Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Kickin' It Kiwi: Day 7 and 8: Mt. Cook

One week down and three more to go! Today, we woke up in Queenstown and fell asleep in Mt. Cook, but how we got there is the real story. This was a perfect day:

After waking up and hearing all the terrible things I slept through in the hostel room, we blew that popcicle stand. Slou and I spent the morning shopping for souvenirs and seeing real kiwis, as I described in the last post. Kiwis are endangered in New Zealand. There are only arout 70,000 left in the wild; their main preditor being cats and dogs. They are funny little creatures with long beaks and no arms. I'm not sure how the don't tumble forward at all times. The birdlife center has switched their kiwis' clocks, so they are up during the day. They are notcturnal, so you have to go into a dark hut to see them as they bounce around foraging for food. I have no photos because they  kiwis' eyes are too sensitive to risk people accidently using flash. Please pause here to Googe pics if you so desire. 

After leaving Queenstown, we drove north to Wanaka. And by north I mean both directionally and geographically. Switchback roads led to magnificent views like this:

On the other side of the road, we passed meadows of sheep and fields of lupin. I rolled the window down while Slou drove and felt like I was in a TV commercial. We were alone on the road and isolated between two mountains, gliding along the one-lane highway. I basked in the warm sun on my arms, and stared dreamily at the flowers. This is one of my favorite drives of the trip so far. 

Wanaka is a beautiful town on a lake, with a picturesque beach and mountain scape views. We ate a picnic lunch under a tree on the beach and then moved on. 

We continued our trek north to Mt. Cook. About the time Slou woke up (I was driving at this point), we came across Lake Pukaki. I'll never be able to describe the exact color blue of the water, but I'll give it a shot. First, it helps to know this:

So, the blue we were seeing is this Rayleigh Scattering version (remember when we learned about that in the Blue Mountains?)! It looked gaterade. Or superman flavored ice cream. But brighter. Like a blue Icee. Electric blue. "Go put your feet in!" I said to Slou. "But what if this is some kind of toxic government experiement and I die?" 

Spoiler alert: Slou doesn't die. 

So, we stood down here on the shoreline for about thirty minutes saying "What the crap?!" over and over. This blue is unreal. I still can't believe it occurs naturally. 

Ugh, and these pics don't capture it even a little bit. 


It's a very strange feeling when I stop and realize the variety of settings we're moving through. Big city, lakes, beaches, oceans, mountains. We're everywhere! 

When we arrived at our hostel for the night, the receptionist informs us that we've been upgraded to a private room and we'll even have our own beds. After the disaster of the previous night, we nearly hug her. The room is about as great as a dirty Motel 6, but to us it's the Shangri-La. Oh, and it also offers this view:

We hike to Kea Point that night as the sun is setting. The pathway to the point convinces me I'm a beautiful princess in a fairly tale escaping from the evil queen. Jagged rocks along the path, thorny bushes straight out of Sleeping Beauty, and snowy mountains (yup, you best believe we sang Let It Go on the way into the region). 

We take some quiet solo time to reflect at the point, and on our hike back down discuss our lists of gratitude. It's one of nice lessons from camp that we both still use on a regular basis. It's a really magically evening that words and photos will never accurately capture.

The next morning, after a glorious night of sleep, we hike out to Hooker Valley. The mountains are blanketed in fog and the hike takes us across three swing bridges. 

The water closer to the glacier here is grey since the sediments is churned within the water. The sun comes out as we hike back out and provides some nice views of Mt. Cook once more. We stop by the Blue Lakes and glimpse views of the Tasman Glacier before we're off! 

Far off in the distance in this photo, the glacier sits at the edge of the lake. A massive chunk of the ice crashed into the water as we were sitting there. It sounded like thunder. 

On our way to Kaikoura, we stop at Lake Tekapo for lunch. Currently, we're approaching Christchurch and you best believe we're having a Miley Ciley/T. Swift car dance party. It'll be my turn to drive soon, so for now, I say "see ya, suckers!"

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Kickin' It Kiwi: Day 6 and 7: Queenstown and Milford Sound

Day 6 and 7: Queenstown and Milford Sound

Hello New Zealand! Gosh, where do I even begin? When people say that New Zealand will take your breath away, they aren't wrong. 

Flying into Queenstown takes you over the mountains and through two large peaks. You feel too close to both peaks but somehow, the airport pops up just in time. 

We rented our car--that's right! we're driving a car! on the other side of the road!--and headed into Queenstown. By now both our jaws were dragging along the road behind us. The land juts out from the ground into magnificent soft rolls covered in pine trees and meadows. We dropped off our stuff at the hostel and headed out to find some dinner at a cute pub right on the harbour. Queenstown is fantastic. Little shops, a beach, a harbour full of boats to ride, and tons of young travelers! After dinner we grabbed some ice cream and a bottle of New Zealand white and enjoyed the sunset on the beach. The youngsters all around us were playing music, smoking, playing in the water, and enjoying their youth. We imagined this is what the 60's were like. "I just, I just want the music to stop," Slou said as she passed me the bottle. "We might be too old for this scene," I answered. The party vibe scene moved to the bars after the alcohol ban started at ten pm, so we went inside to plan the rest of our trip. 

The next morning, we rose early and jumped in the car to start the four-hour drive to Milford Sound. The drive took us through jaw dropping lanscapes of rolling green meadows full of sheep and lambs, bumbling streams along the side of the road, and mountain vistas to rival the best of the Rockies. 

We stopped in Te Anau, a smaller lake town, for lunch and then continued on our way. As you approach Milford, the road gets windy and most spectacular. Slou had me pull over to see this field of flowers--lupins, my new fav. We spent about twenty minutes here, soaking in the fresh air, crisp stream, and vast mountain views. Yes, this is a real place, the photos are taken on my iPhone 6s, and they are not filtered:

Little did we know it'd keep getting better. Before entering the tunnel, we pulled off the road for this photo op:

If you can't quite tell, those are waterfalls streaming down from snowmelt on a peak too high to even see. The snow pile at the bottom and the tourists climbing upon it give you a sense of scale. 

We wind down the switchbacks on the other side of the tunnel and finally reach the visitor center. On board our boat, we set out through the rough waters to cruise the sound. Milford is the most famous, though certainly not the only sound, in the Fiordland National Park. 

The post cards don't do this place justice! We  had a clear, sunny day on the sound, which apparently is quite rare, so we were able to see all the sights. Our captain took us around the sound, getting us up close and personal to some native fur seals who were napping on the rocks, chasing a rarely seen pod of dusky dolphins, and following some bottle-nosed dolphins who were playing along the haul of another tour boat. He took us under the water fall and even out to the sound's opening, where the Tasman Sea crashes into the Southern Pacific. 

The grandeur of the landscape really takes hold of your soul in this place. So pristine. So untouched. So native. An experience I won't soon forget. 

We followed Milford road home, stopping along the way to see some suggested landscapes, such as this chasm:

And a personal favorite: the 45th Latitude South marker. Some of you will understand the magnitude of this moment. 

We spent one more night in Queenstown (in a twelve-person room where terrible things happened in the middle of the night), and spent the next morning shopping for souvenirs, and seeing real kiwis at the Birdlife consevation center! 

Then, it was off to Mt. Cook! But that's for another post. 

Odyssey in Oz: Day 5: Bondi and Manly Beaches

Day 4: Bondi and Manly beach

Merry Christmas from down under! 

Today is finally Christmas, and while you people at home might have enjoyed a bit of warm temperatures, Slou and I worked on stealing all the sun rays in the sky. They aren't kidding when they say the sun is stronger down here. 

We knew we wanted to spend the day at the beach, and after two days of non-stop action, we welcomed a day of lounging. 

Bondi beach is quite the place. Think the energy of South Beach in Miami mixed with Southern California's laid back charm. Somehow, the two meld together to form one incredible atmosphere. 

We dipped our toes into the water while watching hundreds of people in Santa hats and bikinis sun themselves. The beach was crowded, but somehow still felt incredibly spacious. Maybe it's the wide open ocean in front of you or the sweeping hills surounding you, but the beach still felt isolated and secretive. 

There are shops along the edge of town and then a large green lawn, where more people were throwing the frisbee, tanning, and picnicking. Slou and I picnicked on the beach while our skin turned to fried chicken. Then, we walked the southern edge to see the view along the bluffs. The wind and dramatic cuts of sandstone made me feel like I was on the edge of the world, which I guess technically I was. 

We bussed back to town that afternoon and hopped a ferry up to Manly Beach. The ferry ride was really beautiful because you get to see the other end of the harbour and feel the waves coming in from the open sea. Manly Beach had a completely different vibe from Bondi, and I can see why the locals like it better. Fewer people, giant surfing waves, and a calmer atmosphere. We sat for a bit while the sun lowered behind us and the surfers caught the waves. 

There are small hints of Christmas around, such as these decorations in front of this governtment building. It's a very subtle and very strange sight, though. 

That night, we made ourselves some ravioli and cheered to a very merry Christmas! 

Sydney has been truely lovely and I would definitely recommend it to anyone wanting to get a taste of Australia. It has all the big city attractions and accomodations. They cater to tourists very well and were very welcoming. Our hostel was also really wonderful--clean, quiet, and easy to base from. We've had a blast getting to know the city and are now look forward to seeing New Zealand! 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Odyssey in Oz: Day 3 and 4: The Taronga Zoo and Blue Mountains

On Day three, Slou and I headed out to the Taronga Zoo! The zoo is on the other side of the harbour, so we finally got to enjoy a ferry ride! 

We got seats up top, which meant we had great views of the Opera House and Bridge as we rode to the zoo. Once we arrived, we took the gondola to the top of the hill and started our way down. The zoo has all your regular zoo animals--giraffes, elephants  (who put on a show for us!), and exotic birds, but they also have a whole section devoted to native Australian animals! Kangaroos, koalas (more on this later), and seals! 

This is Slou wearing her zebra shirt with her new zebra friends. It only rained for a few minutes, but we were still able to enjoy the experience. By the time we got home and had dinner, we were exhausted. We were in bed by about 10pm. #We'reOld

The next day, we took a tour of the Blue Mountains! The Blue Mounatins are a national park located about two hours outside Sydney, and you get there from the nearby towns of Leura and Katoomba. They get their name due to a natural phenomena called Rayleigh Scattering (the same reason the sky is blue: the moisture from the eucalyptus filter the sunlight, allowing only blue to seep through). 

Dave, our bus driver and tour guide extrordinaire, saved us the two front seats, so we had excellent views the whole day! Our first stop was Featherdale Wildlife Park, where we got to cuddle a koala. 

Let me repeat that: WE GOT TO CUDDLE A KOALA!!!!

This was truely one of the best experiences of my life. Ronnie the Koala was so fuzzy! Like a wooly plush toy you just want to squeeze and squeeze! They let you come right up and pet his rump while he chews some eucalyptus and your heart explodes. Seriously. Dear God, thanks for inventing koalas. Love, all mankind. 

(Slou thought they smelled like old cheese. And that Ronnie was going to eat her face. This is not the last of Slou's rediculousness. Ironically enough, Slou was Ronnie's last straw and he demanded to be taken back to his dressing room--I mean, enclosure--after this pic was taken. #CelebrityProblems)

For a couple dollars, we bought some kangaroo food and let Kangas eat out of our hand. They too are fuzzy and adorable and also really interested in bypassing the kangaroo food and trying to grab the sugar cone out of your hand. They know what's up. 

There was also this guy. He was real--I saw him blink. Let's hope I don't run into any of his friends. 

After a stop to view the Three Sisters landmark, the focal point of the Blue Mountains, we hit up a country club for a pretty bad lunch where I decided the ketchup tastes weird. So far, all the food on this side of the world is fairly normal, but just kinda weird. 

We leave lunch and make one more stop to see the Jamison Valley, the most famous of the valleys within the Blue Mountains, before the first "ride." I say "ride" because the term is used quite loosely. The first ride is a skylink car that glides between the valley ridges. There's a beautiful waterfall on one side and what looks like a rainforest made out of broccoli below. Dave secretly told us to stand in the middle, elevated section of the car. During the glide, the floor melts away so you're standing on clear glass looking straight down into the rainforest! 

The next ride is the cable car which takes us down into the forest itself. We get more splended views of the valley, and a nice Asian tourist took this pic of us. Thanks for getting the background, sir!

Dave then leads us through the rainforest on a twenty-minute walk. Slou and I fall back and enjoy the nature a bit on our own. The trees are richly green and the vines hanging down suggest that Tarzan will be swinging by any moment. 

There are leftover pieces of mining equipment hiding in the forest, which we're sure Dave is droning on about with the group. We catch up with them in time to make this moment happen outside an old mining vent. 

The last ride is the most famous of all. The miners had built a train to haul coal out of the forest way back in the day, and now it's used for deporting tourists from the rainforest. The seats are tilted backward, because the train will climb at a 52 degree incline-the steepest train incline in the world! We knew this ahead of time, but were clearly not prepared. Thanks, Dave, for capturing this moment of pure gold. 

Tomorrow will be beach day, so for now, it's time for bed! (Is it really only 10pm again?)