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Mount St. Helens: Volcano Villarrica Scare Revisited

Months have passed since that terrifying November afternoon in Pucon, Chile.  Yet I think of the experience often.  The near misadventure hit home a bit harder after reading about the Mount St. Helens tragedy on February 15, 2010 (thanks for the heads up, Steve).

My first plane ride was at age 12 during a family trip to America’s Pacific Northwest and Canada.  Mount St. Helens was a highlight for all four of us and left a curiosity of volcanoes with me.  Though the infamous 1980 eruption claimed 57 souls, the majestic stratovolcano remains dangerous.  The lastest victim was 52 year old Joseph Bohlig, an experienced climber.

Volcano Villarrica Summit Volcano Villarrica Sulfuric Smoke What Lies Below?  Glad To Never Know

Reading about his fatal climb of this Pacific Ring of Fire volcano left me shaken once again. The similarities are numerous. “Boom, it busted off and I saw him clawing for the edge with a startled look on his face, and then he disappeared. I was looking right at him, he was only 10 feet away, then he just disappeared,” said fellow climber Scott Salkovics. Falling 1,500 feet onto rock and ice, Joseph is presumed to have died from trauma related to the fall, no autopsy required.

To anyone reading this, I beg you to seek proper advice before setting out on a snow covered volcano. You simply don’t know the thickness of snow/ice whether in a flat area or on a cornice. Joseph was an experienced climber. Ashley and I had two guides. Accidents like these do happen, sometimes with horrific consequences.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.

Read the Mount St. Helens story HERE

Read our original Volcano Villariaca, Chile post HERE

- Greg

3… 2… 1… Action: 440 Foot Bungy Jump

Watch and listen as we recount how New Zealand’s highest bungy jump scared the dickens out of Greg and barely raised Ashley’s heart rate.

Greg is up first and is all nerves:

Gravity proved strong on the way down and now that same force is draining all of Greg’s O+ blood to his cranium:

Ashley’s smile is genuine… she has no fear:

Taking in the private canyon views, Ash reflects during the ride back to the gondola:

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) After coughing up the necessary cash to own our experience on DVD, we regrettably discovered that the disc didn’t contain files that could be copied to computer.  Thus, the video below is taken from this tedious sequence of events: hook up external DVD player, position video camera to computer screen size, record video, save on thumb drive, upload in Internet Cafe to Flickr, post to FOF Blog.  Save yourself these headaches by ensuring that your adventure footage on DVD can in fact be copied onto a computer.  If not, the excursion operator may have an online option.

Elastic As A Lifeline

“Sweet as Bro.”  That’s the carefree Kiwi term tossed around like an American Football.  But our hearts and minds were not carefree at the moment.  Not when hundreds of rubber bands are affixed to your ankles and 700 feet below you lies a shallow creek with jagged rocks ready to impale you.  3…2…1…Jump!

Suspended Gondola View From Trolley Gondola and Trolley

Ash’s Bungy Experience

Reach!This time last year, my friend Jacalu said to me, “Ash, you have no fear.”  If only that were true.  I fear Greg’s gaseous mornings, dinosaurs, and dirty cutlery.  Bungy jumping never made my heart palpatate like dancing to “Stairway to Heaven” in 7th Grade with Evin Beck.  Once New Zealand made our shortlist of must see countries, I longed to throw myself off a Kiwi bridge, platform, or gondola.  That longing transformed quickly to a tight knot in my stomach after watching a brunette gal scream bloody murder as she bolted downward head first.  And this was from the viewing platform affixed to solid rock.  Boarding the cart which ferries thrill seekers to the actual jump gondola added fuel to the fire.  The blustery wind (our 12:00pm slot was rescheduled for 2:30pm due to gusts), the increasing height, and tight quarters were a potent mix!  Once on the gondola, my nerves cleared like a late afternoon thunderstorm.  Watching Greg prepare to jump made my heart race, but once he was back safely, everything was hunky-dory.  Even while being fitted into ankle harnesses and receiving imperative instructions, I was cool, calm, and collected.

Really?  Two Thumbs Up? Cool Customer We Have Liftoff

Shuffling to the plank edge didn’t even create anxiety.  Three seconds later, all bets were off.  Falling, falling, falling.  The rocky stream below and the surrounding canyon rushing towards my blue eyes of terror.  Panic.  Wondering if the bungy rope would ever engage, I experienced something never felt before.  My body had an overwhelming feeling of preparing for a shock.  This seemingly infinite fall was my kryptonite.  But oh so softly, my descent slowed and my confused body joyfully joined the increasingly slackened rope.  Upon realizing the bungy had been engaged, both my hands instinctively were placed on my head and I breathed for the first time.  On the second bungy, I performed the midair situp and released my shackled ankles and flipped around into a comfortable repelling position.  The canyon walls and river below no longer resembled heartless killers.  Back on the platform, my thoughts/feelings were processed and I came to understand that in panic situations like this, your brain lacks the required time to make rational decisions.  Your body simply reacts.  The intense feeling of bungy jumping is wholly different from skydiving because the proximity of the ground makes eventual outcomes happen in an instant.  The experience was unforgettable, but one I plan not to repeat.  When wanting an adrenaline rush at terminal velocity, I will stick to skydiving.  Strange as that might be.

Rapid Descent Gulp Sweet As Bro

Greg’s Bungy Experience

Exhale NowAshley just loves to recount the tears welling up in my eyes when recounting my experience.  Oh how she loves embellishing a tale!  For the record, this is not an accurate account.  However, riding the “trolley” across the abyss below to the gondola suspended between two towering mountains, I was having serious second thoughts.  If AJ Hacket (bungy operator) would have said, “you may opt out, 100% refund, you are a sissy,” who knows what I would have done.  But they didn’t and here I was standing on a floating hulk of steel, my thoughts confused due to the reverberating Top 40 music blaring over tiny Bose speakers.  Order of bungy jumper is done by weight, so Ash watched intently as my harness and ankles were rigged with the elastic rope.  Sitting in the dentist chair, as they called it, I was near panic.  The time had come.  Ankles knotted together, my feet shuffled themselves to the edge of the thin plank.  Foolishly, I took one glance down.  Then applied all focus to the mountain top ahead and listened closely to instructions from the curly haired Jump Master.  Sensing my sincere fright, he turned the screws on me by messing with the countdown and assuring me it had been a long day, that he wasn’t sure the rigging was correct.  Hilarious.

Face of Excitement Do What??? Not One More Step 

3…2…1… My knees bent then sprung.  My shaking arms formed a crippled swan dive as I screamed at the top of lungs.  The most terrified I have ever been.  It had been ninety minutes of nerves since we departed Queenstown and they were dashed in a blink.  Pure terror now pure bliss.  The free feeling was like no other and as I plummeted to the Earth, I didn’t want it to end.  Gently, I came to a stop and slowly bounced toward the origin of the jump.  Clapping, screams of joy, huge smile.  I had conquered my #1 fear (not sure what has replaced it).  On the second recoil the jumper is supposed to release their ankle harness and flip around into a seated position. No such luck for me and with every drop of blood rushing to my head, I was pulled back to the gondola, upside down, for what seemed like an eternity.  Back on the jumping platform, I spied Ashley and gave her a smile from ear to ear, my eyes now severely bloodshot.  Once we decided to pursue our dream of traveling the world, bungy jumping in Queenstown was cemented as a must do.  Now twelve months of worry was over.  Way over!

AHHHHHH No Turning Back Ant in the Sky

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Greg – If you have a fear, tackle it head on.  Easier said then done, so I thought.  It was a liberating experience, one that I will draw in the future when needed.
2) Ash – Don’t be intimidated by other jumpers nor let their fears cloud your mind.  Focus on the jump itself, step up to the platform, do not hesitate, then make the leap!  Hesitation is paralyzing, as we saw first hand.

Water Table Claims ‘No Vacancy’

This is the perfect place to retire as a meteorologist.  40% chance of rain, partly cloudy.  This is my forecast for the next 365 days, tune in next year.  In fact, the South Island’s West Coast is lashed with rain almost year round at a predictable rate. 

Detour Ahead Swelled River  Caution

40%?  Try 72+ hours of straight precipitation.  With the unrelenting rain pouring from the gray sky for three days, the Kiwi soil could absorb no more.  The water table claimed ‘no vacancy’ as fields turned to swamps and roads became streams.  At one such washout along the two-lane highway, we watched an ambulance push a helplessly stalled station wagon from a watery grave.  Creek banks failed to corral the onslaught of water as tall trees were reduced to mere shrubs due to the height of the rushing brown tide.  It was a remarkable sight one moment and worrisome the next.  But the merciless clouds above could not care less.

Cape Foulwind Cliffs Cape Foulwind Cape Foulwind Sky

Regardless, we took in the coastline at Cape Foulwind watching seal pups bark and splash.  The Cape is just one of many spots along the coast blessed with staggering cliffs being pounded by the Tasman Sea.  Further South, we directed Bazils onto a deserted beach at Dolomite Point and made a luxurious lunch of ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches.  The sea was angry on this day.  With the wind howling, rain falling horizontally, and waves crashing like the equity market on Black Friday, the spectacle was viewed from our dry campervan bed.  As Ash watched, I dawned my GoLite rain jacket and went in for a closer look at the surf.  Bad idea.  Driving in just boxers as my “go to” shorts dried in the back was not my cup of tea.  Though Ash got a good laugh.  Ha ha. 

Dolomite Point Waves Dolomite Point Dolomite Point Waves and More Waves

Still motoring South, we reached the much talked about Pancake Rocks.  How this geological phenomenon came to be is still unexplained.  Once again, the parkas were deployed.  In addition to the rocks that begged for Mrs. Buttersworth, there are several blowholes that fiercely propel water upwards at high tide.  Sadly, we missed the nature show by a few hours.  It was a quick stop as the weather was unrelenting, particularly the wind.  Wet again.

Pancake Rocks Blowhole Forced Smile, Obviously

Southbound once more, hoping the intensity of the rain hadn’t decimated the Franz Joseph Glacier.  Our pace had slowed considerably because many of the roads developed a phobia of rainwater management.  Having talked with fellow travelers who had experienced both the Kiwi and Argentinian glaciers, our expectations were tempered.  But any glacier is an incredible site and the controversy surrounding these “advancing” masses of ancient ice piqued our interest.  To our delight, the observation point of Franz Joseph was a mere fifteen minute hike through dense forest.  We marveled at the crawling body of ice and watched trekkers the size of ants traverse the jagged surface.  Leaving the car park en route to Fox Glacier, we picked up our first of many hitchhikers, none of which turned out to be calculating killers.

Franz Josef Glacier Glacial River Franz Josef Glacier

If Finnish Chris and I were having a wet t-shirt contest, he won hands down.  After hiking New Zealand’s Southern Alps for four days, we should have wrung him out and created a profitable bottled water business.  Ash even offered Chris one of her prized cookies from the Makana Chocolate Factory.  Once again, the point of observation was a quick walk.  Though the lion’s share of Fox Glacier is obstructed due to a pesky mountain, one can still admire its beauty.  Different from Franz Joseph, Fox Glacier has a wide glacial stream that captured out attention.  Its wild nature keeps the National Park staff busy as it changes path frequently and landslides only frustrate the situation.  The cement colored water carried large chunks of ice downstream while smooth rocks fought to hold on.

Glacial Ice River Ashley's Pseudo Engagement Ring Cold As Ice  

Ash thought better of my idea to preserve a piece of glacial ice in Bazils’ fridge and with that we drove to New Zealand’s most photographed inland body of water, Lake Matheson.  Has the rain been mentioned?  The hiking around this rather small lake was sensational, but Mother Nature ruined any hope of snow-capped mountain reflections on the still water.  I was bummed and fed up with the rain, though no amount of complaining would usher in blue clear skies.

Lake Matheson Hike Lake Matheson... Supposed to Have Sweet Reflection Sad Face

So my daily forecast of 40% chance of showers would have suffered under the actual conditions.  It seems meteorology won’t pave our way into the golden years. 

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Having had an unforgettable journey around the incredible glaciers of Argentina Patagonia (,, we opted to save money and not take a trek onto Franz Joseph or Fox Glaciers.  In our judgment, most glacier day-trips are similar and unless a lengthy period of time has passed since your last icy adventure, your money is better spent elsewhere.
2) When driving over a section of road turned stream be sure to turn off your automobile’s HVAC.  The air intake pipe associated with this system can suck in water thereby flooding your engine and drowning your budget.  This lesson courtesy of our friend, The Dog, who flooded his family’s BMW convertible while crossing an inundated dip in Cincinnati.

Farewell North, Hello South

All Aboard Cook Strait Cruising Cook Strait

2,000 kilometers were logged as we explored the North Island along beaches, muddy dirt roads, asphalt, and green pastures. Next was the vehicle bay of the 450 foot Bluebridge Ferry. Ash and I both fancied driving the campervan onto a boat, that was until we engaged the parking break, stepped onto the metal deck and took in wafts of stale urine. Once comfortable in the passenger area, we settled in for the three hour ride across the Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island. Though the rain and clouds were persistent, the scenery was worth the price of admission.

Framingham PrisonFleece sleeves covering our noses, we fired up Bazils and drove down the steel ferry plank onto the South Island. One quick look at our trusty atlas and we were off to Marlborough wine country. Having started New Zealand’s booming wine exporting industry, the area is known for Sauvignon Blanc. The region’s capital, Blenheim, is flanked by numerous vineyards so we started with one of New Zealand’s largest exporters, Cloud Bay. The grounds and tasting room were top notch, but the wine… not so much. Framingham’s grape goodness made up for the previous winery’s shortcomings. The wine cellar was reminiscent of a medieval dungeon, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Last wine stop was Bladen, voted Marlborough’s #1 cellar door. The charming tasting room that adjoined the family’s humble abode was surrounded by blossoming vines. Twas a blissful setting to whet our pallets once more. Before embarking on our jaunt up the South Island’s Northwest coast, we feasted on every imaginable creation at Makana Chocolate Factory.

Marlborough Wine Country Cloudy Bay Vineyard Cloudy Bay Vineyard Grounds

Golden Bay, the Northern tip culminating with the world’s longest sandbar at Farewell Spit, is a scenic drive with few vehicles navigating the hilly and twisty terrain. After an hour of seemingly endless uphill hairpins, it was down the equally steep backside of the mountain towards Able Tasman National Park. In the distance was billowing white smoke. Somehow amongst the verdant green hillside, a small fire had broken out that threatened nearby homes. After a long day of driving, we settled into a campsite on Parapara Beach. Wine glasses in hand, we strolled along the sand and rock as the sun turned the blue sky into a beautiful array of pinks and purples. A nightcap was had around a child’s abandoned campfire.

Golden Bay Fire on the Hillside Parapara Beach Sunset

With a warm cup of Joe providing wind for our sails, it was off to Te Waikoropupu (Pupu Springs) early the next morning. The remarkable springs known for the clear water holds spiritual significance to the Maori People. They used the pure water to bless departing and returning travelers, thus the history of the spring struck a chord. Besides the spiritual importance, the water holds the world record for fresh water visibility: 207 feet. If that wasn’t impressive enough, this clarity is achieved while water is discharged from underground caverns at a rate of 3,000 gallons per second, enough to fill Ashley’s coveted bathtub 40 times. On such a sunny day, the white sand bottom of the eight springs magnificently reflected blues and greens. A magical place.

Pupu Springs Pupu Springs Water Clarity Pupu Springs

As Bazils headed for the West coast, we hugged the Buller River, New Zealand’s longest stretch of inland water. This expanse of road offered amazing views, yet again. The Buller River meandered alongside the asphalt pavement as it approached the Tasman Sea in Westport. Progress was slow to our destination when we felt compelled to stop every ten minutes to soak in the scenery. At every turn, we collectively gasped at how picturesque this country can be whether sunny or dumping rain (more on that in the next blog entry).

Buller River Buller River Beng Buller River

Pulling into Westport as the skies opened up, it was clear this day was not meant for hiking. Anxious to be relieved from our tight quarters in Bazils, the sage advice of a local was sought. Next thing we know, the sweet smell of barley and hops was in the air. Touring New Zealand’s oldest craft beer maker, Monteith’s, was a rewarding experience. Our friendly Kiwi guide showed us the thirteen steps to produce what we hoped were delicious suds. Thankfully, the tour climaxed at the brewery bar where the sampling of eight varieties took place. Jackpot. Ash had a hard time keeping up with myself and four other beer aficionados as the tasting amounts were hefty. Once through the tedious process of taste testing, one by one we found our way behind the bar and poured our favorite pint. Ash loved the Cider and I preferred Monteith’s Black. What better way to finish a brewery tour than some fish and chips? Unwrapping the Westport News, our fingers now black from ink, we dug into the local catch, salted to perfection.

Monteith's Brewery Monteith's Brewery Tour Monteith's Brewery Tasting

Hello South Island.

- Greg and Ash

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) There are two ferry companies operating the Cook Strait: Bluebridge and Interislander. Bluebridge is generally cheaper. Regardless of the operator, booking early will save money, but reduce your flexibility. You must pay for each person (about $35) in addition to a vehicle (about $225 for a 22 foot campervan) if you have one. Don’t be duped by campervan rental companies offering you a discount on the Cook Strait, purchase directly with the ferry operator.
2) When checking into a campground in the evening, inquire if there is a late arrival price. In towns where you have multiple options, some Holiday Parks will offer a reduced rate assuming they have spots to fill.

3…2…1… Action: New Zealand (Part I of II)

The beauty of New Zealand surpassed our expectations.  Of the places visited to date, Argentina and this incredible nation have left a lasting impression.  We hope these videos exhibit the variety of landscapes New Zealand offers.

1) Driving to New Zealand’s tallest Mountain, the majestic Mt. Cook with Lake Pukaki adding sparkle.  Don’t adjust your computer monitor, the shaking is Ash’s nervous habit when I drive.

2) Our favorite campsite of all: Lake Moke outside Queenstown.  The fog, sheep, and windy roads when arriving at night tested our nerves.  But my oh my was the view in the morning worth it! 

3) The rocky North Island coast at sunset along Cape Foulwind.  Greg on entrance vocals, Ash on Canon SX10IS. 

- Greg and Ashley

RTW Photo / Video Gallery

Boh Tea PlantationAshley likes to call Greg “Hideki, her Japanese Tourist.” This loving nickname on account of all the photos he takes. Perhaps she is correct… it has been five months and 4,728 Photos and 37 Videos have been uploaded to the Follow Our Footsteps Flickr page. Don’t worry… there are plenty more in the queue! Content is uploaded in fits due to fleeting access to Internet while on the road.

At the very top of the FOF homepage is a link called “Gallery.” Click that and you will be taken to a custom webpage with four tabs from which to choose.

1) Photostream: these are the latest photos that have been uploaded to Flickr. They are not sorted.
2) Photosets: arranged alphabetically by country name, you may choose sets of photos from particular areas of each nation.
3) Collections: arranged alphabetically by country name, a mosaic of 12 photos is displayed with a short description of where the photos originate. Clicking on the picture arrangement will allow you to choose particular Photosets to view.
4) Interesting: if you can explain the rhyme or reason on this tab, be sure to let us know. Best we can tell, it is a random assortment of 1000s of photos.

Of course, you may also access the FOF Flickr page (and see full-sized images) by clicking on photos within blog posts.

We hope everyone is doing well and you enjoy the amateur photography.

- Ashley and Greg (aka Hideki)

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Uploading photos / video can be time intensive.  Once you have content to upload to your online storage provider (Flickr, Kodak), place it on a Thumb Drive.  Carry this small hard drive in your pocket and as you visit Internet Cafes, plug the small devise in the USB port and upload it as you can.

2) When you come across hostels / hotels with Internet included, use this opportunity to upload large files like video.  We like to let our netbook run at night to process lots of content.

3) When your memory card(s) are full, be sure to back them up.  DVDs are your best bet because they hold ample media and are light enough to send home economically.  If you are carrying a laptop / netbook, back up pictures there too.

Wine Cellar On Wheels

Our campervan lacked a theme.  Sure, she had a rad name: Bazils.  But at the end of the day, she was an ordinary home on wheels.  She wanted an identity.  Enter wine connoisseur, snob, and gulper: Ashley Miller.

Martinborough Fields of GrapesSeven days on the North Island went by in a flash and too many kilometers were logged.  A day with absolutely no driving was in order and Ash found just the spot: Martinborough.  This inviting municipality is located just outside Wellington where the North Island terminates.  A peculiar component and one of Ashley’s favorite past times drew us to this quaint town.  The avenues are named after places the founder had visited including some US States.  Oh, and there are numerous vineyards.  As my buddy Can Can wrote me via electronic mail, it seems our destinations all have something in common… wine.  Ashley’s purple teeth certainly verify this fact.  With Ashley foaming at the mouth, Bazils stopped short of a fence abutting a polo field and we hit the pavement after quick showers… it had been a few days!

The Wine Cellar on WheelsBe it Napa, California or Mendoza, Argentina, wine producing areas share a common problem: one must drive or ride bicycles because of the distance between cellar doors.  Each mode of transportation presents its own problems like budgetary constraints, DUI, and safety.  Ahhh, the shoe-string-express cures all ills!  A handy “Wine Tour” brochure provided a colorful map and an ambitious assault plan on four wineries was created.  The first battlefield was cleverly named Martinborough Vineyard, but the grape juice was anything but bland.  Despite me pointing out that Bazils was quickly becoming a wine cellar on wheels due to tastings a few days prior, Ash couldn’t leave without their 2008 Te Tera Pinot Noir.  Let it be said: we already had five bottles of vino on board.

We Should Have Just Purchased The Barrel Martinborough Vineyard Martinborough Vineyard Flowers

Not needing a designated driver (Ash refused to drive Bazils, so this was a moot point), we tasted ten wines at Margraine.  Starting with champagne and ending with port, our taste buds were on a runaway train.  At this point, we were hoping the vineyard name was not indicative of our general health in the morning.  During the tasting, several Europeans and the wine provider herself started ganging up on us two Americans, saying we as a nation don’t enjoy laughing at ourselves.  Never before had I thought Jeff Foxworthy would be helpful when defending America’s reputation.  Boy did he suffice.  Our heads held high, we departed with a Pinot Rose.  Ash insisted this one would be consumed on a Fijian beach.

Ata Rangi Vineyard Rose Bush Ata Rangi Vineyard Vines Ata Rangi Pillow Top Mattress  

A leisurely stroll down one of Martinborough’s rustic streets and we arrived at Ata Rangi, one of the original cellar doors in this simple town.  Walking up the drive to the vineyard was sensational with wildflowers blooming and rose bushes marking the start of each row of grapevines.  Interestingly, wine producers plant rose bushes here to protect the fruit because if disease begins to spread, the beautiful flower will show signs first.  Once the distracting environment released us, six wines met our awaiting pallets.  Once again, it was hard for Ashley to simply walk away.  Lest the two previously purchased bottles were getting lonely, a 2007 Celebre variety provided some company. 

Vynfield On The MoveAlready impressed with the quality of wine produced in this picturesque region of New Zealand, the best vineyard was the finale.  Again, the approaching walk was a delight with horses and an eternity of grapevines.  Vynfield was situated at the foot of rolling green hills and a cream colored home looked incredibly inviting.  Before imbibing on more fruit goodness, we learned how the domicile came to be.  Similar to how Ashley’s parents created their home in Kansas, the house was moved in separate pieces from the country and reassembled at its present location.  Quite amazing really.  Wanting to enjoy the pleasant aesthetics, we chose to drink from flights outside in the garden area.  Perhaps all the wine and fresh air had gone to my head, because this time it was yours truly that wanted the 2007 Pinot Noir Reserve.  It was a real treat on Christmas Day in the South Pacific.

Vynfield Vineyard Vynfield Vineyard - Wine Flights Vynfield Vineyard Grapevines

Four bottles of wine to add to our growing collection… that was enough for one day.  So we headed into town to find some street signs.  That is what you do after wine tasting, of course.  This city boy from Cincinnati, Ohio and country gal from Claflin, Kansas must be meant for each other.  Low and behold, the streets of Ohio and Kansas intersected!  Ash was so excited that she climbed on top of the neighboring white picket fence to get her petite body under the KS sign.  Not wanting to be imprisoned for loitering, our time beneath the street signs was limited to ten minutes. 

Intersection of Love O H... I O We Aren't In Kansas Anymore

With bag ‘o wine in tow, we joyfully meandered back to Bazils where Ash cooked green pepper burgers and pasta for dinner.  One guess what she served to drink. 

- Greg and Ash    

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Most vineyards in Martinborough charge a fair price of $5 NZ per person to taste their wine.  However, they will waive that fee if you purchase a bottle.  Thus, that $17 NZ vintage doesn’t seem so expensive when you count your tasting fee.  All but one winery we visited waived both of our tasting fees with a purchase.  Thus, a $7 NZ bottle of wine from the cellar door is dang good. 
2) We purchased ten bottles of wine while in New Zealand.  It is that good.  But the ones we drank in Fiji or later in New Zealand developed a slight vinegar taste as a result of storing them in a hot campervan.  If cruising around with wine in a vehicle for an extended period of time, find a cool/dark place to house them. 
3) New Zealand’s most popular wine region is Blenheim on the South Island.  While the product there is good (we purchased three bottles… put the wallet away Ashley), we both prefer Martinborough not only for the quality of wine, but the layout as well.

Middle Earth

Hobbits reside inside rolling green hills.  That is a fact not worth disputing.  Frodo Baggins grew up in an area that Ashley describes as “perfect, a place only found in my dreams.”  But the incredible setting for The Lord of the Rings and Ash’s imaginative slumber is oh so real.  And underneath New Zealand’s picturesque countryside is a whole other world.  A Lost World.

NZ Countryside Fence and Beyond NZ Countryside with Cattle   

Mt. RuapehuAfter spending a few days exploring the North Island’s northern coasts it was high time to discover the interior.  As our credit card statement racked up petrol line items the further south we motored, the more beautiful the hills became.  Sheep, cows, and hairs dotted the green vastness surrounding our stress-free souls.  Near Lake Taupo in the North Island’s geographic center, Mount Ruapehu provided a splendid backdrop at over 9,100 feet tall.  I learned my lesson in Chile… no more climbing active volcanoes. From higher elevations, one could see ponds intersecting wire fences and clusters of trees where farm animals would seek refuge from the sun above.  The kilometers indicated southbound progress was being made, but the incredible beauty was static.  If we were amazed by the rolling surface, a surprise was waiting just below. 

Drinking Vino in BazilsUpon reaching the tiny Kiwi town of Waitomo, the fact finding mission began.  So many things to do below the Earth’s crust, but so little time and money.  Three stops and three different recommendations of how to enjoy the limestone caves and underwater rivers.  What is better than a human being’s personal suggestion?  Video evidence.  Upon seeing the Lost World excursion with our own eyes, we ponied up the cash and rebuffed the plethora of other options like black water rafting (sounds better than it actually is).  The friendly staff of Waitomo Adventures even offered us their toilets and parking lot for the night.  That was our backup plan if we didn’t locate a camping spot in the hills.  Locate we did!  With just the lush hillside, an occasional cow, and sprinkling rain providing company, Ash and I drank merlot and ate dinner with Bazils’ hatch ajar.  Early to bed, early to rise.

Boots Hanging Ten LONG Way Down

With a cup of New Zealand’s cheapest coffee in hand from Bazils’ gas stove, we arrived at Waitomo Adventures and met a family of six from Brisbane, Australia that would round out our excursion group.  Ash couldn’t help but smile as this young family was reminiscent of her’s back home in Kansas.  In particular, the fearless eleven year-old boy whose personality had a striking likeness to Ashley’s kid brother, Bryce.  The eight of us boarded the 4×4 van and drove through a rather ordinary looking farm.  Fitting for boots, harness, and helmet was quick and it was first time we heard the oh so popular Kiwi  phrase: sweet as bro.  The gentleman guide directed this at Ashley after he fitted her harness and I thought he added an extra “s” to “as.”  Some hearty laughs and a short time later we all plodded into the green field until reaching a thick patch of trees.  Then down some slippery rock steps until a steel platform came into view hugging the side of an immensely deep limestone sinkhole. 

Collared Greens Angels From Heaven Abseiling

One by one we were locked into the abseil device and leaned out over the abyss below.  With 330+ feet between us and the mossy bottom, our inhibitions were relaxed and down we went.  Surprisingly, there is nothing to stop us from sliding off the end of the rope besides the weight of the rope itself.  Thus, the top portion was slow going while we had to wrap out feet around the rope length towards the bottom to create additional friction.  The thirty minute repel was incredible.  Once it was clear a short plunge to our death was not inevitable, the ferns and vines clinging to the sinkhole walls presented themselves.  To be suspended high above another world below and every color of green in our periphery was a unique experience to be certain.  Within 100 feet of the now evident river below, the plants gave way to a bald limestone cave that reached far into the darkness.  As if Waitomo Adventures had done this before, the rope length ended where the cave’s floor began.  Feet planted firmly back on rock, the roof of the limestone fortress looked as if one thousand Suns shown through a small tear in the night sky.

Tear in the Night Sky Mossy Beam Me Up

GlowwormsHelmet lights switched to the “on” position, the eight spelunkers trekked over the limestone boulders that once formed the cave’s ceiling.  The underground river splashed along over our right shoulders as we moved deeper into the cave, natural light giving way to darkness.  The skylight provided from the sinkhole entrance made for some interesting silhouette photos.  Careful with each step, we huddled together under a small overhang and shuttered our headlamps.  As our eyes adjusted to the light deprived environment, tiny blue specks of light began to appear.  Glowworms!  They formed constellations against the rock exterior from which they hung.  Silently watching, twenty minutes surely passed before it was time to leave.  But how the heck do you get out of a cave you just abseiled into without a walking exit? 

Mysterious... Ashley Ladder of Death Exit At Last!

Up a 100+ foot slippery ladder is how.  Ash and I were number five and six to climb, respectively.  The second of two guides went up fourth, but not before showing us how to lock our harness into the safety rope.  We waited in the dampness while the others climbed.  When other climbers would reach the top, they would lower the rope back down.  “Splat.” That is the noise a rope makes when it hits a cave floor and is ready to be utilized.  Adding to the nerve racking experience, the mud and dampness created a formidable lubricant on the ladder rungs.  Every 20 feet or so the metal structure was fastened to the limestone wall, just enough space to let the ladder sway and put a jolt into your heart.  Finally at the top, we walked a bit further in the cavern until a slightly graded path provided an exit from the Lost World.     

As they say: true beauty is what lies within, it is not what is on the outside that matters.  But it doesn’t hurt to have both.

- Greg and Ash    

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Taking excursions where your own digital camera is disallowed can be pricey and frustrating. If you really want pictures, they have you in a pinch to purchase from the tour operator.  Due to the dampness and abseil harness, cameras were disallowed on the Lost World.  However, before we booked the trip we negotiated the inclusion of all photographs on one DVD.  This saved us in excess of $80.
2) Men: when doing anything that requires a harness, spend as much time necessary to get your “junk” situated.  Nothing ruins a good time like being squeezed by a vice.

Roadtripping with My Loves…

She was a rare beauty: smooth exterior, reliable, and displaying exquisite features. Love is fickle and I was falling for a nineteen year-old named Bazils… an automobile. Was my heart large enough for two ladies? Time would tell. And Ash was along for the ride.

Auckland Skyline Arriving in Auckland Auckland

However, our three-week adventure discovering New Zealand’s fjords, mountains, and vineyards with Bazils the campervan would have to wait a day. Auckland was our first Kiwi experience and Ashley found this North Island city quite likeable. A couple local pints of beer were consumed in a pub while a driving itinerary was planned. All the while, a loud and very obnoxious man was blabbering about this and that using foul language every other word. It was the first time we encountered the worldwide American stereotype proven accurate. We both apologized to the pub staff declaring that the rude person isn’t typical of USA citizens and the Kiwis agreed. Feeling good about the good folks of New Zealand and excited to hit the road the next day, we strolled home to the hostel and caught some shuteye. Damn you Sir for making America look bad.

Bay of Islands285,000+ kilometers on the odometer, but she was looking good and purred like a kitten. Ash hopped into the shotgun position as I guided the manual transmission Toyota HiAce onto the left hand side of the wet asphalt. Like that, we were headed towards the Bay of Islands region and hoped for dryer weather. We were exhilarated upon arriving at our first destination, but our excitement was tempered with the need to fill the small fridge with groceries. If you would like to see how different Ashley and I can sometimes be, follow us into a supermarket. Ash insists on perusing each isle while my impatience boils over. Anyway, we procured the necessary (and unnecessary) items and found a spot to camp along the road. We woke early and cooked breakfast with the bay providing a pristine backdrop. Next stop was the tip of the North Island: Cape Reinga.

Cape Reinga Light Tower Cape Reinga Cape Reinga Waves Crashing

Only one road connects Cape Reinga and the journey is no short jaunt, but Bazils was fearless. Located 100+ kilometers from the nearest town, we sought the advice of the gas station attendant and he assured us the weather at the Cape would be swell. But as we drove North, the drizzle turned to a steady downpour and the fog grew thick. Pulling into the carpark, it was clear the friendly petrol man should not opt for a career in meteorology. Nonetheless, we hit the footpath and reached Cape Reinga where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet in a raucous manner. Through the dense fog, the crashing sea was plainly audible. Despite not witnessing the grandeur how we imagined, the inclement weather did not deter us from enjoying the moment. Seat belts fastened, we headed South for the Giant Sand Dunes of Te Paki.

Te Paki Giant Sand Dune Meets Rainforest Te Paki Giant Sand Dune Te Paki Vastness

We had no idea New Zealand offered such a unique place. The rainforest literally abuts a barren desert of huge sand dunes then gives way to the Tasman Sea. A bearded man sat on the bumper of a 4×4 vehicle offering rental boogie boards to essentially sled down the golden sand. We declined, but saw revelers in the distance making slow progress up one massive dune. If you have ever walked in sand, you know the difficulty. Now apply a 45 degree slope. On all fours, we climbed Te Paki and finally reached the summit only to realize the dunes stretch for eternity down Ninety Mile Beach. It was as if we were transported to a barren wasteland (like Cleveland, Ohio). Before the delightful descent, we watched the sandboarders leave snake-like markings as they jetted downward. One poor gal made it to the top after fifteen grueling minutes of climbing only to drop her makeshift sled and watch helplessly as it plummeted to the base. The return trip was tremendous as we bounced like astronauts down the fluffy sand towards the surrounding forest.

Te Paki Giant Sand Dune Sandboarders Ash On Her Way Down

With no grand stop on our next day, Bazils treated us to a delightful and relaxing drive along the coast. Initially, Ash and I were bummed about the unrelenting fog, but in the end it made every place look more charming. Cable Bay was empty on such a damp afternoon, so we enjoyed the vista under a tin shed as the droplets rang out above us against the metal roof. Certainly our favorite drive on the North Island was into Doubtless Bay. The lush green forest surrounding the calm water filled with fishing vessels and monohaul schooners was enveloped with a white fog. It seemed the Kiwis were sipping tea on this day because yet again, no one was around. Hugging the forest on one side, the bay on the other, the narrow asphalt road was a bit tricky to navigate especially when the driver was gawking at everything in sight. But Bazils did not want to meet her fate quite yet and kept us from a cool bath in Doubtless Bay.

Cable Bay Doubtless Bay Fog Doubtless Bay

Our love affair was just beginning, but it turns out Bazils is quite the minx. Upon arriving in Christchurch three weeks later, she would go gallivanting with yet another adventuresome individual(s). So I am stuck with the gal from Claflin, Kansas. Happily stuck with the gal from Claflin, Kansas, I mean. Bazils, please don’t forget the time we spent together.

- Greg

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. There are countless way to see New Zealand. There are hop-on/hop-off buses, internal flights to smaller airports, or daytrips from major tourist destinations. As you have read above, some of the best adventures cannot be had within the confines of packaged tours. Having your own automobile opens up more doors than you can walk through. We found the most awe inspiring places not mentioned in any guidebook as a result of having our own four wheels.
  2. Most rental cars or vans are manual transmission outside America. Thus, before embarking on an international trip it is suggested you become acquainted with the “clutch and stick.” You’ll find automatic transmission vehicles for hire, but prepare your billfold for the increased cost.
  3. New Zealand was my first experience driving on the left-hand side of the road. Couple that with changing gears with my left hand and you get a rough first two kilometers. If you find yourself in a similar situation, first get a general sense of where you intend to go then focus on the flow of traffic. Simply following the car directly in front of you will ensure you stay on the proper side. If criticized for poor driving, insist that they drive on the wrong side of the road!

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