Jed Appelrouth

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New Zealand

Travelogue: New Zealand

Queenstown: Day 1-3

We knew we were in for a treat when our plane descended over the Auckland airport and we caught our first glimpse of the verdant, mountainous landscape surrounding the city. Kind of like flying into Newark. : ) We made the transfer on Air NZ and took a short flight to Queenstown on the South Island. Everybody had advised us that with only a few short weeks to spend in the country, the South Island was clearly more deserving of our attention. So our layovers in Auckland would be the only time we were to spend on the North Island.

Flying into Queenstown was very impressive: the snow-covered Remarkables mountain range to the East- Lake Wakatipu to the East- giant hills in every direction. We took a quick shuttle, settled into our hostel and began to explore the town. Queenstown is situated in one of the most beautiful spaces I've ever seen. It's a relatively small town, but was surprisingly touristy and pricey and there was a good deal of development all over town. Apparently the Lord of the Rings trilogy has changed everything for this town. The word is officially out, and many, many people want in. One of the locals told us that the cost of housing had more than doubled in recent years and the average house now costs $550k NZ ($380k US). We spoke to young workers who were cramming into apartments- Manhattan style- in order to be able to live and work in this beautiful city.

We were getting a feel for the culture, for the people of NZ. We learned about the sheepish origins of NZ, the love of Rugby and pride in the All Blacks, the Maoris, and the recent influx of Asian immigrants into the country-challenging the Maoris for the top minority spot- and challenging the conceptions of national identity for many Kiwis.

We did a day hike on the top of Queen's Hill and saw some amazing views of the city and the surrounding mountains. On the way back into town we were invited to a cook-out by some of the locals-mostly young guys doing construction jobs in town and a handful of attractive hairstylists. Had a few drinks, ate some meat off the grill and learned that you should never accuse a Kiwi of being Australian or vice versa. Apparently there's something of a national rivalry between the islands.

During our stay in Queenstown we thought seriously about partaking in some of the high-adrenaline activities advertised across town: Jet-Boats, Bungee, Sky-Diving, Paragliding, Parasailing, Giant Swing, Shots of Norepinephrine.... Every possible means of getting a rush- you name it- and Queenstown had it. But ultimately we stuck to our travel budget and decided to go for the lower adrenaline adventures.

Kepler Track: Day 4-6

Larry Golson- my friend, roommate for 2 years in Atlanta, and my co-traveler for the NZ adventure- was able to hook up a free car through a friend-of-a-friend. It was a beat up old Subaru with more issues than National Geographic: the driver's door didn't open all the way, no radio, burns oil, persistent slow leak in the back right tire, did I mention no radio, no interior lights.... But it was free- and that's hard to beat. It was also a stick-shift. I've had some previous experience driving stick in France and Italy, but now I was going to get a chance to drive stick on the wrong side of the road throughout NZ.

Larry started the drive south. I consistently had to call out "Left Side" every time we started or made a turn. It was more like "Left Siyeeeede." On the way to Te Anau we had to stop for a major accident on the road. A cop who was managing traffic at the site of the accident reminded us to make sure to drive on the left side of the road. Apparently this was not an uncommon problem.

As we drove south we began to realize just how many sheep live on the Island. 40 million sheep. 4 million people. Good ratio! We made countless sheep jokes throughout the travels and took pictures for our upcoming "sheep of NZ" calendar. We learned from a local that a good sheep joke is to accuse someone of wearing Velcro gloves when they are working with sheep. We saw tourist signs for "Sheep Shearing" but we didn't have enough time to stop to partake in a good shear.

In Te Anau we prepped for the 3-day Kepler Track. We stashed our car at the Department of Conservation lot, took the bus to the trailhead, and embarked on our journey. The first three hours took us through the rainforest looking out upon Lake Te Anau. And then we began the ascent up the mountain. After 4 hours or so of climbing we finally stepped out from the forest and saw the vista atop Mount Luxmore. Gorgeous!! The remaining 40-minute walk to the DOC hut (communal shelter) was effortless. Before dinner we found an adventurous couple from California and decided to go explore the cave that was a 15-minute walk from the hut. For an hour we explored the watery cave- using our headlamps- crawling through tight spots and looking for giant rooms filled with rock formations. We returned to the hut, met some cool Dutch girls- played cards- made dinner and called it a night.

The next morning we knew we were in for an adventure. I went to the bathroom, and it was whistling. Not at me. But whistling as the wind caused the windows to sing. The entire hut was moving and creaking with each strong gust. The DOC guide advised us that we were in for a day of 60-100 k/hr winds, rain and sleet along the exposed alpine section of the track. I have never spent much time in winds that strong- and now we had a 7-hour hike ahead of us in those conditions. Needless to say it was an adventure. Larry's pack cover was blown off like a kite early in the day. At one point Larry had to dive onto the trail to keep from being blown off the steep sides. It was very, very intense. The gusts were so strong that you had to constantly brace yourself against the wind and cover your face from the stinging rain. At times we realized just how beautiful this mountain pass would have been in better weather- but we didn't dare reach for our cameras with the rain beating down on us.

After 5 hours along the ridgeline we finally descended below the tree-line and sanity returned. It was amazing how suddenly peaceful and quiet it seemed now that we were back in the shelter of the beech forest. Looking out from the trail you could see the two dozens waterfalls cascading down the nearest mountain. For the first time I was able to fully appreciate the incredible richness of the beech forests. Each tree was its own ecosystem, supporting many species of lichen and moss and mistletoe and old man's beard.

The forest contained many birds (the only true native species of this isolated island country) but very few other animals and almost no predators. This was the case for all of NZ: the lack of natural predators posed quite a few problems. At some point in the last 2 centuries rabbits were introduced to the island. Without any natural predators, the rabbits had a heyday and bred out of control. To counter the swarms of rabbits, someone had the brilliant idea of bringing in weasels (stoats), but instead of killing off the rabbits, the stoats began to kill all the prized birds. Another enterprising individual had the great idea of bringing the possum to the islands to use for fur. Without natural predators the possums also spread out of control: today they number 70,000,000 and are giving the sheep a run for their money. The Kiwis are quite upset because the possums are eating all the cherished mistletoe and driving that plant to extinction on the island. During our drives we saw thousands of possums flattened on the road. We started to sing "another one bites the dust" with every dead possum, but there were just too many dead possums, and we got tired of the song. At some point we began to take photos of the roadkill and may post a separate "roadkill of NZ" folder on Picasa.

So that was the NZ ecology lesson- back to our trek- Kepler: the rest of day 2 was easy as we descended the mountain towards the Iris Burn hut. Stayed the night, and day 3 was an easy 14-mile walk towards the Rainbow beach and a shuttle back to the car.

Milford Sound- Hump Ridge Track: Day 7-11

We drove north from Te Anau to Milford Sound. Gorgeous Drive. Came across an amazing field of purple flowers- wandered there for a while. Arrived at Milford Lodge, unpacked, did laundry, grabbed food and relaxed. The night was clear, and I had a hankering to see Milford Sound at night. Around 11:00 I drove to the sound. (It was the height of the NZ summer, and darkness sets in around 10:30). I parked the car and walked down away from the shops and the roads onto the beach. I kept going until I was at the edge of the fjord. It was a breathtaking sight. Directly in front I could see the silhouette of the famous Mitre peak- the star of every Milford Sound postcard. To the right Mount Pembrooke dominated the sky. Looking around in all directions 4 other giant mountains overlooked the little fjord. I stood there for a while among the 6 giants as the stars began to rise from behind the mountain. Orion's belt began to rise- and it took me a while to recognize the upside-down constellation. Orion came into full view, and then the upside down "V" of Taurus emerged. The night sky began to fill. Soon there were thousands of visible stars posed against the silhouettes of 6 massive mountains. I felt like I was in the center of some ancient Druidic council. The rocking sounds of the ocean and a light breeze off the water completed the scene. It was absolutely incredible. I stood there for over an hour looking around at these enormous forms on the earth and infinite lights in the sky. I certainly felt my place in proper perspective. This was easily one of the highlights of the entire trip.

The next day we returned to Milford to take a cruise on the Sound. Very touristy- but it was beautiful too. We relaxed for the rest of the day. From Milford Sound we drove to the southern edge of the Island, stopping in Tuatepere to sign in for the Hump Ridge Track. We parked our car, threw on our packs and headed onto the trail. One of the unique features of the Hump Ridge is that you hike along the beach for several miles before ascending the mountain. The beach was great. The ascent was long and strenuous. Most hiking trails have lots of switchbacks to facilitate the ascent/decent of a steep hill. The creators of this track used the deer trails, which seemed to go almost straight up the mountain, as guidelines for the track: this posed a true challenge. At 8:30 we arrived at the hut, made dinner and crashed. The next morning we awoke to find that visibility had been reduced to about 20 feet- and a thick fog and steady rain had set in. On top of this, Larry's knee was bugging from the previous day. We considered making the 8-hour trek to the next hut, but decided it would be better to hang loose and allow some recovery time. All that day we played board games and read old magazines that were stored in the hut. Chess, Scrabble, Othello. Reading whether Kerry had the charisma to beat Bush after the Swiftboat attacks, the new Nuclear Age in China.... Fun to look back for a moment in time.

The next day we opted to head down the mountain. We spent about 3 hours walking along the beach and were both relieved to take off our packs and boots and hit the road again.

Catlins-Hanmer Springs: Day 11-12

From Tuatapere we drove East along the coastline. We had no choice but to stop in Invercargill. We not only loved the name (It's great to say it like a pirate with extra emphasis on the AR (Invercarrghhhgeeeeeeeell), but we also had to see if Mick Jagger's assessment was correct. He had referred to Invercargill as the "asshole of the earth." I thought it was perfectly appropriate that the land which boasted the most beautiful landscapes on earth should also bear the asshole of the planet. Something of the cosmic balancing act. We had dinner in Invercargill- saw some typical rednecks cruising the strip in their kit-cars and continued our journey towards the Catlins. We stopped several times to photograph some sheep and rolling hills and ended up in our hostel in Papatowai. As in Queenstown, we were amazed by the diminutive size of our accommodations. It was clear that most of these rooms had been designed for Halflings, and there was barely enough room for our luggage and our selves. But there was a bathtub- and a good soak was invaluable.

The morning we awoke to the sound of bleating sheep as a group of 4-wheeler-bound herders and a posse of sheepdogs were driving a reluctant flock of sheep to greener pastures. We had some tea, ate some toast, listened to and smelled the sheep, and watched the crashing of the waves on the distant rocky coastline. We hit the road and headed north to Nugget Point to see the bathing Sea Lions and Elephant seals. An hour up the coast we played around on the spherical boulders of Moeraki Beach. And after 600+ km steady driving we finally landed in Hanmer Springs. Soaking in the hot mineral springs, we watched the sun setting over the rolling hills of Hanmer.

Abel Tasman National Park: Day 12-13

We drove the remaining 400 km to Abel Tasman National Park at the North End of the Island and got squared away with our Sea Kayak rental operator. We arrived late in the day and the operators warned us that we needed to be off the water by 4:00 for our own safety. We drove to the beach to meet our instructor and learn the rules of sea kayaking. At 1:30 we were finally ready to push off towards our destination: Anchorage Hut. The wind was blowing on the ocean and the current was clearly against us. We were struggling to make forward progress against the waves- but we kept at it. All the while water-taxis were zipping back and forth carrying passengers and kayaks that people had left along the shore line throughout the park. We were determined to make it to Anchorage Hut on our own rather than requesting help from one of the taxis or relinquishing our struggle against the white-crested waves.

As the last stretch of shore before our hut was completely exposed to the wind and waves, it was aptly called the "mad mile." Most people clear this hurdle before noon. We were hitting it around 4:15. We gathered our energies, rounded the final corner and took on the current. We were going against 5-7 foot waves, and if we stopped for more than 2 seconds, we began to lose all the forward progress we had just made. We were singing songs to keep a rhythm ("Hooked on a feeling" was a favorite with the "Oooh ka chakas) and kept pushing each other to dig in and keep going. At 5:00 we managed to make it past the rocky mile- and paddled onto the beach of Anchorage Hut. We dragged our Kayak onto the beach- took off the Kayak skirts, vests and jackets- I went inside and collapsed into a much needed sleep.

I awoke to find the Tasman Sea as calm as glass. Later a guide was to explain how the current is low in the morning, can be abusive from 11:30-5:30 and then dies down around 6:00. He said the tour operators don't advertise the evening lull because they like people to finish paddling in the afternoon while all the water taxis are buzzing around, providing a potential safety net for kayakers. So we learned our lesson: morning and evening are the times to be on the water. We walked along the beach for a while and hung around until the sand flies- the gadflies of NZ- were just too much to handle, and we returned to the hut.

That night we cooked our noodles between a boisterous table of Israelis and an energized table of Germans. Interestingly enough these two nationalities were the ones we would see most frequently throughout our NZ travels. Germans were the most common, then the Israelis, then the Brits, then other Europeans with their fabulously strong Euro. We saw only a handful of other Americans throughout our trip. That night we talked to a couple from England and Denmark, discussing the mindset of Americans and Europeans regarding work, travel, vacation time, life philosophy. Like most of the other Europeans we came across on our travels- these two were taking a 6-week holiday to see the island. Now that's traveling

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The next morning was calm and wind-free. We paddled casually back to the beach. It was a real pleasure to paddle along the coast without giving a thought to being dashed on the rocks by 6-foot waves. It took a little over 2 hours to return. With a light cloud cover, I didn't think I needed sunblock for that short of a trip. But I forgot that we were in NZ. Just as Atlantans have our smog alert days, the Kiwis with their thin ozone have UV-alert days. We must have hit one of those as I got fairly fried from that short paddle back to the beach.

Arthur's Pass to Franz Josef Glacier: Day 14-16

Heading south we stopped at Punakaiki to see the famous "pancake rocks" and whistling blowholes. All along the coastal drive we marveled at the giant green mountains descending quickly to the beach. We turned East at Kumara Junction towards the celebrated Arthur's Pass. We arrived in the early evening, found a hotel, grabbed dinner and crashed. In the morning we were hoping for glorious shots of the pass and an alpine hike, but instead we awoke to snow falling and a sky consumed with clouds. So we bailed on the alpine and head back to the beach. We walked for a couple of hours on Ross beach, got back in the car and we ultimately ended up at Franz Josef.

Arriving in our room at the Rainforest Resort- we found that there was ample room for two road-weary hobbits. A spacious 9 feet by 6 feet. Larry and I had to laugh at out Lilliputian accommodations. The next morning we awoke to find the weather had cleared and left a gem of a blue sky. The guides were totally psyched too. Normally it rains and rains in the town and dumps tons of snow on the glacier (15 meters of rain per year). But we were to have nothing but blue sky throughout the day on the glacier. Our guide said there had only been 6 days like this during the entire year- so we knew how lucky we were. I was quite camera happy- and at one point- focusing more on a good shot than my footfalls- I got my crampons crossed and took a tumble down the ice. Ouch!!! It felt an awful lot like falling on concrete. Tore up some skin and really banged up my left knee, which is still buggin'. But we got some awesome pics and it was worth the pain. That evening after we cleaned up and hot tubbed with some flirtatious Swedes we drove south to capture the reflection of Mount Cook and Mountain Tasman on the still waters of Lake Matheson. We were just in time for the sunset and caught some awesome shots of the lake. We headed back to Franz J- had a few drinks- threw back some Speights (great local brew) with a cool Irish lad from our glacier walk, and headed to sleep.

Wanaka: Day 17-18

From Franz J we resumed our southerly drive. We stopped at Waita Beach and gazed at the snow capped mountains from the warm sands of the beach. It was so typical of this country: incredible ecological diversity within such a tight geographic proximity. All the biomes juxtaposed- rainforests by glaciers by highlands by beach. In terms of diversity of Landscape within a small range, I've seen nothing to rival NZ.

The drive to Wanaka was brilliant with the huge hills towering over Lake Wanaka and Lake Howea. Wanaka rocked. Great little town. We had heard from some of our fellow travelers about a funky little movie theater- Cinema Paradiso- in the heart of the city. We knew that Casino Royale was playing, so we decided to end our media fast and catch a flic. The theater was so unusual. Rather than normal theater seats, the theater was filled with a motley assortment of old futons, couches, recliners, lazyboys- and this old, yellow VW-like car with the top removed. Larry and I went for the car. So cool- close the door, roll up the window and watch the movie. At intermission the theater served home-made ice cream (Bailey's white chocolate!) hot ginger-cookies fresh from the oven, mince meat-pies, and full meals if you had ordered them before the show. We indulged in the hot eats and cool treats and enjoyed a unique movie experience.

The next day was our last full day. Larry had been having dreams of mountain biking so we had to go. We "hired" some bikes and found the Sticky Forest with it's dozens of challenging biking trails. Larry was tearing up the trails; I was trying to stay on the bike. 3 hours was enough for me so I drove back to the hostel to crash for an hour or so. I really wanted to check out the road to Mount Aspiring, but Larry wanted to head to a cafe and do some writing and knock out another chapter of "The Fountainhead.

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Around 7:00 I hopped in the car and headed out of town towards mount Aspiring. With every turn the drive grew increasingly beautiful. It was a combination of things- a wonderful day- the perfect light- and an inspiring landscape. I kept stopping the car every 100 meters to get out and vainly try to capture the epic beauty of the moment with my infinitely inadequate camera. The beauty was almost overwhelming. I think my level of stimulation had gone over the top and I had to just stop driving. (This used to happen to me often when I lived in Taos and the sun would set and illuminate the Sangre De Cristos and turn the sky into fireworks of red and purple and orange.) Everywhere I looked- in a full panorama- were lights illuminating the crests of hills and the tops of mountains, all reflecting off of the giant lake. This was one of those peak moments when everything within is resonating with everything without. So much beauty- too much to hold. My friend Tyler had expressed a similar sentiment when he explained that after 6 weeks in NZ he had simply had too much beauty. He just needed to see a slum, or some urban blight- or something to balance it all. This was like being bludgeoned with beauty. But it was wonderful. I kept driving towards Mount Aspiring, stopping all the while to try to catch a photo until the sun fully receded behind the glowing hills.

I eventually headed back to Wanaka and met Larry for dinner. I told him I had just taken the most beautiful drive of my entire life. Of course he wanted to go too. So we agreed to wake up at 6:45 AM the following morning and make the trek before our return trip to Queenstown. We woke bright and early, and I let Larry drive as I was barely conscious. The morning drive was quality- but the light was vastly different from that of the previous evening. We got some great pictures, created several cattle and sheep stampedes, and we made it almost all the way to Mt. Aspiring. Larry drove back and I zonked out in the car. We packed up all our gear and made the final drive back to Queenstown and then the airport and then home to the ATL.

Summary

NZ is a must see. People told us, forget Australia, forget the North Island; it seems that was good counsel. The South Island is replete with epic beauty and an incredible landscape. And all things considered, there is so little development and so few people. The people we did meet were very good natured and fun. For outdoor activities I have never seen a place so well organized and geared towards travelers as NZ. In hindsight, we didn't realize just how big the island was, and we were too ambitious in our itinerary. It would have been wiser to cut off a few locations or add a week to avoid some of the 6-8 hour drives. But there are worse things than driving in an outdoor paradise. I certainly hope you all have a chance to see this place- and I hope it remains so well preserved and undeveloped. Americans could learn a lot from the conservation efforts of the Kiwis. I'll certainly be back to see more of this amazing country.

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