Friday, April 28, 2017

A Walk in the Park

Murawai, Pakuranga, and Akarana. Those are the 3 courses we played and if my golf wasn't that great at least I learned how to pronounce (and spell) the names of the courses which was a bit of a challenge!

Despite ending up somewhere in the middle of the pack (of about 120) the golfing was a lot of fun and all the participants were exceptionally nice. Most were from Australia, New Zealand or Canada with only a handful from anywhere else. One of the Vernon women made it to the final round - congrats to Nancy K.

We've had a bit of time exploring some of the sights Auckland has to offer. It's quite hilly but has lots of nice vistas and tree-lined streets. Many of them have tree-tunnels like this:
ANZAC day celebrations were on Tuesday (much like our Remembrance Day) which included a fly over with some (I'm going to guess) fighter planes.
You can tell from the sky colour that our weather has taken a turn for the better. We had 3 glorious days for golfing. Lots of trees and plants are still in bloom on the courses, beside one tee box there was a lime tree filled with fruit. The nicest course was along the west coast at Murawai, although the hole in the pic below might have been the only one that had an ocean view. In the distance you could see and hear the surf crashing against the shore.
The Masters Games have included lots of amazing culture and entertainment so we spent one afternoon listening to this fabulous jazz group.
Our ventures into the wilds continued with a visit to Rangitoto - the volcano just off of Auckland. A vehicle pulled by a tractor took us most of the way to the top, after which we climbed the last 300 stairs to the summit. Lots of manuka and kanuka (tee trees) and huge lava fields.

On another day a tour to the west coast with a stop at Karekare falls (the Maori name translated to long silver braid) and the mandatory group photo:
The forests in this area are so lush and dense. We had a short hike through an ancient forest - before entering and leaving the bush we had to clean our shoes and spray the soles with disinfectant. Apparently some teeny spore has the potential to wreak havoc on a specific native species of tree. They are pretty vigilant about all this bio-security.
And a walk on the black sand beach at Piha. The beach was very flat with a thin layer of water causing this reflection.
I'm also reflecting on my visit here, with only a few days left. The people have been super friendly and have managed to show us visitors an amazing time. The games were well organized and set a high standard for future games. Thanks to all of Auckland for demonstrating the love of the sport!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Let the Games Begin

The World Masters Games is the largest multi-sport participatory event with 28,000 people from over 100 countries. The inaugural one was held in Toronto in 1985. The oldest competitor is a 101 year old woman from India competing in 100m, 200m, javelin and shot put. She took up athletics at age 93 and her 79 year old son is also competing. There's hope for us all!

I'm not sure if the staff are congratulating us or mocking us:

Here are the 3 of us decked out waiting for the opening ceremonies to begin - apparently there are 2000 Canadians here and they were very prevalent.
 The opening ceremonies included the requisite music, Maori dancing, fireworks, laser lights, etc.
 And don't think these games aren't classy - just look at the port-a-potties!

It was pretty cool to see all the people dressed in either team or national colours.

It's quite a big event for the city and much like the Olympics in Vancouver, everyone's in a friendly, talkative, upbeat mood. Of course I don't feel old, but there have been a couple of times in the past year where someone on a bus or train has offered me their seat which has surprised me. However, on the train to the opening ceremonies a gentleman got up to offer me his seat and it just happened to be the mayor of Auckland.

Like many large cities (and Auckland is NZ's largest) there's a "Sky Tower" - take the elevator to the 51st floor (220m high) to get panoramic views of the city. If you look closely at the photo below you can see some 'cables' on either side. That's for those doing the 'Sky Jump' - for $192 you can attain a great adrenaline rush! They hook you up to the cables and you hurl yourself to the ground.
If you look at the photo again, you'll see the island with the volcano poking up in the distance - we're heading there today for a bit of a tour. It happens to be NZ's youngest volcano - it emerged from the sea about 600 years ago.

This will be the first time I've celebrated my birthday not in Canada. My travel companions managed to find a candle (but no matches) and stuck it in a group of NZ fruit - the green feijoa, with some 'gold' kiwifruit (they're not so fuzzy) and an avo.  Thanks Nancy and Linda - I will indeed remember this birthday!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Windy City - and it's not Chicago

Actually it's Wellington. And not just windy but a bit chilly too. We've had to do quite a bit of bundling up in our woolies since we got here. I guess those shorts I packed aren't going to see much use.

Of course, Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, is a port city. Unfortunately, the last big earthquake in November 2016 damaged a lot of the wharf area and cranes so the large ships aren't able to come in to the port at the moment. At 7.8 it was the 2nd largest earthquake to hit NZ.

There are a few interesting things to do in Wellington and I think we did most of them. Up the cable car to the top of the hill where you get a good view of the bay.

Wandered back down through the fabulous botanical garden where we spotted this lovely toadstool.

Visited the local museum that had an impressive display of Gallipoli - a long fought battle by the New Zealand army in WW1. They had a lot of huge replicas of soldiers and scenes, created by Peter Jackson's (think LOTR) Weta studio. A bit depressing especially when you consider we haven't learned much from the past.

There was also a lot of the Maori culture on display. I'm quite amazed at the strong presence of the Maori in this part of NZ. One of the large waka (boats) that held about 80 paddlers.

The wine tour out to Martinborough was a full day adventure and required a train and a bus. At the first winery we tasted about 8 different wines then went to a very small winery where we tasted about 5. They produce about 10,000 bottles a year (just a bit more than Ross and I can drink) and the winemaker was quite the joker. The grapes had just been harvested and this picture shows the open top fermentation process.
After a fabulous lunch of locally sourced items, we went to another rather large winery for about 5 more tastings. There was one more winery after that but I can't remember what it was or how much we drank!

I'm not sure why this chart was on the wall:

The wine industry here is relatively small - about 20-30 years old and most of the wines ranged from $25-60/bottle. A few fortified wines which I'm sure Ross would love.

A few interesting things I've found interesting about NZ so far:

  • if you go out to eat on a holiday (i.e. Easter Sunday) there might be a 15% surcharge on your meal because they have to pay the staff more
  • there were no land mammals on the islands until the explorers and colonists arrived
  • I'm always fascinated by unusual fruit for some reason - the feijoa is found in all the stores - looks like green avocado but tastes more like kiwifruit
  • gas prices are in the $2/litre range 
  • there are giant ferns growing everywhere - some are silver underneath and also luminescent
  • they take their biosecurity seriously - no foreign plants, dirt, animals, seeds, etc, etc allowed in - clean your shoes thoroughly before coming
  • there is no security on flights within NZ - no removing shoes, no scanning bags, no body scans, no ID - just show your boarding pass and board
  • the golf course is in meters so take an extra club or two

Off to Auckland for the opening ceremonies tomorrow!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Middle Earth

Yes it seems kind of cheesy and touristy but our visit to the Shire/Hobbiton was very pleasant. As we left Rotorua the sun was shining and all the surrounding hills transformed to a bright, emerald green. A rainbow even appeared as we headed out on the bus.
This movie set location was one of 150+ different ones that were used for the Lord of the Rings. After they finished filming, the set was removed but when Peter Jackson made the Hobbit movies, he rebuilt the set as permanent structures. At that time many tourists were already coming to the farm near Matamata where the filming had taken place and now Hobbiton is a major employer in the area (including 5 full time gardeners).
There are 44 hobbit houses and Linda and I decided we'd see if any hobbits were home. Actually, none of the houses have anything in them - only the front. You open the door and see a wall!
This is part of Bag End, where the Baggins lived. Atop the house is a beautiful tree - fake with thousands of fake leaves sewn on.
Most of the shrubs, bushes, plants, flowers are NOT native but were brought in to match Tolkien's descriptions. However, the large pine trees on the property were there, including the one in this photo - called the Party Tree because that's where the big party in the Shire (the first LOTR) takes place.
 Samwise Gamgee's place at the end of the movie. He's living here with Rose and his 14 (?) kids.
At the Green Dragon Inn we were given a pint of (in my case) stout. The beer is brewed specially for Hobbiton.
The grounds really were magnificent and we spent about 2 hours roaming around (with a guide). The Hobbiton Movie Set comprises about 30 acres of the 1200 acre property which is still a real, working farm - sheep, cows, etc.
 Such a beautiful, magical place. Well worth the visit on a sunny day.

So exactly what is a glow worm?

I hate bugs. And spiders. And wormy, crawly things.

So what's the deal with glow worms. They are quite literally the larvae of a beetle that happens to have bioluminescence. The reason for their luminosity? To entice their prey.  Yes, these worms are predators - just like lions and sharks!

And still, I went on a tour to see them. Thursday night Cyclone Cook was scheduled to make landfall and a few areas of the country experienced flooding, slips (land slides) and extremely high winds. In Rotorua, things were just very rainy and a bit windy. So on Friday morning we woke to high cloud cover with some blue sky actually poking through - our first since we arrived in NZ. We hopped on a bus for the 2 hour ride to Waitomo where the Glow Worm Caves are. Glow worms are only found in NZ and Australia. Most of this area consists of green, rolling hills, a lot of sheep, cattle, deer, a few ostriches, and horses. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Bilbo Baggins wandering about.

We passed through a lot of small towns that looked like they haven't changed much since the 50s or 60s. This butcher shop is kind of typical of the main streets.
One town had a bunch of sculptures made of corrugated iron. This is one of the smaller ones.
The Waitomo cave itself isn't that large - likely about 100-200 meters - and filled with fat stalactites and stalagmites. Then you board a boat and drift off into the darkness lit only by the light of the glow worms. It was much like looking up on a starry night, with about 10 times the number of lights covering the ceiling and much of the walls of the cave. Since no photos are allowed, I've had to steal this one from Wikipedia. It felt like you were in another universe.

Since it was sunny when we arrived back in Rotorua we thought it would be a good chance to ride up the gondola and try some luging (luge-ing?). The view was quite spectacular since we hadn't seen much of the lake since we got here. There are a lot of activities you can take part in at the top - hiking, zip-line, sky-swing, etc.
The 'luges' are small little sleds with wheels that you drive down the hill on a paved track - you control the speed with the handlebars and you can actually get up quite a bit of speed. A chairlift returns you (and the sled) to the top. In this photo you can see the lugers. Pretty fun!
Tomorrow's plans include Hobbiton - perhaps Bilbo will be there!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Rainy Rotorua

If you like sulphur pools, hot springs and bubbling mud pools, then Rotorua is the place for you. Much like Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, Rotorua is built on a geothermal hotspot and there is evidence of activity pretty much everywhere. Apparently there's a geyser here too that goes off regularly but I think it costs $40 to get into the area.

We landed in Rotorua (after our long flights) and despite the dreary weather had a little tour of the place from a friend of Nancy's who lives in Vancouver but has lived here (thanks Lee!). We walked along the edge of the sulphur lake and through the park with fenced areas of steaming, bubbling water areas. The difference from Yellowstone is that this is all right in the middle of town as opposed to a wilderness area.

In the afternoon we grabbed our swimwear, headed to the Polynesian Spa and made our way through about 8 different pools with varying temperatures and degrees of acidity/alkalinity. It's a huge hot springs development in the centre of town and we only went in the adult area ('adult' meaning no kids). They also have private pools, family areas, etc.

Our Airbnb place is pretty much downtown and hosted by Lani an artist - lots of funky art and decor including this mural on the back of the door in the bathroom.

This entire area is really geared for outdoor adventures - hiking, biking, etc - so with the inclement weather we looked for something that might not require too much outside. The Agrodome is a working farm that included a sheep show and a farm tour. All the sheep (about 20 different kinds) were displayed on stage followed by a sheep shearing demonstration. It was interesting but I'm getting less enthusiastic about shows which require animals to be herded and chained. Then we all loaded onto a tractor-drawn wagon and rode around the farm, stopping to feed the sheep and alpacas. Technically, we didn't jump out in the pouring rain and mud to feed the animals but a few kids on a school trip did.

Sorry I don't have more pics but I just tried to load them onto my computer and the SD card corrupted somehow. Luckily I only lost a day's worth of photos.

Cyclone Cook is expected to hit landfall tomorrow but we're already getting a lot of rain and wind. In all my travels I've been fortunate to have pretty good weather. Guess my luck has run out!

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