Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday Morning

Sunday morning, or rather afternoon, we woke up at 1. We had leftover gibanica for breakfast, and the four of us left around 3 or 4 to go caving at a place called Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, about an hour outside of Christchurch. The area around the cave was up in the hills West of town, and there seemed to be few other people around. The weather all day had been cloudy with occasional rain, so we were concerned about the water level in the cave rising quickly. The stream was relatively low, though, so Buda, Ljuba, and I donned our headlamps and slogged into the waist-deep water flowing from the mouth of the cave.

Buda struck on ahead, but Ljuba and I took our time picking our way over the rocks strewn across the floor of the tunnel. The average height of the cave ranged from around 8 to 30 feet, and the walls were mostly limestone which had been worn smooth by millennia (?) of rushing water. The stream wasn’t that cold, and beyond the entrance it seldom grew deeper than our knees. We had a wonderful time forging through the pitch dark, our small LED headlamps offering narrow beams of illumination. Occasional side tunnels branched off from the main course, but it was always easy to find our way back to the rushing waters of the main cavern.

We’d allotted 90 minutes or so to complete our expedition, but it ended up only taking 60. We met Nada at the other end of the cave and climbed back up to the parking lot to enjoy the sunshine and a simple meal of strawberries and bread with homemade hummus.

A short drive back down the mountain brought us to Castle Hill. A quarter-mile off the road the grass starts to rise upward until grotesque limestone formations poke out of the earth like broken bones. They were monumental and somber in the cool light of evening. I tried to climb a smooth rock face, but turned back after a few meters. There was nothing to hold on to, nothing to grip or step up on, and it was frankly terrifying to feel so out of my element.

We spent an hour or two wandering the narrow paths amidst the stone giants, exploring fantastic weather-wrought formations. I didn’t want to leave.

Monday morning we were up at 6:30; we had a date with dolphins at 9. Turns out New Zealand is the one and only home of the Hector’s Dolphin, the world’s smallest oceangoing cetacean, and we’d booked a boat ride out to swim with them. We got to Akaroa around 8. The town is situated on an oblong bay which is actually a flooded volcanic caldera.

After signing in at the tour office and changing into some really very fetching wetsuits we joined our small group of 6 and rode out into the bay. Twenty minutes later at the mouth of the harbor, on the edge of the Tasman Sea, we spotted our first Hector's.

They’re dusky gray, measuring only 1.4 meters, with a rounded dorsal fin. We climbed in the water, and our guide told us to make a lot of noise to attract their interest. I was a bit self-conscious at first, but the thought of missing out on the attention of tiny adorable dolphins soon helped me get over it. I began squealing into my snorkel as high as I could manage, trying my best to sound like something a dolphin might consider worth investigating.

Almost immediately we spotted fins cresting the waves, curious Hectors strafing and circling within a few feet of us. There must have been twenty of them! It was a wonderful experience, and I hooted and squeaked into my snorkel until I was hoarse. Eventually the pod tired of our antics and moved on. We caught up with them down the shore and swam again. Ljuba and I both got a little seasick, but we definitely got more from this tour than I’d hoped for.

We were back in Christchurch around 1. Not surprisingly, Nada had prepared a delicious lunch for us, which we ate while looking at family photo albums. After lunch, we drove 10 minutes to Christchurch International to drop off our bags. Once they were on their way we went back and spent another hour snacking and photo-perusing. At about 3:55 we left the house, and were at the gate in time for boarding at 4:20. The convenience and good nature of Kiwi airport security really makes me rue US air travel.

I'm now writing from the USA, a fact about which I wish I were happier. We’re sitting at our gate in LAX, waiting on the last leg of our journey. US customs and security was an unpleasant dose of reality after the colorful and polite Kiwi airports from which we departed. I’m by no means new to this system, but I guess I lost my immunity to the drab callousness of the American homeland security machine. It doesn’t help that I’m tired and cranky from a sweltering 12-hour flight across the Pacific. They took my carrots.

But hey! It’s not all bad. I’m looking forward to a little consistency and downtime once we’re back by the bay.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Afternoon

Saturday morning Ljuba and I left Palmerston and drove up toward Christchurch. We stopped along the way to check out some fat and lazy fur seals. Lulled by their placid appearance, a fellow tourist tried to sneak in for a closer photograph, but her subject sent her scrambling with an intimidating bellow. After inadvertently harassing some gulls, we continued up the coast.

Our next stop was a beach just off the road. Ljuba had been here before, and wanted to show me the Moeraki Boulders. After a short walk up the shore we reached the boulders, which are strange otherworldly orbs littered along the beach. It was among the more populous tourist locations of our trip, but we got our foolish poses in with the best of them.

We were exhausted when we arrived back at Ljuba’s parent’s house. After a quick nap and a shower, we all sat down for a delayed Christmas Eve dinner. Nada’s French coworker Greg joined us, and it was nice to have another face in a familiar mix. Nada had outdone herself, with dish after dish of delicious food. There were peppers stuffed with ground walnut, stuffed eggplant, a delicious salad fresh from the garden, gibanica with homemade filo dough, and braised goat.

In accordance with Serbian tradition, dinner was followed by a Christmas ceremony. Buda brought an oak branch into the house through the front door, and Nada showered him with grain and nuts. The oak was brought back outside and lit on fire, and the scattered nuts and grain were left in the corners of the room for the next few days.

The five of us sat around the dinner table enjoying cake and wine until around 11, when Greg left weighed down by leftovers. Ljuba and I got spruced up and hit the town, staying out all night until around 6. Kiwi girls are shameless drunks.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Evening

It’s Friday, the last day of our mini-tour of the South Island. After leaving the Alpenhorn Motel this morning we drove up to the wildlife centre in the hopes of getting a better view of a takahe. We were in luck, as an elderly female named Alpine happened to be enjoying her breakfast right as we arrived.

She was beautiful! About the size of a chicken, with a rotund body and long red legs. Her plumage was blue-green and looked a bit natty, given her austere age of 20 years or so. She seemed very careful and deliberate in her movements, selecting each pellet of food carefully with her large red beak. Soon, though, a mallard duck dropped by. Nosing the takahe aside, this interloper began guzzling up the food pellets at an amazing rate. Poor Alpine’s measured efforts couldn’t keep up with this prodigious display of gluttony: the food was soon consumed and the duck moved on to a second course at a different bowl.

We loitered for a while before I managed to tear myself away, then headed into town to pick up some surprisingly tasty breakfast pastries from the grocery store. A quick stop at the gas station and post office and we were on the road. We headed south, hoping to scout out some locations used in the filming of Lord of the Rings.

We saw an unnamed river which stood in for Anduin, but our attempt to find the Dead Marshes was unsuccessful. The searching itself was enjoyable, though, and it provides a good excuse to see countryside we might not have otherwise.

Next we headed North to Queensland, where we had lunch in a small park. A few dozen kilometers out of town we stopped in the hopes of seeing the river gorge where the Pillars of the King were filmed, and it turned out there was a bungee jumping operation perched atop the cliffs. We stood and watched a few jumpers, then took off toward the east coast.

We’re staying tonight in a tiny town called Palmerston, where we had excellent vegetarian pizza at a place called De Rail Cafe.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thursday Evening

I don’t have words to describe Milford Sound. I’m going to use a lot of adjectives here, but trust me when I say that none of them adequately convey the majesty of this place. It is the grandest sight I’ve ever seen, on a scale which puts everything else to shame. The highway through the mountains weaves though dense rainforest at the base of absolutely incredible peaks capped in snow and scraping the sky. It almost feels indecent to take photos.

We drove up from Te Anau shortly after noon, arriving at the mountains after an hour or so. Though the forecast called for rain, it was a beautiful day. I’m told this is unusual for the area. Tony, our hotelier, had recommended a hike to Key Summit, so we parked the car and started off through the forest. Milford Sound is one of the wettest places on Earth, with an average rainfall of 70 meters per year. Everywhere we looked was running water; it cascades down the sheer walls of the mountains, courses through the valley below, and drips off every single surface. The trees are all vivid green from root to canopy, draped in moss and epiphytical ferns and creepers. No surface is bare.

The path led us upward and over numerous small streams, eventually branching off after 45 minutes of brisk hiking. We were both pretty sweaty at this juncture and conscious of the time, so we headed back down to the car.

I took a brief break to play in the snow.

Continuing up the valley, we craned our heads and exclaimed at every primeval vista. Eventually we arrived at the boat landing and Milford Sound itself, where we parked the car and checked in with our cruise company. The boat boarded at 4 and we headed out toward sea.

The vessel’s capacity was something like 80 or 90, but there couldn’t have been more than 15 of us on board. Ljuba and I set up shop on the lower deck and ate a quick lunch. Our cruise was guided by a smart young woman named Danielle who delivered a humorous and educational narration of the natural splendor through which we were passing. Milford Sound is actually a fjord, we were told, the difference being glacial origins rather than the erosive work of a river or stream. Apparently one of the glaciers moving down toward sea had progressed at a rate of 7 meters per day, a speed discernible by the naked eye. I thought this was pretty cool.

We tooted down the south wall of the fjord past innumerable waterfalls. Danielle told us that only 10% of the thick tree cover we were seeing was actually rooted in rock crevices, and that the remaining population was actually latched onto one another and dependent on those so-called anchor trees to keep the whole lot from sliding to the bottom. It seems an anchor tree gives way on occasion, resulting in tree avalanches and bald scars on the rock face.

After an hour or so we emerged from the mouth of the fjord into the Tasman sea. The weather had held; we couldn’t have asked for calmer waters or bluer skies. By Danielle’s account it was the nicest day in the two months she’d been on the job.

After returning up the north face and seeing fur seals and Stirling Falls, which plummets a stunning 150 meters from the rocks above, we pulled back into the small bay where the cruise ships have their berth. Ljuba and I walked back to the car elated by the experience.

As we emerged from an 80-meter tunnel through solid rock, I was delighted to see a large green bird perched atop a parked campervan. Keas are the world’s only alpine parrot, and notorious for their mischievous disposition. These fellows seemed on their best behavior, however, as they simply hopped about picking at pebbles before flying away.

We stopped at The Chasm to see river-carved formations in the rock and again to have a quick dinner of closing-time discounted food from the ship. By the time we got back to Te Anau it was late, and now we’re headed to bed.

[note: I had a hard time picking photos to include in this post. You can see many more on my Flickr feed]

Wednesday Night

I’m lying in bed typing this while Ljuba is watching some high-class British early-twentieth century drama. We’re staying at the Alpenhorn Motel in Te Anau, a decent place run by an older guy named Tony who feels awkward about our homosexuality but is doing his best to hide it.

We left Queenstown this morning and drove south. Along the way Ljuba pulled over and I took his spot, my first time driving on the left. It took a bit of concentration, mostly to make sure I was keeping in the center of my lane. Avoiding incident, we arrived in Te Anau safe and sound.

After lunch at a German-owned pizzeria we walked to a nature centre where I hoped to spend some quality time with rare endemic birds. Specifically I hoped to see takahe, chicken-sized and flightless, of which there are only a few thousand left.

The nature centre was a bit of a disappointment. I don’t really know what I’d expected, but the handful of chain-linked enclosures by the lakeside certainly didn’t fit the bill. The birds were exciting though: we saw kaka, kereru, kea, and kakariki both red and yellow-crowned. These guys were great, but the real reason we had come were the takahe. Their pen seemed empty, and I spent some time pacing the perimeter peering into the shadows beneath bushes trying to spot a shy specimen. Then, as I was on the verge of giving up, a small dark rock on the far side of the enclosure shifted its position. This wasn’t exactly the intimate experience I’d had in mind when planning this visit, but a distant sighting was better than no sighting at all.

After hiking back to the car, we drove into town and checked into our motel. The wifi we paid for was spotty, as seems standard around here, so we decided to head into town for dinner and an Internet cafe. We ate at the Ming Restaurant, which was both delicious and reasonably priced, and our table neighbors generously shared their Gewurztraminer. We had less success with finding wifi, however, as most places were closing around 8 and the only other option was a coin-op desktop PC. Finally we discovered a network which let us buy an hour of time with a credit card for five bucks. I sat outside and Internetted while Ljuba headed home to relax.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tuesday Evening, Part II

Tuesday morning we left Christchurch around ten, driving Buda and Nada’s little black Mazda. Though I’d enjoyed traveling with Ljuba’s parents, it was nice to be on the road by ourselves (not least among reasons is the license to sing Disney songs at the top of our lungs).

We stopped for a rest at the Farm Barn, an idyllic café-cum-gift shop smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Far from a barn, it was a lovely building with a mediterranean feel perched on a hill overlooking hedge-girded fields with mountains in the distance. There were flowers on the sunny deck serviced by bumblebees, and a stand of trees sheltering the grounds from strong winds. We agreed it was paradise.

Taking our leave of this unexpected Eden, we drove south along highway 8. Lake Takapo surprised us with its stunningly blue clouded waters, and I found myself wishing I could sit on the shore of Lake Pukaki for hours. We had other plans, however, so it was on to Queenstown.

We’re staying at the Black Sheep Lodge, a decent backpackers-type place near the city centre. After checking in and doing some research, we drove up into the hills a bit for a hike along the Queenstown hill walking track.

This town is ludicrously picturesque, surrounded by a series of snow-capped alpine peaks huddled around a sedate blue lake. Sailboats slide over the smooth surface of the water as puffy New Zealand clouds scud across the broad sky.

The trail led us upward through foxglove, mountain ash, maple, and ferns. Higher up we reached a pine forest, and farther still we emerged to bald highlands. Here we learned that the Douglas Firs which thickly coat the foothills around Queenstown were planted by settlers in the 1800s. Their hold on the land was strengthened by school Arbor Day plantings in the 50’s, and now they’ve taken over the landscape. An exotic fungi developed in symbiosis with the pines and changed the composition of the soil, preventing endemic plants from taking root. Local restoration seems to be going strong, however: there were a number of felled Doug Firs along the hilltops, and efforts were being made to slowly peel back the expanding pine forest. Ljuba and I remarked at how quickly our appreciation of the scenic forests soured upon learning the history behind their prolific spread.

Dinner in town was Thai again, though we decided this would be the last time until we returned to the states. Whatever their virtues, Kiwis just don’t know how to make Pad See Ew.

Tuesday Evening, Part I

Sunday found our party driving south to Christchurch. Rain spoiled any plans we might have made to stop along the way, so it was a fairly efficient trip. We left Murchison around 10, only stopping once for soup at Waikari tea rooms in Waikari. We arrived in Christchurch in the late afternoon and unpacked the Landcruiser to return to the rental company.

Buda and Nada live in a lovely home of their own design in a quiet Christchurch suburb. Nada made a dinner of stuffed peppers and a creamy cauliflower soup with brazil nuts, both of which were delicious. Later, we had crêpes for dessert.

Ljuba and I decided to hit the town and experience the hustle and bustle of Christchurch’s nightlife. It turns out there’s none to be had, at least on a Sunday night, so we went to bed instead.

After a large breakfast on Monday, we drove Nada into town to pick up her car from the shop, then ran some errands at the mall. We strolled around downtown and had lunch at the Honey Pot Café, which was delicious. Ljuba was excited to show me Hagley Park, a large tract of land in the center of the city with enormous trees. We sat on the bank of a small river watching a riveting duck drama unfold, then climbed the most excellent Camperdown Elm ever. I felt like I was in Avatar.

That evening, we sat down for an Orthodox Christmas dinner at home. Buda sang a song while Ljuba, Nada, and I turned a round loaf of bread in our hands between us. When the song was finished, each of us tore off a chunk. Baked within the loaf were a coin, a twig, a bean, and a kernel of corn. Each represented good fortune of one kind or another for the year ahead. There was chicken soup with homemade noodles. There was flekicesa kupusom, a kind of noodle casserole with pickled cabbage. There were roasted potatoes, roasted red peppers (or capsicum as they’re called here) with homegrown garlic, homemade yogurt, venison in cream sauce, and gibanica. Dessert was sour cherries rolled in filo dough. Everything was beautiful and delicious.

After dinner I requested a song from Buda, as I’d not yet heard him play guitar. He set up in the living room with Ljuba on the violin, and Nada joined in singing Serbian folk songs. The musicality of this family always impresses me, and tonight was no exception. It was clear they’d all grown up singing and playing, and I have to admit some envy for their ability to launch into song at any time.

After some frenetic packing and planning, Ljuba and I hit the hay. The next day was the start of our South Island tour.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sunday Morning

We’re heading south toward Christchurch on the last day of our trip.

Saturday morning we left Abbey Court in search of some limestone caves in the hills above town. They turned out to be only accessible by guided tour, so we decided to find our own caves. We found a hiking track down the road a ways and were about to set out when we realized we’d forgotten the camera battery at the hotel. Ljuba and I decided to go back for it, leaving Buda and Nada to hike in the interim.

The trip to Motueka and back took an hour and a half, after which we picked up Buda and Nada and continued our drive north. Lunch was at the Whole Meal Cafe in Takaka.

The road into Abel Tasman park was unpaved and narrow, winding up the sides of the hills though thick tree ferns. With no guard rails and a precipitous drop a short foot from our left tires, it was a white-knuckle ride. We made it to Totaranui, however, and pulled into the parking lot of a surprisingly developed campground abutting a beach of golden sand. Ljuba and I walked down the shore a ways and up a river estuary, where we saw a small shark less than a foot in length. Eventually the flies grew too irritating, so we climbed in the car and left.

A few hours later we stopped for dinner at a motown-themed pizza place, then drove to Murchison and the Kiwi Motel.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Friday Night

Thursday night we went out for Chinese and had a rollicking dinner discussion on the state of gay marriage in US law. Ljuba and I tried hard to muster the will to go out again, but ended up spending the evening in our room. Plans to wake up early were foiled by alarm-related technical difficulties, but we managed to get out of our room on time anyway. In the rush to pack stuff up I mistakenly chugged a glass of soapy water which made my stomach an angry stomach well into the afternoon. The ferry to the South Island was boarding at 9:30.

After a dockside breakfast of croissants which Nada had foraged that morning, Ljuba and I sat in the car while his parents took a stroll. An older Kiwi man struck up a conversation though a passenger-side window, informing us that he was on his way to a deer auction in the South. Turns out he operates a “hunting” reserve, where he releases hand-raised red deer for American tourists to shoot with a gun. We were frequently referred to as “you stupid Yanks”. He was well-intentioned and oblivious, but I wasn’t a fan of this man.

Eventually we made it onto the ferry and departed Wellington. Ljuba and I roamed about the decks for a bit and played computer games in the galley until we reached Picton. We had lunch at Rumba, which was just OK, and took off toward Manukau. Stopping in Nelson, Ljuba bought trunks (togs if you’re Kiwi) and I a singlet which I thought looked like a 20’s beach costume. Stripes!

Buda and Nada dropped us off at the beach and went to find a grocery store, which later turned out to take much longer than expected. The beach was too windy and sandy, so we frolicked on an adjacent playground instead. It was full of deliciously dangerous apparatuses designed to break and maim, and we had a great time.

Dinner in Nelson was at Amigo’s, which is the first Mexican place I’ve seen in the country. It was tasty, but pretty obvious that there wasn’t a single Mexican within 100km. The rice was Spanish, the enchilada was a corny burrito, and the tomato sauce had a distinctly Italian flair. Regardless, it was pretty delicious stuff.

We’re now spending the night at the freakishly immaculate Abbey Court Motel, whose sign bears an image of the Virgin Mary above the phrase “The Divine Stay”. Despite my initial misgivings, the proprietors seem very friendly. This marks the third place where we’ve received apologies for Ljuba and I having to share a double bed instead of sleeping in separate twins.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thursday Afternoon

After lunch on Tuesday we set off to find a beach. Failing in this pursuit, we decided instead to take a detour to Mount Taranaki, an extinct volcanic peak in the Taranaki District. We stopped for a hike through the forest, which was wonderful. The mountain rises above the flat farmlands, capped with snow and wreathed in cloud. Its flanks are covered by a dense verdant forest which echoes with the sounds of birds I’ve never heard before. I fell behind to take photos as we went. Weaving through wizened moss-shrouded trees and primordial stands of fern, it was clear the path we were following was crafted with care to disturb the landscape as little as possible. I felt as though we’d strayed into some strange dark fairytale.

We hiked for an hour before returning to the car.

Ljuba called ahead to our Bed & Breakfast in Wanganui, but the proprietor informed us that he’d expected us the previous night. After some arguing it became clear that he was not going to budge on his position, so we decided to head on to Wellington. We stopped for dinner at the Red Flame Thai restaurant in Wanganui, and drove the remaining few hours south to Wellington.

We’re lodging at Wellywood, a five-story zebra-painted hostel in the heart of the city. We have two private rooms with bathrooms and comfortable beds, and there’s free wifi in the enormous 4th floor lounge. The city itself is very clean; I haven’t smelled pee even one time. Everyone seems young and alternative, and I haven’t seen anyone who seems especially destitute. It’s incredibly windy. There are unicycles. There are unicycles everywhere. Later we discovered that this was due to Unicon, the unicycle convention, which was hosted in Wellington first week of January.

Wednesday morning Ljuba and I walked around town a bit and had lunch at Floriditas. The place was beautiful and hip, as many Kiwi establishments seem to be. It struck a compromise between modern paisley and white-bricked 30’s hospital ward. I had zucchini strips with mint and lemon, and Ljuba had some kind of pearl barley chicken dish.

Wellington is home to Weta Workshop, a special effects company with which I’ve been enamored for some time, and I discovered that they have a small gift shop/mini museum on the premises in Miramar, about 10 minutes from our hostel. We dropped in around 4 and spent an hour browsing through their books, miniatures, and original movie props. They have a friendly Sheepadoodle named Hendrix who milled around diverting attention from the works of art on the shelves. It was beautiful and I want to work there.

After leaving Weta, we returned to Wellywood and changed for church. December 7th is orthodox Christmas, so we were attending a Serbian Orthodox Christmas Eve service. The main room of the church is large and open, with portraits of saints lining the walls and a large wooden façade on the rear wall. I lit two candles, one for Pam and one for Ben. Father Ljubo led the service, attended by four alter boys. I didn’t really understand much as the liturgy was delivered in Serbian with snatches of Serbian-accented Kiwi English. There was a lot of chanting and censer-swinging.

After the service, we adjourned to a side building for some bread and hard alcohol. I quickly found a shot of Rakija pressed in my hand, only to have it replaced after I dutifully downed it. After Rakija we were served warm sweetened Rakija.

Dinner was at Osteria del Toro, a gorgeous new Italian place right outside the door of our hostel. The food was delicious and there was a surplus of staff attending us.