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!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Next Stop: Auckland, New Zealand

Sydney was the last stop on the Australian portion of our trip. We moved on to Auckland, New Zealand, a moderate size town though large by NZ standards. Located on the North Island it is surrounded by water and the home of the NZ Americas Cup challengers for many years.
(NZ consists of two islands, North and South. We will visit both during our stay.)

The country is still basking in the glory of their recent victory over Australia in the Rugby World Cup. There is always a friendly rivalry between NZ and their larger Australian neighbors. That made the victory even  sweeter.

NZ is currently engaged in a discussion about changing their national flag. The present flag is often confused with the Australian flag and carries the British Union Jack on the corner. Some would like to declare the NZ identity with a new flag. After reviewing hundreds of ideas these five have been put out for a citizen vote. The winner will then run against the current flag and a decision will be made.
The current New Zealand flag.
The replacement candidates. Which would you chose if you were a Kiwi?

Our hotel is close to the waterfront so we did our touring via bus and ferry and got a flavor,for the place.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Iconic Sydney Opera House

No visit to Sydney would be complete without at least a walk by the iconic Sydney Opera House. The fact it is there at all makes for an amazing story.
The view from the water is impressive.
The view of the water, from the interior, is impressive as well.

After a design competition an architect was selected and the project begun in 1959. It was finally completed in 1973 with a new architect and a final cost of over $100 million...over ten times the original budget. The extreme design was loved by some and reviled by others but it's success cannot be doubted.
There is lot of activity surrounding the Opera House on a warm summer night.

It hosts over 1500 events and over 1.2 million guests annually. It's called an opera house but is much more than that. It is home to Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, Sydney Theater Company and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It contains a concert hall (2700 seats), a theater (1500 seats) and four other smaller venues. The night we attended a show only one small stage was unused but an outdoor rock concert on the front steps made up for that.

It is truly the cultural gem of Sydney.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb; Looking Down on the Town

Before leaving home we'd booked a climb on the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Friends had recommended it and we were not disappointed. It's not a tough climb--lots of stairs, ladders, catwalks and ramps--but it's not for the faint of heart. You are way up in the air looking down on the harbor and the world. Very cool and very safe but....

They have several options to chose from that vary in distance and duration. We chose the "regular" trip that was nearly 3 hours in length. About half of that time you are moving. The other half you are preparing, the guide is taking photos or you are just listening to the guide describe the scene. Here is the process.

Step 1: Fill out health and legal form.
Step 2: Pass breathalyzer...booze and climbing don't mix.
Step 3: Change into issued jump suit. Leave everything you brought in a locker. Nothing loose including cameras, large jewelry and watches stay.  Sunglasses permitted.
Step 4: Pass through metal detector. They don't want you sneaking a camera or phone on the climb. Why? Because we will be several hundred feet above pedestrians and cars on the bridge and boats passing beneath. A phone could do lots of damage!
Step 5: Get fitted with safety belt, hat and two way radio with earphones (so you can listen to the guide.) Everything, glasses, radio, hat, earphones, gets clipped to hooks on the jumpsuit. Nothing is left to chance.
Step 6: Practice going up and down a set of stairs using the safety belt which clips on a cable that runs up and down the practice stair.

After all of that you begin your journey. As you approach the first catwalk you clip on the safety cable. You will remain clipped on the entire time on the bridge.
Notice the flags at the top of the  arch. In the close up you can see a tour at the base of the near flag. At that point tours cross to the other flag and arch and begin their descent. You can see a descending group near the distant flag base.

From that point on its pure joy mixed with a bit of heavy breathing and sweat. At one point we climbed four 25 tread sets of stairs/ladders in a row. Once on the arch the pitch lessened as we ascended and with it, the effort required. The guide was good about pausing from time to time to tell stories of the bridge or things that we could see, giving us a chance to catch our breath.

For example, he has witnessed a number of proposals made at the top. He also recalls one rejection! (He: "Will you marry me?" She: "Let's talk about it when we get down.")

I could describe everything we could see from the top but that would spoil your trip. Suffice to say the bridge climb should be on your "to do" list if your travels bring you to Sydney. We will never view Sydney Harbor New Year celebration quite the same way again.

The bridge following the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Rainforest Adventure

After a day in the outback followed by a day on the Great Barrier Reef a day in a tropical rain forest was a perfect trifecta.

The Daintree rainforest is the oldest surviving rainforest in the world. It's World Heritage listing is the highest order of protection a nation can bestow on its natural treasures. We had an incredible walking tour where the interdependence of the various plants and animals was explained. Way to much detail to explain even if I understood all the issues, which I don't. 

We followed with trip up Cooper Creek learning about the role of the ominous looking mangrove swamps in the complex ecosystem. Croc watching was a bonus and we all were more than willing to pay attention when the guide admonished us to keep all body part in the boat if we wanted to keep all body parts.

Our time in more rural Australia is coming to an end and we are headed to Sydney at sunrise.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Uluru to Port Douglas; Desert to the Tropics

Flying from Uluru, in the outback, to Port Douglas, on the northwest coast is like flying from Arizona to Florida. The land is green and forests lush. It is a nice change from the dry and heat. We landed in Cairns, itself a resort area, and drove an hour north to Port Douglas. Lots of golf courses and big resorts in this little town.

The next morning we boarded our shiny Quicksilver tour boat and headed to Agincourt Court reef about 70 miles north on the Great Barrier Reef. The boat us a bit odd looking but, looks aside, it's fast; cruises at over 37 miles an hour. You can stay in air conditioned comfort or sit out and enjoy the wind and sun.

Our destination was an "activity platform" anchored at the reef. It offered something for everyone. Scuba, snorkeling, underwater viewing areas, glass bottom viewing boats, helicopter rides, tea morning and afternoon and a buffet lunch. 

We opted for a snorkel tour with a biologist who took us further from the platform and identified marine life for our group of five. The coral is amazing...we've seen nothing like it in Hawaii. I didn't take these photos but could have as we saw the same scenes.

Our hats are off (only when we are out of the sun) to the tour company. Quicksilver is a first class operation.