Tuesday, March 27, 2007

G'Day, Mate!

Written by Lynn

Okay, pretty cheesy title, I admit it, but I just couldn't resist..................

As many of you have guessed, our next stop was Sydney, Australia. Sydney is a great city, definitely on my "I-could-live-here" list. While here we stayed in the questionable area of King's Cross, a backpacker haven, also well known as a drug- and prostitute- infested borough. Remarkably similar to East Hastings in Vancouver (well, maybe not quite as bad!), it was cheap and within walking distance to the much higher priced down town.

In Sydney we did the usual - visited the Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney Opera House and walked George Street. We also splurged on a visit to the world famous Sydney Aquarium, where you can walk through tunnels constructed of clear fibreglass as sharks, seals and a variety of fish swim above, under and around you. Since it was the Chinese New Year, we also had a chance to watch the of dragon boat races and other celebrations. The best thing we did, though, while we were in Sydney, was visit the local Quantas office (we are soooo easily amused at this stage).

To explain this better to those of you who are curious, we are presently travelling on what is known as a "One World Alliance" ticket. Depending on the number of continents you are visiting and the mileage you cover, it ranges in price (cost is also dependant on where you start, it being about $1500 less per person to start in the UK than in North America, not sure why). Because we are heading into South America and Africa, we are classed in the highest category. With each continent you get a certain number of stops and the miles within each continent are added up to make a total. Because you can only reserve seats about 11 months ahead of time (and we booked these tickets back in July 2006) we were responsible for rebooking dates for destinations after May 2007. In the Quantas head office we met up with the most helpful agent, called Caroline, that we could have hoped for. Several hours, a few cups of coffee and a thank you card with an accompanying bouquet of flowers later we had finalized our plans. Turns out we had a lot of mileage unused on our tickets and stops that we could have used in Asia and Africa. So we booked ourselves a little flight from Singapore to Bangkok in order to jump over southern Thailand due to political unrest and we also picked up a stop in Cairo, Egypt at the very end of our trip, so we can see the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, which I am very excited about. All in all, a very satisfactory morning.

As a preemptive warning for the rest of this posting, I would have to explain that our plans in Australia were pretty vague. So if this blog seems like we were rambling around with no firm plans, that's only because that was exactly what was happening.

We were scheduled to fly into Sydney February 23rd and out of Perth (on the opposite coast) on March 11th, and that was pretty much the extent of it. We had originally thought that what we'd do was rent a car and spend the few weeks transversing the country, an romantic vision of outback experiences, kangaroos and koalas being the driving force. EVERY Australian we talk to, with out fail, told us this was a retarded plan, the distance between the two cities being daunting and the landscape monotonous in the extreme. Not to be dissuaded, we went around to the various car rental agencies and quickly realized that not only would it take DAYS to get to Perth, the cost because of one way drop off fees was quite prohibitive. So instead we re-evaluated and decided to rent a car for a week and do a loop through New South Wales and down through the province of Victoria. It was decided to go this way, rather than north on the more popular Gold Coast Route, due to a life long dream of Gilles' to drive the Great Ocean Road.

Once again we visited the local Salvation Army Store (you gotta love Sally Anne) to gather up cheap camping equipment and set out on our adventure.

For those of you not aware of it, Australia is presently in the grip of one of its worst droughts in a 100 years. Many regions, including the ones around Melbourne were suffering through their fifth year of well below average rainfall, and water restrictions were fully in force in most town we drove through. As a dramatic example, the Murray-Darling river system that we drove through, which recieves more than 4% of Australia's water run off, was 54% (!!!) below its record minimum at the end of 2006. Climate change, which is blamed as a major causative factor, is a hotly debated topic here.

Well, you wouldn't have known it. Our first day on the road it POURED. In less than 24 hours there was over 96mm of rain in the Gippsland area we were driving through. At one point there was a staggering 35mm in less than an hour. So our drive through NSW (New South Wales) was pretty unspectacular, wet and not conducive to camping. So rather than spend the night in one of the many national parks scattered through out the area, interacting with wallabies and other campers, we hunkered down in a cheap highway motel room (which, by the way, started to flood around 11pm) and ate pizza. Not exactly an authentic Australian experience.

Once the weather dried up a bit, we continued on our way towards the infamous, oft talked about Great Ocean Road.

Turns out the Great Ocean Road that is pictured on ALL the travel brochures of Australia is a bit of a disappointment. Only about 40 kilometres of it actually follows along right beside the coast. Having just spent 10 days being blown away by ocean views in New Zealand, this section of the trip lacked a little something for us (makes you think we might be getting a bit spoiled).

What was overwhelmingly impressive, though, was the 12 Apostles. These 8 (yeah, apparently 4 of them have succumbed to erosion, the most recent in 2005) huge limestone projections jut out of the ocean, carved out over 20 million years ago by the relentless pounding of the waves. They rise over 45 metres out of the water and are enhanced by the presence of other nearby peices of natural rock art, such as the Loch Ard Gorge, Mutton Bird Island and the London Arch. The arch used to be London Bridge until part of it collapsed in 1990 stranding two tourist on the sea side rock out cropping, who then had to be air lifted off. Would of thought the nursery rhyme would have warned them this was going to happen!

Even better for us was a chance to see koalas in the wild. On an unlabelled dirt road just off the Great Ocean Road, in a small town called Kennett's River you can drive up away from the crowds and park. You get out of your car and you think your standing in a pretty deserted section of a eucalyptus forest, looking a little scraggly because of the drought. But if you hold still for a bit and look really closely, you'll start to distinguish these furry little gray lumps resting on the eucalyptus tree's branches. If you wait long enough, one of these lumps will turn its head towards you and give a lazy yawn. Voila - koala bears.......

These lazy little marsupials (they aren't actually bears) sleep up to 20 hours a day to conserve their energy and keep their metabolism rates low. This is because they consume only eucalyptus leaves, which are limited in calories, proteins and basically any usable nutrients. Being confined to one food group also severely limits their range to certain parts of Australia. Koalas have 2 opposable thumbs, which enable them to grip the trees more securely during their extended naps. They also have fingerprints that are remarkably similar to humans, an unusual trait in the animal world. Best of all - they are just goddamn cute!!

Not to be outdone, the kangaroos and wallabies showed up during our journey in impressive numbers. Actually kangaroos are considered a bit of a pest in Australia as they graze on valuable farmland and are so plentiful that there are grills on the front of most cars to prevent damage when you hit them. Car rental companies generally warn their customers to not drive after dark, just to avoid this complication. Most camping areas we stayed in had a few of these fellas hanging around, some more tame than others. We also managed to see an elusive echinadae (kind of like a really big hedgehog with a pointed nose - of course you can't see its nose here because its managed to roll itself into a ball AND bury itself in the dirt), wild emus and about a million different bird species, none of which I can identify.

After the "O.K." Ocean Road we headed inland towards Grampians National Park. Grampians is a well known holiday destination for the outdoorsy folks that live in Melbourne. It covers a huge range in Victoria province and is best remembered for is beautiful forests set amongst extensive limestone mountain ranges. Many of the trees are centuries old and help to provide breathtaking scenery. It also is infamous for its aboriginal rock art paintings, many of them thousands of years old. This area was the range for the Koori Aboriginal Tribe who recorded their dreamtime legends and ceremonies on the recessed walls of caves throughout the park, making it a valuable historical site.

Unfortunately a huge forest fire ripped through the park in January 2006, destroying almost half of the Grampians' old growth trees. Some 62,000 sheep in the surrounding farmlands were burned to death, along with 120,000 acres of bush and farmland, destroying several homes along the way. Today there are several roads and hiking paths in the park that are still closed. Of the ones that are open, you can still see burned trunks of destroyed trees. The park makes a big deal of having a unique opportunity to view a forest springing back to life after a mammoth natural disaster (which is, after all, only a part of a natural process of renewal), but it does seem like we missed out on seeing something grand by not getting here ahead of the bushfire.

Fortunately the fire did not make it to several of the aboriginal rock art sites, including the Billimina shelter and the Gulgurn Manja shelter, which we visited. They also have a fantastic visitor's centre that is set up detailing the history of the aboriginals in Australia. You, like me, probably have a vague idea that in the war of the worlds, the Australian aboriginals didn't do so great. As a matter of fact, the entire population was almost decimated.

For 25,000 years before the arrival of Europeans in the 1770's, the population of aboriginal Australians remained stable. Estimates placed the population at around 500,000, maybe as many as 1 million. By the 1860's almost 98% of the aboriginal population was decimated due to a combination of disease, violence against them inflicted by Europeans, and starvation after being driven off of traditional hunting grounds. By 1883 only 1000 pure blood aboriginals were left in all of Australia.

Convinced that the population would die out, the European government attempted to integrate the aboriginals, particularly the mixed raced children, into their society. With supposedly the best of intentions, aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in missionary schools, some hundreds of kilometres away from their homes (great movie about this is one called "Rabbit Proof Fence").

As the aboriginals began to develop resistance to diseases, their populations stabilized and began to rise again. Unfortunately, racial stereotyping and discrimination continued. It wasn't until 1963 that aboriginal Australians were actually given the right to vote. Today many in the indigenous community continue to struggle with alcohol and drug addictions. Less than 40% will finish highschool, and their average household income is a 1/3 less than that of Australians of european ancestry. Their life expectancy is 17 years less than that of other Australians and they are 11 times more likely to end up serving a prison term.

Regardless, the aboriginals here have a proud and extensive history and are working hard to not lose their heritage. In the area we were camping in, aboriginals could claim ancestory going back for 1600 generations!

After the Grampians we just touched on the edges of the outback's eastern side up by Mungo National Park. We then turned our car to the right and headed back to Sydney. On the way to town we passed through Blue Mountain National Park. It is called this due to the bluish mist that hangs over the area because of the large number of eucalyptus trees excreting an oil that vapourizes. This vapour is highly flammable, making the area particularly vulnerable to bush fires. During extreme heat, the volatile oils have even been known to explode.

We made sure to take in Govetts Leap and take a quick trek out to Wentworth Falls, though part of the trail to the bottom of the waterfall was closed due to unstable conditions. After this we headed north of Sydney to the town of Port Stephens.

In Port Stephens we had a day to wander around and decided to take a "marine explorer's" day trip. Port Stephens is reknowned for its pod of gregarious bottlenose dolphins. About 80 animals make up the pod that inhabit the harbour here, and are a large tourist draw. Strict measures to protect the pod have been enforced, and no boat is allowed to approach closer than 50 metres or entice the dolphins with food, though the dolphins quite regularly come right up to the boat with no urging, strictly out of curiosity. There is a popular viewing area called The Boulders in Port Stephens where the dolphins will arrive daily in order to push themselves amongst the millions of river smoothed pebbles to clean any lice or dirt they have on them off.

We were lucky enough to have a mother and calf join us for most of our boat trip, riding on the bow wave close enough to almost touch. We were heading out to Cabbage Tree Island, the only place in the world to find the endangered Gould's petrel, which has had a recent population come back due to intensive conservation efforts. Here we put on our snorkels and fins and got into the water to have a little look around. Unfortunately, this is an area dolphins don't come into, so we weren't able to swim with them. But what you could see was thousands of little translucent jelly fish of varying hues, bobbing along in the waves. As well there was some impressive kelp beds and a large grouper that the boat operators fed some sea urchins to in order to entice it out from behind its protective rocks.

After this, we continued on to the Stockton Beach Sand Dunes. This is a 32km long beach covered with massive sand dunes, many over 30m high. We were here in order to track down the wreck of the Sygna, a bulk carrier that was capsized in 1974 less than 100 metres off shore. The ship's captain foolishly decided to try and sail during a storm with gales of 165km/hr and had his ship forced sideways into the shore, where its stern settled into the sand, water breaking the 53,000 tonne ship in half.

By now we had managed to fill up a week of aimless wandering around NSW and Victoria and headed back to Sydney to return our rental car. We then FLEW to Perth, having given up on the idea of driving there. I was quite excited by the idea of seeing Perth, having not made it there the last time I was in Australia and having heard many good things about the city. Well, the city itself is quite nice - lots of green space, good pubs and restaurants, very clean, friendly people - but, oh my god.............it was 42 degrees the day we got there and it never really got much cooler. We had hostels refusing to rent out rooms because they had no air conditioning, which meant we had to stay in a more expensive hotel and hunker down in the heat of the day watching tv. We did manage to go out to a wildlife reserve one day when it was a bit cooler, but its really hard to enjoy it when all the animals are hidden in the shade trying to avoid the sun. We also went to Freemantle Beach to take in the annual modern art sculpture festival. Otherwise we stuck to air conditioned movie theatres, cafes, restaurants and hotel rooms until we could make it to the airport and fly on out to Jakarta.

So all in all, our experience in Australia was expensive (much more so that we were used to after South America) and not as fun as the last time I was there. I think that Australia is a fantastic country to visit, but you have to go willing to do a lot of flying around because the distances are so vast, and the main sites are widely spaced out. We didn't make it to the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru or Kakadu National Park, which means we missed out on the some of the best that the country has to offer to visitors. Next time, I think a totally separate trip is in order for this country..................

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Motorcycles in NZ

New Zealand, biker Heaven?

Written by Gilles

As a motorcycle enthusiast (me, not Lynn) being in NZ is pretty good for the soul, that's assuming you have one? The roads alone on the South Island are enough to convert anyone with a cold heart towards motorcycles into a hard core biker. The scenery, mountains, river, glaciers, ocean, it never really ends and lack of traffic makes it a top destination to ride in. Of course it goes without saying that the kiwis friendliness is unsurpassed and their accents aren't too shabby either which only adds to the already charming NZ landscape.

The Kiwis have a passion for all things mechanical, and actually everything non mechanical as well, but they are especially fond of their motorbikes, new and old, and even more fond of the creators of two of the most famous rides that ever came out of NZ . These two bike creators are known globally for different but equally impressive reasons, one is John Britten and the other Burt Munroe (played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie The World’s Fastest Indian). They are definitely proud of these two New Zealanders and they both are a testament to NZ ingenuity and that never give up attitude.

Trivia-Oddly enough the two gents from different eras share a common link- John Britten's motorcycle company built the bikes used in the The World's Fastest Indian movie, and well I guess the other thing in common is unfortunately they both have passed away.

Good on ya mate!

“John Britten was a visionary, a genius, a motivational legend who created the distinctive home-built bright pink and blue Britten motorcycle that achieved iconic status world-wide”.

It's hard to explain to a non Motor head the significance of both Britten and Munroe, Britten especially. John Britten was able to produce a world class one off motorbike working out of his garage with only a small team of helpers and friends. The Britten bike was capable of not only competing with the best that the Japanese corporate machine could offer but actually beat them on occasion!! Today, that would be compared to you or me building a Formula One car in the backyard and beating the likes of Team Ferrari or Team McLaren on the F1 circuit, it's unheard of.

It was John's technical genius and his dedication to his belief that he could build such an advanced machine to compete on the world stage that sets him apart from most men. It wasn't just a pipe dream to him, it was to become reality. Where most fail to even conceptualize their dreams, John put his together from plan to product in a very short period of time and now had is own offering to the God of Speed.

Britten built a radical 300kph+ V1000 twin using carbon/kevlar composite for the top chassis ( there was no frame per se) carbon/kevlar rear swing arm and front girder style forks that used only one shock. He also designed and built the engines in his back yard, molded and casted. The whole bike was designed with speed in mind and with John's theories of aerodynamics he did just that, go fast! ( There's too many features to go through right now and there are plenty of websites about him if you want to take a look go to http://www.britten.co.nz/) . His bike was capable of over 300kph and produced at least 166 horsepower at 11,000 rpm so I'd suggest if you're gonna ride it that you hold on for dear life, and make sure your insurance policy is up to date.

Team Britten scored a number of wins, they hold land speed records and international track records as well, but what really put them on the map was placing 2nd and 3rd against all the factory machines in the 1991 Battle of the Twins in Daytona, Florida.
Britten only built a handful of his hand and home built bikes, 10 or so in the short while that he was alive, it's unfortunate for the motor heads out there that Britten died of a brief illness related to skin cancer at the age of 45. Who knows what the future of bike racing could have been.

As fate and luck had it this day, while waisting time waiting for our rental car in Christchurch I walked around the corner to the many local bike shops one by one looking at some vintage and classic bikes from side car racers to old cafe racers that they had on display and the selection of bikes was fantastic. The street had a good mix of hole in the wall bike shops and the big factory shops. I walked over to the Harley Davidson shop but it was closed for the day so I ended up next door to the Honda shop instead and you couldn't get luckier if you tried, I walked right into where one of only ten of the Britten bikes was on display and had just arrived from Auckland!
Here's a couple of pics of me with the legendary bike at Christchurch Honda.

“If you’re a Buddhist you go to Tibet,
If you’re a Motor head you go to Bonneville”.

"The Ol' Speed Demon lived until he was dead" Gilles' original quote, feel free to use it!

Burt Munroe's story is much better known to the average Joe than John Britten's thanks to the movie "The World's Fastest Indian" starring Anthony Hopkins. If you haven't seen it you really should give it a look, the movie is more about his obsession, determination and quest to achieve something out of the ordinary then it is about a simple motorbike.

"All my life I've wanted to do something big... something bigger and better than all the other jokers"...Burt M

Burt was born in 1899 (died in 1978 of a heart condition) in Invercargill, NZ, the southern most part of the country, an ol' coot by any standard and there were more than one who thought he may be a little too old to be playing speed demon. But the likable character that he was he won people over easily on both sides of the pond and his spirit for living was indeed contagious making it extremely difficult not to rout for him. Burt bought his now legendary Indian Scout new in 1920, (1926 Scout shown above) manufactured that in Sprinfield Massachussets. He raced and modified it for close to 44 years, he also built a fiberglass aerodynamic body for it that made it look and ride like a missile.

At age 68, he risked everything, including his own life, taking the bike to Speed Week at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to break the world land speed record. He did so in 1967 posting a record breaking speed of 183.586mph that still stands to this day for a bike of its class. Burt went to Bonneville nine times in 11 years, running his V-twin 1920 Scout, and he would leave the bike there but take the engine back to New Zealand every year to work on it. He was unfunded and without team support .

It wasn't just the speed of his machine that captured the peoples imagination, but his ability to tinker around with his machine, building parts out of scrap metal, forging his own pistons, heads, cannibalizing old ford car parts to build cam rods, cutting the treads off tires to make them faster, you get the idea, the man could make something out of nothing, a real MacGyver. Burt's life may seem a little absurd and obsessive to some but I'd be pretty sure he didn't care, he was a man searching for something, hoping for something big to happen to him, to accomplish something great and even though he did, it may have been the journey he took to get there that he was actually looking for.

Burt, the colorful character that he was had many quotes attributed to him such as..
"You live life more in five minutes on the back of a motorbike than you can in an entire lifetime."
"It is better than being a cabbage watching television all the time. And having a nice couple of pretty ladies around can help a lot."

"Once you're dead, you're dead. You never come back. You're like a blade of grass and you just blow away. So you may as well enjoy it."

"If you don't follow your dreams, you might as well be a vegetable".

"If you don't go when you want to go, when you do go, you'll find you've gone".

Anthony Hopkins on Burt and the movie .

Burt Munroe- "At the Salt in 1967 we were going like a bomb. Then she got the wobbles just over half way through the run. To slow her down I sat up. The wind tore my goggles off and the blast forced my eyeballs back into my head - couldn't see a thing. We were so far off the black line that we missed a steel marker stake by inches. I put her down - a few scratches all round but nothing much else".

At the time Burt was traveling at close to 206 mph! Hopkins said about the role:
"I started laughing when I read the script for The World's Fastest Indian," he says. "I thought, this is no way for a 67-year-old man to behave!

"It's been the best film I've been in and Roger Donaldson is one of the best directors I've worked with. "I originally got the script and thought it was just terrific. It was just well written, very very well written, beautifully written, and so refreshing. It’s not the bang bang, of big Hollywood movies.

So as you can see read it is a must see movie with a little something for everyone and who's to argue with Hopkins about what is good and what is not..

Anyway once again I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Southland museum in Invercargill that was holding and exhibiting original "The World's Fastest Indian" movie props, motorcycles, car and trailer, they also had some of Burt's personal items, story boards and the full mock up of the tool shed Burt lived in. I snapped a couple of shots of it although technically wasn't supposed to. With help and information from the curator of the exhibition he lead me to "E Hayes and Sons" the local hardware store, the owner is one of Burt's old friends and sponsors that now has his bikes on permanent display for all to see...and it's free!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Kia Ora, New Zealand

Written by Lynn

I love this country....... I was here once before, in 2001, to visit my friend Alison. She was studying the weta (a endangered cricket the size of a mouse - feel free to correct my description, Alison) at a university on the South Island. My memories of New Zealand are filled with beautiful green landscapes, amazing animals and friendly people. Well, the second visit didn't disappoint.

We flew into Auckland totally exhausted from our marathon session of airport squatting in Tahiti. Our first stop was (hate to admit it), MacDonald's for breakfast. Here we met a retired American couple, ex-pats for the last 20 years. They couldn't rave enough about "their" country, and were full of suggestions of things for us to see and do. They even went so far as to offer to drive us back to Rotarura with them, a few hours west of Auckland. Sadly, given our limited time in New Zealand, we had already decided to spend most of it touring around the South Island, so had to decline their friendly offer.

For those of you who have never been to New Zealand, first off - shame on you! Secondly, it should be explained that New Zealand is divided into two main islands - North and South. The North Island is the most heavily populated, where over 70% of the estimated 4 million Kiwis live. The South Island has a much smaller population, but has most of the estimated 40 million sheep residing here. This number has dropped dramatically from the oft quoted 70 million sheep (or 20 sheep for every 1 Kiwi) that was true in the 1980's. Since then dairy has become a major industry and New Zealand has become the 5th largest dairy exporter in the world. As well, New Zealand has a thriving wine industry and forestry is becoming a more and more important contributer to the country's economy. But it's #1 industry, without a doubt, is tourism!

Almost 2 million tourists a year touch down in New Zealand. This number has increased dramatically since the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, filmed mainly on the South Island, produced by New Zealand's own, Peter Jackson. Since then millions of fans have visited to see the amazing landscapes made famous by these films. Rightly so, Mr. Jackson said no other country would be able to provide the awe inspiring vistas Tolkien had envisioned for Middle Earth.

After a few days in Auckland, spent mostly wandering the city and admiring the tall ships and sailboats docked at the habour, we flew down to Christchurch. In a fine example of our advance planning abilities we had not booked a hostel or as of yet rented a car. Unbeknownst to us, we had landed in New Zealand at the tail end of high tourist season. This meant that cars and camper vans, if you could find them, would be three times as expensive as other times of the year. But there really is no other way to tour the South Island. While there are several bus companies that can take you to the major cities and tourist destinations, part of the charm of this island is how "accessible" the remote and isolated areas, such as beaches, mountains and treks, are. If you have a car that is. So after a few days of concerted effort we managed to find a beat up old Subaru Legacy wagon to rent. We raided the local Salvation Army for camping gear and cooking stuff, rounding out our trove of treasures with a camping table/chair set from Christchurch's local pawn shop.

While waiting for our car we explored the charming city of Christchurch, set on the Avon river and modelled after a historical English city. There is a large (30 hectare) botanical garden filled with exotic and native trees and plants. In it there are some impressively enormous trees, many of them over 100 years old. The main square has a trolley station that can ferry you around the city and a nice craft market and the town's museum has some impressive displays on Antarctic expeditions. Though not my cup of tea, we did spend the weekend in Christchurch during their annual flower and garden show, which meant the whole city was decorated with beautiful floral arrangements.

While here we also (to my extreme excitement - yeah, right) by sheer chance got to see one of John Britton's bikes (in reality it's a racing motorcycle, I just like this picture). I actually have to admit that I had no idea what this means when I say how lucky we were to see it. As a result I will have to leave the motorcycle enthusiasts in anticipation for Gilles' later post.

Once we gathered up the car and all of our acquired camping gear we set off on a 10 day exploration of the South Island. We started by crossing the Southern Alps through Arthur's Pass. The Southern Alps run down 2/3 of the island, close to the west coast. Once over the amazingly twisted and scenic pass we were on the west coast. We turned south and started to make our way towards the tip of the island. Hugging the coastal road, which dipped in and out of the surrounding forests, we were treated to many visual treats. The weather was perfect for us, barely raining at all (a minor miracle for New Zealand where areas on the island have an annual rainfall of 6 metres!!). Our first stop was to enjoy the beaches around an area called Knight's Point just north of a town called Haast. Here the you can look down onto white sand beaches from towering cliffs and catch the occasional call of the sea lions. We camped beside a lovely stream in a wooded area that was INFESTED with mosquitoes and sand flies (which I would compare to rabid black flies), driving us into our tent by 8pm that night.

A short aside here to say that camping in New Zealand is fantastic. Not only is the country non-stop natural wonders, camping involves just pulling off on a track leading down to a beach and setting up your tent. If you have a camper trailer you can just park where ever it suits your fancy, though you do have to be careful not to get stuck. We helped push out one camper that got a little to far onto the sand one night. Our Canadian winter background came in handy as no one else really understood the value of "rocking" a stuck vehicle.

The next day we continued on with our journey, making the requisite stops at the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers. These glaciers are the world's most accesible, and are presently in the process of retreating at a blistering rate of of 70cm/day since 1984 (about 10 times faster than a typical glacier). Glaciers in general are in a constant cycle of advancing and retreating, a pattern driven by the differences between the volume of meltwater at the terminal face, and the snowfall at the "neve". The two glaciers here are over 13,000 years old and together make up the heart of the Westland National Park.

The next day we headed out to Te Anu, our jumping off point for Milford Sound. The sound is more appropriately labelled a fjord and is one of New Zealand's most famous tourist destinations. It sits on the south west coast at the end of a long road through the Fjordland National Park. Here there are several wonderful treks and you can visit with many gregarious KEAS, the world's only mountain parrots. These birds are well known for their extreme curiosity and intelligence, which has been compared to that of a monkey. They are a bane to the unsuspecting car owner who can return from an hour trek only to find a gang of keas has removed all the accessible rubber from their vehicle's windshield wipers and windows. Due to their extreme adaptability and varocious appetite, the Kea has been persecuted in the past for their supposed attack on sheep. While it is true that during the harsh winter months, when food is scarce, keas will turn into scavengers and rip open carcasses with their sharp beaks to get at meat, it has never been proven that a kea has attacked a live sheep. They are well known, however, for eating the hatchling mutton birds that hide in small nests along the coast while thier mothers are off fishing for them. They are seemingly completely fearless and will approach you as soon as you exit your car, looking for a handout.

Once you get to Milford Sound you can take a tour on one of the many available tourists boats to get a first hand view of the towering cliff faces which loom over 1200m above the water. Milford Sound has the dubious reputation as one of the wettest places on earth, receiving over 6m of rainfall annually. We were lucky and got there on an overcast day, but had no rain. This does take away a bit from the many waterfalls in the area, but made for nicer boat ride. Unfortunately, the marine life was a little scarce when we were there and we were unable to see any dolphins or whales. We did catch sight of several fur seals sun bathing themselves in the welcome heat of the day though. And what we did see was an amazing landscape of dominating rock faces that loomed over our tiny boat. Thumbs up to Mother Nature for being able to continuously amaze me.

After another night in Te Anu, we headed off for Queenstown. This is New Zealand's self proclaimed adventure capital of the world, and here you can do just about any crazy outdoor activity you can think of. From bungee jumping, to zorbing, to white water rafting, to helikayaking, it's all available here for a price. Sadly, the price is pretty high, though that doesn't seem to be affecting their business as the town is over run with adrenalin junkies. What we came to see (aside from the fact that it was right on our way) was the mountain that was used as Mount Mordor in the Lord of the Rings. Not quite as impressive or scary as in the film, and no orcs to be seen..................

From here we headed down to Invercargill. For those of you not in the know, it is one of New Zealand's most southerly cities and was the home of Burt Munro, the man made famous by the movie, "The World's Fastest Indian" (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins). We made our way to the local museum where there was an exhibit on Burt and the making of the movie, which was done mainly here in his home town. Gilles paid the extra money to go in and see this exhibit (and will tell those interested all about it in the next post), while I hung out and talked to the curator of the tautara display.

Tautaras are reptiles that are the only surviving relative of dinosaurs that roamed the earth over 225million years ago, and not much has changed for them in this time. They are only found in New Zealand and are the slowest growing reptiles alive today. One of the males at the museum was over 120 years old and weighed about 1kg. The female tautaras will only lay eggs once every 2-5 years, this slow rate of reproduction making them vunerable in the wild. Fortunately they are fairly easily bred in captivity and this museum has managed to have quite a success rate over the years in hatching the babies in a controlled environment. If you're interested, you can read more about them at www.southlandmuseum.com.

I did get to see the original Indian motorcycle that Burt Munro raced, as well as the ones used in the movie, as they were on display at the local hardware store, rather than at the museum, the owner of the store having been a good friend of Mr. Munro.

After Invercargill we made our way to my favourite stop of the tour, Porpoise Bay. Here, on the very southern tip of the south island, I went for a swim with a girl from Austria. Now, rightly so, you should think I'm crazy, because that water is COLD (as in can't-feel-your-toes-after-5-minutes cold). But it was worth it, because if you're really lucky (and we were) a group of dusky dolphins will come on in to see what the foolish swimming humans are up to and play in the waves with you. This was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and though the pictures don't really show you very well (shame on my photographer!), the pod of dolphins came within a metre of us, and I probably could have touched them, had I wanted to. Amazingly, it was totally free (the Kiwi's have perfected the art of providing a tour/entrance fee for everything from sheep shearing to beach combing), though I would have happily paid for the experience. Since there were only the 2 of us in the water, we also were the centre of attention for our new friends, and managed to stay out there with them for almost a half hour, before the cold drove us in.

After this our next stops included the lighthouse at Nugget Point, which is very popular and probably where we saw the most tourist congregated in one place since we had left Queenstown. About 400 metres below the trail, at the bottom of a 90 degree rock face, you can just barely catch a glimpse of sea lions frolicking among the waves. Not completely satisfied with this long distance encounter, we made our way to the practically deserted Cannibal Bay where you actually have to carefully pick you way around the sea lions as they bask on the sand. We apparently weren't very interesting, as you can see from the pics of the yawning beasts (I'll try to crop one to include a close up of the greyish slime stuck between their teeth - yum!)

From here it was on to Dunedin on the Otago Penisula. The best thing about this area is the wildlife, and you can spend days exploring the many sandy beaches looking for encounters with sea lions, elephant seals and penguins. Here you have a unique chance to catch a glimpse of the yellow eyed penguin, the world's rarest penguin, whose population has been decimated by the increasing numbers of introduced dogs, feral cats and rats on New Zealand, along with habitat reduction. While very graceful in the water, these guys are VERY clumsy on land. But there's nothing quite like the site of a penguin rolling up onto the shore in a wave, then staggering to its feet and waddling up the cliff to a safe resting spot. While there is a rehabilitation area that you can tour at dusk (the best time to view penguins as they come in from the sea for the night) we elected to return to a beach that I had seen with Alison and Brian 5 years ago. Here, at Sandfly Bay, you have to descend down an enormous sand dune to get the the protected beach. You then hide behind a constructed blind and wait quietly for the feathered friends to head to shore. While a bit more difficult to get to, it was much less busy than the rehab centre and (best of all) free!

After a few nights in Dunedin, my favourite city on the South Island, we headed back towards Christchurch. Given that we had the time, we decided to visit Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak that peaks at 3754 metres. We weren't expecting much, being pretty cocky about having topped over 4200 metres in South America, but were pleasantly surprised by the impressiveness of the landscape. It's pretty much summed up in the following quote.......
“I am not sure that Mount Cook is not the finest in outline of all the snowy mountains I have ever seen. No one can mistake it. If a person says he thinks he has seen it, you may be quite sure that he has not seen it. The moment it comes into sight the exclamation is ‘that is Mount Cook’, not ‘that must be Mount Cook’. There is no possibility of mistake.”
Samuel Butler

This is definitely not a mountain to be taken lightly. When we first got there we hiked up to the Alpine Monument, which has plaques for the various mountaineers that have died scaling the peaks of Mount Cook. The most recent was in 2003, and a plaque from the 1960's list a climber from Calgary, Alberta.

After a night spent camping at the base of Mount Cook we took the morning to do the more mundane and very safe Sealy Tasman Track that takes you up to a look out point over the Southern Alps and lakes in the Mount Cook National Park. Turns out all the driving around in a car has seriously impacted my fitness levels and the 4 hour hike that went straight up, then right back down caused some significant leg pains for the next several days!! But the view was worth it and I'm happy to say that the detour to Mount Cook was well rewarded.

With only a day left before we flew out from Christchurch we decided our last stop would be to go to the town of Kaikoura. This small village turned tourist destination is becoming increasingly well known as a place go on whale watching tours, mainly to see sperm whales. They also offer whale spotting flights, chances to swim with dolphins and/or seals and several hikes. We hooked up with a couple of Canadians from Montreal, Alex and Alex, who were touring the South Island as well. They were members of the infamous Cirque de Soliel that had just finished a show in Auckland, and were on the way to Canberra. The 4 of us decided against the whale touring, partially because we were not convinced that we liked the idea of approaching whales in boats.

Whale watching as a tourist activity has increased dramatically in recent years (apparently the numbers world wide rose from 2 million people in 1990 to 9 million by 1999 and has continued to increase in popularity since then), and some tour operators are less scrupulous than others about how they monitor the interaction with the whales. Most whales only approach land during important stages of their life cycles, such as breeding, calving and nursing. Many rich feeding grounds also are close to land. The concern is that an over enthusiastic tourist industry will negatively affect these animals and drive them back out to sea. Regulations of the industry are patchwork and not enforced, so it is pretty dependant upon the company what your experience will be. On the up side, cetacean touring provides an economically viable alternative to hunting, a practice I have no qualms about voicing my opinions against. Questioning the tourist office in Kaikoura, it seems that they are well aware of potential problems and work hard to provide an eco-friendly encounter with these amazing beasts, and are very selective about which companies they will actually recommend and book tours with, which was nice to see. Still, a combination of expense, concerns over the practice, and timelines, prevented us from going out on a boat. Instead we toured some seal colonies, had some fish and chips from a landmark restaurant and wandered around this charming seaside town.

The next day it was back to Christchurch to catch our plane out of New Zealand and onto Australia. Overall it was once again an amazing experience here, and one I hope to repeat over and over again in my life. I don't think I can emphasize enough how great a country New Zealand is to visit. Very friendly people, beautiful landscapes, cool animals to see everywhere you turn...........if you haven't been, start planning your trip as soon as possible, I may even meet you there!