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Posts Tagged ‘South Island’

Eliott and I always skied during winters back home, but our trips were limited to a few days a year. This winter we’ve been able to do our first real season. Our mountain, or ski field as they say in NZ, is called The Remarkables. The actual mountain is only 15 minutes outside of Queenstown, but the base is a treacherous, 30-minute drive further. And that is where this post will begin….

Driving up the remarkables access road- a white knuckle thrill ride in itself

Driving to the base- a white knuckle thrill ride in itself

We approach The Remarkables access road at about 9am on Tuesday morning. The gravel road is coated in snow, making it difficult to differentiate between land and air at the edge of the road. We are armed with a pair of tire chains and only a vague idea of how to use them. Our Subaru joins a caravan of its siblings and we begin winding slowly up the mountain. Eliott’s driving skills are tested as he navigates hairpin turns and avoids the unmarked edges of the cliff road. After rolling, sliding, and climbing for 30 minutes we finally pull into a spot at the top.

The Remarkables in all its glory

Clouds recede, unveiling The Remarkables in all its glory

Frigid Fresh mountain air assaults our faces on the chairlift up to Shadow Basin. You can see the entire mountain from the lift. It’s blanketed in white and pockmarked by jagged brown rocks of various sizes. There’s not a tree in sight, which is a first for North American skiers. The trails lay open in front of us and the absence of trees allows you to carve your own path across the mountain.

Old Man Bart starting his hike up to the "Toilet Bowl" basin

Old Man Bart starting his hike up to the “Toilet Bowl” basin

After a few warm-up runs we’re ready to start hiking. There are only three chairlifts on the mountain, but there are a lot more peaks to be skied. We coast over to the patroled boundary and pop out of our skis. Onto the shoulder they go and into the boot tracks we start climbing. Ten minutes later we’ve reached a new peak and three untouched chutes lay below us. The views are breathtaking- their only competition is the hike itself.

One of our favorite hikes, The Chutes

The upside to every hike is its downside

Down we plunge into the powder. There’s not another skier in sight. It takes a few turns before you realize that the only sounds you hear are your skis crunching through snow and your own breathing. We stop halfway down the chute and look out across a small alpine lake and the frosty range of mountains laying in front of us. The sight and sound of silence is invigorating. There’s nothing like it- pure, untouched beauty.

A panoramic view from the top

A panoramic view from the top

The sun starts to set and the lifts come to a stop as we ski down for the last run of the day. But the fun’s not over yet. Après ski hour begins at 5, and it’s very rude to show up late. Brew, bros, and a fire are the fare for the night.

Mulled wine and a fire on the deck, a perfect finish to the day

Mulled wine and a fire on the deck with the Belfast crew

We know, we know, it’s a hard life that we lead. But someone’s got to do it because these mountains can’t ski themselves.

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Before we use this forum to focus entirely on the present and future, we want to make sure we don’t overlook the cool sights and experiences we had on our journey to Queenstown. Without further ado, here’s a glimpse into the rearview mirror from our South Island road trip.

Cook Strait route

Interislander route from Wellington to Picton

We met my mom in Wellington and boarded the Intersislander for the three-hour Cook Strait crossing. At its narrowest point, the Cook Strait is 22km. I know. How can the ferry ride last longer than a Tarantino movie? For one, the Strait is regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable bodies of water. Its ferocious swells have claimed many a ship, including a 1961 passenger ferry. Fortunately we crossed on a perfect day. The other reason the trip is so long is because the ship crawls through the winding Queen Charlotte Sound. Unless you’re in a rush, this is a good thing. The views are unbeatable and every turn seems to reveal a distinct and perfect landscape.

Kiwis spend billions every year to keep their water this blue

Kiwis spend billions every year to keep their water this blue

Picton

Known as the gateway to the South Island, Picton has a small year-round population that balloons in the peak months of January and February. We used airbnb  to find a place to stay. (Airbnb is a vacation rental service that helps you find houses or rooms to rent. Sometimes you’ll have the place to yourself, other times you’ll stay with the owners.) Our first airbnb experience was an amazing one. We stayed with Beth, an expat from Chicago who is doing a similar  year-long trip. She was a gracious host and even organized a dinner party on our last night. We ate fresh grouper that Beth had caught and met a couple of her friends, including one who looks exactly like the actor Damien Lewis (aka Brodie from Homeland).

the resemblance is uncanny, right?

the resemblance is uncanny, right?

Picton also has a range of hiking trails, so we made our first foray into “tramping” with a mild three-hour hike up the Snout Track.

thanks to frauleins Gretchen and Sigrid for snapping this picture

we met a couple nice German girls at the top who snapped this photo for us. thanks Gretel and Sigrid!

Greymouth

We picked up our rental car in Picton and headed south-west towards Greymouth. On the way out of town we made a slight detour in Marlborough wine country.

Fromm Vineyard - we promise it wasn't 11:00am

tasting at Fromm Vineyard – we promise it wasn’t 11:00am (we can’t promise it wasn’t 10:45)

When we pulled into Greymouth and checked into our hostel two things became obvious. One: Global Village Backpackers is the nicest hostel we’ve encountered in New Zealand.

clean, cozy and affordable. what more do you need?

clean, cozy and affordable. what more do you need?

Two: Greymouth is the arm pit of the South Island. Industrial, dark and dreary. It does have a long coast line filled with scenic trails and views, but we were excited to depart for a livelier destination. En route to Fox Glacier we stopped at the Hokitika Gorge (thanks to Kathy Bliss!), which is a bit off the beaten path but well worth the detour. Glacial runoff mixes with earthy minerals to give the water a milky turquoise color. And the suspense bridge is straight out of Indiana Jones.

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Fox Glacier

In case you missed it.

Queenstown

According to all people, road signs and navigational systems we consulted, the drive from Fox to Queenstown should take four-hours. It took us closer to seven. Granted, we got distracted by some worthy pit stops:

there we go with those waterfalls again

there we go with those waterfalls again

Our four day stint in Queenstown was a mix of business and pleasure. My mom treated us to a stay at the Heritage Hotel–a nice change of pace after hostel living–and Meg and I pounded the pavement to hand out resumes in hope of lining up jobs after our road trip. Of course, we gave ourselves plenty of time to relax:

this ones for the mixologist on Keene Street

this one’s for the mixologist on Keene Street

And explore some of Queenstown’s scenic tramping:

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At the top of the Seven Mile track

Dunedin

I will forever link Dunedin with disappointment. And not in any way because of the destination. Dunedin is a hip, vibrant–if somewhat meteorologically bleak–college town. It just so happens this is where we watched the Patriots lose the AFC championship game. Fortunately Meg knew the perfect way to cope with the defeat.

a tour of Speights Brewery concluded with 30 minutes of unlimited access to their six taps

a tour of Speights Brewery concluded with thirty minutes of unlimited access to their taps

Despite Dunedin’s reputation for grim weather, we lucked out with two days of sunshine. This allowed us to visit the nearby Otago Peninsula where we met a Department of Conservation agent named Jasmine, caught a glimpse of a yellow-eyed penguin, and ran down this epic hill:

the walk back up was not as enjoyable

the walk back up was not as enjoyable

Christchurch

A massive earthquake in February 2011 destroyed the center of Christchurch. People told us that it was formerly the heart and soul of the South Island; perhaps New Zealand’s most beautiful city. But two years have passed since the quake and the city still lies in ruins. Comparing it to a post-war European city would not be hyperbolic.

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Many businesses have closed with no intention of re-opening. Just trying to find a hostel we noticed that several of the ones in our travel books were gone. Residents have departed in search of brighter futures and tourism has dried up. The rebuilding effort is underway, but it is slow and deliberate. The residents who have remained are hurting but (in typical kiwi fashion) are far from defeated. We thought this uplifting poster captured the city’s fighting spirit:

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Many of the merchants are determined not to let the disaster force them out of Christchurch. They have opened temporary stores in old shipping containers. The ad hoc marketplace is called “Re-start Village” and it’s an inspiration.

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Sydney, Australia

Nothing fuels culture shock like leaving a country with a 20:1 sheep-to-person ratio and arriving in Sydney on Australia day. January 26, the Australian July 4, was a perfect day. We took advantage of the weather and treated ourselves to our own walking tour of downtown Sydney. Highlights range from the obvious (Opera House, Government House, Botanic Gardens) to the obscure (free smoothie samples in Hyde Park, antique automobile show aptly named “Car-nival”).

It looked a lot bigger and whiter during the opening ceremony for 2000 olympics

It looked a lot bigger and whiter on TV during 2000 olympics (we suspect China was involved)

Unfortunately the weather for the rest of the week was wet and grey. Sydney is famous for its beaches (Bondi, Manly) and we were determined not to let the forecast dictate our trip.

we don't believe in the phrase "not a beach day"

we don’t believe in the phrase “today’s not a beach day”

We also heard great things about the Blue Mountains and decided to make the two-hour drive to hike them rain or shine. We lucked out with a couple hours of sunlight and had a lovely afternoon tramping through the foothills and making a picnic on the porch of a chocolate shop.

in front of the "Three Sisters" rocks at the Blue Mtns

in front of the “Three Sisters” rock formation

It’s tough to judge a place when it’s raining for ninety percent of your visit. (I remember looking at colleges and ruling them out because it down-poured on the tour. Shallow, yes. But what 17-year-old is capable of seeing the big picture?) So our perception of Sydney was skewered by the weather and we didn’t catch it on its best week. Having said that, Meg and I were ready to get back to New Zealand and we probably would have felt this way after a week of sunshine. The traffic, lines, $9 beers and abrasive bus drivers reminded us why we wanted to leave the last big city we lived in. Like New York, I suspect Sydney is fine when you’re visiting for a week, but living there is a whole different ballgame.

While it was sad to say goodbye to my mom after such a great month, we found a silver lining in returning to a place that we are excited to call home for the next six months.

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The “Southern Hemisphere’s premier four season lake and alpine resort.” As Eliott noted in his last post, we settled into Queenstown last week and we plan on being here for the long haul- well at least until our visas expire.

To help you get your bearings and understand where we’ve chosen to settle, here are some basic stats. Queenstown is nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It is bordered on its other three sides by the Southern Alps, so basically it’s picturesque from every angle, including ours.

We'll let you know if waking up to this view ever gets old

We’ll let you know if waking up to this view ever gets old

For you cartographers, we’ve also mapped it out here. Queenstown was originally settled by Europeans in 1860, but it was traversed by Maoris in search for pounamu (or sacred greenstone) for many years before that. The local population is roughly 29,200 so while it’s only twice the size of my quiet hometown, Duxbury, MA, it’s still considered a major city on the South Island. This odd statistic is a testament to its vibrant tourism industry.

Some people refer to Queenstown as the “adventure capital of the world” because of the many activities you can enjoy here which include: skiing, snowboarding, heli-sking, jet boating, whitewater rafting, bungy jumping, mountain biking, skateboarding, tramping, paragliding, sky diving and fly fishing. Whew, deep breath. For after hours entertainment Queenstown offers a bevy of bars that provide the answer to our longstanding question, “where are all the young people at?”

World's most dangerous cartwheel- only in Queenstown

World’s most dangerous cartwheel first attempted in Queenstown

So I guess I’d now pose the question to you all- why wouldn’t we want to live here? Queenstown has always piqued our interest, but the truth is we finally pulled the trigger on QT because I was able to get a job. One of our goals for January was to find some work and settle down for a few months. We enjoy our roadtrips and sightseeing, but staying in hostels can get old and quite expensive.  On our latest road trip, with Eliott’s mom, we stopped in Queenstown for a few days and pounded the pavement hunting for jobs. We passed out a lot of resumes and got passed over even more. So at the end, when I thought I couldn’t handle any more rejection I decided to hand out one last resume at a seafood restaurant called Fishbone.

I got a call back that night and after a stressful trial run the following day I received the offer. And today, I’m happy to announce that  Eliott was offered a job at a clothing store called Wild South. We are now both happily and gratefully employed locals. While traveling New Zealand we’ve found the job search to be somewhat challenging, but it mostly boils down to timing and persistence.

 

Oh wait, did you guys ask for a closer shot of the view from our balcony? Here you go

Oh wait, did you guys ask for a closer shot of the view from our balcony? Here you go

A few quick tips for any backpackers that are looking to get some work on the road:

  • Don’t look like a backpacker because everyone knows they’re unreliable…
  • Change your resume to fit your situation. Our engineer flatmate is working as a dishwasher and he didn’t get that job listing his GPA.
  • Be bold. Always ask to speak with the manager and be quick to explain why you’re a good fit.

It’s a squirrel-eat-kiwi world and there are only so many jobs and so many months in the tourist season. You have to pounce on any opportunity, but luckily in a busy place like Queenstown there are a lot of chances to hone your craft.

Once landing the job we started to look for housing the next morning. Similar to the job hunt, the apartment search is all about timing and persistence. We were very selective about the location, setup, and price of the apartments that we pursued so while trademe.co.nz was filled with options we had to look hard for the right fit. Luckily we found Pete and Sophie offering their room in a large house on Queenstown hill. It was the perfect fit- private bath, private deck, huge living area, a ping pong table, walking distance to town, and most importantly AWESOME roommates! Pete and Sophie are moving to Whistler to catch the North American ski season so we slipped into their room at the perfect time and may, if we’re lucky, be able to swap back with them during the NZ ski season. If you couldn’t tell, they’re big skiers, something we’ll be getting back into this winter too.

Boozey brunch with the new flatmates! Reminds us a lot of our weekends in NYC

Boozey brunch with the new flatmates!

So we are now officially moved into our new flat in Queenstown. We kicked off the first weekend with a goodbye bbq for Pete and Sophie, which reminded us a lot of the shenanigans we used to get into at home.  We’re really looking forward to staying in one place for a while. I think it’s an important part of the travel experience. We spent the first four months of our trip wandering across the country, but you only see so much as a tourist. Now we’re ready to experience the kiwi lifestyle first-hand. And as always, we’ll be sharing almost all of the gritty details with you back home!

Climb every mountain, ford every stream....

Climb every mountain, ford every stream

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Halfway down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island are two conspicuous reminders that this country is closer to Antarctica than most people realize. These are the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, hulking astroid ice blocks that surge from the base of the Southern Alps towards the coast. Eponymous towns have sprung up around each glacier. Their small populations cater to (and live off) the steady flow of tourists who pay anywhere from $115 to $700 to walk/ice-pick/helicopter-hike a taste of the ice age.

Franz Josef has a reputation for being “more touristy,” which is a subtler way of saying “more expensive.” Being the budget-conscious travelers we are, we opted for the $115 Fox Trot, described in the brochure as “a half-day eco-adventure full of variety and interest.”

Fellow fox trotters

wide view of Fox Glacier

Here is a first-hand account of our experience:

Fox Guides run six daily Fox Trot tours. Ours is the last of the afternoon and departs at 4:30. The group is comprised of 28 tourists and 2 guides, who conduct a brief safety lecture and Q&A before we head to the glacier. Our group contains families with young children and older couples, which makes the three of us (Meg, my mom and me) less anxious about slipping on a wet patch and ending up in a canyon. A gray-haired lady with a bandana asks our guide Dora if she can bring binoculars on the hike. Dora responds that she’s never heard that question before, but sure.

On the bus ride to the glacier’s parking lot we sit at the front and get to know our guides. Oddly enough, they’re both from New England. The male guide, Josh, is ecstatic about this. He’s a huge Patriots fan and I think we instantly become his favorite trio on the tour. Dora isn’t as energetic, but I get the feeling she’s tired from a long day and an even longer week. I’m also a little disappointed she gives me a straight-faced “no” when I ask if she thinks it’s funny that her name is Dora and she ended up working in the adventure industry. Oh well.

Our bus turns off the main road and we’re suddenly ambushed by green. Leaves and vines scrape against our windows.  They’re so green that the best word to describe them is lush. I’m a bit confused since we’re headed to a glacier and because of this, even though January is the southern hemisphere’s July, we all wore pants and four layers of shirts. Not only am I confused by the climate, but I’m jealous of a young Swedish couple wearing shorts and cotton t-shirts. It appears they will not be perspiring as much as us today.

Off the bus we split into two groups. I quickly lead us to Josh’s group because it’s a Tuesday and the Patriots season isn’t over yet and I haven’t talked “American” football with another guy (at least face-to-face) in over 12 weeks. Josh gives us a quick science lesson before we begin the trot.

this is what happens after a glacial recession

this is what happens after a glacial retreat

Like Western economies (and George Costanza), glaciers experience periods of growth and shrinkage. Over the last century, however, most glaciers have receded as a result of rising temperatures (cue Al Gore). Fox Glacier bucked the global trend with a period of growth from 1984 to 2009–it reached the green edge of the above photograph–due to conducive westerly winds and increased snow fall. But in the last four years it has receded dramatically, which explains the baffling rain forest climate that has emerged near the edge of the glacier.

Finally, we start the “scenic 60 minute hike” towards the terminal face. The brochure is full of these little half truths. The hike is indeed scenic. But the 60 minutes would be closer to 20 if we didn’t stop every fifty meters to take pictures or listen to Josh catch up with another tour guide. (Interesting fact about the tour guides: it sounded like all of them under 30 were American, or possibly Canadian, adding further evidence to our theory that all kiwis under 30 have fled the country or simply don’t exist).

enough photo breaks, let's get to the ice!

enough photo breaks, let’s get to the ice!

Our scenic hike leads us to a flat grey-area between the rocky path and the icy climb onto the glacier. The sun feels further away here and I’m starting to think I made the right decision by wearing my fleece, although the Swedish couple seem content in their tee-shirts. At this point we are given a walking pole and instructed to fasten our crampons as tightly as possible lest they slide off and we fall to certain death.

crampons!

crampons!

The ice is as slippery as I expected. The crampons take some getting used to–if you step with your toes then your foot will slide a few inches before the spikes sink in, which is unsettling–but we finally learn how to take high steps and plant the center of our boots. The ice’s composition, however, is different than I expected. It has a cookies-and-cream look, owing to millions of deposited rocks embedded at all levels of the surface. (Interesting fact about the ice: it’s not much older than 70 years, which kills my fantasy of interacting with the ice-age).

"wait, I thought we all agreed to close our eyes for this one"

“wait, I thought we all agreed to close our eyes for this one”

Burrrrr. In the middle of the glacier the temperature suddenly drops. The wind picks up and the Swedish couple starts shivering involuntarily. I’m no longer jealous of their wardrobe decision, but I am worried they might lose a finger or something if their skin turns any bluer. Fortunately Josh packed two extra jackets and morale is restored. #hero

We spend almost two hours on the glacier and it’s a very surreal experience. We peer down bottomless canyons, climb man-made steps and squeeze through claustrophobic crevices. The awe-inspiring scenery is juxtaposed with constant reminders of how commercialized this giant ice block is. We pass roughly a dozen other Fox Trot groups and witness five helicopters transporting tourists to the top of the glacier for the $700 option.

A glacial crev-ace; or crevice

A glacial crev-ace; or crevice

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stairway to heaven

Hiking the glacier felt like an odd combination of walking on the moon and accidentally stepping onto the set of a Dentyne Ice commercial. I’m glad we did it and I don’t regret spending $115. Chances are I won’t have many other chances to walk on a glacier. But I wish the sheer commercialization of the experience wasn’t so obvious. I realize this is picky and unrealistic. After all, we are tourists who paid to tour a unique landmark. But it just felt a bit too contrived. At least we chose the “less touristy” glacier.

Up next: I’ve been terrible about publishing this article. It’s been way too long since our last post–Meg has reminded me every day that “our readership is suffering.” So I apologize for the radio silence but promise our posts will become more regular. We’ve been traveling around the South Island and Australia for the past month, but we’ve finally picked a place to settle down for the rest of our trip. Meg will bring you up to speed on the details soon….

in front of Queenstown's famous steamer, the TSS Earnslaw

in front of Queenstown’s famous steamer, the TSS Earnslaw

 

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On our last day in Wellington I was almost literally swept off my feet during a morning run with Eliott’s mom, Lisa. While jogging along the waterfront we were stopped in our tracks by gale force winds. But it’s not a physical sweep I want to talk about here. It’s a metaphoric one – the way that New Zealand swept me off my feet with its culture and beauty.

May the road rise up to meet you, May the wind be always at your back

Lisa has just flown in to join us on our NZ adventures for the next month. We are taking her to uncharted territory- the South Island and then Sydney. Before making our pilgrimage across the Cook Strait we took her on a whirlwind tour of the capital city. Seeing Wellington through Lisa’s eyes has rejuvenated our travelling spirits. After living here for almost two months we feel like we’ve become jaded Wellingtonians. We’ve fully adopted the relaxed vibe that permeates NZ and perusing vintage shops along Cuba Street just feels like a normal afternoon for us. So hearing Lisa marvel at all the unique features of New Zealand reminded us of our early days here and how invigorating the whole experience has been.

Rediscovering the calming and restorative effects that a tramp through the great outdoors has on the body and mind

Rediscovering the calming and restorative effects that a tramp through the great outdoors has on the body and mind

Believe it or not, it’s still easy to settle into your daily routines and forget the bigger picture on a trip like this. Lately we’ve been filling our thoughts with the little things- what are we going to eat for dinner? where are we going to settle in February? how is the budget doing? etc. etc. Now granted, these are pretty nice concerns to have in the scheme of things, but they do distract you from the bigger picture: we’re backpacking through a foreign country with nothing but each other and our savings. Lisa has brought back memories from the months leading up to this trip. We were filled with so much excitement and enthusiasm, but also an overwhelming notion that we had no idea what lay ahead of us. We vowed that we would never take a day for granted and when given the option we would always chose the risky, the new, and the bold.

Embarking across the Cook Strait with only a vague idea of what will lay ahead of us. The sky is the limit

Embarking across the Cook Strait with only a vague idea of what lies ahead. The sky is the limit

Lisa’s visit makes us realize that as a traveler you have to continually remind yourself of this bigger picture and not get bogged down by the day-to-day things. This reminder can be anything, a visit from an old friend, a brief conversation, or even a small token you keep by your side. Regardless of the form, it’s vital to find one that works for you and stick with it. It’s important to keep the ideas and aspirations that originally inspired you fresh in your mind so that you don’t pass up opportunities for discovery. While travelling you must make the most of every day because each one is a gift to be treasured, not time to be wiled away.

Nothing makes you value your days like the awe-inspiring Queen Charlotte Sound

Nothing makes you value the day like the awe-inspiring Queen Charlotte Sound

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