Monday, February 28, 2011

Earthquakes and Rebellions and Floods and Cyclones, OH MY!

Queenstown Day 2

Hello again from the “Black Cloud” family! That's what we've been referred to several times over the past few weeks. While we have managed to, just, avoid all of the various calamities that seem to be occurring in our near vicinity with eerie frequency. We've had to cancel our plans to travel to Egypt thanks to a student led rebellion that led to the ouster of their long time dictator. Historic flooding occurred in the areas just North and just South of Port Macquarie. A serious cyclone that was Category 5 before slamming into Australia, near Cairns, passed directly over Vanuatu just 2 days after we departed there. And just a few days ago, a deadly 6.3 severity earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, as we were traversing across the South Island. We were approximately 55 miles away from Christchurch at the time it struck, but were blissfully unaware that it had even happened until almost 3 hours later when we arrived in Greymouth. We've asked the US Department of State to kindly notify the various emergency response organizations of the countries we'll be traveling to in the next 2 months of our plans so that they can ramp up their troops in preparation for the chaos our visit will, no doubt, be bringing to them!

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Ok, so it's probably just coincidence, but still spooky and we're certainly happy that our travels, other than the Egypt business, have been essentially unaffected. Indeed, as I type this up in the waiting area in Auckland, New Zealand, we are all very happy and healthy. We have very mixed feelings as we leave New Zealand. We're excited to embark upon the long planned itinerary around the world, but we have, again, had a taste of this wonderful country and are not eager to leave. The landscape, particularly of the South Island, is varied and beautiful. It is rural, but modern. It reminds us of many different places, the terrain in one area is uncannily like Wyoming, in the next you could be driving along the Lochs of Scotland, the next driving through a mountain pass in the Rockies, and 20 miles down the road in the tussocked mountains of Alaska. At all times, just gorgeous, uncrowded and peaceful.

After leaving Port Macquarie we had a brief stopover in Sydney where we were able to take in the small, but quite nice display of the Terracotta Warriors of Xian at the New South Wales Art Gallery and an Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Museum of Contemporar Art.

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The next morning we flew to the New Zealand capital city of Wellington (on the Southernmost tip of the North Island). This is a very pretty city on a large bay, where houses climb the hillsides similar to a European/Mediterranean town.

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We visited the vast Te Papa museum, enjoyed a beer on the bayside, had a few drinks at a Welsh Pub, and a dinner at a restaurant specializing in Cajun and Mexican food. Sweet Mother's Kitchen is owned by someone who lived in Nawlins for several years—the food was impressively good considering the rarity of such cuisine South of the equator and the difficulty in getting the ingredients—they even had a very good corn bread and genuine okra in the gumbo! We enjoyed a cable car ride up the mountainside with nice vistas of the city.

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After a few days in Wellington, we boarded a ferry that took us from the North Island across Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island. Picton was picturesque along Queen Charlotte Sound, and had some nice little tramps (hikes) we took advantage of, but it was a one night stop on our way to other destinations.

Picton New Zealand

We picked up a bright red Ford Falcon rental car (probably a Taurus in the USA) and wedged all of our bags (we're down to one suitcase + one carry-on bag each now) into the boot and headed down to Kaikoura via Blenheim. In Blenheim we visited the St. Clair Winery, had a small tasting and drove away with a couple nice bottles in hand. We drove along the rest of the wine trail through the Marlborough Wine Region, but didn't have much time to stop, we had plans for Kaikoura.

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Arriving in Kaikoura we checked into the YHA Youth Hostel that sat, literally, 10 meters from the edge of the break wall for the ocean! It was just an unbelievably beautiful setting, particularly for a budget accomodation. We threw our bags in the room, grabbed a quick lunch then headed for our planned adventure of the day—snorkeling with New Zealand Fur Seals in the open ocean! If you've ever watched a 3D IMAX movie, or even an episode of National Geographic on TV where the cameras are in the water and curious sea creatures swim right up, unafraid and curious, then they put on impromptu displays of water acrobatics then you have a small sense of what we experienced. We had to suit up in thick wet suits complete with hoods and booties. The shock of the chilly water was really something, but quickly the suits filled with water and warmed up and we were, as a family, swimming right along with the seals in crystal clear New Zealand waters.

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Albatrosses sunned on rocks; cormorants flew overhead; seals spun, dipped, and dove all around us. One seal even bumped into Brendan as we watched. To the person, the kids declared this the coolest thing they'd ever done. Tamara and I had to agree. This was just an experience of a lifetime. That night, at a fine dinner of Thai food including the rare Paua shellfish, New Zealand Salmon, and a variety of tasty dishes we all agreed that we would have loved to have planned to stay several more days in Kaikoura. There were tons of other activities in the area including llama trekking, dolphin swims, whale watching and several tramps. That evening, Amarra joined me shooting some sunset photos outside our hostel.

Sunset at Kaikoura

Alas, we had a set itinerary and had to be off the next day to reach Greymouth.

It was a scenic, but fairly short drive and we stopped in the little hot springs town of Hanmer Springs, where Tamara found a nice Merino wool jacket she couldn't walk away from. We had a decent fried chicken lunch at a takeaway, and then started on our way. Sometime shortly after we left the quake in Christchurch occurred, but we knew nothing at the time. The drive through the Lewis Pass was gorgeous. Then we got to Greymouth.

Greymouth was a planned stop because the drive from Kaikoura to Franz Josef looked to be a very long drive and potentially more than we could do in a day. As it turned out, it would have been doable in just a day and would have been much preferable. Greymouth was grey, quite and boring. It was practically a ghost town. The youth hostel was in a 1930s era building that must've been a government building at some time, and they still used genuine skeleton keys in the locks. At least half the restaurants in town were closed, and this is mid-week 5-6pm. So many were closed that we gave up and just went to the grocery store and bought pasta, sausages and sauce and cooked our own. I can't even imagine what Bill Bryson would have said about this town in one of his books. It was probably our biggest disappointment of the trip.

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Luckily, the town of Franz Josef Glacier was a totally different story. It was a town full of younger people either returning from or heading to the glaciers to do ice climbing, trekking, or exploring. There were transient tour buses with older folks too, but this is an active town with all kinds of tours of the Franz Josef glacier. Our plans, however, were for the Fox Glacier, a few kilometers down the road. Fox glacier is a larger, less populated, but perhaps prettier glacier. They allowed tours on the lower portion of the glacier for kids as young as 7 (we had to get Amarra to practice fibbing since she doesn't turn 7 until July). Brendan stated “They don't look like this in the books at school,” when he saw the immensity and intense blue colors of the glacier. It was quite a hike in borrowed climbing boots. Heath had one blister and Amarra 2, but nobody complained and they all were talking about how they now wondered what was more exciting, the seal swim or the glacier hike.

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After another “too short” stay, we had to be up very early the next day to start the reportedly 10 hour long drive down to our Southernmost destination of Te Anau.

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Fortunately the drive was both very beautiful and only 7 hours long. We had time to do some hiking around lake Te Anau, to see the small wildlife center and enjoy the scenery around this nice little tourist town. The main goal of the long drive to Te Anau was to explore the vast Fiordlands National Park and to take a wildlife cruise on Doubtful Sound—our most expensive tour thus far. So early the next morning we boarded the first bus of the day. After a short bus ride we boarded a boat, had a 1 hour lake crossing, boarded another bus that stopped within a 2km deep power plant for a rather boring tour there, then proceeded across a pass to another boat at the harbor for Doubtful Sound. We spent 2 hours seeing sites and staring at the water looking for wildlife.

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We did see some, including 4 of the only 300 living examples of the Fiordland Crested Penguin. We saw Blue Penguins (aka Little Penguins or Fairy Penguins), a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins (these guys a huge compared to their North of the Equator cousins), and a Fur Seal, but we all felt a little crestfallen. While the scenery was beautiful, it got pretty repetitive. The wildlife was fairly sparse, and we'd seen most of it in the past, and more up close. So, all in all after the long trip back by bus, boat and bus again the 10 hour day was exhausting without much reward for the cost and time. I wouldn't discourage others from doing it, but if you're young and active, a 1-2 night kayak trip on the Sound might be a better way to experience the area, and if you've seen these creatures before and just want some scenery, perhaps a nice flight over the area.

Queenstown Day 2

And now, our final destination in New Zealand, and probably our favorite. Queenstown, just a couple hours drive back up the road is just awesome. The drive follows a river and lakes and while curvy is really fantastic. The town itself is in a great area within an hours drive of 4 major ski mountains, sitting on a huge “Bahamas blue” lake, and surrounded by mountains. The plethora of activities in the area is overwhelming. It is the home of bungy jumping and the kids all had a hand at trampoline bungy—Amarra was even doing back flips!

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They have parasailing, paragliding, parachuting, jet boating on the river or lake, and our chosen adventure activity—river rafting. The town is lively and packed with pubs and restaurants. They have a beautiful city park, a gondola, and lots of open air activities. Again, our YHA had an enviable location sitting right on the lake with views of the mountainsides and lakeside park. We hiked part way up the gondola served mountain before turning back. We found one company that runs family friendly white water river rafting trips. It was quite nice, very calm and safe, but still a lot of fun. We had a running history of the local gold mining as well as a running dialog of bad jokes—all of which added to the adventure. Ask the kids about the road to the site where we put in sometime—harrowing is putting it lightly!

Queenstown Day 2

Queenstown Day 2

Queenstown Day 2

We're now sitting in the Auckland waiting area for our flight to Sydney before we embark upon the rest of our trip. We flew from Queenstown on the first brand new A320 “All Blacks” plane—painted solid black except for the Silver Leaf on the tail. At only 2 weeks old and roomy with leather seats, this was a really cool 'going away present' from New Zealand. We're sad to see it go, and have every hope of returning, perhaps for a prolonged stay, at some time in the future.

Be sure to check out all the New Zealand Photos at the flickr set:

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