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January 2008 Archives

January 4, 2008

India - Part 2

Back again. We are currently in Mumbai (Bombay), our final destination in India, but since the internet is largely a thing of the future outside of India's bigger cities, we can only update our blog with a certain delay. So here's what happened after the end of the past blog entry.

After Udaipur, we headed for Bundi on what was without a doubt the worst stretch of road we drove on. On the way to Bundi, we made a short stop at Chittorgarh where we visited the greatest fort of Rajasthan. As impressive as it was, it still didn't beat Jodhpur's amazing fort. On that very day, some people killed a cow, the holy animal of Hinuds, and threw its head in the garden of a Muslim family, so trouble was in the air and we only made a quick stop before continuing to Bundi. Bundi is a sleepy town with blue houses and a beautiful palace. Our hotel was right in front of the palace, and we had dinner outside, on the roof of the courtyard wall, with a beautiful view over the city and the fort. Quite a christmas dinner! Surprisingly, we where the only guests, so silent night came true this time.

After visiting the palace and the fort in the morning, we continued to Ranthambhore National Park - according to many the best place to see tigers in India. Spotting wild animals in a national park is always a question of chance, and we assumed that the tigers were shied away by jeeps and cantors roaming the park. The park offered two trips per day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Only a limited number of jeeps and cantors were allowed in the park, and non-surprsinigly, the jeeps were booked out. Thus, the next morning we whopped on a cantor with about 20 indian tourists and drove around the park looking for tigers. We saw many other animals, but no tigers. In front of us was an indian family which was unaware of the fact that one shouldn't feed wild animals. At one point we drove past a couple of monkeys, and the indian family started to feed the monkey with cookies that they had brought along. Suddenly, the monkeys jumped on the cantor and tried to take away all the cookies from the family, which was up on the chairs and screaming and yelling. It was embarrassing and hilarious at the same time.

We got back to the hotel where the owner greeted us with the good news that two seats on a jeep had become available because someone had cancelled. So, a few hours later, we were again rushing through the park gates, but this time on a small jeep with only 6 tourists on it. After a few minutes, we saw a few cantors that had stopped in the middle of the road, and everybody seemed to spot something on the right side of the street. After a couple of seconds, we saw a tiger moving through the bushes, at about 20 meters distance from our jeep. Everyone was quite excited, and it became clear that there were actually two tigers in the bushes. While we were trying to spot the tigers through the leaves of the trees and bushes, something unexpected happened. All of a sudden, a third tiger came out of the bush, walking towards us. The tiger came as close a 2 meters (the fact that the car was open-sided should be mentioned here). Our hearts jumped like crazy. The tiger turned, walked around the back of our car and passed the other cantors. At one point, all three tigers met in the middle of the street and started licking each other, and playing with each other right in front of the cantors. It was absolutely amazing.

Poaching is a huge problem in these parks, and the number of tigers is declining dramatically. The actual number of tigers in this area is somewhere in the 20ies. It's pretty obvious that if poaching is not stopped immediately, the indian tiger will go extinct, at least naturally, in a very short time. We feel very privileged to have seen three tigers in the wild.

After all we had experienced so far, our next stop, Jaipur, had a difficult time impressing us, and indeed, it failed to do so. What's most memorable about the city is that it has about 3 million inhabitants, and we couldn't remember visiting a city of that size that we have never heard of in our entire lives. But I guess India, with its 1.1 billion inhabitants, must have quite a few cities of that size unknown to the rest of the world. We visited the fort, which was rather average, but in contrast to the other forts we had visited before, this one was full of indian tourists indian holiday season. This gave us an idea of what to expect at the Taj Mahal that we would visit the next day.

And so ended our tour through Rajasthan. We crossed the border to the state of Madhya Pradesh the following morning, and arrived in Agra a few hours later. We checked in a the hotel and then drove to the Taj Mahal, India's most famous monument. The queue in front of it seemed to be never ending, and the entry fee was outrageous, but there is only one Taj Mahal in the world, and we wanted to see it. Inside, it seemed like hell had broken loose: thousands of tourists, mostly indian, were eager to go inside the temple and look at the tomb (the Taj Mahal is essentially a Mausoleum built by the Muslim Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal). It really is an amazing sight, an architectural masterpiece, and the thousands of people couldn't change that.

The next morning, we had to say goodbye to our driver, Narender Sharma, because the next few days we would travel by train and by plane. We will say a few wordss about him in a la about him in a later post, but anyone interested in seeing Rajasthan with a car and a driver should contact him. In the meanwhile, we have "experienced" other drivers, and we are now even more grateful to have met him. After saying goodbye, we boarded a train bound to Jhansi, and after a comfortable 2.5 hours trains ride we got picked up by a new driver who drove us, highspeed, to the village of Kajuraho. Kajuraho is nothing but a small village, except for a couple of temples, but they make all the difference. These temples are world famous for their erotic sculptures. The oldest of the temples was built in the 10th century, and for some strange reason, the temples were abandoned very soon after they were built. The fact the Kajuraho literally lies in the middle of nowhere meant that the temples were forgotten completely by the rest of the world (which included religious fanatics who often destroyed temples throughout history), and were rediscovered only about 200 years ago by the British. Of course, we made a lot of pictures ;-)

For those of you under the age of 18, please leave this website now. Thanks.

We celebrated new year in Kajuraho with a bottle of beer in our hotel room, which seemed like a perfect ending of year that we spent mostly traveling, and during which we had spent so many nights in hotel rooms. We left Kajuraho on January the first by airplane and flew to the holiest of all cities in India, Varanasi. Varanasi is interesting in itself, but just a few kilometers nearby was a place even more interesting: Sarnath, one of the four holy places of Buddhism. The four holy places in Buddhism mark the most important moments of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and they are: Lumbini, now in Nepal (birth); Bodhgaya, India (enlightenment); Sarnath, India (first teaching); and Kushinagara, India (death). Buddhism, however, hardly plays a major role in India's contemporary religious life: 85% are Hinuds, about 12% are Muslims, and the rest are Jains, Christians, Buddhists and adherents of other philosophies.

The next morning, we got up early to take a boat ride on the river Ganges during sunrise, which was very impressive. Because Varanasi is the holy city of Hinduism, and because the river Ganges is the holy river, many people come to Varanasi to die. The dead bodies are burnt at the water's shore, and the ashes are then cast into the river. Thousands of people perform a holy washing ceremony in the river everyday. Riding on the boat during the misty morning at sunrise, and watching all of this frwas an unforgettable experience. Varanasi is by far the poorest place we have visited in India.

In the evening, we flew to Bombay (Mumbai) via Delhi and arrived at our final indian destination shortly after midnight. Today, we've been checking out the city (although there is not much to see), and enjoyed a good lunch at Leopold's, the cafe that is the centerpiece of the novel Shantaram. We're now back at the hotel, getting our stuff ready to leave tomorrow morning. It's hard to believe that we will be in New Zealand in two days! It's also hard to imagine two places more different than New Zealand and India, at least the northern part of it. On the one hand, you have northern India, a largely flat, dry, overpopulated place with a culture, palaces, forts and temples as old as 3000 years. On the other hand, there is New Zealand, a largely mountainous, green, wet, underpopulated place with a fairly short cultural history (except the Maoris of course). But we couldn't be more excited!

January 14, 2008

New Zealand - of biologists, sea lions and penguins

So, we're finally here, our final destination of this trip, New Zealand. We arrived in Christchurch on the South Island about a week ago, and have been traveling (mostly) south on the east coast. The weather has been fabulous so far. Just yesterday, it's been rainy, but other than that, it's been great summer weather. We're currently in Dunedin and will head to to the southernmost point tomorrow.

Or maybe not - who cares? We're free again, with our own campervan and no fixed plans. Ah, life is good with so much freedom! Everybody keeps telling us it's the high season here, and that most places are quite booked, but to us, this country seems abandoned - where is everyone? (Could this be an India aftershock? Probably...)

After we picked up our campervan (similar to the one we had in Australia, but a bit more comfortable), we drove to Kaikoura and met Jukka and Curt, two biologists from our own field, and also Kirstin, Kirsten, Brit and Koella who are all here to collect snails in freshwater lakes as part of their research projects. We joined them for two days at Lake Alexandria, a beautiful lake in the middle of the south island. Diving for snails doesn't sound like rocket science at first sight, but actually, these snails are the most famous study system for testing the hypothesis that parasites are the reason for the maintenance of sexual reproduction. It was a lot of fun (especially the part where we could watch others work while we're on holidays ;)

After this short excursion to science, we headed to Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand, to do some hiking. A fantastic trip, and spectacular views - what a beautiful mountain. After the hier the hike, we hit the road and less than two hours later, we were swimming in the ocean at a place called Oamaru; quite a change of scenery in such a short time.

We are now in Dunedin, a city they call the Edinburgh of New Zealand. What's most fascinating here is the Otago peninsula, sort of a finger of land stretching out from the city into the Pacific Ocean, and which runs parallel to the mainland for 30 km. It's a hotspot for wildlife, as some extremely rare species come only here to breed. It's a pretty rough landscape, with lots of steep cliffs, but there are some bays where the sea lions and the penguins come ashore in the evening. Most of these bays are not accessible to the public, except one of them, the Sandfly bay, and we decided to check it out.

After some hiking through some of New Zealand's tallest sand dunes, which rise for some 100 metres above the beach, we got down to the sandy beach (it was rainy and windy on that day). Penguins are very shy animals and will not come ashore if they see humans on the beach, so the conservation people set up a small hut at the far end of the beach as to spot penguins. The thing is, to get to that hut you have to cross the entire beach, but the beach is also home to dozens of sea lions who consider it their territory. So, we walked past a couple of sea lions, and they seemed pretty relaxed, even shy, and got back to the the water whenever we got too close to them. We then stayed in the hut a little while but couldn't see any penguins, which was pretty sad because the yellow eyed penguin who breeds on that beach is apparently the rarest penguin in the world, and we hadn't seen penguins in the wild at all before.

Slightly disappointed, we walked back along the beach, when we suddenly realized that a huge sea lion in the middle of the beach wouldn't move. Assuming that they were shy animals, we continued walking towards him (most certainly a male), when he suddenly started walking towards us (it's not exactly "walking", but you know what we mean). We stood there, a little dumbfounded, asking ourselves "did that big sea lion just walk towards us?" After some consideration, we decided to ignore him - there was no other option anyways: to the left was the open ocean, to the right were the grassy sand dunes, an ecologically sensitive area where one is not allowed to walk around. After we took a couple of steps, the sea lion realized we weren't really taking him serious enough, and he started roaring and running towards us. So that's why the old lady at the penguin observation hut said "have a safe trip back"! Well, we took our safety serious at this point and ran back into the dunes (when you are attacked by a sea lion, the fact that an area is "ecologically sensitive" suddenly becomes second priority). We walked for about a 100 meters among the dunes and decided to check out the beach a little bit further, and yep, it was safe again - the sea lion had moved on. At that very moment, a penguin walked past by us, trying to get himself into safety into the dunes. So, thanks to the sea lion, we had to walk behind the dunes for a while which was exactly when the penguin came ashore and decided it was safe because it couldn't see any humans. What a superbly cool animal, and how lucky of us to see the rarest penguin in the world so close.

January 21, 2008

Best. Week. Ever. (Except those bloody sand flies)

The title of this blog entry gives the game away right at the beginning, but any other title would diminish what we feel about the past week. We came to New Zealand with high expectations, and last week, NZ not only delivered, but exceeded. The weather can be described with one word: summer. Describing the landscapes, the ocean, the forests and the mountains, however, require an entire arsenal of superlative adjectives, but quite often defy description. In terms of what natural beauty has to offer, this is as good as it can get, the top - pure poetry.

Let's start in chronological order, as always. After the encounter with the sea lion, we went back to the Otago peninsula the following day. This time it was sunny, and we decided to check out some of the sights, do some walking, and then move on to the south.

Our primary goal was Milford Sound, a fjord in the southwestern Fiordland national park. Instead of going cross-country from Dunedin on the east coast, we decided to drive along the southern coast, an area that is not frequented by many visitors. One of the many highlights was a place called nugget point, essentially a cliff with a lighthouse on top, with a fantastic view that gave it its name.

We stayed the night at a campsite which was right at the edge of not only a fossilized forest (apparently one of the few in the world), but also another penguin colony - this time, we could observe them coming back ashore in the evening without any sea lion hassle. We got up the next morning at 5:30 am to observe them go back to the sea, and indeed saw some more. A penguin's life seems so easy: go fishing in the morning, bring back fish in the evening. Repeat forever.

Although we're both not big fans of neither sunset nor sunrise pictures, this one sums up the feeling of the area quite neatly:

We should mention at this point that the south coast experiences some pretty strong winds which can be quite nasty at times, but in exchange creates some amazing scenery:

Not too far way, we passed Slope Point, the southernmost point of the south island, and for me personally the farthest south I've ever been in my life (Rahel has been further south, in Chile).

We then headed to Milford Sound, our main destination. Milford Sound is the most famous fjord in the New Zealand Fjordland, the southwestern part of the south island and a national park more than half the size of Switzerland. There is only one road in the park, and it goes straight to Milford Sound. The guidebook suggested it was one of the most beautiful roads in the world, and it's hard to disagree. If white-tipped mountains crash into oceans, and a green forest carpet lays itself over valleys created by glaciers, how can a road that winds itself through this scenery not be beautiful? It's about 120 km from Te Anau, the last village outside the park, to Milford Sound, but if you stop at only the most amazing sights it'll still take you almost a day.

We arrived in Milford Sound in the evening and were glad to find a site at the campground right at the fjord. And while we were preparing dinner (why is no one else cooking outside?), in the middle of this breathtaking natural beauty, there it came, not alone, but in dozens, in hundreds, and made it perfectly clear that there are always two sides of a coin, good and evil, beauty and ugliness: the sand fly. When the first Milford Sound sand fly bites off a piece of your flesh, you are simply surprised (what the hell was that?); when the second bites off another piece, surprise becomes annoyance; and when the third one digs its mouth into your skin, panic sets in, because all three bites occurred within a timeframe of maximally 15 seconds which makes you appreciate the scope of the problem. The question of why no one else is cooking outside gets a trivial answer, because you may cook outside, but you are also eaten outside.

The Milford Sound sand fly also makes you appreciate the subtle elegance of a mosquito. I used to hate mosquitos, but now at least I know how much worse it can get. Comparing a Milford Sound sand fly (I keep saying "Milford Sound sand fly" because no other sand fly would want to be associated with the Milford Sound sand fly) to a mosquito is like comparing fine french dining with a burger eating contest. The mosquito flies around, looking for good places to eat, lands at a few spots, mostly unhappy with what it finds ("too hairy! too skinny!"), and once it finds a place for dinner, it introduces its thin, elongated sucking organ gently into your skin, just like you would put a fork and a sharp knife into your perfectly cooked filet mignon. The Milford Sound sand fly, however, lands wherever gravity seems to pull it down, rips off a piece of your flesh wherever it happened to land ("cheesburger? hamburger? who caaaaares?" chump chump chump). If you think we're exaggerating, consider this: according to the Maori creation legend, the great god Tu-to-Rakiwhanoa created the fjordland by slashing his ax into the landscape, working his way up from south to north (as he got further north, his technique improved, and that's why the most beautiful of them, Milford Sound, is found up north). When he finished, the goddess of death, Te-Hine-nui-to-po, came for a visit, and looking at the masterpiece Tu had created, she feared that Milford Sound was so beautiful that humans would want to stay there forever and enjoy themselves, so she created the Milford Sound sand fly to remind humans that they are mortal. How many other creation legends do you know of that feature an insect so prominently?

Anyways, back to the good things. So, we stayed two nights in Milford Sound - the first day we went exploring the forests, rivers and mountains, and the second day, we cruised around the Sound on a boat and enjoyed the scenery. All in all, the Milford Sound is a clear nominee for the most beautiful place on earth ever visited.

After the Sound, we drove back into the mainland of the south island to a place called Queenstown, the self-procclaimed adventure city of NZ, but after what we just had experienced, it seemed like a rather boring version of Disneyland. Arguably, the area has some fine lakes, but still amazed by what we had seen the days before, nothing could compare.


After a small hike around Isengard, we headed north to the west coast to visit some of the famous glaciers. (A classical post-Milford-Sound-conversation between Rahel an me: "I think there's the Fox Glacier." Silence. "Cool." Silence.)

We're now back in Christchurch where we started two weeks ago. We're scheduled for Dolphin swimming in two days, will have another dinner with Jukka & co. and then cross the Cook Strait to the north island.

January 30, 2008

Mount Doom

We headed to Kaikoura to catch up with Jukka, Curt & Co. (still cracking snails) and went swimming with the dolphins. The dolphin swimming tour started at 5:30 am and was fantastic. Jukka was so kind to let us use his underwater video camera, so now we have about 15 minutes of underwater footage of dolphins. We'd really love to put up some of it on this blog, but the videos are on a DVD. I will figure out how to rip a DVD to create a browser readable format as soon as I find free internet access and two hours to spare, which probably means in March ;-) Anyway, the dolphin swimming was great - visibility was not too exciting, maybe 6, 7 meters, but it didn't matter at all because the dolphins were extremely curious, and there were about 80 of them.

The day after we headed north to catch the ferry to the North Island. Although various people recommended that we should visit the Abel Tasman National Park on the South Island before leaving, we decided to skip it - yet another good reason to come back! The ferry trip was quite nice, about 3 hours in beautiful weather to Wellington, crossing the Cook Strait. We had no clue where we would want to go on the North Island, so we decided that the sunny weather should generally guide us. The forecast for the central area seemed best, and so we went there. The central area is probably one of the most frequented areas on the North Island (tourism-wise), mainly because of the three big volcanos and the surrounding national park. Being good Swiss citizens (i.e. mountain people), we felt the urge to go to the top of Mount Ruhapehu, the highest of the three (2797 m) and still fairly active. The area was heavily used as a filming location for Lord of the Rings (Mordor and Mount Doom, also known as Mount Ngaurohoe, a perfectly shaped volcano).

We stayed in a campsite near Ruahpehu, and gave it a go early in the morning. Despite good weather forecast, a lot of clouds covered the top of the mountain, and an additional strong wind made us retreat. The next morning, we tried again - perfect weather conditions this time, and around midday, we stood on top of the highest peak on the North Island. There is actually something of a track going up to the crater, but we missed it. The reason is quite simple: there is another official track going to an elevated viewpoint, called the "Skyline Track". We didn't know then that this track didn't go up anywhere near the top, and that the official track to the crater was on the other side of the mountain... So we hiked up the Skyline Track ("Skyline" sounds like a perfectly reasonable name for a track to the top, doesn't it?) and were a bit surprised to find the path had ended after about a half hour. However, there were some pseudo tracks going up further, and a well-equipped japanese mountaineering group seemed to have the same goal as we did, so we went along with our plan. Needless to say, it got steeper and steeper, the tracks disappeared, and we soon found ourselves crawling up the crater like two hobbits.

When we were on top, we realized three things: 1, the views were worth the effort, 2, the track to the crater was on the other side of the mountain, and 3, we went much higher than the official track would have taken us (because we were actually on the top). When the japanese group arrived and started praying, we thought it was a good time to leave and hiked back down again.

The next morning, we left the area and headed further north through a very active volcanic area - lots of mud pools, geysers, and other steamy, stinky evidence of the fact that the earth was hot underneath. We drove further north until we finally reached the ocean: the bay of plenty. The bay of the plenty is a superbly beautiful area, the climate is perfect and the sandy beaches are endless. We are currently staying at a place called Waihi Beach. We found a campsite right at the beach and think we will probably stay here for a while and build some sandcastles.

About January 2008

This page contains all entries posted to p < 0.05 in January 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2007 is the previous archive.

February 2008 is the next archive.

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