And Back Again

I’ll admit, I’ve been putting this off. Every time I try to imagine summarizing my experience and everything I gained in New Zealand, it becomes an impossible task, ideas and thoughts coming at me from every direction.  So maybe it is.  As much as I wish I could write down every single reflection and share with you all my wonderful memories, I know that some of them will just have to remain mine.  Or alternatively, anyone reading this can go experience the country for themselves, which I recommend with 100% of my heart.  But before I can reflect, there’s a little bit left of my adventure to show you.

After a quick jaunt to Australia’s coast, I came back to the place where it all began: Auckland. My friends flew out of Sydney because they didn’t buy their ticket a lifetime ago like I did.  It was one of those moments where time got a little mixed up. Had a whole semester already come and gone? It felt like both a lifetime and second ago I was on a plane to New Zealand, brimming with anxious and excited energy and ready to say hello to this mysterious country.  Now I was on a plane back to say goodbye.  And what better way to send me off than one of New Zealand’s biggest tourist attractions?  I promised myself I wouldn’t leave New Zealand without seeing Hobbiton, and I kept that promise.

Though the sky looked more like rain rather than shine, the sight of the Hobbiton welcome sign nestled within the startlingly green foothills certainly out shined the weather.  Our eccentric van driver dropped us off at the buses, which shipped us down the road to the set as our tour guide chattered away.

The set did its job; the level of detail certainly made it feel like another world (aside from the dotting of tour groups on the hillside).  The gardens and shrubbery was real, tended to by teams of gardeners. Most of the food on display (as well as the lichen on the fences) was fake, but honestly it was hard to tell with just a glance, which is how much screen time many of the hobbit holes had. A few hobbit holes were literally built solely for a single shot.   They were also built with perspective tricks–some doors make you look hobbit-sized, while some doors made you look wizard-sized.

The tour ended with a complimentary ale at the Green Dragon Inn, the beer only available on site.  The Inn came complete with a cat, who was asleep in a chair by the fire. He certainly knows how to live.  We relaxed there just as it began to rain, truly an example of perfect timing.  I took so many pictures. I manage to narrow them down:

I made it back to the city in time to grab a beer (and dinner) amongst the swarm of Lions fans that had descended upon Auckland for the All Blacks v. British Lions rugby game. Every single pub or bar boasting any type of beer was filled with red jerseys and British/Irish/Scottish accents. This pattern happened on my tour as well, red jerseys and fighting words.  I was a little disappointed that I was going to be on a plane when the game occurred (even if I still don’t know the rules of rugby).

The next day, I swapped a bus for a boat. My final day in New Zealand was spent on Waiheke Island to send off my time here the right way: wine tasting.  My tour took us around the island, stopping at wineries along the way to enjoy the views and the product.

IMG_2015

View from Mudbrick winery

And just like that, the day was over and the next morning I was hauling 6 months worth of luggage down the road to the bus stop.  By the time I got there, I realized  traveling light will be my next plan of action for every trip I ever go on again.  Reduces stress levels, sweat levels, and makes moving from point A to point B that much easier. And in the end, I really didn’t need the the amount of jackets I brought, or dresses, or nice shirts.  I learned to pack smarter for my personal taste instead of packing more.  It would definitely feel better to wear less layers in the airport.

IMG_2068

Now my study abroad story has come full circle.  I write this from familiarity, my country, my hometown, my home.  I’m back again but after going there, my humble world looks a bit different.  I’ve gone outside the bubbles where I live and go to school and my perspective can’t possibly be the same.  All the people I met taught me little lessons on how to handle life. Being tossed into a new school system taught me how to adapt.  The combination of the two helped me improve my time management skills.  Of course, I didn’t realize any of this during my time in New Zealand. It’s only now, back in familiar territory, that I can see what a value study abroad was to me, the introvert who wanted an adventure and came out better for it.

There are many things I already miss about New Zealand and its people.  I miss the easy going personality pervasive throughout the country, I miss the proximity of incredible natural beauty, I miss the accents and slang, I miss the sheep. The best part about staying in one place for so long (relatively) was getting to know the landscape, its daily nuances, the price of chicken, how to pay the bill, which cafe actually has the best cup of coffee.  It’s getting to know the secrets of a locale, the things only locals would know, that lights my fire.  Maybe its my tendency to want to blend in, to observe, but digging down to the roots of a place is what I’ve found to be key to feeling the authenticity of traveling. It might not be in the tourist-jammed places (but those places are often so crowded for a reason), but losing yourself in the pathways of the local park or having the chance to revisit that restaurant that had the really good, fresh guacamole, several times.  My prolonged stay allowed me to explore beyond the guidebook and let me know this beautiful place deeper than I could with a simple vacation (though my Kiwi accent is still terrible).  Often there’s not enough time to see beyond the big sights and that one restaurant with the highest Yelp reviews, which I understand from many of my weekend trips, but I believe that it’s so important to travel without the guidebook-blinders on, to see an opportunity and take it.  The places we visit are alive, not stagnant, statuesque objects.  Chance encounters of hidden streets leading to live music or wrong turns opening up to stunning views are perfect ways to get a taste of a country’s secrets, and the more time you spend there, the higher your chances.

I am so incredibly grateful for this experience and the people who helped me conquer it. Dad & Mom, thank you so much for everything; you made this experience of a lifetime possible.  All the friends I met along the way, thank you for your company and little life lessons, even if you didn’t realize it. I’ve never had more fun in my life. New Zealand, thank you.  I might be a world away now, but I will be back someday

“Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.”

– J.R.R Tolkien

 

Cheers,

Alexis

IMG_2004

 

Oz

At this point, I almost need one of those signs from Spongebob so I can  fast forward through my absences to catch you guys up to now. It feels like the last month has gone by in less than a blink of the eye. I’ve finished the semester, taken my exams, said many goodbyes, and been to Australia and back.  I’ll talk about my New Zealand thoughts in a later post–this one I’d like to dedicate to the land down under.  It would be silly if I flew all this way and didn’t take the hop over to Australia at least once.  So about halfway through the semester, we bought our tickets on an Air New Zealand sale.

This was a trip that involved little to no pre-planning, simply due to the fact that each of us spent more time studying than communicating.  The only thing we had planned was the cities: Melbourne, Brisbane, Sunshine Coast, and Sydney. We had twelve days to see what we could see in between them.  We didn’t get a chance to see the Outback–I am a little disappointed–but looking back it was probably best, so I can come back and see it how I want to.  (In a world where dreams come true, I would imitate the movie Tracks, which you all should watch if you haven’t).

First leg of the trip was Melbourne. We flew out at 6:00 AM, which made getting an Uber at four in the morning rather stressful. Exhausted and hungry, we arrived before check in to our Airbnb so we stored our bags and got breakfast the first chance we got (we were all a little hangry). Typical of any moment when all you want to do it relax, when it was time to check in to the Airbnb, the lock holding the key would not open.  We sat on the street on a throne of bags and waited for someone to come help us. Someone finally came to help us, and we napped.

Slightly recovered, we began our march that would continue over the course of four days.  I have never done so much walking as we did in Melbourne.  We saw the city in the self tour style. We marched through the vast markets (more like massive, never ending malls, rather than crafty markets), numerous laneways hiding bustling cafes and stretches of vibrant graffiti, and buildings rich in culture, old and new.

The first day without jetlag was spent roaming stalls of fresh fruit and veggies, savoring the smell of summer in the middle of winter at the Queen Victoria Market, and then heading to the museum, yet another engrossing and well done exhibition.  I especially liked this museum for its giant herd of taxidermy; they were old specimen from previous collections and the presentation simply allowed one to stand and marvel at the many shapes and sizes of the animal kingdom.

We stayed at the museum for a fair portion of the day, wandering out only in search of food (and for me, a brew).  Which I found at the Crafty Squire, a brewery that also led us to discovered the bewildering game of footy (Australian football).  We tried valiantly to understand the rules (Was it more like rugby? Like soccer? Lacrosse?) but failed to become enlightened. The baffling sport would follow us throughout Australia.

Melbourne itself was truly a city made for hipsters. I loved it.

Our first breakfast involved water poured from Erlenmeyer flasks and my desert that night involved caramel poured from a syringe.  Coffee shops flanked every corner and alleyways (called laneways) were lined with art installations from murals to picture frames and cafes that come close to eating on the streets of Europe. Truly a hipster’s paradise, and I saw enough Instagram ‘photoshoots’ to prove it.

I personally love the laneways; they felt like little treasure chests waiting to be opened each time we wandered down the narrow streets. Some definitely encouraged the crowds

IMG_1441

Hosier Lane

(Hosier Lane, for one, with its street art smeared over every inch of brick) while others were more subtle (like Presgrave place, literally tucked around a corner and hiding a bar for only those who search for it).

The buildings we saw were also something to marvel at. The Queen Victoria library was the most beautiful library I’d ever seen and when we toured Parliament we discovered that the gold on the ceilings was real. And of course, the cathedrals were more gems dotting the urban landscape.  Melbourne had a strong European feel to it, but enough character than it was its own city.

After a few days in Melbourne, we hopped on a plane to Brisbane. Hopped may be an exaggeration of our speed, as we had 6-months worth of luggage and none of us were especially light packers. However, after this venture, I am never bringing more than one large bag.  My arms are still sore from my creative distribution of weight.  So I guess we should say we stumbled on a plane and then onto a bus to Sunshine Coast.

Sunshine Coast was just what we all needed: warm weather and a beach in a vacation town.  However, our first full day was spent not at the beach, but the zoo. And not just any zoo. The Australia Zoo, aka Steve Irwin’s zoo.  Never in my life have I felt that sad to be at a zoo.  The front gate had a strip of images of the Irwin family and Steve’s face is all over the zoo. I can’t explain why I repeatedly felt twinges of sadness.IMG_1585  After all these years I suppose still think that it’s unfair that a person as passionate and full of life as Steve passed away when the world would have been so much better with him in it.  Honestly, I think without people like Steve Irwin, not very many people would give a damn about wildlife, something I hold near and dear to my heart.  Maybe that’s why one of my stronger childhood memories is reading about his passing in the newspaper while sitting at my grandparent’s dining table–that feeling hasn’t really changed.  So the zoo was a very bittersweet experience–especially since we caught a glimpse of Robert Irwin (his son). If you haven’t watched his Jimmy Fallon interviews, you really should. He is almost a copy of his father. It’s incredible.

I finally got to see the croc shows in real life and we got to pet and feed kangaroos, so despite its bittersweet qualities, the zoo was a worthwhile experience.

The next day, we had no plans but the beach. We bided our time there in the best possible way: reading and soaking up the sun.  To our pleasant surprise, the holiday park we were staying at was having some kind of food truck event when we got back.  The donuts we got were the perfect motivation to repack our suitcases.

At this point I was getting a bit tired of the Greyhoud buses (despite their decent wifi), so picking up my last Jucy car of study abroad was a relief.  The car (we called her Sasha) somehow managed to fit all of our bags and ourselves, which was quite the feat.

IMG_0885

This was the part we were playing by ear–a whole stretch of coastline between us and Sydney and many options.  The first day we ended up at Byron Bay, which I definitely wish we had more time at.  It was your quintessential surf town. You could tell who the tourists were and you could also tell who came there to surf and stay awhile.  There were so many shops I could have stopped in and so many cafes and beautiful weather. If I come back to Australia, I am certainly going to stop here. It would be as good of an excuse as any to finally learn how to surf.

In the morning, we walked to the lighthouse along the coastline and got another satisfying breakfast.  I am also definitely going to miss flat whites–they became my go to coffee order, but I haven’t seen their names in coffee shops in the states (correct me if I’m wrong, I would be thrilled!). And they aren’t lattes, because both are found on the menu.

IMG_0856

And speaking of food, I finally got a fish taco in Byron Bay. It’s been a while! However, this fish taco wasn’t my favorite. It was a bit too fishy and the lack of sauce left me a little disappointed. 5/10.  It also wasn’t beer battered like every other fish taco I’ve had below the equator, which I’m still deciding if it’s good or bad. IMG_0777

We headed out to our halfway point the next day, which we decided would be Port Macquarie.  Another lovely beach town that we did not have enough time to explore.  That’s why, while my friends were still sleeping, I went on a run (my ankle has improved!). Running is a shortcut for exploration. It’s a fast and relatively easy way to find all the neat little places in a town. In this case these were beaches, each one as appealing as the last with the glint of the early light transforming the shores in the golden casing of morning. I ran past a sign that told me to beware of snakes (I ran very fast) and followed some steps up to a look out.  I saw more beaches than my friends ever did and had a coffee from a cafe on the beach.  I’ve come to realize a contradiction in my life, because as much as I love lazy mornings, I also don’t like to waste them when there’s a whole world waiting.  The world shows itself in a different way when the sun is still low, it’s peaceful and a quiet memory of the night. For a moment, everything is extraordinary. Staying in my pajamas an extra hour denies me this.  So when I am in a new place, I have the urge to get up and do, to wipe the sleep from my eyes to absorb all that I can and let the world amaze me with the simplicity of a golden moment woven as a sparkling thread through the day.  This is why I like running; it gets me up and out and into that light.  That’s why I was a bit miserable when my ankle decided to betray me.

After my friends woke up, we stopped by a koala hospital to get one last glimpse of the adorable fellows.

Last but not least, we made it to Sydney. One would have though Australia would have been a captivating drive, but honestly, the roads were lined with Eucalyptus 95% of the time. Not much to look at, except the occasional koala bridge crossing the road.

Our Airbnb was tucked into a neighborhood with some New Orleans-style charm but still relatively close to a few bars around Sydney. Of course, the bar/restaurant we picked was American themed. I was sorely tempted to order a Sierra Nevada.. but I held out.

The next day, we took a free walking tour of Sydney and honestly, we should have done the same in Melbourne. We learned a lot about Sydney’s history and its sights all in one afternoon.  And of course, ended at the opera house.  Jokes about Finding Nemo were made.  After our tour, we simply walked.  Well almost. We got an Uber to a part of town our guide recommended, where us being us, we stopped in numerous book stores on our quest for Mexican food (where I indeed got another fish taco).

IMG_1778

IMG_0893This taco was excellent, with a nice creamy sauce and the crunch of cucumbers as toppings, I was pleased with the switch up from traditional. The fish was well fried but also juicy. The margarita pair was excellent. 8.5/10.

The next day, we opted for our third mode of travel: ferry!  We went over to Manly beach for breakfast, had some killer scrambled eggs, and walked along the beach in a day of vibrant sun. I could have stayed longer there too (I think there is a reoccurring theme  here).

No trip to Sydney would be complete without a trip to Bondi Beach. And doughnuts. And doughnuts on the beach.  When we got acai bowls to try and imitate some semblance of health, I almost felt like I was back in California.   The coastal walk had me missing my side of the Pacific. However, I don’t think there’s a cemetery in California that quite compares to the cemetery we walked through.

We complete about 3/4 of the coastal walk from Bondi to Coogee beach before a group consensus occurred to catch the next bus and explore more of downtown Sydney and shop a bit before we had to repack our suitcase for the long haul. Again, we found ourselves in a bookstore and I broke down and bought a book (one can only hold out so long).

And just like that, Australia came to an end.  I’ve skimmed over much of it because as I type this, I’m sitting in the airport waiting for my flight home (oh man). I did fly back to New Zealand for a few days because I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye, but I’ll talk about that in a bit.  Australia treated us well, as a conclusion to studying abroad.  As I sit here and type this, I cannot believe how fast time has gone and how so much has happened between now and February. I am so grateful for all of it, but I will save my deep words for my final study abroad post.   By the time those of you who know me read this, I will probably be on a plane or back on U.S soil. So I’ll see you all soon!

Cheers,

Alexis

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

 

P.S. – I alIMG_0691so have to give a shout-out to this beer that nearly every bar tender recommended to me… and it was really good. Definitely unique.

 

 

Double Feature

It’s the final week of class, and it’s wild to be typing those words.  I arrived here in the peak of summer, heat in the air and sunburn on my shoulders, but now it’s nearly winter, the leaves have dropped and I can’t leave my flat without a warm jacket.  Times have changed, and moments that were once only a potential have become memories.  I’ve learned to use time wisely here and definitely make the most of what the day offers–starting with the last two weekends. I traded in my mountains for the concrete jungle. Well, as close as New Zealand gets. Dunedin and Wellington, two more of those must see cities.

First stop: Dunedin.  This was kind of a last hurrah trip, as it was the biggest group trip in a while, with thirteen of us split between one more glorious Jucy van and a mini Jucy car. We made it down late Friday night to our hostel, where we managed to rent out an entire 12-person suite. I’ll call it that as it was lined with bunk beds, a relatively clean carpets, a defunct fireplace, and a set of couches. On the outside, it did remind me a bit of a haunted house. The inside did too–old wooden staircases draped in faded carpet and drafty windows.  I wish I would have taken pictures of it.

We had some time to explore the night scene of Dunedin, wandering around in the freezing cold (literally, it started snowing later). Unlike Christchurch, with bars and good times literally located as far from each other as possible, Dunedin has a square called the Octagon, a neatly arranged square of hip brew bars, bass thumping venues, and other delicious looking restaurants.  Nice, but I’m a Californian, I’ll take a nice walk to icy conditions any day.

IMG_0337

Squint and you can see snow

The next day, I had to wake up in the morning to register for classes back home–a little dose of reality for the day.  What I also woke up to: snow! I’ve only seen snow fall from the sky once, so this was a little more exciting that I care to admit.  My friends are mostly East Coasters, so they were amused. After a sluggish start, eventually the gang made it to a cafe breakfast. Then, the Cadbury factory.  Why not?

They didn’t let us take pictures inside but honestly, I was a little disappointed because we didn’t get to see any of the actual workings of the factory. We drank some liquid chocolate and left with a baggie of free samples, so I suppose that’s a decent consolation. At the end, we walked to the top of the silo, were told to shout “We want chocolate!”, and were rewarded with watching one ton of liquid chocolate drop from a vat.  It was as odd as it sounds. Our guide told us we were lucky because it was cold enough to prevent the chocolate from splattering the walls. It was then we noticed the large brown blobs behind our heads.  I’d rather eat chocolate than get splattered by it, personally.

From there, we headed to the steepest street in the world, Baldwin Street.  We parked the Jucy van at the bottom as we doubted its capacity to make it up the incline and instead did it the old fashioned way.   It was reminiscent of Lombard Street in a way, both streets crawl with tourists and cars eager to say they completed the task and houses just minding their own business. Of course, Lombard Street is exponentially more crowded.  We made it to the top, admired the snow dappling the foothills, and headed back down.

IMG_1035

Victory lap!

A friend and I ducked into a store to buy a postcard when, after a few moments, a great rumble of an engine cut through the otherwise quiet air.  The next instant a green-and-purple streak rushed by the shop door and we jumped outside to see the Jucy van admirably bowling towards the hill.  At first the van flew up the incline at a breakneck pace, but about halfway up, the speed drop was fast and sudden.  The cold air highlighted the massive amounts of exhaust pooling out of the car, but after a few moments of doubt, the van made it.  Another fine example of the glory of the Jucy van.

 

Most of the group headed back to nap, but I split off with a friend to walk around the city. We found the train station and a surprise art show inside. I took a very sneaky picture of my favorite one.   After the church, we went on a hunt for the massive European-esque churches that we’d spotted around the city. We went into one of them and then opted to escape the cold with some chowder at a bar, which happened to be filled with celebratory graduates and their families.  It was another dose of reality–next year that will (hopefully) be me, good beer included.  Once we hit our temperature-quota, we walked back to the hostel.   It was definitely a stay-in sort of night, complete with a massive pot of pasta.

The next morning, we were on a quest for penguins.  We were out by 6:45 and headed to a beach where they supposedly lived.  We made it to Long Beach just in time for sunrise, the entire sandy shore cast in the soft glow on the edge of releasing the golden rays of the day.  A few locals were already out walking in their down winter jackets on and their dogs bounding after shorebirds. It felt familiar, one of environments that run parallel to each other, even across the globe.  And, there was a puppy. A puppy who proceeded to tackle every one of us from behind.

Unfortunately, we didn’t find the penguins.  We found the cave they sleep in, as evidenced by the little penguin tracks. There was also a brief encounter between a dog and seal.  Made me nervous, but the owner acted like this had happened before.

IMG_1099

We ended up leaving three of our own on the beach–they wanted to do some climbing–and we found breakfast in Port Chalmers, a cute port town with interesting small shops surprisingly filled with animals.  Then, off to our final stop of the trip: the Moeraki Boulders.  I’m not a geologist, so I can’t explain the presence of perfectly round boulders half buried in the sand. If anything, I would say aliens. Kidding. Maybe.

That was Dunedin.  Second stop: Wellington.

The next weekend, we were on a plane at 6:30 AM, flying out of Christchurch.  Never say no to cheap flights.  When we landed, we were greeted with a sign that read: “The Middle of Middle Earth” and then an eagle diving over the waiting passengers, Gandalf included.

That was a good omen, if I’ve ever seen any.

We dropped our bags at the hostel and set off to see where the wind would take us (only to realize how literal that was later. Wellington is a windy place).  Before we could do anything, we got breakfast at one of the multitude of cool cafes in Wellington (I will only spare a sentence for these lovely spots, I know not everyone is as excited by them as I am). But I should say how good Wellington’s coffee is.  After a satisfying flat white and eggs benedict, we headed to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.  Yet another impressive display of New Zealand’s museum skills, especially their WWI exhibit on the Gallipoli campaign.  18767334_10155302862649919_562855806_oThey had several larger-than-life models of soldiers scattered throughout the exhibit and I have no words to describe how life like they were.  It was haunting. You could see the sweat beading on their foreheads and the hair follicles on their arms and the dirt under their fingernails.  The more I stared at them and listened to their stories behind me, the more I expected the statues to stand up and start moving.  I didn’t take any pictures of them, I’m an idiot, but the ones I included are taken by my friends (it really doesn’t quite catch the detail though).

Like most human beings, we were attracted to the water.  We found ourselves on the wharf next, fighting off wind but enjoying the lovely sun that Wellington decided to greet us with.  Down the wharf a ways, there was an art sculpture of a naked man.  And when we asked a stranger to take a group picture of us with the water in the background, she decided to include the man.  We laughed.

IMG_1238

We had a brief respite at the hostel after this, but it didn’t take long for two of us to wander the street again. However, it was not for very long. One bar boasted a sign for $3 bubbles and well.. we couldn’t say no.  The fish and chips were good too.  Waiting for two more of our crew was no problem.  Eventually, they woke up from their naps and we were off again on the streets of Wellington.

Already it had much more of a pulse than Christchurch does. We wandered down to the end of Cuba Street, found some New York style pizza by the slice, and a night market of food, crafts, and knick knacks.  One of my friends is collecting coasters from different bars, so naturally that was the reason we went into one more Irish pub before heading back.

The next day was a bit drearier–weatherwise.  But it was either explore or sit inside all day, and I was definitely (and never will be) keen on that.  Luckily, no one else was either.  One coffee and breakfast later, we were on our way to the Wellington Zoo.  We couldn’t quite understand why there were so many people and cars swarming around the entrance, until we bought our tickets: a whopping $2.  We somehow managed to arrive on two-dollar entry day. We were thrilled and it made our animal sightings all the sweeter.  Highlights  were: sun bear couple getting annoyed with each other, the penguins imitating the penguins from the Madagascar movie, and the up-close-and-personal encounter with a giraffe.  After a bit of wandering, the clouds eventually did cave, releasing the rain.  Time for the next indoor activity: the Weta Cave, the studio that designed much of the Lord of the Rings creatures.

Okay, don’t get me wrong, I love Lord of the Rings. But I’ve realized that I’m much more of an experience person than a tour person. If the tour can take me into the heart of the city/mountains where I can feel the personality of the place and the authenticity of it, I’m all for that tour. But tours that take you out of the heart and into some highly structured, impersonal facts, I start to squirm. I’ve been on cool tours, yes, but it’s generally not my first choice.  So as I was excited to see the place where Gollum was born, the little nagging voice in the back of my head kept telling me about all the parts of Wellington I’d be missing out on.  It puts me in a bit of a conundrum when I’m trying to keep an open mind.

Yet we arrived, and found out the tour wasn’t free and the movie would be another hour, no one seemed keen on the tour.  We took our pictures with the figures in the gift shop and waved goodbye to Gollum.

Then, ParrotDog brewery. This I was excited for. ParrotDog is my favorite New Zealand craft beer (so far). So when I found out they were based in Wellington and gave free tastings, I made that my one request for something to do on this trip.  Both of the young people working the tasting were from the States, which is an idea I’ve buried in the back of my mind as a backup plan.  18789714_10155302865029919_754599872_oLike a good friend, I got two out of the three to find a beer they liked. The other doesn’t like beer so that’s her loss.  A new hat, t-shirt, and bottle of beer later, we snagged a bite of Italian-approved pizza and then headed back to the hostel.  My friends took a nap, and I walked.   It was happy hour/dinner time, so the city was alive and I like to see it like that, in it’s true colors. Because the streets change after people have had a few drinks.

The second night was another exploration of bars, but this time, we found live music.  On recommendation from the ParrotDog crew, we stopped at a place called Rogue & Vagabond (a craft beer bar–my type of place) and there was already a crowd.  The band was called Richter City Rebels and they were doing a homecoming tour, as Wellington is their home city.  We stopped, had some good beer, and somehow weaseled our way to the very front row.  So close that once they began to play, I thought I was going to get hit in the face by the trombone player.

I couldn’t begin to try and put this band in a genre–they were just toe-tapping good.  Sax, drums, trombone, trumpets, etc. They definitely made you want to move and knew how to have a good time, which we without a doubt had.  This is what I like in cities, I like finding little gems like these, your own discoveries.  Finding your own way, with the risk of being disappointed making the rewards like these fill you up with joy.

It was the highlight, hands down. I even bought a CD, granted I was a little loose with my money at that moment.

18765336_10155302866504919_1374068880_o.jpgAnd the good thing about flying out on a Monday, we had all of Sunday too. We kicked off the day with the best breakfast so far. The cafe was called Fidel’s and they had mimosas and breakfast burritos, enough to make Alexis happy.

However, we had a brief moment of panic before as one of my friend’s could not find her passport.  We scoured the hostel and had no luck.  We thought it may be in the bar next door, where the bouncer had humorously ushered us inside with his dancing, but we left quickly after. The bar was closed until 5, so we had no way to check. That thought was hovering over our heads for most of the morning.

We made a pit stop at Rogue & Vagabond, where I bought yet another t-shirt. I love my t-shirts and definitely made up for my lack of New Zealand t-shirts this trip (more to come later).  Since it was the sight to see in Welly, we eventually got to the panoramic views on top of Mount Victoria.

IMG_0504IMG_0503

From here, half of our crew split off to do work (how responsible of them), while us irresponsible ones went beer tasting. This time at Black Dog Brewery, literally around the corner from our hostel. I found it fitting, as it was one of the first beers I had in New Zealand, way back in Auckland. The beers were tasty, but I realized I’m still not really a stout person. ParrotDog is still my favorite, but I bought a t-shirt anyway (I came to New Zealand with zero black t-shirts and will now be leaving with four. Whoops.).

We made our way to a side of Wellington we hadn’t seen yet, stopping at more churches and finally the Beehive, where we accidentally toured parliament.  We followed the sign that said “tour” into airport type security and then rolled with it.  No pictures allowed, unfortunately, as even my tour-hesitant mind thought it was neat to see a different style of government.  After that, we found another Irish Pub where, out of all places, they had Lagunitas on tap.  It’s been five months since I’ve had it, so I’d like to call this a blessing.

The second blessing was the text that my friend had found her passport, somehow plastered into the arm of her cardigan.  The weekend was saved.

We celebrated with $3 bubbly and a tapas bar.  Wellington certainly spoiled us with its good food and drink, two things which I think are important to experience in any city, building the personality of the city.  We later tried to go to a bar called the Library, supposedly a must-see, but when we walked in, it suddenly felt like we were interrupting a seance.  There was live music, but quite the opposite of last night, ghostly and echoeing. It wasn’t the vibe we were hoping for, so when that happens, don’t hold onto expectation and try to make it work.  Go find something better. Like the waffle shop next door.  A tiny little shack, but a more than welcome snack and a great way to send us off, as we were at the airport by 9 the next morning and back in Christchurch by 11.

Easily one of my favorite cities in New Zealand and one of my favorite trips.  It was a light, carefree sort of trip, with a smaller group of people.  I tend to like smaller groups–you get better conversation and it’s not as much of a challenge to wrangle the crew into a restaurant.  As potentially my last trip in New Zealand, it was perfect.

Cheers, Wellington.

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” – J.R.R Tolkien

Alexis

The Lonely Mountain

Sorry Wanaka, I found a new favorite place: Mount Cook National Park. We only ventured over for the weekend–less than 48 hours at that–but as we rounded Lake Pukaki in our jam-packed SUV and the snow capped mountains greeted us on the horizon, my heart was already happy.  The feeling only grew bigger as the mountains grew taller. Mount Cook had been on my New Zealand bucket list (more like a jumble of places floating around in a thought bubble) since I arrived, and at this point I was worried I wouldn’t get a chance to see the Lonely Mountain up close. So in lieu of working on my research paper this weekend, I worked on that bucket list.IMG_0743

As I mentioned previously, I did something to aggravate my ankle so I’m just going to take a moment to remind everybody to take the time to stretch and take care of your body so you can do the things you want to do. Some of my friends decided to hike up to the Mueller Hut instead of staying in the village and normally I’d be up the mountain in an instant. However, I knew better than to test my luck on a trek with 2,000 steps.  I was disappointed at a missed opportunity, but I’d rather have a functional ankle for the rest of my life. I’m not a risky person in general, but that was still too much risk for me.

Spoiler alert: I was not disappointed in this trip. I forgot how much joy being in the mountains brings me and the Hooker Valley Track ran right through the middle.

It’s good for the soul to be amazed once and a while.  There’s a little corner of us reserved for such moments, and when our eyes fulfill it, the world gets lighter, hearts happier.  It creates a temporary perspective, where nothing is as bad as it was a minute ago. It’s like medicine (and not the grape-flavored kind), filling the body with a bit of strength and squirreling it away for a time when you need it the most. Without these moments of amazement, we are hollow. I’m not a religious person, so if I had to create a spirituality, it would certainly involve this.

It would certainly involve mountains, to start. And Mount Cook certainly had plenty of those to spare.

The weekend started before dawn, perhaps the reason the four hour drive felt like a flash.  The landscape grew its mountains fairly quickly as we approached the park, and soon it was like being surrounded by old friends.

We hopped out of the car and into the loveliest visitor center I’ve ever seen, with a view of the park’s namesake front and center.  All their fun facts about the park were clean and organized, very pleasant.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all good news. Three of our group’s Mueller hut hike hit a hiccup (say that three times fast). The hut was full.  Since it was going to be below freezing weather, not all of them were prepared enough to go. In the end, two of them ended up making the hike, while we gained another for the valley loop.

That being said, we couldn’t have asked for better weather.  IMG_0767Not a cloud in the sky, sun beating us with the potential for sunburn, sweat dampening the layers we thought we were going to need.  The trail was simple, but stunning. Dirt track weaving through the mountain valley, leading to that classic wooden planked track I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of somewhere. IMG_0801 Each step brought a new view of Mount Cook, which I’m sure I over-represented in my personal pictures, but certainly don’t have enough room to put here. With a mountain that photogenic, I couldn’t help myself.  This was a mountain I am so glad I checked off my bucket list. I truly could have spent much longer than a weekend just watching the mountains in their quiet magnificence.  However, I had a research paper due on Wednesday, so a weekend was the best responsibly irresponsible thing I could do.

Believe it or not, some study abroad students do work, hence why my blog has been a little quieter lately. Catching up on classes, working on papers, discovering new libraries–it’s not the glamorous side of study abroad that Instagram hears about.  This weekend was my break, but certainly not a last hurrah (there are plenty of weekends left, and I have a ticket to Australia…).

IMG_0794

Love this mountain so much

Anyway, we made it to the mountain view. Every one split off to admire the mountain in their own way. Since the shade was rapidly spreading over the valley, that meant I had limited time to take my token flag picture. Cue the self-timer and a mad scramble over dangerously loose rock. I did this a few times, and after the third I decided not risk risk another ankle-twisting dash and accept the results.

Once the sun dipped below the peaks, the warmth we’d felt earlier left with it. Layers went back on and we trekked back out, with food and drinks on our minds.

We may have splurged a little on accommodation for this trip–instead of camping in below freezing weather, we opted for one of the lodges.  Food and drinks came from the hostel down the road (the fish and chips were decent, and massive.)

IMG_0784

Little peek of the mountain

The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than the rest of the gang.  At 6:45 I was out, bundled up, and walking through the darkness to find a good shot of Mount Cook, preferably with a rock for a tripod.  The only sound around me was that of my own feet.  I went down the walking tracks for about fifteen minutes before I came across what looked like a service road going uphill. Uphill was good, there was bound to be a view.  Eventually I wandered by an open meadow surrounded by shrubs, overlooking the valley in a clear enough view of the mountain.  And there was a rock.

Half an hour before sunrise, I was crouched in the frost covered grass and waiting for that moment of fire to spread across the sky.  The longer I watched, the more the sky shifted.  At first it was only a subtle pink glow brushing the clouds, so quiet that if you didn’t stop to look you might miss it.  People tend to berate the presence of clouds, but I realized without the clouds, the show would be quite different.  As the sky lightened, the birds began, gossiping about a stranger in their midst.IMG_0885

The glow sank away with the cloud layer and I kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t move over Mt. Cook. The sky went silver for a while, and I thought that was it.  My socks were getting wet–standing in a meadow in socks & Birkenstocks in 30 degree weather was not one of my better ideas.  However, I was looking in the wrong direction. I took a glance into the valley behind me and the glow of sunrise had caught the clouds. The show had started. Wind tossed snow from the peak of Mt. Cook, and the light caught it like a flame.  The gray was suddenly replaced by strips of pink, building the fire of the day.  The alpine glow had appeared and I was thrilled.

In a span of minutes, the show faded. The fire gentled. One peak remained in alpine glow as the others settled into the day and I wandered back to find breakfast.

IMG_0915

After sunrise

We finished the trip with a short jaunt to Kea Point as we waited for our friends to make it down the mountain.  Unsurprisingly, we found more views of Mt. Cook and still astounding scenery.

Yet our weekend wasn’t quite over. On our drive home, I checked another sight off my NZ bucket list: the Dog Monument.  A monument dedicated to the collie dogs who have worked so hard across New Zealand. And since the only dogs I’ve ever had are Border Collies (the best breed, don’t even try and argue), I really wanted to see the statue.  Plus I finally got to stop in Lake Tekapo, instead of just whizzing by.

The water wasn’t as blue as it was the first time I drove by, but the Lake was still lovely.  We split up again because of different lunch ideas, but we all eventually made it to the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Dog Monument.  The church was a beautiful, simple and with a view.

Piles of souvenirs later, we were back in the car and heading home.  I can’t describe the drive much because I was asleep.  We did, however, finally stop at the town with the giant salmon.

It was hard to go from this weekend and right back to work but I managed.  It’s all about balance right?

IMG_0262IMG_0261

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” – J.R.R Tolkien

Cheers,

Alexis

Family Time

Fall break at my U.S. university consists of two whole days, enough time to make it back home, take a bite of turkey, and head right back to the books.  It is a mere shadow of fall break here.  Despite that, my three whole weeks of freedom flew by in a flash.  I cite the good company, good food, and good adventures. Three weeks ago, my parents landed in Christchurch and I got to play tourist and tour guide across the South Island.  It’s a lot to recap in one post so grab a seat, settle in.  Hopefully this will help me cope with the family and adventure withdrawals I’m feeling right now. I better do this post justice, since half of my audience was actually there this time.

Day 1 started off easy, simple.  I met my parents at their B&B (lucky ducks) to start off the trip taking a tour of Christchurch.  Mostly meaning we walked for quite a ways and I pointed out the sights I’ve seen. We hit the main attractions: Re:start mall, Cathedral Square, Botanic Gardens, Avon River, construction, etc.  Our first meal was also a highlight: wine and tapas in the sunshine of the botanic gardens. (Since I love food, I’m going to mention the food frequently in this post. I ate considerably better than on my road trips with kids my age; thanks mom and dad).

Much to all your excitement, at dinner I finally had another fish taco! IMG_9909Since it is clearly the highlight of my blog, let me commence another review. We ate at Dux Central, mostly to give my parents a taste of good New Zealand beer.  It was only natural that the beer was the high point of the meal, the fish taco average.  The sauce was both zesty and creamy but the other add-ins were a bit lacking.  I really liked the Parrotdog beers I had, so I’d recommend those to any visitors to NZ. Also, to any fish taco lovers out there, be aware that the tacos here are usually beer battered. (I’m not complaining, but some people might).

The next day, we took baby steps away from Christchurch. The adventure of the day was Taylors Mistake/Godley Head. Some winding, narrow roads later, we made it to a coastline that had some strong resemblances with the Big Sur coast. IMG_0002Less trees, more sheep, but reminded me of home all the same.  We could make out silhouettes of mountains on the hazy horizon; I can only imagine the view on a clear day. Despite the worrisome clouds, we lucked out on weather; it started to rain as soon as we parked ourselves at a cafe for a very late lunch, adventure complete. I let my mom order an ice coffee (sorry Mom). If I was a good daughter I would have said something, but instead I let the waiter bring something more milkshake than coffee. I have yet to find coffee with ice here–it’s usually coffee with ice cream.

The rain caught up with us on the true first day of our road trip as we headed up through Arthur’s Pass. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually see much of the mountaintops due to the low-lying clouds. However, it was perfect pie weather. I had to introduce the New Zealand meat pie to my parents and Sheffield’s Pie Shop is the best place to do that. With the warm comfort of meat and gravy, the rain and the clouds didn’t deter us from stopping for a pit-stop-hike, as mom & dad had some new rain gear to induct into service. We were a good lookin’ family, let me tell you.

18197551_1522867214399661_1820110045_n

Rocks make good tripods

We ventured up to Devil’s Punchbowl in the mist (I’ll admit, the rain wasn’t terrible) only to find the viewing platform I’d been to last time  closed due to some damage. Naturally, I forced my parents to blaze a trail underneath it, so they could see the waterfall. No missed opportunities.

We came, we saw, we conquered, and we were off again (not before I got my sticker though), through the pass that experienced a slight lifting of the clouds the further we drove. We pulled over just after the bridge that everyone knows, but I don’t know its name, and much to my delight, a kea waited for us in the parking lot. I’d been waiting to get up close with one of these mischievous buggers so it was a definite check off the NZ bucket list.

(PSA to all tourists: don’t feed the birds. It may look like they want it, but it’s bad for them, both behaviorally and physiologically. Actually, scratch that, don’t feed the wildlife in general. Admire it, don’t interfere. Wildlife biologist rant over.)

Over the mountains and through the woods, we made it to the West Coast. We stayed the night in a little town called Hokitika, where I can’t tell if it’s famous for anything other than the driftwood sculpture of the town’s name.

18217281_1522866751066374_803566738_n

Photo creds to Mom

Our first order of business in the town was to touch the Tasman Sea (as in, it was more my mom’s, as she beat both of us to it). IMG_0122But hey, there are only two country’s coastlines where you can touch this body of water so it’s a pretty unique claim to fame.

We hunted for green stone (jade), maybe found some, probably did not, and admired the sheer amount of skipping stones before heading down the road to explore some short nature walks and find the right road to the gorge. I made the mistake of wearing Birkenstocks on our 20 minute jaunt through the jungle–my ankles still have marks from the descent of sand flies to my bare skin.  They were already itching when we headed to our second walk, which turn into a surprise panorama and a conversation with a Kiwi hydrologist instead.  His dogs had rolled in something dead, so were not allowed out of the car (it turns out some things are a global phenomena).

IMG_9945IMG_0171IMG_0179

I’m not surprised we found ourselves in a cheese shop after that nor a pizza place after. We love our food.  The next morning was the food highlight of Hokitika: a little cafe that greeted us with something along the lines of “The cheese scones are fresh out of the oven. You’re just in time!”  When they say something like that, bleeding with authenticity, you know you made the right choice.  The scones and quiches were excellent fuel for the rainy Hokitika Gorge adventure. The rain didn’t let up the entire time we drove to the gorge, walked down to the gorge, and walked back. It was only after we returned to the car could we see the sunlight approaching from the mountains beyond.  The gorge itself was still gorgeous (haha) and worth the stop.  The best part came on the drive out, where we drove straight under the most vibrant rainbow I’d ever seen. Never had I seen one so low either.

On recommendation from the hydrologist for our commute to Fox Glacier, we stopped at the town of Okarito to marvel at the coast once again while feeling the wrath of sand flies.  Before that, we made a pit stop at Lake Ianthe, just for the sake of it.  That was the spirit of our road trip: stop when something catches your eye and stop to reveal another layer of New Zealand’s character.

Upon arrival, rain unsurprisingly bombarded Fox Glacier.  The forecast wasn’t entirely promising for our up-close and personal tour of the glacier.  However, the rain was kind enough to pause just long enough the next day to let the helicopters fly and I’m entirely glad it did. Walking on a glacier was something I didn’t realize was on my bucket list until it happened.  We had a lovely Scotsman as our guide, who led us with his pickaxe across the ice, pointing out water we could drink and holes we could fall or crawl into.  I even licked the glacier, which is a missed opportunity if you’ve ever been on one and haven’t. If I had to pick a highlight of the road trip, this would be up there.

Afterwards we took a short loop around Lake Matheson, but missed out on the perfect reflection opportunity, thanks to raindrops and clouds.  It wasn’t too heartbreaking. The day had been rewarding enough.

The second pit stop recommendation of the hydrologist was Ships Creek, found on the way from Fox to Wanaka.  Though the weather had cleared, the sand flies had not, so our rain gear stayed on.

IMG_0413

Swamp route

We took a jaunt through a swamp, admiring the sheer amount of ferns and moss laden trees, leaping over a few partially flooded trails, trying to find the birds filling the air with song. Eventually, the path turned into the nice, wooden platforms we get spoiled by and we followed that back to the beach and Dune Lake.

IMG_0421

Dune Lake walk

I slept for most of the drive after that (thanks dad for the car sickness genes) but we did stop a few times once we hit Mount Aspiring National Park. The road into Wanaka is laden with places to stop and admire a waterfall, a view, a river, some mountains, you name it.  We revisited the Blue Pools, but they were rather green this time.

I was excited to be back in Wanaka.  With mountain views in every directions and a quiet tourist excitement breaking into the laid back atmosphere,  it’s my kind of place.  My parents and I took a stroll around the lake (most of it) and there truly isn’t a bad angle. The trees had given up their green for gold and shaded the path in that subtle fall magic.

Our B&B had a beautiful glimpse of a distant glacier, set behind a soft hillside dotted with horses. Over the hill, was the winery I visited last time and I found it a little ironic that I walked right past the B&B, a little annoyed at the hill and glad to never see it again (I was hungry and wanted wine, okay), only to find myself enjoying the view with breakfast at the top.  I did end up back at the winery, but this time I didn’t have to walk there.

It was also nice to eat at the actual restaurants of Wanaka and try some local brew. I say this because I had one of my favorite beers so far at a share plate restaurant called Kika.  It was the Rusty Peg red ale from Ground Up Brewing, surprising even me since I generally consider myself an IPA person. After a bit of research I think I can only get it again if I’m in the Wanaka-Queenstown area.  A bit disheartening, but it’s just another reason to head through to Queenstown.

The next day was Easter. Strange to not start off the day with an egg hunt and oodles of family, but starting off with a hike and a chocolate kiwi is a fine compromise for me.  Since I don’t know if I could handle Roy’s Peak again, we opted for a less intense but nearly as scenic ascent up the Rocky Mountain track at Diamond Lake Conservation Area.

IMG_0469

Reflections

The autumn leaves were at it again in the willows framing the lake. The rest of the shrubby hillside strongly reminded me of California (but it seems a lot of these landscapes are reminding me of home these days, and home is also a lot less prickly).  After a bit of rock scrambling and a bit of picture taking, we made it to the top to soak in the view and finally eat that cheese from the cheese shop.  From there it was a trip to the winery and yet another fabulous dinner (thanks mom and dad, you have a very grateful college kid).

The final stop of leg 1 of the road trip was Queenstown.  I was only there for half a day, as I had to fly back to Christchurch for a field trip in my ecology class. I might talk about that here, or write a short post where I try not to bore you talking about t-tests and sampling methods.  Before I left, we managed to take the gondola, ride the luge, see the views, and eat a the cafe of the year (or at least that’s what the hotel manager told us).  My flat white “art” was a silver fern, so they get points for that.

Then I was out, flying over the mountains and trying to finish my book so I could send it home with my parents.  Four days later, we were reunited and leg 2 of the road trip commenced. This time just to my backyard: Akaroa, on the gorgeous Banks Peninsula I hadn’t had a chance to visit.

IMG_0548

Griz

We stayed at another B&B, a working farm tucked away in the green hills. Upon arrival, we were greeted by two of the farm dogs, Griz, a very enthusiastic fellow, and Ned, a old man with a few quirks. Maybe it’s just me, but any place with dogs as loyal employees rarely lets you down.

The farm itself was lovely. I honestly think that’s the perfect word to describe it.  The house rested between two hills, with a creek coiling adjacent and filling the air with the tranquility of running water.  Sheep wandered on the crest of the hills, somehow always when the light struck them best.   We wandered through the property on recommendation from the B&B owners, only missing the signs once and getting lost trying to find the waterfall.  We eventually found it.  Saw some photogenic cows and a kererū in the process.

 

Akaroa quieted down after sun down, but we managed to find a restaurant with a pun (Harbar.. it was on the harbor.. it was a bar) and I managed to find yet another fish taco!!  The fish was was melt right off the bone (if there was bone) under the fried goodness. Very happy with my taco.

IMG_0158

So sorry for the poor lighting (but the dark one was pork so it’s not important)

However, the food highlight was the farm breakfast provided by our lovely host. Eggs, yogurt, toast, good conversation, our days started off on the right foot.  Akaroa is no place that stands to ruin the days either.  We lucked out with full sunshine and only remnants of the rain on our muddy trail up to Heritage Park, catching gorgeous views and birdsong.  After we made our way down, we had time to kill before our boat tour so we did the only natural thing: eat.  A fish and chips cart on the pier called our name.  It turned out to be some nontraditional fish and chips–not fried, but grilled. Juicy and a whole lot of protein.

IMG_0170

Heritage Park

We needed a few more loops around the block to kill time, hitting all the art galleries and the lighthouse. Eventually though, we got on the the boat and were greeted by the dolphin-detecting dog and a glass of wine.

IMG_0669

My only decent dolphin shot

It only got better as we cruised at the bay, marveling at the coastal cliffs and catching a glimpse of penguins bobbing around us as we headed out to the marvelously blue Pacific.  Not only did we catch a glimpse of Hector’s dolphins (the rarest dolphin in the world), but young fur seals and more cool rocks as well.  Then the fog set in and we couldn’t see much of anything.  It chased us all the way back to the harbor as our captain made jokes about ending up in Chile.   We didn’t, which unfortunately meant I had to go back to Christchurch.

We got one last breakfast and said goodbye to the farm dogs. Before I knew it, my parents were packing up in my flat’s parking lot.  Two weeks were done, just like that. Time is a strange creature; it still feels like it was just yesterday I was showing my parents around Christchurch, and the two weeks went by faster than I wanted them too. Sign of a good time, I guess? It would be dishonest if I lied and told you there were no moments of hanger and indecision just like any trip. I don’t know how my parents feel but it seemed like there were a lot less than normal family vacations. I cite New Zealand itself and the magic in this country. That and the choose-your-own-adventure mentality we adopted towards our activities.

It’s raining? Oh well, we can either sit in the car or go see a waterfall. No plans? Let’s walk around the lake. Been in the car too long? Pull over. Nothing is ever perfect, but I believe your attitude towards setbacks and adventures alike has the ability to determine if you’ll look back on the trip through the window of lost opportunities or through moments seized. There were many moments seized on this trip, and the adventure was a good one.

Thanks Mom & Dad for an incredibly remarkable (or remarkably incredible) trip. Couldn’t ask for better partners in adventure and I definitely couldn’t be here without you guys.  If there’s anything of significance I left out in this recap, let me know 🙂

IMG_9994

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” – J.R.R Tolkein, The Hobbit.

IMG_0176The final pictures of the trip from the ridge overlooking AkaroaIMG_0175

Cheers,

Alexis

 

Catch Up

Greetings everyone, it’s been a bit.

I’ve officially made it through my first term at University of Canterbury, which means I’m basically halfway through my time in New Zealand. Wow.  I’ve missed a couple weeks of documentation thanks to the wild juggle of academics, the social whirlwind, and recharge days, but today marks the first day of my three week break so now I have no excuse.  Cue the rewind.

So as I should touch on at some point, the school system here differs in many ways from what I’m used to. This includes Saturday tests.  It’s understandable for maximizing class time, but also frustrating when weekends are usually set aside for exploring in a study abroad student’s mind. Luckily, weekends are two days and the only limit is your imagination.

Yet being forced to stay in Christchurch isn’t the end of the world; it gave me a chance to experience some local flavor. Since there was no use in sitting around staring at the walls until our test later in the afternoon, I headed to the farmer’s market with some friends to find literal local flavor in the massive amounts of free samples I took advantage of.  The food at any small gathering of local people, free or not, tends to have the best flavor–it’s something that I hope my wallet will always be able to afford.  There’s nothing like a little artisan porridge and chai served by cute boys for pre-test brain food.

We made it through the test and almost immediately hopped into a rental car headed to the tiny town of Methven.  We’d found an Airbnb as a halfway point to the gem of the trip: Mount Sunday.

Methven was exactly what I expected: a handful of shops down one road and rows of houses down the other. Our straight-out-of-the-70s Airbnb was not more than a few minutes from the town and the bars (we only found one though) so there would be no need to spend money on an Uber home. The town itself is supposedly more of a ski town, so I’d love to come back in the winter and see if it’s any more populated. But, probably not for more than a night, as my priorities lie in the mountains.

Unfortunately, the idyllic quiet of Methven didn’t rub off on us–one of our crew got food poisoning the next day.  I expected us to simply turn around and head back to Christchurch, but we powered on.

A few pit stops later, the road turned to gravel, winding up and down soft hills and stirring the dust under our wheels.  The dust cleared as we rounded a bend, and the valley bloomed before us. In the distance, a small mound of earth rose in the valley center. Mount Sunday.

IMG_9770

Squint and you can see the guy leaning out the window

For all those Lord of the Rings fans who don’t already know, take a gander at this picture and see if you recognize it:

IMG_9887

It’s Edoras! Capital city of Rohan! Ahh! For the amount of time I’ve been here, this was my first LoTR location, and my inner nerd was thrilled. IMG_9816

Once we arrived, the walk was short and sweet to the top. However, the view was a breath taker.  A tour group was already there–equipped with swords and axes, which I would consider paying money to do.  Instead, I stole a picture.  After the group left, we had Edoras mostly to ourselves and our camera shutters clicked away.

We were a little worried about the weather hiding the mountains from us, but we lucked out, just beating the rain looming in the distance. The views granted us their majesty and it wasn’t hard to image watching the beacon of Minas Tirith light up in the hills.

Fittingly enough, we had a Lord of the Rings movie night back when we got home. (only the first one though, we finished the trilogy in the rest of the week).

The next weekend was filled again with local exploits.  I didn’t mention earlier, but unfortunately my ankle has been bothering me since my hike up Cass-Lagoon and my foolish attempt to continue to push it on runs wasn’t the best way to help it recover, so I decided to keep away from the mountains for a bit to remedy it for later adventures.  Since I hadn’t explored Christchurch at all yet, this was the perfect opportunity.

I went to the farmer’s market again with a group of friends, picked up my now ritual bag of apples, and had a delicious, enormous, utterly stuffed bacon and chorizo breakfast sandwich.  We stopped by one of my now favorite cafes, Park Ranger (yes, the name has something to do with it), for your typically hipster lattes and smoothies. I’d been here for brunch a few times and each time leave happier than I came in.

This was the morning. The night was for downtown.  I haven’t really talked about the bars in Christchurch because it feels like some sort of taboo to mention alcohol while here for academic reasons (in the States, that is), but it was a casual, fun night so I do have to mention one of the bars.

IMG_9834

The drink

I’m a beer person (most of my friends are not) so when we went to Dux Central, a bar with multiple bars, one of which was dedicated to beer, it was heaven. Even their cocktails incorporated beer in some fashion. I was told to get a cocktail with stout, chocolate, and some liqueur. I can’t remember exactly which, but I do remember it was unlike anything I’d ever thought to drink. Super sweet and smooth. (I haven’t had a fish taco in a while, so I have to review something..).

The next day, a friend and I tried to go to the flea market. Tried, but the day had other plans. We hopped on a bus and missed our stop to switch buses and didn’t realize it until we were in the middle of a suburb pulled straight out of the 1950s. Eerily identical, clean, and quiet, sitting under a bright blue sky.  However, not to be discouraged, we wandered towards a set of fresh looking buildings to try and figure out where we were.  Turns out we were in Wigram, a place I’d seen in the glowing letters of buses going by but never given a second thought.  We were there and we were hungry, so we did what millennials do best: brunch.  And a damn fine brunch it was at a place called Joe’s Garage, themed after what I think was American race car culture.  I didn’t take a picture of my breakfast burrito, but I will without a doubt be back since there’s actually one right down the street from my flat.  Happy brunch accidents are a fine way to start off any Sunday.

I spent the rest of the day on an aimless wander through Christchurch, checking out places I’d read about and getting a lay of the land before my parents come (they are on the plane as I write!! Eep!).  I did something similar this weekend, as the majority of my friends are off on their breaks and the downpour of rain we endured this week made me itch to get out into the sunshine.  After two jaunts around the city, I got a feel for the place. Christchurch is still a city very much under construction.  Nearly every road has a building strapped with railings and construction workers buzzing about like bees or a building whose shattered façade hasn’t been touched at all, only by street artists and time. The streets are a maze of fences and cones, dotted with impressive murals. Despite this the streets are full of oases, fresh shops and stores rising out of the ashes. It’s an oasis city.  I’ve heard many people complain about the city’s small size and quiet nature but if you search hard enough, the life is there.  Comfortable cafes offering picturesque brunch, bars glowing with warm light, coffee shops filled with cheerful people.  That’s what I got from my meandering. Little pockets, slowly growing bigger.

Sure, there’s a lot of construction lining the streets, but there are splashes of art everywhere to brighten up the concrete:

My highlight of Christchurch probably isn’t that original. New Regent Street doesn’t have to try hard, boasting plenty of hip eateries and places to get a drink, not to mention pleasantly pastel buildings adding a bit of color to the day.

 

Plus, you never know when you’ll have a random wizard sighting around here..Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset

This weekend has been fairly similar. Finding a neat coffee shop that delivers food via pneumatic tubes, sniffing out a good bookstore, and enjoying the sunshine (it has felt a little bit like a monsoon, for a Californian,  this week). A recharge weekend to a T, catching up on some much needed sleep and some of that precious introvert alone time, which I discovered I can even find in a city, reading in a coffee shop or sitting in a park. My parents (hi Mom, hi Dad) are currently headed my direction and I can’t wait to show them around, to the best of my ability.

“Aragorn: The Beacons of Minas Tirith! The Beacons are lit! Gondor calls for aid.
Theoden: And Rohan will answer. Muster the Rohirrim. Assemble the army at Dunharrow. As many men as can be found. You have two days. On the third, we ride for Gondor… and war!”

(Not a book quote, I think. But too fitting to not use)

IMG_9848

Cheers,

Alexis

 

 

Hamilton Hut

The mountains are always calling, and this weekend they were calling over the sound of my cold.  After last weekend’s constant downpour foiling my plans to explore Christchurch, I wasn’t ready to let another weekend go to waste and decided to tough it out.  Nothing like a little mountain air medicine. In retrospect, backpacking really should be saved for occasions of full health, but I can’t say I regret my choice. I hadn’t been on a true tramp yet so I wasn’t exactly eager to sit it out. So to those of you with better judgement than I, here is my tale.

I went with UC’s tramping club. One of my flatmates also signed up, but other than her, I didn’t know anyone. It was a smallish group of 8, with a fair mix of exchange students and PhD/postdoctorate/working folk. I was the only American on the trip, so it was like a bit of fresh air from my 24/7 environment of young American exchange students (I’m definitely not complaining about that, no one else wants to explore like they do, but it’s interesting to talk to people with different perspectives and backgrounds).

The trip itself was along the Cass-Lagoon track in Craigieburn Forest Park, relatively near Arthur’s Pass for anyone familiar with New Zealand geography. It was a loop track as well, so we would get a fresh view the second day.

Not that it mattered, as when we pulled up to the start of the track, a layer of fog and mist had already settled low across the mountains and mist dotted our coats.  Sending silent prayers for a bit a sunshine, we headed off anyways.  Barely 20 minutes into the walk, we came across our first stream crossing.  Now in the states, it seems like walking with wet boots or getting your boots wet at all is a form of blasphemy that will absolutely ruin your hike.  Those thoughts were running through my mind as I sloshed through the slippery stones with the cool water easily wiggling between my toes. But as we forded stream after stream, followed part of the track that was in itself a stream, and dodged along slick rocks, I began to accept my swampy feet.  It was happening whether I liked it or not, and the only other option was to turn around. All I had to say to that was one big hell no.

the “trail”

Something I’d been thinking about on this abroad trip came across my thoughts at this point. We fold tiny experiences like these into the build our lives and piece by piece we get the fabric of our stories, the smiles, the shadows, everything in between.  There was no telling what experiences I had yet to gather up the trail and the experience of opting out would make a story I didn’t want to tell.

Anyways, there was only one person in our group with dry feet so it certainly wasn’t a lonely experience. The guy with the dry feet had nice leather boots and nice gaiters and an adult job.  Some day I’ll drop some money on nicer gear, but for now I love my boots and their weak waterproofing (hey I did hike in them through snow before –and my feet stayed completely dry!).

The stream crossings, as you might guess, were fairly flat. We trekked for a bit across beds of gravel and stone before the foliage started to grow and we were wading through waist high shrubs to follow the trail. I was very glad I’d decided to throw my long pants on over my shorts so I could move without my legs coming out looking I had just had a brawl with the brush.  As kind as this stretch was, soon the elevation began.

At this point, I had lost my lens cap somewhere among the stones and shrubs, so I put my camera away to at least somewhat protect it from the mist and myself.  My cold also caught up with me on the climb.

lens cap final

The last picture I took before losing my lens cap..

To spare you the gory details, I’ll just say my lungs definitely were not at their full capacity and I wish brought more tissues.  So between these two factors, the uphill climb was not well documented.  But believe me when I say it was a lovely birch forest we frequented across this hike.  Narrow, twiggy trees let the soft light filter in gentle flecks across the forest, making the air itself seem quiet, punctuating by splashes of green in the moss and ferns. It was a Narnian-type forest.

Eventually, through the woods and a deceptively long one-kilometer-left-warning, we came to our lunch spot: Cass Saddle Hut.  The clouds that were supposed to disperse by early morning were still present, so there wasn’t much opportunity to lounge in the sun.  I wasn’t too concerned–I just needed my food (tortilla and fancy tuna in case you were curious. I’m trying to get better at this whole backpacking-food thing).

IMG_9593

Lunch spot, Cass Saddle hut

It was at this point a few in our group began to show signs of fatigue (one person’s knee was hurting them), four hours into around an eight hour day.  They were stubborn about continuing, which the whole group questioned, but we continued anyway up into the mist.

We moved on to our viewless view.  After the hut, we were out of the trees  and onto an open hillside coated in lazy fog. We paused only briefly at where the view was supposed to reveal itself in order to determine that we truly couldn’t see anything.  Since we were now divided into a fast and slow group, we split and headed into the final stretch towards our final destination: Hamilton hut. But first, what goes up must come down.

Over long periods of time, downhill honestly makes my legs more uncomfortable than going uphill. They start turning into jello and my brain starts worrying about my knees. But I made it through, mostly by admiring the forest and focusing on keeping pace with who I was hiking with.  One part of the forest on the downhill did make me pause–it was a whole forest absolutely covered in Spanish moss (or some similar species).  It made me think of Monterey (CA) and the heaps of it that dangles from the pines there.

Just past this little stretch of forest, we ended up waiting around half an hour for the possibly-injured part of our entourage. Still, they wanted to keep going and were surprisingly still in good spirits.  Turns out this was their first ever backpacking experience, so I have to give them some credit.

For the rest of the hike, I ended up walking with a Polish chemist postdoctorate.  She’d done her studies in so many places across the globe.. I was a little inspired. That part of my life is rapidly (seemingly) approaching and talking to her was a reminder that the crazed comings and goings of exchange students doesn’t mesh well in the real world. So I tucked that thought away and reminded myself that I in the moment I am an exchange student and to enjoy it (I haven’t had any problems with that…).

The forest spit us out into a new river bed and after short walk searching for the blessed orange triangle, we finally reached the hut.  The hut was tucked into a small clearing set amongst the trees that overlooked the river flowing below, with its red paint job standing out in the greenery. Smoke coiled from the chimney and its porch was already decorated with trampers’ gear.IMG_9580

IMG_9613

Inside the view from the hut

The instant we arrived, everyone greeted us with warm welcomes and big smiles. The hut was packed and I was briefly overwhelmed by the amount of people filling the walls and the sheer heat in the room (who needs hot springs when you have a backcountry sauna), but the friendliness of my fellow trampers quickly guided me to one of the last free bunks out of the 20 inside. I threw all my gear down and didn’t even get any dirty looks for getting in people’s way.  Honestly, most people were probably more focused on dinner than me.  But the spirit in the hut, I want more of it–the sense of community there, even if for a night. Perhaps that’s the reason I love carrying a heavy pack up a mountain. Those who bear the weight know that everyone they see on trail each carries that little bit of insanity and there’s kinship in that.

We made dinner (I got to use my stove again! For a moment I thought I was going to burn the hut down with the huge flame I made, but the hut made it through the night) and then just relaxed.  Nothing can reach you in the mountains so there’s no point in worrying. Instead you exchange stories.

When we went to bed, the heat in the hut was still so intense that I ended up sleeping without my sleeping bag. The heat and the sounds in the hut (there were plenty of snorers) should have made for a restless night, but I slept fairly well in spite of everything.

The next morning, the serious backpackers were out by seven. We took our time and headed out around 9, after a classic oatmeal breakfast. I tried at this point to take pictures of the inside of the hut, but every time I went into the room with my bunk, there was an old man changing. I took it as a sign and took a few quick, sneaky pics of the rest.

In my head, without ever looking at a map, the way out was downhill. I was wrong.  We crossed a few swinging bridges in the beginning and strolled through the beech forest in the glow of morning light, but the ups and down quickly established themselves and the trails became less tamed. It started with mud saturating the trails like a swamp and the rest waited until after our snack break. We made quick work of the trail to the first hut, the snack break, and decided to power through to the next hut for lunch.

The trail spit us out onto a rocky river basin. The hills edging the river were dotted with scree slides or masses of uprooted trees and boulders, evidence of why you do not hike this trail in bad weather. We had mostly split into groups of two and I was with the Polish chemist; we used our map estimations to traverse the river and make it to the “exit” on the other end, which we found only by cairns (some felt a little too camouflaged) and the occasional orange triangle indicating a trail entrance on the river bank.

IMG_9675

Looking for orange markers

When we did make it off the river and back into the forest, the trail treated us to more uphill. Needless to say, I did not document this well, as I was trying to remind myself how to breathe.  Sometimes it’s only the thought of food that keeps you going.  It’s an excellent motivator, especially when your maps skills weren’t as good as you thought.  You see, on the map the trail crossed three streams. At the first stream crossing, we stopped to check the map and quickly decided that yes indeed, that had to have been the third stream crossing. So close! Yet.. we came upon another stream.  We decided that was fine, as we had to have been just off by one and the hut was only fifteen minutes away.  Then another stream appeared. Third time’s the charm I guess.  After that stream, we did finally make it to the hut and took an hour nap waiting for the rest of our group.  The sun had come out and for a moment we forgot our aching hips.

However, when we stood up to leave we remembered them. Stopping was definitely a mistake, as all my tired muscles stiffened with each step.  It was a good thing the view wasn’t very far.  I’m glad at least our second day was sunny because I would have been extremely disappointed to miss this view.

IMG_9631

It was all downhill from here.  I lingered in the back, taking way too many pictures of mountains and the open hillside.  Eventually, the trail dove into a dark pine forest before the vegetation shifted back to the familiar beech and the beautiful halos of light in the canopy.  After two full days of walking we made it to the final hut, which turned out to be five minutes from the parking lot, a parking lot where we spent an hour waiting for the tired, sore couple to catch up to us.  They made it with surprisingly good spirits.  Keep your head up folks, that’s the secret to improve any situation.

Sorry if this week’s words seem rather rushed–I’ve actually had a lot of school work this week and haven’t had a lot of time to sit down and write.  I wrote this quickly before I leave to take a test (mind you, it’s Saturday..). Some weeks are just better than others.  Almost broke down and threw in a lazy quote.. but not yet, not yet.

“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.” – J.R.R Tolkien

Alexis

Update: I was so rushed I realized I forgot a title. Fixed that.

Lake Wanaka

It’s a fine Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining, the mountains reach towards a clear blue sky, and I’m standing on the side of the road, watching cars fly by our two vans sitting nose-to-nose with each other on the side of the lone road in a stretch of grassland. The jumper cables are out and nothing is happening. After two issue-free weekends, this was bound to happen.  How did we get here, in the middle of nowhere with a rental Jucy van, a dead 1994 Largo, and thirteen exchange students on the side of the road? By being exchange students who wanted to drive across the country (yet again for some of us) on the weekend. So let’s rewind.

I kicked off the week by keeping up my streak of skipping Friday class. I’ve yet to go to one, but I promise I’m going this week.  Since it was a 5 hour drive, and the weekend is only two days, we left Thursday night.  Another group left earlier to claim the campsite in the car that they had bought and split between themselves. The other half of the group left in yet another Jucy van, though this time our van lacked the ostentatious decor; it was only silver and extremely disappointing. We ended up arriving around 12AM to a mostly sleeping campsite and a sky full of stars. I pitched my tent and passed out.

We weren’t at a DoC campsite this time, but a holiday park with toilets and showers. However, it still maintained a lovely surrounding view of the mountains that if you woke up early enough, could watch alight with the morning sun. However, for the rest of the group, it was slow going.

IMG_9396

Camping at the end of Wattle Drive

People emerged slowly from their tents, while the morning people headed into town for breakfast supplies. There was no concrete plan, so we ended up going back to the supermarket (New World, in case anyone was curious what they’re called) to get lunch and snack food for the vague idea of a hike.  When we got back, a plan solidified: let’s go see a glacier.  We loaded up with food, jackets, and sunscreen and took off to Mt. Aspiring National Park, around an 1.5 hours from Wanaka.

 

The drive was an adventure in itself and one of my favorite drives so far. If I can, I definitely want to go back to Mt. Aspiring because we barely entered the fringes of it and the ride itself felt particularly beautiful. If it’s a sign of what is to come, I’ll definitely make my excuse to road trip back.  The closer we got to the park, the greener the mountains became, shedding the grassy coverings they bear near Wanaka.

The road itself eventually faded into a gravel one, something I’d been waiting for. I’d been told that most of the roads were gravel here, but hadn’t encountered any until this point. I was also told that roads are often blocked by sheep so I wasn’t disappointed when my rural road led us to some woolly friends. The farmer and his dogs didn’t pay us any mind as they lead the flock of sheep down the road. It was an exciting moment, despite the decrease in speed. We hung out of the cars like the tourists we are, taking in the moment.

IMG_9321

Sheep!

IMG_9327

Sheepdog at work

IMG_9333

Best pic of the trip

Eventually we waded our way through the sheep and to a brief pit stop to explore a river bed. We debated on turning around for half a second, as the mountains on the road of ahead were blanketed in dark clouds. Thankfully, no one was too intimidated by rain or the ford crossings for the the next part of our adventure. As both of our IMG_9343vehicles were minivans of some sort, we were a tad hesitant to jump blindly across the rocky streams (that was the main concern of the rain). However, once we saw the small Nissan returning in one piece, there wasn’t a question. There were a few hard scrapes, but we made it.  This may have been the point where the Largo was damaged to a point of quick decline.

The hike we aimed for was the Rob Roy glacier hike. Standing in the parking lot it was wildly windy and drizzling, but once we crossed yet another swinging bridge and entered the canopy of trees, the weather was just right for a hike. We bounced uphill through the greenery with occasional sneak peaks of the glacier. I have yet to go on a bad hike in New Zealand–if such a thing exists.

The day ended with a barbecue back at the campsite. A BYO-food sort of deal, but someone cooked my chicken so I won’t complain.  I also recommend baked sweet potatoes to anyone bored with the regular ol’ potato. After we ate, we naturally had to explore Wanaka’s night life.

IMG_9436

Lake Wanaka in the morning

The next day was a day without any premeditated plans. The idea to kayak was squelched by the windy lake so per usual, we hopped in the cars and headed out to see the sights. Our target was the Blue Pools. I would comment on how nice the drive was, but I fell asleep. When we arrived, it felt like quite a different place. No more mountains and open sky, but a forest tilting over the road and giving glimpses of the sky through the branches. And bugs. Bugs everywhere.

Before we headed down, it should be noted that the Largo was leaking a strange liquid and not a small amount of it. I regrettably have no mechanical experience to comment on it, but everyone mostly brushed it off.

The Blue Pools made us forget about it anyway. Stunningly clear and stunningly blue water surrounded by heaps of flat stones made for a tiny pocket of paradise.  Loads of tourists too, standing amongst piles of rock towers.  A bridge stretched across the water, so the next step was to jump off of it.

Unfortunately, I forgot my swimsuit so I built some rock towers instead.  The day wasn’t too warm and the water was ice old so I wasn’t particularly disappointed.  I did, however, get eaten alive by sand flies (it’s been a week and my legs still itch).

After the pools, we did a bit of local exploring around Wanaka.  A group of us split off to go wine tasting. Took a nice walk along the lake and through the swanky neighborhoods of Wanaka. The wine tasting was short and sweet (and free!) but it had an incredibly gorgeous location with a sweeping view of Lake Wanaka. It was only fitting that there was a wedding happening. With that backdrop, I might be coming back (any takers?).  (They wouldn’t let us take pictures because of the wedding, so apologies)

Our group wandered back into town to find dinner. We strolled past all the crowded lakefront restaurants (they all looked delicious) to find some cheaper eats uphill. Yet again, I found myself eating Mexican food in a place where they said not to get Mexican food. I’ve come to realize that it’s really not that bad–it’s just the fact that it’s not exactly the traditional Mexican food boasted about by Southern Californians. Keep an open mind and the opportunities to have a good meal, have a good drive, have a good laugh, grow like wildfire.

Guess what I got? A fish taco. But before I dive into my taco review let me just talk about the chili ginger beer cocktail I had. Made with tequila, it had quite a sharp jalapeño kick (appropriate, as there were jalapeños in it) and it was tasty, most likely because I haven’t had anything like it.

IMG_9453

Fish & sweet potato tacos and chili ginger beer

The bartender came out and chatted us up and bonded with someone in our group who knew a little bit about tequila.  But back to the fish taco.  Smaller than the last one, it was a street taco, but beer battered and coated in a sweet chili jam. It still had that fishy taste underneath it all, 8/10.

 

Oh, and can’t forget about the churros. Came with chocolate dipping sauce.

Back to camp it was, where it was a scene of happiness and worry. Happiness because the hedgehog who was responsible for the late night food thievery had been wrangled and worry because the Largo had overheated on the way to the movies and something clearly wasn’t right. The hedgehog was adorable (and curled into a very tight ball. I’m a bad wildlife biologist)IMG_9456.

I went up to play cards and we decided on our plan of attack for tomorrow: Roy’s Peak at 8:30 AM sharp. We almost tried for a sunset hike, but I honestly just wanted to do the hike so the time didn’t matter. We just had to do it early enough to get home in time to return the rental car.

Surprisingly, we managed to get there before 8:30 (these mornings hadn’t been speedy ones). Even more surprisingly, the Largo managed to make the drop.

With the first step of the hike, I knew it was going to be a butt-burning, calf-cramping, red-faced hike.  I also knew it was going to be worth it.

My prediction turned out to be accurate. The top, a tiny speck with a white sliver of a tower, didn’t appear to be getting any closer in the first hour and there were barely any flat sections.  Luckily, I’ve learned the stop-for-a-picture strategy, which is a win-win; I get nice pictures and my legs get a chance to breathe.  The view was gorgeous too. Stopping to admire the golden hills and the stretch of lake was not out of place.

Three hours of uphill and an empty water bottle later, I made it to the top.  Let me make one thing clear: the view is always worth it.  It was thoroughly improved by a day with the sun shining and a speckling of clouds in the distance.  We were treated to a panoramic view with lake, mountains, farmland, horizons–a perfect lunch spot if I’ve ever seen any.  New Zealand, you’re back at it again.

We made it back down after the cars seemed like they were never getting closer. The Largo made it back to pick up it’s half of the group, still leaking profusely. At that point, it was time to part ways and return the Jucy to its home, 5 hours away.  However, we didn’t make it very far. Not even ten minutes out, we got a call from the group in the Largo telling us that their battery was dead.  So we turned around and got one last look at the shores of Lake Wanaka.

They had stopped there to get water in preparation to keep the car from overheating and presto.  It was just another step in the series of unfortunate events.  The instant we pulled into the parking lot, our bumper came detached.  Luckily, there were some mechanics/handy people in the crowd and we were all laughing at the situation.  Taking it too seriously would have only made it worse.  The lightheartedness proliferating throughout the group made everything smoother than it really was.

Everything went smoothly for the first hour of the drive. But after a jaunt through the hills and uphills and downhills released us into a wide, flatland, we noticed the Largo pulling off to the side of the road.

We quickly found out the Largo had utterly died up in the hills and they had coasted all the way down and out.  We flipped around to jump them and now we’re back to where we started.

Since the jumping wasn’t working, we drove 8k into the nearest town, Omarama, to figure out what to do next.  The gas station clerk wasn’t very helpful, basically telling us that there are no mechanics on Sundays.  The solution? Buy tow cable. Tow Largo with Jucy van. Inspect Largo.

To reduce weight, those of us useless folk stayed back in town while two of the guys went back to haul the car. I really wish I could have seen the minivan tow the minivan, but we found ice cream so it was decent compensation.

Since the Largo was toast and the Jucy only had 8 seats, there was no way to fit all thirteen of us. We fit everyone who needed to be back and everyone who paid for the Jucy.  Two decided to try and hitchhike back and two were going to camp overnight and evaluate the Largo tomorrow.  However, us being the college students we are, we decided to squeeze one more into the Jucy. 9 people, plus all the bags and tents we could carry made it a tight haul. Luckily while I took my turn driving, I got a little more leg room.

Due to the frequent stops and delays, there was no way were going to make our 9PM rental return time.  It was entirely true, as we pulled into the gas station at 9PM sharp.  We were further delayed by the appearance of three Japanese women carrying literally armloads of bread loaves. They insisted on handing them out to all of us, begging us to take them as apparently they’d ordered far too many for some event. When they had unloaded their burden, immediately they started going back for more. We had to turn them away as the pile kept growing. In the end, we ended up with probably around 30 loaves of bread.  After the day we’d had, it felt like the cherry on top.

Almost. We pulled into Ilam (the name of my apartment/dorm complex), dumped our gear, and four of us took the car back. We made it to the rental office around half an hour before the last bus left the airport.  But that didn’t mean much as the walk was longer than that and the shuttle to the airport was no longer running. Perhaps we could have made it, but when we inspected the car, we realized that somewhere along the roads of New Zealand we had lost a hubcap and it sent us into a fit of disbelief, effectively growing the pile of things-gone-wrong. By the time we recovered and started walking, it was too late.

Idling by the side of the road, we were about to call an Uber when a lone bus appeared, heading in our direction.  Waving like the crazy Americans we were, we got the bus to stop. The bus wasn’t exactly heading in our direction but the bus driver was somewhat willing to drop us along a path that would get us home.  We gratefully hopped on and let it take us down the dark and unfamiliar roads of Christchurch. If this was the right way, we had no way of knowing. In the dark, it felt more like the very wrong way.

One confusing drop-off and a black cat crossing later, we found our bus stop and managed to get on a bus.  But the night wasn’t over yet–we had planned on getting burritos and the place was closed.  The bus driver watched us despair in the parking lot and proceeded to get out and point us to a place that was open at 11:30PM on a Sunday. So we had Chinese food at midnight to conclude a weekend of solid adventure, mishaps, and good times.

If I had to end this post with some words of wisdom, I would go back to what I said about keeping an open mind and give you adventure tip #32453: keep an open mind and it’ll create an attitude that can make any incident a worthy experience.  So many parts of this weekend: sheep in the road, Mexican food, cars breaking down, the slow deterioration of things going right, could have made a good time sour if one was so attached to the idea of a smooth ride.  Everyone kept a smile (even be it of disbelief) on their face as things went wrong, and that perspective maintained the trip as an adventure, not a disaster. I’ve learned that not everything will turn out like it does in one’s preconceived imaginings and if you hold on to them too tightly, there’s no room to move and thus no room to grow. Adventure on, kiddos.

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” – J.R.R Tolkien

Processed with VSCO with g2 preset

Alexis

 

Milford Sound

Would you drive 9 hours on a Friday for a weekend trip to a beautiful place?  If your answer is no, you’re probably not a college student studying abroad. As both of those qualities happen to apply to me, that question summarizes my trip this weekend. Six of us decided to hop into a van and book it down to Milford Sound and see where the weekend took us.  (Okay I might be lying–we didn’t drive 9 hours the first day, but we did on the way home)

New Zealand isn’t a the largest country, but it is big. And I didn’t mistype that. The land seemed expansive, whether out into the horizon or towering up towards the sky. The endless stream of mountains, rolling hills, and green sheep pastures stretching out before us made the driving fly by. But it’s these expansive places that we have to drive around that make the driving so extensive.  The roads are winding more often than not and lakes and/or mountains frequently block the fastest way.  So driving 9 hours to a destination is entirely worth it in my 21-year-old opinion when you have good views and good company.  Plus there’s really no other way to avoid it. Milford Sound wasn’t coming to us.

Since the trip was quite the trek, we left on a Friday after picking up our gorgeous rental van. We rented a Jucy van so people could judge us and curse the tourists the whole way there.  Judge they might, but it was a fabulous car with plenty of space for six people, camping gear, sustenance, and copious pillows and blankets.

And driving on the left side of the road?! It wasn’t hard at all. I actually had the problem of drifting too far left, which all the signs remind you to keep left.  And just make sure you look the right ways before turning. Right now it feels like it will be weird to come back home and drive on the right.

Back to the trip. We drove south past some incredibly blue lakes and more sheep than I could ever hope to count. As we drove further from Christchurch and the flat farmlands, the mountains began to grow, from lines of the horizon to immediate forces over us. They went from shrubby slopes not unlike places into California to bare-peaked mountains painted with trees. The entire drive there I could imagine Gandalf galloping across the plains or Frodo and the Fellowship marching along. I haven’t gone to any of those filming locations yet, but this is only my second week in Christchurch.

That night we made a pit stop in Queenstown. Maybe because it was a tourist town or a Friday night, but this city was alive.  With live music in a patch of grassy steps, barefoot backpackers wandering around with six packs, restaurants packed with well dressed young people, immediately we wanted to stay longer. Christchurch is much quieter in comparison, but that’s not always a bad thing (or we simply haven’t gone to the city on a Friday night.. which we may or may not be guilty of).  If these two towns were right next to each other, it would be perfect–I could get my balance of a quiet evening out and a more energetic one.

I will have to interrupt this recap with a brief review of my first fish taco in New Zealand. If you don’t know me, then at least know if I see a fish taco on a menu, I will always get it. And so, despite everyone who’s familiar with New Zealand telling us not to get the Mexican food here, we got Mexican food at a small shop tucked into an alley of storefronts.  Maybe it was the bright colors that drew us in. Surprisingly, the restaurant was quite tasty.  This is my fish taco:

img_9338

Also featured: a quesadilla and a veggie pastel.

 

It wasn’t a street taco, but a solid hunk of fresh fish that really hit the spot. The sauce was some sort of avocado-cream combination and with a little bit of lime… I could go for another right now. Good ratio of fish to stuffing and I give points for creative stuffing other than lettuce.

Enough with that. On with it.

Just kidding, I have to mention the ice cream.  It was dusk by the time we ate so we wandered down to the water, where people IMG_9341.JPGgrouped along the shore of the lake to watch the sunset. Off to the right of that view was a packed ice cream place, which is usually a good sign.  And it was. I had some kick-ass fig & pistachio ice cream while watching the silhouettes fade on the horizon.  Not a bad way to end the day.

However, we weren’t quite done yet. We had to get to our campsite.  The site we were looking for was Moke Lake, around twenty minutes outside of Queenstown. I’m glad we at least had GPS because by this point all the sunlight was gone. In the winding roads leading to the site, we could see nothing beyond the headlights.  When the road turned to gravel, it started to feel like we were out in the wops (NZ slang, means the middle of nowhere) and about to make a wrong turn and run into some creepy figures.  Eventually, a sign declaring Moke Lake assured us there would be no such events tonight. We paid our dues and proceeded to find a campsite.

The cool thing about the Department of Conservation campsites, is that it’s basically a free for all (at most places). There are no designated spots, numbered campsites, just patches of grass that if you fit you can pitch.  That’s what we inferred it to be. We ended up sharing a space with an already sleeping tent after wandering around and trying not to get lost.  After we set up and the van sleepers took their leave, the stars put on quite a show for us. Unfortunately I don’t have photo evidence, but the Milky Way hung above us and since we stared long enough, there were plenty of shooting stars to be had. Nature’s lullaby and an introvert’s dream–stargazing and getting lost in thought.

It’s a wonderful feeling waking up the next morning and seeing a new location in daylight for the first time. For anyone who likes the outdoors, it compares (slightly) to Christmas morning.  In the morning, I found out we were literally on the edge of the lake with a circle of mountains all around us.  Sheep became our alarm clocks and a small airplane made a few circles around us before the sun had risen completely. Other than that, it was that special kind of mountain quiet you can only find when you wake up in a tent. You don’t know what happened in the night, how the land will look in a different light, for a moment you get to sit in your tent and listen and dig a little deeper into your sleeping bag before seeing it with your own eyes. To all you bed lovers, you should really try it sometime.

From Queenstown, we headed to our final destination: Milford Sound. It was another four hours from there, though if you look on a map it doesn’t look nearly as far. Big land, big things to travel through.  As we approach Milford, the mountains certainly grew.  The Fiordlands live up to their name. So much green, so much water.  The day was slightly overcast as we arrived but that gave the area more of a mysterious feeling that only added to the majesty. And the Lord of the Rings vibes.  I came to New Zealand for the mountains (and to study) and so far I haven’t been disappointed.

At this point we split up: half the group went on a nature cruise, the other half went on a hike. I opted for a hike. Since there are no actual hikes within Milford Sound itself, we drove back out through the tunnel to find the Lake Marion hike.  It was too overcast for the summit hike; might as well see a pretty lake and clouds rather than just clouds.

And green. I wasn’t expecting it but the hike felt like a rain forest–ferns spread everywhere and moss nestled in between every available rock. The river flowing through was icy blue and moving fast.  The hike wasn’t flat either; it was a little bit the butt-buster I needed.  We climbed through tree roots and rocky paths the majority of the way.  At the top, the lake view tied it all together.

img_9356

Trail

img_9354

Also trail

img_9359

The end point

In Alexis’ world a good hike equates with a good day. So our second campsite simply made the day that much better. We pulled in, after about an hour of driving, to a wide meadow-type area enclosed by peaks and a creek running on one side.  This campsite had fire pits and campers out enjoying their fires in the light of dusk. Obviously, we wanted a fire pit.  When we asked the DoC ranger if the campsite was full, she gave us an odd look, laughing and saying it was half empty–it was full when you couldn’t see grass. Satisfied, we claimed a spot near a fire pit and right next to the creek. Dinner was canned soup but I used my backpacking stove for the first time and that was more than enough reason for me to enjoy it (it’s the little things).

img_9303

Campsite #2

img_9295

Dusky clouds

We left relatively early the next morning for the long haul home. To be honest, I slept for a solid portion of it. The constant go-go-go of the weekend finally hit me and I needed a second to recharge. Hard to do in a car full of people, so sleep solved that problem. I certainly wasn’t the only napper.

At the end of the day, it was a solid first road trip. Worth every mile.

While in New Zealand, my goal is to accomplish an adventure every weekend.  Far, local, doesn’t matter. I want to see something new every weekend, whether it’s a plate of really good food or a new view. I’ve accomplished this so far but I think I’m ready for some local adventures (and so is my wallet. Gas is 2.06/liter currently). I thoroughly enjoyed the trees and the mountains and the company. Needless to say, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  New Zealand has so much to offer and I’m right in the middle of it.

This weekend I’m off again to Lake Wanaka and I’ll end this post with a quote about my favorite creatures of Lord of the Rings.

The Ents loved the great trees, and the wild woods, and the slopes of the high hills; and they drank of the mountain streams, and ate only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path; and they learned of the Elves and spoke with the Trees.” – J.R.R Tolkien

 

Alexis

Vacation’s Over

One more week down, and I’m struggling to find a way to glue all of this week into a comprehensive post. From my first day in Christchurch, this week has dashed by due to my constant jumping from one activity to another in an whirlwind attempt to do as much as I could, whether it was exploring or trying to make my dorm feel a little bit like home.  I already feel like I’ve been here forever–an excellent sign.

The first two days of this week were filled with a healthy combination of free food, too many indecisive runs to the unfamiliar aisles of the grocery store, and mandatory school activities that I touched on briefly last time. Tuesday was tedious–I stood in line for too long to confirm my classes and give the school money. The evening, however, was the opposite and I’ll leave it at that.

Halfway through the week I managed to make it to Christchurch proper with some friends, with the bus system only confusing us once. I’d say campus and my dorm is about a 20 bus ride to the city so it isn’t bad. I got my metrocard, so I feel like a proper rider of public transportation.

It’s easy to tell that Christchurch is still in recovery from the 2011 earthquake. There’s hardly a corner without a building walled in by construction and cranes sprout up across the horizon.  That first day roamed the city, a massive wall of smoke from the Port Hills fire also loomed like an omen on the horizon.

A unique part of Christchurch is the Re:Start mall, a shopping center constructed from colorful shipping containers. It’s filled with cute shops and great food stalls that scream of new life–I definitely plan on trying all of them. One of the places sold burgers filled with different meats and though I didn’t get one, someone got a kangaroo burger and offered it around. It wasn’t bad, a little gamey, but I wouldn’t order it myself. I had a quesadilla.

img_9057

Cranes, smoke, and shipping crates

Best part was the post-wandering mini kayak adventure. Someone knew of a small place to rent kayaks out on the Avon River (more like an amplified creek running through the city) so we all hopped in, remembering our sunscreen of course. I did tandem and it took me a while to remember how to be a good rudder. Most of the time it was due to distraction by baby birds (who moved too fast for a decent picture).

After kayaking, we stopped by Hagley Park and their beautiful, expansive gardens. I might have to take the bus here to go for a run, as running in circles around the nearby sports field isn’t cutting it right now.

Aside from the local stuff, we did get out of Christchurch.  I went with a few friends to check out Diamond Harbor, but I would call it the first adventure that was simply a venture. Unlike what Facebook makes it seem like, it’s not sunshine and butterflies all the time. Sometimes it’s a constant drizzle and blind wandering for that hike you heard about. Lyttleton and Diamond Harbor (across the bay from Lyttleton) were cute towns, but we didn’t find the right place to go and according to the barista at the hip cafe we took shelter in, we needed to come on the weekend. I was ready for a hike with great views, but sometimes life refuses to act in your favor, even on the little things. I did try my first New Zealand pie and had a great chai latte, so overall the venture wasn’t a true dud.

These expectations are a dangerous thing. The next day, I went out to Arthur’s Pass with the same people with the expectation for a big hike, but ended up taking a road trip up and down the pass. It was a fantastic day with mountains all around me, but just thinking about how no one was prepared for a trek almost ruined it for me.

So I embraced the short waterfall hike and the views of a pretty picturesque bridge. I consider myself pretty flexible, and this first adventure showed me how important flexibility is relative to the level of a good time you will have. Also, it helps when you stop along the way for really good pie. (According to the kiwi I was with, Sheffield Pie Shop is the best place to get ’em)img_9134

Another of our stops for the day was Castle Hill, an impressive scattering of limestone boulders that I’ve been meaning to ask my geologist flatmates how they got there. I was pretty pumped because I thought the final battle in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was filmed there, but it turns out it was the nearby Flock Hill (which is private property, so Castle Hill sufficed). Yet the site itself was filled with Narnia-vibes and I could have stayed there all day climbing rocks. After that was our venture to Arthur’s Pass and some fine New Zealand Mountains.

I plan on taking another trip to Arthur’s Pass, so I’ll take some better pictures of the mountains when I’m not stuck in the middle seat.

Anyway, school started yesterday.  After my two month hiatus, it feels a little bit strange to have commitments (especially when there’s a whole country to explore).  Yet, I figure it won’t take long for me to feel like I was never out of school and counting down the days to my April break.  I’m two days in so I can’t make any judgements, but I’m curious to see how a semester compares to my quarter system, which hits the ground running and doesn’t slow down. Vacation may be over, but I still plan on putting my weekends to good use.

Cheating today and throwing in a Narnia quote:

Let us go on and take the adventure that shall fall to us.”

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

img_9160

Alexis