Archive for June, 2010

Milford Sound – Into Thin Air

I had not originally planned on going to Milford Sound (which is really a fiord). But all along the way everyone told me I could not come to the South Island and not go there. Just the drive there made it worth it (five hours each way). So I got up early in the morning (before dawn) and headed for this place that seemed to be at the end of the world.

As the landscape began to reveal itself I found myself in classically bucolic farmland.

And then the raw beauty of the snow-covered mountains that surround what they call Fiordland.

The lush vegetation still adding a twist.

And then, as I climb higher, the vegetation disappears, and it’s just snow, sky, and rock.

Eventually I encounter this tunnel. It was an odd tunnel, very dark and rough-hewn, and of course very narrow. All around me it was was a bowl of rock and snow, and the road going right into the icy rock.

And then just minutes downhill from the other side, it’s green and lush again.

And before too long I am at sea level, Milford Sound.

Which is not a sound at all but a fiord that has been carved out by glaciers thousands of years ago.

Which has left a landscape of sheer granite walls of rock that can go from snow-covered alpine heights right down to the sea. Melting snow and runoff from rains produces numerous waterfalls down the sides of the mountainsides.

There were dolphins swimming in the water by the boat, and seals on the rocks.

Somehow, starting from lichens and moss, whole forests find a footing on the sides of steep rocks.

It was a great boat trip from the innermost part of the “sound” out to the Tasman Sea and back. But now I have to head back to Queenstown in the fading light.

Meanwhile, the next morning, back in Queenstown I have to decide.

Am I really going to jump off a perfectly good bridge into thin air?

Damn right!

Click here to see the video.

Destination Queenstown – Life On The Edge

The South Island is many things. Imagine the California coast, the Grand Tetons, a tropical rainforest, the Swiss Alps, the Scottish Highlands, and throw in a bit of rural England for good measure, on an island the size of North Carolina. That’s a start on the South Island.

My drive began with sunny weather, but as I approached the mountains to the west, the clouds were brooding.

The landscape, it appears, was literally divided. And the brooding got worse.

But I did not let the rain stop me from taking a look at these strange rocks.

And in my travels across the South Island, I have never seen so many one lane bridges. It seems there are even more of these than sheep!

This was an amusing stop, not only for the water fall bridge in the distance guiding the water over the road, but for these Kea birds, the only species of alpine parrot.  They are not shy and they will grab your stuff if allowed. This guy and his buddies got on the roof of my car as I left. They are thought of as the bad boys of the parrot world.

New Zealand is famous for its exotic ferns. They gave the landscape a primordial feel.

As night began to fall the mist descended into the valleys giving the rural landscape a mysterious feel, to add to the primordial.

The first day’s drive got me as far as Franz Joseph Glacier Village. The glacier was the destination of a morning hike. The surrounding mountains had a fresh coating of snow seemingly gently blown on as the snowline fades to green.

As I approach the glacier its size becomes apparent. Just a few decades ago, where I am standing was under a few hundred feet of glacier.

Walking on the glacier can be very dangerous, and can only be done with special guides and/or helicopters to land further up near the top. Even so, the day before I was there someone fell into a crevice and was killed. So I had to be satisfied with pictures from the face.

The moss and lichen here are like nowhere else I have seen. It seems to cover everything, and manages to find a living on sheer rock.

After I leave the glacier I encounter staggering scenery on the way. I can see why they filmed Lord Of The Rings here, it seems like a fantasy.

But I swear it was real.

Then you turn a corner, and a little bit of the real world comes back, even if it’s a bit surreal.

Very suddenly the road hits the coast of the Tasman Sea. Right where the sea appeared, the beach had countless rocks and sticks stacked and placed along the beach all down the road. Many of the rocks had messages written on them commemorating trips taken, adventures had, and love found and enduring.

Of course I had to add one.

And then back inland, where the scenery could change at one turn from lush and green to alpine, the strange vegetation always adding a twist.

Again, the mist comes as night falls. I guess I will be driving under that.

The last bits of sun kiss the tops of the mountains.

And then dusk as I get close to Queenstown and the surrounding lakes.

The morning reveals Queenstown from the top of a mountain. I took a gondola up to see the view, I admit it, I was scared. I don’t even like to move when hanging in one of those things.

Of course Queenstown is famous for all kinds of extreme sports and numerous ways to scare yourself and throw your body around. There’s skiing, parasailing, jetboating, hang gliding, white water rafting, and of course most famously this – bungy jumping. It was invented here, on this very bridge.

Hmmm, what do you think? Should I try THAT!

Well fortunately there’s no time to think about that now. I have to get to Milford Sound and back today. Pictures at 11.

Island Hopping – Auckland to Christchurch

I arrived in New Zealand at Auckland, their largest city at 1.2 million people. There are only slightly more than 4 million people in the whole country (as opposed to 40+ million sheep).

I have a dear friend, Rose, who lives here and she was kind enough to put me up and show me around a bit. One of the first places she took me was Mt. Eden, which is an extinct (hopefully) volcano in the city.

Actually Auckland is in the middle of many volcanic cones, some extinct and some still active but currently dormant, like Rangitoto out in the bay.

I knew there were many sheep in New Zealand, but I did not expect to find them in a city park that apparently doubles as a farm.

And more sheep, here in Cromwell Park, which surrounds One Tree Hill (made famous by the U2 song of the same name). I could lie and tell you this majestic tree is the “One Tree”, but all that remains of the one tree is a sad stump. A tree sacred to the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, was cut down in 1852 by the British and replaced with a Monterey Pine. In 2000, Maori activists cut the tree down and the status is still in limbo.

We spent a night out in the country outside of Auckland visiting another friend Clare.

It’s almost winter here, so there was a crispness in the air. It really felt like fall, strange in June.

Clare’s place was beautiful, with lots of land, 4 cows, even a small winery.

But the next day it was off to the airport to fly to Christchurch, where I was going to start my drive around the South Island, ending in Dunedin further south (remember south down here is like north for the rest of us – so south is colder and north is warmer).

I only had late afternoon to take a peek at the city, so Christchurch Cathedral was a natural place to start.

With a name like Christchurch one would expect to find some churches, but I never expected a generic church. At least it wasn’t painted yellow.

Of course there is more to Christchurch than churches, they also like their games.

And oversized chess seems to be popular down here too. Maybe it’s a British thing since Christchurch is very British.

They have a very grand botanical gardens in the heart of town.

It felt even more like fall down here.

Although it’s the largest city in the South Island (350,000), Christchurch had a very small town feel about it, in a British kind of way.

Not to be outdone, this enthusiastic group of Catholic girls showed off their school colors.

All in all a pleasant place, even the guitars have a softer edge.

But now it’s time to hit the open road and see what the South Island is really famous for – the great outdoors. You can see the mountains in the distance, that’s where I am going!

Sibling Rivalry – Melbourne and Sydney

With time running out, we had to take in Australia’s two biggest cities in four days, beginning with Melbourne. Although fairly big (3 million or so), Melbourne had an easy going feel about it, almost quaint. Here a downtown mall atrium encloses an historic building.

This is not a city stuck in the past, as it had plenty of very modern architecture along with the older buildings.

And a symbolic fire that is kept downtown at this time every year in honor of an Aboriginal tradition.

And who said malls were invented in the USA, here is a Victorian era mall in downtown Melbourne.

The city had a civilized yet cutting edge vibe, kind of old Britain meets Seattle.

Not that I saw many of these being worn.

On the full day drive between Melbourne and Sydney, we had to stop at a winery for Gretchen to sample some boutique Australian wines. She was happy I was driving.

If Melbourne is the younger sibling who doesn’t like to be told what to do, Sydney is the oldest with all the ambition to shoot right to the top.

Even the chess set was bigger.

Bigger, brasher, flush with confidence and money, Sydney aims to be world class, in style if not in substance. And they are very proud of their iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.

We stayed in an edgy area called Kings Cross, where apparently this sign has been a fixture for years.

They still celebrate the Queen’s birthday here. Who said the Queen is above crass commercialism?

Like most of Australia, Sydney has a large Asian population.

Buskers and street performers could be found throughout the city.

LA has Muscle Beach and Sydney has Bondi Beach, though it was pretty quiet since it was winter. But that didn’t deter Gretchen from picking up the surf board.

Local Bondi Beach history and color is celebrated with many murals, and remember to throw that tin in the rubbish bin mate.

The city center was lively and vibrant both by day.

And by night.

They even have an old time amusement park across the river as therapy for those who have a clown phobia.

One thing that gives Sydney it’s character is it’s magnificent harbor, with numerous bays and inlets.

Oh yea, and there’s this Opera House they are real proud of.

It’s quite a grand piece of architecture that actually contains 3 theaters as well as an opera house. The European architect who designed it (who recently died) never got to see it in person after it was completed.

We however did get to walk over this bridge, and take in an acrobatic performance at the Sydney Opera House.

And with that great night, our time in Australia came to an end, and Gretchen headed home and I am off to New Zealand. A great distance indeed to reach, this land down under, but a great trip was made even better by having Gretchen by my side.

The Great Ocean Road in Birds and Pictures

We left the desert Outback for the considerably moister climate of the south coast of Australia, just west of Melbourne, to drive the Great Ocean Road. After our first day at the coast, we got to the small town of Lorne after nightfall. Then on a morning that literally smelled like heaven, we woke up to this sight right outside the door to our room.

In fact, we had to keep the door closed to keep them from coming in. Even so, we resisted the urge to put these cockatoos in a cage and sell them for big bucks stateside.

Where we stayed was quite nice, considering it was a backpacker’s hostel. The reception office was quite quaint.

Our first stop was the Kennet River where we were told we could see Koalas in the eucalyptus trees. And lo and behold.

Gretchen proved great at spotting them, most of which were high up in the trees.

Not to be outdone by a bunch of slow moving and dim witted puffy bears, the birds continued to entertain. These parrots where not shy to use people as a perch. I even got a picture of the bird while it was on my arm.

But the real reason we came down this way was to see the fabulous coast of the chilly Tasman Sea.

And when one encounters a new shore, the only logical thing to do is embrace nature with nature.

Photo of Peter's bum by Gretchen Hanser.

Of course what this stretch of road is really famous for is the great cliffs and rock formations just off shore.

This particular formation is called the “Twelve Apostles”.

Of course nature has a way of making fun of man’s quaint ways, as there are now only 6 “apostles” left standing.

The mood changes as the light changes.

And the same scene can look very different the next day. But one constant is the continuous roar of the ocean. It seemed louder and wilder than I have heard it before.

Time and erosion from the incessant pounding surf will turn this apostolic statue to rubble, as the mountains return to the sea.

At the top of the cliffs was this beautiful scrub bush environment that really intrigued me.

We took the inland road back towards Melbourne, and found an idyllic countryside landscape covered in farms and fields.

It was strange to see these working farms among the eucalyptus trees and birds of paradise fluttering about.

At times the trees seemed like something out of Dr. Seuss.

But our time in the Outback and the countryside was coming to an end. And the road now led to the cities of Melbourne and Sydney. And remember, we are driving on the left!

Uluru – Into The Australian Outback

No this was not our rental car, but you get the picture. There is a reason they call this place the Red Center.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My time in Australia started in a place seemingly far removed from the Outback, a place called Surfer’s Paradise, south of Brisbane, where Gretchen was working at her conference.  The view from her 24th floor balcony was impressive.

This place is kind of an Australian Myrtle Beach. I had to put up with it while Gretchen finished her conference. I know, poor me.

But apparently they do surf here.

And it is Australia, so the plants do weird things.

And the birds, well how would you like to wake up with these on your porch?

But as soon as Gretchen was done we flew to the heart of the Red Center, the outback “capital” of Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory. A whole 25,000 people live here. It’s hundreds of miles to any place bigger…or to any place at all.

Oh yea, and we saw Kangaroos on our first day there! They really hop!

And Kangaroos are not the only marsupials to be seen here, there are also the mostly nocturnal Wallabies, this one with a baby in her pouch.

And what do we do right after seeing these adorable critters…we eat them! We had to get an Outback Grill Platter at (the real) Bojangles.

Guess who got the spaghetti? Actually, I think I ate most of the Kangaroo, Emu sausage, Crocodile, Water Buffalo, and Camel on that plate of meat.

This is an area that still has strong Aboriginal influence (as strong as the decimated Aboriginal population can muster), and they can be found out selling their traditional paintings on the streets.

Out here it’s all about the land, and the rocks can do strange things.

Which must inspire the people, so Gretchen had to make her contribution to the underwear tree on our drive to Uluru.

There are only small Roadhouses on the four hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru. They usually offer basic accommodation, gas and eats, and usually a few penned in Emu…and toilets.

Ok, so the real reason we came all the way out here, is to see rocks, ok one big rock, do some strange things.

This is Uluru, formally known as Ayers Rock. After the land surrounding this place, that is sacred to the Aboriginal people here, was given back to the “Original Owners” the name was changed to Uluru, much the same way we now refer to Mt. McKinley in Alaska as Denali.

We did the walk all the way around the base of Uluru, at times going right up to the steep sides, and into crevices that sometimes held pools of water.

And Uluru is not the only notable rock here. There is also Kata Tjuta (many heads), not as well known, but no less striking.

We could hike right between these massive rocks.

Of course we had to be the last to leave the park, and be moved along by the ranger.  It’s a whole different universe out here.