June 30, 2004

Election Fever Down Under

Especially after casting my vote by special ballot a few weeks ago, it has been agonizing tracking the federal election in Canada from such a distance.

Today, though, I was lucky enough to get a little taste of home. After a meeting at the Australian Greenhouse Office, I headed over to the Canadian High Commission, which was hosting an election-watching event. Strolling into the "functions room," I was immediately confronted by the familiar face and voice of Peter Mansbridge. The CBC! One entertaining rant from Rick Mercer and one letter-reading session with Rex Murphy later ... and it felt like home.

I got a chance to speak with the Deputy High Commissioner, who explained how they got the satellite CBC feed. The subject came up when we were told that the feed would end abruptly at 2:00 p.m. AEST.

He told me that Satellite CBC is carried by an Anik, a North America-anchored geosynchronous satellite that never pays a visit to the southern hemisphere. So the satellite signal is downloaded in Los Angeles and sent by fiber-optic cable under the Pacific Ocean to Sydney. From there it's beamed up to an Optus satellite which transmits the signal for viewers here. (Optus, when it's in a good mood, also transmits our mobile phone signal.) The High Commission in Canberra, along with its colleagues in Sydney, Auckland, and Wellington, negotiated a contract for a four hour block of time ending at midnight Eastern Standard Time or 2:00 p.m. Australian Eastern Standard Time. Indeed, when 2:00 p.m. rolled around, the screen went black and we had to watch the live streaming feed from CBC over the Internet (which was remarkably good).

While I'm on the subject of things political, I also paid a visit to the Australian parliament last week, sitting in on Question Period in the House of Representatives. The experience, dominated by the typical slagfest, confirmed my view about the institution of Question Period, which is that all of its virtues aside, it consistently makes governing parties look smug and opposition parties look petty. It's quite an interesting phenomenon. In any case, sitting in on parliament is the sort of thing one does in Canberra. Compare this with Melbourne, where our last month involved a moonlight cinema, a Comedy Festival performance, and a viewing of an Aussie Rules football game, and you'll see what we have to contend with here. ;)

Joking aside, one of Canberra's strengths is, not surprisingly, the presence of many interesting national institutions (Parliament, of course, the National Museum and National Library, etc.). This past weekend, Miriam and I visited the War Memorial. It is both a memorial (shrine) and a museum (and a research/archive centre), and it is truly impressive. It made me both feel and think more than most war museums do, which I think is a very good thing for this sort of place to do. I hope that the new war museum in Ottawa can pull off a similar feat. Visitors to Canberra: the War Memorial is described as a "must-see" for good reason. Don't miss it.

Posted by anatole at 02:12 AM | Comments (1)

June 26, 2004

No Tasmanian Devils Were Seen in the Making of this Entry

We only had six days to explore Tasmania -- known around these parts as "Tassie" (pronounced "Tazzie") -- but it seemed worthwhile to make the trip while we were close by in Melbourne.

As a result of our schedule, we didn't see too much of Australia's island state (sorry to Launceston and the entire north and east coasts!). We flew in and out of Hobart, spending a few days in the city, and ventured out into the South and South-West wilderness areas of the island. Huge swaths (almost a third) of Tasmania are protected in National Parks and World Heritage Areas, in large part a legacy of the successful 1970s environmental fight to protect the Franklin River from damming. The Franklin campaign represents, by general consensus, the birth of the Australian environmental movement.

The Franklin River now runs through much of Franklin-Gordon Rivers National Park, part of the Tasmania Wilderness World Heritage Area which we visited. We stayed in some cabins at Lake St. Clair, one of the two endpoints of the even-more-famous Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, home to the world-renowned Overland Track (with only six days in all of Tassie, this 5-10 day track is on the list for "next time," unfortunately).

Our trip out of Hobart got off to a good start when we locked our keys in the trunk ("boot"!) and discovered to our horror that the trunk-release on our car was broken. Thankfully we were still in Hobart, so we only had to endure embarassment at the hands of Hertz.

The National Parks were impressive, although it's clear that we didn't even begin to scratch their surface. You can see what we did manage to see here. Part of the problem was the weather. The weather in Tassie can turn on you unexpectedly all-year round, and we were hit by a massive blizzard on our way to the Lake St. Clair area. Very surreal (this was mid-May).

Blizzarding snow

The cold and wet weather persisted for a couple of days, so we didn't manage any longer walks. We did, however, do a bit of an environmental pilgrimage to see the Franklin River, and we walked about 15 minutes of the Overland Track in the snow, as part of a circuit near Lake St. Clair. We also saw a fantastic waterfall. Well, let me clarify. We squinted at a fantastic waterfall, because it had swelled enormously with the rain and snow, and the wind was gusting every which way, and ... well, it was hard to look at directly, that's all I'm saying.

Then we skipped town a day early to head to Mt. Field National Park a little bit further south. Here the weather was nice and we saw wallabies and pademelons, which are extremely small macropods (the kangaroo family). The best part about pademelons is the way you say their name, which is "paddie-melons". The park ranger who told me that made my day, let me tell you.

Pademelon (macropod)

Before returning to Hobart we did a self-guided tour of "the Styx". Our exploration of the Styx, an old-growth forest slated for logging in the next couple of years, deserves its own entry (coming soon!). The Styx, along with the Tarkine forest further north, is becoming the centrepiece of the next major environmental battle in Tasmania.

Hobart, where we spent a relaxed two days overall, was quite nice. We took it pretty easy, exploring the neighbourhoods (including classic Battery Point), window-shopping, and eating (including pies, of course).

Hobart: Near Salamanca Place      Hobart: Battery Point

Our trip to Tassie was strange in a way. Although on the surface of it we saw very little, what with the weather and all, I actually felt as though we got to know some of what makes Tassie tick in a deeper sense.

Posted by anatole at 01:43 AM | Comments (3)

June 19, 2004

Kiwi Closure

We've finally finished up with all of our New Zealand content, only, like, months after the trip itself was over. All this work really gets in the way of blogging. :)

So, joining previous entries on New Zealand by the Numbers, the Kepler Track, Tongariro Crossing, Doubtful Sound, and the Routeburn Track are the following:

Posted by miriam at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2004

Birds, more birds, and a certain je ne sais quoi (NZ)

Our next destination after Fiordland: Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula. Why? Well, if there's one thing Miriam likes more than the soaring alpine vistas of the Routeburn Track -- it's penguins. The Otago peninsula is one of the best places in New Zealand to spot the rare yellow-eyed penguin or "hoiho" ("noise shouter" in Maori).

Yellow-Eyed Penguin or Hoiho

Miriam loves penguins. A lot. It's hard to describe in writing, or any other way frankly, exactly how much she loves penguins. But I digress. Well, barely.

The Otago Peninsula is a little peninsula off of Dunedin, the somewhat Scottish university town in the south-east end of the South Island of New Zealand. Dunedin itself was quite charming, and we spent a few nights there after scuttling plans to take a longer route to the east coast via the "Southern Scenic Route" (allegedly a desperate attempt by Invercargill to lure tourists south of Fiordland). While Dunedin itself is quite nice, the real attraction for tourists is the rare wildlife and beautiful coastal scenery of the Otago Peninsula itself.

Returning thusly to the point, one of the rare wildlife attractions is a yellow-eyed penguin reserve. A private land-owner realized that he had a rare penguin colony on his hands and redeveloped his land into a carefully-managed conservation and eco-tourism venture. The colony has grown in size thanks to his efforts to protect their habitat (others have disappeared at the hands of more aggressive agricultural expansion), and tourists like us are treated to a rare opportunity to get a very good look at these penguins. In any case, the experience did not disappoint. What was once farmland has been converted into a vast penguin habitat criss-crossed by a network of clinically elaborate viewing hides and connecting tunnels.

Penguin Place

The result is that the penguins are essentially undisturbed (extensive research is done on the penguins' condition) -- a good thing since they are not as naturally nonchalant about human presence as little blue penguins, especially those of the Penguin Parade. You get a little introductory talk about the penguins before spending an hour at the site. We saw about 15 of the rare penguins -- in all sorts of settings.

A number of them had already returned from a day's fishing at sea (or hadn't gone out at all that day) -- and were standing around or snoozing -- but we were also lucky to see two come back from sea. We saw one undertake the long walk across the beach and the other swim back and forth where the waves broke, making sure it was safe to exit (it wasn't, due to the presence of a fur seal, so the penguin took its time.)

For those interested, there are more penguin pictures.

Right before the penguins, we checked out another wildlife rarity -- the only mainland royal albatross colony in the world. Also situated on the peninsula, at Taiaroa Head, the albatross colony was in post-breeding mode, so we saw some extremely cute and fuzzy albatross babies.

A full-grown royal albatross has a roughly three-metre wingspan and is a truly incredible bird. We luckily saw one of them flying in the distance as we climbed the hill to the lookout point. The adult albatross can swoop at speeds of up to 115 km/h by locking its wing-bones and harnessing -- extremely efficiently, obviously -- the air currents. Moreover, juvenile royal albatross don't mate right away. First they circle the southern portion of the globe around Antarctica for several years (3-6!) -- get this -- without ever touching land. They barely even touch water, because they can -- again, locking their wings -- catch 40 winks while in the air! Yes, that's right. They sleep while flying. Take that, First Class air travel. Anyway, so albatross are really cool, as it turns out. Unfortunately a lot of them drown after getting tangled up in fishing lines. Up to half die at the hands of illegal fishing boats, and many more deaths could be avoided by an improvement to longline fishing practices (see the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels). There's a worldwide effort on to draw attention to their incredible migratory patterns. One specific project is an albatross race (the Big Bird Race), where albatross lovers can bet on one of the birds as it makes for the finish line, a north-south line through, rather appropriately, the Cape of Good Hope on the African continent. The race is put on by Ladbrokes, the Tasmanian government, and the Conservation Foundation, and each albatross is sponsored by a celebrity. Sadly but predictably, some of the birds will not finish the race, highlighting the problems they face.

Back to Dunedin! One of the highlights of Dunedin was our lovely hostel, Adventurers Backpackers Lodge. It was the coziest place we have stayed on our trip. There was a real roaring fire in the fireplace, comfy couches, board games and plenty of reading material, free Internet, a pool table, and funky decorations in the rooms. Two thumbs up!

As with the penguins, there are more pictures of the Otago Peninsula.

After our excursions on the Otago Peninsula, we drove north in a hurry to catch a bus to Akaroa, the launching pad for our next and final tramp: the Banks Peninsula Track (2-day version). Our adventures with sheep and coastlines on this tramp are detailed elsewhere, but Akaroa, where we spent the night after our tramp, deserves a brief mention of its own. Akaroa is a quaint little harbor town that really, really wants to be in France. It wants to be in France so badly that it has French colours and "esprit" painted -- literally and figuratively -- across the town. It wants to be in France because the French tried to settle it many years ago, only to be outdone by the British (zut alors!). Akaroa's "If you love ..." marketing tagline dominated promotional materials (e.g. "if you love ... indulgence"; "if you love ... wildlife"; "if you love ... actually being in France itself, it's only about 19,000 km away!").

     

We stayed at an incredibly nice Bed-and-Breakfast-styled hostel, run by a savvy New Yorker, called "Chez La Mer" (did we mention the obsession with France?). The hostel had a hammock -- all too briefly enjoyed -- in a lovely rear courtyard. We also enjoyed the outdoor cafes and peaceful harbour scene, as well as feasting on some damn fine fish and chips to sate our extreme post-tramp munchies.

I regret to say that our trip ended with a bit of unpleasantry, referred to by the locals as "Christchurch". With all due respect to fans and residents of Christchurch, we hated the place. It might have been that we were "buzzed" (some combination of obscenity-shouting and needless honking) by passing motorists on at least five separate occasions. It might have been the lack of nightlife. It might have been our room at the Christchurch YHA. It might have been -- and this can't be counted too lightly, of course -- the stomach flu Miriam contracted and the fact that we had to re-book our flights and spend an extra day in the city. Whatever it was, it wasn't pretty. No doubt Christchurch has some redeeming features. We just didn't stumble across any of them.

But as soon as we actually got out of there, the proverbial bad taste in our mouths was quickly replaced by our memories from the rest of the trip. The three weeks we spent in New Zealand were not nearly enough. Can't wait to get back there, especially for some more tramping!

Posted by anatole at 11:22 PM | Comments (2)

June 17, 2004

Just Us and the Sheep (NZ)

Banks Peninsula Track is the product of some out-of-the-box thinking by 10 farmers in the Canterbury area outside Christchcurch. Before Banks Peninsula Track, all the official walking trails in New Zealand were "public" - owned and operated by the Department of Conservation. In the late 1980s, though, these 10 farmers got together and opened a "private" walking track across their properties, and started charging people for the privilege of passing through their lands. This wouldn't work for just any group of farmers, probably, but these 10 had spectacular views of rolling hills, dramatic cliffs, and ocean bays. They also had a lot of sheep, so you could never get lonely while walking.

Sheep


We wouldn't have been lonely anyways, though, because we enjoyed the company on the entire hike of a former biotech executive from Denmark and a lawyer from Sydney. Even though on the face of it we had very little in common, the Track had a funny enforced bonding effect because we were the only four people hiking the 35 km in two days. The more standard walk, with twelve people per day, lasts 4 days - hence the the trip's slogan "Four Nights, Four Days, Four Beaches, Four Bays". Well, at least there were actually 4 beaches and bays for us two-day trampers. And we made two lovely new friends.

The two-day trampers

The track was beautiful and the sheep were very cute. Pictures are here.

Otanerito Bay

Posted by miriam at 11:59 PM | Comments (3)

June 10, 2004

Following the Routeburn (New Zealand)

After spending a few days on the North Island dashing in and out of cities (Wellington, Auckland) and undertaking the Tongariro Crossing, Miriam and I headed to Queenstown on the South Island, our base for attempting the 3-day, 33km Routeburn Track, another one of New Zealand's alpine Great Walks.

A friend of mine from the Kennedy School, Campbell, had recommended this track after tramping it in January, and I'm glad we followed in his footsteps. The Routeburn straddles some of the most spectacular scenery in the South Island, as you start in Mt. Aspiring National Park and end in Fiordland National Park at "the Divide", the lowest east-west crossing in New Zealand's Southern Alps. As with the Kepler Track and Tongariro Crossing before it, we had exceptional luck with the weather, with only one morning of rain after we had descended from the alpine section.

Running highlights of the tramp included unbelievable views and the presence, for the first part of the trip, of the rushing Routeburn River (you actually end up following the river up the mountain to its outlet from Lake Harris at about 1250m). Some specific "wow" features include:

  • Dripping Wall: The forests that hugged the Routeburn River on the first day of the tramp were beautiful and wet. At one point, we came across an amazing, sheer vertical wall dripping water lightly over mosses and plants. It's difficult to describe but it was totally entrancing. It was equally difficult to photograph, being right next to the track and therefore causing perspective and lighting problems, but we did our best.

  • Climbing Conical Hill: Climbing this "hill" was easily the most, er, challenging part of the track. By the time we were tramping the Routeburn (mid-April), fresh snow had been falling in the mid-ranges (down to 600-800m or so) of the Southern Alps. Conical Hill is, in theory, a one-hour return sidetrip from the Harris Saddle shelter. When we got to the shelter, we heard reports that people had been turning back from the Conical Hill ascent because of "an impassable sheet of ice." Undeterred (o.k., mildly deterred but wondering if "sheet of ice" meant the same thing to Canadians as it did to trampers from warmer countries), we started the ascent. To cut a long, slippery story short, we made it to the peak. It took us three hours (i.e. three times as long as the "typical" time, measured in summer). There was certainly no "impassable sheet of ice", although the going was tough at times. In any case, we were joined on the climb up by a group of Israeli trampers. They were as fearless as us, although ostensibly for different reasons. As one of them said: "This is the first time I've climbed on ice. And the last." For all the difficulty of the climb, the 360-degree views at the top -- on what was a crystal clear day -- were well worth it. We could see all the way to the coast, where the Hollyford River empties into the Tasman Sea. Anyway, it was an arduous but rewarding side trip, and suffice it to say that we used a familiar Canadian technique -- le glissage sur le derriere -- to make a more speedy descent. This stitched panorama captures most of the view from the peak (click to enlarge):

  • Waterfalls and Rainbows:The track is full of really nice waterfalls. The first night is spent at the appropriately named Routeburn Falls Hut, with the falls literally a few steps away up the hill.

    The other waterfall highlight comes on the third day, when you see -- first from a distance and then from right underneath -- the 80m high Earland Falls (vertical stitched photo):

    From a distance you can also spot several other large waterfalls cascading down the same mountain. We were lucky that the weather was clearing up as we approached the falls, and so as the sun peaked out we were treated to a variety of bright, full-arc rainbows along our path. This is one was at the base of Earland Falls.

    Especially with the rainfall on the third morning, a number of other waterfalls, creeks, and streams were gushing across and above the track at a variety of locations. We were lucky to avoid most of the rain itself (overnight) but benefit from the visual aftermath.

  • Stunning Lakes: I thought that one of the most amazing things about the Routeburn Track was its lakes. We first came across Harris Lake, an alpine lake near Harris Saddle -- above the treeline and, at this time of year, tucked away in a pocket of scattered snow.

    Next up was Lake Mackenzie , where you spend the second night (almost literally on its beach!). You see the lake from your high point along the Hollyford Faces before descending through the forest and across a flat to get to the hut -- and a more close-up view. From the far-off vantage point, the lake reflected the valley's walls around it. We might have been treated to a similar view the next morning had the cloud cover not persisted through the morning.

    Last in line was Lake Howden. There's a hut there for an optional extra night's sleep (or for those connecting to/from the Greenstone/Caples tracks), but we just stopped in for lunch. With the skies having cleared up, Lake Howden was, like Lake Mackenzie, reflecting everything around it.

  • The Hollyford Faces: The term "the Hollyford Faces" is used to describe the mountain slopes you walk along, high above the Hollyford Valley and River, on the middle day of the tramp. You hit "The Faces" after descending from the alpine section of the track, en route to Lake Mackenzie Hut. The views from the slopes are spectacular. You can see the river down below, and the sun sets behind the mountains on the other side of the valley. We also saw beautiful flowers, and noisy keas (alpine parrots) criss-crossed the blue skies above.

         

All in all, what can I say? It was another beautiful area of New Zealand where words, and even photos, do not do it justice. Way to go DOC!

NOTE: To see all of our photos from the Routeburn Track, click here.

Posted by anatole at 12:11 PM | Comments (7)