Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mount Doom, I conquer you!

Let me preface this by saying I’m not an experienced hiker. I could pretend that I’ve been a hiker my whole life, but let’s face it, I lived on the East Coast and a hike for me was walking down Market Street to get lunch. I lived a lame hiking existence.
So what was I thinking I would be able to do a 19km hike over Mount Doom? It was just a fleeting thought while I was talking to a girl from my hostel who had walked it the day before. And then a growing idea when I saw the weather forecast and saw it was going to be bright and warm the next day. A confirmed plan once I made my deposit for the shuttle, the shuttle that was picking me up at 5:40 am. I seriously must have lost my mind.
Of course this meant I had to watch a preview of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King so I knew exactly what I was getting into. Five other people from my hostel were going the next day, and we piled into the TV room, preparing ourselves for the hike with images of battles in Mordor. I was siked to go.
The break of dawn came and my room awoke with activity, dressing in layers and preparing meals. The shuttle came promptly at 5:40am and we were out the door and on our way. An hour later we were saying “Good Morning” to Mount Doom.

I started out at a good pace, just kept trucking along, making sure not to stumble on the rocks while getting blinded by the early morning sun my sunglasses couldn’t block. I stopped and took pictures, looked around at the landscape around me, and took in the beauty of just being there.
Then I hit the stairs. Those hundreds and hundreds of stairs, one after another, seemingly never ending. I vowed about half way up to add the Stairmaster to my exercise routine when I get home.

But I just kept moving on, watching others breeze right by like it was a walk in the park. Which, if we get technical, it was a park.

A while later I made the half-way point and the trail to head up Mount Tongariro Summit, aka Mount Doom. I looked at the sign, I looked at the trail, and then I sat and had a bit of lunch to think over the possibilities.
Did I really need to go up? Was the view going to be worth it? Would I last making the extra hour and half? In the end I finished my PB&J sandwich and decided I was going to be smart and continue on without going up, which I figured was a smart move seeing as this was my first real hike ever. Plus, I already had my picture that I was there.

The views of the top were something else, just expanses of open sky and fields below. I had to be careful I didn’t get too close to the edge, as I was worried about sliding down. But this did come to pass when I started to follow the trail down the summit onto the Emerald Lakes. 5 times I slide and landed on my bum, twice so hard I’m surprised I don’t have worse burses!
The walk is considered one of the best in New Zealand and I can understand why once I got further along the trail and into more lush landscape. The contrast from the start of the day, with barren ground and absolutely no wild life, to the end of the trail which finished in a rainforest, was truly something I had never experienced before. And though I did find some parts really trying and tough, I’m proud I pushed myself to keep on going…just like the Little Engine That Could!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Week in Wet Suits

I didn’t plan it this way, it really is just the way it happened to work out, but somehow I found myself in a wetsuit three separate days in a weeks’ time. I think this is what happens when you are traveling on a bus that plans out activities for you.

My second day on the Stray travel bus brought us into the town of Raglan, known as the best surf town in New Zealand, and I must say, I agree. We drove onto the lodge grounds, were told to hurry check in and change so that we could get in a land lesson about surfing before heading out to the beach and getting in the water. I had a lesson earlier this year, but still found myself nervous as I walked with the rest of the group up the hill to the lesson building. We were shown a 1, 2, 3, 4 stepping up method that had me thinking too much and I found that once we got out into the water I was worrying too much about my balance instead of just letting it happen. Though I did stand up and ride a couple waves, I do think the best thing about that day was the picture of me doing my best Pamela Anderson beach run.

Less than a week later I was back on the travel bus and onto the Waitomo Caves, which I think was the coolest thing to be in a wet suit for. The area has underground caves; systems I don’t even want to know how people figured out were there and set up the route visitors would take. Through the company, Waitomo Adventures, you were able to take different adventures, such as TumuTumu Toobing, Haggas Honking Holes, and Lost World. I went with the 8/10 Rambo rating Haggas Honking Holes, and even though I’ve never done any sort of abseiling or rock climbing, I felt I was up for the challenge. And again in a wet suit, I was making my way down with the group to caves, which we discovered were very much needed after saw the waves of steam rising from our bodies. This is not an adventure for people who are: scared of heights, fearful of water, timid of the dark, or in any way claustrophobic. I am stupid enough not to worry about any of those things and thus I found myself propelling down a 20 meter waterfall, crawling through a narrow tunnel in water up to my up to my wrist, and climbing my way up a rock wall. It was the most tiring thing I have done in that amount of time, but well worth it in the end when I climbed out on the ladder into the light and didn’t collapse on the ground due to exhaustion (mainly because I knew I wouldn’t have been able to make myself get back up and walk up the hill if I did).  

The next morning’s activity was white water rafting, and this time I had putting on the wet suit like a pro. This time it wasn’t needed as much as the first two times, I kinda just put it on because it was there and I could. Plus you never know when it will be better to wear one than not.

Rafting was so awesome, a rush I can’t wait to experience again! A quick tutorial and we were in the raft floating down a class 5 river. Our group picked it up fairly quickly, though I will say there were some scary points, such as when one girl found herself going head first into the river…and this was after we went over the 6 meter drop and had no one fall out.

All in all, it was a great and adventure packed week of wet suit fun. And even though the whole pull, tug, and shimmy of getting in and out of the suits is time consuming and a little embarrassing, I look forward to getting back out there and trying my hand at perfecting the fastest and least humiliating way of getting into a wet suit.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Stay to the left, stay to the left... Opps! Stay to the left!!

I had to get out of Auckland, out of the city, and wasn’t ready to get on a bus and travel with other people. So I hired a car (because that is what they call it here) and then worried for a couple days about driving on the wrong side of the road.
The night before I was to leave I packed back up and said bye to my new friends then was a little melancholy about leaving my hostel…which I thought was strange and bizarre, since just the day before I was saying how much I couldn’t wait to leave. But I had started to enjoy looking out my window and watching the cars drive along Queen Street and the people coming and going. It was my own private TV.
But Monday morning I was up and out waiting for my pick up from the car rental, nervous about not really knowing the driving rules and such. I ended up paying the extra insurance per day on my car because, one I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do, but mainly because I didn’t want them to charge my credit card and then have to pay the fee at the end of the month (I’m trying to be frugal with my limited funds at the moment…). So they packed my things in the car, I adjusted the seat and creeped out onto the road, then onto the SH1 north.
After about 30 minutes I was fine, driving along with everyone else out of the city and out into the country. What was I worrying about?
I stopped for coffee, at a park with a settler’s house, and a couple beaches along my way, never really getting lost, and only once did I pull to the wrong side of the road. All in all I think that day of driving was a success.
This one's for you Antoinette!

Ha! How cool and random?
It was a couple days later when I traveled to the west coast to the Kauri Forest that I ran into a bit of trouble.
Care free tracking through the Kauri forest...
I drove out of town with a little more than half a tank of gas, thinking it should be enough to get me by for the day, or I would stop and get more. No. One thing I learned about New Zealand and back roads is that there are not a lot of gas stations around. There I was after visiting the Kauri Forest, thinking I was driving the right road to get back to Piahia when the “I need gas” light blinks on. I started praying to God, blessing myself and telling him I will never leave town again without a full tank of gas if he would only help me find a station. I kept driving until I came across a truck picking up the mail on the side of the road and when I asked where the closet gas station was I was directed in the opposite direction of which I came. A few choice words popped into my head at that moment. If not for the kindness of this Kiwi woman and her children, who took pity on a stupid American girl, I am sure I would have had to walk quite a ways just to get to the closest station.

So the lesson I learned that day? Always know where your gas stations are, know how much and fast your car guzzles gas, and never leave a town without filling up if you plan to drive aways.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The British Empire lives on.

I have had two British roommates in my room at my hostel for the past three nights or so and they have been kind enough to tell me every word I pronounce wrong, tell me about shows I have never heard of, and basically make fun of my American ways. I put up with this because I find them genuinely delightful and funny and know they are only kidding around.

I thought they were kidding around when they told me about having a chocolate flake in their ice cream. No, they were not.

When I first heard of this, I confess, I was extremely confused and had no clue what they were talking about. Why would you put a single flake of chocolate in your ice cream? Wouldn't it be better to have it covered in a hard shell or with sprinkles?

Yes, it would. I am sad to say I was very disappointed with my chocolate flake. From the way my new friends were talking, it should have been the best thing I ever ate, with little bits of chocolate falling off as I ate. This did not happen and I found it didn't flavor the ice cream either. But some how this fade reached all through out the British Empire, which includes New Zealand, and I am learning is a very popular treat.

So popular, in fact, you can get a double flake or a double flake dipped!

I think I'll just stick to my boring American ways and go with dipped...or sprinkles!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Yes, Virginia, there is time travel.

You can’t die from re-circulated air. I am now living proof of that after spending 24 hours without any form of fresh outside air. I left Philadelphia around 12:30 in the afternoon Friday, after hanging around the airport for a couple hours, and proceed onto Chicago and then San Francisco. 12 hours after leaving home I boarded the plane for my Auckland, New Zealand flight. I was lucky and slept most of the way. 

13 hours later I walked through customs and out into the first fresh air I had in 24 hours. I also had completely passed from Friday into Sunday without a stop in Saturday.  

Arriving so early in the morning as I did, I wasn’t able to check into my hostel until later in the day. So I checked my bag, bought some Internet time (because internet is rarely free in New Zealand), and then headed out to the Domain to enjoy the fresh air. It was a little bit of a walk, or “a good stretch of the legs,” but worth it being outside. The Domain was also where the Auckland Museum is located.

This building holds a wide variety of exhibits from the Maori culture to natural history. I was impressed with the depth of information located in one building…even if I didn’t read a thing, it was still nice to view the objects and feel like I was learning a little about the locale area.

On my walk back I discovered the street was blocked, bandstands had been erected, and a mass of people were gathered on the street out in front of my hostel. I had no clue why they were there, but was happy to be able to cross the street and get into the building to check in. 

 I later learned it was the annual Santa Parade. Care to compare it to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?

After unloading my bag in my new room, I met up with my friend and headed for a tour around Auckland. That;s the Sky Tower behind me to the right, the tallest building in the southern hemisphere and about a block away from my hostel.

Since I did completely skip over Saturday and into Sunday, I was pretty tired and forced myself to stay out and about until after 7pm. It was still light out when I fell asleep, it being summer here and all, but I didn't care, I had been awake since 3am Auckland time and couldn't hold my eyes open another second.
Travel, no matter what kind, is very tiring...