Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Final Thoughts

Well, I'm sad to say that this is our last day in this wonderful country. We leave tomorrow (NZ Friday, US Thursday) and will arrive back in Columbus on US Friday at around 10:00 pm. (Note: we had no August 10th because we crossed the International Date Line; going back to the US, we actually arrive in LA 7 hours before we left Auckland!!) Some closing thoughts...

This is a country not of old churches and sophisticated museums; it is a country of people and nature.

It is small; the size of Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati combined.

New Zealand won 9 medals in the 2008 Olympics; it's 3rd highest ever in any Olympics; we watched "Super Saturday" live, as the Kiwis won 5 medals in one day-- the biggest take in NZ history.

There is a thriving native population-- the Maori. I don't know how they've done it, but the Moari people are living and thriving in New Zealand, quite remarkable considering the fate of other nation's indigenous peoples.

Kiwis are some of the happiest, most relaxed, most hospitable people... ever.

There are a lot of sheep and cows.

Kiwis have a very subtle, smart sense of humor.

My new favorite animal is the Kiwi... so cute!!

All in all, I love this country... it's beautiful in every way. I'll be happy to see friends and family after 3 weeks of not communicating, but I'm very, very sad to leave here.

Remarkable Views and Some Initial Closing Thoughts

As promised, here are some pictures from yesterday's skiing at the Remarkables. If you look here behind Sally you can see that there is quite a bit of land that is not snow-covered. I'm not sure at what elevation the snow starts, but it's a few thousand feet above Queenstown level to get to permanent snow.

In fact, on our bus ride yesterday, I thought that there wouldn't be any mountain left for us to ski on because about 35 minutes into our bus ride, we had probably climbed 3,000 feet straight up and there was still no snow on the ground and it looked like we were to the tops of the mountains. But we traversed along the road and went deeper into the mountains and finally the road unfolded into a huge opening where the Remarkables were. You can see what that looked like in this picture (view from the parking lot up).

This third picture is a view from one of the chairlifts out. Sweet as. Choice, eh? Wicked, bro.

Not sure what's in store for us today, but it is certainly sad to realize that this is our last day in New Zealand. It's another beautiful day--cloudless again with great views of the surrounding mountains. Overnight it was down to about 30 degrees and today's high should be about 50. We've laundered the last clothes, pretty much completely packed up our bags, and we're not going to bungy jump or skydive. I think we'll do some walking and perhaps do some luging on the mountain.
I don't want to bring myself to write a closing post, and in fact, I think I'll save that for when we finally get home. But my initial closing thoughts are happy ones. This has been a truly amazing trip. Last night at dinner, Sally and I agreed that while with more time we could have perhaps seen a few more sights and towns, we spent about the right amount of time in each of the places we visited. And while we enjoyed the North Island, somehow the trip just kept getting better as we moved south. I think it turned out quite nice that we spent a lot of time watching the Olympics in the first week. We were recovering from the long flight, we both wanted to watch Michael Phelps, but more importantly, we really got into the Kiwi psyche by watching the Games from a different perspective. By witnessing the hearbreak, watching the huge expectations either be fulfilled or fall short on the shoulders of the athletes really made an impression. And it also made us realize just how small and wonderful this place is. Since then, we've viewed everything through that lens and we've been that much more informed about the culture and the people.
We're off tomorrow--4 flights to get home! But hey, we're actually getting home before we left, or at least we're getting to LA before we left Auckland, so that will be cool. Until we are home, then, that's it. It's been awesome!


It's about 5:30 pm and the Internet cafe is packed and I'm assuming NZ web traffic is high right now. I think that's why it's taking so long for each web page to come up. I think I'll post more tomorrow when Sally and I have all day to just relax and enjoy a quiet last day in New Zealand around Queenstown.

But for now, I will note that we headed up to the Remarkables today--the ski area Northwest of Queenstown and had an absolute blast. It was really amazing scenery and let's just say that the 45 minute bus ride (more than half of which was on an unpaved road) straight up the mountain, unless we were making a 180 degree turn, with no guard rails of course, was pretty remarkable.
Seeing our bus driver both on the way up and the way down pass a car on the nearly one lane gravel road with no guard rail looking down about 5o0 feet was also pretty remarkable. But kidding aside, more remarkable was the views of the Southern Alps, the perfectly blue skies, and the great skiing. We had a great day--perfect sun and about 40 degrees. We'll post some pics tomorrow and include some more info. For now we're off for some dinner!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Words Cannot Describe

Sally is currently posting about our trip today to Milford Sound, and I'm going to go ahead and just agree with everything she says. Milford Sound (which is actually a fiord, not a sound because it was formed by glaciers, not rivers), is the most beautiful place in the world. It's certainly the most beautiful place I've seen. The flight there and back was unreal as we cruised over 10,000 foot snow-capped peaks, glaciers, mountain lakes, rivers, and steep valleys. Then the cruise through the fiord was just unreal. The pictures and video will likely be just a sad attempt to recreate the glory. Sally and I are both just sort of now coming down from the thrill of the experience.

I will also point out that at the bottom of the blog there is a new feature for you readers out there. It's titled "Kiwi Mitsubishi Commercial" and it has been playing a lot down here. If you have sound, it's worth a look. If the link doesn't work just go to YouTube and type in "Mitsubishi Lancer advert New Zealand." Pretty funny.

Queenstown the town, by the way, is also totally awesome. It's a young, funky mountain town with lots of young people, tourists, ski bums, and the like.


So I guess I don't even really know where to begin... we arrived in Queenstown yesterday (read the Kiwi version of Tahoe) and it totally awesome!! It's a ski town in its prime right now, with the best snow in years, young people, great restaurant/bar scene, pedestrian streets, right on Lake Wakatipu. Totally cool.

The thing today though, tops everything we've done thus far on this trip. We took a flight-cruise-flight through Milford Sound. I really don't know how to even describe it, except you can understand why they filmed Lord of the Rings here. It doesn't even look like something this beautiful could exist on Earth. The Sound was formed by glaciers (so technically, it was misnamed and should be Milford Fjord) that carved out this valley in the middle of the Southern Alps. I really feel ridiculous trying to describe it, because it's impossible.

We were picked up at our hotel this morning just after 9:00 and were driven to the airport. There we boarded a plane (6-seater, including the pilot) and left Queenstown, taking an amazing flight through the mountains to Milford Sound where we flew through the Sound, that flows out to the Tasman Sea. Then we backtracked back through the Sound and landed. They took us to the pier and we boarded a ship and then rode through the Sound, which took about an hour and 45 minutes. It was completely unbelievable, with snow-capped mountains just shooting up out of the water, and water falls coming down 500 feet off the mountain into the Sound. Some of the mountains went 4000-5000 feet straight up, no incline at all, out of the water. It was truly unreal.

Once we were finished cruising through the Sound, our pilot picked us back up and we flew a different route back to Queenstown through the mountains. I really don't know what else to say except that I will never, ever forget what it looked like (especially because I took about 100 pictures), but I've never seen such raw beauty in my life. I guess I'll just let the pictures speak for themselves, but just know that the pics don't even come close to how beautiful Milford Sound really is.

P.S. The one day we needed it to be cloudless, sunny, and 50 degrees, it was. So lucky.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Rugby: Tasman vs. Hawke's Bay

On Saturday, Sally and I had our long-awaited date with a real Kiwi experience: our first rugby match. We purchased our tickets online the day they became available (one week prior) in anticipation of a sold-out affair. Rugby is, after all, a national obsession of fanatical proportions, and we wanted to attend the yearly national rugby league Air New Zealand Cup, so we thought getting tickets might be difficult. But that really shouldn't have been much of a concern.
The match, though exciting and really fun, was more on par with a Division I high school football game. There were local kids serving as ball boys. There were lots of 40-something-has-been-types standing beyond each end zone to watch the game. There were "Port-a-Loos" (port-a-johns) for bathrooms, and smallish stands on each side incapable of holding more than maybe 2,000 spectators.
But then again, this is a country of only 4 million people, and not everyone plays rugby (see NZ's 9 Olympic medals). Imagine a "national" league for one sport where the country had the population of Kentucky. And the rugby was certainly exciting and played at a high level. Still, it was definitely a reminder of just how small this little country really is.
Sally and I took our seats--50-yard line on the visitor's side, in the 4th row! Granted, we were stuck one row in front of the rowdy Hawke's Bay fans, but we had no ties to the local Tasman team, so we didn't care. I was a little concerned when the guy immediately behind us pre-emptively apologized for his and his "mates' behavio(u)r, but Sally took it all in stride, and it ended up being a great part of the experience. Although a little loud and obnoxious--especially the beer bong-looking device that was actually nothing more than a noisemaker that sounded like an ancient Germanic tribal horn when he swung it around in the air (if you can imagine what that sounds like?)--it was really fun. "Go, the Bay!" was their common refrain. Kinda weird, but fun. Imagine cheering for the Green Bay Packers by yelling every 5 minutes or so "Go, the 'Bay!"
We were plenty close to the action, and saw some great action. A little primer on rugby: most importantly, it is not like American football really at all, so comparing it with that just brings the wrong image completely. The only thing that's similar is that you score by making it to the end zone and physically touching the ball down to the ground while you control it. This is called a "try." Ironically, this should be called a "touchdown," like American football, but it's not. That is worth 5 points and the conversion is worth two (instead of 6 and 1) and there are no kicking specialists. One position player from each team who is on the field for the whole contest takes all the kicks. Also, and this is really important, there is no blocking. This is why it's so hard to advance the ball. There are no forward passes, and with each side having 15 people on the field at once, it's crowded, rough, and there's no room to move up. The only way to move the ball forward is to kick it forward, or to run it forward. Most tries occur rapidly on a counter-attack or after an interception or fumble, or after a punt forward takes a weird bounce and the team that just punted grabs it and runs it in. It's like soccer in that play is continuous, and again, really not like American football at all. Very interesting.
Anyway, Hawke's Bay won convincingly, and Sally and I walked back to our hostel happy having experienced such an essential Kiwi experience. And the fact that it was a smaller venue was actually better as we were able to really see and experience things from close to the field at a reasonable cost and without having to fear retribution for not knowing the rules or wearing the wrong colors. It was awesome.


Well we left Blenheim early and headed down to Kaikoura, with one of the most spectacular drives I've ever been on. Highway 1, (which, don't be fooled by the name, is a 2-laner) rides the east coast all the way to Kaikoura. I can't even really describe it, but it's just this turquoise water, crashing onto these big, black, volcanic rocks and onto the beach. Just the sheer height and force of these waves is truly stunning and overwhelming. Then you let your eyes travel upward and rising out of the water is just this green, green grass on snow-capped mountains. The pictures just don't even do it justice. But it was truly spectacular.

So once we got to Kaikoura, we were on to the activity that I was most looking forward to... WHALE WATCHING!! We got on the 10:30 trip out (a choice of 3), which is typically the most successful. It was cold, and a little rainy, but I didn't care... this was my thing!! We were "oriented" on the boat and then we were off (with a seasickness warning level of "high"... Dad, you would not have lasted 10 minutes... no offense). We had been out not even 10 minutes and our crew spotted our first sperm whale (the one with the flat front)!! I was so excited I could barely even contain myself... I ran out on deck and there it was! Kind of far at that time, but you could see it blowing through its blowhole and once we got closer, you could see from its nose to the back of its dorsel fin... HUGE!! We really didn't get a good look at the back of it, so it was kind of hard to tell exactly how long it was, but you knew it was enormous.

Once it decided to duck under the water, we were off again, and it only took about 15 minutes to find our second whale, a Kaikoura regular, named Little Nick and the show really started. Little Nick swam around a little bit, but mostly just posed for pictures until he prepared for his "dive" under water. We all readied our cameras and Little Nick lifted his head a little bit, and dove deep, lifting his back out of the water a bit and giving everyone on the boat an outstanding "tail shot"!! Soooooo COOL!!

We saw one more whale, returned to the spot where Little Nick went down and saw him one more time (about 40 minutes after he went under), and then, much to our surprise and complete delight, we found a pod of Dusky dolphins! Now when I say pod, I don't mean 5, 10, or even 20 dolphins... No joke, there had to have been 75-100 dolphins completely surrounding our boat!! From far away we couldn't even really tell what they were because there were so many of them, we almost didn't believe it. It was totally awesome and a great way to end our whale watching excursion!