Birthdays, Penguins, and the Locale in New Zealand (sun/mon)

Sunday ended up being a day around the house. While Blaise’s birthday was Jan 1, most of her friends were on holiday (vacation) so she planned her party for today. She and her mother spent the afternoon preparing finger foods for the party while i ran up the road for beef low mein. The prep work resulted in a feast of snacks including:

asparagus rolls (asparagus wrapped in white bread with butter)
mushroom volauvents
pikelets (pancake with cream cheese, salmon and dill)
mini veggie springrolls
mince savories (mini meat pies)
brandy snaps
mini pavlovas
custard tarts with fruit on top
meatballs with Nicola’s sauce (brown sugar, lemon, tomato sauce, tomato paste)
cheese / crackers, patte
bacon wrapped dates (original recipe called for prunes)
booze, liberal amounts

Monday morning, we drove into downtown Auckland. Until now, I had only driven by via the motorway. Auckland is very much like any American city, it is not distinctly different like Tokyo or London is. We drove along the harbor to Kelly Tarltons Antarctic Adventure / Underwater World, with the promise of seeing a an unprecedented amount of penguins in two colonies, but in captivity. They have King and Gentoo penguins and one of the best habitats for them; they focus on offering variety to keep them stimulated and happy with their habitat. Feeding is not on a precise schedule, types of food vary, the habitat mimics the cycle of the day, etc.

Unfortunately, the current exhibit is very restrictive. You are forced to do an 8.5 minute ride in a small vehicle on tracks, looking at the penguins through dirty glass. Pictures are difficult to take, you cannot watch them for more than a couple minutes before being moved to the next exhibit and there is no way to watch them in any other manner. It’s as if Tarltons has decided that the sharks are the only worthwhile exhibit, and the penguins have been relegated to a backseat. In summary, the experience was a total let down. I specifically went to see the penguins (especially the Kings) and their superior habitat, but ended up getting a couple minutes of poorly constructed viewing time. Assholes.

We left Auckland and headed to Davenport, across the harbor north of downtown. The area is known for boutique shops and cafes, but seemed to be more cafes than stores from the last time Blaise was there. Found a couple things for friends but none of the cafes appealed to us. I think due to most being fairly crowded and us not in the mood to sit down and deal with it.

Next up, the Westfield mall in Albany, a typical shopping mall like you’d find in the states. There are a couple things on my to-buy list for friends that I was waiting to get, as the prices would be considerably more reasonable than a touristy shop down south. Ended up getting more than I had hoped, racking up a NZ$157 bill at Borders buying books that are specific to NZ, but will be of interest to friends back home.

The rest of the night was spent back at home, catching up on e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, watching TV and drinking Scotch. Blaise’s mom made us grilled chicken, corn on the cob, potatoes and peas/green beans. A meal that was largely made up of items she had asked me about earlier in the day.

The Dark Side of Rafting in New Zealand (fri/sat)

Friday: Drove out of Rotorua and headed to Huku Falls on the outskirts of Taupo. These falls are insane; the amount of water that channels through, the color of the water and the strength of the rapids will surprise anyone. Continued on to Taupo / Lake Taupo and spent the day with friends of Blaise. Shopping in town, drinks at an Irish pub, BBQ at their home and the night drinking and talking. Basically, a day off from vacationing and driving.

Saturday: Left Taupo and headed to Waitomo for the legendary “glow worm caves”. This expansive network of caves is known for the ‘glow worms’ that light up the cave ceiling and give it a unique visual splendor. First, they are not ‘glow worms’, they are technically a type of maggot. Second, the glow is from their feces, to attract the prey they eat (other bugs). However, the people of Waitomo realized that advertising “glowing maggot shit caverns” wasn’t a big tourist draw and went with “glow worm caves”.

I opted to experience the caves via the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company and their ‘Black Labyrinth’ package. This involved a 1h15m trip through one of the caves, floating through water on an intertube. As the name implies, ‘black water’ rafting is due to being in a pitch black cave, except the glow worms and occasionally using small LED lights on our helmets. We were told that today was a great day to do this because of significant rainfall the previous week along with another 20ml or more the night before. This caused the water level to be about as high as it could be and still allow us to do it, making the cave that much more exciting.

The cave entrance (pics later) was confusing at first. Looking down the natural stairs, it looked as if a tiny stream disappeared into the ground. There was *no* visible opening. Crawling down further, it became apparent the opening was small, but under where we were standing. Entering the cave set the tone; it was not big. The first 20 yards to get to a chamber for our first meeting point required going through one point more narrow than my shoulder width, another that required ducking to the point of walking on all fours and walking through increasingly stronger currents. We entered the cave at one of seven points that water flowed into the main underground river.

After the first meeting chamber, we saw the result of the high water level as we had to lay perfectly flat on the tube to go under a small opening, and still scrape our helmet on the cave roof. From this point on, the cave remained considerably more passable. We went over two small waterfalls, the first maybe a foot and a half, the second about 3 – 4 feet. To do these safely, you are required to stand on the edge, backwards, intertube around your butt and jump backwards into the water, landing flat. The combination of that, mostly in the dark, in extremely cold water that would splash into your face and up your nose was crazy.

For the next hour, 12 of us were guided through the cave by Cam, Matty and Monkey, who were a riot. After more than an hour floating through the cave, we rounded a small turn and it instantly went from pitch black to well lit, as we came to the mouth of the cave and a lush green forest. Floating through the cave without lights, looking up at the ‘glow worms’ was definitely the best way to experience it. Blaise did a walking tour of two other caves. She said the first was neat and a good experience. The second however, was too crowded and partially closed due to high water levels, making their stay in the main room about two minutes.

Next time I visit, I will do the ‘Black Abyss’ tour. This is a five hour adventure that involves ‘abseiling’ (rappelling) down a long chute, taking a ‘fox tail’ (zip line) across a chasm and then black water rafting for a longer period.

thermal animals on luges in New Zealand (thu)

Started the day with a quick drive to the Waiotapu Geothermal Wonderland. A privately owned park covering quite a bit of land covered in thermal pools, a geyser and more. The park started out pretty tame, with some craters that formed due to thermal activity and water. The big body of water, Champagne Lake is wild as it releases so much steam it is difficult to see any water. The overflow area is full of a mix of colors due to sulfur, iron oxide and a dozen other minerals. The last pool of water was also wild, as it was neon green from an abundance of sulfur. Pics will be uploaded when
I return. We hiked 3 kilometers around the park, but just missed the 10:15a geyser by ten minutes.

Next, we headed to the Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park. Part zoo, part petting zoo, this place was a blast. One of the big draws is their African lion pride with 2 males, 4 females and cubs (most of the time). We arrived in time for the 2:30 feeding and got to see meat tossed over the fence to the lions. During this time, not only did we watch the lions fight with each other when a chunk of meat was contested, but one of the male lions tried to attack me twice. The exhibit lets you get up close, with only a chain link fence (with electrified fence on the inside) between us. The first time, the lion came up to me, roared and swiped once. The second time, he sprinted a few feet from where he was waiting for meat, roared and swiped at me again, but this time touching the electrified fence. The zap made him back off and he left me alone. Apparently, he likes American meat more than the other spectators, including a bunch of juicy kids surrounding me.

After the feeding, we went to the lion cub area and got to pet a lion cub. Once the cub was in his cage (with a fence that allowed visitors to reach through), he promptly flipped on his back exposing his tummy and waited for the parade of rubbies. It was obvious he looked forward to feeding / petting time. The rest of the park offered mostly more domesticated animals, many of which we could feed. The Fallow Deer lined up and my hand full of treats became contested territory. The wild pigs enjoyed treats, the Wallabees ignored us, ducks and trouts were frenzied. The goats and alpaca were agressive in getting treats, each eating out of my hand. At one point, a swan got outright pushy and snatched the bag of food from India’s hand, dragging it back into his pond. That scared the hell out of her, and the swan ate like a king for the day.

Next up, a trip up the Skyline gondola on Mount Ngongotaha, overlooking Rotorua. After a snack up top, we each did 5 trips down the luge. No, not the kind of luge you first think of, no ice or sleds involved. New Zealand style luge, apparently invented here, involves a four wheeled cart that you steer down a concrete track. Three tracks are available at this one; scenic (beginner), intermediate and advanced. You can get quite a speed going and the turns are sharp. During the run down the advanced course, I went into a turn too fast and couldn’t brake fast enough or make the curve. Ended up flipping on my side and scratching myself up good. I now have a set of war wounds to remember my luge runs. Oh, and I didn’t cry!

We grabbed food at Lovely India, where Blaise had buttered chicken for the first time. The Indian food here (based on the one restaurant) is much like America with a few small differences. Buttered chicken a tad sweeter (but really good), Naan a bit more greasy, no special green sauce served with papadun, etc.

Heading back to the hotel, we noticed a market down the road. As luck would have it, the Rotorua market is every Thursday night. Stopped to check it out, about half food and half crafts. Picked up a jar of Tamarillo jelly for Chelsea since she cooks so much and I don’t believe we have it in the US anywhere, as well as three bars of hand-made soap to better embrace my feminine side.

Finished the night at the hotel, cursing the hot weather, stifling humidity and heavy sulfur smell.

small flightless birds in New Zealand (wed)

Drove ~ 3 hours from Auckland to Rotarua for the first of a couple days. A relatively small town, but quite a bit to do here. On the way, stopped in Matamata for lunch and a few shops, but did not stop for Hobbiton. While the Shire is apparently mostly intact, it is apparently ass expensive as the farmer who owns the land charges considerably to let you on his property, making tours and such outrageous.

Arriving in Rotorua, you are immediately assaulted by the smell of sulfur. A stalk reminder of the natural hot springs all around. Checked into the hotel (wireless password is aaaaa11111, bedroom tv screen is same size as my laptop) and headed to Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park. They offer empty bottles for each person to visit, to fill up from their natural springs and drink while in the park. The park is half domestic (e.g., pigs, chickens, sheep) and half exotic (e.g., Kiwi, Kea, Kereru) and lets you get up close to many. The Kereru, or New Zealand pigeon, is one of the largest pigeons in the world. The Kea is a mess of a bird; curious, lively and none too bright.

We took the 4pm tour of the Kiwi exhibit and back scene area. This included seeing the incubation areas, temporary housing for newly hatched chicks and learned about the park’s efforts for Kiwi preservation. Cliff notes: these nocturnal flightless birds are native to New Zealand, that originally had no predators. As man introduced new animals (e.g., rats, stoats, dogs), the Kiwi became more threatened, eventually moving to endangered status. Rainbow Springs is one of several preserves that search for Kiwi eggs in the natural habitat, bring them in, ensure healthy chicks, raise the Kiwi to a certain point and release them back into the wild. This effectively removes the most dangerous part of the breeding cycle, when Kiwis are the most vulnerable.

After the tour, I sponsored one of the Kiwis at the facility. I contacted them over a month ago saying I would, and finally got to do it. I picked out ‘Oddbod’ from the available sponsorees and donated NZ$150 to the facility to help cover the costs for him. He comes from the Ohape region and was brought in Dec 23rd 2010, the egg weighing 415.2g. He was estimated to be 53 days old upon arrival and was incubated for 18 days before hatching on Jan 10, 2011. At birth, he weighed 355.6g and had no problems. Oh, by ‘he’, I mean could-be-she. Kiwi chicks are difficult to sex at such an early age and frequently have DNA tests performed on a wing feather to determine sex. Once he learns to eat and forage for live invertebrates, they will let him grow to ~ 1kg before releasing him back into the wild.

After the glorious Kiwi, we stopped at the natural hot springs near the center of Rotorua. An entire park dedicated to the hot smelly springs. Some with water and steam, others with mud spitting up. All with the same strong sulfur smell.

Next, dinner at “Urbano Bistro’, an upscale restaurant with really good food. I had Bruschetta with crumbled feta cheese and a plate of scallops in some delicious sauce. Left there to relax at the hotel a bit, then headed back to the Kiwi adventure for night time. Since Kiwis are nocturnal, the park lets you go in the exhibit as it turns dark and see them wake up. In the 45 minutes there, we saw 3 of the 4 Kiwis. Two of them spent time at the front of the exhibit, no glass between us, just a small wall. I got to stand there, just a foot from them (within petting distance) as they woke up and began foraging for bugs. Seeing them that close was really neat, something most New Zealanders never do.

The Kiwi is one of the most absurd flightless birds you will ever see, but also one of the most absurdly cute creatures you will find.

Observations, Slang and Facts in New Zealand (tue)

Taking the day off from vacation. Doing laundry, catching up on e-mail, cursing the poor connectivity between here and some web sites. Picked up the last book in the Hunter Games trilogy, started reading that. Finished the night with pizza (see below) and a sampling of New Zealand dark beers.

Some Kiwi’isms that I have noticed the last week:

  • they pump gas before they pay
  • they can park outside the airport while waiting to pick people up
  • the police do not carry guns
  • there are no speed traps and very few police on the south island. saw a single cop between Queenstown and Christchurch
  • New Zealand has a population of ~ 4.3 million spread over 103,483 sq miles. Compared to the Denver/Boulder metro area with ~ 3.1 million in close to 250 sq miles.
  • when they pronounce the letter ‘z’, it is said as “zed”.
  • their pizza is more adventurous than ours. for example, Hell Pizza
  • everything is rounded up to the nearest 10th cent. that is the smallest coin they have, NZ$2.00 is the highest

Kiwi slang that gets me every time:

  • “How you going?” instead of “How you doing?”
  • Want a lolly? Not just a lolli-pop, any kind of candy.
  • “Sweet as!” .. short for “sweet as pie”, but essentially means ‘fantastic’. slang, can be used in just about any situation
  • jandals .. not sandals. originally the brand was ‘Jandals’ which became slang for any type of flip flops / sandals.
  • if it looks really ‘flash’, that means upscale / high-end

Odd facts:

  • the ‘Remarkables’ mountain range outside Queenstown is one of two ranges that run North to South. the other? the Rockies..
  • Lake Wakatipu, the longest lake in New Zealand is almost 400 meters deep, putting the floor below sea level.

Arts, Crafts, Food and Travel in New Zealand (mon)

Started the day with breakfast at a cafe in Akaroa and then checked out more craft shops that had closed before we could visit them last night. Found several great items. On the way out, we stopped at Barry Bay’s, a neat cheese shop where they make their own. Picked up some crackers and venison salami as a snack for the road. About ten kilometers toward Christchurch, stopped in Little River to check out a few more art galleries and craft stores.

Christchurch reminds me of an American city, just minor things stand out and remind me “you aren’t in the U.S.” A huge Busker festival was taking place, but walking around several blocks and we saw a single stage with buskers. Either we missed the main area they were performing, or the festival on 16th street in Denver in October is considerably bigger. Visited the Christchurch cathedral, a well-known landmark. Walking in you see two signs that a donation of NZ$5 is suggested to look around. Left there and continued souvenir shopping, got about half my list done for friends and family. Also found one painting to decorate my freshly painted place when I return.

With traffic and hordes of stupid people (sounds like home), I decided we should bail from town and started driving in a random direction. Minutes later I asked Blaise to navigate us to the beach so we headed toward New Brighton (the same direction we were traveling!) Had a nice lunch at ‘Salt on the Pier’ along the beach. The calamari was hands down the best I have had as far as the consistency of the calamari. Could have been better if they had used a lighter (and less) breading. The beach itself was beautiful, it’s been a while since I had seen a proper beach.

While there, did not get any aftershocks despite there being many the previous days, following a 5.1 earthquake less than a week before.

Left there for the airport, had extra time to kill due to a delay as a result of mechanical issues. Caught up on the interwebs a bit and read more of the Hunger Games trilogy. All in all, a long day of travel in car and plane.

Road Trip New Zealand (sun)

Woke up to warm sunny weather with plans to head up to Akaroa, an hour outside of Christchurch, to swim with the dolphins. An hour on the road and we canceled those plans as the weather turned cold and we began driving in and out of rain showers. Instead, we took the long drive as a chance to stop in several small towns along the way and head into Akaroa for the craft stores and a seafood dinner.

On the way to Akaroa, many of the small towns were 50/50 on shops being open since it was Sunday. With the extra time, we took an impromptu drive toward Lake Heron, one of the general areas that was widely used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Shortly before reaching the area, I stopped quickly to take pictures of a little hedgehog that was in the middle of the road after ensuring he made it across safely.

The road leading to the lake quickly went from paved to gravel and offered a neat view of the surrounding mountains. Portions of the drive showed absolutely no sign of civilization; not even a fence along the road. The streams we crossed were filled with water that is an unbelievably crisp cyan, more clear / colorful than the Shotover river which is “99% pure” and drinkable.

Arrived in Akaroa and hit some of the shops, offering a nice array of crafts. Dinner at a French restaurant, had tempura battered salmon, unspecified white fish and king prawns.

From Lake to Lake in New Zealand (sat)

Woke up and headed to the waterfront for our Jet boating trip. Turned out the Saturday art market was set up along the waterfront. Picked up a couple of colorful paintings of a kiwi from a local artist.

Jet boating is like jet skiing, but a bigger boat, that goes much faster. For tourism, it is a boat that holds almost 25 people. Two 750 horsepower engines suck water in from the bottom and shoot it out the back, allowing the boat to raise up out of the water and reach speeds around 80km/hr. Sitting idle, the boat needs a good 1 to 1.5 meters of water. When moving fast, the boat only needs 5 – 10 centimeters of water allowing us to go over extremely shallow areas. This adds to the excitement as the fast speeds and hugging shorelines or sand bars is a blast.

We started out in lake Wakatipau, traveled to and under the dam at the Kawarau river mouth, up that river a ways and then veered into Shutover river. For almost an hour, we got to travel some 42 kilometers and saw great scenery. To liven things up, the JetBoats can be made to do a full 360 over the water. When our driver Kent would motion with his arm (as if he were twirling a lasso), that was our warning he was about to spin us around. The boating was a lot of fun. Next time, I want to find
someone that will let me drive.

Next, we headed up to Arrowtown, a small town north of Queenstown. If someone swapped signs with Estes Park, it would probably fool a few people. Same type of town, focused on arts, mountains all around. Blaise’s friend Nicola had recommended we get some custard squares from the bakery there, and we now understand why. I also dropped some coins in a small donation box to support a local cat rescue, despite seeing no cats in the town.

We then headed toward Cordrona. To get there, it required going over a windy mountain pass toward Wanaka. Blaise feared for her life, clawing the passenger seat while I enjoyed the very Rocky Mountain-esque road. On the opposite side of the mountain, we stopped at the Cordrona Hotel/Pub, an iconic southern New Zealand watering hole. It is apparently in many commercials of all types and just associated with the region. As is tradition, I ordered a Speights, a locally brewed beer. We had a platter of cheese, bread, meat and other cooked items in a beautiful grassy courtyard with picnic tables, foothills in the background and a two person band playing folk and Irish tunes.

From here, we passed through Tarras, home of ‘Shrek’. No, not the colorful ogre we all enjoy. Shrek is the name of a folk hero sheep from Bendigo station. Many years ago, Shrek and the rest of his flock would be released into the local mountains and collected before spring to harvest the wool. That year, Shrek (before he was named) did not come back with the flock. Then, year after year, he did not turn up when the ranchers went to collect the sheep. Six years later, the sheep returned with the flock and he was a mess. From that point, he was named and became famous internationally. Google “shrek the sheep” for pictures, Wikipedia article and more.

At some point during the drive, I noted that NZ radio does not censor songs. According to Blaise, they do sometimes if the amount of profanity is high, or a song plays during certain times (e.g., right after school lets out). Otherwise, they play the originals.

We ended up spending the night at Lake Tekapo. Unfortunately, there was some cloud cover so we didn’t get to see the notorious colorful night sky. Think ‘northern lights’ but more shades of red. Dinner at Kohan, a Japanese restaurant next to the motel. Probably the best and most fresh salmon nigiri I have had in ages. This is due to us being half an hour from a glacier-fed salmon hatchery.

Splashing around New Zealand (fri)

Woke up, got breakfast, took the nice drive into Queenstown. This time, the scenery was better as the weather was considerably improved. I ended up driving most of the way and I managed to stay on the left the entire time. As with everything, Kiwis are backwards. Not just the driving, but the windshield wipers are on the left, turn signal on the right. I imagine the locals I passed knew I was not a local when my wipers went on as I sped around them at 100km/h (it sounds fast, it’s not).

Rafting:

From Queenstown, we took a brief bus ride to the rafting base camp. There, we were systematically converted into pro-rafters. Wet suit, booties, wet suit jacket, helmet and put on the bus. Wet suits are the absolute least flattering thing you can possibly wear I think. Avoid them at all costs.

A 45 minute ride to the start sounded easy enough. However, dressed in half that gear sitting two to a seat wasn’t so comfortable. The road leading to the river was also a bit scary. The warning signs saying rental cars were not insured for the road and numerous other warnings were definitely warranted. We were a thousand feet (or more) above the valley, on an exceptionally narrow road that had no guard. At times, the bus almost scraped the wall on one side and had the opposite tires less than six inches from a sheer drop off.

We did a ~ 2 hour / 14km white water rafting trip down the Shutover river outside Queenstown. Beautiful trip on jade green water with great scenery. The river at one point many years ago was the highest ratio of gold per kilometer. Now, there are some artifacts left; various mining equipment, shacks and remains of the old setup. The region also has wild goats, introduced during the mining boom as a source of food. The goats are now wild and not a food source (yay!). I ended up spotting two, including the first at the very top of a mountain and a great gray/white/black one that followed the shore with us for a brief period. Tania spotted a family of 6 on a shore behind me.

The river also had a 170 meter man-made tunnel from the mining era that was fun to go through. Tania and I were in the front of our raft so we got the best view and the most water. Took both opportunities to take a swim and float with the boat. Our raft captain was Gabby, a cute Aussie girl that has rafted and traveled a lot of the world. She was very upbeat and definitely added to the fun.
During the rafting, I almost fell in early on. I didn’t quite have my feet braced in the boat and fell backwards. I can honestly say that all the ab work during personal training payed off, as I basically did a ‘V up’ to hold on long enough to grab a rope on the raft and allow someone else to pull me farther up. Tamba will be so proud.

Post rafting:

Walked around Queenstown and checked out many shops, found a few neat things. Picked up pictures from our rafting trip (will post later) and got dinner at Pub on Wharf. Oddly enough, I have never had beef wellington until tonight, even though seeing them made for years on various cooking shows and always wanting to. It was really good.

Sounds like New Zealand (thu)

NZ domestic flights are a stark reminder of how our travel used to be. I didn’t have to show ID to get on the plane. Didn’t have to take my shoes off going through security. Showed up 40 minutes before the flight.

Flying into Queenstown is neat. You approach the town, circle over it, down into a valley over a lake and approach runway. When you break through the clouds, the surrounding mountains are right there. The pilot warns you that it is normal and not to be alarmed.

T-Mobile and/or Samsung suck. Since turning on international roaming for my account, I have kept it disabled on the phone. Every time I use it, a popup warns me charges could be high, do I want to disable it. I always select yes. In 24 hours, the time hasn’t updated to reflect local time because
data is off. Today, I turned it on for 30 seconds to check weather and immediately got a text saying I hit the $50 mark for roaming fees. What. The. Fuck. I haven’t loaded apps that use data, nothing should be updating and I selected to disable data roaming every time it asked. The text message said I could disable it via USSB code.. dial #763# so I did. Not 20 seconds later, same popup asking if I want to disable data roaming. Either the phone’s software is buggy, T-Mobile’s service is buggy, or both.

Stopped in Garston, an hour outside of Queensland, at a cafe. Eggs benedict with bacon over english muffins, was really good.

Lots of sheep on this drive. Lots.

If someone says they need a quickie, don’t start undressing. They could mean a ‘quick-eze’, to alleviate an upset stomach. If not, then start removing clothing.

Milford Sound is beautiful, a two hour cruise there is well worth the time. Two small colonies of New Zealand Fur Seals to see. Unfortunately, the rare penguins that nest there do so between August and December. If you opt for this cruise, ask for a discount because of the false advertising. Milford Sound is actually not a sound, it is a fjord. Big difference.

Americans have (and cherish) their Baseball. The rest of the world has Cricket. While I am still trying to figure out this game, it is clear that it holds about the same excitement and pace as Baseball. Seems to require a bit more skill as they don’t use gloves though.

Te Anau, the town we’re in, is close to 45 degrees longitude. That results in the sun going down close to 10p during the summer.