Blackballed 2016

There is a tiny town in New Zealand called Blackball, population 300.  It used to be a prosperous mining town at the beginning of the 20th century, but mining has disappeared from the region and now it is a very pleasant place with friendly and fascinating natives, a growing tourism business and arts and craft shops and some great scenery.

You have to like Blackball and its people.  There was a hotel in town known as “The Blackball Hilton.”  If you saw it you would appreciate the irony.

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Well, it turns out that Hilton Hotels worldwide got wind of the fact that someone else was doing business using their name!  Hilton was convinced that (a) it would hurt their brand, and (b) give the Blackball Hilton an unfair competitive advantage.

Attorneys got involved.

I don’t know how much was spent by both sides, but the Blackball Hilton was legally required to stop calling itself the Hilton.

I love it that the hotel is now called “Formerly the Blackball Hilton.”  Apparently that satisfied the attorneys.

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Anyway, I tell you that story because it is an interesting example of the way neo-liberal steroidal capitalism operates and it leads nicely to the story of why the town is famous.

Blackball has a reputation for being a hotbed of labour unrest in New Zealand.  Workers at the Blackball mines instigated some of the longest strikes in NZ history and the New Zealand Labour party was founded there.  It was also the headquarters of the NZ Communist Party for a while.

Today other than some mining memorabilia, the main indication of the town’s colourful past is The Blackball Museum of Working Class History which documents the history of the mining industry and organised labour both in the town and throughout the country and wider world.

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In 1908 Blackball had a population of 500 and 170 of the men in town worked in the mine.  Working conditions weren’t too flash.  Workers regularly passed out because of bad ventilation and there were no facilities for washing up—that was something you did at home on your own time.

Memorial for Miners Who Died in Mine Acccidents--Blackball

Memorial for Miners Who Died in Mine Acccidents–Blackball

Management was apparently unsympathetic to suggestions for improvements.  For example, the standard lunch break in NZ coal mines at the time was half an hour but lunch breaks in the Blackball mines were limited to 15 minutes.

Two Australians and a New Zealander who had worked in other mines told the Blackball workers about the disparity and decided to make an issue of it.  Dubbed “The Wildmen” by management, they decided that given that they were working underground in dangerous conditions, a half an hour for lunch might be more reasonable.

The Wildmen started taking half hour lunches (they couldn’t go anywhere, they just ate more slowly down in the mine) and were promptly sacked by a vengeful management.  The remaining miners went on strike as a sign of solidarity (yes, they used that word) and both sides settled down for a fight.

I know that how you view these sorts of things depends on your way of looking at the world, but I think we can agree that giving coal miners an additional 15 minutes to relax and eat their lunch probably wouldn’t have driven the mining company out of business and that the strike was probably more damaging in the long run than if they had just agreed to the extra lunch period in the first place.

If you read the accounts, there was right and wrong on both sides, with power plays, ego, greed and selfishness clouding everyone’s judgement.  Not to mention, the strikers adopted a red flag, wore red rosettes in their lapels and took to calling each other “comrade” which must have scared the holy hell out of the rest of the citizenry.

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But what is interesting is to focus solely on the issue of the 15 minute lunch breaks.  During the strike, an Arbitration Court was held to try to settle the dispute.  According to the official report, “The judge, Justice Sims, growled that he thought fifteen minutes was ample for a lunch break.  [He then] glanced at the clock, noticed the time was 12:30 and stated that the court stood adjourned for lunch until 2pm.”

Why, you may be asking, is this issue from 1908 relevant today?

Because for one thing, in spite of the strike and decades of hearing about how important it is to empower employees and have a healthy workplace, it wasn’t until 2008 that NZ actually made it mandatory for employers to provide breaks and a half hour lunch break for employees.  But in 2014 those requirements were removed.  Employers no longer are required to provide breaks but are supposed to provide “reasonable compensatory measures.”

I’m pretty sure that the decisions about how much break and lunch time employees get are made by people who don’t have anyone watching how long they take for lunch.  Not unlike the judge in the Blackball court, it’s easy to think that 15 minutes is plenty of time when you can take an hour and a half.

We met a few other visitors as we wandered around Blackball Museum and it was surprising how much conversation—and emotion—was generated by the issue of the strike and the treatment of the employees.  At one extreme you had people who feel that organized labour has caused all economic and social problems and at the other extreme is the view that selfish, profit before anything, businesses are ruining the world.

Of course the answer is somewhere in between and the solution, I think, is for enlightened leaders and managers to just do what they think is right.  When we got home we went to a seafood restaurant, Ika, in Auckland which is one of the first organisations to adopt a “living wage” for its employees.  The living wage is calculated from cost of living data and is the hourly rate required to provide the “basic necessities” for a family of two adults and two children, with one adult working 40 hours and one 20 hours a week.  The living wage in NZ is currently $19.25 an hour.  The minimum wage is $14.75.

The increased earnings have enabled employees to pay off debt, get medical and dental care they had been deferring and actually start to save.  The owner of the restaurant says that she thinks restaurants should make money because of the quality of their food and service, not because they don’t pay their employees.

PS—The food at Ika was fantastic!

Living In the Moment or For the Moment?

On a recent trip to the South Island, we picked up a hitchhiker.  He was a young guy from Germany who was taking a year off between high school and college and spending six months in NZ.  His budget was such that he had to rely on hitching for transport and he was actively seeking out the lowest cost accommodation wherever he stayed.

Nevertheless, he informed us, he had spent a sizeable amount of his budget on extreme sports such as sky diving and bungy jumping.  His strategy confused me.   Why spend big bucks for an experience you measure in seconds when you are on such a tight budget?

His response to the question—and I know this because I asked—is that he’d always wanted to come to NZ and he never knew when he’d be back so he had to “live for the moment.”

In fact several extreme sport activities were being marketed as “Live for the moment,” and that seemed to be the mantra for the tourists.  So I had to stop and think when I saw a poster in a shop that had a quote attributed to Mother Teresa which said “Be Happy in the Moment.  That’s Enough.  Each Moment Is All We Need, Not More.”

That got me thinking – when we live for the moment do we necessarily live in the moment?

I started to think that the universe was trying to tell me something when a few days later I decided to live for the moment and do a (mildly) extreme sport. Like the hitchhiker, I didn’t know if or when I’d be back this way so why not indulge in the experience.

It’s always highly amusing when I do touristy things like that because extreme sport attractions are operated by, and marketed to, an entirely different demographic from mine.  The twentysomething Alpha males who operate those attractions always size me up with a look and tone of voice that say they’re not sure if I’m crazy, confused, or just hopelessly uncool.  Or maybe the Undercover Boss so they better be nice to me.

As I was being strapped into the (alarmingly well worn) harness that would prevent me from tumbling hundreds of feet as I “flew” over a raging river, I was definitely not “in the moment,” because I was wondering why all those straps were necessary and what might happen if one of them failed.  But as soon as the ground man told me “launch when ready,” I was totally “in the moment.”  I savoured the sensations and the sights.  I didn’t think of anything but how good I felt and how amazing the view and the sounds and the feelings were.

Because it was a composite of sensory experiences, it was impossible to describe the ride to other people when I landed.  I didn’t even try.  To do the stunt I’d just paid more than the price of a nice dinner in a good restaurant.  Was it worth it?  Yes!  It was a fantastically unique and amazing experience and I was totally immersed in it.

I had another interesting experience a couple of days later while on a harbor nature cruise in which it was possible to see dolphins and seals and penguins.  I was definitely not “in the moment” on that trip.  You sail around and the captain tells you where you will see dolphins and seals and penguins.  That is a signal to try to take as many pictures as you can as quickly as possible because catching a dolphin jumping out of the water is really hard, even if it is right next to you.

The cruise was very enjoyable and interesting.  And we saw lots of dolphins and other marine life.  But instead of being immersed in the actual experience of seeing birds and animals in their natural environment, I was immersed in taking photographs of the experience.

Would I have enjoyed the cruise more if I hadn’t been focusing so much on trying to get good pictures—and as you can see, largely failing?

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I believe true enjoyment lies in experiencing and being in the moment, but there is also much enjoyment derived in the remembering the moment later.

Which then raises the question—what if I had been stricken with amnesia after the two experiences I described.

While doing the ‘superman’ ride, I had no camera on me and with no documentary proof of my thrilling sensory experience, was it money well spent if I can no longer remember the experience?

But since I have pictures of the dolphins to “remind” me of the fun cruise, would I be happier about having spent the money?

What do you think?

Auckland Big Gay Out—14 February 2016

One of the many things I like about living in New Zealand is that it is the most open and tolerant society I’ve experienced.  Ever since I moved here in 2001 the city has held something called the Big Gay Out on a Sunday in mid-February.  It is a main event of the Auckland Pride Festival and is basically a family friendly gay themed carnival, party and community celebration rolled into one.

The Big Gay Out is always held at Coyle Park which is on a point on the Waitemata Harbour across from downtown Auckland.

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As you arrive you think you are coming to just any other community fair.

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But it doesn’t take long to figure out what the event is all about.

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And in addition to food stalls and other interesting vendors there are lots of booths promoting gay pride and safe sex.

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Lots of organisations got into the spirit of the day, even the bus company!

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There was lots of entertainment, music and dancing.

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They also had a giant screen where you could tweet your greetings to the crowd.

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But what made the day so interesting and special was that it really was just a fun community family get together.  Even the New Zealand Police were there, not for crowd control but to recruit new cops.

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And apparently it was working!

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Even the (politically center right) Prime Minister came by to say hello—he’s the guy in the pink shirt flanked by two members of parliament.

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You couldn’t help feeling pride in a community that was so willing to be open and inclusive.

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And the objective was for the community to get out, meet new people and have fun.

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We had a fun time wandering around and enjoying the crowd and the sights.  And it was so nice to be at a place where no one asked me what I thought about the US presidential election and candidates!

 

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!