A Travellerspoint blog

Observations and updates I

sunny 45 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

I have had a lot of things swirling through my head lately. Not surprisingly the fact that my pace has all but screached to a halt these past two weeks has left me, for the first time in months, with time to just think. Since I lost my job in mid-March I can point to many factors that kind of made the lead up to the trip a whirlwind of issues. Once on the road I really did not stop to breathe for six weeks. Of course I took my time, and during the non-stop adventure of each day it felt as though I was relaxing and taking the whole experience in, but now that I have lived in Wanaka for two weeks I can say that only now have I truly stopped both physically and mentally to the point where I can sit back and ponder how I got from point A to here.

With that said, the stopping is a strange phenomenon. Ultimately, it has made me thankful that the once proposed idea of living in New Zealand and working here never came to fruition. Its not that I could not live here, its just that the stationary aspect of 'living' rather than 'traveling', now that I have experienced both, is not really what I was prepared to do. I am happy to have days here to rest and do nothing, days to just sit by the lake and take in the whole place. Perhaps it would be different if I was employed in some capacity down here but ultimately, the daily adventure that is backpacking, the planning, pushing yourself to see more and go further, brings about a natural high that the stationary life of working and living in one place, even if that place is 14,000 miles from home, fails to do. I am already itching to move on, and have picked up the guide book and begun planning the next stage of the journey to fill the free time I have here in Wanaka.

Onto some observations and updates about living down here.

1. The skiing[u] Oh boy. I guess I am thankful that I have had years and years of ski trips dampered by weather, years of impending snow storms ruined by a nice coating of rain, years of mid-February thaws to coincide with my week in Colorado because it makes what has happened down here much easier to laugh away as a simple fact all skiers and boarders acknowledge - you can't control the weather. If you recall I did have about 4 days down here that rivaled in various ways the best conditions I had ever had (kinda). About a week after my arrival, the freezing level rose to about 2000 meters (not good) and a storm rolled in dumping about 14 inches at the top of Treble Cone and rain at the base. For the next day or so the conditions were tolerable with wet, heavy snow that had yet to freeze meaning you could basically just bomb down everything on the mountain as it was soft, almost too soft. Unfortunately, immediately following this storm, the entire area saw a warm up that the locals say normally does not occur until September. Think highs in the mid to upper 50s lows in the 40s. The effect this has on a purely above-treeline mountain is it de-thaws the entire base. More than 2/3rds of the mountain has been shut for the last week due to extremely high avalanche concern. Basically one wrong turn on the base could trigger the entire winter's snowfall careening down the mountain. Already 3 heli-skiers have died in the area due to avalanches, so the warm up is dangerous and just shitty. All of what I would deem the interesting and challenging parts of Treble Cone have been closed. I am taking it all in stride. We had a cold front move in tonight and the entire mountain was briefly open all morning today. The snow is strange, in parts its a sugary and fun but heavy, in other parts its a crust that is impossible to turn in. I would be pissed if I was here for a two week ski vacation, but the nice thing about long term travel is that hiccups like this can never fully take the wind out of one's sails. And as I previously mentioned, I have quite a bit of experience with shit weather on ski trips....I'm still going to get in more than 10 ski days in the middle of August.

2. Chairlift conversations and Hitchhiking[u]. Both activities have provided the most fertile grounds for good conversations with locals and other vacationers down here. On the lifts I see largely Australian tourists, but its a total mix of Europeans, Canadians and astonishingly a few Americans as well. In fact Wanaka has a high concentration of Americans, mostly west coast, doing the double winter thing and heading back to the Rockies so ski back home in a few months. The only real negative on hitching is that it costs me about 30 minutes in the morning to hike over to the spot and wait a few minutes for a ride. The idea of giving out rides here is linked both to an eco-consciousness and to a general local townie friendliness. Locals feel as though they are supporting the 'green' culture of the area by helping people up the mountain and thereby reducing emissions. Vacationers pick up more for the conversation. Either way, the activity has netted me conversations with an array of personalities - chefs, financial analysts, mountain guides, lawyers, retirees, and on and on, just a different cross section of society each day.

I'l add more to the next update....

Posted by efstein 16:35 Archived in New Zealand Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Skiing the Southern Alps

living in Wanaka, NZ

View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

Its been awhile since my last post which is strange considering how much more free time I have had lately. I moved on from the bustle, affluence, and alcohol driven night life of Queenstown last week. Queenstown is a great holiday destination, but its only a good place to get stuck in if you want to go bungy jumping every day and down cheap tequila every night. About 70 miles north from Queenstown is Wanaka (accent on the first a), and is the place I chose to spend about a third of my over all time in New Zealand, roughly 3 weeks.

Wanaka sits on the shores of lake Wanaka, the fourth largest lake in New Zealand (about 30 square miles). It also sits within the boundaries of Mt. Aspiring National Park which is home to hundreds of miles of hiking, back country skiing and two of the premier skiing areas on the south island - Cardrona and Treble Cone. The town is about 3 square blocks which are dotted primarily with real estate agents, ski shops, cafes, and lowkey restaurants. The locals have kept the town generally quaint, despite the town's obvious reliance on tourism. There is money here, but its not flashy. The town center runs right up to the lake and one can snake their way through the entire town center in about 20 minutes. The locals are all outdoors driven and the central theme is one of getting out into the mountains or biking, hiking around the lake.

I am staying in the Matterhorn Lodge, which needs a moments discussion. The thing is, Wanaka, is famous for having some of the most pleasant backpackers' accomodations in the entire country. Several lodges receive some of the highest rankings in the country. The Matterhorn is not one of them. If you go to a general review site for backpackers you come to stuff like this, yikes, the reviews are really terrible, and I rightly booked a few nights at the Matterhorn only because the more famous places are hard to get into during peak season. Well since I arrived I have cancelled all of my other bookings at the more famous hostels because of what has happened at the Matterhorn. Only 4 weeks before I arrived a couple took over for the previous managers. The place is now a warm, friendly, lodge catering to older backpackers, long term seasonal employees, and well, it has a newly installed hot tub. At $15 US a night, I am no longer in a hurry to leave. Their are communal dinners and I have met several people who will remain with me the entire time I am in Wanaka, plus I have a few ski partners which is nice.

As for the skiing, I'll start with the good. Treble Cone is, as I was told repeatedly by the locals, the largest and most challenging of all the ski mountains on the south island. I arrived on the heals of 85 centimeters of snow and was told that the conditions were not only best of the season, but arguably the best in a few seasons. Indeed the three days I have skied have netted me several amazing runs with deep untouched snow. I have had to work for it as Treble Cone's back country, its best, hardest and usually untouched areas require hiking. On my first day I hiked twice and received two runs in untouched 8-12 inches of snow. These areas had been closed due to avalanche control, and I was fortunate to be skiing on the day they were opened. So all in all, I have been very lucky and have had a great time at Treble Cone. The lifts are fast, and the relative lack of vertical - about 2,000 feet means that you can tire yourself out quickly....also most of the runs are ungroomed, so the terrain is a mixture of bumps, chutes, and wind blown runs. The snow was great, but quickly got a bit harder so the skiing is better in the afternoon when temperatures warm up to the upper 30s. Its not cold here at all, Ive been skiing in a base layer, fleece, and rain jacket, which serves as my unfashionable outer layer.

I basically space out my ski days so that I'll ski every other day. Days off are spent reading, writing, and relaxing. I know, a tough life I have chosen. I have found my favorite coffee shop, and really, its so warm in town that sitting outside is usually comfortable.

Now to qualify it all. The ski areas here are small, much smaller than you'd expect looking at the size of the mountains. The fact is that New Zealand really does not receive a lot of snow coverage, that is to say, its mountains reach about 6,000 -7,000 feet and the snow line is often as high as 4,000 feet. This means that the skiable vertical is quite small. Add to that the lack of infrastructure and you get Treble Cone, which as the largest mountain, is only accessible by a scary dirt road that switchbacks up to the mountain on a steep dirt road, and once at the mountain you have two lifts....just two. The mountain is all above tree line, so the runs are really not runs at all as much as areas as you can basically ski anywhere on the entire mountain. Yes, it is steep, perhaps as steep as Colorado and certainly steeper than most of Vermont, but when you have such wide bowls and a completely open mountain face it does not feel that steep for if you lose an edge or can't make a turn, you can bail out at anytime. The chutes and back country are difficult, but Aspen has proven itself a much harder mountain. The snow is more like east coast snow because of its higher water concentration. It rains in Wanaka and Treble Cone just barely beats out the rain snow line, so a powder day here is not like a powder day in Utah. There are many good skiers here and the terrain itself is not easy. That is to say, there are few groomed runs and the pitch to the entire mountain is what we'd deem a blue run in the states, beginners do not ski here. I have a ten day pass at TC, and am excited to continue to explore the mountain as it really is much better than most things back east and offers a new take on above tree line skiing, but I would never advise someone to travel here just to ski versus going to the western US or Canadian areas.

In other random notes, I have (hold your breath) hitch hiked every day to get to the mountain. I returned my car in Queenstown and have naturally felt limited without it. That being said, the hitch hiking routine here is amazing, with a line up in the morning in a specific area and extremely short waits. I have had rides up with the chief of police here in Wanaka, the local doctor, and several other friendly vacationers. Its been a great way to meet the locals, and despite the misgivings of most of my readers, its if not encouraged, a very reliable and accepted means to get to the mountains. Buses in town charge 30 dollars for the roundtrip which is essentially a rip off.

My knee makes me feel like an old man. I had a great ride down from TC with the town doctor who knew exactly what was wrong with me. Yes, the knee has held up great skiing as the stressed area is due to walking and apparently is mostly unaffected by the motions I make while skiing. It all basically has to do with me not stretching and just not resting it. I still am unsure about my ability to do long hikes, but I have little intention of doing any hiking. As long as I am able to ski, I am fine. Its true that hiking out of the back country has been difficult, but its easily the best part of skiing at Treble Cone, so with a knee brace, painkillers, and joint cream applications, I am making the best of it.

The road to Milford Sound which was closed for a week before I went there is now closed again and has been for several days due to an avalanche that dropped over 20 meters of snow over the access road. The few residents who lived at Milford, mainly to run the kayaking and tourist boats were air-lifted out. Just goes to show you that I was extremely lucky to get in there when I did.

As for the future, I have met a great couple at the Matterhorn who are living at Franz Joseph glacier which is up the west coast. I plan on visiting them and spending about 10 days at the end of the month to travel north along the west coast and then across the island to Christchurch. I fly to Sydney to meet Jess on September 5th (labor day weekend) in the states, and we will head up to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef areas of Queensland, Australia...the planning is in the works.

Posted by efstein 00:37 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Kepler Trail story.....and finally resting in Queenstown

rain 1 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

So after heading into Milford Sound we had about 3 days to kill in Fjordland National Park. Ryan, per the norm, was feeling ill and looking for various excuses to either leave and cut his travels short or alternatively lie in bed all day. I had in my head the idea that we should attempt to complete the full Kepler Trail, one of about four, famous 3-4 days overnight tramping hikes in the park. Basically all of the trails spend at least one day above the treeline, which, during the winter means you risk avalanches and need to have basic mountaineering skills. With the right partner and better weather I probably would have tried to do all of Kepler. But with a forecast of variable rain/snow and the fact that I'd be hiking solo, I set out with the intention of summiting Mt. Luxmore, the highest point on the trail, sleeping overnight in Luxmore Hut, and climbing back down the following day.

I should add that while there is an element of skill required to do these hikes in the winter, the trails themselves are designed for the masses and just about anyone of moderate fitness could do them. The hike up the mountain was a gradual 2,600 foot climb, which was pretty exhausting with a 50lb pack on my back. I got up to the hut around 3pm in a slight rain/snow storm. I had brought with me too much clothing, along with a gas cooker, sleeping bag, and a good amount of food. The hut is actually quite nice, with a nice indoor wooden stove. In winter the only utilities we had were cold running water, so it was candles and a lot of boiling water for the evening. I shared the hut with three frenchmen, probably about my age. It was nice to have a few people there. The sunrise was amazing, but it was apparent that we had a storm rolling in, so I spent the hour hike from the hut back to the tree line in a small snow storm. In the end, it was great. I wanted to get a hike into some alpine territory and this definitely worked. It would have been nice to cross the ridgeline and complete the full circuit, but as it stood, I climbed 2,600 feet and hiked 28 kilometers and was fully exhausted when I got back to the car park.

The epilogue from the Kepler Trail is that my knee, still strained from the Tongariro Crossing three weeks ago, has not been well rested and was easily the most aggravated than its been after Kepler. The good thing is that I was heading for about 7-10 days of full rest. I threw Ryan a bone and consented to bypassing our final destination of Queenstown to head into the Central Otago valley for two days of yuppy wine tasting. Central Otago lies to the east of the Fjords and just over the southern alps ridgelines, so its a protected area that is best known for its Pino Noirs. I let Ryan run the show, we had some nice weather, and personally I needed a few days of sitting around eating and drinking rather than climbing mountains.

On Friday we rolled into Queenstown. For those who do not know, this was my original destination when New Zealand travels became a possibility. Its a little haven of a town nestled on the tip of the Southern Alps and along side Lake Wakatipu. Analogies can be drawn to the beauty of Lake Louise in Canada with the bustle and tourism wealth of Aspen, Colorado. Additionaly, Queenstown is the mecca of 'adventure' sports. Bungee jumping was invited here and the main streets are lined with booking offices where you can spend about $100 to sign up for bungee jumping, skydiving, canyoning, heli-skiing, mountain climbing, jetboating, or various other adreneline pushing activities. The town is fighting the good fight against over-development, but seems to be losing. Its a hodge podge of backpackers, mostly from the UK, and mostly here to party, mixed with vacationers from Australia and the far east who are here to ski and spend money. So you have the nightly bar scene mixed with some nice restaurants and a lot of pricey shopping areas. I have been content to read my books and sit in coffee houses as I am trying to figure out what the cost of ski gear and ski tickets will run me. We have had two significant snow storms in the mountains this week, and the ski hills look to be in good shape.

My plan is to switch towns and move to a place called Wanaka, which is about an hour from Queenstown and acts as the service town for two mountains that are considered the best in the area. Additionally, Queenstown is a bit of an amateur area. Its true I have yet to see any action on the mountains, but my sense is that most people in Queenstown go to the mountains as an introduction to mountain sports. Wanaka is much smaller and caters to a crowd that is here for the mountains and not the riff raff boozy nights of Queenstown. I will remain in Qtown for a few more days so as to force myself to rest in the bars, but then its off to Wanaka for about 3 weeks and hopefully about 10-15 days of skiing.

Posted by efstein 17:15 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)



storm 36 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

on my travel partner Ryan --

Lets start out with some humor, boy did I get myself into a bit of jam with this one. Mind you, I wanted a travel buddy, I had been on the road, alone, for 5 weeks, and the thought of a partner in crime, if only to defray the cost of the rental car seemed worthwhile. After 11 days on the road with him, I do not regret it. We get along just fine. He is more or less like a little brother. He is the type of person that needs the stars to align to get motivated to go out and experience the world. How many layers should I wear? What should I eat, my stomach doesnt feel great? I'm tired? I have a headache? Are we there yet? ----- yes, times that by 10 and you have a kid how would be better off sipping wine in france than backpacking through new zealand. I say that because he intended to go to europe but could not find appropriate work. He is not meant for New Zealand and he is actually leaving 3 months earlier than he planned.
He isn't all bad, he's a wine and beer wannabee expert and he plays in a band. He is a prep school educated, whiny jew from philadelphia, but he is just one character in my story and every store needs some characters, so I'm guiding him along with a mixture of disdain for his prevalent whines accompanied by motivation to get him moving.

on travelling alone -

So much to be said, but what I will say is that of all the decisions, the questions, the insecurities, and the fears that I had prior to booking my ticket, I never once thought that being alone, thousands of miles from my friends and family, was a reason not to go. I had friends come up to me, applaud my decision, and in the same breath tell me that they could never do it. Not for lack of finances or wanderlust, but because they could not be isolated and alone. Is the 'alone' factor, actually the non-factor I had assumed? My answer is a qualified yes. I have missed many people, Jess, my family, and a few close friends all come to mind. There have been countless moments I wish I could have shared with any number of you. And at times, the loneliness has, as it should, reared its ugly head. But.....am I functioning just fine, am I enjoying myself immensely, yes. Is the 'alone' aspect a factor, of course it is, and I am a fool for not realizing it before I left. Yet I made the right decision, I can handle myself just fine on my own, and while I do feel like a have a life that is waiting for me, a life that in some sense requires me to wander only so far and for so long, I am confident that 3 months, or 4 months is not too long.

on the backpacker circuit -

Germans; they are everywhere. I got into a conversation with a german about their social policies toward the university graduate crowd. Simply astonishing. I could be wrong, but basically Germany subsidizes both your education, but also your life after you graduate, meaning basically that you can get handouts from the German government akin to American unemployment benefits without ever having worked a day in your life.

where are the Americans -

I can go on forever about this. As my mind likes to wander, it often wanders back to all the decisions, all the pressure, and all the misgivings I had about taking this trip. I blame you. I blame all of you Americans. When I look at the way American society prioritizies life, I am left acknowledging the obvious benefits we stand to gain from our birth-school-work-(maybe live a little when you are 55-65)-death mentality. Sure its not so black and white, but generally, we are a nation of insurance hungry, fear of the future, worriers. If you give a 23 year old American $5,000 that he earned in his first job after school, the wise thing to do with that money is invest in a Roth IRA, get that retirement fund going early. You give a 23 year old German, a Canadian, a Aussie, a Kiwi, or any other westernized nation that cash and they book their round the world ticket and worry about the consequences later.
Do we have a higher standard of living then those nations I named? Yes. Is it worth it to basically sacrifice your 20s to prepare yourself for your 50s and 60s, you all know my answer.

In defense, I will say that Americans, unlike many international travelers, have the benefit of traveling in the states and seeing such a vast country that you could argue that you get the same experiences domestically as abroad. It would be a terrible argument, but I can understand why Irish people need to get out of their country, it's, from what I hear, rather mundane after awhile.

backpackers lodges -

No, I do not really feel well rested. Conversely, nor do I feel that backpackers lodges are a substandard way of travelling - a jab I often receive from my friends back home. You can't do what I am doing without these places, and I'd argue that there is no other way to see a country such as New Zealand other than driving around and staying in quiet towns. Could you double your nightly budget and stay in motels by yourself? Sure, you then have to eat out every night. You need the kitchen facilities. I see families staying in many of the quieter lodges, many places I have had rooms to myself. Is the communal aspect a bitter pill to swallow at times? Absolutely. So I then book myself into my own room, done and done. Its true that people are naturally distrustful of what they do not know, and I realize that in America we do not know backpackers/hostel accomodations. But they are not the devil folks.

Music down here -

Not as bad as originally thought. In the woods you have the weird allegience to death metal as all backwoods hicks tend to do, but in mainstream society the trend is to reggae and dub. I hear as much Beyonce and Eminem down here as I do local artists. If anything its amazing how strong the American influence is so far away. I was on the ferry to Stewart Island, literally 5 people on the thing, in the middle of nowhere, and MGMT's Electric Feel comes on the radio. For my parents and those not in the know, MGMT was an underground band from L.A. that struck it big about this time last year....just crazy to hear them on the radio down here.

Sleeping -

Nope, I dont need as much as most people apparently. Its now 10:52 at a semi-full backpackers lodge. I am the only person in the common area. People go to sleep earlier than me, and sleep later. Perhaps I'm still on lawyer time, which really only requires 6 hours of sleep a night, but I just do not feel great lying in a communal room for 9 hours. So I right non-sensical blogs instead.

Posted by efstein 03:30 Archived in New Zealand Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

and finally, into the southern alps

storm 36 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

Lots going on, big changes. In many ways, I am nearing a stage of completion. My rather innocuous plans to travel New Zealand were at all times anchored to the idea that I would locate myself in the southern alps to ski for at least a few weeks. Having now driven over 4,000 kilometers and devoted 6 weeks to touring both the north and south islands I approach my time in the alps with some hesitation. I could easily spend another 6 weeks touring both islands and I regret that I missed several noteworthy areas. At the same time, such additional travel would alter the feel of this trip, it would require me to find additional means of financing my travels, namely working. Over all, I am happy with how I spent my time so far. I could be accused of running around a little, especially these past two weeks. Now I am almost scared of the lack of movement I have planned for the next month. I will relocate to the town of Queenstown, NZ on Friday. If you can imagine hundreds of backpackers all heading to one town, Queenstown is that town. Its the adventure capital of the world, and it is the party capital of the south island during winter. I plan on relaxing there for a few nights before heading to the nearby ski village of Wanaka where I will base myself for at least two weeks. I have finally set my departure date for Labor Day weekend, when I will be flying to Sydney and onward to Cairns, Australia to meet Jess! Very excited about that.

As for the last few days, I will summarize Stewart Island as quickly as possible. Its the type of place that grabs you from the moment you step off the boat. With so few people (200-300), so few travellers (about 12), and really no tourism industry apart from a few water taxis and air planes to ferry people around the island, the island has remained relatively outside the realm of eco-tourism. New Zealand's own lack of personal riches has spared the island from becoming a Martha's Vineyard. Instead the island is 85% national park, the remaining 15% houses a mix of posh vacation homes and dilapidated cabins. The locals are fisherman and are friendly. The scenery was average, it was the isolation that was special.

From Stewart we drove about 150 kilometers across the southern coastline and up the west coast to Fjordland. Fjordland is home to the some of the most famous hikes in the New Zealand many of which skirt around Milford Sound, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. I spent today kayaking through the sound, it was my first real glimpse at fjords. The mountain heights were about 3,000 feet, rising straight out from water which was anywhere from 200-2000 feet deep, right below my kayak. It rains 240 days out of the year in the sound, and most people say that rain adds to the effect. I was happy with overcast skies and pockets of sun, the photography does not do it justice. It is an amazing place. Again, I somewhat marvel at how New Zealand either by way of lack of resources or by design has left its natural wonders alone. You can not get into Milford Sound without driving 120 kilometers from the closest town, and even then you need to either be prepared to hike a few days into the woods or pay for kayak or boat trip services. Much of why so much of the scenery here is special is largely due to its remoteness. A footnote to this idea is the benefit I have unknowingly gained by travelling in the off season. Today there were 16 people in the sound along with 2 tour boats. On a summers day there would 80 kayaks two dozen boats, and 400 planes flying in and out every day. This is only one example. The locals remark time and again how the roads are slower, the hiking paths are more crowded, and the boat tours are teaming in the summer. Balancing these benefits out are the problems with travelling in the off-season - many shopkeepers are on vacation, many nicer accomodations are closed, many outdoor activities such as multi-day hikes are unfeasible due to snowpack.
Like so many things its a double-edged sword, but the moments of tranquility that you get without crowds are hard to beat.

Thats the broad brush stroked story for now....

Im going to post another entry for random thoughts on travelling, travel partners, and additional new zealand thoughts.

Check my pictures, there should be new ones up.

Posted by efstein 03:02 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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