Queenstown – adventure capital

There are many who believe that Queenstown, New Zealand, is the adventure capital of the world. Whether or not you agree, one thing is for sure and that is that there is so much adrenaline pumping adventure available in this small remote town.

You wont be in Queenstown long before you see, if you look up, parachutes descending, apparently onto the town. With its steep hill behind, accessible by Gondola, Queenstown is ripe for the parapenters.

But its not only Queenstown itself. Nearby there is also Coronet Peak. A winter  playground normally (read skiing and snowboarding), in summer it too is used for launching hang-gliders and parapenters.

Check out the pix.

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Milford Track (Days 3 and 4)

After a very wet Day 2, we started day 3 with a light drizzle but much thinner cloud. Very promising. After an hour or so it was definitely clearing up and we were getting glimpses of the tops and the pass we had to climb over. Once again we could see that there had been a good dusting of snow on the tops, nearly down to the level of the pass we were crossing.

We were truly blessed as the weather continued clearing, and so quickly that by the time we came to ascend the pass it was beautifully clear blue skies and a nice warm day. Rather than freezing we were more in danger of overheating during the ascent and following descent to Day 3’s “Hutel”.

The views whilst crossing the pass are extraordinary – see below.

Day 4 also turned on quite a display of fine weather for us while we undertook the longer, but easier walk out to Sandfly Point. This wonderful track walk is completed with another boat trip, taking us from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound where we rejoined civilisation.

The full guided walk is 5 days, but the 5th day is just a bus trip back to Queenstown and the return of all the borrowed equipment.

Milford Track (Days 1 and 2)

Walking the Milford Track in south western New Zealand had been “on my list” for such a long time that when an opportunity to do it with some friends arose I jumped at it. Of course we did it the “gentleman’s” way – ie we stayed in catered, hotel-style bush huts and only carried day-packs; our overnight luggage being transported between the “Hutels” by Ultimate Hikes, our walks tour provider. Oh … and there was probably some wine in there each evening as well.

The walk started in Queenstown with a group meetup and the distribution of essential gear and an explanation of the walk. When all were organised and arranged we boarded the bus and headed for Te Anau at the southern tip of Lake Te Anau. Luckily for us, we were fed and watered before boarding a boat to take us to the north of the lake and the start of the walk proper.

All through the morning and lunch the weather had been getting progressively more foreboding. Now during the boat trip it looked positively like rain and a very cold, wet walk.

We disembarked right onto the bush track with a very fine sprinkling in progress as it tried very hard to rain on us. Luckily the first day’s walk was only 1-2km to get to Glade House, our first night on the track.

After settling in we were taken for a short guided walk around the local bush, to get acclimatised and to be told a bit about it. We were very lucky because it still hadn’t managed to rain properly, but it sure seemed to be trying.

No such luck for the next day. After a cold night we woke to a very cold wet morning. During short breaks in the clouds we could see that a small amount of snow had fallen on the tops during the night (this was the middle of summer!).

They say that the Milford track is at its best when it rains, and to a point, from our experience, that could be true. Rain and stormy skies seem to go with this country and just as well as it is one of the wettest places on the planet.

Our first full day of walking was rather cold and at times very wet but there were periods when the rain eased or stopped, allowing some photos and views. The country really does have a charm in these conditions…

Peak Desire #1

I have a fascination with a mountain I knew when I was young. Then it was Mt Egmont. Now it is Mt Taranaki, having reverted to the original Maori name. This extinct volcano is located on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, and boasts being the second most “regular” volcano, after Mt Fuji in Japan. Anyway it rises about 2300m (~7550ft) from the surrounding land to a total elevation of 2518m (~8260ft).

Its been a while since I have climbed it. In March 2011 I went with some friends to have a go. Initially I was excited as the weather looked like it was going to actually be fine. However the fine weather followed on the heels of a short cold snap which we found had deposited a layer of snow on the upper reaches. A bit unseasonal, but quite the normal weather for this mountain.

Undeterred by the snow we set off before sunrise, expecting that with the now warmish weather, it would melt or at least soften before we got there. Wrong! Unfortunately the heat never quite eventuated and when we reached the snow it was still hazardously frozen showing no signs of yielding to our desires.

Oh well, another attempt failed. Still, there is another year…

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Mt Egmont/Taranaki before sunrise

Mt Egmont/Taranaki at sunrise

Mt Egmont/Taranaki at sunrise

Mt Egmont/Taranaki after sunrise

Mt Egmont/Taranaki after sunrise

Mt Egmont/Taranaki after sunrise

Mt Egmont/Taranaki after sunrise

Looking back from our turn-around point

Looking back from our turn-around point

Mt Egmont/Taranaki from the water tower in Hawera

Mt Egmont/Taranaki from the water tower in Hawera

Welkam tu Norfuk Aislen

For someone who feels the need of a hermetic envelope when travelling pretty much anywhere, Norfolk Island is a bit of a relief, – nearly. With temperatures ranging typically between 19 and 25 (degrees C) I’m almost tempted to say its perfect. Almost, that is, because this Eleysian field comes with an average humidity of about 70%!
Thankfully there is an almost permanent breeze, even wind.
Speaking of wind, there is another aspect of life on this island that appeals to the awkward traveller in me: – the public toilets. It has been a long time since I visited a public loo comprising a real/normal toilet, complete with a seat, a handbasin with soap AND paper towels!

20-20 Vision

Its not often that events conflate for one’s benefit. However, such has just happened.

You see I got married on exactly the same day as some friends of ours. This happened unawares to us both, even though we did know each other at the time.

Recently our twentieth anniversary loomed so we arranged to go away together to celebrate. As it happened, DenMar Estate in the Hunter Valley was having a midweek special, covering the very day, and had a spare two bedroom villa. You beauty!

For dinner, the owners of DenMar (Marie and Dennis) suggested the nearby Botanica restaurant. All dressed up, we were chauffered by Dennis to Botanica, allowing us the freedom to partake. Botanica turned out to provide a very nice meal, suitable for such an occasion. Afterwards, a call brings Marie to chauffer us safely home again.

The next day we had planned to go cheese and bubbly tasting, followed by a light Tapas style dinner nearby. However Marie reminded us that our package included a lunch / dinner with included bottle of wine per couple and a wine tasting of the Estates own wines. You beauty, again!

So after a morning of cheese tasting and bubbly busting we returned to DenMar mid afternoon for our tasting and meal. What a treat! With each of their wines we were presented with a specially matched, sensational canapé. The wines were very pleasing too, adding to the enjoyment.

Unfortunately we then had to choose just one of the wines to have with our dinner. We settled on the 2009 Pinot Noir while our friends chose the 2010 Cab Sav. What followed was an amazing display of cullinary skill by Marie. We should have realised the canapés were no fluke as they were all picture (and taste) perfect. The dinner was amazing, and the wine just set it off to perfection.

So we were treated to a wonderful second anniversary dinner in our own private restaurant. Thank you Dennis, thank you Marie. It was truly a wonderful break for us, making an anniversary to remember for a long time.

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Flaked Salmon

Brandy snap, ice cream and strawberries!

Brandy snap, ice cream and strawberries!

Crossing Over

[modified from the original, published Sep 24th, 2012]

Well we are now on the train from Chambery (France) to Torino (Turin – Italy). A good point is that we have brought on board a bottle of wine and consumed it along with a packet of chips and a crushed chocolate croissant that Julie found in the bottom of her pack. This was apparently the same chocolate croissant that Julie bought yesterday and which mysteriously went missing. Of course I suspected Julie of gaming as that was the second chocolate croissant she had bought and “lost” in a few days.

Another good point is that our seats have a power outlet in them, which we could have used to charge our i-devices if we had known it was there. Our neighbour across the aisle is using his for exactly that.

The bad points are that we got on the train about the last stop before people start getting off, meaning that the luggage accommodation was an issue. Not to mention the mayhem due to so many people apparently being in the wrong seats. Our seat was originally populated by the remains of someone’s lunch. But it is alright now, as about an hour into the trip, the owner has just appeared to reclaim them while I am typing this!

I seem to have forgotten all my Italian. Yesterday I tried to think of how to conjugate regular verbs and it took me about 15 minutes to recall how to do it (no kidding!). Julie’s French has picked up considerably but I think that she is noticing the lack of exposure for such a long time. We have resolved to return to France sometime to give her a further boost along so that she doesn’t loose it after all the effort studying it at uni etc. Since I have been turned to the dark side and now feel a trip to the French countryside might not only be survivable, but actually enjoyable, Julie is more positive about keeping up with her French.

Whatever else one feels in respect of the French, I have to hand it to them for their bread. It is so devourable, even without anything on it. The baguette is a national icon in my books! If you ever wondered why it is made in that silly shape, it is because the French figured out that it gives a near perfect ratio of crust to bread so that the flavour and texture experiences are maximised. It is also easy to hold when walking around!

Judging by the number of cyclists we saw with baguettes sticking out of the top of their packs, it is an icon/institution for everyone else as well. Its a shame about the “jams”. They don’t actually call them that, they call them confitures. The problem is they are all very runny. Sure they taste nice, but that is lost when one is flat out trying to catch the drips and squirts as they emerge from the baguette that is crushed in your mouth as you attack its divine being. It fairly ruins the whole French bread transcendence, as one is so busy trying to keep the confiture reasonably within the confines of one’s own baguette, mouth, hands and table, that the whole experience is diminished to somewhat of a sleazy transaction, best carried out in the privacy of one’s own home with the lights out.

Crossing into Italy brings a whole new experience when it comes to coffee and especially hot chocolate. Picture a bubbling mud pool from Rotorua and make it darker (and of course chocolate flavoured). That becomes your hot chocolate experience in Italy. What a delight. What the French have done for bread, Italy has done for hot chocolate drinks, in spades.

Wonderfully dense Italian Hot Chocolate

Che denso!

Our first attempt at interaction in Italian is a little off. Having just arrived, we are in a taxi going to the airport (don’t ask) and Julie comments “abbastanza umido” (= quite humid) to which the taxi driver replies “about 20 minutes”. His English wasn’t too flash, but that may have been the humidity getting to him! We certainly got to the airport pronto with no further mashups, linguistic or otherwise.

We have now met our tour guide, so all is well with the world again. Our group comprises about 21 walkers including us so there should be a lot of cameraderie. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately after our first experience) there will probably not be too much Italian interaction this week. C’est la vie, or rather, “cosi va la vita”.

Ciao,
Bazza.

France is no picnic!

[modified from the original, published on Sep 16th, 2012]

Well here I am in the land of frogs, drawn here by my wife’s inexplicable love for things French. Especially the food.

This is actually my second “tête-a-tête” with France, but my first time outside of Paris. We are in Dijon, the capital of the Bourgogne. Otherwise known as Burgundy to the English.
I’ve learnt quite a few things already this trip, including that Burgundy is an English word for this region and not a French word at all.

Another thing I have learnt is how the wine appellation system works in Bourgogne. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily help me understand how it works elsewhere in France, as each of the wine regions (I think there are 5) has their own system.
To an old kiwi who remembers the Rainbow Warrior incident, the French have always been associated with an air of (over) self importance, arrogance and general snootiness. My previous trip, to Paris, did nothing to dispel this mindset.

However this trip, admittedly just begun, has given me pause for thought. The people in Dijon have been rather friendly and about as engaging as a non speaker of French could expect.

Even the French grab at naming rights on basic foodstuffs, such as wine, now seems, well, if not actually acceptable, at least understandable. From what we have learnt here, the french wine naming system or appellation control is so fundamentally evolved from their history that it would seem wrong to try to disallow it. Having said that, using the appropriate French name on wines of similar style and which are clearly not made in France and not sold there would seem to be not just suitable, but also paying respect to France’s contribution to our collective wine heritage.

However, that is a battle lost, and I have solace in the knowledge that even the French can’t usurp another regions names. For example the Bourgogne cannot label a wine as Champagne. Their equivalent is called Cremante.

Anyway, while the French and most things French might be no picnic, the food certainly is …

One of our wonderful French picnic lunches. Unfortunately, no “pain” without gain!