Friday, June 24, 2011

The art of doing nothing

Day 24: One more day in Canberra

Even though it has only been about three weeks since we have left, it feels as if we have been away for months. But it’s so interesting – especially for Gaurav, who has always lived on a “corporate” schedule (as compared to Rachna the gallavanter) – to not know what day or time it is, and to not even care!

We were supposed to leave Canberra today to go to Wollongong, where there is a large and apparently very beautiful Buddhist Temple, where we were going to spend the night. Everyone insisted we stay an extra night but we had already booked our stay. I guess the kids must have conspired with the universe to make us stay because we found out the temple would be closed tomorrow (the only day we would have to see it), so we cancelled our plans and stayed – to everyone’s (including our) delight!

So today, we did absolutely nothing. We sat around the kitchen, eating and drinking and talking, surfed the net, and sat in the family room and watched movies together into the night.

Nothing much to report except that Ah! Doing nothing is totally underrated!

Thank you so much to Shelly, Amit, Indu aunty, and the kids (Rhea and Krish) for showing us so much love and taking care of us so well! We'll miss you! 

Canberra and relaxation

Day 23: Canberra

Oh, to not have to check out of a hotel – what a wondrous feeling!

Today, we had no plans, and were very thrilled about this prospect. We had a nice leisurely morning catching up with the fam and hanging out with the kids – and eating some of our favourite and much-missed home-cooked food. This is a hands-down winner over eating out three meals a day!

In the afternoon, we went to a mall (wow, haven’t seen (or missed) one of those in a while) to get a hard drive because our pictures have already filled up the laptop hard drive! Then, we visited a few (very few, on our request) sites around Canberra, such as the war memorial and the parliament. Canberra is actually only 100 years old, and was was created as a compromise when Sydney and Melbourne both wanted to be the capital!

We then headed back home to relax before going out for dinner. A nice easing out of the hectic schedule of the past few weeks! Off to sleep – what a tough day!

Mountaintop view of Canberra

The fam (minus Amit, who is taking the pic)

War memorial

Light at the end of the road

Day 22: Home, sweet home

We woke up to a nice big breakfast at our hotel (yay for free food!) and ate to our belly’s delight before getting back on the road to finish up our Blue Mountains drive. We visited some beautiful spots that overlooked mountainous rainforests as far as the eye could see – lush rolling hills teeming with eucalyptus trees all around us. We did a couple of hikes, once again through quite a bit of sludge and rainwater, and saw some more memorable views of the endless mountains.

Then, we made our way down very windy and treacherous cliffside roads to an end-of-the-road valley (we like those end-of-the-road towns!). There, we took an extensive tour through awe-inspiring limestone caves full of stalagtites and stalagmites, helictites and “shawls” made of pure crystal. We could not believe that the original explorers discovered and mapped these caves in the 1800s solely by the light of a candle. It was spectacular! Yay again for nature!

Since it was getting close to evening, we opted out of more cave tours and made our way to Canberra, the capital of Australia, to visit some of Rachna’s family who lives there. 

Arriving “home” after three weeks of being constantly on the go was such a great feeling. There is something to be said about just being able to sit down at a dinner table with a yummy home-cooked meal and have a regular conversation that doesn’t involve trying to figure out our next move! Not to mention hanging out with family and having little kids drape over you with smiles, hugs, and lots of love! There really is no place like home – no matter where it is. 

Rolling mountains

Cave formations

Blue Mountains (well, not exactly)

Day 21: Blue Mountains

This morning, we decided to rent a car for the rest of our Sydney trip and visit a few places out of town. We’re not city people for this trip! So we walked around looking for a car, settled on a fairly reasonably priced one, and made our way to the Blue Mountains – about an hour’s drive outside of the Sydney.

The Blue Mountains are not actually blue, but they are named as such because of the blue haze that rests over them, caused by scattered rays of light coming in contact with fine dust particles and droplets of oils from the eucalyptus forests. The Blue Mountains are actually not even mountains, but a dissected sandstone plateau. It’s all very confusing!

When we reached the first town, we breathed in some nice, crisp mountain air, had a nice breakfast, and made our way onto the scenic mountain drive. We did a few hikes in the rainforest, through some parts of wet mud and large pools of leftover rainwater, saw huge waterfalls amidst the sandstone mountains, stopped at some breathtaking lookouts, and just generally enjoyed being in nature again. One trek that took us under the cliff’s edge as the rainwater flowed down over us was particularly beautiful.

We ended our day in a small town, where we drove around looking for a hotel. We came upon a woman who lived in the town and she asked us for a ride home (it was a bit of an odd situation, but it was our good karma deed, I guess)! We found a hotel, and went into town for some dinner. 

Since our original Tasmania return flight was supposed to be tomorrow, we had to cancel it and incur the exorbitant penalty (because they are no longer cancelling Tasmania flights and the logic of: “we didn’t make it to Tasmania so how could we leave Tasmania” didn’t really get through to them). It all evens out in the grand ledger in the sky, I guess. No point getting upset about something we can’t change! (Look at us being all zen!) 

Waterfall in the mountains

The Three Sisters formation (of spiritual significance to the tribespeople here) 

Sunset at Echo Point

More beautiful colours at sunset at Echo Point


Day 20: Doing nothing in Sydney

We took it easy today – thankfully! We checked out of our hotel, left our stuff there, and went on the prowl for some free internet hotspots that we now know exist all around the country. We tried to book some stuff but decided to put it off and just walk around the city for a bit.

We came across two huge strikes/rallies happening on one of the main streets – ah, the dissatisfied city life! We walked through a bit of the Royal Botanic Garden before sitting in a café there just in time to miss a huge downpour (and us without our raincoats)! Then, we went to see the Sydney Opera House, which was a beautiful piece of artistic architecture, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge by the water.

After our leisurely afternoon, we got a bit stressed about not having a place to stay tonight so we started searching for internet hotspots with no luck. Finally, we went all the way back to our first hotspot to book a place for tonight, but the only thing available was a hostel because apparently, there was a huge rugby game on and a lot of people were in town. Man, we just can’t catch a break with “big” events happening in every city we visit! First it was the Queen’s birthday in NZ, then it was the Queen’s birthday in Melbourne (I mean, how many birthdays does she have?!), and then this rugby match!

So yes, we booked the hostel and, after checking in, vowed never to stay in hostels again. We are not 18 anymore – our hostel days are over!

We then rushed back to the Opera House to catch a show, which ended up being cancelled! So instead, we attended a speaking event by author Matt Ridley. The talk was based on his book Rational Optimism, and he discussed all there is to be optimistic about with the world as it stands now. It was interesting, as he presented facts to show that the world is actually better off now than ever before (despite what media tells us) and is actually going in the right direction. Nice to hear someone being so positive in the world today!

When the talk was done, we went for some dinner and went back to the hostel. In the night, we sat in our sleeping liners on the bed (thank you for the very useful suggestion, Anu) and watched a movie on the laptop, before going off to sleep. 

An uneventful but nice and relatively relaxing day! 

Sydney Harbour Bridge

 Sydney Opera House at night

Beauty and uncertainty

Day 19: Sydney… we hope!

Today, we had to finish up Great Ocean Drive, get back to Melbourne by noon to drop off our rental car, and make it to the airport for our afternoon flight to Sydney! A little stressful, but nothing we can’t handle!

We got up before dawn and headed out on our drive as soon as we saw the sun rising over the ocean outside our window. The sunrise was fabulous. We stopped at a couple of lookouts, saw waterfalls, drove through the rainforest, and generally tried to get through the sights on our tight schedule.

Today’s drive didn’t take as long as yesterday’s (less sights to see) and we opted not to do any hikes for lack of time. We got back to Melbourne in time to drop off our car, book a hotel in Sydney for tonight, and head to the airport for our flight.

We got to the packed airport (flights have been cancelled left, right, and centre because of this volcanic ash cloud) and just prayed that our flight would go. We checked into our flight, and waited at the airport for news. And as we feared, flights started getting cancelled around us, but this time due to “engineering” issues with our airline! Ack!

With our flight getting delayed and delayed and delayed, we started getting really worried. At one point, they even started boarding our flight, but then actually “unboarded” it because of issues with the plane! Then, they cancelled the Sydney flight after ours, and another couple of flights around the country as well. We were ready to leave Melbourne, but couldn’t!

Finally, after the two remaining flights took off, the last announcement of the night came. Our flight was… a go! As soon as they opened that gate, we ran onto the tarmac and rushed the plane before they could change their mind!

And, thankfully, we did take off. Since we were so late arriving in Sydney, we were also thankful we already had a hotel booked for the night and didn’t have to search for one! We got to our hotel, dropped off our stuff, had some dinner in Chinatown, and went back to pass out, yet again, right before vowing to spend tomorrow doing nothing, or close to it.

Sunrise over the coast

 Sandstone rock formation

Great Ocean Drive

Day 18: Great Ocean Road

We’re both not feeling too well, so we decided to take it easy this morning and leave at a leisurely pace. Great Ocean Road is a 300km drive along the coast near Melbourne, with spectacular views and sights to see along the way. The “mountains” are actually limestone and sandstone stack formations that have eroded over millions of years, sometimes leaving pieces of these formations in the middle of the ocean like lone pillars.

We started the drive in Warrnambool itself, with a visit to the ocean and the soft, soft sands on the beach, where the whales come to calve during the winter, and which is also one of the many surfer spots along the coast. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any whales (but we did see surfers) and we couldn’t stay too long, since we had a lot of driving to do today.

We moved on and stopped at beautiful lookouts along the drive, seeing gorgeous beaches and formations in the waters all along the coast. We were so happy to be back in nature!

When we stopped at an information centre part of the way in to find out what there was to see, we were told we would need days to see everything (which we didn’t have)! So we rushed out of there, and decided to see as much as we could and get as far as we could on the drive before sundown. We rushed to some spectacular sights, and spent some time by the ocean at sundown before deciding to call it a day. In about 10 hours spent driving today, we only covered about 170km of the 300km drive (not including the extra 150km it will take to get to Melbourne)! There were just so many things we wanted to enjoy!

Finally, we drove through rainforests out to a small town and decided to break there for the night. We roamed various hotels and motels for rates and chose one with a view of the ocean (which we didn’t see because it was night)! We had dinner and just relaxed. More driving tomorrow!

Our little rock stack (we're building them everywhere!)

A cove, a sandstone formation, and the ocean

A formation aptly named London Bridge 
(it fell down about 20 yrs ago, stranding two people on the remaining island
- they were saved a few hours later)

Tasmania... um, no

Day 17: Great Ocean Drive

We checked out of our hotel this morning around 5am and lugged out to the airport. When we tried to check in for our flight, we were sent to the customer service desk, where we were told that our flight was cancelled. Why, you may ask? Apparently, a volcano erupted in Chile a week ago, and the volcanic ash has drifted over the Atlantic Ocean, over Africa, over the Indian Ocean, and over the Pacific to create a cloud over southern Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand. Umm, ok.

After being at a loss about what to do, we decided to go back to our hotel, uncheck out, and at least sleep a few more hours before figuring out what the heck to do! The hotel was nice enough to give us our room back. We slept for a few hours, re-checked out, left our bags there, and decided to look for a car to rent to salvage what we could of the day.

We found a car (and on the way, free internet hotspots!) and decided to head out on our last sight to see around Melbourne. Since our plans were kind of thwarted, we were kind of stressed out. We tried to book some other stuff and finally decided to avoid Tasmania for now, finish up our Melbourne trip, and go to Sydney in two days, instead. We booked our flight out to Sydney, and since we were getting such a late start out of Melbourne, booked a hotel for tonight in a town at the end of Great Ocean Drive so we could start the drive backwards to Melbourne tomorrow. 

The drive was mostly in the dark so we didn’t see much – our goal was just to get out to Warrnambool so we could sleep well tonight and do the drive tomorrow. 

(no pics on this post - didn't do anything today!) 

Kangaroos, Koalas, Wallabies... oh my!

Day 16: Phillip Island and back to Melbourne

This morning, we didn’t have much of a plan except to get back to Melbourne sometime during the day. We had breakfast and found some free internet at the library to try booking some stuff (which never happened). We wasted so much time that it was lunchtime, so we went back to the Thai place and ate some good food – who knows when we would get a tasty meal like that again!

We then went to a wildlife reserve where we saw lots of animals native to Australia, including kangaroos and wallabies that were roaming free on the acres of land. It was cool, but a little zoo-like (though the kangaroos and some wallabies were free to roam in acres of land) – so it wasn’t as cool as seeing them in the wild.  We did get to feed them as they came right up to us (they’re used to it, with all the visitors), but it was a little intimidating as they jumped towards us with excitement!

After that, we went to a koala sanctuary, where we walked through more boardwalks across the trees and saw some koalas in their natural habitat. Did you know koalas sleep 20 hours a day because their diet of eucalyptus leaves is so light, they need to preserve their energy? Nice life!

After the sanctuary, we visited a winery on a mountain by the ocean, before heading back to Melbourne. When we got back to the city, we needed to find a hotel, so we drove around and stopped into a whole bunch (which were mostly sold out or ridiculously expensive because apparently it was the Queen’s birthday long weekend)! So we found one hotel and we took it! We had leftover Thai for dinner and passed out – we have an early morning tomorrow!

Gaurav feeding the kangaroos

Lazy koala

Stealth little penguins

Day 15: Phillip Island and a Penguin Parade

True to our last-minuteness on this trip, we woke up with no clue what to do today. Finally, we decided to rent a (particularly expensive) car to take a trip to Phillip Island. The drive was short, and the rolling hills reminded us of our first love – New Zealand.

We arrived at the info centre in Phillip Island and the very helpful customer service lady helped us book a hotel for the night (at a discount – yay)! We then made it out to the main attraction! We got front-row seats on the boardwalk and waited…

When nightfall came, we saw them, sneaking in from the ocean like little stealth spies… clusters and clusters of tiny little 32-inch tall penguins! After spending days and sometimes weeks in the Bass Strait looking for food for their family at shore, the penguins come back to shore in the guise of darkness and sneak over to their burrows, trying to avoid predators by leaning low to the ground and coming up only in small groups. It was an amazing sight! Nature is truly wonderful!

We weren’t allowed to take pictures or get near them so as not to disturb their natural habitat and their nightly schedule, but it was truly fantastic! They trotted along, pausing at times like little statues – as if they knew someone was watching them.

When we followed the last of the penguins searching for his home as far as we could see, we dropped our stuff off at the hotel, and went to the one-road town to have one of the best Thai meals we have ever eaten – finally, some good food!

Now, time to rest on a full belly!

 Wild Kangaroos

 Shores of Phillip Island

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A "holy" flight

Day 14: A destined meeting, a fateful flight

We woke up ridiculously early today to drop off our rental car, grab a cab, and make it to the airport for our 7am flight to Melbourne. After buying some cheesy souvenirs from the airport gift shop (yes, we actually forgot to go into any stores while in NZ – but we just couldn’t get enough of the mountains), we sat by our gate waiting for our flight to board.

That’s when it happened.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama walked by us.

He walked through the gate, and onto… you guessed it… OUR FLIGHT.

At first, we didn’t know if he was on our flight or not, but as soon as we approached our aircraft, we saw him sitting there, in the front seat (in economy class!), surrounded by his entourage of other monks and many personal security guards. We were awestruck, dumbfounded, elated! People wait their whole lives to meet him, and of all the flights in all the world, he walked onto OURS!

As we entered the plane, we caught his eye, smiled at him (and he smiled back!) and we both bowed our heads with our hands clasped in front of us in respect.

Talk about a safe flight! We actually flew with the Dalai Lama as the orange glow of the sun rose above the clouds outside our window! We felt so blessed to have “met” him, and were in awe pretty much the rest of the day.

During our entire trip throughout NZ, we couldn’t help but feel that we must have done something pretty amazing in our life to deserve all that we have had the opportunity to experience. But that was the kicker. What a perfect end to our trip through New Zealand, and what a perfect beginning to the next leg of our trip.

This blog entry could/should end there, but that was actually only the beginning of our day! We arrived in Melbourne, took the shuttle to the city, and had to find a place to stay (last-minute, remember)! So we managed to find some internet, booked a hotel, and went to drop off our stuff and grab a much-needed meal. We napped (we haven’t slept much over the last few days), walked around the city a bit, had some dinner (the food here is so much better than NZ – and so much more reasonably priced!), and then explored the area. Melbourne seems to be a city full of hidden gems down tiny alleyways, and we found some pretty cool places tucked around corners!

On our way home, we happened to walk into a bar where break dancers were battling and rappers were free-styling! The breakers and the DJ were amazing. I (Gaurav) had to go with the flow and show the kids some old-school flavor and, for a short period of time, be part of the underground breakin/hip-hop culture in Melbourne.  I soon realized my body has changed and I am not as fit as the younguns, but it could have just been the hiking and trekking in the last couple of weeks (as Rachna laughs at me in the background)!

We went back to the hotel and bought some internet time to book some stuff. No plan for tomorrow yet, but we know the things we want to see, so hopefully it will all work out!

Watching the sunrise with His Holiness

Graffiti art that pulled us into an alley to a hidden bar

The top of a glacier and the ends of a million rainbows

Day 13: Franz Josef Glacier

Today took us over the top, yet again! Words cannot begin to express what we experienced. We woke up to clear skies and great weather – a perfect day for our tour…

We signed in, got outfitted with our gear, and… climbed into a helicopter (our first time ever)! The flight took us over the Franz Josef Glacier, one of the few glaciers in the world to exist amidst a rainforest! On the short flight, we saw a waterfall with a rainbow going across it and then, we landed on the glacier and got off the helicopter for our hike! Yup, as if our life couldn’t have gotten any more interesting, we hiked up a glacier! At first, it felt precarious (of course), but we soon got used to stomping through the ice with our cramps (spikes). We climbed into blue-ice glacier caves, heard the glacier breaking off all around us, hiked up to a view of a massive waterfall with yet another rainbow running across it, and drank the freshest water from little streams of melting ice running down the glacier, as pure and natural as water can get. We spent over 2 hours on the glacier walking through amazing naturally sculpted art made up of caverns and gigantic ridges before being picked up by the helicopter and deposited back on solid ground. The entire experience was so exhilarating, we were giddy for hours afterwards!

Right after the glacier hike, we had to get back into our car and drive all the way back to Christchurch (a 5-6 Hour drive) for our flight out of New Zealand tomorrow. This country is extremely catered to backpackers, so most places are quite casual and there are a lot of hitchhikers who spend months travelling the country. We picked up a hitchhiker – a young guy from the Netherlands who was going in our direction (more good karma) and he rode with us for about an hour or so. He seemed to have the same travel plans as us but he was doing it over 8 months! On the drive, we saw SO MANY rainbows, it was actually unreal. We actually lost count after we passed more than 10 of them – single rainbows, double rainbows, half rainbows, full rainbows, bright rich rainbows, fading rainbows… you name it, we saw it. We couldn’t believe our eyes. What a way to end our trip – what a way to spend our last day!

We dropped off our new Dutch friend at a town along the way, and continued our drive. We saw the sun set over the Tasman Sea, and drove through more mountains and valleys as the sky got darker and darker. And as if our day couldn’t get better, we even managed to see the endangered Kiwi bird running across the road in front of us just before the sun completely set! Wow! Our trip felt so complete! The rest of the drive was pretty precarious, though, because it was extremely dark, and the roads all zig-zag through mountains so none of them have streetlights. We also hit quite a few patches of extremely dense fog, during which we couldn’t see barely two feet in front of us, so we had to drive ridiculously slow to make sure we didn’t fall over the cliffs into the valleys below! Gladly, we made it safe and sound to Christchurch!

Unfortunately, Christchurch was hit with a massive earthquake a few months ago, with a slew of aftershocks – the latest having happened a few days ago – and so driving through the town (which was mostly closed) and seeing all the rubble was devastating. A very sad way to end the trip, but something that truly made us appreciate the fragility of the world we have made, and to respect nature even more. We checked into our hotel, grabbed a quick bite, and went back to try to get some sleep. We have a very early flight to Melbourne, Australia tomorrow morning. 

We are going to miss New Zealand so much! After having started our trip off on such a high note, we don’t know how we’re going to feel in the next place. Hopefully we won’t spend too much time comparing things to NZ! The country and the people have been so good to us, and we are so thankful to have had the opportunity to spend two weeks here. Ah New Zealand, thank you so much! We will carry you with us forever. 

Franz Josef Glacier (can you spot the group of 9 hikers?)

On the glacier and under a glacier! 

Double rainbow... the first of countless rainbows on our drive

Friday, June 17, 2011

Weather glitch, but still more beauty!

Day 12: Franz Josef

We got up extremely early this morning to make the 4-5 hour drive to Franz Josef, to make it in time to do an afternoon activity. We started our drive out in the dark under the thousands of stars through precarious mountain roads (as usual), and it was so interesting to be surrounded by mountains but not be able to see them. We had the fortune of enjoying the sun rise over the mountains and hit the tips of them, illuminating everything around us. Again, just breathtaking!

The drive, like every other drive, was spectacular. We drove through more rainforests and mountains, forests filled with unique towering trees (the vegetation in this country is so different!), lakes and rivers, and the Tasman Sea. We didn’t stop too much, seeing as how we had to make it to the town by a certain time, but we did enjoy the scenery.

When we got to Franz Josef, our tour (which we will only tell you about once we do it) was cancelled due to weather conditions. So we opted to drive to another little town down the road, where we walked on the shore of the Tasman Sea with the tides coming in at full force onto the shore. There, we made another rock stack (this is starting to become a little thing we do)! Then, we did a trek into the rainforest and reached a lookout point, from which we could see the sea filling up rivers into the town, and a lagoon by some cliffs in the distance. Every place we visit in New Zealand still manages to amaze us. You would think this would get old at some point, but it simply hasn’t! 

We went back to Franz Josef, visited some hot pools, had some dinner, sat in a sauna and hot tub, and slept a much-needed sleep! 

Tomorrow is going to be a big day! 

 Our rock stack (to the left) against the Tasman Sea

Living in the moment

Day 11: Queenstown

This morning, we woke up to a beautiful view of the mountains surrounding us (again!) and headed back to Queenstown. Since Milford Sound is at the end of the road, we snaked back through the same rainforests and mountains as on our way in, but it all seemed new again. Every time we see something, it feels as if we are seeing everything for the first time. And though we have seen so many mountains and trees and sheep, it never seems to get old. The awe remains.

And again, the weather was great! Whatever was foggy yesterday was clear today, and vice versa, so we managed to see everything there was to see across the two days of our trip! We got back to Queenstown and spent the evening planning and booking a few things. It is stressful to do things so last-minute, but there is also a sense of just enjoying everything as it is happening and seeing what we feel like doing next. Its kind of zen – living in the moment! 
 Sheep, sheep, everywhere!

Lucky, fortunate, privileged, blessed... thank you!

Day 10: Milford Sound

Our trip just keeps getting better and better! Today blew our mind away… AGAIN! Just when we thought we had seen the most amazing things, we find something new that completely takes our breath away!

Today, we drove toward Milford Sound, another end-of-the-road town like Aoraki/Mount Cook. The drive was, once again, spectacular. On the five-hour drive, we passed through so many different landscapes, and we kept getting surprised with new and amazing things to photograph! It was like every turn held a new gift! We drove through windy mountains, stopped for a herd of sheep crossing the road to go grazing, saw deer farms (apparently a big thing in this area), passed by a town with a whopping population of 72, drove through tufts of clouds, watched rivers raging below us, walked through a rainforest, watched a chasm carve out a path through large boulders, witnessed hundreds of waterfalls dropping from miles high, and saw enormous mountains and cliffs end in lakes all around us. And that was just the drive!

This time, instead of a glacier, the road ended in a Sound (also known as a Fjord), which is a narrow inlet that snakes its way through the mountains from the sea. It is hidden between the mountains so you cannot see it from the sea (some early explorers didn’t find it, even after several voyages).

We checked into our hotel in the middle of the mountains, and then went to the bay to join our cruise through Milford Sound. Once again, there are no words to describe our experience. The cruise took us through the sound, through a hidden oasis of mountains, rainforests, waterfalls, and sea animals (dolphins, sea lions, and birds)! We saw another rainbow (another full one, from one end to the other), watched dolphins swim and jump by our boat, were soaked by a waterfall, saw sea lions sleeping on a rock, watched the sun set through the mountains, and had lost complete function of our awe by the end of it all (actually, we had lost that at the beginning of our day)! 

We still can’t believe it. Each day, our jaw hurts because we are perpetually dragging it along with us everywhere we go! Everything we see just gets more amazing than the last thing! It almost feels so unfair to write blog entries about all of this beauty because unless you see it with your own eyes, you cannot comprehend just how breathtaking it all really is! We cannot even imagine going back to a “regular” life after all of this – and we’re only at the beginning of our trip! The one thing we keep feeling every day is how unbelievably lucky we are to be having this experience. We are so fortunate. We are so privileged. We are so blessed. And “Thank You” are the only two words we have managed to say that mean anything.  

Mirror Lakes, on the way to Milford Sound

Waterfall, rainbow, dolphins... heaven

Milford Sound

Sunset in the Sound

Wine in the mountains

Day 9: Queenstown

We took the liberty of waking up a little later than usual today. After so much activity in the past week, a little extra sleep was welcome! We had no plan for the day, so we headed out of our hotel to go to town. Since we had arrived at night last night, we didn’t have a chance to see what Queenstown looked like. We stepped into the lobby of our hotel to see floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Lake Wakatipu and the mountains aptly named The Remarkables! Wow.

We went to town to book our stay for tomorrow night (details to follow), had a nice little homemade sandwich (thanks for the inspiration, Monique!) at a park with a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains and the water lapping up on the shore in front of us, and then decided to do a winery tour in Gibbston, a town just over from Queenstown.

On the way to the wineries, we were very excited when we saw another beautiful rainbow! Then, we gave a ride to two girls whose car broke down and who were backpacking to another town to do some conservation work with birds in the area. First time picking up hitchhikers! Good karma!

The main type of wine in NZ is Pinot Noir. The grape vines were brought over from France in the early 1900s, with the logic that since Queenstown was at the same latitude as France, the Pinots would grow well in the same kind of climate. So we did a few tastings of the Pinots and some Rieslings, had a tour of a wine cave with a cellar, and tasted some yummy cheeses. We visited three wineries and then went back to town to grab dinner and take it back to our hotel.

Unfortunately, the only downside of NZ is the food. We have yet to have a good meal (besides the ones that we prepared and the one Korean meal in Rotorua), and considering that the food is so expensive, it should be much better! (Although it could be that our taste buds are used to much more salt and spices than the Kiwis (a.k.a New Zealanders) are used to.) Sadly, we’ve actually resorted to Subway (three times) and McDonalds (a painful once) because we didn’t have any other options! But we can’t really complain – all that NZ doesn’t have in food, it has in everything else, so we’re still really happy! 

Tomorrow’s a big day! 

View of the Remarkables

Grape vine over the mountains

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Blog Entry with No Title

Day 8: Aoraki/Mount Cook
This blog entry has no name because we could not find any words to describe what we saw today. We woke up in the morning to a spectacular view of huge snow-capped mountains outside our window. After dealing with a minor gas snafu, we drove over to a trail we wanted to walk. The drive itself was gorgeous, on a gravel road with tremendous mountains flanking us on every side. Everywhere we looked, there it was again – the awe. Actually, awe may not be a fair word to use – there may be no word to describe everything we were seeing. It was so unbelievable, we could barely even explain it to each other (especially with our jaws open) – but we both felt it!
We headed up the first of four trails, and reached the top of one mountain. There, we saw it: the Tasman Glacier – the largest glacier in the Southern hemisphere (aside from the Antarctic). Actually, not only did we see it, we were standing on a glacier! Now, it’s not what one would expect – the one we were standing on had about 1-2 meters of rock on it, below which was pure and solid glacier. The one in front of us, however, looked as one would think a glacier would: white and blue and snowy and icy! Nevertheless, there we were, on a glacier looking at a glacier. And if that wasn’t enough, we turned to our right and saw ICEBERGS floating in the Tasman Lake at the base of the glacier! Umm, yeah. Glaciers and icebergs. Surreal. Awe. Besides explaining it in the poor words we’ve chosen, we cannot express the feeling of standing there, experiencing all of that. It is something one must see for themselves to understand, and we still feel so unbelievably fortunate to have had this opportunity.
What was interesting to learn was that since the glacier is melting, the Tasman Lake is actually a new lake – about 20 years old. And about 100 years ago, the glacier we were on was much much higher than it was today. And in years to come, this will all look different again. Just crazy, and particularly saddening that this beauty could one day be lost (but it could give birth to new beauty!).
So after this (as if this experience could be beat), we went down to another trail, which took us to a few small lakes, which had somewhat frozen over like the Tasman Lake. Again, just more and more beauty.
Then, we headed to a third trail, which took us down to the bottom of the mountain/glacier to the Tasman Lake. There, we were even closer to the icebergs, and they were so huge! We couldn’t believe it again! We just kept getting wowed over and over again. Can you imagine the feeling of standing on a glacier looking out at icebergs? It just shifts your perspective. We were so small standing there, and there was no way for us to feel big. It was impossible. The feeling of being so small compared to all this grandeur was so beautiful, so welcome. I hope we will carry that feeling with us for a long time to come.
Finally, we cut across to the fourth and final trail of our day. We didn’t know what to expect until we reached the end and were standing face to face with the icebergs in the Tasman Lake, with water rushing out to the Tasman River right by our side. Awe. And since we were there, no rock in the world could stop us from making our way almost out onto the water to touch one of the glaciers (one of the smaller ones that was closest to us, of course). Awe. Awe. Awe.
We had thought that the trails and views that Monique and Myles had shown us in the North Island would be hard to match, but there we were, matching them. Though different in every way, the trails we have been on have all been so utterly inspiring that we are only able to use faded words like “beautiful” and “spectacular” and “breathtaking” to describe them because when it comes right down to it, there are no words in any language to explain this feeling. And that’s ok.
After our treks, which took us about 3-4 hrs, we drove our way down towards Queenstown. On the way, more gorgeous scenery and… more sheep! We passed through the Lindis Pass, which was a very narrow road that passed through a heavily mountainous area, with the mountains almost touching the road, they were so close! We were completely surrounded and just when we didn’t think it was possible to feel more, in the reserve wells of our heart, we found even more awe.
We made it to Queenstown in the evening and in our desperate attempt to make hotel reservations for the next two nights, we bought fries at McDonalds just to get their “free” 30-minute wireless internet connection. Right at the 28-minute mark, we booked our hotel through a US website since they were a day behind us (yup, very very last minute)! Ha New Zealand time zone! We can time travel! 
We dropped our stuff off, went to town to grab some dinner, and then came back and relaxed in our room. We don’t know what the next few days will hold, but we are sure it will be spectacular. It always is. 

The road to the Tasman Glacier
The Tasman Glacier

The Icebergs (to gain perspective, find the yellow boat) 

Due South

Day 7: Lake Tekapo and Aoraki/Mount Cook
Early this morning, we grabbed our short flight from Auckland to Christchurch, and rented a car at the airport (yes, as last-minute as you can get)! This is going to be our car for our entire tour of the South Island. We drove from Christchurch down to Lake Tekapo, where there was a beautiful view of the lake with snow-capped mountains in the background.  We stopped by a tiny church overlooking the lake, and then headed down by the water, where there were tons of rocks, and people had built rock stacks (called rock balancing) everywhere. Of course, we built one too, right before we left! We then drove all the way to Aoraki/Mount Cook. The entire drive was so scenic and spectacular, with massive mountains surrounding us on all sides, and sheep grazing just about everywhere! New Zealand seems to be all mountains and sheep! We’re not complaining, though – we’re loving it!
We drove through more (steeper) mountains to reach Aoraki/Mount Cook, which is essentially a teeny tiny one-circular-road town built at the base of some gigantic mountains. We arrived in the evening, but since it’s winter, it gets dark here pretty early. The town was really really small. We found a place to stay (of the three places to choose from), and though it was somewhat pricey, we were happy to have a nice place to sleep for a night.
The silence here is indescribable. Actually, the silence pretty much anywhere we go in New Zealand is so wonderful. If you just stop, you can actually hear what nothing sounds like. And it may be one of the most inspiring sounds in the world.
Also, there are stars everywhere! More stars than we’ve seen anywhere in the world! With barely any buildings anywhere in the country, there is nothing unnatural to block out the beauty of the night. And is it ever stunning! A night sky full of millions of stars you can actually see – it’s almost as if we never knew that this many stars even existed! It definitely puts the size of our life into perspective. (Another fun fact about NZ: instead of following the North Star like us, they follow the Southern Cross constellation! And here, we see the same constellations but at a different angle than in the northern hemisphere...) Pretty cool (or maybe not – everything seems cool to us these days)!
Anyhoo, a good night’s rest tonight, and can’t wait to do some treks in the morning!
p.s. We have also been so fortunate that the weather has been on our side in every place we have visited, and hopefully we will continue to be so lucky! It’s been chilly, but not unbearable with the right number of layers. Winter here isn’t as bad as we were worried it might be. Yay! 
 Our very own Rock Stack on Lake Tekapo

Friday, June 3, 2011

Volcanoes, Geothermal Areas, Craters... oh my!

Day 6: Rotorua
When we arrived in Rotorua, a distinct “smell” welcomed us. No, it wasn’t us – it was the smell of the minerals in the geothermal waters! The entire town and everything in it smells like sulfur (like rotten eggs, for those who don’t know what sulfur smells like)! It’s quite gross, but after a whole day here, we kind of got used to it. I guess that’s how the people who live here can stand it.
After breakfast, we went to Wai-O-Tapu, one of the many geothermal areas near the town. There, we saw a geyser erupt (when hot water combines with colder water in an hourglass shape inside the earth), but it was induced (with a natural type of detergent), so we almost heckled the guy, but refrained! We hate tourist traps! 

We then headed down a long pathway to see craters and natural mineral pools and terraces – all with boiling, bubbling waters and steam vents (of over 100 degrees celsius) right at our feet! It was a very unique experience to be walking through and surrounded by natural volcanic activity. 

Once we finished the walk through the geothermal park, we spent the next few hours at a spa in town, wading in the mineral pools that boast healing properties. I don’t know if we were healed or not, but it was a nice and relaxing day after our hectic schedule of the last few days.
After the spa, we drove back to Auckland airport and are staying the night at a hotel nearby to catch our early morning flight to Christchurch so we can start on our tour of the South Island. We still can’t believe we’re only on Day 6 of our trip! We still have so many more things to see and places to go – how exciting to know this is only the beginning! North Island was fantastic, and an incredible way to begin our journey. The trip has already exceeded our expectations, and we can’t wait to see what beauty awaits us in South Island! 
Standing next to the Lady Knox geyser

 Champagne Pool in the Geothermal area