Since the company I helped found a year and a half ago decided to give up the ghost, I figured I'd fly off to New Zealand and study dolphins instead. Yup, I'm serious. Tomorrow, May 3rd, I'm leaving. If you want to read about what I'm doing, you can go take a look at the New Zealand Dolphins on the EarthWatch web site. This means that I get to see all that wonderful scenery from Lord of the Rings first hand!
A few years ago, to get to Smøla, Norway, where my great grandpa was born, we took a train from Oslo to the west coast. We then took a bus through the fjords, around long inlets, through tunnels under the water and over bridges to get to Kristiansund where we spent the night. The next day we rented a car and took more bridges and tunnels and a ferry to finally get to the island.
Traveling to Kaikoura, New Zealand, has felt much the same. By car to Sea-Tac, then multiple planes to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Aukland and ChristChurch. From there I hopped a shuttle for the 3 hour ride to Kaikoura. If this paragraph isn't as long as the last one, it's only beacause I didn't elaborate enough. All that flying must have worn me out.
It's always interesting what kind of snacks they feed you on short plane rides. They generally seem to be from some small company that gives their product to the airlines at a loss in the hope that some rich food tycoon will see it and give them lots of money for the privelage of selling it. I know someone who tried this - Dr. Cookie. Unfortunately, no rich tycoon gave him money. I wish they still gave away his stuff though - instead we were given tiny bags of tasteless, dry pretzels. The last bag just said, "ranch flavored" (because ranch flavoring is cool) and that it included almonds. It didn't taste even vaguely ranch-like (unless they meant it literally) but it did include 3 almonds. I tried to picture the machine that carefully counted out 3 precious almonds per bag. My guess is that no rich tycoons are going to be impressed with that product.
Western society is so polite. Hand garbage to a flight attendant and she says, "Thank you." And she smiles while saying that. She's not smiling through clenched teeth. She seems to be genuinely happy that I've just handed her garbage.
So here I am in Aukland (there being no Auks in sight). Even though everything spins the opposite direction and they all drive on the wrong side of the road, it doesn't look much different from what I left. There's still a bunch of thick clouds in the sky that look like they want nothing better than to pour down rain. They're holding off right now just to make it more dramatic once they get started. What they don't know is that by then I'll be somewhere else so they can't impress me.
The scenery from the planes wasn't much to see, for all the time I spent on them. It was night the whole time from LA to Aukland and even in the light, all I would have seen would have been water. Finally, at the end of the last leg, coming in to Christchurch, the clouds opened up. It showed green fields chopped up by tall trees. The guy sitting next to me is from Cambridge - he remarked that the fields look a lot like England. In England I saw fields divided by rock fences and hedges, but having the pastures separated by such tall trees gives it a very different look. Some of the patterns of trees look like they should spell out words.
The Brit I'm sitting by is on a 5 month trip around the world. He just spent 3 months in Latin America - Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, and Brazil. He was fresh from Rio. After a week in New Zealand, he's headed to Australia, Hong Kong, Japan. In comparison, spending 3 weeks in New Zealand sounds pretty dull and unadventurous.
The land outside Christchurch is flat and mostly pasture. I see lots of sheep, some cattle and something that looks like deer or elk. As we travel north, the terrain starts to get hilly then rugged. The hills with the sheep-given crew cuts give way to steeper hillsides covered with a lot of vegetation I don't recognize. (And what I do recognize looks depressingly like scotch broom, probably introduced.) The river beds all look like they occassionally are home to violent torrents of water. Right now there's just an innocent looking little stream meandering through a wide gravel bed.
Well, I made it to Kaikoura. On the plane across the Pacific I got three seats to myself, so I was able to get a little bit of sleep. I don't even seem to be jet-lagged today. Yesterday, Sunday, was windy and cloudy for most my travels. The clouds opened up in time for me to see the fields around Christchurch, but that was the only view from the plane. I got to wander around Christchurch for a little while before catching a shuttle bus to Kaikoura. The land changed from flat to pretty rugged hills over the course of the three hour ride. Lots of pastures. Gorgeous countryside. A few thousand times more sheep than people.
Today was sunny and beautiful. The house we're staying in is up high on the Kaikoura pennisula with an incredible view. A bright orange sunrise greeted me this morning, over the water, right outside my window.
This is what the town of Kaikoura looks like. This is just down the street from the house we're in, looking north toward the mountains.
Today we learned all about what we'll be doing over the next couple weeks. How to observe and record info on the dolphins, boats and divers from the hill overlooking the south bay. And we almost made it out on the water. We were already to put the boat in the water but a couple things kept us from doing it. Three dolphin boats were putting in right as we got there and there's a limit of three boats hassling the dolphins at any one time. But the main problem was that the swells were huge, enough to make it difficult to get our small boat in the water.Tomorrow we actually start the research. Should be fun, especially if the weather stays like this.
This is the view from the same spot as the last entry but looking south. This is the bay we'll be watching for dolphins in.
Today we started our first actual dolphin research. Cindy woke us up just in time to see another beautiful sunrise so we could eat, make lunch, etc. and go up to the water tower to track dolphins. We stared through the binoculars 'til we spotted a medium sized group that looked like it would be good to track. We could see a few fins sticking out of the water, but it was the leaping dolphins that really made the group easy to spot. So we got all the equipment set up: theodolite (a surveyor's tool used to pinpoint distant objects), computer (for data entry) and all the cables to connect things together. They like to have at least a half hour of data to make it statistically significant. We were 15 minutes into it when a really strong wind threatened to blow us off the hill. And when I say really strong, I mean really strong.
So we went for a hike instead. After walking through the clover, dandelions, scotch broom and buttercups, we made it to the New Zealand "bush." It was very cool to walk through such different plants. Fern have divurged to fill a whole bunch of niches. There are huge fern trees, small ferns growing on fern trees, and ferns that didn't look like ferns. There are several trees they call "pine," but they look about as similar to pine trees as Western Red Cedar looks to true cedar (in other words, not much). And the birds were very interesting to listen to. Some birds called bell birds have a beautiful call - they were all around us giving us their music in stereo. Between the plants and the birds, it felt like we were in some tropical jungle, not a temperate forest. Here's a picture of a treefern.
Today we went out in the boat to track the dolphins first hand. At one point we were surrounded by hundreds of dusky dolphins, jumping, playing in our wake, having sex, and just generally swimming around. We would track where we encountered them, conditions at the time, what they were doing, and take pictures of them for later identification. Unfortunately, the computer I was using yesterday ate the disk I've been using for transporting pictures, so I don't have any dolphin pictures for you today.
Beautiful day. Gorgeous area. Incredible wild life.
Today we were on the water from just past sunrise to sunset since the weather was so good. Remember that it's approaching winter down here, so that's not quite as long as it sounds, but that still makes for a long day. The dolphins were in a hurry a lot today. A huge group of them would race one direction, then after awhile turn around and race the other way. The water was boiling with dolphins.
We also saw a large selection of other life out there today. The huge albatross is pretty entertaining when it takes off from the water. When it doesn't have wind to help it lift off, it runs across the water until it gets enough lift. When it banks above the water, its wing tips are just barely above the waves. It's amazing it doesn't accidentally get them wet. We saw a blue penguin which is the smallest penguin in the world and the one that occurs the farthest north in New Zealand. There were red-billed gulls, lots of different kinds of petrels, and a whole bunch whose names I've already forgotten. Then we got a rare treat of getting to see what may have been a fin whale. None of the researchers we were with had seen one in person before. It was a lot harder to follow than the dolphins since it travels a lot further between surfacings and doesn't travel in groups.
Today we followed a fin whale, which we first spotted yesterday. For those keeping track, it's the second largest animal in the world. We had an easier time tracking it today because it had a posse of dusky dolphins playing in its wake. It only breathes every few minutes, yet travels pretty quickly, so without the dolphins it's hard to keep track of. We'd see the blow hole, a huge spout of mist, followed by a long body and eventually a dorsal fin. While the dorsal fin is large for a whale, it looks pretty small in relation to the rest of its body. But the human-sized dolphins jumping around it put the whale in perspective. It never even showed us the last third of its body or its head.
Another entertaining event was when a large pod of dolphins suddenly got spooked. They all swam away from the center in a perfect circle. When they're really going fast, they porpoise, where their whole body comes out of the water in leaps. It was truly impressive watching dozens of dolphins swim as fast as they could toward our little boat.
Ok, it's decided. I'm going to start charging for access to my web log and the proceeds will go toward allowing me to live full time here. So everyone has two choices - you can either all give me a bunch of money, or you can tell all your friends about my log so they can help cut down the costs for everyone. Or one of you could sacrifice for the good of the whole and advertise for me (since I'll be far too busy) so we can have a really large sponser base. Thank you for your support.
A few other interesting sights from the last few days I didn't have a chance to write down...
We've seen a lot of fur seals. They hunt by themselves and seem to have their territory pretty evenly divided. One of the ways we gather data is to follow GPS points across the bay to get samplings of exactly where the dusky dolphins like to hang out. In some areas we end up threading an obstacle course of seals while trying to follow our lines. They have a funny way of holding their fins that makes for a really odd profile on the water. The other day we saw a fur seal that had caught a fish that was too big for it. They have to shake their head back and forth to try to rip off bite-sized chunks. Birds gather around waiting for extra tidbits to fly off. It's quite a show with a flock of birds surrounding a seal trying to rip apart a fish. A picture of a fur seal surrounded by gulls...
Yesterday we saw a dolphin orgy. Dolphins mate quickly while swimming. There was a single female swimming around with three males trying to mate with her. From what we could tell, they took turns and this kept going for a long time. The males would all swim upside-down underneath her, waiting for their chance. We've occasionally seen them mate, but having three all try to mate with the same female was a new experience.
The dolphins really seem to enjoy doing their acrobatics. Whales and dolphins jump for various reasons - to knock off parasites, to herd fish, to signal others - but the way the duskies jump, it's hard to believe it's for any other reason that they're just having a good time. They're one of the most acrobatic species of dolphin and have a wide variety of jumps. Sometimes they come down on their side and cup themselves to make a loud slap. Other times they seem to be trying to get as much height as possible. Some of them try to flip in a full 360 before landing in the water. I've also seen them do back flips. When they're in a hurry, they porpoise, jumping completely out of the water.
Today was time for some land based observations. This way we can observe the dolphins without affecting them at all and track a group as they move around. Ideally we track them first by themselves, then once the "swim with dolphins" boats show up and after they leave. First we tracked a group from a spot really close to the house, on the Kaikoura pennisula. The group we were tracking, which was about 3 and half kilometers away, had about 150 dolphins in it. Apparently this was too small for the dolphin boats. They motored over to them then continued on, looking for a larger group. The larger group was too far away from where we were so we headed over to the other observation spot, Otumatu. It's a 20 minute drive south down the coast followed by a 20 minute hike up a hill. The last few days on the boat have been cold because of the constant wind on the small unprotected boat, but today was pretty warm - direct sun and no wind. Unfortunately, the large group of dolphins was about 6 kilometers away, midway between our two observation stations and too far for accurate tracking. Then the theodolite, the surveyor's tool we use for determining angles and hence locations, started acting up. So we quit early.
Here's the view from the watertower looking south.
This is the view from the other observation station, Otumatu, looking north. The distant point to the right is the Kaikoura pennisula.
We went to check out a beach and tide pools. About a month ago there was a huge storm which damaged the road and washed lots of seaweed up on shore. There were huge mounds of very large types seaweed along the beach. Some of the seaweed was as thick as an arm and very solid. The bull kelp had thick, flat pieces that looked like they'd make great leather jackets. The kelp holdfasts did their job well, there were chunks of rock still attached - it was simply that the rock hadn't done its job. The beach was filled with snail shells, colorful paua (abalone) shells, the bodies of hairy seaweed crabs, sponges and an amazingly large variety of seaweed - venus necklace (which looks like a beaded necklace), sawtoothed combweed, bladder kelp, bullkelp, paddle weed and a whole bunch more we couldn't find in the book. The tidepools were filled with a soft pink coral, barnacles, limpets, chitons, snails and red beadlet anenomes. At the mark for really high tides were tiny periwinkles, biding their time until the next splash of water hit them.
Part of the daily ritual here is to watch the weather report at night to try to get an idea of whether the next day will be a good research day. If there's too much wind, rain, fog, snow, sleet, hail, locusts, etc. dolphin spotting becomes very difficult. But I get the impression that they import most their weathermen from the Pacific Northwest so we reserve judgement until we actually see the weather in the morning. Cindy and Amy get up first, walk down the road to the water tower and see what the bay looks like. If it looks reasonable, they come wake up John and me so we can get ready.
Last night the weather report said there was a front coming up from the south. For those of you who are geographically challenged, to the south of here is the Antarctic Ocean. This morning the bay looked marginal, but we decided to give it a try. It was already pretty choppy by the time we got the boat out. Above us was blue sky with a few high clouds, but to the south we could see a wall of dark clouds. We headed out and found a few duskies, but they weren't in a very social mood. The group kept scattering and it was hard to get close to them. Usually a few come over and start riding our wake, but today they didn't want to be bothered. It was getting really hard to spot the dolphins over the swells and to distinguish their fins and splashes from the white caps that were starting to form, so we decided we'd have to cut the day short.
Here are some dolphin pictures from the last few days.
Here's the fin whale and the dolphins that were porpoising to keep up with it.
And for those of you who don't believe I could actually get up in time to see a sunrise, here's an example of why I can get up early. To be fair, it's 11:30am back home when I get up. Mike's probably just stumbling out of bed by then.
When the weather is bad, you get to process all the data you've been collecting while the weather is good. One of the things that means here is fin matching. In the boat, Amy and Cindy and occasionally Dan, Amy's husband, get lots of pictures of dorsal fins. Back home, the fins are catalogued based on the notches in the fins. Young dolphins have smooth fins and are almost impossible to differentiate based on fins. But the older ones have plenty of scars so you can recognize them over time. This allows the researchers to figure out where they spend their time. Some of them, males more than females, travel to the north end of the south island during the winter, to Marlborough Sounds. Cindy will spend a couple months up there at Admiralty Bay this winter, doing some research to see how the proposed mussel farms may impact the dolphins that like to winter there. There's a really small area the dolphins stay in and that happens to be exactly the same spot some Maori mussel farmers want to expand their farms into. Tuesday night, Dr. Wursig and Cindy will be going up there to chat with the farmers about the research.
Today is our day off, so John and I decided we'd actually try the dolphin swim, one of the things this research is looking at. We met down at their shop at 8:30, donned wet suits and took the bus out to the boat. Watching the dolphins from the boat was old hat for us by now, but it was pretty cool to get to swim with them. Before we went, we watched a video which explained that the dolphins wouldn't necessarily be interested in us - we needed to approach it like we had to entertain them rather than for us to sit back and be entertained. They said you're more likely to get the dolphins to check you out if you make noise, dive down with them and turn around to follow them when they swim circles around you. Whenever I stuck my head up, it sounded pretty funny with all the swimmers splashing their fins and making funny noises through their snorkels to attract the dolphins. I must have succeeded because plenty of dolphins were interested in me. They'd come take a look at me and swim circles around me. It was pretty hard to keep up. There I was floating in a cumbersome wet suit at the surface of the water with my fins splashing in the air, choking every time too much salt water went down my snorkel while the streamlined dolphins danced around wondering what such a clumsy beast was doing in their world.
The afternoon was really windy - this time from the north. If we had been out on the boat, we would have been forced in. I took a walk around the pennisula. It's a gorgeous spot. Most of it is pasture land for sheep and cows. I can't help but think that in a few years this whole pennisula will be covered with houses, shops and roads. Around one end is a spot where the fur seals like to hang out. They recently built a parking lot right next to it so people can get a better look at the seals, but that also means there are a lot fewer seals there now.
I walked along a rocky beach where the rocks were covered in snails. You have to be careful where you step. I watched oystercatchers dip their long red bills in the water looking for food. It gives me a strong idea of just how easy it would be to upset the balance of life here. I imagine a few kids running around with their dog, the kids squashing the snails without noticing and the dog chasing off the oystercatchers. If the birds don't feed here, where do they get their food?
Today it was just Amy, John & me on the boat. Cindy was headed up north for the day. Though we're studying dusky dolphins, which is mostly what we see, there are a couple other types of dolphins that live here. Hector's dolphins are some of the smallest dolphins in the world - they only live in New Zealand. A few days ago we saw one small group of them. Common dolphins are also here. They're a similar size to the duskies, but have a band of tan on their sides. They sometimes swim among the duskies. Today, as Amy tried to take pictures of duskies, commons kept popping up. But then the wind picked up and the battery for the camera went dead, so we called it quits about mid-day.
This gave us a chance to drive a bit north and take a short hike into some beautiful falls and then check out the fur seal colony. This overlook is a little more seal-friendly - you're on a platform above them and they don't really seem to pay much attention to the people. Today they were mostly just sitting around not doing much. The pups were a bit more active, climbing around on the rocks and making lots of noise. Here's part of the seal colony. Note all the dirty smudges where seals like to sleep.
Well, apparently my pleas for money weren't quite impassioned enough. My dad tried taking up a collection for me and all he got was 27 cents. That would have paid for enough gas to get us only a couple hundred meters from shore. Then I would have been stranded out in the bay. Sure I would have been surrounded by dolphins and would have had an incredible view of the mountains but then where would I have been? So now you can understand why you need to place your donation. If you give $100, you can help pay for a full day of my enjoyment. Or become a corporate sponser and give $1000. You can't write it off on your taxes, but just think of how much fun I'll be having. And thank you for your support.
Even though we're headed into winter, we've had amazing weather, apprently the best any of the teams have had. So good in fact, that this is the first day we haven't gone out in the morning. Today was cloudy, windy and drizzly. We'd occasionally take a look out in the bay, just in case it changed its mind, but it hadn't.
So I figured instead it might be a good time to make some plans about what to do once I have to leave here, since that's only a couple days away. The info centres here are great (even if they can't spell) - they can give advice, figure out times, make reservations - just about anything you need for traveling. So I made reservations on a couple buses to get from here to Queenstown by Saturday.
One of the added bonuses we get is talks on what Amy, Cindy and Dan have studied and done research on. Today's talk was on the research Amy had done for her master's thesis - tracking bottlenose dolphins off Galveston Bay. Cindy told us about the research she's about to start - studying dusky dolphins in Admiralty Bay on the north end of the south island. Dan did a talk on sperm whales, which is what he's working on for his doctoral dissertation. We've also seen several interesting videos about cetaceans in general. But the great thing is that we get to learn without having to take tests. And no homework.
We woke up to another beautiful day - but it was very cold out on the water. Today we ran tracks at the south end of the research area. We ran into a group of hector's dolphins who played with us for a little before going off to do whatever dolphins do. Lunch was out on the water, huddling from the cold and staring at the views.
Then we heard on the radio that one of the whale watching boats had spotted a whale not far from us but they weren't yet sure what it was. They thought it was perhaps a minke or bryde's whale. We figured that since all we've gotten to see are duskies, hector's dolphins, common dolphins, a fin whale, a bunch of fur seals, several species of albatross, several blue penguins, various petrels, a few types of gulls, shearwaters, and other assorted types of wild life, we deserved to see a new type of whale. But after finishing our track line and going the 6 miles to where the whale had been sighted, he was already gone.
So today the dolphin research is over. Now I'm off to wander around the country for awhile. Amy, Dan and Cindy were headed into Christchurch today, my first stop on the way to Queenstown, so I rode with them. Amy and Dan get to stand in line and wade through New Zealand paperwork trying to convince the Kiwi government to let them stay here longer. Cindy is off to the library to do research. And I'm off in search of covered places to get out of the rain - looks like the weatherman lied again. My run of good luck apparently has run out. Just in time to head to the rainiest part of New Zealand at the end of fall. Hmmm.
BTW, all the pictures I've posted here have either been shrunk down or cropped. You can order the full versions, or any of the pictures I haven't posted, by sending your credit card number to email@example.com. Remember to include the expiration date. Hey, since no one has yet paid anything for reading my log, I have to come up with some way to make a living while I'm here.
Here's your Kiwi language lesson for the day - you don't "rent" things, you "hire" them. You can hire a car, a bike, golf clubs... So do you have to conduct an interview first? "Well, it says here that you've only been a car for a year. Sorry, I was looking for more experience. Next!"
Christchurch is a nice town. Somebody said it has a population of about 200,000, but I didn't count so I don't know for sure. They've got a couple parks and a big botanical garden in the middle of town. They've also got a nice greenbelt and walking path along the river that flows through town - the River Avon (names in New Zealand are either Maori or named after some place the settlers came from). Though early settlers gave New Zealand a very strong UK feel to everything, Christchurch has a wide selection of international restaraunts - Thai, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean. And it obviously has visitors from around the world. Though the official languages of New Zealand are English and Maori, the official languages of tourists in Christchurch seem to be English and Japanese - I haven't seen this much Kanji since Tokyo.
Today has mostly been spent on the bus, starting at 8:20 in Christchurch and finishing up in Queenstown at 4:15. It took awhile just to get through all the suburbs and out into the country. The Canturbury plains cover a large portion of this corner of the island. It's mostly pasture land for sheep, with cattle and deer thrown in every once in awhile just for variety. After a few hours we started going through the foot hills of the Southern Alps. This area looks a lot like eastern Washington, big brown soft hills. We haven't seen a trace of anything native all day - lots of pine trees (they farm Monterey Pine here), scotch broom, sheep. I don't know what this land looked like before Europeans got here, but I don't think the barbed wire fences are native either.
Before people arrived in New Zealand just a few hundred years ago, the animals on the islands were all birds - no mammals (except for a single species of bat), no marsupials, no dinosaurs. As with lots of islands, many of the birds lost the ability to fly because they didn't have to escape from anybody. The Maori wiped out the giant Moa not that long ago. But if they hadn't, the Europeans would have. People brought lots of mammals that loved to eat things that hadn't developed any defenses against them - cats, stoats, weasels, possums. These creatures wiped out a lot of the native bird and plant species.
Tuis have a very unique call & the Maori kept them as pets and taught tham to talk. Kiwis are nocturnal. Tuatara look like lizards but they're now considered a 'living fossil' - they first appeared when the dinosaurs did. They've survived for 225 million years, but rats have almost wiped them out.
Queenstown is a good place for the adventurous. You can bungy jump from a wide selection of places, take a jet boat through some of the surrounding canyons, go paragliding or "parapenting" (which is like a parachute but it glides more), do some white water rafting, skydive, travel the gondola up to a good overlook over the city, take helicopter or plane rides for viewing the surrounding countryside, try paintballing, sailing or hang gliding. Since I've only got a day to look around here, I didn't have a chance to try many of them. I started by taking a jet boat up the Shotover River. Since the boat gets its propulsion from jets rather than propellers, it can travel over very shallow water. And it steers differently than you'd expect. The driver had a lot of fun pretending like he was about to run into logs, rocks and bridge supports. Even when you knew it was coming, it was a pretty convincing illusion.
The jet boat also came with a complementary view of the underwater observatory. They feed the trout and salmon (both of which have been introduced for sport fisherman) so you can watch them swim around. There's also an eel which peaks out from the grass at the bottom. And ducks are very funny to watch from underneath. If they knew they looked like that they'd probably stop swimming.
Then I looked around a bird and tuatara reserve where I actually got to see kiwis! I figured as long as I came all this way, the least I could do is see their national mascot. The kiwi is nocturnal, so the lights were low, but it is a peculiar looking bird. Among the other birds there, I also saw a Kea, which is the only parrot to live in a temperate zone. When I first walked up to them, one came over like he wanted me to entertain or feed him. Since his English wasn't very good, I couldn't quite figure out exactly what he wanted. I also saw the tuatara, which is quite endangered. It looks like a lizard but is the only living descendent of a line that broke off from other creatures about 225 million years ago, the same time the dinosaurs began. Within the last century or so, rats have almost completely wiped them out, so there aren't too many left. They now survive on a few remote islands around New Zealand that don't have any predators. In fact, most of the creatures in the reserve had the same story to tell. They were common all over New Zealand until being largely wiped out by agriculture and introduced mammals. Most of them have been transplanted to a few carefully guarded islands that still have no mammals. I can't imagine they have much hope of surviving for very long - small populations can too easily be wiped out. After tens of millions of years of unique evolution, most of them are going to be gone soon.
Next I went up the gondola to get a good view of the town. The Remarkables form a steep rocky line behind the city. In another month or so, people will be skiing on the other side of it, but for now it's completely bare. And Queenstown is on a big lake, part of which I got a good view of. Unfortunately I just missed my chance to try the "luge" - I arrived too late in the day. It seems to be a sled-type thing which you can steer down a concrete path. A chair lift takes you up to the top of a hill where you sled down. I also just missed my chance to bungy jump from the top of the gondola. Though I've never been that anxious to bungy jump (I'd rather jump out of an airplane), this one looks like something I might try. It seems to be more of a swing, though there's enough slack in it that you get some free fall, too.
Dessert tonight was quite tasty (though definitely unnecessary). It's a New Zealand dish called Pavlova. It's fried meringue with ice cream and smothered in raspberries and blueberries. I just wish I had a few more hours to work it off before going to bed.
There was lots of gorgeous scenery today, but unfortunately the floppy drive on my laptop is acting up so I may not being able to upload any more pictures 'til I get home. This also means I have to retype all my logs. For that I think I'm going to have to double my prices.
Today I took a tour bus from Queenstown to Milford Sound in the Fiordlands National Park. They pack a lot into the day so we got an early start - I was picked up at my B&B at 6:45. There was a gorgeous sunrise during the drive where the whole sky was filled with pinkish orange clouds and everyone on the bus was asleep. The only thing that spoiled it was the bus driver's choice of music - the kind where the percussion section consists of a button on a cheap synthesizer and the lyrics are stolen from greeting cards.
There are a lot of different companies competing for the tourist dollar here. Yesterday I had a choice between several different groups when I hopped on a jet boat. Another boat was traveling near us and would often stop at the same places we did. The drivers liked to give the other a bad time, letting us know that we made the right choice. I'm taking the "Kiwi Experience" bus to Milford Sound today. Some people who were doing "Kiwi Discovery" tried to get on our bus. It felt like a Monty Python sketch.
"Kiwi Discovery? No, they're over there."
"No. That's 'Discover the Kiwi Experience.' You want the other side of the street."
"But I thought that was 'The Kiwi Experience Discovery.'"
"No, they're down the road. You don't want them. They're a bunch of sods."
"Excuse me. Where's the People's Liberation Front of Judea?"
"Wrong sketch. You want the third door on the left."
"Oh, right. Sorry."
We went through a lot of beech forests today. They work a little different from the forests I'm used to. They form on rocky hills - first the lichen colonize the rocks, then the moss can live on the lichen, then the fern and other shrubs come in. Finally, this gives the beech trees enough to grab onto that they start growing, intertwining their roots to keep each other in place. But since their roots are shallow, they can have what the locals call "treevalanches" on the steep mountainsides. A couple trees give way and take out all the trees below them, causing long vertical swaths of empty rock where the lichen has to start all over again. Also, the valleys are simply grasslands since the lichen don't like the flood plains so the forest can't get started. The trees don't grow above 900 meters so you can often tell how tall a mountain is by where the tree line is.
Important lesson for the day - Milford Sound was misnamed - it's a fjord not a sound (or 'fiord' as the kiwis spell it). A 'sound' is created by water but a 'fjord' is carved by glaciers. And those glaciers did an impressive job of making that fjord. The cliffs are really sheer, but there are still beech trees on a lot of it.
Another cool thing we got to see today was an underwater observatory. The fjords create a really unique ecosystem. Glaciers pile up rocks at their edge - in this case that was at the mouth of the fjord. This keeps out the swell and lets in only a little sea water. The top layer of water consists of fresh water mixed with tannin from the rocks because of the huge amount of rainfall. This is one of the rainiest places on earth, raining 2 out of every 3 days (to people from the Pacific Northwest, that may not sound impressive, but it rains a lot harder here - we chose one of those 2 days by the way). The tannin in the water makes for dark water which keeps the seaweed from growing. Thus some deep sea creatures like black coral (which, suspiciously, is white) live closer to the surface than usual. The underwater observatory (which offered a lot more life than yesterday's), is deep enough that we could see the black coral (which usually lives deep enough that scuba divers don't even get to see it) plus a mixture of tube worms, sponges, anenomes, urchin, sea cucumbers and various fish - even a shark. Best view I've had since diving.
Little extra excitment - the bus broke down. Given the remote places we were today, we were fortunate that it happened in Te Anau. But it meant we didn't get back to Queenstown until 8 - long day.
New Zealand has been separated from all other land masses for a couple hundred million years. This has given its life plenty of time to develop in unique ways. In just a few centuries, humans have helped wipe out much of it. I say "helped" because it's actually the animals they imported that have done the most damage (though chopping down most the trees and clearing much of the bush for pasture land didn't help much, either).
Just within the last few years, the Kiwis have gotten serious about protecting what's left. Fiordlands National Park, where I visited Milford Sound-that's-actually-a-fjord, covers 10% of New Zealand. As of two years ago, all native bushland is completely protected. They're also working hard to control many of the pests that have been introduced.
One of the more extreme examples of what they've done is Codfish Island. 2500 volunteers from around the country swept across the whole island, collecting all the native life they found. They then poisoned the whole island to kill off everything else. After a short while, they brought back all the native life. It's now one of their most successful nature reserves.
Which leads me to the list of the top 4 greatest pests...
From here on out my days will mostly be spent traveling back to Aukland. I'm at the southern end of the south island and I need to be to the north end of the north island by Friday. Looking at my bus schedule for the next few days, New Zealand suddenly seems like a pretty big place.
We start the day in one of the driest places in NZ, where they grow a lot of apples and other fruit, and end up in the wettest. On the eastern side of the mountains, they measure their rainfall in the centimeters, single digits. But on the west coast, they average 5-7 meters of rain a year. We went from arid, brown hills to wetter beech forests to downright soggy rain forest, populated with a huge variety of life.
One thing that's pretty obvious about this country is that the water flow of the rivers is tied quite directly to the rain - everything drains quickly. When it rains, there are lots of waterfalls and the rivers grow. When the rain stops, most of the waterfalls vanish and the rivers shrink or vanish. Since they haven't had a lot of rain recently and we're headed into winter, the rivers are just small streams winding through much larger gravel beds.
Well they're getting their rain today. The bus driver kept saying things like, "Off to the right you would have seen..." It's probably just as well I won't have much time here. I couldn't have done much any way. But the view that I could see from the bus was still nice, even if the clouds hid all the mountains.
The road we're traveling along the west coast on was only built in the mid 60's. Before that, you only got here by boat, the bush being too thick to walk through.
There are a couple large glaciers that come pretty close to the Tasman Sea along the coast. When we got to Fox, we were a little ahead of schedule so the driver took us up to see the glacier. There were signs along the road showing how it's retreated over the years. We could just see the edge of the glacier through the fog.
Once I made it to Franz Josef, my destination for the night, I explored the town. Fortunately it wasn't very big, or else I would have been completely soaked.
Most people I've met are here for several months. They must have people back home who send them money. Lucky bastards.
Coming into town last night, with the pouring rain and thick fog, it was ok that I was just passing through. But today the sun is peeking through and the clouds are high enough that I get a taste of what I'm missing. The peaks and glaciers are just right there, a simple day hike from the town, even though we're at sea level. It looks like we would have had a spectacular view simply from the bus yesterday. But we're going the wrong direction now.
The excitement for the morning was waiting for a herd of cattle to get out of the way of the bus. Cows have no concept of what it means to get out of the road.
Lunch was at a place that featured such menu items as the Bambi Burger. Their motto was, "If we're not supposed to eat animals, why are they made out of meat?
They built this highway for a small amount of local traffic, but tourism has brought a few more vehicles to the road. All the bridges are single lane. This gets a little hairier once you get far enough north that the train shares that single lane.
Punakaiki was an interesting place. The shore consists of "pancake rock" - alternate layers of limestone and sedimentary rock that weathers unevenly and makes for impressive sculptures and blowholes. And here they have one of the largest areas of unspoiled native bush and forest - it's never been logged or mined. There was a gold rush in this area in the late 1800's when nuggets were found on the beach, but many of the towns have since completely vanished.
We started out the morning in rainforest, moved to pasture land, to farmed pine and scotch broom then back to forest that looked like huge green cauliflower. At Punakaiki things got a bit more lush and tropical, with New Zealand palms mixed into the vegetation. The rain settled back in to keep us company again so the view doesn't extend very far. We headed inland at Westport. Soon after, the sun set, so I'm hoping it wasn't a scenic drive.
I spent the night in Nelson. If I had a few days to spend here, I'd probably go tramping (that means hiking to those who don't speak kiwi) through the Abel Tasman National Park. They've got huts along the track ("trail" in American) so you don't even need to bring a tent. You can hike inland or along Tasman Bay.
My original plan for today was to take the bus from Nelson to Picton, then the ferry from there to Wellington followed tomorrow by a train or plane to Aukland for my flight home. But after a bit of passive travel, I was itching to get out and do something. When I found that I could hop a plane from Nelson, I figured I'd instead hire a car (the car had over 10 years experience, so I decided to hire it) and maybe get some tramping in. The advantage of traveling in the off season is you can change your mind at the last minute and not worry if things are already full. The disadvantage however is that there's a reason it's the off season. Sunny Nelson was getting their first rain in quite awhile. In fact, it was pouring - a biblical deluge. But I figured it couldn't rain all day, right?
The thing I have the most trouble remembering when driving on the wrong side of the road is that the bulk of the car is to my left. This is very important if you want to avoid scraping along parked cars. Another tricky aspect is the roundabout. In principle, I love them. Instead of sitting at a red light in the middle of the night, you barely even need to slow down. On the other hand, when you don't know which direction you want to go and there's a bunch of traffic and you're not used to them, it can be quite fun. Especially when you see a train track running through the middle. And then there's shifting with your left hand. And for the blinker...wait, no, that's the windshield wipers...
So since it's raining I figured I'd start with the wearable art museum. What started as a local art competition has turned into an international event and they just recently finished the museum, which sounded interesting. But when I dropped my token in the slot, it didn't let me in. The power had just gone out. After waiting for while for the power to return, I decided to move on.
Nelson and the surrounding area have apparently become quite an arts center. Since it was still raining, I just hopped from gallery to gallery along the road to the Abel Tasman National Park, my ultimate destination if the weather became cooperative. I sampled from their cafes as I went. I saw a nice glass gallery, watched them make a few wine goblets, walked through a hedge maze (which isn't such a great idea when it's wet and the passageway is narrow), and sat and read Maori tales over a cup of hot chocolate.
Well I was right - it didn't rain all day - sometimes it drizzled, occasionally it poured, sometimes it was just mist and fog. Actually there was even a brief period where it was sunny, but that was a short-lived oasis. But since rain predominated, I mostly kept to the covered spots. I finally reached the park when it was only a light drizzle. Bravely I set out for some tramping.
Abel Tasman was a Dutch explorer who set out to discover the riches of the fabled southern continent in the early 1600's. He discovered and circumnavigated Tasmania but missed Australia. He discovered New Zealand and sailed along beaches covered with gold nuggets but he didn't land so he never found the riches he was after.
It rained hard enough to get me damp but not soaked. The track was pretty good so there was very little mud despite the sky's best efforts. The Abel Tasman track goes along the coast for a ways and then turns inland. You can take water taxis down the beach to cut down the length of your multi-day outing or to explore remote areas in a single day. You can hire kayaks and explore the inlets. But my explorations just led me a short distance down the path, since sunset happens just a little after 5 at this time of year. It's a gorgeous spot - hopefully I'll be able to do it more thoroughly some day.
My itinerary for the day looks pretty schizophrenic.
11:20a - arrive LA, US
12:00p - depart Nelson, NZ
12:45p - depart LA, US
1:30p - arrive Aukland, NZ
3:30p - arrive Seattle, US
6:30p - depart Aukland, NZ
There was fresh snow in the mountains across the bay, lit up by the morning sun. I found a small cafe for breakfast then walked along the beach and admired the wide variety of shells. An enjoyable way to spend some of my last minutes in New Zealand.
The wearable art museum is right next to the airport so I figured it would be a good place to waste time before my flight. Apparently they have a big international competition each year and they have some of the entrants housed in the museum. There were some pretty wild ones. The categories include costumes that glow in ultraviolet light and unique bras. A recent winner was a custume that looked like a giant chair.
One thing that was refreshing for my flight from Nelson was the complete lack of security. I made my reservations over the phone. When I showed up at the airport, I told them my name and they handed me a ticket. They didn't ask for 3 forms of identification, nor ask my mother's name nor do a retinal scan. Then I got on the plane - no metal detectors, nobody searching through my dirty underwear and no cavity searches. This is in contrast to getting on the flight back to the states, where I had to go through two sets of metal detectors and show my passport at least 5 times.
[Some people believe that luggage with wheels will lead to the downfall of civilization, but I know that the real problem is people's insistance on playing music everywhere - in shops and restaurants, on buses, in the car, while jogging, while at work. Most of it is garbage and interferes with our brain waves. You can't think properly anywhere because someone forces you to listen to rap or country or the Beatles as interpreted by someone playing an autoharp. No wonder the world is in such trouble.]
As we left, the pilot dipped the wings toward Nelson so I got a last good look. It's nestled among green hills right along the bay, looking across at Abel Tasman National Park with mountains as a backdrop. As we headed toward the north island, the clouds took away the view. My view of Aukland was through rain clouds, with their famous spire seen through a shower. So that's goodbye to New Zealand - it's been fun - we'll have to do it again sometime.
For those of you who are still interested, I'll be posting more pictures some time in the next week or so. For those of you who aren't, I'll still be posting more pictures.
Pictures of my trip are now available.