New Zealand: Franz Josef

Dave and I drive south to Franz Josef playing “name that tune” using the 80s playlist on my iPod. It occurs to me that I haven’t yet told the saga of the iPod.

Five minutes before the cab was due to pick us up at our house and take us to the airport for our initial flight to Auckland, my iPod had a seizure. Maybe it freaked out because Dave switched users on the Mac while it was syncing. More likely, I probably lifted it from the cradle at some point while it was writing something important. At any rate, the iPod got wiped clean. Empty. Zero songs. Nada. And with a more-than-20Gb collection of music, there wasn’t even time for iTunes to figure out which songs needed to be added, let alone put anything back on there. I’d still be able to use the iPod to offload pictures from my camera, but I wouldn’t be able to try out the iTrip to play music in the car. I was devastated.

After the first week, I finally ran out of space on my camera, so I decided to dump the pictures onto the iPod. I attached the camera to the USB cable to the Belkin transferring thingy (thanks, Winsha!) to the iPod and pressed the button. For some time, the transferring is covered in flashing lights a la Close Encounters. Then it becomes quiet. I’m trying to see if it worked when I notice that the iPod is down more than 20Gb. The pictures wouldn’t be anywhere near that big, so I look at the menu. IT’S A MIRACLE! THE SONGS ARE BACK! THE IPOD HAS BEEN FAITH HEALED WITH THE LAYING ON OF BELKIN TRANSFERRING THINGY! WOO HOO!

Needless to say, Dave and I have been happily listening to music in the car ever since. (Or perhaps I should say that I’ve been happily listening to music, since I’m doing all of the driving, and thus get to choose the tunes.) Some of you might be interested to know that the iTrip works like a charm here, since the radio station density is really, really low. (Thanks, Jack!) (For the iTrip, not the low radio station density, which AFAIK he isn’t directly responsible for.)

Back to the driving. Couple of interesting observations. One, NZers feel pretty comfortable with multi-use bridges. There are positively scads of one lane bridges (which are fine as long as you understand the yield rules). More nerve-wracking were the railroad trestles. These handle cars in both directions as well as trains (presumably in both directions). I’m not quite sure of the rule here, but common sense says traffic of all kinds is going to yield to any train that gets anywhere near the thing. Yikes. At least you don’t have a moment of concerns about weight limits when 3 or 4 cars pile on at the same time.

Another observation. A cow crossing sign shows a cow’s silhouette on a yellow diamond. A pedestrian crossing sign shows the silhouette of two people on a yellow diamond. But a sheep crossing sign shows the silhouette of a sheep on an orange diamond, as if to suggest that the warning is actually to indicate “sheep at work”. I know sheep are important to the economy here, but are they actually responsible for doing road work? How do they operate the machinery?

Another observation. A “wh” in a Maori word is typically pronounced like “f”, but (based on regional differences) can be pronounced like “w”. It’s confusing. When we pass Whataroa, Dave summed up the difficulties with “We’ve reached ‘wataroa’. Or ‘fataroa’. Or whatever the wuck it is.”

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we’re taking a helicopter up to the top of Franz Josef glacier to hike around. If you don’t hear from us again, send up one of those St. Bernards with the barrel of rum.

New Zealand: TranzAlpine and Punakaiki

We arise early in the morning to catch the TranzAlpine, a very scenic train ride from Christchurch on the east coast through the South Alps to Greymouth on the west. The scenery is staggering. I entertain myself by pointing out every flock of sheep to Dave (“Hey look! Sheep!”), which he finds endlessly amusing. We also really enjoy eavesdropping on a journey-long conversation between two Australian couples and a British family, in which they discuss the Chunnel and narrow boats, funny things the British son said when he was 6 years old (much to his embarrassment), pollution patterns in London and Sydney, the latest in photography equipment, how much the internet has improved travel, and everything in between.

When we arrive in Greymouth, the Hertz agent is at the station to meet people with Hertz reservations… in this case, a couple from Berkeley (small world!) and us. The agent has brought both rental cars with her. She drives the Berkeley couple back to the Hertz facility to fill out the paperwork. I drive the other car. The woman actually hands me the keys before I sign any paperwork or show any ID. This strikes me as a little weird. Dave tries to talk me into making a break for it, but we eventually decide to follow along.

We head up to Punakaiki to take a look at the Pancake Rocks and stay the night. The coastal road between Greymouth and Punakaiki is amazing. Amazing. Amazing, amazing, amazing. I’ve driven on CA 1, and I’ve driven around Kauai, Maui, and Oahu, and I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. There are volcanic-looking cliffs covered with rainforest-y vegetation, and there are beautifully arranged and eroded rocky outcrops and islands just offshore, complete with clinging mist and crashing waves. Wow.

The Pancake Rocks are more of these outcrops and islands that are comprised of layers of limestone and layers of mudstone. The mudstone erodes away, leaving something that with enough imagination looks like a stack of pancakes. These are partially eroded to form natural bridges, caverns, blowholes, and every striking other-worldly form imaginable. I go nuts with the camera. I usually try to limit the number of landscape shots I take, since I’ve seen from my parents’ collections that photographs with family members in them are so much more interesting in the long run. I just can’t help myself. I am apparently not the only person having this problem, as I overhear a British woman saying “My God. I’ve taken 13 “rock” pictures already.”.

New Zealand: Christchurch

After one last round of minigolf at the hotel, Dave and I head out for Rotorua airport to fly out to the South Island. The airport itself is much smaller than the one in Urbana-Champaign, IL, but quite a bit bigger than the one in Norfolk, Nebraska. I puzzle over the hordes of people running around dressed in green, wondering if they’re supporting some sort of local sports team, until it dawns on me that it is St. Patrick’s Day. I, happily, am coincidentally already wearing a green shirt, so I just pinch Dave in the arm and go on with my day.

It takes an absurd amount of time to get everybody situated on the plane. One couple sits down without consulting their seat number. When it occurs to them to look, they can’t find the information anywhere. Another has misread the seat number on their ticket and have sat in the wrong place. I have no idea if this is par for the course on these domestic flights or if everyone has gotten an early start on the green beer.

When we arrive in Christchurch, we check into the Rydges Hotel. We get our room key and head up to the top floor. We discover that (a) the elevator requires a room key to go to the top floor and (b) our room number is posted in front of the only set of double doors on the entire floor. Doors that are labelled “Royal Suite”. We open one of the double doors to see a dining room table. And an aquarium full of fish. We head back down to the lobby to see if they’ve made some sort of (expensive) mistake. As it turns out, our room rate wasn’t so hot, so they very kindly upgraded us to a bigger room. The biggest room, actually. It’s tragic that we are only in town for one night, but we try to make the most of it. There are snippets of conversation like
Rebecca: “I’m watching our fish reflected in our television.”
Dave: “One of our televisions.”
Rebecca: “Oh, yeah.”
Rebecca: “Which view do you like better? The one from our living room, the one from our dining room, or the one from our bedroom?”

New Zealand: Rotorua (still)

I feel like I should learn a little about Maori culture, so we head over to Whakarewarewa. This mouthful is a shortened version of the real name, which is something along the lines of Te Whakarewarewatanga Mecca Lecca High Mecca Highty Ho. (My apologies to the tribe, but my brain simply can’t handle anything past the first 8 or 9 syllables.) This is an actual living Maori village, which basically means that the people living here (and the children growing up here) are doing so under the scrutiny of thousands upon thousands of sunhat wearing, camera touting, black-socks-with-sandals wearing tourists. Imagine putting your house on Main Street in Disneyland, and you’ll get the idea. It’s got to be surreal.

It’s pretty interesting seeing how hot springs and steam vents are used for cooking and bathing. They’re still in use for that purpose, because it’s just so convenient. We get to sample a bunch of geothermally cooked food, and it’s fantastic.

There’s a Maori concert, which features all of the expected welcoming ceremonies and so forth. The tourists watch and clap along and hold cameras over our heads to snap photos. (Digital cameras are especially handy for this, as you can use the LCD screen to compose the shot.) One of the Maori men in the troupe is very young and very handsome. There are three college age girls in the row in front of us. Every time he is stage front, two or three of their cameras shoot up into the air. When somebody else takes the lead, the cameras go back into the laps. This behavior is accompanied by much giggling.

We walk around the bush in back of the village and check out some more steaming geothermal pools. The views from the top of the hill are nice, and Dave gets better cell phone reception there than anyplace else in Rotorua. (He’s not calling anybody, but he compulsively checks on it anyway.) It is good.

We start the next day at the Rotorua Museum, which is in an early 1900s bath house that looks like a Swiss chalet. There are exhibits on Maori culture and the old bath house. There is also a movie about the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera (which destroyed the Pink and White Terraces). We are preceded into the theater by a local “ladies group” of grinning elderly women. When the movie gets to the actual eruption, the benches shake rather violently to give the earthquakes a more immersive feel. This is a total surprise to everyone in the theater. (In the U.S., this would have been spoiled by medical advisories for people who suffer motion sickness or back pain or whatnot. Here, there was absolutely no indication that it was going to happen.) As a result, the sudden motion was accompanied by much whooping and giggling on the part of the ladies, which somewhat ruined the somber mood that one might normally experience when learning about this kind of devastation.

From the museum, we proceed to the Polynesian Spa for our scheduled Pumice and Honey exfoliation treatments and our hydrotherapy treatments (where we are to be sprayed with warm water and rubbed with coconut oil). When we arrive, we are each presented with a large blue bundle and a very, very, very small blue bundle. The former is our plush terry cloth robe. The latter is identified as the “disposable”. The attendant explains the disposable as follows: “They’re a bit… hrmmm… just know that the bigger bit goes in the front, and wear your robe, for your sake as well as everybody else’s”.

At the spa’s request, we have arrived an hour early in order to spend time soaking in the various hot mineral pools (in our own swimwuits!) before our treatments. These are beautifully landscaped with rocks and are arranged by temperature. We work our way up from the 36C pool to the 40C pool (which has a stone bridge and a waterfall). At this point, we spend some time happily working out the formula to convert Celsius to Farenheit and calculating the pool’s temperature before deciding that yes, the pool is uncomfortably hot, and we should switch back to the cooler one.

Finally, with a sense of foreboding, we realize that it’s time to change out of our comfy swimsuits and into… THE DISPOSABLE (dum dum DUMMMMMMM). With our robes VERY securely tied, we make our way to the waiting area, where we sit uncomfortably until we are called for our treatments.

(Dave later informed me that after I was called away, another couple, slightly older and considerably more overweight, came in. All of them were fidgeting in unison, and they shared a good laugh when Dave pointed out, “Not very comfortable, is it?”.)

The honey and pumice rub was fabulous. The hydrotherapy was a little less so. I was a little distracted by my concerns about drowning; when I was on my back, water sprayed up my nose; when I was on my front, water pooled on the table under my face. I was a little distracted by my concerns about the arrangement of the disposable. And, worst of all, I was distracted by sudden vivid memories of preparing a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. You start the process by rinsing the turkey under running water in the sink, rubbing it vigorously, which is pretty much EXACTLY what was happening to me. I also had the uncomfortable realization that I had been rubbed (basted!) in both honey and coconut oil. By the end of the massage, I was half expecting to be roasted over a spit!

New Zealand: Rotorua

Rotorua is, by most accounts, the most touristy place in New Zealand. Tourism feels very different here than in the states. First, there are (it seems) many fewer people here, so Dave and I frequently find we have the place to ourselves. Second, there are (it seems) many fewer lawyers here, so tourist attractions are visibly less concerned with issues of liability.

On our way from Taupo to Rotorua, we stop off at Orakei Korako to see what a proper geothermal area looks like. The parking lot is on one side of a lake. The steaming silica terrace spills out on the other (this looks like a lava flow, but is actually deposited from mineral rich hot springs which dribble out onto the lake. You reach the terraces via the world’s shortest ferry ride, operated by the world’s most bored boat driver. (When I ask him about this, he says that he occasionally has near misses with a landing sea plane, and I suggest he start trying to mow down waterskiiers to keep things lively.) We wander around the board walks, seeing geysers, mud pools, hot springs, and a rather nice cave. As with everything else, we have the place mostly to ourselves.

Upon arrival in Rotorua, we check into the Regal Palms Motor Lodge, where we get a room that’s just lovely. It has a cunning little kitchenette. It has a decently sized TV. Lots of different restaurants deliver. And it has a GREAT BIG SPA BATH! We begin seriously to consider never leaving.

But leave we do, because I’m determined to try out the Skyline Skyrides. We take a gondola to the top of a big hill overlooking the lake. Then we (repeatedly) take a luge most of the way back down. This “luge” is actually a sled with handlebars and brakes. There are three tracks to choose from. We start on the “scenic track” to get the feel for it. On the way down, I notice that, in typical New Zealand fashion, (a) there are very, very few people here besides us and (b) there are no safety rails, so that if you were to totally lose control of the luge, you could plummet directly off the side of the track and straight down the hill, which would probably make the ride much, much more exciting. On the way down, Dave notices that he has mistakenly taken one of the smaller sleds, and he is having an interesting time maneuvering the handlebars around his knees.

At the bottom, we push our sleds onto a conveyer belt and ride a chair lift back up to the top of the hill. (The sleds proceed down the conveyer belt and are automatically hung off of the bottom of the chair lifts.) With a cry of “AGAIN!” I run right back to the start of the luge track. Dave follows good naturedly.

The scenic track moves reasonably quickly, and I’m very conscious of the lack of safety rails, so I’m a little wary of upgrading to the “intermediate” track until I’m shown up by a very, very small child in front of me. Happily, the intermediate track isn’t too much more difficult, and Dave has managed to find some larger sleds, so we swoop down in great style. I have one dicey moment when a rather large rabbit hops out into the track in front of me. I don’t know which of us is more surprised, but the rabbit has better reflexes, and a tragic accident is avoided.

We discover that it’s theoretically possible to ride the luge directly onto the conveyer belt, thus saving the effort of pushing it and looking very cool in the process. After about four tries Dave manages to stop the luge in just the right place, but his dismount is a little too slow, and he is left suspended over the luge like a crab, on all fours with his pelvis stuck in the air, as the sled ever so slowly makes its way down the conveyer belt and out from under him. “Looking cool” was not in the picture.

Finally, we feel we’re ready for the advanced track. I handle the course swimmingly, although with perhaps a little more brake and wobbling than was really called for. I get to the bottom, and look back up the hill for Dave. He isn’t there. I’m starting to picture him in a crumpled heap somewhere, and wondering if I’m going to have to ask the chair lift attendant for assistance, when he comes ever so slowly down the course. As it turns out, he has once again picked one of the small sleds, a fact that he doesn’t realize until he comes across the first steep downhill section of the course. When he pulls the handlebars back to apply the brakes, he discovers that they can only move a centimeter or so before solidly encountering his knees. His only remaining option is to fly down the downhill at full speed, emitting some sort of prolonged yodelling cry of panic. When he reaches a flatter section of track, he is able to splay his knees enough to brake, but steering is difficult, and he has to take the rest of the course very, very slowly.

Good times.

New Zealand: Taupo (still)

Dave and I “see the sights” in Taupo, such as they are. We hit Huka Falls, see Aratiatia Dam open, eat at the Prawn Farm, and wander around Craters of the Moon (geothermal area with steam vents). It’s all a little underwhelming, except for the Prawn Farm, which escapes underwhelming states by virtue of my having no expectations except a tasty lunch.

The view from our motor lodge is beautiful, with sparkling blue Lake Taupo in the foreground and snow capped dormant snow capped volcanoes in the background, so I suppose it will do.

New Zealand: Taupo

Driving on the left is starting to make sense, which leaves me with serious reservations about driving safely when I get home. I continue to turn on the windshield wipers at every intersection (or at least the ones with left turns), but the windscreen needed a good wipedown anyway, so that’s okay. Spectacular scenery can be a little problematic. Memorable quote from this leg of the journey: “Ooooh! Look at that forest! Ooooh! Look at that oncoming traffic!”

We have arrived in Taupo. Dave and I are taking it easy today, since we can barely walk (see previous blog about Blackwater Rafting and Waitomo Walkway). Taupo is a very picturesque lakeside community, full of Kiwis trying desperately to pretend it’s still summer. Dave and I are wearing fleece and jeans. These people are wearing shorts and T-shirts, and are covered with goosebumps.

New Zealand: Waitomo Caves

This is a vacation of firsts. It’s our first time in the Southern Hemisphere. Our first time across the date line. Our first time driving on the left side of the road. Our first time walking boldly each to the wrong side of the car, only to have to sheepishly switch places. Our first time navigating a traffic circle. Our first time charting a new path on the fly after being spun out of a traffic circle in entirely the wrong direction.

We drive from Auckland airport to Waitomo. The journey involves 10 minutes of looking for the rental car trunk release, 60 seconds of looking for a way to shut off the rental car alarm triggered while looking for the trunk release, and 3.5 hours of driving, including approximately 358 roundabouts. It is a dizzying journey. It includes an unexpected scenic tour of Hamilton, thanks to roundabout #63. I start to get the hang of the driving, except that I turn on the windshield wipers every time I go to make a left turn. I would turn on the windshield wipers every time I go to make a right turn as well, except that the “off” position for the windshield is as far right as the stick goes. Right turns will thus only be a problem only on rainy days.

We arrive at the Waitomo Caves Hotel in the late afternoon. It’s a beautiful old hotel from the early 1900s, but it’s in a state of disrepair, especially when it comes to our room. Peeling wallpaper and threadbare carpets, along with some horrific pink particleboard furniture that really hasn’t held up well. The effect is a bit creepy (a la The Shining). But the place is clean, and has a tasty restaurant, so we’re okay.

The next morning we get up and do our Blackwater rafting tour This involves donning wet suits and helmets with miners’ lamps on them and following an underground stream, scrambling over rocks, floating on inner tubes, and jumping off a waterfall. The caves have glowworms, which appear as specks of light at the ceiling of the cave that form a sort of starscape. It’s all very romantic, except when the guides accurately identify glowworms as “shagging maggots with shiny shit”. Accurate, but somewhat off putting.

The tour is reasonably athletic, if only because climbing over wet rocks in a wet suit and goofy boots is exceedingly awkward. But (after a brief break for lunch), Dave and I elect to take the Waitomo Walkway, which winds through farmland and lush forest to arrive at the same caves that we navigated earlier in the day. The walk is spectacular, with great views and a couple of exciting close encounters with mean looking gangs of cows, but it’s three hours round trip and up and down hills, and we started out tired. By the time we make our way back to the hotel, I nearly burst into tears over the fact that our room is on the second floor. There are lots of pictures from the first half of the hike, when it was more a relaxing excursion and less a horrible forced march.

New Zealand: Auckland

After many, many, many hours of blissful sleep, Dave and I stumble out of the hotel and walk down to the wharf to take a ferry to Rangitoto Island, an extinct volcano. Or, rather, a volcano that is “thought to be extinct”, which presumably means that scientists think it’s done, but really the whole thing could blow at any time, because who can tell. (Joan assures me this is par for the course for extinct volcanos.) Dave and I, along with a handful of adults and approximately 300,000 fifth graders hike from the wharf up to the summit. The hike to the top takes about an hour. We spend most of that time trying to arrange things so that we are hiking in the peaceful sections of the trail where there are no fifth graders. We start out with a good lead, so as long as we keep up a good pace, we can keep ahead of the bulk of them. At a couple of points on the trail, there are displays with educational information. I’m not one to pass up educational displays, so I am tempted away, until the sounds of high pitched voices and tiny stomping feet get louder, and we have to be on our way again before we get trampled. I now know something of what a hunted fox feels like.

At one point we take a rest stop, sitting on the rocks on the side of the trail and having some water while allowing a bevy of hot, tired New Zealanders (some of which are not fifth graders) to walk by us. As they pass, they all look at us with expressions of surprise. When we continue, we discover that the whole lot of them have taken seats on either side of the trail at the very next bend and are having a nice break. I’m left with the impression that it simply never occurred to them that such a rest was a possibility until they saw us do it.

The views from the top of the volcano are spectacular, and I take lots of pictures.

We spend the afternoon at the Museum of Technology and Transport. Most of the museum is this odd collection of Victorian dwellings, old cars, and exhibits about famous New Zealand pilots (both of them). The museum has a very rural feel, possibly because it’s a good distance away from town. There were at least four other people there.

The highlight of the museum is the science exhibitions. It’s a lot like the Exploratorium, except that most of the exhibits work, and Dave and I have the whole place to ourselves. We clamber over self-constructed arch bridges, make ourselves sick on a spinning momentum exhibit, drive a robot badly around the floor, and launch a air powered soda bottle into the air. Good times were had by all, except possibly the robot.