Going for the insects

At the botanical garden again.  Beats going to the gym for my cardio exercise.  The birds of course are a major attraction.  But on this day it was not all that interesting.  But the insects seem to want some portraits so I obliged.  I would love to do this in my yard but my neighbors would be freaked out seeing me set up my camera and chasing insects.  The nice thing about the botanical garden is that there are always others doing the same thing.

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Earlier this year

This picture is of a horned grebe from April of this year at the Chicago Botanical Garden.  I find it amusing that the fish is almost as big as the bird but he did get it down.  Throughout the year they have a variety of species who appear.  It is nice to be able to wonder around a space early in the morning without having to keep on the alert for potential trouble.

Bald Eagle!

The other week I had a great thrill at the Chicago Botanical Garden - I saw a bald eagle!  Now I had seen bald eagles on a trip to Alaska years ago but I had not seen one since.  I do know they do have them along the Mississippi River during the winter but standing outside in the cold is not really my thing.  Here in Chicago in the Summer! 

First Uber ride

I am probably one of the few people who had yet to use Uber.  I had my reasons.  I really dislike leaving my credit cards on file anywhere. I know they encrypt data and employ firewalls but still…if my credit card number is not there it will not be taken if the system is hacked.  I feel for the cab driver.  Often this is the first step for immigrants and it gives them an income.  Finally I just do not take a cab all that often.  I love to drive and in the city I live in I drive myself.  I do take a cab to the airport but from the suburb I live in this is quite easy and they have a very nice app that allows me to schedule a ride in advance.  For all the times I have done this they arrive at the designated time.

But I finally broke.  I was traveling to a destination a ways from the airport I was going to land in.  I was told that the cab fare was significantly higher than an Uber ride.  Even more problematic was going to be the return trip – what cab company to use?  How to contact them?  What was it going to cost?  I have also had bad cab experiences – fares that seemed much higher than they should be, cab drivers who became mean when they realized you were going to a destination where they would not be able to easily pick up another fare.

I found the experience to be great.  At the airport I picked up my luggage, went into the app and scheduled my journey, found out what it was going to cost and what car would be showing up in minutes.  On the return journey I scheduled in advance and the car was there when I wanted.  I actually like that this is all done with the credit card because a long cab ride for cash could wipe out what I was carrying.

Will I be doing this when I travel?  Most definitely.  No more trying to figure out what cab company to use.  No more trying to communicate with a dispatcher.

In my home city?  Probably not.

Miscellaneous final items about New Zealand

Candy

I admit I am a candy lover.  I recommend you get a bag of Pascall Airplanes.  They are really good.  I tried a number of other varieties from the company and did like the gummy worms.  But the airplanes are the best.

Weight limit Queenstown to Auckland

It was clearly posted that there was a 7 kg limit for carry-ons for the plane and they even came on the speakers and made the announcement.  I know my camera equipment was more than that and it made me very nervous.  I took out one of my lenses and put it in my jacket pocket and put the camera and another lens around my neck.  Turns out they did not weight anyones luggage as far as I could tell but there was a scale at the boarding desk.

Screens

One of the things that surprised me is that screens were not on the windows or doors at any of the places we stayed.  From the nature of the places it seemed that this could be generalized to say that the norm is no screens.  They do have flies and I am sure they have mosquitoes.  I know in my house I would not open the windows and remove the screens.  When we have had the screens off in earlier homes surprising things have made their way inside.  Not my favorite thing.

Bathrooms

A pleasant surprise was the quality of the public restrooms.  When one is out for the day it is not unusual to have a need for a restroom.  In America this usually means finding a gas station or fast food restaurant and using their facilities.  Now these exist in New Zealand but they also have very nice public restrooms.  They also have signs indicating the presence of restrooms off the major roads.

Coffee

I have been a coffee drinker since high school.  I enjoy a cup of coffee after a meal.  I find a cup of coffee relaxing and it certainly does not interfere with my sleep.  Turns out New Zealand has what they call a long black.  It is two shots of expresso with some hot water to make a cup.  A flat white has an additional bit of milk.  This is made to order so it takes a bit – not like a premade pot of coffee here in America.  This can be found pretty much anyplace.  We were at several Sunday farmers markets and a number of booths were set up with their expresso makers.

Credit cards

They use credit cards (with the chip) EVERYWHERE and for EVERYTHING.  I am still used to paying for small purchases with cash.  In New Zealand people pay for a cup of coffee with their credit card.  In fact I saw cash being used only rarely.  As always when you travel out of your usual area make sure you let your credit card company know – the last thing you want is to have you card blocked when you are out of the country.

Milford Sound

One of the must do trips on the South Island is Milford Sound.  It is only 46 miles west of Queenstown but the road does not go in that direction.  The route is 178 miles and takes 3 h and 50 min.  Obviously not a direct route.

The boat ride on the Sound is about 2 hours and takes you through the Sound to the Tasman Sea where they turn around and come back.  A number of companies offer what seems to be exactly the same excursion  The scenery is stunning and if you like waterfalls you will be in heaven.  Because of the distance from Queenstown you do not arrive all that early and you cannot leave that late or you will be driving in the dark.  If you have a full tank of gas you do not have to fill up until Te Anau on the way back but this is one of the routs where you are going a long time without seeing a gas station so plan ahead.

Queenstown

The drive to Queenstown from Christchurch is long but does pass through beautiful scenery.

The town of Queenstown in in a beautiful setting on Lake Wakatipu.  Queenstown does have a reputation as an adventure city and one can find plenty of offers for various excursions.  As one might expect this also draws many backpackers and the downtown area has hostels and places to eat one would expect.

One beautiful drive from Queenstown is to Glenorchy.  The road hugs the mountain which goes right into Lake Wakatipu.  Unfortunately the weather was not super cooperative as we had rain for much of the day but really enjoyed what we were able to see. 

Another beautiful drive we took is to Wanaka via Cardrona.  We continued on 6 up past Lake Hawea to the Blue Pool trail.  There we found a nice hiking trail up to what were supposed to be blue pools.  We were told the recent rains had spoiled the effect.

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We also ventured to Arrowtown which is quite close.  It has an area devoted to the Chinese who came for the gold rush.

Christchurch

The drive from Hokitika to Christchurch takes you through Arthur’s Pass.  This is another beautiful drive.  The road however had suffered a slide the previous week and was only open for 10 minutes at the top of each hour.  As luck would have it we just missed the open period so had to wait 50 minutes for the next opening.  I cannot think of a place in America where if a major road were closed for 50 minutes you would not have a huge backup of very angry drivers.  Here it was very pleasant with people getting out of their cars and talking and nowhere near as many cars as one might have anticipated.

Christchurch is another city which has hit hard by recent earthquakes.  In this case in 2010 and 2011 major earthquakes damaged many buildings.  You can still see buildings partially destroyed.  Driving downtown is a challenge because of all the detours.

We did take a gondola to get views of the city and surrounding area.  You could even do walks from there.  Another excursion was to the botanical garden.  It was quite busy and had very nice flowers but I have been spoiled by the Chicago Botanical Garden which is much nicer.

Hokitika

We took our time going from Picton to Hokitika – 12 hours in all.  We went west to the town of Westport before heading down the coast along the Tasman Sea.  We stopped at Cape Foulwind and in Punakaiki for the Pancake Rocks.  Both are nice stopping places and the walks broke up the car ride.

We had originally intended to go to Kaikoura on the east coast but a magnitude 7.8 earthquake on November 14, 2016 forced us to change our plans.  Even when we were in New Zealand at the end of January the roads leading into Kaikoura from the north and south were still a problem and people were asked not to head there unless necessary.

Hokitika does not have all that much going on.  One interesting aspect was the house we were renting required that we take the trash to the city dump before leaving.  It is, however, a convenient jumping off point for the Franz Joseph Glacier.  Although I can see how the hike to the glacier would be very pretty with all kinds of waterfalls around when we were there it was raining lightly and a little on the chilly side.  We did the walk to the glacier but did not linger as we were cold and drenched.

Picton

Picton is a small city (population 4,487).  In a few minutes you can visit all the stores and restaurants.  But it is a good jumping off point for the South Island.

We went on a 4 hour eco wildlife tour which was very enjoyable.  The first 2 hours were cruising up the sound leading into Picton viewing fur seals and various species of birds including several species of shags.  We then stopped on the island of Matuara which has been turned into a bird sanctuary.  They got rid of all the mammals and reintroduced various bird species.  Saw a number of species along a walk to the top of the island – an incline for the entire 30 minutes required to reach the top.  Very nice views once you got to the top.

We also went to several wineries in the Marlborough area for wine tasting.  What is interesting is that they do not use corks on the wines in New Zealand – they have screw cap bottles.  There are numerous reasons for this but as I understand it for wines meant to be consumed young there is no need to have the wine breath as it ages.  They are also able to avoid the loss due to bad corks.  And as a consumer I cannot begin to tell the number of times I have messed up getting the cork out of a bottle.

Another side trip we made was to the town of Nelson and Abel Tasman National Park.  The national park is about 1 hour from Nelson.  At the National Park you can see how large the tides are in this area.  Boats are no longer afloat and they use tractors to bring kayakers and others back to land.  On the way back we were on Queen Charlotte Drive.  This is a very twisty road.  We had done it during the day but driving back this time we did it at night, in the dark.  Of course there are no lights.  So you are looking for the edge of the cliff – kind of white knuckle by the end.

Our final little excursion was to take a water taxi to the Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary for a 2 h walk.  Heard many birds calling but did not see much.  Taking a water taxi was neat in that you arrange for a time for your return and there is you taxi.  I do not know what they do if you do not show up and how you would contact them but it worked out for us.

Taking the ferry between the North and South Islands

To get to the South Island we took the ferry which runs from Wellington to Picton.  We returned our car at the ferry terminal in Wellington.  Although you can take cars on the ferry the rental companies do not wish you to do so.  To me it was odd in that you park your car in a certain area of the lot and drop you keys in a return box.  I felt some degree of anxiety about the car company saying there were issues with the car but it works out fine.  On the other end in Picton the car rental agencies are right outside the terminal doors.

The ferry terminal in Wellington is not near anything of interest so once you are there you are stuck.  They did have a little snack counter but not much else.

The ferry ride was nice and smooth.  I stayed on deck most of the time to catch the views and to take pictures.  We had opted for the upgrade and so had plush seats.  The upgrade also includes food and drinks.  Since I do not drink all that much and did not wish to drink that early in the day we did not eat and drink the extra cost.

Martinborough/Wellington

On the drive from Napier to Martinborough (about 1 h 13 minutes from Wellington) we stopped at the Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Center.  A big part of their effort is conservation and working on preserving the native wildlife.  Like many other places the introduction of mice, rats and other mammals has devastated the native birds.  In a number of large enclosures they had native endangered birds.

In Martinborough we stayed in a house made of straw bales.  At least according to the literature these can last if made correctly (preventing moisture).  Martinborough is an interesting town.  It has a resident population of 1600.  In the town center are a surprising number of very nice restaurants.  This whole area is wine country and a number of vineyards are here.

The drive from Martinborough to Wellington is 81 km over a very twisty mountain road.  Takes a degree of concentration with all the turns on the narrow lanes.  One day we could not go into Wellington because the winds made the driving treacherous winds of over 60 mph.

Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and sits on the Cook Strait.  The area is known for its strong winds. Our first adventure into Wellington the weather was not great so we went to the Museum of New Zealand rather than the botanical garden.  Although I would rather be seeing the city than a museum this was a fine alternative.  A lot about the history of course.  I can not imagine the first people arriving here over 800 years ago.  It would have require long travels over open ocean.  I mean how long do you travel without seeing anything before turning around and if you do turn around how do you find you way back.

After the museum we went to Mount Victoria Lookout.  This offers very scenic views of the city.

On another excursion to Wellington we traveled along the ocean to Te Kopahu Visitor Center.  At the end of the road you can walk along the beach which made for a nice day.

Another excursion was to Cape Palliser on the South-East coast of the North Island.  This is a scenic drive and not widely taken.  I should mention that the last part of the drive is over gravel roads.  Just have to take it slow. 

At the end there is a lighthouse – it is over 250 steps to the lighthouse.  With the wind and my fear of heights I only made it half way.  On the way back to Martinborough we stopped at Lake Ferry for lunch.  The Lake Ferry Hotel is noted for their fish and chips so we ate there.  A quite nice beach area is there with various birds and fur seals making for a very pleasant and restful time.

Napier

Napier is about a 3 hour drive from Rotorua on the east coast of New Zealand in the Hawke’s Bay region.  This is where we learned the lesson about getting gas again.  On the drive, the region from Taupo towards Napier has NO gas stations (about 90 miles).  Even the gas stations in Taupo are not so obvious.  We actually back tracked to Taupo to get gas because we were unsure if we had enough.  And if you do run into problems you cannot even call because there is no cell service.

Napier was destroyed by an earthquake on February 3, 1931.  It was rebuilt in the Art Deco style of the time and that is the big attraction of the downtown area of the city.  It is also noted at a wine area.

Hobbiton

Hobbiton

One of the things I had really looked forward to before the trip was a visit to Hobbiton, the movie set used by Peter Jackson for the making of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  I know this is completely artificial but …  I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while in college – my friend Joe had suggested I would enjoy them and I really did.

The location is near the city of Matamata.  Many tour buses will take you to the site but since we had a vehicle we drove there.  It is in a very pretty rural location.  Buses take you in groups from the parking area to the actual site and a guide takes you through.

I really enjoyed the tour.  They have maintained it very well.

Rotorua

Rotorua is in the Bay of Plenty region on the North Island and about a 3 h drive from Auckland.  It is famed for its thermal activity.  It is also noted for its sulfur smell, but this was not that noticeable (I must admit I do not have the most acute sense of smell).

At the Maroi Burried Village you get an idea of what the town was like before the eruption of Mt. Tarawera in 1886.  Apparently the tourist used to come for the hot springs and to see the White and Pink Terraces.  These were destroyed in the eruption and the tale is told at the village.

We also visited the Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village.  The major part of the tour was seeing the geysers and hot springs.

They also have a cultural performance but we missed it.  I have very mixed feelings about cultural shows.  On the one hand it seems to be so artificial because they perform dances or acts that are culturally significant for them for tourists.  But on the other hand I once was talking to an elder on another trip who was responsible for his village’s cultural show and he explained how this was how they were able to pass their rituals to the younger generation.  The opportunities for the true purpose of the ritual were now very limited and modern life had made their enactment very rare.

Side trips from Auckland

We ventured north from Auckland to Whangarei. A pleasant drive with rolling fields and trees.  After lunch our stop was Whangarei Falls.  A lot of people also there.  Nice little walk from the parking lot to the base of the falls.

From there we continued North-East to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.  It was here in 1840 that the Maori chiefs signed a treaty with the British Crown.  The fact that the wording of the treaty in English and Maori do not agree was pointed out as one of the reasons for a number of the problems between the Maori and the British.  The buildings and boats we saw came much later but the narration of the guide was quite interesting.

It was a long way from Waitangi Treaty Grounds to our apartment in Auckland and we wanted to get to the grocery store before it closed.  Just made it but on the final few miles back to the apartment our gas light comes on – this totally freaked me out as I never let the gas get that low.

Another side trip we made was to the Miranda Shorebird Centre.  We were really there at the wrong time of day and saw nothing but it did allow us to see more of the area.

From the Shorebird Centre we continue up the Coromandel Peninsula.  This is a very pretty drive.  We turned around at the town of Coromandel which is quite small.

Auckland

Our adventure began in Auckland.  This is the largest city in New Zealand with a population of about 1.5 million which is over 30% of the population of the entire country.  Several things struck me.  One is that old here means from the late 1800s.  The second is that it is attractive to the hostel crowd.  Certainly saw a number of hostels and restaurants who cater to that group.  As we went around the country we encountered a number of young people who were from different countries, many in temporary jobs to support their travels.

A beautiful view of the city if from the top of Mount Eden.  This is an inactive volcano and you can see a number of cones of other inactive volcanoes from the top.  With a car you have a bit of a walk to the top but tour busses seem to be able to drop people off at the top.

View of Auckland from Mt. Eden

View of Auckland from Mt. Eden

The harbor area has obviously undergone extensive renovation in recent years.  It is now quite posh – fancy hotels and restaurants.

Harbor

We also did an Auckland Heritage Walk which was along Karangahape.  The library had a very nice brochure about the walk and information on the buildings which date from the 1880s.  I do not suggest doing the walk if you are not staying in the area, not all that fascinating.  I would also strongly recommend getting the brochure because otherwise you have no idea about the history of the buildings.

Easily the most visible structure in Auckland is the Skytower.  It is 328 meters tall (1082 feet).  You can even do a jump off the structure or do a walk at 192 meters (633 feet) up.  We did neither – I am glad because with my fear of heights it would not have been fun.

It seems that wherever one travels there is a US fast food chain and certainly that is true here also.  But they also had food courts that were populated by choices from different Asian countries – I remember Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian and a number of others.  I certainly enjoyed that.

New Zealand vacation part 2

What is nice in Auckland is that the car rental agencies are really near the exit from the terminal.  No need to figure out shuttle buses to remote car rental agencies.  The cars seem to be mostly automatic.  One of the things I had done is bought the sd card with New Zealand maps for use in my Garmin GPS.  I know I could do this with my phone (at least in theory).  In retrospect I am not so sure because there were many areas where cell service was not available.  I had the Garmin GPS, was comfortable using it and it had a much bigger display that my phone.

Driving in New Zealand is on the opposite side from the United States.  I have driven inEngland where that is also the case and did not find it much of an issue.  In the past I have had problems navigating the roundabouts but with the GPS it was not a problem.  What was a problem was that the turn signal and window wiper levers were reversed from our American cars!  I do not know how many times I would turn on the wipers when trying to signal a lane change or turn.

A comment about the roads in New Zealand.  They are generally nice – certainly did not see the pot holes common here in Chicago.  But the major highways outside the cities are one lane in each direction for the most part.  Probably more of a concern was that the shoulder in many cases was small.  Making sure you stayed in the center of your lane was a constant concern.  Of interest is that often the bridges were just one lane!  And quite a narrow lane at that (why did they choose not to build a 2 lane bridge?).  The saving grace is that the traffic is light outside of the major cities.  It was quite interesting that you could drive quite a while on a major road and not see a car coming in the opposite direction so arriving at these one lane bridges did not cause major delays.

Now for the subject of gas.  The stations are not as frequent or as prominent as in the United States.  In fact I cannot remember seeing a station that was not in a town.  Since the towns are widely spaced you can travel for quite a while without finding a station.  There are no indications on the road where the next station may be.  Word to the wise - when you leave a city fill up.  We actually got this advice from a native of New Zealand and that was what she did.

A recommendation I would make when traveling is get a 220 volt power strip.  Finding enough outlets is often a challenge and one has so many things that need to be charged up.  And make sure you have the proper plugs – the configuration of the plug is New Zealand is different from others I have seen.

A number of years ago I had gotten my cell phone unlocked so I could get a local sim card when traveling to foreign countries.  It was quite easy to get a Vodafone sim card at the airport.  Could I have saved a few bucks elsewhere?   Maybe.  But one of the things I try to do when traveling is reduce stress wherever possible and getting the card right away allowed me to check it off my list immediately.

New Zealand vacation

In January we went to New Zealand.  Why New Zealand?  One big reason is it was winter in Chicago (day we left the high was 20 F) and summer in New Zealand (day we arrived upper 60s).  A second reason was I had never been before.

First off New Zealand is a LONG WAY.  We took off from Chicago at 5 pm for Los Angeles, about a 4.5 hour flight.  Our flight then left Los Angeles at 11:10 pm (1:10 am in Chicago) for Auckland and arrived at 9:30 am Auckland time losing a day.  This corresponded to 12:30 pm in Los Angeles.  How does one cope with the long flight?  No great words of wisdom – I try to sleep, usually with mixed success.

New Zealand is 19 hours ahead of Chicago.  How was I going to handle a 19 h change?  Well I thought of it as a loss of 5 h.  This I could handle.

I do not know when they changed this but it turns out one way tickets were about half the price of round trip tickets.  This was important because we were going to start our return journey from Queenstown.  We also wanted to stop several days in Los Angeles on the return.  It made it a lot easier to book one way tickets.

Joy of learning

I have always enjoyed learning new things.  Now in edu-speak it is lifelong learning.  Learning new photography techniques, new processing techniques, etc is fun.  In a way this is one of the reasons I loved being involved in research.  You were always learning new things. I loved the fact that what I was doing was different from what I had done 5 years before and probably was not even imagined 10 years before.