Yes, there are Kangaroos in Australia

In the last 12 months, our departure point was a constant source of confusion for people all over the world, who couldn’t understand why the famous homeland of kangaroos is lying in the heart of Europe. Only a stone’s throw from New Zealand, it was clear that we can’t miss out on this vast and diverse country. And the fact, that we already had to pay an outrageous amount for an Australian visa for our flight to New Zealand, also did its bit 😉

Sydney

Following our approved “maximize luggage allowance” strategy that includes wearing all our clothes in endless layers, filling all our pockets with the heaviest spare parts and passing by securities in such an innocent and easy-going way that it hides the fact that the dammed-up heat is close to kill you, we had a smooth flight to Sydney. Before even entering the streets of Sydney, it became apparent to us why Aussies are known for their outgoing nature as two friendly railroad workers guided us and our enormous bicycle boxes to the right exit (no doubts that they were also happy to quickly get rid of two giant potential security threats ^^).

Unfortunately, the locusts swarm of young German tourists that we had encountered in New Zealand was also invading Australia’s unofficial capital so that our cheap hostel’s kitchen showed unpleasant resemblance to the annual Oktoberfest, in terms of alcohol level as well as fragrance. Anyway, no time to waste in the musty hostel, an iconic cityscape was waiting to be discovered in front of the door!

Sydney's Landmark just for us

On a tight scheduled guided city tour we were wandering through Sydney’s glamorous mixture of ancient sandstone churches and cosmopolitan skyscrapers. Our lovely and hyper motivated guide did her best to make up for the untypical, everything but sun-kissed weather and lead us to the famous landmarks, including the Rocks, Sydney’s birthplace that nowadays charmingly combines historic cobblestone alleys with exuberantly modern markets, the much-adored Harbour Bridge that majestically spans the dazzling harbour at its narrowest point, and last but not least the Circular Quay with Sydney’s emblem, the Opera House. The whole tour was spiced up with amusing insider stories, like the one about the poor Danish architect who never got paid for building one of the world’s most known landmarks, meant to reference the billowing white sails of a seagoing vessel, whereas locals chuckle about the more accurate resemblance to a bunch of copulating albino turtles 🙂

Although Sydney impresses with a surfeit of cultural riches, first-rate museums and a variety of native critters that turn up in the most surprising places – as well as a shocking density of homeless people – after some days the vastness of the countryside was calling us and we’re heading out of town in our upgraded deluxe motorhome just to bump into the next tourist crowd at the famous Blue Mountains.

No Giddiness

But as usual, if you are willing to invest some sweat to leave the beaten track, you get rewarded with imposing views on the chiselled sandstone outcrops and deep valleys with the slate-coloured haze hovering above the dense canopy, a fine mist of oil exuded by the huge eucalyptus trees that gives the mountains their name. And when you then have the possibility to easily grab a bottle of exquisite wine out of your camper’s huge storage room and enjoy the sunset over the Australian bush, it feels like priceless luxury 🙂

From New Sout Wales to Victoria

Jervis Bay

From the Blue Mountains, we were setting out for our road trip through New South Wales and Victoria. We followed the coastal road until the beautiful, sheltered Jervis Bay that offered us a last chance to stroll under the warm autumn sunrays along the snow-white sand beach and the surreal saltmarsh and mangrove forests, that are covered in oysters all over. Just the right spot for Martina to try fresh and delicious oysters right at one of the little stalls along the coast, that literally harvest the precious shells in their backyard.

Aborigines Tent Embassy

Our next stop on our way further south was Canberra. In the middle of nowhere and surrounded by forest, farmland and nature reserves, Australia’s official – but rather unknown – capital earns its nickname, the “Bush Capital.” Built in 1913 as a (*cough* lousy *cough*) compromise between rivals Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra was designed by American architects Walter and Marion Griffin whose blueprint focused on clear geometrical shapes. As an entirely planned city, we felt the signature of the meticulous planning at every exact rectangular corner and in every precisely manicured park. In compliance with the original design, it features expansive open spaces, all well aligned with the dead straight main avenues, and centred around a massive artificial lake. Together with the large-scaled concrete buildings that invariably follow the strict aesthetic guidelines, the entire city creates the impression of a future alien city as imagined by a person from the early 20th century. The only thing that clearly breaks with this collection of design prize winning architecture, is the colourful and chaotic agglomeration of tents, umbrellas and garden chairs on the lawn in front of the Parliament House that form the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Established in the 70s as a response to the government’s refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights, it has become a heritage-listed landmark for Aboriginal protest. Despite being a continual source of controversy, with many calls for its removal, it has existed on the site since that time.

Bush Fire Remnants

As a real Tyrolean, we couldn’t miss out to pay a visit to the “Snowy Mountains”, Australia’s Alps. Following the winding Alpine Way through tall mountain forests and past the dramatic western fall of the main range, we got rewarded with sweeping views on vast areas devastated by bushfire, the REAL red earth of the outback, countless kangaroo roadkill – as well as some alive ones – and an excursion to Siberia and an original Tyrolean village at the same day!

Melbourne

Goodbye Spring Roll Party

Crossing the state border to Victoria, our Australian trip was coming to an end. Melbourne was the last highlight on our itinerary and thanks to Paul and Leiset we spent some amazing last days there.  We had met Paul and Leiset in Tajikistan, literally at the other side of the world, and we have quickly taken them into our hearts, not least because of their warm and open character but as well for their marvellous cooking and creative bicycle reparation skills that brought us some delicious meals and an almost brand new back wheel. Precisely nine month ago we had seen them for the last time and it was obvious that the newly married couple hadn’t been idle in the meantime when nearly three persons welcomed us at their doorstep 🙂 As passionate cooks and vegetable enthusiasts – not least for barley and hop – we had lots of chances to celebrate our last days of this incredible journey appropriately and we directly felt this connection again that gave us the feeling to know each other since years. So at this point, a big thank you to both of you and all the best for your growing family!

The Fish of Māui

According to Māori mythology, the North and South Islands of New Zealand arose through the actions of Māui, the gifted, clever demigod of Polynesian mythology. Māui dreamed of the day that he could go fishing with his older brothers. But Māui’s brothers would always make an excuse and so Māui hatched a plan to prove he was a great fisherman. He secretly made a fishhook from a magical ancestral jawbone. Then one night he crept into his brothers’ canoe (the South Island) and hid under the floorboards.  It wasn’t until the brothers were far out of sight of land that Maui revealed himself. Then he took out his magic fishhook and threw it over the side of the canoe, chanting powerful incantations as he did so. The hook went deeper and deeper into the sea until the line suddenly went taut. Māui held tight to his line, and slowly a giant fish was pulled to the surface. Māui cautioned his brothers to wait until he had appeased Tangaroa, the god of the sea, before they cut into the fish. They grew tired of waiting and began chopping greedily at the giant fish, claiming huge pieces of it as their own. These are now the many valleys, mountains, lakes and rocky coastlines of the North Island. To this day the North Island is known to Maori as Te Ika-a-Māui or Māui’s fish.

Ancient Tiki

Like Māui and his brothers who were fighting about the giant fish, New Zealand’s North Island has a long history of rivalling indigenous tribes battling about resources since the first Polynesian forebears of today’s Māori were journeying in canoes from Hawaiki about 1000 years ago. The arrival of European settlers and whalers about 250 years ago, furthermore constrained their habitat and the import of doubtful human achievements like weapons and alcohol, also had their part to play in the decimation of the native population. Nevertheless, the Māori people somehow managed to keep their culture alive and we experienced that nowadays the influence of New Zealand’s indigenous culture is more keenly felt in the North Island, where Māori make up a much higher percentage of the population and main street marae (meeting houses), historic sites and taonga (treasures) are a much more common sight.

Welcome in Wellington

Especially Te Papa Tongarewa National Museum in Wellington provided a great introduction for our North Island exploration by giving us a deeper understanding of the nation’s history and today’s relationship between Māori and Pakeha. Additionally, the nation’s capital comes with a beautiful Victorian timber architecture that laces the bushy hillsides above the harbor and bursts with theatres, galleries boutiques a fancy craft-beer scene. Everyone here looked trendy and a bit arty-farty and it seemed like the mandatory Wellington accessories are skateboards, beards and big glasses…preferably all three.

But apart from the highly visible Māori culture and vibrant urban life, we should discover that also in terms of scenery the often overlooked North Island features a sublime combination of hilly bush country, barren moonscape plateaus with still active volcanoes, jagged lava rock formations, steaming vents and bubbling hot springs.

Forgotten World Highway

We started our bicycle journey in the North Island close to the improbably perfectly shaped Mount Taranaki, a dormant volcano that rises high above the fertile plains below. Maori legend has it that Mount Taranaki was initially located in the center of the North Island, but lost a mighty battle with another mountain for the heart of pretty Mount Pihanga. Banished west to his current position, it is still said that when the 2518 m peak is hidden by clouds (which is the case most of the time), the Mountain is hiding the tears he sheds for his lost love.

Endless Hill Ranges

At its feet lies the sleepy town of Stratford where the aptly named Forgotten World Highway starts its 155km long winding way along pioneering farm tracks, through surreal lush grassy hills, passing ambitious historic settlements, Māori pa (fortified villages), abandoned coal mines and memorials to those long gone. The secluded road passes over four natural saddles with beastly steep climbs that showed unpleasantly resemblance to some of the sheer ascents on the Pamir Highway and generated nearly the same intensity of swearing. Once at the top, panting for breath, we got rewarded with spectacular views of Mt Taranaki to the west and ranges of green hills that stretch sheer endless in every direction.

Viva la República!

Midway lies another curiosity, the tiny, 30 souls settlement of Whangamomona. Once a bustling frontier town providing strong service links to the hardy farmers trying to wrestle a living from the nearby bush, it was declared a ‘republic’ by its enraged residents back in 1988, complete with its own presidential election where normally four-legged candidates win the voters’ trust. Nowadays thousands of people flock to this back-country hamlet for its independence day celebration to partake in a bit of sheep racing, gumboot throwing, whip cracking, possum skinning and the occasional shoot-out. No trip to the Forgotten World Highway would be complete without a passport stamp from the local pub.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Volcanic Plateau

After reaching the end of the Forgotten World Highway at Taumaranui, we were riding further east towards the Tongariro National Park, the geothermal heart of the North Island. This volcanic plateau was shaped by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in the last 5000 years that ejected pumice to heights of 50 km and volcanic material travelling outward at a speed of 600 km/h levelled forests, incinerating and burying everything within an 80 km radius. Today, the Tongariro National Park has dual Unesco World Heritage status, recognising this spectacular volcanic landscape, and also the area’s important Māori cultural and spiritual heritage.

Welcome to the Tongariro National Park

One would think that after more than ten thousand kilometres, we would be used to steep ascents. But the Kiwis seem to know no limit when it comes to street gradient. With a climb far over 17%, by the sweat of our brow, meter for meter we were fighting our way uphill to the volcanic plateau. Fortunately, it wasn’t until we reached the National Park Village at the top, that the brewing thunderstorm caught us and firmly kept us in its cold grasp for the next two days. While waiting for better weather to tackle the justifiably remarkable Alpine Crossing, the free hot tub at the camping kept our motivation high despite the steady rain and the frozen-stiff tent.

Towering Mt Ngauruhoe

The third morning greeted us with a golden sunrise and not a single cloud on the azure blue sky, perfect conditions for the a 19 km trail that traverses the volcanic plateau passing three active volcanoes, one of them world-renowned as Mount Doom of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. No question that we were among the brave that didn’t fear the falling rocks dislodged by shockingly ill-equipped trampers and crawled on loose scree until the summit to find a sign of Gollum still floating on the lava.

Nature's Palette

Without any doubt, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing was one of the most spectacular hikes we’ve ever seen. Amid the thrilling scenery are steaming vents, peculiar rock formations, evil-smelling fumaroles, imposing craters, emerald coloured lakes and vast views. An extraordinary and kind of extraterrestrial scenery where nature is showing off with all its range of colours. Sitting in a cloud of warm steam between sulphur-yellow rocks, enjoying views on deep, blood-red craters and a barren moonscape dotted with glistening lakes, is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

Witches' Brew

In compliance with the credo “Just follow your nose”, our geothermal discovery tour led us further north to the ‘Sacred Waters’ of the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, where a veritable surreal assortment of geothermal attractions was awaiting us. Precisely to the minute – triggered right in time for the selfie sticks of Chinese tourist buses – the Lady Knox Geyser erupts up to 20 meters high and bubbling mud-pools are spewing sludge on careless visitors. But the one thing that really stands out about this landscape sculptured by geothermal activity in thousands of years, are the hell-like colours: pools the colour of textmarker-yellow, muddy slate or dark sepia and banks dripping with sulphurous, russet and orange hues.

Steaming Hot Kerosene Creek

But our personal favourite in this thermal area, was the locals’ well-kept secret of Kerosene Creek. Imagine a stream in the middle of the forest, overshadowed by aged pine trees and sweeping ferns, where hot water from a natural underground spring bubbles into the cool water of the creek, creating pleasantly warm waters that form a little pool beside a small waterfall. As it happened to be the day of our one-year trip anniversary we pitched our tent hidden in the native bush beside, and when darkness was setting in, we indulged ourselves and our tired muscles in the hot water, surrounded by candles and the gentle moonlight.

Māori Meeting House

For our final kilometres in New Zealand, the weather gods were once again against us and so we reached Rotorua, our last destination on the North Island, under heavy rain. Surprisingly also in town we found steaming vents and stinky mud-pools fuelled by the geothermal activity at every corner. Apart from the geothermal attractions, Rotorua is considered a cultural centre for the indigenous Māori people and showcases detailed wooden meeting houses, ancient tikis and elaborate greenstone carvings revealing their rich mythological and spiritual beliefs.

Auckland

Goodbye DinnerWith only a couple of days left in New Zealand, we took a last time motorized help to speed up the transfer to Auckland. We had planned to meet up there with Polly, a kitesurf professional and the two-time winner of the Roof of the World Regatta” at the Kara-Kul Lake in Tajikistan, where we had spent an amazing time together with the whole adventurous family. An unpredictable change in plans – and probably perfect wind conditions – led to a delayed reunion, but nevertheless we were warmly welcomed by her ten (!) flatmates. Thanks to improvising tour guide Ben, we had the pleasure to see one of Auckland’s famous black beaches and enjoy a surprisingly long day in the native bush labyrinth of the city’s hinterland before celebrating our final goodbye from New Zealand, a country with imposing diverse landscapes, spectacular trails and a lovely native “kiwi” population.

Along the West Coast

Our new CarQueenstown was not only one of our most comfortable accommodations, it was also our gate to the West Coast. Deterred by the imminent wet weather conditions on the coast and the heavy traffic load on the Highway 6, the only link between the southern tip of the West Coast and the Northern region of the South Island, we decided to speed up our journey for a while and take a rental car. It turned out that that’s easier said than done. It took us a whole weekend and a public holiday (who really cares about weekdays when travelling?) plus far too much money to get a certified translation for Gui’s driving licenses (who could guess that “nom” really means “name”?!) before we could finally set out for our West Coast tour – with a thoroughly unfamiliar way of transport!

From Glaciers to Greenstone

Alpine Crossing to WanakaFrom Queenstown we took the insanely steep – with our motorized transport no problem 🙂 – alpine road over Crown Range, with 1076m New Zealand’s highest sealed road, to Wanaka that offered amazing views on tussock-covered ridgelines that shimmer in warm gold tones as the sun sinks behind the horizon that appears like an endless ocean of swaying grassy waves. Past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea the road clambers around sheer-sided valley walls, following an early Maori transport route called Tioripatea, meaning “Clear Path”, that was travelled on their quest for precious pounamu (greenstone), until it climbs up to Haast pass, one of the view east-west gateways in the Southern Alps, before dropping into the vast, flax and rata forest covered wetland along the coast.

First West Coast Beach

Instead of heading north, drunken with the mere endless possibilities that such a fast means of transport offers, we took the junction southwards to Jackson Bay, literally the end of the line – just because we can! – and got rewarded with a sheer endless stretch of isolated beach whose ends disappear in the mist of the ocean spray.

A Piece of Home

Back on SH6 our next destinations were the imposing Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. The glaciers’ staggering development is mainly due to the West Coast’s ample rain and nowhere else at this latitude do glaciers come so close to the ocean. Though the Franz Josef glacier was originally known to Maori as Ka Roimata o Hine Hukatere (Tears of the Avalanche Girl), nowadays the glacier is named after Austrian’s longest-reigning emperor, providing a little feeling of home at the other end of the world.

Hokitika Gorge
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Midway up the West Coast we passed through the “cool little town of Hokitika”. Like so many other towns in New Zealand originally founded on gold, today the town is the stronghold of indigenous pounamu and home to some of the NZ’s best carving artists. Apart from overpriced greenstone necklaces, the town also offers a nice walk along a gorge that admittedly has an outstanding milky blue color.

Pancake Rocks and Knife Forging

Westcoast at its Best

Halfway up the West Coast we started to wonder where the dramatic cliffs and wind-tossed crags are hiding, that made this route such a famous tourist destination. So far we had mainly travelled through vast, flat kahikatea and rata forests, flax overgrown sand dunes, and swampy wetlands. Fortunately, we were able to cross this region in a couple of hours instead of spending dreary days in the boring up and down of this monotonous, scenery. Exposed to the ElementsBut just before our sullenness about the dullness of the landscape and the omnipresent moisture that left our tent and everything inside damp every morning, would turn into real frustration we finally reached the “real” West Coast! A winding street clambering along steep mountain ranges on one side and flanked by white-capped waves and rocky bays on the other that culminated in the stunning Pancake Rock formations where the wild sea surges into caverns and booms menacingly through blowholes.

Melting the Raw SteelNot far from Punakaiki lies another highlight of our West Coast experience, the Barrytown Knifemaking. In a day long course we made our own knife from the very beginning of hand-forging the steel, grinding the blade to crafting a handle from native rimu timber. All this accompanied by an endless stream of entertainingly bad jokes from Steve, our not always political correct master smith 🙂

Gui & Emmanuel

This perfect day was rounded off by an enjoyable dinner with Emmanuel, a friend of Gui from Tahiti who happened to be in New Zealand at this time and with a barbecue at sunset and numerous glasses of wine, they were indulging in good memories of joyful times in Coincy at the other end of the world.

Tasman goes Top North

Oparara Arch

Following the advice of the world’s most sold travel guidebook, we continued the way north after Westport for 150km to see a “natural spectacle of the highest order”. We were never happier about our rental car than at the moment when the “hidden valley concealed its wonder such as limestone arches” *cough, cough*. I guess we would have cried if we would have come all this way by bicycle…

Pristine Bays
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But the West Coast was keeping one last highlight for us ready that was worth all the extra kilometers and this was the coastal Abel Tasman National Park that blankets the northern end of the South Island. The idyllic track there is arguably one of the most beautiful Great Walks, providing crescent-shaped coves of glittering golden sand, washed by the crystal-clear waters of Tasman Bay.

Waiting for the Ferry

This last outstanding trail was a perfect completion for our South Island experience and with a last delicious seafood lunch we bid adieu and as the ferry was slowly chugging north through the winding Queen Charlotte Sound, we waved a farewell to this marvelous island that is holding so many treasures in the middle of the sea.

On Tiki Tour through Aotearoa

Wind-Blown TreesGranted, the lush, green headlands and wind-tossed cliffs along the coastline of Catlins Region are stunning, but when the wind reaches a velocity of 100kph and the gusts literally blow you of the bike, even the most determined cyclist has to accept his inevitable defeat and make use of some motorized help. Our lifesavers on this horrible day came in the form of Dave and Diane, who created an artistic masterpiece by tying our bikes to the saw blade sculpture on their trailer to Invercargill 🙂

Henry, the 111-years-old Tuatara
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Invercargill is a flat and somehow featureless town that hasn’t much more to offer than satisfying all key requirements as a pit stop between the Catlins and Fiordland, although it does boast a handful of historic buildings and the undoubted star in town is patriarch Henry, a 111-years-old-and-counting but still lusty tuatara, New Zealand’s unique miniature dragons.

Enjoying the Sea Breeze

Accompanied by some hungry seagulls and our old, ever-present enemy – the wind – we followed the rugged coastline to Riverton, where we became world famous thanks to a delightful old lady who interviewed us for the Western Star, New Zealand’s newspaper with the widest circulation – in this tiny area 😉

Fiordland

Wilderness..

Passing boggy tops and stunted trees we silently crossed the boundary to Fiordland National Park, a jagged, mountainous, densely forested landmass ribbed with deeply recessed fiords reaching inland like crooked fingers, appealing its few visitors with a special end-of-the-world feeling. With an average of 200 rain-days per year, we too weren’t spared from the permanent fine yet ice cold drizzle and even though it doesn’t seem much at the beginning, after some hours you are completely drenched despite all the super sophisticated high-tech fabrics and even our beloved merino shirts develop this unique “wet dog fragrance”.

On the Kepler Track

So we were all the more relieved when reaching Manapouri and finding an affordable little cabin with a fireplace that thanks to Gui’s industrious efforts quickly turned the hut into a sauna like dream that quickly dried all our gear and our frozen toes. A rain free window allowed us to stroll on the first kilometers of the Kepler Track, on of NZ’s Great Walks, that leads through a magically moss-draped forest and surprisingly colorful marshland. We shared the little cabin with another couple and confined to the cramped inside for some days by the constant rain and due to outstanding French Cuisine, we became friends fast and they gave us a lift for the scenic route from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

Gertrud Saddle

This road meanders through rolling farmland atop the lateral moraine of the glacier that once gouged out Lake Te Anau and heads up into the high-country valley, at first pocketed with sheepy pasture, then reaching deeper wilderness immersion as it crosses the Divide, the lowest east-west pass in the Southern Alps. The road then climbs further through the cascade-tastic valley to the Homer Tunnel, framed by a spectacular, high-walled ice-carved amphitheater of Gertrud Saddle. One way, dark, magnificently rough-hewn and dripping with water, the 1270m long tunnel emerges at the other end at the head of the spectacular Cleddau Valley that finds its climax at the photogenic 1692m high Mitre Peak, the gate to Milford Sound.

Mitre Peak

Sheer rock cliffs rise out of still, dark waters, forests cling to ridiculously steep slopes and an average annual rainfall of 7m (in words: seven meters!) fuels innumerable cascading waterfalls. Half a million tourists raid this stunning fiord per year but out on the water all this humanity seems tiny compared to nature’s vastness. The unique ocean environment replicates deep-ocean conditions, encouraging the activity of marine life such as dolphins, seals and even penguins, though the latter might be a tourist myth as we haven’t seen one all over the South Island 😉

Around the Mountains

Fly Amanita TentAfter three warm, cozy nights close to the fireplace and in a real bed (the first one since we left Christchurch) we were heading back to heartland New Zealand and followed the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail that circumnavigates the Eyre Mountains. The bumpy gravel road led us to the isolated area around the Mavora Lakes, two remote stretches of water that are deep blue and clear enough to see trout cruising the many bush clad bays and inlets. Thick beech forests ringing with bird calls fringe the lakes and mirrored in the glassy surface you see the distant snow-capped peaks of the Livingstone Mountains.

Around the Mountains

As the road is winding further over the golden valley floor along a meandering stream with a perfect backdrop of tussock-covered ridgelines, towering mountains and rugged hinterland, the resemblance to the secluded high plateau of Tajikistan was stunning. The closer we got to the enormous Lake Wakatipu, the more the landscape turned back into the typical NZ stereotype of lush green meadows with grazing sheep flocks and towering peaks until we reached Walter’s Peak, an early settlement and nowadays the jetty for the TSS Earnslaw, a restored, coal-fired steamship with all the brass-work and varnished timber you associate with a vintage ship nearly a century old. The engine room is visible and you can watch the pistons and valves chugging away amidships and the passage to the harbour of Queenstown passed in no time.

Queenstown & the Wakatipi Basin

View on the Remarkables Mountain RangeSurrounded by the soaring indigo peaks of the Remarkables and framed by the meandering coves of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is undeniably a marvelous place to live. But famous as New Zealand’s ‘Global Adventure Capital’, it is bristling with young, mostly German adrenaline junkies that spend hundreds of dollars for jumping off a bridge or out of a plane and queue up by the dozens to grab one of the giant, famed-by-Lonely-Planet Fergburgers.

Palm Sunday Lunch

Despite this unappealing tourist crowds, we had a great time in Queenstown which is the sole merit of David, a warm-hearted fellow cyclist that invited us into his home – and what a home that was! We were literally speechless when we finally reached his address and found ourselves in front of the luxury Rees Hotel, a five-star holiday complex featuring astonishing views on the lake and the mountain range. It turned out that we didn’t get lost and David indeed owned a flat in this glamorous complex and forthrightly and welcomingly opened his doors for two filthy and stinky cyclists 🙂 It was also him that took us on a tiki tour to show us the jewels of the Wakatipu Basin, gave us the opportunity for a family Sunday lunch – something we didn’t have since months – including self-made Pevalova cake and the best coffee we hat in whole New Zealand and organised a reunion with the world’s most ambitious dart team ^^ Thanks a million for your generosity and kindness!

To the Southernmost Point

Bec and her lovely KidsThanks to Bec and Pascal’s hospitality, we had a lovely place to stay a couple of days in Christchurch amidst their exceptional family, a lively neighborhood and a beautiful scenery that shows striking resemblance with the French Cap Ferré peninsula, where Gui used to work with them as photographer 10 years ago.

Christchurch turned out to be a city in transition that is coping creatively with the aftermath of the severs earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. In empty lots and abandoned buildings left in the wake of the earthquakes, creative art projects have sprung up and despite the heartache, Bec is unhesitatingly sharing moving stories about this hard time, showing clearly that confronted with New Zealand’s second worst natural disaster, Christchurch’s residents have shown genuine solidarity with the personal tragedy of each neighbor and have proven well, why Kiwis are known for their remarkable solidarity and generous camaraderie.

Canterbury

Is there a Hobbit behind the HillHeavily loaded with “metropolis” amenities, we were setting out for our South Island adventure a couple of days later. Fortunately, Canterbury’s Plain welcomed us with vast flat terrain – ideal training conditions for our weak thighs that completely got out of shape over the last weeks. On the other hand, the nasty gusts howling across the plain and the speeding traffic – especially frightening after the laid-back Asian driving style – caught us somehow off-guard and soon we found ourselves going zigzag along farm lanes between the omnipresent barb wire fences that guard New Zealand’s most numerous woolly habitants. But this brought with it, that we had the chance to once find shelter in a surprisingly well equipped sheep shed and share a delicious dinner with hospitable stockbreeder Dave, who gave us a profound insight in New Zealand’s dairy farm disaster.

Brilliant Colors in unexpteced PlacesThe more we were heading West towards the central mountain range, the more the landscape morphed from well-ordered farmland into the dramatic wilderness of the Southern Alps that found its climax at the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki and the imposing Mount Cook, standing sentinel over this diverse region.

Otago

View at Dansey Pass's Top

From here on we followed the Alps2Ocean Trail, a 300km traffic free cycle trail that leads on gravel road from New Zealand’s highest peak all the way to the Pacific Ocean, past glacial-fed lakes, giant hydro dams, golden grasslands, rugged limestone cliffs and Maori rock art, vivid testimonials of a human habitation dating back hundreds of years.

Tranquil Mountian Creek

Before reaching the coastline, we turned further south crossing Danseys Pass. With more than 1200m total elevation gain, this pass with its extremely steep gravel road sucker punched us twice just when we thought it possibly can’t get any higher 🙂 But nevertheless we didn’t regret our choice as we spend two peaceful days in one of New Zealand’s most gorgeous campgrounds situated directly at a tranquil mountain creek half the way up the pass (or what we mistook as the half, a misjudgment that should hit us hard as things turned out later ^^)

Old Post Office

The cute little village of Naseby right after the pass with its mixture of saloon styled bars and 19th century brick buildings, came as a pleasant surprise (that the town is obsessed with the fairly insignificant world of New Zealand’s curling scene, indicates that life is still moving slowly here) and the chilled cider at the local, lost-in-time pub did the rest to pay off for our hurting legs.

Sunrise in Otago

Following our good experiences with the Alps2Ocean Cycle Trail, we continued our journey south along the Otago Central Rail Trail. Named after the old railway line, built at the end of the 19th century to link tiny, charming goldrush towns, the Otago Central Rail Trail travels through big-sky country traversing dry and rocky landscapes, high-country sheep stations, spectacular river gorges, pitch-dark tunnels, old wooden rail bridges, tiny villages with still-present pioneering spirit and provides gobsmacking scenery and profound remoteness.

This Trail is not made for heavy loaded Touring Bikes

This trail connects seamlessly with the Roxburgh Gorge Trail and the Clutha Gold Trail showcasing the area’s history of early Maori Moa hunters, Chinese gold miners and European pastoral farming. Despite the fact that these cycle trails with their steep grades, deep gravel sections and tight sandy curves are really not made for heavy loaded touring bikes – but are rather trafficked by all spruced up, city slicker mountain bikers, we enjoyed following the mighty Clutha Mata-au River as it weaves through cooling pine forests, past abandoned sawmills and lonely graves and traverses the spectacular Hidden Valley, before it joins its waters with the Roxburgh reservoir, an inviting place for a quick dip into the freezing cold waters. This trail ride found a glorious ending in Beaumount, where we extensively celebrated Otago as one of the country’s top wine regions with some fellow cyclists 🙂

Southland

Named after Gold NuggetsFrom this point on, less than 200km were lying between us and the country’s southernmost point. To reach this special spot, we followed the Southern Scenic Route and this road really lives up to its name! Weaving through the Catlins Region it traverses green rolling hills dotted with white spots of freshly sheared sheep searching shelter under wind-bent trees, crossing mystique, mist-shrouded pine forests, passing spectacular rugged coastline, wind-tossed headlands, lonely lighthouses with only a family of seals as neighbors, and wide-stretched, empty beaches where you can watch dolphins playing in the waves or step back in time in a half-sunken petrified forest.

Southernmost Point!Facing the severest wind and weather conditions we were confronted with since the beginning of our journey – with Antarctic Southerly gusts up to 90km/h and regular showers – kilometer for kilometer, we slowly fought our way south until we reached the southernmost point we’ve ever been! It was a truly unique feeling to stand at this wind-swept cliff after thousands of hard-earned kilometers and look out to the ocean, knowing that there are only white crested waves between you and the endless vastness of the Antarctica.

Bike Transformation

Once again we were back in Bangkok, but this time should be the last one ^^ We haven’t been on our bikes now for a while and to be honest we were missing them a lot! Thanks to Phil they came through the separation well and we were really happy to eventually enfold them in our arms 🙂 But there was not much time for cloying sentimentality, we had a lot to do in the next days to get them ready for their first plane ride – destination New Zealand!

One full Day of Cleaning

It took us one full day of most painstaking cleaning to ensure that neither the Australian nor the New Zealand customs would retain our bikes in quarantine for six months and to disassemble them to make them fit in the required boxes with strictly limited dimensions. Since we had a baggage limitation of 30kg including the bikes, it took us nearly another full day to go through all our stuff and separate them in one pile we can’t live without and a “maybe” pile, that in the end we had to give completely to other travelers or send home.

But the really tricky part was waiting ahead of us. At the airport they refused to let us check-in before we wouldn’t have an Australian visa since our transit in Sydney would take longer than 8 hours – bam, 90€ per person! The next unpleasant surprise didn’t take long, no check-in before we didn’t have a return flight – another 300€. Plus the additional baggage fee, the whole process summed up to nearly 650€ – pew 🙁 Nevertheless we were really happy when we boarded the plane – luckily without weighting our carry-on luggage!

On arrival in Christchurch, after enduring two hours of baggage checks, at 3 o’clock in the morning we weren’t allowed to sleep on the floor in the waiting area (although sitting would have been alright). Completely jet-lagged and full of adrenaline because our bikes actually arrived, we directly started assembling our bikes. At sunrise we were ready to continue our journey in New Zealand!! 🙂

30 Days of Sun, Sea and Storm

Traditional BlowpipeA short three hours’ flight from Bangkok and we were landing in Manila, the capital of the Philippines and one of the dirtiest and ugliest cities we’ve seen so far. It’s nickname “Pearl of the Orient” couldn’t be more appropriate. It has a scarred, nasty outer shell that might reveal its jewel only to those who are resolute enough to dig deeply. We were definitely not brave enough to scratch the filthy patina and the very next day we fled to Puerto Princesa on Palawan. Although Palawan’s capital itself is only slightly more appealing with its never-ending traffic jam and concrete buildings abound, we had a pleasant time there discovering the secrets of its Butterfly Garden, which besides of giant butterflies also hosts some of Philippine’s less fancied creatures like scorpions and huge beetles and even features a demonstration of a native tribe who showed how to use traditional weapons and instruments. And the absolute best part about Puerto was its bristling market where we found 1kg of sea mussels for less than 50 Cents. No question that Gui transformed them into the best Spaghetti Frutti di Mare I’ve ever tried!

Sabang

Postcard Idyll

Outside of its capital, Palawan immediately reveals the reason why so many travelers describe it as paradise on earth. The widely uninhabited island offers an Amazonian interior with imposing limestone cliffs and untouched jungle forests and the convoluted coast comprises one breathtaking white-sanded bay after the other.

Typical Jeepney Art

Probably the first thing that you notice when arriving in the Philippines, is this special means of transport they have here called Jeepney. It’s a multicolored kind of mini-truck, excessively decorated with “God loves you” slogans, that can squeeze up to 30 people or the equivalent amount of chickens, ice blocks or bricks on its truck bed and roof. As you can see, it’s an experience you must not miss and therefore we pushed our luck and took a bumpy 5 hour ride to Sabang, the next village 50km from Puerto. During this bus ride that made our teeth-fillings jingle, we also discovered that these Jeepneys are not only a cheap way of transport, but also a motorized street hawker as well as a mobile post office and news stand. Funny Fact: throughout the whole Philippines we never experienced that a bus ride effectively took the assessed amount of time. After initial resentment, we figured out that it was entirely our fault since we completely misunderstood their way of counting travel time. Unlike the rest of the world, Filipinos solely count the time the bus is actual moving, skipping the hundreds of minutes that you spend in traffic jam, loading and unloading all different types of domestic livestock as well as stopping every 20 meters because everybody revolts against the restricting concept of a central bus stop. Particularly in those moments we were especially missing our bicycles and the freedom that comes with it most.

Water Buffalo

With its wide beach dramatically framed by mountains and warm calm waters, Sabang certainly has more to offer than the dubious selection of its underground river as its most famous attraction. Instead of hopping for a bumper-boat ride through a theme-park haunted house like tunnel system filled with hordes of day trippers, we were going for a sunrise hike through the jungle to a spectacular cave and the place where the famous underground river actually turns from an ordinary dirty runlet into one of the ‘seven wonders of the world’ by disappearing inside a rock formation.

El Nido

First Stop, already not bad

One of the traditional outrigger canoes that are actually not much more than a hollowed tree trunk with two bamboo bars attached left and right that seem to be held together only by the massive amounts of turquois paint, brought us further north to El Nido, an ugly “nest” cluttered with buildings that creep on the beach sandwiched between towering limestone karst cliffs, only heightens the contrast between the mundane and the sublime as it is the gateway to the stunningly beautiful Bacuit Archipelago.

Sunrise in the Lagoon

Together with Martina’s cousin and his girlfriend who happened to be in the Philippines at the same time, we set out for a three-day kayak tour to explore the crystalline waters of the Bacuit Archipelago, a fabulous fairy world of jagged limestone islands that hide hundreds of white-sand beaches, winding lagoons and light-flooded coves. And on top of it, for the male members of our little expedition team our overnight trip held the opportunity to fully live out their obviously genetically deeply embedded Robin Crusoe skills 🙂 And as if this wasn’t paradisiac enough, the food parcel lovingly composed by my mother, enriched the fantastic trip with the flavour of home in form of original Tirolean “Kaminwurzen” and REAL bread, yummy!

Sagada

Pine Forest

Believe it or not, after so much sun, beach and sea, we needed a change of scene and were heading back to Luzon’s North to visit the Cordillera, a river-sliced hinterland of lush green pine forests covering a wide jagged mountain range. In Sagada, the epitome of mountain coolness, we escaped civilization for some days enjoying the vast quiet pine forests, gazing at the bizarre burial tradition of hanging coffins on steep rock walls, and exploring copious cave systems armed with an old-school paraffin lamp.

San Juan

Dream Camp Spot

No visit to the Philippines would be complete without riding some waves and after our mountain hideaway, we were back in the heart of tourism at the surfer dominated little village of San Juan. accommodation was crazy expensive here but this only made us more creative and so we ended up in the lovely garden of a five-star Spanish Colonial style villa with a stunning view on the sea, quick access to our private beach and the best internet we had since months. This lucky opportunity saved us enough money to afford a surfboard for an exhausting, knee scraping surf lesson every morning J

Hundred Isands

Hundred Islands Nationalpark

For our last days in the Philippines we wanted to spend our time far from any tourists doing something adventurous and to tell you right away: it was indeed an adventure! We decided to head south to the Hundred Islands National park to do again a trip by kayak for some days since we had so much fun the last time. And although it was really complicated this time to find somebody who was willing to rent us a kayak for two days for an affordable price, we remained persistent and eventually found “Early”, a weather-beaten Filipino lady who was willing to give us one of her kayaks and a choppy lift on her tiny, hardly seaworthy hooker. Already the boat ride to the island where we were supposed to get our kayak was – to put it mildly – a bit unsettling. Big waves were swashing over boat’s side and when we arrived we were completely drenched with sea water. Nevertheless, a little bit of water can’t deter us and we set out with our kayak packed with enough for food for two days. As soon as we left the protected bay of the island, we couldn’t refrain from noticing that wind and waves here were by far stronger than suitable for a cheap tourist kayak and the dark clouds banking up on the horizon didn’t seem very promising. Hence we were quickly heading to the next beach to pitch up our camp for the night. It turned out that the next beach was actually a small sandy stripe between two major rocks but it provided at least some protection from the wind that had grown into full-blown storm in the meanwhile. Unfortunately, the only sheltered spot on the beach was not high tide proof so that we were forced to resettle our tent after the first big tidal waves.

Dream Spot Shell Island

During the uncomfortable night the wind had gathered strength and we decided to stop the next fishermen to ask for a lift home. Not a big deal, we thought, since there were dozens of fisherman chugging between the islands the day before. After some hours during which there wasn’t a single soul to be seen, we had to abandon this plan and take fate in our own hands. One hour of heavy fighting against the hurricane like wind and waves that threatened to capsize our tiny kayak later, we were at the end of our tether and both with bleeding hands when we eventually reached the safe bay of the nearest inhabited island. Much to our surprise we found this island that was bustling with tourist the day before completely empty. All the food, souvenir and photo stalls closed and not a single boat in the dock. This and the fact that we haven’t seen any boat in the whole busy nature park all day long, made us realize that it’s more than unlikely that the boat that was supposed to pick us up here, would come at the appointed time and we would probably be stuck here for one more night. With this in mind, shivering from cold, we didn’t hesitate long to gain entrance to one of the holiday villas here to finally get dry and spend the night safe from wind and weather. Surprisingly, a few hours later we heard the nerve-racking sound of the underpowered outboard engine of Early’s hooker. Never has a deafening engine noise sound sweeter and after another rough passage we were more than relieved to set foot on shore. In retrospect, a worth telling finale for the Philippines, land of the seven thousand islands 🙂