As the days go down in the West, behind the hills and into shadow, I’m going to be reflecting (i.e. catching up) on some of Ariel and mine favorite travel memories from our adventures. I figured I’d start with what is probably our favorite hike together of all time, finding the filming location for Edoras from the Two Towers.
Right off the bat, know that you do NOT need to be a Lord of the Rings nerd to appreciate this incredible place. At just about two and half hours from Christchurch by car, this is not the most remote location I’ve ever visited. But it sure felt like it was…
While planning our trip to New Zealand, Ariel and I had a list of places we really wanted to see, either because we really thought they were beautiful or because we wanted to re-create a scene from one of the films. Edoras fulfilled both of those items, but it was a bit out-of-the-way based on our planned travel route. Plus, the directions called for about an hour-long drive on a dirt road. Ugh. Ariel was a little skeptical, but I had come across an excellent article at the Dangerous Business blog that had me convinced it would be worth it.
First of all let’s talk location. “Edoras” is actually Mount Sunday, in the Ashburton Lakes region of New Zealand. Getting used to be something of a challenge due to poor signage, but if you just put the coordinates into Google Maps, you can follow turn-by-turn directions.
Our journey actually started for us, as most of our travel days do, about a five and a half hour car ride from our destination. We started our day at Lake Wanaka, which is surrounded the Southern Alps, AKA the Misty Mountains.
After stops at the Mount Cook overlook and Twizel we continued on. Eventually we came to the turn off the highway that led to the dreaded gravel road. It was only about 20 kilometers or so, but the slow going was a great example of why you should always do a reality check before trusting time estimates on your GPS when going to remote places.
The unexpectedly-longer-than-expected drive meant that we arrived as the sun was beginning to come down out of the sky. This was a benefit and a detriment as it meant we had to be a little rushed, but also that we got some amazing lighting and atmosphere. We were also nearly completely alone, only occasionally running into a few hikers on their way out.
After parking at the parking lot (believe me you really can’t miss it), we set off on a hike. This was a little tricky because the trail itself is not so clearly marked and you have to cross a few shallow streams without the benefit of bridges. I’m not sure if we veered off-course or not, but there were definitely some wet feet – so wear some waterproof hiking shoes if you have them.
Eventually we did find our way back to the trail (assuming we were ever off it) and had the benefit of bridges for the last two, much larger streams.
About 20 minutes from the parking lot, we stood at the bottom of the hill.
While this was no Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we were still nursing our wounds (and bruised egos) from that fiasco, so it took a little bit of resolve to push up the last 10 minutes of the hike. And really it was no big deal. Just a little huffing and puffing, one little stop and we were there.
And wow… Immediately, this became one of my favorite places on the planet. Maybe it was the incredible 360 degree, uninterrupted majestic views. Maybe it was the fact that we were there completely alone. Maybe it was just relief that we didn’t chicken out at the last second. I can’t say for sure what it was, but I was overcome with a euphoric feeling, that I have only experienced in a few places in the world.
No pictures, no video, nothing could truly capture the feelings we experienced in this moment.
More than anywhere else we visited on this trip, this was the most fantastical experience we had. Even our amazing sidequest to Poolburn could not compare – mostly because of how isolated and unspoiled all the views were here. Everywhere else we went, from the Hobbiton on the North Island, to Milford Sound on the South Island, but either had distractions from other people or buildings that occasionally took you out of the moment. Not here. Even if you have never seen any of the films, read the books or have ever heard of Rohan, I assure you that you will have a spiritual moment here. Seriously, go here. Now.
Of course, we had to (poorly) re-create our favorite Edoras scene while we were up there.
Look we weren’t going for realism here. But like, you travel 10,000 miles or so to get somewhere you might as well take advantage.
Anyway, we only got to stay at the top for about 30 minutes because we still had another 2 hours in the car (including the aforementioned accursed gravel road). I could have stayed there for a year.
After a quick descent and hike back, we were on our way to our final stop of the day at Lake Tekapo, where we got to see the Milky Way.
To sum it up, the movie set may not still be there anymore, but this is without a doubt one of the most “real” film locations out there. While the castle is gone, the surrounding landscape is identical to what you see in the movie.
And I tell you this, as someone who has been all over the world, there are few places as magical.
So go. Find Edoras. And share your experiences.
For more on our incredible trip to New Zealand check out our other posts!
Well, this is almost it. We are now at our final stop before making the long journey home to New Jersey. Looking back on this trip, the definite highlights were Denali and the humpback whale watching trip in Icy Strait Point.
But the last few days have had their moments.
First we stopped in Ketchikan, Alaska which is apparently the salmon capital of the world. It was pretty clear why this is – every year thousands (or maybe tens of thousands? Or hundreds of thousands??) swim up the creek that flows right through the center of town to spawn. They didn’t really come out so great in my pictures but all you really need to do is look down and you can see thousands of them.
With salmon of course, come bears and eagles. And we got to see both! Including one bear that just kind of popped up out of the bushes behind us!
Note of course my filming technique, which is critical for filming bears at close range. Essentially it boils down to staying a few steps behind the morons who rush up to get close to a bear. I mean seriously, these animals can run 30 miles per hour! Personally I would have never chosen to get this close to a bear but it really just kind of popped out of the bushes behind us. It was never really scary because except for that one look he gives us at the end of the video, he really didn’t seem all that interested in us.
Plus, there were literally a dozen idiots who rather than staying in place or slowly backing up actually ADVANCED in his direction. So if anyone was getting mauled – it would have been them. Still it was the closest I got to a wild animal since that time I foolishly stared down an elk at Rocky Mountain National Park.
In any case, our new bear friend didn’t really bother much with us. Rather he was much more interested in the thousands of salmon in the stream below us, which is where he immediately went after creeping up behind us.
After our run in with the bear, we then went to see some native totem poles. This was pretty cool, but the really exciting thing was yet another encounter with some Alaskan bald eagles! This time they were just about close enough to get a somewhat decent picture.
After a quick lunch, it was time for our last real Alaskan event – the Ketchikan lumberjack show!
This was……OK. It was fun to watch (although man the seats were uncomfortable) a staged “competition” between guys doing things like axe throws and racing to chop logs. Think of it as like Medieval Times but with lumberjacks representing the United States and Canada. You’re supposed to cheer on your “country” (they sort the audience into US and Canada as well) and yell things out like “Yo Hoooo!” along with the performers. Fun for kids. And pretty fun for adults too. But at about $40 a ticket for a 45 minute show with no food……..I don’t know.
It certainly wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before, so I’m glad we went. Buuuuuttttt if I ever find myself in Ketchikan again…I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this.
One other really cool thing to do in Ketchikan is to visit the Tongass National Forest Visitor Center. It’s right next to the lumberjack show and has a really great overview of all the incredible national parks and lands within Alaska. Incredibly, only about 40% of the entire state is private land. To put that another way – that would be about 25% of the ENTIRE Lower 48! Incredible to learn and really put our whole Alaska experience into context.
From Ketchikan, it was basically straight on through until Vancouver. We traversed the “Inside Passage” which is a really narrow body of water with hills, mountains and trees on both sides. Also present, tons of birds, sea mammals and other wildlife. We also shared our journey with another cruise ship with was pretty cool.
Unfortunately for us, like a lot of the rest of time at sea, this day was completely overcast and occasionally really foggy.
So yesterday was mostly a relaxation day. After going through The Hobbit on the last trip, this was my day to try and make a dent in Lord of the Rings on this one.
This morning we awoke in the port of Vancouver.
After bidding adieu to the Radiance of the Seas for the final time, we made our way to our lodging for the evening to drop our stuff off and do a little sight seeing. But Ariel and I were both so completely drained (also having to chase down our taxi driver as he drove away with my wallet wiped out the remainder of my energy) that all we did was head over to the Space Museum and get some lunch (including vegetarian gravy poutine fries!!!!) on Granville Island.
We’ve also already been to Vancouver on our first road trip as a couple way back in 2012 when we did 2,999 miles in just a week and half. So we’re pretty much done here.
Now, we prepare for the long journey home and radical change in our lives.
Final thoughts on this trip, plus some reviews and guides to follow.
But still, it was missing something more important than all of that.
My travel mate, Ariel.
I love traveling alone.
Anytime you travel with a partner you have to make compromises. Ariel is……less open to the kinds of places I’m willing to eat and sleep for example. She also is a planner. When we travel together, she will look at our route and look for places to eat, sleep and stop along the way and pre-book them. Our travel together ends up looking more like an organized tour itinerary than a disorganized wanderer’s journey.
This can have major advantages, especially as it pertains to cost savings on booking rooms months in advance as opposed to minutes in advance. And by preparing for your trip, you can research the best places to eat and the coolest sights to see. If this is your style of travel, I highly recommend doing it this way. Also, there are few things more demoralizing than driving for 10 hours in a day, then pulling into some tumbleweed town with one motel at midnight…only to find out there’s no vacancy there or it’s closed.
And that the next town is another 2+ hours down the road.
The disadvantage is that when you make your reservations months in advance, it makes it much harder to call an audible like I did when deciding to go to Devils Lake just the other day. Or years ago, when I decided to go about 200 miles out of my way to see the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, which unexpectedly led me to my first view of the Milky Way Galaxy – one of my favorite travel memories of all time.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s just not the same without her. The give and take between my spontaneity and her planning is really what makes us such a great travel pair. She makes the plans. I improvise whenever the plan doesn’t work out so well. We really do work so well together as a travel team.
From the deepest caverns.
To mountains in the sky.
And all the way to the literal ends of the Earth.
I’ll still take the opportunity to go off on my own when the situation arises. A quick detour on a business trip. A short diversion on a weekend when I’m alone. But for the most part, having a child means the odds of these opportunities are rapidly shrinking to zero.
No. Going forward, travel – especially adventure-style travel – will no longer be a solo sport. It will be a team effort. As a unit. As a family. And while I may reflect back fondly on my times as a solo traveler on this blog on occasion…
…I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Denali National Park And The Aurora FREAKING Borealis!
So we’ve been in Alaska for a few days now and it is really something. Like it’s huge state, but it’s also just a HUGE state. “Everything’s bigger in Texas” except when compared to Alaska. EVERYTHING is massive here. The mountains. The glaciers. The distances. The temperature differences. It is really incredible.
And it is just an incredible contrast from where I was last week in Iowa and Minnesota, with their gentle rolling hills and Mid-western charm. That is not Alaska – at all. This is the big leagues of adventure travel.
After our initial train ride from hell, we checked into our hotel just outside Denali National Park. After a quick dinner at Karsten’s Pub (go with the fish and chips, they’re really good) we crashed for the night at about 9:30. After a few hours of sleep, we were awakened by the phone ringing.
“Aurora!” I shouted as we jumped out of bed, got dressed and went outside. The phone call was indeed from the front desk, telling us to go outside and look up. And boy what a sight…
It lasted for about 15 minutes before fading away, but we actually got to see the Northern freaking Lights. This had been a lifelong dream for me. In fact, when we went to New Zealand we made an attempt to get as far south as possible in the hopes of seeing the Aurora AUSTRALIS (the nearly identical, although much less well known Southern Lights), but it just wasn’t happening. The pictures and video really don’t do the experience justice. We just gaped at the sky, awe-struck.
And then we went right back to bed so the whole thing felt like a dream – except for our photographic and video proof.
The next morning we were up at 5:30 and headed into the park. And it was incredible. I try not to use terms like “spectacular” or “grandiose” too often but they really fit the bill. Denali is just something else. We saw all kinds of animals like moose, caribou, bears, eagles and dall sheep.
One thing to know about Denali is that they really enforce the rules about not interfering with the animals. Being that people aren’t able to drive in, you don’t get idiots who feed animals or otherwise interact with them. So the moose and bears keep their distance. This is a good thing for them, but it’s a bad thing for you…if you hypothetically forget to bring binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens…
It’s not like Yellowstone, where bison literally walk right up to your car and follow you as you drive down the street.
But the real star is the mountain itself. At over 20,000 feet, Denali (which means “The Great One”) is the biggest mountain in the world. What’s that you say? Mount Everest at 29,029 feet is higher? Well yeah, sure, if you grant it the 15,000 foot PLATEAU that gives it an unfair head start! Denali is on just a 2,000 foot plateau – so the mountain towers over its base by about 17,000 feet. Everest only goes up about 14,000 feet from top to bottom.
So as far as I’m concerned I just saw the BIGGEST mountain in the WORLD.
And apparently, it’s a very shy biggest mountain because it’s really only visible about 30% of the time. Well we sure lucked out.
Our trip through the park took about 13 hours to go to the end of the 92-mile-long park road.
They don’t let private cars drive more than 15 miles into the park so you need to book a ticket with either a tour bus or a shuttle bus. The tour bus costs about three times as much and includes a guide that tells you about the park.
We went with the shuttle bus, which was driven by a National Park employee. Our driver, JJ, had a microphone and basically did the job of a guide anyway. He answered all of our questions, told us about interesting things about the park, and stopped the bus anytime someone saw an animal they wanted to photograph. In fact, he was so devoted to showing us everything we wanted that we actually got back to the entrance to the park, the last shuttle back to our hotel (which leaves at 7 pm) had left.
Calling the hotel to send a “special” shuttle to get us meant paying $10 and waiting 20 minutes.
After our new friends on our shuttle bus heard about our predicament, several of them offered to drive us back since they were staying in the neighborhood anyway. So we caught a ride for free. Much like our near disaster at Tongariro, I knew there was about a 100% chance we would be able to catch a ride back with one of the dozens of people who visit the park if you miss your shuttle. So take your time and don’t stress it.
We got back to the hotel, had a quick dinner and went to sleep. No dancing lights this time.
The next morning we got our stuff together and headed for the cruise ship in Seward.
And finally some relaxation. But first there was one last little sidequest to complete…
But we’ll save that story for another time.
Day 3: An Anti-Climactic Conclusion, A Detainment, And An Amazing Sunset
Keeping with the Paul Bunyan theme of the last post, the morning of Day 3 started with a trip to his….grave?
I don’t know. This was pretty amusing considering there’s about a 99.9999999% chance this guy never existed. But it was somehow a little moving. Paul Bunyan is awesome. Is this really where he’s buried?
No. It isn’t. But still.
Anyway. So I finally made it to the northernmost point of the contiguous United States – Northwest Angle, Minnesota. This was a pretty great moment because I’ve been to all of the other extremes as well as the geographic center of the United States.
So this was it.
It was……not so exciting. I mean it was cool to cross this off the list. But the location itself was not so inspiring. I mean it was fine. But it’s not even the “real” northernmost point, which is unmarked and requires a guide or a boat to get to. No thanks. This was good enough for me. It was also a pain to get to, with gravel roads making the last 30 miles of the journey through Canada and back into Minnesota a slog. It was pretty cool to use the video phone to check in with both US and Canadian customs as I went in/out. Still…not the most exciting moment of my life. Not even the most exciting on this trip (the first moments in Minnesota or the headwaters of the Mississippi would take that crown).
Oh and in a final insult, the only restaurant in town can only cook fish that you catch yourself!
It’s not really their fault, there’s some regulation issues with them catching fish from the lake. But what the hell! I did have a nice conversation with the bartenders there about life in “the Angle”. It’s crazy, but from 6th grade onwards, kids have to cross the border back into the “mainland” of Minnesota each day to go to school! It’s two hours including a customs inspection EACH WAY. EVERY DAY. UGH!!!!!
From Angle Inlet, I had a decision to make. Do I head right back into the US and make for North Dakota or gun it across Manitoba into Saskatchewan to get credit for the province. After an hour of gravel roads though, and realizing that it would take me about ten hours out of my way (AND through Canada which means either international roaming charges or no phone for an entire day) I decided to play it safe.
Turns out it was probably for the best, because crossing back into the US at the Roseau border crossing was a bit of an adventure. I’ve crossed in and out of Canada lots of times by car and never had any issues. Apparently though, my story about Ariel being away for the weekend, prompting me to fly to Iowa and drive all the way up to the Angle and back was not too believable.
The border patrol woman had me drive off to the side and then politely asked (ordered) me out of the car. It might have been my imagination but I’m pretty sure she had her hand close to her hip (i.e. close to her gun) the entire time. She also made a point of stating that my door was unlocked which allowed her to open and inspect the car. Now I had nothing to hide obviously, but when I realized that this whole time they still had not returned my passport, I started to get nervous.
I had to wait in the facility with another agent while she performed a thorough search of my car. She even got the mirror pole thing to look underneath. And the whole time she’s doing that, I’m standing inside, at a counter (like at a deli), while the other agent is politely asking (interrogating) me questions. Now he didn’t CALL it an interrogation. And it wasn’t like in the movies with the bright lights and all that, but he was asking me lots of questions – in a way that was designed to just sound like a chat – but was clearly looking to poke holes in my story.
Like he mentioned to me that he saw I’d been to the Dominican Republic “a few times” – that’s not true. I was only there once and my passport was clearly stamped as such. He asked me where I lived, what I did for a living, where else I’d been in the United States. Did I eat anything while I was in the Angle? What was it? Where did I eat it? It was all very non-confrontational, but just knowing what he was doing (and what she was doing in my car), made me feel like I DID have something to hide, even though I didn’t.
And I kept thinking about what the female guard said when she had me get out of the car. I’d mentioned that Ariel was at a bachelorette party this weekend which is why I was free to travel on my own. She asked me if she was ALREADY my wife, how is she at her OWN bachelorette party. Which of course, she wasn’t. She was at her FRIEND’S party. But I guess the agent mis-heard that and therefore thought I was lying.
Again, I knew I had nothing to hide, but all kinds of visions of crooked cops planting evidence flashed through my mind. Had I actually done something wrong that they saw on camera as I approached without knowing about it? What if they didn’t like my (always problematic) attitude/demeanor and decided to teach me a lesson?
And I still had not been given my passport back…
Eventually, the agent came back and just inserted herself into the conversation I was already having with the other guy…who FINALLY gave me back my passport. We had a discussion about where I was going next (Devils Lake, ND) and what they both thought of the area. In the end, I had to ask if I was free to go. No one told me I was in the clear until I asked. And I just knew that they still didn’t believe anything I told them. And really why would they? What kind of weirdo comes ALL THE WAY from New Jersey to go the freakin’ Northwest Angle? Having been there, I can understand their skepticism.
Finally I was back on the road. And finally after two miserable, grey, drizzly/rainy days, as I headed west I could see a literal end to the overcast.
It was amazing, like I had been driving through the Holland Tunnel for two days and suddenly burst out in to the light. Only instead of Jersey City, I was greeted with one of my favorite landscapes in the world.
As the sun went down I stopped by the side of the road…next to a SUNFLOWER FARM. One of the greatest places I’ve ever watched the sunset.
Another hour of driving and I settled in at the Rodeway Motel at Devils Lake for the final night of the trip. All missions complete, back in America, my thoughts now turned to home as I turned in for the night.
And that was Day 3.
Re-adjusting to normalcy: Finding adventure in the everyday
As I sit here at the Delta Lounge in Atlanta (which is AWESOME by the way), it dawns on me that it’s been four months almost to the day since we returned from our epic New Zealand/Middle Earth adventure. While our trip was only two weeks long, being away from home and seeing new things (not to mention the intense breaks from reality that were our travel days there and back again), where every day’s goal was to simply live in the moment, makes re-adjusting to every day life a challenge.
How does one go from sunsets and mountains and open landscapes one day to staring a computer screen, fiddling with spreadsheets the next day? And then the next day? And then the next day… And then…
One way to do it is to make sure you love what you do. I happen to really love my job which grants me the kind of flexibility to go to places like New Zealand and Tahiti. I also enjoy the actual work but unless you’re really into VLOOKUPs and Excel formulas I’m not going to bore you with those details.
However, for a long time, I really DID NOT love what I did and used to dream of going to the kinds of places I’ve only been able to go to fairly recently. My solution to the problem was to blow up my life and start over in a way that gave me the freedom to go on adventures.
But what if that’s not possible? What if you don’t have the luxury of just “starting over” because of financial reasons or family reasons or health reasons?
In that case, the only choice is to find the adventure in your every day life.
Can’t go away for two weeks? Pack up the car and drive somewhere new. No money to explore Paris or Rome? Find the nearest city to where you live and explore locally. Stuck on a business trip in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do? Ask the locals what the most beautiful local site is, take an extra half day and GO THERE. One of my coolest places I ever visited was Muir Woods, which was just an hour or so drive out of San Francisco, where I had gone for a conference for work.
Having said that, nothing Ariel and I have done since getting back has quite matched the adventure and freedom of life on the road in a strange country, without a care but where we would sleep for the night. But we’ve found other ways to make the mundane everyday into something else.
For example, in April, we adopted a dog!
His name? Sammy. Or Samwise Gamgee The Brave The Dog Kapoano to be more precise. Naturally.
And let me tell you something – he has been quite the adventure. He’s great, but he’s sure not all pony rides in May-sunshine.
Having a dog complicates matters for us in terms of our next adventure. While we can certainly bring him with us on weekend trips, we are limited by places that allow pets. Furthermore, bringing him with us on true extended travel like we had in New Zealand is just not realistic. So we will have to adjust – but we knew this ahead of time. Sammy is just one of several reasons we went all in on the New Zealand trip.
So you adjust. Tend to your home. Start a garden. Reflect on past travel. Look forward to the next adventure, even if it may not come for years. And you never, ever, lament the circumstances that have led to your reduced freedom. Instead you remind yourself that you always have choices.
As our lives become a bit more sedentary, look to this blog to delve more deeply into past adventures that Ariel and I have been on together or separately so you can relive our triumphs and learn from our mistakes.
So we got home late last night after an extraordinarily exhausting 53 hours of travel, including some borderline time travel that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. Consider this, our flight left Auckland, NZ on Saturday at about 11:30 pm New Zealand time, crossing the international dateline shortly afterwards. We landed in California (after a 12 hour flight of nonstop turbulence) at 2:30 pm. On SATURDAY. That’s about nine hours BEFORE we departed.
We went to sleep in California at about 9:30 pm. So we were sleeping in California TWO HOURS BEFORE our plane left New Zealand. Go get your mind to grasp that.
After the initial depression of leaving transitioned rapidly into the depression of “I wish this miserable, never ending travel day was over” – all I wanted was to be home. Unfortunately for us, we had one last adventure left in this trip, when our baggage return carousel at Newark airport decided to jam, stranding us with 2 out of 3 bags for over an hour while the feckless Virgin America employees tried to figure out how to get 10 suitcases out of the machine.
By the time we got home, I was thrilled. Ariel wasn’t too excited, but there’s something about coming home to your own bed, your own sofas, your own TV and clothes and dining room table and refrigerator and everything else that just feels good. While New Jersey is pretty freaking far from Bilbo and Frodo’s Shire (although in some ways it’s more similar than you might think), to us, it’s our home. And there is real comfort in being home.
As I got up this morning though, I had a very strange moment where I was highly confused about when and where I was exactly. After two weeks of never sitting still, never spending more than two nights (and usually only one) in the same bed, plus the incredible amount of time we spent in travel limbo, I’m in a strange place. Yet I’m also home. I’m back at my familiar desk in my familiar office. I drove my familiar car, with its familiar annoying noises, on the RIGHT side of the road (although now I’m struggling to remember that my LEFT hand is the turn signal hand), through the familiar New Jersey traffic to my familiar parking lot with its familiar lack of parking spaces. I went up the familiar elevator and said hello to my familiar receptionist.
This isn’t the first time I felt this way – in fact, this is always the way it feels the day after getting back from an extended trip away from home.
You see when you’re on the road (whether driving or taking public transport), there are certain routines you fall into. Every day you get up, pack up your stuff (don’t forget to check the bathroom and fridge twice in case you forgot something), arrange the cooler and BOOM you’re out there. When you get to wherever you’re staying for the night it’s a similar routine but in reverse. Unpack the cooler, freeze the ice packs, connect to wifi, put your stuff in the bathroom – but don’t spread out TOO much or you’ll waste time in the morning getting it all back together.
Then, after a bunch of plane rides and grueling travel you suddenly find yourself at home. No road routine. No new bed tonight. Just up and go to work like the last two weeks (or months or years in some cases) never even happened.
I also find air travel to be completely disorienting. You get into a tin box and magically, a few hours later you’re in a completely different place with different temperatures, different scenery, different times, different people speaking different languages. Plus the whole routine of checking in, going through security, wandering around in the nebulous zone between airport gates amongst other dazed travelers from all over the world, who themselves have no idea where they are really, is just so strange.
It creates such a break from everything that preceded it, that when it’s over, no matter where I am, it feels like that’s where I’ve always been. For two weeks in New Zealand, it seemed like my whole life in New Jersey was nothing but a dream. Now it seems like New Zealand was nothing but a dream.
But then I realize that my sand fly bites are itching. And that I haven’t shaved in days. And I think about where those bites came from or where it was that I shaved last or cut my nails…and suddenly it’s all very real again and I’m back in Milford Sound or Wellington or Lake Tekapo or Matamata and it just takes me right out of it.
This is how it always is. Because even when you come home – it’s the same home and the same life and the same people – it’s you that has changed. It’s the fundamental beauty of traveling to far off places and why it makes sense to spend lots money on limited experiences as opposed to permanent items. Because while the travel ends, a good trip really stays with you for the rest of your life in a way that no 4K TV or leather sofa ever can.
Our experiences on this trip will be frames of reference for future experiences that we otherwise never would have been able to compare. Even in New Zealand, with all of the wild scenery and radically different lifestyle than what I’m used to on a daily basis, I was drawing on past experiences in the Rocky Mountains or Patagonia or other places I’ve gone. It was these past experiences that better helped me to digest what I was seeing around me and have better prepared me to deal with out of the ordinary experiences even in my daily life.
That’s why getting out of your comfort zone is so important. Because while it may not always be pony-rides in May-sunshine, real travel is the time we are most ALIVE.
Well, I’m sitting here now at the lovely Emperor Club at the Auckland Airport. We had a three hour drive today followed by a 90 minute flight from Queenstown to here. Now we begin the real journey home, via California.
Since our last update, we’ve continued having some really wild experiences.
As I alluded to in the last post, on Wednesday morning we had our tour of “Rohan” AKA the Poolburn Reservoir area in the Otago region. This place was unreal. Moreso even than Hobbiton or Togariro, this was without a doubt the most Middle Earth-like area we found. They changed basically nothing for the movie. You just drive out there (with the local land owner) and BOOM you’re in a movie. We’ll have a full review of the area, including a bunch of pretty hilarious videos we got of us clowning around as Aragorn and Legolas. Really great experience.
From Poolburn we continued on to Queenstown. On the way we made a stop at the Kawariko Gorge suspension bridge which was where they shot my favorite scene in the entire series – the Great River, which is the only time in the movies where you hear the full “ring” theme in its entirety.
Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on what you’re into), the bridge is the site of a bungee jump facility. This is not our thing. However, a lot of people really love it and if you are into bungee jumping good on ya. For me though, the blasting electronic dance music didn’t exactly evoke the kind of mood I was hoping for. Oh well!
Queenstown is a great city – I wish we could have spent more time there. We took the gondola to a really cool overlook where you can participate in more extreme sports, including more bungee jumping (what is it about New Zealand that makes people want to jump off of bridges so much?), luge and what appeared to be a really aggressive downhill mountain bike track. You can also watch a Maori Haka, which I was really excited for.
From Queenstown we proceeded to Te Anau which was to be our base for exploring Fiordlands and Milford Sound. The entire park is a must-see attraction and I highly recommend taking a cruise out on the water. It’s incredible. After our miserable weather luck in the beginning of the trip we were blessed with one of only 14 average days of clear skies they get in a year. The cruise, hikes (think Fangorn Forest type of scenery) and underwater observatory will probably be the subject of their own post as well. UNLUCKILY we were actively pursued by sandflies everywhere we went – I came down with some nasty bites on my right index finger which really made steering the car a chore.
That night, after we got back into town, we went on a glow worm tour. This was quite the experience. After a 20 minute boat ride, we reached the entrance to the caves where the glow worms live. We then walked through a dimly lit tunnel to a pitch black cave. We then boarded ANOTHER boat on an underground lake. I’m pretty sure if we lingered there long enough we would have been challenged to a game of riddles by Gollum. Anyway the glow worms were pretty cool but there was no photography allowed.
The last day was our last full day. We drove down the Catlins in the hopes of maybe seeing some Aurora Australis. Fat chance. But the scenery was really beautiful on the coast again and at twilight the hills were truly beautiful.
Today we came all the way back up to Queenstown. After a couple of last-minute adventures where we nearly ran out of gas and were treated to a speeding ticket (going 116 KPH in a 100 KPH zone) a mere 90 minutes from returning the car, our driving experience came to an end. All in all driving in New Zealand wasn’t nearly the challenge everyone made it out to be. But a full review and write up of that experience is coming as well.
Now we’re just waiting to board our flight to California, so this is going to be the last post I do from inside the country. We’re a little depressed, but we were never going to move here sooooo this moment was inevitable before we even left. However, you can expect a load of detailed reviews and write ups of our various excursions and experiences to come. Final thoughts will be coming as well once we’re home.
One does NOT simply walk into Mordor… Or traverse the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
On Wednesday, Ariel and I traversed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Or in other words, we attempted to simply walk into Mordor.
We had known this day was coming for months and even made some half-hearted attempts to “train” for it by doing a few hour-long hikes around New Jersey.
We were unprepared.
Our bus picked us up from the Park Hotel where we were staying at 7:30 am and dropped us off at the start of the trail around 8 am. We began our trek surrounded by hundreds of people of varying ages, from children all the way to their literal grandparents. Most of the people were in their 20’s. Disappointed to be surrounded by so many people but excited to get going, we embarked on our journey into Mordor.
We were told the bus would meet us on the other side at 3 pm and that if we were running late, we could catch a later bus at 4:30. If we needed more time than that, we could make arrangements for a private pickup for $150. No thanks. Generally it takes people about 7-8 hours so we had nothing to worry about.
The first kilometer was really easy. We were both thinking that the whole thing would be no sweat and that we’d easily make the 3 pm bus.
Somewhere between the first and second kilometer the trail began to turn uphill. It was still pretty easy, but there was a definite change. Ariel and I both have some respiratory issues, with her having full blown asthma and me having…something like asthma that I’ve never really gotten properly diagnosed.
We began falling behind people at this point. But still, no big deal. Nothing we hadn’t already seen on short stints on the Appalachian Trail or other hikes back home.
Then we came to this sign…
…which we had precisely zero respect for as you can see from Ariel’s expression.
Unfortunately for us, it wasn’t lying because this is where the real ordeal began. For the next two hours it was a nearly 45 degree climb of stairs. With our aforementioned breathing issues, that meant stopping every 20 steps or so to catch our breath. Now anyone who has ever gone uphill will tell you that is an absolutely disastrous approach to climbing. We knew this. It didn’t matter though. We had to keep stopping as our hearts were pounding in our ears.
To be sure, we weren’t the ONLY people suffering, but we were definitely among the worst. People were hopping and skipping along past us as we sat, panting. Some people even jogged and RAN past us. Lord how I hated those people.
The views though…
Absolutely spectacular. And truly otherworldly. This WAS Middle Earth.
At times the trail actually leveled off and we had bursts of energy and excitement. Highs and lows (literally) is the name of the game. We even got to take some fun pictures along the way when we weren’t feeling crushed by the experience.
The trouble was that after two hours, when we were in the midst of what I was calling the “plains of Gorgoroth” there was still one more major ascent. This time with no steps. We literally needed to pull ourselves up by chains.
Absolutely brutal. More than once we both thought about turning back. I was trying to keep it together and push us both across what I thought was the finish line. We took our last break, had our lunch in a rocky outcropping that was our only shelter from 30+ MPH sustained winds and pushed forward.
By this point it was clear that the 3 pm bus was never happening and that even the 4:30 bus would be a long shot.
Then, after one last push, finally, we were at the summit. From here we had an incredible view of the blue lakes, emerald lakes, red crater and of course Mount Doom or Mount Ngauruhoe for people who prefer real world names for their deadly volcanoes.
Unfortunately for us, what goes up, must come down. And unlike Frodo and Sam, there were no giant eagles to come and fly us back to Rivendell. Or in this case, the car park.
From the top it was a steep (around 30-40 degree) descent, on thick brown sand. Poor Ariel fell a couple of times, but luckily the ground was really soft so it was no big deal. And still people of all ages kept zooming past us, just casually jogging down, looking like they were skiing past us.
At this point I had developed some knee cramps, a heel blister, some pain in my groin muscles and thighs on the ascent, so going downhill was a relief for a while. Eventually though, the “downhill muscles” started acting up too and I started developing a blister on my right pinky toe.
The landscape also changed dramatically from the ascent as well. Whereas on the ascent, we were surrounded by volcanic rocks, on the downhill portion the landscape turned green, with some steam geysers emanating from some places on the mountain. It was very atmospheric and cool looking. At this point we were doing pretty well as the trail eventually leveled off and began lazily winding down the mountain at just a few degrees.
By the time we arrived at the next rest area, we felt great. With just a few kilometers to go – all downhill – seemingly at a leisurely pace, we felt like we might even make the 4:30 bus. Just to be safe, we called to find out if there was a later bus and lo and behold there was actually a 5:30 bus we could take for free.
Feeling great, we continued on down.
After about an hour of easy descent, we entered what I can only describe as Mirkwood. No this was not the film location. And no, Mirkwood is not a real place. But man, did it feel like we were trapped in an endless, enchanted rain forest with no way out. The air was utterly still and stifling.
And the stairs. My God, the stairs. Hundreds, thousands of stairs going down into the green gloom. Visibility varied from 50-100 feet at most as the trail made sharp 90 degree turns every few dozen steps. And all stairs all the time.
After about an hour of this, Ariel’s knees began locking up. I was barely in better shape. Our water was mostly gone. Feet were rebelling with every step. With no markers along this stretch we had no idea if we were even making any progress at all. Our pace slowed to a crawl, as Ariel was nearly unable to put any weight on her left knee and I tried to support her weight by having her lean on me as we trudged down, one step at a time.
By now it was becoming clear that we were among the last people left on the trail as we were all alone for 5-10 minutes at a time. At last we came to (what was unbeknownst to us) the last round of stairs. Ariel had to stop a few steps from the bottom and for the first time I started ACTUALLY worrying we wouldn’t make it. As people walked by I was asking them for pain medication and basically decided we would just hitchhike back to the hotel whenever we got to end. Instead of catching the bus, my only goal now was to beat the darkness.
But in the end, Ariel rallied and we got down the last few steps. From this point on the trail leveled off a lot and the last 20 minutes could even be described as pleasant if we weren’t both limping across the finish line. One of the couples that passed us (and graciously offered to drive us to our hotel) reached the end a few minutes before us and called out to us that it was almost over.
Suddenly the trail turned to the left and DAYLIGHT.
It was 5:40. The bus had waited for us. I had to take a selfie by myself at the end of the trail because Ariel just couldn’t stay on her feet anymore.
And just like that it was over. We won. A few days later and we are mostly healed. Ariel’s knee pains faded with some Ibuprofen and my only continuing injury was an absolutely disgusting pinky toe blister and a sunburned neck and face. Whatever, I’ll live.
So would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It really seemed like we got the worst of it when compared to everyone else. It seemed like if you had ANY climbing experience or were a regular hiker it was no big deal. But for people who are mostly used to hiking/walking on flat ground this was no picnic. You need to be prepared for a tough time. And if you can, spend some time building up your leg muscles in advance of the hike.
But if you’re up for it, the views are really and truly amazing.
In terms of supplies, I felt like we had brought about enough food/water to get through the nine hour journey. We had about five liters of water between the two of us, so we probably should have had another liter or so for the last stretch when we went into overtime. I packed two sandwiches, an apple, a granola bar, some carrots and a cucumber. Ariel did the same, minus a sandwich.
By the end of the journey I started feeling like I do at the end of a day of starving myself on Yom Kippur, but I’m not sure if that was due to lack of food or general over-exertion. Other people we saw definitely packed less than us.
You will definitely want a first aid kit with some band aids, anti-bacterial cream, pain medication. If your lips often get chapped, you’ll definitely want to bring something for that too. Also, don’t be an idiot like me – wear sunscreen on all exposed skin.
We both wore backpacks with water bladders and easy access straws. I really liked mine, an Osprey pack with the optional 3 liter bladder attachment. It was light and I barely even remembered I had it on. With all the pains I experienced, back pain was not one of them despite dragging around at least 20 pounds of gear (including 6.5 pounds of water). Highly recommended.
Most importantly you’re going to want to bring lots of layers. We went from thermal fleeces to t-shirts, back to fleeces and back to t-shirts by the end. The temperature changes were nuts.
Also something to keep in mind is the fact that there are only a few places to stop with toilets on the entire journey. That means unless you can hold it for 3+ hours at a time, you’ll either want to limit your water consumption or get used to doing your business in the field, often with little to no privacy. Although I suppose there is some novelty to being able to tell people you took a leak on Mount Doom.
Finally, don’t worry about making your bus. That’s a great way to panic, rush and get yourself seriously injured. And don’t waste your money on “making special arrangements” – first of all there are constantly buses taking people back so that even if you miss yours you can probably hitch a ride with a different bus. They’re not just going to leave you to die. And people who do these treks tend to be really friendly – I have absolute confidence that we would have gotten a ride back from someone who had a car in the lot.
And on that note, we didn’t come across any park rangers at any of the rest areas or anywhere else on the trail. So if you run into trouble like we did (hopefully not worse), you’ll have to rely on your own wits and/or the kindness of strangers.
I’d suspected, despite continual reassurances from local New Zealanders that we would be “fine” and that it would be no big deal, that we actually would be way in over our heads. It was that nervousness that had me asking everyone we met here what it would be like. The response was always something along the lines of “don’t worry, you can do it.” Well that was technically true, we DID make it and we did live to tell the tale. But if either of us had any kind of chronic knee or other leg/foot issue we would have been doomed.
In retrospect it was absolutely worth it. In the moment, it was a nightmare. Would I do it again? Not really – at least not without building up to it with a year or so of regular uphill hikes. Having said all that, if I could do it you can definitely do it. Just know what you’re getting yourself in to.
Because Boromir was absolutely right, one does NOT simply walk into Mordor.
Bilbo was sadly reflecting that adventures are not all pony-rides in May-sunshine…
–The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
So this isn’t a vacation.
We knew this. You knew this.
It’s an adventure.
What’s the difference, you ask? Well, it’s simple really. Vacations are relaxing. Adventures are awesome. But occasionally adventures also suck. And like the word “awesome” sometimes it means amazing, sometimes it means intimidating. When you’re trying to cram an entire country into 13 days, you’re going to experience a lot of highs, but also a lot of lows. Like our friend, Bilbo Baggins, we’ve experienced quite a bit of both over the past few days.
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, while incredible and awe-inspiring, did a real number on both Ariel and I. Two days later and we’re still sore. I’m sunburnt, my thighs hurt and I have blisters on my feet. Her knees are painful. On top of that, yesterday, in addition to taking a relaxing yet amazing flight over the very same route we trekked a couple of days ago, I insisted we trek up to the Putangirua Pinnacles, which was the film location for the Dimholt Road (pictured at the top of this post).
It was a really cool experience (also to be fully detailed in a later post), but it did add an extra two hours of hiking on rocks to the 10 miserable hours we did the day before. On a normal day it would be no big deal, but in light of the grueling prior 24 hours it definitely set back our healing time.
Then yesterday, during our all day tour of the film locations around Wellington, whoever it is that rules the weather in New Zealand decided to dump about 3 inches of rain on our heads.
Whatever, it was still awesome. Just exhausting.
Today, we have a ferry to catch at 7 am, have to return our garbage rental car and transfer all of our damn stuff into a the new car they’re giving us. And it looks like more pouring rain. Fun times!
Highs and lows. Pony rides and grueling slogs. We could slow down and miss out on stuff we want, or we can decide to maximize the time that has been given to us. Which would you choose?