A Travellerspoint blog

June 2011

v5.0 - New Zealand (North Island; Auckland to Wellington)

Climbing up mountains one day, jumping out of a plane the next

all seasons in one day 12 °C

After a week of beautiful weather in the paradise islands of French Polynesia, it was time to head to Auckland for the start of my six week New Zealand adventure. Upon arrival at the airport I was greeted with some homely British weather conditions; it was wet, windy and cold, not particularly suited to my attire of shorts and t-shirt. Once I'd made my way to the city, I headed to the Base hostel, which would be my home for the next four nights. It's fair to say that they know their clientele, as the first night they were offering free pizza at the bar, a God-send to us budget conscious travellers. Having had more than my fair share, and beating anyone who dared challenge me at pool, I was about ready for bed.

To be brutally honest, four nights in Auckland was roughly three nights too many; it's a nice enough city but by day three I was getting seriously bored. The silver lining to this particular cloud was that in not doing anything, I saved myself a fair chunk of cash, which I would be putting to very good use in the days to come.

By Monday morning I was glad to see the sight of the Magic Bus, ready to take me south to Rotorua. When on the bus I got talking to an English lad called Nick, a Scotsman called Kieran and an Austrian called... um... well, none of us could actually remember his name, so we simply called him Austria, which worked well. We spent the afternoon and evening taking in the sights and smells of Rotorua (for those of you not familiar will Rotorua, large parts of it smell unfortunately similar to rotton eggs due to the geothermal activity releasing sulphur into the air - it's not nice). In the morning our bus took us to Wai-O-Tapu National Park, where various elements in the land produce an incredable array of colours* in the surrounding lakes, craters and caves. Particular highlights included Devil's Home, Devil's Ink Pot, Devil's Bath, Devil's Cave and the rather sinisterly named... Rainbow Crater.

The park also features Lady Knox Geyser, which erupts at the same time every day. To my disappointment, this is not a natural phenomenon (it does erupt naturally, but its timing is unpredictable); the eruption is induced with the addition of soap. While it was in impressive spectacle, the whole event had something of a Blue Peter feel to it.

After spending a couple of hours at Wai-O-Tapu, we hopped back on the bus and headed south to Lake Taupo, where we'd be spending three nights.
Mt Tongariro, Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe provide Taupo with a stunning backdrop. Since Monday, it had been my lifelong ambition to climb the snow tipped Mt Ngauruhoe, better known as Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings. Along with Nick, I therefore signed up to do the Tongariro Crossing trek on the Wednesday. Unfortunately, due to adverse weather conditions, attempting to reach the summit of Ngauruhoe unaided would have resulted in a severe case of death, so we had to make do with the smaller peak of Tongariro.

As far as consolation prizes go, this wasn't a bad one. Having reached the summit a good 15 minutes before anyone else on our coachload of 28 (there was one lad who provided us with some competition, but his map reading skills let him down), we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes (pictured below). After we'd taken pictures, had a bite to eat and a bit of a rest, it was time to head back. As we crossed back past the Blue Lake we were exposed to the most violent winds I have ever experienced. Not being the biggest guy in the world, I was forced to stop on several occassions in order to prevent being blown over, and to shield my face from the waves of dust being hurled through the air. Once through that particular hazard, it was simply a case of strolling back down the mountain, before heading back to Taupo for a couple of well earned beers.
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After a day of hard work on Wednesday, Nick and I decided to take things easy on Thursday... by going skydiving! While it was bitterly cold, it was a beautifully clear and still morning - perfect conditions for jumping out of a plane. The hostel rang the company (Freefall), and 10 minutes later we were being whisked away. With barely enough time for any nerves to raise their heads, we were in our jumpsuits, strapped in and airborn. At a guess, I'd say we were in the air for about 20 minutes before the first of our group was flung out, followed by Nick, then myself.

To be honest, I was surprised by the fact that I wasn't actually that scared, nowhere near as much as I was doing a bungee jump a couple of years back. Once you're sat on the edge of the plane, you have very little say in what happens next; the instructor decides when you're going, whether you're ready or not. Before you know it, you're falling at somewhere close to 200kph. The rush of adrenaline is extraordinary, without doubt one of the best experiences of my life. Once the parachute was ejected things slowed down somewhat, and I had time to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings from this unique vantage point, with a glorious view of Lake Taupo (which, apparently, is larger than Singapore), and the mountain trio in the background. Having finally done it, I would recomment skydiving to anyone and everyone. It was absolutely amazing, and I would jump at the chance (sorry) to do it again!

The following day we got the bus back to the Tongariro National Park, via Waitomo Caves, famous for the glow worms that illuminate the walls. We spent Friday night at the picturesque hostel at the National Park, before heading to the capital city, Wellington, the final stop before ferrying over to the South Island. That evening a group of us headed to the Westpac Stadium to watch Wellington Hurricanes take on Canterbury Crusaders (featuring Dan Carter, apparently one of the best players in the world), the first rugby game I've ever attended. Aside from a Mexican wave that completed five laps of the stadium, the atmosphere was somewhat subdued. This may have had something to do with the Hurricanes shocking inability to keep hold of the ball, causing them to blow several gilt-edged chances as they slumped to a 16-9 defeat. After the rugby, we went into town, sampling Wellington's lively night life, returning at something o'clock in the morning.

After a much needed lay-in the following morning, myself, Nick, Jen, Alex and Rachel - all of whom I met on the bus - visited the Te Papa Museum, where I learned that I could cause an earthquake that would destory the world simply by jumping as hard as I could. Who knew? With that insightful information in mind, I went with Jen to explore the rest of the city, stumbling upon a hidden gem in the Olympic Museum. While it was roughly the size of a shoe box, it had some interesting memorabilia, including the medals of New Zealand's most successful Olympian (2 golds, 1 silver, but one of the gold medals was 'on tour') and, rather bizarrely, the torch from the 2000 games in Sydney.

It was then back to the hostel for some pizza (is having pizza four times in a week considered unhealthy?), before a good old pub quiz. Thanks mostly to the two answers I contributed, we claimed third place and a $20 bar tab!

At the time of writing, I'm currently seeing out my last day in Wellington (going to have some left-over pizza in a minute), before leaving for Picton in the South Island tomorrow morning. If, as everyone says, the South Island is that much better than the North, I should have a rather interesting four weeks in store. Until then, I'll leave you with some news that may be of some comfort to all you at home: the weather here is bad, and getting worse. The South Island is going to be absolutely freezing. However, this does result in stunning scenery, and lends itself nicely to activities such as glacier walking at Franz Josef, so I'm not going to complain!

  • * Science Lesson #1:

Sulphur = Yellow
Collodial sulphur/ferrous salts = Green
Antimony = Orange
Manganese oxide = Purple
Silica = White
Iron oxide = Red/brown
Sulphur and carbon = Black

Posted by Daniel.J.B 01:24 Archived in New Zealand Tagged auckland rotorua new_zealand national_park wellington rugby sky_diving lake_taupo wai_o_tapu Comments (0)

Episode 4 - Polynesia

A Hitchhiker's Guide To Polynesia

sunny 35 °C

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I arrived in Tahiti at roughly 5am, and by the time I'd made it from the plane to the terminal building I was sweating! It was that hot.
The first thing I did upon arrival was withdraw 20 grand in cash (the money here is amazing) and hire a car. Now, being under 25, they told me I was only allowed a grade 1 car, which in this case was a very fetching white Fiat Panda. I don't know if any of you Internetians have ever been to Tahiti, but it's not what you'd call flat. The wee Panda was happy enough going downhill, but going uphill, bless her, she struggled. I realised this because the first thing I decided to do was drive up a couple of mountains and go exploring. 

Once out of Bear Grylls mode, I realised I had no idea where I actually was, nor where I would be sleeping that night, which was quite important. Using my excellent sense of direction (Pacific Ocean on my left, big mountains on my right) I made my way to the hub of the island, Papeete.
Upon arrival I didn't think it would take me long to find the address of the hostel I was hoping to stay at, but I was wrong. So very wrong! The road system in Papeete is utterly ridiculous, and the Tahitian natives are mental drivers, with little to no regard for road markings, right of way, or speed limits. Throw in a bunch of suicidal scooter and cyclists, combine with dogs sleeping in the road, add two shots of vodka, shake a little, and you've got yourself a  Disastertastrophy cocktail.

What's worse is that I've never before driven a left hand drive car, nor on the right side of the road. So while all that other gubbins was going on around me, I was concentrating on not opening the door to change gear or having a head-on collision. I eventually reached the hostel which, thankfully, had vacancies. I staggered to my bed and lapsed into a coma. Fortunately, the coma lasted little longer than a normal night's sleep (cynics would question whether it was in fact a coma at all), so I was up at a respectable hour to discover what Tahiti had to offer.

Now, I didn't want to get there and compare everything to the Cook Islands, but inevitably, that's exactly what I did.
Strike one went to Tahiti; the scenery is utterly stunning. The Cook Islands - or to be specific, Rarotonga - is hardly ugly, but Tahiti is considerably bigger, allowing for a wider variety of views and landscapes. Just when you think it can't get any more beautiful, you turn a corner and are blown away by something new. My right index finger suffered from severe camera cramp (I'm assuming that's a legitimate medical term).
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From there on in however, Tahiti begins to lose its' way. For a start, there's not really that much to do that isn't prohibitively expensive. While I had the car, I did a full lap of the island, stopping at any point of interest. I went on a fair few treks, discovering some hidden gems, such as a couple of picturesque waterfalls and lagoons. Other than that, there's a great local market, but not a lot else. By the fourth day I was starting to get a bit, well... bored.

The great thing about these sort of places is the ability to island hop. As I felt I'd seen all there was to see in Tahiti, I decided to get a ferry over to the island of Moorea and spend a couple of nights there. The boredom soon subsided. Once the ferry arrived, I planned to get a bus to Haapiti where I would look for the superbly named 'Mark's Place' in the hope of a bed. I failed to realise that, as it was Sunday, there was no bus service (at least not in the 2 hours I waited). I therefore got my map out, which was pretty useless as it didn't state to what scale it was, and tried to figure out if it was within walking distance, bearing in mind I had all my luggage with me. Using a couple of landmarks as reference points, I figured it would take me about an hour and a half to walk, which I could handle.

2 hours later, I realised I was wrong. I was only about 20% of the way there, and there was no way my body would survive another 8 hours in that heat. I checked my map and came to the conclusion that I was in the middle of roughly nowhere. With no phone to call a taxi, I opted for the next best thing: hitchhiking (coincidentally, I'm reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on my Kindle). After a surprisingly short amount of time, I'd been picked up by a hilariously insane Moorean chap,  and was sat in the back seat of a car that was literally unable to travel above 20mph without risk of falling apart.

More by luck than judgement, I was at Mark's Place. Mark, a very pleasant fellow from Ohio, booked me in. Excellent. I then did a 360 and noticed that Moorea was as stunning as nearby Tahiti. With little else to do, I decided to go for a walk and take a few nice pictures, before returning back to Mark's for dinner. It, however, didn't quite go to plan because, while on my way back, I was called over by a group of lads drinking beer. Now, we all know the saying 'don't speak to strangers'. If we were to elaborate on this saying, it would probably go something like 'don't speak to strangers, particularly if they're drinking beer and smoking, whilst you're in a foreign country by yourself, where you don't speak the language, and are quite clearly a tourist'.

As you can probably guess, I failed to heed this advice. What happened for the next x hours is a bit of a blur, partly because I joined them in their aforementioned activities, partly because it was all completely surreal. Despite the obvious language barrier*, they embraced me into their considerably sized family (seriously, I was holding a baby at one point!). While they seemed friendly enough, occasionally they would speak to each other in French, look at me, and laugh. I'm not going to lie, it made me somewhat apprehensive. This apprehension was exacerbated by the fact that the warming afternoon sun had been replaced by complete darkness, and I wasn't entirely sure how to get back to Mark's.

Trying not to offend them, but also being concerned for my own safety, I politely declined the offer of dinner and a bed for the night, not to mention the proposal to marry the mother of the baby, and headed back. Two brothers also had to walk back in the same direction, so escorted me most of the way. One of them turned off to his home, leaving me in the company of one of the scariest looking blokes I've ever seen (I've never considered face tattoos particularly friendly), in complete darkness. Thankfully, I made it back to the hostel safely, where I had time to reflect on what a bizarre night it had been.

Whilst eating my beef flavoured Ramen noodles, I started to wish I'd accepted the offer of dinner. I also wish I'd accepted the offer of a bed, because my hut, beautiful though it was, can best be described as a wooden tent, as it did little to protect you from the elements, specifically the winds that were raging outside. This was largely due to the fact that in place of glass windows, it had mesh netting. There were curtains, but using these to try and keep the wind out was as useful as trying to control a fire by putting a cardboard box over it.

After a breezy night, I had one full day in Moorea. Thankfully Mark was on hand to advise me on how best to spent it, creating a mini itinerary for me. Mid morning I set of on the Three Coconut Walk, an epic trek through the forest. The route had been decimated by winds, with several trees and bridges falling victim, making for some interesting, and often dangerous, obstacles. Assuming you survive these, after about 2 and a half hours your effort is rewarded with a sensational, glorious, magnificent panoramic view of the island. After a spot of lunch, I headed back to Mark's, where I grabbed a bicycle and some snorkeling gear, and headed to the beach. The water was beginning to get a bit violent by the time I got there, so I didn't have too much time, but still spotted some beautifully coloured tropical fish, as well as a particularly shy hermit crab. I then sat on the beach watching the sun set, before heading back for dinner. All-in-all, a very successful day.

It was then simply a case of getting back to Tahiti, killing a few hours, and heading to the airport. Needless to say, it didn't work out that way (you're surprised, I can tell). I had to check out by 10am, and was due to be picked up at 1pm to get the ferry at 2.45pm. All very straight forward. However, I had not had anything to eat or drink since the afternoon before, and the local shops only took cash, of which I had none. I therefore decided I needed to get to one of only two ATMs on the island. Now, most people learn from their mistakes. Not me; I've worked out I make the same mistake an average six times before even beginning to learn. I looked at my trusted map, and decided I could make it to the ATM, buy food and drink, and make it back with time to spare. I forgot - despite being there almost a week- that mornings are agonizingly hot, I had all my luggage with me and, on account of not having drank in roughly 15 hours, I was on the verge of dehydration. By the time I'd made it to the ATM, got cash, drank 1.5 litres of water, eaten a ham sandwich, an apple and half a pack of Oreos, it was 12.53.

With no buses in sight (Moorean public transport, to put it lightly, isn't the best), I had only one option: hitchhike, again. I was this time picked up by the most amazingly kind-hearted Tahitian lady, Valerie, and her daughter. Rather than simply take me to the dock, Valerie took me to her home, gave me some of the most delicious home grown fruit imaginable, and gave me a tour of her back garden. Most back gardens don't require a spine-tingling, head-bashing, ear-popping, 4x4 trip in order to gain access, but this was not like most back gardens; it was unbelievable, the view was breathtaking. After insisting I take more fruit, which I gladly accepted, Valerie dropped me off at the dock, leaving with me her address and phone number should I ever happen to pass through Moorea in the future.
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I made it to the ferry with time in hand, and finally made it back to Tahiti. I made sure I got to the airport in plenty of time. When I say plenty of time, I mean 14 hours before my flight was due to depart! Why is it that when I allow time for unexpected occurrences, they never materialize? Oh well, next stop is Auckland and six weeks in New Zealand. It's fair to say, I'm excited!

  • * Mildly Amusing Anecdote #1: At one point they asked me to say what I could in French. Having exhausted my limited vocabulary (hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, 1-10), I resorted to reciting the lyrics to Flight of the Conchord's Foux Du FaFa. Parlez-vous le Francais? Non.

Posted by Daniel.J.B 17:45 Archived in French Polynesia Tagged french_polynesia tahiti moorea Comments (0)

Chapter 3 - San Diego

Stay Classy San Diego

sunny 30 °C

So, after the airport shenanigans documented in blog 2, I finally arrived in San Diego. After the day I'd had, I would have killed for a beer or 9. Thankfully for the other guests, it didn't come to that, as the hostel had already organised a night out at a local club (usually $40 entry). At this point, I'd like to describe in detail what happened. Unfortunately, neither I, nor any of my newly made friends, could recall much at all the following morning. I have managed to piece together some key events: I dropped my phone in the toilet; the club was huge, and had a fire on the roof; drinks were flippin' expensive; I played some jazz flute; a copious amount of tequila was consumed by all.

With heads feeling rather sore the following morning, a few of us decided the best hangover cure was beer (they say 60% of the time, it works every time). We stumbled a few block to the wonderfully named Nicky Rotten's and planted ourselves next to the biggest TV. Two good things then happened. Firstly, Barcelona gave United a footballing lesson. Secondly, I had the greatest burger of all time, bar none. It was called the 'Pizza Burger'. Combining a pizza with a burger is so brilliantly simple, I can't believe I've not done it before. It was, in a word, glorious. I love Pizza Burger. By 2 o'clock, it was officially a good day; come 3 o'clock, it was to become a brilliant one.

Within a week of leaving the UK I'd come to the conclusion that being sensible was synonymous with being boring. With this glaringly flawed ethos in mind, I put my name down for the trip to Tijuana, Mexico! Mexico's "border control" (I use that term loosely) is somewhat less sophisticated than their northern neighbours'. In favour of fingerprinting and iris scans, they've gone for the not-so-subtle approach of a revolving door, and one man with a gun. In fairness, it was a bloody big gun. We strolled over the border, and went to do some shopping. It was here I made a frankly inspired purchase.

I opted against the bottle of 96% proof spirit, instead spending $10 on a bright blue Mexican wrestling mask (Google image search Rey Mysterio and you'll get the idea). We went for some $2 beers and $1 tequilas, before heading for food. Usually, restaurants, pool clubs, nightclubs and tattoo parlours are separate establishments, but not in Mexico. After we ordered our food, we wandered past the dance floor to the pool table where, in between shots, we were able to watch a girl get a hideous design printed on her back! 

With fajitas, tacos and nachos consumed, the waiter returned with yet more tequila. He proceeded to perform a rather amusing ritual of going around the table, yanking everyone's head back, and pouring a couple of shots worth down everyone's throat. With that, we were ready to hit the club! Once I'd had a few more beers, and possibly some more tequila, I inevitably thought it would be a fantastic idea to crack out the wrestling mask. I'm not so sure it was, but it made for some interesting photos.

Having got precisely seven minutes of sleep that night, I decided to pay a visit to the zoo and meet some pandas. While I wasn't overly impressed with the zoo overall (Singapore blows it away), pandas are stunning creatures, I could've watched them all day! The father was a big chap, I tried to get an interview with him, but they said 'no, you can’t do that he’s a live bear, he will literally rip your face off.' Oh well.

Monday's weather was glorious and, with it being my last day in San Diego, I decided to take a trip to Mission Beach. It was horrible. Overcrowded and full of people trying to sell you expensive rubbish (I bought a hat). I didn't hang around long, and on my travels back stumbled across a place called Old Town, which I decided to explore. I'm glad I did, the place was amazing; it was like stepping onto the set of a western! Before I knew it, I'd spent the rest of the day in saloons, cigar shops and brothels (joking...).

Once back I decided to have a quiet night in, as I had a bus to LA to catch on the morning before flying out. My plan was going well, up until someone asked me if I wanted to come out, to which I instantly responded: 'sure'.

After another fun night, I opted against getting the bus in favour of a road trip with a group of Australians who were heading to Hollywood. This was a good choice - much more comfortable, and they dropped me off right at the airport. Turns out they aren't a bad bunch, the Aussies!

The only downside was a 10 hour wait at one of the most depressing places on Earth, LAX! Within 2 hours, I was in a glass case of emotion.
Eventually though, I was on my way to paradise. I arrived in Tahiti at roughly 5am, and it was hot. Very hot. Good times...

  • * Awesome Trivia #1: How many Anchorman references can you spot?

Posted by Daniel.J.B 17:18 Archived in USA Tagged beaches san_diego mexico zoo usa panda tijuana Comments (0)

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