From December 26, 2001 to January 14, 2002, Mathieu and I took a vacation to New Zealand and Australia.
To see the pictures from the trip, follow the hypertext links below. I'm using this format so I can merge all the picture captions into a single story. If you'd like to look at all the pictures without my commentary, they are stored in my Yahoo! briefcase here.
Day 1 - Friday - Auckland Arrival
Five hours from Boston to L.A., then 14 hours from L.A. to Auckland. It sounds terrible, but it really isn't. As soon as the plane is in the air, out come the bottles of wine. Three movies, plus television in between. I fall asleep during "Very Annie Mary" and wake up in the middle of "Rush Hour: 2". They show a New Zealand miniseries called "Dramadrome", and an episode of "Friends". The Air New Zealand flight attendants try very hard to keep everyone cheerful.
Peter Wilson, self-proclaimed professional guide for the rich and famous, meets us at the airport. He leads our jetlagged butts outside to a minibus for "Mr. Baissac and Mr. Libby". Peter is our man on the inside, so to speak. He quickly explains the rules of driving on the left side of the road. "White is Right!" he shouts ...that is, keep the white line on your right hand side. He hands us a monstrous packet of information about our destinations.
Peter drops us off at our hotel, which is right on the harbor in downtown Auckland. From our room, we can see the boat New Zealand used to win the America's Cup race.
It's 10am New Zealand time. We've been traveling for 24 hours straight. Peter cheerfully says "I'll be back at 1pm to give you a tour of the city!".
Cursed to stay awake for our 1pm tour, we take a short walk around the city to fill the time. Auckland has some interesting architecture. One hotel has a swimming pool built jutting out towards the harbor. The advertisements are sharp. In a zombie-like stupor, we don't get very far before Peter comes around to collect us. He takes us to the top of a dead volcano crater with a nice view of the city. To get a sense of scale in the next picture, Mathieu is on the left, Peter on the right, and that little black line above the tuft of grass is a jogger at the bottom of the crater. From the crater, we have a fantastic view of the suburbs, including the other volcanic cones of the region. They look like little hobbit islands in the middle of an urban sprawl.
Day 2 - Saturday - Waitomo Glow Worms and Huka Lodge
Peter has prepared us well, and the next morning we are on our own. We drive from downtown Auckland through the beautiful countryside to the Waitomo glow worm caves. The glow worms hang upside down inside the caves and look an awful lot like little stars. The gnats and mosquitoes that fly into the cave are fooled, and when they try to fly up to the stars, they are snared in the sticky threads of the glow worms.
It is behind the caves that we get our first look at the diverse local flora. Those large leaves are a meter wide! It's like standing in a primordial forest. These rock formations must be charged with mystical energy, because they make my hair stand on end.
Back in the car, watching the kilometers roll by, I pick up a not-so-subtle theme of the New Zealand countryside: sheep. Everywhere there's an open hill, or a even a coppice of silver-leaved trees, there are sheep. Like some sort of weird "sheep gas", they expand to fill every nook of the landscape.
Our destination tonight is the famous Huka Lodge, a resort in the Lake Taupo region. The hostess gently takes our car keys from us and tells us to "Have a look around" and that "Someone will take your bags to your room and park your automobile". Cool.
There are only 20 rooms at the Huka Lodge, and each bungalow has a perfect view of the adjacent river, where the ducks are so friendly, they'll fall asleep in front of you if you don't keep them amused. There are no indigenous mammals in New Zealand (sheep, dogs and cats were introduced in the 1800's), so without natural predators, the birds are evolutionarily fearless.
The Huka Lodge rooms are luxurious, complete with a full in-room bar, and a sink for each person. A gentleman playing a bagpipe walks past the cabins to let us know it is dinner time. Cocktails are at 7pm, dinner is at 8pm. In the lodge, there is an open bar and appetizers. As meal time draws near, we find that the hotel manager has already assigned seats for us at a table with other hotel guests in the fishing lodge style dining room. We talk with our fellow guests about our experiences in New Zealand while waiters shuffle food and wine in front of us.
Before bed, we ask the hostess if it would be possible to go horseback riding tomorrow. "Oh, certainly. I'll arrange it!" she chimes.
Day 3 - Sunday - Horseback Riding and Craters of the Moon
At 10am, Wally, the owner of a local dairy farm, comes to pick us up. He drives us out to his farm, where we meet our horses for the day: Zane (for me) and Tex (for Mathieu). Zane and Tex are siblings and like to stay together. I haven't been on a horse since my sister Sharon took me riding when I was a little kid. I remember a little: poke the horse in the ribs to go forward or faster, pull on the reins to stop or go backwards, and pull in whatever direction you want to go. The hard part is being *firm* with the horse.
They don't provide swords or armor in case we run afoul of orcs. Zane is less like Shadowfax and more like Bill the Pony. We start out on an easy trail that winds around the farm. That's me on the left in the blue windbreaker, our guide Kirsi Lee is on the right. Mathieu is in charge of the camera.
Before long, we're off the beaten path and taking the horses across open hills and fields. A few kilometers into the ride, we come to one of those ubiquitous herds of sheep. Above the sound of the whistling wind, I hear an electronic tinkling. Kirsi Lee reaches inside her riding coat and pulls out a cell phone. It's one of her friends from in town, and she starts making social plans for the evening. I guess those cell phone commercials are true: people do make calls from inside a herd of sheep!
Behind the herd of sheep is a steep trail that climbs the mountain at a 30 degree angle. Pretty soon it's 40 degrees and if it weren't for the outstanding view, I'd worry about falling off the trail. On the other side of the hill, we descend into a herd of cows.
The weather in New Zealand is more fickle than Ithaca, NY. After two hours of riding, we're hiding from a downpour at the remote cow milking station. Kirsi Lee shows us the cutting edge cow milking equipment, and soon the rain has stopped and we're on our way again. The last stretch back to the ranch has us waist deep in strange fern-like plants. When we're all through, I give Zane a big hug and thank him for the ride.
After horseback riding, it's off to the Craters of the Moon volcanic park. Hundreds of feet underneath the park there is a river of hot magma. Ground water seeps down through cracks and the magma boils it. It rises back to the surface and comes back out as steam through openings in the ground. There is a path so we can walk around the vents. The whole area smells like sulfur, and the ground feels hot to the touch. I can see how Peter Jackson, director of "Lord of the Rings", thought to use areas like this as the setting for the evil land of Mordor.
Day 4 - Monday - Lake Rotorua
Monday morning we drive from Huka Lodge to Lake Rotorua. Much like New England in the summertime, the lake is rimmed with tourists, who require ill-named video stores and esoteric services, such as "Hire-a-Hubby". In downtown Rotorua is the famous bath house, which draws it's hot water from natural geothermal heating. In front, Mathieu finds this statue that illustrates the buttock tattoos of the Maori, natives of New Zealand.
The bath houses and buttocks are enough to make my day, but we press on to discover the Rainbow Farms Zoo, where they're happy to shave off all your hair with a smile. There, we meet this Tuatara lizard, a species over 75 million years old that possesses a vestigial third eye in the center of its forehead (not visible in the picture). After Rainbow Farms, we eat lunch at the Fat Dog, which has excellent sandwiches, lively thumping techno, and a cool sign.
From Rotorua, we board an airplane to go to Christchurch on New Zealand's southern island. By dinner time, we are at the George hotel and ready for dinner. Since it is New Year's Eve, dinner is six courses, with a different glass of wine and set of silverware for each course!
Day 5 - Tuesday - Christchurch and Akaroa
The George is an interesting hotel. The concierge who met us has, I swear to God, a square pupil in one eye, just like the weird parasitic baby in the movie "Total Recall". The building itself is quirky, as it suggests in case of fire, you should not walk but run headlong into the stairs, knocking yourself unconscious.
The Christchurch Botanical Gardens beckon. There are nice signs that tell you about the myriad of things you can and can't do. You may swing, but don't think of running. I think the garden should have a word with the hotel staircase.
Once inside, we find flowers and plants that look like they belong in original Star Trek episodes. There are greenhouses full of prize winning flowers, and a rose garden full of prize winning roses. It is fun just to watch the bees go about their business, or admire the monoliths, like this Eucalyptus tree.
From the gardens, we wander downtown for lunch. During our meal at an outdoor cafe, we learn exactly how voracious and fearless the bird population is when these seagulls come to devour leftovers. In Cathedral Square, there is a life-sized chess board where players square off throughout the day. On the way back to the hotel, we see these beautiful dandelionesque fountains. We find that some Christchurch residents definitely don't like junk mail.
The afternoon is upon us, and we drive to Akaroa, a French style seaside village a few hours from Christchurch. On the way, we see one of many one lane bridges. It's as if their highway department started building bridges and then ran out of money halfway through. It also seems that the highway department thinks that your car's tires will change sides "when frosty".
In New Zealand, the pine trees grow twice as fast as in Europe because of the rich volcanic soil. Ergo, there are N.Z. farms that grow trees in rows, just like normal crops. The visual effect of this on the landscape is unsettling. Once we get to downtown Akaroa, we walk around the harbor. Everyone has lots of pretty flowers in front of their houses.
Day 6 - Wednesday - Mt. Cook
From Christchurch we set out towards Mt. Cook. Along the way there are glacial lakes that glow baby blue. White calcium powder on the bottom of the lake strongly reflects the blue sky, creating the bright color. With our destination in sight, I spot a fantastic waterfall next to the roadside. That's me walking up the slope. Mathieu is more adventurous and makes it further up the slope. On the way back to the car, I pause to look at the unique mountain flora. You may notice I'm wearing gloves. That's to protect my paws from the yellow faced sun. I got a nasty sunburn on my hands while horseback riding.
It's possible to walk right out the door of the Mt. Cook hotel, a few miles up a trail, right to the foot of a glacier. We face more alien plants, and multiple bridges, but once we're there, the views are fantastic.
Day 7 - Thursday - Queenstown
In search of high adventure, we depart Mt. Cook via winding roads. Our destination is Queenstown, world famous for its "extreme sports". Tonight we stay at the Mills Resort, a golf club / hotel (neither of us play golf). The room is welcoming with lots of decorations, pleasant furniture, and a bathtub that *I* can fit into. If you're so inclined, you can drive your golf cart over little golf cart-sized bridges right up to your room.
Day 8 - Friday - Queenstown and Bungy Jumping
What better way to spend a friday morning than sign your life away, wave to the camera, and jump off a bridge? Mathieu jumped before I did. It is 43 meters from the bridge to the river below. Before I jump, they ask me to empty my pockets. Then they weigh me and write my weight in kilograms on my hand in red marker. That lets the bungy operators know how long a cord to use. Afterwards, they give me a certificate and offer to sell me a video of my jump. In case you're wondering how I got down once I'd jumped: see the little yellow raft in this picture? They row out and hold up a stick that I had to grab whilst hanging upside down. Once they got me in the boat, they brought me safely to shore.
After bungy jumping, it is time for some serious wine tasting. There are a few wineries conveniently up the road, one of which has this adorable dog. At each winery, they look at the red ink on our hands and ask "How was bungy jumping?"
Day 9 - Saturday - Queenstown and Jet Boat
Today we're going on a "jet boat" - a boat with no propellers that moves by sucking water in the front and spewing it out the back. On the way there the omnipresent sheep made another appearance, just down the street from the couple who decided to continue their lawn on their roof. A four-wheel-drive bus takes us upriver to the jet boat dock on the Dart river. At this point in the vacation, we're almost numb to breathtaking scenery, and it shows in our faces. It turns out that the forest we have to pass through is adjacent to the one used for Lothlorien, the Elven forest in the Lord of the Rings movie. It was so beautiful, I half expected Cate Blanchett (Queen Galadriel) to appear and warn me not to touch anything.
Once we're on the boat, the scenery just gets better and better and better. The driver has to swerve a little to avoid various obstacles in and above the river, so most of the pictures didn't come out. I do, however, have a great shot of the little Indian girl sitting in front of me.
Day 10 - Sunday - Bay of Islands
Wake up. Board plane. Fly back to New Zealand's north island. Rent car. Drive along slightly washed out roads to the Bay of Islands, a few hours north of Auckland. The view from our room is unparalleled in the bay. Walking about, I notice a seagull hopping towards a morsel of food on the grass. It was hopping because it only had one leg. It must be a pirate seagull. "Arrrrrrr!"
Day 11 - Monday - Bay of Islands and Kayaking
Today we go kayaking through the mangrove trees. It is a very wet experience, so we don't bring the camera. The highlight of the day is a chance to kayak right under a waterfall!
Day 12 - Tuesday - Bay of Islands, Dolphins and Urapukapuka
Today I want to swim with dolphins. Our guide is a knowledgeable woman, who also has the uncanny skill of searching for dolphins while steering the boat with her toes. Soon we find a pod of bottlenoses. Our guide can recognize individuals from the battle scars on their dorsal fins. After seeing the dolphins up close, almost everyone on the boat wriggles into a wet suit, grabs a mask and snorkel, and happily slips into the cold water.
Seeing them from the boat is very different from being in the water with them. The larger adults are over twelve feet long! I'm excited and a little bit scared as two swim a few feet under me. Another one swims so close, I can feel the wake from its tail. The humans and the dolphins seem to have a fun time of it. I don't think I'll ever forget how beautiful they are.
The dolphin lady drops us off at beautiful Urupukapuka Island. It's about the size of Gilligan's Island, only instead of coconuts, there's just a tea room, some sheared sheep, the elusive long tailed sheep, some romantic coves, some campers, some suggestive Maori sculptures, a few lonely trees, and a yellow submarine. I think Mathieu is channeling the famous explorer Captain Cook in this picture. We're spending four hours on the island, so when we stop at this tree, I give it a climb and bust out my copy of LOTR.
Day 13 - Wednesday - Auckland Departure and Sydney Arrival
Today is our last day in New Zealand. :^( Back we go along the washed out roads. The highway department thinks you should give way to any railroad trains, but you have to keep an eye out for them yourself - they don't have any fancy flashing lights or gates like we have in the U.S. This is our last chance to fully appreciate all the evolutionarily bizarre plant life.
Day 14 - Thursday - Sydney, Australia
Mathieu is in Australia on business, but I'm not! I jump right out of the shower, out the door, and only one block from the hotel, I'm already sightseeing! My first stop is the museum of contemporary art, where I see an exhibit called "Neo Tokyo". There's a yellow room with thousands of real lemons on the floor, and a room of little toy action figures hooked up to Geiger counters. They don't let me take any pictures inside the museum. :^(
It's pretty hot out. I think I'm hallucinating when I see a rotated wall, so I take a picture. Notice the table that's halfway inside the wall. It's time to go to another art gallery! This one has a very pretty, but very dead lion. What really catches my eye is this statue of Puck, from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". He has little bat wings, and is holding a beetle in his right hand. His left hand has a lizard pinned to the ground. I think it is a great juxtaposition of innocence and devilry.
Back in the sunlight I walk to the Sydney botanical gardens. This leaf is one meter wide! Everything grows so big, it's a wonder it doesn't fall over! It looks like the Boston common, or Central Park, only tropical. If only this kid had all of his arm, he could get that thorn out of his foot.
Day 15 - Friday - Sydney, Australia
Today I'm going to the Sydney Aquarium. I want to see a croc before I leave. Maybe some fluorescent jellyfish, some penguins, some dancing fish, and a very lazy seal. The aquarium has very informative signs. Australians don't hesitate to remind you exactly how great their country is. Specifically, they won't hesitate to compare their size to some other nearby countries I won't name.
The best part of the aquarium is the walk-through tunnel, where sharks and other fish can swim right over your head as you walk through. This turtle looks a little sleepy. This poor guy just wants to get out.
To beat the heat today, I'm heading for the underground Chinese market. Imagine everything that's "Made in China". Now imagine it on sale, Building #19 style. Upstairs, there's a massive mall that spans four buildings, where they sell more normal toys.