Christmas Comes Early to New Zealand

We are currently in Christchurch and it is Christmas Day here. Everything is closed, except one “Email” shop on Cathedral Square, in the “City Centre”. We are doing well in spite of the rain, which came in overnight after a brilliant, sunshiny day yesterday, which we both really needed. Christmas Eve morning found us in Akaroa, a small town on Bank’s Peninsula, right outside of Christchurch. The night before, the wind howled and the rain blew horizontally down the streets while we searched in vain for a cheap place to eat.

An aside: While jet lag wasn’t a big deal on this trip for either of us, the change in the amount of daylight hours has proven to be a little challenging. When we left Memphis, we were used to a sunrise about 7:30 AM and a sunset before 5 PM. However, after landing here, with the change to the Southern Hemisphere so close to their summer solstice, we immediately began (joyfully) experiencing sunrises at around 5:30 AM and sunsets close to 9:30 PM, and the time with daylight actually increased as we moved south down the island. As a result, we found ourselves staying up late, usually after midnight, and then trying to rush to get out of the hostel and on the road by 10 AM the next morning. This also usually pushed back our arrival time in the next place we were going a few hours, which occasionally made the difference between getting to town in time to visit a grocery store (many of which strangely strictly close at 7 or 8 PM, right when a lot of people want to do their shopping) or digging some ramen noodles out of the tucker bag. Several times, we found ourselves in towns full of visitors and people out and about but absolutely no stores available in a 50 KM radius. You would think that one store would open, if only because they would get all of the business of all of the visitors in the town, but, nope, everything was closed.

We really aren’t complaining and we were able to deal with it; after all, this is one of those interesting little cultural things that you experience travelling. But in this world of SuperCenter Wal-Marts and 24-mega malls, you would think that convenience store that stays open to, say 11 PM instead of 8 PM, wouldn’t be that strange. However, in the rural areas here, that is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Christchurch has proven to be a very relaxing place after the hectic nature of Dunedin, which cannot be completely chalked up to pre-Christmas preparations. This place has a must more laid-back style to it, with a lovely stream called the Avon snaking through town and a very accessible botanical garden a few blocks from the very center of the city. The streets are very walkable, and the variety of food on offer is greater than anywhere else we’ve been in New Zealand. It could probably be said that it rivals New York, especially per capita. Malay-Indian fusion food, anyone?

We are having a very relaxed Christmas holiday, sleeping in and enjoying a breakfast cooked by our B & B hosts, Gerald and Pauline. Tomorrow we fly off to hectic Sydney for a week of catching up with our friends there, including taking in a trip out of town to Hawk’s Nest, near Newcastle.

We hope that all of you are with loved ones for the holiday season. Merry Christmas!


Through the Fiords, Over the Hills

Dunedin Town HallWe are currently in Dunedin, which is also pronounced strangely. Say: “Done” and “Eden” together quickly. This city, in the southeast side of the South Island, will always mean rain to us, I bet, because it has been raining for almost 24 hours straight, since we arrived yesterday. It is also cold, or just on the border between cool and cold. The rain has really followed us all over the island. I think that we just caught one of those 2-3 week rain squal periods that we experienced when living in Sydney through the winter. The weather would turn overcast with pretty dramatic blowing rain and gray skies for weeks at a time. It isn’t as depressing as it sounds, but it can be quite annoying, because nothing every gets a chance to dry out.

Road to MilfordRegardless, the past two areas of the South Island that we travelled through may turn out to be the highlight of the trip. From Te Anu, we headed up the road to Milford to spend a night on the edge of a giant fiord. The weather was even more schitzophrenic there, changing from fog to blowing rain to brilliant sunshine, all within an hour period, but the views made it worth it the trouble. We stayed at the Milford Lodge, one of the only places you can stay in Milford, because the flat area where the river meets the sound is rather limited. We took a boat trip into Milford Sound that went all the way into the Tasman Sea and then back to Milford. This got us very close to the walls of the fiord that run almost vertically into the water from more than a thousand meters in the air, at least in place. There are over 300 waterfalls in Milford Sound, and with the rain we were getting throughout most of the boat trip, they were operating in full effect, spewing water everywhere as they slithered down the rock faces and mossy lumps making their way to the water in the sound, which is composed of a layer about 3-4 meters of fresh, tea-colored water on top of a layer of salt water from the ocean.

Our boat went up underneath one of the largest waterfalls I’ve ever seen in my life, much higher than Niagra Falls. Usually, you associate wind pushing water around, causing waves and such. In this case, it was really the water doing the driving of the wind, which rushed off of the place where the waterfall hit after falling several hundred meters in gigantic sheets, blowing thick, heavy mist everywhere. It was difficult to stand in one place or take a breath in because its force was so powerful. As the Milford Sound area gets between 7 and 8 meters of rain per year, they have plenty of water to create all of the waterfalls, but there are only 2 or 3 permanent waterfalls there.

CatlinsAfter only one night in Milford, we decided to move on. We had been planning to spend two nights, but the rain was so relentless and the biting sandflies were taking their toll on us. We drove back to Te Anu and then on into the Catlins, a beautiful hilly area between Invercargill and Dunedin, on the extreme south side of the island. There, we stayed in a wonderful farm hostel called Hilltop in Papatowai, which is really only two houses sitting on a hill in the middle of a sheep farm. The facilities were very nice, so nice that we decided to stay an additional night. The Hilltop proved to be the perfect base for a stroll through the Catlins, and we spent most of our day there trolling through the back roads and looking for sea lions, seals and penguins. (We found all of them, including viewing a rare yellow-eyed penguin, which is a threatened species). The waterfalls and green, gently rolling hills were wonderful, but nothing compared to Nugget Point, a thin peninsula that juts southeast from the Catlins with strange vertically-lined rocks that stick out of the water and trail off into the sea. Topped by a lighthouse, Nugget Point is a great vantage point to take in a 270-degree view of sealife, birds, and rolling sea. The weather even cleared up a bit for us to enjoy our lunch while gazing out over the Pacific. Wonderful.

Nugget Point

We also enjoyed the company of Jean-Marc, a French fellow that also happened to be staying at the Hilltop, in our house. We shared a meal of fresh mussells that Jean-Marc found nearby, and Katherine cooked an Asian stirfry from our remaining tucker box (or bag, in our case) ingredients. The Marlborough wine is still holding out, too, so going to that region at the beginning of the trip was a good idea. We have just enough to get us to the end of our trip.

Curio Shop in PapatowaiWe are about to leave Dunedin for Akaroa, a town on a peninsula outside of Christchurch, where we will spend Christmas in the middle of the city in a pleasant bed-and-breakfast (thanks Mom and Dad Pennington!). Hopefully, the rain will let up a little before then so that we can enjoy some cool sunny skies before the heat of Sydney beats down on us next week.

Happy Holidays, everyone!


Sliding Down the West Coast

Kath in Abel TasmanOK, I finally have a complaint about New Zealand. This place completely desensatizes you to beauty on a scale I’ve yet to experience before. Everywhere you look is a postcard, every sunset the best you’ve ever seen, every beer the tastiest, and every walk breathtaking (in more ways than one). As hard as we try, the photos can’t possibly capture it or begin to do it justice. We will just have to be happy with the images in our heads and the memories we are gaining, as well as urge others to go, because words and pictures aren’t enough.

Lake WanakaWe are currently in Wanaka, which, like most places in New Zealand, can be pronounced incorrectly 3 differnet ways and only correctly once. The correct way is Wa-na-ka, with all of the A’s sounding like “ahh,” in case you are wondering. Wanaka is on the side of a lake, appropriately named Lake Wanaka, and it is surrounded by a couple of different mountain ranges, including Mount Aspiring, the tallest mountain in New Zealand other than Mount Cook. You can be sitting on the banks of the lake, warming in the sun, with the waves lapping at your feet, and out in the distance is a snow- and ice-topped mountain peak, just at the horizon.

Pancake RocksYesterday began with a trip up the coast, north of Greymouth, to the Pancake Rocks, an interesting three-dimensional sculpture slowly being sculpted out of the limestone by the sea. The formation is called Pancake Rocks because that is exactly what it looks like: a very tall stack of pancakes (minus the syrup, of course). As the water rushes in during high tide, it sounds like a locomotive on the tracks as it crashes on the walls and throws spray in the air. From a distance, when you approach the formation through thick folage, it sounds like a creature is beating on the ground below with an irregular thud, trying to break free. Lucky for us, we got away just in time, down the coast toward the Frank Josef and Fox glaciers.

kath and truk at Franz Josef GlacierWe elected for a short trip at the glacier sites, as we wanted to be in Wanaka for the night, but a few hours proved to be long enough. Still, they were well worth the trip and long walks up the hills to approach each glacier’s terminal face. The glaciers have retreated quite a bit over the past 250 years, and they seem like they will continue retreating for some time, melting more ice than what is forming at the top of the mountains. Still, it was cool (literally) to see what millions of tons of ice could do to solid granite. At the Franz Josef, we just took in the view from a distance. However, at the Fox, we moved right up next to the terminal face. Almost a little too close. Those signs noting extreme danger weren’t kidding. A rock the size of our living room chair fell about 40 feet to the stones at the bottom of the terminal face while I was about 25 feet away. The sound was, well, extremely scary. And all the way back to the car, I kept hearing the boulders turning over in the stream that runs away from the glacier from the force of the rushing water, and I kept looking over my shoulder, thinking a massive block of ice had broken free and was rushing down to crush me. But the overall effect of being next to the glacier was like standing next to a giant ice cube. A very scary, noisy, gigantic, dirty ice cube.

We learned a valuable lesson when arriving yesterday evening in Wanaka: Do not arrive in a New Zealand town on a Friday night in the summer without booking some accomodation in advance. Katherine tried to get me to book, but I got distracted and never got around to it, and, well, there was “no place in the inn” as they say. We finally found a small cabin room in a holiday park on the edge of town, and we have booked most of our rooms for the rest of the trip.

Beer TourWe took a very cool trip to the Wanaka Beerworks today to see how they brewed their very natural, fresh, delicious beer. The tour was excellent, and we really enjoyed talking to the owner/brewmaster, Dave, about what it takes to make a microbrew that can do battle with the giants of the NZ brewery industry.

Tomorrow, we are headed into Fiordland, the extreme southwestern part of New Zealand, a World Heritage Area that we have heard more than one time on this trip is “the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.” We are looking to check out that claim for ourselves, but if the drive down the coast from Greymouth to Wanaka is any indication, they may be right.

We probably won’t be able to write for 4-5 days, as we will be in places without good Internet access. In fact, one place we are going told us: “Bring cash and food, and be sure to fill up your gas tank before you show up.”

More photos of this region of New Zealand here 


Camping at Abel Tasman

We are currently in Greymouth, literally a town at the mount of the Grey River, a 1/3rd of the way down the west coast of New Zealand. This morning, we woke up in a campsite in the middle of the Abel Tasman National Park, at the top part of the South Island. We hiked into the park to find our rustic campsite with our own semi-private bay, where swam and watched the waterfowl for hours before dark and then again this morning. Cooking using a single propane burner was interesting, but the limited range of the menu was worth the view and the surroundings. Abel Tasman is an extremely beautiful place. We aren’t currently at an Internet terminal where we can aupload photos, but we will when we get a chance.

We lucked out and caught a water taxi back to our car right when we walked out to the beach at Anchorage and were able to get on the road earlier than expected, so we made it further than expected today. Tomorrow, we are heading up to see the Pancake Rocks, just north of Greymouth, and then we are heading down the coast to see the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers before getting in late at Wanaka, where we plan to spend two days before heading down to Te Anu and on to Milford Sound.

The most hilarious moment today was paying to go over the longest swinging bridge in New Zealand (about 150 meters) and then starting a hike only to have the heavens open up with rain and drench us both before we could find any kind of shelter. We hiked around the in the woods, drenched, emerging at some shelter right when the rain stopped. The beautiful scenery made us forget about being drenched, though, and the water didn’t ruin the digital camera, so all is well. We had fun putting on dry clothes in a parking lot of the side of the highway, though…


From the Vineyards to the Ocean

The ferry ride from Wellington to Picton proved to be beautiful and exhilarating, definitely one of the more beautiful boat rides I’ve ever taken. Wellington Harbor is simply gorgeous, and we were escorted out of the harbor by a floatilla of sailboats, heading for the open ocean. Cook Strait turned out not to be the bumpy monster I had been told, and we spent most of the trip taking in the sights as we bid good-bye to the North Island and turned our gaze to the mountains of the South.

We picked up our car in Picton and headed straight to Blenheim. As it was Sunday, not many shops were open, and the town (one of the larger ones in this region) was mostly quiet. Before leaving on this trip, I was looking at some of the satellite photos on Google Earth with my brother, and the area around Blenheim one of the only areas in New Zealand that offers the 2-meter accuracy (high resolution) imagery. Just messing around, I asked Jaymie to find a tree in Blenheim, and I would go claim a leaf off of that tree for him. He picked one out, near a bridge in a park, next to a stream. Kath and I made a bee-line for it after arriving in Blenheim and found it right away. Google Earth is amazing. It is like a global shrub-cam.

The wineries north and west of Blenheim, focused just north of the tiny hamlet of Renwick, are well worth the visit. We got the chance to taste the latest releases (and some of the reserve stock) at about 8 or 9 of the different cellar doors before heading out of town, back to Highway 1 in Blenheim for the trip south to Kaikoura, a stunningly beautiful place in a peninsula jutting out into the Pacific. What we call New Zealand is really just the tips of some mountains that rise out of the sea were two continental plates collide. A large sea shelf extends from New Zealand’s South Island to the southeast, but right around Kaikoura, a deep sea trench (occasionally as deep as 1600 meters) extends right up to the land directly below the peninsula. This causes a great variety and number of marine life to call this area home, including migrating whales, seals, albatrosses, and dolphins.

Katherine just returned from a whale watching expedition, while I spent the morning hiking around the head of the Kaikoura peninsula. We are probably going to camp tonight at one of the campgrounds in town, and then head our trans-alpine trek to the north coast of the South Island, what they call “The Top of the South.” We will hike into Abel Tasman National Park, camp overnight, and then take a water-taxi back.

You can view some of the photos of the above events, including a movie clip of a sperm whale diving that Kath captured, by clicking here.


Windy Wacky Wonderful Wellington

Tomorrow morning, Kath and I board the ferry to the South Island, kissing half of this fascinating country good-bye. And we’ve just arrived! Well, the intention of this trip was really to simply see the South Island and focus on its raw nature and emptiness, but after spending a few days on the North Island, in the beautiful capital of this island nation, I’m not so sure that we shouldn’t have allocated part of our time to see the “northland” (as they call it), as well.

First of all, I have to preface this with the fact that Wellington is one of the windiest cities on Earth. Chicago, move over. You have nothing on the sub-Antarctic blasts that rip through this place, adding a bit of chill to what should be the emergence of summer. However, it says a lot about a place that, thanks to the grace of its people and the fascination of its sights, you don’t even notice the weather until a raindrop hits your face or a gust blows you over. And Wellington is just that sort of place.

Wellington Cable CarWe spent our first day simply wandering around and catching some of the better museums. I can recommend to anyone that the first thing you should do in Wellington, so long as it is daytime, is to take the cable car to the top of hill that overlooks the city and then wander through the botanic gardens as you walk downhill back to the city. The part about downhill is very important. Downtown Wellington is shaped like a roughly-shaped bowl, open on the side that faces the harbor. As long as you stay near the water, you will not have to climb too many hills. However, leave the main downtown area and you will really give your legs (and lungs and heart) a work-out. After a couple of days, Kath and I have learned to ask questions of ourselves when planning a particular trek, such as: “How far up will this take us?” or “Is there a similar store that is not over that steep ridge?”

The cable car trip is very pleasant, if a bit short, but it doesn’t prepare you for the absolutely breathtaking view at the top or the stress-reducing and fragrant trip down the hill, meandering through succulants and orchids and prehistoric fern trees and rose gardens, as well as an old (at least for this part of the world) graveyard. We ended up in the main government district, including the national capital building (aptly nicknamed “the beehive”), and the beginning of the harbor museum district. The Wellington, City and Sea, museum is very interesting, with some very dramatic footage of the sinking of the Wahine, a ferry that killed over 50 people when it sunk in Wellington harbor in 1968.

kath in Wellington GardenThe museum that really got me excited about coming to Wellington was Te Papa, the new national museum opened only a few years ago. And, I can say that the museum really doesn’t disappoint, expecially since I mostly wanted to see exhibits concerning the experiences of the Maori people (the native inhabitants of New Zealand). I read several books regarding the inital impact of European culture on Maoris, and since most cultural sites revolving around Maori culture are located in the North Island, in places we weren’t going, I was keen to see what I could, especially if I could glimpse it in the mind’s eye of the “average” New Zealand citizen (or even want they wanted to project to the world). Te Papa does a great job of not only bringing Maori history and culture alive but also showcasing current and relevant Maori struggles in the perspective of the various participants, Maori and non-Maori alike. Te Papa is not scared to address issues that are not really settled yet and are still heavily contended. I learned a lot from the museum that I would have never picked up from books, and I guess that might as well be the definition of an important museum.

Today, Kath and I took the bus to the top of Mount Victoria, on the opposite hill from the cable-car, and wandered back to the city through a more residential neighborhood, which glorious views of the harbor, downtown, and the peninsula containing the airport. Most of the day was simply spent wandering around and soaking it all in; Wellington provides an endless string of interesting things to look at as you move from street-to-street, including artwork installations, innovative architecture infused with solidly classical themes, and rippingly wild weather that swoops over the surrounding hills and invades like an army of cloud ghosts.

truk and kath on Mount Victoria

Tonight, we took some time to provision for the road ahead. As soon as we get off of the ferry, life will probably get a little bit harder and, hopefully, even more rewarding. We have a car rental reserved in Picton, the town where the ferry lands, but we haven’t been able to reserve a room for that night. As it is the high-season, there is a question as to whether we will be able to find an affordable room at all in the surrounding area. Regardless, we are now prepared, with a cooking stove and enough food for a few days, not to mention a tent smuggled through customs and sleeping bags for the cool late-spring nights. Wish us luck as we float away from a jewel of a city, one that I wish we could spend a few more days exploring.

Click here for more photos of our New Zealand trip


Kindness in Wellington

TahitiWe made it to Wellington without incident, connecting through Tahiti and Auckland, as planned. Up to now, we had always flown across the Pacific in a complete leap, starting from Los Angeles or San Francisco and landing in Sydney or Auckland.  In order to get the cheap seats to make this trip possible, we had to fly Air Tahiti Nui, the national airline of Tahiti, which stops for a few hours in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, on the way to Auckland.


Tahiti Coast

We expected to be locked away during the layover and held in some air-conditioned, sterile waiting area in Papeete, unable to get a sense of the paradise that awaited us just outside the thick double-paned glass. Or, at least, I expected that, as I had a similar experience in Iceland with Jeff Parker when we were AirHitching to Europe in 1994 and ended up looking out at what appeared to be the moon, just outside the airport. We both wanted to get out there, if only for the few hours during the layover, but not having a visa and having no place to store our bags held us back.


Tahiti Airport

As in Iceland, Kath and I were restricted to the airport terminal in Papeete. However, we were able to go upstairs, open up a sliding window, and get a real sense of the island from our little perch. We saw huge waves breaking on the coral reefs that surround Tahiti, and we heard the call of a beautiful native bird that flew up close to use and sang to us for minutes at a time. It still would have been nice to have gotten out there, if only for a bit, if only “to dip my feet in the warm ocean water,” as Kath put it. But the entire experience made me happy that we did get to catch a glimpse of this happy little island, and it made me want to return, sometime in the future.

We are currently ensconced at the Worldwide Backpackers, near downtown Wellington. Upon arriving, we went to plug in our various electrical devices only to find that I bought and brought the totally wrong adapter for the job. (We have about five of the correct adapter at home, from our time of living in Sydney; I just picked out the wrong one because it was easier to carry. This led me on a mad dash to find a plug adapter, and everyone I asked in the hostel and in the nearby stores looked like I was crazy. Finally, I happened on an electrical supply place, which was closed. A man in a truck asked me what I needed, I told him, and he sighed and said, “My wife is going to kill me. I was supposed to be home for dinner a half-hour ago. I’ve sat in my truck three times, trying to leave, but someone’s always come up and needed something.” He perked up when I mentioned that I was from Memphis, and he related what a good time he had in the city when he visited 11 months before. He mentioned the joy of seeing the Mississippi from the top of the Peabody, tasting the ribs at the Rendezvous, and checking out Graceland with a friend. He found me the adapters I needed, and we had a good time chatting about what I should check out on the South Island. I’m sure he was just the first of many “good chaps” we will meet along the way.

Kath and I are off to check out Te Papa (the national museum), as well as a few other spots around town today. We also have tomorrow to roam around Wellington before we take the ferry across the Cook Strait to the South Island on Saturday. All is well, and we are having fun.

More photos of Tahiti and Wellington can be found here


Los Angeles, Waiting

truk in LAXWe arrived in Los Angeles from Little Rock via Houston with little incident. The Air Tahiti Nui flight boards in less than 1 1/2 hours, and the prospect of setting on plane for 8 hours, waiting, 3 hours, and then flying 6 hours more, only to sit in Auckland for 3 hours before flying on to Wellington, is, well, a little daunting. Though I’ve made flights of this duration quite a few times, I’m still a little amazed that it is possible to travel so far, so fast. I guess I should just find my seat, grab a drink, and reflect on how strange it is to be a 33,000 feet … while I’m at 33,000 feet.

Either the main battery or the CMOS battery on the iBook is simply hosed, and it came at a time when there was absolutely nothing that could be done about it. Katherine also experienced a complete battery failure on a machine with a very new battery that was completely impossible to replace in the time remaining. The whole event was very strange; if I had been asked to describe what kind of terrible technical problem could happen and cripple this trip, I probably would have put the failure of these batteries near the top of the list. But, there is nothing that can be done. We will just have to use the devices near power outlets for the next month and live with that. We’ll cope. We’re like that.

I found an interesting book at the end of the Atlanta DAM conference at the Georgia Tech Barnes & Nobles, which I guess doubles as their campus bookstore. I like to read travel books when I am traveling, only that I need the books to cover trips in area so the world totally different from where I am traveling. My current book is The Spice Island Voyage by Tim Severin, the Gold Medal member of the Royal Geographical Society and a guy whose passport is probably as thick as War and Peace. This work tracks Severin’s efforts to follow in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, a 19th-century naturalist and contemporary of Charles Darwin that can arguably be considered a co-discover of the theory of evolution. Wallace did his most important work in the tiny island chains in the middle of modern-day Indonesia, uncovering hundreds of new species, including the Great Bird of Paradise. Perhaps the greatest message to be drawn from the book is Wallace’s patience and good grace in the face of tremendous challenges and numerous tragedies, any of which would probably send most people off a cliff. Probably a good topic to remember as we board this lengthy series of flights.


Atlanta in the Rear View; New Zealand Looming Large

I just got back tonight from three days in Atlanta, spent at the NITLE Strategic Planning for Digital Asset Management Symposium, held at the Georgia Tech Conference Center, smack in the middle of the city. Fedora, the open source digital archiving toolThe conference was more stimulating and interesting than I expected, and I was honored to be able to share the stage with University of Virginia’s Thornton Staples and Andrew Rouner of the University of Richmond in a session on Fedora, the powerful digital archiving tool. I learned a lot, and I hope that I can hold most of it in my head to be applied in January 2006. However, it was very hard to concentrate through most of the symposium, due to the fact that I knew I would be getting on a plane to New Zealand in only a few days.

I feel prepared and hopelessly not ready for this trip at the same time. We have made most of the critical reservations required when travelling in a very popular country during their high season, including the ferry ride from Wellington to the South Island, a place to stay right after we arrive, and the 16-day car rental that will help us get to all of the places that we want to see. But, a few critical problems are popping up, even before we’ve left the house. My plan for blogging and uploading photos while on the trail is in jeopardy, as the power management unit on my 3-year old iBook appears to have completely failed, meaning that I cannot use the iBook on battery power. And I just can’t knock the sense that I am forgetting something, even though I haven’t even left the house.

Hopefully, these issues will work themselves out over the next couple of days. I’m planning to post as much as I can, whenever I can, in this space so that my friends and family can keep up with our progress.