Monday, 24 April 2017

Cloud-piercing Peak - Mt. Cook

Mt. Cook is the highest mountain of New Zealand, its Maori name is Aoraki: cloud piercer. And we found out that that was a really appropriate name, because for most of our time there is was hidden in the clouds.

First glance from the shores of Lake Pukaki

Due to several reasons, we had some trouble booking accommodation for our visit to Aoraki. First of all there simply isn't a whole lot of accommodation at Mt. Cook village, especially not when you're travelling on a budget.
The second reason is that we were heading into peak season at the end of November, and we hadn't book far ahead. And the final, and unforeseen, reason was that the Kaikoura earthquake had just happened: many tourists were forced to relocate and alter their itineraries, thus making the rest of the country busier.

Hooker Valley track

In the end we found lodging in Twizel, a town at about one hours drive from Aoraki. Our plan was to drive to Twizel from Dunedin, and then have an afternoon off. After all, we had biked 60km the day before! But when we saw the weather forecast (as always a major factor in New Zealand) we decided to head straight to Aoraki and walk a bit.
That turned out to be a wise choice, because that was the only day that the peak was visible...

The longest swing bridge at the Hooker Valley

That same lovely spring afternoon we walked to Aoraki over the 5km long Hooker Valley Track. This is the busiest track in this area, and with reason. It starts at Mueller Lake and ends at Hooker lake. We walked over three swing bridges, boardwalks and rocky tracks. The landscape is very diverse and rugged, and the temperature fluctuates a lot a due to sunshine, wind and of course the nearby glaciers. 

Boardwalk in the Hooker Valley

Apart from the gorgeous landscape, we were amazed by the shape and movement of the clouds. That sounds a bit (okay a lot!) nerdy, but is really interesting.
Because Aoraki is so tall, it causes major shifts in weather fronts, and creates some really weirdly shaped clouds, that curl and move back and forth. The visitors centre at Mt.Cook Village gave a lot of details on that. The visitors centre is also the go-to place for advise on which walks are open, safe and feasible: not many during our visit!

Hooker River

The Hooker Track was simply a lovely walk, and very manageable, even with our already sore legs...
The Hooker River runs next to the track, and the track ends at Hooker Glacier's moraine lake.
We sat down at the lake shore, watching melt water trickle from the glacier front. In the lake were some huge chucks of ice.

Hooker Glacier's moraine lake at the end of the track

This micro climate has some very specific flora and fauna, like the Mt Cook buttercup: a giant buttercup that was blossoming all over the track. unfortunately we didn't see any kea, tahr or moreporks on our walk. 
The next day we came back and it was a different world all together: An icy wind, mist and a constant drizzle. Aoraki and the Mueller Glacier were well hidden from sight.
We decided to do the short walk to the Tasman Glacier Lake anyway, but the views were too bad to make any photos.

Mt Cook buttercup

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The red rock - Uluru

When planning a trip to any destination, there are usually a few places on the 'must-do' list. Uluru, or Ayers Rock, is on most Australia lists. And it was on ours, even though it is quite remote. But hey... it's iconic!

Walking around Uluru

We set out from Coober Pedy early morning, heading north. We had intended to drive to Erldunda (Some 400km). But Erldunda is not the most exiting place: it is a roadhouse at the Lasseter Highway turnoff, with a few emus in an enclosure. And since we there at noon, we decided to fill up and drive on.
That day we drove a distance of 750km, arriving at Yulara about half an hour before sunset. The only campsite in the vicinity of Uluru is at Yulara, and it's always busy. We were dishearted to hear they were fully booked that night.... 
Fortunately they do have an overflow field, where we could park for a night! A lot cheaper than the actual campground, but no electricity. Perfect!  

Flowers at Uluru's base

That first night we were too tired to get back in the car and actual go to Uluru, so we stayed at the village. Yulara is a village that is solely created to regulate tourism. It's just some hotels, a campsite, restaurants, shops and a petrol station in the middle of the desert, very artificial. But having said that, they have made a real effort to minimise scarring on its surroundings.
The efforts that stood out most for me: No building is higher than the surrounding sand dunes so they blend in from a distance (you don't actually see Yulara until you're there) and there is minimal lighting at night. In the middle of the village is the highest dune, planet with local species, from where you can stare at Uluru some 20km away. The lack of lighting can be annoying when you have to walk to an amenity block in the dark, but certainly ensures that you can enjoy some serious star gazing. 

Sun on stone

The next day we got up (too) late, and after breakfast, we drove to the National Park. We started at the visitor information centre, to learn a bit about the indigenous people's background, the Dreamtime and history of the area. A highly recommended visit.
By the time we were ready for a walk, it was almost eleven.... not a sensible time for a walk in the desert. But since it was winter, we decided to go ahead.

Uluru's surface has many more holes than I expected

You are still allowed to climb Uluru, but are requested not to, something I personally think you ought to respect. So we did the 10km base walk around it instead. An easy walk on level surface, with no shade. At all. I do not want to know what that's like in summer!
The base walk circles Uluru, so you see its different sides, and we were surprise how varied its surface is.

Grey-headed honeyeater at Mititjulu waterhole

Uluru is seen as a visible reminder of Dreamtime tales, and as such, some parts are not to be photographed. Most of these areas have informative signs, telling you about the remnants of a particular tale visible on the surface.
One of my favourite areas was the Mutitjuli waterhole at the south side. We sat there for a good while, and watched the wildlife. Brightly coloured blue and red dragonflies, brown-red butterflies and the inquisitive grey-headed honeyeater.
It was a very tranquil place. We were amazed when we saw a video that was shot 6months later, that showed massive waterfalls at this exact spot!

Uluru Base walk

That evening we returned to the park to watch the sun set over Uluru. This is what is features in all the brochures! It was very busy. Rows and rows of campervans. We had one of the last parking spots, and enjoyed nibbles and a drink while we waited comfortably, sat in the back of our van. It was a pretty sunset, though it didn't feel like all it's made up to be.
Until I saw my photos. They make it look amazing!
On our way back we drove under the light of the moon. It was full a moon that evening, and it must've been close, because it looked very big.

Classic Uluru sunset

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Hazy Haleakala - Maui

We've been back home now for a few weeks. Actually... almost a month already! I've already been back at work for 3 weeks.
But what a trip has it been! we've had a wonderful time, met lovely people, and made amazing memories.

Sunrise at the top carpark

Some of these memories were from our trip to the Haleakala Crater on Maui, Hawaii. When we decided we would stop on Hawaii on our trip home, we looked into places would like to visit.
The sunrise Haleakala Crater is on most lists, and came onto ours as well.
We spend three days on Maui, and checking the weather forecasts we decided to give the sunrise a shot in the 2nd day. That was expected to be the day with the clearest skies.

Walking into the crater

We set our alarm for 3am. Sunrise was at 6:15am, and we had to drive to the top of the volcano before that. From where we stayed (at Lahaina) that is a 1,5 to 2-hour drive.
But in the dark, at Hawaii's winding roads, you have to take some delays into account. There was quite some traffic during the drive, but it was a lovely clear night. We saw millions of stars in the sky above, and villages glowing below.
We arrived at the top at 5am, just in time to get the last parking space at the top car park, and decided to nap for another half hour in the car.

Catching the sunlight in the crater

By the time we woke up half an hour later, we were surrounded by fog. We walked to the top, shivering in the cold wind, and watched the clouds roll in over the top.
Just as we had given up on seeing the sun, the clouds parted and we saw it rise.
After that we went back to the car, drove down to the top visitor centre, and ate our sandwiches.

Clouds in the crater 

It was about 8am by now, so we had the whole day ahead of us. What to with all that time?
we wanted to do a hike in the crater, but unfortunately I wasn't feeling too well (I had had a bad cold for a few days). And every sign we saw warned of the dangers of walking at this altitude when you're not fit...

Taking a break

But even from the visitor centre it looked stunning. We decided to take it slow, walk down for an hour or so, and then slowly go up again.
And we did not regret that, it was absolutely stunning! I never knew that just earth, dirt and rocks could be so beautiful.
Every turn we took, showed a new amazing vista. We took it slow, and enjoyed every minute of it.

As the clouds rolled in to the crater at the far end.

When we walked back up we felt how steep it was. It was a lot harder than going down. Of course that had nothing to do with our fitness, it was just the altitude!
Or at least that's the excuse the signs gave us.
As we walked up, the clouds rolled into the crater. By the time we reached the ridge again, it was really foggy. We drove down through the clouds on our way back.

So many shades of grey and red

Friday, 9 December 2016

Of fire and water - Hawaii

We started this trip with a one-way ticket to Cairns, Australia. We had a rough idea what we wanted to do and when, but like to keep our option open. So about halfway we figured, that since we'd fly home a week before Christmas, we might want to book something asap, so we wouldn't end up with very expensive tickets.
We looked at several routes. The most straightforward thing, would be to have a stopover in Asia, and then home from there. But that didn't feel right. What about going in the other direction? After all, New Zealand is so far away, there's no 'detour', and it would be cool to finally do that round-the-world thing. 
As it happened Air NewZealand had a special: to Hawaii. Now that sounded like a plan, and here we are!

City of refuge, Kona

Now to be honest, Hawaii didn't blow us away. That might have something to do with these three things:
  • High expectations.
    There's nothing like high expectations to quickly turn any experience into a deception.
  • The weather.
    We simply ran out of luck with that one. As we arrived we'd hoped that it would clear up, but it didn't. It had been raining in Hilo for 10 consecutive days, and the storm was forcast to linger over the island for another week. Roads were closed due to snowfall and flash floods, tours cancelled and the Hawaiian weather even made it onto the news back home in Europe.
  • Feeling poorly.
    That does change your experience. Flying in, I was coming down with a cold, that lasted a full week. Nauseous, head aches, runny nose, sore throat, overall lethargy, the works. We still did some stuff, but things like going on a proper walk, were just too much for me. We went out every day, but I wasn't enjoying it as much as I know I would have otherwise.
Having said that, we did do some pretty amazing stuf! Like what? Here's some of our highlights.
On day 2 we drove up an active volcano, Kilauea, and watched the lava in the crater splatter and blow. We were told that we were lucky, since quite often the lava isn't visible at all, because its normal level is a lot lower. That night after dinner we went back to the crater and saw the lava in the dark of night which was even more spectacular. Especially because it was a lot quieter that during the day, and we could actually hear the spatter and howling going on. Talk about force of nature...

Kilauea crater

From Kilauea lava still continues to flow down to the sea, the island grows when it solidifies in the water. The hike to the ocean entry point takes approximately 2 hours on way: too much. But we did see the massive steam plume from a distance. Usually there are boats to the entry point, but those didn't go out because of the high winds. We decided to do a short petroglyph walk instead, and that was pretty special too. 

Big steam vent where lava flows into the sea

Now day 3 was definitely a highlight: we had booked a manta ray dive. This was really the reason we went to Big Island. Luckily I only had a sore through and some mild headaches that day, so I could make it (or maybe I just suppressed the rested since it came back with a vengeance the next few days). We headed out of the marina at 3pm, and saw some dolphins on the boat ride to the dive spot. We started with an easy afternoon dive, on which we saw some cool stuff: moray eels, garden eels, a Pacific barracuda, a small turtle, some big crowns of thorns, both yellow and grey trumpetfish, black long-nosed angle fish, very weird lizard fish, and a massive Neptune's cockle. 

Trumpet fish

After 65minutes we surfaced, it was a really nice dive, though not spectacular. Saying that, I think we must consider ourselfs spoiled. Read that final line of the last paragraph again. Seeing all that, and then labelling a dive nothing spectacular. Hmmmm... We might need to abstain from diving until we've got our perspective back. 
But first, it was time for supper. The crew had layed out different wraps and cookies, which we ate while watching the sunset. When it got dark we got a briefing for the main event: the manta night dive. During the briefing we saw the first big manta shadow under the water's surface, the exitement rippled through the crowd.

Lizard fish

The general plane of this dive is that you plunge in, swim to a designated sandy spot, and wait at the bottom for whatever shows up, while pointin your torch over your head. We got a few extra kilos of weight in our BCDs, so we would easily stay put, because the swell had come up even more. To attract the mantas, there would be lights from the surface down, and the bottom up. The mantas feed on zooplankton, and those zooplankton gather in light beams, thus making an easy meal for an intelligent manta.

Me with torch

There were 4 groups of 4 divers, each with their own guide. We were in the second group to descent, and gathered at a spot at about 10m deep. We each had a small torch, but the guides had places bottom and surface lights near our spot, and boy, those lights sure were bright. It kind of felt like a circus arena. But within seconds we saw our first manta ray. What a sight! She flew over our head into the beam, summer salting on her way back for a second helping. We could look right into her open mouth, seeing the gills on the insides. Spectacular.

We huddled together trying to stay stable in the swell. That was tricky. Our guides had told us to pick up one of the boulders strewn around if we had trouble. I flinched at the thought of picking up a rock, bare-handed even, but couldn't think of another option, so I did it anyway.
With my new found stability I could really enjoy the show in front of me. Thousands of silver fish swam in vertical shoals around us. A manta with a wingspan of 2.5-3meters flew into the light, and disappeared again into darkness like a ghost. During feeding it came so close that it actually brushed our heads. I sometimes simply forgot to breath.

Manta ray up close

After about 50minutes our dive guide decided our time was up, and we needed to go back to the boat. Getting up the first thing I saw was a rock fish, right next to where we had been sitting. These are highly venomous, and one of the reasons you do not pick up rocks! 
Another reason are the sea urchins that I suddenly noticed all around. We swam towards the boat, watching some nocturnal fish hunting. On the boat we had a nice hot shower and instant cocoa with biscotti. But who cares about that, we just saw a manta ray up close, feeding, for almost an hour!

Another great experience was going up the Haleakala Volcano on Maui. Seeing the sunrise from the summit is supposed to be spectacular, so on our list. We spent 3 nights on Maui, and had looked online for the best day to do this. Day 6 looked promising. We got up at 3am to make the 2hour drive from Lahaina to the summit, some 3000meters higher. As we drove up the volcano, it was a lovely clear night. The stars were very visible in the sky, and the towns below glowed in the dark. 
We were just in time for one of the last spots at the parking lot, when we arrived at 5am. It was close to freezing when we stepped out, so we decided to have a nap in the car for the hour we had to wait. As we woke again at 6am the clouds were drifting in... So unfortunately no clear sky sunrise for us, but it turned out to be impressive nonetheless. 

Haleakala sunrise

After an hour or so, we went back to the car and had breakfast. We had planned to do a hike down the crater today, but I really didn't feel very fit. But didn't want to miss out either. We figured we would just slowly start to descent, take many breaks, and after an hour or so would start walking up again. It was only 8am and we had the rest of the day to do this. That turned out to be a very good plan. What a magnificent landscape...


The track was easy, but reasonably steep. And every turn revealed different perspectives and more colours. 
After slowly making our way up again, we drove back down around noon. And that's when my problems began... My ears simply would not equalise. When this happens while diving, I go up again, but we could hardly stay on the volcano. We did stop for a while, and after some time I was able to 'pop' them. But it hurt. And I heard sound I've never heard before, that was unnerving. 
I've always had pressure-sensitive ears, and I figure I must've put them through a bit too much. These last 6 days: 4 flights, 2 scuba dives and 3 drives up over 2500m. And all while having a cold. To make matters worse, my next flight is in two days. A trip to the pharmacy provided a fairly aggressive nose spray, let's hope that does the trick.

Keanae peninsula on the road to Hana

On day 7, our last day on Hawaii, we (more accurately Rodie) drove the road to Hana. A narrow, winding road with many one-lane bridges. Though not nearly as narrow as the road on the north east coast we drove on day 5. The views were really nice, the waterfalls pretty and the greenery spectacular at places. Honestly I did not think it was all that it's hyped to be. But Rodie really liked it, and we usually like the same type of things, so I blame my stuffy head for that. In retrospect I maybe should've stayed in bed. But then again, I'm not in Hawaii that often, so wanted to do as much as I could. 
Day 8, we're flying to San Francisco, fingers crossed that the ears make it in one peace too!

Oh and we've lost our cord to get photos from my camera and upload them, so this post will be edited sometime in the near future with more photos...

Monday, 28 November 2016

Milford Sound - Fiordland

We set out at 7:15 am for a cruise on the Milford Sound. Milford is one of New Zealand's famous fiords. We were staying at Te Anau, about 2-2,5hours driving from the Milford jetty. And we had booked a cruise for 9:45 cruise opting to beat the crowds to it. The weather looked unexpectedly lovely and sunny that morning.

The famous Mitre Peak, hidden in the clouds

But that didn't last very long. As we drove north, into the mountains, the road became quickly very misty and wet. By the time we came out of the Milford tunnel it was proper drizzling weather. We'll never wonder again why the West Coast is commonly referred to as Wet Coast
We're told the annual rainfall in the Milford Sound is almost 7meters! One of the wettest inhabited places on earth... About 182 rainy days a year, so we had about 50-50 chance, not taking into account that spring is the rainy season,

A few of the thousands of waterfalls 

The upside of all that rain? The gorgeous waterfalls of course! Because the rock doesn't retain any water, many waterfalls will stop 30 minutes after the rain ceases. We saw plenty of waterfalls, and most were absolutely pumping! 
Because the fiord walls are very steep, both above and under water, the boats can get right up to the walls. Sometimes touching the trees there, and once underneath a waterfall! 

Nature's hydro power

I sat inside for a fair bit of the trip, and suddenly I saw two dolphins next to the boat, very cool. Unfortunate they were gone before I could alert Rodie, who stood outside on the bow. 
The boat navigated the fiord right up to the border of the Tasman Sea, and there we could see another surprise: penguins! 

Can you spot the penguin?

Our guide told us these were yellow-eyed penguins, one of the rarest species on earth. We were delighted that we had our binoculars on us, cause it was hard to spot these birds from far off (the cruise boats luckily aren't allowed to disturb them). As we watched we saw two penguins. Clumsily hopping on the rocks on their bulbous pink feet. The bright yellow colour next to their eyes was very well visible too.

Penguin in the water

We watched as the bird made it to the water, and plunged in. Once in they look like a semi-sunken duck. We were quite excited to see one of these very rare penguins. The only thing is... 
A few days later we went to a dedicated viewing hide to watch yellow-eyed penguins and were (again) lucky enough to see them. And they definitely looked different! The pink feet were similar, but the yellow markings not. After some googling we believe we saw yellow-crested (Fiordland) penguins at Milford Sound. 


Sun at last

As we reach the Tasman Sea we distinguished a tiny patch of blue in the clouds, the sun had decided to come out and joins us. As we headed back to the jetty, we saw some other boats heading out. Even though we knew the surrounding cliffs were high, seeing the bits being dwarfed by them really gave some perspective to it all. 

 Seal rock

On our way out we has passed a rock strewn with seals on the south side, and now we passed another one on the north side: imaginatively named Seal Rock. Another batchelor fur seal hangout. 
I had never imagined how frequently we would see these animals!

Fur seal on display

At noon we were back at the jetty. We drove back to Te Anau, but now had time for some stops on the way. We stopped at The Chasm. A gorgeous short walk, with some impressive river views. And the place where we spotted our first Kea
Other good stops were Knobs Flat, the Mirror Lakes and Te Anau Downs.

Mirror Lakes






Sunday, 27 November 2016

The search for sea lions - Victory Beach

New Zealand is home to much wildlife, and we have seen quite a lot of it! But, always looking for more, we really wanted to see some sea lions. We have seen many, many fur seals, and though they are super cute we haven't seen even one sea lion. (Although I've recently read that fur seals are actually misnamed sea lions, their external ears being proof of that.)
Somehow the need to see a sea lion turned into our self imposed quest...

Tussock dotted farmland


During our tour at the Albatross Centre, we eagerly asked our guide if she knew where it was most likely to see sea lions on the Otago Peninsula, since we had visited quite a few beaches already. She first advised Allan's Beach, where we look that morning, and if not there, give Victory Beach a try. We drove there as soon as we finished the Albatross tour.


En route to Victory Beach

From the carpark it was about 40 min walk to the beach. As usual in New Zealand, the walk itself was really pretty. First through farmland, then through dunes overflowing with flax and yellow lupin. The flax you see everywhere in New Zealand, but we haven't seen this much lupin before. 
Then we suddenly stumbled upon the beach. 

New Zealand flax

We intensely looked in both directions, but couldn't see anything seal or sea lion like. But, having learned from our previous experiences, we decided to walk north anyway. It's so hard to spot these animals, if you don't know where to look.

Victory Beach


And that was proven once again. After walking a few minutes, we saw something lying at the beach. Was it one of those kelp heaps? It wasn't moving for sure, but we walked towards it anyway. 
Coming closer we saw that it actual was an animal. But was it still alive? Her hind flippers and eyes were covered in flies... 

Is it alive?

As we closed in, she did move and it was definitely a sea lion! It didn't like us being too close and showed us her impressive set of teeth. All good. We kept some distance.
We still felt she wasn't the healthiest looking specimen, but later learned that sea lions are often covered in flies when lying at the beach. 

Look at those teeth!

We continued our walk, but didn't encounter any more sea lions. At the end of the beach, on the rocky outcrops were however a dozen or so fur seals. And some oystercatchers, and we did see some very freshly made penguins tracks. The walkers we talked to a few minutes before told us they saw two yellow-eyed penguins coming out of the water, but we just missed them...

Fur seal coming ashore

We walked back, and 'our' sea lion was still there. At the same spot, but her head was now towards the sea instead of the dunes, and she was sound asleep. 
She couldn't be bothered with us being near this time. 

Sleeping beauty

We walked back the same way we came. Today we saw albatrosses, red-billed gulls with chicks, oystercatchers, fur seals, white-faced herons, paradise shell ducks, pied stilts, and a sea lion. Not a bad day at all!
Sea lion at Victory Beach


Saturday, 26 November 2016

Kea crazy - Fiordland

I think it's time for a single animal dedicated post again. Why? Well quite frankly because I can't choose which photos to post.... And having a Milford Sound post with 8 pictures of Kea and 4 of the sound would be a bit weird wouldn't it?

Our first kea

So what is a Kea? An alpine parrot! Endemic to New Zealand, and not too common since it was hunted to near extinction. You might wonder why, could it be that tasty? Or may be as stupid as a dodo?

Sitting pretty

None of the above, it's actually one of the more intelligent birds, but it does occasionally kill sheep! 
It's alpine habitat means it needs high caloric food to survive, like (animal) fat. To get that, some kea would tear open a sheep's backside and feed on its fatty layers. And most sheep apparently die as a result of that treatment.
Rainy kea

What do you of that that massive beak now? 
Not very surprisingly this behaviour led farmers to kill any kea they'd lay eyes on. There was even a bounty for every kea upper beak handed in. Nowadays kea are a protected species, though still occasionally (illegally) hunted. 

Windy kea

Now we've read on many sites that your bound to spot a kea when you stop anywhere in the Southern Alps. Kea are very opportunistic, and have learned that humans provide a generous and steady source of food, so they hang out at alpine viewing points and parking lots. 
Though they also like to destroy rubber window seals and windscreen wipers, and quite a few warnings are posted for that.
But we had been in the Alps for days and hadn't seen any. It was getting to the point that we feared we might not see any.

Up to no good kea

Luckily that change when we drive back form Milford Sound. At each stop we made, we saw one or multiple kea. And none of them very shy. They'd walk right up to us and our car, to see if there was anything interesting. We almost had an extra passenger. 
But looking at them walking around they do not look very intelligent. But I don't think any walking bird looks smart, they've got wings for a reason!
And kea have pretty wings too. Though they are an olive brown green hue when walking, once they take flight you see the brilliant orange on the bottom of their wings. But you'll have to google to see a picture of that. 

Fluffy kea