Sunday, August 8, 2010

Where in the world is John?

Howdy folks,

I hope you enjoy the two new entries on Queenstown and Dunedin, where I spent most of the early winter. For those I haven't spoken with recently, my plans have changed a bit and my trip has been accelerated. I'll be back in the USA in late August, which I was planning all along so I can be at a friend's wedding, but I decided not to return to NZ afterwards. But I have plenty to write about, and hopefully I'll find the time to write about it. (It's amazing how time consuming these blog posts are. Each take hours).

Here's some of the nifty things I've done since or will do before making it back to the states, as sort of an appetizer (or confusingly, an entree over here):

  • Road trip to Aoraki / Mt. Cook, the highest mountain, and a demanding alpine winter hike to stay at the Mueller hut.
  • Subtropical Paihia, the Bay of Islands, sandboarding on 90 mile beach, and Cape Reinga, where the Maori souls depart Aotearoa to head to their ancestral homeland Hawaiiki.
  • Gold Coast Australia, aka the Vegas of Venice Beaches, and lovely Brisbane
  • Scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns! (where I am right now :D)
  • A week in Melbourne and its many fun places to see.
I'll be back in Georgia in early September, and plan on spending time with friends and family for quite a while. Ultimately, if money allows I'd like to take a road trip up to New England, then along Canada and the northern US toward the west coast. I'll be sure to visit long lost buddies along the way. My even more ultimate plan after that though, is to re-enroll at a University somewhere to get an Electrical Engineering degree, so I can do design work in the R&D side of the solar power industry. But more on all that stuff later. For now, it's time for bed and day two of my 5 day PADI scuba certification course, which will include 3 days on the outer reef, and about 8 or so dives.

I miss you all, and look forward to sharing good times with you again soon.

Dunedin

I spent most of June in the city of Dunedin, which is in the southeast corner of the South Island in the Otago region. June would be the US's December, and Otago is a rather chilly place, by New Zealand standards. But the weather wasn't so bad, and was fairly sunny all things considered.

I especially wanted to head to Dunedin, because it is the home of Otago University, the largest and oldest in the country. The town itself is about 120,000 people, and is known for art, music, and booze (like all proper college towns). Considering that could easily describe Athens back home, I had to see what the Kiwi equivalent would be like. My trip was poorly timed though, as a week after I got there most of the students were either graduating or going on holiday. I still managed to find some good people and enjoyed the college life again for a little while. Since money was getting tight, I had to take things slow and not spend too much. Fortunately, I could get free Internet access at the Dunedin library, so I was able to work on web design projects to bring in some much needed cash.

During the week of June 22nd, Dunedin also hosted two festivals to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Both were night-time celebrations, and had a particularly neat feel to them since they didn't have Christmas and New Years dominating the winter theme like we have back home. The first was a small 'Burning Man' styled event for crazy college kids, with fire spinners, a giant bon fire, drums and dances, and chill DJs. The second was much more kid-friendly, and was a lantern carnival in the center of the city. The kids and other supporters built huge paper lanterns shaped like fish, sea horses, and other things. They then paraded around the Octagon (like a big central city square) amidst stilt walkers, band members, and other revelers. The carnival was wrapped up with a satisfyingly big fireworks display, which was about a week before July 4th and counted as my obligatory dose of shiny explosives for the season.

In addition to the festivals, I also got to watch the All Blacks play their last game at Dunedin's rugby field before they finish building the new one in anticipation of the Rugby World Cup next year. The game was fun, but awfully quiet since the stadium was much smaller than ones back home. Still, the most amusing part had to be the wave the crowd got into a few times. They sold beer in tiny plastic bottles, which was only 3.5% alcohol to begin with and hardly counts as beer, but I digress. The bottles made excellent projectiles though, which fortunately didn't hurt too much when they fell down. As the wave went around a hundred or more of these little green bottles went airborn in all directions. The announcer even asked people not to throw them, but they did anyway. The All Blacks went on to crush the Welsh Dragons something like 45-9. The game was much closer in the first half, but became a blowout after halftime.

By far the biggest event while I was in Dunedin was getting up early or staying up for the World Cup most days. Due to time difference, the World Cup games were usually at either 2am or 6:30am. Not that something like sleep would get in the way though. It was really fun watching the World Cup while staying at backpackers in Queenstown and Dunedin. Just about everyone was from a different country and were supporting different teams. The two biggest groups of travelers to New Zealand are the English and the Germans. There were also Dutch and Swiss running the backpacker where I was staying, so there was plenty of rivalry going on (especially between the Dutch and Germans, who get along about as well as Dawg fans and Gators). I was pulling for a Dutch vs. Deutch final in the Cup, but sadly Spain crushed Germany's hopes. The most satisfying game though had to be Germany vs. Argentina, where Germany destroyed them 4-0. I had actually been rooting for Argentina to win early in the cup, but they were so arrogant and rude in the press leading up to the Germany game, that I had to support the impressively strong German team.

But Germany's chances were dashed by Spain in the semifinals. It was particularly unfortunate because the morning of that game was my last in Dunedin; I was heading back north through the Southern Alps with two German friends of mine. Fortunately, we kept busy and had an excellent trip up to Mt. Cook and Lake Tekapo, where we saw the nasty final game between the Dutch adn Spanish (14 yellow cards and some very ill tempered Dutch players).

Before we leave Dunedin though, I must talk about the Otago peninsula and all the marine wildlife there. The Otago is less visited by tourists than other parts of the country, but it has some gorgeous coastline and plenty of animals, which are rather scarce elsewhere in the country. There is the only mainland Albatross colony on the tip of the peninsula. They charged $45 to see the birds though, so we just drove to the parking lot and saw them in the air for free. Nearby was a nice large secluded beach called Sandfly Bay which had lots of sea lions as well as the rare yellow-eyed penguin. The penguins are very timid though, and if they see humans they flee, so we had to hide in a bunker (no kidding) about 500 feet up the coast. They were hilarious though, as they apparently live in the bush above the beach at night, and have to hop and waddle over the rocks and sand, followed by an impressively steep climb up to their homes.

It was in Dunedin where I decided not to stay in New Zealand for the entire year, and instead stop by Australia before heading back to the USA. The original plan was to find work in NZ, but the few jobs that were around were very poorly paid and looked pretty rough. Since I could get by on web design, I wouldn't be tied to any specific location and could keep traveling. Dr. Matthew Dalstrom, one of my best friends, is getting married at the end of August, so I was already planning to visit the US around then, and by now I felt satisfied with having seen an awful lot of New Zealand. So I started planning on heading back to the US instead of just visiting and coming back. Fortunately, I was able to pack a ton into my last month in New Zealand, and with any luck my 3 weeks in Australia will be just as memorable.

Queenstown

Ah Queenstown, the number one destination for partygoers and adrenaline freaks. My buddy Blake from Atlanta works in Queenstown for AJ Hackett, the creators of Bungy jumping where he takes pictures of people terrifying themselves while jumping off bridges or swinging through canyons. Quite a sweet job, eh? I went to Queenstown hoping for work as well, though hopefully with NZSki, who owns the local ski fields. Sadly, hundreds of other foreigners had the same idea, and finding work in Queenstown was a huge pain in the ass.

Queenstown was spectacularly gorgeous though. I can only imagine picturesque little resort towns in Switzerland look like Queenstown, with the snow covered Remarkables in the distance, the town nestled between fir tree covered hills, a gondola, and a gorgeous lake stretching through it all. Queenstown is a town of money though, and I was mostly broke, so I stayed pretty low key. But if you do like to push your limits, Queenstown is the place. Sky diving, bungy jumping, paragliding, jet powered boogie boards, not to mention snowboarding and skiing in the winter. Fortunately, there are also trails, and drunken frisbee golf in the botanic gardens.

I stayed at the Aspen Lodge for about a month with other backpackers who were there long term looking for work. Aside from being rather clean and staffed with friendly folks, what was particularly amazing was how the 10-bed room where I stayed almost never smelled bad or had people snoring in it. Though there was always someone sleeping, and people having to leave at some god forsaken hour before noon. Another benefit of staying at Aspen was joining BBH, a collection of excellent hostels across New Zealand, where I would book places to stay for most of the remainder of my trip.
While the daytime was spent looking for work, or putting off looking for work, the night in Queenstown is about drunken revelry. My pub of choice was the Ministry of Sports, which had both wall to wall big screens for sporting events, and cheap beer. They sold beer in full liter glasses called man handles, and had a club with a punchcard keeping tabs up to 100 beers consumed. Those hardy folk who completed their cards received their own man handle glass with their name engraved on it. I was only there for a month, so I finished a measly 25, but a few of my friends managed to finish the challenge.

The World Cup kicked off during my last week in Queenstown, and one of the earliest and most anticipated games was the USA vs England. Due to time difference, the football games usually started either at 2am or 6:30am. But I wasn't going to let something pesky like sleep get in the way. There were probably about 80 English blokes there for the game, and surprisingly at least about 15 Americans (and Irish, Scottish and Welsh more than happy to wish misery on the English). Ministry was packed, despite the 6:30 kickoff, and the beers were flowing. The US got off to a rocky start, allowing a goal 5 minutes into the game. But it was all made right by the English keeper letting a rather harmless shot score tieing it up for the Americans. The English mumbled and rolled their eyes at another typical World Cup meltdown, and the Americans were elated and more than happy to settle for a draw against one of the tournament favorites.

I ended up watching a few games at Ministry, including Germany ravage Australia, but within a week I was heading to Dunedin and would need to find another watering hole.