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.

{Read More}


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

15 Actors You Didn’t Know Were In Band of Brothers

In the wonderful vacation I just finished I enjoyed watching Band of Brothers during two typhoon days.  It was Clair’s first time seeing it and perhaps my fifth.  In this most recent viewing I was amazed how much of the cast has gone on to great success after that show.  I made mental notes during that viewing and snapped screenshots yesterday.  I’ve been having fun sharing these with people so might as well put them here for posterity. Below are 15 great actors you may not have known were in Band of Brothers.

Jamie Bamber

Jamie BamberShortly after Band of Brothers, Bamber played Lee Adama in Battlestar Gallactica.

Michael Cudlitz

Michael CudlitzCudlitz starred in TNT’s Southland and currently appears in The Walking Dead.

Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy FallonJimmy Fallon was a comedian on Saturday Night Live at the time Band of Brothers was filmed. Now he is instantly recognizable as the host of a late night talk show.

Michael Fassbender

Michael FassbenderFassbender (to the right of Damian Lewis) has had incredible success as a movie star. He appeared in 300, Prometheus, Inglorious Basterds, the X-men series, and 12 Years a Slave.

Stephen Graham

Stephen GrahamStephen Graham is perhaps not as well known as the other actors are now. But I recognized him in Snatch and more recently as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire.

Colin Hanks

Colin HanksColin Hanks possibly got the role for being the son of Band of Brothers producer Tom Hanks. But he’s gone on to success in his own right as was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work in Fargo.

Tom Hardy

Tom HardyTom Hardy’s career is on fire of late. I loved him in Bronson years ago. But he had roles in two Christopher Nolan films that earned over $200 million in the US market alone: Inception and Dark Knight Rises. He’s about ready to bring Mad Max Rockatansky back to the screen.

Damian Lewis

Damian LewisDamian Lewis is probably more recognizable to most for the other role in which he played an American soldier: Homeland.

Ron Livingston

Ron LivingstonMany saw Livingston in Office Space and Swingers. He pops up every now and again in pleasant supporting roles.

James McAvoy

James McAvoyJames McAvoy was briefly in Band of Brothers. He’s starring in the X-men series (with other Band of Brothers alum Michael Fassbender).

Neal McDonough

Neal McDonoughNeal McDonough followed Band of Brothers with roles in Minority Report and Captain America. As a friend on Facebook pointed out, he’s also “that guy in the Cadillac commercials.”

Simon Pegg

Simon PeggMost people met Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead, a hilarious zombie film he co-wrote. But now he’s banking big checks with recurring roles in the Star Trek and Mission Impossible series.

David Schwimmer

David SchwimmerDavid Schwimmer was the most recognizable actor in the series at the time it aired. Since Band of Brothers aired around the end of the Friends run one could say his career peaked with Band of Brothers. But, then again, no one ever called him “that guy from Band of Brothers.”

Andrew Scott

Andrew ScottAndrew Scott is perhaps not terribly well-known today. But he is starring as Jim Moriarty in Sherlock, one of the best shows currently airing.

Donnie Wahlberg

Donnie WahlbergAt the time Donnie was probably thought of as “Mark Wahlberg’s big brother.” But he’s since appeared in the Saw series and is currently in Blue Bloods.


Pain In the Neck

Its been just over six weeks since the most frightening experience of my life.  This incident coincidentally followed my 40th birthday by one week.  It was a scary reminder of my own frailty as I pass into the second half of my life.  I am needing reasons to write more and this is an incident I want to remember with clarity.  So here it is.

In early June I traveled to Shanghai to enjoy my birthday weekend and the week that followed with Clair.  She was on assignment there for two months and I was eager to field test my Mandarin.  All went well the first weekend (7-8 June) but the second weekend was a horror story.

{Read More}


A Violation

I recently had a disturbing conversation with a friend named Lucy*.  Lucy and I have a strange and tenuous connection.  We chat online and have only done so a few times.  We don’t know each other’s last names.  We are veritable strangers.  So it was odd when one morning when I woke up and saw a message from her asking for my help.  She told me a guy did something bad to her.  And that she might need the help of the police.  She wanted someone to talk to and, as you will learn below, she had some reasons for choosing me.

What happened to her is terrible and private and humiliating.  I suppose one of the reasons she came to me is because we are so disconnected–such strangers to each other–that she could tell me something she could not share with her close circle in her home town.  Below is this story. {Read More}


Another Pivot

career-change-blogIts been weeks since I last wrote. So much has transpired that this proper update is due. I will start by saying my sabbatical is finished. My commitments to learn Chinese, develop a big data community, volunteer for Open Data Hong Kong, write, and ponder my next move met with mixed success. As evidenced by the lack of activity on this blog, my writing commitment to writing flagged towards the end. But the other projects generally went well.

{Read More}