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Down Under

I posted this six years ago, which certainly dates the references in the next paragraph, but not the state sanctioned excuse for enjoying an opportunity to gather the clan together, lay in a slab of beer and put more shrimps on the barbie on a three-day weekend at the end of January.

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What with the sad passing of Heath Ledger and the disappearance of close to 10 billion dollars from global investments, you may be excused for not noticing the national holiday down under. In case it does not appear on your calendar, it is called Australia Day. January 26 commemorates the completion of phase one of Captain Arthur Phillip’s orders– lead a fleet of eleven ships halfway around the world to a barely-known continent and set up housekeeping with a population of prisoners and their keepers. To the natives, of course, it was Invasion Day.

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Botany Bay had…

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With the eyes of all tennis aficionados on Melbourne, the temperature hit the stratosphere. Players wilted and the officials seemed to think the players should all behave like mad dogs or Englishmen. Some of the Aussies loved it, of course, lording their tolerance for extreme temps over their European competitors. In the three summers we have been in Melbourne, I’ve been to the Open only once, and that was a brief visit. It was way back in 2008. Here’s my write up.

Down Under

I am reblogging this post, the only one I’ve written about the Australian Open.  I wrote this up in January, 2008, the summer we arrived in Australia.  That was a hot one, too, but not as hot as it has been during this last week.  With the eyes of all tennis aficionados on Melbourne, the temperature hit the stratosphere. Players wilted and the officials in charge seem to think they should all behave like mad dogs or Englishmen. Some of the Aussies loved it, of course, lording their tolerance for extreme temps over their European competitors.
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It’s a little late in the day but I lost my tennis virginity yesterday. At the Open. It took about five hours and was relatively painless, though I did get a bit of a burn. I mentioned in my last post that there was a period years ago when I used to…

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Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand, is the last large piece of the temperate and sub-tropical world to be colonised by men and ground-living mammals. Some of its flora and fauna are descended from ancient Gondwanaland, from which New Zealand split eighty million years ago. The Islands evolved unique flora and flightless birds large and small, the only alpine parrot and some of the world’s most accomplished songbirds. Despite this lineage, it is difficult to find any landforms older than 14,000 years.

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One side of New Zealand has white-capped mountains, glaciers, hot springs, caves and volcanoes. It is home to the wild places like Fiordland, the Southern Alps, Mount Taranaki, Rotorua and the Western rain forests. This is the place the tourists come to see and play in. The other New Zealand is agricultural. It is tame, tidy country, marked off by high, long hedges and paddocks, extensive irrigation. A place that looks like it could well hide a hillside of hobbits. It hosts kiwifruit and vineyards, apple orchards, dairy and deer farms, and, of course, the ubiquitous sheep. None of the country’s native plants or animals have been domesticated or used in any commercially sustainable way; all the crops come from the Northern hemisphere.

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The entire archipelago of New Zealand takes in some seven hundred islands, but most of the land mass is accounted for by the unimaginatively named North and South Islands. To the Maori, they are Te Ika a Maui (the Fish of Maui) for the North, and Te Waka a Maui (the Canoe of Maui) for the South. The coastline is enormously long, 15,000 kms (9,300 miles), but you are never more than 130 kms (80 miles) from the coast. A North-South hiking trail called Te Araroa has been in existence for a little over ten years now. It covers slightly over 3000 kms (1875 miles) from North to South.

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So far, only about two hundred people have done the whole thing. Last year, a Melbourne-based adventurer named Richard Bowles became the first person to actually run it. It took him just 65 days, but was the toughest thing he had ever done. “I was running in the notorious Taraua Range and the wind blew me clear off the ridge line. I tumbled 200 metres before my pack got wedged in some rocks.”

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Our adventure was going to be a great deal less taxing, We would be venturing out with guides in stable, sea worthy kayaks. We would be based at a cabin about a one-hour drive north of the town of Paihia, on the Bay of Islands, in what is called the Northland. To get to the tourist town of Paihia without driving requires booking passage on one of the two bus lines that runs between Auckland and Paihia. Thanks to the frequent stops to pick up and drop off passengers along the way, the journey takes four long hours. Fortunately, we were given a very quiet room at our motel in Paihia and got a good night’s sleep. We did not fare so well at the end of our kayak adventure.

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On this particular trip we were going to be the beneficiaries of an old friendship between our outfitter, a hybrid Kiwi/American named Mark Hutson, and his good friend Richard Israel. Richard’s property was to be our home base. We would take up residence in a rustic cabin without electricity but with running water, cooker and a huge picture window overlooking the rugged coastline. Our bathroom was in the great outdoors, a short, walk up hill. There was a flush toilet, au natural if you will, and a very refreshing cold water shower to get the salt off.

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Fortunately, for every day except Christmas, the weather Gods smiled. During our five day sojourn together we snorkelled off an island that dates from the Permian extinction, paddled the rugged coastline around Tauranga Bay and Whangaroa, explored caves, checked out a Maori site called a Pa and threaded our way through a mangrove swamp and up a beautiful creek. We swapped stories and favourite books, shared anecdotes and laughed a lot.

On Christmas morning Mark, his helpers and family members treated us to eggs Benedict and presents. Despite some reservations, I dressed up as Santa Claus for the occasion even though I had no presents to offer. Perhaps this post will make up for it. With everyone around me wearing antlers, what else could I do?

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Check out the rest of the photos by clicking any of the pics that run alongside this post in the More Pics box. That will take you to my Flickr site. I am Red Flier on that site, but the name has nothing to do with Santa Claus. It has to do with a bicycle, but you guessed that already. Until next year.


Even with knowledgeable advice of a native, it can be difficult to plan a holiday and get things right. My good wife (partner, in Australian terminology) had given me a window of exactly twelve days when she could take a break from her academic workload to get away. Twelve days seems appropriate for Christmas, but it was not nearly long enough to visit the places I wanted to see in New Zealand. The whole idea of going there had been triggered by a desire to do some sea kayaking on the North Island, a trip that would end up taking one week. It seemed like a journey to the South Island could be squeezed in before we headed North. That was my first mistake. Doing too much driving was the second.

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Christmas is a tricky time to visit the country. Unlike Australians, who seem to flee to foreign shores at the first opportunity, Kiwis are inveterate travellers in their own country as well as regular visitors abroad. My only previous visit to the country took place during the same holiday period eighteen years ago, before internet bookings. We were lucky to find passage for four of us on the ferry between the two islands. This time we were going to fly, so that bottleneck would not be a problem.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand’s geology is very active. Set on the collision zone of the Australasian and Pacific plates, there are significant earthquakes and active volcanoes as well as fast-moving rivers, glacial lakes and the famous fiords. The mountains are young and still growing. It is a land that is more like Western Canada than Australia. The hospitality of the inhabitants remind me of our own Maritimers of Nova Scotia. Tourism is an important part of the economy, of course, but that only goes so far in explaining the Kiwi instinct to welcome and engage with the visitors who arrive in droves on aluminium wings or steel ships. Our first taste of this gracious hospitality was at Centre Hill Farm near Pleasant Point.

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We had taken a late flight from Melbourne to Christchurch, sacked out at a motel near the airport, then picked up the rental car and driven south on Highway One. One is not the most scenic route in the world, descending through irrigated pastures toward Dunedin. But the farm stay was tucked away among pretty rolling hills and our cottage was utterly charming. Shortly after we arrived, Henry the cat dropped over for a visit. Our host followed soon after, and we had a chance for a nice long chat the next morning after a leisurely, delicious breakfast. We were made to feel right at home.

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We had only four full days, but the route I had picked out took us on a long loop that put about 850kms (500 miles) on the rental car. All of it on two-lane roads that were often interrupted by the ubiquitous Kiwi invention, one-lane bridges. I did manage to do one thing right, allowing enough time for one glorious day at Aoraki/Mt Cook. The weather gods were favourable to the outing, and everything from the informative and beautiful visitor centre to the well-marked trails are worth a week or more. It is truly spectacular. Fiordland will just have to wait.

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Mt. Cook is sacred to the Ngai Tahu tribe of the South Island. The Maori legend has it that the mountain and its companion peaks were formed when a boy named Aoraki and his three brothers came down from the heavens to visiting the Earth Mother in a canoe. The canoe overturned and the brothers moved to the back of the boat and turned to stone. Edmund Hillary earned his spurs on these peaks before tackling Everest. Highway 8 hugs the the southern tip of Lake Pukaki, offering gorgeous views of Cook and its sister peaks in the distance. The lake is fed by the Tasman River, coming off the Tasman Glacier, a block of ice that is rapidly melting away, creating a brand new lake.

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The South Island is an adventurer’s paradise, providing adrenaline sports junkies every opportunity to jump out of planes, leap off platforms, glide over mountains, shoot up and down rivers on jet boats, mountain bike, ski, kayak, hang glide, scuba dive etc. The downside of this fixation on providing risky activities to people from all over the world is that the government felt it had to put in place a no-fault accident insurance scheme. In other words, there is no one to sue if something goes wrong.

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I suspect that most of my fellow Americans believe that the right to sue is woven into the constitution. An Australian documentary I saw suggested that the liability regime provided an opportunity for some rogue outfitters to set up shop and put tourist lives in jeopardy, but I doubt if New Zealand is any more dangerous than the U.S. There have been fatalities from activities which seem like they should be safe, like hot-air ballooning. One very experienced pilot and ten clients died when his balloon drifted into high-tension wires on January 7, 2012. Bungee jumping, on the other hand, has a perfect safety record.

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And if you really want to take it easy, a whole new market in movie-related tourism has taken off, thanks to Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit empire. If you need a respite from tramping in the mountains, shooting through gorges or leaping off cliffs, you can always head for the latest attraction in Kiwi Land designed to empty your pockets– hobbit tours. Discover Middle Earth and hole up with hobbits. Precious.

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