Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Great Kiwi Road Trip: Part II, Episode III

*A.K.A  “Seals and Poaching” (but not Poaching Seals, because that would be cruel.)

Just a warning to the seal-averse (the animal, not the “Kiss from a Rose” guy): this post is going to contain a lot of seal-related material.

Like, a LOT of seals.

Sh-t loads of seals.

Ready? Let’s do this.

We have just finished the final leg of our Great Kiwi Road Trip (Part Deux) in our camper van Chunk. (A side note, every time I type camper van Chunk, I imagine Chunk to be Dutch and van Chunk is his family name.) I have to say, we are pretty sad to say goodbye to Mr. van Chunk and to New Zealand in general. We loved it there and are already planning to go back, preferably when it will be a little warmer.

Since I’m all about themes for this road trip, this past week can be summed up with wine, seals and a little semi-illegal mollusk fishing.

From Southland, where I last left you, we moved up the west coast- creatively named Westland- before we looped around the north of the South Island and headed back down the east coast (surprisingly not called Eastland). 

On the way, we stopped to hike, eat and drink, and of course, camp. By now you are probably bored with me waxing poetic about New Zealand’s stunning landscapes, so I won’t go too far into it. Rest assured that the entire South Island is incredibly beautiful and as varied in flora and fauna as every other part of the country.

This is a color photo of a foggy, gray morning. Suck it, Amsel Adams...
Fox Glacier
Again, something out of an Indiana Jones movie
The first highlight along the way was a pit stop in the Marlborough region, known for its delicious white wines.  You know how much we love our wine and how much fun we had biking buzzed from winery to winery in Argentina, so we decided to do the same thing in the little wine village of Renwick. Granted, New Zealand drivers are a little more relaxed than Argentine drivers, so we didn’t get the same element of danger so present during our Mendoza tour, but the upside was that we got to visit more wineries this time around and were too wined-up to get an adrenaline rush anyway. 

The next day, we nursed our hangovers with a dose of cuteness by visiting a seal colony on a beach a few hours away. At our campsite in Marlborough, the wonderful old lady who ran the site told us about a place along the coast where the baby fur seals leave their mothers on the beach and go up a stream to play in a waterfall. It sounded too freaking adorable to be true-  like if she had told us about a magical wonderland where puppies ride unicorns-  so we assumed she was exaggerating.

Well dear readers, I can tell you that such a place exists and it was the cutest thing ever. So cute in fact that Vincent and I sat for a good hour and a half next to that waterfall, watching around 50 seal pups swimming and jumping and splashing and spinning and climbing up the waterfall only to slide back down again. Pictures don’t do it justice, so, for the first time in this blog’s history, I am embedding a video.

I challenge you to come up with something cuter than baby seals playing in a waterfall.  A cute-off, if you will. I mean come on, look at those little faces! They’re so cute I want to punch something.

Still high on adorableness, we continued down the coast to hike around near the massive fur seal colony in Kaikoura. I have nothing more to say about seals except I love them. All of them. 

After two straight days of seals, we had to say our final goodbyes to them and head back to Christchurch for our flight to Australia. As a last hurrah in New Zealand, we camped on the coast- just Vincent, Chunk and me- with nothing between us and the Pacific but a rocky beach (and, I admit it, a couple of seals- we just couldn’t tear ourselves away). 

During our last walk along the rocky coastline, Vincent noticed some local mollusks, called Paua, clinging to the underside of a small boulder in the water. We had learned about Paua from a woman who ran a seafood shack on the beach nearby.  We were admiring some opalescent shells on her counter and she explained that the animal that lived in the shells, the Paua, was an inky mollusk with thick, steak-like meat that has the same texture and taste as squid. 

The seafood shack
Polished Paua shells
What she didn’t tell us, however, was what the fishing restrictions of the animal were, so later, as Vincent pried the shells off the rock with a butter knife, I nervously hopped from foot to foot, worrying that someone would see us doing something illegal. I know, I’m such a rebel.


We brought the shells back to Chunk and fried them up, having absolutely no idea how to cook them. The result was actually pretty good. They were meaty, a little chewy and tasted a lot like squid steaks. We were pretty proud to have sampled a local delicacy all by ourselves, even if we may have broken a law or two.

After a month there, it was time to leave New Zealand and move on to the next destination. Our departure was bittersweet, as our departures from countries always are. We had so much fun driving and camping around this beautiful country. Of course, nearly every part of this entire trip has been fun, but our memories of New Zealand are some of our best: days spent driving wherever we wanted and stopping wherever we pleased, picnicking on the beach, hiking through stunning landscapes; nights spent relaxing with a hot tea or a glass of wine in Chunk, camping under clear, star-filled skies, watching Lord of the Rings snuggled up under our comforters in the exact place the films were made. We had a blast and can’t wait to get back.

We are now in Sydney to start our Australian adventure, which includes two weeks of volunteering on a pecan farm that has a cafĂ© and bed and breakfast. So this time, instead of blogging about “Nueces!”, I’ll be blogging about pecans. 

But until then, I leave you with a photo of our last moments with Chunk.

Peace out, big guy. 

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Great Kiwi Road Trip: Part II, Episode II*

*And a little bit of Episode I because I was way too busy singing old Elton John songs and pretending to use my magic staff (didn’t I tell you? I’m Gandalf now…) that I did not even mention where we were in New Zealand’s South Island. What kind of travel blog is this??

So before I jump into our most recent adventures let me back up and tell you what we were doing last week when we weren’t watching Lord of the Rings movies.

We flew from Auckland in the North Island to Christchurch in the South Island, where we rented Chunk, our camper van. 

Chunk's roomy interior
We then drove southwest through the central lakes region and by Mt. Cook, which at 12,300 ft (3754 m), is New Zealand’s highest mountain. From there, we headed further south to the area around Queenstown, which is on the massive Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by several beautiful mountain ranges; one of which is the awesomely-named Remarkables range.

I don’t know why that name tickles me so much, but I just love the idea of naming a mountain range such an awe-struck adjective. They aren’t named for their rockiness, or their smokiness, or after some person or tribe. They are named The Remarkables simply because someone looked at them and that’s the first word that came to their mind. I love that.

From Queenstown, we went to the southern-most region of New Zealand, imaginatively named Southland. Remember our first road trip in the north? That area was called Northland. I guess the Kiwis’ creativity stopped after The Remarkables.

Southland is well-known for its pristine mountains and fjords (the fjord area is called, you guessed it, Fjordland), including Milford Sound, which is New Zealand’s pride and joy: a long inlet of deep blue water from the Tasman Sea that winds through a gorge of snowcapped mountains, green domed hills and tall, cascading waterfalls that crash into the water below from sheer rock faces. 

Taste the Rainbow (and enjoy the dorky raincoat hood)
While actually a fjord, not a sound, Milford Sound is not only beautiful, but is also impressively remote and protected. For the nation’s most frequented tourist site, there is very little there in the way of tourist amenities and the Sound is left blessedly free of the kinds of crowds one would expect at so famous a place.

In fact, the entire South Island is conspicuously free of the hordes of tourists that should be in a country this stunning. As I’ve said again and again, New Zealand is gorgeous. No exaggeration (or at least, no more than usual, coming from me), every single hour of every single day that we’ve spent here on the South Island has brought us one stunning view after another. While I can’t say that New Zealand is the most beautiful country in the world, I can assert without a doubt that it is the most beautiful one I have ever seen.  

A large part of that is of course the natural beauty of the landscape, but another part is that this placed is simply untouched. There are so few people living on the South Island that the vast majority -and I’m talking maybe 80% here- of the island is undeveloped. Sure, a good chunk of that percentage is grazing land for animals (there are 45 million sheep for a population of 4.5 million people), but it’s still green and natural and has not been constructed upon. The rest is just virgin forest, uninhabited mountain ranges, naked coast line. We pass the most picturesque alpine lakes imaginable and no one has built a house on the banks, no one is cutting across them on a jet-ski. Sure, we see lakes like these in Switzerland, but there they are surrounded by mansions and piers, villages and public parks. Here, it feels like we have the entire country to ourselves.

Can you tell I am in love with this place?

After taking in Milford Sound by way of a boat cruise (which was kind of forced upon us: there is no other way to explore the fjord other than on the water) we enjoyed Fjordland a little more by hiking along the famous (well, famous here anyway) Routeburn Track up to Key Summit. I normally don’t bother giving the names of the hikes we do, but this one had such spectacular views from the top that I can’t keep it to myself. Behold:

Beautiful, yes, but coooold!
Also of note is the wildlife we have seen these last few days. While walking in the woods one day in a place we named the Enchanted Forest (shut up, it was enchanted!) we saw a wild parakeet in a bush right next to the path! Our pictures of him are embarrassing, but it was really cool to see a bird that we normally consider to be tropical in a place surrounded by snowy mountain peaks. 

See? Totally enchanted.

But that’s New Zealand: every climate, landscape, flora and fauna imaginable, all smashed together on a tiny island. Sheep on the side of the road one minute, seals the next. It’s insane.

Our other brush with Mother Nature was decidedly less magical: a creepy possum wouldn’t leave us alone one night. We could hear him scratching around outside and stomping back and forth on our roof. I kept telling Vincent, “It’s a possum, it’s a possum, I just know it,” while looking out the window from behind the curtains like a crazy old lady making sure the neighborhood kids don’t ride their bikes on her lawn.

Vincent remained skeptical until finally he decided to grab a flashlight and go look around. We both crept outside into the night, Vincent in front with the flashlight and me cowering behind him (which is perfectly normal- possums are gross). Suddenly, Vincent gasped, “Elissa, look!”

On the ground, in the beam of his flashlight, was a dead bird.

That was proof enough for me that there was a killer possum on the loose, and doing my most dignified version of the Chicken Dance, I ran back to the camper van yelling, “Possumpossumpossum!”

Vincent finally convinced me to venture back out in the darkness and we found the possum, high on a branch in the tree above Chunk.

Watching us.


Creepy-ass possum…

We are now on the west coast, where we will begin our journey north along the Tasman Sea for the next week before looping around back to Christchurch. In the meantime, betcha can’t guess the name of the westernmost region of New Zealand…

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Great Kiwi Road Trip, Part II: Episode I

-a.k.a "Lord of the Rings and Easy Listening Music"

Lord of the Rings (hereby referred to as LotR) and easy listening music should never be in the same sentence, but no two themes better represent our first few days of touring the South Island of New Zealand in a rented camper van.

As mentioned in my last post, we opted for a bigger van this time around, which not only gives us more space for the 17-day excursion, but also ends up being a cheaper deal (don't ask me, Vincent's the accountant in this operation). So when we booked online, we knew we were upgrading from our little camper in the North Island, but we had no idea we would be getting this beast:

We call him: "Chunk."

Despite his bulk, Chunk has actually been the perfect companion on our trip. Unlike in the North Island, where we could eat our meals outside, the South Island is cooooold and as a result, we spend all of our downtime inside. Chunk's extra pudge might be embarrassing, but damn he's comfortable.

And frankly, a little comfort doesn't go unnoticed on nights when the temperature gets below freezing, which has happened a few times since we started. Some nights, we succumb to our weenie-ness and go to a powered campsite to plug in our heater, but we have also made an effort to do some "wild" camping- i.e. no heat or hot water (or bathrooms for that matter).

Trying to keep warm by wrapping ourselves in comforters while we eat our hot soup.
One of our more beautiful (and more freezing) campsites
But let's go back to those themes I mentioned.

First, for those who are a little less dorky than I am (and I assume that's all of you), let me explain why Lord of the Rings has played such an integral role in our road trip. The three LotR movies- all 11 hours(!) of them- were filmed in New Zealand, principally in the South Island. When I watched those movies, I was enchanted by landscapes that played almost as big a role as the characters themselves (that is, when I wasn't distracted by all of the dramatic, homo-erotic looks of longing shared between Frodo and Samwise- god, those two were into each other...) Behind the wizards and goblins, the talking trees and hobbits, there were always soaring snow-capped mountains, deep blue alpine lakes, vast rolling plains, moss-covered forests. Even if you aren't a huge LotR nerd, the film sets of those movies are magnificent.

So, as we began our journey in the South Island, we set out on a quest of our own: to find the same scenery that was in the movies. And we weren't disappointed.

Now that's a picnic spot

Frodo and Sam, gettin' their gay on

We have been spending our days driving and hiking through breath-taking natural beauty. Then, as soon as the sun goes down (which it does early down here), we retreat to Chunk, curl up under our comforters and watch the LotR films, getting even more excited about the places we'll see next. Between the incredible scenery we are seeing every day and my stubby- and, let's face it, hairy- legs, I totally feel like Frodo.

Or Gollum, if I haven't showered in a couple days.

You may be wondering where the easy listening music comes into play here, but believe me, it does. The Kiwis, in all of their wisdom, have created something called "Tourism  Radio," which comes free with rented camper vans. The radio has a GPS system, so as we approach a town or sight, the radio tells us a little bit about it: the highlights and history, what to see and do, where to stay. It's genius, really.

Even more genius is that in between the recorded messages is hilarious easy listening music from the 70's, 80's and 90's (and some recent stuff, but honestly, who listens to Michael Buble??) So, the beautiful views and picturesque drives of the past few days have had the unexpected soundtrack of The Eagles, the Steve Miller Band, Celine Dion, REM, and my personal favorite, Sir Elton John.

Picture it: us flying through the countryside of New Zealand in Chunk the camper van. Vincent driving. Me navigating.

And both of us belting out at the top of our lungs, "She's got electric boots, a mohair suit, ya know I read it in a maga-zah-eeeeeene-whoa hooooo. B-b-b-Benny and the Jets!"

There may have been some dancing involved as well.

"Zat's me in za corner. Zat's me in za spot-light, losing my religion..."

Between the stunning landscapes, the embarrassingly awesome easy listening music, the non-stop Lord of the Rings references and our friend Chunk- the Great Kiwi Road Trip, Part II is gearing up to be even more fun than Part I.

And for those of you who now have "Benny and the Jets" stuck in your head:

You're welcome.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Great Kiwi Road Trip, Part I

One would think that given the difficulty of traveling with a partner (if you have no idea what I'm talking about, see THIS POST), Vincent and I would make every effort to ease the strain on our relationship by giving ourselves a little room to breath while on the road.

But one would be wrong.

We are in New Zealand, the first non-South American country we've visited and the second of four continents on our itinerary. It is beautiful. I'll tell you the what in a second, but first, let me tell you the how.

Everyone told us that the big draw in New Zealand is its unique and stunning natural beauty, so in order to really get off the beaten path and see it, we decided to rent a little camper van and tour the country on our own. While the two of us looked hilarious in our pint-size home on wheels, it was the best possible way to experience this incredible country.

New Zealand is made up of two main islands, the North Island and the South Island. Our first camper adventure was in the North Island. After spending two days in Auckland, NZ's biggest and most cosmopolitan city, we picked up our van for a week-long rental.

Now, for those who are imagining the two of us in a big, roomy mobile home, here's what our living space for the week looked like:

The floor plan was a little cramped, but you really can't beat that view.

When we weren't stepping on and bumping in to one another (and when poor Vincent wasn't bashing his head against the ceiling), we were camping next to the beach, having picnic lunches with a view and spending rainy afternoons in the coziness of our little (and I do mean little) camper.

It was a blast. We drove from Auckland up the east coast of the North Island, stopping whenever we saw something interesting. We had a map, plenty of Werther's Originals and absolutely no plan whatsoever, which is exactly how a road trip should be. Since we didn't have a destination, we decided how far and in which direction to drive each day depending on how we felt and whether or not we could find a campsite on a beach. We stopped for little hikes and walks every few hours, or when we passed through an adorable village worth strolling around in. Our days were spent driving through beautiful countrysides, walking in the woods or along a beach, and stopping for sun-drenched picnics, while nights were spent reading, cooking and drinking wine in our camper.

The trip was so relaxing that the days just kind of run together in my mind in snapshots of sunsets over the ocean and curving country roads (as witnessed above), but the highlight was seeing the insane, ever-changing landscape of a relatively small country. Just in the miniscule area we covered, we saw the lush, green rolling hills of Switzerland, the white sand beaches and aquamarine waters of Bermuda, the dramatic volcanic coastline of Easter Island and the overgrown, fern-covered forests of the Amazon- all within a few miles of each other.

The most impressive of the natural wonders we saw during our road trip were the ancient Kauri trees, which used to cover the North Island before their population was decimated by logging. We walked to several of New Zealand's biggest specimens- some of which were up to 45 feet (14 m) around and nearly 2000 years old! It was awe-inspiring to be next to something that essentially made a mockery of both the size and lifespan of humans and yet was so fragile.

The North Island road trip was such a success that we have decided to visit the South Island the same way, only this time, we will tour around for two weeks instead of one.

And this time, we're getting a bigger camper.