Sunday, January 27, 2008

New Zealand

I'll just say it once - this is a country you MUST visit! My friend Deirdre and I spent 3 glorious weeks traveling around both the south and north islands and it was hard to find a spot we didn't like. Our adventure began with a 24hr journey for me (preceeded by 22 straight hours in work and no sleep for a night) and an even longer haul from Deirdre who flew from Shannon to London to LA - where we met - and then to Auckland, crossing the International Date Line (+1 day) before a short hop south to Queenstown... where my little sister Caz met us at the airport. Caz is traveling in Australia for 2 years and had been in NZ for a few weeks. She was headed back to Sydney to spend Christmas with our brother and their friends but first I got to catch up with her for a few days. It had been 15 months since we'd seen each other but it seemed like yesterday... text messages and phone calls have made the oceans between us seem like narrow rivers!

We launched right into adventure with a gondola spin up to a lookout over the town and the beautiful surroundings - think small urban Lord of the Rings. The early evening light was shimmering off the lake (which we later discovered is absolutely too cold for swimming) over which skydiver after skydiver floated - before landing safely in a nearby park. While my sister raved about canonswings, bungy jumping, waterfall climbs and just about anything that could be considered an adventure activity I was just looking forward to a relaxing few weeks (ok - with a half ironman included - one of the reasons we were down under). But looking at the skydivers glide though the air I did think this was something I could incorporate into "relaxing" - assuming I'd actually make it out of the plane...

With Deirdre looking out over Queenstown

To cap of a great first day, I went for a run on some trails and found myself heading up towards the lookout - this time on 2 feet as opposed to sat in a gondola - slightly more effort required! I didn't it to the top but instead turned onto a different track and found myself barrelling down a narrow winding trail for ten minutes of heart-thumping, ankle twisting fun! Live to run. Run to live.

Day 2 found us on the road to Milford Sound where we hoped to kayak the next day. It started out well - except for Caroline seemed determined to overturn our 2-man - but there were high winds and eventually the guides had to turn us back. We were disappointed not to make it out further into the famous fjord but we weren't going to argue with nature, not in these unforgiving surroundings. Enroute back to Q'town the next day we stopped in Te Anua for my first lake swim since ironman (Sept)... having been in the pool maybe twice since... wetsuits on and in we went - and you know, it wasn't so bad. The water was pretty cold but I was just happy to be getting some practice in - 10 days before the 2km swim awaiting us in the Port of Tauranga! To Caroline's distress on the shore we managed to hold up a ferry - the skipper luckily having spotted us crossing his path... oooups!

Kayaking with Caroline in Milford Sound as the storm rolled in...

Back in Q'town that night we hit a yoga class as Unity Yoga - a very neat spot run by an American guy who was familiar with Core Power Yoga (my second home) and who gave us a wonderful 2hrs of vinyasa. There was just Deirdre, myself and one other guy. Caroline left for Christchurch (and Sydney) the next day - Christmas Eve - and we headed to Wanaka - a really nice spot an hour north of Q'town. While we'd enjoyed the adventure capital of the south, we found it a bit too full of travelers (like, who did we think we were??). Wanaka on the other hand was somewhere that real NZ people actually lived! We hired mountain bikes for a few hours and found a fabulous trail overlooking the lake. Then later, after another yummy home (hostel)-cooked dinner, we went down the road to midnight mass which was hosted by a very nice priest who made us all feel right at home and not 10,000 miles from our families! Next day, I got up early and had a glorious run on the same trail by the lake (during which I tried to devise ways in which I could run trails full time... like maybe live in a trailer in northern California, run in the morning, work in a coffee shop in the afternoon, yoga in the evening... so I'd have to forgo any more LV handbags but surely I could manage that? Well, ok, maybe not). And then later on the road to Franz Josef - a little town where we spent most of Christmas Day cooped up by the fire avoiding the rain hammering down outside - not quite the turkey on a barbie experience one might have expected in the middle of summer in NZ... but that was a cool thing about the country - it's like a collection of micro-climates. It could be pouring rain one place and twenty minutes down the road the sun is splitting the rocks. Next day we set off early for our hike on the glacier - a great experience - the vast glacier set amongst tree covered mountains, onlly a short hop from the sea, is truly a phenomena. After a few nights in Franz Josef we headed further north and across the mountains headed towards Christchurch. To break the journey, we stopped off overnight in Arthur's Pass - where again I found a lovely hilly trail to run on. And a nice relaxing evening playing Trival Pursuit! Once in Christchurch we hit the shops bigtime, and then sampled the nightlife. Next morning I had a lovely long run along the Avon river - the whole setting reminded me of small town England. Then we found a hot yoga class before hitting the road south.

Ready for a night on the town in Christchurch

It's weird - at thsi stage we had covered a lot of ground in just a few days but I think the combination of relaxing for a few hours every evening and getting to do our regular activities like running and yoga made it seem way less rushed that it probably sounds. Mt. Cook was our next stop - we had a bit of fun along the way as we discovered we had no cash and there were no ATMs along the way. We ended up going 30 mins past the turn-off for Mt. Cook to the next town - only to discover the ATM was out of order! Luckily the hostel took visa and I had some US dollars so I changed them at the swanky hotel with a lookout to the famous peak (at a ridiculous exchange rate) so that we had a bit of cash for snacks etc. After a walk aorund and a relaxing evening in the village, I got up early the next morning to run the trail out towards Mt. Cook - and boy was I rewarded with a spectacular view. It was really beautiful in the early morning sun. I was just sorry I didn't have my camera as by the time we drove over that way in the afternoon the summit was clouded over. By this stage of the trip I had decided against doing a skydive but Dee was up for it so we checked into it at Mt. Cook airport on our way out that afternoon. Unfortunately the wind was picking up so she'd have to wait a few hours. So we opted to continue on the road back to Queenstown and maybe check into it back there. And there was always the north island... it was Dec 30th and we had New Year's Eve booked in Queenstown so we wanted to check out somewhere else on our only other night on the south island. But where to... Dunedin and other interesting places along the east coast were too far of a drive. We'd already been to Wanaka... so we hit on Glenorchy - with a cute name like that it would have to be fun. And it's the start (or finish) of the Routeburn track - one of the more famous in NZ - so we figured there'd be something to do. We wanted to get a swim in also and this town was along a lake. However, it turned out to be the coldest lake I've ever stepped foot in so that was the end of that! The hostel in wee Glenorchy left quite a lot to be desired - not least because of the cats everywhere. Ugghhh - there is no animal I like less that cats!! Deirdre on the other hand is quite a fan and took no small pleasure in calling the cat over to join us... On our way back to Q'town on New Years eve we did find another smaller lake around which lots of people were setting up camp for the night - and had a fabulous swim followed by a picnic lunch and then a walk along the trail overlooking the lake. It was a perfect day - warm and sunny but not too hot. Later than night we enjoyed a yummy Thai meal, a few glasses of wine and then watched the fireworks over the lake in Queenstown. A great way to end a wonderful year.

New Year, New Island...

We took a lunchtime flight up to Auckland, picked up my bike from airport storage and packed up the car. We'd gotten a really good deal on an estate car that worked out brilliant. It was even less powerful than the smaller one we'd had on the south island but it was cheap and fitted everything in so we were quite happy despite being slower than a few of the cyclists on the hills (did I mention the number of bikers on the roads - lots and lots, expecially on the north island)!

First stop was a small town called Thames at the start of the Coromandel Peninsula. After we got settled in the hostel, we took a drive up the coast and sampled the sea swimming... yuk - salty!!! I was very relieved to hear from the hostel landlady later that evening that the water in the area was particularly salty. Phew - I would not be able for 2km of that! Next day we drove further up north around the peninsula and across to the eastern coast where we found a lovely beach to have a proper swim. It was much nicer than the previous day. But wearing a wetsuit in the sea is quite different to the lake - there is so much more natural bouyancy that it's sort of hard to stay level in the water.

Sea-swimming - is that excitement or fear in my eyes??

And then it was on to Tauranga where we would be participating in the 19th annual Port of Tauranga Half Ironman in 2 days time!! Dee dreamed up this idea about a year ago with the intention of meeting her sister who would be travelling down under. As it turned out her plans changed but in the meantime Dee had found this race, convinced me to do it (ok, it didn't take much arm-twisting) and then in the end it was my little sis who was travelling there at the time!!

It had all seemed such a good idea last July when I signed up for the half - it was the middle of the summer, I was full of energy and training for IM Wisconsin. However, by November, with the long season over, capped off by a brilliant experience at my first 50 mile race, I was ready for a good long rest. And that's exactly what I did... I rode my bike once between September 10 and January 4 and swam maybe twice! I'd kept up the running of course but even that had slowed down with the December snow. So it was that I showed up in transition at 5:30am on January 5, 2008!! In a weird twist of fate I was racked next to a girl who had a towel from the 2006 Lifetime Fitness triathlon - and I was wearing my tri top from the same race (the only reason I did that race was for the gear!)... turns out she is from Germany, living in NZ, and was on a business trip to Minneapolis at the time of the triathlon and decided to sign up. Then there's me, from Ireland, living in Minneapolis and on holiday in New Zealand doing a triathlon. How's that for coincidence. Anyways, the race... well, it was a lot of fun and I ended up doing better than I expected - and feeling better than I expected which was the main thing - the swim was ok. The bike was long and windy. But the run, the run was beautiful - part of the course was 2 loops around "The Mount" - a dirt trail with fantastic views of the coast line. It was really quite hard to keep your eyes on the path! Dee had a great race for her first half IM - her run finish was such a blast - she sprinted down the home straight with every single person turned to watch her as she dashed for the line to make it under the 6 hour mark - which she did!!

Celebrating a good day's work

We'd splashed out on a nice hotel for the few days in Tauranga on account of our race and enjoyed a few glasses of wine that night. Not that it was my first tasting of NZ wine since landing - in fact, I sort of forgot that aspect of training along with everything else... BUT with the race over there was no need at all to feel guilty and so when we landed in Napier a few days later, in the center of the Hawkes Bay wine region, our first task was to book ourselves on a wine tour. We'd contemplated a bike tour but that just seemed too much like hard work, not to mention potentially lethal, so we settled for a nice comfy air-conditioned mini-bus tour. Which turned out to be a great idea... 5 winerys later, more than enough samples, some good cheese and a few purchased bottles that I would have to find room for in the luggage, and we returned to our accomodation slightly sloshed. But not quite done for the night... off we went to find a little action in downtown Napier. Let's just say it wasn't the most happening spot... in fact, it was one of those towns where you weren't quite sure if anyone lived there at all. The lights were on alright. But was anybody home?

After a few days in wine country we headed back inland to what was my favourite town in New Zealand - Taupo. Home of the NZ Ironman. Considering it's held in early March it's unlikely I will make it there if training here in MN but you never know... it is definitely a place I'd like to return to. And we did swim in the beautiful Lake Taupo so I have that part of it down :) And I got a great view of the area while jumping out of a place... yes, I gave in and decided to join Dee on a skydiving adventure. And I am so glad I did. Costs a ball of money but sure it's one of those things you just gotta do... it was a tandem one of course so really I had no reason to be scared. But I still thought I'd be terrifed as we left the plane. And I was quite worried about the ride up there to 12,000ft in a wee plane. But as it turned out it was just such a beautiful view all I could do was gaze out the window in awe! And when my turn came to roll out the door it all happened so quickly that I really didn't have time to think about it. The freefall was about 45 seconds but fel like 10. Then once the parachute opened it was pure bliss. It was the most peaceful experience I've ever had. I was grinning from ear to ear as we glided through the air - amazing views of the lake, the town and the countryside. It was a fabulous sunny day and we could see for miles. I was sorry to have to land!

To cap off a great holiday we spent out last 2 nights in a spanking new hotel-like hostel in National Park village from where we did the Tongariro Crossing - a 17km hike across part of Tongariro NP. What a way to end the trip! Again we were blessed with wonderful weather and the views were spectacular. Being the competitive people that we are we couldn't just stroll up and down the hills - oh no, we had up to 8 hours to get to our destination where the bus would pick us up and we got there in 5!! A good workout indeed. The views across the volcanic mountains and lunar valleys was very cool. Not to mention the Emerald Lakes about half way along the hike. The picturesque scene more than made up for the nasty sulpher smell!

Lunar landscape along the Tongariro Crossing

Next morning with a few aches and pains, we loaded up the car one last time and hit the road for Auckland. Enroute we collected sheepskin rugs and a few other gifts - as much as we could squish into the bike boxes. And that night we boarded the flight for LA. And home. What a trip. Make it there someday. You won't regret it!


It's the end of January and I have already failed miserable to stick with one of my New Years resolutions... which was to post regular blogs! I have a few excuses, mostly being on vacation until January 11th (see next post), returning to freezing Minnesota and a few burst pipes in my basement... followed by a very busy few weeks at work! But I have finally logged on - and there's a lot to catch up on...

Sorry to disappoint you - I intended to list my New Years Resolutions here but I just haven't gotten around to it yet!