Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Rainforest

Monday we visited the rainforest near Cairns. Of course, it was raining on and off all day, the first day of real rain since we arrived. The trip started with the scenic railway from Cairns to Kuranda, stopping once along the way to view the Barron River waterfall and slowing down a few times for other sights. Kuranda is a small town that was originally a mining town, and then became a sort of artists colony in the 70's. Now it is just a tourist town, with lots of shops, cafes, art galleries, markets, and small tourist attractions like a koala petting zoo and butterfly pavilion.  We had some great pastries, shopped, got a massage, walked through the nature preserve, and did a jungle walk.

After Kuranda we took the Skyrail above the rainforest. It is a 50 minute gondola ride, with two stops along the way at nature stations. It is 4.5 miles long, which doesn't sound like much, but it is when you are 10-50 feet above the tallest trees in the rainforest. It was quite incredible. At one stop we had a nice ranger-led walk around part of the rainforest. We saw lots of trees, HUGE spiders (6 inches), bugs, lizards, and bush turkeys. They have a special way to cook bush turkeys. First, you take off your boot and fill it with water. Then you clean the turkey and boil it in your boot. Then you eat your boot, because it tastes better than a bush turkey.

Most of the wildlife in the rainforest is nocturnal, so we didn't get to see many animals, but the forest/jungle is amazing. I am glad we did not get to see any crocodiles while walking along the river. The one animal we are getting our fill of is the flying fox, which we call a bat, except larger. The large trees in Cairns are full of these flying foxes, or bats. Each is about the size of a very small cat, and they even sort of sound like cats. During the day they sleep in the top canopies of the trees, 50-100 per tree. It is ridiculous how many there are. At night when they start to fly around they make a small black, swirling cloud. It would be sort of creepy, except they are pretty cute.

On Tuesday we had a tour with a variety of activities. We started with a bus trip on the Captain Cook highway, which follows the coast north to Port Douglas. Supposedly it is the 6th most scenic drive in Australia. I assume number 1 is the Great Ocean Road outside of Melbourne. Our first stop was a wild animal park where we got to feed the kangaroos and wallabies. There were also a variety of other native Australian animals there, such as koalas, emus, and ossuaries. Our second stop was a walk through the rainforest, with views of the Daintree River. Then we went into the Daintree National Park for lunch where the rainforest comes down to the coast, and the UN World Heritage listed rainforest meets the UN World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef. It is the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites meet.

After lunch we went for a guided nature walk through the lowland rainforest. The trees are so different from whatever I have seen before. For example, the strangler mango tree grows from the top down, starting up in the air, and then sending roots down to the ground. Other trees have roots that they send up through the water to breathe like snorkels. One kind of tree has roots like buttresses on Notre Dame.

The last activity before the bus ride back to Cairns was a river cruise on the Daintree River to see the crocodiles. The largest we saw was about 8 feet, and the smallest about 2 feet. The little ones are so cute it is hard to imagine they grow up to be the deadly monsters I am so afraid of. The whole day was nice, in part because there was a neat group of young people on board, from Ireland, England, and Germany.

For dinner we went to a little nicer place than usual, because if you go before 6:30 they have specials such as 25% off. After 6:30 everything is busy anyway, so they work hard to get you in early. I tried kangaroo and crocodile skewers. The crocodile was edible, the kangaroo not so much. Misa's Barramundi fish, which is also from Australia, was much better.

Now it is time for some homeschooling, and a day off tomorrow to relax and pack for our trip to Brisbane.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

GBR (hint - not an Australian beer)

Friday started out tough; we had to get up early to catch our flight. We decided to take the train to the airport because it was free with our weekly passes, and to avoid any potential traffic problems. As we live on a hill, the first 100 yards towards the train station are a very steep uphill climb. Misa dragged her suitcase by herself the whole way, but by the time she got to the top she was overheated. In addition, my weekly pass had expired, and although you can take the train to the airport with the weekly pass, you cannot actually get off and go into the airport. It is sort of like in Berlin when the wall was still up. The west Berlin U-Bahn still went to all of the East Berlin stops, you just couldn't get off there. So $36 later I had my ticket to the airport and airport entry passes for Katka and Misa. Next time we are taking a taxi.

Finally after getting to our hotel, cooling off and resting we were all feeling better. So Misa and I headed out to the swimming lagoon in Cairns. It is a large public pool right by the ocean. By large I mean about two Sunset pools or more, and filled with very warm, slightly salty water. The water is actually easier on your eyes than fresh water. I guess the PH might match your actual tears more closely, making it more comfortable to open your eyes under water. We stayed there until well into the evening.

Friday night was awful, because we had three guests next door that partied until 4:00 in the morning, constantly waking us up. The night manager talked to them, I talked to them, and they just did not care if they were a bother. One thing I have noticed about Australians is that they are very nice, but not very accommodating. Your problem is your problem, and not their problem. The stories our friends tell us about their kids' teachers would horrify Americans, but it is the norm here. For example, their 7-year-old daughter had a loose tooth that was hurting and went to tell her teacher, who replied, "well, your tooth isn't my problem." That was sort of the attitude of the people partying in the room, and even the night manager, who was unwilling to do much at all to help. They even have an expression for it, "no whingin' mate," which roughly means, "no whining." I guess that what we have discovered about trips to Vegas is true here; you have to pay a little more to be surrounded by classier people that you can count on for better behavior.

Saturday was the day I have been waiting for since we decided to come to Australia, the Great Barrier Reef. Saturday is also the day I have been dreading since we decided to come to Australia, the Great Barrier Reef. As excited as I was about seeing the reef, I was equally nervous about sharks, deadly jellyfish, poisonous jellyfish, painful jellyfish, paralyzingly jellyfish, and eels.  So when I saw the set-up of our dive location I was really relieved. The boat docks on a huge pontoon platform from which you dive. The platform also serves as a dock for the glass bottom boat and semi-submersible, and has changing rooms, showers, an underwater viewing area, and a children's pool, which is just part of the ocean fenced off. The snorkeling area is set up perfectly. The pontoon sits right next to the reef, so when you want to snorkel you just walk down some stairs to benches that are even with water level situated on a platform below you in the water. This allows you to sit on a bench and get your gear on, and then gently glide into the water above the reef. It seems to me that there is not enough room for any large animals that might bite to squeeze in there, and if they can, please don't tell me, as I don't want to know. The were also no jellyfish to be seen, and if they are present they have full body suits you can wear, but we did not need them. Having the boat docked on the pontoon meant there was plenty of room for everyone. All of us of course fit on the boat, and all of us could fit on the pontoon, so it was like we each had twice as much space as we needed. Sometimes while on the pontoon I wondered, "where did everyone go?" The snorkeling area was so large that Misa and I almost always had a large area to ourselves, but small enough that the two lifeguards could monitor everything from their towers. It was quite remarkable to be following a school of some large, colorful fish, and then stop and look back and see the lifeguard watching you.

Misa and I went out snorkeling twice before lunch and twice after. There were more fish than I thought there would be, also larger and more colorful. Of course Misa is half fish herself, so she took off her life vest and dove down to the actual reef, while I floated on the surface and watched admiringly. We had an underwater video camera that I brought with us, and took almost 30 short videos. 

Misa liked getting up close to the fish and then following them with the camera. There was one particularly large, colorful fish that she went to pet, or shake hands with, I don't know, but when she got close it turned quickly and started to swim menacingly toward her rather than away from her. Except it was a fish without any visible teeth, and a mouth that would not even fit around her arm if it did want to take a nibble. But Misa was back on the surface faster than Michael Phelps, with only one comment, "that's a mean fish!"

Meanwhile, Katka was enjoying the underwater viewing platform, glass-bottom boat, and semi-submersible. The semi-submersible is like a regular boat with the hull made of glass, so you sit well below the surface and look out, as if you were in a submarine. The semi-submersible goes next to the reef, while the glass bottom boat goes over it so you can look down like the snorkelers do.

The lunch buffet was OK; I guess they figure you don't care what the food tastes like when you are eating it sitting and looking at the Great Barrier Reef. There were other activities available for an extra charge, like scuba diving, guided snorkel tours, and some sort of dive where you wear a huge helmet connected to the surface by air hose like divers used to do in the days before scuba diving. They promoted it by saying, "you don't even have to get your hair wet to dive the reef," which was obviously aimed at the debutantes and princesses on board. For Misa and I the snorkeling was perfect, particularly for Misa who could dive to the lowest points on the reef anyway, and for me because I didn't see any sharks, deadly jellyfish, poisonous jellyfish, painful jellyfish, paralyzingly jellyfish, or eels.

We did a little homeschooling on the boat on the way back, although we have fallen a bit behind. We will use all day on Sunday to relax, sit by the pool, and work on homeschool. To Misa that sounds like a terrible way to waste a day by the pool, but I think her friends in regular school in Ladera might trade places with her.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sydney Observations

On the way to work today I was waiting for the train and happened to look in the window of the station bookstore.  Of course the selection I could see was about trains.  The first book that caught my eye was "Forest Trains of Hungary."  Now I am no lover of train books, but I am guessing that "Forest Trains of Hungary" was not a best-seller in Hungary, let alone in a country almost literally on the other side of the world.  The rest of the books were just as esoteric, including my favorite in the narrow gauge train section, "4 Gauges in the  Czech Republic." I'm not sure which was more surprising, that there were 4 different gauges of narrow gauge trains in a country with 10 million people, or that someone was able to write an entire book on the subject, or that someone decided that writing an entire book on the subject was a good idea. Why someone in Sydney buys that book is an entirely different but equally puzzling question.

The tram broke down about halfway to my school. "No brakes," I heard the driver say.  So I jumped out and into Paddy's Market, the most wonderful collection of cheap stores imaginable.  Around every corner there was another surprise, a hat store, luggage, iPhone covers, helicopters, wooden toys, iPhone covers, purses, souvenirs, clocks, knives, army surplus, iPhone covers, factory outlet, vegetables, toys, lighters, wall hangings, massage, boba tea,  iPhone covers, etc.  I had to return at lunch to explore some more.  I found an OK kebab place, and tried the boba tea, which turned out to be fantastic.  Except they do not call it boba here, it is "pearls."

I got home and Katka and Misa were not home yet. Misa met her new friend Christian after school in Manly and they went to the beach.  So I packed for our trip to Queensland tomorrow and  when I was done I walked around the neighborhood looking for something good for supper.  I discovered salt and vinegar chicken strips, which of course were incredible.  I skipped the chicken salt on my fries, as I found regular ketchup at the grocery store and wanted to see if it actually was ketchup, and not the tomato sauce they give you everywhere here instead of ketchup.  It was 100% Heinz, and tastes like it was just off the shelf of Albertson's back home.

Work today was good again.  I go in to my office, close the door, write for three hours, go to lunch, go back to my office, close the door, write for four hours, and go home.  No phone calls, no email, no one stopping by to bother me, and amazing coffee, for free, from a $7,000 coffee machine from Switzerland.

Off tomorrow for Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, hope to have something to report besides rain.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

First Week in Sydney

Tonight we had two beautiful birds land on our balcony.  They were like some type of small parrots, very colorful.  I think they were looking for handouts.  They were not very afraid of us and we got some good pictures.  We also sent in most of Michaela's homeschool materials tonight via email.  Every month we have to send in examples all of the work that she did, plus quizzes and exams.  For the next few days we'll be finishing up math and then starting the March assignments.  We basically do math the entire month, a section each day, and one other subject intensively each week, with days off only for traveling.

Work has been fine the past two days.  I am getting a lot done because there are very few distractions.  I found a tram that goes straight to my school from the metro, but unless it is there waiting for me it is just as fast to walk.  We are going to try to take the train to the airport on Friday.

After work today I met Katka and Misa at "The Rocks" in Sydney across the water from the Opera House.  We ate dinner at Subway and walked around some of the cute little shops.  There was a huge cruise ship docked, it is fun to watch them go in and out of the bay under our window.  They really dwarf the other boats.  We can't wait to see one go under the Harbour Bridge.  We took the ferry home from Circular Quay, a pretty cool way to commute.

Wish us luck next week, we are headed for Queensland but the weather looks nasty - rain, rain and more rain.  Luckily it will also be very hot and humid.

Monday, February 20, 2012

First Day of Work

I went to work in Sydney for the first time today.  The school is The University of Technology Sydney, or UTS.  It was 3 stops on the train and then about about a 10 minute walk. Well, it was a 10 minute walk and 10 minutes wandering around lost.  I was sweating when I got to school because of the humidity.  Last night there was a rainstorm, complete with huge lightning and window-rattling thunder.  So this morning it was very humid, even though the sun was shining bright.

I have a nice office furnished with everything I need.  I met with the head of the school, a professor that I will collaborate with, and a PhD student that I will work with.  Everyone was very nice and welcoming. Two things at the school struck me as a bit unusual.  First, at every major intersection in the hallways, or about every 10 offices, there is a security door.  To get through the door you need an 8 digit code.  But entering the code is tricky, because although the keypad is like a telephone keypad, the numbers appear every time in a random order.  That keeps someone from watching your hand and learning your number.  The other interesting thing was the new $7,000 coffee machine.  It makes good coffee, but it is hard for me to imagine putting in that request at Chapman.  "Hi, this is Bruce over in the Argyros School.  We are going to order a $7,000 Swiss coffee machine, and I am just wondering which account to charge it to?"

I need to finish a paper I am working on, so it is great that I don't really know anyone at work.  Today I got a lot done even though I arrived late and left a little early so I could stop and pick up a SIM card for Misa's phone.  I cut the wandering around lost to 5 minutes getting back to the train station, but it was worth it because I found Chinatown and a cool market.

Katka and Misa did Misa's homeschooling and some shopping today.  Every time I think we have everything we need we remember something else we have to buy.  Time to start getting ready for bed, tomorrow is another hard day at work.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

First Weekend in Sydney

Saturday morning we slept in, did homeschool, ate lunch, and headed for the Olson’s, a family from Ladera that also just moved to Sydney last summer.  First we went to the train station to buy weekly tickets for Katka and Misa.  The public transportation tickets are expensive here if you buy them for single trips, but the weekly pass is an amazing deal.  It works for all of the trains in zone 1, which includes 99% of everywhere we want to go, plus it includes all of the busses in the entire city, and all of the ferries, including the 30 minute ferry to Manly.  Given there is a ferry stop and train station right by our apartment, we are perfectly situated.

After getting the weekly passes we found a “bottle store” and bought a bottle.  By coincidence it had some wine in it from Monkey Bay in New Zealand.  Then a short walk to the wharf and we caught the ferry to Circular Quay.  They pronounce “Quay” as “key” and are not sure what it means anyway.  First of all, a quay is “a wharf or reinforced bank where ships are loaded or unloaded.”  Yet there are streets all over Sydney named “Quay.”  I guess most of them are near the water, or in cities near the water, but many of them are not wharfs or reinforced banks.

From Circular Quay we caught the ferry to Manly.  It all took much less time than expected, so we had a coffee break in Manly for 30 minutes before catching a bus to the Olson’s.  It turned out to be one of the best weekends of the trip so far because of them.  First of all, they are extremely nice people, very friendly, and good conversationalists.  They live in a beautiful house with a view of one of the bays on that side of Sydney.  But maybe even more importantly they have a daughter Michaela’s age.  We were having so much fun we totally lost track of time and didn’t catch the ferry back to Circular Quay until 9:30.

Sunday morning we got up and did half of Misa’s homeschool work for the day, and headed back over to Manly.  Misa was going to meet the Olson’s daughter Christian to hang out for the day while Katka and I went shopping for some apartment essentials.  We caught the ferry to Circular Quay from our apartment, but then when we got to the ferry for Manly there was a line with hundreds of people in it.  First, the day was beautiful so everyone was headed to the beach, and it was the last day of the Australian Open Surfing Championships at Manly, so huge crowds were headed there for the finals.  So we had to wait for the second ferry before we got on.  While we waited in line and on the ferry we finished homeschooling.

When we got to Manly the Olson’s recommended we go to shops over there that they knew would have decent selection and prices, so we left Misa and Christian and went to lunch with the rest of the Olson family.  Then they dropped us off at the mall, we did our shopping, and then they picked us up and took us to the beach were Misa ended up after eating lunch and exploring Manly.  We hung out there until 6:00 and then headed home.  Once we got home it was a quick shower, dinner, email and blog, and off to bed.

So if the rest of our time in Australia is half as good as the first weekend it should be great.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


Greetings from our apartment in Sydney. I mentioned to Katka how amazed I am.
"That we live in an apartment in Sydney with a view of Lavender Bay?"
"No,” I replied, "that we have Wi-Fi in our apartment in Sydney." You see, I had just returned from the mall where I bought a Wi-Fi hotspot, and was focused on the small picture, my success of getting it set up.  Katka was focused on the big picture, that we live in an apartment on the other side of the globe from her homeland.

We left Franz Josef Glacier early on Thursday and drove to Greymouth.  It was the first oddly unkempt city we had seen in New Zealand.  There were buildings that needed painting and the streets were not particularly clean, but the people were as nice as always.  After lunch at a small cafe we returned our rental car and took the Tranz-Alpine train four hours over the Southern Alps of New Zealand from Greymouth to Christchurch.  It was a spectacular ride, almost like stepping back in time.  The train was sort of old and run down, and the tracks were not smooth at all. Most of the land we passed through between the mountains was either deserted or ranch land with cows and sheep.

Arriving in Christchurch about 6pm, we got to our hotel in time for a quick walk into the city for dinner while Misa took a shower.  I was shocked at the damage from the earthquake last year.  Someone told us that 60% of the buildings in downtown Christchurch have to be demolished.  As we walked down the street, about every-other-building was fenced off, slated for demolition.  And this was not in the badly damaged central business district that is closed entirely.

Katka and I split a pretty good pizza, and brought some delicious chicken strips back for Misa.  She was having a grand time at the hotel enjoying her solitude.  She was only a bit bummed that we made it back so fast, as she was getting ready to order some room service.

Our flight was scheduled to leave for Sydney at 6:30am, so I set my alarm for 3:15.  At 3:45 the ringing of the telephone woke us up; it was our back-up plan wake-up call.  Oh no, my alarm didn't go off! Was it the snooze? Did the electricity go off? No, it was the AM/PM!  Just like that episode of Seinfeld with the marathon runner.  So we got ready like our family never gets ready (fast), and made our 4:30 taxi to the airport. We had a little trouble at the airport convincing them we were allowed to check two bags each, but finally they relented.  We grabbed a pastry for breakfast, got on the plane, and were in Sydney at 7:30.  The school had a taxi waiting for us, and we were in our apartment by 10:00.  The apartment is OK, two bedrooms and two bathrooms on the 17th floor, but the view is ridiculous.  If you have a map of Sydney, we are across Harbor Bridge, and we overlook Lavender Bay .  Right below is us the "Luna Park," which is what amusement parks seem to be called in the rest of the world, and just beyond that is the water, stretching on and on.  The bay is very active, with lots of ferries and small boats racing to and fro.

Misa was so tired that she "might fall asleep from exhaustion," and Katka was doing laundry, so I went off exploring by myself.  My goal was to get an Australian cell phone and Internet.  First I wandered around our neighborhood, locating the train station, parks, convenience store, small grocery, and kebab restaurant, where I had an awesome lunch.  It is my new favorite restaurant in Australia.  While I was eating lunch I noticed a travel agency on the second floor of the building.  We have two trips still to plan, Tasmania/Melbourne and Perth/West Coast/Adelaide.  So I stopped in and had a chat, and will go back on Monday to finalize at least the Tasmania/Melbourne trip. 

The travel agent found a cell phone store for me and gave me directions on how to get there.  It turned out to be in a shopping mall one stop from our house on the train.  The train is like an above and sometimes below ground subway.  From our house there are two train lines and one ferry.

The shopping mall was a godsend; there is a nice supermarket, butcher, fruit and vegetable store, pharmacy, food court, and lots of cafes.  And most importantly there is a Vodaphone mobile telephone shop.  I picked up a pre-paid SIM card with $20 on it; the number is (04) 1457-0013, where 04 is the area code for this part Australia.  The country code for Australia is 61, so I guess to call from the USA it would be 011 614 1457 0013, but you don’t ever need to call, as my US phone is always on and costs me the same amount of money.  I also picked up a Wi-Fi hotspot, $99 for 6GB.  We’ll use about that much each month.  What is cool about the hotspot is that it works from the cell phone network, so you can use it in the park, in the car, on the ferry, in a tree, etc.  The apartment where we are staying charges $50 per week for 1GB of Internet, so we are getting 2GB more for half the price.  You can see why I was so excited.

On the way home I picked up some groceries and schnitzel at the butcher.  Katka cooked the schnitzel for supper and we had it with some delicious Australian apples.

Tomorrow we are going for dinner to the home of some folks from Ladera that also moved to Sydney this year.  We get to take two ferries to get to their house; I might just take my hotspot with me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Franz Josef Glacier

Leaving Wanaka was tough, with the three swimming pools, free WiFi, but more importantly, a washing machine and dryer in our room.  But we did leave, heading first to Mt. Aspiring National Park for a short hike, followed by a long drive to Franz Josef Glacier.  The road was sort of like the PCH in Oregon.  We went over the mountains to the coast, and followed the coast for a while until heading into the mountains and Glacier Country.  The scenery was spectacular, only spoiled a bit by rain.  The most surprising thing about the drive to me was the one lane bridges.  Remember that this is a major highway in New Zealand, like I-70 or I-25 in Colorado.  And all of the major bridges were one lane.  That means that traffic headed in one direction gets to use the bridge while the traffic going in the other direction waits.  Luckily we almost always had the right-of-way, and luckily we were about the only car on the road.  We didn't get to Franz Josef Glacier until pretty late, just enough time to eat, relax, homeschool, and sleep.

 The weather this morning was great, so we went straight to Franz Josef Glacier and hiked 45 minutes to the base of the glacier.  To go out onto the glacier you have to have a guide, and we didn't have the time or money for that.  Today was a pretty big homeschooling day before we start our last leg to Sydney.  After the hike we had a nice lunch and headed for the West Coast Wildlife Center so Misa could get to see Kiwi birds.  We saw them last time we were here, but she does not remember them.  We spent the entire afternoon in the Wildlife Center, going in to see the birds, snacking in the cafe, and homeschooling.  I think the workers there thought we were a bit strange.

 It is hard to talk about New Zealand without using the same words over and over, beautiful, amazing, spectacular, etc.  I felt the same way this summer when we were traveling through Yellowstone, Teton, Glacier, Banff, Lake Louise, Oregon, Redwoods, etc.  Sometimes words just aren't enough.

Tomorrow we turn in our rental car and take the train to Christchurch.  It is sad to be going back, knowing how the beautiful city was damaged by the earthquake last year.  We hear the center of town is still closed.  We will not visit the town, but just try to eat and re-pack our bags for our flight.  My next update will most likely come from our apartment in Sydney!

Monday, February 13, 2012


We said goodbye to Te Anau about 10am on Monday.  The drive to Wanaka took us back to Queenstown, and then north through the mountains.  Just outside of Queenstown we stopped at the Stoneridge Estate Winery for lunch.  It is a beautiful property, complete with 6 room inn and a chapel for weddings.  The cafĂ© had only been open 4 weeks, and was being run by a young English couple from Camberley.  They are getting ready to move back to England and start a coffee and sandwich shop there.  We talked for at least 30 minutes about their travels, coffee, the winery, our travels, etc.  It was really a delightful visit.  They encouraged us to stop at Arrowtown on our way to Wanaka.  Arrowtown is an old mining town with the historic buildings restored and now filled with interesting shops, cafes, restaurants, and ice cream parlors – our type of city.  After walking around the town we went to see an old Chinese settlement.  Just like in California, and about the same time, the Chinese came to New Zealand to mine for gold.

After Arrowtown we drove to Wanaka, over some pretty impressive mountains.  The road was under construction a lot of the way and the speed limit was 30 kmh, about 18 MPH.  The rest of the time the speed limit was 100kmh, about 60 MPH, except due to the tight curves it was hard to go over 45.  Basically it took a lot longer than expected to get to Wanaka, but it was worth it.  Our hotel is a nice resort with three swimming pools and perhaps 10 hot tubs.  Misa was very excited, she finally got to go swimming.

After swimming we did homeschooling and I ran into town for groceries.  These motels and apartment-style hotels are saving us a lot of money because we are cooking in the room.  All three breakfasts and dinners in Te Anau and now dinner in Wanaka we ate in the room.

The setting here in Wanaka is very tranquil, open prairie surrounded by soaring peaks.  Tomorrow we will leave for Franz Josef Glacier, stopping at Mt. Aspiring National Park on the way.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Te Anau Part 2

This morning we started our trip to Milford Sound/Fjord/Fiord at 9:45.  It was nice to sleep in a little bit.  We also called Katunka for the first time since we left on our trip, it was great to talk to her.  With WiFi we can call the US for free, so we are planning a few more phone calls while we are here. The bus ride to Milford Sound/Fjord/Fiord took three hours because we stopped several times for photo opportunities.  The mountains were incredibly steep, which made for some awesome views.

Our 1.5 hour boat ride in the fjord included a nice buffet lunch on the boat.  Unfortunately it was so good we ate almost the entire way out to the Tasman Sea.  Once again we were blessed with great weather.  Someone said they are having something of a drought, it hasn't rained for three days.  Misa says we brought the nice weather with us from California. Milford Sound/Fjord/Fiord is impressive.  The steep canyon walls rise straight up out of the water.  Due to the lack of rain there weren't many waterfalls, but there were enough to get the idea of how it looks after a big rain.

One of the most interesting things in Fiordland is the tree avalanches.  Because the mountains are made up of really hard granite, the roots of the trees don't go into the ground but link together and hold each other.  But if a couple of trees start to slide, they take a whole slice of the forest with them, wiping out everything below.  After a tree avalanche the rock is totally barren, as if nothing was ever there.

Milford Sound was prettier than Doubtful Sound, particularly the drive there through the mountains.  It is hard to compare the two, because Doubtful Sound is so big, and we got to see the dolphins and the power station.  Both days were special, and now my list goes like this: 1. Norwegian Fjords; 2. Milford Sound/Fjord/Fiord; 3. Swiss High Lakes; 3a. Doubtful Sound/Fjord/Fiord.

When we got home Misa played with a cat that lives here at the Motel and talked to Shay on FaceTime.  Katka and I went to the grocery store and for a walk down to Lake Te Anau. Tomorrow we head to Mt. Cook and Lake Wanaka.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Te Anau

We arrived in Te Anau Friday after a 2.5 hour drive from Queenstown.  The drive wasn't bad - one thing that helped was a GPS I bought on e-Bay for $99 before we left on our trip, and it is amazing.  It is actually a little 7" Windows CE tablet, with a built-in GPS receiver.  It came with maps from all over the world.  I specifically requested North America, Australia, and New Zealand, but it has about 20 other random countries (e.g. Egypt, Hungary).  It works perfectly here.  The screen is huge and shows all kinds of extra information.  You can also put movies on it to watch while you are driving - not that I'd do that of course.  I haven't even figured out all of the things it does yet.

Our Motel in Te Anau is the best yet, because it has free Wi-Fi.  We haven't really been able to use the Internet extensively since we arrived in New Zealand, but now we are going crazy, like kids on Easter who gave up candy for lent.  We didn't even do anything except go grocery shopping when we got here because we had so much Internetting to do.  Yes, I just made up that word, but how else do you describe everything we do on the Internet these days?  So we blogged, posted our pictures (http://bdehning.fotki.com/2012australia/), checked Facebook, email, watched Modern Family, Skyped, etc.

Saturday we had our first day in Fiordland.  I don't know why it isn't Fjorland, as this is an English-speaking country, but they insist on spelling fiord with an "i", which must be OK, because the spell-checker doesn't say that it is wrong.  First we took a bus to Lake Manapouri, then a boat across the lake, then a bus to Doubtful Sound, and then a boat all the way out to the Tasman Sea.  It was a triple-lucky day: 1. the weather was awesome; 2. the Tasman Sea was calm so we got to go way out into the Sea; 3. we got to see seals and dolphins (The animals might have been the high point of the day for me.  First, there were baby seal pups walking around on the rocks, and second, two dolphins jumped straight up out of the water at the same time like they do at SeaWorld.  I didn't know they did that in the wild.)  When we were in "Crooked Arm," a particularly steep-sided part of  the fjord, they stopped the boat and turned off the engines.  They made everyone stand still and be quiet.  It was amazing.  You could hear the birds singing in the forest, the waves lapping against the shore, and nothing else.

Doubtful Sound is a fjord, not a sound; it was given the wrong name and it stuck.  In fact, most all of the sounds in New Zealand are really fjords.  Any way, Doubtful Sound/Fjord/Fiord is beautiful.  Unfortunately I think my expectations were "Norwegian Fjords" beautiful, and they are more "Swiss high-lakes" beautiful.  So as incredible as they are it still goes, 1. Norwegian Fjords; 2. Swiss High Lakes; 2a. Doubtful Sound.

One very cool unexpected surprise was seeing the Lake Manapouri hydroelectric power station.  It is basically like Hoover Dam, except instead of building a dam and having the water pass through the turbines and out on the other side of the dam, they just put it next to a lake and have the water pass through the turbines and then six miles of tunnels out into the ocean.  So the water enters from the lake about 400 feet above sea level and falls straight down into the turbines, which are at sea level.  Then the water flows out two 6 mile long tunnels into Doubtful Sound.  Doubtful Sound is huge, and covered with about 3 feet of fresh water, floating on the salt water, leading to unique marine life.

Back at the Motel (after bus, boat, bus) we ate, worked on homeschool, Internetted, and got ready for tomorrow, when we will go to Milford Sound/Fjord/Fiord and I'll see where that goes on the list.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


We arrived in Queenstown early, the flights in NZ are short. Our hotel was right by Lake Wakatipu. So far each city is a little better than the last. Queenstown is small, friendly, beautiful, and full of good restaurants and things to do. When we checked in we were told we had to eat at Fergburger, the best hamburgers in the world.  Judging by the line, that might be true.  Luckily the service was fast, we only had to wait about 10 minutes for our food.  We walked down to the lake and had a picnic on the beach.  The burgers were pretty awesome, the fries above average, but nothing special.    

After lunch we took the gondola to the top of a hill (mountain?) overlooking the town and lake.  At the top of the hill they have a luge ride.  It is sort of like an alpine slide, but the track is wide enough for two sleds so there is steering and passing.  It is more fun than a regular alpine slide.  We spent a long time on top of the mountain before taking the gondola back to town.  We spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the city, ending with a nice dinner in a traditional NZ pub.    

Thursday the weather took a turn for the worse, but we made the best of it.  We found a great playground with a unique seesaw where the bar is up high and you sit on swings hanging down.  We also walked through the botanical gardens and visited "Underwater World" - a huge window in the side of the lake where you watch the fish and ducks dive down for food.  It was much better than I thought it could be.  They had a system set up that dumped food pellets into the water when you pushed a button, so the area was full of big fish and ducks.      After lunch at KFC and coffee at a lakeside cafe, Katka went to see the shops in town while Misa and I went to feed the ducks.  We all ended up together in town shopping eventually, and then for dinner on top of a restaurant with beautiful views of the mountains.  Our waitress was from Illinois and has a brother going to IIT where Katunka goes to school in Chicago, it is a small world.  

Today we leave for Te Anau, time to see some fjords!                                                                    

Auckland and Wellington

We flew from LAX to Auckland late Thursday night.  Even though our flight left at 11:30pm they served a full meal before turning out the lights.  The flight was 13 hours, time enough to watch 3 movies and sleep a few hours.  We had never flown Qantas before, and it was good.  There was a personal entertainment system at each seat, and the food was good.     

We got to Auckland ahead of schedule, breezed through immigration and customs and were at our hotel by about 11:00am on Saturday.  Somewhere along the way we lost Friday.  We’ll make it up in May when we’ll have the 9th and 10th in Australia, then fly to Tahiti and have the 9th and 10th again.     

Our room wasn’t ready at the hotel so we walked over to a mall on Queen Street, had lunch, and then went back to our hotel to check in.  It was a typical New Zealand day, cloudy with a bit of a breeze.  We left winter to come here to summer and somehow the weather got colder in the process.     

Our hotel was more of a little apartment, right near the water.  After freshening up we walked out to see the area around our hotel.  We went up to the Auckland Tower and then over to Queen Street.  Auckland is odd in that it is a very quiet city.  We explored some of the streets around Queen Street, ate supper at Subway, and went back to the hotel.  We overdid the walking a little and Michaela was exhausted.  She only slept a few hours on the plane, and a little Subway sandwich was not enough food for supper.  After a nice hot shower and a snack she felt better and we all went to bed early.  I woke up first on Sunday morning after 13 hours of sleep.     

Last time we were in Auckland we went to a park with huge trees that are great for climbing.  We went back to that park and it was all set up with Chinese lanterns for the Chinese New Year Lantern Festival.  There were lanterns that looked like sheep, penguins, cows, dragons, polar bears, etc.  It was cool during the day, so I’m sure at night it was really beautiful.  We had lunch at one of the hundred sushi places we passed.  There were often two sushi restaurants on the same block.  While exploring the city we found a cool park with bean bag chairs for park benches, and little shops made out of shipping containers.     

We wanted to see Auckland from the water so we took a ferry over to Devonport across the bay.  Misa and I climbed Mt. Victoria (a 15 minute walk) to get a better view of the city.  On top was a little fort with a cannon to protect the bay.  We did have beautiful 360degree views and took some nice photos.  We met Katka back in Devonport, had a little ice cream and took the ferry back to Auckland.  Right at the ferry terminal was a Korean sushi restaurant so Katka had sushi again and Misa and I had Korean pancakes.  The pancakes were pre-cooked, but they heated them up in a cast-iron press and then covered them with sauce.  I had custard and Misa had chocolate.     

We finished exploring with a walk around the wharf area.  The America’s Cup yacht race was held there recently and the area is full of nice restaurants and beautiful boats.  I was in kind of a hurry to get back to the hotel to catch the end of the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t on.  I couldn’t even find highlights.  When I heard a preview for an upcoming segment on the news, “We’ll take you backstage in Indianapolis where Madonna is rehearsing for tomorrow’s Super Bowl in America.”  Oh yeah, we’re a day ahead here, the Super Bowl will be on Monday.  

After a short stop at the hotel Misa and I went for supper.  We found a hamburger and pizza place with hamburgers the size of a small plate for only $10.  I know that sounds like a lot, but given that a Grande Mocha at Starbuck’s is $6.50, and two subs and three drinks at Subway was almost $20 we felt like we had found a bargain.     

Early Monday we flew from Auckland to Wellington.  Just by coincidence we are staying at the same hotel where we stayed last time.  The hotel is right near the Parliament and Lambton Quay – a big shopping street in Wellington.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat on Lambton Quay and took the cable car to the top of a hill overlooking the city for some great views of the city and Lambton Harbor.  From there we walked back to our hotel by way of the Carter Observatory, Wellington Botanic Garden, Lady Norwood Rosegarden and Begonia House where we stopped for coffee and a snack.  Misa also finished her homeschooling for the day that she started at the airport and on the airplane.     

The walk from there took us past the “Beehive” government headquarters building and to our hotel.  Misa is supposed to do something like 45 minutes per day for PE.  I think we have knocked out a month’s worth of PE in just three days.     

After refreshing and resting a bit in our room we met Matt for dinner.  We walked down to Lambton Quay looking for a restaurant but everything was closed.  Monday was a public holiday here commemorating the signing of the Waitangi Treaty between the Europeans and the indigenous Maori people.  The only thing open was Subway, so we went back to our hotel and ate there.  It was great to catch up with Matt and hear all of his plans.  He is staying in a youth hostel now, but has looked at a couple of apartments and wants to move soon.  He is also looking for a job so he grabbed an application from our hotel.  He seems to really like Wellington, which we do too.  It is a beautiful city, very clean and friendly.  Somehow I like it more than Auckland even though it is similar.     

This morning we slept in and Misa worked on her homeschool while Katka and I checked our email.  When we left it was raining, but our first stop was the Parliament so it didn’t really matter.  After some meat pies for lunch we took a tour of the Beehive, Parliament, and Parliamentary Library.  It was the NZ Parliament’s first day back in session for the New Year and a lot was going on.  There was a protest going on outside, and inside were all of the TV crews.  One of the neatest parts of the tour was when they showed us how the made the building more earthquake proof.  Basically they put the building on rubber pillars so that it moves independently of the ground during an earthquake.  After our tour we went and sat in the gallery for a while to watch the Prime Minister answer questions.  It is always fun to watch the British Prime Minister answer questions from the Parliament on C-SPAN and it was equally entertaining here.  If the opposition did not like an answer they would hoot or shout out.     

We finished the day in our hotel, Misa doing her homeschooling, me writing this Blog, and Katka relaxing and working on her writing.  Tomorrow we have an early morning flight to Queenstown, where we will rent a car and start our drive around the southern island.