Author Archives: Greta

One-arm Point to Broome – the rough way home

Our transport back to Broome

NOTE: No, this isn’t recent. We did this trip in 2013, but the original post for this part of the journey has disappeared. Probably the scatty old bag that writes this stuff deleted it. It’s so hard to get reliable help these days. So the post will be slotted into the journey from the Travel Page. To see the whole trip, look at 2013 Australian walkabout. This post comes in after the one on Horizontal Falls.

Having flown over the Dampier Archipelago from Talbot Bay, our seaplane landed at the airstrip at the aboriginal community at One-Arm Point. There, we would board a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the trip back to Broome. It’s a long day – we wouldn’t be back until well after dark, driving over corrugated sand tracks most of the way.

Before we set off, we visited the Adyaloon Hatchery where the local Bardi people raise trochus shells and tropical fish species. The shells, prized for making buttons and jewellery, are threatened from over-fishing in the wild. Our local guide explained how the fish were raised and pointed out stone fish, angel fish, clown fish, and others.

Clown fish at the fish farm

From there we were taken to a beach at Cape Leveque to admire the scenery. White sand, deep red cliffs, and turquoise water, a riot of colour. No Photoshop needed. The ground’s full of iron oxide.

The colours are real, folks

We stopped for lunch at the Bardi people’s Kooljaman eco resort. As an aside, it’s great to see the local indigenous people taking control of their own assets and their own destiny. Lunch was simply unforgettable. We were served the best, most succulent, most delicious barramundi I have ever tasted.

Interior of the shell church

Then it was back on the bumpy track again. It’s not a comfortable journey but you get to see the REAL Kimberley up close and personal instead of from the air. Our next brief stop was at Beagle Bay’s beautiful shell church. I was busy taking pictures of corellas sky-larking in a gum tree, so I didn’t take many photos of the church. It’s a beautiful building (pictures here) and you can see from the interior that mother-of-pearl was lovingly used for decoration.

Corellas sky-larking

We got back to our hotel tired but happy. It had been a truly awesome day.

Camels on Cable Beach

Before we headed south again, we spent a final day in Broome and, of course, checked out the sunset (drink in hand) at Cable Beach. The camel ride along the beach is a famous attraction but my allergies make such an experience a bit iffy. No camel wants a rider sneezing her face off every few seconds. But here’s a photo of the tourists on the camels with the line-up of cars on the beach. I’m sure all the vehicles would have dampened the experience a little, nothing like the tourist brochures of empty beaches and long shadows against the sunset sky.

To be honest we found Broome to be a bit disappointing. I had memories of the town from the mid-seventies when it was a pearling village with a very mixed population. What’s left of Chinatown is now swallowed up in the usual plethora of supermarkets and fast food shops. We won’t be in a hurry to go back there. But I did buy a nice, good-quality Tee shirt made in Australia.

The solstice is here.

Today, 22nd June 2019, is this year’s winter solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere. Our part of the Earth started moving North, back toward the Sun at 1:54am. In the UK, Europe, and the USA and Canada, it’s midsummer. The druids are arriving at Salisbury to watch the sun rise over the heel stone at Stonehenge and parties are gearing up everywhere. All these things are such a big deal in the North. The winter solstice is an even bigger deal, since it coincides with the blessed return of the sun. And Christmas, but that’s a later addition.

It’s not like that here in Australia. We celebrate the summer solstice because we have inherited the European traditions of Christmas but I’d bet that many Australians aren’t aware of the solstice, which is a few days before the 25th December. They just know it’s Summer holidays. Yay! The beach, presents, cricket!

Winter at Hervey Bay

Pelicans and people enjoying Winter at Hervey Bay

The winter solstice is even less of an event. But then, here in Hervey Bay sunrise was at 6:33, and sunset will be 17:07, giving us around ten and a half hours of daylight. That’s only three hours and nine minutes less than midsummer, so it’s not such a big deal. In comparison, London in midsummer gets sixteen hours and thirty-eight minutes of daylight. In winter, sunrise is at just after 8am, and sunset just before 4pm, around eight hours of daylight. And it’s usually cold and miserable all day. During June in Hervey Bay the maximum temperatures are usually in the low twenties – not a bad summer’s day in England.

Whatever the temperatures, going back not even one hundred years people needed to be interested in the change of the seasons. They needed to know when to plant crops, when particular food sources appeared, the patterns of animal behaviour and so on. All of them were astronomers, keeping an eye on the progression of the stars. And Australia has its own ‘Stonehenge’. Scientists have been investigating Wurdi Youang, large basalt rocks arranged in an egg shape, which can be used to observe the Summer and Winter solstices. The site could be as much as ten thousand years old, pre-dating Stonehenge. Here’s the story.

I remember the first time I went to Europe, to London and Amsterdam. It was November and especially coming from the bright, warm weatherof an Australian late Spring, arriving in the last throes of autumn was taxing. For a start it was cold, or, to put it another way, fucking freezing. Four degrees max? You’ve gotta be kidding me. For another, the sunlight was insipid when it was there, and it wasn’t there for long. The shadows were already lengthening at around 3pm and the sun was gone well before 5pm. After that was a long-drawn-out twilight. All that played havoc with my body clock. Twilight lasts for about five minutes in Australia. The sun goes down and that’s it, folks. Darkness is waiting in the wings to take the sun’s place.

So, although everywhere in the world gets a (roughly) twenty-four-hour day, and experiences two solstices and two equinoxes per annum, the experience isn’t the same everywhere. For those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, have a wonderful midsummer celebration. We in the South will shrug our shoulders and carry on.

 

 

The evolution of a swinging voter

1969 – student activist days Yes, that’s me. And for what it’s worth, the man behind me was a draft resistor.

I found an interesting article in the news the other day, talking about what appears to determine which party we vote for. The first words in the article are: ‘Many have tried guessing who first uttered this saying: “If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35, you have no brain”.’ That’s an age-based suggestion, that we change our voting patterns to become more conservative as we grow older. Maybe it’s a generational thing. The article is worth a read. Here’s the link.

I thought about how the way I vote has changed – because it has. In fact, I’ve thought about it a few times lately. I think there are a number of factors. Let’s start with social background.

I grew up in a working-class family. Of course my parents voted Labor, and so did I.

The Labor party was on our side, interested in the welfare of people like us, all about jobs and decent social services, health and education. Back when I was old enough to know anything about politics Robert Menzies, stalwart of the conservative establishment, finally retired in 1966 as the longest serving PM in Australia’s history. After him, in rapid succession, we had Harold Holt, who disappeared in the surf, then John McEwen who was deputy PM and had the top job for a few weeks until the Libs chose a new leader. That was John Gorton, who was eventually replaced by Billy McMahon, who faced the 1972 general election against a revitalised Labor party led by Gough Whitlam. In that tumultuous six years Harold Holt and John Gorton both won elections but the Prime Minister’s office had the same sort of revolving door we’ve seen in the years since 2007.

I went to university in the late sixties in the middle of the period of student activism all over the world. In Perth we protested against the French nuclear testing ground at Moruroa in the South Pacific. I attended marches against the war in Vietnam and against the conscription introduced in Australia at that time to provide troops for that conflict. Not everyone was called up. They called it a ‘birthday ballot‘, an event like a lottery draw that was shown on TV. Dates of birth were drawn and if your 20th birthday fell on one of those dates – you’re in the army, kid. If I’d been male, I would have been conscripted. It’s not a nice feeling.

So, it would be fair to say that, like many of my university mates, my political predilections were definitely socialist. When tall, eloquent, and charismatic Gough Whitlam finally replaced Arthur (Cocky) Callwell, bringing the Labor party into the post-war world, we were all delighted. Who could forget Gough’s famous ‘It’s Time’ election campaign? Up against a Liberal party in complete disarray with weak leadership and unpopular policies, Gough was a shoe-in. Labour won in a landslide. And he did some great things. Conscription was suspended, he introduced a new, free public health scheme known as Medicare, and he abolished university fees, among other things. Looking back, it’s remarkable how quickly the wheels fell off. Soon, the country was in debt to pay for the Government’s largesse. Gough forced an election to maintain his mandate – and was only just returned to power. It all ended in November 1975 when the Governor General dismissed the Government and forced a new general election. Gough’s brave new world had lasted about three years.

That unprecedented election was the first time I voted non-Labor and I found it difficult, hesitating with the pencil in my hand, reminding myself that Australia couldn’t go on like this.

Malcolm Fraser swept to power and immediately introduced austerity measures to pay for the debt. This was a difficult time for the country. There were many strikes, jobs were hard to find. It was almost like a class war, the workers versus the big end of town. It couldn’t go on.

Enter Bob Hawke, president of the ACTU and respected across the country. He’d been in parliament for about three years when he was elected leader of the Labor party. At the next election, he won handsomely and of course I voted for Labor. The first thing he did was negotiate an accord with the union movement – something he was uniquely positioned to do. Bob and his treasurer, Paul Keating, understood that workers won’t have jobs if business is not encouraged. The strikes stopped. The one exception was the airline pilots’ strike. Bob refused to cave to their demands and found other ways of keeping planes flying. He also de-registered the Builder’s Labourers Federation (BLF), one of the most militant unions. Everybody knew he meant business.

But he was always a pragmatist. While Medicare was retained, the Government introduced a special levy to pay for health services, and eventually university course fees returned. The pie-in-the-sky notion that abolishing fees would increase the number of able students who could attend university proved untenable. When I went to uni (on a scholarship) a very small percentage of working-class kids attended, let alone passed a course. Numbers passing a course didn’t change much when fees were abolished. There’s much more to success at university than paying course fees. But free courses were not sustainable.  Hawke and Keating introduced the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS) which was effectively a student loan.

Meanwhile, we went through the ‘recession Australia had to have’ as Paul Keating famously explained. He took over as PM and while he won one election, lost the second to John Howard, who had been in and out of the Liberal party’s leadership job several times. I never liked Howard much but there’s no doubt he presided over a period of peace and stability, all the while clawing back the national debt so that for the first time in an age, Australia’s books were balanced and we had a surplus.

John Howard became the second-longest serving PM, eclipsing Bob Hawke’s run. During that time Kevin Rudd had become leader of the opposition and Australia had started to think it was time for new blood in the Lodge.

I thought Rudd would be okay. That was silly, wasn’t it?

Kevin 07 (he was elected in 2007) had obviously been watching what Hawke had done. He tried his own grandiose vision of an accord, inviting people from all walks of life to an elaborate talk fest that cost a heap of money and achieved nothing. He and one of his ministers ‘designed’ a national broadband network (NBN) on the back of a coaster in an aeroplane and decreed that the NBN would be built, so subsequent Governments were stuck with it. It was hardly a surprise that the estimated costs rose exponentially while at the same time the original approach – fibre optics to every household – was quickly eroded to a solution we could actually afford.

Then the global financial crisis happened. Australia was actually in a very strong position in comparison to other countries and we came through the GFC relatively unscathed. But the Labor party panicked and put in its own hare-brained ideas, like the $900 paid to most people to stimulate the economy. But you only got the money if you put in a tax return that year, so pensioners missed out. I’ll admit to being a cynic. I reckon the money would have been spent on the mortgage, or maybe on a big telly, which would benefit China.

Labor introduced other initiatives, like the ‘pink batts scheme’. Pink batts are glass wool material put into roof spaces to help insulate houses. It was supposed to help reduce power bills. The proposal was rushed through without proper controls and four young men died while installing the stuff. And there was a school buildings fund, where the Government paid grossly inflated prices for a school hall or a library. (Somehow, if buildings are publicly funded the cost seems to go up. Rather a lot.) Apart from that, though, while some schools received welcome additions, halls were built for schools about to be closed and libraries were built with no provision for books – just to name a couple of examples.

In short, they were all knee-jerk, reactionary activities designed to look like the Government was doing something. There was no proper planning, no cost/benefit analysis and certainly in the case of the pink batts scheme, cautionary advice from experts was completely ignored. The surplus nest egg that Howard and Costello had left behind when the Government changed hands was frittered away and the country was up to its eyeballs in debt.

Mister Rudd was very soon on the nose with the electorate. Seeing this, the men who ran the Labor party factions decided it was time for Rudd to go, replaced by Australia’s first female PM, Julia Gillard. No, I wasn’t impressed, even when she won a closely-fought election. She had been responsible for the school buildings fiasco and her famous quote was, “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” Hamstrung with a minority government, Gillard soon became almost as unpopular as Rudd had been. But things were looking bad for Labor with an election looming. The boys running the factions decided that maybe they should have kept Rudd. It seemed the voters were not impressed with ‘faceless men’ getting rid of a sitting PM. Gillard would have to go. The same men who ‘executed’ Rudd now engineered Gillard’s downfall and the return of Rudd.

That episode might be seen to have set the tone of Australian politics but that’s not actually true. Go back to the late sixties when Menzies stepped down and note the turnstile in the PM’s office. Be that as it may, the Australian public had had enough and Labor lost the election. In fact, the Austrlian public had had about enough of both major parties. Quite a few turned to the smaller parties and independents, a trend which would prove costly.

In retrospect, the Liberals weren’t yet ready to return to government. The party was still in disarray after the departure of Howard, Costello, and a few of the stalwarts. Tony Abbott had been great in opposition but turned out to be not the greatest PM. For me, his most cringe-worthy moment was when he made a “captain’s call” to reinstate knighthoods in Australia and handed one of the first to Prince Phillip! Yes, that one, who’s married to Queen Elizabeth.  Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, a move I heartily endorsed.

I had high hopes for Turnbull but he ended up being a disappointment.

After poncing about at the helm for some time, Turnbull called a double dissolution, where all the seats in the Senate and the House of Reps are declared vacant [1]. The issue causing the spill was the refusal of the Senate to pass legislation to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission to oversee construction contracts in Australia. This move was the result of a Royal Commission into the thuggish behaviour of trade unions, particularly in the building sector. The BLF hadn’t really gone away, its members had just become part of the enormous Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). There had also been a number of instances highlighting corruption within the union hierarchies, with union officials rorting their members. But during the whole election campaign Turnbull never referenced the findings of the royal commission, never asked Labor the hard questions about union behaviour in the workplace. He won the election – just. But once again, the PM had lost the respect of the people. As Turnbull’s popularity slumped and the next election loomed, it was inevitable that there would be yet another internal coup.

To his surprise, I suspect, Scott Morrison got the mantle as PM. The next election was months away, and most people in Australia, including me, thought Labor would win easily. No, that notion did not please me. The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, had been one of the faction bosses who deposed Rudd, then deposed Gillard. There were a few other factors relating to his union activities that led me to distrust the man. I also had little faith in the party’s sitting members. It seemed hardly any of them had ever had a real job. They went from university to working for the unions and then into parliament. The union movement had been bleeding membership for years. In quite a few cases union organisers had proved to be corrupt, fleecing members for their own benefit.In contrast to the Hawke Accord days, the president of the ACTU, Sally McManus, declared it was okay to break ‘unjust’ industrial laws. [2] I felt the unions had far too much power in the political party.

I didn’t much like the idea of Shifty Shorten and his Union thugs running the country.

As the election approached, Labor, cock-sure of itself, made some stupid, arrogant errors. In response to concerns from shareholders (many of them pensioners) about the removal of franking credits [3], Chris Bowen, the opposition treasury spokesman, declared, ‘if you don’t like it, don’t vote for us’. Shorten was asked about the economic impact of his proposed climate change initiatives, such as ensuring half the cars sold in Australia by 2030 would be electric. He couldn’t answer. Shades of Labor past, yet another Great Idea with no analysis of the impact.

It seems to me that Labor has lost the plot. The party used to be about low-income workers, jobs, and security. I understand their concerns about climate change. It’s a huge concern in the community. The party’s current policy of shutting down coal-fired power stations (while still selling the stuff to China and India) has already driven up power prices, deterring business investment and sending businesses overseas. The state of South Australia is an object lesson in how well those policies work. Those that suffer are always the poor. Pensioners, single income families, people earning minimum wages, small businesses trying to make a go of it, farmers. And for what? Uncosted fairyland schemes which will do nothing to change the climate. Sure, encourage renewable energy. Start with maybe changing the building code so that all new buildings MUST have solar panels and solar hot water systems. What about legislation to phase out plastic made from oil, replacing it with biodegradables? Put electric car recharging stations in the big cities by all means. Set up targets that can be achieved over time. But just right now, when the Government has once again clawed back some of Labor’s national debt, we can’t afford to splash out on hypotheticals. One of the biggest mistakes Shorten made, to my mind, was summoning the ghost of Gough Whitlam in his appeal to the Australian people. He was channelling “it’s time” – but people like me were channelling Gough’s disastrous three years in office. No thanks, been there, done that.

So you see, I’ve changed the way I vote because of history. I remember Gough’s excesses, Hawke’s pragmatic brilliance, Howard’s stewardship, Rudd’s spendthrift egomania. Morrison strikes me as a decent, ordinary family man who genuinely wants to make a difference. I can’t say the same about Malcolm Turnbull, or Kevin Rudd – or Bill Shorten. They just wanted the crown.

I voted for Scott Morrison to give him a chance to steady the ship of state and do something to help the battlers who are already doing it tough. If a Labor leader comes along who can actually create something like Hawke’s Accord, I might shift my position. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading. These are my thoughts, my opinions and I know not everybody will agree with me. That’s okay. I believe in freedom of speech.

Here, have a picture of a kitten.

 

A New Zealand gallery

Here we are back at a Saturday post, still coughing a little. A few thoughts have crossed my mind since we came back from holidays but I don’t think anybody wants to talk about Australian politics, so I won’t.

I’m delighted to hear that Ash Barty has made it to the French Open women’s final. I’m not much of a tennis fan but it’s so great to see an Australian player with poise and style – unlike those idiots Kyrgios and Tomich. They’re an embarrassment.

In other news I’ve watched the excellent screen adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s wonderful book, Good Omens. I wrote a review over at Spacefreighter’s. But in brief, don’t miss it.

And as a last hurrah for our recent New Zealand trip, I’ve selected a few of my favourite pictures and put them into a gallery so you can get a better look at them. Just click on a photo and scroll through the images.

 

 

One last day

Today would be our last in New Zealand. We opened the curtains for our final look at Mt Cook before we went down to breakfast. It wasn’t there. The weather in the mountains can be fickle, indeed.

Yesterday afternoon

This morning

On our way to the dining room we passed those members of our group who’d been hoping to fly over the mountains, waiting in a lounge with Dave. They knew it wasn’t going to happen – but hope springs eternal, mist does burn off, and Dave hadn’t been told the flight had been cancelled. But it wasn’t just mist and the cancellation was duly called. Weather was rolling in from the Tasman Sea. We could see it from the coach as Dave drove along the edge of Lake Pukaki.

A fringe of dawn under the cloud

Sun’s up

We were on our way to Lake Tepako, a beautiful turquoise lake with gorgeous views of the mountains. We weren’t the only ones there. Several coaches were also stopped, so I didn’t even try to get into the little stone church built on the edges of the lake. If you’d like to see the Church of the Good Shepherd, a tribute to the Scottish shepherds who opened up the area, here’s the link. There’s also a bronze statue, erected to recognize the sheepdogs who worked here with their people. As we’d seen at Walter Peak station (and plenty of places in Australia), working dogs are indispensable in these areas. Again, I found it nigh on impossible to get a decent photo of the statue without including posing tourists, so here’s a link.

But I did get some nice landscapes.

George admiring the view

Lake Tepako has a couple of other interesting features. For a start, it has an electric car refuelling station. They’re not rare in Europe and there must be some in Australian cities, but we don’t have one where we live.

And the other high-tech attraction was the toilet. I didn’t really need to go but I had to try it. It talks to you. You go in, it tells you to press the button to lock the door. Music starts to play. You have ten minutes to leave, at which time it flushes water over the floor. (Self-cleaning, see.) Everything else is done with touch sensors. You put your hands into a slot to get soap, then elsewhere for water (which is when the toilet flushes) then another slot to dry your hands. Then you press the button to open the door.

Wow. I’ve seen fancy auto-toilets before, notably one in some outback town in WA, which had been (of course) wrecked by bored locals. But it wasn’t as flash as this one. Only problem is, it wasn’t multi-lingual and it didn’t have a sign showing you how to sit on the toilet.

From Lake Tepako we headed off through the lovely countryside on our way to Christchurch. I love that layered look on the hills. And the sheep, cattle, and deer.

We stopped for lunch at a little town called Geraldine where they make berry liqueurs and fine cheese. We took a look at the Saturday markets, then it was off for the last run into Christchurch, where once again we would be staying at The George. Dave took everyone but us for a city tour in the bus. I’d done a city tour last year, with friends who have lived in the city for years, as well as walking around, getting a feel for the place. I wrote about that here, the remains of a ruined city.

A fond farewell from George – and a photobomb from Dave

We had out last group dinner, which was once again excellent. Pete and I retired early. We were getting our wake-up call at 4:15 for our flight back to Brisbane. A nice young lady picked us up and drove us the airport in plenty of time for our 6:45 flight.

In summary, it was a great trip. This coach tour is a bit like a degustation dinner, small bites of what’s available on the South Island. I felt it was aimed at the older demographic who might have done the campervan thing years ago but wanted a bit more comfort now. Indeed, of our group I’d say three-quarters were in the 65-75 age group. Dave, our driver and tour director, was friendly and efficient. We always knew what was happening next, and where we were expected to be. The accommodation was excellent, with of course a slightly different standard outside the cities. But each place was comfortable and clean. The food was awesome, except for the one evening in Queenstown – and that was not a group dinner. The weather vagaries were sometimes disappointing but weather doesn’t care and Grand Pacific Tours did give us a discount because this was the last tour for the season. I would recommend this tour to anybody.

I’d like to finish with a fascinating article I found in my research about the Southern Alps and the Alpine fault. It’s a description of a possible (probable) disaster that would impact all the places we visited on our trip, and then the author explains the background, the geology, why a town like Franz Josef was built on a fault line. New Zealand is a geologically busy little place where Gaia will most certainly mess with the hubris of humanity. Magnitude 8.2 The disaster scenario on New Zealand’s most dangerous fault. Well worth a read.

Bear in mind that’s just one interaction of a couple of tectonic plates. Then we can consider the San Andreas Fault, or the super volcano simmering gently underneath Yosemite. Or vesuvius, sitting over Naples, or any of the ring of volcanoes on the Pacific Ring of Fire.

I think we humans get so obsessed with ourselves and our role on Earth that we forget that the planet is a living, breathing entity, built with moving, shifting pieces. For us, 100 years is a lifteime; for Gaia, it’s a nanosecond. Sure, we can kill off animals, drop garbage all over the world from the highest points of the planet to the deepest depths of the ocean, but Gaia will survive. I found this cartoon on Facebook. It says it all, really.

In which we join a select group

After a very pleasant high tea at Castle Larnach we set off back towards the mountains for our penultimate stop – Mt Cook Aoraki. The weather continued to remain bright and beautiful and I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one with my fingers crossed.

We drove along the coast, looking over the cold waters of the Pacific. I think we Aussies tend to forget that New Zealand is quite a bit farther south than Australia. For example, Hobart is at latitude 43°, while Dunedin is at 46°. So yeah. Cold. We stopped for lunch at Oamaru, which has reinvented itself as New Zealand’s steampunk capital. Steampunk is a niche of science fiction set in an alternative world where all your scifi gadgets have a Victorian cast and run on steam. The movie League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the book/movie The Golden Compass both fit under that definition. Oamaru holds a steampunk festival every year.

Oamaru’s steampunk museum, Note dirigible and train with drill fitting

Toe toe

Those plants that look a lot like pampas grass are actually NZ natives known as toe toe. It’s a giant tussock grass and has the sharp leaves of pampas.

Once again, we were driving through the verdant Canterbury Plains with the mountains like a beacon in the distance. We stopped at Omarama and had a wander around while Dave went to pick up ‘anti-push juice’ for the coach. I noticed a couple of birds using a puddle for a bath and couldn’t not take a picture.

The town of Omarama

As we drove steadily closer to Mt Cook, Dave became positively optimistic about our chances of actually seeing the mountain.  He told us more than once that of those people who venture to Mt Cook, only 22% get to actually see it. We may well be in that number. To make absolutely certain, he detoured to the shores of Lake Pukaki. From that vantage point Mt Cook was clearly visible, the highest peak at the head of the lake. Although it’s the highest mountain in Australasia, it’s only about half the height of Mt Everest. More facts about Mt Cook. The world famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary (a Kiwi) trained for his ascent of Everest here and there’s a museum. What this mountain doesn’t have, since it’s less that 8,000 metres, is the ‘death zone’ that is killing climbers on Everest. These things interest me. Here’s the story.

Mt Cook’s the highest mountain in the middle

I have seen Mt Cook in all its glory.

We’d joined the 22% who actually got to see the mountain!!! Woohoo!!!

From there, we drove the remaining distance to our last hotel. Dave rang ahead to see if those of our number who were intent on flying would be able to get their flight in this afternoon. The news wasn’t good. Despite the continuing fine weather, the forecast was for deteriorating conditions and there would be no flying this afternoon. Still, he booked everyone in for the following morning, just in case.

As we drove on, I tried to catch some of the views of the mountain peaks in the fading light.

The Hermitage Hotel slots into its national park environment rather than standing out like a sore thumb. Every one of our rooms had a view of Mt Cook so of course, realising the view might disappear soon, I took a picture.

But not before our little drama.

When we entered our room we heard a buzzing noise, coming from… somewhere. We both looked everywhere but couldn’t work it out. I wondered if I’d activated a hidden alarm or something. Our bags had just been delivered so I went out to ask the staff. “Oh the buzzing noise?” said the nice young man. “We noticed that, too. It’s coming from your suitcase.” He didn’t seem at all perturbed.

It was Peter’s electric toothbrush. It had been switched on some time since the last stop. Even so, it could have been a bomb. Couldn’t it?

Hotels like this are about the scenery and the adventure activities – hiking, kayaking, skiing, helicopter and plane flights. As a consequence, I wasn’t expecting much for dinner and I was pleasantly surprised. It was a self-serve buffet in a large dining room. While it wasn’t as good as the Walter Peak station spread in Queenstown, there was plenty of variety to suit all tastes. My only complaint was the bar area, where as usual, we assembled for pre-dinner drinks. The seating was chosen for a much younger demographic than us with benches that look good but offer no support, and poufs that don’t even pretend to offer support. As Joe pointed out, if he was running the place, he’d make sure the seating was comfortable to encourage people to stay and spend their money. Here’s to you, Joe.

Tomorrow we’d be making our way back to Christchurch via (this is for you, Jeff) Lake Tepako.

 

Dunedin, Edinburgh of the South

Bit of excitement of the day was that the Platinum coach, having served us well, was sent off back to Auckland so we got to sit in our shiny new Ultimate coach.

George getting comfy

The trip from Te Anau to Dunedin took us over the Canterbury plains and New Zealand’s rich pastoral country. As with so much of this trip, the weather was cold and drizzly and I didn’t bother with photos. It’s not a long drive, with a brief stop for coffee somewhere, and we arrived in Dunedin around lunch time.

Dunedin is a pretty little town where you’re either going up or you’re coming down. Dave took us on a short city orientation tour, slowing down to pass the Guinness Book of Records steepest street in the world (Baldwin St). He wasn’t able to stop because the locals had become a bit tired of entitled tourists wandering around their gardens, including using them for toilet breaks.

From Wikipedia

Apparently when the Scottish immigrants decided to set up shop here, the street layout was designed in London with no consideration for the topography. Otherwise they might have considered an arrangement like Lombard Street in San Francisco, which has a series of switch backs.

Dave also took us for a brief stop at the railway station. As is so often the case, the main building was quite ornate with lovely tiled walls and floors.

The afternoon was to be spent at leisure, or we could go on one of three optional extras – a tour of the Speight brewery, a visit to Olveston historic home, or a nature tour on the peninsula where we might see fur seals, albatross, penguins and the like. I put my hand up for the nature tour (of course). But once again the weather showed us a middle finger and that tour was cancelled. Dave spoke to the operator the next day and was told the rain on the peninsula had been horizontal, so it was a good call, if disappointing.

Pete and I weren’t much interested in historic houses or visiting a brewery so we mooched around town, including a stop in a coffee shop for a toasted sandwich and a flat white, then a look around the only Scottish shop in town.

The hotel we stayed in was very interesting. It had been the central post office and since Pete and I had both worked for Australia Post, we were intrigued to see what they’d done to the building. In Australia the big post offices in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney etc have been turned into retail precincts/hotels.  Here’s a newspaper article about the project. The room was great. I was particularly impressed with the shower. Instead of the usual mucking about as you wait for the water to come up to temperature, you just press a button. The water is instantly at temperature, no messing around. What a great idea.

In contrast to the miserable afternoon of our arrival, the following day was picture perfect. This morning we would be visiting Larnach Castle on the peninsula, where we’d be taken on a guided tour of the house before a high tea in the ballroom.

We stopped for a photo opportunity at a lookout. Such a shame the weather gods hadn’t played ball yesterday. But that’s life. We drove up to the house, where we were greeted by Christine, one of the local guides. It’s not really a castle – that was a nickname it acquired when it was being built. It seems William Larnach was persuaded to leave Geelong in Australia for Dunedin to help the bank he worked for process the gold proceeds from the 1860’s rush. He brought along his wife, Eliza, who he had married when she was 17 and he was 27. In keeping with the architecture prevalent in Australia, the house was built with wide verandas, but after one winter in Dunedin, glass was installed around the verandas. William spent a lot of money on his home, bringing in Italian craftsmen to decorate some ceilings and wood carvers to decorate others. He also had some pieces of furniture made for specific locations.

Christine took us to many of the rooms, telling us family history all the while. William and Eliza had six children, but she died suddenly aged 38. William was devastated – but Eliza’s sister, Mary, had joined them in Dunedin after a family scandal in Australia. He married her, much to the chagrin of his children. Before the wedding they set up a pre-nuptial agreement to guarantee the childrens’ claim.

But things weren’t meant to be happy for this family. Mary also died at 38. William, now an important man in politics, needed a wife. His new bride was considerably younger than him, beautiful, and rich. When William and his wife went off on a business trip to Britain, he took one of his sons, Douglas, with him. That turned out to be a mistake. Douglas and his father’s new wife had an affair and despondent, William shot himself.

The children had no wish to stay on the peninsula. Many of the furniture and fittings were sold and eventually the castle was left to moulder.

Then a young couple, Margaret and Barry Barker, happened by and fell in love with the place. They started the immense chore of renovation. More than that, they set out to acquire items which had belonged to the house but had been sold off. Christine pointed out a beautiful dinner set which had been sold off and now returned, and a dresser made for a bay window which had also been found.

A beautiful restored staircase

A hallway

The laburnum walk, a lovely setting for a wedding

The garden has gorgeous views over the sea

Today the house and the beautiful gardens host weddings and parties, and offer accommodation. When our tour ended, we admired the gardens, then went and had high tea in the ballroom. George enjoyed that bit.

Next time, we’ll head off to the fabled Mt Cook, Australasia’s tallest mountain.

Milford Sound – one more off the bucket list

The South-West corner of New Zealand’s South Island is known as Fiordland. There’s a good reason for that – these mountains and valleys were carved through glacial action, just as they were in Norway and other places. Strictly speaking, Milford Sound was created by glaciation – but it fits the definition of a sound. “A sound is wider than a fjord, and it is described as a large sea/ocean inlet. A sound lies parallel to the coastline, and it commonly separates a coastline from an island. A sound can be formed when a glacier recedes in a valley it carves out from a coastline. The sea can also invade a glacier valley and create a sound.” [1]  Whatever you want to call it, we set off early if not very bright for a look at Milford Sound. The weather had settled in with wind and drizzly rain. But snow was settling on the heights and for us snow-deprived Aussies it was nice to see.

We drove for a long time next to Lake Te Anau. It was pointless to even try to take a picture but later the road veers to the right down a valley before turning left again to head through the mountains for Milford Sound. Every hillside sported a waterfall, every creek was full, white water bouncing over rocky beds. Now and then we’d get a glimpse of a snow-capped peak but mainly the misty rain clung close. It would be cold and wet out there.

Driving between the mountains

Dave told us about William Homer and James Barber, who climbed the mountains to reach Milford Sound (and then climbed back again to tell people about it). Homer proposed a tunnel through the Homer Saddle but it wasn’t until 1935 that work commenced. Dug by hand, the tunnel is 1.2km long. It’s had its ups and downs over the years, as you’ll read here, and it had to be deepened and widened to accommodate large tourist coaches like ours. We stopped briefly at the other end in a parking area with a view. Of sorts 😊

Despite the weather and that this was just about the end of the season, many people were waiting to take a cruise on Milford Sound. We were booked on the three-masted Milford Mariner. No, she didn’t use her sails. This was a kind of swings and roundabouts voyage. On the one hand we couldn’t see the magnificent peaks reflecting in calm waters. On the other hand, we saw waterfalls. Lots and lots and lots of waterfalls. Streaks of white thundered down every gully on every mountain. The wind was so strong that most of the lesser torrents never made it into the sea. The water was whipped away by the wind, joining the rain. Despite the weather, within the confines of the Sound itself, the ship rode smoothly. But outside the heads we ventured briefly into the Tasman Sea, riding a considerable swell. A few nutters braved the elements and went to stand on the bow. I think they were staff on their last voyage.

George doesn’t think much of the weather

There’s always 1 or more

 

 

See the water being whipped away in the wind

A hint of brightness between the peaks

A waterfall from a saddle

We headed back towards port and slowed for a close encounter with a waterfall. That’s a LOT of water.

To get the size of these waterfalls into perspective, that’s another tourist boat on the extreme right of the photo

Late in the cruise we caught a hint of blue sky

I was interested to know that “at 265 metres deep, most of the sound’s water is salty, but the top 10 metres or so is actually fresh water. It comes from the seven to nine metres of rainfall that the area gets every year, emptied into the sound via its many rivers and waterfalls. On its way, this runoff picks up tannins from plants and soil that stain the fresh water the colour of tea. It’s still completely clean and natural, but it blocks much of the sunlight from the lower salty layer.

The seawater layer is calm and a few degrees warmer, if a little dark. When you reach about 40 metres deep there is very little sunlight getting through, so all the marine life hangs out near the surface, including many species that normally live much deeper. We’ve got a unique mix of dolphins, penguins, fish, sea stars, seals, rare black coral and much more, so there’s plenty to look at.” [2]

On another trip it would be nice to visit the aquarium (see the previous link for more information) and maybe stay overnight on one of the boats. Sunrise/sunset would be amazing.

The weather cleared a little as we drove back to our hotel at Te Anau. It’s beautiful, gorgeous country. We stopped off at a place called the Chasm, a mountain stream a short walk into the rainforest. It gives a different perspective on the flora in these parts.

I managed to get a few reasonable snaps on the way back to Te Anau.

Tomorrow we would be heading over to the other coast to the quintessentially Scottish town of Dunedin, New Zealand’s very own Edinburgh.

 

A detour to Arrowtown and then Te Anau

It was just as well we enjoyed the sunny day at Queenstown. The clouds were already gathering as we drove away. Today would be a short drive to the village of Te Anau on the shores of the lake of the same name. But on the way we took a short detour to the restored village of Arrowtown and its beautiful museum.

On the way we crossed the Shotover River, home of one of the best-known jet boat adventures. It’s pretty, as well.

As mentioned earlier, this area was opened up by gold miners. Alluvial gold was found in the Arrow River in 1862 and the miners flocked in to make their fortune. As in Australia, hopefuls came from everywhere, and as in Australia the Chinese were not popular with the European miners. They were forced to set up their dwellings at the edges of town. Reading through some of the exhibits in the town’s museum, I got the idea that eventually a certain level of respect developed. But the Chinese were not entitled to New Zealand pensions. In fact, while much is said about Australia’s white Australia policy, New Zealand wasn’t much better. I found this article interesting.

A rainbow over Arrowtown

Chinese people in any case generally wanted to be buried at home with their ancestors and did their best to make arrangements to go home before they died, or have their bodies taken home. Dave told us about a ship taking home 500 deceased Chinese which sank in Hokianga in 1902. There’s a memorial in Arrowtown set up for the Chinese and it is visited – if only for a few minutes – by the many Chinese who visit New Zealand every year to pay their respects. [1]

You can read a bit more about Arrowtown’s colourful past here.

By the 1960’s the town’s population had dwindled to a few hundred. But since then, the town has resurrected its history. The old main street looks as it would have in the town’s hey day and you can visit a reconstruction of the Chinese settlement down by the river. It’s a short drive from bustling Queenstown, a nice break when people get sick of flinging themselves off bridges with rubber bands around their ankles.

George and I had a great time wandering around the museum. In fact, once or twice he was quite naughty. Then we took a stoll down the main street.

George chatting with some of the locals

We beat the rain out of Arrowtown but it followed us along the hills as we headed for Lake Te Anau. It’s possible to do a day trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown but it’s a helluva day. Breaking the journey at Te Anau was sensible. We got a chance to admire the beautiful scenery. Being Australian, all that green in the pastures along the range of hills was something different. Except maybe if you’re Tasmanian.

By the time we reached our hotel, the weather had set in. We couldn’t see the other side of the lake and although the township was a short stroll from the hotel, Pete and I, having actually crossed the road to the lakeside during a brief break in the drizzle, decided staying in our digs was prudent.

George looks over at the lake

Like most of our group, we had lunch at the hotel. After the disappointment of the seafood chowder in Queenstown I hesitated for a moment before I ordered. Folks, it was lip-smackingly delicious, thick and hearty and full of seafood, served with grilled bread. We had two nights at Te Anau and a LOT of people ordered the seafood chowder as an entree. I certainly did.

Our server at lunch was a young South African named Henk. He was here with his fiancée who we met at dinner and also at breakfast. They were due to go home next week for the off-season but then would return and apply for permanent residence in New Zealand. Good luck to them.

While at Te Anau we were offered the chance to visit the glow worm caves, an optional extra to the tour. You went across the lake in a boat, where you had to crouch twice to slip under a couple of low-hanging rocks to get into the cave. Then you travelled in a boat, in the dark, to see the glow worms. Dave made it clear it was cold, damp, and claustrophobic so nobody could pretend they hadn’t been prepared. I am a bit claustrophobic – getting stuck in a lift in London for a couple of hours a few years ago wasn’t exactly pleasant – but perversely, I’m not too bad in caves, so I was game. Until Dave said you had to sit bolt upright in those little boats as though you were having a school photo taken. The whole trip would take about two and a half hours. My back tapped me on the shoulder and told me to forget it. So I chickened out.

As it happened, the tour was cancelled. Apparently the water level in the cave had risen so much in the cave that the tour wasn’t possible. But hey – this is the internet. Come and join me.

We enjoyed another lovely dinner. Tomorrow we would be off to Milford Sound, where I would tick off another item on my bucket list.

 

A day in Queenstown

The lake from the road outside the hotel

Sunshine! We’d almost forgotten what it looked like. It glinted off the water, sparkled off the fresh snow on the mountain peaks, streaked the native grasses with golden highlights. I’d like to say it warmed the skin, but the air was still cool.

Queenstown from the peak

After breakfast we caught the local bus downtown and walked up the slope (slowly) to where a cable car took people up to the top of one of the peaks overlooking Queenstown. It was beautiful up there, cold and crisp with wonderful mountain and lake views. In keeping with Queenstown’s image as the adventure capital of New Zealand, you could take a bungee jump or a sky dive or go along to the luge track to hurtle down the hill on little carts with wheels (I imagine in Winter it’s more like the toboggans you see at the Winter Olympics). https://www.queenstownnz.co.nz/ We were grateful for our thick winter coats, bought for a visit to Europe in Oct/Nov a few years ago but barely used.

TSS Earnslaw sails away

Down below on the lake the TSS Earnslaw returned to its berth. We would be sailing on her this afternoon for our visit to Walter Peak Station, which was part of our tour. There’s a sort of submersible shark thing you can ride in and also those water jets that shoot you up in the air. But… it’s been a few years since I did my solo sky dive and the water looks a bit chilly for getting wet. We settled for admiring the view. We did think about the wildlife park near the cable car, but even at a reduced price, $88 for two was a bit steep to get a look at a kiwi (bird) and a few other animals for maybe an hour or two, so we mooched around the town and the wharf.

George on the Earnslaw

It’s a picturesque spot, nestled between the mountains and the lake. The last of the Autumn leaves added colour. The town’s very much orientated for younger, fitter visitors. There are many shops offering tours and adventures, and many, many of the staff are Asian – which indicates where most of their tourists come from these days. I noticed an article in a local paper which claimed there’s been a large drop in tourist numbers since the Christchurch massacre – especially from Australia. That surprised me. The idea of not going ahead with our holiday didn’t even occur to me.

Drinks on the Earnslaw weren’t exactly cheap

We filed onto the TSS Earnslaw promptly for a 4pm departure. The lovely old steamer was launched in 1912, the same year as the Titanic but obviously the ship hasn’t suffered the same fate. The wind had picked up and it was a bit choppy on the lake. The late afternoon sun lit up the mountains on the far aide of the lake and gave us a lovely, bright view of Walter Peak station’s homestead where we would be having a buffet barbecue dinner. It’s a high-country property running sheep and cattle. There’s a way in by road during the warmer months, but when the snows arrive it’s access by boat only. The beautifully restored homestead offers accommodation and farm stays as well as day trips. And why not? Tourism helps to keep the old steamer going and offers extra income.

The Colonel’s homestead

Like every dinner we had on the tour, it was delicious. The buffet offered seafood, soup, shellfish for entrée, then all manner of salads and vegetables to enjoy with barbecued fish, pork, venison, lamb, beef and/or chicken. After all that there was a wide selection of sweets, all served in small containers so you could mix ‘n match. Here’s some more info with food porn.

After dinner we made our way to a covered outdoor arena to watch a young man tell us about the property and show us how a sheep is shorn. The property runs merinos for wool and (I think) perendale for meat and he’d brought in a perendale ewe which had never been shorn before for this demonstration. Control of the beast, he explained, was vital. Sheep are prey animals and will run – after they’ve kicked you. He explained that while we might think it unkind to shear the sheep at such a cool time, shearing was vital to the sheep’s welfare. Dags and dirt collect in the wool around the animal’s belly and hind quarters in particular, so those parts are trimmed up regularly. Besides, they were well adapted to being shorn. This ewe’s skin would have doubled in thickness within 24 hours – and of course, the wool grows back.

All the while our host’s two-year-old short-haired border collie (cunningly disguised as an Australian kelpie) curled up beside him. He’d had to tie Kim up for now, otherwise she would have been out in the sheep paddock doing her thing. These dogs love to work. When he’d finished shearing, he sent Kim out to bring in the five sheep he had in the holding paddock. She shot off, a silent streak, and had them back in a couple of minutes. The real affection between the man and the dog was a joy to see.

Then, just to prove she’s versatile, she and her handler escorted us back to the Earnslaw for the trip back to Queenstown.

Tomorrow we’d be off to Lake Te Anau – on the doorstep of Milford Sound.