Sunday, January 31, 2010

shootin' fish in a barrel

We took a little drive with John and Jane over to Golden Bay which is the next bay west from Tasman Bay where Nelson is. It was a full day round trip. Of course there were numerous stops and activities along the way. First was the Ngarua Cave, a cave in the limestone/marble rock on Takaka Hill. Many landmark buildings throughout NZ are constructed from the marble quarried on Takaka Hill.

From there we visited a couple stunning observation points as we climbed and then descended the hill. We also visited Pupu Springs near the town of Takaka. These springs have amazingly clear water that has been measured using special optical instruments as the clearest in the world, apparently approaching the theoretical maximum for water clarity.

But this is just the lead-up to the highlight of the trip. An industrious couple from the Netherlands started a salmon farm near this area. They produce salmon for the wholesale market but also offer another type of thrill by allowing "free" fishing in one of their holding ponds. Well, these fish have been farm fed their entire lives. They are conditioned to eat when the feed is thrown to them. So, you throw your line in, someone else throws a bunch of feed pellets by your line and, voila, you have a hooked salmon. Well, it isn't quite that much of a guarantee, but pretty close. In any event, it was great fun. My kind of fishing! The only downside is you must pay for what you catch (thanks John:)!). From here we made our way back up and down the hill traversing 52 streams that once took an overland party 11 hours up and 3 hours down in 1857, and on into Nelson.

Friday, January 29, 2010

walking the beach

Nelson has a reputation for being the sunniest place in NZ. They track the number of hours of sunshine and there is a national rivalry as to who has bragging rights. Nelson edged out the neighboring town of Blenheim for 2009. We have had a stretch of beautiful weather this past week. We took advantage a couple days ago and walked the Tahunanui beach. The sun is very intense here due to the proximity of the hole in the ozone. They recommend limited sun exposure between 11 and 4. Sunscreen is an absolute must. Unfortunately, while strolling the beach, the ocean water managed to remove the sunscreen on my feet. The tops of my feet are now a crimson color:(. Ah, sunburn in January...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

no shirt, no shoes, no problem

It is interesting observing the subtle differences between the norms that we as Americans become used to and what is normal elsewhere. New Zealand appears to me to be a very laid back place. For example, it is not uncommon to see someone doing their grocery shopping barefoot. Obviously, this is an absolute show stopper at home. Yet, the kiwis have a different perspective and it is enlightening to see things done differently and equally effectively.

On the other hand, I played golf with my friend John the other day at his club in a town a short drive south of Nelson. This is a nice small town club with a fun group of guys. They have a weekly event with some small prizes to the top couple finishers. After our round we gathered in the clubhouse. John politely counselled me to leave my hat in the car. I told him I'd just wear it. He then went on to explain that hats were not allowed in the clubhouse. I found that very interesting and surprising in a society that seems so casual. I am still learning.

We are enjoying the fruits of summer, literally. There is a produce market in town with fresh picked fruits and veggies that we have been buying sweet corn and cherries from. There is also a farmers' market each Friday that we have not been able to get to yet. Maybe this week. It is a real treat to have access to summer-time fresh produce in January!

Sunday, January 24, 2010


We were treated to another new experience yesterday. There was a sheep shearing contest at one of the local pubs in town. Now, NZ has a reputation for having lots of sheep. After our little tour around the South Island, I can attest to that. Sheep on hills, sheep on plains, sheep here, sheep there, sheep everywhere. With all these sheep, there is a huge industry for the skills involved in shearing these animals. The shearers in the "clean cut" category were able to completely shear a sheep in about 2 minutes. The "speed cut" category saw sheep completely shorn in under 50 seconds. These people wear special footwear referred to as mocassins that give them better contact with the floor and allow them to use their feet more effectively during the process. The best shearers can shear upwards of 200 sheep per day.

Since 1977, they have held world championship shearing contests every 2 or 3 years around the world. There have been 13 such championships. New Zealand has won the team competition 10 of these and David Fagan from New Zealand has won the individual competition 5 times! These kiwis know a thing or two about sheep! The next World Championships will be held in July 2010 in Wales; something to put on your calendar.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

planes, trains, and automobiles

New Zealand is a relatively small country with a population of about 4 million, about the same population as Minnesota. Of this 4 million, 3 million resides on the North Island. So, that leaves only about 1 million for the South Island. One thing we have noticed is how quiet it is here. There is an airport in Nelson, but most flights are domestic prop jets and it is right on the ocean so there is very little airport noise. In a town of 50,000 like Nelson, there simply is not as much hustle and bustle like we are used to. It is very serene:).

They drive on the left side of the road here. A huge adjustment if you've never done that before. One tip I received early on is to "look right". I repeat this over and over to myself while behind the wheel. The road system is very straightforward and basic. Almost all roads are 2 lane. Only in the major population areas like Auckland and Christchurch do they bother with multilane divided roads. In many respects this makes the adjustment to the left side of the road a bit easier.

The spine of the country is formed by the mountain range known as the Southern Alps. When the rain falls or the snow melts this water needs to find a place to go. There are many, many streams and rivers that make their way across the country. Consequently, there is a need for many bridges to cross these rivers. In many cases, due to cost or space restrictions, these bridges are one lane. While quaint, this creates a new traffic issue for the uninitiated. The law is that one direction has the right of way and is indicated on a sign posted on each side of the bridge. Usually the roads are not very busy so it is not much of a concern. However, in theory, the side without the right of way could sit for a long time before being able to cross the bridge. In any event, caution must be exercised when approaching one of these bridges.

Chris, HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Sorry we aren't there to celebrate with you. Have a great day!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

NZ nice

When I was in NZ 2 years ago, I happened to pair up with a couple of guys on the golf course one day. This was a pure happenstance situation. I was playing as a single and there was a 2-some behind me. I waited on one of the tees for them to catch up and we played together the rest of the way. Well, after playing our round of golf, one of the fellas asked me if I'd like to join them for dinner. You see, this was a common occurrence for these 2. They would play golf once a week and return to a delicious meal his wife had prepared for them. Luckily for me, Jane had prepared enough that day that one extra plate was not a problem. Well, we struck up a friendship. When Chris arrived for his holiday break, my new friend, John, invited Chris and me to play golf with his buddies and him, and invited us over for meals and barbeques, and just plain went above and beyond what anyone would normally do. They even brought me to the airport when it was time for me to fly back home. We have remained in communication since then, shared emails and exchanged Christmas cards.

When we arrived in Nelson a couple days ago, John contacted us and asked if we'd like to meet for coffee. Brenda had been here for such a short time that she didn't get a chance to meet them. So, on a beautiful Sunday morning in January, we got reacquainted over a cup of coffee and Brenda had a chance to meet John and Jane. It was like no time had passed.

Tomorrow we've been invited to dinner with them. I don't know why they are so nice to us, but I sure am happy about it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

feels like home

We've been in Nelson since Friday. It is great to be back and the weather has greeted us nicely. Temperatures in the 70's with ocean breezes have made these long summer days beautiful. The locals say the summer hasn't been great so far this year. Maybe we'll be here to enjoy the good part! I managed to find a couple second hand bikes that I have brought into ride-able condition. That is what we are using to get around. Our house is on a hill overlooking the Maitai valley to the southeast and east and the Tasman Bay to the southwest and west. We are up quite high from the valley floor, high enough that we have get off and walk our bicycles on the way up. Aside from having to climb the hill, it is fun not needing a car. The sweet corn and cherries are in season and we are thoroughly enjoying them.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Christchurch to Nelson

We took a bus from Christchurch up the coast to Blenheim, then west to Nelson. Much of the trip was on the ocean and breathtaking. The coast is rugged at times and serene beach at others. The sand was a unique gray color, something like the color of the crushed gravel they put on freshly oiled roads. Along the way and throughout NZ in addition to the sheep farms we have seen deer farms. They have a domestic deer industry that uses the meat and hides. It seems odd to see a herd of deer at the side of the road. They build higher fences to keep the high jumping deer in check.

Along east coast whale watching is a thriving industry. It is possible to take a boat or airplane tour out to see the whales. Unfortunately for us, we were just passing through.

We saw seals that live in this area lounging on the rocks. The driver told us that if the tide is in and the wind just right so that the rocks are not accessible to them, the seals will actually make their way up onto the highway and lay on the side of the road creating a driving hazard.

New Zealand has become a wine making powerhouse. The climate and conditions are just right to make world class Sauvignon Blanc among other varieties. We drove through acres and acres of vineyards in and around Blenheim. It is obvious this is a booming industry by the volume of new vines planted in expanded areas near old vines. It appears the winemakers are finding every available inch of land and also expanding out into previously untilled areas to make this liquid gold.

The photo is from the Botanical Gardens in Christchurch.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


We bused from Dunedin on the southeast coast about half the length of the South Island a few hours to Christchurch, the country's 2nd largest city. Christchurch is like most major cities, museums, art galleries, gardens, and more coffee shops than I have seen before. They even have a giant chess set in the city center where players walk in amongst the pieces. It is an easy city to get around in. They have a free shuttle/bus service that runs on a set route east and west through the city in addition to a cable car service that runs north and south. Between the two it is easy to get around. Even without these it would not be hard to see the sights of Christchurch on foot. We stayed in a small B&B just outside the city center and enjoyed meeting the owner and hearing his perspective on Christchurch.

The photo is from the arts centre and depicts a wire sculpture suspended in air in a courtyard. It almost looks fake. I thought it was a creative way for the artist to display his/her work.

Next up, Nelson NZ.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

like what you do

We took a bus from Queenstown to Dunedin the other day. This is about a 5 hour drive over and around mountains, through river gorges, across plains, and out to the Pacific Ocean. It is a beautiful trip with never a dull moment. At one point the bus stopped for a short snack break. While we were stopped I asked the driver if he drove that route regularly. He stated he had been driving it for 25 years. I asked if he got tired of driving the same route. He said he absolutely loved it. Now, this is beautiful country so it is not your typical 5 hours of freeway drudgery. Nevertheless, I don't think I could drive the same route for one week let alone 25 years. Clearly he found the right job!

Dunedin is a neat city of 100k+ on the east coast of NZ. It has many interesting buildings architecturally. My favorite was the train station. It is a Flemish Renaissance-style building built in the early 20th century. The platform is more than a kilometer long. It has a clock tower that is 37 meters high and, like European public clocks, it keeps good time! It is an amazing building that the city has maintained and is truly a treasure.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Chasing waterfalls

Our journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound was an exhilarating one. The trip is 4 hours one way from Queenstown, the closest “big” town. The steep, rugged topography coupled with dense forest and challenging climate results in a region that has shunned the development of roads and towns. Fjordland was designated a World Heritage Area in 1986 because of its unique natural features and its role in demonstrating the earth’s evolutionary history.
Fjordland is a cool temperate rainforest. So it is not surprising it was raining the day we were there. The area sees 250 days of rain per year. Milford Sound itself averages over 6 meters of rain per year. For comparison, Minneapolis receives about 2/3 of a meter of precipitation. The brochure pictures that are shown of Milford Sound are understandably taken on bright clear days. While stunningly beautiful, they are not representative of the typical day. The day we visited, the clouds were so low we could not even see the tops of the peaks rising out of the fjord. Of course, they do rise some 700 meters straight up out of the ocean. It rained the entire time and at some times it poured. The silver lining was that the combination of strong rain and the steep faced walls of the mountains rising out of the sea created so many waterfalls that it we grew numb to their physical beauty after a while. I am sure I saw more waterfalls in any 15 minute period of our fjord cruise than I had seen cumulatively throughout my life. So, while the fjord did not look at all like what we had anticipated, the beauty we experienced was equally impressive.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Homer Tunnel

On our trip to the fjord at Milford Sound, we took NZ highway 94. This road was completed in 1954. Prior to that, there was no road to Fjordland National Park. It was only accessible via the sea. The sticking point with the road was the mountain range that guards any overland access. In 1934, a depression era construction project began on the Homer Tunnel (nothing to do with the Simpson’s). The tunnel is an engineering wonder traversing 1.2 kilometers (3/4 of a mile in American-speak) through the middle of a mountain of solid rock. It was done with dynamite and pick-axes; no heavy machinery. The engineers planned in a 10% gradient because if they had gone straight across they would have ended up on a cliff when they emerged on the other side (don’t ask me how they do this stuff. I am always amazed at engineering. I think I am an engineer ”wannabe” at heart!). In any event, thanks to people who risked their lives (many lost their lives in avalanches while construction was under way) building the Homer Tunnel, we were able to have a leisurely motor coach ride to the Milford Sound fjord.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Don't drink the water

Today we took a motor coach trip to the Milford Sound, a fjord on the west coast of the South Island. It was about a 4 hour trip each way from Queenstown. There is very little between Queenstown and the Milford Sound other than fantastic scenery. Milford Sound is actually mis-named. A sound is a flooded river valley created by shifting tectonic plates whereas this place is actually a fjord, a glaciated valley gouged so deep that the sea water has made its way in. More on Milford Sound another day.
We stopped along the way at a little mountain stream. The driver told us there was a fable that said if you drank the water of that stream you would live to be 102. Well, I am not one to drink water directly from streams. That is something I simply would not do in the USA. I pressed him on this, but he said he filled up his water bottle there every time and the water was delicious. OK, imagine this, me, filling up my water bottle directly from the stream. I did it and lived to write about it. The water was cold and tasted great. About the 102…

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Long day’s journey into night…

We arrived in Queenstown after a 30+ hour travel adventure that included almost as much layover time as air time. We’re here and happy about it. We changed planes in Auckland in the far north of the north island and flew to Queenstown in the far south of the south island. The temperature change was quite noticeable. Auckland was significantly warmer than Queenstown. I think there is about a 5 degree latitude difference between the two. Queenstown is at 45 degrees south latitude. Coincidentally, Minneapolis is at 45 degrees north latitude. They are equidistant from the equator. Due to the ocean influence and the elevation, Queenstown is much cooler in the summer and much warmer in the winter than Minneapolis.
We ran into a “J-term” group from Gustavus Adolphus College in St Peter, MN. They were here for a couple days then heading to Australia. What a nice trip for these kids.
The backdrop for Queenstown is the Remarkables mountain range and Lake Wakatipu. Pictures do not do it justice, but it is all I can offer. The city was founded as part of the gold rush in the 1860’s. The gold is long gone but the locals are still making it out of tourist dollars. And with the setting, why not!