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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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I Love Melbourne

MelbourneBackpacking doesn’t always go smoothly and we ran into a good example of that in the Christchurch airport. We had a 6:00 AM flight, so we slept in our clothes, got up at 3:00 AM, packed our bags, returned the rental car and got to the airport at 4:00, exactly as planned. Then the problems began. First we tried to check-in at the self-service kiosk, but it told us we had to go to the desk. The lady at the desk informed us that our travel agent (cheaptickets.com, which is apparently just as dodgy as it sounds) had booked us on a flight that doesn’t exist and we would have to contact them. Brad called them on a pay phone and argued with them for about twenty minutes. They put us on a 5:00 PM flight, but that was all the help we got from them. Luckily, Air New Zealand is the best airline ever and a super nice lady at the service desk was able to get us on a flight to Auckland right away with a really tight connection on to Melbourne. We had to literally run to the international terminal in the Auckland airport, but we made it to Australia!

We spent three enjoyable days walking around Melbourne, a very cosmopolitan city with a population of 4 million. We saw the Royal Exhibition Building, which was built in the late 1800s and is now a World Heritage Site. We took an interesting tour of the Parliament House and learned a bit about Australian politics. We went shopping, walked through China Town and saw the Old Melbourne Gaol (jail), where the infamous Australian criminal Ned Kelly was hanged. We also visited many parks and gardens, including the Carlton Gardens, Treasury Gardens and Queen Victoria Gardens.

But Melbourne isn’t really known for sightseeing. It’s famous for sports and food. We didn’t have much to do with the former (except for listening to the Brewer game online, so exciting!), but we enjoyed a lot of the latter. Our last day in town was our designated food day and we started it off with the Queen Victoria Market. This market is one of the best in the world. I thought it was pretty similar to the Pike Place Market in Seattle. We spent the afternoon winding our way through the various stalls, taking in the sights and eating quite a bit of fresh, delicious food. Then we went to a chocolate shop and had really yummy chocolates. We also went to a candy store and tried a few Australian treats. Our plan was to end the day with a sushi dinner, but by then we had spent so much money, we held back and just had pizza. Still, it was a very fun and rare day of indulgence!

Now we’re about an hour away in Torquay, excited to spend the next couple of days driving on the Great Ocean Road. After that, we’ll be going north to the Grampians National Park, then heading back to Melbourne briefly before we go up to Sydney! So check back here frequently because I’m sure Brad’s going to have some awesome pictures to post!

Country Recap: New Zealand

What an amazing time in New Zealand! In our five weeks, we’ve been to city and country and driven some hairy roads (on the left!) through the most unbelievable scenery. We’ve been to countless beaches, mountains, endlessly rolling countryside, farms, snow, seaside cliffs, and towering forests. Overall, it’s been a month of hiking–we’ve done more hiking than ever before, and seen more awe-inspiring sublime scenery than we can believe. We went to our first rugby match and have learned enough about the sport to have an idea of what’s going on.

You’ve heard most of our adventures in this blog, but let’s take a couple moments to recap our time in this country.

Top three experiences?

Nikki: The cruise through Milford Sound, hiking in Coromandel and going out in New Plymouth after the rugby game.

Brad:

  1. Milford Sound. It was simply stunning, and we were lucky to have perfect weather.
  2. Coromandel peninsula. The drive and scenery was unbelievable, and surprisingly there weren’t a lot of other people. Our hostel on the farm was really nice, as was hiking up at the top (except for driving narrow gravel roads for 20km to get there).
  3. Queenstown. Before we got there, we didn’t think we’d like it, since it was mostly just snowboarders. But it’s actually a very nice town with a lot of really fun things to do (like the luge and bungy jumping).

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki: Invercargill (possibly the most boring and ugly town in New Zealand), Rotorura, freezing at night in Abel Tasman.

Brad:

  1. Rotorua. Maybe we were there during a geothermal downtime, but bubbling mud wasn’t very exciting, and the place stunk.
  2. Invercargill. Except for Queens Park, it was a completely flat city that didn’t seem to have much to see.
  3. Otago Peninsula outside Dunedin. Almost everything on it has a steep entrance fee. We skipped albatross viewing ($80), penguin viewing (??, but probably a lot), and seeing just the outside of Lanarch Castle ($36). If you have money to fry, it’s probably a nice place.

Best meal?

Nikki: Seafood platter in Kaikoura. Very good mussels, blue cod, calamari, fried cod and the best scallops I’ve ever had.

Brad: Our seafood platter in Kaikoura. There were many kinds of seafood, and they were all more tasty than I’ve ever experienced before.

Worst meal?

Nikki: Trail mix three days in a row in Abel Tasman. I may never eat it again.

Brad: Some of our cooking disasters in the hostels.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: Melissa, a girl from London we met in Queenstown. She was just really cool, easy going and funny. It was very fun to hang out with her.

Brad: The owner of our hostel in Rotorua. He was very friendly and we chatted quite a while. He used to live in the US, and it was interesting hearing the differences between there and here.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: Brad’s camera breaking in Auckland.

Brad: My camera breaking in Auckland. I bought it used and it was getting old to begin with. The one I bought to replace it was actually miles ahead of the old one though, so I guess it all worked out okay.

In general, our trip went very smoothly. We didn’t suffer from any car crashes, falling rocks, avalanches, fortunately.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: The Funky Green Voyager in Rotorua. Not the most modern place, but great atmosphere. Actually felt like a home away from home.

Brad: Old Bones in Oamaru.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: Rucksacker Backpacker Hostel in Christchurch. It was old, dirty, smelly, small and didn’t have enough bathrooms. Good thing we didn’t even spend a whole night there (we had to get up at 3:00 to go to the airport).

Brad: Awaroa Bay hut in Abel Tasman National Park. Without any heat or electricity, it was dark and very, very cold.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Wanaka! Especially going to the movie theatre with couches instead of chairs and the best chocolate chip cookies ever.

Brad: Kaikoura. It’s a beautiful town precariously situated between the mountains and the ocean. Our hike was in danger of a rainout while we were walking out to it, but once we got to the scenic part the rain ended and the hurricane-force winds began. Still, the views were stunning. Not to mention it’s known for its seafood.

Statistics

  • Days in the country: 34
  • Places we stayed: 22
  • Rainy days: 8
  • Blog posts: 10
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 2
  • Photos taken: 2250
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 284, 13% of all photos taken
  • Distance driven: 5031 kilometers, or 3126 miles
  • Boat rides: 5
  • Hikes we did: 20
  • Cups of coffee Nikki’s ordered: 13

The Eighth Wonder of the World: Milford Sound

I’ve been looking forward to Milford Sound for about a year. I had read many blog posts about it and I even had it as my computer background at work. But as we drove through New Zealand and saw such amazing scenery, I started to doubt that Milford Sound could possibly live up to my expectations. Could it really be that much better than everything else we saw along the way?

Milford Sound

Incredibly, it did not disappoint me at all. It was actually more impressive in person than in any of the pictures. Now you might be wondering what Milford Sound is. It’s a long channel carved by glaciers through the mountains from the Tasman Sea. So technically it’s a fjord, not a sound. I really don’t think I can describe it adequately. Majestic, enormous, amazing, grand, awesome and incredible were all words that came to mind as we floated by. You’ll just have to look at the pictures, except even the pictures don’t capture the size of the place.

Dolphins in Milford SoundWe were able to get up close to everything on a smaller sized cruise ship. At the beginning, fog was covering most of the mountain tops, making them look kind of mysterious. Then the sun came out, the fog lifted and we could see just how big the mountains were. There were also many waterfalls crashing down the sides of the canyon. When it’s raining, there are literally thousands of waterfalls. Our boat went right up to the bottom of one of them and we got very wet. We also got up close to a colony of fur seals. The best part, though, was at the very end when a group of dolphins swam up to us and started playing in the wake of our boat. Apparently it’s kind of rare to see dolphins there. Even the tour guides were taking pictures of them.

Lake Marian, Fiordland National ParkAfter the cruise, we hiked up to Lake Marian. It was definitely the most challenging hike we’ve done yet. The path wasn’t your typical sand and gravel variety, it was mostly rocks of various sizes, mud and tree roots that we had to climb up. And the entire hour and a half hike was uphill. Steep uphill. Once we made it to the lake, Brad and I had very different opinions on whether or not it was worth it. (I’ll let you guess who thought what.) At least we both agreed that Milford Sound was incredible.

Xtreme Queenstown

LugingQueenstown has many nice cafes, restaurants and bars, but this town is really all about adrenaline. It’s a major ski town and even now, at the very end of the season (most of the hills close on Sunday), you see many people just walking around town with their snowboards. Even if they’re not carrying a board, they’re probably wearing those baggy, plaid, I-don’t-care-what-old-people-think-of-me snowboarder clothes. If you look up in the sky, you’ll see at least a handful of paragliders sailing above the city. And when you get back to your hostel and ask the others what they did all day, you’re probably going to hear something like, “I jumped off such-and-such bridge!” or “I went skydiving, it was wicked!”. If your heart wasn’t racing at some point during the day in Queenstown, you’re not doing it right.

We started off our fun by taking the Skyline Gondola up a mountain right near our hostel. It was a nice, sunny day and the views of the city, lake and mountains were really cool. Then we raced down the luge (a long, winding cement race track) in little one person carts. The carts don’t have any motors or anything, they just use gravity, but you can still control the speed. There are two courses, a scenic one that is more relaxed and an advanced one that has many sharp drops and turns. It was really fun!

Bungy JumpingThe next day we took a trip to Arrowtown, a little town about twenty minutes away. It was formed during a brief gold rush in the late 1800s and they’ve preserved many of the huts where the miners used to live. Now the town has many cute little shops and cafes. We spent most of our day browsing through the random boutiques and checking out the historical sites. The museum is supposed to be pretty interesting as well, but since it’s not free we decided to pass on it.

You might be wondering if we were tempted to do any of the above-mentioned extreme sports. After spending a few days surrounded by all the hype, it’s not a matter of if, but what and when. The paragliding was pretty appealing and we thought about doing that for a while. But then we settled on bungy jumping because it was invented right here in Queenstown. There are several bungy sites, so we decided to stick with the historical theme and jump from the very first one, the Kawarau Bridge. I’m not going to lie, standing on the edge of that platform and looking down at the river is terrifying. Neither of us chickened out, though. It was definitely a rush and a great way to end our time in Queenstown.

Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef GlacierToday we went hiking on the Franz Josef glacier. Due to the dangers of hiking on the glacier (among others, rockfalls, avalanches, and hidden crevices) it must be done with an experienced guide. We did a half-day tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides, a very good company that provides very knowledgeable guides and all the equipment necessary.

We started off hiking through the valley leading up to the glacier. Apparently it’s been retreating at a very quick pace the past decade. The glacier is very much alive, and can move up to 70cm per day. When we finally reached the terminal end, we crossed over ropes with very scary warning signs and began our hike up a tall field of loose rock which actually contained the glacier underneath. Once we reached the ice, we got a quick lesson in how to attach and use our crampons, and took to the ice.

There were patches of very deep blue ice, but according to Nikki not enough. This was partially due to it being the dry season, and partially because earlier in the year there was a big rockfall that covered the ice in dust and debris. Our guides had to cut steps into the ice in some places. We also walked through a crevice that was so narrow we had to keep one foot in front of the other and shuffle forward.

The guide was very knowledgeable and showed us numerous features of the constantly moving ice, such as waves that are caused by the wind and sun, and pockets of air that form right under our feet from the immense pressure of the ice flowing down from above. We also stood on a valley that will soon break and expose the river flowing underneath. It’s interesting to think of how powerful the glaciers that covered North America must have been, if even this (relatively) small glacier is so powerful.

Our tour also included a free pass to a glacial hot pool (just a large hot tub) so we took advantage of that and relaxed for a while. Then we got drinks at a bar with an incredible view of the Southern Alps. All in all, a fun and interesting day on our first glacier.