Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Ninjas assemble: Whanganui River Journey

After our last Great Walk excursion, Lake Waikaremoana, we started planning the Whanganui River Journey. It is a 145km paddle down from Taumarunui to Pīpīriki with a few sections of class 2 rapids and a lot of flat sections. As we have been planning this since last October, we have a lot of logistics to figure out. How many people were going? How many nights? Were there huts available? Or do we camp? What gear did people need? Which company to rent gear from? Would they transport our kayaks? So we started another legendary email thread.

There ended up being 8 of us on the trip as Banu had to pull out late because her parents decided to visit. So there was a large contingent of Americans with Raf, Laura, Beth, Peter, and I. Followed up with the 2 Kiwis, Mike and Paula. Rounding out our group was Rachel representing Ireland. Little did we know that Irish would be descending upon the river in force. We encountered no less than 4 large groups of her people. Good thing they didn't her all the grief we gave her over the long weekend. Our itinerary involved us camping each night and paddling from Ohinepane to Whakahoro on Day 1. Day 2 was Whakahoro to Mangawaiiti. Day 3 was Mangawiiti to Ngaporo. With the final day being Ngaporo to Pipiriki. So it would be roughly 123km with a short 5.4km return walk to the Bridge to Nowhere. The journey down the river was an awesome experience even with the weather not being the greatest. We were treated to some pretty epic views on the journey: early in the morning there was the mist rising revealing the fern and pine trees. All day long we were treated to ducks and birds flying around, but not a fish to be seen. With all the rain, the waterfalls were in full display.

We finalized our plans the week before Easter with hiring 3 canoes and booking transport for our 2 bigger kayaks. We met up with the rest of the Ninjas at Taumarunui Canoe Hire late Thursday Evening. We ate at a little take away spot in town with Mike and Paula, that had some pretty decent onion rings and a fried chicken and homemade stuffing. We had to wait for Rachel and her crew to arrive as there was some paperwork to be done, but while we waited we got to play with 2.5 week old kittens. Matter of fact one of the boys working there just picked one up and put it in Beth's hand without uttering a word. All I heard was the little mewing escaping it open maw and I saw Beth as she looked around partially dumbfounded at the kid's back while starting to pet the kitten and shrugging her shoulders.

That evening, we camped at Taumarunui. The next morning we were driven to Ohinepane after given a very lengthy briefing. Beth and I had used this company back in December when we did day 1 with her parents and our briefing was significantly shorter. We didn't get on the water until close to Noon and we had 37km to paddle. Beth and I paddled our kayaks and the others were paired off as couples, except for Rachel and Peter. After getting the gear loaded and the 'Ok' from the staff that they could paddle the canoe effectively enough we went through our first section of swift water. We paddled for about a couple hours and then pulled over at Poukaria for lunch. This campsite is right after the remains of a car in the river. Beth ended up getting stung in the arm while we were eating lunch. It was low enough that it didn't rub on her life jacket while paddling. We pulled into Whakahoro after about 5:30 hrs and we had to navigate a very steep, muddy, and precariously placed landing spot to unload our gear before walking another 400m to the campsite. This crazy landing experience would be the start of a trend for the remaining nights. This campsite happened to have horses roaming around the site which were not too impressed with us. If it wasn't the first night, we might have ventured next door for some cafe food and a $4 shower. Instead we made the food we brought with to lessen our load. Which Peter and Rachel needed to do a fair bit as they brought a lot of fresh produce to eat.

Leaving Whakahoro was probably more difficult than unloading as we had a little bit of rain overnight and the landing seemed even muddier. We ended up paddling 47km which was the longest section we would be doing this trip. Raf had to bandage his hand as he had gotten a blister on his thumb. It ended up ripping open so Laura would do medical each night. A few others had sore hands, but I don't think anyone else had as much issues as Raf. The landing at Mangawaiiti was pretty gnarly. It was pretty packed when we showed up and it was a slick, muddy mess with a 5 minute walk up to the top of the cliff. We ended up bringing each canoe into a small section that allowed for the easiest place to unload which was still difficult. Then we moved them out of the way. While we were doing this, we were told by another camper that the water in the tanks was very low and that we should use only what was necessary. We set up our tents where there was available space, which meant we were spread out as the camp seemed pretty full. While eating dinner, the rain started to bucket down and a bunch of people showed up. There was a group of 4 Irish guys and a group of 10 from Auckland. Some of which thought they could wait out the rain before setting up their tents, but that wasn't to be. It rained late into the evening.

We left Mangawaiiti early to beat the crowds at the Bridge To Nowhere, which surprisingly also had a crappy landing. We had very little room to try to tie up and it was very muddy. For being a tourist destination with lots of jet boats the landing was very rustic. We walked the 2.7 km to the Bridge To Nowhere, where Rachel was stung in the leg. We took in the view and read about the history of the bridge before turning around and starting to see a bunch of people being dropped off by jet boat and a dozen of canoes showing up. We left the cluster that was the loading area and went down to Tīeke Kāinga to eat lunch. There is a marae here that we chose not to visit. Instead we rather get to our camp site at Ngaporo earlier and try to get some stuff dried out. While we were leaving, the jet boat operators played the game 'Can I knock the paddlers off their boat?', but they didn't win. On our way to Ngaporo we saw a bunch of bikers being picked up from the end of the Bridge To Nowhere. The part we walked didn't seem to be a great trail as it was wet clay and a steep drop off on the side.

Arriving at Ngaporo appeared significantly different from the previous other landings. In the place of the mud and steep terrain there was a loose jumble of various sized loose rocks. The comments about it were how many twisted ankles we were going to sustain. I told everyone who said that to shut up. Beth forbid me from walking on the rocks more than necessary. So I was in charge of setting up the tent and making food. The camp site was the best of the bunch. We had a spectacular view and there were very few other people there. Rachel, Paula, Mike, and Peter went for a dip in the brown river, it was up a meter with all the rain we had received the week before. We had a relaxing night and a lazy morning as we only had 9km to Pipiriki, where our pickup was scheduled at 13:30. On the way down, we encountered several jet boats. They were banking on someone going over during the rapid sections, but we didn't give them the pleasure. Instead of waving back, they would raise their tablet in front of their face and either take photos or video. We (Mike and Paula) fell over out of sight from everyone except for our group. They lost only 1 water shoe in the ordeal. So the 50/50 rapid only claimed 1 out of 5, but Peter and Rachel took on a lot of water as well. Mike and Paula modeled the latest in low profile canoes until we were able to get them to the nearest beach and get rid of all the water they took on board.

Arriving at Pipiriki we were surrounded by some of the 92 other people that Taumarunui Canoe Hire sent out over Easter weekend as well as all the other outfitters. Trucks pulling trailers started to come down the boat ramp and load up gear, but they were slow to pull out and we our loading didn't start until about 2. We didn't leave until 3ish and we had 2 hrs back to Taumarunu, but we got to watch the movie 2012 while eating banana muffins with chocolate icing and chips while drinking orange juice or water. Once we got back to Taumarunui it was a mad rush to find our gear and boats and get them loaded. After that we met up with the Ninjas for a bite to eat at the same take away place. We then played host to Peter, Paula, and Mike for the evening as they took a detour on their drive back to Auckland. Rachel, Raf, and Laura headed straight back as Rachel had to work like me on Tuesday morning.

Now we are planning our next adventure: The Nugget. This is a multi-sport race that we participated in last year. While on the trip we hashed out who would be doing which event.

There will be some pictures and possibly a video posted so we can remember and share this trip soon.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Indian Adventure

Beth, Shiv, Sarah, and David

Back in December, we were invited to our friend Shiv's wedding. Well at first he told me he got engaged while he was recently back in India. Only after checking our calendar and saying we could make it up to Auckland for the event, we were informed it was going to be held in India. So there was only one option for us. That left us a few things to do: apply for visas, buy tickets, and sit on a plane for a long time. Our travel time from Auckland to Delhi was 18 hours including a couple hour layover in Sydney, otherwise it was about 15 hours on a plane. We were greeted by the hotel driver who navigated the streets of Delhi for us and dropped us off at The Met.
Wedding outfit

Driving in India was an experience by itself. First the painted lane lines are ignored. When you see 3 lanes along the pavement, there is somehow 7 lanes of cars, carts, bikes, trucks, tuk tuks, and animals executing the most intricate dance performance ever. All the while you have people playing the most intense game of Frogger. Where if you fail, you will most likely be going to the hospital. Second, you hear what I would expect to be the national anthem, the disjointed chorus of competing car horns. You may hear a single beep, a double tap, a long beep, or a melodic tune (novelty horns) to alert of you or others that there is a vehicle wanting to come past. At night this is replaced with flashing the high-beams from point blank as the following distance is more like cuddling than the recommend safe distance. However, we only saw 2 accidents while we were there.  We were glad that we did not have to attempt to drive here as we had a driver, Jassi, to deliver us safely to each of our destinations. I could probably write more about just the driving behavior, but I'll leave you with this. On our first night, we saw a driver not on 1 but 2 phones while navigating what they call Office Hour, aka Rush Hour, Traffic. I'm a firm believer of wearing my seat belt regardless of the law.
Entrance into the house

Shiv booked us the driver and the hotels for the duration of the wedding. We stayed in a lot of places and all of them were concerned with security. We had to pass through gates, but prior to being allowed to pass we were examined by security. This included a mirror to examine the undercarriage of the car, opening the hood to examine the engine, and some times opening the trunk. Once past the gate, we would have to have our bags x-rays while we went through a metal detector, just like the airport. Then we were allowed to enter the hotel. The first hotel was the Met in Delhi. The 2nd hotel was the Noor Mahal in Karnal. The 3rd hotel was the Regent in Chandigarh. The 4th hotel was the Taj in Chandigarh. Then we stayed at his family's house. After that, we stayed in the hotels that Beth booked for our trip to Agra, Jaipur, and Delhi before heading back to New Zealand.

The wedding was amazing. It was quite the experience. It was several ceremonies over several days in 2 different cities. We started our journey in Delhi along with Dave and Sarah, another Kiwi connection. We were driven to Karnal by Jassi. Karnal is where Shiv's family lives. We were shown around the house and school, which his family runs. All the while there were lots of people running around. Some from the school, some from government, and some setting up for the festivities. Shiv's sister, Taran, and sister-in-law, Bani, took Beth and Sarah out shopping for wedding outfits. They came back with 5 outfits and Beth was even offered to get her ears pierced while on the shopping excursion. I ended up getting a pair of dress shoes during this time at a different shopping area.

Wedding Reception and Wedding
The first ceremony that we attended was the Bride's family and friends came down from Chandigarh to mingle with the Groom's close friends and family. They also brought down gifts. During this period of time there was food and drinks being paraded around by servers. All of it was tasty and they were only to happy to come by us. There was live music during this time as well. This went on for hours, before we adjourned to the food tent through the gate. We were now treated to a large buffet of salads, breads, curries,  drinks, and desserts. We weren't even hungry, but we had to try it.

Henna party
The next ceremony that we attended was just for the Groom's close friends and family. It was a dance party that went from 7pm until 3am. We retired at midnight as we were still dealing with the time difference. The live music from earlier was back for the start of the evening and was replaced by a DJ later on. There was a series of formal dances that the musicians called for. I could only equate this to a mom's dance, a siblings' dance, a friends' dance, and then an open dance. It was during this time, that someone got her faced licked by someone's mother and it wasn't me. All the while, we are being served food and drinks while being blasted by the large amplifiers sitting close by.

Waiting for hands to dry
The 3rd ceremony was for the ladies. The guys got to lounge around, eat, and drink wearing comfortable clothes. While the ladies got dressed up and had henna applied to their hands and some got it applied to their feet and back. It was a hot morning and while Beth waited for her hands to dry I got to carry her new bangles. She got gold and silver bangles from the Bangle Man. Once again the musicians were playing while food was being served. Lunch was served shortly after all the girls had their henna applied.
Christ Church

We had a day off from ceremonies and we took a ride up into the hills to Kasauli. The road was under construction as the government is widening the road from 2 lanes to 4 lanes. This made for some very tight areas to weasel vehicles through. We went to the local market where we witnessed a monkey attack after being there for about 10 seconds. Beth picked up a few scarves to accompany her outfits. We also saw Christ Church and tried to see Monkey Point but it was closed. Upon returning to Chandigarh we went to the Rose Festival, which was across the street from our hotel. 

Monkey, my nemesis
The next day was the actual wedding ceremony, which we attended the after party. Shiv was escorted in by his family while he held up a sword to keep aloft a square of fabric. The newly weds sat in swanky chairs on a stage while photographers snapped photos of the couple. It was during this time that friends and family could sit next to the couple or stand behind them for a photo that will go into their wedding album. We were also treated to another large lavish lunch. We got to say a few words to Shiv and Ravneet. People commented a lot that they make a good match. I have to agree.
Another temporary structure

The next night was the wedding reception and the final ceremony. We walked through a series of rug covered hallways, past dressers with flowers, chandeliers hanging from the "ceiling", and a band welcoming the guests. The main reception area was a lavish arena separated into a few different areas. There was dinner tables set up, the stage for the couple, a DJ booth and dance floor, a bar area, a buffet, and several couches for lounging. All the wedding structures were temporary. They were metal scaffolding with colorful fabrics wrapped and draped over it. Then rugs were laid down, lighting ran, and even windows hung so the feeling of a permanent structure could be perceived. The night ended with only a partial first dance by the newly weds. I guess Shiv was wore out from the dancing a couple nights earlier.

Courtyard at our hotel

Wheel of Death
The next day we traveled back to Karnal where we stayed at Shiv's house. Prior to leaving we hit up Rock Garden. The guy who started this had way too much time on his hands. There were tons of sculptures, buildings, and waterfalls created all with rocks. We must have spent a couple hours wandering around it. We then drove back to Karnal where we were put up in the guest quarters on the first floor. That evening we had a lovely meal with his family where we ate a variety of treats inspired by local street foods. Shiv's mom kept placing bowls of these dumplings in front of me. It was a hollow hard shell of bread that was cracked with a spoon then filled with a mixture containing lime and other things that escape my memory. Then there was a pancake type thing with yogurt and a green sauce. I must have ate for an hour. It was so tasty and hearing the stories of the family it was easy to just keep snacking away. After we finished, we went into the lounge and started talking. Randomly we were asked if we had ever seen a car drive perpendicular to the ground. We said no. Ravi, Shiv's brother, said he was going to find his keys and take us. Beth stayed back as she was really tired and was going to bed early. So Dave, Sarah, and I got in the car with Shiv's brothers. Ravi drives like a race car driver. I am in the habit of buckling my seat belt as soon as I get in a car, but Sarah and Dave hadn't been wearing theirs in India. But after about a minute, they both clicked in. We raced through the streets of Karnal to a temporary carnival/market. We walk in and Ravi is quickly greeted by a policeman. We are then escorted to what I call the Wheel of Death. Basically a hampster wheel set perpendicular to the ground. While we listened to the guys rev the motorcycle engine we witnessed a car on the Ferris Wheel break. We had a little chuckle as there were people about 5 cars away. In walks a guy wearing jeans and a blue flannel shirt and hops on a motorcycle. He starts it up and starts to rev the engine. After about a minute, he takes off riding around the circumference of the Wheel of Death. He then gets off the bike and leans what looks like a pallet across the door. He gets back on the bike and within 2 rotations he is at the top of the contraption. He is joined by another guy where they both ride no handed, hold hands, force the bike to wobble, and chase after each other. The guy in the blue shirt loses his muffler while descending to the bottom. He puts the bike away and gets in a small car. He guns it and starts to ascend to the top again. He opens the door and holds it open. After a couple rotations the door closes and he pops out the window. He must be driving with his knee as he is waving while sitting on the door. The motorcycle creeps up and he holds on  to the opposite window. We can't believe what we have just seen. No safety equipment like a helmet and it was performed on a rickety structure that we questioned its ability to hold 2 of us at a time. Afterwards, it was another break neck race through the streets of Karnal. Once we got back, we were asked if we wanted dinner now. Dave bowed out as his belly wasn't feeling that good. Sarah and I took one for the team and went upstairs to eat with some of the family. We had buttered rotti, a slow roasted mutton curry, and a vegetable dish.

We then went back to Delhi before venturing to Agra and Jaipur. Dave and Sarah took us to the underground market. If you feel like being hassled and yelled at to come into a store this place is for you. You can even get a tattoo in a sketchy stall. I was hit with a scam while leaving. Someone flung crap on the top of my shoe and a shoe cleaner appeared out of nowhere. I was in the process of trying to wipe if off in what little grass I could find when a stand appeared and a guy was already  starting to clean it. He ended up asking for $15. We gave him $4 and walked off. I was already tossing the shoes at the end of the trip as I had a new pair arriving with Angi a couple days after we returned. We then ventured over to Old Delhi and took a bicycle tour through the area. We got to see Spice Alley and a variety of other things. After that we drove to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Then we went to Jaipur and happened to stumble across the local Sunday market. It stretched on and on. You could buy produce, clothes, cooked food, and even some electronics.

Rock Garden

 Prior to leaving, we stayed in hotel close to the airport. We just so happened to drive past the Ameriprise, my former employer, Indian Headquarters. It is located maybe 40 minutes from the airport and we just happened across it. I wonder if I have interacted with another of the people on the street as we drove past. It was almost exactly 4 years ago that I quite and moved to New Zealand.