Ready, Willing, and Abel Tasman

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

We were out the door by seven and en route for Abel Tasman National Park. Finally, a beautiful and cloud free day, we were all very excited to get rolling. It was an hour and a half drive from Nelson and we arrived a little early even after going to the wrong sea kayak company. Then, the hell began. The group divided into those who were going hiking in and those who were kayaking in. Those of us hiking in still had to do training, and our guy not only wasn’t a native English speaker, but he was a grumpy non-native English speaker. So much so that Albrie told him he was being rude and I called him a jerk as he threatened to ‘fail us’ for actually doing what he said. It was very tedious, to put it nicely, and really sucked the fun out of the morning. Meanwhile, as the sundial’s shadow crawled around the circle, clouds were starting to move in and we were growing impatient. On the plus side, we knew what to do in case of a nuclear strike while in a sea kayak, and more difficult topics like how to read a map legend, just as an example. And all the while, the constant threats of failing the whole group of us and so on.

So, we did the training, got back out, dried off, and finally set off on our hike. It was a beautiful hike. The sequoidas or whatever they were called were often so loud that you couldn’t hear. On the right there were beautiful expanses of golden beach, turquoise waters, blue skies, and verdant palms and rainforest. Sometimes the path would venture deep into the rainforest, so far in that it felt like someone just around the corner must’ve cleared it out with a machete. I started leading the group (we had an initial wrong turn with Norm at the head) and thanks to my photography soon found myself towards the back of the group. I also ventured off the beaten path here and there to try to get some of the beautiful coastline in, but to see it and to be there are sadly two different things. I kept thinking Nicole would love all these wild palms and tropical plants. Though she’d definitely hate the camping.

I took one outlook that left me about 20 minutes behind the group but it was a beautiful panorama. Then I went full tilt to try and catch up to the group as the drizzle started, and then the rain and then the downpour. I stopped only to throw on my so-called rain jacket and the rain cover for my pack and pressed on. I actually managed to catch up to and pass 6 of the 9 people that had continued when I detoured. I even jogged for probably 1km overall with my pack on but couldn’t catch the front three, Dustin, Chelsea, and Ally. I arrived drenched and Rachel pointed me toward the campsite though she eventually had to come with me and show me the way. O Mary Don’t You Weep (Bruce Springsteen) was playing on my iPod and I stood drenched in the rain looking over a creek at the ocean. It wasn’t a bad rain.

As I walked up, Brad and Chris had cooked up some fresh muscles they’d just picked and gave me one that was hot and tasty and just what I needed. Anthony had set up our tent already so I threw my stuff in and got dry. It turned out that the other group had encounted really rough waters on the Mad Mile and had beached the kayaks at Watering Cove, about 20 mins from our spot in Anchorage. We were hungry so Lauren Sanders and I cooked up some tortellini which was actually very good and then some apricot crumble which was… not so good. The important thing I’ve learned is never to let her cook on Dustin’s hot stove – she has a leaning towards burning things. To be fair, it is all but impossible not to on that stove, but nevertheless: The joys of camping.

That night everyone was tired early, as seems to be the case with this group. A few of us stayed up and played cards and to keep everyone up (since I was completely awake), I got us telling ghost stories. Chelsea had a particularly creepy one about a tape and hearing chains and screaming one time and then other things the next time they played it – in multiple players. Ally had a few creepy ones about this house near her, Rachel had one about having the car somehow avoid an unavoidable accident and emerge unscathed, and it was a good conversation. Then the sleep came.

The next day, we laid around on the beach after some dry waffles and chugged maple syrup and then I went with a group to go pick up the kayaks from where they’d been left the day prior. But, after the hike there – they were gone. One woman on the beach said she’d seen tracks leading into the ocean for the five kayaks, but otherwise no ideas. We got one of the water taxis to radio our company and find out what had happened and we waited around for almost two hours. Admittedly, this wasn’t bad. It was a beautiful beach in Watering Cove and quite quiet. We hung out, climbed rocks, took some wild pictures, and visited. Finally, we got our kayaks back from the company who took them in a mixup and did the Mad Mile no problem. My plan for the day had been to take a kayak out to Tonga Island with Dustin to look for seals, but the guy who brought us our kayaks told us the much nearer (by about 3km) Pinnacle Island could have seals on it as well.

I was in a kayak with Chris and convinced him that this was something we must check out since we were on the water anyway, and so we left the group (signaling them to follow, but none did) and made our way out there. We got to the island and saw nothing shy of some birds that looked like they could be penguins, and floated on the island. It was pretty windy at our backs and we thought about going all the way to Tonga when suddenly a seal bounded up, curious at the noise. Well, I scrambled for my camera but I had no need. They were quite happy to sun themselves on this beautiful day and hung out watching us. There were two parents and a little – and very cute – baby, and I managed to get photos of all of them. I even hopped off the kayak while Chris held it at bay in the rocks to get some better photos and managed to get a couple. In the short time I was there, the tide came up 15 cm and we got out of there before it stranded us too far. Seeing the seals there, in the wild, just living, was really amazing and alone made the whole trip to Abel Tasman worthwhile.

We got back and told our story to very jealous compadres and then the boys all went out to grab some muscles for a snack. We got a couple pots full and hauled them back to the beach. That night we had fettucini alfredo (which I dislike at the best of times) that took forever to make (yes, Lauren2 burnt the milk) and then some muscles which actually were pretty good. I can only have a few, but I do like them apparently. Brad, Chris, and myself sat by the fire as the others drifted off to sleep. I checked out the stars with Kate and had a good conversation with her before hanging out with the boys at the campfire and that was the evening.

The next morning we packed up our stuff and loaded the kayaks. I was kayaking back with Dustin and we had a good conversation too, interrupted by dolphins swimming and playing only 10m ahead of us. It was absolutely incredible. Seals, penguins, and dolphins in the space of two days, and all in the wild! Again, I scrambled for my camera but they must’ve detected my fervor and disappeared below, surfacing again 30m behind us near the next kayakers before taking off altogether. We showered for the first time in three days (my hair was whitish from the salt), grabbed a nice big cheeseburger, and hit the road for our long drive to Kaikura. We stopped in Nelson again to pick up some food we’d left at the hostel, and Chris and I ran to the bank, grabbed a few minutes online to download our email, and grabbed a six pack of beer for the ride since we’d gone with nothing to drink for quite a few days. Brad, Chris, and I sat in the back and sung along to almost every song we could. The CD I made is finally getting popular though with only one disc, even I am tiring of it. That said, here’s a tracklist for anyone checking later that wants to recreate it. The most popular are definitely the Ween , though us boys did a trumpet solo for Sixteen Military Wives, everyone loves the Lalalas in the Iggy Pop song. Without further ado:

1) Spoon – Everything Hits At Once
2) Air – Surfing on a Rocket
3) Breeders – Cannonball
4) Sam Roberts – Brother Down
5) Johnny Cash – The Passenger (Iggy Pop Cover)
6) Ween – Ocean Man
7) Calexico – Guero Canelo
8) Decemberists – Sixteen Military Wives
9) Radiohead – Karma Police
10) Spoon – 30 Gallon Tank
11) Frank Black – Coastline
12) Beatles – Across the Universe
13) Bruce Springsteen – Old Dan Tucker
14) Beulah – Me and Jesus Don’t Talk Anymore
15) Franz Ferdinand – Take Me Out
16) Tragically Hip – New Orleans Is Sinking
17) Ween – Bananas and Blow
18) Metric – Raw Sugar
19) Led Zeppelin – Misty Mountain Hop
20) Interpol – Slow Hands
21) Duran Duran – Come Undone

Abel Tasman Photos

The Full Nelson

Saturday, January 27, 2007

We got into Nelson early enough to take a look around for a few hours before dinner and did just that. The city is quite small and very touristy. Every city here seems touristy, which is probably why the kiwis strive so hard to find crazy stuff to do in the wilderness. I would want to escape too. We grabbed some wine (and me some olives) and I actually found an ice wine, which, to be honest, is not really great as far as ice wines go, but it is local and was only $15 NZ. So what can I expect? It certainly wasn’t awful. The bottle of red I got had Monkey in the title and was not great either, but again was worth the $10NZ price tag.

The group of us had dinner (burritos) and cracked open the wine. We all sat around chatting and drinking and were having a great time. It’s nice when everyone is together and visting. Then we went out on the town and hit several bars. I only spent $12 for the night, which I’m quite happy with, though I suppose I spent more if the wine earlier is included. Everyone is also happy to share and try each others’ wines and foods, which is very nice because we get to try a lot of stuff that way. I had a chat with Katie about the company she’s working for and how they do things and we called it an evening.

The next morning I was on cooking duty so I got up early to get breakfast set up. Which basically means cutting up some fruit, putting out the bread and jam (boysenberry), and yogurt. I think I’ve convinced Katie that we could have crepes or something in the morning quite easily, so I’m hoping for a warm breakfast sometime soon. I tried to use the internet but the café didn’t like IP6 very much and logged my computer off irretrievably right when I was about to start a video chat with my dad and in the middle of uploading my photos. Today, the rest of the group minus two or three people (Lana, Amanda, Rachel) went skydiving. I’d already done it (and not found it that much a rush) and decided to spend my money trying out hang gliding instead.

The weather was pretty dodgy in the morning but cleared up by midday, so I was able to actually attempt a run off the mountain type of take off instead of being towed behind a plane. We drove up the a large hill on the edge of Nelson and there were lots of people up there already, paragliding and hang gliding. Just to be up there and watching everyone was cool enough, but I was going to get to do it. To be honest, I was already more nervous than skydiving because there’s a lot more that can go awry with a glider than a parachute – wing stalls, spins, more difficult landings, etc. But we strapped ourselves into a harness, got the glider set up (well, they did this since they didn’t want a novice doing something wrong), and I passed my camera off to the really hot English girl that was Kevin’s assistant. Unfortunately, she didn’t think it important to photograph herself. Then, to the edge of the hill, 1… 2… step… step… run run run run and we were airborne.

It was really an amazing thing to do this, moreso than I imagined. Right after takeoff, we were speeding down and then climbing up, moreorless stalling, and then back down again, as we hunted updrafts. You just fly through the air like a bird, looking for these thermals and updrafts and riding them. We climbed over 1000 ft. from our takeoff point, and were pretty much right at the floor of the clouds before we sailed on and out over the city. Turning is just a matter of leaning your weight. And because we were riding these thermals in spirals upward and there was a lot of up-down motion, there was a bit of nausea involved. Also, the harness didn’t fit quite right which means that a lot of weight was on my feet and my lower back got pretty sore. But it was all worth it to just be up there in the breeze floating around. We also did some stalls, steep turns, and other fun stuff. Then we came in to the landing field over a soccer game and rolled to a quick stop.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group seemed to really enjoy the dive. I watched Brad’s video after and they all seem so excited, I’m a little sorry I didn’t go with them – it probably would’ve been a little more fun with people I know. But I certainly don’t regret the hang gliding. We got back and I was on cooking duty again, which today was… sandwiches. I remember reading a review of someone saying that they ate better here than at home and I feel bad for them. Though their group probably wasn’t led by a vegetarian. After dinner, I wound up doing almost all the cleanup by myself. All the while, one member of my group was sitting at a nearby table chatting loudly (and, I won’t lie, inanely) and the other was just hanging out upstairs. To the loud one’s credit, she washed almost four small cutting boards and put in about two minutes of work. And she also decided she was above helping prepare the sandwiches. I would’ve called her on it, but I probably would’ve snapped completely, so I grabbed my iPod and cranked it up instead, and finished it on my own. The next night, one of them made it up to me by getting groceries on my behalf, so we’re getting along again.

We sat around in the lounge that night (me, Chris, and Brad) and chatted with a guy from Toronto who has been abroad for a couple years in Europe and New Zealand. The cooking drama was forgotten and we had a good time. The next day we went wine tasting, Brad, Chris, Anthony, Katie, and myself. On the tour with us were, amazingly, two girls from Davidson. Talk about a small world. We had some really nice white Waimea Sauvignon Blanc that is probably the best white wine I’ve ever had, as well as some decent pinot gris and chardonnay, though I wasn’t really a big fan of the chardonnays. Dinner was a definite effort on the part of this particular cooking group, and was a definite step in the right direction – curry, rice, garlic bread. That’s more like it. We did a little shopping for food, I did a lot more internet stuff to get you guys up to date, and then came back and packed for the next couple days. Tomorrow, we head to Abel Tasman, some by foot (me) and others by kayak. We camp there for the night, spend the next day there, and then those that walked kayak out while the others walk. It’s supposed to be a nice park, I just REALLY could use some weather that isn’t rain. I’ll settle for cloudy and cool, but please for the love of all that is holy, no rain tomorrow!

Nelson Photos

Wine Tasting Photos

Doing Wellington

Friday, January 26, 2007

It was a bit of a jaunt to Welly, through winding roads and finally onto main highways. Wellington was immediately impressive, a very pretty city with lots of colour and green space. Lots of Lord of the Rings was actually filmed in the city – not near it, not in a studio, but in forests within Wellington. We got into our hostel, which was actually pretty nice but an HI/YHA hostel. They’re actually not bad hostels when you’re traveling with a few people, it’s when you’re alone that they become big and impersonal. Chris and I took off and looked around the city for a bit, just walking and seeing what there was to see. We stumbled on Manners Mall and of course Cuba Street, and a bunch of small places besides. We walked the waterfront and made it up to the military museum on the hill.

Then we met up with Brad and his friend that lives here and trekked up to his friend’s place. Since they were going clubbing, we needed to grab a clothes upgrade and went back to the hostel, but by then were starting to wear. So Chris and I just went out in search of some live music. All the Irish pubs had it, but the atmosphere was not really happening on a Wednesday night. We finally wound up in a place called The Blue Note, which was a jazz café and had a jam night going on. There were some really talented players and some good songs, and everyone knew everyone – except us. The drummer went on a bit of a tear and it was terrific if drawn out. It turned out to be a really cool place to have stopped.

Walking back in search of another venue, I saw a little doorway with “Mighty Mighty” above it, a venue I’d noticed from the local indie show posters, so we went in there. The band had a couple guitars, banjo, mandolin, and a few other implements of entertainment, but we only caught their last song and some dark Mac’s beer sadly. On Friday there was a French band playing there that I’ve heard of and it would’ve been cool to see it, but oh well.

The next morning, we went to Te Papa, a big free museum right on the waterfront. There are some really interesting displays and it’s quite worth a stop – especially considering it’s free. Very kid friendly too, which is something we would observe throughout the day – there are a lot of things for a kid to do in this town. Cool parks and rides and free activities and the whole lot. A bunch of us went for lunch and then we were going to meet Norm for a little self-guided van tour. But he was long gone, and so Chris, Kristen, and myself headed out on foot. This turned out to be a terrific idea.

After walking the harbour and seeing all the aforementioned kids’ stuff, we found our way up the side of Mt. Victoria. En route, we passed a woman who must work for Cirque du Soleil or something – she had a massive apparatus (maybe five stories high) in her yard and was practicing some routine swinging and dancing on two ribbons over a small mat. The path we took also was fortuitous in that it brought us by a little clearing with a nice view and a tree swing, although the path was sometimes quite steep. Especially for my sandaled friends. From the top, the view of the surrounding sound was pretty nice. Jets were flying by the mountainside below us, boats were bobbing in and out of the harbour in the sun, and the skyline stretched below the surrounding hills. We took this in for a spell and then wound our way back down, passing the spot where the four hobbits hid under a log from the black rider. It’s going to be weird in Australia having to worry about what’s underfoot and not being able to trek through the grass easily. We stopped on the way down in a little park which had some neat stuff and played around there for a little while. Safety testing, of course. All is well with that park.

The three of us walked around the city once more, stopping in a few shops, grabbing a quick rest (and chocolate dessert) in a café, and we actually found this little cave-like restaurant that naturally grabbed my interest (complete with stalactites). It was about 3:00 and nobody was around except the owner and his family, so we had a bit of a chat with him and he recommended a place called Backbenchers where we could get a nice rack of lamb. They only had lamb shanks there, as seems to be the case in most places here.

It was by the parliament anyway, so we walked over there, seeing more cool downtown and the more swanky districts, finally finding the place. It was actually more a pub than anything, but interesting in that it was very political and had all sorts of satire on the walls. Big doll caricatures of Kiwi MPs and themed menus and the works. We had a beer but no rack of lamb since it wasn’t on the menu and after stopping back at the hostel to recuperate, we went out for dinner – the three of us again.

Since we were not having any luck finding rack of lamb, we decided to go visit the restaurant we’d been at earlier as they seemed like nice people and the menu looked fine except for the missing rack. We had a very nice (and very tender) dinner, a bottle of Mateau, and dessert, and got our picture with the whole family before leaving. We got back and played cards ‘til 2 AM… some of the more adult games like Go Fish. Overall, one of the better days on the tour so far, if I may say.

We left Wellington the next day for a ferry trip to Picton. On the ferry, we met the same Australians we’d befriended on the misery of Tongario. One of them is an electronics engineer and pilot, so I chatted with him for quite a while. The three hour ferry ride went quickly and I got a lot of photo captioning done. We stayed in Picton for an hour and grabbed some Fish and Chips (mine was fresh Flake Shark) from a divey little shop that still wrapped the meal in newspaper. It was great, and the crab stick (real crab) was easily a meal highlight for me. We pulled into Nelson just before dinner and that’s where I am now.

Wellington Photos

Bring on the Camping

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

We woke up bright and early… or at least I did. I set my alarm for an hour too early again. Which meant just before 5AM instead of 6AM. Since I hit the proverbial hay at 1, it was a little early, but we had a big hike ahead of us, so that kept me moving. We left in nice weather for Tongario National Park, where we were to hike in the shadow of Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings. Well, to really make it feel authentic, the weather got nasty as soon as we came to the edge of Mordor. I got a little confused between the Misty Mountains and Mordor, in other words. The mist was pretty light but we all threw on our waterproof stuff and set off.

The landscape was very sparse, feeling like the Canadian Shield or the northernmost portions of Norway, and we passed the swamp of the dead and lots of desolate volcanic fields, surrounded by, I can only assume, lush green mountains, waterfalls, and hoola girls. All of which were hidden by the mist, which grew heavier and blew harder as we ascended. I spent most of the hike with Anthony, who’s a pretty cool and friendly guy. We were near the back as I was still attempting to get some photos of the misty hike, which was basically being done in black and white – the lava and the mist. We soon found ourselves near the front and then he was gone, off in the lead on his own and trekking like an old pro.

The weather continued degrading, and my supposedly waterproof rain jacket was soaked through and through. My waterproof pants were mercifully holding up, but at the rate that the moisture was increasing, that couldn’t last long, It was a very steep climb and there were a lot of small breaks, and more than one person feeling bad for poor Frodo and Sam as we began to feel more and more tiny and hobbitlike on this vast volcano; shadowy figures on craggy slopes in cloaks on a mission. Except that we gave up and turned back because some of the group was tired and cold, and all of us were wet. To be fair, there wasn’t much use in pressing on as the visibility was continuing to drop and it was sometimes a struggle just to find the next marker. Scrambling down the rocks was even more treacherous, and all of us took a little volcanic mud home as a souvenir, either in our shoes, on our pants, or on our hands. Never content for a small serving, I took all of the above.

We took the van back towards the campsite and enjoyed a brief bit of sun en route before ending up in Mangaweka, our misty campsite. By now, we were really sick of the rain and wet, so setting up a tent in our drenched clothes in the rain was not exactly a picnic. But we got it done and decided that the solution to this wetness was to get really wet. So we walked down to the river and took a swim.

First, I should mention that only half the people were supposed to bring tents and then we were all to share. But, given the ratio of five guys to, well, a lot of girls, this was somewhat awkward. Moreso then it should’ve been – they wanted the tent to themselves and who can blame them, but it left a few of us in the cold for a while. We did finally get spots though, and I slept in Katie’s tent while Anthony, the other guy stuck in this situation with me, wound up with Kristin. Anyway, the campsite is actually pretty nice. It’s in a sandstone canyon, with big cliffs surrounding it and a very quick and fast moving rapids at the base. This is what we were swimming in. We’d walk in carefully until we fell and then let the current take us through the rapids. Not exactly safe, but lots of fun. The rocks would usually hit your feet and sometimes the current would just carry you right up and over the rock and you’d be back in it again. This, coupled with some kiwi-flavoured wine, was exactly the state that Anthony was in as he decided to go down the bigger rapids at the end. The others, Brad and Meridith (and later Chris), didn’t have that excuse.

Anthony and Brad took the rapids and wound up right against the cliff wall. They tried to climb up but Brad lost his footing and slid unceremoniously down into the water to try again, while Anthony made it up a fair distance and then had to turn back. They crossed the river to the other side, walked up a ways, and tried to cross, but got swept back down to try again. Finally, they made it across and joined the camp. Then we had a bit of dinner, and cracked open our bottles of wine. It seems that wine has become the drink of choice for the group, and I’d like to take credit for it. Though in truth, I’m not sure why. I guess we’re all trying to sample fairs from this side of the world.

Brad showed his camping skills by getting our fire going and we had quite a campfire party if I may say. Lauren and Chelsea joined Anthony as the most ‘active’ at the party, dancing like crazy and probably burning more calories than they drank giggling and laughing. Katie was not far behind, especially when they went up to a neighbouring camp and drank some moonshine (which was quite tasty, actually). Dustin drank for the first time on this trip and had enough to merit a late night resurgence next to poor Kristin’s tent. It was a good time and a good bonding experience for everyone. And we forgot about the rain.

The next morning we woke up, had some oatmeal (and more than one cooking mishap), and went kayaking and rafting on the same rapids we’d been body surfing through the day prior. While it was fun to kayak, you can imagine that the river itself was a little dull. It was beautiful and scenic, but nothing like the rafting we’d done only a few days prior. I still enjoyed it of course (how could I not?), and we had a good float. Then, back to the camp to pack up our stuff and off to Wellington, which I understand is our last stop on the north island. Already. It feels like it’s been two weeks and two days all at once. Neither of which is correct, but there you have it.

As far as the group goes, I’ve come to appreciate that almost none of them are the stereotypical Americans we all know and loathe, and I feel bad because they’re all good people and undeserving of their sometimes cool reception and are also very accepting and understanding of it. Even self-mocking. They might as well be Canadians! Oh, and en route to Wellington, we passed yet another converted plane. What the New Zealand fascination is with converting planes and posting them on poles as advertising is beyond me. I still have yet to discover that cross constellation that can only be seen from the southern hemisphere, I haven’t encountered a spiraling toilet to observe the Coriolis effect at work, and I’ve seen little in the way of dangerous fauna or animalia. I guess there are other stereotypes that aren’t fair too.

Mangaweka Photos

The Taupo of Dean

Sunday, January 21, 2007

We woke up early in the morning in Waitomo and after cleaning the Marai we took off for more fun and adventure. Our first thrilling stop? The Waitomo Cave Museum. I suppose this qualifies as the educational portion of the tour, but aside from a video on glowworms, was sort of useless. Some of us tried our hand at a little mock-cave which was neat, I guess, and there were the odd interesting exhibits to be fair, but it was still missable. Then we went to Rotarura and looked around a bit, though I mostly took the time to grab my emails and update my stuff. Didn’t see a lot here, but I had a delicious lamb gyro and ran back to the vans 5 minutes late.

From there, it was a short trip to the Kaituna Cascades, where we went white water rafting. Now I don’t usually find this all that exciting, so I wasn’t really looking forward to it, but man was I wrong! The rafting I did in Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia were like moving a rubber dinghy in the water compared to what we saw today. We went on a Category 5 rapids, taking our raft over three large waterfalls (the largest of which was 7m, although there were two smaller ones that probably added up to 10m). It was a short ride but great fun and genuinely thrilling. They would submerge the front of the raft and whoever was in it (me) in the base of smaller waterfalls, it would actually sink before the buoyancy of the raft shot it back out. And I got pulled out of our raft and into another one, where I got to do it all over again.

Then we went for a pretty decent double scoop of ice cream nearby, after I snapped the handle off our trailer. Yup. These trailers where we have all our gear are really in need of repairs. Twice the ‘locked’ doors have flown open while driving and now the locks snap when you turn them. They’re supposed to be getting them repaired soon, though. Anyway, from there we went to the beach even though it was a little chilly, did a bit of diving off the dock, and then had a traditional dinner. Anthony was our chief and represented us in a traditional meeting of tribes. Dinner was cooked in the earth and tasted like it (in a good way – like stones in a pizza oven). Their chief was really soft-spoken and entertaining, and we had a little bit of a musical performance, too. We left after dinner and took off for a Saturday night out in Taupo, which was busier than usual because there is a big race tomorrow. We did a bit of pub hopping, dancing, and mostly stayed together, which somewhat impressed me. Though we did, apparently, leave Lana, Amanda, and Rachel behind, which is less impressive, but they were still sleeping by the time most of us headed out on our next free day, so it couldn’t have been too bad. Though I do feel horrible.

The next day was a free day, and we caught up on laundry (already!) walked around, visited, hung out at the lakeside, and I had a great chat with Katie and Norm over some wine and smoked cheese. I had made a trip to a wine store where they have a machine that lets you sample different wines by using a prepaid card and I tried a few. They have a wine that tastes like a shiraz is supposed to (I think the name is something very similar to Shiraz as well) – the wines are really quite spicy. It tastes like pepper almost. My mom would love it, she’s a pepper nut. We went out for a bit of hot chocolate later that evening in a lakeside café and called it a night.

Our last day in Taupo involved a trip to a natural hot spring, which was just perfect for these aching muscles of mine. And the water from the falls was really quite warm and mixed nicely with the icy glacier water flowing down the river. Speaking of which, en route we stopped at a bungee place just to get excited. I’m on the fence about trying it or not. The place where we go bungee jumping is the second highest in the world and I’m pretty sure I’ll chicken out, but it would certainly be a rush. Anyway, after the hot springs and some lounging around on the rocks, we took off to see Hooka falls, which is a pretty small but very fast and powerful waterfall. It’s quite pretty and was a nice stop. I went off the main path to the water’s edge to get some pictures of a smaller waterfall at the beginning of the rapids, but Dustin, I later learned, found the same place and put a foot in the waterfall. I was scared to be on a dividing rock. The guy’s crazy. We did a few other assorted things like stopping at a shrimp farm/power boat place, but I was more interested in the geothermal plant nearby.

I must not be enjoying this trip on some weird subconscious level, because I cut myself six times today. In the spring, I stepped on a bit of broken glass which luckily didn’t cut my toe too badly – Kristen cut her toe pretty good. I also backed into a big rock underwater and scraped my Achilles, which is nothing but it’ll be a nuisance on tomorrow’s hike and camping – and I got a pebble into the arch of my foot which is in the same category. And then, in the shower I was reaching for my shampoo and somehow hit my razor at the right angle that I sliced my skin three times and started bleeding all over. Not too deep, obviously, but a pain in the butt… or at least the finger. If I keep injuring myself at this rate, they’re going to start calling me Katie (our guide), who has an unprecedented record for minor scrapes, cuts, bruises, and stubs.

Taupo Photos

The Challenge Begins

Friday, January 19, 2007

Our dorm. Summer camp, anyone?
I met Lauren at the McDonalds and met the rest of the group not much after. We loaded our stuff into two separate vans, divided up, and hit the road. It’s cloudy and overcast and raining and beautiful all at the same time. Looking into the country, it feels like a larger Hawaii or a scene from Jurassic Park. The hills are capped with old forest, sometimes massive stands stick out from the plains, and always the hills are chased by further hills shrouded in the mist. The driving on the left hand side isn’t quite something I’m adjusted to quite yet, but luckily I’m also not driving. Quite yet. Today’s post is short because we’ve not done much yet, but we drove for about three hours to Waitomo with an hour stop for groceries and just visited. It’s very pretty here and I hope tomorrow is clear so that we can get a better view of the panorama. But I should get some rest to recover from the fact that it’s now Wednesday night and I’ve only slept 15 minutes since Sunday night. Which itself was a short sleep. Tomorrow, rappelling and black water rafting. Apparently the cave is lit with glowworms.

Doug shows us how it's done.
OK, today is now tomorrow. It’s down under, you’ll have to get used to it too. I’m going to be writing from the future a lot. We woke up in the morning and I had my first ever peanut butter and jam sandwich, which was a lot more delicious than I imagined. I would never have tried it were there honey around, but I’m glad there wasn’t. Then, it was off rappelling while the other half of the group went black water rafting. The walk there was nice and scenic, as you’ll hopefully be able to tell from the photos, and the actual abseiling was cool too. I mean, it’s not a rush other than the initial part where you throw yourself over the edge and hope your knots are done right, but it’s still nice to be there and look around as see how fast you can descend.

All it takes is a leap of faith.
We broke for lunch and then it was off black water rafting. Which sounds extreme, but it really isn’t. We just made our way into a cave with some inner tubes and floated along. There were indeed glow worms, although they’re not really worms at all but maggots. I guess they glow to attract food onto a sticky little tentacle which they then reel in and munch on. My dad would've loved it. We sat in the sun because, if I hadn’t mentioned, it’s a beautiful day (+31, I heard) and so what the heck. I still can’t believe how much little things like the treed mountains can keep me staring at them, they just look so untouched, like little chunks of rainforest in the sky.

I was on cooking duty that night, so I helped BBQ the chicken and slice tomatoes. I sat with one of the Laurens, who actually seems pretty cool. Then, I used my Canadian talents as furnace starter (which, admittedly, are none) and got the hot water working for our little campground. Basically it’s a wood stove, so really, it’s just starting a fire, but hey, it was MY fire. Which helped with the dishes I was doing pretty much single-handedly.

Comet McNaught breaking up over New Zealand
This was because we got distracted midway through by some oohs and ahhs and people running for cameras and went outside to discover a comet streaking for the horizon. I’ve never seen a comet before, so this was a definite thrill. Apparently, another star lover on the trip said that it starts with an “M” (I just googled and discovered it's McNaught) and is so visible because it went close enough to the sun for the heat to help break it apart. And if that wasn’t enough, I have to tell you that the night sky I saw on this little island was like nothing I’ve ever before seen. The milky way was practically raining down on us, there were stars from horizon to horizon (tonnes of them), and you could actually see two blurs in the sky that we suspect were Andromeda and some other galaxy. Plus satellites and shooting stars and all the usual fun stuff. Amazing, and this is only day two.

The group of us ready to go spelunking.
We kicked off the next morning at 7AM with a little spelunking, or caving, or whatever you’d like to call it. It was intense, a lot more about really caving and a lot less handholding. I’m pretty much only typing this portion with one finger because every other muscle in my body is aching. We wedged, stretched, pulled, rappelled, climbed, jumped, crawled, and made our way through over 2km of underground cave (called Lucky Strike) before emerging from a grueling end into the sun. I went with the two Laurens, Dustin, and Katie, who pretty much are the older crew. By which I mean that they’re 22-25 and 29. The drive there was beautiful, the tea stop was great, and accidentally winding up at a dead end after working so hard to get through were all just what I’d wanted. I was very, very sore and tired after, and that's a good feeling. A hard day's work. Or something. We came back, had dinner, and then I walked with a few of the others into the surrounding hills. Something I wouldn't dare do in Australia, but apparently there's nothing to worry about here. We climbed a few hills and I showed off my new spelunking skills, then headed into town for a beer or two before calling it a night.

We finally leave Waitomo tomorrow and I’ll hopefully find a phone and an internet connection – I still haven’t called home! And I have to wish both my parents happy birthday, so it’s even more important, although I’m sure they’ve figured out that I arrived here fine. Hope everyone is doing well at home and talk to you soon.

Waitomo Photos

There Does Not Exist the Jet Lag

Monday, January 15, 2007

Waiting in Calgary
Well, I’m off. This particular sentence is being written in the Calgary airport, awaiting my connection to Los Angeles. It didn’t really hit me that I was leaving everyone until I was upstairs at the Saskatoon airport, looking through the glass and waving down like an idiot, unable to say anything to the family before I set off. Still, I had a good omen right off the start. See, I dropped my passport on the ground without realizing it right at the Saskatoon security desk. Last time, I left it in the little tray and didn’t realize right away. Needless to say I enjoyed the last trip and am still here to tell about it. That’s a good thing. I’ll continue this post from Los Angeles in a few hours.

OK, here I am in LA. The flight here was uneventful, but en route I did find the time to watch the most recent episode of The Office I’d downloaded. I sat beside a girl, Erin, that is from St. Albert and also backpacking in New Zealand, though she didn’t attach the ‘working holiday’ part to the trip. It was her first time traveling alone so she and another girl, Carolina (en route to Guatemala) followed me to get their baggage and find their respective terminals. I’m happy to say that they probably would’ve done better without me, but I think both are safely en route. Erin’s flying via Kuala Lumpur, but arrives at the same time that I’ll be waiting at the airport for my group so I may run into her again. Now I’m sitting here, bracing for the longest flight I’ve ever taken, on the floor to charge my depleted laptop enough so I can watch the second episode of The Apprentice to kill some time. I’m only at 22%, so I’m not sure I’ll make it. My plane leaves in under an hour, so I’ll see you in Auckland or else Nadi.

Fijians that could be better used in other duties
Whew. That was a long flight. And, as the topper, I wound up with the middle seat. So, needless to say, I didn’t get so much as a minute’s sleep, though not for trying. Certainly I closed my eyes, however. Luckily, I had insomniac company by the way of a girl named Mercedes from Sydney and a very talkative and friendly Florida woman, though she nodded off quickly. Not a bad thing. Mercedes was entertaining to say the least and was returning home from Central America, which I grilled her on quite thoroughly. Plus there was a pretty good movie selection: The Illusionist, The Scoop, Open Season, and others. Though I tried to sleep, and kind of drifted off for a while. We got off the 747 in Fiji, observing a beautiful neon-fire red sunrise between cloud layers, and arrived in the unorganized chaos that is Nadi arrivals. Given I had a very short time before boarding my next flight, I went to the desk and got sorted out without waiting in the spiraling bedlam that they insisted was a ‘line’. Lucky, too, because I didn’t have my proof that I was leaving New Zealand on me and they had to look me up which took some time. Then I was assured that even though my bag was marked for Nadi, they would find it and forward it to the Air New Zealand flight. Sound like a recipe for trouble?

My Air NZ Flight
I wasn’t sure whether my situation improved or became more alarming when I was paged to the gate so that I might describe my bag. Which, really, is an average everyday backpack with a bit of yellow, black, and grey, and – I hoped – an Air Canada tag with my name. They assured me they’d find it and get it on my plane, and so I got myself on the plane and took off for Fiji. This time I sat by a young guy that had been in the US trucking with his dad – a very nice kid and he seemed fascinated by the fact that anyone would think it worthwhile to travel to New Zealand at all. The movie was, yup, The Illusionist (luckily I only caught a middle segment on the 747, though I did actually fall asleep for 15 mins during the climactic ending). And now, I’m here in New Zealand. My laptop seems to zap me a bit if I rest my arms on the bezel corners but I’m here in a different shirt and socks, with my baggage, and all that’s left is to find a USB cable for my camera (I forgot mine at home), grab a bite for lunch, and get on the road. I’m surprisingly not tired at this point. Just excited to finally be here. When next we meet, I will be knee deep in some sort of Pacific Challenge.

Old Blog, New Tricks

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

My Google Map is pretty and VERY zoomable
As you've no doubt noticed, I've spent a bit of time lately adding some cool new features and ideas to this little blog of mine. First of all, the one I'm most proud of: I now add a little location tag (or in some cases several) to my blog posts and thanks to the magic of Google Maps API and some coding on my part, a little marker appears on a map on the sidebar (look to the left). The green marker shows the location of the most recent post or more generally, where I am now. If you hover the mouse over any of the markers, it will show you the most recent blog post made from that location. And if you should dare to click, well, it'll open that post up. Amazing! Plus, don't be afraid to zoom right in, you can sometimes seem some neat locations, especially when you have the photo gallery open at the same time. As well, I've gone back through all my old posts and added locations to them, so you can go back to, say, July 2005 (see the archives in the sidebar), and check out all the places I was that particular month. Which, you'll see, was mostly in Scandinavia on a Contiki tour.

All the places I blogged from in Europe
Of course, if you want to see all my Contiki posts, or Scandinavia, or Greece, or what have you, it's really quite easy to do so. Because now my posts are all tagged, you can click on one of the tags at the bottom of a post and every post that is tagged with that will be displayed. So say, for example, you want to see every post I made that has "travel" in it. Well, you just click on 'travel' at the bottom of a post tagged with that, and every post about travel will come up.

Taken on the tour I'm about to embark upon.
And speaking of travel, you may be wondering what on earth I'm doing updating a blog with new features when I can scarcely find the time to add a post every week much less once every month or two. The answer, as you may have guessed, lies in the question: I'm travelling once again. The observant among you may have noticed that I have Jan. 15 marked off on my calendar below. I leave on Jan. 15 for New Zealand and Australia! I'm going first on a six week adventure called Pacific Challenge, which takes us through the wild and untamed wilderness of New Zealand, hiking through rainforests, walking through volcanic playgrounds (in the shadow of Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings), kayaking through rivers and along coasts, a three day trek through the alps, and then to Australia, a motorbike tour through Sydney, learning to surf in Byron Bay, diving on the Great Barrier Reef, and more. Which, to be honest, gets me really excited even writing about it. Check out the full itinerary here.

That's a good thing, because writing about it is exactly what I'll be doing in the coming months. After I finish that, I have a working holiday visa for Australia and hope to make my way around the continent, seeing the sites, working in different places, and digging in to life down under. I'm thinking that, since I wrap up my tour at the beginning of the grape harvesting season, I'll head south and try to get a job in a vineyard first. Maybe learn something about wine making and if not, well, get my feet dirty. I'm definitely wanting to spend some time in Melbourne, which has the second largest population of Greeks in the world after Athens. In other words, there are more Greeks in Melbourne than in Thessaloniki. Definitely some time on the west coast and hopefully some more time in the sunshine/gold coast too, and, if I last long enough, New Year's Eve in Sydney. And I would be remiss to not mention the outback and Ooularou (AKA Ayers' Rock).

Fun with iSight
I still have a lot to do in the short time before I leave, but those in town and wanting to have a drink or two before I depart are welcome to join me at Specklebelly's/Athena on Saturday, Jan. 13 at around 9:00 PM. As far as what I have to do, in addition to buying clothes and trekking/camping/caving gear, packing, getting my international drivers' license, travel insurance (I hear they have some nasty critters down there), selling my car (maybe), I have my fairly new MacBook Pro to prepare. Yes, I finally bought a laptop, and as I've been saying for the last, oh... five or six year, my next laptop is going to be a Mac. Here we are, and I'm really loving it. Check out some of the photos I took with the built in camera (iSight) by clicking the image to the right. And anyone out there with a Mac, be sure to add me to your iChat, I can't wait to try out the video phone functions. Guess I should bring my headset along.

As far as what's been going on around here since my last "What Dean is up to" post, which was somewhere in late August. Well, I did some gocarting with my cousins and friends at the new Wilson's track. Supposedly the fastest carts in Canada, though they are definitely scaled down if that's the case, but still damn fast and fun. Click on the image to the left for more carting shots. I had my 26th birthday and must've had a good time, because I don't remember what we did, if anything. The podcast ate up quite a bit of my fall, as we were running interviews, planning for my New York-based cohost to visit and do a live 20th episode, and we were trying to record an extra two episodes for December. Incidentally, we were featured on the front page of iTunes for a while, and though we didn't win any awards this year, we did have over 120,000 downloads, which is pretty amazing!

Christmas was over before it started this year, just a whirlwind of activity much of which is squarely the fault of my imminent departure. Santa did all his shopping at Lululemon this year, which is great if you're female or into 'trendy' clothing, but being dressed in a skirt as an infant was enough cross-dressing for me. I did keep a jacket from there which should be very nice and waterproof, and a few assorted garments, and then used the rest to buy some new glasses. Which, the day after I purchased, became unnecessary as I found my old glasses. Oh well. A sign from above to keep my eyes open, I guess. Continuing on this tangent, I'm trying out contacts for the first time too, apparently I have very sensitive eyes because they caused me quite a bit of discomfort. I tried a disposable and depleted 60-70% of my body's water stores in the blink of an eye - mine, to be precise. I have some two-week ones right now that are much better though, supposedly the most 'comfortable' ones out there.

Cool hats were in vogue for New Year's Eve once again.
Anyway, back to Christmas, there were a lot of boardgames played, and that's always a good thing. For some reason that didn't become obvious until later, I got The Simpsons' Clue for Christmas, and it got a lot of use. Larissa is unbeatable at games of elimination. Try and have a Sudoku race with her. If only she could use that talent for good (a job) instead of evil (beating me at a board game). Risk came out a few times, that particular game was fairly evenly won by all except Keegan (sorry!) and we played some Balderdash and other games, too. Oh, and who could forget some Wii Sports? Good times! And speaking of good, we had a nice lamb dinner with figs, greens, dill potatoes, and the works. All very delicious, as always, though unfortunately I can take no credit for any of it. New Year's Eve was at Specklebelly's as always and was lots of fun thanks to a bunch of friends showing up. You can check out pictures of that by clicking the image on the left. And now I'm hoping to see you all on Saturday for a drink or two and some good times again. Well, those of you in the country, anyways. Elaine, hope you're having a great time in Greece. I expect some photos and say hi to my cousins! The rest of you, I'll see you Saturday or else in Auckland. Hope you had a good 2006, and in any case, a much better 2007.