Archive for September, 2011

Picnic and penguins

Friday, September 30th, 2011

In Oamaru I bought fresh cheese at the Whitestone dairy, freshly baked bread at the Danish Bakerii in the Victorian section of town, and grapes in the supermarket. At the beach in Friendship Bay I watched the boats bobbing gently on the swell and had a picnic. Red beaked, red footed gulls watched me, waiting for the chance to dash or swoop in and steal my lunch. Pointing my camera at them seemed to be an effective deterrent.

Later I watched Yellow Eyed penguins returning from their day long fishing trip. Four of them in two hours. Oamaru is the extreme north of their range and there aren’t many here. They dashed quickly across the beach and disappeared into the bushes on the hillside. Seen from about 100 metres away they were tiny grey blobs against a grey pebble beach. I’m taking it on faith that they really were Yellow Eyed penguins. The juvenile Yellow Eyed penguin in the photo at the top of this entry lives in a colony on the Otago Peninsular, about an hour on the bus from Dunedin.

Afterwards, closer to town, in the twilight, I watched about twenty Blue penguins hopping ashore. They scrambled up the rocks using claws and beaks and scuttled along the road into town. There they disappeared into the ventilation holes under the buildings in the Victorian section of town. You can pay NZ$25 to watch the penguins come ashore from the “comfort” of a fenced off wooden grandstand or you can watch them for free from the shore end of the harbour breakwater on the other side of the fence. Together with about a dozen other budget conscious tourists I went for the free option, much to the consternation of the grandstand staff. I paid to see the Yellow Eyed penguins at Otago so I figured I’d done my bit for penguin conservation in New Zealand.

Adrenaline underload Queenstown

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011


Planning my itinerary back in January I had no idea that Queenstown is the adventure activity capital of New Zealand. It was just the most southerly New Zealand airport I could get to on my RTW ticket. While in Melbourne I started filling in the blank space that was the three weeks between Queenstown and Auckland. It quickly became apparent that the main things to do directly from Queenstown were so-called adrenaline activities: skydiving, jet boating, bungy jumping and the like.

There are outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, mountain biking, skiing and snow boarding too. However, the nice people at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests impounded my walking boots sent so many months ago from Thailand. I’m still waiting for Rentokil to fumigate them or whatever they have to do to persuade the Ministry they’re not a bio-hazard likely to turn New Zealand into a barren, lifeless desert. And although it’s officially Spring, as far as the Department of Conservation is concerned it it still Winter and many of the trails are closed. For the Great Walks I’d need much more equipment than I have. So many of the walking options aren’t open to me. I’ve never caught the skiing or snow-boarding bugs and fishing bores the life out of me. All of which means that after wandering around Queenstown for a couple of hours the main things left to do are the so-called adrenalin activities. They’re expensive and I was tempted not to bother doing any of them. But then what would I do here?

Twenty-something years ago I did a static-line parachute jump. It wasn’t very exciting: sit on edge of plane, jump out when told to, static line opens your chute, you float to ground. I didn’t have high hopes that a tandem skydive would be much more exciting but I gave it a go.

Five jumpers, five instructors and three photographers boarded the lift plane. We roared into the sky and climbed steeply into the blue over Queenstown. Below us the snow capped mountains, town and Lake Wakatipu shrank to a papier-mache model, skiers on the Remarkables became tiny pinpricks and a few fluffy clouds shone brilliant white. After the 12,000 feet jumpers got out we closed the door and continued the climb to 15,000 feet above ground level.  The roll-up door was opened again. Clipped to my instructor’s chest we shuffled into the doorway. The wind plucked at my feet tucked below the plane and tried to drag us out. With my head tipped back against his shoulder and my thumbs tucked into my harness like a country and western line-dancer I waited for the instructor to release his hold and hurl us out. It wasn’t a long wait. From this height the freefall time was supposed to be 65 seconds. It felt like about 15 seconds. The view was nice. Breathing was a little hard with a 200kph wind in my face. The instructor opened the parachute at about 4000 feet and put in a few sharp turns to spice things up and keep us above the landing zone. But it really wasn’t scary, and was totally adrenaline free. Others took a different view. The smell in the plane a few seconds before he was carried out by his instructor suggested the bloke in front of me had crapped himself.

I’d rather have been flying the plane, a Cessna Grand Caravan, than jumping out of it. The single engine turboprop had fantastic climb performance compare with the tired old Cessna 150 I’m used to flying.

Bungy jumping was invented here in New Zealand. In a tandem skydive you’re getting out of the plane when the instructor gets out. In a bungy jump you have to step off the platform yourself. So it should be more exciting, right? There are a few options for bungy jumping in Queenstown. I went for the biggest one – the Nevis bungy – 134metres in a river gorge. There are about eight seconds of free-fall time before the elasticity of the bungy overcomes the force of gravity and snatches you back into the air to bounce up and down a few times. The jump is from a gondola suspended above the gorge. It is accessed by a cable car from the lip of the gorge. One side is open to the elements, with a slot in the floor for the bungy to pass through and a projecting platform for the jumper to launch from. The bungy length is adjusted automatically based on the jumper’s weight. Jumpers are weighed at check-in and again when they reach the gondola.

There were only two of us thrill seekers in my group. They bussed us out to the bungy site, about a 40 minute ride. There they strapped us into harnesses on terra firma and whisked us across to the gondola. I was the first to jump. The staff there put a pair of ankle cuffs on me. They sat me a in chair that looked like a cross  between something a gynaecologist would use and an electric chair and hooked me up to the bungy. It attached at both the harness and ankles. On the second bounce it is supposed to be possible to release the ankle attachment and then dangle the right way up rather than inverted. With my ankles tethered together I shuffled up to the edge of the platform and looked down. About 150metres below the river twinkled and sparkled in the sunlight. Ah, a momentary twinge of butterflies in my stomach!

“Ready?” inquired the operator behind me. “On a count of three, remember to jump outwards, not just step off.”

I waved to the camera above and in front of the platform.


I flexed my knees.


I leant forward slightly.


I leant forward a little more, taking my centre of mass beyond the ends of my toes. Going off the edge was then inevitable.

I straightened my legs and powered off the platform into a pretty respectable swan dive. Aha, the briefest hint of adrenaline!

I know the dive was pretty respectable because I saw it on the video afterwards. The free-fall was more exciting than the skydive free-fall. It was quite jarring when the bungy arrested my descent and pulled me skywards again. I bounced five or six times before they started winching me back up to the platform. The ankle tether refused to release so I hung inverted for the return journey which took rather more than eight seconds.

The other guy, a bungy veteran, made his jump and they whisked us back to terra firma, through the shop, and onto a bus back to town.

All of the advertising for the skydiving and bungy jumping plays on peoples fears to build up the excitement and anticipation. The problem is they are fundamentally safe activities. Otherwise, in the modern namby-pamby world the operators wouldn’t be allowed to run their rides and attractions. So you know nothing is going to go wrong. If through some freakish occurrence it did, then you’d hit the ground at high velocity. From 150 metres or from 15,000 feet the outcome would be fatal and you wouldn’t have to worry about anything afterwards. So the activities are not scary and there is little or no adrenaline.

Maybe I should have tried the jet boating in the Shotover River canyon. There’s probably a slightly higher chance of the driver making a mistake and plowing into a rock or the canyon wall than there is of a parachute not opening or a bungy cord breaking.

Stopover in Melbourne

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

Australia wasn’t an objective on this trip. I was there for a month in 2004, loved it and applied to emigrate. I had enough points when I filled the form in. By the time it arrived they had moved the goalposts; increased the points requirement out of my reach. My reason for not wanting to visit on this trip was purely financial. Southeast Asia and South America are relatively cheap places; Australia is not. However, airline timetables meant I couldn’t get from Shanghai to Queenstown without an overnight stop in Australia. So I decided to have a couple of nights in Melbourne and try to catch up with an Australian tanguera I met last year in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately I couldn’t get in touch with her. With no friendly tanguera to guide me around the Melbourne milongas I didn’t even look into when and where they were. After six months with almost no tango is my addiction wearing off?

On the first day, a lovely crisp Spring morning with crystal blue skies which developed into a nice warm afternoon I wandered the city and rode the circular route tourist tram. The sights were all familiar from my previous visit. They presented the same photographic challenge as last time too: overhead tram wires. There is lots of photogenic architecture. There are even more overhead tram wires strung along many of the streets. Without a super wide fisheye lens you need to be across the street to fit in decent chunks of the buildings. And that means an unsightly mess of black cables across every picture. Consequently I didn’t take many photos but there are a few over at Flickr.

My hostel, Greenhouse Backpackers in Flinders Lane  had free wifi. I spent most of the second and third days sat in front of my laptop planning the imminent New Zealand leg of my journey. They also had free breakfast every day and one other free meal most days. All good news for budget travellers. Single ensuite rooms are out of my budget while I’m back in the first world but their four bed dorms were pretty civilised. On the day I arrived I was the first one into an empty dorm so got choice of bed. The location was good too, just a block from Flinders Station.

On my last night I walked to the bus station for the airport express and then spent four hours at the airport waiting for checkin to open. The benches in Melbourne domestic terminal departure hall are the hardest I’ve ever tried to sleep on. At 04:00 the hall started to come to life but it was a good 45 minutes before I was checked in and through security. Let’s not talk about airport security. Really, let’s not.

My journey to New Zealand was in two parts. First a commuter hop to Sydney with all the smart dressed business people. Second a quick dash through Sydney airport from the domestic arrivals to the international departures terminal and then the international flight to Queenstown. I made sure I had a window seat for the second flight to be able to enjoy the hopefully spectacular scenery on approach to Queenstown.