Day 10 [Fox] The Mighty Glaciers

27 Jul

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THE ETERNAL ARGUMENT OF FOX AND FRANZ JOSEF GLACIERS, WHICH IS BETTER? There are of course a million answers to that question, but my advice is, if you want to save money but long for a incredible experience, take a Fox trip that you’ll never forget. To be fair, both are worth your time. Franz Josef is larger, it’s town has more shops, but it can be expensive because the only way to be on ice is via a heli-hike. Fox on the other hand is more accessible, can be done via a half day hike, but there is nothing much to do in town.

Whichever glacier you choose, the experience of being so close to these gigantic structures of nature is both inspiring and humbling. We chose the Foxtrot Hike offered by the Fox Glacier Guides, a half-day trip just to have a taste of being on the ice. After a short introductory talk, visitors take a short bus ride to the entrance of the hikes. You can only walk on ice with a guide, so if you are not paying for it, don’t think of stepping on it.

Our guide is very friendly, and gave us an informative walk through of this geological wonder. It feels much cooler when walking on ice, but I think that most of the paths are muddy and hence lack the “winter wonderland” feel. Anyways, I appreciate the glaciers more when I got to know how it was formed, which makes Mother Nature a true artist.

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The Southland Visitor Center
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Beautiful marshland with a mountainous backdrop
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Sword fighting in Fox

BACK IN FOX, LAKE MATHESON IS ANOTHER WELL KNOWN ATTRACTION. When the winds are calm, you can see the elegant reflection of both Mount Cook and Tasman on the lake. It is worth staying after sunset because the starry skies lit up the mountain ranges, creating a romantic and stunning silhouette.  Throughout the day, the constant rumbling of the glaciers echo around town. I believe this to be a gentle reminder to us, of how magnificent and mighty nature can be.

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The two mountains as reflections on Lake Matheson
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Spectacular sunset at Lake Matheson
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Levitation of the day: Fox’s hiking trail

Day 9 [Glenorchy] The Beginning of The End

27 Jul

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WE WERE NOT PREPARED TO SEND CHARLES OFF WITHOUT COMPLETING THE FELLOWSHIP WE HAVE STARTED. Charles was scheduled to leave tonight and the proper farewell would be end things where our mission would be. A day trip to Glenorchy is like a journey to Middle Earth. The movies were filmed all around New Zealand, but some quintessential scenes were done here in Glenorchy.

Just a short drive from touristy Queenstown, Glenorchy felt like worlds away. The small postcard-perfect town seems to be long forgotten. The one street community of 300 is blessed with a beautiful lake and a quaint café. While the streets look deserted, the Glenorchy Cafe is busy with patrons waiting for their own large portions of sandwiches and potato wedges. Its homemade ketchup and lemon mayonnaise complement everything.

After a filling lunch, we are ready to explore the 1 1/2 hour hiking loop surrounding the lagoon. The trail travels through several different micro-climates, ranging from a plateau of grassland to dead-looking marshes, all demanding attention from our resident photographer.

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The mirror lake
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Paths reminiscing the journey of our fellowship
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Glenorchy lagoon
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Several different terrains visible within Glenorchy

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JUST LIKE THE TRILOGY, ALL BROTHERHOOD WOULD END TEMPORARILY WITH A COMPLETED MISSION. Charles headed home to his wife and work while me and Eric continued on. Warm sunny skies soon turned to rain and mist. We then drove pass the Haast pass into the rugged West Coast. With one person less, the car was often silent, and the weather indicated our mood.

In truth, we were deeply influenced by the weather. Here in New Zealand, when the skies are bright, life seemed tremendously positive. When it turns cloudy and grey, your spirits dampened and you lose your vision. Our drive was very gloomy. We nearly got trapped due to track closure, and the Thunder Creek Falls was from spectacular due to the rains.

Anyhow, we did manage to arrive at the Haast Wilderness Accommodation. Where we were suppose to break our trip to the glaciers. It seemed like a gift from the Maori gods when we noticed that we we’re the only ones sharing the spacious four bed dorm. The wi-fi is free and there is a playroom full of board games (for the bored, excuse the pun).

Though difficult, the end of one journey brings forth the beginning of another. Now with our heads held high, Eric and I proudly marched into our beds, in hopes that the duo would be able to conquer what tomorrow brings.

A beautiful morning in Queenstown. (Photo courtesy of Eric Chen)
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The board game lounge in Haast

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Levitation of the day: Glenorchy

Day 8 [Queenstown] Leap of faith

27 Jul
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THERE ARE THESE THINGS IN LIFE THAT YOU HAVE TO CHECK OFF YOUR BUCKET LIST. I believe bungy jumping to be one of those cliché ones. To be honest, I am somewhat aroused by heights. The fear of death intertwined with the feeling of being on top of the world is extremely satisfying for me, almost addictive. Queenstown is the birthplace of bungy jumping so never in my lifetime would I forgo an opportunity like this. The Kawarau Bridge jump allows adrenaline fanatics to get dunked in the river, all while being watched over by buses of spectators.

All the excitement builds up since morning, when you notice the lack of appetite even though breakfast is your favorite PB and J sandwich. The short drive to the jump site becomes painstakingly long, you feel jitters, sometimes starting to doubt your own decisions. Life flashes by while you line up for the jump itself. While people in front of you go down with screams, you start to think of the best masculine screech you can come up with. Do you jump headfirst? Do you do a semi twirl for greatest effect? How do you smile for the photos while trying to keep your calm?

Minutes feel like hours and it is now your turn. The staff fastens rope over your legs while blurting out small talk. How would a comment about yesterday’s weather be helpful at all? You try your breathing techniques, your happy place thoughts, your buddhist recitals. Nothing seemed to work and alas it is your turn.

The dive itself is too quick to comprehend. I heard a cue, felt my legs weakened, and then it just happened. In no time, I was now swinging upside down, with faint cheers audible from the bridge. Jump was fast, but the swing afterwards was long and dizzy. Two persons would then “rescue” me with their rafts and bring me ashore. I completed my duty, another item to check off.

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Getting ready for the jump
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Posing with swagger
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That’s me. The tiny blue thing. (Photo courtesy of Eric Chen)

QUEEENSTOWN IS TRULY AN ADRENALINE PARADISE. All sorts of activities to choose from, provided you have the cash to pay for it. The bungy jump was an unforgettable experience but I would not say that it is the highlight of the trip. One true highlight is the accommodation along our trip. We had pleasant experiences with our hostels and Haka Lodge is one of the best. This colorful hostel near town has a very personal and friendly reception. The amenities are very clean and good enough even though we had a full house.

More activities can be found at Bob’s peak. Gondolas bring you uphill to Luge, wheeled buggy racing on concrete tracks, bungy jumping and paragliding. Even if you are done with extreme sports, the restaurant and bar offers wide views of the night skyline. For me, one dive is enough for the day. I’d rather rest comfortably on my upper bunk bed, still high above, but safe and grounded.


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Queenstown looks beautiful at night. (Photo courtesy of Eric Chen)
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Haka Lodge’s bunk beds are exceptionally clean and comfortable
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Levitation of the day: The jump before the jump

Day 7 [Invercargill] A True Down-South Experience

27 Jul

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SEVERAL DAYS INTO OUR JOURNEY AND WE HAVE BEEN FOLLOWING OUR PREDETERMINED ITINERARY RELIGIOUSLY. When we sat down reminiscing our trip thus far the day before, someone brought up the idea of visiting the southernmost tip of the island. “It will be a good boast, something to write into your blog,” said Eric, wishing that we will agree with the extra miles of driving. “But according to Wikipedia, it is still not the most southernmost point on Earth, not even the southernmost city,” informed Charles, not wanting us to be disappointed. I quickly added, “We’ll come up with some believable extreme to say about it,” and so we took our first detour for the trip.

The route from Te Anau to Invercargill is some of the most fascinating ones. The Southern Scenic Route which continues into the Caitlins, is quite dangerous for inexperienced drivers. The strong Westerlies, winds blowing inwards from the Indian Ocean can cause vehicles to go off path (we had more than one near-miss accident here).

Within the city is the Southland Museum and Gallery (donation required) which houses a good collection of sub-antartic islands south of New Zealand, many which are its territories. Another unexpected attraction is its well-maintained Botanical Gardens. We enjoyed its large aviary, beautiful rose garden and an informative animal farm. This relaxing walk was a very long-awaited sanctuary within urban civilization.

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The beautiful Invercargill Botanical Gardens
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Bright blue skies and sea

WE HAVE BEEN STARVING OURSELVES THROUGHOUT THE TRIP. For one, food is ridiculously expensive for our standards. We would have expected cheaper prices for local produce such as Kiwi, NZ beef and seafood. In contrary, most of them are even cheaper back in Taiwan. Imagine our surprise when we discovered a $10 Japanese Bento on the streets of Invercargill. This small cozy Japanese restaurant is much like our savior. The bento consists of rice (something that we long crave and miss), fresh fried tempura pieces and several sides that reminds me so much of home. This lunch was both filling our tummies and our hearts that we did not want to leave.

But luckily we pulled our homesick selves together and left for Bluff. A small seaside town south of Invercargill, a gateway to Stewart Island. We were blessed with bright blue skies and high sea tides, picturesque coastal views of everything south of South Island. We the completed our mission with a visit to the “Southernmost Starbucks on Earth, Facebook check-in and photos for proof.

Invercargill proved worthy for a detour. This day was one charming and unhurried experience we would never forget. Who else would resist cheap tasty Japanese food and a chance to be geographically south as most can be.

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Our proof that we have indeed been to the end of the world
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Actually, here’s a better proof. The AA sign post in Bluff.
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Overlooking Steward Island
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Bento that made both our mouths and eyes wet

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Levitation of the day: End of the world

Day 6 [Milford Sound] Sounds Cheeky

27 Jul

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THE 121KM MILFORD ROAD IS A BEAUTIFUL YET FOGGY JOURNEY TO THE FIORDS. Milford Sound and the entire Fiordland National Park is part of a World Heritage Site and is world-famous for its day trip cruises. When we drove through the Homer tunnel, the weather changed dramatically, and we were greeted with clear skies and a smiling sun. At the port before leaving for our cruise, cheeky sand flies kept hovering around us, reminding us of who’s boss. These seemingly pests are actually here for many years because according to Maori legend, the fiords were so beautiful that the goddess of death introduced Te Namu (sand flies) to remind humans that they are mortal and should not linger here. Great job goddess of death, because no repellents would keep these vicious flies away.

Milford is one of the wettest places on earth (an average of 6700mm a year!) and so once our cruise ship left shore, the rains swept in. Luckily, you can choose to sit inside the ship, and view the amazing natural wonders with a free cup of coffee in hand. The captain introduced us to many famous sites such as the Mitre Peak, a stone structure shaped like an endowed male organ and to a colony of sun bathing fur seals.

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Cruise ships leave Milford Downs port for day trips

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Having  a sip of hot coffee in the cruise ship

WHILE STOPPING HALFWAY FOR A LUNCH BREAK, A CURIOUS KEA BIRD CAME TO VISIT US. Kea birds are a smart and yet cheeky parrot endemic to this region. It is known to be very attracted to human food and all things sparkly (for his private collection of glittery items, I suppose?). They are however somewhat endangered and human activities are a big threat to their survival. It is best just to watch their playful expressions from afar and do not feed them.

We experienced a sudden drop in temperature after the rains, and we were trapped indoors for most of the day. For several nights in a row, we have formed these late evening mens’ talk group discussing everything from career to relationships, sharing jokes to heartfelt stories. We bought several NZ beers in preparation for a warm nice conversation at the hostel lounge when all of a sudden, Eric’s sharp ears picked up a peculiar sound from next door. Moments later, we heard audible moaning and squeaking noises. “They are clearly having a party over there,” I said. “And they are not shy at all.”

We thought the noise would end soon, but it just elevated into a full on romping session. Embarassed, we left the cheeky couple alone and continued our serious “intercourse” (sorry, I forgive me) back in our room. It was a weird day after all, we were being harassed first by the sand flies, then by a kea, and by the sounds of our overly excited neighbors. What a day!

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Kea, a glacier parrot that LOVES humans

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Levitation of the day: Milford Sound

Day 3 A Safe Haven For The Weary

21 Jul

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LANYU IS NOT KNOWN FOR ITS BEACHES. Only a handful are safe enough to swim, but none equal to the beaches found on Kenting or Penghu. However, pristine warm waters with an abundance of tropical fishes make the island an excellent place for skindiving. The coral reefs here are untouched by human civilization, maybe one of the last spots that remain so.

Fishes and all other animals are relatively happy here on the island. Dao people pay a lot of respect for them and thus goats and pigs are free to roam freely. These animals are prized possessions, only sacrificed during ceremonial rituals or when they die due to old age. Hey are often treated like pets, sometimes even viewed as a part of the family. So please give way when they cross your path. One thing I’ve noticed is that the mountain goats here love to challenge themselves with rock climbing. It is a wonder how they manage to defy gravity and conquer these steep cliffs.

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A herd of goats relaxing by the beach

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Pigs share roads and act as mobile traffic lights

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Goat occupying a stone plate

WHEN VISITING IN SUMMER, LANYU CAN BE HOTTER THAN AN OVEN. Midday temperatures hover near 35 degrees Celsius. The Ivalino cold springs can be a welcoming treat to sweating visitors. This spring connects fresh water from the water into the ocean. Local children and women can often be seen soaking in its water so it’s hard to miss.

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The beautiful cold springs

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Selfie taken enjoying a cold dip

The Epicurean Cafe belongs to my friends’ family. This rare casual yet upscale restaurant on the island serves local delicacies including flying fish, wild boar and tasty vegetarian options. It’s best to book up front because these popular dishes sell out fast.

With a comfortable sea breeze and sounds of the waves beating in the background, we contemplated on our journey while enjoying our dinner here at its balcony. We all agreed that Lanyu is a great place to relax, almost forcing its visitors to slow down and savor. I can’t imagine staying here long-term, the lack of amenities will definitely make me suffer (we were treated to an hour of electricity shutdown near midnight!). However, it gives me a peace of mind knowing that this haven welcomes us for the occasional renewal and replenishment.

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The art-chic looking Epicurean Cafe

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Nothing beats chillin’ off with my family

Day 2 A Mega Sleep Off

17 Jul

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TIME IDLES WHEN YOU ARE IN LANYU. I’ve always suspected that this has to do with the radioactive waste materials buried at Lanyu’s southernmost point. Just like what Kryptonite does to Superman, the air here makes you sluggish all day long. I hate to spend money getting here to sleep, but then I’ve never wanted to be more lazy than this. We would take many long naps throughout the day, and then chill out even more at the many huts around the island. Being in the tropics, the breeze cools you down as long as you are in the shade, and in the evening, the temperature drops to a comfortable 25.

Thanks to all the siestas, we woke up in time to go see the sunrise. One popular spot is at the Dongqing village, on Lanyu’s east coast. Beware when traveling in the dark because most roads are unlit and may be dangerous for the unfamiliar. After taking in the spectacular daybreak, head off to MeiYaMei (美雅美), a breakfast joint frequented by many tourists and locals alike. Food can be pricey on the island, but at least you receive large servings here.

Lanyu is truly a rugged island. Taking the loop road circling Lanyu and you will many bizarre rock formations that feeds your imagination. These are mainly coral or volcanic in origin, and since the island is geologically young, they are still in constant change. Little Heaven Lake (小天池) is a small body water nestled in forested area. It is a short hike on an ill-maintained trail, and since the entrance sign can be easily missed, it is best to ask locals for directions.

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All sorts of rock formations can be seen on the island

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A lazy cat dozing off in front of the Lanyu island’s lighthouse

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Little Heavenly Lake filled with water from a recent rainstorm

VEGETARIANS WON’T SURVIVE LONG IN LANYU. The only greens commonly found here are the sweet potato leaves, all others can be very overpriced. Taro and sweet potato are staples along with the seasonal flying fish and other seafood. Islanders have very strict rules for fishing and planting. Failure to follow them is a very serious taboo. When we were here, the most affordable and easiest vegetarian option is the egg fried rice. Some restaurants offer vegetarian options but keep your expectations low because it will be edible but not necessary appetizing. Fruits are all imported and thus expensive. You can consider bringing food from the mainland if you are a picky eater. Nonetheless, there are still many delicious deserts to choose from. One of my favorite is taro ice cream with shaved ice.

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A weird local fruit (林投果)

MOST HOME STAYS OFFER NIGHT ECO TOURS. Our host gathered us at 8pm, and led us into one of the local orchards in search of owls. We caught a glimpse of a couple of scops owl whose species are endemic to Lanyu. We were also very lucky to witness a giant female green sea turtle coming on shore. However, we would have to wait until midnight to see her eggs. It would be a very interesting experience but we would have to sacrifice our precious sleep time. So, the ideal choice is to go back home for zzzz… Bye for the night, there’s more to do in the morning.

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The “night watch” team looking for creepy crawlies

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