Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year and penguins

Happy New Year

We celebrated with a game of Monopoly - US style

Penguins, penguins

penguins, penguins, everywhere . . .

outside  a very wet garage in Mill Valley
on the mantelpiece of a house in Brooklyn

in a Manhattan shop window

Sunday, December 30, 2012


Yes. Snow in Central Park! 
The busy outdoor rink
Eilidh and Aneurin

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Christmas, one and all

We were able to borrow a Christmas tree . . .
. . . and a cat

Monday, December 24, 2012

The taxi driver's tale

(Mill Valley street names)

There was Ethel, there was Helen and many many more
Each a woman from the logging days, maybe angel, maybe whore
One could have been a barmaid, another one a wife
now they're simply street names - just a symbol of a life.

There was Mirabelle, and Florence, Miriam and Rose,
Who they were in times long past, no one really knows
But they sure made an impression, and others would proclaim
Their name or deeds or beauty in a local hall of fame.

We don't have exact details of this celebrated crew
nor the biggest mystery of all, was this someone they knew?
The guy for whom a nearby street Wildomar was named
He may have been a wild Omar, but was he ever tamed?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Northern hemisphere winter solstice blues

21 Dec
Rainy morning in San Francisco
Cold and wet in the valley of the mills
Where is the light of the southern summer?
I've got the northern hemisphere winter solstice blues.

I wake up to the sound of hissing rain
windows are sunless, outside leaves are wet.
Sky is weighed down with lightless cloud
And at nine in the morning the lamps are lit

We don't do proper winter out here in California,
Cool and fresh baby, all year round,
Summer's warm and dry, though winter can be wetter
I've got the northern hemisphere winter solstice blues.

And even then, SF has two hours of daylight more than London. And Christmas lights sparkle in the gloom.

In the early afternoon, the rain stopped, so we took ourselves out for a stroll, along Throckmorton Avenue, past the Mill Valley public library and the O'Hanlon Center for the Arts, to where it joins Cascade Drive. Soon we turned off on a track labelled Tenderfoot Trail, which climbed quite steeply for a while before becoming the Monte Vista Trail, which was soon a normal road, for these parts, in other words rather winding, and with houses looking as though they wouldn't have been out of place in the Grimms' Fairytales. We seemed to be walking down even further than we had come up. As we approached the town again it began to rain with serious intent.

After eating we decided to try the attractions of Friday night out in Mill Valley. There's an excellent cinema, and we made up two-thirds of the audience for the 10.15 showing of Anna Karenina.
Fishermans Wharf

Friday, December 21, 2012

A last look at Christchurch . . . and on

19 Dec Christchurch

We arrange to leave the luggage at the Aarburg motel, and catch the bus into the city. A relaxed wander round the Re:start mall, a coffee and choc brownie, a few more souvenirs bought. There's a huge Christmas tree, in the middle of trees in full leaf, and backed by a clear blue sky. We revel in today's sun and warmth - why go back to a northern winter? Everyone here is in vests and shorts.

We catch another bus and get back to the motel in loads of time, to find no one there. But she's left a note that she'll be back at 2pm. And she is, and gives us a lift to the airport.

A short hop to Auckland, with great views of Mount Taranaki on the way, before the big flight all the way across the Pacific, the Equator and the International Date Line. Triple whammy.

I watch Diary of a Wimpy Kid, though I don't think my plot summary or critique would do it justice. Then I sleep a bit, wake a bit, and watch three episodes of The Big Bang Theory. The eleven and a half hour flight isn't too bad. Time to touch down in San Fran six hours before we set off from Auckland.

We catch the Airporter out to Manzanita Park and Ride and then a taxi into Mill Valley. Luggage is deposited and we go to hang out in the Depot cafe. Sunny, but only warm if you're in the sun wearing a coat.

Christchurch Christmas tree
enjoying the sun in the Re:start Mall
enjoying the (winter) sun in California

Thursday, December 20, 2012

18 Dec Oamaru to Christchurch

Help! My I-pad is jammed. Defunct. Dead. Not I hope, an ex-i-pad. We go into Oamaru computer shop, and the first person is as flummoxed as I am. A woman passing by asks, "Have you tried switching on and pressing the wake up button at the same time?". It works - that's how to reboot the I-pad.

Now coffee and cakes, a look at a local art show, then a visit to the lookout point high above the town. The global signpost grabs my attention as usual. I do like my facts and figures.

5 600 km to the South Pole. A lot further to London.

Nowhere before Timaru looks much of a place to stop. Timaru has lots of shops and cafes, and free Internet in the library too. As a result it's getting on for 4pm when we leave.

We think a cup of tea en route would be good, but have forgotten that rural New Zealand likes to shut its cafes early. So we have a break and a stroll and push on through more traffic than we're accustomed to.
Motel, car return, dinner at the Flight Lounge, another nearby motel. A litle expensive, but a pretty good meal. Then back, and before too long, blog and bed. This may be near the airport, but Heathrow it isn't.

Penguins in Oamaru

17 Dec. penguins

We're sorry to leave Lake Hawea, particularly since we can now see the end of the down-under part of our trip. We pick up the same route as when we arrived in Lake Hawea, over the Lindis Pass, and as far as Omarama. Tarras, which seems to be little more than a shop, a cafe and a school, is our first stop for a decent coffee and scone.

Then it's on towards Omarama, where we stop briefly but see nowhere enticing for lunch. Then we are driven away by the smell of a cattle truck whose driver has chosen to stop there.

We followed the Waitaki valley with its hydro scheme, but little else of interest. Even the Maori rock carvings a disappointing. Most of the interesting ones have been removed, and I learn later that some of the rocks were damaged by heavy rain fairly recently.

Oamaru is much bigger than I expected, with its C19 and early C20 buildings, full of post-Victorian confidence in the permanence of empire etc. we find the motel, along Thames St. Almost all the streets are named after UK rivers. Short rest and cuppa before hunting the yellow eyed penguins. They come ashore in the afternoon, and one in particular paraded about on the beach for a while. Comical to watch, like wee humans.

Next we go to the blue penguins area - you can pay to see them come home in the evenings. We book, then go grab some grub at the Portside restaurant.
At 9pm we go in to see the blue penguins start to make landfall. These guys are about a foot high, and land in groups, then hang around together before making a communal dash over the rocks and open grass to their nest areas. They look like well-behaved school groups, with the odd rebel, natch.
You can see them coming in in "rafts", grouping together before they land. The whole show goes on for a good hour, and the noise increases in volume as more and more birds arrive. No photography allowed, and we are seriously supervised to ensure that no one cheats!
Another little touch of enchantment on this holiday.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


We still haven't eaten our picnic lunch! Back to the town.

I still gape when I see Christmas trees in midsummer. 

We toy with the idea of a ride on the cable car, but by the time we've had our lunch on a bench near the lake, then a coffee, and listened to live music in the cafe, time is getting short, and we head back to Lake Hawea.
We take the low road via Cromwell this time.
On the way back we stop briefly to look at Roaring Meg, a stream named after either a fiery barmaid, or another woman who made a lot of noise when she was carried across the stream after a dance. In any event all the fuss,and noise of the stream has proved very useful in generating hydro-electricity in the Kawarau valley.

By the time we reached Cromwell, it appeared to have closed for the night, apart from a bar or two. It seems to be a centre of fruit growing.

Queenstown and Milford Sound

16 Dec Queenstown and Milford Sound

We pick up a young woman, hitch-hiking from Wellington to Stewart Island. We take her to Queenstown, by way of the Crown Range Road. A plaque at the top tells us that this is the highest sealed road in New Zealand. No indication on our free Jason's road map! 1076 metres above sea level, so well over 3 000 feet. Only sealed in 2000. Some road, some views! The lookout part way down is even better.
We rolled into Queenstown with plenty of time for a coffee and muffin, before phoning to check whether we can fly and cruise.
Tip for travellers: if you need to phone an 0800 number in a foreign country, kidnap a native and ask if you can use their phone.
The weather is deteriorating in the west, and there'll not be time to cruise the sound, but a flight with a brief stop is still possible. We go for it, since we don't have a day to spare. We leave our hitch-hiker by the road, and wish her luck.
We check in, and almost get a plane to ourselves, but two people cancel, and all nine of us go in one machine.
The views on the way over are staggering. I now declare officially that mountaineers are quite crazy. Vertical precipices, razor sharp ridges, multiply in all directions. Mordor on acid?

How is the pilot going to land the plane without clipping the rocks?

Of course, he does and we have half an hour to wander around.

But the Sound is very quiet. The only road in is closed, there's been a rock fall, and danger of more with the rain. No cruises are running, and there is only one other plane. The cafe's shut, but one set of toilets are open! We have time for a very short stroll, a few pics, and it's time to go back. This time I grab the chance of the seat at the front, though it turns out the view's not that much better. Spectacular in all directions. We climb to about 9 000 feet, before following one of the glacial valleys back to Lake Wakapitu and Frankton airport.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Near the Haast pass

The bridge and stones are at the Blue Pools, where the Blue River joins the Makarora.
The trees are a little further on along the path towards the Young River mouth.
The waterfall is the Fantail Falls, shortly after the summit of the Haast Pass. I have seen a suggestion that they look more like a bulb. In my pic they look more like a bent guitar.

Uphill a bit . . .

I walk along the Timaru River road, from Johns Creek for about a mile, then for a very short stretch of the Breast Hill Track, part of a long distance walking track.

I meet a man coming down who says it's about an hour to get to the ridge, and very steep zigzags.  It does climb very steeply, and one of my excuses for turning back is that my old trainers were not exactly suitable footwear.

The track leaves the Timaru river road

Looking over Lake Hawea

Along the lake shore

Who needs a garden?

14 Dec Hawea walk

The wind has whipped white horses all over the lake, and the waves hit the shore with a crashing sound as stones are rolled back and forth. It sounds like the sea.

We're going to take the track to Lake Hawea village. It runs just in from the shore, through pines, and along cliffs. Today we're pushed along by the wind, but the sun shines and there are flowers everywhere - self set feral flowers?

Lupins, predominantly pink and purple, but with large patches of wild yellow ones too. Californian poppies, with their delicately shaped flowers of rich waxy orange. Wild roses, with their small pink flowers and arching branches. Two different types of yellow flowers, both growing as tall spikes. A blue flower, with pink on it - another spike. Even the birds foot trefoil is bigger and lusher than at home. There's a rocky slope where deep pink mesembryanthemum are sunbathing. The kete flax is everywhere, and we have pines and eucalyptus too.

From Lake Tekapo to Lake Hawea

13 Dec


Quite a wrench to leave Lake Tekapo. Great house, well situated, with plenty of social facilities nearby. Still places that we haven't explored, but time to go.
First call Lake Pukaki Visitor Centre with a wonderful view,of Aoraki Mount Cook again. Coffee on the rocks again. There's a photograph of the mountain reflected in the still lake - not common, but just occasionally in winter. We'll take what we see today, in the meantime.

The Australian woman serving in the salmon store cum coffee shop corrects our pronunciation of Hawea. She lives in Wanaka, so she ought to know. She says we have a lovely drive ahead, over Lindis Pass, over 900m high, and to look out for the flowers.

Onward, and we decide we should have a look at the town of Twizel (Twy-zel). This was built to house construction workers for the hydro scheme, but people wanted to stay, and it seems like a proper town, with sports hall and other facilities, as well as a selection of shops. If we can't live in Lake Tekapo next life, this looks ok.

We head off over the pass, and there are indeed lots of small flowers on the way down, but no settlements until we pass through Tarras, though you have to keep your eyes open - we see just a couple of houses and a cafe. Nowhere inviting for us to sit and lunch. Before we know it we've reached Hawea Flat and then Lake Hawea itself. There's a very decent cafe and general store, where we pick up a local info sheet and directions to the bach we've booked here. Out along a couple of miles of unsealed road to Johns Creek, a settlement of holiday homes right on the lake shore.

I walk along to the nearby picnic and swimming spot. The beach is stony, with masses of flat pebbles. I remove my shoes and dip my feet in - a little too cold to tempt me. But the view across the lake to mountain ranges is spectacular, again.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Moods of Hawea

mountain snow and clouds
air and water
white on blue

wind churns waves
Lake Hawea
shows a fierce side

lupin, rose, poppy
early summer glow
wild on the shore

Seeing stars

12 Dec Mount John Observatory visit

Yesterday our hearts sank as the cloud thickened. Minute by minute the radar watchers at the observatory told different stories. It'll be clearer tonight. No, tomorrow will be good. No, tonight will be better, tomorrow will be worse.

We looked up. Thickening cloud, a lonely point of light. This did not look promising. We'd wait for the midnight visit. We went down to the office, and said we'd leave it until tomorrow. Another "can't control the weather" gamble. So back home to our cocoa!

Today, things started off cloudy, but the snowy peaks came through. We distracted ourselves with a horse trek, and couldn't believe it as the evening sky cleared, until at 10.00 it looked as though we should see plenty of stars.

We checked in, accepted the offer of a thick coat, though we looked as though we were expecting to find ourselves in the English winter.

We squashed into two coaches, plumped by our jackets. The driver gave us a quick talk, then switched on a tape, with a soothing woman's voice and some music. We stayed awake. The road to the observatory is closed at night, apart from the official buses. Even they have to switch off headlights as they climb up, and proceed on the glow-worm power of side-lights.

We pile out of the buses, and divide into an English-speaking group, and a Chinese-speaking group. We make our way carefully out of the car-park, using our solar-powered key ring torches. Our guide points out some of the constellations using a laser pointer. This makes life easy for people like me!

The Southern Cross and the "pointer" stars alpha and beta-Centauri. I could find those myself, thanks to tuition from Harry. The Magellanic Clouds were as clear as I have seen them in my short experience as a stargazer. The Milky Way was glorious.

Then some of the constellations we see in the north - Orion, Canis Major rolling on his back for a tummy tickle, Taurus and Aries. The Pleiades. The planet Jupiter was clear and bright.

They had telescopes set up, so that we could view the Jewel Box cluster, one called the Wishing Well, like spread coins, and through a large telescope the Tarantula Nebula, and later Jupiter.

It was a brilliant end to our stay at Lake Tekapo.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lake Alexandrina

A short walk - probably three or four miles in all. Harry walked from Lake
McGregor to the southern end of Lake Alexandrina. I walked most of the way then back to pick up the car and collect him.
We saw Southern crested grebes doing a courtship dance, plus mallards, coot and black swans. Canada geese as well, of course.
No geckos in evidence though.

This lake looks a normal colour.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Something new

11 Dec Tekapo

This morning the clouds were low, and the lake was grey. It could have been somewhere in England. As the clouds burned off, a few peaks appeared, and the lake turned blue under the sky.

Harry had the idea of trying a horse trek, so we took ourselves down to the info centre, in time for a coffee at Run77. This place serves excellent coffee and snacks and meals, and has great free wifi for customers. We had a bit of a binge.

Then we booked an hour on a horse for 4pm, nearly walked out without paying for a tee-shirt, and dropped back to the cafe for our lunch. Just the ticket - Harry went carnivore again with chilli con carne, and I had a hot roast veg salad with loads of chick peas.

We turned a bit early for our trek, but sat in the sunshine watching Charlotte and her friend get the horses saddled up. Several other people arrived, a German brother and sister from Cologne, who were spending a couple of weeks in New Zealand, and three Japanese youngsters . We had brief instructions on basic horse control, though I think the horses could have done the trip blindfolded.

Then we were settled on our horses and ready to roll. The trek took us along a path uphill from the stables, through trees, coming out above the lake. Fascinating to see how horses tackle hills , not to mention the capacity of their bladders, as one demonstrated. The ride was relaxing and absorbing at the same time. The way back followed the lake shore before turning back up through the woods to reach the trekking centre.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Kapiti Island one from way back in November!

Kapiti Island 22 Nov
(photos out of order too - grrr)

I think this may have been one of the most enchanting parts of the holiday. A trip in a steel hulled boat which rams itself up on the shingle beach. A gangway to disembark shoots down from the roof. Everyone checks their bags in case they have inadvertently imported a predator, and then we make our way to the shelter for a lecture about the island, and how it's been reclaimed from alien invaders, animal or vegetable, inn order to recreate a reserve of native bush, where native birds can flourish.

We've booked a guided walk, so we follow our leader as she shows us a roosting morepork owl, or ruru, in a nearby shelter. Then there are takahe, big heavy primitive looking birds with red beaks and blue feathers. As we walk into the bush we hear then see whiteheads, and NZ robins, who hang around in case we disturb grubs. Tui are in evidence, with their melodic songs, and bell-birds too. The island has managed to more or less eliminate possum, stoats and rats through a long programme of poisoning and keeping them out of the place. Only two boats are allowed to land on the island, apart from those belonging to a few of the inhabitants, who all belong to one Maori farming family.

We decide we'll walk up the Trig track, though we have been warned it is seriously steep. Our guide comes part way, then cries off as she has a sprained ankle. We continue. It is indeed steep. When we reach the first bird feeding station we see lots of hihi (stitchbirds) pretty delicate creatures. These birds have to be fed, otherwise the tui and bell birds will outcompete them for food.

There are several German visitors at the feeding station. We continue, and join the gentler Wilkinson Track which leads more gradually to the summit, where there are picnic tables, and a viewing platform. The sun beats down fiercely, and we all seek shade for eating our lunch. We make our way back to the boat landing area down the Wilkinson Track - definitely the better choice for a descent.

The boat arrives to collect us and takes us a short distance along the coast of the island to The Lodge. This is the only part of Kapiti which doesn't belong to the Department of Conservation. Amo and Manaaki are two members of the family who own the land, and they help run the overnight stays and excursions on this end of the island. Luggage and Amo ride on the back of the quad bike and trailer which Manaaki drives the short distance to the lodge. We're offered coffee and biscuits, and sit down with a Dutch couple who are also staying over night. Manaaki gives a knowledgeable talk about the island, conservation and the wildlife we can expect to see. The only native mammals to NZ are bats, he tells us. Hence so many Ground nesting birds, threatened by predatory mammals from elsewhere. He tells us a but about the kiwi, and the takahe, who are breeding on Kapiti Island.

The Dutch couple go off for an hour's walk. We recuperate from our morning's efforts, and settle into our cabin accommodation, being careful to keep the wekas out.

It's great to be provided with a sociable meal as part of the deal. Delicious fish and veg, and plenty of it. Wine or fruit juice, and a dessert to follow.

Then, one of the highlights, as darkness falls we prepare for the kiwi walk. We must be quiet and follow closely, as Manaaki shines the red torch to one side, listening intently for sounds of kiwi movement. They come out from their burrows, to the grassland in search of food at night. So we process, slowly, stopping frequently, then starting. In the end we see four kiwi, a blue penguin, and a gecko. We return to the Lodge mightily pleased with our evening.

The next morning we have breakfast. The Dutch couple are leaving on the 9:30 boat. We hang around for a while, then walk along the lagoon circuit track, which leads up to a viewpoint. It's quite a climb, but nothing like yesterday's. There are spectacular views from the lookout.
After lunch Manaaki takes us on a quick guided walk through the bush looking for a saddleback. They hide from us. He plays their call, but they don't respond.

All too soon it's our turn to catch the boat back to the mainland. We promise to look out for John, Amo's brother, if we happen to visit the Rutland Bird Fair in August.