Archive for the ‘2008 New Zealand’ Category

John’s former flatmates let us crash on the floor after John produces a suitcase of the national beer. The scene here is pretty crazy with, as near as I can count, 6 or 7 people living in the house. Two are from the Patagonia region of Argentina and she is all Latin with a kiss on the cheek and Tango lessons for all who are interested. Another is a broken toed Taiwanese woman who is learning English and is contagiously fun to be around. Throw in a Canadian, an Aussie, and and a few Kiwis and you have quite an eclectic household. Everyone is welcoming and we have a good time hanging out and talking about travel plans.

We gave some Canadian trampers a ride into Kamemea and had a good time over lunch at the bush café. Then we gave a ride to a recently graduated German Dr. so she could continue her travels before beginning her medical practice full time. Some Germans are culturally tough for me to relate to and just often seem unfriendly. I know this is not the case, but it just feels that way. This woman was very demanding to the point of being harsh while we are giving her a ride, which is a very different characteristic from what I am used to. That is a good thing however as differences challenge my on perceptions, thus I can either choose to be self righteous or being open to the possibility of looking at the world and people differently. Hopefully, I choose the latter; not always…maybe not even frequently but maybe.

To finish off our few weeks of tramping about we stopped at a Japanese hot springs for a soak, a meal and a rest after a busy several weeks. The pools were hot and the food was good and during dinner we met some travelers who were in a much higher economic stratosphere. They had seen many of the same sites on the south island but where we had walked they had taken helicopters, limousines and boats. Not a bad thing, just different. But I sure would not want to carry even her jewelry bag let alone her wardrobe trunk.


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We were cruising along at a quick 4 mph pace and then I was flat on my backpack arms splayed out. The angled palm tree cut perfectly across the path and caught me just above the hair line. John said it was damn funny to watch after he realized I was still breathing; albeit seeing stars. This tramp is one of our best as we moved down the coast and headed to a hut on the beach. After 3 very fast hours through the forest, along deserted beaches, and across panoramic bluffs we arrived in paradise (less one mean palm tree).

We have been testing “flat whites” (espresso with steamed milk, no foam) and eggs benedicts across the island. Todays were pretty good, and later we had bacon and cheese egg pies. I wonder if Dr. Jain is going to believe the Statins are not working for the high cholesterol?

Just took a swim in the lagoon – wow, 6pm beautiful late afternoon sun and gin clear water. In the Sierra, as a boy, we simply drank water along the way without chemicals or filters – it is the same here and we simply walk along and drink when thirsty. With a population of less than 1 million on the South Island in an area 2/3 the size of California there is little negative impact in the back country.

Sand flies are like mosquitoes, basically evil. While I know they are sentient beings I have resorted to killing as many of the bastards as possible- two just now actually. The bites are only marginally annoying but after 2 days the small welts itch like hell. There are LOTs of them here in NZ, but I am doing my part to eradicate as I enjoy the beautiful beach.

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We are staying in a hostel type house in the sub-tropical rainforest where the tree ferns are nearly 10 meters tall. There is a huge high pressure system sitting over the Tazman Sea so the weather is hot, sunny, and dry which based on the vegetation is a very uncommon state. John and I have a private room with one bed (he is on the floor). Other guests are in a loft on single mattresses. We joke, that they are likely thinking we are “pink dollars” as that is how gay couples are referred to here by the tourist industry.

We stayed at one of New Zealand’s alpine clubs hut at Athur’s Pass last evening. Great place and we were the only ones at the ~20 bunk cabin that was built before World War II when climbers had to take the train from Christchurch to reach the coastal mountains in the west.

Good story in the Press (NZ News paper) today about how the department of conservation (DOC) refused to rescue some Australians hikers who claimed an emergency due to a rising river. “it was raining, naturally the water was going to rise”. We saw something similar when a group of trampers requested rescue because one of their group had a sore knee and could not walk. The DOC ranger gave them a walking stick, an ace bandage, and told her hiking partners to carry her pack and walk themselves out in a few days when the leg got better. This is a culture of self reliance and that suits my taste very well. That said, in a true emergency the DOC has an outstanding search and rescue program; they simply do not consider rising rivers and sore knees as emergencies. We could take a lesson here.

Conversely NZ is infamous for one lane bridges and these things are dangerous to your health if you do not understand the right of way rules and many a frequent head on collision occur.

I was not sure if I would like the back country “hut” approach but given the very demanding and often dangerous weather, and the lack of suitable camping spots, I really see the merit in the approach. Don’t want to see it on the PCT but I am really enjoying it here and the social networking is a real bonus. It is very different from camping out in isolation but the differences do not make one or the other a better experience, just a different one.

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A long night in the hut; I was not feeling well and one of the hut mates was a prolific snorer. I woke before sunrise and headed out for an alpine pee as the first rays of morning hit the highest glaciers above me.
Upon awakening, John suggested we take a short scramble to the top of Ollivier Mountain, which is actually a bump along a ridge above the hut. But not just any ridge, this is the first climb Sir Edmund Hillary ever made. It is said that when Sir Ed returned to the valley below he was pretty happy with his mountaineering accomplishment. Until, of course, he met some chaps who had just successfully summited Mt. Cook. This would have been around 1939 and 14 years later the humble Kiwi would shock the world as he reached the summit of the world’s highest point – Mt. Everest. Standing on this bump looking towards Mt. Cook I could feel the same pull he must have felt from the bigger mountains and glaciers high above me.

On our drive to the park we had a true “green” New Zealand experience. We were driving on a particularly winding road and pulled in behind a truck stacked four tier with sheep. We were following pretty close around a turn and all of a sudden about 10 gallons of sheep shit and piss poured from the pitching truck and completely covered our trusty ride. Each curve produced similar results and instead of backing off, John pushed on with the windshield wipers flapping to keep pace with the flying excrement. We laughed hysterically at the disgustingness of it all while reflecting back on our lamb stew the night previous.

We flew down the mountain as our thru-hiker trained feet found their footings on the ridiculously steep, Kiwi style trail.

At lake Tekapo now as John pens a final article for his paper, on 13 years of tramping in NZ, before heading to Japan for a wee walk and ultimately on to the states for an attempt to climb Mt. McKinley / Denali, Alaska. From here he travels to Japan for a 6 week pilgrimage along the route of 88 Buddhist monasteries. As a heathen seeking the path of the Buddha should prove interesting. Then he is going to attempt a Sea to Summit of Mt. Fuji in Japan before reaching the land of grizzly bears and a mid-summer summit attempt. After that his plans are also uncertain but it looks like he will not be home anytime soon. “Besides, home is where I end up”. I am not certain that he or I really believe that and I think we probably long for a home more then we let on. I am tempted to call my new company and let them know I will not be coming back as I would like to keep moving myself but know for now I need to regroup and make some money before I do anything.

Traveling to NZ is not cheap. A bowl of chili at the park was $18nz and given the weak dollar that is pricey. But you can do it on the cheap if you are careful on where you eat and stay. Avoid eating at National Parks. The dominant travelers here as we observed are: Australians, Americans, English, Israeli, and German. Beyond those dominant groups we have also met travels from at least a dozen other countries and the interactions with part of the global community is rewarding. One notable contrast I observed is between Australians and New Zealanders. As a gross generalization the Aussie tourist is much more culturally similar to an American and is in stark contrast to a Kiwi. This shattered my perceptions because before this trip I thought New Zealand and Australia were as similar as California and Oregon. The contrast is more akin to the U.S and Guatemala. The differences are one of confidence or arrogance depending on your perspective and the Americans and the Australians have mastered this. The Kiwis in contrast exhibit a much quieter and humbler disposition and even though there accomplishments are significant they seem more motivated by challenging themselves verses “look at me” motivators that are becoming more prevalent in the west.

At dinner the other night, Tara was also there for the early part of the evening. All Toni said was: 39, single. Cute would have also been appropriate. Tara is working at the lodge as a hostess and she was super helpful but I quickly get the impression that she is not a hostess in her other life. Turns out she is on sabbatical from an executive television producer job in England where she covers the world’s biggest sporting events including the World’s cup, PGA Masters, and Australians Open. This trip is proving to be a lesson in not pre-judging. She was really nice in that sort of Londoner-stiff upper lip type of way. I know that is also simply a perception difference amongst cultures but I found it somewhat difficult to have a casual conversation with this women who is from a country that still has a queen. Part of the challenge this evening may have been that John and I have very few “forbidden” topics and I am certain we freaked her out when we openly disclosed that my wife left me for a women, or that John got into a crazy personal mess on the PCT. When you are really open with people about your life and your shortcomings, they get uncomfortable as they somehow feel there is an expectation for reciprocal openness. At least that is my theory. One thing for sure, our approach ensured Tara left the evening still single and still very cute.

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1000 meters in 2 hours made the passes of the PCT look easy. Granted I am somewhat out of shape but as we hike to Mueller hut (opened by Sir Edmund Hillary in 2003) I thought I was going to lose my cookies. If you have ever spent two hours on a stair master you can appreciate the “burn” as we ascended to the glaciers in the Mt. Cook National Park. We are only at 1600m but we are in serious sub-alpine country with rock falls booming in the distance as the mountain continues to fall apart. Our view of Mt. Cook (one of the world’s most difficult climbs due to the crappy rock) is looming towards our east or is that west…I keep feeling turned around in the southern hemisphere. These are not the tallest but certainly the biggest mountains I have ever been in; and yes, I have been to parts of Alaska. The contrast from 24 hours earlier is most remarkable as we went from a temperate rain forest to a glaciated mountain.

This hut is an engineering feat and looks to be constructed to withstand winds much greater than hurricane force. Thick plates of steel reinforce everything and John explained that the hut above us was literally blown off the mountain several years ago with 4 people aboard for the flight to the valley far below.

There is an American college class (Adventure tourism) here along with several Israelis who have just finished their national service and must figure that being on the side of Mt. Cook beats patrolling the Gaza strip. Everyone is really great and the mountains break down all human barriers as well.

Been thinking a lot about my future plans and it is a tough call. I am not thrilled about being back in consulting but I like the company and the people, and I certainly appreciate have been given an opportunity to recover economically from my divorce. Building a home in Mt. Shasta is still intriguing but there are serious considerations as it is all about the trade-offs. I will likely stick with the plan to work for several years and then figure it out as this plan will buy me the most economic options.

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First impressions are often right but often they are only half of the story. As a result, we have an impression, albeit correct, that unfortunately closes us off to the rest of the person. The conversation got so bad in the hut that I almost suggested that we simply move on to get away from these guys. Many hours later as we all sat by candle light we witnessed all the posturing fade away as we discussed an array of subjects…we only then met the people sharing the hut with us. The older couple comes to NZ annually for 3 months to fish and travel on the cheap. They could have served as docents at any information center around the island as they love this county they call a second home. The young couple was equally nice and hailed from Jackson Hole Wyoming where he was a search and rescue coordinator and she recently sold a graphic design studio. How often do we never get past the rooster phase of a conversation?

One common question posed by people we meet from around the globe is the current political climate in the United States and how it impacts the world. The NZ airline steward summed it up best when she said unapologetically “What the hell is your King George thinking”. I do not know, but he says God is talking to him so I am scared as well. I voted for him the first time and now find my beloved country no longer holds its international prestige…only took a few short years to break something that took two centuries to build.

Warm and safe travels are spread around the next morning as we head towards the confluence of the Caples and the Greenstone River is where our car awaits.

I had NO idea sheep could jump as the Subaru helped the herder and the dogs move hundreds of wool creatures down the main route to Kinloch while we watched in awe as they leapt onto the hood, up the windshield, and across the roof of the rental car coming the other direction. Those hoofs had to do some serious damage to the car, and based on the look of the people inside I am guess some dirty Landry was created as well. At first we were maybe a bit concerned…and then, oh my god did we laugh.

Back at kinloch and an hour soak in the wooden hot tub before a, you guessed it, lamb stew dinner with Toni and her husband John. About half way through dinner we noticed that the tourist boat that brought guest over for dinner had lost its moorings and the John(s) went running to recover the craft. Toni and I had a good visit and it was obvious that her and Thunder had something special 20+ years ago while traveling in Morocco together. She is worried about him going to Alaska and wonders if he will ever settle down and find a long term partner. It is good to have people in your life who are also concerned about you. About the time the boat was secured, and dinner resumed, a staff member came to the house to report that a guest had locked themselves in the shower and was screaming for help (you cannot make this stuff up). By now everyone (less the teetotaler – me) was pretty lit and off they went for the second rescue mission of the night. Upon return the conversation naturally turned to what stupid things clientèle have done over the years….we laughed into the late evening.

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Grab a ruler boys

Howden hut to Mid-Caples

The well graded path gave way to something called a trail as we departed the tourist “milk run” and headed “back-country”. When we crossed our first really wet area I went up to my waist in a bog I figured would release me in a few thousand years….I would be known as Bog man II – who was he, what was he doing here, what did he eat, what are these odd tools he carries; I am certain the discovery channel would make it much more interesting than the truth – hiker trash got swallowed while tramping about. Not today as I managed to drag myself out only to climb a rock and root staircase in sweltering humidity while sweat poured off me as we headed from the lowlands to snow line. Without infrequent orange arrows attached to moss and lichen covered everything, getting lost was a real option. Once atop and above tree line I was drenched in a salty fluid and could not see as my glasses were steamed from the heat and perspiration. “Should probably put a jacket on”, John suggested. Are you flipping kidding me, I just lost 10 pounds in water climbing that hill. Within minutes my core temperature was plummeting as an icy wind swept across the highly exposed saddle. “You are not in California any longer- welcome to the land of absolute extremes that will kill you if you are not diligent”. Boy was he right as I shivered for the next hour.

We made it to Mid-Caples in just over 6 hours, and as I write this I am looking up a Fly-fishing magazine picture perfect valley where a freestone river flows. We are sharing the hut with mostly Americans who arrived via a short hike up from the car park. They are a nice group but I can see why what we as Americans call “self confidence” is interpreted differently as “arrogance” by others; loud, self assured, cocky about all of their “accomplishments”. I say we as I see myself in them and am embarrassed when I realize I often behave the exact same way. This is particularly striking in NZ, where I have noted that “understatement” is the national norm and is the trait that is most respected. While American men are quick to compare and then grossly embellish everything from how big the mountains they have climbed to the size of their dicks, New Zealanders are as a rule content with drawing their self worth internally rather than seeking the praise of others.

Thought about Liz a good bit over the miles – walking will do that; mostly good thoughts about good times. However, I do feel that she did betray our vows of marriage and that is a difficult thing to let go. And yet it is odd because I really like not being married and have realized that during our marriage I liked the idea of being married more than being married itself. So, that begs the question – Was she the only one who betrayed vows? Another thing I have noticed is there are a LOT of beautiful and interesting women in the world. I truthfully never really noticed that before – because I was married I guess. But now I am not, and you know what – that is a fact I am pretty happy about.

The two fly-fishing guys are comparing their fishing prowess which is really funny to the point of obscene. I have caught some fish, and a lot of them have been on fly rods, but these guys do not know that and I am keeping quiet about it. As a result the tales are beyond fish stories and I am certain that these guys are going to pull out a ruler anytime now and measure their manhood.

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Sound to fiord

Howden to Milford Sound

Around 2am it sounded like a fire hose was directed on the roof of our hut. The low pressure in the Tasman Sea had arrived and with it the rain and more rain. I figured the next 24 hours would be spent at Howden as the prospect of tramping through a deluge producing an inch of rain an hour did not sound particularly rewarding. Besides we had a full extra day built into our schedule – who cares, and I am sure we can borrow a bible to read if we get bored At 7am we were clouded in heavy but the rain had stopped – let’s give it an hour then decide. 8am and we were walking toward the car park (parking lot) outside of Milford Sound with a plan to hitch a ride, and catch a boat out into the eighth wonder of the world. After that we had no clue or plan. At the park we saw a ray of sun and hoped the low had passed. We walked to the “wrong side” of the road just as a miniature Suzuki rental car approach and quickly pulled over to our outstretched thumbs. Out stepped a very attractive women and another older woman who appeared to be our benefactor’s mother. With some rearranging, and our packs on our laps we squeezed into the car and headed to Milford as we tried to communicate in a New Zealand, American, Italian language sort of way. Two female Italian tourist pick up two male hikers; ok maybe questionable but it certainly helps continue my affirming that there is a lot of good in the world. As the clouds gave way, sheer cliffs appeared with hundreds of rain induced falls cascading to the roaring rivers below.

We had lunch at the café and booked passage on the smallest (75 people) boat in the Sound. We are presently in the terminal as the tour buses pour in from Queenstown with their very well “kept” clientele. We on the other hand had our 3 days on the trail look going – complete with muddy clothes, unshaven faces, and hiker stench. I could not help but feel a little bit superior or self righteous knowing we got her on foot and through the kindness of others.

Yesterday we met a 30 something at the McKenzie hut. She was out front of her friends and joined us for lunch. The conversation turned towards travel and her somewhat boastful tone turned into something less when most of her “plan to go” destinations were met with John’s seriously humble….you should, it was very nice when I was there response. But the funniest line was when she described a great romantic book she was reading and she was just gushing about it when she saw my book lying next to my pack and asked what I was reading. I was really embarrassed now because this nice and cute women was trying so hard to fit in (I know, I do this a lot myself and could see me in her) that I did not want to tell her what I was faking reading. Anyway, I simply turned the book over and she saw that I was carrying a book by the Dali Lama and she literally burst out saying “oh my god, I feel so shallow”. It was simply perfect; we all laughed as once again the trail served as a great equalizer in helping us we realize that all the posturing was not necessary and only distracts from getting to really know people. John said later that he did not have the heart to tell her how disappointed I had been in the spiritual leader of Buddhism’s book because it did not have pictures or more importantly no pages to color by the numbers.

I have never seen the other seven wonders of the world but Milford Sound is a nearly beyond description. Over a thousand waterfalls – bottle nose dolphins –sheer cliffs – fern gardens – – – The boat pulled under a huge fall and we filled glasses of rain water and toasted the Sound which is actually a fiord (carved by a glacier whereas a Sound is carved by a river).

Stepping off the boat we said our farewells to some nice people John had met from San Diego California earlier in our 3 hour tour. Fifteen minutes later as we had our thumbs out in an attempt to get back to the trail when we saw a rental motor home heading our way. No luck with these types as they are typically American tourist and they never give anyone, particularly not tramps, a ride as they are all paranoid. The motor home stops and our boat mates from before offer a lift in their land ship. John moved up front and chatted with mom and dad and I sat in the back with the most wonderful 6th grader. We shared stories about our adventures had and adventures planned and our ride became too short as we said good bye again and headed back into the mist towards the hut. We took a detour to check out a nature hike above tree line (3000 ft, welcome to the southern hemisphere) where a remarkable flora exists in a harsh but very very wet landscape.

From plants to geopolitics, we had a great evening in Howden hut discussing the losing of one’s job as a result of a mega merger; German couple’s company was purchased by Lucent Technologies and they were enjoying their severance pay in NZ. Completely versed in U.S. economic, domestic and foreign policy, I was again humbled by the depth of knowledge of the travelers I am meeting, and I was stuck regarding how narrow, my own included, Americans’ world views are. When you are sitting in a back country hut in NZ and a way beautiful German woman is explaining to you in great detail and in perfect English how the U.S. sub-prime market is impacting global markets – you notice and tell yourself to read more.

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Land of Hobbits

Routeburn falls to Howden

Welcome to the land of hobbits. As we ascend towards the gap in the mountain the weather was bright and sunny but we saw cotton clouds wisping through from the other side. As we crossed to the west we entered a new world of heavy fog and an amazing maritime temperate rain forest where Tolken’s fantasies are easily imagined. Below McKenzie hut we came upon a ~500ft water fall that cascaded down a fern wall, wow.

Upon arrival at the hut we found a group of 20-somethings, each quietly reading with hardly an acknowledgment that we walked in….maybe even a frown. After 30 minutes, the quiet reading hour was apparently over and the group went from completely engrossed in the gospels to running around the hut with much laughter and fanfare as they shot videos of each other, and planned a scavenger hunt in anticipation of the pending rain; the contrast was as striking as the landscape.

We may drop into Milford Sound, which is described as one of the natural wonders of the world, tomorrow for a Nero and a boat trip into the sound. It rains so much hear that the top several feet of water in the Tasman Sea are reported as being fresh water. This was hard to believe until John reflected on a past trip on the Routeburn where t rained 24 inches in 24 hours; yes 2 feet of rain. When I was stationed on Guam I saw rain like that….we called it Guaming….impressive.

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Kinloch to Routeburn Falls hut

The log book at the hut had entries from a dozen or more countries in the last two days and this evening we are sharing the back country shelters with languages from around the globe. We are trekking one of the most famous routes on the south island and we had an easy hike while accending up nearly 2000 vertical feet. Because of vastly varying terrain and the time required to cross these mountains based on skill and fitness, distances are provided but time estimates are also provided. Once you calibrate after a few sections you quickly learn what time group you are in and the time estimates are remarkable accurate. We are about 30% faster than the fastest times given and completed our first leg in about 3 hours. Not that we are rushing….we simply still hike like PCT thru-hikers.

Hut is an understatement as this is a sleeping (divided into bunk cubes) shelter built on the side of a mountain. Complete with flush toilets, propane burners, and a wood burning stove, we are certainly not roughing it by our hiker trash standards. The scenery is truly amazing with nearly vertical mountains holding glaciers above us. The forest is lush and looks like Washington’s North Cascades except the fir trees are replaced with the indigenous beech trees. The weather is remarkable with perfect blue skies that are only possible on an island at deep southern latitudes. The water flows all around us and is uber clear with a slight turquoise color; no water treatments needed – stop and drink your fill at will.

A major low pressure is predicted and we will likely see some serious weather before we finish our loop back to Kinloch in 4 days time, but for now we are enjoying paradise while protecting ourselves for the ultra violet rays that are largely unfiltered due to the ozone hole over the entire southern pole region; yes we are very far south.

Toni (our host at Kinloch) and her husband invited us over for a tea or wine the night before we left. I opted for the tea but a lot of wine was flowing. We had a grand time as old friends caught up on lives and new friends were quickly made. At one point in the evening Toni asked very bluntly: “So why are you divorced Robert”. I looked at John and we unceremoniously and with completely straight faces explained how I hiked the PCT and recognized what a wonderful, supportive, and generally great wife I had (all still true by the way). John then commented that he had identified our relationship as having “solid” fundamentals. John then explained that after returning home I learned that my wife was in involved with……the police, actually “involved” with a police…..actually a police women. Toni looked at me with deadpan shock and then looked a John who was nodding his head yes – I simple shrugged my shoulder and said “how does a guy compete with that” – Laughter broke out across the room and we all agreed that shit really does happen in life and this is what makes it so damn interesting. It got even funnier when I admitted that this was the second time “this” had happened to me. This conversation was a far cry from throwing up when I first learned that my wife of 16 years wanted a divorce.

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