Photo of a backyard in Kohimarama, Auckland in New Zealand
Perhaps my new home eventually?
Need something to get your blood pumping this Christmas?
In addition to the scenic landscapes, unparalleled natural reserves and diverse flora, New Zealand offers probably the world’s most extensive assortment of extreme sports.
I came across this article recently about the most extreme places to visit in the world. Queenstown came in at number two, which is nothing to be ashamed of considering one is a crazy as “sport” (read: suicide attempt) that I don’t think any place can really top. So at least bungee cords and sky diving at some support. The Swiss Eiger jump is absurd.
Anyway, take a look at the article from National Geographic for some ideas about where to go this Christmas if you’re feeling frisky and too antsy to just sit around the Christmas tree.
(copy and paste if the hyper link doesn’t work http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/trips/ultimate-adventure-bucket-list/#/nextbest/1)
Thursday 31 December 2009
It’s my last day in Queenstown. And it’s New Years Eve. There’s only one thing I want to do. S K Y D I V E. Unfortunately I wasn’t organized and didn’t book in advance. So call Skyjump and they only have a free spot at 1.30pm which is too close to my flight. Still want to get back to Auckland for New Years Eve celebrations (though let’s be honest, spending New Years partying up in Queenstown is much more attractive).
Change of plan. W, V & I hit up paragliding instead (because handgliding is also booked to the max…all these people and their extreme sports, grr!). We made a reservation with the wonderful company Elevation (http://www.elevation.co.nz/index.htm, they even have a blog, http://elevationparaglidingqueenstownnz.blogspot.com/)
and met up with the bus in front of the Shred shop. Around 10.30am, we’re on our way up the mountain. The van is filled with pilots. They will be flying tandem with us and controlling the chute as we glide down the mountain. They have already been up in the sky for the early morning flight. Squishing into the van with all the gear trailing in the back, adrenalin pumping, we’re rearing to go.
We make the trip to the base of Coronet Peak and wait at the landing field for the first batch of flyers to go first. W and I are watching the handgliders as they fly down the mountain. They look like specks of dust in the cloudy blue sky until they start swirling in the air.
The pilot does a manoeuvre called a spiral dive to descend faster in preparation for landing.
Handgliders position their body as if they are sleeping on their stomachs and land by sliding the front of their torso along the grass, bit like sliding down a water slide. Seems counter intuitive but at least they give you a bit of padding to cushion the impact.
Finally it was our turn to ride up to Coronet Peak about 840m (2,755 ft) where we do the jump. Coronet Peak is one of the most popular ski resorts and the first one to commercially open in New Zealand. Apparently it’s wonderful to paraglide down the mountain during winter too. Though I can imagine it gets really chilly high up there. The van lurched to a stop and we got out, grabbed the gear and trekked up to the edge.
I was paired up with A, a very nice English fella, who had paraglided commercially all over the world before he decided to settling in NZ. He gave me a huge backpack with a harness and laid out the chute.
Once we were tied together, my instructions were clear: run off the mountain and keep running, despite feeling the drag that will be pushing me back until we are clear of the mountain. Sounds easy enough. So I start running and suddenly it feels like the wind is beating my body backwards. My ankle is sore from the stupid fall yesterday. And I don’t feel like I’m moving. But all of a sudden, I feel like I’m lifting off the ground. So I keep running…
harder and harder until eventually…
I lift off the ground. I’m in the AIR!
And just like that, I was flying. Well technically no. I was strapped to my pilot who was controlling a parachute which was helping me glide down. But it felt as close as I’ve ever been to flying!
It felt liberating. And empty. And exciting to not have my feet firmly planted on the ground. And breathtaking to see the scenery. In fact, it made me feel proud to call myself a Kiwi!
Surprisingly there is a lot of downtime up in the air. I’m up there for about 15 minutes, enjoying the mountains, the water, the town below us. The grass, of course there is always plenty of grass.
We took a couple of photos and chatted before A decides to do some acrobatics. So this is the good part! He did a manoeuvre called a wing over. Basically it feels like the chute is tipping from side to side and naturally I go with it. Almost as if I have swung about 90 degrees laterally and come down again. It’s more fun than being on a rollercoaster because the thrill lasts for longer and you can see a lot more ground which makes vertigo kick in. Plus the wind is gushing past my helmet giving me a bigger rush.
Sadly though. What goes up must come down. So after the manoeuvre, which made us descend very quickly, A does a couple of spiral dives and we’re the first to land. In some ways I’d love to sit up there all day. Of course it’d make basic human functions pretty difficult. But it was so nice and I was sad to come down.
I get to see the other folks fly down and land. There is a huge smiley face cut into the grass where most of the gliders land. Very cute.
After the flight, we pack up, stuff ourselves in the van and leave to catch our flight.
Awesome ending to my fantastic trip in Queenstown I must say.
I will definitely be back for more fun! Hopefully in winter 2010, I can go skydiving (if I don’t freeze up there) and snowboarding in Queenstown!
For now more pictures to remind myself how awesome this entire adventure was!
Wednesday 30 December 2009
My dear cousin S lives in Wanaka, an hour away from Queenstown. W, V & I decide to make the trip to visit her and one of the most beautiful lakes in New Zealand, Lake Wanaka. We left Queenstown early in the morning on the Southern Link with a bus half full of backpackers and tourists all heading up towards Christchurch. The bus ride up to Wanaka was better than most. Our driver gave us a commentary of Central Otago. He showed us ruins of makeshift houses old gold miners built in almost shanty towns, hastily erected during the gold rush. There used to be over hundreds of small towns with anywhere from hundreds of people, shops and even a local post office to a couple of small shacks and a small community of families that had ventured further from the main towns to find gold in obscure places along rivers in Otago, the Shotover River, in particular.
We passed through Gibbston Valley, an area famous for its vineyards besides being incredibly small. Gibbston is only about 10km long and not particularly wide, housing around 10 vineyards. And yet the area is so perfect for Rieslings, Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs that it is making a name for itself not only in New Zealand but also internationally. The area has good soil and water for these grapes and does not rain often, but when it does, it dumps rain all over the vineyards which helps them grow fantastic grapes for wine. I also found out Queenstown and the surrounding area is very susceptible to landslides and being snowed in. During winter, the snow and rain can become so heavy, that Queenstown gets cut off. In 1999, there was a lot of snow fall and the town was snowed in for 2 weeks I believe. In 2008 there was also a landslide about 10 storeys high threatening to block the Shotover River.
We also passed by Cromwell which is well-known for its fruits. Nobody knows why. Cromwell doesn’t look special or any different to the surrounding towns. But the fruits, especially cherries, are supposed to be amazing.
Anyway, two hours later, we finally arrive in Wanaka (though can’t complain considering some folks had an 8 hour ride up to Christchurch). We go to the i-Site (government-sponsored information centers in every big town in NZ where you can find travel information) and hit up my cousin S and plan the rest of our day. Everybody is very friendly in Wanaka. The pace feels much more relaxed compared to Queenstown. And Lake Wanaka is quite a sight to see. I understand why people visit this town.
The lake looks crystal blue under the sun even though the wind was howling and water was choppy. There were billowy puffs of clouds in the baby blue sky. Mountains lie far in the distance on the other side of the lake and tall green trees flank left and right of the lake. In some ways the water and surroundings look even more tranquil than Lake Wakatipu without buildings nearby and man-made objects in the water to distract you.
Within an hour, W, V and I are on the water. We booked a trip on a jet boat down the Clutha River, the second longest river in New Zealand, which flows into Lake Wanaka (it was too choppy to go out to Lake Wanaka).
Our skipper promised us 45 minutes of jet boating with 360º turns and dangerous manoeuvres.
As we travelled down the river, we saw old gold mine remains including a huge, rusty axel in the water that used to be attached to a cog about 1.5m in circumference (I told you, huge!) which was all part of a machine used to pound and break up huge rocks to pan for gold. The scenery down the river was amazing too. The banks became higher and higher as the river got closer to the ocean; some where as high as 800m.
Then came the best bit. We did some crazy turns going at about 200 km/h on the jet boat. We spun around a couple of times and then swerved upstream. The jet boat, invented by a kiwi Sir William Hamilton, the boat doesn’t see a propeller. Instead it uses a pump-jet to suck water in from the bottom, shoots it out in the back, propelling the boat forward. It only needs about 100-150ml of water to run and can practically fly upstream.
It was so fun getting wet and sliding back and forth on the seat clinging to the rail until my knuckles went white to stop myself from flinging off the boat (no seatbelts of course)!
After the jet boat ride, we decided to walk along the Lake and enjoy the scenery.
We trekked a short distance along the lake and headed towards a vineyard. There were lovely trees in a reserve right next to the lake. After climbing up to the top of the hill, found a long row of beautiful (and expensive!) houses with the best view I’ve ever seen.
Finally we made it to the vineyard. A sweet and slightly sour smell filled my nostrils as I saw the 100 rows of green grapes. We practically ran into the little store to see what precious wines they had waiting for us. I sampled everyone of them finally settling on the Riesling 2008 as my favourite. Sitting down and enjoying a glass of wine watching the life in the vineyard with the backdrop of Lake Wanaka was the perfect way to spend a lazy summer afternoon.
The last stops we made before heading back to Queenstown were the Penisula Bay to check out some new developments in Wanaka and Puzzling World. Puzzling World started as a maze but has turned into an entire attraction with a building full of optical illusions and effects. Outside the “puzzling” complex is Wanaka’s very own Leaning Tower of Wanaka.
A couple of my favourite illusions included a room that depicted the illusion in the movie, the Lord of the Rings, that made hobbits look significantly smaller than wizards and elves.
There was also a tilted house where everything was out of balance. Water was flowing upwards instead of down. The pool table was slanted in such a way that the billiards rolled up the table instead of down the table.
There was also a labyrinth outside. The challenge was to start in the middle and pass through four towers on each corner of the rectangular maze and make it out to the exit. Unfortunately, we were in a rush so we didn’t manage to finish very thoroughly. I tripped over a rock running down stairs (ended up tearing a ligament in my ankle in fact) and we were all kind of over it after half an hour. So we took the emergency exist, ran out of the maze and caught the last bus back to Queenstown.
Perfect lazy day in Wanaka. With such a lovely view, I have to come back for the skydive!
Tuesday 29 December 2009
Milford Sound! Part of the Fjordland National Park in the southwest of the South Island, Milford Sound promises great scenery and a fantastic journey on a cruise through misty waters and mountains. It is part of a the Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage Site which covers about 26,000 km² including Mt. Cook, Fjordland, Mt. Aspiring and Westland. World Heritage Sites (Grand Canyon and Great Barrier Reef are World Heritage Sites too) are recognized by the UN as very important sites because of their cultural or natural importance. And Milford Sound really didn’t disappoint!
We left early in the morning to be picked up by Kiwi Discovery, a coach that was going to take us to the cruise in Milford. Our driver B, or Brucey as he referred to himself, was very entertaining, thankfully for a 4 hour coach ride, one way, to Milford. Here are some of the highlights I saw on the journey to Milford:
– Lake Wakatipu and the glorious blue, green water sparkling in the morning sun. Side note, it was also were Lothlórien was filmed in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
– Kawarau River where Lake Wakatipu drains and where AJ Hackett’s first bungee business is located
– we passed mountains where 2 high country sheep stations are located (both of which Shania Twain owns, apparently she purchased them for a whooping 22 million and has a huge house sitting up on the mountain)
– The Remarkables, a mountain range south of Queenstown which looks breathtaking at all times. During sunset, it looks like it’s glittering. During the day it stands majestically with a bit of snow on the top (only because it was summer). Story goes, the Remarkables got its name because it’s one of only TWO mountain ranges in the world that run North to South. I heard that if you ski from the top, you can see all the way to the ocean. Now that is incredible.
– Lake Te Anau: This lake is the second largest in NZ, extending out three legs to the West.
– We stopped by a lake called Mirror Lake, named so because the water is so clean that you can see your reflection when you look into the water. The weather wasn’t quite right while I was there, a bit cloudy and not enough sun. But I could see the stillness and a blurry reflection which was still impressive.
– We saw a number of interesting plants. There were tons of manuka trees (manuka is the Maori word for tea tree) that bees visit every year and make Manuka honey from (love that thick stuff!). There were beech trees probably over 400 years old. Many pines, which take 30 years to mature compared to 80-100 years of the same type in Europe. Plenty of lupines, broome and gorse, all 3 have no real use. The English and Scottish farmers introduced them when they settled for farm hedges! Broome looks like disgusting yellow weeds (reminded me a bit of the grass in Los Angeles actually) and gorse…don’t even go there. I hate the stuff since it ripped my shins and hands to shreds and left over 20 prickles in my hands the last time I fell into some in the bush.
– Made a toilet stop at Knob’s Flat. Hilarious name. It’s called that because there are huge mountains on either side of the valley and a river running on the left. The land is so flat that it was perfect for the road to be built down it.
– We also passed the Hollyford River. The water collects mountain water that’s 99.8% pure. So good I just had to scoop some in my bottle and try it. Even better than mountain spring water in a bottle! And just as Brucey said, it was the temperature of BC…for the scientists out there, you know what that stands for. Bloody cold.
– The last major sights were the remains of avalanches that had melted tons of ice close to the road and desecrated trees that had stood in the way. The real damage the avalanches cause is not from the snow falling but the rush of wind which can reach speeds of 200 km/h.
Finally about 1.45, I hopped onto the Milford Monarch, our cruise ship that took us into Milford Sound. (On a side note, bit of geography, Milford, also called Milford Sound, is actually a fjord (or fiord), not a sound. Both are bodies of water, inlets, that have two large landmasses on either side. The difference is that the fjords are created by glaciers.)
Riding into Milford Sound felt like I was on the canoe as the Fellowship paddled its way down the river at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. There were mountains surrounding me and a foggy mist that sitting on the horizon that surrounded the ship and made it heard to see far into the distance. The mountains had jagged rocks and different shrubbery growing. There were waterfalls intermittently and nooks and crannies that looked like they would make fantastic secret caves. I saw Mitre Peak through the fog, one of the most beautiful and most photographed mountain peaks in NZ. It sits on the still water peacefully and extends above the clouds. I feel zen even just looking at it.
One thing was missing however. Rain. It’s supposed to rain in Milford. Pour with rain because heavy winds from Antarctica blow up southerly winds which gives Milford its turbulent weather. Sadly, the rain took a day off while I was there. Not to worry. It made dolphin spotting much more pleasant. Yup that’s right. I was in for a treat. A school of dolphin swam past and decided the boat was their newest toy. They swam around the bow several times and chased each other around in circles. Very cute. Later we saw a bunch of lazy seals lounging on a rock absorbing warm sun before the clouds carried it away.
Those things looked like huge slugs lying on a rock. Kind of gross, in a cute way. On the way back we past Stirling Falls.
Maori legend has it that women who touch the water of the waterfall will look 10 times young. The falls were beautiful. And strong. The water thrashed down on the rocks and sprayed us all relentlessness. Price to pay for youth I suppose. Anyway, that was the end and we headed back. But the whole journey seemed so mystical and surreal. Part of it was probably the fact that I kept recalling scenes from Lord of the Rings in my head and imagined myself as an elf looking into the distance. Ruined the experience a bit to be honest. Nevertheless, it was breathtaking and quite a sight to see.
Highly recommend Milford Sound. Try to go when it’s raining one day though. I think it will give it an even more magical touch.
What would be more appropriate than starting my first blog post about my first day in Queenstown? But a bit of background first. I’ve lived in New Zealand for over 17 years, my whole life actually before I moved to Los Angeles. But this was the first time I’ve really seen any of the South Island. After watching Lord of the Rings a several times and having numerous questions asked about what the NZ landscape is like, I decided it was finally time for me to visit Queenstown.
So I hop off the plane and wait for my cousin S at the airport, which is actually located in Frankton, a 10 minute drive from Queenstown, to pick us up. After a quick lunch, we head to Arrowtown which is a famous old gold mining town. Many of the towns around the Central Otago region were built during the gold rush days after gold was discovered around 1860s. At one point this area was filled with hundred of settlements of gold miners who had travelled from over the world, namely Australia, California and China to mine for gold. Arrowtown was one of the main towns left after most of the others had been abandoned and left to decay once all the gold was gone. Today, Arrowtown looks quaint and attracts a number of tourists every year. The town is made of one main street, Buckingham St., where most of the shops are. A short walk down the hill is the Arrow River where the men used to pan for gold. However, a few metres down from the river is the old Chinese settlement where the Chinese miners lived. They lived a harsh life, living in small huts that looked barely large enough for oompa loompas to live in, on the outskirts of Arrowtown. The Europeans has invited the Chinese and Japanese miners to NZ to help them mine the gold but discriminated against and segregated them, forcing them to live in tougher conditions. It was quite unsettling to see the ruins of some of the houses which had collapsed over time or had been washed away by floods from the Arrow River.
Next we drove into Queenstown to catch the sunset. The town was buzzing with busy energy like Auckland. It has a lot of similarities; it’s hectic and surprisingly traffic can be very slow. There were more tourists than locals. But the ambiance was very laid back and down to earth and everybody was very active, ready for their next adventure, be it the man holding skis or the van driving with a hand glider strapped to its roof. We made our way to the Skyline Gondola and rode up to the top where we enjoyed a delicious buffet dinner next to magnificent views of Lake Wakatipu. The lake, 80 km long, is the third largest lake in New Zealand (behind Lake Taupo and Lake Te Anau) and the longest. From the observatory, you can see the TSS Earnslaw (iconic local twin screw steamer, hence TSS) that has been sailing down Lake Wakatipu since 1912, the year the Titanic took her maiden voyage. Within view is the ledge bungee, paragliding site, and of course Queenstown itself. The season was also perfect for lupines that only blooms for 2-3 weeks a year. They were spread up and down the whole mountain in a lovely coat of blue, pink and purple flowers.
Just before we left, W and I rolled down the slopes on the luge ride. Very fun and thrilling while we watched the sunset set. You think Queenstown is gorgeous during the day. But it’s even more beautiful just as the bright orange and reds from the last peeks of the sun sparkle on the water while casting a misty glow of yellow light over the town. So after one day in wondrous lands, I was ready and EXCITED about my adventures the following day.