Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Southern Alps | forest deep and mountain high

Disclaimer: posts that follow may not be in chronological order. It's been hard to keep an accurate accounting of all that has happened. This thing happened 2 weeks ago.

Laura had one more weekend to take in the best of the island. We had to drive through the blight of Queenstown to get to our destination. We were afraid the stench of this Aspen-esque tourist megaloplex might destroy our reverence for the unreal montane lands, but the cheapness got crushed like 3% copper ore when the long gravel road revealed our first night's hideout. The place is called, officially, Paradise NZ. Silver beech is aptly named, but the greenness is bigger. Any moss lover should take care when coming to Aotearoa. The sheer volume, variety, intricacy and stubbornness of the bryophyta on this island is more than enough to illicit fits of laughter, embarrassing episodes of drooling and wobbly-footed stumbling that would be painfully dangerous if it weren't for the guarantee of 5 inches of green padding between you and anything else you care to name.

The only other place I have seen growth like this is nowhere. We camped at twilight in the most available gap in the trees, and were woken by very friendly dusky-colored birds. The New Zealand Robin is not afraid of people. Or maybe they just like Weet-bix. They were down to about 9 pairs just a few years ago until a successful breeding program on Stewart Island bumped them up to their present commonness. Upon emerging from the forest we were flabbergasted to behold the most ridiculous mountains ever. While we watched, they began to bloom as the pink morning sunshine crept down snowy slopes. This was only day one.

Day two consisted of a cold soggy (still spectacular) climb/set of suspension bridge balancing acts to one of the huts on the Routeburn Track. The DOC hut system in New Zealand is positively the most glorious revolution in the world of walking since the shoelace. We stayed there and recuperated using tea. The next day saw us above treeline, so there was nothing to hide the variety of stupid expressions on our faces as we stared in all the directions we could come up with. Think Homer Simpson, doughnut shop. Photos will help the words here.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

North to South : Driving up the fish

You could say that I was driving down to Dunedin. The Scotch Pacific enclave is 1400 kilometres closer to Antarctica than Auckland. I took the mighty Carat over every centimetre of that glorious drive/float. But if you asked a Maori, he'd say I was going up to the South Island. The islands of Aotearoa are 1) an overturned canoe containing a few Gods and 2)the fish on the other end of the line. To drive geographically south is to motor up the fishing line and into the boat, hence I was going up to Dunedin. When you're told everything is backwards in the Southern Hemisphere, believe it.

Anyway, it was a completely grand drive. Only a few stretches of the Colorado Plateau and Intermountain West can really compete with the sheer variety and overwhelming beauty of the transect south through New Zealand. Good roads - no interstates/motorways - but real roads. Old-fashioned motor tracks that rambled along hills and through towns made for exciting and worthwhile driving in the Kiwi countryside. I stopped in the center of the North Island at lake Taupo, a flooded volcanic crater. I had lunch with a great view after exploring the geothermal powerplant nearby.

From a hill overlooking the valley, you can trace the intertwining network of pipes that conduct steam from dozens of vents into a turbine facility cranking out loads of magical electricity. The chrome tube network is festooned with crazy expansion joints big enough to drive through with the Carat (I made sure I did). These allow for the nearly 15 metres of growth the metal tubes endure when they reach operating temperature, somewhere around 300 degrees Centigrade. Pressure valves hissed and spouted all around me at unexpected times. It was a steamy valley of ethereal, scalding creeks. Imagine select portions of the Yellowstone backcountry - but commonplace enough to harness for sheer energy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Dunedin: Edinburgh of the Pacific

This is a placeholder. My telegram now to you is this:
I have arrived. I can only tremble to think of relating the sheer wonder of the South Island to you. Fear not, it will be done. Having photos and audio and video, I will try and fail to show you all that has washed over me in the last 5 days. I have not rested since leaving Auckland. Last night was the first in a bedroom. I have seen fjords. Penguins. Sea lions. A thousand impossible plants and fungi and birds whose names I will never know. Land and sea in such precise proportions that they twine together to create a seamless path of wonder from one ocean to the next. I long to tell you the tale, but I must away. The mountains call again - you will receive the full account. It is autumn, and I lusted to eat of it.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Auckland: urban Sails

This city is large. I've been learning to navigate it in my Toyota Carat on the Wrong Side. It's the world's 4th largest city - in area. It only has 1.7 million people. If you'd like a definition of sprawl, this is it. But it's of a distinctly different flavor, don't worry. No preplanned neighborhoods, a modicum of 'shoppingcenters' 'minimalls' etc. There is considerable elevation contrast, due to the fact that the entire metropolitain area is built upon the Auckland volcanic field. Imagine Flagstaff flooded and covered with quaint houses and a Seattle-like waterfront (complete with Space Needle). And trees.

The Candlers arrived, and we took a look at that waterfront. Apart from the world championship racing yachts, 200-year old schooners, James Bond style badguy boats, swanky catamarans, charming 2-person sloop rigs, giant 10-story shipping cranes, endless eateries, huge buildings, glorious houses, massive trees, lovely parks and volcanic pavement, there isn't really anything interesting around.

We visited the fish market where you can find anything you want, and quite a great deal more that you don't. Famous NZ green mussels to smoked stingray. Octopus by the pound, giant lonely ichthyan ovaries stuffed full of roe - all part of your standard shopping basket here. The sea is so very present here. But unlike the southeastern Atlantic coast, there isn't a briny breeze, there's no salt spray, no sticky seagully ocean feel. The Pacific makes itself known in subtle ways. Stinking two-foot long lobsters for example.

We ate 'tea' at a place called The Sushi Train. That's it, you've got the right picture I think. You sit down, and a conveyor belt of sushi is in front of you, constantly presenting you with a never-ending array of maritime treats. The plates are color coded. Eat all you like, they'll count up the plates when you're through. An excellent arrangement. The table favorite was probably Volcano Roll - a prodigious nest of shredded crab atop some nice rolls garnished by a spectacular arrangement of roe in very lava-like colors. To enhance the scortching provocation, the Sensei of the poissonerie applied butane torch flames right before our eyes.

They call this the City of Sails. They mean it. The only other thing they have more of are volcanoes, asian cars and random syllables like 'eh'. To live here and give some sort of meaning to your existence, it would seem requisite to own at least a token sailboat. Auckland is more like an archipelago than anything else. There's only one bridge.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Land of the Long White Cloud. The lost islands. The last lonely flotilla of Gondwanan shrapnel with its mostly feathered menagerie of stowaways. Accidental time capsule. New Zealand.

To get here, the only requirement is that you suspend your motor skills for a mere 12 hours in the belly of an aluminum whale that has been made to fall across the sky by some means that produces nothing but 80 dB of white noise and a curious sensation of numbness in the chest. Not much has changed since the days of wood and cloth and months of rope-pulling discovery.

Still barely in Auckland, the prettiest thing I've seen here so far is the money. But that doesn't count Cherie Galloway's toddling granddaughters. I'll use my time in the city to get past the Phenomenon of the Missing Tuesday, as I've come to call it. The hospitality of the Galloways is already helping. A car purchase is in order, and soon I'll discover the route to the South. That is, if I can get the ferry booked in the right direction. Currently, I and my potential Huyndai are on the manifest for Sunday, 2 AM. Wellington to Picton, mind you, and not the other way 'round. It's the middle of Wednesday here, for you poor yesterday folks, so not long from now I'll be on my merry wrong-sided drive.

Early winter in Auckland brings t-shirt weather. I hope Dunedin will live up to my hefty packing job. I managed to keep it to a 45 litre backpack and a travel guitar, but it's quite dense with mysteriously insulating hydrocarbon derivatives. I'm sure a glacier or two will put them to good use. For now, recouperation and plotting.

Photos to come.

P.S.: Jerry Falwell has finally died. Anyone for an ironic Hallelujah?