South Island Adventure Part I – The East Coast

As many of you know, I just got back from an amazing 13 day vacation trip on the south island of New Zealand with 7 other friends!  We literally toured the entire south island – as well as we could in only 13 days anyway.  We started by ferrying over from Wellington to Picton, driving down to Kaikora, then over to Lake Tekapo, down to Omaru and Dunedin, across to Queenstown and Te Anau, up to the Milford Sound, then all the way up to Greymouth, and finally through Arthur’s pass to Christchurch (see map).  Whaaaaat?  Trip of a lifetime!!

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Nice collage eh?

I thought long and hard about how to write about this trip here on the blog.  Our gang really was super fortunate, we spent a rather modest amount of money and got to do so much and see so much.  I already miss the south island – it was gorgeous, just awesome raw beauty around every turn.  Anyway, I finally decided to just split the trip into two blog posts.  If you want to know more, please ask!  I’ll be leaving a lot out, but I don’t want to bore you.  This post is dedicated to the east coast bit of our trip.

The ferry trip over was a highlight all on it’s own.  I’ve never been on a ferry quite like this one – it had a playground, a gift shop, a movie theater, a cafeteria, a bar, and seating areas that ranged from living-room style to tables and benches.  But better than all of that was the view over the bow as we neared our destination.  The ferry cuts across the Cook Straight, and then weaves between tiny islands until it reaches Picton.  This first glimpse of the south island was stunning!  Fisheries, interesting vegitation, houses hidden in the hills, bright blue water…  So cool.

When we got to Picton we had to pick up our rental cars straight away.  But instead of going to the company’s office and picking up a car like normal, our cars were parked in the parking lot with the keys hidden behind the license plate and our names on the dashboard.  After dealing with one of our car keys snapping in half, we started driving to Kaikora.

The peninsula walk in Kaikora

The peninsula walk in Kaikora

            Kaikora is a small beach town that is known for it’s marine wildlife.  Dolphins, whales and seals are plenty there, and Kaikora is located near a little peninsula that had magnificent trails up through the hills and beaches.  Our gang bunkered down with our friend, Priyanka, and her husband, Andrew, for 3 days.  The first full day we were in Kaikora was Easter, and we all decided to find a church to attend.  The one we found was a small little 2-room building perched at the foot of cow fields that were surrounded by mountains.  The church itself was built in the Maori meeting-house style.  The service was simple, but we were so glad we went – especially Brittany and I.  The rest of our days in Kaikora were spent hiking the peninsula, almost getting attacked by seals hiding in the bushes, eating “dark chocolate raspberry chili” ice cream, and shopping for souvenirs. 

DSCF0837Well, I thought Kaikora was the most beautiful place on earth until we got to Lake Tekapo!  Let me correct myself, Lake turquiouse-flawless-water-stunning-mountains-cute-city-vintage-church-amazing-nightsky-pebble-beached Tekapo.  With a year round population of  about 300 people, this little town on the edge of Lake Tekapo doesn’t have much to offer except it’s perfect location.  Even the hostel we stayed at was super cool!  We hiked and stargazed and whatnot, but honestly, only pictures can come close to describing this place.  Brittany kept saying it was her dream place; “it exists!  I didn’t think it existed!”

Look at how blue it is!

Look at how blue it is!

Well, I thought we’d seen the coolest wildlife ever until we got to Omaru and Dunedin!  New Zealand has three native species of penguins.  Two of them are major tourist attractions in the Omaru and Dunedin area: the larger Yellow-Eyed Penguin, and the tiny Little Blue Penguin.  Although the Little Blue Penguin colony was monopolized, we did get to see Yellow-Eyed Penguins coming ashore.

Can you see him?

Can you see him?

One of the penguins was swimming and diving through the water before he came ashore and it was fantastic to watch!  He was like a little torpedo jumping through the water.  And besides the penguins, we also got to glimpse Albatross in Dunedin.  Although the Albatross colony was blocked off for those who didn’t want to pay, flying Albatross were free to see.  Albatross, if you are unfamiliar with them, are the largest flying bird alive today.  They are roughly the size of your average penguin, and have a wingspan of 7 feet!  They look a bit like sea gulls, but they are simply massive.

In between all of this sight-seeing we spent a lot of time driving here and there, playing gin rummy, eating PB&J, visiting the Speight’s brewery, and moving in and out of various hostels and motels.  We had a blast on this first half of our vacation!  One evening we were chilling in our hostel when we overheard a (very loud) Dutch girl trying to make pancakes.  I swear she was poking a frying pan filled with goop for about half an hour before she admitted defeat by the pancake!  “Can anyone make pancake?  It’s so hard, I cannot make pancake!”  The thing was like charred to the pan.  Then she added salt and pepper, cause that makes everything better.  We were all cracking up – I don’t think she noticed though because the kitchen/lounge area was not very quiet and she was paying more attention to her friends and here pancake remains.  One of the girls in our group, Katie, was about to make the poor girl a pancake, but Ms. Pancake decided to eat what was left of her charred salt-and-pepper pan-chip.  I’m not sure why I included this in this week’s blog post, but it was pretty funny :)  Needless to say, she did not have pancakes the next morning.

That's Mt. Cook in the background!  Did I forget to mention we went to Mt. Cook?

That’s Mt. Cook in the background! Did I forget to mention we went to Mt. Cook?

Trip stats:

Number of days: 7

Milage driven: approx. 1500 k

Photos taken: 402

Alcoholic beverages consumed: 5

Souvenirs bought: 4

Games of gin rummy played: over 20

Enjoy the week!

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Adventures of Mud and Food

This past week has been a busy and jumbled but fun mess of school, friends, good food, and mud.

Easter break is coming up soon.  We will all be off on our two-week long vacations by this Saturday.  And naturally, all of our classes have scheduled their mid-semester tests for the first few days we get back from break.  So everyone is slowly starting to worry about what they’re supposed to know for all these tests, but studying in New Zealand turns out to be pretty hard sometimes.  The weather’s just too good all the time.

The other day I was working away like a good student when my flat mate, Moses from Zimbabwe, came over to talk.  I was working on a paper for “Political Anthropology,” so I asked him what everyone else in the world thought about Americans.  He’s traveled quite a bit, and is interested in politics, so I was curious to see what he’d say.  What makes America so special?  Why are we such a big deal?  Well it started with him smiling and taking a deep breath, leaning back in his chair, and saying, “well I will give you the politically correct version…” From there we had a super interesting nearly-hour-long talk…if you’re interested I’d be happy to tell you about it someday.  But basically he said America has too big of a worldwide presence and works too hard to assimilate other cultures.  We are a “bully” in the eyes of some and the go-to moneyman for problem solving to others.  And America is a big deal because of the movie industry…  Hmm.

Filtering mud samples to look for bugs

Filtering mud samples to look for bugs

This last weekend Jake and I were committed to staying home.  In a way we lucked out, because our “Fauna of New Zealand” class has a lab component, but the lab hardly ever meets.  In fact it really only meets twice to test us, and twice to prep us for field trips or assignments, and twice for the actual  field trips.  But both of those field trips happened this weekend.  The first one took us to an Estuary at Foxton beach to survey the area’s invertebrate diversity.  We sat in the mud for three hours, digging at the mud, carrying buckets of water through the mud, getting pinched by crabs in the mud, and picking out bugs from the mud.  Fun.  The next day was actually quite a lot better – we went to a wildlife reserve called Nga Manu.  We saw a lot of New Zealand birds there, as well as an eel feeding and captive Tuatara and Kiwis.

We also had to survey the surface of the mud

We also had to survey the surface of the mud

A tuatara!  The only reptile of it's order alive on earth.  Only found in New Zealand.  Described by some as a "living dinosaur," although that's not entirely accurate.

A tuatara! The only reptile of it’s order alive on earth. Only found in New Zealand. Described by some as a “living dinosaur,” although that’s not entirely accurate.

Donnie feeding the ducks

Donnie feeding the ducks

The guy feeding the eels...some of these eels were absolutely HUGE!  One was about 50 years old.

The guy feeding the eels…some of these eels were absolutely HUGE! One was about 50 years old.

In other news, this week brought some new foods into my life – some really good, and some REALLY bad…

Mmm Burgerfuel...

Mmm Burgerfuel…

Burgerfuel is this fancy-burger joint here that is renowned for their kumara fries.  Apparently New Zealanders found it appalling that I didn’t know what kumara fries were, so if you are as naïve as I was: kumara is a root like the potatoes, but is orange like the sweet potato, but is not sweet, and is denser than both kinds of potatoes.  And they can be made into delicious fries.  The burgers at bugerfuel were super good too – they had all kinds of options with everything from mango to peppers to peanut butter and “salad” being put on the burger.

Jake and I also bought ourselves a box of “Wheat Bix” so we could start having proper, genuine New Zealand breakfasts.  Imagine a granola bar-sized block of dehydrated cornflakes with slightly less taste.  When you pour milk over them they instantaneously take on the consistency of 10-minute old soggy cereal.  But, with a bit of sugar, cinnamon, and banana slices Wheat Bix are surprisingly good.  Weird, but good.

As for the REALLY bad food…if you ever see “Marmalite” or “Veggimite” in the stores and think it looks like an interesting kind of peanut butter or something – STAY AWAY.  Fermented rotten beef-bouillon spread.  That’s what it tastes like.  Nasty stuff.

The three boxes surrounding me...they're not all mine!  I promise.

The three boxes surrounding me…they’re not all mine! I promise.

On a semi-food related note, our friend group discovered that Pac’ and Save was having a “beer and wine” sale last week.  Ok, not really food related at all.  But we boosted the beer company, Tui’s, revenue and got many strange looks from our fellow bus-riders.  And it was worth it!

Well Happy (very belated) St. Patty’s day everyone!  There may not be another blog post for a while due to my Easter Break travel plans, and limited access to Internet and computers, but I can promise the next post will be worth the wait!  Easter break will see Jake, Brittany, Megan, Katie, Tom, Christy, occasionally Donny, and I to the South Island for 13 days.  Stay tuned for tales of sea kayaking with dolphins in the Milford sound, horseback riding through the fiord lands, beach days in Kaikoura, penguin and other wildlife sight-seeing in Dunedin, glimpsing the glaciers, and much, much more.

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I’m Going on an Adventure!

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Welcome to Hobbiton.  Everything here is miniature – like it should be, and yet it still catches you off guard.  The hobbit holes look perfect; they could be a hundred years old judging by the stained, weathered, and rustic look.

ImageFrom up on the hills all you can see is the gardens and the chimney’s sprouting out of the ground, and the occasional little widow peeking through a hillside.  But from a different angle you can see tons of the little trademark colored round doors with the knobs in the middle.  Rocking chairs, ladders, buckets, planting pots, mats, blankets, and other trinkets adorn the front yards.  The gardens are dainty and gorgeous; the rolling hills have an unreal beauty.

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The Party Tree! I don’t know half of you as well as I should and like less than half of you half as well as you deserve…

The party tree is a huge mass of gnarled branches that tower and spread an impressive distance.  Everything is here as it should be – even the laundry is hanging out to dry.  And then you walk towards the Green Dragon through a wooded walkway, to pretty lake, across a cute medieval-looking stone bridge, past the watermill.

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The bar in the Green Dragon

The Green Dragon is so cool!  Straight out of a fairy tale.  No place could be more “tavern” like.  Everything wooden and worn, carvings on the walls and pillars and doors and windows, clay mugs that look hand made, delicious beer, hardy yummy food.  One side of the tavern looks like a living room, complete with pillows and leather chairs.  The other side is where you can drink a hobbit-sized pint with your mates and be merry.  Welcome to Hobbiton, the artistic detail they put into the place is real; yes it’s a movie set, but it’s intricate and impressive!  Not a single one of our group was disappointed.

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Bagend

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“I’m going on an adventure” says young Billbo Baggins as he runs after Gandalf and the Dwarves

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Our group at lake Taupo on our trip home from Hobbiton

 

Riding in the back of the car :)  We fit 6 people in our friend's car...one person had to sit in the back.

Riding in the back of the car :) We fit 6 people in our friend’s car…one person had to sit in the back.

 

If you ever happen to find yourself in the Matamata neighborhood, ignore the crazy people dressed up like elves and screaming about how all their dreams are coming true and that they’re going to break down and cry – go to Hobbiton, the tour is worth it!

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Care for a hot potato?

Since the trip to Mordor, nothing particularly new or exciting has happened (except for Brittany who went kayaking last weekend).  But that doesn’t mean we all haven’t been having fun! 

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The hurricanes – the local team we watched on TV

I’ve begun to accumulate quite a bit of knowledge about stuff here in New Zealand.  There was this game on TV the other day, for instance, with a lot of guys in short-shorts and some guys running around in bright pink.  It seemed to be an intricate game of hot potato where random wrestling matches would break out now and then.  And players were allowed to kick the hot potato if they wanted, and if the potato went out of bounds someone would throw it down the isle of flying hot-potato-players.  Rugby, I think they called it.

 

But mostly, since we don’t have a meal plan up at Atawhai (the flats where Jake, Brittany, a whole bunch of our friends, and I live) we spend a lot of time thinging about food and worrying about getting it.  Therefore we’ve noticed some peculiarities with food here in New Zealand.  Meat pies truly are the thing here.  Meat pies of every kind.  Meat pies of every size.  Fresh meat pies, frozen meat pies, make-your-own meat pies.  Mini meat pies for tea.

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Just a few meat pie options. This picture was taken at a food stand in a gas station…not even a grocery store or bakery or anything. A gas station.

 

Kiwis also have an apparent obsession with sausages.  They are always prepared the same – grilled sausages put into a slice of white bread (and eaten like a hotdog) with “tomato sauce” because ketchup is rare here, and cooked onions.  They eat sausages ALL THE TIME here.  At first I was stoked to get free food on campus when events were happening, but eventually I caught on…it’s only free ’cause you weak Americans can only handle so many sausages before you get sick of them…

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We have feral cats in Atawhai. Most of them are scared of people, but this one is friendly and cute so we give him cream every now and then. He has nothing to do with anything in this post but I thought he deserved attention anyway.

 

As I said in a past post, we often have large “group dinners” up at Atawhai to make life easier, cheaper, and more fun.  But our most recent group dinner has been the best so far without doubt.  Jake and I were hoping to go out on a dinner date Saturday, but unfortunately we realized at about 6pm that the last bus to town left two and a half hours previously.  I was sorely disappointed, and seriously craving Chinese or Indian food, so our friends decided to throw together a Chinese-Indian-American dinner.  Prianka, our pre-vet Indian neighbor, made a delicious eggplant curry dish with rice.  Robin whipped out his awesome Chinese cooking skills and made a chicken and potato dish, as well as an egg dish with some sort of grass-like Chinese vegetable.  My flat made garlic green beans, steamed carrots and potatoes, and more rice (because you can never have enough).  I haven’t even said the best part yet – we managed to scrape up enough dishes, cups, silverware, plastic bowels and Tupperware to SET THE TABLE!  A rare occasion for us.  The awesome, delicious dinner was followed by homemade apple crisp and vanilla ice cream. 

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The view of a fern tree from below

 

This weekend holds the potential of going to Hobbiton…we’ll see what happens!  P.S.  Our spring break/Easter break trip is gearing up to be awesome – we’ve been planning it like crazy lately.

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One does not simply…walk into Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Yes, I am an American tourist.  Yes, I do want to climb Mt. Doom and crack geeky “Lord of the Rings” jokes.  And yes, I did look for little golden rings when I reached the top of the volcano (didn’t see any if you were curious).

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The morning sun lighting up the very beginning of our hike. The volcano we climbed is directly to the right of the sun.

Last weekend definitely takes the cake (so far) of most exciting thing I’ve done while in New Zealand.  Being that our campus is only a 3 hour drive or so from Tongariro National Park and one of the most active volcanoes in the world – the 7,156 ft high (2287 m) Mount Ngauruhoe that has about a 45° angle slope made of loose lava rock that give way underneath foot and come tumbling down onto unsuspecting climbers below – why wouldn’t we enjoy the beautiful hike and climb the volcano?

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Me standing with Mt. Doom in the background

Polina, Tom, Jake and Brittany climbing the volcano.

Polina, Donnie, Jake and Brittany climbing the volcano.

Some fellow climbers admiring the view from the top.  Hard work to get there!

Some fellow climbers admiring the view from the top. Hard work to get there!

Really, though, climbing Mt. Doom and hiking through part of the Tongariro Crossing was incredible.  Eight of us from Palmy booked tickets for a bus, a hostel room, and the shuttle to the trailhead and set out on our adventure Saturday morning.  We were picked up for the hike at about 6:45am on Sunday, and began walking around 7:30.  The whole hike (and climb) took about 9 hours total – to say we were tired and sore afterwards is a gross understatement!  The climb up the volcano took about 2 hours all on it’s own, and the descent (or random tumbling fall, rather) from the volcano took about half an hour.  We were careful, I promise.  The remaining six and a half hours were spent admiring views from the peak of Mt. Ngauruhoe, hiking through a crater, and tramping through the beautiful landscape that separated the volcanoes from the trailhead.

The red crater, emerald lakes, blue lake, and plateau as viewed from the top

The red crater, emerald lakes, blue lake, and plateau as viewed from the top

Mt. Ngauruhoe is a young volcano, and is part of a collection of volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park.  The nearby Mount Ruapehu is a huge, impressive mountain that is apparently a very popular skiing location during the winter months.  And there is also the namesake of the park, Mount Tongariro.  The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is an amazing hike that goes through the Mangatepopo Valley, skirts Mout Ngauruhoe and goes into the Red Crater, climbs up a ridge to the stunning Emerald lakes and Blue lakes.  Because of our Mt. Doom detour, however, we only made it through the Southern Crater before turning back.  Nevertheless the park is a huge attraction that brings in tons of hikers all year round.

A view of the crater - the inside of the volcano.  Off in the distance is Mt. Ruapehu.

A view of the crater – the inside of the volcano. Off in the distance is Mt. Ruapehu.

Jake and Brittany hiking down INTO the volcano.  They put their hands up agains the vents in the crater.

Jake and Brittany hiking down IN TO the volcano. They put their hands up against the vents in the crater.

The whole weekend was exactly what Jake, Brittany, our friends, and I have been waiting for.  Brittany and I, and Jake to some degree, are still coping with life in New Zealand, the changes we have to make, the absence of our Roanoke friends, driving on the wrong side of the road, and the prices of beer (just kidding…kind of).  But during the hike we all had moments when we were thinking, “now, THIS is New Zealand!”  Every bit of the weekend was awesome, except maybe the bedbugs in the hostel, and I would do it again if I could.

So now…where’s the next stop?

It's beautiful here

It’s beautiful here

P.S.  As I am writing this, cute little birds are flying and hopping around inside the library as if they owned the place.  How cool is that :)

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