Sunday, January 25, 2009

Road trip around New Zealand

Arriving in New Zealand brings a touch of culture shock coming from Asia. Everyone speaks English, everything is more expensive, and you can't take a bus everywhere you would like to go. We showed up in Auckland, and after dusting off the wear and tear of overland travel of the previous week, set out to purchase a vehicle to cart us around New Zealand's north and south islands.

Its strange how in some places, there is just a certain way things are done, and in New Zealand, there is a burgeoning backpacker culture where many travelers either rent or even buy a campervan. Buying a car is surprisingly easy as far as the paperwork goes, and after two days of exhaustive searching and filling out a few forms at the post office, we were the prowd owners of a 1979 Toyota Hiace van. The van has a pop-up top that we put up when camping which allows a standing position in the kitchen/closet area. There is a two burner LPG stove with a small oven mounted on top of a chest of plastic drawers which house everything from culterly and cooking utensils to food and clothing. The Mystery Machine also has a bed, which is its biggest draw, allowing us to camp inexpensively, while providing a significant step up in comfort from tent camping. Car camp grounds with varying levels of ameneties are everywhere, making the perfect network for a road trip in a souped up van. Its a pretty sweet way to travel.

A typical tour of New Zealand would encompass loops of both the north and south islands, but our climbing habit dictated that we head straight for Mt Cook National Park in the middle of the south island to get the best of conditions before the routes melted out too much. Four days later, we arrived in the awe-inspiring Mt Cook region. Along the way, we stopped to stay with Roger Shepard, fellow Baekdu Daegan thru-hiker and co-author of the forthcoming first-ever English guidebook to Korea's mystical long trail. It was a great visit and really cool to connect with someone we'd never met but with whom we have much in common. Thanks, Roger!

Settling into Mt Cook National Park, I was keenly aware that we'd discovered something I was helplessly falling in love with. While the mountains look a bit like Washington's Cascade Range, the glaciers are more massive and continuous, and the area just oozes atmosphere as the heart and soul of the country's climbing scene. There is a brilliant network of high mountain huts, providing bases for exploration deep within the range while offering a safe haven to wait out the infamous bad weather. People fly into remote huts and stay there for weeks, heading out on adventures when the weather cooperates. The Department of Conservation, much like out National Park Service but a tad slicker, runs most of the huts, all of which are equiped with radios via which nightly weather forecasts are delivered. I dream of such a system and culture in Washington, but it doesn't exist for various reasons which I won't go into here.

Waiting for the weather to clear, we hung out in the van and perused our maps and guidebook looking for a suitable climbing objective. The rangers at the DOC vistors center and the guides at Alpine Guides were especially helpful in this as well. We headed out optimistically towards Sefton Bivy, a small 4 person hut perched high above the village at the base of the glacial mass on the east side of Mt Sefton, one of the region's heavy hitters. Our goal was to climb a nearby peak called the Footstool. It sounded benign enough to me.

A 3 am start wasn't enough to get us to the top before the heat of the day signalled that it was time to turn around, 100 meters from the top. That isn't to say that the climb was a failure, but we certainly felt like it got the best of us at the time. To assess it from the optimist's point of view, we had a wonderful climb up and over two beautiful glaciers in fairly good weather, and were witness to a glorious sunrise over the region. Our position was high enough that we had front row seats for the sun's greeting of Mt Cook and the surrounding peaks, as well as a constant flow of clouds from the always-wet west coast valleys. It was a fantastic way to really start our trip in New Zealand, and a great introduction to the Mt Cook area.

After the Footstool, we hiked to the high alpine Ball Pass on a great weather day. The route was longer than we'd expected and full of loose rock and scree, but we were rewarded with spectacular panoramas of the Hooker Valley (and the whole of our route on the Footstool from a different perspective), the Tasman Valley, and an up close encounter with the massive and imposing Caroline Face on Mt Cook. The whole park experience was quite unexpected, and we had a hard time leaving, both of us having that 'end of vacation' feeling, even though we still have over two months left in New Zealand. I guess that's how you know your feelings about a place.

We have already planned a return trip to the Mt Cook area for some ski touring, hearing that the weather is actually better in the winter, and desiring to spend some time high up in the huts. And thus, the problem with traveling is illuminated here. Some say you travel to get it out of your system, but for others--including me--that is just not the case. Instead of checking things off the list we've just been adding things onto the end of it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Krabi -> Singapore -> Auckland

One of my favorite bands to see in concert built much of their reputation on brilliantly executed segues between several songs, often across seemingly disparate keys and musical themes. These seemless movements from one song to the next were shown on their setlists with arrows ( -> ), suggesting a journey, a connection of ideas. Thinking back over the last week of our travels, I saw a parallel. I love the idea that traveling is a method for one to draw his own route across the earth joining places of interest, but more importantly, to connect meaningful experiences in his mind.

If I think back across the years, these three places hold much intrigue for me. Krabi is a world class rock climbing destination which has been the subject of more discussions I've had about Thailand than any other place in the country. Singapore's strict but squeaky-clean image was burned into my mind (maybe all of ours?) in high school when a traveler was caned for a petty offense of chewing gum or spitting on the street. Simultaneously frightened and curious, I figured I'd end up here eventually to have a look. Finally, New Zealand (of which Auckland is the gateway) was the initial impetus for my wanderlust as a university student. So, it is with great amusement that I've now threaded these destinations together as a traveler.

We spent five days rock climbing in the paradise of Ton Sai Beach, Krabi in southern Thailand. A friend flew in from Seattle to meet us, and then we unintentionally ran into our hiking companion from Korea on New Years Eve, making for a wonderful crew and a week of fun. The climbing on Ton Sai is amazing, to say the least -- big, juggy limestone, with so much variety. We climbed for five days straight, whipping us both into exhaustion, but leaving us equally elated. Of particular note was the day we spent deep water soloing. Climbers will be familiar with this, but for the benefit of the uninitiated, it is a form of climbing in which you climb unroped on cliffs directly above the water, using the water as your safety net. Obviously, ability and confidence can get you into hairy spots here, but its an amazing way to climb, and released me from a recent fear of falling while roped (That might sound strange; scared to fall while roped, but not scared while not roped high above water, but that's how it played out). For me, discovering deep water soloing was akin to backcountry skiing. That is, a perfect combination of two things I love to do; climb and jump off things into the water. It was pure climbing, and pure fun.

Liz made some wonderful connections during her NOLS course in Alaska, and we've had the pleasure of meeting up with several of her classmates on this trip, two of whom live in Singapore. After the protests at the Bangkok airport in December, and desiring to see her NOLS friends, we booked our flight to Auckland out of Singapore. We traveled overland by bus and a 14 hour train from Krabi through Malaysia to arrive in affluent Singapore two days ago. Its a wonderful city as far as cities go, and with the guidance of her friends Chin Yong and Isky, we have had a great time exploring it a bit. Mostly, we've eaten a lot of good food, stayed in a great hostel, and had our first microbrew beer since leaving Seattle 4 months ago. Phwew.

We leave for Auckland this evening, and arriving there will, for me, represent the fulfillment of a decade long dream of traveling to New Zealand, which has occupied a spot in my mind like Shangri-la for much of my adult life.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Laos in Photos

Here are several photo sets from Laos. They were much easier to upload here in Thailand, where the internet speeds are light years ahead!

The Gibbon Experience

Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing

Muang Khua and Muang Ngoi

Luang Prabang