Blogger hell

Compared to India (where we were traveling last year at this time), New Zealand is a tougher place to be a blogger. Or so I’m finding. For one thing we took many trains on the subcontinent, many of them interminable, and that gave me vast amounts of time for writing. Here for the past 10 days, we’ve been waking up between 5 and 6am, then quickly getting organized and hitting the road, either to sightsee or drive to our next destination (or both). I can write in cars, but not in New Zealand, where driving on the left side and negotiating narrow roads and sometimes-confusing traffic circles puts me on full-time duty as navigator. And then there’s the question of subject matter.

We’re having a great time: drinking in beautiful natural scenes; learning about the Maori culture; enjoying food that has consistently ranged from good to excellent. But it’s the sort of stuff that’s more fun to experience than to read (or write) about. It is NOT the stuff of high adventure. I’m not complaining, but rather explaining why I think some of the highlights of our last few days are better communicated in photos, than words.

Tuesday morning, we spent eight hours on the road from Rotarua to Wellington, arriving tired but happy to have had no driving catastrophes. We chose to drive, rather than fly, because the country sounded so extraordinary. At one point we took a short hike to this beautiful waterfall…

Then we headed south past Lake Taupo, the caldera created in a supervolcanic eruption that was the biggest anywhere on earth for the past 70,000 years.It’s still a wildly active volcanic region. We’d hoped to see three of the giants, including one that was the stand-in for Mt. Doom in the Jackson/Tolkien movies. But the national park that contains them was enshrouded in appropriately gloomy low clouds.Happily, the sun was shining yesterday, when we set out to cram as much of Wellington as we could into our single day. Wellington is the kiwi capital, but Parliament was not in session (or else I would have dragged Steve in to see it deliberating.)

This striking structure houses one of the oldest continuously functioning parliaments in the world.

Instead we took a cable car up to the excellent Botanic Gardens, strolling down through the horticultural wonders.

The grounds include a photogenic old cemetery.

After lunch at one of the country’s best restaurants…

This was my dessert: hibiscus panna cotta.

…we spent the rest of the afternoon in a museum that has to rank among the best anywhere.It mashes together earth science, natural history, anthropology, art, and more.

Here we learned that New Zealand possums, a notorious and much-loathed pest, look nothing at all like their North American cousins.
This marvelous art installation, a two-story-tall explosion of confetti, frozen in time, enchanted me.

Now it’s the morning of Halloween, and we’re on the ferry, halfway between the three- and-a-half-hour-long passage between the North and South islands.Ironically, it’s a nice chunk of time for writing. If only we weren’t in blogger hell.

Big sights and little sights

What to see? What to do? How do you plan activities in a place on the other side of the world that you’ve never seen before?

Before we leave home, I ask experienced friends for suggestions. I also read as much as possible, both guidebooks and (recent) online articles, blogs, and other sources. This gives me ideas, which I weigh in light of Steve’s and my idiosyncratic appetites.

And sometimes I just get lucky. This happened to us two days ago in Otorohanga, a small town about two and a half hours south of Auckland, where we spent our first night on the road. (For our first five nights, in Auckland, we stayed for free in a townhouse I arranged through homeexchange.com.)

We wanted to sleep in Otorohanga because it’s well-positioned between two of New Zealand’s biggest tourist attractions. (More on them below.) The Mohaonui Farmstay was reasonably priced ($80 for bed and breakfast) and well-reviewed on booking.com. I also figured it might be cool to sleep on a working dairy farm. As things turned out, we only had about 15 hours there, most of that time after dark. But in the few daylight hours, I was more or less continuously filled with peace and pleasure and delight.

Owners Marain and Noel Hurley greeted us and seemed happy to expound at length about the property, which has been in the Hurley family for decades. Today they share it with about 200 head of Friesian cows. They’re milked twice a day by a 56-year-old “tenant farmer” named Brent. He splits the milky profits 50-50 with Marain and Noel. I gathered that the farmstay operation is a recent diversification. Here’s the private cottage where we stayed:

The interior was even cozier than than outside.

The weather had turned sublime. Toward sunset I sat in the chair that hangs from the large tree in back of the cottage. Calves in the paddock to my left pulled up mouthfuls of kelly green grass, shooting curious glances my way as they chewed.

Off in the distance, I could just make out the rest of the herd at the foot of a distant hillside.

We’d been sufficiently foresighted to pick up a roast chicken, some deli salads, and a bottle of wine at the Countdown grocery store in town. It felt great to hunker down in the cottage and climb into bed early. That set us up to wake before dawn to the opening overtures of a symphony of birdsong. (I think New Zealand’s birds must rank among the world’s most melodious.)

As soon as it was light, we slipped outside and through a back gate to reach the dirt road running through the middle of the Hurleys’ fields. From time to time, cows filed past us, making their way on their own to the pasture of the day. (Apparently they’re rotated among 47 different areas.)We eventually met up with Brent, another friendly fellow who answered even more of our agricultural questions. A bit later, back in the cottage, we tucked into good coffee and delicious muesli, yogurt, and fruit until it was time to hit the road. I felt sad to go.

But there are amazing things to be seen in this part of North Island. They include the complex of caves in Waitomo. We toured only two of them, both filled with wonders.

Ruatari Cave is enormous and has fantastic formations, while the highlight of the Glowworm Cave is a boat ride through a passage illuminated only by some of the strangest creatures on the planet. These “glow worms” emit a bioluminescent blue light from their tails. Assembled en masse, they look like a field of fairy lights. They cling to the damp rock walls in these caves and spin gossamer threads that hang down for about a foot. Insects attracted to their light get stuck in the threads, which the worms then reel in. Talk about eating in!

On the morning when we had to leave behind the dairy farm, our destination was Hobbiton, the 12 acres where director Peter Jackson filmed the Shire scenes for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I had thought this outing would be fun, but it exceeded our expectations.

A view from the bus that took us to “Hobbiton.”
Bag End
Steve channeling his inner wizard.

Then we moved on to the town of Rotorua, famous for being a center of Maori culture… and geothermal marvels. Today we took in a bunch of both, then spent an hour soaking in pools fed by hotsprings…

Can you spot Steve?

…before dining well on Rotarua’s “Eat Street.”

Tomorrow Steve has the tough task of driving us all the way to Wellington, at the south end of this island. Folks say we’ll see more wondrous sights along the way. I expect we’ll find they’re right.

Sheep World

Thursday (10/24), Steve and I drove to Sheepworld, an agrotourism attraction about an hour north of Auckland. We learned many things, but here are the five I found most interesting.

1) Farmers in New Zealand used to make money from both the meat and the wool they got from raising sheep. Now, however, all the money’s in the meat. Kiwis still raise about 27 million of the animals per year (about 5.6 sheep per New Zealander) to feed the world appetite for grass-fed lamb chops. But they barely break even on the wool they remove from those animals. Years ago, the increased availability of cheap synthetic fabrics clobbered the price of most wool. One of the only exceptions is merino wool, famed for its fineness and antibacterial properties. It fetches almost ten times the price per kilogram of wool from standard sheep breeds. But the merino breed (native to Spain), only thrives in certain high dry rocky regions; elsewhere they get foot and wool rot.

2). Even if they can’t make a profit on the wool, sheep farmers have to shear their sheep anyway, to keep them healthy. When a sheep’s wool gets too long, flies can lay eggs in it that hatch into maggots that can literally eat the animal alive. Sodden wool also can weigh a sheep down so much it can starve to death. The bottom line is that if you want to raise wooly animals people can eat, you have to give them a haircut, once or twice a year.

3) To manage their sheep, farmers in this part of the world use two kinds of dogs. New Zealand Heading Dogs (basically border collies bred to have short hair) have the job of finding the sheep spread over the fields and driving them back to the paddock, using their body language, intense stares, and the occasional nip.

They look like this.

But Heading Dogs never bark. Once they have driven the sheep into a pen, their job is over. Then the Huntaway breed takes over. Huntaways are a breed that was created by mixing border collies with Labradors and English foxhounds. They have deep, full-throated voices, and they use them enthusiastically to stampede the sheep into a barn, where they can be shorn.

The highlight of a visit to Sheepworld is the show in which all these activities are demonstrated. The Huntaway star of the show we saw was Griz, a marvelously handsome fellow.

First we watched his partner round up the herd with amazing speed.
Then Griz scared them into the barn.
Two audience members volunteered to sort the sheep (by the color of their foreheads) into three separate pens.

4) I would never, ever want to have to make a living by sheep shearing. Our delightful guide/instructor demonstrated what it takes. She pulled out a one-year-old animal…

We learned it still a lamb, since it hadn’t yet lost the first of its baby teeth.Shearing requires muscling such a creature around while you use a very dangerous tool…

…to strip off its coat. The work looks like it would quickly cripple one’s back.

The shearer winds up with this.
The sheep ends up looking like this.

For this work, the shearer only makes about $1.36 (US) per animal. Apparently skilled shearers nonetheless can make six-figure incomes, but to do that, they work very long hours seven days a week.

5) The New Zealand woolen goods industry has found a new way to make lemonade out of lemons. Possums, a non-native species, have long wrecked havoc on the environment. But they have soft fur with an extraordinary ability to trap heat. (We were told it is second in this ability only to polar bear fur.) Farmers here are now blending possum fur with merino wool to make soft, marvelously warm clothing.

I could not resist buying this pair of gloves. I have have worn them several times, and they’ve kept my fingers toasty. Every time wear them I will think fondly of the residents of Sheepworld.

A visit to the old gods

Years ago, an astute park ranger told me that perhaps the most valuable plant in all of Balboa Park was the kauri growing next to the Mingei Museum. This species (Agathis australus) is one of the most magnificent trees on the planet, capable of growing to massive size and living for more than 2000 years. Mature species are rarely found in the US. (The San Diego specimen is thought to be about 90 years old.) The Maori people considered kauris to be demigods; they cut one down only after reverent ceremony. However, when Captain Cook arrived in New Zealand, he judged them to be the finest sources of timber anywhere, and within a generation, something like 90% of New Zealand’s great kauri forests had been chopped down and carted off by Europeans.

Before this trip, I’d read that the Waipoua Forest on the northwest coast of New Zealand’s North Island is the largest remaining kauri sanctuary left on earth. Although Steve and I knew we’d have to drive for about three hours from Auckland to reach it, we decided to make the pilgrimage; that’s what we planned to do Wednesday (10/23). We confided our plan to some locals Tuesday, and they strongly advised us to instead head for a regional park an hour or so west of Auckland. The outing would be less grueling and we would see at least some kauris. We followed their suggestion and wound up being grateful we did.

We’re beginning to learn that a one-hour drive here FEELS like it took three hours. It’s not that the roads are bad; they’re in much better shape than most American thoroughfares. But people drive on the left side, and while Steve is competent at that, the switch still demands a lot of concentration, particularly when the streets are narrow and cars are parked along both sides or the curves are head-spinning, as they were over the mountains.

Moreover the weather Wednesday morning was wicked and tempestuous. When we checked in at the Arataki visitor center, this was the view to the south.

The friendly ladies at the center’s help desk suggested where we should go to see highlights of the area, and once again, the local knowledge was invaluable.

We drove west, to Piha, where the beach was almost empty, save for a land sailor harnessing the wind.

After lunch at the sole cafe in town, we took in the view of nearby Karekare falls…then hiked to the beach made famous by the movie The Piano.Grains of sand driven by the gale-force winds stung our faces, so we didn’t linger but instead drove back to the nature trail adjoining the Arataki visitor’s center.

Present-day kauris are threatened, not by loggers, but by a virus that is killing many off, one by one. To combat it, forest managers have set up shoe-cleaning stations like this one.

Dense forest pressed in. We saw just one other pair of hikers. The trail terminated in a spot that’s been designated the “Kauri Cathedral.” A dozen or so of the gigantic trees clustered there, looking as much as demigods as any plant could. We stood and looked at them for a long, long time before heading back to the visitor’s center.

Steve in the Kauri Cathedral

The wind was calming down. The sun was shining. That same view to the south which had been cloaked in gloom in the morning had changed to this.

I was sorry that we missed seeing the great kauri forest; that I almost certainly will never get to it. But we saw other soul-stirring sights and learned a lesson about the wisdom of being flexible about travel plans.

Wild!

After barely 48 hours in New Zealand, we have learned one thing beyond doubt: this place is a meteorological wilderness. We who have lived all our lives in San Diego are like toddlers, lost in and bewildered by it.

We have weather in San Diego, of course. Some folks say it’s the second best in the world (after the Canary Islands). But it’s mostly the same weather. It varies from one part of San Diego County to another, and (in subtle ways) from one time of year to the next. But even in the winter, when the rain comes (if it comes), storms roll in slowly then often last for days. Weather unfolds in slow motion (when it’s not stuck in the loop of early-morning-clouds giving way to balmy late mornings.)

It is spring now in New Zealand, a season that travel guides recommend. But I’ve been dismayed in recent weeks by what I was seeing on my iPhone weather app for Auckland (our first stop). It’s looked a lot like this. Or worse (no sun of any sort). When we arrived, Monday, the icon was Rain.

However, when we emerged from the airport, the sight that greeted us lifted our tired spirits. Blue sky was interlaced with puffy white clouds. The weather app was wrong! I rejoiced. This would be a lovely day.

Now, two days later, we realize that the weather app is just hopelessly simplistic for weather the like of which they have in New Zealand. There is no icon for Many, Many Kinds of Weather, changing rapidly from one type to another. Monday morning after we got our rental car, drove to our home-exchange house, settled in, and made our way to the closest grocery store to stock up on basic supplies, it had started pouring. When we emerged from the grocery store, the rain had stopped, but the skies were dark and threatening

Back at the house, we ate lunch then napped for about an hour, before driving the 15 minutes to catch the ferry to downtown Auckland. Once aboard, the sun was out again, and the city looked glorious.

The boat ride took ten minutes, then we set off to follow a Lonely Planet walking tour of the Central Business District. This ramble took about two hours, and showed us a city radiant with spring: sunny and flowering and so warm I had to keep shedding layers and stuffing them into our daypack.

We caught the 5:45 ferry back to the north shore, at which point it was pouring rain again. When it rains with such intensity in San Diego, you know that it will last for at least 24 hours. Here, however, the deluge had stopped when we got back to Devonport, cozy under a full rainbow.

Things have continued in this vein since then. A half hour ago, a mixture of hard rain and hail was pelting our front yard. Now the wind is blowing in an excessively noisy manner, and all the trees are whipping about violently.

You can’t see the rain slamming down, but all those white spots on the ground are tiny balls of ice (aka hail).

We are slowly adjusting to the idea that we simply must take all our layers and rain gear and be prepared for the world around us to transform itself within minutes. As Steve points out, he and I do not travel to experience places that are just like home. By that standard, this trip is already a raging success.

And now for something completely different

Tomorrow we depart for Middle Earth (aka New Zealand), a part of the world (Oceania?) to which we’ve never gotten close before. It’s not that we lack interest in the land of the kiwis or in Australia (where we’ve also never visited). Rather, we’re trying to be strategic in our travels, visiting more difficult places first and saving the safer and more developed destinations for when we’re more infirm.

What prompted us to target New Zealand now is not increased infirmity, but the realization that hiking and trekking in New Zealand is a great attraction (at least for us.) We figured we should do that before our joints rebel.

So it is that we will trek for three days on the Routeburn Track, considered to be one of the greatest of New Zealand’s “Great Walks.” That’s in the South Island, but we’ll start our touring in the north, renting vehicles to cover as much ground as possible. We’ll stay in a home in Auckland, where spring has sprung (at least according to the calendar). As usual, I’ll try to report on our adventures. It may feel different not to be taking anti-malarial medication. But we should be able to handle that.

A little help from some friends

The US/Mexico border has spawned a lot of anguished stories over the past few years, so I’m happy to report that something jolly took place at the very southwestern-most point of the continental United States the other day. Several hundred Americans and Mexicans gathered on the beach where the border meets the Pacific, and we practiced singing a song (the Beatles’s “A Little Help From My Friends”) together. The end result wasn’t the most polished choral effort in history. But surely it must rank among the most offbeat.

Back in early September, Steve and I had learned that ArtPower, the UCSD performing arts series, was sponsoring this special event featuring Choir! Choir! Choir! — a Toronto-based singing group run by two musicians who take the non-traditional approach of including anyone who wants to participate (usually for an admission fee, though the UCSD event was free). They often tour, teaching each audience an arrangement of a well-loved song. This time, however, they would be adding a twist: doing it with folks situated on both sides of the angsty international line.

We signed up immediately and heard the US crowd would be limited to 500; got word some registrants were put on a waiting list. A few weeks later, we learned of a change in plans: state park officials were suddenly demanding that ArtPower submit the names of all registrants in advance. They would not be able to drive into the park on their own but rather would need to be shuttled in from an outside location.

More directives trickled in: we would have to meet at Southwest High School, be checked in, and allow ourselves to be wristbanded. We could bring in no weapons; plastic replicas of weapons; knives of any size; explosives; fireworks; umbrellas; poles or sticks; laser lights or pointers; coolers; containers of any type (except for water bottles); aerosols; mace or pepper spray; camera tripods; sharp objects such as scissors or knitting needles; Leatherman or similar tools; bullhorns or similar “voice-enhancement devices;” noisemakers such as air horns, whistles, or drums; banners, signs, or placards; animals; or backpacks larger then 12x12x20.

Undeterred, Steve, our visiting friend Megan, and I headed for the high school around 1 pm Sunday (October 13). DSC05072.jpgDSC05074.jpgWe checked in, sizing up our fellow singers, a range of ages but mostly white folks who all looked like NPR listeners. Before long, our bus set off southward, and it didn’t take long to reach the park. We disembarked, trying to scope out what the heck we would be doing. In January of 2018, Steve and I attended another cross-border performance. That one was a percussion concert that we watched from the Tijuana side. For it, some of the US musicians were allowed inside “Friendship Park,” that no-man’s-land created inside the double American fencing built in the late 90s and early 2000s. Nowadays it’s only opened for special occasions.

But the inner park was locked.DSC05077.jpg Instead we were directed onto the beach, where we could see a small stage and a sound truck. DSC05079.jpgStern signs, police tape, and an intimidating roll of coiled razor wire prohibited us from approaching the barrier there. DSC05089.jpgBeyond it, a sea of beach umbrellas and people were barely visible. I’m pretty sure there was beer on that side. And tacos. Probably music too.

We, on the other hand, were herded into a metal enclosure, where we waited for the program to begin.DSC05083.jpg Up above  us, armed guards, some with dogs, looked down, stony-faced.DSC05093.jpg “This is kind of interesting,” commented the guy standing next to me. “I’ve been to the beach before. But never in a cage.”

If the setting on our side of the border had some grim elements, the activity, once it got started, included lots of laughs. Daveed Goldman, the Choir! Choir! Choir! director leading the American contingent, is quite a comedian (as well as a competent guitar-player). His cohort who was working the Mexican side, Nobu Adilman, seemed a bit stricter a task master. Both guys wore microphones, so we could hear everything said by each. The Mexican wannabe choraleers yelled and applauded when they were introduced, and of course we responded in turn. (There seemed to be a lot more of them.) We waved our sheets of lyrics at each other in the distance, and that made the fence and the distance between us feel a bit less dreary.

The actual song practice was more serious than I expected. We gringos sang the first lines —What would you think if I sang out of tune? — and the Mexicans sang back in Spanish: Levantarte y marcharte, quizás? (Would you stand up and walk out on me?). We practiced certain sections again and again. At first, the Mexicans’ voices sounded faint and distant, but over the course of the next hour we all grew louder and more confident. By the final run-throughs, I think everyone was singing more or less together. There were nice harmonic flourishes. The final cheers were robust.

From time to time throughout the experience Daveed chastised American participants for holding up their cell phones and recording what was going on. “We are recording all of this for Youtube — and we will do a better job!” he bellowed. “You should be living in the moment.” I’m not sure when the official Choir! Choir! Choir! video will be posted to the group’s Youtube site. When it is, I’ll add a link here. In the meantime, here’s a link to some video shot on the Mexican side of the border. I expect the final Choir! Choir! Choir! product will look more polished than it felt when we were singing it. But I bet it won’t feel as depressing and uplifting and fun as it did in person there.