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Stories from New Zealand

Auckland, New Zealand

Hello Auckland!

michelleOur flight from Samoa to New Zealand was only four hours, but in crossing the international date line, we lost a whole day. It's like the 8th of August never existed. It is strange to be in a winter climate after such a long time in the tropics.

We've been in Auckland less than 24 hours but I loved it from the minute we arrived. Auckland is a typical cosmopolitan city with plenty of shopping, bars, and with lots of interesting characters walking the streets. Most people here wear black. If you know me well, you would understand why I feel right at home!

Last night we stayed in a huge backpacker hostel that sleeps over 300. Walls covered in bright murals, halls filled with fellow travelers from all over world, and an atmosphere filled with energy made it a fun first night in NZ. Based on the flyers for bungy jumping, skydiving, tramping, and skiing, I can tell it's a land for adventurers!

Today we are heading south to Rotorua. It's a town with bubbling mud pools, hot springs and a large Maori population (the original inhabitants of NZ).

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Rotorua, New Zealand

Darts

timRotorua is the most heavly touristed city in the north island of New Zealand. No doubt, it also the smelliest.

The smell is caused by the incredible thermal activity in the area. You notice it while taking a walk though Kuirau Park, where pools of boiling mud belch sulphury steam. You notice it in the Polynesian Spa, where you bathe in pools of sulphury "health-giving" waters. You even notice it in your hotel's lobby. But you get used to the smell, and eventually you start to find it comforting.

So I spent the day enjoying the smells of Rotorua. But in the evening, I decided to check out another less touristed smelly attraction - the final round of the New Zealand Darts Championship.

I knew I had arrived to the correct location when I heard the boisterous screaming and smelled the bar-like smokey atmosphere. Yesterday, the sports complex housed a quiet basketball court. Today, the auditorium pulsed with the energy of a bowling alley on league night. Large metal ashtrays filled with cigarette butts lay strewn about. A row of white partitions parallelled the filled grandstand. Each partition sported a carefully lit dartboard, a scribbled on chalkboard, a uniformed scorekeeper, and four burley competitors.

The audience seemed to know the competitors well. I'm quite sure I was the only spectator who wasn't dating or related to someone throwing darts. A few of the players wore jackets or shirts with their team logo on the back, many of them had tattoos, and most of them possessed a pendulous beer gut. I wouldn't be tempted to call these people athletes, but they were certainly skilled with darts.

I watched several teams play the game "501" against each other. The object of this game is to get up to exactly 501 points - fairly simple. For those of you who don't play darts, a dart board is segmented into 20 pie shapes with points associated with each "piece". The highest number is 20 which sits on the top of the board. The board also has 2 rings circling the pie, which when hit, double or triple the points of each shot.

Players constantly shot for the triple ring of the 20 point. This is rounded area on the board less than an inch long and as wide a pencil. Most of the players were able to hit 2 triple 20's with each turn, and I saw several players hit only triples. You know these competitors are good when the shot to see who goes first becomes a contest to see who can shoot a better bulls-eye!

I watched for a while, until the natural smell of the sulphur springs outside seemed a good trade for the smokey indoors. top

A carving on a Maori meeting house, part of the indigenous culture of New Zealand.

Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch Winter Festival

timWe flew in from Christchurch yesterday on a twin engine prop plane from Rotorua.

As it happened, we arrived at the end of the Christchurch Winter Festival just in time to watch the nighttime City of Lights Parade. Chinese dragons, clowns on stilts, dancers, and other community people marched through the streets wearing glowing necklaces and bracelets. Fire dancers carved arcs of flame to the beat of music. A hot air balloon basket carried by a flat bed truck blasted 20 foot flames through the air. To the delight of the small kids watching curbside, the balloon's flames reflected eerily from the windows of the tall glassy buildings surrounding the street. After the parade, a makeshift stage featured performances by parade groups, then fireworks were launched above Cathedral Square.

The parade was a nice suprise last night. But today, the Christchurch Winter Festival continued with a dog costume contest on the grounds of the Arts Centre. Dogs were dressed in all sorts of outlandish costumes. There was a pirate, a ballerina, a skier, a bride and groom, a cowboy, and a bumblebee. Michelle was in heaven. I had to leave - I didn't enjoy watching small dogs being dressed up as much as the little old ladies in the audience, so I found a walk through the market at the Arts Centre a much better alternative.

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Mount Cook, New Zealand

Southern Alps

timYesterday morning, we picked up the campervan we will be using for the next two weeks. It has heat, a bathroom, hot water, a fridge and microwave, and lots of cool extras. Couldn't ask for more!

Though I struggled with driving on the left and using using a stickshift with my left hand for the first time, we eventually made our way out of the east coast plains and down to the snow covered New Zealand Alps. The mountains are jaggy and tall. The vegetation is sparse. Only bushes, evergreens, and sheep dot the landscape. We passed by a beautiful lake around sunset, just in time to watch the sun fall behind the historic stone church that sat on the shore. Soon after sunset, we arrived to Mount Cook.

Mount Cook is the tallest peak in New Zealand. The area offers several "tramps", but many require serious mountaineering experience and equipment. To impress upon visitors the dangers of hiking, the Mount Cook Visitor's Center displays a book of the dead. This book details the hundreds of people who have lost their lives in the mountains. Each person in the book has a page with a bio describing his or her interests, backgrounds, and cause of death. The book is thick and sobering.

Today we spent a while touring the area by car, but the cold rain prevented us from potentially being added to the book of the dead. Instead of hiking, we drove on to Queenstown. top

Far-off mountains are reflected from the flat surface of a quiet lake on the south island of New Zealand.

Queenstown, New Zealand

Gondola Ride

timA beautiful view of Queenstown from above.

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Milford Sound, New Zealand

Life in Our Campervan

michelleFor those of you who were wondering what it's like to rent a campervan and drive all over New Zealand, I thought I'd write a description of a typical day in "Life in Our Campervan."

You fall into a rhythm when you cruise New Zealand in a campervan. Rising early in the morning to frost, we are thankful for the van's heater. Tim, of course, immediately makes thick, black coffee in the coffee press. (Until his first cup of coffee he is not fully human.) We take turns showering in our miniscule shower, then convert our bed into a table and eat a simple breakfast of hot cereal. As we prepare for the day, we often bump into each other while contorting our bodies to share the small space.

Once we hit the road we enjoy a feast for our eyes. The scenery displays spectacular views of rolling green pastures, quaint small towns, and lakes reflecting snow-capped mountains.

While Tim drives I navigate and I am also in charge of reminding him to drive on the right side of the road. Luckily I don't have to remind him often!

We never have problems with bad traffic, frequently driving for hours and seeing few cars. Then we will round a corner and be confronted with hundreds of sheep in the road. We sit and wait patiently until they clear.

Often we drive 5 hours a day, stopping to hike, browse shops or eat lunch. Tim always has coffee, Diet Coke and gum on hand to keep him alert.

On this day we leave Queenstown in the rain and head to Milford Sound, a four hour drive to the fiord. Along the way we see lakes, waterfalls, beech forest, rugged mountains and go through a mountain via a long tunnel. When we get to the other side of the mountain it's snowing. All along the way there are signs not to stop because of potential avalanches.

Milford Sound is one of New Zealand's most popular tourist destinations. Rain is not unusual here. It rains almost 6 meters a year! But on this day it was cold and heavy snow is predicted. So instead of getting stuck in this remote area we decide to drive back across the mountain pass after taking a few pictures.

Towards evening we park at a campervan park (they are all over New Zealand), hook up our electricity, and make a delicious dinner on our tiny stove.

We have grown quite attached to the campervan...kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room, and transportation all in one! top

Wanaka, New Zealand

Snowboarding

michelleWhen I was 14 my church youth group went skiing. I had never been and didn't quite know what to expect. It turns out skiing wasn't my forte. In fact, I still consider that day one of my most embarrasing moments of my life. I will spare you the details but will share this one story...

I signed up for the beginners' class. The ski instructor had us line up in a row, skis pointing toward him, going up the mountain. Being very eager to learn, I jumped in line first at the top. As the instructor began to lecture us on the fundamentals of skiing, I lost my balance and proceeded to fall on the person next to me. This made him tip over and he fell on the next person. Soon the domino-like chain reaction that I started had toppled the whole class. Not one person was left standing. The class lay sprawled about, arms and legs flailing trying to get up. The instructor looked at me as the instigator and said spitefully, "This is going to be a VERY long day, isn't it?"

I am sorry to say it was a long day and it never got much better. I haven't attempted skiing since. So when Tim suggested we try snowboarding, I flinched with apprehension.

It had been snowing in the South Island for the last couple days so I knew there would be plenty of snow on the mountain. As we inched our way up the icy road towards the Cardrona ski lodge I couldn't help but fantasize about breaking a leg or doing something equally as damaging.

After renting ski jackets, gloves, hats and snowboards, we were ready for our class. Our instructor, Neil, was very patient and showed us over and over again the proper stance for snowboarding. As we learned to stand on the snowboard correctly I thought, "Hey! This isn't so bad!" But that was before we went up the mountain. Once the snowboard was actually moving it wasn't so easy!

Over the course of the morning, I spent far more time in the snow on my knees or butt than standing on the board. Being on the beginner's slope, I was surrounded by small children who would whiz by with confidence and agility.

All in all, I had a good time and enjoyed trying to learn snowboarding. I think it would take much more practicing before I could make it all the way down the mountain without falling. Luckily snow is soft. top

A view on the hike up to the Rob Roy Glacier, south island of New Zealand.

Jackson Bay, New Zealand

Photos

timPhoto check-in. top

The quiet and tranquil Jackson Bay in the south island of New Zealand.

Neils Beach, New Zealand

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Late afternoon sun and misty sky meet to form a rainbow over Neils Beach in the south island of New Zealand.

Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Glacier Walk

tim"Around the corner and up the stairs." We followed a few stragglers into the small equipment room at The Guiding Company, blurted out our shoe sizes, and received mean pairs of clunky boots soled with grimacing metal teeth. While I secretly wanted a pair of these to walk around town in, the guides had other plans. Today we were hiking the Franz Josef Glacier.

After a short bus ride, we started down a trail surrounded by rainforest vegetation. While it didn't seem right that just 2 km away a river of ice flowed down the mountain, our guide explained how the Franz Josef is one of only five temperate glaciers in the world. (The Fox Glacier is another, conveniently located just 30 minutes south of this one.) When we made our way out of the forest and on to the glacial valley, the enormity of the valley and glacier blew away my sense of scale. I could see small blocks of ice at the top. What looked like a 10 meter wall in my eyes actually measured 200 meters! A helicopter hovering near the top was barely visible.

The walk across the valley and to the terminal face looked much shorter than it was. We stepped over the smooth rocks of the valley floor, crossed glacial streams, and stopped at a point about halfway to the glacier. The guide then explained the steps of glacier formation. First, years of snow gathers in a funnel-like snowfield at the top of the mountain (névé). Then, pressure from the accumulated snow turns the bottom layers into blue ice - which is under so much pressure that the ice actually becomes flexible and begins to flow downhill. The ice flows down the valley as a glacier (icefall) and melts in the ablation zone. The length of the glacier changes from year to year, depending on long-term weather trends. If we were standing in the middle of the valley just 250 years ago, we would have been under 300 meters of ice!

My time finally came - I strapped on my mean shoes and dug into the ice. We started up a set of stairs carved into the glacier and hiked to an ice cave. Michelle and I entered together. Inside the cave, soft blue light radiated from the ice of the curvy walls. It was very quiet. I could hear nothing but the dripping from melting ice. The cave was so peaceful and mysterious that I could have remained there for hours.

But I continued up the glacier with the group. We passed boulders that lay tossed about like pebbles. Deep crevasses cut through the ice. As another treat, we climbed down and wriggled through one of the more shallow crevasses. Eventually, we made it to a plateau in the glacier. We were nowhere near the top, but the view was gigantically spectacular. I stood, trying to comprehend the eons it takes to carve out a valley and wondered at the power of what I was standing on.

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Looking out of an ice cave formed in the Franz Josef Glacier on the south island of New Zealand. Looking out of an ice cave formed in the Franz Josef Glacier on the south island of New Zealand.

Paekakariki, New Zealand

Sheep

michelleSheep, sheep, everywhere! New Zealand has only 3.8 million people but has 48 million sheep. As Tim and I drive along the rolling hills, steep mountain terrain, and beautiful lake shores, sheep dot the landscape; white and furry, forever grazing. Lambs frolick with each other and sun themselves in the grass. I think Tim is growing weary of my "ooohing" and "ahhing", but I never grow tired of gazing out the window at them. top

Waitomo, New Zealand

Black water rafting

timWe looked like clowns and Michelle couldn't stop laughing. On top of the full-body wet suit, gloves, and caving helmet, we wore purple pants and giant white plastic shoes. As any woman will tell you, the shoes make the outfit.

After a short bus ride, we arrived to one of the Waitomo caves - made famous for their spectacular glow worms. Our guide sat us down and led us through ridiculous drills designed to glide us through safely. Afterwards, he had himself a good laugh and told us to forget most of it. He just wanted to see us squirm.

Our small group hiked up to the cave entrance and climbed in. Our eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness. We walked carefully through the small stream, careful not to pop our inner tubes on the rocky floor. We passed through a waterfall, under low ceilings, and around obstacles.

The cave widened and the stream grew deeper. When we finally entered an area covered in glow worms, we sat down and switched off our headlights. The glow worms covered the black ceiling like thousands of bluish-green stars. Each point varied in intensity and grew brighter as our eyes adjusted to the absence of light. The effect was almost surreal, increased by the echoing sound of water washing over my feet.

The passage became a cavern and the stream grew into a river. We floated down on the tubes, enchanted by a line of glow worms hanging above us. After safely making it over a small waterfall, we continued with all of our lights off. I drifted slowly, looking up to admire the view. We floated that way, out of the cave and back to the car.

I enjoyed the trip immensely, yet the 52 (11 C) degree water froze my feet into numb blocks of ice. We took a long hot shower and drank hot soup after the trip.

A hot shower never felt so good. top