Big Question Marks

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

We're Baaaack

We're back in sweltering Brisbane after a delightful week and a bit in New Zealand. For one thing, it sure is strange to holiday in a cold country only to come back to a hot place... the complete opposite of what we'd usually do! But though the South Island was a little chilly, it was kind of nice to put on some layers, don toques and gloves, and - dare I say it?- stomp around in the snow! Well, the snow thrill wore off in about 20 seconds or so, but it sure did make for lovely photos.

Anyway! We had a fantastic time -- NZ far surpassed our expectations for being a great place to travel. We lucked out with pretty amazing weather (lots of sunshine and blue skies), had great travel companions, and a strong Aussie dollar on our side. The Kiwis we met were really nice, endearingly rugby-mad, but sadly few and far between. The South Island felt more than anything... kind of empty. On almost any road in the parts we travelled to, you could count the cars you passed on your fingers, and when we did meet people running hostels or shops or tour companies, more than half the time they were from another country. It was a little weird... it seems that most New Zealanders must either live on the North Island, or in Australia. Where we went, it also even felt devoid of wildlife, which could have been due to climate, time of day, introduced species wiping out the native fauna, or maybe something else (we kept seeing signs about poison being used in national parks to wipe out various pest species...).

So it was just us and the sheep for most of the trip. We drove our Toyota Camry up and down mountains, hiked a few great trails around Mount Cook, Lake Tasman, Mt Aspiring National Park, and up Franz Josef Glacier - an unbelievable day for more than a few reasons! We got into a few adventures, trying our luck at paragliding in Queenstown, and scoring a free helicopter ride off the glacier when the mountain next to us started collapsing into the valley below. We had some great local food - cheeses, wine, lamb, and ketchup out of a can (for dipping grilled cheese sandwiches, silly!). We got caught up in the Rugby World Cup frenzy, we saw some rare penguins, and took a boat cruise through the fjords of Milford Sound, our boat chaperoned by adorable seals who swam alongside us. And besides all of that, it was so nice to get out into the fresh air and reunite with old friends. We're definitely already dreaming of a return someday to check out the North Island, and perhaps to embark on one of NZ's many Great Walks, where we can get gloriously lost in a national park for a few days at a time!

But that's our trip in a nutshell.... more detail to come! And if you've got the urge to look at a million or so mountain photos, don't forget to check our Flickr page. xx A&D

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On A Penguin and Mountain High

Hello from gorgeous and cold New Zealand! It's been a crazy couple of days already, but since we scored some free wifi, we thought we'd take advantage and write a little update. 

We arrived in Christchurch to freezing cold weather and just an hour after an aftershock (damn!) on the 4th. Met up with our friends Stephane and Jenny and we're picking up where we left off in 2008 when we parted ways in Melbourne- they're perfect travel companions. Got our car and cruised around Christchurch as Disaster Papparazzi (hey, I call it photojournalism!) -- seeing all sorts of cracked, condemned, and empty houses, shops, and streets. The city centre is fenced off, crumbled, and deserted, and there are workmen about but that's all -- Adrian said it well when he remarked it felt like something out of a zombie movie!

From there, we drove inland on a dreary and cold afternoon after a big breakfast at Denny's (yes, the American chain!!) towards Mount Cook, watching the mountains in front of us get taller and taller, and oohing and aahing and stopping the car every time we saw a snow-capped peak peeking out from the clouds. And nearly every landscape belonged to us-- there's a certain feeling around the South Island that I've experienced only in the Aussie Outback: a huge sky, a massive landscape, and a peaceful and profound emptiness-- solitude, I guess. Very hard to describe! (Has anyone else felt this sort of thing? Help!)

It cleared up just as we hit Lake Tekapo, a beautiful blue glacial lake. We kept on until we hit Mount Cook Village in the evening, a contrived little ski chalet-feeling settlement  built in a flat valley beneath towering mountains with a posh hotel, 2 hostels, and a couple of houses for the Department of Conservation - Mt Cook is NZ's highest mountain at 3700m or so, though not that tall by Canadian or European standards- but still pretty amazing. We stayed and ate in this lovely "Backpacker Lodge" with a pub decorated with deer head hunting trophies and great beer called Tui on tap -- unfortunately the "grocery stores" were basically a few items of junk food and instant noodles behind the hostel reception desk. Ugh. So much for saving money by cooking! Every room had a view of the mountains that was almost too perfect-- it felt constantly like we were looking at a painting, not a real scene!

This morning we set off for a hike to Mt Cook lookout, a really cool trail running along the valley floor through grass and lots of spiky plants. We got close to the mountains and another turquoise lake at the lookout and heard a BOOM and a rumbling sounding something like a big truck going over a bridge on a highway... this happened a few more times, minutes apart, before we saw what it was: avalanches high up in the snowy mountains! Just crazy. We hiked another trail later on to Tasman Lake, in the same area, and this time found a huge blue lake with giant ice chunks floating in it-- that didn't look that big until we saw a teeny little yellow tour boat cruising between the icebergs.... and we realized how warped our sense of perspective is.

After our mountain hikes we headed back to the coast in our car, passing rolling hills, perfectly still lakes, and many, many sheep (with which we play our very favourite country-driving game... honking at sheep and making them hop and run this way ad that.... a forgotten pleasure from our drives around Tasmania, but somehow a game Stephane and Jenny also know! Maybe it's universal?) We made it to the coastal town of Oamaru about two hours before dusk, and checked out the Blue Penguin Centre to find out about seeing the little blue penguins the town, and this part of the coast, is known for. Turns out they've turned the place into sort of a Phillip Island (Australia) style circus-- $25 to sit in the grandstand and watch the penguins swim into shore from the ocean. 147 penguins counted last night, they kept telling us! We sort of wondered if we could just spot some on our own, and then one of the ladies at the centre let it slip in hushed tones that: "If you drive to this spot on the map right now, it'll take you only about 5 minutes to get there, and if you look hard and peer into the bushes alongside this beach, you might see a yellow-eyed penguin, as they come in from the ocean around this time to their nests in the bushes, where they live and hide along this inlet". Why not? We thought.... we could always come back to the penguin circus later.

We get to the viewing area and it seemed the word was out -- there were 5 or so other cars parked there, and it actually wasn't long at all before we saw funny little shapes in the bushes on the steep incline from the beach. Penguins! More emerged from the grasses and we were totally photo happy... and even video happy, as we watched them build nests, shake their cute flipper arms, and make the weirdest bird noises ever (we'll edit the clips together and post them on the blog in the future). It was insane! They totally stole the spotlight from the adorable little seal flopping around on the beach far below, but ah well, these were really cute penguins! 

Finally the sun set and we were so full of penguin-spotting joy that we just headed to a hostel and a grocery store.... and then what do we learn from the lovely hostel manager? Well, if we just walk to the town pier, there should be plenty of the little blue penguins nesting along the rocks at night. Sure enough.... well, none of us have ever seen so many penguins in one day, but there is something about spotting rare (?) wildlife in their natural habitats that just gives you this amazing feeling of satisfaction. Euphoria, really! And so far New Zealand has been a continuous shot of pure euphoria. We can't wait to find out what comes next!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Bye for now!

Wool socks: check. Polar fleece jackets: check. Raincoats: check. Cameras and blank memory cards: check and check!

One more sleep and we're off to New Zealand for the next 13 days. We're super excited for all the tramping and the country road cruising. We're totally stoked to climb a glacier. Not to mention ooh and ahh at adorable penguins and mountain vistas. Maybe we'll even get to hug a sheep. We can only hope!

We're back in Australia on the 16th of October, so see you then!
Bye for now! xo A&D

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Crash Course

Wow... that's all I can say after finally finishing reading my copy of Canon EOS 7D For Dummies. For anyone who has trouble getting through that fat camera manual -- or should I say, tome -- that Canon sticks into the box of every new camera, this is what you need to do: get out to your closest bookshop ASAP and get the Dummies book for your model of camera. My father really had it figured out when he got me the book for Christmas this year (and subsequently got himself a new camera and the corresponding Dummies book).

You probably know how much I'm in love with my Canon DSLR (I'm sure I've rambled on and on about it numerous times), and as I take it out at least once a week for some shooting, I like to think I've gotten to know the thing pretty well. Well, the Dummies book proved me totally wrong (but in a very good way). In celebration of my camera's first birthday, but mostly thanks to our impending trip this week to photogenic New Zealand, I've learned that I can adjust the intensity of the flash, create my own custom menus of my favourite functions, extend my ISO to 12800 (seriously!) and set the autofocus track a bird as it flies around in my viewfinder. There are so many functions I really had no idea were in my camera... now I just have to make sure I remember them for the right photographic moment.

When I first got my 7D, the day before we headed off to Philly last August, I tried to read the Canon manual on the 12-hour bus ride, but in the end I got through enough to figure out how to turn off the flash (ugh, flash!) and pretty much used the "Creative Auto" setting through the whole trip -- not a terrible thing, as the camera still took stunning photos, but I knew I was missing something. I guess really the best thing about reading about my camera from a "dummies" perspective is that the author really just puts everything in context, so I actually understood what having different light metering modes means for me rather than just memorizing where in the menus I could change them. What a great thing this book has been!

And while we're on the topic of photography books, I also should recommend Scott Kelby's The Digital Photography Book Volumes 1, 2, and 3 for the great tips and tricks in there. I devoured those last year after they were recommended by another photo-nerd friend shortly after I got my camera (but only vaguely knew how to use it). It's more about techniques on how to get pro photos, and Scott's awesome for making it sound easy, and he's fun to read! So check those ones out too.

Now that my head's packed full of camera know-how, it's time to take it to "The Land of the Long White Cloud" -- we're off in two days and we're sooooo excited! Photos to come definitely. -D.