Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Whale or log?

After Christchurch, our last stop on the South Island was Kaikoura, a town which is practically synonymous with whale watching. Just offshore is a deep marine canyon, fed by two ocean currents, which provide the environment and nutrients to support an abundance of marine life, including whales.

I had kind of the wrong idea about whale watching. I sort of thought we would be just ambling about on the ocean, enjoying some picturesque scenery, and if a whale popped up, hurrah! In fact, it's a lot more goal-oriented than that. They use radar and GPS tracking to locate a whale (sperm whales in this case), and then time when it dives. I didn't know this, but apparently they have a pretty regular schedule of diving down for 45 minutes to an hour, then surfacing for a bit, before diving again. I suppose I thought they cruised around on the surface (maybe other kinds of whales do), but they're actually only up for short periods, so you'd probably be out of luck with my "wander around" whale-finding strategy.

This single-mindedness annoyed me a bit. We headed straight for the spot where they had tracked a whale to, and they announced that the whale had dived about 15 minutes before. So, knowing that they dived for 45 minutes to an hour, that meant they knew we would just be bobbing around on a featureless ocean for 30-45 minutes, waiting for the whale to come back up. While we were waiting, two boats came up behind us. So I was annoyed, thinking that if we had been on one of the other two boats, we could have come straight to the same spot, spent less time waiting around, and (as it turned out later), had more time seeing other marine life. They guarantee 80% of your money back if you don't see a whale, so it just felt like they were taking no chances, preferring just to sit there waiting for a whale rather than do something else in the meantime and risk somehow missing it.

For the record, Jules felt that the waiting around for the whale was agreeably suspenseful, so maybe I'm just being curmudgeonly.

An albatross spotting while waiting
After my seasickness on Doubtful Sound, I was a bit nervous this time and took a seasickness pill. I don't know if it worked or I wouldn't have got sick anyway, but it wasn't too bad. However, while I may be Official Road Trip Photographer, Jules was nominated Official Boat Trip Photographer to spare my stomach.

Finally, a puff of water announced the presence of a whale. There was huge excitement at this, as you can imagine. Unfortunately, most of the time you could have chucked a big log in the water and told me it was a whale, and I would have been none the wiser. Some old guy turned to me as we were looking at the whale and said "Magnificent, isn't it!" I just gave him my standard, tight-smiling "Mmm...", because I was secretly thinking that it was a bit crap.

First sighting

What the whale looked like 99% of the 10 minutes or so it was on the surface. Actually, that's being generous, since it wasn't making the puff of water most of the time
It only really looked whale-y when it arched its back, flipped up its tail, and dived back down to the bottom. And I must confess, this bit was pretty cool. Jules did a great job capturing it, using a rapid-fire technique (I tend to fuss around composing the shot and then miss most of the action at such moments). I even made my very first GIF of it!

At least the whale wasn't beached as though.

After the whale had disappeared, we steamed off to a guano-covered island (you could smell it from the boat) to see another colony of NZ fur seals. So cute!

And then came the best bit of all - we sailed off to find a whole pod of Dusky dolphins. There were tons of them, and they were incredibly playful. They were leaping out of the water (really high sometimes), twisting around in the air and landing on their backs, swimming in packs of three to five in perfect co-ordination, coming right up to the boat. It was so cool! I take back all my petulant #firstworldproblem grumbling about the whale, because this was amazing. (Although I will note that, had we not been hanging around so long waiting for the whale to surface, we could have stayed longer looking at the awesome dolphins.)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Quake city

The last time I visited Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island, it was the year 2000, I was part of my school's debating team, and we were attending a Catholic Jubilee Festival. I know, simmer down, you can't handle the coolness. In typical fashion, I can't remember much of the city or where the homestay with a student from the local school was. I do remember we were horrified to be served microwave chicken, and that the family cut open their toothpaste so that you had to dip your toothbrush in to get the last dregs out of the roll.

As you may know, it's been just over 5 years since Christchurch was hit by the second of two major earthquakes. (There was actually a 5.7 earthquake there in February this year, but it didn't cause serious damage.) Basically, there was a huge earthquake in September 2010, which caused property damage and injuries. In February 2011, there was an aftershock, which was technically smaller, but actually much more destructive. This is because the epicentre was closer to the city, it was shallower, many buildings were already weakened by the initial earthquake and aftershocks, and because it was in the middle of the day, so many people were on the streets and in tall office buildings. 185 people were killed and there was widespread property damage.

I heard of the earthquakes at the time, of course, and I know it received international coverage because for a while friends and colleagues would ask if my family or people I knew were affected (they were safe over 1000 kilometres away). But these things fall off the news cycle pretty quickly when they're in a far-away country, so after the first couple of weeks I only very sporadically saw any updates on the city, and probably assumed things were more or less back to normal, five years on.

Once I got to New Zealand, a few people asked whether we would be visiting Christchurch, and said we would probably be shocked by the extent of damage that still exists. We were planning to stop there to break our drive, basically, and I also wanted to visit the "cardboard cathedral", but remarks like this actually made me more interested to visit the city and see what it was like. I don't know if this counts as "disaster tourism", or if I can dress it up in the guise of wanting to support the city. Where is the line - is it how many people died, how much time has passed, the impact of your presence on the locals, or your own motivations? It felt somewhat ghoulish taking photos of damaged buildings, but on the other hand, by this stage life was continuing more or less as normal in the city (although I imagine its residents may not always agree), so it didn't feel like we were in people's faces exploiting their misery for our own edification.

After people told me I would be surprised by the extent of the damage, I suppose I got an idea in my head that we would be seeing buildings with huge cracks or tilted over, or half intact and half fallen down. That is, buildings that looked obviously affected by an earthquake. My impressions were kind of different. Most buildings looked not clearly damaged, but more like old abandoned houses. Much of the city was a cross between a huge building site and a ghost town. Most things looked more shabby and run down than earthquake-damaged. My best guess is that the most damaged and dangerous buildings (that might fall down in a future earthquake) were demolished as a priority. The buildings that remain, that looked abandoned but not damaged, presumably have structural problems that mean they have been declared unsafe to live in, but have just sat there empty, getting more and more dilapidated over the last five years.

One memory I have from the 2000 trip is of the Christchurch cathedral, an old and iconic building by New Zealand standards. I had heard it was severely damaged in the quake, and there are ongoing arguments of what to do with it (restore it exactly as it was, build something completely new, or do an old/new hybrid). I had also heard of the "cardboard cathedral", a temporary structure meant to fill the gap until the old cathedral is somehow fixed. As the nickname suggests, reinforced cardboard tubes were used in its construction, although apparently not as extensively as the architect had wanted. According to Wikipedia, the "Wizard of New Zealand" called it "kitsch" (I'm rolling my eyes just typing that phrase), but I thought it was lovely. What a great and bold idea to make something iconic and different rather than any old church. I can definitely sympathise with those who want to restore the existing cathedral as it was, but I'm happy they went with something innovative for this temporary solution. Would people want to travel from around the world or across the country to see an old-fashioned brick church, a pale imitation of the original cathedral let alone any old parish church in the UK? I don't think so. 

Even though I like the cardboard cathedral, it was sad to see what the original cathedral looks like these days. Here's what it used to look like:

And here's what it looks like today:

While we were there, we visited "Quake City", a small museum which shows the impact of the earthquake and explains why it was so destructive. It definitely gave me a better idea of what people went through - I didn't realise, for example, that the sewage system was knocked out, so people had to make their own longdrop toilets. It helped you realise that even if you were lucky enough to have a home and safety, daily life must have been hard for a long time. The reality of life after a major disaster is quite a chilling thought, since the whole of New Zealand is basically built on fault lines and volcanoes. And if this is how a first-world country copes with the aftermath of a disaster, I shudder to think of life in places like Haiti after the gaze of the world moves on.

The remains of the cathedral's rose window

There were plenty of signs of regeneration and rebuilding, however. They seem to be taking the opportunity provided by the disaster - an astonishing 80% of buildings in the central city either have been or will be demolished - to purposefully reshape the city, rather than just haphazardly rebuilding. The idea is generally to have different zones - precincts focused on business, health, culture etc., with enhanced transport links and more green spaces. Although the plan is yet to come to fruition, there are already encouraging signs - the cardboard cathedral, but also a cool outdoor mall we visited, housed in old shipping containers. (After visiting the shipping container mall, we followed Google Maps a block or so to go to another mall, only to find it was shut down and abandoned. You'd think after five years Google would be on top of that?)

The shipping container mall

Street art in the city

A new Antony Gormley sculpture, "Stay", in the river
Overall, our stop in Christchurch was definitely something different compared to the rest of our trip, but I'm glad we did. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Like a rolling stone

There have been several days on the trip that have essentially just been driving days. The longest drives we did in one go were around 6 hours on paper, but it inevitably takes longer with breaks and so on, plus we aimed not to drive at night, so it was quite easy to spend most of a day driving. These days tend not to be wildly exciting, so I've glossed over them mainly, but I have a few photos from the trip between Queenstown and Christchurch which are quite nice, so I'll use the opportunity to write a little bit about life on the road.

Most days, we were up around 8 and out of the campsite around 10, which was usually check out time. Campground life usually doesn't lend itself too well to lazy mornings in bed, plus we had plenty of early starts, so were pretty much in a rhythm of getting up at a reasonable hour. It is possible to "freedom camp" i.e. just park your van any old place, in many areas in New Zealand, as long as your camper is self-contained (has a toilet, essentially). We never took advantage of this, mostly so we could plug in to electricity each night and also in order to use the facilities like toilets and showers. There is a toilet in the van, but what goes in must come out, so it was pretty much for emergency use only. I, personally, classed needing the loo in the middle of the night as an emergency. Jules tried to argue that I should get up and use the campground facilities, but I argued that represented an undue burden on me, since I always have to get up at least once and he never does (TMI?) I won that round, although since he was the one who ended up emptying the toilet, one might question who was, in fact, unduly burdened by that arrangement.

I've never been particularly attracted to the idea of camping. Sleeping in a real bed instead of in a tent made things a lot easier of course, and for the most part it was fine.
Things I didn't like:
- even in not in the middle of the night, it's a pain to have to go out of the van and inside to use the bathroom/shower etc. It was always a dilemma, since I've not a big fan of wandering about in public in my nightwear, but on the other hand I basically want to be in my jimjams as soon as I'm "home" for the evening. A dressing gown my mum got me came in handy for this.
- talking of the bathrooms, none of them were horrible, but a shared campsite bathroom is never going to be that great. Sometimes you had to queue for the showers, sometimes they were cold, or you had to pay, or they were on a timer, or they weren't that clean, etc.
- we had great kitchen facilities in the van - an oven, four burners, a microwave, a fridge-freezer, etc., so we can't really complain. But we did learn that we had to scale down the ambition of some of the things we wanted to prepare. We didn't have a pot large enough for pasta, so ended up making spaghetti in the frying pan, for example, and anything that required multiple pots and pans at once was pretty much impossible due to space constraints. We started off basically wanting to cook like we did at home, but it just needed a different mindset, really.
- Obviously, the van's pretty big, so good for sleeping in, not so great for popping down to the shops. Parking and manoeuvring was sometimes an issue. I wouldn't want to spend a lot of time with a motorhome in a city.

Good things:
- We never did freedom camping, but we also never booked anywhere in advance. It was great having the freedom to adjust our plans, knowing in the absolute worst-case scenario, we would always have a bed for the night. It was easy to decide on the fly to stay an extra night somewhere or move on earlier.
- Everything in the van always needs to be stowed away securely before you drive, otherwise the consequences range from annoying rattling to potentially dangerous objects flying around. This took a bit of time each day, but you quickly get into a routine with it. It's definitely quicker and easier than having to haul bags in and out of a hotel and live out of a suitcase the whole time. There's something kind of nice about the "a place for everything, and everything in its place" set-up, and the van has all kinds of cute little buttons and latches and hidey-holes, so it can feel quite fun tidying up!
- The cost. We didn't have to pay rental fees, of course, but paying for campsites was at least half the price of any motel rooms we saw (and I imagine those are not your fanciest motels). It usually cost around $50 a night, which seems a bit steep considering they don't have to clean up after you or provide anything much beyond electricity and a bathroom (and even then, they sometimes charge you to take a shower), but it still definitely helped our budget.

Overall, I'm probably not going to be signing up to spend a week in the woods in a tent, but the motorhome lifestyle is quite fun!

Some things we ran across in our travels -

Ye olde New Zealand custom

Kind of didn't want to put my hand in here

The real white man's burden: having to come up with names for everything all at once. 
(There were many such imaginatively-named "no. 1 and no. 2" landmarks. I think the record was up to about no. 10 or 11.)

Back to our drive from Queenstown to Christchurch. We toyed with the idea of breaking the journey at Tekapo, staying the night and doing a tour of the observatory there. Supposedly it's a great place to see the stars, due to the lack of light pollution. However, it was a cloudy day with more clouds predicted for the evening, so we just made a brief stop at Lake Tekapo and kept going.

We crossed over the middle of the South Island via the Lindis Pass, 971m up

"Roaring Meg", a stream flowing down from a dam, generating hydro electricity

Mt. Cook, NZ's highest peak, is hiding in the clouds there
We hadn't been intending to visit Lake Tekapo, but I heard so much about it on the internet and from people in real life, that we decided to make the small detour to go see it. All the photos you see online of it are basically this:

Well, when we got there, it was a bit cloudy, all of those flowers (lupins?) were pretty much dead, and we were suffering from major lake fatigue. Over the previous few days, we had been to lakes Wanaka, Te Anau, Manapouri, and Wakitipu, so when we got to Lake Tekapo, we were a bit meh about it all, to be honest. It's a fine lake, but for once, not really living up to the postcard image.

Beautiful clear water

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Good trip? No doubt!

In between Wanaka and Queenstown, we stayed in Manapouri, way down south, in order to visit the Fiordland National Park and, in particular, Doubtful Sound. One of our plans had been to take a helicopter to Milford Sound and then do a boat trip there. Sounds pretty awesome, but awesome came with a steep pricetag of over $800 per person. Which would be fine if it was a once in a lifetime, magical experience, but when we saw the forecast as far as the app could see was for rain, we decided we weren't willing to splurge so much money on something that would probably be cloudy at best and drizzly at worst (or cancelled).

So, a simple boat trip (well, ferry, then coach, then boat trip) in Doubtful Sound it was. We stayed close to our starting point in Manapouri to be ready for our 5:45 alarm call the next day. The woman at the campsite wasn't what you would call welcoming. She seemed to be convinced that we were plotting to somehow scam her by leaving our motorhome in the park while we visited DS. We got to pay her back in smug self-satisfaction though when she asked "iconic or trailblazer?", and we didn't understand the question. She was asking what rental company our motorhome came from. Oh no, we don't have a rental motorhome, darling, how vulgar of you to ask.

As mentioned, DS is pretty inaccessible, so step one was a ferry trip across Lake Manapouri. The decision to take the early morning trip paid off with a beautiful sunrise over the lake. The forecast had been for rain, or at least clouds in Doubtful Sound as well, but we had figured rain is less fatal to a boating expedition than a helicopter trip, so took our chances. We got really lucky - the morning started off with a lot of low-hanging clouds in the sound, but mixed in with a lot of sun and blue skies. Apparently it rains a lot in DS - one guide said 200 days a year, the other 2 days out of 3. Whichever stat, or somewhere in between, you have more chance of getting rain than not. The rain the previous day was also a bonus in boosting the number and volume of waterfalls around the sound, so we really had great timing.

On the ferry
After the lake, we got on a bus for a short drive to the sound, over a 670m mountain pass, the lowest in the Southern Alps. Fiordland is a huge national park, covering about 10% of the land mass of the South Island, at 1.2 million hectares. Then it was on to the second boat for the Doubtful Sound itself. 

In the distance, you can just see the "gap" i.e. the gap between the islands which leads out to the Tasman Sea

A "hanging valley" caused by glacier action

Battling with the wind

Turned out the hoody wasn't much help

Stripey hills
It was named by Captain Cook, who came to the inlet into the sound but "doubted" he could sail in and out again safely, hence the name. I say sound, but unlike the ones at the top of the South Island, it's actually not a sound but a fjord. The difference being a U shape rather than a V shape.

At the end of the fjord, after the "Shelter Islands", which help keep the sea within the fjord calm, we saw a whole island full of native NZ fur seals. And, as though the god of blogs (I call her Glog) was literally smiling down upon us, there was a full rainbow too. Can't do any better than that.

Glog giveth and Glog taketh away, and she was not kind to me, however, once we turned back into the fjord. The sea had been very calm, but it got a bit rougher when we were out in the Tasman, and then, although it subsided into a gentle rocking, the damage was done. We were on the top deck, looking at some of the waterfalls lining the edges of the fjord...

Getting a close up

... when I felt I had better go to the back of the boat and lean over the railings for a bit. No-one else was back there, since everyone was up front looking at the waterfall, except for this one young dude who came and stood right next to me just as I let out a huge burp. I suppose you could be charitable and call it a retch, but yeah, pretty much a massive burp. I said sorry, he said it was okay as he rapidly backed away from me, and when I next turned around his girlfriend was laughing at me :( Ironically, he got sick later on the bus back, SERVES YOU RIGHT!

He must have told some of the crew, because next thing I know, one had appeared with a sick bag for me. It wasn't really required for its key function, but there was quite a bit of gurgling over the side followed by a retreat inside and a hot drink. Probably quite a good thing, since I took a million photos on the way out, so that stopped me taking any more on the return trip!

Jules caring for me from a distance

Sad panda
We then had the rest of the trip in reverse - back on the bus, stopping at a few notable sights, and then the ferry again.

Moss-covered tree

Doubtful Sound from above
Even with sea-sickness, I give it 5 stars, would cruise again.