The end, for now

Our last day before the enjoyment of a 12 hour flight home…

We decided after the excesses of popular culture yesterday that we’d try something a little more cerebral. So, we set out on the big bus to the de Young art gallery and walked in the doors. There we were verbally accosted from numerous angles. ‘Closed on Mondays’. So much for our cultural diet.

Instead we wandered in the park for a while. It’s early spring so there are plenty of flowers around, particularly rhododendrons and magnolias.

We found ourselves in the National AIDS Memorial glade. San Francisco was the city that first started to notice symptoms in gay men, which eventually was identified as HIV/AIDS. I remember reading a fascinating account of the discovery by Dominique Lapierre many years ago.

The garden is a quiet leafy glade with sitting areas and rocks with memorials carved into them. There’s a stream through the middle and the occasional arum lily.

As the art gallery was closed we went to visit the Palace of Fine Arts, or at least it’s amazing building (it is Monday!). It was built for an exhibition in 1915 and wasn’t intended to survive. It nearly didn’t and has been restored and rebuilt numerous times over the last century.

It is a beautiful setting and is the San Franciscan favourite wedding-photo-spot. We admired it’s splendour and watched some of the creatures living in the lake. Turtles and herons.

Back in the city we had one last attempt at art. The Contemporary Jewish Museum does allow you in on a Monday! The building is a former power station with huge modern additions.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect but it was predominantly a modern art display, plus an exhibition of early Jewish tattoo artists.

I’m not sure I understood the art much more than the Madame Tussaud’s displays although there was a key message about diversity, which is poignant after the Christchurch shootings.

What I did enjoy was wandering the streets, admiring the architecture and just watching the world go by.

Our last stop was Union Square, just by our hotel. We had some time watching people, listening to the trams rattle by and soaking up the last of the holiday sun.

Tony Bennett painted one of the hearts around here and he has a statue up on the top of Nob Hill. It’s a pretty impressive view from up there.

We’ve had an entertaining few days here and memorable nights. The first night, after a 12 hour flight I fell asleep early. Four hours later I didn’t hear the fire alarm or anything else until some insistent banging on the door.

We had to race down the stairs, thankfully not the fire escape ladder from the window.

Outside were two huge fire trucks with their crews coming and going into the building. It wasn’t really clear what was going on, but they gave us the all-clear about half an hour later…

There’d reportedly been a fire in a headboard on the 7th floor. Our floor. Getting back to sleep wasn’t that easy…

Subsequent nights haven’t been quite that exciting thankfully.

The next night a saxophonist set himself up on the corner of the street below us playing his four bits of tunes. He performed multiple renditions of Careless Whisper, often sliding into it from his other tunes. I’m not sure he played any complete tunes.

I joked that at least he wasn’t a drummer.

When he’d finished playing at around midnight, guess what happened? Yup, an hour or so of a guy drumming on plastic buckets… I was tempted to go down and kick one.

Each night since has just been the sax. Union Square must be his practice room. I wish he’d start before 11 or 12pm and knew a few more songs…

Overall San Francisco strikes me as a pleasant and genteel city with wide streets, parks and lots of well-kept painted houses. It does appear to have it’s fair share of homeless people (as you see everywhere these days) and a significant number clearly hallucinating or living in an alternative universe. However, it does generally feel pretty safe to walk around. People are also really friendly and helpful, often stopping to give directions if you look a bit lost. One helpful guy gave us a souvenir golf ball before he headed off to get his plane…

Even after 5 days of tripping around I feel that there’s much more to see and do. Apparently you could eat 3 meals a day out and still not go to the same place twice for over 3 years…

We tried a few places. The distinctive American diner appears to have made a huge comeback. We had a few coffees and meals feeling like we were extras in Happy Days or Grease.

Now though it’s back to Swansea and real life can resume…including work!!

It’s been a varied and entertaining 6 weeks… Now it may be time to plan another adventure!

Tried it… Believe it or not

Incredibly, our big trip is almost over.

However we still have the tourism pass so there are a few San Francisco experiences to be had.

We did the ‘Bridge to Bridge’ and the ‘Escape from the Rock’ boat cruises in one day, plus a visit to the submarine USS Pampanito.

The day was perfect for the boats and the commentary on both was pretty similar. We now know quite a few facts about the bridges, the islands and the Alcatraz prisoners. Some facts were incomplete as the first headphone commentary kept jumping! The views were spectacular on both though.

I love a good boat trip!

Funny all these places we have been lately seem to have a shared history of gold and earthquakes.

The submarine however was different and was a stark reminder of wartime. We toured the working and living space of 85 men.

You had to be pretty agile just to move from room to room.

Imagining living here and being aware you could be sunk at any time was a sobering thought. It was a relief to hear of their rescue of 73 prisoners of war in 1944 after the bombing of a prison ship. Those men must have been feeling lucky.

We finished our boat day with a ride on an ancient tram. I love that in this day and age it remains so simply mechanical.

I have to admit that we were total tourists and rode the footplate.

It’s actually quite scary zooming down the ridiculously steep hills, reliant only on a few bits of cable.

San Francisco is reportedly built on 43 hills (I think that’s what the commentary said) and they are steep… Wouldn’t be an easy place to learn to drive. Or to cycle commute. Strangely the city-bikes here are electric.

Sunday started with a pleasant walk to the pier through the financial district of the city. It’s quite high-rise in places but it still has some lower buildings in between.

There was a recent law that new buildings would not have flat tops to keep the city skyline interesting (that’s another one of those ferry facts).

The old Ferry Building, which is dwarfed by the city around it, has been transformed into a modern and pleasant shopping arcade with restaurants. It feels like a relaxed place to while away some time.

Along the coast there are numerous jetties and old pier buildings. Some have been converted into car parks and others are restaurants. It’s a pleasant place to walk.

One of the biggest piers has been converted into a huge science experience. It was yet another one of our tourist pass activities, ‘The Exploratorium’. It’s housed in huge warehouses and is a science museum to rival any other! It’s totally hands-on and interactive, and inspired the kids in us!

You could be in there hours!

Also, the best thing was, all the exhibits worked!

There were a few kids around getting in the way of us adults but overall they didn’t distract us too much.

Further around the bay, it suddenly gets busy around Pier 39, which is where the sea lions live, and where the serious tourist attractions cluster. There are souvenir shops, restaurants, experiences, buskers and other such things that people flock to.

We sat a while watching the crowds.

We also sampled some of the attractions.

First the aquarium. I am loving the visuals of the jellyfish, but wouldn’t want to swim with them.

We enjoyed watching the fish and sharks as we walked through the large tunnels displaying what’s under the bay.

We also got to meet an otter and discovered that the collective noun is a romp.

We could have called it a day then, but the tourist pass was still calling. So we did a couple of things that we usually wouldn’t dream of.

Firstly Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

An interesting collection of weird stuff (or a weird collection of interesting stuff?). It all felt a bit 1940s, which I guess it really was when Ripley was showcasing his collections.

There were a few interactive experiences with lights and mirrors and a tunnel that confused your sense of balance through flashing lights.

I would love to know what today’s generation of young people think about the place.

Secondly we went to Madame Tussaud’s. I don’t think I’ve been to one before. Another strange attraction. The models are painstakingly realistic (mostly), especially the eyes. And there is a bit of information about each one. But I don’t really get the whole idea of photographing yourself alongside your favourite waxwork.

There also seemed to be a lot of open spaces, presumably for the huge crowds…

We only have one day left in San Francisco. After a day of popular culture we may decide to go for something a little more relaxed…

San Francisco

Five days in San Francisco. What to do?

As we’ve had such a non-city experience in New Zealand we thought we’d go totally against our ‘normal’ ways of seeing a place… so we bought a 5 day pass that includes many city attractions…

Day one, we got the Hop on, Hop off open-top bus and toured the city.

We had a number of live commentators. One was very slow and deliberate, one more upbeat and one absolutely rocking it, to the extent that he sang to passers-by in the street. Hmmm, not sure what I made of that…

First hop-off we went to the California Academy of Sciences. Amazing!

The building is impressive in itself. A few golf balls in there?

One is a huge planetarium, with Tom Hanks doing the voice-over (except for the bit that’s out of date).

The other is a rainforest. Weird. You walk up a spiral from ground level, with all the rainforest science explained along the way.

Some of the creatures fly around you. Others are in purpose-built enclosures.

Then you get in a lift (elevator), and plunge floorward… And experience the rainforest under flood, which happens often.

You also then see many other aquatic habitats and creatures that have adapted to their particular climate.

Those are sea horses that look more like weeds.

We never got to see the penguins in New Zealand, so made up for it in San Francisco!

Next stop Pier 39 where we watched the sea lions who’ve taken up residence there since the recent earthquake that disrupted their homes.

They lie on the pontoons, sunning their bodies. There can be up to 1700 of them, and predominantly males. They appear to enjoy attracting the crowds and there are a few show-offs who appear to be playing a game of pushing each other off. It appears to be highly entertaining for them too, and probably is a demonstration of their dominance.

You can spend hours watching them.

From the bus you also get to see many other sights, including Chinatown, a number of film-famous houses and inevitably the Bridge.

Day two of the pass had us hiring bikes for the day, specially to ride over the bridge.

Initially we explored a couple of piers for views, then explored Fort Point which is directly under one end of the bridge.

It was out of commission before the bridge was built, but the powers that be decided it complemented the structure nicely. It gives a different view and there’s a nice history of the building and the bridge building process.

Currently there’s also an exhibition of immigrant yarn arts inside the dark tunnel-like corridors.

Walkers and cyclists join together over the bridge, often stopping for selfies and their own pictures of the huge structure, painted in International Orange.

The colour was reportedly chosen to blend in with the local rock colour. It is now the most photographed bridge in the world, and when it was built was was the highest and longest suspension bridge in the world.

Nowadays the mile-long 6-lane bridge carries 110 000 vehicles per day. The upkeep is continuous.

They also have a nifty little vehicle that scoops up the central reservation like a zip and moves it to the other side of a traffic lane to enable rush-hour traffic flow to change (ie from 3 lanes each way to 4:2 into or out of the city).

We cycled down to Sausalito which reputably is an arty little town just over the bridge.

I suspect that the deluge of tourists every day by bike and bus (we certainly weren’t unique in our exploits) has meant that the artists have moved on and tourist-traders moved in. There are many souvenir shops and eating and drinking establishments.

We settled for a burger (when in the US)… which was pretty entertaining to watch cooking…

We ate it overlooking the amazing view of San Francisco across the water, watched by a hopeful gull or two.

We extended our ride to the small town of Mill Valley which has a redwood forest alongside it. I think it’s probably now more the quaint town that Sausalito used to be.

We visited the big trees before heading back to climb the hill back to the bridge.

Those hire bikes were harder work than our own bikes (and seem to have extremely wide handlebars) but we got back safely, and on the other side of the bridge (only open for bikes at the end of the afternoon, presumably to encourage commuters – tourists are encouraged to get the ferry back). It felt quite an honour to be cycling along the bridge without having to stop for pedestrian groups.

Our hotel is right in the middle of town. From the bike hire place it’s just over the hill.

And what a hill!

That’s a couple of days done… just a couple more for us tourists.

We’ll be back! We won’t wait 13 years again…

After the highs of completing the Tongariro Crossing we knew we had to entertain ourselves for the last few days in New Zealand, and that nothing could be quite as stunning (or as challenging).

The weather agreed as the next day was grim. To the extent that transport around the Crossing was cancelled. We were so lucky to have done it on the day we wanted!

We had places to be so we meandered up the North Island.

We stopped off along the Eastern edge of Lake Taupo to throw stones in the lake. Even after all this time I am still fascinated by them bobbing in the water and floating back to shore. They’re pumice. Lake Taupo is a lake in a huge old volcanic crater. Sometimes you can get a stunning view across to the snowy mountains but not today.

We stopped off at a thermal valley walk between rain showers. It is still amazing to see the steaming earth.

And have a hand-held thermometer…

Fascinating. Just touch the ground for some serious heat.

Back to Mount Maunganui for the weekend to catch up with my pretty-good favourite sister.

We had a trip out to Tauranga to meet Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy and friends.

We watched the water at Mcclaren Park and had a lazy walk to recover from all the efforts of the week.

We also treated ourselves to an exhausting but exhilarating last swim in the waves – they were bigger than they look, honest!

After the weekend was our last drive to Auckland and there are still places to see! We had a look into modern-day gold-mining in Waihi, which was curtailed in 2016 by a massive slip. It started out as underground mining but was upgraded to an open pit in the 1980s. (Each of those ledges in the hole were wide enough for huge trucks to drive up with their cargo of gold and silver, and lots of rock).

A cornish pumphouse sits proudly overlooking the mine. It too was at risk of disappearing into a hole so it was painstakingly moved over Teflon strips to ensure it’s survival. It moved 300m in 3 months.

It’s a pleasant little town, with that big pit right in the centre! They have worked hard at celebrating their past and there are many statues around town. A good museum too apparently, but it’s closed on Tuesdays!

A final stop at the impressive tunnel-works in Karangahake Gorge that have all been converted into walking tracks.

Again it was gold behind all the works. And all the pathways were originally train-tracks.

So today we’re off, after another night catching up with Sue and Andy. What a month it’s been! It’s flown by and we’ve crammed plenty of stuff into our itinerary.

We’ve stayed in some great places. We’ve tried hostels, hotels, Airbnb, motels and motor-camp cabins. Each has had their charms… Except one cabin where the loos were across the field…

We’ve had a couple of bus rides, boats, planes and a couple of rental cars. We’ve walked miles and miles! There’s plenty of New Zealand still waiting to be seen…

The food is amazing. New Zealand does an excellent coffee shop with savoury and sweet offerings. We’ve tried a few…

It’s been great to catch up with family and friends and sample their hospitality. We would never have known we hadn’t been here for 13 years. Thank you all!

New Zealanders that we’ve met along the way have been universally friendly and helpful. They often stop for a chat. Many will say what they think too. I am of course still smarting from the b&b owner who said “do you know how I can tell you’re English? White legs”. Oh, to be quick thinking and have a robust retort!

The Tongariro Crossing

It’s one of the world’s great walks. I wanted to do it when we lived here, but didn’t think it was wise with two smallish children.

So today was our opportunity. And I now know why it’s one of the great walks.

We stayed in Turangi, near the south end of Lake Taupo and booked a shuttle bus to pick us up and return us to our accommodation. It’s a one way 19km walk over an active volcano. Why ever not! The steaming hills and black lava flows add to the spectacle.

The walk starts along a number of boardwalks, and you’re just looking up at these incredible mountains.

Then you start to climb. That is after a few kilometres and a couple of toilet opportunities…

Climbing wasn’t easy as the wind had picked up and it was whipping around us.

It was also very busy. It’s a popular thing to do. Everyone knows it’s a great walk.

Early on it was too busy for my liking (with queues for the loo – there are 5 or 6 along the way), but the hill sorted out the crowds!

We walked through huge craters.

We walked over the edges of craters, with clear volcanic features.

We walked through areas that smelled like chemistry labs in school.

The climbs were brutal and the wind didn’t help. It was really quite cool and I resorted to silly hat and windcheater.

Then we reached the top. The views down over where we had walked were stunning.

And where we were about to walk.

There are a number of lakes which are stunning colours.

The walk down to them is down a sheer lava scree slope.

You have to remember it is a volcano and the surface of the walkway is just volcanic rock and dust.

The way down was steep. Ridiculously steep. And there’s no path. Just rocky black sand. I imagine I will ache tomorrow just from trying to keep my balance. (I only failed once…)

After a while I realised you have to just go with the flow. Literally. I was my own landslide for the duration. It was scarily fun…

Looking back at the crater we’d just slid down was amazing. It’s so colourful and majestic and blew my mind.

We found a shady, wind-free spot for our lunch before climbing up to the lakes.

Wow! Wow! Wow!

The descent then was tough. I have really dodgy knees and although it’s a pretty gentle descent the continuous jarring on my knees was pretty painful. And there are lots of uneven steps and pathways that may slide away at any time…

Luckily I have a pretty good husband who carried both his bag and mine…

I am amazed at the variety of plants you see in such a barren landscape. Throughout the day we saw things growing, despite it looking like something from Star Wars, or a moonscape.

Once over the top it became an alpine landscape with many tiny flowers growing in the black sand.

Further down the hill we returned to a more traditional bush landscape and suddenly we returned to hearing the cicadas and birds that echo throughout New Zealand. Unsurprisingly there are not many creatures evident further up.

What a day! Incredible. Beautiful. Worth waiting for!

And because it’s a volcanic region the motels and campgrounds all have hot pools, fuelled by the earth, to soothe those aching limbs.

W is for Wellington

And Wow!

In Wellington we stayed at an Airbnb. What an experience!

Wellington is built on hills and mountains, along a very rugged coastline…

The place we stayed was very definitely on a steep hill. So to get to the property you have to take a cable car… Yes, your very own cable car… Well, a small shed on tracks…

I suspect I shrieked a little on take-off and landing!

The house is built into the cliff edge on its own legs. It’s a wooden structure and doesn’t look like it would withstand major winds let alone earthquakes. But… clearly it has. It was built in the 1960s and nothing had been updated since the 70s… Fantastic!

The owners were flamboyant and friendly and we downed a number of bottles of wine long into the evening… Not sure they’ll be making much profit!

We only had the morning in Wellington and opted for Te Papa, the huge waterside National museum. We’d had a recommendation for the Gallipoli exhibition. (The terracotta soldiers were also in town).

What an educational and moving exhibit.

There were a number of individual stories to follow.

The models were made by the same studio that did all the Lord of the Rings stuff. They are amazing. Probably twice life size and the details so incredible. Down to hairs on their arms and beads of sweat.

Each story included details from letters and friends. The models were copied from photos taken at the front.

Gallipoli was a nightmare, especially for the Australian and New Zealand armies. The exhibit spared no details and hammered the message home.

After Wellington, and watching the antics of some young people in the harbour, we set off up country.

North of Wellington is pretty flat and agricultural. Not so many sheep these days. Dairy seems to have taken over. And recently tourism has surpassed farming as the country’s top revenue.

The agriculture is exhibited around a town called Bulls, where they are also keen on puns.

The hills start a fair way north on the island, but they are impressive, volcanic type hills which seem to spring up from nowhere. And there’s plenty of volcanic activity going on along the side of the road with steaming pools.

Tomorrow is our opportunity to cross one of the volcanoes… Must be mad!

Wanaka days

Four days of catching up with one of my oldest friends. Not a bad place to do it!

Wanaka is surrounded by mountains and sits comfortably on the edge of a lake.

It’s a small town, but like Rotorua, swells with tourists. There are rows and rows of campervans throughout the streets and carparks.

The population is around 9000 and we were told that for every 1 resident there are 30 visitors!

It is however incredibly beautiful. And you are never really aware that it might be busy…

There are opportunities for many activities, from high adrenaline to simple pleasures.

We spent the time doing short walks, sitting in the garden and playing with a small dog. Might have played a few games of cards and drunk a little wine too…

Wanaka has many hill walks, mountain bike tracks and trails, as well as water sports.

People also visit to photograph its famous tree. The tree grew from a fence which extended into the lake to keep cattle in place. Now the tree is a landmark so popular that there is a continuous stream of foot traffic along the lake edge to it.

Some of the time the lake is lower and the tree is on dry land. There are notices warning people to report any tree-abuse.

One day we had a walk along the edge of another nearby lake. Lake Hawea. It was so windy that you could easily imagine you were at the seaside.

We flew out of Queenstown which is another small town that has capitalised on it’s tourism. It’s famous for high adrenaline activities. It’s also incredibly beautiful and the flight out is stunning.

There are fantastic views over the South island all the way to Wellington.

That’s it for our South Island expedition…just a week in the North to go…