Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Arthur's Pass - Dec 26-28

The train to Arthur's Pass was nice, it was a smooth ride up through the mountains despite the storm and that I was in a car with a tour group. It was nice to look out the window down into the valley of a turquoise river winding it's way through the mountains down towards Christchurch. They had a food car but those around me said that it was not worth the trip and the people that went to the outdoor viewing car came back soaked with rain and cold. I just sat where I was.

We pulled into Arthur's Pass, a town of 54 people in the middle of the Southern Alps (Ka Tiritiri o te Moana), and I unloaded my pack from the train with hopes of doing some hiking in the area. I wanted to do Avalanche Peak, though I didn't know if I would hike today because of the weather. The hike up Avalanche Peak was billed as a 6-8 hour yet very steep ascent above treeline into a potentially dangerous alpine zone but not high enough that mountaineering equipment was needed. They generally overstate the time that's actually required and this was only 7km return so I was confident that I could do it in an afternoon. My first stop was the DOC (Department of Conservation) to check the forecast and it was not encouraging. The afternoon was rain, fog, and wind. But the next morning was going to be fine but changing to a storm with "severe gale" in the afternoon... I'll have to wake up early.

The next task was to set up camp. There was a public shelter across the road where you could set up a tent or camper van next to the shelter for only $5 a night but you couldn't actually sleep in the shelter, which was fine with me because I had a tent and it smelled like someone fried some calamari inside the shelter. I still had the entire afternoon to explore the town - which didn't take very long at all - and the surrounding area. The town, of course, was very small but it provided for a lot of tourists as they made their way from Christchurch to the west coast of the island. There were two restaurants, one store, and the DOC.

I hiked some of the shorter tracks in the area that led to some of the many waterfalls that came down from the mountains. I spent some time in the cafe watching the cricket (New Zealand vs Bangladesh) and discovering that the beer in New Zealand is ssssooooo much better than the beer in Australia - it reminded me of the Canada/US beer enigma where Canada won't let their good beer across the boarder. I also got a lot of reading done in the cafe and the public shelter. I had to spend a lot of time in the public shelter, which was cold and uncomfortable, because it was raining pretty hard and I didn't want the people that worked in the cafe to think that I was a drunk since I wasn't going to eat there, which leaves me with drinking as my only option. Even while I was inside and even though it was summer I was wearing two pairs of pants, 3 to 4 layers, a tuque (that's Canadian, not Australian), and sometimes gloves.

Finally, I was able to head to bed and I would like to take this moment to say that A) my tent is absolutely awesome at keeping the rain out, even my pack that sat on the ground in the vestibule was dry and B) my sleeping bag kicks ass.
I was trying to catch the morning's 'fine' weather so I set my watch alarm for 5:30am but woke up around 7am instead - I found out later that the beeping function on my watch doesn't work anymore. But no matter, I left all of my gear except what I needed and could fit in my daypack, and went to the DOC to sign the little form saying that I was heading up Avalanche Peak and if they don't hear from me by tomorrow to please come look for me. It was cold so I was wearing quite a few layers but the trail was very steep and I quickly got pretty hot but didn't want to lose any of them because there was a little bit of a wind. I passed one guy - he was probably 55 - who was on his way down because the steepness of the trail was just too much for him. I pressed on.

Soon I was above treeline and making my way along steep drop-offs formed by rock slides. The mountain didn't seem like it was doing a very good job of holding itself together. The trail was well marked but at one point I did lose it and where it looked like it was marked with cairns (it wasn't, it was just very rocky), the fog seemed to be so thick that it would be impossible to reach the top. Plus, the rocks that appeared to be the trail were too lose to stay under my feet and I was sure that I was going to head down the mountain along with a couple tons of small rocks. But luckily as I backtracked a little I found where the trail made a sharp turn to the right.

The next obstacle was a snowfield, which I was not very happy about. I did get a picture of it but in the picture it doesn't look as steep as it really was and the trail crossed it perpendicular to the way that it would go if it decided not to hold onto the mountain anymore. It was summer, not warm, but certainly the warm weather and rain made this large patch of snow unstable but I was able to make it across - thinking about it now, I probably should have found a way around.

As I made my way to just under the peak I ran into another hiker on his way down. He told me that visibility was limited but the clouds did break away for him for a few minutes and the view was the most amazing thing that he has ever seen so if it is cloudy I should wait to see if it clears. The trail to the top was very narrow and had large drops on each side and the rock did not hold together well. It took some talking to myself to make my way over the small ridges to what is considered the true peak. The view was amazing even without the unimpeded view. I waited for about twenty minutes crouched just under the rocky top to shelter myself from the wind but the clouds never cleared and it looked like even more and darker clouds were coming in. I had to head down.

On my way down I met some more kea. This is my third time running into these incredibly irritating birds. They are a very nice looking alpine parrot that lives only on the South Island of New Zealand but they act like 5 year old children. They are not afraid of people and they love to take things apart. During a break in the rain around camp I was trying to read but they would jump up on the table that I was sitting at, knock over my water bottle, and bite at my books. Then they tried to break into the tent next to mine by pulling on the guy lines and playing with the zipper. When that didn't work one jumped on the rain fly and poked his beak through. I can't imagine having a hole in my tent fly in that weather. I kept chasing them away but they would always go back and try to make the hole bigger. Finally I threw something at the one making the hole but missed on purpose and he just kind of looked at me and then went right back to what he was doing. I picked up a bigger stick, threw it at him, and this time hit him. He fell off the tent and landed with a whimper that sounded like a small dog and then he walked off and left the tents alone.

Soon after trying to get the kea to hike down with me I saw that the guy that I had passed near the peak was not too far in front of me. How could he still be so close if I passed him on my way up and then spent over twenty minutes on the top? The last thing I wanted to do was pick up a hiking partner - unless it was a kea - and have someone that I had to talk to all the way down. I slowed down. But he was moving so slowly that I couldn't take it so I decided that I would pass him quickly enough that he wouldn't want to hike with me. "Hello!" I said as I bounded down the trail. "Hi. I think going down is harder than going up. My legs are so tired." "Yeah, it's a bitch. Can I just slip by?" as a practically ran and skipped past him. I yelled back, "Have a nice hike," as I rounded the corner. Ok, I did talk to him a bit longer than that - one of the reasons that I enjoy hiking so much is because fellow hikers are so friendly - but I also made it obvious that I wasn't going to wait around for him.

I reached the road in Arthur's Pass - yes the road - at 11:30; that only took me 4 hours. I walked into the DOC and handed my return slip to the girl behind the counter. "Where are you coming from?" "Avalanche Peak." "Today!?!" she asked very surprised. "Yes," I replied very proud of myself and I walked out the door.

Now what? It's noon, it's raining, and I'm in Arthur's Pass. The orignal plan had me hiking a 2-3 day in the area but losing a day in Christchurch put a damper on that plan and the weather was putting a damper on hanging around Arthur's Pass so I had to make a decision. I needed to book a bus trip to Franz-Josef Glacier and I could either make a booking for Friday (it was now Thursday) or Saturday and hope that the weather clears and have another go at Avalanche Peak. I walked towards the payphone thinking that I would need to decide right then and when I was just 20 feet away the rain came down just a little harder, a gust of wind blew through the town, and I heard myself say, "I'm getting out of here." Five minutes later I had a bus ticket to the West Coast for Friday.

The rest of the afternoon was the same as the one before - more beer and cricket at the cafe (still NZ vs Bangladesh), reading in the public shelter, and coffee at the store (why didn't I get coffee at the cafe? I don't know, I was drinking beer there and they had coffee at the store). There was still the second restaurant that I hadn't tried yet so I walked up there. It was big but I was the only one there. "Are you open?" I asked the guy behind the bar but he just kind of looked at me and continued to clean the beer glasses with a towel. "Are you open?" He nodded. I looked at the variety of beer taps along the bar and said, "Could I have a pint of Mac's Golden?" He looked confused then opened the door to the refigerator behind the bar, motioned to the bottles of beer, and said in a very strong German accent, "which one do you want?" Great. "Mac's Golden." I was going to give up on the pint and just take the bottle to relieve myself of the aggravation. He pointed to one bottle but wasn't even close to the one that I asked for so I amused myself by saying very vaguely, "No, the one over more," until he pointed to about three different bottles and finally I said I would take that one - still not the one that I originally asked for. Then he put the bottle on the bar in front of me without opening it - ok, he's over here on a summer working holiday and this may be his first or second day but he's never been in a pub where they open a bottle for you?

And I spent the rest of the night as I did many in New Zealand, sitting around, waiting, and reading but it was nice. This night it rained a lot harder than the night before and as much as I liked this little town and would love to come back I was happy to be leaving the next day.

The next morning I had a coffee and laid all of my wet gear out inside the public shelter to let it dry as much as possible. When it was getting close to the time for the bus to pick me up I packed up my stuff and headed to the store where the bus was to pick me up but I could see it parked up the street a little bit. I walked up there and everyone was standing around the bus so I asked where the driver was and they said that she would be back. Ten minutes later she showed up and saw that I was the new guy and said that she was looking for me all over town - in the backpackers', in the store, in the cafe - but all along I was standing next to the bus. On the phone for the booking the day before the woman that I talked to was very clear that I would not have a ticket, the fare would be 35 dollars and I would pay the driver. This woman asked me if I had a ticket, I said 'no' and asked what that meant (she was nicer than the one on the phone), to which she replied that it was 5 dollars more. Oh, I don't care about that, how much is it? She'll have to check... 25 dollars. I can handle that. Load up...

...and I'm on my way to the West Coast and Franz-Josef Glacier.


Sunday, January 13, 2008


Christchurch - Dec 24-26

When you're traveling to the South Island of New Zealand, Christchurch is an obvious starting point because this is where you'll most likely fly into. And, for me, even though this was a trip to get away from the city, I figured I could stand to see the town for a day or two. I booked a hotel for the first night (Dec 24) just north of the CBD and I also had one booked in Christchurch for the last night of the trip (Jan 5) so that I could easily get to my flight on the 6th. The days in between these two were a free for all.

I didn't have any problems getting on my flight even with waking up at 4:45am to get to the airport by tram and bus. I even got through customs in New Zealand with my hiking boots and tent without any issues - they did take them into the other room to clean them up for me, which was nice of them. A shared shuttle to my hotel for just 20 dollars (I later learned that there are much cheaper ways to get to the city) and I was checking into my aparment style hotel room. This is easy.
But it's Christmas Eve afternoon and I have some business to take care of before I can catch my train to Arthur's Pass tomorrow morning at 8. I need food for camping and some gas for my stove (obviously I couldn't take this on the plane). One problem is that I have a European stove that was bought in the States and I'm not sure if they carry that brand - but one question at the second outdoors store puts a gas container in my hand and there's a grocery store down the street where I geared up with dried fruit, real fruit, bread, cheese, some instant rice and I was on my way. Now I can start having a look around Christchurch.

I quickly realized that there's not much to do around Christchurch. It has some great parks - especially along the river - and some good restaurants and cafes but it's a very quiet town and at first I wasn't very impressed with it. The river was intersting; very slow, only 20-30 feet across but seemed that 3ft was as deep as it got. The river was lined with weeping willows (my favorite tree) and grass where you can sit and read or have a picnic and you can even go for a gondola ride.

After wandering the town and dinner at a vegetarian restaurant on Colombo St I made my way back to the hotel and watched a movie or two until it was pretty late and I wanted to get some sleep. But then around midnight they had a show on the Flight of the Conchords; a singing comedy group from New Zealand, which I originally heard of through Kelly. I hear they have a new show on HBO and they are hilarious - highly recommended. But I forced myself to shut it off and went to sleep.

The next day (Dec 25) I packed up my gear and walked the 5km to the train station. I was only using buses, trains, and walking for this trip, I wasn't going to rent a car, and even though I thought the train would be a nice way to get to my next destination, Arthur's Pass, it was 75 dollars more. Ouch. But while trying to purchase my bus ticket online while still in Australia I was told (by the website's lack of having a Dec 25 ticket) that the bus didn't run on Christmas. But I really wanted to get to AP as soon as possible so I looked into the train, which let me buy a ticket for Dec 25. The train was leaving around 8 and I got there about 15 minutes early but as I was walking up the station looked awfully quiet. And the parking lot was practically empty. And the doors were blocked by carts. Hmmm. I walked onto the platform and thought that they'll really have to move to get this place open and everyone checked in for the train. But I started to have the feeling that I wasn't going to make it to Arthur's Pass today. I took out my ticket and in about 4 pt font I was informed that my ticket was for Dec 26. Merry Christmas. Now, I know for a fact that I put in Dec 25th but it must have just given me the next day (I probably glanced over the confirmation page).
I wasn't upset but a little disappointed that I had to spend another day in Christchurch. Also a little concerned that I wouldn't be able to find a place to stay since it was Christmas. It was still a little early to start going door to door so I was going to scope out an area close to the station for a hotel and then hang out in the park. On my way I had some people when they saw me walking down the street with my huge backpack come out of their house wave and say, "Merry Christmas." I passed a few hotels with 'vacancy' signs and headed to the park to read for a couple of hours. The first place had plenty of rooms and they gave me the biggest room that they had for just $90. I'll take that. But can I find anything to do in town if it's Christmas?

I spent a lot of the day reading in the botanic garden. A lot of kiwis were there for a Christmas picnic or a walk or a bike ride. Botanic gardens are very popular in cities on this side of the world and I would rank Christchurch's as one of the best. It's not as big as Sydney's or varied as Melbourne's but the trees that they had were enough to keep me there for hours.

Eating on Christmas was next to impossible; every place that was open seemed to have a limited menu, which didn't include their normal vegetarian options. I grabbed some fries and a drink at a cart in Cathedral Sq and hoped for something else a little later. I found a Chinese restaurant by my hotel that gave me a huge serving of fried rice and 12 springrolls (12!) for just $9 and that was going to do me for the night as well as breakfast the next day. Another night of movies on tv put me to sleep and ready to head to Arthur's Pass the next day.

I woke up to the worst sound possible - rain. I was hoping that I could do some hiking today once I got to Arthur's Pass, especially since I was already a day behind, but this was not going to make that very easy. I had arranged for a shuttle to pick me up (free) and bring me to the train station in the morning, I checked in and was assigned a seat. I dropped my pack onto the luggage car and went to find my seat.. which was occupied by an old woman who was part of a tour. I told her my problem (that being that she was in my seat) and said that I would gladly switch seats with her but she had no idea where she was supposed to sit. After talking to the tourguide I was put in a seat with an older couple and their granddaughter from the UK. We talked for a little bit but they mostly just let me sit and read, which was all I wanted to do anyway.
Christchurch photos:

The next stop will be Arthur's Pass...

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


New Zealand

My most recent traveling adventure was a little 2-week holiday to New Zealand's South Island over the December break. I was looking for some hiking mostly and then just wanted to see what I could discover from there. I didn't have a very well laid out plan; I knew that I wanted to hike, and because it's me, I was looking to do some tough ones. The logistics of the trip were what was going to be an issue - I was traveling by bus and so needed to follow where they went. I had an itinerary when I left Melbourne but that was quickly thrown out the window and just a sketch of what I had remained and that's all that I needed. The trip was better than I could have been expected even though I didn't do all of the difficult hikes that I thought I would like to do.

New Zealand's two main islands

If I went back to New Zealand (which I fully intend to do) would I change my approach to the planning? Yes I would; I would pick an area, have a general idea what's there, and then explore depending on how I felt that day - I wouldn't force anything and I would have any requirements.

Since it was a two week trip I'm going to split the stories up into 6 sections relating to the area that I was in at the time. There are also around 300 pictures that will go with each section.
The first section to show up soon will be Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island and where I can get a direct flight from Melbourne. Hopefully I'll have everything done in a week and I'm aiming to have Christchurch done in the next couple of days.

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