a blog about seeing the world

Posts tagged “new zealand

One last walk

If you’ve been reading this blog for a few months or more, you’ve probably noticed a trend. We walk. A lot. Yes, it may be free, easy, and often one of the best ways to experience a new place. But by this time you must be wondering — aren’t we sick of hiking?

Well…no, not really. It’s safe to say that New Zealand is home to the most varied landscape on the planet. The topography, climate, and vegetation all change drastically as you travel up, down, or across these small pieces of land. Each trail has proved to be undeniably unique, beautiful, and full of surprises, and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which will end up being the last long walk of our trip, was no different. Traversing 20 kilometers of the central North Island’s volcanic highlands, the Crossing navigates volcanic peaks, wide lava plains, and thermal hotspots.

But first, if you are going to have an enjoyable day completing the Alpine Crossing, you should temper your expectations. Piles of travel brochures proclaim it to be the best day hike in New Zealand — or even, ambitiously, the world. A bold statement, and one that lures tens of thousands of people a year to the trailhead. We’ve walked many beautiful trails in New Zealand and I’m sure the rest of the world has a lot to offer. Let’s just call it a nice walk and leave it at that.

So, we were expecting crowds, but were still quite shocked to see several hundred other people joining us at the trailhead on a cold, windy, cloudy morning. Hiking up in a steady stream of tourists with views partially blocked by the back of some stranger’s head, we got the strange feeling we were part of an Old West covered wagon train rather than experiencing a South Pacific wilderness. We neglected to photograph this portion of the trip for obvious reasons.

Grandiose titles and crowds aside, Tongariro National Park holds a captivating landscape. The trail winds through vast empty sweeps of land filled with chunks of black volcanic rock, pressure-warped pieces of brown and red pumice, and hardy gnarled shrubs. It’s beautiful in a stark and dramatic sort of way, and, once again, completely different from anything we’ve seen so far.

As we approached Mount Ngaurahoe—the brooding volcanic peak that served as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies—the clouds shrouding the summit evaporated. It looked like a long, boring climb, but we had to do it.

Surprise, surprise, it was a long, boring climb. Loose ash and pumice slid down the sides of the steep cone with every step, requiring nearly twice the effort, and a cold wind blasted us, numbing our fingers and noses. The crowds were left behind, though, and views opened up with each step upwards. By the time we reached to top we had forgotten about all the effort to get there.

Thin wisps of volcanic steam rose from the bottom of the ice-crusted caldera, mixing with the passing clouds. Broad sweeps of barren land spread out below us, dotted with emerald lakes and plumes of sulfuric steam from geothermal vents. Lake Taupo glittered in the distance and 130 kilometers to the southwest, the tip of Mount Taranaki poked out from above the clouds. It was utterly freezing at the top, with ice-cold winds threatening to blow us over the edge.

(more…)


Mmmm… beer!

Thirsty travelers take note: New Zealand does brew excellent beer, and we now know where to find it!

Wellington is New Zealand’s capitol city, and has a reputation that precedes it. Everywhere we travel across this country, a mention of Wellington usually garners a comment on how great the city is or how crappy its weather can be. Unfortunately for us, it was the latter that came true, as wind-driven rain pounded down for all three days we spent in the city. This meant that most of our time was spent in free museums or looking forward to the next meal, snack, or drink, in a search that eventually led us to the mighty lineup of taps at The Malthouse.

Bare wood beams, a wall full of bottles from far and wide, and a beer list as thick as the Bible. Immediately, we felt at home.

After a few generous samples we secured respective pints of a Belgian white and an IPA from Blenhiem-based Moa, the Armageddon IPA from Epic, and a delightfully hoppy American IPA from Wellington’s own Tuatara.

We could have spent the night here, devouring pint after pint and curling up under the bar for a sound slumber if not for one thing: $10 beers have a nasty habit of adding up quite quickly. Thus, the evening saw us torn between far off looks of contentment and bitter shakes of the head, muttering things like, “it’s a damn shame.” After two apiece we ripped ourselves off the stools and shuffled home through the drizzle.

But despite the weather, we’re left with fond memories of New Zealand’s favorite city. We’ll just have to imagine the views of glittering steel and glass against a bright blue bay and autumn sunshine… because the only photos we have are from inside the bar.


So Long, South Island

As a way to say goodbye to the South Island that we’ve called home for over 7 months, we recently made the full day’s drive down to Wanaka for one more mountain adventure. The beautiful West Matukituki Valley lies in the heart of Mount Aspiring National Park, which has captivated us time and time again with beech forest, tumbling glaciers, and mountain meadows. The chance to spend two days high above and encircled by the Southern Alps proved the perfect farewell.

Ascending 4,000 feet in just 2 miles, the route from Aspiring Hut to the north ridge of Mount Tyndall is a punishing ascent through snow grass and precipitous crags.

But the view helps take the mind off burning legs and lungs.

A small hollow at the top of the ridge makes for a perfect campsite: just enough protection from a stiff east wind, and incredible views across the valley to Mount Aspiring. (more…)


A taste (or two) of Marlborough’s finest

Just beyond the leafy green hedge out back and past a noisy lamb next door, our small home in Renwick is besieged on all sides by vines. Hedged to perfection, and now carrying ripening grapes, row upon row makes for a mesmerizing ride every time we drive into town.

When else might we be living in the heart of one of the world’s great wine regions? Ignoring the wineries just down the road would be a crime, akin to skipping sushi during a trip to Japan. So, late one morning, we set off on the two trusty bikes parked in our garage, armed with a vineyard map and picnic lunch.

It was a perfect day for biking. A late summer sun shone down onto infinite vines, the rising temperature tempered by fluffy clouds and a light breeze. It took all of three minutes to roll up to the first cellar door at Gibson Bridge.

There are dozens of small, family-run vineyards scattered across the map, producing small vintages that never make it to the States. Marlborough is famous for its sauvignon blanc, though most wineries offer or even specialize in other varietals: pinot gris, gewurztraminer, chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir. It is all good. A far cry from the ubiquitous box wine we drank in Australia, it is pleasantly surprising to be able to relate to the detailed and pretentious tasting descriptions. Some of this wine actually did have slight flavors of mango and pineapple, while others were peppery or had a hint of citrus. It didn’t take long to be able to navigate the wine lists and figure out our favorites.

We had picked up a wine touring book at the library which included a list of other notes and flavors we might come across on an afternoon of tasting. Thankfully, we have yet to sample wine with hints of leather, cigar box, coffee, or — why not? — manure.

The patio at Isabel Vineyard.

A typically happy vineyard dog.

After several months of cheap living, it was wonderful to feel like a tourist again. We parked our bikes next to white limousines, pretended to be interested in $60 bottles, played petanque on a court surrounded by roses. Best of all, there are enough wineries within pedaling distance of our house that several more days could be filled in the same manner.

Admiring the view from Highfield Estate.

(more…)


How to be homeless

After calling our trusty tent home for about seven of the last 10 months, we like to think we have become experts in the camping life. Some of you have no doubt found this blog while researching for your own travels, and we thought it might do some good to pass along our wealth of knowledge on camping in Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully the rest of you, clean and content under a solid roof, will still find amusement in our degenerate lifestyle.

First, let’s face it, you’re not choosing to live out of a car because you thought it would be fun. Judging by the amount of dirty young people on the road, the only way to travel for an extended period of time in a first-world country is to live out of your car. Which brings you to your first decision:

Tent vs. campervan

Though we’re by far the minority, we swear by our little red tent. For one thing, you already spend all day in the car, do you really want to sleep in it too?  Unless you’re traveling solo your vehicle is going to be trashed, no matter how hard you try. Pulling into a campground, setting up a tent, and escaping from the clutter of the car brings everyone a little much-needed space at the end of each day. It’s like a little house, separate from the stress and frustrations of travel… and prone to leaking when it rains.

Tenting also gives us a definite advantage in securing a prime camping spot. On numerous occasions, we have breezed into a grungy parking lot packed with vans and had a lovely adjacent green space all to ourselves. There have only been two occasions when we have wished for a van: an unexpectedly sodden night in Blenheim, and at an Australian rest stop infested with brazen mice that enjoyed crawling up the sides of our tent.

Finally, it allows you a bit of anonymity. Drive around in a campervan, and you are immediately pegged as a backpacker. We like to think people look at our packed car and think we’re locals. Locals with no place to live… and American accents.

Home away from home.

Where to sleep

While it’s possible to pull over and sleep on the side of the road for free, unless you have a bathroom on board it’s technically illegal. Your choice; it will surely save money, but we like to pay a nominal fee for running water and a place to take a shit.

DOC Sites (NZ) – Our homes away from home. There are a few hundred Department of Conservation sites scattered about New Zealand’s two islands, and they are excellent. Found in National Parks and elsewhere, they are generally low on amenities, but are very cheap ($6/person) and sometimes come with a view:

Near Cannan Downs, NZ.

(more…)


A home in the vines

It’s amazing how much life can be improved by a roof.  After months of wandering around the south island, we’re quite pleased to pack the tent away and park the car in the driveway of our own place.

Our lovely little stone house is in the small town of Renwick, surrounded by miles of neatly hedged vines. It came complete with colorful flower beds, a cheery picnic table, and, possibly the most exciting of all, a grill on a backyard patio. A previous tenant also left us a flourishing garden full of corn, potatoes, onions, broccoli, cucumbers and zucchini.

A secondhand store provided cheap if somewhat battered furniture, and soon we felt completely at home.

Though we’d been assured of a couple months work in the vines, unseasonably cool weather slowed the work to a trickle, and soon left us unemployed once more. When not hunting for a new job, we fill our days of free time with baking, reading, and revisiting some of our travels. In the midst of what I hear is a mediocre winter back home, perhaps we could all use a day at the beach… here is a look back to the beautiful Philippines.


A Tramping Trilogy: Golden Hour

The second to last day of 2011 found us, once again, climbing high into the Southern Alps in search of a view.

A late start, a steep climb, a long rest, and some blind route-finding (lesson: always bring a map) meant we were behind schedule… and not even standing on the true summit of the peak we came to climb. No matter. The sun lingers on late into the evening at this time of year, leaving us plenty of time to savor the glow from the slopes of Mount Armstrong.

Our false summit was a crumbling, rocky pinnacle along the ridgeline, barely wide enough to fit our party of six.

Nate, Steph, Alex, Aeryca and Deborah (pleased to find themselves 3,000 miles away from the Portland rain), and a friendly Spaniard to take the shot. (more…)


A Tramping Trilogy: Above the Clouds

It only took a few days of slothing around Wanaka’s cafes and public library to fully recover from our 64-kilometer Gillespie Pass adventure. Though we were due in Christchurch in just three days, the weather forecast for the weekend was promising and we had our sights set higher.

The two-day climb up Mount Adams, a prominent peak halfway up the island’s west coast, had caught our eye months ago. Deemed in a tramping book as “one of the finest viewpoints on the coast that can be reached without the need for serious mountaineering,” the upper reaches of the climb are on snow and still require crampons and an ice axe. After stocking up on snack mix, we rented some gear out on a Friday afternoon and rallied for the five-hour drive over Haast Pass and up the coast.

Loaded down with mountaineering gear and the typical array of camping supplies, we started out on the banks of Dry Creek on a sunny and promising morning. It’s actually a rather misleading moniker, and the route upriver requires lots of boulder-hopping and countless river fords. Looking back over our shoulder after an hour of progress, we noticed we were starting out disturbingly close to sea level for a climb up a 7,286-foot mountain.

Looking back down Dry Creek with the Tasman Sea beyond.

At last, a cairn marked the start of the proper trail, and after a snack break we started up. And by up, we mean straight up— 4,000 feet up in 2 miles.

Looking up at 4,000 feet of climbing.

Adams is not a popular climb, and the route is accordingly rough. In fact, we’d been told that Department of Conservation officials hadn’t been up here for maintenance in two years, which explained the downed trees. We climbed—literally grappling tree roots and branches—along the narrow, gnarled, and often faint footpath. It was clear from quantity of spider webs that we’d have the mountain to ourselves.

Mount Adams falls in a slender section of the west coast known as the “beech gap,” and the lovely beech forests we’ve grown to love were replaced by dense, tangled woods. We did not love it, and after three hours we were pleased to break out into open slopes covered in snow grass. The marked trail ended here, allowing us to find our own way up along the ridgeline, which was now engulfed in afternoon clouds. Mercifully, they obscured how much further we had to go.

By now, our heavily laden packs were wearing us down, and I could have fallen asleep with my backpack on. Actually, I tried this on one short break, worrying Nate enough that he kindly took some of the gear off my pack. This was by far the hardest hike we’d ever undertaken, and it was taking a serious toll. Alex relieved me of my crampons, and I slowly made my way up, up, up.

Just as fatigue seemed to be settling in for good, the sun started to poke through, and a few minutes later we had the first of many rewards. Bright, silvery clouds parted to reveal windows of snowy mountains and rugged alpine country. We continued up a series of several humps in awe of our surroundings.

(more…)


A Tramping Trilogy: Gillespie Pass

A few weeks back, while the three of us were lazing by the lakeshore near sleepy Omarama, we realized it was time to stop being, well… lazy. It had been more than four months since we arrived in New Zealand, and over two since we met up with Alex and began our full-scale South Island exploration. Though we’d traversed the island several times over, our 90 L packs had remained neglected and the soles of our shoes had seen only a handful of day walks. It was time to load up our gear and head for the hills to participate in the beloved Kiwi pastime of tramping.

New Zealand is laced with an unbelievable number of walking trails, and it’s actually quite overwhelming trying to decide which piece of wilderness to explore. Though we had been eyeing an alpine crossing under the shadow of Mount Cook, an inconclusive weather forecast forced us to look further south. We settled on a 64-kilometer route connecting the Young and Wilkin river valleys in Mount Aspiring National Park, spent a day organizing gear and food, and set off with clear skies and high spirits.

A typically enchanting beech forest cloaks most of the Young valley, the fat and peeling birch-like trunks hanging with moss. The river —boasting that bright blue color we’ve only seen in New Zealand—tempted us with clear pools, though we knew it was painfully cold from our crossing earlier in the day. Every once in a while, we’d come to a wide meadow and get a spectacular view of the peaks all around us.

After seven hours and 20 kilometers, the last part steadily uphill, we came to the impressively posh Young Hut. Though our legs were exhausted and the bunks were inviting, we all agreed we didn’t hike all this way through the woods to sleep in a hostel. After a short rest we hoisted our packs and pressed on for another hour and few hundred vertical meters.

At last, emerging from the last of the sub-alpine brush, we could see the headwaters of the river we’d been following all day. A huge grassy plain spread in a near-perfect circle, culminating in a craggy cirque at the head of the valley. Alpine daisies and large mountain buttercups dotted the pale grass, and cliffs hemmed us in on all sides.

Nate reviewing the day's progress.

After a predictably delicious mac and cheese dinner, the sinking sun lit up the mountains before dropping behind them. We couldn’t have been happier. This was worth walking for!

The next day held the shortest, but by far the steepest, section of the hike: 600 meters up to the crest of Gillespie Pass. The trail turned sharply up the south side of the valley, orange poles marking the route among the tussocks. The scenery kept improving with every step, and stops to catch a breath soon became chances to soak up the view. (more…)


A summertime Christmas

Though this was our very first Christmas away from home, we think it’s safe to say that we mastered the recipe for a memorable summertime holiday. Just mix together…

A coastal scene,

perfect weather,

a spot on the beach,

and a good book to read.

(more…)


Two familiar faces

Right as the best American holiday, Thanksgiving, was about to pass by unnoticed here in New Zealand, some long-awaited visitors from home arrived. Nate’s parents, Jan and Dan, traveled with us for 12 days, bringing near constant sunshine along with them.

We decided it would be a mistake to try to recreate the classic holiday meal, especially over a campstove. So, we all gathered around the picnic table for a southern hemisphere Thanksgiving of greenshell mussels, local sweet potatoes and asparagus. Delicious!

From left to right: Steph, Jan, Dan, Alex, Nate.

Along with the perfect weather, they came bearing treats from home. After all these months of camping we could finally construct proper s’mores with some graham crackers!

And our favorite beer, Heady Topper, was the perfect addition to a sunny afternoon on the West Coast.

Along with repeating some favorites, we also used the trip to explore some new places.

Hmmm… caulk the wagon and float across?

After some debate we rolled across and continued up the valley to a place that could be mistaken for paradise. It was just like “The Oregon Trail,” without the dysentery.

The beautiful West Matukituki Valley quickly became one of our newest favorite places in New Zealand.

They also treated us to perhaps the best Christmas present ever: two cruises on the sounds of Fiordland… (more…)


True New Zealand

Think of New Zealand, and the first thing that comes to mind is probably sheep. There are currently 40 million of them (and only 4 million people) in the country, filling any and every patch of useable land not occupied by people or rugged mountains.

Really, it would be hard to say you’ve experienced true New Zealand without spending time on a sheep farm, so back in early November we decided to do just that. Recommended whole-heartedly by good friends back home, we called up Ken and Sandra Closs to arrange two weeks of WWOOFing (working for room and board) at their farm, Te Hapu.

In the far northwest corner of the south island, just before you run out of land, Te Hapu is sandwiched between the Tasman Sea and Kahurangi National Park. It is a bumpy two-hour drive down a dirt road to the nearest town, giving the farm a sense of remoteness and discovery. Rugged green pastures broken by clusters of tree ferns and Nikau palms roll down straight into the sea.  Mobs of fine-wooled merino and sturdy Romney sheep—along with a few surprisingly nimble cows—graze continuously, looking like big balls of wool with sticks for legs. A narrow drive leads in to their house, surrounded by a bountiful garden and tall trees, which act as a fortress against a relentless southwest wind.

Looking out to sea. The shearing shed on the left, with the house tucked into the tall trees.

Ken and Sandra spent years working in one of the shearing gangs that roam the country, saving up enough money to purchase the land back in 1980. They have a wealth of knowledge about the land and their animals, and they were always willing to take the time to patiently answer our questions. The farming has never been easy, and along with a couple thousand sheep and hundred cows they operate several holiday homes scattered about their property. Listening to them tell the story, it is obvious they are proud of the life they have built— and rightfully so. Te Hapu is simply beautiful.

Within the first afternoon, we were smitten. It is hard believe anyone just lives somewhere this incredible. Every curve of the hill holds an unexpected stunning vista, a hidden cluster of foxgloves, a yawning secret cave, or a perfect sweeping beach. Limestone outcroppings dominate the dramatic coastline, topping the steep hillsides and harboring tide pools and crab-filled crevices along the sea.

(more…)


A Lazy Sunday

Here are some snippets from a hard day in the life of us.

An afternoon in a tree…

…and an evening in a sea of lupines.

Taken in and around Omarama, New Zealand.


Some time to spare

Earlier in November, for not the first time in our travels around the South Island, we found ourselves in an unexpected place with a lot of time on our hands.  The Marlborough Sounds are a convoluted maze of sunken river valleys, and are quite striking when viewed on a map. To do all the waterways justice you’d need a week in a sailboat or a lifetime in a kayak, but we did our best on shore in some fickle spring weather.

After paying our former hometown of Blenhiem a brief visit, we drove a curvy road— the first of many in the next few days— to a campsite across the road from a rocky bay.  The tidepools were festooned with mussels and, as it was approaching dinnertime, we decided to collect some for an appetizer. Being not completely sure of the legality of harvesting and the correct cooking method, we plucked only three from the rocks and fried them up in breadcrumbs and salt and pepper.

Mussels have a somewhat disturbing appearance that makes you wonder who first picked one up and thought, “yeah, I think I’ll eat this.” They also require a cleaning step called “debearding,” which is never a term you want applied to something you are going to consume. Anyways, they were quite good and we made a note to do more research on the collection and cooking of the little buggers.

Once again, however, dark clouds rolled in after sunset, and soon it began to rain. And rain. It completely flooded our tent, soaking our sleeping bags. To make a bad situation pretty much unbearable, hordes of mosquitoes found refuge in the gap between our tent and our fly, and swarmed in every time we unzipped the tent door. Not cool.

Steph, after a restful night's sleep.

The next morning dawned with tentative sunshine that illuminated the hundreds of mosquitoes we had massacred during the night. On the drive back to town, the morning light brightened our spirits and delivered a photo-worthy rainbow. We like to think it was nature’s way of apologizing for the malicious deeds of the night before.

(more…)


Gone tubin’

Driving through the Marlborough Sounds a few weeks ago, we stumbled upon a small slice of Vermont half the world away.  With green mountains rolling down to fields of dairy cows and a rocky gorge carved by a crystal clear river, the countryside around Pelorus Bridge is a near perfect rendition of home.

It fast became one of our favorite spots as the first night we stumbled upon a free buffet- mutton, roast potatoes and whole chickens for the taking!  The rest of our time was spent playing cards, trying to drink enough 4% beer to feel something, and – one of our favorite summer pastimes back home – tubing down the river.

As an added bonus, we discovered that next month Peter Jackson and Co. will be taking over the campground to film sections of The Hobbit here— specifically, a scene in which Bilbo and the dwarves clamber into barrels and raft the very same river!


The Shaky City

Last fall, the city of Christchurch made international headlines for a devastating earthquake, followed by another, more destructive one last February. Multitudes of tremors and aftershocks since then (over 7,000!) have earned Christchurch the nickname displayed in our title.

Though aware of the damage, none of us realized its full extent until we attempted to drive into town. A chain link fence peppered with ominous warning signs blocks off the entire city center, so that no one other than construction personnel can enter what was once the bustling downtown. Countless restaurants, hotels, bars, shops, and other businesses stand forlornly empty, their imminent demolition scrawled on the walls in spray paint and posted notices.

(more…)


The Cloud Piercer

Rising 8,000 feet from the floor of the glacier-carved Hooker Valley, the tallest peak in New Zealand is truly world class. This is where Sir Edmund Hilary trained before climbing Everest; a mountain that just makes you want to climb it after one look. Though we were under-prepared to even cross above the snowline, we had an excellent two days gazing at the walls of rock and ice surrounding Mount Cook— or, as its known by its appropriately badass Maori name, Aoraki,  “The Cloud Piercer.”

In the morning we dropped by the excellent information center, which displayed stunning aerial shots, old photos of early mountaineers, and facts and figures about the surrounding geology.  The nearby and equally good  Sir Edmund Hillary museum celebrated the climbing titan’s achievements and Antarctic expeditions.  Just outside, the south face was lit a cool ice blue.

The receding Tasman Glacier has left one of New Zealand’s newest and coldest lakes in its wake. Lake Tasman is a scene straight out of Antarctica, and seeing a group of kayakers paddle next to some of the smallest icebergs gave it a new sense of scale. The massive Hooker Valley extended out of sight, a perfectly flat plane among towering peaks. We could just picture the Ice Age glaciers making their slow progress south.

The view up the Hooker Valley from the Sealy Tarns.

Though Mount Cook is the region’s draw card, the glaciers clinging to the commanding north face of Mount Sefton were equally impressive. (more…)


Two moods of the Milford Road

The sounds of water are everywhere in the Fiordlands. Rushing down rock faces, dripping quietly from moss, splattering on the hood of your jacket. Rain – from yesterday’s pounding torrent to the present misty drizzle – is at home here. We chose to accept it as a travel companion instead of letting it change our plans, and began the drive in to Milford Sound. The road in proved to be just as striking as the famed destination itself.

The new rainfall fed a countless number of waterfalls. They cascaded down every crack in the cliffs, some massive and roaring, others as slender and wispy as a tendril of smoke.  Higher up, the clouds took over and the cliffs simply disappeared the sky, leaving the lofty heights to the imagination. Though we feared we might miss out on some of Milford’s iconic scenery, the weather leant a brooding beauty to the landscape.

(more…)


Fit for a Queen

Bounded by Lake Wakipitu on one side and the imposing wall of The Remarkables on the other, Queenstown is a big-budget resort town on the to-do list of nearly every New Zealand traveler. The center itself is a predictable collection of hotels, bars, cafes, and gift shops, but most people come here to play in the mountains and jump off of bridges or out of planes. Think Whistler Village on a Red Bull high. Alex had already gone for a skydive on the North Island and it was well out of our budget range so we opted to do what we do best— walk.

Queenstown's waterfront

The summit of Ben Lomond, a peak just out of sight from town, is a full day hike. The lower reaches of the mountain are shrouded in a dark, dense forest, interlaced with a web of mountain biking trails. Emerging onto the upper slopes, the forest abruptly gave way to low bushes in muted greens and deep reds. Ben Lomond loomed in the distance, looking imposingly big, craggy, and further away than we expected.

The Remarkables are an incredibly aesthetic mountain range, especially in morning light, and the sawtoothed wall of peaks constantly attracted our gaze across the valley. (more…)


The sunny side

New Zealand’s west coast is a captivating collection of lonely beaches,  emerald rainforest, soggy sheep, and impressive glaciated peaks (when the sun’s out).

On this day we woke to wind-driven rain, but thankfully the Southern Alps often cast a formidable rain shadow on their leeward lowlands. After a brief walk in the woods we drove east in hopes of emerging on the sunny side.

You’ll also notice we finally have a friend!  Our good friend Alex from Vancouver, BC will be joining us for the rest of our time in New Zealand.


A jeweled coast

In New Zealand a change of scenery is never far away. A few hours drive or even a few bends in the road can bring an abrupt, and usually striking, change in surroundings.

Within a day of leaving the frosty and rugged Canterbury high country, we found ourselves enveloped in the lush, near-tropical beauty of Abel Tasman National Park.  A 52-kilometer long trail follows the playful curve of coastline, and it’s deservedly and famously popular.

Early spring proved a perfect time to walk the trail—warm enough that it feels summery, but early enough that the crowds were absent. And we also chose to walk sections of the track in a couple day hikes, craftily avoiding burdensome overnight packs and the $35 nightly fee to stay in the plush huts along the way.  Sometimes, the lazy way is the best way.

It only took a few minutes to reach our first of many spectacular views. The water is a tropical aquamarine, perfectly complemented by the cool, green forest spilling down to the waters edge. Golden beaches and rocky islets dot the coastline, all perfectly framed at thoughtfully cut viewpoints.

It’s clear that the parks service rakes in a pretty penny in hut fees.  The trail is perfectly drained, graded and maintained. Wooden bridges span even the tiniest trickle of water and freshly painted signs mark every minor point of interest. It made for quick miles and an easily enjoyable walk.

Te Pukatea beach provided a gorgeous spot to rest at the farthest point of our hike. Nate clambered up some boulders at the edge of the beach, while I relaxed on the smooth sand, as yellow as cornmeal. (more…)


Skiing and Speight’s: a week in the high country

High in the Southern Alps, a lonely road through Arthur’s Pass winds its way between collections of sharp mountains and along ice-cold braided rivers.

The high country here is starkly beautiful, the sort of place that’s breathtaking to drive through but doesn’t necessarily make you want to pack up and move there. Jagged peaks dominate the scene, the snow at their tops giving way to dry grasses, scree, and gnarled beeches covered in black lichen. A few sheep stations are tucked between the mountains, the sheep extra wooly and hardy looking.  It’s all very epic.

Several ski fields occupy the Craigieburn Range, an eastern outlier from the core of the Alps. New Zealand’s club fields have a no-frills reputation, where big terrain and a lack of crowds supercede the need for plush amenities. Rope tows and t-bars are the only upward offerings, often with a walk to get to them. Surprisingly rough single-lane dirt access roads cling to the edges of the mountainsides, with just a few spindly bushes between you and an unpleasant drop should your tires stray from the road. It made our local Vermont benchmark for a crusty ski area— Mad River Glen— look like Vail.

We started off at Cragieburn Valley ski club, which is well known for abundant and steep terrain, looking for a single ride to the top to begin a day of out-of-bounds touring.  Though we’d emailed to confirm the existence of the $15 ticket, a grumpy staff member was determined to turn us away, saying we weren’t “touring properly,” would “abuse the privilege,” and even insinuating that we’d steal their rope tow equipment. So, we tried out nearby Mt. Cheeseman, which had a huge array of backcountry options, friendly and accommodating staff, $10 single rides, and the exciting side bonus of many nickname opportunities.

After a t-bar ride to the summit, it was an easy ridgeline hike to the entrance of several long chutes and the snowy Tarn Basin. There was enough here to keep us occupied for days.

Tarn Basin.

One chute in particular caught our eye.  Spilling into a river valley off the sunny north side of the ski field, it quickly became our mission to ski it. We spent a day consulting with topo maps and the friendly ski patrol to determine the route out, and headed to the top the next morning.

The line was long, sufficiently steep, and held soft spring snow for 2,000 vertical feet. (more…)


A place to call home

New Zealand. The words evoke images of razor-topped mountains, vivid green hills dotted with wooly sheep, and clear, cold waters bathing the coast of the island nation. Our entire trip so far has been something of a prelude to nine months of living and working in New Zealand, and we couldn’t be more pleased to have arrived at our last destination.

Entering the Marlborough Sounds on the massive Interislander ferry.

Mount Ngauruhoe on the north island, the setting for Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings.

It is quite amazing how fast you can recreate the comforts of your old life across the world. One week after arriving, we found ourselves the proud owners of a car, jobs, and, a few days later, an apartment in the small south island town of Blenheim.

Blenheim is in the heart of New Zealand’s famous Marlborough wine region, and the valley surrounding the town is carpeted with seemingly infinite rows of grape vines— precisely why we are here. Contractors employ hundreds of migrant workers each winter to prepare the vineyards for the coming growing season, and it only took a few phone calls and a not-so-rigorous interview to land a job for the next six weeks.

Our day is supposed to begin at 7 a.m., but thankfully our boss is Thai and possesses the same loose sense of time that we became familiar with during long days of bus travel in Southeast Asia. We show up at 7:45, with the sun just rising and frost still coating the grass and vines. Then, for the next eight or nine hours we trim and wrap vines around wires and tie them in place with twist ties. It’s riveting.

Really though, after getting past the first few days of aching hands and the shock of having to work again, it’s not so bad. All the work is done right at standing height and requires none of the acrobatics and heavy lifting of orange picking. Now into our second week, we can keep up with the rest of our co-workers and spend the day listening to music or audiobooks. Plus, on the odd occasion we look up from the vines, the sight of green hills and snow-capped mountains provides the splendid reminder that we are in New Zealand.

Best yet, once “home time” is called we return to our small but warm, fully furnished and extremely un-tent-like apartment. Unlocking a front door, watching TV re-runs, cooking in a kitchen, sitting on a couch and sleeping in a bed are still incredibly exciting experiences. We have a home— at least for six weeks— and it is wonderful.

Television has been especially fascinating, partially because we haven’t watched in a very long time, and partially because it is amusingly foreign. For the last four days straight the top new stories have been the riots in London, the self-destruction of the United States, and— equally important, it seems— the price of All Blacks rugby jerseys in retail stores. One channel even interviewed the Prime Minister to get his comment on the subject. Yes, the Rugby World Cup is hosted here next month, and naturally New Zealand is beside itself with excitement, but we cannot help but laugh. Just wait until they start playing!

Blenheim itself is a no-frills town, but has everything we need plus a few nice touches.  A river lined with a beautiful park and walkway skirts around the town center, and a movie theater plays half-price movies on Tuesdays— HP7P2 in 3D!  (more…)