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New Zealand: Greymouth to Christchurch by train

9 Aug

From Franz Josef we headed north along the coast.  We drove past a lot of farms and my mom insisted on pulling over on several occasions to take photos of sheep.  Eventually we reached the ocean again, which made for yet another cool but gloomy photo op.  Here are some pics from the drive up.

Our shitty front-bumperless rental car.  It really is a miracle it got us the whole way:

Our reason for driving to Greymouth was to board the TranzAlpine scenic train to Christchurch.  As its name suggests, the train runs through the mountains and provides some spectacular views.  It was a pretty cool way to finish up our trip.  We talked to some nice Aussies on the train, had scones with jam and cream for the last time, and got to see some more snow at a place called Arthur’s Pass high up in the mountains.  The train stopped so we could play in the snow, but the novelty had definitely worn off for me by that point, so I snapped a few photos and returned to the warmth of the train.  I didn’t get many photos over the course of the journey because it’s difficult on a moving train, but here are a few.

We got in to Christchurch that night, then flew out early the next morning to finally head home.  So that’s all for New Zealand!  It was a good trip and I got to see the highlights of the south island.  I would, however, love to go back during the NZ summer and preferably stay for a couple of weeks.  It really is a beautiful place and I hope to one day (soon?!) have the opportunity to explore it again… in the sunshine.  Until that day comes, this is all I’ve got for you guys.

Only one more post until I retire this blog!  Check back within the next few days for that!

New Zealand: Franz Josef Glacier

7 Aug

Franz Josef was easily my favorite part of the trip. I have always wanted to see (preferably touch!) a glacier, both because I happen to think that they are awesome and because I believe that within my lifetime there won’t be many left.

The drive from Queenstown to the town of Franz Josef was… interesting, to say the least. We asked the receptionist at our motel if we would need tire chains and she said that there were two ways to get there: one that would definitely require chains, and one that would not. We opted for the no-chains route and set off.  Everything was fine for the first hour or so, and then it started raining right as we entered the mountains.  In about five minutes the rain had turned to snow and we came very, very close to getting stuck in our crappy two wheel drive sedan.  It was about that time that we started wishing we had brought some chains along after all.  In the end we only spun out once and it all ended up alright, thanks to some impressive driving by my mother while I had a minor panic attack in the passenger seat.  Soon we had reached the west coast where I was thrilled to see the ocean for the first time on this trip, and just after it got dark we arrived in the tiny town of Franz Josef.  Here are some shots I took along the way.

We came to Franz Josef for a half-day glacier hike with Franz Josef Glacier Guides.  They outfitted us with everything we would need- waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, boots, wool hat, wool socks, wool gloves, and crampons- which was nice because otherwise we probably would have died up there.  I know I keep saying things like this, but the weather was ATROCIOUS on the day we did our hike.  It was windy and raining cold, unrelenting rain that occasionally turned to hail.  It was so bad that they cut back all of the full day trips to half day trips and some people decided that even that was too much.  We had a few people drop out of our group before we left.  Their loss, really, because the glacier was truly awesome.  We had to walk about a mile or two to reach the base of it, then we spent a good three hours hiking around on the glacier itself.  I would have loved to bring my nice camera but the weather definitely prevented that, so here are the photos I managed to get with my waterproof, shockproof, freezeproof point-and-shoot (which can be found here in case anyone is interested.)

Before…

Inside of a glacial cave:

After…

Also, just in case you don’t believe me about the weather, here’s a short video I shot on the hike back to the bus from the glacier.  (Warning: it’s kinda loud.)

So that was Franz Josef.  So worth it, even if by the end we were wet and miserable and had multiple blisters.  One great thing about the tour we did is that it includes free entry to the glacial hot pools in the town of Franz Josef- the perfect way to recover from a glacier hike.  We hit the hot pools, ate an early dinner, drank some wine, and passed out.  The next day we headed north to Greymouth for the last leg of our journey, which I’ll talk about in one last NZ post, because I feel like this one is long enough as it is.  Check back soon for that!

New Zealand: Milford Sound

4 Aug

My mom and I used part of our time in Queenstown to take a day trip to Milford Sound.  The tour we chose to do included a 4 hour coach ride to and from Milford Sound, plus a two hour cruise.  It was a long day- we had to be on the bus at 7am and didn’t get back until well after 7pm- but it was worth it.  Milford Sound is a fjord, meaning that it was carved out by a glacier and is now filled with water.  It is known for its dramatic cliffs that rise up out of the water, making it a pretty breathtaking place.  Unfortunately for us, the day we went there it was cloudy and raining (like it was our entire trip) so we didn’t exactly get the full experience.  It wasn’t all bad though; it turns out that rain creates hundreds of temporary waterfalls along the cliffs, which was pretty cool.  Here are some photos, starting with the first one we took on our cruise… which is probably my favorite pic from the entire trip.

DOLPHINS:

The drive between Queenstown and Milford Sound took us through some high-altitude mountain passes, and it happened that by the time we drove back the rain had turned to snow up in the mountains.  The driver pulled over so that we could all play in the snow and my mom and I got the sense that a lot of people on our bus had never seen snow before (which is not that strange in Australia/NZ.)  It was kind of adorable to see them all running around and throwing snowballs at each other.  It was also cool to stand in the snow and think that one week before that moment I was in the humid, tropical heat of Thailand and one week later I would be back home in equally humid, even hotter Virginia.

That’s all I’ve got on Milford Sound.  Check back in a few days for a post about Franz Josef glacier, then it’ll be time to retire this blog for good.  I hope everyone is having a great summer!

New Zealand: Christchurch to Queenstown

26 Jul

I know it’s been a while and I apologize.  I’m slowly working my way through all of my New Zealand photos.  It turns out it’s a lot harder to stay on top of a travel blog when you’re no longer traveling, but I promise that starting now I’ll get through these last few updates in a timely fashion.

From Thailand I flew to Sydney to meet my mom.  We stayed the night in Sydney which was kind of cool, because it was a chance to say goodbye to Australia.  We flew out very early in the morning bound for New Zealand.  We actually spent our first (and last) night in Christchurch but I have no photos and not much to say about it because a. I never saw it in the daylight and b. the city is still pretty messed up from the earthquakes, so there really wasn’t much to see where we were staying besides rubble and condemned houses.  We rented a car in Christchurch, woke up early the next morning, and headed for Queenstown, the “adventure capital of the world.”  The drive was about eight hours and took us through forests, mountains, and a whole lot of sheep farms.  I (of course) took photos along the way.

One thing we didn’t see much of was people.  There are only about one million people living on the entire South Island- that’s the population of the county I live in.  Pretty crazy.

Anyway, Queenstown was a charming place but it literally rained the entire time we were there.  (Unfortunately, this turned out to be true of pretty much our entire NZ trip.)  Still, it was rather lovely.  The town is built around a huge lake and surrounded by mountains that seem to just come out of nowhere.  We couldn’t see them for most of the time, but on the few occasions that the clouds receded, it was really a beautiful view.  It actually felt a lot like a ski resort, which was weird because there wasn’t any snow… there rarely is in Queenstown.  To ski you have to take a bus up into the mountains, but they don’t really have resorts up there like we have here so a lot of people will base themselves in town and take a shuttle to the slopes every day.  As a result there were people everywhere carrying skis and snowboards through the rain.  Most of them were around my age- it seemed like it would be a really fun place to visit with friends.

We basically spent two days in Queestown.  On one of those days we took a trip out to Milford Sound.  (I’ll talk about that in my next post.)  We spent the other day following the walking tour suggested by our copy of Lonely Planet’s guide to the South Island.  It ended up being pretty fun and a great way to see the highlights of the town.  We visited an underwater observatory, a bird sanctuary and some beautiful gardens.  We got fish and chips by the water for lunch and finished the day off with some wine tasting at this place in town called the Central Otago Wine Experience.  (I REALLY wanted to go actual wine tasting at a winery but we didn’t have time. :()  Here are some assorted photos from Queenstown.

That’s all I’ve got for Queenstown.  In a few days I’ll do a post about Milford Sound, so check back for that.  I hope everyone’s having a great summer!

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

15 Jul

This post is technically about Koh Phi Phi Don, which is just one of the Phi Phi islands (pronounced “pee pee”, which I still think is funny) but since it’s the largest island and the only one with permanent inhabitants, it’s usually just referred to as Koh Phi Phi.

Though Koh Phi Phi is only about a 50 minute ferry right from Koh Lanta, the two islands could not be more different.  For one thing, Phi Phi is very small- so small that there are no roads, cars, or motorbikes, only dirt paths that weave between the shops and stalls and are constantly crowded with tourists.  You know how before I said that Lanta is heavily dependent on tourism?  Well, Phi Phi is like a physical embodiment of the tourism industry.  Every menu and store name was in English and everywhere we went we were surrounded by Westerners.  For every traditional Thai restaurant there were three others serving Western food- burgers, sandwiches, spaghetti, even Mexican.  It was so weird.

As strange as it was suddenly being surrounded by people who spoke my language, it was kind of fun.  It was pretty clear that everyone was there to have a good time and it really is the perfect place to do so.  Koh Phi Phi is absolutely beautiful- probably a bit more so than Koh Lanta, though I still very much prefer the latter.  Here are some photos.

(Yeah, we got Mexican food.  It was about as good as you could expect Mexican food to be in Thailand.)

One day and one night on Koh Phi Phi turned out to be the perfect amount of time, partly because the crowds got a little irritating but mostly because the next day I was too hungover to move.  It turns out that Phi Phi is quite the party island, which makes sense given the fact that pretty much everyone there is young and on vacation.  Sophie and I decided that we deserved one night of quality partying after working so hard on our dive courses and going to bed at like 9pm every night of our trip so far (I’m not kidding), so party we did.  We drank out of buckets, attended a fire twirling show, and watched some  live Muay Thai boxing in a bar that I think was called Reggae Bar yet had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with reggae.  Here are the few photos I took that night.

We departed Koh Phi Phi feeling like crap, but the kind of crap that isn’t SO bad because you know it’s only because you had a really fun night.  All in all it was a good end to the trip.  I flew out the next day to meet up with my mom and continue on to New Zealand.

So that’s all for my Thailand posts.  I had an incredible time on this trip.  I really went into it with no expectations at all (to be completely honest, the only thing I knew about Thailand was that was somewhere in Southeast Asia and produced great food) which is part of what I think made it so great.  Furthermore, traveling with Sophie was awesome, which is also great because I barely knew her when we decided to go on this trip together.  I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but this whole thing started when I saw her at a party and we ended up making drunken plans to go to Thailand together.  Somehow, I’m still not sure how, I got my parents to go for it and the whole thing ended up actually happening- clearly one of those very rare times that drunken plans actually lead to something awesome.  Anyway, Sophie is one of those people who are unfailingly upbeat.  She’s in a good mood 99.9% of the time, not in an annoying way but in a way that is both genuine and infectious.  She made an excellent travel companion and we got along very well.  Basically, everything just worked out perfectly.  Like I said, it was great.  Definitely a trip that I’ll remember forever.

Only a few more posts before I retire this blog!  Check back in a few days if you want to hear about New Zealand and/or see some pics.

Krabi, Thailand

13 Jul

I didn’t like Krabi.  It was the only place we visited where people didn’t smile at us in the street and I felt like an unwelcome tourist.  It was also the only place we visited that was more than a five minute walk from the ocean, which didn’t win it any points in my book.  To be fair, we only spent one night in Krabi so maybe I wasn’t there long enough to see its good side.

The one cool thing we did in Krabi was visit the Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suea.)  Unlike the similarly named Tiger Temple near Bankok, there are no actual tigers at Tiger Cave.  The temple is named for the cave system that houses it, which apparently is laid out like a tiger claw.  It was a very interesting place.  The main temple was spread throughout the caves and surrounded by dense rainforest.  There was also a portion (which is more well-known to tourists) at the top of a mountain, accessible to the monks and the general public by 1,237 very steep steps.  It was a really hot day and we were fully covered by sarongs in order to not be disrespectful.  The climb to the top was probably the closest I’ve ever come to heat stroke and my calves were literally sore for a week afterwards, but it was so worth it.  The views were incredible and it was just a really powerful experience to be standing on top of a mountain at a place considered sacred by so many people.  I highly recommend it if you’re ever in the area.

Here are a couple photos of the cave part of the temple which, while not as breathtaking as the mountain part, was still really cool.  I also included a few miscellaneous shots.

That night we went to a market, which had a lot of great stuff but wasn’t very tourist-friendly.  This was actually the biggest strike against Krabi for me, because I love markets and was excited to go which made it pretty upsetting when we were treated rather rudely by some of the stall owners.  It was just very different from the way we were treated on Koh Lanta.  Regardless, I managed to get a few photos.

On the way home from the market we stopped at a restaurant for drinks and ended up becoming a part of a small birthday celebration for this adorable Thai woman.  It was her, her French husband, two of his friends, a British lady, and us.  It was actually a lot of fun and a nice way to end our time in Krabi.  The next morning we caught the ferry over to Koh Phi Phi… and that will be my last Thailand post.  I’m going to try and get it done ASAP.

In other news, I’m finally home!!!  New Zealand was gorgeous but it’s so night to be back where it’s warm and you can actually see the sun.  My goals for the next few days are to unpack, do all of my laundry, and catch up on my blog.  I’ll be posting at least once a day (hopefully) so check back soon!

Spelunking, beer Chang, and saying goodbye to Koh Lanta

6 Jul

I was very sad to leave Koh Lanta.  I think it might rank as one of my top three favorite places (along with the central coast of California and possibly Charlottesville.)  As sad as it was to say goodbye, I couldn’t have asked for a better last day.  Sophie and I woke up early, had breakfast, hired a scooter for the day, and set off south for the Khao Maikaeo cave.  (I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet, but pretty much everyone on the island gets around by motorbike/scooter.  They cost about $7 US to hire for the full day and are awesome.)  We met up with Sophie’s friend Ben on the way and he came along.  Ben and Sophie met while working on a pearling ship in Darwin, Australia.  He’s from North Carolina and we ran into him on our first day on Koh Lanta.  Neither of them knew that the other was in Thailand.  Pretty crazy, huh?  Anyway, we somehow found the cave, even though the map was ridiculous, and paid this dude to guide us through it.  Check out his rasta/weed pants.

We got sweet headlamps to use in the cave, which turned out to be AMAZING.  There were caverns as big as office buildings and a tunnel we had to crawl through and a batcave at the end.  It was a really, really cool experience.

In addition to the bats (which were adorable) we saw some fascinating creatures in the cave.  I’m pretty convinced that these two are alien life forms that are biding their time deep inside the earth until they’re ready to come out and destroy humanity by crawling into our noses and eating our brains.  I’m only half joking.

And finally, the post-spelunking victory photo.

After caving we scootered along the island until we found a market and bought a variety of meat on sticks (and seafood/tofu on sticks), then went to eat them on the beach.  We found a beachfront bar with bungalows and cushions to sit on, and sat there for literally the entire afternoon eating and drinking beer Chang, which is my favorite Thai beer (and also the cheapest, which works out nicely for me.)  We were there for like at least four hours and finally left after sunset.  It was the most perfect way to end our time on the island.

That’s all for Koh Lanta!  I’ll do one more post about my last few days in Thailand because we did some more cool stuff, like visiting a temple on top of a mountain and experiencing the touristy madness of Phi Phi Island.  For those of you wondering where the hell I am now, I’m writing this from my motel room in Queenstown, New Zealand.  New Zealand is very beautiful, but very cold.  I’m getting some great photos though, so look for some NZ updates next week.  As always, thanks for reading and if you’ve been doing so since the beginning, thanks for sticking with me… only a few more updates before this blog will be officially retired!