Monday, March 12, 2007

Next Stop...USA!

I am in the Aukland Airport right now about to board my flight for San Francisco. If all goes as planned (i.e. I don't miss my connecting flight to Boston (fingers are crossed!)) then I will be landing at Logan a little before 11 PM on Monday night.

If anyone reading this happens to be near Logan (or wants to be near Logan) around 11 PM Monday night and then might be driving to Cambridge, I would love to see your smiling face!! Give my phone a call if anything like this is happening (-;

I hope you all enjoyed my New Zealand writing. I will write more on other topics in the future (at least that is the plan)

My Last Days

I just woke up for the last time in New Zealand, and as I tend to get cheesily sentimental about events such as the last time I'll do something in a specific place, I apologize in advance if I come off as complaining that I have to leave. I realize what a fantastic opportunity this trip has been for me and don't want to come across as a "woe is me, I have to go back to work" person when lots of people had to be at work this whole time. As a side note: if you have the chance/time/money to do a trip like this, I full-heartedly recommend taking a couple weeks off and really getting into a vacation. This was my first trip for over 2 weeks in one country and I really enjoyed getting to know some of the people and culture of the place I am visiting.

The last couple days here in New Zealand have been fairly mellow but quite enjoyable. Amy and I completed our road trip on Friday, driving about 5 hours from Dunedin north up the east coast to Christchurch. We stopped at the Moerekai Boulders, which are a fantastic grouping of large, round boulders imbedded into the beach. One of the more unique things I have seen in all my travels. After our last "must see" we pretty much just cruised home, looking forward to some time out of the car. Friday night I went to a party for one of Jake and Michelle's friends who is leaving for a couple months to go to Indonesia or Thailand or something. Nothing quite like attending a going away party and meeting the guest of honor for the first time. There was a nice little crowd and I had a nice time meeting some more people that I had heard about in Jake's stories.

On Saturday we headed up to a place called Hanmer Springs, which is about two hours north of Christchurch. We had a group of seven all together and stopped at a couple wineries (Pegasus Bay - fantastic, and Waikara Springs - decent enough) on the way up and had a nice leisurely drive. Michelle had rented a big house for us all to stay in and once settled we turned our attention to the main attraction of Hanmer Springs, the springs. For $12 you get to enter the springs, which consist of a series of about 15 man made springs of varying temperature and could stay as long as you like. Jake and I moved through about five pools ranging from 33 degrees Celsius to 39 degrees Celsius. After about two hours, we were relaxed, pruned, and ready to eat. While others went back to start preparing some food, Jake and I took on the task of finding some wine which is always an interesting task in some of these little New Zealand towns. Despite some difficulty, we succeeded in our mission and headed back to the villa for dinner.

After a delicious barbeque dinner of burgers and venison sausage, complimented by a great salad, everyone just sat around talking and we played a couple games of Mafia, introducing the game to the three non-Americans. People gradually headed off to bed, and Jake and I stayed up chatting for quite some time, which is always fun. Sunday we headed back to Christchurch, and went to see one of Jake and Michelle's friends competing in a Cricket match. I had never watched Cricket before, and while there is a lot of downtime built into the game, I still enjoyed the act of just lying in a nice park watching and learning the game. After Cricket, Jake and I played some non-competitive ultimate to get my last little bit of exercise for the trip, came back and had some dinner and then just hung out. A very enjoyable and relaxing last full day to be sure.

So, I am in the last couple hours of my trip here, trying to tie up some loose ends (like buying the things I've been planning to buy and figuring out how or if daylight savings in the US affects my flight times home) and then I'll be heading off to the airport this afternoon. Time to get into this last day!

Friday, March 9, 2007


(Editor's note: This is entry 3 of 3 wrapping up my most recent road trip. I will get some pictures up later.)

Our drive to Dunedin was a nice one, probably about 4 hours or so through mostly rolling hills, and we arrived a little before 2 PM. We were both hungry, but we wanted to get our bearings and find our lodging (the Dunedin Holiday Park) first. Dunedin was founded by the Scottish and boasts a rather unique Octagon for a city center.

The city is essentially laid out like a grid, so we had a pretty easy time finding the information center and then finding our holiday park. We were staying in Cabin 51 for the night, which was considerably nicer than the prison cell of the previous night. Of course the sun was shining, so maybe that helped.

Once we were settled, we headed into Dunedin to found some food, which I did by way of a delicious Turkish lamb shish kebab. After the eats, I walked around the city a bit, checking out some of the wonderful architecture and soaking in the suns rays. I entertained the idea of taking the Speight's (rather prominent NZ beer) but decided that since the tour lasted 90 minutes we might have trouble achieving our ultimate Dunedin goal which was to look for yellow-eyed penguins. After meeting back up with Amy, we headed a little north of the city to view the World's steepest street, Baldwin Street. We walked up to the top of Baldwin Street, trying to capture in photographs what we could feel in our calves. As a traffic engineer I was pretty interested to see just how steep this road was; in layman's terms, the road was steep!

Our quest for world records fulfilled we set about viewing some near extinct yellow-eyed penguins, which required that we drive back through Dunedin and out onto the Otago Peninsula. The drive out to the viewing beach was fantastic: steep cliffs overlooking Dunedine with sheep and ocean views worked in for good measure. A couple photo stops later and we were parking the car ready to embark on our penguin odyssey. We walked from the car, through a herd of sheep and onto the beach bordering Sandfly Bay. We passed a good deal of people heading away from the beach and were a bit worried that we were too late, but pushed on ahead. At the far end of the beach hides had been constructed so that you could view the penguins without them seeing you. Penguins are very shy and will not come ashore if they can see danger, so the hides were built in the dunes to allow people to view the penguins while still allowing the penguins to feel safe.

From the hide we were immediately able to see two penguins on the rocks bordering the beach, as well as a number of seals or sea lions (both inhabit the beach and we were a little too far to really identify the creatures). The penguins were simply basking in the last rays of the sun and we were unsure if we would see anything more, so we headed back to the beach to get in the car and get home before dark. On our way down the beach I spotted what I took to be a duck in the water bobbing in the waves. I took a couple pictures and as I was ready to dismiss the bird and head for home, out walked another penguin! I was maybe 20 yards down the shore and got a couple good pictures before alerting Amy to the bird. We decided to head back to the hide and see if any other penguins emerged as there was still a touch of daylight left. We saw our fourth penguin emerge from the ocean onto the rocks, joining the two that we had been watching for the previous hour. Once again we felt as though the time to leave was right and once again we were wrong as we were stopped a couple yards out of the hide and treated to yet another penguin returning from a long day of swimming and fishing. I took a couple more pictures and then we made the last move for the car. Despite the dying light, we saw our sixth and final penguin of the night and then made our way back to the car and off in search of dinner.

Seeing the yellow-eyed penguins is not a terribly common sight and I was thrilled to witness their wobbly movements in person. Dunedin seemed to be a pretty fun city and having an attraction like wild yellow-eyed penguins definitely makes stopping there a must in my travel book. This was a lot of writing for one day, and as I am back in Christchurch after we completed the drive home from Dunedin and the time is now 2AM, I think that I will post all of this later today and catch up with the end of my travels sometime in the not too distant future.

Wanaka, town on a lake

(Editor's note: This is entry 2 of 3 wrapping up my most recent road trip. I will get some pictures up later.)

We awoke around 9AM to find rain still falling from the Queenstown skies, which immediately ended our thoughts of driving through Wanaka and up to Mt. Aspiring National Park, as Richard and Robin had suggested the day before. Oh well. We checked out of our room, and walked into Queenstown, picking up some fresh muffins along the way. We did our obligatory e-mailing and then stopped into Richard's store, 45 Degrees South, to say goodbye. All that done, we got into the trusty Toyota Camry and made our way towards Wanaka.

There are two routes from Queenstown to Wanaka and we chose the more scenic (i.e. steeper) of the two, but the views were somewhat neutralized by the rain and accompanying fog. Still, the scenery was amazing and I enjoyed the short hour drive to Wanaka.

We checked into our lodging for the night, the Wanaka Lakeside Holiday Park, and were shown to cabin number 5, which was a glorified prison cell. We weren't there for the accommodations anyway, so the room didn't matter too much to me. After a quick, refreshing nap, we took to the streets of Wanaka with hopes that the rain would give us a reprieve and that we could actually see what the town had to offer. Wanaka had been described to us a "mini-Queenstown", but we found Wanaka to be a "not as exciting and smaller Queenstown". Still, Wanaka had some charm. To start with, there is a beautiful lake right in the heart of the town, bordered by some majestic mountains. The streets were not as lively as Queenstown, but still gave us plenty to look at. We got some food at a bar called Shooters and watched some Rugby (great sport to watch down here, because everyone is real into everything!) and enjoyed the sun fighting through the crowds. After some more walking around (including locating the "tree in the water" that is a top tourist attraction in Wanaka) we headed back to our room for a brief rest. We went back out wandering around to find a dinner spot and settled on a place called Trout's. I got fresh salmon which was mighty tasty and a glass of wine. After dinner, we were both quite beat and headed back to our room via another round of internet.

I wonder if we were not as interested in Wanaka because we simply didn't have the energy for the town that we did in Queenstown? Perhaps, but I still think Queenstown would kick Wanaka's butt if there were some form of town fight or something.

We woke up early on Thursday (7AM) with grandiose plans of heading to Mt Aspiring National Park to hike onto a glacier. We were out of the holiday park by 7:45 AM and on our way with the sun in our corner. Unfortunately, the last 20 km of the road was a dirt road that we did not feel the Camry was equipped to handle. So, we called off the dream of hiking a glacier and headed back to town for some breakfast before we were to drive to Dunedin.

Queenstown: Round 2

(Editor's Note: This is entry 1 of 3 wrapping up my most recent trip. I will get some pictures up here in a couple days, but I am on dial up right now and can't deal with the speed)

Seeing as there is so much to do in Queenstown, we knew we were in for an eventful full day when we awoke around 8:30 AM on Tuesday. After getting a little breakfast, we decided to go check out the information center and see what our best options were. While browsing the myriad of pamphlets, I decided to take a flight-cruise-flight combo to Milford Sound in the Fiordlands, but that was not to be as there were no flights leaving from Queenstown due to the weather in Milford Sound. So, my attention turned to sky diving versus bungy jumping, but we decided to postpone the decision for a little while and check out more of Queenstown.

Our first move was to take a gondola ride to the top of Bob's Peak, which would provide us with an excellent aerial view of Queenstown. We purchased our tickets and also decided to take a "luge" ride at the top of Bob's Peak (basically you steer a three-wheeled little cart down a winding course). The gondola ride up was fun and as expected the views were fantastic. We snapped some photos and then headed to the luge which was an entertaining, mini-thrill. Also at the top of Bob's Peak is the newest AJ Hackett bungy jump which got me thinking that since there were clouds in the sky and skydiving might not be as wonderful as possible that maybe bungy jumping was the right move. So, I booked a spot on the noon Nevis jump and we hustled down the hill to get to the departure site.

(Refer to the cowa-bungy post for all of the bungy related details!)

Once back in Queenstown we decided that we needed some food, so on Jake's recommendation, we headed over to Ferg Burger for a fantastic burger. Now fulfilled hunger-wise, we decided to move on to the fun of the evening. We went to a specialty wine shop which allows you to taste 80 different wines for all different prices. We had about 8 different wines each which was a lot of fun (I don't think I determined a favorite, but I am big fan of the Pinot Noirs and Sauviagnan Blancs from New Zealand). By now the rain had moved in, and our plan of going to the harbor and just relaxing was washed away. We decided instead to purchase a bottle of wine and visit a BYOWine restaurant to get another little bite to eat. En route we encountered a fresh seafood shack and sampled some of his delicious fare, and then we moved on to Dux de Lux where I had a salad and some seafood chowder and Amy partook in her half of the bottle of wine. With the wine done, we wanted to sample another suggestion of Jake and Michelle's a Thai place called @ Thai. So, up we went to @Thai where I got some chicken Satay and a Gin Sling (Gin, grenadine, lemon juice and soda water...really tasty!). At that point we were both stuffed and were thinking of heading back to our room...

...but, oh no, this night was FAR from over! On the way past the casino, I convinced Amy to go into the casino because I had found a two for one drink coupon. She was in the mood for one more drink and I thought I'd just gamble for a bit and then head to sleep. Well, the 2 black jack tables at the Sky City Casino were both full, so we dejectedly walked out only to stumble upon the sweet melody of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs Robinson" coming from an Irish bar called Kennedy's. So, in we went for our planned last drink of the night to a semi-empty bar with a three person band called "Those Guys" playing some American favorites. I settled into my first non-NZ beer of the trip (a Guinness since we were in an Irish bar) and we were just enjoying the scene.

And thats when we met Richard.

Richard began his introduction with a classic "guess what happened to me today?", and since we had never even seen Richard we had no idea. So, he pulled out a piece of paper stating that he had, in fact, been arrested earlier that afternoon for get this: shooting a toy arrow at a bus. He had the arrow stuck to his Guinness glass in case there was any doubt. Richard was a native Kiwi though had only moved to Queenstown a short while ago. He was a really nice guy, very interested in helping us plan the rest of our trip and introduced us to his girlfriend Robin, a native Texan with no trace of American vernacular; she spoke just like a Kiwi. We ended up staying for two more drinks, listening to some pretty good music and having some fun conversation with Richard and Robin. As the band wound down, Richard asked if we wanted to see a more local bar, which we were of course up to. Out into the street the four of us went, with rain coming down and not a care in the Southern Hemisphere. Richard took us through some back alleys and we arrived on some street Amy and I had not even encountered in our 2 days of wandering. Fun stuff! I bought a bottle of local (Lake Hayes) Pinot Noir and the four of us continued our lively conversation, covering all sorts of topics. As the wine wound down, Amy headed back to our room a couple blocks away, Richard and Robin bid us farewell, and I decided to say hello to my friend the Sky City Casino.

Apparently I had a little too much wine, because my former friend the Sky City Casino asked me how much I had had to drink that night, and when I responded "five or six...or seven", Mr. Sky City Casino informed me that I was not allowed to take their money that night. Back into the night, I somehow gave directions to another couple of Americans, and off I went seeking the other casino in town the Wharf Casino. I sat down with no problems at this joint and being a pretty good judge of my sobriety, deemed myself not all that drunk (which I still maintain even writing this a couple days later). I played black jack for about 45 minutes, ending with an additional $20 in my pocket and decided that my thrilling day was at an end.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Queenstown Day 1

I am not sure I have the time or energy to get the full Queenstown experience into blog form at the present moment, but we are in a town called Wanaka right now with no real plans for the late afternoon, so I may as well put some effort in.

Amy and I drove from Christchurch to Queenstown on Monday. The drive took about eight hours, but that includes a lunch stop, numerous picture stops and a winery stop, so we may have been in the car for something like six hours. The drive was very pleasant; the road wound through a number of rolling hills and then mountains and we were blessed with some great sunny skies. Our lunch break was along the shores of a giant, turquoise lake, which sand flies aside, provided us with great visuals as we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Arriving in Queenstown was immediately exciting and we headed straight to our lodging: the Queenstown Lakeside Holiday Park to get settled and get into the night.

Queenstown reminded me a lot of Interlaken, Switzerland, but with a more developed downtown area. The setting was magnificent: about a 6 block by 4 block grid of shops, bars and restaurants, backed by tall mountains and bordering the longest lake in New Zealand. You couldn't really ask for more options than were at our disposal. Our first order of business was getting some food and we had a serviceable meal at a place called Red Rock which allowed us to eat outside and relax after the day of travel. We next wandered the streets, popping our heads into various stores and casinos, before deciding to get a glass of wine what we later determined to be "The Mall". So, we sipped local wine in a crowded pedestrian walkway and enjoyed the surrounding feel of life.

We headed down to the lake and walked around a bit before deciding on having a couple beers at a place called the Loaded Hog. We sampled a couple of the Loaded Hog's beers and watched the passers-by before deciding to head back towards our Holiday Park.

Time to go experience some more of Wanaka. Day 2 of Queenstown and more at some point in the future.


Queenstown is essentially the outdoor capitol of the South Island, and you have everything available to you: white water rafting, skydiving, hang gliding, motor boating, and of course bungy jumping. New Zealand, and Queenstown in particular, is the birth place of the bungy jump: a company called AJ Hackett first started the bungy jumping from a bridge about 30 minutes east of Queenstown.

My original thought was to go skydiving as the scenery around here is amazing, but yesterday was a touch on the cloudy side and my thoughts began to drift towards a bungy jump. AJ Hackett has 3 jumps in the Queenstown area: the orginal 43 meter jump off of a bridge, a new 30 meter jump from the giant hill overlooking Queenstown into trees and The Nevis, a 134 meter jump from a suspended enclosure, the 3rd highest jump in the world. Well, I didn't travel all this way not to go big.

I went for The Nevis.

Amy (Michelle's sister, who I am currently traveling with) and I booked a trip to The Nevis. Amy would just be spectating and I would be jumping. We made the noon booking and were on a bus with 18 other jumper/spectators for a 45 minute ride up to the jump site. The last 15 minutes of the ride were on a winding dirt road that essentially took us up the face of a mountain. As we reached the plateau, we were treated to a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains, a river winding through them, and were staring right at the suspended structure we would be jumping from. Basically, cables are run between the two mountains that border the river and in the middle of these cables, what could best be described as a hut is in the middle. The hut is probably 20 feet by 20 feet or so and sways with the wind. Yikes!

So, as we disembark from the bus, we get into our harnesses get some brief instructions, and start getting shuttled out to the launch site in groups of 4 or 5. The jump order is determined by weight, and as I weighed in at 91 KG (about 198 pounds for those that don't like metric (which puts be back below 200 pounds (thank goodness!!))) I would be the third jumper of the day. I am not in the first group that goes out and as we are about halfway between the safety of solid ground and the mystery of this suspended hut, the first guy of the day launches out of the buidling and we are under way. As we arrive in the hut, I am told that I will be jumping next as they ready the Irish guy going before me. The Irish guy has a very worried look on his face and after edging towards the launch pad decides to chicken out and take a seat, meaning that I will be jumping next having never seen anyone actually jump from the hut. Double yikes!!

I have a harness that wraps over my shoulders and connects to the straps wrapped around my leg and waist. The straps are about two inches wide, but basically as thick as any normal strap. There is a clip at the center of my chest. To this get up, they add leg wraps which effectively feel like really thick ankle braces. I guess this is all I get! As the chicken Irish guy walks dejectedly back to his friends I want to tell him that everything is fine, who cares, but frankly I need to be worrying about myself at the moment.

They have me walk over to a chair where I am checked over by the head instructor, Jase. Once checking that everything is secure he attaches the bungy to my feet and clips in my chest straps. He has me smile for the AJ Hackett camera and then asks if I want to say anything for the DVD. Still feeling quite brave, I give a "Its go time!" and my feet are back on the floor moving to the launch pad. Amy is positioned well, snapping lots of pictures with my camera and I start to waddle over to towards the open air and river below.

With my legs strapped in, all I can manage are baby steps, which makes the process much harder and more nerve racking. The launch pad is actually called the "meat pad" and consists of a grated platform sticking out of the hut, about two or three feet. And I am supposed to walk out onto this thing, except that I can only waddle, so I am doing what Jase refers to as "the bungy shuffle". I get my feet to the meat pad and reach for something to grab, but there is nothing. Just mountains ahead and a river below. Jase assures me that he is holding my straps and I continue with the bungy shuffle. Amy later told me that my face was white as I got out on the platform.

So, I get my feet to the edge of the ledge, and Jase has me wave to Amy for what must be a great photo. He tells me to jump when he says "one" and to try to grab the mountains ahead (i.e. get my body out of the platform as much as I can). Then Jase starts to count down. (Do I only have three seconds to decide if I, two seconds?! I know what comes next...) "One!"

And I am 8.5 second free fall to within 10 meters of the river below (or so they say) I let out a yell mid way down but I have no idea if noise came out of my mouth. The rush was amazing, and as I reached the end of my fall, I bounced back towards the suspended hut as advertised. As a I bounced a second time I gave a "woo hoo" type howl and reached to undo my legs which put me back into a sitting position. I was pulled back into the hut and, shaking noticeably, was released from my bond to the million of little rubber bands which had just kept me alive.

Nice to be done with that one (-; We stayed in the hut for a while just watching others jump and then were shuttled back to land and eventually back to Queenstown.