Uncornered Market » adventure http://uncorneredmarket.com travel wide, live deep Fri, 12 Sep 2014 12:46:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 New Zealand North Island: Don’t Sell It Shorthttp://uncorneredmarket.com/new-zealand-north-island/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/new-zealand-north-island/#comments Thu, 28 Mar 2013 10:30:28 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=12862 By Audrey Scott

This is a story about living in someone else’s shadow. It’s also the beginning of our answer to the question: New Zealand, North Island or South Island? Imagine a geeky younger boy who grows up in the shadow of his brother, the all-star. The big brother gets all the attention, all the fame. But it’s […]

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By Audrey Scott

"Get amongst it!" - Audrey grabs a bit of junglelicious New Zealand rainforest
The New Zealand advice mantra of choice: “Get amongst it!”

This is a story about living in someone else’s shadow. It’s also the beginning of our answer to the question: New Zealand, North Island or South Island?

Imagine a geeky younger boy who grows up in the shadow of his brother, the all-star. The big brother gets all the attention, all the fame. But it’s the younger brother with whom you develop a special relationship, who was allowed to surprise you because you spent some time with him.

This is our relationship with New Zealand’s North Island. It lives in the travel shadow of its South Island brother. Sure, the South Island is spectacular (yes, we’ll get to that), but it’s on the North Island that our New Zealand love affair began.

While most may steer you directly to the South Island when asked about New Zealand travel, we take a different approach. Visit both. Really. You can thank us later.

North Island: Delivery vs. Expectations

For us, the North Island is special. It’s where we became enamored with New Zealand’s natural beauty. It’s where we began to meet locals and appreciate the Kiwi sense of humor and approach to life. It’s where we began pushing ourselves to do so many things we didn’t know we could do. It’s where we began to learn about Maori culture and its bond to both nature and humanity. And, it’s where we developed our addiction to the New Zealand coffee style of choice, the flat white.

In one week on the North Island, because of the diversity of landscape and depth of experience, it felt as though we’d visited 10 planets. We were above ground, below ground, island hopping, surfing waves, kayaking out to a crazy scientist living on an estuary, hiking a volcano, rafting down seven meter waterfalls on class five rapids, exchanging the Maori embrace, walking through stunning native forests, and enjoying fish-and-chip (pronounced fush-and-chup) sunsets along a seemingly endless New Zealand coast. The experience meter: on full blast.

And then there were the experiences in the white spaces, those in-between destinations and activities. Perhaps a quick conversation with Kiwis in cafés and pubs where quick, easy conversations yield local perspectives on farming, travel, and what makes the perfect coffee. Or there’s a chat with a passionate rafting guide who unknowingly teaches you about an approach to living, working with people, and honing skills — all carved with a wicked Kiwi sense of humor.

So this is what a week in New Zealand’s North Island might look and feel like. Perhaps you’ll get a glimpse as to why this place became so special to us.

Northland: Beaches, Waterfalls and the Bay of Islands

New Zealand Beach Stop at Uretiti Beach
Who cares if the wind blows? The beach is just as beautiful.

New Zealand features a staggering wind of coastline, as in equal to that of the United States, Alaska excluded. Take a moment and allow that to sink in. Mind you, not all of this coastline is appropriate for swimming or snorkeling (notice the fleece in the photo below?), but it does lend itself to hours of gazing, mind-opening and listening to crashing waves. Not a bad way to reflect, to begin or end one’s week.

Waterfalls. In full disclosure, we often find them oversold. However, New Zealand gives good waterfall. Witness Whangarei Falls, a place that if you just sit amongst it, it might trick you into thinking that you’ve landed in the Garden of Eden.

A Garden-of-Eden moment in Northland, Whangarei Falls #newzealand #dna2nz #gadv
In the lush, Whangarei Falls

There’s something to be said for perspective; sometimes you need to get atop it to appreciate all that’s around you. And that’s what it took for us to grok the Bay of Islands. Walk to the top of Waewaetorea Island for a 360-degree view of the entire bay: the lush grass, the tropical lucidity of the surrounding water and a patchwork of islands approximate serenity.

Waewaetorea Island - Bay of Islands, New Zealand
The Bay of Islands, our first “I’m going to faint!” moment in New Zealand.

Raglan: Pancake Rocks, Sustainable Farming and Surfing

Raglan has more going on to it than just surfing (though that’s great too). In the course of two days we cruised around the Raglan area and discovered an estuary shoreline of sedimentary pancake rocks, kayaked to a sustainable farm run by a sort of mad scientist-cum-farmer named Charlie, learned to surf (kind of), discovered some of New Zealand’s best coffee served from a simple shack (Raglan Roast) and drank microbrews with locals as we watched the Superbowl in a pub built for betting on horses.

Who knew?

All this local flavor made Raglan one of our New Zealand favorites.

Cruising the pancake rocks / limestone stacks of Ragland Harbor #newzealand
Pancake rocks in Raglan Harbor.

Kayaking on Whaingaroa Estuary near Raglan, New Zealand
Kayaking the estuary, learning about the ecosystem along the way.
Dan Walks a Donkey - Sustainable Farm near Raglan, New Zealand
Dan crosses another item off his bucket list: walking a donkey.
A view over the surf hut at Ngarunui Beach. Fine conditions to catch our first waves. #newzealand
Surf hut at Ngarunui Beach. Time to hit the waves!
Dan & Audrey Surfing in Raglan - North Island, New Zealand
Surfing. Another first for us in New Zealand.

Rotorua: Caving, Rafting and Geo-Thermal Mud Baths

Glow worms. Sounds cute and cuddly. And when you are deep underground with no light, glow worms light up the cave; you almost feel like you’re outside looking up at the stars on a clear night. But nature is funny. These glowing “worms” are actually cannibalistic maggots who don’t have an anus and create light as they digest their previous dinner — all in an effort to attract their next victim. Dark. Light. Pretty. Yum.

While glow worms are cool, the real fun of going into the Waitomo Caves (we were on the Haggas Honking Holes Tour) includes an adrenaline package of abseiling, cave diving and rock climbing. Who knew that you could exert so much energy underground? Now we do.

Abseiling Down Into Cave at Haggas Honking Holes - Waitomo, New Zealand
Cold water shock. Audrey abseils an underground waterfall. Photo courtesy: Waitomo Adventures.

But if a morning of caving is not enough to tip your adrenaline-meter, consider a twilight whitewater rafting trip down the Kaituna River. As we approached the river, it was cold and rainy, we were tired, and we harbored second thoughts on whether rafting in these conditions was such a good idea.

It was. In fact, it was an amazing idea.

Not only did the Kaituna River rafting trip include a 7-meter (23 feet) fall and class 5 rapids that are just pure squealing fun to navigate, but the entire rainforest and river setting is mind-bogglingly beautiful. It’s not a coincidence that this area was once a sacred spot for Maori. These days, a few chiefs are buried behind waterfalls and in caves along the river. As a bonus, the temperature of the river water turned out to be much warmer than the air.

White Water Rafting Down 7 meter Waterfall - Kaituna, New Zealand
White water rafting down a 7-meter fall on the Kaituna River. Photo courtesy: Kaitiaki Adventures.

As you approach the town of Rotorua, the smell gives it away. The entire area is full of geothermal activity and features that “smells so good” sulfur odor that permeates everything, everywhere. While we didn’t have an opportunity to pop into one of the local mud baths or thermal springs, we did get a chance to admire, and smell, one from afar.

Holy buckets! The beautiful, bubbling mud pools of Waiotapu. #eerie #newzealand
Mud pools of Waiotapu, New Zealand

Maori Culture

As one Maori man joked with us, “There’s a reason you find most of the Maori on the North Island. We don’t like the cold.

You can feel and see the influence of Maori culture and approach to life more — almost exclusively — on the North Island. Just outside of Rotorua we visited a Maori community and a wharenui, a Maori meeting house. The opening blessing gave us a fitting glimpse into the Maori reverence for nature and humanity.

Carved head, Maori meeting house -- Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Carved head, Maori meeting house.

For one American in our group, meeting a Maori leader years ago and coming to know the Maori philosophy of human equality and oneness helped pull him out of a bad place and make him who he is today. Years later, he came full circle and we chose him as our chief to represent our group during our formal welcoming at a local Maori meeting house.

Tongariro Crossing Trek

This was the trek that almost wasn’t. Although the Tongariro Crossing trek was the activity we most looked forward to in the North Island, weather conditions almost put it out of reach. The day before was truly lousy: cold, horrible winds, no visibility. Nick, our guide, tried to manage our expectations by preparing us for the worst. We were heartbroken at the thought of cancellation.

Then in the morning the skies began to break. Slivers of blue emerged. And when we started our trek up the mountain, the clouds continued to clear. Winds tapered off. The colors and textures of the mountains, minerals, vegetation and volcanic craters emerged as fog and clouds burned off. We couldn’t have planned better weather even if we had tried. The mountain gods were smiling upon us.

The Tongariro Crossing trek is described as “one of the best one-day hikes in the world.” No high expectations or anything. But even these were exceeded. We loved this trek; each section was a thrill with the changing terrain, colors and views of the whole region. Even the Devil’s Staircase was fun as it was the pathway to the craters and lakes we knew were waiting above.

Devil's Staircase and Tongariro National Park - New Zealand
The Devil’s Staircase. Can stairs ever be fun? With views like this, maybe.

When we did get to the top of Tongariro Crossing, our reward was great. Everyone talks about the Emerald Lakes (yes, they are spectacular), but we were blown away by the contours and richness of the Red Crater. Mother Nature had gone all out.

Red Crater - Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand
The Red Crater at Tongariro. An unexpected reward for making it to the top.

Emerald Lakes of Tongariro Crossing - New Zealand
Tongariro’s Emerald Lakes. As nature designed. No photoshop needed.

Note: Because of the volcanic eruption in November 2012, we were not able to do the full Tongariro Crossing as part of the path is blocked by lava. We had to turn around at the Emerald Lakes and returned on the same path. The ~20km (12.4 miles) trek takes around 6 to 6.5 hours in total. If you get a ride into the park with a bus, they will arrange a pick up time for you.

Wellington

Our time in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, was too short. But what we saw and felt in that time we liked. The city had an energy and creative feel to it; the calendar was chock full of festivals, concerts and performances. The city was made for people to enjoy.

Snap on Cuba Street: A taste of the soul of Wellington, New Zealand.
Wellington street scene – musicians and bars on Cuba Street.

We’re lucky to have Kiwi friends who took us out when we were there, but if you keep your eyes open you’ll find cool bars tucked back into alleyways or in the courtyards of buildings. Our two favorites were Matterhorn (106 Cuba Street) and Fork & Brewer (14 Bond Street).

Best of New Zealand’s North Island Photo Essay

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or would like to read the captions, you can view our New Zealand North Island photo set.

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The experiences above were from the G Adventures’ New Zealand Encompassed Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

Disclosure: Our New Zealand Encompassed Tour was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our flights were kindly sponsored by Air New Zealand. We thank all the good folks at Waitomo Adventures for the Haggas Honking Holes Tour and Kaitiaki Adventures for the Kaituna River rafting trip. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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Hiking Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand [360-Degree Panorama]http://uncorneredmarket.com/franz-josef-glacier-new-zealand-panorama/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/franz-josef-glacier-new-zealand-panorama/#comments Thu, 07 Mar 2013 07:44:08 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=12895 By Audrey Scott

One minute, you’re in the center of the town of Franz Josef, a cafe on one side of you, a pizzeria on the other. Then, within minutes, you are transported to another world. Your helicopter pops up into the air, through jagged mountain crags, just before dropping you into the heart of a glacier, an […]

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By Audrey Scott

One minute, you’re in the center of the town of Franz Josef, a cafe on one side of you, a pizzeria on the other. Then, within minutes, you are transported to another world. Your helicopter pops up into the air, through jagged mountain crags, just before dropping you into the heart of a glacier, an otherworldly ice field of turquoise blues and glowing whites.

This was Franz Josef Glacier.

During our visit, weather conditions were not the best. We were pelted by windswept drizzle. It didn’t much matter, though. Our earlier trip had been canceled thanks to changing weather, and we were thrilled just to be where we were. We made it. We were on the glacier, Franz Josef Glacier. And this in itself was a victory.

With crampons strapped to the soles of my shoes, I felt like superwoman on that ice. I climbed uphill and downhill, through tunnels and over ice fields — gripping myself into all that the ice had to offer.

Once I got my footing, I rarely looked down into the path left by the metal spikes of my shoes. My head spun, I continually looked up, looked around. There was simply far too much to take in while trying to come to terms with the fact that I was standing on a dazzling ice field in the middle of the mountains of New Zealand.

I’ll never forget the turquoise light that seemed to emanate from that ice. It seemed a way, nature’s way, of delivering at once beauty and mystery and an adventure I’ll never forget.

Open up the panorama to full screen to see for yourself.

Panorama: Hiking Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand

panorama directions

Practical Details for Hiking Franz Josef Glacier

We took the Ice Explorer trip through Franz Josef Glacier Guides NZ. This trip includes a short helicopter ride (5 minutes) up to the glacier and around 3 hours of hiking on the ice (weather permitting). We chose this tour because it gave us the most time on the glacier. You can also choose scenic helicopter tours or a heli-hike that has more time in the air and less time on the ice.

Tours get canceled at the first sign of the weather turning bad for safety reasons (you really don’t want to be in a helicopter in bad weather!). The earlier in the morning that you have your tour slot, the more likely the weather will be good. Our suggestion is to book early morning slots online in advance to try and decrease the weather cancellation factor. Our glacier guide also suggested that winter (June-July) is the best time to see the glacier as the weather is usually clear and the turquoise of the ice takes on crazy bright colors.

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The experiences above were from the G Adventures’ New Zealand Encompassed Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!


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Disclosure: Our New Zealand Encompassed Tour is provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Our flights were kindly sponsored by Air New Zealand. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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A Tandem Bungy Jump on Valentine’s Day [VIDEO]http://uncorneredmarket.com/tandem-bungy-jump-valentines-day-video/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/tandem-bungy-jump-valentines-day-video/#comments Fri, 15 Feb 2013 19:32:59 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=12818 By Daniel Noll

I am starting to wonder about you guys. every time you celebrate your ‘love’ (V-day, anniversary) you jump off something very high. Please explain. — A good friend responds to our Valentine’s Day bungy jump, capturing a little problem we seem to have. So there we were in New Zealand, Valentine’s Day approaching. We find […]

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By Daniel Noll

Tandem Bungy Jump on Valentine's Day - Kawarau Bridge near Queenstown, New Zealand
Tandem Bungy Jump on Valentine’s Day – Kawarau Bridge near Queenstown

I am starting to wonder about you guys. every time you celebrate your ‘love’ (V-day, anniversary) you jump off something very high. Please explain.

A good friend responds to our Valentine’s Day bungy jump, capturing a little problem we seem to have.

So there we were in New Zealand, Valentine’s Day approaching. We find ourselves in Queenstown, the so-called adventure capital of the world where just about any adrenaline-pumping, blood-draining exercise can be found. So we think: What sort of shared experience, that we haven’t done before, can we do together to celebrate Valentine’s Day?

Bungy jumping together, now that’s a shared experience. A little pleasure, a little terror.

We each get our feet wrapped up in towels, cords and carabiners. Then we get strapped and hooked together. On the platform, we wrap our inside hands around each other’s waist, grabbing hold of each other’s harness.

The whole time, we’re excited, pretty much terrified.

They call out 3, 2, 1. Then it’s time.

Tandem Bungee Jump for Valentine's Day - Kawarau Bridge, New Zealand
And we’re off!!

Here’s the surprising thing about bungy: it’s not anything like we expected. It’s a rush. We expected that. It’s terrifying. We expected that. But the bounce (it’s not a snap, by the way) at the bottom is soft and elastic and actually a lot of fun, particularly when you pop up and down a few times and realize that you’ve in fact survived and can enjoy an upside-down view of turquoise water and stunning ravine below.

And that’s when we gave each other a hug. This experience makes you truly appreciate you partner and not take him or her for granted.

Valentine's Day Bungee Jump - Kawarau Bridge, New Zealand
Hugging for dear life.

If you’re in the neighborhood and even lightly grazing the idea of doing bungy, do it. It’s a sensation you’ll likely never forget. And if you’re a couple, do the tandem – there’s nothing like the fun of shared terror to bring you even closer.

Watch the video to see for yourself.

Video: A Valentine’s Day Tandem Bungy Jump

Special thanks to AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand for providing us with this video.

Practical details for Tandem Bungy

At the moment, the only tandem bungy (or bungee, if you like) experience can be had with AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand in Queenstown, New Zealand. They are the folks that set up the original one in 1988 on the same bridge where we jumped off. You jump from a height of 43 meters (141 feet) off the Kawarau Bridge.

It’s possible to book the same day, however it’s preferred if you book in advance (say, the day before or earlier). Basically, you show up in town, hop a bus, go out to the site, get weighed, go out on the bridge, get strapped in and tied up. Then you jump. Cost is $180 NZ per person and includes a free t-shirt to show off your courage post-jump. The whole experience, while terrifying, strikes us as completely safe. Photos and video are available through download, DVD or a cool USB in the shape of a carabiner for $80 for both photos and video (or $45 for one).

Photo credits to AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand.

Disclosure: Big thanks to AJ Hackett Bungy New Zealand for talking us through all our adrenaline options in Queenstown and providing us with this tandem bungy experience so we could test it out for ourselves. Our New Zealand Encompassed Tour is provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

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The experiences above were from the G Adventures’ New Zealand Encompassed Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

The post A Tandem Bungy Jump on Valentine’s Day [VIDEO] appeared first on Uncornered Market.

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Base Flying Berlin: An 11th Wedding Anniversary Jump (Video)http://uncorneredmarket.com/base-flying-berlin/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/base-flying-berlin/#comments Fri, 07 Oct 2011 18:18:54 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=9598 By Daniel Noll

What is marriage, if not a leap of faith? Fourteen years ago, on or around our second date, Audrey and I went skydiving together. It was, as you might imagine, both terrifying and fantastic. And as much as you also might also imagine that it wiped away my fear of heights, it did not. Perhaps […]

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By Daniel Noll

What is marriage, if not a leap of faith?

Fourteen years ago, on or around our second date, Audrey and I went skydiving together. It was, as you might imagine, both terrifying and fantastic. And as much as you also might also imagine that it wiped away my fear of heights, it did not. Perhaps it chiseled away at that wall, but it certainly didn’t tear it down. I still swoon thinking about that airplane canopy above 16,000 feet. I still get wobbly above 10 stories.

So here we are 14 years later in Berlin, celebrating our 11th wedding anniversary. What better way to recognize the occasion than to jump (base fly) from the top of a 37-story building?

Berlin Base FlyingPhoto courtesy of Yuhang Yuan, one of our awesome friends who came out to support us

Berlin Base Flying: The Experience

As often happens in life, it’s one thing to talk about doing something and quite another to actually do it. The same goes for launching oneself from a tall building in Berlin.

Base Flying at Alexander Platz, Berlin
Hanging above Berlin, waiting for the 400 foot drop

The following video tells that story. If after the video you stick around to read the rest of this piece, we’ll explain what base flying is. And we’ll offer a little marriage advice.

Video: Base Flying in Berlin: Celebrating 11 Years of Marriage

Special thanks to Sarah Everts for her camera work and support.

The Base Flying Process, Start to Finish

We arrived at the lobby of the Park Inn and were given one of those “this is totally safe, but there’s an outside chance you might end up like a pancake” waivers to sign. Here are my favorite segments:

Precondition is a good physical and intellectual constitution as the execution of this event can entail a considerable physical and mental exposure

Not to be outdone, it follows:

The organizer assumes no liability for soiling or damaging clothing worn during the fall.

Rough translation: If you poop your pants, it’s on you.

I had reservations on both accounts, but I signed anyhow.

As for the mechanics of the base flying process, it’s pretty quick. (And I’m pleased to report, painless):

1) Go to the roof of the building (take an elevator, then walk up the stairs from floor 37). The view from atop the Park Inn Berlin is spectacular, especially if the weather is as immaculate as it was on the day of our jump.

2) Get outfitted in a harness and hooked to an industrial strength wire contraption that is attached to the side and roof of the building.

3) You try out your harness rig in a superman pose above stable ground with one of the crew.

4) The crew walks you out to the edge of the jumping platform where you are raised on the hook and out over open ground. This is profoundly terrifying. You pretend like you are thrilled and look at the camera. Remember to smile.

Berlin Base Flying - Dan About to Go!
Forcing a smile through the terror

5) Then you drop, free-falling for about 5 seconds (but time almost stands still). Wild. As you reach the end, the wire suspension device executes a controlled deceleration so you experience absolutely no sudden jerking motion as you might with bungee jumping.

Berlin Base Flying - Alexanderplatz
View from below

6) Run around Alexanderplatz in your white jumpsuits, hug your friends who have been cheering you on and head over to Pfefferhaus for a round of hot sauce tasting (stay tuned for our next piece).

And Finally, A Little Marriage Advice

When people ask us for marriage advice, I often feel like a kid, not the sort of person you go to for marriage counsel.

Friends who had been married only a few years recently asked, “So what advice can you give after 11 years?

I replied: “You’re married, right? Then it’s too late

But quite seriously, here’s my 11-year-thoughts-on-marriage offer: Marriage is a lot of work, much in the way a garden might be. You reap the rewards that you sow.

Now go forth and jump off a building.

Berlin Base Flying - We Made It!
We Did It!

How to Go Base Flying in Berlin

Location: Park Inn at Alexanderplatz, Berlin. Jochen Schweizer is the company that operates the base flying. Look for their desk near the concierge.

Operating hours: Usually open only on weekends, weather permitting. Call ahead to be sure it’s open.

Costs: Although base flying may not be the cheapest activity going in Berlin, the price strikes us as pretty fair considering how unique this experience is and the safety and sophistication of the equipment. Try to go early in the morning for the best deals.

  • Basic Base-Flying: €79
  • 2nd person: €39
  • Early Bird (10-11 AM): €49
  • Happy Hour (18-19 AM): €59

We asked how many people chicken out once they are on the roof. The crew’s response: “It’s actually very few people – only about 2-3%. And it’s usually the guys with the big mouths talking it up the most.”

Thanks and Disclosure:
First off, a big thanks to the Jochen Schweizer crew on top of the Park Inn. Cedrik, Tilman and the rest of the folks were safety conscious, supportive and very funny (check out Tilman in the video) — exactly the type of people you want around you when you’re about to jump off a building.

Our base flying experience was provided to us by Jochen Schweizer, an experience company whose offers include high adrenaline and adventure activities around the world.

As always, these words, experiences and opinions are entirely our own.

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How Kazakhstan Nearly Killed Ushttp://uncorneredmarket.com/kazakhstan-nearly-killed-us/ http://uncorneredmarket.com/kazakhstan-nearly-killed-us/#comments Wed, 12 Dec 2007 03:56:53 +0000 http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/?p=6486 By Audrey Scott

Barely recovering from self-inflicted death march from Kazakh mountains. Copter airlift looked likely. Rappelling down waterfall = escape. — Our Twitter update from Almaty, Kazakhstan on 3 September 2007 My, how things can go wrong. Our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook told us to “skirt Pik Bolshoy Almatinsky (Big Almaty Peak) and follow the river gorge […]

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By Audrey Scott

Barely recovering from self-inflicted death march from Kazakh mountains. Copter airlift looked likely. Rappelling down waterfall = escape.

— Our Twitter update from Almaty, Kazakhstan on 3 September 2007

My, how things can go wrong.

Dan Hiking in Tian Shan Mountains - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Dan just over the mountain pass. Here’s where things take a wrong turn.

Our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook told us to “skirt Pik Bolshoy Almatinsky (Big Almaty Peak) and follow the river gorge down to the ski resort of Alma Arasan.” When we came over the pass, we did that. Or, rather, we thought we did. Instead, what we committed to was a steep descent through a different – and highly unrecommended – giant boulder-filled river gorge.

It dawned on us rather early that we had chosen poorly.

Almost three hours into this downhill scramble, we hit a waterfall about 100 feet high. There was no way to climb down. Our phone had no signal, so calling for help wasn’t an option. Disheartened and beginning to fear the waning light and our dim circumstances, we tried to climb around the waterfall and over the next pass 1000 feet above us. Pulling ourselves up the hill by roots, branches, and bushes, our hearts sank again and again as we stopped to take stock of our position and another way out. We faced cliff edges everywhere we turned.

Several more attempts later, we found a descent covered with fallen leaves and greens. It was impossible to tell whether a cliff lurked under each patch of loose rocks and vegetation. We were forced to inch down, testing the ground beneath us with each step. Although steep, dangerous and rocky, we managed to climb down to the riverbed again, bypassing the waterfall.

As our legs turned to lead and our movements to jelly, we knew we were in trouble. There we were on a simple hike in the Tian Shan mountains with an as-the-crow-flies view of where we needed to be, Almaty. However, with each advance seemed to come another waterfall or rockslide that would eliminate another way out. We were desperately lost, and as night began to fall, we pushed on, losing sight of both the ground beneath us and the risk we were taking with each step.

Mission Impossible in the Tian Shan Mountains?

Lost in Tian Shan Mountains, Final Waterfall - Almaty, Kazakhstan
Our final feat: rappelling down this waterfall. (Yes, it’s as big as it looks.)

Another waterfall 50 feet high blocked our path. Cursing and on the verge of tears, we spied a rope leading from the top of the waterfall. We had no choice, so we each hurled ourselves over the side of the rock, held on to the rope, and did our best Mission Impossible imitation, rappelling over the fall just above safe ground. The rope was not quite long enough, meaning a literal leap of faith was needed at the end. At this point, we had bottomed out physically and emotionally, but we felt the need to press on.

Our hearts soared when we began to notice trash strewn in the bushes near the stream we were following. Trash = people = we’re getting close to civilization.

More good news followed as we found a walking path just as the light dissolved into a grainy darkness. We raced quickly – staggering, praying that we’d find a road…or maybe some people. Instead, the path ended in a mudslide.

We had no choice but to backtrack and return to the riverbed.

We eventually found a questionably beaten path. It was 8:30 at night and we were enveloped in darkness.

Good Fortune and a Random Act of Kindness

Then, out of nowhere, we were spit out onto a dirt road across from a rest stop serving mutton shashlik (barbecue). We tried to flag down a car in hopes that it would agree to taxi us to town. Every vehicle was full as families returned to Almaty after a pleasant day in the mountains.

After a few dozen flagging attempts, a minivan packed with several families inside pulled into the parking lot. I, exhausted and covered in dirt from all of her falls, asked the driver in broken Russian whether he was headed towards Almaty. Before she could finish, the man responded to our obvious deteriorated condition, “Do you need help?

We imagined fitting into the back of their minivan (where luggage normally goes), but the man cleared his remaining friends and family to the back, led us to the large, plush seats up front and gave us a luxurious lift back to the safety and comfort of Almaty, its city lights, and its civilization.

To describe us as thankful for all of this good fortune is an understatement. After all, we were alive and we had a comfortable ride home. We were the very relieved recipients of a random act of kindness from a Kazakh family.

Safe and Reflective

Hindsight being 20/20, it would have been safer to have spent the night under the protection of a tree in the mountains and to resume our descent when we were equipped with better light and better judgment. We were very lucky. We had some scrapes and achy muscles, but things could have been much, much worse.

Hardships and poor decision-making aside, our foray into Kazakhstan’s Soviet past at the observatory and Kosmostantsia provided a grounding contrast to the polish and glitz of nearby Almaty. The mountain scenery, especially around Big Almaty Lake, is striking. Our only advice before you have your own Tian Shan Mountain adventure: buy a real hiking map.

How to Visit Big Almaty Lake and Kosmostancia

  • How to get there: Take a shared taxi or bus #28 to Kokshoky and follow the signs for Kosmostantsia. If hiking is not your thing, contact the Tian Shan Astronomical Observatory for transport from Almaty (see below).
  • Where to stay: The observatory offers basic accommodation and food in a funky Soviet-era junkyard mountain setting. We recommend it. Domicks (10 Euros/person) are the cheapest option with a shared outhouse and sink. There are nicer rooms for 15 euros/person that include en suite bathrooms and hot water. Engage the astronomer on site and gaze at the stars using high-powered telescopes (5 euros/person). Breakfast and dinner run 4 Euros/person.
  • Contact: Aivar (he speaks English): 87055222446, or email him at aivar086022 [at] gmail.com or aivar1960 [at] mail.ru.

Photo Slideshow: Kazakhstan: Tian Shan and Big Almaty Lake

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you would like to read the captions, you can view our Tian Shan and Big Almaty Lake photo essay.

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