out from underneath, so you barely made it one step forward for every two steps you took. You fought and you cursed and then the wind kicked up and turned the loose dirt into a whirling cloud of grit that got into your mouth, and hair and eyes. There were no switchbacks, no concessions to human frailty, just a seemingly never-ending ascent straight up the side of the mountain. And finally as you saw the end of the scree field, you realized that there were still close to 400 meters of elevation to go and the rest of the way was a giant mass of rock outcroppings, intermixed with patches of scree. So you pulled yourself up the rocks, so tired by this point that every step required a severe mustering of willpower, unable to fully trust anywhere you put your feet.
View from above the clouds

View from above the clouds

About halfway up the rock climb, as we were grabbing a short rest, I turned to Beth and said something I haven’t said on a hike since I was 14 or so, “I’m not having fun anymore.” Neither was she. And then we turned and looked-up at the two-and-a-half football fields of climbing left to us and said, “Fuck this mountain, we’ve come this far, we’re going to the top.” Back on our feet, climbing inch-by-inch, pausing to rest after every third step.
Beth climbing.

Beth climbing.

And then finally the crest of the hill, up and over the edge, and below the snow filled crater of the volcano. We walked out on the snow and looked for the trail that lead up to the ‘true’ summit, but couldn’t find it. After a brief consultation we decided that making it to the top was enough and the ‘true’ summit could go bugger itself.
Snow field at the top of the volcano.

Snow field at the top of the volcano.

And then it was time to go back down. On one hand it was easier, because you did not have to drag yourself up the cliff. On the other, you were now heading down on immensely unstable footing, and the fear of tripping and falling loomed ever present in the back of your mind. Part of the way down the rock climb, I did trip and fall, thankfully catching myself with only a few scrapes on the arm and knee as the toll. But we stopped then and ate lunch, desperately trying to cram enough fuel into our bodies to make the trip down. At this point it felt more about surviving than success and a desperate desire to get away from this mountain. Getting down the scree field was easier than expected, thanks to some useful advice from another climber we met.

Now I’m not saying he was Tom Bombadil, but if there was going to be a Tom Bombadil in the NZ mountains, it would be this dude. He was older, probably late 60’s, yet he had bounded up and down the mountain with ease. Along the way, he fixed up the trail, gathered trash, and dispensed advice to other travelers. During our conversation, he told us that he climbed the mountain every day the weather was good, including 6 days last week (clear proof he wasn’t human). He also told us to stick to the left when going down the scree field, because the soil there was deeper and there were more rocks. This proved to be amazing advice. In the deep scree, you are able to skate down the mountain, thrusting your feet in heel first and then sliding forward until the accumulation of rocks slows you to a halt, at which point you repeated the step with your other foot. It was almost fun. For the first 10 minutes. And then your calves start burning and your feet start cramping and you realize you have at least another 40 minutes of this. Finally, the stairs came into view and I have never been so glad to see stairs on a trail before. Down and down the stairs and finally we were back at the lodge.

Here we sat for awhile and drank deeply from our water, comforting ourselves with the knowledge that we had 4 short kilometers and then we were done. Hah. The route down was steep enough that every step sent shoots of pain screaming up our calves and made our knees ache. We tried hiking quickly, slowly, backwards before finally just putting our heads down and dragging ourselves forward through the pain. The lower part of the trail snaked through a beautiful sub-alpine rain forest, so we were surrounded by ferns, palms, and evergreens of the most exotic Jurassican appearance and we hardly cared. It was time for the hike to be over and then finally, mercifully, it was. Dead tired, covered entirely in dust, scraped and bruised and aching in every place possible, we were done. And yet there was no rest for the long suffering. It was time to pile into the car and drive 5 hours to Wellington.

The drive was long. Beth got her first taste of driving on the wrong side of the road and we survived. Right after I switched back to driving at sundown, we got caught in a torrential downpour. The rain interacted with whatever gas station soap we had used to clean the insects off the windshield and all of a sudden all I could see were streaks of light and color. We had to pull off the road (thank god there was a shoulder) and get out in the rain to scrub down the glass with a towel. And then we drove, more slowly than normal due to the rain, down the coast to finally arrive in Wellington. We were staying in the night in a room we’d rented on AirB&B and our host was a really charming resident named Sophia who parallel parked our car for us (trying to parallel park from the wrong side of the car is even more terrifying than normal parallel parking). We grabbed a quick dinner from a fantastic little craft beer pub called Hashigo Zake: octopus dumplings, spicy udon soup, and good NZ beer (highly recommend it to anyone in Wellington). And then collapsed into a heap in our bed, to collect the scant 6+ hours of sleep we would get before having to wake up and catch the ferry.

New Zealand: Arrival and Day 1

Posted in NZ2013, Travel on March 4th, 2013

The first thing you notice when traveling internationally is how shit American airlines are. We started our trip in the United club in Newark airport, killing the hour before our flight to Los Angelas. The club was a nice refuge from the craziness of the terminal on a Friday afternoon, but offered the scantest amenities possible—no open bar, a bathroom that didn’t see big enough to serve the several hundred occupants, and a food spread that mostly consisted of prepackaged cheeses and some crackers.

For a space that is supposed to make United’s most frequent fliers and first class passengers feel special it, like all the other United lounges I’ve ever been in, fails. The plane was also not particularly inspiring, though it did have in-seat screens with free movies and we had a decent stash of free drink vouchers. I sipped my bourbon and watched Argo, which was nice enough but I’m not really sure what all the fuss was about. Seemed a pretty weak Oscar winner.

We arrived in LAX and immediately had to exit security, switch to a different terminal and then go back in through security again. Airport design by someone who apparently hated people. We snagged some food from one of the restaurants in Terminal 2 and went up to the Air New Zealand lounge to kill the almost 3 hours before our next flight (all lounge access thanks to my wife being uber-super-elite after all the work travel she did last year). Big difference. Full open bar with NZ wines, champagne, NZ beer, and a mix-your-own cocktail station. A nice buffet of food, including excellent cheese options (with an artisanal assortment of breads) and some delicious brownies. Ample bathrooms, including shower rooms, which was a glorious surprise after having spent 6+ hours on a cross-country flight with a 12 hour flight to follow.

And the Air New Zealand plane was also comparatively superior, with a seatback screen that was over 50% larger (with a significantly more extensive movie and music library), free pillow and blankets, in-seat ordering for food/drink, and a way more comfortable seat. I did not actually take advantage of many of the amenities, though, since I was exhausted and bucked normal trends by managing to fall asleep on the plane. It was not the most restful of evenings, but I probably managed a good 7 or 8 hours of sleep on the 12 hour flight, which meant that when we landed I felt fairly human. Beth slept even more than I did, so both of us were ready to go. Immigrations and Customs went rapidly and we were free. Our car rental place picked us up at the airport and whisked us away to their nearby office, where we got our Prius and then it was on to the open road.

Where I prompt managed to get on the highway going the wrong way (my excuse is that since they drive on the wrong side of the road here, obviously all directions are backwards). There was a bit of a kerfluffle, but we got the GPS up and running and she gave us instructions in her charming Kiwi accent and soon enough we were heading South out of Auckland towards Waimoto. Since we believe in hitting the ground running, our first adventure was to be with the Legendary Blackwater Rafting company.

The first hour of driving was an adventure as I re-acclimatized my brain to doing everything in the opposite manner. While keeping the car straight in the lane was hard enough, dealing with the windshield wipers and turn-signal being switched is the thing that really gets you. You instinctively reach for the turn-signal to make a turn and instead you get a facefull of wiper.

But we arrived in Waimoto without much incident and checked-in for our Black Abyss tour. I’d done the same tour when I came to NZ 5 years ago, so I knew what to expect, but it was still a lot of fun. They got our group of 6 (all Americans by chance) geared up wetsuits, helmets, and harnesses and then drove us off to the glowworm caves. To get the tour started, you repel down a 120-foot vertical chimney, squeezing through a narrow crevice in the middle and arrive in the darkness of the caves. From there you ride a zipline through the total darkness (there was some hilarious screams and cursing from some of the party) before grabbing an innertube and leaping into the underground river. The water was cold; even with the wetsuit you felt it. We paddled along the river, all the way up to where it met the roof of the cavern, turned off our helmet lights and drifted downstream staring up at the thousands of tiny glowing ‘worms’ that covered the ceiling of the cave (the ‘worms’ are actually the larval form of some flying insect thing).

Getting ready for blackwater rafting.

Getting ready for blackwater rafting.

By the time we arrived back where we had started, everyone was cold, but we warmed up some as we left behind the tubes and hiked down the river. The water depth varied step-to-step, from ankle to chest deep and was impossible to see much in the darkness making every step an adventure. We visited a cave eel, jumped off rocks into a large pool, saw fossilized whale bones, and slide down a slide. Finally, as we approached the end, we squeezed through a tiny rock passageway, rock-climbed our way up two waterfalls, ducked around a few corners and daylight. After 4 hours down in the cold and dark, the sunlight felt amazing. We piled back into the van and drove back to the rafting center. Hot showers and soup completed the experience and then it was time to go. Tour was awesome. Our guides were great. We both had a fantastic time.

We had a long evening to driving ahead of us, but we stopped on the way at The Warehouse, a NZ superstore, to get a NZ sim card for Beth’s phone. This did not prove to be a simple undertaking, as the first mobile company we tried wouldn’t acknowledge her phone at all. But we finally (after 40+ minutes) got hooked up with a prepay Vodafone SIM. And then we drove down the coast in the fading twilight until we finally arrived in Taranaki National Park. We were staying inside the park, so we punched our code into the late-night arrival box and discovered that they had not bothered to label which key was ours. We had to call the owner of the place and he told us which key was ours. We grabbed the key, drove up to the lodge, and discovered someone was already sleeping in the room. Called back the owner. Oops, he had told us the wrong room. Back down to the box, punch in the code again, new key, and finally we had a room. It was after 11pm by now and we had an early date with a mountain in the morning, so we passed out quickly.

Pictures will hopefully follow when I have a more stable wifi connection.

Tribeca - Easy Virtue

Posted in Movies on May 2nd, 2009

Had to rush for this movie, since it had sold out long before I got tickets (and I got tickets on the first day general admission tickets went on sale to Amex card holders). The rush situation was a travesty. The volunteers managed to establish three different rush lines, shuffling people all over the place in a chaotic Chinese firedrill. My saint of a girlfriend showed up two and half hours early to wait in line for tickets (since I was stuck fighting the urge to nap in My Dear Enemy). Somehow in all the shuffle, she managed to get bumped from first in line to thirtieth in line, completely do to the people establishing the lines being utter dicks. However, she and several of her line mates banded together, found the theater manager, and, with the help of an off duty volunteer who was also in the rush line, managed to get the situation straightened out. The end result was that we ended up being one of the maybe six people who actually got rush tickets for the film. Massive props to the paid staff at Tribeca for actually dealing with the clusterfuck that the volunteers created. It would have been abysmal if my girlfriend had stood in line for two-and-a-half hours to only get screwed out of seeing the film because tweedledum and tweedledee couldn’t figure out how to set up a rush line.

So, on to the film. I liked it a lot. It wasn’t quite what I expected. It actually reminded me a lot of Picadilly Jim (Tribeca 2006), though without the era-bending costuming and set dressing. Easy Virtue remains firmly rooted in its 1920’s ethos, though it definitely flashes some modern muscle with its liberated-woman main character. Jessica Biel plays an American race car driver who meets and marries a charming young Englishman while racing in the Riviera. She returns with him to his family’s ancestral manor buried deep in the English countryside. Colin Firth plays her rather weak-chinned husband, who whilst being all charming proves completely ineffectual at mediating between his new bride and his mother. His mother who is shocked and appalled by the mere idea of an American in the family (and even more appalled that she is a scandalous one to boot) declares war on the new bride, in a battle for the heart and mind of the son. The rest of the film unfolds in cuttingly sarcastic set pieces and passive aggressive trench warfare as neither of the two strong-willed women will back down. The rest of the household is quickly split into side (the servants and father siding with Ms. Biel, while the sisters support their mother) and zany antics ensue. The film lacks the manic glee of Picadilly Jim (intentionally, I think), but still delivers quite a lot of fun. Four out of five.

Tribeca - My Dear Enemy

Posted in Movies on May 2nd, 2009

Somewhere inside this boring film is an interesting idea struggling to get out. Our two main characters are ex’s and the guy owes the girl $3500 from a loan she made him a year ago. As the film opens, she shows up and demands that he repay her, so he is forced to travel, with her, around the city hitting up various friends for loans. Obviously this is meant to be a film of exploration, where more and more of the characters and their back story is revealed as we follow them on their way. The only problem is that their back story is dull as all get out and it takes forever for anything to happen. The film isn’t particularly funny, particularly dramatic, or particularly interesting. With a better script, a better cast, and a better director this film might have been something. As it is, it simply drags on terminally. Two out of five.

Tribeca - In The Loop

Posted in Movies on May 2nd, 2009

British film chronicling the events in the American and British government ministries during the lead up to an unspecified war (read Iraq). As a narrative film there isn’t much of a plot and no character development, this is more a visualization of the backstabbing, political maneuvering, and outright lying that goes on as countries try to garner adequate international support for their invasion. As such, it is both highly entertaining and disturbing. The cavalier way that people lie and manipulate to gain an advantage, as if it was a game and not a geopolitical decision that will end up costing hundreds of thousands their lives, is an all too real reminder of the past eight years of American (and British) foreign policy. The highlight of the film is Peter Capaldi who plays the British Prime Minister’s Press Co-ordinator who is an absolute monster. His use of sarcasm and profanity to tear apart the people around him is worth the price of admission. Four out of five.

Tribeca - Here and There

Posted in Movies on May 2nd, 2009

Robert is a 52-year-old unemployed musician kicking around New York with no purpose in life. When he is evicted from his apartment, he hires a cheap Serbian moving company to get his stuff to an ex-girlfriend’s apartment. The Serbian mover offers him a deal. For six thousand dollars, Robert needs to go to Serbia, marry the Serb’s girlfriend, get her a visa, and bring her back to the United States. Robert accepts the deal and heads off to Serbia.

Here and There is a sweet and charming little movie—stylistically it is what I previous labeled as a serious comedy, combining poignancy, sarcasm, and reality into an entertaining blend. It was quite enjoyable, if not exceptional. I gave it a four out of five.

Tribeca - Black Dynamite

Posted in Movies on May 2nd, 2009

A parody/homage to the Blaxplotation films of the 1970’s, Black Dynamite brings the funk, the soul, and the funny. The genesis of this film (as explained by the director) was rather amusing. Apparently, Michael Jai White (who stars as Black Dynamite) decided that he’d make a great Blaxplotation film. So he got together with the director Scott Sanders and for five hundred dollars they made a trailer. Purely on the strength of the trailer, they wrangled together almost three million in funding and then set about actually creating a story and writing a script. There is something of a plot involving smack in the ghetto and a plot to poison people with malt liquor, but that is almost besides the point. The point is that Black Dynamite is the baddest motherfucker in the hood and is going to throw down on anyone who gets in his way. You dig?

The writing stype cribs heavily from the classic Blaxplotation films, but that doesn’t stop the deadpan one-liners and the speaking in cadenced rhymes from being any less funny. The soundtrack is pure 70’s funk. The ladies are fly, there are hilarious cameos from black comics (as pimps), and the film lovingly plays up the continuity errors and boom mic shots. Viet Nam flashbacks, evil Asian kung-fu masters, corrupt CIA agents—the film throws in everything including the kitchen sink. And just when the film has got you rolling on the floor, they drop the pedal to the floor and end up in the White House, where Black Dynamite has to numchuck fight with the worst villain of the 70’s, Tricky Dick himself. I just lost my shit. The film is ridiculous amounts of fun. A clear five out of five. It gets it theatrical release over Labor Day weekend. Check it out.