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Monday, January 30, 2012

Love in Melbourne and not the just tennis kind

Over the last fifteen to twenty years, I had pretty much lost my interest in tennis, both as a player and as a fan.  I watched and played a lot of tennis in college and in the few years following that.  I remember the great battles of the Borg/Connors/McEnroe days, rooting for Johnny Mac.  Sure he whined too much, but I loved his passion for the game and the flair with which he played.  To paraphrase a line from Hunter S. Thompson, he played like a man trying to control an inner frenzy.  Once Mac faded from the scene, to be overtaken by Ivan Lendl and then Pete Sampras, no one came along that really made me want to follow the game again.  Sure there were some good female players, but I would usually watch their matches for all the wrong reasons.  My interest in tennis could be rekindling now that we’ve seen Melbourne and gotten immersed in the Australian Open. 

From the very first moments we got off the plane in Melbourne, it was obvious the Aussie Open was going on.  Signs and banners were displayed throughout the airport and along the streets, especially in the Central Business District, just a few blocks from Rod Laver Stadium.  As we walked toward Kings Domain for the car show on Aussie Day, I noticed an information sheet posted outside a booth selling items from the Open.  It listed the matches that were going on that day, and the headliner was Rafael Nadal against Roger Federer.  I mentioned to Annie that it might be fun to catch that out at dinner or back in our hotel room.  Going to the match in person would have cost us at least $500 and that wasn’t going to happen.  We got back to the hotel room after dinner in time to catch the start of the match, and enjoyed watching two of the greatest players of this era go at it.  I was naturally attracted to the way Nadal played and happy to see him prevail.  His game reminded me some of McEnroe, in part because of the fact that they are both lefties, and also because he can pull off some amazing shots, just when you figure he’s about to lose the point.  Marley followed the match pretty closely with me, knowing the rules from having played so much Wii tennis.  Ben, who is really into sports these days, especially NFL football, struggled with the whole points/games/sets/match concept.  I was unable to explain, even with 30-plus years of tennis watching/playing experience why you earned 15 points for the first two points of the game but just ten for the third.  It almost makes it less of an incentive to continue playing.  You figure, I’ve worked hard, run all over the court like my hair is in fire and been rewarded fifteen points for each of the first two points of this game, and now, you’re telling me if I do that again and manage to win the point, I only get ten??  No thank you, think I’ll take a nap. 

The buzz of the tennis tournament was still present on the tram as we headed to the Queen Victoria Market, not far from the CBD.  It’s a massive set-up, covering several city blocks, with food stalls offering fresh meat and fish and breads, as well as vendors selling all kinds of belts and shirts and shoes and trinkets. 

One of the vendors had some Major League Baseball jerseys, including a #44 Reds Adam Dunn road jersey.  The price was $45 dollars and considering how long it’s been since Dunn played for the Reds and the historically lousy season he had for the White Sox in 2011, I probably could have gotten it for much less.  But then, I would have had a #44 Reds Adam Dunn road jersey, and who needs that?  Certainly not me, and apparently no one else.

We were jonesing for some more mini-golf, and we saw an ad for a course advertising Glow Golf in an area called the Docklands.  All we had to do was figure out which tram to take to catch the tram to that area, about which we had read good things.  Having gotten a little directionally disoriented inside the cavernous market, we were huddled over a brochure that featured a Metlink map, trying to figure out which way to go.  A woman passing by, with no prompting from us, asked if we needed any help.  After we told her of our predicament, she kindly pointed us in the right direction and which tram to look for and what signage we would see and we were on our way.

The Docklands is a beautiful waterfront area, featuring some restaurants, ice cream shoppes, and stores, most of which are in a complex called Harbour Town.  There’s no red and white lighthouse like you find in Hilton Head, but there are plenty of stores on the two levels, along with some salons.  In one of those, Marley and Annie stopped to get pedicures, so Ben and I took a stroll toward the Glow Golf.  As luck would have it, there was a game room right next door, so we engaged in some heated Air Hockey games, followed by a few turns on a NASCAR game. 

Showing that all that time spent in our basement at night and on the weekends has not been wasted, Ben got the all-time fastest time on his game. I told him I was afraid that he would say in ten months that had been the highlight of his trip.  Once we left Melbourne, however, and headed along the Great Ocean Road and pulled up to our cottage outside the coastal town of Lorne, I knew that wouldn’t be the case.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

NZ to OZ

It had been 45 days or so since I’d worn shoes.  And only on two very cool days in New Zealand (and once when I played golf in sandals) had I even worn socks.  As a result, my feet were starting to take on a very weathered look, much like Mother Teresa’s face, especially on my big toes just below the nail.  Considering that we were heading into warmer weather over the next couple of months, I was pondering the possibility of letting that process continue to the point where the image of Mother Teresa’s face on my feet could be something of a worldwide or at least Asia-Pacific sensation.  People would come from all around to gaze at my toes.  Kind of like when someone sees the Virgin Mary in a grilled Cheese, or Jesus in the condensation of an office building window in Florida.  The problem was that the skin on the heels of my feet was starting to crack and become painful when I walked.  I knew we had a lot of walking to do on the trip, so I broke down and bought some running shoes when we were killing time in our half-day in Auckland.  Not that I was going to start a running regimen anytime soon.  I don’t run unless-a) someone is chasing me-b) I’m being chased or c) I have a chance to prevent a Titleist that my wife has hit from finding a watery grave.  I found some reasonably priced Diadora running shoes at a discount department store near the motel we were staying for one night near the Auckland airport.  That would prove to be one of the best decisions I made on this trip as we headed to Australia to get our walkabout on. 

Having stayed in 14 different places in our 28 days in New Zealand we were determined to do more staying and less driving in our 34 days in Australia.  Our time in the land that is called Oz in this part of the world would start in Melbourne.  Things got off to a tough start when we spent over an hour getting through customs. But as happens often in life, gratification delayed is made worth the wait and that would be the case with the largest city in the state of Victoria.  When planning our trip, we were unaware that our time in Melbourne would coincide with the Australia Open tennis tournament.  That became more apparent as we tried to reserve a hotel and found little in anything resembling an affordable category anywhere in the Central Business District.  We settled on a Best Western right on the tram line about 25 minutes outside of downtown and that proved to be a wise move.  The tram stop is within view of our room and the tram goes by in both directions every seven or eight minutes.

It’s a clean and efficient system, although a bit slow by other city’s standards as it runs above ground, and has to deal with street level traffic.  After getting an early check-in to our modestly priced hotel room where we would all be in the same room together, we grabbed a tram and headed into Melbourne to check out a few sights.

Love at first sight is certainly a cliché, but that was the case for us with Melbourne.  It’s a clean, modern city that also has some fantastic old architecture.  None is more impressive that Flinders Street Station, the Grand Central Station of Melbourne. 

It’s the vibrant center of the transportation system, situated right on the river.  The following day it was alive with activity for what the locals claimed was Australia Day, but what we really thought was just an excuse to throw us a welcoming party.  Taking the tram into town again, we melded in with the crowds milling through the streets, some of which were just re-opening after a morning patriotic march.  Our goal was to make it to the Kings Domain park where a car show featuring some 450 vintage cars was being held.  The weather could not have been better as we made our way into the show and checked out the cars that had been lovingly maintained by their owners.  

Having seen our share of car shows in the states, it was a pleasure to see so many different vintage cars, many models of which we had never seen before.  The most prevalent was the Holden brand, which had so many great designs.  Food tents offered a wide variety of products, and while Annie and the kids stood in line for pizza, I queued up for something called a Yabba Patty.  I found out from someone else who was already in line that a yabba was a type of prawn, kind of in between a shrimp and a crayfish.  The patty wasn’t as tasty as I had hoped, but my time in line provided me with the chance to see a guy in a Bengals jersey. 

I was somewhat surprised, but not shocked as I had seen several NFL and NBA jerseys along with MLB caps during our time in New Zealand.  Still, it was great to see the orange and black stripes as I approached him and asked about the jersey.  He was a local who said he just liked the NFL, but he followed the Bengals as when I said that they had a better season than expected, he said it would have been better had they beaten Houston in the playoffs.  I gave him a quick education on the Who-Dey cheer and we shook hands and parted ways.  

After lunch and a look at some more gorgeous cars, I saw a man with his family getting ready to get on some bikes they had secured to a lamp post, and he was wearing a Reds hat.  I approached him and asked if he was from Cincinnati, knowing that was probably not the case, and when I heard his answer I knew it wasn’t.  Turns out he had worked in the States for a while and had some dealings with Procter and Gamble, which is how he became familiar with the first professional baseball team.  Feeling like I was at Cours D’Elegance, a car show held every year in Ault Park in Cincinnati, we turned our attention back to the autos.  That attention was diverted by the sound of barking dogs, which turned out to come from a competition nearby.  Teams of dogs and their handlers were taking place in a penned in area, in which Annie and Marley became engrossed.  While they watched the teams of four dogs run relays, Ben and I went to check out more of the cars.  He likes more exotic modern cars like Buggatis and Lamborghinis, he was drawn in by the wide variety of Aston Martins from the 1960s on display.  Our viewing of those was interrupted by the sudden sound from the skies that made us feel like we were GIs in a field in France in World War II when the Luftwaffe showed up out of nowhere.  Instead of diving into a roadside ditch for cover, we looked to the skies to see a squadron of a half-dozen planes performing maneuvers over Kings Domain.

The crowds in the park stopped and looked up to take in the impressive sight of the planes as they screamed by in what seemed like increasingly lower heights.  Fortunately, the pilots decided to keep things above the tree lines, much to the relief of the Aussies celebrating the day the Brits showed up in 1778.

The rest of the day was a testament to unplanned travel.  It was only about 2:15 in the afternoon, and thanks to our purchase of four day passes on the Melbourne Metlink, we had plenty of time to go pretty much wherever we wanted. The problem was, with internet access limited thus far on the trip much more than we expected, we hadn’t been able to do much research on our various stops along the way.  As I had been researching places for us to stay in Melbourne, the St. Kilda area came up as an interesting destination.  I looked at the Metlink map and saw that the 3a tram heading in that direction would take us to St. Kilda, so we decided to give it a go.  15-20 minutes later, we followed the lead of many of the other people on the tram and disembarked at the St. Kilda stop. 

The Fitzroy Street section of St. Kilda was just what we were looking for: several shops and restaurants, and an ice cream shop.  As we waited for our scoopage, I noticed several people in beach cover-ups, and Annie said she saw what looked to be a beach area a couple of blocks away, so, armed with ice cream, we headed for what we thought was the coast.  As we got closer, we saw what we thought were parasailers, but once we arrived we found a bay full of kite boarders.  There were probably two-dozen people on wake boards, clutching the controls of kites that enabled them to speed around the water.  It was very windy, so the boarders were able to pick up speed, sometimes to the point where they could fly in the air, ten to fifteen feet high for a few seconds.

If explorer Jonathan Cook had encountered this site when be became the first European to arrive on the Australian coast in 1770, he probably would have retreated in horror, and Australia Day would not exist.  Being brave Americans who have successfully dealt with the Brits in the past, we soaked up the atmosphere, taking a stroll down the pier, gazing back at the people enjoying their last weekend of the summer before the start of the school season.  The view from the pier back toward the shore provided a gorgeous view of Melbourne’s skyline through the masts of sailboats in the marina, and the kite boarders sailing through the summer afternoon. 

The strong winds that helped provide such a colorful tableau pushed us back toward the restaurants of Fitzroy Street as by now it was after five.  We were hungry and had forty-five to sixty minutes ahead of us on the tram back to the hotel.  Outdoor dining at a restaurant with a menu that fit our needs allowed us to bask in the festive mood of the Aussies celebrating their day.  We were Aussies for a day, maybe a month, maybe more, and loving every minute of it!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

So long Kiwis, Fiords, Buskers and Subways

The grey-haired woman in the middle seat of the row in front of me asked the Asian woman in the window seat to her left if she preferred Auckland or Christchurch.  I couldn’t hear her answer, but I did hear the grey-haired woman say that she preferred the latter.  And that was even with the earthquakes she said, or shakie-shakies as she referred to them with a chuckle.  It was a good time for me to consider how I would answer that as we took the one-hour flight between New Zealand’s two largest cities.  I probably don’t have an appropriate equal amount of information to answer that questions fairly.  Our time in New Zealand began with an entire week in Auckland, and closed with just one night and parts of two days in Christchurch.

While New Zealand at times seemed like a completely different world, there were many other times we could have been driving through almost any American city.  We saw Subway Restaurants almost everywhere, and plenty of McDonald’s and some Wendy’s and the occasional Burger King. 

No UPS trucks or Fedex vans, but DHL has a strong delivery and shipping presence in New Zealand.  As for the automobiles, the Toyota models we saw carried the familiar names of Camry and Corolla.  The most popular Ford SUV here is called the Territory and the sharp-looking Falcon appears to be a sporty mix of a Fusion and Taurus. 

Chevys were few and far between, but a brand called Holden offered some well-styled cars which we hope to have the chance to rent in Australia.  New Zealanders have a definite appreciation for kitschy small cars from the 50s and 60s.  I wish I had gotten to the chance to take pictures of all the unique models we saw during our nearly three thousand kilometers (almost 1900 miles) of driving on both the North and South Islands.

Due to the way our airline flights were scheduled around the best fares our ticket consolidator could find, our time in the land of the Kiwi would end with a flight from Christchurch to Auckland on Tuesday, followed by an early morning flight the next day to Melbourne.  Ever since we first got to New Zealand, whenever we would get into a conversation about Christchurch with a local, they would pause, not sure quite how to put into words their feelings about the largest city on the South Island.  Usually the tone was one frequently reserved to describe a distant cousin who got invited to most family functions but one who most hoped wouldn’t show up.  You know the type.  And when he did arrive at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, you would find yourself spending an unhealthy and unnatural amount of time and energy trying to avoid him.  Timing trips to the buffet table just after he had gotten a full plate of food, and making sure, God forbid, that you didn’t wander into the living room and find only him sitting there suddenly looking at you ready to engage you and a horribly long conversation of which there was no easy way out.

The problem of course is the earthquake that devasted Christchurch in February of 2011.  When we checked into our hotel in the Addington area of Christchurch, I asked the man who gave me my room key about places nearby to grab a bite to eat.  It was Monday afternoon and the AFC title game had just ended back in New England and we were hoping to catch some of the NFC title tilt as well as lunch.  He pointed out some places just west of the city center, and then I asked about any possibilities there.  He quickly said there were no places open there as the quake damage had forced many to close down or move to the suburbs.  The heart of the city center was still a Red Zone some 11 months after the quake.  After downing some lunch and seeing some of the Giants/49ers game at a restaurant just down the street that found the ESPN feed of the game, we decided how close in we could get to the red zone.  The quick answer: not very.  Tall chain link fences surrounding about a ten square block area of the city center kept us and everyone else away.  We could see some residual damage on buildings that we drove by on outlying streets.   

The most serious structural injury was to the many older churches we saw as we drove around.  Many had lost their steeples and others had suffered buttress damage, with steel beams diagonally securing what was still standing. 

The city is attempting to rebuild, but a series of aftershocks that intensified in late December and early January has most construction efforts on hold out of fear of suffering further damage. While standing in line at the grocery store in Lake Tekapo earlier in our trip, I struck up a conversation with a man from Christchurch who was in property management.  I asked him how things were going especially from an insurance standpoint and he said that was a big part of the problem.  Most insurers were reluctant to pay for repairs due to the ongoing aftershocks that threatened to create new piles of rubble.  Watching the TV news during our time in New Zealand, we saw more than one story about the aftershocks with experts predicting that they would last literally for years to come.  That didn’t stop the goofy mayor of Christchurch from appearing in interviews pretending nothing was wrong.  He would imply that tourists should be flocking to the city in part because, “who knows, you might even feel and earthquake, and wouldn’t that be something to tell your friends back home!”  He’s proof that electing nitwits to political office is something that is done in places other than just the United States.

The sobering earthquake forecast didn’t seem to be impacting the crowds at the World Busker Festival being held in Hanley Park just west of the downtown area.  Street performers took to the half-dozen or so stages that were set up, juggling or performing acrobatic or comedy shows.  Being that it was a Monday afternoon, it was fairly quiet, but we enjoyed the stroll through the festival grounds.  Marley and Ben were too timid to interact with the copper-covered performer who they gave a small contribution to.  However, of the many adjectives that apply to Annie, timid is not one of them so she bravely stepped out of the crowd to pause for a Kodak moment.   

We then coughed up the cash to allow the kids ten minutes each on a bungy machine that they enjoyed without reproducing their lunches.

The subdued mood in Christchurch will not be our longest-lasting memory of our 28 days in New Zealand.  The breathtaking flight to Milford Sound on our kids 12th birthday will top that list. 

The gorgeous drive down the west coast and the serene setting of Lake Wanaka are two other things we all enjoyed in our four weeks there.   

The one thing I know I will take with me on the rest of our trip is the kindness and generosity of every single person we asked for help from in New Zealand.  Not once did someone hesitate or give us less than their full attention.  That helpfulness is something we hope to pack up and carry on as we try to spread good travel karma over the next few months.  Hey Australia:  Incoming Bangerts!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Magicality….Boss-emness…IKR (ick-er)….Tockaway??

We are now at the 5 week point of what could be as many as 52 weeks on the road. We started with a relaxing two weeks in Fiji to exhale after a long year of planning, financial remunerations, vaccinations, house/pet logistics, etc. After about day 9 or 10 we were all getting restless and we were ready to move on. So what has it been like to be together 24 x 7?

The magic has been in the family lore that we are creating along the way. All families earn their share of traditions and secret languages over time. Being on the road for 5 weeks now has created an accelerated timeline in creating these words, experiences and foibles that have come to be used as our own team language. Bill used Magicality… of Ben’s monikers…in the title of a prior post. Magicality has become useful for so many things including a hole-in-one at putt-putt, a favorite TV station at a new hotel or locating an awesome pizza joint.

Marley loves the word boss because she is BOSS. This has added Boss-emness to the descriptors of life on the road. Seeing a Kiwi for the first time….flying into the fiords of Milford Sound…taking a hike up a mountain path…all become moments of “Boss-emness”.

IKR…I Know, Right?…is the texting terminology that has become a family favorite. “Ick-er” is often recited when there is agreement over a comment about a movie, a view or a new accommodation. “What beautiful mountains!”….is greeted with “I-K-R” or an enthusiastic “Ick-er”. We all get a subliminal hug and nod as we know its intent.

We cannot pass a “Takeaway” restaurant – which are everywhere here – without using the phrase “Tock-away”. This is a residual phrase from a prior family trip when Ben and our friend Griffin were trying to negotiate an order for carry out and the Chinese gentleman behind the counter kept saying “Tockaway”….which after several attempts go the boys trying to get carry out, finally registered with the young men as Takeaway. Right…”To Go” has become “Tockaway”.

We don’t have the “Magicality” to tolerate each other every moment. We still get impatient. The kids may fight over whose turn it is on the iPad or who gets which bed in our latest accommodation. Mommy may think Daddy-O is crazy for putting items in a different “really great spot so I remember it” and then he doesn’t moments. Mommy-O gets just plain snippy and I am sure my peeps could add to this list but as the writer I get the luxury to keep this list short. It has been an adjustment moving from our prior school and work routines that were constructed of very little time together to a life of being together almost non-stop. We are working up new routines.

The kids’ level of independence grows with every new town we visit. At Lake Wanaka they could go to the internet café on their own and meet us for dinner afterward at a restaurant around the corner. In Queenstown, Bill and I went to dinner (where Daddy got an eyeful in a gorgeous Chilean waitress he can share about in another post) while the kids watched some TV and we brought them back pizza from Hell. (really….Hell’s Pizza of NZ…awesome stuff!) In Arakoa we gave them the key to the hotel after dinner and they ran off the several blocks to the hotel on their own.

We have learned to pack up quickly and without many words necessary. When we hit a new destination we are like a well-oiled machine unloading the car or being “donkeys” as we call it. We find our quiet corners and we bond individually in unique ways that wouldn’t have presented themselves at home. Our home has become the road. We are becoming a stronger unit. It has all been Magicality and boss-emness and we are truly blessed. I am hopeful that over the months and miles we can continue to navigate this path with patience and tolerance and kindness. IKR!? I Know, Right?!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fine China

I’ve liked fine china for as long as I can remember.  Like many aspects of my life, I blame this on/give credit to my dad.  Henry G. Bangert Jr. worked in retailing for most of his professional life.  For much of the 1960s, he was a china buyer for a department store, McKelveys’ when we lived in Youngstown, Ohio.  It became Higbee's and is now part of the Dillards's for people like myself who remember when Macy's was Shillito's.  Whenever we were somewhere where it appeared fine china was in use, my dad would turn over the coffee cup or dinner plate to see by whom the piece of porcelain was made by.  Usually that move was preceded by who he thought the maker of the said piece of china was, and many more times than not, he was correct.  It’s a habit that I carried with me well into adulthood, but something that had faded until we were preparing dinner at a house we rented in Lake Tekapo in the Canterbury region of New Zealand.  

After our stunning trip to Milford Sound and enjoyable stay in Wanaka, we took the two-hour drive south to Queenstown, planning on spending two nights there.  Queenstown is the heart of the southern part of the South Island, the supposed birthplace of the bungy jump.   Finding a place to stay without a reservation was a bit of a challenge, and we settled on a hotel within walking distance to the cafes and shops on the picturesque waterfront.  

While we really connected with Wanaka and felt at home there, that feeling never emerged in Queenstown.  As the barber who gave Ben and me haircuts told us, Queenstown is not the true New Zealand.  It has a strong influx of foreigners and transients, and our barber described it as being “over-the-top.”  The walkway on the waterfront features street performers and the one we encountered was one of the few people we’ve come across in NZ with an American accent.  His show was a bit cheesy, but enjoyable at the same time, and gave us some local flavor. 

We got more local flavor at a restaurant at the far of the waterfront that featured a menu that met all our needs.  That can be a challenge sometimes, mostly thanks to our daughter.  Marley’s food groups are pizza, spaghetti, salami, grilled cheese, French fries, bruschetta and pizza.  Sometimes bacon, and pancakes for breakfast.  Those are called pikelets here in New Zealand. She loves prepping for meals and we talk of someday opening Raoul and Rosa’s Rock-n-Roll Rainforest Café.  Back home in Cincinnati sometimes on the weekends we will pretend we are doing that as I make breakfast for Annie and the kids and she will take orders and deliver the food and drinks ordered off the menus she has made up.

Our latest location for Raoul and Rosa’s Rock-n-Roll Rainforest Café was in Lake Tekapo.  It’s a small town at the southern end of the lake, which is a brilliant blue, getting that color from something called rock flour.  Glaciers create the rock flour by grinding granite into tiny particles and carry them into some lakes and rivers in the area.  The town itself didn’t have much to offer, and the house we rented had some great interior space and a decent kitchen, so we hit the Four Square market and loaded up on the makings of a nice home-cooked meal. 

Marley set the table in the style that we have in mind for our Rainforest Café.  Nothing matches, so she found four different plates and cups, and made sure none of the silverware was the same.  One of the four plates she got out was a piece of fine china made by Burlington. 

The design reminded me of my favorite brand, Noritake.  I’ve always admired the designs of the Japanese company.  They are very intricate and subtle, with some of their styles very much in the Art Deco mode.   Noritake is one of the few things that are consistent in both my marriages.  My Dad was my best man in both, and my brothers-in-law and cousin were in both of them, and Noritake was the fine china of choice in marriages one and two.  The first time around, it was a pattern called Etienne.  Very nice lines, subtle tones, nothing flashy.  After my mulligan marriage, Annie and I chose Cabot by Noritake as our pattern.  A little more bold, a little more modern.  Kind of like her.  Anyway, the fine china helped make for a fine dinner, after which we played a board game we found in the house.  It’s a version of what we know as Chutes and Ladders, only this one was Snakes and Ladders.  

The board featured squares with names of desirable things, such as Courage, and Strength and Love.  It also had squares to avoid:  Pain, Regret and Illness.  Not exactly Candyland, which I must admit I liked.  I was 5, okay?

As our time in New Zealand comes closer to ending, we’re trying to strike a balance of living as a family and still seeing some of the amazing things the country has to offer.  Fortunately, although it doesn’t seem like it at the time, bad weather has caused us to lay low for a few hours now and then.  We haven’t been able to do and see all the things we’ve tried to, but we’re nailing the important stuff:  getting closer as a family and truly enjoying each other's company.  I see that trend continuing as we transition from New Zealand to Australia.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I’m not a big fan of heights.  Or maybe it’s gravity that worries me more.  If it weren’t for gravity, or if I could control it, I could lean over the ledge of any overlook and not imagine myself plummeting to a gruesome certain death with an uncomfortable amount of time to ponder my demise on the way down.  Over the years, mostly because of my job in radio, I’ve flown in helicopters a few times and truly enjoyed the ride.  I’ve also been the passenger in a two-seater 1942 Stearman bi-plane and did fine as the pilot performed daring stunts such as barrel rolls and even a hammerhead.  That’s where the pilot puts the plane in a vertical climb, straight up into the air, then lets the plane drop straight back down, 180 degrees in the other direction toward the earth before pulling up just before it seems you’re about to become a reason to call the local coroner.  I was a bit nervous, however, as we took the stroll from the offices of Southern Alps Air at the Wanaka Airport toward our single-engine propeller-driven Cessna that we had booked for a family flight over and into Milford Sound for Ben and Marley’s 12th birthday.   

Annie and I had been wrestling for days over whether or not to drive to Milford Sound, an area in the Fiordland region of the South Island of New Zealand.  It was our primary goal on that Island ever since we first read about it doing our research on the trip.  Mountains rise dramatically out of the water, creating an amazing juxtaposition and we really wanted to see it first hand.  The challenge is that because of the topography, it’s not easy to get to on the ground.  Te Anau is the closest town and it’s a drive of about two hours from there, and Te Anau is about two hours from Queenstown.  Getting there over the twisty, winding roads of Southern New Zealand would cost us at least two days, putting pressure on us to get it all in before we had to be in Christchurch to fly out on the 24th.  After much deliberation, we decided to look into doing a family flight in part because one of the women at the office of the apartment we rented said she had done it and it was the best thing she had done in her entire life.

I called the offices of Southern Alps Air and tried to work every angle I could to get any kind of discount possible.  In the course of telling the woman on the phone the details of our trip, I found out her name was Ann.  What are the odds?  That’s my wife’s name I told her and we continued talking and I managed to get a ten percent family discount.  The option we chose was a two-hour flight with a brief stop on the ground in Milford Sound.  Our flight was scheduled for 2pm, which gave us time in the morning to check out the major local tourist attraction in Wanaka, Puzzling World. 

The kids had spotted it on some travel literature we collected and it looked worth the time and the modest entry fee.  The most enjoyable part was a maze that took up about a quarter of an acre and consisted of a series of wooden walls divided into four sections with wooden bridges that gave you access from one area to the other.  The goal was to get to all four corners of the maze, with each corner marked by a tower with a roof of a different color:  Red, Green, Blue and Yellow, and then make it back to the finish line.  The decision was made to divide into teams, Marley and Me (think I’ll write a book and make a sappy movie—wait it’s been done and the dog dies!  What a downer!) against Annie and Ben.  We set off scurrying about the maze along with other families who were clearly doing the same thing.  Every now and then our teams’ paths would cross and we would share updates on our progress of trying to reach each different corner tower and getting back to the finish line.  Both teams found all four towers in about an hour but the Father/Daughter team made it back to the finish area well ahead of the Mother/Son team.  After checking out another area of the attraction where they featured illusions, some of which were used in the filming of the Lord of The Rings movies, it was time to head out to the airport and our flight to Milford Sound.

Checking in at the airport office, we met the woman Ann who I talked to on the phone and then waited to meet our pilot.  She introduced herself as Kylie, and led us toward the plane and said that Paul would be joining us in the six-seater.  When checking in, I had noticed a display about the operation which included business cards with the names of Ann Cooper and Paul Cooper so I figured that was the Paul who would be coming along with us.  I thought maybe they had an extra plane on the ground in Milford Sound and he was going to be flying that back to Wanaka.  The kids got in the back seats, with Annie and I in the middle-me behind Kylie and Annie behind Paul.

I was brought up by Marilyn Bangert to imagine every possible worst-case scenario.  My mom locked the doors of all the suburban homes we lived in while we were all at home, even during the middle of the day.  Whenever we would drive through a sketchy part of town, she would turn to the back seat and tell my sisters and me to “lock the doors kids!” With that paranoid upbringing firmly ingrained in me even as I passed my 50th birthday, I quickly scanned the control panel to see if everything was as (I thought) it should be.  As if, on my first flight in a Cessna, I would be able to assess some sort of oversight and tap Kylie politely on the shoulder and say, “you sure we have enough fuel?  It’s only three quarters of a tank, how ‘bout we top off that bad boy” or “ I’m not sure the Fuel Mix gauge is working right, why don’t you give it a quick flick with your finger.”  I did notice the dials indicated the fuel tank was almost at capacity and I figured with Paul along for whatever reason (Annie is a looker after all) he would be able to correct what ever needed to be corrected. 

 Kylie fired up the engine, and taxied out to the runway and we took off to the west, toward the Tasman Sea and Milford Sound.  We all had headsets on with microphones which the kids seem to enjoy as much as the flight itself.  Kylie told us right before take off that because it was later in the day, the winds were picking up some and she said it could get a wee bit bumpy when we got to the higher elevations to clear the mountains.  The views were spectacular as we flew west, seeing snow-capped peaks, some with glaciers that seemed close enough to reach out and touch.  

Ben and Marley were enjoying their birthday flight, peering out the window and making the occasional comment on their headsets.  Wind gusts gave us a little push from time to time, but no one was reaching for the white paper bags in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of them just yet.  

My concern level grew some as we started getting into some cloudy conditions as we got toward the higher peaks.  I enjoyed being able to see where we were going and that was fading as the rugged peaks were becoming obscured by clouds.  I was also a bit concerned as every now and then, both Kylie and Paul would inch forward in their seats, straining their necks to be able to see over the control panel, like the blue-haired lady driving the big station wagon in Ferris Buellers’ Day Off.  Who thought it was a good design for the panel of gauges and switches to partially obstruct the pilots’ view?  Who?  Somebody who has a side business in body bags?  My mom would have been beaming with pride at the thoughts racing through my head right about then:  I wondered if Kylie would be able to regain control, possibly with the help of Paul, once one of the wheels clipped the top of a mountain and tumbled uselessly into a crevasse below.  I also pondered what sort of, if any, cushion a patch of snow would provide during a crash-landing.  My Velcro-strapped Teva sandals certainly wouldn’t be much of a help as we climbed down the mountain from the wreckage.  Did you ever read the book Alive, about how the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes Mountains ate the people who were killed in the crash?  I didn’t quite get that far in the various scenarios playing out in my head, but it was one of the next thoughts about to enter my brain when Kylie informed us that she was going to guide the plane under a cloud bank into a fairly wide valley, taking us out toward the sea for the approach to Milford Sound.  That process helped ease my fears, and the view we get as we banked into the Sound was spectacular.   

For one of the rare times in life, the expectation of an event actually lived up to its’ billing as Kylie flew the plane into Milford Sound.  It was thrilling to see the landscape that I had looked at countless times online fly past as we headed deeper into the gorge.

The winds picked up as we flew into the sound and we could see the tiny airstrip ahead of us.  I was hoping Kylie was going to take the straight in approach, but I could see she was too high to do that.  She flew past the airstrip, as the winds buffeted the plane, before banking hard to the right and gunning the engine as we got into position for landing.  The Cessna was rocking pretty well as she descended and Kylie struggled to keep the plane straight as the wheels got just a few feet off the ground.  Just as the wheels were about to finally touch down, another gust of wind hit the plane, and for the first time in the entire 45-minute flight, Paul grabbed the controls to help stabilize the plane and we safely landed on the runway.  Kylie taxied over to where about a half dozen other similar sized planes were parked, and we got off the plane, glad to feel our feet on the ground again.

Kylie led us on a short walk to an area where we could use the bathroom and take some pictures of the gorgeous views.  During the course of our conversation, I asked her why Paul was along for the flight, pretty sure I knew the answer.  She answered that she was being trained to make the flight from Wanaka to Milford Sound, and wasn’t certified to fly that route solo just yet, despite being a licensed pilot for about seven years.  I had noticed on the way to Milford Sound that Paul was talking to her, communicating through the headsets where only the two of them could hear their conversation.  He would make gestures and point in different directions, probably talking about wind currents, or where the search crews usually found the tourists bodies.  Knowing that Paul, with his three decades of flying experience, was her co-pilot, made me feel confident that Kylie could navigate the increasingly gusty conditions that we were experiencing in Milford Sound as we prepared to fly back to Wanaka.

As we taxied out to the runway, we could hear Kylie communicating with the tower.  She asked about recent flights over the eastern passes of the mountains and was informed that conditions had been pretty stable for the last hour or so.  With that, she guided the Cessna first to the west toward the Tasman Sea, then about a third of the way down the sound, banked the plane back to the east, over the mountains toward Wanaka.  For me, it was a much more relaxed flight, with good visibility and fewer bumps.  We flew past Mt. Aspiring, which Paul said was used in the opening scene of the second Lord of the Rings movies. 

Some glaciers glided by and valleys spread out beneath us.  Kylie pointed out a large house and ranch that had been purchased by Shania Twain and her husband Mutt Lange before they split up.  Apparently she never lived there but he still owned the impressive-looking piece of property.  Before long, we could see Lake Wanaka and the eponymous town in sight and we got ready to land.  

As we did, skydivers appeared just to the left of the runway, landing just a few feet to the left of the airstrip.  Even Paul thought that was a little close for comfort, but fortunately for everyone involved, they were tandem jumping and their experienced divers hit the bullseye, safely out of our range as the still-attached wheels of our Cessna smoothly made contact with the airstrip pavement.

We shared some laughs and goodbyes with Paul and Kylie and I was happy to be back behind the controls of the Nissan Bluebird.  Annie and I and the kids have been using a word on the trip that Ben coined early on.  Magicality can be applied in a variety of ways.  It was used a lot in Auckland to describe the electronic key for our apartment.  It’s been uttered after we get the last parking spot on a busy street, or the last outdoor table at a waterfront café.  And it certainly describes the feeling we had as we celebrated the 12th birthdays of Marley and Ben in New Zealand on what continues to be an amazing journey as a family.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Will That Be Crushed or Cubes?

As beautiful as the scenery is in New Zealand, and while the wine and food have been quite tasty, the country’s best resource is the people.  Everyone we’ve encountered here has been quite helpful.  Any time we’ve needed directions, or had a question about what sight to see or how long to spend in a particular spot, that person has responded as though our inquiry was the most important thing in their life at that moment.  That was the case with the woman at the I-site booth in the town of Franz Josef, on the west coast of the South Island.  We had gotten there just after lunch time after a morning of driving from Hokitika, our first stop on the South Island.  The goal was to see the Franz Josef Glacier up close, but rain was threatening those plans.  The I-site woman (I don’t think Steve Jobs had anything to do with the I-site concept) responded to our question about where to stay by poring over the list of accommodations in town that would fit our family with a determined focus, quickly eliminating several before recommending one run by two guys named Billy and Mark.  As we walked into the office at the Alpine Motel, Billy greeted us with a warm smile that grew even wider when we shared our story of going around the world.  He asked where we had been so far, we mentioned starting in Fiji, and he said that he had spent six weeks in Fiji a few years back in the same town we stayed in, Savusavu.  Further comparing of notes revealed that he stayed in the same house we did just down the road from the Cousteau Resort.  That’s the second person we’ve encountered who has stayed in that house, making this big world of ours seems just a little smaller.

The sun threatened to break through the clouds, so we took the short drive to the car park for the Franz Josef Glacier, but just as we started up the path toward the ancient ice, it started to rain again.  Ben and Marley didn’t mind that much because it meant a trip to the Kiwi experience that was just around the corner from our motel.  They had four Kiwi chicks who were about three months old on display in a natural habitat exhibit, and we got a good look at them. They also had a very nice informational display about glaciers. Another false start by the sun resulted in another aborted attempt at taking a walk to the glacier, so we decided to leave that to the next day, when the forecast was brighter. 

The following morning the sun was shining brightly, revealing to us for the first time the magnificent snow-capped mountains.  An ambitious schedule of trying to make it to Milford Sound in the Fiordland region along the southwest coast had us pile back into the Nissan Bluebird with another 4-5 hours of driving ahead of us.  About 20 kilometers south of the Franz Josef Glacier is the Fox Glacier, and with blue skies all around, we followed the signs to the car park and learned that it was about an hour round trip on foot, or “hour return” as they say here, and we headed down the path toward the glacier. 

The gravelly path wound through a valley carved out over the centuries by the glacier, and ran adjacent to what’s called a smoky river, turned grey by the sediment washed from the crushing ice.  A couple of small streams needed to be carefully negotiated along the way, but the trek was eased by the views on both sides of the valley.  Waterfalls cascaded down hundreds of feet and evidence from previous landslides or slips were fascinating to look at. 

Annie and Marley fell behind Ben and me a bit, adjusting their sandals or accessorizing or something.  The boys got to the trail terminus first and I was engrossed in reading a newspaper article on display that told the tragic but cautionary tale of two brothers from India, visiting the region with their family.  The pair, in their 20s, ignored the many warning signs of not going beyond the safety barriers to get a closer view of the glacier.  As they got up to the face, a huge chunk of ice broke loose, killing them both.  

Almost on cue, just as I read that, we heard a rumble to our right, and looked over just in time to see a massive slab of ice break free and fall into the water below with a spectacular splash.  The crowd of about a dozen tourists on hand to see this display of climate change in action squealed in delight like girls at a Justin Bieber concert, and we all exchanged knowing glances that our carbon footprints had helped make this happen.  The event happened too fast for any of us to capture on camera, but it will be etched on the SD cards in our brains for quite some time.

With “Seeing a Chunk of Glacier Crash Into The Water” checked off our to-do list, it was back into the Bluebird to continue our trek to the south, hoping to get to Wanaka or maybe even Queenstown for the night.  Wanaka, pronounced like Hannukah, looked promising, with it’s lakefront location and several accommodations according to the guidebook Annie was consulting with.  It was noon by now and the next town along State Highway 6 was Haast, a little over 100 kilometers away.  That distance would take about an hour depending on how winding the road was, and we discovered it wasn’t too bad along those lines.  As we got close to Haast, we saw a roadside sign saying Whitebait Patties 1km ahead.  Whitebait is a local delicacy that we first sampled the night before at a restaurant in Franz Josef.  They are minnow-sized fish that hatch their eggs just offshore and then swim into the many streams and rivers flowing from the mountains into the Tasman Sea.  I’m not usually one for spontaneity when driving long distances, but the memory of the tasty whitebait pattie from the night before lured me in and we drove down a rocky road for about a half a kilometer and found Tony Kerr and his Curly Tree Whitebait Company.  He produced a container of whitebait fish in an egg mix and grilled us up a pair of patties on the spot. 

They were even better than what we had enjoyed the night before.  I could tell Annie was having a tough time deciding which she liked better:  the whitefish pattie, or Tony: with his rugby player build, toothy grin, friendly manner and New Zealand accent.  She continued to contemplate that as we got back on SH 6 and stopped for a quick lunch that was more appealing to the kids at a restaurant in Haast.  Keeping consistent with the helpful nature of the New Zealanders we had met so far, one of the workers there gave us some good suggestions about whether or not to stay in Queenstown or Wanaka, (she favored the latter) and raved about Milford Sound. 

Wanaka was now our desired destination, and the road there gave us more spectacular views.  We found an apartment for the night with three bedrooms which worked great, giving the kids a room to themselves for a night, possibly two.  Two nights became more likely as we immediately fell in love with Wanaka.  The city is nestled up against the lake of the same name and has something of a Lake Tahoe feel.  A Wi-fi hotspot just steps from the lake let us get the kids set up with an hour of internet time a piece to catch up on some Kahn Academy math, which is the free online program we are using for their home schooling during the trip.  Annie and I bought some internet time of our own at a nearby café where we caught up on email and Facebook and chatted with a British couple on holiday for a month in New Zealand, picking their brains about places to go for the rest of our time in the Kiwi country.  They had just been in Christchurch, our final New Zealand destination, and the woman in the couple shared some sobering stories and digital photos of the condition of the city, almost a year after the devastatiing earthquake. For the past few weeks, they’ve had almost daily aftershocks, some in the 5.0 range and the British woman we were talking to said it could be a pretty depressing place.  We had no choice but to go there, since we fly from Christchurch to Auckland and then to Melbourne as we transition from New Zealand to Australia.  But first we had to make a major decision on how to get to and experience Milford Sound, and it would have a serious impact on how we celebrated the twins’ birthday the following day.