A Day in Sunny Kaikoura New Zealand – An Unplanned Treat!

24 02 2013

IMG_0146Our spirits, soaked with sadness on having to forgo driving up the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island because of the storm, were completely lifted upon reaching the sunny east coast near Kaikoura! There, we experienced incredibly calm turquoise seas, warm temperatures, ocean wildlife, and peace.

On the way we reserved a room at the Sunrise Lodge Hostel. We really lucked out as our room was right across from the beach! With that in mind, I brought out a chair and watched the sunset. Almost immediately a school of dolphins approached, jumping all over.

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It was so relaxing after the disappointments we’d had. This was quite a nice reward! I prepared dinner at the kitchenette in our hostel apartment, and then Elwin returned – we decided to make a bonfire out on the beach.

This was great fun. The stars came out, and it was so clear that we could pick out the Southern Cross, and the Magellanic Clouds. Two local Kiwis taking a stroll noticed our fire and took part in collecting more wood.

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To the north lay the mountainsIMG_0142.

And looking south the Kaikoura Peninsula. Beautiful!

Right in Kaikoura there is a worthwhile hike – on the Kaikoura Peninsula. So that would be next day’s plan.

Another beauty of a day dawned, and we packed our backpacks with lunches and headed out for a hike.

The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway is a four-hour loop hike taking you out into the Pacific.

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A Southern Sea Lion takes in the UV rays.

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It meanders along the water’s edge, past sea lion colonies, red-billed gull colonies, nesting shearwaters, and coves where snorkelers were harvesting rock lobsters, known locally as crayfish.

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Angelique, Elwin and I spent hours meandering amongst the many bays created by the fingers of land reaching into the sea. The water is perfectly clear, and you can watch the sea swells ebbing into the bays. There, bull kelp sways to and fro with the water’s motion.

Then the trail climbs the bluffs, and you can see forever in each direction. Up top, of course someone’s farm with cows comes right up to the trail. But the unlimited views are spectacular.

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There is a lot of beautiful pampas grass which flows like flags in the wind.

IMG_3434After our rigorous hike and refreshing air and views, it’s time to head up north – we’ll be staying in Nelson, our staging point for a few days hiking and kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park.





Standed! Aerolineas Argentinas Airline Strike! We Wait for Tierra del Fuego

29 01 2012

Before I went to Argentina, I visited the United States State Department Website for its country brief on Argentina. Here is a quote, one which borne out to be true for us:

“Domestic flight schedules can be unreliable. Occasional work stoppages, over-scheduling of flights and other technical problems can result in flight delays, cancellations, or missed connections. Consult local media for information about possible strikes or [work] slow downs before planning travel…”

Our trip’s fate was about to fall victim to Argentine politics. Nothing like experiencing the good, bad, and the ugly of your host country for real, right?

We leave El Chalten, and head back for an evening in El Calafate, staying at Calafate Hostel. Our flight is to depart for Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, the next afternoon. We’re really excited to be there!

Breakfast done, we are free to spend the morning roaming El Calafate. Basically, our aim is to burn some time waiting for the flight. To be frank, El Calafate is a kind of “oasis” in the middle of high desert-bleak steppe Patagonia. There is nothing around but for this town. As it has access to the southern part of Los Glaciers National Park, the city is a magnet for outdoor freaks from all over the Earth. That means it’s mostly a city catering to travelers. There’s not much local culture. So roaming El Calafate means roaming restaurants, gift shops, tour guide offices, banks, and it’s even got a casino. The one thing we found interesting is that there is the Laguna Nimez bird sanctuary on Lago Argentina.

We paid it a visit, and were impressed! While not something worth driving hours for, it’s surely something good to do, if you’ve got an afternoon to spend in El Calafate. It’s more than it appears at first glance. Its value is discovered in the subtle side trails along the shore. There, you can see a surprising variety of birds. The reserve lightly financed, but big bang for the buck. A trail wends its way around wetlands and we could see Flamingos, Geese, Caracaras, ducks, Black Necked Swans, and many others. As it’s late spring many were tending eggs or chicks. The caracaras were not bothered by us one bit – they’d perch on bushes just beyond the trail and wouldn’t flinch if you got within ten feet of them.

We gather back at the hostel, board a bus and head for the airport. Once there, we check in, get our boarding passes and check our luggage. We’re going to the “end of the earth”! We are going to the farthest south anyone can go before Antarctica. 15 minutes pass. Then something goes horribly wrong. There is a commotion stirring in the airport. We’re delayed an hour. And then  we hear that Aerolineas Argentinas has suddenly gone on strike! We are not going to Ushuaia today. We do not know when we are going.

The airline puts us, and other passengers, on a bus to a hotel they have contracted for such situations. We head to this hotel, which is just outside the end of the town’s main strip. There, we learn the whole country is stranded! This isn’t just an airline strike, it’s a strike that started in the general labor sector. It may even spread to Chile. We’re informed we’ll have a table-service three course dinner tonight. That’s a far cry from what one gets on a cancelled flight in America! We all take it. It is a chicken schnitzel. Not bad!

So tonight, we wonder when we will get to the “end of the world.” We don’t even know how our connection back to Buenos Aires from Ushuaia will go. The airline tells us we will be leaving tomorrow.

To entertain ourselves, we walk away from the city lights to look at the southern constellations. One strange thing is moving across the sky, and it’s the International Space Station! It moves steadily from southwest to northeast. It is very bright and does not blink. We see other orbiting objects like satellites. And we see in full view the iconic Southern Cross plus hazy cloudy things we think are the Magellenic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds are micro galaxies just outside the Milky Way – they can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere.

We’ll just have to cross our fingers that we will leave tomorrow….

We’re hopeful that tomorrow the strike will be over and we will be on our way to the bottom of the world.





Hiking the Torres del Paine “W”

7 01 2012

A Lenticular Cloud over the towers!

Awakening at O’Dark Hundred, it’s pitch black and the Southern Cross is sparkling. We’re up early because Saskia wants us hitting the trail at 7:00 a.m.! Little did we know, but this was a brilliant decision for hiking Torres Del Paine.

We force down some more dry bread, orange colored water and cheese at the refugio-cafeteria. Today we could pre-order a “trail box lunch,” and this time a tuna sandwich was a choice – I picked tuna over the standard dry ham and cheese!

All suited up and booted and ready to to, we were all set. Almost. You see, our Refugio had an outdoors “boot storage box.” Inside, we were to walk in our stocking feet. We were to leave boots outside in the box. Being that we are in the Andes, low nighttime temperatures could be at freezing. I knew from past experience to NEVER allow boots to be stored outside if it is that cold. That means putting on COLD boots in the morning, and who wants that? So I took off my boots and brought them into my bedroom for the night. I was just fine. But some of my peers didn’t take such precautions, in particular Angelique! Hmmm, we’ll be hearing from Angelique today…Angelique did not pack hiking boots. Rather, she had Dr. Martens-calf-high boot style. She’ll find out if those work on the trail!

Our luck holds as it’s not windy, and the sun is out. Locals say it can blow a constant 4o mph around here! It’s cold but the athletic effort will no doubt have us losing layers before long.

We embark, hiking at a brisk pace along the flat plain below the towers to the trailhead. We come across bridge over a river, and like yesterday, there is a limit on how many can cross at once. Rickety for sure, but it’s kind of like Disneyland! What would a hike down here be without a rickety walk over a skinny bridge? It’s not too long past this bridge where the real trail begins, which will end at the base of the world-famous pinnacles of Torres del Paine!

The hike should challenging. It’s about 12 miles round trip, and 3,000 ft elevation gain. The beginning has a steep climb. The middle is up and down. The end is a 40-minute scramble up a boulder field, to a spectacular view of the towers. The climax will be a view of 9,000 ft vertical towers, with a glacial lake underneath! In 2011 I have done so much kayaking for work, and been so busy with outdoor recreation / kayaking work that I have not done much hiking. But I know how to hike efficiently. And, I am so much looking forward to being outside and the workout!

My strategy is to start at my own pace, slowly, let my body warm up, and once the trail reaches the rolling section, take off like a madman, like a workout. Let the legs run on the downhills. Then, at the scramble at the end, have enough energy to make a push to get there in a respectable time! I’m the only American, so I can’t allow myself to look like a slug. I’ll make a respectable hike for myself and for America…how patriotic…silly.

I take my time on the initial part. I can see Eray and Elwin moving on up ahead, and out front there is a group trailing Saskia, pushing out at this first part of the hike. Partly I want to hang back so I do not perspire too much. I’m kind of hoping if I relax a bit, I will not sweat and won’t have to change layers. That thought doesn’t work out. As the trail climbs I’m inevitably swamped with my own sweat and must do away with layers! At about this time Behrend walks past me going down, and he says he is seeking his girlfriend who’s behind.

But this strategy works. As the temperature rises and the physical effort builds, the layers peel off. I started with gloves and a hat, which are gone. Then the gore tex jacket. I’m warming up, I’m perspiring, I’m totally immersed in the physical element! I LOVE the physical aspects of hiking. Especially since we have spent so much time on the road! Breathing. In, out, in, out, my legs and torso warming up.

The ascent leads beyond the dry steppe and into an alpine forest. It winds along the slope of a valley, with a river cutting through. Every so often I can see the towers.

Up and down, I chug up and then fly down. I’m one hundred percent in this moment, breathing in the air, taking in the scenery, feeling the blood flowing, marveling at the views unfolding. I catch up and pass my peers Flores, Ivo, Stephanie, Ed…and on a bend there is another bridge with a trailside rest stop/lunch spot, which I pass by. Filled with endorphins, I just concentrate on my pace and breath…and I catch a glimpse of Angelique up ahead! More and more, backpacker couples pass me by coming down. I hear Ola! Cheers! G’Day! Gutte Morgun! It’s clear Torres Del Paine is a global magnet for outdoors enthusiasts. Further, I am struck by how many young couples are backpacking. This is a romantic Mecca!

Some of the woods reminds me of the movie “The Lord of the Rings,” and I can’t help myself.

When I catch up to Angelique, I’m so excited I have trouble containing myself. I say, “WOW, isn’t this fantastic! I’m so in my element, FINALLY! Wow, hiking in Patagonia!” Angelique retorts, “I hate it! I cannot stand it! My feet are blistered because I put on cold boots this morning, and I never thought it would be so long!” With my elation it was hard to understand. But I’m an experienced outdoors enthusiast and Angelique was not in her element. Yet she continued on. I asked, “Who’s up ahead?” “Behrend, Saskia, and Elwin” was the response. So passed all the other people? Wow! They must have paused at the rest stop. So, somehow Behrend passed me going down, and passed me going up but I missed that. How? Either way, that’s impressive!

Angelique: OUCH!

We keep going, and Angelique keeps up a good pace! All along this hike I encounter backpackers going this way and that.

The report on this trail says the end steepens. This is borne out as we are still in the woods, yet the trail’s upward trajectory becomes ever higher. Then the trees disappear and we’re in broad daylight.

The trail winds through a boulder field, and the Torres Del Paine towers begin to come into full view.

Rather than fall victim to the ever steepening burden of the trail, Angelique and I double our efforts. The “trail” begins to fade, and the way to the top is only found by carefully watching red blazes on rocks up above.

Here, we’re truly scrambling. A sign says, “30 minutes” meaning we have to scramble for 30 minutes! Well, at least we know.

That sign means one thing to me! We are NEARING the summit! It stokes my adrenaline, powering me up. Right then, Eghbert suddenly shows up. He’s also on the attack! He’s half my age. I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got to keep my position!

Somewhere along this flight to the finish, I move way ahead and Angelique gets lost amongst the boulders. I d0 not know it, but Angelique has lost her way and has gotten panicked, not knowing which way to go.

When I’m near the summit, I grab my camera and film the end in video mode. So here it is, without any further description. Imagine you are there yourself!

What can I say! No wind! Blue sky! WOW HOLY COW! Nothing could surpass this, could it? The fact that we left at 7:00 a.m. was killer! Clouds rolled in as we descended. We SCORED! It was surely a challenge and worth every single step! We take lots of photos. My other compadres make it to the top. Yaap, Ed, Stephanie, Eray, Ed, Christof, and more.

Behrend,Stephanie,Ed,Yaap,Ivo,Angelique,me,Eray…

Everyone savors the view and a bit of calm settles over. But after about half an hour, after we have had a chance to refresh ourselves, it’s time to head back.

Poor Angelique! On the way up she lost her way and practically had a panic attack finding us!

She wasn’t familiar with the markings showing the way. I felt bad that I got so excited I just kept going.

On the way down, I fell victim to the same issue. Before I knew it, I was in “no man’s land,” with no markers and everything unfamiliar. I had to scramble back up and find the trial markers.

Much of the descent, I was with Christof. We made good progress through the forests. At one particular bend in the trail, I glanced to my right, and WOW! I glimpsed a creature so rare, the park rangers want us to report it if we see it. It’s called a Hemuel – an Andes deer!

As Christof, before me, passed, I quietly signaled him to stop! He turned around, and me, without a peep, pointed to my right, and Christof saw the deer! WOW! I can’t believe it. What we are witnessing is one of the rarest creatures in Patagonia.

An endangered Hemuel

And, it has no problem with us. It’s a stout creature, with early season antlers, and losing its winter coat. It totally knew I was watching, but it didn’t mind that I was there.

Another romantic backpacker couple shows up, and I put my index finger to my mouth, signalling “quiet!” and pointed in its direction. Instantly they fell to their knees and watched, slowly bringing their point-and-shoots to capture the scene.

It was priceless!

The hike down was characterized be the day becoming more cloudy, and wind building. I was so thankful Saskia had planned to have us on the trail early. Otherwise, our pictures wouldn’t be as fantastic.

Also, the number of international outdoors addicts built during the day. All during the descent we saw more and more people coming up the trail, signaling how much of a magnet this place is!

I need to mention that about ten of our group gave up and never made the summit. Some actually planned to only hike part of the route. This whole day was a success. On our return, we walked again past the bottom of the plain, and this time we walked through one of the campgrounds at that lie at the base of the trails. These are car campgrounds. I was amazed at the sheer number of campsites. At this early part of the season, I counted less than ten sites occupied. But there are over 100 campsites! If this were December or January, this place would be packed! So we are SO fortunate to be here in early season. We had no idea. I would have to day that November is a great time to be in Patagonia.

At long last we arrive back in our Refugio, where we can get showers. We are to depart today, and tonight we’ll be in El Calafate, another few hours to the north in Patagonia. We are all desperate for the warmth and cleansing of a shower. We find it back in our Refugio. Oh man, it feels FANTASTIC! And we have some time to kill before our transportation shows up.

Eray and I know the best way to spend that time. Which is, to lounge on the grass, with an Austral beer and watching the sun pass over the nearby mountains, right?

At this moment, I don’t know how anything could be improved! We’ve hiked, accomplished, and we are relaxing following an incredible experience.

Well done!

Our drive will take us across the steppe, another lonely highway, and we’ll find ourselves in El Calafate, another magnet town for international outdoor addicts!

We take a minibus across another rickety bridge to a “transfer point,” where we’ll all board bigger buses to take us to El Calafate.

It’s a nice sunny afternoon.

And Angelique’s Dr. Martens, hanging from her bag, stand testimonial to her ordeal today! Check out the dust!

Well, tomorrow is another day. We’ll be face to face with a huge glacier!





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!