Thursday, April 30, 2015

Taking Time to Relax and Play

Dennis, Vicki and Larry enjoying the mineral springs.
Love the Aqua Therapy after a long drive!
After a short drive to Hanmer Springs (135 km or 2.5 hours) in the South Island high country just 90 minutes northwest of Christchurch, we were ready to soak in the mineral pools and breathe in clear alpine air. This area did not smell like Rotorua and the pools were not as warm (darn!)

The Adult Pools offered AquaTherapy with various kinds of water jets to pulsate on our achy, breaky parts! They also had sulfur pools for the healing aspect. Other than this, I don’t even recall where we had dinner or where we stayed. I guess I mellowed out in the pools! It was a good overnight stop somewhat out of our way to the next one in Arthur’s Pass, but since Christchurch was not possible it was a great alternative.

Pushing onward, we headed to Arthur’s Pass in the morning. This meant coming down from Hanmer Springs, around a mountain range and heading back up one of the other (three total) ways to cross from the east side of South Island to the west side. It was a nice drive and pretty scenery.

A little creativity moment.
Our accommodations were in The Bealy Lodge, a lovely little quaint place. Kim, who seemed to run the place as well as cook, makes wonderful pies. I am not speaking of pies as we know them. These are main course pies: venison, beef, chicken, lamb, bacon and egg, etc. His pastry was the best I have ever eaten!

The river bed is huge without much water, but we were told
the water is actually rushing below the surface of the rocks.
Dinner was a welcome sight after Dennis, Vicki and I had spent several hours walking along the riverbed, examining stones and exploring the area. We were looking for stones that might contain the New Zealand jade called Nephrite, its geological name.

The true New Zealand is called by its Maori name: Pounamu or Greenstone. I doubt that anything we picked up is of value, but it was fun – just like searching for shells when walking the beach.

The Captain's creative moment. Sweet!
We had a self-catering apartment with one queen bed and three twin beds – all in one room! That was fine as Vicki and Larry each took a twin bed and we put duffle bags on the other one.

All was well until Vicki rolled over in the middle of the night and somehow ended up on the floor with the mattress and bedding with her! I could not tell you anything about it as I slept through it. I only remember her snoring! (Sisterly love.)

The wonderful map in Bealy Lodge gave a panoramic view
of Arthur's Pass and the surrounding mountain ranges.
It was very pleasant to be in the quiet of the mountains with the river flowing below and enjoying the 360 degree vista of Mother Nature. There was the only train track in the area across the river, but we never heard one of the many trains that traverse the gorge daily. This is the track that runs from Christchurch to Greymouth with a stop in Arthur’s Pass. The TranzAlpine Train is a very popular tourist attraction.

After breakfast in the Lodge, it was time to pack up and continue across the mountains to the west side and the Tasman Sea. There are many things waiting for us there.

We enjoyed the quaintness of the lodge. This is the dining
room and bar area. The food was homemade and wonderful.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Crossing Cook’s Strait to South Island & the Whales

New Zealand is made up of two islands: North and South. They are separated by the infamous Cook’s Strait. At least from a sailor’s point of view it is infamous. When some very experienced sailors sailing with us announced that they were changing their plan about sailing around North Island and land cruising instead, we knew it was not a place for us to sail either!

The easiest way to get to South Island is by ferry across Cook’s Straight. There are two ferry companies (maybe even owned by the same family like the ferries in Auckland) and we chose the Interislander. It is a convenient link for both foot and vehicle traffic. Since we had the camper van, it was perfect for us.

I was amazed at the size and number of vehicles they put on the ferries: train cars, double semi-trucks, cars with trailers, motor homes, campers of all sizes and shapes, motorcycles and bicycles. Amazingly, it still floated! They have nice lounges and café areas where you can relax and enjoy the 3.5 hour ride. There are ten or more ferry crossings a day from Wellington to Picton or Picton to Wellington. We had a reservation on the 7:30 AM ferry so we were up an out of the hotel very early.
Looking for whales and other sea life.

Once on the South Island, we began our journey to the southeast to Kaikoura, the home of Whale Watch Kaikoura. The drive along the coast was much like Highway 1 in Northern California – windy and winding and hugging the mountain on one side and the cliffs to the sea on the other. We had a 7:30 AM Whale Watch tour booked for the next day.

In order to protect the natural habitat of the sea life including the whales that come here from the north for the season, Whale Watch Kiakoura is the only one allowed to host the tours. It is an award-winning NZ nature-based tourism company owned and operated by the indigenous
Kati Kuri people of Kaikoura, a Maori sub-tribe of the island’s larger Ngai Tahu Tribe.

The company was formed in 1987 as a way to bring income to the declining economy of the area and its people. Since their ancestor Paikea had journeyed to a new life on the back of the whale Tohora, it seemed appropriate for Paikea’s descendants to once again ride on the back of a whale to a new life.
They have several of these catamarans in the fleet.
Through personal sacrifices, home mortgages and effort, the Kati Kuri founders secured a loan to start the business which has grown from small inflatable boats to larger catamarans with upper decks for viewing. They have also built and marina for the fleet. It has become one of New Zealand’s premier tourist attractions. Paikea and Tohora still form the symbolic center of Whale Watch representing the spiritual bond between the human world and the natural world. And it speaks of possibilities that reveal themselves when the world off nature is revered rather than exploited.
The Orcas swam in pods of three or four. There were
several pods swimming calmly around the boat. Amazing!
The tour began with a video presentation based on Marine Wildlife. Then you board a bus to ride to the harbor where you board the boat. Three boats went out at about the same time, going in different directions in search of marine life. The boat was staffed with a Captain, Health & Safety Officer, Watch Keeper and a Narrator. The Narrator gave us a lot of information while we were traveling to the edge of the area where we might find whales.

This area is known as the Kaikoura Canyon and is at the edge of the continental shelf where there is a vertical drop of about 1,000 meters. The Kaikoura Canyon is five kilometers wide at the widest point and is over 1,600 meters deep. It is one of the few places in the world where the edge of the continental shelf is so close to land. It is the largest submarine canyon in the southern hemisphere and forms part of a series of canyons which whales use on their migrations between feeding and breeding grounds.

There is a wonderful food chain here in the subtropical convergence. The flow of water currents cause warm and cold water to collide with nutrients coming up from the Antarctic. The microscopic plant Phytoplankton provides food for tiny organisms like Zooplankton and krill, which are eaten by squid and small fish. These are then eaten by larger fish, birds, seals and dolphins, sharks and whales. So this nutrient-rich area provides a major link in the food chain.
The main focus of the tour is on the Giant Sperm whale, whose dive time is between 40-60 minutes. This means that they will surface for a short time and then dive again staying down for that length of time. Like many things in life, timing is important! You have to be patient and wait for it to surface. We were not able to spot any whales so our Captain heard from one of the other boats that they had found a Giant Sperm whale and it was about to dive again.

That meant that we had 35-40 minutes to change locations so we could view the Giant Sperm when it surfaced again. As we changed direction to head there, we came upon a large pod of Orcas! The crew was more excited than we were as they had not seen any Orcas for many months. In all, I counted 13 Orcas swimming around us in small groups of three and four. One lone – probably an older male – was away from the pod. He was probably scouting out the territory for the others. It was really exciting.

After 20 minutes of enjoying the Orcas, we needed to move toward the Giant Sperm. When we got to the area, he (most of the ones in this area are male) had surfaced and was resting on top of the water. He was not nearly as lovely to look at as the Orcas, but we watched him blow a number of times. 
The Sperm Whale was hard to see on the surface, but you
 could see him blow every few minutes. The shorter the
time between blows means he is getting ready to dive.

Our Captain placed us right behind the whale, knowing that when he breeched we would have the best view – and we did! The whale itself was hard to see as it blended in with the water, but when he lifted his hind, I said, “Get the camera ready as he is going under!” And just them he flipped his tail and dove. Great shot! It made the day!

It was interesting to learn that the whales travel in small pods keeping several miles between them. They say that seeing more than two whales in a watch is a real bonus. Well, we hit the jackpot!

Around 80% of the world’s whale and dolphin species migrate past this coastline so it is possible to see a variety of marine life here: Blue, Fin, Sei, Humpback, Minke, Pilot, Orca and Southern Right Whales. Common Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, Southern Right Whale Dolphins, Elephant Seals and Leopard Seals can also be seen in this area. Very commonly found here are Dusky and Hector Dolphins and the New Zealand Fur Seal. We learned that the reason the Fur Seal survives so well is that the whales don’t like to eat the fur or hair. They prefer the other types of seals!

The Sperm Whale starting to descend into the sea.

All in all, it was a great adventure! Then it was time to start our drive to Hanmer Springs. I had originally planned for us to go to Christchurch for a couple of days, but here was no room in any of the inns! So Plan B was to check out Hanmer Springs as it is the Number One Kiwi vacation spot! Must be good. And Larry was actually looking forward to more hot mineral pools!

The Sperm Whale will stay under for about an hour.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Short Trip through the Te Papa Museum

Dennis, Larry and Sherry at the Te Papa Museum
Wellington is a great city for walking. It is also the Capital of New Zealand and hosts the National Museum of New Zealand, the Te Papa. It houses an extraordinary display of historic and modern culture and technology. It is six floors of exhibits and interactive vignettes. A visit here is definitely an all day experience and it was especially nice on a rainy day. In fact, one could spend several days here.

This now extinct bird used to live here.
Admission is free! We signed up with a docent for a tour and it was well worth the ticket price. She shared so much culture and history that it made the museum come to life. Not only that, but she shared her family’s history relative to a number of the exhibits we saw. That certainly gave a great deal more meaning to the displays. I noticed that each of the indigenous docents adds personal information to her presentation.

The whole museum is highly interactive so it holds you in its grip. The full name of the museum is “Te Papa Tongarewa,” which is loosely translated as “treasure box.” And it is a real treasure! They have an amazing collection of Maori artifacts, the national art collection and its own marae.

A marae is a courtyard surrounded by a complex where the rituals of hapu life are conducted. The rituals of hapu life include hui (gatherings), tangi (funeral wakes) and powhiri (formal welcomes). The complex may include a whare runange (meeting house, or whare nui), whare manuhiri (house for visitors), whare kai (eating house) and an old fashion pataka (raised storehouse). Essentially, this is the center of combined community, cultural and ceremonial activities and where cultural values, protocols, customs and the vitality of Maoritanga find its fullest expression.  All visitors to a marae must not enter without an invitation.

In the Te Papa, there is even an earthquake simulator. Visitors can experience the feeling of a real earthquake without the destruction. New Zealand is located along the Pacific plates that are constantly moving and in the process generate volcanic activity and earthquakes.
New Zealand has invested more than $350 million to create this museum and all of the experiences within it. It opened in 1998 and the design involved extensive consultation with the iwi (tribes). Much effort was put into getting it right! As we learned from the visit to the Treaty Grounds in Waitangi, the Maori and the British have had different perspectives on New Zealand history!
Throughout New Zealand, we have found that the indigenous people a willing to share their history and culture. It brings it to life when there is a personal connection. Enjoy your walk through the Te Papa with our photographs.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Crossing the NZ “Desert”

All of the roads are two lane except near the big cities.
The shoulders vary from 6" to 24" depending on location.
As we left Rotorua for the drive to Wellington where we had to select a route. There are very few highways in New Zealand and the only place where they are more than two lanes wide is near the three or four big cities. Since 80% of the population lives in the Auckland area, the rest of the roads are not that heavily used – except by truckers, tour buses and visitors navigating while driving on the “wrong” side of the road! Dennis is doing a fabulous job of driving and I am an awful and nervous passenger! I call myself a Naggravator: my job is to navigate, but I do it in an aggravating way! Sorry, Honey!

We had a picnic lunch along the shore of Lake Taupo.
While we are here, there is an issue with foreign drivers and the people and government want to do something to reduce the number of fatal crashes involving tourists. You must concentrate on driving anytime you are behind the wheel. When we picked up our camper van, the supplier took Dennis out for a drive and gave him a few good words of wisdom: “Keep your right shoulder on the center line.” And the biggie: “Death comes from the right!” So each time he gets in the car, he repeats this mantra.
Beautiful and big Lake Taupo

We had a choice of the long route along the eastern coast of North Island or down the center on what they call the Desert Highway. Since it was shorter and we had a long drive of 465 km or 6 hours, we took the shorter one down the middle. Our GPS, whom we call “Our Lady of the Car” kept wanting to take shortcuts on smaller and narrower roads. There are very small shoulders on the main roads and 4-5 inch shoulders on the next smaller ones. We didn’t even consider her suggestion for unpaved shortcuts!
While not a desert as we know them, the terrain is scrub land in the valleys between the numerous mountain ranges. We spent a lot of time winding our way up and down mountains through passes to get to the next valley. While scenic, it was a long and somewhat boring drive – or maybe I should say ride. I am sure Dennis and Larry found it more challenging as they were behind the wheel.

We stopped at Lake Taupo (Taupomoana) and took a ride on the Huka Falls Jet Boat. It was fun and quite thrilling at times. And we got a little wet! It was a nice break before moving on to the south. And it seems that jet boating on the rivers is one of the biggest tourist attractions. It is what Kiwis like to do on vacation! Along Lake Taupo, we stopped and had a picnic lunch. Although I had packed a lot of food for picnicking, we found ourselves in restaurants most mealtimes.

Not too sure about the JetBoat ride!
Lake Taupo (created in 186 AD making it young in these parts) is treated as a giant spirit as the local Tuwharetoa people ascribe the lake’s formation to their ancestors in the aori legends of lust and betrayal in which a few mountains were said to have fled to other parts of the island. After the volcanic action that left a pumice like ash on the shores to this day, the tohunga (priest) Ngatoro-i-rangi who had just arrived from Hawaii explored the area and named the mountains that remained. The main mountain consists of at least 12 volcanic peaks and is seen as the leader of the other mountains, thereby making it a sacred mountain.

The vistas were stunning everywhere you looked.
Most interestingly, the major iwi (tribe) of the region is the Ngati Tuwharetoa and is one of the only tribes retaining an undisputed ariki (high chief). The actual mountain range was gifted to the country of New Zealand by the great-great-grandfather of the current chief back in 1887. The legend of the formation of the lake is that Tuwharetoa cast a tree from the summit of Mount Tauhara, which is on the edge of Taupo. The tree stuck in the ground water and welled up to create the lake. The full name for the lake is Taupo-Nui-A-Tai meaning “the great shoulder mat of Tia” or “great sleep of Tia” referring to an explorer from the Arawa canoe said to have slept by the lake. The lake is huge (616 sq. km, 185 m deep) and was said to be the second largest fresh water lake in the world. We Michiganders need to check the facts considering our wonderful Great Lakes. I believe Lake Superior is the largest in the world based on volume of fresh water.
We arrived in Wellington on the night of a major cricket game. In fact, we accidently picked the time of World Cricket Cup hosted by Australia and New Zealand as our time to land cruise. What do we know about the World Cricket Cup? In fact, what do we know about the game where one guy hits a ball with a board and runs – sometimes – to a base (just one!) and they never seem to get him out. He may bat for hours and days! Still can figure out this game! All I know for sure is that there were no vacancies in any area where matches were being played. I can see why: you have to stay for days just to see your team get a chance to bat!

Fortunately, we had a couple of nights reserved at the InterContinental Hotel right on the waterfront where are of the action was after the games, i.e., bars and restaurants! One of the highlights of Wellington, the capital of NZ, is the Te Papa Tongarewa museum. This is New Zealand’s national museum. Of course, the Te Papa tells the stories and shows the treasures of their land, people, culture, art and history. It is also an interactive museum and is free! It was very busy but not too crowded as there are many floors. We passed the Old St. Paul’s Church on our way into town, but never made it back there to see the interior that is supposed to be “breathtakingly beautiful!”

Auckland used to be the capital of New Zealand, but it was moved to Wellington due to the geographical location being in the near middle between the two islands. It is still on the north island where the majority of people live. It was difficult to find the Writers’ Walk due to the Cricket crowds, food trucks and other activities along the waterfront. But the city of jam-packed and very vibrant while we were there. Wellington is close to wineries, beaches and mountain ranges so it makes a good base for tourists. And there are wonderful restaurants and nightclubs.

For a lunch break, we took a ride on the cable car from the Lambton Quay in the city center up to the top of the Wellington Botanical Garden. The ride is short with only three stops, but it is very steep. The Cable Car climbs 120 meters in five minutes. One would not want to climb straight up the stairs to the garden. Construction was started in 1897 and completed in 1902, The Cable Car Museum is located at the top and provides a history of the city’s symbolic mode of transportation. We had a lovely view of a sailboat race in Lambton Harbour while we had lunch.