And The Rain It Raineth

Posted October 3, 2019 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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Also, snoweth and haileth. The day was a hot mess, or a frigid mess, from moment to moment, depending.

It was pretty much pissing down rain as eight of us were driven from the port of Lyttelton towards Akaroa by our guide Brent, who used to drive an ambulance, and now also drives a taxi, and a good thing too, since the roads were windy, narrow, and slick.

Whenever it wasn’t raining we paused momentarily and I hopped out for a photo. See how New Zealand is unrelentingly beautiful, even when it’s under the weather?

We stopped in Little River at a store where local people sold their excess produce out front and there were lots of nice handmade crafts within.

On our way out of town we passed what might be the coolest motel ever, made entirely out of recycled silos. I would absolutely stay there if I were to pass that way again.

But we didn’t tarry because, you know, it was pissing down rain, and we were on our way to Barry’s Bay cheese shop, to see cheese made the old-fashioned way, taste their wares, and buy some to bring back to the ship.

Amazingly, they make a cheese called Maasdam, which is the name of our ship. Of course I had to buy some, but later I decided to send it as a little gift to our Captain instead of eating it myself. He hasn’t sent a thank you note, so maybe it wasn’t as good an idea as it seemed at the time, or maybe the cheese wasn’t up to Dutch standards, but there you have it.

Akaroa turned out to be a really cute and fun-for-tourists town, but the weather was somber and we didn’t linger.

While the others went into a fudge boutique, I ducked across the street and into the butcher shop. We saw a proper butcher in just about every town, but I had heard that despite the fact that New Zealand has 5 million humans and 60 million sheep, Kiwis don’t eat a lot of lamb, because the export market has driven the prices up so much that it’s considered a special-occasion treat. This slice of lamb leg was $32.95 a kilo in NZ dollars, which works out to about $10 a pound in U.S. dollars. To me that seems like a normal price, but here it’s seen as unaffordable.

Next we drove to Christchurch, where our first stop was at the Al Noor mosque, scene of the recent horrific shootings. This shrine in memoriam was out front, and I saw some of our ship’s crew members there. At least half the crew are from Indonesia, and they’re Muslims. They could have been there on that day, but luckily they weren’t.

The next part of our tour was called “punting on the Avon.” It turned out to be pretty extraordinary, thanks to the weather.

See how we’re sitting on the bottom of a flat boat, with our legs stretched out straight in front of us? I wish I could provide you with the soundtrack, but suffice it to say that many of us were pretty sure that we’d never be able to get back out of the boat again and would spend the rest of our lives punting on the Avon. Also, note the blankets, and note that they don’t look waterproof.

About three minutes into our journey downriver it began to sprinkle, then drizzle heavily. Our punter, a strapping young trainee, turned the boat around and went back to the dock, by which time it was pouring, and from which they pitched us some waterproof blankets and umbrellas.

No sooner did we set forth again then it actually began to hail. I tried to get a good shot of the hailstones on our blanket, but a) I was trying to keep the camera dry, and b) we were all laughing semi-hysterically and my hands were shaking. I have to say, though, that we all vaulted ourselves out of the punt lickety-split a few minutes later, the hail making us forget our fears about being stuck in there for eternity.

Although much of downtown Christchurch has been rebuilt since the 2011 earthquake, a lot of it hasn’t. You see lots of shipping containers full of concrete that are being used to prop up crumbling facades and prevent debris from falling into the streets. Seeing these buildings really brought home for us the magnitude of the devastation here.

This steel sculpture survived the quake, and stands near

this installation protesting the use of precious water resources for bottled water. I particularly like the last line of the inscription.

This lovely piece of street art seems to be watching over the downtown, which has seen far more than its fair share of suffering. 185 lives were lost in that earthquake, another 51 at the mosque. And we were complaining about the weather.

Not without reason, as it turned out. Because although we were supposed to depart for Kaikoura at 5:00 p.m., in reality the port authorities wouldn’t clear us to depart until 5:30 a.m this morning, and so we missed our stop at Kaikoura altogether. I was supposed to go on a dolphin watching boat, which I was sad to miss, but that’s life at sea. So now we’re tied up in Wellington but can’t leave the ship until morning, when, happily, it is not supposed to rain. Or snow, or hail. Earthquakes and mass shootings aren’t in the forecast either, but then, they never are.

Super Natural Dunedin

Posted October 2, 2019 by Abra Bennett
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As we sailed out of Eden on our way to Dunedin I was hanging over the rail and managed to capture this portent of things to come. I had signed up for a tour based on the area’s nature and local Maori lore, and I was really looking forward to it.

I can’t decide whether I’m a blessing or a curse to local tour operators, but once again I was the only person on the tour. In these cases I know they’re losing money on me, but I can’t help but love having a local person all to myself to answer my endless barrage of questions.

Lyndon, my guide, first drove me through downtown Dunedin. This is the famous railway station, opened in 1906, and made out of locally quarried basalt and limestone. I wish we’d had time to go inside, as it’s supposed to have quite a splendid interior as well.

On our way out of town we also passed this gate to the Chinese Garden. Dunedin, mainly known for its Scottish ancestry, has also been home to a significant Chinese population since its gold rush period, beginning in the 1860s. But really, pretty as these baubles are, they are nothing compared to the absolutely gobsmacking gorgeousness of the surrounding countryside. Here’s some eye candy for you, from our drive on the Otago Peninsula.

That pretty yellow plant covering parts of the hillside is gorse, an introduced and invasive species that is the bane of local folks’ existence, however attractive.

We went down on this pristine beach looking for New Zealand sea lions, considered to be perhaps the world’s rarest sea lion, of which there are only about 200 in the area. Lyndon was interested to hear that we generally consider sea lions to be pests, stealing the salmon from the orcas as they do.

We didn’t find sea lions, but did see a couple of fur seals, hoisted up on the sharp, volcanic rocks, and blending in so perfectly that my camera couldn’t see them at all. I tried barking my quasi-sea lion bark at them, to see if they’d wake up, but I’m afraid they didn’t understand my accent.

Evidence of the area’s volcanic origins is everywhere.

Next we stopped by the Otakou marae. Marae is the Maori word for meeting place, and today this one is used for ceremonial functions like funerals. We weren’t able to go in, but it was a peaceful spot that hummed with history and power.

Part of the tour was a boat trip out around Taiaroa Head to see an albatross colony. Although the Monarch can take 50 passengers, we had her all to ourselves.

It’s hard to imaging a more stunning spot. We were looking specifically for the Northern Royal Albatross, which has an astounding 10-foot wingspan and is the world’s largest sea bird. There had been 12 chicks hatched in the colony this year, and 11 of them had already flown away from the nest. Just one chick was left, occasionally flapping his wings and looking like he was going to fly at any moment. Alas, we didn’t get to see that, but I hope that by now he’s found his way into the air.

We did see lots of Buller’s albatross, soaring gracefully, still impressive with their six foot wingspan, as well as petrels. I’m not a birder, but seeing them was really special.

This part of the trip was watched over by the Taiaroa Head lighthouse, which I was sorry to hear is now fully automated. If ever there were a place I’d want to be a lighthouse keeper, this would be it.

Oysters In Eden

Posted October 1, 2019 by Abra Bennett
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In the tiny town of Eden, Australia I went on an oyster farming tour. Since we’ve tried our hand at growing oysters at home on the island I was eager to see how it’s done in this part of the world.

A group of us from the ship got on this oyster punt with a guy who calls himself Captain Sponge. Despite the goofy name, he’s as knowledgeable and articulate an oyster farmer as you could ever hope to meet, and he regaled us for several hours with fun oyster facts as we motored gently around Lake Pambula.

He farms about seven acres of Sydney rock oysters, a process that begins with catching the spat of these wild oysters that hug the shore and sequestering it for his annual production of about million oysters a year.

He uses a floating bag system to raise the oysters

in a relatively shallow environment. He wades in amongst the silt and eel grass to tend his bags, avoiding the occasional shark.

Here he pulls out some of his crop to show us their various sizes and attributes. Then he feeds a couple of platefuls to us, and happy slurping sounds can be heard running quietly through the group.

Back in town I visit the Killer Whale Museum, which is dedicated to a most peculiar bit of whaling history. Between 1843 and 1934 local orcas helped the resident humans hunt other species of migrating whales by herding them into Twofold Bay and trapping them there, until humans could dispatch them. As a reward the orcas were given their favorite bits of the butchered whales, the lips and tongues, and so the cycle continued. Honestly, I couldn’t make this up.

The centerpiece of the museum is the skeleton of Old Tom, the orca who is said to have been the chief Hunter’s Helper. This might be the only museum ever to have been dedicated to an individual marine mammal, and I found it fascinating.

After my visit, walking back down a long and winding hill road to the ship, and keeping a sharp eye out for snakes, I saw instead these parrots grazing contentedly on someone’s lawn.

Not having had lunch myself, grazing seemed in order. I stopped at a restaurant near the ship where I had heard they had good mussels. Alas, the restaurant was upstairs, and my sore knee didn’t feel up to the climb. However, this charming lady, a friend of the restaurant owner, was determined that I should have lunch, and brought me a chair to sit on the sidewalk, where she told me to wait while she fetched a table. A fellow passenger walked past and stopped when she saw me sitting essentially in the middle of the road. I invited her to dine with me, and so a stool was produced so that she too could sit.

Next thing you know mussels, oysters, and wine appeared in front of us, and I like to think that our impromptu and very much al fresco meal was the envy of all the passengers streaming past our sidewalk picnic on their way back to the ship. I can only conclude that Australians are amazing.

Fish and Wine, Not Together

Posted September 30, 2019 by Abra Bennett
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Since I have a great fondness for both fish markets and wineries, when I came across a tour opportunity that promised both, I had to jump on it. On our way to the Hunter Valley wine region, Chef Jimmy took us to the Sydney Fish Market to get some fish for our lunch later in the day. Pelicans greeted us, getting our visit off to an auspicious start.

All of these are what we didn’t get.

We did get some of these Sydney rock oysters, which are perfectly briny and firm, and just the right size for slurping.

We also got salmon, and these bay bugs, which, like their cousins the crawfish, I find to be more or less tasteless, but picturesque.

Jimmy had picked all 14 of us up before 7:00 a.m., so breakfast was in order. He took us to a peaceful park where he prepared breakfast for us, then had us each use the fish he’d purchased to roll our own sushi, to be put on ice until lunchtime.

These activities were supervised by a bush turkey, which Jimmy told us doesn’t taste good and so has nothing to fear from people,

and a kookaburra, for a truly Australian experience. We then settled in for a two hour drive to the Hunter Valley. At two of the three wineries we visited I dutifully tasted and spat, as if I were still in school, because the wines didn’t tempt me to swallow. I tend to have a cool-climate palate, and these were decidedly hot-climate wines.

However, at the lovely Mount View Estate winery, where they make their highly awarded wines with 100% estate fruit from 40 year old vines, it was a different story.

It’s early spring there, and they’re well into bud break and will soon have flowers. I had to take some of their reserve Shiraz onto the ship with me, since it was one of the best I’ve tasted. I’m not a Shiraz expert, but it was beguilingly well crafted, without the overblown jammy fruit I associate with the Shiraz we normally get imported to the U.S. It was a real pleasure to visit there and try their wines, and if you ever get the chance to visit, take it.

And take Chef Jimmy’s Gourmet Getaways tour, while you’re at it. He cooked his butt off for us all day long, making dishes on the spot to pair with many of the wines we tasted, and all of his food was really nice. My favorite? A kangaroo slider. Plus he does the driving, and is a good tour guide into the bargain. And he made sure that we saw live kangaroos, plenty of them, lounging in the shade, although they were at a distance that my little camera couldn’t manage to see as anything but grey blobby blurs.

All too soon it was time to head back to Sydney, board the Maasdam, and sail away.

Sailing out of Sydney at night is stunning, and we were headed for Eden. What could be better?

Lovely New South Wales

Posted September 29, 2019 by Abra Bennett
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Hi ho, it’s off to tour we go! First up, the Blue Mountains. Well, they’re called that, but they’re more like hills, just like the Blue Mountains around Walla Walla. Perhaps there’s something in the name that tends toward mild exaggeration. Not having done my research I had been picturing something rugged, but instead they were pretty in a very tame way. Mostly tame anyway, as we shall see.

I’m endlessly fascinated by aboriginal cultures, so our first stop was at the Waradah Australian Centre in Katoomba, home to a small art gallery and offering a live performance about Australian history. Also, possibly my favorite photo bomb ever.

Unfortunately, much of the history of what happened to the aboriginal peoples after European settlers arrived is quite dark, and although the performance glossed over that, the gallery did not. Called the Stolen Generations, approximately 100,000 aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents between about 1905 and 1970. Although the government has since apologized, no reparations have been made, and by most accounts aboriginal culture has never recovered.

Waradah also offers a guide to common symbols used in aboriginal art,

as well as some colorful examples.

Leaving Katoomba my eye was caught by the quirkily-named Hydro Majestic Pavilion and I prevailed upon Jason, my guide, to make a stop. Normally there would have been seven of us in Jason’s van and a set itinerary, but the other six cancelled out at the last minute, and Jason manfully and mercifully decided to go out with just me, and to do what I liked. And what I like is things that are delightfully quirky.

Although, as you can see, Jason is pretty quirky all on his own.

The Hydro Majestic opened in 1891

and in addition to being beautiful can boast of having gotten electricity four days before Sydney itself.

Next we visited the tiny, mostly-a-ghost town of Hartley,

where blacksmith Ron Fitzpatrick makes intricate mirrors, jewelry,

and sculptures at his Talisman Gallery. And then, walking back to the car,

we almost tripped over this brown snake. That’s its name, brown snake. Nothing in that name suggests that it’s Australia’s deadliest snake, but it is. Which is saying a lot, in a country known for deadly snakes and other murderous creatures. Not to mention that it was close to six feet long, and passed right in front of us. I’ll freely admit, after that encounter, which nearly scared the crap out of me, I refused to use an outdoor toilet for the rest of the day, and peered suspiciously into every corner.

For a change of pace, here’s a picture that has no business even being published. Here, under the blazing mid-day Australian sun, is where my little camera failed me. It’s bright there, so bright, too bright. But I was so charmed by the fact that these sheep had their own installation of Tibetan prayer flags that I’m sharing it with you anyway, at the risk of my already-questionable reputation as a photographer.

Jason made me a very green lunch, in a picnic shelter whose premises I inspected thoroughly before entering, then he drove me to the ferry where I would journey down a bit of the Parramatta River back to Sydney.

I nearly missed the boat, because I was entranced by these guys rehearsing Chinese opera on the dock. The guy in the green jacket was the real deal, with a gorgeous baritone and total command of the music. All in all, it was quite a day, between the quirks, snakes both real and imagined, and the flourishing musical finish. Next up, wine touring in the Hunter Valley.

There Was No Sunday

Posted September 29, 2019 by Abra Bennett
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If you have to fly for 23 hours or so, missing an entire day in the process, I can’t recommend more strongly that you do it on Air New Zealand, in their wonderful Premium Economy class. They take great care of you and make what would otherwise be quite an ordeal into a pleasant experience. And at the end of all that flying: Sydney.

Although leaving on Saturday and arriving on Monday would normally have a discombobulating effect on me, I actually felt pretty peppy, and got myself out on the water as soon as I dropped my luggage at the hotel. And speaking of hotels, if you want profuse and abject apologies from various managers and multiple comped meals and drinks, in place of just normal correct service the first time around, then you’ll likely be happy at the Four Seasons.

Once out in the harbor I saw where the Royal Australian Navy parks their ships, right in the middle of town,

a sight no less improbable than this view of Point Piper, where houses sell for up to $100,000,000. One hundred million Australian dollars that is, which, after all, is only about 67 million U.S. dollars. In all regards Sydney is quite an expensive city.

This lovely house was much more to my taste, although there’s no guaranteeing that the price is any lower.

The harbor is ringed by exquisite sandstone formations,

and interesting housing that mirrors its colorful layers.

It’s a multi-use waterway, and boats come to a halt to let these rowers cross, quite unlike the Washington State ferries that emit ear-splitting blasts to scare other boats out of their path.

In fact, rowers seem to pretty much own the place.

The city looks splendid from the water, including this tower under construction which will be Sydney’s newest casino. The few iconic and well known views aside, Sydney is truly enormous and sprawling, with a population of five million, and more traffic than I’ve seen in a long time.

We arrive back at Circular Quay at the height of rush hour, and Sydney’s cute commuter ferries are busily plying the harbor.

As the day draws to a close I set off in search of dinner, always my least favorite part of travelling alone, and then to bed. It’s been days since I had a good sleep, and I have two 12-hour trips planned for the next couple of days. I’ve never seen the Blue Mountains or Hunter Valley, both popular tourist attractions, and they’re what’s up next, right after some good food not eaten at 40,000 feet, and at least 10 hours of sleep in a bed that’s not moving.

Tasman Sea Devils

Posted September 27, 2019 by Abra Bennett
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I am so done with the Tasman Sea, referred to down under as “the Ditch.” The last time I was on it I described it as the roughest water I’d ever experienced. This time, it’s even rougher.

Last night we sailed out of Eden, Australia, headed for the fantastically beautiful Milford Sound, with the Captain’s warnings about 15-foot swells and the importance of holding the handrails ringing in our ears. I dutifully swallowed a meclazine tablet and got into bed, preparing to go nowhere but to sleep, and resigned to a long night and approximately 1200 nautical miles of reconsidering the wisdom of this trip.

And in fact the night seemed to get rockier as the hours passed. I awoke for the umpteenth time as something hit the floor with a resounding thwack. In the morning I discovered that the ship’s clock had flown off the wall and shattered its glass face on the carpeted floor. I also discovered why the night had gotten progressively more miserable.

A fellow passenger had become gravely ill about 120 nautical miles out of Eden. Because the weather was so bad the Captain was not able to arrange for a helicopter medevac, and so he had turned the ship around, facing back into the weather, and headed back to Eden in order to get the passenger to a hospital.

That put us 240 nautical miles behind schedule, which means that we will not be able to sail into Milford Sound, obviously one of the much-anticipated highlights of the cruise.

So now we are blasting full steam ahead back over that same water, and walking around the ship is an exercise in faith and balance that exceeds my current capacity. I’m more or less resigned to staying in my cabin and catching you up on my time in and around Sydney.

I certainly don’t begrudge that poor passenger what we all hope was a ride back to health and safety, but it’s a definite disappointment for the rest of us. And I think I’ll avoid the Tasman Sea in the future, since apparently the Tasmanian sea devils didn’t get the memo about the fleet being blessed, and probably never will.

From here on out I’m ditching the Ditch.