Ten days in New Zealand

My parents and I recently spent ten days in the North Island of New Zealand, a holiday we’ve been planning since Christmas. Mum and Dad have both been to New Zealand before, but it was my first time. We departed on the 10th of September and returned on the 20th.

I was given the task of researching places to visit, and did my best to put together a realistic itinerary. We chose September to avoid the peak tourist season and because the rainfall is lower than in either August or October. Bookings were made through a travel agent, with whose services we were less than fully satisfied; but I guess that’s what you get for using an agency that proclaims itself the cheapest rather than the best.

For the first few days the weather was beautiful, but later it turned bad, and so unfortunately we didn’t get to do everything on our list. The weather’s persistence surprised me, as I expected a New Zealand September would contain multiple seasons in each day; but no, it was either one thing or the other. One needn’t wonder why there’s a peak tourist season in New Zealand.

We arrived in Auckland around 5:30pm, and after collecting our luggage were greeted with the longest exit queue I’ve seen in any airport anywhere. (I don’t know why that should be.) The GPS navigation unit supplied with the hire car gave us all sorts of problems at first, though it got better as we learned to use it. I also had access to Google Maps through my phone, and will say more about navigation at the end of this post.

Our first full day in New Zealand was Sunday September 11, allocated on our itinerary as a free day in Auckland. We began with a visit to the Maritime Museum, which had a few quirky exhibits I quite liked, but overall was nothing special. (None of the museums we visited in New Zealand were prizeworthy, in my opinion, and I won’t dwell on them.)

Our next adventure — the Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari — was much more impressive, though I was unprepared when water from a bigger-than-average wave splashed over the hull and made us all soaking wet! The moment is captured at the end of this video. (Hold tight to your camera if you ever go.)

I expected we’d see a handful of dolphins at best, but once we found them, there were lots. The next video contains a few clips.

Despite the experience exceeding our own expectations, it apparently wasn’t up to the standards of the crew, who gave us all an open invitation to come back another day for free. Watch the video above and think about that.

A photo of the wake:

Our second day began with a visit to the Auckland Botanic Gardens, which I enjoyed. Very spatious (arguably too much so; there are voids) and full of magnolias, but then so is the whole island. After a good ramble we had lunch at the cafe, which I would also recommend (I had the chef’s pork belly). Here are my photos; note the “bird lady”, one of a series of sculptures.

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Our next stop was Hobbiton, which had been highly recommended by everyone we knew. Despite all the endorsements, my parents were still surprised at how good it was, especially for people with limited interest in Tolkien. Through our travel agent we had prebooked a 3:30 tour, the final for the day at this time of year.

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We then drove on to Rotorua, where we spent the whole of our third day. This began with a visit to Hells Gate where we’d prebooked a 10:00 “Hells Gate Combo”, consisting of a mud bath, sulphur spa, and tour of the geysers. I didn’t expect much from the tour, but the place turned out to be well signposted with much to learn about its history and chemistry, so I’m glad we included it. The mud bath is a fun and worthwhile experience, but pay no attention to claims that it will leave your skin glowing for days (it won’t). Some of the staff spoke with a strong Maori accent that my ear is not accustomed to, but travelling with a group has the advantage that what one person doesn’t catch another probably will.

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Our next stop was the “Buried Village“. This includes a trail through a preserved archeological site with remains from a village destroyed by the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, which also destroyed the nearby Pink and White Terraces — a geothermal formation formerly hailed as a natural wonder of the world. It wasn’t bad, but compared to other places we visited I found it relatively dispensible (the waterfalls were considerably more impressive than the archaeology). We had lunch there on our arrival, but I don’t recommend that unless you really like sandwiches.

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To finish our time in Rotorua we had a prebooked Day and Evening pass at Te Puia, a Maori cultural centre. However, all of our earlier activities had taken longer than expected, and following some rushed but necessary grocery shopping we were about fifteen minutes late and had to catch up with the 4:30 tour. I think the only thing we missed out on was the weaving school. Here are some pictures from the carving school, where we met the group.

Sacred Maori buildings cannot normally be photographed, but the buildings at Te Puia were constructed specifically for the purpose of being shared. Below is one picture each of two smaller buildings followed by three of the main meeting house.

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The tour also took us to a geothermal area on the site, boasting a geyser that shoots hot water high into the air somewhat less than once an hour. I photographed it under the fortuitously-positioned gibbous moon.

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We were later treated to a Maori ceremony and performance in the meeting house photographed earlier. I recorded some clips on video but have decided not to upload them as the recording does not really do it justice. We also shared a fantastic meal, in which I ate in quantities ordinarily associated with Christmas.

On our fourth day the weather began to change. The blue sky turned cloudy, and there were periods of rain, but for the most part it was still nice to be outside. We left Rotorua for the Orakei Korako geothermal park, a bigger and more photogenic geothermal area than the others we’d visited, but less endowed with signposts. A ferry takes visitors across the river on demand, and returns promptly when summoned. Two hours was ample time for a visit, including a meal.

As well as photos, I recorded some short video clips, shown in the following compilation. I think the bubbling mud geysers with birdsong in the background would make a great relaxation video, and if I’d had the luxury I’d have recorded something longer. The Youtube page contains links to downloadable .avi versions of each clip, so you can listen to your favourite on repeat if you wish (best with headphones of course). To really get into the right spirit, please imagine you can smell the sulphur.

Miscellaneous Orakei Korako photos:

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Photos of an area called the Artist’s Palette:

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A cave, including one 3D photo to look at with your red-blue glasses:

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Other individual geysers as featured in my video clips:

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The next item on our itinerary was a tour of the glow worm caves at Waitomo, prebooked for 3:00. I had high expectations of this, which led me to being a little disappointed, but I would definitely recommend it as long as you keep your expectations in check.

There are several tour operators at Waitomo, which cater to visitors with different wishes. For example, some cater to lovers of adventure sports, some to busloads of tourists on budget, etc. We chose Spellbound, which provides relatively long tours for small groups in which the eye has plenty of time to adjust to the dark and nobody gets wet. The door to the ticket office (which shares a building with the Waitomo General Store) could definitely be more welcoming. There are two caves on the tour, separated by a minibus ride (which is rather cramped, to be honest, so wear comfortable clothes). Only one cave contains a large number of glow worms. The other is promoted online as a fossil cave, but in fact there is only one fossil moa and all the other bones are modern animals such as livestock. (Still, it’s a nice cave.)

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Between the two cave visits there is a refreshment stop, with hot drinks and biscuits. One thing I wasn’t expecting was eels, but if you visit New Zealand and make bets on which wildlife you’ll encounter, you should probably bet on eels. A larger eel tried to eat a smaller one, but I didn’t catch this on camera. Instead, I have the following.

As for the glow worms, they are spectacular. Sadly, however, they are far too dim to capture on camera, and expecting to do so will lead to disappointment. I had envisaged recording them on video as we drifted by on the boat, but they don’t even show up on the screen. That’s just the way nature is. The Spellbound people will email you some photos as a souvineer, but it’s not the same.

After leaving Waitomo we made our way to New Plymouth, eating at a petrol station in Te Kuiti on the way. My descriptions of the remaining days will be brief, as the weather turned ugly at that point and prevented us from doing several of the things on our itinerary. Photographic opportunities were also compromised.

Our fifth day began with a visit to the Puke Ariki museum in New Plymouth. This museum is very eclectic with many treasures, but unfortunately the presentation lets it down. The space just wasn’t designed with enough attention to the impact of light and shadow.

Next we set out toward Mount Egmont/Taranaki, in the hope that the weather would clear enough for us to do some walking in the Dawson Falls area of the Egmont National Park. Mount Taranaki looked spectacular when it chose to reveal itself, with its peak covered in snow, but when enveloped in cloud you wouldn’t know it was there. (No photos, as we saw it only from the car.) The weather was barely adequate when we arrived, and Dad and I decided to rug up and do the Wilkies Pools loop track while Mum stayed near the visitors’ centre. I was attracted to this area by the promise of “goblin forest”, so called for its gnarled, moss-covered trees. But I think you need better lighting for the full otherworldly effect, which other bloggers have captured better than we could.

Here are two pictures of Dad posing as a goblin, followed by one picture of me.

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Wilkies Pools themselves are seen from only one vantage point and do not (as I imagined) follow the track. As for the view downriver, I imagine it’s much better on a good day. There were patches of snow on the ground and many miniature waterfalls amidst the trees, which was a pleasing contrast from the kind of environments I’m used to in Australia. Overall the walk was enjoyable and the scenery attractive, but it lacked a climax.

The rest of the day was mostly spent driving, following the coast all the way to Palmerston North. Our plans for Day Six were to drive north and do the Waitonga Falls track in the Tongariro National Park, but a phone call to the visitor centre confirmed that it would not be worth the trip, given the weather. So instead, following a visit to the Te Manawa art/science/history museum (which isn’t much), we just did some local walks in the Palmerston North area.

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On the seventh day we had a late start (after retrieving a jumper I’d misplaced the day before), but once on the road we headed south toward Wellington, stopping at a couple of places on the way. Our first stop was Owlcatraz, which was a pretty good place for a break; we took one of the shorter tours available. A combination of traffic conditions and bad weather made the next stretch of our journey take twice as long as it should have, but eventually we made it to the Pataka art gallery in Porirua.  Leaving Mum and Dad to find a carpark, I went straight to the cafe only to find out there was a 30 minute wait on lunch! (The food, however, was pretty good. I intentionally over-ordered, to avoid queuing twice and to allow for sharing.) Happily for us, the gallery itself is very small and we actually managed to make up more time than we’d lost.

We spent the last three days of our holiday in Wellington (where our hotel was not the best, but never mind that). After settling, we got back in the car and drove to Zealandia, where an evening tour awaited us as our final pre-booked activity. I expected more of a discussion time at the end of the tour and felt it ended far too abruptly, but otherwise I can’t complain. A highlight was recording this video of a live kiwi, illuminated by red torches.

On our eighth day I spent most of my time in the Museum of New Zealand, leaving Mum and Dad on a laundromat quest that had begun to resemble the pursuit of wild geese. (They did eventually find one.) The museum — which also contains an art gallery — is large and cannot be faulted on content, but again, its weaknesses are all about presentation. Ineffective use of lighting is one such weakness, but its biggest failing is the nonlinear, almost mazelike layout that makes it practically impossible to keep track of where you’ve been. Its very frustrating to walk past an exhibition space for the third time and worry that you might have missed something. Museums should have a straightforward grid layout so that visitors can check off exhibits one by one.

On the ninth day we visited the Weta Cave (the workshop where the Lord of the Rings props and costumes were made) for a tour we’d booked at a visitor centre the day before. I was surprised at some of the other shows and movies they’d had a hand in. We hadn’t planned on this, but the weather had forced us to look for indoor activities — otherwise we would have visited the Putangirua Pinnacles instead (which you may recognise as a LotR location). In the afternoon we visited the Botanic Gardens — outdoor, yes, but close to civilisation and free of muddy tracks — where I took the following photos (the third being a view over Wellington).

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Tuesday 20 September was our tenth and final day in New Zealand, with the hire car due to be returned to the airport at 3:00 and our flights home a couple of hours later. The weather was better than it had been, so we took the ferry to Matiu Somes Island for one final adventure. In the daytime we didn’t expect a wildlife experience and we didn’t get one, but it was a nice place to go for a walk and admire the rugged coastline.

Souvineers I bought on our holiday include an ornamental glass tuatara, a set of coasters featuring representations of New Zealand birds blended with images of their habitats, and a mermaid doll. I also bought a few other things as gifts, and in the same spirit received a toy tuatara from Mum.

As for my impression of New Zealand culture, it is mostly familiar to Australians, our way of life and theirs having much in common. But various differences are worth noting. For example, floors in New Zealand buildings are numbered in the American fashion (with the first floor being at ground level), the phones use completely different tones to communicate their status, and things on menus are sometimes unfamiliar or strange (for example, every restaurant in Auckland seemed to offer a monstrosity called “slaw”).

I want to finish by discussing the topic of navigation. We had two main methods of navigation at our disposal: the GPS unit that came with the hire car, and my phone. We also had low-resolution printed maps, but these were limited.

On my phone I had a copy of the itinerary I’d prepared (in PDF format), with links to various routes in Google Maps. (Incidentally, the mobile version of Google Maps doesn’t support routes with intermediate destinations, which speaks to the importance of testing everything before you go.) The main disadvantage of navigating with a phone is reliance on reception, and there were large regions where I was unable to access Google Maps at all, even when I could send messages just fine and there was not a mountain to be found between me and the capital. I am unable to account for all these facts. Regarding expenses, I won’t bore you with details; suffice to say that costs were manageable and that I’m glad I have a prepaid account. Another minor disadvantage is that the GPS functionality does not update very dynamically.

As for the hire car’s navigation unit, it too had problems. It didn’t come with instructions and was not very intuitive, so at the beginning it didn’t even seem fit for purpose. Later we became more familiar with its quirks. Its route calculation algorithm was markedly inferior to Google’s, and despite being set to look for the fastest route it frequently advised us to detour onto minor roads. And of course, there was no way to query its database and preview routes before going on holiday, as I had done on Google. (It’s easy to propose ways to make this possible, and I hope to see the travel industry move in that direction.) On the plus side it was clearly the economical choice, was not dependent on the quirks of telecommunication services, and communicated its instructions automatically through the voice synthesiser.

When both were working, we got best results by using the in-car unit as the primary means of navigation while also occasionally checking the route on my phone, providing a second opinion that allowed us to confidently bypass wasteful detours.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my report, especially the photos and videos. We had a good time on the whole — despite the best efforts of the weather gods (may they be accursed) — and perhaps someday I’ll go back and see some of the things we missed.

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End of blogging break

I’ve been taking a break from blogging since the beginning of the year. I won’t discuss the reasons here, and I make no promises as to how prolific I will be in the months ahead, but for now, I’m back.

One thing, though: I’ve been blogging lists of interesting links for more than seven years, but now I feel it’s time to give that a rest, as it does eat up a lot of time. I’ll continue sharing my favourite links on Twitter, but that’s a more spontaneous, less curated thing.

During my blogging break I rewatched several seasons of Stargate, which I have on DVD but hadn’t seen for some time. Here’s a list of episodes from the first three seasons of SG1 which, this time around, were my favourites: Hathor, Singularity, Tin Man, Bane, Holiday, 1969, Legacy, Learning Curve. Watching these DVDs was a therapy that helped me deal emotionally with a recent loss.

I thought I’d begin the year in blogging by looking back at what happened over the Christmas period. Here’s a photo I took in Ardrossan, taking a walk while others were listening to carols.

Ardrossan December 2015

Here is a tortoise that I gave to my nephew as a gift. On the right, Elliot trying hard to crawl, a feat he finally achieved a few days after I returned to Adelaide in January.

Here’s my sister giving my niece a ride on a boogie board. This was, again, at Ardrossan.

In classic childlike fashion, Elke decided she wanted to switch roles, so here she is giving her mother a ride.

Finally, two pictures of Elke and Josh, and finally Elke and her mother together on the board.

As I mentioned last time, my mother and I both received free copies of Mark Rosenfelder’s China Construction Kit, because I helped with the front cover design using a photograph taken by Mum. The copies arrived in a mysterious cardboard box several days before Christmas, which we left under the tree and opened with all the other parcels.

I still haven’t read the whole book, but one thing that caught my eye early on was the discussion of the classic 8th Century poem Lu Chai (~ Deer Park) by Wang Wei on pages 232-3. Several English translations are provided, and I felt moved to write a version of my own, distilling what I intuitively felt was the essence of the versions given into a form that best pleased my own muse. Here’s what I came up with (note that I wrote this before researching the poem online, and I refer to it as a version but not a translation).

An empty mountain. No human presence seen.
Yet voices are carried on the air.
The light of dusk again through forest branches
Strikes green moss that breaks its shaded depths.

I wrote about this on Google Plus, including links for further reading.

I won’t go into details about what we all gave each other for Christmas, but I do think it worth mentioning that my parents have promised me a trip to the North Island of New Zealand later this year. If you have any recommendations of places to visit you are welcome to share them.

My parents hosted a cocktail night on New Years Eve. I had a berryoska (with mulberry instead of blackberry), an FBI (which I’d compare to a more complex Baileys), and a Bonnie Prince Charlie (surprisingly bitter, but my favourite of the three).

Links: 2015 — 7

Some links, and then some personal news, including photos from my niece’s 2nd birthday.

  • This short video on cumulus cloud formation might well include details that are new to you.
  • Interesting article on training the brain to overcome a learned disease. (I pointed out an error in the comments, but it seems the author had stopped monitoring comments a few days before.)
  • Another interesting article on the use of vagus nerve stimulation to moderate the immune system, among other things.
  • One of the best articles I’ve seen about Emmy Noether. It doesn’t try to answer every question, but gives a sense of why the questions are significant.
  • This fifteen minute online David Attenborough documentary on plankton is not only educational, but relaxing as well.
  • Stars collided in 1670.
  • Which direction water swirls doesn’t normally depend on which hemisphere you’re in … but what if you eliminate all other variables?
  • From now on, if your balloon animals don’t look like these, you’re doing it wrong.
  • I found a tool that takes a Google Maps route and generates an elevation chart. (If you just want to know the elevation for a single location, try this.)
  • I’ve never used Python, but I’m making a note of this in case I want to some day.

On 28 May, my parents and I took my niece to Cleland Wildlife Park for her second birthday (she was born on 26 May 2013). I’ll share more anecdotes about that day if you ask, but for now, here are some photos of Elke with koalas and wallabies. More family interaction followed the next day, including some errand-running. Of particular importance to me was that I finally got my mobile phone fixed, after errant software had been draining the batteries since late last year. When the phone was new, the battery lost on average less than 5% capacity for every 8 hours of normal (i.e. mostly idle) use, and now that it is fixed I can confirm that it loses only marginally more than that. Given that it’s more than a year old and the battery has never been replaced, this must count as excellent. While it was broken, I was lucky to get two days out of it.

What we did in Sydney

Together with my parents, I spent the first week of August in Sydney. It was the first holiday in which I used my smartphone to navigate. Here is a summary of what we did.

Some background: I was born in Sydney, and not coincidentally my parents have a number of friends over there. I’ve been back a couple of times, most recently in 1989 when I attended a Doctor Who convention and we also had a family holiday.

As for this trip, we arrived early in the afternoon of Saturday August 2nd. The main event for our first evening was a classical music program at the Opera House — the first time I’ve ever been inside.

On Sunday we visited the Justice and Police Museum (notable exhibits: maces & other home-made weapons; phrenology model; whips for adult vs juvenile offenders), and then met our friend Ian and his current guide dog at the Botanic Gardens. After lunch, Dad and I visited the Jewish Museum (notable exhibits: talmud; ceremonial objects; art installations; immigration history; maps of ghettos, concentration camps, etc) and one other destination which turned out not to be worth our while, before returning by bus to meet Mum and Ian at the hotel.

On Monday we took the train north to visit friends of my parents, and went for a coastal walk in Bouddi National Park.

View from train Bouddi

Bouddi Bouddi

On Tuesday, a place where we’d planned to have breakfast turned out not to exist anymore, so instead we had breakfast at the place now occupying the same location. Breakfast was followed by a visit to the small but welcoming Kerrie Lowe Ceramics Gallery on our way to the Sydney University museums. (These were smaller than I expected, but the Macleay Museum includes a display on the history of photography, an orang-utan skeleton, and a deformed horse skull connected to a bunyip anecdote; while the Nicholson Museum includes quite a sizeable section on the Etruscans.) After that we visited the Glass Artists’ Gallery (which has some very nice stuff but would benefit from a more spatious venue) and browsed a second-hand bookshop. We spent the evening with more friends of my parents.

On Wednesday we visited the outstanding Australian National Maritime Museum (notable exhibits: whale photographs and artifacts; information on little-known historical alliances; a beer-can boat; a panel on scurvy; some excellent paintings; and a dinosaur on a submarine … that last being a model that belonged to one of the crew), the Chinese Garden of Friendship, and the Sydney Aquarium. In the evening we went to the Capitol Theatre (a lovely venue, btw) to see the Lion King musical (parts of which are amazing).

View from Maritime Museum

Chinese Garden Chinese Garden

On Thursday, we each visited central Sydney museums independently, which in my case meant the Australian Museum (where my favourite exhibits were the crocodiles and the ankylosaur model), the Hyde Park Barracks (which, between the dead rats and the detailed reports on flogging, is a truly delightful place), and the Art Gallery of NSW (from which, here are links to selected works: [****]). In the early afternoon, my parents and I met one of the people I follow on Twitter for coffee.

In the evening I went by myself to the monthly Skeptics in the Pub (going to the wrong address at first, but finding the right one with the help of my Internet and GPS enabled phone) where I enjoyed conversing with Richard Saunders and Jo Alabaster from the Skeptic Zone podcast, as well as other people connected with the Australian Skeptics (including Ian Bryce and Tim Mendham). I gave Richard one of my customised coffee mugs.

On Friday we took the ferry to Nutcote (home of famous author May Gibbs, which I loved) and then took the bus to Taronga Zoo. Animals at Taronga which I don’t think I’ve seen at a zoo before include Komodo dragon and condor. After finishing there, we returned by ferry and got ready for our evening flight home.

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Taronga - Komodo Dragon  Taronga - Condors

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The last two photos above show a lizard of the genus hydrosaurus, the second time in 3D along with a bonus tortoise that I hadn’t noticed at the time. I had previously misidentified this as a tuatara, because it was adjacent to a seemingly unoccupied tuatara enclosure and I really wanted it to be one. (The enclosure shown actually belongs to the tortoise, so I’m not sure what the lizard was doing there.)

I bought several souvineers and gifts while I was in Sydney, mostly from the Maritime Museum and Nutcote. Overall I had an excellent time, which I hope comes across despite the brevity of my report.

Park pictures are preferable to politics

It was election day yesterday for the South Australian state government. The results are very close to a draw, and can’t be called definitively until more votes have been counted. But who cares? Nothing ever happens on the state level of politics anyway.

You didn’t come here for politics. So here, instead, is a photo of me and my wood nymph (aka winner of the ‘Most Huggable Tree’ competition) taken by a friend a few weeks ago.

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And here is a photo of the friend, walking ahead of me:

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That was a great day.

On the offchance that you did come for politics, there were only four candidates contesting my electorate in the House of Assembly, so that was no challenge. For the Legislative Council I chose to vote below the line, and this table shows exactly how I voted. The exact order is somewhat arbitrary (cobbled together after a few minutes’ research), but the trend is from parties I support to parties I’m ambivalent about to the major parties to the deep recesses of the loony bin.

There was no queue outside the polling place. But on my walk home it rained, and I did not bring an umbrella. So — good luck and bad in equal portion.

My local wood nymph

I’ve known for a while that the recreation park near my home is inhabited by fairies. But I recently made the acquaintance of a wood nymph called Lucinda, who inhabits and personifies the tree shown in the slideshow below.

It seems Lucinda is quite a common name among mythological folk, but she chose it, not me. Of course, she’s invisible to those by whom she does not wish to be seen, even in photographs.

(This blog post may not be intended entirely in earnest. You never know.)

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Monato photos

Here are some photographs taken on a visit to Monato Zoo. Many of them were taken from a bus, with dirty windows, which may even have been moving. I did my best under the circumstances.

— Giraffe and Eland —

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— Giraffe and Ostrich —

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— Ostrich —

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— Zebra (and Ostrich) —

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— Cheetah —

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— Rhinoceros —

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— Hyena —

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— Oryx —

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You may now call me El Kazunkel

On Sunday 26 May at 11:00pm, my sister gave birth to her first child — a 52cm long, 4kg baby girl, who a couple of days later was named Elke Adele Smith. (It can be fun to guess what a newborn baby will be called; my guess was Leisel Olivia Smith. That Rebecca would go for a German name was easy to predict, given her strong ties to our German friends.)

My choice of zeroth birthday gift was a copy of Dreamland by Putumayo, a collection of lullabies from around the world, in various languages (you can hear a clip of each track at the website). If I have one criticism, it’s that the songs should be associated with the country they are native to instead of the country the artist happens to come from, but such quibbles mean nothing to a newborn baby.

Below is a Youtube version of one of the tracks — Cradle Spell of Dunvegan by Lynn Morrison — which is in English, although parts are rich in Scottish dialect words that I don’t understand.

I made my own card to go with the gift, featuring this photo of an elk for Elke. The front of the card is very personalised, but the inside is generic and could be used for any baby girl (which you may do, if you wish). Here are images:

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The message inside reads:

On the birth of your daughter
I give you wishes for a lifetime.
As you grow older
— And she has her turn to grow older —
May you find in her
A friend and daughter who enriches your world,
A fellow traveller on the adventure of life.
And may she find in you
The security of knowing she is loved and respected
In troubled as well as joyous times.
Grow with her! Have fun with her!
And remember fondly how it all began.

Soon after the name was announced, I told Rebecca by text message that I was changing my name to El Kazunkel, which I used again when I signed the card. Rebecca got the joke straight away (it’s pronounced “Elke’s Uncle“), but most people need a hint. They do tend to like it once they get it, though, and it was later featured on my own birthday cake (of which, more later).

I went home to spend a week with my parents on the evening of June 5th, and met Elke for the first time on June 6th. Rebecca told me my card was lovely. Here are some photos of Elke — mostly from that first encounter, but a few from later in the week.

With her mother:

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With her father, Ellis:

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With her grandfather:

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With her grandmother:

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With me:

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In her cradle:

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I gave Elke a little speech I’d prepared, referencing the famous bridge scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. It went something like this. “Your name … is Elke. Your quest … is to make life as challenging as possible for your parents (and if you ever need any help with that, just let me know; that’s what uncles are all about). As for your favourite colour, well, you get to decide that when you’ve had a good look at them all. And I promise that no-one is going to throw you off any bridges until you’ve made up your mind.

The week wasn’t entirely about Elke. Here are some new photos from my parents’ home, featuring the extensions that were built but not furnished last time I was home.

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And outside:

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(Compare with the photos here and here, taken last August.)

I brought with me a bottle of the coconut, orange, honey & spice cocktail that I created. I gave the recipe in a previous blog post, but to repeat: it’s 1 part Island Sting, 1 part orange juice, and 2 parts coconut water (alcohol content is 5% per volume). Dad said the flavour was interesting and very drinkable, adding that he detected a hint of ginger. I’ve left the bottle with him to share with guests, whose feedback I look forward to hearing about.

My cousin Robert, his wife Katrina, and their three children Kate, Leah and Joshua, now live on the same peninsula as my parents, and I saw quite a bit of them over the week. Saturday June 8th was a particularly busy day. We had lunch at the annual craft fair in Maitland, and spent the afternoon lighting small bonfires on the farm.

In the evening, I read Joshua a story that I had bought him as a gift: Ankylosaur Attack by Daniel Loxton. Circumstances weren’t ideal — I had a headache, Dad was making noise washing dishes in the background, and Josh insisted on sitting in a chair that meant I had to contort my body awkwardly in order to read — so it felt like something of an anticlimax. But later (on Monday evening), Robert told me that Josh had asked for the book again the following night, so it was evidently a success.

Here are some fire photos:

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And a video:

On Sunday 9th June, we gathered at Rebecca’s place for a barbecue lunch and a walk on the beach. It was then that I received the birthday cake I mentioned earlier (my actual birthday is June 12th).

Here is a video of Kate throwing a ball for Rebecca and Ellis’s dog, Molly:

And here are some photos of Molly that I took earlier in the week:

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I saw the wider family one last time at a Monday evening restaurant meal, and on Tuesday I returned home to Adelaide.

I bought a new modem while I was away, which I’m planning to install the day after I publish this. The main advantage of the new modem is that it has a wireless option, so once it’s set up I’ll be able to connect from my laptop and participate in Skype video chats, etc, from my own home (my desktop does not have a webcam).

Kangaroo Island: a photographic report

For six days beginning on Thursday 14 March, my parents and I visited Kangaroo Island, a tourism hotspot located 100-200km from my home. I’ve visited the island once before, but I was ten years old then and don’t remember much.

Before the trip, I’d obtained a copy of the Island Intrigue CD, which contains audio tracks about the wildlife, history and key locations on the island, with an accompanying map that shows the best places to listen to each track. It’s designed to be listened to in the car as you drive from place to place. I also did most of the research on where to go.

This blog post is a report on what we did there, but for the most part I’ll be brief with my descriptions and let the photographs tell the story. Kangaroo Island is renowned for its photogeniality, and the pictures you see below are only a fraction of the ones I have. If you’d like to see additional pictures of certain places, then I may be able to oblige.

— Day One —

We took the 6pm ferry from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw, and it was a good ride.

The photographs below show: (a) View from inside the cafe as the ferry arrives outside; (b) A dramatic view over the upper deck of the ferry from on board; (c) A piece of Kangaroo Island as seen from behind the ferry as we enter the bay; (d) Our efforts to stir up seagulls after arriving in Penneshaw.

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From the ferry I saw one dolphin leap from the water, but missed its photograph.

To obtain the fourth picture, Mum threw chips for the seagulls and I snapped photographs as they dived for the food. I have shots featuring as many as seven seagulls in the air, but I like this one better.

Here is a ten-minute video from the ferry ride, which is as long as my camera would allow:

From Penneshaw we drove to Kingscote, Kangaroo Island’s largest town and our base for the next few days.

— Day Two —

Friday 15th was our first full day on the island, which we began by driving to its northwest corner and doing the Ravine des Casoars hike, which I enjoyed very much.

The following three pictures show a natural bridge structure near the beginning of the trail, and a riverbed near the end.

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Here’s a video that I took as I was walking, representing the terrain and plantlife to be seen along most of the trail. I recorded it somewhere between the two locations photographed above.

The trail ends at a beach, with some outstanding sea caves in the northern headland. The concentrated ocean waves on this beach were also very dramatic. I’ve done my best to capture the place in the following eight photographs.

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After returning to the carpark, we travelled east, departing north from the Playford Highway to visit Western River Cove and then take the scenic coastal road to Stokes Bay.

We stopped briefly at Western River Cove, where I took the following two shots.

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The coastal road goes up and down over several hills and is not suitable for large vehicles, but is a recommended drive for a family car. Clearly visible are the small islands south of Innes National Park on Yorke Peninsula.

The Stokes Bay Bush Garden is what you get when a gardening enthusiast and plant collector turns their extensive backyard into a minor tourist attraction. It wasn’t really my thing, but it was Mum’s, and I enjoyed taking her there (in that I did the research and put it on the destination list). Here’s a photo of Mum walking through the garden recording the names of her favourite plants.

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After visiting the bush garden, we went back to Stokes Bay for refreshments at the Rockpool Cafe and a walk on the beach. Stokes Bay is as photogenic a beach as any — with a natural tunnel passing all the way through the headland and a sharp contrast between the beaches on either side — but I don’t have any pictures, partly because my camera was running low on batteries (I’d neglected to charge it the night before) and partly because I left it in the car.

The whole day was well paced in my opinion, and I would recommend the overall plan to others (i.e. allowing one day to tour the north coast of Kangaroo Island from Ravine des Casoars to Stokes Bay).

— Day Three —

On Saturday we toured the central portion of the south coast, starting at Seal Bay and travelling east. Seal Bay is purported to be the island’s most popular attraction, and is certainly in the top three. It is ironically named, as the animals to be found here are sealions and not seals (the seals are elsewhere on the island). We saw a lot of kangaroos on the way there, drinking water from puddles in the road after a recent rainfall.

Here are some photographs from Seal Bay, including close-ups of the sealions, wider shots of the beach, and a scene with sealion and seagulls interacting. We didn’t go onto the beach itself because you need to book a tour to do that and we chose not to, so I took these pictures from the wooden platforms above the sandhills.

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After Seal Bay we visited Raptor Domain, which features a twice-daily interactive bird show. Here’s a photo of Mum with a barn owl on her knee, followed by six shots of one of the presenters with a wedge-tailed eagle. Several other birds were presented, but the eagle was the indisputable star of the show.

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I bought a holographic seahorse fridge magnet here (also available from other souvineer shops on the island).

We then visited the Little Sahara, a region of inland sand dunes that’s famous for looking like a desert. It’s a rather well-known site, but badly signposted and curiously absent from prominent tourism websites.

In the following photographs and video, I’ve tried to show the extent of the illusion so that readers can judge how well its name is earned.

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Travelling on, Mum spotted a juvenile echidna at the side of the road and I got a few snaps.

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Our next stop was the Rustic Blue Gallery and Cafe, where we had refreshments and I bought a $600 painting (Southern Swell by Suzanne Trethewey), which will be delivered to my Adelaide home sometime after Easter. I don’t often buy paintings but this one will be a good memento. (No photographs yet.)

We arrived at the Kelly Hill Caves just in time for the final (4:15) tour of the day. Here is a video I compiled from three short clips of the tour.

This day was also well paced in my opinion, and I would recommend it as a model for others: touring the island from Seal Bay to Kelly Hill Caves takes up about one full day. (I would also suggest a contingency plan in case it takes a little longer, given that we only just had time to fit everything in.)

— Day Four —

Sunday was a quiet day spent around Kingscote, visiting local attractions mostly on foot. I don’t have a lot to say about it — Kingscote is more of a place to travel from rather than to — but I did buy a beeswax candle from the Island Beehive.

— Day Five —

We spent most of Monday in Flinders Chase National Park, in the southwest corner of the island. Here are located two extremely popular attractions: Admirals Arch and Remarkable Rocks. The latter especially is so well-known that it ranks highly in lists of popular tourist destinations across the whole of Australia.

From the visitors’ centre at the park entrance, I bought a couple of shirts (as yet unworn), and a bottle of honey liqueur. (Also, lunch.)

Here are two shots of the Casuarina Islets taken from the walkway down to Admirals Arch. Notice the waves.

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The view from Admirals Arch towards Remarkable Rocks (which can be seen as a bump on the end of the distant headland).

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Admirals Arch itself, photographed from a few different angles.

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A close-up of seals playing at Admirals Arch, followed by the view towards Remarkable Rocks as we get nearer.

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Now for my photographs of Remarkable Rocks. Everyone with a camera loves this place, even if the other tourists get in the way of the picture you’re trying to take.

(Incidentally, there’d been an accident when we arrived — someone had tried to climb one of the rocks and broken their leg — the emergency helicopter arrived as we were leaving.)

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Having spent enough time looking at the prime attractions, we explored a few of the lesser-known walks.

Below are some shots of one of the lakes at Platypus Waterholes, where we didn’t see any platypuses but did see plenty of the bubbles they make from under the water (see the fourth photo). This is the only region in South Australia where platypuses can be found, and they were (re)introduced here for conservation purposes in the first half of the 20th century.

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The Rocky River walk takes you the long way from Platypus Waterholes back to the visitors centre. Ironically there is hardly a rock to be seen along this segment of the river, but we did see a large goanna, which obliged us by walking along the same trail in the same direction so that I could take lots of photographs and a video.

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The final walk for the day — which we barely had time for and my parents didn’t come with me all the way — was the Snake Lagoon walk, which unlike the Rocky River walk, follows a part of the riverbed that is actually rocky. In hindsight I’d recommend going here before the Platypus Waterholes etc, because the Snake Lagoon walk is all about the geography (which is always there to be photographed), whereas the other walks were about chance encounters with wildlife (which are much less reliable). If you don’t have time for everything, then in my opinion it’s better to miss out on something you might not have seen anyway than on something that never moves.

Here are some photographs from the Snake Lagoon walk; you can well imagine how dramatic it would look at a wetter time of year, with lots of small waterfalls. I didn’t go onto the beach itself, knowing that my parents were waiting some distance behind.

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— Day Six —

The previous day we’d booked a morning boat tour with Kangaroo Island Marine Adventures, but it was cancelled because of the wind. Disappointing, of course, but the weather can’t be helped.

We’d planned to go home the following morning, but feeling we’d pretty much seen everything we came to see, we brought our return ferry ride forward to this (Tuesday) afternoon. Our excursion for the day, therefore, consisted, in taking the scenic route back to Penneshaw.

Here are some views from Prospect Hill, which was climbed by Matthew Flinders in search of bearings in 1802. It’s a large sandhill near the narrowest point of the island, from which water on both sides is visible (see the third photo). I took some of these photos from the lookout on top of the hill, and others from the way up.

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We also visited nearby Flour Cask Bay, where I took the following pictures.

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Finally, we made our leisurely way back to Penneshaw via minor roads (in order to take in some scenery from the eastern end of the island). At Penneshaw we bought our last meal on the island, and then Mum and I visited Granny Stirling’s Art and Craft while Dad finalised the ferry arrangements. I bought some sample jars of exotic native-fruit jams (which were also available elsewhere on the island, but rarely as well stocked). Then we all took a walk on the beach before boarding the ferry and having a surprise encounter with old friends.

I was seasick on the ferry. Then we arrived on the mainland, and all that remained was the drive home.

Golden sunset on the beach

[Updated 22 Jan 2013]

One evening earlier this week, I went to the beach with a couple of friends, one of whom (Dan) is a birdwatcher.

I had a go at using the birdwatching camera with the telescopic lens, and here is a landscape photo I took, followed by a shot of Dan (left) and Jesse (right) playing with the bigger telescope.

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Here is one of Dan’s bird photos taken that day.

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Below are some photos that I took with my own camera. As you’ll see as you scroll down, there was a magnificent golden sunset and I got several great shots of it.

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