Sunday, November 11, 2007

Bungy Jumping was closed for the day :( Time to go skiing again(!)

10th Sept 2007:

Seeing as it was my last day in the area, I decided it was time to do that crazy activity which the area is renowned for: Bungy Jumping!

I spent last night doing my homework and investigated which of the three available bungy jumps would be the best to do.

The first and original bungy jump is from a bridge over a river. Its 34 metres high and you jump into a canyon down to the water below. This is the most popular of the three.

Next up is the "Nevis" jump which is from a cable car which is suspended between two mountains. This is 120 metres high and requires nerves of steel to perform.

Last up is "The Ledge" which is located in Queenstown itself. You jump from a height of 400 metres down to a platform 57 metres below. This is the most convenient of the three to get to as you can walk there from the main street of the town.

So, which to do? I had my eye on Nevis. I thought I'd check with my fellow travellers though and fortunately some had recently done the Nevis jump. Unfortunately, the comments weren't very inspiring: "Too high to be enjoyable" was the consensus and when asked would they do another bungy jump, most answered that they had been put off the experience by being so scared the first time. Hmmm....

In light of that, I went with option 1, the Bridge. Feeling a little nervous with what I about to commit to, I entered the bungy company's office and gingerly approached the ticket desk. Composing myself, I asked the girl at the desk: "When's the next available time slot today for the Bridge jump?". Once I had asked the question I felt much better: the decision had been made and I was committed.

I was not expecting her answer: "Never!". All I could blurt out in surprise was "Huh?". It turned out that the bridge jump was closed today for "promotional reasons" whatever that entails. All that psyching up was for nought: major bummer. :(

The Ledge jump only occurs in the afternoons so at 8:30 in the morning
I found myself wandering around the streets of Queenstown a little bit lost. Every other shop was closed and none of the other activities jumped out at me: Canyon Swinging, Paragliding, Parasailing and canyon power boating all sounded ok, but they weren't the bridge jump. The nearby Skylift Gondola was open though so I took a ride up the near vertical cable car system upto the viewing complex nearly half a kilometer above Quuenstown.

The skylift complex is also where you can "Luge" down the mountainside. Each Luge cart is a little four wheel push cart and it travels down a concrete track: all you have to do is steer, brake when necessary and hang on(!) Unfortunately, the track was temporarily closed due to icy conditions :( "At least there will be a view", I thought to myself. Sadly, it was cloudy. And then it started snowing.

Shortly afterward I decided I'd leave the adventure activities behind and go back to having fun! The next available ski bus to Coronet Peak left in 10 minutes so I jumped on and went back to showing the beginners how its done on the slopes. I even went back to face my nemeses, the Blue slope where I fell two days ago and went at it again: not a bother this time around and the extra speed/risk with the faster slope made it all even more exciting.

I felt quite sad coming down the blue slope for the last time today as I wasn't ready for it to end. I'll be popping back to Europe for Christmas: Methinks I'll have to look at stopping somewhere on the way (mmm... Whistler in Canada maybe?) for my next ski fix.

Milford Sound

9th Sept 2007:

Before coming to New Zealand I kept hearing from the Aussies that New Zealand is "so pretty". So, as an investigation, I decided I'd go on a sight seeing trip to the most famous place around these parts: Milford Sound.

The most common way used to get to Milford Sound from Queentown is to use one of the many tour bus operators. Its such a popular option that I nearly booked it without investigating alternatives first. Thankfully I happened to ask one of the hostel staff for her opinion and her quick answer instantly put me off: "its ten hours by bus" was all she had to say.

So, instead, this morning I made my way to the airport, jumped in a small 4-seater airplane and flew there. I was joined by two Chinese girls and our pilot for the day was a local girl, "Terry".

I had never been in such a small plane before and when Terry asked who wanted to ride in her co-pilot's seat I jumped straight in. I found it all fascinating: I had the head set on and was listening to the chatter between the tower and the pilot while watching her prime the engine and start taxiing along the grass towards the runway. Within minutes we were given the go ahead from the tower and shortly afterwards we had lift-off.

Small planes are very exposed to winds, I found out. Our flight path also took us over a mountain range and we had a lot of turbulence from up-drafts. The plane was bouncing around the pace and the engine kept sounding like it was struggling with the wildly changing air patterns: it was great :) One of the other passengers wasn't so impressed and had to make use of the sick bag, but I found it fab. Only problem was that it finished so quickly: 25 minutes after taking off we landed at Milford Sound. The flying option is 50 NZD more expensive per leg than the bus option, but for me 25 minutes v 5 hours made the extra cost well worth it.

Shortly after landing we jumped on a ferry and started taking a look at Milford Sound itself. A "sound", it seems is a flooded valley which is caused by erosion (e.g. by a river). Milford Sound though, despite its name, is actually a "fjord" as it was created by glaciers. The result does, in fairness, look specular with mile high snow capped mountains towering over smooth blue water below, into which flowed numerous crashing waterfalls.

The captain of the boat gave a running commentary of what made the place different from everywhere else. What stuck with me from his descriptions was that the walls of the fjord are too narrow to support soil and yet the walls are lined with a Beech tree forest. It seems moss can stick to the rocks and the trees can in turn cling to the moss. The downside of this growth approach is that the trees are linked: if one tree gets knocked over, the tress below don't have a solid enough root support to hold the falling tree and so the trees below also fall creating a "tree avalanche". The area also gets phenomenal rain fall with upto 24 inches a day and 7-9 metres of the stuff every year: all that rain makes the rocks slippy, which makes it harder for the moss to stick to it which makes tree avalanches quite common. It was a dry day when I was there though, so no timber action was visible.

The waterfalls are also quite impressive: "Spencer Falls", for example, is over 140 metres tall which apparently is higher than Niagra Falls. The captain maneuvered the boat right in front of the bigger falls and we could get a nice cool shower in amongst the rainbows if we wanted (given the freezing conditions, surprisingly enough there weren't any takers).

Also along the way we spotted penguins and seals. Apparently there can also be dolphins which ride the bow way in front of the boats but sadly they weren't there today.

A round trip around the fjord took about two hours and once we returned to the dock, Terry collected us and flew us back to Queenstown.

Overall it was a nice morning and was worth going to. Would it be worth 10 hours in a bus? I don't know... Maybe I'm just used to seeing pretty landscapes in Ireland. Nevertheless, well worth visiting if you have the chance.

Skiing day 3: A bridge too far?

8th Sept 2007:

The weather changed for day three. The previous two days had been blue skies with no wind, whereas today started cloudy, was much colder and there was a slight breeze. I could feel my face drying out more and more with each passing minute and had to wrap my scarf tightly around my whole head.

This scarf-cocoon is what I'm blaming for my first mistake of the day. In preparation for this mornings class I went back to one of the beginner slopes and at the top of the slope I pushed off and was soon whizzing down. Despite the wind, I still just about heard someone shouting behind me "Stop!". I was already committed to going down though at that stage so I kept going and soon noticed that the slope was very quiet and there was nobody else around... It turned out that the slope was closed and more importantly the ski escalator to bring me back up the slope was shut off... On the positive side, I was no longer cold after trekking back up the mountain side :)

Progress with the ski-learning had gone well in the previous two days so after skiing for a combined total of 7 hours, today I took it to the next level and moved onto the Blue intermediate slopes.

There were eight of us in today's group and together we took the skilift to the top of the main intermediate slope. In hindsight, 7 hours of skiing may have been a little quick to move onto the next level... Whereas I found the green slope exhilarating, for the blue slope I was just nervous. I had not fallen over yet while skiing but when I saw how steep the blue slope was I had a feeling I wouldn't escape much longer.

Our instructor for the day, Melina from Japan, took us through the lesson, guiding us on the correct technique to use for the steeper slope. I stuck near her the whole time and we gradually tackled the slope in sections. I lasted longer than I had thought before I fell over, but it did eventually happen and my until then dry jacket tasted snow. As the class wore on and I became more and more drained it happened again and just before the bottom of the slope it happened a third time... I was pretty relived once it was over. I reckon I'll stick with the green slopes for the foreseeable future.

Despite my over-exuberance on the last day, I found skiing to be great. The main experience I will take away though from the last three days is that its best to take it in steps and most importantly: its best not to rush!

Skiing day 2: The survival of the fittest

7th Sept 2007:

The second day started off slowly at the mountain. There seemed to be some school groups around and it took aaagggeeesss to get the gear rented. Once I finally got my stuff together though, I joined my new group for the day. There were six of us and this group size worked much better than the bigger twelve from yesterday: with six we all learned each other's names and could support each other better.

The second day was all about learning how to turn. Turning, it turns out is the hard part of skiing. Today's lessons weren't as easy as yesterday's and other people on the mountain seemed to have a hard day also. I suspect it was due to the conditions: whereas the snow had been fresh yesterday, today it was more compacted and slippier in places. Whatever the reason, the first-aid skidoo seemed to be constantly going up and down the mountain with injured people. And then came the helicopter. Somebody elsewhere managed to injure themselves such that they needed to be heli-vacuated off the mountain and we all stopped to gawk at the UN (?) helicopter which appeared out of the blue to fly the injured person to hospital...

Putting the danger of the sport out of our minds we pressed on, left the beginners area and jumped on the chair lift up the mountain. Having worked on a chair lift before I knew what to expect and gave some advice to my ski-buddies (the main thing to remember is: it doesn't stop, so get into position as quickly as possible and once the chair appears just sit back and hang on). Getting off at the top of the lift was interesting as you are ejected down a steep slope and its quite easy to loose your balance and get in the way of the people coming off next...

The different ski runs are colour coded for different levels of difficulty. Green is the easiest, followed by Blue (intermediate) and the hardest being Black. Blue and Black was beyond us, so once we were all at the top of the Green run we gingerly took off doing wedge-turns down the slope.

After going down a proper slope, I can see now why the sport is so popular. Its exhilarating pushing your boundaries and very rewarding when you survive a seemingly impossible section of the ski-run.

Our little team did well the first time around, but it quickly degraded into a survival of the fittest. First, one of the girls in the group fell and injured her wrist so she left to get it seen to and her partner went with her. We were down to four and then someone else, Laura, had a fall. I'm not sure what happened to her because the rest of us were down at the bottom of the slope looking up at her lying on her side half way up. We all got back on the chair lift to get back to her and could see that one of the instructors had placed her ski-poles in front of Laura in an "x" shape which apparently means that there is an injured skier nearby. By the time we got back down she had gone... Hopefully it wasn't anything too serious :(

Speaking of injuries, in addition to skiing you can also do snow boarding which is like surfing on snow. After seeing the snowboarders in action over the past two days I sure am glad that I chose to do skiing: snowboarding looks painful(!) Beginner snowboarders seem to spend most of their time falling, either on their backside or more dramatically on their face! Our instructor explained that its easy to get the basics for skiing but hard to get good, whereas its the opposite for snowboarding. I could sense a level of frustration with the beginner snowboarders which did not exist with the beginner skiers.

By the end of the second day the survivors of our group had gone down the green slope at least half a dozen times. Confidence was high and we were all ready to take it to the next level.

Skiing at Coronet Peak

6th Sept 2007:

As luck would have it, it snowed the night before and skiing conditions were described as ideal. The bus collected me bang on time and within forty minutes had dropped me off at the local ski field: Coronet Peak.

It turns out there are four main places to go in the area: Coronet Peak being the closest and its main competitor being "The Remarkables". Anybody I've chatted to who has been to both says they are both very similar, but that The Remarkables is an hour's commute time which is noticably longer than Coronet Peak. Even further afield is Cordona and finally there's Treble Cone.

Coronet Peak seemed relatively busy when I arrived and it turned out that there was an international competition being held: bad news if I had wanted the advanced slopes, but it had no impact on me with the beginner slopes.

After getting off the bus, I wandered over to the Ski School part of the complex and found myself chatting with a girl from County Down and another from Tipperary. They were thrilled to hear another Irish accent, though they didn't seem as happy when i did my duty and clarified that Cork was The Real Capital(TM) ;)

After getting my ski-pass from the Ski School I popped over to the equipment rental and collected my boots, skiis and ski-poles. Ski-boots are weird: the hard outer shell and hard sole result in a shoe that has no flexibility whatsoever and each foot step results in a clump-clump feeling. Even the ski-pros taking part in the competition seemed to find the most challenging part of walking around in the shoes, walking up and down stairs, a challenge.

Beginners lessons began shortly after and twelve of us were grouped together under the expert guide of our instructor "Simon", from the UK. Simon's accent was straight out of the TV soap "Emmerdale Farm" and it was hard to keep a straight face at times while listening to his funny accent (which, to be fair, probably isn't half as funny as mine must sound ;) Even funnier though was trying to snap the ski-boots into the skiis while trying to look cool and not falling down on your bum: not an easy thing to do, as you might imagine.

Skiing reminds me of Scube Diving: it seems completely alien initially but quickly becomes almost instinctual. It didn't take long for all of us to learn the basics of moving forwards and backwards, stepping sidways up hills and most importantly of all the best ways of getting back up when you fall down.

With the basics out of the way we spent the rest of the morning skiing down a gentle beginner slope, skiing between ski-poles and crouching down to ski under a barrier. Oddly enough, we weren't taught how to stop until near the end of the morning session(!) but learning "The Wedge" (an inverted V shape) proved to be a big confidence booster.

Each session lasted one and a half hours to two hours which seemed to be just long enough without wearing you out. We began the afternoon session thinking skiing seemed to be quite easy. We then all had a good laugh then when Simon announced that we would be spending the afternoon without our ski-poles: the laughter quickly died away though when we realised he was serious and suddenly skiing became somewhat intimidating again... He also led us away from our beginners play-pen and we took a ride on the "Magic Carpet" (a ruberised conveyer belt) up a long and impossibly steep slope (in hindsight, it was a gentle slope, but it seemed steep initially...) and once we reached the top we nervously looked at the little people down below. The purpose of the afternoon session was practising skiing without poles, being able to slow yourself down in the wedge position and some gentle turns slalom-style: it turned out to great fun! It seemed rather basic when compared to the pros whizzing down the steep slopes, but everyone in our little group found it to be a great buzz. It was very disappointing when the time came to catch the bus back to Queenstown :( I couldn't wait to go back for another go.


5th Sept 2007:

Queenstown is a relaxed little town which is situated in a valley and is surrounded by snow capped mountains. The town itself is quite picturesque with lots of little shops lining the streets. The place screams MONEY with every building expensively finished and every car resembling a big SUV.

Its pretty clear from the variety of shops what the main focus of the town is: adventure sports. The main street is lined with businesses which offer activities such as skiing, rafting, paraglading, parasailing and that which made the area famous: bungy jumping. Apparently the original NZ bungy jump location is nearby so perhaps its something which I should look into...

The people who work in the shops are, so far, locals and its giving me a great opportunity to try out my Kiwi accent. I dated a Kiwi girl in Sydney so felt ready to sound like a local. All you need to do is replace "e" with "i" and vice versa, except when either of the letters are repeated. So, for example, "weekend" is pronounced {week-ind} and "ten" is pronounced {tin}. It can lead to confusion for those who are caught unawares: a British couple on the shuttle bus from the airport reacted with horror when the driver mentioned that they could relax on the "sun deck"(!) (use the above translation guide to hear how it was pronounced ;).

Weather is good: blue skies and no wind. It is, however, very, very cold. Within minutes of standing outside the ears had frozen and the eyes were watering: just the winter weather I was looking for!

Another point to note about the place is that town planners seemed to have come to the inspired decision of banning all traffic lights and traffic seems to be non-existent. I could get use to this place!

I'm staying at the YHA Lakefront which is a ten minute walk from the town centre. The hostel, as the name suggest is situated next to a lake and has good facilities. Initially I thought it was lacking that most important of modern necessities: a tv(!) Thankfully that nightmare scenario was averted when I found a cosy tv room, though the choice of prime-time TV programs reminded me of Ireland in the '90s: "Friends" or "Coronation Street".

The staff at the hostel are quite helpful also and as they had promised on the phone a week ago they took care of the skiing booking within minutes of my arriving. All I need to do, it turns out, is be at the front door at 8AM and the rest of the ski prep and transport will be handled for me: convenient!

On the way to Queenstown, New Zealand

5th Sept 2007:

Summer is returning to Oz after what feels like the shortest, warmest winter ever with just about five weeks of cold as opposed to my more regular five months in Ireland: it doesn't feel normal!

So, in an effort to experience some really cold weather before the hot Aussi summer, I'm now on my next trip to... ice cold New Zealand!

I'm flying to Queenstown with Air New Zealand. I've had a good opportunity to experience many different air carriers over the past year and a half, and this particular airplane with Air New Zealand has the dubious distinction of having the least amount of leg room, and its winning that title by a long margin. Using the highly scientific Time-International-Magazine-as-a-measuring-tool, the leg room equates to 3/4 of the length of the magazine. Still, being so close to the snoring person in front of me, the sound of which drowns out even the roar from the jet engines, is a nice distraction from the only available in flight movie: Mr Bean 2.

This is a two part flight, with the first leg being from Sydney to Auckland (North Island of New Zealand) followed by a connecting flight to Queenstown (South Island). The captain was refreshingly honest about the weather we could expect in Auckland, describing it as "miserable"! The rest of the flight crew were friendly but just as direct: today was the first time I had ever heard a flight crew member shouting at someone, though whoever unbuckled their seat belt and stood up seconds from landing into Auckland when the plane was nearly level with the buildings outside was clearly looking for some stern words...

Flying into Auckland provided my first glimpse of the country and my first thoughts were green, hilly, lots of farms, wet: looks a LOT like Ireland!
As I'm writing this, though, I am on my way to Queenstown and we are flying over forests with snow-capped mountains. In fact, I've never seen such an impressive landscape. There are French kids behind me and every couple of seconds there are shouts of "REGARDEZ!!!" as we look down on snow capped mountains which tower over valley's below.

Its nice to see the snow as my main focus on this trip will be skiing. Having never done it before, I don't know what gear to hire or where the best places to ski are. Apparently I have to get something called a "ski pass" and will probably need to get one or two ski lessons before I hit the "black slopes", which are apparently the most challenging. Thankfully, though, the hostel I'm staying in has promised to sort everything out for me which is convenient.

Well, the plane lands shortly: let the next adventure begin!