Posts tagged ‘New Zealand’

A cool way to spend a day. Franz Josef, New Zealand

With spiky metal crampons strapped onto our feet and ice picks gripped tightly in our fists we were ready for our big Kiwi adventure. A day of walking up walls of ice, sliding through blue tinged crevasses and penguin shuffling along steps cut out of a glacier was exactly the big bang we wanted to end the Australasian leg of our trip on and it didn’t disappoint.

From a distance it hadn’t looked like a big challenge – a short walk leading to a wall of ice, its ugly face coated in crumbling gravel. It was big but it wasn’t huge. Three kilometres later we were starting to get the idea. The steep valley walls made everything look a lot smaller but the mountain of gravel we were about to scramble up was a dirty reminder that there was nothing small about Franz Josef. Never mind, all the more for us to explore.

The first obstacle was learning to trust our crampons. Believing that those crude spikes would keep us firmly rooted when we hit a slippy spot of fresh compacted ice, while we edged down the steep, narrow steps that our guide had just cut with her massive axe and when we got up the courage to really test them towards the end of the day, running up walls like Arctic Spidermen. The next step was getting used to the 16 layers of clothes we were wearing, struggling to bend our joints out of their stiff starfish position. Of course we were glad of our layers, grateful to have something between our skin and the smooth wet surface of the crevasses we had wedged ourselves into, wiggling slowly along and kicking our feet in a desperate attempt to touch the ground.

Climbing the glacier was fantastic fun and a totally different experience to anything we had done before (well technically I had climbed Franz Josef before but it was a much shorter trip and it was Gary’s first time on the ice.) All that ice – an endless sea of hills and cracks, pools of delicious meltwater, bridges and tunnels cut out by endless movement. What a marvel.

Franz Josef town is nice too – a tiny little pocket between the mountains and the sea with a few restaurants, pubs and tour agencies. Accomodation was in the lovely Rainforest Resort where we powered up the heater and thawed out after a few too many nights spent on the side of the road in the van. Happily we had company in Sarah and her two friends Stephen and Scott the Scots, a cosy little group we added to after a power outage left us playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire with a handful of strangers in the dark. Red wine all round of course, having finally warmed up the last thing we wanted clinking around our glasses was ice.

The journey back to Christchurch was one of the nicest drives I have ever seen, stretching up the coast and over Arthur’s Pass where Kea flapped about in 10ft of snow. Progress was in bursts as Gary pulled over every few kilometres to hop out and take photographs of beautiful lake and mountain scapes, diving back in with numb fingers and toes only to repeat the process a few minutes later. New Zealand definitely pulled out all the stops for the last leg of our journey but still it wasn’t enough. Bored of western society, astronomical prices and 18 year old kids we were itching to get to South America and really start travelling again. Next stop Santiago, Chile!

There are more pictures from Franz Josef available in the gallery


July 4, 2010 at 4:57 am 2 comments

A vision in the mist. Milford Sound, New Zealand

For some reason the thick fog came as a surprise. We always knew that we were taking a chance coming to Milford Sound, especially during winter. With up to 9 metres of rain annually and around 200 days of rainfall a year, the scales were tipped firmly against us from the outset. Nonetheless when we climbed out of the van in the morning to find that what had been a spectacular and clear view the night before was now a hazy void, we were a little disappointed.

The weather had been so much more promising when Gary had awoken at 7am to photograph the sunrise. With him he had brought back a handful of mystical snaps, an icy breeze, a hundred sandflies and one crazy Kea – an odd parrot-like bird that flew into our van, sat on the steeringwheel and then hopped onto our metal roof, sliding about on his little claws begging for scraps of bread or apple. We had come this far though, driving 291km along a stunning but fuel-intensive road that led to only one place so we reckoned we might as well get out on the water for a bit.

Never has a reluctant last-minute decision proved to be so wise. We had barely cleared the harbour when the cloud cover started to thin and Milford Sound came into sharp(ish) focus. Out of the fog came a parade of chisled rockfaces that plummeted into milky water; waterfalls of every shape and size from long thin temporary streams to thundering sheets; and steep cliffs where moss and evergreens clung to soil-less surfaces. All of a sudden that thick haze that had so bothered us only 20 minutes before was a bonus, adding mystery to the countless lumbering headlands that lay sleeping around the fjiord.

Free cups of awful hot tea and coffee in hand we ran from one side of the boat to the other, partially to be sure that we were taking in every inch of this magical place and partially to keep warm in the thick icyness of the day. All over the boat runaway hats darted across the deck and liquids sloshed out of paper cups as the boat lumbered from the narrowest part of the sound into the open sea. Luckily as seasickness started to colour otherwise blue faces, we turned back towards the dock and… Was that?… A waterfall? The huge group of Argentinians who had been perched on the front of the boat started to scream as the nose of the boat dipped into a waterfall, spraying them all with cold water. Panicing, the rest of the passengers stampeded towards the door only to discover that the angelically smiling boat staff had already locked them in anticipation, leaving us all open to the wrath of the reminants of last night’s torrential shower. Pantomining a racially diverse cartoon we darted for the other side of the boat, running in circles around the boat as it rotated in the spray.

Just as we thought the trip couldn’t get any better it did when one of the Argentinians screamed again, alerting us to some new company. Darting alongside the boat was a pod of huge dolphins hardly smaller than whales. We dutifully oohed and aahed as they jumped out of the water, graduating first to tail flips and eventually to backflips. Before long they were leaping out of the water, bellies exposed, every few minutes to an audience of flashing cameras. Now they were just showing off.

By the time we got back to the boat landing we were completely enchanted by Milford Sound and its inhabitants, not to mention the fantastic boat crew on the Cruise Milford tour. At $70 it was worth every red cent and without a doubt one of the best attractions New Zealand has to offer.

There are more pictures from Millford Sound available in the gallery

June 30, 2010 at 1:34 am Leave a comment

Take a run and jump. Queenstown (and Wanaka), New Zealand

Before we even set foot on New Zealand soil I was dying to get back to Queenstown, the spectacular mountain setting for what had once been the greatest 8½ seconds of my life. You would imagine that 8½ seconds is so small a portion of time that it could hardly even be measured but as the Kiwis know, the right 8½ seconds can last a lifetime.

It has to be said that I wasn’t always a willing participant in what was to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. At the start it sounded like a great idea but as the time grew closer and closer, jumping out of a glass-floored metal shed suspended 134m above a canyon by a few wires started to sound a little risky. Sure there would be a rope tied to my feet but what if it snapped? What if it was even a few metres too long? What if I jumped wrong – feet first – and when I got to the bottom I was whipped around like a ragdoll? As the staff at Nevis Bungy (the third highest bungy jump in the world) tied straps around my ankles and instructed me to wave to the camera, the colour drained out of my face, my stomach lept up to replace my voicebox and my limbs turned to jelly. I could do it though, I could definitely do it. I shuffled out of my chair and walked the plank out over the open canyon, glancing down between my feet. I thought I could see a river coursing its way along the valley somewhere far far far far far below me but I couldn’t be sure.

Scratch that, there was no way I could do this. As I turned to run away I felt a sharp jab in my ribs and then before I knew what was happening there was no plank, no glass-floored cabin and for all I knew, no rope. Stretching my arms out in front of me I twisted into a swan dive and I was flying not falling. In that moment was totally weightless, fearless and alone. So wonderfully, beautifully alone.

At that precise moment I wasn’t the only person having a life-affirming experience in Queenstown. Across the small town people just like me were hurling themselves off bridges and ledges, swinging into canyons, rowing for their lives against violent currents of frothing water, throwing themselves out of planes, dangling from cliff faces and racing off the end of ski and snowboard ramps. It’s not for nothing that Queenstown is often referred to as the adrenaline capital of the world afterall.

Returning was always going to be a different experience. Without my Dad’s credit card I was going to have to practice a measure of restraint completely unfamiliar to me (not to mention unfamiliar to Gary Boylan, the backpacker who spent €1,800 of his limited budget on a camera). On the other hand we had Claire and Laura for company so that other wonderful aspect of Queenstown was about to open up – the side that came out when the moon came up, the snowboarders and skiiers came down from their slopes and the adrenaline junkies got over their buzzes.

As it turns out Queenstown on a shoestring looks very different to the Queenstown you see in brochures. By day it is still that same fantastic low rise little town, nestled snuggly in the bossoms of nearby snow-capped mountains. Only now that I see it at 2pm, it’s eerily quiet. By the boardwalk a girl is walking her dog, two backpackers are feeding leftover chips to some ducks and some young kids with gloved hands are sipping hot chocolate outside Patagonia Cafe. Everyone else must be skydiving, rafting, bungy jumping or hangliding. Everyone except for us that is. Just as we start to sulk over our trip once again becoming defined by the things that we cannot do rather than the things that we can, we remember that there is still one semi-affordable rush left in Queenstown.

For $45 we could ride the Sky Gondola up to the tippy top of Queenstown, hop on a plastic wheeled sled and race each other down almost-vertical dips, around hairpin turns and in a few cases nearly over the edge of the mountain on the infamous Luge. With the wind rushing in our hair, cracks in the concrete rattling our bones and the threat of a quick, bone-shattering death lurking around every corner we were finally seeing the real Queenstown.

Our fun-filled experience continued that night when we met Claire and Laura for drinks in Adrenaline bar where a vertical bungy challenge left backpackers being dragged across the floor while trying not to spill their cocktails; World Bar which was crammed with people trying to bag free teapots (full of booze not tea of course) on the $1,000 bar tab; and Buffalo Bar which was shoulder to shoulder. After seeing so little life in the north Island and then on our brief stint in Christchurch, it was good to be out meeting people and having that same old backpacker conversation again – “So how long have you been in NZ for? Where were you before? Where are you going after.” I never thought I’d be so happy to hear those tired old questions.

The next day I was to discover that there is only one real cure for a merciless hangover – a trip to Wanaka’s Cinema Paradiso. To be frank, Wanaka is a lot like a smaller, more community-based version of Queenstown. It has a lovely lake, great skiing, endless amounts of adrenaline-based sports and apparently an interesting nightlife.

Wanaka’s most interesting attraction though, is in the quirkiest little cinema I have ever seen. Delighted with our timing, Gary and I showed up for one of the first showings of Shrek 4 (good but not great – we reckon it’s like the 2nd one in that it needs a second watch) and bagged the last two tickets. Within 20 minutes of arriving in town we were sitting in a small room, curled up on a couch with a box of popcorn and some homemade white chocolate and Baileys ice-cream. All around us people were sitting in similar mix-and-match kitsch couches with their shoes off and feet up, casting an occasional eye on their kids who were sprawled out on floor cushions at the front or crowded into the topless yellow vintage car that had been gutted, brought inside and fitted out with plush sofas. Staff from the adjoined cafe were running around delivering cappucinos and taking orders for full meals to be delivered at the intermission.

The best part of the stamp-sized cinema though was the toilets and cafe tables which were covered in old school movie posters like some fantastic papier mache project. It was no bungy jump to be sure but Cinema Paradiso has all the ingredients of a memorable experience.

There are more pictures from Queenstown and Wanaka available in the gallery

June 27, 2010 at 12:37 pm Leave a comment

The tortoise or the hare? The North Island, New Zealand

Note: Sorry, whopper post to follow but it covers an entire week and a half spent in a camper van, 2100km and about 150 photos!

In a way our tour of New Zealand’s North Island was defined by sunsets. Over a week and a half we saw out the end of the day in some of the most scenic and definitely the most tranquil settings we have encountered in our seven months on the road. On Hot Water Beach we watched the sunset through a haze of rising steam. The beach had emptied half an hour beforehand and now it was only us and a few stragglers wallowing in hot water as the sun tinged the water orangey-blue and the waves threatened to break down our carefully constructed castle walls.

Keeping in a theme of semi-nudity, Rotorua saw us end the day in the Polynesian Spa reclining in a hot mineral bath seperated from the cold lake by only a few smooth granite bricks. Black swans floated gracefully past and all was a picture of tranquility until an Asian attendant decided to enthusiastically sing us the entire back catalogue of The Corrs, shattering our romantic sejourn.

Back in our graffiti covered builder’s-van-turned-camper we spent the next evening navigating New Zealand’s patchwork landscape of rolling hills. Passing through a planted forest meant that we watched the sunset that day as if through a flickbook, carefully measured rows of trees stretching for miles and isolating each colourful frame from the next until either the night or the thickening foliage swallowed the sun completely.

On to Napier next and to the wine country where the last rays of light warmed the frozen earth. In the dying light sheep ambled from row to row, munching happily on bare vines, sagely avoiding vivid red roses as we worked through our tasting flight in the spectacular Craggy Range vineyard, sampling one sensational $100 bottle of reserve wine after another.

Our last evening on the road was also to be our most tranquil and idyllic. On a hunch we had turned off Highway 12 on our way back to Auckland and had sought out the Kai Iwi Lakes. Always full of waterskiiers and holidaymakers during the summer months and on weekends, it was a rare treat to find the lake deserted – just me, Gary, two cups of hot chocolate, a duck and a memorable sunset.

It was a great ending to a trip which had got off to a bit of a false start when we arrived in lovely little Coromandel Town and pulled into a carpark for our first night of sleeping in the van. After cooking over our gas burner and rolling out the bed we drifted into a rather self-satisfied sleep only to be woken two hours later by what could only be a tornado. We clung helplessly to each other as the van rocked dangerously, tilting on two wheels and the roof threatened to cave in under the weight of the torrential rain that was battering it from every side.

For 36 hours the storm raged on, driving us from Coromandel Town to Whitianga in search of brighter weather and eventually when the slowly caving walls of the van became too much, into a firmly rooted hostel. Fortunately our second day brought much milder conditions allowing us to brave the beautiful (but by now waterlogged) walking route around Flaxmill Bay, Shakespeare’s Lookout, Captain Cook’s Memorial and down towards aptly named Lonely Bay. Covered in mud and exhausted after our muddy uphill hike we piled back into the van in search of the perfect picnic spot, pulling up eventually in Buffalo Beach. Sipping cup’a soup and munching on sandwiches while basking in the first rays of sun we had felt in days, it started to dawn on us why we love travelling so much.

After lunch we made our way to Cathedral Cove in Hahei, happily avoiding all of the day’s tour buses. With fantastic diving and snorkelling, stunning rock formations and a scattering of beautiful, rugged little offshore islands just begging to be explored Cathedral Cove was one of the best surprise stops of our trip. We had afterall just dropped by because we were early for the daily hoedown on Hot Water Beach.

As mentioned before, people flock to Hot Water Beach for two hours (only one around this time of year) either side of low tide when hot water oozes up out of the sand. To avail of a free bath you bring a shovel or some cupped hands and dig yourself a hole just above the watermark and settle in for a long hot soak. It’s a pretty relaxing experience until the tide comes in and braver waves start to wash over your handmade bath, replacing burning hot water with freezing cold. Shocked into action you grab your shovel and dig furiously, trying desperately to build a wall around your sanctuary and protect the troops before the next wave comes and washes away your hard work. Between the romance of watching the steam rise off of the sand and the childish fun of manically trying to construct a moat, the Hot Water Beach was a high point of our North Island trip.

Strangely enchanted by natural hot springs and their eggy smell we made our way to Rotorua. Again we were pleasantly surprised by what the North Island had to offer when we arrived in the beautiful town centre, well-endowed with mock Tudor buildings, enticing spas, lively Maori culture and a scenic in-town park and lake. Be warned though, while there is an almost overwhelming amount to do in Rotorua a lot of it (especially the disappointing Buried Village) is overpriced. One attraction worth every penny though was Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a famous thermal reserve that takes in pools, waterfalls and lakes in colours you never though could occur naturally. The highlights of the park were the multi-hued Champagne Pool, the snot green Devil’s Bath and Lady Knox Geyser which, with the help of a handful of soap, goes off every day at 10.15am promptly.

Next up was Napier. Destroyed in 1931 by an earthquake, Napier was reconstructed completely in the style of Art Deco, a quirky characteristic it carries to this day. So convincing is the blocky design, pastel colours and neon lights of the city that when you are wandering through Clive Square on a particularly quiet Saturday evening it’s hard not to feel like you are on a filmset. In fact on the third weekend in February every year, the city looks more dated than ever when Art Deco Week rolls in encouraging locals and visitors alike to dust off their vintage cars and clothes. For two glorious days it could well be the 30s all over again.

An added bonus in Napier is its location in the heart of one of New Zealand’s most renowned wine regions. Famed for its Bordeaux varieties and Syrahs, there is no better way to spend a sunny Sunday evening than wandering from winery to winery sampling grapes and testing the legal drink driving limits. Regardless of your actual knowledge before long you are sure to be joining in conversations about “undertones of hollyhocks” (although for those of us on a budget, the wine bottle is a lot more likely to say “notes of sweat and asparagus” – Monkey Puzzle Sauvignon Blanc 2009 vintage.)

The last destination on our whistle-stop tour of the north called for a long car journey north, to the heart of Mauri culture and one of the country’s most remote areas. In Northland we had the great fortune to meet the world’s biggest and widest Kauri trees in the sacred Waipoua Kauri Forest. Stretching to 51m tall and 16.4m girth respectively, standing in the presence of Tane Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere was a serene experience. Continuing on our tour of the giants we headed up to North Head to see the biggest hulking sand dune I could ever even imagine. Unfortunately dune boarding is only available on weekends in the winter time though so we were forced to start the long slow drive back to Auckland.

Stopping off at the Kai Iwi Lakes to watch the sun set on our first campervan experience, I was happy to conclude that my friends and family had been wrong all along – there is absolutely nothing second rate about New Zealand’s North Island.

There are more pictures from all our North Island stops available in the gallery

June 24, 2010 at 9:44 am 2 comments

Back to reality? Auckland, New Zealand

It was with heavy hearts that we arrived in Auckland Airport and applied for our working holiday visas. We had planned from the outset to stop and work in New Zealand for a few months and as the weeks ticked by and the zeros started to disappear from our bank balances, it seemed more inevitable than ever that we would have to make some money if we were ever going to get to South America. Still, we had been dreading the huge change of lifestyle from lazy, good-for-nothing backpackers who flitted about the place living only to please themselves to imported workhorses, slaving for hours every day for an absolute pittance. And the weak Kiwi dollar wasn’t going to help matters either.

When we walked into the arrivals lounge and saw Gary’s old friends Paul and Caoimhe waiting for us with open beers though, things started to look up. Having never met our hosts before I was a little anxious about sleeping in their spare room for a week. What if they didn’t like me? What if I didn’t like them? A week can be a long time. Three hours after our arrival and two beer runs later I knew I had been worrying about nothing. Paul was every bit as funny as Gary had made him out to be and Caoimhe was just as friendly, both of them bending over backwards to make our stay in New Zealand as comfortable and alcohol-filled as possible.

There was really only so much they could do though. After a week in Auckland we had more or less had our fill of the city (not Paul and Caoimhe). There had been some nice distractions – a trip to volcanic Rangitoto Island that had provided some nice views of Auckland and a great walk. Dinner afterwards in a Devonport restaurant was a deliciously comfy affair too, dishing up a fantastic chicken pie and to die for homemade apple and rhubarb crumble – mmmm tastes like home…

The city itself has some memorable spots too. The National Museum for one is certainly worth visiting, the absolute highlight of which is the displays on Maori culture and history and the Maori cultural performance. There’s nothing like seeing the Haka live. It’s also hard to beat breakfast calzone in Vulcan Cafe followed by drinks down at the Viaduct (it was a late breakfast!) and with its fantastic boutique shops, awesome hostels (especially Verandah’s), lively bars and a good quality international food court Ponsonby is a pretty difficult neighbourhood to tear yourself away from.

With no jobs, no prospects on the horizon and no desire to sit around and wait until we ran out of money we decided to rent a campervan and tour the North Island. Sure we’d face reality when we got back. Of course a week turned into ten days and the wanderlust that had been painted over by months of far-too-easy travelling in Australia and New Zealand started to shimmer beneath the surface. Evenings spent urgently digging moats around our hot water hole in the sand, scenic drives through a faraway country and the rare freedom that living in a van afforded us left us secretly crossing our fingers that none of those jobs we applied for would get back to us (full post on the North Island to follow later.) By the time we got back to Auckland we had decided to take the plunge. We would take out loans and head straight to South America for four months instead of two and a half. There would be enough time for worrying about money and jobs when got back to Ireland.

Meanwhile, Gary’s cousin Sarah was waiting for us back in Auckland. In the spirit of offering her the same welcome that Paul and Caoimhe offered us, we escorted her to Cowboy’s and Indian’s immediately for a teary reunion and an full length update on her fantastic trip to South America. The next morning we were more excited than ever about the prospect of the next leg of our journey but a little less than enthusiastic about ever standing upright again.

Our second night out was a little less fun as we squeezed into the hoards of Kiwis in O’Hagans, shamrocks painted on our faces, for the Ireland vs All Blacks match. By half time we were rushing for the bathroom to scrub the paint off our faces and replace it with black eyeliner. A more bitter than sweet goodbye to Auckland to be sure.

To all our readers: We have a massive favour to ask. While we were in Auckland Gary managed to get himself into the finals of a photo competition called ‘My Auckland.’ The prize is a beautiful new Canon 550D which he will immediately be passing on to me. We really really need your support to beat the Kiwi entries because, although Gaz-bag’s entry is beautiful, we’re a little disadvantaged by playing on foreign soil. In return for your votes and all those you can drum up on our behalf, we promise you better photos and eternal love. Click here to vote (you’ll have to register first).

Thanks for reading the blog, hope you’re enjoying it!

There are more pictures from Auckland available in the gallery

June 16, 2010 at 10:05 am 2 comments


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Over the next year we will be fighting in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America.

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