Queenstown, New Zealand

Queenstown is a tourist town with preference for tourists with money to burn. Nearly everything costs and is more dear than it should be, which is how it is in tourist towns. The town sits at the elbow of glacially-formed Lake Wakatipu, which has an interesting Z shape viewed from above. We may view it from above when we leave tomorrow from the Queenstown airport.

The main activities in addition to shopping, eating and hotels in Queenstown involve action sports such as skiing and bungie jumping. There’s a gondola car system to the top of the large hill behind the town where you can take in the views but also race around on a luge in a wooden cart. And there are theme tours such as Lord of the Ring tours. The town didn’t start this way. In 1860 a man named Rees and another named von Tunzelmann started sheep stations in the area. A few years later, there was the mid-60’s gold rush and Rees turned his sheering shed into a hotel, bending to twig that shaped the tree.

The town now boasts the most expensive real estate in New Zealand due to scarcity of land for development and appeal to foreign investors.

One of my fellow travelers and I went tramping (hiking) in the botanical garden called Queenstown Garden, with an additional excursion through the shopping areas. The Garden was established in 1867, with the usual intent to test which European and North American species of trees could be challenged to grow in the area for commercial purposes. Thus there are many very large non-native trees such as Douglas fir and Sitka pines. The setting is beautiful, on a peninsula extending into Lake Wakatipu, with views toward Cecil Peak, Walter Peak and the group of mountains where the ski hills are, called the Remarkables.

Cecil Peak from the Lake Wakatipu wharf, Queensland, New Zealand

The park trails are easy walking, surfaced partly in asphalt and partly in gravel. It is getting cool here in the South, with morning temperatures in the 40s F and highs of about 55F today, with sun and clouds. It’s colder when it’s raining, which it does often at this time of year.

Queenstown Garden pathway

Hokitika, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

Hokitika was the jumping off point for a gold rush in 1864. It is located at the mouth of a river of the same name, and the would-be miners used the river to get to the gold fields, at least at first. Hokitika was a big, wealthy town, briefly. After the gold rush finished, which they inevitably do, Hokitika fell back to a small community supporting the lumber, farming and remnant gold industry. It shrank to a one-horse town, essentially, and has remained so. In fact, after logging of native species of timber was highly restricted, the West Coast was in some economic distress, such that the government stepped in with investments to develop tourism in the area.

Hokitika is still on a river (currently grey with silt due to the heavy rains) and is still a one-horse town, but has some statues and an hour and a half guided tour. As you can imagine, the tour doesn’t cover much ground, and you don’t want to go there. We found good food this evening at a pub, and some street art and beach art to enjoy.

The gold mined properties around Hokitiki were inexpensive for many years. A community of eclectic free souls, artists and other off-grid people developed there, alongside the farmers, loggers and such. Currently the town has at least 6 jade stone jewelry stores and even more carvers that supply them, plus stores selling stocks, camping equipment, souvenirs, blown glass objects, photographs, wood carvings, and so on.

Although it showered throughout the day, we decided to trust our usual good luck with weather and took our coach (bus) up to Hokitika Gorge path. The rain stopped long enough for us to walk down into the gorge and back. The path is maintained very well, well graveled, stump and rock free, and well drained. There is a very sturdy suspension bridge across the gorge and a well-situated lookout over the river at the end of the path. The river is grey with silt that has washed down from the mountains in the center of the South Island due to the great amount of rain that has been falling. The path is a walk through a temperate rainforest.

Wellington Harbor

Wellington harbor has great places to eat, walk and shop. It has a boat painted with penguins and seals, each unique and personalized. (Do they each represent individual people?) It is a charming contrast to the military boats, yachts, working boats and ferries, a caution against taking ourselves too seriously. If the penguin-seal boat is not sufficient to deliver the message, there is the painted piano, the painted bollard (that thing you moor a ship to), and a graphic graphic explaining the location of the gentlemen’s loo.

This strikingly painted food truck below sells very popular street food called a fritter (but actually a kind of pancake) containing your choice of chopped abalone, a tiny fish called whitefish, or chopped mussels – specifically, green-lipped mussels. The fritter cake is served on white bread of the “wonder” sort that has been heavily buttered. The green-lipped mussel one is open-faced. I can testify to that because I ate one.

The national museum, called Te Papa Tongarewa (“Te papa” means “our place” in Maori) is on the harbor, too. It is attractive outside and inside, and costs $20 per person. It tries so very hard to tell the story of the Maori and the history of white settlement, so the walls are thick with signs. I won’t try to explain the Maori settlement or the British invasion, land theft and ethnic cleansing, since this is a blog not a book and I don’t know enough to get the facts and figures right. It is sufficient to note that the Maori, who arrived from Polynesia about 800 years ago, were nearly wiped out by the British, who arrived in 1840. The Maori wiped out the moa, the large flightless bird. The British nearly wiped out everything else, between the clear-cutting of forests and burning to create grazing fields and the introduction of everything from pinus radiata (California pines – which grow better in New Zealand than they do in California) to rats.

The objects below are Maori – a carved canoe, a piece of fabric, and a stone.


Wellington Botanic Garden and the City to Sea bridge

The Wellington Botanic Garden and the City to Sea pedestrian bridge are two nearly free places to visit in Wellington. Actually, if you don’t care to walk up a very steep hill, then the best way to reach the Wellington Botanic Garden from the central business district is by cable car. It will cost you $5 one way, but hey, the view at the top of the hill is spectacular (well worth $5), and the hill is Really Steep.

Wellington Harbor from the terminus of the cable car

The walk down the hill on which the Botanic Garden is perched is steep, tranquil and very green. There are many sections to the garden, including a fern garden, a succulent garden, a rose garden, and sections devoted to native plants. And if you follow the Orange Path through the garden, you will go through the Old Burial Ground, which has some very interesting monuments, including a naked guy right at the top of the hill.

Harry was the leader of the New Zealand Labor party, and a businessman and the owner of a newspaper. Which explains nothing at all about this nude guy.

The original purpose of the garden when it was started in 1868 was to serve as a trial garden to test out imported plants to see whether they could be grown as crops in New Zealand. Thus the garden began with plantings of conifers.

I wish I could tell you the botanical or even common names of the plants above, but there are no labels or identifying signs.

The photo above is of the Peace Garden, with an eternal flame in the pagoda shaped ornament in the middle of the pond.

The City to Sea Bridge, seen across the Whairepo Lagoon, looks from some angles like a patched together bunch of old weathered wood. It is a sculpture acting as a platform for other sculptures and artworks, in addition to reconnecting people to their harbor.

Windy Wellington

Wellington is one of the windiest places in New Zealand, due to its location on the Cook Strait that runs between the North and South islands of New Zealand. Wellington is at the southern tip of the North Island.

We arrived in Wellington at about 3PM and it took some time to clear customs and immigration. We reached our hotel by bus, riding along the bay. One hint of the windiness could be found in the three wind sculptures we passed on our way in to the central business district (CBD).

Tomorrow we will begin to get acquainted with New Zealand in much more detail.

Sydney’s sights

Early morning ferry traffic in Sydney Harbor

There are so many faces to Sydney and I have seen just a few. We toured the Opera House, led by a charming guide named Darryl. It was a great tour and the Opera House is quite a complex. It is not one “house” but a center with multiple performance venues from large to small.

The interior spaces are sculptural and refined, but a bit cool, not embracing. The images below show some of the public spaces – hallways, stairways, ticket counters, mezzanines.

The Rocks in Sydney is the area where the British convicts were deposited to survive or not, from the 18th through the 20th centuries. This area was nearly scraped to become a half mile of brutalist skyscrapers, but was saved in the end by activists who wanted to preserve the cheap-rent public housing there. The Rocks area has been quiche-ified into shops, restaurants and boutique offices. Some of the buildings are preserved, and there are narrow alleys and stairs where houses were built into the sandstone cliff.

The original paving of the Rocks, Nurses Walk

We walked across the Sydney Harbor Bridge this morning, which is a nice walk with great views of the harbor, the Opera House, the central business district, and the ferry traffic going in and out of Circular Quay.

Cooya Beach, Mossman – spear-chucking and painting

Port Douglas in the distance

From Cooya Beach looking south, Port Douglas where we have been staying looks like an overturned teaspoon. An Aboriginal mob (mob means tribe, clan, family group) called the Kukujulangi lives and works on Cooya Beach, giving tours to outsiders to explain aspects of their culture and history, and providing cultural experiences. We were tutored by a man in his 50s in the use of some of the seeds and insects – particularly green ants, which are good for stuffy noses – and the use of various bones, shells, woods and plant fiber for tools and useful items. We also had a chance to throw spears; although we were demonstrably lacking in inborn talent for spear-chucking, there were several of us who would have gladly spent the whole morning honing our abilities. Spear chucking is fun.

Spear-throwing class

Also, as a part of the experience, we were served damper bread spread with butter and drizzled with golden syrup. Damper bread is a traditional soda bread frequently associated with the Australian bush. It is a simple quick bread, and the golden syrup, which does not taste at all like golden Karo syrup, is a tasty addition. Karo syrup is a corn sugar syrup, while golden syrup is made during the processing of sugar cane or sugar beets. Golden syrup has a very mild hit of molasses, without the burnt overtone.

Damper bread with butter and golden syrup

The Aboriginal people in the Daintree/Port Douglas area have been able to use the legal system to gain control of some of their original land and have a focus on using the land in a culturally consistent way that also engages people from outside their community. The tour leader described how his grandparents, who had their children removed by the government, moved to be where their children were taken and worked to recover them, which required 10 years to get all of them back. They had the support of local farmers for whom they worked, which helped them recover their children and, as a result, built tight community bonds between the local farm community and the aboriginal community, such that they say they are now one family.

A 7-style boomerang, non-returning type

One object we were shown is called a burny bean. It’s proper name is mucuna gigantica, and it or related beans are found in tropical areas of Central and South America in addition to Queensland, Australia. It is called the burny bean because, if you rub it hard on cement or a smooth rock, it quickly becomes very hot. It was implied that it can be used to start fires, but there’s no documentation of that. Parts of the plant and the bean are toxic and were used to poison fish, but the inside of the bean can also can be treated to make an edible paste. It is currently used to make jewelry and keychains, typically painted with traditional-looking Aboriginal designs.

After our Cooya Beach cultural experience and a nice lunch in the town of Mossman, we visited an art gallery where we were shown a few techniques for painting in the Aboriginal style. We were each given either a boomerang-shaped piece of wood or a small canvas square, each of which had been painted black. The artist gave us pots of white (representing water), yellow ochre (representing sun) and red ochre (representing earth) acrylic paints and bamboo sticks with which to paint. To paint your item, you dip either the blunt or the sharp end of the bamboo stick into the paint and make dots, squiggles, etc. on your object. The dot technique seems to be the most traditional, with large dots and small dots in intricate patterns. My piece is a small canvas square. (The boomerang supply ran out.) My painting is about the importance of lakes, rivers and oceans in my life and my family history.

Side note: I have a partial black eye from the pressure of the snorkel goggles on the bridge of my nose. How cool is that?

Cairns Aquarium and Cairns Botanic Garden

It rained quite a bit yesterday and continued into the night. As a result, the ferry into the Daintree Rainforest was shut down due to high water. The Rainforest was to be today’s activity, and it had to be canceled. Instead we took a bus to Cairns (which is pronounced without an R in it, so it sounds like Cans or Canes, depending on the Aussie dialect of the speaker.) Cairns has a new aquarium, less than 2 years old, that focuses on the aquatic life of the Great Barrier Reef. This fit well with yesterday’s reef visit because it gave us a chance to see the corals and fish that we were not able to see when snorkeling in the murky water.  

The aquarium has two floors of large and small tanks, including on the ground floor an “oceanarium” which is a very large tank that the observer walks through into a circular atrium and through a tunnel where fish including sharks and rays can pass overhead. The dark purple fish at the top is a red tooth trigger fish. The purple color of the coral and fish in the bottom photo are the effects of artificial lighting in the aquarium.

There is a bright orange hermit-type crab in the upper left that has taken over an empty shell. Several kinds of lobsters were on exhibit, multi-colored and oddly well camouflaged given their size. There were a number of Nemos (clownfish) in the flowing arms of the anemone, mesmerizing to watch as the fish swirled in and out and the current played across the anemone.

Lionfish are native to this area, and there’s a tank of at least 10 of the spotted tail type. Also there is a tank containing a couple of saltwater crocodiles. These are found in the river estuaries and can be fairly dangerous to people and other animals if you get into their territory.

Cairns Botanic Garden, Parasol palm and bird’s nest fern

After the aquarium, we visited the Cairns Botanic Garden for lunch and then walked in the gardens. The plants that are growing outdoors in this garden are the same plants as those growing indoors in the conservatory houses of my local botanical garden, Brookside Gardens. The conservatory in the Cairns garden included orchids, carnivorous plants, exotic ferns and butterflies.

The orchids in the conservatory are grown in small hanging planters with exposed roots. The carnivorous pitcher plant is also being grown as a hanging specimen.

There is a ‘river’ water feature, a ‘forest’ of tall trees, and a pond of water lilies:

What’s not to like about a water lily?

I’m closing with a picture of a heliconia, just because it is pretty.

The Great Barrier Reef – Snorkeling in a Storm

The Great Barrier Reef stretches from Papua, New Guinea to Lady Elliot Island, about 280 miles north of Brisbane, about 1400 miles long altogether, and giving the name of its building block, the coral, to the Coral Sea. There are 2900 individual coral reefs and 900 islands, give or take, in the Great Barrier Reef system. Our group went to Agincourt Reef this morning for snorkeling, with options to SCUBA dive, use a clear bubble helmet, take a snorkel tour with a marine biologist, or have a helicopter ride over the reef. There was also a semi-submersible glass walled boat available to ride for 20 minutes or so. The excursion company we used is called Quicksilver. It has busses to collect people from the large resorts in the area; a big ferry-type boat to take people out to the reef; a catamaran that is anchored at the reef to serve as a dive platform, restaurant and equipment facility; and the aforementioned glass bottom boat.

The Agincourt Reef is located at the outer edge of the reef system. The permanently docked catamaran is on the leeward (west) side of this particular reef, protected from the wave action from the Coral Sea on the eastern side.

We were provided with full body Lycra suits to wear while snorkeling to prevent sunburn and jellyfish stings. We were also provided with goggles, snorkel tubes, fins, pool noodles (optional) or life jackets (also optional). I had my waterproof camera, but they had cameras available for rental. There were plenty of crew to available to assist. There was not much danger of sunburn today, because there was a rain and wind storm in progress.

Lycra body suits are universally attractive garments that are easy to get on and off. Not.

But their protection from jellyfish stings is well worth the embarrassment and annoyance. (When wet, they seem not to dry out, either, so while you may get out of the water, you remain cold and damp.)

Snorkelers in Lycra suits, life guards and equipment assistants gathered at the snorkel deck

It has been raining in Port Douglas since we arrived. The crossing to the reef, which probably took 75 minutes, was very rough and caused motion sickness for some members of our party, even though they were pre-medicated. There were 2-foot waves in the snorkel zone, with wind and occasional downpours. The water temperature was about 82. Because of the recent cyclones, the king tides due to the full moon, the coral spawning in response to the lunar cycle, the water was cloudy. Add that there was no sun, and you will understand that the photography opportunities were poor. However, I did not come to the Great Barrier Reef but not snorkel because of stormy weather, challenging waves and poor photographic options.

Weather conditions today in the snorkeling area. It is raining and blowing and the waves were a challenge.

The pictures I took today may eventually (with actual, purchased photo processing software) look nice, but the best I can show at this point are photos of coral that are monotone greeny-blue, and a fuzzy photo of a couple of fish. The photos from the glass-bottom boat were a failure due to the distortions of the glass and lack of sunlight.

These were shot with a Nikon Coolpix AW 120, which has been a sturdy little point and shoot for me for several years. Don’t think of your little underwater camera as just a uni-tasker!

Uluru – Sunset, Sunrise

Uluru at Sunset

Last night we watched the sun set on Uluru. This morning we watched the sun rise on it. It is beautiful at either time. Uluru is a very large inselberg, a rock island, made of coarse-grained sandstone that was weathered from Musgrave, Mann and Petermann mountain ranges to the south and west, deposited by a river system in an alluvial fan. Think of a river delta, where sands and gravels are washed down from eroding mountain ranges and deposited in flat or rippled sheets. (A guide who had been certified by the national park explained that the sand had been deposited in 100,000 year layers in a deep pit and then baked together by heat from the earth’s core like a cake. Misleading ‘science’ like this is more common than one would hope.)

Uluru at Sunrise

About 50% of the sandstone grains are feldspar, 25-35% are quartz and the rest are grains of rock fragments including basalt. Because of the high iron content, the exposed face of the sandstone is mainly red, but the hue changes from deep maroon to glowing ochre depending on the time of day and the brightness of the sunlight. The sunset and sunrise watch-parties celebrate the color changes, which are easy to see because Uluru is set in a plain with only vegetation to disrupt the sign line.

Inselbergs are by their nature unusual, grand features of the landscape that attract everyone’s attention, so it is not a surprise that European explorers found them as compelling as the Originals. The rock became a sacred site for both visiting and local Original groups, a meeting place, a place to gather to hold ceremonies. Among the marks left by Originals, there are many petroglyphs, some of which we were allowed to see and photograph. (There are restrictions on what and where you can take photos at Uluru. These are imposed by the Originals tribe that now owns the rock.) Marks left by the Europeans include the steel chains and posts drilled into the rock where people used to climb it, and artifacts on the playa, including the airplane runway and former campgrounds.

These are petroglyphs from a cave called Kulpi Mutitjulu near a waterhole – a pond at the base of one of the ravines that run down the rock. The petroglyphs range in age from the 1930s back to early times. Research on the age is not permitted. The symbol of concentric circles represents waterholes.

The waterhole is nearly dry at this time, but can fill up quickly when the water is channeled down the rock. The central dark colored triagle is water. Keeping the waterhole clean of debris such as branches and dead animals was the work of the women, in a culture where roles were very strictly divided between men and women. Many of the stories we were told involved the distinction between men’s and women’s spheres of work and influence.