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New Zealand 2019

Underground again

Our last tour day in included a visit to the glow worm caves at Waitomo. I hadn’t thought too much about what that meant, exactly. And sometimes not having any pre-conceived ideas leads to great surprises.

The rock in this area is limestone, and it has been carved away by water over the millennia, leaving a system of caves. First up – down a long flight of stairs:

The glow worms were not what I thought. In the utter darkness we realized that the ceiling was covered in tiny dots of blue lights. The worms are the larval form of a fly – they live in the dark, above water. Each worm spins down a silk like thread. When another bug stumbles into the filament the worm reels up its dinner. Eventually they spin a cocoon, emerge as a fly, mate and die. All in the dark.

Truly, nature is full of wonders.

Needless to say pictures of the glow worms are just a field of black. They’re not that bright! Or should I say brightly lit.

See, not super helpful. A few tiny dots…

There was low lighting throughout, so we could see to dine our way, especially once our eyes adjusted. From time to time the guide would turn off the lights so we could experience the dark, and the glow. She also demonstrated the magnesium lights used in the pre-electric days.

Being a limestone cave there are both stalactites and stalagmites.

Before we headed back to the bus we stopped for a spot of kawakawa tea, made from one of the local shrubs. They have the cutest little tea house at the top of the very long stairs back up from the cave.

Just up the road was a bird sanctuary, where we stopped to see the national bird, the kiwi. Kiwis are nocturnal, so our viewing was under very low light conditions. But we did see a pair. Here’s a statue to give you an idea of what they are like.

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New Zealand 2019

Like a stone, skipping across the water.

Our north island adventure continued with some time in King Country. Settlers came late to this area, and not without conflict with the Maori. The land here was not easy and early access was via rivers, followed by train.

First, we did a little river exploration with something new to me – jet boating. Our captain was very skilled with the boat and we flew across the water.

It was like being a stone skipping across the water. Now, the river is full of rocks and rapids and shallow, but Cap’n Al knows that river and we wove back and forth.

All relaxed and happy in the sunshine. Every so often Al would really rev things up and send us spinning across the water in donuts. No time for pictures, then! Just hang on tight!

Part two of the day was about railroads. It took 32 years to build the rail line in this area, supporting both agriculture and coal mining. Tunnels and bridges – lots of them – had to be built. But – time passed and the line was eventually decommissioned. A local entrepreneur saw golf carts from America, thought of the rail line and voila!

We spent an entertaining afternoon riding the rails in a gas powered golf cart. Liv was in charge of things – the steering wheel is purely for show, but she did need to manage our speed. Hot, dry day so no need to worry about slipping, but we don’t want to follow too close.

Some of the tunnels were short – one was almost a kilometre long. All were a nice break from the heat.

The landscape reminds me a bit of parts of Montana, but sort of scrunched up. Lots of sheep in all those nooks and crannies!

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New Zealand 2019

Achievement unlocked

There is a very large lake in the central part of the North Island called Lake Taupo. I struggle a bit with the name because I have been quite firmly told that it is not pronounced the way it looks. Forget how it is spelled and say Toepaw and you’ll fit right in.

So, said lake is actually the caldera of a super volcano. 22,000 years ago it blew its top, ejecting around 750 cu km of ash and pumice. By comparison Krakatoa spit out a mere 8 cu km. Taupo last erupted in a big way in AD 180, causing red skies noted in Rome and China.

There ends the geology lesson provided by my resident geologist.

Nowadays the town is a vacation hot spot with water sports and bike trails and lots of ways to amuse.

We amused ourselves with a sailing yacht cruise in the late afternoon. Pizza, beer, sailing and sunset. All good.

Just enough clouds to make for a brilliant sunset.

Before the sun went down we sailed around to see carvings on a cliff face.

I like that picture with the shadow of the sails, but here is a better one of the face.

There was an opportunity to go swimming, but only one brave soul took the opportunity.

And the morning after – not a cloud in the sky and a perfect reveal of the mountains. Even at the height of summer Mt Ruapehu maintains some of its snowy cloak. It is one of the world’s most active volcanos.

After a long evening sail the stars began to come out. Since most of us were from the northern hemisphere Captain Dave decided to stay out a little later to ensure that we could see the Southern Cross hanging in the sky. I got that one checked off the bucket list finally!

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New Zealand 2019

Spa and Maori culture

So – Rotorua – geothermal activity. Day two was time to get up close and personal. After a walk around town to get our bearings we headed for the Polynesian spa. Two different springs feed the spa – one on the acid side of ph, the other on the alkaline. Jay from our group had gone zip-lining, but the rest of us met up at the spa. Wilf and the ladeees, taking the waters. It was very nice – we could drift from pool to pool and then have time outs on the heated loungers. By early afternoon the bus tours were beginning to arrive, which was a good time for us to move on. That and we were getting rather pruney.

Wilf enjoys the acid pool,

And over in the very hot alkaline bath…

The Maori iwi (tribes) in the Rotorua area have cultural events that are available to the public. We went to visit Te Puia, just outside the city in a valley filled with geothermal features. Our tour of the very impressive facility started with a walk through their school dedicated to traditional Maori arts beautiful work, both traditional and modern.

There is a spectacular geyser in the valley, that erupts very regularly.

When the little spout to the left starts to go that means the big one is imminent.

Like that!

We also enjoyed a traditional welcome ceremony in the long house, followed by a delicious dinner. Part of our diner was cooked in a covered pit, using steam from the ground. After dinner we returned to the geyser to drink hot chocolate while sitting on the heated rocks. They geyser was lit up, making the night time eruption even more spectacular.

I can’t find a decent night time picture, so here’s the long view of the valley.

Everything about the visit was first rate. And everyone we met was effusive in their thanks for our visiting. ‘Your visit to our land makes it possible for our culture to survive. Your admission makes jobs in this facility, and allows us to fund our school. This would not happen without you.’ The story of the first peoples here and their interaction with colonial forces is different than how it played out in Australia, Canada and the US, thought here are many common themes. And not all Maori are prospering. But this seemed to be an example of an iwi who had taken control of their situation and who are determining their path forward.

So much to learn…

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New Zealand 2019

Roto Vegas

After a few days on our own in Auckland we have joined an overland tour with Intrepid Travel, which will take us around the north island. It is a small tour – just six of us with our guide/driver. Two Brits, two Americans, and us.

Our first stop is in Rotorua. In a country of just under 5 million people, Rotorua sees about 3 million visitors a year, hence the nickname Roto Vegas. No bright lights or high rises, though. Seated beside a lake, the city is in a geothermally active area, which is part of what makes it so interesting,.

Okay – true confessions time. Our inner eight year olds got a bit of a work out on this trip. As we drove into the city there were surreptitious glances going round our little bus, until Lizzie spoke up. ‘That smell?’, she said. ‘That’s the smell of the gasses produced from the geothermal activity. The locals call it the smell of jobs and don’t really like it if you mention it.’ Okay then. Someone hadn’t farted on the bus. Good to know.

Blurs blurp bubbling mud pools by the lake shore.

After dinner at the local street market we went out to walk amongst the Redwood trees. Once upon a time a bright light got the idea that growing California Redwoods in New Zealand would be a great forestry idea. Latitude south matched well to their latitude north – what could go wrong? We’ll just plant them, and then our grandchildren can harvest huge trees.

Well, best laid plans. Turns out there’s way more rain in this part of the world. Which means the redwoods grow really fast. So fast that instead of producing the dense hardwood as they do in California, they produce a softwood – not what they were looking for.

Outside Rotorua the demonstration forest has been converted to park with hiking and biking trails. But in the centre is the Redwood walk, which is up in the trees. We went at dusk so we could enjoy the walk and the lighting installation.

Up the ramp we went, to walk between the trees.

Amongst the trees are huge lanterns, created by David Trubridge.

And here we all are

It was quite wonderful, walking high up in the trees. The engineering of the whole thing was pretty cool, too. The bridges moved but the viewing platforms were stable. Everything was rigged so as not to damage the trees – I would have loved to how they did it.

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New Zealand 2019

Things seem bigger here

Food wise, at least. We set off on a trek across the Central Business District of Auckland to find Brothers Brewing. Which we did. And it was wing night. $1.00 per wing. We ordered a dozen – seemed like a logical decision.

We got to talking to our table mates and time passed. And then the proprietor came out with two huge platters. Turns out when they say wings they mean the whole dang thing. We were rather taken aback, but tucked in. It felt like we each ate the equivalent an entire chicken. And it was rather a wrestling match top get them apart. When we left we mentioned to the bar man that in North America a chicken wing is just part of the wing – the tip gets discarded and the two segments are each sold separately. He got a far away look in his eyes and he said ‘Good to know..’ So – we apologize to folks if the wings just got more expensive.

In all the chicken and beer mayhem I forgot to take a picture, though.

Next day we stopped at another brew pub and they had New Zealand green lipped mussels on the menu. Let’s share a plate as a little snack of a local delicacy. This is what showed up:

They were good but OMG – huge. First huge chickens, now huge mussels. Seems to be a theme. Don’t get me started on the toast at breakfast! And we have been scarfing down the giant toasts at breakfast because the butter here is the best we’ve ever had.

Nice eggs, eh? Folks down here like to put an egg on almost everything.

Why yes, that is a chicken Caesar salad. With a poached egg on top.

I’m sure you’ll all be comforted to know that we aren’t going hungry – we’re working our way through as much of the local specialities as we can. I’ll report back later on adventures in pie land.

And to finish for now – Auckland past and present…

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New Zealand 2019

Yep. Another Aquarium.

There was discussion between us about what kind of a trip our New Zealand adventure would be. Would we rent a vehicle and drive? Would we take a cruise around the islands? How much of the country would we see?

Lots of people from North America manage driving in countries that drive on the left side of the road. And I’m sure we could, too. But – we decided we didn’t want to. Taxis, transit, tours – they would work for us.

And that is how we came to be standing by the side of the road on a hot summer day, waiting for the shark bus to take us to Kelly Tarlton’s SeaLife Aquarium. The bus was pretty much as advertised…

We’ve been to many aquariums, but this one is unique in that it is entirely underground. Marine archeologist Kelly Tarlton had a dream to build an aquarium, and he found this site, which was a former sewage storage tank facility. Time and money and ingenuity – and TaDa – the tanks have been transformed into an underground facility. It was very interesting. Part of the facility was a reproduction of the Scott’s hut in Antarctica, along with information about the Antarctic explorers and the work that continues there.

Part two was a big display of Gentoo and King penguins, who live together in a snowy colony.

The third area is a large shark and manta ray exhibit. We’ve been to many aquariums where the displays have the tank above and around the viewers, often with a moving sidewalk to move the traffic along. This was first of that kind, and it is still going strong after more than thirty years.

One of the things we enjoyed about this facility was the fact that it is so quiet. Even though it is summer here the facility was not packed with people. We’ve been to bigger facilities with more critters =- very impressive. But this was small,focussed and almost intimate. Really well done.

And how often do you get to ride in a bus shaped like a shark?

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New Zealand 2019

No oxcart this time !

Hey! Hello from the other side of the world! Once again we’ve de-camped from winter and headed south. Way south – all the way to New Zealand! We decided to dive right in and take a little tour from our first stop in Auckland. A short ferry ride away is the island of Rangitoto. Six hundred years ago it was an active and erupting volcano – now it is a nature preserve.

It is summer here, and hot, so we decided to take a tour. When we were last in Japan we had rides in an oxcart – this time we had friendly Bob and his tractor rig.

So – you know what the thing is about riding in an open cart on a volcanic rock?
Dust. OMG the dust! And the rattling! My FitBit was convinced I had walked thousands of steps just riding along. We rode up though the forest that has slowly slowly grown up on the lava. Eventually we came to – you guessed it – stairs. ‘Cause it is never a really Sharon and Wilf adventure without stairs.

375 steps, to be exact. Leading up to the summit and a fantastic view across to the city and all around the bay.

(Okay, that’s the telephoto view, but still – pretty nice!)

It was a really nice little excursion from the city – a chance to see some nature, to see the city in context. We also brought along a little pack lunch – had our first New Zealand meat pies in a pavilion by the shore, under the very watchful eyes of a hungry sea gull..

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japan 2018

Rakin’ it in….

There are many festivals in Japan, with the summer being prime festival season. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to see at other times of the year. Wilf, itinerary crafter extraordinaire, found us an interesting one to visit while in Tokyo.

Tori-no-ichi is a Fall festival that occurs post harvest and as a lead up to the New Year. It occurs during November, the month of the rooster.

You may be familiar with the maneki neku, the waving cat seen in so many Japanese and Chinese businesses. There is another good luck item for businesses, and that item is the centre of activity during Tori-no-ich.  The kumade is a decorative rake, symbolic of raking in good fortune. It is decorated with auspicious symbols – lucky carp, maneki neko, Hello Kitty, bells – there is something for everyone. The rake is displayed in businesses – we have seen them before on our travels, but now we know a lot more about them.

We went to the Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku without knowing what we would see and Wow! Everything starts at midnight and runs for 24 hours. We arrived late afternoon to find the shrine thronged with people.

(That is only part of the line of people waiting to ring the bell and make a prayer.)

In one area people were walking up to a small enclosure and pitching big rakes onto a pile, which confused us mightily. Until we learned that those were last year’s rakes. You start small and every year you upgrade, getting a bigger rake each year.

In the shrine area there were many dozens of shrines packed with rakes of all sizes. I assume that people have relationships over the years with their favorite vendors – I’m not sure how you would choose from one booth packed with bright shiny objects over another.

The vendors offer little cups of sake to their customers, and once the rake has been selected there is a little ceremony to seal the deal and transfer the luck to the new owner. This involved a chant and the clapping of wooden sticks. The new owner then processes out of the shrine carrying their new rake. (That was one way we knew we were in the right place – we saw people walking down the street with them)

Sometimes the kumade has a proper long handle, other times it looks more like a basket. Once the kumade has been sold it is decorated with a sprig of rice from this year’s harvest.

The other thing about the event is the food. Wow! Booth after booth of all manner of food. We had come from a pretty significant lunch and couldn’t wedge in another crumb, so we didn’t partake. But they were sure ready for a lot of people to come and buy. There were very few tourists at this shrine (the really big show is apparently in Asakusa, where the tourists are already thick on the ground) So – on the one had we had a challenge finding out information about what we were looking at. But on the other hand – this was the real deal, an event that is part of people’s lives and not aimed at tourists.

Next year will be the Year of the Boar (Pig) in the Chinese Zodiac. People were buying their rakes in anticipation of the new year, so many are decorated with boars (with shiny golden tusks). In fact we saw a lot of imagery for the year of the boar – including this poster from a sushi restaurant. Love the sushis riding the boars!

And yes, we brought little takes home with us – this one will keep me company at my desk:

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japan 2018

Not THAT fish market

Perhaps you’ve been following the news about the main fish market in Tokyo. There has been discussion for years about the market not being big enough or modern enough. The tourists love it, but they get in the way. After years of discussion and planning the wholesale market was moved to a new location at Toyosu, where there is a viewing gallery to keep the tourists off the floor. So – you can still see what is going on but not be down in it all.

However – there is another fish market in Tokyo, the Adachi market. It is only open to the public six times a year – on the second Saturday of odd numbered months. Guess what last Saturday was.

When we arrived the tuna was already being prepared – the big cuts were made and they were working on breaking things down for sale. It is quite a process to see them with the big knives cutting through the fish in one cut, them taking the smaller knives for the finer work. The lineups were huge. Unlike the wholesale market people could buy here and they were. We saw folks going off with fish in their backpacks, or small rolling coolers.

Not quite the variety of the big commercial market, but it was sure fun to be able to get in and get a good look at what was on offer and what people were buying.