Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Aaron's one and only (and final) willing hike

So our last two major activities on South Island were probably our favorite: glacier hiking and wine country. After the Milford Sound (previous post), we drove through the amazing Haast Pass--snowcapped mountains, rainforests, coastal jungle and more--to the Franz Josef Glacier. Just a few km from the coast, this glacier is the fastest moving glacier of its size in the world.

We started with a 45 minute hike on challenging rocky terrain to reach the west face of the glacier. Once there, we strapped on our crampons (mind you, we're in borrowed boots as we've been exclusively wearing sandals since January) and started the ascent.

The face was pretty rocky which lead to an ugly discoloration (below left) of the white/blue ice, but we were pretty psyched just to be on the ice. Our first obstacle / adventure was a tiny 2-meter long blue ice tunnel (below right).

After that, we got off the rocky ice to the real stuff--snow compressed by its own weight over 60 years. We arrived at a worm hole next. This tiny tunnel went on for about 25 feet and barely wide enough to fit me on my back. Brave Deanna threw claustraphobia to the wind and went in first and I followed. Commando sliding with our elbows on our sides, we both emerged on the other side with one side of our bodies completely soaked and adrenaline pumping through our veins.

Overall, this was one of the coolest days of our trip (credit my parents with that pun). Enjoy the montage below!

After the amazing day on the glacier, we drove up to the Marlborough wine region. Not much to report, other than mmmmmmmmmmmm wine. Here's one of my favorite pictures--check out the wine bottles, the wine barrels, the grape vines and us!

Oh, and for all my Jewish friends (aka 80% of you), please take a few minutes and fill out my sister's survey. It's pretty fun to think about and will help her greatly in compiling stats for her second book.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Last stop: New Zealand

The last 9 days have been pretty hectic. We landed in Christchurch, NZ, late on Monday night. Tuesday we spent walking around the city and planning our 3 weeks here. Wednesday we rented a car, a bright red Ford Focus and hit the road. There aren't any highways here, really--it's mostly just two-lane roads that weave in between cities, around mountains and lakes and across narrow one-lane bridges.

Our first stop was Lake Tekapo, where we had a relaxing afternoon walking around the lake and admiring our first glimpse of the postcard scenery here on South Island. This "town" really consists of a grocery store, a tour operator, a hostel and a quaint one-room church right on the lake's edge (left). We really got into the quiet solitude--a good preview for the weeks to come.

From Tekapo we drove on through to Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world. About 20km outside of the city, we saw a sign "Site of first Bungy Jump and Museum, 400m on Right" so we decided to pull off the road and check it out. I had planned on doing a bungy jump or skydive out of Queenstown, but I had not decided which or when. That being said, it took about 3 minutes from the time we walked into the building for them to wrap my ankles (right) and put me in a harness. Faster than going to McDonalds, no joke.

They counted down from 5 and I jumped. 2.2 seconds and 43 meters later, I snapped back up with a triumphant scream. There is nothing in the world that comes close to the sheer ecstasy of a freefall. It was a bit shorter than I would have liked (and really gave me the itch to go skydiving again), but man, what a feeling. See the previous blog post below for a video Deanna took of my jump. At the left, you'll see me pumping my fists in the air in pure joy right after that jump.

Once we arrived in Queenstown, we went directly to FergBurger, the famous burger joint in town. Afterwards, we walked around town, taking in breathtaking views of the lake and snow-capped mountains. It's easy to see why backpackers get stuck in this city--it has every adrenaline sport known to man (and a few new ones, too), great food and a pristine view. The next day we took the gondola up to the top of one of the mountains and admired the view with a hot long black (double shot of espresso--they don't believe in filter/drip coffee here) and listened to the screams of people cliff diving and bungy jumping a stone's throw to our left.

We decided to street luge down the mountain--basically a sled on wheels with a huge handbrake lever in the middle. We were going a little too fast for pictures, but at the left you'll see us in our safety helmets before the run. It was a blast, but paled in comparison to yesterday's jump. We celebrated the day with a fantastic feast in town, sampling the local delicacy of blue cod.

The next day we pushed on further in our road trip. We find ourselves pulling over every hour to snap pictures of the scenery as it's just so perfect, albeit a little too foggy up in the mountains. Every mountain pass or valley reminds of a different scene in Lord of the Rings (so we've gone online and found the filming locations--we've driven through a bunch of them).

Our next stop was Te Anau, the launching point for scenic boat trips along the Milford Sound. We had a rainy day, which the locals kept saying was better, as more waterfalls sprung up. We spent two incredible hours on the Spirit of Milford, taking in the amazing green cliff walls lining this spectacular fjord. Enjoy the pictures at left and below. Right now we're at the Franz Josef Glacier, a few hundred km north of the sound. Tomorrow we're doing a half-day hike on the glacier, with crampons and all. Luckily our hostel has a hot tub for relaxing afterwards!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A whale of a road trip

So for our last week in Australia we rented a car and drove north along the Pacific coast. Our first stop was Port Stephens where we took in some great scenery and caught our first glimpse of whales off the coast. But when we turned our gaze back to the coast we saw the most puzzling thing--a caravan of camels walking along the sand dune. We've seen a lot of weird animals, but this group was just way too out of place (remember, it's winter down here). We stayed in a great lodge/hostel in the woods (with a wild koala lounging in a tree) and managed to get in a nice round of mini-golf. I beat Deanna by 20 strokes, but we both got a hole-in-one.

We got an early start the next morning and arrived at Hunter Valley with enough time to visit 3 wineries and the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop (mmmmm). Thanks to a graet promotion from my AmEx card, we got 50% off our swanky hotel right in the middle of the valley. We haven't stayed in a real, western-style hotel in months, so it was a real treat to have a hot tub, bath robes and a private balcony. On the left is our favorite winery, Tempus Two. Below left is a winery in the shape of an oak barrel and below right is Deanna posing at one of the prettier wineries (but unfortunately the wine didn't match the scenery).

After 2 days in the valley, we drove up to Coffs Harbor to spend some time with our friends Graham and Fiona (below right, with Deanna), who we met on our tour of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. They rolled out the red carpet with top notch hospitality. In between feasts fit for a king, we managed to go whale watching on a katamaran right off the coast. Two humpback whale calves took an interest to our boat and swam along us for about 90 minutes. It was incredible to see them so close (5 meters) and the water was so clear that we could even see their white bellies (at right). They kept hamming it up for us, swimming circles around and underneath our boat. Pictures and two videos below. Enjoy!

After whale watching, we did a small hike, saw the world's largest banana, walked past a golf course overrun with kangaroos and watched a perfect sunrise the next morning before heading back to Sydney. Pictures below.

Halfway through the final drive, we had lunch in a rest stop, pictured at the left. Since we didn't make it to the real Ayer's Rock, we figured a quick visit to a fake replica would do the trick. We're now in New Zealand and have started a 2-week road trip on South Island. It's pretty chilly here, but the scenery is spectacular.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Koala cuddling in Cairns

So after our three dives on the Great Barrier Reef we visited the old hippie town of Kuranda where our main attraction there was "Cuddle a Koala" in the petting zoo. The cute little grey guys munch on eucalyptus leaves all day which leaves them in a daze so they're pretty docile. My bear was pretty heavy--about 25 pounds and I got about 5 minutes of him hanging on my arm, clawing my stomach (they have sharp claws!). He didn't do much of anything, other than leaving a nice little present on my shirt... Deanna also got to pose with the kangaroos--see below.

To get back to Cairns we took the Kuranda Scenic Railway, a gorgeous 2-hour ride through waterfalls, mountain cliffs and valleys with perfect views of the Pacific to the east. It was such a relaxing counterpoint to the hectic pace in Carins city itself. Enjoy the picture at the left of the train going underneath the Bridal Veils Falls.

Enjoy the montage of pictures from Cairns below.

The next morning we woke up way too early to catch our flight back down to Sydney where we had a whirlwind day. We spent the afternoon at the fish market eating the freshest sushi ever (again), having coffee with our friend Rebecca at the El Alamein fountain (below), walking around downtown (past the Great Synagogue, at right) and seeing a contemporary take on Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Sydney Opera House. Check me out wearing a tie for the first time in months!! Pictures below.