Monday, November 17, 2008

Meeting a two time Academy Award winner in NZ

20th November 2008:

The last couple of times I was in NZ I went to the Queenstown area and found that no matter how long you stay there, you will always have exciting adventure activities to do. Christchurch, on the other hand, is a little bit different. The only activity which really appealed to me was hiking on the Franz Josef Glacier: the six hour bus ride there, however, was a bit of a turnoff... Similarly, the museums and art galleries in the town center didn't inspire must enthusiasm. Thus, there was only one other activity left to do: the local Lord of the Rings tour.

It turns out that sections of the second Lord of the Rings movie were shot in the area and while the sets are long gone, the scenery remains as dramatic as ever. The helpful hostel staff recommended a local operator, Hassle Free Tours for the day tour and so early this morning I joined seven other people in the back of a big 4 wheel drive car on the way to the location where Edoras was set. For any movie buffs reading this, Edoras was where Gandalf cured the king and assembled the riders of Rohan.

I have found that the tour guides on these trips often make or break the day and today was a sterling example of this. We were guided by a chap called "Hammond" who, it turned out, actually worked in the movie industry as a "sound mixer guy" (he probably has a real title, but that's what we knew him as for the day). Hammond has been working on movies for over 30 years, for example working with Michael J Fox on The Frighteners a couple of years back. More recently though, he worked on... The Lord of the Rings itself. What a find Hammond turned out to be.

The 4 wheel drive Toyota we were being driven in had been modified to have in-car DVD players. As Hammond drove, he mixed commentary from himself with scenes from the three movies. He also had CD sound tracks with music from the movies playing in the background: I wouldn't be the worlds greatest Lord of the Rings fan, but after listening to the music while watching the landscape pass by, I was quickly sucked into the atmosphere.

As Hammond talked, he revealed insights into his role with the movies. I initially figured he was just one of probably a million engineers who worked on the set, but as he told us more and more of his stories it turned out he played a more central role than that. He worked primarily as a "Production Engineer" which meant that he worked on the sets day to day (as opposed to the Post Production guys who tend to work in the studios afterwards polishing up the sound). Being on set all the time, he worked closely with Peter Jackson (the director) and all of the cast. All of the actors were great to work with, though the actor he talked about most was Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf). The first time Hammond met Ian, it sounded like Ian was having a hard day as it was the first day which Ian wore Gandalf's beard: when Hammond attempted to gently lift the beard to fit a radio microphone behind the beard he was told forcibly "DON'T TOUCH THE BEARD"! Thankfully, Ian got more used to the fit and Hammond said that while usually he views performances of actors from purely a sound-technicians point of view, Ian's performances were spell-binding and really drew him into scenes.

Other little anecdotes provided by Hammond included how the casting people couldn't find enough male riders for the 200 riders of Rohan, so they hired female riders and had them wear beards(!) Apparently lunch time on set was surreal, and Hammond found himself talking with pretty blonde girls with full shaggy beards!
Also, Orlando Bloom (Legolas) originally had a similar amount of fan mail as the rest of the actors, but by the time they were putting together the third movie, he had more fan mail than all of the other actors combined(!) Interestingly, Orlando appealed more to younger girls whereas Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) appealed to more mature ladies.

I'm not too sure how long Hammond had been talking for when he suddenly announced "...and there it is!". Sure enough, in the valley below we saw the location where it was filmed. Its quite unmissable: its a mini-mountain set in a gigantic valley, surrounded by towering snow capped mega-mountains. The guide brought us through a padlocked gate and we were soon hanging on for dear life as we four-wheeled over hills and through fast running streams towards the movie set location.

I found it, to be honest, somewhat disappointing when you finally arrive. The set took eight months to build, but there is nothing left of it now to see: it had to be dismantled for safety reasons. Also, I think another disappointment-factor was the weather: it was a dull, overcast day which wasn't ideal. Finally, if I had been a big fan of the movies I would probably have been like "oh wow!", but as it was it appeared to me as being a nice hill in a pretty valley. I had the same reaction to the Milford Sound fjord last year: everybody raves about the scenery there but for me it was "meh". I suspect I have "pretty scenery saturation syndrome" (if such a thing exists).

Once we arrived at the mini-mountain, we walked to the top in 10-15 minutes and marveled at the surrounding countryside. Hammond's knowledge of the movie production was most useful here as he pointed out where various locations in the movie were located in real-life (e.g. "Do you see that small pile of stones there? That's where the bell tower was located. Right now, we are standing in the great hall which ran from here to there" etc.). The place was smaller in real life than I expected: you could walk from one side of the mountain top to the other within 30 seconds: how did they fit a city up here in the movie? That's the magic of cinema I guess(!)
It was also quite windy: the surrounding mountains act like a wind-tunnel so there is nearly always a strong alpine-breeze blowing off the snowy mountains. On some of the filming days, the winds hit 180Kmh and if you look at the movie, apparently you can see the actors hair blowing around a lot up there. We were frozen after 30 minutes: I can't imagine what it would be like to work there for 2 weeks non-stop...

Hammond brought authentic swords and battle axes (which are REALLY heavy, it turns out) and after messing around with them up there for a while it was time to head back before exposure became a problem. We then stopped at a nearby chalet for a spot of lunch which was topped off by some surprise bottles of Brut Champagne.

It was on the return route where Hammond opened up more about how pivotal a role he played with the movies. It seems that after the first movie was released, the cast found out that the movie had been nominated for an Academy Award for "Sound Mixing". Who did they send over to represent the Sound Production crew? Hammond. He, along with his wife were flown first class to LA and put up in the Four Seasons hotel in Bellair. The award for that category went to another movie, but Hammond still got to live the high life and rub shoulders with famous Hollywood actors.

Then the second Lord of the Rings movie was nominated, and Hammond went over again. He walked the red carpet again, tried the avoid the paparazzi, sat in the auditorium again and went to the lavish after show parties. Sadly no award that year either :(

By the time third movie was nominated he was well used to the process. Again the movie was nominated for an award for "Sound Mixing" and so went to the award ceremony. This time though... they WON! My tour guide Hammond was up on stage at the Academy Awards! He was given his Oscar, along with three other Lord of the Rings sound engineers, by John Travolta and gave an acceptance speech to the world. Journalists interviewed him and then he met famous actors at the post awards party. After the main post-awards party, they went back to Peter Jackson's hotel room to party the night away.
On the return to NZ, Hammond was saying that he couldn't put the trophy in his main baggage (what if the bag got lost: eek!) and so had it well wrapped up in his carry on bag. On the way into NZ, all bags get scanned and I guess the outline of the trophy popped up on the security guards monitor as straight away the guard jumped up and asked politely, "might I see the contents of your bag, sir?". Soon, all of the other guards had abandoned their posts to get a look at the trophy for themselves. Shortly afterwards, Hammond found himself meeting the heads of the NZ government and did tours showing the trophy to the Kiwis.

I figured that would be it. He got an Oscar trophy: an achievement of a lifetime. I was wrong. The next project Hammond worked on was "King Kong". Once again, the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for "Sound Mixing" and once again he went to LA with his wife and once again sat in the Auditorium. There was another big movie winning a lot of Sound Mixing awards that year so the crew didn't expect anything. They hadn't even prepared a speech. And the Oscar went to... Hammond, along with three other crew members(!) This time they were handed their trophies by none other than Jessica Alba. He, along with the other members of the cast who were there, went to the Vanity Fair post awards party and found themselves letting "The Rock" touch the trophy and discussing movies with Ben Stiller. Even back at the hotel afterwards, they ran into Morgan Freeman in the lift who also offered his congratulations.

So, there you go: I went on what I thought would be an uneventful tour and ended up being guided around by a two-times Academy Awards winner.
If you are thinking of doing this tour yourself and want to meet Hammond, do keep in mind that he doesn't do the tour giving role every day: its a once every two weeks type of role for him. Also, he only does it when not working on a movie project so you may need a bit of luck to run into him.

Hours after the tour finished I will admit to thinking to myself, "Really?!, did he really win those Oscars?!". So I popped onto the 'Net and looked up the list of Academy Award winners for The Lord of the Rings. And there he was: 'Hammond Peek'. His page on The Internet Movie Database even has a picture of him (to the right of the group of four in the picture) with his Oscar. Compare it to a candid I took of him describing the scene to us on the set location: its the same guy! As they say in Ozy-land, '(Good) on ya Hammond!'

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Dubai Desert

11th December 2007:

For our last full day in Dubai, it was time to do an organized tour. We had been self-sufficient in our trip so far, but our next task required professional guidance: it was time to put on the "Laurence of Arabia" hat and take a trek across the desert.

Our guide for the day was "Arabian Adventures" and the tour was "Desert Dinners". My first thoughts about what it would be like to travel across the sand dunes involved us riding camels from oasis to oasis. Thankfully (sadly?) things have modernized and instead of being collected by a herd of camels from our hotel ;), a big 4 wheel drive Toyota Land cruiser turned up instead. Still, within seconds of sitting in the air-conditioned interior any wistful notions of trekking on camels were quickly put into my mental rubbish bin.

Lisa, Alex and I were joined by a family from Melbourne and together we set off through the streets of Dubai towards the Dubai Desert. Another unfortunate facet of modern life is traffic and the vast amount of construction in Dubai conspired to make the streets particularly congested. The driver attempted to take a shortcut but due to roads being opened/closed on a daily basis, managed to get lost in the process. Still, it gave us ample opportunity to admire one of the local Sheik's palaces and then a short while later we saw another of his palaces: the second palace is there in case he gets bored with his first one(!)

We soon hit the highway and left the city behind. The already arid landscape quickly became more and more sandy and 3/4 hour after leaving the city we arrived at one of the entry points into the desert. It turns out that the tire pressure in the jeeps works well on roads, but not so well on sand. The entry points therefore provide spaces for you to lower the tire pressure on the way into the desert, and air compressors for re-filling the tires again on the way out. Incidentally, if you have the money, you can even buy jeeps with on board air-compressors which deflate/inflate the tires automatically: neat!

Lisa and Alex had both taken travel sickness tablets before we left the hotel and it was a wise move: we were soon being thrown forwards into our seat belts before crashing back into our seats as we climbed sand dunes, crested the tops and plummeted down the other side. We joined about 30 other cars in a convoy and we all off-roaded over the golden sand dunes: even the driver had a great time despite doing it probably every day(!) The only time he seemed slightly worried was when we came down a little bit too hard over a dune and the car ended up cutting out: he looked nervous because if we waited too long the car behind us would have ended up on top of us... Still, we were on our way again quickly.

First main stop was at a camel herder's station where we got up and close with the camels. They're pretty tall in real life, though they could do with a trip to the dentist :) They were also very docile as I presume they are used to being around new people every day. When we had been in the markets in Dubai over the previous days for some reason it was I who got most of the attention from the shop assistants and hawkers: sure enough, I was also the one who the camel herders asked for "a little extra money": I must look loaded or something(!)

We left the camel station as dusk was approaching and drove a short distance further out in the desert. We took a break from the off-roading and Lisa, Alex and I sat on top of a dune and relaxed as the sun crept lower to the horizon. Sunset over the desert was dramatic with the golden sun illuminating the golden sand and the long shadows cast by the dunes getting longer and longer as the sun dropped lower and lower...

Last major stop on the tour was at a Bedouin camp for the evening's festivities. They had camels nearby and we all had a go at having a ride (tip: hold on tight, especially when the camel gets up or sits down) and then moved into the camp itself. The giant square-shaped camp had a big Arabian rug in the open air in its centre and hugging the outer walls was one long tent which housed low-tables and cushions for seats. We spent the evening enjoying traditional local food with wine and then relaxed while being entertained by a traditional art form: belly dancing(!)


What I find fab about cities such as New York or Paris is that no matter how many times you visit them, there are always activates to do and you never seem to have enough time to do everything on offer. Dubai isn't there yet. We had three days there and had performed most of the available activates: had we stayed another two days we may have even run out of things to do. However, for a short stop over Dubai is well worth visiting. The wealth on display is at times breathtaking, everybody speaks English so there's no "Lost In Translation" problem and it also provided a gentle introduction to Arabic culture: Dubai is well worth visiting.

Jumeriah (Dubai)

10th December 2007:

For our second day in Dubai we were joined by Alex who was also from Sydney. The city is famous for having Gold markets with vast collections of very high caret (24 carrot) gold jewelry so the plan of attack for the day was to hit those markets later in the afternoon after spending the day down by the beach area of the city.

None of us in the group were hard-core beach people: personally, I could survive for a couple of hours at most before getting bored, so a day at the beach was not high on any of our agendas. However, there was something else at the beach area which WAS high on our agendas: the Burj Al Arab, the world's most luxurious hotel. Sporting an incredible 7-stars, the hotel is famous for such extravagances as gold-lined walls and a restaurant inside an aquarium. Sadly rooms start at over 1000 AUD a night and you can't even get in the front door without paying a fee.

So, we all jumped in a taxi and 20 minutes later were dropped off at the hotel. Security was tighter than we had expected. The front gate was locked and had a small team of security guards checking the names of people who were driving in. There was another small group of tourists ahead of us and I could see one of them trying to negotiate his way past the gate, but the guard was having none of it. Somewhat disappointed we wandered down the road hoping for a photo opportunity somewhere nearby.

The walk was surprisingly pleasant despite the searing desert heat. We did get one or two taxi's slowing up next to us wondering if we needed a lift: clearly the locals thought we were mad to be walking around ? About ten minutes down the road, past some other private hotels, we came to what turned out to be possibly the most impressive shopping center I have ever seen. Borrowing from the fort architecture from the past, this place was lavishly fitted out: it even had canals with gondolas. It also had what we were looking for: a view of the 7-star hotel. My suggestion if you come to Dubai, though, is to forget the DIY approach on this one: you can pay about 100AUD for tea and a guided tour of the hotel: this would be a much easier and more successful option if you can afford it.

After the hotel we next visited a nearby mosque at Jumeriah. Most mosques are closed to the non-believers, but this mosque is more open and has guided tours. Sadly, these tours must be booked well in advance and only operate at 10:00AM on certain days of the week: just turning up as we had done will get you nowhere.

Also in the region has, despite still being under construction, the world's tallest tower. As it is still being built, it is not accessible, but we were hoping for some pictures from nearby. We didn't manage to get close enough though, and it was always barely visible in the ever-present haze.

After a sumptuous long lunch at a nearby restaurant, it was time to head back to the markets. Businesses tend to close between 1PM and 4PM, and we found that many of the market shops didn't reopen until 4:30PM, but once they did, wow! The Gold Souk had shop after shop of gold and diamonds on display. It all looked quite dazzling. The gold also looked different from what we usually get elsewhere: the gold here is purer but instead of looking more "gold-y", it actually tended to look slight duller. Nevertheless, the sheer amount of it, and the way it had been designed into extravagant items of jewelry was most impressive. Equally impressive was the glittering array of diamonds on show. It was easier to spot the better quality diamonds as some of them twinkled brightly, while others clearly had flaws which didn't twinkle much at all.

After the gold markets, we moved on next to the Spice Souk which had many small shops in a maze of winding streets. My sense of smell wouldn't be the best but nevertheless the fragrance here was sensory overloading with big bags of vividly colored exotic spices on the streets. The most popular items seems to be Frankincense, Mirh and Saffron, though be prepared to haggle: we spotted some American tourists who were clearly being had!

Along the way we also squeezed in some more historical building reconstruction tours and by the time it was getting dark it was time for a relaxing sit down by the river with a drink (non-alcoholic naturally ;) All in all, another action packed day in Dubai.

Shopping in the Souks

9th December 2007:

After a quick breakfast with lots of coffee at our apartment/hotel (The Golden Sands) it was time to begin exploring. Neither Lisa or I had been to a Muslim country before and were not quite sure what to expect. So as not too offend any of the locals we both dressed conservatively which wasn't the easiest thing to do in the heat. Nevertheless, Lisa did get lots of attention throughout the day, especially early on but covering up the shoulders helped reduce the staring. It was also quite noticeable early on that we were the only Westerners in sight, though as we ventured more towards the tourist areas later in the day some more travelers became visible.

Our apartment is located near the airport and near the old part of the city. We grabbed a map from the concierge and started what turned out to be a long trek around the city. It was fascinating. The architecture of the older buildings is like something out of Lawrence of Arabia and you can wander around old restored forts with white walls and fortified towers. Some of these forts had been subtly/tastefully modernized with air-conditioned interiors with items of historical value in glass display cabinets. Some of these buildings were closed and we got the impression that it was off-season, but the entrance fees were cheap and one fort in particular that we did enter cost a whole 50 cents to get into.

No trip to Dubai would be complete without a visit to the local markets and alongside the cities river are small shops selling cashmere clothing and other items of touristic value. The shop keepers don't tend to wait for you to wander into their shop: they prefer to grab your attention as you are walking past as try their sales charm to get you to part with your cash. They were very persuasive, though with everything being so cheap their goods practically sell themselves. The only irritating restriction was the ever present weight restriction for baggage on the flights home :(

There were many very noticeable differences in Dubai to Western cities I am more used to. Every couple of hours call to prayers were sung over loud speakers from the mosques: it sounded surreal the first couple of times but after that I found that it added to a sense of community as it was an experience which everybody listened to. I had thought that everything would grind to a halt during these prayer times, but people continued on as normal: it might be that the people only need to stop what they are doing some times during the day, rather than every time.

The next main difference would have to be the lack of women walking around. You could literally look down a street full of people and see no women whatsoever. Those women we did see tended to be immigrants (predominately Indian) or tourists. Otherwise, whereas the men tended to wear white clothes, the women tended to wear black. However, there weren't as many of the full length black burqa's visible (the dress style which just shows the woman's eyes) as I was expecting.

The last main difference became evident as the day progressed into evening. Most Western cities I have been in can become a bit intimidating in the evening as you try to avoid drunks or other people acting abnormally: we didn't' see any of that behavior in Dubai. Indeed throughout the day we never got the feeling we were being watched or followed or in any type of danger whatsoever. I didn't see any pick pocketing or shoplifting either and I saw one policeman all day: he looked very bored ?

There were no bars/off-licences/bottle-shops or nightclubs visible at all. They do exist but apparently they tend to be part of the bigger hotels. The lack of the usual Western light life wasn't a problem though as within minutes of arriving back to our room the jet lag kicked in and it was lights out: a good first day and there's still plenty more to do.

Flying to Dubai

8th December 2007:

I was rather hoping that I’d start getting into the Christmas mood in Australia this year but nope: its still surreal seeing Santa in a big red coat surrounding by people wearing only shorts or bikinis :) So, I’m going back to the northern hemisphere for a bit of normal reality.

Seeing as I’m traveling soooooo far, it would be a waste not to stop off somewhere along the way. I've already been to Thailand and have gone through North America, so for a change of scenery this year it will be Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai seems to be an up and coming place, boasting the worlds most luxurious hotel (7 star!), the world's tallest tower and there's even a massive man made island in the shape of the world(!) Fancy owning all of North America and living in your own White House? Now's your chance!

My travel buddy for the trip is Lisa and together we flew with the UAE's national carrier, Emirates. I have heard a LOT of great things about the Emirates airline. How was the reality? Like most things, some of the expectations turned out to be true, others were mere wishful thinking. Naturally each seat had its own built-in LCD display panel. Having them touch screen was a pleasant surprise, but they did suffer from the same problem all of these displays have: when the person in front leans their seat back you can no longer properly see what you are trying to watch :( Still, I have never come across such an impressive entertainment system: it worked for a start (Qantas, you should take some notes) and had over 175 movies to choose from that you can start/stop/pause as you want. If you don't fancy a movie, you can also look through cameras mounted in the plane's nose and undercarriage to see where you are going or what you are flying over. As we were flying overnight there wasn't much to see, but the takeoff and landing was dramatic! Also, some airlines only switch the entertainment system on when the plane is flying: not so here and being able to watch movies while waiting for the plane to taxi during takeoff and landing was a welcome distraction. To be fair, much of this technology is down to the airline manufacturer so maybe I just lucky and ended up on a new plane with modern gadgets.

The in-flight meals were also some of the best I've had on a plane and we stared in wonder at the real metal cutlery we were given, even metal knives! However, they could have provided more meals and I have found the premium ice-cream provided by other airlines to be a great addition: sadly there was none on our flight :( Also interesting was that there wine/beer/spirits were not mentioned anywhere and in stark contrast to a Qantas or BA flight, nobody that I noticed had a glass or wine with dinner. Lisa did spot one or two later, but they were the exception rather than the norm.

The flight had a scheduled flying time of 17 hours and we had a one hour's stopover in Bangkok en-route. We were flying overnight and as were flying west we followed the darkness all the way: it was probably the longest night I've ever experienced. I did love the airplanes interior at night time though: most airlines just dim the lights, but for ours they first changed the light to a subtle red/pink colour (to simulate sunset) and then a couple of minutes later changed the lights to a dim dark blue/purple and they even had stars (miniature white lights) visible in the roof: very impressive!

Overall, flying with Emirates was positive but then they do charge more for the experience. We arrived into Dubai a little bit later than scheduled due to fog but it was nice and early in the morning and was just after sunrise: the perfect time to start exploring.

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.