Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"There's a lot of hype...

to New Zealand." 

Unsolicited quote from a young Frenchman on the Routeburn Track.

I came to New Zealand with high hopes of extending my almost perfect summer of 2016 into the Southern Hemisphere. 

But as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and Wandering Wondering Jews often go awry. How was I to know NZ would be in the throes of the worst summer in decades? The season that went missing was so obviously awful newspaper editorials, residents and TV News programs commented of its overall crappiness. (See photo). It wasn't just me thinking WTF!

My "Welcome to New Zealand" cough and cold didn't help my disposition either. It was one gloomy, gray, wind-crazed and bone numbing day after another. Peaking out of my window in the morning made me want to return to bed and weep. Good thing, I brought 70 Starbucks instant coffees with me. Caffeine forced me to do something. I donned my foul weather gear and went through the motions of an active overseas ramble. To be honest, I wasn't feeling it. I experienced loneliness. A sure sign of a journey gone bad. 

So...I was spending heaps of Greenbacks and not having fun. BTW: Don't travel here thinking this is a bargain basement destination. It's not! For example: On the International Beer Index, a six-pack of decent IPA will set you back US$18.50. A gallon of gas is US$7.00. 

Now back to this blog's catchy "Bring you into the tent" title. 

Tourism is NZ's number one foreign currency money maker. 3.4 million International guests arrived in 2016. For comparison there are 4.7 million Kiwis. 

A virtual cottage industry of guide and shuttle services have sprung up like fresh moss after a rain to deal with the onslaught of selfie-stick wielding foreigners. Worrisome wanderers (not me) will pay up to NZ$100 for a guided three hour hike to a waterfall. Heck! I would provide the same service for half that AND carry their backpacks. 

I met and spoke to many guides. One common trait they all possessed was a Polly-Anna personality coupled with a flair for the understatement. I.E.:
"We shall get a wee bit of rain today!" True meaning: if you hold your head up with your mouth open, you will drown. 
"It might be a wee bit windy on top." True meaning: Watch out that you don't get conked on the noggin by an airborne Volkswagen Beetle. 

In the more sought after destinations such as Milford, Mount Cook and Glacier Country, helicopters drone over the airspace above while sand flies rule the ground below. It's a noisy, not very wilderness-like scene. 

The official NZ Government Tourism Board is the World's oldest. By now they have figured out a way to lure people (and their money) from faraway places to this small Island Nation. It's done with clever marketing. There's a lot of overstatement going on. New Zealand created nine "Great" Walks. I ambled along six of them. On my scale, I'd rate three as pretty good. (Milford, Abel Tasman and Routeburn) Two as so-so (Tongariro and Kepler) and one as incredibly below average. ((Lake Weikaremoana). 

Of these six, I would do Abel Tasman and Milford again.

Apparently, the idea of "Great" like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The other overused descriptor is "Must See!" Every town, camper van park and museum uses this phrase. Oftentimes the "must see" object is pretty mundane and somewhat common in these parts. I.E.: Waterfalls. (A steep landscape with heaps of precipitation equals a lot of waterfalls)

Whoa! Before you think I detested my stay here. Au contraire! I just wish the Tourism industry would tone down the above mentioned hype. New Zealand is a diverse, beautiful and wild land. It's occupied by many kind, honest, polite, proper and gentle people. It's insanely safe (except for the narrow roads and dicey trails). 

Tourists can let their guard down here and get away with it. I liked that feeling a lot. The older I become the more I enjoy a sense of security. New Zealand is an easy (in a GREAT way) destination. It's good value for its comfort, cleanliness and abundance of helpful citizens. 

I'll be back with a game plan to arrive earlier and stay longer. One international guest can't possibly be a witness to two of the most horrendous summers on record! 

BTW. Summer did show its blissfully warm, mellow and happy side in the past ten days. I'll even go on record to say I regained my Mojo! 

Yes, I'll surely be back within the next four years.

Next stop!
Death Valley National Park, California 

I'm still running for President in 2020. The First Lady position is still open too. 

All these photos are from Arthur's Pass NP. The hikes were great.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Tale of two...


It's all about the weather. This is the dilemma of hiking in Westland National Park. Fox and Franz Josep glaciers are very approachable and accessible for sightseeing. That is if you don't mind the sweat labor involved in getting to a viewpoint. I don't mind as long as I score a BIG Ohh Ahhh scene. I batted .500 for the two. 

At the trailhead for Mount Fox, there's a Warning sign. It reads: “this trail has limited track formation and steep grades. It is suitable for fit, experienced, and properly equipped people.”

The route is a total grunt hand-over-hand full body workout. It's 3,800 feet of up in a scant 2.4 miles. There's mud too, and not the exfoliating your skin kind. This is ankle deep goo capable of sucking your trail runner right off your foot. Like it did to me. OY! 
Ahh! But the views at the top on a Kiwi-speak "Fine" day was worth the gallon of schvitz (Yiddish for perspiring profusely). 

See for yourself. 
Mount Cook is out there somewhere. (Sir Edmund Hillary trained on Mount Cook in preparation for his historic Everest accent). It's  covered in White Death/ice  and way too cold for me. 

Onto Franz Josef for hike numero dos. The Weather Channel was predicting a mix of clouds and sun for my mellower 12 mile RT hike up to Alex Knob point. They lied. I left in a foggy mist and returned in a foggy mist. There were no glacier sightings. There were no scenery sightings unless you count walking through another dense, dreary and gloomy temperate rain forest as scenic. By now, I'm sort of over this particular ecosystem. I'm sure it's a whole lot cheerier to tramp through on sunny days, but I wouldn't know. 

For the record, I've been in Franz Josef town for two days. I've seen a glacier for about fifteen seconds. The other sights are heaps of green covered mounds that are shaped like ice cream scoops. (Maybe glacial moraines?) All that's missing is a few dollops of chocolate sauce to make them look sort of edible. 

Mother Nature works in strange ways. 

Next stop Arthur's Pass National Park and maybe some "fine" weather,
Good night,

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

My Mojo Returns...

for a few days.

I've heard about the wonders of Wanaka for awhile. My sources of information were Department of Conservation officers to fellow wanderers. "The town lies in a rain shadow region. It's different than a lot of New Zealand places." I liked those words-rain shadow. They went on to say it's a cool town with plenty of hiking nearby. With a "Why Not?" Attitude, I booked four nights of pricey accommodation close to the Hub Bub of this Burg of 6,500 residents. 

Upon my arrival, I discovered Wanaka was gearing up for a full/half Triathlon to be held on the morrow. Cyclists with determined looks and shaved legs sped past on five-$-digit-figure bicycles. Others were swimming laps in the massive lake. Many were seen trail running along the shoreline while glancing at their stopwatches. Amazing Type AAA athletes in action-before the event! I didn't envy them.

I strolled over to the DOC office and scored enough hiking info to occupy me during my stay. 

So that's what I did. I hiked in the early morning to tops of fine mountains devoid of the
that bothersome temperate rain forest. (A real nuisance for views). The climbs were steep on well trod tracks. Warm sunshine was the prevailing weather. It felt and acted like summer. I wore shorts, sunscreen, tank tops, sunglasses and a huge grin. I was feeling my Mojo again. 

The rest of my days were spent, drinking coffee or beer (depending on the hour) while gazing out at the mountainous scenery. Lake Wanaka's waters changed colors from dawn to dusk. It made for great photo ops. Active people ran, biked and swam throughout the day. They even had muscles. It felt like being in a Colorado mountain town minus the smell of Ganga. I loved the place. It felt sort of like Home. For the first time since I've been in NZ, I seriously thought, "I can stay here for awhile and it wouldn't drive me nuts." 

In a few years when I return to the Land of Kiwis, I'll do just that. 

From cloudy, foggy but not cold Fox Glacier Town,

PS. A few of these photos are from nearby Mount Aspiring National Park. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Google "The Finest Walk in...

the World." 

Then watch as  Milford Track websites miraculously appear like seagulls at lunchtime. Of all of New Zealand's nine Great Walks, this one is the undisputed King of the Hill. For the high season (now) available Hut spaces disappear at Warp Speed. This is truly a "You snooze, you lose" proposition.

The creation of the Track was all about tourism. The Kiwi Government offered up a carrot to anyone brave or really in need of the money to hack a route connecting the Clinton and Arthur Valleys. Quinton McKinnon rose to the occasion. He even named the pass after himself and became the track's first guide. Private huts were built and trampers were soon paying big bucks to be coddled through the 33.5 miles. It wasn't until 1965 when "Freedom Walkers" (unguided hikers) began to appear. The Government accommodated them. Build huts and they will come. And they are still coming despite the $246 price tag including bus and boat rides. Guided hikers staying in upscale lodges pay ten times that amount. Who says hiking is an inexpensive pastime? 

So...on the day I began my hike, the atmospheric conditions in Te Anua weren't the "I can't wait to get going" kind. It was more like, "I wanna go back to sleep and wait for summer to arrive" kind. On the nearby passes and ridges the unmistakable look of fresh White Death appeared. OY! I went through the motions and packed up for my three night, four day hike. I piled my bag with plenty of warm clothes. Everything went into thick black plastic garbage bags to ward off the elements. 

I boarded the early boat across Lake Te Anua to begin the walk.The closer our vessel got to the trailhead, the harder the rain fell. The trampers all scurried to don waterproofs. 

Later, I asked the Captain if snow on the ridges was normal for this time of the year. "Achh!" was all he said as he turned away. I took this gesture to mean an emphatic "Hell! NO!" 

At landfall, I hit the trail virtually running. It was only a three mile jaunt. I was determined to minimize my exposure time to this latest rinse cycle.

I was the first guest in the hut. I spent the rest of the day, drinking hot tea, drying clothes by the fire and reading relic issues of National Geographic magazines. My soggy hut mates tumbled in as the day wore on. We were an international band of brothers and sisters. There were: a gaggle of Aussies, a bevy of Belgiums, a foursome of French, a herd of Israelis, a clutch of Canadians (Eh!), a crew of Kiwis, a couple of Californians and a newlywed pair from Malaysia. As usual, I was the sole Wandering, Wondering Jew. (I'll admit this being single in a couples world is getting a bit old.) 

Day Two dawned with the promise of rain. I was the first one out of the hut. My Kiwi hiking scheme is to make the kilometers between moist moments. The dry was temporary. I donned and doffed rain gear for the next 10 miles. At least it wasn't windy. 

The trail headed up the Clinton Valley through another of New Zealand's ever present temperate rain forests. Once in awhile there was a gap in the green and an occasional view was scored. There's bucket loads of waterfalls along the Milford Track. That's pretty cool. However this forest type evokes Edgar Allen Poe feelings of dread and gloom. The trees are stunted, bent, bowed and limp. It's as if they surrendered to the oppressive weight of all the water pouring down on them. (Sixteen feet of rain per year on the Clinton valley side). Lichen, moss and ZZ Top beards of gray strands tug down on these poor trees as well. Another striking forest feature is the saddening silence. There's a reason for this. 

A Wondering, Wandering Jew ecological lesson: Before White Folks appeared on this Island Nation, the forest were filthy rich with avian wildlife. The forest was a cacophony of squawks, chirps, cackles and Tweets (not the kind President 150 Word Vocabulary constantly bombards the public with). 

What happened?

Two-legged mammals introduced the Fearsome Foursome of Mammalian Mayhem: the rat, the stoat, the ferret and the weasel. The first to perish were the flightless victims-poor Kiwi birds. Songbirds soon followed. It was a Feathered Creature Holocaust. 

The Department of Conservation has now declared an all out war to rein in the little terrorists. Traps and poisoned baits along the trail corridors are as prevalent as pigeons in Central Park. The DOC's motto: A good stoat is a dead stoat. I concur. 

Moral of the story? Don't mess with Mother Nature.

Day Three dawned the same as day two. A shame because this was the literal high point of the Milford Track. An ascent to Mackinnon Pass (3,808') and the divide between the Clinton and Arthur Valleys. Fog and cool clouds brushed by me and my backpack. Visibility was reduced to 100's of feet. It was like walking through a misty dream. I passed a stone monument bearing a Cross (what? No Star of David!) and continued on toward the Mackinnon Pass Shelter number Five. (The first four had been blown away) Inside, I was still producing fog on each exhalation. Brrr. I fired up the Jetboil and guzzled a cuppa hot instant soup. Once in awhile the clouds parted and I was teased by what might have been on a clear day. Waterfalls are numerous on the downhill stretch, including the Fifth highest in the World-Sutherland Falls. (The Arthur Valley scores 33' of water per year. That's a three story building!) 

Day Four was something new and completely different. It was sunny. I could see the physical evidence of what I missed on the pass. This wasn't a gently rolling terrain, it was straight up and at ya. Deep and green V-Shaped Valleys practically leaped up from the waterway. Amazing stuff. 

However is the Milford Track the Finest Walk in the World? It might have been if I could have seen something on the Pass! But, I'll give the Kiwis the benefit of a doubt and sign up again for permits in a few years. I'm a curious guy. 

However, I believe Finest in the World might be a wee bit of the blarney. 

From sunny and warm Wanaka!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Scenes from the Kepler Track...

I had the permits to hike the Kepler Great Walk outside of Te Anau, but I fell prey to the travelers dilemma-poor scheduling on my part. I ended up canceling the trip. Woe is me! That meant three less nights in overcrowded huts! I rallied quickly from this HUGE disappointment. 

So...I decided with my few spare days, to go and see what I missed out on. 

On day one, I went in from one side and went left. On day two, I started from the other side and went right. I did not meet myself in the middle. 

Day one was sort of uneventful with the exception of helping an injured hiker in distress. On my return, I noticed a woman limping as if she had undergone radical knee surgery ten minutes ago. 
"Are you OK?"
"I think I tore ligaments in my knee. It really hurts too." She was teary eyed when she said that.
"Look! I hate seeing people hurt. (That's the truth too!) I'll carry your backpack to the next hut and tell the ranger what's going on." 

She took a sip of water and some snacks and away I went with my new backpack. 
Three miles later, I dropped it off at the hut. I then informed the ranger of the situation.
I hope she's still not out there! 

On Day Two, I decided to get above tree line for the Kepler views. The weather was "fine." (That's Kiwi-speak for anytime there's no White Death, rain or winds that will blow your wife or child away. Kiwis are all about understatement.) 

Well, it was sort of fine, and here's a few photos.

My Milford Great Walk begins manana. The forecast is not fine...