Costa Rica Panoramas

I hope that everyone is having a nice holiday.

In spare moments the past few days, I’ve pieced together a couple of panoramas from the Costa Rica trip. We saw a number of vistas that are impossible to adequately replicate with standard, static images. These panos should play in any web browser with Java turned on. Just click in the pano image and drag your mouse back and forth to move around in the image.

The first pano is a 180-degree shot back toward the beach from Punta Uvita, which is a sandy spit that juts out in the ocean in the Ballena (Whale) National Park. The spit is covered at high-tide, but at low-tide, it stretches out from the jungle about a half-mile into the ocean, coming to an end at some very jagged rocks, all set at a 45-degree angle, with big breakers just beyond. This is not a place to fall asleep at low-tide and find yourself stranded.

This shot is taken from the jagged rocks over the spit back toward the jungle. Click on the image to load the panoramic version in a separate window.

The other panorama is a 360-degree shot taken at Rio La Leona, at the entrance to Corcovado National Park, on the Osa Peninsula. It rained heavily for two nights while we were there, and we were able to see the beach landscape change a lot where this river emerges from the jungle to touch the Pacific.

This shot was taken at sunset from the sandy rise between the river and the ocean. Click on the image to load the panoramic version in a separate window.

I created another panorama, of sorts, a vertical one, of a tree that we saw at Cabo Manopalos, on the Osa Peninsula. The idea behind this image is to convey a bit of what it is like to stand at the bottom of one of these monsters and look up.

Cabo Matapalos Tree

On a totally different subject, I found a totally hilarious business that I kicked myself for five minutes for not thinking of first: The Post-Rapture Post: The Postal Service of the Saved. This site allows the devout among us to write letters, notes, or cards that will be delivered when the true believers are whisked off to Heaven and the rest of us are left below. Their FAQ page will crack you up (especially “How do we know that you will not ascend into Heaven with us?”), and with the prices they are charging, the guys that thought of this will be able to have little Heaven on Earth, assuming anyone is falling for this.

And something tells me more than a few are.

Wild Corcovado

Corcovado was great. Everything I had heard about it being a truly wild and untamed place was true; there is an “edge of the world” feeling about the place, in everything from the pounding, raw Pacific to the thick, nearly impenetrable jungle it slides up to but never quite touches.

The jungle floor was littered, at one point,
with these huge, beautiful purple flowers.

First, a disclaimer: You do not need to stay at an expensive tent camp, such as the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp we stayed in, to experience Corcovado. In fact, if we were going back (and, someday, I hope I will), we would not be staying in a tent camp but would be camping or staying in one of the cheaper spots in Carate, such as the beach hotel. We enjoyed our stay at the tent camp, but we didn’t realize until we got close to Corcovado and talked to some other travelers that the tent camps just make your stay a lot more comfortable, and they are not required if you want to stay near the Corcovado National Park for a few days.

We took the collectivo from Porto Jiminez to Carate early Tuesday morning. The road beyond Cabo Matopalos was even worse than the section we explored with the rental car, and being crammed on a wooden bench in the back of a pickup truck didn’t make things any easier. The trip took about 2.5 hours, and we were really happy that we were going to be leaving Carate by air once we got there.

Kath was a little concerned about the collectivo transportation
experience from Porto Jimenez to Corcovado

We booked three nights at the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp, starting on Tuesday night, and we included a flight back to San Jose that would get us back in time for our flight on to the States. When we arrived in Carate, we followed the other collectivo passengers, most of whom were simply heading to the park for the day, down the beach toward the entrance to the park. (I knew that the tent camp was near the entrance to the park.) When we finally finished the 2 mile, very hot beach hike to the tent camp, we were told that they couldn’t find our reservation. However, the excellent manager of the camp, Juan Carlos, took our paperwork and arranged for us to have breakfast while he sorted everything out. Apparently, they get few people that arrive via any other method than by plane, and at one point, Juan Carlos asked, “How did you get here?” Most of the clientele of the tent camp would not carry all of their gear with them on the beach hike, as the tent camp has a horse and cart luggage and supply delivery system. Still, everyone that arrives to stay at the tent camp has to make that long, hot beach hike, even without their bags. The hike makes the moderately-cool shade from the tent camp’s palm trees feel even better once you arrive.

The tents at the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp are big,
clean, and are as close to the ocean as you would ever want to sleep

Over the next few days, we went on a canopy tour (which is really an observation deck) and a half-day hike into Corcovado. We also explored all of the trails on the tent camp’s 20-hectare property, which is full of wildlife, including lots of monkeys that roam through, some sloths, and plenty of birds, including eagles, tucans, and many more. It rained during our canopy tour, which made visibility a problem, and most of the wildlife stayed well away from us, probably crouched somewhere much drier than 70 feet up a tree.

Kath got into the canopy tour, which hoisted
us up to a platform 120 feet off the ground

The Corcovado hike was wonderful, though. We only did a short hike, turning around at the first big river in the park (which was even higher than normal, thanks to the rain), but we saw lots of interesting animals, including an anteater, several types of monkeys, and coatis. Heading back to camp, things got a little spooky, when we started smelling puma urine and seeing blood droplets on the trail. For a while, I could swear we were being, well, watched, by something. However, we all got out of the park without any problems.

Pick your favorite monkey! truk, posing by
the Corcovado National Park sign, is missing
the necessary climbing tail

Our stay at the tent camp was made much more enjoyable by the excellent company sharing it with us. Joe, an avid walker that calls San Francisco home (for now), arrived shortly after we did, and Patrick and Laura, from San Diego, arrived shortly after that. We shared our multi-course, family-style meals and had many stimulating conversations. All of the guest were avid travelers, and we picked up a lot of tips about how to travel to Myanmar, the comparative mindset of former cannibals in New Guinea, and advantages of taking part in a Semester at Sea voyage. We really enjoyed getting to know everyone, and the staff of the tent camp also went out of the way to get to know us.

Our guide, Percy, tells us about the river on our
hike through Corcovado. That night, we finally
got to see a sunset at the tent camp.

We checked out of the tent camp on Friday morning and started the long beach hike back the Carate airstrip, this time without our bags, where were transferred ahead of us using the horse and cart. Still, the beach hike was brutal. We were both completely drenched in sweat and wiped when we finally arrived. The small charter flight back to San Jose provided for beautiful scenery all the way back, and we even got back into Memphis a little early.

truk and Kath stand beside the “air taxi” waiting to wisk
them back to San Jose, which took us over many of the
places visited, including this beach in Corcovado

All in all, we had a wonderful time in Costa Rica. I’ll post more details about some of our impressions soon.

More photos of our stay at Corcovado can be seen here

Into the Wilderness

This will likely be our last post for a few days, as we are hoping to board a collectivo (local taxi – well, pickup truck with some seats in the back and a tarp over the top) that will take us to the entrance of the Corcovado National Park. If you are wondering where that is, find Costa Rica on a map, then find the small, most southern, most western peninsula, near the border with Panama. That’s the Osa Peninsula, and the Corcovado National Park takes up about half of it.

Corcovado promises to be a pretty rustic place to stay, with electricity supplied by generators for a few hours a day and not much to do other than check out the copious flora and fauna, lay on the beach, and go hiking through the jungle. We’ve got some reservations at a tent camp near the entrance of the park, but I’ve learned that you can just about expect anything in this part of the world.

Yesterday, we rented a little 4×4 car and drove around the southern part of the peninsula, including heading out to a big surf break near Cabo Matapolas, which at the end of the Golfo Dolce, where it opens into the Pacific Ocean. A few hardened surfer types were enjoying the decent waves as the tide was coming in, dodging rocks and looking a little smug that they had found such a sweet, depopulated place to ride.

This morning, we found another wonderful beach, even closer to Porto Jiminez, one with two breaks when the tide is out, each with a clear water and no rocks. You could actually surf the outer break to the inner break and then surf that to the beach. Alas, though, no rented board with us.

The collectivo leaves at 6 AM tomorrow, so we will have to get up early. We will probably chill the rest of the afternoon and enjoy our last bit of air conditioning for a few days – it has been in the upper 80s with 70% humidity the past few days, when it hasn’t been raining.

The next post will hopefully be in Memphis on Saturday. I just hope that Stephen got my email about needing an ride from the airport on Friday night…

Check out more photos of Porto Jimenez here

Relaxing in Porto Jiminez

Kath and I left lovely Uvita yesterday (Saturday) morning via taxi, amazingly making the Porto Jiminez bus just perfectly in Palmer Norte. That sort of thing rarely happens to us, where we make a bus just right when it is about to leave. Of course, we made the bus just in time, which didn’t leave any time to go to the bank, which is where we really needed to go, since we were low on cash. And it turned out that Porto Jiminez only has one bank, a Banco National, which doesn’t work with our ATM card. However, amazingly, the bank was open, which means that we could get money off of our credit card. So, I went inside and tried to get some money there, and they said, “No, we are only open for the telethon.”

The telethon? “What telethon?”

Some national telethon was happening, and people that pledged money could pay their pledges at the National Bank. So, even though the bank was open, and they had money, and they took credit cards, they wouldn’t do anything for me. So, Kath and I have been scraping by on our last collones and dollars, waiting for the bank to open tomorrow (Monday). It is pretty amazing: In the largest town in the region, with over 7,000 people in the town and many thousands more on the peninsula, there is only 1 ATM. And one unhelpful bank.

We spent our last day in Uvita exploring the national park and getting really sunburned walking all of the way out the end of the peninsula. You have to be careful there, because if the tide comes in, you have little time to hike the half-mile back to the mainland over the low sand spit.

We enjoyed a pizza in the middle of the jungle, in this strange little restaurant on the edge of civilization, where they have discovered the take-out cooked chicken. (Take-out is called “servico expresso” here, which does not describe the speed of the wait staff.)

We also had a wonderful stay at the Tucan Hotel and got to know the new owner, Tre, who is amazingly from Memphis. We got off of a dusty bus in the middle of the night and hiked up the road to his hotel, only to be greeted by a guy in a “Memphis Tigers” t-shirt. The Tucan is really an oasis for the entire area, and we think that Tre will be very successful with his new venture. Air-con, lots of hammocks, free Internet, and $1 beers make staying at the Tucan an easy choice.

Porto Jiminez has been pretty sleepy since we arrived, as it’s the weekend. We did watch a soccer game yesterday, though, were a big fight broke out, which is really unusual in Costa Rica (ticos are big pacifists and will usually do anything to avoid a confrontation). The fight ended up cancelling the game, and the cops were called. After the second big blow-up between these two guys, one guy went back to where his team’s fans were sitting and got a machete (where are really common all around Costa Rica) and ran at the other guy, in full view of the police. Thankfully, a bunch of machete guy’s friends grabbed him and got the machete away from him. Also, amazingly, no one was arrested, and the scene just gradually broke up and everyone drifted away. For a minute, there, I was sure we were going to witness a murder, though.

We will probably just hang around in Porto Jiminez until Tuesday morning, when we are due to get a collectivo to take us to Carate and the tent camps, where we will stay through Friday, when we fly back to the states. All is well, as long as the credit card keeps working… 🙂

More photos of Porto Jimenez can be seen here

Uvita Has It All

Kath and I have stumbled into another backwater wonderland in Uvita, a small, country near-beach community in the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica. Life is easy at the Tucan Hotel, the meals are cheap and yummy at the nearest soda (local restaurant), the beautiful waterfalls are only a 45-minute walk away, and the beach ends in a long spit that contains some local reefs. What more do you need?

Well, for one thing, we are still in need of a good way out of this place, something that will affordably and relatively quickly convey us from Uvita to Porto Jimenez by Monday, so that we can take a collectivo taxi to Carate and the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp, where we have reservations through the end of the week.

It has struck us more than once that, just possibly, Uvita is so nice and unspoiled simply because it is so hard to get here and get away, at least without renting a car. Even though it is totally uneconomical, we tried to get rent a car for 24-hours, a one-way rental, so that we could get to the local bus hub and also see a local indigenous area. It simply wasn’t possible. Now, we are facing a 5 AM bus at some point in the next few days, which really isn’t desireable.

But for now, things are great. We are enjoying the sun and sand and $1 beers.

More pics of Uvita are available here

From Paradise to Nowhere

We are now in Quepos, after catching a water taxi from Montezuma to Jaco this morning and then finding a bus to bring us down the coast. We are planning to catch a bus this evening to take us down to Uvita, which get us close to our goal of being on the Osa Peninsula by Monday.

Montezuma was, in one word, amazing. I’ve been few places closer to paradise. Clear running waterfalls that slip into a crashing sea over tan sand. Cool sea breezes and plenty of shade on the beach to defeat the sun, which we hadn’t seen in Costa Rica until we arrived in Montezuma.

We didn’t take any tours there, just chilled. Like New Zealand last year, I believe that our photos of the area won’t approach its true beauty. No wonder so many folks spend longer than expect in Montezuma.

Check out more photos of Montezuma here

Trying to Dry Out in a Cloud Forest

The past few days have been eventful. Yesterday, we attempted to walk to a waterfall outside of La Fortuna, only be completely soaked by several downpours while we walked the 7 KM, uphill (occasionally against a 10% grade), only to discover that the waterfall was really only so-so. And we paid $14 to just get into the waterfall, only to take a couple of pictures and leave. It wasn’t worth the walk down to the pool to swim and then the steep walk back up. I think New Zealand last year really spoiled us concerning waterfalls. Anyway, despite the challenges of the walk, the scenery was beautiful and almost made the whole thing worth it. Almost.

Kath and truk at Lake Arenal

In the afternoon, after changing out of our wet clothes, we took the jeep-boat-jeep, well, actually, van-boat-van connection to go from La Fortuna to Santa Elena, just beside Monteverde. The trip was uneventful but very beautiful, including a spectacular sunset as we neared Santa Elena, the first one we had seen since leaving Memphis. Yes, it has been that cloudy. And wet.

Sunset when nearing Monteverde

Today started with a cup of extremely good coffee at the Treetop Cafe, which is a restaurant on the main street in Santa Elena built around a massive tropical tree, which covers the entire structure. It really feels like you are a kid in a tree house. I’ve been in several places like this, especially in Australia, but I’ve never seen it done this well before.

Next, we headed off to a Don Juan Coffee Plantation tour. Kath and I usually hit wineries when we are traveling, but there really isn’t anything like that here. What is here, however, and all over the place, are coffee plants. Our guide, Marcos, stepped us through the entire process, from how they germinate the plants, nurse them, fertilize them, and pick them. Then, we saw the coffee beans removed and left to dry, natural-style, in the sun, and then moved all of the way to the roasting process. We had no idea how involved the entire process is, nor did we understand that is traditionally done on a such a small scale, including only 1 or 2 hectares of coffee plants for one coffee company. It left us with the impression that much of the best coffee never leaves the area, much less the country.

Riding the oxen cart on the coffee tour

This afternoon, we went walking in what is called a “hanging bridges” tour, which takes place in a cloud forest outside of town. While suspension bridges are involved, this is really just a hike, albeit a very pretty one, through an area that stays permanently wet, at least for 200 days a year. It rained the entire time we were on the hike, so most of the animals we would normally have been able to see showed more sense than we did and stayed hidden away and at least partially dry. The walk was enjoyable, but after a while, the lack of sunshine just starts playing tricks on your mind. Our camera really had trouble with the lighting. I think it may have been one of the most difficult places to take a clear photo that I’ve ever seen. The foggy conditions played havok on the autofocus.

Tomorrow, we are going to take a taxi to a different cloud forest and walk our way back to Santa Elena, visiting various places along the way. While it should be a good time, we are both looking forward to heading to Montezuma and the sunny coast and away from the rain.

View more of our photos of Monteverde

They Don’t Call It a Rain Forest for Nothing

Even though it is currently at the end of the rainy season in Costa Rica, it has been pouring almost relentlessly since we got to Fortuna. The clouds around the volcano have been so heavy that it has been difficult to figure out where the volcano actually is, much less check out the mouth and see any lava or steam. Regardless, we’ve been having a great time.

Katherine waiting for the tour to get going again

Yesterday was a big day, starting with a boat tour down the Rio Frio from Canas Negro and ending up at border with Nicaragua. We saw dozens of varieties of birds, including Amazonian kingfishers, wood storks, and several types of white herons. There were lotsof other creatures without wings about, too, including many turtles, a few Jesus lizards, and little crocs. Monkeys where in several of the trees, including an albino howler monkey, apparently pretty rare. We also saw some gigantic iguanas hanging out in some trees below a bridge, with the males bright orange as they get ready for the mating season. (They return to their standard green-brown afterward.) It rained most of the trip, but the sky let up on us when it mattered most, like when we disembarked for a picnic lunch.

Some big, male iguanas hanging out

In the afternoon, we hiked up the side of Volcan Arenal to the site of the 1992 eruption, which destroyed a side of the volcano and left a massive lava rock (well, boulder) field in its wake. This was the first place where I heard avalanche refering to something other than snow. The 1968 eruption destroyed a town nearby, and the government used the lava rocks from that eruption to build a dam to create Lake Arenal, which provides the entire region (including parts of Panama and Nicaragua) with electricity. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons!

truk and kath at Lake Arenal

We ended the day at a hot springs resort called Baldi, where the water is heated by the volcano, which apparently could blow again at any time. (The last eruption was in 2003.) While we didn’t get to see the volcano’s top, we definitely heard it rumble while we were at the bath. It sounded like very ominous thunder. Baldi was great, with definitely the hottest water that we’ve ever seen at a hot springs resort. Some of the baths were close to 160 degrees…

Baldi has hotter water than that around this cayman

Today, we are heading to Monteverde, which is across Lake Arenal and on the other side of the volcano. To get there, we have to take a jeep, then a boat across the lake, and then another jeep into town. We were going to take horses from the lake into Santa Elana (near Monteverde), but we are going to save our horseback riding for the cloud forests in the area. Also, with all of the rain lately, the route would have been treacherous.

More photos of this portion of the Costa Rica trip can be seen here

Livin’ La Pura Vida

Thanks to the wonderful accommodation at my job, plus the Lamberts, who are watching our dogs, and John for taking us to the airport (way too) early in the morning, Katherine and I find ourselves in Costa Rica, struggling with our Spanish and trying to stay dry at the end of the rainy season.

Katherine after enjoying her first gallo pinto,
the “Tipical Food” in Costa Rica

We flew into San Jose yesterday and immediately remembered why we haven’t spent much time in big Latin American cities. Right after leaving the airport, we were put on the wrong bus and, after getting off the right bus, we were almost robbed. (Someone got our backpack pouch open, but we got away from them before they could take anything.) Last night was not restful, as we picked a hotel near the bus we would be taking today, but that also meant it was a main drag. Oh, and across the street from a really loud nightclub.

Today (Monday) has been much better. We made our morning bus for La Fortuna, which is about 6km from Volcan Arenal, a big volcano that promises to spit lava at us when we assault its trails, sometime tomorrow. We are also planning to check out the local hot springs and maybe take in a river nature cruise.

The park in the center of La Fortuna

Right now, we are just taking it easy, trying to get into the “tico” (what Costa Ricans call themselves) way of life, which really appears pretty laid back. There is a lot of lounging around going on here, which is really what a vacation is all about anyway, isn’t it?

New Year’s Day in Sydney, Then Off to Vegas

Kath and truk in VegasKath and I are back in the US now, in Las Vegas, preparing for our flight back to Little Rock tomorrow, where we will pick up our dogs and head back to Memphis for work on Thursday. The last few weeks have been a blur, and I’m thankful that I grabbed a few snapshots along the way to help make the whole experience much more real in hindsight.

Kath by Maori Meeting House

 

Akaroa

Karen, Justin, and KathWe flew out of Christchurch without any problems, landing in Sydney without a rental car reserved (we waited too long to book a cheap one, as Christmas to New Year’s is the most busy car rental time in Australia). We cabbed over to La Perouse, glad to be back among our friends there. Karen Linnell put us up the whole time we were in Sydney, and we enjoyed spending time with her and her 4-month old son, Justin. Karen’s wonderful generosity and hospitality will not be forgotten…

Click here for photos of the Catlins, Dunedin, Christchurch, and Sydney

Gillian, Kath, and HalWhile we were in Australia, we drove up to Hawk’s Nest (about 3 hours north of Sydney) to spend several days with Gillian and Hal Cowlishaw. Gillian was one of Katherine’s academic advisors on her PhD dissertation and is the author of the authoritative Rednecks, Eggheads, and Blackfellas: A Study of Racial Power and Intimacy in Australia. Hal and Gillian took us on a short bushwalk from their backyard to the ocean and lent us kayaks to explore nearby mangrove trees growing out of an estuary.

New Years Eve

Auntie Marge and Lindsey

New Years at MargesNew Year’s in Sydney was a lot of fun. We rang in the new year at the Yarra Bay Sailing Club, our old haunt when we lived in Sydney during 2001-2002. After that, we headed down to Auntie Marge’s for a feed and few more Victoria Bitters with the gang.

Click here to view photos of Vegas

 

New York, New York

truk and the Coke bear

trukWe are enjoying Vegas but are experiencing a bit of culture shock after diving into what I would call “Americana on Speed.” The internet connection at the MGM Grand (where we are staying) is not proving to be very reliable, so I will just post a few photos and look forward to seeing all of our Memphis pals in a few days.

Christmas Comes Early to New Zealand

We are currently in Christchurch and it is Christmas Day here. Everything is closed, except one “Email” shop on Cathedral Square, in the “City Centre”. We are doing well in spite of the rain, which came in overnight after a brilliant, sunshiny day yesterday, which we both really needed. Christmas Eve morning found us in Akaroa, a small town on Bank’s Peninsula, right outside of Christchurch. The night before, the wind howled and the rain blew horizontally down the streets while we searched in vain for a cheap place to eat.

An aside: While jet lag wasn’t a big deal on this trip for either of us, the change in the amount of daylight hours has proven to be a little challenging. When we left Memphis, we were used to a sunrise about 7:30 AM and a sunset before 5 PM. However, after landing here, with the change to the Southern Hemisphere so close to their summer solstice, we immediately began (joyfully) experiencing sunrises at around 5:30 AM and sunsets close to 9:30 PM, and the time with daylight actually increased as we moved south down the island. As a result, we found ourselves staying up late, usually after midnight, and then trying to rush to get out of the hostel and on the road by 10 AM the next morning. This also usually pushed back our arrival time in the next place we were going a few hours, which occasionally made the difference between getting to town in time to visit a grocery store (many of which strangely strictly close at 7 or 8 PM, right when a lot of people want to do their shopping) or digging some ramen noodles out of the tucker bag. Several times, we found ourselves in towns full of visitors and people out and about but absolutely no stores available in a 50 KM radius. You would think that one store would open, if only because they would get all of the business of all of the visitors in the town, but, nope, everything was closed.

We really aren’t complaining and we were able to deal with it; after all, this is one of those interesting little cultural things that you experience travelling. But in this world of SuperCenter Wal-Marts and 24-mega malls, you would think that convenience store that stays open to, say 11 PM instead of 8 PM, wouldn’t be that strange. However, in the rural areas here, that is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Christchurch has proven to be a very relaxing place after the hectic nature of Dunedin, which cannot be completely chalked up to pre-Christmas preparations. This place has a must more laid-back style to it, with a lovely stream called the Avon snaking through town and a very accessible botanical garden a few blocks from the very center of the city. The streets are very walkable, and the variety of food on offer is greater than anywhere else we’ve been in New Zealand. It could probably be said that it rivals New York, especially per capita. Malay-Indian fusion food, anyone?

We are having a very relaxed Christmas holiday, sleeping in and enjoying a breakfast cooked by our B & B hosts, Gerald and Pauline. Tomorrow we fly off to hectic Sydney for a week of catching up with our friends there, including taking in a trip out of town to Hawk’s Nest, near Newcastle.

We hope that all of you are with loved ones for the holiday season. Merry Christmas!

Through the Fiords, Over the Hills

Dunedin Town HallWe are currently in Dunedin, which is also pronounced strangely. Say: “Done” and “Eden” together quickly. This city, in the southeast side of the South Island, will always mean rain to us, I bet, because it has been raining for almost 24 hours straight, since we arrived yesterday. It is also cold, or just on the border between cool and cold. The rain has really followed us all over the island. I think that we just caught one of those 2-3 week rain squal periods that we experienced when living in Sydney through the winter. The weather would turn overcast with pretty dramatic blowing rain and gray skies for weeks at a time. It isn’t as depressing as it sounds, but it can be quite annoying, because nothing every gets a chance to dry out.

Road to MilfordRegardless, the past two areas of the South Island that we travelled through may turn out to be the highlight of the trip. From Te Anu, we headed up the road to Milford to spend a night on the edge of a giant fiord. The weather was even more schitzophrenic there, changing from fog to blowing rain to brilliant sunshine, all within an hour period, but the views made it worth it the trouble. We stayed at the Milford Lodge, one of the only places you can stay in Milford, because the flat area where the river meets the sound is rather limited. We took a boat trip into Milford Sound that went all the way into the Tasman Sea and then back to Milford. This got us very close to the walls of the fiord that run almost vertically into the water from more than a thousand meters in the air, at least in place. There are over 300 waterfalls in Milford Sound, and with the rain we were getting throughout most of the boat trip, they were operating in full effect, spewing water everywhere as they slithered down the rock faces and mossy lumps making their way to the water in the sound, which is composed of a layer about 3-4 meters of fresh, tea-colored water on top of a layer of salt water from the ocean.

Our boat went up underneath one of the largest waterfalls I’ve ever seen in my life, much higher than Niagra Falls. Usually, you associate wind pushing water around, causing waves and such. In this case, it was really the water doing the driving of the wind, which rushed off of the place where the waterfall hit after falling several hundred meters in gigantic sheets, blowing thick, heavy mist everywhere. It was difficult to stand in one place or take a breath in because its force was so powerful. As the Milford Sound area gets between 7 and 8 meters of rain per year, they have plenty of water to create all of the waterfalls, but there are only 2 or 3 permanent waterfalls there.

CatlinsAfter only one night in Milford, we decided to move on. We had been planning to spend two nights, but the rain was so relentless and the biting sandflies were taking their toll on us. We drove back to Te Anu and then on into the Catlins, a beautiful hilly area between Invercargill and Dunedin, on the extreme south side of the island. There, we stayed in a wonderful farm hostel called Hilltop in Papatowai, which is really only two houses sitting on a hill in the middle of a sheep farm. The facilities were very nice, so nice that we decided to stay an additional night. The Hilltop proved to be the perfect base for a stroll through the Catlins, and we spent most of our day there trolling through the back roads and looking for sea lions, seals and penguins. (We found all of them, including viewing a rare yellow-eyed penguin, which is a threatened species). The waterfalls and green, gently rolling hills were wonderful, but nothing compared to Nugget Point, a thin peninsula that juts southeast from the Catlins with strange vertically-lined rocks that stick out of the water and trail off into the sea. Topped by a lighthouse, Nugget Point is a great vantage point to take in a 270-degree view of sealife, birds, and rolling sea. The weather even cleared up a bit for us to enjoy our lunch while gazing out over the Pacific. Wonderful.

Nugget Point

We also enjoyed the company of Jean-Marc, a French fellow that also happened to be staying at the Hilltop, in our house. We shared a meal of fresh mussells that Jean-Marc found nearby, and Katherine cooked an Asian stirfry from our remaining tucker box (or bag, in our case) ingredients. The Marlborough wine is still holding out, too, so going to that region at the beginning of the trip was a good idea. We have just enough to get us to the end of our trip.

Curio Shop in PapatowaiWe are about to leave Dunedin for Akaroa, a town on a peninsula outside of Christchurch, where we will spend Christmas in the middle of the city in a pleasant bed-and-breakfast (thanks Mom and Dad Pennington!). Hopefully, the rain will let up a little before then so that we can enjoy some cool sunny skies before the heat of Sydney beats down on us next week.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Sliding Down the West Coast

Kath in Abel TasmanOK, I finally have a complaint about New Zealand. This place completely desensatizes you to beauty on a scale I’ve yet to experience before. Everywhere you look is a postcard, every sunset the best you’ve ever seen, every beer the tastiest, and every walk breathtaking (in more ways than one). As hard as we try, the photos can’t possibly capture it or begin to do it justice. We will just have to be happy with the images in our heads and the memories we are gaining, as well as urge others to go, because words and pictures aren’t enough.

Lake WanakaWe are currently in Wanaka, which, like most places in New Zealand, can be pronounced incorrectly 3 differnet ways and only correctly once. The correct way is Wa-na-ka, with all of the A’s sounding like “ahh,” in case you are wondering. Wanaka is on the side of a lake, appropriately named Lake Wanaka, and it is surrounded by a couple of different mountain ranges, including Mount Aspiring, the tallest mountain in New Zealand other than Mount Cook. You can be sitting on the banks of the lake, warming in the sun, with the waves lapping at your feet, and out in the distance is a snow- and ice-topped mountain peak, just at the horizon.

Pancake RocksYesterday began with a trip up the coast, north of Greymouth, to the Pancake Rocks, an interesting three-dimensional sculpture slowly being sculpted out of the limestone by the sea. The formation is called Pancake Rocks because that is exactly what it looks like: a very tall stack of pancakes (minus the syrup, of course). As the water rushes in during high tide, it sounds like a locomotive on the tracks as it crashes on the walls and throws spray in the air. From a distance, when you approach the formation through thick folage, it sounds like a creature is beating on the ground below with an irregular thud, trying to break free. Lucky for us, we got away just in time, down the coast toward the Frank Josef and Fox glaciers.

kath and truk at Franz Josef GlacierWe elected for a short trip at the glacier sites, as we wanted to be in Wanaka for the night, but a few hours proved to be long enough. Still, they were well worth the trip and long walks up the hills to approach each glacier’s terminal face. The glaciers have retreated quite a bit over the past 250 years, and they seem like they will continue retreating for some time, melting more ice than what is forming at the top of the mountains. Still, it was cool (literally) to see what millions of tons of ice could do to solid granite. At the Franz Josef, we just took in the view from a distance. However, at the Fox, we moved right up next to the terminal face. Almost a little too close. Those signs noting extreme danger weren’t kidding. A rock the size of our living room chair fell about 40 feet to the stones at the bottom of the terminal face while I was about 25 feet away. The sound was, well, extremely scary. And all the way back to the car, I kept hearing the boulders turning over in the stream that runs away from the glacier from the force of the rushing water, and I kept looking over my shoulder, thinking a massive block of ice had broken free and was rushing down to crush me. But the overall effect of being next to the glacier was like standing next to a giant ice cube. A very scary, noisy, gigantic, dirty ice cube.

We learned a valuable lesson when arriving yesterday evening in Wanaka: Do not arrive in a New Zealand town on a Friday night in the summer without booking some accomodation in advance. Katherine tried to get me to book, but I got distracted and never got around to it, and, well, there was “no place in the inn” as they say. We finally found a small cabin room in a holiday park on the edge of town, and we have booked most of our rooms for the rest of the trip.

Beer TourWe took a very cool trip to the Wanaka Beerworks today to see how they brewed their very natural, fresh, delicious beer. The tour was excellent, and we really enjoyed talking to the owner/brewmaster, Dave, about what it takes to make a microbrew that can do battle with the giants of the NZ brewery industry.

Tomorrow, we are headed into Fiordland, the extreme southwestern part of New Zealand, a World Heritage Area that we have heard more than one time on this trip is “the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” We are looking to check out that claim for ourselves, but if the drive down the coast from Greymouth to Wanaka is any indication, they may be right.

We probably won’t be able to write for 4-5 days, as we will be in places without good Internet access. In fact, one place we are going told us: “Bring cash and food, and be sure to fill up your gas tank before you show up.”

More photos of this region of New Zealand here 

From the Vineyards to the Ocean

The ferry ride from Wellington to Picton proved to be beautiful and exhilarating, definitely one of the more beautiful boat rides I’ve ever taken. Wellington Harbor is simply gorgeous, and we were escorted out of the harbor by a floatilla of sailboats, heading for the open ocean. Cook Strait turned out not to be the bumpy monster I had been told, and we spent most of the trip taking in the sights as we bid good-bye to the North Island and turned our gaze to the mountains of the South.

We picked up our car in Picton and headed straight to Blenheim. As it was Sunday, not many shops were open, and the town (one of the larger ones in this region) was mostly quiet. Before leaving on this trip, I was looking at some of the satellite photos on Google Earth with my brother, and the area around Blenheim one of the only areas in New Zealand that offers the 2-meter accuracy (high resolution) imagery. Just messing around, I asked Jaymie to find a tree in Blenheim, and I would go claim a leaf off of that tree for him. He picked one out, near a bridge in a park, next to a stream. Kath and I made a bee-line for it after arriving in Blenheim and found it right away. Google Earth is amazing. It is like a global shrub-cam.

The wineries north and west of Blenheim, focused just north of the tiny hamlet of Renwick, are well worth the visit. We got the chance to taste the latest releases (and some of the reserve stock) at about 8 or 9 of the different cellar doors before heading out of town, back to Highway 1 in Blenheim for the trip south to Kaikoura, a stunningly beautiful place in a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific. What we call New Zealand is really just the tips of some mountains that rise out of the sea were two continental plates collide. A large sea shelf extends from New Zealand’s South Island to the southeast, but right around Kaikoura, a deep sea trench (occasionally as deep as 1600 meters) extends right up to the land directly below the peninsula. This causes a great variety and number of marine life to call this area home, including migrating whales, seals, albatrosses, and dolphins.

Katherine just returned from a whale watching expedition, while I spent the morning hiking around the head of the Kaikoura peninsula. We are probably going to camp tonight at one of the campgrounds in town, and then head our trans-alpine trek to the north coast of the South Island, what they call “The Top of the South.” We will hike into Abel Tasman National Park, camp overnight, and then take a water-taxi back.

You can view some of the photos of the above events, including a movie clip of a sperm whale diving that Kath captured, by clicking here.

Windy Wacky Wonderful Wellington

Tomorrow morning, Kath and I board the ferry to the South Island, kissing half of this fascinating country good-bye. And we’ve just arrived! Well, the intention of this trip was really to simply see the South Island and focus on its raw nature and emptiness, but after spending a few days on the North Island, in the beautiful capital of this island nation, I’m not so sure that we shouldn’t have allocated part of our time to see the “northland” (as they call it), as well.

First of all, I have to preface this with the fact that Wellington is one of the windiest cities on Earth. Chicago, move over. You have nothing on the sub-Antarctic blasts that rip through this place, adding a bit of chill to what should be the emergence of summer. However, it says a lot about a place that, thanks to the grace of its people and the fascination of its sights, you don’t even notice the weather until a raindrop hits your face or a gust blows you over. And Wellington is just that sort of place.

Wellington Cable CarWe spent our first day simply wandering around and catching some of the better museums. I can recommend to anyone that the first thing you should do in Wellington, so long as it is daytime, is to take the cable car to the top of hill that overlooks the city and then wander through the botanic gardens as you walk downhill back to the city. The part about downhill is very important. Downtown Wellington is shaped like a roughly-shaped bowl, open on the side that faces the harbor. As long as you stay near the water, you will not have to climb too many hills. However, leave the main downtown area and you will really give your legs (and lungs and heart) a work-out. After a couple of days, Kath and I have learned to ask questions of ourselves when planning a particular trek, such as: “How far up will this take us?” or “Is there a similar store that is not over that steep ridge?”

The cable car trip is very pleasant, if a bit short, but it doesn’t prepare you for the absolutely breathtaking view at the top or the stress-reducing and fragrant trip down the hill, meandering through succulants and orchids and prehistoric fern trees and rose gardens, as well as an old (at least for this part of the world) graveyard. We ended up in the main government district, including the national capital building (aptly nicknamed “the beehive”), and the beginning of the harbor museum district. The Wellington, City and Sea, museum is very interesting, with some very dramatic footage of the sinking of the Wahine, a ferry that killed over 50 people when it sunk in Wellington harbor in 1968.

kath in Wellington GardenThe museum that really got me excited about coming to Wellington was Te Papa, the new national museum opened only a few years ago. And, I can say that the museum really doesn’t disappoint, expecially since I mostly wanted to see exhibits concerning the experiences of the Maori people (the native inhabitants of New Zealand). I read several books regarding the inital impact of European culture on Maoris, and since most cultural sites revolving around Maori culture are located in the North Island, in places we weren’t going, I was keen to see what I could, especially if I could glimpse it in the mind’s eye of the “average” New Zealand citizen (or even want they wanted to project to the world). Te Papa does a great job of not only bringing Maori history and culture alive but also showcasing current and relevant Maori struggles in the perspective of the various participants, Maori and non-Maori alike. Te Papa is not scared to address issues that are not really settled yet and are still heavily contended. I learned a lot from the museum that I would have never picked up from books, and I guess that might as well be the definition of an important museum.

Today, Kath and I took the bus to the top of Mount Victoria, on the opposite hill from the cable-car, and wandered back to the city through a more residential neighborhood, which glorious views of the harbor, downtown, and the peninsula containing the airport. Most of the day was simply spent wandering around and soaking it all in; Wellington provides an endless string of interesting things to look at as you move from street-to-street, including artwork installations, innovative architecture infused with solidly classical themes, and rippingly wild weather that swoops over the surrounding hills and invades like an army of cloud ghosts.

truk and kath on Mount Victoria

Tonight, we took some time to provision for the road ahead. As soon as we get off of the ferry, life will probably get a little bit harder and, hopefully, even more rewarding. We have a car rental reserved in Picton, the town where the ferry lands, but we haven’t been able to reserve a room for that night. As it is the high-season, there is a question as to whether we will be able to find an affordable room at all in the surrounding area. Regardless, we are now prepared, with a cooking stove and enough food for a few days, not to mention a tent smuggled through customs and sleeping bags for the cool late-spring nights. Wish us luck as we float away from a jewel of a city, one that I wish we could spend a few more days exploring.

Click here for more photos of our New Zealand trip

Kindness in Wellington

TahitiWe made it to Wellington without incident, connecting through Tahiti and Auckland, as planned. Up to now, we had always flown across the Pacific in a complete leap, starting from Los Angeles or San Francisco and landing in Sydney or Auckland.  In order to get the cheap seats to make this trip possible, we had to fly Air Tahiti Nui, the national airline of Tahiti, which stops for a few hours in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, on the way to Auckland.

 

Tahiti Coast

We expected to be locked away during the layover and held in some air-conditioned, sterile waiting area in Papeete, unable to get a sense of the paradise that awaited us just outside the thick double-paned glass. Or, at least, I expected that, as I had a similar experience in Iceland with Jeff Parker when we were AirHitching to Europe in 1994 and ended up looking out at what appeared to be the moon, just outside the airport. We both wanted to get out there, if only for the few hours during the layover, but not having a visa and having no place to store our bags held us back.

Flowers

Tahiti Airport

As in Iceland, Kath and I were restricted to the airport terminal in Papeete. However, we were able to go upstairs, open up a sliding window, and get a real sense of the island from our little perch. We saw huge waves breaking on the coral reefs that surround Tahiti, and we heard the call of a beautiful native bird that flew up close to use and sang to us for minutes at a time. It still would have been nice to have gotten out there, if only for a bit, if only “to dip my feet in the warm ocean water,” as Kath put it. But the entire experience made me happy that we did get to catch a glimpse of this happy little island, and it made me want to return, sometime in the future.

We are currently ensconced at the Worldwide Backpackers, near downtown Wellington. Upon arriving, we went to plug in our various electrical devices only to find that I bought and brought the totally wrong adapter for the job. (We have about five of the correct adapter at home, from our time of living in Sydney; I just picked out the wrong one because it was easier to carry. This led me on a mad dash to find a plug adapter, and everyone I asked in the hostel and in the nearby stores looked like I was crazy. Finally, I happened on an electrical supply place, which was closed. A man in a truck asked me what I needed, I told him, and he sighed and said, “My wife is going to kill me. I was supposed to be home for dinner a half-hour ago. I’ve sat in my truck three times, trying to leave, but someone’s always come up and needed something.” He perked up when I mentioned that I was from Memphis, and he related what a good time he had in the city when he visited 11 months before. He mentioned the joy of seeing the Mississippi from the top of the Peabody, tasting the ribs at the Rendezvous, and checking out Graceland with a friend. He found me the adapters I needed, and we had a good time chatting about what I should check out on the South Island. I’m sure he was just the first of many “good chaps” we will meet along the way.

Kath and I are off to check out Te Papa (the national museum), as well as a few other spots around town today. We also have tomorrow to roam around Wellington before we take the ferry across the Cook Strait to the South Island on Saturday. All is well, and we are having fun.

More photos of Tahiti and Wellington can be found here

Los Angeles, Waiting

truk in LAXWe arrived in Los Angeles from Little Rock via Houston with little incident. The Air Tahiti Nui flight boards in less than 1 1/2 hours, and the prospect of setting on plane for 8 hours, waiting, 3 hours, and then flying 6 hours more, only to sit in Auckland for 3 hours before flying on to Wellington, is, well, a little daunting. Though I’ve made flights of this duration quite a few times, I’m still a little amazed that it is possible to travel so far, so fast. I guess I should just find my seat, grab a drink, and reflect on how strange it is to be a 33,000 feet … while I’m at 33,000 feet.

Either the main battery or the CMOS battery on the iBook is simply hosed, and it came at a time when there was absolutely nothing that could be done about it. Katherine also experienced a complete battery failure on a machine with a very new battery that was completely impossible to replace in the time remaining. The whole event was very strange; if I had been asked to describe what kind of terrible technical problem could happen and cripple this trip, I probably would have put the failure of these batteries near the top of the list. But, there is nothing that can be done. We will just have to use the devices near power outlets for the next month and live with that. We’ll cope. We’re like that.

I found an interesting book at the end of the Atlanta DAM conference at the Georgia Tech Barnes & Nobles, which I guess doubles as their campus bookstore. I like to read travel books when I am traveling, only that I need the books to cover trips in area so the world totally different from where I am traveling. My current book is The Spice Island Voyage by Tim Severin, the Gold Medal member of the Royal Geographical Society and a guy whose passport is probably as thick as War and Peace. This work tracks Severin’s efforts to follow in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, a 19th-century naturalist and contemporary of Charles Darwin that can arguably be considered a co-discover of the theory of evolution. Wallace did his most important work in the tiny island chains in the middle of modern-day Indonesia, uncovering hundreds of new species, including the Great Bird of Paradise. Perhaps the greatest message to be drawn from the book is Wallace’s patience and good grace in the face of tremendous challenges and numerous tragedies, any of which would probably send most people off a cliff. Probably a good topic to remember as we board this lengthy series of flights.