Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A final recap...

... so it has now been almost 20 months since Ann Marie and I returned from our adventures in New Zealand. As we're about to go back to celebrate my cousins' weddings, we felt the need to finally document the 2nd half of our time there from early 2008!!

Rather than spend tons of time describing everything, I've linked below to our various picture albums from our major travels and activities over the NZ summer. We've included captions to describe much of what's going on in the albums...

First, our week-long road trip from Auckland back to Wellington after Xmas 2007:

Bay of Islands

The Road to Waitomo


Mitai Hangi


Next, a look at the infamous Wellington 7s rugby tournament from early February - the biggest party of the year in Wellington!

Wellington Sevens

Our big trek in March, the Tongariro Crossing!

Tongariro Crossing

The very enjoyable, extended birthday weekend in Nelson - the last trip we took before packing up and departing for the States.

Nelson and Able Tasman

And finally, a collection of photos from throughout Jan to Apr -- gatherings, shots of the US Embassy softball team, various hikes, and other events.

NZ Feb-Apr Other

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Australia can kill you... many many ways. Here are a few:


Jellyfish: This beach is four miles long, and the only part you can swim is within the white barriers, which is about knee deep. In the wintertime, there are no jellyfish, so you can swim all you want!!

Poisonous Rainforest Trees & Fruit: The plum colored one will drive you insane (neuro-toxins) the one to the right has the highest concentration of cyanide found in nature, and the third can actually be eaten, but only after bathing in the river (to wash out the toxins) for a couple weeks, which is how the Aboriginals used to eat them.

This is the tree the Cyanide one came from... or it's a nutmeg tree, which is also poisonous.

This "Stinging Tree" won't kill you, but it will embed small nettles in your skin, which will cause severe pain and irritation for 3 to 4 months:

Rusty logging saws:

The Cassowary Bird: Check out its inner toe - four to six inches of disemboweling talon. This also happens to be the most ridiculous looking animal ever.

And finally, Paul:

Additionally, Australia houses many of the world's most deadly snakes and spiders, a large number of sharks, and several other dangerous sea creatures and scavengers. Yikes! This is all a stark contrast to New Zealand, which has no poisonous snakes or spiders and no large predators. About the only thing in NZ which can hurt you are wild mushrooms.

Despite all the deadly creatures, Australia is a blast!! Ann Marie and I spent a week in Tropical North Queensland (in the far northeast) at the end of November. We were primarily in Port Douglas - a sleepy resort town near to the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef.

Our adventures included snorkeling on the Barrier Reef (if you are not a scuba person, I would highly recommend the Wavelength tour based in Port D - they are snorkel only and do a fantastic job), a day long rainforest tour (where we learned all the perils of Aussieland and licked green ants, which have a super intense vitamin C citrus taste), relaxing on 4-mile beach (where we couldn't swim), and visiting the Croc Farm where we met Paul, as well as saw Koalas, Wallabies, and the Cassowary up close. Shockingly, we did not see a single Kangaroo on our trip to Aus. We did eat Kangaroo, however, on a couple different occasions (it was great, but croc is better). Here are some pics of the fine Australian cuisine we enjoyed:

Roo, Croc, & Emu Bruchetta

Deep-fried Mud Crab (a specialty of Tropical North Queensland)

Whitebait (actually an NZ staple - whitebait are juvenile smelts, which are caught early in the spring in NZ rivers)

Morton's Bay Bugs: these are like little lobster tails, without the rest of the lobster! They were fantastic and didn't have that characteristic seafood taste that some people don't like - I would recommend to all!

We're working on getting the rest of our pictures up online using Picasa, so we'll post that link soon!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On the road...

Greetings from beautiful Queenstown, NZ!

We've been on the road, so I haven't had much of a chance to update my blog, but here is a quick summary of what we've been up to - I promise I'll upload a bunch of pictures over Christmas (including all the stuff in Australia that can kill you!).

The weekend of November 19th our friends Tim and Jennifer invited us to the Marine Ball. It is a celebration of the Marine Corp birthday which involved a good deal of ceremony (including cutting cake with a sabre) and speeches from the US Ambassador to NZ and several other special guests. There was a great deal of good food and a rocking party after dinner. That same weekend was the annual Toast Martinborough wine festival! It is located a couple hours northeast of Wellington (near the Hawkes Bay region we went to a few weeks ago). The festival includes a number of the area's wineries hiring live music, specialty catering, and offering plenty of wine to taste (all for a price of course). Every year Carsten and Sarah rent an entire train carriage to transport us all from Wellington to the festival and back home. It was a perfect day and an absolute blast.

Our current contracts with work ended on Friday, Nov 23rd - that night we had an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner with Carsten, Andy, Tim, & Jennifer. It was by no means traditional (Salmon instead of Turkey) but there were sweet potatoes (Kumara) and a bottle of really good Pinot from the south island (courtesy of Ann Marie's boss). We barely slept that night because after cleaning up dinner we had to pack for our trip to Australia and the South Island!!

Early the next morning we grabbed a flight to Cairns, Australia and then made our way further north to Port Douglas, which is the perfect place to get out to the Great Barrier Reef. We had a fantastic time (although it was crazy hot) in PD - we went snorkeling on the reef, took a great rain forest tour, ate kangaroo, and relaxed on the beach. It is shocking how big Australia really is - flying from one side to the other takes as long as going Chicago to LA.

After a week in Port Douglas and Cairns, we flew directly to Christchurch and took a bus down to Queenstown (about a 7 hour ride). The trip goes along the southern alps and the views we had were astounding - snow capped peaks over crazy blue lakes. Now we have a week to enjoy Queenstown - probably the most spectacular scenery in NZ - with some friends from the states (they are meeting us in a couple days). Then we'll take a week to tour the rest of the south island before flying home for the holidays!

I do have one picture that I uploaded before we got on our way. As I mentioned in my last post or two, I've been playing Touch Rugby with a team from work. We just got our team t-shirts, which are possibly the ugliest and loudest shirts I've ever seen. They were part of the "Corporate Challenge" which was a big run/walk in Wellington a few weeks ago. ACC provided shirts to all employees who ran/walked it and our Touch team will be wearing those same shirts. Right before the event started, all the ACC employees who were participating gathered for a group photo - there were about 200 people in these shirts... additionally, about a third still had creepy mustaches because it was Movember (and only about halfway in)!!! Here are three of my teammates:

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Hello all - last monday (Nov 5) was Guy Fawkes Day - an infamous holiday in Britain and also celebrated in NZ (of all the English colonies, NZ maintained and celebrated it's connection to England the most). It commemorates the attempt by Guy Fawkes and some others to blow up Parliament in London in 1605. The attempt was barely thwarted and is now remembered annually. Generally, people celebrate by setting off fireworks - either public displays, or the cheap kind you buy at the store. What I find most amusing, is that fireworks are illegal in New Zealand for 361 days of the year, but from the 2nd to the 5th of November you can buy and set off fireworks to your heart's content! We went out Saturday evening with our friends Tim and Jennifer (also Americans) and celebrated Guy Fawkes in style by setting off a hefty quantity of fireworks and then watching the Wellington city fireworks as well. This is a video/picture of Ann Marie doing her best Harry Potter impersonation:

November is also the month of one of NZ's biggest charity drives: "Movember". Men will shave on October 31st and then grow their mustaches throughout the month to raise money for Prostate Cancer research and awareness. Often offices will have competitions to see who can grow the best "mo". No, I am not participating (I was strongly encouraged not to) but I do know some people that have started sprouting impressive mos.

I've been slow to update the blog, so here's some bits on the travel that we've been doing over the last couple weekends:

Taranaki w/ Carsten & Sarah
The 2nd week of October, Ann Marie and I planned another weekend road-trip on the north island - this time to Taranaki on the west coast. The area was a major Maori stronghold during the 1800s, and Mt. Taranaki is considered sacred to the Maori. As legend has it, Taranaki was caught dallying with Ruapehu's wife Ngauruhoe (these are two of the big volcanoes in the center of the north island) and went west to hide and cry in shame (Taranaki is one of the rainiest areas in NZ). The trip was extremely relaxing (especially cause Carsten & Sarah graciously did all the driving) and we got to see the mountain, Dawson's falls, and tons of coastal scenery. Highlights included getting lost (not really, but our map was not what you would call detailed), playing card games with Guinness coasters at an Irish pub, searching for volcanic rocks on the beach, and climbing the Paritutu (the "Rising Precipice"). We missed out on a couple of interesting museums (the weather was great so we opted for the outdoors experience) so a return trip may be in order at some point.

The following weekend (which was a three days weekend for Labour Day here) Ann Marie and I flew to Christchurch to spend the weekend with Jorgen & Mona. We were again lucky with the weather and had a wonder time. On Saturday, Jorgen drove us up into the mountains to see their mountain cabin and the scenery. It rained a bit on us through the passes, but everything cleared up after lunch.

These pics are from a cave system near the cabin - you can hike through the caves by following the stream underground - of course it is an ice-cold glacial stream and the hike requires you to wade knee deep and scamper up a couple short waterfalls (note we didn't actually hike the stream this time).

We also spent some time in this boulder park - all these rocks are the product of erosion. They are immense and wandering among them is quite eerie. Jorgen pointed out a couple of exposed fossils and we also watched some people free-climbing on the smaller boulders.

The South Island is a bit more rural than the north (certainly more so than the areas around Wellington) - check out this boar we saw on our way back from the mountains!

On Sunday, we explored Christchurch itself - we started in the central market to pick up a few souvenirs (and some crepes from a funny and friendly frenchman), walked through Cathedral square and downtown, and then rode the gondola to the highest point in Chch for a great view over the city. That night we enjoyed a fantastic meal with Jorgen, Mona, and my Aunt Charlotte (I should mention at this point that Jorgen is a gifted cook and we ate quite well over the entire weekend).

We got up early on Monday and directed our rental car toward Akaroa. Christchurch is situated just north of the Banks Peninsula, which was formed by two major volcanoes - one crater became Lyttleton Harbor (which is two minutes from Christchurch) and the other became Akaroa Harbor, which is about 90 minutes away. Both harbors are narrow and long, with some spectacular scenery on either side. Our drive included these views over first Lyttleton and then Akaroa harbor.

In Akaroa, we took a harbor cruise during which we saw fur seals, dolphins, and miniature penguins.

We then headed back to Christchurch for another enjoyable meal (a Danish favorite - frikadeller!!) and then made our way to the airport. We're looking forward to getting back to the south island for two weeks in early December before coming home for the holidays.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Road Trip! (AKA Sammy's visit part 2)

So this really should have been posted close to three months ago, but you know how life goes. I wanted to put this all in one blog entry, but my first post got long and I didn't want to post one massive entry so I figured I'd break it up. Good idea in theory, but in execution... not so much. I didn't start right away and then one thing led to another... anyway I wanted to come back and tell the story of Erik and my epic (well... maybe not epic) journey up into the countryside of the North Island.

Erik took that Friday (July 6) off work and we slept in a little longer than we had planned. Sleep is a wonderful thing. At about noon-ish, we wandered down the street to the rental car place, picked up our lovely vehicle and hit the road. One thing that turned out to be a little shortsighted on our part was that we only burned one CD of music. I think by the time we got home 2 days later, we must have listened to that CD about 15 times. Good songs, just too repetitive.

We hit the road with no real plan. We knew we wanted to head towards Tongariro National Park (the place that they used to film Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies) and we were hoping to head all the way to Rotorua where there are some great hot springs. But we were just happy to hit the road, see the sights and go where the journey took us. It was almost like a scene out of a Jack Kerouac book or something, but much more pretty. We started heading up the coast until we got to Palmerston North. We stopped for lunch there at an Irish Pub that took so long to get our food, I thought they might be hand making the sausage in the back. It did leave some time for me to remember that I am no good at darts at all and Erik is.

The countryside was unlike anything I've ever experienced before. It was like the mountains in Colorado, but much much more lush and green. The grassland in Colorado is much more brown, but in New Zealand, the entire landscape is pure green. It is not however the bright emerald green that is normally associated with Ireland and I believe that is due to the brightness of the sun in that part of the world. Due to the big hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, there is much less of a filter of the sun. It really seems to make colors appear to wash out, like if you took pictures and slightly overexposed the film. Colors don't appear majorly vibrant, but it really didn't matter. Everything was gorgeous. I believe that the sheep outnumber the humans 10-1 in New Zealand and from what we saw as we drove, I wouldn't doubt that statistic in the slightest.

Another thing we came across were a number of cows. At one point, Erik and I had stopped to take pictures and these four cows followed me as I jogged to the other side of a hill to get a better shot of the valley below. They then followed me back to the car. I think they wanted me to take a picture of them, so I did.

Something else we learned is that when you see a sign saying "scenic overlook ahead" you go check it out. We got to Stormy Point just as dusk was beginning to settle in. Those images are some that were burned into my memory forever. Words really can't describe how amazing the scenery was there.

As the sun went down, I took my turn behind the wheel. It was my first experience driving on the left side of the road and the right side of the car. Add to that the complete lack of any lights on the side of the road and couple it with the blizzard-like conditions that swept in over the mountains and it made for an interesting drive. One thing that I commented on was the fact that I had absolutely no idea what was on the sides of the road. For all I knew it could have been a sheer cliff on each side and I would have had no idea. I knew that we were driving through the mountains and the road was "The Desert Road" so I had some guesses on what it might have looked like. We were in Tongariro National Park, so I imagined Mordor and I figured that was probably close enough. Finally, I could tell that we were alongside Lake Taupo because I could begin to see the reflection of the city of Taupo begin to reflect off the lake.

We got to Taupo and checked into a neat little hostel. Nothing special, but it was pretty cool. I think the highlight of Taupo was meeting John the Fisherman. Erik and I went to find some food and a drink and we went to one of the local establishments. Out in front was this grizzled guy who we got to talking to. He was clearly a regular at the bar as it looked like he had a standing tab and he knew all the bartenders. We had a great conversation about fishing. He said he used to lead fishing expeditions out on the lake and the rivers around it. Apparently Lake Taupo is one of the greatest places to fish for trout in the world. This guy was so much fun and really took a liking to us. When, while we were ordering dinner, Erik made a comment that everything was better with bacon, John asked the bartender to put bacon on our steaks and to charge the bacon to him. We had a great time chatting with him.

The next day was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. It was a little brisk, but the air tasted pure and clean. We spent the morning at Huka Falls, which are the largest falls on the Waikato River, one of the longest rivers on the North Island. Just a beautiful area with the water rushing by. It was very serene. Another serene location was the Craters of the Moon park which was just just up the road from Huka Falls. I'm just going to let some of these pictures speak for themselves.
I'm glad to see that Erik and Ann Marie went back to Mt. Ruapehu when the weather was better. When Erik and I went, thick clouds were covering the top of the mountain and it had snowed something like 12-15 inches the night before. The skiers were loving it, but it didn't make for good picture taking. Instead, we got some great shots of us climbing through the rocky desert towards "Mt. Doom" in the distance like a scene out of Lord of the Rings. The views from the mountains were amazing. I was struck with how different the climate was in such short distances. One moment, you are in rolling green meadows covered in sheep, the next, desert mountains. It was simply amazing.

Thanks go out to Erik for letting me post to his blog and double thanks for his magnificent hospitality while I was out there. So for now, Be Excellent to each other, and Party On Dudes!