Monthly Archives: October 2013

Seismic Activity

I believe that I mentioned in my last posting that here in Taupo we are staying at a beautiful B&B. It is called the Pillars, and should your travels ever bring you to this part of the world it is definitely where you want to stay. It is a huge colonial-style mansion in which the hosts have really made us feel at home in this wonderfully serene setting.

The Pillars B&B…you want to stay here (unsolicited advertisement)

Huku Falls. No swimming allowed.

And this is all to the good, since the rest of our day yesterday was anything but serene; it was, more accurately, geologically active. Our first stop was at Huku Falls, which is the largest waterfall that feeds Lake Taupo. As falls go they are not at all high — only about 25′ — but their water volume is vast as the photo suggests. The river that feeds them is thunderously loud and roiling and a remarkable ice blue color like the falls themselves, and certainly suggests a quick wet death should you be foolhardy enough to try and swim there. There are a number of river- and falls-related attractions surrounding them, notably hikes along the river valley to assorted vantage points, and jet boat rides that go right up to the bottom of the falls by virtue of a set of zillion-horsepower engines that I expect are as loud as the falls themselves. (We will find out tomorrow when we take such a ride, albeit on a different river.)

We are in our own rental car, remember, and so can meander around as desired, which means frequent consultation of our road atlas to see if the is anything interesting close to where we happen to be at the moment. In this case, this being a geologically active area, as you, know, this led to our next stop being the “Craters of the Moon” thermal park, which was similar in many ways to areas such as Yellowstone and Kilauea: bubbling mud pots, steam coming out of the ground, crevices and small craters striated with mineral deposits (red, yellow, and white) and exuding toxic clouds of aerosol sulfuric acid. (The chemistry of this is that the sulfur from the vents is oxidized to form sulphur dioxide (SO2), which then combines with the moisture in the air. SO2 + H2O = H2SO4 = sulfuric acid, more or less. There will be a quiz.) Regardless of whether you remember your high school chemistry, it burns the hell out of your lungs and sinuses.

Admire the wife and the view, but don’t breathe.

As in all such geothermal parks, you get around the place on a marked boardwalk or path, which is lined with frequent admonitions not to leave the path, or else. The “or else” in this case being falling into a steaming hole in the ground, of which there are many.

We spent about an hour there, enjoyably enough though much of our conversation during the time was along the lines of, “Yeah, this is pretty cool but it looks a lot like Yellowstone/Kilauea/some other place we’ve been.” And so we continued onward, about 100 miles west towards the coast, to visit the town of Waitomo, known for its extensive caves and most particularly for the famous Glowworm Grotto. Our route there took us through very windy, hilly countryside, aptly dubbed by a friend of ours (upon seeing my Facebook picture of it) as “The Shire.” It is not for nothing that they filmed LOTR here; this is a typical scene that we drove through for two hours. Imagine as you look at it hearing the cows lowing and the sheep baa-ing and all that stuff. In a country as thinly populated as this, the outdoors are pretty quiet.  (And, happily, the is little traffic on the winding roads.)

Frodo lives on the left.

I took this shot off of a rare straightaway; most of the drive was on a tortuous mountain road that made for pretty tiring driving (about which more later). Anyway, we made it to the caves in about two hours.

Mosquitos beware

The glowworms are actually quite pervasive throughout the Waitomo cave system but one particular cave has been “touristized” especially for the purpose of seeing them. The glowworms themselves are actually the larval stage of a particular fly, the arachnocampa luminosa (Write that down.  It will be part of the quiz.). During this stage of its life, it is anchored to the walls or ceiling of the cave and glows from its posterior much like a firefly. However, the little lantern is unlike a firefly’s in two important ways. First, it is a pale blue color instead of yellow. Second, it is a predatory lure, not a mating signal. The larva drops several threadlike fishing lines, each about a foot long and covered with sticky stuff, rather like a strand of spider web (hence the “arachno” in its Latin name). Mosquitos and other small flying insects in the caves are attracted to the lights, get tangled in the lines, and are reeled in and eaten. (See the picture at left from Google images.)

When you are in the caves you cannot see the lines unless the guide sidelights them with a flashlight, and when that happens you can actually see the sticky droplets as in the picture here. The lines are very fine and kind of ominous looking, just a tad too reminiscent of a scene from one of the Alien movies. (And if you are a mosquito, the outcome is pretty much the same.)

But the real stunner is the lights themselves. We walked for a ways through the cave, accompanied by a guide who gave us its history (discovered in 1887, opened to the public in 1889, stalactites grow down, stalagmites grow up, they both grow at a rate of 1/250th per year so don’t touch them, et cetera). Then we got into a flatbottomed boat which the guide pulled through the cavern via a rope that stretched along the river at about head height. The lights faded, and voila! We were seemingly outside at night on the clearest night you have ever seen, but of course what was above our heads was not the the stars but rather the ceiling of the cave, studded with perhaps 100,000 glowworms, looking for all the world like some alien set of constellations. (And indeed, being an astronomer at heart, I found myself involuntarily looking for constellations, with some consternation at not finding any familiar ones.)

You cannot take pictures, of course, and in fact I doubt that any photo really does it justice, but here’s a publicity shot that gives you a pretty good idea of what surrounds you as you glide through the silent darkness on the boat:

“My God! It’s full of stars!”

It is just amazing, “awesome” in the original sense of the word. If you ever come to New Zealand do not miss the opportunity to see this.

And while we’re on the subject of awesome things, I will now struggle to describe the next thing we did upon leaving the glowworms (which, as events transpired, we did not). Little more than a month ago I found myself in a lunchtime conversation (during an otherwise spectacularly boring and entirely typical monthly business lunch gathering) about New Zealand with a guy who had been here a number of years ago. He recommended something called “black water rafting” which you could do in the vicinity of the glowworm caves. “It’s great!” he said. “It’s tubing through a cave!” That sounded like our kind of thing, and it turned out there was an excursion departing from nearby at 4:30, so we went for it.

A this point, words (nearly) fail me, since this was without a doubt one of the coolest things we’ve ever done. Equipped with thick (1/4″) wet suits, plastic boots with friction soles, hard hats with mounted mining lamps, and inner tubes, we first hiked up the hillside to the cave entrance. (This part was not so much fun: hiking up a steep hillside wearing a thick wet suit and carrying a tire is hard, sweaty work.) Immediately prior to the hike, I should, was a test of sorts to see if we were going to be able to hack this: with our butts in our inner tubes, we had to jump backwards off a small dock into the river…the river being 49 degrees F.

The scene reminded me of a real old Bill Cosby routine in which he describes jumping into a mountain lake on his honeymoon: “My body turned in to a giant cramp. And my eyes would not close, because they too wanted to know what had hit them. So when I broke the surface I called out to my lovely new bride, ‘C-c-c-come on in, d-d-d-dear! The w-w-w-water’s fine!'”

49 degrees.  Seriously, you have no idea. Fortunately the hike up the hillside warmed us up. We are a group of five people, plus the guide, an athletic-looking (obviously) young local woman. It is certain that Alice’s and my combined ages exceeded the total ages of the  other four people including the guide.

We got to the cave enhance which, had our guide not identified as such we would never have seen. There were some rocks, and a little steam, and a tiny hole nearly invisible among the vegetation and scree. Our guide disappeared into this thimble-sized hole and beckoned us to follow, leading to a lot of to-and-fro glances as we wondered among ourselves whether this was physically possible. It was.

The experience inside the cave was nothing short of remarkable. The only light was from our helmets as we variously picked our way along uneven, smooth rocks, waded through waist-deep water (49 degrees!!), squeezed through passages a foot wide, and floated in our tubes down the river, bumping off the hard rock walls and once virtually limbo-ing claustrophobically through a tunnel in which our only option was to lie flat back in our inner tubes, the rock ceiling about two inches from our faces, and propel ourselves along by “walking” our fingertips along the ceiling.

We drifted through the utter blackness lit only by our helmets, sometimes through caverns fifty feet high, the walls sheer and studded with limestone formations, the ceilings lost in the darkness, unreachable by our lanterns. And when we turned off our headlamps, we were left with no light whatever, not a photon to be scrounged….but for the light of thousands upon thousands of glowworms on the ceiling, whose light was strong enough to, just very barely, bathe the nearest walls in blue iridescence. It was breathtaking, completely unworldly. We will never forget it.

We went over two waterfalls, one barely worthy of the name at only a foot or two in height, the other about 5’ high. And as in the river preceding the hike to the cave entrance, we negotiated the falls by standing at the top, facing upstream, crouching into our innertubes, and leaping backwards, this time into the darkness…and avoiding the rock walls.

As you can tell, this is not an experience for the claustrophobic, the faint of heart, or the arthritic of knee. (And I give Alice full credit: I don’t know too many other grandmothers who would have been willing and able to negotiate the entire experience.) Here’s a photo from some other group to give you a small idea. I have a USB stick with the pictures of us that our guide took; I will upload them in a few weeks when we’re home.

Dark, wet, cold, and thoroughly awesome

It was genuinely unforgettable, hard work, occasionally a little scary — try carrying a big innertube through a passage two feet wide while a rushing cold stream tries to dislodge your feet and bang you against the very, very hard walls. I definitely owe a debt of gratitude to the guy who told me about this.

We emerged from the cave at about 8 PM into dark and rainy weather. The fed us a cup of tomato soup and a toasted bagel to warm us up a little bit, and sent us on our way. We decided to forgo dinner: we had a bunch of snacks in the car and our hosts had equipped us with some fruit and homemade muffins. As so we undertook the drive back to Taupo, an experience that was a whole lot less fun than our caving adventure. Imagine if you will that you are tired from two hours in that cold cave river, two hundred feet below ground (and did I mention the water was 49 degrees?), that it is now raining hard, it is dark, and you are driving for two hours on unfamiliar mountain roads, lousy with switchbacks…and that you are driving on the left side of the road. What fun!

Adding to the festivities was a little reminder that this is geothermal country, and so every now and then — because the rain didn’t do enough to make things hazardous enough — you get a fog patch composed of volcanic steam, i.e. that delightful sulfuric acid aerosol that we discussed earlier. So it’s dark, the road is windy, mountainous, and slick, you’re driving on the wrong side, and visibility has just dropped to about 20 feet as you pass through a cloud that is trying to dissolve you. By the time we got back I was a wee bit tired.

So that was our day yesterday. Today we must alas depart our B&B for a more conventional hotel in Rotorua, about an hour away. (We tried to rejigger our arrangement so we could remain here for the next two nights, but we couldn’t cancel the hotel, alas.) Tomorrow: jet boating!

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New Zealand Been Ferry, Ferry Good To Us

The day before yesterday was our transition from South Island to North Island, a journey that involved busses, boats, and cars. We began with the several hour coach trip from Christchurch to Picton, which is the ferry port town on the north end of North Island. It was a beautiful trip, first through the mountains and then along the coast, marred only by our bus driver who, while not exactly surly, pretty clearly didn’t give a damn…the first such Kiwi tourism industry person we’ve encountered who had an indifferent attitude. This wouldn’t have been much of a problem but for the fact that the thing he was most indifferent to was our schedule: we had a ferry to catch, and it wasn’t looking good.

He was however good for one thing, which was correcting a previous piece of misinformation regarding the sheep-to-human ratio in this country. In an earlier post I reported that it was 3:1 in favor of the sheep; it is in fact 9:1. Forty million sheep, 4.5 million people. The driver reported this statistic with no little bitterness: the ratio used to be twice that — 80 million sheep! — but now the dairy cows were taking over and to his distress the sheep were declining. Cows, cows, dairy cows everywhere, he complained, a veritable Cowmageddon. It’s the Termoonator: Rise of the Bovines! It appears that in New Zealand you are either a sheep person or a cow person (sort of a Ford versus Chevy kind of thing) and he was very definitely a sheep person. (I should be mature and sophisticated enough to avoid saying that he was a dyed-in-the-wool sheep person, but I’m not.) But anyway…

The mountains in this northern part of South Island were gorgeous, painted in vast swaths of yellow Scotch Broom, actually an invasive plant but a stunning buttercup yellow against the verdant hillsides. Most of the hills that we wound through were relatively low, maybe 1000′ high, but we’d get an occasional glimpse of more distant snow-covered craggy peaks. The road was high above the valley and full of switchbacks, so the view was constantly changing and always beautiful.

After a couple of hours we turned towards the coast and followed it all the way to Picton. The water the entire way was clear and turquoise, the coast dotted with small resort towns, most catering heavily to backpackers and all featuring whale watching, swimming with seals, and similar cold water activities. We stopped for about a half hour in one of the better known and more populated of these, a bright whitewashed little town called Kaikoura, almost Greek in its appearance, consisting mostly of a couple of streets along a stony beach, populated with cafés and youth hostels.

Seals, by the way, are quite common, and we saw them all along the coast. When not passing through a town we would usually be driving along an escarpment above rock-strewn surf, and the seals were always out in force, swimming in the surf quite close to shore, or sunning themselves on the rocks. The weather was sunny, clear and in the 60s.

We were supposed to arrive at the Picton ferry port 45 minutes before departure. We were 30 minutes behind schedule, though, and close to giving up hope. But the 15 minute windows that we ended up with turned out to be enough, thanks to a mad scramble as we rushed from the bus, and helped greatly by the ferry crew, who knew the bus was late and were waiting there to help us board quickly.

The ferry was a 10-deck monster the size of a good-sized cruise ship, and quite new. It was very comfortably, even luxuriously appointed for the three hour trip, and we had been booked in the premium lounge, furnished with sofas and easy chairs and featuring a free lunch buffet in the bargain. (Sweet!)

The 40-mile passage across Cook Strait from Picton to Wellington (the capital, and the southernmost city on North Island) was, like everything else in this country, blissfully scenic, with the first and last hour looking like this:

Enough with the gorgeous scenery already!

The weather on deck was however quite brisk and windy; though sunny, it pretty much kept everyone indoors, where we could admire the view through large windows that filled most of the walls.

We arrived on schedule in Wellington and took a taxi to pick up our rental car; the rental counter at the ferry was closed. But the taxi ride through town immediately educated us to the striking differences between Wellington and Christchurch. They’re about the same size (350,000 people, though Wellington — being the capital — has more extensive suburbs), but Wellington has not undergone a seismic trauma and looks like a real city: skyscrapers, a bustling downtown, businesses, traffic. We also encountered the following poster spanning a pedestrian overpass:

We don’t want to know

I will have no additional comment on this. (Though it did spur us to start mentally collecting Strange New Zealand Signs.  Our favorite so far, a billboard in dairy farm country, showed a smiling cartoon cow saying, “Peach Teats! Calves Love Them!” We will never forgive ourselves for not getting a picture of this.)

Who put the steering wheel on this side?

We picked up our rental car — we will be in a nice Camry for the next week — and I managed to drive on the wrong side of the road (i.e. the left side, which is the right side here, if you know what I mean) the short distance to our hotel without actually hitting anything. It’s actually quite easy to get used to, but now a day later I still keep turning on the windshield wipers every time I intend to use the turn signal. Here I am cheating death on the wrong side of the car:

We spent a couple of hours in the morning literally seeing the high points of Wellington, which is an overlook, botanical garden and observatory near the heart of the city. You get there via cable car, rather like the ones that ply San Francisco, though the route is very short with only four stops, and it only takes 5 or 10 minutes to get from the bottom station (which was quite near our hotel) to the the top. There is also a second, longer route that goes to a further reach of the city down the other side of the mountain, but we didn’t take that.

The observatory at the hilltop afforded a panoramic view of the city and the harbor, and housed a small astronomy museum and planetarium which we decided to forego. The are a few other domed buildings nearby, all housing now-defunct (and in most cases long since removed) telescopes; the observatory has not actually been used as such in many decades.

The botanical garden is pleasant and sprawls down the hillside towards the city; you can follow a path through it all the way down the hillside into town in a half hour or so. But we wanted to get on the road, so we just walked around for a few minutes and then took the cable car back down. We figured it would take all the time we had to get out of the city without causing a traffic accident, some kind of 20-car pileup resulting from my unfamiliarity with the fact that the traffic roundabouts here naturally go clockwise instead of the way God intended.

We drove about 230 miles northward through the middle of the island today, from Wellington to the town of Taupo, situated on Lake Taupo, the largest lake in the country. We had bought a very detailed and useful driving atlas for this purpose, but for additional peace of mind had also elected to include a GPS unit with the rental car.

The GPS proved useful, if occasionally maddening. It is pretty entertaining in its own right to receive navigation guidance from a female robot with a Kiwi accent (“Tirn lift in two hindred metehs…”), but this particular unit has the Speed Limit Nag feature: it knows what the speed limit is on each stretch of road, and nags you with an inoffensive yet nonetheless annoying Avon-lady chime (BING BONG) when you exceed the limit by more than 10 km/hr. New Zealand drivers are nearly compulsive about obeying the speed limit and so probably find this a helpful feature. For American drivers who view posted speed limits as vaguely quaint recommendations, it is a highway to madness.

The drive northward was a lot of fun and reminded me of nothing so much as driving around Kauai or the Big Island, so much so that the experience was practically nostalgic. North Island is very, very similar to those parts of Hawaii in may ways: its volcanic geology, the astonishingly iridescent green of the grasslands, the rolling hills leading to distant volcanic peaks, the proliferation of microclimates as the landscape changes from farmland to desert in a ridiculously short distant (a mile or two), and even the place names of the many small towns we drive through. The Maori and Hawaiian languages are closely related (as are the peoples themselves), and it was practically a time-traveling experience for me to go rolling through tiny one-street towns with names like Turangi, Kauhia, Wairoa, and Waiouru.

Also like Hawaii, these off-the-beaten path places are delightfully indiosyncratic. We stopped at one roadside café/souvenir stand/rest stop called Waikanga International Airport, so named not because there’s a runway there (there isn’t), but because there’s an actual complete ancient DC-3 airplane mounted next to the roof of the building. For a buck, which we happily paid, you can go inside the plane, whose cockpit is amazingly intact.

The first half of the drive was through very hilly farmland, heavily populated with sheep and cows (whose side are YOU on?) grazing on grass of such astonishing glow-in-the-dark lime-green verdancy that it felt like someone had turned up the color saturation slider in some Photoshopped version of reality. And then, with remarkable suddenness, the landscape changed. Our first indication was a sighting of snowcapped Mount Tongariro rising out of a distant plain, a large active volcano that closely resembles Mount Ranier. As we approached that plain, within the space of a few minutes the green had been leached from the landscape and we found ourselves with astonishing suddenness driving in a flat brown scrubby desert. If this were a Lord of the Rings movie — which it kinda is — it would have been the transition from Rivendell to Mordor; the contrast was not much less dramatic than that. And for good reason: this was Mordor, for there then emerged from the clouds this ominous sight —

BING BONG…Sauron calling!

If that dark sight looks familiar, it is because you have probably seen it before: it is Mount Doom from the LOTR films.

We were quickly overrun by orcs, and managed a narrow escape only because I inadvertently ran most of them over by driving on the wrong side of the road and signaling my lane change with my windshield wipers again. Whew!

Sauron’s armies notwithstanding — and why the hell is my wedding ring glowing? — we arrived unscathed at our bed and breakfast in Taupo at about 5 PM. It is a beautiful white mansion and as it happens we are the only guests and have been given the main suite, or rather “complex” as it appears to be about 800 square feet in size with the biggest bed either of us has ever slept in. We probably ought to just stay here and luxuriate tomorrow, but we’re not real good at that; the current l,an is to go see the Glowworm Grotto in the town of Waitomo. Which you will hear about soon enough…

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We spoke to the jetboat people first thing this morning to confirm that yes, the tour was canceled because the river was too high. They offered us a couple of options if we did not want a refund: (1) a four wheel drive tour of a sheep ranch, and (2) a tour of some of The Lord of the Rings filming locations. The latter seemed kind of redundant insofar as we have been seeing them all over the place in the normal course of our travels, and the former seemed as thrilling as, well, a tour of a sheep ranch. So we opted for the refund.

This left us with the problem of entertaining ourselves today, but a quick study of the mandatory Wall of Brochures in the hotel lobby, plus a couple of phone calls, quickly led to a booking for an all-day guided tour of the city and environs, where they would pick us up at our hotel. And so the day began.

The first thing that struck us was that the tour bus was nearly empty, occupied by two other American couples plus a single Brazilian woman. She, it became quickly apparent, spoke almost no English. The tour guide very apologetically said, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t speak Spanish,” whereupon all six Americans simultaneously shouted, “Portuguese!”, leading the driver to further apologize that he didn’t speak that either.

The driver remarked upon how few of us there were, saying that in the past this tour would run two full buses at a time, i.e. 80 people or so, but that Christchurch tourism had fallen off dramatically in the past two or three years since a series of devastating earthquakes. We had known about the quakes, knowing that they had heavily damaged the city, but we did not appreciate how bad things were, nor how huge a hit the economy had taken.

We were flabbergasted at the extent of the destruction from the quakes, which we could only very vaguely remember even happening, and which you might not even recall at all. But there were three, all at or near magnitude 7, starting in October 2010 and then at intervals of four months afterwards. The first and third caused damage but no deaths, but the middle one in February 2011 was a killer: 185 people died, about 3/4 of them Japanese university exchange students who were caught in a classroom building collapse.

Judging from the current state of downtown, over two years later, it must have looked like Hiroshima at the time. There is, very approximately, no downtown left: few tall buildings, and barely a single street that isn’t scarred with some combination vacant lots from since-demolished buildings; damaged structures surrounded by chain-link fences; and traffic cones marking street repairs, block after block of traffic cones. And this is two years after the fact; they expect that reconstruction is going to take another 12-15 years. We had no idea. (It did, however, answer the question they we had been asking ourselves with some annoyance, which is why we were staying in an airport hotel. All of our other accommodations have been conveniently located, and this one decidedly is not; we were going to complain to our travel agent until it became clear that there were no conveniently located hotels: there was nary a one downtown that was not destroyed or heavily damaged.)

There are a number of reconstruction initiatives going on, over and above the rebuilding itself, to try and lure tourists and shoppers back into the city. One of the more interesting of these is the so-called Restart program for businesses. On the spot containing what used to be the city’s largest shopping mall, a number of very determined and inventive retail businesses have reopened for business using shipping containers instead of buildings. You know, those 40′ metal boxes that you see stacked on cargo ships. The merchants, with assistance from the city, have opened up the sides and use them as storefront buildings. It’s very creative, but it also gives you an idea of how bad the destruction was, and how desperate the city.

Our tour took us around downtown — what’s left of it — pointing out various churches and historical buildings, all of them damaged, and all accompanied by the somewhat wearying commentary that this one might able to be restored, this one will probably be demolished, that one is being worked on…. This was all very interesting in a morbid way, and fortunately did not take very long.

Our next two stops were, literally, breaths of fresh air: a half hour boat ride along the Avon river that winds through town, followed by a tour of the city’s genuinely delightful botanical gardens.

The boat ride was proferred in somewhat medieval (or at least colonial) fashion: the craft was a flat-bottomed punt, poled like a gondola by a guy in a flat-brimmed boater hat and formal vest. The day was sunny and cool and the setting idyllic; the river is very clear, only a couple of feet deep and not much more than 60′ wide, and its course took us past the very gardens that we would be touring immediately afterwards. The boatman did not sing “O Sole Mio” — and you can bet that they are heartily sick of that joke — but rather provided some commentary on the various types of ducks and fish and the historical provenance of some of the older trees that we passed. It was very enjoyable, beautiful and serene.

Christchurch is a city of parks, something like 740 of them for a population of 350,000 people. The largest (400 acres) is Hagley Park, very well manicured in typically English fashion to the extent that it is almost indistinguishable from the much smaller (50 acre) botanical garden to which it is adjacent. The garden is beautiful, with plants that reflect New Zealand’s ridiculously diverse climate: it includes everything from temperate zone sequoia trees to a desert xerogarden. Alice, of course, was going nuts: take a picture of this! Take a picture of that!

One of its nicest features is the fact that children are allowed to climb the trees, which of course turns the place into the ideal family outing on a nice day, which today was. So it was a real pleasure to see all the activity — kids climbing trees, families playing Frisbee — in this Edenic setting.

Following the garden we cruised around the seaside resort neighborhood of Sumner. It was sort of the Malibu of Christchurch, with expensive cliffside homes overlooking the ocean (which is a stunning azure color and way the hell too cold, never getting above the upper 50s in temperature). Now it’s literally a wreck: those cliff side homes lost their cliffs in the quakes and are now variously condemned or destroyed, jutting precariously out from a crumbling cliff and manifestly unsafe. The setting is still gorgeous, but the neighborhood economy has essentially disappeared and will be quite some time returning.

Our last stop was a gondola — the ski lift kind, not the boat kind — to a vantage point above the city. (If you are getting the idea that every New Zealand city has a gondola going to the top of a nearby mountain, you would be correct.) Here’s the view from the top, looking towards the harbor:

Every New Zealand city has this view.

There were even sheep grazing on the hillside. C’mon guys, we get it.

And that was day in Christchurch, pretty interesting even lacking the adrenaline rush of the jetboat ride. It’s dinnertime now and, there being no point in actually going downtown to eat, we will do as we did last night: walk the quarter-mile to the airport and eat at one of the restaurants there. (It’s not too bad actually; there is a selection of places.) Tomorrow morning we leave South Island, traveling by bus to the port of Picton, then taking the three-hour ferry ride across to Wellington on North Island. There, we will pick up our rental car and attempt to cheat death for the subsequent six days or so.  Yes, yes, keep to the left…I know.

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An Ice Jewish Boy

Our gamble of yesterday morning paid off: the weather improved slightly by early afternoon, and so our glacier walk was on. This involved a certain amount of advance preparation, in part due to the fact that the operative word re the weather improvement was “slightly”: there was still a fair amount of on-and-off drizzle, which meant that we had to dress in as many layers as we could squeeze in to, plus the additional stuff that they gave us at the outfitters. The latter included woolen socks and waterproof hiking boots to replace our own footwear; a rain slicker to go on top of the rain slickers we were already wearing; waterproof pants to go on top of our own pants; woolen gloves; ski caps; crampons; and a backpack to carry the crampons, which of course we would not need until we were on the ice. (They’re hell on carpeting.) You might think we were going hiking on a glacier or something.

There was of course also a safety briefing, in which we were informed of the various things that could kill us — rockslides and floods on the trail leading to the glacier being the most popular — plus given assorted admonishments regarding, e.g., obeying our guide, and not trying to retrieve things like gloves or cameras that fell into ice crevasses. (Also, do NOT under any circumstances thaw out the alien frozen under the ice.) Thus educated and equipped, we were loaded onto a bus and driven to the trailhead about a ten minute ride away. The were about 16 in our group, which was then divided among two guides who set off separately.

The trail up to the glacier access point was about a mile and a half long along the river that flows from the glacier melt. The first half was pretty flat and easy, then become very steep and rough and very hard work, ascending 1000′ over scree and across streams flowing  from the base of several narrow waterfalls. The walls of the valley were very steep, nearly vertical, which made for spectacular views, especially as the glacier came into sight, but also presented serious a rockfall hazard in light of all the recent rain. There were several points along the hike during which the guide told us to hustle along without stopping for any reason (e.g., to take photos) because of the possibility of a rockslide at that location. The streams of water down the valley wall turn out out to be a good diagnostic of the hazard level: if a given stream is clear it is relatively safe, but if it is running brown with dislodged dirt then that means that the underpinnings of the boulders have been eroded away, and a landslide is likely. And indeed, on the return hike a few hours later we saw this in action, as we were distracted by a thunderous roar and a landslide collapsed a narrow section of the canyon wall on the opposite side of the river from where we were hiking. It was a helluva sight, a rock and dirt avalanche spilling down into the river, and it went on for about ten minutes. It was a also a rather dramatic reminder that that could have happened on our side of the river.

The view of the glacier is cinematic:

A whole lotta ice, and some very small people (right of center)

If you look carefully to the right of center you will see a row of about eight teeny tiny people in a row, hiking from right to left. Now you have an idea of the scale: Fox is the largest glacier in New Zealand. And as you see all the rocks and dirt to the right of center you would be forgiven for thinking that the ice at the bottom of the photo is a thin layer of ice overlying a bunch of dirt. But it is actually the opposite: the ice is hundreds of feet thick, and the dirt on top of it is the result of landslides off the valley walls as the glacier recedes and advances.

The movement of the glacier is apparent in other ways as well. As we looked up the valley wall we all noticed that, starting several hundred feet above us was a tree line.  Except that this was a backwards tree line, a very sharp horizontal demarcation running the length of the valley, above which there was vegetation, versus bare rock below it. And that marks the retreat of the glacier: it is exactly like a flood level or water line, showing the maximum height of the glacier when it moves down into the valley.

Not exactly dancing shoes

As we approached the top of the trail we reached a small flat area with a rack full of alpine hiking staffs, basically ski poles, that we would need to descend a short way down the rocks and onto the ice surface, and to help us move across the ice. Once we made that descent, we paused to put on our crampons, as you can see Alice doing here. (You can also see a few of the hiking poles next to her.)

It didn’t take more than two steps onto the ice to make it clear that crampons were very, very important. For one thing, the weather was very volatile, with the rain often picking up and a strong wind blowing up the valley, driving the rain into our faces and trying to blow us around on the unsheltered surface of the ice. One of the side effects of the rain was a thin water glaze on the ice itself; the coefficient of friction was very close to zero. Absent the crampons, we would have slid around like hockey pucks and gotten blown off the edge or into a crevasse in no time flat.

That said, walking on ice in crampons take a few minutes to get used to. You need to keep your feet a little farther apart than normal to keep from face-planting if one foot gets snagged, and you have do a little march with some weight in your step in order to plant the spikes. It comes pretty easily once you get used to it, and you quickly become accustomed to walking up and down the little steps that the guide carves in the ice with her ice axe, and feeling just a bit like Spider-Man as you move on a slight slope. (Our guide, by the way, was an enthusiastic Aussie lass in her mid-20’s named Kat, who had been doing this for only a few months but sure seemed to know what she was doing — as evidenced by the fact that we survived what she described as the worst weather conditions that she had experienced on the ice.)

The weather was decidedly not our friend, the rain sometimes becoming strong enough that I had to take off my glasses, soaking through our woolen gloves, and at one point briefly turning into driving, stinging hail to ensure that we were as miserable as possible. But at other times the rain and wind stopped for a while, the mist lifted, and we could fully revel in the otherworldly landscape as we picked our way through sinuous crevasses lined with strata of blue veins. This gives you an idea, but, absent the wind, the rain, the crunch of the ice, and the sheer vastness of the ice sheet, doesn’t really convey just what a rush it was, just how much it felt like being on another planet.

Blue ice, just like in the movies!

That’s our guide at the right of the picture, and Alice at left, using the hiking pole and planting her crampons.  Not half bad for a pair of retirees…

One of the interesting and unexpected things about the icescape is the colors.  You can clearly see the blue and white in the photo above, as well as some brown near the top from recently deposited dirt. But there are some reddish streaks as well, also from dirt — but very well traveled dirt. The red streaks in the ice (which alas you cannot see in this picture) are little samples of the Australian Outback, carried well over 1000 miles to here by the wind.

By the time we got off the ice and returned to the trail back down the valley the rain had very noticeably swollen the waterfalls and river, and what had been an somewhat awkward dance across the rocks to traverse the streams on the way up became a wet slog through the water on the way down. By the time we reached the trailhead we were soaked, exhausted, and exhilarated all at the same time. And by the time we got back to our room a half hour layer, a hot shower and a pair of Advil felt like a slice of heaven. It was a genuinely extraordinary experience, which I would not mind repeating on a much warmer and sunny day…

We were picked up this morning by bus for our ride up the coast to the town of Greymouth, where we would pick up the train (the “Tranz-Alpine [sic] Express”) across the mountains to  Christchurch. The weather was a little better than yesterday, with occasional teases of blue sky, but the surf to our left looked daunting and the mountains to our right still enveloped in mist.

The train ride was nonetheless spectacular, as advertised. It ascends about 2500′ through Arthur’s Pass, one of three passes across the Southern Alps. (Recall that we came through the nearly-closed Haast Pass, to the south of here, on the way Fox Glacier. Turns out we got lucky: that pass, the one with the scary washed-out road, was closed off just a few hours after we went through it.)

2500 feet does not seem like a very great height, but it is important to understand that snow falls at very low elevations in New Zealand; most of the Southern Alps are lower than 7000′. The extensive snow caps make them look very much like the Swiss Alps and give the illusion that they are much higher than they really are.  Which does not make them less impressive to behold, nor less dangerous to hike around in if you are not mindful of the very changeable weather.

It was snowing at Arthur’s Pass, and a lot of the surrounding mountains were shrouded, but even so much of the first half of the five hour journey looked like this:

View from the Tranz-Alpine Express. No one knows why the Z is in “Tranz”.

Once we traversed the pass, the scenery changed to this, for most of the way down to Christchurch:

Heidi, call your office

As I said, New Zealand has way too much beauty for one country.

We arrived at our hotel in Christchurch only to learn upon check-in that the main activity that was scheduled for tomorrow — a really cool jet-boat ride on a river through a nearby valley — has been canceled because of the all the recent rain. Although the weather in Christchurch is clear — and dramatically different from the west coast from whence we came, on the other side  of the mountains — the rivers are nonetheless swollen to the point where a high-speed boat ride has become unsafe. This is a disappointment, no two ways about it, and we will have to find some other way to amuse ourselves in Christchurch tomorrow, probably by taking some kind of city tour. I’ll report on that tomorrow.

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Ice, Ice, Maybe

We left Queenstown at 8:00 yesterday morning for the long bus ride over the mountains and up the west coast towards the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. The weather was rainy in Queenstown, which did not bode well for what the coast would be like, our experience at Doubtful Sound having taught us that the west side of the mountains — the windward side — is the rainy side. This proved unfortunately true in a big way, as there was some discussion among the bus drivers at the hotel as to whether the usual route over the mountains, called Haast Pass, was even passable due to severe rains and rockslides the night before. And by “severe” I mean a foot of rain overnight. (The last time I saw rainfall like that was 30 years ago while living in Hilo, Hawaii, and my fingertips still get all pruny at the memory.)

The ride took all day, including various pit stops and a lunch break, and wound through spectacular waterfall-riven mountain scenery, along steep canyons…and through a whole lot of rain. The mountains were shrouded in fog, the rivers swollen in the gorges — hell, even the hobbits stayed indoors. (In case you had forgotten, this is Lord of the Rings country, and we have passed a number of locales where parts of the movie were filmed. Every bus driver is legally obligated to remind us of this.)

An impressive rockslide had taken out one of the highway lanes on a switchback near Haast Pass, leaving a single lane for two-way traffic. The road crew clearing the debris directed traffic, and we got quite the view from our seats on the canyon side of the bus, there being barely two feet of clearance between the side of the bus and a crumbling zillion-foot drop into scenic doom, and of course no guardrail.

There was a brief period in which the sky partially cleared, and our driver remarked sardonically that we should take a picture of it as it would likely be the last blue sky we would see for a couple of days. So far this prediction seems to be borne out.

The drive up the coast is impressive in part because the mountains approach so closely to the water; driving north, you have the Tasman Sea on your left and southern Alps more or less immediately on your right. The rain continued on and off, but the cloud cover never broke and the mountain tops remained shrouded in mist.

We arrived in the village of Fox Glacier at about 3:30 PM, a very tiny place that exists more or less exclusively to serve the tourist trade associated with the glacier. It’s basically a single street about three blocks long with one or two side streets, and the only establishments are a few inns and motels, about four restaurants, and a number of excursion booking businesses for arranging glacier hikes, helicopter tours, and visits to nearby attractions like thermal baths. (We’ll see more of the latter on North Island in four or five days.) The mountains loom pretty much across the street from the town, or at least we assume they are looming from what little we can see through the fog.

Our inn is very pleasant, a small family-run establishment of about a dozen motel-style rooms. Our room is pretty large, with a well-equipped kitchen, and is surprisingly well-heated against the raw weather by a space heater on one wall. The whole front wall — the entrance off the parking lot — is a big sliding glass door that would afford a great view of the mountains if you could see through clouds.

The weather got worse through the evening, if that were possible, with the rain coming in squalls throughout the night. It would stop for maybe 15 minutes, just long enough to fool you into thinking you were out of the meteorological woods, and then suddenly come roaring through with a vengeance again, sometimes with thunder and lightning as well. This pattern continued throughout the night, leading us to wonder by this morning whether our glacier hike was actually going to happen. As of this writing, at 9:30 AM, that is still an open question.

Early this morning we got dressed in as many layers as we could squeeze into. At 8:30 we trudged the blessedly short distance through the rain to report as required to the outfitter, where we were to be equipped with rain gear and ice crampons. (Ice crampons! Cool!) But the mission was aborted: the guides reported that the continuing rain had rendered the glacier surface temporarily unsafe. They offered us two options: (1) we could head out with the guides anyway to do a so-called terminal face walk in which we could look at but not walk upon the glacier, or (2) we could rebook for an afternoon hike and gamble that conditions would improve. We’d really like a shot at hiking on the glacier itself, so we decided to take the gamble and opt for the afternoon booking. So now we have a few hours to kill back at the motel, and we’ll see how things evolve. If the weather were not so nasty we could at least take a walk around the area…but if the weather were not so nasty then we would have had the morning hike in the first place. Stay tuned.

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There’s a Fjord in Our Future

…or, more accurately, in our past as I type this.

We have in the past 24 hours overnighted aboard the Fiordland Navigator, a comfortable 50-passenger ship with vestigial-looking fake sails, now returned from our excursion down Doubtful Sound in southwestern New Zealand, in a region aptly known as Fiordland.  It turns out that the remark I made a few days ago about Queenstown looking like a cross between Switzerland and Norway was more accurate than I realized: the sounds in the southwest (of which the best known are Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound) are, geologically speaking, actually fjords in that they were carved by glaciers and not by the encroaching sea. But they are in any case stunning.

We left Queenstown early Wednesday morning by bus for a two hour ride through beautiful snowcapped alpine landscape, along opal-colored Lake Wakatipu, past countryside replete with sheep, dairy, and deer (!) farms, and missing only Shirley Temple as Heidi. As everyone knows by now, New Zealanders proudly advertise for reasons known only to themselves that the country has more sheep than people — by about a factor of three, in fact — and a ride through the countryside makes that very easy to believe.  There are sheep everywhere, and it is lambing season in the bargain, so there are adorable little lambkins frolicking all the hell over the place, leaving Alice to nearly deflate for all her expostulated awwwwwwws. She determined then and there that, New Zealand or not, she would not eat any lamb on this trip, declaring this with a steely resolve that lasted a solid eight hours until dinner that same evening.

Sheep may still be king in the Kiwi economy, but cows are up and coming.  The were a fair number of dairy farms en route as well, and we were told that dairy’s relatively recent and sudden rise has made a lot of money for some people and created a class of ostentatious nouveau riche dairy farmers, which is a phrase you probably never thought you’d read.

This leaves us with the deer farms, a concept that I had never even heard of until yesterday. Deer are prized for a variety of things, as you know: venison, their hide, and (I had never thought about this one) the velvet on their antlers. Antler velvet has a big market in Asia where the Chinese and others use it for various herbal remedies and (predictably) aphrodisiacs. The locals decided to try harvesting them systematically a couple of decades ago, capturing them in the wild and breeding them in captivity. This was successful to the point that after a while there was enough spontaneous captive breeding going on that a wild harvest was no longer needed, and so we now have deer farms. Right now it is molting season, or whatever it’s called, and so we saw large herds of fenced-in, mangy-looking deer.

The bus took us to the shore of Lake Manapouri, a large island-dotted lake about 40 miles long known in part for having at its source an 800 MW hydro power station, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. The weather was beautiful, sunny and in the  60’s, and the scenery serene:

Lake Manapouri

The trip across the lake — the name means “Many Islands” in Maori, by the way — took about two hours, towards the end of which a thin layer of clouds had moved in.  If this journal were a work of literature you would call that last phrase “foreshadowing”.

At the far end of the lake, right next to the power station, we boarded a bus for the final hour leg to Doubtful Sound. The route took us through Wilmot Pass over the lower end of the Southern Alps across the spine of the island. More spectacular scenery, of course, but no less interesting was the change in vegetation into a sort of antediluvian rain forest, with tree ferns and hanging moss. It’s a unique biome insofar as it looks kind of like tropical vegetation but is not, the climate being much too cool. But it made for a surreal ride, as we waited for dinosaurs to appear around the next bend.

Alice is not Doubtful

No stegosaurs made an appearance, but Doubtful Sound did, most impressively (photo at left). It is the largest of the sounds in this region, which is appropriately enough called Fiordland.  It is a mile or two wide and the main channel is roughly 20 miles long, emptying into the Tasman Sea, which, though actually part of the Pacific, is the name given to the stretch of water separating Australia and New Zealand. However, it has a number of major branches that effectively double or triple that length

As you can see from the photo, it’s a typical glacial fjord, narrow with steep granite walls — though not nearly as steep as the rock cliffs of Milford Sound — with many small fingers reaching in along the shore. The walls are coved in conifers and tree ferns, painted with countless narrow waterfalls, marred by the occasional patch of bare granite, a few tens of yards across.  Those patches, as it turns out, have some history of their own.

The density of the vegetation means that the root systems of the trees are heavily entangled. But the steepness of the cliff faces, and the hardness of the granite, means that those same roots are anchored rather precariously.  So when a big storm comes along it is not rare for one or more trees to become unmoored…at which point the interwoven skein of shallow roots causes the arboreal victims’ windblown plunge down the cliff face to be shared by a large number of their illfated neighbors. A whole area is uprooted at once, and an entire copse plummets down the wall. This is aptly called a “tree avalanche”. (It seems to me that a phenomenon that interesting deserves its own word.  I propose either “treevalanche” or, since we have come so very far to see it, “travalanche”.) The result is a denuded patch of granite, which over the subsequent few years reforests itself.

There are hundreds of waterfalls, as I mentioned, but only three have permanent sources, the rest fed by frequent rainfall. And indeed, you can see in the photo that in the few hours since our boat ride across Lake Manapouri, the sky had become overcast (more foreshadowing).  Did I mention that the upper elevations of Doubtful Sound can have 400″ of rain a year? As in 33 feet?

What you cannot see in the photo is that the water itself is a thousand feet deep (!) and has a surface temperature in the intimidating low 50s. The latter gave us a moment’s pause when they announced that kayaks were available once our boat  anchored in an adequately sheltered area perhaps 10 miles down the fjord — but only a very brief moment’s pause, because how awesome would it be to kayak past waterfalls on a New Zealand fjord? And the answer is, entirely awesome:

Hiawatha Alice

Rich contemplates a dip

Alice and the mighty Fiordland Navigator

We emerged from the water about an hour later, a bit chilled and a bit wet but well satisfied that the other kayakers we know can now be suitably envious.

Dinner on board the Navigator was excellent, one of the best buffets we have ever had.  The cook was a cheerful local named Kelly, an attractive 40-ish woman with short blonde hair whose distinguishing feature was an array of colorful tattoos that completely covered both arms. She was an amazing cook whose lamb course shattered Alice’s earlier pledge. Gamboling kids were no match for this dish.

We motored on down the sound as we ate, and by the end of the evening had anchored near the mouth, at the edge of the Tasman Sea. We retired to our room, small and simple but comfortable, with a queen bed, an ensuite bathroom and shower (thankfully with plenty of hot water) and little else save two windows that looked out on the towering granite walls. And while we sailed on, the real weather moved in.

We awakened this morning to find ourselves in a deleted scene from “Master and Commander”, smothered by pendulous grey clouds, shrouded in mist, pelted by driving rain, and serenaded by wind howling across the decks and between the masts. All in a day’s work for the crew, who have seen a lot worse. Indeed, the naturalist among them stood the whole time on the front deck, clad in a rain slicker and armed with a wireless microphone, exhorting us to come out on deck to get a really good view of the waterfalls. Incredibly, we did this, and had to admit is was worth it, at least for brief periods of time.

The walls were now alive with cascading water, countless cataracts tearing hundreds of feet down the cliff faces, sometimes not even making it to the bottom before being shredded into curtains of mist by the gale. Here is a view of the channel behind us, and a shot of one of the falls in a moment of relative calm:

Not a good day to work on your tan


About 0.01% of the waterfalls

We sailed right up to the cliff face and the naturalist held out a 30 liter (~8 gallon) metal bucket under a small cascade and asked a volunteer to time how long it took to fill, which turned out to be 9 seconds. The water in the bucket had a slight brown tinge from tannin leaching out of the dissolved vegetation on the cliffside but was, needless to say, extremely pure.

As the boat turned into the wind to head towards our next destination, I went out on deck to shoot a panoramic video of the surroundings; I will upload it in a few weeks when we are home. It was one of those decisions whose wisdom you question a few seconds into making it, because with the changing bearing of the ship, the wind and rain had become fairly ferocious and as soon as I stepped out of the lee of the observation lounge I found myself being batted around with more force than I expected. So I staggered around the front deck like a drunkard, panning the camera whilst being blown to and fro, keeping one eye on the camera display and the other on the waist-high railing that encircled the deck, nervously wondering whether it was high enough to keep me from cartwheeling overboard if the wind blew me into it. Happily I did not find out, and was rewarded with a rather shaky but suitably evocative short video. (And I was once again grateful for my new going-away-gift waterproof point-and-shoot camera, which shrugged off the elements.)

We stopped adjacent to one of the many small islands that dot the mouth of the sound. This one was inhabited by a colony of fur seals, lounging about in large numbers and indifferent to the monumentally crappy weather. Their neighbors on the next rock over were a couple of crested penguins, whose tuxedo coloring made them challenging to spot against the dark granite whenever they turned their backs to us. The seals did not excite us much — the damn things were practically pests at the La Jolla beaches during our sojourn in San Diego — but penguins are always cool since you don’t see many of them in the Chesapeake Bay.

The weather stayed bad the whole time we were on the sound, and made for an entirely too exciting bus ride back through Wilmot Pass on the spine of the mountain range, where visibility was close to zero and the bus driver seemed to be driving by radar on the switchbacks. It stayed raw and misty but was far less dramatic as we retraced our steps and descended down to the dock at the power station on Lake Manapouri. But mirabile dictu, it got nicer and nicer as we sailed across the lake back towards the interior of the island. Things were looking pretty decent at the far end of the lake, and by the time we stepped off the bus a few hours later back in Queenstown we were strolling in 70 degree sunshine, with some photogenic cotton-ball clouds scudding around the snow caps on the mountains. Helluva range of weather for one day; the climate variations across short distances in this country are astounding.

Dinner this evening consisted of a visit to Queenstown’s most famous burger joint: Fergburger. It’s a teeny tiny place that can seat maybe 15 people inside and another 8 out on the street in front of the store. If you don’t get there early, forget it; you won’t even see the place except for the mob milling around outside, mostly eating their burgers standing up. We know this because that is exactly what happened to us two nights ago. But this time we were prepared, and the burgers were indeed outstanding, albeit a little on the large size: a little shy of 7″ in diameter. But you gotta love a place that offers a venison burger called Sweet Bambi; a veggie burger called Holier Than Thou; and a felafel patty called (wait for it) Bun Laden.

Tomorrow we begin our three day excursion to a more northerly part of the western coast of the island. Got that? That’s the northern part of the west coast of South Island. There will be a quiz. But the main thing you have to know is that we are going on a hike on Fox Glacier. Not sure what the wifi situation will be at our hotel there, but I’ll report back when I can.


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Wokka Wakatipu

We left Sydney early this morning to catch a flight to Brisbane, then on to Queenstown, NZ, a 3-hour flight across the stretch of Pacific separating Australia from New Zealand.  (To the annoyance of Kiwis everywhere, Americans — and probably Europeans — tend to think of Australia and NZ as being sorta the same place, in much the same saw that East Coast residents tend to think that LA and San Francisco are next door to each other.)

New Zealand consists of two long skinny islands, accurately if rather unimaginatively named North Island and South Island.  South Island is where you find all the glaciers and Lord of the Rings-style alpine scenery, and is our first destination.  In particular, we are now in Queenstown, located near the lower end of South Island.

The scenery here will knock your eyes out; if there is some kind of cosmic balance of beauty, then there are at least a half dozen hideous places on Earth who got that way during Creation because all their beauty got redirected to Queenstown.  Here are two shots from our point-and-shoot camera (my wonderful goodbye gift from all my NASA friends) out the window of the plane as we approached the town:

Ho hum.


Approaching Queenstown

(Alas, the gadget that I had been using to download photos from my big camera onto the iPad has gone a little wonky, so for these blog posts I am now limited to shots from the iPad itself and occasionally the point-and-shoot.)

They do not call these mountains the Southern Alps for nothing.  Queenstown itself is very small, with a population of something like 20,000, nestled against Lake Wakatipu, a transcendently azure body of water — as all New Zealand lakes, sounds, and littoral waters seem to be — that is cold, very deep, and straight out of a travelogue.  It is ringed by the aforementioned snowcapped Alps, and in general has the ambience of a ski resort town, which is exactly what it is.  The only real difference is that it has a very contemporary Northern European style of architecture rather than the fake Bavarian or Swiss stuff you see in just about every other ski town (except in Bavaria or Switzerland, where it isn’t quite as fake).

The weather at the moment is mostly sunny and pretty cool (60’s), very pleasant and frankly a welcome change from sweltering Australia. It is early spring at the moment, and ski season has ended.  There are a number of ski resorts in the surrounding mountains, but one of the major attractions in Queenstown itself is a ski-type gondola that goes up the side of the mountain at the edge of town.  We did this as soon as we arrived in order to get a panoramic view of the area while the weather is still good (it may change in the next few days).  It was well worth it: the gondola goes up about 1500′ above the town, and the view is utterly spectacular, like a cross between Switzerland and Norway.

There’s a restaurant at the top, of course, with prices to match the altitude and as stunning as the view, so we decided to eat in town.  The are other activities up there as well: a very high bungee jump platform (uh, no), mountain bike trails down to the bottom, and a sort of mini-luge ride that let’s you go zooming for a few hundred yards down a special curvy path with fun-looking banked switchbacks. Mountain biking in particular seemed popular; there were quite a few teenagers and twenty-something’s, mostly male but not all, who loaded their mountain bikes onto the outside of the gondola cars in order to ride them down the mountain.  We didn’t see any ambulances so I assume that all of them made it.

Our schedule for the next couple of days is a bit odd, and we will be offline for a day or two.  Tomorrow we are setting sail (literally) across Doubtful Sound on an overnight boat trip.  (Doubtful Sound is on the western coast of the island, and is so named named because Captain James Cook felt, incorrectly, that it was too narrow and hazardous for his ships to navigate inland.). We return the following night to Queenstown, then set off by train across the Alps, with a hike across Franz Josef Glacier, en route to Christchurch in the northeastern part of the island.  So I will report back when I can….


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Big Rock, Little Rock

Alice does the Uluru traffic report

Our final morning at Ayers Rock was a helicopter flight over same…quite a highlight, I must say, as these things frequently are.  (We have in the past taken helicopter flights over Kauai and over Victoria Falls, both memorable experiences.). We were aloft for a little over a half hour, making a big loop that encompassed both Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  The day was a bit hazy, and although rain had been predicted — and hoped for, though not by us — it had not arrived, and all the suspended dust in the air remained exactly that.  Nonetheless, the aerial views of both formations were spectacular.

The pilots are supposed to remain a certain distance from Uluru, and ours bent the rules a bit and came somewhat closer than allowed, affording us a detailed view of the surface. Although Uluru is a monolith, it nonetheless has its own surface features, notably some eroded scars and clusters of rounded crevasses that serve as both the result and the channels for waterfalls when it rains.

I was slightly surprised to see how broad and flat the top of Uluru was.  The rock has a sort of bent oval footprint on the ground as viewed from above, and the top is essentially a plateau.  It is not altogether mesa-like insofar as it has a slight domed shape, but it is clearly plenty broad and flat enough to hike around on if you actually succeeded in making it to the top.

View from the helicopter… lots easier than climbing

We got considerably closer after I took this shot, but this gives a nice sense of the shape of the feature.

Our flight to Sydney was a just a couple of hours later.  Certainly the logistics were easy enough: the helicopter plopped us down at the airport, so there we were.

The flight to Sydney was about three hours, and two things struck me as I watched the landscape from the window.  First, the view drove home the fact that the population of Australia is even more concentrated on the coast than I had appreciated: basically, we traversed nearly trackless Outback until perhaps the last 15 minutes of the flight.  It was like flying over a flattened version of the Grand Canyon for three hours.

The second thing that I realized — and we learned more about this from the news after we arrived — is that Australia has a big, fat wildfire problem.  I watched a number of them from the air, some pretty substantial in size; one column of smoke that I saw I estimated to be at least a half mile wide.  And as we approached Sydney we passed through an enormous line of fires that was miles in length, with smoke blowing towards the city.  More on this in a moment.

We passed over part of this large line of fires, about 20 minutes flying time from Sydney, and I saw that the heat from it was so intense that it was affecting the cloud formations above it (still well below our altitude).  We started to turn slowly; I saw the shadow of our tail march along the wing.  I figured we were in some kind of pattern as we approached the city, though we seemed a little far from it still.  We continued turning, slowly, and after two minutes or so I again noticed the same fire-perturbed cloud formation.  We were well ahead of schedule, so I nudged Alice and said “We just flew in a circle.  Since we’re early I’m guessing that they don’t have a gate for us at the airport yet.”

Correct observation, wrong cause.  Ten seconds later the flight crew informed us that there had been an “aircraft-related mishap” at Sydney, and that all runways were closed.  That sounded bad: “aircraft-related mishap” sounds an awful lot like a euphemism for “flaming wreckage”.  They then said that we would be delayed for about 40 minutes until they cleared the runway.  Needless to say, we wondered, “Cleared it of what?”  Forty minutes didn’t seem like a very long time, though, considering our dire mental images.

Turns out (we learned after landing) that the “mishap” was an American Airlines jet blowing a tire on takeoff.  Rather than complete the flight, they dumped their fuel and landed again; that was the source of the delay. (Which I confess puzzles me. Obviously they can land with one blown tire — since they did — so why not just complete the flight and have a new tire waiting at the destination airport? Maybe the debris from the tire in the wheel well presents some kind of flight hazard.  Anybody know?)

Be that as it may, other than some confusion in hooking up with our driver because of the flight delay, we arrived at our hotel without incident.  It’s a nice place, very well located in the heart of Sydney (e.g., within walking distance of the iconic Opera House), but we were a little weirded out when we checked in.  The doorman and the desk clerk were sporting Afros, ridiculously colored vests, and peace-sign medallions.  And the TV monitor above the front desk was playing an old episode of — I kid you not — Gilligan’s Island.  Er…. huh?

It was then that we noticed the sign hanging behind the desk: “50 Years!”  Turns out that the hotel is 50 years old this week and so the management is having the staff dress up in what they incorrectly think is 1963-style clothing.  (In fact, that quasi-hippie look is strictly late ’60s, early 70’s.  1963 would want short hair, poodle skirts, pegged chinos, and the like.) the staff seemed game, for which I give them credit.

After breakfast we struck out on a dual mission: buy an opal for Alice, and tour the Opera House.  But the first thing that we noticed as we stepped outside the hotel was that the city had a particular fragrance. Alice noticed it first: “I like how this city smells.”  I then noticed it too: a pleasant, homey smell. And I remarked that this was odd, since generally speaking big cities (Sydney has a population of 4.5 million) do not, in general, smell much better than car exhaust.  But this one did.

About 4 blocks later as we approached the harbor we were shocked that there was so much haze we could barely see the famous Sydney Harbor Bridge. And suddenly the mystery was solved: remember all those wildfires I mentioned?  The city is blanketed in smoke from them, and it smells, well, like a fireplace or a campfire, which is a very pleasant smell.  But it is also bad news for the local environment, and fire crews are working overtime.  It made it very difficult as well to take any decent photos, though the haze lifted somewhat later in the day. In any case, it did not deter us from our gem quest.

Opals are pretty much the national mineral of Australia, as you know, and our travel agent had recommended a particular jeweler whom he knew. One needs to be suspicious of that sort of thing but it turned out to be a wise move.  It was a family business and we dealt directly with the manager, who is the daughter of the owner, and the store had many very beautiful pieces.  And so we of course ended up spending a very large amount of money on a very small geological formation for Alice’s finger.  The iPad’s photographic capabilities are very limited, but here you go:

Little rock, and I do not mean Arkansas

It is a solid stone, not the “doublet” or “triplet” opals that are what you usually see in opal jewelry; those are opal slices with onyx backings.  So this is the real deal, or at least my credit card thinks so.

One of the things that this particular jewelry story prides itself on is that they happen to own the largest opal in the world, a 17,700 carat behemoth (over 7 1/2 lbs) that they keep in a vault but will show you if you ask.  Since our travel agent knew the owner, we asked.  And so here is Alice’s ring in the company of the stone that she really wanted.

Let’s keep things in perspective, shall we?

Having successfully executed this transaction without having my card declined, we moved on to the Opera House, where Alice is currently performing in Carmen:

“Toreador, please use the cuspidor…”

We took the tour of the interior, which was spectacular.  The two main performing halls in particular were the two most beautiful concert spaces I have ever seen.  (Alas, one cannot take photos of them, so Google them at your leisure.) the floors are all polished boxerwood, which is a native (Tasmanian) wood.  And so it goes: all native materials and architectural motifs, quite stunning.

The building itself, though now a World Heritage site, was more than a little controversial during its construction.  Originally estimated to be built over three years at a cost of $7M, it took 15 years and cost $102M.  For those of you keeping score, that’s a factor of 5 in schedule and 15 in cost, a pair of overruns that even NASA at its most feverishly optimistic cannot match.  (The Pentagon, maybe, but it’d be way on the high end even for them.) The architect ended up being forced out by the government and replaced by a committee who somewhat surprisingly successfully completed the job.  The architect retired in pique to his native Denmark and has not returned to Australia in the 40 years since, thus never having personally laid eyes on his own greatest creation.  (They eventually named the bar after him, though.)

After leaving the Opera House we boarded a “hop-on hop-off” ferry that allowed us to cruise around the harbor and visit some of the better known locations.  We spent the most item at — I’m almost ashamed to admit it — the Taronga zoo since, as I mentioned in a previous post, other than a few wallabies, a herd of camels, and some parrots, we have not actually seen a whole lot of Australia’s famed wildlife.  But they have a wonderful zoo here, with a large section devoted specifically to  native fauna, and I am happy to say that we have now seen koalas, a wombat, a platypus, kangaroos, and an assortment of spectacular birds, even if under, um, captured circumstances.

Still, we are satisfied.  We will go back to the harbor area for dinner tonight (a jazzy Inner Harbor-like neighborhood called The Rocks) and tomorrow we take an early flight to Queenstown, New Zealand, thus ending the Australia part of our sojourn. So I will close our visit to Australia with this important advisory couplet from 1940’s humorous poet Ogden Nash, on the topic of Australian wildlife safety:

…But I would not engage the wombat
In any form of mortal combat.

Sound advice. Next post will be from New Zealand!

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | Leave a comment

Toodle-oo, Uluru

By the time we boarded the bus for a mid-afternoon hike at Kata Tjuka, the wisdom of having closed the Uluru climbing path due to heat was becoming apparent: temperatures were up to 102F.  As we gave our names to the friendly guide with the clipboard, he asked us whether we were carrying at least 1 liter of water each.  We weren’t, quite, and to my surprise he made me go back to the hotel lobby to buy an additional small bottle to bring us to our quota.

Frankly, this seemed a little melodramatic to me. Our walk was only going to be about 2 miles, not exactly a trek across the Gobi Desert.  Which in retrospect goes to show that I would have made a lousy and quickly dead Aborigine.

Kata Tjuka, unlike Uluru, is not a monolith.  It consists of conglomerate rock forming four connected steep dome-like mini-mountains, with a hike-able canyon about a mile long between two of them.  Here’s the whole formation from a distance:

Kata Tjuka. Gesundheit.

And here is the entrance to the canyon:

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

If you think that looks stark and forbidding, step up and collect your prize.  While the air temperature was a balmy 102, both the ground and the canyon walls are nicely reflective of the thermal radiation, so your little stroll is like a death march through a convection oven.  And it is dry, oh it is dry.  My oh my, it is dry.  It is dryer than Dorothy Parker’s wit.  It is dryer than Dick Cheney’s tear ducts — that’s how dry it is.

The plan was to go to the end and back in about an hour.  But the trail was very rocky and rough, the flies dense in the air — we resorted to wearing those mosquito net bag things over our heads, that we bought a day or two ago — and the conditions altogether punishing.  Alice lasted about 20 minutes.  I made it to the end and back in the planned hour, but I looked like Robinson Crusoe by the time I returned, and I had drunk almost all of my water.  So maybe the water requirement was not so melodramatic after all.  And maybe I am not Bear Gryls.

Lesson learned, we headed back towards Uluru to catch the sunset.  En route we passed a large herd (~25) of wild camels, some distance  off the road, mostly sitting on the ground sunning themselves or whatever wild camels do in their spare time.  Herds of wild camels! It sounds like a setup for a Far Side cartoon.  They were surprisingly hard to see; you don’t generally think about camels as being big in the camouflage department, but their coloration allows them to blend in surprisingly well.  They are the dreaded Australian Stealth Camels.  The irony is that after two weeks in Australia we have yet to see an emu, koala, or kangaroo in the wild (though we did see wallabies in Kakadu).  But camels, no problem.

We arrived back at Uluru about an hour before sunset, where the tour company had drinks and snacks waiting for us.  Here we are:

We rock.

That, of course, is Uluru/Ayer’s Rock in the background.  As I reported last time, its range and subtlety of colors is magnificent, especially so at sunrise and sunset.  At the suggestion of the guide I took a series of photos every few minutes as the sun set; watched in sequence, you can see the rock change color and the shifting shadows change its contours, e.g.:

Uluru/Ayer’s Rock at dusk. One of six. Collect them all!

Compare the color of the rock in this shot with the one in the background of the previous shot with Alice and me, taken 45 minutes earlier, and you begin to see what’s going on. And bear in mind that those trees are in the foreground; the rock is nearly a quarter-mile high! This photo was made with the iPad and is similar to one in the series that I shot with my “real” camera. As you can tell, it was quite a sight, certainly one of the highlights of the trip so far.

We head to Sydney tomorrow afternoon, after our helicopter flight over Uluru and Kata Tjuka. I’ll try and post this before we leave, then report on the helicopter flight later.  No idea what our Internet access will be in Sydney, but I’ll do what I can.

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | 1 Comment

Parting the Ochre Sea

…as in the color of the Outback. Much of yesterday was spent driving a few hundred miles through the Outback, from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, a.k.a. Uluru.  (The accent is on the first letter: “OO-luru”.) Internet access here is spotty so I may not have much online presence for the next couple of days.  However I will at least try to get this blog entry posted.

We were picked up early yesterday morning and drove for hours across red desert.  My earlier description of it as a Martian trackless waste doesn’t hold up particularly well upon ground-level inspection, since much of the landscape is densely populated with various types of desert scrub and an assortment of wizened trees: eucalyptus, coolibah, others.  (Remember the coolibah from Waltzing Matilda?  Once a jolly swagman sat beside a billabong / Under the shade of a coolibah tree…  It’s an unusual looking tree, with a permanent look of having been caught in a wildfire: the bottom half of the trunk is black as though burnt, the color fading to white about six feet off the ground.  The are few leaves, at least at this time of year, adding to the false sense of the tree having been scorched at ground level.

The Outback is wonderfully fragrant as well, redolent of some kind of desert sage.  And so, although the landscape was frying-pan flat for much of the drive, broken only by some distant hills, the rich red color and desert plant life nonetheless made for a beautiful day’s drive.  There was not a cloud in the sky, and the day of course was quite hot and dry.

We made two stops along the way, the first at an odd little snack shop/souvenir stand/hobby farm, the stars of the latter part being camels.  Yes, there are camels in the outback, thousands of them, having originally been imported in the mid-19th as work animals.  The climate is much to their liking, and although we have not seen any in then wild yet, they are not an uncommon site at farms and tourist venues.  At this particular venue you could rent them, for times ranging from a ride around the paddock to all day. No way were we going to pass this up, so we went for ride around the paddock.  (Alas, the kindly elderly gentleman who offered to use my camera to take pictures of us blew it, so I only have photos that I took of other people on camelback.)

Helpful hint: when dismounting a camel, be sure to grip the pommel with your arms straight and locked in front of you.  The camel gets down by collapsing his front legs first in a surprisingly sudden motion, and it is very easy to get thrown forward and off by getting somersaulted over the camel’s head.  You might get a high score from the judges if you stick the landing, but it is more likely that you’d break your neck.

Later in the day, relaxing at our hotel (about which more below), I noticed that my socks were covered in soft fine hair.  Took me a minute to figure out what that was…until I remembered that that’s why they make camel hair paint brushes.

We got to our hotel around 1:30, one of three beautiful single-story desert structures that are designed to blend in with the   landscape. The three hotels — ours is called the Desert Garden — form a small complex about 10 miles from Ayers Rock itself.  We could nonetheless see it from very far away as we approach: it is over 1200′ tall, oval shaped with a perimeter of about 5 1/2 miles at the base, in other words one big frickin’ rock, a huge red sandstone dome rising out of the desert floor.  It actually has a sibling living in the neighborhood, an equally large beast called Kata Tjuka a few miles away.  Both were formed about 200 million years ago from sediment accumulating in depressions at the bottom of what was then a huge lake. The lake dried up, the lakebed eroded away, and voila, the two big guys left jutting out of the landscape.  Kata Tjuka is composed of a conglomerate rocks and thus has a craggier and less uniform structure; Uluru is a smooth sandstone monolith.  It looks like the cocoon that Mothra hatched from.

Needless to say, the rock and surrounding terrain (Warraka canyon) are the sole source of the local economy, and so there are a variety of rock-related tours, excursions, hikes, etc.  Our first of these was last night, at the aptly-named Sounds of Silence dinner, when we were bussed out to the nearby middle of nowhere, to have dinner under the stars, far from any sounds or lights of civilization.  Upon arrival we were serenaded by a Crocodile Dundee-esque didgeridoo player, video of whom I will post later.  After being led to a set of banquet tables in a cleared area in the brush, we were asked to keep silent for a moment.  And what a fascinating moment that was: no traffic sounds, air conditioners, nothing.  Just the wind and the desert sounds: I could hear a few types of insects, some bird calls, and an occasional distant howl (dingo?).  It was pretty remarkable; I would have liked it to go on for a long time, but of course after a few minutes things got underway and people started talking.

The setting was otherworldly: we were in a clearing at the edge of a vast desert plain, with The sun setting behind Kata Tjuka in the distance, with Venus above it.  The full moon was rising over a hill behind us as the sky darkened, and dinner was served: kangaroo tail soup, followed by a buffet that included lamb, barbecued chicken, and of course wild kangaroo cutlets. To answer the obvious question, kangaroo tastes sort of like a cross between beef and pork, slightly sweet and kind of smoky.  It’s good.

The full moon was a decidedly mixed blessing.  It gave a romantic illumination to the setting, and was quite amazingly bright, in the absence of any other lights at all; I could easily read my watch by it, and you could still make out Kata Tjuka well after dark.  But that romantic moonlight pretty much killed the sky.  A local amateur astronomer was on hand to give a nice little talk about the sky, using a laser pointer to identify the southern constellations, and throwing in a mix of astronomy factoids and local lore.  He didn’t have a lot to work with, 80% of the stars being washed out by the glowing moon.  Still, the whole event was wonderful, rather otherworldly and quite the unusual experience.

This morning we awakened seriously, insanely early to see sunrise at Uluru, which was gorgeous.  We had a vantage point quite close to the rock, watching it turn shades of red as the sun rose behind us, at the same time seeing last night’s full moon setting behind Kata Tjuka in the distance.  It was just like in the postcards, just stunning.  You have to be up close to Uluru, and at the right time of day, to appreciate just how red it is, and how many shades at that.

After sunrise we took a couple of short guided walks around different parts of the base, and again we were struck by how varied and subtle the shades of the rock can be.  It is one beautiful monolith.

One thing we did not do was climb it.  There is a waist-high chain running up a route to the top, and it is no picnic: it is a steep, steep climb up that chain, nearly a quarter mile of vertical distance.  They close it when the winds are high or the temperature above 97F, which was the case today, the by sparing us having to make excuses for not doing it.

But the thing is, although the chain is there to assist climbers — and the ascent would be nearly impossible without it — both the park service and the local Aborigines strongly discourage you from doing it.  The park service sites safety and environmental concerns; the Aborigines cultural ones.  And so we heard over and over again, from every driver and every guide, that they really wish we wouldn’t do it but (assuming the path was open, which today it was not) we could go ahead and do it if we really really wanted to.  It is the Aboriginal Jewish Mother Guilt Trip: “Go ahead and climb the mountain if that will make you happy.  I’ll just sit here at the bottom and stick my head in the water hole, and don’t come complaining to me if you fall and break your neck, like happened to your cousin Wallentjaroo.”

The souvenir shops even sell embroidered patches that say — I actually saw this — “I didn’t climb Uluru.”  C’mon guys, if it’s that upsetting then just take out the damn chain.

We’ve got another visit to the rock later today to see the sunset.  And tomorrow morning, just before our departure for Sydney, we will be taking a helicopter ride over the rock and the canyon…major photo op, to be sure.  That should pretty much satisfy all our Uluru tourism requirements.

I may be offline for the next day or two until we reach Sydney.  I am assuming that I’ll be back online there, and if that is the case then I will pick up the thread.

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | 4 Comments

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