Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dispatch 55 South Island: First Impressions

13 March - 25 March, 2010

New Zealand’s South Island is often described in superlatives and, as we discovered, with good reason. We boarded a ferry in Wellington and made the 3 plus hour ferry ride with our car.

The ferry ride was reminiscent of our Pacific NW ferry rides. It started with almost an hour’s transit out of Wellington harbor with wild rocky scenery, then there was a little more than an hour of open water crossing during which we had 25 knot winds that drove us inside to watch the silly movie being shown.

The final hour was spent transiting Marlborough Sound which reminded us strongly of the passage from Anacortes to Sydney via the San Juan and Gulf Islands—if you don’t know the area, suffice to say it is gorgeous! The land and islands were partially forested and virtually uninhabited with steep hills down to the water. As everyone had warned us, we wished we had our sailboat there.

We felt our time was running short so we just tried to skim the surface of the sites we might want to return to. We blasted through Nelson, an arty community, past apple orchards and vineyards, stopping only to pick up some fresh, crisp, delicious seasonally fresh New Zealand apples (mmmmm) and look at a fabulous glass gallery. Many of the roadside stands in NZ use an honor system.

Stands are set up, prices are listed and there is a box to deposit your payment—often there is no merchant there to collect. We headed right for Abel Tasman National Park, a little gem of a park that would have been perfect for a kayak/camp trip—many are organized there, but we just took a water taxi up the coast as far as we chose to walk back and did a day hike with another couple we met at our campground. As it turned out, Shirley and Brant just gave up the cruising life last year and we knew several boats in common. The 10 mile or so hike was on well developed trail and was stunning, passing several gorgeous golden sand beaches. We had beautiful, sunny weather.

Christchurch was next, both to visit one of our cruising buddies Paul (and Gina, but she was back in the US working), and to get our car’s heater checked out. It turns out that the heater repair is a huge, labor intensive job, so we scheduled it for the following week and continued on our way.

Meanwhile, Christchurch provided many galleries and a lovely botanical garden. The little storm from Antarctica which we experienced in Wellington had left a cold spell in its wake and our day in Christchurch was freezing—the night reached 3 degrees Celcius and the mountains in the distance were suddenly dusted with snow—winter approaches.

Finally we arrived in our soon-to-be home, Oamaru, down the coast from Christchurch. The town of 15,000 people has a fairly benign climate and attracts a retirement community, more elderly than elsewhere in NZ. It is known for its limestone buildings constructed during the Victorian era which are picturesque in the extreme.

The town somehow froze in that era and is now re-created for tourism. And the tourism focuses on one of its unique little features which is the penguin colony which comes ashore nightly just on one end of the Oamaru harbor. One cannot spend a second in Oamaru without seeing some reference to penguins. This colony consists of the smallest penguins in the world, the blue penguin, only about a foot tall as they waddle up the beach. We’re here to tell you that they are cute as the dickens though we had first seen them in the Bay of Islands on the North Island.

I spent an afternoon and part of the next morning at the hospital doing paperwork and meeting my future colleagues. Everyone was incredibly friendly. Richard met a local wool merchant who taught him, and later, me, a bit about the variety of wool produced by the amazingly diverse breeds of sheep here in NZ. He also let Richard know about various “bloke” activities engaged in locally like going out and shooting Wallabies (another introduced pest—a group of 14 guys dispatched with 240 of them one evening). Richard and I also spent time sightseeing and got to see our future house, a 2 bedroom place nestled in a lovely if a little overgrown garden full of roses and fruit trees (apple, pear and plum). The second night there I was determined to meet our little penguin friends so we went down to the carpark at the harbor and, rather than join the tour, we joined 20 or so other cheap people who waited for the straggler penguins who come in somewhere else than where the tour goes. We were lucky just after dark to have a couple penguins come ashore just where we were all waiting quietly.

A few gawkers couldn’t help but take pictures which made the penguins freeze in alarm, but, at some unspecified signal, everyone present suddenly became quiet and froze in place and the penguins cautiously advanced up the shore. They waddled past several of our legs within inches, hiding in the shadows we cast from the nearby building lights. They were, well, sooooo cute!!!

We left Oamaru for our last hurrah before I start work and headed to Queenstown, center of the gravity challenge adventures (bungy jumping, canyon swinging, tandem skydiving, paragliding, you name it). I was flirting with the idea of a canyon swing and we stayed near one of the places that does this adventure. For merely $199, you can stand on a perfectly good platform out of harm’s way and lean over the edge where they will release you (in a harness) to free fall for 60 yards or so, then the line tightens and you swing through the canyon and are winched back in to the platform. As our campsite receptionist said when I asked her what she thought of it, she said she hadn’t done it but she had observed it and “there’s a whole lot of screaming involved.”

So, rather than join the people “confronting their fears” as the brochures suggest, we headed out to do one of the most breathtaking hikes we’ve done. I was humming “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” through much of the hike as the scenery was staggeringly beautiful. It took us past the Shotover Canyon swing where we watched a couple people “take the plunge” (and scream—I guess they all do!)

We took the Moonlight Track past the Moonlight Valley and encountered very few other souls on the tramp. When we finally crested Ben Lomond Saddle and dropped into Queenstown to pick up the gondola ride the rest of the way down, we suddenly found others on the trail. But before that, only a few hardy souls and a few cows and sheep. It was 6 hours spent in paradise.

We left Queenstown with a list of things left to do (canyon swing is still on the list) but time was running short. We headed toward Mt Cook hoping to catch a glimpse of NZ’s tallest peak, but, although we drove on a sunny, gorgeous road along the lake that leads up to the peak, just after the visitor center, apparently the evil spirits of Mordor descended upon us and a curtain of broiling clouds and rain obscured our view. Oh well, another visit for another time. The scenery we saw was fantastic enough minus the full view—what a teaser!

Next stop is the US for a whirlwind visit with friends and family and then we’re back to start work in Oamaru and live like Kiwis for the rest of the year, which becomes winter in a couple of months.

Dispatch 54 New Zealand Hot Spots

5 March - 12 March, 2010

New Zealand sits on a fault line between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. That fault line goes right through the middle of the North Island where the crust of the earth is particularly thin and there are several active volcanoes. Naturally, Maori folklore has many interesting theories for the natural disasters having to do with their mythical ancestors, but, truly, the area is worthy of some magical thinking.

We finally left Auckland on a sunny day after tidying up a few loose ends. We bought a car

instead of a van. We had decided that we would “tent” our way around the country and buy a slightly newer era car focusing on the seller rather than, per se, the car. As a result we ended up buying what is referred to here as a rather “flash” car, that is, an Audi A4 in beautiful condition. It has been a dream on the road so far if a bit of a challenge to fit all our camping gear into. My work permit finally came through and we heard the day we left Auckland that Richard’s had been approved as well. We got an extension from Customs to allow our boat to stay in the country duty-free for another year and, at the very last second, we learned our jib repairs were done (the UV protection layer for those of you who might care about those kinds of things) and our inverter had been repaired as well. Qayaq was tucked away for the duration as best we could.

And off we went! We visited Muruwai beach, a beautiful black sand beach on the Tasman Sea near Auckland and surveyed the large Gannet colony that nests there with their chicks.

They nest just out of “pecking range” as the information sign says, which is to say, pretty close to one another. Gannets are a beautiful huge bird with a lovely yellow head.

From there we headed to Rotorua, the center of geologic activity on the North Island. This also happens to be a center of Maori civilization. The area has steaming land forms as one drives along and many volcano cone type land formations.

We chose to visit the village of Whakarewarewa where Maori families still live in a wild geothermal hot spot. Only 20 something families can live there because they can only build on

solid rock—anything less than

that could sink into a hot pool at any moment. Many areas of the village were fenced off having recently become hot pools. The villagers literally bath and cook using the natural pools there.

Many of the pools stay at 100 degress Celcius, boiling temperature. We ate corn cooked in one of these pools. There are also boxes scattered through the village that are natural ovens where chicken is roasted, veggies cooked. Our guide was very amusing and really brought the village alive. There are geysers on one edge of the village. The tour ended with a demonstration on making decorative skirts from flax and traditional Maori song and dance.

Maori carving and dance show signs to us of more Indonesian influence than strictly Polynesian. For instance, in the dance, eye position plays a role, seen in Balinese dance. It was a fascinating day and we walked around more of the geothermal area to observe after the tour. The area reminded us of Yellowstone and, indeed, there are limestone terraces that have formed in the area, but some of the most famous were destroyed in the 1800’s by the volcano eruption of Tarewa. Of course, as you’d expect, there are hot springs everywhere and the motor camp we stayed in had their own pools which we enjoyed.

The next day we went to another volcanic/ geothermal area:


There we walked the self-guided tour past gorgeous hot pools, gurgling mud pools and limestone formations all within a gorgeous forest area. Truly the area held us spellbound.

From there we went to Tongariro National Park to “tramp” (hike) “arguably the best day hike in New Zealand” according to the Lonely Planet. The area is known to “Lord of the Ring” fans by a familiar outline of one of the volcanic peaks, Ngauruhoe, known in the movie as Mt. Doom. The day we hiked, Mt Doom showed none of its lightning from the sky and other special effects from the movie folks, in fact it looked picturesque and placid.

The other two volcanoes on the hike were Ruapehu, the most active of the three with the last eruption in 2007 and a fairly major one in 1995. The last volcano is Mt. Tongariro which is the oldest and quietest of the three. The tramp is challenging, 19.4 km (around 11.5 miles), climbing up between 2 of the

volcanoes, past 2 craters, emerald lakes colored by the volcanic minerals and down the north slope of Mt. Tongariro ending in a lovely forest with a cute little waterfall near the end. It was a hike that provided nearly everything—sunshine to start, clouds and mist by the end and scenery to die for. We were tired but fulfilled by the end. Oh, and we did the hike with over a hundred other people! One thing that puzzled us having been there is why the hobbits took such a difficult path to Mordor—I mean there are boardwalks and stairways to get you up the track—why take the hard way? The area was so beautiful we stayed and did another hike the following day, a bit shorter we must admit.

The weather has turned quite a bit cooler on us as we head into fall here. In fact the nights have been, at times, frankly, COLD. So, we learned that these camp parks we’ve been using also often provide basic cabins in addition to tent sites. No bathroom, use of a communal facility for toilet and kitchen, but inside nonetheless. We decided we are too soft to stay in the tent in this weather and have started to sleep indoors. Wimps, we know.

We headed down to Wellington by way of the west coast where we stayed in a beach camp but discovered a terribly cute town called Foxton on our drive. This little place must have more museums per square kilometer than any place we’ve ever been. And the buildings were well preserved, the stores full of cute stuff.

Wellington is another marvelous artsy city. We literally spent most of a day at the fantastic museum called Te Papa. It was 6 floors of fascinating exhibits that somehow managed to have just enough to be interesting, enough interactive parts to the display to keep us awake and not to overwhelm. The visiting exhibit was about the city of Pompeii buried by volcanic ash complete with a 3D movie. It was so well done and even more fascinating given our recent visit to the volcanic central plateau. We ate lunch at the café and stayed for more. Just as we were leaving the museum, the city was hit by a fluke storm that was unpredicted. Now Wellington is often referred to as “Windy Welly” so wind is no stranger. And Wellington sits on Cook Strait where, when we first arrived in the country, gale force winds were being warned about 5 days out of 7. Still, this storm really blew people out of the water, or, in one case of a yacht racer, into the water. It came on in minutes with black clouds that suddenly poured rain sideways. We just sat down in the museum lobby to watch the carnage. Literally people were having trouble standing up against the wind. We learned the next day that the peak gusts were 150 km/hr. (around 90 mph!) The storm came from the south (Antarctica) bringing cold with it—the temperature dropped 11 degrees Celcius in minutes!! We sat and waited and finally braved the rain to find ourselves a place for dinner. We had a great dinner and finally drove “home” to our motor camp. That was the moment we learned that our “flash” car did have one defect—the heat doesn’t work. Oops, that might prove to be a problem this winter!

The next day, we took in more of the city. We were there during their arts festival so we stopped in some galleries. Since the weather was beautiful the second day, we took the cable car to the Botanic Garden.

This garden is huge and beautiful and thickly forested and planted. It was really remarkable. We had another great lunch at the café there and walked back down to town in the afternoon sunshine.

We wandered Cuba Street, one of the retail centers and finished with a drink on the waterfront with live music reaching us from a variety of venues nearby. It was a great short visit and I definitely want to go back. The city has a picturesque harbor from which we depart to take the ferry across Cook Strait to the South Island.

We’ve had to get used to the idea that heading further south means the world gets colder. I suppose we’ll just have to buck up and get used to it. While we walk around in several layers topped with fleece, our Kiwi friends are often barefoot in shorts and t-shirt. In New Zealand there are no signs that say “no shoes - no service” as stores would not have any customers in most cases. In Auckland we have seen women walking out of their office jobs “barefoot” carrying their shoes in their hands. We have a lot to learn! But I bought a new “jumper” (kind of a sweater of merino wool—but feels more like fleece) today that the saleswoman assured me was “toasty as.” That’s good because it’s getting under 10 degrees at night (Celcius)!