Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Dunedin and Christchurch

It's been a wet week but we've managed to see a bit of Dunedin and Christchurch, two cities on the east or Pacific Ocean side of the South Island.
It was a four-hour drive from Manapouri in Fiordland to Dunedin through steady rain. It was pretty in a pastoral way, and the rain did little to detract from its quiet beauty. Alas, the rain continued for the next two and a half days, and the backpackers we had booked in Dunedin quickly earned the bottom slot on our ranking of places in this otherwise outstanding network, so our feeling for Dunedin is somewhat skewed to the negative.

Nonetheless the rain forced us indoors for a change, where we visited out the excellent cycle collection in the Otago Settlers Museum. Louise checked out one grouping of old bikes,
Jeff tried out their "penny-farthing", and we saw two exhibits that amused the historians in us. The first was this print of Dunedin's first bike shop,
which was in fact a sewing machine and bicycle shop! The other was this Peugeot bike that was ridden from one end of NZ to the other -- about 1200 miles -- in 1979. It was similar to the bike Jeff rode from Oregon to the East Coast of the US in 1971 -- about 3,700 miles --
and those two saddle bags and the sleeping bag on the top of the rack are almost identical to what Jeff used on that trip. Aaaargh, if only Jeff has saved all that stuff, it could be in a museum now!

Well, that indoor venture was so rewarding, we did another one that evening and went to the movies, only the second or third time we've done that in the past two years! Given our recent adventures, of course we chose Australia, and look forward more than ever to seeing the city of Darwin Australia next month after viewing its' Hollywood treatment in the movie.

Next day it was off to the Taieri Gorge Railway, a tourist train that takes a 4-hour r/t excursion up the valley of that name. We started at the stunning Dunedin Railway Station, one of the most impressive buildings in NZ,
and caught this shot of one of the stained glass windows in the station. In fifteen minutes the train was out in sheep country, and soon started passing through tunnels and over trestles into the gorge.

The drama of the scenery built slowly but surely, enhanced by the ability of passengers to go out on the open platforms at the end of each car to view and photograph the train and its surroundings.

The interior surroundings were pretty interesting too, as you can see!

Our third and final day started with rain, but by noon it had cleared and we headed up to the north end of town for Baldwin Street, where these three photos were taken.
No, the house isn't built on a slant. Look at it on an angle, with the roof flat to your eyes, and you'll get a sense of how steep this street is.
As signs at the bottom and top of the hill proclaim, Guinness has proclaimed this "the steepest street in the world."

As soon as the weatherman had predicted the break in the rain, we had booked with Elm Wildlife Tours, and our luck held. They picked us up at the backpackers and drove out the Otago Peninsula to this sheep farm. Looks pretty ordinary so far. Once we descended that hill and entered a small shed built like a duck blind, this turned extraordinary. First, there was this little fur seal pup right below us, and some of his buddies playing "tag" in a tide pool close by.

Then there were the Bullers Albatrosses gliding by over the ocean on wingspans that beat Jeff's two meters by 25%.

Next it was back up the hill and down another side of it to Papanui Beach, where we encountered this Yellow-Eyed Penguin. Thanks to the telephoto on our new Canon camera, it looks like we're on top of this fellow but in fact the folks from Elm kept us at a respectful distance.

As we walked along the beach we passed by three sleepy sea lions,

then entered this second blind at the far end of the beach to watch another dozen Yellow-Eyes for a while.
Nearby was one Yellow-Eye and two little Blue Penguins that were molting, but molting penguins are fairly unpretty and hard to see in the hiding places they inhabit for 3-4 weeks of doing nothing but waiting for last year's feathers to fall out and this year's to come in.

So for one final display of wildlife, we headed to a nearby point where Royal Albatrosses nest, the only mainland albatross nesting colony in the world (all others are on small islands).
These are true monarchs with incredible wings that stretch 3 to 3.5 meters across. While we stood there a dozen teen aged albatrosses showed off to each other with aerial acrobatics, hard to capture on film but hopefully archived in our store of memories from this trip.

It's a long drive from Dunedin to Christchurch, so we divided the drive into two days and spent did some puzzling over the Moeraki Boulders, a cluster of a few dozen almost perfectly round stones with odd innards, as you can see.

As an additional reward we got to stay at the Old Bones Backpackers, so-called because bones of a large flightless bird hunted to extinction by the Maori, the moa, were found nearby.
Old Bones quickly made it to "Top Two" status on our Backpacker rankings, along with Global Village in Greymouth, and these two photos will hopefully give you a sense of why we have enjoyed using backpackers so much. Our bedroom was small and spartan but with comfortable twin beds, we had this excellent common room to relax in,
and a clean well-equipped kitchen to work in. We've actually eaten very well and very healthily in NZ, as the supermarkets are usually as good as the better chains in the US for quality and choice.

On our way north we stopped in nearby Oamaru, somewhere between being a town and a city but with NZ's most impressive collection of limestone buildings,
including this atmospheric bakery. On the edge of town was a pier full of cormorants -- thousands of them --
and a nearby Blue Penguin nesting area.
Blues are the smallest penguins in the world and very social. They go out to fish as a group, and come back home as a group. The return is near sundown however, and we were too tired
to come down the night before so we and you will have to rely on this photo of two stuffed Blues in a penguin wildlife exhibit.

Christchurch recently passed Wellington as the second most-populous city in NZ, allegedly overtaking its rival shortly after students arrived for the new school year at Canterbury University. We poked around downtown to see cathedral square and the punters gliding on the Avon River,
then arranged with the friend of a mutual friend to get a tour of the University. Alas, it outgrew its English gothic campus in downtown four decades ago and the new campus looks like a collection of the least memorable buildings from the last few campuses you've seen.
Our friend did take us to a small park of virgin NZ forest and an historic home nearby, however, and it more than made up for the campus's architectural shortcomings.

Day two saw the rain return, but we had booked a train trip across South Island to Greymouth and back, touted as exceptionally scenic, and the touts were right.
The so-called TranzAlpine followed glacial rivers to Arthurs Pass high in the Southern Alps, and the open-air car was crowded for most of the ride there, when a lot of the tourists hopped off, their memory cards filled with the wonderful scenery.

Although a highway follows a similar route, we rarely saw it, and it was a pretty quiet road when we did.

We stayed on to Greymouth and met our British tandem friends Bernard and Lin for lunch, the fourth time we've now met them as we circle the South Island in one direction and they the other.
We'll see them a fifth time on our way further north, tying the record we set with Jim and Anita, the folks we kept running into as we bicycled up the East Coast last year while they boated north on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Our last day in Christchurch saw beautiful weather that sent us to the hills -- the Port Hills to be precise. This is an ancient volcanic crater, open at one end to the ocean. It sits just south of Christchurch, spread out below Louise in the first photo, and looks westward in the second photo over the Canterbury Plains.

The road down to Lyttleton Harbor in the third looks like something out of a Tour de France mountain stage, while the view eastward to the ocean gives you some idea of the size of volcano that must have existed at one time to create this massive landform.

Best of all, it is criss-crossed with hiking trails and heavily used by cyclists as well. Something to look forward to seeing on our next trip to New Zealand, whenever that might be!

We're almost out of special experiences in NZ, but we've saved one of the best for last, a two-day trek in Abel Tasman National Park with the night in between on a floating backpackers. We'll tell you all about it in our next blog entry.

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