Family & Friends,

Check 1 - Gear/Harness Buckled?
Check 2 - Lines OK?
Check 3 - Path clear / no oncoming gliders?
Check 4 - Wind Direction OK?
Check 5 - Radio OK?
Check 6 - Review flight plan?

Those are the preflight checks I review each time before I launch. I have just gone through a 3 day training course to become a Paragliding Pilot with a New Zealand PG1 rating. Training started on low level ground the first day, but by noon we were flying solo up at 150 feet. The next day we started our takeoffs from 600 feet in the morning and progressed to 1500 feet by noon. The rest of the day was spent catching thermals and practicing turns. The flying and the feeling is fantastic. You are up there alone and able to get a birds eye view on everyone/thing. My next goal will be to get the PG2 rating by flying at a number of sites across New Zealand.

Anyways, Greetings from New Zealand. I am sorry if you haven't heard from me in awhile, NZ doesn't have the best of internet connections available. When I last updated you, I was in Melbourne after having spent 2 weeks at the Olympics in Sydney.

I have to thank a friend of a friend (Campbell) for graciously allowing me to use her home in Melbourne as a jumping off point for a number of activities. The most memorable of which was my tour of the "Great Ocean Road" - OZ equivalent of California's Pacific HWY1. We of course had to stop at the famous surfing beach of Bells Beach but this time there wasn't time to join the pros already out in the water. We did however got a long stop at the 12 Apostles which are great looking sandstone pinnacles emerging from the sea.

I jumped off the bus in the Grampians which is a range of mountains in Victoria. There are many walking trails and waterfalls to trek and explore which I did with a Dutch and German couple.

Then it was on to visiting the red wine region of Coonawarra. Through friends of friends of friends, (remember the boat story from last time), I stayed with the father of one of them on his farm. Rob taught me the art of rounding up sheep (letting the dog do it) and showed me how the shearing, tagging, etc. works. In between, Rob was kind enough to take me to most of the local vineyards for some wine tasting. Knowing someone at each of the places gave me the royal treatment. I ended up tasting over 30 bottles of wine. (Luckily I didn't have to drive.)

On Oct 19, I left the wonderful country of OZ and flew on to Christchurch on the south island of NZ. It was the same weekend of the NZ Rugby Championships with Christchurch (Canterbury) playing Wellington. The owners of the hostel managed to get tickets for all of us who wanted to go which made for a wonderful atmosphere. Despite Canterbury loosing, the game was impressive as many of the players who play for the famous NZ ALL BLACKS also play for those two teams.

Originally I was going to bus it around NZ like I did in OZ but found that cars are pretty cheap and very easy to register. I found a 84 Holden Commodore for NZ$700 (US$280) with 260,000 KM that I bought off two Swedish girls. When I leave in December from Auckland, the height of the BP season will be in swing which will allow me to sell it for about NZ$1000 making up for the gas used giving me 2 months of free travel.

Whereas in Oz, your fellow travelers were either going North or South on the Cairns - Sydney backpacker track, in NZ, it is either clockwise or counterclockwise. I chose to go CW which put me first in the city of Dunedin (Speight's Brewery) and the deep south called the Catlins. This area is where much of the sheep farming is. I stayed at a fantastic hostel/farm called "The Hilltop" in a small town called Papatowai and met Rodney the farmer. He has 350 acres of land overlooking the ocean with about 3000 head of sheep on it. It was right in the middle of the lambing (birthing) season. On one rainy morning I went out to help but still couldn't get the courage to actually stick my hand in and pull out the baby. I did however hand feed one little baby whose mother had abandoned it. Every time I showed up, the little bugger came over and tried to suck my pant leg until I was able to feed him off of a Coke PET Bottle with a nipple.

Heading further south to Stewart Island, I took the Fouveux Express ferry and saw t-shirts that said "I Survived the F.E. Crossing". Thinking it was strange why people would buy such a shirt, it wasn't till we started crossing when I realized why. The 1 hour journey across is considered one of the roughest in the world. About half the people on the boat got seasick in the first 30 minutes.

On Stewart Island, I started some of my trekking which NZ is famous for. This particular one (the Rakiura) went up the coastline, crossed the island, and came back down the other coast. The views were stunning but I didn't get to see any Kiwi birds which are plentiful on the island.

Next stop was Te Anau which is the gateway to many of NZ fiords such as the Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. It is also the start of the two famous Keppler and Milford Treks which NZ claims as "the finest walk in the world". With the snow melting the trekking season was just beginning. As luck would have it, they opened the Milford Track just 3 days before I got there which allowed me to book onto it. It is so popular, that only 40 people are allowed on it per day and that it is usually booked solid for most of the trekking season. We were lucky and only had 25 people booked. The trek consists of 4 days and 33 Miles of relatively moderate hiking. I met an American (Joe) and a Brit (Mike) who became traveling companions. One must bring all provisions except toilet paper and camping gas. The rest is carried on your back which means you eat a lot of rice, 2 minute noodles or freeze dried foods. Despite the 2nd day being almost non-stop rain, it was probably the most beautiful. (Did I just say that??) The rain poured down the steep mountain slopes and created hundreds of waterfalls out of nowhere. Stunning!! The sun did come out the 3rd day which is the day one has to hike over the Makkinnon Pass at almost 3000 feet. (The people on the day before were caught in a snow storm and one guy got hypothermia.) Just down the other side of the pass, a trail leads to the monstrous, three-tiered, 580 Meters Sutherland Falls. These are the highest in NZ and the 5th highest in the world. Joe and I tried to walk behind it but got blown away by the hurricane force winds and water at we got about 15 feet away. Needless to say, we got soaked and had to hike the rest of the day in wet boots. I could go on and on about the nature, the views, the waterfalls, forests, etc but I am paying for this internet connection by the minute, plus, it is just too hard to describe.

At the end of the trek, Joe and I happened to be booked on the same overnight boat which cruises through the Milford Sound on out to the Tasman Sea. This gave us a chance to relax off our feet and eat a huge barb-e-que meal with MEAT!. Again the views, the dolphins, the waterfalls are just too hard to describe in words. Photos don't even give the whole picture.

Back in Te Anau, I did a day trek up Mt. Luxmore climbing over 4000 feet (7 hours return). There wasn't a cloud in the sky on that day but for some reason I seemed like the only person with an interest in it. Reaching the top, I had 2 hours of solitude which got me thinking about how much I don't really miss KO and how much I really do like traveling.

Next stop on the tour was the adventure town of Queenstown. This is where you can do most adventure activity that NZ is well known for. I chose to do a couple of things which included the 134 Meter (420 feet) Nevis Bungi Jump, the Shotover jetboat (racing 50 miles an hour down through a canyon within inches of the canyon walls), the "Fly by Wire" (a one man steerable engine - hard to describe so look at the pictures), and finally the Mad Dog Whitewater body surfing. This last one definitely receives a thrill factor 10 of 10. With a quick review of the signals and procedures, we jumped into a raging whitewater river with just a boogie board. From the moment we got in, we had 5 KM of whitewater river to deal with. The adrenalin from dodging whirlpools, rocks and keeping ones head afloat kept us from thinking about the ice-cold water we were flowing in. Despite the exhaustion at the end, I don't think a single person wouldn't have jumped at the idea of doing it again if offered.

On to Wanaka, this sleepy little town is just like Queenstown but without the tourists. It was a place we could relax a few days and it was here that I decided to take an interest in Paragliding. However, the wind conditions sucked for the 3 days which just made it too dangerous to learn.

New Zealand has many Glaciers but the two that stand out are both the Fox and the Franz Josef. Both contain several billion cubic meters of solid blue ice which can move up to several meters a day. They are extraordinary in themselves in that they descend almost into a forest just 12 KM from the Tasman Sea. I had heard from different backpackers about which one was best so to make up my own mind, I decided to do day hikes on both with professional guides. Providing us Crampons and Ice Axes, we set out. We crawled through ice caves, down steep gullys, and over crevices so wide that were only crossable by ladder. The guides advice was just don't look down. Despite each glacier having its own benefits, my favorite was definitely the Franz Josef. I put some of it in my pocket as a memento but alas - it melted.

In Nelson on the north end of the South Island, the weather has been fantastic and the winds perfect. The Paragliding gods were just calling my name so I was forced to do it. The feeling of solo flying at 700 - 1000 feet for over an hour is fantastic. I just can't wait for my other flights around the North Island.

Picton and the Marlborough Sounds was the next stop. This is a haven for small coves and inlets. It is also another one of NZ "Great Walks" - called the Queen Charlotte Track. I didn't have time to do the whole thing but I did manage to do a day hike. The best part of the hike is that there is pub right in the middle of it. So after many hours of hiking, you're presented with a beer. Ahhhhhh!

I don't have much time left. In three weeks, my first leg of my journey will be over and I will be returning to Atlanta for Christmas. Unless a killer of a job comes across my path, I have decided to continue to travel. First stop will probably be the Colorado ski fields and then on to China, Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal and back to India. (not necessary in that order) I will try to complete it by August 2001 as I promised my best friend Kelly that I would return to Atlanta for the 2001 Georgia Tech Football season.

When all of you are eating your Thanksgiving Turkey dinners, have an extra slab of meat, extra helping of mashed potatoes and gravy for me and remember how awful I have it over here.

I do love hearing from each of you while on the road as it brightens my day to know that you are all doing well. Please keep in touch and write as often as you can.

All the best, MIKE


copyright © 2003 by Michael E. Hopkins - all rights reserved
revised NOVEMBER 2008