Sunday, March 09, 2014

New Zealand and Bora Bora

If I have to just put one picture to represent our entire trip, this would be it - Roy's peak, Wanaka
Whenever I think about travel, my thoughts take me back in time.  Almost ten years ago, I was in Germany as a part of work assignment.  I was roping in a few folks who could accompany me on a weekend trip to Paris.

I asked one of them, "Dude, let's go to Paris.  It's just an overnight journey by bus."

He replied, "No, I don't want to go."

I was taken aback.  So, I asked him again, "Are you sure?"

"Yes.  What is there in Paris? I have already seen it on TV."

I have not seen him ever since.

Anyway, luckily, my wife and I don't have such interesting conversations.  We simply decide and go.

New Zealand has been on our agenda for a very long time.  Ever since I watched the 1992 world cup diligently getting up at 5 in the morning, I have been fascinated with Australasia.  I have never seen the Indian stadia with so much greenery, and there was an instant liking to the place.

And, ever since we heard about Bora Bora from a mutual friend, my wife has not been interested in any other island.  Thanks to Google, you really get to know how beautiful a place is.

"What about Hawaii?"

"What about Moorea?"

My wife was firm in her response.  "No, I just want to go to Bora Bora."

Once you get such a firm response, you have no choice but to adhere to it.

So, to placate both our interests, we decided that we'll travel to New Zealand and Bora Bora.

Anyway, after several days of planning and tugging it out, we landed in Auckland.  It was the the last day of the second test, the day McCullum hit a triple hundred and everyone was going gaga over it.  I had Sky Sports on for a few minutes.

"How can you watch cricket on vacation?", my wife asked.

"Isn't that the best time to watch cricket?", I wanted to say.  But, in marriage, you want to say a lot of things, but you never end up saying them.

Anyway, New Zealand is a breathtaking place.  When we visited Alaska a couple of years ago, we thought that Alaska had raised the bar to such a level that it would be very difficult for us to experience the same thrill and happiness when visiting other places.  But, New Zealand just tore all doubts to pieces.  It was simply mind blowing.

The Shire - Matamata

Which hobbit lives here? - Matamata

Matamata, the place where Lord of the Rings set, The Shire, is set was simply brilliant.  We hiked fantastic peaks.  The Tongarira Alpine Crossing was magnificent.  It was beautiful to see Mt. Doom.  Southern New Zealand is infinitely beautiful.  Queenstown is a place anyone will fall in love with.  The backdrop of mountains, the beautiful lake and the way the city guides itself along the lake makes for lovely viewing.

Mt. Doom

The lakes - the different shades of blue is something that can never be written about.  It has to be seen.  No photo or video can do any justice.

Anyway, I decided to hike Roy's peak at Wanaka in Southern New Zealand.  It has an elevation of 5200 ft and the one way distance is 6 km or about 3 to 4 miles.  If the same elevation extends for 10 or 15 km, then at least it's manageable.  When you have such an elevation for small distances, it can be excruciating.

On the way to Roy's peak

I had a Garmin Fenix, and after what I thought was several minutes, I looked at the watch and I saw that only ten minutes had passed.  I had another three hours to continue with the same intensity to the top.  I pride myself on being a good hiker, but this sucked every drop of blood and sweat out of me.  I had to dig into my deepest reserves to extract every possible juice to sustain my ascent.  Maybe that's also because I hadn't had a good breakfast or lunch, and I had also done the Hooker Valley Track at Mt. Cook, and had driven for about three hours to reach Wanaka from Mt. Cook.  Maybe it was a culmination of several factors, but, it was just brutal.

I was like a kid asking every guy coming down from the top.

"How far is it to the top?"

"Another two and a half hours", they would say without blinking an eyelid.

"What?", I would shriek, and then continue.

They would also add, "But, the view from the top is something to die for."

That I knew, because, even before the trip, my wife said, "Praveen, you have to climb this peak.  The view from the top is breathtaking."

She very clearly spent time along the lakefront and explored the city during the evening while I was sweating it out at Roy's peak.

And then, I climbed the top.  It was equivalent to attaining Nirvana.  I had never felt so happy.  Normally, I don't drink too much water.  But, here, I had exhausted two bottles.  I felt exactly like the way Dhanush felt in Mariyaan.

Mt. Cook
The view from the top is something that I'll never forget.  It was like a wallpaper in real life.  The blue skies without a cloud, the lake glazed by different hues of blue, the hills and the city made for sensational viewing.  I just sat there alone at the top in the evening, with two or three drops of water in the bottle and wondered whether I could really, completely take in this moment.

Anyway, after I got back, we went to an Indian restaurant, The Spice Room, and gobbled up everything.  I ate like I had never eaten in ten years.  When you work like that, you don't feel like wasting even a morsel.  It was the best Indian food we had had in New Zealand.
At the Kepler Track - Mt. Cook

Fergburger - We had the bun laden
Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of the world.  I contemplated for a few minutes as to whether I wanted to do the Kawarau Bungy (43 m) or the Nevis Bungy (134 m).  The Nevis Bungy is conducted on a private land and the round trip takes 4 hours from the city.  In the interest of saving time, I picked the former.

Gondola view from the top - Queenstown
The Kawarau is the oldest bungy in the world.  It has a scenic backdrop of the Kawarau gorge.  As I saw one after the other do the bungy jump, I was overcome with fear and thrill.

As the guys at the top prepared me for the jump, one of them asked me to go to the very edge of the bridge.  That's when you have all the negative thoughts creeping in your head.

"Why do I have to pay $200 and get this self inflicted agony?", I thought.

The thrill and the adrenaline rush are fine, but when you see the depth from the edge of the bridge, it makes you think for a second.  But, there was no turning back after I had told my wife, "I am a warrior.  I am going to do it."

Anyway, I didn't flinch a bit, and just jumped on the count of three.  After the initial euphoria, it was just about following the motions.  But, it was just a classic case of wanting to do it and doing it.  Some things are just inexplicable and as I said earlier, no words or picture can do justice.  That feeling when standing at the edge of the bridge is indescribable.

We also took a shotover jet ride, which was good fun.

Just two hours from Queenstown, the drive to Glenorchy is simple stunning.  There is a place called Paradise, which is really like paradise, thanks to the breathtaking scenery.

We had also been to this place called Milford Sound.  The drive from Te Anau to Milford is something to die for.  I have not seen such fantastic beauty.  At Te Anau iSite, we spoke to one of the Park Rangers, Sally, who I thought was really cool (or hot) or whatever.

"Everything in New Zealand is awesome."

To which, she replied,

"Wait till you get on the route from Te Anau to Milford Sound.  It takes awesomeness to a new level."

And true to her word, the drive from Te Anau to Milford was simply outstanding.  Nature had showered all her gifts on one place.  There was rain in the air.  And on a rainy day, the area is surrounded by several waterfalls.  It makes for breathtaking viewing.  As soon as you reach Milford Sound, you actually take a cruise to go deeper.  If you visit New Zealand, you have to visit Milford Sound.

Drive from Queenstown to Te Anau
For us, the train ride from Anchorage to Seward was the best we have ever seen.  On the same scale, you have a different kind of setting with breathtaking parallel, when you drive from Te Anau to Milford.  The overflowing waterfalls from the mountains in all directions is just a sight to behold.

Milford Sound
Anyway, after we completed the New Zealand leg of the tour, we headed for Bora Bora.  As soon as we saw the place, we understood why Bora Bora is ranked way so higher than any of its island counterparts.  They say it's the most photogenic place on the planet. Bora Bora is worth every bit of the hype it gets.  It's simply incredible.

I am just glad my wife taught me swimming, for, without that I would not have enjoyed the place as much as I did.

We went on an eco tour on one of the days.  Standing with the sharks and sting rays at knee height water, as also snorkeling with them at a height of 30 ft is an experience that will be cherished forever.  When you go to these places, it is so important to enjoy the aquatic beauty by snorkeling or scuba diving.  I didn't have the guts to scuba dive, but snorkeling was something that was definitely enjoyable and manageable.  We saw beautiful coral gardens with shoals of fishes in different colors.  During the eco tour, I had some difficulty in understanding how to use the snorkeling equipment and I felt that I couldn't do full justice to the coral gardens.

Black tip sharks - Bora Bora
Aquatic life - Bora Bora
So, for the next couple of days, my wife and I kayaked from the island to a nearby spot where the corals were.  We then snorkeled from that point to the coral gardens, wading through depths of 20 or 30 ft.  We were initially apprehensive, but after a point, we got used to the snorkeling equipment and it felt like a cycling gear.  We were glad we were able to see the aquatic life.

Different shade of blue, and more fishes - Bora Bora
The water in Bora Bora is so pristine with so many shades of blue and green that it is no surprise why people fall in love with the place.  The island is surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef.  The overwater bungalow in which we resided made it easy to jump out of our hotel rooms into the water.  The water in the ocean is warmer than the indoor pools in California.

Motu Island - Bora Bora
The best part about visiting new places is meeting amazing new people.  We met a Swiss family in Bora Bora, and they said they loved traveling.  They in fact had "kovalam" in their email id, and when we asked them, said that that was the first place they visited as a couple.  They had been to India many times.  We met a Danish couple who said that they like the fact that in Europe, unlike in America, they get 6 weeks of paid vacation time per year.  They were very friendly and they too shared their India trip experience.  We also met a guy from Germany, who was on budget travel and said, "I don't know what I am going to do once I get back.  But, I love traveling."

The several over water bungalows on Motu - Bora Bora
Even in New Zealand, we met a lot of folks from Germany.  Most of them had been there for about 2 or three months.  We also felt that that's the best way to travel.  That's the only way of doing justice to a place like New Zealand.  It gives you ample time to soak as much as possible from the place.

Sunset view from Point De Vu
We want to see as many places in the world as possible.  So, hopefully, they just don't remain once in a lifetime experiences.  We would love to visit New Zealand again.  We would love to visit Bora Bora again.  But, only after we finish all the other places on our list.  It's a huge list, but we don't mind doing the whole thing twice.

Anyway, our itinerary was like this.

Day 0
Arrive in Auckland and see surrounding areas

Day 1
Matamata (Lord of the Rings - The Shire) and Rotorua (Geo-thermal park)

Day 2
Tongarira Alpine Crossing hike and Taupo

Day 3
Flight from Auckland to Queenstown.  Spend the evening in Queenstown city.  Have Fergburgers.  They are awesome.

Day 4
Queenstown to Te Anau - Kepler valley track hike

Day 5
Milford Sound - Simply breathtaking.  Stay in Queenstown

Day 6
Mt. Cook - Hooker Valley track.  View of Mt. Cook is stunning.

Day 7
Wanaka - Roy's peak (possibly the toughest day hike in New Zealand)

Day 8
Queenstown - all the adventure activities

Day 9
Queenstown to Glenorchy to Paradise - Breathtaking scenic drive

Day 10
Flight to Tahiti - Bora Bora

Day 11
Arrive at Bora Bora

Day 12
Eco Tour

Day 13

Day 14
Snorkeling - spending as much time as possible in water

Life is beautiful - Bora Bora

Day 15
Arrive in SJC - Home sweet home! Coming back to the Bay Area is also an awesome feeling.  When we told people that we hail from San Francisco Bay Area, the reaction was almost instantaneous, "It's in the list of places we want to see."

Total number of flights during the trip = 10
Memories = unlimited