Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pounamu, planes, fundamentalists, and more planes.

Covering february 25th to march 6th

Wednesday, the day after my Glacier walk, the germans gave me a ride up to Hokitika. We stopped on the way to see the Franz Joseph glacier, and after letting me off they drove further north to Greymouth. By then I'd somehow had enough of their company, and I think it was mutual. Unfortunately, I forgot a merino shirt and my knife in their car. They left it for me in a hostel on the north island. I hope I won't miss it too much before then.

Homesickness kicks in easily when feeling down, and ever since the glacier walk I'd been slightly depressed. The hostel was practically empty, so it was hard to think of something else. I felt like doing nothing, but luckily I didn't follow that impulse.

I came to Hokitika for one purpose: Pounamu caving (pounamu is NZ Jade, or greenstone). Pounamu has been sacred to the Maori for centuries, and I liked the idea of carving my own piece instead of buying some off-the-shelf pendant just to show I've been travelling. The owner of the shop turned out to be a very amiable, pleasant, and very patient guy from the Solomon Islands.
I started out designing my piece. I had no clear idea of what I wanted, but after browsing through some pictures for inspiration, I settled on designing a variation of the traditional Hei Matau, or fishhook.
The owner, Steve, was very impressed with my design, and during the carving process, whenever he had me refer to it, he exclaimed "That's good! I like this!" with great joy. It took me two days and upwards of 13 work hours to complete my Taonga, and what I now wear around my neck has so much the greater meaning to me because of the effort and love I put into it. I designed it, carved it and polished it. I broke seven drills, and Steve broke two while helping me out with the holes.

The results of the first day's work:

Steve is showing me a new technique

The finished pendant

Friday afternoon, after finishing my piece, I headed for Christchurch again. I'd thought about staying the night in Arthur's Pass, but after consulting my Lonely Planet guidebook I shortened my stay to a 15 minute one.

On the way to christchurch, we passed the Castle Hills. Man, Andreas is gonna kill me for not climbing these!

Once in Christchurch, I hooked up with Mike Hodgkinson again and stayed in town for a couple of days.
It was a weird sense of homecoming, since Christchurch was the first familiar sight I'd seen in six weeks. Would Christchurch recognize me?
As it happened, Sarah, of Invercargill and Queenstown fame, happened to be in Christchurch, and we went to see the Banks Peninsula, visit a museum dedicated to Ernest Rutherford, and on a spur decided to go see the RNZAF museum.
I've always been crazy about warplanes, and finding myself in a hall filled with old fighter planes, including two of my favourite beauties, made me completely unable to contain my glee!

Glad I brought my sunglasses!

I had a geek-gasm right there. The P-51D Mustang in all it's glory

I had a big beautiful model of this one when I was a kid

If I was in world war two they'd call me Spitfire!

- Sarah, can I drive back to Christchurch?
- sure, why?
- I gotta pilot something right now!

Sarah headed back home that evening, and I went to a couchsurfer event at a restaurant in Christchurch. It was very interesting to see how tight a community couchsurfing really is.

My lift out of Christchurch is worth a rant. It was a two hour drive to Kaikoura, and from our conversation I quickly gathered that he was a religious man.
About one hour into the drive darkness settled and he seemed to gather his nerve and ask me what'd apparantly been on his mind all the time. "Have anyone ever told you of the light of Jesus Christ?" I felt a paralyzing panic run through my body. Fuck, He's about to start preaching. Get me out! Turns out he was a fundamentalist creationist. One of those people who not only doesn't believe in what they called "the religion of science", but believes it is the work of Satan meant to distort our view of "god's truth". He felt it his mission to try and convert me, and his arguments were the most ridiculous ones I've ever heard. I've read about these people, but meeting one made me realize how mind-numbingly stupid and narrow-minded they really are. He tried to point to obscure "holes" in science (evolution in particular, and the fact that the earth was older than the 6-7000 years stated in the bible), and whenever I countered them (which I managed quite well considering my panicked state) he changed the subject into something even more obscure until he found something I didn't know enough about. When I told him that evolution is not a theory but an observed fact, he replied with "well, have you seen it?" How do you argue with a guy like that!
He ended up being plain rude. I'm very hard to insult, but his comments about how he felt sorry that I was so ignorant and "taking other people's lies for fact" managed it. 'Look who's talking' I thought, but I didn't say it. I was more than offended. I was angry. For some reason I didn't stop him or ask to be set off. I felt I had to be polite since he'd given me the ride, however obnoxious he might be. The next day I was still angry, and I decided that if someone insults me like that again I'll ask to be set off immediately. Darkness or no.
It made me realize that I'm too polite. I'm letting people step on me without complaint and I've had enough of that. It's fine if someone doesn't agree with me, but I won't take the kind of disrespect he was pouring on me. Never again.

Wednesday dawned as blue as can be, and I went and did what I came to Kaikoura to do. Fulfilling a childhood dream:

I! Flew! An! Airplane!
With an instructor by my side, I:
- took off from the ground
- flew the plane for the better part of an hour
- made the approach between mountains
- landed the plane
- taxied to parking

I did it, and it was easy as!
(note, Easy As is kiwi slang meaning very easy)

Remember what I said about hitchhiking in the video? I was proven wrong trying to hitch to Nelson. Every single pick-up that day took more than an hour to land.

Arriving in Nelson, I had a real hard time finding a hostel, and seriously considered sleeping in the park. I opted out of it though, as I didn't want to attempt it in the middle of the city. I was surprised at how calm I was. Surely a night with no place to sleep should be a panick-inducing prospect! Soon, I found the reason for my calm. It was rooted in a certain october night in Scotland about 8 years ago.
I was hitch-hiking through Europe on my own, and back then my 16-year old mind thought it would be cool to do something so uncomfortable that I'd always be able to say that 'I've had worse'. This quest culminated with me trying to sleep outside a gas-station in the middle of nowhere. It was october, it was the highlands, it was cold as hell, somehow the bugs weren't dead yet, I was hungry, and occasional drips from above made it miserable. It took me three hours to realize the stupidity of what I was doing, and ever since I've looked back on that night with a shudder of embarassment. That night in Nelson, however, it all made sense. I was so calm about it because, no matter what the night would bring, I'd survived worse! The night in Scotland ended with a scottish family taking me in , and the night in Nelson ended with me stumbling upon a backpackers with beds available.

The One Ring used in the movies was made in Nelson. By a guy from Denmark no less. His shop is now run by his son, as Jens Hansen himself passed away. I put it on, but resisted the urge for plunder and genocide. The ring has no power over me.

This whopper was used for special effects shots and closeups of the ring.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fox pictures

Yesterday, my blogging was cut short due to internet problems and I couldn't put up the pictures of Fox Glacier. This has now been remedied as more pictures have been added to my last post.

On canyoning, skydiving, puzzles, kayaking, car-sickness and glaciers

Covering february 18th to february 24th

a full day of canyoning condensed into 1:20 for your viewing pleasure. The green (again, unbearably sexy) helmet is perched precariously on the presomtuous pumpkin of yours truly (i.e. green = me)

The next morning I had a first-hand experience of how rude kiwis can be as one of them pushed me out of a perfectly good airplane. I was horrified to find that I wasn't wearing a parachute! Fortunately, the guy strapped to my back had brought his and it was big enough for two so we shared his. I gotta learn to remember these things.

That evening I went to the lake with three aussies, a guitar, and a bottle of whisky. All of them good company.

The next morning it was raining. There were four of us in the car. A german guy, a german girl, a danish girl, and a danish me. All of us strangers. We'd set out on a spontaneous Lord of the Rings location hunt. The german girl had a car, the german guy had a LotR guidebook, I had binoculars, and Linda (the danish girl) had the idea. We were foiled by the weather, but a good time is defined by the company and the attitude, not the circumstances. We had a very good time.

Also, Linda taught me some Salsa. Fun!

The forecast said heavy rains for the entire weekend so I chose to hole up in wanaka, waiting for the weather to clear. A full day glacier walk didn't seem very appealing in pouring rain, and I didn't want to wait it out in Fox Glacier township as there's nothing to do there. This meant I had another couple of days to kill in Wanaka.

If you ever go to Wanaka, you HAVE to check out their cinema. I've never been in one like it. I don't think it even matters what movie is showing, it's just the whole experience! Everybody was sitting in sofas or comfy chairs, and one (un?)lucky couple got to sit in an old car. The film for the night was 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'. Nice movie, and Brad Pitt is always awesome.
Anyways. Before the movie started i'd ordered a Pizza, and by the half-way break a table had been made ready for me in the foyer with one steaming pizza waiting for me. Awesome!

Puzzleworld is also quite something. It's not that big, but it has some quite impressive illusions and the maze itself will keep you occupied for an hour at least (unless you're as skilled as me and Linda, in which case you'll zip through it in 45 minutes ;) ). I didn't have my camera since it was a very spontaneous thing, so these were taken with my phone.

Linda is not very tall

Or is she?

When I went kayaking on Wanaka lake I forgot my camera again. Sorry. Pictures wouldn't have done it justice anyway though, as the weather wasn't too good. The trip however, was awesome and completely spontaneous! I was paddling with a californian bloke, and in another kayak were two german girls (Christiane and Nadine). We sailed out to a little island (Ruby island I think) and went for a walk.

Monday, the forecast said the weather would be clearing. Nadine and Christiane was going to Fox Glacier too and offered me a lift in their tiny little car. Wonderful! Christiane was driving. Horrible! I never get carsick, but she made me feel queazy.

The road up the west coast was one I'd really been looking forward to, and sitting cramped on the backseat of a car with no view wasn't exactly the great motorcycle adventure I'd been dreaming of. To top it off, I slept most of the way to stave off the car-sickness. They thought I was suffering from sleeping sickness. I was too polite to tell them that it stemmed from survival instinct. I miss being on a bike. I checked the used bike market again, but to no avail.

Arriving at Fox, I had no reservations for a backpackers place or the glacier walk. Backpackers went ok, but the glacier walk was fully booked. I was gutted. I was already behind schedule, and didn't feel like wasting any more time in Fox.
The town of fox is beautiful and nestled in rainforest, but I found it hard to enjoy, being worried about spending too much time here. I only had two weeks left before the north island, if I were to stick to my plan. Then it struck me that the only person telling me to stick to my plan was me, and if I wanted to change it I could. This made me relax a bit.
After one night of worrying, I got up early and went to see if there'd been any cancellaions on the day trip. there had! It's funny how my worries seem to vaporize the closer I get to them.

The backpackers here in Fox is covered with those cheasy motivational posters. They're tacky, but this one caught my eye:
What we hope to do with ease, we must first do with hard work and perseverance.

This area is called the Gunbarrels. Notice the huge boulder in the foreground. Just five days earlier it'd come thundering down all the way from the top of that mountain!

I smirk in the face of danger!

I was quite inept at using that pick, and almost took off my foot. Looks good in pictures though.

Ice caves rock!

The Fox Glacier, together with the Milford Sound, is some of the most stunning scenery I've ever known. It's nestled in a valley with rainforest covering both sides, and it's a very weird feeling walking through rainforest to get to a glacier! Standing on the ice, you can see down the entire valley, see the hills in the distance, and behind them, a vast and sparkling sea. Once again, I was overcome by a sense of immense wonder at the natural forces at work in this place. This entire valley had been carved by a grinding river of ice, and I was witnessing its slow but deliberate push towards the ocean. Soon, this sense of wonder grew in scope and once again I found myself marvelling at the planet we're on. Just like on the Kepler track, I realized how insignificant we are in the greater scheme of things. Nothing we can do can stop this planet, or even stop life. We can kill ourselves, easy! And we can take other species with us, but wipe out the planet? All life on it? That is only a boast we do to seem important to ourselves.

Some people think that scientific explanations takes away the beauty of things. Somehow they think that, if they know too much about something they'll be unable to appreciate it. I find the opposite to be true. The glacier itself is beautiful to the eye, nothing can ever take that away, but knowing about the processes going on hundreds of meters below me, imagining the sheer weight required for the glacier generate enough pressure to grind the mountain into a pulp, seeing it all happen in my minds eye. Suddenly the beauty goes much further than the eye.

Carl Sagan said something humbling while pondering this picture of earth, taken by Voyager 1 in 1990.
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Puts it all in perspective doesn't it?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

All Roads Lead to Queenstown

Covering february 9th to february 17th

After the Kepler track I took a day off to rest my feet and get my bearings. I didn't want to sit idle for too long as I felt I was behind schedule, so I booked a kayaking trip on the Milford Sound for the next day. I figured it would be a good way to be active and still be able to rest my legs. I was a bit concerned about the weather as it'd been quite bad all day. The weather in the Fjordlands is very temperamental however, and the next day was as beautiful as anyone could've hoped.

I was in a double kayak with Tiphaine, or San, as she prefers. San is french. Very french. Passing a waterfall on the way to Milford, everyone went "ooh, ooh!" and pulled out their cameras, except San, who nonchalantly took the cigarette from her mouth and exclaimed "Iz o.k."
She dresses like a pirate, a very beautiful pirate mind you, and she is great fun being around and a marvel to study. Fortunately she has a great sense of humour and doesn't take herself too seriously. We coordinated our double-kayak very well, but then again, that's what you'd expect from two people whose names mean stuff like "Divine Apparition" and "Beauty of God" isn't it? ;)

The kayaking was amazing and generally very relaxing. Unlike the cruise boats, we got right up to the cliffs and we were only meters from the NZ fur-seals resting there. The waterfalls were magnificent too, and we got as the kayaks could go.

The road from Te Anau to Milford is studded with a plethora of sights which were as varied as they were beautiful.

The next day San and I went horseback riding. It was ok, but honestly I was a bit disappointed that we didn't get to gallop. I understand the safety issues, but what's the fun in trotting? Besides, galloping is far easier. And we wore helmets.

Fuck yeah. Helmets!

That same afternoon I hitch-hiked for the first time in NZ. Hitch-hiking is extremely easy in New Zealand. Anywhere I stood, I didn't wait for more than 20 minutes for a ride.

That evening as I left the hostel I'd chosen, the town revealed its true identity to me. I was standing on a hillside with mountains on three sides. Beyond the town in front of me, I could see jetboats zipping around cruise-ships and steam-boats on the lake. Above me, hang-gliders were looping and the screams of para-gliders reached me even as I stood wondering at their madness. Before my feet lay the thundering adventure metropolis of the world, Queenstown. She had something to offer!

It's hard to describe what Queenstown feels like. It reminds me of Don Rosa's rendition of Klondike at the height of the gold rush days in his "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck". There's a fortune being made here for the people running the adventure businesses, and a fortune to be spent by everybody else. The key to my backpacker's room had the allure of 2 for 1 prices at two different bars in town, which resulted in five consecutive nights of drinking. Every bar has a theme for each night of the week, and thursday was Wet T-shirt contest at the Buffalo. Madness I tell you. Madness!

My infamous and insatiable hunger eventually led me to Fergburger, which just so happens to have the best burgers I've ever tasted. Whoever thought of making a burger of such quality and then put bacon and blue-cheese in it surely deserves the nobel prize! (note: said burger goes well with a pinot noir.) This town could easily make me a very poor man!

I decided to go for some adrenaline, and I thought about doing the Shotover Canyon Swing . In a flurry of quick decisions I ended up booking it for that afternoon and fear started churning in my stomach right away. Fortunately, I'm fairly well versed in that particular anticipatory kind of fear, and I was able to put it out of my head for most of the day. Remember what I said about worrying? I'd made a decision.
Of course. I am not as perfect as I sometimes lead myself to believe, and a tingling sense of panic had me itching all day, whether I cared to admit it or not. I showed up at the meeting point way too early and found it very hard to speak. The team I was going with had around ten people, and my fears that I was the only nervous one were quickly abolished as I looked around the bus. Someone piped up, asking the driver what it was like. "Oh, I haven't tried it. No way! I've seen what happens to those people!" He was joking of course. The bastard.

They led us up a narrow dirt track and after around 300 meters we came to the all-too-shabby looking building we'd be jumping from. Looking down that valley, it hit me what I was doing.

I have a motto: It's okay to be scared, as long as I do it anyway.

Me: There's no way I'm doing this!
Jumpmaster: okay, cool. If you just put on this harness.
I put on the harness.
M: There's no way I'm doing this!
JM: What's your name?
M: Jophiel
JM: Hello Garfield. Is there any physical handicaps we should be aware of?
M: I'm from Denmark
JM: Well, apart from the obvious ones I meant. Just walk this way. Look, this is where you'll be jumping.
What! the! hell! am! I! doing!
JM: We'll just check if your harness is secure. Wait is this supposed to be loose?
Assistant: I don't know, it'll probably be alright. This looks wrong though. Nevermind, just let him do it.
They mess with your mind like that. They are not good people.
M: There's no way I'm doing this!
JM: Do you see the camera? Give it a smile.
I made the weakest attempt at a smile ever.

I knew how to do this. All I had to do was to wait for that milisecond where my mind wasn't thinking about where I was, jump, and worry about the rest on the way down. I found it, I jumped, I panicked.
But I knew immediately that this was the best, most intense thing I'd ever done! I did two jumps in all, the second one hanging upside down.

That evening Sarah (from Invercargill) came to Queenstown, and the next day I took her to paradise. Paradise, however, turned out to be overrated. Far too many sandflies. The road there was gorgeous, but fairly tough, and offroading in a Nissan Bluebird is a death-defying act.

This afternoon I arrived in Wanaka. Wanaka has much the same offering of adrenaline pumping activities, but it's a smaller, quieter town, and a welcome contrast to the kind of "hyper-life" I lived in Queenstown. Despite this, I've already booked a full-day canyoning trip for tomorrow, and a voluntary ejection from an airplane in flight for the day after. Awesome!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Kepler Track

Covering february 6th to february 8th

I appologize in advance for the sappiness of this post.

A part of myself was lost on that mountain.

Part of me left and now lives somewhere on the slopes of Mt Luxmore. I saw it today, from Te Anau. It was making rainbows.

What am I talking about? I'm talking about my hike on the Kepler track. I did a huge amount of video blogging, which I edited down to these three. Notice how cocky I am to begin with? It didn't last long...

And I know the hat is stupid, but it was all I had!

According to my Lord of the Rings location guide, this river was used as part of the Anduin.

As I was hiking, I was painfully aware that other people did this track easily. It was never meant to be a test of stamina for me, and I felt like an amateur for being so exhausted. As the trail wound along however, I stopped comparing myself to others and just took it as an opportunity to show myself what I was really capable of. That I was capable of stretching myself out beyond what I previously found possible. Who cares what others can do - this is about what I can do! In that light, the hike was a tremendous success.

The first victory: Reaching the ridge!

A sleepy Kea

At some point after the second day's first shelter along the ridge, I sat down against a mound and laid back on my pack. I closed my eyes as a heavy drowsiness took me, but was awoken from half-sleep as I heard voices approaching. I thought it odd since I'd expected to be the last one on the track. I opened my eyes and found that I was all alone. Trick of the brain I though, and closed them again. I drifted off again, and again I heard them, this time accommpanied by approaching footsteps. As I drifted back to consciousness I thought I saw human shapes, but as I came fully awake I realized that, as before, there was no-one there. Was it ghosts I had seen? Or maybe the spirits of the mountain? I rested a while longer and then set off again.

As I arrived at the second shelter, I saw a hiker coming towards me in the opposite direction. I waited for him at the shelter, and of all people it turned out to be Matthis, a french guy I'd met on two previous occasions. He (like all other french people) turned out to be crazy. Obviously, we make good companions. He'd chosen to do the track in two days, doing the first two parts in one go. On top of that, all he had was his jeans, shirt and hoodie, a tent, a fairly light backpack, and a pair of 30$ sneakers. We shared a rest at the shelter, and then set off again in opposite directions.

About an hour after ascending Mt Luxmore peak, I crossed a small stream. i sat down by it, marvelling at the changes of mood I'd gone through since starting the hike. Physically, I was completely smashed. Mentally and emotionally however, I found myself in a strange, empty, comfortable and calm state. It was as if a part of me had torn itself free. The part that focuses on problems and worries about everything it can think of. I was left feeling completely at peace, and completely accepting of my place. I was right here. Right now. And loving it!

- 'I feel at home here' he said. He that had torn away from me. He was now sitting beside me at the stream.
- 'I think I'll stay, if you don't mind' he added. He felt so incredibly far removed from me that I found it hard to believe that we'd been one and the same just moments earlier.
- 'I don't mind one bit', I answered, happy to see him content.
He smiled and looked around, taking in the landscape.
- 'I don't suppose we'll ever see each other again.' he said, sharing my relief.
- 'I suppose not'
We sat there for a while. Waiting. Enjoying our last moments together. At last I got up. I picked up my pack and adjusted the straps.
- 'goodbye'
I said, smiling a half-sad smile. He didn't answer, but smiled as he splashed his feet in the cold water of the stream. I turned my back and started out on the day's last stretch. I never looked back.

On the last little slope before the hut, I heard the voices again. I turned around and stood listening intently in silence. I thought I heard footsteps, but as I waited no-one came. I know that it was most likely one of a hundred perfectly reasonable explanations, but still I like to think that there was someone there with me looking after me. Spirits? Who knows!

That night I went caving in a tight cavesystem close to the Luxmore hut. I went with an aussie called Luke. The caves extended quite far, and we must have gone on for maybe a kilometer or so. In some places we had to squeeze through sideways, in others, we were on our hands and knees crawling through shallow water, and in still others we'd be climbing over huge boulders, dropping feet first into the unknown blackness.

this is Luke, my impromptu caving buddy.

My first aid kit:

Relieving sore feet: