Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cambodia, part 2

As it often goes, the ride from the airport provided my first impression of Cambodia. It was rainy, so the tuktuk ride gave us a frontrow seat to the damp dust on the side of the highway, cyclists pedaling by with cheap plastic poncho-style rain jackets, plenty of motos honking and getting honked at, and the occasional tour bus. Many hotels along this road seemed permanently half-finished, ghost-town-like with their lack of windows. You can see what somebody was hoping to build, but has since left behind for one reason or another.

A good number of locals wore those facemasks surgeons wear while driving around; we never figured out why… maybe pollution, maybe bird flu? A good number of locals also can fit 4-5 people on a single moto, and it’s not unusual to see a mother balance her 2 year old in front of her on the moto as she drives through town.

As Emma mentioned, we met an Australian couple. We all had a fun night of beer and dinner and beer and cards, but I think after they heard we liked math, they decided we had nothing much to offer and proceeded to provide innumerable tips and insights and directions and suggestions for our coming weeks of traveling. It was great stuff to hear, but a bit wearisome after a full evening of it, and Emma and I were happy to have met some cool people but also happy to escape again. All in moderation I suppose. We saw them a few times the next day too – twice at the temples and once at dinner – chuckling at the coincidence of it all, even when the probability of two couples of the same age and same budget and same goals searching out the same destinations is pretty high.

Emma and I found a pretty cool lunch spot called the Singing Tree Café (or something to that effect). A green salad with tahini that whet Emma’s appetite for veggies and then a glass noodle salad with peanuts, lime, and other stuff, and then a soup that was damn good too, but I defer to Emma for an analysis of that one. Also, a dang good iced coffee thing. Anyway, this Café had that hippie/backpackers feel with plenty of posters and announcement boards detailing different causes and foundations and stuff. There was also a Monk Chat every Wednesday at 5:30pm where a monk would come and talk about the basics of Buddhism.

That afternoon we rented bicycles and decided to ride south along the curry-colored river that ran through town. The scenery kept changing: the road went to dirt, the houses became one-room thatched huts on stilts, and there were wooden and bamboo bridges rather than concrete ones. I had become pretty impassive to people calling out for me, since any eye contact in the market brings a flood of “Want to buy? Cheap!” and expectations; but it was impossible to not respond cheerfully to the little school children’s “Hello sir!” as we passed. We kept going and eventually the road ran between huge fields. At the edge of town there was a small stretch of road where the main business seemed to be karaoke bars: these were often just one huge bamboo terrace with a thatched roof overlooking the rich green of the fields, and even in the late afternoon some of them had music going just loud enough to drown out the sound of their generators. I would have liked to stop for a beer, but I think getting out of one of their hammocks before dark would be pretty much impossible. And we don’t like riding in the dark too much since our janky bikes don’t exactly have lights or anything, but at least this time my knees could pedal clear of the handle bars and the seat wasn’t tilted backward 45 degrees.

We got back at 5:25pm and figured might as well go check out Monk Chat. We were a little hesitant after looking in, since at first glance the other 6 or so tourists seemed to be either yoga junkies or hippies who had gotten ripped beforehand. At the worst, it would be good people watching. Sitting down it felt like a self-help group and I was worried we might have to play the Name Game. One of the monk’s friends who had just dropped out of the order a few months beforehand was visiting, and the monk handed to floor over to him for most of the time. It was great to hear about Buddhism from his perspective; he tried to define it, tried to dispel a few common misconceptions, and provided a small glimpse into his life as a monk for 14 years. I think we both liked the themes and the ideas (I’d like to read up on it some more) but weren’t that interested in the part where those ideas become a religion, with the symbols and rigid rules that develop over time.

Emma and I happily debated some of the different parts of the talk over nachos and fajitas and a couple pitchers of margaritas ($15 for everything… suhweet) at the only Mexican joint in town. It was a nice goodbye to Cambodia.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


After five days in Siem Reap, Cambodia we finally saw Angkor Wat. The biggest religious monument in the world and the sole reason we came to this country and it took us five days to actually walk inside the walled complex the makes up this ancient building. It cost us $40 per day to visit the Angkor Archeological Park – the collection of Khmer monuments including Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and many others. When you are paying $8 a night for lodging and $1.50 for a meal this seems like way too much. Ok, maybe not really, but it’s all perspective. After spending the morning walking around the local market and enjoying some bomb chicken and ginger stir fry, we decided to bike up to the ruins to explore again. There are so many tiny temples and monuments that it’s impossible to see them all in a day. From what we had seen the previous day, they only check tickets at the entrance to each of the ruins so we figured we might get away without one.

As we passed the ticket office and official checkpoint at the entrance to the park we were, of course, pulled over and asked for our tickets - never mind the tuktuks and motos vooming past.We turned around and decided to head down a dirt path into the woods. From our previous visit to the park we knew there is an alternate entrance on the western side. Success, we made it to the outer wall of Angkor Wat. Thinking perhaps the gates would be closing soon as it was almost dusk and we could get a free sneak peak at the temple, we sat on the walled edge of the most to people watch. No such luck, the ticket official gave us the stare down and we were forced to continue biking up the road, after all we had paid $1 to rent the bicycles for the afternoon.

Chris decided it was a great idea to try the next tiny dirt path heading out in the woods surrounding the Angkor Wat moat, so off we headed in the general right direction. We were trying to get to the other side of the temple where we hoped to get some sort of view. Off-roading on a one-speed bicycle that is sketchy at best is not the easiest endeavor, but we made it though sand and grass on the fairly well traveled path. We ended up in one of the tiny villages that are scattered throughout the park and were politely pointed in the right direction. Next we came upon a small, lily pad covered lake in which a few men were fishing with huge poles (pictures to come on our Web albums). From here we finally hit the edge of the Angkor Wat moat which we followed around to the other entrance to the temple itself. As we rode around the road block and down the deserted road, we were just waiting to be caught. We reached the outer wall, parked our bikes, and hurried up the stairs into the ruin. Not only did we get to explore the whole temple in golden-glow lighting, watch the beautiful sunset, and see part of a local dance number, but we did it all for free! Yes, we didn’t get the classic sunrise picture of the towering monument peaks, but our own adventure was definitely worth it. Plus, we all know there is no way that I am getting up at 5 am.

After spending 15 hours in the airport in Kuala Lumpur, we spent our first day basically sleeping. We had decided to explore most of the ruins by bicycles – definitely the way to go – and our only regret turned out to be not reading more about the history of the place or hiring a guide to show us around. Walking through the temples you can’t help but wonder about the people who built them. In many cases the ruins have been overgrown with giant trees – one of the cooler things in my opinion. The trees have giant roots above the ground which seem to thrive on the temple walls. Another highlight was the intricate carving and stone work. One of the most famous temples inside Angkor Thom is called the Bayon; the whole building the covered with carved faces. In many cases, each pillar has four identical faces, each looking a different direction. Of course there is some controversy about whose face it is in the first place, but the main contenders are Buddha, some Hindu god, or the ruling king at the time it was built.

We have thoroughly enjoyed this city and spent longer that we originally anticipated here. The local market is filled with colorful silk wall hangings and scarves, as well has fruit, produce, and lots and lots of fish. We also had an encounter with a large rat which Chris didn’t see, almost stepped on, and was “quite surprised” (his words) when I pointed it out to him. We have spent our days biking around the ruins and town and of course tasting the local cuisine. We haven’t really written as much about food as we should, considering most of our daily decisions revolve around our next meal hehe. The local food consists of some great fried rice or noodle dishes, curries, and of course fish. We have been hesitant to try fish and have mainly been sticking with chicken dishes. Our favorite so far is a tiny place on the edge of the market. It lacks any resemblance to the many touristy restaurants, consisting of a half dozen plastic tables and chairs and display case of pre-maid dishes. We were brought to the place by an Australian couple we met at happy hour earlier in the night and subsequently have been back a few times. Chicken and garlic. Chicken and ginger. Yummy. They give you a plate of steamed rice and the food is gone in a matter of minutes. Though, I will say by our third trip the ginger was getting a little intense. The dish pretty much has one – maybe two – whole roots in it.

We decided that our next destination in going to be Laos, which has gotten rave reviews from our fellow travelers. We hope to spend a few weeks there before heading to Thailand. We fly out tomorrow and we write again as soon as possible. Miss you all!



Thursday, January 24, 2008


Driving into Ubud, neither Emma, I, nor the taxi driver knew where our street was. So he dropped us off and we walked around somewhat aimlessly, sweaty and laden with stuff. No street signs, no map, no clues. One small alley had a few signs pointing to homestays, and after walking past one, an older lady cried after us, "Please. Please, looking for stay? Come. Look." Emma stayed in the street as the lady led me to the back of her family compound to a small building with two rooms. She showed me inside; I saw a clean queensize bed and a small bathroom and a ceiling fan and figured, Good Enough. She said 50,000 rp per night, breakfast included. Quick calculation: $5. Gave Emma the headnod.

We stayed there three nights. We'd later realize the room smelled like anti-flea dog shampoo, the sink drained onto the floor and into the nearby shower drain, the toilet did not flush but instead there was a small hose hanging from the wall, the bed boards were too short for the bedframe, and a rooster lived outside our window. This rooster in particular began the neighborhood's roosters in a collective chant at 3am. The place afforded us a few chuckles. The owners were extremely kind and we only used the room as a sanctuary from the humidity.

Before Ubud, we had been in Sanur, a small coastal town east of the largest city in Bali, Denpasar. Coming from the airport, we had arrived in the midst of a huge rain and lightning storm. Walking around, the amount of trinkets and trash and pleading and pawning was a bit overwhelming. It was embarrassing how much the guesthouse staff waited on us - tea and coffee whenever, great eggs, toast, and fruit in the morning at our asking. We took a walk along the beach and saw people hoping to sell a dusty bottle of Coke for 50 cents or whatever, and a few hundred meters later saw chubby white shirtless tourists getting a massage at their hotel's beachside pool.

The next day we rented bikes ($2 total) and explored a bit. Emma sacked up and bit her lip for the 1km stretch we rode on the side of the highway (there were no connecting sideroads, I swear!). We rode a few kilometers out to the end of a spit, and found a beach with a dozen shacks that rented surfboards. We bought a couple beers and cokes and took a board out for an hour, not caring that it had been cracked down the middle and reglued. The water was a great color and it was fun to play in the waves.

Living in general, we've begun settling into a more relaxed paranoia, although I confess Emma's still a bit of a hypochondriac. ("I'm not a hypochondriac, I just have many valid concerns!") To ward off traveller's diarrhea, we have been (almost without fail) avoiding ice cubes, ice cream, and tap water. (We don't even brush our teeth with tap water.) And we've begun our malaria treatment. (We've only seen a few mosquitos so far.) So far so good.

My favorite part of Bali: by chance, we came just as one of their biggest biannual festivals began. The day after we arrived to Ubud, families were huddled on the sides of the streets constructing large bamboo poles that began very straight, rising 25 feet or so, then curving and hanging down delicately over the street. They carefully adorned them with ornamental grasses and fresh flowers and other decorations. Walking down our little alley we would pass under a dozen of these, and they looked really great in the morning and at dusk.

It was cool to see the Hindu influence in general. Each day many would construct small offerings of flowers and rice in a handmade leaf container and place them on the designated part of the nearby statue; each home and business seemed to have one, as well as the family, neighborhood, and town temples, of course. I liked seeing the thatched roofs in the temples as well as the little golden umbrellas poised over some of the statues.

On the day of the festival, everyone dressed in their celebration attire, and most women would get a ride to the temple on a moped while they held a basket filled with offerings. We also saw some women walking to the nearest temple balancing huge arrangements of fruit on their head.

I decided I really wanted to rent a moped. Because of the celebrations, most of the guys offering this were off praying, but one guy had a friend of a friend willing to rent me one, so I paid him $10 for two days. Straight Dumb-And-Dumber-style, Emma and I drove up to the top of the volcano and saw the lake in the crater. A few worries about oncoming rain and low gas brought us back down the hill after an hour or so exploring the towns at the summit, and we got a bit lost on the way back, but returned in one piece no problem.

One time when we were eating dinner, Jimmy Buffett had come on and I felt like an American abroad. But motoring up the only mountain in Bali, passing little villages with their stone temples, looking out over terraced rice fields, crossing bridges over jungle ravines, and having the sky and the puffy clouds -- still an American abroad but somehow better. Bali was great.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Abel Tasman, part 2

The kayak rental base in Marahau is one of the biggest operations in the world. But after three hours of standing in the blazing sun, sweat pouring down our faces as we practiced kayak strokes in front of our teacher, we couldn’t help but question the efficiency of the system. After lectures in wind, waves, various safety techniques and a mock capsize and escape we were finally ready to enter the “dangerous” waters of the Abel Tasman National Park. The clear blue water was like glass when we finally left to venture out on our own, each of us wearing extremely stylish bucket hats embroidered with kiwis birds that we’d bought 15 min previously.

The paddle to our first campsite took almost 45 minutes. (We had been told not to try to make it any farther on the first day.) But as Chris mentioned the crescent beach of Te Pukatea was as close to paradise as we have gotten. As we pulled up on the beach, there was no one in sight and the golden sand was beginning to glow as the sky turned pink above us.

The next morning we spent some time on the beach before taking a leisurely paddle on to our next destination, Mosquito Bay. This campsite is only accessible by water. Along the way we explored a few of the lagoons that are present in the park only at high tide. The tidal patterns in the park are crazy to experience. The water level can drop/rise almost 12 feet in some cases. This tendency results in huge sandy beaches that are visible only at low tide and beautiful calm lagoons that fill only when the tide rises. We were able to paddle to the head of the lagoons and up part of the rivers entering the sea.

New Zealand is famous for its birds. The lack of predators, besides possums and stoats which are a huge problem and I will get too later, the birds have no natural predators. On each of the beaches we stopped on we saw oyster catchers. These funny little birds are completely black except for their bright orange eyes and feet and long pointy orange beaks. We also loved watching the pied cormorants dive from 100 feet in the air fishing.

We thought Mosquito Bay would be somewhat quiet because of its water access restriction, but it turned out to be just the opposite. The protected waters of the bay drew a handful of sail and power boats, these boats anchored in the lagoon and as the tide went out they simply sat on the sand. Kinda weird to see boats just sitting on the sand. We set up our camp at Mosquito Bay, excited about the prospect of exploring the northern coast the next morning. After a slight mishap with some spoiled broccoli – yuck- we had dinner and sat on the beach playing cards. Chris invented a new game which we are calling Anapai after our first beach campsite of the Abel Tasman. The game is a mix between pitch and a game taught to us by some fellow trampers on the Heaphy Track.

Before going to bed that night I was brushing my teeth when I turned to spit in the bushes and saw a pair of beady red eyes staring back at me. Ahhh! A possum! It of course quickly climbed up one of the tree and sat there just watching me and our campsite. They might look like a cross between a raccoon and teddy bear but don’t be fooled, they are scary little things. The first time we heard a possum cry was on the West Coast with Sean. We were all sitting around the fire when out of the darkness came one of the eeriest sounds I have ever heard. Gutteral, cat-like, evil…I can’t even describe it. Anyway the possum was right above out tent all night. It woke me up half a dozen times and I nearly peed my pants not wanting the leave the shelter of the tent. In the end I made Chris come outside with me.

That night the wind picked up and in the morning we struggled to push out of the bay and make our way north. I was getting a bit nervous about the building swell, but Chris wanted to make it up to what we had been told was the coolest lagoon in the park, Shag Harbor. Along the way we passed one of the islands that ‘s home to a seal colony. I think the rough water forced them to take shelter because we didn’t see any. As we battled the waves and wind to make it across the open channel between the island and mainland, I was having doubts about our ability to make it around the headland to the lagoon. The swells were getting bigger, definitely some of the biggest I have been kayaking in. Chris won out in the end and we rounded the point to an onslaught on wind and water. The white caps were spraying us with salt water, but we managed to make slow progress towards our target. Sitting in the front of the kayak, I was lifted off the water only to come crashing down into the waves. On more than one occasion the waves actually poured over the edge of the boat onto my lap.

We paddled through the narrow opening into the harbor and entered a serene little oasis. Definitely worth the trip. Shag Harbor was a maze of rocky passages and clear green tinted shallow water. Beautiful. After just floating around we decided it best to make it back before the weather got any worse. Surfing the waves back we saw a handful of seals playing in the water by the shore. They next day we paddled back to Marahau and caught a bus for Nelson, reminiscing about the awesome last week in New Zealand.

Chris and I are sitting on our balcony in Bali. I am forced to wear a sarong and treasure my one pair of underwear, but more on that later.



Yes I need to learn how to focus the dang camera.

Mosquito Bay

On the Water

Anapai Bay

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Abel Tasman, part 1

We were sitting on a deserted beach. Waves splashing just a few yards in front of us, we looked out at the eastern horizon as dusk set in and the clouds turned pink. Our tent, pitched only a few feet off the beach behind us, had a million dollar view out the mosquito netting. We had taken a few walks, hand-in-hand, looking for cool shells before sharing our beloved teriyaki veggies and rice dish.

And then one of us farted.

And then the other farted.

It didn’t matter if we were upwind, downwind, in the tent, outside the tent, a meter away or out-of-sight, up the trail and around the bend. The extreme nausea caused from these excretions was almost unbearable.

We feared giardia of course. And Emma, knowing I have 90% blockage of my nasal cavities, often tried to pull a sneaker in the tent without informing me, but as soon as I started to feel woozy from lack of oxygen, I would immediately know what had happened. As for me, I tried holding ‘em in, but within 10 minutes a true Marshall-Islands-worthy detonation would occur within my sleeping bag.

After the Heaphy we stayed in Takaka. The hippy vibe was enormous (like 70% of people had dreads) and there was a great fish and chips place with bomb potato wedges. Our bodies, clothes, and other equipment smelled, so much so that when we came back to our room, the Germans staying in the other two bunks said they had to open the windows because the room had been “quite stinky.” The half dozen Germans staying in the hostel were all farmers in their early 20s and came to New Zealand to work the farms for a month and then travel for two months.

While in Takaka, we happily threw a few bucks towards a pair of flipflops and knockoff clogs; we hiked in those while on the Able Tasman to let our feet heal a bit.

The Abel Tasman proved amazing. The trail wound alongside the ocean and through the white beech trees you’d get great views of the golden beaches and green waters. After a few days of hiking in this paradise, we took a water taxi to the southern end to hire kayaks and explore it by water. In this case, a water taxi is a boat that goes to beaches along the coast, picks up tourists, and delivers them to other beaches. If their destination is the main starting point, Marahau, the boat drives onto a boat trailer waiting on the water ramp, and from there a tractor pulls the boat trailer (with all the passengers still on the boat!) a kilometer or so into town, at which point the people finally get off. It was pretty hilarious riding a boat down the street being pulled by a guy in a tractor.

Our first landing spot with the kayaks was a perfect crescent beach called Te Pukatea Bay. It was great. In the morning, enamored with the setting, I tried getting a good panorama done, but just then about 20 people showed up on a water taxi. Quite deflating. But they ended up going on a day hike, and the cooler sailboat people stayed and swam around with us. I took a better panorama an hour later or so.

We have to go catch a plane to Bali, but there’s more to tell about our kayaking adventure, so we’ll try and post that later!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Swingbridge on the Heaphy

Heaphy Track

Sunset from Te Miko

Trees on way from Wanaka to Greymouth

Trail Swimming on Creek Trail

Bullock Creek Tramping

Eel Hunting


We met sandflies. These little guys are bloodsuckers, and apparently their life goal is only one bite on your soft skin. After that, they have enough fuel to go make 100 eggs, or so the warden told us. At the Heaphy Hut - a great spot with 20 bunks, cozy unless packed with 20 sandfly-fearing trampers - we had a great sunset view on the beach and watched the river and tide make ripples against each other. We were monching on our staple - teriyaki packet, carrot, broccoli, garlic, white rice, ginger, onion - when we look at each other and see a swarm of 30 sandflies in the space between us. By then, my ankles were already bitten to all hell. Emma got off easy (I'm pretty sure it's because her blood is deficient in whatever those guys are searching for) but didn't mind telling me I shouldn't be scratching them, which was a lot easier said than done. In the hut, I overheard a few kids counting the number of dead flies on the windowsill; last I heard it was over 100. We slept with our silk sacks over our heads to keep 'em out. I finally found out they were attracted to dark clothing, so that helped the situation in the morning as we got out of there.

I've been growing out my beard. I thought it would be fun to not cut it for the whole trip. Sam and I discussed having a contest regarding this at one point, but I laughed it off. He won't find out the contest is on until he reads this, at which point I will have the sorely-needed head start. Anyway, the point is I haven't been trimming the stuff that grows straight down over the top lip. I've noticed several complications that arise from this: 1) it looks ridiculous 2) I can't drink anything without it getting wet, and 3) as Sean pointed out, when I eat from a spoon it looks like how you imagine a Balene whale (is that right?) might eat. I might break down and trim that part soon. Any votes either way from the readers?

The pooping has been going well. I've been very impressed with the quality of the portapotties on the trail. Some of them have sweet views. Some of them have flies, which can be annoying. One even had a hybrid flushing system. However, I have not been impressed with the hostel bathrooms: inside of the toilet paper rolls they place a small piece of wood that makes it impossible to spin the roll easily. To get more than 3 squares, you have to carefully pull the toilet paper through the open space between the roll and the wall several times. Pure frustration. I was so frustrated that at one point, I started plotting how to steal the whole roll just to get back at them.

The last few days have been really wet. Emma said it eloquently:"It's so wet I wouldn't know if I had peed my pants." Once we had set up the tent, the warden came over and informed us it would rain 150mm in the next day and a half, and that we should get past a creek 30 min down the trail by 9am. Kind of a bummer. I’m not sure if Emma was more bummed by the rain or the early “check out time.” But they weren’t lying. The next day it dumped, and we trudged along 19 km with our rain jackets. I had a garbage bag over my pack. We weren’t able to take many pictures (if any!) because of the constant downpour, and if it ever let up and we saw something cool, the lens was too foggy. Shucks. Lots of green though. And at the viewpoints, we usually saw a dense fog through the trees, which made it eerily like Lord of the Rings (maybe Lothlorien?).

I got blisters. I wore socks that were too thin the first day. Things compounded the second day. Tried popping them that night. Next day, they refilled and I had double layer blisters. Last day I was crippled in pain, as my taping/moleskin job must have made the blister go inwards or something, and we finally decided it was better to go the last 20km with my sandal. The move paid off and we arrived without delay.

Among my favorite images from the Heaphy:
• The trail going alongside awesome, long beaches with scattered sharp rocks. We saw a seal enjoying the sun at one point.
• Emma in the middle of the trail, bent over at the waist with her pack on, pulling down her black tights and going pee. I thought it was hilarious she didn't even care to take her pack off. Yay efficiency.
• The transition between lots of different types of ecology. I wish I knew all the plant names so I could describe it accurately. I liked the palm tree forests along the beach with fallen, dried palm leaves covering the ground. I liked the dense, foggy forests with fern trees and beech trees. I liked the big meadows with beachgrass-like shrubs and big trees that have a really dense canopy that covers the hillsides. There’s an occasional white boulder in the middle of fields (you can’t really tell where they came from) and there are creeks winding their way out of the valley. We noticed all this, but the muddy trail under our feet was more of a priority.
• The streams with signs like "Little Creek" that were thundering almost to the height of the bridges after all the rainfall.
• Getting to the Gouland Downs hut (1 room, 8 bunks, no stoves, stone fireplace). Nobody was there and we got to build a fire in the fireplace, dry out our stuff, make some tea, and take a nap. It was a really cool setup with a rainwater collection system and stuff.
• The long swinging bridges that we used to cross the bigger rivers. The metal pieces tying the cables at 1 meter intervals were slippery in the rain. Only 1 hiker allowed at a time. Support cables attached at the center of the bridge kept it from swinging too wildly.
• The wardens are weird. They all are a bit kookoo. Some of them look up at the ceiling for a few seconds before answering a question, some stare at you for a few seconds before answering a question. Some stutter, some have a blank look to them. I think all of them spend far too much time alone. After all, they live alone in one room shelters in the middle of the bush. Any emergency would require a helicopter, and food/fuel drops occur only twice a year.


We have been in New Zealand for almost a month now and it feels like only a week. Time has gone by so fast it’s almost inconceivable – there are so many things we have seen and still don’t have time to see everything we want to. Our trip from one track to the next is a bit tough on the feet but so far we have survived, barely. We were quite a sight yesterday both hobbling the last few miles of the trail. Chris has about 8 different blisters, some forming directly on top of previous, and I think I have some sort of tendinitis going on in my left foot. Whatever it is it hurts.

We are currently in Takaka, our jumping off point for the Abel Tasman, the last of our tracks in New Zealand. We start again tomorrow morning bright and early. The last two weeks were spent hitching up the West Coast and on the Heaphy Track, which Chris is going to write a bit about. Before recounting some of the better moments from the past two weeks I want to spend a little time writing about the Routeburn. We never actually got around to describing it as we should have.

The morning drive to the trailhead was misty and it started to rain. Chris of course was monching on the BBQ wings we had just bought at the grocery store. Our first day on the track was Christmas Eve, and as we passed fellow trampers we received numerous “Merry Christmas!” greetings, one “Merry Fucking Christmas,” and even saw a guy with a tiny Christmas tree strapped to the top of his pack. Complete with twinkling lights and plastic protecting it from the drizzle, it was by far the best display of Christmas we had seen so far. Getting into the spirit of Christmas is a wee bit hard considering there is absolutely no snow; in fact most people here plan Christmas dinner as a BBQ. There is a definitely lack of Christmas trees.

The short walk to our first hut of the trip took only a few hours, which was fortunate since Chris and Sean were carrying three bottles of wine each. Chris, who simply carried the box of Red Wine in his hands, earned more than one double-take from passing trampers. We arrived just as a guided tour was leaving (thank god) and spent the afternoon playing cards, eating chocolate, and drinking wine. At approximately 6 am the next morning, we awoke to the sounds of two children ripping open presents and laughing. It was way too early for us. It was a wet morning so instead of moving on to our next hut we decided to make use of the stove and empty hut. Sean had trouble restraining himself with the bucket of coal he received for Christmas and the room was toasty warm for hours. We finally decided it was time to move on when another tour group arrived for lunch.

The second day of the track had us climbing up to Lake MacKenzie. (sp?) We were scheduled to be camping that night, so the hours of climbing in the rain were a bit discouraging – our tiny two person tent was definitely not going to be big enough for three people. We had heard so much about the famous Christmas party thrown by the resident warden that we were sure the hut was going to be full. We arrived just as the rain was really starting to come down and found the red faced warden in the middle of his Christmas dinner from the looks of it. By a stroke of luck he was willing to let us squeeze into some of the bunks – yippee! We lay in bed later that night as the rain pelted the hut thanking our lucky stars. Christmas at the hut was quite the affair, not only did the warden make little mince pies for everyone, but he organized a Christmas carol sing-along. What a night!

We started off the next day climbing out of the lake basin. The trail followed the edge of the steep cliffs, climbing along a ridgeline. It started to snow as we got to the top. Continuing along the ridge the weather finally cleared giving us our first views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. The wet weather left snow on many of the mountain and we saw tons of waterfalls. (I posted more pictures of the hike on Facebook.) We reached the saddle for lunch, after which we all took a quick rest leaning against the black tin roof of the shelter trying to suck out some of the warmth radiating from the metal. From here the trail descended, following a river to another hut perched right at the top of a waterfall. The wrap-around porch gave us a spectacular view of the valley floor below, which we would be camping on. It was a short hike down to the valley and we set up camp on a grassy field right at the base of the mountains. Awesome…until some sketchy French dude set up his tent 40 feet from ours. No one else seems to have the sense of personal space that we do.

The hike out to the trailhead brought us along the valley floor, weaving around the river. We crossed some awesome swing bridges. We arrived at the parking lot just a few minutes before it started to rain again and took a bus out to Queenstown. Great hike. Great to hang out with Sean. Sorry for the somewhat out of place chronologically post. PS We bought deodorant.



Friday, January 4, 2008

Up the West Coast

We're in Karamea, NZ. It's the last town on the journey north along the West Coast as we head towards the Heaphy Track, which we start today. I slept 2 hours this morning after a full night of coding, putting in the last push for the HealthOne website. I'll be out of contact for the next two weeks, so I had to try and get my part of things finished off.

We're staying at a place called Rongo Backpackers ( It is all the awesomeness it advertises and more. The radio station and the movie room are my favorites, although I would also try the fire bath if I had more time here. I've been using the wifi (based on a donation system) more than my fair share.

The last week has been great. We've been hitchhiking north, starting from Queenstown. One night in Wanaka, a couple nights north of Punakaiki, a couple nights in Westport, and then here.

On the way to Wanaka, we picnicked and went wine tasting in between hitchhiking rides. Why not? Wanaka turned out to be a haven for 16-18 year olds on New Years' vacation, so it wasn't quite our scene and we took the bus (since the likelihood of rides coming OUT of this mecca was low) to Greymouth, where we met up with one of Sean's previous Woof places, called Te Miko. (By the way, to get a parallel view of our time together, check out Sean's blog: He suggests starting from the very beginning.)

Te Miko was rad. I'll try a better description later. Run down, functional house (was it ever fully completed? doubt it) with a monster view, 400-600m from a cliff to the water. It has a varied garden beneath it, with interspersed lawn and haphazard terracing. The lady who lives there is a glass blower, and sells her glass beads to any interested passerby. A redhead eccentric lady named Parrot lives lower on the property, in a house she built that features a hexagonal room and a room full of computer parts she tinkers with. She mentioned her next project was to try to cut a motherboard in the shape of a cow and a farmer.

I enjoyed my time, but couldn't help feeling out of my element. I am immediately known to NOT be a useful person here. The skills I have developed (which mostly consist of computer languages and the building of invisible constructions - not garden shed) have no relevance in their world. I know how to split wood, I'm just not efficient. I can weed weeds and water plants, but I'm unschooled in anything more advanced. It would take time to demonstrate my willingness to work hard; it would require proving it to them. For now, I'm an uninitiated city-boy.

The only time any differences in politics or opinions came out over the campfire, when we were discussing patent law and genetically modified food. At one point, the lady exclaimed in her NZ accent, "The world' going to shit, man! You can't patent life!" I came away from the conversation realizing I'm still on the path towards becoming cleverer, not wiser. I'm not convinced I will be changing that any time soon, though. There's too much to learn before you realize none of it is worth anything.

One highlight was the day hike we went on while in Punakaiki (sp?). Pictures coming soon. Grassy, muddy, soft trails through the woods. We arrived at a riverbed and followed it down to the ocean for 5-6 km. The riverbeds are awesome here, all wide and shallow with super clear water trickling over big smooth rocks. Sean and I had a bit of fun through some of the small rapids, although my sun glasses were a casualty of all this fun once I got sucked under for a second at one point. We also went swimming in a swimming hole and in the shadowy pats I found a 4 foot eel swimming around beneath our feet. Tried hunting him with some of the sticks nearby, but no luck. Emma was amused, but unimpressed all the same.

All three of us have been enjoying campfires the last few nights. The park we were staying at was 100 m from a great beach, with black, iron-based sand that was always super hot and great to lie down on. Sean and I have been digging the fire pits pretty big and deep because there's tons and tons of dry wood lying around. We even got marshmallows and roasted them a few hours after a great Mexican food dinner that Emma made. Pico de gallo with avocado, some chicken with burrito seasoning, tortillas, refried beans. We loved it.

Gotta go for now, but hope all is well!