Expedition South Island: Day 6 and Beyond: Driving, driving, driving… and resting in Christchurch

One last view of Oban (c) ABR 2017

The morning after my day sliding down stairs and worrying about a broken hand, I was up before the sun and out on the dock for my boat ride back to the mainland. After an hour on the cold boat, and a quick walk through some very frigid wind, I was ready to climb back into my little car.

However, after about three hours in my little car, that feeling had died off a bit. See, I had about 8 hours of driving to do to get from Bluff to Christchurch, and those hours feel so much longer here than in the US. Simply put (and the signs here will remind you of this fact) the roads in New Zealand are different. They are curvy and they are narrow, with only one lane on either side. That means that when you are tired from driving for 3+ hours, you might become more tired when a giant semi-truck turns out in front of you and you are suddenly trapped going half as fast as you’d like.

Christchirch Botanical Gardens (c) ABR 2017

Needless to say, I was exhausted when I finally pulled into my Christchurch hotel, and ready for some rest after a surprisingly stressful week (wonderful as well).

The day after I arrived in town, I moved a little closer to the city central, and took a walk down to the botanical gardens. Unfortunately, I chose a cold, windy day to walk down there, so I ended up retreating into the Conservatory. I fell in love with the rows and rows of potted plants, and the beauty of the greenhouse’s antique architecture. I even managed to find a saguaro in there, which was a nice little reminder of home.

Found me a bit of home! Saguaro! (c) ABR 2017

Getting out of the wind for a bit made me decide that walking around downtown wasn’t an option at the moment, so once I peeled out of the conservatory, I walked right over to the Canterbury museum. This particular Christchurch attraction is free, so even though I am not a huge fan of museums, I knew I didn’t have anything to lose. Turns out, the Canterbury museum is just my kind of institution, i.e. they are very good at immersive exhibits. I especially loved the exhibit on the Paua Shell House (which I had no idea what that was when I walked up), where they showed a movie about the history and story of the house that became an attraction in the southern town of Bluff when the residents started pinning polished Paua shells to their walls. It was quite an enchanting little story, and after watching the movie, it was really delightful to go into the next room and get to experience a recreation of that Kiwi landmark.

Paua Shell House recreation at the Canterbury Museum (c) ABR 2017

When the weather was better, I did get the chance to look around the Botanical gardens more. This is a great place to walk and explore; there are beautiful ponds, different groupings of plants, and even some species from my home desert.

Cool art in downtown Christchurch (c) ABR 2017

As for seeing downtown Christchurch, I did walk around a bit, but there wasn’t much to see on your own. I would definitely suggest the gardens and the museum for anyone looking for some cheap things to see, but if you want to get the most out of visiting the city itself, definitely grab a tour.

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Attempting the Summit of Pico Duarte: Part 3

PART 3: KNOWING MY LIMITS ON PICO DUARTE

Map to the top (c) ABR 2016

After a night of inventing new ways to sleep in a bunk with zero support in the middle, and a breakfast of bread and cheese cubes, the events of the prior day’s harrowing driving adventure faded fast. I wasn’t enthused about the food we had been able to bring, but I did my best to fill up. The hike up the tallest mountain the Caribbean wasn’t going to be easy, not with the accelerated itinerary we had been forced to make.

We had one day to try for the top, and I wanted to shore up as much energy as I could.

(c) ABR 2016

Martin, my hiking partner, and I finished breakfast around 5, but we ended up waiting for our guide for nearly an hour before we could leave, because our illustrious mule had escaped in the night. Perhaps he sensed the coming hike and wasn’t all that excited about it. Luckily, we didn’t have much for the lovely animal to carry, just a jug of water and our two small day packs.

(c) ABR 2016

The first part of the Cienaga route, the main trail up Pico Duarte, is fairly flat. So, we had a nice warm-up as we followed the stream up the slope, pausing only to take pictures at the little wooden walkways that served as bridges. We moved as fast as we could, anticipating the long haul that was the come. The question about whether or not I could make it to the top hung over my head.

From Los Tablones, things started to get real. The trail became increasingly steep, with the steepest incline hitting us about halfway up between La Laguna and El Cruce. I kept repeating to myself “There is no way that this is only 0.5 kms!” as I struggled up the incline. The trails on this part of the mountain had carved deep canyons into the soft soil of Pico Duarte, some taller than me. The wear of people’s feet and the tropical weather seemed to be a hard force on this place. The trees here also took on an oddly swampy quality, with moss hanging down from the tall branches as the forest shifted from tropical to temperate and the air grew colder.

(c) ABR 2016

Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. We reached El Cruce, and judging by the map that’s at the top of its post, I was expecting to settle back into the same plod that carried us up from Los Tablones to La Laguna. It was tiring, but nothing that we couldn’t maintain.

(c) ABR 2016

This part of the trail was far more difficult than that ever-present map suggested, however. I don’t know if it was just that we were tired after our ascent, but those 3 km felt endless. I have to believe, even now, that whoever measured that segment was simply wrong. Maybe it was the same someone that measured the La Laguna-El Cruce segment. But it was here that the tropical forest finally fell away, leaving us in the fog, amid the temperate pines that seem so at-home on tall mountains.

(c) ABR 2016

As you may read if you look up Pico Duarte, there was a fire on the mountain in 2005 which wiped out vast swaths of the forest. For some, this made for a disappointing trip, but I found this part of the mountain (now partially regrown) to be really beautiful, despite the fact that I was exhausted. The little trees dotting fields of grasses among the tall survivors of the fire opened up a wide view of the mountainous inland. The views of the sunrise from there the next day were unbelievable.

(c) ABR 2016

Once we finally hit Aguita Fria, I cursed the sign. This was the high point before the camp where we would spend the night, and I knew right then that I wasn’t going to make the top. My feet were blistering in my boots, my legs were starting to feel weak, and my head just wasn’t in it. I knew how much further I had to go, and it just didn’t feel feasible, not with the entire hike back down the mountain waiting for me in the morning.

Bad Aguita Fria! (c) ABR 2016

So, I complained my way down to Comparticion camp, annoyed that we had to hike down after hiking up for so long. But the camp was a welcome sight. Several small, wooden cabins huddled around a fire pit. A little garden peeked out from behind a long building with a kitchen that housed wood-fed stoves. Mules relaxed in the fields that surrounded that little spot of human habitation, and when I finally dropped down to rest, a camp cat came to relax in the sun with me.

Our trusty mule (c) ABR 2016

Martin went on to the summit, although he didn’t return until the sun had nearly set. I was disappointed that I didn’t make it to the top, but when he finally got back to camp, the look of exhaustion on his face let me know that I made the right decision. Pushing for the top would have been irresponsible of me, and I hike enough to know my limits.

Even without the summit under my belt, the whole experience was adventure enough, and that is still one of the hardest trails that I have ever hiked in a day.

(c) ABR 2016

Expedition South Island: Day 3: Mt. Aspiring Inspires

Total Distance Driven: 333km
Total Time Driving: 4hrs

Miles Hiked: 3.2 miles
Time Hiking: 1hr

Today was an interesting day, a mix of good and bad. When I was leaving Twizel, the tiny town where I stayed the night, I spotted two girls on the side of the road, smiling and waving, and looking desperate for a ride. Judging them by their clothes, and knowing I had room, I decided to pick them up. Not something I ever imagined doing, but it turned out fine enough. They were exchange students form the States and their car had broken down while they were exploring Mt Cook. I got them as far as a junction near Wanaka, and then they were on their way.

Thunder Creek Falls (c) ABR 2017

I followed their advice and bought a meat pie from a little bakery called Doughbin. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up liking the flavor I got (my bad…).

After that, it was an hour drive up to Thunder Creek Falls, the furthest point into Mt. Aspiring NP that I was planning on going before turning around. The journey into this particular NP, which I had no knowledge about and thusly, no expectations, was jaw dropping. The southern alps here have an almost reddish hew, and there’s not nearly as much snow on their peaks as Mt. Cook and the mountains surrounding it. This means that the dark skin of the rock shows through above the bush line; the mountains are colorful and hard to look away from.

(c) ABR 2017

To make the park even more awesome, Haast pass, where you drive through on this side of the NP, is at the base of a gorge that is covered in rainforest! It is one of the coolest things to be able to climb through such a densely green forest, and look out at alpine mountains.

My only regret is that I didn’t have time for some proper tramping up into the mountains, but I’m sure that would have killed me at this point. A steep hike up to Haast viewpoint left me feeling sick and exhausted. I don’t know if it was the altitude, the fact that my body is busy with female business, or if I am still sick from the other day. In any case, it left me wondering what the rest of my trip is going to look like. Part of me really wants to go to the Chatham Islands, because I think this is my chance (and I’ve already spent a good amount of money on it), but there are so many things about the way I planned that leg of my journey that are stressing me out. Feeling sick makes me worried about attempting it. I have no idea what to do.

(c) ABR 2017

Expedition South Island, NZ: Day 2: Seeing Mt. Cook

Mt Cook at the end of Hooker Valley trail (c) ABR 2017

Total distance driven: 399km
Total time driving: 5hrs

Miles hiked: 6.2
Time hiking: 2hrs

I left Christchurch around 9a, and made it up to Mt. Cook National Park around 1p. Much of the drive was through flat country, but the final section climbed up into the hills, and then opened out around some alpine lakes at the base of some insanely beautiful mountains.

Seeing Mt. Cook from far away was awe inspiring. It dominated the valley even from miles away, and its snow capped peak looked sharp and foreboding. The gravel car park at the trailhead for Hooker Valley looked full by the time I got there, although it was not hard to park. The trail itself was likewise busy but not overcrowded.

As the brochures on the NP suggest, Hooker Valley was not a difficult trail, however, it was a slight but steady climb for about 3 miles. The track follows a stream that comes down from the mountains, and there are three major bridge crossings on the way. The view from each was exceptional, and the water flowing under them was a chalky, blue color that was hard to take my eyes off of, even on the swaying bridges. The rest of the trail winds its way through grassy hills, until it ends at the edge of a light blue lake, with Mt. Cook at the other end, towering over everything else.

It was a peaceful walk, despite the crowds. I did hear some cracking ice at one point, and I found myself looking nervously up at the mountains with hanging curtains of snow. I have no idea how far avalanches can travel, but I never doubt nature. Luckily, I arrived back at my car, tired, and ready to head into town for some rest.

Expedition South Island, NZ: Day 1: Arriving in Christchurch

Looking down on Christchurch from Mt Vernon Park (c) ABR 2017

Total time flying: 16hrs
Layover time: 11hrs

I decided not to splurge, and stayed in LAX for my entire 9 hour layover. The international terminal wasn’t a horrible place to be, and I even found a quiet corner to lay down in and get some work done.

The flight to New Zealand ended up being hellish. Either I just had some extremely painful bloating, or I was actually sick. Either way, it started just an hour into the 12 hr flight, and it was torturous. I’m dreading the trip home at this point. I have a rental car on stand by in LA, if I get off on the way home and can’t stand to get back in the air.

(c) ABR 2017

I was still in pain and utterly exhausted when I got to Christchurch, but my hotel didn’t allow check in until 2p. So, I drove over to Mt. Vernon park and walked the Sugarloaf Circuit. It was very nice, all things considered. But I was damn glad to get to my hotel room, and I didn’t leave once I check in. Ended up sleeping for 11 hours.

Attempting the Summit of Pico Duarte: Part 2

PART 2: GETTING LOST AND DRIVING ON DIRT ROADS

One of the nicer dirt roads on the way to Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

I don’t remember what clued us into the fact that we were driving the wrong way, but it had been an hour since we had seen the last sign for… anything, and we wanted to play it safe. After all, both my travel partner, Martin, and I were keen on making it to the top of Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Caribbean. Getting lost in the forests at its base would make that hard and we didn’t have time to waste. With just two days to make our attempt (most people take at least three full days), a failure that morning meant the entire thing was off.

Our powerful little rental car, Tina (c) ABR 2016

Luckily, Martin was fluent in Spanish, making turning around to ask for directions fruitful. Some people eating at a streetside restaurant pointed us down a road being re-paved when we told them the name of the town we were trying to reach.

“But you can’t go that way now,” one man remarked, gesturing at the heavy machinery blocking the way. I felt my heart sink. “There’s another road, but we’ll send someone with you, because it’s small and hard to find.” Another man put down his hard-earned lunch and dropped his conversations to hop on his motorcycle. We followed him back into town, and turned onto… a dirt road.

The good part of the dirt road; that little red dot is the guy leading us to town (c) ABR 2016

Let’s pause here to discuss dirt roads. Some dirt roads are no problem for almost any vehicle. Some dirt roads are fine for my Acura which can barely handle pot-holes on the freeway. Some dirt roads might as well be paved, because they are nice and flat and their only downside is all the dust you kick up driving on them.

This was not one of those dirt roads.

But there wasn’t much of a choice at that point. A kind man had stopped mid-lunch to guide us, and neither of us felt like we could turn back now. So, we followed that motor bike, on a road where divots and holes slowly grew where water ran and pooled into them when it rained. Then, up a steep hill that crested so sharply that I thought we might just balance out on the top and have to stay there.  Onward our guide took us through construction sites, literally weaving our way between massive digging machines as they worked, and along roads with deep mud.

The road down into the construction zone (c) ABR 2016

Finally we followed him through a little town with no sign to clue us in to its name, up an embankment, and into the dirt parking lot of Armando Bermudez National Park. Tina had lived up to her name as far as I was concerned. I was proud of her and me for making it to that point. Now, we just had to find the man that our friend had told us about, who would help us set up our trip and make it to the summit…

Attempting the Summit of Pico Duarte: Part 1

PART 1: AS LONG AS THERE AREN’T DIRT ROADS

Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

I lived in the Dominican Republic for the summer of 2016; there for my PhD field season to study one of the world’s most unique whale watching destinations. It was my first time really living on my own in another country (and perhaps my last), and between bouts of anxiety about bus rides and car accidents, I was primed to explore.

Near my home in Santo Domingo (c) ABR 2016

Hiking Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in the Dominican Republic and the whole of the Caribbean, was on my bucketlist from day one. Having little experience with hiking in the tropics, I was thirsty for some new adventure, and interested in the ecological rainbow that was no doubt present as one worked their way up from the rainforest at the mountain’s base, to its sparsely forested top.

There was just one problem, most of the tours to the top of Pico Duarte cost between $300-$500,far outside of my budget as a graduate student. It seemed like the mountain was out of my reach, until my growing desire to plod up its slopes led me to ask my Dominican advisor if he had any ideas about making the trip happen.

Pico Duarte (c) ABR 2016

“How are you driving on mountain roads?” He asked. I wasn’t concerned. I made a hobby out of driving up the Catalinas outside of Tucson during my undergrad, I spent a summer driving up and down the snaking roads of Mt. Graham, and I had just returned from a road trip through the Scottish highlands.

“If there aren’t dirt roads,” I replied. “I will be fine.” My vehicle for the summer was a small Nissan Versa Note, which I had duly named ‘Tina’ after my favorite character in Bob’s Burgers.

Tina’s preferred habitat (c) ABR 2016

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Just be careful about driving on the winding roads. Honk at the corners, go slow.” Ah yes, driving in the Dominican Republic is notorious. Did you know that? The World Atlas rates the DR as the #1 country for car accident deaths in the world. After driving there for a summer, I wouldn’t be surprised if it just happens to be related to  the motorcycles that are EVERYWHERE, or the fact that people casually drive drunk. Defensive driving is a 100% must in the Dominican Republic, and most people advise against you driving there at all. So, I got where he was coming from.

Where I was inspired to seek this adventure (c) ABR 2016

I was fairly confident that I could handle it. It was just those pesky dirty roads that little Tina wasn’t equipped to deal with.

So, he gave me directions to a small, small village at the base of the mountain, and told me the name of a man that my hiking buddy and I were to look for there…