Weightless: Learning to Fly in New Zealand

“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float, to gain all while you give, to roam the roads of lands remote, to travel is to live!” – Hans Christian Andersen

One of the most adventure-filled places on earth lies in the South Island of New Zealand, in a magical place called Queenstown. I had always dreamed of going to New Zealand and in the fall of 2002 my husband and I went on an epic two-week vacation of the North and South Islands of New Zealand. We were still newly married and kid-free thus craving adventure and excitement. Despite being the bungy-jumping capital of the world, I had no interest whatsoever in trying this form of thrill-seeking. Instead, my husband and I decided on trying tandem hang-gliding. It would be our chance to fly like a bird, soaring off the tops of the Remarkables and experiencing the sensation of weightlessness, exhilaration and joy.

I should have been concerned when we were about to book our day of pure kiwi-style adventure in Queenstown and the tour agent informed us that the day before there was “a wee bit of drama“.  But I was young, childless and full of that intense wild and crazy adventure that lead me to brush aside the fact that a woman and her “pilot” were in the hospital, barely alive, after crashing and free-falling thirty feet just after take-off on their tandem hang-gliding adventure.  Apparently the bolts weren’t correctly tightened.

After careful consideration of all of Queenstown’s fabulous, adrenaline-pumping activities, we settled on hang-gliding and I had my heart set on it, even though the story about the accident was still promptly displayed in the papers.  No it couldn’t happen to me?  What would be the odds?  We felt slightly reassured by our choice of a different company that according to our overtly friendly hotel concierge had a “no failure” safety record.  I didn’t want to chicken out at this point but the thought of being that first failure was still lodged inside the back of my mind, eating away a bit at my nerves.

It was with this mindset and apprehension that Paul and I set out one early afternoon to Coronet Peak a world-class ski resort in the winter and the launching off point for our hang-gliding adventure in the spring and summer.  Our van picked us up and drove us out of lovely, peaceful Queenstown and wove slowly up the mountainous terrain until we reached our destination:  Our launching point at 3,800 feet elevation!

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Goodbye New Zealand

Photo above taken on our last day in Auckland, New Zealand.  The sun was shining warmly and spring was in the air.  November 2002.

Never in my life had I not wanted to leave a place and return home than during my two weeks in New Zealand.  The pure beauty and laid-back, carefree life of New Zealand was effecting me in an utterly positive way.  Going back was not only depressing but a dreadful thought.  For it was the start of a long, cold Minnesota winter and worse yet, I was heading back to perhaps the worst job I’ve ever had in my life.  Even more depressing of a thought!

Have you ever had a job that was so miserable that you could barely crawl out of bed each morning?  A job that left you in tears as you walked out the door?  That was the job I had back at home and the last job I have on my resume before becoming a full-time mom. It was one of those awful situations in which I was tainted forever about working for small companies.  I am thankful every day that I don’t have to go there and try to erase the entire experience out of my memory.

Anyway, if I could go back to New Zealand I would be sure to visit a few key areas that I never had a chance to see:  Cook Mountain, Abel Tasman National Park and of course I’d do the Tongariro Crossing.  Since the world is such a big place and there remains so many other interesting countries to visit, I don’t know when I’ll be back.  But someday I will!

Stay tuned…countdown to Guatemala is now five days.  I will be flying to Guatemala City and taking a bus (I am hoping now a “Chicken Bus”!) to Xela in the highlands.  I am doing a home stay, taking Spanish classes in the morning and volunteering “up the mountain” in the afternoons at an indigenous school.  I am also really looking forward to meeting fellow WordPress blogger Lucy Brown of LocaMotion!  See what happens when you blog!  Friends around the world and if you are lucky, you can even meet them in person!

If you don’t hear much here on this blog, I may be using thirdeyeworld instead to do some “postcards” while I’m away.  We’ll see! 🙂


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Day hike in Waimangu Volcanic Valley

With an unexpected, unplanned day ahead of us due to bad weather at the Tongariro Crossing (see earlier post), we discussed our options with our B&B hosts Peter and Grace who enthusiastically informed us of nearby Waimangu Volcanic Valley located near Rotorua.

Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley is the hydrothermal system created on 10 June 1886 by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera, on the North Island of New Zealand. It encompasses Lake Rotomahana, the former site of the Pink and White Terraces. It was the location of the Waimangu Geyser, which was active from 1901 to 1904. The valley contains Frying Pan Lake, which is the largest hot spring in the world. – Wikipedia

The world’s youngest geothermal system and the “must-do” tourist attraction in the area, Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley is definitely a thrill to see.  There are tons of tour agents offering daily visits to the area but of course Paul and I wanted to do it on our own and chose the best way to see the area:  A hike.

We drove first to the town of Rotorua, whose abundant thermal activity makes the entire place smell like rotten eggs!  (Perhaps you get used to it when you live there!).  The town was way too touristy for my liking yet it was indeed fascinating.  Our stay was short, however, as we wanted to get a hike in and knew that most of the tourists would not be following us.

We followed the trailhead for a short hour and a half hike up and back.  There was not a soul around, the way I like to hike and the views were impressive.

Start of the hike.  

Hot steamy water.  Wouldn’t want t take a swim in there!

Interesting greenery given the location! 

View at the top of the Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

The park proved to be a great day hike.  It was my first visit to a geothermal valley and I was amazed by the lava lakes, hot volcanic streams and the unique curiosities the place.

As the afternoon skies began to clear we wished we had one more day in the area to do the Tongariro Crossing.  That night we saw it, finally, while we were eating dinner at a restaurant in Taupo.  We took a sip of our cold beer and thought…next time.

Here it is, the Tongariro Crossing in the background.

Stay tuned…one last post perhaps on New Zealand. Then I’m off on a new subject if time permits before heading off to Guatemala on March 3rd. This time I will remember to take loads of pictures! 🙂

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The tramp that wasn’t meant to be

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park is one of New Zealand‘s most spectacular tramping tracks, and is considered the most popular one-day tramp in New Zealand.   The Tongariro National Park is a World Heritage site which has the distinction of dual status, as it has been acknowledged for both its natural and cultural significance.

The crossing passes over the volcanic terrain of the multi-cratered active volcano Mt Tongariro, passing the eastern base of Mt Ngauruhoe which can optionally be climbed as a side trip.  The 19.4 km (12.0 mi) walk is renowned for its barren yet beautiful “moon like” volcanic landscape, unusual geological features, visible volcanic activity and views of the surrounding countryside below.

-Description per Wikipedia

Photo of the Tongariro Crossing accredited to Wikipedia Commons. 

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In the North Island: A visit to Lake Taupo

Today was the day that we were heading back to Auckland to begin our exploration of New Zealand’s North Island.  We had already used up well over half of our vacation in the South Island and were reluctant to leave because we loved it so much.  The South Island of New Zealand is a magical, beautiful place that is a true outdoor enthusiast’s heaven.  We could have easily stayed there forever but of course had to get back to reality and move on.

Our flight from Christchurch to Auckland left bright and early which was a good thing because we really didn’t leave much time to spare in our itinerary.  We arrived at the airport, proceeded to gather our luggage and rental car, and then were off once again heading North to Lake Taupo, in the central north part of the island.

The drive was as beautiful and serene as we’d come to expect with New Zealand.  Honestly, we were getting quite spoiled.  Yet, the surrounding landscape of the North Island was quite different than the South Island which made it all the more pleasurable.

The major reasons behind the differing landscapes has to do how each island was formed.  The North Island was formed by volcanic activity whereas the South Island was formed by glaciers.  As you can imagine, the terrain is vastly different.  While the South Island is lined from north to south with the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps, the North Island is graced with extinct volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and less lush vegetation.  It is more rugged and raw while the South is more lavish, green and majestic.  The stark contrast between the two islands make it a necessity to visit them both.

The drive to Lake Taupo took a little under three hours and we timed the drive so we could play a round of golf upon our arrival.  With the exchange rate being so incredible (this was 2002 remember), we were able to play the Waikai International Golf course, rated in the top 20 in the world at the time, for only $50 each!  Although we were both out of practice, we still enjoyed the challenging course and I tried not to get too incredibly frustrated by how poorly I played.  The sky had turned gray and overcast yet at least it wasn’t raining.

We arrived at our B&B “The Loft” which was located outside the town of Taupo around seven o’clock and were pleasantly welcomed by the owners Peter and Grace.  The B&B was outstanding and by far the nicest one we had stayed at during our trip thus far.  It had only three rooms and felt more like a house than an inn.  Our hosts Peter and Grace were wonderful and a tremendous help.

By the time we got back to town for dinner it was approaching nine o’clock and we were famished.  I started to get rather agitated as I’m known to do when I don’t eat on schedule (I know, not a good habit, but my appetite is rather routine).  I was about ready to start eating my arm when the waiter casually walked over and saw my look of distress.  Instantly  a bewitching smile crossed his handsome face as well as a look of concern.  Kiwis cannot stand stress and they generally want everyone to relax and enjoy life as the Kiwis do.  So what did he do?  He turned around, left and came back with an ice cold bottle of local Sav Blanc (my favorite) and set it down on our table.  This is what he said:

You’re in New Zealand.  You’re at a great place, with a great guy.  So why don’t you just relax.  Here’s a bottle, on the house.

Then he gave me a wink and left.  Wow, I tell you, did that make my night.  I could never imagine a similar scenario playing out at home in the US.  I loved the laid-back, carefree life of many New Zealanders.  I wondered why I had fallen into that American trap of worrying too much about everything and not just letting go.  Ahh…I wish I could live in New Zealand!

We had an excellent dinner at Nannie’s, right on Lake Taupo.  The wine flowed steadily, the conversation was light and hearty and I learned a valuable lesson that night.  That sometimes it is time to stop and smell the roses.  Otherwise life will just pass you by.

Stay tuned…Next post:  Our big day!  We are scheduled to rise before dawn to do the eight-hour Tongariro Crossing hike.  It is rated one of the top hikes in New Zealand!  

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Day trip to Akaroa

With one day left on the South Island and yet another spectacular blue sky, Paul and I decided to hit the road and take a day trip to the nearby village of Akaroa, located about 54 miles/87 kilometers from Christchurch.  Akaroa is the oldest town in Canterbury, founded by French settlers in 1840, and is a wonderfully quaint, beautiful village nestled in the heart of the Banks Peninsula.  We had also heard that the area offered many opportunities for excellent “tramps” (or hikes as we call it) as well as ocean cruises to see New Zealand’s unique marine wildlife.

We headed out early in the morning choosing to take the “scenic route” in our rental car.  Apparently there are two ways to Aakora:  One easy and relatively straightforward, and the other more spectacular, yet rugged.  We took the latter.  It wound up being a harrowing hour and a half drive from Christchurch but well worth the incredible views.

Here is the description of the route we followed per the New Zealand Tourism Guide:

There are two routes to Akaroa. State Highway 75 takes you via Lake Ellesmere and Lake Forsyth before it climbs over the hills to Akaroa Harbour. The other route is very scenic, but longer and more difficult to drive. It takes you through the Lyttelton tunnel and around Lyttelton Harbour before making the rugged, cross country journey to Akaroa.

Photo taken during our “tramp” in the Banks Peninsula with the sheep looking on. 

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Back to Christchurch

Ok, I know I was going to jump into the North Island of New Zealand but I found a few more pictures and stories that I forgot to include on the South Island.  I guess that’s what happens when you are writing about a trip that was ten years ago!  So let me back up here and return to where I left off in the Milford Sound.  To read the last post on exploring the Milford Sound click here.

We rose early to the morning sun coming over the serene Milford Sound.  It was yet another glorious day and not a soul was in sight.  Paul and I enjoyed our last hour of solitude while we sailed back to shore where we would be boarding the oddly shaped Real Journeys bus back to Christchurch.

Everyone was tired and quiet on our long ride back to Queenstown.  I for one looked awful, like I’d been punched in the eye.  Actually I had an unfortunate encounter with a sand fly (that nasty thing bit me hard!) the day before while I was kayaking in the Sound and my left eyelid had swollen up like a balloon!  That was a fun one to explain to a bunch of strangers!

We arrived in Queenstown by late afternoon and headed straightaway to the tourist office.   We had one more thing to accomplish in Queenstown:  Our very last adrenaline-pumping activity, Jet-boating.  Luckily there was one last ride of the day.  If we hustled, we would be able to catch the 5:30 pm jet-boat on the Shotover River just outside town.  I should have been scared when I met our driver, a twentysomething Kiwi with a dangerous grin on his boyish face.  But “no worries” as they love to say in New Zealand.

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Sailing sound in the Milford Sound

“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world.   The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it.   Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness.   In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both.   This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins

Around five o’clock we boarded our ship for the night, the lovely Milford Manner and sailed off into the sparkling blue depths of the world famous Milford Sound.  We felt quite lucky to have such amazing weather and no rain in sight in a place that normally receives rain an average 330 days per year.

View from our ship, the Milford Manor, of the Milford Sound in all her splendor.  

Another small ship paved the way ahead but besides this other ship, we were the only ones around.  

The Milford Sound travels for ten miles/sixteen kilometers before the fiord meets the Tasman Sea.  It is one of the most remote areas of New Zealand in which most of it is impenetrable except the fiord itself and the 34 mile/55 km track which is considered one of the top treks in the world.  

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South bound to Milford Sound

After traveling to the world-famous fiords of Norway and being blown away by their sensational beauty, I knew that Paul and I would have to make time for a trip down south to New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park.

Fiordland National Park is located on the Southwestern part of New Zealand’s South Island and is the country’s largest park with over 21,000 square km/8,100 square miles of pristine forests, mountains and lakes.  The region is composed of over 14 fiords and five major lakes that are flanked by steep, jagged mountains coated in rainforest making this part of the world virtually impenetrable except along the 310 miles of tracks (hiking trails) or by boat.  I had heard that Fiordland offered some of the best scenery in all of New Zealand and after the sheer, pure beauty we had seen so far, I couldn’t imagine that we would see anything finer.

A sneak preview of what’s to come….

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Hiking into Middle Earth: A tramp along the Routeburn Track

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.   So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.    Explore.   Dream. Discover.”   – Mark Twain

The New Zealand Silver Fern, the symbol of purity and beauty.

The Routeburn Track in the South Island of New Zealand is perhaps one of the finest hikes in the world.  It rates up there with neighboring Milford Track as well as the world-famous Annapurna Trek in Nepal.

The 24 mile/29 kilometer Routeburn Track generally takes three days and climbs up to some of the most spectacular, pristine temperate rain forest and alpine scenery in the world.  Unfortunately my husband and I only had one day allocated to a tramp (what the Kiwi’s call hiking) along the Routeburn Track, and we were going to make the most of it.  Given what we had already seen of Queenstown and the surrounding area, we knew that our visit to Routeburn would be one of the best parts of the trip and we weren’t at all disappointed.

Below is a panoramic shot of the view at the top of the Routeburn Track….a view that we didn’t get to see.  This means we’ll have to someday go back and do the whole thing! (Photo credit Wikipedia Commons). 

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Queenstown: New Zealand’s Adventure Playground

Photo above taken just outside of Queenstown, New Zealand.

The drive from Christchurch southbound to Queenstown was perhaps the most spectacular, awe-inspiring drive of my life.  It rated up there with the scenic, mountainous drives on the tops of the Austrian and Swiss Alps, two drives I have done back in my Euro-craze days (I was obsessed with Europe in my twenties and have been there over a dozen times, constantly exploring as many places as I could cram in).

After a few hours of intense motion sickness, I accepted my fate and cursed myself for over-indulging the day before on the Waipara Valley Wine Tour.  Oh well.  The handful of mouth-watering, lip-puckering NZ Sav Blanc’s certainly tasted delightful at the time!

Around three o’clock, exhausted of driving along the serpentine, rolling roads of Southern New Zealand, we saw signs that we were nearing Queenstown, the adventure tourism capital of New Zealand.  The verdant fields of white fluffy sheep slowly disipated while signs of life and civilization appeared.  About a half hour or so out of town we saw our first sign of New Zealand’s Adventure Playground for adults:  The first ever real, live bungee jump!

Bungee jumping hit the world stage in 1986 by New Zealand’s very own A J Hackett, who fearlessly dived from the top of the Eiffel Tower with nothing but a rubber cord attached to his ankles.  The craze caught on and there was no better place to offer this kind of adrenaline-pumping extreme “sport” than in the adventure paradise and capital, Queenstown.

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Heading South on Highway 1

New Zealand is one of the most isolated countries in the world.  Made up of two, vastly unique large islands known as the North and the South Islands and a number of smaller ones, New Zealand lies about 990 miles/1,600 km east of Australia in the South Pacific Ocean.  Comparable in size to Japan or the British Isles but without an enormous population (only 4.4 million people total), New Zealand is one of the best kept secret treasures for adventurous travelers.  Its pure beauty, ease of travel and endless things to do make it one of the best tourist destinations in the world, and a place I could only someday dream of living in.

What makes New Zealand so incredibly fascinating is its diverse landscape.  While the North Island is filled with volcanoes, rugged mountains, and thermal areas, the South Island is completely different and accounts for only 25 percent of New Zealand’s entire population (as of 2011 there are roughly 1 million inhabitants in the entire South Island as compared to over 3 million in the North Island).  The South Island is dominated by the Southern Alps mountain chain which runs along almost the entire length of the island and is blessed with over 223 named peaks.  The eastern side of the alps is dry and largely non-forested, while the west side has much more rainfall lending to magnificent rainforests, lakes, mountains and glaciers.  The lack of inhabitants combined with the utterly spectacular landscape in the South Island make it a traveler’s paradise and I couldn’t think of a better way to see it than by taking a 6 hour car ride down south.

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