Sunday, July 31, 2011

Abel Tasman

While up in the north part of the south island, we had to check out Abel Tasman national park.

The park is named after Abel Janszoon Tasman - the first European to lay eyes on New Zealand.  He found it in December of 1642, but did not land.  He was in search of a shorter passage to South America from Australia.

You can't drive through Abel Tasman - the park is shut off to cars - so your choices are boat or walk.  We did both.  We took a boat tour of the coastline, got dropped off at one beach and hiked to another beach 6.4 km away.  That is roughly 4 miles.  Not a big deal for two adults - but with two little kids, it was a bigger deal.  Especially when the kids like to play fairy, trip over their feet, and daydream enough that they start walking off the trail in the direction of the giantly steep drop off.

But, we held their hands and bribed them with jelly beans to walk on the uphills.  That got them through it.  Each of them walked approximately the number of kilometers that they are old.  And no-one fell off a cliff.  Success!

Trekking or sea kayaking through Abel Tasman is listed as one of the top five best things to do in New Zealand and it's easy to see why.  Unlike everything else I've seen in New Zealand (sarcasm intended), it's amazing!

Okay, so this is amazing in a different way.  Rather than go on about it, I will let the photos do the rest of the talking.

Our boat waiting to take us into Abel Tasman
First sight:  Split Apple Rock.  This area is full of soft granite, which leads to interesting rock formations.
Sea Cave next to Split Apple Rock
First view of swinging bridge.  We crossed this bridge on our hike.

Island in the middle of Torrent Bay, morning view.  Taken while boat was at the beach dropping off a kayak.
Same island - afternoon view.  From the side as we were re-entering the boat, rather than from the beach.
Governor's Island Marine Preserve.  Can you count all the baby seals?
One of about 20 baby seals that put on a show for us.
A boulder at the beginning of our hike.  Covered in 'black moss' that takes over lots of the wet areas of the hike.

A view of Sandfly Bay taken from our hike.

Sarah and Anna near an almost-cave passageway.

Going across the swinging bridge.

Taking a rest on one of our biggest uphills.

The end of our hike is in sight!  Torrent Bay.

Playing on the beach after our hike.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Kaikoura. Beach, Seals and More Sheep


Oh.  My.  God.

No matter how much I’ve been trying to teach my daughters that “Ohmigod!” is not a term to be thrown around lightly – it just has to come out about Kaikoura.  

It’s the only place in the world where snow-capped mountains approach the ocean so closely. 

If Switzerland and Hawaii had a love child that they raised British – it would be New Zealand.  And this is super-apparent in Kaikoura.  Where else am I going to find a photo of palm trees with snow in the background?

Tropical Vegetation by Snow-Capped Mountains
More Kaikoura
Kaikoura is a whaling town.  Your main options for entertainment are:  whale watching cruises, whale watching helicopters, whale diving or whale watching flights.  Short of eating whales, there’s not much more you could do with them than what you could find in Kaikoura.  There’s also dolphin swimming, seal swimming and an albatross encounter if you are interested.

We skipped all of it.  We might, someday, regret this (like immediately after we talked to the medical student from Dallas who saw sperm whales and pods of close to 100 dolphins on her excursion), but we only had one afternoon.  And we had gone whale watching last summer.  So, we opted for the seal colony and the Kaikoura track.  (A track is a hike, for those of us in the United States.)

And we saw LOTS of seals.  And we had a great walk.

Anna and I walking on the hills of the Kaikoura Peninsula

A seal on the beach (yes, I could get close enough to take this photo.)

Another seal at the Kaikoura seal colony
Then, we had the perfect timing to get a necessary New Zealand experience – a sheep shearing demonstration.  We learned a lot about sheep.  For example, 20 years ago, there were more than 8 million sheep being raised in New Zealand.  Today, there are 3 million.  We also learned that the world record for sheep shearing was held by someone who sheared sheep at a rate of approximately 37 seconds per sheep for an entire 8 hour workday.  That is approximately 775 sheep in one work day!  We also felt lanolin, and both girls got to feed “Mr. Ram Man” – the sheep who is part of the demonstration.  Anna clearly liked it better than Sarah.

We missed the baby lambs by about 10 days, but we did see some very pregnant sheep.  (And I just thought they were fat.  But I know better than to ask any woman – even a sheep – if she’s pregnant before you see the baby exiting her body.)

Three pregnant sheep - and I thought it was just their wool!

Beware, the sheep are looking at you.

Anna feeding Ram Man.

Sarah feeding Ram Man.  (We really didn't force her, she said she wanted to do it.)

After shearing

Then, we went for a walk on the beach in the town of Kaikoura.  It’s a fun beach, because it isn’t sandy.  It has a ton of river rocks.  And if you stand listening for the waves to go in and out, you not only hear the pounding of the waves as they go out, but the slight rattle of teeny, tiny pebbles as the waves pull them back down their small slopes on their way back the ocean.

End of day on Kaikoura beach
It was sad that we only had a day in Kaikoura, but once we left, we drove through the heart of the Marlboro wine region.
Marlboro wine country

And then we got to Nelson.  But Nelson is a whole ‘nother post in and of itself.  And tomorrow, we are going on a cruise into Abel Tasman National Park.  So, I must head off to bed in order to be ready for our 7:45 am pickup.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sarah's birthday, kiwi fruit, and not obtaining deliverance from Hell.

Today was Sarah's sixth birthday.

It was much anticipated.  Last year, on her fifth birthday, we were in New England.  Although Aunt Julie was there visiting us, we really didn't have any kids available to celebrate with.  This was hard on my social five year old.  She was very sad, and having her party later only kind of made up for it.

So, this year, we did an "unbirthday" party with her school class just before school let out.  That way, we took care of the 'friends' party in advance.

We had hoped to get together with our New Zealand sponsor family, but they got stuck in the south-south island because of the snow and didn't make it back in time.

So, we had a great family celebration.

First, we went to the grocery store and did something that was long overdue.

We got kiwi fruit.

I mean, really, we've been in New Zealand almost a month and have not had kiwi fruit?  Never mind that we've tried local fish, kumara (the native sweet potato/taro root vegetable), lamb sausages, and the great New Zealand delicacy - hokey pokey ice cream.  But really, to go a whole month without trying kiwi fruit?  What were we thinking?

We got a New Zealand local golden kiwi fruit.  It was deeee-licious.

New Zealand golden kiwi fruit.

Then, we cooked a gluten-free chocolate cake.  Being gluten-free in New Zealand deserves its own post, but let me just say that it is way easier to eat gluten-free here.  Almost every restaurant labels its menu with GF options, offers GF bread, and there is even a bakery trying to offer gluten-free McDonalds breakfast-ish items that is not bad.

Cooking the cake, however, was disaster ridden.  Our house is not set up for long term residence.  So, the selection of pots and pans is quite limited, some of them are leprous enough that I will only use them if they are covered in three layers of tinfoil, and cooking requires a certain amount of improvisation.

Looking over my options, I decided my best bet was to bake the cake in a smaller aluminum pie-tin-type thing.  Bad decision.  Part of the cake spilled onto the bottom of the oven.  Although the heating element is only on top of this not-so-great oven, it was still hot all through the inside.  So, the cake drippings burnt quickly and began spewing reams of smoke into a kitchen/living area with no fans or ventilation.  Fortunately or unfortunately, the house also has no smoke alarm.

We had to open windows to the cold and stand around fanning the smoke outside the door.  OOPS!

Despite this, the cake still turned out good - and Sarah was still able to do her candles.

Sarah blowing out candles.

Cake and ice cream!

We did, however, decide to give up on making our own pizza so we could clean the oven.

Instead, we got pizza from Hell.  Literally, from Hell Pizza.  And no, they don't have any fun with that name at all.

We were unable to get deliverance from Hell, however, because Hell had frozen over (thank you Christchurch snow).  So, Chris went to Hell and back to get us our dinner.

Barbecue pizza with venison sausage.  YUM!

And now, I will close with this joke from Sarah's new joke book that she got for her birthday:

Q:  How did the tree get on the internet?
A:  It LOGGED on.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Snow Day!!!

Today, we woke up to find extreme July weather.


It doesn't snow that often in Christchurch.  Usually, if bad winter weather is coming up from the south pole, it gets trapped by the hills of the Banks Peninsula and is merely rain before it hits Christchurch.

But today, we got snow.  And the people in charge of the city were very smart.  The city cancelled all buses and told everyone to stay home for the day.  The University was closed, most businesses were closed, and the whole city had a snow day.

So, we broke out the long underwear and ski gear and got outside.

First, the girls made their first snowman.  Or rather, snowgirl - as they are careful to call it.

Then, as the girls and I went inside to get the finishing touches for snowgirl, a giant tree branch almost fell on Chris.  Fortunately, he heard it cracking and ran before it fell. 
The branch that tried to kill Chris.

Snow days are a great way to meet your neighbors.  We met the people across the street who have kids the same age as mine.  Our other neighbor stopped by to check on us.

Then, we went for a walk at the University.  Which was BEAUTIFUL!

After walking around the University, the girls got too tired and didn't want to walk home.  They were ready for their hot cocoa break.  So Chris carried both of them for a little bit while I took photos.

On the way home, we saw several students on their way to the school-wide snowball fight scheduled for 11 am.  (We opted not to take the kids there.)  We saw one student who got out his skis and had friends towing him behind their car like he was waterskiing, but on snow.

Then, we stopped at the neighbors' house with kids.  Our too-tired-to-walk children suddenly were full of energy when they had the chance to play with other kids the same age!  We stayed outside for another half hour before the hot cocoa break.

Then, we came inside, watched big fluffy snow, followed by the sun melting snow, followed by some frozen rain, followed by more melting and now I'm sure the ice on the roads will be completely evil.

And -- oh -- by the way, we heard that it was 105 degrees in Austin, TX today.  Hmmm.

Do you think that we're homesick?  Maybe not yet.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Liquefaction and life

I had a blog follower (okay my Mother) ask me to explain liquefaction - or how the earth underneath a big part of Christchurch could turn liquid in an earthquake.

I don't think I can do a much better job of a technical explanation than Wikipedia, but here is an experiment that might help with understanding.

Take some tupperware or a mason jar.  Put dirt at the bottom.  Then add water.  Let it sit for a day or so until everything settles.

You probably have dirt at the bottom and water on top, right?  The two have settled into their separate spaces.

Now, shake it up really, really, really, hard.  What do you have?  Mud.  Or muddy water - depending on what makeup of water and dirt you put in there.

This is what happened to Christchurch.

Christchurch sits next to the ocean, has lots and lots of underground water sources, and where you get close to the ocean - a higher sand content to the soil.  When everything gets shaken up in an earthquake (or one of the ongoing aftershocks), mud happens.  This also messes with the pressure balance and in some places -- the now-liquid soil shoots up to the surface.

Here is one picture we took of liquefaction residue on the side of a neighborhood street.

Many people who lived in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch are now getting their houses (even whole neighborhoods) 'red-zoned'.  This means that the land under their houses is considered too susceptible to future liquefaction, and the government is condemning not just their houses - but their land.  No building will ever be allowed on that land.  The government is paying out the value of their land after the insurance company has paid them for the value of their destroyed house and valueables.  They can go build (or buy) somewhere else.

This is happening to approximately 5,000 homes - or 5% of the houses in Christchurch.

The people in the red zone are somewhat lucky.  They, at least, are getting resolution.

The people who are not so lucky are the people who are in the 'white' zone.  These are people who lived on the hills outside Christchurch and have had their homes decimated - but not red zoned.  They technically could build on their land again, but they might be unable to find fire or earthquake insurance if they do.

Last night, I had much of this explained by our next door neighbor.

First, he explained that the 5 point something earthquake that we felt on Friday was nothing to worry about.  Apparently the earthquakes that roll slowly and last a longer time are generally located out in the plains and aren't anything that will cause much damage.  It is the sudden jolt earthquakes that are right under Christchurch and more bothersome.

The February 22 earthquake was this type of earthquake.  It jolted their home in the hills, took out their power, water, sewage and every piece of glass or ceramic in their house, and rendered it completely unliveable.  But because they are in the Port Hills, they are not in the liquefaction danger zone, and therefore not red-zoned.  They don't expect their house/insurance/earthquake issues to be decided much before Christmas.

As a University employee, he and his wife were able to rent University owned housing.  First, they lived in our house.  Our house, however, only has one living space and doesn't have cable.  So, on the times he could get his rugby matches on the television, his wife would also have to watch them.  So, they moved to the larger house next door (which has two living spaces - and cable) when that became available.  And they are quite thankful for it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Drink local

We have come to the conclusion that the best New Zealand wines never make it to the states.  So, while we are here, we are only drinking local.  And it is not a sacrifice.

Now, you probably know New Zealand for their 'summer wines' -- fresh, fruity sauvignon blancs that pair well with food, but might not be as great on their own.  Think of them as the granny smith of white wines.

But we have been discovering some other great New Zealand varietals.  If you are someone who only likes to drink big reds, go to Australia.  We haven't found much of that.  But have found some great surprises.

Today, we went back up to Waipara to follow up on some suggestions from a local who grew up there.  First, we went to the Waipara Springs cafe and winery.  It's a lovely spot, and we ordered a piece of berry cheesecake to share that turned out to be larger than Anna's head.

We finished our tasting and 'afternoon tea' at that winery, then randomly picked another winery:  Torlesse.

Torlesse is not to be missed out on.

It is a tiny little winery with no cafe or anything else going on.  They grow their own grapes, harvest them by hand, age and bottle them - all in Waipara.  Every one of their vineyards is within five minutes of the working winery.   And the winemaker is the one who runs the tastings.  (Or maybe his wife, if you're lucky.  He claims she is the nice one, while he is the grumpy old man.  But he gave us a great discount on a full case.)

The Torlesse wines are fabulous and interesting.  We walked out with Reisling, Pinot Gris and Gewurtztraminer.  Not our usual grapes.  They also make a truly delightful port (Port?  In New Zealand?  Yes!) and a drink-on-its-own-not-just-in-kir Creme de Cassis.

But I have to say, the real gem of that tasting room is the winemaker:  Kym Rayner.   He is a true talent, and like many true talents - a character.  When we asked, "Can we get a tasting?"  He said, "Are you looking for a tasting or a buying?  We're much more interested in giving you a buying."

He then gave us the most educated wine tasting we've received.  He could tell us how many months he had let grapes ripen, how much alcohol was in each glass, and would talk about which other region in the world might have a comparable wine to his.  He suggested unexpected menus and pairings for each wine.

He also lamented the size of his general market.  He commented that his general market, based on location, has to be Christchurch - which is less than 500,000 people.  He compared it to Napa, Oregon or even Washington that have local state markets of more than 5,000,000 people and a much more travelled wine trail than Waipara.  He said, "If I was there, I'd certainly be able to charge more for my wines."

I, for one, have mixed feelings about the fact that he isn't there.  I like the price point of his wines (feels like a bargain for the taste), but do wish that I could get his wines at home.

But I guess I'll just have to enjoy drinking local while I'm here.

Miscellaneous New Zealand-ana

Well, we got back from our Central-South-Island excursion on Tuesday.  On our way back from the-most-beautiful-part-of-the-most-beautiful-place-on-earth, we stopped and saw a blue penguin colony at Oamaru.  Oamaru is a small city on the coast about three hours south of Christchurch.  If you are in town right at sunset, you can go see a wild colony of blue penguins coming in from ocean hunting to go rest in their nesting grounds.

No photos are allowed.  Which is a shame, because the little 2 lb. penguins are pretty darn adorable and they just chatter away at each other for a long time.

Then, we came home and have been recovering from all the excitement.

So, I thought I'd start a partial list of interesting New Zealand/Christchurch miscellanea that we have been finding interesting.

  • New Zealanders use the word "wee" and it sounds appropriate.  (E.G.  The hostess at a restaurant asked if we wanted dinner or "A wee nibble.")  But, if I try to use this word, it sounds weird.  (E.G.  The bartender thought I was saying something very inappropriate when I asked for a menu because we wanted a wee nibble.)
  • An American trolley would be called a bus or tram.  An American shopping cart is a trolley.
  • An elevator is a lift.
  • The sign for a restroom says, "Toilet".
  • If you go into a "Dairy", you will find much more than milk.  It is a convenience store.
  • You park your car in the car park, not the parking lot.
  • People don't necessary drink tea when they invite you for 'morning tea'.  It's more like the second breakfast that hobbits might eat, or a heavy snack.
  • You wouldn't put gravy on your biscuits here.  They are what we call cookies.
  • Chips are our french fries.  Our chips are called crisps.
  • At the University, they have lecture theatres instead of lecture halls or classrooms.
Finally, at a cocktail reception this week, I learned one more interesting side effect of the earthquake:  

Women have been avoiding their high heeled shoes since February out of fear that they will get trapped somewhere and have to walk for miles.

Apparently, in the February quake, many people had to walk several miles out of the city in order to get to friends homes or their own homes - and many women had to make the decision of whether or not to take their heels off.  The ones who had to wade through liquifaction up to their thighs definitely took off their heels.  Others were knocking on strangers' doors begging for walking shoes in order to finish their journey.

But it is a sign of hope for Christchurch that some women are deciding to bring their heels out again.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Voyage to Queenstown

We are in Queenstown, New Zealand.  I will probably update this blog with a map, so that you can see where Queenstown is, but at this moment, I’m paying by the minute for internet access.

It’s hard to imagine something that would top the scenery of the drive between Christchurch and Queenstown.  First, we went through Lake Tekapo – a beautiful, green, glacier-fed lake about three hours from Christchurch.  We could have spent the whole four-day weekend there.  Instead, we just got a personal tour of the Mt. John Observatory and had some quality time in the hotsprings.

The Mt. John Observatory at Lake Tekapo.
Lake Tekapo
Then, we drove through the Canterbury plains and I kept waiting for Viggo Mortenson and a brigade of horsemen to come hunting down orcs in a Lord of the Rings battle scene.

Canterbury Plains with mountains from Mt. Cook national park in background.
Then, we got into Otago and hit Lindis Pass, where the girls wanted to stop and have a giant snow day.
Lindis Pass.  It had been snow-free up to a week before we drove over it.

And finally, Queenstown.  Queenstown is like the Angelina Jolie of landscapes.  You can’t take a bad photo of her, even if you try.

Here is what else you need to know about Queenstown.  It is the center of outdoor adrenaline-pumping in the South Island.  Jet boating, skiing, bungy jumping, zip lining, parasailing, and whatever else you might need to get your adrenaline fix is here.  And it has great nightlife, restaurants and more places to spend money than you would expect in kiwiland.  Would you like some Louis Vitton with your high-end merino-wool long underwear and locally sourced oysters, venison and caviar?

But otherwise, words just can’t do Queenstown the justice that photography can.  So rather than go on, I will just burn up my access minutes with a few photos.

View from the top of the Queenstown Gondola.

Looking at Lake Wakatipu from the beach in downtown Queenstown.

Looking into Queenstown from our hotel.

The Remarkables.  Any Lord of the Rings fans recognize the peak?

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I had forgotten how much I love skiing.

Until today.  Today, the girls and I drove to Mt. Hutt.  On the way, we had a quintessential New Zealand experience.

Drive through sheep.

I'd heard of Drive-through restaurants, drive-through carwash, drive-through espresso stands, and even drive-through liquor stores in some parts of the South.  But drive-through sheep?

As we were heading towards the mountain, the country road I was driving on was blocked by a herd of sheep.  Yes, sheep.  I thought if I stopped and waited, they might eventually cross the road and I could move on. You know, like cows.  Or horses.

Then, the farmer in front of us got out of his car and said, "You're visitors aren't you?"  He then explained that all the locals know that you just drive through the sheep and they get out of your way.  So, we did.

Drive-through sheep
And on to Mount Hutt.

Getting to Mount Hutt is not simple.  This isn't one of your fancy-schmancy Tahoe resorts where you take nicely cleared, four-lane roads up to paved parking lots at the bottom of the hills.  No sir.  Mount Hutt  gives you a single-lane dirt road covered in snow with dropoffs on both sides.  No guardrails for us, thank you very much.  You will be nervous, and you will like it.  If you complain, Mt. Hutt might just make you do 50 pushups.

Mount Hutt Road, Partial View
Mt. Hutt Road, another partial view
At least the nice people who force you to put chains on your car (and you will bless them for doing it) will very smilingly put them on for you for $15 - and then take them off without additional charge.  And they will show you HOW to put the chains on so that you don't have to pay them the next time.

So, after a nerve-wracking drive soundracked by two girls asking, "When are we going to get there?  This is the most snow I've EVER SEEN!  THIS IS AWESOME!  When can I go skiing?  When are we going to get there?"  We finally got there.

And I took the girls to the kid watch/ski school area and left them there very quickly.  Then I got my skis on and started my half day of skiing.

It was fabulous.  On my very first run, I remembered how much I love skiing.  Sunny day.  New powdery snow.  Lovely.

And the girls loved it too.  Their instructor said that Sarah reluctantly learned how to stop, but Anna refused.  They were both having way too much fun going fast, and then stopping to make snow angels.

Snow Bunnies

And then, a two-hour drive back to Christchurch, hot baths and bed.  Tomorrow, we head to Lake Tecapo and Queenstown for the weekend and more snow!