Sunday, January 31, 2016

New Zealand 2016 Day 25. The last day.

Well, all good things must come to an end. I had a four and a half hours flight to Tahiti, two hours of layover, and then a seven and a half hours flight to Los Angeles. I had made the pledge to watch movies until my eyes turned into little squares, but only managed to squeeze in five movies before I fell asleep. The arrival in LAX was OK (the whole automated passport control system is a multi-million dollars failure, and seems to get slower every time I go through), and the trip to Sacramento was quick and painless. Faby, DJ, and Ronaldito picked me at the airport, and looking at my smiling grandson I felt the happiness of being back home.


New Zealand 2016 Day 24. Flying back home

Waitomo Caves has . . . well . . . caves, and although we didn’t go into any of the commercial caves we did take a great walk through a cliff-bound valley that formed when the ceiling of a subterranean river collapsed. It was a short walk, but a very pretty one. That reminds me that Anna has been busy compiling the statistics of our trip: She figured we have driven 5,300 km, at an average of 243 km per day, and that we walked about 149.8 km in this trip, with a daily average of about 6.8 km/day. On 22 days of travel, she woke at an average of 7:35 am (on her own, and without me prompting her), and ate a grand total of about 8.7 kg of salad and tomatoes, and about 13.2 kg of fruit. Oh, and she has not touched a cigarette for 22 days!

It has been great traveling with Anna, who has all the makings of a great traveler. I will certainly miss my travel companion, and look forward to reading about his adventures in India, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

After a feverish morning packing and cleaning the van, and taking our small hike, we got on our way around 10:30 am. After 80 km we reached the town of Hamilton, where I blew off my last New Zealand dollars in a couple of books. Another 120 km brought us to Auckland International Airport, around 2 pm, in plenty of time for my 4 pm departure for Tahiti, and from there to Los Angeles and then Sacramento. Anna is staying for three more days in New Zealand, so she will keep the van and will be in ultimate charge of returning it to the rental agency. On January 29 she will be taking off for New Delhi, and she will be in India for six weeks. I press my thumbs for her (a German expression for “I wish her good luck”) and look forward to hearing about her adventures in this exotic and mysterious land. Buen Camino, Anna!

New Zealand 2016 Day 23. Wellington to Mt. Taranaki

Saying goodbye to KC, Tim, and Alvi was a sweet sorrow. I am very glad we got to visit with them and share, even for a short day, their home and their surroundings. I need not say that they sent with us a whole boatload of greetings and hugs to the Owl Creek family.

We were set on visiting Mt. Taranaki, which is the perfect setting for The Lonely Mountain of The Hobbit. It is a very symmetrical stratovolcano that has grown to enormous proportion at the end of a short alignment of older and smaller volcanoes, forming its own peninsula along the west coast of the North Island. It totally reminded me of La Malinche, in central Mexico, with its enormous size, its beautiful symmetry, and its small dacitic domes poking at low elevations (my 30-second theory is that they are leaks from a growing silicic magma chamber growing under the volcano). We dutifully hiked along the lower elevations, which are covered by a dense “bush” of trees and tall ferns that completely obscure the presence of the mountain (but in exchange we got to see many streams and a handsome waterfall.

By 4 pm we were down, and decided to gain some distance toward Auckland, where tomorrow I will need to take the flight back home. It was a magical trip through Middle Earth under the balmy golden rays of the afternoon sun. The central portion of the island is a mild-mannered landscape that speaks in mild tones and is covered by a rustling carpet of sweet smelling grass. Everywhere around us were the small comical hills that are so favored by Hobbits for their burrows (not nasty dark and humid burrows, like those of rabbits, but airy and sunny burrows with well supplied larders). Everywhere around us was the sun gilded Shire.

Eventually we made it to the small town of Waitomo Caves, where Anna and I treated ourselves to a celebratory dinner to toast a perfect trip. 

New Zealand 2016 Day 22. Back home in Wellington

By the time the ferry had docked and we waited for our turn to disembark it was already 11:30 pm, so we pulled in at the house of KC and Tim Little by midnight. KC had left the porch door unlocked for us, and it was with a sigh of relief that we finally laid down in bed in “our” room.

Later that morning we found out that Tim was still in the field, and would come back in the late afternoon, so KC became our tour guide for a day in the town. Our first stop was the Weta Workshop. What is a “weta”? It is a very large and spiny cricket/locust, and if you look at it in close-up it looks like a being from another world. That is exactly what the Weta Workshop specializes in. They are the designers of all sorts of extraordinary beings one encounters in movies, like the aliens in Avatar or the trolls in The Hobbit, and are the foremost special effects studio in New Zealand. I didn’t know such a thing existed outside of Hollywood, but it turns out these guys are among the top in the world. We only visited the small museum they have in the lobby but I was very impressed with their work. Of course their greatest call to fame are the armors, weapons, and scary characters of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but they also did The Adventures of TinTin, and the new releases of King Kong and The Thunderbirds, to mention but a few.

Afterward we went souvenir shopping and visited the Farmers’ Market in downtown, where Anna had a yummy Greek souvlaki, and KC and I had delicious Indonesian noodle stir fries. The market forms along the waterfront, and has great deals in veggies (spelled “veges” down under) and exotic food.

The early afternoon was devoted to shopping for a pair of new boots for Anna. Hers came unglued, and she figured that New Zealand, with all its hiking enthusiasts, was a better market than India. Indeed, in about a couple of blocks we found a half dozen sports shops that were having great deals in their end of the summer sales. Unfortunately our little Anna has expensive tastes, so she had to pay full price for the boots that fit her really well (Anna’s prayer” Dear Lord, I beg you, either give me lots of money or take away my expensive tastes”). In the meantime I wandered through the big downtown bookstore, and felt totally at ease with the universe.

Back home KC prepared a delicious curry pumpkin soup and a cold barley salad that were to die for, and as soon as Tim arrived we sat down for a very convivial meal. One of the topics of conversation was the referendum, to be held on March 24, on whether the old flag should be kept, or a new design adopted. The issue is controversial because, although many are not opposed to change, they are only given one option for a new design (mind you, they started with 20 alternate designs, that then some committee whittled down to 5 designs based on some limited polling, and finally to the one alternate design. Folks here are not very happy with having selection by committee, so after spending 24 million NZ dollars in this process they are likely to have the vote be for no change simply because of discontent with the procedure. Incidentally, the alternate design has two diagonal fields, separated by a silver fern, the latter being a common logo in anything Kiwi and representing their love for nature. The upper field is black, which is the national sports color. The lower field is blue, to represent the surrounding ocean, and on it is the Southern Cross in red and white, to retain part of the old flag and the colors of the British Commonwealth. I think it is a handsome design, but fortunately what I think is of interest to anyone.

After dinner we sat down to see one of the best movies I have seen in a long time: The World’s Fastest Indian. It is a 2005 film starring Anthony Hopkins as an old Kiwi who transforms a 1946 Indian motorcycle into a high speed thunderbolt, and with great trouble takes it to the US to run in the Boneville Flats and impose a speed record. As Tim put it, it is a great “feel good” movie that I strongly recommend to all my friends and family.

New Zealand 2016 Day 21. Goodbye South Island

We spent the night in Cable Bay, one of the thousands of inlets in the sounds that form the northern end of South Island. Our plan was to hike around there for the best part of the day, until it was time to take the ferry for North Island at 5:45 pm. Well, it turns out we are still a bit tired from the hike we did yesterday, and were not in shape to tackle any of the steep slopes that characterize the ridges that separate the sounds. We did our best, however, and after driving an incredibly twisty road along one of the ridges we actually caught a part of the Queen Charlotte Track. Still, it was a lazy day, and after getting back to the car we whittled away the afternoon in Picton.

There was a special festival going on at the waterfront, so the place was pretty lively and music was in the air. It is a pretty touristy city, with the complement of tourist-trap shops that accompanies all seaside resorts. I actually found a facsimile copy of the 1769 map that Captain James Cook made of both islands, which I think will look great once I frame it and hang it in the adventure room. Another highlight was the Whaling and Maritime Museum, which has plenty of good exhibits from the time when whaling was a big industry for the inhabitants of the South Island. Some of the whaling was done by small boats, not unlike the way in which whaling was done in the Azores, and the Maoris were apparently among the most skilled whalers.

We finally got on the ferry at 6:45 pm, fortunately with enough light for us to see the passage through the sound, and after night fell we retired to the inside of the big boat, from which I am writing this entry. We are scheduled to arrive in Wellington at 11 pm. Groan.  

New Zealand 2016 Day 20. Hiking in the Abel Tasman National Park

Today we did the prettiest hike of our trip. It was not spectacular like the others we have made, it was just pretty. The Abel Tasman National Park is developed on a deeply weathered pluton, whose sides have been carved by the ocean into a half dozen of beautiful, perfect bays, and the hike goes all along the steep coastal slopes, along the 100 to 200 m contour lines for about 50 km. We did the first 12.5 km to Anchorage Bay and back, so this is the longest hike we have done as well.

The trail is pretty even, shielded from the sun by the luxuriant vegetation, and has fantastic views of the coast, the Cook Strait, and the Marlborough Sound. In contrast with the Tasman Sea, with its strong westerly winds, the Cook Strait is well protected by the Golden Bay peninsula and has pleasant slack water. The water is crystalline and has a deep blue hue.

After 3 hours of “hiking” (more like strolling, rally) we arrived to Anchorage Bay, where we had a refreshing swim and ate the munchies we had brought with us. It is a paradise bay that only lacks a small seafood shack like the ones found in the bays of Mexico to make it perfect.

The way back was another perfect stroll, and at the end of it was a conveniently located pub where we rewarded ourselves with a pint of cold beer. Ah…

A short drive brought us to the small town of Motueka, where we completed our Kiwi education by having a traditional Friday dinner of Fish and Chips, here pronounced “Fush ‘n Chups”. Now that I think about it, changing “i” into “u” is a minor peculiarity of Kiwi English. The really big change is pronouncing all “e” as “ee”, so they say “yees” instead of “yes” or “peet” instead of “pet”. It is a small thing, but it forces you to be on the alert when they talk to you (which they do all the time, because they are one of the friendliest folks I have ever met).  

New Zealand 2016 Day 19. Greymouth to Abel Tasman National Park

A little incident marred the quiet of the morning. Anna had forgotten her jacket the previous night at the kitchen of the campground, so she was happy to see it the following morning as we prepared for showers and breakfast (she is paranoid someone is going to steal her things, and I keep telling her that no one wants our used stuff). To our surprise, by the time we had finished breakfast someone had actually taken her jacket! She figured maybe someone had taken it to the front desk, as a lost and found item. No, it was not there, but the guy in charge said he would look through the security tapes (I didn’t know Big Brother was watching us in the kitchen). Lo and behold, there it was: a woman with four children had lifted the jacket, checked it out, and then simply taken it with her. Anna was furious, but the guy told her to wait and went to get the jacket himself. The lady claimed she had taken it by mistake, but according to the tape she took a careful look at it before pocketing it. The graffiti in our van put it succinctly: “Thou shall not steal. God is watching, you thieving bastard”.

Today was a travel day. We were driving about 300 km from the west coast to the north coast. The west coast is spectacular, with tall mountains coming to the edge of the water and jagged coastal cliffs. The west coast is bathed by the waters of the Sea of Tasman, named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who in the early 1600’s became the first European to set eyes in Tasmania and the South Island of New Zealand. In practical terms, however, the Sea of Tasman is part of the Circum-Antarctic Ocean, famous for its rough seas due to the Roaring 40’s (the westerly winds that are practically unimpeded by a major landmass at 40 to 50 degrees south latitude), so it is no big surprise that coastal erosion is such an active geologic process here.

As the highway turned inland, however, we crossed as pretty a country as any you could imagine. Broad fluvial valleys support large pasture fields, dotted with sheep, cows, and deer (yes, here deer are raised as a meat animal in herds of 30 to 50 individuals). The hills are not as rugged and are covered by a mix of pines and deciduous trees, only generally similar to the ones we are used back home. New Zealand is a paradise to botanists, who get to identify a new species every few steps. The last 60 km we followed the valley of the Motukea River, which is definitely a place Anna could live. Once we reached the coast it was but a short drive to Marahau, which claims to be the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park.

We arrived at low tide, and I was surprised to see a large number of boats resting on the muddy floor of a large, dry bay. A few children were playing in the mud, sinking in it down to their knees. I could also see a good number of people looking for mussels and clams. By the time we had found a camping place the tide had turned, and in an astonishing 10 minutes the muddy bay became a shallow harbor, and the clam diggers were replaced by tourists in bathing suits (including one A. Kobberger).