India| Vietnam | Cambodia | Laos | Thailand | Malaysia | Indonesia | NZ | Fiji | Cook Islands | USA

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Day 274-277: Taking it Easy

Travelling north of Queenstown on the usual tourist trail – or highway 8 as the signposts would have you believe it's called – you could, and I believe many travellers would – make it to Wanaka within a day. This sort of time:distance ratio is not one that regular readers of this humble blog will know that we like to endorse. It's just too fast. And I don't mean fast in an Emilio-is-over-20-years-old-and-a-1.9 litre-engine-simply-wouldn't-be-capable-of-it kind of way, no...zipping from one big tourist attraction to the next just means you miss out on a lot of stuff.

Beautiful stuff. Interesting stuff. And in the case of Lake Hayes, the first of the three places that I will try shamelessly to promote to you here, free stuff. Ah free, the magic word...free both in the sense that we could wander where we liked and free in the sense that when we ignored the sign that said 'no camping' we were duly ignored by any enforcing body and left to camp, for free, for two nights by this beautiful lake.

We decided to stop by the lake because it had a 2-3 hour walk around it that had caught our eye in Queenstown – in fact the walk isn't all that, it does not offer any better views of the lake than you could get from the little shaded alcove you parked up in when you arrived and there is little-to-no shade on the path, making it a pretty sweaty affair. Luckily a thermocline makes the water a cool but not limb-loosingly freezing place to take a dip. Which is perfect after two and a half hours of intense perspiration.

It also makes for a pretty fun way to wash in the morning; a quick game of one-knee-two-knee with the soap to get used to the cold and it was like washing in our own massive and almost private (there were some confused looking ducks present) bath. Otherwise, apart from book-reading, clothe-washing and dinner-cooking not much else is to be achieved at Lake Hayes. It's glorious.

When we finally managed to drag ourselves away from the lake (incoming clouds helped – had it stayed sunny, I fear that we may never have left) we took the short 6km drive to Arrowtown. Once a hub of the 1860's goldrush, the town is now a tiny living homage to the glorious era gone by. All the shops on the small high street are in the traditional style and there is a homage to the Chinese settlers that were once so badly treated in the area.

Onwards to Cromwell, a larger town that also pays tribute to a time gone by. Unfortunately in Cromwell the “Historical Precinct” is tucked away on the banks of the river and though it has been lovingly restored, it could be - and maybe often is - easily missed.

We had hoped that there would be more to see and do in Cromwell but alas there was not and so we spend the night just outside of town by Lake Dunstan; we shall make it to Wanaka tomorrow I expect, 3 days after leaving Queenstown...yes, that's how we like to do things here.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Day 271-273: 365 battles Burgers and Gravity, only in Queenstown...

So here we were; adrenalin capital of the world, home of the bungy jump and self-professed party capital of New Zealand. Queenstown is a beautiful little town; set on a glistening lake with small streets and lovely botanic gardens that stretch out on a small peninsula. The town centre is – especially by NZ standards – really rather busy. Families and backpackers lounge on the beach, wander around town and fill the many cafes and restaurants.

And there is one eatery in particular that is, without question, the busiest 10m2 in the whole of Queenstown, maybe NZ. It is held in international acclaim and anyone who has been to Queenstown or indeed ever spoken to anyone who has ever been to Queenstown will already know all about Fergburger. But, for the uninitiated, I will try to explain; it's a burger joint. That's basically it but for whatever reason it has become the stuff of legend; to finish a fergburger and chips is to join an elite. Maybe I am the wrong person to muse on the greatness of a small place that sells 16 types of over-sized burgers and little else...I am assured that the burgers are amazing (I can assure you the veggie one I tried was only alright) and, yes, Rob is indeed in the elite – in fact he finished 2 fergburgers over the course of our stay, which means uber kudos points now available in all future conversations about Queenstown for him.

But you're not here to hear about the township are you? No! It's the out-of-town entertainment that Queenstown is really all about. If you've joined us today through the wondrous medium that is facebook you'll already have no doubt enjoyed watching Rob and I throw ourselves into a canyon and if you didn't join us through facebook, don't worry! There's something for everyone here on threesixfive...

Here's the footage of Team 365 on our first and tandem Canyon Swing on the famous Nevis Arc. 70m of free-fall that turns into about 140m of swing all from an alarmingly sudden release. Check it out.

video

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that the look on our wind-swept faces would suggest that this was adrenalin enough for one day but, having seen someone else do the swing upside down, Rob decided to go for it too...

And then, even though my knees were literally shaking and because I don't like to be out-done in matters of bravery, I also decided to do 'the Arc again - upside down - which really was a totally different experience. When your legs are firmly twisted around the supports and you lean your head back to see a vast and empty canyon upside down in front of you, knowing that gravity is about to drag you into it, it's actually terrifying. Then you're released and the canyon floor is rushing at you and all you can hear is the wind in your ears and at the last moment you feel the rush of blood to your head before you peak silently at the other end of the arc and then it's just a breathtakingly beautiful and surprisingly gentle ride up while your insides right themselves and you try to breathe normally again. It's such a rush.

And all before midday, eh? Oooh we've done some crazy things on this trip but that was one big tick-box completed – and the best thing about it is that we'd do it all again if we could :)

[all the professional pics are here]

Friday, 21 January 2011

Day 268-270: Southern Scenic Route; The Grand Finale

The final leg of the Southern Scenic Route was upon us. We were creeping up the western-most road in the south of the South Island and by the time a day-long downpour abated we were at Te Anau; a bustling town that serves as a stock-up-on-petrol-and-food point and gateway to the great Fiordland Mountains.

The Fiordland National Park rolls in undulating mountain ranges, lakes, rivers and glaciers for around 12,500km2 – most of which is inaccessible unless you are very brave, very stupid or Peter Jackson; many of Frodo's infamous adventures where filmed around these ends, you know. But we weren't delving into Middle Earth – we were staying pretty close to civilisation along the winding 120km-or-so road to Milford Sounds, and we were taking our sweet time about it.

All along the road are DOC campsites and lovely clearly-marked walking tracks. The walks seemed to fall into two main categories; under and hour strolls that anyone [grandparents/children/500 Japanese tourists with 499 digital SLRs and 1 16-inch video camera] could do or multi-day treks to far-off destinations for mentalists that actually like walking up hills carrying rucksacks. I am happy to report a full sense of fulfilment and some fantastic photos are the result of completing all of the former and none of the latter.

There is one exception to this rule though; a 3-hour walk up to Key Summit [left] At about 920m above sea level it's not by any means the most challenging walk we've done on this trip but it was rewarding all the same and, though it was a little cloudy, the views from the top were excellent. There was even a self-guided alpine tour around the summit highlighting some of the flora and fauna and explaining how the mountains were formed. God I love the DOC (department for conservation.)

We spent our nights camping by crystal-clear streams and our days walking over swingbridges and past waterfalls until we reached Milford itself. As one of only two Sounds that are accessible to the public (the other, aptly named, Doubtful Sounds is reachable only by boat, then bus, then boat via about 300NZD) it is a truly unique experience.

Lake Milford [below] lies calmly surrounded by a cascading waterfall, curling clouds and endless outlines of almighty mountains.

For me the journey itself was the best thing about getting to remote Milford Sounds, and almost 250km might sound like a long way to drive to look at some old lake; but it is the end of the Southern Scenic Route and it is quite the grand finale.

Day 267: Ode to Invercargill

...because it is right in the middle of the Southern Scenic Route and, I believe that I am being statistically accurate when I say that, no-one has ever heard of Invercargill, ever. Which is a travesty.

Invercargill
, oh forgotten town
Your beautiful gardens opened by the crowd
Yet fame and fortune have let you down
Will the world ever know thy name?

A brewery with the finest ale
The fastest Indian – know that's a tale
Why so over-looked? I softy wail
Ever cherished by those who came

Your town it boasts no bungee rope
You were not built by the steepest slopes
Tell me is there any hope
Of international fame?

You're not that big, you're not that small
You cannot boast a shopping mall
Most will not visit you at all
But I love thee all the same

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Day 264-266: Taking the Scenic Route (not just getting lost)

Taking “the scenic route” hasn't always held positive connotations for me. It's what my Dad used to say on family holidays when we were packed into the car and still no closer to pinpointing the elusive beach we'd set off for 6 hours ago. “We're not lost, we're just taking the scenic route.” Or when he missed the right exit on the M40 because a sister had eaten two tubes of smarties in 30 minutes and been sick on herself at the crucial moment, “not to worry, we'll take the scenic route to Grandad's instead.” Entering the outskirts of Birmingham from Wolverhampton instead of Solihul isn't 'scenic' – it's just longer.

So when New Zealand's 'Southern Scenic Route' sprang out of the side of the road with it's easy-to-follow sign posts and the promise of, well, scenery I guess, I was dubious. But may it never be said that I cannot admit when I am wrong*.

I am writing from a happy mid-point in the route that stretches like a smile across the southern tip of NZ's South Island from Dunedin to Milford Sounds. And so-far, so good. Dunedin (above) is a lovely little town, usually one sixth students by population (but not in the summer holidays...now), there is a town centre with a beautiful church and plenty of shops. The old train station is a living working homage to Victorian times and, if you're willing to part with some cash (we weren't) you can even watch tiny Blue Penguins waddle up the rugged coast and into their nests each night.

South of Dunedin we stopped for a sunny afternoon at Lake Waihola. Maybe Asia has conditioned us to bath-tub temperature water but there was no chance of a dip here, though Emilio got a bit of a wash-down.

The following day we continued on to Kaka Point, where there was a small summer fĂȘte going on; bbq, local cheeses and crafts and pony rides on the beach. About 30 people. The lot. Just past Kaka we were treated to some spectacular views and lots of fur seals and sea lions frolicking below from an old lighthouse at the less-than glamorously named Nugget Point.

I'm not sure if it counts as 'scenic' or just plain mental but one of the highlights for me was 'Tea Pot Land' - just a front garden full of teapots. Every type of teapot you could imagine, it was amazing. And if that wasn't enough we rounded of the day with some cute waterfalls and a beautiful and almost completely deserted beach at Tautuku Bay.

Yeah, I could get into this scenic thing.


*this admission is limited to select cases only. Terms apply

Day 262-263: Icebergs and other unbelievable things

About 100km north of Lake Tekapo, via a winding and unsurprisingly scenic road, lies the small village at the base of Mount Cook - which goes to show just how bloody massive Mount Cook is. For obvious reasons it has become something of a Mecca for mountaineers and there is a beautiful Tourist Information Centre courtesy of the DOC (of course) that details it's history and provides loads of information on what present day visitors can get up to. And I mean up to.

Now obviously as people that have, over the last few months, scaled a few mountains and dare I mention the erupting volcano we positioned ourselves in close proximity to, one may be forgiven for thinking that mountaineering is the next logical step. One could not be more wrong; nothing about having to defy death at every step, put up tents in gale force winds and sleep surrounded by snow...all for potentially days on end, is appealing to me. We opted for some comfortingly-mapped out walking routes.

Of which there are many and all of varying difficulty and offering diverse scenery. All with Mount Cook looming large in the background, of course, with its glistening glaciers, looking like it's been photoshopped in or cleverly painted onto the inside wall of a huge conservatory in a sort of The Truman Show; Serenity in the Southern Alps type thing.

As you can see we had perfect weather for it so it was more than a little bit strange to turn the corner after two hours of walking in blazing sunlight, over swing bridges and through streams, to find icebergs floating calmly in a lake. Ice ages really are incredible things.

Coming up here to the mountains is a bit of a detour, but with time on hands and walking boots firmly on feet it is easily one of the most brilliant detours your likely ever to make.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Day 261: “This is going to be the best day of the trip, isn't it?”

If 365 were writing an all-star menu based on the locations of the food rather than the food itself, it would read pretty much as a diary of 9 January 2011. We rose early to drive to Lake Tekapo where we had been told the weather was “perfect” for spectacular sights.

Before even reaching the lake a bend in the road gave us this ridiculous panoramic view of Mount Cook and the surrounding ranges. We parked up and, sitting on top of a sundial as clouds swept over the mountaintops in front of us, we enjoyed a breathtaking breakfast.

Close up, as we found when we arrived in the small village at Tekapo, the scenery is even more incredible. The lake itself is the colour of peppermint creams, milky and almost opaque in appearance thanks to the glacier that formed NZ's second largest lake around 15,000 years ago. On the edge of the lake sits a church that provides perfect views of the sweeping southern edge.

And perching 1,029m above the tiny church on a mountain of the same name is the Mount John Observatory that, by night, offers an internationally almost unrivalled view of the night sky and, by day, is a perfect spot for a bit of lunch. And so there we were; egg-mayo sandwiches in hand, looking at thousands of years worth of mother nature at her finest. Next to Lake Tekapo itself lies Lake Alexandrina – a spring-sourced lake which means it has a “normal” deep blue colour. Seeing the two shades of lake so close to each other – almost the only features in the otherwise baron landscape - is bizarre. It's beautiful.

What could possibly be better than looking out over the lake and seeing the snow-capped Mount Cook in the distance? How about looking out over the lake and seeing the snow-capped Mount Cook in the distance from the comfort of not one but three hot spring pools? That's right my friends, the afternoon was spent lounging, reading and trying to get the best angle on the under-water massage jets of Tekapo's Hot Springs. They're not naturally occurring springs but my! are they relaxing.

We dragged ourselves away only briefly to whip up some Indonesian-inspired noodles on a sandy bank of the lake. Here the sun stays high in the sky until around 10pm (madness) so we found a shady spot where the lake mirrored the mountains and completed a day of obscenely scenic dining.

Then it was back to the springs for another dip, a warm shower, and a quick coffee because though it had been a wonderful day it was not going to end there. Oh no! We'd earlier secured two of the last places on the Night Tour of St John's Observatory which started at 23:30.

Now, we've been listening to Bill Bryson's wonderful A short history of nearly everything as an audiobook for a while now so we were already, I would say, more interested in space and cosmology than the average non-astrologer. We are by no means experts or even (what a wonderful term) amateur astrologers but science is fun and we were going up a mountain to get closer to it.

As I mentioned earlier, the weather forecast was “perfect” - no clouds and no wind. This doesn't just make for beautiful days, it means sensational nights. By midnight the moon had disappeared and the milky way (the milky way!) was clearly visible, swirling like a luminescent cloud in the sky above us. In fact most of the sky was alight with starts – I've never seen so many. It was bright, actually bright because all the billions of stars were so visible.

Our guide pointed out a number of stars and constellations and we were able to look at specific constellations and galaxies (that's plural galaxies, not just one, galaxies made of billions of stars that are millions of light years away and we were looking at them!) through a few telescopes. We even got to look through a huge 16inch telescope that sits in it's own 'dome' and view the famous Orion constellation. Through the lens you could clearly see the hydrogen and helium cloud that surrounds the 'belt' part of the constellation that branched out like an icy purple glow from the brightest stars. Even faint starts could be clearly seen and this was very unusual. In the 3 years that our guide had worked there he'd never seen Orion so clearly – the perfect conditions were making for some once-in-a-lifetime viewing.

Our timing was spot-on on another front too – the even bigger 24inch telescope that is used by real scientists to search for new planets with (they've found 5 so far...5 new planets from where we were standing!) had just that very day become available and we were the first tour group to be allowed to look through it! There is literally no other way to see stars clearer than we did at around 2am. Unbelievable.

It had been a long and insanely special day when we made it back to our lake-side camp site and Rob said to me “this is going to be the best day of the trip, isn't it?” Well...it's certainly going to take some beating.

Monday, 10 January 2011

257-260: Road trippin' with my two favourite allies

After seven glorious days of sunshine in Christchurch (which is a very odd thing to say about that usually awfully dreary span of time between Christmas and the first few hungover days of January) and with all the bits and pieces we thought we needed for Emilio the Van, we set off in a southward direction and what did it do? It rained.

Not even proper rain, not instantly-drenching all-consuming rain...just English rain. That kind of ever-present drizzle that brings just enough cloud to obscure fantastic vistas and just enough dampness to make you not want to be outside. Which was a shame. Nevertheless we continued on to idyllic Akaroa.

Akaroa is, supposedly, a “French heritage village” but, much like Pondicherry in India before it, the only French thing about it is the street signs. Luckily the quiet bay that it sits on, wrapped around the green mountains bring more than enough je nais se qua to the small settlement. It also boasts the first, of what we hope will become many, free camping sites where we passed the evening with views of the bay from the shelter of our beloved Emilio.

From Akaroa we continued south passing through a number of small towns, each the same. Wide roads, stretching farmland, a small high street of shops and an unnerving general lack of people. Now I know, I know, that New Zealand is famously full of sheep not people but we weren't even seeing many sheep! My concern abated – slightly - when we reached Ashburton; big town, many people, and we parked up by Lake Hood for another rainy night in. But where were the sheep...?

Ah yes! Day 3 on the road didn't bring us much in the way of sunshine but the Peel Forest sure showed us where some of the sheep were hiding. The Peel Forest is an immaculately preserved nature reserve with plenty of walks and a fantastic camp site ran by the DOC (Department of Conservation) who, I'm sure, you'll be hearing more of in the future.

Here there were lots of families on their summer holidays and we managed to pick up some local recommendations from regulars to the area. So after a few walks and a number of gloriously hot showers (gotta get it while you can) we made our way the short distance to the Waihi Gorge.

As we drove down the gravel path to the DOC camp site at Waihi Gorge we knew it was going to be special; huge mountains in every shade of green dotted with white clumps of sheep rose up next to the shallow but perfectly clear Waihi River. Though the water was freezing the skies had cleared and at last! we were blessed with brilliantly blue skies.

From our spot we could hear the farmers whistling to their sheepdogs and the merry bleating of sheep just over the steady flow of the river as it wound through rapids and onwards to the coast. This is the life.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Day 249 - 256: Hello from New Zealand!

Right. First things first – happy new year to you all, now this may seem like a redundant statement on 8 January but things have been pretty busy in the bubble that 365 occupy and I haven't had to chance to wish you well yet. God. First post of the year, and wildly overdue – better make it a good'un. I do have very exciting news on my side, but more on that later...

We arrived safe and sound in recently shook-up Chrsitchurch to find that the earthquake had indeed closed the hostel we'd reserved but the friendly bus shuttle bus driver (we'd found him via the friendly guy at the airport info counter) advised us of another. None of this “my brother has hostel, he make you good price” malarkey – oh no! We were definitely, and somewhat strangely after the best part of 2010, not in Asia any more. There was a short but pleasant walk [note: we were not hotter than the sun itself or drenched in sweat/rain at the end of it] and we were there! Stonehurst Hostel was to be our home for the next few days and the base from which the hunt for 4-wheels to call home was to operate.

Chrsitchurch is a lovely city; there's a beautiful art gallery, cute shopping streets, a vintage tram system and a well-maintained botanic gardens. It's kind of like Bournemouth meets Cambridge, but 100 years ago. It's quaint [all the pics are here.]

We began searching for a campervan by heading to the 'car markets' – basically show grounds for cars and vans that other travellers have driven around and are now selling on, and by checking hostel notice boards for posters that crowd each one. There is something for every taste and budget available here and, apart from knowing we wanted a fixed bed i.e. not an airbed/mattress sitting on the floor or on the folded down seats of a people-carrier, we weren't sure what we were looking for - until we met Emilio.

When Emilio showed us his '87 Toyota Townace I think we both knew it was the one. He and his girlfriend had ingeniously fixed up the then-empty space so that it was possible to have a full bed, a sofa and a table, two bench-like sofas with a table in the middle, all sorts of diagonal table fixtures going in and out of the van, or just have the table free-standing outside. It's difficult to explain, but hopefully it'll show in photos in time. IT also came with all the bedding and cooking necessaries, fold-down chairs and maps too.

Now you might be wondering what I'm getting all excited about table/bed formations for so I'll try to explain. In all the other campervans we saw there is really one two positions you can be in; sitting in the driver or passenger seat or lying in the back. And if it's raining outside you're cooking on your lap or your pillow – which isn't safe or fun, I imagine. So we're hoping that Emilio [we decided to name the van after the man, so our vehicle's full name is in fact Emilio Jose Garcia Rodriguez] will be a more functional and sociable option.

We had to wait until the mechanics re-opened the other side of NYE to get a full service done (passed with no problems) and, despite Nationwide & Santander's combined best efforts and ridiculous practices, we bought the van, signed the papers and became full owners.

It is all terribly exciting. NZ is (like Pai before it) one of those places that everybody we know that has been there has loved. We have not heard a bad word said and now we were here, in 2011, to see it for ourselves. The open road was ours to explore, so we set off...