28 July 2014

Niagara Falls, by guest blogger Daniel

Niagara Falls (NZ) is considered the smallest waterfall in the world. Apparently  the person who named it hade a sense of humor. So, without further ado, I present the majestic Niagara Falls (NZ).

27 July 2014

Lolly cake

We had to try it once.

Traffic jam in the Catlins.

Leaving Curio Bay

When we left Curio Bay this evening, we paused at the top of the stairway that descends to the beach and took one last, lingering look at the place. A petrified seaside forest, a rocky arc of chilly shoreline that plays host to a resident colony of penguins who casually waddle past the handful of visitors (like us) who come to watch them. It's one of the most remarkable spots we've ever visited. 

We were treated to mild, windless conditions tonight - a far cry from our first visit, when we were nearly hypothermic by the time we left. Tonight we arrived about 30 minutes before sunset and walked confidently down the rocky shoreline to the narrow inlet where - after two previous visits we were confident - the penguins would come ashore. 

And sure enough, a few minutes after we settled ourselves among the rocks, the first penguins arrived.  They clambered awkwardly from the waves and assumed their typical preening poses. Over the next half hour or so, another six birds emerged from the water and slowly made their way to nests in the nearby bush. We spent most of our time watching a nearby breeding pair preen and groom each other. Standing close together, their grooming ritual seems affectionate and tender - it's almost impossible not to anthropomorphize these charming creatures. 

Our experience of nature at Curio Bay is that it's unspoiled, intimate, and desperately fragile. We feel privileged to witness the daily routine of a remaining handful of endangered penguins, and we're torn between affection for these ridiculously cute creatures and melancholy at the knowledge that we're seeing something that may not exist in another generation. 

Is it right to want to experience something before it's too late, before it disappears or is degraded by its own popularity?  We've certainly experienced this ambivalence before: Machu Picchu is magnificent but feels a bit like a theme park. Curio Bay is thrilling because it's so simple and real - but the petrified stumps are smaller than they once were, because too many people think it's okay to break off a chunk as a souvenir. And the penguins' nests are too frequently disturbed by thoughtless visitors - as we experienced just yesterday.  

On two separate visits we've had the opportunity to spend three evenings with the penguins of Curio Bay, and they are among our most cherished travel experiences. It's a long trip from our home to the southern tip of New Zealand, and odds are pretty long against a third visit. So when we took our final look tonight, it was to frame that special place in our hearts and memories.

26 July 2014

Little Guys

On a cold, windy afternoon in the July winter of 2011, we sat on a rock on the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island and watched a Yellow Eyed Penguin emerge from the ocean.

The Yellow Eyed Penguin is one of the rarest penguins in the world, with fewer than two thousand breeding pairs left. The YEP makes its home along New Zealand's south and southeast coasts, where they build their nests in the forest, and then cross the beach to work a 9-5 shift in the ocean. They emerge from the water shortly before sunset, and return to their nests. If you're there when they arrive, they will not cross the beach. This is dangerous for them, and potentially devastating for their chicks. New Zealand makes every effort to protect its endangered species, so beaches where YEPs nest are physically off limits to humans.

Except for one.

The small YEP colony in Curio Bay doesn't mind human visitors. The seven-or-so mating pairs here bob through the surf, climb up on to the rocks, preen for a while, and then waddle across the beach to their nests. They don't approach people, but they don't go too far out of their way to avoid us either. 

The house rules are simple: 

- There should always be two meters between a human and a penguin. If the penguin gets closer, it's the human's responsibility to move out of the way. 
- Never get anywhere near the nests.

We knew that Daniel would be respectful of these expectations, but we talked with him about them anyway. He took the rules to heart. When a group of four beer-toting visitors marched past the beach and into the nests, Daniel kind of freaked out. We were silently indignant, unsure how to proceed. We're not the Penguin Police, are we? And what on Earth were they doing? Who drives a hundred miles from civilization to get a buzz and mess with an endangered species' reproductive cycle?

Moments later, a local man noticed what was going on, and slapped on his Penguin Police badge. We're not exactly sure what he said, but he said it well. The visitors took their beer elsewhere and missed the show.

And what a show it was. A single penguin appeared first, in almost the precise location where we first spotted one in 2011. Six more emerged from the ocean before we left. Daniel took hundreds of pictures of penguins. We took hundreds of pictures of Daniel. 

Despite the clear conditions and relatively warm air temperature, we entered our ninetieth minute on the beach without feeling in our fingers or toes. With the light fading anyway, we left the penguins behind and headed for the Niagara Falls Cafe, just as we did three years ago. And just like they did three years ago, the restaurant (which serves hundreds of visitors a day during the summer months) opened for dinner strictly for us. After a warm, comforting dinner like the one we'd enjoyed three years ago, we got in the car and took the same pitch-black country road back to the beach. As we rounded a curve, I remembered that three years ago, we nearly hit a lost sheep on that road. On this note, anyway, history did not repeat itself.

There was a Little Blue Penguin waiting in the headlights for us instead. We've waited three years to see one up close, so we're pretty thankful that we didn't kill him.

25 July 2014

Flying orcas

We were driving through the rolling hills of southern Otago when a majestic black and white bird swooped across a bright green field. We mused for a while about the unique, predator-free island ecosystem here that allowed such magnificent, high contrast birds to evolve without the need for camouflage.

(Not our picture)

When we arrived at our inn, we eagerly searched google for clues to this unusual bird's identity. A few clicks later, we learned that the Australian Magpie was introduced here to control pests. And like most of the animals that settlers introduced to control pests in New Zealand, the magpie subsequently established itself as a larger pest than the one it was brought in to eat.

Oh well. It's pretty, at least.

The fjord less traveled

Milford Sound, a remote fjord in the southwest corner of New Zealand's South Island, is the most popular tourist destination in the country. The iconic image of Mitre Peak rising above Milford's deep, dark water is a photo that every visitor snaps.

I snapped one in 2011.

What you don't always see in that iconic image, though, is the other boats. Milford Sound is like a ride at Disneyland: it's a thrill you share with a thousand other strangers all yearning for the same solitary moment.

When we visited Fiordland three years ago, our hosts told us not to miss Doubtful Sound. Doubtful is more remote than Milford, and gets far fewer visitors. To reach Doubtful Sound, you have to drive from Queenstown or Te Anau to Lake Manapouri, sail across the lake, and then board a bus that navigates the steep, winding gravel trail for 22km to reach the dock. Harder to reach, but what a payoff. When we sailed through Doubtful, here's what we saw: a kea, giant dolphins, fur seals, Fiordland crested penguins, mountains, and waterfalls.

Here's what we didn't see: another boat.

When we planned this year's trip, we decided to skip Milford entirely. This felt like a risky decision because the weather in Fiordland is chaotic. You never know what sort of conditions you'll have from moment to moment, much less the night before. We worried that if the weather was terrible in Doubtful, Daniel wouldn't get a real sense of what the fjords here are like. 

Weather tangent: we have been (knock on fern wood) so fortunate. It's the middle of winter here, but with the exception of light snow and poor visibility on our approach to Queenstown, we've had mild, clear conditions absolutely everywhere. Doubtful too! 

We sailed across Lake Manapouri, got on a bus, and took an educational detour through a subterranean hydroelectric power generating station. When we reached Doubtful at noon, we were delighted to see... no one. There were no other buses, and no other boats. We shared a boat meant for 150 visitors with only 13 other people. 

In the fjord, we saw dolphins and an albatross. Way off in the distance, we saw a group of little blue penguins (their actual name) bobbing along the water's surface. As we left the fjord and entered the Tasman sea, we saw a group of massive fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks. Here's Daniel, just as we hit the roaring forties.

Daniel gets motion sickness in the car, but he handled the large swells near the open ocean like a trooper. When things got really wild, he braced himself with one hand so he could take pictures with the other. For much of our time on the water, Daniel was a blur. He explored every inch of the boat's three decks, always racing from one spot to another for the best vantage point. 

In the fjord's "Crooked Arm," our captain cut the engines and asked for silence. Even Daniel was still. The only noise was the soft trickle of a distant waterfall. It was the perfect placid moment that you'll never have on Milford Sound.

After three hours on the water, we boarded the bus and headed back to Lake Manapouri to meet the catamaran. In a Steven King-ish moment of déjà vu, the same wild kea (alpine parrot) that we saw at the end of our bus ride back to the lake in 2011, identifiable by his bum knee, was there to greet Daniel. 

The bird is obdurate.

24 July 2014

When gas gives you heartburn.

Scenery overload!

Yesterday we enjoyed a final petit dejeuner at the Bonjour restaurant and headed out of the Queenstown area.  Shortly after passing the airport, the road out of town passes beneath the mountain range known as The Remarkables.  It's a brash name, but appropriate:

The highway continues southward along the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu and the beauty is unrelentingly amazing. During this part of the drive Melissa and I remembered a similar feeling of sensory overload - the sheer magnitude of jaw-dropping natural beauty becomes almost overwhelming.  Almost.  

And tomorrow, when we tour Doubtful Sound, the overload will continue (we hope).

22 July 2014

Daniel's Day

For two days, Daniel patiently indulged the grown-ups as we drove through the mountains around Queenstown in search of ridiculously scenic vistas. He enjoyed the scenery, but the steep, winding roads make him queasy. Today was his day. No car time!

We mini-golfed, rode a gondola up the mountain overlooking Lake Wakatipu, and bought very expensive jelly beans. Then we went for a stroll through the lovely Queenstown Gardens. Tomorrow we're off to Te Anau.

21 July 2014

The Drive, part 2

Today we retraced another drive we first took in 2011, albeit in reverse. The narrow isthmus between Lakes Wanaka and Hawea was a mindblower when we saw it on our first trip, and was no less impressive this time. Both lakes are enormous, among the largest and deepest in New Zealand, and they are separated by a neck of land perhaps a mile wide. Both lakes are surrounded by snowy peaks, and today were nearly mirror-like, with barely a hint of breeze.

I'm certain we took a virtually identical photo last time - and how could we not? This is the view of Lake Hawea that greets drivers about 10 seconds after turning east away from Lake Wanaka. Further around the shoreline on the right of the photo, the road curves south toward the resort town of Wanaka.

This is the view in the opposite direction (and note the distinctive double-topped peak on the left):

And about 400 meters in that direction is a separate roadside overlook view of Lake Wanaka:

If you look carefully you'll see the same double-peaked mountain at the center of the photo above. Only in New Zealand could two spectacular overlooks be separated by less than a quarter mile! 

And that's the main takeaway (and reminder from our previous visit to NZ): the scenery is unrelenting, gorgeous in every direction.  

The Drive

Today we flew from Auckland to Queenstown, self-designated adventure sports capital of the world. Visitors come here to ski, to skydive, to ride in jetboats, and to bungee jump. The town itself is a bustling, crowded mass of restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops - exactly the sort of place we typically avoid. So after we landed (in snow flurries that delayed our arrival) we picked up our rental car and headed out of town. 

We drove a dozen miles up the road to have lunch in Arrowtown, a small restored gold mining town that's no less touristy than Queenstown, but is considerably smaller. After lunch we drove back toward Queenstown to our hotel, located overlooking snowy mountains and the tumbling Shotover River canyon.

With only a couple of daylight hours remaining, we decided to take the wonderful drive out to Glenorchy, where we stayed during our last visit in 2011.  It's renowned as one of the most spectacular drives in New Zealand, which makes it one of the most spectacular drives anywhere on the planet.

The road follows the shoreline of Lake Wakatipu for about 40 kilometers.  At times you're at lake level, at other times you're driving high above the water, winding along a twisting single lane blasted from the cliffs.  Across the spectacularly blue waters of the lake, you're treated to a constant panorama of the peaks of the Humboldt Range.  It's not easy to keep your eyes on the road - and that's my only complaint about the drive: there are very few turnouts where you can safely get off the road and bask in the amazing views.  

19 July 2014

Good Little Traveler

Daniel is a great traveler in so many ways. He's endlessly curious, and approaches unknown things with an enthusiastic and non-judgmental attitude. We all love feijoa juice now, which Daniel wanted to try simply because none of us had ever heard of it. Here he is with a kumara burger in a pub near Auckland airport, planning his angle of attack.

Tomorrow morning, we will fly to Queenstown on the South Island.

It's a NZ thing

When you check into a NZ motel, you might or might not get: heat, wifi, hot water, TV reception, or blankets. You will always always get one of these, though.

Beautiful worms.

Today's destination, Waitomo, is a couple of hours from last night's motel, but we left ourselves the whole day to get here. Last night's motel was on the edge of Lake Taupo-- the biggest lake in New Zealand-- so we wanted a little extra time to explore. We found a small, swerving road on the map called "Volcanic Loop," and decided to check it out.

The brush was relatively barren by New Zealand standards, but the volcanoes were gorgeously snow-capped and active, with visible steam fumaroles near their summits. NZ landscapes change quickly, though. One turn, and we found ourselves amid rolling green hills terraced by sheep. Everywhere, sheep.

You're never far from a picnic table in NZ, so we picked up some Brie, crusty bread, and apples, and pulled off the highway for lunch.

We rolled into Waitomo with one purpose: to descend into a cave, board a small boat atop a black subterranean river inhabited by eels, and sail into a damp grotto illuminated by nothing but worms. 

It probably doesn't sound anywhere near as beautiful as it was. Glowworms live on cave ceilings, where they use bioluminescence to attract their prey-- bugs-- into their sticky, threaded snares. In a calm, quiet, black cave, they look like stars.

That picture was taken by a professional, and with a long exposure time. To my iPhone's camera, this cave is pure black.

Before we climbed into our boat, our guide walked us through a section of the cave where the stalactites and stalagmites have formed a natural cathedral-- so beautiful, both visually and acoustically-- that they occasionally hold Christmas concerts underground here. Daniel wished that we'd had the cave to ourselves so he could sing his heart out, but realistically, our group of twelve was as small as it ever gets here. Our guide told us that in the summer, there are usually two hundred people in the cathedral at a time, and over two thousand pass through the caves each day. This is why we travel off-season.

17 July 2014


We left Rotorua this morning for Waiotapu, a dramatic geothermal region with geysers, craters, spurting mud, and noxious, technicolor pools of boiling water.

The Lady Knox Geyser erupts every morning at 10:15, but not because it is faithful. The geyser's period is somewhat unpredictable, so a park ranger gives it a sprinkle of soap powder to break the water's surface tension and move things along on schedule. It's not as grand as Old Faithful or Strokkur, but Lady Knox treated us to a rainbow today.

Since Lady Knox erupts on a schedule, anyone who visits the park in a given day will be at the geyser at 10:15, and then head to the park's main circuit immediately after the water show. Our innkeeper advised us to wait out the crowd by visiting a spectacular but mostly-ignored pool of mud.

We really like boiling mud. It sputters, spurts, and gurgles in a comical way that belies the violent forces that set it in motion. Photo credit: Daniel.

We headed back to the main trail, where most of what we saw looked like the surface of Venus.

The colors, sounds, and odors at Waiotapu are nature's way of saying "keep out," but New Zealand reiterates the point with frequent warning signs like this one. 

We observed enough random, steaming holes in the ground to realize why you don't step off the path here: there's no way to know how much earth there is between your feet and the churning water below. They must have missed the holes.

Getting touristy in Rotorua

When we travel we usually avoid events and attractions that advertise on glossy brochures displayed in hotel lobbies.  This approach generally serves us well, but on this trip we have an enthusiastic 12 year old on board, so we're taking a somewhat different approach.

Yesterday we visited two high-visibility attractions in Rotorua: the Rainbow Springs wildlife park and Mitai Village, a Maori culture-and-dinner show.  Traveling without Daniel we likely would have given both of these attractions a miss, but we went and thoroughly enjoyed both.

Rainbow Springs is most known for its efforts to protect and restore New Zealand's kiwi population.  Although the kiwi is a nocturnal animal, daytime visitors can see them in a specially-designed indoor habitat that artificially replicates nighttime conditions.  Evening visitors can actually see kiwis in a semi-open environment, without any glass barriers between them and the birds.

We were surprised and charmed by these strange creatures. To begin, they are much larger than the robin-sized birds we imagined - the size of chickens! Then there's the whole "no wings" thing, and no tail... just an odd, egg-shaped creature with droopy feathers and a long, narrow bill, patiently scrounging for food in the brush of the enclosure.  Very interesting. We didn't get pics because photography would disturb the birds.

Rainbow Springs also features a number of clear pools filled with gargantuan, obese rainbow trout.  I usually enjoy seeing fish, but these were really kind of revolting, they were so oversized from eating the pellets provided by the park to visitors.

More enjoyable were the various bird exhibits, mostly parrots and similar, uh, birds.  We were all taken by the single African Grey Parrot who softly cooed "Hello" to each of us and made meaningful eye contact. Truly a remarkable bird, and kind of sad to imagine it spending its long life in captivity.

Finally, we took a ride on the park's low-key ride, a rather abbreviated boat trip through New Zealand's natural history, from the Jurassic to current time, ending with a fun plunge and splash.  It's an indication of how remarkably mild the midwinter weather is that we didn't mind getting a bit wet at the end.

After our visit at Rainbow Springs, we headed to the nearby Mitai Village for a Maori cultural show and dinner. 

16 July 2014

Farttown, NZ

When we arrived in Rotorua, our innkeeper boasted that you can fart in the middle of a crowd here, and no one will ever know. Steve successfully tested this idea today when he timed his own eruption to coincide with the Earth's.

This morning, we enjoyed the fresher air outside town.