Thursday, February 23, 2012

Let's continue in the middle...

It seems that we are amiss in updating our M2-DownUnder blog! It’s not because we are lazy, but rather Holland America decided to string 6 New Zealand ports in a row – Tauranga/Rotorua, Napier, Wellington, Picton, Akaroa, and Dunedin, followed by a day on cruising in Fiordland in Southern New Zealand. Sensory overload for sure, and little time left to reflect.

We did manage to select and post a few of the pictures of our travels, with some commentary within the description. Visit for days Feb 14-22. There are many new pictures to view.

Let’s see if we can catch up a bit with the narrative. Additionally, our fellow traveler John has been providing a daily email journal to his friends. I will post those in a separate blog entry so you can share the experience from his viewpoint.

So, we’ll back track a little as we recall our experiences while we traverse the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Tasmania. This is an interesting route with little shipping traffic, and unpredictable conditions. Fortunately for us, we left the rains behind, and the seas are fair, with just a few swells and no breakers. Three albatross birds were seen trailing the boat, with us 300+ miles west of Milford Sound in New Zealand, and 800+ miles before we arrive in Burnie, Tasmania.

Wellington, February 18, 2012
We arrived around 8am into windy Wellington, the capitol of New Zealand. We docked just a mile from the central downtown area across from Wellington Stadium. It was a short walk to town when we arrived in the area dominated by public and government buildings, but not the usual concrete or stone structures. The first site was the Wellington Railway Station, with an unusual statue in front – that of Mahatma Ghandi, in his familiar pose in peasant robes and his walking stick. Next we saw a huge building, constructed entirely of timber and wood; with the claim as being the largest wooden building in the world. Despite the material used, some of the wood exterior was disguised as stone. Of course, smoking is prohibited inside and around, as this building has survived since the late 1800s.

This wooden building is now the home of Wellington University Law School. The immaculate surrounding gardens are highlighted by an unusual tree at the entry walkway with huge orange flowers. The flowers were very fragrant and drawing swarms of bees and quite a few birds.

Across from here is another unusual building, nicknamed the “bee hive”; no explanation necessary as the pictures show. Nearby is an assortment of other government buildings and the Wellington Cathedral. Considering the time, Deb and Mike separated from the group to trek on over to the Wellington Cable Car. This funicular climbs a steep hill, where we were rewarded with a great view of the central city. At the terminus were a cable car museum, and the start of a trail through the Botanic Gardens. As we traveled through the well kept gardens we passed pioneer Jewish and Christian Cemeteries, a wedding party, and a cricket field with a just ended game. Fortunately for Mike it was mostly downhill.

When we reached the end, we got our bearings and found our way to Cuba Street, a pedestrian mall that is home to cafes, shops, and the must-see Bucket Fountain. We came, we saw, we photographed!
Next we had a short walk to the waterfront for the Te Papa National Museum. Inside were several exhibits we wanted to see – several Maori structures, artifacts, and boats, and a historical exhibit describing the early explorers and then immigrant journeys to New Zealand during the mid 1800s. We also stopped at the museum café for a simple lunch out on the terrace. The immigrant journey was described thru the experiences of several families. One of note was a family from Croatia who originally came to start a new life harvesting sap from trees, but eventually developed vineyards – the start of the wine industry in New Zealand.

After lunch, we walked along the waterfront where Jim Beam was sponsoring a music festival. Did we mention it was “loud”? The crowds were calm and polite, and definitely the first time we saw this many young people in New Zealand. Still, the crowds were sparse by Portland standards.

We linked up with John, Cindy, May, and Mark and walked a short way to an outdoor café – The Arizona Café – for beers and coffee. A nice afternoon respite, as with other days… I asked for a “lager and lime”, a traditional UK drink, and the bar tender had never heard of it, though she did know what a shandy was.
By then we were all a bit tired, and having seen the highlights of Wellington we headed back towards the port to reboard our ship.

Picton, February 19, 2012
Overnight we crossed Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. The ship tossed and turned during the crossing as there were 30+ knot winds.

Picton is an inland port towards the southern end of Queen Charlotte Sound. This is a small town that is busy being a ferry terminal for cars, trucks, and even trains traveling between the two islands of New Zealand. The town itself is quite small, as people hurriedly continue their journeys after leaving the ferry. The one attraction in the town is that it is at the center of the Queen Charlotte Track – a major tramping trail in the northern part of the South Island. Also a short distance away is Blenheim, the center of activity for the Marlborough wine region.

Between the dock and the town is a small park, where the residents had set up a craft market. It was quite windy, and it looked like rain. It didn’t seem to faze the vendors at all, even when it looked like the winds would pick up the canopy tents. Mark intervened to help one of the vendors secure their tent when a wind gust hit the park.

After a quick walk around town checking out the shops and Nelson Park, we all stopped in a few of the shops looking for greenstone Maori treasures. Mike was tempted to purchase a New Zealand-made oiled canvas hat, but he fought the temptation. He could not, however, avoid the draw of chicken flavored potato chips and a small bottle of L&P fizzy lemonade – what we would call soda or pop. After making sure we checked out all the shops, we returned to the harbor where we crossed the “coat-hanger” bridge to tramp the track to Bob’s Beach. John needed to run, so he made a quick trip back to the ship to don his running outfit. The track to Bob’s Beach climbed above the waters of Picton harbor, revealing good views of the sound and our ship. We trekked about a mile over hill and dale before reaching our destination. Along the way, there was almost deafening chirping by the cicadas. It was quite unusual to hear cicadas this loud and with temperatures only in the 60s. Some even resorted to a clicking sound rather than the usual constant buzzing. Perhaps they were trying to start their buzzers!

After posing on the beach for some photos, and looking for greenstone rocks on the shoreline, we headed back. Along the way, our runner John crossed paths with us. Kudos to John for running the trails without injury – though the trail was dry, it was narrow, with gnarly roots and gaps on the trail, with shear drops to the bay below. Did we mention there were no railings?

When we got back into town, we again visited the small craft fair in the park just before the dock and ferry terminal. Deb, Mary, and Cindy looked hard again for some memorable greenstone keepsakes.
We skipped eating lunch in the town, preferring the ship’s fare for the afternoon. Shortly after reboarding, the rains came, so we timed our return just right.

Akaroa-Christchurch, February 20, 2012
Cruise ships normally dock in Lyttleton Harbour a short distance from Christchurch. The earthquakes over the past year have altered the ports for most all the cruise lines. Holland America chose Akaroa, a 90 minute drive southeast of Christchurch for the start of our journey at this port. Akaroa is a small French town in this very English country. The town is on the central crater slopes of an ancient volcano caldera. The entry to the harbor is though a natural channel through the caldera walls. Think Crater Lake with a narrow channel in one of the sides, open to the Pacific Ocean. The pictures reveal this very well. Fortunately for us, this volcano is quite extinct.

We boarded the Akaroa Shuttle, which took us on a 60km drive around the harbor at a relatively high elevation at the crest of the caldera. We descended on the southwester rim, and entered a flat plain that took us into Christchurch.

The shuttle dropped us off in Christchurch at their Botanic Gardens; also quite close to Christ’s College. A short walk took us to the fences surrounding the Red Zone. The literal center of Christchurch, the core downtown area was the epicenter of this terrible earthquake just one year ago. For safety, people are prohibited from entering the Red Zone area. Only construction, demolition, and other recovery personnel are permitted entry. On the southwestern side of the Red Zone, there is a public shopping area. What is unusual is that each of the stores resides in recycled shipping containers. They are stacked, and painted in bright colors, to provide a visually pleasing environ.

After a short stop at a few of the stores, we followed the fences along a counterclockwise trek, viewing some of the damage and demolition efforts underway. At this time, approximately 200 of the 400 damaged buildings have been demolished and removed. No reconstruction is taking place, yet. Just outside the Red Zone, some repairs are underway, the most notable and visible being the Christchurch Casino.

What was interesting was seeing how localized the damage was. On one side of the street, brick buildings fractured and came tumbling down, while seemingly similar building just across the street are left standing, undamaged.

The iconic Cathedral in Cathedral Square was just out of sight, so you’ll have to rely on others for pictures of its devastation. What was quite visible to us was a 20+ story building that was under construction when the earthquake struck. The damage to the foundation was severe, causing the building to tilt a few degrees. As the tilt and damage could not be corrected, it is being demolished floor by floor, right to ground level. This is especially difficult due to the reinforced concrete construction built to withstand earthquakes – NOT!
Near the end of our trek around the Red Zone, we came across a Fireman Memorial, and a familiar iron beam structure. In 2003 when the memorial was established, iron beams salvaged from the World Trade Center in NYC were brought to Christchurch.

We continued our trek around the Red Zone, ending at the Botanic Gardens where we found the Antigua Café and Boat House. This pre-1900 building is beside the Avon River. Again, another relaxing lunch and respite before returning back to Akaroa and our ship.

What was memorable about the bus rides between Akaroa and Christchurch were the well informed and friendly drivers. On the way to Christchurch, our driver Russell provided a narration that was very congenial and informative, talking about his life, the history of the area, and answering questions from riders. On the return trip our new driver offered additional details about the area’s history and sang a few songs as well. He was quite talented!

Dunedin, February 21, 2012
We docked at Port Chalmers; this port is midway in the sound with Dunedin at the innermost tip. The water is quite shallow in this sound, and the navigation channel quite narrow. Port Chalmers is a small town, but busy port for the area. Mike found a taxi van that took us into town. Our taxi driver asked if we’d like the scenic route that would take us to Baldwin Street, identified as the steepest street in the world. How could we pass that up! The normal road to Dunedin takes traffic along the waterline through an industrial area. Our taxi route took us up through the hills surrounding Dunedin – definitely a more enjoyable journey.

Just before entering Dunedin, we stopped at the foot of Baldwin Street. The street was quite steep indeed, so we stopped to take pictures. Quite a few tourists had made the stop, or had walked to the street. Some even were walking up the steep street. After getting a few pictures from the bottom, we returned to the taxi, and Stewart, our driver stepped on the gas taking all of us to the top of the street. We stopped a bit for pictures again, then drove down with cameras snapping away. We did inquire as to the status of the vehicle’s brakes, and Stewart assured us that all was well.

Stewart dropped us off at the Octagon, yes, an 8-sided “square” at the center of Dunedin. John discovered free WiFi, so the guys all pulled out their smart phones to get reacquainted with the outside world while the ladies took advantage of a bio-break. Mark led us on a landmark walk around town that eventually took us to the Speight’s Brewery and Pub where we had a nice lunch and sample the brewery’s wares. The food was excellent!

After lunch, we made our way down to the Dunedin Railway Station, just across the street from the Law Courts building. In between was another fine garden, and even better a crafts shop that had quite a bit of greenstone. Here, Cindy, Deb, and Mary each found something that caught their eye, and purchases were made. The boys waited patiently in the garden in front of the station.

Inside the station were well preserved mosaics and glazed windows, dating back to before 1900 when the station was built. Though there are some scheduled passenger trains for journeys to north to Christchurch and Picton, the attraction here are the train journeys to the Taori Gorge. We did not take this trip, but many from the cruise did. Especially convenient was that some of the passengers were able to board the train beside the ship at the dock. Cruise lines make special arrangements to pick up excursion passengers right at the port beside the docked ships. The Taori Gorge Railway was built during the height of the gold rush in these parts.

As this was the last port stop in New Zealand we all counted our local money – no need to carry it further or change it into Australian or US currency. So of course, after putting aside enough for bus fare back to Port Chalmers, we found another café for an afternoon respite. Beer, mocha, and flat-whites were ordered with only a few coins and bills remaining. We still had some time after returning to Port Chalmers, so Mike and Deb walked through the town. Mike’s remaining NZ money was spent at a local store, purchasing some treats that son Mark will likely enjoy. Mike also picked up a treat to share with everyone during one of our upcoming sea days.

Fiordland, February 22, 2012
The books say that this is the most beautiful area of New Zealand, combining the best that the fiords of Alaska and Norway all in one place. The books also say this is the rainiest part of New Zealand and that we should expect a constant rain and overcast skies.

Well, the books are partially wrong, and karma has rewarded us. Just like our rain-free days in our other ports, the sun shined and the clouds parted as we entered the Fiordland National Park area of southwestern New Zealand. We visited Dusty Sound in the morning; Doubtful Sound midday, and Milford Sound late in the afternoon. These areas are almost indescribable, so we’ll let the photos do the talking. For Dusty, we had almost clear skies and bright sunshine as we navigated the narrow channel.

This remote area of New Zealand is a treasure, combining the best of Alaska and Norway fiords in one place. The ship’s course provided an ascending set of expectations, which each new channel exceeding the previous. Nothing could prepare us for what we saw after entering the channel for Milford Sound. Initially, it looked like a small, narrow cove; the same view seen by Captain Cook when he first visited, never exploring the channel at all, and dismissing it as a small bay. His 5 weeks in the bountiful Dusty Sound perhaps dulled his senses, or bad weather caused him to continue the journey northward. When we entered the mouth of the sound and neared the back of this “bay”, a narrow channel opened to the left, revealing the glory that is Milford Sound. Tall mountain peaks on both sides with near vertical walls. To think this was all carved by a glacier years ago is almost unbelievable. Sailing further into the sound revealed even taller mountains and gorge walls. We could tell we were closer to some civilization, as small tour boats passed us and a few kayakers were sighted in the distance. Soon small planes and a helicopter buzzed overhead, and directly ahead was a resort on one of the few level areas within the sound. We stopped, and the captain then proceeded to execute a 360 degree turn in the middle of the channel. We were outside at the ship’s bow which had been opened for the day. In the distance, we could see a small glacier atop a mountain directly ahead. 180 degrees into the turn, we saw yet another mountain with massive glaciers near their peak.
On the gorge sides were numerous waterfalls; there are 2 or 3 permanent falls with water flowing year round, fed by the melting glaciers. During times of rain, hundreds of waterfalls develop, dropping their flows hundreds of feet into the waters below.

Alas, it was time to go, and the ship turned another 180 degrees so we could leave the sound. We were fortunate that the weather cooperated, allowing us to experience one of the great wonders of the world.
We ended the day leaving Milford Sound and the shores of New Zealand. We relaxed a bit before dinner, and Mike started to sort out the pictures from the last few days. No need to bore our readers with the hundreds taken. It took a little time, but enough were selected from each port to share with our friends.
It was also time for a backup – memory cards to computer hard drive; computer hard drive to an external portable hard drive; and eventually, backing up the pictures and video from the trip to DVDs. Can’t be too careful!

Of course, at this very moment, disaster seemingly struck. Suddenly, memory cards from the camera would load pictures into the computer; lockups appeared. Time to shutdown and restart. Mike had taken steps to disable automatic updates, but for some reason, at this shutdown, the computer decided to install some accumulated updates. And it seemingly took forever, as it was close to dinner time. Fortunately, karma made a repeat visit to my computer, and after some panicky moments all was secured and safely copied to the computer. An overnight backup was the next course of action.

We sat at the dinner table just before sunset. After DenDen our waiter took out order, Deb and Cindy noticed an excellent sunset out the dining room windows. Mike and Mark jumped up and exited to the promenade deck outside to capture some photos, which we share below. What a great way to remember our exit from the New Zealand waters.

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