Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rafting Pics

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Togs and Towels

So much for posting succinctly. Sorry about such a long previous post, but yesterday was quite spectacular. You'd think Sally and I did nothing but watch tv. Not true. Yesterday we drove from Rotorua to Taupo (just over an hour), checked into our beautiful hotel on New Zealand's largest lake (complete with geothermal heating), and then went for a Kiwi adventure on the Tongariro River.

Does whitewater rafting sound fun in 5 degree weather? Granted, it was 5 degrees Celsius, but hey, that's only about 40 degrees. In fact, as we drove up the mountain to get to the starting point for our rafting trip, we saw some snow on the ground. When we got out, it was raining. Yeah. Considering all that, it must have been a pretty amazing trip when Sally and I both agreed at the end that it was by far the most fun we've had yet!

Togs and towels. It's pretty hard to understand some Kiwis; sometimes you wonder whether we really speak the same language. Not only was the Rafting employee hard to understand on the phone as I was booking our trip, but coupled with the different Kiwi lingo, it was downright unintelligible. When I asked if we needed to bring anything, she said, "Just ya togs and towels." I said "Togs?" thinking that that would indicate my lack of understanding as to what "togs" were. Oh no, she just thought perhaps I misunderstood what she said, so she simply responded, "Yeah, togs." Okay. Luckily we found out from our hotel manager that togs are swim trunks, so we came ready.

After putting on a fleece, wetsuit, another fleece, a splash jacket, wool socks and wet boots, Sally and I were ready for the Tongariro River. Our guide Luke was awesome. He steered us through over 60 rapids, Class 3+, and also informed us of our Jurassic Park-like surroundings. The river was overshadowed by 100-foot high cliffs at times, and we saw waterfalls, tropical flora, and volcanic rocks, ash, and pumice from one of the world's largest volcanic eruptions about 1800 years ago that created Lake Taupo.

Crashing through the rapids was a lot of fun. It was definitely cold, but with all the rowing, we were also working up quite a sweat. The hands and feet were really the only part that suffered from the cold, wet environment, and after two hours, they were suffering. To their credit, our guides gave us a pick-me-up of hot chocolate about 2/3 of the way through, and that definitely helped.

With only about 5 rapids to go, the other boat in our group hit a hard rapid and crashed into the side of a rock, and out plopped one of their rowers. He made it back into the boat, but considering that it was about 40 degrees outside and the water was somewhere very near that temperature, it was painful just to watch him fall in.

Not to be outdone, and just for good measure, after successfully navigating 59 rapids, our boat made a Luke-patented front nose crash into a wall. (About four or five times, instead of turning, we simply crashed into the cliff face and then hit the rest of the rapid backwards--it was awesome). But this last one was different, instead of the nose folding in half and then pushing us back, we rode up the side of the cliff. This put Jay (the other front paddler) and me into the air and flailing. Jay fell directly into the water, and without any balance, and trying to hold on to my oar, I had no choice but prepare myself for the inevitable fall. I held my breath and plunged into the icy waters, and boy, it took the old breath away! Thankfully Sally was able to pull me back into the boat (thanks for that, babe!) after only about 20 seconds in the drink. Best of all, it was only about one more minute of rowing before we were at the end and only a 20 minute ride back to base camp.

Best of all, when we got back, we were treated to a natural thermal pool with hot water of about 105 degrees. It was the perfect way to bring some feeling back to the feet, and eventually to even get warm, and then sweaty. It was an amazing experience, and Sally and I were very happy with our guide and his Maori wife who just bought the company and were making every effort to run a first-rate operation. It was totally awesome. Sweet as.

What a day in NZ Sport(s)!

Saturday, August 16th was quite a day for Kiwi sporting enthusiasts. After several heartbreaking Olympic performances, including several 4th place finishes, the Kiwis finally struck gold (twice), and the All Blacks, the New Zealand National Rugby team took it to the South Africans 19-0 in a Tri-Nations match.

Let's start with the heartbreak. Certainly NBC back home has covered every Michael Phelps race, so perhaps you noticed that during the 200 meter butterfly, Phelps was in second place after 100 meters. The leader was none other than Moss Burmester from New Zealand. Moss was still in second at the 150 mark, but faded to 4th by the end of the race. It was heartbreaking to watch, especially considering he was the greatest swimming medal hope for the Kiwis. But the good news is that he set a Commonwealth record (not just for New Zealand, but for all of Great Britain and the former colonies), and smashed his personal best by over a full second.

The Equestrian team finished fifth. In rowing, Emma Twig failed to make her final after finishing fourth in the semi-final of her single sculls event. This was shocking and depressing as some thought a medal was clearly possible, and the finals a shoo-in. Then yesterday, Rob Waddell and Nathan Cohen finished fourth by just a second in their rowing event, and Kiwi nation hung their heads low. But the day had just begun.

Three-time world champ Mahe Drysdale, who's been battling a terrible stomach bug, and only barely made it to the finals in his rowing event (placing third), managed a bronze yesterday. It was a heroic effort just to make the podium (or where a podium would have been had Beijing provided one). Then Nathan Twaddle and George Bridgewater scored bronze in the rowing pairs event. Oh, and a Kiwi cyclist scored silver in men's pursuit (the weird indoor cycling event).

Striking gold. Valerie Vili, reigning world champ in women's shot put, won gold with a dominating performance. And finally, by the narrowest of margins, Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell repeated their gold medal performance from Athens in double sculls. The twin sisters were in second most of the race, but they beat the Germans by .01 in the 2000 meter race. It was amazing!

All in all, then, New Zealand went from 0 medals to 5 in one day. It was quite a turnaround for this sporting nation hungry for medals.

Sally and I thought we'd stay up for the Tri-Nations (NZ, Australia, South Africa) rugby match, but it didn't come on until 1:00 am NZ time because the match was held in South Africa (yeah, it's far from here, too). The true pride of a nation, the All Blacks are really like nothing in the US. No sport is so completely dominant, and no team is so good on an international level for the Kiwis. Everyone here is pretty much rugby-crazy, and the media have given tons of build-up coverage for last night's game, even during the Olympics. The All Blacks did not disappoint, shutting out South Africa on their home turf as one part of a great day for NZ sport. It's been quite an experience to be here and be a part of it!

Kia Ora, Aoteorea

Hey everyone!! Well it's definitely been an exciting few days, as you can tell from our lack of posting... So I guess I'll start back a few days ago...

We left Auckland super early (partly because we wanted to beat the traffic, mostly because our bodies still have not adjusted and we've been waking up naturally at about 5:45 in the morning everyday) and drove to Rotorua, which is where all the Maori stuff is. We arrived and immediately noticed the sulphur springs... it was pouring down rain and so nasty (36 degrees!). We walked around the springs for a while and ended up soaked. We found a cute little lunch place, the Fat Dog, and warmed up with some tea and seriously the weirdest pizza I've ever eaten. It didn't even look like a pizza. It had no sauce, this super thick crust, and they put dried, peeled beets on top... yes, beets. It actually didn't taste bad and at that point we were so cold and hungry, you could have given us just about anything and it would have tasted good.

That afternoon the weather cleared a bit and we headed out to go luging... you ride a gondola up to the top of this mini-mountain and you get in this little sled with wheels that steers like a bike and then ride it down this track to the bottom. It was seriously HILARIOUS and SO MUCH FUN!! We bought 3 rides down so we got to do the intermediate track once and the advanced track twice. Lee was much more aggressive than I was and actually ran off the track once up on two wheels. I ended up getting passed many times, and once got totally rear-ended by a guy behind me. It was a really fun way to spend a gross afternoon. The picture is us about to go down the luge.

That night we went to the Maori Hangi. We got picked up on a big bus (so touristy!) at our hostel by our guide, Mark, who was obviously Maori. We got to the village site after picking our "chief", Allen (he plays rugby, which is why he was our chief) and watched all of the traditional Maori customs and dances, including the Haka, that the All Blacks do before every match. They fed us a traditional Maori feast, cooked underground... so good! Then we headed back to town.

The night was definitely educational, if not a bit cheesy, but I do have to say that one of the most impressive parts of the night was our bus ride there. Mark, the guide, taught us some words in Maori, Kia Ora being one of them, which means thank you, please, hello, welcome, to your good health, in Maori. He then proceeded to say, with pretty perfect accents, each of those words in 56 different languages!! He had French, German, Italian, and all that, plus some really obscure ones like Tahitian, Arabic, Catalon, etc... it was crazy!! On the ride back, he then led songs in about 10 different languages, mostly national anthems. We couldn't believe he knew all that! And he spoke with perfect accents! (Aoteorea means "land of the long white cloud" in Maori, or New Zealand!)

So yesterday we got up and immediately got in the car and drove the hour to Taupo, a little resort village on the biggest lake in New Zealand, Lake Taupo (duh!). It is absolutely gorgeous here (the picture on the right is the view from our hotel room)... the downtown is so charming with all the Kiwi outdoorsy shops and bars and restaurants. We love it here and are so glad that we are staying another day. I'll let Lee talk about our adventure yesterday.

I'm not sure what we're going to do today, some shops are closed because it's Sunday, but we may walk to the neighboring town, about 5 miles away, where we heard there are more cool restaurants and pubs.

We head to Wellington tomorrow, via the Tongariro National Park, although we have to take a roundabout route, because the Desert Road is closed for the winter. We'll be in Wellington, the capital, for 3 days. Write more then!

P.S. Scott and Jenny: this town is made for you two... anyone with a room dedicated to camping gear would love it here!!

P.S.S. Christy: Lee is definitely shuddering at the thought of 1L year... you will be awesome though!! We're thinking about you!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

More thoughts on Auckland

With a refreshed internet card, I can give a little more attention to New Zealand's largest city of 1.2 million souls--Auckland. The city of sails is much more diverse than I expected. In eating lunch and dinner, having a drink in a pub, and checking in and out of our hostel, having a coffee, etc, we only encountered one native New Zealander. Like any modern big city, there were numerous immigrants.

And like any big city, the City of Sails had numerous skyscrapers. Most famous is the Sky Tower, which is a big space needle. It's actually taller than the Eiffel Tower, but that's kind of weak because the observation deck is not higher than the Eiffel Tower's. Anyway, in true Kiwi style, you can actually base jump off the Sky Tower, from about 200 meters [or should I say "metres"?] up. It was unbelievable. The national monument permits people to free fall (granted, you're tied to a wire) for about 11 seconds before you slowly land back on earth. I will try to post the video I have of some yahoo jumping off the tower when I have a little more time tomorrow.

Tonight Sally and I are off to a traditional Maori Hangi (concert/dinner). Should be awesome!

In Rotorua

I have less than a minute of internet time remaining, but I thought I would just say that Sally and I have now been through Auckland and arrived in Rotorua. Auckland was very different from the rest of New Zealand--big, modern, cosmopolitan, etc. But it was also kind of harried, hectic, and dirty, and just another big city. Glad we were there only a day. The rest of the island will be much more Kiwi. More soon

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Pub Round the Corner

Our new friend, bartender at the Pub 'Round the Corner

The Pub 'Round the Corner in Russell

Paihia Digs

Here is a view of our cabin in Paihia, aptly named "Tree Tops" at the Abri Apartments.

Joker Poker

Well yesterday ended up being really fun, and slightly educational. We watched a good part of the Olympics live (a benefit to being only 3 time zones away from China) and got to see Michael Phelps grab the gold in the 200 free. We also watched Moss Burmester, the Kiwi, make the finals in the 200 fly. He's seeded 7th, and on New Zealand's Breakfast this morning, they actually said, "Does he even have a chance at a medal?" It was kind of sad!!

We ended up back in Russell and went to The Pub Around the Corner... it was completely dead, so we ended up just talking to the bartender, a Maori lady. She gave us some good insight into the education system, the drinking age, etc... which we had been wondering about. You can go to public or private school, and if you want to go to a public school in a neighboring district, all you have to do is pay for your transportation to get there. They call high school, college. The drinking age is 18, which she thinks is too low. She gets a bunch of 18 year olds in who buy beer to go and then take it to all the younger high school kids.

Lee noticed a sign on the wall advertising Jim Beam RTDs, (ready-to-drink) which are pre-mixed drinks... so you can buy Beam and Coke in a bottle, or gin and tonic, already made. She couldn't believe we didn't have those in the US. We hung around and sure enough, around 5:15 all the locals rolled in to play "Joker Poker" and have a beer. You buy a drink and get a ticket. At 7:00 the bartender draws, and if she draws your number, you get to flip a card over on this bulletin board. If you flip the joker, then you win NZ$2000. We couldn't stick around to watch because the last ferry back to Paihia left at 7:00, so we gave our tickets to our new buddy, Charlie. Our tickets GREATLY increased his chances of winning... (and we are paying for it a little bit this morning!)

Another interesting observation... people ask us if we're Canadian, not American. Not a single person yet, who has tried to guess our nationality, has guessed American first. Everybody says, "So you're Canadian, right?" I wonder why that is.

Today is our last day in Paihia and then we're heading to Auckland tomorrow morning. We'll write more then!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sweet as

I'll try to post more succinctly than Sally, so suffice it to say we had a long trip, we've finally arrived, and this place is "sweet as."

I remember reading somewhere that Kiwis describe things as cool by saying "sweet as." It's funny because there's nothing after the word "as." So it's not like you say that was "sweet as sugar." No, it's just sweet as. We had been on New Zealand soil for a total of only about 10 minutes when the passport inspector inquired why we had come to New Zealand. After I said that we had been told by many people that it was just the most spectacular place on Earth, and that we had 3 weeks here to figure that out for ourselves, he replied, "Sweet as." I knew we had arrived.

If there were any doubts about our arrival in a foreign land, they were quickly thrown out the window when we stepped into our rental car. Driving on the left side of the road isn't quite as difficult as I thought it would be. As the driver is on the right side of the car, you're already well aware that things are going to be different. It's not so hard when cars are around as you can just follow others. But when you're the only car, and you have to enter a roundabout from the left, and exit left, things get hairy. The good news is that there are as of yet no major incidents to report from the road. The most difficult aspect of Kiwi driving for me seems to be to remember that the turn signal is on the right side of the wheel, while the windshield wipers are on the left. Many an attempted turn has so far resulted in no signal and wipers inexplicably wiping.

Yesterday was beautiful and we got to see the Treaty of Waitangi grounds, where the British and Maori chiefs signed a contract that officially made New Zealand a part of the British Empire in 1840. It was interesting and well worth it. Today is rainy and ugly and it looks like we'll be reading, recovering from jet lag, and watching one of the four television stations. More later


WE MADE IT!! YES!!! And we have to give props to the airline industry because all three flights went off without a hitch. All on time, customs was a breeze, and our luggage arrived. We successfully knocked ourselves out with Dramamine on the flight from LA to Auckland, although you know it's a long flight when you wake up after 6 hours of sleep and realize you're not halfway there yet. Ouch.

Once we landed in Auckland, we still had a 3.5 hour drive to Paihia, which is north. We picked up the rental car (automatic, thank goodness) and started driving... on the left side. I'm going to let Lee tell you about driving in New Zealand. It was a beautiful day yesterday, comparable to a nice day in the fall, although greener, in Ohio. About 60 degrees, chilly, but sunny.

We got to Paihia, which is a tourist resort in the summer, but it pretty dead right now. We are staying in this awesome apartment, which looks like a little treetops bungalow. The owners, Liz and Garth, are so nice and made sure we had bread, yogurt, jam/marmalade, tea and coffee, and fresh picked oranges and grapefruit (from their tree) waiting for us.

To get over the jet lag, we told ourselves we weren't going to sleep or nap until the evening, so we immediately went to see the Treaty of Waitangi grounds, which I'll let Lee talk about in his post. They were gorgeous, but didn't take very long to see, only about an hour and a half. We then took the 10-minute ferry to this town called Russell, which is one of the oldest settlements in New Zealand. While this sounds super exciting, it really wasn't. But we saddled up at a little pub and had a couple of handles (read pint) of Sleight's, which Derek Rogers told us was the NZ beer. (Derek: so good... thanks for the rec!)

We headed back to our little apartment at about 5:00, had dinner, and started watching the Olympics, all covered, obviously from the NZ perspective. Let me tell you, we watched with full analysis and commentary, between last night and the morning news today, the replay of the NZ equestrian falling and dropping out of the competition about 15 times. Although, America will be happy to note that the Kiwis are giving significant coverage to Michael Phelps.

I totally wimped out on the staying up until 9:00 PM last night and fell asleep, get this, before 7:00 PM and slept until about 6:00 AM today. I think my body is pretty much adjusted now, which is great. We woke up to rain, rain, rain. It feels like Europe.

I'm not quite sure what we're going to do today, but I'll be content to just hole up in a little pub, read our travel book, and chat it up with the locals. haha. Alright, I think that's about it! More later!!

P.S. Even though this post is date-stamped Monday, August 11th, I am writing on New Zealand's Tuesday, August 12th... weird!! (The Office fans... think "Future Dwight".)