“To summarize the summary of the summary”


What a long strange trip it’s been. Many things were learned along the way ~ and I’m sure that I won’t come close to summing them up satisfactorily ~ but here goes:


Splitting food with a friend saves huge amounts of $. We spent approximately $23 per day on food for 2 and ate very well. Sometimes that was due to friendly hosts, but most often we were on our own.

Breakfast is best in one’s hotel room. We eat granola and yogurt at home. And that’s what we ate on the road (with Muesli sometimes subbing for granola). Often in hotel room glasses.

If one is like me, one never knows when a 7 mile walk through Sydney will happen. Stay hydrated and fed (we bought cashews and dried apricots for carrying).

A few zip-lock bags are indispensable. Ideal for breaking down larger quantities of snack food. For keeping things separated. In case a long coach trip unsettles your stomach….

As Miko reminds me from time to time: Credit cards can make up for most anything you forget.

An unlocked iPhone is useful but apparently difficult to get. Mine was long out of contract and popping a $20 SIM card in meant instant directions and restaurant searching on the go. On the other hand, Facebook and email are ubiquitous….

New Zealand has great radio stations. A LOT of great radio stations.

We packed 3 small bags and one overhead luggage sized bag. For 3 weeks. Traveling light is a blessing. And, judging by the heaps of luggage we spied all around us at hotels and airports, rare.

Ice cream, gelato, sorbet, et al. is almost always cheaper in a 2-scoop cone. So if you keep a cup to hand, you can readily separate flavors and each have an ice cream. Ice creameries are wise to this however, and may charge you for a cup.

Travel agents live and breathe this stuff. And a good one will know the best-positioned and least-expensive choice. Often this means older hotels that have gotten upgrades – sometimes in the form of awkward architectural fig-leafs and other times, full on avant-garde refittings. As in all matters of real estate, the 3 keys are location, location, location.

Talk to the locals. Sure, some of them are sick of tourists and all they represent, but there are wonderful people everywhere. And how will you learn about them unless you interact with them?

Do the touristy stuff. I usually like to find the sly side alleys and subtle wonders, but there’s simply no time. In our case we didn’t even have time to read the guide we grabbed in the airport – there’s simply too much to do and too little time. So, plan. Trust a good agent. And, perhaps most surprising to my cheap penny-pinching self….Let yourself be upsold sometimes. Since we were not likely to get back to the Antipodes any time soon, I got upsold twice – a small plane out of Milford Sound and a Helicopter up from the Great Barrier Reef. Thank heavens I was. Sunset1a

Some Random Observations about Australia and New Zealand

Expensive (even with a strong dollar in NZ). Want to grab a Snickers bar? Got $2.60?

All this driving on the other side of the road is fine. But the fact that cars have the right of way in almost all circumstances (barring a few well marked crosswalks, and even then…) less so. Windshield wipers where the turn signals should be? Dangerous. Not knowing which side of a sidewalk or hall? Suboptimal. Forever going to the wrong escalator? Just embarrassing. But then not switching the side of the steering column where you put the key? Silly.

Roundabouts are wonderful. Really wonderful. Not only do they keep traffic flowing well, they prevented me from making some awkward right turns. Love them.

Dark chocolate? Not to my taste. Let’s just say they excel at making “Dairy Bars” and move on.

Great yogurt and eggs. And Licorice.

All the kangaroo and lamb I expected? The cheap wool that sheep-sheering nations must have? Not so much. By contrast, they farm deer in NZ, and sell the antlers to the Chinese for crazy sums.

NZ is a country that loves thrills. Hard to believe that Zorbing doesn’t happen in Oregon, but overzealous American lawyers might be the reason.

There is both no tipping and good service here. If tipping is supposed to encourage better service, it simply doesn’t work. Not in Portland anyway. Instead I get a very strong feeling that tipping is simply an excuse to hide costs to the consumer (like we hide taxes), and acts as a subsidy to the restaurant industry.

These countries don’t have a gun problem. They just don’t. And all the arguments I’ve heard for our grotesque body counts, revolutionary impulses, and exceptionalist hobbyism are just silly.

Traveling to distant colonial lands made me feel terribly aware of my own country’s savage history. But it also made me more appreciative of the glories of where I live. Portland is wonderful and I am pleased to be home.
GreenDragonIndex of Travel:
Prologue to Adventure!
Day 1 & 2 in North Island, New Zealand
Days 3, 4 & 5 North Island, New Zealand
At Sixes and Sevens
Day 8 & 9: Viva la Wellington!
Putting the Zed in NZ
Wild Life in Australia
More Fun (The Abridged Version)
Day 19 & 20 Welcome to the Jungle
Day 21: The Big Rock Finish
Day 22 & 23

Day 21: The Big Rock Finish

Just as the clever designers of Travel UI had worked in different ways to ensure proper structure (the trip up the Sydney Harbor Bridge at twilight, the train assent and gondola return of yesterday, the plane return from Milford Fiord after the coach arrival all being fine examples), so I designed the trip as a whole to finish big – and there is nothing bigger or more spectacular than the Great Barrier Reef!

Reef1   But this wasn’t a small dive off a small fishing boat in Kona – no, no! This was a massive, almost science-fictional, staged procession to (and from) “Marine World”, a massive tented reef platform hub (one of three within our sightlines). We took a large Catamaran out, and it remained docked throughout, serving as a sort of cabana (with crucial and unduplicated restrooms). The ride was choppy through the channel as the ship dealt with the fierce tidal pull. Given Venetia’s rather… difficult… bus trip to Milford Sound, we deemed it best for her to take the motion-sickness pills as we boarded. The multitude of seasick passengers who later joined us at the back deck suggests that this may have been the wisest decision we made all day.

The trip out was stunning/sick-making, and the platform held plenty of other craft which would be the same. A deep-prowed boat they called a Semi-Submersible allowed us to sit below the waterline and go for a spin about the platform and over nearby reefs. The animatronic owl on the prow amused us greatly.
A small glass-bottomed boat was bobbing next to the emergency Zodiac, a 40 passenger ferry boat and a helipad floated nearby. Apparently there was a “wear a bubble helmet and walk on the bottom of the sea” option, but it was never really clear to us amid the countless other choices.

When we arrived (and after some instructions for our eventual departure), we set out immediately into the nearby (roped-off and lifeguarded) reef area. The snorkeling was stupendous – parades of parrotfish, wrasses, angelfish, all the usual suspects and an extremely gregarious 5′ long Humphead Maori Wrasse called “Wally” who was friendlier than most cats I’ve known, happy to be patted and adored.


But it seems that a proper seal for one’s snorkel is darned tricky when sporting facial hair. And it speaks to the long years since last I snorkeled that this common-sense fact had utterly eluded me.

Happily, the crew were a jolly and helpful lot. After their slightly disbelieving “You mean you’d be willing to just… shave it off?”, I undertook the worst shave ever in a cold water sink in a tiny rocking lavatory with a disposable Bic Shaver – all to make me look more like an Amish Abe Lincoln. But it wasn’t about looks, it was about utility. The mustache will grow back – my time at the reef would not.

A tour in the semi-submersible followed, and while Venetia was in good form, I was feeling a bit green at the gills from our time below.Reefs2
I ate a tiny bit of the vasty buffet and hung out a little bit in the sun before it was time for the “Adventure Dive”.

It was there that we spoke to the first American we’d seen all day. A fellow Portlander named Heather who works as a Psychiatrist with children at Kaiser.
We hopped in the ferry and headed to the far corner of the big reef were we walked off the side and splashed down – it felt like a kinder version of walking the plank. Immediately, there were large schools of small fish below us – one of several types of local Banana Fish. Then the big schools of bigger fish – Red Bass. Then just a little group of two – Grey Reef Sharks. Later we saw a couple Whitetip Reef Sharks, a young green turtle, a jellyfish (that our guide brought up for our delectation), loads of Spotted Sweetlips, insane posses of Clownfish, incredible Boulder and Brain Corals, and most every kind of Wrasse and Sergeant Major one could imagine. The trip was a little tricky for the tidal swells and the very low tide, but ever so worth the effort. Toward the end (amid a sudden rain shower, and amid my fussing with a recalcitrant mask amid kicking-up waves), it was my great joy to spot a very old and well-camouflaged sea turtle. Everyone in our group got to see the old fella nipping at corals and being quietly fearsome, some 4 meters below us. But Venetia, swimming alone at the back, got to see rather more:

“This day was the ultimate day of wonder and magic. I have always admired Ophelia for the serenity and beauty of her final pose; if only she’d had a snorkel! After our long hour of drifting along the edge of the coral, I wasn’t at all ready to leave. I could have spent hours more out in the ocean but I’d learned that when fins started clumping together, there was always something worth seeing, and I sped up accordingly. He was enormous, at least for a turtle, which is to say he was my size (though undoubtedly weighed a great deal more!). I followed him as he moved along the ocean floor until, much to my amazement, he started to rise up until he was directly beneath me. As he rose toward me, I couldn’t resist and put out a hand to stroke his shell. It was surprisingly soft, not at all rough or slimy but soft like short clean fur. I brushed his back left flipper as well, amazed that he allowed me to get so close. Then I put my head above water at the exact moment he poked his own head out for air. It was extremely brief but the difference in his coloration from underwater was astonishing. Then the spell was broken. I saw Lee waving at me and when I looked back underwater again, the turtle was gone.”

I swam back to watch the encounter (note to self: must start calling Venetia “Dances With Turtles”), but realized we were delaying the party and headed to the dock as swiftly as my blue swim fins would propel me. And when I arrived, I was surprised to hear my name. It seems our tour leader had been asked whether we were on his tour, and he’d said no. This caused alarm among the staff for two reasons. 1. Losing passengers to the briny is bad form and terrible for tourism. 2. We were scheduled to take a helicopter trip back to the mainland, and we cocking up departure times. But miscommunication is everywhere, and in our case it had a cascade effect. I got Venetia to swim in pronto but she didn’t know why. As she was pulling my wetsuit off in haste, I accidentally elbowed her in the face, and as I changed out of my wet swimsuit in the open and hastily donned real clothes without really drying off first (towels were apparently some thing we should have carried from home. Who knew?), Venetia found an actual changing room. I hurried to pay up, sign us out, and get Venetia some ice for her face. Then we met up and raced for the glass-bottomed boat which in turn sped to the helicopter, which then… sat still for several minutes.


I never imagined getting seasick on a helicopter, but the longer it sat in the rain, rocking to and fro, the more that possibility loomed.

Finally, and without fuss, we rose off the platform and up out of the small rainstorm and over the glory of the Great Barrier Reef in the quietest but most dramatic way possible.

GreatBarrierReefCOpterWe’d never ridden in a helicopter before, but it was thoroughly lovable. Where the tiny plane out of Milford Fiord had seemed to have all the strength and maneuverability of a paper airplane, the helicopter ride seemed like a magic carpet. The young Aussie pilot was great, and our knowledge of the reef (the size of Japan and teeming with life) allowed him to take it easy on the narration.

When I mentioned a blue hole in the reef ahead, he swiveled and dove in its direction, without producing the slightest pang of discomfiture or worry in his passengers (including the 3 non-English speaking Asians in e back seat). I felt a little like Eli Cross on his crooked crane, ascending into the heavens above. A bigger finish I could not have imagined.


PS: Venetia’s face is fine. :)




Day 19 & 20: Welcome to the Jungle

  Day 19: Up to Cairns

We arose, packed and checked out before wandering a couple blocks to meet up with Mark Rulewski who we’d last seen by sheer chance in the Chico Hot Springs of Montana last June (see account here).


We enjoyed a lovely and leisurely breakfast at Two Good Eggs, and he walked us to where the car was imprisoned and we parted. Maybe we’ll next see him in Oregon!

The petrol prices by the airport were predictably exploitive and ghastly, but the airport itself was another simple and laid back affair, and when one has nowhere important to be, a 15 minute delay really didn’t matter. As we flew north out of town, we got to see the glory of Sydney stretched out below us – all those crazy fingers of land stretching into the harbor, the tall buildings, the neighborhoods we’d walked through and the bridge we’d just climbed.


Our seat mate for the flight north was an erudite and interesting lady named Jessica R. who, growing up a ginger in the UK, had long admired her namesake Jessica Rabbit. With such good company, the trip passed in a flash. And the views of the coast ( and the frickin’ Great Barrier Reef) as we descended were awe inspiring.

We checked in before checking out an Indian restaurant up the street. After a yummy Hanti Gosht we emerged to a riot of wheeling parrots in prismatic gangs! And then, when they’d calmed a bit, and as we wandered Cairns’ beautiful Lagoon (a mirror-calm pool for soaking that occupies the middle of the town’s sea-front) we spied even larger shapes circling in the sky – Flying Foxes! We only saw a few at first, but later we saw them everywhere filling the twilight sky with their wide swooping silhouettes. Venetia was completely entranced. What a magical surprise!Cairns

A delicious banana and Carmel gelato and a short sharp shop for breakfast nosh and it was home to bed.

Day 20: Up the Junction

We arose early, but having travelled the day before and turned in early, we felt no pain in it. We were scooped up by the coach (aka “bus”) and taken on a tour of several other local boarding establishment. It almost incredible to me just how many tourist hotels this small town is made of….

A few tourists were let out at the indigenous peoples’ cultural center, and a couple others at the entrance to the SkyRail, but most continued with us to the Kuranda Scenic Railroad depot in Redlynch. Many men serving under foreman Red Lynch had died building this tropical railroad up to Northeastern Australia’s table lands, and we got to marvel at it while suffering no more than the heat and humidity of a nice summer day in Virginia.


We also marveled at Barron Falls. This massive cataract is an unstoppable force in more typically rainy Monsoon Season, but we were lucky to find it almost dry. Photos don’t really seem to convey its scale, but whoa!

Eventually we got to Kuranda and bid the lovely train adieu. And then we were stuck there for 3 hours. I’ve been in many towns called “tourist traps” – sometimes by the locals, sometimes by visitors. In this case, a local woman overheard the description in the post office and under her breath whispered “some people LIVE here” to me ere she departed in a snit. True, but if I lived at South of the Border or the Mall of America, I’d be the first to admit it was a tourist trap. And without a means of egress, we were literally trapped in this sticky tourist Mecca – truly a luxury problem.Plane2Opals were gawked at, Schnitzel happily devoured, clothing admired, used books considered, frozen purees consumed, crashed (for-films) WWII plane inspected, the same aboriginal designs seen on every product and in every context imaginable, and countless shops and stalls visited. When asked why there were so many Germans and Austrians among the shopkeepers, one replied “it’s just too cold in Germany”. Fair enough, but I admit to a moment of wondering whether Ira Levin really had it right about Brazil….

Yes, we’ve seen and done countless touristy things in the last 3 weeks, but today was Tourism writ large. Yes, we visited the post office and the grocery store. Yes, we actually conversed with the natives more than we dickered with them about prices. Yes, we took some great tropical reference photos of plant and animal life (lizards, and brush turkeys and crocodiles – oh my!), but we were really just happy tourists pinned like so many beautiful butterflies.AnimalsWhen at last our appointed hour was at hand, we tottered down the hill to the marvelous SkyRail that would in turn take us back down the mountain, in gondola #101 no less (clearly named by George Orwell for maximum irony).

We glided over the jungle canopy and were generally held high above it all. There were occasionally wonderful pairs of grey forest birds sitting on the gondola wire, but there were no other animals that even seemed to notice us, and overall (literally), it seemed a perfect method of travel. With only two isolated stations on the route, it made quite a small footprint….

DinDinThere was a large female orb-weaving spider in the station where we stopped to see Barron Falls, or, in the proper parlance of the region, Din Din (what a great name for torrential falls). While we enjoyed the comparatively dry weather (I fear the June trip to Virginia and points north will be far worse), it did seem a little sad to see the mighty cataract reduced to a trickle.

PlantsAs we descended back to the coastal plane, our attention was drawn to the curious waterpark on our left – an odd oval track where people on surfboards jump off ramps, and generally glided around. It took us a long approach to realize that they were being pulled along hanging wires like cable cars. A curious sport, but then I suppose the Barrier Reef limits most of the hard core surfing up here….


We didn’t head out again once we were returned to the hotel. The snacks we’d bought last night stood us in good stead, and while we missed the nightly megabat festival, we enjoyed our napping.

We witnessed no cassowaries, but otherwise we got our jungle money’s worth.

More Fun (The Abridged Version)

Day 17: SuperBowl Monday and drive to Sydney

Watched the SuperBowl with the US ambassador to Australia in a ersatz Irish sports bar. Wincing at the grotesque mockery of the massacre of Sandy Hook. Apparently surviving a massacre allows some kids to sing a jingoistic anthem with Jennifer Hudson, and no mention of the reason for their inclusion shall be given.

We found ourselves rooting for the Ravens and excited by their exceptional play, even as Canberra locals cast bemused glances at the assembled throng of expats, Footie-players, and early drinkers.
The local cheerleading squad was also out in force.


Then… The lights went out. I’ll be posting my thoughts about what followed elsewhere. But suffice it to say we enjoyed the expat experience (while missing that misogynist Audi ad so many of my friends have been talking about). After the necessary gelato, we hit the road. The drive thereafter was a smooth and quiet one. Good roads and lovely scenery the whole way into Sydney. We checked into our hotel about 6 and set out for a walk through the parks and shops of town. What seemed a single contiguous park on the Map proved a series of poorly-connected (or simply unconnected) areas. We tried to get to the Opera House and simply failed. That said, I love this view that I’ve somehow never seen:

ClamsAngel Place [the large photo below right] was especially surreal (I was forced to quote Admiral Ackbar when surveying the scene):

But if we learned anything it was that we should have eaten when we first got to town. We finally scored kebabs at 10:30 and then fell deeply into sleep.

Day 18: Spirals

We scribed a clockwise spiral around Sydney today, traveling on foot to no fewer that 11 Advertizing Agencies over a route that took us 7 miles. We’d walked 4 miles in New York last July, but 7 set a new inner city record. Funny to think how easy it would have been by car (had there been anywhere to park), but we’d have missed so much of the city!

It amazes me how different agencies are in their cool cat offices and different neighborhoods. And how specific their org charts are – where some have Art Buyers, others have Heads of Print, and still others Creative Directors. Whether in the US or Sydney, one size definitely does not fit all.

We were rather astonished to come across some manner of media event on a small side street. Photographers and bodyguards mingled with the great and black-clad good. After a few questions we learned that we’d come across a memorial service.

“A big man used to run a financial service that blew up in a shower of sparks. Rather Wall Street. I think you understand.”

We stopped intermittently to shoot reference pictures – Sydney is a glorious spot for texture and pattern. Here are just a few of the ones I shot that day:

TexturesFlatThe new construction in the Uni district over by DDB amazed us [Below. Lower left] Are they building a bridge? A hanging garden? Who knows?

The range of architecture is a joy:Architecture

It took me a surprisingly long time to realize why I felt there was so much more good old architecture here than in London: probably because the Nazis didn’t bomb it repeatedly….

After a trip through The Rocks and the respite of a lovely salmon dinner, we headed to the Sydney Harbor Bridge. I want to climb bridges – pretty much ALL bridges – but somehow the locals never let me. Here in Sydney by contrast, they are all too happy to take most anyone’s cash, equip, train, and generally fool-proof them, and let them scale the bridge. Each small red circle below represents a group climbing over (and briefly, under) the bridge. The easiest to see is the silhouetted group at the top [Blown up in the larger red circle]:

Our party was a dozen or so folks, including a tiny 70 year old Canadian lady and a strapping 6’6″ fellow from Newcastle. We were the only Americans and, wouldn’t you know it? the first in line to lead the parade up the magnificent bridge. At twilight. Cruise ships sailed below us, helicopters flew above. The Sydney Opera House shone in the gloaming. Up the top of the eastern bridge support and then, at the top, crossing over to the western side in time to see the sun set on North Sydney’s version of Luna Park.

Bridge1We had a Nick Cave singalong with our wonderful guide Hayley just beneath the roadbed, and generally had a magnificent time. Another expensive adventure, but one I’d recommend to anyone (who doesn’t suffer vertigo anyway)!

We shared a cab ride back downtown with an Irishwoman who’d come to town from working the sweltering mines of the NW, had a wee bite, and fell into hot baths.


Day 15: Exploring Melb’n

Up at a leisurely hour (9am) and headed into the city to seek our car. After sorting some miscommunication with our car rental, we headed down one block to the fabled Anton’s – located in a huge mall that had been built around (and in) an old Shot Factory over which they’d built a tall ovate dome [Below. Upper left].


I truly didn’t expect the massive orgy of consumerism (if only because everything was so expensive!), but we had heard wonderful things about Anton’s and were not deterred (the first hit online was a review from Mikelangelo about his time getting a suit, and both Mikey and Phyro spoke glowingly about it). Venetia spotted my suit immediately but made sure to explore all the racks first before asking our fabulous clothier Lauren for a trial run of my suit. I tried on the full suit, from a pimpin’ too-small blue bowler to the super shiny shoes.

AntonsSmAfter due deliberation, we bought the silk brocade jacket and hightailed it to Jason McEachen’s apartment where we met up with him, Kim, and Iona [barely visible on Jason’s back below].

PeopleWe had lunch with them on the pier (my first fish and chips in Oz, Venetia had a delicious sweet potato hash) before moseying to Luna Park where we met up with Stefan and Edith, who in their turn took us many other places.

LunaThe rest of the day was a mad-cap blur:
We window-shopped for sweets and fancy cakes in St. Kilda. Hopped on the tram and headed to Fitzroy to admire charming architecture and intricate ironwork – well as saucily named shops like “Naked for Satan” and “Lucrezia & De Sade”. We ate an amazing lamb dinner in a restaurant of ambiguous ethnicity. We passed Lygon Street on our way to the tram, where we admired both the desserts and the adorable lambs on the glass window above the corner door. We headed back to Jason’s to back-up our 2400 pictures – for there are surely more to come!


Day 16: Drive to Canberra

We had a lovely breakfast with Jason, Kim, and Iona, we set off to the east at 8am.

After an hour or so we passed a town where the battle between religion and the water utility seemed to have gotten ugly, in a strange Tolkienesque fashion:2TowersWe lunched in the curiously named Lakes Entrance and then headed north, passing as we did over Venetia’s long-dreamt-of Snowy River. We took a brief spin around the curious capital (you can play Footie on the roof!), and headed north to the University district where we found John Hughes and his lovely wife Pip.   CapitalAfter some in-depth geekery we headed out for sushi, kimchi, and yakisoba. Conversations about the Unification Church, free form gaming, and business followed. A more splendid day could not have been had.

Wild Life in Australia

Day 13: G’day Bruce!

Up with the dawn in Queenstown NZ, and onto the coach to the airport – the sweet sleepy little airport. Our Counter was the only one open when we arrived and even filling out forms took only a minute. After a wait made more comfortable by ice cream, we went through a sweet and personable security line and boarded up the two ramps. And we were off to Melbourne! And Australia!

The view of Flinders Island was a welcome one as we crossed the Tasman, but the hustle and bustle of Melbourne (pronounced “Melb’n”) was immediate. We saw more graffiti here in a minute than we saw in all of NZ. And only when a curiously-attired woman cut in the customs line did we realize there’d been no meanness or pettiness on our trip so far – a couple jaded and hard-faced Americans, sure. A couple furrow-browed South Africans, fine. But to see 2 different but almost identically dressed 50+ Asian ladies in black pleather with straps and buttons intentionally break in lines and ignore protocols was a bit surreal. Like an updated version of ‘What’s Up Doc’, where matching outfits and bad behavior create Screwball comic mayhem down under….

We never went to a bank machine or changed currency for NZ, but Australia is already proving a different kettle of fish. Cash is king, and exchange fees pile onto to the already poor showing of the US Dollar.

MelbnAfter a wander through the many alleys around Flinders Street Station (and blind alleys of Sim card conversion for iPhone and iPad) we returned to our hotel on the South Bank for a well-earned nap. I’d been surprised that our 13 hour flight to NZ had only changed the clock 3 hours (beyond the whole date line thing). That a 3 hour flight to Australia should change the clock 2 more hours just seems silly. But by the time we collapsed (like a flan in a cupboard) we’d already been up for hours….

We awoke a couple hours on to the sounds of pouring pounding rain. While we’d slept, the storm had roared in from the south, and the city was running like a watercolor left out in the rain. But we headed out to meet up with Stefan and Edith nonetheless. We crossed the Yarra and ducked into the tunnel under Flinders St Station:

Flinders1 We shared red Kangaroo Curry at a Thai place in Chinatown, and made plans for Saturday afternoon. The rain had abated a bit by the time they left us at Flinders to meet up with Gwynneth and her friend. From there we headed a few blocks to the madness that is the Crown Casino plaza. Quite the site for people watching and overpriced foofarah!


It was a bracing night, but other than a curious stain on my poncho everything turned out wonderfully well.

Day 14: Mission: Fairy Penguins Hit the Beach!

In a day fraught with monotremes and nobbies, we will not attempt any manner of sensible narrative here ~ only a list of the day’s many highlights.

Gluten-free designer cupcakes
Bunyip Tour Bus (we’re guessing most tourists have no idea what a Bunyip is). :)
En route to Philip Island and Churchhill Island
Highly-attractive people from Switzerland
Mocking bad ads and music on overly loud radio (auto-tuned music and grotesquely ebullient ads)
Emus, cockatoos, poisonous snakes, et al.

BigBirdPetted wallabies and kangaroos

vWallaby1 Peaceful and 1 Neurotic Koala
Tasmanian Devil
Prehistoric Turkey
Tawny Frogmouths up close and personal – I actually touched one.


Purple swamp hens and other splendid bird life
Better music from driver’s iPod (including Missy Higgins and Crowded House)
Shepherding with a dog named Pirate (it was almost as though this whole day was meant for Julia Ecklar)

HerdingSheep shearing

ShearingsMany more koalas, including a youngster.

Animalia Animatronic koala (WTF?)
Cowes (as opposed to “Bulls” in NZ)
Two disproportionately evil bunnies
Remote seal viewing
Up-close blue fairy penguin viewing
Stormy seas and spectacular sunsets Fairy penguin homes

PointFairy penguin parade (no photos allowed).
Shared poncho with underdressed Columbian woman
Hot chocolate
Passed a brush fire just starting, our driver called it in (the fire truck passed us a bit later)

Home by midnight

Putting the Zed in NZ

Day 10: Queenstown to King’s Level 3

We rose early enough to say goodbye to Stacy as she left for work, spent a leisurely hour packing up the car, and headed to the airport. Without the Security Kabuki we’ve grown so used to in America, the time from parking to waiting for our flight was something like 10 minutes. How very much like my memories of Grand Junction, Colorado’s wee airport when I was a lad – of how things used to be before the Fear Industry took over in the US. A couple hours’ flight south, we were excited to watch the acres of farmland give way to the “Southern Alps”.

SouthIsland1Queenstown is a big mountain resort town – part Switzerland, part Montana, part Aspen. We ate lovely local ice cream in the airport and took a coach to our hotel with the lakeside view (just like most every building outside the very heart of town). A short walk to Thai food and a brief shopping expedition followed. We came back to long baths and more reading. Ah, vacation.

Day 11: Huge on the Luge

After cereal and yoghurt in our room, we headed to the Vudu Cafe to meet up with NZ photographer Trey Ratcliff, who had kindly helped publicize the charity calendar last year. A brilliant photographer and lovely person, Trey showed us a few splendid photos and kindly offered tips of things to see and places to go.

First among these places was the top of the nearby mountain. A large gondola takes people up, and then a small chair lift takes them further up to use the luge. This may be just a glorified go-cart track, but it’s got the best views imaginable. Top o’the world Ma, top o’ the world!

Queenstown After my first 3 runs, Venetia and I headed in for lunch – only to encounter Trey and his lovely wife and kids! They were celebrating the kids’ last day of freedom before the onset of school and shared both their table and foodstuffs. Venetia and Trey exchanged book recommendations, and before we leave town we hope to pass along the copy of Mark Hodder’s ‘A Red Sun Also Rises’. Serendipitous indeed!


I took 5 more runs after lunch as tandem paragliders wafted overhead and Venetia took in the view. I could have ridden all day if the passes so allowed…. But ice cream and a walk around the garden awaited, before a trip to the jacuzzi and a proper appreciation of sunset. We’re certain this would be a fine town for star-gazing, but we find ourselves thoroughly unconscious by the time any stars would think to show themselves….
Day 12: Sometimes the treasured things are not the things that last….

We arose early to meet one other small drop of rain in the lobby. From there we joined a small rivulet in the tour bus. Eventually the bus picked up enough others to stream away from Queenstown on a 4 hour ride to the Milford Sound (a mislabeled fiord). In the Sound we joined with other streaming tourists and put out to sea – sailing into the Tasman Sea before turning back around.

To say that Venetia got carsick through the winding slopes and tilting hardscrabble tunnel en route would be an understatement, but then I suppose some things are better left understated. By happenstance Brownie, our driver, a Maori from Rotorua – a good communicator in English and Maori, and an excellent salesman – told a tale of native medicine that Venetia immediately put successfully to the test (though it seems to have turned her tongue bright orange). Here’s to native medicine!

En route we passed by the Mirror Lakes:

MirrorLakes1Mountains everywhere as Mt1smwe climbed (and eventually descended) the Southern Alps.

The bus driver wanted to make sure his passengers signed on to hate a high-speed rail from Queenstown that the local Maori groups were lobbying for, but his reasoning was purely corporate – the rail in question would clearly be better for the environment. But it would make the long drive he was taking us on obsolete. And the tourist town stopping point (“Want a toilet? That’ll be a dollar, thank you,”) would suffer far more than bus passengers without that crucial dollar….

MilfordFiordWe both found the cruise astonishing – the animal life consisted only of a couple gulls, some suggestions of lobster by the intermittent traps, some very relaxed seals and a delightfully playful dolphin – but the sheer topography of the place!


We happily braved the 10k summer wind coming off the water, but at the end of the day, there was no way we could sensibly take 4 more hours of bus trip back. So we didn’t. Instead, we flew in a tiny plane over New Zealand’s breathtaking fiords.

TakeoffAlpsOur scenic 4 hour trip condensed, through a desire to stay outside our comfort zone and the miracle of cash, to a mere 40 minutes – barely reaching an altitude high enough to cross “the Wall” of the Darran and Humboldt Mountains (with their amazingly beautiful, but otherwise unattainable tarns) in time to come right back down. Alps2

TarnsWhat an incredible day. Our hearts are still in our throats, and amid the bumps of the cruise and return flight I’m sure that many of our pictures are blurred messes, but today is our last in New Zealand and we went out with a bang!


Day 8 & 9: Viva la Wellington!

Day 8: ‘Te Papa’s meaning is less removed from ‘Yo Mama’ than you might think

After a surprise morning delivery of crayfish (what we would call “lobsters”), our kind hosts took us around the peninsula, past one of Sir Peter Jackson’s two houses, for a proper Breakfast in Scorching Bay at a table overlooking the beach. It was civilized indeed!

After some fun in the sand, and the requisite photos of marine life made visible by the low tide, we headed up the coast to see this sculpture of a Tree Troll by Stacy’s friend Kim, who we hope to meet tomorrow.


From there a drive into town to see about getting my phone to work (for me, not for greedy international carriers that is). It wasn’t easy, but at last I have an iPhone that is “unlocked” and able to accept local sim cards instead of the highway robbery of “roaming” charges. What works here in NZ won’t work in AU or elsewhere, but an unlocked phone means that I should be well prepared for November’s trip to the UK.

The Wellington city government decided to offer WETA ace Greg Broadmore an empty storefront on Cuba Street for his traveling Dr. Grordbort exhibit (next stop – Dubai). We caught both the exhibit (oh to have the resources of Weta to build MY frames!) and it’s prime mover (such a lovely man considering the vasty Venusian carnage he wreaks!) at a serendipitously timed signing, and hope we might see him once more before we pull up stakes and head for the South Island!

ExhibitBut we could only stay long enough to get a book signed (and drawn in) for Keith Baker – we had to meet my old pal (and US Diplomat stationed in Wellington) Marie D’Amour. On the way to the TePapa museum we passed a shallow harbor filled with boaters and, below them, gliding rays. We passed happy tourists and delighted locals who were making full use of the steps and ladders to dive into the cool waters below – focusing (rather painfully I imagined) on creating as much splash for the onlookers as possible.

TePapa1But we hurried on to the museum where we found Marie and her visiting (and also diplomatically-minded) niece. After a brief but splendid chat, we paid our fees and entered the complexities of the Gamemaster exhibit. The early games (Defender, Galaga, et al.) were ones that I well remembered. The batch in the middle of the chronology were things I’d witnessed only in passing (Black and White, DDR, Zeldas, et al.). But there was a crop at the end I’d never even heard of. I was charmed with Blueberry Garden, but did not play it long before moving on to a 3-game portfolio of That Game Company – Flow, Flower and finally Journey. I played 1 creature and 2 flowers fully through in the first games. But like someone who comes to Vegas and sits down at a slot machine that’s been played unsuccessfully for days, I moved on to a partly completed Journey and played it entirely to its conclusion (in the very nick of time! The exhibit closed as I watched the end credits roll).

I found it beautifully ways I’d never imagined a game managing – almost as if Nicholas Roerich and Mary Blair had decided to work on a sequel to Myst with Carl Jung… Hearing that some friends in Portland own it, I may try to study its elegant minimalism a little more when I get home – it’s a treasure. As great as I found the exhibit, I admit to some chagrin at missing the rest of the museum entirely. Perhaps we’ll manage another, more history-minded, visit tomorrow. We briefly peeked into the Embassy Theatre (whose Gandalf is larger even than the Roxy’s) and established to my satisfaction that Wellington has the best theaters with fancy dining than anyplace I’ve ever been. Even if they need a proper Wizard to defend them….

IMG_2751Upon returning home, we we’re treated to those aliens from District 9… well, to their crayfish cousins anyway. Eric dealt with the Lobsters while Stacy whipped up home-made chili. After a beautiful sunset we headed back to Gandalf (who is literally bigger here in Wellington than Queen Victoria) and feasted on the Pavlova (the Kiwis’ national dessert made primarily of kiwi fruit, cream, and meringue) at nearby Strawberry Fare.

FoodThe resultant sugar coma sent us happy to an early bed.

Day 9: The Hospitality of Mr. Baggins

The day began slowly, but we finally sprang into motion and headed back to the Te Papa Museum after noon. As I was considering the steep parking fees a fellow with a German accent approached and asked if I’d paid to park. I told him I was considering it, and he handed me his parking pass. Apparently the 3 hours he’d used were as expensive as the all-day pass, so he paid for the full day, and why didn’t I just take his?

TePapa2We tasted the local salmon at the Sunday Market and admired the many locals basking in the summer sun. The museum was every bit as interesting and wonderful as we’d suspected. Some of the films were silly and poorly conceived (the gimmicky black animated bit on the giant squid) and others wonderful (base jumpers and photographers  and sheep farmers and paleo-kiwis talking about what the land means to them).But wherever one travels in New Zealand, the spirit of JRR Tolkien is never far behind – The Hobbit’s 3 trolls were visiting the museum too – dangerous dudes to be around!


After a brief return to base, Stacy and I headed off to see a hidden Dragon – happily there were no Crouching Tigers about. Stacy’s sculptor pal Kim Beaton (who made the wood troll we saw yesterday) has created a wonderfully friendly dragon who is sheltering a fox and a hedgehog. And she made it out of a new high-tech concrete that requires no metal framework or other materials. At the end of our visit I got to help restore the dragons protective cover, but now that he’s properly cured, this will be his last day under protective wrapping.


Later that evening (and a remarkably hot one it was for Wellington), Stacy and Eric hosted a swell gathering of artists – Daniel Falconer arrived with Paul Tobin, Greg popped in, and I had a fine chat with Kim about art and t-shirt design. Tim-Tams and baseball-themed beer accompanied conversation about fireworks, large insects, world travel and the Hobbit. Conversation about the game Journey was later echoed in a surprising way as we watched a firelit Chinese lantern ascend, rising slow and straight into a remarkably calm clear twilight. Another followed some 20 minutes later. Gorgeous.

What a wonderful visit and send-off. We loved Wellington.

At Sixes and Sevens

Day 6: You Will Believe a Man Can Fall!

We lit out of Rotorua and were well past many of the geysers when we were stopped in a mandatory traffic stop. I’d never had a breathalyzer test before (as a teetotaler that was probably due to a complete lack of anything approaching probable cause) but this one was administered in a jiffy. The nice policeman saying (in his nice Kiwi accent rendered here as phonetically as auto-correct will allow): “hee’s ya mandatory breethalyzer test. Weea troin’ ta mike shua droivas sty awoik – so theys coffee and free ois cream ova thaya.”  indicating the small crowd of confectioners and baristas on the left verge. When I didn’t look like I’d be taking them up on it, he handed me this box – branded with the local safety mascot and filled with jelly beans.


The drive past Lake Taupo and the climb up past Tongarira Crossing were beautiful. As were the escaped horses on the highway, despite the clear danger they presented to themselves and others (like the car-carrier who’d stripped the driver’s mirror off the car in front of us). But after that it was smooth sailing at the speed limit.

Until the madness of The Flying Fox that is. There, we far surpassed the usual 100km speed limit, and without worrying for the safety of our rental car. We went down the zip lines of Gravity Canyon face-first at 100 MILES per hour. Words do not do it justice, but this video (of others, because I’m not going to pay $45 to watch myself fall) might begin to suggest the experience.


Venetia was deeply worried going in, but her screaming stopped almost immediately as we enjoyed the surreally calm and beautiful flight. 2 seconds in, my thought was “This ride is already too short!”The winching-up backwards was a rather different matter, but despite that uneasy feeling (and their motto on the shirt below) I cannot recommend this adventure strongly enough.


A few more hours’ drive south led us to the very southern tip of the Northern Island and to the Wellington home of Stacy & Eric where we enjoyed delicious food among the locals – many of whom are colleagues of our hosts at Weta Workshops – an easy view of which lies a couple blocks down the hill from their house). A brief shopping run yielded licorice, chocolate, ‘tasty’ cheese (for ‘cheddar’ is curiously unknown here despite John Cleese’s protestations to the contrary “But it’s the single most popular cheese in the WORLD!” ringing loudly in my head) and other delicious (if pricey) Island goods.

Day 7: An Expected Journey

Hobbit1We awoke early and got loads of stray ducks in a row. Photos, blogs, hygiene – we did it all. And then we headed for the Roxy. Apparently when one makes several of the world’s most successful films, one can purchase and renovate an amazing art deco theatre – stocking it with posh seats, lovely food, a giant bronze of Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and a massive mural and finest Deco fittings by Greg “Dr. Grordbort” Broadmore and company. Who knew?

RoxyStacy had only mentioned the theatre in passing, but since we knew we were coming, why not wait to see the Hobbit until we could see it on its home turf? And after we’d visited Hobbiton ourselves? And when we could nip over to WETA for the tour after?

WETAhelmsIt all went to plan, and a marvellous time was had.

We spoke at some length with sculptor Craig Campbell about a secret commission, and got a flavour for the wonderful work environment at Weta. We later ate smashing Thai food and happily chatted the night away with our hosts

Days 3,4 & 5: North Island, New Zealand

Day 3 – Caves and Hobbitses

PauanuiWe  arose early in the planned community Pauanui, but any belief I’d had that we were up before anyone was quickly quashed by the dogged enthusiasm of a friendly little Yorkie. Given the chance, he’d be with us still….

After a brief stop in Hamilton (to get directions to Hobbiton, where we had signal to do so), we travelled south to Waitomo. The cheeky little birds who sought our delicious lunch were not deterred by noises, motions nor splashes of water. Their dinosaur forbearers would have been proud.

After a gradual climb down into a complex (and very smartly lit) cave complex, e leader of the tour shut out the lights. Venetia, notoriously claustrophobic, held up brilliantly, even then. The first few glow worms were high up and relatively isolated. But once we boarded the boat, and floated under the blue starred cave sky, the caves became truly sublime – Breathtaking in their strange and genuinely alien beauty.

IMG_2360Two hours later, we’d come to Hobbiton.

What can I tell you? Probably little that you don’t already know that you’d be the slightest bit interested in. We haven’t yet seen The Hobbit, but of course we knew the ground pretty well from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was rather nice of them to repair the temporary sets from those films just so that we could get the full experience. The cakes and ale at the Green Dragon Inn went a long way making up for the throngs of over-charged tourists buying overpriced tchotchkes in the makeshift “Shires’s Rest”.

IMG_2444But for all the pain of the prices throughout New Zealand, there’s not a thing we’ve done yet that we have the slightest regret for. And the sight of lichens and mosses hand-painted in the exciting new medium of wood chips and yoghurt? Priceless.

HobbitonThe camera died at the end of our unexpected journey, but we captured most everything… but the ring.


Day 4: A Day of Rest

We are mellow, calm, and completely laid-back. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it, but in an attempt to establish verisimilitude, here’s a lovely anecdote from Venetia: “I was walking by the park and I passed a tiny little boy (somewhere in the 5-7 range) sitting and getting his face painted. Other half of his face that I could see was mostly done and a woman was still painting the other side. I stood there watching them, wondering how the hell a little kid like that could be so patient and still, not moving a muscle and then I looked over and saw his dad. He was a big Maori man, with a cool mohawk of dark hair about 3 inches or so high. The rest of his scalp on either side of his mohawk was shaved. Starting at the edges of his cheekbones and running up the side of his face up and over the shaved portion of his scalp were beautiful intricate tribal tattoos. And I thought, yeah, good on you kid. You sit there perfectly still and get your face painted and make your dad proud. Love it.”


Day 5: The Day we took Neil Gaiman* Zorbing

For the last three months at least, we have told every single person had a decent conversation with that we were going to go Zorbing. Today was that prophesied day. We waited until the afternoon for the day to warm up a little and then carefully picked our outfits for the event, a t-shirt and swim trunks for myself and her two-piece swimsuit for Venetia. The Zorbing track was less than a fifteen minute drive out of town, although we were momentarily fooled by a faux Zorb course a kilometer or so nearer to Rotorua than the one we’d scoped out in advance. After sunscreening and registering, we waited with a pre-soaked father and son for our ride up to the top of the hill.

IMG_2572I went first and, after casting an eye down the track, dove into the peculiar human hamster pinball as hard as I could, thinking that it would be my momentum that would, if you’ll pardon the expression, get the ball rolling. But it didn’t budge. I waited a moment for the official push off down the zig-zag track and then…. Well, why bore you with my own meagre Stream Of Consciousness, when Venetia’s is much more entertaining? Behold:

“…Not far enough into the ball, hurry, hurry get in. Okay, my stomach feels really tense, this must be a great workout for my abs to be holding in this reclining/sitting position. Oh no… he’s zipping me in, am I going to get claustrophobic? No, seem all right, when did I get water up my nose? I am really quite wet already. Thank god the water is warm. Oh god, what’s taking so long, he’s chatting with the people behind me. Okay, there he is, ah, he’s unlocking the gate, omg, I’m moving ****! ****! ****! ****ing A! THIS IS AMAZING! So glad Lee isn’t in here with me, I can’t stop screaming and I think I would hurt his eardrums. OMG – totally ODing on adrenaline, is this too much adrenaline, no I think I’m fine **** I’M TOTALLY IN THE AIR. Am I going to be sick? No still okay here, **** THAT WAS ****ING AWESOME! I probably should have taken my contacts out for this, can’t seem to close my eyes and I am getting a ****ing ton of water directly in my face. Okay, still okay ****! ****ING A. Apparently I swear a lot now, who knew? ****. I love this. This is incredible! ****. Okay can’t see anything, stopped now, cover unzipped, woman is saying something oh ****. So apparently I lost my top, it’s okay she says, happens all the time. Ahhhhh, that was incredible. That was so incredible I don’t even know what just happened. ****ing A.”

True story.

Tonight we continued our hot springs tour of the world at The Peloponnesian Spa.** we tested all 7 pools in our section, spoke with Sikh dentists from London and French-speaking bartenders from Waitomo. The sky was as glorious as the springs.


*While we are led to believe that Neil Gaiman is himself down under, and while we would happily have taken him Zorbing, the savvy among you must by now realize that Neil was, in this story at least, represented in effigy only – on the splendid laundry bag that Kitty had kindly given us in LA.

**Actually, Sparta led the ancient Peloponnesian League to war with Athens back in the day. This really has nothing to do with the amazing spa in Rotorua, but somehow we found it more fun that saying “Polynesian”. We are a silly people.