Monday, September 26, 2011

Downtown Wellington

In June, Greg got the oppurtunity to go to Wellington, New Zealand to visit the new office that had just been set up there. The date changed about twelve times, but ended up working out so he had to stay the weekend. Bonus! Taking advantage of the situation, Laurel decided to tag along, for a semi-free mini-vacation. Here's a street view of Wellington, a main shopping artery. Stay tuned tomorrow (well it was for us, it'll probably be two weeks from now in blog-post time) for the fabled natural beauty of New Zealand.

After Greg's day at work he met Laurel, who had suffered through shopping all day, at a Belgian bar/restarurant named Leuwan's. One of Greg's co-workers recommended it to us. Unbeknowst to us, Wellington has a reputation around New Zealand as being a great food city. It lives up to the hype.

Fresh mussels + chips with house-made aioli + belgian beer = happy Greg.

The next day, Greg and Laurel set out for a fun day exploring the city. Here is a view looking towards the harbor.

There was also a roadrace winding around the harbor area, so crossing certain parts of the street was a touch tricky. Apparently, it was the Wellington leg of the New Zealand running championship. Greg thought about joining in, but didn't want to get embarrassed by the professionals.

This is the downtown public market. It's underground since the wind is always blowing so hard. It was pretty cute, with some nice little things here and there. On Saturday it's a craft show, and on Sundays it's a food market.

Note the difference in the sky in these next two pictures of the downtown city-scape. They were taken maybe twenty minutes apart, and yet in the second one you can see the clouds parting to let the sun in, and turn into (briefly) a beaufitul day. They say that Wellington is the only city in the world that can have all four seasons in one day. Holy crap are they not kidding. It would be freezing one minute, then the sun would come out and it would warm up nicely. Just as you were shrugging off your coat to bask in the sunlight, a freak rainstorm would blow in. Pretty incredible.

This was our first destination, the Te Papa Museum, the National Musuem of New Zealand.

Oops. Greg dented the sculpture. Sometimes he does not know his own strength. Sorry Wellington.

This is in the Te Papa museum, which is one of the best museums we've ever been to. This is a giant Maori wood carving of the god of earthquakes.

The entire museum is bi-lingual with all displays in both English and Maori. New Zealand seems to have a much different relationship with its indigenious population than America and Australia do. Where both of those countries for all intents and purposes did their best to exterminate them, New Zealand has embraced the Maori traditions and cultures. This is probably not entirely due to New Zealanders being more magnanimous, but that from the little we know, it sounds like the Maori were far more effective at fighting the colonialists. Regardless of the reason, it's kind of cool to see the native culture on display.

This was a really neat ampi-theatre. It played the Maori world-creation story on a continuous loop using narration and lights. All around were statues of the various Maori gods. The world was created when the earth and sky gods were forcably seperated from each other by their children. The god of wind and water, however, was opposed to this plan and lashed out with all his power, creating the mountains, cliffs, and natural beauty New Zealand is known for.

This is the sign for Cuba Street which comprises the main shopping district of Wellington. It's a couple miles long of uninterrupted shopping, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. There were tons of street performers and just activity every way you looked. Definitely a fun way to spend an afternoon.

There was a lot of cool sculptures and art peppered along the street. This was one particularly funky fountain. It consisted of a series of tubs that as they filled up they would tip over and pour water into the next level of tubs below. It was also a little unstable and would occasionally splash unprepared passers-by.

This is where we ended up for dinner, using the time-honored method of just picking a random direction from the hotel and walking until we found something we liked. Man, did we pick the right direction. 3C was delicious, delicious eating. Laurel had a duck confit with beetroot, and Greg had roast lamb with sweetbreads, washed down with a couple amazing gin martinis. And we don't even really like gin.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Way more excitement than we needed

So, at 2:15 Friday morning, Laurel and I were woken up by some strange noises. It sounded like really loud firecrackers, or thunder but it felt wrong. Also, the kitties were sitting bolt straight and staring in the direction of our bedroom window. Animals always know something is wrong first. Our house faces south, and the way our house is designed is that the master bedroom is at the front of the house with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. We got up to investigate, pulled back the curtain, and saw this.

No, seriously. We could see this from our window. We are in no way exagerrating. As we watched, we heard, and felt the windows rattle, as more explosions went off, sending HUGE fireballs up into the night sky, some of which were lost in the plumes of black smoke. Not what you want to see first thing in the morning. We stared and watched dumbly for a few minutes, and then we noted that the flames were getting bigger, which from our angle of view made us think, mistakenly, that the flames were actually coming in our direction. Laurel was a champion, and made the key decision that it was time to get out of dodge. Here is an overhead depiction of just how freaking close we were to this inferno. It's pobably less than a kilometer (or approximately half a mile) as the crow flies.

We live in the suburb of Franklin, which is a relatively new residential area. Directly south of us is Mitchell, which is an old industrial area. Cement plants, scrapyards, and apparently, at least one chemical storage facility. Or at least there used to be a chemical storage facility. Mitchell was built where it was because 30 years ago, there was nothing else even remotely close. The Canberra city center was 10 kilometers south and then there was empty space. If there was any kind of industrial accident, no worries, no one lives out there anyway. Cut to today where Canberra is urban sprawling like crazy, and now people live right next to it. People like us.

So, we are both standing there watching the increasingly large explosions and flames when Laurel makes the call that its time to leave, the sooner the better. Greg would have continued to stand there and watch the flames for waaaaaaaay too long. So we quickly grabbed our ID documents, wedding album (which in the chaos was prombptly left on the dining room table, laptop, a few clothes and toiletries, and threw the kitties in the carriers and put them in the car. They were not pleased. While we were doing this Greg talked with a co-worker who also lives in Franklin and his boss who lived across town and it was decided we would all be going to her place. 

Oh, and we were also dogsitting for our neighbor who was back in the States. Of course, right? We had the two cats in their carriers in the back seat, Luna immediately peeing all over herself in panic (lovely smell), the two of us in the front seat, each holding a dog on our lap; probably violating at least 6 traffic ordinances. We drove off, not quite sure if we were going to be seeing the house again. Laurel's boss now refers to our car as Noah's Ark. Here is the smoke plume from the ongoing fire by the light of day.

When we got to my boss' house, we found out more about the fire. Apparently it had started around midnight, but it got bad around 2 am when things started blowing up. To make things better, the police weren't entirely sure on what all was being stored at this chemical storage facility, so they were not quite sure if there were toxic gases being pumped into the atmosphere. Awesome. Everyone within a ten kilometer radius was advised to stay indoors and turn off all heating and air conditioning, as that would pull in air from outside into the house. To help alert area residents the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) government sent a mass text message to everyone living in one of the affected suburbs. They really should have checked their spelling and grammar first, though. Here's a screenshot. This has been the subject of many, many jokes, and I think there's actually going to be some kind of government inquiry; its kind of embarrasing.

We were at my boss's house all night, and the first thing we did was wash the urine off my cat- definitely not something Greg ever thought he would be doing. After a very long, sleepless night word started coming through that the fire was contained (but still not out) and atmospheric tests showed no toxic chemicals in the air. Phew! With little else to do, we went to work, leaving the pets at Greg's boss' house. That night the all-clear was given and we were able to go home. Everything turned out fine. The finally got the fire out that evening, or maybe everything that could burn had by then.  The fire seemed to burn straight up, so not much else other than the original site was burned, but it burned so hot the authorities doubt they'll ever be able to exactly determine the cause of the fire.

Here is a picture one of Laurel's co-workers sent around purporting to be a picture of the Mitchell Fire. It got a pretty good laugh from everyone.

Lastly, here is a youtube video of the explosions. Judging from the angle we are pretty sure that this was taken from the Hoskins - Wells Station Drive traffic cricle (see above map) which meant we drove by this idiot as we were evacuating. We probably commented on him being a dumb idiot who was going to get incinerated for a video. My apologies, sir (or maam), and I appreciate you potentially sacrificing your life for the sake of a video we've co-opted for our blog page.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

KI: Seals, Raptors, and Koalas

Flashing back 12 hours before our last post (flinders chase was the end of a very long, picture intensive day), we drove all over the island seeing all the critters and wildlife we could. Chronological blog posting is for suckers. We got up early to start the drive to the south end of the island to go visit Seal Bay. Seal Bay is a conservation park set aside for the wild seals. Like this guy.

These seals apparently have a set weekly schedule. They spend three days out at sea catching fish and eating as much as possible, swimming as far out as a couple hundred kilometers. All that swimming makes them tired though, so when they come back to dry land they pretty much sleep for four days straight. They're not lazy, just exhausted. So all along the path were seals just passed out it seemed wherever they happened to fall.

Seals are really cute when they're sleepy.

The two seals on the left are a mother and baby. The baby had just finished nursing, and settled in for a nap next to his mother, who may or may not have been fully awake during the nursing. The seal-cub on the right badly wanted to play, but was having no luck.

It's been a busy day!

We went a little overboard with the seal pictures, clearly. I think we have about 20 of just this guy here. It's not our fault.  Look how adorable he is!

Why did the baby seal cross the road?

After Seal Bay we drove east to get to Raptor Park and see the bird show. This is a private conservation park which takes injured wild birds and nurses them back to health. Here is the birdman with a magpie named Trevor and another bird named Conroy.

The show was in an open field, with three rows of benches arranged in a semi-circle. The back row of benches was slightly higher off the ground, and a woman was sitting on it with her two small children. The birdman warned them that they might want to move to a lower bench, since the kids might fall. The woman said they would be fine. Fifteen minutes later the kid, sure enough, falls off and starts bawling. The birds did not approve of all the racket. The birdman just shrugged like, Hey, I warned you lady. Australians are a casually non-sympathetic people. It's kind of refreshing after hyper-alarmist America.

Next up in the show were a series of owls, which at this point I do not remember the names of the species, but I can tell you which owl from Harry Potter they most closely resemble. This is Pidwigeon.

Here is Laurel with Hedwig.

Here is Greg holding Cookie, a Blue-Wing Kookaburra.

Laurel holding Ellie, a falcon. She's looking slightly nervous because this is a powerful, fast bird. In the wild, our cats would stand no chance against her. The birdman did some swooping exercises with her that were pretty incredible. One minute she would be casually soaring in the air, and in a flash she would be on the ground tearing the dummy rabbit to shreds.

Last but certainly not least was the star of the show, a wedge-tailed eagle named Rex. That's a heck of a wingspan he's got there. And apparently the femails can be up to 30-50% bigger.  We saw several of these guys as we were driving around the island.

This is the eagle after he's "killed" his dummy rabbit.

The last stop before we got to Flinder's Chase National Park was a koala reserve. The owners had a grove of eucalyptus trees that were host to a group of koalas. Turns out, wild koalas are about the boringest thing in the world. They pretty much just sit in the tree and sleep. Here's a picture of a koala butt.

Laurel and I played a game of "find the koala" as we walked through the grove. Greg won 4-3, but Laurel claims we weren't really keeping score so it doesn't count. We all know Greg won, though. As we were playing the game we were very careful to be on the lookout for the danger of Drop-Bears. What's a Drop-Bear, you ask? Drop-Bears are similar to koalas except they have long claws on their paws and are meat eaters who catch their prey by dropping on it from above. Drop-Bears also do not exist, but Australians (at least Laurel's co-workers) take great pleasure in telling tourists to watch out for them.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Flinders Chase National Park

Flashing back 24 hours we take you to one of two posts on our further adventures on Kangaroo Island. This is the lighthouse at the western end of the island, built to help sailors navigate the rather treacherous waters. It was built after several catastrophic accidents, although judging from the dates of some accidents we aren't sure how much the lighthouse helped. There seemed to be just as many after it was constructed as there were before, but maybe that's just because there was more ship traffic? Anyway, this was constructed in 1909 and its lights could be seen 27 miles out to sea.

About the western twenty percent of Kangaroo Island is set aside for conservation as Flinder's Chase National Park. It is beautiful, and full of great views, camp sites, walking trails, etc. The two main attractions for people just looking to do a day trip (i.e. us) are the Admiral's Arch and the Remarkable Rocks. Much like the Remarkable Cave in Tasmania, the Australians seem to favor very literal names for things. "Well, gee, Carl, those are some remarkable looking rocks over there. What do you think we should call 'em?"

This picture was taken on the walk down to Admiral's Arch which is on a small little outskirt of rock on the far southwestern end of the island.

And here are the rocks below. No wonder they needed a lighthouse.

Behold! Admiral's Arch! This picture does not do it justice at all. It's a giant limestone arch that's been carved out of the rock by the wind and sea. Based on the gale force winds we walked through trying to get there we were not suprised at all. Also, it seemed to be THE hangout for seals, as they were lounging on rocks all over the place. Admiral's Arch- beautiful, but thanks to all of the seals, not the best smelling place we've ever been.

After leaving the Arch it was only a short drive to the Remarkable Rocks. Here they are on the approach.

We were in for a totally unexpected surprise. You can actually walk up and touch them! This would never happen in the States. There is just a sign that says, "Hey, have fun, these rocks are awesome, but just so you know there is a sheer cliff on the other side, so you probably shouldn't walk past certain points." Then to drive the point home, they tell the story of how three people died trying to save a guy who walked too far out and fell off a few years ago. Australians are not a people to sugar-coat things.

Duly warned and observant of how far to walk it was time for silly pictures!
Greg trapped underneath a rock. It's not looking good for him.  He should have stayed farther away.

This is Laurel's alter ego, the Rock Gremlin, popping up out of nowhere to say, "Hello!"

These rocks were formed by volcanic action pushing some granite and rock up through the Earth's surface. At first it would have been just a smooth dome, but all that wind and water and salt over the last thousands of years have eroded it into these fantastic rock shapes.

Good thing Greg was here or this rock might have tipped over. They have a very cool display based on a photograph of this particular rock that demonstrates the continual erosion happening here. They have a photo of some English couple from 1920ish standing in front of this overhang, and you can tell that since that time a foot or so of rock is gone. They estimate that in another couple hundred years, these rocks will be all gone.

Laurel and the Great Southern Ocean behind.  Brr...

More cool rocks.

So, yeah, this was amazingly beautiful, and it was really fun to be able to walk in and amongst the rocks. A really pleasant surprise that may have been the highlight of the whole trip. We highly recommend it.