February 14 – 15, 2012

The next stop on our north island road trip was Rotorua, a rotten-egg-smelling town in the heart of the north island known for its abundance of geothermal activity. It is a common sight to see plumes of steam rising out of the ground, and there are many places where natural hot springs, hot mud pools, and geysers can be found. We dragged our surf-weary bodies into town after stopping in Hamilton for some cheap Pizza Hut, and checked out a park in the center of town. The park had several walking trails and lots of ponds and other water features. We quickly discovered that a lot of these were geothermal hot pools meant for you to put your feet in, which we couldn’t resist. We headed across town to check out the museum of art & history and government gardens, an old Maori battle ground which is now a park containing several monuments. One of these monuments, a totem pole, looked like the ones I had seen in British Columbia, and sure enough it turned out to be a gift from the Canadian government.

After Brandy and I separated from Mark and Katie to see different areas of town, we discovered an early bird special at a fancy restaurant near the government gardens. After asking about it, we learned that it was four-course fine-dining meal for $20 per person. Brandy pushed for it, since it was Valentine’s Day, so we decided to go for it. Never mind that it was a good three hours before our regular dinnertime and it was stiflingly hot outside, we were going to put on nice clothes and go sit in a stuffy dining room because it was Valentine’s Day. Since we couldn’t track down Mark and Katie until our pre-determined meet time, we left them a note on the car that we were in the restaurant, and sat down to eat. The four courses ended up being huge, and the dining room was uncomfortably hot. Though the food was excellent, we couldn’t get it all down, and sweated our way through what we did eat until we were uncomfortably full.

After meeting up with M & K again, we went to the local i-site (information centre) to get some information on the local geothermal attractions. We made plans to take Mark and Katie to check out a geyser the following morning, followed by a visit to Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a park filled with dramatic geothermal landscapes. In the meantime, we consulted our Department of Conservation campsite map to find a place to stay. Finding these campsites was often a crapshoot, as the distances were usually not clearly detailed in the pamphlet, or the directions were unclear. In a classic example of the adventure that is finding a DoC site, we searched up and down a dark middle-of-nowhere road looking for the Brett Road campground on Lake Rerewhakaaitu. We eventually found it after blowing by it a few times due to poor directions, and set up camp in the dark while a group of older people partied hard nearby in a corner of the campground.

The next morning Brandy and I balked at the price of $32.50 per person, and decided not to go into either attraction at Wai-o-Tapu. We were going to wait for Mark and Katie to go through the park, but Katie gave us her receipt so that we could try to get in for free. The plan was to go to the entrance and show Katie’s receipt for two paid admissions, instead of the two admission tickets which Brandy and I didn’t have. We waited until a line was forming and stepped in, as Katie and Mark went ahead with their tickets and got into the park. As we got to the ticket taker, Brandy handed him the receipt and smiled. The friendly, 50ish gentleman kindly told Brandy that this was the receipt, not the tickets, and asked if we had the latter. Brandy did her best to look incredibly distressed as she started to slowly rifle through her purse. The plan at this point was for me to get agitated with Brandy for ‘losing’ the tickets. She would then get upset as we held up the line and appealed to the ticket taker’s sense of compassion. It worked like a charm as the man diffused the situation by letting us go ahead rather than hold up the line any further.

Brandy and I even got to see the geyser, as the ticket-taking system there was even more flawed. Parking attendants checked that each car had a ticket for some number of paid admissions to the Lady Knox geyser but, once parked, no one checked tickets at the gate. Our car had four people and only two paid admissions, but no one seemed to notice this fact. We headed through the gate to see the geyser erupt. This particular geyser erupts naturally on a sporadic timetable, which isn’t very compatible with charging money, so the Wai-o-Tapu staff coax the geyser into erupting by dumping soap into it at 10:15am each day. The geyser erupts because the soap affects the surface tension causing a chamber of cold water and a chamber of hot water to mix. The eruption lasts up to an hour with a jet of water reaching heights of 20 metres. The geyser (and soap eruption method), as the story goes, was discovered in 1901 when a group of prisoners were doing their laundry in the spring water. They added their soap, and were more than a little surprised at the result.

After the geyser and a cold, drizzly walk through the thermal wonderland, the idea of sitting in a hot spring sounded pretty appealing. We just had to track down ‘Secret Spot,’ a.k.a. ‘Hot n’ Cold,’ a locals-know hot spring that converges with a cold stream. Our Stray bus brochures showed pictures of Secret Spot, but it didn’t occur to us that this was the actual name of the place until we were back in Rotorua. A quick internet search told us that it was just down the road from Wai-o-Tapu, and we found it pretty easily. We spent a few hours in the spring, which had a unique advantage over other hot springs—temperature control. Since Secret Spot is the convergence of a cold stream and a hot spring, moving around within the resulting pool can find you just about any temperature from 0 – 45 degrees celcius. This was a great way to spend a rainy afternoon, and though we had lots of ground to cover, we were all happy to defer the decision to Mark, that particular day being his birthday. The decision was made. We would spend more time in the hot spring, one of the few activities that is actually most enjoyable on a cold and rainy day. We even managed to get a beer or two in while we were there, and picked up some of the bottles and cans that were unfortunately littered around the spring.

After drying off, we hit the road and headed toward Thames, the first town en route to the Coromandel Peninsula. We hit up the local Pak ‘n’ Save grocery store to pick up some necessary items. I randomly flipped through a magazine that had a scenic picture of NZ’s Stewart Island on the cover, and was surprised to find a photo of our friend Jeff’s mom in the middle of the magazine, leaning on her car. Mark and Katie had actually met her before we left the South Island, so we all were a bit surprised at the randomness of a story on Jeff’s tiny hometown of Methven, which for some reason involved Jeff’s mom. I know NZ is a small country, but come on.

Mark took us all out for dinner at an Italian restaurant for his birthday, just as Katie did in Wellington on her birthday. We had a decent meal, and were happy to have a night off from the usual camp stove curry and couscous that had become a staple of our road trip.

We arrived at our campground, Shag Stream, in the dark and had to set up by the light of the moon. Long, unfit roads to hidden campgrounds had become a theme of our trip, and while there was a lot of cursing about it at the time, these are some of the funnier moments that stand out in my memory now. We bounced up yet another pitted road as we approached the camping area, and Brandy got out of the car to unlatch a steel gate. We managed to set up our sleeping arrangements with the help of our headlamps (a Christmas present from Jeff), and had time to drink a few celebratory brews before bed. Somewhere amidst all of this we also visited a forest of giant redwoods. Geysers, fraud, bizarre geothermal landscapes, random coincidences, and a swim in a hot spring–not your average birthday.

Hot spring foot bath

Hot spring foot bath





Pukeko scrounging for food

Pukeko scrounging for food


BC totem pole in New Zealand

BC totem pole in New Zealand


California redwoods in Whakarewarewa (‘f*ck-a-deh-wah-deh-wah) Forest, Rotorua






Lazy birds use this crater to incubate their eggs

Lazy birds use this crater to incubate their eggs


At Secret Spot aka Hot 'n' Cold

At Secret Spot aka Hot ‘n’ Cold

Fiona Apple – Criminal


All Canadian Surf Club

February 13-14, 2012

The next stop on the north island involved something we were all very eagerly looking forward to—surf lessons in Raglan. If you’ve been following our adventures from the beginning, you might remember another post about Raglan, in which Brandy and I went body-boarding in the winter. We decided then that we’d have to come back and try the real thing when we had some more money. With surfing also at the top of Mark’s NZ to-do list Raglan was the logical place to go on our scenic weave up the north island toward Auckland airport.

Though it barely qualifies as a speck on the world map, Raglan is well-known among surfers due to its inclusion in the 1966 surf movie The Endless Summer. With world-class surf breaks as well as beginner areas, Raglan is a popular spot for surfers of all skill levels. Of the four of us, Brandy was the only one of us who had used a surf board before, as she rented one out for a few hours once in Tofino, BC. None of us had ever had lessons, and we were all excited to give it a try.

We rolled into Raglan in the evening after driving a few hours from Ohakune and looked for a place to stay. On our previous trip to Raglan, Brandy and I stayed at an eco-lodge/surf school, but this time around they were too full to accommodate us. We headed down the road a bit and found another eco-lodge that allowed camping. Solscape was a really cool place (if expensive), and for $17 each we pitched our tents and had full use of the outdoor kitchens and some other facilities. The lodge had some very cool features including hammocks and a wood-fired oven which doubled as a camp fire spot at night. We booked our surfing lessons for the following morning for $80 each at the aforementioned overstuffed lodge down the road, and had a relaxed night in Raglan.

In the morning we took down the tents and packed up Stan while we made oatmeal for breakfast in our outdoor kitchen, and talked about the excitement of getting into the water. There were some other Canadians milling around the kitchen that seemed like they had recently gotten hooked on surfing and were sticking around Raglan for a while. This seemed to be a common theme as the day went on. We arrived at the surf school and signed in before meeting our instructor. Shewas a 30ish blonde British girl (whose name escapes Brandy and I as I’m writing this 6 months later) who came to Raglan to take beginner lessons just like us, but got hooked on the sport and decided to work toward becoming an instructor. She went through with that (obviously), and met a guy in Raglan and has been there for a few years now. She was really nice and gave us all the key pointers in the surf shack as we practiced the different techniques for standing up on our boards on dry land. There were about four others in the group, all of them different stages of ‘beginner’ as well. We were driven down to the beach and wet-suited up before practicing our ‘pop ups’ on the board one last time on dry land. Our instructor and another girl from the school waded into the water and gave us pointers as we clumsily paddled out, caught waves, and tried to stand up. I managed to get up on my board on my first try, and Mark, Katie, and Brandy weren’t far behind. We all got up on our boards several times (no small feat on your first day), and at one point all four of us were surfing together side by side. Very cool. The waves we were riding were in the beginner area of the bay, which only had about 2-foot high white water to ride on, which is perfect for learning your balance and stability as a beginner. After a few hours floating in the ocean, paddling to exhaustion, and shakily standing up on our boards, we left our lesson feeling really good and already wondering when we could try it again.

Though we were by no means riding big rollers or anything, there’s something really freeing and exhilarating about standing on a surf board on top of a wave. Just being around the ocean in the first place has a powerful draw for me. There are a lot of great activities unwittingly provided by the ocean from swimming and boating to surfing, yet there’s something mysterious about the incredible power of all that water that demands you respect it.

While we had little idea what we were getting into or what sort of success we might have, we came out of the experience feeling addicted. The four of us hit the road once more for the next leg of the journey, heading east toward Hamilton (for cheap pizza!) and then Rotorua. For the little time that remained on Mark and Katie’s trip, we tweaked schedules and crunched numbers, trying to figure out where and when we could go surfing again.

The Tragically Hip – All Canadian Surf Club

Déjà Vu

A fun night in Wellington (when we found the few bars that allowed sandal-wearing patrons) was to be followed up with an hour of kayaking in Day’s Bay and a drive north to our old stomping ground, Ohakune. Kayaking is always a good time, and we enjoyed the chance to get out on the water in Day’s Bay. After that, we got back on the road and drove the three and a half hours to Ohakune, where Brandy and I had spent the New Zealand winter working in a ski motel. We’d called ahead to our old boss, Dennis, and he said we could all stay in our old flat for free which was greatly appreciated. When we arrived in Ohakune, we quickly gave Mark and Katie the short tour of town (as it turns out, Ohakune becomes a ghost town in the summer when there’s no skiing) and showed them into our old home. It was kind of eerie to be back in ‘kune after several months away, and fun to show Mark and Katie where we spent the winter. Mark remarked that the flat reminded him of a cottage, and I guess that is a pretty good description of the three-bedroom apartment. Within a few minutes of our arrival, Dennis’s cat Chilli showed up and seemed to remember us, which was cool. We met up with Dennis at his friends’ B&B across town and had a few drinks at their party. We asked Dennis and his friends for hiking tips for the following morning, and settled on hiking to a waterfall that was part way up Mount Ruapehu. Originally we were hoping to hike to the summit of Ruapehu to get a look at the volcanic crater lake, but it just wasn’t feasible when we realized the hike would take 6-8 hours.

The next morning we thanked Dennis and were on our way up the mountain for a drizzly hike to the waterfall we’d been told about. The hike was alright, but after all the impressive waterfalls we’d seen on the South Island, this one just did not really excite any of us. Always good to get out on a hike, though, and with all the beer we’d been consuming on this trip it’s important to get some exercise once in a while.

After the hike we piled back into Stan, our trusty station wagon, and travelled north toward Raglan. Brandy and I had to been to Raglan once before while travelling on the Stray bus, but didn’t want to spend the money for surf lessons at the time. We went body-boarding that time (in the winter, no less), but on this trip we were planning to cross off a must-do on Mark’s NZ list: learning to surf.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Déjà Vu

Locked in the Trunk of a Car

February 10th, 2012

After hiking part of the Abel Tasman track, we went to Nelson to meet up with some more former Jasperites, Miranda and Robbie. They were kind enough to put the four of us up for the night at their house, and we spent the evening catching up over a few drinks while watching Katie’s bungee jump (story here) video for conclusive evidence about how she got off the ledge. It was good to see Miranda again, and chat with Robbie a bit, as we didn’t know him too well in Jasper. We got a good night’s sleep, and an even better coffee in the morning before heading out nice and early to catch the Picton ferry to Wellington on the north island. Rewinding to a few days prior on our way to Abel Tasman, we were sitting in McDonald’s using their free internet, and discussing the exorbitant price for getting a car across to the north island. With the ferry already costing $55 a head, and the car an additional $160 or so, we were not impressed with the amount of money that ma and pa ferry company were asking for. If you’ve read the title of this post, you might be able to see where this is going.

A couple from Oregon that were seated at the next table overheard our dilemma (a.k.a. bitching), and the gentleman suggested that we stash a few people under some gear in the car.

“We’ve done it, they don’t check. They won’t check, I swear.”

“Really? Ok, this could work. We could hide two of us, and then it will just look like a couple going over on the ferry.”

“Nah, guys… hide three!”

His advice seemed so obvious, yet we hadn’t thought of it. Could we really get away with it? What would be the consequences if we were caught smuggling human cargo onto the ship? In the interest of saving money and creating a good story to laugh about later, win or lose, we decided to take his advice. Brandy and I had been on the ferry before, and we could picture how this would work. We booked two seats on the ferry, as well as one car passage, and left Katie and I off the passenger list. Days later in Nelson, we asked Miranda and Robbie for their opinion, and they seemed to agree that it wasn’t a bad idea.

Fast-forwarding back to ferry morning, we arrived in Picton and I drove around cluelessly looking for an inconspicuous spot to bury two passengers in the back of a car before boarding the ferry. We gave up and parked beside a big field near the ferry terminal. I curled up in a ball in the trunk area of the station wagon, and bags and other items were piled on top of me. I was actually pretty comfortable, having a pillow to lay on. Katie was lying on the floor, wedged behind the driver and passenger seats, also covered with gear. If anyone were to open the side doors, Katie would’ve been spotted, but we weren’t counting on this. Brandy drove Stan up to the ferry office and went in to check her and Mark in as the passengers. From there, all she had to do was get in the lineup and wait for her turn to drive onto the ferry–simple enough, but still a bit tense for the two passengers who couldn’t see anything that was going on. At different times, Brandy and Mark would tell us to stay down and be quiet, and I think they were probably just having fun with Katie and I being trapped and blind. They cracked more than a few jokes, and I was doing my best not to laugh or move for the thirty or so minutes we waited in the queue.

All of this was the easy part. The final stage of the plan was the part where Katie and I pop out of our hiding places on the ferry without being discovered by anyone who cared that we hadn’t paid. From what we’d been told, once cars were parked on the ferry, it was just a chaotic scene of people jumping out of their cars all at once, which no one would be able to keep track of. That would be our window of opportunity. Katie was the first out as she wasn’t as buried as me. Mark then lifted some of the items that were piled on me, and gave me the signal to quickly climb over the back seat when the coast was clear. Everything went off without a hitch, and we went up to the passenger decks to take in the scenery of the Queen Charlotte Sounds as we departed the south island. While Brandy and I were getting something to eat, a pod of about a hundred dolphins were swimming around the ship. M & K got some pictures, but Brandy and I missed out completely.

We arrived in the north island port and nation’s capital, Wellington, and grabbed a hostel, went out for dinner for Katie’s birthday, and had a good night on the town. If you’re keeping track of dates and drinks, we probably look like alcoholics by now. Shocker.

The Tragically Hip – Locked in the Trunk of a Car

On the Beach

February 7th – 9th, 2012

 From Picton, we headed through Nelson (to get some cheap Tuesday $5 large pizza from Dominoes) and then on to Abel Tasman National Park, an area known for it’s sunshine, golden sand beaches, and crystal clear water. The park is named after a Dutch explorer who visited the region. Since learning that this place existed, Brandy had wanted to spend a day sailing in Abel Tasman, and that’s the first thing that we did when we got there. The weather was absolutely amazing for our day of sailing, and we had a really nice relaxing day, as well as terrible sunburns (except for Katie, who realizes the purpose of sunscreen). We stopped for lunch at the stunning Anchorage Bay, and got to lay on a golden beach, drink wine, and swim. On a disappointing note, our Canadian flag that we’d been getting everyone to sign (friends, acquaintances, All Blacks captain Richie McCaw) was ruined when my deodorant melted in the hot car and leaked all over the flag.

After our day of sailing, we headed for another DoC campsite that our boat captain had told us had something worth seeing, a massive cavern known as Harwood’s Hole. The road to the campsite was horrendous; a narrow, winding, bumpy, gravelly dirt path that ran for 11kms before hitting the campsite. As we found out along the road, the Illuminate festival was going on near the campground—out here in the middle of nowhere. Illuminate appeared to be a sort of eco-festival that attracts the stoned and dreadlocked, and there was no shortage of them at the campsite either. Everyone seemed to be pretty well-behaved, but the campsite was an absolute mess from about two weeks of hippies living there while the festival went on. While we were expecting a terrible sleep due to noise, it actually wasn’t that bad, and we had more than a few good laughs as we imagined the sort of things that must be going on at Illuminate. Still, we were happy to get out of there in the morning after we hiked to Harwood’s Hole, heading north a bit to Takaka, a hippie community in the Golden Bay region. At an organic garden in town we found a guy with food stall with a unique concept—pay what you think the food is worth. He believed that everyone should be able to eat good food, regardless of how much money they have, so his customers pay whatever they want for the food. After he serves the food, he walks away and you can put money in the ‘magic box,’ or not, whatever you want. We were floored by this concept, and very impressed that someone would do something so generous.

At a thrift store in Takaka, Brandy and I ran into Maddy, another old Picton friend from BC who was camping out in the woods with her friends since Illuminate festival ended. We thought for sure she would’ve been at Illuminate and we were right, and she appeared to be in her element doing a very Maddy thing—squatting in the woods. It was good to see her again, but we had to get going after catching up for a few minutes.

We headed back to where we spent our first night in Abel Tasman, a dry Christian campground where we drank beers on the sly and made plans to hike a section of the Abel Tasman track the next day. In the early hours of the morning, I heard the distinct sound of a chip bag full of beer bottles being dragged around the grass outside of our tent. I figured that this must be Mark picking up what I’d left outside the night before, and paid no attention. When the noise persisted, I couldn’t understand why Mark was having so much trouble picking up the bag of bottles. I unzipped the tent and found a pukeko dragging the bag of bottles up a hill. Startled, it abandoned its prize and ran off, head bobbing all the while. A pukeko is a beautifully coloured native bird, often found scrounging for garbage in New Zealand, pictured below.

We drove to nearby Marahau the next morning and hiked 7.4kms of the Abel Tasman Track, one of New Zealand’s great walks (see my three posts on the Queen Charlotte Track for another) to get to a beautiful beach. We waded through knee-deep waters to access a pristine beach, which we had all to ourselves until low tide allowed the less adventurous to easily walk over. The weather wasn’t great, but we walked a nice stretch of the track before turning around, completing almost 15kms round-trip. Over the several hours that it took us to walk out to the beach, low tide had rolled in to give us a completely different look at each of the many sections of coastline that border the track, and it almost felt like we weren’t retracing our steps at all.

Neil Young – On the Beach

Master Plan

February 3rd – 6th, 2012

 After escaping the flesh-eating pricks of Haast Pass, we were ready to head up the west coast, starting with a visit to two of the world’s most accessible glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. Each glacier is in a small town with a tourism industry driven pretty much solely by its nearby glacier. We visited Fox first, hiking as close as you’re allowed to go for free, and took some photos. We’d all seen the Athabasca glacier in Alberta, at the Columbia Ice Field, so we knew what to expect—blue, dirty ice in a massive sheet undetectably moving forward and scraping apart the mountainside. It was still cool to see (pun definitely intended), and while Fox is the lesser known of the two glaciers, it was no slouch.

After this quick stop, we drove to Franz Josef and met up with our old buddy from Picton, Taylor. She was working in Franz along with our other friend Morgan (both BC girls), so we planned to get together for a bit of a liquoring after checking into our hostel. We had a good night out at the local watering hole, catching up with Morgan and Taylor, with some of us fairing a bit better than others the next morning. We introduced the girls to Stan, our station wagon, and the six of us went out for a late breakfast. Mark, Katie, Brandy, and I then continued on our way once more, heading further up the west coast after a laboured, difficult walk over flat, manageable terrain (see: hangover) to view the Franz Josef glacier. The glacier was nice, although if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all in my opinion. The photos didn’t turn out great as hungover Brandy didn’t notice that the camera was on a black & white setting. After this, we rocketed our way up the west coast of the south island, stopping along the way at a few places of interest, including Hokitika (NZ greenstone/jade area). We spent the night at a former gold miner’s camp near Hokitika, which of course resulted in more fruitless searching for gold in a stream, but also featured one of our best camp stove dinners—a big pot of homemade chili.

The next morning, our plan was to head to the Punakaiki pancake rocks and Carter’s Beach near the town of Westport, but the weather was overcast and unsuitable for the beach. We went to the beach anyway, and put our heads together to reformulate our plan for the rest of the south island, as well as the north island. For a while, we were entertaining the thought of planning the route around a John Butler Trio concert in Nelson, but this was starting to prove difficult and needed to be scrapped for the sake of a practical travel schedule. We also decided that we’d have to scrap our trip down to Kaikoura via Hanmer Springs (hot springs), as it was just too many kilometers and too many hours in the car to see very little. With these decisions made, we discussed burning straight east across to Blenheim for the night, some 260kms away. While this doesn’t sound like much, 260kms on a typical south island highway is about a 4-hour drive due to the hairpin switchback turns common when traversing the Southern Alps, and the constant speed limit fluctuations between 30-100km/h as you wind your way through the mountains. By putting these hours behind us now, we’d be able to have a full day to devote to the wine region surrounding Blenheim, which is definitely a south island must-do. After a bit of debating, we had a new plan of attack and made it to Blenheim before nightfall, passing through the scenic area of Buller’s Gorge. We set up camp at a DoC campsite on the ocean, and planned to do a Marlborough region winery circuit the following morning. This turned out to be easier said than done.

All of the tour operators wanted $60 per head to take us around to the wineries, and according to the brochures, you still had to pay $2-$10 per tasting. We discussed all the things we could do with that $250, and instead of spending it on a tour, I bit the bullet and drove us around to all of the vineyards. I’m ashamed to say that this was the first time in my life I actually spit wine into one of those spit buckets at a vineyard, but that was a small price to pay compared to taking a tour.

Several beautiful vineyards were visited over the course of several hours, and we capped off the day in Picton, staying at the hostel we worked at in November. We introduced Mark and Katie to a few of the characters that we knew at the hostel, and Sheira, our old boss let us camp out on mattresses in the abandoned dive shop in the basement of the hostel for $5 each. Doesn’t sound too glamorous, but when you’re backpacking around a country on a budget, this is exactly the kind of break you hope for—a roof over your head, a mattress, a kitchen, and no gear to roll up in the morning. We went swimming in the ocean at the scenic Picton foreshore, and M & K and I picked 30 mussels off the rocks in the harbour to add to our dinner that Brandy cooked. After dinner, we showed M & K the Irish pub and its own assortment of interesting characters.

My Morning Jacket – Master Plan

Mosquito Song

February 2nd – 3rd, 2011

The stories we’d heard about Haast pass being a scenic drive were true, and we enjoyed some nice views as we headed through the mountains looking for a campsite. Using our map of Dep’t of Conservation campsites, we found the staggeringly beautiful Cameron Flat campground along the highway and set up camp. As a pleasant surprise, the campsite was the gateway to a hike to the Blue Pools of Haast Pass, an item on our “101 Must-Do’s for Kiwis” list that we’d been using as a rough guide for points of interest in NZ. We hiked over a swingbridge, through beech forest, and down to the pools after dinner, and they lived up to their reputation.  Swimming trout in the transparent azure water give the illusion that the fish are suspended mid-air, as the see-through blue water resembles a clear sky. The water looked so enticing that Mark and I decided we should jump in—the temperature of the water not really entering our thoughts. My attitude in NZ has been that I may never come back, so I should do everything that interests me, even if that means jumping in frigid, glacier-fed pools on a breezy evening that’s not really suited for swimming. Mark seemed to agree, and even jumped in first after I pondered the temperature and hesitated. His reaction upon resurfacing didn’t instill much confidence, as it looked like he had the wind knocked out of him by the freezing water. I jumped in anyway and in all honesty, it was probably the coldest water I’ve ever swum in. It literally took our breath away. I’m not sure if the Blue Pools are sacred water (waitapu) to the Maori (most things seem to be), so we probably shouldn’t have jumped in, and definitely shouldn’t have cursed to the degree that we did when we felt the temperature, but I’m glad we did. We got some good pictures, and Brandy jumped in and had the breath knocked out of her too. For me, it’s the little things that often stand out when you look back on a trip like this, and this is one of them. We’ll probably always remember the Blue Pools as possibly the coldest water we’ve ever been foolish enough to jump into.

When we got back to camp, we played some cards and reveled in the incredible views from our campsite, pretty happy with our day in Queenstown, Arrowtown, Wanaka, and the Blue Pools. Then we woke up the following morning and experienced the stuff of Maori legends, the maddening, blood-sucking swarms of sandflies. Maori tradition says that when the gods created Milford Sound, they feared that man would spend too much time lost in admiring its beauty, so they created sandflies to urge man not to linger. Seems like a pretty good deterrent. This was by far our worst experience with these little mosquito-like pricks, and all four of us each had dozens of long-lasting bites all over our legs, feet, arms, and anywhere else that was uncovered for any length of time. Itchy and irritating, sandfly bites feel a lot like mosquito bites, but sandflies themselves are much tinier and harder to notice when they’re biting you. Once in a while we’d catch them mid-bite and slap at them, causing an explosion of blood. When they’d make their way into our tents or the car, squishing them meant bloodstained tents and upholstery. NZ has some irritating birds that steal your belongings or beg you for food, but sandflies are by far New Zealand’s worst pest. We wasted no time in getting the hell out of that beautiful campground, and didn’t look back.

Queens of the Stone Age – Mosquito Song

After the Gold Rush

February 2nd, 2011

Further on up the road from the bungee site was Arrowtown, a former gold mining town that’s now a quaint tourist destination with surviving gold rush era buildings. We wandered around the town for a while and learned a bit about the history of gold in the area. Gold was first discovered in 1862, resulting in a population boom to 7,000 inhabitants (that number is now probably in the low hundreds). With articles around the information centre about locals striking gold in recent years, and gold pans available for hire, of course Mark and I had to spend the afternoon wading in the river, ass cracks hanging out, trying to pay recover our New Zealand expenses. This intrigued Brandy and Katie as well, for about 4-5 minutes, before they became irritated and tried to drag us away from our important work. Eventually we relented, certainly just moments before finding huge nuggets, but a man can only handle so much nagging. Panning futilely for gold would become a frustrating past time for us as the road trip continued and Brandy and Katie spent time shopping in former gold rush towns.

From Arrowtown, we moved north to Wanaka for a quick stop in a picturesque town on the lake of the same name. We checked out a farmer’s market and sat on the lake beach for a while before hitting the road once more to find a place to camp for the night. We headed in the direction of Haast, mainly because the drive through the mountains was said to be incredibly scenic and there were some Department of Conservation campsites along the way where we hoped to stay for free.

 Neil Young – After the Gold Rush

The Pusher

February 2nd, 2011

Brandy, Katie, Mark & I departed Queenstown after a phenomenal couple of days filled with some unique activities (steamship cruise, ice bar), as well as some more familiar ones (drinking heavily). Our next stop was about 30 minutes outside QT, the Kawarau bridge. This isn’t just any old bridge, this is the site of the world’s first commercial bungee jump by AJ Hackett, a Kiwi who now has his own place in New Zealand folklore as the inventor of bungee jumping. Queenstown calls itself the adventure capital of the world, and for good reason, as it is home to sky-diving, bungee-jumping, jet-boating, hang-gliding, white-water rafting, and probably a few other activities with hyphenated names and questionable safety (I probably incorrectly hyphenated some of these for effect). M & K decided that they should partake in a bungee while in New Zealand, which is pretty good logic, NZ being its birthplace thanks to Mr. Hackett, an adrenaline junkie with an obviously under-developed sense of self-preservation (he jumped from the Eiffel Tower in 1987 and was handed a champagne bottle just before being arrested by French authorities).

After much effort by Mark to convince Katie that bungee is a completely safe activity done every day by marginally sane people, Katie spent two days in Queenstown making her peace with death, and finally agreeing to take the leap. There are several different jumps in Queenstown; you can jump at Kawarau, jump from a gondola overlooking the town, or plummet down into a massive canyon on the 200+ meter Nevis bungee. While Mark pushed for the Nevis (if you’re going to go swimming, you may as well get wet), Katie requested the 43m Kawarau bridge jump (if you want me to do this, I’ll do the one that looks reasonable), which they agreed on and prepared for. Katie had agreed to try anything while in NZ, to conquer her fears and get out of her comfort zone, so she had the final say in the bungee adventure. This being a sort of historic site, there were lots of tourists watching the bungee jumpers and taking photos and videos of these obviously insane strangers.

Mark’s bungee was a lot like mine from a few months prior, he took the plunge without a peep. Katie, on the other hand, gets a full descriptive write-up (much like Brandy did) documenting her intense fear and hysterical response to the bungee countdown. I had Katie’s digital camera with its incredible zoom function, and was able to see the wide-eyed terror on her face as the first countdown passed without a jump occurring. The only piece of advice I’d given Katie was to clear her mind and jump immediately after the countdown. If you hesitate, I told her, it will become harder and harder to convince yourself that it’s a good idea. After her initial hesitation, we watched the jump crew trying to coax her off the edge in soothing voices, with a couple more countdowns met by, “wait, wait, wait!!” Katie’s attempt to collect herself was entertaining, with an eyes-closed, zen-like fluttering of the arms and huge exhale. She bargained for more time by asking questions (“Wait, can I just fall?”), and leaned all of her weight backward into the crew member that had been counting her down. We watched one more countdown before, to my surprise, Katie was away and hurtling down into the canyon. At that instant, the canyon began to echoing with blood-curdling expletives–something like, “HOLY F*CKING F*CK!!!!” though I don’t exactly recall. My account of the jump could very well be a bit off, but there are videos that I can hopefully get a hold of to add to this post. I was surprised to see that Katie did it after the initial hesitation, and we gave her some support as she was lowered onto the raft in the river below.

Brandy and I waited for M & K to come back up, and the four of us went inside to watch their jump videos and collect their “I did it!” t-shirts. After one watch of Katie’s video we had a good laugh. After the second viewing, a bit of a crowd formed to witness Katie’s terror. After a few more views, Katie decided to purchase the DVD, as we decided we needed to watch it on a bigger screen and determine if she actually jumped, or passed out and fell over the edge. It seemed that Katie blacked out for a split second, woke up to discover that she was falling, and reached back to try to grab onto the guy she’d been leaning on. There was some serious debate on whether she jumped or fell, and we eventually found a suitable screen later on. The result? The guy who Katie was leaning on appeared to give her a good firm shove in the back after his last countdown, which must have been the cause of the desperate reaching for something to grab a hold of. The jury is still out on whether being pushed counts as conquering your fear or not, and personally, I think she should jump again. But the fact that Katie stood on the edge of a bridge close enough to fall, jump, or be pushed off is impressive enough. Stay tuned to see if I can get that jump video on YouTube.

 Blind Melon – The Pusher

Cold As Ice

Minus 5 Ice Bar
February 2nd, 2012

Later in the evening after the TSS Earnslaw cruise, we headed over to ‘Minus 5,’ one of two ice bars in Queenstown. As few places even have one ice bar, I was pretty surprised to learn that there were two, but we had to make sure that we went to the correct one since we had a 2-for-1 coupon to get us all in. Good thing we did, or we probably wouldn’t have gone. Admission prices depended on what sort of drink package you wanted, but the cheapest option was $32 per person, which included a vodka cocktail. With our coupon, we each paid $16 for entry to the bar and one drink, and quickly learned why it’s so expensive to get in. First of all, they only open the door of the bar every half hour. You’re only allowed in for thirty minutes, which is more than enough time to take the obligatory photos (tongue stuck to ice, etc.) and finish your drink. Since the tiny bar–housed inside a shipping container—is pretty cold (minus five degrees, I would assume), you’re given parkas, gloves, and warm socks and boots. The glasses are custom made and brought in daily from Auckland, which is pretty far away, and on a different island. Why someone would want to take on such an expensive business venture, with such a random and narrow focus, I don’t know. But we had fun. The bartender was a cool guy (pun definitely intended), a Maori dude that loves Trailer Park Boys. Noticing that our cocktail glasses were made of solid ice, I asked him how they get them clean.

“We just do man dishes around here, just smash ‘em.”

Sweet. I asked him some other questions about working there, and I think he said that the power bill was a few thousand dollars a month.

Our half hour in the ice bar (actually a bit less because we were a few minutes late) flew by and it was time to go. Initially I was disappointed when I found out we could only have thirty minutes, but it’s not like we were going to buy a second drink in there. Ice bars are a novelty, and fun to go into and take some pictures, but a half hour is really all you need. We left Minus 5 and hit some more bars to keep the feeling going. There’s a surprising lack of song titles with ‘ice’ or ‘frozen’ in the title, so here’s some Foreigner, I guess. And some pictures.

Foreigner – Cold As Ice