Thursday, June 29, 2006

Walking with giants (and waddling fat-bottomed birds)

Back to New Zealand again for some late-breaking (or at least, slow-to-be-written) posts....

One of the highlights of our swing through Northland was definitely our exploration of the Kauri Coast. This part of the west coast was so named for the huge trade in Kauri timber and gum (like amber/resin and used for industrial purposes) in the 1800's. The Kauri trees are the ancient giants of the New Zealand forests. Once covering much of the country, there are now only a few remnants of the Kauri forests left on the west coast.

The obvious parallel/reference for the Kauri trees for us North Americans are the Redwoods or the Sequoias. With the images of these massive towering trees in my head I was a little let down at first sighting of some of the famous big Kauri trees. They are neither as big as the Sequoias or as tall as the Redwoods. However once I started to see them for what they had to offer, I was entranced. Kauri grow up with perfectly straight, smooth trunks. At a certain point they stop growing up and just focus on growing out/expanding their girth. At the very top/crown the branches all spread out, creating a crown full of birds and supporting epiphytes and other plants and towering over the rest of the trees in the forest.

A kauri can grown up to over 180 feet and have a girth of over 80 feet. Unfortunately, none of these behemoths remain. The two oldest and most revered trees left now are in the Waipoua Kauri forest. The largest/tallest tree is Tanemahuta (The God of the Forest) with a height of over 150 feet. It is estimated to be between 1200-2000 years old and towers over the rest of the trees in the area, sticking out of the canopy like Bo Peep above her sheep. Even more impressive is Te Matua Ngahere (The Father of the Forest which, though shorter than Tanemahuta, has a trunk over 15 feet in diameter and at approximately 2000 years old is the oldest Kauri tree known to be surviving.

Most of the Kauri trees you see in the forest here are just youngsters in comparison, but even so as you look through the forest with these unreal-looking huge straight trees you feel like you might at any moment see dinosaurs, or at least Moas (the extinct giant birds) and Maori hunting parties. There really is that sense being of all of a sudden in a time warp. And just like walking through the redwood 'cathedrals' can be a spiritual experience, no matter what your persuasion of belief or non-belief, so it was walking through these forests.

One of the best parts of our visit to the Kauri forests was going on a night-time guided nature walk in the Trounson Kauri Forest (another smaller reserve in the area). Trounson has an active predator eradication program going and because of that has been successful at nurturing a small population of kiwis. Kiwis, the national bird of New Zealand, are rare, shy, and nocturnal, so even most New Zealanders have never seen ones in the wild.

Well, 37 seconds into our walk and kapow: there caught in our red light was a male kiwi searching for food in the grass. We all stood there giddily watching him until he waddled off back into the forest. In the course of the next 90 minutes we saw kiwis two more times, as well as huge river eels, cave wetas, kauri snails, catfish-like fish, glow worms and a scary-looking big spider. In addition to seeing all this wildlife (most of which are nocturnal and not to be found if you're exploring in the day), our ears were ringing with the cries of several other kiwis (a hugely spooky sound if you don't know what it is) and the morpork (a native owl). Add in the glorious stars (with glowing milky way) and the informative and folksy commentary from our guide, Herb (a retired mechanic who has become quite knowledgeable in this new role) and it was a fantastic evening, easily one of our favorite moments in New Zealand.

For those in the area interested in getting this experience, contact Herb or Heather at the Kauri Top Ten Holiday Park near Trounson Forest (0800-807-200). Trust us, you won't be sorry.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Third Anniversary... ???

A few thoughts as we mourn the unjust passing of the Socceroos from the World Cup:
1) We haven't forgotten about the website.  Really.  We've just been away from computers more often than not lately so expect an influx of new blog entries and pictures in the next few days.  Feast or famine with us.  You know the drill.
2) The reason you the reader will be receiving such a big influx is because from July 3-12 we'll be off doing a 10 day trip in a 4WD in the Outback.  If you want to check out where we'll be going, click here.  We're excited about it though we're curious to see how we'll do with ten other people for ten days.  From there we stick around Alice Springs for a few days before heading to Darwin.  Trust me, we have a very good reason to be sticking around the outback.
3) We've spent the last four days or so driving down the southern coast of Victoria and have loved it.  Beautiful scenery along the Great Ocean Road and lots of cute little places to stop at along the way.  Current location is The Grampians, a major national park in inland Victoria.  Got some great hiking done in between rainstorms yesterday.
4) When we originally planned the direction we were doing Australia, we contemplated doing the east coast (Barrier Reef, beaches, etc.) first.  We're very glad we chose to go the other way.  We've had a fantastic time visiting friends and the weather has got colder and wetter here in Victoria.  Would not want to be coming this direction in August.
5) We spent an evening working on a resumes a few days ago.  It's really the first substantial nod towards reentry (T minus two months and counting) and honestly it actually felt good to be working on it.  Guess we might be a bit travel weary at this point after all.
6) We celebrated our second wedding anniversary last night.  Our first was spent with our Danish friends in Copenhagen.  Our second was spent hiking during the day (with Becca getting wild Kangaroo sightings as her anniversary present) and then having a high class meal of Mac and Cheese and  VB Stubbies with chocolate ice cream bars for dessert.  Any predictions from the peanut gallery as to where we might spend our third?
More from Adelaide-

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Random Sports Star Experience...

Having worked in the sports industry for a while now, I tend not to get excited about seeing famous athletes. It's just part of the business and after you've had some sort of voodoo spell put on you by a band of angry Ghanaian women (as happened to me and the ref I was escorting at the 1999 Women's World Cup) everything seems a bit ordinary anyway.

Fast forward to yesterday. Becca and I are having a painfully long experience at a student/backpacking travel agency trying to get things sorted out for Fiji. (yes, I know: we lead difficult, difficult lives) We're the only customers in the place. Suddenly the agent next to ours walks by handing out miniature cricket bats. I peek over thinking "that would make a cool souvenir". A few minutes later the same lady walks by and says to our agent: "do you want yours signed?"

I quickly swing around and I catch a glimpse of a blond face and spiky hair. Part of me hopes that it's Shane Warne (Australian cricket genius whose weight gains and sexaholic activities make for fun reading in the tabloids) but it wasn't. Instead it was the fastest bowler in Australian cricket, Brett Lee. He'd appeared out of nowhere with his handler and for some reason was slumming it in the travel agency signing autographs and talking with the workers. I'm guessing he probably has a deal with them or the like but it still was a strange thing to see.

I was ready to just chalk it up as obscure athlete sighting #2 of the trip (Goran Ivanisevic in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre being #1). About then Becca took the initiative and asked for a cricket bat for me. Signed of course. The handler turned around and said "for a customer? of course!"

A few minutes later I'd shaken hands with a semi-famous cricketer and was now the proud owner of a signed miniature cricket bat. All in a day's travel, right?


Sunday, June 18, 2006

From Kiwis to Kangaroos

We reluctantly left New Zealand last week for the hop over to Sydney. In what was beginning to seem like more than just coincidence, I was denied entry into the country for the second straight time. On the way from Hong Kong to NZ I had visa issues (they had no record of my e-visa). This time the culprit was some rogue New Zealand turf still stuck to the bottom of my hiking boots. Like a victim of the decon team in Monsters Inc., I found myself surrounded and quickly relieved of my shoes leaving me standing sock less as the offending boots were whisked away with hazmat tongs. Ten minutes later, and owner of the cleanest boots in Oz, I was finally allowed to enter Australia.

The overriding theme of our stay in Sydney revolved around sports....we figured we might as well jump into Aussie culture with both feet. Brian will put up a post covering our experiences there. However the secondary theme of our stay was pretty darn typical of New South Wales as well: enjoying the waterfront/coast/beaches and all they have to offer. Pretty much all of our sightseeing was along the water, whether it was gazing hypnotized at the Opera House, checking out the Harbor bridge and Luna Park, riding the ferries and enjoying the views between all the various harbor stops, walking the gorgeous four mile coast path between Coogee and Bondi beaches, watching the surfers out at Manly beach, or catching a boat over to the area's best fish and chips place in Watsons Bay for lunch.

It's just a beautiful area, especially once the rains cleared and we had crisp (cold!) and sunny days. It's easy to understand how folks here have a healthier and laid-back attitude towards work and life. We were continually surprised by the number of people we saw out surfing, body boarding, kayaking, swimming, running, biking etc. at all times of the day and all days of the week. Then again, if I had those resources in my back yard I might be finding ways to make use of them as well.

Despite all the natural beauty, the highlight for both of us was a man-made object. The Sydney Opera House was simply stunning. I honestly had a "pinch me, I'm actually in Australia" moment each time we would see it. It just doesn't get old, no matter how many times you see it; the people who live here told us the same thing. One of the most fascinating things about it was how it would change as the light, weather, or angle you were looking at it from changed.

We did take a tour of the building as well. It was funny to contrast it with the interior of the the Budapest Opera House, built a century earlier. The latter was all chandeliers, marble and fine plush carpets while this building featured bare concrete and granite, glass and natural woods. After his multiple visits in the past couple years to Copenhagen Brian was immediately able to identify the Danish aesthetic at work. (The Opera House's architect and visionary, Jorn Utzon, is indeed Danish). We even were lucky enough to hear the Sydney Symphony play the last few minutes of the 1812 Overture, allowing us to gain a full appreciation of the outstanding acoustics of the house.

The other highlight of the stay in Sydney was getting the chance to spend time with Chris and Sara Green and their three kids. Chris was Brian's roommate in grad school and it was a great opportunity for them to catch up and for us to meet the rest of his family. Sara spoiled us with some wonderful home cooked meals and Chris provided some much needed tutoring for me in the minutia of Australia's three main football codes: Australian Rules Football, Rugby League and Rugby Union. (On this trip we have now watched six different football codes: with the addition of Gaelic Football, Soccer/Football, and American Football. Here's to a global education!). We really enjoyed their company and look forward to seeing them again on our return visit to Sydney in August.

There are still a number of Sydney activities we want to do (including a performance at the Opera House and checking out a couple of the museums), but that will have to wait until we come back here at the end of our Australian adventure. For now it's on to Melbourne, Brian's Australian home.


Sydney Sporting Report

Fact: Australia is a sporting mad country. They put on one of the best-run Olympics in ages, their teams always excel and (using the Olympics as a barometer) Australia is always one of the best-performing sports countries (per capita) in the world. Throw in their high level of performance at sports most Americans haven't heard of like Rugby and Cricket and it all adds us to an incredibly full-on sports country.

In Australia, Melbourne is widely considered to be the sporting capital and I was looking very forward to showing Becca it in full bloom. However circumstances and the logistics of the trip conspired together (as they have so many times before) so that Sydney ended up being the best chance for us to see a live sports event during our visit. In the end, we were able to catch not one, but two live events as well as three more on TV that left us watching four different codes of football in five days. Here's a brief recap:

First off, Australian Rules Football. As some of you are familiar with, this is the code I worked with when I lived in Melbourne nine years ago. I was really eager to show Becca the game and as I said before, taking in a game at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground was going to prove impossible. As a result, a whopping four hours after arriving in the country, Becca and I were seated at the Sydney Cricket Ground with meat pies and chips in hand ready for the Sydney Swans and St. Kilda Saints (a Melbourne suburb) to do battle. (An egregious oversight -- leaving our camera back at the hostel -- meant I was sadly not able to capture Becca eating her first Aussie pie in front of the famous Cricket Stands)

We'd gotten good seats, about 15 rows or so away from the field. Primo locale to take in the high flying, non-stop action. We'd watch those seats the rest of the night with a tinge of sadness as heavy rains had us retreating to the covered general admission section. Sure we had to jerk our heads around a support column to see one of the goals but it beat the heck out of sitting outside in conditions that had us increasingly looking out for animals roaming two by two across the pitch. Usually AFL teams average approximately 100 pts/side a match. The Swans and Saints were just able to break it combined with St. Kilda holding on for a 52-50 victory.

Not exactly the action packed game I'd promised Becca but it gave her a good opportunity to see a match live. More Swan Lake than Thriller. But still interesting enough to keep us there for the full 120 minutes. Though I'm sure staying dry under the cover of the stadium helped.

The following night brought a visit out to Telstra Stadium for a Rugby Union Test between the Qantas Wallabies (Australia) and the England Lions. Telstra is the new name for the former Olympic Stadium so courtesy of my old grad school roommate Chris, we got a chance to see a rugby match up close and personal. For those not in the know (which is 99% of the readership), there are two types of rugby: rugby union (what we in the States know as rugby with the scrums and general pileups) and rugby league. Kind of like test and one-day cricket really. Hey, if I could think of a non-commonwealth comparison, I'd use it allright? Same game in theory just a number of different rules and styles. People do occasionally switch codes but for the most part stay with one or the other.

The match had plenty of good plot lines: it was the first match for the new Australia coach and it was also the first match for England here since they'd beaten the Aussies in the previous Rugby World Cup. Thankfully the weather decided to cooperate a bit this time around and we were treated to a perfectly clear night which allowed us to stay in our primo seats (again, much thanks to Chris). Unfortunately the match didn't do much to allow us to get out of them. A comedy of errors between the two teams led to a 9-0 halftime score before Australia got a couple of late tries and pulled away comfortably 34-3.

I'm sure you're probably asking: if this is both of your first rugby matches live and neither of us would know the difference between a hooker and a 5/8ths then how did you know it was a bad game? Chalk this one up to years of watching various events. You just know. Like when 60,000 Oz and English fans break out in laughter after the umpteenth boneheaded decision made by the players. Even the announcer got into the act with the following late in the second half:

PA: Now, making his... er.
(20 second pause)
PA: #17, making his deburrrrr... (think lawn mower sound at the end)
(40 second pause)
PA: #17, making his first appearance for the Wallabies
(mock cheer/laughter from the crowd)

Might need to lay off the schnapps a bit for future games. Still it was an excellent chance to see a game we really hadn't understood to date up close and get a chance to experience the Australia/England rivalry up close. Plus we can now say we've been to Olympic Stadium. All in all a great atmosphere and a good sporting weekend.

Properly fried from our big nights out, we still had a bit more sports to experience. Over two nights at the hostel's tv room and Chris's living room we were treated to the good (Australia's soccer team coming from 1-0 down against Japan to score 3 goals in the final eight minutes in a performance that got the bandwagon really going (leading to people predicting victory over Brazil). Might want to still ease off the Schnapps I reckon), the bad (watching Queensland pummel New South Wales 30-6 in Rugby League State of Origin) and the ugly (staying up until 4am to watch a dismal US team get thwacked 3-0 by the Czechs).

What's State of Origin, you might ask? Imagine if during the middle of the NFL season, they decided to have a best 2 out of 3 series only consisting of players from Texas high schools playing players from Florida high schools, and that this series meant more to the players than winning the Super Bowl. 'Full-on' does not begin to describe the intensity involved in these matches. Despite the scoreline it was quite a cultural event and all that people were talking about the next day.

So in all, 4 football codes in the span of 5 days. A very busy time but a great way to fully immerse ourselves in the Aussie culture. It's going to be tough to top all this action on the remainder of the trip but I'm sure we'll be honorary Aussies and "give it a go"


Friday, June 16, 2006

we're working on it...

Just a quick note to say that we spent so much time out experiencing Sydney last week that we had no time left to actually write up anything about it. But the 11 hour train ride to Melbourne last night gave us a bunch of time to get busy in our journals so expect to see posts about Sydney (and Melbourne) and the last couple of New Zealand posts coming up over the next week or so. Plus hopefully I'll be able to get the Sydney pictures up too.

I can tell you that we are missing the dirt cheap intenet prices in Asia.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

An anniversary milestone

"...dreaming of the west coast"
Santa Monica, Everclear

One year ago today we left Portland International Airport on a plane to Europe and started this adventure with no more planned than our first place to sleep (merci beaucoup again Yves and Anne Marie). Through the countless bus rides, trains, walks through towns and other waking moments on this trip, one constant topic of conversation is what our plans would be once we finished this trip and where we'd do them. And while we still haven't necessarily figured out the what yet after many discussions, we've figured out the where...

We're selling our house in Minnesota and moving back to Portland!

The main reason we are doing this is to be able to spend more time with our families (since they are all within about a two hour distance of one another). We made our last move for job reasons and then made life work out. This time we are making the decision based on wanting a better quality of life and making the jobs fit accordingly. In addition, we just really miss sharing life with our families. Being away (both in Minnesota and on this trip) has been a fantastic way for us to build and strengthen our own relationships, but also to help us realize how much we want to continue to build our relationships with them.

In addition, with little kiddies eventually on the way (not NOW), we thought it would be good to be around family who could laugh at our efforts to keep up with the pitter patter of little feet and have grandparent visits a more frequent occurrence than a couple times a year.

It was a very difficult decision; our network of friends in Minnesota has been a much needed lifeline over the last five years and their kindness and friendship has gone light years beyond the Minnesota Nice you always hear about and has gotten us through some rough spots. As sad as it makes us to leave this situation, we feel like we're making the right move for us at this stage in our lives.

So we're exchanging sub zero temps for year-round rain. That being said, we've really emphasized taking care of ourselves and staying active during this trip and we think Oregon will be a better place for us to continue to do that.

However, despite the fact that we know in our hearts this is the right decision, we do make it with a little trepidation. By far our biggest worry is the job market. Any of the other places we were considering moving (Vancouver, Seattle, etc.) have much better job opportunities for us and if we were to stay in the Cities we've both already had inquiries as to when we'd be available. Whereas we are both slightly at a loss about what we will do in Portland and neither of us are terribly pleased with the idea of an extended job search.

But all that being said, we feel comfortable that we belong back with the family. The work will come, even if it's at Powells or Starbucks. So any pre-networking for two out of work world travelers anyone feels like doing would be greatly appreciated :-)

We're really excited about the rest of our trip. As we've told people, we're looking forward to being home but we're not ready to be there yet. In the meantime though we've taken the first step in the next chapter of our lives. And it feels right.

Brian and Becca

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Travel Notebook from Northland and the Coromandel Pennisula

We're writing a couple short separate entries for some of the highlights from our loop around the Coromandel Pennisula and Northland. For the rest I decided another round of random travel notes was in order...

- During out time in Hahei, we had the opportunity to visit Cathedral Cove. A very impressive limestone arch of epic proportions that had you feeling like you were on a deserted island. Which Hahei was. (Deserted at least, if not an island). We had to drive 30 minutes and take the water ferry to Whitianga just to get groceries or a meal. Gotta love traveling in the off-season. Of course near Goat Island we found a backpackers that had been mentioned in Lonely Planet that was actually closed with a giant For Sale sign on the front. Oops.

- One of the biggest obstacles for me moving down here would be Rugby. In New Zealand, it is the national sport and the All Blacks (the national Rugby Union team; not to be confused with Rugby League) is god. Personally I can't stand the game (may have something to do with the no necks giving us ultimate players a rough go at university but I digress) but the Super 14 Rugby Union (consisting of club teams from NZ, Australia and South Africa) final was on during our time in Northland so we gave it a look.

What happened was pure comedy. You can read about the game here but in short a massive fog overtook the stadium in Christchurch leaving the teams running around in the fog not having a clue where the ball was half the time. For those NFL history buffs out there, it looked a lot like a certain playoff game in Chicago. Molly and Becca started asking me about the rules and ended the evening asking "where's the ball?" One good thing did come out of the final though: this fantastic story (please, please click on the link). First worthy story I've heard about Rugby in ages.

I will now change the subject before the NZ SWAT team comes through the door.

- We had the opportunity to have a bit of travel symmetry in the small town of Kawakawa. Kawakawa was the home of one Fredrick Hundertwasser. The same man whose fantastic work we visited in Vienna, Austria last August. He lived in Kawakawa for approximately 25 years and late in his life was asked to renovate the town's public toilets. The result is here. Nice toilets and need to see his work on both hemispheres. Now whether the toilet is a place to mediate as Hundertwasser asserts... I'll leave that up to you the reader.

- I had the opportunity to get in two rounds of golf with Molly, the first time I'd swung a club since Ireland. Shot a 45 and a 100 (with the 45 certified courtesy of Arthur Andersen's accounting methods). However, we did get to take in some gorgeous views of both the Bay of Islands and the Tasman Sea courtesy of the Waitangi and Muriwai Golf Clubs. Muriwai was a links style course and Molly and I got lots of practice hitting out of the rough and the swallow-you-whole-sized sand bunkers.

- While in Paihia, we took a boat ride out to the Bay of Islands. Your typical tourist boat trip with two glaring exceptions. First, we were fortunate enough to see 4-5 pods of Dolphins who then decided to spend the next 20 minutes or so around us putting on a show. A few even got close enough to the front of the boat that you could actually hear them which was hyper-cool.

The other part was when we approached Cape Brett and the "Hole in the Rock". Most days the boat just trudges through the hole. Not this day; the waves were coming in hard and swallowing up approximately half of the volume of the hole. In many ways this was much more impressive than taking the boat through it. Also yet another reminder that we should give Mother Nature proper respect now and again.

- We stayed in some fantastic places on this loop, made all the better because we were the only people staying in them. I LOVE travelling in off-season. Anyway, if you are passing through any of the following places, check out these motels/bnb's for a good place to stay:

-- Cook's Lookout in Pahei/Haruru Falls. By far the nicest motel of the trip with an absolutely unbeatable view (seen at the top of this entry). We had two bedrooms, a kitchenette and living room with full wall window out over the Bay of Islands. Norm and Shelagh were extraordinarily helpful.

-- Island View Villas in Hahei. Host John was helpful with tons of travel advice and lent us spades for Hot Water Beach. We had an apartent with a bedroom with a queen bed, a nice kitchen, and a living room (with 2nd double bed in it) with a deck and windows/sliding doors over a nice view of the ocean.

-- Muriwai Beach Lodge B&B in Muriwai Beach just outside of Auckland (not to be confused with the Muriwai Beach Lodge farther up the road). Fantastic two room suite with large queen bedroom opening up onto patio and fancy bath and then living room with couches, tv, dining table and single bed. Owner Susan was very nice and when we called her that morning to book, she said we were welcome, but that she wouldn't be home til late that night so she told us where she hid the key so that we could make ourselves at home!

-- Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park just outside the Trounson Kauri Forest. We'll talk more about this one in Kauri Coast entry. But it's a nice clean holiday park with all levels of accomodation. We had the nicest: a cabin with a bedroom and then a kitchenette/living room with another double bed in that room with a deck/bbq by the river. Herb and Heather are very nice helpful hosts and Herb leads the one-of-the-highlights-of-our-trip night nature walk (see the Kauri Coast entry for more info)

So there's the odds and ends. Hope you enjoyed them.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Need I say anything more? We're talking a theme park revolving around New Zealand's honorary national animal (officially it's the Kiwi but who are they kidding?).

The park itself includes the aforementioned sheep as well as a plethora of other animals ranging from alpacas to your standard miniature pony. But the the place is named SheepWorld for a reason and the highlight was the sheepdog show.

The show kicked off with a duck race that was memorable for the ducks' high couture and the speed in which they flew through the course. Once they got near the entrance it was like they went into a trance and were off and running. I was caught off guard by the ducks' fleetness, but I did get the early leader crashing and burning. As a lover of kitsch, this was certainly up there.

From there the sheep dog show began. In New Zealand, they use two types of dogs to do the herding: the eye dog (border collie-like looking dogs with border collie like tendencies; very high strung and loyal...evidently a cross between a border collie and a greyhound) and the hunt-away dog (more the muscle of the group; not the brightest tool in the shed...supposedly has border collie and lab and german shepards and other hounds and other things in it). The eye dog keeps the sheep in order while the hunt-away climbs up on and around the sheep to get them moving when a simple stare won't do. The herder used the two dogs to show up proper herding, doing almost all of the signals via whistle. Quite an impressive thing to see, especially after having seen some of the same from afar in the South Island.

After various herding activities, the herder showed us the patented shearing method (actually patented... only in New Zealand) in which a sheep can be sheared in 45 seconds or so. During the shearing demonstration though the personalities of the dogs showed; the hunt-away was asleep about three feet from the shearing while the eye dog was out the back of the stage staring intently at the remaining sheep, reading to pounce at a moment's notice. Kind of reminded of me of Becca there for a bit :-)

The show finished up with a chance to feed the various baby sheep which went over very well with the birthday party of 20 five year olds in attendance. For us though it was a good opportunity to see the life of a sheep herder up close. It isn't pretty but it's still a huge part of the New Zealand life.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Get yer Cheap Spa Treatment Here

During our visit up the east coast of the Coromandel Pennisula to Hahei and Cathedral Cove, we jumped at the chance to participate in a true New Zealand experience: digging your own jacuzzi at Hot Water Beach. It is on this small stretch of beach that thermal waters bubble just below the sand between a rocky outcrop and the Pacific Ocean. As a result, if you arrive at low tide and dig down, you can create your own hot tub in the sand.

At least that's the theory. After picking up a spade from our guesthouse we went a digging. It was certainly warm. VERY warm. VERY VERY warm. As a result we spent most of the time digging little holes farther and farther away from the geothermal source and shifting positions trying to keep the hot and cold water regulated. We had varying success though your loyal scribe ended up with two crispy elbows after keeping my self propped up a wee bit too long.

It certainly was a popular location though; by the time low tide actually came (we'd shown up about an hour early) there were between 35-45 people in various pools about a foot or so in depth (dig much deeper and you get the 60 degree Celsius (~140 deg F) water). We'd hate to see what it's like during peak season though I could imagine spade jousting would be prominently involved.

Not quite a jacuzzi in the sand but more like a lobster being boiled for dinner. But still a unique New Zealand experience.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Making our way through the mist

According to many of the travel guides, Rotorua is by far the most popular (and unfortunately therefore the most commercialized) tourist destination on the North Island. And that was before the Lord of the Rings tie-ins. Our usual 'ugh' reaction to touristy places would normally cause us to give the place a wide berth, but we also realized that tourist destinations are usually popular for a reason. So on our first full day on the North Island we piled in to the cars and caravanned down to Rotorua with Warren, Cyrel and Aaron, good friends of ours from Corvallis who are spending six months in Tauranga (in the Bay of Plenty).

Rotorua today is famous primarily for three things: adventure sports/activities (it's the North Island's answer to Queenstown), Maori culture, and geothermal activity. We dipped our toe into the adventure pools with Brian's and Aaron's Zorbing exploits, which was covered in an earlier entry. We also had the opportunity to participate in and attend a number of Maori cultural experiences, but that will also be covered in a separate entry.

New Zealand straddles two tectonic plates: the Pacific and Indian/Australian plate, with the latter slowly being submerged under the former. This has led to much of the scenery we've been admiring throughout the trips, from the jagged southern Alps on the south island to the volcano cones and geothermic activity in the North Island. In fact the 250 km Taupo Volcanic Zone (which includes the Rotorua Lake District) is actually part of the famous Pacific Ring of Fire.

It was easy to tell when we were approaching the area as we drove in: clouds of steam rising from fields and streams and gullies and the distinctive odor of sulfur everywhere. We stopped at the very worthwhile Te Puia park, which encompasses the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, Maori cultural performances, a kiwi bird house, and the impressive Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley. (Think that word is hard to pronounce? Hint, "Wh" is pronounced like "F"....and actually, that's short of the full name: Te Whakarewarewatana o te Ope Taua a Wahiao. We're still working on getting our tongues around that.....)

The Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley contains around 500 pools (we LOVE mud pools!) and more than 65 geyser vents. The most prominent is the powerful Pohutu geyser and its harbinger, the Prince of Wales' Feathers geyser, which always goes off before Pohutu erupts. We had a great time wandering this active landscape, watching the boiling mud bubble and the steam drifting up through the rocks. Our favorite moments though were probably being engulfed in the hot steam of the geysers and easing our muscles lying on the hot rocks. I wish we had spent more time in this area (we were hurrying off to another appointment); it makes me itch for a return visit to Yellowstone when we get home.

Te Puia's admission is expensive, but we found that the package of geothermic activity, Maori cultural events, fauna and flora, and interpretive services offered by the guides made it a worthwhile expenditure. We recommend it to any of you looking for substance in the tourist glitz of Rotorua.


Saturday, June 03, 2006

Dialing it down in Dunedin

(An entry from a couple of weeks ago...)

Since we weren't able to make it to the UK to visit Scotland, we decided to do the next best thing. Here in New Zealand we have come to Dunedin, a university town near the bottom of the south island settled by the Scots. The word Dunedin is Celtic for Edinburgh, there's even a statue of good awld Robbie Burns in the main square, and the street names could be straight from the old country: Princes, George, Stuart, etc.

Dunedin is also the home of some very close friends of ours who moved down here seven years ago to teach at the University and build their careers (his in music performance, hers in midwifery). We've missed them terribly and this was a fantastic chance for Mom and I to catch up on their lives and introduce Brian. And we all fell head over heels in love with their remarkably precocious son, Isaac (or Izy).

In addition to a lot of fun family time, this was a great couple of days to get out and see some beautiful countryside. Dunedin sits in a harbor (or super long inlet) with a long, narrow, very hilly pennisula heading out from it. At the end of the penninsula is the very fine Royal Albatross Center, the only nesting site of Royal Albatrosses on a mainland (instead of the less accessible islands they usually call home). Albatrosses were some of our favorite birds during a previous trip to the Galapagos and Mom and I were eager to see some more. Unfortunately, the only albatross around was a lone chick waiting for his parents to return in the next couple of days for a feeding. From where we stood in the observatory, he just looked like a big pile of rags blowing in the (very strong) wind. Sigh. However the Center had a fascinating series of exhibits down in the main hall and was still very much worth the visit. (And I did have the chance to try my first meat pie!)

And besides, the day was not a total loss wildlife-wise. My own intrepid wildlife hunter husband managed to track down the elusive wild NZ sheep. :-)

There are a number of great walks around Dundedin, with spectacular views of the coastline and challenging hills to climb. However because of the rainy weather (and our infatuation with Izy) we unfortunately were only able to take advantage of a few of them. We also took a day to drive the 3 hours back to Wanaka to share the place with Mom. We really wanted her to be able to see this area that we had just fallen in love with.

Once there we stopped by Blue Water Lodge to introduce her to Doug and Dianne and enjoy one more of Dianne's yummy teas. To top it off, we marched Mom up the steep Mount Iron climb to enjoy the 360 views around the area. We are so impressed by how much stronger her leg as gotten. It's just wonderful to see her out striding through all sorts of difficult terrain. Here's to being a survivor!

Dunedin was our farewell to the South Island, after a comprehensive tour including Christchurch, Greymouth, the West Coast, the southern Alps, the central mountain region (Queenstown and Wanaka), and Fiordland (Te Anu and Milford Sound). We were very sad and reluctant to leave. This is an absolutely beautiful place where we could spend much, much more time. The roads are easy to travel and well signed, the infrastructure is incredibly supportive of outdoor activities, the people are friendly, and the landscape is gorgeous. We highly recommend it to any folks considering coming and would be happy to offer any suggestions or ideas.

From here it's off to the North Island! More to come.....


Friday, June 02, 2006

Don't adjust your set

Just a quick note from Auckland. Brian, Mom and I have had an fantastic three weeks exploring the north island (after Brian and I fell head over heels in love with the south island). The only small blip on our happily ever after has been our utter inability to find internet access. Most of the time, we haven't been able to find it at all, and when we do find a cafe or library with internet, it often is open for very limited hours (and not when we happen to be looking for it).

What that has meant is that we have fallen WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY behind in our blogging and picture posting. Know that we have some great stories still to tell and photos to share with you. Mom leaves tomorrow to return to the States and we will be in a couple of bigger and more touristy towns for the next week so hopefully we'll have the chance to start loading entries again soon.

Until then, we hope that all are well