New Zealand Adventure: Day 5 (Jet Boats, Funyaks, & Isengard)

New Zealand Day 5 – Jet Boats, Funyaks, Isengard…and tragedy. (A guest post by: Jacob Matthews)

WARNING: This episode contains stories of love and loss, adventure, beauty and heartbreak. Grab your Kleenex.

The morning of December 18th started like many other mornings on this trip… EARLY. The combination of no air conditioning, the morning sunshine penetrating through the thin curtains in our room, being sunburned beyond belief, and the 7:30 am meeting time for the shuttle to the river meant once again little sleep. Barley functioning, we got dressed, packed our bag for the day trip, and made our way down the street to catch the bus to Glenorchy – (a 45 min drive from Queenstown North along Lake Wakatipu). Fun Fact here: Up until the 1990s the road from Queenstown to Glenorchy was a dirt road and took over 2 hours to make the one way trip. Praise God they paved that road.

After a chilly, scenic drive along the lake to Glenorchy we made it and checked in at Dart River Jet Safaris. (http://www.dartriver.co.nz/) Today the forecast was scheduled to be a little overcast in the morning, and then sunny towards the afternoon. Looking back I was glad we opted to reschedule and take this journey on a better and much more dry day. After checking in we were directed to the courtyard for a briefing on the gear we would be given for the day. Thomas and I got our wet suits, fleece, life jackets and booties and headed to the locker room to get suited up. After getting our gear on we headed to the bus to head down to the boat located at the mouth of the Dart River.

Once we got situated in our jet boat we started making our way across the corner of Lake Wakatipu into and up the Dart River. One of the coolest things about these Jet Boats is they were invented in New Zealand and designed to travel in very shallow water (probably only a few inches deep at times). The other amazing thing about the jet boat is that it is able to do some pretty sweet 360 degree spins. Several times in the lake and the river we were given a hand signal to hold on tight and then the driver would spin the boat sending a spray of FREEZING glacier melt water over us. It was extreme. We made our way up the Dart, weaving and maneuvering through a labyrinth of forks in the river and finally pulled ashore into another smaller river that converged about a kilometer downstream into the Dart. Now this smaller river was unbelievable. The water was crystal clear and an emerald blue color. This would be only a taste of what we’d see and experience later on in the day.

Cruising in our Jet Boat

Here we got out of our Jet Boat and were given a vessel to command of our own. Now just when we thought you couldn’t possibly top a Jet Boat we soon realized we were mistaken… it can get better. We were given an orange inflatable kayak (Funyak). Ecstatic and proud to test our piloting skills, we set out to tackle the river. As we headed down stream we ended up striking up conversation with one of the river guides. He was a pretty cool guy, named Tom, from Ireland who had moved down to New Zealand for a year to work and play on the amazing rivers in the area.

Our trip down the river so far was so beautiful. We were surrounded by towering mountains as we paddled through minor rapids. We ended up pulling into another small stream that was flowing into the river. This area opened up in to a picturesque valley guarded by mountains. As we made our way upstream the water deepened and became calm. We found ourselves in the most amazingly clear, emerald blue water. We paddled our way upstream into a small canyon to investigate the source of this beauty and as we turned the last corner in the canyon the rocks opened up to reveal a small waterfall – the source of the stream that originated as glacial runoff from further up the mountains. Again, the water here was so pure and clean you could drink straight from the river. We filled up our water bottles and made our way back to the downstream to the valley. We made it into this valley called “Paradise Valley” to stop and have lunch. There couldn’t have been a more picturesque, beautiful place to stop, rest, eat and take it all in. We conversed with many others in our group and took more pictures before getting back into our funyaks.

Time for another Fun Fact: The Dart River Valley and surrounding mountains including the Mount Aspiring National Park are considered a “World Heritage Site.” World Heritage Sites are reserved for places around the world with “special cultural or physical significance” like the Pyramids in Egypt, The Great Wall of China, and Stonehenge…no big deal. (Below was our view from where we stopped to eat lunch. The sun had burnt through the clouds at this point.)

Heading back down the river, through Paradise Valley, we made our way through several rapids then ended up in the flat river basin.. the place to take out our kayaks and the end of our day’s adventure. It was at the point that our Ireland friend and guide informed us that we were literally standing in the heart of “Isengard” from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Isengard) He then pointed out some small rolling hills on the other side of the river basin and said “Those hills over there… that’s the Shire.” (Only in an awesome Irish accent) (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Shire) Well.. nerd alert here.. Thomas and I were beyond excited to see and be standing in these epic locations from the films. It immediately made us want to go watch the films again.

Isengard

As we pulled up onto the bank of the river to disembark our kayak Thomas noticed he was missing something and had a white panicked  look on his face. He very worriedly asked me: “have you seen my iPhone?” Thomas tucked his iPhone inside his tight life-vest during a rapid and soon realized it wasn’t there anymore. Now you’re probably asking yourself… why would you bring your phone out to the middle of nowhere in New Zealand when there’s no phone service anyway? We both brought our phones because we used them as our cameras for this trip. After looking in the boat and realizing it wasn’t in there, another guy in another kayak mentioned that he thought he saw something bounce out into the river just a few minutes before we had pulled in, but wasn’t sure what it was, so he didn’t say anything. Sad, distraught, defeated, sunburnt, and tired Thomas gazed out at the river banks praying that he’d get a glimpse of his phone. There was a small sliver of a chance that we’d find it, because it was wrapped up in a waterproof casing. But to no avail… the phone was gone. The really, really sad thing was Thomas had a TON of pictures and videos that we hadn’t backed up yet from our previous 4 days in New Zealand. Luckily, we had taken mostly the same pictures at the same time when we came across scenery that was too beautiful to pass up, so the damage wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. The hardest hit, was the realization that we had lost our pre-skydiving video interviews (which were absolutely amazing).

Tom stood like this for almost 5 minutes straight...

{{Hey guys, it’s Thomas. Just wanted to take this time to apologize to Jacob, because there were a ton of pictures on my phone of him standing in the most beautiful places on Earth. Sorry Jacob! I owe you big time, man}}

We were sad, but not defeated. We were still on vacation in the most beautiful place either of us had been, and honestly, what cooler place to lose your cell phone! Better than a McDonald’s bathroom, right?! We boarded a four-wheel drive van and drove back through the Shire to Glenorchy. Interestingly enough, we saw a bunch of production trucks and trailers in the Shire as they had just finished filming “The Hobbit” the new Lord of the Rings film a week or so before we arrived.

Part of the Shire

Some production trailers still parked in the Shire

Back at the Dart River Safari lodge we got changed, hopped on the bus and made our way back to Queenstown. Exhausted, overwhelmed by the beauty of New Zealand, and defeated by our loss we returned back to Queenstown in time to take a nap, grab a late dinner, and hit the club below our hostel. We met up with our Brazilian friends again for a while and then hit the hay as we had a 4 1/2 hour drive to Milford Sound the next morning.

Another brilliant Queenstown sunset

To be continued….

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New Zealand Adventure: Day 3 (Glow worms)

Queenstown, NZ Day 3

This is another guest post by my good friend Jacob Matthews. Please enjoy and watch for more posts of this 8 day NZ adventure!!

After another night of being lulled to sleep by the sweet sounds of techno beats we woke up bright and early for a 7:30 am bus-ride to the small town of Glenorchy on the north side of Lake Wakatipu for a full day of Jet Boating and Kayaking on the Dart River. A little sleep deprived and still jet lagged we make our way down the street to the shuttle. Upon walking to the bus stop we discover that it’s cloudy, slightly chilly and rainy out. A little saddened that the rain would possibly hamper our day 3 adventures we made the ride along side the beautiful Lake Wakatipu towards the Dart River. Once we arrived there we were given the option to reschedule due to the weather. So we opted to do that and hope for nicer weather later in the week. After rescheduling we took the bus back down to Queenstown and regrouped to make other plans for the misty day.

Not a good day for jet boating and canoeing

We caught a quick breakfast, some much-needed caffeine, and then headed back to hostel to rest a little bit. On the way back to the room we stopped by the travel desk in the lobby of the hostel to see what we could do on a rainy day…. and then it hit us: GLOW WORM CAVE! Yep! You read it right! New Zealand and Australia are some of the only places on the planet where you can explore underground caves that house thousands of glow worms that sparkle along the roof of the caves. So we booked a 2pm tour at some caves near Te Anau, another small town about 2 hours south of Queenstown. Once confirmed on the trip we went back up to the room. Our room was small, but had all the necessities like a mini fridge, bathroom and a small TV with about 4 channels. One of those channels was a movie channel. This was our first downfall. When we sat down we got sucked into watching… you guessed it…the new Karate Kid.

After watching the entire movie and loosing track of time, we realized we had exactly 2 hours to make a 2 1/2 hour drive to TeAnau. Running to the car, with the Justin Beiber song “Never Say Never” in our heads from the Karate Kid credits we pulled out the old school paper map and very quickly headed down to Te Anau. The clouds and rain had moved out, and it was turning out to be a pretty nice day. (Dear Parents – IGNORE THIS PART) Hurling & Winding through a two-lane mountain pass, down the length of 2 lakes, and across many sheep pastures we finally make it to Te Anau. By a minor miracle and by the grace of God we made it to the boat for the glow worm tour with 4 minutes to spare, even after a couple of picture stops along the way!

Now, just so you know Thomas and I sat several goals for the trip of things we both wanted to check off “the list.” Here are just a few:

*Skydiving – Check!

*Be the life of the party somewhere – not yet.

*Pick up a hitchhiker – nope.

*Practice our New Zealand or Australian accents – Constantly checking this off the list!

Smooth operator

With that said we hopped on the boat, which was to ferry us across Lake Te Anau and to the caves. We quickly grabbed a seat and started conversation with a few people seated around us from Australia. They asked where we were from. Thomas replied “The States… Tennessee to be exact.” And all of a sudden the Aussies gasped, said “No Way!” and started laughing. They yelled at this group of high school Aussie Girl Scouts (to one girl Haylee in particular), and told them we were from Tennessee. Immediately, this huge group of Australian Girl Scouts swarmed us and started chattering away. Apparently, this girl, Haylee, in their group has been infatuated with Tennessee, the southern accent and country music. She went on and on about how her biggest dream is to move to Nashville and live. She tried to speak in a Southern accent for us, which was really funny. It sounded like southern meets Australian with Aussie slang. Our loud and comical conversation was captivating all the attention from everyone on the boat, and we soon realized that we could check another goal off the list. We became the life of the party, there was no doubt about it. (pictures of this whole event were on Thomas’s iPhone which, as most of you know…was lost tragically while canoeing down the Dart River on Day 4…a moment of silence…..)

Tom taking pics from the ferry

NOT the boat we took 🙂

Cave exploring is no laughing matter

We arrived at the docks for the cave, disembarked the boat and made our way into the cave. First let me say our tour guide was the “tour guide nazi” type – super strict, extremely knowledgeable, and loved her job/caves. I could tell Thomas and I were gonna get into some sort of trouble. The cave was really dark and we followed the procession of our group into the dark depths. She pointed out several waterfalls and formations as we made our way to the glow worms. There was a river running through the entire cave system and the sound of moving water echoed off all the walls. Finally, we made it to this little boat near the rear of the cave. She told us to step in and have a seat. She also told us to be very, very quiet and just “take in and absorb the beauty, awe and splendor of the worms.” Thomas and I looked at each other and kind of chuckled. All the lights went out in the cave and our guide pushed us along the underground river to the worms. All of a sudden we looked up and it was like tens of thousands of little stars glowing and shimmering on the roof of the cave. It is probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my life, but we weren’t able to take pictures which was a bummer. Here are some from the internet to show a portion of what it was like.

As we cruised through the dark admiring the glowing specs in silence I was immediately reminded of a scene from the movie “Euro Trip” where these kids go through a pitch-black train tunnel in Europe. A strange Italian man puts his hand on another guy’s leg, they emerge from the tunnel, where the kid has a perplexed look on his face and the Italian says “mi scusi”. (To watch the scene go here: http://youtu.be/ivSMNbaXRSE ) I for some reason felt the need to reenact the scene in the cave. So I did what any movie buff would do and quickly put my hand on Thomas’ leg and said “mi scusi!” We both died laughing. It must have been like a quarter of a second after I said “mi scusi” and our nazi tour guide immediately blinds us with this massive spot light and proceeds to “SHHH” us. Well, that only made us laugh more. Needless to say we “ruined” the ambiance and were on her bad list, but the cave was amazing and we had a good laugh out of it.

We took the ferry back to Te Anau, said good-bye to our new Aussie Girl Scout friends, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and headed back to Queenstown making sure to stop plenty for random pictures. That night we met up with our Brazilian friends from Skydiving at the club at our hostel. We partook in a few Euro dance beats of our own with our new friends and retired for the night as we rested up for our big day on the glacier the next day. With it being another 4-hour drive we needed some rest, as we knew tomorrow would be another early morning and long day of adventure.

To be continued…