We are all made of stars…

It does feel very strange to be without Sarah after basically living inside her pocket for the past 5 months. Our separation took place in Dunedin, but not without a few last minute jaunts. Along with my new travel buddy Lofty, we hit up the Otago peninsular and watched an albatross soar through the air; we visited the inside of the Cadbury’s factory and gorged on free chocolate; we saw lots of creepy taxidermied animals and more interesting Maori exhibits at the Otago Museum and we ate amazing steak which we cooked ourselves on 400degree stones.

Lake Tekapo, Take Two

Having missed out on the Earth and Sky astronomy tour with Sarah the first time around, I was determined to make another attempt. This time, success! The bus took us up to the top of Mt. John, where Canterbury University hosts their telescopes. The bus couldn’t use its headlights because of light interference with the powerful lenses, so the driver carefully navigated up the windy mountain road in the dark… scary! By the time we reached the top, our eyes had adjusted to the darkness and the sky was wonderfully clear. Still not a patch on the Serengeti and especially not on Abel Tasman, but still clear enough to see major star action.

Our guide was a young amateur astronomer from Finland who could talk incessantly about the stars. She pointed out the Southern Cross (I’ve finally seen it!) as well as our closest neighbouring star, Alpha Centuri and the two planets in the sky, Mars and Saturn. We then got to use the telescope to see the constellations. Seeing Saturn through a powerful telescope has to be one of the coolest sights of the night sky. The rings were perfect and you could even glimpse one of Saturn’s moons, Titan. I learned, and then witnessed for myself through the telescope, that Alpha Centuri is really made up of two stars orbiting each other. After that, the clouds came in to obscure our view of the heavens, so we warmed up with some hot chocolate and left the mountain, lights on this time.

Bye Bye, South Island

The south island of New Zealand is out of this world. I had so much fun exploring all it has to offer, and I still didn’t get to see all of it. I will find myself back here, I feel it in my bones. There are too many ties that lead back to NZ for me to ignore. But moving on is always exciting, and I’m not leaving the country yet.

The Interislander ferry is supposed to be one of the most spectacular ferry crossings in the world. But as luck would have it, it seemed the south island was as sad to see me go as I was from it… hard sheets of rain fell as we pulled out of Picton on our way to the capital city of Wellington. It was still raining when we arrived and Castle II protested violently against being set up in the howling winds. Wellington is by far the windiest place I have ever been in. All through the night, the wind battered our tent. We had to get up three times in the night to peg it back down and even then the flexible poles bent themselves inward as if they were being contorted and mangled by some torturing puppeteer.  Finally, dawn broke and the tent settled… for the time being. For as anxious as I had been about the tent during the night, I could only imagine what would happen to it during the day, with nobody inside it to hold it down! It did survive, but only just. They don’t call Wellington the ‘windy city’ for nothing.

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Middle Earth (aka New Zealand): Part One

It’s the books. It has always been about the books. But when you can’t step into the pages and see the world for yourself, you have to settle for the movie. I always knew I would hunt for Lord of the Rings scenery when I reached New Zealand. It started when I reached Queenstown…

The Fellowship of the Ring

While Sarah is not the manic LotR fan I am, she was happy to indulge my little quests. Armed with an autographed copy of Ian Brodie’s “Location Guidebook,” Sarah, myself and fellow LotR fanatic Ryan set out to discover the rings for ourselves. The result was a task more difficult than we ever could have imagined – is this how Frodo and the rest of the fellowship felt once they left the safety of Rivendell?

There were minor setbacks – like the four-wheel drive only road on the way to the Ford of Bruinen (where Arwen defeats the Black Riders) or the private, pay-to-enter land of Deer Park Heights (where Aragon is atacked en route to Helm’s Depp in Rohan). There were successes though. We found the Pillars of Argonath on the river Kaweru; it was one of the main things I wanted to see on my trip to NZ.

And so, the fellowship came to an unfortunate but necessary conclusion: the only way to see Middle Earth is with a guide.

The Two Towers

And what better than the four-legged kind? Dart Stables is located in Glenorchy, about 45 minutes outside of Queenstown. There’s no cell signal and a population of 250, but it is a movie-maker’s paradise. And that’s exactly what it is called: Paradise.

After an exhilarating morning ride cantering along the braided rivers around Glenorchy, I saddled up for the “Ride of the Rings.” This two-hour ride took me up to a viewpoint where the site of Isengard, Saruman’s tower, was clearly and obviously visible. The scenery is spectacular up there. The Dart River viewed from above weaves intricate patterns in the grey-brown silt and snow-capped Mt. Aspiring National Park looms in the distance.

As if the river scenery wasn’t enough, the trail took us through stunning beech forests. The first forest, dominated by towering red beech trees, was the home of Amon Hen (where Boromir is killed by the Uruk-hai in the first movie). The second forest, however, was the more sparsely decorated winter beech forest, and the stunning home of Lothlorien (where Galadriel resides). Even though the forest looks quite different in the movie (2500 spray-painted leaves will do that), the same ethereal presence is evident. To be able to travel through it on horseback is something else completely.

The Return of the King

LotR isn’t the only movie to be made in that area. In fact, on my ride I was taken past the “hot” set of the new X-men film “Wolverine.” Watch for a farmhouse being blown up and a huge motorcycle stunt – I was there! No extra work unfortunately – I could’ve done, but I don’t have a work visa – gutted! Alas!

Also, our guide reenacted a scene from the upcoming “Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” movie. The Prince is on horseback through the forest (where I was) when he is attacked and rescued by Trufflehunter the badger – another scene to look out for!

Sarah and I have been saying all along how absolutely out of this world New Zealand is. It’s no surprsie that so much “fantasy” is made here too!

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Cooking up a storm!

I am now back in Queenstown, after a short detour around the bottom end of the South Island. Since Sarah is going to be leaving the South Island on the 28th, we wanted to make sure she got in as much as possible beforehand. The result was a loop up to Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, before heading down to Dunedin tomorrow where Sarah will leave me on a jet plane…

Grand Adventurers

The drive to Mount Cook took us past some unusual geographical features of New Zealand. One stop was at the very strange “Moeraki boulders,” which are giant boulders washed up on the beach. They are completely out of place with anything else on the shoreline, and it is not sure what causes them to exist. Another stop was at the Elephant Rocks, where Aslan’s Camp from the Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe was filmed. Sarah and I horsed about on the rocks for a while, trying to figure out which one was Aslan’s rock. We didn’t succeed, but it was fun trying. We ended up camping in Omarama, a very quiet town surrounded by mountains, with beautiful sunsets.

The next day we continued up to Mt. Cook itself. We had already seen it reflected in Lake Matheson, but as it loomed over the highway in all its snow-covered glory, we truly got the best impression of the biggest mountain in Australasia. In Mt. Cook village is the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre. There is a very rugged bronze statue of him in the most famous hotel in New Zealand, the Hermitage Hotel. After having our photo taken with the most famous of mountaineers, we were inspired to do a little trekking ourselves! We headed up the “Kea trail” to a former glacier, at the base of Mt. Cook. As one of the most dangerous mountains to climb in the world, we weren’t going to tackle anything more difficult than that… but we left little rock sculptures on the side of the path, just to prove we were once there.

We spent the night in our tent in Glentanner, about 25km outside of Mt. Cook Village itself. There, we were treated to a magnificent sunset over Mt. Cook, its peak blushing pink for the last hours of sunlight.

Unfortunately, I was hoping to have an interesting star gazing tale to tell. Lake Tekapo has a renowned observatory on top of a nearby mountain, and we were booked on a nighttime stargazing tour. Due to severe winds and a bright moon, our tour was cancelled… I may get another chance to try on the way back up, but Lake Tekapo is a town with very little to offer other than the tour. Waiting around for 11pm again may not be a good option.

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Windy & Windy Roads

Sarah and I have become Queens of the highways. With Sunny as our chariot and our tent “Castle II,” we have journeyed along some of New Zealand’s most scenic routes. And, being royalty of rad roadtrips, it only makes sense that our first stop is…

Queenstown

The screams from the bungi jumpers (skydivers/jetboaters/paragliders) can be heard frmo the car as we finish the mountain road from Wanaka. Its no surprise, considering this is the adrenaline capital of the universe. What is surprising is that I (and my rapidly shrinking wallet) is not tempted at all – Africa out-adrenalined me, at least for now.

Instead, we indulge in some smashing nights out and some free nights accom – courtesy of Sarah’s university friend, Dave. Thanks Dave! We couldn’t resist one awesome adrenaline activity though – the Shotover Jet. This powerful jet boat zips through narrow canyons, doing 360degree spins at 80 km/h. Only one word can sum up this experience: sweeeet. And the guy’s who drive the boats must have the best jobs in the world.

Queenstown wouldn’t be Queenstown without a pulse-racing, heart-attack inducing game of frisbee golf! There is a fully laid-out frisbee golf course in the botanic gardens, complete with tees and baskets for holes. I joined in with the Stray bus crew who were there and me and Lofty came thisclose to winning. Ok, so it wasn’t that close, but it was fun!

Sound Off!

The highway to Milford Sound is a world heritage road – ideal for a roadtrip! Driving through Fiordland National Park is a magical experience. We stopped at mirrored lakes, long tunnels and at every beautiful vista along the way.

Arriving at Milford, the sun was shining and the sky a picture perfect blue. Our booking was for a boat cruise the following morning. But not wanting to miss out on such a stunning day, we allowed our characteristic spontaneity to get the best of us and did it right away. It was so worth it. We saw sealions, bottlenose dolphins and got ducked under a waterfall the equivalent in height of a 50-storey building.

Gliding along Milford Sound is supposed to be a defining moment for anyone’s trip to New Zealand. Once again, as we have come to expect, the hype does not disappoint. It’s hard to imagine a place more breathtaking – Mitre Peak rising out of sparkling waters, the glacier atop Mt. Pembroke still clinging to life after millions of years. It is going to disappear within the next decade. It is, after all, Milford Fiord, not Milford Sound. Sounds are carved out by rivers; fiords, by glaciers. The glaciers recede, and maybe one day they will come back.

The Road is Long…

Today we completed the Southern Scenic route from start (Te Anau) to finish (Dunedin). We didn’t exactly mean to… we meant to stop at Stewart Island. But Stewart Island was full and we hadn’t booked accomodation (smart, I know), so we zipped through the rugged Catlans Coast to Dunedin. The roads were twisted and Sunny often struggled against the wind, but we made it through. The next few days will see us head up to the highest peak in New Zealand: Mt. Cook. Looks like we might need a few more blankets inside good old Castle II. Like any castle, it is plenty drafty in there, and Sarah and I often wake up with noses frozen to our pillows.

And hopefully, a shorter drive day tomorrow.

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Feels like home…

The sight of Franz Josef glacier crawling down into the rainforest is unreal. We are sitting at the base of it, and from this close it looks like a jumble of rocks and debris rather than a huge sheet of ice. That view is soon about to change. Our guide, Cliff (no pun intended… that was his actual name), demonstrates how to strap the clampons onto our feet and soon we’re making more noise walking than the clackers in The Devil Wears Prada. They have dressed us up in full head-to-toe ice climbing gear: toques, mittens, gore tex jackets, snow pants and big black boots. It’s warm down here and I’m dressed to face the snowstorm room in the Antarctic Centre. (See: Sarah’s blog entry)

Somehow I manage to find myself in the ‘fastest’ group out of six, despite being less than confident in my hiking abilities. Luckily for me (or rather, for the other people in my group who would have surely been slowed by me), we stop quite often as Cliff hacks steps into the ice with a pick-axe. It looks like back breaking work, but he doesn’t break a sweat.

The glacier is somewhat dirtier than I expect, snow and ice mixed with dirt and rubble. Cliff tries to impress me by saying that the glacier gets somewhere between 14 and 15m of snow at the top, whereas the average Canadian ski hill might get 3-4m. I think of my friends and fam back home in Canada and I’m sure they feel like they’ve been dumped in 14-15m of snow, and they don’t live at the top of a glacier. Hiking the glacier is my little homage to them and what I’m missing. As we get further up, the dirt slowly gives way to stunning blue and white ice. We slip slide through tunnels and caverns and under ice arches and the view is magnificent. At one point, all the groups are forced to stop as Cliff and some of the other guides hack a pathway into the ice. The hole we have to manoeuver through reminds me of the “letterbox” in the Cangol Caves in South Africa. See Ostriches and Caves.

It doesn’t snow while we are there. It does rain though. A lot. In fact, by the end of the 8-hour hike I am soaked to the bone, as is my backpack with an unfortunate number of electronics in it (including my phone and my camera). My phone is dead and the camera’s viewscreen is misty. Over the following couple of days the camera has dried to useable status, but its still not great.

Yesterday we arrived in Queenstown, passing through Wanaka. The scenery is stunning, but what is new? I can’t even be mad at New Zealand for breaking my most expensive possessions. They can be replaced. But this experience? Never.

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