Archive for April, 2010

The South Island in a nutshell

April 30, 2010 Comments off

I’m back on the North Island and getting ready go back to Canada, via Sydney (remember: no jokes about how the return trip is going to go). I’ll be getting back to blogging about all the regular topics found here: i.e. war, porn and fast food, next week. In the meantime, a quick summary of my travels on the South Island:

Claudette and I were originally planning to drive down the west coast with the Milford Track being our eventual destination, with a return up the east coast. With crappy weather expected in the west, though, we decided to go down east instead. We started with a short stay in Kaikoura, which is known for its marine life. We saw some seal colonies lounging on the rocks outside of town, then went on a whale-watching trip where I saw my first whale (a sperm whale, huh huh huh).

From there, it was south to Christchurch, the biggest city on the south island. Christchurch was really the only place I didn’t get to visit while living in New Zealand, so it was cool to finally see it. Overall, I was quite impressed with the city’s hipness – lots of bars and a pretty solid arts scene. If you’re ever in town, I also recommend staying at the Hotel So; the rooms are tiny, but affordable and very funky. It’s also the only place in the country I’ve found to offer free, limitless wi-fi.

From Christchurch, we boogied on over to Mount Cook, a rather remote little mountain… well, you can’t even call it a town. There’s a hotel, a hostel and a cafe or two. Bad weather threatened and we had a flat tire to contend with, but we still managed to get in a decent hike to see the actual mountain (pictured above).

Onward we went to Queenstown. I think this was my third time there, and each time it’s been frickin’ paradise. Blue skies and sunshine, bars and beers surrounded by awesome mountains and a mirror-calm lake. It’s also a good place to stock up on hiking/camping gear, which I desperately needed after the nasty Tongariro Crossing. I got some new waterproof boots and other gear that proved invaluable on the Milford Track. We also took a crazy jetboat ride on the Shotover River, which got the adrenaline pumping.

After Queenstown, it was the disastrous Milford Track, which has been well documented elsewhere. Again, bad weather kept us away from the west coast on the way back north, so we zipped through Christchurch again on our way to Hanmer Springs, where we soaked in sulphur pools for an hour. From there it was back up to Picton and the ferry to Wellington and the North Island. I’ll post a highs-and-lows list of New Zealand next week. See you then!

Categories: new zealand

Sex, Bombs and Burgers on Aussie TV

April 29, 2010 Comments off

Just a quick update today. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Oz’s CBC) this week aired a chunk of my Q&A on Sex, Bombs and Burgers at Gleebooks in Sydney earlier this month. Check out the video of the talk which appeared on ABC’s Big Ideas program.

Categories: australia

The great Milford fiasco

April 28, 2010 Comments off

A good rule of thumb when you go on vacation is that you don’t want to be part of anything that makes the newspapers. Go figure, then, that in the past month I’ve made the news not just once, but twice. The first situation, of course, was the Qantas fiasco over the Easter weekend, where the airline couldn’t stop its planes from breaking down. (I still haven’t heard back from the Qantas’s customer service department in regards to getting some sort of compensation for the complete idiocy they subjected us passengers to. )

The second situation took place this past weekend with the flooding and evacuation of the Milford Track, for which Claudette and I and 118 other hikers had front-row tickets. The track is tough enough to start with – it’s 53 kilometres through some seriously ruggedly terrain. You need to take a ferry out to the start of the track, which goes in one direction only. Typically, you spend four days on the trail and three nights in huts, so you have to come well equipped with sleeping bags, warm clothes and all the food you’ll need. At the end of it, you take another ferry to Milford Sound, where you catch a bus back to Te Anau, the closest town and the place where you’ve probably left your car.

The track is immensely popular as it’s one of the most scenic in the world, so you have to book well in advance since only 40 people are allowed on each day. All the literature available warns you to prepare for rain as Fiordland National Park, where the track is located, is one of the wettest places on the planet. Of course, no advance warnings can prepare you for the worst weather the area has had in decades.

The fun began on Thursday, the first day of our hike. As soon as we arrived at the first hut, the ranger – Peter – warned us that heavy rains were coming and that there was a possibility we’d get helicoptered out. On Friday morning, after a night where Claudette and I got very little sleep thanks to the voluminous snorers in our hut, Peter updated us with the latest weather conditions. He chuckled disconcertingly that the heavy rains were coming in the west – directly where we were going. Day two was pretty wet, but bearable, and the scenery was indeed fantastic. The second hut ranger, Scotty, also warned that the weather was continuing to worsen.

Day three was pretty hellish – we got some sleep as we lucked into a bunkroom without snorers, but the hike up and down the track’s main mountain was killer (the highlight of which, of course, was my marriage proposal). The rain continued and we got wetter. When we arrived at the third hut, soaked and exhausted, the third ranger, Jen, told us the rain was about to turn get seriously heavy, and again mentioned we might have to get helicoptered out. In the morning, she told us that the trail had flooded in a number of places and, after teasing evacuation yet again, instead mandated we’d be staying an extra night.

That really ticked off a number of people, myself included. Staying an extra night presented a number of problems: many people didn’t have enough food; we were all soaked with no way to dry our clothes; we had onward travels and bookings to get to; and of course, there was the issue of total boredom – what does one do trapped in a hut all day?

The following day – the fifth of what was supposed to be a four-day hike – the Department of Conservation finally decided to send in the choppers. It seems somebody figured out that we might all be running out of food, and that chaos could break out in the huts if they didn’t get us out. The track itself was closed for the season after suffering heavy damage from the rains, overflowing rivers and hundreds of new waterfalls. The hikers in the two huts behind us were also rescued and we were all delivered to ferries waiting at the very beginning of the hike. As one last fun bonus, we had to hike through ten meters of waist-high freezing lake to get to the boats since the dock had disintegrated.

The rainfall – several feet in those few days – set all sorts of records and our evacuation was top news with virtually every outlet. TVNZ also flew out a chopper to cover it and interviewed a few of us, including yours truly. In the end, it turned out to be quite the adventure and certainly an experience we’ll remember all our lives. We made some new friends and got a pretty amazing helicopter ride out of it. The trade-off, of course, was several days of misery. The situation also threw off our travel plans, forcing us to hightail it back up the South Island in one less day.

What really bugged me, though, is that much of all the misery could have been prevented if it weren’t for the business interests of the Department of Conservation. The rangers sent us merrily on our way each day knowing full well the weather was continuing to worsen. They knew on the very first day that there was a chance we’d have to be evacuated, yet they kept sending us into the heart of it. Worse still, they kept letting new hikers onto the track even as the rains kept building.

I’m sure the DOC’s rationale for this is that the weather is unpredictable, and it could have changed for the better. What’s far more likely to be at the root of it, however, is all the money they’d have had to refund if they had closed the track when they should have – Thursday night – not to mention the fees they’d have had to pay to their helicopter charter companies for picking up hikers (which they ended up shelling out anyway).

I’d also like to single out one special organization and individual for being absolute bitches. When Claudette and I finally got back to civilization on Monday evening, we headed to the Ridges Lakeland hotel in Queenstown, where we had a room booked on Sunday night. I explained what we had been through to Shaylee Crisp, an assistant manager, and asked if the hotel could honour our booking from the previous night. We had prepaid the room and obviously had no way of letting the hotel know we wouldn’t be able to make it. Despite us having been through hell and in dire need of sleep and a shower, and despite the hotel having three empty rooms available, Ms. Crisp had none of it. Tough luck, she said. Obviously, I’ll never even consider staying at Rydges again and I would warn any readers against it too. Shitty customer service and an utter lack of compassion should put this chain at the bottom of any traveller’s list.

I’ll post a couple videos from the track next week when I’m back in Canada and near a decent internet connection (it’s nice to see New Zealand’s broadband situation is still a mess). In the meantime, I’m not even going to joke about any further travels I have here down under. They seem to have an eerie habit of coming true.

Categories: new zealand

Milford: an engaging hike

April 27, 2010 3 comments

We made it through the Milford Track, or more correctly, we made it over the Milford Track. My musings on this trip have turned out to be eerily accurate. In my last post, I mentioned that we might get helicoptered out… which is exactly what happened. But more on this adventure in my next post…

In the meantime, I’m pleased to announce that I’m an engaged man. I popped the question to Claudette at the apex of the track, on the Mackinnon Pass. I’ll post a picture as soon as I find a non-terrible internet connection here in New Zealand. UPDATE: Picture has been added.

I figured the Milford Track was a good place to propose because it would either be the icing on what was already an awesome experience, or it would brighten an otherwise miserable situation. Coming as it did on day three of the hike, it seemed to be somewhere in the middle.

Now let’s not get too excited about the wedding, as neither of us is in a hurry to get hitched. When we do, though, we have mused about doing it somewhere exotic or cool. I’ve always thought it’d be awesome to get married in New Orleans…

Categories: new zealand

The Milford Track beckons

April 23, 2010 Comments off

Unless plans change, I’m going dark for the weekend. I’m not kidding – I’ll be on the fabled Milford Track by the time you read this, a four-day excursion into the heart of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. The track has often been referred to as one of the finest hikes in the world, which is why Claudette and I were keen to do it.

However, we were both pretty nervous this week about going, given our experience with the Tongariro Crossing, and given the somewhat ugly weather forecast for the weekend. Milford is one of the wettest places in New Zealand, after all. It’s puzzling why the Department of Conservation would plot a trail through such treacherous terrain?

In any event, I’ll post a full report on how we did next week. We’ll either get through it successfully, or we’ll get helicoptered out. Either way, it’ll be a good story to tell.

Categories: new zealand