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Under the starry sky of Utah

Written by Birgit, pictures mostly by Sam

sunny 25 °C
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After another very cold night in which it was very useful to have the heating system in our camper van, we left Mesa Verde the next morning while it was raining.
By the time we arrived in the Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez to stock up on maps and information, the rain had subsided. Still, we continued to have nice vistas of rain showers in the distance.
On our way towards Utah, we stopped at Dove Creek to get gas and used the opportunity to shop in the local supermarket and have lunch at the deli. The food was good, inexpensive and the place was full of locals, which was a sight in itself.
Once again we stopped at the first welcome center we saw in Utah and were now all set to go to the Natural Bridges National Monument. The scenery on the way there was already great and made us stop several times to take pictures.

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So eventually we arrived a bit later than originally anticipated and got to learn at the park headquarters that the campground is already full. Upon their advice we turned back around two miles and used the dispersed camping up along the dirt road to ‘Deer Flat’. What a great spot alone in the landscape without anyone around us! And all for free…

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We were lucky to stay dry, but just a couple of miles north of our spot was quite a rainstorm going down. We were happily sitting on a ridge observing and counting the lightning strikes and the following thunders. And Sam even managed to catch two of them in pictures. As the clouds were eventually also above us, we did not see the starry sky of Natural Bridges, which was inaugurated about 10 years ago as the first Dark Sky Park worldwide for its lack of artificial light sources. But never mind: anyhow there would not have been a chance to see the milky way, as the moon is almost full these days.

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The next day was dedicated to the Natural Bridges. The first bridge was the largest one and is the second largest in the world (behind Rainbow Bridge at close by Lake Powell). It was clear that we did not want to limit ourselves to the viewpoint, but that we’ll attempt the 0.6 mile and 500 ft altitude hike to the bottom. And it was definitively worth it. Already on the way down it was a really nice hike along the steep overhanging walls of the canyon and a bit further down we were already presented by the vistas of the bridge. My personal favorite was standing underneath the bridge and looking up against the sky realizing how enormous it is. And in addition it was nice and cool down there. Whereas on the way down the flora was more desert like, down there we were surprised to see lush green, large trees and a very refreshing climate.

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The second bridge is the youngest of the three, therefore still very thick and less eroded. We limited ourselves to the viewpoint in this case.
But at the last bridge we wanted to head down again. Actually we realized that the course of the water had changed since the bridge formed and consequently it is not really a bridge anymore, but a freestanding arch without any water running underneath it. That had the big advantage that we were able to head further down to the current riverbed and had a spectacular view of the full formation.

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There were more spectacular vistas to come. Driving down towards Mexican Hat we took the turnoff to the dirt road leading to Muley’s Point in order to enjoy the vista from the 1100 ft drop-off over the goose-neck meanders of the San Juan River towards Monument Valley.

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A bit later we went down exactly that 1100 ft drop over a gravel road call Moki’s Dugway. It’s incredible how this road was built into the steep walls. From down below it is hard to see that there’s a road.

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Down in the valley we took the turn off into the Valley of the Gods – once again a recommendation of the German couple we had met in Santa Fe, a really good one! The Valley of the Gods is sometimes called the little sister of Monument Valley. But contrary to Monument Valley it is public land, it is possible to camp there. Most likely that camping location will earn a spot in the top 10 camping locations of this trip – maybe even in the top 3, let’s see. And once again: this marvelous campsite does not cost a cent!

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It was really hard to leave that marvelous spot the next morning. But we were rewarded by even more gorgeous sights.
After having been to the Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley seemed way too touristic and crowded. In addition, given to the strong winds, it was rather unpleasant, so we limited us to driving the Monument Valley Loop. The rock formations were surely spectacular, the road reminded us more of the back country roads of Namibia which were mostly better in shape than the roads in this major tourist destination… One could even assume that this is linked to the business that can be made by offering expensive rides in open pickup trucks for all tourists who cannot or do not want to attempt the loop in their own vehicle.

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Still, it was very clear to us that we definitively did not want to stay in the campground at Monument Valley. It would have been located exactly on that most windy ridge on a gravel lot where one RV was parked next to the other. And it would have cost 42$ per night without any hookups. Sorry, no way we’d be doing that…
So thanks to Dave’s hint to use freecampsites.net, we identified a good alternative option to camp for free at Navajo National Monument. After a drive of about an hour we arrived there and were happy to hear that there are still enough spots free in the campground. We decided to go to the sunset loop and picked a slot which featured a large sandy area for Max to use as his playground.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:56 Archived in USA Tagged bridges sky monument of utah valley gods national natural Comments (1)

The National Parks around Moab

Capitol Reef NP, Canyonlands NP, Arches NP

semi-overcast 37 °C
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We had a full day’s worth of activities in front of us and consequently started earlier than usual. The first place on our list was the scenic drive in Capitol Reef National Park, the least visited of Utah’s five national parks.
Once more we were impressed by the scenery and the ever changing landscapes around us. But even more so we liked our stop at the orchard on the way out again: it was apricot season and we had lots of fun picking them. In the process, we treated ourselves to eat many of them and eventually could not resist to take five pounds with us.

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After a bit of a break in the shade of large trees next to the river, we continued our journey towards Little White Horse Canyon. After all, we had met a French and a German family who had been equally impressed by the hike and highly recommended it to us. And they promised that it would not be too crowded – which we perceived as a big plus given the many people we had around us in Zion and Bryce National Parks.
Already the way there was very nice and there were lots of photo opportunities along the route.

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By the time we arrived at the trail head, grey clouds were looming over the canyon and we had a bit of concerns as if it was safe to go in or not. But fortunately by the time we had finished lunch, the clouds had left and we were safe to go.
And we really liked the hike. After a bit of a hike along a wash in the glaring afternoon sun, the interesting part started with a bit of climbing over some rocks stuck in the narrower parts of the canyon and soon after we found ourselves in a slot canyon which somewhat resembled Antelope Canyon – except that we had it alone for ourselves and the light was not as perfect as it had been there.

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After our drive it was time for the last stretch of road for today to reach Moab. And it was faster than expected, as it was the first time we were allowed to drive 80 mph on an interstate.
And arriving in Moab also meant taking a bit of a timeout from traveling around. We had booked a spot in the local KOA campground for three nights and used that time to just relax a bit. Our main activities consisted of going to the pool, playing table tennis and mini golf. And we also caught up with our families back home and got the blog entries up to Las Vegas uploaded and published.
While I had really needed that break, Sam was already keen to move on. So eventually we moved on again. Our first stop was in town at the Moab Brewery to get some lunch. The food was excellent and great value for money.
We then headed on to Canyonlands NP and enjoy the grand vistas of the canyons the Colorado and Green River have carved. The part of the park is called Island in the Sky for a good reason – only a narrow bridge allows to access the large table that is surrounded by canyons on all sides.
Then it was time for getting a bit of exercise and we hiked to Mesa Arch which is located in a spectacular spot right along the cliffs going down towards the canyons.

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Our campground was on top of the Canyonlands area, just outside the park and with clouds and thunderstorms approaching we felt a bit exposed. In the end it was not too bad after all. We got treated to a nice sunset and the storm must have decided to change its direction such that we only got a bit of rain.

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The next day we started with a hike of the two trails at our campground before hitting the road and checking out Arches NP. The park is amazing and we loved the different rock formations and obviously the arches. Max’ favorite was Sand Dune Arch – less for the arch, but much more so for the huge sand dune underneath it. Sam even hiked the bit further to also get a glimpse of Broken Arch while we continued enjoying the sand.

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In the late afternoon we even attempted the hike to Landscape Arch – luckily there was already a bit of shade by then. To do this hike at midday temperatures and full exposure to the sun would probably not have been a smart idea. Already along the way we got to see a couple of other arches and nice features.

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Even though the top attraction in Arches is the hike to Delicate Arch – the official landmark of the park and of the state of Utah – we did not attempt it. We were fine with all the other sights we had seen such as Balancing Rock. And we’re pretty sure that this was a wise decision and we were much better off with just retreating to our campground along the Colorado River.

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The next morning, we had a very early start to get into Moab, as Sam had arranged for a motorbike tour with a KTM 350. Renting a motorbike and going offroad had been on his list of things to do on our trip. And which place would be better suited for that other than Moab?
And he was happy to having gone. There were lots of offroad trails for motorized vehicles to choose from (and there would have been even more for mountainbikes). His favorite trail was the ‘Cliffhanger’ where at certain instances he had to think through if he dares to go down the steep inclines, as afterwards he’d need to be sure to get up again on his own.

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But also Max and my day was filled with lots of fun. After exploring the local BMX park and enjoying the rides there, we headed to the city pool where Sam met us once he was done motorbiking.
After having excellent food at legendary Milt’s Stop and Eat, presumably one of Moab’s oldest diners (another recommendation we had taken from Jakob’s ’36 hours’ book), it was time to say good-bye to Moab and to head off towards the more northern and cooler parts of the country. Given that it was already quite late in the day, we did not go too far and stopped along the Colorado River again at Hittle Bottom campground. The location of the campground was simply great in what seemed to be an enormous natural amphitheater. The rock formations reminded us a lot of Monument Valley and we got to enjoy them in the great evening light.

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At night we were treated again to a beautiful night sky featuring the milky way and lots of shooting stars. And thanks to the camera suite Otmar sent to Sam, now Sam was even able to experiment with longer lens openings than the 30 sec maximum he had to deal with so far.

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Moab had been a nice place for staying a couple of days. The mix of national parks, adventures and lots of backcountry to explore makes the town a good base for spending some time.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 23:47 Archived in USA Tagged park canyon colorado national pool arch moab koa Comments (0)

Exploring the Olympic Peninsula with Janis

Sequim Bay State Park, Hurricane ridge, Fairholme campground at Lake Crescent, Sol Duc Hot Springs, Hoh rain forest, Forks

sunny 24 °C
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The next morning, we headed north from Mt. Rainier towards the Olympic Peninsula to meet Janis. Around noon we finally managed to get a signal on the mobile phone again and got Janis’ update that she had landed well and was already on the ferry looking forward to meet us at the reserved campground in Sequim Bay State Park. Just a bit later we pulled into the state park ourselves and there she was.
Wow – we’ve seen a lot in the almost four months since leaving her place in Chicago and had many stories to tell. And Janis had lots of things to tell us as well, such that we’d have enough to talk about in the coming week.
The state park was really nice with a view towards the blue waters of Sequim Bay. As we realized down at the small beach, we’d even be able to legally catch crabs there. Well, except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And in addition as it’s only allowed to take male crabs, we would have needed to know how to distinguish male from female crabs… So we just admired the view and had a nice barbecue for dinner. To do so we had to borrow the neighbors’ barbecue grill, as unfortunately due to the drought the county had declared a fire ban.
The next day we started to explore Hurricane Ridge - our first venture into Olympic National Park. The ridge offered not only sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and the ocean, but also the view to one of the wildfires raging in the park. We were amazed about the sheer amounts of ash creating enormous clouds.

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As usual we popped up the roof of our camper when preparing lunch, which attracted the attention of people walking and driving by. And once again this resulted in a quick tour of the van and its multiple features. Once that mission was accomplished and we had created enough envy, it was time to explore some of the trails up on the ridge before enjoying afternoon tea (and cake) at one of Port Angeles’ skate parks.

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After one more night in Sequim Bay, we moved on to Lake Crescent. It was August 25th, the 100th birthday of the National Park Service and consequently there were several special activities taking place at the Storm King Ranger Station. Even though it was tempting to stay longer, we had a mission to accomplish: we continued to the western shore of the lake in order to set up camp at Fairholme campground. And we were lucky to still get a nice spot in what seemed to be an ancient forest adorned by giant Douglas fir, hemlock spruce, ferns and mosses.

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We immediately fell in love with the beautiful campground and it did not take long to decide that we’d extend our stay to two nights. And as it was just nice sitting at the lake shore and enjoying the view, we just moved our plan to go to Sol Duc Hot Springs to the next day.

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This allowed us to leave for Sol Duc still in the morning and before too long we found ourselves soaking in one of the hot pools. In an attempt of bravery, we went to the cool fresh water pool first, but it did not take long to realize that 72 °F is just a bit too cold for being comfortable. To warm up for a start we chose the coolest one of the hot pools at 97 °F, but before too long we also tried the 104 °F one. And yes, it was very pleasant soaking there in the sunshine in a wide forested valley.
And we even managed to take a hike along the Sol Duc River after our baths – even though we had already predicted that we might be too lazy and tired afterwards. While the hike we nice, it was not nearly as fascinating as the Grove of the Ancients Trail we on the way out of the valley. We were really impressed by the huge ancient trees – about 700-year-old sentinels mixed in with younger trees and young growth starting on the decaying trunks of fallen trees.

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After another night at Fairholme and discovering also the nice campground trail there, it was time to leave. Our next destination was Forks, the location of the ‘Twilight’ novel and movies. Presumably Forks is one of the wettest places in the continental United States. Not surprisingly, it was drizzling by the time we arrived and it was significantly colder than it had been further east.
We were not surprised – after all our day trip was to Hoh rain forest and quite obviously there needs to be a lot of rain to support a rain forest. Even though we had seen already quite a lot of ancient forests in the last days, the rain forest was really amazing: long mosses hanging down from the trees and lot of fern all over the place. Still it was most impressing to see how young trees start growing on the fallen 200+ ft. logs. What looks cute initially eventually ends with gigantic trees all standing side by side. Most of them feature big cave like openings underneath – proof for a long decayed host tree they started growing on hundreds of years ago.

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It was only after we had done our (quite expensive) shopping at the local Thriftway grocery store, that we found out two pieces of trivia about it: they claim to be located in the western most shopping center of the continental US and this is the place where Twilight character Bella works and shops.
Our next venture took us to the airport to check out the ‘Hot Thunder Night’ and were disappointed that there was absolutely nothing going on. As the BBQ place we wanted to go to did not admit anyone below 21, we had to go back towards the town center. And lucky us: otherwise we might not have realized that this was where the Hot Thunder Night took place. The main street running through town – the US 101 – was blocked off and as we approached the start of the detour, we already saw a car doing a burn out and producing big clouds of burnt rubber in the process.
We parked and had a look at this spectacle which seems to be taken straight out of an old movie scene.

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Anything from vintage car, hot rod, old pimped car, motorbike and modern pickup truck took the challenge to spin the wheels along main street under the cheer of the crowd. The excitement was big – especially for the kids who were racing towards the hot asphalt after each round.

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After we had seen enough and gaped at the donut one of the cars made instead of just going straight like everyone else, it was time to warm up and have food. We were lucky to get one of the window seats at the adjacent Chinese restaurant, such that we could continue watching the spectacle. It was a fun evening and accompanied by the sound of Queen’s ‘We will rock you’ we eventually headed home.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 07:41 Archived in USA Tagged rainforest springs park lake tree national fire hot out twilight ridge fern olympic janis Comments (2)

Kids, kangaroos and corals

Ningaloo Reef – Exmouth, Cape Range NP

sunny 28 °C
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In Exmouth, we met quite a couple of interesting people and nice families traveling around Australia.
One morning, we were joined by eight-year old Cooper for our trip to the skate park before heading to the pool. He is traveling with his parents for a year doing the tour of Australia. To keep up with school, he is spending about 30 min per day studying and learning, mainly to keep up his maths. While this sounds like not too much, Freya (5) and Pearl’s (9) mom told me that they are not doing any home schooling at all, as the girls learn so much while traveling. She’s sure that both of them will have no trouble at all catching up with their friends once they’ll be back after their year of traveling. And after all, they had done long trips like that already in the past…
Coming from Germany with its strict enforcement of all kids going to school, this is very, very different. In Germany parents are not only risking fines, but eventually jail if their kids don’t go to school. Whereas in Australia the government might cut subsidies / pensions for parents not sending their kids to school – but anyone who is not receiving any money from the government, there is no risk. And I fully agree, that kids do learn a lot when traveling and that at least in the first years of school probably an hour of home schooling a day is largely sufficient to keep up to date in line with the curriculum.
After another relaxed day and evening of editing pictures, eventually we decided to leave Exmouth to explore the Ningaloo Reef and the Cape Range National Park. We were shocked to realize that the local supermarket was closed – as it was Sunday, but headed off anyhow hoping that our remaining supplies would be enough such that we could stay for at least two nights.
As we headed from Exmouth to Cape Range National Park, we stopped at the first landmark along the way, the Vlaming Head lighthouse. From there we already got the first impression of the peninsula with its fringing reef close to the shoreline.

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After a quick stop in the dunes, we explored the displays in the information center. That’s also where we finally saw our first kangaroos. Specifically, Max was excited about them and kept watching out along the road to see more of them.

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But despite the excitement about the kangaroos, our key reason for coming to the Western Cape was the Ningaloo Reef. We headed to Turquoise Bay for snorkeling. Despite the fairly low visibility due to the heavy wind and subsequent sand in the water, we saw really nice corals and lots of fish. But not only the snorkeling was nice – it’s for a good reason that Turquoise Bay usually features as one of the tow three beaches in Australia.

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Eventually we had to head off in search of a place to stay for the night. Given the excellent reviews on our WikiCamps app, we chose Osprey Bay. What a great choice: we ended up coincidentally next to Max’ friend Cooper and his family and as such Max was happy and busy without Sam or me having to get inventive - excellent.
But we also had other friends visiting our camp: a legless lizard wound its way to our spot. He was very welcome - much more than a King Brown or other venomous snake would have been.

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The next morning, we could not resist to go snorkeling in Turquoise Bay once more. This time we went to the drift area. It was a pretty cool snorkel getting into the water and letting us drift along the beach for a couple of hundred meters. The corals were simply spectacular.

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After so much activity in the relatively cool water, we went for a hike at Yardie Creek. Fortunately, the flies there were just sitting on our cloths vs. bothering us. Otherwise the hike would not have been as much fun.

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After the heat of Yardie Creek, we were happy to be back at home at Osprey Bay to take a refreshing bath in the sea. And we realized that not only we were hot - the kangaroos were also seeking shelter in the shade of the toilet building.

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But best of all was our afternoon snorkel in Osprey Bay. We started from the beach just below our campsite. From there we discovered a sleeping turtle underneath a small ledge, watched a white moray eel wind itself along the edge of the reef and saw more diverse and colorful fish than in most snorkeling trips we had done so far.

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Obviously, we wanted to repeat this excellent snorkeling trip once more before leaving Osprey Bay the next day. But our morning snorkel was more than disappointing. In fact, with the big waves and wind, it was quite exhausting. In return we at least got to see a turtle swimming in the water, but that was about it. At least, this helped to feel less regrets about having to leave. After all, we had run down our supplies so far that we simply had to go shopping to stock up.
After another stop in the windswept dunes, we headed directly into Exmouth. Lunch, shopping and off we went to relax at our already well known caravan park with its nice pool and the emus.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 23:11 Archived in Australia Tagged fish national creek dune kangaroo reef snorkel coral turtle moray Comments (0)

Aoraki – the cloud piercer

Lake Tepako, Lake Pukaiki, Aoraki / Mt. Cook, Waitaki Waters

semi-overcast 21 °C
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The weather gods were in a good mood and provided us with the perfect weather for a drive into the mountains. There was hardly a cloud on the sky and thanks to the heavy rains and cool temperatures of the last days, the mountain tops were covered in snow.
I can easily admit that good weather is important for me and that I enjoy traveling in sunshine much more that in bleak conditions. Quite frankly, on a cloudy day we might not have even realized how beautiful our surroundings are. The road was windy and before too long we reached the higher reaches of the rather dry Canterbury Plains. And surprisingly, we even got to pass a house on the way.

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Lake Tekapo’s waters were stunningly blue. While the famous Church of the Good Shepard was overrun by package tour tourists, just a bit further away there was no one. A bit further on Lake Pukaki glistened in rather turquoise colors with Aoraki / Mt Cook in the backdrop. It was super windy, but thanks to the sun still pleasant.

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On our way towards Aoraki / Mt Cook along Lake Pukaki we stopped a couple of times. With every stop, the scenery changed and seemed to surpass the previous views once more. Eventually we stopped for lunch in one of the smaller viewpoints along the road, as we wanted to take in the view without having to share it with dozens of other people. It was just perfect.

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When we were ready to tackle the road again, we headed right to White Horse Campground and secured a spot for the night. We parked just a few steps from the trailhead for the Hooker Valley Track. What a great day hike: we passed along the Hooker River steadily climbing the valley, crossing three swingbridges in the process and eventually were rewarded with perfect views of Aoraki / Mt. Cook.

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The only sad note about the track was the realization that – just like in Canada – also here the glaciers are receding rapidly. We had a great view of the Hooker Glacier, but knowing that just a few years ago there was no lake but a much larger glacier did put a damper on the otherwise glorious outing.

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Already in the evening, we noticed how the mountain tops were starting to get covered in clouds, a process that continued the next morning. We headed to the National Park visitor center to learn a bit more about the history, geology and wildlife.
On our drive out of the valley, we did turn back a couple of times and were thankful about the fabulous weather we had the day before. With the clouds the view was not nearly as nice as it had been.
We stopped for lunch in Twizel. A bit further, there was a salmon farm and we got to feed the salmon, which provided us with nice views of the enormous fish.

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The drive from the mountains all the way to the sea was very pleasant. We passed along rivers, some hydro power stations, through quaint towns and lots of agricultural land with countless sheep. At the very end of the Waitaki valley, not far from the beach we stayed in a pleasant campground.
There we also met the first Romanians since we’re on the road. And while they were super nice, I was utterly disappointed that I have forgotten so much of my Romanian in the last five years. While still some time ago, I was talking Romanian any time I tried to address someone in French or Spanish, it seems that I am overdue for some practice.
The next morning, we enjoyed sunshine and pleasant temperatures. Max played with his new friend Sam from Berlin, while our Sam headed to the beach and was amazed about the dunes of stones.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:00 Archived in New Zealand Tagged salmon park church mountain lake national hike swingbridge Comments (0)

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