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Saturday, February 26, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 29, The Milford Track

Day 1: I write from our hut on night 1 of the Milford Track. After our two-night backpack in Abel-Tasman back in October, I was skeptical about huts, but this is much better; there's room to breathe, even if we're all staying in two rooms (40 bunks total).
To get to the start of the hike, we took a boat about one hour to the end of Lake Te Anau. The first day's walk was only 5 kilometers, but from here on out it's 16-19 kilometers per day, so we're in for a haul. And the weather is forecasted to be rainy. Oh well, par for the course on the Milford Track is what I understand.

The pictures and captions below are all by Jen. See her awesome film at

Jen at beginning of the track
Alex and Ellie ready to Tramp!
gorgous green

Day 2: Just back from a dip in the local lake at the end of day 2 (11 miles). We made it without difficulty. Alex is strong and is carrying a decent pack, and Ellie is just carrying a camelback with water, which means she's the pace setter, a position she enjoys.
I was expecting worse weather than we had. It's been rainy, but just a little -- no need for rain coats, even. I hope it stays that way. Tomorrow is the hardest day, and I'd hate to do it in a downpour.
The landscape here is like a fantasy land. The steep rock canyon walls have only shallow top soil, and hence, the occasional tree slide occurs, leaving long strips of bare stone on the mountainsides. The primary tree species looks something like a big banzai tree from a distance, which makes for exotic scenery. Tonight, across the valley from the hut, is a rock face rising 1000 feet or more.  Somehow, even with the rain and clouds, it's an incredible place and trip.

Eel swimming in crystal clear river

Day 3: It looked like rain this morning, but it turned out pretty nice. Things cleared and we had big views of the peaks from McKinnon Pass. It was awesome up there. They have a hut on top with a burner for making tea or coffee, which we did, and then a massive walk down to near seal level again. On the downhill, we started above tree line, with big views and waterfalls all around from the rain, passed through some awesome forest along a torrential stream with a bunch of board walk and steps to ease the steep descent, to a hut on the valley floor for guided walkers (i.e. those willing to pay $500/night), where a side trip to Sutherland Falls begins. We hiked to the falls -- the tallest in NZ and 2nd in the southern hemisphere -- and took a shower under the spray. The kids swam in the pool too. On the walk over the last few miles, the rain picked up, with heavy rain forecasted for the final day. The last night in the kitchen mess hall was festive, even while it was dumping rain outside, and there was talk of being prevented walking out in the morning because of flooding.
This trip makes me keen to do another with the family while we're here. The kids are enjoying it too -- light packs makes a big difference.

Unsafe areas, Avalanche

 John showing the U-shape left by Glaciers.  

Day 4: It absolutely dumped rain for the five hours of our walk today. The forecast was for 8-10 inches in a 24-hour period! I don't know if that's what we got, but I've not seen it rain like that before.  We were soaked to the bone, but it was awesome. First, having the ranger walk us the first several miles (he needed to check the stream levels before letting us go) gave an aura of seriousness to the walk. He let us go, deciding that the water level wasn't too high. But later on there were a couple of stream crossings that were sketchy with Ellie. We hauled ass to beat the rising water: 11+ miles in 5 hours.
The amazing thing about the Milford Track and surroundings is that when it rains hard, the water ALL comes down to the river on the valley floor, as there's no soil to soak it up. And the canyon walls are near-vertical, so the water falls are tremendous, especially when it's dumping rain. Just huge falls, and countless of them, some of which cascade for 1000 feet and more. It was an incredible day, an incredible trip, and the kids were up to the challenge, which was cool. It was also great to share the experience with a group of other people, from various countries and walks of life. 

The camera got drenched in the rain and broke, so no pictures of the last day, which is a real bummer because it was gorgeous.
This is a spectacular place, like nothing I've seen. Imagine extremely rugged Rocky Mountain terrain with the effects of the 6-9 meters of rain they get per year.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 28, A Progress Report on Surfing

Here I am surfing at Murdering Beach -- a little victory.
Learning to surf has been quite a journey. Alex and I have been out nearing 60 times now, and I'm only just feeling like we've moved out of the beginner ranks. Mind you, we're not yet experts, but it seems reasonable to say that we're now intermediate.
I compare surfing with skiing - a sport I'm very familiar with - because both are hard to master. To take the skiing analogy further, it feels like we are now venturing onto black diamond terrain with blue square skills and a dose of boldness. We're flailing a bit, but are otherwise doing alright.
One thing that's different about surfing is that you've really got to pay attention to the conditions. Unlike with skiing (at a resort anyway), if the conditions aren't right - swell direction, wave size, and less so, wind - it's likely not worth going. This is a lesson that I learned the hard way, by going out and getting humbled day after day during a long stretch of poor conditions. I was ready to quit, but thankfully the conditions came around.
During the last couple of weeks, conditions have been good, and I've been reading the swell right. We've had some great outings, culminating in a trip to Murdering Beach last night, which as on, as they say. I was only able to catch one wave, but it's my best ride yet. Even more, Murdering is a real spot, not suitable for beginners, and I felt up to the task, even if not quite skilled enough to take full advantage of the great conditions.
Best of all with this surfing thing has been the time with Alex. He's picking up the sport faster than I am; it's the rare day that he doesn't catch several more waves than me. But it's also bittersweet, as I know that when we return to Montana, we won't have a common obsession to get us out together several times a week. I wish I could ride this time much longer than just the next several weeks of summer and early fall.
Alex getting out at Murdering Beach.
Ellie and I at Murdering

Sunday, February 6, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Week 27, Otago Peninsula Challenge

This past weekend, Jen and I participated in the Otago Peninsula Challenge, which is a mountain bike race beginning in Dunedin and ending 43 km later at the tip of the Otago Peninsula.  Along the way, riders, runners, and walkers are treated to tough terrain and views of coastline and beaches that are incomparable.
The Otago Peninsula is rugged country, primarily owned by sheep farmers, though the beaches and network of roads are public domain. Overall, the race follows single track and paved, dirt, and farm roads, through the property of some twelve individuals. Much of the ride is only open for this race once a year.
Wild weather in Australia making its way to NZ resulted in a race day that was in the mid-90's. Given that over the past two months we've rarely gotten above the mid-70's in Dunedin, the heat was hard to handle.  Moreover, the course involves a ton of climbing, with 4500 feet of elevation gain. 
Jen and I both did well, with Jen completing the ride in about four hours and me in about three. Both of us found it very challenging and were still feeling significant effects one day later. Still, it was good fun.

Jen in costume at the OPC

Friday, February 4, 2011

New Zealand Odyssey: Weeks 25 &26, End-of-Summer Road Trip

Jen and I, sunset over New Brighton estuary, dumping spot of Christchurch's treated sewage. Beauty amongst the crud - aint that life!
  The psychology of road trips ought to be studied. The cycle of emotions seems consistent. First, getting out the door is always challenging enough that I wonder, 'Is this really worth it?'. And then after a day of driving, I find myself in some beautiful spot wondering, 'Why don't we do this more?' This early elation lasts for a while, and my appetite for sites and activities seems endless. But inevitably exhaustion and over-stimulus begin to creep in, leading to the inevitable low-energy periods of the trip. And then at some point, the end begins to exert its pull, forcing you to focus on what's in front of you, and the elation comes and goes as you experience new places and fun. Finally, on the journey home, a feeling of sweet melancholy settles in, because it was great to get away, and yet you have to return to normal life, which can't be lived with the same intensity.
We ended our New Zealand summer break this year with a road trip. We drove a loop, first north to Christchurch, then west to the West Coast, then south to Wanaka, and finally home. We did it in one action packed week.

First, we caught the last day of an art exhibit by world renowned contemporary sculptor Ron Mueck at the Christchurch Art Museum. It was a mind-altering exhibit: hugely ambitious, flawlessly executed, capturing the human in lifeless sculpture ( The quality and affect of the work brought to mind the experience of seeing the great sculptures of Michelangelo in Italy this past summer. I left the museum inspired to do my best in my own small niche of human endeavor. This is what great art does and is one reason why it's important.
Ron Mueck sculpture. This one is about 5 times life size. The sculpture suggests that the vulnerability captured in the man's expression and body language are universal, which I find a powerful statement.

Ellie at the Christchurch Art Museum.
We spent our first night at a holiday park in the Christchurch beach community of New Brighton and surfed in the morning (it was a choice day) before heading west up into the mountains at Arthur's Pass. We camped near the renowned rock climbing spot Castle Hill and did a bit of climbing. This area brings to mind Montana: high and dry and relatively devoid of people.

Ellie climbing at Casle Hill

The next day, we happened upon Cave Stream, which was one of the best surprises of our NZ travels. After donning our wetsuits, we walked for 20-30 minutes upstream with our headlamps shinning through the complete dark of the cave, coming out the other end.  Need I say more. It was a ball.

Ellie in Cave Stream
After that good fun, we drove to the West Coast and a small bach (the Kiwi word for cabin) in the small artsy community of Hokitika. We spent two nights there, relaxing at the bach and exploring the area. Alex and I surfed a few times -- the surf was calm and fun -- and Jen and Ellie worked on a driftwood sculpture for a local competition the town was having that week.

Surfing from the Bach door.
From Hokitika, over the next two days, we drove south and saw both Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers, two major tourist attractions. These were the low energy days, and though we found the glaciers beautiful, they didn't quite compare with the previous 'off the beaten path' experiences that we'd had.
Ellie looking grown up at Fox Glacier.
Our last stop-off on the trip was Wanaka, which is in central Otago. Most Montanans would find Central Otago familiar: dry, mountainous, with clear air and beautiful scenery. We rock climbed for two days at Hospital Flat, which was great fun, explored the town, and met up with some friends for dinner one night. Wanaka left me hungry for a speedy return.
Alex climbing at Wanaka

Alex and Ellie on Lake Wanaka.
On the drive home, from Wanaka to Dunedin, we stopped at our landlady's place in Alexandra and picked a bunch of apricots. It's good to have reminders that it's summer here!