Friday, February 25, 2011

Earthquakes in Christchurch

While I was in Christchurch (a few days after the current timeline in the travel stories), there was one morning where there were about 6 earthquakes from 6 am to noon, varying in magnitude from ~3 to 5.  The first one woke me as I was sleeping on the floor at a friend's house.  Since the internet was still working, I surmised that it couldn't have been that strong and found a website that verified the earthquake and listed the magnitude.  Throughout the morning, every time I would feel a tremor, I would wonder how much longer it would last and if I should run to a doorway.  Having grown up in California, I was taught at an early age to find shelter under a desk or in a doorway, away from windows or things that could fall on top of you.  Unfortunately, my friend's house was of the older variety, and as I watched the cracks in the plaster grow, I began to wonder if maybe I should be running out of the house.  Luckily, that burst of activity subsided and really only provided fodder for the Busker's fair which started the next day.

These earthquakes in the Christchurch area started with the 7.1 quake in early September.  Located on a previously unknown fault line, the effects of the earthquake were obvious when I came through in November on my way south.  The town has a heavy use of brick construction, and most chimneys fell victim, as did several historic buildings.  The Boxing Day aftershock was even more damaging to some buildings due to the shallow depth of the quake (only 5 km below the surface) and the types of waves produced.  It was "only" a 4.9, less in magnitude than some of the ones I felt sitting on my friends couch on January 20th, but seriously added to the damage still lingering from the September quake.

Which brings us to this Tuesday, February 22nd.  If you've been avoiding the news, there was a magnitude 6.3, centered very close to the city center.  People are still trapped in fallen buildings and the death count keeps rising.  A friend from the ice left New Zealand only 24 hours beforehand.  The Windsor B&B just announced they are closing.  And my friend Biz is now homeless.  Not terribly surprising, most of her neighbors mentioned they thought the place would be condemned after the first two big earthquakes this year.  Most people were very lucky, but the town just can't seem to catch a break.  All the more disturbing because Christchurch had such a great atmosphere filled with wonderful people.  Having lived through the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (6.9, but at the time everyone said 7.0), I'm very familiar with the damage an earthquake can cause.  I'm still ridiculously nervous about driving across the Bay Bridge.  But the big ones in Christchurch just keep coming and the damage doesn't seem to end.

To recap the geology of it all, the first quake came from a unknown, dormant fault.  The damage caused by the quakes varied based on depth and distance of the epicenters.  The aftershocks are still occurring.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Milford Sound and Queenstown

We left Te Anau early Saturday morning so that we would have plenty of time to make the drive to Milford Sound.  Although there are lots of places to stop and hike from the scenic route, we only had a brief stop at Mirror Lake so that we could make it to our cruise in time.  I'm not sure if we missed it, but the only reflections we saw at the stop was from what was effectively a duck pond.  The mountains did shine beautifully off of the water, but I kept expecting to come up to a larger body of water.  The 90 km trip takes two and a half hours, partly due to a long, steep, one lane tunnel.  I think that Zion National Park could learn from this set up, they have a timed traffic light controlling traffic.  Down and down we went, following the RVs and cars before us.  Eventually we popped out on the other side of the mountains, but unfortunately with no change in the clouds and mist.  

Mirror lake
Soon after the tunnel, we arrived at the end of the road on the western shore, and left the car to go catch our cruise on Real Journeys.  There are only a few companies running tours of the sound, and Real Journeys seemed to be a good compromise of price and length of trip, although our boat was much larger than I usually prefer.  I've noticed that I'll take almost any opportunity to hop onto a boat, but in Milford Sound, it's really the only way to see the area.  We took the nature tour, which was slightly longer than the other options, and landed us on a very big boat with huge sails.  I believe it was one of the boats they use for the overnight cruises, and the berths looked rather nice as we peeked in on our way out (most likely how they intended it). 

Milford Sound
It rains 200 days out of the year at Milford, and around 7 m of rainfall, depending on who was giving the estimate.  So the fog and light rain weren't unusual, but still disappointing as I had fantasies of taking some of the same, grand panorama photos as I had seen.  In fact, it turns out that one of the preloaded backgrounds on my cell phone looks an awful lot like Milford Sound, a picture I've been seeing nearly every day for the past year.  The views were still amazing, and the photos took on an ethereal quality to them, even if they weren't quite as spectacular as the postcards.  The cruise itself was entertaining in several ways.  Not only amazing vistas, but strong winds added an element of adventure on the top deck, and we were able to see porpoises jumping, and a congratulate a man on a fishing vacation who had caught a rather large tuna.  Waterfalls and tree slides, as well as a variety of birds were also on the menu.  By the time we got back in the early afternoon, the weather showed no signs of improving and the lingering mist had pretty much turned to rain.  

Unfortunately we didn’t have a place in Queenstown lined up yet, so we wasted a bit of time after the cruise looking up places in books and making phone calls.  With that darned limited check in time, we weren’t able to stop and enjoy some of the hikes on the way back out of Milford Sound like I had planned.  But, it was raining quite hard by then and the likelihood of getting soaked lost the appeal.  Our last bit of Milford Sound adventure was thanks to a kea who joined us while we were waiting for the tunnel.  At first, I was delighted to see the parrot-type bird, but soon the stare of it's beady little eyes reminded me of the eerie ravens of Toolik, and I became nervous that the bird was going to join us in the car.  Clearly it was used to hand-outs.  

Lake Wakatipu
The drive to Queenstown was marked by quickly changing biomes.  The air dried out and soon sheep dotted open pastures along the road.  We had our first view of Lake Wakatipu from a picnic area near Kingston.  Ema was amazed at the turquoise color of the water the rest of the drive into Queenstown.  It was strikingly beautiful, and reminiscent of the lakes near Glacier and Banff.  We actually made better time than we had predicted (translation:  I drove less like an old lady than my co-pilot had thought I would) and we arrive at the Reaver's Lodge with time to spare.  It's a strange old motel which has been converted into a backpacker's, with towels, private bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, lots of Brazilians, and lots of rules which you can be fined for breaking.  After several long days of driving, we enjoyed a relaxing night in with dinner at the hostel and showed our age by falling asleep early and missing out on a Queensland Saturday night.

Queenstown Gardens
Sundays are fabulous days for sleeping in, and this one was no exception.  I think there was still lingering exhaustion from McMurdo.  With the full day to explain Queenstown, the pace was a bit more moderate.  Having decided to nix visiting captive kiwis, the first stop was a beer at the wharf with plenty of people watching.  A walk in the Queenstown gardens followed, as did some of the best fish and chips I've had since I fell in love with malt vinegar in York.  Roadside stands are usually a good thing, and this tiny little one was only lacking in a liquor license.  Souvenir shopping and dinner at a Speight's brewery followed, as did a gondola ride up to the Skyline Chalet.  There were gorgeous views of the city and the lake, although we did pass on the "luge" course at the top.  Lastly, a stop at the grocery store and back to the Lodge finished our adventures in Queenstown, with preparations to make the long drive back to Christchurch the next day.

View of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu from the Skyline Chalet

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wish list

In reviewing some older blog posts, I came across a travel wish list from 2007.  I've been fortunate enough to cross several places off the list without it being a major aim.  Of course, there are very few places I wouldn't return, and several of the last places I've visited I've imagined living there.  So, as a short break from crunching data here's the old list now updated:

Amazon River Basin (vacation planned to Brazil in 2012)
Athens, Greece (although I'd like to see Athens, Georgia as well)
Budapest, Hungary
Costa Rica
New Zealand
Prague, Czech Republic
Rome, Italy
Semester at Sea (really would like to teach for them someday)
St. Petersburg, Russia
Valencia, Spain
Venice, Italy
Vienna, Austria
Yellowstone, Wyoming

Six wish list places visited in less than 4 years!  Australia, St. Petersburg, and Iceland were also close possibilities, but there is only so much you can afford to tack onto a work trip (which most of these were).  Of course, the list is constantly revised as my curiosity often runs rampant.  Lake Baikal, for example, along with various parts of Canada sneak in when I'm not paying attention, or I'll find myself lost in an episode of House Hunters:  International.  If there was some way to bring my furry sidekick with me, I imagine it'd be even harder to pin me down in one place.

Otago Peninsula and the Catlins

Fully satiated and pleased with the accommodations, I was happy to be spending another day near Dunedin.  Fun fact, Dunedin is based on the Gaelic name for Edinburgh (Dùn Èideannand there are signs of Scottish influence everywhere in New Zealand.  This resulted in my determination that the country was like Hawaii meets Scotland, a bit simpler than my friend Nick's description of Greece and Ireland and lots of other places having babies, which I can't fully recall at the moment.  Dunedin is also home to the University of Otago which has a rivalry with the University of Canterbury in Christchurch akin to U of M and Ohio State.  Somewhat relevant since Biz is a U of M alumna attending U of Canterbury and there's an Ohio State professor on sabbatical at the U of Otago (who also happens to hang a U of M flag in his office last I heard).  Although I can't quite picture the friendly and laid back Kiwis rioting in the streets.      

Plankton net at the Marine Center

Thursday morning (January 13th), was similar to the morning before except that I was actually able to sleep in and was not stressed about covering long distances (360 km in 5 hours on Wednesday).   First stop was the grocery store across the street from the Cadbury chocolate factory and I discovered the deliciousness of strawberry jam and New Zealand cheese on a croissant.  Just thinking about it makes me hungry again despite the late hour here and the more than adequate Peruvian dinner I ate earlier.  In any case, it was a far cry from my standby of Laughing Cow cheese, baquette, and chocolate bar which has sustained me on several ventures abroad.  And all the fresh food!  I walked around the produce section for quite a long time, marveling at all of the choices.

Baby fur seals!

Out for the day, we headed to the Otago peninsula, which juts out east of Dunedin.  It's a narrow, two lane road, which hugs the coastline and often a cliff.  First real stop was down a dirt road with several cattle guards to the Marine Center in Portobello.  It was small but two aquatic scientists don't have much of a problem being entertained when there are water and education involved.  Further down the road, we skipped the albatross colony due to a combination of overpriced tickets and really a lack of interest (sorry my birder friends).  Instead, we opted for the Penguin Place tour.  The land there is mostly private nature reserves, so we had to pile in a 6 wheeled ATV to head out to blinds to watch baby fur seals, blue penguins, and yellow eyed penguins.  Being so close to baby fur seals was worth the price of admission on its own and was definitely a highlight of the trip.  A quick detour to the gardens of Larnach Castle finished up the day on the peninsula.  On the way back to town, we were briefly detained by a family moving their flock of sheep across the road.  It's said that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand, and it's quite possible!  With plenty of time left to enjoy the evening, we cooked dinner at the hostel and then wandered around town, listening to music from bars that seemed to be competing with one another.

Nugget Point

Dunedin easily deserved at least another day, but we had a limited amount of time to spend on our trip.  Friday saw us back on the road, for a drive through the Catlins on our way to Te Anau.  The drive from Dunedin to Te Anau can go in several different routes.  Of course, I insisted on the southern scenic route, touted by rental car guide as # something or other on the top 100 things every Kiwi should do.  It was definitely worth it.  A bit over 500 km, the driving time was about 5 hours, but lots of fun stops along the way made for a travel time closer to 9 hours.  The scenic route diverges from the main highway at Balclutha and then hugs the coastline.  Luckily, we had borrowed a driving map from the Windsor which had all the scenic stops printed in magenta.  First stop was the lighthouse at Nugget Point located at the end of a short scenic walk.  There were breathtaking views of blue green water and rough waves crashing sublimely against large rocks and even short Maori poems on plaques to add to the awe inspiring views.

Curio Bay

Purakatnui falls was not much farther down the road and offered another short walk, this time through shaded rain forest to a pretty little tiered water fall.  Back out by the car we took advantage of the sunshine and had lunch outside while guarding our food from an unknown bird with a chest the color and pattern of cork.  We then headed to Waikawi to look for dolphins in Porpoise Bay, and checked out the petrified wood and huge kelp at Curio Bay, just around the corner.  No dolphins, but both the sandy beach at Porpoise Bay and the rocky intertidal at Curio Bay had plenty of scenery and other biology to admire.  The petrified tree stumps there were literally a world away from the petrified forest in Arizona.

Waipapa Point Lighthouse

The last stop of the Catlins was the lighthouse at Waipapa Point.  The area was much flatter and seemingly in contrast to the one that started the day at Nugget Point, but was the site of a rather morbid shipwreck where onlookers could do little to help the passengers drowning not far offshore.  All the shipwreck stories reminded me a bit of Michigan, albeit without the lyrical stylings of Gordon Lightfoot.  After driving on through Invercargill (including a street named Somerville), we turned northward to Te Anau.  Once again we had a "late" check in deadline of 8 pm and we made it in plenty of time, in part because Ema was having way too much fun driving.  There we stayed in a “standard cabin” at the holiday park which has facilities more like camping.  Unfortunately, that also meant that the kitchen consisted of hot plates and not much else besides a microwave.  Lesson learned.  When I next called for reservations, I was sure to ask about a "fully equipped" kitchen.  I also discovered that free internet outside of Christchurch and Dunedin was a rarity.  Just because a place advertises wifi does not mean that it will be free.  Oh how spoiled we've become in the States.

Evening at Lake Te Anau
Next stop:  Milford Sound!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Christchurch to Dunedin

Our first day back in Christchurch was rather disorienting, as I mentioned.  We didn't get back to the Windsor B&B until afternoon, whereupon most people quickly disappeared into their rooms to sleep until dinner.  However, I was too hungry, as was Ema, my traveling companion for the next week.  After organizing our bags for the upcoming road trip, we headed out with the vague aim of food and seeing the exhibit at the museum.  Food came first and the closest place to the museum was a little cafe on the river, adjacent to the botanical gardens.  It was attached to the place where you can rent kayaks or go "punting on the Avon", a popular activity in town.  I had been there previously, when Rachael and I stopped on our day in town heading south.  Once again, I missed the open kitchen hours, but the cafe had plenty of sandwiches and muffins to feed us.  

After food, we headed over to see the exhibit on Antarctic photographs "The Heart of the Great Alone" comparing the work of Frank Hurley and Herbert Pointing.  The art historian in me was giddy to see the juxtapositions of the two photographers, one who aimed to document and one who aimed to recreate emotion.  Having just returned from the ice, I must admit that Hurley's work was more successful in recreating the emotions of the place while Pointing's work had eerie aspects of documenting the doomed Terra Nova expedition although both had opposite intentions.  

Flowers at the Botanical Gardens

The artwork was beginning to blur and I nodded off a bit during one of the videos in the exhibit, clearly a nap was inevitable.  We managed to take a quick stroll around the botanical gardens, marveling at the colors on our way back to the room.  Luckily, we were able to wake up for dinner with Ema's advisor and my friend Biz over at the Dux de Lux.  Another repeat restaurant, but the beer and food are tasty and reasonably priced.  Eating outside during summertime was another bonus.

Driving on the left side of the road

Wednesday morning came way to quickly and I rethought the plan to get on the road and to have lunch at a brewery in Timaru.  Tracking down a rental car and a place to stay in Dunedin took up most of the morning anyway, so it was noon by the time we really got on the road.  Leftovers from the night before had served as a sort of lunch, and the people at the hotel had been nice enough to let us use the microwave in the kitchen.  Accordingly, it was sometime in the mid-afternoon before we had to stop for food.  Since leaving the ice, all Ema could talk about was McDonald's and pizza, two "delicacies" we had gone without, in her case for 3 months.  I'm a bit ashamed to admit that we did indeed stop at McDonald's, but hell, I've got to a McDonald's in practically every country I've visited.  At least in New Zealand the lids have happy messages about utilizing local food sources.  Again revived, we headed back on the road towards our first sightseeing stops of the trip.

Moeraki boulders

First stop was in Oamaru, to see the little blue penguins.  Apparently I missed the reason why the guide books tell you to stay overnight in Oamaru- the little blue penguins return from fishing in the ocean to their nests onshore at sunset in a impressive display of large numbers.  Not quite possible when you are trying to reach Dunedin before 8 pm.  The next stop was a bit more satisfying, with the Moeraki boulders.  The boulders were fascinating, like giant, round geodes scattered in the sand.  Almost like the gods had forgotten their marbles on the beach.  

Fresh food in Dunedin

Somehow we managed to not get lost on the way into Dunedin, and arrived at Central Backpackers with half an hour to spare.  I was pleasantly surprised at how clean and nicely decorated it was.  Free wifi and a very nice (fully equipped) kitchen raised my expectations for the trip.  Dinner at a Japanese restaurant with all my favorites (inari, avocado rolls, miso soup, green tea, and veggie tempura) also set the bar and resulted in a very full stomach.

Next stop, Otago Peninsula.