Friday, February 27, 2009

Another quick message. . .

Sorry for getting behind in the blog, I am just up to Tasmania but may not have internet for a week or so. There should be about 7 or 8 days of updates here. Cheers to everyone!

2/23/2009 - Ferry Nice

I sleep restlessly for some reason, despite a real bed. Nevertheless, I feel energized in the morning and get things set up so that I can keep my bike and trailer locked up at the hostel. It helped that I am from Alaska and the woman who was behind the counter has always wanted to go there.

I figure out the tram schedule, grab my single bag holding the stuff I can't replace, and cruise downtown.

Melbourne has already started to grow on me. There are a number of parks I have passed that have a lot of green, the houses are well-kept and very colonial (mostly brick with some solid woodworking). People are nice, responding to my obvious tourist questions with helpful tips and an Australian drawl.

I jump off the tram in the heart of the downtown after a 30 minute ride. Manage to find a post office where I send my passport over to Masterton (so they can get the work visa taken care of), then grab a super big breakfast at a local coffee shop and read the paper. Delightful. The coffee is good, and the bacon is one step closer to "real" bacon (it's still ham-like, but they at least make it sort of crispy).

I spend the day wandering around, pick up some particularly good seam sealer for my mattress, and look up info on Tasmania. Downtown Melbourne is much closer to an American city than a New Zealand city. Shops are numerous and mostly upscale, people are walking around in what is (I presume) the latest fashions, and most of the people here are from Melbourne, not all tourists like downtown Auckland seems to be. The streets are clean and the sidewalks are busy. I have noticed that cars here in Melbourne are much more like an American city, too - rather than the "well-loved" import cars in New Zealand, the bulk of the traffic here is four years old or newer. Lots more American cars, including Fords and Holdens (GM in Australia).

The size of things is more American, as well. Shops and buildings are just on a bigger scale for a larger population. Interestingly, I only see a few homeless people out. Not sure why that is.

I find some cool shops, including a very helpful outdoor store and a "backpacking light" store that introduced me to a super-lightweight pack built in New Zealand that is supposed to be one of the most comfortable on the market. I try it on and LOVE it. Now if I can only remember the name. . . It would make a perfect climbing or backcountry ski pack once I have money again.

IMGP1871.JPGDowntown Melbourne. This was one of the less-busy streets at a less-busy time of the morning. The city really feels energized.

IMGP1872.JPGSome random group doing a dance number on the street. I think they were selling fitness center passes or something, and if the mostly-male crowd was any indication, they were going to be successful.

After a quick lunch and some more wandering, I figure it's time to head back. I have a few miles to bicycle to the ferry terminal. The tram is as easy to navigate back as it was coming to the city center, and soon I have put my bike and trailer together and head off.

IMGP1873.JPGThe big, wide beaches of Melbourne. A lot more people here, believe it or not, than the New Zealand beaches.

IMGP1874.JPGA beautiful pathway runs for miles along the beaches. There is a separate path for cyclists and for people walking in much of it. It is well-groomed and popular with cyclists and beachwalkers, but not too popular. That is the ferry ("Spirit of Tasmania") in the background. It looks smaller than I was expecting, and, given the strong winds and waves, I wonder if this is going to be one of those occasions where I spend the night making offerings over the side to Neptune, god of the seas.

I cruise leisurely along with a fantastic tailwind reducing my exertion to "stomper" level. In no time, I am at the ferry terminal, actually an hour early. End up in line and go through their mini-customs. They take away the white gas I had bought downtown for the camp stove, but otherwise leave me alone. Still haven't seen Mom and Dad yet. The line starts moving on the ferry, and I figure I will find them there.

I get my bike well-anchored in a small, dingy room on the truck level of the ferry, and head up to check out the sleeping arrangements. We have "oceanview recliners" which turn out to be glorified airplane seats looking out of the back of the ship. I can be pretty sure I'm not going to get much sleep on THOSE babies.

If I was worried that I might miss seeing my parents, I was gravely mistaken. I return below to pick up my fleece and I see, from across the cargo bay, a giant yellow monstrosity that has "McWilliams" written all over it.

It is fantastic seeing my parents here, and it's made even more fun by their obvious pride at this crazy contraption.

The Trike is built by Greenspeed here in Melbourne. It is basically a tandem recumbent. In addition to their usual tandem recumbent, they have customized a "surrey top" that sports a flexible 62-watt solar panel. Why such an elaborate energy setup? It has a massive lithium-ion battery that powers a 500-watt motor "for uphills". I am skeptical about how well this will work, but interested anyway.

IMGP1877.JPGMy poor, elderly parents behind what I have dubbed the "Geria-trike" tandem recumbant tricycle.

It takes a while to get all of the equipment worked out and the Geria-trike strapped to the ship. Soon enough, though, we head up for a celebratory dinner in the ferry restaurant.

I know it sounds a little strange to say, but I am actually excited to travel with my parents. At the risk of sounding like a weird homeschooled kid, my parents are, at the very least, interesting to hang out with, and at the most very fun. They like doing things a little differently as evidenced by the above photo. Let's face it, they are the instruments that shaped me into what I am today. I don't think either one of them would accept responsibility for any interest in video games.

Dinner itself is much fancier than I am used to. As a matter of fact, the nicest place I have eaten out during the last several months was the Fergburger in Queenstown. Sadly, a close second would probably be Burger King.

IMG_2030.JPGCheck out the guns.

It is amazing to have your own person who just gets you things you ask for - our waitress was very nice, got things out promptly, and answered with an emphatic "yes!" when my dad asked if you were supposed to tip in this country.

Those of you that know my dad will understand. Those of you who don't can probably begin to fathom a bit of his general psyche.

Fantastic dinner, and we discussed our plans for the trip. Dad has been working like crazy, taking on hours that border on insane. He needs to relax, and getting out and away from people will certainly help that. Mom also likes getting away from the crowds and loves seeing lots of animals. We come up with a game plan. No definite goals other than to have fun. We will not try to make it any certain distance, just to get to some interesting places. We'll probably spend quite a bit of time in the northeast corner of Tasmania, which is beautiful but is more remote and has the least tourists.

The wine and food soon hit. Mom and Dad had been up packing the night before they left, had an 18-our flight, and then had spent all day at Greenspeed getting their Geria-trike up and running. I think they could have slept on the solid steel vehicle deck. Actually, Dad might have preferred it so that he could "keep an eye on the rig".

Seriously, we were all pretty bushed. I stayed up a bit, but was soon out as well.

It was around midnight when I was awoken by one of the staff. "I think you may have the wrong seat, mate," he said. I had taken a seat closer to my parentals that had seemed to be empty, but apparently had been taken. Moving back to my seat, I found that I couldn't get to sleep easily and so tossed and turned.

Tomorrow should be interesting. We are coming into Devonport (a larger town on the north side of Tasmania) at about 7AM. Planning to head for a national park to camp on the maiden voyage of the Geria-trike.

A quick note about the name "Geria-trike". My parents are not old, and certainly do things that people half their age don't often do (like ocean kayaking for a month at a time, mountain biking, camping for long periods of time in the bush, rafting class IV rivers by themselves, the list goes on). My mom refers to my dad and herself as "your ancient parents" or "your old parentals", and so I feel that the term "geria-trike" is simply working with that theme. In other words, there is only affection in the term.

2/22/2009 - From a Country of 4 Million to a City of 4 Million

The big day has finally come. I am up early as usual, even without my Scottish alarm clock. It takes me some time to finish the last of the packing and to cover my bike and trailer in plastic as required by the New Zealand Air regulations. It's actually not that hard to do.

Kayra and Kevin come by around 11:00AM. They have kindly agreed to drop me by the airport and to pick me up when I return. They are going to use Zod for the next three weeks while they look for a car.

Back over the massive hill to Wellington we go, then all the way through the city. I actually like Wellington as a city in the short time I have seen it. It is rugged and mountainous and required some inventive thinking or pure stubbornness or maybe a little of both to plant a city here. We end up going through two tunnels within the city to finally approach the airport. The winds are gusting like crazy today, making Zod lurch like a college student on a Friday night.

After discussing Zod's finer points and care ("Yeah, it leaks oil - here's how you put more in") I head off with my bike and trailer to the main counter.

I am going to totally plug New Zealand Air here. They made getting these oversize bags across to Melbourne into a very easy undertaking. It cost NZ$110 for the additional weight, which was less than I was expecting.

The security check was quick and easy, too. No shoe x-rays for the first time in a long time.

Grabbed some quick food before the flight, and eventually made it on board. This is really where Air New Zealand made points with me. Each seat was obviously new, clean, and had its own LCD touch screen. Every one had a full spectrum of games, movies, music, and TV shows that were all FREE. Literally hundreds of hours of programming. You could even play multiplayer games against people in other seats.

Needless to say, my techie-drawn brain was kept well amused.

Dinner came along eventually, and that, too, was top-notch. Thai chicken and salad and dessert. The cabin crew was very friendly and helpful, as well.

Overall, it was one of the most pleasant flights I have ever been on.

Alas, it ended eventually as we landed in Melbourne. The lower we got, the more apprehensive I got. All I could see was brownish grass and reddish dirt. The area around Melbourne appears pretty flat, overall. It looked like a desert. At this point, it has been only about 10 days since recent wildfires made international news, killing over 200 people in the worst national disaster Australia has ever had. They have been going through a drought, and Melbourne is in the middle of it.

I found out later that Melbourne has a lot more green than it initially looked, just so you know, and usually has a lot of green grass and other niceties in non-drought conditions. That's good, considering that my initial impressions were closer to my impressions of some of the Navajo Indian reservations back home.

Customs took very little time, and were easy to work with. They had to spray off my cycling shoes to assure no grass seeds came in to contaminate the country. This made me laugh a bit inside, considering that this was the country that introduced cane toads, indirectly leading to the world's funniest nature documentary. Look up "cane toads" in Wikipedia or Google to get a good idea of just how complicated the ecosystem is and how idiotic we are at predicting it.

I managed to find a shuttle that would drop me right at the X-Base hostel in south Melbourne. It only cost AUS$15 and they had a trailer for the bike and bike trailer. Excellent! I managed to catch the very last one of the day, assisted by a guy who was coming back from holiday but who worked for the shuttle company.

IMGP1870.JPGOn the shuttle. Those blocky mountains in the background are called "skyscrapers".

I checked into the X-Base hostel around 7:30. They are a chain of hostels catering to the "more refined" backpackers (usually the younger ones with money who want to party a lot). The only room they had left was a double by itself, but they gave it to me for a single price. They even had a spot to lock my bike and trailer up.

I'm not feeling up to scratch, stomach-wise, and so grab a bit of food at a Subway and head for bed around 10PM. I meet up with my parentals around 6PM tomorrow at the ferry terminal just before we all head to Tasmania. I think I will go downtown and explore things, maybe look for a sleeping mat that doesn't collapse under pressure like the head of a Hurricane Katrina disaster relief agency.

2/21/2009 - How Do You Prepare for Kangaroos?

Today will be a really short blog. I leave tomorrow for Melbourne, Australia where I will meet my parents. From there we are going to jump on the overnight ferry to Tasmania and will then bicycle/tricycle (you'll understand in later blogs) the island.

I planned on sleeping in this morning, but the National I Love Scottish Bagpipe Music Festival decided to start tromping around right underneath my window at about 8:00AM. Every time a marching band seemed to move off into the distance, allowing me to drowse a bit, a new one would start with gusto right underneath my window again. It was like a mobile hangover. The screeches and drums finally beat me into submission at 9AM and I got up.

Spent much of the day just getting ready for the trip. I found an apartment (really nice spot out of town and close to the mountains) which is separated from the main house of Anne and her husband. She is one of the nurse educators in the clinic.

IMGP1867.JPGKitchen, bathroom, and living room of my soon-to-be abode.

IMGP1868.JPGAnd the upstairs single bedroom, complete with amnesia-inducing roof supports. Suspect that I will just have to put on a helmet every time I go upstairs, but. . .

IMGP1869.JPG. . . The view from here (shown in this picture from the end of the driveway) is worth the risk.

I was invited over for some dinner by Tracey and her son, Riley (who is tons of fun and spent much of the time working on a dam in his sandbox). Headed back to the apartment around 7:30 and rearranged all of my stuff one last time. Kayra and Kevin are going to give Zod a good home for awhile as they are looking for a car, so that is taken care of. I also move my excess stuff into the new apartment. It doesn't seem like much, but all of this managed to use up the day.

I crash out for one more night in the big downtown apartment and prepare mentally for the flight to Melbourne tomorrow. Going to be fun!

2/20/2009 - Masterton

I do another leisurely morning today, including laundry. My guess is that, in my quest to save money, time, and soap, my clothes have been slowly developing a "funk" that I am used to but people in enclosed spaces may not be.

Soon enough, I am testing Zod's endurance again up the major hill from Wellington to Masterton. As usual, the van manages to make it despite being passed by every vehicle including the New Zealand equivalent of Geo Metros.

IMGP1866.JPG Looking back from the top of the hill. In the distance is the park where they filmed Rivendell from the Lord of the Rings.

Once over the hill, things flatten out considerably. It takes about an hour and a half total to go from the campground to the Masterton city limits.

I show up for a surprise visit at the clinic, grab lunch with David and Caroline Nixon (the head of the clinic), and get paperwork done. David kindly offers me the big apartment as Kylie and her family have finished there at the clinic and are now traveling again. Not bad!

Today's entry will be short, as I'm betting that no one wants to hear where I put "line 23b subtracted from the sum of lines 12a and 12b" or how many deductions I am taking. It is federal tax day for me, and I spend quite a while tracking down W2s and other forms for my taxes. Riveting.

It is definitely nice to have a place of my own. Though I am used to sharing bathrooms and showers and campsites and tables, I suddenly realize that not having to worry about all that is refreshing. I can set my own schedule without reference to check out times or cleaning times or traffic or closing hours. It is so strange that traveling can sometimes be more regimented than being in one place.

Kayra and Kevin have invited me over for dinner so that I can forget all of the tax fun. I make it over around 7PM, and I get to meet her husband, Kevin (who had been working away for a month when I last came through). Tracey, a mutual friend of Kayra, Kevin, and I, also made it over. We put down some wine with dinner, then headed over to a local pub to see how the beer tasted.

Belinda, the pharmacist at the clinic, and Adam, the podiatrist at the clinic, just happened to stop by as well - all in all, a really fun group and make me even more excited about working there.

The weirdest thing about the bar was that the drinking age is 18 here. As 11PM rolled around, boys and girls (they just look too YOUNG to call them anything else) make it in to eye the opposite sex, all dressed up for the occasion. I think we were not mentally put in the category of the "geriatric group", which was fine by me. Also, a limo kept driving up to the bar dropping people off and picking them up, really pushing my definition of a small-town taxi. Weird.

I called "uncle" around midnight, and headed back to the apartment. My plan is to sleep in tomorrow (Saturday) and finish all of my preparations for Tasmania, as I'm leaving on Sunday for the real Down Under.

I sleep on the couch as I do not want to mess up the clean linens and so on. Will be getting up early to start work on my taxes. I could use the refund for sure.

2/19/2009 - Back in the North Again

I am awake earlier than usual today. I have a date with the Picton Interislander ferry at 2PM, and I am not sure how long it will take to drive there. Now that I have a semi-permanent bed in the back, camp is easy to pick up and soon I head off for the store.

Or I would, except that the starter doesn't turn over at all.

NOT AGAIN! What is going on?! I walk down to a gas station and purchase some good jumper cables as it seems like they will be used more than the actual battery in the van. A guy is kind enough to jump-start me, and off I go. Given the questionable nature of starting this thing, I come to the conclusion that I will follow the big rig philosophy of just keeping it on all the time until I can find a spot in Picton that they will definitely be able to jump it or exchange the battery. I am worried that it is the alternator, which is a much more expensive proposition.

It stays on while picking up breakfast at the grocery store and does just fine. I stop at a rest area outside of town that is right next to the beach and eat breakfast with the sound of ocean waves overpowering the diesel engine noise. Some sea lions had arranged themselves in with the rocks and were meticulously practicing their "play dead" routine.

IMGP1864.JPGOne of these things is not like the others. . .

IMGP1865.JPGI had just missed the explosive part of the wave crashing thing, which is too bad as it really is amazing to see. You can feel it, too, as the vibration carries to the rocks under your feet.

After two hours of driving, the fuel gauge began to needle toward "empty", but this corresponded with coming into Picton (where the ferry leaves) and I was able to pull up to a gas station that had a shop. I left the van on and went in to talk to them. After being referred to the mechanic, he came back and checked the battery showing that the alternator was, in fact, charging. It should be OK to turn off. Vastly relieved, I proceeded to fill up with diesel. A big semi truck came impatiently in in front of me about that time, waiting for my spot. You know that feeling of surety that things aren't going to go right? I had one of those right before I turned the key, and the feeling was borne out. Not a click and the door lights barely came on. Gah. The guy from inside helped me push Zod backwards as the big truck driver rolled his eyes.

It came to me in a flash, though. Suddenly, the surety that things weren't going to work became a surety that I knew what the problem was. Opening the battery cover, I adjusted the negative terminal, turned the key, and it started in a second. The terminal is loose causing an intermittent connection.

I have enough time before the ferry to visit a local auto electrician. For a ridiculous NZ$40, he puts a new terminal on the battery, and Zod starts perfectly just in time to head for the ferry.

This ferry trip is pretty unremarkable. This midafternoon journey doesn't have the drama or interesting shadows and colors of the evening trip coming from the north to the south. I spend my time working on the blog instead of doing much looking, and I am sad to say that I did not take a single picture of this crossing.

Back on the north island, I start the trip back to Masterton. The last time I made it, it was by train from Masterton to Wellington. I leave the ferry and head that direction, but find a small and cheap campground just out of town (NZ$12) that I stop at. I want to see the trip over to Masterton in the daylight as it is beautiful. Plus, it's steep and probably would be smarter to have more people around in case Zod decides to show me another mechanical misadventure.

It is relaxing and anonymous there as I make up some vegetarian tofu-and-rice Indian food. I will have to eat some McDonald's or something to regain some masculinity over the next few days.

2/18/2009 - Some Seriously Rocky Coastline

I snooze a bit this morning. It is another clear day, and as I look out my curtained window to see why it is so bright, I get this:

IMGP1848.JPG It's either some sort of miracle occurring or the sun has just come over the horizon and is also reflecting off of the lake at the same time. I see this spot for the next 15 minutes until my eyes recover.

Breakfast is down by the lake, basking in the slowly-developing warmth as I wake up.

IMGP1850.JPGMorning over Lake Tekapo. I feel pretty sure that, if there were a road over that mountain, I would not be biking it.

IMGP1852.JPGThis is the kind of half-awake state where coffee would be the only perfect cure. Alas, I left my stove back in Masterton, so unless I take my coffee cold with random microbes and amoeba, I will just tough it out.

Soon enough, I am off again. It feels like a lazy day, and I find a left turn leading to the Mt. John Observatory. It has just opened (as it is 9:00). Why not? Might as well test out Zod this morning. The narrow paved road heads steeply and picturesquely around Mt John (not much of a mountain, really, more of a big lump) until I've gained just over 1,000 feet. At that point, I can see the curious domes of several telescopes arranged around the summit. There is a parking lot, as well as a cafe. Who knew? I am the second one there.

IMGP1854.JPGZod, in an aggressive stance on the top of Mt. John. Pretend not to notice the giant dents in the side and the peeling stickers.

The cafe is very pleasant. Two guys staff it and are nice even beyond the usual for New Zealand. I do find out, however, that one is selling collected albums of his photos of the region, which may explain some of this. I sit in the sun and read Bill Bryson's "A Brief History of Everything" (I think I have the title right) which is laying on a table here. I only get through a chapter or two, but will have to get the whole thing. I crack up once or twice to the worried looks of other people.

I head out as more and more people make their way into the cafe. It is becoming quite busy. The view from up here is religious, though, and I can't go without a panorama.

IMGP1855.JPGThis is what happens when you allow the camera to automatically stitch pictures together. Not bad, though.

As I pass the town of Lake Tekapo, driving mode sets in. My first goal today is Christchurch, just to get a feel for the place.

The road back through toward Christchurch is similar to the way in, though with more tiny hamlets sprinkled in. The area is rugged as grassland gives way to forest and then farmland again.

It takes a few hours before I notice that the traffic is really picking up. By this point, the area is flat, and Zod is not needing to work nearly as hard as usual. Skyscrapers loom as I stop to get my bearings.

Christchurch is, I think, the third largest city in New Zealand (can't be bothered to actually check, as being third versus fourth best just isn't that interesting a figure to know). It is on the coast and the city and area around it is flat as a pancake. This eventually gives way to the mountains I have just traveled through, though. It is big on bicycling around here due to the flats.

I mostly find it to be just busy. The buildings are older and most are kept up well, though. There is lots of culture, arts, and other things that I could probably care less about. I find a park and, with the help of the GPS, manage to pass by it several times before discovering a place to park.

A note about this: Parking spots appear to be similar to small, defenseless countries, and every driver seems to be 1939 Germany. Everything is well-occupied. I put lots of Zod-related hydrocarbons in the air driving around looking for a spot just to pull over at one point. I finally found my area in a dedicated parking lot deep in the park.

This was good, as it let me see what the planners of this city did with all the parking spots: Turned it into some prime park. It really is nice, with sort of a Central P{ark vibe to it. Lots of little walkways, lakes, ducks, and people sleeping in the sun (probably a significantly smaller percentage doing this permanently than in Central Park by their clothes). I sit down and do a bit of blogging and lunch at a picnic table.

IMGP1856.JPGThis is all of Christchurch you are going to see in this blog. Just wasn't that impressed overall, but then I GUESS there could be more to see than random driving for an hour followed by 20 minutes sitting in the park. In the background is my solar panel charging my extra battery that I use to keep my camera, ipod, and computer up charged up.

As nothing seemed to grip me about this city, I decided to move on to Kaikoura, and shortly find the motorway. This roughly follows the coast, but is mostly flat. As it gets more rural and I get closer to Kaikoura, the coastline becomes more and more jagged both in its overall outline and the details of its surface. Rocks are black and sharp, and the each ocean wave explodes like a slow-motion water balloon on them. Not only that but occasionally the sea lions make themselves seen. This does not seem to be on purpose. As a matter of fact, they do their utmost to appear to be big rocks on the beach, usually only moving to slowly flap a fin. What a life!

IMGP1857.JPGTaken right off of the highway. Rock silhouettes frame rocky beaches looking over islands of rocks. The Flintstones would settle in just fine here.

IMGP1858.JPGMore rugged-y coastline, getting closer to Kaikoura. The beaches are empty.

Finally roll into Kaikoura toward late afternoon. Do a bit of internetting before settling down in one of the caravan parks. It is crowded but quiet, with most of the people being older and more relaxed. Plus the view from there is fantastic.

IMGP1859.JPGIt's a little dark, but the flash in my digital camera just wouldn't illuminate the mountains well.

I had picked up a really thick twin-sized air mattress in Christchurch, so am looking forward to a real sleeping experience tonight despite the mattress only reaching to my calves.

2/17/2009 - Chocariffic

Up at a reasonable time. Grab some breakfast with Erik and Kris, and we say our good-byes. They are planning to head to the library for some Internet mooching and to check out a fairly rare book on bicycling Australia. I am going to check out downtown Dunedin and get a haircut. Over the weeks, I have become more and more like Shaggy from Scooby Doo.

I head down around 11AM with Zod. Parking is difficult to say the least, and they definitely like charging for it. I eventually find a spot and head to the i-site.

One thing piques my interest above the rest. Cadbury has a tour down here, as this was the origin of chocolate in New Zealand. Oh, baby.

Head to the library and catch Erik and Kris there. Internet is severely limited there, so I head out. Second good-bye for the day. Find a very nice little barbershop that does a nice job for NZ$12, and I leave a new man.

It is not hard to find the Cadbury factory as it is only about a block away, massive, and mostly purple. I walk in, and my initial expectations of a Gene Wilder-like experience are partially fulfilled. It is a slick place with motorized (maybe REAL!) elves popping out of a massive pile of Cadbury chocolates.

IMGP1829.JPGI do not see root beer that makes you fly, but I figure that's later in the tour.

They even have a nifty display where you can try raw chocolate, with ambient bird and jungle noises.

IMGP1830.JPGChoc-tastic! But sort of like trying to eat raw coffee beans.

I eagerly pay for my ticket and we are met by a young guy dressed, for all intents and purposes, like Bob the Builder (except in purple). He also has apparently gone to the Disneyworld school of courtesy, because he is sickeningly nice. You get the feeling that he has to compensate for this overextension by indulging in hardcore drugs in his off hours. Actually, probably his work hours.

Mr Oversize Cabbage Patch Doll takes us to another room where we watch a ten-minute brainwash on Cadbury chocolate. I am pretty convinced by the end of this that consuming mass quantities of Cadbury chocolate would solve the Middle East crisis once and for all.

Our group of about 14 is handed hairnets and required to put these on. We are now allowed to make it into the magical world of Cadbury, where I'm sure that the Oompa Loompas are doing cartwheels of excitement in anticipation of watching us swim through a river of chocolate and pick sugar treats from the magical Licorice Trees.

IMGP1831.JPGThis piece of sexy fashion advice was brought to you by the National Lunchlady's Union.

No cameras, though, are allowed. I guess there must be a trade secret in the way that the Oompa-Loompas care for the Marshmallow Mushrooms or something.

My excitement builds as we walk thorough a hall and stop, then are allowed into the "factory floor". This same excitement is crushed, though, when I see what is inside.

The workers here are not Oompa-Loompas. As a matter of fact, they all look as though they were just forced at gunpoint to EAT an Oompa-Loompa that had not bathed in some time. There is not a joy in making chocolate as much as an automaticity of robotic action that matched the machines.

We do get to see some cool machinery, and they have a "waterfall of chocolate", which is a ton of liquid chocolate recycled over and over again in an abandoned silo that is poured down about 50 feet to impress the tourists. It's cool until I realized that chocolate that's been nice and warm and around as long as this probably would confine you to the bathroom for three days or so, much less taste good.

We do get some samples of chocolate bars, and learn some of the ways chocolate is produced. They do try to spruce the tour-area up a bit by putting large pictures of happy Cadbury elves around, but the general air from those working was that they would rather put the happy cutouts in the chocolate press before actually cracking a smile, so it wasn't quite as effective as it could have been.

I think I have put this tour in more of a negative light than it actually was, but it probably wasn't worth NZ$18 even with all of the candy bribes we received along the way.

Once back to the reality of the street outside, I find a closeby grocery store for lunch fixings and find Kris and Erik again. We say good-bye for a third time today and I head to Zod.

Leaving Dunedin is interesting. I climb the steep and long hill out, and within the space of a kilometer, it goes from city to rural sheep ranches. Amazing how quickly it happens.

The drive out is pleasant, and the day is partly cloudy. Eat a little lunch of hummus and avocado sandwiches (Damn your vegetarian virus, Kris and Erik!) The land is not terribly hilly as I follow the coast, and is mostly grassland and ranch.

IMGP1832.JPGI have a thing for lighthouses. So sue me.

Soon enough, I head inland. I am heading for Lake Tekapo, and that means some serious climbing. Again, it doesn't matter that Zod gets passed by everyone - I don't have to personally struggle up these hills, and it feels great. I do, however, miss it a little, even though it hasn't been but a week since the hard core biking. There is something addictive about regular exercise that my body continues to crave, and I reflect at times how good it feels when I have beaten a hill or earned a nice, comfortable downhill. Ah, well.

I finally cross over the pass. The road has been severely rural as the terrain gets more rugged, only seeing a car every 10 minutes or so. The few towns I have passed through have been tiny blips.

This is all OK with me. As much as I love this country, I do prefer being able to get out and away from people, and things are set up so that in most parts, there are lots of smaller towns all over. The south and west of the south island are different, and I am now finding that the interior of the south island shakes this trend as well.

IMGP1833.JPGJust before crossing over the pass. Cloudy, cool, and feels remote.

IMGP1834.JPGLiterally just after crossing over the pass. It was like breaking through a cloud wall. Suddenly I feel really alpine.

The road winds through flatter country now, but with a suggestion of sudden transition ahead as the mountains loom under dark clouds in the distance, and the road is heading right for them.

IMGP1836.JPGI just can't escape power lines, even this far from the city.

After around 30km of this comfortable drive, the road makes a sharp left in front of the fantastic Lake Tekapo. This is a glacial lake giving it a deep blue that is reminiscent of the sky.

IMGP1837.JPGThis bush was AMAZING!

There is a little town here that has a small grocery store, all perched right on the lake shore. The people here are very helpful and give me directions to the road leading to Mt. John. I've been tipped off that there are some good, hidden places to free camp right on the lake from this road. I pick up some avocados, bread, milk, and hummus. I really hate to admit it, but the vegetarian hummus and avocado sandwich is really delicious.

Zod and I are soon off again, passing the other tourist who are walking with their suitcases toward the large and fancy-looking hotel here. Lake Tekapo is right near some prime skiing regions of the south island, and I suspect that this acts like a lodge.

The smaller road is well-marked and very circuitous. It gives some excellent, closer views of the mountains and lake.

IMGP1839.JPGLooking over the lake, the mist was pouring actively into the valley. Try to imagine molasses overflowing and you get the idea of the speed.

The road climbed a few hills, then looked down onto what would be camp for the night.

IMGP1842.JPGShould be nice, clear skies for checking out the stars tonight. I think I have mentioned that Lake Tekapo is working to become a refuge for preventing artificial light, allowing unfettered night sky viewing. I'm betting that the Mt. John observatory people here have something to do with that movement.

I descend toward the lake, and find a small gravel rut heading toward the shore. Zod has 4WD, but it's actually dry and easily driven with just 2WD. Set up camp right next to the lake as the sun goes down.

The great thing is that "setting up camp" involves putting Zod into "park". That's it. No need for a tent, and my sleeping mattress is already pumped up in the back. Rock on.

It is a very relaxing evening. I also learn a bit about choosing avocados. Bright green means that, if thrown, they could knock someone out from 25 feet, not that they are "fresh". No avocado tonight. Hummus sandwiches it is.

IMGP1845.JPGTen seconds after stopping, camp is up. Refreshing!

As twilight stretches to night, I can start to see how cool it would be to have an area without any artificial lights around. Then I start thinking about the Blair Witch movie, and decide that having some light is, perhaps, a good thing also. The moon soon provides this. It's very relaxing.

Tomorrow, heading toward Kaikura, which is famous for being a spot to swim with dolphins and some cool rugged coastline.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

2/16/2009 - What Are the Odds?!

At the expense of ruining the suspense, I will just say now that I am fine and did not need to go to the hospital. You will understand below.

It's a leisurely morning, but camp is packed away eventually and we head to downtown Invercargill where we'll be leaving Zod while biking today. It is going to be a great ride as we are not carrying any baggage or trailers - just naked bikes. It is about 35km each way to Bluff, but we have time. I am a little worried that I am going to get left in the dust, as tandems tend to be faster on the flats and downhill (though at a disadvantage uphill). It is pretty flat to Bluff.

My worries evaporate, however, as we start pedaling. It is so nice to get back in the saddle again. I almost tap my speedometer and GPS to check that the readings are right - we are averaging 18-20mph without even working hard. I hit 33mph on the flat during a little sprint for fun. It is amazing. I have not used the big front chainring on this trip yet, but it is all I use today without any weight on the bike. I feel giddy. Erik, Kris, and I hold a conversation while we bike (and shoulder-willing). The scenery flies by. It takes only an hour to hit Bluff.

IMGP1820.JPGTown Motto: "Bluff: The Wart on the Chin of New Zealand"

For being a final destination in New Zealand, Bluff is just plain ugly. Old factories and rusty buildings sit in the background of rotting boats half-buried in the mud next to the road. The water doesn't look clean, and even the roads don't look as kept up as the rest of New Zealand. As we walk up to a store to grab some lunch items, two women that I am pretty sure are prostitutes walk by. (Don't ask me how I know. They may have been local nuns just out for a walk while their shawls were drying, but I have never known nuns to show THAT much behind, or I have been to the wrong churches.)

The actual southernmost point of Bluff is quite nice, though. And it really brings home that I have finished my cycling in New Zealand after around 1400 miles. I suddenly feel elated and ready for the next step in this trip.

IMGP1823.JPGThank God I didn't accidentally put the tearaway bike shorts on today. I did this with the van, as well, but we forgot to get a picture.

IMGP1825.JPGIf I didn't know he was a vegetarian, I would have said Erik is about to take a bite out of Kris or me. On another note, this is the first time EVER that I was not relegated to the back middle of the picture.

Soon enough, we start back. Erik and Kris really put the hammer down. We get some tailwind and average 23-24mph. I have to really work to keep up this time. It is still exhilarating, though.

We are within a mile of the van - less than a mile from the end of a 1400 mile trip that included hours of narrow, windy, and treacherous roads, massive trucks, and blind one-lane bridges - when it happens. I pull into a roundabout as a white van (without his blinker on) crosses over into my lane without looking. All I can see is flat white paint as I slam on my brakes, giving the van just enough time to get past as I catapult over the handlebars in a (I would like to think) graceful arc with my bike still partially attached to my clips. The bike and I separate somewhere in midair, and I hit and roll across the concrete shoulder-and elbow- first, hearing only the sound of my bike clattering to a stop.

Thankfully, the rest of traffic saw me. The van didn't even slow down. A quick status report from all of my assorted limbs shows that they are accounted for, though my left elbow and knee hurt quite a lot. Erik and Kris hurry over and help me to the side of the road while I recover for a minute and palpate the affected joints. The pain recedes, and I realize that I don't have a mark on me. Isn't this sort of how Clark Kent realized he was Superman? The popping of my elbow returns me to reality.

The bike is fine, and after 2 minutes, I am too. Kris and Erik saw the whole thing, and are very complementary about my full endo.

Make it back to the van without any further fun, though I can't quite straighten my left arm. We load up the bikes and head back to the Velodrome to see it in actual action (as we missed the races yesterday).

It appears to be the national team out practicing, and they are fast. They use a small motorcycle to pace them around and around the track. I have no idea how quickly they are moving, but it suddenly makes the day's cycling look slower.

IMGP1827.JPGIt doesn't look like much when still, but these guys appear to be just about sideways on the steeper parts of the track. The guy on the motorbike looks like Mac's manager in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out.

Once done with that, it is time to kick back and drive to Dunedin. It stays mostly on the coast, but gets quite hilly the closer we get. It almost looks like pictures of the Scottish highlands in some places, which is appropriate as the founders were Scots.

IMGP1828.JPGJust out of Invercargill. This is just so New Zealand.

It is a big city, and we find a campground that is about 4km from downtown. It is getting late by this time, so we grab groceries and Kris and Erik make up a fantastic Mexican vegetarian meal.

It starts dumping down rain before long, so I crawl into my tent early. After all, I need to recover a bit.

Tomorrow, we part ways again. I will be heading to Lake Tekapo, while Kris and Erik will jump back on their bikes. Going to be a long day of driving.

2/15/2009 - Other People's Problems

Par for the course, my patented early-morning wake up device (the lack of air in the air mattress) brought me to full attention by 7AM. Too early, but what can I do. It seems a bit brisk out of the sleeping bag, and opening my tent flap gave me a pretty good clue as to why.

IMGP1806.JPG Cubs must've won the World Series.

It's the middle of summer, and here I am wondering if I have an ice scraper.

It is absolutely still, partly due to the lack of wind this morning but mostly due to the lack of motivation in my fellow campers at this DOC site, who are all still snuggled down in their tents. I decide to follow their example for another hour or so.

IMGP1807.JPGTransformed. No clouds, no frost. Was I in the right hemisphere an hour ago?!

Tents are put away, breakfast is had, and we prepare to head out on the road. One fine point, though: I forgot to mention in yesterday's entry that, after turning Zod off, I tried to restart it to move a short distance. Barely a crank. Luckily I had found some fellow campers with a jumper cable and the willingness to spend some time out of their chemical-induced haze to kindly jump start my van this morning.

Once they had awoken, we were able to connect things easily. It turned over a bit more, but not enough to start.

Another couple was willing to try their car as well. Same results. I think I stifled a sigh as I realized that my 10 trouble-free days on my bike were coming back, karma-like, to get me.

As I prepared to hitch the 50km back into Te Anau, the people in the car (who were both American) offered to drive me. This was particularly nice because they weren't even headed back to Te Anau. I accepted with no problems.

I had a funny feeling that I had met the pink-haired woman before. As we started chatting, she mentioned working in Motueka. It turns out she was one of the people from the Happy Apple Backpacker's, the place that was (up to recently) owned by the Waldin's (the people who took us in in 1985 near Rotorua). It was a very fun time talking with them both. I also found out that the Chilean lady I did an informal consult on at the Happy Apple Backpacker's for pelvic pain did just fine. Good to get some feedback. She is considering running a backpacker's place and has been working with the new owners of the Happy Apple and appears to be becoming rapidly indispensable.

While they went for coffee, I headed to the local shop at a close-by gas station in Te Anau. The kind lady behind the counter referred me to the back where the mechanic was. He turned out to be a very jovial fellow and was immediately helpful. I was not sure which exact battery I needed, but we came up with one based on one of his manuals. After pulling it off the shelf, he looked thoughtful for a moment and said, "Well, if you have trouble getting this battery to fit, you'll need jumper cables." He pulled out a pair from his truck and handed them to me. "And do you have a spanner?" As I did not, he spent about 5 minutes looking before providing me with an adjustable wrench to help remove the often-difficult bolts on the terminals. When I asked how much it was, he gave me a price, but then fixed me with a searching look and said, "You've got an honest face. Just pay for it when you come back by to drop off the cable and the wrench, in case the battery doesn't fit."


IMGP1808.JPGYet another very-helpful Kiwi, named Jock. I feel that his outfit really compliments his name for some reason. I suspect he fights crime when the sun goes down.

After collecting my new friends (and paying for their gas as a thank-you), we headed back to the campsite, and I connected the battery via the cables (as the battery is placed is about the most ridiculous spot imaginable in Zod), and . . Same thing. No start.

We re-hook the battery to the other car again, with their engine going. Not only did my van not start, but right after hooking up the battery, their radiator sprang a nasty leak, sending a jet of green antifreeze back into the engine compartment. It was an old car with a rusty radiator that they had bought for about NZ$700, so it wasn't a surprise, but now THEY were in trouble.

Luckily, Zod came to me with an unused bottle of Radiator Stop-Leak and additional antifreeze. While their engine cooled down, I decided to try one more time with the new battery, spending the time to put it in the Godforsaken little cubbyhole and connecting the terminals directly to it.

Zod stormed to life with nary a blink.

Hallelujah! Life was looking good. We put in the radiator stop leak and new antifreeze/water, and started their car. All good, not a leak. They elected to head to Milford despite their questionable engine, and we followed them for 10km or so to make sure all was well before finally turning back around and heading to Te Anau for the second time that day.

Long story short, I did indeed return to the shop. As I thought, when tested, the old battery was shot. We exchanged the one he had given me for a bigger one, putting me NZ$250 back but returning some peace-of-mind. At last, we were off for Invercargill.

Stopped for lunch at a fantastic picnic area high above the plains and a dam. Mid-lunch, a rented motorhome driven by a young couple pulled in. I walked up to them to tell them that they had a flat right rear tire as they had not noticed. The guy got a combination pained/panicked expression on his face. Erik and I offered to change the tire for him, and he gratefully accepted.

An hour later, substantially dirtier than we had been prior, we waved them off and took off again.

IMGP1809.JPGErik and Kris in Zod, with the recently-fixed motorhome in the background. Not shown: My face when the big motorhome slid forward on the gravel off of the jack while I was getting it off the ground. Luckily the wheel was still in place, so I still have all of my important limbs.

The drive was relaxing. The hills definitely were slow going in Zod's current shape (not unlike my first day of biking), but required no energy output from any of us, so it felt great.

IMGP1810.JPGThe sausage capital. I don't know, I've been to a few clubs that could give them a run for their money. . .

Around 7:30PM, we rolled into Invercargill. It is too late to try the Bluff ride today, but we'll do it tomorrow. Interestingly, the hostess for the park saw the bikes and suggested we check out the Velodrome that is there as they are doing bike races tonight.

We set up camp quickly and book our way to the Velodrome. We've heard of it before - it is the nicest velodrome in New Zealand, and one of the nicest in the southern hemisphere.

Some of you are no doubt wondering what a velodrome is. Pictures are coming up and really explain it better, but, in short, it is to bicycling what the Indianapolis 500 is for car racing. A bunch of bikes going around in a circle, really fast. The track is banked really steeply, 40-50 degrees at the steepest part. You cannot go slower than about 20mph on the steepest part of the track or you fall. The bikes used are single-speed suckers and weight a fraction of what I have.

We pull up into the parking lot and notice a lot of people leaving. As we start walking, a lady stops us and says,"Are you the two tall Americans that were interested in seeing the Velodrome?" As it turns out, we are. She is the sister of the campground hostess, and had just been texted that we were on our way. Their father is the one that managed to get this built, after 60 years of struggling.

He is there as well, an older man who still bikes and who is one of the most famous bike coaches in New Zealand. We get caught up in the excitement, and they give us an impromptu tour.

IMGP1812.JPGThe velodrome. It is 250 meters around, indoors, and is all wood. It is really impressive to see.

IMGP1813.JPGThe man who made it all happen. "LT" are his initials, but for the life of me I cannot remember his name.

Unfortunately, the races just ended, but we check out the entire building, even under the track, and find all of the memorabilia posted around the track - lots of pictures of LT when he used to race competitively.

IMGP1817.JPGThe picture really says it all. I was crushed to discover that their was a home improvement fair the next day, completely changing the meaning of this sign. Could have been pretty embarrassing to show up in my trademark tearaway bike shorts.

This ends up taking a wonderful hour and a half. Once we have exhausted the building, they say good-bye and we return to camp for another nice vegetarian dinner and some sleep.

Plan is to bike to Bluff and back tomorrow, my last planned bike in New Zealand and completing my bike to what is considered the southernmost spot in New Zealand. Then, a drive to Dunedin where Kris and Erik will start their biking again.