Pancake Rocks & Castle Hill: Week 85

After two weeks of farm work, Barret and I were ready to rest our rash-covered forearms and what better way to relax than by looking at rocks? They’re certainly easier on the eyes than severed lamb tails. The South Island has lots of rocks, so make sure you pick the best when you’re ready for some vacation time.

The first site worth visiting is not only 30 million years old, but it also has ocean front property. The spectacular Pancake Rocks look even better than they sound (and probably better than they taste too). The namesake layered appearance is due alternating soft and hard layers, however that works. Apparently a detailed explanation was too long for the informational sign. What I do know is that the blowholes make the limestone rocks even cooler. If your visit coincides with high tide, huge spurts burst out of the rocks as if a whale were trapped below.

Since Barret and I didn’t wake up by 6AM, we missed the most active time. However, as we walked down a staircase fit for a life-size sandcastle, we saw an explosion of white foamy mist. It was the last big burst of the morning and, just before it dissipated, it looked like a bridal veil suspended in the breeze.

Further inland is Castle Hill, which as you might guess, sits upon a hill. Not even a king could have picked a more beautiful location though. The group of enormous boulders overlook a vast tussock and pasture-covered valley. With the exception of a few homes and working farms, the terrain was as open as the sky.

The tertiary limestone boulders are not only a habitat for some of the rarest plants in Canterbury, but they are popular for rock climbers. Equipment rental shops offering cushioned pads are just a short drive to the south. The large thick mats are carried like a backpack, which kind of made the climbers look like bipedal turtles.

Barret and I were in hardcore relaxation mode, however, so there would be no clambering. In fact the fastest pace we reached was due to a gust of wind. And you know what, some days that just feels right.

How to get to the Pancake Rocks & Blowholes: State Highway 6, Punakaiki, New Zealand

How to get to Castle Hill: West Coast Road 73, Castle Hill, Canterbury, New Zealand

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Tongariro Crossing: Week 64

We had been warned.

It was cold and windy in the shadow of a towering volcano, but we plowed on through the arid terrain. I had misinterpreted the guide’s advice when I got dressed that morning, for now I had so many strata of clothing it would take a geologist to undress me. The vigorous chaffing of three leggings meant we were drawing closer to Mordor.

Although the temperature was low, the rising sun beat down on us when we encountered the Devil’s Staircase. The steep ascent to the South Crater was marked on our map with a frumpy face and I felt like a car overheating. Maybe, I thought, I could peel off one of these tights at the next Port-O-Potty.

When we finally reached the crater, Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mordor) loomed before us. The cone of the volcano had a scarlet rash and a small trail of steam rose into the clear sky. We walked across the frosty ground and up along the Red Crater Ridge- the most difficult part of the Tongariro Crossing.

As we climbed in elevation, the path narrowed and the winds picked up. At the highest point the gusts rammed our bodies and knocked off loose pieces of clothing. As a skilled and fearless mountaineer, I immediately dropped to the ground and scuttled across like a displeased wet cat. The view was the most breath-taking desert landscape I had ever seen in my life- rugged mountains populated with pools of milky pearls. I wanted to more fully appreciate the panorama, but the violent wind was more than a little terrifying.

I am going to lean forward,” Barret yelled over the wind. “Get a photo of me.”

Was he crazy? “Get away from there!” I screamed back.

Quick, just one photo!” He pleaded.

My numb fingers fumbled with buttons before aimlessly snapping a few photos.

Did you get it?” Barret asked.

Yeah, sure.” I hazarded a guess. “Now get away from there!”

How to get to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing: Inside the Tongariro National Park at the south end of Lake Taupo. The Tongariro Crossing is part of the Northern Circuit track and is not circular. Private shuttle buses operate drop offs & pickups.

Tuatua & Snapper: Week 55

During low tide a walk along the Far North beaches is like strolling the aisle of a supermarket. For embedded within the white coastal sands is an abundance of shellfish, locally known as tuatua.

We carried a large crate in hand as we entered the cool calf-high water. I dug my toes into the sand with a movement similar to the Twist, only stopping when I touched what felt like smooth pond stones. I scooped up a handful and inspected the stunned tuatua as their rubbery white tongues retracted with a squirt of water. The smaller shells went back into the ocean while the larger ones into the basket.

Never having foraged food along the coast, I felt a bit like I was stealing from a refrigerated stockroom.  With the bravado of a novice bandit I chucked the last tuatua into the crate- take that supermarkets!

I had fished from the coast once before when I lived in Florida, but I am pretty sure it ended in tears when I saw my father chop the heads off the catfish. Twenty years later the only worry I had was whether or not I would get sea sick.

The boat rocked over the secret fishing spot as our host, Cheryl, grabbed a piece of bait and deftly pierced it with a hook. Water like red Koolaid trickled down her tanned fingers and left small splotches on the deck. She turned around and planted her legs against the railing before demonstrating how to cast a successful line. After a few trials I was on my own; beginner’s luck on my side.

By the end of the day we had caught at least fifteen fish- a mixture of snapper and kahawai which Barret spent hours filleting. Translucent scales flew through the air like nail clippings while the knife traced the outline of the fish. With the flesh peeled back Barret began scraping his blade against the ribs. It was a process repeated over and over again until it became muscle memory. The kind of sweat-soaked memory that remains with you long after you leave a farm.

Manila & Palawan: Week 47

Manila

Outside of the wealthy bubbles where people walk dogs in master planned communities and get massages after dinner, Manila is crowded and smoggy. Jeepneys and taxis jostled bumper to bumper, their engines expelling thick bursts of exhaust which coated the street-side food stalls like powdered sugar. Although the taxis offered an oasis of air-conditioned oxygen, there was the gamble of being stranded in the unending rush hour listening to “big radio, Big Radio, BIG RADIO. BIG BIG BIG RADIO!!!!”

Barret and I opted for a colorfully themed jeepney ride instead. While everyone warned us about theft and deceitful cab drivers, it seemed as if jeepneys fell outside of this realm. The passenger’s fares honestly flowed down a chain of hands to the driver and vice versa with the change.

It might sound oxymoronic to say I was surprised that the Chinese Cemetery was so quiet, but it isn’t when you consider the neighbors. The Manila North Cemetery, just next door, has a thriving population of several thousand living bodies. Families cook, children play, and a few entrepreneurs even operate businesses from within the mausoleums. So it was interesting that the tombs in the Chinese Cemetery, which resemble small apartments with their running water, AC, rooftop balconies and fenced gardens, would be unoccupied. I guess money does buy privacy, especially in the afterlife.

Intramuros was the original Spanish settlement in the Philippines during the 16th century. Before land reclamation it faced Manila Bay and was fronted by Fort Santiago, which protected it from invading foreigners. The settlement remained intact for several centuries until the battle for the liberation of Manila during WW2. Intramuros was the final stage in the fight against the Japanese- 100,000 Filipinos died in all and only one church remained upright inside the Spanish settlement. We learned this from our guide who cheerfully read all the plaques outside the buildings to us.

Palawan

Sabang is a small coastal town on the island of Palawan. Little bungalows lined the beach and the buko (coconut) juice was chopped off the palm trees in the morning hour. Aside from the lure of a lazy day, Barret and I wanted to see the underground river which was recently named one of the newest seven natural wonders. We boarded a canoe and paddled into the dark mouth of the cave. The roof was filled with sleeping bats and whenever our flashlights strayed too far from the guide’s itinerary, he herded us back together by pointing out a biblical rock formation.

The beach in El Nido is slim pickings, but the nearby islands are the reason this town north of Sabang is popular. At an eclectic hostel called The Alternative, we booked our island hopping tour. The naturally twisted and curvy ‘found’ wood that was incorporated into the construction lent a slight jungle-y atmosphere.  We waited for our boat from a crow’s nest  suspended over the beach and drank in the crashing waves with our jasmine tea.

Fifteen past the hour we boarded our bangka (outrigger canoe) and headed across the sapphire water for a small island with a secret cove. The sun was high and the sunscreen thick. After exploring the beach we pulled on snorkel equipment to float above sinister urchins and delicate coral. Being an inexperienced snorkler, I choked on the salty water every time I got too excited about cute fish.

“Look Barretschluush! It’sshish gurgle gurgle NEMO schloop gurgle!”

After swimming into jellyfish, the saltwater stung the wound on my butt cheek. So I was glad to be out of the ocean while lunch was cooking. The water was five shades of blue and the sand the color of gourmet vanilla bean ice cream. When the food was served, the fish was rich and flavorful, the roast succulent, the vegetables fresh, the potato salad creamy and the pineapple sweet and crisp. Paradise has a name and it is Tour A.

Seonyudo: Week 19

Seonyudo is a recycled water treatment facility on the west side of Seoul. Located on a small island in the Han River, it is a green refuge bulging off the side of a heavily trafficked commuter bridge.

Once inside the park the traffic was inaudible. Instead, a thriving cicada population had transformed the trees into trembling maracas. Old water settlement tanks were converted into water-lily ponds. The remaining exposed concrete structures of this urban garden had been conquered by luscious plants. Fluffy wild rabbits scuffled under the shrubs while a sword-wielding cosplay group carried out a photo shoot.

Despite shading myself with an umbrella, (one of my newest pleasures that I get away with because I am in Asia) the sun was scorching. I ended up in a bathroom peeling off the tank top underneath my dress. I was sticky and flustered when someone knocked on the door. “IN HERE” I exasperatedly announced. Back outside the breeze did little to abate the stifling heat.

The tourism authority’s guidebook suggested that, “If you’re on your own, you might be lonely among the couples having fun with digital cameras in their hands.”

While Barret cracked open a cold beer and ate a disc of filefish jerky, I tried to suck the tea out of a frozen bottle. Our hair indolently clung to our heads while my face melted with a slow viscosity. The toddler I had accidentally tripped with my large Western feet was still crying a few tables back. The review was right, we were the envy of the park.

How to get there: Line 9  Seonyudo station exit #1 – walk towards the Han River Park

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