By coincidence my stay in Switzerland coincided with the annual four day Lucerne Carnival culminating in a big parade on the Monday before Shrove Tuesday. A major feature of the parade are the "Guggemuusige" or improvised (masked) bands and we began our visit by joining the crowds watching them lining the Seebrucke Bridge.
A Band crossing the Seebrucke Bridge during Luzern Carnival
Amongst the bands there were also many elaborate floats, most of which had very dark themes.
One of the many floats at Luzern Carnival
And it wasn't just the parade members that dress up but about 90% of the spectators as well! We couldn't get fancy dress at short notice (apparently dour reformist Zurich doesn't go in for that sort of thing and leaves the partying to Catholic Lucerne) but nobody seemed to care and we had a great time.
Carnival goer at Luzern Carnival
Me at Luzern Carnival
When the parade was over we sampled some of the history of this beautiful medieval city with its famous 14th century covered wooden pedestrian bridge (seriously damaged by fire in 1993 but now restored) and narrow streets.
The Kapelbrucke Bridge in Luzern
Rathausquai during the Carnival with the Jesuit Church on the other side of the river
Meanwhile the partying was set to continue right through the night. The bands were now making impromptu performances around Lucerne including on some steps by the river.
Travelling alone with everything on my back and a lot of distance to cover, joining a backpacking tour felt the best way to get the essential NZ South Island experience. Having settled into my hostel in Greymouth I wandered down for a tour of the local Monteith's Brewery whose Amber Ale I had developed a taste for. The tour itself made me sad with the brewing now done in a large plant elsewhere with the micro brewery that remained only used for researching new beers. However at the beer tasting afterwards I met and joined for dinner 4 lovely ladies already on the Magic Bus I was joining who gave me the lowdown on what life on the bus with our driver "Soap" was like; the next 9 days were going to be fun!
YHA Queenstown Lakefront - typical of the hostels I stayed in
Example of a small hostel dormitory (from YHA Taronga on North Island)
Inside Monteith's Brewery in Greymouth
Our Magic Bus and crew outside the Haast Visitor Centre (I am kneeling at the front, 3rd from the left)
After a boisterous welcome aboard the bus the following morning we stopped at the Bushman Centre at Pukekara. Not a lot to see per se in the small museum but they did screen a humourous macho 20 minute video about deer hunting - NZ South Island West Coast style! Basically deer are an introduced species and with no predators bred like rabbits destroying everything. At first they were ruthlessly hunted but then it was realised profit could be made by capturing and farming them. Then the video gets fun because ultimately the way they are caught is by flying low in a helicopter and leaping on them with a net - maniacs!
The Bushman Centre at Pukekura
Deer in the paddock by the Bushman's Centre
The highlight of the day though was the afternoon heli-hike on the Franz Josef Glacier, we were given coats, boots & crampons and flown on a short but spectacular helicopter flight to the start of the glacier. We were then taken on 2 hour hike across the ice, crossing & climbing crevasses and descending through ice tunnels. It was brilliant and very different from my previous glacial experience during my trip at Jungfraujoch in Switzerland.
The view from the helicopter flying on to the Franz Josef Glacier
Hikers disembarking onto the ice from the helicopter
We wait while our guide makes sure the ice screws holding the safety line are still secure
We make our down a crevasse on the Franz Josef Glacier
Me emerging from an ice tunnel on the Franz Josef Glacier
A helicopter taking off from the glacier returning hikers back to the village
Early the next morning we reached Lake Matheson and after a short walk across a deliberately wobbly bridge reached the viewpoint where Mount Cook, Mount Tasman (the 2 highest mountains in NZ) and the Fox Glacier are famously reflected in the lake like a mirror. It turns out the connection between the glacier and the top UK selling Fox's Glacier Mints is a myth - one is named after an 1870s NZ prime minister while other is named after their Leicester based inventor in 1918!
I didn't know it at the time but the new data card I inserted into my camera after Franz Josef turned out to be a dud and I lost all the photos I took for the next couple of days. Fortunately I was with friends trying to take very similar photos to myself and they have helped out so these are "borrowed" photos until Milford Sound. Thanks again guys for helping out - you know who you are!
The wobbly bridge on the track down to Lake Matheson, every step and the whole bridge seems to move to the left or right!
The famous mirror reflection of the mountains on Lake Matheson; unfortunately it was not at its best while we there but still impressive none the less
We then had to cover a lot of miles from the relative flat of the West Coast snaking up through the mountains and dense forest of the Haast Pass to our next overnight stop at Wanaka. On the way up we stopped at the Thunder Creek Falls which Soap our driver said were "magic" and that if we stared at them for 30 seconds and then looked slightly away we'd know why. I'm not entirely sure I saw what was intended but as I stared I did see what looked like a warp in my vision in the trees next to the top of the falls which was pretty eerie!
Thunder Creek Falls (aka the Magic Waterfall)
Once we reached the summit it was relatively flat driving alongside Lakes Wanaka (26 miles - 43 kilometres, 70 square miles in size & 4th largest in NZ) and Hawea (21 miles - 35 kilometres long, 54 square miles in size). Our final stop before overnighting in Wanaka was at Puzzling World, a tourist attraction built around optical illusions and puzzles. It had a maze but it's signature attraction was its leaning tower outside, the idea was you took a photograph from an angle such that it looked like you were holding it up!
The Leaning Tower at Puzzling World just outside Wanaka
Einstein is always watching you! Another optical illusion at Puzzling World
The next day began with "Soap" our driver playing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" full blast, we were approaching Queenstown, "the adrenalin capital of the world". First stop was at the historic AJ Hacket Bridge over the Kawarau River, the home of the original bungy jump and nearly a quarter of the bus had signed up to have a go! Needless for me to say but with my fear of heights I wasn't one of them... although there was something gnawing away inside of me saying if I could just get enough courage (or madness) to do it for the couple of minutes it takes I'd love to be able to say I'd done it!
The historic AJ Hackett Bungy Bridge over the Kawarau River
Bungy Jumper eye view of the river
We have take-off... only 142 feet (43 metres) to the river below!
Ignoring the bungy jumping for a minute, it is actually quite a pretty gorge!
All fired up we had a lunch stop in Arrowtown and went in search of the meat pies from the local bakery. Hand-sized meat pies baked fresh daily from the local bakery in every small town are considered the national dish in New Zealand and although similar, invariably taste a lot better than the steak pies back home in the UK. Arrowtown itself is a quaint small town which has managed to retain more than 60 of its original wooden and stone buildings from its gold rush days of the 1860s.
The Arrowtown Bakery
It was then onwards to Queenstown - where most towns have chemists and supermarkets, Queenstown instead has agents for bungy jumping, jetboating and skydiving and a host of bars and clubs! Our Bus was in a party mood having won the "Battle of the Buses" bar games tournament against the rival tour bus companies the night before in Wanaka and we now enjoyed a few nights in the pubs, clubs and restaurants of Queenstown (and off course the meat pies from the world famous Fergbakery in Shotover Street).
Party time in Queenstown with my Magic Bus crew (I'm first on the left)
All you can eat Pizza Night with my Magic Bus crew in Queenstown (I'm first on the left)
I enjoy watching baseball so I was excited to be invited to go and see the LA Dodgers play the Milwaukee Brewers at the Dodgers Stadium in Downtown Los Angeles. However beforehand there was the little matter of a 30th Birthday Party! Now I don't normally blog family get-to-togethers but this was a little different as it had a Mexican theme.
There were sombreros, lanterns and Mexican food of course (and the red plastic "Solo" beer cups that seem to be used at every American party) but what I had not seen before were pinatas. These are fancy papier-mache shapes normally filled with small toys or candy that a child normally hits blindfold with a bat until it breaks and then everyone dives in and grabs the contents spewed all over the ground. Being an adult birthday the toys and candy were replaced with tequila miniatures, party poppers and cigars!
Mexican themed party time and I'm asked to don a Sombrero!
Party Time - trying to break open the Pinata by hitting it with a bat
A bit later on I was introduced to the quaint American drinking game of beer pong in which players throw a ping pong ball across a table with the intent of landing the ball in a cup of beer on the other end with forfeits of drinking the beer until one side or the other clears all their opponents cups. We actually did quite well and finally lost in the final :-)
It's getting late - time for Beer Pong!
Me posing behind a cut-out at a Mexican Restaurant
Partying done and after a good night's rest it was time to make our way downtown to the Dodgers Stadium for the game. On the way we drove past the Staples Centre home of the LA Lakers NBA Basketball Team and saw some of the skyscrapers of LA close up.
Making our way down the Freeway - Dodgers Stadium next exit
The Staples Center - home of the LA Lakers NBA Basketball Team
Skyscrapers in Downtown LA
After a short wait at the barrier we had our first proper view of the stadium. We parked up in the enormous open air parking lot outside and then made our way to through security into the stadium to find our seats not far behind the Dodgers dugout.
In the queue for the Stadium Parking Lot
Our first view of the Dodgers Stadium
View outside the Dodgers Stadium
Major League Baseball stadiums are always impressive and it was a bright sunny day in Southern California. Warning, now follows my attempt as a foreigner to explain Baseball! Baseball is a bat and ball game played between 2 teams of 9 players on a diamond of four bases. The pitcher throws the ball at a batter who has 3 attempts to hit the ball before running around the bases as far as he can while the other team tries to get him out by catching or tagging him or the base he is running to. Runs are scored when the batter gets all the way around or if he hits the ball out of the ground (a home run). Each innings lasts as long as it takes to get 3 batters out and the teams then switch sides with the game lasting 9 innings (or longer to get a result).
Our first view of the game
The Dodgers pitcher pitching at the Milwaukee Brewers
Close up of the LA Pitcher pitching the ball
The Dodgers were pitching at the Brewers when we got to our seats with me wearing my newly purchased LA Dodgers T-shirt and carrying the traditional baseball match fare of beer, Dodger Dog and bag of unshelled peanuts. The Dodgers dominated the game with their pitcher Clayton Kershaw not allowing anyone to score against him while Carl Crawford batted 2 home runs. At the end of the 7th innings everyone stood up and had a stretch joining in the traditional corny song of Take me out to the ball game. The Dodgers went on to win the game 2-0 in just two hours, very quick for a baseball game!
The stadium scorerboard, the Dodgers are ahead :-)
It's the Milwaukee Brewers turn to pitch at the LA Dodgers
Enjoying the game with my cousins wearing my new LA Dodgers T-Shirt