Monday, November 23, 2015

Wellington, the New Zealand Capital

Interesting but Unremarkable
We ended our sojourn to the west coast of the South Island with a trip over the "Alps" to Christchurch, on the east coast. The historic core of Christchurch was devasted by a massive earthquake in 2011 leaving little of its former charm.
So we headed straight to the airport, paused at a most interesting center for Antarctic exploration and then jetted across the Cook straight to the North Island and the nation's capital, Wellington. (Christchurch is the jumping off base for US exploration activity in Antarctica.)

Based on two days of exposure to the city it appears Wellington is best know for it's wind and movie making. The wind is the stuff of legends. They brag about the number of windy days they experience annually. They have artworks dedicated to the demonstration of the winds impact. Since we arrived the wind has kept the well protected harbor in a constant froth.
Four of next five days show wind--25 to 35 mph

We are told the weather is influenced by the Cook Passage, the channel between the north and south islands which is known for nasty weather. In any case, we have had constant strong wind.

The movie making part of the reputation came as a surprise since Wellington is a long way from Hollywood. Their reputation can be attributed to a number of factors....the government gives movie makers incentives to film here, the scenery offers variety needed for many of the films and there is a growing core of creative types who represent the leading edge of special effect technology for movie making. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Avatar are just a few well known movies filmed on location or in Wellington studios.

Today we visited the WETA Cave Workshop home to some of that creative talent (

Other than the wind Wellington might be a pleasant place to live. But, as a contact lense wearer, it is an inhospitable place.

Charged Up to Travel

Electronic toys let travelers "stay in touch" while on the road. They also present a challenge to insure all the "toys" are charged and ready to go each day. Since we need plug adapters to juice up in Anzac countries, charging often needs to occur in waves, as we only have two adapters along.
In addition to the eight primary toys--phones, cameras, Kindles and iPads--we carry three little battery boosters to boost our batteries during the day if we fail to boost them properly each evening. Ahh, the complexities of 21st Century travel.

(There is one couple on our trip who left their "toys" at home and have not checked email for 30 days.--"gasp!" "If our kids need us they know where we are," is their mantra. Hmm, they may be on to something.)

The Many Faces of New Zealand

There are many faces to New Zealand just as there are for many states in the USA. None-the-less the degree of geographic diversity surprises me as I had envisioned NZ as a homogenous, small country.

The North Island makes up 42% of the NZ land area and is primarily volcanic in origin. The larger South Island has a mountainous spine that separates much of the island, effectively isolating the sparcelly populated west coast from the rest of the island. The mountain range contains 18 peaks higher than 9800 feet and one over 12,000.
Hiking to the Franz Joseph Glacier

The South Island is sparcelly populated, compared to the north, with just 22% of the population.

From Queenstown, located east of the mountains, we headed over steep and winding passes to reach the wetter, rugged beautiful west coast. Our first night was spent in the little town of Fox Glacier, near the glacier of the same name. The following day, after a hike to the face of nearby Franz Glacier, we settled into Greymouth (cleverly named because it was at the mouth of the Grey River!)
Sections of the west coast offer wide, sandy, little used beaches.

We enjoyed two days on the coast highway 6. While it's a well surfaced highway it is not a high speed track. Sections climb over or pass behind high headlands and the many river bridges are single lane. Bridge 13, also single lamed, is shared with the railroad tracks. Vehicles take turns crossing. The train crosses whenever it pleases.

Pancake Rocks is a must visit stop along the way. The name derives from the pattern created by the thin layers of sandstone that have eroded over the centuries.

The west coast is a bit off the beaten track but well worth the journey if you want to experience all of the many faces of NZ.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Queenstown in the NZ Alps

After two nights at Rotorua we were off to Queenstown on the South Island. Set in what they call the southern Alps, the town is a hub for South Island outdoor recreation and tourism. Winter sports—skiing, snow shoeing, etc—are available but it really comes to life in the summer. Hiking, biking, backpacking and much more is available.

After a bumpy flight in we did a quick drive around of the area and then lunched in the charming former mining town of Arrowtown, a few kilometers  from Queenstown. 

Day two found us on an incredible four hour drive to Milford Sound on the west coast. A direct route, as the crow flies, would have been a quarter of the distance we traveled but the land is so cut up with high mountains, lakes and valleys that there is no good direct route. The scenery made the drive worth while. The trip presents a kaleidoscope of green landscapes.

We’re told there are more sheep than people in NZ and I believe we saw most of them during the first half of our travels. Then we turned into the NZ Alps along the west coast. They deserve the name and are every bit as grand as the Swiss version.
The NZ Alps
The icing on the travel cake was the trip down 13 km long Milford Sound, one of 14 major fjords that slice the west coast of the island. It was eight bus hours but time well spent.
Milford Sound by Boat

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sports Down Under

This may come as a surprise to an American audience but the folks down south don't give a fig about sports up north. NCAA, NFL and MLB don't garner much attention in Australia or New Zealand (NZ). You might see a mention of some event, like the World Series, and there was coverage of the Aussie that played for the 49ers but that is about it. Who really needs the American sports when they have their own.

I previously reported on the Melbourne Cup, the annual horse race that literally shut down the nation so all could watch.

Then there is the Rugby World Cup, won by NZ in a stirring victory over arch rival, Australia. Walk into a pub today, weeks after the match, and you can still see it on TV as if the match is still under way.

Both the southern countries love their cricket. We have had several people unsuccessfully try to explain the match rules. All I know is that both sides wear white, stay clean and play the same match for days. Perhaps this quote from a report in the paper will shed light on the sport.

"At drinks, Milton was in a strong position at 112 for one. A couple of quick wickets slowed the run rate but some powerful finishing got the home side to 233, bowled out in the 39th over."

More tea anyone?

And there is still room for the little guy in sports to shine down under. Today the Queensland, NZ area paper reported that a 17 year old from nearby Wanaka secured a 5th place finish in the USA duck calling competition followed by a 4th place finish in goose calling. According to his mother he has been getting the "rock star treatment" from US duck call makers. "It is a dream come true," according to mom.

Different sports for different folks.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Auckland to Rotorua

After two nights in Auckland we headed south, 150 miles, to Rotorua, home to Wiamangu, the volcanic valley. We made many stops along the way, including a visit to the Hamilton Botanical Gardens which were beautiful, even in the rain.

OATS travel likes to give an opportunity to meet real people so we stopped for lunch at an organic dairy farm. Very interesting. Dairy products have replaced sheep as the country's largest export.
Lunch spread at the organic dairy farm.
Learning about organic dairy operations in the milking shed.

The next day we visited the "young" (1878) volcanos in the Wiamangu volcano valley. It was dreary and rainy but very well presented.
Loved the ban on drones. Never seen that at a park before. Now I wish they would ban selfie sticks!
A little rain didn't slow the group down.
The scenery was beautiful. Note the steam rising from one of the warm water filled craters.

Reflections on Australia and New Zealand

After five weeks in Australia and New Zealand (NZ) it's time for a little reflection, while the memories are fresh. I need to be careful not to mush the two countries together since they are very distinct and yet similar places. As residents are quick to point out, an Aussie is an Aussie and a Kiwi is a Kiwi.

The People: They are warm and friendly as we expected. Everyone is happy to help with directions and suggestions and most can understand our brand of English.

The Size: Australia is big. The land area nearly equals the USA. At nearly 3 million square miles it dwarfs it's NZ neighbor, at 103,400 square miles.
Outline of Australia laid over the USA.

It's Empty:  The USA, Australia and NZ have populations of 321 million, 7.9 million and 4.5 million respectively. Half of Australia's population is contained in three east coast cities, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. That spreads the rest of the population over a lot of real estate. 
The light yellow shows the dense populations in the south and east coastal areas. Perth accounts for the bright spot on the west coast.

Another way to look at population is to look at the average number of people per square mile of country....USA-102.9; Australia-7.9; NZ-43.5. There is a lot of empty space in Australia.

And the NZ numbers are deceptive. NZ consists of two major islands, the North and the South. While the North Island contains 41% of the countries land area it commands 78% of the population leaving the South Island thinly represented.

The Food: it's pretty good. In the early years the diet was cursed with British cuisine but the countries have grown more international in taste, reflecting the influx of people for other countries. One quick staple with a  British influence is the meat pie. Found in most pubs it is an easy lunch item and is meant to be eaten with your fingers.

Many desserts are available but the menu regular seemed to be sticky date pudding. It came in many forms. Sometimes it came with ice cream, fruit or whipping cream and nearly always with caramel sauce. I don't like dates but they were well concealed.

Criminal Heritage: it's true that Sydney was started as a British penal colony. But soon other settlers found the place, attracted by the opportunities that prevailed or the various gold discoveries. So most communities point out that they were founded as "free" colonies, not penal ones. And the Kiwis were never a penal colony, as they are quick to point out.

All in all a wonderful people and wonderful place to visit. It's too bad it's so far away!