Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rotorua - The Unofficial Final Stop

The Champagne Pool is one of the major attractions at Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland, which is located near Rotorua. When I came across a photo of the multicoloured pool in the travel guide, I knew that I had to somehow include this in my compressed itinerary. So, just a day after visiting Milford Sound, I took the earliest flight back to the north island and drove about 300 km from Auckland, passing orchards and farms, to arrive at Rotorua on the same day. Just another mad, exciting day in New Zealand for me.

I could have driven through the quaint town of Rotorua to reach Wai-O-Tapu that late afternoon, as it was just over 20 km away. But I would only have a few hours to complete the trail and less time for photography. That wouldn't do justice to the wonderland. So, I decided to do that the next morning instead. I stayed in Rotorua for the night and managed to visit the beautifully restored Elizabethan museum of Rotorua, which used to be a bathhouse. Here, I'd learned quite a bit about Rotorua and the Maoris. The award-winning Polynesian Spa was just a few steps away, so I thought I should treat my worn body to a dip in the alkaline rock thermal pool. Sitting in the minerals-rich water, enjoying the serenity around the lake spa, with a pretty sunset view of Lake Rotorua and the cool breeze of late spring was most relaxing...until a large group of noisy tourists entered the compound. I ended the day with a dinner at the popular Capers Epicurean cafe. I had one of the day's specials - a creamy, citrus-scented dish of fettuccine with smoked salmon and prawns. It was a brilliant combination, I must say. So was the dessert of coconut and passion fruit cake crusted with almost flakes and served with a dollop of yoghurt. What an enjoyable night it was. Perhaps I should have more slow-paced, relaxing days like this when I'm on vacation ...... Nah.

The next morning, I reached Wai-O-Tapu just minutes before the doors were opened. Yes, I was really excited.

Walking around the living geothermal spot was like revisiting a science class. Though unpleasant, the first smell of hydrogen sulfide had me chuckling as I recalled the day when our science teacher, Mrs Yong, tricked us into inhaling that strange, resultant gas emitted from a test tube. The colours of the rocks represent the different compounds spewed from the earth's core. It's amazing how the deadly, violent movements of the earth had shaped such unique formation of pools, craters and geysers. They were magical. It's no wonder that they'd inspired the locals to christen them with imaginative names such as the Devil's Ink Pot, Artist's Palatte, Oyster Pool and Bridal Veil Falls.

It was nearing noon when I'd watched Lady Knox Geyser erupted and visited the nearby boiling Mud Pool. I had only a few more hours in Rotorua before driving back to Auckland. Tomorrow, I'd be returning to Singapore. There was only enough time, barely, to visit one more attraction in Rotorua. It was between a Maori village and the Waimangu Volcanic Valley.

Unlike Wai-O-Tapu, there was much less visitors at Waimangu. I’m guessing that it’s due to the more challenging trail, which may not attract certain groups of visitors. Eco-tourists, however, will fall in love with this relatively untouched, young geothermal valley. I had two hours to complete the easy-walking trail, in order for me to reach Auckland before nightfall. But I couldn’t resist the longer, tougher Mount Hazard trail. So, I had to move really fast.

Waimangu was a teaser. With every step of the trail, there’s something interesting that’s worth one’s attention. The climb to the top of the first hill was rewarded with a clear view of a black-water pool covered almost completely with red algae. Descending the hill, the ethereal Echo Crater and Frying Pan Lake await. The steam arising from the lake was such a spectacular fairyland-like sight. I wished to have spent more time here, to enjoy this view, but I was still far from the end of the trail. I had to move faster. The steep climb along the Mount Hazard trail is not fun – when one’s in a hurry. Patches of sweat began to appear on my shirt and I was gasping for breath as I’d reluctantly overtaken the slower climbers. But I was thankful for two things – my trusty pair of trekking shoes and good signage. There must be a reason for the creation of this difficult trail. Indeed, it’d led me to the steaming, azure Inferno Crater Lake. Seeing this beautiful lake for the first time was unforgettable. The vastness of the lake was not meant to be captured on my limited lens. So, instead of trying hard to get a good shot of the lake, I just stood there for awhile and enjoyed the view. The few German photographers standing next to me must have had better luck shooting the lake with their telescopic lens. Descending Mount Hazard to return to the main road was easy. I’d doubled my speed and finished the trail, passing the stunning Marble Terrace, Buttresses and Warbrick Terrace, within my targeted time. Waimangu was a living fantasy and it certainly looked better than in the guide books. I was glad that I’d chosen to come to here.

A collision of two sedans had slowed the traffic along the highway tremendously. It took me more than 4 hours to reach Auckland. The number of cars increased as I entered the city center. At the major shopping belt of Auckland where my hostel was located, neon signs and headlights filled the night. Streams of locals and tourists were gallivanting around the main streets. Restaurants and shops were buzzing. I had returned to familiar grounds.

Auckland was very different from the small towns that I’ve visited in the past 8 days. The noise and chaos made me miss the more peaceful and beautiful side of New Zealand. I returned to the hostel after having a hot bowl of chili from Wendy’s that kept me warm for a few hours. I decided to sleep earlier as I had to return the rental car before catching my flight back to Singapore the next morning. But before that, like every night throughout this vacation, I would lie in bed to recall and view all the beautiful sights of New Zealand on my camera’s LCD. The only difference was, tonight, I had no new adventure to look forward to the next morning. But I still slept with a big smile on my face as I reminded myself that I’d gained some incredible experiences in this journey across the land of the long white cloud - bungy jumping in Queenstown, walking on ice at Fox Glacier, cruising the majestic Milford Sound and living a fantasy at Wai-O-Tapu and Waimangu.

Here’s the link to my set of photos of New Zealand.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Surviving Queenstown

When you’re in the adventure capital of the world, you live it.

Sometimes, when travelling, the mind is best left at home. Until the day I jumped, I was still assessing the risks of this crazy thing called bungy jumping. It was disturbing and had affected the first two days of my holiday.

Returning from Fox Glacier, I made my way to the jump base, the Kawarau River Bridge. I was feeling a little nervous but excited at the same time. The radio was playing a string of ballads, which did nothing to pump up the excitement. In fact, it was rather annoying. I turned it off, but the silence encouraged negative thoughts. I drove faster.

At the base, I quickly made my way to the registration counter, paid the fee and headed straight for the jumping platform. The efficient staff got me strapped with a few harnesses in a matter of seconds, while a group of Japanese tourists looked on. They thought I was Japanese and gave me some encouragement. A few of them seemed worried. I stood up, hopped to the edge of the wooden platform and looked down. If not for the strong current, the beautiful emerald Kawarau River below would have calmed me a little. The late afternoon began to feel cold too, as the rain got heavier.

Almost immediately, the staff signaled for my jump. Dive well, bro, he said. It was time to take a leap of faith.

Much earlier before the jump, I’d decided on a Superman dive. But in the end, it turned out to be a typical, instinctive dive instead, which lacked style.

The first few seconds of the free fall were the best. I felt light; like one with the wind. It was surreal. This joy, this adrenaline rush was unexplainable. As I dipped into the river, the rubberized rope, upon reaching the limit of its stretch, contracted and I was pulled up slightly. The jump was over.

A boat rowed by to transport me to the river bank. From here, it was a long walk back to the jump base. I’d guessed that this distance was designed to help traumatized jumpers to relax and recover. I was just happily singing along the way, striking off another action item on my bucket list.

It was only when I’d watched another person jumping off the same platform that I realized what I’d done just minutes ago. Indeed, I’d left my mind, and acrophobia, in the car.

FergBurger is a fantastic place to fill the stomach after an adventurous day in Queenstown; provided one gets a seat, of course. The display of MTV-style sports programmes and upbeat music made the small restaurant cool and lively. But of course, it’s the long list of mouth-watering burgers accompanied by sides of fries and beer that makes FergBurger a must-try for every visitor to Queenstown.

I could have just ordered any other burger but decided to go all out for the biggest burger there was at Ferg’s. Afterall, that’s what living in the adventure capital of the world is all about, isn’t it? I'd like to think of it as my Man Versus Food moment.

It’s called the Big Al. I equated its monstrous size to 2 Big Macs. I wasn’t able to count the number of prime New Zealand beef patties in the burger but the menu stated a double serving. There were also layers and layers of fried bacon, cheese, beetroot, tomatoes, onions and lettuce. Extra flavours were provided by the generous amount of relish and aioli. Biting into the thick Big Al itself was a challenge. Then, I had to deal with the layers that kept falling out with every bite…because it’s just too much to handle. It’s interesting to have the egg yolk flowing out on one side of the burger and the pinkish beetroot/aioli mixture squirting from the other. It was a mess, a delicious mess of course. I’d returned a few days later to try the smartly named The Codfather; a burger that consists of beer-battered blue cod, dressed with dill tartar. The fried cod came exceptionally aromatic and paired wonderfully with the tartar sauce. It was perhaps the best fried cod I’ve ever had so far.

Just next to Ferg was a dessert bar called Lick. With an overstuffed stomach, I should have just walked pass the bar and continued on for a few miles more around Lake Wakatipu to help ease digestion. But instead, I stopped by for some gelato. I’m glad I did (sorry, stomach). I had two very smooth and refined scoops at Lick; boysenberry and feijoa flavours. In fact, I’ve never had mediocre gelatos or any dairy product in New Zealand.

It was only at night, when I laid in bed recollecting my day, that I realized how exhausted I was. It began with a 5-hour drive from Fox Glacier to Queenstown, followed by the bungy jump, an accidental visit to Arrowtown and window-shopping around central Queenstown. The next morning, I would be joining a day-tour to Milford Sound. The thought of taking the backseat for once was very much relaxing. I looked forward to the breathtaking fiorland, which was my final stop on the south island of Aotearoa.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nakhon Kitchen

The thought of Nakhon Kitchen whets up my appetite easily. And I've only been there once.

When I order pineapple fried rice, I often (if not always) find myself asking - where's the taste of pineapple? It's usually just yellowed, dry (or oily, take a pick) rice stirred with prawns and green peas, and served in a halved, hollowed pineapple. Here, my first spoonful of rice came with a burst of sweet/sour juice from the pineapple cubes (be it canned or fresh) adding both taste and moistness. That's pineapple rice, literally. A good one at that.

I've learnt that the favourite meat among the female patrons here is not necessarily a dish, but for me, I've got my eyes set on the spicy minced pork with basil leaves. It's a simple stir-fry, perfumed with a handful of Thai basil leaves and sufficiently dressed in a mixture of savoury sauces. This is a dish that's compatible with any form of carbohydrate; rice, bread or noodles.

Perhaps it's the contrast between the colour of the plates and the food, let me take that back. It's still their technique of the getting right fillet texture and the formulation of sauce that made the fried fish with sweet chilli sauce a winning dish. Of course, as mentioned, it was visually appetizing as well.

The small shoplot was atmospherically Thai; from the utensils to the decorations to the music. One can tell that the owner made an effort to impress the customers with these details. With food so good, that's not required. I think the neverending queue will agree.

Nakhon Kitchen
Blk 212, Hougang Street 21
Singapore 530212

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Last and First

4 December 2011 (Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore)

Once again, I’d followed a high, good fats and potassium-rich diet of salmon, avocado and potatoes in preparation for race day.

I was stuck in the human jam along Orchard Road. Under the bright Christmas lights, I was bewildered, frustrated and upset. My pace was negligible. It was painful to look at my stopwatch. Come on, compressing 20,000 marathoners on the compact city roads has got to be a bad idea. And to have just 8 baggage deposit counters was an obvious sign of mismanagement. Still walk-running somewhere between South Bridge Road and Cecil Street (that's 4 km from the starting point), I had a thought that followed me a long, slow distance. Was I missing the point? Shouldn't I be enjoying the run instead of eagerly wanting to better my personal best time for a full marathon? NO! I didn't come untrained. I wanted to hit a new PB. I wanted to cap off this amazing year with a PB. My response made me even more upset. For me, this was the most anticipated run of 2011. After completing the 10 km and 21 km categories in 2009 and 2010 respectively, I'd plucked enough courage to challenge myself to run the marathon distance. The Putrajaya Night Marathon and months of training boosted my confidence further.

The human traffic eased towards the 8th km. So did my mind. Now, I decided, was the time to recover, to compensate for lost time. I began to accelerate.

By the 13th km, I'd entered East Coast Park - the longest stretch (about 20 km) of the full marathon course. Despite the narrow lanes, runners were more dispersed now. The 5-hour pacers were now in sight. I quickened my pace. As I overtook them, I was once again filled with optimism. Earlier disturbances were washed away with the endless flow of sweat. Observing my average pace, I estimated the time needed to reach the 4.30-hour pacers. It wouldn't take too long.

Indeed, I managed to catch up with the pacers and later, overtook them. To achieve a new PB, I must always stay ahead of them until I reach the finish line. As a bonus, the 4:15-hour pacers were not too far in front too!

Besides achieving a PB, I wanted to finish the race injury-free as well. However, I didn't manage to do any pre-race stretching due to the delay at the bag deposit counter. That got me worried. There was nothing that I could do, but to listen to my body with every stride.

At the 34th km, before crossing the bridge to Marina Barrage, I felt a prickle on my right inner thigh (there must be some Latin name for the specific muscle, I'm sure). It's the familiar sensation I get when I do longer runs. Sometimes, it would disappear but unfortunately, on that day, the pain worsened. Who would have thought that a tiny piece of cramped meat like that could affect one's performance? Well, it did. Running, from that point on, felt like driving a car with one locked wheel. I had no choice but to slow down, constantly and rhythmically swinging my right leg to reduce the pain. I gulped two packs of energy gels and had cups of isotonic drinks, hoping to level the amount of potassium in my body, which may (or may not) ease the cramp.

As I was thinking of ways to minimize the pain, I didn't realise that the 4:30-hour pacers had caught up with me. The sight of their bright yellow singlets and grey balloons was unwelcome and alarming. I can't let them overtake me, not at this point. Like a prey running for its life, I pushed on…hard. There was no turning back to check on the pacers or treating the thigh now. I just ran - up the Heartbreak bridge, zig-zagging through the congested Republic Boulevard (I had almost given up there) and struggled through the last 2 km to reach the finish line at the Padang. The pacers reached minutes later.

There was much to be celebrated that morning. Firstly, I'd achieved a new marathon PB by shaving 18 minutes off my previous timing at the Putrajaya Night Marathon. Also, I'd completed all the 10, 21, 42 km categories of the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore, which begs the question - should I participate again in 2012? My elder cousin, who suffered a major cramp during the race, managed to complete his marathon within the time limit while the younger cousin made his half-marathon debut and finished the equally congested run in a respectable time. Personally, and most importantly, I'd learned to not give excuses. Could I have done better at the SCMS if I had the whole route to myself? I don't know. But I do know that despite being caught in the human traffic, I'd seized every opportunity to catch up, by running faster and smarter. And that's another life lesson learnt....through running.

As I sat on the pavement to rest, I saw many runners, with their finisher's T-shirt in hand, limping their way out of the Padang. I was one of them, of course. It's a funny sight, really.

For me, 2011 was mostly about running (as in the sport, of course). In the last 7 months, I'd done 4 half marathons, 2 King of the Road runs and 2 full marathons. Hey, that's slightly more than 1 official race per month! And that exclude the amount of training poured into improving each run. Ending the last run of the year on a happy note did put me in a cheerful, holiday mood. Two days after the marathon, I visited Beijing. Then, I was back in KL for a week, celebrating Christmas with friends before heading to Ipoh for some really good food. As for the New Year celebration.....

1 January 2012 (Newton New Year Challenge 2012)

This year, I'd observed new year's eve countdown parties being held everywhere in KL; from shopping malls to famous streets to public squares to residential areas! Even the football field in my neighbourhood was used by the current administration to usher in the new year with some stage performances (targeting mainly the older folks), lucky draws and fireworks display. But instead of joining this party (or any other, for that matter), I chose to sleep at 10:00 pm, after a sumptuous pre-race dinner of stir-fried potatoes with pork, fried chicken and ayam masak merah. Understandably, it's unwise to consume oily and spicy food before a race but I was curious to see how my body would react to moderate, not excessive, portions of such food. My friends were unhappy with my decision to sleep early instead of joining them for the countdown. But they've come to terms with my obsession and agreed to celebrate the arrival of 2012 on new year's day instead. And we had a good time enduring a torturous foot massage followed by a dinner of Moroccan lamb shank, among other dishes.

I chose to participate in the Newton Challenge because it's a run that's like no other. And I thought, completing this 25 km course of multiple, erratic elevations would be good motivation to start the brand new year. I’ve read a lot about the Ammah Hills and I still don’t understand the reason behind this moniker. Regardless, this was one steep, fierce mama. Looking at the race map, I was also slightly intimidated by the names of some major points along the route as well, like PUNCAK Jalil and Paragon HEIGHTS. They do sound high. So, the Newton Challenge is not just about conquering the distance, but more significantly, it’s about one’s ability to defy gravity.

Given the distance of 25 km, I didn’t device any special training sessions as I assumed my weekly mileage was sufficient to prepare me for this run, in terms of stamina. As for the elevations, I was just mentally prepared for some tough climbs.

As expected, at midnight, I was awakened by the explosions of fireworks from the football field. But I managed to fall asleep again soon after (surprisingly) and woke up at 3:00 am, all geared up for my first ever new year’s day run. Years ago, this was the time I’d returned home from the clubs.

At the start point, I saw many famous running bloggers and also bumped into my cousin, who took part in the 12 km run. It was as if the whole running community was there! The race started at 5:30 am along the relatively mild (flat) Kinrara Golf Club. A few minutes into the race, my MP3 player died…right after Moves Like Jagger. I didn’t feel right having the mute headphones stuck to my ears and decided to slow down to remove them before resuming my first silent race. But that was okay, really. Throughout the race, I’d seen runners waving and wishing each other a happy new year. I even heard someone saying Gong Hei Fatt Choi. That’s the reason why I like small-scale races like this. They are more intimate and enjoyable.

The first challenge came as we reached the T-junction of Persiaran Puncak Jalil. Turning left, we faced the introductory hill that left many breathless. I also found it a struggle but still launched ahead, body bent forward slightly, with my arms semi-folded, like a praying mantis. I realized that this position works well for me. Ascending one steep slope that measured almost 700 m in length after another was extremely taxing on the heart and legs. At times, I felt my heart was about to pound out of my chest. Runners began distancing from one another. Elites were spearheading at an envious speed, leaving the rest huffing and puffing, wishing the peak was within the next step. I tried to distract myself with trivial thoughts…of Sin Eng Heong’s delicious, crispy kaya puffs and wondering why the streetlights would turn off every time I pass them by. I could still go on, I convinced myself.

Descending the first major hill wasn’t easy too, for me. I didn’t want to switch to free gear, which I assumed would make the next climb more difficult, if I wanted to keep the momentum. I had to control my pace. Returning to the T-junction, we ran straight ahead towards the other direction of the Persiaran, which would ultimately lead us to Puncak Jalil. Here was THE killer slope, which looked frightening, even if one was driving. This was the absolute challenge, I thought. I tried not to look up, and focused on the dividing white lines on the road instead. The killer slope actually consists of a few smaller slopes, which made the climb even more difficult. Reaching the end of the first slope, we had a couple of seconds to catch our breath before continuing to ascend the second slope. And this vicious cycle would continue. After a while, one would lose interest in counting the number of slopes and just wished the race would end soon.

Without the distance markers, runners relied on each other and the traffic marshals for guidance. The marshals were very encouraging. When some runners asked one of the marshals for the distance, the friendly marshal replied, in Cantonese, Aiya, a few kilometers more only. Don’t think too much lah. Just continue to run! I thought that was rather entertaining.

I knew the end was near when I saw the last (and first) Petronas station. The ground was very much flat again, thank goodness. Crossing the finish line, I was still feeling fresh, although the legs were badly stretched, no thanks to Ammah and her children. I didn’t set any goal for this race because there are no other races of the same distance to compare it with. To my understanding, 25 km is a rather unusual distance. But my average pace had improved, in comparison with my best half marathon pace. So, that was an achievement, I thought. Also, I’d completed the course injury-free and without consuming any energy gels.

I lingered around the race site and had a few cups of isotonic drinks and Milo before heading home for a hearty and well-deserved breakfast of fried arrowhead chips and assam laksa. Despite the tough course, I’d enjoyed the race very much.

Many have predicted that 2012 will be a year of slower economy and increased natural disasters. I was also told that the new year would be disastrous for those born under my Chinese zodiac sign. If it’s true, that 2012 will be a struggle as suggested, I hope it’ll still be as fun as the Ammah Hills challenge. Bring it on!

Here’s wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2012.