Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dispatch 63 Great Barrier Island

1-12 December, 2010

Finally, in December, I took a real holiday—two weeks off work! It was a luxury well deserved after 7 months straight. Richard preceded me to Auckland by a few days to get the green patina off the boat (a typical consequence of a wet winter without attention) and get the systems up and running, or at least identify those that aren’t working, as was the case with our refrigerator on the boat. Buoyed by my excitement of being sprung from work, I was undaunted by holiday aboard without a refrigerator—heck, our first 7 years on the boat we never had a fridge! He also was telling me all kinds of stories about going out and about town in shorts and t-shirt. Right, like I could believe that after months of Oamaru!

Well, upon arrival to Auckland, I discovered that, in fact, there is summer in New Zealand. Much like travel from Seattle to San Francisco (a comparable latitude change), the climate is really different and we were WARM! Ironically, upon our first arrival to NZ, all we felt was cold after years in the tropics. Now after one winter in Oamaru, Auckland seemed balmy—funny how the body adapts. We wined and dined with friends and enjoyed the big city for a couple days, then took Qayaq out to Great Barrier Island, about 50 miles from Auckland and a real treasure!

Great Barrier Island (so named by our hero Captain Cook) is a large and mountainous island with many, many beautiful inlets and coves. The Department of Conservation has built beautiful and well-maintained trails all over the central island and we enjoyed many of these as well as the lush greenery and the absolutely stunning coastal scenery. The island is complete with its own hot springs, which we visited as well. We didn’t take a dip in the pools, though, once we saw the signs at the head of the trail which mentioned “DANGER - Amoebic Meningitis; which can be fatal” A brief note from the MOH,NZ (Ministry of Health, New Zealand), put it all into perspective that we thought prudent to observe, “Amoebic meningitis is a very serious illness that almost always ends in death”. As the mode of acquisition is via the nasal passage, you are warned not to put your head under water. Now since we have been in NZ we have never heard or seen so much as a danger notice on any of our tramps so this one got our attention and we opted to stay dry and amoeba free. You have to wonder who the first lucky (???) diagnosis was. We ended up renting a car so we could really appreciate all the scenery of the place. The roads are partly sealed, (NZ speak for paved) and partly gravel, and about 1 to 1 ¾ car widths wide. SO travel around some of the sharp curves meeting large gravel trucks and the locals driving at break neck speed was exciting and there were NO danger signs regarding the road width or conditions but the hot springs rates a warning, hence our reluctance for a dip. An additional bonus was the start of the trip; we had a gorgeous sail out to the island complete with a dolphin visit. On the way we stopped off at another island and “summited” Rangitoto, an extinct volcano visible from Auckland (a very well marked trail of 3 hours walk). We think this is the volcano that erupts and destroys Auckland in the “must miss” movie by the name “Volcano”. Mmmm, altogether a delicious holiday.

As, usual, we focused on the local wildlife. There is an endangered duck on Great Barrier Island called the Pateke, a little brown teal (“endearing” as the brochure describes it). There are only a 1000 pair left in the world it is estimated, and all are on Great Barrier Island. Well, we got a close look at a pair which was a thrill until we realized that, just like Mallards, they were swimming around our boat begging! Awww. There’s also a parrot-like bird called a “Kaka” which, just like the parrots in Costa Rica, went squawking its way across the sky each evening flapping its fool wings for all it was worth. Each evening we would enjoy the show of the Gannet’s fishing. We loved to watch as they dive for their fish. They sound like a big kid doing a cannonball in a pool—they hit the water with such force, coming up shaking their heads, and, if successful, take multiple sips to help their meal go down. If not successful they are off again for another attempt. But it is odd to be in such a wilderness and not see mammals. In fact, the lack of snakes in this country was highlighted by a story in the local museum which told of a snake that was found on shore after a shipwreck and it was hypothesized that the ship must have acquired the snake in Panama.

Once again, we ponder how it happened that eons ago NZ separated from Godwondia, the combined continent that included Australia and how all the dangerous things (other than NZ drivers) ended up on Australia (salt water crocs, box jellyfish, man-eating sharks, all manner of poisonous snakes and spiders, etc.) and not one in NZ. As the naturalist on our cruise said in reference to the split from Australia hundreds of thousands of years ago, “Best thing we ever did, ey mate?”

Our last night, we headed to an anchorage that afforded easy exit from Great Barrier heading back to Auckland. Part of the reason for the choice was that our engine was acting up and overheating very quickly so we needed to be able to get out into the wind as soon as possible to sail home, and, we needed to sail virtually all the way to our marina because the engine would only get us from the marina entrance to our berth without overheating. All of that was OK with us—we’ve done it before, the weather report called for a favorable wind (enough, not too much, and supposedly from a good direction).

As we pulled into the bay we planned to stay in, we could see two pods of dolphins in separate areas of the bay. There was one other sailboat so we motored in past it looking for shallower water. No sooner had we passed that sailboat than the dolphins came rushing over to our boat. This was not a social visit—we could tell they were unhappy with our intrusion on the inner bay. They “ganged up” on the port side of the boat and literally swam against it as if to turn it away. Well, we got the message immediately and turned back, and, as soon as we were behind the other boat, they swam off—mission accomplished. We dropped anchor behind the other boat and watched them for a couple more hours. We wondered if one was sick or was giving birth, or what, exactly was going on, but we couldn’t sort it out. There were some young ones but none that looked small enough to be newborn. But their behavior couldn’t have been clearer.

The next morning, off we went, full of optimism about our sail back. It was a sunny day and a gorgeous sail. We saw whales at one point—always a bonus. It was a 50 mile jaunt and we were undaunted by the initial headwind because the weather gurus were clear about the wind shift about to happen any minute (early morning). Well, as morning became afternoon and we were still beating into 15 knots and growing seas and tacking back and forth and adding miles to our voyage, we suddenly realized that the weather wasn’t going to change. Sure enough, the revisionist history weather report shifted around 3 PM to call for SW winds all day (after they had been predicting SE then NE shift in the morning). We were traveling, you guessed it, SW. Then around 7 PM we really started to wonder what we would do as we were still 30 miles or more from our marina and dark happens around 9 PM. We started looking for an anchorage and found one we could get to in a couple hours, but, as the sun was setting, the wind started to drop and we suddenly realized that if there was no wind the next day, we’d be stuck where we were with no engine.

It was a gorgeous night, the wind dropped to light breezes, the stars started to emerge and we looked at each other and decided to keep going. After all, we’ve traveled many a night by sail! And a magical night it was—the wind was just enough to keep us going, we were traveling down the coast now with no seas and Auckland skyline lit up the horizon and provided us a cityscape as we got closer. The only dicey part was the shipping channel which we sailed through slowly just outside the shipping markers and watched as huge freighters chugged by at close quarters. We could only imagine what they were thinking about us! The wind continued to drop until, in the wee hours (4-5AM), there was barely a breeze and we ghosted through Auckland harbor, thankful for a favorable current (at times our only forward momentum) and the virtual lack of traffic at that time of day. The last 5 miles took us more than 2 hours, our 50 mile trip had morphed into 82 with all the tacking, but after sunrise, we were at our marina, fired up the engine, and arrived at our berth, safe and sound on a very still morning. We were pleased to have made the right decision to keep going as there was no wind that day until mid-afternoon, happy to be in our berth and crawled into bed for a nap before putting everything away. You see, even the most mundane of outings can turn into big adventure when sailing!

Dispatch 62 Victorian Heritage Festival

17-21 November 2010
Every year in November, Oamaru relives its Victorian heyday and puts on a several day festival in celebration. The festival features a variety of activities including tours of the special limestone buildings and other Victorian era features of the town, little readings and presentations in a Victorian style, an afternoon band concert at which one is expected to don Victorian garb, a ball at which the women must be in costume and men in tuxedos or uniforms of the Victorian era, plays, a parade, pennyfarthing bicycle racing and, finally, a street fair with all manner of crafts and food for sale as well as demonstrations, street performances, etc. We had been eagerly anticipating this one great event for which Oamaru is well-known.

On one of the evenings we attended a one act play and soiree called “Sheeps Ahoy”. It was an amateur, amusing bit of theater. The one act play featured 3 women dressed as sheep discussing the best way to promote their wool—they came up with the idea of crocheted wool sails for the America’s Cup boat. The only problem, in the end, was that they should have knitted rather than crocheted because the wind went right through the sails. Cute. The second half was literally a Victorian style soiree with about 8 people doing various parlour entertainments—reading aloud, playing the piano and singing. It was quaint and entertaining.

Richard was more able to enjoy the weekday activities and captured the amazing dresses that the women put on. People take this festival very seriously. On the weekend we saw the parade and went to the street fair which ended a bit early when the skies opened up into a torrential downpour, but otherwise was very enjoyable. Walking the streets of the historic district, seeing even the children in Victorian garb, one could almost imagine what the town was like at its pinnacle. Small towns can be so wonderful at times like this.

See the link to see more pictures than the above samples.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dispatch 61 Fjordland

October, 2010

Fjordland is a magical part of New Zealand! In

fact, the general magic of the South Island is we can go from Iowa type farmland to Vancouver Island type coastal ruggedness, to Rockies type mountain terrain, to Olympic peninsula type rainforest to Alaska type fjordland all within a few hours drive. And, no bears, no spiders, no snakes, no raccoons, no kidding. If you look close, you can find penguins and how scary are they?

I took a Friday and Monday off work and we set off to take a cruise on Doubtful Sound in Fjordland, SW New Zealand. This area is just beautiful with mountains that fall straight into the water, still with some snow at the peaks. Everything is green because it rains a lot there, but, miraculously, not while we were there. We just nailed the weather. And, we were also privileged to get half price on the cruise because we live here! Bonus! Doubtful Sound is so named because James Cook, that intrepid explorer who conveniently has charted nearly all the

waters we have sailed in, took one look into the place and “doubted” that they would find good anchorage. We assume he remembered his experience at Desolation Sound, another drop dead gorgeous place he named so negatively because, for him and his crew, tall mountains and narrow waterways spell disaster. Desolation Sound trapped them for days—no wind and wild currents, usually in the wrong direction! So, the wiser for that experience, he didn’t venture into Doubtful Sound where he would have found trouble with the wind, but no currents to plague him.

We were on a purpose built tank of a ship with symbolic sails, but really comfortable little cabins and an awesome galley that produced food of both quality and quantity. Mmmm. With about 60 passengers aboard, we went out into the Sound, spotted dolphins, Blue and Fjordland Crested penguins, Fur Seals and albatross, (Mollymawk). We enjoyed Kiwi calls in the night on a still anchorage deep in one of the fjords and kayaked to one of the islands to see waterfalls up close and provide the sand flies with their dinner before we had ours. The weather was so calm,

the reflections in the water were perfect mirrors of the mountains above. Nearly every cliff face sported multiple waterfalls from recent rains even though we had gorgeous clear weather. Did I mention high quantity food? There was a dinner and breakfast buffet and we took good advantage of those. The trip

was also enriched by a naturalist who was both informative and funny. It was a fantastic experience!

After that overnight cruise, we took advantage of being on the West Coast and drove a stunning road up to Milford Sound on another beautiful sunny day. On the way there, we finally encountered Keas, the native parrot like bird of New Zealand. We have been trying to see them because they are interesting and pesky. They like to eat the rubber out from around the windshield and the wipers. We kept our eye on them every minute when they landed on top of our car. The road traveled through some of the most glorious mountain scenery we have ever seen and was well worth the side trip.

Remember we talked about farmed deer? As we drove the countryside, we noticed a guy driving a herd of big animals ahead of his truck in his paddock. He then proceeded to put gates across the road to stop traffic and create a lane to herd his animals to the other side. We looked closely at the animals as they passed (we got out to watch and take pictures) and thought they looked mighty familiar and not really deer-like. We talked to the farmer and, sure enough, the animals are Roosevelt Elk, exactly like those that run wild in the Olympic National Park in Washington State. The farmer raises them for their antlers which fetch a huge pricetag from places like Korea and are, after all, a renewable resource. He also farms some Elk for meat. He explained to us that the group in yonder paddock were soon to go on their “OE” (overseas experience) in little boxes.

On our detour home, we headed to the southern-most point of the South Island, Slope Point, latitude 46 degrees, 37’ 26”S. We came from Seattle at Latitude 48, so we’ll have to go down to Stewart Island, or beyond, to get equally south.
The south part of the south island is famous for its constant high winds. The trees reflect that environment, although, once again, we were lucky in the weather and enjoyed a walk around the rocky coast near Bluff in still conditions.

And here’s how small NZ is. In Bluff, we stayed at a small hotel. Unbeknownst to us, the couple running it are both ambulance crew which became apparent when I asked where the hospital was in the next town (a place where I had been offered a job so wanted to check it out). They wondered if they could do anything to help (thinking, of course, I needed medical attention). Well, I told them who I was and where I work, and we started comparing names of the people they know who work in Oamaru and used to work in Bluff, etc. It turns out they had trained one of our hospital porters who also happens to be an ambulance crew member. It’s not that strange, really, remember, only 4.8 million people in the whole country.

Dispatch 60 Shake, Rattle and Roll and Lamb Season

4 - 30 September 2010
I was on call in the hospital when the earthquake happened. It was quite long and intense here, 180 miles from Christchurch, but we haven't felt the aftershocks. There have been a record number of heart attacks in the hospitals near here and some people credit the earthquake. I could do without the extra business—it’s been really busy. Our town clock stopped at the exact time of the quake which seemed sort of momentous, and, because it was a Friday night, it didn't get reset until Monday. Friends of ours own a house that was right near the epicenter and they had extensive damage. It’s been really sad and people have been quite traumatized by the frequent and fairly strong aftershocks.

During my on-call stretch, we walked out to see the yellow eyed penguins again on a late sunny afternoon day. I cajoled Richard into bringing his camera. We got there a little late and most of the little guys had already come up the beach, but one of them was hanging out waiting for its mate right near the viewing platform (but behind some bushes.) We could barely see it but it was squawking periodically. Its mate then made an appearance which made for some good pictures, and then, miracle, the penguins both walked within 3 feet of the viewing platform. They are amazing. I was so glad Richard had his camera for that moment!! He was pretty excited too. He’s also

captured some of the local spotted shags (their word for cormorants).

Living in NZ seems like what living in the US must have been in the 50's. At least in our little town, nobody locks house or car, everyone knows each other, kids have kids (meaning they start young: 18,19,20 if not younger) and that's the way it is and everything is family/kid oriented. So all the nurses I work with, most of whom are in their 50's, are grandparents. As you might imagine, I'm a bit of an oddity with neither kids nor grandkids, but we've found other things to talk about.

But here's the thing about NZ. Kiwis don't whine. They push themselves hard and they don't really want to hear it if you are tired/overworked/whatever. I've just finished 12 days in a row of work because I was on call last Friday night and on second call Sat and Sun so I came to the hospital and saw patients both days and then all this past week. It was a long haul and I got good and sick of it by the end which everyone noticed by Thurs. when I was being a little bit naughty and grumpy. But the staff seemed a little bewildered—what’s my problem? Suck it up.

Here's another story to illustrate. I went skiing the other weekend at a place called Treble Cone—a place where the ski teams used to go to train because it’s pretty challenging (well, and summer up there is winter down here so you can ski year round that way). I hooked up with some locals for the afternoon which was a good thing because, in the morning, I had nearly found myself skiing over some cliffs because I didn’t know the terrain and was just skiing wherever I felt like it. They were telling me about a particularly bad condition day when they saw this guy coming down the run under the chairlift and it looked like total ice even from the chair. The guy was struggling mightily and stopped at one point, stood looking at the slope and then, in frustration, looked up at the chairlift and said sort of funny exasperatedly: "This snow is crap!" My acquaintances told me they yelled back, "It looks like crap from here (meaning, what the hell were you thinking taking that run anyway?). Do want us to call your mum?" Ha, ha, meaning, suck it up buddy.

Treble Cone is just outside the town of Wanaka which, like Queenstown, is a resort town built on a very large lake surrounded by mountains. It is much less built up than Queenstown and the scenery is simply gorgeous. It too is a town filled with "adrenaline" adventures such as paragliding, sky diving, and, I think, bungy jumping, none of which we did while there.

Another Kiwi vocabulary lesson. Ski areas are called “ski fields”. That fits because there are exactly zero trees on the ski slopes, none, which makes for some pretty difficult navigation when it fogs up—there’s nothing to show you where the trail is (as opposed to where the cliffs are). On the other hand, it’s weird because “fields” as we know them, aren’t called fields, they’re called “paddocks” or “reserves.” I always thought a paddock was a fenced in area. Well, come to think of it, all their fields are fenced because they mostly hold sheep though there are those with the odd deer herd thrown in.

So it's spring and it seems every sheep has lambs, one or

two each. There are lambs in every paddock frolicking around and nursing. It is cute in the

extreme. If NZ has 48 million sheep normally, it must have 70 million at the moment during lambing season. Of course, many of these go on to become edible so the population doesn't keep rising. There's a meat processing place in Oamaru, one of the biggest employers. It is called the "Freezing Works" (a meat freezing place), which beats the real description which is a slaughterhouse. I can't even imagine working there but I've met many of the patients who do and it sounds just too awful. When we walked back from the penguin place, there was an orphan lamb in one of

the yards that we had seen the woman of the house bottle feed when we were walking out. It saw us and started bleating and came to the fence so we went over and petted it. It kept trying to nurse on Richard's finger and we almost went to the house to tell them to come out and feed it again, but I decided that it wasn't our business. Later I learned from one of the nurses who used to farm sheep that lambs are always hungry and will nurse as much as they can and that this little guy would probably be fine--he was just being greedy. I guess they get orphaned a lot because the sheep will be busy having their second lamb and the first will wander away and then the mum loses its scent and rejects it. (They don't sound like such smart animals...) So the orphans often end up as pets and bottle fed. The cows are having calves too, but it's rare to see them together--it looks to me like the calves are removed from the mums really early and they're often in a paddock together (the calves). Let's not think too hard about the meaning of that observation. Almost makes you want to be a vegetarian, huh? But, having said that, first of all, ALL the cows here are grass fed so the beef is unbelievably delicious. Also there are no signs in the grocery stores proclaiming “free range – grass fed” anything, isn’t grass what cows are suppose to eat. We shop at the local butcher shop 4 blocks away where someone you saw in the field a couple of weeks ago is getting ready to become your next package of mince. And second, Kiwis are just not all that sentimental about the animals--it's a luxury of city life that you can just not think about how your meat comes to the table.

Speaking of soft hearted, we had our big chance to join the “Kiwi club” and nail our first possum who darted across the road as we drove to the ski mountain one night. We both had the mixed reactions of “Yay, now we’re real Kiwis” and, “Aw, I hope he’s all right, he was kind of cute.” Bah, soft Americans!! New Zealand is getting ready to spend $4 million on new traps going after the cute little things. Here are the headlines: “Funding to trial new killer traps announced”.
Also a little known tidbit regarding New Zealand to impress your friends with:

“DOC spends more than $20m a year controlling possums and ground-based pests like rats and stoats”.

There was a spot on the news about the efforts of an Australian animal control team attempting to get a possum out of a tree in a rural town in Australia when it stumbled(?) into town. Well the last glimpse before returning to the news was a rather large animal control person chasing this possum down the street. The possum was much faster. The NZ news announcer was just chuckling away as she said they could have done it much easier if they had just shot the thing out of the tree. Save time, money – where is the compassion?