Out and about in Auckland

The combination of ridiculously cheap airfares to New Zealand and a gig by bucket list rockers Sisters of Mercy, then not having announced sideshows to their Soundwave appearance, resulted in a three-night stay in Auckland last month.

Waitomo caves

The weather was forecast to be rainy for the duration, so our first outing was to Waitomo to take in some of the caves there — at least we’d have a roof over our heads.

The caves were a picturesque 90 minutes’ drive or so to the south, the road narrowing from two lanes to one and twisting in part alongside a river. Cicadas interrupted the drive with bursts of chittering as we passed clumps of vegetation. There were, surprisingly, more dairy cattle than sheep. A brunch stop was more than pleasant and the coffee of uniformly good quality across our stay. Big tick, NZ!

waitomo glow worm cave stalactites

Waitomo stalactites

Waitomo Glowworm Cave was the first stop. The building is an impressive piece of timber architecture set in hilly farmland with walking tracks all around. One led through a swatch of rainforest, a very pleasant stretch of the legs before going underground.

The caves have been well set up with smooth floors and atmospheric lighting. The highlight is at the river level, where we bundled onto a tinnie and floated out, our guide using overhead ropes to control our direction, into darkness. As our eyes adjusted, more and more glow worms appeared overhead, their starry glimmer reflecting in the still water.

The next cave, a short drive away, was Aranui. The entrance was in a forested hillside, and it was a lot drier than the glowworm cave, but possibly featured more spectacular formations, with many melted-wax style formations and plentiful variations of stalactites and stalagmites, and a monstrous cathedral.

More cave pictures

Then it was back into Waitomo to catch a bus to Ruakuri cave. The entrance was an SF spectacle, a spiralling ramp some 40m deep with a stone formation under dripping water at its base. The ritual for entering and leaving was to at least wet one’s hands, purifying on entering, washing away any spirits on exiting. Part of the cave is sacred to the local Maori and off-limits — hence this spectacular piece of engineering.

Down in the dripping cave, the sound of rushing water never far away due to the underground river that carved out this complex, the lighting is set on timers to follow the visitors so as to minimise impact in this dark environment. Duckboards keep our feet out of the puddles and there are some spectacular formations and rock falls. At one point, it’s lights out, hands on shoulders single-file into the dark, to take in the beauty of glow worms close up. Seeing the incredible sticky tendrils the worms use to trap their prey was most impressive.

auckland from rangitoto island

Rainy Auckland skyline dominated by SkyCity needle behind island, seen from Rangitoto Island

Rangitoto Island

On our second full day in Auckland, under threat of clouds, we embarked on a catamaran for a 45-minute voyage to Rangitoto Island. The island is a dormant volcanic cone, an intriguing environment of tossed black stone and rainforest vegatation. At the dock, the narrow, rather rough beach is dotted with holiday cabins called bachs — some have been removed, their location marked with plaques.

We tromped up the uneven black soil and stone path that winds up the slope to the crater rim, completely forested over. There’s a duckboarded platform at the crest where a former military observation post and wireless room still stand watch over the waterways, Auckland’s skyline hazy on the horizon. Also of interest are some lava tubes, small and cramped, and a duckboard area in the mangroves.

More Rangitoto Island pictures

The strata of vegetation, from the sparse seaside flats to the forested slopes, make a fascinating ecology seemingly ruled by birdlife.

The island has been linked to another by a bridge, but we didn’t have time to check that out. One day is simply not enough to appreciate the Rangitoto landscape.

rangitoto island walking path

Rangitoto Island

Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Adventure

This Auckland landmark was a good place to kill a few hours between hotel checkout and airline check-in, but it’s showing its age. I got totally saturated in the rainy sprint from the car to the entrance, but the line-up — there’s a single ticket booth handling both prepaid and on-the-day tickets — took so long to run in that I had stopped dripping once we got inside.

There, observation windows in the entrance hall reveal two species of penguins; there’s a mock-up of Scott’s Antarctic hut with heaps of period artefacts and documentation about the explorer; and there’s an extensive children’s educational play area.

Penguins are otherwise viewed from a ‘snow mobile’ people mover that jolts around the enclosure at a fast walking pace while recorded information plays through the speakers. We’d aimed to be there for penguin feeding but been foiled by the long line-up, but we went on the snow mobile several times to get our fill, and were rewarded with three penguin chicks looking cute and fluffy at their parents’ feet.

Elsewhere, a limited cafeteria with even more limited space serves the worst coffee we had, but hey, when you’re drenched, you’ll take it.

There’s a pool in which some massive rays are fed — very cool — and a walk-through glass exhibit showing off numerous fish types. Another walk-through reveals several species of shark — you can scuba with them, or simply stand in a cage with a snorkel. Another series of aquariums houses numerous types of sea life, including star fish, an octopus and moray eels, and many more fish. A special section houses a series of seahorse tanks.

There’s a bit of a mixed message in the shark area — info boards exhort an end to fin farming (and rightly so) and educate about how sharks aren’t the fearsome critters we’ve been led to believe, and yet, it’s the danger of diving with the sharks that’s emphasised in the brochures, and the Jaws soundtrack plays in the area.

Still, getting up close with marine life is a delight and the complex is a remarkable example of retooling — the original structure was a sewage works — made somewhat poignant by the life story of Tarlton himself, who comes across as a bit of a Harry Butler or Steve Irwin of the seafaring world. Sadly, he died only months after the complex opened.

Dining

It’s worth noting that Auckland has superb food. We splurged on the revolving restaurant, Orbit at SkyCity, and found that it wasn’t that big a splurge at all. It was very neat knocking back the three-course special while watching the city lights slide past. The value was enhanced by having the observation deck included in the price, normally $28 a head.

We also ate at Princes Wharf, a yuppie area being gentrified by the look, with an array of cafes and restaurants offering a range of menu prices roughly indicated by not only the dress code of the patrons but the quality of the table cloths. The highlight was a superb seafood basket at Y-Not, and a full-bodied pinot noir to wash it down.


All in all, a most enjoyable sojourn, so close to home but yet so delightfully different.

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Branching out in the Dandenongs

dandenong ranges

The overcast day wasn’t the most photogenic but an afternoon’s drive up the Dandenong Ranges provided a reminder of just how magnificent the forests up there are. And so close to Melbourne, too.

There are enough man-made attractions to occupy visitors, whether the sculptures of William Ricketts or the parking-challenged tourist trap of Sassafrass — yeah, I got tired of looking and drove on — but it’s the air and the leaves and the incredible soaring trunks of Dandenong Ranges National Park that took my breath away. We eschewed the $5 per car fee to take a happy snap from the Sky High outlook and contented ourselves with the free Kalorama view before negotiating the trail down to the Olinda Falls. Fresh air for the soul, this, even on a cool, cloudy day.

The picture shows Dad and Kirstyn checking out one of the long-time local residents. Some more photos here.

Phillip Island, penguins and cool beach retreats

phillip island beach

A weekend sojourn to Phillip Island shows why the outcrop off the coast of Victoria is such as a popular destination for Melbournites looking to escape the big smoke.

We hadn’t even reached the island, a mere 90-minute drive down the M1, before we were lured off a side-road at The Gurdies to sample local wine and cheese at Ramsay’s Vin Rose cellar door — quite presentable cab sav and pinot noir accompanied by mild brie and blue, amongst others.

As if that wasn’t enough temptation, the Phillip Island Chocolate Factory lurks on the main road, just after you’ve crossed the bridge from the mainland, and it’s wares are very tasty indeed.

We spent the night at the Banfields motel, a very tidy, very friendly and very quiet conference centre boasting the only cinema on the island, though alas we’d missed the Sunday matinee. Not that we had time. We were on a penguin mission! A stop to see Captain Grossard’s lonely cliffside grave — and feel the icy wind blowing in from the sea — was enlivened by the presence of two quite unconcerned cape barren geese as we made our way to the parks complex at the Nobbies.

We arrived in plenty of time for our dusk penguin parade viewing. No pictures are allowed at the wildlife centre, a welcoming commerical building with oodles of duckboards to ferry the crowds to their stations. We forked out for Penguin Plus tickets, giving us a secluded, small stadium by the beach where the penguins have worn a wide track as they make their way from the sea to their burrows littering the foreshore and surrounding cliffs. There are some 60,000 of the little birds in the rookery — the last on the island. (The little penguins were once known as fairy penguins, but political correctness has apparently kicked in.)

The penguins were awesome, coming up in waves. It was like something from the D-Day landings, with little penguins advancing in platoons, flankers and point men out, a little hesitant about entering our softly lit viewing area, then charging: some hobbling, some weaving, some tripping, others darting forward at a furious clip. Some went under our platform, others paused at the very edge, only metres away, to give us the beady eye. We had about an hour of viewing before having to make our leisurely stroll back along the boardwalk to the complex.

Pino’s Trattoria, still open post-penguins on a Sunday night, provided the perfect remedy for the night chill, though the beachside viewing platform hadn’t been as windy nor as cold as we’d expected.

On Monday, the breeze was still up, but we found it fell away to nothing on the lee side, offering very pleasant conditions for beachcombing — not a bad way to spend the day after our seal tour was cancelled only two hours from departure. We had time to only see a few of the parks and beaches, but it was enough to know we want to return and spend more time taking in the natural sights. Red rocks, black basalt formations, wild flowers, and some truly amazing waves got the cameras clicking.

We topped up with a massive coffee at the Lil’ Honey Cafe at San Remo before cruising back to Melbourne.

This was my first real sample of regional Victoria since moving to Melbourne, so it bodes well for further exploration. I can certainly see myself hitting the island again — but not at Grand Prix time!

More Phillip Island pictures are on Flickr.

Up in the Air

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a professional traveller. He’s got negotiating airports down to a fine art as he closes in on his key goal in life: to be one of the elite travellers to clock 10 million frequent flyer miles. In this goal, he is aided by his job, flying around the globe but chiefly the USA as a hired gun, firing employees for gutless bosses. He also sidelines in presenting talks about his way of living life, known as the empty backpack: Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham doesn’t believe in weighing himself down with possessions nor responsibilities, applying that philosophy to relationships, even family. And yet he can show remarkable understanding, if not compassion, for the victims of corporate downsizing he faces every day.

It is a well-rendered story, the casting spot-on: Vera Farmiga as his love interest gobbled up the screen, and Anna Kendrick fitted her suit as ingenue and foil perfectly.

The movie has a lot to say about family and humanity, and hits emotional buttons without using a sledgehammer. The ending is sublime, and I’m still not sure to what extent Bingham’s journey has been altered. Has he learnt something or is it simply too late for him to make the most of his lesson?

Maybe it’s simply a case of what goes up, must come down…

As someone who loves travel, and has recently battled the burden of an accumulation of possessions, I found much to appreciate in this tale. Life is a balancing act, somewhere between being happy on the ground and being light enough to fly. And happiness, this film tells us in no uncertain terms, is best enjoyed when shared.

Home again, home again, where is home again?

It has been a hell of a month, this October. So huge it spilled into November! Here’s why it’s been ages, well, more than a month, since I wrote on this blog:
We kicked off October on Bribie Island at our annual Edge Writers writing retreat, this year with Sean Williams and Alison Goodman as tutors. We were able to celebrate the news that our Paul Garrety has scored a two-book deal with HarperCollins, first one due out in 2011!

And brickbats to the Queensland Government for its plan to close the State-run complex, although there is hope whoever picks up the tender for the centre will continue to make it available to groups such as us. For the third year running, I had a manuscript staked out in the sun to burn after it failed the worldbuilding test. On the bright side, I did finish a very rough novella set — surprise — on an island. This is my backup story, the one I write only on the island after all else has failed.

court of two sisters

dinner at court of two sisters, new orleans

After Bribie, my beloved Kirstyn McDermott and I flew to New Orleans, where we had an awesome week. Highlights:

  • My old friend from Canada joining us for a long weekend of merriment
  • Lunch at the Green Goddess, where I’m very happy to report the ‘mezze of destruction‘ is still on the menu.
  • Dinner at Irene’s, where we were shouted a drink because of the length of our wait — the place is popular, and no wonder, given the excellent service and food.
  • A memorable dinner at my favourite restaurant, The Court of Two Sisters.
  • Hanging out over superb bloody marys at the Pirates Alley Cafe, where absinthe is a specialty.
  • Gospel brunch at the House of Blues.
  • Catching some sets with Big Al Carson at the Funky Pirate (and getting a shark attack from the Tropical Isle next door).
  • From New Orleans (more pictures here), we caught a Carnival cruise ship, the Fantasy, for a quick voyage to Progreso and Cozumel in Mexico. Out of Progreso we took a bus tour to Uxmal, a superb set of ruins I’d visited on a previous visit to Mexico. In Cozumel, where, very disappointingly a tour to Tulum wasn’t on offer (wonderful beachside ruins), we went snorkelling on three dive spots and saw lots of fish. Some pictures are here.

    I don’t mind cruising as a stress-free way of covering some miles and relaxing. It’s nice to be waited on once in a while, eh? Even though the focus on the casino and the bingo is a tad sad, and the buffets can be case studies of gluttony. I was impressed with the efficiency of embarkation — US domestic airlines could learn something there — and was happy to fork out for a behind-the-scenes tour of how the ship works, including tours of the galleys, bridge, engine control room and soforth.

    Back in New Orleans, we had time for a Lucky Dog and a bloody mary before heading to the airport and San Francisco.

    kirstyn and jason at golden gate bridge, san francisco

    at the golden gate bridge

    SF is a grand city, and while it doesn’t have the atmosphere of the French Quarter (where does?), it is a relaxed and pleasant city for visitors. We bought a week-long passport for the public transport system and hopped buses, cable cars and street cars all week, visiting Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, a Tutankhamun exhibit at deYoung and hitting the wharves. We also got out of town, hitching a bus to Muir Woods and arty Sausilito, and the Winchester Mystery House. The latter is well worth the effort, with its amazing staircases to nowhere, chimneys that don’t reach the roof, doors that open on to walls, and so on…

    We also saw a local musical about a zombie attack that used Ozzy Osbourne as a deus ex machina of sorts — brilliant — and saw the movie Zombieland (light, fun, flawed) and caught an awesomely fun gig by Emilie Autumn. Sadly, a trip to a bayside music venue resulted in an annoyingly smug performance by a semi-rockabilly dude (who did do a very fun, very fast version of Sweet Home Alabama that foxed those dancing to the Yankee classic) and a debilitating case of suspected food poisoning for Kirstyn.

    From San Francisco we caught the Caltrain, and what a sweet deal that is with its double-decker cabs, to San Jose, to attend the World Fantasy Convention. Aussie superstar Garth Nix, as far removed from acting like a superstar as you can get, was a guest of honour. I was chuffed to get to spread the good cheer that is Australian red wine amongst the guests at an Aussie party thrown by Garth and Sean Williams, with t-shirts designed by Cat Sparks. It was a fun bash, and I got to meet new faces and also renew some contacts made at last year’s WFC in Calgary.

    Other highlights of the con were seeing Jeff VanderMeer throw stuffed toys at his launch party, hear Garth and others read Poe’s The Raven, enjoy the wit of Tim Powers (whose Anubis Gates is right up there on the awesome reads list, and has landed some Pirates of the Caribbean action), and see Aussies Shaun Tan and Margo Lanagan score World Fantasy awards at the banquet where we enjoyed the company of our fellow Aussies. (Check out Deborah Biancotti’s take on it here, and see Cat’s pix here)

    flowers at bega cemetery

    flowers at bega cemetery

    Back in Australia, we picked up my car in Brisbane and drove highway 1 down the coast to Melbourne, taking five days including layovers with family. Driving highlights: Kiama’s foreshore, fish and chips at Bateman’s Bay, Lake’s Entrance, and the cemetery at Bega.

    And now we’re back in Melbourne — home becoming, for this recent arrival from interstate — where the weather is warm and the coffee very fine. There’s a pile of mail on the table, more holiday pictures hitting Flickr as the mood takes me, and a plan to get some words down, sometime soon.

    A quick w00t though: I got home to the news that the Federal Government has decided to retain the current copyright and import laws for books. Hurray!

    And editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow included my short story, “Smoking, Waiting for the Dawn”, from Dreaming Again, in her highly commended list that includes a bunch of Aussie talent. Happy dance!

    US gets even closer

    Exciting news for anyone planning on jumping across the pond in 2009. Delta is going to join the route, giving Virgin and Qantas a run for their money. Or rather, our money 🙂
    Read the article here

    Now if only that pesky dollar would give itself a good bit of get up and go…

    My favourite cities to visit in the US:
    1. New Orleans
    2. San Francisco
    3. Seattle