Arthur’s Pass – New Zealand – Day 4

Our fourth day in the national park saw us safely in the village hostel.  Outside was a beautiful crystal clear day.  Far from the storms that we had anticipated.  Being our last day in the park we decided to do a day hike before hopping on the shuttle van back to Christchurch.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We decided to take a one way path to the summit of the mountain overlooking the village.  A hike of a few hours.  After the events of the past three days it felt as if nothing happened in those few hours.  It was a simple walk up a well defined and clear path.  Perhaps I am a drama queen(or king to be more correct, or perhaps less correct.  I’m not sure), but I preferred our rough and scary hike. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The summit was beautiful.  We had uninterrupted views in all directions of the fabulous country.  Barren, snow capped mountains to one side and tree covered hills to the other.  Relax was the word of the day and after a few minutes of sitting enjoying the view in that crisp, clean air we were both snoozing under the New Zealand sun.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The route down took us past a gushing waterfall.  Just two days before all the waterfalls we had seen had been ominous signs but today it was a gorgeous sight, safe in the knowledge that we were only hours from the village and mankind.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The end of our journey brings me to my favorite part.  The Kea bird.  This little bugger is one of my favorite animals.  Known as the smartest bird in the world it is capable of solving puzzles.  Trash cans in the park are specially designed as the birds can open most types.  After our long hike Nick and I enjoyed an ice cream while waiting for the shuttle.  As I’m sitting on a curb minding my own business a Kea walks up and looks me up and down sorting me out.  After coming to the conclusion that he isn’t going to get my ice cream he hops up onto my pack and in a flash has unzipped it and taken out a pack of crackers.  Keep in mind that my pack has five zippers and he chose the correct one to get to my crackers.  Impressed by this I let him have one cracker and then take the rest back.  I climb into the van with this last memory as the icing of a wonderful trip.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Arthur’s Pass – New Zealand – Day 3

Day three we awoke to a frightening but also extremely relaxing sound.  Rain pounding on our cabin.  Hoping that perhaps the cabin was amplifying the sound we opened the door and were greeted with a sheet of water.  Distressed we fell back to breakfast.  After eating we took stock of our supplies and realized we had planned poorly. Only the start of our third day and were were running out of food.  Making a note to eat less we dressed in our best waterproof gear and leaving our gear behind, set off to recon the river.
The river was a magnificent torrent of crystal clear water.  Gone was the riverbed and in its place was a swollen ocean.  Considering the trail from here to the town was fully that riverbed we now considered ourselves in quite a bit of trouble.  We had no map of consequence to find another way out and were running out of food.  And where were we supposed to get water to drink?
I don’t think we are going to make it buddy.  The storm is closing in and we are almost out of food.  Should we use the radio to call for rescue? The cabin was equipped with a radio which we used to call out.  Immediately a Kiwi responded.  Our first question was to ask about the weather.  Perhaps something we should have done three days earlier but better late than never.  The answer was not encouraging.  The area was supposed to have rain for the next few days.  I have always had a positive attitude and it served me well here.  I was positive we were going to die so I went to a corner and started writing goodbye letters.  Nick asked the Kiwi about possibility of rescue.  He asked where we were and our supplies.  When we told him we were only a days hike out he laughed and hung up on us.  So it was up to us alone to get out of this extremely dangerous situation.
By mid-morning the rain had stopped and we started our trek back to where we started from.  Unable to walk the creek bed we followed along the edge and came to a trail.  So far so good.  We had an easy time of it for hours until the trail wanted to cross the river.  We decided to try and ford it.  Taking Nick on my back as I was better at holding my breath we walked into the freezing water.  I made a good effort of it but the rocks were too slippery and the current too fast.  Unable to cross the river and follow the trail we bushwhacked along the edge.  This was slow goings but turned into a downright struggle once we reached a hillside.  Unable to cross the river or go around the hill we really were stuck between a rock and a wet place.
Finding a game trail along the edge of the hill we began side stepping along, gaining in elevation until we were fifty meters or more above that troublesome river.  Never have I been more scared in my life.  With barely enough space for myself, let alone my pack, I slowly shuffled along that edge thinking how terrible the situation was, and then I came to a gap in the path, and decided that everything had been a piece of cake up to that point.  We would have to jump the gap.  Looking down the gap fifty meters to the bottom it was clear that there would be no mulligans.  One after another we jumped and after both surviving were scurried along the rest of the path as quickly as we could.
After clearing the hillside a meadow opened in front of us.  I have no memory of a meadow on our hike in but there it was.  Never have I been so happy.  We had a nice open field with a trail in front of us.  No more rivers and no more cliffs.  A nice relaxing trek this day had turned into and after a few hours we were back in town taking a nice hot and relaxing shower, disappointed in ourselves for thinking we were going to die just hours earlier and hoping never to run across the Kiwi on the other side of the radio.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Arthur’s Pass – New Zealand – Day 2

Nick and I woke ready for another day of hiking in the beautiful New Zealand mountains.  After a large breakfast by the campfire we dressed in our dry clothes, packed up, and began trekking along the riverbed once more.  An hour into our walk the trail crossed the large riverbed by a sort of individual cable car which was unexpected and cool.  Strung quite a distance above the riverbed it had space for one person and a pack.  It was operated by a hand crank.  I was first to cross and was a little nervous about trusting such a contraption so high up and in the middle of a forest.   When I weighed my options between fording the steam and the cable car I decided to stay dry.  It was a poor decision as it started raining as soon as I climbed in.  So I put on my parka and started cranking.  Being much further than it looked I reached the other side with a sore and tired arm.  With my other arm I cranked the carriage back to Nick so he could make the crossing.  Safely together we took a little rest and then cracked on.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The weather had changed drastically in the time it had taken us to fly over the riverbed.  We were now looking and low level clouds and a mild rain.  Being such expert outdoors men we completely ignored the weather and proceeded straight into a ravine.  Looking back we probably should have been washed away and drowned judging by the steepness, lack of vegetation, and rock bed of that ravine.  It was just asking for a flash flood, but we carried on without a care in the world, even stopping to take pictures of the water starting to come over the side of the cliffs making pretty waterfalls.    Then we lost the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

How we lost the trail will never cease to amaze me.  It had been marked extremely well right up to the point that it stopped.  Whatever the cause(most likely Kiwi Gremlins), we could not find where to go.  I know, get to high ground and look around.  This crossed our mind for some reason.  Perhaps we had seen too many movies where the high ground is always the best ground.  So we brilliantly decided to climb up a steep rocky cliff face.  Though nobody was killed we did take turns starting rock slides onto each other.  After quite some time and sore from climbing up a steep cliff with loose rocks for traction we hit the summit and saw….OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wilderness.  I cannot say we were surprised and am not sure what we were hoping to see.  Maybe a sign saying “Trail this way”.  Now is a good time to mention that we had brought a map and compass, but as we discovered at this junction we were off the map.  It had only covered the beginning of our hike.  So we were utterly lost.  There was nothing for it but to retrace our steps back our previous camp.  Here I learned that going down a rocky cliff face is a lot more difficult than going up one.  At one point I had to take off my pack to climb down and there was no choice but to throw my pack down in front of me.  As can be easily guessed it did not drop nicer but rolled down the slope.  I must give credit to the construction of that pack as it only had slight tears after its journey bouncing and sliding down that rocky face.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After our harrowing journey down we had an easy hike back to the campsite.  As we crossed the cable car for the second time that day we noticed that the river was about five times bigger now and flowing fast.  Neurons in both our brains started clicking and the thought that we might be in trouble now crossed our minds.  We had not exactly prepared or packed well for this hike and bad weather was not going to make it any easier.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We arrived at the campsite just as the light was starting to fade.  Being soaked to the bone and exhausted from our climbing expedition we decided to stay in the cabin.  These are cabins built by the park service for hikers and can be used for a fee.  It is on the honor system and we put in extra cash due to our happiness of being warm and dry.  These cabins have beds, tables, a fireplace/stove, and a nice welcoming feel.  It made for a wonderful night.  We ate a huge meal, dried everything we had, and slept soundly and long that night.  A good thing as we would need strength and concentration for the next day.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Arthur’s Pass – New Zealand – Day 1

I don’t think we are going to make it buddy.  The storm is closing in and we are almost out of food.  Should we use the radio to call for rescue?…..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Arthur’s Pass is a national park on the South island of New Zealand, about the center of the island mid-way between the West and East coasts.  It is a well known hiking mecca and where I got my feet wet in overnight hiking.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was our first time in New Zealand and we had finished covering the North Island and were waking up from two nights in Christchurch.  Nick had planned out a multi day hike in Arthur’s Pass.  We hopped on a tour bus with a few other hikers(well, more of a tour van pulling a luggage trailer), and were off for the national park.  The hour ride up was beautiful.  Full of green sheep, snow capped hills, and fluffy mountains.  I may have gotten that wrong as my memory is a bit hazy.  But anyway, the drive to the park was fantastic.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The van dropped us off on the main road.  We checked our packs, took a few pictures to chronicle our adventure. and at 10.34 exactly set off on our trek.  The first part of the trail was not promising.  It was actually not a trail but a massive river bed full of rocks and swift running water.  No worries.  We came here to hike and hike we did, hopping over little streams and twisting our ankles every few steps, until Nick decided he had gotten too warm and took a swim into one of the streams.  After taking a break to let him and our map dry we were off again, spending the rest of the day navigating that troublesome river bed.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As evening was starting to set in we caught our first glimpse of what nature had in store for us.  Some nice fluffy white clouds were covering the ground and mountains in the distance in front of us. White fluffy clouds.  What harm could they do?  Without a second thought about it, or really even a first thought, we set up camp and started a fire to warm up and dry off our boots and socks. Though I hadn’t gone swimming I had crossed enough streams for water to soak through my waterproof boots and non-waterproof socks.   The drying and warming completed we climbed into our sleeping bags and I immediately fell into one off the best sleeps I have ever had.  All my best nights rest have been under the stars.  I wonder why that is.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Greatest City on Earth- New York 2005

New York City is the greatest city in the world and the FDNY is the greatest fire department on the planet.  Now that we have these facts established we can get to the story.

Early morning before the sun had showed itself to Washington D.C.,  Joe and I hopped on a Greyhound bus bound for that king of cities, New York.  We were both firemen and paramedics for Washington D.C. but the FDNY was our dream fire department.  We had decided to visit the city and fire houses.  The year was 2005.  DSC00530

After sleeping in fits on the bus we arrived at the Port Authority of the Big Apple.  Walking outside to the first lights of day the city impressed itself upon us.  The streets were empty save a few women hanging around the corner.  One turned away to show her jeans missing quite a bit of material, to the tune of her butt showing brighter than the morning sun.  Welcome to beautiful New York.  The next block we saw our beloved fire department working on a car crash.  No fancy, expensive equipment that other less skillful departments use.  Just basic hand tools, skill, and experience needed here. DSC00515

Finding very little to do so early in the morning we made our way to Central Park where we quickly staked out a piece of grass and slept the sleep of the tired and free.  Once the sun had risen high enough it woke us and we were off to see the city, after covering a good amount of the park.  We only had two days so we walked with a purpose.  We were double busy.  Actually, we walked with a purpose to the subway and let it do most the work.  DSC00520

Our first stop was the Empire State Building.  We walked down the avenues, passing Famous Original Rays pizza on the way and FDNY 14 Engine, also known as Sweet 14.  If you are offended by that you need to take a good hard look at yourself.  We got tired of walking so decided to take the subway to the Empire State building.  Neither of us knew the city so we guessed it was on the tip of Manhatten.  When we stopped and got above ground we realized our mistake.  The building was the same size as when we went down to the subway, just reversed.  Since we were penny pinching we decided to hoof it.  After taking a picture of the Statue of Liberty we walked via the Ghostbusters fire house to the Empire State Building.  Along the way we passed Famous Original Rays pizza, which seemed odd.  DSC00526

This expedition took us all day and come nightfall we ended up in the bunk room of the Engine 7 fire house.  This was after three other houses turned us away because they didn’t have room.  After a steak dinner at a nearby chop house we slept.  Soundly for me but Joe was too excited.  He stayed up and filmed the engine and ladder truck go out on a call. DSC00534

Come morning we took the subway to Coney Island.  Somehow we passed Famous Original Rays on the way to the subway entrance.  I will tell you a secret of the New York Transit Authority.  They love confusing tourists.  They have express trains and local trains, but this wasn’t explained to us.  So luck being what it is we ending up on the local all the way out to Coney Island, the last stop on the line.  So we got to see every subway from start to finish of the two hour trip.  Ah, I can still remember the 52nd street platform with fond memories(Not really).  Coney Island is a fun and entertaining place in Summer.  It brings out all sorts of people.  Contrasted with Winter when it only brings out the mentally ill and is therefore entertaining, but not fun.  DSC00559

Finished touring Coney Island we rode the train back to the city for an Italian lunch in China Town. Don’t be silly, of course it was in Little Italy, but only after passing Famous Original Rays. But believe me when I say that we took the express this time.  Two hours sitting in a rattling tin tube made me focus and decode the map, and by decode the map I mean a local noticed me staring at the wall map for twenty minutes with a blank expression on my face and took the time to explain the system to me.  That man will always be my hero.  DSC00566

After a satisfying meal in Little Italy we returned to the beauty that is the Port Authority for our bus ride back home.  Though it was twelve years ago that trip will always be imprinted in my memory.  I have been back many times to visit my favorite city.  Most recently was just a year ago with my wife.  And we passed Famous Original Rays and had the best slices of pizza ever!


Mada’in Saleh – Part 2

As soon as Davis and I arrived home we turned on my laptop and looked at the map. It was easy to tell where we had been driving as there were only a few roads crossing in the middle of the desert. Two cell towers also helped by making perfect landmarks. The road we needed to take was the only road we hadn’t tried off of the badly damaged tank road.

Furry Camel

Early morning the next day we again set off full of high hopes and absolute certainty that we would see our destination. We make it to the familiar tank road and turn onto the correct road.

Total time to make it further than we did the day before, less than twenty minutes.  We drive on, enjoying the scenery and confident in our route. After an hour and a half we stop in a little village for fuel. This village is comprised of a gas station, a tiny market, a police station, and a few houses. I would estimate the population as being made up of a large family. All villages in the Kingdom are identical. So we pull up to the fuel pump and the Indian worker asks “how much?” in Arabic. Here is a man that comes from a beautiful lush country of a billion people, and leaves his family and friends, to work alone in a speck of a village in the middle of a desert. I want to talk to him, to ask him why. What are his motives, his dreams, his desires. But alas, we are unable to communicate. So I hold up all my fingers to signify how much fuel to pump and then wave goodbye to this sad lonely wanderer and leave him to contemplate his decisions and being.

Down the ribbon of pavement we continue, enjoying the ups and downs and tight turns the hills offer us to break up the monotony of the desert. When my eyes start to close from drowsiness I just reminisce about the utter wastes of Utah’s Salt Flats or Nevada’s deserts and I snap awake with the understanding that this isn’t bad. It could always be worse.

But this time I seem to have awoken to a mirage, for there looks to be a giant mountain covering the road.  Surprisingly Davis sees the same. There truly is a hill of dirt covering the road. Stunned we stop for a moment until I realize a dirt trail with construction equipment littering it climbing the left side of this unexpected roadblock. Against Davis’s wishes I drive up this makeshift road to the top. From the top we are greeted with an fabulous view. High up on the mountain are heavy construction trucks moving dirt around. I secretly hope for one to go tumbling down the mountain since the precipices they are working on don’t look like they could support a man let alone a solid block of metal. Down below us on the opposing side of our roadblock is a beautiful road weaving through the mountain pass. I feel sorry for it as it looks so lonely without any cars.

Now we were at an impasse. I feel that we had driven too far to give up so easily but Davis feels that we have no options. I offer up the idea of driving down the side of the mountain but Davis is a safety minded individual and so is against it. I then offer roaming around the desert looking for a way to bypass this problem. Again Davis is against it saying that we only have a small front wheel drive sedan. I can see that Davis just wants to go home since he is making excuses about my easily executable and perfectly safe ideas, so I humor him and we return to Tabuk crestfallen.

Mada’in Saleh – Part 1

To travel from city to city in Saudi Arabia may appear to be a simple task for the uninitiated, since there are very few roads and long distances between the urban areas, but it is a false belief.  There is a wonderful invention called Google Maps that destroys the need to ask locals for directions or consult a map.  I believe everyone knows how it works so I will skip the dry lecture.  I researched the way to drive which seemed very simple.  Five and a half hours, two turns, and passing three intersections once outside the city.  That was it.  Very straightforward and simple.

Davis and I get in the car and head off to the South of Tabuk.  We have never gone this way before but there are few major roads so our chances of error seem minimal.  We drive on chatting and enjoying the scenery as everyone seems to do when seeing new places.  Soon enough we intersect a road that we do recognize.  It is the main road to the West and Red Sea.  Obviously we had missed our turn.  Being completely honest with ourselves we said we knew exactly what was wrong and that we had missed our turnoff at the last roundabout.  So we happily backtrack and take a different road to the South, or mostly South based on our sun reading skills.

Saudi CountryNow would be a good time to point out that Saudi Arabia does not get many tourists and does not believe in road signs.  So what road you are on is a complete guess.  It adds to the mystery of the culture but can be quite interesting when you have no idea where you are headed and there isn’t a town or crossroad for a thousand kilometers, or thereabouts.

We catch a new road off the roundabout and again head in a generally Southern direction  We continue on this road that runs with military bases on either side complete with tanks and artillery making imposing silhouettes on the hills against the horizon.  Soon enough the road gets rough beyond anything a human being should be able to stand.  To our best guess it is a road for the military’s tanks.  I feel as if I have been transported back a hundred and fifty years and am riding a Wells Fargo coach across Nevada.  It turns out our guess is spot on as we come to an Army gate.  Dead End.  So we turn around and enjoy the free bone rattling massage while retracing our route.

We go back a little ways and turn off at an intersection to a road we have not yet used.  This road goes on for about 20 kilometers and dead ends at another military gate.  So we back track again and choose yet another different way.  This route takes us for another 10 kilometers and then dead ends at a, well, you know the answer.  It felt like we were stuck in some sort of trick.  Every road we chose ended up going to a military gate.

Davis and I do not give up easily, but seeing as we were not soldiers and had no business on a military base we decided to retreat, go home, regroup, come up with a plan of attack, and assault Mada’in Saleh at a later date.

Again we back track, heading this time not for the South but back North to the city.  After two hours of driving we had made it a total of ten minutes outside the city, but at least now we are back to the, what is this, a military gate?  Perhaps it is time to invest in a GPS.