Tuesday, December 29, 2009

High above Wellington

So after our grand tour of the South Island with Jamie and Amy Stark, the four of us came back to Wellington. Our idea was to show them around the little city we proudly call home. But actually they ended up showing us around -- by signing us up for a helicopter tour!

The four of us climbed in and lifted off from Queen's Wharf in the heart of our CBD. Amy wisely thought I might be a little scared to fly in a helicopter (it just doesn't make any sense to me how they fly), so she decided I'd be in charge of photography in hopes it would distract me.

Although it meant I'd be in the front seat next to our pilot, it worked well. I took about 240 pics in the space of 35 minutes! Don't worry, you don't have to see all of them. We even got to use those cool headsets to talk to each other.

I immediately started snapping pics when we took off and banked hard to the left. Holy cow -- I never realized this is how helicopters manage to steer.

Our route took us north of the city, and when we mentioned our street to our pilot, he flew a little circle over our home.

Then of course came some amazing views of the coastline.

The little sheep look like dots from above.

We have a lot of wind turbines near Wellington. Jake made a comment to the pilot about that scene in Mission Impossible that involved choppers flying in and around turbines, and the pilot made a sudden move to drop the chopper down closer. He was just joking, and he immediately brought us back to level, but my heart was already in my throat. Everyone had a good laugh, and I tried to pretend it hadn't just scared the bejesus out of me. Thanks for that Jake. :)

The best view of the day was seeing the South Island so clearly across Cook Strait. It's usually much harder to see.

I did manage to overcome my nerves and really enjoyed the amazing views. What made it really special to us was that this is our home and we knew it so well. We could point out a lot of the walking tracks we'd been on, saw the red rocks area where the seal colony is, recognised the river in the Hutt Valley we've gone on runs along. I'm not sure this would have meant so much had we done it when we first arrived.

Thanks, Jamie and Amy, for taking us on such an amazing adventure! You guys are a blast, and we're so happy you could come out and enjoy this amazing country with us.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Roadtripping around the South Island

I can hear my mom... "If your friends told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it too?" Well apparently Jake would.

He took the plunge off the 43-meter-high Kawarau Bridge -- the world's first commercial bungy jump -- on Dec 23.

He took the opportunity to bungy while we were in Queenstown, NZ, adventure capital of the world, with our friends Jamie and Amy Stark from Chicago. Jamie also jumped off the bridge (we're talking about Jamie Stark of course, as I am not that crazy).

Here we are in front of a statue that honours the sheepdog. These dogs helped make it possible to live and prosper here in New Zealand as sheep play such a big role.

We roadtripped from Christchurch, through Lake Tekapo to Queenstown, where we stayed three days, then on to Milford Sound and Te Anau, Wanaka, Greymouth and back over to Christchurch.

We had some beautiful weather and some incredible scenery. The colour of the lakes in this area was just amazing.

We took a couple hikes and found some interesting bridges to cross.

When it came time to find our way across a creek, Jake and Mr. Stark got to work moving big rocks to build a bridge for us. While Amy and I debated the driest routes across the water, the men took on the manly job of picking up and throwing heavy rocks. A few big splashes resulted and defeated the purpose of trying to keep dry.

Finally across the creek and up the hill to the viewing platform, we had an excellent view of the Franz Joseph Glacier, and celebrated with a bit of NZ's tasty pinot noir.

No trip to the South Island is complete without a wine tour, so we paid someone to drive us around several vineyards in the Central Otago region. This area is best known for its pinot noir, and also produces some chardonnay and pinot gris. Yum.

After a few samples, we took a dignified little stroll through the vines.

Allow me to introduce you to the South Island mountain parrot. He's big, he's the centre of attention, and he wants to chew on the rubber seal on your rental car's door. He's also been known to sit there calmly while people crowd around and take his photo. What you won't notice is his buddy behind you who flew into your open car window rummaging through your snack stash. Turn around at just the right time, and you'll see that little rascal flying away with a bag full of honey roasted peanuts. New Zealand is a pretty safe place. The only crime we've experienced in our 12 months here was this daylight peanut heist.

One of the highlights of our trip had to be Milford Sound. This place is amazing. Giant steep hills covered in hundreds of waterfalls and surrounded by water. Jake and I are coming back in February to walk the four-day Milford Track, one of NZ's "great walks."

Even driving up to the Sounds was beautiful. Here's an example of how many waterfalls you'd see on the hillsides next to the road. This is Fjordland National Park, and they say it rains 200 days a year.

The weather was much nicer in Lake Tekapo. I fell in love with these flowers, which you see all over the place.

In Queenstown we rented a little two-bedroom apartment that had a fantastic view looking out over the lake. When we weren't bungy-jumping or hiking or wine touring or rafting (on the Shotover River -- no photo opps since I was hanging on for my life), we were relaxing here and enjoying the view from our deck.

It's strange to be away from our families and spend the holidays in such a warm place. But we had a great Christmas and hope you did too.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Happy expataversary to us!

Dec. 28 marks one year since we landed here in Wellington and first asked each other "can you believe we're really here?" Our year has been filled with good friends, lots of exploring, new words such as "cheers" and "rubbish," and tons of wine. We've learned that adventure is not about your location but about your frame of mind. But we admit living in New Zealand sure makes it easy.

Jake and I just returned from an amazing roadtrip around the South Island with Jamie and Amy Stark. We'll sort through all our photos and post some here soon.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Flying the friendly skies

As we prepare for our first summertime Christmas, Jake and I are counting down the days -- or "sleeps" as they say here -- until our holiday. Only one sleep left for us now before heading off to Queenstown with the Starks from Chicago! In the meantime, I want to share a couple photos of my company's holiday party.

Kiwi language lesson #401: If a party requires "fancy dress," it doesn't mean formal attire. It means you wear a costume. It took me a while to figure that out after learning our party required fancy dress with a "uniform" theme.

Anyway, my workmates and I chose to be a flight crew, "AXA Airlines." From left, this is Diana (my boss), Greg (sits next to me at work), Mark (our department head), Caro (designer) and me. A few members of our team are missing from the photo. Greg was a big hit and took home one of the top costume awards.

Tea? Coffee? Caro found a drink trolley on the way to the party. Greg made several references to Transgender Airlines and offered safety instructions that involved his two "floatation devices" in case of an emergency landing. And of course there were plenty of less appropriate comments that I won't post here. I'm lucky to work with such a cool marketing team -- they are a ton of fun.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Abel Tasman Coastal Track

We're well into December and it doesn't feel like Christmas at all to us. Maybe it's because we just got back from an amazing three-day backpacking trip on one of New Zealand's Great Walks.

Although it managed to rain on us a little bit, overall it was warm and summery.

We went with our friend Brett, our American friend who works with Jake and has a pretty sweet blog of his own. The two guys crammed everything they could into their packs and let me carry my normal everyday-sized backpack, which was so nice. (Sorry guys, I guess we didn't need that iron skillet after all...)

There's an adventure everywhere you look around here. We took a water taxi from our launch point to the start of the track, and instead of going out on a dock and loading into a boat, we and 10 other trampers loaded into the boat while still on dry ground. They use tractors to load and unload boats of boats big and small. It was a little strange wearing a life jacket while rolling down the road in a boat. We had some rough seas that day, and even though the weather seemed fantastic, we were extremely happy to get back onto dry land.

The track goes across beautiful golden-sand beaches, and up through the bush and trees in the hills. But what I'll remember most are the low-tide crossings. Every six hours, the tide changes, and you need to plan your walk accordingly. When the time is right, you take off your hiking shoes and cross in what is sometimes knee-deep water. One time we had to keep your shoes on and carefully climb over boulders for 100 meters to find water that was shallow enough to cross.

If Jake or Brett tries to tell you a story about how I threw my own hiking shoe in the water -- in a failed attempt to toss it ashore during one of our crossings -- don't believe them. It'll only make them tease me more. :)

We stayed each night at clean and well organised campsites managed by the Dept. of Conservation (DOC). They had flush toilets! And clean drinking water, and fire pits with firewood. Amazing. We met several other trampers, many of them European. The DOC worker for the Anchorage campsite sat down at our fire and shared stories about driving a big rig through the center of Australia, and how there are so many kangaroos that sometimes you'll run them over in quick succession. "Boom, boom, boom..." as he described it. Ughh.

What a beautiful walk! The Abel Tasman is now one of my favourites, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for a beautiful weekend trip.