3 days, 2 travelers, 1 really big Buddha: Hong Kong

Soon after we got back from New Zealand, Gordon and I faced our next game of chicken. We got a email about an opportunity for a short, paid trip to Hong Kong. All we had to do was act as couriers for a local company. Gordon first dismissed it as a joke, but once I got more information and confirmed it wasn’t sketchy, illegal, or a scam, he got on board. So Hong Kong… here we come.

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Because there is only enough product for one courier to transport per day, Gordon and I left a day apart. Wednesday morning, I was at the airport by 4 am, ready for my 6 am flight out of Raleigh. After a quick stop in Canada and a short 15 hour plane ride, I arrived in Hong Kong around 1 pm. Disoriented from lack of sleep and jet lag, I managed to find my hotel and get checked in, then bought a train ticket to check out the city. After walking around a bit,  I found a dim sum restaurant where I had my first taste of authentic Hong Kong food.

 

Dim Sum

After my wandering and dinner, I was absolutely exhausted and decided to head back to the hotel to be fully rested for my next few days of adventure. Like any true Hongkonger (real word) I got a nice nap on public transportation.

 

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The next morning, I grabbed some dumplings then headed toward the Big Buddha. After figuring out the transportation, I realized I didn’t have enough time to fully explore, so I opted for a nearby outlet mall. This wasn’t just any outlet mall, it was all designer clothes. If I ever go back with money, I’ll be revisiting.

 

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That afternoon, after he repeated the whole travel process, Gordon arrived. He handles lack of sleep much better than I do, so we hopped on a train and headed into town to explore. We stopped in a couple custom suit shops to get estimates, then found a noodle bar for dinner followed by frozen beers at Piss Bar. Yes, the bar was called Piss Bar, and the taste of the frozen beer wasn’t too far off. It’s a cool concept, as the frozen foam melted, it kept the beer cold, but the initial struggle to get through the gross foam to the beer ruined it.

 

Frozen beer

Every night at 8 pm, Hong Kong puts on a light show over the Victoria Harbour. Gordon and I grabbed a table at the Intercontinental (a fabulously luxurious hotel overlooking the water) and watched the spectacular show of 40 skyscrapers shooting lasers and colored lights into the sky.

 

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After another train ride nap, we called it a night.

 

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Our hotel offered two free breakfasts if we paid with Visa, so we decided to take the free route. Holy moly. Best. hotel breakfast. ever. They had several stations with traditional Chinese breakfast foods, American breakfast foods, and all sorts of other foods from around the world.

 

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After following the transportation route I had mapped out the previous day, Gordon and I headed back to Tung Chung to visit the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery. We took a cable car up the mountain and checked everything out. They’re not kidding, it’s a really big Buddha.

 

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If I ever go back to Hong Kong, it hopefully won’t be in June. It is excruciatingly humid. It felt like we were in a never-ending deodorant commercial. People kept walking past us at the monastery with their shirts drenched in sweat. We pointed out the first few. “Gross! Look at that guy.” What goes around comes around. And by “comes around” I mean by the time we finished walking around we were just as disgustingly sweaty as everyone we noticed earlier.

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Since the job only covered one free hotel night each, we switched to a hotel closer to the central area of Hong Kong, then headed out on the town. We struggled, but finally successfully conquered the massively crowded subway system. We also took the star ferry across the harbour – a beautiful sight at night with all the lights from the skyscrapers.

 

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Hong Kong is the most vertical city in the world and one of the most densely-populated places in the world, something that was obvious to me within 10 minutes of walking through the city. It is seriously overwhelming. What is amazing is that no one talks to each other. You are constantly surrounded by people, but I can count the conversations I had during our trip on one hand (the language barrier probably didn’t help).

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We had watched Tony Bourdain’s Layover episode prior to our trip, so obviously, we wanted to try some of the things he had – one being roast duck. We found a restaurant that seemed to be filled with families and locals with a grungy but established feel – like a Cooper’s BBQ or Rendevous. We got roast duck, plus a shrimp dish our table-neighbors (They only have big tables, so they don’t hesitate to put separate parties at the same table) had that looked awesome.

 

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After wandering around a bit more, we found a street full of bars to check out. We quickly realized just how well we fit in here – it seemed to be full of expats and international businessmen. Upping our game, we then headed to a flash bar on the 30th floor in downtown Hong Kong.

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By our last day, Gordon still hadn’t eaten at a dim sum restaurant, so we went out in search of Tim Ho Wan. Unfortunately, we didn’t account for the fact that this part of town depended almost entirely on characters as opposed to English words, so we had a bit of trouble finding it. After wandering around a bit through some street markets, my stomach led us to a bakery for a pre-lunch snack. Here we tried two things I had read about and wanted to try before we arrived: Pineapple Buns (buns with a sweet crunch topping and a heap-load of butter) and Pork Floss (a bun topped with stringy pork – pretty much like bacon cotton candy).

 

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We finally found a dim sum restaurant we wanted to stop in. It was small, smelled good, and most of the diners looked local. For all we know, it was Tim Ho Wan. We had dumplings, custard buns, BBQ pork buns, chicken feet (yes, chicken feet), shumai, and hot tea. We even got a nod of approval from the man at the table next to ours.

 

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After a slow, painfully stressful journey to the airport and through security, we finally boarded (at last last last call) our plane and headed home. It was all a blur, but a fun, tasty blur that we’ll hopefully get to do again!

 

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Five tips for dining in Hong Kong

Gordon and I took a quick trip to Hong Kong recently (full blog post coming soon), and learned some things while dining. Not all of these apply in every situation, especially if it’s in an extremely touristy place.  I’m sure we were also extremely rude with terrible etiquette without even realizing it, but it’s a huge learning curve! Here are five tips to get you started.

  1. The waiter won’t just stop by… you have to get his or her attention.
  2. Unless it’s a really nice place, they won’t have napkins. Bring tissues.
  3. Slurping is totally acceptable.
  4. Apparently you’re not supposed to remove bones or inedible pieces from your mouth with fingers or chopsticks – just spit them out.
  5. They will leave the bill at your table, but you’ll have to pay at the register.

The food we tried was awesome and unique. We had everything from pork floss, to roast goose, to chicken feet, to noodles to dumplings. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!

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Tongariro Northern Circuit: The Great Walk to end all Great Walks

Settle in folks, this is gonna be a long one. I know I’m not one of those journalists during the civil war that got paid by the word, but the Tongariro Northern Circuit was such an awesome experience that I’ve got a lot to say about it and a lot of pictures to share. Better pour yourself a drink. It’s ok, I’ll wait.

Miriam and I had a tentative itinerary for our month-long journey through the North Island which included places we wanted to go and approximate times that we wanted to be there. Unfortunately for us, when we went to reserve our huts for this Great Walk, there were limited spaces available. And when I say limited spaces available, I’m talking 2 bunks left at only one of the huts for the entire weekend. Uh-Oh.

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is 43.1 km (26.7 miles) and ranges from 1120-1886 meters above sea level. It’s supposed to take at a minimum 16 hours of hiking over 3-4 days. Our only option was to do it in 2.

Whenever we told people our plans for Tongariro they acted like we had misread the track description. Yes I know it’s supposed to take 3-4 days. Have you looked at these thunder thighs? Thats 100% American-made, mountain-dominating muscle right there.

We got an early start and left from Whakapapa (pronounced Fak-a-papa. WH is pronounced F on the North Island. We did not know this at first. This led to some confusion especially when asking for directions.) Village on a very cloudy day.

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The minute we stepped out of the car, it started raining. Hard. After the unluckiness we experienced on our last attempted Great Walk, we thought it was only fitting that this one started out the exact same way. Now, its one thing to have it start raining while you are a few hours into a hike or even almost done, but starting your walk in the rain is truly miserable and something I wouldn’t even wish on Justin Bieber or Coach K (ok thats not true).

Fortunately for us, after 5 minutes the rain changed to a mist and stayed that way for most of the day.

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It was very dark and ominous for most of the day. The terrain of Tongariro is kind of creepy too. It’s mainly exposed volcanic scorched earth and barely any animals can live there. All day I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings and something bad was about to happen.

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There are 2 volcanoes nearby (more on that later) and Mt. Tongariro last erupted in 2012. No one was killed and the only damage was to one of the DOC huts.  This sign was posted about an hour into the walk as we tramped towards the volcanoes. Don’t worry, I did my homework about what to do in the event of an eruption (Hint: Don’t walk towards the lava).

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As soon as we got to this ridge we started getting pelted in the face by 80 km/hr winds and stinging rain. All I could do was walk with my head down and my hand yanking my hood over my face. It was brutal.

As you can see, there is hardly any life on this ridge. The conditions on most of this walk were too harsh for almost anything over two feet tall to grow. It made parts of the walk pretty rough but it was also pretty cool because it was such a unique environment.

NZ_3904We made it to our hut at 4, about 7 hours after we started, making it our longest day of tramping to that point. It was already dark by the time we cracked into our traditional salami, cheese, crackers and boxed wine. When we did the Routeburn Track in December, we didn’t make it to our hut on the first night until 8:15 and it was still bright out. This is one of the ways that tramping in the off-season requires more planning. There’s no sleeping in because if you aren’t at your destination by 5:30, you’re gonna need a headlamp.

NZ_3935The weather on day two was much nicer than on our first day. This was important to us and was the reason we went the direction we did. It was much better having nicer weather on this section of the hike because this is where we started to summit mountains and have incredible views.

NZ_3920Remember earlier when I promised you more volcano talk? No? You’ve just been looking at the pictures? That’s messed up.

Pictured above is Mt. Ngauruhoe. More commonly known as Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings. This shot was a couple of minutes away from our hut and would have been in plain sight the previous day if it wasn’t so overcast. We spent 7 hours hiking near something this awesome and had no idea that we should have been seeing it.

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Parts of this walk looked like we were walking on the moon. In fact, if you look closely you can see where the US faked the moon landing. It would probably be about 3 hours from here until we would see another living plant.

And yes. We hiked from down there. Plenty more climbing to do.

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On our climb we passed some gorgeous pools called the Emerald Lakes. You can see the sulphuric steam rising out of the white spots near the lake. While the sulphur is responsible for giving these lakes their beautiful color, it also smells like rotten eggs. At least that’s what I told Miriam so that I could fart as much as I wanted on this hike.

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On our past Great Walks, Miriam and I brought our small point-and-shoot cameras. We didn’t want to bring our nice camera because we worried about it getting wet and we didn’t have enough space in our packs for it. On this walk we only had to pack enough food and clothes for two days so we said “whak it” and brought it along. Miriam lugged it around and got some really incredible shots. If you see a picture you like in this post, chances are, she took it. Even the ones that she’s in.

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Still a lot more climbing left to do. This part of the hike was quite treacherous because we were walking straight uphill and the ground was volcanic rock that had been broken down over time and was now just sand. Every time I would take a step forward, I would slide back halfway.

Further complicating things, there is a popular day hike that goes through this area and shares part of the path with the Great Walk. It was a holiday weekend so there were a lot of day hikers. Some people (I’m talking to you, Germans!) need  to understand that when I’m walking uphill at about 20 feet per minute, there isn’t much I can do to get out of your way when you’re running downhill. There were some close calls.

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I’m so happy that we had nice weather on this day. One, I can’t imagine hiking up that mountain in the rain. I don’t even see how that would be possible. Two, we were able to get some great pictures.

NZ_3975This is the Red Crater. No idea why they call it that. Maybe some dude named Red discovered it.

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I think this sign would have been better if it just said “Welcome to the Danger Zone.”

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We didn’t hike to the top of Mt. Doom, so this is the highest point we reached (1886 Meters). It’s a pretty spooky looking volcano, right? We were just trying to get a picture of us in our Flying Saucer shirts for their calendar until this volcano photobombed us.

Shout out to Gollum sneaking up behind us and trying to hide behind that rock.

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This is the view once we passed Mt. Doom and started heading down into the valley. This part of the trail was primarily black lava flow for an hour and a half or so. As you can see, this part of the trail lacked any decent spots to pee.

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Eventually we made our way past the rocky volcanic terrain and into a valley where we started to see some signs of life. This part of the trail was pretty tricky. It was supposed to take three hours but five hours in bad weather. After walking this section, I think it would have taken longer than that if the weather was actually bad. If you remember from earlier, it rained the day before. Which, realistically, you might have actually read yesterday since you probably aren’t reading this Dickensian post (A Tale of Two Hikers?) in one sitting.

There was bad drainage on this part of the track so if it was raining, we would have likely been walking in a river for five hours. A river that had some steep drops. Even on a clear day, I had multiple falls.

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We finished the Circuit right as the sun was starting to set, completely exhausted but able to feign a smile for this picture. The guy who took this picture of us was very impressed that we finished the Circuit in two days.

Looking back on the six months we spent in NZ it’s really hard to specifically point to one activity as the best thing that we did. However, every time someone asks me about memorable experiences this walk is one of the first things that pops into my head. The terrain and scenery was incredible and I’m not sure if I’ll see anything like it again.

Parts of this walk were really brutal but that’s one of the elements that makes it so memorable to me. Tongariro felt like a place where we didn’t belong because life didn’t belong. We barely heard a bird for two whole days and while I have enjoyed the animals we’ve seen in NZ it was kinda cool to be in a place where nothing dared to live. Plus it was nice to not have to worry about sandflies.

Cheers,

GP

Blenheim: Biking and Wining

In Queenstown, I worked for a while with a lovely kiwi, Hilary. After a couple months, she moved to Blenheim at the top of the South Island. Since it was near Nelson and the Interislander Ferry, Gordon and I planned to visit her on our month-long trip after Abel Tasman, before heading to the North Island. It also happens to be right in Marlborough, one of New Zealand’s main wine regions, known principally for its Sauvignon blanc. So on Easter Sunday, we hit the road for Blenheim.

NZ_3611An Easter rainbow for our drive to Blenheim

NZ_3621Most things were closed because it was Easter, but Gordon and I stopped at a vineyard and cellar that was surprisingly open.

NZ_3625Easter sheep, too! Some vineyards use sheep for leaf plucking as a way to reduce fuel and energy usage. In some cases, they even argue sheep are more effective and gentler for the plants than humans.

Gordon and I got to Blenheim while Hilary was on a holiday trip to the sounds, so we had a day to explore on our own. We had enjoyed our bike/wine tour of Central Otago in January, so we decided to replicate that in Marlborough. When we looked into some of the options, we found a place that rents tandem bikes. Well, Gordon and I just can’t be apart, so that was the clear choice.

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Tandem bikes. Wow. They are a lot harder than you might think and require serious teamwork. I picked the back, hoping I could just sit and occasionally stop pedaling without Gordon knowing, but unfortunately that’s not the case. However, I was able to just pedal and not pay attention or steer, so I could multi-task, taking pictures or checking the map.

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NZ_3648My view for the day…

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 Before coming to New Zealand, Gordon’s dad bought us a beer from NZ to taste. This brewery, Moa, just so happens to be in Blenheim, so we stopped in addition to the local wineries.

NZ_3644The giant Moa outside the brewery – Named after a huge land bird (no, not as big as this statue) that was hunted to extinction by the Maori

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We had a perfect day with fantastic weather and beautiful views, despite the sore bums and tired legs from biking.

NZ_3658Evening sky in Blenheim after our bike tour and a tasty curry dinner with Hilary and Jeff

Grandmother in New Zealand

NZ_2053Our three wonderful March visitors!

In early March, my Grandmother Miriam, her sister Lois, and Lois’ husband came to New Zealand. They did a bit of their own traveling, then headed to the South Island to visit with the four of us. Their visit was packed with checking out Queenstown, heading into Fjordland, and visiting Wanaka. They also spent additional time with Sarah and Brett while Gordon and I were working.

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Queenstown
Since Gordon and I had become pretty familiar with the town by this point, we served as tour guides. We still managed to pick a few places we had yet to go, and got to continue our local cuisine experience. We also showed off some of the local shops and gardens, since the weather cooperated pretty well.

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One of the coolest things we did was the Kiwi Birdlife Park in Queenstown. We took a nice tour checking out different New Zealand birds, and finally saw some kiwis (still hoping to see some in the wild at some point)! They also have a Tuatare (the closest living relative to dinosaurs – even closer than the Komodo Dragon).

 

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Pretty much a dinosaur…

 

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Brett and Sarah with the visitors, all wearing their sweet tour headphones.

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Doubtful Sound
The “sounds” (actually fjords) are a must-see in New Zealand. We had already visited Milford Sound, the most renowned, but had heard Doubtful Sound was just as beautiful, but possibly even better because it was less visited. So we booked a cruise with Real Journeys to Doubtful Sound.

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We took a bus from Queenstown to Manapouri, during which our driver shared heaps of information. Unfortunately it was really early, so his calming voice just lulled me to sleep. From Manapouri, we boarded a ferry, which took us across Lake Manapouri to the location of the Manapouri Underground Power Station. We then transferred to another bus, which took us on a tour of the Underground Hydro Power Station, New Zealand’s greatest engineering feat. We traveled down a 2km (1.2 miles) spiral tunnel (we went in four complete circles heading downward) underground. In the tunnel, Gordon kept expecting to see Bane’s clan of thugs, whereas I was pretty sure we had entered Gringotts and were heading to Vault 713.

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From there, we traveled along New Zealand’s most expensive road, at five cents per centimeter. This took us into the sound where we boarded yet another boat.

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Doubtful Sound was fantastic. Parts were similar to Milford but they each have their own unique attributes. We had a lovely calm day, so we were able to travel out into the Tasman sea a bit, and even Brett, with his propensity for motion sickness, did just fine!

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They pulled the boat up next to a seal colony, and we even saw a crested penguin swimming in the water. At one point, the captain stopped the boat and turned off all the engines and electronics, and asked all passengers to sit in silence for a bit. It was cool standing in one of the most remote places in the world, hearing nothing but birds and nature. Obviously Gordon and I just stared into each other’s eyes lovingly during this moment… Obviously.


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Wanaka
Other than skydiving, we hadn’t spent much time in Wanaka, even though it was just one winding road away from Queenstown. So we decided to check it out with the gang. I love puzzles, and before coming to New Zealand, I read about Puzzling World, so although I thought it might be cheesy, I decided that would be a good activity.

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A quick stop at Lake Wanaka

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It was awesome. They had all sorts of mind-bending rooms and displays. There were optical illusions and games. Most importantly, there was a massive maze. We split up into teams and decided to see who finished first. Grandmother and Aunt Lois completed the shortened version first by finding their way to each of the towers, though not in any particular order. Brett and Sarah had  a disagreement over a turn, and ended up parting ways. Brett would have finished the specific order of towers first, but since it was a partner game, after he completed his trip through the maze, he then had to help Sarah through. A couple times Gordon and I nearly split, but we ultimately finished together, long before Sarah. So really there was no clear winner, but luckily we all made it out of the maze without being eaten by a Sphinx.

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Leaning Tower of Wanaka

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Part of the maze

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Even the restrooms were cool!

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The games were too tough for Brett…

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For a joint birthday dinner for Sarah and me, we stopped at Cadrona Hotel on the way back. Cadrona is a cute little hotel and bar and one of the oldest hotels in the region, and made for a perfect celebration spot!

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We were so lucky to have so many awesome visitors during our time in Queenstown. It enriched our experience and gave us a chance to share our new lives with others.

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Abel Tasman: Our third Great (failure) Walk

To kick off our month of travels, Gordon and I decided on another great walk – Abel Tasman. It’s a 3-5 day, 55km track along the coast of the Tasman Sea on the South Island. It’s a stunning area and people visit by foot, kayak, car and sea taxi. We planned to walk north from Marahau on a three day, two night hike, sleeping in DOC huts along the way, then taking a water taxi back from Totaranui to the start.

 

The unique thing about the Abel Tasman great walk is the track’s high and low tide paths. Several “shortcuts” are accessible only at low tide, and one section – Awaroa – is only available at low tide, period. So the day before we left, we checked the tide table. 5:55 am and late afternoon. Our water taxi was set to pick us up at 3:15, so the late afternoon wouldn’t work. We could potentially wake up super early for the am crossing, but it would still be dark, and with heavy rainfall in the previous days, the DOC agent warned us it could be flooded and dangerous. After some debate, we disappointedly changed our water taxi pickup to Awaroa and decided to cut out the last part of the track.

 

The night before we left, a friend in Blenheim suggested that maybe we should consider checking out some hot pools and bypassing the walk, since the weather would be horrible. Checking the forecast, we saw she was right, but we’re stubborn and decided to go ahead with our plans, but leave early enough to beat the 34mm of rain coming at 3pm.

 

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The start of the track

 

When we got to the start, it was absolutely pissing. Visibility was poor and rain was coming down sideways. But it was only 4 hours, so we knew we could push through. At the first bridge, two egrets were hunched over on either side of the rails. We joked that they were warning us to turn back. Little did we know…

 

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One of the great views, with lots of rain.

 

Despite rain gear, within  5 minutes, the whole left side of my body was soaked, and within the first hour, my “waterproof” shoes were soaked. The positive side of this though was the incredible waterfalls. Falls and creeks that are normally just trickles were rushing waters. The Tasman Sea looked awesomely angry, and even though we couldn’t see very much, we could tell that it would have been amazing if we could.

 

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You can’t really tell, but the waterfall was even rushing over the walkway at points.

 

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Still in high spirits, despite the weather.

 

Since we didn’t stop to put down our packs even  once, the hike only took us 3:15, so we made it to our hut with plenty of time to kill. Anchorage Hut was built in 2013, so it was super flash. Running water, flush toilets, and multiple bunk rooms. Since the weather was so miserable, the hut was pretty empty and there were only three people in our room. There were drying racks set up in front of a raging fire, so we quickly changed into dry clothes and got comfy in the lounge area. We had our lunch we had skipped, the usual sausage cheese and crackers snack, boxed wine (of course), and a tasty dried meal. We read our books, Gordon took a nap, and we learned a card game (wist, it’s similar to yuker) from some new friends.

 

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Sweet Digs!

 

Though there were only three of us in the room, we learned a very valuable lesson… Avoid the lone old guy. No offense to old guys, and no offense to loners, but they should come with a warning… A snore warning. Woof! The next morning, this guy even asked me if I slept well. Yeah, right dude.

 

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We started our second morning prepared for an eight hour walk to Awaroa. After a slight “detour” where we lost about 20 minutes, we were on our way. Unfortunately, after about  45 minutes, our hut warden caught up to us with some bad news. After the heavy rains, there were a couple slips and the track was out. He said it was up to us, but we could either stay at the Anchorage Hut again, turn back completely, or check out the slip ourselves (with a warning that it was four hours away, so it would be a total bummer to get there and have to turn around).

 

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We were counting on eight hours anyway, so we took our chances and kept moving. Unfortunately, after about two hours of walking, we ran into another ranger clearing the way. His story was different. Yes, the track was completely out; yes, the weather was worsening, thus more dangerous; and no, we could not continue.

 

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So we turned back. After some debate, we decided that it wasn’t worth it to stay in the hut a second night. So after a bit of whinging and disappointed cries, we hoofed it back to our car. As a farewell gift, Abel Tasman dumped us with yet another torrential downpour for the last hour and a half of this day’s walk.

 

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I call this one “Gordon, forlorn”

 

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By the time we made it back to our car, we were soggy, soaked, and totally done. Next time, we’re checking (and minding) the tides and forecast.

 

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More From Stewart Island

By this point you’ve all read and most likely re-read my recap on our Stewart Island Great Walk. After the walk we decided to spend an extra night and day on the island and I’m so glad we decided to do this instead of just going home. Oban is the only town on Stewart Island and is the most southern city I will ever go to unless I make a trip to Argentina or Chile.

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Oban is a sleepy little ocean town with only about 300 year-round inhabitants. There is one pub, one convenience store and zero Apple stores. There are some hikes along the shoreline and if the weather was better and if we weren’t so worn out from our Great Walk we would’ve done more.

CIMG0038This is the view overlooking Halfmoon Bay, the main harbor in Oban. There are a lot of fishing boats in the harbor because Stewart Island is renowned all over New Zealand for its seafood. In fact, the seafood is one of the main reasons to come to Oban. More specifically, oysters are one of the main reasons to come to Oban.

CIMG0055Just look at those delicious little beauties. I love oysters. I love oyster shots, steamed oysters and most of all, raw oysters. As much as I love North Carolina oysters, these were the best ones I’ve had in my life. They were plump, juicy and tasted like the ocean. An hour after eating these I could still taste them.

Ok I’m starting to drool. This is getting awkward.

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Stewart Island and Bluff Oysters are famous all over New Zealand. Restaurants put up signs advertising when they have them and people come in and ask for them specifically. They are even willing to pay the $3-4 per oyster that most restaurants charge.

FUN FACT: When Stewart Island Oysters are shipped to the mainland, the shell and the oyster are shipped separately. This is because you have to be very skilled to open them without slicing the oyster with your knife due to how little open space there is in the shell with the oyster in it. Restaurants will combine the oysters with the shells to serve them to people and then wash the shells when they are done and re-use them.

CIMG0059The mussels are also big and delicious on Stewart Island. Look at this sucker that Gwendolyn got to chow down on. It’s a little bigger than the ones we found on our hike.

P1040002This is the view from the front porch on the house where we stayed. We even got to do some bird-watching from this spot.

P1030999Miriam is so good at making friends. Whether human or animal, she seems to have a knack for communicating. I think this Kaka thought we were going to give him some food. Here’s some advice Kaka (if you’re reading this blog). When you’re looking for food handouts, don’t target the group that’s just been hiking for 3 days. Whatever food they have is staying theirs.

P1040022This Weka came into our front yard as well.

P1040003Oban reminded me a lot of coastal Scotland. Actually a lot of places in Southern New Zealand have Scottish names. This is because a lot of Scots settled in NZ and found places that reminded them of places in Scotland. And yes, there is an Oban, Scotland.

CIMG0042Oban was one of my favorite towns I’ve been to in NZ. It was very peaceful and had amazing food. Due to all the world-renowned tourist spots in NZ, an amazing place like Stewart Island gets forgotten about. It’s definitely a place I would recommend everyone visit in NZ.

Cheers,

GP

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great Walk #2: The Rakiura Track

After hearing all about our experience doing the Routeburn Track, one of the things Gwendolyn and Tim (Miriam’s parents) absolutely had to do while they were in NZ was complete a Great Walk.  Lucky for them, our boots had been getting dusty so we were yearning to embark on another one of these journeys.

Miriam, Tim, Gwendolyn, Brett, Sarah and I decided to do a 3-day, 32 km Great Walk called the Rakiura Track. We loaded up our packs with the usual snacks, wine and a few articles of clothing (Yes, everyone carried their fair share! We don’t allow wimps!) and took a 1-hour ferry ride from Bluff to Stewart Island. Next we had to hike from where the ferry docked  in Oban to the start of the track.

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Stewart Island tends to be colder, rainier and windier than the South Island, but as you can see from the photo above, our first day was picture-perfect. As we walked through town to the start of the track, we excitedly awaited a day spent hiking along beaches in the sunshine.P1030929

Our gang making our way into Kiwi bird territory. Due to the remoteness of Stewart Island, the absence of predators and the abundant food supply, there are an estimated 20,000 kiwi birds. We set out on a kiwi finding mission one night but didn’t have any luck.

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There wasn’t much change in elevation on the Rakiura Track but occasionally we would get to the top of a hill and have an overlook over a beach and the ocean. Here’s a view of Horsehoe Bay.

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There was one section on the walk where the trail splits and there’s a low tide path and a high tide path. Here, Brett and I are taking the low tide path. Judging from the water line, we just barely made it. During high tide, this part of the path would’ve been underwater.

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Unfortunately there was no path leading down to these beaches. If I could have found my way down there somehow I think I would have laid down on this beach and never left, making a new life for myself. So on second thought, maybe it’s good that I couldn’t find a way down to that beach.

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Here’s Gwendolyn and Tim making their way down Maori Beach. These two had heard tales of our wine, cheese and salami feasts at the huts at night, so they were always out in front. I think they were afraid that if we beat them to the hut there wouldn’t be any left for them.

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As we got near the end of Maori Beach I spotted this blob in the sand. But it was just a rock so I’m just…

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Nevermind! Not a rock! It was a Seal/Sea Lion taking a nap on the beach. This guy wasn’t all cute and cuddly like the ones we saw in Kaikoura and he growled at us when we got to close. Message received big guy.

Not wanting to get my hand bit off, I left this loose seal alone. Actually I don’t know if it was a Seal or a Sea Lion, I just couldn’t resist the opportunity for an Arrested Development reference. COME ON!

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After 4 hours and 8.1 km we made it to the Port William Hut to spend the night. This beach was just a short hike from our hut. As we recovered with wine and cheese, Tim seemed to be thinking “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

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Day 2 started with Miriam locking herself in a bathroom with a bee. Apparently the bee was claustrophobic and took its fear out on Miriam.

Our hike wasn’t as picturesque as day 1 as we spent the day hiking 13 km through the lush forests on the interior of the island instead of on sandy beaches.

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“Daaaad. Can you make us a tree house???”

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After about 5 hours and 13 km we made it to the North Arm Hut where we were going to spend the night. At this point, the Williamson parents realized completing this trek was doable, and were in the mood for a celebration. Paterson Inlet was a short walk from our hut and we were told that at low tide you could scoop fresh mussels up out of the water. Always fans of fresh seafood, we decided to see if we could forage for some food.

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It turns out we are better at finding Mussels than finding kiwi birds. If I had to pick one to be better at finding I would choose Mussels because you can’t eat kiwi birds. Were these mussels good, you ask? I’ll let Brett answer that one…

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It poured all night so we were expecting an extremely soggy third and final day. Lucky for us, the rain slowed right before we left in the morning. Which always goes to show, the early bird may get the worm, but the last group to leave the hut in the morning gets the least wet.

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After an hour or so, the rain stopped and it was an easy hike from there on.

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You would never know that this was Tim and Gwendolyn’s first multi-day hike. They blazed the trails like seasoned hikers.

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Cool pants, Miriam.

Stewart Island was a very unique environment to do a Great Walk. Up until now, all of our hikes had been through mountainous terrain, so it was nice to do one where we got to hike on beaches and through an island. It was also heaps of fun having a big group to enjoy the experience with.

Cheers,

GP

Kaikoura: Cuteness overload peninsula

Studies have shown that looking at cute things and adorable animals can make us feel more aggressive. I definitely suffer from this strange phenomenon and the phrases “oh, it’s so cute I just want to squeeze it until it’s eyeballs pop out!” and “I love you so much I just want to squeeze you until your head pops off!” are no strangers to my vocabulary. Of course I don’t really want this to happen, but I can’t change the laws of science, overwhelming cuteness makes me aggressive.

This made Kaikoura an extremely dangerous place for Gordon….

 

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The drive to Kaikoura is about 8 hours total, so we planned for a few stops. On the way up, we had a picnic lunch at an overlook then took a brief look around Christchurch. Rather than making the rest of the drive to Kaikoura, we stopped at a DOC campsite outside of Christchurch. The Department of Conservation provides campsites around the country for minimal costs, sometimes even free. That means these sites range from maintained, adequate facilities to nothing but a stream. We went for the latter and tested our “car camping” skills in preparation of our upcoming month-long trip.

 

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On our first day in Kaikoura, we took a walk into town for lunch, then out to a seal colony on the peninsula.  We immediately saw 4-5 seals, but we had been encouraged to continue walking around the peninsula past the “tourist” destination. There, we found at least a hundred seals lounging, resting and swimming.

 

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This guy knows how to do it… rocks for a pillow? No thanks.

 

The rules associated with seals are to stay 10 meters away from them and try to avoid walking or standing between them and the water. Though these seals weren’t breeding and aren’t particularly aggressive, they’re wild animals, thus unpredictable and sometimes territorial. But while exploring a colony that size and walking along a beach littered with snoozing seals, we nearly stumbled over seals more than a few times.

 

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This mom was getting so irritated with her two rambunctious pups… so entertaining!

 

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Gordon really liked this guy. He said his mannerisms (lying on his back, begging for his chin and belly to be scratched) reminded him of his dog, Seth.

 

And in case you haven’t had enough… here is a gallery of more seal pictures (still only a small portion of all we have!):

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And now a short video of our new seal friends!
After a couple hours of watching seal pups play, moms bark at their pups, and dads sunbathing and preening, we finally managed to drag ourselves away. Unfortunately, we had wandered pretty far and were a bit disoriented, and ended up walking about six hours in total that day. Needless to say, we were knackered. So after a home cooked meal at the hostel, we called it an early night.

 

For my birthday, not only did Gordon treat me to an amazing weekend, but he gave me a voucher for whale watching in Kaikoura. So our second day was focused on finding nature’s largest mammals. We boarded the boat and headed out to sea. Whale Watch Kaikoura has this down to an art. The captains are incredibly skilled at finding whales and predicting when they will surface for air, even without sonar equipment.

 

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As soon as we got out to sea, we found Tiaki, a sperm whale, taking a breath at the surface then watched him dive down. Forty minutes later when he resurfaced, we were there to watch the whole thing again.

 

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Right off the coast of the peninsula, there is a underwater canyon more than three times as deep as the height of the Sky Tower in Aukland.  The waters are extremely plentiful with an expansive food chain, starting from microscopic algae all the way up to giant squids.

 

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Before returning to the marina, our guides were able to find a pod of at least 60 Dusky Dolphins. These guys are the acrobatic wonders of the sea and incredibly curious and playful. They swam around the boat, showing off and doing tricks.

 

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And now… another gallery of pictures from this day:

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Then it was time for a bit of vacation chillaxing. We found a nice beachy spot to sit, read and nap. Yes, we might have been fully covered and wrapped up in towels and sleeping bags by the end of it, but we were hanging out on a beach… That’s all that matters!

 

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Before heading to Kaikoura, Gordon gave me three options for activities other than the whale watch. The llama trek sounded sweet, but I thought I would be riding a llama. After looking it up I realized it was just taking the llama for a walk like a dog. Cool, but we could do better. Swimming with dolphins sounded great because we would be in one of the huge pods of dusky dolphins, surrounded by playful, interactive dolphins craving attention. But that’s something we could do in several places in the world and it was also the most expensive. So I chose the moderately priced, unique experience of the Seal Swim.

 

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I chose well. We met at the shop at 9 am, having picked a morning session to avoid rough waters. After getting geared up with wetsuits, fins, and snorkels, we took a bus to the marina. Out on our small yellow boat, we were immediately greeted by a small mating group of dusky dolphins. They were curious and playful, but, being a mating group, clearly had other things on their mind, so we quickly left to give them some privacy. After passing a little blue penguin swimming and a gannet diving for fish, we anchored in a cove similar to the ones Gordon and I had explored on our first day.

 

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Different tours aren’t allowed to let you swim with or interact with animals other than their designated ones to prevent too much stress for the animals. But I was leaning over so far that if I had just fallen in…

 

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In the water, the seals were a bit hesitant and the bone chilling water had less than desirable clarity. Our guide led us into a small en cove to take a look at a couple seals relaxing in the water. We could see two seals floating upside down, glancing at us occasionally while they cleaned their whiskers and cooled off.

 

Unfortunately, we don’t have an underwater camera, but Seal Swim Kaikoura shared photos with us after our swim. So the following images are theirs, but give a glimpse into our experience.

 

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But then the fun got started. Several more curious seals decided to check out the weird skinny black seals splashing around (us). Once they decided we were all right, they got wound up like a kid chasing his chocolate with Fanta.

 

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The seals darted back and forth, behind us, directly up to our faces, rolling in corkscrews, and even arcing up through the air – sometimes directly in front of us, once over us! We could hardly decide whether we should keep our heads underwater or up, because there was no telling where they would be, where they were going and when they wanted to take a closer look at as. It took every inch of self control I had to not reach out and touch these guys when they swam near me.

 

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Our guide kept verbally hoping they would “chill out and relax a little” so we could watch their peaceful habits, but personally, I found the big dark puppy dog eyes swimming around me excitedly even more spectacular.

 

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Hold up, I need to go pop some bubble wrap, the cute memory is way too overpowering.

 

Somehow the guide – or my numb toes – eventually urged me back in the boat so we could head back to town and get warmed up.

 

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In Maori Kaikoura means “meal of crayfish,” so Gordon and I had planned on trying the lobster-like crustacean while on the peninsula. The best place – budget wise, taste and atmosphere – is a roadside seafood bbq truck right outside of town center. So after changing into cozy clothes, Gordon and I hiked out to refuel. We rounded out our half crayfish meal with a Paua Pattie – another New Zealand speciality – since my last experience with paua was a little disappointing. Both delicacies lived up to their hypes and Gordon and I walked back fully satisfied and ready to check out the town a bit.

 

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We finished our afternoon with a home cooked meal of grilled fish from a local seafood mart. After dinner, we still had some time to kill before our next activity, so while Gordon caught up on March Madness updates, I spent time in the hostel’s crafting corner. Yes, a hostel with a crafting corner.

 

Actually, let me just take a minute to sing praises about Albatross Backpacker Inn. I have come to expect very little from backpackers. They are places lots of young people travel through and most of these establishments don’t put in any more than the necessary effort. Albatross was different. It was extremely “green,” and not just in the simple ways.

 

With 300+ guests coming through each week, they manage to stick to just one bin of waste per week – the rest is recycled or sent to a farm to feed pigs. The entire place was clean. I didn’t feel like I had to have shoes on at every moment or cringe if I touched the wall of the shower. It was actually comfortable. My bed had a full set of (clean) sheets, with extra pillows and blankets, with fresh, soft towels. They offer extra amenities if you need, like hair dryers or converters. They have a herb garden with a few veggies that are free to use, along with a fully stocked kitchen and outdoor grills. The kitchen even has baking supplies, with the condition that if you make treats, you share them with others. They don’t have a tv in the common area – instead they encourage guests to visit with each other, play the piano, strum one of the many guitars, play the board or card games available, or, in my case, paint. I was absolutely awed by how well-run this place was. It’s going to be hard to go back to a run-down, haunted and/or diseased hostel after this one.

 

So after my crafting hour, Gordon and I went on a nighttime adventure to the marina. Now, during our time in New Zealand, I have taken Gordon on many unfruitful nighttime expeditions to see birds. Once penguins and twice kiwis. Wandering around in the middle of the night, looking for birds we never see feels very much like snipe hunting, but Gordon has been a good sport. I was shocked he agreed to go looking for little blue penguins with me.

 

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Our view of the night sky on our penguin-hunt. Check out this one too!

 

But it was worth it! Within a few minutes of wandering along some coastal rocks, we saw this little bugger hanging out. He scooted away from us, hunched over – probably exactly how I would act if someone snuck up on me and shined a light on my face while I was trying to sleep. We watched him a little longer, out of direct light, but then decided to let the ol’ chap go back to his dozing.

 

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Unfortunately (or fortunately), our long weekend away in Kaikoura had to come to an end before I caught something and squeezed it too tightly. After seals, dolphins, whales, penguins and other birds, I have had a weekend of cuteness overload and am fully in love with Kaikoura.

 

I’m going to go give Gordon a big hug now. Fingers crossed his head doesn’t pop off.

 

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