Sunday, December 30, 2012

Busy Busy Busy

Dec. 31, 2012

Our last few days have been busy – Saturday was sunny and mild (but windy, which is why sometimes Wellington is known as Windyton) so we wandered over to Cuba Street – it’s sort of a trendy shopping and foodie kind of street, part pedestrian mall with street performers, part normal street scene.  Just kind of an interesting place to hang out and people watch – though there’s also the “see and be scene” crowd, who can be amusing to watch for a while. 

The best find was Butler’s Chocolate Café, which was good – we shared a piece of chocolate mousse cake, though it wasn’t quite dark enough chocolate to make me happy.  We chatted with our waiter, and he told us about another shop known for their desserts, but that will have to wait for another day.  And then he gave me a piece of 70% chocolate – much better than the mousse cake!

We also went to Te Papa and finished seeing all the exhibits – I have to say, this is one of those museums that needs to be visited over and over again.  Not only do they have changing exhibits, but many are interactive.  So in the earth science area, I got to pump a lever and make an earthquake (though I couldn’t quite get the earthquake to happen, nor could the woman after me – she finally called her grown son over and he pumped the lever until CRASH the earth split and raised up and the car in the diorama fell over); I also played a computer game of earthquake-proofing a house (and of course all the furniture fell over and dishes broke – after a few tries, and working with a nice family of a mother and two kids, we were able to get all the mitigation devices in place and prevent much damage in our home – YAY!); I never got into the little house that shakes like an earthquake (line was too long) – nor did I jump on the plate that measures the force of the jump on a Richter scale (there were groups of little boys who coordinated their jumping so they hit 10 on the scale).  But in the gaming exhibit, I was able to add photos (including one of me) and add to the computer game wall, and get the photo collage rolling around.  All in all, it was great fun.  (And I really like the stanchions that are around Te Papa - there are some, like these photos, that look like unfurling fern fronds - others look like normal stanchions, but with little kiwis embossed on the tops.)

And educational!  I learned that NZ is right on the edge of the Pacific plate and the Australian plate, and that’s why there are so many earthquakes and volcanoes in this area.  That the city of Christchurch is sinking at the rate of 25 mm per year – in my lifetime, it has sunk more than my height!  New Zealand is actually almost it’s own mini-continent, because it has it’s own shelf around it, before dropping off into the various neighboring trenches.  Plus there are all kinds of dinosaur fossils that were collected here in NZ (by one woman in the 1950s), some more complete than those found anywhere else in the world.  Just one of the more interesting facts about NZ.

Saturday night and most of Sunday, we had gale force winds – reported to be 87 kph, which I think is something like 50-55 mph – strong winds, and fun to walk around, but it gets chilly after a while.  Not to mention tiring walking into that strong a wind!

Today I wandered around Courtney Place, another trendy shop and restaurant area.  Nothing spectacular, although I liked the sculptures and street mosaics scattered around.  I made it to the café recommended by the chocolate café dude, and the desserts looked amazing – but I wasn’t hungry, so I didn’t have anything there.  It was a lovely sunny day, although the wind has been picking up and is starting to howl again.  There’s something about the way Wellington is situated, at the bottom of the North Island, that it just catches all the wind no matter which direction it’s going in.

And tonight there are fireworks again – the last New Year’s Eve fireworks in Wellington were about ten years ago, so we’re lucky that we’re here when the fireworks are back!  There are several free concerts happening along the wharf, and we’ll head down there in the evening to hang out, party, dance, and eventually watch the fireworks. 

Then Wednesday, it’s off for new adventures on the South Island!

Oh, and here's the New Zealand center of government - I guess the Parliament Building.  (I have no idea what the architect was thinking.  People have dubbed this The Beehive - not sure if that's also political commentary on their elected officials, or only based on the visual statement.  Weird and ugly, but unique!)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Te Papa, The Lamb Cam, and Factorial Bells

Dec. 28, 2012

We had a few days just hanging out at the hotel in Wellington, as the remnants of Tropical Cyclone Evan blew through – apparently he followed us south from Auckland.  Temperatures dropped 30 degrees (F) overnight, the wind howled, and the rain went from light to heavy to fog, and back again.  So we took short trips to the supermarket and relaxed indoors.

Today was overcast, but the wind has stopped, the temp has warmed up, and the rain has stopped.  So we took the wharfside walk to Te Papa, the national museum – watching a few sting rays swimming back and forth in the shallow area by the quays.  We suspect they were looking for a nosh, but I was happy to see they didn’t try to eat the sea stars along the way.  Or the giant sea urchin sculpture that acts as a retaining wall.

Richard headed out to Cuba Street to enjoy a little urban time, while I went to Te Papa – and spent two hours on one floor, that’s how interesting the place is!  I was on the level that focuses on changes in the land due to people coming to New Zealand, beginning with the Maori and then the Europeans – imported plants and animals, logging, slash and burn farming, all that.  Plus examples of important rocks (jade and columnar basalt being featured), kauri trees, giant stumps, and of course sheep.  Lots of sheep.  I think my favorite was the sheep cam – a video camera filming sheeps’ points of view.  Really.  There was the “Bossy Dog” sequence, with sheep running in all directions as the dogs try to herd them along.  Then “Lost Lamb” where the mama sheep goes running around baaa-ing, until she finds her little baby lamb sitting placidly waiting for mama.  “Look At Me” featured one sheep who just stared at the camera (which may have been on a real sheep, or a mechanical sheep, or a person in a sheepskin – I’m not sure, the exhibit didn’t explain how the filming was done).  It really was one of the funnier exhibits I’ve ever seen in a museum – and one of the more creative ways of showing the life of a sheep!  I really enjoyed the Lamb Cam, as it was dubbed.

There was also the skeleton of a famous race horse (it was creepy, and I don’t remember the horse’s name, I was so creeped out by it), examples of invasive species (including the innocuous rabbits, and the deer which are now farmed), and amazing Maori fishhooks made out of everything from bone and shell to scrap metal.  All decorative, of course, because Maori implements and devices are works of art, not just functional objects.

I’ll need another day or so at Te Papa, since there are two more levels I haven’t even started.  Plus all the fun interactive exhibits, like a room full of boxes and luggage and the viewer gets to pretend they’re a Customs agent, and search out all the potentially invasive hitchhiking creatures – tarantulas in the bananas or pineapples, moths in clothing, bats in boxes, all kinds of creepy crawlies.

We had lunch at a lovely café by the wharf, with two traditional waka (canoes) at one end, and what I think is a marae (Maori meeting house) at the other end.  We had the traditional fish and chips.  They had a great Maori drawing for children to color, so of course I took one and colored it, then turned it in for their contest.  No idea what one wins.  (And I put my own email address instead of my parent’s, LOL.)

Then a walk back to our hotel, though I stopped off at St. Paul’s church, an old timber church built in 1866.  According to their signage, this is one of the world’s best examples of a timber church – and I have to say, the interior looks something like a ship, with gorgeous wood beams and supports as well as ceiling and walls, and lovely stained glass windows.  It was a very pretty and peaceful church – and then a group of bell ringers began the bell ringing ritual.  There were five people in the bell tower, each with a rope that attached to one of the five different bells – and each bell is a different size, and thus has a different tone.  One of the men explained to me that they do a sequence of pulling the ropes that results in 120 different combinations of bells without repetition – leaving out that some of these were actually permutations, meaning the combination might be the same but different sequencing.  (Remember factorials in math class?  That weird equation that uses an exclamation mark?  So that it looks like you’d say the number with enthusiasm?  That one.  So, five different bells would be 5! = 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 = 120 different combinations and permutations.  Cool, huh?  I really like factorials, if only because 5! looks like you’d say FIVE!!!!!  Cracks me up every time.  Okay, math digression over.)  Anyway, it was really interesting to see the five people (all middle-aged or above) ringing the bells, taking turns being the person calling the sequence and the timing, and when to end.  Plus seeing the bells up in the belltower, swinging back and forth, and ringing out in that wonderful clear tone that only bells can produce.  Just a very lovely afternoon.

We’ll see what the evening brings!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Middle of Middle Earth

Dec. 27, 2012

I’m not sure if New Zealand is riding the Hobbit movie hype, or if everyone here just has a quirky sense of humor.

The welcome sign on the Wellington International Airport says “Welcome to the Middle of Middle Earth” – in a Celtic font, reminiscent of the Book of Kells.

The jetway onto the Air New Zealand planes is papered to look like one is walking through a Hobbit Hole and out into Middle Earth.
The safety film on the plane features some of the Hobbit characters, along with flight attendants and crew dressed as characters from the movies.  It really is very funny, with hobbits and elven queens and Gollum turning out the lights.

And then, of course, there’s the baggage claim area – again, Hobbit characters, Hobbit scenery, and probably the most decorated baggage claim belt I’ve ever seen.

Not that we were on an unexpected journey – no, we had pre-booked our flight for Christmas Day, which is a great day for travel – not too crowded, airline crew were wearing various holiday hats (Santa hats, reindeer ears, elf beanies) – and everyone was happy to be either traveling to celebrations, or happy to be earning overtime for working the holiday.

No, we were just a bit surprised by the Hobbit Mania.  Because everyone knows that hobbits, while quite brave, are also a bit shy and reticent about taking center stage.  Which, of course, is why they live in hobbit holes, in the middle of Middle Earth.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Naiads and Dryads

December 23, 2012

 Dryads, we all know, are Greek mythological beings who live in forests – they are the spirits who live in trees (and yes, they are female).  Naiads are similar, but they live in water – usually fresh water, such as pools and streams one might find in a forest.  (They aren’t in sea water, those are nereids.)  

Albert Park, just a block or two over from our hotel, seems to be the perfect home for naiads, dryads, elves, hobbits, fairies, pixies, gnomes, and maybe the occasional unicorn or centaur at night.  Definitely Pan and Bacchus have spent time amongst the trees there, and have carved out living spaces within specific trees.

Or, more likely, a Maori spirit of the forest has created these trees with open centers or space between the buttressed roots, so that other beings could live in the forest and have protection from the elements and other, less benevolent spirits.

Of course, the Victorians just had to create a clock of flowers – because those forest creatures need to know when to disappear, and not be seen by humans.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Another Day, Another Volcano

Dec. 22, 2012

Some people might call this tempting fate, visiting another volcano on the day when the Western Hemisphere is half expecting the day dubbed the Mayan Apocalypse.  If an extinct volcano were to spring to life, it would be on the day the world ends, right?  At least, it would in Hollywood.

But we’re not in Hollywood.  No, we’re some fourteen thousand kilometers away.  To the SE of Hollywood.

So we went to Mount Eden today.  Maungawhau, in Maori, because of course this extinct volcano is sacred to the Maori, and site of a former pa (fortification) – and Maungawhau is pronounced something like Mow (rhymes with pow) nya fow.  Lovely old volcano and, like many of the some 53 volcanoes in the Auckland area, a sudden steep hill without a top – apparently Maungawhau erupted suddenly and violently, blowing off its entire top and creating a huge crater.

We took the train out to the village of Mount Eden, more of a sweet little village surrounding the base of the mountain, full of Victorian homes and lovely little shops and cafes.  I love the gingerbread moulding and little spires added to the homes, making them look so pretty and ornate – and of course the flowers coordinating with the colors of the house or the door – just one of those charming neighborhoods in this city.  Except that this lovely little village has an extinct volcano as its backyard, looming ever in the background.

We followed the road up the mountain, winding around and spiraling ever upward, slowly gaining better and better views of the city below.  At times we saw the harbor, then the opposite  side of Auckland, then all the way to the Coromandel Peninsula, then the city again.  As we wound our way up the hill, we kept encountering signs marking the Coast to Coast Walk – Auckland is bordered by the Tasman Sea on the west and the Pacific Ocean on the east, and apparently there’s a marked walk so that one can traverse the narrow part of the north island, literally walking from coast to coast.

We arrived at the top, looking into the crater, some 50 meters deep – the volcanic cone, Auckland’s tallest, is only 196 meters high, so the crater depth is about one-quarter into the cone – impressive!!!  The Maori call the crater Te Ipu Kai a Mataaho, meaning The Food Bowl of Mataaho (god of things hidden in the ground), which seems like a very reasonable name.  The other side of the summit was apparently the pa, with terraces and storage pits still visible.

But the views were incredible – we could see other volcanoes all around, steep hills rising suddenly out of the plain, with the telltale flat or indented top yelling out “I’m a volcano and here’s the crater.”  We could see all the way to Mt Victoria in Devonport.  In fact, from Mount Eden to Mt Victoria there was a line of volcanoes, in nearly a perfectly straight line running from sea to sea in both directions. 

There was also a huge medallion 
with a map of the area and compass points, as well as distances (and arrows) to various parts of the world – New York 14,197 km away to the NE, Vancouver 11,362 km off to the NNE (or was that ENE?) – and, of course, various points of Asia to the NW, and Johannesburg South Africa just about due south (and apparently calculated in a line across Antarctica).

We walked around the crater, admiring the views, enjoying the breeze, and then decided to take one of the trails down the hill rather than circling the mountain downward by following the road.  No problem, we asked a few people and followed the trail down the steep side, finishing with a long and steep flight of wooden stairs.  And, of course, since this was a Richard and Phebe trip, came down off the mountain on the complete opposite side of where we started.  We asked for directions, followed along for a while, asked again – and a wonderfully helpful and friendly man offered us a ride.  He was driving his daughter to a nearby neighborhood, and offered to drop us back in the village of Mount Eden.  We’ve run into delightfully friendly New Zealanders before – but this man turned out to be not only as friendly and helpful as usual, he also was a Judge of the High Court!  Yup, this is the court above the district court – the kind of judge who on special occasions wears the wig and robes to mete out Justice on behalf of the Queen.  Not exactly the person we’d expect to be chatting with us as he goes out of his way to drop us off, with a few recommendations for lunch spots – but he was fun to chat with, and he saved us a few miles of getting lost.  (I need to add that in the morning we stopped at a lovely coffee shop and ended up chatting for a while with the Turkish baristo; a young couple, the young woman being an art teacher at the middle level; and a man who is a doctor of aviation medicine.  Interesting people all, we had a great time chatting and sharing experiences, they’ve all traveled around and were interested in our experiences in touring NZ, and it was just a delightful morning.  Plus wonderful coffee, and absolutely amazing chocolate from a company called Evil Child Chocolate.  Tiki touring at its best.) 

Anyway, we wandered the village of Mount Eden, then caught a bus back to our hotel.  Turns out Mount Eden is just a kilometer or two beyond the Grafton Village area, where we had stayed a few nights during our first trip to Auckland – we’re slowly putting together a picture of the city, and learning our way around.

And we’re very glad the volcano remained extinct for our visit.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Suddenly It’s Summer In Auckland

Dec. 21, 2012    (Yes, the day the world as we know it is ending – uh huh, right)

It’s summer.  Finally.  Auckland’s summer is similar to summer in Seattle – the heat of the day peaks in the afternoon, with warm sun beating down and bright golden light and cool shadows and just an edge of chill in the breeze.  The sun sets about 8:30 or so, the light lingers long into the evening as the wind brings in the cooler air of night time, and each day dawns with a chilly morning and grey skies – and then the sun burns off the fog and the wind blows away the clouds and we’re back to a gorgeous, warm, sunny afternoon. Restaurants feature fresh flowers on tables, and fresh produce on the menus.

Flocks of ducks and geese head north in giant Vs, baby birds follow their mothers around, and suddenly there is color in a city that looked only grey just a few short weeks ago.  Trees are in full leaf and full flower, bright greens, even a day-glo green tree that pops in bright chartreuse.  A few late-blooming trees, the most gorgeous being a lovely lavender color, and oh so fragrant!  Flowering bushes and hedges and flower beds, the neighborhood parks all a-blossom and a-flower, full of early morning exercisers and late afternoon sun worshippers.  Our manicured neighborhood park, Albert Park, is straight out of London and just begs to have promenading ladies in long dresses and parasols, and I long to sit at a table for afternoon tea – it just has a very Jane Austen look to it.

I love summer, and I’m thrilled it’s finally here!  We walk through the parks to our friendly café with free wifi, have our tea/coffee/scone breakfast, plan whatever needs planning, and then we wander the city.  There are tall modern glass and steel skyscrapers – not quite New York City tall, but tall enough.  The Skytower, that crazy and incongruous building that looks more like the Space Needle on growth hormones than anything else, towers over the city and some mornings the top is lost in the low clouds.  But there are the occasional old buildings dating back to the 1800s, when the British were building homes and warehouses and stores based on the same designs as back home.  And there’s the occasional Maori marae, or meeting center, also in the traditional Maori design.  

We met up with our friends Dan and Dori yesterday (they head out on a cruise this evening), and hopped on the ferry to Devonport, a quaint (and authentically quaint, not fakey faux-quaint) little town across the harbour, full of Edwardian and Victorian buildings, more manicured flowerbeds, and an incredible chocolate shop. (They make the 
chocolates there – absolutely amazing truffles, with rich strong flavors of espresso, cappuccino, chili pepper, whatever – though the dark chocolate is a bit sweet, not quite as dark as I like – but fabulous chocolates nevertheless.)  Devonport also has Mount Victoria, the extinct volcano, in the center of town – it seems that extinct volcanoes are de rigueur for quaint towns and cities in New Zealand, doesn’t it?  There are also lava flows visible on the beach at low tide, though we seemed to be there at high tide and thus missed seeing this – but the sea wall at the waterfront is built of igneous rocks collected from fields and paddocks around the area, presumably from one of Mount Victoria’s eruptions.    
There’s a second hill that apparently is the old top of Mount Victoria, which slid off in one of the lava flows.  That’s what the literature in Devonport says.  And people wonder why I question whether a volcano is ever extinct.  Auckland is sitting on a huge pool of molten magma, bubbling beneath the surface – who’s to say when or where that magma might next bubble through the mantle and explode or leak out?  Auckland is trying to get the entire volcanic field on which it is built named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with good reason – this is a unique part of the world, with igneous rock and volcanic leftovers all around – even the sides of the major highway are beds of columnar basalt.  This place is crazy!

 Yes, okay, digression aside – Devonport was lovely and we had a fun time.  Auckland today is gorgeous, and we’re having more fun.  And as the day progresses to evening, the harbour is filling up with sail boats scooting to and fro, proclaiming Auckland once again the city of sails.
So – we’ve made progress with our plans.  (We actually have realized that traveling without a plan means occasional planning as we go.)  We fly to Wellington on Christmas Day (what else would we be doing?), and have about a week there.  Then we’ll catch the InterIsland Ferry across Cook Sound, one of the most gorgeous ferry crossings in the world (so the guide books say).  Then catch a train in Picton, and take the Pacific Coast train ride to Christchurch.  We’ll spend a few days there, trying to help the post-earthquake economy, and at some point take the Trans Alpine train across the South Island Alps, to Greymouth.  Then we’ll most likely get a bus pass, and do a hop-on-hop-off tour of the South Island.  We, as usual, have a vague idea of what we want to see – Richard wants to see the beautiful Abel Tasman park in the north, and Queenstown, the trendy and hopping party town of the south.  I want to see blue penguins in Omara and yellow-eyed penguins in Dunedin, and the incredible Milford Sound, in Fjordland.  And we both want to go to the Cadbury and Whittaker chocolate factories in Dunedin (where there is also a castle we can visit).  No idea what sequence, no idea how long we’ll spend where, and I’m sure we’ll stop in other spots just because they look like a good place to hang out. 

We’ll have until Jan. 31 to wander – our NZ visa expires then, and we can either extend the visas (for a price) or move on – we’ve decided we’ll move on.  We’ve been granted visas to Australia, and will fly to Melbourne on January 31 – Melbourne because it’s on the south side, meaning it will still be warm in January and start cooling off around March or April – and Melbourne because it isn’t far from Tasmania, and we both want to go there.  Tasmania boasts the first – and oldest – synagogue in this part of the world; there’s also a Cadbury chocolate factory in Hobart, the capital; and Richard wants to see a Tasmanian devil.  (We have our priorities.)  So off to Melbourne and then Tasmania we will go.  Then wander around Australia, probably via train so we don’t disappear forever into the Outback.  The visa will be good for 12 months, but we can only stay 3 months at a time, so we’ll have periodic trips either back to NZ or off to some of the Pacific Islands – and of course will keep everyone posted.