Big Question Marks

Monday, January 30, 2012

Morning Tea with K-Rudd

My workplace was in a flurry recently as I walked in to find that everyone had been cleaning madly for the past few days. While the (grocery) store was looking great, I knew that this wasn't all for naught.

I could only visualize a scene from North Korea where steel workers were tidying up for Kim Jong-Il's (1941-2011) imminent visit. Who could possibly be showing up?

Luckily I didn't have to clean everything much to the chagrin of my workmates, but with a few inquiries the visitor was revealed: Kevin Rudd.
Yes, former Prime Minister of Australia was on his way to my grocery store to pitch a tea for Twinings.

Quick history: K. Rudd was elected PM when we first arrived in Australia in 2007 - he had a catchy slogan: "Kevin '07", a 'hip' nickname: "K-Rudd" (for the kids), he was almost always drawn as Tintin in political cartoons, but mostly (our favourite) was a t-shirt emblazoned with: "Viva la Kevolution" with Rudd's face in place of Che Guevara's iconic photograph.


Needless to say that based solely on these things, and being new to the country, K-Rudd became our new favourite politician.

Subsequently Kevin '07's term as PM came to an abrupt end in 2010 when (we had left the country), his political party - the Australian Labour Party, sacked him in some sort of mutiny.
But, he's still a politician serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs - and now is also serving Twinings tea at the grocery store where I work!

I entrenched myself among the photographers and news cameras that had set up inside the lobby when Kevie showed up (2 hours later), and gave his pitch for a charity tea blend that gives 100% of the profits to the RSPCA (an animal charity).

At one point during the show, he poured out some tea and offered it to the media. Quick like a bunny, I stuck up my hand, "Sure, I'll take one please."
"You take milk with that, mate?", he replied.
"Two please, Mr. Rudd."
"There ya go mate!"

The tea was good, but being served tea by the former Prime Minister was better. It definitely got my vote! (Nuk nuk nuk!)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

5 Great Things About Xmas in Queensland

1. Sticking your feet in the sand... on Xmas!

Yeah, it's hard not to love spending Christmas at the beach. Ask anyone in Brisbane where they're spending their festive season and you'll always get the same answer: "On the coast." We were lucky to get invited to stay with our friend's family on the Sunshine Coast at their house, a five-minute walk from the beach. There was no ocean swimming to be done though -- the waves were huge and scary, thanks to the tail-end of a cyclone that passed off the Queensland coast that week. The cyclone must have whipped the waves up something terrible, as the beach was aflurry in this strange bubbly foam, that broke off from the waves in chunks and flew around in the air like soap bubbles. We loved chasing it as much as the dogs who were visiting the beach.

2. Mangoes

Christmas coincides with another important time of year in Australia: mango season! At Christmas, people buy Queensland mangoes by the box... and they are as delicious as they are fun to peel and eat.

3. Jean shorts = unofficial Qld Xmas uniform

There were no Christmas sweaters to be seen this year... Christmas is a pretty informal event here. And truly, why bother getting all snazzed up to hop from house to house and eat and drink with family, friends and neighbours? People get more dressed up for Saturday night at a pub (or Melbourne Cup Day) than they do on Xmas. It was kind of fun!

4. Swimming pools in 30 degree weather

Need I say more?

5. Neighbourhood cricket games

Boxing Day was our first introduction to the peculiar game of cricket. There was a friendly neighbourhood game organized by one guy whose  family was visiting from Sri Lanka, where cricket is also a big thing. We were enlisted to help up the numbers (no previous experience required) and it was soon our turns to bat. First off, batting for cricket is nothing like baseball, where you hold the bat above your shoulder and watch the bad pitches go by - well, at least this game wasn't like that. Lesson 1: You can swing for any pitch at all (I hit a ball from a pitch that came in behind my head) and even if the ball bounces while on its way to you, it's still fair game. Lesson 2: If you DO hit the ball, you don't have to run if you think your hit is kind of crap. But if you do choose to run, the strangest thing is, you're required to run WITH the giant paddle... which is easier said than done when your instincts have trained for your entire lifetime to toss the bat aside and RUN as soon as you hit the ball. That and you're running back and forth, back and forth between a couple of sticks, with, as Bill Bryson describes it*, "a mattress strapped to each leg". Fielding is even more of a hoot. Depending where you choose to stand (which is anywhere, unlike a game of old-fashioned baseball), which means the ball may NEVER come to you. Which means it's the perfect game to play with a beer in your hand. Which is probably the reason why this country likes cricket so much. We have no idea which team won, but we did manage to work on our tans a bit while waiting for the ball to arrive in our vicinities.


There are lots of other great things about spending Xmas here in Oz, and lots of little differences to what we're used to. We found it interesting that preparing a stuffed turkey isn't really a thing at all here -- and Christmas lunch seemed to be the thing to do, rather than Christmas dinner. Prawns (aka shrimp) and salads replaced the turkey and potatoes (though we missed the mashed potatoes!). It was a lovely hot day made up of eating, swimming, and random neighbours dropping by the house -- and we made our families just a tad jealous via Skype -- but perhaps just because it wasn't at all like what we're used to, it only vaguely felt like Christmas. And of course, we missed our families and friends, but maybe we'll be back in the snowy north for a white Christmas sooner than we think. You never know. Hope you all had a happy holidays! xoxo D&A

Happy holidays! [image from]

* Oh yeah. While we're on the topic, Bill Bryson's unique take on cricket always makes us laugh....

"After years of patient study (and with cricket there can be no other kind) I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the game that the introduction of golf carts wouldn't fix in a hurry. It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavours look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect. I don't wish to denigrate a sport that is enjoyed by millions, some of them awake and facing the right way, but it is an odd game. It is the only sport that incorporates meal breaks. It is the only sport that shares its name with an insect. It is the only sport in which spectators burn as many calories as players - more if they are moderately restless. It is the only competitive activity of any type, other than perhaps baking, in which you can dress in white from head to toe and be as clean at the end of the day as you were at the beginning.

Imagine a form of baseball in which the pitcher, after each delivery, collects the ball from the catcher and walks slowly with it to centre field; and that there, after a minute's pause to collect himself, he turns and runs full tilt toward the pitcher's mound before hurling the ball at the ankles of a man who stands before him wearing a riding hat, heavy gloves of the sort used to to handle radio-active isotopes, and a mattress strapped to each leg. Imagine moreover that if this batsman fails to hit the ball in a way that heartens him sufficiently to try to waddle forty feet with mattress's strapped to his legs, he is under no formal compunction to run; he may stand there all day, and, as a rule, does. If by some miracle he is coaxed into making a misstroke that leads to his being put out, all the fielders throw up their arms in triumph and have a hug. Then tea is called and every one retires happily to a distant pavilion to fortify for the next siege. Now imagine all this going on for so long that by the time the match concludes autumn has crept in and all your library books are overdue. There you have cricket.

The mystery of cricket is not that Australians play it well, but that they play it at all. It has always seemed to me a game much too restrained for the rough-and-tumble Australian temperament. Australians much prefer games in which brawny men in scanty clothing bloody each other's noses. I am quite certain that if the rest of the world vanished over night and the development of cricket was left in Australian hands, within a generation the players would be wearing shorts and using the bats to hit each other. 

And the thing is, it would be a much better game for it."

-- from In A Sunburnt Country, one of our very favourite books

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Aussie Adventure Part 4: A Bit of Urban Relief

We realized by this stage that the trip had been planned in the best possible sequence - because after a couple of days getting all dusty in 40 degree oven-like heat, a little bit of urban culture was just what we were needing. We arrived in Melbourne after two days in the Centre and it was lights, traffic, and restaurants everywhere. I couldn't help but lead my folks down some laneways and where did we end up on our first night? Not a quaint little Melbourne eatery, but Grill'd... not exactly the classiest/most typical Melbourne dinner to be had, but as we all know, it's really hard to beat a Grill'd burger.

We did a lot of exploring on foot the next couple of days. Our unexpectedly swanky hotel was on Collins Street, just a block from Fed Square, which was incredible. Having lived in Melbourne for nearly a year in 2008, I was automatically appointed tour guide -- kind of a tough job when you know a place by living it (and not necessarily doing most of the touristy things in that time). I could tell you where to find the best bagels, or how to get to the library or The Body Shop outlet (hint: it's in Richmond), but as for organizing an introductory walking tour, I'm kinda hopeless. Lucky for us, the amazing tourist info centre at Federation Square now publishes an array of walking tour maps that I'm positive weren't around when we lived in the city. So from there, we set off on a route that wound through the CBD along colourfully-painted laneways, lush parks like Fitzroy Gardens, to cool historical sites like Cook's Cottage (where we learned a lot about the famous Captain Cook, and even got to take silly photos in period costumes!), to huge ornate churches. All that walking wore us out, so we hopped on the old City Circle tram and ended up in Docklands, where a Harbourtown outlet mall had popped up in recent years (oooh, if only there was time to shop!), and later that night had a laneway dinner in picturesque Hardware Lane.

Our second day took us further afoot-- I revisited our one of our old neighbourhoods and found our beloved little apartment building still standing strong amidst all the development in South Yarra (and about to be dwarfed by a huge glass tower in the works next door). My parents hopped on a free bus and discovered a war memorial with great views over the city on the south side of Melbourne... that I didn't even know existed. After a brief visit to the fascinating and creepy Old Melbourne Gaol, our wanderings took us to Chinatown where we found a fantastic (and cheap!) dinner at Golden Orchids. I am a little sheepish to admit we possibly saw more of Melbourne in two days than I had in 11 months, but we were on a mission to check of all we could in the few days we had in the city. The next day we set off super early on a bus tour of the Great Ocean Road (a bit more relaxing than driving it all in a day!) and took in all the sights -- Bells Beach, koalas around Kennett River, the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge. It was all as beautiful as I recalled and definitely impressed the socks off my parents!

On Day 13 of our trip, we hopped on our last short flight back to Sydney and met up with Adrian at the airport for the last hurrahs of the trip, visiting the incredible Sydney Aquarium, the Maritime Museum, and The Rocks Markets, and soaked in those last views of the harbour (in sunshine, for a change!) before my parents had to board their plane the next evening. We found a great little spot to have one last al fresco dinner before my parents left for the wintry climes of the northern hemisphere -- the Australian Hotel in The Rocks -- and said our sad farewells on Saturday night before beginning a brief little Aussie adventure of our own.

Not sure what it was with the Canadian influx this year, but we were stoked to continue the fun with my best high school friend Erin, who'd just arrived in Sydney with Jemma for a month of flitting between Oz and New Zealand. By the time we met up with the girls, they'd done most of the touristy stuff on their list, and the rain had started again, so we spent the next couple of days dodging rain in pubs and shopping malls and catching up. We explored a totally new side of Sydney, starting with the area we were staying in at The George (a definite step down from the Sheratons and Westins of my days previous, but not at all shabby for a hostel), right in the thick of the Chinatown [partytown] area along George Street south of the CBD. When the weather brightened up briefly, we managed to do the hike across the Harbour Bridge and checked out the adorable neighbourhoods on the the north side of the harbour, and later headed into Newtown for a little retail relief from all the tourist stuff -- a suburb that definitely lived up to our expectations!

Sadly, our time with Erin and Jemma was also far too short, and we said more goodbyes just a few days after our reunion... although we were happy to find no problem in occupying ourselves for the next couple of days in Sydney, where we visited the Art Gallery of NSW for the Picasso exhibition, ate humongous breakfasts, walked the gorgeous Bronte to Bondi seaside clifftop walk high above the ocean, and chilled out in Bondi (where it rained on us yet again) before hopping on a plane back to our far less exciting home of Brisbane. It was a fabulous end to a fabulous couple of weeks, and if I realized anything in that time, it's how small the world is nowadays -- my parents are already talking about what they plan to do "the next time" they come to Australia -- and the fact that we live just a short plane ride from all of these amazing places makes us really, really, really excited to be stationed once again down under. And the fact that my parents and I can share a hotel room for two weeks without murdering each other. :) Success all around! xx d.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Weekend in the Centre

The third stop of our journey around Oz was a far bigger jump than the previous, so there was no time to waste. We barely had time to squeeze in a swim in our magnificent hotel pool at the Sheraton Port Douglas, or to have a peek at beautiful Four Mile Beach (my former commute to work), before it was time to pack up and head to the centre of Australia.

We were happy to learn on 26 November that Qantas had NOT yet gone on strike again! We were a little wary of flying with them, as we were making the flights bookings just as the strikes were happening just a few months back. This time when we landed, our runway was surrounded by red dirt and scrub, and we disembarked making jokes about being celebrities or presidents and the like (there's something about descending a stairway onto tarmac that feels so old-fashioned and glamorous!). It was hotter than ever and not a chance of rain in the vivid blue sky.

We checked into our hotel, and headed off to The Rock, loading up on water and hoping to catch the cooler time of the day in the late afternoon (actually, I kind of forgot at Uluru, it's ALWAYS oven-roasting hot). We checked out the very excellent park cultural centre and managed to brave one or two short walks, dodging tour groups and flies along the way. We caught a pretty fantastic sunset over the big rock-- probably what most people expect when visiting Uluru, but having experienced torrential rain on my first sunset viewing a few years back, I was very happy!

The next day was a real test of our stamina as we watched the themometer in the car climb to 34 degrees, then 36, then finally 40! We wanted to see as much of Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) as possible, but every time we got out of the car again for another walk to a cave or a trail seemed harder in the blazing heat. I feel like we did see a good chunk of the national park -- caught a great sunset, checked out cave paintings and water holes, and even saw a few lizards just before they dashed back into the scrub. The desert was actually very green when we were there, and there were wildflowers everywhere -- not what my parents pictured at all. The scenery and the colours of the landscape were incredible and it was yet another place that I was thrilled to revisit -- with a much better camera this time -- and seeing Uluru from the plane this time was quite the sight!  Finally, we felt like we'd seen (and sweated) enough and took a break at the hotel pool at Sails in the Desert, which to our surprise was ICE COLD. The desert really is a strange place....

*In case you're wondering, this is not the hotel pool.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

For the second leg of the race, you'll be heading to Queensland...

Our second stop of the trip was the one I was most excited for: Far North Queensland. It's a beautiful spot that holds many great memories and adventures, having living in Port Douglas for more than four months back in 2007. I've been anxious to revisit our former home to see how fast things might have changed. We also had a trip booked to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef (a must-do!) and rented a car so we could drive into the leafy wilderness of Daintree National Park. It promised to be a great couple of days.

We were also hoping to find a little more sunshine and heat up in the north, after our previous day in the cold and wet Blue Mountains. Well, we got our wish. As soon we stepped off the plane, a steaming wall of humidity hit us. We stepped out onto the tarmac in Cairns, surrounded by sugarcane fields and lush green hills under dark blue rainclouds. Somehow the colours are all a little deeper in the tropics -- maybe it's the sunlight? Right away I felt like I'd returned home.

We made a brief stop through Cairns, zooming past the big Captain Cook doing his Hitler-esque salute in our rental car, and like that, we were in the centre of town (smaller than I remembered!). We took a stroll down the boardwalk along the seashore, and I remembered why I steered us away from getting a hotel in Cairns - the massive unsightly tidal mudflats, that sleepy yet mildly rough vibe, and souvenir junk shops at every turn. (Probably with some interesting history though: after our first trip to Australia, my great uncle Alan told me some great tales about his backpacking experiences in Cairns back in the 1960s, when Cairns was just a tiny mining and fishing outpost at the end of the railway line. There were so few places to sleep that he had to take turns sharing a bunk with the miners, who worked all night and slept by day!)

What Cairns did have was plenty of al fresco restaurants serving beer and thin-crust pizza -- perfect on a hot day. With full bellies we set off on the winding oceanside road north to Port Douglas, stopping nearly every five minutes for another look at the insanely gorgeous views of the Coral Sea from beaches and cliffs.We finally reached the turn-off to Port Douglas, familiar territory with its jungly main road and blue-footed scrubfowl pecking about under the roadside palms. We arrived at the Sheraton, an stunning tropical paradise of a hotel (albeit with interior decorating that's a wee bit '80s), with a swimming pool that flowed under footbridges, around palm trees, and stretched around about 6 different hotel buildings! We settled in, checked out the hotel grounds a bit (we got lost there more than a few times!). Later we ended up on Port Douglas's main street, which was pretty much as it was when we left in 2007, with many of the same restaurants and bars still around, and a few new additions.

The next day was our reef trip, which we booked with Port Douglas's reef trip juggernaut, Quicksilver, for the main reason that they have a massive multi-storey platform built out on the reef, so my mom could check out the reef from outside the water, and my dad and I could snorkel it up. When we arrived at the platform, they recommended at this time of year we wear lycra "stinger suits" for snorkelling, to avoid deadly jellyfish stings (and a few had been spotted here and there), so we paid the $5 while my mom laughed at us in our head-to-toe black spandex suits that even had hoods and mittens. My mom went off into one of the 'semi-submersible submarines' (like a skinny glass-bottomed boat that sits low in the water) and we hopped into the water... it was beautiful. We weren't sure if the coral would be really damaged thanks to daily snorkel trips, but there was so much life - coral and fish - and colours everywhere. One guy saw a shark, but unfortunately (?) we missed it. We saw a couple of turtles from the sub, and a big cuttlefish, which was cool. My highlight was a bunch of clownfish and their babies, hiding in a sea anemone. I was the last one out of the water in the afternoon when the ship honked its horn for everyone to come in.... it was so great to explore the Reef again!

Our third day up in FNQ was a road trip day, and we took the car north all the way to Cape Tribulation, to the end of the road for cars, at least (it's where the 4WD track starts up Cape York). We checked outthe ancient Daintree Rainforest, taking a crocodile-spotting cruise on the murky Daintree River -- unfortunately not seeing any crocs, as we learned they're harder to spot at high tide (strike one) and don't sun themselves on the riverbanks so much in the summer (strike two), but we did see some cool birds and plants, and learned all about the mangroves. We also stopped at incredible Cape Trib beach (sadly my parents aren't as big beach bums as I am... I could've stayed there all day!), ate strange fruit ice cream at the Daintree Ice Cream Company, and wandered through the jungle boardwalks in search of wildlife. My dad provided the mosquito bait as he ran ahead through the boardwalks, while my mom and I hung back and inspected odd-looking spiders and noises in the bushes. It turns out, she is a bit of a lizard whisperer, and lured out all kinds of crazy reptiles along the trails on our trip. No cassowaries this time (maybe I got everyone's hopes up too much after my previous encounter?) but well, there are only about 1200-1500 left in the wild in Australia. And you really have to take things at a more leisurely pace to see these creatures....

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sydney... Whirling Around Oz Part 1

We're probably somewhere above a schoolies party on the northern New South Wales coast as I write this, as we flee the grey skies and pouring rain of the Sydney spring, hoping to trade it for a little sunshine and tropical heat in Cairns and Port Douglas, Queensland.

It's hard to believe I'm spending the next two weeks hopping around Australia on jets and rental cars with my parents, who I haven't seen in eight months (but honestly doesn't feel like more than about three weeks). It's a bit of effort to visit Oz from Canada, and so when they started to mention that they were thinking, sort of, as a possibility, of maybe taking a trip out here sometime this year, I didn't think it would happen so fast. It was the next day when I got an email from my dad, telling me the flights were booked. That was the middle of September.

So after a couple months of sniffing out domestic flight deals, booking cars, snorkel trips, and planning a whirlwind two-week itinerary to see as much as possible, we all met in the Sydney airport on Sunday morning, a little bleary-eyed (them from the long flight across the Pacific, me from spending the day before at the beach and spending all night packing....) but we got right into it. No time to waste! Within a few hours, we'd wandered Sydney's CBD, lunched on pies, snapped photos of old churches, marvelled at the plants in the Botanic Gardens, and reached the harbour and the Opera House. Now, I've only been to Sydney twice, and it's always exciting, but it's just so fun to travel with people who are seeing a new country for the first time-- things I'm starting to take for granted a little (but still think are pretty cool), like the ibises in the park, the bats in the trees, the massive plants and the sounds of rainbow lorikeets flying overhead-- all those things that amazed my parents on our first day are the exact same things that made me totally excited to be in a new country.

On the flip side, there's also the hefty Aussie prices for coffee and food, which I'm well used to, but comes as a bit of a shock when you first land (I think we're starting to shake that a bit, as a $3.50 coffee is now what we consider a "good deal"-- in Canada a regular Tim Hortons coffee is just over $1). I do remember spending my first few days in Melbourne eating "Fantastic" brand cheesy instant noodles and fearing we'd never go out for a meal at a restaurant. Ancient history now!

We've done lots of great stuff already in our first three days in Oz-- in fact, plenty of things I'd never done because I was already kind of a local by the time I travelled the country, and possibly too much of a cheap backpacker, too-- like a tour of the Sydney Opera House which was pretty awesome, dinner around Darling Harbour, taking the Scenic Railway in the Blue Mountains, and of course, crashing in hotels, rather than a tent, van, or hostel.

On our second day, we met up with my parents' old friends, the Isbisters, whom they had met on a bus tour of Europe in the 1970s and had been in touch since (they visited Canada a few times since, but had so far been unable to convince my side to visit Oz). Keith & Ena took us all around the north part of Sydney, to beautiful beaches and lookouts around Manly, Curl Curl, Collaroy, and Mosman. Later we cruised around the harbour on the city ferries (best harbour cruise deal in town!), walked the Harbour Bridge, and dined on pancakes in The Rocks. And yesterday, we took a train out to Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, only to find the iconic Three Sisters cloaked in a THICK fog. We walked around the rainforest below, hoping the fog would clear (spotting an elusive -so says our guidebook- lyrebird for the first time in my Oz travels!), but no luck. We returned to the top of the cliffs via the insanely steep and rollercoasterish Scenic Railway, only to find we couldn't even see to the opposite side of the parking lot to find our bus... the fog was that dense. It was suggested to go check out the nearby Leura Cascades, which flowed right beside a pathway and would be easy to enjoy, even in fog, and we were halfway down the trail when the misting rain became a downpour and soaked us and the pathway... we dodged huge puddles on the way back up and had to, just four hours after arriving there, unfortunately give up on the Blue Mountains, which were more like White Mountains that day (not that we could even really see a mountain!). And so my parents learned (and I relearned) the power of the Australian weather to completely alter carefully laid-out plans...

And so, onward we go, first to Far North Queensland, then to Uluru (if Qantas doesn't strike again and ground us!), Melbourne, and back to Sydney, where Adrian will meet up with us. It's a pretty full-on schedule and we're realizing we probably can't do everything we want to do (or visit everyone we want to see) but it's definitely fun to do a family road trip all over again so many years on! -Dayle

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Icing on our New Zealand Cake: Franz Josef Glacier

[Oct 12 & 13, 3011] When we booked ourselves in for a full-day hike up Franz Josef Glacier, we had a good feeling it would be a pretty exciting day. We actually extended our trip for it, as it sounded like an absolute must-do, but still we cursed the seemingly endless five-hour drive from Queenstown, through low clouds and driving rain (the west coast of the South Island is notoriously rainy, which is actually how the glaciers continue to replenish themselves), along dangerous winding roads and mountain passes. We arrived at Franz Josef Village, a tiny little settlement no more than two streets wide and two streets long, on the rainy evening of October 12, ate a quick dinner in our hostel's kitchen, and went to bed early, hoping the next day would turn out a little nicer.

Lucky for us, it was blue skies over Franz Josef Village the next morning. We headed over to Franz Josef Glacier Guides for our guided hike at 9:15am and they bundled us up in a lot of wintry waterproof gear that seemed pretty unnecessary on this sunny and springlike morning. Goretex jacket, rain paints, well-loved boots (Dayle opted for her own hiking boots after sticking a foot in and feeling a 'squish'), crampons, and a fanny pack to carry them in. Apparently the weather changes fast, and the guides said it would likely rain by the afternoon. The whole operation had the air of going out on a scuba dive. Soon we were on a converted school bus (that smelled like wet winter boots) with our guides George and Jess to take us the short drive to the base of the valley, where we would start the trek in the rainforest. Now, normally we don't take the organized tour route, but in this case we decided that it was better to see the glacier with someone who understands the ice, and to help us get high up into all that pretty blue ice that there are in fact, no trails to, and is off-limits to independent hikers. And were we ever glad, it turned out, to be with someone who knew what they were doing up on the mountain!

The group split into two once we reached the flat, rocky floor of the valley, and we chose to join "faster" group with George, an impish bearded Kiwi guy who'd been leading hikes up the ice for four years already and said "Sweet as!" a lot (a unique Kiwi expression translating to "Awesome!"). George had a plan to dash with us up the glacier to pass the group that had embarked at 8:15am, and then to head up as high as we could. Our group of about 11 twenty and thirty-somethings were keen to make the most of our day, and George made sure we worked for it, while teaching us all about the geology and weather conditions that created such a crazy piece of landscape. First came the steep zigzagging climb up atop layers of loose rock covering the glacier ice, and it was nearly an hour before we reached the start of the bare ice. A quick lesson on how to put on our crampons -- spiked metal "shoes" that reminded me of mini bear traps -- over our boots, and another lesson on how to walk with crampons on-- "like John Wayne", with feet slightly apart, so as not to tangle oneself up, and with bent knees for stability-- and we were off. It was surprisingly warm under the sun, and soon we were carrying more clothing layers than we were wearing. The clouds started to roll in eventually from the ocean, as our guides predicted, and by the time we stopped for lunch, it had gotten quite chilly and overcast.

John Wayne!
We climbing through the light rain that rolled off our Goretex jackets and rain pants, and would look down every so often and realize how much distance we'd covered. You lose total perspective on distance while climbing glaciers (or mountains), and George would point out waterfalls falling down the cliffs beside us that were hundreds of metres high (perhaps thousands?). There was a snowy part we could see at the top of the glacier that we were positive we'd reach in no time at all, but apparently it was too far for any climber to reach in a day. The ice formations we walked through and over were ever-changing and incredible, and no matter how tired our legs got, we all were happy to keep going.

Misty glacier
George and a cool ice tunnel
Finally, around 3pm, it was time to turn around and start the trek back down. George radioed back and forth with his fellow guides scattered around the glacier to try and figure out the best way down, and we were just getting ready to set off when we heard a rumbling and a huge crash.... we looked to our right (in the direction of the valley) and watched as a MASSIVE chunk of rock/dirt/trees/grass detached itself from the cliff face around Roberts Point and fell into the valley below-- the place where we were meant to trek down through to get back to Franz Josef Village.

Now, all day, there had been "little" rocks breaking off and falling down the cliffside around Roberts Point (little probably being the size of a car, but looking much, much smaller in the immense landscape) and while us hikers were like "Whoa! That's crazy!" George would respond, "Come on, that's not very impressive," and crack a joke (perhaps not really joking) that the mountain could do much better than that.

A little dash of excitement
So how else does a glacier guide and his merry band of hikers respond? Well, a round of high fives was in order. There we all were, high-fiving and "whoa"-ing and cheering when ANOTHER chunk of the mountain, this time even bigger, falls off in what felt like slow motion, and the valley below is a giant dust cloud that's going nowhere. And that's when George says, "I think we might have to call a helicopter..."

And that was when the group went from high-fiving to air guitaring and jumping up and down and shrieking, and various other gestures of joy. I don't know if the actual danger of the situation (which may have been over anyway) actually ever registered with any of us, for the excitement of getting a free helicopter ride far overshadowed any kind of fear one could possibly have.

So while George and Jess got out their ice picks and carved a big flat landing pad on the ice, there wasn't much we could do, except try and not fall over, as we'd been told to remove our crampons and suddenly it was incredibly hard to stand up (especially while jumping around in excitement). We were divided up into groups of six, given some instructions for boarding, and waited until a tiny speck hovered up out of nowhere (remember that scene in Cliffhanger? Yup.) and landed on the glacier. The first group was off and a moment later, another helicopter appeared to take our group.... and with so much excitement for the way-too-short ride down (which I remember as being really loud, and a really strange feeling in flight) I probably didn't take it in as much as I would've liked to. But we landed, safe and sound, with tired legs (but not as exhausted as if we had to walk all the way back down!) and with stories to tell in the sunshine that had re-emerged. That night we'd meet other people from our group in town, or in the Glacier Hot Pools (a lovely man-made maze of pools where you can sit in steaming water under lush rainforest ferns) and we'd try again and again to process what an insane day it was. [We learned later on that the rocks loosen up in the springtime melt, but no group had been airlifted out for at least three years or more, that being when there was a flash flood]


From there, our trip went on for a few more days, driving back to Queenstown at warp speed, in order to get the rental car back in time; a few nights at a very comfy hotel with a mountain/lakeview balcony and a "pillow menu" (and it was a steal on; more rugby on TV; more awesome food; and gave paragliding a try.... after our original outing was cancelled due to winds the Tuesday before, we just had to wait out a brief snow flurry before we could run off a cliff and float into the valley near Queenstown -- something that was at least as much fun (if not more?) as a helicopter ride, and lasted a lot longer in the open air. 

If you've read all of these blogs about our New Zealand adventures, you'll probably start to get what we're really trying to say: it's an amazing place. So get over there, post haste, before the rest of the world figures that out. And if you're still needing a little more inspiration, feel free to check out our many photos and videos. Sweet as!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sandflies, Mountains, Rugby, and Sleeping Seals... A Few More NZ Adventures

[Oct 8-11, 2011]  Dunedin was a cute town to stay in, but we had a schedule to keep, so the next morning we continued on, but before we left town checked out Baldwin Street, the world's steepest street. It might be something of a quietly-kept secret, as none of us were previously aware that Dunedin was home to the world-record setting steep street, but it didn't disappoint. We parked at the very bottom of (the flattest part) and watched tiny, ant-like tourists climbing up what looked like one of those Hot Wheels ramps for toy cars from the '80s. We all happily admitted we were far too lazy to try walking it ourselves, but got a taste of what was probably the world's second-steepest street, later on in Queenstown (but more on that later).

Our original road trip plan had us tracing the southern coast all the way around to Te Anau, a bit inland, taking in the Catlins and Invercargill along the way. But as we'd just spent the last three days almost entirely in the car, we decided to cut quickly across the island to Te Anau and allow for an extra day to relax in Queenstown, where Stephane and Jenny visited not long before and found to be lovely. Note to anyone planning a driving exploration of New Zealand: it may look like short drives on a map, but it's best to take it slowly and allow yourself the time to enjoy the sights outside of the car! That said, the daylight hours are long, even in October, and you can easily drive well into the evening and think it's still 4pm... we still carry a bit of that Aussie night-driving fear from our many 'roo-dodging' experiences years back.

Allez Les Bleus!
An ecstatic win
Te Anau is a tiny but very touristy town in NZ's Fjordland region, built on the incredibly pretty (are we even surprised anymore?) Lake Te Anau. It's the main jumping-off spot for visiting Milford and Doubtful Sounds, two fjords many visitors explore by boat, but still a good 2.5 hour drive from Milford Sound-- an area of very remote and inaccessible wilderness. But before our trek out to the fjords, we spent the evening in The Moose, where in fact, where the entire town and all of its tourists had congregated inside to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals. The game was especially important to our travelling party, as France was facing off against England in what was sure to be an exciting game. With the help of Jenny & Stephane's red, blue and white wigs and paraphernalia, we got in touch with our long-lost French roots and cheered on "Les Bleus", surprisingly, with quite an unproportionate number of passionate French supporters for the size of Te Anau. We subsequently learned the French national anthem and a few sports cheers, and when they beat England, the entire bar went crazy. It was so much fun to watch (and not really all that hard to understand) and it must have been around the time that we got really, really hooked on rugby...

But onto more adventures! That next morning we hopped in the car and set off on Milford Road, where we wound between mountains, for the first hour, higher and higher until we reached patches of snow (which we couldn't resist a frolic in), and entered into the Homer Tunnel-- a 1.2km tunnel that veers seemingly endlessly through a mountain, on a downward slope, which was a strange feeling. The tunnel is an incredible feat of engineering and construction, started as a job-creation scheme during the Great Depression, it took nearly 20 years to dig, and only recently was widened to accommodate two lanes of vehicles.

Mirror Lake
On the other side of the Homer Tunnel, the mountains appeared to go on forever to the still-hidden fjords. The highway continued to wind downwards, with plenty of great stops to check out, like Mirror Lake, until we reached Milford Sound. That's where we had our first encounter with the irritating New Zealand sandfly: here we were, innocently emerging from the car when suddenly we were ambushed! It appeared others were having the same problems, so we took a few hurried photos with the amazing (but hard to concretrate on) backdrop of Milford Sound, and dashed to the boats, where thankfully someone had thought to build a large structure made of glass, where we could enjoy the views without swatting. Luckily, thanks to the chilly temperatures we wore many layers of clothing, which the sandflies couldn't bite through, but Dayle still managed to find one persistently sucking blood out from between two of her fingers-- a bite which didn't disappear or cease itching for more than two weeks following the visit.
Glorious Milford Sound
But we suppose, if the sandfly terror was our admission fee to get down into the gorgeous natural scenery in Fjordland, well, it was worth it. We set off on our 2-hour boat cruise from the end of Milford Sound to the ocean (15 km), watching the weather change numerous times from sunny to cloudy to rainy to sunny. Seals swam alongside out boat as we shrieked with delight. The captain steered the boat underneath waterfalls plummetting down the cliffs on either side of the fjord and right up to impressive rock formations, and shared impressive facts about the area. Probably one of the highlights was Seal Rock, one of the only parts of the fjord (it was massive cliffs everywhere) accessible to seals climbing out of the water to rest, and we learned the incredible cuteness power of a mass of sleeping seals on a rock. It was a pretty great afternoon.

Waterfall fun

Following our sandfly dash back to the car (a pity we couldn't stroll more slowly through the lush fern-filled coastal rainforest), we made a dash back to Te Anau, and then onwards to Queenstown, to be done with the driving already. After a little bit of hunting, we found a sweet, sweet place to rest our feet for the next few days with fabulous views of Lake Wakatipu in the centre of town. We didn't think about the fact that the near-vertical walk down Turner Street to the heart of Queenstown also meant a horrific trudge up at the end of the night, but it was rugby time again (this time New Zealand vs. Argentina) and so finding a big screen was mandatory. It was another good game--and unexpectedly AMAZING food at the Ballarat Trading Company-- and we took it as a good omen for our trip to continue in the best of fates.

We spent the next few days doing silly tourist things in Queenstown: eating impossibly massive burgers at the legendary Fergburger, wandering around Lake Wakatipu, taking the Skyline gondola for views high above Queenstown (and having a blast riding the luge around the tracks on the peak), and playing a ridiculous but adorable mini-golf course made up of a miniature robotic town, sampling a good variety of local wines, and relaxing in our awesome two-storey townhouse (much nicer than any of the apartments any of us have lived in). It was good times for our last few days, before Stephane and Jenny left us to take in more live rugby on the North Island....
Mmmm, Fergburger for breakfast.
The Luge
Jenny putts for the win