New Zealand, 2017

On a UWSP Adventure Tour

January 2017

Fireworks, Canyoning, Kayaking...
videos and slides

New Zealand has been on my travel "bucket list" for some time. So when I heard repeated promos on 90fm (an amazing student run alternative radio station) for a UWSP Adventure Tour headed over there and promising lots of action, I had to check into it. I had never done an extended group tour before, but the itinerary looked great and I thought this would be a good introduction to that part of the world. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that our intrepid tour leader would be someone who looked familiar... Trevor had played guitar for many years in a very cool Irish alt-rock band called Green Tea and this was his new gig. He was also quite familiar with New Zealand from his backpacking days. His wife Julie would be co-leader. The tour was limited to about a dozen and everyone was warned that it would involve plenty of physical activity. We got lots of advice on appropriate exercises to start 6 months in advance that I, of course, crammed into the last week. I felt like a student again!

Arriving in Auckland on December 31 after leaving Wisconsin on December 29 and somehow completely skipping the day in between (the international dateline in the Pacific is a kind of time warp), I felt rather disoriented. After being awake for... 30 hours? 40 hours? (I sure couldn't sleep on the plane) I would have loved to take a little nap in my hotel room. But that would have been the END. It was New Years Eve! All I had to do was stay awake for another 10 hours or so to celebrate the next solar cycle 19 hours before my friends back home (and well before almost everyone else in the world). How could I not? Besides, United Airlines had managed to lose my checked luggage and I had the prospect of being on an outdoor adventure on the other side of world without any of the survival gear we were instructed to bring to think about, to help me stay awake.

Happy New Year!

A bunch of us (some of the group had opted for that nap) managed to stay awake, and we found a nice park on a hill with an open view of the Sky Tower, which was the origin of Auckland's firework display. There, we met a homeless man of Maori descent who gave us lots of friendly advice and offered to take us on a private tour of his homeland if we would just scrap our itinerary and buy a van that he would be happy drive. It sounded like the deal of a lifetime to me, but I knew I was somewhat sleep deprived and probably not thinking clearly. Fortunately Trevor, our intrepid leader, after careful consideration determined that the van would not be big enough to accommodate the full group (including the sleepers) and thanked the man for his suggestion. We then made a graceful exit and found an even better view of the Tower without similar distractions. The countdown to midnight was followed by a spectacular fireworks display (see video). After that... to sleep, perchance to dream...

This is Auckland on New Years Day from one of the inactive (?) volcanoes that surrounds it. The Sky Tower is always a prominant feature. The Millenials in our adventure travel group are posting stuff to friends who may still be stuck in 2016. I know I fired off a few emails that morning (after a good nights sleep) to wish people a Happy New Year before they had settled on which bar they were going to be in at the stroke of midnight. This is the kind of stupid stuff you can do if you are on the wrong side of the world (or if you are POTUS with a Twitter account). Isn't life grand?

Here we are and we are having our first Group Dinner. It was very good, I'm sure, but I don't remember much about the food. I'm not much of a foodie, anyway. As long as everything's free-trade-kosher-organic-gluten-free-certifiably-vegan-LBGTQ-friendly I'm mostly OK with it. Unless it has accidently touched cauliflower, of course. The Group, as you can see, is evenly divided between Millenials and Boomers. The absolute best of both worlds! Except for poor Trevor and Julie, our intrepid leaders, who are 30-somethings. They have Responsibilities! OMG!


It's only Day 2 and we are already having what most of us would agree was our most challenging outdoor adventure. Fortunately, my lost luggage had arrived just before the bus left Auckland and I had the rest of my gear, including my ski helmet and GoPro.
"Canyoning" means abseiling (what the French call rappeling) down a long series of waterfalls. This particular adventure took place in Sleeping God Canyon in the Coromandel Forest Park. The outfitter was called Canyonz (or CanyoNZ?). They fitted us out with thermals and wetsuits, helmets, harnesses, rubber boots and other gear. Then they led us from a rustic parking lot up a long tropical path to a rocky pool near the top of the first waterfall. We suited up and followed our guides, Russ and Anna, over rocks and through the river to a suitable place to practice our abseiling technique. After showing us the ropes (so to speak) they were ready to cut us loose. Er, I mean, we were good to go!

It's a long way down. And this is just the first pitch! There were 10 of these in all.
We were also invited to "take the plunge" on three occasions. In other words, who needs ropes? Just jump! A deep pool always beckoned below, but sometimes three stories down.
It was certainly an adrenaline rush, and the sort of thing that GoPros were invented for. "Am I on, Russ?" became my mantra before each drop. (Try to hear a GoPro beep above a plunging waterfall. Go ahead, try!)
BTW, our guides brought all the ropes and stuff with them. When we left there were only a few fixed anchors set into the rocks. And a few plastic tarps to keep ropes from fraying.
We started around 9am and got back to the lot in the early evening (December is the summer solstice here). Whoa! That's a full day of action!

Next stop, Hobbiton. Or LOTR for you afficiandos. Many people fly to New Zealand for this, and ONLY this. Yes. Really. And most of them have never read a book by J.R.R. Tolkien or even seen one of Peter Jackson's movies! But they have the Internet and know what matters.

Selfies! Or photo ops in general, which I am certainly not immune to (see above). Here is a nice family portrait of certain members of our Group. Quade even brought along appropriate attire (I did not check to see if he had added the requisite hair to his Hobbit toes). I simply brought my (totally anachronistic) Decksters T-shirt to show the world that I was THERE and that time and space and reality are just figments of my imagination. Or Tolkien's. Or Peter Jackson's.

Hobbits. Dwarves. Elves. Orcs. Every color of the rainbow.

This isn't Hobbiton. But it's another kind of fantasy. The Maori culture is alive and well in New Zealand. These are the Pacific islanders who "discovered" these previously uninhabited lands and utterly transformed them a mere thousand years ago. Then the Europeans arrived. The rest is history. But I learned that New Zealand has gone much further than most other "developed" countries to find a mutually acceptable accommodation with the so-called "natives" who showed up a bit earlier. Most New Zealanders think everything Maori is cool. So do tourists. So do the descendants of the Maoris. I wish we could do this here. People from Illinois would pay serious bitcoin to watch people from the Ho Chunk nation spear fish in northern Oisconsin before the colonialists could snag them!

The Tongariro Crossing is a long trek over an inactive volcano caldera. Everybody wants to do it during the peak summer vacation season, which is in January if you are on the wrong side of the world.
This particular day was absolutely glorious and followed a long stretch of bad weather, which meant there was lots of pent up demand for this experience.
The volcano in the background became "Mt Doom" of Mordor in LOTR. CGI effects provided the molten lava, Eye of Sauron, etc.

A couple of beautiful lakes provide a scenic lunch break. But don't drink the water!

Our fearless and intrepid leader takes a richly deserved rest.
So, Trevor, which way takes us back down?

(I think we're all Bozos on this bus!) '

It's peaceful and lovely, but on a Saturday night, OMG! These people know how to party! From my 10th floor hotel room, the revelers out in the streets and drinking on the decks of the houses below were perfectly audible.

Peter Jackson (pictured), who directed Lord of the Rings, has his studio here in Wellington. His partner runs the WETI special effects studio, which we paid a visit to. They did special effects for many popular movies besides LOTR, like Avatar. Speaking of LOTR, did you know that they made tens of thousands of elvish arrows (with real feathers) by hand to use in a single battle scene? And most of them are still missing in the woods somewhere.

A big ferry took us from Wellington on the North Island to Nelson on the South Island. Nelson (pictured) is a very cool town, even in the summer season. We explored a gothic cathedral there. There are many Eurostyle pedestrian-friendly streets with outdoor cafes. But beware of pickpockets! A seagull landed on my plate and flew off with my toast one morning!

No WiFi today. It can't get any worse.

The Abel Tasman National Park is named after a Dutch explorer who never set foot on New Zealand, but claimed the islands for the Dutch Crown after sailing around them. Like that sailboat in the distance.

I hearby claim this beautiful beach in the name of our great benefactor and imperial ruler, Donald Trump!


After a day of hiking along the coast, the Boomers went sea kayaking the next day. Most of the Millenials went straight to the beach and stayed there. At least, that's what they said they did. Maybe they went to the bar instead (we weren't around to check on them). Once in our rented kayaks, we set out for parts unknown. Unknown to us, at least. We headed south and passed by a big rock arch. Then we turned around after Trevor got his GPS to work. Eventually, we found the magical beach we had heard about, near Split Apple Rock. A group of big boulders just offshore really does suggest that. I wonder how they/it got there? Anyway, it was a perfect place for a lunch break and a swim.

After a stop at Hanmer Springs and a spa thing, Ethan the Cynical Bus Driver (see picture below) took us to Christchurch. Christchurch is still recovering from a devastating earthquake. You can see patched concrete buildings everywhere. And many vacant lots.
But the city is alive and will fully recover someday. There are many great museums and a wonderful botanical garden to see.

This gothic-style cathedral is supported by steel girders. No entry!
Ethan thinks the money would have been better spent on rebuilding housing for poorer residents who lost everything.
Even Paradise has politics.

Mt Cook has finally emerged from the clouds. But will we get lucky enough to see it up close?

The hills are alive...

...with the sound of... music? Or is that just the gailforce wind sawing through the cables?

Another mandatory Deckster photo op, but a bit chilly.
He went that way!

Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Returning to base camp (the Sir Edmund Hillary Visitor Center at Mt Cook)

Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander who, with partner Tenzing Norgay, was the first to summit Mt Everest.
That was before the place was strewn with garbage and frozen bodies. It was even before WiFi!

Another famous New Zealander, dressed in black like a London hipster. This is Ethan the Cynical Bus Driver. He took us around the South Island and gave us the benefit of his wisdom. He wasn't afraid to share his opinions, either. He informed us that he spoke "perfect" English (a lady from Singapore had told him that, so it had to be true). He also told us that he didn't like anything about America. Well, with one exception. "Judge Judy! She's bloody fantastic!" That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship that lasted till the end of the trip.
(Craig, our bus driver on the North Island, was also wonderful. But he was less inclined to share his political thoughts, sticking mostly to nuggets of history and culture)

A tasty flounder. For all you foodies.
No trip is complete without sharing at least one foodie pic!
(Note the healthy salad. Yes, and also the one on top of the fish. Eeeew!)

This New Zealander looks like a species of parrot. I don't know what it was exactly, but we found him on the winding, rainy road to Milford Sound.
I wonder how they taste with a shiitaki mushroom glaze on a bed of nitrogen-infused kale?

Milford Sound. One of the Natural Wonders of the World. Southwest New Zealand is home to many fjords (fiords?). It also gets lots of rain, which feeds the numerous waterfalls that cascade down the surrounding cliffs. We were lucky to arrive on a day of light drizzle after days of heavy rain had produced many extra "temporary" waterfalls along with the permanent ones.

Good raingear is highly recommended when touring Milford Sound.
So are cameras or (in a pinch) a smartphone.

They go on and on and on...

And still no WiFi. Aaaargh!

Seal Rock is named for... ?

One more selfie, and I'm heading for a lower deck!
(I was lucky not to be sick yet from what many of my fellow travelers had come down with)

Queenstown. A big tourist destination. Last stop before a short flight back to Auckland, and then the long journey home.
It was at the airport that it really hit me. Not only was the trip over. I was now feeling sick, like many of the others. A nasty and highly contagious virus.
We are pretty sure we brought it with us from the USA, not NZ. It would be weeks before I felt normal again.

Was it worth it? Hell, yes!!!


What is there to do in New Zealand for the outdoor enthusiast? Prices are in NZ dollars. Multiply by 0.7 to get the US prices.

I only did 2 out of the 14 listed! Canyoning and Milford. I suppose I'll just have to go back!
Hey, Trevor, can I lead the Mt Cook helicopter glacier ski tour this time?

"90% of life is just showing up."
Woody Allen

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Fireworks, Canyoning, Kayaking