Friday, November 26, 2010

Bus Trippin'

I know, I never thought I’d write a post about a bus trip either, but here we are.

Just finished two and a half days of busing, but the drivers took their time. They easily knew all the great lookout points to stop at along the way for breaks, as well as some interesting cafes and fruit markets they have relationships with. The drivers also gave us bits of history here and there. Some were sights I had been meaning to see (such as “Pancake Rocks,” above), others were ones I hadn’t heard of (Lake Howea, below).

What some of my pictures don’t show are the bus window frames or the 10-20 other people cycling through all of these viewpoints. There are plenty of multi-day trails leading up into the forests where you can pretty much have it all to yourself, but at these lookouts there’s a fairly steady flow of people. I heard a comment once that the short roadside paths through the woods like these aren’t really paths, they're highways.

But hey, with just under three weeks left in the country, this is what I have time for, and it looks good to me. So if you feel like checking out some photos, here it is: The West Coast of the South Island -- Highway Edition.

West Coast Bus Ride

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I'll be home for Chanukah this year

(Nov 27 Correction: Actually I won't be home in time, I didn't know Chanukah was so early this year, but I'll still be home in time to see leftover Chanukah decorations!)

I'm flying home on Dec 15.

The job search hasn't been perfect. Lots of interesting national research departments expressed interest in hiring me but nobody had enough room in the budget this year. WWOOFing has been good but at this point there are only a handful hosts out there who jump out at me. I could give the skilled job search more time, or I could settle down in a touristy area and look for unskilled work, but I'm ready to go home.

This morning I took the ferry across to the South Island, and tomorrow marks the start of a long series of bus rides down to Fiordland National Park. After a few days kayaking and hiking there, I'll be off to work for accommodation and free surfing lessons at a surf school/hostel on the Catlins Coast before finally heading home to the chilly but lovely US of A. The Catlins Coast is, I'm told, one of the great uncommercialized parts of NZ (uncommercialized is of course a relative term, almost anything in NZ that's within eye-shot of any signs of residency or civilization is considered commercialized). The remote stretch of coastline is the natural home of sea lions, seals, and yellow-eyed penguins.

By my standards, my life here has been out of control. There has rarely been a time when my guess of where I'd be sleeping two weeks later turned out to be right. This kind of lifestyle certainly has its perks, but it's very comforting and relieving to have some kind of certainty in my plans now. And it should be a pretty amazing couple of weeks

From ferry ride through narrowish straits on the way to Picton

Next time on Kiwi Soup: Photos and blurbs from interesting WWOOF hosts/stays

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

If your family moved to New Zealand, what would life be like?

It might be something like the life of the first family who hosted me as a WWOOFer, the Berger family. They’re a smart, down-to-earth group of liberals who moved from D.C. to New Zealand in 2006 (one night during my stay with them, they joke that they’re part of the select few who made good on their talk of leaving the U.S. if Bush did something else stupid). Since then, many aspects of their lifestyle have changed, as has their personal connection to the United States.

Paekakariki, their new hometown, is somewhere between the peaceful suburb you’d love to live in, and the tiny beach village you’d love to retire to (the local fire dept made a press statement in the town paper recently, reminding families that they’re always available to help in case of an emergency, and were able to do so in that week’s emergency when a child accidentally locked himself in a bathroom). Most New Zealanders live near the coastline, and in Paekakariki, many of the houses come with a stunning view of the Tasman Sea. Weather in many parts of NZ is highly unpredictable, they say that sometimes you can experience all four seasons in one day. Especially here in this coastal town, it’s not uncommon for an hour of heavy rain to be followed by an hour of blazing sunshine, then rain again. The sporadic weather has two great side effects though: one, it makes NZ a land of massive rainbows, and two, it makes the Tasman Sea never quite look the same. Around town are a couple of parks, walking trails through the hills, and a few shops and restaurants. The hip city of Wellington is 40 min away by train.

From the somewhere on the edge of the 3 block wide town

The kids, 9 and 13, go to a nice school that’s only five minutes walking distance from the house. It’s a small enough place that they know almost every other kid in each of the grades covered (up to about 8th grade). NZ schools focus on developing various core competencies in the students, but there are no national standardized tests or lists of facts that students have to learn, so teachers generally have more room to be creative in what they cover. One of the kids had the recent assignment of writing up a story for a still inhabited city of Atlantis. The story had to address why the city had never been found and how life there could carry on underwater. It may sound overly loose but apparently the system works. New Zealand's students rank third in the world for both Math Literacy and Reading Literacy, and rank 7th for Scientific Literacy. (

Another small daily life difference in NZ is the food. NZ is a 3 hour plane ride from the nearest country, Australia, so imports are not as common as they are in the states (though funny enough, the country’s finest lamb meat is exported). It’s not unusual for a supermarket to just not have something for a week or two, especially if it’s out of season. Like many families here, including city families, the Bergers keep chickens (chooks) in the backyard. These chooks are part pet and part livestock in NZ culture. They’re fed pellets and food scraps, and are traditionally eaten at the end of their lives (but this mostly vegetarian American family isn’t quite ready to make that big of a leap in their NZ assimilation).

In general the Bergers certainly are proud of their move, but they haven’t made a complete switch to identify themselves as Kiwis. Many of the family’s close friends are native New Zealanders, but several are immigrants from other western countries, like the Bergers themselves. The family pays more attention to global news now, but they still follow much of American news and culture. In addition to the local NZ papers, they still subscribe to the New Yorker and keep up with NPR. The tricky topic of the kid’s national identity is a common household conversation, and like most things discussed here (such as the “sad state of current American politics”) it isn’t dumbed down for the kids’ sake. But the two kids take up opposing views when it comes to the U.S. One hopes to go to the big city of Los Angeles one day to become an actress (“Enjoy the gang violence, pollution, racism and lack of healthcare” her parents cheerfully reply). The other wants to go even further into rural NZ.

2010-10-7 Paekakariki

Disclaimer: Actual experience of New Zealand may vary. The politicians aren't perfect, and there is some racism and other problems. It's no utopia, but it's pretty nice.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Tongariro Northern Circuit (A “Picture-Book” Blog Entry)

Last week I hiked Mt. Doom.

Or at least that’s what my guidebook says, but that’s sort of beside the point. What I really did was the Tongariro Northern Circuit Track, a 3 day hike (hike = tramp in NZ speak) that winds around Mt. Ngauruhoe (volcano) and Mt. Tongariro. It’s a mind-blowing hike in its own right.

According to my guidebook and the NZ Dept of Conservation, the LOTR shots of final the battle at Mordor were done in the ski fields to the east, with Mt. Ngauruhoe standing in as Mt. Doom (filming on the Mt. itself wasn’t allowed, as it would have shut down the park for too long). But from what I heard on the trail, the movie version is at most “inspired” by Ngauruhoe. I personally didn’t realize this was a “movie site” until 2 days into the hike. The Mt. Doom you see in the movie is more CG than anything else; the real mountain isn’t constantly spewing lava.

But it is spewing steam. It’s one of the places where you can see the geothermal activity that that the North Island of NZ is known for. A narrow flow of steam hisses out over the top of Ngauruhoe, in some spots there’s weak steam around the track, and at the first hut/campsite on the trail (you can stay at huts if you wish) there’s a view of billowing steam coming from Katetahi Hot springs. But what really makes the hike spectacular are the “Emerald Lakes” on the crossing between the two mountains. It’s almost incomprehensible, but just after you reach the highest point on the trail you look down on three brightly colored pools of water in the mountain. From here you can also see “Blue Lake” further down ON THE RIDGE. The lakes are aptly named.

Below is the full album. It might help to match the types of climate to the regions of the map, also below. Starting counterclockwise from Whakapapa Village: First come wide open plains on the way to Mangatepopo Hut. Then it’s steep climbs and wide open craters on the way to Red Crater. Emerald Lakes and Blue Lake are on the way to Katetahi Hut (grey on this map). Great views of Lake Taupo from Katetahi Hut. Then backtrack up to Emerald Lakes, down the other side, and walking across scattered volcanic rock to Oturere Hut. Dunes of gravel with patches of forest heading to Waihohonu Hut. Then more planes, forest patches, and some additional stunning lakes on the way back to Whakapapa.

2010-11-04 NZ Nov- Tongariro Northern Circuit