Australia/New Zealand

Almost Aloha (Which They Do Not Say Here) Time

Not George

It’s now Friday noon-ish as I type this, and we leave for LA late tomorrow night. The main event of the last couple of days was a guided island tour which, given the 20 mile perimeter of Rarotonga, might seem a little redundant in light of our circumnavigation in our own car the day before. (Traffic here is pretty thin, mostly tiny cars and scooters, and moves within the stately island-wide speed limit of 30 mph. School zones are 20 mph.) But this was not so, and it was in fact quite interesting and a great deal of fun, just us and our voluble driver George, whom you do not see here at left.

George took a number of little back roads up into the hills and spent a lot of time pointing out various plants, which of course delighted Alice no end and put her into a frenzy of point-and-clicking. He was very knowledgable about many of the plants, with odd gaps regarding the ones that the locals themselves found uninteresting: it happened several times that Alice would ask about some nearby bush festooned with delicate, colorful flowers and George would admit with admirable candor, “I have no idea. We call it a weed.”

We also learned about the unusual property laws here. Property stays within a family, is owned absolutely, and cannot be sold outside the family. By “owned absolutely”, I mean that local law reflects property ownership to a degree that would be astonishing anywhere else. Owners pay no property taxes of any kind and can use their property for any purpose whatever; you could, for example, theoretically knock down your tin-roof shack (and their are a lot of them) and lease — but not sell — your land to a developer to build a tall if extraordinarily skinny high rise hotel. You could also bury dear departed Aunt Velma and Uncle Mort in a large ornate tomb in your carport, and believe it or not we saw quite a number of those. In addition to these little onsey-twosy gravesides, there are a large number of small cemeteries on private properties scattered all over the island, all very well kept with lots of flowers, and many with attractive ocean views.

Location, location, location

You will note that nearly all of the graves appear to be raised. This is just a local decorative custom (George opined that it was to make sure that Aunt Velma and Uncle Mort stay there); the graves beneath are the conventional 6′ deep.

The law about properties staying in families has some unintended side effects. If a particular family member owns a property that he has no use for but wants to keep, the other family members can force him to sell it to them if it remains undeveloped. So what you see are a lot of unfinished foundations (this counts as “development”) put in place by property owners who have otherwise permanently decamped to New Zealand or Australia, holding the property against their eventual theoretical return and leaving assorted seething relatives in their wake.

We also saw a lot of dogs (indeed, have been seeing them since we first got here). They’re everywhere, mongrelized to hell and gone, and they’re all really relaxed. Despite their ubiquity, they are not actually strays; almost all have owners and return home at night, but simply have the run of the island during the day and seem to be generally friendly… real islanders, all right. There are a couple from down the road that have adopted our hotel beach as their daytime home away from home, chilling out in the sand and playing with the beachgoers. (The hotel staff gently confiscated a 20 lb bag of doggie treats from one well-meaning guest; they don’t want the dogs getting too comfortable here.)

Our tour culminated in a garden where we were served about the freshest island snack imaginable: papaya slices covered in shaved coconut and sprinkled with lime juice, accompanied by fresh-baked banana bread. Every one of the ingredients in front of us had been on the trees surrounding us minutes or hours before. In fact, I opened the coconut myself, leading to the obligatory “Inept Tourist Opens A Coconut” photo op.

I escaped injury, sort of (and yes, that is George on the right).

Getting the husk off was a first class pain in the neck, as I remembered from my Hawaii days, but the rest of the operation went moderately smoothly. (And let me preempt any snarky comments to the effect that I am holding the machete upside down in the photo. You’re supposed to do it that way, cracking the shell with the dull part of the blade so that the pieces can be prized apart without spilling the juice inside. I spilled it anyway.)

We pigged out on papaya and freshly-grated coconut.  That, as it turned out, did not sit so well, and my digestive system rebelled. (Alice was unaffected.) I was an unhappy camper for the next 24 hours, which took care of my previously scheduled scuba dive the next day but was otherwise a bump in the road. We didn’t have anything planned for today so Alice is having a spa day: mani-pedi and something called a water massage, which to me sounds like a euphemism for something that they use to quell a prison riot.

Tomorrow, our last day, is market day in town. We are told that it is quite the diverse and colorful affair, so we are planning on taking the bus into town to visit (that would be the anti-clockwise route). Our flight to LA is a red-eye, departing at close to midnight, and the hotel has kindly allowed us to stay in our room until our scheduled pickup at 9:30 PM. That means that our final day is a full day so we are hoping to get some beach time in — maybe a little afternoon kayak trip around the motu in the lagoon offshore from our hotel. If I get ambitious I’ll write a final journal entry about the day, but otherwise this is it for this trip. We’re in LA for a day, leaving about 11AM Monday and getting home at something like 8PM.

This has been a helluva retirement kickoff, and the list of amazing things that we’ve experienced is pretty daunting in retrospect: scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, helicopter ride over Ayer’s Rock, desert hike through Kata Tjuta, sunset dinner in the Outback, touring the Sydney Opera House, kayaking on Doubtful Sound, hiking on Fox Glacier, train ride across the Southern Alps, playing in a thermal waterfall, tubing 200′ underground through a glowworm cave, snorkeling on a Pacific atoll…it’s just what we wanted, and now we’re ready to return to whatever post-retirement real life is supposed to look like.

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A Dot in the Pacific

As I mentioned at the end of the last post, we are now happily ensconced in Rarotonga, which houses the capital and is the most populated of the Cook Islands. Which is not saying much: Rarotonga is a speck in the ocean, more or less circular in shape and only six miles across, with a permanent population of 9,000. Pretty much everyone lives on the coast, for the simple reason that starting inland barely a quarter mile from the coast pretty much everything looks like this:

The whole island looks like this

That is mist shrouding the peak on the right. This is our first full day here, which started out gloriously sunny but clouded over rather suddenly around 2:30 PM. Anyway, you can now understand why the population is concentrated on the coast. Everyone is connected by a single main road — only one lane each way — that runs the 20 mile perimeter of the island. There is also a bus line that has exactly two routes, indicated on the display at the front of the bus: CLOCKWISE and ANTICLOCKWISE. (See, here in the Southern Hemisphere the buses circle in the opposite dir…no, wait, never mind.)

We are staying at the Muri Beach Club hotel, which is quite nice, one of the nicest on the island (though, like everywhere else on the island, you still cannot the tap water, though it is safe to bathe and brush teeth with). It is only two stories tall, which is as tall as anything is here, and our room is on the second floor overlooking the lagoon that surrounds the island. It’s a nice big room and the view is tough to beat. There is a tiny island, called a motu, in the lagoon about 150 yards from our room, and the water is shallow enough at this point that you can with a little difficulty walk across. Alternately, the hotel offers free snorkeling gear and kayaks.

One of the big activities at the hotel — and throughout the Cook Islands — is getting married. This place is such a draw for destination weddings that on the immigration form that you fill in on the plane before arriving, where you have to check a box giving your reason for visiting, there are separate boxes for “vacation” and “wedding”. We have been here 28 hours as I type this, and we have already seen three weddings on the beach outside our room.

You’ll note that I said that the island is surrounded by a lagoon as opposed to the open ocean. There is a coral reef about a quarter mile offshore that completely encircles the island except across one small bay. The space between the beach and the reef is thus a quarter-mile wide circular lagoon the diameter of the whole island, warm and blue, dotted with coral outcroppings, and mostly shallower than ~10 feet deep. Pretty nice! Insanely photogenic, of course, and with lots of snorkeling opportunities as well.

Today dawned clear and warm with a glorious sunrise over the motu, visible from our balcony. Our big plan for the day was to borrow snorkel gear and rent motor scooters from the hotel so that we could putt-putt about 2 miles down the coast road to one of the premier snorkeling beaches. We had hoped to rent a 2-seater scooter so that Alice could fulfill her lifelong dream of being a biker chick, but they only had the smaller ones available so she had to drive her own scooter. Neither of us had ever driven one before, and told the desk clerk so, but she was unfazed, saying it wasn’t much harder than riding a bike, and she would check us out on them. The only criterion was that we needed a Cook Islands driver’s license, and you will not be surprised to hear that she could sell us a temporary one for $5.

So, Cook Island license in hand, we set off on our scooters on our great expedition, an adventure that lasted slightly under 8 seconds, that being the time it took for Alice to pull away from the hotel portico and crash into the fence that had been inconsiderately placed at the edge of the driveway. No damage or injuries except for her ego (plus having to cope with a somewhat irritated husband), but the desk clerk started smiling a little less and confiscated Alice’s scooter. This left us with a transport problem, but the clerk observed that a small rental car cost only slightly more than the two scooters, so we opted for that slightly less adventurous solution. (I still reserve the right to rent my own scooter later in the week while Alice is getting a massage or something.)

We snorkeled for about an hour, taking a zigzag route from coral outcropping to outcropping all the way out to the reef, a quarter mile away. It was excellent, not up there with the Great Barrier Reef of course, but exciting and fun nonetheless. The’s quite a diversity of fish (the largest about 30″ long), coral formations, even some giant clams. The water was warm and visibility was about 25′, pretty good though nothing like Australia. In short, a successful expedition.

As long as we had the car we figured we might as well explore the island. We stopped for lunch another mile or two down the road, at a place with an infinity pool leading to the beach. We sat at a table at one end of the pool and we rewarded with a wonderful view, all shades of green and blue: the pool, the lagoon beyond it, the sky.

And so we continued around the island, taking a leisurely hour or two to completely circumnavigate it. We passed through the main shopping drag in town, a slightly ramshackle looking area with a lot of what you might call “island character”. We stopped at a beach that was nearly overrun with odd little sand crabs, their bodies black and barely more than an inch across, but sporting orange antennae and one enormously oversized pink claw nearly the size of their bodies. Very strange and comical looking– I will have to look up the name.

And of course we stopped at a store that sold black pearls, a local specialty (as is true throughout much of the South Pacific). No purchases yet but I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And that was our day. We have not yet lapsed into tropical indolence but we still have four more days. Tomorrow we are having a guided island tour (I think we just did that, without the guide); on Thursday Alice is having a spa day while I go scuba diving. So we have managed to stave off boredom so far…


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Auckland from the Top Down

I’m not sure whether I will be able to post this before we reach LA; we are airborne at the moment, en route to Rarotonga for our final “decompression” stop (5 days in the Cook Islands) and I have absolutely no idea what kind of Internet access we will have, if any. (One likely possibility is that we will have access at some insanely exorbitant price. We’ll see.)

We left Rorotua by car and took a deliberately circuitous route to Auckland, choosing to swing by the eastern coast of North Island to see the Bay of Plenty, which really ought to be a geographical name in a sword-and-sorcery novel. Our destination was an hour away: the resort town of Tauranga, which has a long and beautiful beach that is overseen by a single low forested mountain, Mount Maunganui, that rises a mere 760′ out of the end of the peninsula on which the town sits. Its base hosts a nice park and playground as well as the trailhead for the walking oath to the summit. The town itself is a very pleasant resort town, with a main drag leading down to the beach, lined with restaurants and souvenir stores. Flanking that street are a bunch of low-rise rental condos like you might see in any American beach town. On the inland side of the peninsula is a cruise ship terminal, and the Something-Or-Other Princess was in port, causing the Tchotchke Factor of the souvenir stores to go through the roof. 

There was a farmer’s market going on, through which we wandered happily for a little while without actually buying anything: a typical assortment of local produce, cheese, venison jerky (can’t possibly be as good as yours, Jon H), and honey. (Brief aside: honey is a very big deal in NZ. You see signs everywhere for farm stores selling it, and they are so sensitive about introducing pathogens that they specifically screen for honey in your luggage when arriving in the country; you cannot bring it in.)

We stopped for lunch along the street (venison burger! I ate Bambi! He was delicious!) then drove down the beach for a mile or so until we could find a parking place so that we could stroll along the surf for an hour so. The water was typically azure if rather chilly, and there were a couple of small treed islands a few hundred yards offshore. The weather was warm and sunny, there were a few swimmers and kayakers in the water and lots of little auger, limpet, and cone shells on the beach… an altogether pleasant scene and we have a ziplock bag full of shells to show for it. The beach is a good five miles long, curving around to make a scalloped bay, and at least 100 yards wide; in short, Tauranga would make a great little seashore destination. We considered trying to talk our family into coming here next year for our annual reunion beach vacation, but the ten thousand mile distance might be a tough sell.

Auckland addresses its feelings of inadequacy

For the next few hours we drove through rolling farmland that became gradually more populated as we approached Auckland, which is New Zealand’s largest city by far: at 1.5 million people, it contains one-third of the population of the entire country. It also has 400,000 boats distributed over a number of marinas, and for good reason calls itself “The City of Sails”. It has been the home of the America’s Cup, and it is also the temporary home to the biggest damn yacht we have ever seen, a futuristic behemoth the size of a cruise ship, owned (we were told) by some Russian oligarch. But mainly it is the City of the Tall Pointy Thing, a.k.a. the Sky Tower, that you see here.

The Sky Tower completely dominates the Auckland skyline for tens of miles in every direction. (It was only about 6 blocks from our hotel and somehow seemed to be visible regardless of what window in the building you looked out of.) It was built — the word “erected” seems particularly apt — in the mid-90’s and at 1,075 feet was at the time the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere. It is still in the top 10. There is a rotating restaurant, of course, and you can even pay to put on a harness and walk all the way around the outside of the observation deck on a catwalk that I expect seems way too narrow when you are actually on it. The observation deck, which we visited, is about 720′ up and includes a few places where the floor panels have been replaced by inch-thick glass, so you can stand on it and look straight down beneath your feet, which is kind of an interesting sensation. (Aside: I initially mistyped the word “interesting” in that sentence, and the iPad autocorrect changed it to “intestine”. I considered leaving it that way because it fit oddly well.)

But the big draw of the Sky Tower, among the universe of crazy people with $200 burning a hole in their pockets, is that you can bungee jump off it. Oh, yeah! The bungee platform is a little below the observation deck at about 650′ above the street. The mechanics are slightly different from a traditional bungee jump since you couldn’t use an elastic rope that long without bouncing around like a yoyo and smashing into the building. Instead, the harness is a cable on a high speed pulley that allows you to free-fall for something like 6 or 7 seconds before decelerating you towards the bottom. Think about that for a moment. Close your eyes and count off six seconds: “One one-thousandth, two one-thousandths, three one-thousandths…” Seems like a real long time to be falling like a stone, doesn’t it? Plenty of time to think about whether that cable is correctly attached, at least if you can hear yourself think over your own screams.

Of course, the 360 degree view from the observation deck is superb and gives a good sense of the topography of the city:

400,000 boats and extinct volcanos on the horizon: Auckland

The volcano-looking object beyond the peninsula is a volcano, Rangitoto by name. It is dormant; the locals hope it is very dormant. We took a harbor cruise that went past it as well as one of the major yacht harbors and under the bridge that connects the peninsula to the downtown area on the mainland. Other than the setting itself, which as you can see is beautiful, there was not a whole lot that interested us though it was fun to be out on the water. We also took a city tour on a small bus, which was more interesting: we stopped for a while at a couple of the city’s better known parks (Victoria Park) and gardens (Winter Garden) as well as at the Auckland Museum, perched on a hill overlooking the city and featuring many Maori artifacts and a cenotaph commemorating the famous World War I debacle at Gallipoli. That slaughter (I had not known) included a large number of New Zealand troops. 

I should say more about the Maori; they are a very important part of NZ’s story and we have kind of neglected them in our focus on caves and thermal parks and the like. They are far more integrated socially and economically into Kiwi society than the Aborigines are into Australian. Part of the reason for this is anthropological: the Aborigines are actually very tribally and linguistically diverse — there are literally hundreds of Aborigine languages — which made the Europeans’ divide-and-conquer strategy very successful. To this day the Aborigines are very highly marginalized in much the same way that Native Americans are, with rampant alcoholism, nearly total unemployment, and a shattered family structure. 

The Maori have fared much better, in part because they are a single people with a single language (the language, by the way, being in the Polynesian family and thus very close to Tahitian and Hawaiian, as I think I have mentioned). They were literally able to speak with a single voice and thus hold their ground politically. The culmination of their efforts was the Treaty of Waitangi in about 1840 in which the Maori were given property and citizenship rights and, in particular, were given back significant land holdings that had been confiscated. (These lands are not marginal locations like Indian reservations in the US but are often in key and potentially valuable places.) The treaty was far from perfect and a large fraction of Maori are still unhappy with it, but it is certainly a fact, confirmed by our own experiences in dealing with people here, that Maori are very much integrated into the scene. (As I type this while on the airplane, my seat mate is a Maori, complete with geometric tattoos on his arm.) There are still significant problems but the contrast with Australia is very striking.

During our bus tour we stopped at a coffee shop by a lake where, as it happens, a Maori children’s performing group in traditional dress was setting up in preparation for some kind of TV documentary. One of the guys overseeing it — a typical looking Maori, very big and very tattooed — asked where we were from (we hear the question a lot) and told me that he had attended high school for a year in Maine. (“I arrived in January. They told me the temperature was 21, and I thought they meant Celsius until I got out of the plane.”) We chatted for a while until the bus driver shooed me back onto the vehicle.

Tattoos are very, very common here, heavily influenced by the Maori. Most of the designs that you see are of Maori origin, swirling, barbed-looking geometrical patterns. A lot of white people sport them and of course all of the Maori. Seem of the older Maori have very elaborate designs over much of their bodies; we have seen a number of people of both sexes, some old, some not, with the tribal designs tattooed on their faces. One memorable sight was a very old woman in an airport with designs on her cheeks and chin.

Our touring complete, we returned our rental car. We have driven 772 miles according to the odometer (1245 km if you want to be picky about it) and filled the tank twice….at a little over $90 (US) a pop. Driving on the left side of the road was a piece of cake — you’ve pretty much got it after a few hours, and after a few days your brain has adjusted so completely that you don’t even notice it any more. But filling the tank at nearly $7 (US) per gallon… that, I did not get used to. Watching the dollar indicator on the pump roll over into three digits is sort of a religious experience, by which I mean crucifixion. (In case you were wondering, the NZ dollar is about $0.85 US.)

We got caught in a hellacious traffic jam en route to the rental car return, which highlighted another facet of Auckland: lousy traffic. Auckland is a very pedestrian-friendly city, which means that it is a car-hostile city, and jams can get messy. One of the contributing factors in the downtown area is the way pedestrian crosswalks are managed: at some major intersections, there is a pause between the red and green lights when traffic must come to a four-way stop and the pedestrians waiting on all four corners are allowed to cross in any direction, including diagonally. This is quite the sight — it makes traffic intersections look like a marching band display at the Rose Bowl — but is not conducive to driving across town. There is a public transportation system of buses only, with no light rail and no Metro, but it is not fully fleshed out. It used to be more extensive but the city fathers, in some poorly thought out spasm of America Envy, decided that they wanted the city to be more like Los Angeles (we were told that one of the city counsellors actually said this) and that people should travel by car. I am happy to report that the city fathers succeeded: Auckland is just like LA insofar as being very spread out and having standstill traffic. But all in all it actually seems like a very livable city.

We were picked up by cab this morning to go to the airport, and I was surprised that the car was rather more luxurious than the others we had been in. It was not until we got to the airport and the driver informed us that the fare was included as part of our tour — which it very definitely was not — that we realized that we had taken somebody else’s cab, more of a limo actually. Which means, unfortunately, that there was some pissed-off tourist back at our hotel that we could do nothing about. The karmic scales got slightly balanced a few minutes later, however, as we entered the airport to be greeted by total chaos at the check-in desk because the baggage conveyors behind the counters were on the fritz. A fair amount of baggage-schlepping ensued, but we nonetheless ended up in our flight. In about an hour (as I type this) we will learn whether our bags did too. If they didn’t, well, it’s a tropical island, and a very tiny one at that, so we probably are not going to need a lot of clothes.

Thus endeth our sojourn in New Zealand, and the running-around-like-lunatics part of our trip, which has now been underway for a bit over four weeks. It has been, as you know if you have been reading this journal, incredible. The next five days will determine whether we are even capable of lying on a beach for that long (word on the street is: no), but we’re gonna find out. I’ll have one more blog entry after this one, reporting on Rarotonga, though depending on the wifi situation may post them both at once from LA on the 10th.


We are now in Rarotonga and we do have wifi, after a fashion. So here is the view from our balcony. How’s the weather back home?

No snow expected today



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Take Me To The River

We drove the day before yesterday from our idyllic B&B in Taupo to the town of Rotorua, about an hour to the north. Rotorua is the epicenter — both literally and figuratively — of what for lack of a better term can be thought of as “geothermal tourism” in New Zealand. And there is a lot of it: the local economy depends strongly on the fact that NZ sits on the well-known “Ring of Fire” astride the intersection of two tectonic plates (the Australo-Asian and Pacific plates, thanks for asking), and the fault line runs more or less straight through Taupo and Rotorua. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that Lake Taupo is the largest lake in NZ; it is in fact the largest freshwater lake in the Southern Hemisphere, and is actually the remnant of a monumentally gigundous volcanic eruption that took place 28,000 years ago. So you know we’re talking about a region with major league geothermal activity.

Which is another way of saying that there are geothermal attractions of one sort of another pretty much everywhere, and Rotorua is the jumping-off point for many of them. What this also means is that Rotorua stinks. Not that it’s a bad place or anything — it’s actually quite a pleasant small town with some very good restaurants that we enjoyed. I mean it literally stinks: the town is enveloped in an invisible cloud of volcanic gases, hydrogen sulfide in particular, that smell like rotten eggs. As Alice so delicately and accurately put it: “In Rotorua no one can tell if you farted.” Probably not the best slogan to hang your tourist industry on, but it does have something going for it. (And of course, after a short while you stop noticing the odor.)

There are a number of geothermal parks in the area, and we spent a couple of hours at one of the larger and well-known ones, called Waiotapu. Its particular claim to fame is a locally well-known geyser called the Lady Knox geyser, which goes off at precisely 10:15 AM every day. You may wonder how this is possible, since even the most famously regular geysers, e.g. Old Faithful in Yellowstone, cannot be predicted with that much precision. The answer is, that it is possible to cheat.

First you have to know that, left unmolested, the actual period of Lady Knox varies between 24 and 32 hours. The second thing you have to know is that the way geysers work is that they have a narrow throat where cooler water is trapped, capping the pressurized superheated water below it. The blob of cooler water evaporates, the throat is suddenly cleared, and the hot stuff beneath blasts out. As the pressure is released and the eruption ebbs, the water in the throat cools and blocks the entrance, and the cycle begins anew. And so as long as there is adequate pressure underneath it to support an eruption, anything that in effect clears the throat will cause one.

Soap-fueled geyser

The “anything” in this case is soap flakes. Soap is a so-called surfactant — we’ve moved on from geology to chemistry here, so please make sure you are registered for this class before we continue — which means that it reduces surface tension. By pouring soap flakes down the geyser hole, you greatly increase the evaporation rate of the blob of water that is blocking the throat and thus hasten the eruption. And so at 10:10 the friendly ranger comes out and gives a little spiel about geysers, and at 10:15 he pours a bag of soap flakes down the throat of Lady Knox — who, by the way, looks like a cute little volcano about 4′ tall, rather like someone’s high school science fair project — and steps away. A minute or two later soap bubble foam starts pouring out the top like an overflowing dishwasher, and a minute or two after that, FWOOOM! A blast of hot water and steam erupts to a height of 35′ or so, then eases up and continues spouting 10′ high for the next 15 minutes or more. Here it is in action (photo at left).

Well, this was cool enough, but not exactly earth-shattering. Alice was rather disdainful of the whole thing, having visited Yellowstone, and repeatedly pointed out that Old Faithful is much more impressive and does not require performance-enhancing soap flakes.

This, in fact, was a recurring theme of our visit to Waiotapu: every time we passed a boiling lake, or a steaming crater lined with sulphur crystals, or a white salt flat covered in silica, Alice would observe that the one in Yellowstone was better. I finally threw her into a smoking crevice filled with boiling mud and yelled “Is Yellowstone better than THAT?”

Well, no, I didn’t actually do that. But I threatened to, which worked pretty well insofar as I stopped hearing disparaging comparisons to Yellowstone. Anyway, we actually quite enjoyed it, and here are a couple of pictures of typical volcanic stuff that we saw there.

Smoking crater with pool of crude oil at the bottom. Alice says the craters at Yellowstone are better.


Boiling mud flats. Alice says the mud flats at Yellowstone are better.


Multicolored steaming lake. Alice says the lakes at Ye…oh, forget it.

Our next stop was our long-awaited jet boat ride, which as it turned out was a real highlight of the trip for reasons that are only partially connected to the boat ride itself.

The jet boat is an open-air outboard motor job that seats about twelve people on three rows of benches. The motor is, I believe, a salvaged Saturn V engine or something comparable, given the amount of noise and thrust that it generates. As it happens, there was only one other couple on the boat with us, a pair of ridiculously attractive Austrian 20-somethings who were seeing the country in a rental camper van. Our guide was a blonde, athletic surfer-type named Adam, cheery and knowledgeable.

This is probably a good place to go off on a tangent about the gestalt of New Zealand tourism. In a nutshell, Kiwis seem acutely aware that tourism is a major economic driver of the country and act accordingly. That is to say, pretty much to a greater degree than anywhere else we’ve been, everything is well organized, clean, and generally functioning the way it is supposed to. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing and, as nearly as we can tell, reasonably enjoy doing it. With the exception of one slightly crabby bus driver — the one who almost made us late for the Wellington ferry — we’ve been genuinely impressed with the degree to which people seem inclined to personally engage us, whether in casual conversation or when helping us out with something. (The waitress at the excellent Italian restaurant where we ate dinner this evening overheard Alice asking to borrow my reading glasses for the menu since she had forgotten hers, and came over to offer a pair of glasses that Alice could borrow. Tell me if you think that would ever happen in an American restaurant.)

Kiwis all seem to have an easy sense of humor and an (unfeigned, as nearly as we can tell) interest in us; the conversations always seem a lot more than pro forma. (I am not sure why this makes me think of it, but one pleasant farmhouse restaurant that ate at while on the road was called the Quarter Acre Bistro. The menu had what appeared to be a typo, offering a “1012m2 Salad”. I pointed it out to the waitress and asked what 1,012 square meters was; without batting an eyelash she said “A quarter acre.” Which, by god, it is.) Anyway, the attitude and competence of all the service people here — desk clerks, tour guides, and so forth — have definitely enhanced our experience. Adam, our jet boat driver, was a good example: he was knowledgable, even speaking a fair amount of Maori and knowing a lot of the history, and genuinely enthusiastic. He was vocal about loving his job and wanted to share his enjoyment with us. (He succeeded.)

Anyway, back to the boat. We headed downstream for about a half hour at a pretty gentle pace, meaning that the motor was roaring at only 100 decibels. Every now and then Adam would cut the motor and we would drift with the current, past forests and  dairyland and through a broad canyon with steep treed walls about 80′ high. During these times he would talk about the local wildlife, birds in particular, and even managed to draw a response from the woods when he did some bird calls. We eventually reached some shallows and climbed out of the boat into surprisingly warm water — fed by thermal springs, of course, hence the mild temperature.

Fat people and claustrophobes not welcome

Dressed in bathing suits, upper-body thin wetsuits, and shod in hideous plastic Crocs footware for protection from rocks, we hiked a few hundred yards though the river bed till we came to a slot canyon. And when I say slot, I mean slot, as you can see at right. At its narrowest point — and I say “point”, but it went on for some ten yards or so — the channel was less than a foot wide.

We moved along very slowly, as you can imagine, placing our feet carefully to avoid stepping into holes, as the warm fast-moving water tugged at our legs, sometimes only a few inches deep, sometimes as deep as two or three feet. The rocks, thankfully, were worn smooth and often covered with moss, so it was not hard to guide ourselves along the rock face with our hands. But it was a pretty narrow squeeze, no question about it; there were times when our backs were against the rocks and the opposite surface only as inch or so from our faces. (Why do we get ourselves into these situations? Two days ago we were doing the same thing, on our backs, in an inner tube, in a cave 200 feet underground. At least here the water was reasonably warm.)

The crevice went on like this for 50 or 75 yards, then eventually opened up into a clearing as the riverbed made a sharp right bend. There was a thermal source at that point, and the water temperature rose very noticeably. We followed the bend, enjoying the balmy water, and a few yards further downstream the gorge started to close up again, fortunately not nearly as narrowly as before. There was a fairly straight path along the riverbed through the next slot, and we could see our goal, which was this paradisiacal twin waterfall:

Now that we made it here, we are not leaving.

At this point, just before we passed through the crevice to the falls, Adam said, “OK, this is it. You are now six years old. Strip down to your swimsuits and go play.” Oh boy.


This was a little piece of Eden, which we felt we had earned by right of our arduous passage through the dreaded Squeezy Rocks of Claustrophobia. The falls were about 15′ high, thunderously loud, and — here’s the good part — heated by an underground thermal spring to a temperature of 89 degrees F. Niiiiiiiiice.

The operative word was “frolic”, as long as you didn’t worry too much about keeping your balance: they’re certainly not huge as waterfalls go, but water weighs about 60 lbs per cubic feet, and when you drop a continuous stream of many cubic feet of water from a height of 15′, it carries a fair amount of force. Standing underneath it was to get a hell of a massage, and though I am definitely not a massage person this felt pretty damn good. The pool at the base of the falls was maybe 3′ deep, so it was relaxing just to kind of soak in it and let the momentum of the water splashing off the cascade kind of push you around. There were only four of us plus the guide, and there were two cascades, so there was plenty of opportunity for everyone to play around, squeezing behind the falls or just lying flat across a boulder at the base and letting the torrent massage your back. Like I said, niiiiiiiice.

We stayed there for maybe 15 or 20 minutes and could have happily stayed longer, as you might imagine. Since there were four of us versus only one guide, we briefly considered the possibility of outnumbering him and simply staging a sit-down strike, demanding that we stay overnight and that he come back and pick us up tomorrow. But we were concerned that they had our credit numbers on file, and so the plan was regretfully abandoned.

Adam, being a Kiwi tour guide, knows how to operate every known type of camera, and so used our respective cameras to take photos of various permutations of us at play.

Come get us in a week or so.

Alas, at the appointed time we made our back out along the river bed, through the slot canyon, and into the boat. It was during the return trip, back upstream, that the “jet” in “jet boat” became important. This thing packs a 500HP engine and has a top speed of about 50 mph, which is pretty damn fast on the water. It either has an extraordinarily strong and responsive rudder or side jets for rapid steering, because the trip upstream was quite thrilling: we would, for example, come screaming at an angle at one or another of a pair of obstacles (say, two small islands in the river), when Adam would throttle down and turn the stick and we would suddenly swing abeam and drift crabwise, sideways at high speed between the hazards. The highlight — the big adrenaline rush — was when he would head straight at some imposing potentially fatal obstacle, say charging at 50 mph at a vertical canyon wall, then yank at the wheel at the last moment and send the boat into a high-G 360 degree turn in place. Pure thrill ride…Six Flags stuff, to be sure. It was a lot of fun.

So it was a hell of a day: geysers, boiling mud, high-speed boat ride, riverbed hike, squeeze through a slot canyon, hot water waterfall massage. Today we’re heading off to Auckland for two nights, our final stop in New Zealand before heading to the Cook Islands for five days of enforced decompression.


Categories: Australia/New Zealand | 3 Comments

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!

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | 1 Comment

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…

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | 2 Comments


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.

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | Leave a comment

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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