Down Under Part 2: New Zealand 2012-13

31 01 2013


If you’ve followed this blog since 2011, you may recall I went to Patagonia in November. On that trip, I spent a lot of time with Elwin and Angelique, from The Netherlands. We had so much fun that in July of 2012 they asked me, “Hey Rod, want to get together for a trip to New Zealand this winter? Of course it will be SUMMER there!” That deserved some serious consideration! Especially since I have friends living there! First, Paul Lepper, a kayak designer for my old company Feelfree Kayaks, who’s encouraged me to visit for several years. And two other friends, Oscar Manguy and Yurira Hernandez, Mexican kayak guides I met at the Lower Columbia Kayak Roundup in 2011…they work for NOLS in New Zealand. I figured this has got to be the perfect time to visit New Zealand. So I said, “You bet I want to go!” And a plan was hatched.

I’d spend New Year’s 2013 with Paul Lepper and his wife Liz on the North Island. Then fly to Christchurch, on the South Island, to meet up with Elwin and Angelique. Then we’d all get together with Oscar and Yurira. Following that, the merry trio would wander all around both islands, through cities, fiords, beaches, rivers, glaciated peaks and volcanoes as well as geysers. And of course Mount Doom, plus all the other Lord of the Rings places! We’d hike, kayak and maybe sail! And learn how the Kiwis do things. Meeting all these friends down there seemed like such a far fetched thing. But not really! One just needs to plan it! And then the pieces fall into place.

In 2012 I sent word to Paul Lepper and Oscar and Yurira and we coordinated schedules. I’d land 12/28/2012 and then spend New Year’s up in Palmerston North with Paul and his family. Then fly to Christchurch on January 2nd and pick up Angelique and Elwin. Then on the 3rd we’d meet up with Oscar and spend the day together. Following that, Elwin, myself and Angelique would head south, beginning our exploration of New Zealand’s South Island!

As you may know, I live in Portland, Oregon, and New Zealand is on the other side of the International Data Line. It’s actually 22 hours ahead of Portland. For jet lag concerns, well, it turns out it’s not that bad. If you just ignore the day difference. Pretend that time in New Zealand is now minus three hours. So it is “tomorrow minus three hours from now.”

About New Zealand

New Zealand is very isolated from the rest of the world. A lot more than even Australia. New Zealand sits apart from Australia geologically – it’s right on top of the division of the Australasian Plate and Pacific Plate. Further, New Zealand is 1,300 miles from Australia. New Zealand has been separated from Australia for about 90 million years. Therefore, the flora and fauna native to the islands have not had outside influence for most of that time. Before man landed, birds and sea mammals were the primary fauna. Without competition, some birds evolved to be wingless. There were no rats and even today there are no snakes. Insects and spiders are present but they are not nearly as numerous as elsewhere – you won’t find insect screens on windows!

New Zealand is a Commonwealth country – and that means much English heritage. Rugby and cricket are popular, and sailboat racing is a national obsession. Gardens are neatly tended, and farms won’t have derelict vehicles on the property. Bars and pubs, even those targeted to young people – still have traditional pint-swilling patrons gathering for the neighborhood gossip. The driving is most definitely on the left-side. It has 4.45 million residents. And you will see plenty of Maori, especially on the North Island. But nobody of African descent.

New Zealand is packed with interesting landscape features in a small area. Check out these largest/highest facts for Australasia:

Other unique New Zealand trivia:

  • Tipping in restaurants is not expected
  • Many locals go barefoot
  • Typically it’s cars towing trailers, boats, RVs, not trucks
  • Diesel costs 50 cents less than gasoline
  • Many cars and trucks are available in a diesel version not available in the USA
  • Many cars come in a station wagon version not available in the USA
  • Backpacking often means staying in a hut on the trail instead of a tent
  • Sit-on-top kayaks are by far the most popular
  • 75% of forest was cleared by Maori or Europeans for agriculture
  • Lupine comes in blue, purple, white, yellow and pink
  • It had the tallest geyser in the world at 1,500ft
  • Tree ferns are common – ferns with 25ft trunks
  • Homegrown food is common – not rare at all
  • You will pay 40 cents to $2 to have ketchup on your french fries
  • You probably will never see anyone of African ancestry. In a month in the country, the only people of African ancestry I saw were travelers in the Auckland Airport.
  • You will probably see no native land mammals
  • You will not see any crows

So stay tuned for blogs about the recent trip to New Zealand! It is a wonderful country to visit. And parts of it definitely do look like Patagonia!

Spring in Buenos Aires – Beautiful!

10 02 2012

Eray in Parque 3 de Febrero

One element of our Patagonian odyssey that has been consistently spectacular has been the weather! And these last two days in Buenos Aires are no exception. We have two consecutive clear days in the mid-80’s with low humidity.

I’m still getting the most of the breakfast buffet at Castelar Hotel! I ensure I get down there early and enjoy my favorite meal of the day. Saskia arrives, as do Elwin, Angelique, and others. Orange juice, fresh fruit, sausage and some scrambled eggs are something I’ve missed.

There are no plans for today. Tonight, we are all headed to the airport for mid-evening flights. So my usual crew of Angelique, Eray, Elwin and I look at the options and make plans. Christoff has departed for a few days visiting with acquaintances in Chile.

Eray is extending her time in Argentina, and she has arranged for lodging at Home Hotel, in the Palermo neighborhood. She says it’s really nice and encourages us to check it out for a late morning coffee or cool beverage. Sounds good! We also look at options and because it’s late spring, we decide to walk back through some of the beautifully designed parks in Buenos Aires.

We catch a taxi and head to the Home Hotel. The Palermo neighborhood is completely different from any we’ve seen. While it’s urban, it’s very residential. It’s quiet. There are cozy, European style and up and coming neighborhood restaurants and cafes. The Home Hotel is nestled in amongst all of this. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d miss it. Once past the front counter, one walks through a tall atrium and into a rear area complete with patio, garden and pool.

We settled into some chairs out by the garden and ordered some cool drinks.

Angelique and I get a shot of ourselves out back…

It’s very contemporary and refreshingly relaxing. Some of teh guests had bathrobes supplied by the hotel. The menu actually had breakfasts with eggs!

It was tempting to stay there for hours. But we only had today. So, we departed to walk amongst the lovely parks and the blooming jacaranda trees.

Walking past the Centro Islamico, a large Mosque, we reached Parque 3 de Febrero. This is one of the famous parks designed by French architect Carlos Thays. His handiwork is everywhere as it is so familiarly European. Carlos Thays not only designed the parks but had trees and shrubs brought in from all over. Today, these parks and the flora he planted are testament to his genius. Portenos enjoy his creations each day.

We stroll through the greenery. There are lots of birds. Geese and swans ply the ponds. Gregarious parrots cackle above, perching next to their favorite nuts and seeds, which they consume with great pleasure.

Portenos make the most of the parks. Jogging, rollerblading, bicycling or walking, they are enjoying the open spaces.

There are rose gardens and so many flowering trees.

It seems to me that every tree is in bloom at once!

We are the lucky ones, we get to enjoy this.


In this video you get to hear the birds singing, see the flowers everywhere, and even catch some women with thermoses of Yerba Mate walking by. Not to mention my travel mates!

And below is one of the flowers on a magnolia tree. Really lush! Later in the day, our whole group gathered at a restaurant near the hotel to celebrate our time here. And to say our good-byes. We’ll be staying in touch. We had a memorable time in Argentina and Chile!

Gorgeous Magnolia Tree flowers.

Hiking to the Foot of Cerro Fitz Roy

25 01 2012

Cerro Fitz Roy, front and center. Spectacular!

Today it’s windy and bright in El Chalten. I sip coffee in front of the picture window of the Aylen Aike hostel watching Cerro Fitz Roy. This morning the tower is sprinkled in dazzling sugar white. And, it’s obvious why it’s also called Cerro Chalten, which means smoking mountain. There’s a constant cloud drifting off the top. But the sugar melts as the sun warms the peak, revealing the 11,090ft pure granite face.

Today, it’s going to be an all-day hike. Leaving about 8:30 a.m., we won’t be back until past 4:00. We’ll head on a different trail which will take us all over the plain below these spectacular peaks, with an option to do a final, steep hike to a lake at the end of a glacier.

Box lunch in hand (less the ham and cheese I removed), I join Echbert, Saskia, Christof, Eray, Elwyn and Floris as we walk past the north end of town to the trailhead.

At the beginning of the trail there is a group of maybe twenty hikers and a guide. They are partly already on the trail, so we hike with them. But we are much faster. This first part of the trail is a steep climb. When they stop for a break, we make our move and go on ahead. There’s no looking back. We want to have the experience to ourselves. We wind our way up a slope with a view to the north, looking up a river valley. Up above Andean Condors ride the air currents. We can see their nests clinging to the steep cliffs above us.

Llamas on the plain belowThis trail is rapidly becoming my favorite of the trip because of the vistas all along the way. Plus, after our steep climb it becomes a rolling up and down trail. These trails of Los Glaciers National Park are superbly maintained and marked. It’s not long before a a view comes into focus with shark toothed Fitz Roy mountains. Below this magnificent spectacle is a gorgeous relatively flat plain, several square miles in size, filled with creeks, meadows, flowers, trees. To the right side of the mountains flows an electric blue glacier. It’s unlike any I’ve seen in that the whole thing is electric blue, not just parts. It stands in contrast to the gray rocks it cuts through.

Passing us by is a United Nations of hikers. I even recognize some of them from Torres del Paine. Some of them are day hiking, and others are laden with backpacks. One of the best things about this region is that one can do fantastic day hikes and stay in town. Wonderful.

After several hours, we reach the base of the steep final assault, which is a 500ft high glacial moraine under Cerro Fitz Roy. Here is the final assault. Saskia says we don’t have to do the final part. Floris, part of our group today, did not complete the Torrres del Paine hike due to asthma. But he made it here. I want him to enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. He doesn’t want to do the final assault. So I decide to stick with him and we offer to wait for the others to go up and return.

This seems to be a gathering place for many hikers. So, we will have a relaxed lunch here, enjoy the beauty, and wait for the others. The day has become warm and many folks are have shorn jackets, some are in shorts. It’s a nice spot. There is a sign that says, “The water in the streams is potable.” Wow! That is a big difference from home. So we fill our water bottles and go ahead and drink.

Floris and I spend about an hour here, and after another twenty minutes we decide to hike back. The trail meanders all over the plain, past many little brooks, some clear, some stained brown with some kind of algae-like growth. I think there is perhaps a warm spring in here causing this growth. We come across a cluster of hikers all taking a nap in the sun!

We come to a fork in the trail. One path leads the way we came, but the other goes to Lago Capri. Thinking it might take some time to get there, we prepare for a longer hike.

Floris and I hike on. Much to our surprise, we reach the lake very quickly, and it’s a beauty! Much larger than I expected. And it’s not glacier-fed. So, instead of a misty blue milky color, it’s crystal clear. And what a view of the peaks!

It’s even got a thin beach, and some other hikers are relaxing on it taking in the view. Alongside the lake there’s a sweet campground. Super beautiful.

Back in town, it’s a wind tunnel again. It’s a constant 40mph with gusts rising to 65mph! I have to hold onto everything to keep stuff from blowing away!

El Chalten sports a few restaurants catering to the hikers that come here, and one of the most popular is the brewery.

So today, after cleaning up at the hostel, we head to the brewery for a late afternoon beverage and a bite to eat.

I’m super pleased because I can get a fulfilling salad here! It’s brimming with yummy veggies my body is craving for!

We’re discussing the next phase of our adventure. Tomorrow, we’re going to the end of the continent – Tierra del Fuego and the southern-most city in the world, Ushuaia!

Birds of Patagonia!

9 01 2012

During our journeys through the steppe, our walks along the ocean, hikes in the mountains, or time spent on the lakes, we witnessed a lot of birds, and a fair amount of other wildlife. So this post is dedicated to the fauna! Most of these photos are courtesy of Monique Poesiat.

These Chimango Caracaras are everywhere in Patagonia!

Often seen where other colonies of birds lived, and flying low, this caracara could sometimes be approached on a perch within 10 feet of the trail.

Another bird which was our companion from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego was the Black Faced Ibis.

Black Faced Ibis

These Ibis are gregarious, and I saw several raucous colonies! They also fly in groups. They don’t seem to have any trouble surviving in this part of South America!

No narrative of our trip would be complete without the pink birds – Flamingos. We saw them high in the Andes and down on the steppe.

Flamingos seem to congregate wherever there is a brine type of water. But we also saw them in marshes right next to some of the huge glacial lakes down on the steppe, near El Calafate, so I’m not entirely sure what attracts Flamingos to a place.

That doesn’t matter, because they are so beautiful. And, their pink color is always a pretty contrast to the green or brown environment where they forage.

Torrent Duck

On a hike along a steeply sluicing river Nahuel Huapi National Park, we noticed a duck diving in and out of the steepest rapids! It would dive right in, and stay in, only to re-appear somewhere else along the rapid. Or, well, waterfall? This amazing duck is called the Torrent Duck, and it is not a good flier. Rather, it is an Olympic swimmer!

Quite the singer!

Along a glacier, the Rufus Collared Sparrow was declaring his territory, and his call would be answered by others within earshot!

And when a mate is secured, they are busy. This Sparrow, and other birds we’ll cover, were often fanatically working to build nests and raise families!

In the mountains or in sea colonies, all are set about bringing up the next generation. Some of the most industrious were the Cormorants.

Another time, a flash of yellow caught our eye, and it’s the Sierra Finch.

And throughout our time in Patagonia, whether we were out in the steppe, which is flat, or in the mountains, we would witness one of the largest land birds on Planet Earth. And that bird is the Andean Condor.

The Andean Condor

In Patagonia, Condors do not require mountains and steep aeries to fly from. It is so windy, they can often be seen perched on hummocks. They rest, and when the wind picks up, all they need to do is spread their enormous wings to get aloft.

Another bird seen soaring everywhere is not quite as revered, yet its eating routine is not unlike the condor-the lowly turkey vulture.

A common sight was a relative of the woodpecker, a flicker.

They could be seen seeking insects in the hollows of trees or even on the ground sometimes.

More rare was the fire eyed Diucon.

Down in Tierra del Fuego, the busiest birds of all were Arctic Terns and Cormorants.

They build island-colonies solely occupied by their species.

When one arrives by boat, all you see are busy birds flying back and forth with nest building materials!

They are simply fascinating!

The islands where the terns and cormorants nest remind me of WWII aircraft carriers, with “aircraft” constantly coming and going. Noisy and smelly, too.

Another constant companion is the Patagonian Goose. Instead of living in gregarious flocks like Cormorants, Terns, Ibis or other geese, these are almost always seen in pairs.

Back in Buenos Aires, we saw some more warm weather birds.

The gregarious, festidious green parrot could be seen, and heard, whilst foraging or socializing in the parks around the city.

But we saw some other creatures that are notable!

One of a pair of iguanas that scampered across our path...

We also witnessed some iguanas being chased by parent birds defending their nest.

And, down in Tierra del Fuego, there is an invasive species, famaliar to Oregonians. Yes, Beavers were introduced, and they have wreaked havoc on the environment down there.

But, they are interesting, I guess. Like the cormorants, these fellows never stop working overtime!

From the Atlantic to the Andes, and Esquel (via Arizona)

11 12 2011

The adventure turns west. We leave the Atlantic behind, and will continue to make our way over the Andes mountains, to the Pacific. Of course, we’ll not be doing this in a day! We’ll be stopping in Esquel, a small ski town, then Bariloche, Argentina’s ski mecca, and then stop in Puerto Montt, Chile, which sits at the top of Chile’s vast fjord system.

Let's not have a breakdown out here!

Today we have a lot of territory to cover. Leaving Puerto Madryn, we’ll spend hours crossing the Argentinian steppe, a vast flat area said to be the 7th largest desert in the world, with flora like Central Oregon. Crossing this region, you sometimes imagine hills, when there are none. And it’s empty – which is normal in Patagonia!

At long last we do see hills.

Arizona? Nope. Argentina!

The road takes us into a region completely overlooked by Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. It has areas resembling Arizona, or the John Day River!

Where's Clint Eastwood?

Or Oregon’s Painted Hills! Only more of them.

It takes us a couple of hours to pass through this fascinating area.

I was really surprised it isn’t mention, and it’s totally unpopulated.

Activate your zoom to find the guanaco to the right of the summit!

We pass through a valley and we can see painted hills everywhere.

I’m thinking they are like the ones in Oregon – they are ash deposits from distant volcanoes – in this case they are Andes volcanoes.

I am very excited to witness the Andes for real! I wonder if they will look anything like the Himalayas.

After spending so much time in the steppe, all of us are looking forward to seeing mountains all around.

And then we round a bend, and there they are!

Lonely highway with Andes! We are there at last!

It’s not long before snowy, craggy peaks stretch from south to north horizon to horizon – and we are quite far away. I must be looking 70 miles in each direction. And then, what’s this? Something not supposed to be here. But there it (they) are! Pink flamingos all hanging out in this pond way up here?

Flamingos out of nowhere!

It doesn’t take long for me to get used to seeing mountains all around. As they loom closer, I can see lots of snow up above. We are told it will melt and by summer, except for the glaciers, it will all be gone. The mountains look like they must be above 10,000 feet, yet Saskia says they are no more than 6,000.

Toward 5 p.m. we arrive in Esquel, a small ski town, with the La Hoya resort sitting above. It’s late spring, so it’s pretty quiet. But everywhere there are signs of alpine tourism. Esquel is the gateway to Los Alerces National Park.

There are chocolate shops, ski shops, rental shops and tour guides.

There are lots and lots of restaurants, and we are HUNGRY!

But we are in Argentina. We must remember that restaurants won’t be open until 8:00 at the earliest!

So we bide our time, talking in the hotel lobby and then walking around.

This young lady walks into the hotel looking very tired, and a bit sad. She sits down on the couch, across the coffee table from me. I ask what has she seen today? She turns out to be from Spain, and was part of a Spanish version of the reality show “Survivor!” She just got voted off! They had spent three weeks being shuttled around blind in the back of a truck from one “survivor venue” to another. They had practically nothing to eat. She had gotten very close to her teammates! She was pretty bummed, and was going home shortly. But she was glad for the experience.

Well, it was getting near “dinner time,” so we wended our way through Esquel’s streets in search of a meal. We dug up one spot with a likely menu – one that actually had fresh salads! We poked our heads inside, and nobody spoke English. Christof, our universal translator, stepped in and somehow worked everything out. They were not open yet but they took us. Then we got some beer while they got the table ready. And when it came time to read the un-readable menu Christof was there to help out and order, and make diplomatic amends with our server, who turned out to be super cute.

This was one memorable meal full of giggles and laughs, the conversation degenerated on both the female and male sides to less-than formal, more like stories of early life encounters with the opposite sex, and preferences, and such! Soon another bottle of wine was on the table, and we began to wonder what the other people in the restaurant thought of us.

And that was only the beginning. Afterward we ran into Yap and Patricia and all of us went on a pub crawl, winding up at this totally cool old style bar with all kinds of Patagonian mementos hanging from the walls. We succeeded in persuading the proprietors to play dance music and went on from there!

On the way home I saw the Southern Cross for the first time! Or so I thought. What I saw was what turns out to be a “false” Southern Cross!” No matter. I would continue to search for it!

Looking forward to hiking in Los Alerces National Park tomorrow!

Coastal Patagonia: Valdes Peninsula and Puerto Madryn – Penguins!

6 12 2011

Photo by Monique Poesiat

The ride on the double-decker sleeper bus from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn is a positive learning experience for me! It’s got lots of leg room, entertainment, food, and as long as one has ear plugs and sleeping mask, one can manage quite fine. We are on Route 3 (Ruta 3), which goes all the way to the end at Tierra del Fuego. The gentle rocking of the bus and distant engine noise seems to aid in sleeping. Most of us sleep through the night, and are up at dawn marveling at the sunrise. Still, even then, nothing to break the horizon. Over fourteen hours and no hills, no ocean, just what looks like sage from horizon to horizon.

After what seems like an eternity or a mirage, billboards emerge, shouting for all to see: “PUERTO MADRYN” in so many kilometers. We learn that the reason we don’t see trees is the area is nutrient poor. Incredibly, everything around us is volcanic ash, devoid of good nutrients. This is why there are no trees. We finally pass through some “painted hills” like in Oregon, though the colors are different. The layers are ash. This means ash deposited here came from the other side of the continent, the Andes!

Finally things descend and the Atlantic Ocean emerges, viewable to the east from north to south. As the road drops, a city emerges into view; it’s Puerto Madryn. Cargo ships lie at anchor offshore, and there’s a long pier with more ships tied up.

Semi trucks are coming and going from the pier with cargo. Industrial sized fishing boats, and Argentinian Coast Guard ships are also docked. As we navigate the town’s roads, we see auto dealerships, restaurants, banks; on the waterfront I see kayak rentals, some kite boarders, and hotels – signs this place is a beach destination in summer season.

It’s about 9:00 a.m. We come to a stop on the waterfront boulevard at the Hotel Costanera. Seems a right place to be, steps from the beach! We’ll spend two nights here. So we disembark, to check in and get right back out because we are headed south, to see a Magellanic Penguin colony this afternoon! We are going to the Reserva Provincial Putna Tombo, the largest Magellanic Penguin colony in South America!

The hotel room is a bit outdated, but at least the bathroom has been recently overhauled. It will be OK for a couple of nights. The “window” of the room looks out onto a narrow interior column of other hotel “windows.” So, we cannot see the beach from here.

Although it’s on the Atlantic coast, Puerto Madryn is situated in one of the bays of the Valdes Peninsula. It was founded by the Welsh in 1886.

So it’s, nestled in the Golfo Nuevo, sheltered from the force of ocean waves. The beach is pleasant, and we would be taking strolls along the sand. The tourist business is year round. In summer (January to March) it’s popular with Portenos from Buenos Aires seeking beach time. In August to early November, wildlife tourists flock here to witness the spectacle of Elephant Seals, Southern Right Whales, Southern Sea Lions and Magellanic Penguins rearing their young.

Well, it’s off to the penguin colony! I’m very excited to see the penguins in action. Having seen so many documentaries I imagine myself immersed on the beach with tens of thousands of squawking tuxedo-clad flightless birds. We are all horrified to learn it’s a two hour ride to get there. O-M-G. I don’t have to tell you what we just finished! But as I was to learn, this is Patagonia, and it’s often a long way between highlights!

The nothing-ness of Patagonia continued until we arrived on a dusty, windy road at the Reserva Provincial Putna Tombo, where the Atlantic coast, with its wind and waves, is in full force. So, if you can imagine, it’s like Eastern Oregon right up to the sandy beach! Soon, something unexpected emerges.

There are penguins! There are penguins walking amongst the growth that looks like sage or juniper. We walk along trails built for viewing. We’re told that right now, the penguins have come in for mating season, paired up, mated, and eggs have been laid. We’ve arrived at the egg-tending part of the reproductive cycle. That means that at any given time, one parent is at sea foraging, and the other is on the nest tending. Here, Magellanic Penguins dig burrows for their nests. I don’t know why. It sure is windy. Maybe that’s why? But instead of a million penguins fighting for real estate on a beach, the penguins walk up to a half mile inland and dig burrows amongst the little hills behind the coast.

Penguins don’t walk. They waddle. They are so cute!

Check out this waddling video! Penguin finding home!

And here, I’ve got them coming home from foraging at sea. They are all coming home to their spouses.

Got to love these guys! They were not at all bothered by us! They would just stop, look at us, and then go on their way home. We never could figure out how they find home!

There’s never a boring moment with penguins!

They were coming and going all afternoon. We were respectful of their paths. They were here for business…to get to their nests so their partner could go to sea and eat!

Tomorrow, we are to visit Peninsula Valdes proper. We will see the elephant seals, seal lions and other wildlife! Can’t wait!