Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christchurch: Rebuilding after the earthquake

We started telling people we were going to New Zealand right about the time of the first Christchurch earthquake.   This understandably made friends and family nervous.  Then they had the second devastating earthquake, and we started having people ask us if we were still planning to go there.  Even a few days before we had someone tell us not to bother because it was depressing and they were still occasionally feeling aftershocks.  I still stubbornly refused to alter our plans, and I was glad we didn’t.

It has been nearly a year since the second big earthquake, and the city center of Christchurch is still closed to both traffic and pedestrians.  Much of downtown is punctuated with areas like this:

While a lot of the rubble has been cleared away, they are just now starting the process of demolishing a lot of the buildings downtown that are unsafe.  However, in October they opened a walkway through a part of downtown and to the Cathedral in the center of town, so the people of Christchurch could get a last look before demolition starts in January. Before then, it had not been safe to pass through anywhere.  Even so, they asked you to keep your ID on your person and not in a purse as you walked through, and every person in and out was counted.  To our parents:  We made it through with no problems, so don’t worry through the rest of this description. 

The Cathedral at Christchurch was the city’s grand centre.  It had a beautiful stained glass rose window.  This is what is left of the Cathedral:

Depressing—definitely.  So why am I glad we went?  Because the people of Christchurch are amazingly resilient, and my visit downtown might have shown me these disheartening sights, but it also afforded surprisingly hopeful ones.  Daniel read that they have plans to build the Cathedral again twice.  Once out of cardboard (yes, a full scale cardboard cathedral), so that people can still gather there for the 5-10 years it will take to rebuild a permanent one.

We also came across sites like this:

It’s a community project to replant trees and flowers downtown called “Greening the Rubble.”  They seemed to be very active already as we saw a profusion of spring flowers in the areas they have started to rebuild, and even a small patch of sunflowers.

They even have built one of the coolest shopping areas I’ve ever seen out of shipping containers.  There was one large department store downtown that survived.  Around it they have built a temporary mall that I thought was amazing:

They even had shipping container bathrooms:

Their food court was food trucks and picnic tables, which added a decidedly festive air.  There was even the Salvation Army Band playing Christmas Carols while people did their Christmas shopping:

This billboard in the background seemed to sum up what the atmosphere of the city was:

It says, “The Christchurch we love is still here.” 

Dunedin—Daniel refrains from stirring pot

Dunedin is one of the largest towns in the South Island, with a university and about 120,000 people.  I’d seen some pictures of it, and really wanted to make sure we stopped there, even if just for the night.  Well, Dunedin had exactly two pretty buildings.  The train station:

And a church:

There.  Now you don’t need to go.  However, we enjoyed it anyway, because we got to meet back up with our friend British friend Katy who had traveled with us some in Australia.  We had dinner with her, and she showed us what there was of Dunedin to see.  We met again for coffee in the morning, and then headed out to Christchurch. 

We did have a moment where it could have gotten exciting, I suppose.  There were a number of people camping in the center of Dunedin as part of the Occupy Wall Street protest.  We have actually seen protesters in Auckland and Wellington, too, but this was the first time we walked right by them.  Daniel was in pot stirring mode, too.  He thought of all sorts of things he wanted to say, and marketing ideas to sell them things, there by sneaking capitalism in on them.  Thankfully, he refrained himself.  Well, I’m thankful, but some of you longing for more interesting blog post might have enjoyed the stories that came from it.  Instead we just took a picture:

On the way out of town, we had to stop at the last of Dunedin’s claims to fame:  the world’s steepest street, Baldwin Street.  Daniel leans here to demonstrate:

It was imposing enough that neither of us tried to climb it, although they were selling accomplishment certificates for $2.  They didn’t seem to require any proof to sell you one.  We also passed a house we had to take a picture of.  For those of you that don’t follow rugby (all Americans I know), this fall was the rugby world cup, which was VERY exciting to the people we knew in Australia (who came in 3rd or 4th I think).  However, for Kiwis, Rugby seems more like a religion than a sport.  They happened to win the World Cup, so even though it was a few months ago, the whole country seems to still be really pumped about it.  Nearly every home and business flies an All Blacks flag.  However, we thought this was an especially enthusiastic house:

We particularly like the “Go The All Blacks” sign.  We weren’t sure why the “The” was there.  I guessed maybe it was like how people from the West Coast say “the” before the names of roads.  Like, “I took the 5 from LA,” instead of how the rest of the country just says, “I took 5 from LA.”

It was another long driving day to Christchurch, but we did stop at The Boulders, an odd geological formation along the South Pacific where there are some boulders that are inexplicably round:

Another pretty site, and I managed to convince Daniel to climb one:

They also had some tame deer nearby.  That has been another strange site in NZ.  Mostly the fields are full of sheep or possibly cows, but every so often you come across a deer farm.  Venison is more prevalent on restaurant menus.  I realized I had never seen a deer so close.  They are bigger than I thought.

Napping in the Adrenaline Capital

Queenstown is probably the #1 tourist destination in NZ, even by Kiwis.  The setting is breathtaking even among the many beautiful sights of the South Island, and it is one of the larger cities.  It has excellent shopping and the best food we’ve had in NZ, and it has about a million different ways to defy death for large sums of money.  Bungy jumping was invented here, and they also have jetboat rides, canyon swings, a luge, skiing, skydiving, there’s probably super fun way to set yourself on fire that we missed, too.  I’m not sure if it’s because you need a good stiff drink after all that, or because it simply attracts the same demographic, but it is also a hard core party town.  We were easily the oldest people at our hostel until we found a girl traveling with her mom. 

So what did us ancient J 30-somethings do in Queenstown?  We napped.  And. . .

Did laundry.  Boy do we know how to whoop it up, huh?

We did get out and see the city.  I took in the shops, and Daniel took a few laps around their pretty lake.  They had a small rocky beach on the lake, and there were several people sunning themselves, but not really anyone braving the water:

We also walked around their botanical gardens, where the peonies were in full bloom.  Daniel had seen it earlier and informed me there was a rose garden I would like.  Wrong flower, but he got right that I would like it. 

We were a little worried about the noise, both because we were staying at a Nomads, a chain of hostels that have a party reputation and because we were across the street from what appeared to be the busiest bar in town.  However, we had a very nice private room and thick glass doors on the balcony so we slept fine.  Here’s the view from our room:

Incidentally, the bar ended up having fabulous beef pies, and the restaurant where the Air New Zealand sign is had an amazing Green Curry Chicken.  That was one of the things we enjoyed most about Queenstown—the food.  On the whole, the food in Australia stunk, and NZ has just been a mite better.  The desserts have been good, but the actual food has not had much variety or anything else to recommend it.  You know it’s bad when I was excited about a KFC, someplace I hardly ever eat at when at home.  We didn’t have a bad meal in Queenstown.  We also had a Chili’s style burger at Fergburger with real bacon!  How do you mess up bacon?  It’s hard to describe, but they somehow manage it down under.  The best, though, was the gelato served on waffles place.  You can see Daniel’s enjoyment:

So, we didn’t live dangerously, but Queenstown did put a smile on our faces:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Doubtful Sound

The Glaciers aren’t actually the area closest to Antarctica as you might think. The most southern part of NZ is the Fiordland.  What is a fiord?  Daniel kept asking me and I didn’t know, but we eventually had someone explain it to us.  It’s a very deep body of water that has been carved out by a glacier that connects to the sea.  Most people go to this area to see Milford Sound and take a day cruise through that particular fiord.  However, if you research it further, Doubtful Sound is much bigger and generally agreed upon as the better trip.  It’s just further away and more expensive.  I found a company that was running an off season special a few days before that, so we decided to do Doubtful. 

It still took us most of the day just to get to our hostel in Te Anau.  We stopped at a little turnout and sat on the side of a mountain and ate our packed sandwiches alongside this fantastic river:

We got up early to catch our bus.  It would be a day of transportation changes.  The company we did the tour with picked us up at the hostel in one bus and drove us to Manapouri, the next town over.  Then we all got on two small boats and crossed Lake Manapouri.  It was cold, but I ducked out of the boat a second to get a picture:

Our tour guide was also our bus driver and boat captain.  He told us that believe it or not, he hadn’t seen the Lord of the Rings movies, but he did know a few of the places on the Lake that they had done filming.  He pointed out the mountain where Frodo got stabbed.  Since I have only seen the movies once, I didn’t really remember it, but several of members of our tour were excitedly snapping pictures of it.  Once across the lake, we stopped at the West Arm Power Station, a huge hydroelectric station that supplies 14% of NZ power.  It’s also the reason that you can visit Doubtful Sound at all.  The electric company tunneled through the mountain and built the Wilmont Pass Road the tour buses take to get to Doubtful.  Here’s the station, which they took us through:

To get to it, our guide drove our bus through a tunnel and did some very impressive backing and turning.  He had maybe two inches of clearance on either side.  We actually clapped and cheered for him.  Then he drove us over the pass, which is very, very steep.  He even stopped and let us get a picture of the Sound while we were still high up:

That’s just Doubtful Sound until its first bend.  It goes much further, all the way out to the Tasman Sea.  Doubtful Sound gets about 7 meters of rain a year, so they tell you to bring a poncho and expect to get wet.  You often don’t really get to get further than that first bend because of the weather.  We were very lucky and had a beautiful day, so go to go all the way to the Tasman, which they said they hadn’t been able to do for over a month.  It was a few hours of lovely views like this:

It was very windy and cold, though, as you can see from our pictures:

We were also fortunate enough to make our way past another seal colony.  It was still hard to pick them out from the rocks.  There's two there, a mom on the kelp in the bottom left, and a pup already on the rock:

We were almost back when we had the real treat.  The guide said he had only seen this a handful of times himself.  One of the crew had a very keen eye and spotted a speck of white under a bush.  We had almost decided he was mistaken and were going to finish heading back, when they emerged:  Fiord Crested Penguins, the second most rare penguin in the world. 

I thought they were infinitely more entertaining that the mountain Frodo was stabbed on J


There are two glaciers about twenty minutes from each other, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers.  Most people seem to do Franz Josef, and it is bigger and more majestic looking.  However, Fox has a pretty walking trail around Lake Matheson, and a much short trail to the base of the glacier and you can get closer to the ice.  So, we went to Fox, but you could tell most people just skipped it.  Their loss. 

We took the hour long trail around Lake Matheson first.  It was very pretty with more of those giant fern forests , mountains, and wildflowers.  However, it was very cloudy that morning, so while we were supposed to be able to see the reflection of Mt. Cook in the Lake, we mostly just saw smaller mountains and clouds.  Still pretty though:

Then we went on to the glacier itself.  This was a very odd experience.  All of the air around the glaciers is rainforest, so it’s very green and lush with mist like pictures I’ve seen of Costa Rica.  Then right in the middle of the rainforest is a glacier.  Let me illustrate.  I’m standing in the same spot here.  This is me facing away from the glacier:

Here’s me facing Fox Glacier:

Weird, huh?  The trail itself was sort of odd, too.  It was very rocky, and you were essentially walking along a riverbed that still had river in it, so you had to occasionally jump onto rocks to cross water.  There were also several signs warning you to keep moving and not just stop and stare because they still have a lot of rock falls, and occasionally tourists get hit. 

The other curiosity was the glacial pools.  They had this beautiful crystal clear blue water in them as you see here:

But the glacier itself was very dirty:

Daniel said he wasn’t drinking any glacier water; he didn’t care how much it was advertised as being clean and refreshing. 

Here's a pretty good picture of us in front of Fox:

After Fox Glacier, we did go ahead and hike a short trail around Franz Josef to get a look at it.  More imposing, but a lot further away:

We had dinner in town, where once again those evil biting flies attacked us while we were trying to enjoy the view.  We’re itchy, but we did get to see the mountains finally peak out from behind the clouds:

The West Coast and Fishy Pizza

After Nelson, we had a long day of driving to the Glaciers.  We also had miscommunicated amongst ourselves, and drove for an hour in the wrong direction.   Once we got back on track, we stopped outside of Westport to see a seal colony.  It was sort of like playing Where’s Waldo.  Even though the seals were relatively close, they were the same color as the rocks, so you didn’t see them right away.  There were a couple of times I spotted one and after looking at it for awhile, realized there were one or two more just a foot or two away that I had completely missed.  It’s the time of year that the pups are only about a month old.  I caught this one sunning its tummy:

We also saw several weka, another brown flightless bird that many mistake for a kiwi when they see it.  They are almost as rare, but less timid, so you are more likely to see them:

We stopped again to take in the Pancake rocks, named for the way the rocks look like a stack of pancakes.  It was very cold and windy and had even rained a bit, so we had hoped that the blowhole around them was spurting, but I guess it only does that at high tide.  Still, it was impressive looking:

That evening we stopped at Fat Pipi’s pizza to try the local delicacy:  whitebait.  I had seen several signs for restaurants serving whitebait, and our guidebook said it was something you had to eat on the West Coast of NZ.  I knew it was a fish, but I had no idea what it looked like until our pizza arrived:

It’s easiest to note around the crust, but that’s lots of tiny little fish with eyes on our pizza.  It was actually very good, but the key was just not looking at it or thinking too hard about it while chewing. 
We made it into Franz Josef Village that evening.  

Abel Tasman and Christmas Parade

Having recuperated for a day, Daniel was set to do some hiking at Abel Tasman National Park.  It’s about an hour and a half from Nelson, and isn’t much there but the park.  Even in the park, there aren’t many facilities or paved roads.  Most people come to the park, though, to hike the Coastal Track, which is a 3-5 day event.  It’s not really set up for people wanting to come to do a day hike, but we decided to try all the same.  We wound 11 kms up a mountain on a one lane gravel road and eventually found a parking lot where we could access the track.  We ended up walking for about 3 hours through some forest and a couple places where the track just stopped and you walked along the beach.  As we had come to expect from New Zealand, it was more beautiful scenery with hardly anyone else around. 

On the way back, we stopped at for dinner at Moteuka, a town a little bit smaller than Nelson, and less touristy.  They were blocking off the road for some event, so we inquired what it was.  It turned out to be the town’s Christmas parade.  So, we had to stay and witness that.  It reminded me a lot of the small town events I used to go to growing up in rural Indiana.  Everybody for miles was there and there was a float for everything.  The parade actually lasted over 45 minutes.  There were also the Santa Sprints, where you raced down the street for prizes.  There was even fair food, although the corndogs were tempura dogs, and the ice cream was flavors like boysenberry. 

They started us off with the police and fire department, and then they brought in the bagpipes.  What’s a parade without bagpipes, right?  Quieter, I guess.  Unlike Australia, that was settled by English convicts, New Zealand was settled by voluntary immigration from Scotland mostly, so I suppose it’s not surprising to have a large bagpipe group hanging around. 

Then came all the school groups.  The middle schools floats both had Harry Potter themes.  The Christian School interestingly enough had the kids all to a Haka—which is the Maori war chant and what the All Blacks do before a game to scare their opponents.  My favorite was this kindergarten float full of little elves:

Or maybe the preschool winter wonderland of penguins:

Daniel and I both got a laugh out of the high school band float.  To say they lacked enthusiasm is putting it mildly.  They had hit that perfect level of volume/practice that probably meant they weren’t going to get yelled at, and not an ounce more.

It was a fun treat to stumble upon.