Friday, April 25, 2008

Adventures from the Van: Early bird catches the worm

Since the short hike from Taupo didn't quench our thirst for activity, we decided on more of a full day hike along the Tama Lake trail. A drive further south to the Volcanic Zone, led us to the Whakapapa village. While the typed name is quite entertaining, the correctly pronounced name of "Fakapapa" is even better!

It is fully autumn here, and the walk through the alpine tundra in the shadows of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu was surreal; the fall colors, blue sky, and looming volcanoes were all so vivid. Knowing that Ruapehu erupted as recently as September 2007 and the trails were just recently reopened, and Ngauruhoe for its cameo as Mt Doom and Mordor, Kate and I had plenty to keep our minds wandering about as well.

Starting the hike at sunrise allowed the two of us to have the trail essentially to ourselves. It's currently the ANZAC holiday here, similar to our Veteran's Day, so we knew that there would be a lot of traffic before long. The lower Tama Lake was our first destination, which protruded as a brilliant turquoise blue while being surround by volcanic sand and rock. A quick 30 minutes later, up a steep ridge, the upper Tama Lake was where we rested for lunch of cheese and salami sandwiches, apples, and a few Oreo's! Of the two lakes, the lower would be our favorite. On the way back down, we started to pass the human train of hikers walking with huge bags for the long weekend. It surprised us at what a late start they were having!

The sun hasn't shown itself too much while in New Zealand, but we still can't help ourselves from visiting coastal beach towns, especially when they are next to vineyards. We are in Napier now, which is home to the famous Hawke's Bay wineries. We have been a BIG fan of the NZ syrah's so if you're looking for something to drink, see what you can find in your local stores.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Adventures from the Van: Mt Tauhara

Quick update here, more for the pictures, and to keep the total time at the internet cafes minimal.

In Taupo right now, which is home to the biggest body of water in New Zealand: Lake Taupo. The town is on the north end of the lake, and is right on the edge of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. Maui rolled us into town yesterday and into a superb holiday park. Incase we didn't mention this before, "camping" in Oz and NZ are in holiday parks; this is basically a glorified RV park. So, it can be safe to say we have been living next to trailer homes for the last 3 weeks! Fortunately, the holiday park here is next to mineral hot springs, so they do have their advantages as well.

Kate and I wanted to go for a hike after indulging the night before at a New Zealand restaurant. The lamb here is quite delectable, and I am not one to order lamb when dining out. This is quite a treat after too many dinners of 2-minute noodles! Mount Tauhara is right in town and makes for a perfect day trip.

It is only about 2000 feet of vertical, but it goes straight up! The growth in the forest was the most unique and stunning either of us have witnessed. All the trees were covered in moss and other various greenery.

We are about to head into the thick of the Volcanic ranges, which is home to another LOTR mountain: Mordor. We really shouldn't have watched the LOTR trilogy while here, it's the only entertainment we've watched in a month and it's seared into my brain.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Adventures from the Van: Finding Frodo

It's week three of living in the van, and the hunt for Frodo has been in full throttle while in New Zealand. We are only sticking to the North Island during our two weeks, but that's good for hobbit hunting since the Shire is located somewhere around here.

To quote one of our book of maps "Long before the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy redefined New Zealand's scenic wonders, a 1936 National Geographic article exclaimed: 'here in an area approximately the size of Colorado are grouped the snow-mantled peaks of Switzerland, geysers of Yellowstone, volcanic cones of Java and Japan, and the lakes of Italy: the mineral springs of Czechoslovakia, the fjords of Norway, sea coasts of Maine and California, and waterfalls higher than Yosemite."

We have to completely agree. It has been an experience just to DRIVE around this country. Around every corner we are stopping to take photos and just marvel in the amazing scenery. The hills, spotted with sheep, are the deepest and brighest greens; it's hard to believe it's real.

We started by heading north of Auckland to the Bay of Islands and staying over at a beautiful beach town named Russell. While hiking around the rain forests near our site trying to locate the cute Kiwi bird and somehow stumbled on a bizarre and hilarious ceremony honoring the late Edmund Hillary. It was being lead by a crazy women from New Hampshire - even though the official ceremony was postponed due to an unfortunate canyoning accident from an Edmund Hillary adventure camp. Both of us are completely convinced that she had hit the bottle, hard, before the ceremony. The drive continued through the bay and stopped at the Maori Treaty signing house to take in some of the incredible native carvings (and a few new tattoo ideas for Kate...kidding, kinda). Further south we visited the "Lord of the Forest" the largest Kauri tree in New Zealand. It was pretty much the biggest tree that we had ever seen.

The roads in NZ are not like the usually US Interstates. It's like driving from Aspen to Leadville via Independence Pass to get anywhere, so the going is slow. It's really good that we are only sticking to the North Island on this visit.

We have made our way down to Rotorua via the Coromandel Peninsula. During our pass back through Auckland we realized that our Kiwi transporter, NAV, had some features we had to get rid of: A strange smell of mildew and vomit came out of the vents, so it was time for an upgrade. The VW TDI van is awesome. Her name is Maui and diesel turns her on.

We had a specific adventure in mind for Rotorua, and it is called Zorbing. Basically a Zorb is a large inflatable ball inside of a ball that you can roll around down hills.

They fill it with water (warm today) to make the ride like a slip'n'slide. We laughed ourselves silly today rolling down the hills in New Zealand in large plastic balls. Unfortunately the photos of the adventure are lost, but we do have some epic video footage from inside that we can hopefully post soon.

Rotorua is full of sulphur thermal hot spots, so the town occasionally has a wild odor. That hasn't kept us from our favorite pastime of soaking. Most of the holiday parks we are staying in have hot springs, and we spent a good few hours yesterday soaking away the driving in the lakeside pools at the Polynesian Mineral Pools here in town.

There is one week left in the camper van, and then we head to the island of Nanuya in Fiji for our "honeymoon".

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Adventures from the Van: Adrenaline Aussie style

Rush of water below
Raft guide holding you up so you don't leave his grip too soon


Over the drop with the rest of the water
Breath caught too late.
Inhaled more than just air
Getting pushed deeper into the lava tube
Ears screaming from pressure
Open eyes to search for light.
Green yellow bubbles above
Need air...Swim for it
Light getting bright white getting close now
Surface at last coughing for air
Kate laughing that my sunglasses were still on

Raging Thunder Extreme Rafting really was as extreme as the name. The day was spent getting nearly drowned, willingly of course, in a variety of ways. Getting dropped from 15ft up into a lava tube (not sure how deep) for around 10 seconds, was by far the most ridiculous experience.

A couple of days prior, we made our way up to Airlie Beach to take a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. Not taking any snorkel tours in Thailand, we decided this would be a much better experience. We took a two hour boat ride with 6 foot swells out to a section called Bait Reef. By the time we arrived at the mooring, my head was starting to feel a little light. In the water we went, hoping that would calm the unsettled feeling I was developing. It definitely did! Huge Double-Headed Parrot fish with teeth the size of our fists were chomping away on the coral. The purples, blues, and yellows were outstanding on this portion of the reef. "That was one of the highlights of my life" is what Kate said immediately upon getting back into the boat. Heading back to mainland and the swells were even larger. All I am thinking is hold it...hold it. Common sense made me run to the back of the boat near the motors to find a spot that didn't move around as much. Just in time! Returned the bucket to its spot in its original condition. Phew!

The last of our adrenaline themed activities was canopy surfing in the Daintree rainforest - "where the rainforest meets the sea" is its theme. This was pretty cool since usually the tree tops are so far overhead.

The lush farmlands also let us find the ideal location to be reincarnated as a cow.

If anyone was ever in question about which region to eat a steak from, the answer has been found. Australia. The cows here have acres and acres to roam free and eat as much grass as they want. Just think, you have to pay extra at Wild Oats and Whole foods for grass fed beef, but it appears to be the standard here. No kidding, the entire eastern coastline from Sydney to Cairns is nothing but farmland for cows or sugar cane.

Our road trip in Australia is about done now, and so is my internet card. We have driven around 1700 miles and are bummed to leaving this country after seeing only one coast. Another trip it will have to be!

Afterall, if you do everything the first time 'round, what reason would you have to go back?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Adventures from the Van: Gettin' High down under

(No parents, not that kind of high)

Back to where we left off, Langkawi and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Langkawi was a really chill island reminding us of Maui. After eating the same menu for the last 4 weeks in Thailand, we were ecstatic to see all sorts of food to quench our cravings. We rented a car to drive around and see some sights. This also doubled as practice for driving on the left side of the road. They have an amazing tram ride up to the top to get a spectacular 360 degree view of the island and neighboring country Thailand. After 2 days, we went to Kuala Lumpur to see the only attraction, the Petronas Towers. We really didn't do too much more since we enjoyed our plush hotel with the first true hot shower we had had in too many weeks. Plus, the complimentary happy hour was too good to pass up!

Let the Southern Hemisphere adventures begin!

Sydney is a beautiful coastal metropolis, reminding us of Seattle, Boston, NY, and SF. While in Sydney, we had 3 items on our to-do list: eat a salad, pick up our van, and scale the Harbor Bridge. We had heard about the bridge walk from a couple we had met in China, and it lived up to the expectations. We spent about 3 hours climbing the bridge at sunset and had amazing views of the Sydney Opera House and all of the water front development around the city. The best part was the cheesy pictures that they took for your purchase on various parts of the bridge. We definitely took some doozies!

The next day, we met our home for the next two weeks, VAN. VAN is a single, swinging, extra long white male who enjoys long rides near the beach. He is also our new best friend (can you all tell at this point that we have been LIVING in a van for the past week and are a little crazy?)

After exciting navigation through Sydney at rush hour, we headed to the Blue Mountains west of the city. It is famous for the blue haze that settles over the mountains from the eucalyptus trees. This was the spot for our first night in van where we also experienced the first true frost of the fall. We almost froze to death in VAN and threw on all the layers we owned by the end of the night. After that frozen first night, we decided that if we were going to freeze every night, we might as well be drinking good wine while doing it. So we headed off to the Hunter Valley, birthplace of Australian Shiraz. Our favorite factoid that we learned on our wine tours was from the Wyndham Estate winery. We found out that they employ backpackers to hand-pick their grapes for the premium wines. Needless to say, we were majorly disappointed that the harvest was over.

From the Hunter Valley, we headed towards the famous Gold Coast and epic surfing beaches. Along the way, Kate spied a sign for a Koala rehab/breeding center and almost had a heart attack, so we stopped, fed kangaroos, and encountered a very active koala. The highlight was feeding a mother kangaroo with a joey stuffed in her pouch.

During our drive, the clouds started to build and plagued our next two days on the Gold Coast. Torrential rain kept us off the beaches at Byron Bay and Surfers Paradise, but in Byron, an hour of evening sun let everyone enjoy a killer rainbow and some good waves. Waking up to more torrential rain, we headed north to escape the weather.

After a ridiculously long drive in VAN to Airlie Beach, our efforts have paid off; the sun is shining and we are preparing for a snorkel trip to the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow morning. More adventures from the van will come soon!