Hello friends. I am sorry for the hideously long delay in updating my blog, but I’m back in the United States now and have a ton of new updates to share with you.
For starters, my blog has been officially moved to my website.
I’d love for you to come take a look. Here are a couple of highlights for you:
- I launched an import business featuring jewelry, handbags, and artwork I discovered during my travels. Here are a few samples of what’s available in my store.
- I am authoring my memoir entitled Leap due in 2013. There’s a wonderful story about how this opportunity came to me, which you can read about here. This picture, which was taken of me jumping into Devil’s Pool on the edge of Victoria Falls, is going to be the cover. It’s kinda perfect, don’t you think?
- My brothers and I dedicated a permanent exhibit on bats to the Chattahoochee Nature Center in our hometown of Marietta, Georgia to honor our mother’s legacy as an educator. You can access the full blog post here.
Thank you all for staying in touch and for all the wonderful words of encouragement and support you’ve given me along the way. I hope you’ll continue to follow my blog at its new home:
Huge hugs and please keep in touch!
What is up, my friends? Welcome back to New Zealand. I know I’ve made you wait for it, but at long last we have finally reached what is famed by many, including me, to be the most stunning place in New Zealand….
Drum roll, please…
We arrived late in the evening and knew we had picked the right backpackers when we saw this type of artwork adorning the walls.
Ah, yes, home sweet, twisted home.
So are you ready to see some scenery or what? Without further adieu, I present to you…Queenstown.
Not too shabby, huh? After spending an entire day walking around town with our jaws practically dragging on the ground from all the beauty…and Sauvignon Blanc the previous evening, we pulled ourselves together for a visit to the quaint and charming town of Arrowtown.
Arrowtown has a Fall foliage festival every year, but we were about 2 weeks too early to celebrate officially. I think it’s safe to say we weren’t disappointed with the views.
Of course no visit to Queenstown is complete without a ride up the Skyline Gondola.
It just wouldn’t be right if I didn’t share my panoramic pics from the top.
Here are some of Amar’s night shots…awesome!
The next day we headed off to do a day hike on the Routeburn Track. It is meant to be spectacular, especially if you do the whole thing, but Amar and I weren’t really feeling hiking with all of our gear including food and water for 3 days so we decided to take ‘er easy and just bust out a day tramp. I know, I know….weak, lame, unacceptable, blah, blah, but I’m totally OK with it.
The drive to Routeburn is spectacular as you might imagine.
The hike itself was definitely gorgeous with lots of suspension bridges over beautiful streams with the mountains in the distance.
I know it seems kind of lame that the picture above is the only picture I have from Routeburn, but it was more about hiking and being outside than snapping pics. Also, I think the most spectacular scenery requires the full, hiking/camping commitment so I think you’ll have to visit google images for more on Routeburn.
After Routeburn it was time to power on to Fox Glacier. The drive there was absolutely breathtaking. I can see why people lose their minds over this part of NZ. It’s otherworldly.
I was kind of obsessed with these tall, yellow trees. They are stunning and located all over the south island.
This is Wanaka, which was described to me as the kiwi’s Queenstown. As you can see, it’s off the charts gorgeous as well. This is Lake Wanaka.
And this is the drive to Lake Hawea. It’s starting to feel like the Shire, don’t you think?
Lake Hawea, folks.
It was definitely one of the most scenic drives we’ve had while in NZ. During this journey I’ve experienced many firsts in the adrenaline category, including sky diving, walking with lions, ultra light gliding, gorilla trekking, swimming with dolphins, etc. These adventures have been limited to the sky and the sea. It seems only fair that I take this adventure to the ground with a little stroll along a glacier.
As you may have gleaned from reading earlier posts, I’m not really a girl who enjoys cold weather. I have to say that the absence of winter for the past 2 years has been absolutely magnificent and I would be quite content to never have to experience winter again except maybe for a long weekend or two here and there for old times sake. That being said, I’m not going to let something like a little cold weather keep me away from breathtaking scenery like this gorgeous glacier.
Before stepping foot on the glacier it was necessary to attach some crampons to the bottom of our boots. This was my first time wearing crampons and I have to admit that I felt like a bit of a badass while I was wearing them. I mean, it’s not everyday that one gets to attach spikes to the bottom of her shoes, you know?
We ascended this ice stairway to access the glacier.
It was surprisingly easy to walk on the ice. Within minutes I felt like an old pro.
Btdubs, we were instructed to tuck our socks into our pants. I recognize I’ve rocked some hideous looks on the road, but this one was mandatory. Whatevs…when on a glacier, right?
Some parts of the glacier were stunning and reminded me of a Georgia O’Keefe painting.
Here are some more scenes from our walk.
My favorite part of our walk was when we descended into this deep crevice in the ice. It was so steep and slippery that we actually had to grab a rope to guide ourselves down the terrain. Rock on!
Needless to say, we were pretty fired up after the glacier and all about the ice. We met this skydiving pro at one of the lookouts outside of Queenstown who told us about this iceberg graveyard within Mt. Cook National Park so you know we immediately added that to the itinerary. I mean, how could we possibly pass up an iceberg graveyard? Obviously we can’t.
Before we get to the graveyard, how about some more magnificent scenery from the road?
We had to hike a little bit to get to the graveyard.
Are you ready for it? Are you fired up? Can you stand the anticipation?
OK, here you go.
Do you see those inflatable boats? Folks can shoot around the icebergs by boat or kayak. Kind of awesome, huh?
Yeah, I’m totally chilling in an iceberg graveyard…
And I think it’s awesome!!!
The weather was not on our side so we didn’t get to see much of Mt. Cook, but the clouds cleared for a second so we could catch a quick glimpse of the peak. Behold, NZ’s highest mountain.
Cue the song On the Road Again by Willie Nelson.
Amar and I decided to power on to Littleton, a small town about 30 minutes outside of Christchurch because we thought lodging may be more abundant than in Christchurch, which was at full capacity housing displaced residents and aid workers. As we rolled into Littleton, we quickly discovered that, sadly, it was also devastated by the earthquakes.
The entire town was rubble, literally. We couldn’t find a single shop, restaurant, or property that was in tact. It was heartbreaking!
At this point it was about 8:30 PM, which I have learned is the equivalent of midnight in most other countries, meaning everything is closed. We called every property listed in our Lonely Planet guide in an attempt to find a place to lay our heads in Christchurch, but they were all booked solid. We powered on to Christchurch and continued to see no vacancy signs displayed on all the properties. Wow…it seemed like we were going to enjoy yet another evening in the car. At least this time we had our luggage and most importantly for me, my ear plugs! As we were making our way out of town we discovered a property that appeared to have a vacancy. We inquired within and while the price tag was significantly more than we were used to paying in the backpackers, it was better than a night in the car so we jumped on it.
The gentleman at the counter asked where we were coming from and when I mentioned Littleton he looked at me with this strange expression on his face and asked me what exactly I was planning on doing in Littleton. I told him how we had hoped to grab some dinner and spend the night, figuring it would be a better bet than Christchurch. His perplexed expression remained unchanged as he informed me that Littleton was in fact the epicenter of the earthquake. Wow…I felt like a bit of a loser, but at least it was clear I was a foreigner. I can’t say the same for my kiwi travel companion who was also clueless about Littleton, but I did all the talking so his kiwi identity was not revealed. You’re welcome, Amar!
The gentleman asked me if I’d like an upper or lower room and I opted for the latter so we wouldn’t have to lug our bags up the stairs. When we got to the room I was a little taken aback when I saw this…
“Um, if you were me would you choose upstairs or downstairs?” I inquired. “Maybe upstairs is better so we won’t get crushed if the upper floor collapses.” The gentleman reinforced that the beams were just for support purposes and that we would be fine. In what I can only assume was an attempt to comfort me, he informed me that they hadn’t had an aftershock in 3 whole days. Sorry, but that didn’t really do much to calm my nerves. Sensing my concern, he continued that this was a new property and it sustained no damage from the earthquake. Evidently these support beams were just an extra precaution. Both Amar and I were a bit sketched out, but after a long day of driving we were beat and starving and decided to just hope for the best. Fingers crossed we aren’t crushed to death in the middle of the night.
I’m pleased to say the room held for the evening and Amar and I survived. Yay!!! It was time to power on to Picton and catch the ferry back to the North Island. The drive through the Marlborough region is breathtaking.
Throughout the drive I shared my enthusiasm about sinking my teeth into that spectacular carrot cake from the Picton Village Bakkerij and was devastated to discover that the bakery was closed for all of Easter weekend. Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!
We powered over to the ferry to buy our tickets, but the ferry we wanted was sold out so we decided to spend the night in Picton and power on to Wellington in the morning. I guess we were feeling a bit morbid about the night before in Christchurch because we opted to stay at Tombstone Backpackers. Notice the door is a coffin.
It was actually one of the nicest backpackers we had stayed in thus far though so if you are in Picton I’d definitely recommend it.
We arrived in Wellington on Easter Sunday, but had already called ahead and learned that the famous museum, Te Papa, was open. It was a miracle! It seemed like everything was closed all of Easter weekend, but not Te Papa. Sweet! It’s a fabulous museum with exceptional information and artifacts about Maori culture as well as NZ history and culture. I have no idea what this freaky deak baby had to do with anything, but it creeped me out enough to make me want to take its picture.
How about an even closer look of this Flowers in the Attic baby?
Some of the other highlights included a room that simulated an earthquake as well as the Colossal Squid display.
As the name suggests, the colossal squid is massive. In fact, it’s the largest invertebrate in the world with eyes the size of soccer balls. Crazy! It was definitely impressive and very cool to see one this close.
The next morning, Anzac Day, which is a public holiday in NZ and which Amar and I decided we would commemorate with the famous Anzac cookie,
we fully intended to nerd out big time and do a Lord of the Rings tour. Our new friend, Alexis, from Abel Tasman raved about the tour, getting us all excited to relive the adventures of Frodo in person, but the weather was horrendous with pouring rain and gusty winds so we decided that we’d have to take a pass. As it turns out, Peter Jackson was in town filming The Hobbit so we wouldn’t have been able to see the Shire anyway, which was huge on my list. Next time I’m in NZ, it’s a definite.
So we blasted out of Wellington with hopes of hiking the Tongariro Alping Crossing, but when I called DOC (Department of Conservation) to inquire about the weather conditions the ranger informed me with an incredulous laugh that it was torrential rain and blustery wind, making it an absolutely horrible idea to even contemplate doing the walk. Wow! There was no ambiguity there. Tongariro was a no go. So instead of stopping there we powered on to the lovely town of Taupo. The weather was kind of crappy so we made a quick trip to Huka Falls and then just walked around the town, which was absolutely adorable.
In the morning we powered on to Rotorua to immerse ourselves in Maori culture. Ever since Rob returned from NZ I have been obsessed with the Haka and now it was finally time for me to see it in person. I could not wait!!! But before we get to the main event, let me introduce you to famous, but extremely elusive kiwi bird.
Sadly, this picture is of a stuffed kiwi, but this bird lived a long and fruitful life, bearing many baby kiwi birds for Kiwi Encounter, NZ’s largest kiwi recovery program. This program was exceptionally well run, allowing visitors the opportunity to walk through the incubator and hatchery areas. In the evenings visitors can walk through the outdoor kiwi enclosure, offering a rare opportunity to actually see this highly endangered, nocturnal species. Amar and I had already made plans to attend a hangi (meal prepared in a traditional way) that evening, but we fully intended to see a kiwi on this trip so we’d be back tomorrow evening to see if we could spot this quirky bird in person.
The owner of our backpackers who has lived in Rotorua for more than a decade gushed to us about Mitai Village, claiming it was the one thing that was an absolute must while in town. Obviously with such a glowing recommendation, we had to do it. I was beside myself to see the Haka, but this evening proved to be so much more than just the Haka. The night began with the unveiling of the hangi, which included chicken, lamb, stuffing, potatoes and kumara (sweet potatoes) cooked in a hangi pit.
Yummy!!! It looked and smelled delicious, but we had to wait to gorge ourselves on this tasty feast, allowing the cooks some time to carve the meat and get everything prepared. In the meantime we were taken down to the stream where we were greeted by the traditionally clad warriors in a hand carved waka (war canoe).
It was awesome. From there we were taken through the woods up to the area where the cultural performance would take place.
OMG, it’s Haka time, folks. I could barely contain my enthusiasm.
Are you ready?
Are you excited?
OK, game on!
It was everything I wanted it to be and more. When it was over I wanted them to do it all over again. From the crazy eyes and outstretched tongue to the fierce gestures and intimidating shouts, I loved everything about it. If you are unfamiliar with the Haka I urge you to google it ASAP. You will love it, guaranteed!
After the Haka they engaged in other activities like stick games, a weapons display, and poi ball dances, all of which were exceptional and gave us some time to work up an appetite. At long last it was time to taste the delicious hangi. I shoved my face with the delectable meats and veggies, going back for seconds, and I think actually a third serving of the lamb. I know I’m a pig, but I’m telling you it was that good and one serving was insufficient.
After the meal we took a walk through the forest to see some glow worms in their natural setting. Did you know that glow worms are actually a maggot which uses it’s luminescent tail to attract insects? When put that way they sound kind of gross, but when you see them illuminated at night they look absolutely beautiful.
What a fabulous evening! As you may recall from my first NZ post, Amar and I were unsuccessful in our quest to visit White Island due to inclement weather. We were hopeful that we’d have better luck the second time around, but when we returned to our backpackers after our evening with the Maori there was a note waiting for us indicating that White Island was closed due to the weather. That was ok though because we had 3 days in Rotorua so we had one more chance for it to work out. Fingers crossed.
The next morning we headed out to the Buried village and as we were getting ready to roll out we noticed this adorable little bird on our windshield.
Let’s just say that the Buried Village left a little something to be desired so the only picture I have to share with you is of this waterall on the park grounds.
After the village we took a gondola ride to the top of Mt. Ngongotaha, offering gorgeous panoramic views, but the main attraction for us was the high speed luge ride to the bottom of the mountain. I have been on many luges over the years, but I have to say this one was among the best I’ve done. It was a long ride, offering lots of twists and turns where you could be cautious and slow down or be a psycho and go full speed ahead. Apparently one of Amar’s friends chose the latter on one of their boys weekends in college and actually flew off the tracks. Whoa! He must have been flying to actually shoot off the tracks. Thankfully Amar and I made it down the mountain unscathed.
After the luge we walked around Rainbow Springs National Park, which is home to lots of wildlife including the highly intelligent and mischievous kea bird.
This bird is notorious for destroying people’s cars. One of the car companies in NZ actually donated a camper van to one of these birds at the park, which it absolutely decimated. They video taped it and got such a kick out of it that they now sponsor this exhibit at the park. These birds are generally very social, but one bird in the park named Jenny had to be separated from the other birds after she killed her mate. Um, Jenny, you need to take it down a level, sister.
The information outside Jenny’s enclosure mentioned that she liked attention, encouraging visitors to speak with Jenny even if she acted like she hated it. Apparently she would sometimes even cry when people left her area even if she ignored them the entire time they were there. Of course I felt compelled to talk to the avian sociopath, speaking to her in many accents including Forest Gump and she totally loved it. She flew down to where I was standing so she could get a better look at me.
We “hung out” like that for several minutes, but when it was time to say goodbye and I walked away, Jenny actually cried. Aww, Jenny, you are breaking my heart. I walked back to her enclosure to say goodbye one last time. Poor disturbed Jenny.
The night was upon us and you know what that means…
That’s right, folks, it was time to see if we could spot some kiwis in person. We returned to the Kiwi Encounter and within minutes of entering their enclosure we heard a rustling in the bushes and this adorable and very industrious kiwi quickly walked past us to find the perfect spot to shove his beak in the ground and forage for food. It was absolutely adorable and unlike any other bird I had ever seen before. There were a total of 4 birds in the enclosure and we succeeded in seeing 3 of them. I’d say that was a pretty successful trip.
What else is NZ famous for that I can share with you?
How about the silver fern
And some sheep?
Apparently there are more sheep in NZ than people so let’s get all up in their grillz.
I know I didn’t get the chance to visit the Shire, but this part of NZ totally reminded me of it. Wouldn’t you agree?
After staring at some sheep we decided to kick it subterranean and see some glow worms at the
We descended into the caves and boarded a boat where we silently glided along the water through this labyrinth of limestone caves, stalactites, and stalagmites. The glow worms emit luminous colors making the roof of the cave resemble a star filled sky, but from the depths of the earth. It was so peaceful to silently glide along the water and take in the light show from above. Here’s a picture of our local guide gliding back through the caves to pick up her next tour.
After the caves we headed up to Auckland, but only for the evening to do a load of laundry and gather a few additional supplies for our trip up to the Bay of Islands. As with much of NZ, the landscape we passed along the way did not disappoint.
We based ourselves in Paihia, which happens to be the birthplace of NZ, as it’s where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed between the Maori chiefs and the British Crown. We arrived into town in the late afternoon and while we could appreciate that it must be a gorgeous place, the torrential rain prevented us from really doing much exploring.
The next morning the weather seemed decent so we decided to explore the quaint town of Russell, a mere 5 km from Paihia and reachable by ferry. The town was absolutely adorable filled with cute shops, gorgeous art galleries, delicious food, and some beautiful beaches.
In addition to a cute town with impressive natural scenery, Russell happens to be home to some of NZ’s oldest buildings including its oldest church.
While the town was adorable I think my favorite part of the trip was the discovery of this natural wind tunnel atop a hill. As we were walking along the beach, we discovered this path that led up a grassy hill offering some great panoramic views of the town. Making our way to the top, we noticed the wind was particularly ferocious in this one part and all the landscape there, especially the tall grasses, seemed to grow at an angle. The wind was so ferocious that we could actually stand at an angle and practically have our entire body weight supported by the gusts, but because the temperature was warm, it felt great blowing against your face and body.
I became a little obsessed with the breeze and had to hang out here for about 10 minutes, screaming into the wind and letting it threaten to blow me down the hill. It was so much fun!
Unfortunately the weather went steadily downhill from there, with the rains so bad that they actually caused flooding in much of the north, washing out bridges and closing many of the roads. Since most of the beauty of the Bay of Islands comes from actually spending time outdoors, we decided it best to cut our losses and expenses and head back down to Auckland.
Here are some pics from One Tree Hill, which happens to be about a 5 minute walk from Amar’s house, offering stunning views of Auckland. What I loved about this place in addition to the great views and rolling hills was the fact that sheep and cows are grazing on the electric green grass. It’s so cool to be right in the middle of Auckland and still have sheep and cattle nearby.
After One Tree Hill we headed to the impressive Sky Tower where we took in more panoramic views of this beautiful city. They had these cool kaleidoscopes with information about the various sights in the distance that made for some interesting pics.
Like the World Financial Center in Shanghai and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Sky Tower has patches of clear glass, showing you just how far up you really are and how much it would suck if you fell from this height.
The beauty of NZ is that it’s pretty small, making day trips to towns with vastly different landscapes very doable in the matter of a few hours. One such day trip was to Piha, a rugged beach known for its wild surf.
Another trip was to breathtakingly gorgeous, Waiheke Island, a mere 35 minute ferry ride from the Central Business District of Auckland. When you are there you definitely feel like you are on some beautiful island miles and miles away from the mainland with emerald water, white sand beaches, and a micro-climate that is several degrees warmer than nearby Auckland. As if the scenery isn’t enough, you also throw boutique wineries into the mix along with 5 star restaurants serving up mouthwatering fare, making Waiheke a little piece of paradise. I couldn’t get enough of this place and would absolutely recommend a visit if you find yourself in the Auckland area.
Stunning isn’t it? That is really how I’d sum up NZ as a whole. It offers some of the most magnificent natural scenery I have ever seen as well as friendly people, spectacular wine (Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is my new obsession), amazing wildlife (um, need I remind you of swimming with dolphins in the wild), fascinating glimpses into Maori culture, and delicious food. I really don’t know what else I can say except book yourself a ticket ASAP.
A huge thanks to Amar for being such a wonderful host! It’s been fabulous meeting up all over the globe to explore exotic lands together and I hope our adventures continue after our respective entries back into the real world. Oh no, not the real world!!!!! Truth be told, I’m actually looking forward to what the next chapter holds and I believe great things are on the horizon. I just have to stay positive and trust that it will all work out. With mom watching over me and guiding my path, I have every confidence that I will be ok…actually, not just ok, but fantastic!
For now, it’s back to Thailand for about 10 days to hang with Rob and the rest of my Mae Sot family and then it’s back to the US for Rob’s graduation, the christening of my new nephew, Bryson, and then back to DC to hang with my crew and think about what comes next. I feel like I’m on the cusp of something great so fingers crossed that it all shakes out that way.
More from the Land of Smiles shortly.