Saturday, January 3, 2009

1/3/2009 - First Underground, Now Underwater

I am getting more efficient. Camp was taken care of (despite the sudden showers just as I was taking the fly off of the tent) and breakfast was finished by about 8:30. I found my way to Okere Falls, and met up with Sam, my river kayaking teacher for the morning.

Sam is a young guy, has only been kayaking for about 4 years, and already is placing 2nd or 3rd in international kayaking competitions (last year, did competitions in Austria, Australia, and the US, and is completely sponsored by Adidas. He has many shoes.).

My experience is similar, minus the massive amount of talent and knowledge that he has. He is also about 18 years old.

IMGP1053.JPGSam. Kayak pimp extraordinaire. Also likes taking pictures of himself with other people's cameras, an interesting hobby.

We head down to the river, right at its headwaters at the lake. I get a little nervous looking at the rapids. They are a little. . . bigger than I thought we would be running. Maybe they just look bigger from up here on the bridge.

We jump in our kayaks (I choose one similar to my Dagger Mamba back home) and head out. I tell him to pretend that I am an idiot beginner. He takes the hint, and we start out with simple paddling. I am a champ at this. I grin when he says that already "you're better than 90% of the people I take out here." This is going to be easy.

IMGP1050.JPGNote the cocky look. This changes over the course of two hours.

We go over some stuff about edges of the kayak. I have never had a lesson, so kind of figured out how to do it on my own. This has left me with some long-term bad habits. For instance, when things get fast, you should not backpaddle. Also, you should lean into turns, and you should angle the kayak on its edge when cutting into the current (upstream side of the kayak should be up, downstream side down). I am able to pick this up fairly quickly. No problems.

Time for roll practice. I really wish I had video of this - I bet it would be pretty funny to watch. Basically, the way I had learned to roll in the past was exactly the wrong way, useless in whitewater. Interestingly, I should be leaning forward with the paddle at my right side, then have it skim the top of the water with a long, sideways stroke with the blade at 45 degrees while simultaneously leaning back, watching the paddle, and kicking my hips over. There are times that this looks great and it's easy, but about 80% of the time, I drop right back in to the water with a panicky feeling and poor Sam having to roll me upright again. I must look like an ugly breaching blue whale for a second as I try to grab a loud and quick breath before disappearing disappointingly upside down underwater again.

On second thought, maybe I don't wish I had a video.

After about 45 minutes of US-approved water torture, we take a break from that and decide to run some rapids to practice some of the paddling skills.

IMGP1051.JPGWe actually slid down the hill and off that concrete wall (the lowest point) to splash in the water. EXTREME!!

With my confidence dramatically no different than before (after the mostly-failed rolls), we head down the first rapid:

IMGP1057.JPGWith all of my new lessons crowding out common sense, I made it through this spot but got dunked under by the eddy current down below here. In I went for a little swim. Just because it was hot, mind you.

I get to float for a bit, then we practice some traversing of rapids and some turns into the current. I build a little confidence here, which is good. Then we haul out the kayaks to practice rolls again. I actually start to get it a bit - just going to need practice. Lots of practice. And a Sylvester-Stallone-in-Rocky-IV kind of music montage.

Sam kindly buys me a meat pie (chicken and butter - mmmm, delicious and flaky!) and I later head out

IMGP1052.JPGKaituna Kayaks. This paddle jacket definitely got a lot of use today.

My plan is to make it down to the Tongariro National Park (hope I spelled that right) in a setup to do a 9-hour hike (18km) along the alpine crossing, including a summit of Mt. Doom itself. They even have a (pay) shuttle service that I sign up for to avoid my car becoming a giant buffet for thieves (of course, the glass would be broken in the case of the car, but otherwise I think the metaphor stands). I stop by Taupo again to use their nice and cheap internet, which is where I am typing this.

IMGP1059.JPGThere's a lot of people planning to hike up mountains here, as well - in World of Warcraft with their +7 Armor of Virginity very much intact, if the conversations are any indication.

So, off I go. Let them know where to find me if you don't hear of an update to this post in a week or so!

Friday, January 2, 2009

1/2/2008 - I Have Been Zorbed

It was a quiet morning today. Took it slow and managed to get breakfast done and camp put up (in the rain) by 10:30. Managed to find some very cheap internet downtown, did some skyping/e-mails until noon. Headed down to the lakeshore and read a bit. What did I want to do today? The weather forecast is for off and on rain today, lots of showers tomorrow, and clearing by Sunday. Things in Taupo that I wanted to do were a bit slim. But Rotorua, just 45 miles away, had a few things. . . Two calls later and my next two days were set. I was headed to Rotorua.

IMGP1037.JPG Sitting on a park bench on the Taupo lakeshore with my copy of Lonely Planet (the greatest evidence that you're a tourist that you can carry).

I was actually here before back in 2004:

IMG_1887Taupo from the same spot in 2004, when I was young, loved yellow, and apparently had a man-bag.

Off I headed in my rockin' Nissan Bluebird. Short trip, no problems. I am getting used to the whole left-hand-side-of-the-road thing.

Manage to find a tent site - this is significant as New Year's is a busy time, and a lot of the campgrounds are full up. It's not even a rip off, and has the usual kitchen, hot showers, and a hot tub. It's on the lake shore as well.

IMGP1038.JPGLooking toward the lake. Home sweet home.

As soon as I pitched the tent, it started pouring rain. I spent about two hours reading in the tent while the squall ran its course. At that point, it was time for a bit of exploring down by the lakeshore.

Interestingly, hot marshy pools are all around this area. Notice that I did not mention "clean".

IMGP1044.JPGIt is said that the hot springs and pools have miraculous healing powers. This looks like just the place to try it out!.

IMGP1043.JPGWhile the lakeshore was a bit of a bust, the distant scenery was New Zealand-standard rugged and beautiful.

A bit more wandering to wake up fully, and then a drive out to the Zorb.

Zorb is not a common word to use, mostly because climbing into the middle of a giant beach ball and rolling down a steep hill is not a common thing to do. It is a pasttime that originated in New Zealand about 5 or 6 years ago, and I saw a TV program talking about it at the time. Since I saw it in action, I have wanted to try Zorbing. It is a totally tourist thing to do, but I don't care.

The Zorb is, basically, two giant plastic beach balls, one smaller than the other and suspended in the middle by hundreds of elastic cords. That means that the inner "chamber" is well-insulated from harm. The whole zorb is something like 10 feet tall.

DSC_0015Coming out of the Zorb sort of reminds me of a lot of the deliveries I have done.

They drive you to the top, and you get to choose between rolling straight down (faster) or going on a curved track (longer and more bouncing involved).

DSC_0004I am feeling invincible right now (this is my run). This is that force field they were always talking about pretending to have when you first start driving.

I definitely went for the windy one. I snuck my camera into the Zorb and recorded a movie as I went, but, on official review, it mostly shows way too much thigh as I roll around this thing and my fingers end up over the lens for half the trip as I try to keep my grip on it, so it will not be posted.

DSC_0006End of the line. I was hoping there would be an American Gladiator-style Zorb fight, but no dice.

I ended up going again - figure you only come here once. It's even more fun the second time, as I figure out that you can jump around this thing and get rolled almost completely to the top of the chamber if you try hard enough.

DSC_0009Crowning as I exit the Zorb.

Well worth the time. No vomit involved.

Headed back to Rotorua (9km away) and grab my book. The town sits right on a lake, and they have a wonderful, wide lakefront walkway full of benches and lawns and playground equipment.

I settle myself onto one of the unoccupied benches. People stroll past, no one is in a hurry, and there is a gentle drone of conversation, that can be heard just above the breeze. The sun has decided to show itself. It is hard to describe, but this feels very much like vacation.

IMGP1046.JPGWelcome to my idea of true relaxation.

The wind kicks up and down, but steadies eventually at a perfect temperature. My book is even good by summer reading standards. Black swan and seagulls wait expectantly (and, often, without much patience) for crusts of bread that the sign states should never, ever be fed to them. This rule is very casually broken by most people. No tickets are written.

IMGP1047.JPGJust. . . pleasant and happy.

IMGP1048.JPGTrying to get artsy again.

I end up feeling hungry, so off to the local pizzeria for a small pie. I come back here to finish off the pizza with a sunset, and manage to finish my book with the last of the waning light.

IMGP1049.JPGDowntown Rotarua, where pizza comes from.

Back to the tent. I have to get up early tomorrow, as I am set up to get some river kayaking lessons starting at 9:30AM in Okere Falls. I hadn't thought through the name much until now - wondering just how extreme things are going to get.

Oh, well, Should be fun regardless.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

1/1/2009 - Heading Underground for the New Year

I actually did wake up for New Year's. A bunch of people decided to count down the last ten seconds. I took a picture at midnight just for posterity, but, as it just involved me looking sleepy in the tent and also managed to extend as far as my underwear, I do not feel it needs public attention.

Needless to say, I celebrated by going directly back to sleep.

The rain persisted until early morning, but by the time I stepped out of the tent, the sky was almost cloudless.

I might have picked a better day to spend five hours underground, but I guess you just roll with it. It was quite nice, regardless. My usual muesli and milk, a bit of washing up, and off I went. The Blackwater Rafting place has its own cafe, which just happened to have coffee.

IMGP1030.JPGThis is spectacular coffee, not necessarily due to its quality, but due to it being served in a full-size bowl. Well done.

At 11:00AM, my small group was called down to change into an outfit the likes of which have not been seen since bad '60s Marvel Comics.

IMGP1032.JPGI immediately dubbed myself "Captain Medium". The white galoshes really set off the red helmet and purple short-shorts (can't really see them due to the blending in with the black of the wetsuit). My superpowers include "Always being handy with a light" and "having a habit of wearing extra-medium shirts". And getting on the short list for appearing on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  As the straight guy, for any of you excited about this potential comment set up.

Into the cave we go. Unfortunately, they did not allow my camera in, and I figure the flash would kind of give it away if I tried to bring it in. The reason behind this, according to the lady behind the counter who recited an obviously stock answer, was for "safety reasons". I realized at the end of the trip that the safety in question was the health of their picture CD business, as the guides brought a camera along for snapshots that were available afterwards for the low, low price of NZ$20. Gritting my teeth, I bought one to bring to all of you the drama and action that I experienced.

BWR2-1-1-2009-11am-Matt+Alan 001My group, hardened into a highly-trained force in a way that only 10 minutes of rappelling practice can.

It started with a bang, a 100-foot vertical rappel into the cave.

BWR2-1-1-2009-11am-Matt+Alan 005Captain Medium drops into the depths to save yet another hapless innocent!

The rappel was wild. It became very narrow about 20 feet down, almost touching chest and back. Then it suddenly opened into the roof of a massive cavern - part of it I could not even touch the wall with my feet. After that bit of adrenaline, I sat while the others came down one-by-one and watched the glowworms on the cave wall.

Glowworms, in the light, are ugly little wormy larvae that hang strings of mucus with a mild paralytic agent on them to catch insects. Gross. But in the dark, they cluster on walls and ceilings and have a tiny, greenish-blue pinpoint of light that looks like stars. Later on in the cave, one of the guides demonstrated that sound vibrations trigger them to brighten by slamming an innertube onto the water. Very cool.

Anyway, it was off down the tunnel to come to a sudden dropoff. There was a dual rope heading off into the lofty and open cavern. It became apparent that this was a zipline, and was done best in the complete dark.

Very exhilarating. It went for about 100 feet through pitch black. It seemed that I would slam into a rock wall at any moment. Actually, I did - my feet hit the limestone just before stopping. Just wasn't made for 6'6" guys. No harm done, though.

BWR2-1-1-2009-11am-Matt+Alan 012Waiting to hop into the frigid underground river. The guides were kind enough to serve hot tea and a quick snack to give us some shiverin' energy.

From that point, it was a 10-foot leap off into the underground river, and a tour of the large cavern by innertube. The glowworms really were out in force here, the roof of the cavern as we floated lazily down the river in the dark was reminiscent of looking down onto a city at night from 30,000 feet.

From there, we followed the river by hiking (too shallow for innertubes in most spots) and swam in a few areas.

BWR2-1-1-2009-11am-Matt+Alan 013Kicking back in the underground stream. Hot tang was served, which is a totally undervalued beverage in my mind. Tasty.

From here, we headed on a side passage toward the exit, but first had to do a bit of climbing up and over waterfalls, each of which was over 10 feet tall and flowing rapidly. Some snaking through small passageways and we were out.

BWR2-1-1-2009-11am-Matt+Alan 015First out. Sun was nice and warm after the chill of the stream.

Overall a really fun experience. Too bad they wouldn't let my camera fly, though. The canned pictures were kind of boring, unfortunately - no action shots of climbing a raging waterfall or battling the angry giant cave bear with only my headlamp and steely resolve (I mentioned that, right?)

Anyhoo, they had warm showers and warm soup/bagels afterward. And then it was off to Taupo.

The day had not changed during the five hours underground - still picture-perfect blue sky. Not so picture perfect that I took LOTS of pictures, but nice.

IMGP1036.JPGThe general terrain, which is generally farmy on the way to Taupo. Almost no traffic.

IMGP1035.JPGMan, I wish I had saved my stock effluent rather than dumping it on that swimming beach.

Made it into Taupo fairly late, but they had one tent site left, and so here I am. Dinner was a carbon copy of last night's pasta and tomato sauce, and I did a bit of reading. Whee! Off to bed, trying to decide what nifty thing I am going to do for tomorrow in Taupo.

12/31/2008 - Must. . . Stay. . . Left. . .

Out of bed today early again. A little packing, shower, dressed, and heading for the bus. It is beautiful today. I am on my way to pick up my rental car which is in downtown Auckland, just a fifteen minute express bus ride and a five minute walk.

IMGP1002.JPGThe rugby fields across from the hotel while walking. The sun doesn't feel right after the last few mostly-dreary days.

Picking up the car is ridiculously easy. I am in and out in 15 minutes, now pimping a late-90's Nissan Bluebird - a car that truly causes envy in men and lust in women.

IMGP1007.JPGYeah, that's my whip. It was a little hard to drive what with all the constant staring, and the drooling by envious passers-by made the roads slick.

I got the full insurance. It felt nice when, as the guy was about to walk the car with me denoting all the damage, he looked over the contract and said "Oh, we don't have to do that. Everything is covered, anyway." Carte blanche for some rally action, I think, or at least some Dukes style river jumpin'.

I start out my driving in New Zealand at a higher level than I would have liked, driving downtown Auckland back to North Shore.

IMGP1003.JPGDowntown Auckland. Better pictures of downtown Auckland have been taken. However, it does demonstrate some of the amenities on the 1998 Nissan Bluebird, including AM/FM cassette STANDARD, and a real-and-truly speedometer. Also, interior lights.

It is surprisingly easy as long as one keeps the "left" mantra going. The worst part of it is that it feels like you are driving in a mirror - every part of your brain says that your body should be on the left hand side of the lane, not the right. Luckily, the gas and brake are the same as a normal American vehicle. The turn signal controls, however, are on the right side of the wheel.

So, no problems, check out of the hotel, and hit the motorway. The motorway in New Zealand is no different than anywhere else, just that it doesn't go as far. I decide to stop in Hamilton just for kicks, and to get my hair cut and my work visa and permit paperwork sent off. Manage to find a real mall that takes care of all of this.

IMGP1004.JPGThe 'Fro has been tamed, alleviating severe neck pain. This picture is really to use as a compare-and-contrast, as 90 minutes later. . .

IMGP1005.JPG. . .I was out here in Waitomo, very close to the Blackwater Rafting.

The drive to Waitomo was very scenic, mostly farming, but getting more and more rugged. After checking in at the campground, I had quite a few hours left to kill. Talking to the host, there is a nice trail that runs around the area of the caves - about 3.5 miles each way. Sounds good.

IMGP1009.JPGThe rock here appears to be built out of Lego Granite - it's all in layers and brick-like patterns. Oh - I also bought a very small, very light day pack. Guess the color. (I'll give you a hint - it's the same color as a certain common rind-covered citrus).

The trail run was beautiful. Ranging from steep hills to flatter valleys and winding from forest to pasture, it was almost deserted and the terrain was very varied.

IMGP1012.JPGThis is called The Lookout, but I'm just not sure why.

IMGP1015.JPGThis looks like the ruins of an old wall, but it's just terrain that's been eroded to the natural rock.

IMGP1014.JPGTrying to get artsy with this, but didn't really succeed. Essentially more rock.

Interestingly, the trail winds through active cow pastures and active cows.

IMGP1017.JPGIn a stark contrast to the herd of cattle that followed me a week ago like I was the Messiah, these cows took a decidedly Jewish view - I was respected, but also viewed with some distrust. These are the kinds of things that run through my head as I exercise.

IMGP1018.JPGYou almost expect someone to be fishing with their back against a tree in this picture. So relaxing.

The trail ended up at another loop that went through Waitomo cave country.

IMGP1024.JPGThe path winds through caves. Note a severe lack of warning signs and rails. This held true with one exception. . .

IMGP1026.JPGApparently, they just leave poisonous bait out for possums. I feel a Darwin Award coming on for some little kid. I love New Zealand.

Knowing that I would see plenty of caves tomorrow, I held off on extensive pictures and started back.

IMGP1025.JPGThis one stopped me in my tracks.

By the time I made it back around 7:30, it was still blue sky and hot. A welcome shower later, and it was dinnertime.

IMGP1027.JPGPasta, water, and chips. What every growing boy needs.

By the end of dinner, New Zealand's weird weather patterns had manifested again - it clouded over completely and started raining. At this point, rain is really hammering the tent. Going to be a wet New Year - Huzzah!

I am NOT staying up for it. So sleepy. . . Adios, 2008.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

12/30/2008 - Some Bad Bike News

Well, I leapt out of bed at 6:30AM, a bit nervous. Today I figure out how my years of USAA membership pay off. I pull out the skype, ring up USAA. . . and find out that my renter's insurance will NOT cover damage to my bike if it isn't fire, flood, or vandalism. It would also cover it if it was stolen. Or struck by lightning.

While brief thoughts of leaving the bike unlocked at the top of a hill during a lightning storm in front of a bunch of hoods with spray paint run distantly through my head, I ask my claims rep if she had any other thoughts. Other than the warranty, none.

So the fun begins. I make calls to Specialized and find that the bike frame is under warranty, and in the USA should be covered. A call to the bike shop gives me the exact opposite reaction, as their distributor states they will NOT cover the frame in this case. The US guy tells me that they can't do anything about this, it is in a very gray area, and they do not have any control over their foreign distributors.

In the end, the bike shop tries a different tact with the distributor - it was the derailleur that caused the problem, its warranty should hopefully cover at least some of the damage. Slight hangup: given the new year, I wouldn't get an answer or my repaired bike likely until next Monday or Tuesday.


Wait. . .

This is OK.

Remember how I felt that this trip just "flowed"? I realized that there were a number of things that I wanted to see south of Auckland that I would not be biking past. Taupo, black water rafting, and skydiving are a few of them. This gives me seven bike-free days to go check these out.

Jackpot. I start calling around and manage to set up a totally cheapo car rental. Just to put this place in perspective, its price was about half that of Budget Rent-A-Car for a week's worth of unlimited distance driving. Just have to decide if I want full insurance for NZ$10 more per day. The only negative? Other than the car may not necessarily be from the current decade? I start driving from downtown Auckland and into the motorway (the biggest road in New Zealand). Not such a big deal except for that pesky left-side-of-the-road thingy. Plus, all of my reactions are based on the right-side-of-the-road driving - where to look for danger, which shoulder to look over, etc.

I get the full insurance coverage.

Will jump on the bus tomorrow morning, hop off in downtown Auckland, and drive from there back to the hotel to pick up my stuff. Done and done.

In an attempt to make this day as absolutely boring as I possibly can, I also spend several hours re-filling out my work visa and work permit application.


Really just says it all. At this point, I think I was halfway through denoting the exact start and end dates of every job I have ever had. It was excitement to the awesometh power.

The only thing that got me through this was then setting up blackwater rafting. For those of you not in the know, blackwater rafting is a combination of rappelling, caving, jumping into dark water, and redneck river rafting. You rappel down into a cave, then float it on an inner tube past millions of glow worms in the ceiling, eventually jumping down waterfalls, and squeezing through tight tunnels. I have been told to do this without question. 11AM on Thursday. Sweet.

After all that excitement, I end up napping, then run off some calories - about 4 miles this time, legs still quite sore from 2 days ago. Sometime during my nap, the weather had changed from rainy to sunny.

IMGP0996.JPGI thought it would be cool to wave to everyone, but then realized it just looks like I am applying deodorant.

I went south this time. Ended up near a small university with big views. I am going to suggest that as the official slogan of this university. I can see it now:

"Akoranga University. The small university with big views. . . On life!"

I am a marketing GENIUS. Maybe they would be willing to pay for my bike as an appropriate compensation.

IMGP0999.JPGDowntown Auckland in the background. I hadn't noticed it until now, but the trees sticking up sort of mirror the clouds above them. No wait - I mean, I planned that.

IMGP0998.JPGAnother one, because I can.

Headed back eventually. Hadn't eaten much all day, so decided to investigate a little spot next door to the hotel, just with a big sign saying "Hell".

Apparently, a New Zealander's vision of of the less requested part of the afterlife involves delicious cheese over tomato sauce and bread.

IMGP1001.JPGThe part of the sign covered by my 'fro gives the phone number, with involves the number of the beast. Satan himself took my order, and appeared unto me as a short 18-year old Frodo wannabe. Who was very friendly.

Needless to say, I did read my credit card statement very carefully before signing.

Pizza wasn't bad, but my guess is they save the REALLY good stuff as prizes in a fiddle contest or something.

It is now late, so off I go towards bed.

By the way, big shoutout to little Alex Cox, who has started walking as of yesterday and already dances better than his father.

12/29/2008 - Not Much of a City Boy

It was nice to sleep in until around 8:00AM today. Unfortunately, my alarm this morning was the achiness of a large number of muscles that apparently are MUCH more affected by running than biking. Duly noted.

The only plans I have today are to keep checking in with the bike shop to see if a frame is going to be found. Can't contact the insurance company until tomorrow (that pesky time warp that puts me a day ahead of America can make things difficult sometimes).

I receive an early morning call from Sam at the bike store. Sure enough, they have found a frame for me. Even better, it is going to come in tomorrow, and they should have it all ready for me in 2 days (Wednesday)! Excellent.

I have decided to celebrate by testing out the MAXX bus system and head into downtown Auckland for some culture.

IMGP0986.JPGNew Zealand bus station. The polar opposite of usual bus systems - clean, efficient, and, if you push this button, a disembodied voice tells you exactly when the next bus is coming in. VERY loudly.

I am also in search of a different wireless internet place, as for some reason I can't update this blog from the hotel.

The Northern Express (no, my busdriver did NOT sound like Tom Hanks) took me directly to Queen Street, the main downtown thoroughfare.

I have a pet theory that almost all cities look alike when you get down to it, from Cairo to Manhattan, at least in many areas. It is crowded, but not unnervingly so. It seems like most people walking down here put off the tourist vibe, and I count about 10 languages as I walk. Lots of stores and small malls.

IMGP0990.JPGDowntown Auckland, looking down Queen Street. This picture actually seems to SUPPORT my theory about all cities looking about the same.

I wander the stores looking for some pannier components (which I do not find). However, I do pick up toothpaste and bug repellant, and find internet access.

IMGP0987.JPGThe Starbucks. I passed three of them over my wandering today, the next one just two blocks away from this one in unerring Starbucks form.

Found a movie theater, as well, but choices were some kiddy Adam Sandler movie or a cryfest about a button or something. No thanks.

I did score a gem in a New Zealand biking book that gives the elevations of hills over major roads. This is what cyclists REALLY want to know.

IMGP0991.JPGSuper creepy Santa. His finger moves to complete something that looks like a NAMBLA "come hither" gesture.

IMGP0992.JPGThe bus ride back. Rainy, but I am sitting down, so all is well.

Made it back to the hotel around 5PM. I may have run 7 miles yesterday, but I think I walked about 10 today. My dogs are barkin'.

Do some Skyping, then relax for the evening after a quick dinner. This is nice. Soon enough, I'll be biking for hours per day, but for now, I get to live the unemployed dream. Think I will check out New Zealand TV tonight.