Friday, September 26, 2014

Wednesday in Noumea, Thursday in Auckland, Thursday again in LA

My trip is wrapping up. Wednesday was a beautiful day in Noumea, but after standing most of the day on Tuesday, I found my right ankle was very sore. I explored the Baie des Citrons for a while, and sat by the beach to read, then grabbed lunch at a nearby restaurant. Back at the hotel, I wound up taking a nap for a few hours. Had dinner with one of the team parents, wrapping up a pretty low-key final day in Noumea.

Thursday morning I was up early, had a bit of breakfast in the room and checked out. Drove to the airport, dropped off the rental car, and checked in for my flight. Much of the Canadian climbing team was there on the same flight. After arriving in Auckland, it took almost two hours to get off the plane (there was a delay with the gate), through New Zealand customs and immigration, and pick up the rental van that I had arranged. In addition to the 5 Ontario kids I had arranged to show a bit of Auckland to, two others had joined us, so we had a full van. We drove to One Tree Hill, a nice park atop one of Auckland's 55 volcanoes, and looked at the gorgeous view from the top, where it was very cold and windy. We spent a few minutes with the sheep on the side of the hill, and then the kids had fun playing in the playground further down, especially the zip line. After that we returned the car, and got back to the airport in time for the kids' next flight to San Francisco. It wasn't much time in Auckland, but it was good to get out of the airport for a few hours, and get a little fresh air and move around a bit.

I had another few hours until my flight to LA. I had dinner, browsed in the shops, buying some candy to get rid of my loose New Zealand change, and read until it was time for my flight. We had a delay for a half hour or so while they fixed a leak in one of the water tanks, and then had an uneventful 11 1/2 hour flight to LA. I didn't sleep, but I got some rest, squirming a bit in the less than comfortable seat. I also got a good start on season 4 of Game of Thrones, which was available on the plane's entertainment system.

We landed in LA a little after 3pm Thursday afternoon, about 6 hours before I left Auckland, due to the crossing of the International Date Line. There was a very long line for immigration, after which I grabbed my suitcase that was sitting on the carousel, and got picked up right away by my friend Lorne, who had been circling the airport for about half an hour. We went back to his place and I settled in and relaxed a bit, and then we went for a walk down to the beach. After that I had a shower, which revived me a fair bit, and we met our buddy Billy for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. The three of us went through school together and are each other's oldest friends.

Back at Lorne's, I read a bit and got to bed at a proper LA bedtime, and had a good sleep. Hopefully that will make the time adjustment happen quickly.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Monday and Tuesday in Noumea: Final rounds

I'm catching up on the past two days, during which the final rounds of the World Youth Climbing Championship unfolded here in Noumea, New Caledonia.

On Monday, after breakfast I did my last bit of bathroom sink laundry, so I'll have enough clean clothes to wear until I get home. Then I did some more grocery shopping to stock up on breakfast & lunch supplies for my remaining time here. I spent a while relaxing & reading by the pool, and eventually made it over to the competition site for the evening's events. The schedule had the final rounds split across Monday and Tuesday, with half the categories doing Speed each night, and the other half Difficulty. First came the Speed climbing final round for the older kids. They had done their qualifying rounds in the morning, so we were down to 16 climbers per category. The final round was knock-out format; in the round of 16, 8 pairs climbed against each other, with the winner advancing to the next round. After each round the climbers were ranked by their time in that round, with the fastest climber facing the slowest in the next round, second-fastest vs second-slowest, and so on. So the round of 8 had 4 races, leading to the semi-finals, and then the small final (to determine the bronze medal winner and the 4th place finisher) and the big final to decide gold/silver. There were some surprises, with a few of the favoured Russian climbers falling or failing to hit the buzzer at the top, and some very close races. Speed is not my favourite climbing discipline, but this session was pretty exciting to watch. All of the Canadians had advanced to the round of 16, but none of them were fast enough for a medal.

When Speed was done they moved on to Difficulty, for the Youth B Boys and Girls and the Youth A Girls. With only 8 climbers left per category, this session took only about an hour, and it was very exciting climbing. There were only 2 climbers who made it to the top: Kai Lightner for the US, who moved up from 5th place after semi-finals to win the gold medal, and a Slovenian girl who topped her climb as the last climber of the evening.

When I got up on Tuesday morning, I found out that the day's schedule had been changed substantially. There was a lot of rain in the forecast for the evening, so the finals for the remaining Speed and Difficulty categories were moved up to the early afternoon.  I headed over to the wall in time for the Speed Qualification round. It rained intermittently during the morning, and there was a delay between the Speed Qualification and final rounds until the rain stopped.

Team Canada huddling under a tent,
and playing card during the rain delay

In the end they got all the climbing in. Wednesday had been announced by the local organizers as a backup day in case of bad weather, but apparently the IFSC (the international governing body for the sport) had not approved that plan, so everything had to get done on Tuesday. I found Tuesday's final rounds less exciting than those on Monday, partly because I knew the climbers less well, partly because the rain dampened the crowd's enthusiasm. The crowd was much smaller than Monday as well. After the climbing was done, the medals were handed out, the politicians made all their long boring speeches, and the event was over.

I returned to the hotel for a rest, pretty tired after standing most of the day, much of it in the rain. At 7 I joined several of the parents who had made the trip, and one of the team coaches, for dinner at a nearby restaurant. It was a really nice dinner, and good to get to know some of the parents a little better (I had not met any of them before this comp!).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday in Noumea: Zoological Park and Semi-Finals

With the semi-final round not starting until evening (and I'm not sure if that is out of respect for church-goers, or if they're just trying to avoid the hottest part of the day), I decided to check out the Parc Zoologique et Forestier just up one of the many hills from downtown. It's a beautiful forested park with a lot of birds endemic to New Caledonia (sadly, most of them in pretty barren cages too small to do much flying in). There were peacocks running loose, some amazing pheasants, and the flightless Kagu that is found only here. There were also a few geckos, frogs & snakes, some macaques, and a little farm with a friendly deer. I enjoyed a nice peaceful morning wandering the grounds.

Nice view from the Parc Zoologique et Forestier

Pretty bird

Peacock/hen courting

From the park, I drove over to the competition site to see what was going on, It was still early in the afternoon, and I thought I might find a nice shady spot to read and relax until the action started up again. There was not much going on, apart from a sparsely-attended dance number by a group of cheerleaders, and there really weren't any comfortable spots to sit in the shade, so I scooted back to my hotel and had my siesta there.

I returned to the climbing wall around 5, grabbed dinner from one of the food stands, and settled in with some other Canucks to watch the semi-final round. Most of our 11 Canadians who were competing tonight were up early (meaning Canada dominated the lower-ranks among those who qualified for semi-finals, as they climb in reverse order of qualification). We had some good climbs, but unfortunately none of the Canadians advanced to finals. Not a huge surprise, but we had a few who may have been within reach. The climbing was great though, and the routes were hard. Out of 155 climbers tonight, only 3 made it all the way to the top of their climb, all women. That 98% "failure" rate may seem harsh, but it's what's needed to properly separate the field and avoid having a lot of ties heading into finals.

I returned to the hotel, read for a while, and was asleep almost by the time my head hit the pillow.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Saturday in Noumea: Qualifying Round

The World Youth Climbing Championships got underway Saturday, with the Qualifying Round of the Difficulty competition. "Difficulty" (also known as Lead climbing) is the discipline in which each climber's score is based on how high they get on each climb before falling. And although these climbers are each among the very best in their own country, most of them will fall before reaching the top of each climb at this competition. There are two qualifying climbs whose results are combined (using some obscure math) to determine the top 26 climbers per category who advance to the semi-final round. There are 3 categories per gender: Youth B (14/15 years old), Youth A (16/17) and Junior (18/19).

I had breakfast in my room, and spent a little while reviewing an article for the competition web site, rephrasing some parts of it to make it read better in English. I also had some work to do for the Ontario Climbing Federation (OCF), posting some information about the coming season to our web site (a little awkward in parts using my iPad, as I had left my laptop at home).

The first Qualifying round ran from about 9am to 1pm. The Canadian climbers were scattered across that time period, and there was a good group of Canadians (athletes, coaches, and some parents) cheering all of our climbers on. It was especially exciting to watch Jack and Olivia Wyett, siblings who train at my gym, when their turns came, as well as 3 others kids from Ontario that I see climb all the time. All remained in the running to advance after their first climb.

Olivia, me and Jack in front of the competition wall

Olivia's patriotic nail polish

Jack and a teammate review their climb

Local kid tries a mashup of
a sombrero from the Mexican team with the Aussi mascot

I returned to my hotel for a siesta after the first round, with the second Qualifying round not starting until 5:30pm. I had some lunch, had a little rest, and soaked my sunburned head in the sink a few times to relieve some of the heat! It was mostly cloudy this morning, but the sun managed to do some damage nonetheless.

Back to the comp for the evening session. Our climbers did well, with about half of them advancing to semi-finals. Unfortunately this did not include Jack or Olivia, who were both close to the cut-off, but did not quite make it. This was not unexpected; most of the Canadians knew they were likely getting only two climbs at this competition, and they should all be very proud of how they have represented their country.

I returned to my hotel, and got to bed after a little reading.

Friday in Noumea: Cultural Centre and Opening Ceremonies

After breakfast in my room I headed out to the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, named after a Kanak leader. It's a beautiful set of buildings set on a peninsula, and is quite beautiful. There were some exhibits about Tjibaou and the struggles of the Kanaks, as well as sections displaying a variety of traditional and modern art. It didn't take long to go through it, but it was nice, and the setting was very peaceful. I walked up to a panoramic view by a statue of Tjibaou, and then returned to the centre for lunch.

View of the Tjibaou Cultural Center,
with its 10 hut-like structures rising from among the surrounding trees.

Statue of Tjibaou

I drove over to the Magenta climbing wall, site of the competition, and after a while figured out where to park where security didn't have a problem with me. I showed up to help with registration, but they already had more people than they needed, and there was little for me to do other than politely greet the Russian team in Russian. I walked over to the volunteer headquarters, got a new badge that will admit me to that area each day of the comp, got a second volunteer T shirt, and checked in with my team in the shipping container that serves as the office for the Communication team. They have a laptop there for me to use to help with the translation (French to English) of articles to be posted on the web site, in case I need it, but I'm hoping to be able to do all that work on my laptop, and rely on email to send stuff back and forth. I also got the passwords for a few of the wifi networks set up for the competition, but it's not clear how well they are going to work.

I hung around and chatted with coaches and parents from a few of the other teams (other Canadians, Americans, South Africans), while awaiting the start of the open ceremonies. That started at 6pm, and apart from the athletes walking in behind each of their flags (26 countries are represented here), the ceremonies were pretty long and boring. There were a bunch of speeches from politicians and important climbing officials, all of which were full of platitudes that didn't really add anything to the event (in both French and English). At the end was a choreography performance featuring a dozen or so acrobatic young men, with a little traditional Kanak music in the back ground. Some of what they were doing was impressive, but it went on for quite a while, and overall was not very interesting.

Back to the hotel, somehow finding my way back in the dark with the tiny map on my phone helping out, and got to bed around 10pm.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thursday in Noumea

After breakfast in the room, I drove downtown to explore the centre of Noumea. The streets are narrow, and many are one-way, which made navigating a little interesting, and it was quite difficult to find a parking spot. There were plenty of places to park, but they were all full. I finally found a spot along the Place des Cocotiers, the large park in the middle of downtown. I walked over to the market and wandered the stalls there for a bit, giving in to temptation for a tartalette aux pommes (that does it; AutoCorrect is now off, as it's a huge pain in the ass when trying to include French words!).

From the market, I wandered around a while longer, and then, as my parking was about to expire, I moved the car closer to the Museum of New Caledonia, finding a parking spot after a couple laps around the block. The museum was small, and not of great interest to me, so it was not a big deal that I had arrived 45 minutes before they closed for lunch.

I wandered around some more, stopping at a restaurant by the ferry quay for lunch. I returned to the car, and drove across to find the building for this afternoon's volunteer meeting. It was easier to find than I had expected, and there was plenty of parking nearby, so I went in about half an hour early. There were a few other volunteers there, and we chatted (mostly in French, though one guy wanted to practise his English) while we waited for the meeting to start. which point I had a humbling experience. My French is half-decent but not fluent, and I have been managing pretty well in one-on-one face-to-face conversations. However once the group meeting began, with multiple people speaking at full speed, I really struggled to keep up, and probably understood only a quarter of what was being said. And it was hard work listening and trying to understand!

After the general briefing, we split up into groups working on different things. In addition to helping register athletes Friday afternoon (I asked for the Russian team, whom I can greet politely in Russian, and whom I registered at last year's World Youth Climbing Championships in Victoria), I am also helping with the translation of the web site for the event. The content is first produced in French, and there is a guy tasked with translating everything into English. I help him make the English version better. I started helping with this weeks ago, before I left Toronto, and have done a little more during my trip. I was able to ask the translator some questions to make sure I understood everything covered in the meeting, so I think I'm ready now.

My cute little rental car

View of Noumea's harbour

My volunteer badge and Tshirt

All of that paying attention in French for an hour and a half was exhausting! I returned to the hotel for a siesta, feeling like I pushed myself a bit today, which is good.

Had a Hawaiian pizza (I consider that close to culturally appropriate) and a good local amber beer before returning to the hotel to read and sleep.

I've now explored a good bit of Noumea, and my impressions are mixed. The island itself is beautiful, and more hilly than I expected, especially within the town. The beaches and ocean views are gorgeous. The people are very nice and friendly everywhere I've been, and when they find out where I'm from, they usually tell me about a friend or relative they know who lives or studies in Canada. Some parts of town are beautiful and touristy and well-maintained, some parts feel like I'm in France, and some parts are neglected and run down, and feel a bit like I'm in one of the poorer parts of Africa or Latin America. I've read a bit about the indigenous people here, the Kanaks, and it seems to be a very familiar story of an existing race being overrun and poorly treated by the European invaders, though there have definitely been some recent efforts to improve the lot of the Kanaks, and New Caledonia is close to being able to have its say about whether to become fully independent of France. Overall they seem to be a little better off than the Australian Aborigines, and worse off than New Zealand's Maoris, but that's a pretty superficial impression.

The comp gets underway tomorrow with the athlete registration and Opening Ceremonies!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wednesday: Relaxing in Noumea

I didn't really do much on Wednesday, and it was quite nice! I've had a bit of a cold, and have been catching up on my sleep, and it was nice just to have a day to do a lot of nothing.

In the morning I delivered some late homework to one of the kids on the Canadian climbing team. Her mom had emailed it me, and I got it printed off at my hotel front desk and then walked it over to the Hilton down the street. I'm sure the girl will be delighted to receive it!

I went for a walk along Palm Beach, with its view of Ile aux Canards (Duck Island) just off the coast, down to the point at Rocher a la Voile that separates Palm Beach from Baie des Citrons (it is sort of a lemon-shaped bay). I had a delicious and very filling lunch of swordfish steak with risotto, accompanied by warm, fresh bread, then walked back, stopping to sit by the beach for a while. It was a nice warm sunny day.

Back at the hotel I relaxed by the pool, reading, and chatting with a teacher who had a group of kids from New Zealand here for "French Camp". They had finished their 3 hours of French class for the day, and were splashing around in the pool.

I found a Thai restaurant in front of the Hilton and had a delicious dinner of chicken with red curry along with a local beer (which as I had guessed, tasted pretty much like Lowenbrou; not bad, but nothing special). On my walk back to my hotel I passed by the Canadian climbing team, getting up from dinner at the restaurant I ate at last night. As I walked through the hotel pool area on my way to my room, I stopped to watch a native dance performance that was being put on for those dining at the hotel restaurant. It looked part Hawaiian, part belly-dancing, and had a bit in common with some of the Hakas I had seen in New Zealand.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Tuesday: Auckland -> Noumea, New Caledonia

Sigh. I need to find a way to shut down my brain sometimes. I got to bed early Monday night but awoke just after midnight, and had trouble getting back to sleep. Maybe I got four hours in all, but it was crummy sleep. I had a light breakfast in my room, checked out, and crossed the street to the Airport bus stop, arriving at 5:48 for the 6:00am bus. Ha, it turns out that 6:00am is the time the bus leaves downtown; it gets to that stop at 6:11, so I was extra early. It was a nice morning, so I read a bit, a chatted with another guy who arrived, whose rolling bag almost took off down the steep hill when he set it down!

I got to the Auckland airport and checked in for my flight. I was unable to carry on the folding chair I had bought when I arrived in New Zealand (I knew that was a gamble), and its weight together with that of my bulging suitcase put me over the 23kg limit (I had just moved 3 books from there into my backpack to keep the suitcase itself under the limit). So they wanted to charge me $120 to check my $10 folding chair, at which point I donated it to the check-in guy (not the one who told me the cost of the extra luggage). So that clever plan failed.

I relaxed at my gate for a while, and then most of Canada's Youth National Climbing Team showed up. They had a layover in Auckland after flying from San Francisco or Vancouver, and were on the same flight as me. This included Olivia and Jack Wyett, the two young athletes who train at my gym, True North Climbing. They all looked pretty good despite already having travelled for about 30 hours (they had a long layover in San Francisco).

It was an uneventful flight to Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, which is mostly a large island north-west of New Zealand (or north-east of Australia, depending on your perspective). I passed through the Customs and Immigration and Biosecurity checks, collected my luggage, and picked up my rental car, which is an adorable little white Peugeot 107. I had forgotten that it was a manual transmission; it was fun to drive standard again after two years with my hybrid Toyota. I'm back on the right side of road again, and once again I found myself signaling turns using my windshield wipers! My brain has adjusted to the Aussi/Kiwi stalk arrangement. They have roundabouts here, and it feels very strange to be entering a roundabout counter-clockwise.

I managed to find my hotel without any wrong turns, and checked in. I'm quite pleased with the hotel. Everything is very expensive in Noumea, and on this long trip I've been trying to keep to a modest budget per day, averaging about $100/night for hotels. Sometimes that has gotten me a really nice room, and sometimes it has been pretty basic. The reviews on TripAdvisor suggested that this one was decent, but a little run down, with unreliable wifi and a pool that had been shut down. It's called Le Pacifique, and is part of a 3-hotel complex that share the pool and restaurants. Mine is the cheapest of the 3 hotels, and while it does look a little bit tired and outdated, the room is large, clean and comfortable, the pool is beautiful, and the wifi (so far) has been fine. And I have a fabulous view of le Pacifique (the ocean) from my 9th floor room (and I never care about the view from a hotel room):

View from my room

Sign at handicap parking spot at hotel

The shower head is also set at a height greater than mine! I think I will be very comfortable here for the next nine nights, and after a lot of bouncing around it will be nice to stay in one place for a while.

As soon as I was settled in I went out to find some lunch. It was 2pm (3pm Auckland time), and I was really hungry. I was apprehensive because I had heard that everything is crazy expensive here. That's mostly true, but there are a few smaller, less formal restaurants between my hotel and the Hilton down the street that offer more affordable options. I had some fish & chips and a cold drink for about $20. I wandered up and down the street, across form a beautiful beach, exploring what's in my neighbourhood, somehow winding up at a gelato stand. Mmm.

I returned to my room and relaxed and read about Noumea for a while, starting to figure out what I want to see before the competition starts. Tomorrow (Wednesday is open). I have a volunteers meeting Thursday afternoon, and I expect to be working registration Friday afternoon before the open ceremonies that evening. I should also have next Wednesday free, unless bad weather interferes with the competition and they have to use that scheduled backup day. I've identified a few things I want to see, and will plan partly around the weather, and partly how I feel.

Before dinner I headed out to pick up some groceries. My hotel room has a kettle, fridge and microwave, and I want to have a lot of my breakfasts in the room, and also take lunches to the comp when I can, to save some money. When I got to the car with my sketchy map of where a grocery store was, I realized I had left my phone (ie my detailed map & GPS) in the room. I decided to wing it, and did not get lost! I found the grocery store about where I expected it, did my shopping, and made it back to the hotel, with a slight detour when I found I could not turn left where I needed to. The groceries were a little pricy but not outrageous: 2 apples, 2 oranges, a box of cereal, some salami and cheddar cheese, 2 muffins, and a litre each of apple juice, orange juice and milk came to 3252F (Cour Franc Pacifique, used in overseas French territories), or about $38.65 Canadian. I had trouble finding the milk, as I was looking for bottles or jugs of fresh milk in the refrigerated dairy section. I finally spotted it in tetra packs; they do not sell fresh milk in the grocery stores here, presumably because it's just too expensive to do that. Hmm, it turns out they do have local cows (and I've seen local beef advertised in a restaurant), so it's still a bit of a mystery.

New Caledonia (Nouvelle Caledonie) is a French territory, and I have been trying to speak French as much as possible. I'm a little out of practice, and I think some of my pronunciation is off (or maybe they're having trouble with my Canadian-taught-Parisian accent!). The woman at the rental car office switched to English pretty quickly. The conversation checking in at the hotel went fine, all in French. At the pharmacy the conversation about antacids went well. At the grocery store I had to repeat myself once to be understood, and I had to pantomime a bit because I didn't know the French word for "shoelace" (lacet). I think I'll get better as the time goes on and my French re-emerges out from under all the Russian I've learned more recently!

I went back out for dinner, and found a pizza and pasta place that was pretty good. Back to the hotel, read a bit, but by 9pm (to be fair, that's 10pm Auckland time), I could not keep my eyes open.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday: Last Day in Auckland

I slept almost enough last night, we the occasional beeping from a smoke or carbon monoxide detector in the hallway not quite enough to keep me awake. Had breakfast downstairs, spent some time online, trying to get credit for my Air New Zealand flights that have not yet shown up in my Aeroplan account, and did a bit of work (making arrangements for our annual Reel Rock Film Tour at the gym for late November). Hopped on a bus down Queen St and stopped in at Mr Barber, a barber training school that offers free haircuts - by their barbers in training. I got Liam, a nice young guy who is 8 weeks into his 12 week course. He did a fine job trimming my wild beard and sideburns, and lopping off the Homer Simpson hairs on the top of my head. I gave him a good tip, and then grabbed another bus down to the harbour. Picked up the ticket for the tour I had booked online yesterday, grabbed lunch nearby, and then got on the 12:15 ferry to Rangitoto. It was a half-hour ride to what is the largest and youngest of the 55 volcanoes that Auckland is built on. Just off the wharf  we met up with John, our driver and guide. He sat up front in a big tractor and the 7 of us on the tour sat on benches in a trailer behind.

Rangitoto's current terrain is the result of its most recent eruption, only 500 years ago. Much of the roughly circular island (about 2km in diameter) is covered in vegetation, but large swaths are just bare, broken lava, where there is not enough water underneath to support plant life. We made our way along a bumpy 1-lane track partway up the cone, to a boardwalk with stairs that led the rest of the way to the crater rim. It was about a 15-minute walk up to the top, where there were amazing views in all directions.

Rangitoto's next-door neighbour: Motutapu

Auckland downtown in the distance, behind Devonport

Auckland downtown in the distance, behind Devonport

Rainbow, seen on the ferry ride back to Auckland

Spent a little while at the top, then walked back down, and the tour continued around the island, bringing us back the wharf in time for the last ferry of the day back to Auckland. I was glad I had taken the driving tour, as we covered a lot more ground than would have been possible on foot, and learned a lot about the island, and the handful of cottages (the Kiwis call them "baches", as they were originally cabins for the bachelors working on the island). And I still got to do a short hike to the summit, without stressing my knees too much.

Back in Auckland, I went for a walk west along the harbour, into the Wynward district, a recently-gentrified neighborhood a lot like Toronto's Distillery District. I found a bar on the water where I could sit, enjoy the view and a beer and read a bit. I explored the neighborhood a bit, and chose a restaurant for dinner: a "free house" with good local beer. I got their sampler of four beers to go with a huge mess of ribs.

After dinner, I walked a block to the CityLink bus, which took me back to my hotel's neighbourhood. Stopped in a few convenience stores looking for a muffin for early breakfast tomorrow, finally grabbing some Indian pastries. Got my stuff just about ready for the morning, read a bit and then got to bed, hoping for a decent night's sleep, but expecting to wake up way too early again, in anticipation of tomorrow's flight to New Caledonia.

And as I look back on a little over two weeks in New Zealand, I'm wondering why so many hotels have shower heads at armpit height, why so many showers have such an unforgiving balance point between way too hot and very cold, and why so few rooms are properly heated. On the whole I've stayed in decent places, and a few really wonderful ones, but those common issues have come up often. My Auckland hotel adds a unique quirk: it has two windows from the bedroom into the very small bathroom (about 3' x 9', including the shower). One window is up at ceiling height, with clear glass, and the other is at eye level, with frosted glass, and it swings open to provide a lovely view of the toilet. I think they are there to allow light into the main room, since it lacks the exterior window that the bathroom has. But it's still pretty weird.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday: Auckland/Devonport

I had a lousy night's sleep last night. First there was a group down the hall from me having a little party in their room, making a fair bit of noise. It was before 11pm, so I didn't want to be a jerk and complain about it, but it made it harder to get to sleep. Then at 4:49am, a woman came back to her room and tried to get her roommate to let her in, knocking and speaking loudly for several minutes.

I mentioned all this to the front desk clerk when I came down for breakfast, as well as the fact that the wifi wasn't working in my room, which was kind of frustrating. He offered to move me to another room later today.

I had breakfast and then did my laundry. This is the 3rd place I've stayed that had washers and dryers available for guests to use, which is pretty nice. I went out for lunch after sorting out my laundry and packing everything up, ready to move, and then came back to the hotel to change rooms. The first try still did not have working wifi, but the next room did. As a bonus, it's a slightly larger room (with a second bed to pile all my stuff on), and has two electrical plugs!

After resettling in the new room, I caught a bus down to the ferry terminal, and took a ferry across the harbour to Devonport, a cute little suburb built around two of the many volcanic cones that Auckland is built atop.

Auckland, as seen from the ferry heading to Devonport

A bit further out

Maybe the first time I have seen a tug boat actually tugging!

I walked to the top of Mount Victoria (which took less than 30 minutes from the wharf); this was undoubtedly the best view/hike ratio I've ever had.

Downtown Auckland, as seen from the top of Mount Victoria

Rangitoto (where I'm heading tomorrow), from Mount Victoria

View of the other volcanic cone in Devonport

Hyperlapse of the panoramic view from Mt Victoria

I walked back down the "mountain", had a beer in a pub by the water, and then caught the ferry back to downtown Auckland. Grabbed dinner in a food court (Auckland is very quiet on a Sunday evening, and most restaurants were closed), and then went to see a movie: The Dark Horse, a Kiwi film based on the true story of a man with great personal challenges who helps kids in his community by coaching them at chess. Better than it sounds. It was slow at the start, but got a few tears out of me by the end.

I got a bus back to my hotel. It was close to midnight before I got to bed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Saturday: Rotorura -> Auckland

I got an early start, and had an uneventful drive from Rotorua to Auckland, arriving at my holt around   10:30am. I left my luggage there as it was too early to check in, filled up the car with petrol and dropped it off. Then I caught a bus downtown and explored downtown Auckland for a while, hiding out in the i-Site (tourist information office) during the worst of the rain. Had a yummy burrito at a Mexican restaurant I found near the piers, and then took a bus back up to my holt, where I read a bit until they were ready to check me in. It's a basic but decent hotel: small room, comfortable bed, with only one accessible electrical outlet, near the floor, that I'll share among my recharging devices and the kettle!

I went out and explored the local neighborhood a bit, picking up a few snacks, and then after a while walked down to House of Rugby, a nearby sports bar that I figured would be a great place to watch the New Zealand/South Africa rugby test match. The place has the usual autographed jerseys on the wall, as well as a mini rugby field in the middle, complete with goal posts.

The big screen and viewing stands at House of Rugby

Unfortunately, the bar's liquor license renewal had been held up in local government red tape, and they were unable to serve any alcoholic beverages. I had shown up an hour before the match thinking it would be packed, but because there was no beer, there were only about 10 of us there.

I had a nice dinner anyway and enjoyed the game. Back to the hotel after, where there was a lot of noise on my floor for a while that made it difficult to get to sleep.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday: Waitomo -> Rotorua

I got an early start, getting gas and a decent greasy breakfast soon after leaving Waitomo. I was taking a bit of a scenic route to Rotorua, which meant less major highways, and the signage wasn't as good as I've gotten accustomed to. I had to pull over a few times to check my bearings, which slowed me down a bit. I arrived in Rotorua around 10:30, and headed straight to the Maori village of  Whakarewarewa, where I saw a Maori cultural presentation (singing and dancing, including a haka), and the. Got a tour of the village and thermal areas in it.

Tiki statue in the village. The big eyes and tongue stuck out are part of some of the dances

Steam box built atop a natural vent, used for cooking the village's food!

At the end I hung around the viewing platform for the Pohutu geyser, which is supposed to go off about every hour and a half. I ended up waiting almost two hours for it; it was a decent show when it finally did start shooting hot water up in the air.

Pohutu geyser

Cruised the downtown area looking for a place that was open for lunch, which wasn't easy given that it was 3pm during low season. I wound up having a pretty crummy light lunch of chicken and roast potatoes.

I drove to my motel and checked in, then drove right to the Rotorua Museum to squeeze in a visit before it closed. The museum is in what used to be a bath house, and some of the old bath fixtures are on display. There was also a good film showing the history of the area and the building, including the earthquake that destroyed the original tourist attraction (the pink and white thermal terraces) in 1886.

Drove along the lakeshore a bit and then parked the car downtown and walked around a bit before having dinner at a nice Indian restaurant.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thursday: Napier -> Waitomo

Up early and had a very light breakfast at the hotel before heading out around 8am. Picked up a croissant when I stopped for gas, and had that at a rest stop partway through the morning.

On the way to Waitomo

Had a nice drive to Waitomo, arriving a little after noon, and booked a 3pm cave tour. Tried to check in to my motel but no-one was there, so I found a cafe for lunch, and then checked out the small cave museum at the visitor centre.

To get to the cave tour the guide drove us about 20 minutes in a van up into the hills, along a narrow, winding track. There were a lot of sheep grazing beside the road, many of them with new lambs, some just born.

There were just 7 of us on the cave tour, which visited two caves. The first one we walked through, and it had a lot of neat formations, including stalactites and stalagmites, pillars, curtains, and others. The guide turned off the lights so we could see a few glowworms on the ceiling. The glow worms are actually the larval stage of a gnat fly, and they create strands of silk-like mucus to catch their prey, using their glowing tails to lure them in. So technically they are maggots, but convincing people to come to caves to see maggots dripping mucus trails was a hard sell, so they call them glowworms with silken threads, and that's working well.

In front of the entrance to the first cave

Formations inside the first cave

Looking out of the second cave towards the entrance

We took a snack break after the first cave, and then donned hardhats with headlamps for the second one. We walked in a bit, and then got into an inflatable raft to explore the second cave. The guide pulled on lines set up above the raft to navigate the cave with all the lights out, and after our eyes adjusted we could see endless thousands of glowworms on the ceiling and walls. For me it was so bright, it created the illusion that we were drifting under a sparse trellis covered with vines, with moonlight and starlight coming through. We spent about 45 minutes in the dark, though it was a bit distracting when people tried taking photos, which added the light of their camera displays. I doubt their photos came out well, and the tour company will be emailing us professional photos as part of the tour, which hopefully will be better than what I could have gotten on my iPhone.

After the caves, I went back to my motel and checked in, and then went to a local pub for dinner. The pub's resident cat (originally feral) found me, and settled down on my backpack for a good scratch of the head. I had a good chat with a couple of the locals and enjoyed a yummy steak with a nice pint of the local IPA.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wednesday: Wellington -> Napier

After another delicious breakfast at Fidel's (thank you Jason for the recommendation!) I packed up and checked out, leaving my luggage at the hotel while I walked to the car rental office 10 minutes away. Got my car, and opted for the mobile hotspot which is on special for $6/day. It's not the fastest connection (4G is not yet widespread in New Zealand apparently), but at that price it's nice to have a reliable connection, both for the time on the road and in case one of my hotels has a poor wifi offering. I drove back to the hotel, collected my luggage, and hit the road.

The drive was pretty nice, with alternating periods of spectacular landscape (which I'm getting used to!) and boring highway. I stopped for a late lunch in Woodville and arrived at my hotel in Napier just after 4. I dropped off my stuff and headed downtown to wander around. Napier was destroyed by a bad earthquake in 1931, and was rebuilt in the Art Deco style. Since then they have made efforts to maintain the style. It's cute, but for me maybe a bit too cute.

View into the city centre from Marine Parade, the walk along the shore

Cute font, but really difficult to read.

Along Marine Parade (South Pacific Ocean is offscreen to the left!)

After a nice walk around town, I found the bar recommended by my hotel to have a good beer selection. I sampled three different beers over the course of a leisurely dinner; the Bookbinder Bitter from Emerson's Brewery in Dunedin was my favourite, despite the low alcohol content. Had another walk along the waterfront in the dark after dinner (saw the pretty illuminated fountain), and headed back for an early night.

Tuesday in Wellington: Cable Car, Botanic Gardens, Observatory and a Movie

I had breakfast at the hotel buffet (mediocre; no match for Fidel's) and then got a bus to the base of the cable car at Lambton Quay. The cable car was originally built in the very early 1900s to add incentive for people to buy property up the hill from the city centre that would otherwise have been harder to get to. It worked! It's a wonderful ride up the hill in a charming vehicle, watching the view of the harbour unfold as you go up. At the top is a small museum that gives the history of the cable car, with a restored old car, and a view of the winding station underneath the tracks.

Inside the cable car

View of Wellington from the top

The cable car on its way down

The Botanic gardens are right beside the cable car; from the map it looks like they are at the top of the big hill, but in fact they are along the hillside, with many winding paths weaving through the gardens and up and down the hill.

Sculpture in the Botanic Gardens

I wandered through the gardens to the cafe at the bottom and had lunch there, then found my way back up to the Carter Observatory in time for the 12:30 show. There was a decent film, and then the operator switched to the digital interactive start map. Her next show wasn't until 3pm, so she did more than the usual amount of exploring planets, stars and galaxies visible in the southern sky, showing both the usual and Maori constellations, which was interesting. It was a really good show. Afterwards I browsed the exhibits, and then took the cable car back downtown. Retreated to my hotel for a siesta, relaxing and reading for a couple hours.

I walked up to the Reading Cinema and saw Before I Go To Sleep, starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. The reviews had been mixed, but I had enjoyed the book, and I wound up enjoying it a lot. I even partly forgot the big surprise twist, which helped too. After the movie I found a good pub a block away with an amazing beer selection, and had dinner and a couple good beers there. Wound up chatting with the guy at the next table, and got a bit more insight into Kiwi politics. Back to the hotel and to bed around 11.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Monday in Wellington: Te Papa, Zealandia and MAMIL!

I had a great first full day in Wellington, starting with a delicious breakfast of waffles with bacon and bananas at Fidel's across the street from my hotel. Then I walked a few blocks to Te Papa, New Zealand's National Museum.

Te Papa

There was something going on outside when I arrived...

Promotion for a new exhibit about a local dinosaur.
Though the human legs were obvious,
the guy inside could control the head and tongue with a lot of precision,
and had fun playing with people (mostly kids).

The museum is stunning, and was focussed on the relationship between the Maori inhabitants (including a lot about their internal conflicts in earlier times) and the European settlers. There were also exhibits about earthquakes and volcanoes, which come along with living in a country formed by two continental plates bumping into each other, and about how the landscape was remade by the settlers, including the effect of introducing non-native species, which made for a great segue into this afternoon.

Had lunch at the museum cafe, and then headed over to the Civic Square by the library, where I hung out and read for bit, until it was time to catch the free shuttle bus to Zealandia, an eco-sanctuary just up the hill from the Wellington city centre. It's just about the same size as Downsview Park, with a predator-proof fence running all around it to protect the native species inside: mostly birds, but also weta (which I learned are not only a great visual effects company, but also cool giant insects) and tuatara, New Zealand's ancient reptile with links to dinosaurs. I had a really nice relaxing walk through the park, which is centered around an old dam and lake that were part of Wellington's original water system.

Black fern, nestled in the branches of a tree at Zealandia

Back downtown I found a decent Malaysian place for dinner, and then went to see a play at a local theatre that had sounded like fun: MAMIL (Middle Aged Men In Lycra), about a guy having a mid-life crisis who discovered cycling.  This review captures a lot of it, though fortunately there was no heckling from the audience. It was impressive to see Hadlow play so many different characters (including his Italian bike and his somewhat neglected genitals) non-stop for 90 minutes, though he did stumble over his lines a few times.

This trip is going by very quickly! I passed the half-way point about a week ago at Doubtful Sound, and now have only 2 1/2 weeks left. In a week I'll be headed to New Caledonia for the World Youth Climbing Championships. 50 days sounds longer on paper than it feels like when it's going by!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday: Picton -> Wellington

I had a relaxing morning in Picton, starting with a rare breakfast in a restaurant, then a drive to a nearby lookout for a nice view of Queen Charlotte Sound.

Maori carving (totem pole?) at the lookout

I checked out of the hotel and returned my rental car a bit early, as I was unclear on the logistics. There are two different ferry terminals for the two companies that ply the Cook Strait, and my ferry was leaving from a different ferry terminal than where the rental car return was. I wound up killing an hour at the InterIsland terminal (the nicer one, with a cafe and a good view of the harbour) before catching the free shuttle to the Bluebridge terminal, only to find out that my ferry was running late. I checked my large suitcase in, and spent another hour or so reading (and there was wifi!).

Had an uneventful sailing across the strait. The ship wasn't too crowded, but the inside areas were too warm, and the outside areas were chilly. It's not a very beautiful ship, but the inside facilities were decent.

We arrived in Wellington after dark, around 7pm. I had scoped out the bus routes a bit, and after a short walk to the bus station found the platform for the two buses I knew would run close to my hotel. There was an electronic display showing when they would arrive; the next one wasn't coming for another 49 minutes. So I did the unthinkable: I asked someone for help! A young woman told me another bus would go fairly close to my hotel and I figured out where to get off on its route, and it was only 6 minutes away. I ended up with a nice 5-block walk down Cuba street, through the Cuba St pedestrian mall, which was a great introduction to Wellington. It's a very cool, vibrant neighbourhood, and felt to me a little like Queen St West in Toronto.

Bucket fountain on Cuba St. The buckets tip as they fill,
adding water to lower buckets and causing lots of fun splashing.

My hotel is very nice, and the room small but otherwise excellent. After settling in I walked a block down Cuba for dinner, then got to bed early after reading a bit. I didn't move very far today compared to my recent travels (only 103 km), but it still took most of the day and left me pretty tired!