Monday, May 30, 2016

New Zealand, Part IV: Timaru and Mt. Cook

Friends. They are one of life's chief rewards, especially when you are traveling. We were so pleased to catch up with our friends on New Zealand's North Island, and having spent about a month in Australia, seeing our old friend Stu, on the South Island, added to our pleasure.  Kevin worked with Stu in England, but while we were only there a year, Stu stayed on for 22 years. (Stu had a grandparent that was born in England, so, as a New Zealander, he had patrial rights*.)

We checked out this charming pub in Timaru with Stu.

Timaru is a pretty town located between Christchurch and Dunedin on the east coast. 

We stayed downtown at the Grosvenor Hotel, built in 1875. It was not the accommodation that Stu recommended, but his choice was booked. Reportedly, Queen Elizabeth II stayed there, but it must have been not long after her coronation, because I'm sure the decor has changed since her visit. I don't know who the Grosvenor had as a designer, but it was definitely uniquely decorated. Take a look at the lobby with its combination of Victorian, 60s Mondrian, and contemporary styles:

I don't know what this rooster poster in the hallway with Mao-era images is trying to say:

However, our room was spacious, comfortable, and clean, so we had a relaxing stay there. And the free parking was a bonus.

Near Timaru, we explored the ancient Maori rock paintings.

The age of the rock art, from what I could find out, is thought to be "only" about 500 years old. But I am always entranced by such depictions and wonder about the people who made it and why they felt compelled to leave this images. It is also thrilling to see them at sites that are not over-run with tourists.

Stu also accompanied us on a day trip to Mt. Cook, where we stopped at Lake Tekapo to view the Church of the Good Shepherd, an old rock chapel constructed in 1935 at a lovely spot on the lake. 

 Nearby is a statue that is a memorial to all the sheep dogs working in the Mackenzie Country, as the area is known.  Mackenzie was a Scottish settler and sheep rustler who discovered the basin that now bears his name. With the help of his dog, Friday, he drove the sheep up into the mountains. The story is that after Mackenzie was arrested, Friday continued to manage the flocks until the authorities disabled him. Poor faithful Friday! But it is supposedly his likeness that the statue resembles.

Even on the cloudy day, the scenery on the drive was impressive.

The views around Mt. Cook, or Aoraki (cloud-piercer) in the Maori language, did not disappoint.

When we reached a viewpoint overlooking the Abel Tasman Glacier, the beauty of the area was only surpassed by the startling realization of how much the glacier has retreated in recent years. If anyone wants evidence of global climate change, come here!

The last time Stu visited here over 20 years ago, the areas covered by meltwater in the photograph were covered by the glacier. Here's a panorama showing the area in the photos above.

Panorama courtesy of Stu McCusker. Sorry, I couldn't reproduce it larger.

According to Wikipedia, the Abel Tasman Glacier is New Zealand's largest glacier at 27 kilometers (17 miles). But between 2000 and 2008, the glacier retreated 3.7 kilometers (2.29 miles). In the 1990s, it was retreating about 180 meters (590 feet) per year, but now the rate of loss has increased, and it is calculated to be between 477 to 822 meters (1,565 to 2,697 feet) per year. In the next 10 to 20 years, the glacier is expected to be entirely gone.

After the sobering experience of seeing the glacier's retreat, we returned to Timaru, which also has the distinction of being one of the few places in New Zealand where the Little Blue Penguins , the world's smallest, come ashore. We did not have time to look for them until much later, when we returned from Dunedin (next post), but sadly, when we did, this was the only penguin we saw:

We waited till the moon rose, and it began to get chilly. But while we did not see the little penguins, we were happy to know they were coming there, and we took in the glittering view of the port at night.

*When we lived in England in 1989-90, I asked the Immigation Service if I had any patrial rights, because my grandmother was born in England. "I'm sorry," the immigration officer said, "But you're an American, and there was that little incident about all the tea in Boston Harbor." I remarked that the British have long memories. "Yes," he said, "And we haven't quite forgiven the Danish yet for all their raping and pillaging either!" 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

New Zealand, Part III: Christchurch Rising

We split our New Zealand adventure into two parts, visiting friends on the North Island (see earlier blog posts) before leaving for Australia. So, on our return from Sydney, we flew to Christchurch on the South Island.

We had not seen Christchurch on our earlier visits, which we somewhat regretted. But we felt privileged to witness Christchurch now, when it is recovering from the earthquake it experienced on February 22, 2011.* Five years later, the entire city is a construction zone. Because housing came first, the city is only now rebuilding the downtown. 

In the interim, Christchurch has shown great innovation and spirit. For example, the city created a mall out of shipping containers (The Re-Start Mall), which is really quite attractive. In addition to the retail spaces and banks, cafes and food stalls create a pleasant ambiance.

We had a couple of tasty meals there, where the buildings of the new mall rise higher every day behind the temporary structures.

The creativity shown in recovering from the quake is just amazing!
Consider the Cardboard Cathedral. (Not it's official name.) It was designed Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who drew on his experience in creating post-tsunami architecture following the Japanese tsunami in 2004. This transitional Anglican cathedral is constructed with cardboard, glass, and shipping containers. It is quite beautiful.

Light glows softly in the cathedral. The laminated wood chairs harmonize well with the tones of the reinforced cardboard roof.

We were fortunate to have a kind lady, a volunteer who attends services there, show us around.

Nearby is the site where the Canterbury Television (CTV) building stood. It collapsed in the quake, and 115 of the 185 people who were killed in that event died there, many of them foreign students who were attending an English language school on the fourth level.

Slightly down the street and across from the CTV site are 185 empty chairs, a memorial to those who died. Appropriate chairs were chosen to represent each person who was lost, including the heart-breaking tiny chairs and baby carrier.

A poem at the site left me in tears, for I felt the poet understands what it is to grieve, and how, when grief is fresh, there is no consolation. And yet we go on.

A Blessing for the Brokenhearted

(Which is prefaced with a quote by Henry David Thoreau:
“There is no remedy for love but to love more.”

Let us agree
for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.

Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.

Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it

as it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still

as if trusts
that its own stubborn
and persistent pulse
is the rhythm
of a blessing
we cannot
begin to fathom
but will save us


 Later, we saw the former cathedral that was badly damaged in an aftershock. A controversy erupted between those who wanted it rebuilt and the Anglican Church who wanted to tear it down and build a new one. After extensive litigation, the church won the right to demolish the old building, but, perhaps out of sensitivity (or a lack of construction funds) that has not yet happened.

There are parts of the city that have rebounded. A streetcar offers lifts around town. In addition there are artworks and murals throughout the city. As our walking tour guide told us, "The city encouraged almost anything that would raise spirits after the earthquake."

Another spot that lightens the heart is the city's botanical gardens. Founded in 1863, they provide a cool, green oasis to retreat to. Best of all, they are free!

I am sorry we didn't get to Christchurch on our earlier trips, but if we go back to New Zealand, I would like to go again. This city, touched by a great disaster is rising like a Phoenix from the ashes, and if they can keep their creativity and community commitment, the future looks very bright.

*The Canterbury Earthquake followed an earlier quake of magnitude 7.3 that did not do as much damage as the 6.3 magnitude quake of 2011, which was shallower and had an epicenter closer to the city.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Kangaroo Tale

This is a guest blog post by our grandniece, Keara Holm-Nielsen. It requires a little background. Keara travels the world and currently works as a proposal writer, but you will see she is bound for bigger things. 

The photos below are ones that Kevin sent to family members. He encountered a kangaroo skeleton in the parking lot of the clinic at the abandoned military base, featured in the previous post. Believing that the kangaroo did not get hit by a car in the parking lot, he asked family members to speculate on how the kangaroo came to die there. Keara's response was so clever, and contains such deep, symbolic content, that I had to publish it.

WARNING: THIS POST IS RATED PG (parental guidance advised)!

Hi Uncle Kevin,

Thank you for the beautiful photos. In this decaying world, it’s good to know that I’ll always have you to lift my spirits.

Oddly enough, your photos do remind me of a story I heard once. Before I tell you, I must express the slightest resentment I feel about your word choice. You seem to indicate that my youth is a thing of the past, which is a grievous faux pas for a woman living out of a backpack approaching her 30s. But since we’re family, I’ll let it slide this time.

Anyway, If this roo’s fate is anything like the story I’ve heard, I agree with you. This roo did not get hit by a car while standing in the parking stall. The velocity required to make such a deadly impact would be difficult, nay, impossible for a car to reach while parking. Death from natural causes is not only unlikely, but boring. However, it is likely that this roo received its injury out there on the A376. What you have not considered is that instead of dragging itself, this roo was dragged.
Let me explain:

In the summer of 1968, the Shire of Exmouth was officially one year old and groin deep in the worst drought Western Australia had experienced in over 50 years. Everyone was thirsty. The men, their wives, the roos.

One man was feeling particularly unquenched. Jack owned the town’s local urology clinic. In the first year of Exmouth’s inception, everyone was happy. The town had just been established as a military base and all the enlisted boys brought up their girls from Perth. Everyone was carefree and in love. Everyone was getting urinary tract infections (UTIs). Things were great.

But then the drought hit and everything changed. Living in Exmouth became synonymous with inescapable heat and insatiable thirst. As you could imagine, the women left. And with the women, so went the UTIs. All except one.

Jack’s wife, Agna, stayed. Jack was repeatedly reminded how lucky he was that his woman didn’t leave him over a little dry spell, but he wasn’t so sure. Lately they had been fighting over petty things. Cars, mostly. Her bitching reverberated in his brain constantly. “Do you have to drive that ridiculous piece of crap around town? It looks like a rotting banana.” And, “When will I get a new car? That thing’s so rusty, I’m liable to get tetanus just looking at it!” But of the many things about Agna that perplexed him, the fact that they didn’t even share a bed and she was the sole patron of the clinic perplexed Jack the most.

Like many unhappily married manchildren, Jack’s solution to his wife’s perplexities was to dissolve himself in a pint or twelve of Emu Export at the pub. In the midst of a drought, drinking beer to save water is not only a great excuse, but also kind of a thing. Jack felt obligated to do his part to return Exmouth to the great city it had once been.

But not everyone was so community-oriented. Bragging loudly at the table behind him was the town’s local landscaper, Walter. Jack couldn’t even believe such a wasteful industry thrived in crisis times like these. Walter was nearly foaming at the mouth describing the incredible amount of water his company used. To drown out the noise, Jack muttered, “Walter the Water Wasting Wanker” to himself until he noticed a few weird looks from the bar regulars. He stumbled to his car and began the miserable drive home.

Some 10 kilometers away, Dusty and Scarlett were looking for water. They had been bickering lately, which was uncharacteristic of their relationship. Scarlett seemed frantic to find water, more frantic than usual. She even suggested crossing the bloody road at dark, which is basically a death sentence for a roo. Finally, Dusty gave in, which was characteristic of their relationship. After all, Scarlett had the nicest tail of all the does in their mob.

Dusty hopped across first, to make sure it was safe. Scarlett came next. And as life can be ridiculously predictable sometimes, a drunken manchild in a yellow sedan swerved into Scarlett at the last moment. Dusty fled to the mangled heap that was his wife and she gasped out the words that no male wants to hear from his dying lover, “Dusty, I’m pregnant.” In the moments that followed, Scarlett lit’rally became scarlet. (Note: Never miss an opportunity to be morbidly literal. And use puns. End note.)

(Don't worry. This particular kangaroo was alive and resting. But we needed an illustration.)

Dusty looked to the sky for some sort of answer. Instead, he found himself looking at the perpetrating vehicle, whose ridiculous yellow color was set off by some extremely tacky lettering. Before it screeched away, Dusty managed to read, “Urine? You're in!" They were words he would remember until his dying day. [Fade to black.]

Dusty woke up in the scorching sun next to his roadkill lover the next morning. After weeping all night, his mouth was as dry as the outback. His tongue was, well, dusty. He couldn’t stand the pun he just made up in his own head, or looking at his scarlet Scarlett any more. He began hopping deliriously down the A376.

Flies buzzed around Dusty’s face as he spotted a garden oasis in the distance. He hopped faster. But then suddenly the oasis appeared suspiciously two-dimensional. He’d been duped by a billboard. Walter and his misleading landscaping advertisements could go to hell.

Then Dusty noticed another billboard. With an extremely familiar tag line and a giant yellow arrow that said, “We test wee.” Dusty followed that arrow. Because he decided that the last thing he would ever drink was the red hot blood of the bastard that turned his Scarlett scarlet. He could already taste the sweet, salty revenge.

A few kilometers behind the bloodthirsty roo was Agna, who also had it out for Jack. She hated Exmouth. She hated Jack and his stupid yellow car. And she hated the goddamn piece of rust she was forced to drive around. It was finally time to tell Jack it was over, that she was leaving him for Walter the Landscaper. She was so wrapped up in her mission, she barely noticed the haggard kangaroo hopping in the same direction. She also barely noticed that she mowed over the haggard roo, and that its carcass became stuck in her undercarriage. Whatever. She would be done with this piece of crap soon. As Agna screeched to a halt in the parking lot of Jack’s clinic, the sheer velocity of the motion dislodged a barely living Dusty from the crumbling vehicle.

We could go into detail about what happens between Agna and Jack, but that’s not important. The important thing is that there would be no revenge or redemption at Dusty’s final destination. Dusty would spend his final moments shaking his fist at the sky. Or rather, at Agna’s rusted undercarriage. Life teaches you lessons, and Dusty learned the hard way that life’s not fair.

So to answer your question, yes. This truly is a story worthy of a haiku:

A kangaroo tale
Where happiness turns to rust
And Dusty to dust

Love you,

Dusty's brother still mourns the couple till this day.

Emus, Roos, and the Strangest Best Western Ever

When we first planned the Australian leg of our trip, we expected to go to the Great Barrier Reef. But we discovered we would be traveling when that area typically experiences heavy storms. It's also a time when the nearby coast is often infested with Australian Box jellyfish—and their venom is so toxic, it can kill you in minutes. Since we couldn't visit the reef except by boat and the weather might not cooperate, we decided to go to the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia instead. That's how we arrived at the Strangest Best Western Ever.

Officially known as The Best Western Sea Breeze Resort, the accommodation is five kilometers from the little town of Exmouth. (Pronounced “Ex-mouth.”) The motel was converted from the chief petty officer’s quarters on an inactive North American Naval Base, right next door to an active Australian military facility. That’s part of what makes it so different.

Emus stroll the grounds of the Sea Breeze.

We want to make it clear that we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there. The staff were extremely helpful and friendly­—and not strange at all. The building has been remodeled, so it offers a pleasant room with a kitchenette and en-suite bath, along with ­­­­­­ a pretty outdoor pool. Emus and kangaroos roam the grounds and galahs, a type of gray cockatoo, perch in the palm trees. But that’s not all.

Galahs searching for seeds at the Sea Breeze.

Because the hotel is located inside the inactive naval base, there are streets and streets of vacant buildings. It’s a military ghost town, including a dive shop, a bar, and a clinic (which is important to the next blog post.) 

If you drive down one of the empty streets, you will see kangaroos peeking out from around the buildings, where they go to rest in the shade. If you approach, they are shy, and quickly bound away.

Kangaroo resting in the shade of a building on the old base.

There is nothing—absolutely nothing but desert—around the hotel except for the small Australian active facility and the U.S. Navy ghost town. The motel bills itself as “the closest hotel to the Ningaloo Reef,” and it is. But you need a car to stay there, because it is still another half-hour drive, at least, to the bays of the fringing reef.

The landscape around Exmouth is a little barren.

We found the town of Exmouth itself a very friendly  and animal-friendly place. People seem to like the kangaroos and emus and give them free rein.

Traffic stops for the emus.
Emus have quite a good system: the females lay the eggs, but then the papa incubates them and takes care of the young for at least six months. The dad and chicks often stay together until the next breeding season. Meanwhile, mom takes off to live it up and find a new mate. (See what I mean about a good system?)

We liked the fact that because the three varieties of sea turtle nest on the Ningaloo Coast, the town has totally banned plastic grocery bags. That’s because when turtles see a floating plastic bag, they think it’s a jellyfish and swallow it, which can bind up their insides and kill them.  

The Ningaloo beaches are incredible, with the whitest sands and turquoise waters that teem with tropical fish and sea turtles, and seasonally with manta rays and whale sharks, the world's largest fish. Filter-eaters, whale sharks aren't dangerous, and the tiny towns along the Ningaloo Reef all promote opportunities to swim with them.

I swam from the white, hot beaches of the Ningaloo Coast, where snorkeling from the shore is quite good. I also went on a snorkel tour by myself, since Kevin doesn’t snorkel anymore. (But I did get him in the water once.)

While I was in the water, people on the boat raised an alarm: “Shark! Shark! Right there!” I caught my breath. In what seemed like several minutes—but was probably only seconds—the word came from the captain, “It’s OK. It’s a harmless reef shark.” I didn’t panic. But I wasn’t pleased to hear someone shout “Shark!” when I was seventy feet from the boat! Particularly, when I found out later there was a resident female tiger shark in the bay named Terrie, and only great white sharks attack humans more than tiger sharks.

Don't yell "Shark!" when I'm in the water, please!

Kevin and I explored the land area too. We hiked up an old gorge seeking small rock wallabies without success. But we did see a red kangaroo, at least 7 feet tall, bounding up the creek bed. Great sections of the landscape are also dotted with termite mounds, rounder than the ones in Africa, but quite large nonetheless.

A collection of 13 large radio towers at Exmouth, the tallest as high as 1,270 feet tall, enables the U.S. and Australian military services to communicate with submarines as far away as Alaska through very low frequency (VLF) radio transmission.  Now that the U.S. plans to beef up its presence in Asia and the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Navy is coming back to Exmouth. Sadly, that means the kangaroos will find their shady spots taken over by American naval personnel, and the Strangest Best Western Ever will revert to military housing once again.

I only hope the kangaroos at the military base don't end up like this!

Note: I don't have a photo of it, but Kevin enjoyed a brief run with a kangaroo pacing him
at Exmouth.  It will probably be his only chance to run with a kangaroo.
And just to end with something pretty, here's a photo of a blossom at the motel: