How we got to the rainbow at the end of our Routestorm

That sea captain in Kaikoura was right. The massive storm from Antarctica reached New Zealand just when he predicted: the very day we began hiking the Routeburn Track. The meteorological chaos it spawned nearly killed us. Now that we’ve survived it, Steve and I agree: we’ve never experienced anything remotely similar; it was unforgettable.

First a bit of background. New Zealand is a country of keen hikers, and they’ve created thousands of trails lacing through both of the big islands. Among them, ten treks are considered the most sublime. They’re known as the Great Tracks.

Of these, the Milford Track is most famous, an item on many a bucket list world-wide. When I started planning this trip, I originally thought we would hike the Milford Track. But then I read that some folks consider the nearby Routeburn Track to be even better. It’s a bit tougher, but shorter (a little more than 20 miles covered over three days and two nights, versus the four days and three nights it takes to walk the Milford Track’s 33.5 miles. Hiking the Routeburn thus takes less time and costs less money, and all these things made me think we should do it instead.

You can hike any of the Great Hikes on your own, paying modest trail fees and sleeping in cheerless, uncomfortable government huts. Or you can do as we did: splurge by paying an expedition company to provide expert guides who lead one to private lodges where you sleep in warm beds and eat meals prepared by excellent chefs. We started our adventure with a Thursday afternoon briefing at the Ultimate Hikes office in Queenstown. Then our group of 16 (9 kiwis, 5 Australians, Steve, and me) reassembled shortly after dawn Friday morning. A bus transported us for three hours to a point known as The Divide. Shortly before 11, we were striding down the trailhead under leaden skies, with only a slight mist dampening the path.

The weather worsened but never got truly bad that first day. My feet, protected by my fancy new “waterproof” hiking shoes stayed dry well into the afternoon, and I actively enjoyed several of the first hours. The path led through dense and eerie forests, first uphill, then down along paths that varied from good gravel to treacherous rocks to elevated walkways, in places.A stop at the Howden rest hut revived us with hot drinks, though the warning board outside bore grim news.Around mid-afternoon I reached Earland Falls, a magnificent cascade of icy water plunging down the mountain face in the most ostentatious way imaginable. At first I thought we were meant to admire it from a distance. Then I realized we had to negotiate a ledge cutting in front of the cascade in order to continue on. The minute or two it took me to battle my way through the saturating spray froze me with its combination of bone-chilling cold and terror (as close as an encounter with a Dementor as I ever hope to have.) Somehow in the violent passage I ripped up one of my beautiful new merino possum gloves, and once past, it took me several minutes to begin to recover any feeling in my fingers. That gave me time to see Steve survive the passage.

We heard from the guides that we should reach our first night’s lodge in another hour and a half. Most of that required climbing uphill for a long time, over trail that increasingly was flooded with storm water.

The further we went, the more the water flooding the path looked like this.

The last hour or so, a steep downhill stretch, was hardest. I felt groggy with exhaustion, yet mindful that a misstep down the wet rocks could send me sprawling off the narrow path, to break bones or rip ligaments or smash my head on a rock on my way down the abyss. It was close to 5:30 by the time I stumbled into the private lodge owned by Ultimate Hikes. Steve, bringing up the rear, arrived about 20 minutes after me.

We warmed up, dried our clothes…

The entire Drying Room is a gigantic clothes dryer.

…ate well, enjoyed a lively dinner conversation, then went to bed. But about 2 in the morning, deep explosions of sound awakened everyone —thunder overwhelming the incessant roar of rain smashing down upon the lodge’s roof. (We later heard that more than 200 lightning strikes were recorded in the area, an all-time historic record, someone said.) “We would die if we were caught out in that,” I thought.

As it turned out, I was wrong. We eventually were caught in something similar, and it’s hard to communicate how difficult that turned out to be. Sitting at dinner, after we’d survived it, I commented that at least it would make for good storytelling. “But no one will believe you,” said one of the Australian women, part of a group of four chums celebrating their 30th high school reunion. They were tough accomplished women, all of them, among the fittest of our our whole group, but another of them observed, “When the kiwis say a hike is Intermediate [as the Routeburn is labeled], I’ve come to realize that means Difficult.”

The second day we started out in driving rain, climbing up to magnificent (if fog-enshrouded) views of the valley where we’d spent the night. After an hour or two, we stopped for a hot drink, and the guides told us to put on any extra heavy-weather gear we were carrying. We would be rounding a rock wall and hiking for the rest of the day on a ledge exposed to all of the elements. I donned my down jacket (over the three layers I was already wearing) then zipped up my heavy rubber rain jacket over that. With no warming, the sky flashed white, and a few seconds later, a peal of thunder boomed.

Over the next several hours, fierce winds blasted us with hail. Over long stretches, we slogged through icy run-off that at times was several inches deep. The thunder and lightning continued, always unexpected and frightening. Not that more warning would have helped; no shelter existed. At times the wind blew so strongly, I had to dig in my hiking poles to stay erect. One 60-mile-an-hour gust pushed me over, happily against the wall of the mountain rather than away from it.

Again, all of us made it eventually to that day’s lodge, though we learned that the group which had started up the Routeburn the day after us had NOT been able to get around Earland Falls, by then swollen by the downpour to monstrous proportions. Those poor trekkers had to retrace their steps all the way back to The Divide, we learned, where there was talk of helicoptering them out.

For a while, I thought we might snag a chopper ride too. That second night our guides hinted the rivers downhill from us might be too flooded to cross. But the third day dawned calmer, and they said we would walk as far as possible.The rain slackened and disappeared. We ran into one unexpected obstacle…

We had to climb down into the hillside to get around it.

We crossed a few scary bridges.But the river the guides had feared might block us never overwhelmed the bridge that spans it. Plus we were moving through forest again, which made the journey more soothing. By 2 in the afternoon, our hike was over.

I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about it. Certainly, it would have been more fun and pleasant had the sun shone. We would have been able to drink in the glorious views, unobscured by storm clouds and drenching downpours. Spring flowers might have been blooming, as they are in the Ultimate Hikes promotional video. The trek still would have been physically demanding. But it would have fallen into the realm of the normal.

Any time you commit to a trek in a place with unpredictable weather, however, you have to accept that fate may serve up the violent, savage stuff. What happens then? It was interesting to observe how gamely all our trekking mates took it. Everyone joked a lot. We kept our cool. I reached points along the trail where I wondered how I could go on, and then I learned: you just do. You have to. Over and over I noted how easy it would be to trip up and die. But I never thought, “I’m going to die.” I just did my best not to trip.

Experiences like this change you, at least temporarily. Thought subsides, replaced by concentration on the moment. Only afterward do the reflections crowd in. In the aftermath, I’m proud of myself (and Steve) for accomplishing this. I’m humbled by how much worse we did than almost everyone else in the group. But I also feel vindicated. New Zealand offers epic hiking adventures, and we wanted to have at least one while we still could handle it. We squeaked in under the wire.

The sun was coming out again during our final one-hour return ride to Queenstown.

Fjord lands

Yesterday we visited one of the most dramatic and celebrated landscapes in the world, and the weather was excellent. But I’m afraid our luck is about to turn. Tomorrow we will start our three-day trek into the New Zealand alpine wilderness, and we’ve heard rumors that a huge storm from the Antarctic is bearing down. My iPhone doesn’t give weather predictions for the Routeburn Track, but the outlook for the area appears ominous.

The good stuff yesterday was extremely good. Seeing the Milford Sound probably would have met my expectations even had it been blustery and rainy. The Fjordlands area of New Zealand gets something like 27 feet of rain per year. Rain pounded the roof of our B&B Tuesday night, but by dawn, it had stopped, and Steve and I made the two-hour drive from the town of Te Anau over dry roads. We’d stayed in Te Anau because the only places to sleep at Milford Sound are in an RV or at the absurdly expensive Milford Sound Lodge (or, there is ONE other private hotel reserved for those who have completed hiking the Milford Track). The Milford Sound (actually a fjord, not a sound, because a glacier created it, rather than a river) is a narrow finger of the Tasman Sea that pokes into the forbidding mountains that muscled their way to the very edge of New Zealand’s southwesternmost coastline. It feels like one of the true ends of the earth.

The final leg of our drive plunged and twisted past rocky faces streaked with an unreal network of waterfalls… …then through a long, creepy, one-way, unreinforced tunnel crudely hacked through the mountain more than 70 years ago.Still we made it to the terminal on the water without incident, checked in for our boat ride, and shortly before 9 am trooped onto the Pride of Milford for our 90-minute breakfast cruise.

I found the TV sets mounted throughout the ship’s lounges to be hilarious.Happily, no one was sitting and watching the televised scenery, and really, how could anyone not want to drink in the real-life version of scenes such as these?

The weather got better and better throughout the day, which was great because on our return, it freed us to stop and enjoy sights we’d blasted by earlier, when we were racing to reach the ship on time. We hiked through pristine forest dripping with moss…

…breathed in the vapor rising from water racing through ravines…

…and admired the native bird life…

And the wonderful kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, known locally to be as mischievous as monkeys

We sat on the shore of this lake, marveling at the absence of any sign of human life except for us.

A bit further down the road, a set of ponds mirrored the magnificent mountains, the plants bursting with new growth, the contrast between cottony clouds and azure skies.

Now it’s Thursday morning. We’re back in Te Anau, but we’ll return to Queenstown in a few hours. We will have the briefing for our trek at 3:45 this afternoon. We’ll be bused to the trailhead shortly after dawn tomorrow morning (Friday, 11/7), and an hour or two later, we’ll lose electronic access to the larger world until our return Sunday afternoon. By then, I should have plenty to report.

Our wild albatross chase

That’s the peak of Mt. Cook, outside our glass doors.

We are sitting in our motel room at the foot of Mt. Cook (Aoraki). It’s a gloriously warm, cloudless day; we have the sliding glass door open. We really should be out hiking, but I’m recovering from a case of food poisoning that felled me yesterday. (That damned ham-and-cheese croissant at the roadside eatery, probably under-refrigerated.) Plus we’re happy to have the break from so much driving.

It occurred to me yesterday it’s been almost 25 years since Steve and I did any trip like this, driving day after day with only a night or two at each place along the way. We’re mostly only driving between 2 and 4 hours a day, but as people point out here,

It’s tiring. On the plus side, we’re loving the chance to see such stunning countryside: rolling green pastures so intensely green they almost hurt your eyes…A lake more neon turquoise than any swimming pool…Now these snow-covered craggy mountains.

This mode of travel also is freeing us to make spur-of-the-moment decisions, like stopping to taste New Zealand sauvignon blancs and rieslings and pinot noirs at wineries that are the polar opposite in their hospitality (inexpensive tastings, no fuss about making reservations) from what we experienced in Chile and Argentina this past summer. A more unexpected piece of serendipity took us on the hunt to see wild albatrosses in Kaikoura.

We were plodding down the coastal highway on the South Island’s northeast corner, where huge sections still are being rebuilt in the wake of the deadly 2010/2011 earthquakes. Sometime after 3 pm, I was reading to Steve Lonely Planet’s description of what there is to do in Kaikoura, the town where we had a reservation for the night. Tourists swim with the dusky dolphins that thrive there, but it was a chilly day, plus we have dolphins in San Diego. We have whales too, maybe not as many types, but we’ve seen enough gray whales to make the thought of spending almost $200 for whale-watching unappealing. Then I read the listing for the Albatross Encounter. “Even if you’re not a bird-nerd, you’ll love this close encounter with pelagic species such as shearwaters, shags, mollymawks, and petrels,” enthused the writer, who added that the albatrosses (“just awesome”) steal the show.

When he was 8 years old, Steve and his mother sailed from San Francisco to Yokohama on a steamer. One of his most vivid memories of that passage is of the albatrosses who accompanied their ship for the whole 5,000-mile journey. I’d never seen one, so this sounded like a magical opportunity. The magic started when I was able to use my iPhone (while we were driving along in our rental car) to reserve and pay for tickets for the first outing the next morning. I called the Albatross Encounter office to confirm everything. “Be there at 5:45,” the young woman on the other end instructed me.

The sky was just beginning to lighten when we checked in. I could see that only 6 people would be going on the trip. Two were an Ozzie couple, both bearing cameras fitted with lenses so huge they looked like weapons. The other pair were two young women who emerged from a camper van in the parking lot. One clutched the definitive guide to New Zealand birds; the other had her own super-long-lensed camera. I patted my beloved Sony and whispered that size wasn’t all that mattered, while Steve planned to use his iPhone.

Under the direction of a grizzled captain named Gary, we clambered up the ladder of a jet boat parked on a trailer.Gary and a helper quickly maneuvered it into the water, then we were off, pounding over a rolling swell. Before long we stopped near a fishing trawler, that had already attracted a raucous avian audience.

If one of our fellow passengers were writing this, you would probably get a much more detailed listing of everything we saw. Collectively, the other four must have taken more than 10,000 photographs, and one of the girls made eager notations in her birding notebook. I can only say: those birds put on quite a show. We saw hundreds of gulls and terns and Cape Petrels. Most of the latter are small but two giant species awed us. Even hard-bitten Gary seemed blown away by the presence of three Giant Southern Petrels.

Here are two of the three. You can tell they’re the southern variant by the green tip of their bills.

They normally hang out in Antarctica. “I think we may have a world record with that one today,” the captain/guide declared.

The male Northern Giant Petrels put on displays of machismo.
This sometimes resulted in birdy battles.

Gary pointed out the Hutton’s shearwater, which nests in the alpine mountains but spends most of its life flying at sea. And he counted six different varieties of albatross. I loved the dapper, slightly sinister Salvin’s albatross.

The star of the ensemble, however, was the Gibson’s Antipodean Wandering albatross.

Those guys weren’t just soaring overhead, though they do that sublimely. They were landing (much more gracefully than brown pelicans, Steve and I remarked) and joining the feathered throng jockeying for scraps from the fishing boat or pecking into the bale of chum that Gary sometimes suspended overboard.

This guy got cut up in the fracas.

It was a squawking, jostling, intensely social scene.

Steve captured good video (on his trusty iPhone), and I tried twice to insert it here, but the Internet in the national park is very slow. I’ll make another effort to add it when I get back home, but in the meantime, I’ll wrap up with this photo of a red-billed seagull. They’re nowhere near as big as the albatrosses, and we didn’t have to pay to see them. They still have a lot of style, I think.

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

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 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.


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.