Chasing dragons

The news was discouraging when we landed on Rinca Island Tuesday afternoon. No one had spotted any Komodo dragons that entire day — nor the day before. I tried to resign myself to the same fate. When you seek rare animals in the wild, it’s not like buying a movie ticket. You’re not guaranteed a show. But we lucked out.

Almost immediately after we paid for our admission to Komodo National Park, the friendly park ranger to whom we were assigned urged us to run — toward a dragon that had just ambled into the entry complex from the nearby forest. She was a female maybe 7 years old, he estimated, and thus maybe only half the size of a full-grown male. Still, no one who saw her could doubt she and her kind are the biggest lizards in the world. If they were any bigger, you’d be looking at a dinosaur.

As lethal as her claws appeared to be, they’re not her main weapon. Each Komodo dragon’s jaw holds 60 teeth, and sandwiched among them are glands loaded with toxic venom. A single bite won’t instantly kill a deer or buffalo (or human), but the venom promotes bleeding and dreadful infection to which victims succumb after a few days or even hours. Adding to their charm, the dragons are cannibals, eating each other and even their unwary young. Smarter youngsters hide in trees for several years to avoid being munched.

I’d rank them as the least lovable of the world’s big flashy animals. Nonetheless Steve and I had a blast on our two brief forays into their world. That first afternoon, our ranger, Masakao, led us on a hike into a tangled forest that’s also home to spitting cobras and other venomous snakes. The plant life looked different from what we’d seen in the forests in Bali and Sumatra. That’s because when we had flown east from Bali, we crossed the Wallace Line. Eons ago, the continents of Asia and Australia had broken apart along that conceptual demarcation, and so today the plant and animals on either side of it have different evolutionary origins.

We moved down the dirt path and soon approached a small abandoned building that once housed a power generator. Masakao motioned for us to stop while, armed with a long forked stick, he crept up to the doorway and peered in.Another score! The ranger asked for Steve’s phone and recorded the temporary occupant: a male whose big belly testified to recent consumption of a meaty feast. Now he was digesting in the cool comfort of the man-made shelter.

In the course of our ramble, we came across another big male. That one even gave us a look at his fearsome choppers…

…before crossing the trail and moving into the underbrush, long tongue flicking.

I felt jubilant as we returned to our quarters for the night, a wooden ship of eccentric design that’s common in these waters. To see Komodo dragons you need some kind of a boat. The famous reptiles live almost exclusively on five islands off Flores (a bigger island originally colonized by Portuguese and thus home today to one of Indonesia’s only significant Catholic populations.) You can take a speedboat from Flores out for a frantic, grueling day of dragon-hunting, but most visitors opt for a one- to three-night cruise. Steve’s and mine was a private one, and included the services of a conscientious guide named Robert and four young men who ran the ship and cooked.

It was far from fancy. Here was the single toilet/shower stall shared by the 7 of us:

…and the galley where the cook whipped up meals like these:

This lunch included rice (in the covered dish), tofu sautéed in a soy sauce, stewed cabbage and carrots, and squid prepared two ways.

This was breakfast the second morning.

If basic, the food was edible, and it didn’t make us sick. Our cramped cabin also had an AC unit that cut the muggy heat. I kept reminding myself that the sojourn was less grubby than tent-camping in the tropics. Slightly.

The second morning, Robert, Steve, and I left the ship before dawn to join the stream of visitors climbing the 815 steps up tiny Padar Island.The view from near the top, taking in three different-colored beaches (black, white, and pink) is so famous it’s on Indonesia’s 50,000-rupiah bank note. Indonesian tour groups pressed for time will often choose to visit it and skip the Komodo dragons, according to Robert.

But who would choose a landscape selfie over what we saw later that morning? I can’t imagine.

Once again, luck was with us. We motored to Komodo Island, and on the beach we immediately found a young dragon, risking its life to come down from its tree and hunt for breakfast.

Not far from the juvenile, an alert-looking adult female was identifiable by her head and tail, shorter than than what males are equipped with.This time our park ranger, Dula, took my iPhone and shot the wonderful video footage I will try to incorporate here. I hope it’s viewable on the blog; part terrifying, part comic, it’s documentary evidence of one of the most unforgettable strolls of my life.

We encountered several more of the dragons during our visit. Then it was time to board the boat again and motor on; reptiles weren’t the only animals on our itinerary. The turquoise waters that surround the dragons’ islands conceal choral reefs and a wondrous community of aquatic life. We didn’t succeed at seeing all of it. The wind blew hard for a few hours on our final morning, whipping up white caps that drove the local manta rays and sea turtles to deeper water. But we did manage to snorkel three times in calm water, and each outing delighted me. The sea was clear and warm, and I felt as close as I will ever get to flight, gliding effortlessly over the landscape of coral and anemones and rocks, in the company of neon-colored fish, many dressed up in astonishing patterns. At times we sailed by rivers of fish; into clouds of them. Once I started to laugh out loud at the concentrated beauty but was quickly reminded that’s not a great idea when you’re breathing through a snorkel.

Our first night on the boat we made one other wildlife stop that caused me exclaim with awe. It was close to sunset when we anchored on the eastern side of a long flat island composed almost exclusively of mangroves.We watched the molten tangerine sliver of sun shrink to a dot and disappear and the color begins to drain from the sky. Several long moments passed, but enough of a glow still remained that I could make out the strange thing that began to occur — a stream of tiny black objects rising out of the mangroves like cinders flowing up from a campfire and dispersing.The stream thickened and grew; that’s when I cried out. These were fruit bats, a vast horde of them, ranging out by the millions to hunt insects in the night.

People sometimes call them flying foxes, but as they passed overhead their iconic shape was unmistakable, flapping, gliding, graceful.

More and still more bats continued to pulse out of the mangroves; they reminded me of the grand finale of a fireworks display, not as bright or colorful as the tropical fish or fireworks, but as magnificent in their ability to dominate the space with their movement. I know some folks find bats terrifying. In that they’re like the Komodo dragons, who certainly got my adrenaline flowing. Both are creatures almost mythic in their ability to inspire fear. But in the right circumstances, the sight of them can fill me with awe and happiness.

The road to Bukit Lawang

I did not come to Indonesia to do road trips. But now that I’ve done half of one, I can say at least they’re educational. If like Dorothy, you want visceral assurance you are NOT in Kansas, a drive through parts of Sumatra delivers. Our experience Sunday afternoon also solved a mystery for me, namely I had been unable to imagine how it could take four hours to go 65 miles in a nicely maintained Toyota SUV. Now I know.

We wound up on the road trip because we wanted to see orangutans in the wild. Steve and I have tracked both chimpanzees and gorillas (in Uganda), and we’ve hung out with bonobos in a sanctuary in the Congo. There’s only one other species of great ape in the world — orangutans — and they live only on two Indonesian islands. My first impulse was to seek them in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, recommended by Lonely Planet as the best choice for observing the hairy orange guys in the wild.

When I started planning this trip back last October, it looked like we could easily fly to giant, exotic Borneo from Java (the island that has long been the center of power in this country). Connections on one of the best of the many small domestic airlines were good, and I found a trekking outfitter who seemed respectable. This all fell apart, however, when the flights on the good airline vanished from the Internet (and for the month or two in which I was obsessively checking, they never reappeared. Who knows why). We could only fly to Borneo on a mediocre airline at an inconvenient time. Frustrated, I shifted gears and set my sights on the jungles of Sumatra.

I learned we could fly from Jakarta on one of the better outfits (Citilink) to Medan, the biggest city on Sumatra (and the third largest city in all of Indonesia). I also connected with a well-reputed outfitter just outside Gunung Leuser National Park — one of the richest rainforest ecosystems in the world. (It’s home not only to orangs and other primates but also tigers, rhinos, elephants, and leopards.) I booked a room in the Orangutan Discovery lodge ($23 per night). For an extra $50, the manager said a driver would pick us up at the Medan airport and transport us the 65 miles to the lodge. This seemed reasonable.

Happily, all our travel connections went flawlessly, until we walked out to where the driver was supposed to be holding a sign with our name. There was no sign of him…

Sadly, we were not from the Fuso shop.

…but he did show up after an hour, apologizing and explaining that a truck had overturned on the highway. We piled into Hari’s small SUV, and he announced the drive usually took four hours. This sounded astonishing but also kind of fascinating. How could it?

At first the mystery deepened, as Hari bombed along at 60 miles per hour or more on a well-maintained tollway. But it wasn’t long until we left that and turned onto the main (maybe only?) highway to Bukit Lawang, our destination. The asphalt wasn’t in horrendous condition but it threaded through one human beehive after another; moreover most of the bees appeared to be buzzing around on some kind of wheeled contraption: bicycles and cars and trucks and buses and a vast army of motorbikes, each carrying between one and five people between the ages of newborn and ancient.When you’re all barreling over two narrow lanes, driving becomes vastly more freestyle than anything you ever see in the US or Europe, People thread their way up the wrong side of the road. Many folks favor straddling the faded middle divider line, probably to enhance their readiness for passing. Not passing is NOT an option. You simply must get around all the barely motorized vehicles carrying improbable loads.All this chaos feels remarkably dangerous, and we saw direct confirmation that, yes, it is. We passed the large truck whose crash had delayed Hari. Someone had somehow got it upright again, but it was still stuck by the side of the road. Further along, we whizzed by a demolished motorbike whose driver was still struggling to get up from under it.

Apart from all the scary bits, it was an interesting ride. At times we drove through palm-oil forests. Vast tracts of native rainforest have been torn down to make way for these squat, heavy-crowned trees bearing seeds from which oil is squeezed to fry all the zillions of tasty Indonesian tidbits. If I hadn’t know that Indonesia contains more Muslims than any other country (and Sumatra is known for its especially religious ones), the ride would have educated me. Every minute or two, we passed another roadside mosque — many topped with amazingly colorful and/or flashy domes that contrasted sharply with their homey bases. My head swiveled, too, at all the broad rivers we crossed, most the color of coffee with cream.

The further we drove, the more the road condition deteriorated until at times we had to slow to a cautious creep over the most busted-up sections. Around 5:35 the light was starting to dim and I cringed at the thought of it vanishing altogether as we rattled along for another 75 minutes. But then Hari piped up that we were almost at our destination! Indeed we bounced over dirt road for only a few minutes, entered a jungly stretch of road, and then stopped at a sign for the lodge next to a dirt path leading into a thicket of green. The sun still hadn’t set when we greeted the owner.

For all the ruined stretches of pavement and the death-defying traffic, just a bit over three hours had passed since we left the airport. So why had Hari told us it usually takes four? I suppose it’s possible he was trying to prevent our being disappointed if an eastbound truck turned over like the westbound one that had delayed him. I think it’s more likely, however, we’re in a part of the world where people relate to the interval between numbers on a clock differently than they do in San Diego. I suspect time is vaguer here; less precise. If so, that’s a good thing to be reminded of at the start of our sojourn.

Time travel

Photo by Pixabay on

I’m embarrassed. The message that went out yesterday was a mistake, a “re-publication” of the very first travel post I ever produced, back in February of 2010, when Steve and I were starting our 41-hour transit to South Africa. It happened because I’d been fiddling with some of the blog’s design elements (something I almost never do). Among other things, I added a “category cloud” to the right-hand column. It’s a list of the categories I’ve assigned to most of my posts over the years. I liked the idea that if someone is going to a place I’ve written about, it should help them quickly and easily find what I had to say about it.

The problem, however, is that if a blog writer forgets to select a category, WordPress automatically declares it to be “Uncategorized.” Seeing that word in giant letters on the list bothered me. (I was pretty sloppy about categorization in those early years.) So I went in and changed the “uncategorized”on that very first report to “South Africa.” When I updated it, WordPress treated it like a new post — and sent all my loyal subscribers a (confusing!) email.


Steve and I won’t actually be setting out on our next adventure until May 11, when our destination will be Indonesia — the fourth most populous country on earth. We’ll only get to a handful of its 17,000 islands, but highlights should include tracking orangutans and komodo dragons in the wild, visiting the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and relaxing during a weeklong home exchange on Bali. Indonesia will be the 81st country I have visited.

I’m startled to reflect that South Africa was the 30th. Steve and I have covered a lot of ground since then. And this fall we’re planning to return to South Africa, along with some other places in the southern half of the continent. I promise to try to categorize everything properly.

And to refrain from sending out any emails when I screw up.

A Golden Retriever’s guide to some of the wonders of the American West

(as reported by Dilly)

My pack and I got back from the road last week, and I have to tell you: life has been pretty boring since then. So I’ve volunteered to briefly shift my attention from Sitting and lying Down and Speaking to… Reporting. My puppyraiser/Mom usually handles this task, but on our recent trip she (my p/M) didn’t find anything interesting to write about. She’d be the first to say she had a wonderful time. But really.

(Excuse me while I yawn.)

We drove 2600 miles but never had a flat tire or ran out of gas or got into any accidents. No one asked for bribes or tried to kidnap us. We visited five national parks (and a couple of lesser ones). But who doesn’t know those places are amazing? (I’ll admit I didn’t. But I’m a one-year-old aspiring service dog.) To most folks, that’s not news.

I, however, see (and smell) things from a different perspective. Here are five of my most important takeaways from our adventure:

1) Flying is much more interesting than being driven around in a kennel. And traveling out of a kennel is (slightly) better than traveling inside one.

I flew once before, when I was 8 weeks old and Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), the organization that owns me, shipped me down from Northern California to my San Diego puppyraiser/parents. But for all their travels, my p/ps never before had flown with any CCI puppy. (I’m the 9th one they’ve raised.) Despite their trepidations, our flight from San Diego to Salt Lake City went well. The nice man at the Southwest Airlines counter didn’t even ask to see the rabies-vaccine documentation my p/M had brought along. (I mean, duh, it’s pretty obvious I’m not rabid.) He gave us boarding passes that let us go first through the jetway,so we had tons of room, sitting in the first row. I Stayed in a perfect Down position when the flight attendant gave her speech, and although I got a little nervous during the take-off (and later, the landing), my p/M gave me the Lap command and let me look out the window. I found the sights out the window intriguing, if slightly creepy.

After that, we got around in a rented van. My p/ps had checked a travel kennel for me to ride in. But after a while, they started letting me ride loose, like a Regular Big Dog. Sometimes I took advantage of this, sitting on a seat and looking out the window. Just as often, I napped.

2) Weather can be more interesting than I ever imagined.

I got a big lesson in this our first afternoon in Jackson Hole (Wyoming). My p/D had taken me out for a little afternoon stroll around the compound where we were staying when suddenly the sky got dark and I was being pelted with hundreds of little pebble-sized pieces of ice! Hail, people were calling it. I never saw the like of that in San Diego!Frankly, I’m not a fan.

Several days later when we had moved just outside Yellowstone National Park, my p/M took me out for my morning constitutional, and fluffy white stuff was falling out of the sky. That was cold too, but at least it didn’t hurt! And pretty soon the sun was shining again.

3) National Parks smell amazing.

We hiked an awful lot. One day (I think we were walking along the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park), my p/M sighed and said, “Dilly, it’s really too bad this can’t appreciate these sights.” They were looking at stuff like this:

My p/D piped up, voicing what I would have said (if I could talk). “Dilly says you can’t begin to appreciate all the smells.” Man, did he get that right! Sometimes there were scary smells, like this stuff, which was HUGE and filled with berry seeds. I didn’t want to get anywhere close to whatever creature produced it.

Day after day at Yellowstone, we hiked past what surely must be some of the weirdest smells on the planet.

I’m picking up sulphur, thermophilic bacteria, and subtle hints of magma!

But even the simplest stroll in a forest made me want to close my eyes and savor the symphony of scents produced when streams and leaves and pine trees and animals come together.

4) I don’t want to go to the moon.

After Yellowstone, my p/ps and I drove to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (in southern Idaho). It’s not actually the moon but a vast, crater-pocked area that was created when lava flowed out of fissures in the Snake River plain between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago. It’s a stark, alien landscape that did NOT smell anywhere near as interesting as the Grand Tetons or Zion canyon. And the scrunchy black gravel kind of hurt my paws.

5) I’m thinking about a career change.

Everywhere we went, I had to wear my official cape and halter and leash (on which I pulled about 1000 times more often than I should have). But I did get one taste of paradise.

This happened when we visited my p/M’s uncle and aunt. They live on a farm in a small town in Utah. Before sunset, we went for a walk through the farm’s corn fields. I was on my leash, as usual, but then we stopped and suddenly they released me. For a moment I was so stunned I couldn’t move. Then I went berserk with joy – racing up and down the road, kicking up clouds of dirt, leaping and twisting and finding sticks and dried corn cobs and stones to chew.

My ecstasy was so obvious, my p/ps brought me back early the next morning. Again I romped and rollicked.

Everyone tells me it will be a great thing if I graduate and work in a life of service. I say….. maybe. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be as great as life on a farm.

9 years after the apocalypse — what it’s like to be a tourist in Christchurch

I knew two bad earthquakes hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, but they didn’t become real for me until the night Steve and I were eating dinner in Kaikoura. Looking out the window next to our table, Steve exclaimed, “Is that a bobcat?” The animal he was staring at seemed too small to be that, but it lacked a tail. “He lost it in the earthquake,” our waitress (the wife of the owner) told us. Her house in Christchurch had also collapsed, she added, and she and her husband had lost the five restaurants they owned. They’d recently moved to Kaikoura, trying to start over. This lady was a hearty, jokey sort of person, but the way her face subtly tightened when she talked of the disaster betrayed how overwhelming it had been. Watching her face, I struggled to keep mine composed.

A few days later, on the Routeburn Track, I asked one of my fellow trekkers, a longtime Christchurch resident named Louise, how the quake had affected her. She used to work in one of the high rises that had collapsed, she told me. “Nine of my friends died in it.” Two others had lost their legs. For a while, the funerals had been incessant.

Over the two days we spent in Christchurch (our last bit of time in New Zealand), the quakes got more and more real. The first thing we did Thursday morning was to head to Quake City, a facility dedicated to explaining what happened on those two fateful days. One of the things that shocked me most was learning that the two earthquakes which all but destroyed the central city were far from the worst that’s expected for this region. The huge fault, the one capable of moving with a force of more than magnitude 8, runs up the east side of the southern Alps, just an hour or two outside Christchurch.

What I also didn’t know is that most Christchurch residents never thought they were vulnerable to earthquakes; they had never felt any jolts for most of their lives. The 7.1-magnitude temblor that ripped the Canterbury plain in 2010 was thus a shock both physically and psychologically. But it struck at 4:35 in the morning, and while many buildings were damaged, no one was killed. The February 2011 event was an aftershock, only a magnitude 6.3. But its epicenter was within the city’s limits and only a few miles below the surface. The peak ground acceleration packed a force of almost 2 Gs, a motion more violent than that ever experienced in any urban center (or so they told us.)

Only two tall buildings pancaked, but the violence delivered in those 24 seconds smashed the tidy, conservative center city and turned into a place that looked freshly carpet-bombed. In large sections, solid ground also turned into a sticky goo that sank cars, trees, buildings. It resolidified into something that gripped with the strength of concrete what it had ingested. Quake City documents these changes well. Most mesmerizing were the filmed first-hand stories recounted by a cross-section of citizens. Watching their faces, listening to their words, the quake felt as real to me as anything apart from living memory.

But the funny thing is, if Steve and I hadn’t read and heard what we did, we wouldn’t have suspected what had happened less than 9 years ago. We walked miles and miles through a city that’s tidy again. We noted many empty lots and many buildings that are fenced off, or braced, in obvious need of repairs.

Note the fence around the still-damaged brick building. You see many of these.

The stone cathedral that was Christchurch’s great landmark still bears gaping holes where the bell tower and some of the walls fell.But there are urban centers in America’s rust belt that look worse. And few cities anywhere have mounted the kind of makeover that’s underway here.

Christchurch is now an urban planner’s paradise. The planners have made sweeping godlike decisions. They’ve decreed that the new city center should be low-rise and surrounded by a belt of green space; that it will be divided into a few discrete “districts” — one for retail, one for entertainment, others for government and safety services, residences, and a few other designations. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent or budgeted to make this a reality. The Kiwis have repaired a vast array of unseen infrastructure (underground water pipes, etc.) and they’ve built some stunning public facilities:

A new city art museum

A gorgeous new central library

One of the best children’s playgrounds I’ve ever seen anywhere.

They’ve re-engineered the river that winds through the center or town, landscaping it and creating lovely pathways.There’s much more to come, including rebuilding the cathedral, finishing the zoomy convention center that’s supposed to start operating next year… …and building a deluxe sports complex…

As this has gone on, intriguing temporary creations have sprung up to fill the voids. A temporary Anglican cathedral was built from cardboard tubes…Artists have been commissioned to paint murals on the sides of newly revealed building sides…… and create other works to fill the civic gaps.

Passersby were welcome to lounge in this “hammock forest.”

This all makes central Christchurch a fascinating place to stroll through — at least during the day. At night, Steve and I found most streets in and adjoining the central city to be eerily empty. Our Airbnb flat was just a few blocks outside the center, but the nearest supermarket was well over a mile away (in the CBD’s “Retail District”). I love packed, jumbled, textured cities like Tokyo and Rome and New York; the hyper-orderliness of Christchurch made me uneasy.

Over time will it be balanced, somehow, mellowed out by the other changes that have occurred here? More than one resident testified to a profound transformation in the residents. They used to dress drably, one woman recounted. “It was almost as if they couldn’t be bothered to look nice,” she said. But in the aftermath of the destruction, people grew noticeably more stylish. The artsy vibe today is unmistakable. Another guy commented that before the quakes, the city was a bastion of white complacency. But the quakes vaporized social barriers; made outsiders welcome. “Then we had the murders at the mosque last spring,” he said. “Before, I think a lot of people would have said, ‘That’s too bad, but it’s the Muslim’s problem.’ Instead, when it happened, within hours people from every strata of society were streaming there to help out. It was an attack on all of us.”

There’s so much of the world we haven’t seen, Steve and rarely return to many places. But I’d love to pop into Christchurch in 20 years to see what becomes of it.

Goodbye road, hello rail

Around noon Wednesday, we returned Car #3 and added up the total mileage covered with our three rentals. Steve safely piloted us a total of 2,124 miles. He says it felt like twice that long. The extra concentration required by the left-side driving on narrow roads never ceased to be tiring, although after three-plus weeks, it was far less foreign than when we started. We never regretted making this as much of a road trip as we did; the freedom it gave us was delicious. But we also were so happy we were able to shorten the driving portion, just a bit.

It was about a week ago, in the middle of Mt. Cook National Park, that it struck me we might not want to drive back across the South Island (through Arthur’s Pass), given that there was such an attractive alternative. There’s a train, the TranzAlpine Railway, that covers that passage. Lonely Planet says it’s one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys. Months ago, I thought we would certainly want to take it, but then I changed my mind.

On that road-weary afternoon, I wondered if I might change it back. Thanks to the wonders of the wired world, we found we could still book two train tickets and modify our car reservation, dropping Car #3 off Wednesday morning in Greymouth instead of at the Christchurch airport Saturday, when we fly home. Frosting on the cake was that because the car-rental agency needed for a car to be moved to Greymouth, it would only cost us $9 a day, instead of about $35.

We felt jubilant. Then three days later, I got an email informing us that a landslide had just destroyed part of the track! But, the message continued, we could take a bus from the Greymouth train station to Arthur’s Pass, then board the train there and ride for three hours through the most scenic part of the line! If we chose this, they would refund us half of what we’d paid for the train tickets!

We caught the bus at the Greymouth train station.

I may have been dumb not to plan to take the train in the first place, but I wasn’t dumb enough to turn down this second chance. It felt divinely inspired. The 90-minute bus ride was just as pretty — and vastly more relaxing — with someone else at the wheel. On the hair-raising, serpentine uphill near Arthur’s Pass, heavy sheets of rain lashed our vehicle, and then they lashed us as we dashed from the bus to the train. (So we never would have been able to hike in the forest there, one reason the drive had seemed attractive.) The train was one of the nicest we’ve ridden anywhere ever, with new immaculate toilets, huge windows…optional pre-recorded guiding commentary, an open-air viewing car…

…and TV screens showing a map of our position. But who would choose to look up at them with scenes like this outside the window?

No further landslides impaired our progress. We reached Christchurch station at 6:15 pm and took an Uber to our Airbnb apartment. We’ll have three final nights here, getting around with more Ubers and on foot, before taking to the air Saturday morning. I wish I could take the train all the way home.

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.

How our wine-tasting in Chile and Argentina went south

Our good friend Howard still shakes his head in amazement when he recalls his attempt to visit Argentinean wineries back in 1990. He and another friend were in western Argentina to climb Mt. Aconcagua, but they had some extra time and figured they could just get a taxi driver to take them around. Argentina today is the fifth biggest wine producer in the world, and the industry was already big back then. But their request confounded the taxi driver. He’d never heard of anyone visiting local wineries for tastings.

Things have changed a lot. Beautiful tasting rooms have been built since then, and companies to shepherd tourists to them have prospered. I knew we’d have our own car both in Chile and Argentina, so I figured I could devise a little tasting tour on our own. I did some research and created an itinerary. We had a little success but mostly struck out, if in a more sophisticated way than Howard and Wes.

I know now it was dumb of me not to try emailing the wineries I’d targeted and making reservations. But it’s the dead of winter! All the vines look dead and shriveled. We planned to visit most of these places on weekdays. And at the Concha y Toro winery south of Santiago, our first oenophilic destination, everything did go just as I’d planned. We parked, bought tickets ($23 each) for the 11:30 English-language tour I’d read about online, and had a pleasant time strolling the august grounds, hearing winey factoids, and tasting four local varieties.

Concha y Toro boasts it’s now the second biggest winery in the world, with around 27,000 acres under cultivation. So I probably should have guessed other wineries might not be so well organized. We were organized enough to drive to our hotel in Santa Cruz, check in, then head out to visit one of the best-reputed wineries on the famous Colchagua Valley’s “Ruta de Vino.” The website for Montes had said they were open until 5:30, and we arrived around 4:30, seeking only a tasting, not another a full tour. At the gate, however, a guard brusquely informed us this was impossible. The only option was to do a combined tour and tasting, and we’d missed the English-language one by hours. If we wanted to be allowed on the Montes grounds, we’d have to return the next day.

Our route the next day led in the opposition direction. On consulting with our host at the hotel, he recommended we instead head for one of the wineries in the Casablanca Valley, close to Valparaiso, our next destination. We spent a chunk of that morning visiting an outstanding Santa Cruz attraction, a private museum built by a Chilean whom our guidebook referred to as “the king of the cluster bomb.” Attractive and well-designed, the Colchagua Museum covered an amazing span of Chilean history and culture, but I think all four of us were most wowed by the multimedia pavilion that recounts the story of the 33 Chilean miners trapped almost a mile underground and rescued after two months (in late 2010).

The miners’ underground refuge

The capsule that took them up to the surface

We felt confident pulling into the Vinamar winery a little after 4:10. It was supposed to be open for at least another hour. But once again a guard barred our way. Tastings were over at 4 pm, he declared.

I allowed the expression on my face to crumple. “But we drove all the way here from Santa Cruz!” I exclaimed, That took him aback; I think he was afraid I was about to cry. He telephoned his boss, and after some back and forth, we were admitted and told we could purchase a few glasses of wine.

Somehow, by the time we climbed the stairs into the grandiose facilities, we were offered a standard tasting of sparkling wines (cost: $9.50 per person). They were pleasant, and it made the day feel like less than catastrophic.

Our tasting attempts when we got to Argentina went less well.

There, I had worked out an elaborate plan, drawing heavily from a 2018 New York Times article about spending 36 hours in Mendoza. Almost instantly it got thrown out of whack. The evening we arrived, we stayed up late eating a wonderful dinner (and feeling the effects of the one-hour time change between Argentina and Chile, from where we’d flown that afternoon). So we got off to a slow start Sunday morning and scrapped the late-morning tasting I had planned not far from Mendoza. Instead we headed south to the Uco Valley, Argentina’s Napa. Zuccardi, one of the country’s most respected vintners, had built a facility there in 2016 that sounded worth the roughly 2 hours it would take to get to it. We found the drive moderately interesting, and as we approached it, the winery itself looked striking.

Once again a gate barred our entry, but we managed to slip in behind another car whose occupants had made reservations. Once inside, however, we were informed that the only tasting worth taking would cost 3,500 Argentine pesos per person — about $84 each. We could hardly believe our ears. The Times article had said tastings started at 400 pesos per person ($9.55) and included “a tour that goes from vines to vat to a gorgeous tasting room…” We questioned and counter-questioned the hostess, but she remained firm. Seeing our consternation, she suggested we drink a complimentary glass of sparkling wine while we decided what we wanted to do. We drank the bubbly, but then dejectedly trudged back to our car. (No way were we prepared to pay $336 for a wine tasting.)

As I type this, I can’t help wondering whether we didn’t misunderstand something. The hostess didn’t speak much English and my Spanish is hardly that of a native. At the time, however, it certainly seemed we were at an impasse. Tears actually did feel my eyes. I’d subjected my family to 4-5 hours of driving through only moderately interesting countryside in exchange for…a small free glass of sparkling wine?

The restaurant looked great too, but we couldn’t get a table

Worse, we were all now ravenous but it was approaching 3 pm, the “witching hour,” as Stephanie referred to that period every afternoon when almost everything in Argentina closes. The whole ride back to Mendoza, every eatery that Google Maps pointed us to was shuttered. Near the city, we stopped at one final winery (much praised by the Times writer), where we only were allowed through its closed gate in order to inquire about making a reservation. The hostess told me no spaces were available for lunch the next day (a Monday), but she would email me if they had a cancellation. I never heard from her again.

Typical Argentine countryside near the Uco Valley

As grimly as this all played out, we did enjoy some great meals (accompanied by good, astonishingly inexpensive wine) in Mendoza, where we probably should have just hung out for our short time there. Steve and I also weren’t unhappy to have gotten the limited insight into the landscapes in that part of Argentina and central Chile.

We did a few other touristic things, pleasant, but not all that interesting. Two observations from the Chile-Argentina portion of our trip will probably linger longest in my memory.

— A dog’s life, Chilean-style. I mentioned in an earlier post what a startling portion of the Santiago dogs were clad in coats. We saw coat-wearing dogs in Valparaiso, too, but they were walked by their owners amidst a virtually army of homeless dogs. “People here say they’re not homeless,” our guide on the walking tour told us. “They belong to everyone.” He may have been joking, but he said there were 300,000 human residents of the city and 100,000 dogs. “Every tourist has to take one with you at the end of the tour.” The free-spirited Chilean canines break into and snack on garbage or feast on the scraps that locals put out for them. Lucky ones get to snooze in free-standing dog houses.

That same guide showed us a mural depicting various animal icons. The dog was the most heroic among them. “If someone’s your best friend, you call him your dog. He’s always got your back.”

It’s a little ironic, then, that the most memorable of all the delicious food we ate in Chile was… a hot dog! They don’t call them that, but rather completos. For almost 100 years, Chileans have been loading up their bun-cradled sausages with a panoply of ingredients: tomatoes, avocados, sauerkraut, French fries, fried eggs, and more, usually topped with an ocean of fluffy mayonnaise. We ate them in a venerable old restaurant near the historic center, and we ate them in the airport, shortly before we left.

If they’re lucky, some of my friends will soon be served them back in San Diego.