The Top of the South Island—February 2015

I know.  There’s no excuse.  I haven’t posted anything since our last trip and here I am writing about another trip.

It’s not like there hasn’t been a lot to talk about.  It’s just that the stuff that’s going on sort of speaks for itself.  I have nothing to add.  For example, I’d really like to weigh in on the subject of the 20 year old American guy who was gored rather publicly at a bull running festival in Spain.  You want to ask what he was doing there and why.  But once you see the pictures and think ‘Oh my, is that where he got it?’ and then you read that the surgeon said that the guy needed surgery “to repair his sphincter,” you realise that silence is the best policy.

Or the story about the cat that got hit by a car and was presumed dead by its owner and buried.  It turned out it wasn’t dead and crawled its way back home.  The so called ‘zombie cat,’ which is now the center of a ‘custody battle’ between the owner and the local animal shelter is getting more press coverage than Greece, Libya and other global hot spots combined.

How can a rational person compete with that kind of stuff?  So I hope you’ll agree that it seemed like a good time to head out on the road and forget about things for a few days.

We hadn’t been down to the top of the South Island since 2000 and it was definitely a place I wanted to spend more time in.  If you’re in the North Island, there are two ways to get there.  One is to take the ferry from Wellington to Picton or you can fly into Nelson, the biggest town in that part of New Zealand.  The Nelson area has a population of about 46,000 which makes it the 12th largest city in NZ.

You fly into Nelson on a small propeller plane and the single runway airport on the beach gives the approach a Tora! Tora! Tora! feel.

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Once we landed we picked up our rental car and after exploring Nelson a bit we headed out.  Here was our route:

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We headed west and our first stop was in Ruby Bay where we met up with our friends Rene and Marianne.

After lunch we headed to Motueka where we spent two nights exploring the surrounding area.

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The highlight of Motueka was the Sunday market.  We’d been to a market in Nelson when we arrived the day before but it was one of those upscale community markets where they sell designer kids clothing and there are no free samples.  The Motueka market was different.  It was like I’d time travelled back to the 60s.

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There was even a man who made guitars out of old car parts.

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For the next few days we drove sort of in a loop to increasingly remote and beautiful places including Farewell Spit (the northernmost point of the South Island and at 27 km, the longest sandspit in NZ) and some of the very remote bays in Golden Bay and the Marlborough Sounds.

This area is also home to the Able Tasman National Park and the Kahurangi National Park and we did several short day treks exploring both parks.

I won’t describe each place, but this will give u an idea—around every curve there was another spectacular view or quiet beach.  The beaches ranged from sandy (black, yellow or white sand), shelly or rocky. Here is a sample, in no particular order.

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We drove on some interesting roads.

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In the real world, old shoes hanging around can mean you’re in a bad neighbourhood.  But not in this case. None of the locals knew how this got started but the shoes along this fence keep increasing in number!

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We walked on some scary paths.

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Along the way we saw some interesting signs:

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And visited some picturesque settlements.

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We also stopped by the Te Waikoropupu Springs, which are considered very sacred by the local Maori.  The water is among the cleanest in the world with visibility up to 63 metres (207 feet).

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Hitchhiking is a good way to get around the South Island and we did our part to help out some young German and French visitors.

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Many tourists opt to travel by camper vans or combi vans and some of the rental companies have interesting messages.

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While some prefer to get to the secluded beaches via a ferry shuttle that has its own docking ramp.

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But it wasn’t all fun and relaxation!  Before we left for the trip I was doing some research and learned about something called the “Skywire” which was billed as the “longest flying fox in the world.”  I’d never heard of a flying fox until I came to NZ.  Basically, it’s a playground ride.  A cable is strung between two uprights and a sort of wheel box with handles is attached to the cables.  You run up, grab the handles, lift your feet and you sail along.  The Skywire was right on our route and I figured, why not.

Unfortunately, I stopped reading their website before I came to the words “highest” and “fastest.”

We found the place  and met Jill, the owner.  She had me fill out a rather alarming release form and then told us that Scott would be our guide and take us up to the flying fox.  We were the only visitors that afternoon so things were very relaxed.  Scott took us on a long and entertaining drive around the property in a four wheel drive truck.  In addition to the flying fox they have paintball and off road adventures on quad bikes and he gave us a nonstop explanation of everything we saw.  At one point we got out of the truck because he wanted to show us some very mature approximately 1,800 year old native matai trees on the property.  As we were getting back into the truck he pointed overhead and said, “Oh, by the way.  You see those wires up there?  That’s where you’re going to be in a few minutes.”

Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a good idea.

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Of course it was too late to back out and we got up to the launching site.  Four people actually sit in this flying fox at once and it is motorised.  Scott made a ritual of starting everything up and explaining all the details, including fascinating topics like the frequency of lightning strikes.

He strapped me into my chair.

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The white box behind him is a control box that includes a speedometer so you can see how fast you are going.  It also has an intercom attached.  The picture below shows Scott’s hand grabbing the microphone to clip it onto my shoulder harness.

He explained that in case of emergency we would be able to communicate.  As he put it, “I won’t be able to do anything to help you, but at least you’ll have someone to talk to.”  Actually it’s not so much for technical emergencies but he said that some people totally freak and the intercom is so that they can beg to have the ride aborted.  He paid me a dubious compliment by looking at me and saying, “It’s usually the big macho guys who lose it.”

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I was informed that a short distance beyond the tiny light patch straight ahead is where the other tower is located.  On arriving there, the flying fox would reverse and return to base.  Once I was strapped in, he waited what for what seemed like an agonisingly long time before launching me.

This is me receding into oblivion.

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In spite of the wind and g-forces, I managed to take a few pictures.  This is looking down:

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And out to one side.

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It’s really high–and this shows the dangers of not doing your research.  The entire trip is a little over 3 kilometres (almost 2 miles) and at the highest point you are 150 metres (almost 500 feet) above the trees.  Depending on the weight of the passengers, the Skywire can reach speeds of up to 115 kmph (about 70 mph).  The heavier the weight, the faster the freefall and as I was the only passenger, my maximum speed according to the controls was 87 kmph.

The two worse parts are near the far end when you start to slow down.  Of course you have no idea if that’s supposed to happen or if some horrible malfunction is occurring.  Then there is the arrival at the far end where you come to a full stop and prepare to reverse.  You are dangling above the treetops and although intellectually you know that something has to be done to the machinery to make it go backwards so you can return to earth, it seems like forever—at least long enough to convince you that the reverse switch isn’t working.

I was feeling pretty good on the return trip, especially when I slowed down for re-entry.  I came to a stop, anticipating a slow cruise back to the gate.  My buddy Scott, no doubt in collaboration with my wife, decided that since there was no one else around and since I hadn’t been screaming on the intercom to make it stop, decided I’d enjoy another trip.  So I was off again.

The second time wasn’t as bad and I even had the presence of mind to switch the camera to video and film the adventure.

Seriously, it was a really fun ride and I’d highly recommend it.

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Since I was still on the high flying buzz, we decided to visit the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre. This museum has one of the world’s most extensive collections of both static and flyable World War I aircraft. Movie director, Peter Jackson (of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies) is an avid enthusiast and many of the rare planes and memorabilia are from his private collection.

The museum has been designed by cinematic and special effects craftsmen and although it was well worth a visit it also makes you wonder why 100 years on, we have not learnt from history.

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The Nelson-Golden Bay area is considered to be the artistic capital of NZ with a variety of artists in residence here. You can visit several of them at their home/art studios and watch them at work.

At Marahau, we visited an open air art gallery displaying sculptures by Maori wood carver, Woody Woodward. His beautiful works of art depict stories from Maori mythology carved on big logs of wood.

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Not everyone has to be a professional artist to be creative.  As we drove through a settlement in the Marlborough Sounds called The Grove we admired the residents’ interesting mail boxes.

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We headed back to Nelson for our flight back to Auckland and spent a couple of days exploring the Brook Waimarama Eco Sanctuary, gardens, beaches and museums in/around the city.

One of the highlights in Nelson was a visit to the World of Wearable Art and Classic Cars Museum.

The Wearable Art competition started in Nelson in 1987 with artists creating, well, wearable art.  The competition became so successful and generated so much interest that is has now moved to a bigger venue in Wellington and every September-October draws artists from all over the world.   The museum in Nelson houses the winners of the previous year’s competition and the creativity is amazing.  Here are a few samples—real models actual wear the garments during the competition.

This was the 2014 supreme award winner ‘Poly Nation” made of old suitcases and representing the journeys people make and the ‘seeds’ they carry to other lands.

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This is a dress made of balloons.

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Here is a very New Zealand entry:

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These are entrants in the “Bizarre Brassiere” category:

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Some of the garments look best in black light:

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And here is one made out of eyeglasses:

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And tea cosies:

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And the private collection of 110 classic cars in the adjoining exhibition hall included some works of art, too.

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After all that culture, we decided to spend our last evening in Nelson fighting the crowd at the local beach.

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A Quick Tour of the North Island

I’ve been pretty quiet since my last post in May, but a lot has been going on.  For one thing, in June in an act of coordination and grace worthy of Baryshnikov, I had a fall at the farm and broke my leg.  It sounds worse than it was and in retrospect was kind of a nice break.  No pun intended.  On second thought, yes, it was intended.

However there was hell to pay when I started walking again in October and had to catch up on all the things that had to be done on the farm.  After a few hectic weeks and lots of willing volunteers, we got the place looking pretty good and even got some good publicity.  If you want to see my rather inauspicious television debut you can have a look here.

We’d planned an overseas trip for August but because I couldn’t travel we didn’t do it.  So we had a mini-vacation this past week with a trip down to Wellington to visit some friends.  We decided to mix work with pleasure and stopped at a series of ecological restoration projects along the way to find out what other people are doing.

This was our route:

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There are a lot of ecological restoration projects underway around New Zealand.  The objective is to restore native forests and to create habitat for threatened NZ flora and fauna, especially birds.

Before humans came, there were no mammals except for a small bat.  As a result, birds didn’t have to worry about predators and over time they lost the ability to fly.  Many NZ native birds are flightless and even if they can fly, they often spend a lot of their time on the ground and some even build their nests on the ground.

When humans arrived with rats, cats, dogs, weasels and stoats, a lot of native birds’ days were numbered and today many of them are either extinct or seriously endangered.  In addition to predators, other introduced pests such as rabbits and possums destroy the habitat of many birds by eating vegetation.

The local communities, with assistance from the local councils and the Department of Conservation have established several bird sanctuaries on offshore islands where it is reasonably practical to control predators, however over the past decade thanks to the initiative of several community groups around the country, a few mainland sanctuaries have been established too.

Several of the mainland sanctuaries are enclosed by predator proof fences.  The fences are expensive to build and to maintain but they do a good job of protecting both native plants and animals.  There are also open sanctuaries with no fences, like ours.  We rely on predator control through trapping and poisoning but without a predator proof fence it is a challenge for a sanctuary to release some of the most endangered birds and animals.  We visited three fenced sanctuaries and three open reserves.

The first place we visited was Rotokare  Reserve near Eltham, Taranaki.

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We arrived on Sunday afternoon and virtually had the place to ourselves.  The entry is kind of scary because you have to go through two gates in the big fence. The 8.2 km long and 2 m high fence is even topped with an electric wire—very welcoming!

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You press a button and drive through the first gate which then closes behind you.  Only then can you press the button to open the second gate.

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This reserve has a large lake in the middle which is open to the public for water sports.  This has posed interesting challenges because the needs and expectations of the recreational water sporting enthusiasts and the environmentalists are not always consistent. But over time people have learnt to comprise and they are co-existing well.

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We walked the 4 km track along the lake and saw some amazing mature native trees.

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Bushy Park, which is near Whanganui on the way to Wellington, also has the same sort of double gate system.

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But it is unusual in that the stately home of the person who gifted the land to the trust is inside the sanctuary.

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We saw the biggest and oldest known rata tree in NZ – estimated to be about 800 hundred years old with a height of 42 metres (142 ft) and a girth of 11.9 metres. A Rata starts life by germinating in the branches of a host tree.  It then grows downwards and eventually completely surrounds and kills the host.  As a result, rata trees are almost always hollow.

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The walk was very peaceful and we saw many threatened native birds like saddlebacks and stitch birds that have been released in the sanctuary. Plus a friendly New Zealand robin followed us around for a while.

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The last fenced sanctuary we visited is Maungatautari near Cambridge. It is the largest fenced sanctuary in NZ encompassing 3400 hectares (8400 acres).

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This sanctuary is another good example of how communities with competing interests can come together for the common good. Several neighbouring farmers and local Maori have generously given their land for the creation of this sanctuary.

It is on the top of an extinct volcano and surrounded by a 47 km (28 mile) fence.

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We spent a few nice hours walking around the various tracks within the sanctuary and encountered lots of birds.  This is a kaka, one of NZ’s native parrots who can be friendly to the point of appearing aggressive.

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In addition to the fenced sanctuaries, we also visited three open nature reserves, Nga Manu in Waikanae, Paengaroa near Whanganui and Otari Wilton in Wellington.  Nature reserves without fences have a completely different feel.

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The only warning was to watch out for pukeko, a very interesting bird.

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These are pukekos:

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Actually there was another warning sign– that this bridge in Paengaroa could only take one person at a time.  It actually felt like one was too many!

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Although we spent a lot of time in the reserves, most of our time was spent enjoying the sights and people we encountered along the way.  Rotokare is in Taranaki and the region gets its name from Mount Taranaki, a volcano.  You may have noticed that I didn’t say “extinct volcano.”  It is referred to as “active but quiescent” and the fact that they think it will wake up some time in the next 50 years doesn’t make me very quiescent.

The mountain is 2,500 metres (8,300 feet) high and dominates the landscape of Taranaki.

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We spent the night in Hawerea and this was the view from our room.

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A bit of trivia.  Hawera means “burnt place” in Maori because during a tribal battle a village was burned down.  Coincidentally, over the years, the town of Hawera has had three huge fires and as a result a big (and fancy) water tower was built to ensure that there would be enough water to fight any future fires.

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And this is the local library.

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On the drive we saw a lot of interesting sights.  Like this patriotic barn.

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This is hay-making season and a lot of farmers have hay in plastic covered bales waiting to be sold or stored.

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But in some areas they had pink plastic for breast cancer awareness—a new program started in the past couple of months to raise health awareness in rural areas.

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Most of the towns in Taranaki are booming because of the dairy industry but this one seemed a bit too quiet on a Monday morning!

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We continued on our way to Wellington.

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We encountered a lot of entertaining road signs along the way.  Here is the sign announcing that you’ve arrived in Bulls, a prosperous farming town of 1,700.

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We spent a few relaxing days in Wellington with our friends Pauline and Steve.  On the way back we drove for a while along the Kapiti Coast which is the southwestern coast of the North Island.  It is lined with small communities and black sandy beaches and we braved the crowds at Pekapeka Beach.

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Behind me in the photo above is Kapiti Island which is an island eco-sanctuary.

We were heading north towards Lake Taupo, which is a big lake virtually in the centre of the North Island.  On the way we passed some picturesque old settlements.

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This interesting horse caught our eye.

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But then we saw the sign.

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We passed through Taihape (pronounced Tie happy), population 2,000, which calls itself the Gumboot Capital of the World and welcomes you with a giant gumboot statue.

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And here is the Taihape town hall.

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I was curious about the town name and found that it was originally Otaihape and that in Maori it means “home of Tai the hunchback.”

Lake Taupo is located on a high plateau and as we approached, the landscape changed from farms and forests to tussock.

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This part of the North Island is very geologically active and we passed Tongariro National Park which is home to three active volcanos—Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngaruhoe.  This is Ruapehu which last erupted in 2007, badly injuring a climber.

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Lake Taupo is actually the caldera crater of a monstrous volcano that erupted about 27,000 years ago.  It was supposedly the largest volcanic eruption in history and it has affected the geology of the entire country, covering the soil with several feet of volcanic ash and changing the course of rivers.  The lake is 616 square kilometres (238 square miles) and is the size that Singapore was before they started making Singapore bigger by reclaiming land.

Today Lake Taupo is one of NZ’s most popular recreation areas with skiing in the mountains and fishing in the lake.  You can tell by the little towns along the way that you are getting close to the lake and a recreation area.

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The lake is clean and beautiful and peaceful.

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But it’s a little disconcerting because as you walk along the edge you will see little bare areas with steam escaping as the lake is fed by underground hot water springs.  It’s hard to see the steam in the picture but I stuck my hand in the water and believe me, you don’t want to keep it there long, and you can see the mineral deposits that have formed as well.  The water gets colder further away from the lake edges and in the centre the lake is 186 metres (600 feet) deep.

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The lake is ringed with both vacation and permanent homes, from the very basic:

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To the more opulent:

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We had a nice walk around the lake and met some interesting natives and visitors.  We came across a guy hitting golf balls into the lake and stopped to find out what he was up to.

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He was running the Lake Taupo Hole in One project.  On the platform in the lake are three holes with the smallest being a regulation sized golf hole.  If you get a hole in one you win $10,000 and there are lesser prizes for getting the ball in the larger holes or even for getting the ball on the platform.  Divers go out to retrieve the balls.  And the occasional club.

They charge $1 for one ball and you can also buy buckets of 18 or more balls.  I figured I’d give it a try for a buck.  The guy took one look at me at me and very kindly handed me two balls in exchange for my dollar.

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How did I do?  Suffice it to say that this picture doesn’t include the landing zones of my two efforts.  However, the guy did tell us that over the last 7 years 19 people have won the $10,000 prize!

We spent the night at Lake Taupo and then headed north towards our last stop before Auckland.

A must see attraction just on the outskirts of Lake Taupo is Huka Falls.  It is a gorge where the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest river leaves the lake and starts its flow.  Because a huge amount of water is trying to get through a small area there is a lot of activity and a beautiful waterfall.

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Because of all the volcanic activity in the area there are a number of geothermal attractions.  Our next stop was a place called Craters of the Moon.  It is a big area with several vents leaking steam.  There is a sulphur smell in the air and the chemicals coming up with the fumes have stained the surrounding soil and prevent anything but scrub vegetation from growing.

It’s real steam coming out of the ground and the holes are very deep so they don’t fool around:

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We then headed to Orakei Korako.  In Maori, Orakei Korako means “adorned place” and the name refers to the colourful mineral deposits that have come out of the hot springs and geysers.  According to the literature, 20 million litres (about 5 million gallons) of water flows up out of the springs every day and into Lake Ohakuri which was formed when a hydroelectric dam was built on the Waikato River.  You take a boat ride across the lake and explore the pools and streams.

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It’s hard to tell from this picture, but that pool is boiling and bubbling away.

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And this is a bubbling mud pool.

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We headed back to Auckland after stopping at Maungatautari.  I realised that I hadn’t been stuck in traffic or had to stop at a red light since we’d left!

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We returned home rejuvenated with lots of good ideas and energized by the positive community networking we had a chance to experience.  It’s great to see that even communities with different interests can live and work together for the common good.

Happy holidays and all the best in 2015!

Would You Like a Foil Hat to Match?

I once wrote a dystopian story in which the human race, as a result of constant cell phone use, had mutated into two forms.  One form was adapted to texting while the other was built for talking on the phone.  Of course, being humans, each group hated the other for being different.

Well, I’m happy to say that it looks like that story may not come true!

There is a concern that the emanations from cell phones and computers may be dangerous to our health.  In the case of men, who often hold or carry phones at belt height or use laptops, which as the name suggests are often sited close to the lap, there is evidence that emanations can impair the motility of sperm and even cause genetic alterations.  In fact, there are medical practitioners who are raising red flags about the effects of long term exposure to wi-fi and other forms of radiation.

But it turns out we have a White Knight!  Entrepreneur reports a crowdfunding exercise started by a British physics teacher to produce something called “Wireless Armour” boxer briefs.

I’m not making this up.

Wireless Armour knickers are cotton with some sort of silver mesh woven in that blocks 99.99% of harmful radiation.

As you might guess, protection isn’t cheap.  The introductory offer (which also includes a personal call from the physics teacher) is something called “The Weekly Armour Set.”  It costs about NZ$300 and includes 8 pairs of nickers.  As the promotion says, one for each day and one for emergency.  I guess you never know when an exciting new app might make someone mess their Armour.

It will be interesting to see if the Wireless Armour idea catches on.  It’s scary to think that someone might Tweet that they are wearing their Wireless Armour or how they feel.  Or worse, post a selfie.

The best we can hope for is that the radiation issue gets some serious study and the products are designed and built to protect the user so the user doesn’t have to resort to silver lined underwear.

I Wish My Daddy Had Worn Wireless Armour!

Godzilla

Way Down South

The past few months have been fairly hectic and it’s been a while since we took a trip so my wife and I decided to spend a few days at the bottom of the South Island.  We hadn’t been down that way since 2003 and were hoping to find it as uncrowded and unspoiled as we remembered.  And it was!  Not only did we see some interesting things, we also met a lot of very interesting people.

We were at the very bottom of the South Island and the only thing further south is Antarctica.

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Here is our route:

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We flew into Dunedin, about 2 hours from Auckland, and picked up a rental car.  Our first stop was the Orokonui Ecosanctuary just outside of Dunedin.  It was a little cloudy but the views were great on the drive up.???????????????????????????????Orokonui is dedicated to saving seriously endangered native wildlife.  Before humans came to New Zealand, there were no mammals except for a small bat.  As a result, birds didn’t have to worry about predators and over time they lost the ability to fly.  Many NZ native birds are flightless and even if they can fly, they often spend a lot of their time on the ground and build their nests on the ground.

When humans arrived with rats, cats, dogs, weasels and stoats, a lot of native birds’ days were numbered and today many of them are either extinct or seriously endangered.  In addition to predators, other introduced pests such as rabbits and possums destroy the habitat of many birds by eating vegetation.

The Department of Conservation has established several island bird sanctuaries, however over the past decade thanks to the initiative of several community groups around the country, a few mainland bird sanctuaries have been established too.

The Orokonui Sanctuary is 307 hecatares (about 750 acres) in size and in order to protect native wildlife in the sanctuary, a nine kilometre (about five and a half mile) predator proof fence has been built completely around the park.  You start off in the very interesting visitor’s centre.???????????????????????????????Once you register, you are given an access code for the gate to the fence.  It’s a little bit like entering a maximum security prison.  The fence is 2 metres high and mesh covered to prevent even baby mice from sneaking in.  It has a metal skirt at the bottom to prevent animals from burrowing underneath and vegetation is cleared in a 4 metre wide path along the fence so that animals can’t climb neighbouring trees and jump over.  There is also a sensor wire to set off an alarm if any animal tries to climb over the top.  As I say, maximum security.???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????There are huge debates as to whether fences like this are economically justifiable.  But it seems worthwhile when you get inside and see some of the birds that are wandering around.  This is a takahe—a large adult can weigh ten pounds.6After spending a leisurely few hours at Orokonui we headed to Cromwell in Central Otago to visit our friends Heather and Paul.  They used to live in Auckland but moved last year.  As you drive north you leave the temperate rain forest and move into prairies and desert.???????????????????????????????

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???????????????????????????????Cromwell has a population of about 4,000 and has the distinction of being the town in New Zealand that is farthest from the ocean—119 kilometres (about 70 miles).  It is a lovely and interesting place.  ???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????It was a boom town in the 1800s when gold was mined extensively in the area.  And when you walk around you can see some of the old settlements.  There are also warning signs to watch out for abandoned mine shafts.???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????Of course, this being New Zealand, the only thing that hadn’t abandoned the area were sheep!???????????????????????????????The Clutha River flows through Cromwell and in the 1990s a dam was built just south of the town to provide hydroelectric power.???????????????????????????????As a result, a good part of the old town is now underneath Lake Dunstan, which was formed by the dam.  Over the past few years the old town has been reconstructed along the lake.???????????????????????????????

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???????????????????????????????Before leaving Cromwell we visited New Zealand’s only bug reserve.  The Chafer beetle lives only in New Zealand and is considered critically endangered.  Like native birds, the beetles don’t fly and therefore are sitting ducks for introduced predators.  In 1983 a 200 acre field was set aside to protect the beetles and at the time was the only reserve in the world created for an invertebrate. 

To be honest, you don’t see a lot when you visit the reserve because the beetles live underground.  And you can imagine that there are a lot of property developers wondering why some really prime real estate has been fenced off just for some bugs you can’t even see.  I figure we can afford to give up 200 acres for bugs rather than a BMX track.???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????When people think of New Zealand, they usually think of two islands—North and South.  However there is a third island and years ago, it was called the South Island and what is now the South Island was called the Middle Island.  Today the original South Island is called Stewart Island or Rakiura.  Stewart Island is much smaller than the other islands and has only about 400 inhabitants, most of whom are involved with either fishing or tourism.

Because of its isolation, there has never been significant human settlement or development on the island and many native New Zealand plants and animals which are threatened are able to survive.  Tourism on the island focuses on nature walks and hikes and there are a number of walking tracks both on Stewart Island and its surrounding smaller islands.

You can reach the island by either a boat or plane from Invercargill which is the southernmost city in NZ.  We had heard that the boat ride could be hair-raising because of rough seas and in fact was often cancelled.  So we decided to take the plane.  It did occur to me that flying through conditions that could prevent ships from getting through might make the flight a bit of an adventure.

And that concern was heightened when I saw the plane.???????????????????????????????This is how it looked from the inside:

???????????????????????????????And here is a picture from the last row where we were sitting.  There were an odd number of passengers so the extra person got to sit in the co-pilot’s seat.  The pilot is telling him to keep his hands to himself and not touch anything.  And I think the guy behind him is covering his eyes!

???????????????????????????????Actually the flight was very smooth and the only thing breathtaking was the scenery.

???????????????????????????????There was no airport, just an airstrip and a van from the town was waiting for us.  Incidentally, the van is also the control tower. The pilot and van driver communicated on the radio about landing conditions.

The van dropped us at the depot in Oban, the only town on Stewart Island and home to over 80% of the people who live on the island.???????????????????????????????We were met by Andy, who with Jo, his wife runs Jo and Andy’s B&B which is where we would be staying.  Andy, Jo and the B&B were all very interesting and we spent many hours in interesting conversations.

We spent a lot of time exploring Stewart Island, but the high point of our visit was a day trip to Ulva Island which is a ten minute boat ride from Oban.

???????????????????????????????The forest at Ulva Island was never logged for timber so unlike many other sanctuaries where the forest is only about 100– 200 years old,  the trees here were several hundred years old. It was amazing and energizing walk.???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????The Department of Conservation has laid out a series of beautifully constructed and well maintained walking tracks and you can explore the island on your own or get a guide.

Ulva Island is pest free and home to a huge variety of native NZ birds and we saw a lot of them.

Because no one bothers the birds, other than tourists taking pictures, they are very friendly.  The South Island robin, which doesn’t have a red breast, is very plentiful.  In the hope that you will kick up some juicy bugs as you walk along, they follow you as you walk.???????????????????????????????

We also saw the NZ kaka, which is another indigenous and endangered parrot.  They are big and noisy.???????????????????????????????Another bird that is threatened outside of conservation parks is the saddleback.  It is black with a brown patch on its back and red cheeks and has a lovely bird call.???????????????????????????????And we were surprised when a kiwi ran across our path, but he was too quick to get a photo.  Unlike the North Island kiwi, the South Island kiwi is not nocturnal. In the North Island there used to be a giant raptor (now extinct) that would feast on ground birds, so the kiwi up north evolved over time to be nocturnal.  With no such predator in the South, the kiwi here are diurnal.

After three nice days on Stewart Island we took the early morning flight back to Invercargill.  The plan for the rest of the trip was to do a leisurely drive along the southern coast back to Dunedin with a stop in Pounawea in the Catlins.

The Catlins Coast is the area of NZ between Invercargill and Balclutha.  The population of the entire area is only about 1,200.  The last time we were there, we were told to take in any food we wanted to the camp ground because there was only one grocery store and one restaurant—a fish and chips shop.  After ten years, it hasn’t changed much although there are now more accommodation options, a bigger grocery store and five restaurants.  But by and large it is a wonderfully wild and deserted area with lots of temperate rain forests and interesting birds and animals including seals and penguins.

Although the weather was fine while we were there, storms from the Southern Ocean can create havoc and there are two lighthouses along the way.  The area has also been the site of many shipwrecks, including NZs worst maritime disaster.

Our first stop was Waipapa Point where in 1881 the SS Tararua sank in a storm with the loss of 131 lives.  As a result, a lighthouse was built at the point in 1884.  It is built of wood and still operates.???????????????????????????????The area is surrounded by a rocky beach and there were sea lions wandering around as well.???????????????????????????????

???????????????????????????????The sea lions look like a lot of fun but there are signs everywhere to stay at least 20 feet away from them because they may not like you as much as you like them.  There was also this scary sign:

???????????????????????????????Certainly one of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Niagara Falls (NZ).???????????????????????????????Another sign a little further along warns you not to get your expectations too high.

???????????????????????????????And here’s the reality.  Even I would go over these falls in a barrel!!

???????????????????????????????A short drive away are the Matai Falls which are a bit more impressive:

???????????????????????????????Late in the afternoon we arrived at Pounawea which is located where the Catlin River flows into the ocean.  There is no town to speak of, just a few houses and the camp ground where we stayed.  When we arrived the office was closed and this sign had been taped to the door:

???????????????????????????????We were staying in a cabin and because we’d stayed at the camp before, we chose cabin ‘B4’ and got settled in.  Here I am having the obligatory cup of tea.

???????????????????????????????And checking out the beach at low tide.

???????????????????????????????In addition to being right on the ocean, the camp is also in the middle of a nature reserve filled with centuries-old trees.

???????????????????????????????We spent three days at the camp and explored the surrounding area.  Somewhere along the way we had picked up a flyer for a place called “Earthlore Insect Theme Park.”  It sounded interesting but debated whether we should go.  It was Saturday and it was raining and we thought there might be a huge crowd of kids.  We took our chances and when we arrived, we were the only people there!

???????????????????????????????We were met by Gordon, who along with his wife Jeannine owns and runs Earthlore.  On this trip we met many interesting people, but  Gordon was certainly one of the most interesting.  We ended up spending over three hours at Earthlore and left with a lot of good information and gifts of fresh fruit from his organic orchard.

Gordon and Jeannine are amazing artists who display their work around the Catlins.  They gave up careers in Dunedin and bought the property with the original idea of having a unique bed and breakfast in which the accommodation would be gypsy caravans individually built by Gordon.  Here is his first effort:

???????????????????????????????Unfortunately, the local council wouldn’t let them operate as a business because the caravans weren’t wheelchair accessible.

Plan B was Earthlore which in an amazing place where people, but especially kids can learn about insects and their importance to just about everything on earth.  The main attraction is something called “Bug City” in which the kids have to solve mysteries by learning bug facts under the guidance of “Inspector Insector.”  I like the antennae on the hat.

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???????????????????????????????While there we met another interesting person, William Bisset, who is making a television documentary on the interesting people and the history of Southland.  He is travelling through the Catlins with nothing but his clothing and cameras and he knocks on peoples’ doors and asks them if he can stay with them.  He works to earn his keep.  He is currently staying at Earthlore and helping Gordon with various maintenance jobs.  And he is staying in the gypsy caravan!

???????????????????????????????You can check out a two minute video about his project here or have a look at his web site here.

In addition to interesting people, there was no shortage of fantastic scenery.  This is the lighthouse at Nugget Point.

???????????????????????????????It’s a long walk to the top but worth it.   You don’t have to be a geologist to wonder about how those rocks got the way they are.

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???????????????????????????????And we had the beach to ourselves at Surat Point, the site of another shipwreck.

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???????????????????????????????And walked through a spooky abandoned railway tunnel:

???????????????????????????????After a visit to the ominously named Cannibal Bay, we headed toward Dunedin where we were going to spend the night at a place near the airport for our early morning flight.  Some locals told us to avoid the main road and take the coast road.  They claimed, and they were right, that the views would more than make up for the fact that the road isn’t paved.

For about 50 kilometres we didn’t see another car but nonstop amazing scenery.

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???????????????????????????????We are hoping that the next time we come back the road will still be unpaved! On the drive home after landing in Auckland I realised I was encountering traffic lights for the first time in ten days.  Sort of makes you ready to go back!

All I Don’t Want For Christmas

A few days ago, Solid Gold Creativity had a very moving post about The Big Issue.  I hadn’t heard of the magazine before, but it is published by a not for profit organisation that supports the homeless and marginalised.  It is sold by homeless and disabled people who earn income from the sales.

A recent issue in Australia included Christmas wishes to readers from some of the people who are selling the magazine on the streets.  The messages are simple and beautiful—full of thanks and good will and completely devoid of selfishness.

Hearing these kinds of sentiments from some of the poorest people in society was both inspiring and disturbing.  What made it disturbing was that I had just returned from the US where the twelve days of Christmas seem to last about twelve weeks.  Any altruistic sentiments were totally lost in the retail extravaganza of Black Friday and the non-stop playing of tacky Christmas carols on radio, TV and in any public venue.

On the plane on the way home, in a suitably festive mood as you can imagine, I started to flip through the complimentary magazines and found out some of the exciting things on offer in the gift and technology department this year.  I usually never look at those magazines because I get nervous when I think that the kind of people they seem to be intended for might actually exist.

This time was no exception.  The gifts and technology wow factors on offer were truly scary.  It was a little confusing because interspersed among real things you can buy are effusive descriptions of new technologies that are on offer to make our lives better.  The question is not whether you would want some of these things.  The question is why anyone would want them.

I kept the magazine to show people when I got home and had another look at it after reading the post about The Big Issue.  Talk about a sobering thought.  The gap between the world of the people selling The Big Issue and the intended market for the products in the magazine is, for lack of a better word, obscene.

1. Backyard Television.

For those who consider a television in every room too pedestrian, you can now have an entertainment system installed in your back yard.  The centrepiece is a 201 inch (that’s almost 17 feet!) screen that “stores itself underground.”  Also included is a library of over 300 movies and concerts.

The price tag for the system is from $1.5 to $2.6 million, presumably depending on how hard it is to hide the TV when it’s in the ground.  I guess if you can afford to lay out that kind of money on a TV in the back yard, you can also afford to live in a place where the neighbours aren’t going to be bothered by a 17 foot TV screen in the back yard.  But then again, if you have that kind of money, wouldn’t you and your friends have better things to do than sit in the back yard and watch TV?

2. Pillow speakers.

Yes.  A pillow with built-in speakers.  As the blurb says, “It’s perfect for you if you hate tangled wires in bed.”  Think about that.  Non-stop sensory stimulation has become so normalised that someone has come up with a solution to tangled wires in bed.  The blurb also says, “If you’re [sic] teen loves to hear music, it’s a fine gift this Christmas.”  Better parenting through technology—always a winner

3.  Carriage Bed

A company called Posh Tots offers a bed that looks like a Cinderella carriage.  For a mere $47,000.  The blurb says it all:  “Treat the little princess in your life like just that [sic].  This carriage-inspired bed is the perfect sleep and play station for making dreams come true.”

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I don’t know where to start so I’ll just mention the use of the words “sleep and play station.”  Something for the kid to enjoy until they grow up and spend time at their work station?

4. Zero Gravity Wedding

For $18,000 you can go up in a plane that dives and simulates weightlessness and get married at the same time.

5.  Hover Bike

Now this one is pretty good, but impractical.  It is a James Bond type helicopter/bicycle.  You can’t buy one because they are still testing the prototype but you can put your name on the list to buy one for $46,000.   It has several good, practical applications but because it can fly at 170 miles per hour a few feet above the ground they are probably not going to be widely available to the average commuter.

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6.  Last, but not least, the iPad Baby Seat.

Called the “Apptivity Seat,” this infant rocker includes an iPad holder.  And don’t forget the ‘iPotty’ which is a toilet training seat with an iPad holder.  The idea is get the kid to sit there long enough.  How has the human race survived?

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I don’t know about you, but I think that before we run out and book a zero gravity wedding we should think about the lady in Australia who thanked the people who tipped her when she sold them a magazine because “I get my hair done and buy new clothes.”

It’s Official—I’m a Visionary

Regular readers will find the above assertion no surprise, but it’s always nice to bask in the reflection that one is able to discern trends and stuff ahead of the curve.  This was brought home recently when I saw a report that the Global Language Monitor (GLM) had compiled a list of the most overused business words of 2013.

Five out of the fifteen words, a whopping 33%, had been identified by me in previous posts, some as old as 2010, as overused and/or irritating.  Which is basically the same thing.

The problem with the GLM list was that it only listed the words without explaining their meaning.  For the most part, this isn’t a problem because, let’s face it, the fundamental meaning of overused words isn’t that important.  But I think it’s important to know what we’re talking about so I’m including the GLM list below with my commentary.

Content.  Historically, this word had two meanings.  As an adjective it means happy or satisfied.  As a noun, usually with an ‘s’ on the end, it means the stuff inside.  So the contents of a gallon of milk are the milk.  The contents of your closet are your clothes.  Which you may or may not be content with.  But ‘content’ in the current sense is a marketing term that refers to information about a product that might make you want to buy it.

The best example I can think of is car commercials.  To me they are fairly content free because they usually don’t tell you much about the car.  But from the marketing perspective they are content rich because they inform you that if you buy the car you will look prosperous, your family (including the dog) will be happy and you will be an object of admiration.

Social Media.  Facebook and Twitter.  Overused?  Yes.

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Sustainability.  I called this word overused in September 2010.  The word is appearing to be more sustainable than some of the things that were being described as sustainable back then.

Transparency.  The word may be overused, but true examples of business or government transparency remain highly elusive.

Literally.  In March 2011 I suggested that this word be “given a rest.”  You literally can’t have a conversation without someone literally overusing this word.  Literally!

Guru.  I was surprised to see this on the list because as far as I’m concerned, it was overused in the 80s and 90s when personal computers were becoming mainstream.  Before we called them IT geeks, people who knew how to format disks and things like that were called ‘computer gurus.’

Utilize. Not sure why this word made the list.  It is a nice, utilitarian word that I utilize when it has utility.

Robust.  You heard it here first in March 2011!  But its persistence has proven amazingly robust.

Ping.  This used to mainly mean fancy golf clubs.  Then after The Hunt for Red October, we got used to calling radar beeps pings.  Then network geeks started using it to describe test signals and things like that. But now, among the cognoscenti, (a fancy word for the people who make words be overused), this means any kind of communication, presumably because most of their communications are electronic.  So if a friend asks you if you want to have dinner you might say, “I’ll check my schedule and ping you.”

Big Data.  I mentioned this one in January 2013.  One wonders why we haven’t started talking about “Huge Data,” because by now that big data can only have gotten a lot bigger.

Seamless.  This is a word whose primary purpose is to make you feel stupid.  Like when your phone company changes its system “to serve you better,” and tells you that there will be a seamless transition.  When it doesn’t work, they make you think it’s your fault.

Moving Forward.  Nothing wrong with it—we should be moving forward, but this phrase sure is used a lot.  In the news headlines today I saw it used describe everything from a starlet who just got divorced, a person who lost out on The X Factor, a company in bankruptcy, South Africa post Nelson Mandela and the Philippine typhoon survivors.

The Cloud.  This one is going to be hanging over our heads for a long, long time.

Offline.  The eighties called and they want their buzzword back!  So overused, it’s gotten where bar room brawlers are asked to “Hey, take it offline.”

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I would be remiss if I didn’t provide a couple of buzzwords to watch for 2014.  Here are a couple that seem to be sustainable.  They’ve gotten on my radar screen and I think we will be hearing more of them moving forward.  I promise to ping you next year for an update.

Target persona.  This is one of the terms made possible by Big Data.  It used to be that companies pitched products at target markets, 18-25 year olds for example.  This was called marketing to a demographic.  But now instead of demographics we have the wonderful concept of psychographics, which is how people in a particular demographic think and act.  So a product might no longer be pitched at all 18-25 year olds, but rather to 18-25 year old geeks, or jocks, or whatever.  And those people are the target persona.  Scary, isn’t it?

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Authenticity.  The idea behind this word is that we have become suspicious of terms such as “New,” “Improved,” and “To Serve You Better.”  So if you see “Authentic,” appended to any claim, you may assume that it is totally true and not hype.  At least that’s the idea.

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Community Culture.  No, not your neighbourhood.  Believe it or not, this term refers to how and by whom a product is discussed on social media sites.  If you want to be really scared, go to the Coke, Starbucks or Apple Facebook pages.   These are communities of people who are united around their adulation of the brand.  The Apple FB page for example has over 10 million likes.  Who says corporations aren’t people? Which reminds me, don’t get me started on Hashtags.

Keep an eye out and prepare to cringe when you see these words next year!

Lifeboat Earth?

I’ve been working on a new novel, which is one of the reasons I’ve been so quiet lately.  When people ask me what the book is about, I tell them that one of the things I’m trying to do is reconcile the conflict between my wanting to view people and humanity as fundamentally good and deserving the best, and the reality of how people and humanity generally behave.

It’s the old question of if little kids are so sweet and innocent, why are sandboxes often the site of bullying, fights and generally feral behaviour.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the topic and totally by accident came across a book that helps put things in perspective.  The book, by Australians Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, is ominously entitled No Mercy:  True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality (Text Publishing, 2013).

I had no intention of reading that book.  It sounded too much like the lurid stuff I used to read in junior high school, but it hooked me from the first page.  The book is a compilation of disasters, primarily shipwrecks, and the authors analyze the behaviour of the survivors to see if there are patterns of human behaviour and group dynamics that emerge in times of stress.

Most of the cases are shipwrecks from the days of sailing ships because back then it was easy for survivors to be marooned in isolated parts of the world for long periods of time.  It turns out that these situations are perfect laboratories for observing how groups behave and for spotting behaviour patterns.

One of the things that makes the book so readable is that is it not simply a litany of disasters with each chapter being a gruesome account of a different disaster.  Rather, the chapters are organized around the types of things that become issues in these situations–for example, leadership, personal relationships, care of the sick and wounded, and dealing with things like hunger, thirst, conflicts in the group and adverse environmental conditions.  Different groups’ handling of these things are compared and contrasted.

The bad news is that in a survey of 23 disasters spanning from 134 BC to 2010, in only one case did the group of survivors manage not to end up spiralling out of control into acts of inhumanity.  You can imagine what I mean by “acts of inhumanity.”

Yes, it’s grim reading but one of the things that makes it all worthwhile is the stirring story of the Grafton, which was wrecked in the Southern Ocean in January 1864.  The crew was stranded for 20 months in impossible conditions but actually managed to survive and save themselves with no loss of life.  It is an amazing story of human ingenuity and endurance.  Interestingly, 4 months after the Grafton was lost, another ship, the Invercauld, ran aground only 15 kilometres away.  The two groups were unaware of each other and the Invercauld crew suffered from appallingly bad leadership and group friction.  Eighty-four per cent of the crew died before they were rescued even though they were stranded for a shorter time.

You might wonder what centuries-old shipwrecks have to do with us today.  In the last chapter, the authors summarize their findings and conclude that there are nine factors related to the social decay that lead to failed survivor groups.  Although each case is different, as groups fall apart they fail at each of these steps and move to increasing levels of violence and savagery.  And what invariably starts a group down the track of inhumanity is a failure of leadership.

If you think of Planet Earth as a lifeboat or desert island and the human race as survivors, it might be interesting to map our performance against that of failed groups.  How many of these nine characteristics of social decay do you think we are experiencing in our lifeboat today:

1.  Neglect of the sick and weak.

2.  A rapid descent into bickering over resources and labor.

3.  The corrosive, emotional effect of hunger, paranoia and fear.

4.  The collapse of leadership.

5.  Fragmentation into hostile factions.

6.  The emergence of personal hatred.

7.  An absolute loss of compassion and altruism.

8.  Casual acceptance of death.

9.  Violent fights that escalate into murder and, finally, the emergence of killing for entertainment.

The authors demonstrate that each of the failed groups progressed through these stages as a result of breakdowns in leadership and problems with the interactions between the leader and the group.

Some of the stories are funny, even though they led to tragedy.  In a shipwreck, the captain, if he survives, is generally by default in charge once the survivors are on land.  A surprisingly large number of captains choose not to go down with the ship but rather delegate that duty to other crew or passengers.  This doesn’t get things off on a good footing.

Also, once on land, a captain can create problems by not being sensitive to changed conditions. A group stranded near the North Pole started to disintegrate when the captain insisted that the crew continue to do his laundry, as had been their duty on shipboard.  Inflexibility, stupidity, inability to listen, arrogance and inability to cope with change were all characteristics of leaders who ended up leading their groups to disaster. And the people who let themselves be led into disaster are complicit.

It might be a bit of a reach to compare global society to a lifeboat, but I think it’s important to reflect on these nine characteristics of social decay as metaphors for what might be happening in our world.  Many workplaces and communities are marked by neglect of the sick and weak, bickering over resources, paranoia and fear and breakdown into hostile factions.  We can see many examples of loss of compassion and altruism both by governments and corporations.  And the news has given us a casual acceptance of death (as long as it’s far away).

The authors indicate that no matter how far down the track of inhumanity groups have progressed, when they are rescued, they quickly re-adapt to normal societal conventions.  The question is, who is going to rescue us?

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