New Zealand Adventure Day 9 Blenheim

Originally written on 2 January, 2015.

Clair and I woke up at our customary 8am this morning. The shuttle to our wine country bike tour was to pick us up at 9:30. We stepped out of our camper into the warm summer air under blue skies. The previous days’ storm and cold front had passed and the dry, beautiful New Zealand climate was back.

Our Top 10 camper park was one of the best yet.  Spacious lots over a large grass field.  A small stream curled around the property’s edge.  I believe we weren’t supposed to feed the ducks.  But I did.

The day before Clair and I tried to explore the small city center of Blenheim.  It was constructed like any American town center designed around a population of tens of thousands.  But it was barren of activity.  Every store was closed–perhaps due to the holidays–and most buildings were unoccupied.  We never reconciled the vivaciousness of the surrounding wine country with this dead suburban core.

I guess the climate similarities of Napa and Marlborough are to be expected.  Warm days and cool nights with lots of sun and rocky soil invariably grow good wine.  So any visitor to one of these regions would find themselves in a familiar environment in the other.  We had been excited for this day the entire week and the weather encouraged us.

Steve and Jo run Wine Tours by Bike out of Renwick. In their small garage half a dozen eager tourists were briefed on road safety, shown a map of the region, and set off for tasting. Apparently from the bike launch point (six o’clock on a circular route) we had to peddle anti-clockwise all the way to nine o’clock for our first stop.  Then all the way to 12 o’clock for our second.  From there on out we’d have many options for tasting.  We were warned to circle the region anti-clockwise, lest we find ourselves drunk and exhausted on the long, lonely stretch of winery-less road.  I wonder how many people missed their return shuttle or even called for a pickup from five kilometers away.

Clair with bike in Blenheim (1) Clair with bike in Blenheim (2)

The tour went pretty great for us. We started with a long ride (about 20 minutes) out to Cloudy Bay and Moa Brewery. Then we circled north and stopped at a small mall that included wine (Eradus) and fudge (The Fudge Factory). We enjoyed a small flight of sparkling wine at No. 1 Family Estate then rushed to our lunch at Giesen.

Giesen Winery, Blenheim

The lunch was really spectacular. Beautiful and modern, our plate included a sample of meats, cheeses, vegetables, sauces, chutneys, pate, and fruit. We paired it with a small sample of wine. One more winery (Forrest) before heading back to the camper.

All of the sudden we were pressed for time and needed to get back to Wine Tours by bike.  We had time for one more winery.  But not really.  In any case we each ordered a flight for tasting, bellied up to the bar, and slammed five tasters in as many minutes.  Not so classy, I admit.

I’m now wrapping up a day at Blenheim and not excited about returning to Singapore soon. We have a day in Melbourne first that we plan on spending with an old friend. But work starts in earnest on Monday.

Clair in Vineyard, Blenheim Scott in Vineyard, Blenheim (1) Scott in Vineyard, Blenheim (2)


New Zealand Adventure Day 8: Punakaiki to Blenheim

Originally written on 1 January 2015.

We awoke to the blue skies we had become familiar with in New Zealand.  Having shed the previous day’s thick blanket of cold misty, a cool, crisp, bright day appeared.  And we were again in for a spectacular drive as we crossed the island from the west to its eastern shore.

The storm and raging river had whipped the waters into a dull brown the night before. But today the ocean cleared to a blue-gray beyond the white breakers.  The tempest left behind a dull froth of salt water that quivered in the wind.  I wanted to run through it.

Sea Foam

Punakaiki sits at the northernmost point of our west coast adventure.  It sits between the Tasmanian Sea and New Zealand’s temperate rain forest.  We briefly followed the coast north and saw signs along the road warning of penguin crossing.  But we were disappointed when we later learned they departed before the weather warmed.  As we turned inland and drove east into the hills we saw more ferns, moss, gushing waterfalls and swollen rivers.

In those hills before Blenheim our road followed the Buller river.  Its calm waters weaved through the hills.  And next to a truss bridge above it we enjoyed our usual gourmet sandwich lunch.

Buller River Lunch

A few hours later we were entering Marlborough, where the climate was quite different.

Marlborough is one of New Zealand’s great wine producing regions.  From my visits to Napa Valley I recognized the terrain and climate similarities that make both successful: long sunny days, cool nights, dry, rolling hills and rocky soil.  We arrived in the middle afternoon to blue skies and were soon covered by the same marine layer that blankets the San Francisco Bay area in summer nights.

I enjoyed a short run in Blenheim, the Marlborough region center.  The weather is quite cool for summer but perfect for running.  The names applies to cities and streets—Marlborough, Blenheim, Nelson—remind me of the historical golden years of the British empire.  I see names on every street that pique my curiosity and will surely lead me to another history book.

Clair and I stopped at a grocery store on the way into town with hopes of buying our third portion of Green Lipped mussels.  But they were sold out.  So, we’ve settled for a tomato sauce over fresh fettuccine.  To make good use of local fresh food we’re adding some venison sausages made daily from the supermarket.

Tomorrow is our bike tour of wine country!


New Zealand Adventure Day 7: Fox Glacier to Punakaiki

Originally written on 31 December 2014.

Clair and I woke up in our luxurious camper to a bleak day. Our adjacency to the rugged west coast of New Zealand also provided direct access to its cold, wet winds. I could tell the day’s drive would be difficult.

When I was 23 I rented a truck to cross the United States to my new job in California. That truck was 10 feet tall and easily rocked by small gusts of wind. I remember crossing the Nevada border into Southern California and feeling the wind rock the truck on its suspension. But the windy periods were short and easily managed. This was not the case on the day we drove from Fox Glacier to Punakaiki.

I was fighting the wind all day. The wind drove inland from the foamy seas and constantly thrust the car to the right into oncoming traffic. My shoulders were sore from the strain after a couple hours.

There was one period that the wind actually scared me. Somewhere near Greymouth a two-lane bridge crossed turgid waters. Since the wind pushed me right I had an entire lane to manage the pressure and correct. But the opposing traffic did not. Indeed as we approached the far side of the bridge we could see the other side’s barrier was destroyed. We learned later that day that a car of tourists went over the side into the rushing river. The camper and its deceased occupants were pulled from the bottom of the river days later.

Once we parked in our camper park Clair and I visited the scant sites of Punakaiki: the pancake rocks, blow hole, and Punakaiki cavern. These were mildly interesting at best.  But at this time the skies cleared and we enjoyed some glorious sunshine.

Ocean from Pancake Rocks Ocean from Pancake Rocks View from Pancake Rocks

A hidden path from the rear of our camper lot brought us to the ocean. The furious storm whipped the sea into a quivering foam. In our afternoon stroll the foam collected at the tide’s edge in a six-inch slurry. By morning, when the skies and waters had cleared, the foam remained on the beach. But by then it had deposited much further from the water and piled to about one meter.

Beach by Punakaiki

A warm tavern stood next to our site and it wasn’t long before we were in it having a beer. This before our second night of much-anticipated mussels. I really cannot overstate how incredible fresh New Zealand green lipped mussels are. The bigger ones eclipsed my palm and an entire kilogram of them cost less than $4 USD. Fried in butter and white wine with a dash of parsley we loved them.

New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel

Mussels and Pasta

Right after dinner the rain restarted. But we retired to our mobile castle with a bottle of sparkling wine from Marlborough to toast the end of 2014.


New Zealand Adventure Day 6: Queenstown to Fox Glacier

Originally written shortly after 30 December 2014, when Clair I and drove this leg of our trip.

Queenstown was charming. It was quaint, rustic, and full of friendly travelers enjoying its short summer. Clair and I woke up a little early and enjoyed a massive breakfast before heading out.  Just west of the city we crested a large hill and a vista point rewarded us for a five minute stop.

Just outside of Christchurch - 1 Just outside of Christchurch - 2

The drive to Fox Glacier was no less spectacular than the previous day’s trip. Our five-hour journey took us over the Haast pass to the west coast of New Zealand. The Haast pass was not particularly high or cold but its path narrowly twisted through a temperate rain forest. Moss clung to the rock. Ferns blanketed the forest floor. And thick forests of deciduous trees provided an impenetrable barrier to the stout, craggy mountains.

After a couple hours in the camper we decided to stop for a break and enjoy the fresh apricots and plums we purchased roadside on a previous day. I slid open the van’s side door into the thick, cool, wet air and enjoyed the scents of nature. For about 10 seconds. We were swarmed by sand flies and I took many bites. Even 20 minutes into the continued journey I was slapping the biting bastards off my legs.

An hour later we reached New Zealand’s west coast. And our helpful tourist radio—a GPS device updated daily using some mobile plan—announced the Curly Tree. Apparently young whitebait, a fish in adulthood not too different from herring, are pulled from the sea in November to make a New Zealand delicacy. Clair and I saw these transparent, stringy, minnow-sized fish mixed in an egg batter and fried into a patty before our eyes. On top of white bread toast and with a squeeze of lemon we enjoyed these fleshy, delightful little fish in what felt to my mouth like a fish cake.

Whitebait fried before us at the Curly Tree in New Zealand

The road to Fox Glacier hugs the Tasman Sea.  The beach there is stark, rocky, and colorless.  But it has a certain raw beauty that invited me to park and explore.  Clair was cold and wouldn’t stray far from the camper.

Clair from a west New Zealand Beach

We followed the road along the sea to the Fox Glacier. While this was the first glacier I’ve ever seen (I think) it was not the highlight of my trip. Of course any 20,000 square kilometer piece of ice is impressive. But it was covered with dirt and rocks so we were denied the grandeur of a glistening aquamarine block of ice.  But in a mini-crevasse next to the gushing source of the sub-glacier river, a sliver of aquamarine ice was visible in a color I had only seen in magazines.

Fox Glacier

Our Top 10 camper site was only 2km away at that point. We pulled into this site, enjoyed another freshly made sandwich, and gave me time to write. It’s 6pm now and like every other night the sun will be up past 10pm and it won’t be dark until 11pm.  Our campsite is next to another beautiful rocky beach and a small pub.  We’ll enjoy both before sundown.

Near Fox Glacier Top 10 Camper Park The beach near Fox Glacier Top 10 Camper Park


New Zealand Adventure Day 5: Milford Sound to Queenstown

The drive from Milford Sound was no less spectacular than the drive to it. In fact it was the exact same route.

We realized this morning exactly how remote and inaccessible Milford Sound is. The town contains only one restaurant/pub and it closed early. There was no mobile phone service. Internet reached visitors only via satellite, which was prohibitively expensive for most. There appeared to be only one road in and out which also passed through Te Anau. So, it was not possible to avoid doubling back.

Remember that we were forced to cut a day in Milford Sound from our original itinerary. This turned out to be a lucky stroke. Milford sound was beautiful, to be sure. But it is remote in the extreme. There is nothing to do there but tour the fjords. Our two-hour cruise satisfied our need with this regard. So we were happy to depart the next morning.

The winding, slow roads in the mountains south of Milford Sound melted away by Te Anau. From there the roads opened up to rolling green hills and occasional copses inexplicably dense yet distant from each other. The skies were unbroken blue and the sun quite warm in the cool air.

Our early departure from Milford Sound allowed us to reach Queenstown four hours later around lunchtime. Far off the sea the temperature in Queenstown is much warmer. The sun is Colorado-intense and I put great trust in my sunblock when deciding to walk the town in the afternoon sun.  But a thin layer of clouds rolled in and I felt no burn.

This small but dense city reminds me of Durango’s rustic charm. The bars and restaurants are abundant and the lakefront boardwalk supports many al fresco restaurants and wine bars. A block off the lake are the touristy stores selling alpaca rugs, jade artwork, and souvenir t-shirts.

Downtown Queenstown, New Zealand

Throughout the city and in the air we are reminded that Queenstown is a summer playground. Paragliders circled above us. They launched from the verdant ski slopes to twist their way to the school’s football pitch that borders our holiday park. And from the pier jet boats and snorkel boats—like a submarine but only submersible to the depth of its short snorkel—are launched into the cobalt blue lake.

Queenstown School Football Pitch

Clair and I inspected a dozen menus in preparation of tonight’s meal. But its only 4pm now so we’re breaking for me to write before we head back to town.


New Zealand Adventure Day 4: Te Anau to Milford Sound

Originally written on 28 December 2014 while Clair and I were touring the south Island of New Zealand.

Today’s drive was incredible. We passed through old growth forests, vast grass plains, craggy snow-capped mountains, and rushing rivers. The landscape really did remind me of Lord of the Rings. In just two hours we saw the equivalent of four US states’ worth of terrains.

We arrived early in Milford Sound to make sure we made our 3:45 boat departure to view the sound. The cold, dark waters of the sound are protected by looming mountains. So the water was placid and I had no fear of seasickness. But on the whole our time in Milford Sound was bittersweet. The sound was magnificent. Its towering cliffs plunged into the dark, cold waters. Waterfalls gushed from the vanishing glacier and seals were sunbathing on rock outcroppings.

On the other hand the stay at our campsite was problematic. The site was minimal, which would have been no problem given our luxurious camper van. But it was swarmed with gnats and sand flies. I started writing this article and stopped after three paragraphs because a swarm of gnats was drawn to my body heat. Clair and I spent most of the night in the guest lodge drinking our beer and wine.

We eventually tried to grill our chicken stuffed with apricot and cheese using the camper’s grill. We hoped waiting until near sundown (10 pm) would mean fewer gnats. But we were wrong. Furthermore the under-powered grill couldn’t properly cook the rotund breasts. We ended up finishing the cooking in our van, sealed off from the wild’s insects, and pounding the few of them bold enough to follow us into the camper and settle on the vehicle’s walls.

We were treated to a spectacular view of the stars. My pictures may lack a compelling foreground but the glistening swath of the heavens was awe inspiring.


New Zealand Adventure Day 3: Lake Tekapo to Te Anau

Article originally written in very late December.

After missing our flight in Melbourne and losing two nights of our camper van, Clair and I were forced to make cuts in our already tight touring schedule. We removed Dunedin and one of the two days in Milford Sound. We were forced to make up time with a very long drive (seven hours) to Te Anau.

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New Zealand Adventure Day 2: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo

Original travel date was 26 December.  Boxing Day in New Zealand.

I will admit I was intimidated when I first got behind the wheel of our 6.2-meter camper.  It accelerated sluggishly and cut corners short when turning.  Christchurch traffic is moderate but the combination of a bulky, unfamiliar vehicle and left-handed driving were difficult to manage.

Luckily our early start meant we arrived at the grocery store—our first destination—before the lot filled.  I would never have found a spot and squeezed into it if I couldn’t have my pick of spots and occupy more than one.  Thankfully the grocer’s neighboring lot was empty since most stores remained closed for boxing day.

Clair and I loaded up with a couple days worth of supplies: fresh green lip mussels for a pasta dinner, ingredients for a gourmet sandwich, and obviously ample beer and wine.  We were immediately charmed by the local kiwis who three times saw our perplexed faces and offered to help.

Once outside of Christchurch driving became much easier.  The single lane roads contain a steady trickle of cars.  But the roads are not busy.  The grass plains of Christchurch flowed into the purple mountains on the horizon.  And by the time we arrived at Lake Tekapo the terrain felt like a scrubby, northern California lakeside camp.

Our Luxury Kea Campervan

Scenic Vista Between Christchurch and Lake Tekapo

Tekapo showed some of the strange quality of many of the area’s rivers and lakes: a foggy, chalky cyan blue color.  We surmised that limestone must be carried from the mountains down the streams to produce this strange colored water.  But after asking locals we received no good answer as to the color’s true origin.

Clair swinging in the park at Lake Tekapo

A view from the Lake Takapo shore

One of the luminous flowers covering the New Zealand hills

The cyan, cloudy waters of Lake Tekapo

That night, while other campers warmed hot dogs, potatoes, and corn on the cob, Clair and I sautéed our mussels over white wine.  Our trip finally felt on track.


New Zealand Adventure, The Beginning: Christchurch

This article was written during our holiday. But only today, over two months later, have I gotten around to posting it. It describes our first day in Christchurch after a long flight, rescheduled itinerary, and lost luggage.

Ours was an auspicious beginning to an expensive trip. Clair and I purchased roundtrip tickets on Qantas through Melbourne. The flight to Christchurch left us only a couple hours to change planes. But the route back included an 18-hour layover. We decided to turn this into a special treat with our friend Stuart by exploring Melbourne with a local. It never occurred to either of us that we’d need an Australia visa for this.

It never occurred to Qantas, either.

As we prepared to depart for Christchurch the JetStar staff (who were operating the Qantas flight) informed us that we could not fly to New Zealand. Lacking an Australia visa we would not be legal to leave New Zealand on 3 January. Without a legal right of return New Zealand would not allow our entry.

Obtaining an Australian visa is trivial but we could not do it before the flight for Christchurch departed. Genuine apologies from Qantas staff, assistance with a visa, and a reschedule to a later flight helped some. But we arrived in Christchurch after the camper rental lot closed. So we were forced to scramble for warm bed for two nights until the lot re-opened.

Our disappointment was profound. We had only 10 days in our camper van and losing two from a flight delay was quite upsetting. And while we got lucky with a clean, modern hotel in the charming Christchurch, the day we spent there (Christmas) was quiet. Perhaps the stillness was appropriate for Christmas, but it was not for a holiday.  Also, Quantas lost our luggage.  They provided us clothes to sleep in and a travel kit so I could shave and we could brush our teeth.

Loaned Clothing

The day we spent in Christchurch was interesting.  Christchurch, basking in the warm sun and draped by cool blue skies, was a ghost town.  I assume more life on a non-holiday.  But it is clear the 2011 earthquake devastated the city.  We heard later that 5,000 builds were destroyed by the earthquake.  And today it seems a third remain standing but condemned.

Christchurch Cathedral

Clair and I strolled the city, taking pictures and enjoying the December sun.  The city surrounds a large garden park where a few residents and tourists relaxed.  Cool streams cut through the city and park and brown trout were visible under the glazed surface.  Christchurch provided the relaxation we needed to counter-balance the previous day’s stress.

Dance Floor, Coin-operated Stereo, and a Disco BallChristchurch Park

The next day we woke early to be first to our camper and start the trip. And from there our moods swelled. The camper exceeded our expectations. It is luxurious, spacious, and well-equipped. In the days that followed we made use of the attached grill, gas cooktop, microwave oven, LCD TV, and built-in toilet. Although a suspect install of the sewage canister resulted in a toilet leak that suggested Clair and I should ration its usage.


Interview and Photo of Col. Edward F. Fleming

A couple months ago my great uncle Eddie passed away. He was one of six brothers, among which was my material grandfather. I probably had fewer than 10 occasions to talk with Eddie. But he had a special humor to him that everyone loved. People really gravitated to him. And I loved to be near him at family gatherings as he was sure to make me laugh.

Like all six of his brothers, he served in World War II. They each contributed in different ways and many were involved in heroic and hair-raising action. Every few years I try my hand at Google to see if I can find stories about them. And after Eddie’s death I found one about him, which came with a photograph.

Below is the story that I found on Facebook.  I’m preserving it here with the photo for myself, my friends, my family, and posterity.

Interview with: (Col Edward F. Fleming).
Capt Edward Fleming, 84th FS, 78th FG and several other P-47s were chasing enemy fighters at low altitude over Charters, France. Suddenly flack blew a hole in his right wing. The rudder was damaged and under a lot of pressure, he lost the ability to Bank and turn the aircraft quickly.
Fleming looked up and found himself headed right at Chartres Cathedral!
“I missed the steeple by no more than a foot and a half!” he said.
He was headed in the wrong direction and used all of his strength to turn the P-47 around to fly over the channel back to Duxford with two 84th FS P-47s escorting him back.
Later, looking at the damage, his assistant crew chief said, “I can’t figure out how you got back at all!”
Fleming remembered, “The hole was so big you could stand up under the wing, fit into the hole and look out over the top!”
He was convinced he was going to crash into the Chartres Cathedral and kept thinking…“If I demolish a church will they ever let me into heaven?”
This is the photo that came with the story with Eddie on the left.
Capt. Edward F. Fleming