Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Life of luxury, or attack of the killer bees?

                                      Mom's jet-lag day

Mom made it to NZ no problem. We took it easy the first few days for Nancy's jet lag, and because the holidays made it impossible to do much of anything. We had fun playing frisbee on the beach at Rabbit Island near Nelson,

                      Why not fly all the way to NZ to play frisbee?

and were able to go wine tasting despite the weird alcohol rules. Apparently, the wine lobby convinced the NZ government to give wineries a break - I suppose for tourism and marketing purposes though it seems everyone we spoke with disagreed on the rules(though some had the explicit rules written on their sales license). One can only hope they will extend this to craft breweries in the near future. A trip into the village of Mapua ended up being the main local's Easter attraction, with a huge fair and market(you can't really have a proper fair when alcohol sales are prohibited now can you? What do the drunken cowboys do when they're not allowed to drink?). There were throngs of people, but plenty of free parking in a sheep paddock. At the waterfront, we were able to introduce Mom to our Welsh friends Sian and Rob, so now we have proof they are not just our imaginary friends! We buggered off as they were having lunch, and Mom would never be able to keep up with our debauchery. We did learn how badly Grant and I screwed up not picking grapes. The wine employers fed them lunch and dinner, all the wine they could drink, and gave them plenty of breaks. It sounded more like a party than anything, and when it was all said and done, they made $300NZD for 12 hours work over two days. That was for two, in US dollars that works out to about $12 and hour plus perks. Oh well, it will still be harvest season when we get to Hawke's bay in a few days, so we may have our chance!

With the holidays mostly wrapped up, we headed to Abel Tasman.

                          Start of Abel Tasman track

It was a glorious few sunny days, and the hikes we did were delightful. The first afternoon we walked a short ways up from the head of the track to a small beach.

The next day we took a boat ride the length of Abel Tasman National Park, then back to Bark Bay where we walked about 7 or 8 km south to Torrent Bay for our boat pick up. (Some of the walks have a great service where you can catch a water taxi to different parts of the walks, walk a section or two, and be picked up. This adds great versatility to your schedule in that you can do one short afternoon hike, or a one or two day walk and still have access to transportation so that you don't have to commit to the entire walk if your schedule doesn't fit the time required to complete it. We'll let the pictures speak for themselves, but for Grant and I, it was the flattest trail we have been on in NZ and still provided rewarding views.

           Mom's dream to walk across a swing bridge comes true!

As we had goals of making it to Kaikora down the East Coast, we decided to skip Golden Bay, and head Southeast to Picton and the Marlborough Sounds. The drive from Havelock to Picton was a pretty, winding road, but a little long. When I say winding road I mean narrow and about 35 kph average speed - we spent a lot of time in second gear and a lot of time in the pullouts letting others pass the slow tourons. We still had time to sign up for a boat cruise and walk on the Queen Charlotte Track. This four or five day tramp is awesome. Get this, they transport your pack for you from campsite to campsite, so even if you're tenting it instead of staying in a luxury lodge, all you have to carry for four days is your daypack!

Our captain was really nice. I wandered over and asked him which island we were passing, and his reply was "It's ok, women aren't very good with maps". I started laughing my arse off, and had to tell him what I do for living (professional navigator for those who don't know yet) and that turned into some pretty good conversation. Grant and I were dropped off at the start of the track, Ship Cove, where Captain Cook spent a lot of his time. (Apparently the Marlborough Sound was one of his favorite NZ areas, and he used the spot to beach his vessel and clean the bottom and do out-of-the-water maintenance and other chores such as astronomical observations and botany.)

                          Captain Cook's real cannon.  Fire in the hole!

Mom was dropped off further down the track, and our plan was to overtake her and finish the walk to Furneaux Lodge together. That is what we did, and everything was fine until about ½ hour after we met up with Mom.

                         Did someone leave their headlights on?

Right, so first off, thank god my mom is a doctor! She is allergic to bees and wasps to the point of anaphylactic shock (meaning the hives get so bad she can't breath), so carries an epipen with her, most of the time. Luckily we remembered it, because a few minutes after she switched to her sandals, a wasp flew right between her toes and stung her. It didn't take long for us to realize what had happened as Mom was swearing like a sailor, but Grant and I were useless. We did manage to get the epipen out of her backpack, but then Grant nearly passed out (he has a hard time with needles), and all I could do was read the instructions over and over again out loud. Mom finally grabbed the needle from me, dropped her drawers, and jammed the damn thing into her thigh herself! Boy is she tough. Next time I'll know what to do for sure. After her ordeal, she still had to hike an hour to our pick-up point with a throbbing foot. Luckily for us, the adrenaline made her really pick up the pace, though the boat wasn't leaving early anyway. So we all had a round at the lodge and tried to laugh off Mom's near death experience.

We were able to get another epipen from the pharmacy without a prescription, so I would highly recommend buying one while in NZ if you think you are remotely susceptible to major bee reactions and go on any hikes longer than an hour or two outside a hospital. It is easy to use. You take a cap off, and jam a dull point into your thigh, then some mechanism spits out the needle and injects the epinephrine for you. It's idiot proof (well, ahem, you know what I mean).

Kaikora was next on our list, and was definitely a highlight of our trip, and hopefully Mom's too. On the way there, we stopped at a view point with hundreds of seals. They stink! All that fish or something.

We got to stay in an ultra-luxurious waterfront hotel with a heated towel rack and spa, then we got to go on a cool boat tour to see albatross, and other seabirds. Albatross are a major part of seagoing folklore, and they are huge! We saw other seabirds too. The albatross have something like a 3 meter wingspan. It's hard to show their size in the pictures, but trust us.

They have to basically fold their wings up twice when they tuck them in. Really cool. We also got to see tons of dolphins, but no whales.

We skipped the whale tour as we are a little jaded from our profession and coming from the Puget Sound, but that was for the best as all whale tours were cancelled due to fog anyway. So we lucked out and got to see all there was to see and more choosing the bird tour instead of the dolphin or whale tour. The hike around Kaikora peninsula was really nice too, though the fog didn't allow for many views aside from the beach. Nice rocky beaches though!

                   Kaikora Peninsula walk.  We hiked down here too!

Mom's trip was coming to an end, so we drove her to Nelson the night before, took her on one more death march up to "the center of New Zealand", then packaged her up in one piece for her long ride home. Luckily, she will arrive before she left, so should be in pretty good shape. I hope you had fun mom, we sure did.

So, we're off to the North Island to play with some volcanoes. With less than four weeks to go, one in which we must sell the van, I am getting nervous I don't have enough time to see everything!


Friday, April 10, 2009

"Good" Friday


As I sit here and type, I have a fantastic view of the Tasman Bay with beach access at my fingertips, or maybe it's the tips of my toes. The sun is going to set in a few hours, and my beer is cold and often, like my men (man, and cold anyway)? Though I'm enjoying myself immensely, this "Good" Friday is anything but what you might think of as a good Friday.

First of all, it's the start of the Easter Holiday in New Zealand, which appears to be taken more seriously than Christmas. Strange since according to our guide book, almost 40% of the population claim no religious affiliation and 6% objected to being asked what their religion was. On Good Friday, and the following Easter Sunday, one cannot purchase alcohol of any type in the stores or bars. If you eat out, however, you can purchase an adult beverage if bought in conjunction with food. We learned that the seedier places will stretch the rules, and allow you to drink a beer while perusing the menu with the intentions of eating, then shrug their shoulders if you decide the menu is shite, and don't order food. This isn't really a problem, as Grant and I, though fond of carbonated malted drinks, do not often indulge without food anyway. But it did catch us off guard. ( Luckily we learned our lesson way back at the "bar" near Mt. Cook that didn't serve beer at all. Since that disastrous event we have strived to keep at least a case of "emergency rations" on hand, as well as a few "extra emergency" bottles of sobriety wine.) The other days this rule is in effect are from 7am to noon on ANZAC(Australia New Zealand and Canada referring to the WWI fighting forces) Day and maybe Christmas Day, though the bartender informed us that on Christmas Eve it's nearly impossible to get the parents to go home to play Santa Claus. Along with the odd drinking rules, the labor laws we mentioned before are in effect, so most businesses are closed, making for a lot of toursits wandering the streets aimlessly. Well, it's not that bad, but truly only a few restaurants and stores are open. "Alli Cat" will understand our point, anyway :)

Leading up to this fine day was somewhat of a comedy, and much of it a comedy of errors. It was mostly uneventful as far as scenery and hikes go. (Well, not really as around every turn there's more pretty scenery - we kind of think that it's a case of scenery overload - it's all so grand and persistent everyday that one kind of gets weary of being awe-inspired all day. Where are my litter-strewn dirty-snow city streets anyway?) We drove back over to the East Coast, where the rain turned into sunshine. It's almost like a line in the sand where the wet side turns into the dry side! The most-scenic mountain pass was nice, though hard to compare with the Tetons, but the Tetons are always tough competition.

               The Dry Side

We finally left the Lonely Planet track and stopped in a town and camping area not even briefly mentioned. It was nice, and for US $6, Grant and I got to sleep next to a stream and had some friendly cows try to wrangle treats out of us all night.

The next day, we decided to stop by a wine region north of Christchurch. First we stopped off to get some cash at the nearest town with an ATM, and Grant's cash card was eaten by the machine! It seems his bank screwed up and left him high and dry. Luckily our parents still take good care of us, and Grant's dad was able to mail my mom a replacement card, and the good doctor is flying it out to deliver it to us in person tomorrow!

Later that day, while I was driving for the first time in NZ, we ran into our Welsh friends again! They were on a tandem bicycle probably from the WWII era that they had dug out of their hostel's yard, fixed the tyres and made roadworthy again. They invited us to stay at their hostel for the night, and there was no way we could refuse. After wine tasting, we gathered up our bottles of NZ swill and had a lovely dinner together in their caboose (the hostel's rooms were all in old train coaches!) Needless to say the next morning we were not tip-top.

While wine tasting, the owner of the winery tried to twist our arms into helping with the grape harvest. We told her we didn't have work visas, but she pulled us aside and quietly told us we could work something out under the table. We really wanted to do it, as it was probably one of our only chances to work in a vineyard, experience being illegal immigrant labor (oh so controversial in the US), and hang out with Kiwi's. In the end, in combination with our hangovers, we decided it wasn't prudent to risk our vacation and future status in NZ for a few dollars and a hard days' labor. Our friends did decide to harvest the grapes, and we look forward to hearing about their day. We think NZ affords UK residents more lenient work rules than to the US and other countries, so it wasn't as hard a decision for them. And plus, we're on vacation and work is for suckers!

Onward to Hanmer Springs, a major tourist destination for New Zealanders, where the weather continued to cooperate. We had a lovely dinner out, then a relaxing morning in the hotsprings, an afternoon of miniature golf, and hey, why not stay another night? Fantastic. I know you can play miniature golf anywhere, but it is still fun anywhere. Plus we were the only people there, so we got to drink beer while we played with out offending any mum's! We also learned that iced-coffee is even worse than we thought. It has ice-cream in it along with the milk, espresso, sugar, chocolate, and whipped cream! We couldn't taste any coffee, and we couldn't stomach all that sugar either! I honestly don't know what you would call it in the States. Un-blended espresso milkshake? Never again!

           Just West of Hanmer Springs

A drive back over to the West Coast along the northern Lewis Pass returned us to the infamous rain and sandflies.

                   The Wet Side

              Rain, Wind, Sandflies Weeeeeee

A trip up the coast was perhaps not worth our while. After a Weka bird stole Grant's steak out from under our noses, and the rain and wind further frustrated our cooking attempts, we turned in for the night with peanut butter and jelly, and hopes for a better day. The night's rain did turn to sun for the hike, and coated the mountains and foothills with snow, so the views of the mountains were probably the best so far considering we could only catch just glimpses of the Southern Alps previously. we hiked to a cool limestone arch over a river and also checked out some caves, one called the "crazy pavement" cave, which turned out to be a lot of dried mud. The information plaque informed us that though it did look like a bunch of dried mud, it was really interesting to the scientists. I suppose it takes all kinds (just kidding my scientist brother!).

           Karamea drive, snow dusted mountains

          Camp Robber, why you little...

            Oparara Arch, this is much bigger than it looks (he said)

From the West Coast we made it halfway to Nelson and stopped in "up and coming Murchison", which was a lovely town. We stayed at a Holiday Park with a family farm connected, and it was straight out of "Charlotte's Web". They had cute pigs frolicking in the field, a flock of ducks walking under fences to visit with the sheep, pigs, and chickens. They also had a deer that was as friendly as a horse and came when you called, and three emus named Ned, Matilda, and good-old-what's-his-face (or as the pre-teen girl says, "I told you, he has a name, I just don't know what it is!!!") I thoroughly enjoyed the farm and our campsite.

We made a jaunt to the local pub for a jug, and that's where we learned all about the drinking rules for the holidays. The barmaid filled us in on what we could expect. Good thing too because had we been caught unawares, we would have been sorely disappointed. Now we're just amused and prepared!

Continuing the drive to Nelson offered superb views of the snow dusted mountains and foothills, and the weather cooperated all the way to this moment that I drink my holiday beer, and soak in the sunshine, sunglasses, coat, and all! At least we know how to make a Good Friday good!

                Tasman Bay, Nelson

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It was only a matter of time

Off the topic of New Zealand. One of the most frequently asked questions Grant and I get about our jobs, is about potential run-ins with pirates. We always answer by talking about how a US container ship has never been seized by pirates as they are faster and have higher freeboard than the slower tankers and general cargo ships. Well, that all changed today.

Our hearts go out to Captain Richard Phillip, and his family, who gave himself up to the pirates so the rest of the crew could go free. Grant was on a run in the Persian Gulf on a similar ship working for Maersk last summer, so this really does strike us close to our hearts. We are hoping for a speedy return of Captain Phillips to his family, and commend our brothers, (and sisters if you're there) on the Maersk Alabama for their courage, strength, and seamanship.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ice Everywhere

From Wanaka, we recieved a postitive weather report for our planned hike of the Rob Roy track. Within the day walks brochure of Mt. Aspirning National Park around Wanaka, this hike was described as a relatively easy tramp past waterfalls with stunning views of glaciers (or something like that), so we were onboard.

The hike was nice, and included the requisite walk through a cow and sheep paddock, a swing bridge, a river gorge, and views of a mountain and glacier. It really was nice, and the weather cooperated beautifully. All these walks have a range of times for completion, ie 2-3 hours, or 3-4 hours. Grant and I are always the later time mentioned. I blame it on all the pictures we take rather than our fitness level. So, despite the "surprisingly easy" walk, we were tired.

Our next real stop, being on the glacier (glass-ee-air) tour, was Fox Glacier. First, we had to drive down a 40-km round trip gravel road outside of Haast for, according to the Lonely Planet, "unforgetable views" of the Southern Alps. Well, considering how overcast and rainy it is in the rainforest, particularly that morning, our views consisted mainly of the trees beside the road. In order to keep Lonely Planet to their word, we are committing the drive to this blog so as to not forget the unforgettable.

Right, so at Fox Glacier, we decided to plunk down a few extra dollars for a guided hike on the glacier. Grant and I have seen a lot of snow in our times in the Rockies and Cascades, however we had never been on a real, live, moving glacier before, and the only way to do it safely is with a guide. It was incredible, and one of the real highlights of the trip. Our group was fairly small, and it was a sunny day.

At the start of the glacier, our guide jumped out onto the "dead ice" and chipped out a hunk of ice for us to pass around. The day before it had been all rock covered, but had lept out of the ground overnight to expose clear ice. The ice up close was not what you expect looking at all the mud, rock, and blue landscape of the rest of the glacier, but it is a very compact, clear, frozen substance - sometimes with bits of rock inside.

From the terminal face of the glacier, we climbed a private trail and staircase up through the rainforest to get safely onto the glacier. There was no way to climb the face itself, as there was ice and boulders collapsing all the time, not to mention the ravines and holes to navigate. At one point they had a tripwire set up on the cliffs to let us know if a rockslide was going to topple over us. The guide watched the green light while the rest of us crossed along the cliff. We were instructed to run if he yelled "run". Apparently the tripwire gives you about eight seconds warning before boulders squash you.

It is striking where the rainforest ends and the glacier begins. It's a clear line, with some gravel to keep it separate. On the one hand, you are not surprised because you wouldn't expect a forest to live on ice, yet at the same time, it comes so close and all the way up the mountain except for a few meters all the way along the glacier.

The guides all cut a safe path with stairs and ropes, even along the glacier, and we all donned crampons to help ensure our vertical stance. The trick was to give up all sense of respectibility, and to stomp around like Calvin and Hobbes to make sure our spikes stuck in the ice. While in my own world stomping around, the guide said "that's right, don't be embarrassed, just keep stomping around". I didn't realize I had to worry about not worrying about being embarrassed! There were awesome holes, bits of downed aeroplane(I don't think it was a genuine authentic old fashioned steam powered job though), and all sorts of "sea stories" about ice rescues throughout the hike. And I didn't even mention the world's only alpine parrot, the Kea, which ganged up on us and tried to steal our packs, and pecked at our backs. Luckily they didn't follow us all around the glacier.

After making it safely back, we decided to drive to the next glacier North, Franz Joseph, to have a look, but decided one hike on a glacier was sufficient. The town was nice, surrounded by the mountains and all.

Further North, we veered back towards the coast, and left the rainforest behind. We caught tantalizing glimpses of the Southern Alps, but no real panoramic views through the foothills and forests.

In Hokitika, we caught our fist glimpse of the Kiwi, and I'm not talking fruits or the edible things either. Through cooperation with the Department of Conservation, a local had set up a small zoo with a variety of aquatic life, and three kiwis. Kiwis are nocturnal, so they keep the lights dimmed during the day for the tourist to see, and turn them on at night so they can sleep. Since we were the last customers of the day, the handler let us stay while he turned on the lights so we could get a good look at them. They were running all over the enclosure excitedly. They run really fast, and look really odd. Flightless birds just look funny. They are actually quite a bit like a mammal as well, but you'll have to google them to get better information. We were happy to get a good glimpse of the Kiwi, so Hokitika was a success. Hokitika is the jade capital of NZ, so we got a good look at traditional Maori carvings. Very beautiful, but you had to watch out for the shops that sold Chinese instead of New Zealand jade.

While trying to decide our next 8-9 days to Nelson, we headed up the coast to Pancake Rocks to enjoy the sun and beach. Pancake rocks were a nice geological oddity, and definitely worth a look, but after trying to order coffee, we realized it was time for some R & R in a hotel with some good hot curry in our bellies. Next we're off to cross both major mountain passes before meeting Robin's mom in Nelson for a week of luxury.

You say "coffee", I say "coffee"

Today after visiting Pancake Rocks, I had an unpleasant run-in over coffee. Now, when I was a teenager, I was a barista. I'm not that old, but to date myself anyway, this was before Star*ucks took off and became the McDonalds of espresso. In fact, Star*ucks was still a quality espresso shop modeling themselves off of the fantastic coffee one finds in Italy. Where I worked, we served Torrefazione coffee (before it was bought by Seattle's Best Coffee), and I had a real-life Italian lady come to my shop and teach me how to make espresso the Torrefazione way.

Here is another caveat. I have traveled the world and US extensively through work and play, and have ordered my favorite caffeine delivery system in all of them. I have had variations of the roasted and brewed coffee bean in Seattle, SanFrancisco, the Midwest, Texas, New Orleans, (and most other non-descript regions of the US in between), US-flagged-SIU-union-stewards-department-manned ships, Canada, Mexico (Mexico City, and the Pacific and Yucatan beaches), Central America, South America, Spain, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tahiti, Fiji, Singapore, the Heathrow Airport (London), and NEW ZEALAND. Even within the confines of the United States, I know coffee comes in different forms, flavors, prices, and cultural importance level.

At the souvenir shop across from the entrance to the famed "Pancake Rocks", they advertised "iced-coffee". As it was one of the few hot days we have had this lovely autumn in NZ, I thought it would be a great treat. My only expectations were that the drink would have coffee and be cold. Other than that, I was just waiting to see what I would get. I ordered two iced-coffees, then came the questions. "Do you want cream?" No, thank you. "Excuse me miss, would you like that sweetened or unsweetened?" Unsweetened, please. "What?" Oh, just black. In the states we call no cream/milk and no sugar "black coffee". The barista gives me a confused look, gets the manager. "We make iced-coffee with milk, sugar, and cream" it goes on and on. I say make it the way you make it, and the manager starts yelling at me that I need to be more specific when I order drinks, and by the way, who would ever put cold water and no milk in iced coffee? When I asked what I would get if I ever ordered an iced americano then, I was told I would get two shots of espresso, hot water, and a few cubes of ice. Hmmm......sounds like luke-warm coffee to me.

The main thing is A. He was having a bad day, B. There has to be assholes in every country, and C. Those people are probably assholes as they have never left their corner of the world.

So this entry is for Kiwis and American coffee drinkers, starting with an explanation for American espresso and coffee drinkers:

In the states our basics are Espresso, Americanos in various sizes and number of shots (espresso and hot water), Lattes (espresso and steamed milk with a bit of foam, or if specified, no foam please), cappuccinos (wet = 1/3 each espresso, milk, foam and dry = foam) then the various flavored versions. Iced versions come with espresso poured over ice with the cold equivalents of water or milk according to what is required (americano = cold water, iced latte = cold milk)

New Zealand is a bit different. First, there is no such thing as drip coffee. I have seen a total of two drip coffee machines in my travels, and no filters in the stores for them. French Press coffee is called, "Plunger Coffee". You will not find bottomless coffee in the diners. That's good news, as most coffee is espresso, and very good espresso. However, it all comes in one sized cup, and is a double shot unless specified otherwise. If you want a strong americano, instead of ordering a double short americano, you order a "long black". If you want a weaker cup of coffee, you order an "americano". Espresso is a "short black". If you want a latte with no foam, you order a "flat white". If you want a bit of foam, you order a "latte". You can get mist flavors in between as well. The grand finale is the iced coffee. "Iced-Coffee" means the following: Two shots of espresso over a few cubes of ice, cold milk, sugar, whipped cream, and cinnamon. At least, this is how the souvenir shop outside of Pancake Rocks makes "iced-coffee" In the States, this would be an "iced latte with whipped cream", so, you can see my confusion.

New Zealanders visiting the States: be prepared to know how many shots you want, and whether it's short, tall, or grande, plus non-fat, 2%, whole, or soy milk, decaf, and a pick of about 30 flavors, and how much foam you want if you're that picky about your "flat whites". If you want your decadent version of "iced-coffee", I would reccommend ordering a double grande iced mocha or vanilla latte with whip.

Either way, when I ordered and paid for two iced-coffees, I would have been happy to be handed an iced-latte or an iced-Americano, but instead the owner of the shop decided I was a moron with no taste to think "iced-coffee" was anything but espresso, milk, sugar, whipped cream, and cinnamon. I think his dog died this morning.

A bit about the rest of the world from my experience only: In Mexico City and Barcelona, you can order "Cafe con Leche" which is similar to a latte, except nothing like it. They bring you strongly brewed coffee or espresso, and a small carafe of warmed milk. Excellente. In South America, coffee is mainly instant Nescafe. They bring you a cup of hot water, and a jar of Nescafe to make as strong as you like. The Thai's in America make iced-coffee which is strong instant coffee with canned sweetened-condensed milk poured over ice. In New Orleans, your coffee comes with chicory, which I believe was used as a coffee extender during war-time, and is best served with hot beignets. In Texas and the Midwest, they make buckets of canned Folgers or the like, and Seattle has all of the above, but most notably strong, freshly ground, drip coffee, and a range of espresso options, not just Star*ucks. I have the following methods in my own home of making coffee: three drip machines, an espresso machine, a camping espresso machine, percolator, "plunger" French Press, and single cup drip.

So travelers, obviously what you get at home is not what you will get overseas or the next town over; and to employees in the tourist industry, people form other parts of the world do not automatically know how people in your corner of the world do things, so MELLOW OUT AND EXCUSE MY IGNORANCE!!!!!