NEW ZEALAND 2022
Seattle to Los Angeles to Auckland
Seattle to Los Angeles to Auckland
September 27, 2022
Even though Christine and I have been planning this trip to New Zealand since June, 2022, it feels a little impulsive now that we've begun to actually move in that direction. Are we really doing this? If not, what the Hell ARE we doing? CK assures me that we're going to New Zealand. I feel excited about that but still a little odd. We're scooting around the planet with some considerable frequency, lately. Last Saturday we were fly fishing on a lake in British Columbia. Tonight, Tuesday, September 27, we are in Seattle preparing to board the first leg of two flights that will take us to the southern hemisphere, a first for both of us. That will happen tomorrow about 11 am. This first flight won't take us west, only south to Los Angeles where we will be on ice, so to speak, hoping for the one lonely Air New Zealand jet to show up. I expect it's like the airline version of waiting for the bus. We'll figure it out tomorrow.
Tonight we grab an early bite at The 13 Coins, an urban diner in Sea-Tac. It has its own naugahyde and black shirt vibe with line cooks in full view, fry pans periodically exploding into greasy flame. They are out of Ahi tuna and ice cream. Out. of. Ice. Cream. How does that even happen in the 21st Century? They just punch Asteroid Dimorphos with a rocket and forgot how to milk cows at the same time?
Our hotel room is comfy and the TV has Mariners v Texas Rangers, one of our last whiffs of local Americana for the next 3 weeks. Of course, the Mariners lose without scoring a run.
It's hotel breakfast again. I can't do the rubbery eggs or even use the tongs to explore the forlorn pile of greasy meat sticks they call sausage. That's a sad waste of a pig's life right there. I'll build a mix of fruit, yogurt, and cereal and wash it down with tea because coffee is never safe in these places. It may even be a decent insecticide. Once, months ago, I actually tried the waffle thing. It wasn't bad, really. It was fresh, hot, and willing to absorb absurd quantities of butter. But I'll pass on that. I'm trying to watch my girlish figure. The waffle cooking station always offers me cognitive dissonance. Decades ago we were promised flying cars and food replicators in the 21st Century. Instead, there's a waffle iron and a bucket of batter.
We're flying in the big aluminum pipe quite a bit in the next 24 hours. We're scheduled for a 3 hour flight to L.A., followed by 13 hours in the air to Auckland, punctuated by a 6 hour layover in the LAX airport. I want to be sedated. Luckily, a friend is retired EMT. He let me in on a not very secret secret, secret to me because I had no clue: that I can ask my Doc to hit me up with brain zonkers to send me into La-La Land to spend considerable air time in the Land of Nod, something much to be desired. Another friend advised me to divide the pills and consume them bit by bit until unconsciousness takes me away. Seems like good advice (thanks, Anne). I'll let you know how it goes.
SeaTac Airport is more crowded than we expect, this being mid-week in the shoulder season. When we imagine the madness that will descend upon this place November 23, just ahead of the Thanksgiving 4 day weekend, we consider ourselves fortunate. While I wait in the queues I entertain myself watching couples traveling with multiple toddlers and/or babes-in-arms. It's arms, legs, bags, bottles, and wheels poking out in all directions leaving a field of debris wherever they tread. Luckily we didn't encounter any toddler melt-downs. It was probably too early in the morning for that.
Our flight boards in an orderly manner but seems to take forever to leave the gate and slither out to the runway. Our plane is in a conga-line 7 planes long waiting our turn to line up with our nose against the wind. The pilot is a joker. He declaims, over the cabin PA, a long list of geologic wonders we will pass over on our way to Los Angeles. “And finally,” he adds, “the most awesome sight on our route can be seen just to the starboard as the plane starts its final approach the LAX,” ...pause... “The In-N-Out Burger.” There chuckles around the plane are significant, revealing how many folks are actually listening to his chatter.
As we float over Los Angeles I lift the shutter on the window. My vision is filled with the constructed works of humanity spreading in all directions until it blends into the smoggy distance. I don't recognize any of the neighborhoods except for the iconic 'Hollywood' sign and the downtown skyline. Our joker of a pilot treats us to a buttery smooth landing and soon we are loose with our luggage inside the sprawling monument to transportation known as Los Angeles International Airport. 48+ million travelers passed through here in 2021. It usually grinds 87 million.
This place is gigantic but it doesn't even make the top ten list of biggest airports in the US but it is the 3rd busiest. And it covers
3,500 acres, a town of its own. It doesn't have light rail transport between its 7 terminals like Seattle does. We're on our own to hike around to the International Terminal where our flight to New Zealand will depart. Along the way we run into this: an escalator running in reverse. The stairs to the left are the only way to go up. The moving stairs are descending.
We are blowing some cash on this trip for some creature comforts, meaning that we got some cushy seats for the 13 hour flight. This affords us access to something called the Star Alliance Lounge here at LAX. This is the proverbial Alice's Restaurant (you can get anything you want). All the snacks, buffet, cocktails, wine, whisky is ours for the asking. If we were 20-somethings we might go wild and stuff ourselves silly but those days are long gone. Instead we search for the showers. They have them and they are very nice. We take full advantage. After a quick hose down, back in the lounge, the public address system snaps on and advises us to make room for a crowd of people coming up from the floor below. Reason: there was a kitchen fire and the smoke is driving people away. Nice. My next plunder is the bar. The bartender is a Latino guy who loves to chat. I order an IPA. "I'll need to see some ID," says he, avoiding my gaze. "Yeah, seriously," I sneer. "Just checking to see if you're paying attention," as he shoves the beer toward me. Instantly he begins explaining how he needs to quit smoking. Another fellow on a stool chimes in with his story about quitting. This goes on for 10 minutes. In the end we all agree that cold turkey is the only way. An hour later I go back for a whisky but he's gone. In his place is a Latino lady with a perma-scowl, not nearly as outgoing as the gentleman was. She takes a $5 tip from a customer and drops it in her jar, stares at it for moment and genuflects, father, son, and holy ghost style. The scowl stays put and I get my whisky.
Our 6 hour layover is passing without a lot of suffering. A 30-something charming Kiwi fellow sits across the table. We get into a lively chat with him. He lives in Indiana now. What? Yeah. He gets that a lot. His name is Peter. He works developing Human Resources Technology. He gives us a short description of what that means but I can't repeat it. Not because I don't want to but because I don't understand it. We go on shooting the breeze with Peter for a long spell but our time is running short.
The Star Alliance Lounge is very comfortable with its low stress vibe and cashless plundering of food and drink. But at last the time has come to pack up our kit and make for Gate 155 where our plane is scrubbed and ready to pull us over to The Great Down-Undah. All goes well as we install ourselves in the posh part of the plane, the part installed with sleeping pods. Each one is decorated with various buttons and controls plus an entertainment center, giving it a space-age feel.
It takes a while to sort them all out. I have to ask a crew member how the table works since it is hidden too well for me to understand straight away. Everybody is stowed, briefed, and off we launch for 13 hours of high altitude bewilderment. I order a G&T while waiting for them to feed us. For dessert, I shall use my magic pills to knock me silly. But after the ice cream, of course, which is superb I must say. We're in the pipe, hurtling through time and space at 300 knots, most of it in a state of suspended animation.
September 30 – Auckland
The pilot gets us on the ground in New Zealand about 5:30 a.m. If you're wondering where September 29 went, I can only tell you that by traveling west we crossed the International Date Line thereby skipping a day. We are hoping for a quick skip through customs, too, but no. It turns out to be a maze of checkpoints, I think four of them, all needing to see passports and boarding passes. I lost track of why so many. Some of the questions on the Passenger Arrival Card have me scratching my head: “Are you carrying any dangerous weapons like firearms or knives.” Really. I should think a person wouldn't get through security on the other end with any of that. And what if the answer was 'yes'? “Are you carrying any poisonous materials or flammable liquids?” Who is going to answer yes to that? There were others I can't recall that came straight from Planet Goofball way out in the Bureaucracy System, all equally alarming. Here's a bit of the crush of humanity waiting to be processed.
At last the border officials spit us out into the general population. We look around the terminal a little bewildered from unfamiliar surroundings and subconscious jet-lag. Then we spot our driver. Phil is his name and he's pleased as anything to be taking us to our hotel downtown. We play 20 questions and he gifts us with some descriptions of places we're planning to see. Always good to hear other folks' impressions.
Our hotel isn't yet ready to issue us a room. No surprise there since it is only about 7 am. We will be homeless for a few hours in downtown Auckland. We can leave our stuff in their luggage rooms as we investigate our new surroundings like a couple of suspicious old cats who have been in their crates for a cross country drive. The day is dreary with a drizzly mist wrapping the buildings in gray familiarity. This is a lot like Seattle in November. It isn't cold, though. They've just had their first day of Spring a week ago.
As it turns out we're camped just two blocks from the tallest thing in Auckland, the Sky Tower. We are both getting soaked from the drizzle. We begin to imagine that a nice dry interior would be welcome, so off toward the Tower, we trot, hoping for an adventure that isn't so moist. We can't quite see the top of the tower through the drizzle but we trust it's there. As we arrive the advertisements featuring bungee style base jumping from said Tower are unavoidable. The people in these ads all look like their having a wonderfully exciting peak experience. We have hours to whittle away before our hotel room materializes so, what the Hell, says I. I find their desk and sign up for an 11:15 am 636 foot plunge through the New Zealand rain. Sam (Samantha) is our perky, helpful, ground-person who gets us suited up in an orange one-piece cover-all. There are 5 other victims in the room and we all look like human cream-cicles or some version of Dutch propaganda.
I'm the oldest jumper, no surprise there. Everyone else is a 20-something.
Next she straps on some over-built harnesses that cinch
up legs, waist, and shoulders fitted with oversized D rings and mega-carabiners. Clearly we'll be hooked on to something quite sturdy sometime soon. “So why did you decide to do a bungee jump today?,” Sam drawls automatically in her Kiwi accent. “I want to get high.” “Oh that's the best reason yet!” 'Yet', in this case is heard as 'YATE' by way of offering a little local accented flavor. With her magic marker she writes '#6' on my left hand, apparently my jump sequence number, and 84 on my right hand, which is my fully clothed weight in kilograms. Perhaps these numbers will help identify the body parts later. Up the elevator to the jump level. Here is a crew of three buff looking gentlemen all fitted out in harnesses of their own, looking terribly confident about everything. There is a winch here spun with a wonderfully crafted steel cable. This is the heart of the operation. The business end of this cable is attached to a D-ring about mid-spine on the jumper's harness. It is also rigged so the jumper doesn't spin around madly out of control as they descend. A length of about 6 feet of bungee provides a springy deceleration at the bottom of the drop. So, this turns out not to be a gigantic bungee jump but rather a controlled drop on a steel cable for 600 feet followed by 36 feet of bungee. And there is no rebound. They drop you right on the landing spot in one go. It's very slick. A GoPro camera is strapped to my hand in hope to get a decent video of my encounter with gravity. I mean to be a better subject for this but the adrenaline rush caused by stepping into blank space pushes all thoughts of photography out of my ancient brain. I'm chuffed to know that my adrenaline gland still functions well enough to give me this kind of a rush.
We don't jump the whole height of the tower, that is to say I don't. CK declines this particular adventure. The top would be 1,076 feet. We jump off a lower level. Standing at the jumping-off spot the drizzle feels like someone is slapping me with a soaking sponge repeatedly. Looking down through the mist, the landing spot is only partially visible, fading in and out like a TV picture from a distant station and a bad antennae. The Jumpmaster snaps me in and leads me to the edge. It's time to do it. I step off into nothing. The sensation of free fall is quickly interrupted by my accelerating self catching up with the lazy floating drops of rain. At 32.1740 ft/s2 I overtake them in a heartbeat. I am soon getting a face washing of ice water coming from below as if from a shower head attached to a fire hose. The harness pulls tight as the winch brakes kick in and the bungee stretches out to drop me on the deck with the same energy as tossing a sweater on a chair. Sam is there to beam a cheery grin at me and snap me out of the harness. "This gives a whole new meaning to the term 'rain drop'", I quip. "HA! I'm gonna use that one later!", she snorts. Christine is happy to see me, I think. If the cable had failed she would be going through my pockets for loose change.
Cheap thrills being the Order Of The Day, we press our luck hoping for our room to be available. We shuffle through 4 blocks of rain back to the hotel and voila!, the room is ready and they've already moved our luggage up there. Sweet. On the way I spotted a barber school offering low price (should I say cut-rate?) hair styling. It opens at 1 pm so I plan accordingly. I need my ears lowered. The base jump didn't cause me to loose enough hair in the proper places.
I arrive at the barber school at 1:05. It's already crowded. I think I'll have to wait but, lucky me, there's one kid free to take me. His name is Shane. He looks about 23 to me but he's only 17. He's a musician with skills in drums, bass, and piano. He's a native Aucklander. He's never heard of Lopez Island. Doesn't know where Victoria B.C. is. I have to produce it for him on Google Maps. He's just a kid, sure. He gave me a good cut and even though it is no charge, I tip him about $15. Bargain. And now I can romp around the spa in Rotorua without my silly bits of hair getting in the way.
CK is excited to try the pool at this City Life hotel. More accurately she is excited to try the pools at ALL the hotels we stay in. This particular hotel advertises its pool as heated. This seems attractive until she arrives. Slipping down the ladder she encounters something resembling tepid soup. This pool is warmer than 90F. Too much, even for CK. Determined to take her aqua-exercise she soldiers on and gets it done, though feeling more than a bit like boiled fish at the finish. On a scale of 1-10 CK rates it a 7. It gets a mark as high as that due to the modern facilities. One down, half dozen to go, I figure, not including the many hot pools, plunges, and spa opportunities down the road at Rotorua. I expect this could be CK's Happy Place.
We dine out at a spot near the hotel the CK finds online. The atmosphere of Tony's has some character but the food is unremarkable. I order a Martini but they are out of olives. Out of olives on a Friday night. Insert your favorite expletive denoting incredulity here ________. CK orders apple pie for dessert. This pie doesn't have a normal pie crust. Instead ,the baked apple is enveloped in sponge cake. It is edible but we just don't identify this with pie. My best experience at Tony's is Clevedon Oysters, a local fish. Very fresh and worthwhile. But I think this is a one and done.
Tomorrow we take a launch out to an island in the harbor famous for fleecing tourists. We want to let them take a crack at us.
Auckland & Waiheke Island
Our first full day in New Zealand begins at the City Life hotel in downtown Auckland. Our goal is Waiheke Island, about one hour across the sea by ferry. We must arrive at the waterfront before 9 am to make decent use of the day. We're on foot using Google as our guide but it gives us a merry chase in circuitous directions. Google Maps is usually very reliable but not today. We're taken far out of our way in the wrong direction. The weather adds to the annoyance. Rain and wind is the order of the day again. We're wearing our foul weather gear with hoods pulled up and umbrellas out. They are the tiny, weak collapsing kind of bumbershoot that can blow up at any moment. They are tested to the max in this weather.
Despite the extra steps caused by an errant Google we arrive at the ferry terminal in plenty of time to catch our boat. Here we expect to be two of only a few tourists determined enough to go to Waiheke in a rain storm. Surprise! A tarted up and heeled Hen Party, also known in these parts as a 'Hen-Do' arrives twittering and squeaking across the puddles. Our guess is Bachelorette Party and they seem determined to do some damage to some liquor bottles somewhere. Then another group like this shows up. And behind them is group of bros, also out for a drunken romp. We used to call this a Stag Party. Not sure if this is the correct term these days.
We're peckish, too. Our hotel isn't one to offer pseudo-food in the morning. Happily there's a small snack service on the ferry. Sadly they offer nothing really worthwhile. But putting something down the gullet seems to be called for so we obtain some peanuts and a couple of oily blueberry muffins encased in plastic with tea and orange juice to coax it down. The engine roars and off we go, into the stormy weather, bouncing along like an oversized waterski boat toward Waiheke. This island is cottage country, dotted with vacation homes. It's also a playground for Aucklanders and anyone else looking for upscale restaurant experiences and catered events.
After an hour of wave hopping through the driving rain we exit onto the island at the village of Matiatia. Our choice for transport is the Hop-On/Off Bus that routes the main road away from the port and back again. The
driver describes the wonder vistas that we cannot see because of mist and rain. The water streaming across the bus windows presents a wet landscape through an impressionistic filter. Tree branches, heavy with rain, periodically slap the top of our double deck bus. The driver informs us that during summer there can be 30,000 people on this island on weekends. Wow. The road across this island must be one enormous traffic jam.
While on the ferry we get some help. On recommendation from two friendly island residents, one an expat American from Chicago, we decide to investigate the Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant. The bus drops us in their parking lot. We are the first customers. For a moment it looks like we
may have the whole restaurant to ourselves. But soon it becomes clear that we are just a few minutes ahead of the noon rush. Tables are soon filled.
Our table is next to a large window with the storm swishing wind and rain across our view. We feel a breeze through the wall.
There's a leaky roof just two feet to the right making a persistent puddle on the tile floor. There's a radiant heater overhead to keep us cozy despite the structural flaws. Our lunch is half a dozen oysters on the half-shell, crispy fried squid, lamb rump with sauce, and a cheese plate adorned with grapes. We both order glasses of local reds, a Cab and a Syrah. We can ignore the drippy ceiling and the draftiness because the food is amazing and the service lovely. We can't linger, though, because we want to visit one other spot and the bus must be caught on its next loop around or we'll run out of time. Away we stumble through the rain.
The bus makes us wait in Watiatia for 20 minutes before it rolls us out to The Heke Distillery & Pub. This is a busy place, even in stormy weather. We stroll through the premises not seeing anywhere to reasonably alight until we come to a halt next to the bar. Turning to survey our situation and consider our options we are tapped from behind by a tall fellow who invites us into the 'library', a cozy corner of the pub next to the bar. He introduces himself. He is the owner, Mark. He has studied at the University of Washington and lived in Los Angeles for a spell. He's even been to the San Juan Islands, our home base. He treats us to full descriptions of the three single malts he crafts here.
They are made with various degrees of peatiness and rest in bourbon or French oak casks for 5 years without any climate controls in the aging room. I go for their sampler, a flight of 3 different flavored drams with a lager chaser, a Boilermaker. CK orders bourbon truffles and Mark provides a honey bourbon on the house. He explains what Waiheke means. Wai is water. Heke has several meanings depending on context. With respect to today's weather it could easily mean 'falling', as in Falling Water. We enjoy chatting with Mark and thank him profusely for making our day with his excellent hospitality. Lucky us!
We are tempted to stay longer than we should most likely because the lovely whisky is beginning to fog our minds. But we come to our senses when we realize that we must catch that bus before it stops running at 4 pm. I grab Mark's portrait on the cell and off we stumble through the driving rain toward the bus stop. But our bus doesn't seem to be arriving when we need it to. Lucky us, we find a shelter at the bus stop that keeps us quite dry. Our Hop On/Off bus should be showing up but it doesn't.
Instead a local island bus rolls up to the bus stop. The driver sees us in the shelter and opens his door. We don't have the proper pass card, of course. I ask if we can pay him to take us to Matiatia. He smiles and waves us on, motioning us to sit down. He delivers us to the dock in plenty of time to catch the boat. Awesome.
Lots of folks are trying to get off the island. Too many for one boat and the line gets cut off before we can board. We have to wait for the next sailing. In total we wait 45 minutes in a queue on the dock. All the while I'm trying to imagine the madness this becomes in summer with the crowds in full press. Yikes.
On board, the Hen and Stag Parties are here again for the ride back but in an altered state of consciousness. The ladies take a table, plop a 12 pack in the middle with a bag of chips and consume the lot while chattering simultaneously. The boys are drunk as a gang of landlubbers in the grog locker. They screech old Bon Jovi hits a capella. Lucky us, they don't remember but only a fraction of the lyrics.
Back on shore our walk back to the hotel is far more sensible and direct. We have none of the confusion we experienced in the morning. It all makes sense now, somehow. Our confidence in Google is seriously damaged.
There is no evening meal tonight. We're still quite content with our superior quality lunch and Waiheke whisky experience.
Tomorrow we obtain our own wheels and try to drive on the wrong damned side of the road.
Hobbiton Movie Set
The weather man lied. It is supposed to rain today, all day, according to the mojo wire, interwebs, Google, evening news, et al. Not. A bright sun sweeps over a soggy Auckland landscape and we feel lucky for it. The atmosphere feels thicker, though. From day one we noticed the air being dense in a sub-tropical way. Increased solar radiation today is giving it an extra little punch.
It is Sunday morning. Everything is closed. Even the Dunkin' Donuts isn't stirring. We realize our blunder now. We failed to cadge any muffins or crumpets the previous evening for morning bites with our hotel room tea. Instead, we'll redirect our energy to getting out of town.
Our first job is to walk to the car-for-hire joint. Our usual mode of travel in foreign countries doesn't involve rental cars. We are typically on foot or hunting out the public transport. But that won't work here in NZ. We need to pilot our own wheels. The main worry with this is the upside-downness of it all. We are accustomed to driving on the right -hand side of the road while this country does it like the UK, that is, the left side. This tyrannical challenge to our habits gives us both some fits. We think we will be ok...but... what if we have a lapse of concentration and drift back into the US way of doing things? We may find ourselves in deep do-do really quick. CK takes the wheel first. I'm tasked with relaying navigational data and providing commentary on which lane to go to after crossing intersections. Things go pretty well, no silly blunders. But it does become hilarious whenever CK goes to use the turn signal. I can tell when she is planning to turn: the windshield wipers spring to life. All day she is doing this. She can't stop. She says she knows the turn signal is on the right side of the steering column but reflexive habit makes her flick the left control and the wipers commence. HA!
We are percolating with What Are We Doing In The Left Lane Tension as we roll out of town in a new Kia sedan. We want to get to our next stop in one piece with no scratches. We're looking forward to this: the Hobbiton Movie Set from the “The Hobbit”. We'll drive for about 2 hours to get there. CK has the wheel and gets us safely there despite my passing out for 30 minutes. There's only one highway. Can't get lost, really.
This set is located on a sheep farm. The owner, a fellow named Alexander, was charmed by Peter Jackson into giving up a chunk of his pasture for movie production during the filming of “Lord of the Rings”. A Hobbiton set was constructed for that film and then totally struck, or demolished, afterward. Years later, when “The Hobbit” was being planned they decided to rebuild Hobbiton in that spot but this time with more permanent construction and more Hobbit village for touring. And this is what we see today. It isn't the original LOTR set. I didn't know that.
All of the Hobbit Holes are facades. None of them have finished spaces beyond the doorway. Some have just enough room for an actor to make an entrance or exit, but nothing more than that. The homes are built in different scales depending on how they would be used in the film. If they were to be part of the backdrop they were made small. If actors were to interact with them they were scaled much larger. Various Holes are staged by the designers to reflect the occupation of the 'owner'. We see an apothecary, a beekeeper, a baker, a fisherman, a weaver, and even the town alcoholic. On the highest hill in Hobbiton we find Bag End, the home of Bilbo and later, his nephew Frodo. They actually filmed the auction scene on this spot, not in a studio.
We are here in Spring and flowers are blooming, birds are singing, butterflies are buttering, lambs and fresh grass are everywhere. This must be the perfect moment to see Hobbiton. There's a couple of pheasant roosters parading about, fairly well habituated with humans. They don't fly off. Perhaps they've had their flight wings trimmed, I'm not sure. They don't seem disturbed by the tour group except to give a snooty crowing sound and an indignant wing flap in our direction.
Yes, we must travel with a tour guide. We aren't allowed to simply romp around Hobbiton, investigating every chink in it. We have a minder who keeps up a continuous rap, telling us stories of how Bilbo's Party Scene was managed, for instance. This required dozens of extras, men, women, and children to be on set and in celebratory mode for 3 days. Children were given unlimited access to sugary sweet snacks and drinks to keep them hyped up. Adults were given 'beer' which kept them 'drunk'. I put these terms in parantheses because they were served only 1% beer. The adults believed that it was real beer and acted just as loaded as if it were the real thing. Placebo power! Tricksy characters, these film guys. And, yes, if you were wondering, the Party Tree is a real live thing.
The best thing on the set is the Green Dragon Inn. It's the most wonderful building of its kind ever.
I hope the photos do it justice because this is the pub that dreams are made of. The artistry and craftsmanship that went into it gives me reassurance for the future of humanity. It is awesome. They offer Hobbit Style Feasting here on weekend evenings. I'll wager its perfectly magical. But we couldn't do it. Our schedule takes us onward, down the road to Rotorua for our next sleep.
When we wake tomorrow, we'll be in a town known for volcanic activity in the form of hot springs and spas. We may even splash around in something spa-like and hot. We'll also tour a traditional Maori village.
“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Rotorua, New Zealand
Yesterday we left Hobbiton in dappled sunlight, quite beneath notice, and urged our white Kia sedan toward Rotorua. CK does the driving, I the navigating. We grab a pub-ish meal at a local bar with a likely sounding title, The Pig and Whistle. It is nothing remarkable. A rugby match adorns one television screen and a drunken Red Bull Soap Box Derby from 2019 infests the other. But I am making a note to myself to investigate the preparation of Harissa, a pepper paste from NW Africa. The chicken in my salad is painted with it and I'm now a fan.
Our hotel is motel-ish. It advertises spa treatments and massage. The room comes with an over sized soaking tub. There's a well appointed kitchenette that we take full advantage of for tea, coffee, and reviving left over road food bits. Rain begins to pelt the place just about bed time. This continues all night, a real frog strangler.
In the morning the rain lets up a little as we venture out to the coffee shop that CK scouted out for breakfast the previous evening. Breakfast needs to be efficient. We have a morning tour at a place called 'Te Puia'. In the Maori tongue this is simply “The Hot Spring”. This is an all Maori operation and quite well done. Our tour guide is a young Maori lad with a heavy NZ accent. He has a lot to say and he says it rather quickly. I feel that his chatter is flying past me and I haven't the reflexes to catch it. Our first stop on the tour is to visit their Kiwi Preservation project.
This is an attempt to breed and raise this super-endangered bird, native to New Zealand. For many thousands of years it enjoyed a world free from predators and therefore lost its ability to fly. It became a plump, slow moving thing of about 2 kilos, quite unaware of its deliciousness. When humans arrived they began to hunt it. When Europeans brought their dogs and cats, the fate of the Kiwi began to look very similar to the DoDo. Now the Maori are trying to block their extinction with this project. The birds are kept in terrariums, away from sunlight. Their day is controlled artificially. During tourist hours their lights are turned off to simulate night. This makes them more active. Tourists view them through glass walls in very dim light. Photos are prohibited. In these conditions you might imagine that they are difficult to spot and you would be right. It's extra devilish to see them amidst the murky shrubbery in their terrarium. But we manage to get some good looks with a modicum of patience.
Exiting the Kiwi Project, our guide steers us to the hot springs. This looks like Yellowstone Park with steamy hot water, bubbling mud holes squirting boiling slop, and scalding geysers all bunched together in a small area. A demonic flavor of hydrogen sulfide camps in our heads. We've gone from The Shire to Mordor in 24 hours. Our guide is speaking but I can scarcely hear him over the hiss of steam vents all around us. I can't see him half the time due to the white mists rolling by. We are to stay on the paths and observe the warning signs. If we fall into a hot geyser, nobody is coming to save us, he warns.
He ushers us into a Maori meeting house for a quick cultural primer and a look at the hundreds of wood carved images depicting mythical beings and ancestors from an idyllic past. The best science has the Polynesians arriving in New Zealand about the beginning of the 14th century. Ancestral connections, we're assured, are older than that.
There is an artist's school here where stone carvers, wood carvers, and weavers are trained in ancient style and technique. That isn't to say that modern tools aren't in use but the way they use them honors the old ways, we are told.
Lastly we visit their art gallery where finished masterpieces are on offer for not inconsiderable sums. Most sculptures and weapons are less than $10K and some are NFS. Proceeds go back to supporting the center and to train artists. I meet the cat in charge of the gallery today, Tipene Oneroa. A muscular, friendly fellow in his late 20's. He shows us around to the student produced items and we get some personalized insight. He explains some of the symbolism, the purpose of some objects, and some stories of his own path as a stone carver. Really good stuff.
By now we've spent more than 3 hours here and all of it was fascinating and different than just about anything we've encountered in our travels. Outstanding. And now our ancient persons need a little rest before the afternoon excursion. We slip back to the motel-ish hotel for a short timeout and a lie-back.
Soon we're back in the auto on our way to a hot spring bathing experience at a place called 'Hell's Gate'. This is a commercial spa zone featuring mineral baths and volcanic silica mud experience. Here are families with kids, young, and old taking a soak in the tepid water. I wouldn't say it was very hot, only about 95F. We enjoy this for what it is but we can't help comparing it to 'The Blue Lagoon' in Iceland. We're fatally spoiled in this area. With any luck we'll be back at the Blue Lagoon, boiling our bones in April, 2023. Stay tuned!
The evening meal is at an Italian themed place near our pad, Urban Gusto. Like everywhere else in the world they are working with a skeleton crew. Service is ok but stretched thin. We are there early, as is our habit, therefore we don't experience the true impact of short handedness on their part. CK orders a glass of red and I ask for a Hendrick's Martini, up with olives. The young lady taking our order asks me to repeat my request. She scribbles madly on her pad. Off she goes but comes back in 3 minutes asking me to describe how to make this drink. As I explain I'm thinking that maybe the bartender doesn't know how to do it. 10 minutes later the bartender appears at table to ask me the same question. It turns out that he not only doesn't know how to make a gin Martini but he does not know what Vermouth is. I don't even mention bitters or olive juice. Curiouser and curiouser. So I tell him that I would like two shots of Hendrick's Gin with two bits of ice and three green olives. That will do. Hilarious! This is only the second bar I have encountered that did not serve Martini. The first was in Quebec City. They knew what a Martini was, they simply choose to serve neat gin instead. We had nice plates of food, albeit Italian-esque, not quite European style but tasty just the same. And it is pouring rain again which compels us to sprint, senior citizen style, to our Kia car.
Tomorrow we are out the door early with two hours drive to get to Napier.
Cheers for now.
Rotorua Motel-ish Hotel: There's a corrugated roof over the spa tub next to the bedroom. The rain uses this as a snare drum for hours. Luckily we are exhausted enough that it doesn't matter much.
We are up with the crows packing the car for a drive to Napier on the east coast of the south island. There happens to be sunshine after that downpour last evening. We're grateful for it.
We have more Left-Lane-Tension navigating south on the main highway. This is a two lane track carrying large trucks and buses. As you might imagine, this gets a little hairy as a double trailer semi appears in the opposite lane murdering the speed limit on a sweeping curve. I haven't mentioned this before but I will now. Since we began driving NZ highways we have passed about 10 thoroughly trashed and abandoned wrecked cars along side the road. Some are adorned with caution tape. We're wondering if they've been left there on purpose as a visual reminder to stay alert or if Covid has simply decimated all the towing services. It is a mystery.
We speed past farms, orchards, and scads of sheep and cattle. We also see vast pine tree farms. CK points us toward a roadside attraction. Huku Falls is a few minutes off the main road but worth the time. The Waikato River is normally 100 meters wide but here it gets pressed into a slot 15 meters wide. The result is some madly focused liquid energy that threatens to shake the earth. Further on CK pulls into a scenic overlook featuring another chunk of falling water. This one is Waipunga Falls. This one seemingly sprouts from out of dense forest from two directions into a deep draw that isn't visible from our standpoint.
More miles roll by. We inspect the landscape and declare that it isn't boring. There is no flatness here. Everywhere we see rolling terrain gardens and sharp pointed hills. A lot of it looks to be under cultivation or in use as pasture. Orchards come into view as we approach Napier. It is Spring and the apple blossoms are in full tilt boogie.
We're grateful to arrive safely at Napier after some hours of Left-Lanedness. Driving on the wrong side still isn't second nature to us. The way these things go we'll probably get the groove of it on the last day, just in time to never need it again. We check into our hotel assisted by a manager with an extremely posh Oxford accent. This guy was definitely born and raised in England. He has the Oxford Don look, too. Bad haircut, facial stubble, wrinkled trousers, and snappy tie under a waistcoat & jacket. Very helpful and polite in a competitive way.
From here we set out on foot to visit the National Aquarium, about ¾ mile from our digs. To get there we stroll along The Marine Parade, a developed path along the beach at Hawke's Bay. Lots of amenities here such as playgrounds, a large skate park, and some water features. The aquarium isn't a very impressive facility and looks a bit dated. If we consider the aquariums in Seattle, San Diego, or Vancouver B.C. it is very small and needy by comparison. But it is what it is. There are some lovely specimens to inspect including the corpse of a Giant Squid.
We're up for an early dinner but, in the words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, “Noooo reservations.” Three joints turn us down until we settle on Trattoria alla Toscana. We were trying to get some 'authentic New Zealand cuisine' but can't get in to the joints advertising this. Yes, Italian-esque two nights in a row. The food and service are fine. I get oysters (from Waiheke Island) and snapper. CK has a nice ravioli. The crazy part is, again, ordering a Martini. Our server's eyes get wide and blank when I ask if I might have one. Oh oh. Not again. She hurries away but returns in two minutes. “Do you like soda water in your Martini?”, she chirps hopefully. “Um, I get the feeling you don't know this drink. It's really two shots of gin and ¼ shot of dry Vermouth chilled over ice.” “Ok”, she hurries away. 3 minutes later the host arrives and asks which gin I would like. I see they don't have a large selection so I go with Tanqueray.
He hurries away. 5 minutes later he arrives with a whisky glass. Pale orange liquid can be seen between two dozen ice pellets. The garnish is two orange slices and two green olives. I don't know what this is but it isn't a Martini. I don't send it back but take my medicine like a man. There may be a pattern here: Martini's aren't a thing in New Zealand? But that doesn't play out. I mean to say, if I were a bartender and someone ordered a cocktail I didn't quite recognize, I'd hit Google for the recipe. Boom. No problem. And again, who hasn't seen a James Bond movie? He never drinks anything else. Tomorrow we'll be in Wellington for meal time. I shall make it my prime directive to order a Martini one more time. I can't wait to see what happens.
Our sleep in Napier, New Zealand, is not uncomfortable. It's a decent room and the beds are ok. It does, however, come with audio punctuation provided by the gym next door. Thump, thump, thump goes the sound system. We can hear the trainer's voice but not so well that we can understand her. The music is all carried by the bass notes and percussion. Luckily we are gassed and ready to sleep. It will take more than a room full of dance-music fueled adrenaline junkies to keep us awake at 10 pm.
The exercise fiends are all fired up again at 5 a.m. It sounds identical to the late night version. The athletic, sweating intensity is leaking into our room, underscored by the voice of the dominatrix in charge of the crowd. Clearly these youngsters don't have enough to do. I'm awake anyway because I'm like that, nothing unusual. CK can probably hear it but powers through her last minute snoozes just to spite it.
We have a 4 hour plus drive to Wellington. The weather forecast speaks of darkness, rain, wind, and, just for laughs, a serious chance for a late night dumping of half frozen slush on the town. We aren't 45 minutes out of Napier when the Google Lady (we call her Griselda) chirps up and orders us off the main road. We obey but question why. A short investigation reveals that there is a serious slowdown out there on the main line due to construction. Ms. Griz is leading us around it. This detour proves to be enormous. For hours we find ourselves roaming farm roads, twisting around crazy hills, and plunging through mini-valleys and washes. We didn't ask for the scenic tour but we get a major dose of it. The Gorge Road and Ballance Valley is so convoluted and overgrown that visions of Maui and the Road to Hana come to mind. Other scenes are bucolic vistas of lush green close cropped sheep pasture, dotted with, well, you know, sheep.
Most of this day is devoted to driving so that's what we have to talk about here, mostly. The default speed limit on a motorway seems to be 100 kilometer/h, about 60 mph. The locals don't believe it. They seem to be entitled to at least 125 and often 140+. We don't want to get pinched so we're being extra lawful about our speed. The conflict comes in feeling like a road hazard because of our law abiding cowardice. The 100 km limit only seems to be in effect for about 5-7 kilometers before a road crew slowdown or a set of wicked curves forces the brakes. That's cool, but we wonder why post a 100 km limit on such roads at all? We pull over a lot to let the conga line behind us move on at a more hazardous pace.
This KIA we're piloting is pretty new. It has several features we don't have on our ancient buggies at home. One of them is the Proximity Warning System. If we drift a bit toward the edge of the lane, left or right, we get a chirping sound and sometimes a servo motor tugs the steering wheel in the correct direction. Our tendency is to be a little too far to the outside edge of the lane. We feel this is due to our being wobbly about driving on the left hand side. We just don't trust our instincts to be in the left lane while processing the movement of traffic, signals, signs, pedestrians, etc. So, the damned Proximity chirping is a regular feature of driving this thing. It's always going off. And we notice that on some of these roads, the oncoming traffic frightens the system. Several times a large truck rounding a curve is momentarily aimed right at us and going like stink. The warning system in the car freaks out, jerks the wheel and squeals like somebody goosed Alvin the Chipmunk with a garden rake. Our hotel in Wellington is The Bolton. It's somewhat posh. Posh enough to have valet parking included in the deal. Fine with us. The Proximity Warning in an underground garage is an annoyance we can do without.
Looking for our next meal, we are turned down by the hotel's restaurant. Full up. Instead we find a spot at 'The Old Bailey', a pub-ish thing 3 blocks away. The weather is nasty, so walking any distance isn't on our dance card. The menu isn't English pub food, rather, a step down from there but good grub nonetheless. The server asks us if we want drinks. Here's my chance to ask about a Martini. Sorry. She's sorry but they don't make cocktails. I notice the array of spirits behind the bar. I want something softer than whisky so I ask for dark rum figuring that since they don't make cocktails, I'll automatically get rum neat. She returns in a couple of minutes and plops a cocktail on the table, a rum & coke. CK jumps in, “What is that?” giving the server the side-eye. It's a rum & coke, of course, isn't it what we asked for? I explain that I thought I was ordering rum neat, sorry for the confusion. I didn't confront her with the 'no cocktails' thing. Away goes the R&C and back comes a dram of rum. Curiouser and curiouser. I mean to say, I'm kind of looking forward to figuring out NZ bar culture. We'll have a grip on it just about the moment we leave for home. That's always how these things seem to go. By the way, our restaurant bill tonight: $28 US. The Yankee greenback has significant advantages here.
Stepping out, waddling back to the hotel we notice that a lot of the buildings look modern, not much early 20th or 19th century architecture. I'm guessing that with all the earthquakes they have here the buildings are going to look either new or broken. May the quakes hold off for a bit, until we clear out.
And hey! Look at that! This hotel room is dee-luxe. It has a wee clothes washer which we pounce upon instantly. That thing is grinding our grungy threads within moments of our discovery of it. Later we spot a dishwasher hiding under the stove top. Nice but unnecessary.
Tomorrow we're out of here early to embrace a solid day of transportation including a float across the sea. We're covering mileage much more than exploring. For now, anyways.
You know I still haven't seen a starry South Pacific sky and the forecast doesn't look promising.
To Nelson, New Zealand
The Bolton Hotel: A peek out the window before dawn reveals none of the sloppy snow predicted yesterday. Perhaps our luck is turning? Not that we've had such bad luck, it's just been a little scratchy with all the rain and wind. Speaking of wind, there was enough of a blow overnight to stir things up. CK said she could hear the building stretching, popping, and creaking which seems odd in this sleek glass and plastic structure. We wonder if this is a feature of earthquake mitigation architecture or if we're merely haunted. Just then we notice the old cemetery directly below our 7th story window. No time for breakfast. We must away.
Down in the lobby a bearded and liveried fellow in skinny pants and pointy shoes makes our car appear at the door precisely at 7:30 am. We pop our bags into the boot <see, I'm adjusting to the local jargon> and set course for the waterfront where we have tickets waiting for the ocean-going ferry across Cook Strait to Picton. While driving, a short bit of navigational confusion conspires to slow us but we find the rental car return zone eventually. Car key dropped in the box, bags in hand, find the terminal and queue up for check-in, then the P.A. crackles to life. The voice of authority informs us that the 8 a.m. sailing is canceled due to rough conditions on the Strait. They will update us on the status of the next sailing as soon as possible. This situation seems familiar and serves to mock us for daring to think that we may have escaped 'The Curse Of The Washington State Ferry System' here in the South Pacific. It seems to be stuck to the bottom of our shoes like vengeful toilet paper.
So, now the weather will need to change and a ship will have to arrive and be ready to take us. I prepare for multiple hours of lethargy. I scrunch in my plastic chair and fade into a slump-nap. I am jerked into unwilling consciousness by an 80-something Scotsman on my right who apparently thinks I should speak with him instead of sleeping. I must pull my wits out of the dream I was having before engaging him. I may have mumbled unintelligible things. Probably did. I'm polite although I'm not inclined to be. Why did he wake me up? I wouldn't do that to him! Bah! He moved here from Edinburgh in the 70's. He's on his way to Christchurch to attend a grandson's wedding. He's marooned on this beach as well. I wish him luck.
The next possibility for a boat is 2 pm. And there's no guarantee that there will be a boat at 2 pm. We don't panic. We have our towels. And this isn't October in Vladivostok. We'll survive ok but the tour may have a serious chunk taken out of it.
CK gets on the phone to our NZ tour agency. Turns out that they were already tracking the issue and figured we would be dealing with this canceled sailing. Soon they have an alternative in place for us. By 11 a.m. we are in a taxi motoring to the airport. We get a brief tour of the Wellington waterfront along the way. Bonus!! We will be flying to Nelson on an Air New Zealand flight.
We find that the little airport terminal in Wellington is well done. It's modern, airy, with plenty of services. Best of all, not overly crowded. Outside the wind is still blowing a gale under clear blue sky. I pick up a salad-in-a-box. There are chunks of a kind of sweet potato called Kumara in it. One bite and that's that. It's a starchy nothingness that reminds me of plantain or poi. A half dozen bits of it go into the bin. Sorry. There's a display of costumery worthy of some attention. The signage is proclaming an event called WOW, World Of WearableArt, a thing they've been doing here for 30 years. The photo of the computer key dress in yesterday's post was one of the items. Here are some more.
Our plane is a prop job, no security check needed. Flying is probably our best option in this case. If we were to take a late sailing today (presuming there is one) we wouldn't reach Nelson until after 10 p.m. That has every potential of being a stiff grind. Driving on two lane roads in the dark is something we avoid these days, if possible. We board at the plane 12:45 pm. We have 35 minutes in the air. Over Cook Strait we spot our ferry far below, chugging its way through the whitecaps toward Wellington. It is behind schedule. We are pleased to be flying but disappointed not to get a seagoing experience in the South Pacific. The only bit of boating we can claim now is the ferry to Waiheke Island last Saturday. But today we get a bird's eye view of the terrain before we touch down in Nelson.
As you can tell, this day was all about transport again, no real tourist adventures to report. Our hotel is pleasant, not as fancy as The Bolton. We're out to dine along the waterfront at a small joint called The Boat Shed. I enjoy sweet oysters and their version of Ceviche. Excellent stuff. CK has a plate of Red Snapper. Our server is a young lady who just moved here from Washington DC a month ago. My curiosity about New Zealand bars is still with me. It seems that this joint offers gin and vodka tonics so I ask the lady if they only make those particular cocktails. She said yes. I mention my experience with ordering Martini's. She tells me that yeah, some drinks just don't get any attention here. I am learning about this, inch by inch. I now scan each bar I see looking for what kind of glasses they have. The last two bars have only had wine glasses, champagne flutes, and whisky hi-ball glasses. I will take it as evidence that the bar does not serve cocktails beyond the ubiquitous G&T and Rum & Coke.
We have no energy to go sight seeing. It will be an early turn in tonight. Tomorrow we drive 5+ hours to Hokitika. We may not do much sightseeing tomorrow, either. But stay tuned. There's always something.
Kia Ora, Nelson. Kia Ora means 'hello' or 'welcome'.
We aren't in Nelson very long but long enough to discover that we've contracted some kind of virus. It seems to not be the worst thing ever but it is grinding on us a bit. CK first felt some gunkiness when we arrived at the Wellington airport. On the evening of October 6 we turn in early hoping to sleep off some of the bother.
Up with the crows in Nelson and ready to make tracks toward Hokitika. I have to check the spelling of these place names regularly since they don't seem to stick in my head without mind-numbing repetition. At the Nelson airport, yesterday, we were issued a new vehicle. We were lucky to get it. It was the last car. And soon we see the reason why.
It is a roller-skate, a Suzuki sub-mini-micro-quantum-mobile. I think it may be smaller than my 1962 VW Bug. Our two walk-on bags only just fit into the boot and that needs a bit of squinching. And it's a 4-door! But that back seat area is so tiny even a Hobbit would be eating its knees. My health status deteriorated overnight while CK's improved. We have a Covid test kit. She used it and tested negative. Whew!
We're driving south west through pasture land. Every so often we see signs announcing a mining operation. Cattle, sheep, sheep, cattle. The terrain gets hilly on our left side, flat and plains-like on our right. Eventually we come in sight of the ocean. This is the Tasman Sea. We reach Hokitika not a moment too soon for me. The virus has drained my will to be a tourist.
CK seems to be fine. Our room is near a vast black sand and pebble beach just yards away. We go to investigate and CK dips her finger in the Tasman Sea. CK does a walkabout the small town. There's only one street with shops. This town looks like it's trying to be a beach destination. I suppose it could be but I'd be wary of going into that water. It's cold for one thing and looks like it could have some nasty undertows and rips. The surf is significant. Later CK catches a snap of sunset over the ocean since the weather is fine. I'm participating in slumber at that point hoping to feel better soon. Our evening meal is room service. I dine on creamy potato leek soup along with apple and cheese CK brings me from the market. She's very nice to me and I appreciate her very much.
To Franz Josef
Before leaving Hokitika we take a morning stroll to the beach. We are entertained by a couple of surfers demonstrating one of the reasons there is a settlement here. The waves seem quite regular giving the surfers multiple choices to grab a ride.
Onward, we encounter more farmland and we notice the plant life start to change. The forest gets denser and the sky goes cloudy. A road sign suggests a potential future. It says 'Glacier Highway'. We are entering a temperate rain forest a fact that develops into clarity as we drive south. To the east steep, mountainous terrain seems to leap out of flat land with no transition.
CK spots a trail sign post at the edge of the road. We stop to investigate. We find the 'Mananui Bush Walk'. This takes us into the brushy jungle we've been observing over the past several kilometers. It is about a half mile through an overgrown mass of ferny green murk to the beach. There's a loud silence here interrupted by a solitary bird in the canopy above singing a charming tune. A few steps more and we can hear the ocean thumping the beach. Soon we are having another encounter with the Tasman Sea. This time we are the only humans in sight. This adds to the sensation of enormity and remoteness. CK is struck by the amazing difference between the rain forest we experienced on the Olympic Peninsula in July.
We see another tourist attraction advertising a 'tree top walk'. It is a suspended path through the canopy of the rain forest. We are tempted but we drive on. We motor through a village called Ross. There is a gold mining operation here. We continue to find single lane bridges, spans with only room for one car to pass. A signage system informs the motorist which direction has the right of way.
We see no road construction slowdowns today although there are plenty of reasons to have them. I forgot to mention that CK murdered a traffic cone in one of these zones 4 days ago. (CK insists it was the cone's fault.) It went under the left front tire and died a hero. Since then we've improved our left-laned driving but I swear we won't get used to it.
We see large black birds lurking around the road. It is a Pukeko, aka, Pook, Southwest Pacific Swamp Hen. I mention this because it is one of the few birds we've seen other than the Kiwi in captivity. That isn't to say that there aren't birds. We hear them but they are maddeningly shy and remain under cover in the bush.
We pass through a village called Hari Hari. It's Maori meaning is 'to take joy' or 'come together in unison'. There is a NZ term for the remoteness of a place like this. The Wop-Wops. That's where we are. We're beginning to take note of where fuel may be available.
The Whataroa Valley appears. This is pronounced 'faataroa'. We now have jungled peaks hiding in the clouds. Rain spatters the windshield with a half heartedness that suggest that the clouds were simply taking a rest. This looks a lot like Hawaii but without the heat. Rivers are wide and shallow speaking to gobs of water rushing through all at once. They aren't at all full now, though. We see slow water between dozens of sand bars.
There are more farms and rough country full of grit, pride, and rain. As we approach Franz Josef we see tourist services on offer; guided safaris into the bush and helicopter rides to view the Franz Josef Glacier. Flying through the mountains in the fog appears to be how it goes today . Not.
Our hotel is The Punga Grove. Every so often we encounter a room that has power outlets in all the wrong places. This is one of them. We immediately shift furniture to adapt. Otherwise it is quite serviceable and roomy.
We need to sleep and recharge the biological battery somehow. Tomorrow is a long but spectacular drive to Queenstown.
Today begins our longest drive, and according to legend, possibly the most scenic. It doesn't seem to be at first. A heavy mist hangs overhead, hiding the peaks from view. Just outside of the village of Franz Josef is the turnoff to the Franz Josef Glacier. Only 2 km to the parking area. From there we get a glimpse of it, what's left of it, that is. We can see where it once was. The barren scar below the nose tells the story. Glaciers, these days, puts humanity's habits on display while opening a window to the future. Down the road is the Fox Glacier. We pass it by. It does seem that the town of Franz Josef is poised to entertain Glacier Gazers. At least a half dozen helicopter tours offer to take you up to the ice.
The road gets twisty as we carve our way between steep hills. A lone cyclist with camping gear grinds up a steep hill barely able to keep enough momentum to maintain balance. A road sign asks us to watch for Kiwi on the road. We're not too worried about that because they rarely roam in the daylight. We see road kill but it mostly is opossum, stoat, rabbit, or pook.
The forest here is natural rain forest jungle, not the plantation forestry we have been seeing over the past couple of days. The terrain soon becomes too rough for sheep but we still see the occasional sign warning us about stray cattle on the road. The growth here is so thick we wonder where cattle can find any grass but what do we know?
1 hour 45 minutes into the drive we detect a flicker of filtered sunshine. We celebrate with an exclamation of hopefulness that we might be able to see some of the glorious terrain around us. 5 minutes later our expectations are dashed by the return of foggy, lazy rain.
The number of single lane bridges we cross are too numerous to mention. Some of them seem quite narrow, such that a fat, luxury motor home might take home some scars if it were to stray a few inches from dead center. Still snaking through the hills, we pass steep walls formed by the cut-away construction of road crews. These are almost always covered in thick mats of gigantic fern fronds. It's an amazing visual texture we've never seen anywhere else.
We stop to admire the Gates of Haast. This is a cascading series of rapids and falls cutting through the hill, filled with glacial melt. It looks like the purest water ever created.
Haast is our lunch stop. It's a local bar called The Hard Antler. All bars out in the wop-wops are dive bars by definition, right? This one is playing American pop and country hits while passing out burgers, fries, and NZ brew. The rafters are decorated with what looks like elk antlers. Yes, indeed they are elk. Big ones, too. In 1908 none other than Theodore Roosevelt gifted 8 elk to a South Island rancher. The intention was to develop a private hunting operation. It was successful. This has been a thing for about 100 years and now hunters pay enormous fees to bag them. The Maori call them Wapiti. Elk is not on the menu. If it were, I would order it.
This is a good place to satisfy my curiosity about this fish dish they like here in New Zealand. Whitebait is a collective term for immature fish 1 to 2 inches long of a variety of species such as herring, sprat, sardine, mackerel, bass, and others. It is considered a delicacy in NZ. They are eaten whole: head, bones, guts, & all. Here in Haast, just yesterday, they sponsored a festival dedicated to Whitebait. I'm including a photo of the announcement. Note: No Dogs. Your guess as to why dogs are banned is as good as mine. But we can guess that the harvest of these fish is unpopular with environmentalists and not be wrong.
Our road passes over several creeks. They all have some name attached. Some of them repeat themselves. There are so many it seems to challenge human creativity for naming things: 'Trickle #1', 'Trickle #2' for instance. Four or five copies of Potter's Creek. My favorite exception is Roaring Swine Creek.
Another roadside attraction is Fantail Falls. There's a short walk from the parking lot and across a rocky river bed which, luckily, is not in flood mode. There's a charming waterfall tumbling out of the jungle thicket about 250 ft up the hill. Meanwhile humans have been busy down below decorating an old log with rock cairns. There are so many cairns here that I'm curious as to when the last flood occurred on this river. I'm guessing it has been a good spell. When it happens these cairns will be swept away. See pix.
Our route is taking us over a mountain pass toward Queenstown. The flora is changing from jungle to low scrub as we transition toward the rain shadowed dry zone. Peaks are now in view, snow capped, spectacular. We enter an area called The Neck, a strip of land between two enormous lakes, Wanaka and Hawea. Gorgeous country and almost void of human habitation.
Closer to our goal we see signs of human activity. We are entering a winter recreation zone, the Cardrona area. This is a mecca for NZ skiers and boarders. We stop for a peek at the Cardrona Pub, founded in 1861, said to be the most photographed pub in New Zealand. I take a quick walk through and I agree. It is a lovely pub. It even rents rooms. Would have loved to stay here but we are due elsewhere!
Nearing our hotel in Queenstown or Frankton, I don't know which any more, the road threatens to drop us into the lowest part of the valley. We're still gawking at the scenery from a moving car, always a little risky but can't help it. The buildings in the valley below look like a construction of miniatures. We descend some switchbacks that bring to mind the hill climbs devised by the Tour De France course designers in the Pyrenees. We creep around each bend at about 7 mph. The conga line of locals delayed behind us is impressive. We can feel their annoyance pressing against the back of our heads. Too bad. There is no turnout for us.
We aren't in the mood to dine out so we grab a pizza and a salad from down the road, devour it in the room. I may stop ordering pizza from shops altogether after being spoiled by the pizza made by our friends and neighbors on Lopez Island. There is a solid sub-culture of excellent pizza there and I'm missing it right now.
Tomorrow we are in Queenstown all day. We have a tour scheduled. We don't quite know what to expect.
We needed a solid night's sleep and we got it after yesterday's marathon drive across SW New Zealand, soon to be renamed Aotearoa. The whole country will get this new label. The meaning is 'Long White Cloud' in Maori. Fun fact: the Maori language is the official language of New Zealand soon to be Aotearoa. Everything from clothing tags to candy wrappers to passports will need a redesign.
We leave the car parked today. We want to be on foot if we can, exercise, and all that. The town is tidy and well appointed to cater to tourists in both winter and summer. Spring and fall are their shoulder seasons. Even so, there are plenty of people in from various parts of the world. There's a very attractive pedestrian zone
in the middle of town that leads to the waterfront, lakeside. This is also squeaky clean, lined with bars and restaurants, teed up to make tourists feel happy about spending their time here. A busker with a singing sheepdog draws a crowd. The pooch seems partial to John Denver's 'Country Road'. Sheepdog only sings one note but he does it with a lot of soul. Some kids are in possession of the wackiest cotton candy ball ever. It's way bigger than their heads. I expect to find children in the tree tops soon.
Our tourist experience is a cruise across lake Wakatipu in a 110 year old coal fueled steam ship, TSS Earnshaw, 51 meters (167 feet) long. Mostly of wood construction, she's a beauty, a thumping wisp of elegance from a bygone age despite her disgusting habit of coal smoke. Tourists are in the queue early for boarding at noon. The cruise is 45 minutes across the lake to Walter Peak Farm. This is a sheep station converted into a tourist trap, a well orchestrated restaurant that can serve hundreds of people with a buffet style barbecue. There are also tours of the farm and short trail horse routes. Most people opt for the barbecue lunch. We do too.
There's lovely weather for the cruise. On board we notice an opening in the deck that allows us to peer down into the engine room where all that magnificent old machinery is churning away probably better than it did when it was new. Huge pistons, flywheels, and shafts send shudders, hisses, and wheezes through the wooden hull. The racket grows perceptibly when the skipper pulls on a funky bell, toots the klaxon, and we get under way.
In the stern of the upper salon a be-shaded lady croons pop ballads in a sultry mezzo-soprano as she accompanies herself with tinkly-comfy piano chops. It is kind of sleep inducing. This could be working to keep the toddlers from going straight off, you know, the ones who were inhaling the cotton candy on shore. There's a bar and snack service. I inspect it for whisky. Sadly, there is only wine, beer, and cider.
At the farm we obtain probably the first really good food since The Boat Shed in Nelson. There is nicely done beef, pork, lamb, and chicken. We welcomed that. I top
it off with a local malt whisky. CK orders a pear tart for dessert. The whisky is nice but lacks a certain character that time plus an old brandy cask might impart.
We have time to wander about before the Earnshaw comes to swim us away back to Queenstown. We introduce ourselves to sheep, goats, and a 'heery koo', a docile, hulking bull of a fellow. I say he is ugly. CK says he has 'gravitas'.
A dog handler offers a demonstration of shepherding, canine style. His Border Collie is over-the-moon happy to oblige, leaping a fence and racing up an impossible slope to retrieve a small group of sheep who probably can't remember that she has chased them into the same pen 20 times already this month. The shepherd points to a higher slope some 600 or more feet above the valley where dozens of sheep are grazing. “This is why we need dogs to help us.”
The views along the cruise are stunning, awesome, grand with an E, and Remarkable. This is actually the name of one of the mountainous ridges here, The Remarkables. This area reminds us very much of Banff, Alberta except that Banff doesn't feature an enormous lake.
Back in town we're walking to the room where we discover our mistake regarding pizza choice last night. We failed to find 'Hell Pizza'. Our luck truly failed us on this one. And as it
happens, even The Prince of Darkness is shorthanded due to Covid hangovers. Help wanted. Rain socks in the area while we take a short snooze ahead of our reservation at The Boardwalk Oyster Bar. On our way out we grab the umbrellas to fend it off. Rain stops. Rain starts again after we get our seats at the
restaurant. CK orders fish and I have oysters! Again! I am so spoiled. We admire our luck dodging raindrops between the cruise and lunch plus the walk to town. And lucky again! The rain lets up for our walk back to the room. A peek down the lake toward Walter Peak Farm shows a blank curtain of mist. We dodged that, too.
It has been a lovely day, very restful and full of excellent vistas and good food. Tomorrow we drive toward Te Anau where more investigations are in the works.
Te Anau - Glo Worms
Tuesday morning: The take-out pizza of Sunday evening was disappointing but we didn't pitch it. In its congealed state from the fridge I am able to peel the meat and cheese off of the ersatz bread product, aka 'crust', it is attached to. A quick nuke in the micro and poof! With Earl Grey tea, breakfast of champions!
Our track out of Queenstown is a twisty one, snaking between two ranges of snowy peaks, a lake on the right. This is a road that motorcyclists dream about. Driving here would also be a hoot in a Mini Cooper, Aston Martin, or Alpha Romeo, any of the nimble sport models.
More sheep ranches. We thought we were in sheep central in England. Not even close. NZ takes away the prize.
We stop for a cup of joe at The Coffee Bomb food truck, a slickly designed aluminum trailer fitted out as a kitchen. It does a fair business out here in the mid wherevers. Several folks are waiting for their orders. Service is a bit surly but efficient. The coffee is top drawer. Red Tussocks Preservation Area. This sign greets us as we speed along. These tussocks look like a kind of ornamental grass sold in our nurseries as a drought tolerant texture plant. This is also to say that we're seeing vegetation that speaks of a fairly dry climate. Trees are few and where they grow they appear in copses. Lots of grass pasture and low scrub plants. More sheep. Occasionally a penned up group of elk cows are seen.
Two photo lookout signs alert us to pull off which we do. But there are no obvious views for us. A real mystery there. And we were looking a specific scenic overlook we'd read about but failed to spot it. Another road sign mystery was back on that twisty road outside of Queenstown. Right in the most tangled part of it, a speed limit sign proclaimed 100 KM. A few meters later the sign warns us to slow to 45 KM for the wicked turn. Strange.
Te Anau advertises itself as Fjordland. We cruise closer to ocean's influence here. Forest looks thick and rain forest like. We find that this is the case. Two of every three days, on average, they get rain here. The paint jobs and signage around town look weathered like that of a seashore town. But hang all that. We are in luck. The weather is partly sunny with a pleasant temp. We see a brochure presenting some cognitive dissonance: On offer is a 2 night environmental cruise to Patea Sound. Pic on brochure shows a charming ship on calm water with a lovely clear sky. Truly this would be a rare event. Most likely this would feature a solid soaking.
We get our room sorted after an ok bite of lunch at a local bistro. We're back out the door in quick order to get to our tour. This is an outfit calling itself Real NZ. Very spiffy and well equipped. They load about 50 of us on a powerful catamaran style water taxi for a 30 minute cruise to the glo-worm experience. It's a beautiful day and the mountains are standing clear in glorious display. Te Anau Lake is the second largest lake in New Zealand, 133 square miles. It is over 1200 ft deep. This thing looks like an inland sea.
Glo-worm caves were found by Maori in 17th century. They remained unknown to Europeans until 1948. In the 50's walkways were constructed in the cave to facilitate access by tourists. The cave is of Limestone rock formed 35 million years ago but the caves are only 12K years old. We will see 250 meters of 6.7 km system. To go further in, scuba equipment, and very good lights, are needed.
A Glo-worm is a pretty hideous thing when they get down close to examine it. It hunts other insects with a method that brings to mind science fiction horror films. And it is cannibalistic. We're lucky this thing is tiny and confined to a cave. This is actually the most vicious critter I've become aware of in NZ. These islands are full of docile creatures, mostly. Not like Australia where everything wants to kill you. And even if it can't, it will try. What we will see is the larval form of the bug. It produces a phosphorescent light, which it uses in the darkness to attract flying insects. The trap is a sticky string of goo hanging below their nest. Bugs get stuck, larvae gets lunch. How brilliantly they shine indicates how hungry they are. A glo-worm with a dim light has recently dined on something. And that something could even be their neighbor. They aren't picky. They will eat anything.
A guide takes us into the cave. First sensation is icy, clammy air accompanied by the roar of rushing water. The water is beneath us as we tread on a steel grate pathway. It's as cold as a refrigerator and loud with watery white noise. The limestone cavern alternately soars upward, cathedral style and swoops down making us duck to avoid brain damage. Our guide is a lass of about 19. She does her best to be heard above the roar of this underground river but it's hopeless. She may as well be giving a lecture on Calculus in Mongolian. We're grasping the handrails and following the leader through this relatively well lit part of the cave. The metal handrail feels like ice. Now and again a drip from above finds a hand or a cheek. Luckily this is infrequent. A look down into the river below reveals a dark eel lurking along the edge. More catwalks, stairs, and head splitting ledges to dodge all while our guide shouts unintelligibly in our direction. It's getting dark and spooky. There are 12 in our group. I'm hoping nobody is claustrophobic. This will be an awkward spot for a panic attack. We encounter a magnificent fall of water probably 20 feet sheer drop emerging from a slot in the rock. The mist from it makes the air seem positively frigid. I grab my sweater of the pack and layer up. A few more steps upward and we come to the highlight of this adventure. Up until now the path has been electrically lit. The next phase is in darkness. Above the falls I just described is a rather calm section of river. Somehow the Kiwis got a small metal boat up here. All 12 of us squeeze into it. No life jackets. The guide turns off her torch and begins pulling on anchored wall chains to move the boat and all of us into some seriously spooky perfect blackness. The sound of rushing water also recedes, transitioning to a hollow, chilly silence. Soon our eyes adjust and we see tiny blue lights above us. The boat floats eerily through the blackness with the little blue points shining like galaxies light years away. We can let our imaginations fly because an actual close up of these insects reveals a genuinely disgusting critter and there's no way we can see it that well. The sound of the boat bumping against the cave wall is like a well orchestrated seance. This serves to wake us from any daydreaming we may be engaged in. Some how our guide turns the boat around at the end of the grotto but our sense of direction is trashed. More tiny lights pass overhead the opposite way, this time. Photos inside the cave are not allowed. Follow this link for images or Google glo-worms in NZ.
Soon we're back out making our way along the metal catwalks through the roaring limestone cave. The adventure is over. Fair to say it was sensational, as in, full of many sensations. Another 30 minute cruise across the lake takes us back to our digs.
Tomorrow we have another tour. This one is an excursion to Milford Sound. It will consume the whole day somehow.
Te Anau - Milford Sound
Yesterday's post didn't quite cover our Tuesday night dining experience at 'La Toscana, Pizzeria and Spaghetteria'. This place was a no-rez walk in after having struck out at 3 other places because they were either booked or shut. Places seem busy here even though the local buzz is that tourism is way way down because of Covid and only now visitors are trickling back because of recently opened borders. So, we find a table at this Italian styled place in Te Anau. (We'll get to today's accounts soon but need to cover last night's meal first). We feel we need to document this because it seems to confirm a pattern we've noticed regarding food culture here. It is bland, as in capital B as in British Bland. In Kiwi speak, “Bland as.” I should praise the beer. It is a local brew, something called Fjordland Lager. Outstanding. From here we enter mild, or blandly formed disappointment. CK orders a spaghetti with meat sauce. I am more cowardly and try for 'Italian Tomato Soup' with salad. My salad is perfectly fresh and fine. The soup is made from good ingredients, for sure, but has no flavor. I have to add salt, too. Never the slightest hint of garlic, either. CK's pasta dish is the same. The sauce is a copy of the soup with some mystery meat added. Strange. I know better than to ask for a Martini. There is nothing resembling a bar here. That's how things are here in New Zealand. There is good food around but it takes some luck finding it.
Now we can speak of today, which is Wednesday, October 12. A tour of Milford Sound is on deck and it will be an all day affair. We spend 4 hours plus on a bus, round trip to the docks plus 2 hours cruise on the salt water. And we're not alone by any means.
Riding on a tour bus has never been one of our travel ambitions but in this case we are going with the flow, so to speak. A chauffeured ride seems the best plan as the road to Milford sound is narrow, twisty, and unknown to us. It also has the reputation of being absurdly choked with tourist traffic. Before Covid this zone was taking 100 plus tour buses per day. Now the number is 10. Our driver says he's new to the route. Nice. We can now trash one of our bus-riding rationalizations. He makes up for this by being chatty over his PA system. Downside: we can only understand 2/3 of his rap due to Kiwi slang and unfamiliar pronunciation. Example: Christchurch (biggest town on the south island), he gives as 'Krisschitz'. He stops the bus along the route to allow folks to snap pics. A sign at a stop says Eglinton, which is only a wide turn out next to the road. We get a nice view up a gigantic box canyon. He informs us of the major geologic fault directly under us. “There was a 4.2 quake last Monday,” he informs us cheerily. I am glad not to be in that glo-worm cave during a quake.
Next stop is Mirror Lake. These are some small picturesque ponds where we stretch our legs. An informative sign reminds us that bird populations are depressed due to the infestations of rats, Bush Tail Possum, and a weasely mammal called Stoat. NZ government is trying to eradicate these invaders by poisoning them.
A road sign informs us that we pass Latitude 45 South. We're precisely half way between the Equator and the South Pole. That qualifies this as Middle Earth, I reckon.
Monkey Creek is another stop for tourist pix. This time we have critter action. This area is the turf of the world's only Alpine Parrot, locally known as Kea. It is a plump thing, mostly dull green feathers, and a wicked hooked beak. They are quite intelligent, to the level of a 3 year old human we're told. They are also bold and curious. They will walk right up to people for a closer look. They stand on car's hoods and stare down the driver. They have learned that tourists carry good things to eat in their bags and are not shy about taking an opportunity to lift anything they can float away with and that can be substantial. They are strong flyers. We are warned not to offer to touch them or feed them. Curious.
Our driver informs us that there may be 'sand flies' around because the weather is nice. Oh oh. A quick inquest reveals that these are venomous blood suckers of what I call the 'Black Fly' category, a thing I first encountered near Lake Huron in Canada. Vicious buggers. Just one of those bastards severely poisoned me years ago. We don't notice anything like that here yet, but now I'm watching for them. Eeeeep.
Bus driver says, “The Milford Sound area gets 7 meters of rain per year.” That's 23 feet, y'all. Good grief. And today is lovely weather with broken cloud, sun, and a gentle breeze. We count our luck with a touch more affection.
Our bus makes it's last run toward the coast. We must pass through the Homer Tunnel, a single lane tube through solid rock, 1 mile long, completed in 1954. One way traffic is controlled by a conductor in a command center decorated with video monitors. We wait for the green light, then we slide under the mountain. Out the other side a series of hairpin switchbacks takes us down to sea level. The scenics up to now have been awesome but here they pop to another level. We are surrounded by snow capped towers that leap directly from the salt water to 5 and 6,000 feet. Nearby a glacier fed waterfall sprays from a lofty cliff. It's done this for thousands of years, non-stop.
Several large tour boats are waiting at the dock. Ours loads at about 1:15. The boat seems quite full. It also seems to be the least modern of all the boats. The windows are spattered with dry sea salt, giving them a foggy crust. The weather is nice, so pics can be had by going to the sun deck, so no big deal. Now the skipper, over his PA, seems to be selling the notion that visiting Milford Sound on a stormy day is rather fabulous. Rain creates 10,000 waterfalls all down the rock faces. I believe him but much of the terrain would be misted over and viewing waterfalls through salt crusted plastic isn't optimal. We thank our sunny day all the more.
The terrain is the thing here. Every angle presents a picture post card of awesomeness. We take about 4.2 million cell phone pix. I shall abandon all attempts to search for adjectives and superlatives to describe it. A few photos for the blog will have to suffice. At one point the skipper moves the boat close to an ice-fed waterfall. CK goes to the bow and gets a 'glacial facial'. She says she will not rinse it off until she looks younger. I figure that if it works for her, I'm going back for a Full Monty Dunking.
Lunch is included in this outing. And... it is totally forgettable. That's why I have to record it here. Otherwise I'll forget it. A sandwich of dubious origin with more mystery meat and shredded carrots. An unrecognizable bread product, slathered with a train wreck of mayo, does a weak job holding it together. I decline to eat it. CK deconstructs this slippery mess trying to find edible parts. I eat a Kiwi fruit and packaged cheese & crackers. There's a small bag of chips and a plastic wrapped cookie thing. Road food! But the coffee is good on this tub. I'll grant marks for that.
CK and I have decided to name this tour outfit with a warning not to use them. Not because of total incompetence but because other tour outfits are likely to offer a better experience for the money. It is 'Southern Discoveries'. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them a 'meh'.
Again, the scenery here is why the place is mobbed the way it is. It is geologic drama of the best kind. New Zealand is so small, I can't believe how big it is!
The bus ride back is a snooze mostly because we're kinda old and need a nap at 3 o'clock. Off the bus in Te Anau, we go hunting for a meal. We need one after examining what Southern Discoveries tried to feed us. Getting a seat with no reservation may be dodgy. But we get lucky at 'The Fat Duck Gastropub'. I'm hopeful as the drinks menu lists several mixed drink cocktails of the novelty kind. They even have nice floral gins. Perhaps the bartender can make a Martini? Answer: nopers. Wow. Martini is not a thing in NZ. Whatever. I have a nice lager in revenge. CK orders a steak and I have a Vietnamese styled salad with roast duck. This is pretty good food for a change. Nice.
It's been a super day and a long one. We weren't cheated on the scenics one bit. We got glo-worm caves yesterday and wild peaks with waterfalls and salt-chuck today.
Almost forgot to mention: Every April Fools Day there's a nude dash through the Homer Tunnel. They do like to let it all hang out here in New Zealand!
Tomorrow we road trip again for 3 plus hours to Dunedin.
Thursday morning breakfast is our own concoction. Sliced apple, banana, apricot, strawberry, and grape. Mix it together with yogurt and granola. Presto! Road Trip Parfait. This doesn't exist in any breakfast joint out there. We're feeling hecka smug. 'Smug as' is the term here.
Driving southeasterly from Te Anau would have the sun in our eyes but for the overcast sky. I am thankful for that. I'm not a big fan of driving long distances and particularly not excited about doing so in blinding glare. Except for this, I'm channeling Joni Mitchell 's lament, “...but clouds got in my way...” I'm talking about seeing the *%@! southern star constellations! There isn't much time left on this expedition and the weather doesn't look good for stargazing. It's a disgrace, I tell you. I shall have a word with management.
The highway to Dunedin seems routine. This is so no doubt because we have been driving in New Zealand since October 1. We must have passed 2,005 sheep pastures. The grass is like an emerald and the tiny lambs are the very essence of squeee! Our left lane driving skills are becoming somewhat almost acceptable, maybe. The navigator still coaches the driver from time to time about which lane to target when turning, which way to look, important signs, etc. We're still flipping on the windshield wipers when we want the turn signal but even that's happening less frequently. Our drive today in uneventful, unless collecting 10 cursing local drivers to the rear condemns us as a road hazard. There's a stop in the small, rough, worn town of Milton where CK grabs lunch at a cafe (The Forum, nicely painted murals by a local artist) on the main drag. They don't sweep away the winter grit here. The sidewalk is coated with a thin layer of loose sand. Some shop fronts look abandoned. The main highway and the town's main street are identical. Cars move through as fast as they think they can without getting in trouble so crossing the street needs to be done with care. The cafe's interior has a lovely, thick coffee smell to it. CK orders a spinach and feta quiche but like most of these road food items has little, if any, flavor. I filch a granola bar from her knapsack. A John Prine song invades my head:
“I walked in the restaurant
For something to do
The waitress yelled at me
So did the food
And the water tastes funny
When you're far from your home
But it's only the thirsty
That hunger to roam.”
Arriving in Dunedin we notice a city center adorned with orange road cones and blocked streets. Detours are obviously going to be an issue. Construction and repair is the theme all over and not just the roads. Several buildings are surrounded by scaffolding. Could be this is repairing earthquake damage of some kind? We would like to find our hotel amidst this chaos. We use Google navigation which typically knows about the street blockages somehow but this is failing. Griselda chirps out a series of commands that have no bearing on reality. She is in full gibberish mode for several blocks before she gets her poop together again.
Once installed in our room we plot our next outing on foot. CK has booked a tour at a well preserved mansion from the Edwardian Era. This is the home of a wealthy family and functions as a bit of a time capsule, a relic from a bygone day. At 4 p.m we check in to Olveston. They gave mansions names in those days. The name of the family who built it is Theomin. David Theomin (1852- 1933) was born in England but made his fortune in New Zealand as a purveyor of musical instruments. He spent a bit of his money building the home of his dreams and that's what we are touring today.
It isn't the biggest mansion ever but it is well designed and full of customized features. One of the most remarkable bits is how well the furnishings and miscellaneous items have been preserved. This is the doing of David T's daughter Dorothy. She became the last living descendant of her parents after the death of her brother and therefore in sole possession of the mansion.
She kept everything in place.
She didn't throw out the old pots, pans, crockery, kitchen tools, photos, or anything, really. She kept it all wrapped up and tidy. She bequeathed the house to the city of Dunedin on her death in 1966. They turned it into a museum giving us a look into the lives of the privileged in the early 20th century. We get the additional bonus of walking to the mansion from our hotel 5 blocks all uphill. Yes, we can use the exercise.
Our evening meal is at a joint called 'Plato'. Driving there brings the gibberish out of Griselda again. We miss the turn and loop around several city blocks to catch it one more time. We find the restaurant in a grey corner of town near a piece of elevated roadway. The entrance is cluttered with items a hoarder might be fascinated by. The sandwich board by the entrance features a chalk impression of the animated characters Rick & Morty. This is the hippest, funniest show running, in my opinion. I think we've come to the right place. As we enter a bookshelf presents the cluttered visual of thousands of knick-naks and found objects. An energetic fellow greets us with an oddly flavored voice.
It's a mixture of French and Kiwi accents and his gestures are French. He's a good sport and agrees to attempt to make a Martini for me. I give him the recipe and he does a nice job and it would have worked out ok except that I asked for a bit of olive juice in it as well. It wasn't the right kind of brine. It had oil in it. Drat! My fault there. I should not have gone for the 'dirty' variation without knowing what he had exactly. Oh well... I'll try again in Christchurch on Saturday. Cocktail is a bust but the wine and oysters are excellent. CK has pork and clams. I order a white fish called Brill, dusted in kelp powder. This is a nice, quality meal. We've learned to appreciate our luck in this regard because it hasn't always been so good.
Tomorrow is another travel day during which we'll try to absorb our last rural views of New Zealand.
Just recently I learned how to say it correctly. It is 'Krisschitz'. Sounds like it could be some kind of skin disease but it's the name of the largest city on New Zealand's south island. Christchurch: 390,000 or so people there. This is where we're going today. From Dunedin, 360 kilometers or 224 miles whichever flavor of counting things works best for imparting a sense of distance. We're getting used to the metric version, you guessed it, just in time to leave. The same kind of adaptation can be said for our experience with driving on the left side. We're getting the drift of it, just in time never to need to do it again. Not that we wouldn't want to come to New Zealand. It's a lovely country, full of wonderful stuff and friendly people. It's simply that we don't think we'll get around to it again before, you know, popping straight off. We have several other points on the globe to plunder, anyhow.
We, in our nimble little (and I'm not kidding) Suzuki car (I mean to say that you don't get into this thing, you put it on like a pair of pants one size too small) skirting the Pacific shore this time, not the Tasman Sea. We're on the eastern side of the south island, you see.
We look for gas as we leave Dunedin. Tank is about half and it's a long drive. We figure we'll see some service on the way out of town but no. We press on anyhow until CK starts to get concerned and a wee bit panicky with the tank now less than 1/4. We see the image of a gas pump on a sign that points toward the seaside community of Karitane. The gas station isn't near the exit and we wander, feeling a bit lost in cottage country with dwindling fuel. CK spots a lady walking her two dogs and asks about gasoline. “There's some petrol at the general store, that way, you can't miss it,” she wags her finger in a northerly direction. We miss it. But we persist. We explore up a road angling oddly northeast and we find it. One ancient pump offering unleaded and diesel in front of a shack-like establishment. The pump works and so does the credit card! Bob's our uncle, so to speak. Zipping down the road, all content now with a full tank, we pass through more towns each, of course, offering full service gas. Nice to know that Murphy's Law is still in effect Down Undah.
CK stops at Moeraki for a break. A spectacular spot right on the beach. There is a little tourist eatery and a roadside attraction, The Boulders. These are curious spherical boulders made of very old sea sediments, located right in the beach sand. A beautiful spot but the wind is blowing like stink and the accompanying chill is considerable. CK goes to investigate. I'm content to sit in the car listening to the Mariners play Houston in game 2 of the Division Series. They are actually playing yesterday. It's a time zone thing. CK comes back with a post card.
More road trip until we get to Oamaru. This is another seaside community but larger. It has actual buildings more substantial than just cottages and some architecture. Most boats in the harbor are covered with netting. The ones that aren't, we notice, are decorated with sea bird poo as if it had been applied with a trowel. I spot a crazy tourist trap calling itself 'Steampunk HQ'. It features interesting metal junk and sculpture-ish stuff. I grab some pix of it.
Onward, the landscape continues to change. We have been out of the jungle for quite a while. This area south of Krisschitz looks more like Iowa. Iowa with weird spiky plants, that is. The drive should be 4.5 hours if we were tough enough to grind it straight through. We need 7.
As we approach Krisschitz the roads get better and the cell tower data gets real solid. Traffic begins to swarm on this the chief road, Highway 1. It is getting on toward rush hour. We're in something like road trip shock having not been engulfed in anything that resembled urban traffic for several days. Our left laned anxiety spikes a little but we find our hotel in good order without any head-on collisions or massive blunders. Well, we do miss a couple of turns but we blame the city fathers for crap signage and vast quantities of orange cones. We are blameless!
We dine in a trendy little fish and veg joint called Dux Dine. I have a G&T with their version of Ceviche. They spell it Cer viche on their menu. I am tempted to be an annoying American and correct them but meh. I don't have the energy. It turns out to be not close to what I recognize as Ceviche. It is a pickled sashimi of Striped Trumpeter, a species found around the south island. It is deconstructed with the onions and veg on the side. It is very good and delicious. I won't say it is wrong, it's just the NZ version. Perhaps it does need the 'r'. They offer a salad adorned with Calamari. I can't resist. It is really excellent. CK has an upscale version of fish and chips.
I have giving up on Martinis here.
Tomorrow we have a full day in Krisschitz. Yay. Not driving anywhere.
Christchurch, New Zealand (Aotearoa)
We have a full day in Krisschitz. The Kiwi dollar is worth $0.56 US. We keep this in mind when seeing an entree on a menu listed at $50. It will appear as $28 on our CC statement. Touring here is a bit of a bargain for a US traveler but only once we exit the airport. The ticket to get here is eye-watering. It more than accounts for the 'bargains' we see in NZ.
In the 19th century it took enormous blocks of time to get here if you started in the Western Hemisphere. It was a rough and dangerous sail. Arrive here safely after weeks at sea and consider yourself lucky. Now we spend a long day lounging around an airport and sitting on a plane. Spoiled we are to live in an age when we can flit about the globe in a matter of hours.
Covid put a stopper on all that for a while. Our server in Dunedin, the French fellow, tells us that most of the tourists in NZ are Asians. This makes sense, as they are the most populous folk in this half of the world. Their borders are still in lock down and have been since late 2019. This means the tourist businesses in NZ are languishing. We are visiting at a perfect moment, before these crowds return. Double lucky to be here in early spring with flowers, bright grass, and fresh leaves at the beginning of good weather. We have learned that NZ gets plenty of snow in winter, especially the South Island. They had a big blast of it just before we arrived.
People are friendly, of course. Some with thick accents, so much so that we ask them to repeat themselves. Some of the towns we visit are extremely focused on tourism: Queenstown, Franz Josef, Cardrona, and Te Anau. Others like Dunedin, Hokitika, Napier, and Haast look like they had their peaks in a different era for different reasons. The buildings are not maintained well and new construction looks shabby. City planning looks more random and inconsistent there. Wellington and Christchurch are the most modern and well organized cities.
We notice clear air everywhere, a noticeable lack of pollution compared to the Puget Sound region. Seafood tastes exceptional, clean. The oysters I had in Queenstown were absolutely top shelf. I think with only one exception I ordered seafood for all my restaurant meals. Other than lamb and maybe beef, seafood is the thing to plunder here, in my opinion.
We were robbed of our sea voyage, the crossing of the Cook Strait by ferry. The weather shut that down. We also missed seeing a starry sky. Too many clouds. If there's a disappointment to hang on this trip that is it.
I was hoping to see the Magellanic Clouds, the two dwarf galaxies in collision mode with the Milky Way. Drat.
This was a road trip kind of tour. Car travel gave us the advantage of crossing large areas of the country, getting a sense of the terrain and changes of climate and plant life. We have also seen what a temperate rain forest looks like in the South Pacific and it is quite different than ours in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. To experience that difference in person offers more understanding than just reading books. Many plants and trees here have survived unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, 70 million years ago. Today, in Krisschitz, we took a walk through the Botanical Gardens. This is a park of 81 cultivated acres with many large trees that were planted in the 19th century. Some of the Monterrey Cypress and Eucalyptus here are enormous. I had the thrill of touching the leaf of a Bunya Tree. It looks no more dangerous than a Holly but I guarantee it is far sharper. One leaf of this thing could be a weapon. I am exaggerating. But not much.
This trip was a little hard on us, though. There was a lot of driving on two-lane roads. Doing so on the goofy side added some tension. We're a bit worn out by it all but happy to have done it. There was really no other way to see NZ in the time frame we had available. We have plans to continue to travel. But it will feature more dawdling and less driving of cars.
Our meal tonight was nice but not amazing. Last night we tried to get bookings at 4 or 5 places we thought might specialize in seafood but couldn't manage it. All were full. And the tourist crush is far from being full on!
Tomorrow is our last day in NZ. We fly out to Auckland late in the afternoon and from there the big flight to Los Angeles. A lazy morning followed by a visit to the International Antarctic Centre. We needed a booking for that, too.
Christchurch, New Zealand & Outta Here
Yesterday wasn't our last day, just our last full day. We don't have to be at the Krisschitz airport until about 3 p.m. With that in mind, CK has aimed us toward the International Antarctic Centre. It is conveniently located across the street from the airport terminal. This is also the location of the base of operations and staging point for US projects in Antarctica. I suspect that this arrangement isn't an accident.
This Antarctic Centre is mostly a museum with a bit of a zoo feature included. Inside there are several displays of gear and machinery along with presentations highlighting the early explorers. We are offered a 10 minute ride in a tank-treaded amphibious transport thing called a Hägglund. I considered doing it until I watched a person about 5 ft 7 in tall squeeze through its door. That looked painful. It was painful. Then three more significantly larger people forced themselves into it. Back in the 60's college kids made sport of how many could fit into a Volkswagen. According to the Guinness Book, it is 15 although some unofficial claims run as high as 21.
I would love to see those Bug-Mad Crammers try it with these snow buggies. 4 people in the rear seat of this rig, 2 by 2 facing each other and everyone had someone else's knees in their chest. The concept of personal space had to be completely abandoned. I declared my 6 ft tall self too large, clumsy, and knee-challenged to attempt it. Worthy of mention, the idea of breathing a stranger's exhaust for 10 minutes in a confined space seemed positively pandemic inducing. Oh yes, I looked for shock absorbers. None detected. This is a ride that could rearrange one's liver.
Inside we are given the opportunity to purchase, for a substantial fee, a green-screen photo. Basically this is a picture of us super-imposed onto another photo such as standing on an iceberg, bathing in aurora australis, or cavorting with penguins. We decline this as well. From there we find ourselves standing at the entrance to a small movie theater proclaiming 4D Antarctic Experience!
We are given 3D glasses along with about 20 other folks. I get the 3D thing but 4D? Hrmmm... Our seats seem normal and the screen is a bit small but big enough, I suppose. The film begins. Big sound effects but no narration or music. We are given a view from the bridge of a large ship, looking down at the bow as it gets punched up by huge arctic waves. As the ship comes down the other side of the wave and pounds the water, we get a smack at the bottom of our seats. As the water sprays over the bow everyone gets a squirt of ice water in the face from a tiny nozzle on the back of the seat in front of us. A gasp from the audience! Ah, so this is the fourth D! An Albatross glides across the screen in an oh-so-graceful arc. Bird-splat hits the screen and another squirt in the face. HA! The scene turns to an icy landscape as a snow squall moves in. Tiny snowflakes fall from the theater's ceiling. Everyone is distracted from the film to inspect the flakes. They aren't plastic. It's real fake snow. Now we're back on a ship as it hits submerged ice and our seats get slammed again. Luckily nobody got a panic attack. It could happen, I'm guessing.
Another section offers views of tiny blue penguins who live in captivity at the Centre. These aren't Antarctic penguins but New Zealand's native variety. These birds are rescues, most of them injured or abandoned by their parents. We see a feeding session and learn about their various personalities. One of them is afraid of the water due to being attacked while swimming. She just hates to be wet now. Lucky she found a home among the humans, I reckon.
This Antarctic experience is a great way to spend our last few hours in New Zealand. At 5 p.m. we board a plane, 1 hour to Auckland where our long-haul flight to L.A. starts. In Auckland we are sealed in a Boeing flavored aluminum can for a 14 hour flight at 500+ mph at 35K feet with 400 fellow travelers. If we think about it too much it won't seem possible. A fine cure for thinking too much is losing consciousness. I need chemical assistance to make this happen and, lucky me, I have some. CK has a much clearer conscience than I do, so she rolls out her bunk and goes straight to sleep. We're only 4 time zones away from home but we gain a day by crossing the date line going east, chasing the sun.
It is Sunday when we land in Seattle. The Mariners (pro baseball team) stay true to their nature and lose an 18 inning playoff game with the Astros the day before, which eliminates them from the tournament. If they had won there would be another game and major traffic snarls on the freeway just when we are trying to go north. There is no joy in Mudville, lucky us, playoff baseball traffic is zilch! We overnight in Burlington, then grab an early ferry to the island Monday morning, October 17. Jet lag isn't bad at all, curiously. Or it's simply waiting to punch us in the brains two days from now.
This was a different kind of trip for us. It satisfies a certain curiosity we had for New Zealand. We only experienced small bits of it, kind of a Whitman's Sampler Tour, so to speak. We were there long enough to get a taste of the landscape and its differences, the various kinds of settlements, and the people who live there. The high profile of the Maori native population there serves to buoy my failing faith in mankind a little. It won't be long until we have to learn to pronounce the Maori name for it, Aotearoa, as this will soon be its official name. We return home with a small worry: will we be able to forget this thing about driving on the goofy side of the road?
If anyone is interested, the tour company we used is “Fine Touring New Zealand”. They set us up in nice accommodations, arranged the auto rentals, and rescued us from the cancelled Wellington ferry debacle. They were responsive when we called and we recommend.
Stay tuned. We plan to travel in Europe again in April 2023.