Monday, April 25, 2005

100 Times Two

The second 100 days of travel is in the books. The world continues to astound, amaze, educate, and impress. The more we see, the more we long to see. People, geography, technology (or lack thereof), nature, science, culture, language. There is nothing like travel to open the mind.

The second 100 days saw us complete our circumference of Southeast Asia, and finally drop below the equator to the land down under. A quick recap:

Vietnam: Hoi An - Hue - Hanoi - Halong Bay - Hanoi.
Laos: Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang.
Thailand: Chiang Mai - Pai - Lahu Village - Bangkok - Ko Pha Ngan - Khao Lak.
Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur.
Sydney - Coogee Beach - Hunter Valley - Hobart - Tasman National Park - Freycinet National Park - Bicheno - Bay of Fires - Cradle Mountain National Park - Queenstown - Hobart - Uluru National Park - Watarrka National Park - Ormiston Gorge - Alice Springs - Sydney.
New Zealand: Christchurch - Akaroa - Lake Tekapo - Mt. Cook National Park - Alexandra - Dunedin - Kaka Point - Te Anu - Queenstown - Mt. Aspiring National Park - Fjordland National Park - Queenstown - Wanaka - Fox Glacier - Nelson Lakes National Park - Abel Tasman National Park - Marahau - Hanmer Springs - Christchurch - Kaikoura - Picton - Wellington - Napier - Lake Taupo.

Here are some highlights of the second hundred:

Best Food: Thailand.
Cheapest Food: Thailand ($1 for the best Phad Thai ever).
Best Beer: Black Mac (New Zealand).
Cheapest Beer: Beer Lao (650ml for $0.80 – actually cheaper than water).
Highest Red Kangaroo Density: Alice Springs, Australia.
Highest Forrester Kangaroo Density: Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania.
Highest Sheep Density: South Island of New Zealand.
Highest Dolphin Density: (tie) Abel Tasman National Park & Milford Sound, New Zealand.
Highest Penguin Density: (tie) Bicheno, Tasmania & Otago Peninsula, New Zealand.
Best Beach: Wineglass Bay, Freycinet National Park, Tasmania.
Best Caves: Halong Bay, Vietnam.
Best Kayaking: Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand.
Best Museum: (tie) Asian Civilization Museum, Singapore & Te Papa National Museum, Wellington, New Zealand.
Most Expensive Lodging: Wellington, New Zealand - $95.
Least Expensive Lodging: Vientiane, Laos - $5.
Best Value Lodging: Pai, Thailand - $17 for exquisite private bungalow with outdoor shower.
Best Meal: The Park Café, Marahau, New Zealand.
Coolest Bar: The Hive, Luang Prabang, Laos.
Best View: (tie) Conical Hill, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand & Milford Sound, Fjordland National Park, New Zealand.
Cleanest City: Singapore.
Tallest Building: Petronas Towers (452 meters - 88 stories - the world’s tallest until 2003).
Best Hike: 3-day trek over the Routeburn Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand.
Best Fly Fishing: Clarence River, South Island of New Zealand.
Most Recognizable Icon: Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia.
Best Public Transportation System: Singapore.
Best Cooking Lesson: Thai Cookery School, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Best Bookstore: L’Etranger, Luang Prabang, Laos.
Best Shopping: Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand.
Most Devastation: Khao Lak, Thailand, after the December 26th Tsunami.

The second hundred saw a dramatic shift from Asian to Western culture, from North to South, and from affordable to less so. Despite these changes, we continue to be surprised and amazed by the places we go, the people we meet, and the things we see. The world is a miraculous cornucopia of remarkable experiences. Although we are gliding towards the end, we are not done yet. Stay tuned to see what the rest of the trip has to offer.

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“When I say GO, we take two steps, and run off the cliff. OK?”

“Uh, yeah, that sounds good. Ummm, then what?”

“Then we’re flying!”

We had been in Queenstown for about 15 minutes before we found ourselves driving to Coronet Peak Ski Area in a van burdened with a crop of hang gliders. That is Queenstown for you. Billed as The Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown sits on the shores of spectacular Lake Wakatipu. Jagged mountains scratch the sky, while surreal azure lakes reflect an endless blue sky. It looks like a set from Lord of the Rings. Why? Because it was.

If you can name an adrenaline-riddled-adventure-activity, you can do it in Queenstown. Bungy jumping, sky diving, paragliding, fly-by-wire, or hang gliding. Whitewater rafting, jet boating, river surfing, canyoneering, scuba diving, blackwater rafting, or jet skiing. Mountain biking, street luge, climbing, skiing, snowboarding, bouldering, or mountaineering. Queenstown has it all, and promises to get your juices flowing. One walk down Main Street, and you will suddenly wonder how you are going to come up with an extra $150 so someone will let you jump off a 200-foot high bridge with a string tied around your ankles.

With a shortage of extra $100 bills, we decided we had to pick one activity, and one activity only. Bungy? Too mainstream. Jet boating? Too environmentally unfriendly. Canyoneering? Too expensive. Hang gliding? Unique, non-polluting, and semi-affordable. The purest form of flight. Sure, we’ll give it a go.

The next thing we know we are strapped into tandem hang gliders and running off a cliff. Literally. Three steps and we are flying. Thermals rise to give us lift, and we gaze down at a hawk circling below. It is quiet, peaceful, and totally cool.

We glide for close to 20 minutes, and land smoothly on a manicured grass lawn a few kilometers away. We take the controls for a time, and learn the basics of gliding. The flight is smooth and peaceful, but after getting the ok, our pilots threw in some huge banked turns and sharp dives to get the full Queenstown adrenaline experience.

Damn, that’s fun.

Enjoy the Queenstown Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Queenstown videos:
Scott’s Takeoff.
Crazy Bungy Action.

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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Spot Beauty

Milford Sound, in the southwest corner of the South Island of New Zealand is considered by many to be the most beautiful spot in the world. Mountain walls tumble thousands of feet straight down into the crystaline ocean. Dozens of waterfalls thunder down, constantly replenishing the pristine water (underwater visibility is 150 feet). The solid-rock slopes contain no soil, yet they sustain a rich rainforest canopy. Why? Because it rains seven meters every year.

This rain feeds the myriad of cascades, and because the fjord below is so calm, the top six feet of water is freshwater, while everything deeper is saltwater. This dichotomy creates a unique underwater environment hosting the only shallow-water black coral on the planet.

Rainbows hang in the air, sustained by the misty shrapnel of waterfalls. Cliffs knife into the water, plunging hundreds of feet to reach the ocean floor. Fur seals lounge on the rocks, their dark fur glistening in the brilliant sun. Dolphins frolic in the unspoiled water, playing tag in the boat wake like playful schoolchildren. This is nature at its finest.

It is hard to say that any one place is the most beautiful, but Milford Sound sure makes a good case for the title.

Enjoy the Milford Sound Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Milford Sound Video:
Dolphins Playing Tag.

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Monday, April 11, 2005


Seagulls squawk overhead, and waves pound the beach. Our eyes peak over the tussocks. “OK, quiet now. If we’re lucky, they will come ashore soon.”

Suddenly, a sleek black head emerges from the surf. Awkwardly, he stands, gains a foothold in the smooth sand, and waddles purposefully up the beach. His wet black feathers gleam in the afternoon sun. He pads his way toward us, as we stare in awe. Its 4pm, and the Yellow-Eyed Penguins have come home to Otago for the day.

Earlier, we watched giant albatross soar overhead, before landing to feed their helpless chicks. The Otago Peninsula in Southern New Zealand contains the only nesting albatross colony in the world that is accessible to humans. With a nine and a half foot wingspan, the mighty albatross is the largest bird on earth, capable of flying over 1,500 kilometers a day. Like a massive airplane approaching a runway, an albatross gliding towards its nest is quite a sight to behold.

In between we plied the curvaceous roads of Otago, straining to see the pristine beaches, mighty forests, and immaculate gardens of the Peninsula. Other travelers did the same, populating the scenic roads with rental cars, campers, and funky backpacker vans.

Although devoid of the soaring peaks and dense rainforest that are New Zealand Trademarks, the Otago Peninsula and the rest of Southland are a great spot to spend some time.

Enjoy the Otago and Southland Photo Gallery.

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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Cooking With Ice

Mt. Cook juts toward the heavens like a knife thrust into the sky. As the tallest peak in New Zealand, it dominates the rugged glacial landscape around it. On clear days Mt. Cook stands as a beacon for much of the South Island, visible from hundreds of miles away. It is spectacular.

New Zealand has 27 mountains over 3,050 meters, and 22 of them can be found within Mt. Cook National Park. Despite the soaring rocky peaks, over two-thirds of the Park sits permanently buried under snow and ice. Hanging glaciers constantly creak and moan, and periodically let out a sharp crack as ice and snow flood down their frozen faces. Below, milky white lakes sit silently, waiting for icebergs to break free and replenish their icy stores. Chalky rivers flow with great force through the glacial debris, providing a raucous background for the high alpine fireworks above. It is a dynamic, lively place, where the earth speaks with great authority.

Climbers and trampers have explored this winter playground for over a century. Trails snake through the glacial moonscape, and climb the steep flanks of the high peaks. Swing bridges dangle precipitously over roaring rivers, giving their users a bird’s-eye view of the chaos below. Walk for ten minutes in any direction, and you will be stunned by the beauty before you.

What an introduction to the Southern Alps. It is going to be hard to top this.

Don’t worry, we will try….

Enjoy the Mt. Cook Photo Gallery.

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Saturday, April 02, 2005


New Zealand takes all the best parts of the globe, and concentrates them in one compact, kick-ass little country. The mountains soar jaggedly skyward, the rivers run clear as gin, the beaches are perfect and deserted, and the people are friendly and welcoming. Everywhere you turn you are awed by majestic beauty, and every part of the country is different. It is no wonder that many call New Zealand “God’s own land.”

We flew into Christchurch, a lovely city on the east coast of the South Island that is said to be the most English city in the world outside of England. Here, the town square is dominated by a grand Anglican cathedral, punts glide down the Avon River, and immaculate gardens dot the cityscape. It is small, Victorian, and very, very pleasant.

Outside of Christchurch pastoral farmland rolls down toward the rugged coast. Small towns with picture-perfect harbors dot the coastline. Sheep graze languidly above jagged ocean cliffs, while penguins, seals, whales, and dolphins ply the coastal waters below.

The rest of New Zealand lies before us. There are mountains and glaciers to climb, trails to hike, trout to stalk, and beaches to explore. The world tour has six weeks left, and this is the last country. It is time to go out with a bang.

Enjoy the Christchurch Photo Gallery.

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The Heat Is On

The Outback is hot. Frying-egg-on-the-sidewalk-hot. It is the kind of place where the heat can kill you, and if it doesn’t, the flies will drive you so crazy that you will wish you were dead.

We flew into Ayers Rock from the cool, comfortable, civilized climate of Tasmania. It doesn’t take long to know that your world is changing. From the plane, the rust-red Outback sprawls beneath you for thousands of miles in every direction, dotted with vast desiccated salt plains. Damn, it just looks hot down there.

When the plane door opens, the heat rushes in like a convection oven. As the last vestiges of air-conditioned comfort wilt before your very eyes, the crew begins ushering people down the stairs. As you step blinkingly into the blinding sun, your skin starts to burn. The tarmac is soft, like melting ice cream, and you long for the safe haven of the air-conditioned terminal.

“Are you sure you want to camp?”

“The cheapest hotel room is $300.”

“The AC might be worth that.”

“We’re camping.”

Why put up with temperatures that melt steel? To look at a rock, of course.

Not just any rock. This is Ayers Rock, known as Uluru to the Aboriginal people of Australia, the largest monolith in the world. Out of thousands of miles of nothing, the sheer red faces of Uluru soar 348 meters high, scraping the shockingly blue sky of Australia. It is an incredible sight, unlike anything else in the world. Plus, it’s freakishly hot.

There are other rocks too. 48 kilometers away sit the towering red domes of the Olgas, also known as Kata Tjuta to the Aborigines. To the north lie the golden spires and hoodoos of Kings Canyon (Watarrka), and the eerie crater of Tnorala. Beyond that sprawl the oldest mountains in the world, the West MacDonnell Range. In between sits a whole lot of nothing. Correction. A whole lot of searingly-hot nothing.

Wait. On closer inspection, it isn’t exactly nothing. Spinifex grass grows everywhere, gaining foothold in the iron-rich soil. Lizards scuttle under the shade of eucalyptus, looking for their next meal. Birds of prey soar overhead, looking for a meal of those same lizards. Trees dot the landscape, their roots shooting deep for underground water, while kangaroos and emus lounge lazily in their shade. Although the complex ecosystem of the Outback is not readily apparent, it is completely fascinating. And hot as hell.

Enjoy the Outback Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Outback Videos:
Sunrise at the Rock.
Outback Road Trip.

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