Friday, January 29, 2016

Christchurch; Akaroa; Boomerangs; A Beamer Biker; An Auckland Farewell Dinner; Back Home; "Ty, Don't Be a Blockhead!"

Christchurch, our penultimate stop in New Zealand, is the country's third largest city with 381,000 residents. It is often referred to as ChCh here. It was struck by terrible earthquakes in 2010, 2011 and 2012 which severely damaged buildings throughout the city and killed 185 people (all in the 2011 quake). The city is still rebuilding, and historic landmarks like the cathedral are still fenced off and awaiting reconstruction. We learned some of the personal history of these events when Suzanne wanted to visit a craft fair. I was wandering around and met a local artist, Dennie (Denise) McCulloch. A youthful and spry 90 years old, she has an infectious joie de vivre and an impish sparkle in her eyes.

Dennie lived on the hill above downtown ChCh, and on the afternoon of 22 February, 2011, had just left her house to check the post (mail) when the quake hit - her house collapsed within 9 seconds. She would have died sitting at her piano, but fortunately is here to continue painting watercolors and meeting people. I am proud to have on my desk one of Dennie's watercolors, this one of the town of Akaroa, to remind me of her indomitable spirit. 

This was ChCh Cathedral before the quake; today, the heavily damaged structure is surrounded by a tall, ugly wooden barricade to keep people from getting hurt if another tremor hits and it collapses.

Akaroa (pop. 567) was one of our last stops of the trip; it is a town on the Banks Peninsula east of Christchurch, and is a popular tourist destination. It can host as many as 15,000 visitors on a summer weekend, but was much less crowded during our visit. While walking around the waterfront, we met a young Scots guy named Hardie throwing a boomerang. We mentioned that he was really good, and he said, "I should be; I've been throwing these things for 20 years!" Surprisingly, most of his throws actually returned close enough for him to catch. 

Akaroa was originally intended to be settled by French immigrants, but when they arrived, they found that the British had gotten wind of their voyage and sent a ship to claim the area for themselves. But several original French cottages survive, many businesses fly tricolor flags, and menus include items like pate de fois gras and coq au vin, rather than Scottish haggis or English fish and chips. This church, originally Roman Catholic, is now Anglican. (Anyone remember Henry VIII?).

While on this day trip, we took our last N.Z. hike, up rugged Montgomery Peak. The trail began with a deceptively gentle grade with some amazing trees to admire, like this twisted tree which a visiting tree-hugger has latched onto. (Notice that she is neither sweating nor even glistening.)

In a quarter-mile or so, the trail steepened dramatically...

The view from the top, though, was worth every steep step. Oddly, even though this was a Saturday afternoon, we met not a single soul during our two and a half hour trek.

While I tried to catch my wind and stop sweating, Suzanne took a few moments to meditate.

The drive back to ChCH was typical: slow progress on narrow, windy roads. This is great motorcycle country, and we did meet one couple, Pete and Kristin from Dunedin, who travel extensively on Pete's big Beamer. They even bike around Australia, up into the bush on barely improved dirt and gravel roads. Like many Kiwis, Pete is a very friendly guy. I was admiring his ride when he asked if I was enjoying En Zed. Back home, admiring some dude's hog outside a biker bar might get you stomped... Actually, we met also two N.Z. Harley riders in Arthur's Pass; they were just pulling up to a bar/cafe, and I mentioned that back in the US, Harleys couldn't ever make it past a bar without stopping. I think they were amused...  

Have I mentioned that the roads here are different? None are very straight for more than 1 km. This keeps the speed down to a reasonable 62 mph in the straights and 30 mph in the corners, but since corners outnumber straights 25:1, progress across country can be somewhat slow. I have previously mentioned the one-lane bridges, one of which is shared with a train track, which must be "interesting" when you're coming back from the pub. It doesn't help when they drive on the wrong side of the road and give you a rental car with bass-ackward controls. My Lovely Bride was often laughing at me when I pulled out to pass someone and flicked the wipers on instead of the turn signal. "Hey, at least we have a very clean windscreen!" We arrived safely back in the city for a final dinner before turning in the car. MLB dressed up for the occasion, so I had to take her someplace nice. The restaurant at the Curator's Cottage in the city's Botanical Gardens had a fabulous tapas style menu, but we opted for the lamb shank and a delicious local grouper. 

We flew to Auckland the next day, and had dinner with our dear friend Sheree before departing for Oz and the USA early the following morning. We warned her about all the visitors she might be seeing after our praises of her native land get around our group of friends and acquaintances, and she hopes that you all come down. It had been a fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime vacation to one of the world's most scenic places, and meeting so many friendly New Zealanders made the trip extra special. I think I made a few brownie points with My Lovely Bride for planning and executing this adventure.

After 27 hours and three flights, we made it back to Orlando International. To save on 22 days parking fees, we had engaged a local driver's service (Jerry Schwartz of The Villages) to drop us off and pick us up at MCO. Jerry was super, and we recommend him highly. It's great to be back at home with our babies, Rudy and Gretchen. We are still recovering from jet lag, and my good judgment may be suffering a bit. One example: I was on the computer and MLB walked over and said, "Ty, what's that Avatar with the cute blond chick on your screen? Are you chatting?" "Love of My Life, I was simply getting some advice on some nice wine from Brandi, this helpful young lady on a wine web site. Do you think we can find space in a cabinet for 20 cases of some great 2013 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon?" "Ty, don't be a blockhead. You're at least twice her age; she's not going to meet you for a drink; it's highly unlikely she looks anything like that picture; and more than likely 'Brandi' is really some bearded 325 lb. guy named Bubba working out of a garage in Oshkosh." Smack!  Well, there go my brownie points... Sigh...

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Key Summit; Invercargill; Royal Albatross Centre; Penguins and Sea Lions; Moeraki Boulders; Dunedin; OMG!; "Haggis, My Dear?"

Our next stop on the South Island was to Invercargill, the southernmost city in New Zealand. But before we left Fiordlands National Park, we had a couple more hikes to complete. The first started on the Te Anau - Milford Sound Highway. It began in a delightful mossy forest; here we see an Intrepid Hiker working her way carefully down a steep hillside... the "trail" leveled out after this and followed a small stream for a mile or so.

Next was one of the most popular hikes in the park, up to Key Summit on the Routeburn Track, another of New Zealand's Great Tracks. Within the first mile was this small but lovely waterfall. The trail was far from crowded, although we passed a group of Americans our age that were on a guided REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) Adventure tour. 

The panoramic views of the Humboldt and Darran Mountains would have been spectacular in clear weather; at the top by a cold mountain tarn, with occasional rain, high winds, fog and low clouds, it was merely dramatic and awe-inspiring... 

Occasionally the fog and clouds would clear a bit for a good photo op; and in this case, a clear day would not have been nearly so dramatic...

This chilly hiker was elated in having been a well-prepared Girl Scout - she was ready for the wind chill factor with a fleece under her windbreaker, gloves and a hood to keep her hair from becoming too windswept... 


The drive to Invercargill was less mountainous than Fiordland National Park, but these next two images give you an idea that the scenery remained stunningly beautiful, if not as rugged...


At the bottom of the South Island of New Zealand, you run out of road. Next stop after this beach and the peninsula in the background is Antarctica, but it's a long, cold swim! (Oh, and again, there was not a single person in sight on the beach in either direction. Is there a theme here?)

The summer weather was getting milder down on the coast, and My Lovely Bride decided to dress in a more beachy style... 

This part of the South Island is very sparsely settled, so we had brought lunch in a bag and a salad for an impromptu tailgate at Cozy Nook, a tiny cove where several fishermen had their cottages. It was a scenic stop, and the food was yummy, but we had forgotten to buy plastic forks, so we ate the salad with our fingers. "Suzanne, no photos, please!"

Being out in the boonies, this was the only "facility" for miles and miles. It reminded me of the tres chic outdoor privy our friends Joyce and Sharon had in their front yard for months during home renovations... but this upgraded model even came with fresh flowers!  It was provided for the local fishermen, whose houses were perched on the rocks above the high tide line, and it was not without a bit of humor.  Note the writing on the door:  "Long Drop Lodge -Short stay only."

These windswept trees give you an idea of the winds that buffet this coast year-round. We are in the Roaring Forties, which describe the wind pattern that circles the globe between 40 and 50 degrees South latitude with almost no land masses to slow them down.

One of our favorite stops was at Curio Bay, where a petrified forest in the tidal zone is the spot to see endangered yellow-eyed penguins (affectionately called YEPs) (Megadyptes antipodes). We arrived before dusk and stayed for an hour, and had a front row seat for this guy's return from fishing. Others were said to be coming at or after dark, but hunger made us bid farewell before the rest of his clan returned to shore. This is one of the world's most endangered penguin species, with only 4,000 or so remaining. They are about 24-31 inches long and weigh about 12-18 lbs, and 90% of their diet is fish. They fledge at about 3-4 months of age and are totally independent after their first trip to sea. 

The next day gave us a chance to see one of the world's greatest travelers, the Royal Albatross (Diomedia epomophora), at the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula. We were fortunate to receive a semi-private tour with one other couple, narrated by an extraordinary guide named Suzanne, who lives near the world-famous albatross colony here. MLB is shown here alongside a life-size model of the Royal Albatross, with its 10 foot wingspan. 

We then proceeded to an enclosed viewing platform where we could observe three nests with adults sitting on incubating eggs or recently-hatched chicks. This telephoto shot shows the immense size of the adult albatross; the ranger is right next to the adult (could be the mother or father; one is always guarding the egg or chick and keeping it warm while the other is out fishing) and is holding this chick that had hatched just the day before our visit. Some amazing facts about these birds: 
- It can fly at speeds of around 75 mph
- At 7 months old, the chick weighs 22-25 lbs, heavier than adults, since they have been sitting around being fed by their parents and have not yet flown
- After the chicks fledge, they fly away on their circumpolar feeding circuit for 4-6 years, mostly never touching land; they fly and land on the ocean surface to feed on squid and to sleep
- Mating pairs return to the same spot where they were hatched and where they raised their young, often arriving a year to the day after they arrived to mate the previous season

We also got to watch these Hooker's sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri) sparring in a nearby cove. They are the most endangered sea lions in the world, and can weigh up to 1,000 lbs., although these appeared to be smaller young adults. Wildlife sightings like this are common on the sparsely-populated South Island. I was shooting this photo from a hide (like a duck blind) about 150 feet from these impressive pinnipeds. 

The famous Moeraki Boulders, unusually large, spherical rocks called septarian concretions, were nearby, but the tide was rising quickly. When I suggested that MLB go out and stand on one for a photo, the sideways look I received made me suggest dinner and wine instead...

Our last wildlife encounter was with another yellow-eyed penguin, this one between Dunedin and Christchurch at the Katiki Point Hide. We saw four of these cute critters there - three were in a nesting area, but this one was out for a stroll and posed like a Hollywood starlet. Love those pink feet!

While in Dunedin, we stopped at an artist's studio to look at some carved greenstone. Suzanne fell in love with one particular piece, a koru (spiral in Maori), representing new beginnings and growth. Ewan Duff is half Scot and half Maori, and is an extremely talented young man. (Hey, he's 45 - that's young to me.) Greenstone (Pounamu in Maori) is also known as nephrite jade, and is a hard, durable stone revered by the Maori; in fact, it is called a taonga (treasure). The stone was used for gifts, tools and weapons, and is found only on the South Island, which the Maori even called Te Wahi Pounamu, the Place of Greenstone.

We also stopped to see the famous Dunedin Railway Station, designed by George Troup, who earned the moniker "Gingerbread George" for his fancy designs.

Our stop in Dunedin was mostly memorable for an incident at breakfast and its aftermath. We were staying at a B&B overlooking the beautiful harbor, and while eating fresh cherries, we were dropping the big pits on our plates. Then I had a bite of crusty bread, and felt something odd. I dropped what I thought was another cherry pit onto my plate... it went "clunk". Suzanne said, "What was that?" OMG... a 25 year old crown had fallen out. I smiled and the look of horror on her face made my heart sink. I was... Snaggletooth! A quick call by the innkeeper to his dentist had us on the road to town; he had a cancellation in one hour, and it was Friday. Our plan that day had been to drive our longest day, from Dunedin to Christchurch, but this had top priority. We arrived at the office, the receptionist asked what the problem was, I smiled, and she said, "Oh, crikey! Let's get you in the chair." Dr. Adank came in, got to work, and in 30 minutes we were walking out the door, Snaggletooth banished, hopefully for another 25 years. (And for only $75.) I had mentioned to Dr. Adank about dentists in the US taking Fridays off to play golf, and he said, "What? I only get Wednesday afternoons to play golf!"

On the way to the car, this statue of poet Robert Burns reminded me of southern New Zealand's ties to Scotland. One of Dunedin's founders was Thomas Burns, one of the poet's nephews. (But that seagull on his head.... doesn't that bird have any respect?)

I offered to buy haggis (the delectable looking items shown here on the left), neaps and tatties for a memorial lunch in honor of Burns, knowing how much My Lovely Bride likes that famous dish of sheep's heart, lungs, liver and stomach, mixed with suet and oatmeal, but she shivered and said, "Sorry, Bud, we have a long drive ahead of us..."

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Te Anau; Kepler Track; A Walk Wire; Fiordland; Milford Sound; More Waterfalls

Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland National Park, was our next stop. We stayed in a self-catering studio apartment, and got to eat at home, a nice break from restaurant food. Our first day there saw us hiking from Rainbow Reach on the famous Kepler Track, a fabulous tramp in lush woods along the Waiau River. The Kepler is one of New Zealand's Great Walks, and follows a 60 km (37 mile) route through lush forests and over alpine mountain passes. 

The Waiau is alleged to have good trout fishing, but alas, I had left all my gear at home, so the fishies were safe.

There were a couple of foot bridges along the route, and fortunately it wasn't too windy; they were bouncy enough as it was with just the two of us.


We reached our destination, Lake Manapouri, with views of distant Mt. Luxmore and the Beehive. This is New Zealand's second deepest lake, having been scoured by glaciers to a depth of 587 feet.

The wetlands surrounding the lake have a wide variety of flora and fauna, and the colors were especially striking on this clear, sunny day.

On the return trip, Suzanne decided to step into the ferns for a photo op; I almost lost sight of her completely!

On one of our hikes, My Lovely Bride asked me to test out this "walk wire" across a stream. There are no planks, only three tensioned wires. My first reaction was, "Are you nuts?" Then I think I heard her say, "Ty, don't be a wuss... what's the worst that could happen? You fall off into an ice cold stream and either break a leg or drown... Man up!" Well, what the heck... and yes, we both made it across twice safe and dry.

I got a break from driving on our second day in Te Anau when we got tickets on a small tour bus based here. Our driver/guide, Jackie, was a self-proclaimed “Outdoor Girl” who had run a camp in a remote part of the park before moving back to town. On one stop for a short hike, Jackie showed us how to taste the leaves of a local plant that was very spicy, much like pepper.   

This was one of the cabins in the rustic bush camp where Jackie had worked and where we had morning tea and scones. She recounted that the sandflies were awful here at times; fortunately they weren't bad during our visit.

One stop along the way looked out over a wide glacial valley, but these cairns caught our eyes; the one on the left looked like a penguin, the other like an old man wearing a hat...

Our all-day tour stopped at many view points and a few short hikes. Suzanne loved this series of rapids and small waterfalls.

The trip through the mountains was spectacular, but we had to deal with occasional misty rain and low clouds all day.

This overturned tree stump made a handy frame for a portrait of My Lovely Bride...

Milford Sound, a World Heritage Site, is the most famous attraction in Fiordland, and N.Z.'s most visited place and was voted the world's top travel destination. Rudyard Kipling called it the Eighth Wonder of the World. Mitre Peak (5,560 ft.) is the landmark mountain on the left. Nine miles long, the fiord was carved by glaciers to a depth of 1,600 feet, and cruise ships can maneuver almost close enough to touch the fiord walls.

Our small tour boat came within about 50 feet of these fur seals (A. pusillus doriferous), but we didn't appear to be disturbing their beauty rest.

This shot of Stirling Falls (511 ft.) shows another tour boat getting up close and personal to the falls. Our turn would come shortly...

Our approach to Stirling Falls provided an opportunity for Suzanne to have a very cold, fresh water shower, but she declined and kept her fleece on... We arrived back at our room late that day and thoroughly satisfied with our Milford Sound experience. Next day we were heading for Invercargill on the south coast... and perhaps a peek at endangered penguins!