JANUARY 1 – 29, 2011 .

On Mon., Feb.21, 2011 a shallow quake of 6.3  (in Sept. 2010 there was a 7.1) occurred right under downtown Christchurch, collapsing buildings, killing—as of Feb. 24–nearly 100 and trapping up to 200 in many buildings’ rubble.  7 weeks ago we stayed in the city center in the Grand Chancellor Hotel that has buckled and is collapsing. 6 weeks ago at Mt. Cook we rode within feet of the Tasman Glacier endpoint, across the Terminus Lake into which the glacier has now calved a 30 million metric ton iceberg, causing a one-time 10-foot wave.  5 weeks ago, our Christchurch hotel was several blocks away from city center but we walked by the cathedral whose spire is now toppled into the square where we were.  Apparently this was an aftershock from the 7.1 earthquake deeper under the city in Sept. 2010, which damaged some buildings now torn down. But no one was killed, probably because it happened on a weekend morning.  There but for the grace of God…


·         New Zealand in Maori language is Aotearoa which means “land of the long white cloud.” The most repeated Maori phrase we heard was “Kia Ora” (key-OR-ah) which substitutes for “hey how are ya, hello, goodbye, sweet as, etc.”  Though Maori was originally an oral language, when we see it written today in the English alphabet, it is clearly related to the Hawaiian and other Polynesian languages.  The Maori left Polynesia thousands of years ago (probably 5,000 though one Maori guide said 50,000) to reach New Zealand.  They recognized their destination by the “long white cloud.”

·         NZ population is under 4 million people, about 1/3 of whom live in Auckland on the north island. Christchurch is the south island’s biggest city at 350,000—and 3rd largest in NZ.  Dunedin (pop. 120,000) and Queenstown (pop. 22,000) are the 2 other “big” south island cities.  We were told that only 31,000 people living permanently on the south island’s entire west coast.

·         Summer in NZ has mostly been like summer in SF if not colder—not at all like U.S.’s typical summers.  Plus lots of torrential rain.  We had a few times we could be comfortable in short sleeves, but certainly not mornings or evenings.  The average temperature was in the 60s, often in the 50s and the high on the only couple of days was maybe 80.  More like Mark Twain’s comment: the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.  Only I think SF has warmer weather—definitely in September!

·         Small world!!!  Saw a man who looked familiar then heard Maryanne York’s voice after we got off the Tranz Alpine train in Greymouth, and determined that Don, Maryanne, Matt (Adrian’s school buddy) and his 2 younger brothers were also getting off the train, also bound for our next stop, Franz Josef Glacier village.  We saw them at lunch then again at dinner that night then the next day coming back from a walk on Fox Glacier and again at lunch. Before they took the Tranz Alpine, they stayed at an eco-lodge for 2 nights and after the glaciers, they were doing that further south along the west coast.  They had been on the north island and were heading south on the south island’s west coast.

·         The costs of food and retail products were amazingly expensive in NZ.  The worst part was that for the 1st few days, we had the exchange rate backwards.  After I bought some patterned sox, when the sales clerk told me that the 6 pairs were NZ$43, it was only when I looked at the slip noting they had put US$34 that we finally understood that the NZ$ was worth $0.77 to $0.80 vs. US$1.  Still the prices for goods and services were almost like Euro prices.  We wondered if salaries and cost of living (other than “free” healthcare, education, etc.) allowed the Kiwis to have reasonable discretionary spending.  Based on the lack of crowds at many restaurants, I think not.

–        NZ holiday surcharge of 15 to 20% on all restaurant and accommodation prices through Jan. 4 (the technical end of their Christmas Holidays).  Yes, that increases their revenues, but do they understand how that might drive away foreign tourists, especially during the holiday periods when they are most likely to travel?

·         Rick and Mark traded off driving days. At least the cars were automatics, not manuals because for the 1st few days, both men had trouble with correctly turning on the directional signals vs. the windshield wipers. And all of us regularly repeated the chants “ stay left, stay left, stay left” or “turn right, stay left” whenever there were lots of street changes.

·         Rick’s no good, very bad day: leaving Mt. Cook, he forgot his only jacket on the chair in the café.  Then as he was leaving the park, Rick couldn’t get his credit or debit card to work in the park’s petrol station, so as he was driving toward the nearby town of Twizel for petrol. We heard a siren then saw a police car with lights flaring, pulling us over. Rick had been clocked at 113 kph in a 100 kph zone, so the cop gave him a speeding ticket, no warning, no questions but kindly said we could pay for the ticket at our convenience online or at WestPac Banks, located in most NZ town.  On the bright side, it did provide entertainment for the rest of us and it only cost NZ$80 (~US$ 60).  Needless to say, the ribbing continued in high gear for the rest of the trip.  Actually, Mark was grateful that Rick received the ticket because after that, Mark really paid attention to speed limits, not his typical 130 to 140 kph.

·         NZ was the 1st country to give women the vote in 1893.  It is believed that women’s suffrage was very connected to the story of Alice May of the Alice May restaurant.  The owner/chef was the granddaughter of the restaurant’s notorious namesake, Alice May, who before 1920 had been impregnated then jilted by her lover whom she shot and killed.  She attempted to commit suicide but lived to spend 6+ years in prison for her crime.  However 60,000 New Zealand women petitioned for her release so she was pardoned. Kiwis were definitely early on the gender equality scale!

·         Glacier in NZ is pronounced GLAY-seer not glay-shure.

·         New Zealand’s distorted distance and perspective.  The mountains everywhere go straight up, almost cliff-like, which then miniaturizes all the land features around them, particularly in the flat valleys between them or along the water in front of them.

·         Sheep, sheep, sheep dotting the hillsides, fields and valleys with the occasional herd of various colored cows and steers and a few deer farms thrown in for good measure.

–        Merino sheep are whiter, feed along the hillsides, and are grown for their lovely wool vs. the typical New Zealand lamb exported to the U.S., which are a grayish color that looks dirty but boy are they tasty!

–        What is the world record for shearing sheep in 8 hours by 2 persons? Mark heard it on the news.  It was about 1,000 sheep which is one every 25 seconds which shattered the old record of 900.

·         Despite the millions of merino sheep everywhere, the cost of wool clothing was outrageously expensive.  We didn’t see sweaters for less than NZ$250 and more typically NZ$300 to 400.  There were hats, scarves, etc. made from “MerinoMink” for a bit less, but we found out it was possum fur woven with merino wool. Even though NZ possums are cuter than the Los Altos ones, I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything made from an animal whose cousins had fangs, sharp claws and naked tails.

·         LOTR (“Lord of the Ring”) Factoid: we understood perfectly why Peter Jackson chose NZ as the backdrop for The Lord of the Ring trilogy.  Dramatic scenery is an understatement.  I can easily picture scenes from the movies with Milford Sound’s fiords, Tongariro’s moonscapes (Mordor!), the lush mountains and valleys (the Shire!), the glaciers, and floury-colored lakes to name just some.  Now, of course, we will rent LOTR from Netflix to point out “we were there!”

·         All Blacks Rugby paraphernalia is outrageously expensive and probably even more now because they are current World Champions.  I didn’t see a t-shirt for under NZ$65 and any gear that was really rugby-like or outer wear was up to NZ$250!  I compared prices in every city but finally bought a hat with the All Blacks, other Rugby team logos, and  a patch with the 2011 World Rugby Championships to held in NZ.

·         Maori tattooing is quite different from “vanity” tattooing.  One of our Maori tour guides explained a bit about his tattoos and its cultural history.  If the face is tattooed, the chin area is usually done first to imitate the beak of a bird.  A tattoo on the left side of the face signifies the mother’s side of the family and the right side, the father’s side.

·         What we should have seen in New Zealand with extra days or weeks:

–        South Island: Queenstown to Invercargill at the south island’s southern tip then up that coast to Dunedin; an extra day at the Hermitage at Mt. Cook just to luxuriate; more time on the Otago Peninsula at Dunedin, e.g., the Royal Albatross Park; wine country at the south island’s northern tip in Nelson and Martinborough AND Abel Tasman National Park.

–        North Island: wine country at Hawke’s Bay (seemed that the best reds came from there!); northern tip from Auckland to Cape Reinga and the Bay of Islands on its eastern side

–        And time to just relax in a nice environment like Queenstown or Mt. Cook (maybe other places we didn’t visit). 

Maori Warrior HAKA Chant

[Performed with stamping feet & faces with “googly eyes” & tongues stretched out]

Ka mate! Ka Mate! Ka Ora! Ka ora!               It is death! It is death!  It is life! It is life!

Ka mate! Ka Mate! Ka Ora! Ka ora!               It is death! It is death!  It is life! It is life!

Tenei te tangata puhuru huru                          This is the hairy man

Nana nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra                Who caused the sun to shine again for me

.A upa … ne! Ka upa…ne!                               Up the ladder!  Up the ladder!

.A upane kaupane whiti te ra!  Hi!                   Up to the top where the sun shines!


·         Australia is almost the size of the U.S. but with a population of about 22 million, the majority living on the southeastern coast and Sydney being the largest city.  Distance is deceiving, as it is in California. It’s about 928km/577 miles from Sydney to Brisbane or 878km/546 miles to Melbourne. From Sydney on the east coast to Adelaide on the west is 1400km / 872 miles.

·         EXPENSIVE Australia—even more than New Zealand except for the All Blacks gear–because the exchange was about US$1.25 to AU$1 vs. US$0.8 to NZ$1.  Also, every retail or food item or restaurant dish seemed about 20 to 50% higher than in the U.S. And don’t get me started on the Australian weekend surcharge

·         Sydney is a gorgeous city with lots of access to the ocean and huge Sydney Harbor. Comparable to Cape Town and San Francisco though no mountains and few hills, it beautifully combines very modern skyscrapers with classical colonial-looking buildings. The gorgeous blue harbor, and the iconic bridge and opera house are visible from so many places as a back-drop.

–        Climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge was a major trip highlight—if not lifetime.  Wish we could have taken our own pictures but we understood why we couldn’t after we went through the safety and technical processing for 30 minutes before we left the climbing center.  The day was so warm that we only wore our underwear under the provided jumpsuit.  Our tethering the whole length of the climb was very confidence-building.  It was only a bit scary on the walkway over the busy streets and then transferring back and forth up 4 ladders to reach the beginning of the arch.  But our guide was thoughtful, quite humorous, and supportive throughout the 2+ hour trip to the top and back.  The feeling of accomplishment and views were truly rewarding, breathtaking and absolutely worth the price (bargain of AU$198 vs. the AU$220 originally quoted).  We bought the CD with 4 pictures (AU$55) and t-shirt for me.  The only “freebies” were hats and incredible memories.

–        The iconic Sydney Opera House tour was fascinating, especially learning about the engineering aspects and the architect Jorn Utson’s travails in starting and completing it. The estimated costs originally were AU$7million to take 2 years.  Well over 10  years later, Sydney had spent AU$103 million with every step being challenged by local government and population.  However, the city now has a World Heritage Site that is globally recognizable, incorporates/compliments its beautiful surroundings, provides venues for a huge variety of entertainment, and which every tourist to Australia will want to visit (so Opera House tours are additional revenue!)!

–        Platypus Obsession.  When I was a little girl (less than 10 yrs old and during the 1950s) on my 1st trip to NYC with my parents, my father had told me about the most unique mammal, called a duck-billed platypus, which resided at the Bronx Zoo.  I never got to see it then and when Rick and I visited the zoo in the early 1970s, we learned that the platypus had died—not surprising given the timespan.  It was always in the back of my mind that when I reached Australia sometime in my life, seeing a real platypus would be a top priority.  So after our Bridge climb then a delightful outdoor lunch, we bought a tour on the Hop-On and Hop-Off bus.  It gave us a city overview then dropped us off at Darling Harbor to visit the Sydney Aquarium and adjacent Wildlife World.  I had even called ahead to ensure that a platypus would be visible. Now anytime I want I can repeat fulfilling my childhood dream by reviewing the video-taped platypi in action from both Sydney and at the Reptile Park north of Terrigal.   1 more item checked off the Bucket List!

–        We ran out of time with the Linskys to take the harbor ferries but knew at least I’d be back with the Waights and Goodwins to do that.

·         Terrigal is a lovely beach resort village.  Beaches all along the “central eastern coast” are golden sand, with blue and turquoise water. The low, calm tides offer interesting tide pools along strangely-formed rock shelves.  The high tides often provide foamy, powerful waves pounding the shore.  Watching Rick boogie board for his 1st time was a kick which he definitely relished when he caught a couple of long-riding waves

·         “Another damned beautiful beach.”  Pretty much every beach we saw was picture perfect in Sydney and definitely along the coast north and south of Terrigal where we stayed with our friends.  We agreed with their daughter who after visiting several beaches during a recent stay, said, “Another damned, beautiful beach”.   We did not see an Australian beach along that coast that we didn’t like.


·         Victorian-era architecture, regional names, food, and culture.  But both countries have created their own attitudes and have become friendly rivals (Aussies vs. Kiwis) in sports and other aspects.  New Zealand in particular has effectively integrated Maori language and culture into their modern-day lives, though it was not obvious how well the Maori people have been integrated though some have thrived from tourism. We mainly saw Australia’s Aboriginal influence in the names of streets and some towns–Waga Waga, Woy Woy Tumbi Umbi, and Kurri Kurri being my personal favorites. Perhaps because we were not in “The Outback” we didn’t sense more impact on each other as we saw in New Zealand. Or maybe because Australia’s traditions started in the 1700s during the height of the British Empire, whereas New Zealand’s stemmed from the mid-1800s as the Empire was waning.  But except for the city of Auckland with 1/3 of the whole country’s population, New Zealand overall felt more quaint, more “small town” like some of the U.S. heartlands.  And perhaps because of its volcanic origins and continuing effects, New Zealand still feels like a country still forming itself.


·         Places visited on this trip: Milford Sound’s fog/waterfalls/fiords; Mt. Cook’s alpen-glow and glow any time of the day and night as well as the glacier lake boat; Tongariro’s stark beauty; New Zealand’s rugged coasts, especially Otago Peninsula near Dunedin; Australia’s beautiful beaches and ocean.

·         NZ meals:  Matterhorn (most tender lamb ever!) and Shed 5 (excellent fish!) restaurants in Wellington; St. Moritz dining room in Queenstown; The Palms in Dunedin.

·         NZ staff: Kerrie, our dining room server at the St. Moritz Hotel in Queenstown; Andy and his wife at the café outside Tongariro Park; Mark our bus driver/guide at Tamaki  Maori Village outside Rotorua; the concierge at the Sir Stamford Hotel on Circular Quay in Sydney; our Sydney Harbor Bridge Climbing guide.

–        Disappointingly, the vast majority of the park, site and hotel staffs we encountered were either ignorant to advise us, unfriendly didn’t understand or worse, occasionally rude.  Clearly more customer service training is needed.

·         NZ wine: Te Mata merlot and Te Awa and Alpha Domus Pilot merlot-cab blends.

·         NZ food: delicious Manuka honey from a version of the Ti plant was used in several dishes as we traveled NZ; lamb, especially at the Matterhorn; fresh fish, e.g., blue cod.

·         Favorite hotels: Hermitage at Mt. Cook, St. Moritz in Queenstown, Chateau in Tongariro National Park, and the Sir Stamford at Circular Quay in Sydney which was old-world elegant and wonderfully situated.

·         Animals Overall

–        Platypus (Australia).  See Platypus Obsession above.

–        Pelicans (Australia) are huge, almost 3 feet tall with a wingspan of 2.5 to 3.5 meters and pouched bills that can hold from 9 to 13 liters of water.

–        Koalas (Australia) who are only awake about 1 hour of 24 each day, and the other 23 hours are spent sleeping in very funny positions with an arm or leg suspended mid-air.  At the Reptile Park, we saw koalas actually awake.  A couple of koalas were definitely cranky because they growled long and loud at each other.  When one male tried to be overly friendly with a female who had climbed a short tree, she growled and tried to bite him.  He was also growling (muttering?) as he strutted away from her (sound familiar?).

–        Kiwi birds (New Zealand) are nocturnal.  So even if we visited a place where they were still wild, we’d probably not see them anyway. The feathers are woolly rather than feathery, having been adapted for warmth on the ground vs. flight.  They look like beaked, brown, puff-balls on short stilts.

–        The wide variety of penguins in New Zealand and Australia—we saw Yellow-eyed (the most rare), King, Fairy, and Emperor.

·         Animals we’d never heard of: wobbegong (small spotted, scalloped shark with legs!; dugong (manatee-cousin); tuatara are like lizards but have populated NZ for 250 million years.

·         Animal sounds: the laughing call of the Kookaburra

·         Names, words, phrases: Aboriginal names of Australian towns, streets, etc., i.e., Woy Woy, Waga Waga, Tumbi Umbi, Lilli Pilli, and the phrase “Budgie Smuggling”

–        Australian phrase new to us Americans: BUDGIE SMUGGLING.  Though Australian Life Guards now mostly use jet skis and motor boats to rescue problem swimmers or surfers, the old tradition of rowing out to a rescue remains a competitive test at each major beach’s swim club.  So any Life Guards worth their salt practice daily to keep up their rowing skills.  There are other complimentary traditions.  One is that the rowers all wear very skimpy, tight swim trunks with the beach club name on their bums. Another is that as they pull the boat into the water, all the rowers dip their bottoms into the ocean, then pull the trunks up over those cheeks, creating thongs in the back to gain the best “grip” on the rowing benches.  Because this tightens the small trunks in the front, someone creatively stated that the front of the trunks then looked like the man was smuggling a budgie (small Australian bird) in there.  Hence the name and the lovely other tradition of women ogling these finely-bummed rowers as they head out for battle!

·         Rock formations: Punakaiki Rocks and Moeraki Rocks.

–        Punakaiki Point in Paparoa National Park on the South Island’s west coast, is most famous for “pancake” rocks.  They literally look like layers of rock pancakes in strange formations and towers along a large section of that coastline. Because we arrived at low tide, we could not see the blowholes that are prevalent in the crashing waves during high tide.

–        Moeraki Rocks on the South Island’s east coast were formed 60 million years ago not by erosion but more like oyster pearls from faults in the ocean. For many years, tourists picked up the smaller rocks as souvenirs so only boulders were left.  They look like giant turtle shells on the beach, with cracks forming where erosion is now wearing away the top layers. Their forms kept reminding me of a Startrek episode where the Starship Enterprise crew arrives at a planet used mostly for mining where miners were being killed.  It turned out that silicon-like creatures, called Horta, were killing the miners who were destroying the Hortas’ eggs.  Both the “mothers” and the eggs looked like the Moeraki rocks.  Of course it was only when back in Calif. that I successfully “googled” to find the Horta name and episode.


·         Broken food chains for native animals hit both Australia (rabbit-proof fence) and NZ. New Zealand’s early pioneers from England tried to carry a few too many animal traditions with them.  Rabbits are good to hunt in the U.K. so someone brought them into the country.  To be expected, they proliferated exponentially.  To control their growth, stoats were introduced, which attacked the penguins and kiwi birds along with the possums, rats and ferrets which also entered the country.

–       Penguins and kiwi birds are very trusting of humans, so will approach you if you sit quietly.  Their trusting nature has been their downfall, particularly with the introduced rodent population.

–        Deer and Chamois were introduced as well for hunting and proliferated as well.  However, the New Zealanders got a bit smarter.  After culling many deer, farmers are now domesticating them for venison meat to be exported to Europe.  Too bad stoats, ferrets and possum are not tasty enough to become human food.

–        Keas (KEY-ahs) are alpine parrots which are very bold, attracted to the rubber fitting on car doors/windows, steal food, and because they are so cutely cheeky, and are fed by tourists.  So the sign found at one ranger station was intriguing: “A fed Kea is a dead Kea.”

·         Paid-picture-taking was standard at each tour, boat or other priced activity—which became too annoying—that could have added up to $100s.  We just whizzed by a few photographers but some were more insistent.  We (OK, I) broke down to buy pictures at Tasman Glacier Terminus Lake where we viewed glaciers, icebergs, and “glacier rock flour” waters.  That way we had really nice pictures of both the Walleighs and the Linskys in memorable gear. Of course it was required from the Sydney Harbor Bridge because we couldn’t take our own cameras.

PLEASE NOTE: several of the descriptions in the Chronological details below were “borrowed” from Roberta Linsky who was a much better trip historian than I was!


Jan. 2 – 10, 2011 – The South Island of New Zealand
Briefly in Christchurch, NZ (pop. 350,000)

Our flight from SFO to Sydney was quiet and uneventful, other than we celebrated New Year’s Eve and Day in a 2-hour time period, mostly while we slept.   We flew to Christchurch shortly after we arrived in Sydney, amazingly with our entire luggage, no delays, and met promptly for a ride to our hotel, the Grand Chancellor in downtown. The Waights had mentioned from friends who’d recently been to Christchurch that the city still showed signs of the 7.1 earthquake on a weekend morning in Sept. 2010*, which we saw along our route to the hotel, and even across the street from the hotel. Chimneys on residences, a few old homes, and scattered commercial buildings collapsed or were damaged enough that they had to be taken down.  After getting our room–the Grand Chancellor was a nice, clean, plain business hotel–we walked around the main squares—Victoria and Cathedral–and saw a few notable sites.  Because it stayed light until after 9pm, we were able to eat dinner at 1 of the several outdoor cafes along the Avon River.  Then it was back to the hotel, bedtime, and get ready for our 7:30 am pickup in the morning.

*On Mon., Feb.21, 2011 another quake of 6.3 occurred in downtown, collapsing buildings, toppling a cathedral’s spire onto the square below, killing at least 65 and trapping unknown numbers in many buildings’ rubble.  7 weeks ago we were stayed in the city center and 5 weeks ago, only several blocks away.  There but for the grace of God…

Jan. 3, 2011 – Tranz Alpine Train to Greymouth

We boarded the 8:15am Tranz Alpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth, crossing lovely mountains and valleys.  We were very grateful we didn’t have to drive the Arthur’s Pass Road to reach the same destination, because the road would have been nauseatingly twisty.  A couple of times we changed the view from our table in the train to a semi-open car a few cars back, but most of the time, we relaxed and looked out our window. When we arrived after 4 hours, Rick and Mark sought out the Hertz rental stand, while Roberta and I kept looking for the luggage being inefficiently handed out by 2 men at the back car.  That was the 1st of several times we saw the Yorks (see “Small World” bullet in New Zealand Notes above) who were also renting a car to reach the same destination, Franz Josef Glacier village.

We loaded up the Toyota Highlander but decided to have lunch before leaving Greymouth.  That’s when we started to notice how expensive meals and retail products were!  2 sandwiches and 2 drinks cost NZ$50.  We also saw the Yorks again!  Before we headed south to the glaciers along the west coast, we drove north for about 1 hour to Punakaiki Point in Paparoa National Park, where we wandered around among the famous “Pancake” rocks.  They literally look like layers of rock pancakes in strange formations along a large section of that coastline. Because we arrived at low tide, we could not see the blowholes in that same area that are prevalent in the crashing waves during high tide.

About 3pm we drove down toward Franz Josef Glacier village, where our 1st stop was our hotel, which was actually a 2 bedroom cottage with a living /dining/kitchen area.  We settled in, talked to the manager about restaurants, then headed out in the torrential rain (1st of several days) to dinner at the Alice May* restaurant, which had good food and a fascinating history*.  After seeing the Yorks again as we were leaving the same restaurant, we headed back to our cottage for another early night.

* The owner/chef was the granddaughter of the restaurant’s notorious namesake, Alice May, who before 1920 had been impregnated then jilted by her lover whom she shot and killed.  She had also attempted to commit suicide but lived to spend 6+ years in prison for her crime.  However 60,000 New Zealand women petitioned for her release so she was pardoned.

Jan. 4, 2011 – Glaciers to Kiwis to Queenstown

After a quick NZ$30 breakfast (2 muffins, 2 drinks!), we drove to Franz Josef Glacier.  We hiked out to the terminus of the glacier over open gravel fields that seemed to go on forever, though it only took about 1.5 hours round trip, the ”short” distance from the start to the terminus was an illusion.  Perspective in NZ is distorted because the mountains everywhere are virtually cliff-like, which then miniaturizes all the land features around them, particularly in the flat valleys between the mountains.  It was wonderful to learn that the Franz Josef glacier was actually growing due to the huge snowfall several years ago that had compacted, thus balancing the glacier development to be faster than the melt.

After enjoying the hike despite the dreary cool weather, we returned to Franz Josef village to visit the recently completed Kiwi Center.   For NZ$24 per adult, we spent about 15 minutes visiting a special small darkened room of kiwis. We learned a bit about them in the accompanying exhibit, such as that their feathers are not similar to most birds because they have been adapted to flightless life on the ground.  We said good-bye to the kiwis and headed south of Franz Josef to the Fox Glacier, our next destination.

The torrential rains we had been experiencing negatively had also affected the Fox Glacier.  Though this hike would have been shorter and would have allowed us to touch the actual glacier, the paths and field leading to it were washed out the previous day.  So we took a walk over a swinging or cable bridge, once again saw the Yorks, returned to our car.

The next part of the trip was along the ocean to Bruce Bay with rocky views and windy roads.  We stopped at Thunder Falls and Fountain Creek Falls for short walks—and allowing Rick and Mark to skip some stones in the river.  After Gates of Haast with its river pounding down the rock, we drove through the “Southern Alps” up to Haast pass in Mount Aspiring National Park.  We then descended a long ways to the town of Wanaka, following Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea all the way down.  The lakes are fed by the glaciers so the chemistry of this glacial flour cause the lakes to be sky blue.  We drove through Mount Aspiring National Park where the scenery was lovely, lush, and in some ways, semi-tropical, with lots of ferns, palm-like cabbage trees, climbing vines, and low bushes in jungle-ish density.  The mountains were green and fuzzy, covered with all this jungle and trees.  We would see this similar landscape across all the central and southern regions of the south island.

We arrived in the resort city of Queenstown (pop. ~22,000) which is renowned as the “Adventure Capital of the World” for having every water and extreme sport possible with its adjacency to Lake Wakitipu.  Supposedly the 1st ever bungee-jumping occurred off the local bridge on the lake.  Our hotel and our rooms at the St. Moritz overlooked this idyllic Swiss-alpine lake surrounded by dramatic, tall mountains.  After such an activity-packed day, we decided to dine in the hotel.  Our meal was wonderful and our waitress Kerrie was terrific: service was appropriately paced, she remembered everything, chatted with us, and whenever we requested something, she chirped, “No worries!”  A great ending to our day.

Jan. 5, 2011 – Trolling Queenstown

With continuing rain as well as heavy fog on Lake Wakitipu, the jet-boating that Roberta had booked was cancelled, so we wandered around the streets of Queenstown.  When the fog cleared from the top of the mountain behind our hotel, we rode the tram up to the top for a panoramic view of the area.  While on the mountain-top, we enjoyed watching the bungee-jumping immediately below.  The viewing was free vs. supposedly NZ$50 each to go to and watch at the “official” site–so ridiculous.  If the jumping didn’t look as though it would damage one’s spine, I believe Roberta would have braved that adventure.  We trammed back to the town, had lunch, walked through Queenstown’s botanical gardens, and wandered down the lakeside promenade.  After a brief time in the hotel, we eventually wandered back into town to taste some of the 80 New Zealand wines available at the Wine Center, which was set up with debit cards to be inserted into the machines holding the various wines and where 1 to 4 oz. of wine could be selected/paid.  After a fun hour of sipping drinks, we decided that we’d get dinner by the lakefront where we ended up with tapas at a tiny pub where we had New Zealand beer.  We walked back to the St. Moritz hotel, called it a night because we would have a long, early day tomorrow (yes, there’s a theme here!!!).

Jan. 6, 2011 – Milford Sound in Pouring Rain Created Gloriously Torrential Waterfalls

Our 7:30 pick up led us to the tour center where by 7:50 we were on a 40+ passenger bus with huge windows and partially windowed-roof.  It had begun to rain, so the tour center had told us that most likely we would be bussing rather than our planned flight back to Queenstown, which meant a few hour jaunt both ways. This bus driver was also our tour guide, giving us background on the natural sights we were seeing.  It was a 2 hour drive to the small town of Te Anu with a short bio and food break, then another 3 hours to Milford Sound with stops for a chasm, lots of small waterfalls, potential rockslide areas, cliffside-overlooks, etc. along the route.

We boarded the ship to cruise Milford Sound about 1:30, were given boxed lunches, and watched the scenery float by as we headed out of the inlet toward the fiords and ocean.  The rain picked up the further we went, which we thought would make the cruise unpleasant but instead, exponentially improved the scenery.  Everywhere we looked were waterfalls of all heights and sizes tumbled down huge rocky cliffs, emerging from huge mountain tops up to 2500 meters above the Sound.  There was one waterfall that from a distance looked large but “normal” but we were told that it was 3 times higher than Niagara Falls and that it just seemed “normal-sized” because it was next to a 2500-meter rock-faced mountain.  The ship went close to 2 different huge waterfalls and even though I was already pretty wet from the torrential rain, I will always remember having the heavy, white foam pouring down on me, right in my face.  I did waddle back inside the cabin totally drenched, but it was well worth it.

Since our flight back to Queenstown was cancelled due to fog and rain, we grumblingly boarded the bus instead.  By the time we reached Queenstown 3 hours later, I was nearly dry.  We dropped our gear in our hotel rooms then proceeded up to the dining room to be served another dinner with Kerrie, our favorite server.

Jan. 7 From Queenstown to NZ’s Southern Island’s Eastern Coast and Dunedin (doon-EE-din)

It was a pleasant, less-than-4-hour drive to Dunedin, through the mountains to the east coast.  We chose not to drive the long way down to Invercargill at the Southern Island’s southernmost tip which might have taken twice as long plus stops because we had already traveled 4 to 5 hours driving several days—on the wrong side of the road.  Instead we drove more directly through pretty lush mountain and valley landscape to Dunedin.

After checking into our hotel to find our rooms not yet available, we walked around the city which had a central “Octagon” rather than a square, had lunch in a cute café at the Octagon, walked back to our hotel, got the car out and drove to the “famous” Otago Peninsula, supposedly like Sausalito, Tiburon, etc.  We didn’t want to spend hours again in the car to drive around the whole peninsula so we agreed to drive to the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Colony where we booked the last tour at 4:15pm (allowing only one hour from Dunedin).  The road hugged a lovely coastline so we knew we wanted to slow down on our trip back to the city to explore a bit more.

We arrived at Penguin Place, a privately owned conservation effort to save the world’s most endangered penguin species, the Yellow-Eyed.  We anticipated a sort of cheesy experience but were delighted instead with an environmentally sensitive, beautifully integrated shoreline sanctuary, where the owners capture as many predator stoats, possum, and seals as possible.  Our biologist guide drove about 12 of us out to the preserve where we walked through camouflaged walkways, by man-made but penguin-lived-in small wooden huts, into small blinds to observe the birds up close.  A few minutes after we started, we encountered a mother and squawking, fuzzy baby.  We sat down silently on the grass just a few feet away to watch her deal with as well as ignore her baby who wanted more regurgitated food than she had just provided.  It was following at her heels almost pulling her tail feathers, making loud whistling squawks. After about 10 minutes, during which she practically waddled up to us, the baby fled frustrated into the bushes so we quietly walked on to the farthest blind where we found 2 baby penguins, grey and fuzzy, sheltering in a niche on the other side of the wooden wall, just inches from our faces. They were either totally unaware of us or just habituated to humans, so it felt as if we were sharing their nest. We wandered toward the beach hoping to see some adult penguins coming home at the end of their feeding day, but all we saw was a seal which any returning penguin would have seen as a threat so stayed away.  Back in the visitor’s center near the parking lot, we viewed the video about the history of the sanctuary which was the vision of a local farmer who became a very early ecologist, wanting to save these rare penguins from their man-introduced (stoats, possum) and natural predators (fur seals).

Rick drove us back along the coast road for about 30 minutes to pause at views we missed on our hurried trip to Penguin Place.  Then we cut through some “high class” suburban-like neighborhoods on our way back to the hotel.  We skipped NZ’s only castle, Larnach, though we drove by the property.  From the hotel, we wandered down toward the Dunedin docks to search out dinner places.  We randomly chose an old-fashioned, white-tablecloth dining restaurant, The Palms, where we had very fine NZ cuisine.

Jan. 8 – Dunedin to Mt. Cook in Aoraki National Park

We drove up to the Hermitage Hotel—a luxury icon accommodation and dining room since 1884–in Mt. Cook National Park, arriving to have lunch on the balcony overlooking the Tasman Glacier on Mt. Cook.  We decided to take a hike to Hooker Valley starting from Village campground, clambering over talus on the trail, up and down hills, up to the edge of Mueller and Hooker glaciers, and along the Hooker River.  The 6 mile round trip was exhausting, beautiful, and great bonding among the 4 of us.

When we returned to the Hermitage, we signed up for a boat trip on the Terminus Lake at 8:30 the next morning and carted our bags into our now-ready rooms.  As we waited for the cheese plate and wine we ordered then ate when it arrived, we sat staring, literally and figuratively drinking in the grandeur of Mt. Cook’s “alpen glow” at sunset and the good wine to compliment it.  Our patios perfectly suited a relaxing end of day, absorbing the gorgeous scenery.

Then we headed to dinner in the Hermitage dining room, comparable to the Ahwahnee or Jackson Lake Lodge’s views and ambiance.  We had an excellent meal and wine, thanks to the restaurant manager cum sommelier.  We slept well in the shadow of the magnificent Mt. Cook, anticipating an exciting boat ride the next morning.

Jan. 9 – Glacier Lake and Icebergs

The 4 of us left the hotel lobby by a van to go to the Terminal Lake outing.  We drove about 20 minutes to the end of the road, then walked another 20 minutes to the “dock” where we were outfitted in lifejackets over top our many layers since we had anticipated how cold it would be on the “glacier rock flour” lake with icebergs next to the terminus.  Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s largest glacier.  It is 1 of the few in NZ that is expanding because several years ago’s snowpack was so huge that new glacial layers are forming faster than the end is shrinking from snowmelt.  The 12 of our group got into the boat with our guide who rode us by towering icebergs toward the terminus of the Tasman Glacier, explaining the geology of glaciers and icebergs as well went along.  We could see the horizontal layers of ice formed over many 100s if not 1000s of years, some of which calved off in huge chunks to form the floating giant icebergs, 90% of which remains below lake level.  The physics of icebergs demands that 10% above water vs. 90% below balance so that when too much melts too quickly on top, the iceberg reveals more of itself from below.  Sometimes icebergs get too top-heavy so roll over so the layer-striations become vertical, but the 10-90 balance remains.  This boat ride—where we got to hold a chunk of iceberg–was one of our trip highlights.

After lunch again on the balcony overlooking Mt. Cook, we drove east to the coast to head north but first detoured south along the coastal road to visit Moeraki Rocks, another privately-owned eco-preserve. This small company has been saving these bizarre rocks that were formed 60 million years ago not by erosion but more like oyster pearls bubbling up from faults in the ocean. For many years, tourists picked up the smaller rocks as souvenirs so only boulders were left, which looked like giant turtle shells on the beach, with cracks forming where erosion was now wearing away the top layers. Their forms kept reminding me of a Startrek episode where the Starship Enterprise crew arrives at a mining planet where miners were being killed.  It turned out that silicon-like creatures, called Horta, were killing the miners who were destroying the Hortas’ eggs.  Both the “mothers” and the eggs looked like the Moeraki rocks.

Within 45 minutes we had hiked down the cliff to the beach, viewed the rocks, made our way up to our car and were heading north.  We crossed the Canterbury Plains along the coast through Oamaru then Timaru before heading inland a bit then on to Christchurch again.  Chateau of the Park hotel– than our 1st stay–was across from Christchurch’s huge Hagley Park.  After unpacking a bit, we walked across the park, continued by some of the old city buildings where we’d been on our 1st day, down toward the ocean for dinner, and back to the hotel for an early evening (yes, again!) on our last night on south island.

Jan. 10, 2011 – To Picton Ferry then Wellington on the North Island

To be assured of boarding the ferry in Picton for a 2:25pm departure as well as turning in our rental car, we departed Christchurch about 8am to drive 4 hours straight to Picton. Unfortunately that meant we couldn’t visit Marlborough region to see some of NZ’s premier wineries which were at least an hour west of Picton.  But we were looking forward to our 3+ hour inter-island ferry to Wellington. We arrived in enough time to have lunch before boarding our “1st class” lounge shared with about 12 other passengers and where we could enjoy “free” snacks, soft drinks and wireless internet access.  Promptly at 2:25pm the ferry named Arahuma sailed out through Queen Charlotte Sound along picturesque points, small fiords and side channels: Dieffenbach Point, Tory Channel, Cook’s Lookout (at Arapawa Island from where Capt. Cook sighted for the 1st time the strait eventually named for him), Whekenui Point (wheke = octopus in Maori; legend had a famous Maori leader killing an octopus there), Perano Head then across the open waters of Cook’s Strait.  When we reached the southern tip of the north island, we sailed by Cape Terawhiti, along Oteranga Bay, by Karori Point Lighthouse which alerts ships to the Karori Rip where 2 tides meet to form a riptide, then by seal colonies at Sinclair Island and volcanic Red Rocks and Pencarrow Head Lighthouse (NZ’s oldest from 1859) and eventually into Wellington Harbor below Mt. Victoria.

We picked up our 2nd rental car then drove to the Wellington Novotel where we’d spend 2 nights—with time to do laundry.  We touched down in our rooms briefly then headed out to wander the city on the way to Cuba St. where we had dinner at Matterhorn—with most tender lamb ever and 1 of the best meals of our trip!

Jan. 11 – 16, 2011 – The North Island of New Zealand

Jan. 11, 2011 – Wellington is a Beautiful National and Cultural Capital

This lovely small-ish city is home to its government.  We rambled across the city including to Lambton Quay and to the Queens Wharf, by its many Victorian-era buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, Victoria University, as well as some very modern places like the “Beehive” next to the old Parliament.   We arrived at one of the nicest museums we have ever visited. Te Papa Tongawera Museum housed the best examples of Maori and overall NZ culture, geology, zoology (the largest preserved Giant Squid on display!) and history as well as art from NZ and elsewhere in the world.    Completed in 1998, it was not only very modern in architecture, but included many interactive and computer-based exhibits.  Especially considering the range of subjects covered, it was a truly memorable national museum.  After the museum we walked through the downtown to have lunch at Roti Chenai, a small Indian restaurant, which was quite good despite its humble appearance.

Then we drove about an hour outside of Wellington to the closest “wine country” through towns with interesting names—e.g., Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt, and Featherston–to Martinborough, a very small town which is on The Classic Wine Trail in the Wairarapa region.  It is similar in size and number of wineries to a small Healdsburg, with wineries (mostly whites with some pinots) not walking distances apart but not far from each other.  Unfortunately because most of the wineries are closed except on weekends, the town felt almost deserted.  We went to Palliser Estate and then to Vynfields winery with a garden seating area where we shared a flight of wines. The latter was a lovely setting to taste mediocre wines though overall we were glad to have the experience. The ride to and from Wellington was on a very winding road over some mountains.  On the way back we drove up the hills of Wellington along the cable car route and by the Botanical Park with Victoria University and some lovely Victorian homes on the hills.  After returning to the hotel to change clothes, we walked back toward the harbor for dinner at Shed 5 which had excellent, innovative seafood.  And then we walked back to our hotel.

Jan. 12, 2011 – The Road to Mordor in Lord of the Rings aka Tongariro Park

About 2 hours north of Wellington, we had a picnic lunch then drove through lush and lovely scenery for another 2.5 hours until we reached Tongariro National Park with its volcanic moonscapes and 3 main volcanoes: Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe, and Mt. Tongariro.  We drove into Whakapapa Village then through the portico of our 1900s’ hotel, The Chateau Tongariro, sticking out like an anachronism in this serious hikers’ and skiers’ paradise.

After landing briefly in our rooms, we went to the park’s visitor’s center to ask about potential afternoon hikes. The center’s small staff acted sullen, not knowledgeable except to hand us a map, and returned quickly to their desk work.  So we chose a couple of short walks to give us a sense of the bizarre beauty of this area.  Supposedly, there are a couple of 1 day grueling hikes—Ruapehu trail and Tongariro Crossing–that are the most beautiful scenery in New Zealand, but we could not fit one into our short stay—nor were we in shape based on the altitude and terrain.

We then drove to a ski chairlift up to the top of Mt. Ruapehu.  At the base of the chairlift were a few parkas (less than 10) in different sizes, so even though we were all layered for the ride up, we decided to add these as a last layer. We rode 1 chairlift, scrambled off as we used to doing while skiing, then walked over to sit on the 2nd chairlift to the top, rode up and scrambled off again.  All the way up, we were ever so glad that we had on the parkas because it got colder every 10 feet rise in elevation.  At the top, we arrived at what felt like the entrance to Mordor of Lord of the Rings (LOTR) fame.  Apparently, Peter Jackson, the NZ native and director of LOTR, thought so too because that’s where evil, deadly Mordor scenes were filmed.  Everywhere we looked were stark piles of dark volcanic boulders.  We were amazed that we were actually at a ski area with these unfriendly, huge rocks.  In the winter, there are 2 challenging ski fields aka ski areas at the top of Mt. Ruahepu and a smaller one above Whakepapa Village, named…Whakepapa Ski fields.  The reason they looked challenging was not the elevation or even the steepness, but these huge volcanic boulders that covered all slopes would need to be continually covered by a heck of a snow dump for skiing.

On our chairlift rides down, we saw those riding up wearing just shorts and t-shirts.  We suspected we’d see goose bumps if we got up close, but we didn’t, so as soon as we reached the base, we removed our parkas so the next group could benefit.  We had a nice but not fabulous dinner back at the Chateau hotel.

Jan. 13, 2011 – Tongariro to Rotorua

Near the park entrance, we enjoyed a hearty, inexpensive breakfast at small café with Andy from the area and his wife/partner from FLA.  They were very helpful, giving us many maps and suggestions for stops, and actually apologized for the rudeness of the National Park staff.  We enjoyed the vista along the shores of Lake Taupo. Also Andy had recommended some thermal sites to visit including a local free thermal springs called Tokaanu Thermal Walk.  We got there before it opened, so having it all to ourselves, we walked the nice 20 minute trail with lots of boiling mud pots.  We got really close to the steam vents and lakes and then walked by a thermal pool facility for bathing.  Next stop was Huka Falls, a chasm of rushing water with a water fall at the end.  It was spectacular but we’re getting a bit jaded with all the waterfalls and rushing water.  Next we went down the road and checked out the quite interesting Wairakei Geothermal Power Plant with huge fields of long pipes capturing steam, supplying NZ with 15% of its power.  The downside is that it has lessened the power of various nearby geysers and steam vents which in turn lowers the area’s tourist-attractiveness.  Then we drove to the nicely-done Wai-o-Tapu thermal site, another place you pay to see mud pots, steam vents and craters.  It claims to have the largest surface thermal activity area in the Taupo Volcanic Zone but like a small Yellowstone.  Wai-o-Tapu has a boardwalk and hike with various lakes, craters, steam vents of different colors with Maori and other creative names, cascading pools of various colors, the smell of sulfur everywhere, and at the end, a really weird lime green pool of water. We did the short walk of 30 minutes and decided we had enough of steam vents, knowing we had more to see in Rotorua.  After lunch at the visitors’ center café, we drove to the Blue and Green Lakes which were supposed to be this phenomenon of two lakes with different colors next to each other.  They in fact were just two lakes, yes slightly different colors but not much to see.  Then we continued further to the Buried Village, supposedly a village that preserved some of the relics from when a volcano buried it.  However it cost $37 and looked pretty dorky so we decided to skip it.

We reached the Novotel near Lake Rotorua, registered but couldn’t enter our hotel rooms yet so we walked up the street to eat lunch.  We wandered around the town for the next couple of hours, and settled into our rooms at the Novotel, relaxed for a bit and eventually had dinner back in the main part of town: we at a mediocre Indian restaurant, and Mark and Roberta at the local street fair.

Jan. 14, 2011 – Tours of Rotorua  and Soaking in Thermal Pools

Morning Tour

AAA had arranged 2 tours for us today so we could experience the best of this region’s thermal fields, local animal activities, and Maori culture.  Our 8am tour bus driver/guide gave us background on the town and what we’d be seeing for the next few hours.  Our 1st stop was Te Puia, the most famous thermal site in the vicinity (though small compared to Yellowstone) though we actually had enjoyed Tokaanu and Wai-o-Tapu preserves more because we were much closer to the thermal features. The highlight is supposed to be the Pohutu Geyser which usually erupts 10-25 times a day to a height of 50-60 ft.  Of course we arrived just as it was tapering off in its last spurts.   We did learn something new, that the wide range of colors on the features’ actual structures—not just the algae in the pools’ different temperature water–were due to different mineral elements:

Green – Colloidal sulfur / ferrous salts     Orange – Antimony     Purple – Manganese oxide
Black – Sulfur & Carbon                          White – Silica               Yellow / primrose – Sulfur
Red-brown – Iron Oxide

Another stop was the Maori arts and crafts center, where we local artisans designing clothing with feathers, flax, beads, etc. as well as carving wood. Next at Rainbow Springs we learned about the local flora, including the silver fern leaf which is the national NZ symbol AND integrated into the All Blacks Rugby team’s uniform.  Maori also use silver fern as a nighttime navigation tool since the leaf’s shiny side reflects the moonlight.  Also the guide explained about the medicinal uses of the prolific Manuka tree, which we call tea or ti tree: ti tree oil is derived from the bark and can be used in cosmetics and salves; its flowers contribute to New Zealand’s famous Manuka honey used in foods and other retail products.  California apparently donated some Monterey Pines and Redwood trees to New Zealand to leverage similar climate conditions.  Though both grow even faster in NZ than in Calif., the downside is that fast-growth leads to soft wood and poor lumber.  We also saw a nocturnally-lit kiwi exhibit at Rainbow Springs. At the next stop at Nature Wildlife Park we viewed a similar kiwi exhibit as well as a Tuatara lizard (pre-dates dinosaurs to about 250million years ago), parrots of all sorts, lots of reptiles including iguanas.   Our stop at the Agrodome provided insight into how many species of sheep there are in NZ (about 20—who knew!), training of dog sheep herders, a mock auction, sheep shearing, and I had my picture taken with a couple of sheep.

Thermal Relaxation

Mark decided to have a massage at our hotel but Roberta, Rick and I lunched at an outdoor café near the hotel, then 3 of us walked to the “famous” (though we’d never heard of it before!) Polynesian Spa to soak in 4 different temperature thermal pools, 36, 38, 40 & 42o C.  We returned to the Novotel to dress for our evening tour.

Evening Tour of Tamaki Village, Hangi and Maori Concert

We were picked up at 5:45 for the nearby Tamaki Village which is actually a decent reconstruction of some key homes/activities in a typical Maori village.  It also strong impressed us that demonstrating village life wasn’t just about tourism, but about seriously preserving the Maori culture.  The staff, most of whom had face tattoos and were dressed in traditional costume, carefully included old traditions of games, welcome, language, costume, etc.  Each of the several tourist buses elected a chief who represented each bus’ group during a welcome ceremony at the entry.  After viewing the village and demonstrations, we were led into the auditorium for dancing and singing, which were actually very pleasant with lots of musical instruments like flute, drums, and guitar.  Most of the dancing was done with tossing sticks or swirling strings with balls on the ends.  There were more “Haka” Warriors dancing–bulging eyes, big tongues and scary faces–really impressive (performed by the All Blacks before every game to psych out their opponents).  Dinner was the Maori “Hangi” (HAHN-gee), similar to a Hawaiian Luau without poi.  Everything was cooked in layers a steam pit: lamb, chicken, fish, and then veggies then pudding.  Overall the experience was much better than we’d anticipated, exceeding any previous Polynesian experience we’d had.

Our evening tour guide/bus driver Mark (with very long Maori name) was hysterically funny.  He knew 61 languages in which to say hello, and songs from many countries in their native language. He taught us ”Kia Ora” which is used throughout Maori conversations.  It means hello, good-bye, sweet as, how about that, and a sort-of “I’m listening, bro,” etc.  On the bus on the way home, Mark went crazy—in a good way.  Besides singing in all different languages and forcing our companions to sing in their language, Mark sang “Round and Round the Mulberry Bush” while he drove the bus around and around a roundabout! All in all, we had an enjoyable evening.

Jan. 15 – Last of NZ: Auckland for Less than 24 hours

After leaving Novotel in Rotorua at 8:00 a.m., at a comparatively leisurely pace we detoured west to Waitomo Glowworm caves which might sound rather creepy but are actually pretty amazing.  We caught the 11:30a.m. tour of Ruakari Cavern by foot then by boat on the cavern river for 1.5 hours.  The glowworm is the larval stage of a fungus gnat found in some NZ caves.  At this life stage, they hang down gelatinous threads which are their webs to catch insects and look transparent in daylight.  After we walked through some well kept caves with the normal Stalagmite and Stalactite formations, we boarded a boat on the underground river flowing through the cave.  Here in the dark, we saw thousands of glowworms as bluish fluorescent pinpoints of lights all around.  After the hour tour we ate at the new, ecologically correct Visitor’s Center–the last one burned down—and toured the local museum before heading to Auckland.

Before reaching our Auckland hotel, we visited the really nice Kelly Tarlton Aquarium—he was a famous local diver and marine biologist.  The facility included a mock tour of Antarctica based on Robert Scott’s failed trip to the South Pole.  We also viewed Antarctic Penguins, many sharks, regional fish, etc.

The SkyCity complex where our SkyCity Hotel was located, is built around Sky Tower.  This communication tower is the highest structure in the Southern Hemisphere with observation decks and a bungee jump platform (somewhere though it wasn’t obvious to us).  After trotting around Auckland’s wharf area and downtown, we investigated a couple of restaurants for dinner, returned to the hotel to clean up, then walked to Kermerdac for dinner back near the lovely harbor.  This restaurant’s chef was a bit creatively over the top, but the food was good and we enjoyed our favorite New Zealand wine, Te Mata.

Back at hotel, we rode elevator up to the top levels of the Sky Tower to view the 360o the perimeter, seeing the lights of bustling Auckland (1.3 million people out of 4 million total Kiwi citizens vs. 10s of millions of sheep).  We bid a fond farewell on our last night in New Zealand.

Jan. 16 – 29, 2011 – Sydney, Terrigal and the Central Eastern Coast of Australia

Jan. 16 – Leaving Auckland then Touring Sydney

We had a 9:00 a.m. flight to Sydney which meant leaving SkyCity Hotel at 6:00 a.m.  But no big deal for us, right?  Our flight into Sydney was uneventful but we were delighted by finally warm weather.  We arrived at the Sir Stamford at Circular Quay in downtown Sydney about 1:00 p.m.  It is a very nice classic European style hotel with an actually informative concierge.  Until our room was ready, we walked down to “The Rocks” neighborhood nearby where there was a street market and places to eat along the Quay.  Though most people have seen pictures of both the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge, it was still thrilling to see them in real life.  Our risk-taker Roberta convinced us all to do the Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb, so after getting over the shock of paying AU$200 per person (about US$225 each), we signed up for the next day for this 3 ½ hour, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  Then we  checked in at the Sir Stamford and headed immediately back down the street to tour the Opera House.  The fabulous tour allowed us see all the interior areas of the Opera House, learn about the architect and amazing engineering feat to build it, and heard all the trial and tribulations of getting the Opera House constructed.  What was originally estimated to cost AU$7 million and be completed in 2 years, took closer to 13 years and AU$103 million.  Also the architect was fired and eventual re-hired and there were many rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth among the city’s leaders and population.  However, Sydney ended up with a world-class icon and the architect’s creativity was recognized by his peers with the globally-coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize.  As we continued to walk around Sydney, we noted a lively dynamic much different from New Zealand’s cities, with bustling people, street performers, open air cafes, ferries continually tootling across the harbor, huge cruise ships anchored, and streets still busy at 9:00 p.m.  After Aussie beer and a brief dinner in 2 harborside cafés, we dragged our tails (remember, we had left Auckland hotel at 6:00 a.m.) back to our comfy but elegant Sir Stamford Hotel to get well-rested for our arduous Sydney Bridge Climb.

Jan. 17 – Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb  and Uniquely Australian Animals

The Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb

With a bit of trepidation but lots of excitement, we walked over to the Bridge Climb center for our 9:35am session.  While we waited, we viewed pictures of all the famous people who had done the climb since it opened in 1998 (in time for the Sydney Olympics). We expected the whole experience to take 3.5 hours but we weren’t prepared for how slowly, carefully and thoroughly they prepared us for this event.  Imagine any U.S. insurance company underwriting this???  We completed a health questionnaire, passed the breathalyzer test, and were given special one-piece suits with places to hook sunglasses, handkerchief, and special cap.  No jewelry or even hair clips were allowed—only elastic bands for hair. It makes sense if you think about something even small dropping onto cars and people from that height. Because today was such a gloriously sunny, beautiful day, we’d need no rain gear and they actually recommended we only have our underwear underneath the suit!  Our assigned leader gave us headsets to hear his presentations, and if needed talk to him while on the bridge. We stepped into harnesses with clips, did a brief climbing test, and then they clipped us onto our steel cable lifeline that follows the bridge railing for the next 2.5 hours.  Though our clips periodically caught on the cable junctions, once we passed the initial open-ish walkway over the streets, climbed up and across several ladders (1 person on a ladder at any time), the scary part was over and the rest was relatively smooth with the assurance that you are well-connected and supervised.  The climb was on a solid and wide path, but steep until it flattened out near the top of the bridge arch.  The leader was aware of the different climbers’ abilities, so allowed several rest stops and of course, time for his taking pictures at key places since we couldn’t have our own cameras (again, dropping our cameras would be deadly for anything below). The views along the way were truly amazing and from the top, breathtaking. That day was unusual with no wind so the 2 Aussie flags at the top were droopy rather than their normally flying straight out.  At the very top of the arch we could supposedly see for 70 km. After another brief break, we walked across the arch onto the opposite side then began our hiking back down.  The whole experience was indeed 3.5 hours with the prepping, training, climbing, and rest/photo breaks.  Though the Bridge Climb operator charged $25 for 1 and $69 for 4 photos of each person/group, it was well worth the documentation of this absolutely unforgettable experience.   And yes, I also bought a t-shirt that said I climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge!

Touring by Hop-on/Hop-Off

Back in our street clothes, we kept on our caps proving we’d climbed the bridge as we had lunch in the outdoor café at the nearby Oriental Hotel (established 1845). We relaxed over a well-deserved beer and pub food!   Since we still had the afternoon and evening ahead of us, we signed up at the Visitor Center for touring the city on the Hop-On-Hop-Off busses.  Once more we were tootling through the city, on our way to Darling Harbor and the Sydney Aquarium and Wildlife World, we rode through downtown, by Parliament, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Chinese Gardens, Victoria Market, Convention Center, and many neighborhoods we probably wouldn’t have walked to on our own.  Darling Harbor is a very busy area with an indoor mall, convention center, casino and many café restaurants, monorail, IMAX, maritime museum, and our next stop, the aquarium and wild life park.

Wildlife World and My Platypus

Sydney Wildlife World claims to be the world’s largest animal encounter under one roof.  There were many impressive exhibits with lots of explanations about Australia’s many unique animals, including crocodiles hatching from eggs, a huge saltwater crocodile, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, and all kinds of creepy spiders, snakes, lizards and many creatures we’d never heard of let alone seen.  Australia has more species of reptiles than anywhere in the world.  I was anxious to finally visit the platypus (dreamed about since I was a child), so after a lengthy visit in Wildlife World, we headed next door to the huge Sydney Aquarium with 60 tanks and 3 oceanaria.  My childhood dream was well-fulfilled by seeing this lively little platypus swimming at a fast pace around a large tank!  I took a few video clips as well as lots of memories and hoped my father who had promised to show me a platypus when I was a little girl, was happy in the great beyond.  But wait, there were many more unusual beasties: dugongs that look like manatees; many sharks including a spotted wobeggong that had 2 remnant legs; all sort of rays; more penguins; many fish; and a strange seahorse that looked like a leaf, just to name part of the list.  We walked through clear tubes inside the tanks to see sharks, manta rays, fish, dugong and wobeggong above and next to you.  Though I love the Monterey Bay and new Steinhart Aquaria near us, I was more impressed with the Sydney Aquarium.

It was dark when we left the Aquarium, so we walked across the Darling Harbor pedestrian bridge to the Sydney Fish Market for dinner.  Our bridge guide had recommended this area but didn’t know or tell us was that this mostly commercial wholesale center closed in the evening so of the many restaurants, only a Chinese restaurant with live fish tanks was open at night. Our last meal together in Sydney was just OK.  We took a taxi back to Sir Stamford Hotel as it was cold and dark.  So the Walleighs and Linskys went to our hotel’s very classy, small bar to say good-bye for now, as we were headed up north to Terrigal to stay with friends.  What a fantastic, busy, and memorable trip we had together!

Jan. 18, 2011 – Sydney to Terrigal

Today Rick and I checked out of the Sir Stamford Hotel, caught a taxi to the Central Train Station, grabbed a bite to eat then boarded the 12:15 train on the Newcastle line bound for Gosford. Harry and Barbara Waight from Los Altos but who are dual Aussie-U.S. citizens, picked us up at 1:40 then drove us to their home in Terrigal where they lived for 2 to 3 months each year.  Also waiting there were our other friends, Christine and Brian Goodwins who were visiting the Waights as well for a few weeks.  It was great to be in 1 location for more than 2 or 3 days.  I fully unpacked for the 10 days I would stay here (Rick would only stay for 4 days).  And we were excited to be with “locals” who could show us the “real” Australia.

1st Local Australia Tour with Friends

Harry drove the 6 of us around the beautiful coastal area in the afternoon.  We walked out to a rocky tide-pool covered point on Bateau Bay in Wyrrabalong Park.  The golden sandstone cliffs there were covered with strange designs of what looked like different web-formed rocks. Several individual fishermen were casting lines from the shore.  3 large pelicans landed within 10 feet of us, very unafraid.  Since there was a lot of sea water on the rocks from a storm the day before, we had to be careful on the slippery parts, especially where there was black scum under the shallow water where we walked.  Luckily none of us fell, but 1 pelican slipped onto his bottom, got up, waddled a bit further and slide again.  We of course anthropomorphized his antics into a running embarrassed conversation where he hoped none of his friends would humiliate him for slipping.  Harry drove us back to the house, where we had a BBQ dinner. I had my 1st taste of “shrimp on the barbie.

Jan. 19, 2011 – Terrigal and Surrounds

After breakfast, the Waights and we walked down the hill into Terrigal village for about an hour then back uphill.  After lunch, Harry drove the 6 of us to a different part of Bateau Bay.  We “tramped” through “the bush” or jungle of Wyrrabalong National Park with the Waights pointing out many local plants, birds and lizards along the way, to the end of the “tramp” to see beautiful Crackneck Lookout.

Pelican Feed

We then headed for a town called The Entrance, where a lake outlets narrowly through a lagoon into the ocean. After parking the car then getting ice cream, we walked to a small ocean’s edge park where a large group of huge pelicans were gathering.  Town volunteers feed them 365 days a year about 3:30pm, surrounded by a typical crowd of maybe 50 local people. These huge black and white gangly birds with pink stretchy beaks and yellowish eyes–who we learned weigh only 6 to 8 kg–remind me of marabou storks in Nairobi.  The daily pelican feeding tradition started when local restaurants tossed out their fish remains after lunch, attracting the pelicans.  If there was no food visible, the pelicans waddled across the street from the ocean to approach the shops from where their expected food emanated.  After some years, the town assumed the formal daily routine.  While the pelicans gathered from the tidal area nearby, a local biologist ensures that the birds are healthy, with no fishing line or hooks on them.  If any birds are sickly-looking, the biologist decides how best to heal them.  It was darn funny to watch these birds crowd around the human feeder, raptly and simultaneously focus their attention to the potential direction of the fish being thrown, then swallow whole mullet fish into their stretchy beaks while competing with their colleagues. Between Barbara and me, we captured the feeding on cameras.

After another exhausting day, we rallied for beer back at the Waights, cooked dinner and went to bed early

Jan. 20, 2011 – Hunter Valley – Eastern Coastal Wine Country

Once again, our intrepid driver Harry led us on the 2 hour drive to Hunter Valley, home to about 100 wineries in the Wollombie Wine District, specializing particularly in white wines and pinots, some shiraz and a few merlots.  After visiting a wood-carver/furniture-maker’s store which the Waights knew that the Goodwins would like, we stopped by the  Wollombie Wine Center to obtain some guidance on the best wineries to visit in case the Waights were unfamiliar.  We also could take photos in front of the winery signs collage along one wall.  From there we drove to an old winery with a reconstructed general store and old wine-making equipment out behind the tasting building.  The store is a replica of one which used to be there circa 1890, built as a “slab hut” with a tin roof with from original wooden slabs, covered internally with kerosene, lined with newspaper strips and then whitewashed.  The old winery owner had collected and now displayed a somewhat organized jumble of cans, bottles, products, signs, tools, clothes, and small equipment that would have been contemporary with that local pioneering period.

Our next stop was our 1st wine-tasting at Swish Winery, recommended by the Visitor Center.  After that, we visited Tyrells and Audrey Wilkinson’s vineyards and wineries, while enjoying the lovely views of grape-growing country everywhere.  Several bottles were purchased for consumption over the next few days, not laying down in anyone’s cellar.  The Waights told us that Australia’s premier wine-growing region was close to Adelaide on the west coast, but today was a tasty distraction from our boring routine of gorgeous beaches and bays (just kidding!).

On the way back to Terrigal, we visited a small town called Kurri Kurri (Aboriginal name) which was known for many of its buildings having local artists paint whimsical trompe l’oeil scenes of local Australian culture. We spent about an hour walking around the town discovering / photographing the various paintings, as well as a huge statue of Australia’s famous laughing Kookaburra bird.  Then back to the Waights house in Terrigal where we barbequed fish and some of us had fresh local oysters.

Jan. 21, 2011 – Rick’s Last Full Day in Australia

Today we drove to Munmorah State Recreation Area where we picnicked on the cliff above Frasier Beach and Snapper Point.  Then we carried all the umbrellas, folding chairs, towels and boogie boards down the long stairway to the sand where we settled in for a few hours of reading, swimming, boogie boarding, and repeat.  The gorgeous, many-hued blue ocean and huge waves were a dramatic sight, quieted by the pale golden sand.  There were only 2 boogie board with 3 men and 2 women who wanted a turn with them (not me!!!).  Barbara and I digitally captured both Rick’s and Christine’s 1st boogie-boarding experiences, as well as Harry and Brian’s semi-professional expertise.  I wasn’t fast enough to photograph Barbara’s wave-riding, but she looked very comfortable gliding in the waves.  I mostly swam / got run over by the pounding surf but still had a great time.  After a while, we all walked down the beach around to Snapper Point, with more glorious coastal views.  Then back to the grind of reading, swimming and boarding until eventually we had to carry everything back up the long stairway up the cliff to our car.  Beer and wine flowed freely that night for the weary beach-dwellers.

Jan. 22, 2011 – Rick to Sydney Airport and the Rest of Us Have a Quiet Day

So that Rick could have a 2-hour window before his flight from Sydney to San Francisco, I accompanied Harry driving Rick back to Gosford train station so that he would catch the train easily for the 1.5+ hour ride, then switch to the airport line in central Sydney.  I’d be doing the same trip a week later, so appreciated Rick’s learning the ins and outs of the process ahead of me.  Harry and I drove back to the house where the remaining 5 of us had lunch.  After some quiet time there, we drove out to Bateau Beach and walked around different tide pools.  Home again, home again for another good dinner, then bed again, bed again for a quiet night.

Jan. 23 – Full Day in Sydney to Ride Ferries and Wandering with the Waights

With upcoming Australia Day Celebrations on Wed., August 26, we decided that today, Sunday, might be a good time to visit Sydney sights that the Goodwins and I had missed.  So we left house at 8:00 am to catch the 8:30 train to Sydney.  From the Central Train Station, we walked to the 1800s Queen Victoria Building which had been converted to a shopping mall but kept some of its beautiful architectural features, such as huge mechanical clocks, wooden-arched hallways, marble and tiled floors, tall atria, and stained glass windows.  The shops were nicely integrated to fit the ambiance of this historical queenly complex.  Barbara led us on a tour of the Sydney Public Library where she worked in her 20s–just a few years ago.  We then walked to the Botanical Gardens with its interesting native plants and disgusting Flying Foxes.  These are one species of large Australian fruit bats, hundreds of which cling to many of the Botanical Garden’s trees.  Some of these species have a 5-foot wingspan, but thank heavens these furry, fanged beasts were slightly smaller with up to only a 2-foot wingspan. I couldn’t wait to get away from these yucky things that are actually helping to destroy the trees where they congregate and so far have eluded the city’s efforts to get rid of them.

Moving right along, we walked around the Circular Quay, had lunch near the Ferry Boat Dock, and then hopped onto the Manly Beach Ferry to visit one of the city’s most popular destinations.  The views during the ferry ride were spectacular, including the Opera House, the Harbor Bridge, the old convict prison, the Governor General’s Mansion, lots of sailboats, lovely seaview homes, etc., etc.  The Manly Beach (not implying that women are not allowed here or need their own Womanly Beach) neighborhood is a mini-resort village, similar to Santa Cruz without the amusement park but with a gorgeous beach that people can swim in much of the year.  After watching some beach club competitions in paddle boarding, we took another ferry under the Sydney Bridge to Darling Harbor.  On the way, we saw a sailboat with a “Red Claw” logo (local drink???) on its sails, where the 3 crewmen were leaning way out over the water while heading close to another sailboat and more perilously, to the much larger, faster ferry!   We don’t know exactly what happened, but we watched them tip over in slow motion until all 3 men were in the harbor.  The good news was that they were not run over by the ferry.  The bad news was that they were humiliatingly watch by 100s of ferry passengers.  Oh, well.  We disembarked at Darling Harbor, enjoyed some Australian beer from Tasmania (James Boag Pilsner) and chips (French Fries in American), walk back to trains, and arrive back at the Waights about 8pm. Harry barbeque-grilled some ham, cheese, and tomato sandwiches which Barbara quickly concocted.  After more beer, wine and Lamington cake it was beddy-bye for me.

Jan. 24, 2011

Recovered from Exhausting Day in Sydney by vegetating around the house.

Jan. 25, 2011 – Reptile Park near the Coast

Though this zoo-like place about 45 minutes from Terrigal is called the Reptile Park, it is also actually home to kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, Tasmanian  Devils, dingoes, tortoises, birds, insects and other unique-to-Australia animals, with lots of demonstrations in addition to “standard” exhibits.   AND they have a Platapusary so I could once more visit 1 of my beloved Platypi friends.  We saw venom-milking of snakes—this place is one of the main sources of antidotes and related studies in Australia.  With Australia’s having the most variety of reptiles in the world, the Park’s staff are proud to show off their many species on site, like monitor and dragon lizards, skinks, alligators, saltwater crocodiles, and snakes of all sorts.  I could have skipped the spiders and snakes (1 was held by a young women who was a Lisbeth Salander look-alike), but enjoyed watching other feedings: a huge tortoise named Hugo eating greens; crocodiles competing for fish; dingoes enjoying eggs; koalas just being awake enough to nibble on something; and a Tasmanian Devil consuming a whole chicken. We learned that nature has placed a plague on the Tasmanian Devils because tumors spontaneously form around the mouths, eventually preventing feeding.  So wildlife parks around Australia, including this one, are trying to regenerate groups of unencumbered Tasmanian Devils.  1 or 2 kangaroos were hopping around and 2 or 3 emus and Brolga birds wandered by.  But besides the platypus’ antics (scratching his itches all over his body), the highlight was Oscar and another new male koala growling and fighting to get the attention of females.  Since koalas sleep 23 of 24 hours a day, it was a pleasure to see them just walking around, but the noises were loud and amazing.  Part-way through our 5+ hours here, we stopped for a picnic lunch.  We ended the day at the Terrigal beach, then returned to the Waights’ house for dinner, laundry and reading.

Jan. 26, 2011 – Australia Day

Australia Day does not specifically commemorate the country’s independence or other significant political achievement, but it’s definitely a reason for Aussies to drink, eat, hang out at the beach and drape themselves in Australian-flag-covered clothes, blankets, hats, etc.  The town called The Entrance (see Pelican feeding above) was having some Australia Day activities and a street fair, so we watched a couple of competitions, including 4 men standing on large logs trying to split them with an axe.  No feet or other limbs were lost and the youngest man was the winner.  As we walked around the town, I was amazed at where some people were wearing flags.  Certainly I never had seen so many Australian flags in one place.

Harry then drove us near Norah Point lighthouse where we ate another picnic lunch, thankfully under a tree because the day was really heating up!  Then we headed to Soldiers’ Beach at about 2pm. I put sunscreen on my arms, legs, shoulders, neck, back, and face and sat under the beach umbrella but while in the ocean fighting the high waves twice, my back and shoulders got sunburned.  Barbara put aloe on them but the next couple of days I stayed in the shade and swam with a shirt. The Goodwins picked up fish and chips, then we drank our own beer and relaxed in the Waights backyard.  Another tough day in Australia.

Jan. 27, 2011 – Erina Fair Shopping then Different Beaches South of Terrigal

I accompanied the Waights to the huge Erina Fair shopping mall about 15 min. from their house.  It makes Westfield Valley Fair look small.  Not only do they have every chain store and supermarket in Australia, but in addition to many casual restaurants, they have a Public Library, sizeable dental and medical centers, and community meeting places.  At “Big W” store, like Walmart, I paid for 8 sturdy beer glasses and 6 short, sturdy wine glasses (since I had broken 1) as a house thank you gift.  I also bought myself my only Aussie souvenir, an Aussie flag beach towel.  Then we shopped around for a beach umbrella anchor for the sand and eventually food-shopped at different stores (Aldi, Woolworth, butcher, green grocer) for veggies, meat, and staples.  Food prices were really high in every category, but especially fruits and vegetables.

We unpacked the car, packed the fridge, made ourselves lunch, and about 2:00pm headed for a drive south on the coast down the Bouddi Peninsula, through Bouddi National Park, past many beaches: Avoca, Copacabana, McMasters, Putty, Kilcare then over the peninsula to Hardys Bay, and Pretty Beach.  We stopped at Wagstaffe town where the local ferry terminates, snacked on ice cream treats, lined up on a bench like old pensioners, and watched mothers and small kids playing on a tiny, protected beach.   From Bouddi Lookout we could see the 3 arms of Broken Bay, including Brisbane Water, the Hawkesbury River, and Pittwater Harbor.  Despite the haze, we could see Palm Beach and as far as Sydney’s North Head at the end of Manly Beach.  On a clear day, supposedly one could see Sydney itself.  As the crow flies, it takes maybe 1 hour rather than the 2.5 hours or more to actually drive it.

Jan. 28, 2011 – Lady Kendall II Cruise to Broken Bay and Back

A few times a week, a small cruise–including a fish and chips lunch–offers scenic tours of local waterways.  Except for 2 families with children, of the 60 or more passengers, we were the youngest.  Most were “official” pensioners (meaning that they are supported by a national retirement pension).  We sailed under the Rip Bridge to Broken Bay, consisting of Brisbane Waters, Pittwater, Hawkesbury River and Tasman Sea/Pacific Ocean, with amusing commentary throughout by the captain.

After a brief pit stop at the Waights, we took a 3.6 km bush walk in the northern part Wyrrabalong Park (we had walked in the southern end earlier in my visit) along the Red Gum Trail, which included parts of Lilli Pilli and Burrawang tracks through the Burrawang Cycads—plants descended from the time of the dinosaurs, over 220 million years ago.

I was layered in thick sunscreen from the morning, “bush juice” to stop the bites, and finally sand we were walking over, so I showered as soon as I got home.  I enjoyed my last dinner in Australia with the Waights and Goodwins, knowing we’ll have many more back in California.  The Waights are generous, enthusiastic hosts who love showing guests why they return to Australia year after year.

Jan. 29, 2011 – Car, Train and Airplane Journey

Harry and Barbara got me to the same 11:00am train Rick had taken the week before, so I arrived at Sydney airport in plenty of time for my flight to Calif. at 4:00 p.m.  The flight home was a relatively quick 13.5 hours.  I landed in SFO about 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 29, 2011—before I left Terrigal.  So I finally got back part of the day we skipped on our flights from Calif. to New Zealand.  We had a great trip with great friends!!!