One Note.

New Zealand put all of its stat points into mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, and birds.

It's difficult to overrate the outdoor adventure you can have in New Zealand. It's difficult to find much else to do. I'm likely spoiled by the Sierras, but New Zealand didn't blow me away. It was spectacular, certainly. But I miss parts of the world like China or the Greater Mekong that pair natural beauty with color, culture, and vibrancy.

There's a thing here in New Zealand called Southland Sushi. White bread and cheddar cheese. Rolled. I'm not kidding. In the US we'd probably call it a Redneck Roll.

Each bend had a new vista to gawk at. Every trail led me to new plants and shrubs. Each pause let sandflies bite new holes in my legs.

You can't go very long on the roads here without stopping to take a photo. It's jaw-dropping anywhere away from the endless farms, which never make it into a normal tourist's visit.

If you aren't careful, you'll get accustomed to seeing deep green forests blend upwards into rough brush, slip into alpine lichen, and then soar into pinnacles of ice and rock. You'll take them for granted, or at least I started to. It's sad, because I'm amazed at these places after looking at the photos I myself took.

There is a sense of awe deep inside of me that soaring mountains have always reached. They reach into me and pull out happiness. The sense of awe was blocked off. I could look up at the mountains and convince myself very soundly that I was looking at spectacular views, but not truly feel a bit of it.

I don't think I was in a place where I could go on an outdoor adventure. Too many pressing personal things to deal with; Too much that preoccupied my mind and distracted me from the outdoors.

The trip was priceless to see my parents while here, and for that the trip was worth it. But I'm a little sad: this trip didn't reinforce my love of travel and may have lessened it slightly. Perhaps I've over-invested my identity in the startup world. Perhaps I just need somewhere with new people to meet. New Zealand, especially the west coast, is spectacularly devoid of those.

I fly back to the US tomorrow, with many things up in the air.

BYOHelicopter: New Zealand's West Coast.

The drive to the west coast is spectacular. Wanaka is a very likeable, calmer version of Queenstown. There's not all that much to do around the town but perhaps wine tasting (the nearby hikes are unshaded and heavily tracked by sheep/horse dung). But the lake and beach make for a great leisurely day. A swim in the midday sun is good fun and far less cold than the glacial-melt streams I've been jumping in recently.

Campervan'ing is allright, though holiday parks seem to cost about $20 per night and backpackers cost about $25, and that means a bed and shower/kitchen (shared). You can stay for free at DOC campsites that are about 15k outside Fox and Franz Josef townships, but they have a suggested $6/night. All prices per person. The campervan isn't particularly comfortable for the longer legs, either. A car+hostels seems to be the better option. 

The activities consist of hiking, eating/cafes, or helicopter flights, which means the options are hiking or eating/cafes unless you're willing to pay rates that are probably more expensive than a fancy prostitute for the helicopters. And the hikes are either short or very long, spending most of your time in the jungle.

The jungle is fascinating and teeming with plant life, but when a 7 hour roundtrip hike with great views of the top is spent 90% in lush trees/brush while climbing steeply, the view payoff is a little strained: You're sweaty and hot and have been looking at the same trees for 3 hours. And then you get to go straight back down them. This is the Alex Knob hike at Franz Josef. Climbs 1.3km vertical for the views. 

Most of the west coast is wilderness that's nigh-inaccessible due to the density of the jungle. It's beautiful, but quite limited except by air travel. Of course, your experience may differ. 

There are heli/plane tours that fly you by the Fox Glacier, Mt Cook, Tasman Glacier, Mt Tasman, and Franz Josef Glacier all on the same trip. They really are that close together! All within about 30k, even though driving from one side to the other is a 450k drive. I made a map to show, click here to see it

Hoofing it to Mueller Hut.

Originally uploaded by Ben Mathes
After a brief day hike, we spent the night in a hostel and then headed up a brutal climb to Mueller Hut.

In the heat of the day, we went basically straight up for 3 hours. 1.8k steps followed by an equal distance of loose rock. Very, very hard work and it was outside the comfort range of my mom, though she pushed through it and enjoyed the views at the top.

Picking trips that satisfy all 3 of us (mom/dad/me) is proving quite difficult.

We met quite a few interesting folk at the hut, as one always does. A group of Chechs and Slovaks that brought along some homemade cherry vodka, a delightful two-year old named Danny that ran around the mess hall making friends with everyone, a group of ex-israeli military, some high-schoolers, and us.

The hike back down was just as brutal. I really wish it was twice as long and twice as flat. Straight up and down makes you feel like you're not making very much progress at all.

Mt Cook!

Originally uploaded by Ben Mathes
After a few hours in the car heading over from Christchurch, we went for a day hike up towards the bast of Mount Cook, though nowhere near the real ascent. Everything here is immense. The elevation isn't all that high, but with the latitude and scale, it's all quite impressive and severe.

I talked with a hut warden who said lots of guides from the Himalayas say the mountaineering here is more dangerous, with more things to go wrong: Longer approaches spent in avalanche routes, longer ascents, severe weather adjustments, etc.

The glaciers here are shrinking. Severely. All the information posts along the trail and official maps show the end of glaciers miles further along than they were when we saw them. On the plus side, this means lots of avalanches from the glaciers that sit atop high cliffs. You'll hear what seems to be thunder from across the valley and turn to see huge chunks of ice and snow cascade down cliffs. We saw about 3 or 4 a day. Quite impressive!

Day One.

After that lovely interlude in Melbourne I landed in Christcurch and the real adventure begins. Side note: if you have an insanely-long flight with multiple stops, try to have one layover take so long you can get out of the airport and do something. Assuming you have the time, of course.

I got into Christchurch at midnight, about 40 hours after leaving San Francisco, and >2 calendar days later thanks to the international date line. And since we're so far south the sun rises at 5am and sets at 10pm. I am subtly unnerved by it all. My parents picked me up at the airport and my luggage arrived without a hitch, which is damn-well should with 4hr and 9hr layovers.

We crashed one night in Christchurch and got up the next morning and drove over to Mt. Cook. The landscape changed significantly over an hour or two when we turned in from the coastal plains.


Prepare for Panoramas

Most of the scenery photos I'll be posting from New Zealand will be panoramas. Everything is big, wide, grand, and impressive. Normal photos look flat. Prepare for really, really wide shots.

Lots of them.

No, really. Pretty much all of them.

Melbourne Layover

Fun Facts:

  • If your layover in Australia is over 8 hours, you must have a visa. 
  • You are not told this while booking your flight.
  • I had a 9 hour layover in Melbourne.
  • I did not have a visa while checking in for my flight through Australia.
  • You can get a visa while checking in for your flight.

So yeah, I now have a visa to visit Australia for the next year. Woo!

When I landed in Melbourne airport with 9 hours to kill, I almost checked out and napped. I almost rationalized it by telling myself "I'll visit Melbourne properly some other time, a few hours isn't enough." You can't always trust your subconcious, your basal ganglia. That is where fear and complacency lives. I only have so many heartbeats, and I don't intend to waste any of them.

Melbourne is really, really, really lovely. The downtown is packed with side arcades, tree-line boulevards, glass skyscrapers, and victorian train stations. And there's new construction all over the place. San Francisco, with it's self-denial around construction, could take a hint or three.

I walked all over the river parks, through downtown, and bought a couple of travel shirts that were on sale that fit wonderfully.