Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: January 2011

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lord of the Cookies (New Zealand, Update #4)

Pretty Good Walks
Christmas was quite unlike any other I've experienced. Until two years ago, when I spent it working nightshift as an underground miner in the summer heat of the central desert of Western Australia, I'd spent every Christmas in Toronto, in the snow, with my extended family. This year, I planned to hike the fifty kilometer length of NZ's most popular "Great Walk", the Abel Tasman coastal track. (There are nine "Great Walks" spread across the most beautiful areas of NZ, on well-built trails with campsites and huts.)
I began the afternoon on Christmas eve with a two-hour boat ride up the coast of the park, passing countless sea-life, pleasant cliffs, hidden coves, and orange crescent-shaped beaches stretching hundreds of meters. Our ride began a few minutes late, because a reserved family showed up late. What's worse, the guide had just finished packing our backpacks in the hold. He went to see what luggage the family had with them, and returned with a defeated expression, shaking his head, and muttering to us, "We have to unpack the hold. They've brought the kitchen sink." They were going to a luxury hotel in the park with everything provided for them, yet they each brought three-times what anyone else brought, in huge wheely suitcases and grocery bags of food. I guessed correctly that they were Australian, because so many Aussies want their "outdoor experience" at least as comfortable as their normal daily experience. 
The best part of the hike was that the tides completely dictate your timing, as some places are impassable except at low-tide, where you must hike through water. If you're impatient or slow, you'll have to (try) to swim, because high-tide is five meters above low-tide. I was a little impatient (I had to cover 25 km in an afternoon), and waded waist-deep through an estuary for nearly a kilometer. It's harder than I expected and took almost an hour, especially since I had to backtrack and meander to find the shallowest path.  While I waited with some Czech girls for the tide to drop, some even less patient Germans crossed towards our side: Neck-deep, carrying their packs over their heads, and completely nude. They didn't see us waiting, so when the girls and I called out "Wooo weee!" at the naked Germans, they dived into the bushes and got changed.
That night I arrived before sunset at the hut and found friends with whom to share the huge Christmas cake I brought. My new friends were all northern hemisphereans: 3 swiss from a small village; 1 hyper German girl who said 'like' about, like, a million times; and 2 medical students from Slovenia. We all lamented the normality of snow and family, but were glad to be on a remote and beautiful beach at sunset, and full of Christmas cheer.

This hike couldn't have been more different than my North Island dayhike at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, where sideways-rain lashed at our faces and the 60 kmh winds nearly blew us off the mountain. We couldn't see the stunning peaks all around us, including Mt Ngaurahoe — which you may know as Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings — but we met one local on the trail that tried to help us out. "Right there is Mt Tongariro," he said, drawing the mountain with his fingers. "And over there is Mt Ngaurahoe," he continued. "They're really beautiful, believe me." 
We weren't sure whether to thank him or punch him, so we soggily hiked on, boots-a-squishing.
Captain Obvious
Our Rent-a-Dent car wound through vertical rock faces that towered to the clouds, covered in waterfalls too numerous to even name, and we pressed our noses against the glass in awe. We were in the promised land of NZ: The spectacular Fiordland National Park, and unsurprisingly, the weather was awful. This area sees 7200 millimeters of rain each year. Consider that the 'wet coast' city Vancouver gets a mere misting of 1500mm, and it puts things in perspective. We had planned a lesser-known, lesser-marked dayhike, but the weather wasn't letting up. My friends Al and Kat decided they'd do a few hours of the hike anyways, and I would stay back and take some photos in the valley. Just outside the hut where we parked, a couple fit outdoorsy folks climbed out of their Landcruiser and greeted us in the rain. The bearded guy asked where we were going. 
"We're going to hike up to the saddle," Al replied. 
The bearded guy looked at my friends Al and Kat in their goretex pants and hiking boots. Then at me, in my soggy pants and flip-flops.
"It's pretty wet up there," he told us.
"Yeah...", Al replied, water dripping from his face, "You don't say." 

We had a laugh afterwards at this bearded man's revelation. But more importantly, at who he was — Allan recognized him immediately but never said anything until afterwards.  He was Derek Thatcher, whom the Earth Sea Sky outdoor clothing company describes as a "freak of nature" having "climbed more difficult rock and boulder routes in New Zealand than everyone else combined." Al was already planning how in his next encounter with Derek he could dissociate himself from me and my flip-flop hiking ways.

Cookie Time
"Hello Cookie Monsters!", I called out to the teenaged staff loitering in the store, waiting to close up for the day. This was "Cookie Time", one of the few stores in the country dedicated solely to selling this hugely popular brand of cookies and cookie-like snacks. Their mascot, the "Cookie Muncher" is a crazed red-haired rip-off of Cookie Monster. I found my bag of cookies (half price for broken ones!), and another pack of dense granola bars — except down here they're called muesli bars. I asked the young staff girl if these granola bars were any good. 
"I love them!" she said, surprisingly enthusiastic. "My parents were eating these the night they conceived me. So yes, they're really good."  
What a saleswoman. I bought ten.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

So if you hadn't heard, spoken to me recently, or possess psychic powers—I'm back in Western Australia. And I'm not going anywhere for a little while. But I've got forests of memories to walk through. I'll fondly miss: 

Sunsets over mountains, valleys, cities, seas, glaciers, or all of the above; Incessant sandflies and their wonderfully addictive itch; Fantail birds maneuvering beautifully to hunt insects; Hugging trees older than Jesus; Watching Al's tent fall apart, a little bit more each day; Paua sausages and Monteith's Summer Ale; Al's impersonations of Kiwi farmers ("Rugbaaay"); and trying to run over possums, rabbits and stouts (it's the environmentally responsible thing to do!).  

For the last batch of photos from Middle Earth, follow these simple instructions: 

Respectfully sincerely yours truly,


Friday, January 14, 2011

A Sign, a Thumb and a Smile (New Zealand, Update #3)

After only two hours on the South Island, I was off to a rocky start with hitch-hiking. But once the Germans saved me from the torrential rain, my second lift came easily. Dave picked me up when I was eating a sandwich and looking the other way, blindly thumbing the air. He was a consultant to the thriving local wine industry, helping them be more sustainable in various ways. My third and final ride (for a while) was from an odd-ball kiwi couple whose station wagon interior resembled a homeless person's shopping trolley. They could have had a decent garage sale with only their car's contents. But they were friendly and talkative, until I asked what they did for a living. 
...Awkward silence...
Fully five seconds elapsed, before she said, "Uh... a little bit of this, and a little bit of that."  (They were on the dole)

Secret Weapon
After a few days off visiting kiwi friends and their families, I was on my way out of Nelson, and bumped into my Taiwanese friend Michi, part of my entourage for eight days in the north island. We decided to hitch down the west coast together. It was win-win: safer for her, and better for me, since people are suckers for couples. Especially when the girl is a tiny asian dwarfed by her backpack. I joked that she was my secret weapon, and we spent the next four days touring the West Coast, covering 900 km via eight lifts, without ever waiting more than 2 hours. Since I love meeting random people and hearing their stories, plus I'm a cheap bastard, nothing beats hitching. Here are my lifts' stories:

Rex the South African newspaper editor dropped us off, but an hour later appeared again! Comically, he had fueled up, gotten back on the highway, and half an hour later realised he was going the wrong direction and turned around. We revised our plan, so we went on with him for another hour.
Mark the machinist, a well-tattooed kiwi, put us in dog-hair laden backseats, and kept his dog in the front seat (where he couldn't bite my face).
Becky the American, a bit lonely because her travel partner had left two weeks early due to family emergency, bought us McDonalds in exchange for lessons on how to use Skype.
Gordon emigrated from England to help expand his Christian yoga church (God appreciates limber worshippers), and gave us yoghurt and apples. His dry wit contrasted the flooded roads through which we tried to pass. The rain had closed roads all over the west coast, and he was on his third attempt after getting turned back twice to wait for water levels to drop.  

Before I began hitching I wondered what kind of people would pick us up. Would they be tourists, immigrants, or locals?  We began a contest, New Zealand vs the World, keeping score in our heads of who picked us up. Including the three lifts I got before Michi joined me, the World was leading 4 to 3. Surely it would be sad for NZ if foreigners helped us out more than Kiwis. Could New Zealand launch a comeback? 

The Comeback
Our next lift was from a real kiwi 'bro', Tony, a tattooed trucker, and expert in Tae Kwon Do. We didn't argue when he gave us strawberries. For those of you paying attenion, you'll note that this was our third straight lift who gave us food! 
Mark was a local environmental consultant, who also began as a mining engineer! He loved living on the west coast, and who can blame him. The Lonely Planet calls it one of the top 10 road-trips in the world, and it's in my top 3.
Kathryn was a kiwi who spoke like a Brit, because her mother taught her as a child that the kiwi accent is "atrocious". (They butcher their vowels, but I love it.) She was a mother of three in her sixties whose husband had recently left her. It wasn't bad enough that he ran off with a forty-year old Zimbabwean woman, but he also left Kathryn half a million dollars in debt she barely repaid by selling their house and business, leaving her nothing. Of course, her husband was robbed blind by the Zimbabwean woman months later, putting himself into the upper echelon of fools. 
Our final ride came from Dmitri, a Russian GPS programmer living in Auckland, and we spent two days with him, camping the night on a remote beach with alpine-glow views of the Fox glacier at sunset.
The final score in the New Zealand vs the World contest, thanks to a late comeback by NZ, was 6 to 5. We had come 900km in four days, seen everything we wanted and more, and met some amazing people.  

*   *   *   *   *   *

I've still got a grab bag of little things to write about, so there'll be one more update coming.  I've uploaded more Flickr photos, like some stunning coastal cliffs in Tasmania. And a cute child playing in the rain. How can you resist? Just follow the link behind the thumbnail above.


P.S. My title comes from the fact that Michi and I had signs for all our destinations, but also a second sign with smily faces and "PLEASE". And we always smiled.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Long White Cloud (Down Under Update #2)

Before I even landed, I loved New Zealand. From great kiwis I've met traveling (like Tarn, who saved us from being arrested a second time in China), the beautiful landscapes I've seen in film and television (Lord of the Rings, anyone), the sensible policies the country has adopted (eg. the smallest coin denomination is ten-cents, and made from aluminum), and my disproportionately high number of kiwi friends. But things didn't start well for me: In the first three days of my trip, I had my iPhone erased, and a dog bit my face. But despite the pain of losing all my music before a roadtrip-heavy month, and the annoyance of six-hours of facial bleeding, I'm still in love with this country. And that's just after the north island. And all my kiwi friends tell me the south island is even better. (But they're all from the south island)
For one thing, in the largest city Auckland, people still make eye-contact and greet you on the street, and thank their bus drivers. The bus drivers in my hostel neighbourhood were comically obligated to echo a response to anyone who beeps at them. I heard one bus, waiting to turn at an intersection, reply to 'beep-beeps' from a dozen vehicles and scooters passing by!  And more randomly, I followed a mob of people to discover a free Christmas concert with over 10 000 locals in attendance.  So far after two weeks I'd only encountered one rude person; a wicked campsite owner at Hot Water Beach, who, when asked if we could have a few litres of tap water, asked for $4/L, claiming it to be her cost price. After we asked a few questions -- which revealed she was a blatant liar  -- she became very rude, and I pointed it out to her.  That's when she exploded with obscenities, calling me a "little s$#t" and we decided to leave, as she decided to throw us out.

Carnivorous Cannibals
In Waitomo we signed up for "The Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company's" cave tour, which involves caving through underground river systems, hopping down waterfalls and floating on inner-tubes through glow-worm infested caves. I asked how a company can achieve 'Legendary' status. Funnily enough, they were the original company in the area to offer 'blackwater rafting', so when everybody else began copying their tours, they had to change their name!

Our guide Joel had the most amazing singing voice, which we discovered as he serenaded our group while we floated in pitch darkness downriver on our backs, staring up at a galaxy of glowworms across the cave ceiling.  The other guide explained that glow worms are actually larva, and in their youth the strong eat the weak ones, and the glow is actually their waste product. So they aren't glow worms, but actually "carnivorous cannibalistic maggots with glowing poo".

Thumbs Up
On the north island I had a rented car and 3 internet friends to join me and split costs. My new friends, a German, Taiwanese and Malaysian, all split up to head our separate ways after a hectic north island highlight-reel tour.  We met a Frenchman in the north island who had great success hitch-hiking, and offered me the advice, "You must wear your backpack; don't put it down on the ground. The bigger the better; and with a smaller bag over your stomach if possible. And you must stand or walk really slowly, like you could collapse at any moment."  So with his advice plus my own philosophy from past experiences (like always smiling), I set out to get from the ferry to a friend's place. The rain was pelting down and I was drenched even before I walked to the edge of town, where I stood for another 2 hours in sideways-rain and watched over 200 cars pass me by. I decided that my wretched state (soaking-wet and cold), juxtaposed with my beaming smile, made me appear insane, so I let my expression show my despair instead. Thankfully some Germans saved me. It was worth the trip out to my friend's bach (cottage), which her great-grandfather built, and still has the original candle-holders on the walls. I even learned to slalom water-ski there, towed behind her 50-year old boat, with a "new" 40-year old motor, and a trailer made from Ford Model T parts. The boat's so beautifully restored and full of character that people wanted to buy it and put it into a museum.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Undaunted from my first hitch-hiking attempt I was keen to give it another crack. I'll let you know how it turned out, in my next update, all about the south island. Check out some visuals from this photogenic country by clicking the thumbnail photo at the top, and don't be shy about throwing down some comments! 

-Mike in the South Island

P.S. The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, which means, "the land of the long white cloud".