Tongariro Alpine Crossing (Part 2 of Rotorua and Taupo)

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Day 5: Tongariro Crossing and Mount Doom

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Possibly the hardest thing that I have ever done. The Tongariro Crossing is 19.4km and takes about 6 hours. About 6km in, (after one section that involves an hour of walking up stairs) you have to decide if you want to add 2-3 hours to your hike and climb the famous Mount Doom.

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I’m very glad I decided to climb it, but I think it could’ve been explained more clearly that you’re pretty much climbing on your hands and knees up loose rocks and dirt and not along a real path. It was really difficult. At one point, someone accidentally sent a small boulder flying down the mountain and it almost hit two girls (who subsequently decided to turn around and not do the hike).

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The view at the top of Mount Doom was amazing, on the moments when the clouds/fog cleared away. It took us longer than normal (I think) because we couldn’t seem to find the routes that everyone else took up.

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The way down Mount Doom made the way up look like a breeze. I’ve never come so close to doing the splits than when I was slipping and sliding down that mountain. Every step has to be sideways as your feet go calf-deep in dirt before somewhat staying still so you can move your next foot.

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My shoes were an inch deep with rocks when I took them off at the bottom. And when I got back to the hostel and took a shower, my hands were burning from scraping then on all of those rocks.

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After getting back down Mount Doom, it hits you that you still have about 12km left of the hike. And it’s not all easy. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it when one uphill turned into another and then another. Natasha went on ahead of David and I to try to catch an earlier bus, but we made up a lot of ground when we finally got to the miles of downhill.

The last 45 minutes were torture though. You keep thinking that around this bend is going to be the parking lot but it never was. We fell asleep on the bus ride back and treated ourselves to five dollar Domino’s when we arrived in Taupo.

All in all, a pretty successful day and a big feeling of accomplishment afterwards.

Culture in Rotorua + Adventure in Taupo (Part 1)

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Maori Village Cultural Night- YES. Tour of Hobbiton- skip. Evening Sail in Lake Taupo- YES. Skydiving- ha no. Tongariro Crossing- YES (in converse…my poor feet).

Do you see how for every activity I say yes to, there is another to say no to? I’m not even mentioning all the activities offered- just the big ones. I’d say though, as painful as shelling out all that money was, it was well worth it.

Day 3: Waitomo to Rotorua

I ended up on the mini bus today because I was one of about ten people who didn’t sign up for the Hobbiton tour. $100 for a tour of a movie set for a movie I haven’t seen. I’m ok with my decision. Those of us who didn’t go had the afternoon free in Rotorua. We walked around a local farmer’s market and then hung out on a dock for a while. A pretty relaxing afternoon.

Around four, our bus driver Mangee (more on him later), brought us to the Tamaki Maori Village, where we got carrot cake and biscuit and settled into our room. Surprisingly, they made a 20-bed room feel spacious and super comfortable (two pillows!!).

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From there, we played a game that involved chanting and passing (throwing) these wooden poles around a circle. It got very competitive and just a little dangerous (you had to pass yours oneway while looking the other way at the person passing it to you). We also used shells to get the fiber out of flax and make a rope with it.

We were joined in the evening by more people for the cultural show and different exhibitions of how life used to be for the Maori people. This was followed by a delicious dinner, and Aidan’s jacket getting accidentally set on fire.

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While most people left, those of us spending the night had the chance to hang out by a big fire.

Day 4: Rotorua to Taupo

After breakfast in the village, we picked up the rest of the group and stopped at a geothermal reserve. It was pretty disappointing for $31 but we did get a hardboiled egg cooked in a hot pool and free wifi.

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We then headed off to Taupo. It was from this point on that I was lucky enough to never have to worry about room arrangements in hostels. Charlotte, Natasha, Rachel, David, Ryan, Aidan, and I got a room together, and whoever got to the front desk first would sign us all up. If they didn’t have an 8-bed room, we split up into two. When Natasha and Ryan stay behind in Kaiteriteri (later), and we combined with the mini bus, we started getting a room for 6 with Shona. It worked out perfectly.

In Taupo, a lot of people went skydiving. Those of us that didn’t got to hang out for the afternoon, and Natasha, Aidan, and I stocked up on food and water for the Tongariro Crossing the next day. Thank god Natasha is so organized because I would have just ignored the advice to bring three liters of water and tons of food.

That night we went on an evening sailing trip around Lake Taupo. It was a fun chance to just hang out and watch one of New Zealand’s stunning sunsets.

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All the guys went out afterwords that night, while the girls went to sleep. We wanted as much rest as possible before our 6am departure for the Tongariro Crossing.

The Big Green Bus: New Zealand

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I decided to change it up for New Zealand and bought a pass for a hop on, hop off bus called the Kiwi Experience. Best decision ever. My pass ran one way from Auckland in the North Island to Christchurch in the South Island. Over the course of three weeks, I stayed in 15 hostels and learned how quickly stuff fall apart with heavy travel (I needed to plastic wrap my bag leaving New Zealand because of a giant tear. Apparently superman duct tape doesn’t cut it.)

If you are in your late teens or 20s, I think this is an awesome way to see New Zealand and make great friends. It was especially nice for me, because while I’ve loved everyone I’ve met over the course of the year, I haven’t actually spent much time traveling with people my age.

Day 1: Auckland to Hot Water Beach

It’s crazy to think that every morning, 60 or so backpackers wait at a bus stop in a busy start of Auckland to board the Kiwi Experience bus. And everyday a new bus full of people arrives at each stop, filling up most of the hostels to capacity.

The first day actually didn’t give me high hopes for New Zealand. Our bus was the quietest it was any day of the trip, and hot water beach didn’t quite live up to the hype. At low tide, you can dig holes in the beach and make pools of scalding hot water. We went at low tide at night and the waves made it hard to dig (plus a lot of the area wasn’t all that hot).

Not much else to say, except that it got much, much better after that.

Day 2: Hot Water Beach to Waitomo

The start of the money drain. New Zealand is an awesome place, but it is a place of doing. And Kiwi Experience makes sure you have the opportunities to do as many activities as possible. So the clipboards get passed around each morning and you end up going to the ATM every 3 days to withdraw more money.

In Waitomo, I signed up to do the 5 hour Black Water Rafting. Black water rafting is nothing like white water rafting. After getting all decked out in wetsuits and gear, we headed towards the famous glow worm caves.

First, we had to abseil down 35 meters through an opening that became so small at one point that you had to shimmy through. I’m scared of heights, but because we did it in the pitch black, I didn’t really mind.

Other highlights included ziplining (or as the call it in New Zealand- a flying fox) and climbing up two waterfalls. Plus, we got hot tea and flapjacks partway through. Which was amazing. Because it was freezing. And when we got into inflatable tubes, mine was kind of flat so I was pretty much entirely in the water.

When we got back, we got hot soup and bagels. And at the hostel, they were out of normal backpacker rooms so Charlotte, Natasha, and I got to share a two story, four bed bungalow for the same price. Soooo nice.

We finished off the day with a drink in the pub and watching some rugby on the TV.

I don’t have many pictures from these two days because hot water beach was kind of boring, and the person who has our black water rafting photos still hasn’t sent them. Better photos in the following posts, I promise.

Crossing Items off the Bucket List: Sydney

See a show at the Sydney Opera House: check

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Walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge: check

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Sydney is one of those places that could change my mind about living in a city. It’s right on the water, beautiful, and has a great vibe. I stayed in Paddington (thanks to the help of my wonderful aunt who found me a place to stay for free!), which was walking distance to almost everywhere.

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Sydney was another four days only place. I do feel as though I managed to see a good chunk of the Sydney from Bondi Beach

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to a parade for the Chinese New Year in Chinatown

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to As You Like It at the Sydney Opera House (5th row!). Here are some night shots from outside the Opera House.

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Plus I found a Din Tai Fung (see my Singapore post). Best food of the trip.

I could see myself living in Sydney for a bit, more than I could see myself anywhere else.

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Bali: Four Days is Way Too Short a Time

My spontaneous trip to Bali meant that I finally ended up traveling to a place I could actually afford. I packed as much as I could into four days and even splurged on a single room without making too much of a dent in my bank account.

I decided to stay in Ubud, Bali’s cultural center, figuring I was getting enough beach time in Australia. That turned out to be a great decision. Ubud is very conveniently located to all the activities you might want to do.

My first day in Ubud consisted of a trek through rice terraces, a 9-course cooking class, and a $6 hour-long massage.

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We made curry from scratch, peanut sauce, satay, salads, etc. So delicious and in the beautiful home of the chef/instructor.

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Day two included white water rafting (and about 1,200 stairs) and some walking around the town.

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Day three was a spa day. $42 for a 4 1/2 hour spa package. So something that I couldn’t ever afford at home. It was insanely nice, at least until the facial which included a chocolate scrub. I almost threw up (I hate chocolate), but she put it on before I could say anything.

Day four included a 30km downhill bike ride for Kintamani Village (10 km in the pouring rain), a relaxing time in a couple of cool cafes including one called Kafe, and a yoga class in seriously the most beautiful setting.

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Here is a picture of my home stay/hotel.

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I think I now understand how so many women end up staying there for months just eating healthy food and going to yoga classes. Bali is a very special place.

Plus, I got two pairs of light, loose pants there that are my favorite items of clothes now. I think I wore them two out of every three days in New Zealand.

Musings on Australia

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For the past 11 days, I have been staying with my cousins (and Skip, the dog above) in Perth, Australia. Here are some of my thoughts and observations so far, from coffee to prices to beaches.

Coffee

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Australians seem to pride themselves on having some of the best coffee around. Unfortunately for an unappreciative American, I like their cafés, but hate their coffee. You seem to have two options- espresso or espresso with a ton of milk. Nothing in between. And forget about a 24 oz cup to sip on all morning long, these $5 coffees are 8oz max.

Oh and before you order an iced coffee, be aware that it has a scoop of ice cream and usually chocolate in it.

Look at how little coffee this is:

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Outdoor Movies

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Something that Australia definitely gets right is the outdoor movie experience. The movie changes nightly, beanbags are available to rent, and the area opens a couple of hours before dark so you can bring a picnic to enjoy beforehand. The temperature cools down enough when the sun sets, and it’s not too buggy. Plus they sell food themselves if you’re still hungry.

The picture above is of me and my great aunt! I got to meet up with her and her family while here, along with the cousins I’m staying with.

Beaches

First and most important lesson for Australian beaches, at least in the west, is that most people leave by 11am. Not leave to go to the beach, but leave the beach. Around that time, the beach starts getting A. too hot and B. too windy. Lesson #2 if you see a helicopter hovering over the water, get the heck out of it. That very likely means they’ve spotted a shark.

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Prices

It’s like airport and baseball game prices all the time. Seriously, a cafe breakfast is low $20s minimum. And I’ve already mentioned the price of their tiny coffees.

Meat Pies

Eat them. They are delicious.

Top Things to Do

Tour of the Perth Mint
Day trip to Fremantle
Cafe Hop
Fremantle Prison

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Sail on the River
See the sunset at the King’s Park War Memorial

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Top Places to Eat

New Moon

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Brew Ha
Little Creatures
The Little Pantry

And of course, go to an outdoor movie and eat a meat pie.

Fun Fact: Perth is the world’s most isolated city.

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Singapore: City in a Rain Forest or Rain Forest in a City?

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Long stretches of trees and bushes. Monkeys and birds. Tree top walks. Rain forest.

Then a car honking about 5 meters away from the sound of it. To the left a perfectly manicured golf course peeks through the trees. Walk another 100 meters, and you can see the skyscrapers.

Singapore is definitely not what you think of when you imagine South East Asia. Full of expats that spend a couple of years there before returning home, endless skyscrapers, and mall after mall, it seems like it could be the most cosmopolitan and commercial city in the world.

Something you notice just from driving around the city is the ongoing construction. I guess that is what’s necessary to maintain the city’s clean, new look. Oh, and they have vines and other greenery hanging off the sides of the skyscrapers. You don’t get a much nicer looking city.

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And yes that is a giant boat on top of those buildings.

I have to say that Singapore is one of my favorite places to have visited this year. I stayed with family friends that did an amazing job of showing me the ins and outs of the city, as well as taking me to the more rustic island of Pulau Ubin.

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We also went and ate hawker food at the Newton Circus.

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We took a river boat tour, which is how I got the first picture of the post).

We hiked 8 miles in MacRitchie Park. Up through a treetop walk and past monkeys chilling on the paths.

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We ate amazingly delicious Asian food (Din Tai Feng please come to San Francisco).

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And I even got into the Singapore Airlines lounge thanks to the dad of the family I was staying with because he has access and was flying to Beijing around the same time I was flying to Perth. Who doesn’t appreciate free food, free coffee, and free wifi?

Besides all of the cool sights and food, going around with people that live in the area made it a lot more interesting. I got to hear about how the Singapore American School works, the transitive lifestyle of the expats, and even went on a private tour with a friend of our family friends’ of the Asian Civilizations Museum.

The one problem: Singapore is a very expensive place. And it’s definitely not backpacking in Asia, but it is an extremely worthwhile place to check out.

For one last picture, here is a mosque right in the middle of the city.

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And for a fun fact: you can’t buy gum in Singapore. And the one thing that is inexpensive in the city is cab fare.