A Travellerspoint blog

Isolated.

very close to Antarctica...kind of.

storm 48 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

What an up and down week, admittedly, there is nothing worse than the prospect of getting seriously ill while on the road. I am happy to say that my proactive approach to feeling somewhat ill has more or less saved me from getting real sick. Right now I feel fine and I question whether the local doctor in Dunedin properly diagnosed me with Shingles, but I'll keep taking the meds and resting and hope its all in the past.

In terms of the what and the where, I left Dunedin and basically traveled to the middle of nowhere, or as they call it down here, Southland. We stayed two nights in Catlins National forest which is home to more sea lions, dolphins, and penguins then people. Most of the terrain down here is relatively flat with bluffs and woodland extending out from the coast. Its more reminiscent of Britain then New Zealand. The weather has also reminded me of Britain, cold, damp, and rainy. We kept things rather tame the through the Catlins, leaving the paved road to adventure down unpaved roads and walking relatively short (20-40 min) paths to waterfalls or coastal bays.

Accomodations have been amazing in the sense that we have had mountain and waterfront lodges to ourselves. There are very few people down here, and during this season there is no one here. Several of the towns are nothing more than a gas station, a basic general store, and maybe a bar. The locals down here veer toward that backwoods, buck-toothed, horror movie vibe. I do not regret coming down here as the isolation itself is inherently cool, but it wont be the most memorable place.

Yesterday we walked through some pasture land to reach the southern most point in the entire country, Slope Point. The point is a rather wind blown, extremely rocky area with nothing but water separating you from Antarctica. From there we settled into Invercargill, the southern most city, for the night.

Today, I am in what may be one of the coolest places of the trip so far - Stewart Island. In size its a bit bigger than Martha's Vineyard, but its no where near as developed. There are about 300 full year residents on the island, and this time of year, I would guess there are about 100 people here. The town of Oban supplies the port, a bar, a grocery store, several fish n chips joints, and an amazing backpackers lodge that I am currently writing in.

Its actually warmer here as the island is a temperate rainforest. There is little to do other than hike, as my car is on the mainland and there are no roads here. We'll be here for two nights before heading to the west coast and fjordland for a week.

In terms of general timing, this is just about the end of my wandering period. I will be in fjordland and then the ski towns of queenstown and wanaka for almost all of august before flying out the first weekend of september to Australia. I am excited to finally call a region my home for the month as its been a whirlwind of driving and moving around the last 3 weeks.

Tonight Im heading to the bar for a bowl of some famous chowder, the owner of the lodge and I hung out a bit this afternoon and he gifted me a few pounds of venison to cook up for dinner tonight. Of random note, deer hunting is quite popular here, but the stranger thing is that deer farming is also an industry, seeing deer in gated herds is kinda strange.

Posted by efstein 20:53 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Whales, a new travel buddy, and shingles

Its cold and Im sick.

semi-overcast 31 °F

So I left Blenheim feeling well rested and happy to be out of the backpackers lodges, but I also felt a bit weird, somewhat fatigued for no good reason. I drove a rather boring 100 kilometers to the east coast, for the geographic buffs, the east coast is the South Pacific, closest city is Santiago, Chile. My destination was the marine wildlife area of the Kaikoura Peninsula. The last 30 kilometers was along the water and featured the largest seal colony in all of New Zealand and one of the largest in the world. Hundreds and hundreds of seals all along the water and at times within 5 feet of the foot paths that led to the viewing areas. In the end, seals do not really care about us and after enough viewing are rather boring animals to look at.

I had a reservation to go sperm whale watching for 12:45 and made it to the dock with half an hour to spare. Kaikoura is just another ridiculously scenic area, as the Kaikoura mountain range rises less than 10 kilometers from the ocean into snow covered craggy peaks. The water itself is world reknowned for the Kaikoura shelf. Basically, less than one kilometer from the shore line, the ocean floor drops over 4,000 feet, something that is almost unheard of worldwide and is the sole factor for the wealth of sea life right of the coast. The whale watch was cool enough, if a bit overpriced. We got to see two sperm whales, and the boat captain deftly moves the boat around the whale so that the diving picture of the whales tail can be shot with the Kaikoura mountains in the background...check my pics for what I am talking about.

I got back from the whale watch, got some food and settled into a rather junky hostel for a quiet night. The next morning I was set to meet my travel partner Ryan in the city of Christchurch about 200 kilometers to my south. The drive went well and I met Ryan and continued another 200 kilometers south to his current hometown, the city of Dunedin. As you can see, lots of driving.

We pulled into Dunedin with the idea of spending the weekend preparing for two weeks in the real no-man's land of the south island - Catlin's National Park, Stewart Island, and the Fjordland. Basically, these places are some of the last inhabited, most pristine natural settings in the country. Its nice to have someone to go with, as we are going truly into the middle of nowhere. With that agenda, I pulled into Dunedin and went directly to the emergency room. I had developed some sort of welts on the side of my face and was experiencing a malaise with mild elements of vertigo. Not good, not good at all. The diagnosis was shingles, an illness my cousin just dealt with and something I was neither happy to deal with nor overly concerned about. As of now, I probably feel the worst I have felt since I left home. A bit feverish, and tired. We are still setting off tomorrow for the Catlins. I have my meds. and I promise not to do anything more than sit buy the woodfires and read until I feel better.

On a final note, I am now in winter. Dunedin's temperatures are hovering around freezing at night and ice and sleet have fallen in the city the last day. The killer with this country is that the homes have no insulation. Why, I do not know, as they spend 3 months of the year in freezing temperatures. What this means is that you can never really get warm. Some places have wood fires and everyone congregates in this rooms during the evening hours, but at night, you are in bed and the room temps are falling. Is it terrible? No, not really, but it does give some credence to the locals' bitching and moaning over winter.

Posted by efstein 02:36 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Wine, more hikes, and a lot of driving.

my first week in the south island

all seasons in one day 50 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

So I'll put this in perspective a bit, I drove 1,500 km on the North Island in 18 days, I have now driven 1,200 km in the south island in 7 days. After my first 24 hours in Nelson and my day up in Abel Tasman national park I vowed to take it easy, as my body was hurting. Well I woke up on Wednesday to clear skies and warm temperatures, which naturally meant that I could not really take it easy. I ended up staying In Nelson and doing two relatively painless hikes around the coastline. I went out to the bars that evening in search of some life and found a public poker game which was one of the funniest evenings I have had in awhile; and yes I took some money off the locals.

I'll say this Nelson is probably the best place to live in New Zealand. Several travelers had previously gushed over the town and I can see why. Its got everything - wine country, beautiful coastline, amazing national parks, and a wide array of arts and galleries. Admittedly, the town has that pretentious undertone that comes with money, artists, and good scenery. I should also add that the town seemed more like a 40s-60s type place, not much youth or young professional opportunities from what I saw. I did see lots of law offices, and many real estate law offices, I got as close as the entryway to read the bios of some of the attorneys with the faint idea of going in to inquire about life as an attorney down here, but then I saw a reflection of myself in the window and realized I would probably would have been escorted out by the police as a vagrant trespasser.

The following day I vowed to finally escape Nelson. I know that should I want to, I'll have time in August to come back here if I want to cut my ski days down. I woke up and called one of the smallest vineyards in the areas in hopes of making a private reservation to visit a micro-winery rather than deal with the revolving door feel of the big wineries, something I already experienced in Napa Valley. I struck gold. I called Kina Beach Vineyards on a whim. After several rings, a guy named Dave picked up and told me to swing by in two hours. I killed some time by driving through the inland areas around Nelson. The place is full on wine country with vineyards everywhere. Due to the climate this area of New Zealand is known for its Sauv Blancs, Chardonnays, and Pinot Noirs, the hardier cabs and merlot grapes dont do well here. Over at Kina Beach, I found a dirt road and a hand marked wooden sign pointing me to a villa type house nestled about 4 acres from the beach. Dave, the owner met me and sat me down in his tasting area. We talked for awhile, he told me how he spent 35 years in the corporate world before going to viticulture school, and spending two years looking for the perfect 20 acres to start a vineyard. The results are pretty impressive. Since planting the vines in 1998 and bottling his first season in 2001, Dave and his wife have won annual awards for their Chardonnay and Pino Noir, both of which I tasted and feigned as much glowing praise as I could without sounding dumb. I mean the wine was great, but I just did not know exactly how to compliment it. Point is, I got a great hour with a guy who is living his dream and breathing his own blood and sweat into his wines, which he rightly describes as bold renditions of two often bland wines.

From the winery I hightailed it 150 kilometers to another wine center, the small town of Blenheim. Blenheim is in the middle of Marlborough County, which is the area that put New Zealand wines on the map. Blenheim is a shit town, filled with migrant grape pickers and b & b tourists thinking they are getting a bang for their buck by going to 400 acre vineyards. Not my cup of tea, I was in Blenheim to stay with a couple I had met on the road a few weeks ago. Mike and Kendy are a married couple, both 30, who are living and working in Blenheim. They invited me to dinner and to stay in their home, which for all purposes was a really nice time. We talked a lot about the difference in American and Kiwi culture and ate a great meal. Now I will say that they are both born again christians. Did I get any jesus talk? No. Did I get any faith based Christianity schpeils? No. I did get a good dose of Iran/muslim conspiracy theories and a few odd semi-racist comments, but nothing that I couldnt shrug off. In the morning, I got what I had assumed the whole time. Mike was a semi-pro golfer with a professional drinking problem. His now wife laid down the law and Mike turned from the bottle to Christ. Suffice to say, he forced me to take the bottle of Pino Noir I bought for him back.....how you live in wine country and don't drink wine boggles my mind.

As I have more to write....check the next post to see update for the past few days.

Posted by efstein 02:10 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Leaving Wellington and heading to the South Island

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

I spent all weekend hanging around the central parts of Wellington. Its a very compact city and within a day I had more or less walked through most of the city area. The outer neighborhoods are similar to those in L.A. or San Francisco as they rise immediately through gorges and small hills. The inner city is a mix of apartments and office buildings, with very few skyscrapers. There are hundreds of restaurants and cafes, and on both weekend nights I found some lively bars and clubs, the latter of which stay open into the morning. I made it to a place called the Matterhorn, a famous watering hole that reminded me of various west village type bars and restaurants and for a moment I missed NYC, for Wellington's many cool spots did remind of the big city. I ate out a few too many times and paid what amounted to NYC prices, so its not really cheap here. Sunday was gray and cold so I took what I was told is an obligatory pass through the National Museum, Te Papa. It reminded me of a more modern version of the Natural History Museum in NY. The focus was on New Zealand life and I would definitely recommend it as it helped explain various aspects of the country.

On Monday I woke up at 645 with hopes of dropping my rental car off and making the 845 ferry to the South Island. The car dropoff point was hard to find and consequently I missed the ferry by minutes. This led to a lazy morning in Wellington cafes before I returned for the afternoon ferry, almost missing that one as well because of sheer stupidity.
The ferry ride is, itself, a recommended tourist activity as it passes through Cook Strait and travels the 92 kilometers through the Marlborough Sound before arriving at the sleepy port town of Picton. The sun came out as we entered the Sound so I was jumping up every few moments to snap the obligatory picture.

Ace Car Rentals have been amazing so far. I got off the ferry retrieved my checked bags and met Doug who already had my car waiting. I was the only customer from the looks of it, which again exemplifies the virtue of travelling during the off-season. With the car in hand, I made my way northwest to the town of Nelson some 120 miles away. Nelson is a thriving rich person town of about 45,000 which serves as both the central town in the south island's wine country but also the jumping off point to two highly regarded national parks.

I awoke again at 645 today to drive another 40 miles up the coast to the base of the Abel Tasman National Park. I have heard uniform praise for the park which is considered by Kiwi-standards to be one of the most scenic areas in the entire country. The park runs about 50 miles up the coast line, there are no roads into the park. The only way to get in is to walk which requires about 4 overnights to get up the entire coast, to kayak, or to take a watertaxi. For daytrippers like myself, the watertaxi is obligatory. The taxi takes you about 20 miles up the coastline in the morning and you can then walk as far as you can back to the beginning of the park. During summer there are ample campgrounds, the beaches are congested and the bays along the coast are filled with boats and kayaks. This time of year, our watertaxi had about 10 people and those were the only people I saw all day.

Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and I was hiking through overcast, drizzly skies. The real kicker is that the water in the park is known for its clarity, its that turquoise water that you can see right through, but without clear skies, the whole scene was naturally tempered. My camera was more disappointed then I was, as I did get to see a good stretch of the coastal track. I hiked about 13 miles, and was picked up around 330 and taxied back to my car. I am admittedly a bit worn down right now. In part its the 30 miles of hiking Ive done in the past two weeks, but the late nights in Wellington did not help.

Rather than go further into no-man's land I decided to return to Nelson tonight and head into wine country for two days before going whale watching off the east coast on Friday. Basically, my knees are a both a bit gimpy and I am putting myself on the four day disabled list.

Some general thoughts that kept me thinking while on the trail today:

1. Best travel items I brought -- all quick dry clothing, my rather boyish black plastic Timex watch that I bought, and a high beam flashlight.

2. Travel reading -- You all must think Im reading On The Road or some "finding yourself garbage". Not quite, I'm hooked, as I have been many times before on a John Le Carre cold war spy novel. His novels always bridge the gap between solid writing and page turners, and I have always been a glutton for cold war fiction.

3. Biggest unforseen expense - batteries. I'm going through what amounts to one AA battery per day. I shouldve brought two of those twenty packs from Costco, but that seemed a bit ridiculous during the planning stage of the trip.

4. On 'being cold' -- I'll just say this, if you lived in the northeast for any extended period of time and you do not bitch and moan about the cold, hell perhaps you even enjoy northeastern winters then you have tougher skin then just about everyone who lives in Britain, Ireland, Australia, and certainly New Zealand. The moaning I here down here for 50 degree winters is priceless. The Canadians do not whine, they share knowing grins with me. Is it cold here? No its not, its raw at times, and it will be colder when I get to the Southern Alps, but even that is what I would call a standard winter for the northeast - highs in the mid 30s to low 40s....lows never below 20. I get locals telling me I picked the coldest winter ever to come here, I suppose it would be better a few degrees warmer, but I honestly dont care.

5. New Zealand music -- there is none. I will never be telling you all about the cultural mecca that is New Zealand. There hometown rockers are generally weak ( I have found a few exceptions) and their propensity to import rather terrible music from abroad is also a bit, how I shall I saw it, frustrating. Thank god for my 120 gig ipod.

Posted by efstein 17:08 Archived in New Zealand Comments (1)

Tongariro National Park and Wellington

finishing off the North Island in style

overcast 53 °F
View Summer - Fall 2009 on efstein's travel map.

I have 15 minutes of free internet so this might not be the best composition ever.
I am presently in the New Zealand capital city of Wellington. The city has done a terrible thing because it is the first place that actually makes me think I could live here permanently. Up until now the New Zealand cities have been disappointing. Even the larger villages end up strewn with fast food outlets and sprawl, the fact is that no one comes down here for the urban culture or should I say the lack thereof. Wellington is an otherwise bright spot in the rather dull cities of New Zealand. You can just tell walking through the streets that the occupants here have the self-assured attitude that their town is the best one in the country. The coffee is world-reknowned and apart from that the underground music, arts, and restaurant scenes seem lively. I'll be here until Monday negotiating the return of my rental car, and the ferry trip to the South Island thereby ending an 18 day trip of the North.

Apart from Wellington, the other highlight of the North Island was Tongariro National Park which is right in the middle of the island. The park boasts 3 active volcanoes, one of which Mt. Ngauruhoe served as Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies. Two ski mountains plus hundreds of miles of hiking, kayaking, and fishing provided me with ample activities. I used the mountain village of Turangi as my base. A small town with a few cafes, a gas station, and a grocery store. The weather was variable upon my arrival, and I spent day one white water rafting down the Tongariro river, more or less, because I did not know what else to do. The rapids were rather tame, fun of course, but not that intense.

On day two, I encountered some snow showers in the higher elevation where I did a small hike at the base of Mt. Ruepehu the volcano that exploded in 1995.

As the day came to a close I ventured into the local (DOC) to inquire about trail conditions on the Tongariro Crossing. The crossing is a 19 kilometer hike/climb over Mt. Doom and through a mountain crater before passing along the side of Mt. Tongariro and depositing you on the other side of the park. In winter its a bit technical with crampons and ice axe required. There is no point in doing the hike unless you have clear weather, as the views are what you climb for. So I found out that guides would be doing the hike on Thursday, I just needed to decide if the weather would make it worthwhile.

At 10 pm that night we had clear skies, so I set the alarm clock for 645 AM and prepared my day bag for the crossing. All in all, the crossing was fantastic. You end up getting in between the three volcanoes which provide an alpine setting reminiscent of something you'd expect to find in the Himalayas or Andes -- all above tree line, all white as we had just received about 20 centimeters of snow in the past few days, and well above the clouds so you could imagine that I was trigger happy with my camera. The climb itself is over 2400 feet in gain, but over about 10 kilometers making it less strenuous. The climb made its way to the base of Mt. Doom, ascended about 800 feet before coming to a mountain plateau that we crossed. At this point you are directly between Mt. Doom and Mt. Tongariro and you need to climb up to the spine/ridge that connects the to mountains. It was the most challenging/steep part of the climb. Once on the ridge we had reached the tallest point of the climb at 1900 meters or 6,200 feet. The landscape was all white and we had views to almost both coastlines. We did not need our crampons as the fresh snow pack made for a solid base for climbing. The final 8 or so kilometers was the descent around the north face of Mt. Tongariro and into the mountain woods below. The coolest aspect of the trip was that my group of about 15 climbers and 2 guides was the first group to set out on the crossing since the storm, meaing we were making fresh tracks. We alternated the lead climber as the front person was more or less stepping into 6-10 inches of fresh snow. A lot of fun, and quite tiring, but in the end its the obvious highlight of the north island.

I am excited for the south island and think 2 and half weeks was just about the right amount of time for the north. I missed a few things and could have easily spent another two weeks up here, but Im very happy with the places I did go -- Coromandel Peninsula, Raglan (beach town), Tongariro National Park, and Wellington.

The south island is a bit rushed as I need to get to the city of Christchurch by next Friday to meet my travel buddy Ryan. This means I am rushing through wine country in the north. I have a feeling that I will loop back around to get a second helping of this area just before I leave New Zealand in late August. But generally the next week will be a lot of wine and some whale watching off the coast. Im going to probably nurse my old man knees for a few days to get ready for the serious hiking I'll be doing later in the month.

Posted by efstein 00:48 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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