Friday, August 28, 2009

Singing in the Rain

NOTE: We've started to run into some limitations with internet, so our entries are somewhat delayed. We're working on catching up, but at the same time we're trying to actually do some traveling rather than sitting in front of the computer the entire time. Apologies for the delays in getting the good stuff up here :)

And this pretty much summarizes the crap weather here

Rain that just won’t go away

It was a short, two day stay in Greymouth, as we continue trekking northward towards Auckland. My roommate Shannon had warned me prior to our departure that it would be raining A LOT in New Zealand. Up until a day ago I found myself mocking her comment as we were enjoying crystal clear skies in Queenstown and Christchurch. I was convinced she was full of shit. Well, turns out I was wrong. Enter Greymouth, a quaint little town on the west coast with beautiful scenery, or so we’re told as it’s kinda hard to see anything through sheets of rain.

Guess what...more rain in Greymouth

On top of that, we didn’t have any kind of rain gear, so it was a wet couple of days. There were, however, a few moments of sunshine (both literally and figuratively.)

Wednesday in Greymouth

As Jason pointed out in his last post, the activities on Wednesday were to include a (indoor) tour of the local Monteith brewery. We hopped on the free bikes from the hostel

Lawton's riding his bike on the wrong side of the road!

(yes, that’s Jason riding a bike on the left side of the road) for a quick tour of town, free internet at the library, and then off to the brewery. The 45 minute brewery tour included a through explanation of the brewing process (FACT: Monteiths is one of the few remaining breweries still practicing open fermentation), tasting of a variety of roasted barley (taste ranges from Muesli to burnt toast, which brought back childhood breakfast memories for me – sorry Mom), checking out super cool brewing equipment (it was almost like being back at the refinery, although most pumps used packing instead of mechanical seals), and quizzing the super nice Kiwi tour guide on whatever was on our mind.

That's our tour guide in the background

Process control panel

Look mom, a pump!

The chill room where finished beer is stored before bottling...

We highly recommend the tour of this 7 person operation (yes, just seven people work there full time, down from over 80 back in the day), as it was personal, informative, and chalked full of little stories including innovative inventions by their very own engineer/tinkerer, Jeff. The most memorable ones were a de-palleting machine built from a couple of scrap trucks (did it for under $20k vs a commercial machine quoted at $250k) and the invention of a keg repair machine (below) that allows the brewery to take damaged kegs and re-condition them, eliminating the cost of purchasing a new $400 keg and having to sell the damaged scrap for $40.

The custom keg fixing machine

The tour concluded with a tasting of their products (with recommended food pairing), including a top secret cider that is to premiere this upcoming Monday (shhhh!) To finish it off, we got to pour our own beer from the tap, documented below. I had their original ale, Jason went for the Radler (look it up, it’ll make sense).

Swiss tries his hand at pouring a glass from the tap

I pour also

"Casual conversation"...right?!?

Great fun, great tour, and only NZD 15 (around 10 us bucks, not too shabby.)

Student discount?

In keeping with the crummy weather, we decided it was time to warm up a bit using hot water. As luck would have it, there was a brand new community aquatic center (not centre, Jason) about 3 blocks from the hostel. For NZD 3.50 (ok, it was actually 5, but we opted for the student discount, using the justification that we’re currently students of the road), you get to use their spa, sauna, and pool. I would add to that the two water slides, which after sampling both I discovered that you technically need to buy a $5 wristband to use, so scrap that statement. Luckily I managed to elude the life guard police, and upon experiencing said revelation I ceased the use of the slides. But they were, like, totally fun as the ~20,000 teenagers at the pool would say. All warmed up, we headed back to the hostel for stir fry and good times, which was only slightly offset by the tour bus that joined us for the night.

The Hostel and facts about getting hurt in New Zealand

In keeping with our stellar hostel streak, we decided to sample Global Village Backpackers. Holy crap, it was nice. Tons of space, clean, brand new bathrooms and showers. Downsides included no free internet/wifi and being a tad far from downtown (a handicap magnified during monsoons but otherwise offset by the place providing free bikes and kayaks for people to use on the nearby roads and creeks.) During our stay we met a bunch of couple cool people from the US, UK, and Germany, all of which offered up helpful tips and great stories. See next section for a sample. We opted not to mingle too much with the tour bus crowd, which included one dude who seemed to be tripping on some kind of drug and managed to rob about a combined 20 man hours of sleep from our room. Although it was quite funny watching him looking for his stuff while his head lamp was pointing straight up at the ceiling (imagine a dog chasing his tail or a cat chasing a laser pointer – where did the light go????), and struggling for a solid 5 minutes to open the bedroom door at 3 am. You had to be there, I guess. Don’t do drugs.

So for worried Moms, we wanted to share some good news in the event we fall off a cliff, get hit by a bus (they drive on the left here, so look right when crossing the road), are bitten by a sheep, etc. Check out the pictures below of the aptly named “Getting help if you’re injured visiting our country” brochure:

Zoom In, that's details on FREE Health Covereage for ANY injury in NZ

More Insurance Details

More Insurance Details

In sum, you’re pretty much fully covered if you get injured, no matter who is at fault, a program that started in the 70’s to alleviate growing concerns of people suing for compensation after an accident. And here I was readying myself for a nice slip and fall at the community pool to help finance this trip. Bummer.

Transportation in New Zealand

Being bummed out by the weather and somewhat isolated to the hostel, we talked to quite a few of the people as to where they were coming from and how they got here. One of our roomies the first night informed us that he was renting a car for NZD 25 per day, which seemed pretty reasonable. We then asked if any of the rental companies do one way rentals, and he said they not only do that, but oftentimes will provide you with a free (or near free) rental if you drive from Queenstown or Christchurch up to Auckland, and activity that saves the car rental companies from having to hire drivers to return the vehicles from travelers driving from the north island to the south island (think conservation of mass.) Sure enough, after a quick search online, there were quite a few of these deals going on. Unfortunately we had already left Christchurch, and there were no rentals available in Wellington, our next major stop. But for future budget travelers reading this blog, consider this a potentially helpful tip to secure cheap transportation. A flight from Auckland to Queenstown is around $100 US, and if you can get a cheap rental, it seems like a great (and potentially flexible) way to experience the country. For now, we’re sticking to busses, trains, and ferries. Not a bad thing by any means.

The following day we ran into a very nice couple on vacation (ok, holiday) from Germany. Their approach to traveling was to buy a camper van, travel for 6 weeks, and then sell it. They had done this on a prior 3.5 week trip and actually made money (bought the camper for $3k, sold it for ~$4k) in the process. All you need is a address to register the vehicle (apparently quite a few hostels are willing to do that), score some insurance, and off you go. We are considering doing this (me more than Jason, but he’s warming up to the idea) by buying a car in Cairns, Australia, driving it down to Sydney, and then selling it. If it works out (that is, we can find a decently cheap/reliable car in Cairns), we will be arriving in Sydney right as the busy tourist season starts. Granted there is some risk, but I’m really tempted to give it a shot, if for no other reason than to say we tried it :) More to come on that. In the meantime, we continue to enjoy New Zealand, even as I’m getting slightly car sick typing away on my netbook on a bumpy bus ride to Nelson.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Beauty of the TransAlpine Train…and stuck in rainy Greymouth

An Afternoon in Christchurch (and probably all that’s needed)

After our library internet adventures it seemed time to actually explore this little town they call Christchurch…and how British it is!! We decided to start out with a trek to the Botanic gardens just west of city centre ***swiss here – that’s Jason’s Britainization of perfectly good American English, not mine***, but found ourselves smack in the courtyard of a high school instead. I had to drag Swiss out of there and found the botanic gardens just around the corner.

More Flowers at the Botanic Garden

Paddling down the Avon River

After a stroll through there we hopped on the 28 bus out towards Lyttleton and the Christchurch gondola we went up in the gondola (it was so romantic, haha) ***it was not*** and spent some time strolling around. We went up a little later in the afternoon in hopes of catching the sunset, but the humid air created a haze that didn’t make that possible.

The view down

Swiss with a gorgeous view behind him...

Yes, I went all the way to the top...

It was a little hazy from up there, very humid down here this time of year...

Back into town (on the same bus ticket no less, learning again from Swiss, haha) and to the grocery store to cook a little dinner. It was time for a few rounds of our new favorite card game (thanks ladies of The Last Resort!!) which isn’t so bad with just two people and adds another option to our repertoire besides playing WAR (not that there’s anything wrong with everyone’s favorite card game of war!) ***for the record, and as a proud Michigander, I do play Euchre as well***

Off to Greymouth

We had to be up early to catch a shuttle at 7am (yes, that’s early now that I’m temporarily unemployed, sorry everyone!) ***no comment*** To take the TranzAlpine Train from Christchurch to Greymouth, from the east coast across to the west coast of the south island. It really is a beautiful ride and highly recommended. We even scored a nice seat with a table (OK, time for commentary…across our table was a young couple with the angriest looking girlfriend/wife I’ve ever seen and a man with the largest chin beard ***aka goatie*** I’ve ever seen! I mean, just massive!) The first two and a half hours were just gorgeous and sunny…

The start of our TransAlpine adventure...

A view from our trusty stead

TransAlpine Scenery

TransAlpine Scenery

but with about an hour and a half left (after crossing through some mountain, don’t ask which) the weather turned rainy/cool/cloudy instantly. After a very wet walk to our new place in Greymouth, it was time for a warm shower and a lazy afternoon of getting caught up online and reading that new book I just picked up. The rain is scheduled to continue tomorrow, so we’ll likely head to the brewery tour tomorrow and get some laundry done and head out for Nelson on Wednesday.

But then things got nasty for the last hour and a half of the ride

Also, where did the word trundler come from?!?! I’d be curious to hear the origins of this…

And here we are at the grocery store...

If anyone has tips on getting from Greymouth to Wellington in a day, without flying, we’d love the advice (no offense to Nelson, but we’d rather make it up to North Island on Wednesday if possible!)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A quick lesson learned…

So after spending $6 NZD at an Internet cafe to post pictures and updates, we walked around the corner to find the central library…

Christchurch Libary...aka our free wifi hub!

Of course it was not that we paid a high price for the time, nor that we did not get a lot done, but it’s the principle of free internet just around the corner! (I guess Swiss’s cheap ways have rubbed off on me :))

Free Wifi at Christchurch Libraries

Off to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens and maybe up to the Gondola!

Our 8h Journey to Christchurch...

Well we were up relatively early on Sunday morning for our trek to Christchurch. This really is a large island and because of the mountainous terrain here there are few direct routes between cities, so our bus ride up to Christchurch was about 8.5 hours. We ended up booking with nakedbus [Yes, we and all of our trip mates were fully clothed!!] for our trip up (only NZD 29) and their bus was quite nice, clean, and we each had our own two seats. The trip took us through quite a few towns (the names of which allude me because I couldn't understand our driver, but were quite nice!) We had a nice lunch along the way at Lake Tekapo, it was a beautiful spot and mostly relaxing, except for the fact that some random place along the lake (not sure what it was) was blaring loud American music the entire time we were there!
Lake Tekapo, surrounded by mountains

Oh, and there were quite a few sheep to be seen along the way too!
So many sheep in this country!!

We arrived in Christchurch a little before 6pm and were ready to not sit for a while! We walked over to our new place and checked in, The Old Countryhouse (about 20 minutes walk from Cathedral Square in City Centre) After dropping off our stuff, we walked back into town and around downtown. There are some cute spots here, but since it was 7pm on a Sunday night it was mostly dead. Swiss says this place reminds him of Ann Arbor, MI, which I'll give him. We found a place called Cafe Valentino, a really nice Italian place for dinner. We each sampled a locally brewed beer and were tempted by the pasta menu since they make their own pasta in house fresh daily! I had the fresh penne with smoked chicken, bacon and roasted pumpkin in a garlic cream sauce and Swiss had the Venison ravioli in a red onion and mustard seed creme sauce. Both were delicious and very reasonably priced!

A nice walk back home...and while it was only 9pm we were both to bed. This morning (Monday morning) we walked into town
Cathedral Square in Christchurch
to grab breakfast...Swiss enjoyed his potato topped meat pie
Swiss's potato topped meat pie...
and then Swiss decided to provide some early morning entertainment for the locals!! :) Note that he not only misses the first shot (granted, somewhat challenging), but then manages to completely screw up the dunk, resulting in a third and final attempt. HAHA

Don't worry, he cleaned up after himself! Now we're off to explore Christchurch for the day, take the TransAlpine train to Greymouth early tomorrow morning and spend a few days on the west coast before heading up to Wellington and Auckland!

Last days in Queenstown

Buh Bye
The day has arrived for us to say good-bye to Queenstown and move on to bigger and better things in Christchurch. Well, according to most folks at the hostel, the "bigger and better" portion of that statement is up for debate. Below is a summary of all the good stuff that happened in the last two days in Queenstown, to be followed by updates on our trip up to Christchurch, which is where we're sitting now paying $3/hour for internet. Ah, how we miss the free wifi at "The Last Resort" :/

Disc Golf (aka Golf for poor people)
So Friday was spent exploring the local disc golf course, which is nice because it's a) Fun b) Free and c) Stocked full of great potential to see Lawton sucking at sports (btw, this is Swiss writing, an honor that was bestowed on me this AM). To my (and likely Sujit's) disapointment, c) didn't really yield the disaster that I had hoped for.

For you trivia people, the disc golf course that we played is the first official course in New Zealand. We couldn't help but feel nostalgic, so we celebrated by drinking pre-mixed Jim Beam and Coke, as my experience with disc golf usually ivolves some kind of beverage. FYI, drinking premixed JB and Coke is not all it's cracked up to be, and after two cans of what we both considered an overly (and unncecessarily) sweet beverage, we decided that nostalgia aside, this was not a very good idea. Why we had not learned from the tea pots (or kettles as I call them) at "World Bar" two nights before is beyond me. But the disc golf was fun.

This is how we survived the golf course

While you can hire (i.e., rent) discs from shops throughout town, we pulled a classic "Weberstein" and borrowed the discs from the hostel, which had a set of regular frisbees. For those of you who are not familiar with disc golf, it involves throwing a frisbee down a course with trees and stuff, with the goal to "putt" (as in "putting on a green") the disc onto some kind of object, that often being, but not limited to, a "Basket". See picture below of some live putting action.

Queenstown Frisbee Golf

Queenstown Frisbee Golf

Going for the goal...

At times, there were different putting challenges, and being the brilliant player I am, I manged to land my disc on top of a boulder, instead of throwing it between said boulder and a tree. Below you can witness my mountaineering skills, which were only slightly impeeded by the JB and Coke. I think this resulted in a double bogey, which I later made up for with a hole-in-one.

So this is not part of the normal course...

And success grabbing his disc

Since we both were both bascially beginners, we didn't get too snobby about our frisbees. Professional players, I believe, have different "drivers" and "putters" for various scenarios. We, on the other hand, just had one crummy, light, plastic frisbee, which clearly handicapped us. But again, the price was right, and I can use it as an excuse to explain why I had to climb boulders. Jason could use it as an excuse for every tree he hit, no matter how much open space there was for him to throw. Unfortunately, there's no pictures documenting this, but trust me, the quantitity, quality, and hillarity of these events was out of this world.

The big night out
Friday was also the day for the big night out, courtesy of Jess's "work night out". In a sense, it's like happy hour after work, but with a twist: They shower before going out. Before that, however, it was decided that we must try a Fergburger, which I believe is Kiwi for "Hippster burger joint with giant burgers and constant long lines." We also learned that they have a "fluffer", which in the interest of keeping this somewhat PG-13, is not what Americans affiliate with said title. The place was packed, the fluffer was working her game (btw, a fluffer is basically a greeter/line organizer/fliter...or as Sarah puts it, somebody to keep everybody happy, a statement that drew some chuckles from folks familiar with the more traditional definition), and after waiting about 15-20 minutes, we got our burger and chips (or onion rings for Lawton and me).

Dinner from the world famous Queenstown Fergburger

The 15-20 minutes at Fergburger were successfully spent convincing Sarah to come out as well, so the party was on. Things started off at Buffalo club (2 for 1 drinks with room key, which equated to about US $1.91 per beer), and then went on to Winnies. The girls (Lawton, Sarah, Jess) and one of our Aussie friends then went on to 12 Bar, the only gay club in Queenstown. From what I heard, it was pretty empty, and the crew used the entire upstairs as their personal dance floor. I was pretty happy at Winnies, so I stayed there. Also, they have an actuated roof that opened to let fresh air in. Pretty cool. For the record, Sarah managed to sleep THE ENTIRE DAY on Saturday, while I'm sure Jess had a blast getting to work at 8:42 AM :)

Night out with Sarah and the Aussies

Last Resort summary

The Last Resort Queenstown

I would feel amiss to not cover the wonderful time we had staying at our hostel, "The last Resort". For NZD $30 (about 20 US bucks a night), it was truly a pleasure and we both highly recommend you stay there if you make it to Queenstown. The credits can be broken down as follows:

The Girls
Big thanks to Heather (who checked us in, and I'm pretty sure checked me out multiple times), Sarah (aka Jenny Hodson, see picture comparison below), and Jess (loves them Aussies) for a wonderful time. They taught us the rules of "Shit Head" [a card game], made sure breakfast was out in the AM, kept the place clean, and provided hours of entertainment. We will miss you, come visit the US sometime :(

A night out with Sarah (and others!)

...and Jenny

Cocco the House Dog
Unfortunately, Cocco was going through some health issues and was fairly subdued, but she was great to have around. Much like Shannon's dog Loki, she always managed to lie in the most inconvenient places, making navigation around the house both fun and challenging. She had just had a lump removed, and was therefore compelled to wear a cone.

Cocco the house dog

The Perks of "The last Resort"
While the price of the hostel is on the steeper side of what we had hoped for, it needs to be noted that the place came with a boatload of perks that other hostels usually charge for. These things included: Free towels, free linens, free internet, free wifi, free breakfast, and free hot chocolate, tee, and coffee all day. The house was also equipped with a large flat panel tv, surround sound system, and a collection north of 100 DVDs. Being the small size the hostel was, it truly felt like a "home away from home".

My personal favorite, however, was the Tefal Quick Cup hot water heater, which provided an instant cup of hot water for tee or other foods requiring hot water. In honor of it, I post this final picture blelow:

The trusty cup at a time tea kettle!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Snowboarding in August

Snowboarding in August, 8/20/09 (or 20/8/09 as the rest of the world puts it)
This is kind of a good news/bad news post. Good news is that I went snowboarding yesterday, in August. Boooya. After renting some gear, including a pair of boots made of dead skunk (the only logical explanation for the smell that those things gave off), it was off to the Remarkables resort for some snowboarding. Getting there involved hopping on a bus and riding for about 45 minutes up a mountain. And quite the ride it was, riding in a bus on a narrow, twisty road without guard rails. I'm not sure how much they pay those bus drivers, but imo, it ain't enough. There were a couple of other resorts in the area, but the consensus at the hostel was to go to The Remarkables, a smaller resort but nice nonetheless. Lawton stayed behind, citing fear of heights and lack of snowboarding skills, which turns out was probably a wise decision for him.

Now on to the bad news. My camera ran out of batteries after one picture (below) and one video. Which is unfortunate, as the scenery was, as Borat would say, veeery niiiice. The snow was a tad icy, especially since I managed to be on the slopes by 9:15 am.

The highlight was, however, a little hike I took early on at the top of the Shadow Basin lift, which gets you to the lookout. You can hike up maybe 50m or so (took all of 12 minutes) to the ledge of the mountain and get a sick view of the surroundings (Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, etc. )This is also where I managed to snag the last video before my camera died. So that's it, enjoy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Swirling for Glory

You can take the nerd out of the US, but you can't take the toilet humor out of the nerd

I promise this will be one of the last “toilet/underwear” related posts for a while. I hope. So as Jason alluded to in his previous post, I've been on a quest to properly document the toilet swirl action in the southern hemisphere. What started as a simple task ended up being a tad more challenging due to toilet technologies down here.

As the story goes, liquid draining in the southern hemisphere will drain counterclockwise, as opposed to clockwise north of the equator. This, I presume, has to do with the earth's rotational inertia, a couple of Newton's laws (namely F=ma and that things that are at rest tend to want to stay at rest), fluid dynamics, and the fact that the earth turns in the opposite direction when viewed from the south vs the north end. I'm too lazy to actually look up the theory, but I'm pretty sure I'm close.

Collecting the Data

Attempt #1 was done shortly after landing in Auckland. The video below the fold shows some swirl, but I was somewhat dissatisfied with the clarity of the result. Unlike the US, toilets here don't swirl as much as they flush refuse straight down the pipes. Bummer.

Fast forward two days and about 10 toilets later, I finally had to concede that properly capturing this phenomenon in a toilet will be all but impossible. So on to the sink we go, courtesy of a suggestion of Chris Phillips, one of Jason's friends. I first start with the sink in our hostel, fill it up, and pull the plug. See below for results, which isn't bad but a tad fast given the excellent drainage system in our hostel. So it's a bit tricky to properly capture the swirl. I wanted to slow it down and add some kind of indicator.

My friend Brian Blanchard suggested using a Baby Ruth bar for additional effect. Good idea. Except there are no Baby Ruth bars to be found. I also considered a snicker bar, but was somewhat concerned that its density may be too great to “float”. Plus they tend to be a bit pricey for me. Luckily, when we first arrived at the hostel, each bed came with a welcoming Crunchies bar. A Crunchie bar is basically a fluffy, crunchy core covered with chocolate which makes it delightfully crunchy and light. I had already eaten my welcoming gift, so the quest to purchase said product ensued, which was achieved after about a 5 minute walk from the hostel and dishing out NZD 0.45, or about 30 US cents. Perfect.

And so, I present to you, the final two videos illustrating the swirling action is the southern hemisphere. The first video was done by just pulling the plug, which was a tad too fast for my taste. The second attempt was done by narrowly cocking the plug, which finally produced the desired effect.

Swirling a tad too fast:

Final Release!

Disclaimer: No, I didn't eat the bar afterwards. Mainly because it was 9am and I had just brushed my teeth.

Swiss made Jason climb a mountain…

OK, it was really just a big hill, but a fun accomplishment none the less. More on that later! So Monday afternoon we explored downtown Queenstown (just 50 feet from our place) and while walking around Swiss spotted an Asian Chevron station, so we walked over to get the picture…

The Asian brand of Chevron...Swiss was excited!

Ta daaaahhhh! Conveniently across the street was a grocery store so we grabbed a few things for the week and went on our way. Monday night was an early night…after being up for almost 48 hours it was time for bed!

Tuesday was a fresh (well rested!) day to explore town. We decided to avoid the “expensive” Gondola ride up (and take the healthy route also!) and hike the 450 metres up the mountain (holy crap that quite a vertical hike, but the views were spectacular!)

The beginning of the hike up to Skyline Gondola

About a third of the way up...

Lake Wakatipu

Queenstown from above

Cool shot of the rainbow...

A great view from the top!

Once up at the top we took a chairlift even further up and rode the luge down a few times! :) So much fun…

We both made it up there...just for the record

Zoom in on Swiss's face... luging down the mountain

We made some dinner and warmed up a bit then headed out to “The World Bar” to try out their “Teapots” for Happy Hour (or as Swiss calls them, “Tea Kettles”) but lets just say that Coca Cola is WAYYYY too sweet down here. Oh, and those silly little glasses they give you are too much work, so we switched to straws.

The gimmick at "The World Bar"

A cute concept with some American ingenuity applied

Check Flickr for some more pics.