Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Frosty Cabin

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

It was about midnight by the time we got back to the Kennel from the GinGin 200 Mile Sled Dog Race. We gave all the dogs another big, hot meal then tucked them into their cozy, straw filled doghouses for a good long sleep.

Thus, it was in the wee hours of the morning that I finally got back to my cabin, dead tired and looking forward to a cozy, warm, long sleep of my own.

Well, "It's never easy!" around here and I had a little surprise waiting for me. As you will see in this outtake, I had a night of yet another new Alaskan experience, followed by a morning to remember!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fish Snacks

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

My good friend Greg came up from Seattle last week, mostly to check out all the action at SP Kennel but also partly, I think, to make sure I wasn't crazy.

It was a perfect week for him to be here, because we started him out with Kennel chores like feeding the dogs and cleaning the yard, and ended up with the Solstice Race which gave him a pretty complete perspective on sled dog racing.

In between, of course, there were lots of other experiences like riding in a sled on a training run, talking with Allen about sled design and fabrication, hooking up teams and just plain dealing with the cold, dark Alaskan climate.

One highlight of his visit was our project to uncover a few hundred salmon that Allen and Aliy had bought earlier in the fall and buried under a tarp to freeze them. Our task was to dig up the salmon -- now under a foot or so of snow as well -- then pile them in the truck and help Allen cut them up into fish snacks for the dogs.

I've compiled this video of the experience -- pretty much from start to finish -- and am delighted to share it with you as yet another "behind the scenes" look at one of the more, um, glamorous jobs in dog mushing.

Kudos to Greg for surviving the week, not only in good form but in good spirits. You, my friend, are always welcome to join me on any of my crazy expeditions!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

First Run With Allen

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

I am delighted to report that the schedule finally worked out for me to make my first run with Allen! We hope you enjoy riding along with us:

Monday, December 08, 2008

For Tatfish (and my new camera)...

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

While I've been pleasantly surprised, frankly, at how well my photo gear has held up under the demanding conditions here in the Interior Alaskan winter, I have to admit that it has been a bit of a struggle from time to time.

So, while I was in Fairbanks the other day I shopped for a camera that is more "purpose built" for the cold, snow, etc., than my existing gear. I found one by Olympus called the "Stylus 1030 SW" -- the "SW" stands for "Shock and Water Proof" -- and it is supposed to operate in temperatures down to -10 degrees. Hoping for the best, I bought it and determined to put it to the test right away.

As Aliy and Allen were getting ready to head out on a training run yesterday, I noticed a small rock in the Kennel's exit chute. With the claim of "shock and water proof" in mind, I propped my new camera down on the snow in front of it, hoping to get some footage from an unusual perspective. Actually, I was still just hoping for the best.

By now you know that the dogs are pretty excited to get going just before a run, some of them to the extent that we have to hook them up at the very last second or they will make a tangled mess out of the team. This is particularly true for Tatfish. For reasons that you will see, this little video is dedicated to Tatfish and my new camera, both of whom deserve better than they get!

Special thanks to Jonathan Coulton -- who somehow always has just the song I need! -- for the use of "Why Don't You Take Care Of Me?"


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Driving A Big Rig

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

As I've mentioned before, there hasn't been much snow in the area yet, so the brakes on the sleds don't have much to dig into. As a consequence, it is hard for Aliy and Allen to control big dog teams.

The problem, of course, is that there are so many dogs to train at the Kennel and they all need to be run -- as you know from the "Training Schedule" video -- almost every day. As a result, I have been going out on training runs with Aliy, riding on a second sled that is literally tied to the back of her so that we can have more control -- double brakes, double weight -- and can run more dogs at one time.

For this run Aliy said, "We need to drive a big rig today... 18 dogs!" So, we harnessed up a huge team -- even larger than a full 16-dog Iditarod team! -- and headed out on a four hour, 40+ mile run. With two sleds -- each carrying two large bags of dog food -- and two humans, the total load added up to about 700 pounds. As you will see, these powerful Alaskan Huskies pulled this "big rig" like it was nothing!

About five miles out from the Kennel we passed by the entire town of Two Rivers where Aliy offers a bit of a guided tour. I'm sorry that the audio is so poor, but the speed of the dogs creates such a wind effect that it overwhelms the tiny microphone on my camera. I've added a few sub-titles to help you understand what Aliy is saying. (Note: I'm trying some experiments to fix this problem, but if anybody has a solution for it I would really like to know about it. Please leave me a comment!)

A little further into our run, Aliy put me in the lead sled where I was able to give you a bit of a true "musher's-eye view" then turn around -- with my back to the wind! -- to film Aliy looking forward for a change.

I hope you enjoy "Driving A Big Rig" with us!

Friday, November 28, 2008

After Breakfast

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

Aliy and I had just finished feeding the dogs their breakfast, when she started talking about how she looks at the dogs every day and evaluates their condition. I said "Hold that thought..." and got out my camera.

So, here's another brief "behind the scenes" glimpse of kennel life... Plus a little bonus footage of a few of the puppies here at SP Kennel. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On A 4-Wheeler Training Run

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Left Behind!

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

With more than 60 dogs at the kennel, it is physically impossible for Allen and Aliy to run all of them at the same time. This means that some of them get left behind. Now, I don't pretend to really know "the mind of the dog" but it seems to me that those who are left behind are pretty bummed about it... Some especially so.

I shot this video of what it's like at the kennel "after the bosses are gone" and thought I'd post it to share a little "behind the scenes" action. I think those of you who are fans of Heeler -- "Mr. Personality" -- will find it especially entertaining, and I hope the rest of you enjoy it as well!

(Note: Aliy said the only thing she doesn't like about the video is that it shows what the kennel is like before it has been cleaned. I've assured her that everyone will understand, especially since I ended by saying "it's time to clean the dog yard!" If you'd like a real look "behind the scenes", I'd be happy to share that little bit of fun with you some day!)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On The Trail With Yearlings

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Macgellan Is Here!

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

I'm sure you've noticed the new videos we've posted on the blog over the last few days, and you may have wondered "What's up with that?"

Well, Macgellan -- one of our kennel sponsors -- emailed me last summer to say that he had completed his latest expedition (a 658 day circumnavigation of the surface of the earth!) and was planning his next: To spend the winter exploring Alaska and the world of sled dogs.

He asked if he could start out by spending some time at the kennel and I told him that if he was sure he wanted to be in the interior of Alaska at the coldest, darkest time of year he was more than welcome.

So, he arrived last weekend and has gotten right into the swing of things. Partly he is helping out with kennel chores like feeding, hooking up teams, doing errands in town and the endless process of cleaning the dog yard! Everything he does around here helps us have more time to do what we need to do most: Train dogs!

He is also helping out with our "technology issues" like installing wireless internet in the kennel, adding videos to the blog, etc. We are especially excited about this because it will enable us to bring you much more -- and better -- coverage of the dogs, our training and, very soon, the racing season.

We are happy that Macgellan is here and we look forward to having his ongoing help. We hope that you are too!


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Macgellan Update: With Sled Dogs In Alaska!

Greetings!… I've been crazy busy since completing The Voyage back in May, but haven't had anything suitable for posting to the web. I am delighted to report that condition has now changed!

I am writing to you from Two Rivers, Alaska, about 25 miles northeast of Fairbanks in the heart of the Alaskan Interior. I have come up here to explore Alaska in the winter, and to totally immerse myself in the life of the Alaskan Husky sled dogs I love so much. I have been very fortunate to renew my acquaintance with Aliy Zirkle and her husband Allen Moore -- both professional dog mushers and Iditarod racers -- who run SP Kennel here in Two Rivers. They have very graciously helped me arrange nearby accommodations and are including me in every aspect of kennel operations, from running dogs to cleaning the dog yard. You can imagine how happy I am to be amidst 60 fabulous sled dogs on a daily basis!

In brief, Interior Alaska in winter is cold, dry and dark! Temperatures have been -10F to -20F degrees since I arrived last week, and promise to go as low as -40F degrees in the near future. The air is so dry that the usual winter problems of chapped hands, lips, etc. are a continual challenge. Frostbite is also a constant danger, and you have to be very careful to keep covered at all times to avoid getting "nipped" (which can happen in a shockingly brief amount of time!) It doesn't start getting light until about 9am and the sun never gets more than 15 degrees above the horizon before setting again at about 4pm. This, too, promises to get "worse" as the days shorten even more over the next month. I'll keep you posted!

I will be contributing heavily to the SP Kennel Dog Log and invite you to look for all my postings there. I plan to cross-post some of that content here, whatever and whenever it seems appropriate. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, I've gone to the dogs!

Best regards,


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Logbook: The End Of The Voyage

EndOfTheVoyage1I woke up on the train this morning and looked out the window to see the beautiful and familiar sight of the Cascade Mountains. After coffee and breakfast onboard, I watched the scenery go by for a couple of hours as we reached the coast and headed south. We arrived in Seattle a few minutes after 10am and I was delighted to be met by Greg, my good friend and frequent Co-Voyager. His first comment to me as we shook hands really said it all, "What a momentous occasion!" In lieu of finding and taking the city bus, I happily accepted his offer of a ride and we set out for the short drive to the north side of the city.

A few minutes later -- at precisely 10:33am -- I stood at the corner of Greenwood Avenue and North 85th Street in Seattle. As I touched the very same bus stop sign where I began my circumnavigation of the surface of the earth 658 days ago, The Voyage of Macgellan officially came to an end.

To say that The Voyage has been extraordinary is an understatement of epic proportion. The places I've been, the things I've seen and the experiences I've had simply boggle the mind, but they pale in comparison to the people with whom I have had the pleasure and privilege of sharing The Voyage. For your participation, fellowship, kindness, assistance, enthusiasm and support, I offer each and every one of you my profound thanks. The world is an amazing place, but it is the people who make it truly special. Thank you.

What's next for me? I don't know. While I have a lot of ideas for things I'd like to do in the future, I don't have plans for any of them at this moment. Frankly, I expect it will take some time for me to "catch up with myself" and that's what I am focused on now. After that, I honestly don't know.

What I do know is that The Voyage is over. I know that I have completed my "mission" to explore the world, live by my wits and report my findings. I also know that making my life "public" is behind me and that I am ready to be a "private" person again. Thus, although I plan to leave this website up for a while, I do not expect to add anything more to it.

So, in closing, let me share with you what has been my most profound learning from The Voyage:

"I once believed we each make two journeys in life, a journey outward and a journey inward. I was wrong. They are the same journey."

With best wishes for fair winds and following seas as you continue the journey of your own life...


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Logbook: Closing The Loop

ClosingTheLoop1My niece Jennifer and her friend Amanda met me in Chicago on Thursday afternoon. We went straight to the theater to see the new Indiana Jones movie, and followed it with dinner at a popular local restaurant. Although I can only give the film a modest review -- good, fun entertainment but a not so great movie -- and the dinner only slightly higher marks -- decent food but not so great service and ambiance -- my time with Jennifer and Amanda was just fantastic. If there's anything more fun than spending time with bright young people I don't know what it is, and I thank them both for a really great evening! I slept in a bit yesterday and enjoyed a leisurely morning of coffee and a crossword puzzle, then packed up and made my way to Union Station where I boarded Amtrak's "Empire Builder" train to Seattle.

ClosingTheLoop2I don't really have much to say about the two day train trip except that it has been a comfortable, easy and relaxing way to cross the country. I've ridden a lot of trains on The Voyage, and although Amtrak isn't the best service in the world I do renew my encouragement that folks give it a try as an alternative to air travel or driving. With airport hassles and gas prices being what they are, traveling by train makes more sense than ever. In my case, the slow but steady progress across the "Hi-Line" has given me time to reflect on The Voyage and to process all that I have seen and done, as well as to try to prepare myself for completing my circumnavigation of the surface of the earth tomorrow morning. I haven't been able to think of a "sound bite" to summarize my experience on The Voyage -- and I honestly doubt that I ever will -- but as I "close the loop" I am profoundly aware that I have accomplished everything I intended to do, and much, much more.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Logbook: Re-Entry

Re-Entry1We left Savannah early Last Monday morning and enjoyed a beautiful day, with the Atlantic Ocean treating us to calm seas and brisk following winds. We all swapped stories of our brief time on shore and there was a great deal of goodwill among passengers, officers and crew. In anticipation of disembarking in Philadelphia, I did some laundry, packed my gear and spent time with my various friends. The seas and winds started picking up during the evening and became quite heavy overnight. I was up early on Tuesday due to the rough ride and spent much of the morning on the bridge, at times quite in awe of the massive exchange of energy that occurs when a 38,000 ton ship pitches into a 20 foot high wall of water! The Captain had us throttled back to about 50% power, but even at that greatly reduced speed the sudden fore/aft decelerations from what really amounts to a collisions with waves was a bit unnerving -- much, much different from normal rolling and pitching on sea swells. The seas calmed a bit late in the afternoon and we were able to resume most of our normal speed to approach Philadelphia. We picked up the pilot around 9pm and were about half-way along the 7 hour river approach to the port when I hit the rack for my last night of sleep on board ship.

Re-Entry2I woke up when the ship docked in Philadelphia on Wednesday, despite the fact that it was still dark and only about 4 o'clock in the morning. I didn't even try to go back to sleep, opting instead to get coffee and spend some final time with my friends on the night shift. I finished packing my gear and stayed on board just long enough to have breakfast and say my farewells before heading down the gangway and out of the port. I had decided that unexpectedly finding myself in Philadelphia -- only a short distance from where my folks live -- was too good an opportunity for fun to pass up, so I made an easy cab-train-cab ride to Dillsburg and walked up their driveway. I honked the horn on my Mom's car which got the attention of her dog Sasha, whose barking prompted my Dad to come outside and take a look. After chatting with him for a few moments there was still no sign of my Mom, so I went into the house then down the stairs to where she was playing solitaire on her computer and said, "Hey! What time is lunch?" As you might imagine, this surprise visit was pretty much a "10" on the Mom scale and well worth the effort. I spent a nice weekend hanging out with them on the farm, making a few trips to the local internet cafe and enjoying some really good doggie time with Sasha. Everything was exactly the same as it was when I was last there almost two years ago -- which was a bit of a surprise for me in light of where all and what all I have done in the meantime -- but my visit there made for a good "re-entry."

Re-Entry3Yesterday afternoon I took a train from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh where I had a few hours to walk around, stretch my legs and get something decent to eat before connecting on an overnight train to Chicago. My niece Jennifer goes to school here and she came into the city after her classes were finished and we had a fantastic afternoon. We had a late lunch then walked all around over the place, saw the sights, took a ride on the famous Ferris Wheel and even had a boat ride, all the while enjoying the same kind of lively, non-stop conversation that is the hallmark of our time and travels together. By the time we finished dinner it was well into the evening and we were both pretty worn out, so we made plans to meet up again tomorrow afternoon -- when we hope to see the new Indiana Jones movie! -- then hang out, dine and talk well into the evening. On Friday I will board the two day train to Seattle and complete the last leg of my mission, the circumnavigation of the surface of the earth that has been The Voyage of Macgellan!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Logbook: Panama To Savannah

Panamasavannah1Following Marius' suggestion, I hit the rack late last Tuesday night and got few hours sleep before my alarm woke me at 3:30 when I could find out whether or not we'd made it in time to meet our convoy's deadline for transiting the Panama Canal. When I glanced onto the bridge and saw that the Panamanian pilots were on board I knew we had made it, so I got coffee and spent the next hour or so setting up my camera and experimenting for the Report you see below. It was a busy, long and very hot day of transiting the Canal, and I was completely wasted by the time evening rolled around. I tried to hit the rack early, but we proceeded straight to the port of Manzanillo and conducted cargo operations throughout the night, the noise of which made getting good sleep impossible. By the time we headed out to sea early Thursday morning, everybody was showing signs of real fatigue and it was a very quiet "recovery" day aboard ship. Unfortunately, the heat and humidity remained really oppressive as we steamed across the Caribbean and the ship's air conditioning could barely make an impact on it, so that continued to wear us down and interfered again with getting decent sleep Thursday night.

Panamasavannah2We turned the corner south of Cuba on Friday and headed toward the Bahamas on smooth seas with moderate winds. It cooled down a bit in the evening so I was finally able to get a good night's sleep, and I awoke Saturday morning greatly refreshed. The weather was absolutely beautiful and the seas were perfectly calm, so we had a delightful day of sailing and capped it off with a nice BBQ on F-Deck. Another highlight of Saturday was final confirmation of my point of disembarkation in the US. You may recall that when I booked this cruise my destination was uncertain and Hamish could only assure me that the ship would be making port "somewhere on the east coast." Shortly after I got on board in Napier, the Captain informed me that we would be making port in Savannah and I started thinking about how I might get back across the country to Seattle from there. Last week the Captain told me we the ship would also be stopping in Philadelphia and -- since that offers a much easier rail-route to Seattle -- I immediately requested that destination instead. After some back and forth with the home office, the Captain was finally able to confirm my extended passage and I ended Saturday with the first real sense of destination I've had in quite a while!

Panamasavannah3We approached the coast near Savannah in pretty heavy weather on Sunday morning and I was up on the bridge listening to a local weather forecast for high winds, thunderstorms and possible tornados when I caught the first glimpse of US land that I've had in almost two years. Thankfully, the weather started lifting as we continued our approach and by the time we had made the slow, two-hour river journey to the city of Savannah it was bright and sunny. The actual Port of Savannah is up-river from the city, and the view during final approach through the heart of town was very attractive. Standing on deck, I replied in kind as various people on shore waved at our large ship passing by them in the narrow river channel and enjoyed a real sense of "returning from sea" with my fellow passengers and crew. As soon as berthing was complete, the US customs and immigration agent came aboard and conducted the formalities. Although still far from my ultimate ending point on The Voyage, I was "back in the USA" and I took a nice moment to reflect on all that I have experienced since I crossed the border into Mexico such a long time ago.

Panamasavannah4At the BBQ party on Saturday, Marius had told me that he needed to go ashore in Savannah to get some things for himself and the other officers, then asked if I would be willing to go along with him to act as "translator" and "guide" on his quest. With so much personal experience of how hard it can be to navigate and negotiate in strange lands, I immediately said I would be delighted to. Although I knew nothing about shopping in Savannah, I was pretty confident that I could be of some help to him and I was honored to have been asked. So, when the other passengers went ashore and into town for an evening of sightseeing, I arranged transportation to a local mall where Marius and I hustled around to many different stores. We eventually got everything on his shopping list -- everything from underwear to computer hard drives -- including the most important item, a new suitcase for him to use when he finishes his contract and goes home to Romania in a few weeks! We'd had a hilarious time together and returned to the ship in triumph, distributing the goods, telling stories and hanging out with the other officers well into the evening.

Thus, what I would call my "technical" re-entry into the US was really just like a port call anywhere else in the world. Even though I was back on US soil, the time was so short and hectic that it didn't really feel like a "true" re-entry. That experience, I believe, will happen in a couple of days when I reach Philadelphia!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Report: Panama Canal

You may recall that during my previous transit of the Panama Canal on The Voyage I focused on what I think is the most interesting aspect of the experience, the "Mules" that assist ships through the locks. As we approached the Canal over this past week, I thought about how I might share the "larger" experience and decided that rather than shoot hours of memory-consuming video then try to play it back at high speed I would shoot it in stop-action.

So, in the dark at 3:30 this morning I lashed my camera to the starboard F-Deck railing and started filming as we made our final approach to the Miraflores Locks. Thankfully, this coincided with the breaking of dawn so only the first few frames are in the dark. I had planned to take shots at one minute intervals throughout the transit, but the rains came shortly after we cleared the first set of locks and forced me to interrupt the filming to protect my camera. Showers continued as we steamed through "the cut" and across "the lake" but abated just as we approached the Gatun Locks, so I was able to resume filming our exit from the Canal.

It's just as well, though, because the hours of travel between the locks isn't really very interesting and I probably would have edited it out of the final movie anyway. So, the result is this Report which presents what I think is a pretty good "summary" of what it is like to climb the locks from the Pacific side and descend the locks to the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. I hope you enjoy it! (Note: Thanks to Stephen Jacob for yet another lovely piece of background music!)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Logbook: Pacific Crossing

Pacificcrossing1Besides crossing the 180-meridian -- about which I have posted a Musing below -- not much of note happened during my first week crossing the Pacific Ocean. I received a "safety/familiarization briefing" from the Third Officer that was pretty comical, consisting of him saying, "Everything is the same as before. Any questions?" He knew, of course, that I had travelled on an identical ship just a few months ago and was simply trying to save us both the bother, but it was pretty funny and we both had a nice laugh about it. We had a BBQ party on Saturday night, but with Force 7 winds and pretty lively seas it was both noisy and challenging. Nevertheless, it was a good chance to meet some more of the crew and establish some common bonds. We also advanced the clock four times -- once every other day -- and I was quickly reminded of how grueling "the clock thing" can be. The weather was moderate most of the time, with only a couple of rough days while we passed through a low. The winds, though, were consistently strong enough to prohibit walking around the deck, so I happily occupied myself with the inside aspects of the "at sea" routine: Reading, iLife, movies, etc.

My first impression of the officers and crew was a bit mixed, as I sensed less joviality with and from them than I had become accustomed to on my last cruise. This feeling was abated somewhat when I realized I was making a comparison with what I remembered after being at sea with the last crew for over a month, and reminded myself of what my last experience was like at the beginning of that cruise rather than at the end. Plus, I found out that the crew has only been on board and working together for two weeks, and realized that they are only just getting to know each other as well as. The BBQ helped to open things up -- which probably explains why the Captain persisted in having it despite the marginal weather -- and over the course of each day I was able to incrementally increase my interaction and integration with the crew.

Pacificcrossing2The second week of our Pacific crossing has been equally uneventful, with only a couple of noteworthy moments. One is that the ship's muster alarm went off one morning, and because it had not been preceded by any ado I knew we were finally having our first drill. As required, I put on my shoes, safety helmet and life preserver, grabbed my immersion suit and went down the five flights of stairs to the main deck then made my way aft to the muster station. Once there, I saw that none of the other passengers or crew were similarly clad and was informed that the word had been spread at breakfast -- which I missed due to "the clock thing" -- that it was a muster-only drill. I smiled and said, "That's what I get for missing breakfast again!" which gave everyone a laugh. Another moment was crossing the equator again, my fourth time on The Voyage. Everyone on board has made the crossing enough times before that it is virtually a non-event, and there was no ceremony of any kind. I did have some fun with the Third Officer by predicting several days in advance the exact time I thought we would cross, receiving his admonition that it was impossible to predict due to all the variables of wind, current, course, etc. When it turned out that my prediction was only off by almost exactly one hour, he was a good sport and said, "You must have forgotten about moving the clock ahead one night." Seriously folks, it's the littlest of things that become noteworthy in the routine of life at sea on a freighter.

There has been quite a bit of speculation going on among the officers about whether or not we will make it to Panama in time to catch our scheduled convoy through the Canal. Due to the fact that the ship was delayed more than a day in Napier, combined with adverse winds, currents and weather -- which required us to take a course slightly less direct route than usual -- we were more than two days behind schedule after the first week. Conditions have improved since then and we have made up some time, but it has been looking very close. Throughout the week, the First Officer has been maintaining that we will make it in time, while the Captain has been saying we will not make it and may have to wait 4-5 days for the next convoy -- thus illustrating, I suspect, the different perspectives of youth versus experience.

I've been playing along with the drama by making frequent trips to the bridge, checking the navigational computers and exchanging smiles and shrugs with the officers -- especially the Third Officer, Marius, with whom I have become quite friendly. It is now almost midnight and it is still very uncertain whether we will make our 3:30 am deadline. Depending on the winds and currents of the moment, the navigation computers are calculating our arrival at a few minutes either before or after. Marius has the watch and since -- in his words -- "we will not know until we know" he has suggested I get a few hours of sleep and check back closer to the deadline. After two weeks of such uneventful sailing, my Pacific crossing is ending up with quite the drama!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Musing: Crossing The 180-Meridian

CrossingthemeridianDuring the morning of our second day crossing the Pacific, I had a random thought that we might be approaching the meridian so I went up to the bridge to take a look a the navigation computer. Sure enough, I was there just in time to watch the GPS longitude number reach 179.99 East then tick over to 179.99 West and start working its way down. Strictly speaking, this "crossing the line" simply meant that the longitude numbers for my Google map which had gotten more or less consistently higher would now start getting more or less consistently lower. No big deal. From a sort of metaphysical perspective, though, crossing the 180-meridian felt somewhat more significant.

First of all -- looking back -- I realize that I didn't pay any attention at all to the times I crossed the zero degree meridian. I think that was mostly because it always happened in the ordinary course of daily events and (almost) always on land. Specifically, I crossed the zero-meridian on the overnight train from Cadiz to Barcelona, driving from Toulouse to Bordeaux, driving from Bayeux to Blois, on the train from Paris to London and on the ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam. Call me crazy, but there's a big difference in my mind between those circumstances and being on a freighter in the middle of the Pacific Ocean crossing the 180-meridian. The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean is a significant divider of the earth's geography, and it is a significant divider of the world in my brain.

A second aspect of crossing the 180-meridian is that it got me thinking about how far I have traveled in a different way. I've never -- yet -- tried to calculate how many miles I have traveled on The Voyage, mostly because it seems to be an impossible task. Even if I could figure out how to calculate the distance between pins on my Google map, that would only be "as the crow flies" and would not take into account any of the many, many twists and turns, let alone all of the side-trips, etc., for which there are no pins. (Note: For those of you who really know me, yes, I am now thinking about how I might calculate the distance... But I digress!)

One way I have "sort of" tracked how far I have travelled has been by the progress of my passage through time zones. At the moment I am 20 hours ahead of where I started, but although the "time zone thing" has been a constant reminder that I have traveled far from where began in time it has given me little sense of how far I have travelled in space. Upon crossing the 180-meridian I suddenly became aware that I am now more than 300 degrees of longitude from where I started, and that means I am now 85% of the way through my circumnavigation. I can't really explain it, but being "20 hours ahead" doesn't have nearly the significance for me that being "85% of the way" does. Again, you are always welcome to call me crazy.

Perhaps an even more interesting aspect of crossing the 180-meridian, though, is that it coincides with crossing the international date line. Although I have flown across the date line many times in the past, I never really paid much attention to it, mainly -- I think -- because it was always just an extension of the time-zone thing. Sure, you "lose" a day going west, but you "gain" it back when you fly home. No matter how many times you do it, you always wind up back where you started. Your "home" clock and calendar never changed, you just "went away" for a while.

This feels different to me, and in objective reality it is: In this crossing, I will "gain" a day that I never "lost." In fact, by the time I complete The Voyage I will be one full day out of sync with the earth's rotations in my lifetime, and physically one day older than my calendar age. This result has occurred to me from time to time since I first considered The Voyage, as evidenced by this Wikipedia quote I've had in my file for a very long time:
"The first date-line problem occurred in association with Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe. The surviving crew returned to a Spanish stopover sure of the day of the week, as attested by various carefully maintinaed sailing logs. Nevertheless, those on land insisted the day was different. Although now readily understandable, this phenomenon caused great excitement at the time, to the extent that a special delegation was sent to the Pope to explain this oddity to him."
Well, I can tell you there's a big difference between have it explained to you and actually experiencing it.

I happily mused about this during the morning, and at lunch asked the First Officer when we would be putting the calendar back a day. He looked at me like I was an idiot and said in priceless Romanian-English, "We are already on yesterday. You may come back whenever you wish." His point, of course, was that it really doesn't matter what day it is onboard ship because they are pretty much all the same. I figure I might as well keep up to date, so I have decided to make tomorrow today again.

In my entire life, I never thought I would write a sentence ike that last one. Just another mind expanding experience on The Voyage of Macgellan.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Logbook: At Sea... Finally!

The uncertainty that I have recently tried to describe about freighter travel continued apace when I called the port agent on Tuesday afternoon for my Wednesday morning boarding instructions and was told that there had been a little delay. The ship was now due to arrive in Napier Tuesday afternoon, but -- because it had missed it's "slot" at the port -- it would have to wait until the evening to dock and begin cargo operations. This activity would take place throughout the day on Wednesday and the ship would sail later in the evening. I was instructed to show up at the port mid-afternoon to board and clear customs. Sure enough, as I was walking along the beach Tuesday afternoon with my friends Molly and Richard we saw the ship cross the horizon, approach the port and drop anchor to wait. The good news was that at least my ship had come in. The bad news was that it was still at anchor when I went out to take a look around midnight. Worse, when I got up early yesterday morning the ship was still at anchor, but I was encouraged to see that it had moved into port when I checked a little later after coffee.

After a leisurely morning of packing up, making sure all my documents were in order and saying my farewells to my Napier hosts, my good friend Hamish picked me up and took me back to The Hawke's Bay Club for a nice long lunch with his usual Wednesday crowd. At about two-thirty he drove me to the port where I was cleared by security and shuttled to the ship. The Marfret Provence is indeed a sister ship of my last freighter, but it didn't look quite as big at first sight and I realized that experience had adjusted my perspective. Because of my familiarity with the layout of the ship, I was able to make my way directly to the ship's office where I met the first officer. He asked for my "ticket" and called for the steward to show me to my cabin. Ronald arrived a few moments later and we climbed up five flights to the cabin I expected, the "same" cabin I had before on the port side of E-Deck. The arrangement of the furniture -- bed, desk and sofa -- is a little different from before, but the cabin is otherwise identical. Thus, the feeling of the entire process was very familiar, bordering on a little bit spooky.

Atseafinally1I expected to be taken directly to see "The Man" from customs, but Ronald informed me that meeting had been pushed back until about 11pm. Meanwhile, I was invited to make myself at home and reminded that dinner would be served at five-thirty. I asked if he knew when the ship would sail and was rewarded with a shrug of his shoulders and a pretty non-committal "Sometime in the morning." With that encounter behind us, he left and I spent some time unpacking and stowing my gear then generally settling in. From time to time I went out on my balcony and wandered around the upper decks to take a look at the port and "supervise" the cargo operations, but I have to admit that after all my previous experience it didn't capture my attention the way it once did. I went to dinner as scheduled and met a few more of the officers and crew plus one of the other passengers, a nice guy named Allan who spends half the year in Canada and the other half in NZ, always commuting by freighter in between. After dinner I went back to my cabin until I got a call just before midnight telling me that "The Man" was ready to see me. I made my way down to the conference room where we executed the usual paperwork formalities in a matter of minutes, then I went out on deck one more time to check on the progress of cargo operations before hitting the rack.

Atseafinally2I woke up a few minutes before seven this morning when the starting of the main engine created its customary -- and significant -- change in the ship's vibration. I pulled on some clothes, got some coffee and was outside in time to watch the tugs help us clear the dock, turn around and point out to sea. I stayed on deck for a little while as Napier receded in the distance then went for breakfast where I met the other two passengers, a nice older couple named Margaret and George from The Isle of Man. Although I was back outside in less than half an hour, I was a little surprised to find that that I already couldn't see any land on the horizon. It's amazing just how fast the curve of the earth takes effect when you are at sea level! So, I said a slightly tardy farewell to land which I will not see for about two weeks until we get to Panama. Because I expect these "Freighter Days" to be very, very similar to the last ones I documented in detail, I do not plan to write a daily recap. If anything unusual -- or even of note -- occurs I will write it up, but I'm pretty much expecting a series of "at sea days" -- sleep, eat, read, walk, iLife, coffee, movies, whiskey, etc. -- punctuated, of course, by relentless advancement of the ship's clock. As you know, it is a lifestyle that I really enjoy -- except, perhaps, for "the clock thing" -- and I am delighted to be back at sea... Finally!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Haircut Chronicle: #14 - Napier, NZ

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#14 - April 22, 2008, Napier, New Zealand. While preparing to go to sea I realized that although my hair didn't really need to be cut yet, it would get really shaggy during the month until I next reach land. So, I found this aptly named place in Napier and asked Greg to give me a trim. As usual in the Haircut Chronicles, I got substantially more (or less!) than I asked for! Cost: NZ$17 ($14)

Logbook: Hamish Hooked Me Up!

Hamish1I had lunch with Hamish on Wednesday -- at the historic, "gentlemen only" Hawke's Bay Club here in Napier no less! -- to get the "final word" on my transport arrangements for crossing the Pacific Ocean. Before I tell you about that, however, let me tell you a little about Hamish, who is undisputedly "The Man" for freighter travel. A long-time resident of New Zealand, Hamish is a Brit who worked much of his life in the merchant service and various aspects of ocean travel. Some years back he decided to strike out on his own and leverage his vast experience and industry contacts in the form of Freighter Travel (NZ). I'm convinced that he knows every company, ship and berth that's available for passengers in the world and he makes the booking process as simple, straightforward and sane as possible. If you recall all the nonsense I went through booking my last freighter voyage with another outfit last winter, you'll know I speak from experience when I say that if you ever decide to travel by freighter, Hamish should be your first, last and only contact.

As a way of illustrating why I speak so highly about Hamish, let me now tell you a little about the saga or my imminent sailing. First of all, it turns out there aren't that many passenger berths from New Zealand to North America. This has something to do with the limited amount of cargo traffic between the lands, and a little more to do with the fact that not all the ships will carry passengers. Also, this is a very popular route with folks who travel by freighter and the few berths that are available are booked as much as two years in advance. So, the fact that Hamish was able to get me a berth on short notice is pretty remarkable and is due largely to the amount of leverage he has with the shipping companies.

Second, the shipping industry has some idiosyncrasies that can make it particularly challenging to deal with. For example, the first ship that Hamish booked me on was sold to another shipping company just a few days later and all passenger bookings were cancelled by the new owner. Thankfully I hadn't been counting on it for long like the other poor passengers must have been. Another example is that unlike the airlines which can replace a plane that is grounded for repairs with any one of many identical aircraft in their fleet, shipping companies have only a very few vessels that are always far apart in both time and space. So, when a "catastrophic engine failure" required that the second ship Hamish booked me on go into dry dock for at least a few weeks, there was no handy replacement and I would have been back to square one. If I had tried to do this booking on my own -- or with the "help" of some other firm -- I am sure I'd have been having a stroke by that point. Thanks to Hamish, I could just sit back and say, "Call me when you've got it sorted!" This, of course, he did, and it was the first topic of our lively and enjoyable lunchtime conversation. (Thanks, Hamish!)

Hamish2Okay, so here's the "final" solution that Hamish has come up with for me. This Wednesday morning I will board the Marfret Provence here in Napier. If the ship looks similar to the Aenne Rickmers I was on back in January don't be surprised, because Hamish believes that they are identical sister-ships. What's more, we believe that I am booked in the same cabin on the port side of E-Deck that I had before. So, I may very well be in for a deja vu experience of epic proportion! Beyond that the details are a little uncertain, for the same reasons that I hope I was able to convey in the Logbook entries from my previous "Freighter Days." Namely, cargo is the ship's sole priority, and passenger go where/when the containers go. Since cargo schedules can be quite dynamic, so must be a passenger's. That said, the ship is now scheduled to transit the Pacific non-stop, proceed to and through the Panama Canal, make a very brief -- i.e. no shore leave -- stop at Manzanillo then head to Savannah, GA where I will disembark sometime mid-May.

That's it! You now know everything I know! I'll try to make one more posting to this website before I leave and give you any updated info I have then. Otherwise, fair winds and following seas... The Voyage of Macgellan continues!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Logbook: Gangster's Gal Right Happy!

Gangstergal1It's been yet another different kind of great week on The Voyage! The rain that poured down most of the time has been a blessing for the area -- which has been suffering from pretty drastic drought conditions -- and a welcomed excuse for me to stay in and chill out after being on the move for so long. During my happy hibernation, I have enjoyed catching up on many of my usual favorites: iLife, Skype, movies, books and sleep. I have also spent an astonishing amount of time on something new, trying to learn how to do cryptic crossword puzzles! I've long been a fan of "normal" crosswords, but have never been able to get a handle on the cryptics. With Betty's help during our travels together, I started to get the hang of them and have now become completely hooked. I've done so many in the past week, in fact, that I've found myself "thinking in cryptics" -- which gives you a clue about the title for this Logbook entry! Although I still can't finish most of them, it's is usually due to the solution involving some sort of non-American-English idiom or spelling that I've never heard of. No worries, though, because you know that once I start working on figuring something out I won't (can't?) stop until I've mastered it. Stay tuned!

Gangstergal2During times that it hasn't rained, I have done some modest exploration of Napier which continues to be a pleasantly idiosyncratic little city. I can't really say I get what makes the place tick, and I have often found myself out-of-sync with it. One example is last Saturday night when I tried to go "out on the town" but found myself wandering virtually empty streets and unable to find any kind of music or other nightlife. Go figure. On nice days I have taken long walks along the shore, one of which brought me into the acquaintance of the delightful young lass you see here. Her name is Molly -- which should explain the answer to the cryptic title above! -- and she gave me just the kind of "doggie fix" I needed. We had such a good time that her human -- a really nice guy named Richard -- has called me a couple of times since to join them on their shore walks. My thanks to both of them!

In the background this week, I have been working on arrangements for moving on from New Zealand. I am having lunch tomorrow with Hamish -- the "freighter guy" who lives here in Napier -- and hope to hear something more or less definitive about getting across the Pacific Ocean. I'll let you know what I find out!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dram: My NZ South Island Map

As you can see on my map of NZ's South Island, I have covered what amounts to something like two-thirds -- maybe even three-quarters -- of the "main" roads. Although that's a lot, it's not at all unusual for visitors to do here. After all, the island really isn't very big and there just aren't that many roads. I did it in about six weeks -- including time on my own and with Betty -- but it could easily be done in a month, and I have met folks who have done it in as little as two weeks. That isn't a pace that I'd suggest, but it does give you an idea of what you can cover if you ever take a holiday to this tourist paradise.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Report: Bozo The Booby

During my recent visit to Cape Kidnapers on the east coast of New Zealand's north island, I got some pretty good video of Australasian Gannets, a sub-species of Booby. Partly because I gave them a bit of a send up in my previous noir-ish Report called "Booby Snatcher" and partly because -- as my friend and world-reknowned seabird expert John Sparks says -- "Boobies are proper seabirds", I intended to edit a Report that would pay the Gannets/Boobies some respect. However, while they are graceful flyers and exceptional divers, they are simply not as elegant as the Albatross I have featured previously and my footage of them soaring around the Cape just didn't seem to warrant such a Report.

A bit stymied, I turned away from the video for a few minutes and started listening through my Podsafe music for something I might be able to use as a soundtrack. I stumbled across a great little piece from Jonathan Coulton which has always made me smile and suddenly started to think instead about some of the non-soaring footage I had of the Gannets. They are, after all, quite clumsy on landing and a bit goofy once aground. In the end, I abandoned my intention to edit a "respectful" Report and proceeded with this "light-hearted" one instead. The title will make sense once you hear to the music, I assure you. So, with thanks to all the Boobies of the world who have entertained me during my circumnavigation of the planet -- and a promise that one day I will do them right -- I offer you this Report form The Voyage of Macgellan. Enjoy!

Lost In Translation: Napier, New Zealand

Books50centsBook Store Sign

Napier, New Zealand

April 2008

I went with Option B.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Logbook: Betty's Blog

(Note: At dinner on our last evening together in NZ, Betty gave me a few pages she had written out for me to include in the Logbook of The Voyage. I am delighted -- and honored -- to do so. She also gave me a few photos she has taken of me along the way -- with captions! -- that I have included in the Photo Log. Thanks Betty!)

Bblog1When the chance came to accompany Macgellan on part of his exploration of New Zealand I jumped at it, as it has been a lifetime wish of mine to visit there. Anyone who has browsed Macgellan's website will realize that he is a "traveler" -- whereas I am still a bit of a "tourist" -- so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I set off for New Zealand with my "wish list" for the trip. My fears were unfounded, we got the map out, tossed around a few ideas for a broad outline and in no time at all we were off. If you ever need a guy to make things happen without any fuss, rush or panic, Mac is your man! A great facilitator, he is also kind, considerate and a great traveling companion, with a wicked sense of humor which makes one laugh often. In the month we have been on South Island, the weather has been great with only a few odd showers and one day of heavy rain. I have done some amazing things (for me!) with Mac's encouragement, sometimes while he has stayed behind to tend his "virtual" life on the internet.

Bblog2New Zealand is a place of stunning scenery and it has absolutely everything -- fabulous beaches, snow covered mountains, glaciers, fjords, orchards, vineyards, sheep and cattle spreads, etc. -- all within sight of each other and so easily accessible, as well as craft/art galleries and places of historic interest. It is also the "adventure capital" of the world, so if you can name it -- or even think of it -- you may depend on finding it available from the Kiwis. What makes this place tick? I really cannot fathom. It seems to suffer from an inferiority complex and everything, everywhere has to have a handle or slogan as the biggest, largest, longest or only one in NZ, the southern hemisphere or even the world. As the current idiom in the UK would say, they really "Big It Up" or -- as I saw in a Maori dictionary -- they "Heap It On!" This really is not necessary -- it can actually become a bit irritating over time -- and driving along we would try to guess what the next place would promote itself as. The town of Cromwell takes the biscuit with its huge sculpture of fruits, something like a giant Carmen Miranda hat. Sometimes this over promotion falls flat and following on Mac's line about "You Got Franced" we would sometimes say "You Got NZ'd!" One time that stands out is crossing "The Longest Swing Bridge in New Zealand" and returning by a "Flying Fox" zip line. Actually, it may be the longest in NZ but it takes less than a minute to cross and only a few seconds to return, at a ridiculous cost of fifty dollars!

Bblog3Minor carping aside, I have loved being here. The highlights for me have been a tandem micro-light flight -- like being on the back of a Harley but without any bumps! -- and a tandem hand glider flight which was possibly the best. Being towed aloft then silently soaring like a bird (without having to flap one's wings!) and spiraling down to land on wheels (no running required!) will live with me forever. It was so exciting that one day I might just do it again! That experience was just fractionally ahead of taking a four seater ski plane to fly over Mt. Cook, Mt. Tasman, Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers then landing on a high altitude snow field. Walking far enough away from the other passengers to experience absolute silence and stand alone in brilliant sunshine amongst snow capped peaks was another magical moment to recall and savor. Really, it is difficult to pick the best experience as the last few weeks have produced such a kaleidoscope of so many colorful and exciting things: Whales, dolphins, gannets, boat trips on Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound -- where you can also find NZ's "steepest public road" -- Steward Island, Banks Peninsula, a ride on the rural postal deliver van and many, many others. I hope this doesn't sound like boasting, but I am so happy to have had the opportunity to do this trip and I have loved every minute! Thanks to Mac, my honorary nomad son!

Bblog4Now we are in the North Island and have come as far as Napier. It is time for me to strike out on my own for a couple of weeks and bring my geological interest to the fore as I move around this very active volcanic region. The smoking White Island, Mt. Ruapehu and Mt. Taranaki are on the agenda before I leave for a week with my niece in Australia en route for the UK and home. Yes, I will miss Mac, but I leave him in Napier with hopes that he will have time to recoup and catch up while preparing for the next leg of The Voyage.

You may wonder what being on The Voyage is like. Well, I learned that I brought too many clothes with me and that normal day to day living has to be managed along the way. It is not like being at home or on a "normal" two week holiday, as everything needs to be fathomed out each time you move. For example: Where is the ATM? I got myself a nationwide debit card before I came for using ATMs at no charge anywhere in the world, only to find that it flatly refused to give me any money. In desperation I went into the bank and was told I while one normally should press "cheque" for a debit card, one must press "credit card" instead until they get the system working right... which will be very soon! Can I do my laundry at this motel? Will it be dry before I move on? My hair needed a trim after six weeks, so I needed to locate a hairdresser then beg to be fitted in as I was only going to be in town for the day. I managed to walk in off the street in Wellington and never thought there would be a language problem until I got a German lass to cut my hair whose English was more than a trifle strange, and only slightly better than my non-existent German. But, at the end of they day, I'd gotten a haircut of sorts. I can see why Mac keeps "The Haircut Chronicles"!

Bblog5Remember to get the tank topped up with petrol when you see a filling station as distances in the countryside can be lengthy in between stations. What are the local parking and traffic regulations? Here in NZ you must park in the same direction as the traffic flow or you will be fined and towed away. Citizens of the US must remember that there is no right turn on red even if it is safe to do so. Also, left turns must yield to oncoming traffic turning right in front of you; a real idiosyncrasy that is very easy to forget! Where is the chemist? At home you know where everything is, what TV programs are available, whether your internet connection works, etc., etc. At home you know where all the cafes are and whether you want to eat there or not. On The Voyage you have to hunt around for every meal! Being along on The Voyage has been a truly amazing experience -- one that I will really cherish forever -- but it is not any easy life. Mac has been on The Voyage for over 600 days now, and he is a remarkably focused, experienced and durable traveler. I think I would have said "Stop the world, I want to get off!" a long time ago!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Logbook: Hawkes Bay

Hawkesbay1Betty and I pulled out of Wellington on Thursday morning, quite satisfied that our two days in that city were enough to get a feel for it and equally convinced that it is not our kind of place. There's nothing wrong with Wellington, but for us it was just a city with nothing in particular going for it. It took us most of the day to make our way northeast, across the mountains, on a scenic route that was similar to our South Island experience but with perceptibly more trees on the one hand and somewhat more substantial development on the other. By late afternoon we were cruising through what is known as the Hawke's Bay area -- one of NZ's major wine producing regions -- and on into our destination at the small city of Napier. Situated on a wide, pleasant bay of the Pacific Ocean, Napier is a delightful town which is particularly known for its Art Deco architecture. Though this attribute is not as obvious as one might expect from reading the literature, it is fairly evident and rather more tastefully in balance with the rest of the town's character than the seemingly arbitrary, overdone excess which you may recall I observed in Ranfurly.

Hawkesbay2As had pretty much become our custom, we followed our long "road day" with an "easy day" on Friday, happily filling the time with a lengthy, relaxing brunch, a bit of walking around town and a visit to the moderately entertaining National Aquarium. On Saturday morning we drove a bit southeast to Cape Kidnappers -- so named because it is where Captain Cook thought one of his crew had been kidnapped by local Maoris -- for a tour to visit a large Gannett colony. It was fairly late in the season so many of the birds had already left, but there were still quite a few on hand and they gave us quite a show. The most remarkable aspect of our visit was that we were able to get right next to the colony, with only a few feet separating us from the birds who seemed to be completely unaffected by our presence. Because of our proximity, I was able to shoot a lot of "up close and personal" video that I hope to edit into a Report very soon.

Yesterday morning we drove to the nearby little city of Hastings for brunch and a visit to the Sunday Market, then returned to Napier where I scouted out and secured a place for myself to stay a while. For reasons that I will soon explain in detail, I will be remaining in Napier while Betty continues on her own exploration of the North Island. Thus, we had our final dinner together last night, reminisced about the really wonderful exploration we have done together over the past five weeks and bid each other fond farewells. Betty has been an excellent co-explorer on The Voyage and I have greatly enjoyed her company. I will look forward to seeing her again, confident that our paths will cross somewhere, sometime in the future. Thanks Betty!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Logbook: North of South to South of North

Southnorth1We had yet another beautiful drive last Wednesday from Murchison to the north coast town of Motueka. It really is amazing how many different kinds of scenery NZ's south island has in such a small geographical area, and I reprise my assertion that just driving around to enjoy the views is by far the best value. Motueka is a mid-sized town that serves as the tourism center for Abel Tasman Park which Betty took an all-day boat tour of on Thursday. Since I have already been to the Park, I spent the day in town, grappling as usual with the internet and taking care of some chores. Motueka is also the home to a very busy little airport where you can take bi-plane rides, sky dive, hang-glide and fly micro-lites. Betty was keen to give the micro-lite and hang-glider a try, so we made a couple of trips out to the airport during breaks in the weather on Friday for her to give it a go. To say the least, she loved it all! We spent most of Saturday taking a day trip out to Farewell spit -- a lengthy sand spit at the very northwestern corner of the south island -- but were unable to see much due to really foul weather and consoled ourselves with coffee and a cryptic crossword at a nearby cafe.

Southnorth2Sunday was the last day of our month long exploration of the south island as we made our way to the ferry-port town of Picton for an evening of sorting and packing gear in preparation for crossing to the north island of NZ. The three hour ferry crossing yesterday was a pleasant ride from Picton, out Queen Charlotte Sound, across Cook Strait and into Wellington Harbour. The ship was packed with people and an amazing assortment of vehicles -- as you can see in the photo -- ranging from cars to RVs to stock trucks full of sheep. I'm not sure what the economics of transporting live animals to the north island is, but I do know that they were a point of interest for many passengers. Upon arrival in Wellington, Betty and I got a new rental car, found our way to our accommodations and settled down for a brew up after a successful day migrating from the north of the south island to the south of the north island.

Southnorth3We were both "good tourists" today, spending most of the day on a walkabout of Wellington. We toured the downtown area, wandered along the pedestrian malls, took the famous cable car up the hill and strolled along the waterfront. Wellington is a lively, picturesque city that seems to have a pleasant mix of business, government and leisure aspects. There are a few interesting sights, but I would not say it is a spectacular place. Although Wellington is NZ's second largest city, it is still quite small with a population of fewer than 200,000 people. Despite this relatively small size, Betty and I both commented on how loud and bustling the city seemed to us after spending so much time in wide open and sparsely populated areas. We plan to spend the day here tomorrow then head up the east coast on Thursday. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Haircut Chronicle: #13 - Motueka, NZ

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#13 - March 27, 2008, Motueka, New Zealand. Well, it's only been a little over a month since my last cut in Invercargill, but my hair had finally grown out enough to give Gayle something to work with. The photos aren't very good -- as usual -- but she gave me a really good "scissors only" cut. Finally, my hair is back in decent shape and more or less the way I like it! Cost: NZ$28 ($23)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Logbook: NZ Scenic Routes

Scenicroutes1Betty and I hit the road pretty early on Thursday, at the very beginning of the Southern Scenic Route in Te Anau. We headed south throughout the morning, stopping every hour or so -- as has become our custom -- to take in a view, have a coffee or briefly explore an interesting (though usually over-hyped) roadside attraction. We hit the southern coast early afternoon and headed east into Invercargill where we checked in with Sandra at the Surrey Court, instantly reviving the happy hi-jinx I enjoyed the last time I stayed at her place. Betty enjoyed her day-trip to Stewart Island on Friday despite some rain along the way, while I took advantage of Sandra's wireless internet to Skype the world. Saturday was a road day as we continued east then north on the Southern Scenic route to its end in Dunedin. I can't really say much about the SSR except that it is indeed scenic and worth driving, a more enjoyable and not much longer route than the alternative "main" highway. An hour or so north of Dunedin we stopped for the night in Oamaru, the same overnight staging point I had stayed in a month.

Scenicroutes2Sunday was a very long road day as we headed out of Oamaru pretty early and stopped in Timaru for breakfast. Just north of that tidy little commercial town we again branched off the "main" highway and onto the Inland Scenic Route for a lengthy, very attractive by-pass of Christchurch. Although the ISR is a little longer than the "main" highway it is a far more enjoyable drive through seemingly endless stretches of farmland and forest, punctuated by mountain climbs, gorge crossings and the occasional very small town. You've no doubt noticed that I have repeatedly quoted the term "main" when referring to the highway here in NZ, and this is because despite its being the main road it is a far cry from what most people would probably envision as a major highway. For almost its entire length, it is a two lane road with occasional passing lanes. Carrying the bulk of the island's north-sout traffic -- including a staggering number of stock trucks, tourist RVs and the like -- the maximum speed of 100kph nets out to something closer to a blistering 80kph or about 50mph. Thus, although the Scenic Routes are longer and less developed than the "main" highway, they are also less traveled and can be driven just about as fast on the whole. Add in their substantially more attractive views -- including the chance to see untold numbers of fields full of sheep! -- and the Scenic Routes are definitely the way to go.

Just north of Christchurch, the Inland Scenic Route rejoined the "main" highway which soon became the Alpine Pacific Scenic Route. In this case it's still the "main" highway but it has been given a fancy name, partly in accordance with the country's practice of hyping things up but also in recognition of its beautiful mountains-and-shore scenic quality. Late in the afternoon we finally ended our very long road day in Kaikoura, a moderately seedy little seaside town that is NZ's mecca for every kind of ocean-based activity you can imagine, from surfing and fishing to whale watching and swimming with dolphins. I've been here and done that before, so I took the day off yesterday to have a leisurely breakfast, take a lengthy stroll along the beach, read, nap and generally rest up from a few long days of driving. Betty went on a whale watching flight in the morning -- actually seeing a few of them from the air! -- and did some wandering around town in the afternoon. We both concluded that Kaikura really isn't a very nice place to stay, but agreed that you pretty much have to swing by it for a day or so if you are interested in whales, dolphins or any of the rest of what it has to offer.

Scenicroutes3We were back on the road this morning for the last long road day in our south to north migration of the island. Although the Alpine Pacific Scenic Route technically ended just north of Kaikoura, the coastal scenery was spectacular all the way up to Blenheim. Turning west, we then enjoyed still more exquisite views as we travelled the length of the Wairau Valley and into Buller Gorge. Some of Betty's friends had strongly recommended the nearby swing bridge and zip line as a great pair of gorge crossings, so -- despite my experienced concern that it might not be as great as it was hyped to be -- we found our way to the proper establishment and bought our tickets. As feared, "the longest swing bridge in New Zealand" was actually pretty short, the zip ride back was even shorter and neither was really worth the money. We had a good laugh about how we'd fallen for the hype yet again as we made our way to the nearby town of Murchison and checked in for the night. All in all, we have had an excellent few days, enjoying extraordinary views on the Scenic Routes which are by far the best value in NZ! Tomorrow we will make a short drive to the north coast for our last few days of exploration on the South Island before we take the ferry to the North Island early next week.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Logbook: Fjordlands

Fjorlands1We were on the road pretty early Saturday morning for the long drive south and inland from the west coast glaciers. Along the way we made a number of brief stops at points of natural beauty and one at a salmon fish hatchery which now holds the title for being the place where I spent my best three bucks in New Zealand. You see, as I watched the salmon swim an endless, highly organized, clock-wise circle in the pool I decided to try a science experiment to see what it would take to disrupt their pattern and flow. So, I bought a one-dollar container of fish food and tried throwing individual pieces at various places in the pool, only finding out that each piece was quickly consumed by the nearest fish with no disruption at all. Next I tried throwing small handfuls of food over a broader area, but found that only got the interest of the few nearby fish who took the food in stride as they continued their pattern. Not to be defeated, I went back to the counter and bought two more dollar-size containers of food and just dumped them in one place in the pool. Sure enough, that was much more food than could be consumed by fish in passing and it caused complete chaos for just a few moments before the fish returned to their natural swimming pattern. Entirely satisfied with my scientific conquest -- and my ability to at least momentarily alter thousands of years of evolution-driven fish behavior -- I celebrated the most fun I've had with three bucks in NZ and got back on the road.

Fjorlands2Late in the afternoon we arrived in the small town of Cromwell which -- as you might guess from the 50 foot high Carmen Miranda style statue at its entrance -- is in the very heart of NZ's produce growing region. On first impression, one can't help but think the town has absolutely no reason for being there. It turns out this impression is completely accurate, and the town only exists because the region was flooded to make a reservoir lake some years back and the "payoff" was relocating the few structures that existed to higher ground and developing the new, sterile, ultra-modern planned town that is Cromwell. Imagine a movie set of a modern day mini-suburb and you'll pretty much get the picture. Sunday turned out to be a day of relaxing, partly because we had been moving pretty far pretty fast and partly because Sunday is naturally a day of rest, but mostly because there is nothing else to do in Cromwell. So, Betty and I had a leisurely brunch, did all of the crossword puzzles in every paper we could find, watched some TV including cricket -- which I'm actually starting to understand with Betty's help -- and the Formula One Grand Prix from Australia. (Attaboy Lewis, Bummer Kimi!)

Fjorlands3Monday was another "road day" on our long trek to the Fjordlands. Our first stop along the way was in the unbelievably touristy mecca of Arrowtown, yet another former gold mining town that has been "restored" as one more "must visit" collection of arts galleries, "locally grown and made" crafts shops, trendy/overpriced cafes and public, pay-to-pee automated toilets. We were able to eat breakfast despite being revolted by what we saw around us, thanks in great part to a particularly good cryptic crossword and a rather difficult sudoku. A little further down the road we entered Queenstown which I personally hate despite its being hailed as one of the great tourist -- er, travel -- destinations in the world. My glee knew no bounds -- and my gas pedal hit the floorboard -- when Betty said something to the effect of "Crikey! Let's get out of here!" Yet another couple of hours down the road we arrived in Te Anau which is the jumping off point for Fjordlands exploration. After a quick check-in at our accommodations we went into the town proper for a quick snack before Betty went on a "glow worm tour" and I -- as you might imagine -- happily read a book. (Okay, okay, I admit it. I've become a really, really, really bad tourist!)

Fjorlands4The weather yesterday was absolutely spectacular -- a relative rarity in the Fjordlands which is one of the rainiest and cloudiest places in the world -- and we made the most of it with a day-long excursion to Doubtful Sound. As usual, the tourism industry is finely tuned around here and there are several vendors which offer well run packages. From Te Anau, a bus took us half an hour away to Lake Manapouri where a water taxi sped us on a fifty minute trip across the lake to a brief but interesting tour of an underground power station. From there, a bus took us another half hour over a mountain pass to Deep Cove where we boarded a scenic cruising boat for a few hours of sightseeing down the fjords and out to the Tasman Sea. It is hard to describe Doubtful Sound, but it is clearly the gem of the Fjordlands. I've put a few shots in the photo log which do it some justice, but you really have to see it in person. By the time we repeated the bus-boat-bus process and returned to Te Anau, we were pretty worn out but very, very happy with our day. If you are ever in the Fjordlands, a day trip to Doubtful Sound is a must-do.

Betty left this morning on another day-trip to nearby Milford Sound, but since I have already been there I have opted instead to spend the day doing a variety of chores, making some arrangement going forward and generally catching up with myself. In the morning we will hit the road again and head south to Invercargill where Betty will do the day-trip to Stewart Island that I did a month ago -- How time flies! -- and where I hope to spend another day goofing around with Sandra and her dog Pep back at the Surrey Court Motel! Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Lost In Translation: Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

BoattoiletsignTour Boat Toilet Sign

Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

March 2008

I get the point, of course, but don't you think there's a bit of a problem with the verb tense?