Monday, October 18, 2010

One Love- Bob Marley

Spring Break- New Zealand (Part 2)

Wednesday- We woke up to a beautiful morning in Wellington and had to make our way out of the hostel by 10:00 am. We sweet-talked the receptionist into letting us keep our car parked in their lot for the rest of the day- so we packed our belongings into Gloria and headed off to the Te Papa museum.

I wasn’t as excited as I should have been for the Te Papa museum. A local at the hostel the night before had mentioned how great it was- as she explained it… “the government basically just hands out heaps of money to this museum and tells them ‘find some cool stuff’ and they do… and then they put it in the museum”. The main attraction was the biggest Giant Squid ever caught. The story goes that a Kiwi was fishing in the Antarctic and he accidentally scooped out this huge squid with the fish he was trying to catch. He donated the discovery to the museum and they had it tested and frozen and on display. It seriously was impressively gigantic. The Te Papa museum also had 5 other floors filled with information about New Zealand’s history, culture, wildlife, and people. We had only allotted ourselves about an hour to spend, but we ran way over our time limit.

The next museum trip we had planned for the day was the Weta Cave. Weta is the company that does most of the special effects for big movies like Lord of the Rings. The museum was small and just had a lot of artifacts from all the movies they have helped create. The most interesting part was the 20 minute film they had playing on a loop that told of the history and progression of Weta. The company has only been around for a decade or two, but the advancement and progress of their technology was actually a pretty interesting story.

The rest of our day was a drive back north. We had plans to meet our friends Ana and Silvia in Rotorua on Thursday, so we knew we needed to make it back there by noon the next day. So, we hit the road, hoping we may stumble upon some interesting sights or experiences on the way. We stopped at an isite in a town called Levin to see if they had any ideas for us, unfortunately they didn’t. But, we did see a park across the road- and our experiences with New Zealand parks and playgrounds was pretty good up to this point, so we decided to take a gander.

A little stir-crazy from the car, we were excited to have the opportunity to climb and explore like little kids. The best part of this park was Brian and the hamster wheel. Much like the playground in my hometown, this park had two human-sized hamster wheels where kids can run inside the wheel and have it go around and around in circles. Brian, the athlete, thought it would be a smart decision to see if he could make it the whole way around standing up- so he pushed his hands up against the top of the wheel and pressed his feet to the floor and I started running. Needless to say, he fell on his face. Laughing at his attempted, the small group of children who had built up encouraged him to try again- obviously, I did not protest. Brain created a bit of a stir with the kids and had a group of fans, but after 2 or 3 more times of hitting his face on the wooden floor of the wheel, he gave up. Laura, Chris, and I had a pretty good time though and all of us got some of the pent-up energy out of our systems, so it was a lot easier to pile back into the Subaru and continue the trip north.

We drove past breathtaking mountains in the Tararua Forest and stopped in a little town called Hastings for a delicious dinner of fish and chips. We ended in Taupo for the night and decided to stay at the same campground we had spent the night earlier in the week. The boys slept in the tent while Laura and I tried to make ourselves at home in the backseat. It was easily one of the most uncomfortable nights of sleep I’ve ever had, but we made it though eventually.

Thursday- We woke up late in Taupo and had to rush to make it to Rotorua in time to pick up Ana and Silvia. We made it to the town just in time and then found out their bus was running late. Typical for our luck, we smiled and shrugged off the inconvenience and started the planning of our last weekend in New Zealand. A sidenote: I have continued to impress myself with my relaxed attitude- I used to be so hung up when things didn’t go to plan, I’ve become so much more relaxed through my travels and I am eternally grateful, I think it has made me a happier person- I’m loving it!

We made a rough plan to do three main activities: rafting, zorbing, and bungy jumping. Ana and Silvia made it into town about halfway through our planning session and it was like a 10 year reunion- their were hugs and huge hellos all the way around. Ana made it a point that she would much rather go skydiving than bungy jumping and Silvia wasn’t interested in either, so we all made our plans and got going. The six of us had also agreed on a hostel for the night that had a special dinner deal- so on our way out of town we stopped, checked in and dropped off our bags.

Laura, Chris, Brian, Silvia, Ana, and I all piled into the car and headed about 20 minutes out of town to Zorb! Zorbing can most easily be described as rolling down a giant hill in a rubber, blow up ball. Actually- you are surrounded by 2 rubber, blow up balls—the first is about 4 feet in diameter and we had to sit in it with a layer of warm water- then there was another ball surrounding it- probably about 15 feet in diameter- and this was the one that actually rolled down the hill. The first time I went I did it individually down a zig-zag track. It was so funny and so much fun- I was being thrown every which way inside my little bubble! We sweet-talked one of the guys that worked there into letting us go for a second round (normally it costs $40). The second time Laura, Ana, and I went in one down a straight track. All three of us could not stop laughing and accidentally kicking each other in the face. Overall, it was a pretty hilarious experience.

We had about an hour and a half to get ready after zorbing and we all rushed around to meet the bus that would take us to dinner. The traditional Maori meal is made underground and is smoked and is, if I do say so myself, incredibly delicious! Not only did we receive dinner, we also received an overview of Maori history, were taken on a bush walk to see some Maori traditions and the local glowworms, and were given a show of the traditional Maori dances and culture. The entire night was like a spectacular history lesson that no one could get enough of! All of the aspects of the show and the whole night were so well done and interesting and I feel like I am much more knowledgeable about New Zealand’s past and traditional culture.

After all of the activity of the day, I slept like a rock, but I woke up with butterflies in my stomach.

Friday- I woke up this morning knowing today was the day I would be jumping off a 43 meter structure… no big deal, right? As can be imagined, being afraid of heights and bungy jumping don’t normally mix real well. I can definitely attest to that! As I watched Brian and then Chris jump off the giant lift, my heart was in my throat- and when they called my name… I was nearly throwing it up! As the lift went up the guy in the chamber with me (named Puma) was trying to take my mind off of the situation- he was asking about our trip and how I was enjoying New Zealand. I just wanted him to shut up! Every answer I gave came out short, quiet, and shaky—I was a little busy watching my life flash before my eyes! The guy also tried to make a few jokes on the way up- ones like… “oh- that guy who set you up, he’s training today- pretty good for his first day, huh?” and “Steve didn’t you up, did he? (Checks my gear) He always does this stuff wrong” and finally- just he counted down to three and I leaped off of the lift he quietly went “NO!”. Obviously, his jokes were not very appreciated.

But I did jump! With tears in my eyes as I walked up to the edge of the platform, Puma gave me a hug and said that tears were all a part of the experience. He told me to swan dive when he counted to three- and I did- no hesitation at all! I screamed at the top of my lungs, but through all the fear, was also pride! I couldn’t believe I did it! I accomplished it! I conquered my fear, even for a moment, and I bungy jumped!

On a mental high- I basically floated through the rest of the trip. Chris, Brian, Laura, Silvia, and I headed back to the isite to meet up with Ana, who had gone sky diving that morning. Laura and I walked into the isite and don’t find her, though- we find Alaska!!! Her and Marius are sitting in the station waiting to figure out their next move. We let them know that we are going rafting that afternoon (something they had already done), but if they wanted to, they were more than welcome to join us on the rest of our travels. Ana and Silvia had rented a car and now we had more room to fit more people on our trip. Alaska and Marius weren’t sure exactly what their plans were, but said if they were still at the isite when we got back from our next adventure (rafting) that they would join us.

Rafting was basically insane- it was heaps of fun. We had two rafts- a girl raft with Laura, Ana, Silvia, and I and a boy raft with Chris, Brian, and two other guys from Australia. The river we went down had the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world- it was 7 meters high! The river also had a ton of rapids and mini waterfalls that we had a chance to tackle. The trip took under an hour, but it felt like it lasted ages. I fell out twice- once because the darn guide made us go over a rapid backwards with our hands in the air—what did he expect?!?! The other time Laura accidentally pushed me out a little bit. Both times I went careening down the river in total panic mode trying to grab onto anything solid. It was frightening, but I couldn’t help but laugh at myself and my clumsiness.

Wet and cold, the group headed back to the hostel to eat and pack up. We stumbled onto Alaska and Marius who had decided to join us on our trip to Mata Mata that night. The eight of us had some food and hit the road- switching up the car situation for the first time. Laura, Ana, Silvia, and I jumped in the new rental car and Chris, Brian, Alaska, and Marius piled into Gloria the Subaru.

We drove up to Mata Mata where the new Lord of the Rings movie is being filmed because Chris wanted to do a tour the next morning. We found a place to park and sleep down a back road that ended near a few farms and a walking trail. Chris and Brian had a dream (ever since hearing about Mike Stone’s adventures with farm stock) of tackling sheep. Since it was nearing the end of our trip and we were parked near a handful of farms- they were convinced that tonight was the night it would happen. Ana and Silvia stayed at the cars and the rest of the group headed out into the open field in front of us.

Stumbling over the dark and slippery grass, with only two flashlights between six of us, we made our way to a 3-foot wire fence. To our left were a cluster of cattle and the boys were pretty confident in the logic that if there were cows, there were sheep. I wasn’t quite as convinced, but I followed their lead as Chris and Marius stepped over the short fencing. As I literally was stepping over the fence Alaska asked the question I didn’t even think of: “Is this fence electric?” Chris answered a confident “No” just as I was zapped—directly between my legs. Yelping in agony, I finished my trip over, almost falling in pain—I warned “YES IT IS!” Through their fit of laughter the rest of the group asked if I was alright and I regained my composure after a minute or so. Turns out their was a gate about 50 yards down the stretch of wire that could have very easily been our entry point—figures.

We spent an hour or two more searching for sheep to tackle, but to no avail. Disheartened, we headed back to the cars to sleep- and for me to recover from a wild and painful night.

Saturday- We headed to the isite in Mata Mata where Chris was scheduled to be picked up by the Hobbiton (new Lord of the Rings movie) tour. Ana and Silvia weren’t interested in the hike the rest of the group were planning on doing as Chris was on his tour, so they stayed in town to check e-mails and run some errands. Alaska, Laura, Brian, Marius, and I headed back to the site we slept at (mostly because Laura forgot her shoes) and decided to hike the trail that was set up at that location.

The Wairere Falls hike was gorgeous, but very challenging. It was very steep and a lot longer than we expected. Marius and Brian started before us and decided to run the trail, but Laura, Alaska, and I took our time making our way to the waterfall lookout. The waterfall was a beautiful sight, but we were very far away from it—I think I had my best waterfall experience too early in my trip with Eli at Paradise Falls because no other waterfall has been able to live up to that moment. This waterfall was stunning and the three of us took a good block of time just to be able to view the beauty. But we did, eventually, have to make our way down the mountain so we could drive back to town and grab the rest of the group.

We spent a little time in town just puttering around and souvenir shopping and hopped back into the cars to head up north to the Coromandel Peninsula for the hot water beaches. The attraction behind these types of rare beaches is that at low tide you can bring a shovel and make a hole in the sand and hot water will fill the hole from underneath and create a natural hot tub. One of the isites had given us a list of approximate times for low tide so we could be there at a good time to dig our hole.

We arrived in Coromandel a little after six with plans of low tide around eight, but when we stopped at a hostel to enquire about prices, etc we ran into some problems. Turns out the isite had given us times for high tide instead of low tide… so the next low tide wasn’t until about three or four o’clock in the morning. Frustrated and a little annoyed, the eight of us sat in the street for some time just trying to figure out our next move.

Finally we decided to just make the drive back to Auckland. Marius decided to stay behind in Coromandel because he had a ferry ticket from that area back to Auckland for later in the week. So we said goodbye to our faithful German and I jumped in the Subaru with Alaska, Chris, and Brian.

The rest of the night was uneventful. We stopped by Mike Stone’s to let him know we had arrived back with his car and belongings intact. We made plans to meet in the morning and headed to our last night in a New Zealand hostel.

Sunday- We spent most of the day just packing up our stuff and returning Mike Stone’s trusty Subaru. Our flight was delayed three hours, so when we got to the airport just in the nick of time for our original flight time, we were relieved to find out, we were early by the airline’s standards. Later, I found out the entire IT system for the airline had failed and actually created huge delays and cancellations throughout their company, so we were very lucky our delay was only three hours.

Getting back to Melbourne was a huge relief. We had a great time, but the constant travel wore me out. Eli picked us up from the airport and we were so grateful for the ride and the good company. We made some great memories while we were in New Zealand and took some fantastic pictures. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to head all the way over to that area- I hope one day I can go back and explore the south island!

Friday, October 1, 2010

One Love- Bob Marley

Spring Break- New Zealand (Part 1)

Thursday- Our wet and wild spring break began early as we needed to be on our flight to New Zealand before 10am. I was up at 5:30am to finish packing and showering. I called the rest of the group around 6am and we all piled into Eli’s car a little after 6:30am. Eli was nice enough to offer Chris, Brian, Laura, and I a ride to the airport, even though it was an early morning drive.

We made great time and our flight was smooth- we even made it to Auckland a little ahead of schedule. The trouble came when we realized we didn’t have much information about the place we were planning on staying. Chris and Brian had a friend from California studying in Auckland who offered his place up for us to stay, but we didn’t have his number and had no idea if he was home. Luckily, we had his address, so we presented that to the bus driver.

We arrived at Mike Stone’s building around 5pm, right as reception was closing. Turns out he lives at a dorm-like building that has apartment-style living spaces. Just our luck, it wasn’t so easy to stay at Mike’s… we were supposed to be registered, so we kind of shrugged off the idea of staying there and planned on finding a hostel.

We spent the night getting to know Mike better and hearing all about his experience studying in New Zealand. He expressed jealousy at our stories of our Aussie friends. The building he lives in is almost all American students, so he has had a hard time making any good Kiwi friends. I was jealous, though, of all his traveling! He hardly spends any extra time in Auckland because every weekend he is taking trips and seeing the islands. He had so many pictures and hilarious stories to tell us. He had just gotten back from his spring break during which he roadtripped the south island. One night he met a girl and found himself invited to a cocktail party by her parents for the following evening. So, there he was, in this girl’s father’s suit at a cocktail party with a roomful of strangers! He met a big ol’ Maori guy (Maori is the indigenous culture in New Zealand) and the next day was on an adventure with that giant man. At one point during their drive there was a sheep in the middle of the road (in no way is this a rare occurance) and the Maori man jumped out of the car, tackled the poor sheep, wrapped it’s legs around itself (killing it almost instantly) and threw it in the back of the car (presumably for dinner). These crazy stories that Mike had really got me psyched for our road trip we were headed on in the coming days.

We found a way to stay at Mike’s place and slept on the floor in our sleeping bags for that first night. Our group got in a little trouble with reception for breaking the rules, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle.

Friday- We spent a lazy day in Auckland, actually wasting a lot of time in the public library and a Gloria Jean’s coffee shop doing some schoolwork and researching our coming trip. We had made up a game the day before, inspired by Mike Stone’s stories, called “Sheep”. The game consisted of calling out “sheep” and pointing to another member of the group before tackling them—so we played this to help pass the time and make our homework slightly more enjoyable.

Meanwhile, Mike Stone as, possibly, one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, spent the day doing selfless favors for our group. He found us a tent to use for our road trip and got together his camping gear so we didn’t have to rent tuff like he had planned. Even more giving, he kept constant tabs on the work being done to his car—it had broken down right at the end of his road trip, but he offered it to us if it was fixed by the time we left Auckland. Amazingly, by Friday afternoon it was all set to go! We experienced so much luck and friendship during this break—the giving spirit that one single human encompasses continues to astound me.

Saturday- We didn’t quite get the early start we had planned on. We slept in way too late and after packing up, grocery shopping, and solidifying our plans, we didn’t all pile into the car and head out until early afternoon. We bid farewell to Mike Stone and rolled out in his Subaru with a single working tape—a Bob Marley greatest hits with a handwritten date of 1984. The tape was left from the previous owner and was quite fitting for our hippie outlook for this trip.

We drove south to Waitomo with hopes of blackwater rafting (rafting in caves that have black water because of the minerals embedded in the earth). New Zealand is such a tourist destination that, even in some of the tiny towns, they have “isites” (information sites) with information for the area and the whole island. After driving for a few hours in the rain, it was nice to get out and stretch our legs. We were disappointed to find out that, because of the recent rainstorms, blackwater rafting was not going to be possible. The caves were all flooded and too dangerous to raft in—there were horrible rapids created because of all the extra water.

We did get a chance to do a beautiful bushwalk through some of the cave country. We didn’t get to the carpark until a little before sunset, so we put on multiple layers and grabbed our flashlights before heading into the bush. As we were jumping out of the car, a hippie van rolled up and a couple got out to stretch. They were about to set up camp when Laura, always excited to be friends with new people, called out to say hello. Turns out they were from France, 23, and doing a road trip very similar to ours (but longer). They had already explored the south island and were heading north through the upper island. We invited them along with us on our bushwalk and they decided to join.

The walk was beautiful and our first real taste of New Zealand wilderness. We walked and hiked thru jungle-like foliage and came across tunnels in the rock that we got to make our way into. The track took us to an enormous cave. It was so late at night and so clouded over because of the horrible weather that we had the chance to experience one of the darkest moments in the cave. It was terrifying for me (I’m afraid of the dark- haha), but also strangely liberating. The cavernous expanse had rushing water down below and had a huge arch inside of it. When we looked up, though, that was amazing! Speckled along the ceiling of the cave were countless numbers of glowworms. Only about a centimeter long, the little dots looked like neon-green stars about us. I was so depressed because, just like stars, they were impossible to take a picture of- and almost as impossible to describe.

Reluctantly, realizing how late and dark it was getting, we trekked back to the car—seeing millions of glowworms on the cliffs and trees. We met a Kiwi on our walk back who was, impressively, taking a late-night run through the wilderness. I had a hard time keeping my footing while walking, so I have no idea how he managed to run on the slick track, but maybe that is just a Kiwi instinct?

On our way south to our next destination, a place called Taupo, we stopped into a town called Te Kuiti for a hearty dinner of fish and chips. We really were in the middle of no where during our drive- it wasn’t very late in the evening and we were seriously the only car on the road. The most terrifying moment came about halfway to Taupo when Laura had to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting a cow that was standing in the middle of the road! When we finally (and safely) made it to Taupo we searched around for a campsite we had been told about by one of the isites. Turns out it was technically closed until November 1st, and it was considered trespassing if we camped there, but there were a few other campers and tents set up, so we decided to take our chances. We pitched a tent and spent a cold and rainy night cuddled in our sleeping bags.

Sunday- We woke up to beautiful sunshine and opened our tent to see the rushing river we had heard the night before. Chris mentioned that it is the only river in the southern hemisphere that naturally flows north! We boiled some water over the gas stove that Mike let us borrow and made oatmeal for breakfast. Then we packed up our tent and sleeping bags and headed to Huka Falls.

The 80 metre fall was fun… for about 5 minutes. After seeing the waterfalls at Paradise Falls in Victoria, these could not even compete, especially because it was so commercialized- it simply took the wonder out of the natural beauty. It may have been because of all the rain, but because the river was so bloated, the waterfall looked more like harsh rapids than anything else. So, we snapped a few photos of the tourist attraction and moved on to our hike.

Starting in a town called Kinlock, we parked our car in between a “mom and pop” convenience store and Lake Taupo, one of the biggest lakes in New Zealand. The hike up the huge hill (more like a small mountain) turned out to be about 15km (about 10 miles) altogether and we forged through the woods and wilderness. The trees and foliage actually provided great cover from the rain that was falling sporadically. We came across a few beautiful lookouts that let us view the lake, trees, and town from a gorgeous angle. The trail ended close to the summit of the hill at a scenic lookout and, just out luck, the rain started pouring just as we arrived.

On our way down the train the clouds moved past and finally the sun came out. This was the New Zealand I had been waiting for! Even though it was fairly shortlived, we soaked in the sun and the views it provided for us. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so grateful for sunshine as I was whenever we received it during this trip, but I don’t think I’ll ever take that big ball of fire for granted ever again. Brian, the runner of the group, had broken off early in the hike to run the trail and we met back up with him on our way downhill. My legs were so sore by the time we reached the bottom, I was looking forward to our next stop: a natural thermal spa in Taupo!

We arrived at the park with the thermal spa around 6:30pm and learned that the gates to the carpark were locked at 7pm. This mean we would have to park at the far carpark and walk through the cold and the dark for who-knows-how-long to find the spring. I was not so keen on the idea, but I’m lucky enough to have some loving and patient friends (also pretty persuasive) who finally convinced me to push my boundaries. The boys ran ahead and Laura and I realized I had lost my towel already (she had forgotten hers in Melbourne). So, between the two of us, we were towel-less. Shrugging off the inconvenience, we headed down the trail after the towel-wealthy boys.

Lying in the naturally heated pool was like a luxury spa, especially after all the hiking. Because it was after hours the four of us were the only ones in the 90 degree water. We sat and relaxed in the hot tub for an hour or so and made shapes out of the openings in the clouds (yes, it was that cloudy). A few times we needed to stand up to cool ourselves down—it surprised me how warm I still was once we were getting out and standing in the cold wind once again. The boys let us girls use their towels and once we were all dry and changed we made our way back to the car.

Our last stop for the day was to find a pretty well lit spot to make dinner—and this is where we really started to look like homeless people. We drove around the outskirts of town until we found a fairly lit spot outside of a Goodyear Tyre, a printing company, and across the street from a car dealership. We were lucky to see a picnic table outside of the Goodyear and we nabbed the opportunity to eat while sitting comfortably. We made some refried beans and tortillas, added some salsa and had ourselves a mini-fiesta. After dinner we kept moving south to the mountains we planned on hiking the next day.

Monday- We woke up outside of Tongariro National Park in a town called Whakapapa (sidenote: “wh” is pronounced “f” in the Maori language… you can all figure that one out) in a little caravan campsite we had stumbled upon. We slept in the car and all of our backs were tight and uncomfortable—obviously complaining about our choice.

We began our drive to the national park where the mountains jutted up toward the horizon, but on our drive there (especially as we started to gain altitude) the rain clouds and fog really started to set in. With showers on and off we crossed our fingers that the weather wouldn’t hinder our explorations. We were wrong. The mountains we wanted to see are beautiful tourist attractions- well known from the location of Mordoor and Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The day hike we had planned on taking is also rated on of the top in the world! But, sadly, the information centre we stopped at let us know it was a pointless journey—the fog, snow, and rain were simply too overbearing. If we even tried the hike, which wasn’t recommended, we didn’t have the proper gear and it would be impossible to see any of the sites.

Disheartened that the weather kept forcing us south, we moved forward to a little town called Taihape. Here we stopped at the isite and library to gather some info on what we should do next and use the internet for the first time in a few days. Laura and I became very excited about the possibility of bungy jumping at a place called Gravity Canyon. The 80 metre bridge jump is the highest on the north island of New Zealand. (Sidenote: New Zealand is the country that invented bungy jumping.) The ladies at the isite were kind enough to make a call to Gravity Canyon and Laura and I were disappointed to hear they were not running the bungy because the river was too high. The company uses a raft in the river to pick you up after the jump and with all the water created rapids in the river, it simply became a safety hazard. Frustrated, we asked the women if the weather was always so gloomy and wet. They told us it is normally a little rainy, but this year is one of the worst they have seen. I felt a little relieved that it was not just poor planning on our part, but that the weather was actually wild, even by the Kiwi standards.

We took some time in Taihape to do the touristy “Gumboot Throwing”. This task consisted of throwing a dirty, wet, rubber boot down a grassy lane and making it travel as far as possible. As can be imagined, the boys got a far greater kick out of the experience than us girls. So, our movement south continued.

Finally on our drive down the west coast the clouds began to clear and the sun started to shine. I think the whole group was a little giddy to see some better weather—we soaked it in, even if it was while we were in the car. The more south we went, the more green the land seemed to get, the more rolling hills seemed to go on for ages, the more sheep we saw! New Zealand has an overwhelming sheep population—it’s a little intimidating. The statistic is something like six sheep to ever one person in the country… a little wild.

Hyper from the sunshine and better weather, Laura decided to drive off onto one of the farm roads that went up the massive green hills that surrounded us. We drove at an amazingly steep angle for a good while- I was impressed with how well Gloria (the car) managed. We parked at the top of the hill to overlook the beautiful scenery that encircled us and reminded ourselves to be grateful for the chance to be in such an amazing area of the world.

We jumped back on the highway and drove for a little while until we saw a sign for Foxton Beach, 5km to the right. With such fabulous weather and no real plans for our trip, we couldn’t pass up a beach so close! We veered right…

We could feel the wind coming off the Tasman Sea even before we stepped out of the car. We had been told the winds could reach up to 100kph that day and I believe it! A few times the wind literally picked me up and moved me! We took off our socks and shoes and rolled our pants up to play on in the surf, sand, and the sea foam. I giggled and savored the beauty that (seriously) was being thrown in my face. The beach looked over the Tasman Sean, one of the roughest in the world and the wind made the waves absolutely wild—I could taste the salt water being carried in droplets in the air. We must have looked like school kids on recess to the locals. There were a few other cars in the parking lot, all of the people safely in the security of their cars, but I could see some people smiling at our pure joy. One van was a little creepy and it moved from one side of the parking lot to sit closer to our car—maybe to watch us or maybe to steal from us? So we kept an even closer eye on our locked car, just in case. We enjoyed ourselves on the beach and in the wind, but saw storm clouds moving toward us.

We jumped back in the car just as the sky opened up and started pouring on us and we continued south. Laura decided her pants were too wet to wear for the rest of the trip and drove us pantless for a good hour until we reached a park that had a river running through it that was in one of the Lord of the Rings movies. Chris, a self-proclaimed Lord of the Rings fanatic, was very excited for the chance to see the site. But when we returned to the car and Chris and Brain finally realized Laura wasn’t wearing pants, they decided to join and I was trapped in a pantless car.

The 75% pantless car made it to Wellington, New Zealand by dinnertime. We drove past the ocean on our way into the capital and it was a beautiful sight. I could see the city beyond the giant bay and it was awesome to see the lights that were filling up the evening horizon. We parked the car, my companions put pants on, and we started exploring the city on foot. Starving, we stumbled upon a place called Burgerfuel and absolutely gorged ourselves on fast food. It was a good break from the peanut butter and honey sandwiches we had been living off of for the past few days.

We walked around the city for a little while longer before hopping back in the car to find a campsite for the night. We drove through the hills neighboring the city into more rural land and suddenly found ourselves spat out right next to the sea. We parked in one of the 5 spots across from a few suburban homes. It was probably illegal, but we weren’t bothering anyone and no one seemed to mind, so we slowly fell asleep in the cramped little car, listening to the ocean just a few yards away.

Tuesday- Waking up at the rocky Makara Beach (outside of Karori) the weather looked beautiful, but we opened the doors to feel some pretty harsh wind. Desperate for some physical activity, we all put on a few layers and headed out for a morning walk/run. We all broke off on our own and it was nice to have some time to myself after so many days together. The ocean rolled over the rocky beach and I found a beautiful little perch where I could take some time to bask in the sun. In fact, I started to feel legitimately warm, while outside, for the first time during the trip. I stripped off two of my three coats and carried them the rest of the way.

I caught up with Brian who, as the runner, had already taken the track all the way around and he recommended I see the sights from the top of the surrounding hills. On the way up the giant hill (Brian guessed it took you a few hundred fee above sea level) I met up with Laura and she took the hike with me.

The summit of the hill we climbed allowed a stunning view of the ocean from both sides of the little peninsula we were on. Sometimes the top of the hill was only about one foot width across, which made the winds slightly terrifying, but the views were worth the fright. We ran into Chris, who was preoccupied chasing a sheep, and stopped him so we could take a few pictures. Afterwards, we started the decline. Chris ran off somewhere and Laura and I chose the wrong path down. The grass was muddy and slippery because of all the rain and I, the clutzy one, slipped and fell right on my butt into the cold, wet mud. The back of my pants were literally brown from my waist to my knees and I was coated in a thick layer of New Zealand muck. Conveniently, Chris showed up just in time to see the fall and snap a few pictures… hilarious. Embarrassed, but also amused at myself, the three of us got a good laugh out of the situation.

On our way continuing down (a little more carefully now) we came across a little stream in the valley of two of the hills. Chris moved on and Laura waited for me to take some time to wash my clothes in the babbling water. I seriously felt like a cross between an indigenous and homeless person.

With cold and wet (but cleaner) pants on once again, Laura and I made it to the car. The four of us piled into Gloria and headed to some neighboring Lord of the Rings sites. I’m not much of a fan of the movies, but I respect the fact that it was cool we were in some of the locations filmed in such an epic trilogy. But, to be honest, besides the awesome scenery, I didn’t really get it—we drove to a couple rivers, looked at them, and turned around. I think the whole group got more enjoyment out of playing at one of the playgrounds at one of the sites. The playground was much like the ones at home; the real difference was the breathtaking backdrop. These kids play with green fields and snowy mountains off in the distance—pretty different to the suburban Chicago I grew up around.

As evening started to creep up on us, we headed back into the big city of Wellington to find our first hostel. We stayed at a place called Lodge in the City and got beds in a 10 bed dorm-like room for $18. The place was like a 5-star hotel compared to what we were used to and we were all thrilled to have the opportunity to shower and sleep in a real bed. The boys made pasta in the kitchen area and met some friends. When Laura and I came in, they introduced us to Caitlin, from Alaska and her traveling partner, Marius from Germany. Caitlin and Marius met in a hostel on the south island and, with similar travel plans, decided to team up. They didn’t have a car and had some hilarious stories about hitchhiking and couch surfing. I was so impressed by their adventurous spirit and doubted if I could ever do something so truly bohemian.

Laura and I were too tired to go out and wanted to savor every important hour we got to spend in a real bed. So, the boys and Caitlin (whom we quickly nicknamed, creatively enough, “Alaska”) headed out on the town and Laura and I fell asleep pretty soon after.

I still have to type up my journal from Wednesday to Sunday, but I wanted to give everyone a first taste of my spring break in New Zealand!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Snow (Hey Oh) - Red Hot Chili Peppers

Last Tuesday we went to the snow! Nick, Eli, Rachel and I headed north to Mt. Buller around 5:30 am. It took us about three hours to drive all the way up there and we were going to have to stop in town to rent ski and snowboard gear and buy lift tickets, etc. Realizing about an hour into the trip that I completely forgot to bring my camera, I was extremely let down, but Nick snapped a few that I hope to get a hold of before I leave the country.

Rachel and I decided to rent skis- I am pretty experienced on skis from my past family vacations in Park City, Utah, but Rachel had only skied once before. In fact, this trip was the second time Rachel had ever even seen snow! Nick and Eli are both pretty experienced skiers, but they decided to try their luck on snowboards this time around. We were all fairly tired from the drive when we first arrived on the mountain, but it was amazing to see how we all perked up once we saw the snow.

As always, it’s impossible to capture the beauty that surrounded us up on that mountain, but I spent the day soaking it all in. After spending a bit of time on the bunny hill, Eli and I explored more of the mountain, finding a few blue (intermediate) runs that we could ride pretty well! I was impressed with how quickly I picked back up the sport, but I was more stunned by how well Eli taught himself to snowboard. We explored a massive amount of the area- even making it up to the summit a few times. Avoiding the black diamonds wasn’t too hard- and the snow conditions were a lot better than I expected. The morning snow was beautiful and full of powder, but by the end of the day it was definitely more challenging snow- icy at the tops of the runs and slushy at the bottom—it became quite a workout at some points! But, I was very proud of myself- I only fell a handful of times the whole day!

My favorite moment I brought home from the snow was during one of my last runs down my favorite blue, called Shaky Knees. There was only one other person on the run with me- a bloke who was pretty far down the slope. I saw him stop fairly abruptly and it made me slow my speed and open my eyes- and what did I see? A bumbling wombat slowly lumbering across the snow. I stopped a few yards away and both my viewing partner and me stood in awe of the spectacular nature in which we were surrounded. We let the creature pass by us and watched him head for, what we assumed to be, home. Heading back to civilization from the snow was a bit of a melancholy experience, but I was so lucky to spend my day in such an amazing place.

Saturday we headed to Phillip Island, south of Melbourne to see something I only ever expected to see in snow: penguins!!! Phillip Island is home to fairy penguins that grow to be about 30 cm tall. Eli, Brayden, Shelby, and I spent an hour or two on the sand before heading to the Penguin Parade. We walked the beach and although it was a little chilly, the waves Bass Strait (a part of the Southern Ocean) were stunning.

While at Phillip Island we also had a chance to stop by the Chocolate Factory- a scrumptious little adventure. We took the tour of the chocolate museum- which was fantastically interactive- we even got to make some of our own treats! It was a calorie-filled adventure that I think we all enjoyed a little too much.

So after the sand and the sweets, we headed to the main attraction- scheduled for sunset. The Penguin Parade consisted of watching the adorable fairy penguins make their way home from their day at sea. Every morning at sunrise the penguins leave their burrows that are all around the beach and the surrounding bush and head out to the ocean. Then, every night at sunset they return home. It was unbelievable to watch about 600 penguins make their way out of the water in sets of 50 or so. We were able to sit just a few feet from the little creatures and it was unbelievable to see them so close up and personal! Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures, but I will never forget the mental images! I feel so lucky to be able to experience something that happens every day! This world sure is a breathtaking place.

And, this lucky girl gets to experience even more of it as I head off to New Zealand for spring break with my friends Chris, Brian, Laura, Ana, and Silvia. I cannot wait for what is to come!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dance, Dance - Fall Out Boy

Sitting in the second row to watch the Australian Ballet was incredible. To hear the ballerina’s feet hit the stage and to hear them breathing so heavily proved what amazing shape the dancers really have to be in.

Laura, Ana, and I decided to have a girls’ night on Thursday while all of our friends went to the Swinburne Residences Ball. (The ball tickets cost $80 each and we would have had to buy dresses… we decided it wasn’t worth it). So, we headed to the ballet. Just a block or so from Flinders Street Station in downtown Melbourne is the State Theatre. Ana learned that they had a student rush- where if you went 2 hours before the show began, students can get tickets anywhere that is available for $32. Hence the reason why we were sitting in an area that normally costs about $180 a person.

The ballet was called “Edge of Night” and featured the music of Handel. It was split into three parts titled: At the Edge of Night, Halcyon, and Molto Vivace. Unfortunatly, we arrived 15 minutes late and missed the title piece, but we were let in for the second two and were blown away. Halcyon was a beautiful love story that was portrayed with flowing movements and a classic ballet performance. It was exactly what you would expect to see out of a fabulous ballet piece. Molto Vivace on the other hand, was absolutely fabulous in a completely different way—it was HILAIROUS! In a surprising twist, Laura, Ana, and I found ourselves cramping from laughing so hard. Colorful, adorable, full of life, spark, and personality—Molto Vivace was by far my favorite ballet- and probably one of my favorite performances I’ve ever seen.

Friday night Laura and I went out with a friend of mine from one of my classes. Matt wanted to take us to the classy part of Melbourne and we ended up at a bar called “Silk Rose” where the average age was probably around 35. It was… interesting… especially watching the cougars hit on Matt and watching how older people dance with each other—it was a little glimpse of what I might be like in about 10 or 15 years. After Silk Rose we headed to the casino for a bit and Laura gambled for the first time—and lost $5. It was pretty upsetting for her. Overall, it was a pretty casual, but entertaining evening.

Saturday was another casual night on campus at my friends’ Chris and Brian’s apartment with Ana and Laura. Laura and I had been fighting with technology all day—both of our phones decided to go on the fritz and we had hopes that Chris could fix all of it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, but a relaxing night with close friends was just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday (last night) was the celebration for my friend Brayden’s 19th birthday. We went to a bowling alley downtown Melbourne where, if you buy a drink for $6, you get a free game. Well, after 7 hours of bowling, it’s needless to say some of the group was a little messy. But, I think we accomplished a pretty solid birthday celebration for Bray.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

This Side- Nickel Creek

"Only the curious have something to find..."

This weekend Eli and I went camping outside of Whitfield, Victoria in the Alpine National Park. To give you an idea of where that is: close your eyes and picture the middle of nowhere. We were a little further out than that.

It took close to four hours to reach the campgrounds. The drive was along the same route it took to get to the Healesville Sanctuary, and although the countryside was slightly more familiar this time, it was no less astounding. When we got to the mountain range my ears kept popping and I had to constantly yawn to keep the pressure to a minimum. There was also a moment when both Eli and I both thought we had lost our minds because the moon was to the right of us, and suddenly it was in front of us. Then we remembered: we were going in circles around a mountain. The small moments like that were the best parts about the weekend.

We woke up shortly after the sun- around 7am. I was surprisingly awake and very excited to start our trip. I cleaned up the car and Eli made breakfast- bacon and egg sandwiches. Once we had everything put back together we headed out to the power lookouts. Eli said this was a great area for pictures, and he wasn’t kidding! Even the drive over had a view to die for. I made him pull over so I could get out and take a picture of the valley below us that had a cloud sitting right inside of it. It was unbelievable.

Set on the side of the mountain, the lookouts had a spectacular view of the valley below and the mountains in the distance. Nothing could capture or justify the beauty in this area. I tried to take pictures, but they don’t do the scenery justice. Eli scared me half to death with his daredevil antics. He decided to climb over the barrier and out onto on of the overhanging rocks to get a better view- I don’t think I took another breath until he had safely returned to the proper side of the rail.

Next we hiked down the side of the mountain to find a waterhole that a famous old bushranger had used in the 1700s or 1800s when he was running from the police (a bushranger is Australia’s name for a cowboy). The slope was rainy, muddy, and slippery and I lost my footing a few times, but made it down eventually. We found the waterhole and saw there was a cave in the mountain just above it- so we climbed some of the rocks and made our way inside. The cave was empty, but Eli assumes a feral dog sleeps there at night, so I quickly made my way back down.

Our next stop was Paradise Falls. It was about a 15 or 20 minute walk down a set of winding, stone stairs until we suddenly turned a corner and saw the two rushing waterfalls in front of us. Absolutely breathtaking- the falls lived up to their name. I was astounded and speechless. The falls were massive and so powerful. This time, I initiated the boundary breaking so we could get a better look. I stood behind and directly underneath the waterfall- close enough to feel the spray and looked up to the heavenly sight. If it was warmer, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about jumping in the water in front of me to play in the unbelievable beauty- it was the kind of beautiful you want to be a part of- you want to fold yourself into it like a blanket and feel at peace with it. I think I simply stood and stared at the picture perfect sight for 15 minutes. I wanted the beauty to be seared into my memory. Some of the walls were a yellow tint and I asked Eli about it- he told me about how the tint turns into paint when you get it wet and the aborigines used to use it for art and storytelling. He told me yellow and red are the two colors most common in Victoria, but there is also green, white, black, blue, and many other variations. We climbed and explored around the falls for a bit and finally, begrudgingly, started our hike back up to the car.

The rest of the weekend we spent trekking through the wilderness, either on foot or in Eli’s truck. There were a few scary moments where I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it up or down a certain area, but the 4-wheel drive always pulled through. At one point I saw a track off the side of the road that went almost directly up, I pointed at it and asked if we could make it up- Eli decided we should find out. We made it to the top and found ourselves on the peak of a very steep drop. We both got out of the car to see how impossible it looked- and it was an intimidating drop- probably quite a bit steeper than 45 degrees. But, fearless, we got back in the car, put our seatbelts on, and went for an adventure. We ended up driving the track and it took us, basically, over the top of a few mountains. It was a spectacular experience. On our way back to our original campsite we stopped and took pictures of a dozen or so wild kangaroos that were just across a field- I was so excited to see some in the wild!

We stopped and had a hefty lunch of Australian sausages at our original campsite and then made our way into the bush to find Eli’s favorite spot- a campsite right on the edge of a secluded lake. We gave ourselves plenty of daylight to make it in, which I am very happy about. It took us about an hour to travel about 5 kilometers because we were in such dense foliage, mud, and water. If there was a tree in the way (which we ran across a few fallen trees in the processes), it didn’t really bother Eli, he simply drove off into the woods/grass/wilderness next to the track and we forged our way around. We made it to our campsite, which had a marvelous view, started a fire and set up camp for the night.

Sunday morning we did some exploring in the secluded area around the campsite. While driving a few kangaroos jumped out right in front of the car and took off in front of us- almost in a teasing way. I startled and laughed out loud—it was certainly a sight I don’t see very often. The track we chose was terrifying and we didn’t make it too far before we decided to turn around. We ran into a part of the ground that was almost completely caved in and, thankfully, Eli decided we probably shouldn’t risk falling into a huge pit in the middle of the outback. On our way out of the bush wallabies and kangaroos dashed across the track in front of us—every time I was so excited I would burst out a little yell like a child on a rollercoaster.

We headed home after making our way out of the bush and although I was sad to leave the beauty of the jungle-like Victorian outback, I know we will be back (hopefully in warmer conditions as well!) Now I really have to focus on some school work that is due later this week—something I am not looking forward to as much as the adventures that I’m sure are to come.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Happy Birthday- Patty and Mildred Hill

My birthday celebration began around 12:30 Friday the 13th. My friend Laura woke me with a chocolate cake, streamers, 2 balloons and confetti. While she normally has a beautiful voice, she walked into my room singing “Happy Birthday” in an extremely creepy male voice… I’m not quite sure what she was trying to accomplish, but it definitely work me up in a bit of a fright. I made my wish and blew out my candles and took a look at the balloon she had toted along with her. One she had dubbed as “Sassy Steve” and she drew a face on one side, and a butt on the other. I was ordered to “smack sassy Steve’s butt” in order for my birthday wish to come true. The other balloon was much more sentimental on it, she had written the following:

21 Reasons I Like You as a Bestie
1. You’re sassy
2. You’re sweet
3. You’re funny
4. You’re gorgeous
5. You got sick dance moves
6. You’re friendly
7. You love to have fun!
8. You smile a lot
9. You make me smile
10. You make everyone smile
11. You’re loud
12. You’re crazy
13. You are wise
14. You are youthful
15. You like boys a lot
16. You’re an amazing friend
17. I love spending time with you
18. You are selfless
19. You’re adventurous
20. You’re spunky
21. I haven’t met anyone as lively, loving, sweet & saucy, pretty, entertaining, bad-a, & giving, caring, inspiring, cute & funny altogether as you!

So if that’s not a midnight ego booster, I don’t know what is. After taking some unflattering pictures and storing the cake in the fridge, Laura and her host brother went back home and my roommates and I went back to sleep, but it was no where near the end of the birthday festivities.

Friday morning I had class and had a list of errands to run, so nothing too exciting went on until afternoon tea with my roommates. One of my roommates, Millie, had made a Lamington Cake for me. This consisted of two vanilla cakes stacked on top of each other with cream and jam in between, covered in chocolate and coconut. As can be imagined, it was delicious! We devoured almost the entire thing and washed it down with a bottle of champagne. They gave me a card with adorable notes from each of them and Millie gave me a necklace that she had made me- a beautiful wooden flower charm painted blue and white. Laura came over a little later and we started to get ready for the formal welcome drinks that were planned by a group called Swinmates. We had known about this event for a few weeks now and thought it would be a great experience to have on my birthday.

Ana, Chris, Brian, and Trent (Brian and Chris’ Australian roommate) showed up around 5:30 with presents, flowers, and warm wishes. The girls bought me a super cute bag that has cities of Australian written all over it, along with a scarf. The boys brought me a beautiful bouquet of purple and yellow flowers and a Smirnoff Ice with which they “iced” me. Pretty typical.

We headed down the road to the Hawthorn Pub to meet with the rest of the international students for the formal welcome drinks. I had a 21 badge on that my roommate Daniella had gotten for me. When you hit a button on the back of it, it lit up in a festive manner- prefect for a 21st birthday celebration.

After a few hours at the Hawthorn a group of us jumped on a train and headed to downtown Melbourne (or the CBD- Central Business District). There we grabbed a late dinner and headed to a club called La Di Da. The most eventful trip was trying to get home from there. The trains stop running at midnight, but we didn’t leave the club until around 2:00am. Laura, Eli, and I had to try to find a Night Rider bus and take it back into the suburb of Hawthorn, in which we live. Wandering the streets of Melbourne at 2:00 in the morning is surprisingly safe and unintimidating. Of course, we did have Eli the Aussie with us who knew the area a little bit better. We jumped on and got home around 3:30 am. An overall successful birthday celebration if you ask me.

The next morning (Saturday) we woke up fairly early and headed to a footy game. Footy is Australian Rules Football which is extremely different from American Football. The ball is bounced on the ground and carried; the only way to pass the ball is to “handball” it or kick it and you must kick the ball through the specific poles to score. It’s entirely too complicated to explain on here, but it was super interesting to watch. Also, the game was largely a Victorian sport for a long time (Victoria is the state in which Melbourne resides) and 80% of the footy teams are from the state of Victoria. Australians also have a tendency to be very passionate about their footy teams. There was a section in the stadium we were not allowed into because you have to be a member of the club to get in. Their seats were nothing special, the only thing different was they had a great location, but it was explained to us that people need to put in an application to have seats in the section and often can wait up to 20 years to get approved. Not only does that process need to take place, but also they need to pay thousands of dollars a year to keep their placement. Very passionate, indeed.

We were not so invested. We paid $13 and found a nice group of seats on the 4th tier, which was surprisingly okay seating—the stadium is so huge (because the field is so large) that each tier can fit an astounding amount of people. The Richmond Tigers lost horribly to the Carlton Blues- a final score somewhere around 50-136 or something crazy like that.

The group headed back to Hawthorn for a feast of kangaroo meat made by the lovely Chris and Brian and a relaxing movie. It was a great birthday weekend, made even better by my fabulous friends. I received dozens (if not hundreds!) of “happy birthday” wishes via my facebook friends and a heartwarming card from my Grandma! My parents sent me adorable gifts and that I received a few days later. Overall, I felt very loved and a lot less lonely than I was expecting to be. It feels great to be 21!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Take My Breath Away- Berlin

And that is exactly what the picturesque Yarra Valley did for me. With rolling hills, unbelievably green foliage and vineyards for miles, the bus ride to and from the Healesville Sanctuary was absolutely breathtaking. But first, let me digress, for getting to the Sanctuary is a story in and of itself…

A company called “The Real Experience” came to the international orientation on Monday to tell us all about their exciting tours and opportunities they offer all around Victoria. The first of which was a trip to the Healesville Sanctuary, an up-close-and-personal zoo where you can interact with many of the animals. They encouraged all 150 international students to sign up and go, because no one would want to miss that experience. I was included in the many students excited to participate, but unfortunately I didn’t have money in my Australian bank account yet to pay for the excursion. The company never mentioned a cut off date for sign up, so I figured once my wire transfer went through I would have no problem signing up. I was wrong. It turns out the team had capped the number of people allowed to attend at a mere 103. So, those spots had obviously filled up very quickly and many of us were left without a spot. I found this out Wednesday night (the trip was on Friday). I was so upset that I would be missing this experience so I e-mailed the company, desperately asking for any sort of solution—I even offered to pay extra! But, to no avail. The Real Experience was not going to budge on their number.

Frustrated with our situation, my friend Laura and I sought our own solution. With a little research and elbow grease we discovered there was a way to reach the Sanctuary by public transportation (of which they have a great system here in Melbourne). A train and two buses would get us to the Yarra Valley location in a little under two hours! Granted, this was slightly longer than the one-hour bus ride our peers would be taking, but our trip would be about $30 cheaper—a fair trade if you ask me! So, with our collective group of 5—the people Laura and I knew who were in the same boat as us, headed off around 8 am Friday morning to hop on the train (and two buses) that would take us through the countryside and to the zoo.

Get ready for this: we saw… Emus, koalas, echidnas, a platypus, a goanna lizard, wallabies, bats, pelicans, wombats, Tasmanian devils, Australian birds, rodents, and reptiles, dingo puppies, adult dingoes, and… my favorite… we got to feed and pet kangaroos! It was an amazing opportunity. We fed the kangaroos corn and carrots and they would eat right out of your hand. We were told not to pet them on their head or chests, mostly because that is what they do if they want to spar with each other- and no one wants to get kicked or punched by a kangaroo thinking you want to fight!

So, on our way home, while the rest of my traveling companions slept, I watched the landscape go by, so grateful for all the experiences I have had so far. Sometimes I need to take a step back from reality and say to myself, “wow, I’m in Australia!” because it all just seems too surreal.

Other than this exciting trip to the sanctuary, most of my time has spent simply assimilating and making friends. I went shopping with my roommate Millie yesterday and classes start (for me) on Wednesday (I don’t have classes Mondays or Tuesdays). I am still extremely homesick, but I am doing my best and being an independent “big girl”… but it is a challenge.