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Taking Refuge in Christchurch

I arrived in Christchurch (pop. 300,000) in late December and decided to hunker down there for a while, since I was getting tired of fighting all the crowds.  As I've learned, New Zealand gets pretty crowded during the summer school holiday period, the six weeks between mid-December and the end of January.  The two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year's is the super-peak period when it seems that everyone in the country "goes on holiday," including the penguins, so I figured it would be smart to lay low until after New Year's.


After driving around Christchurch for an hour, I found a nice motel called The Academy right across the street from the University of Canterbury, one of the largest universities in New Zealand.  In fact, I liked my room at The Academy so much that I stayed for eight nights.  It was a one-bedroom suite on the top floor with a full kitchen and, with a tuition of US$38 a night, cost about half as much as it would in the U.S. so I was content.  And like at most motels in New Zealand, I got a bottle of milk (and a newspaper) each morning.  Hey, what more could you ask for?


Above:  Bustling Christchurch.

Christchurch is the second-largest city in New Zealand and, as I mentioned, is very “English."  During my eight days in Christchurch, I updated my website, worked on my photos, sent several e-mails, walked around the city, listened to the Fiesta Bowl football game between Oregon and Colorado via the Internet, celebrated New Year's Eve, visited the nearby port cities of Akaroa and Lyttleton, rode a gondola to the top of a mountain for a spectacular view, watched a cricket match at a nearby park, and generally had a great time.  I did all of this while dodging a constant parade of scattered showers and thunderstorms, but at least it was warm enough so I could wear shorts each day. 


The cricket match was especially interesting and I had a nice chat there with an elderly gentleman.  As we sat on the grassy outfield and watched two teams of girls battle it out on the pitch, he explained some of the finer points of the game to me.  It's still a strange game with all the "wickets," "overs" and "silly mid ons," but at least I understand it now.  Well, sort of.


Above:  Punting (and kayaking) on the Avon River through the Botanical Gardens in Christchurch.

Despite the drippy weather, I thought Christchurch was a pretty city with a lot of interesting things in and around it, including a great botanical garden.  I’m not much into gardens but this one is terrific.  The Avon River meanders through the garden and “Punting on the Avon” is a popular, if perhaps a bit pretentious, activity.  "Punting" doesn't have anything to do with football, but rather it's like riding a gondola in Venice, except, well, they’re punts.  Another difference is that the “punters” or whatever they’re called ("puntsmen"?) wear white clothes and white hats and, of course, speak English (though with a Kiwi accent).  Remember what I said about the accent: “weast” is west and “dee-cade” is decade.


There’s a great museum near the botanical garden that has an interesting exhibit on the Antarctic expeditions of the early 1900s, since Christchurch was the departure point for most early Antarctic expeditions.  Christchurch continues to be the world’s main link to Antarctica and has more exhibits and museums devoted to Antarctica than any other city in the world.  This is where the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the Englishman Robert Scott left from in 1911 on their famous race to become the first person to visit the South Pole.  Amundsen, using sled dogs, got to the South Pole first, while Scott and his three companions arrived a month later, found a note from Amundsen, then froze to death during a despairing trudge back to their ship.



Left:  My room at The Academy motel, my home in Christchurch. 

I spent eight days here seeing the town and getting my website caught up (note my laptop on the table).




Above left:  The city tram in Christchurch. 

Above right:  This Sno-Cat, in the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, was used in Antarctica many years ago.



Above left:  Girls just wanna have fun. 

Above right:  Out on the Banks Peninsula east of town.  This is beautiful Akaroa Bay.



Above left:  Lyttleton (pronounced "Littleton") is the port city for Christchurch.  It's a pretty gritty town by New Zealand standards.

Above center:  A drydock in Lyttleton Harbor.  This harbor has been the starting point for expeditions to Antarctica for over a hundred years.

Above right:  The Rat & Roach, one place in New Zealand where I didn't eat.



Above left:  Riding on the gondola to the top of the Port Hills, which separate inland Christchurch (in the background) from Lyttleton Harbor.  I had a great time riding up to the top and enjoyed the 360-degree view here. 

Above center:  The Lyttleton Harbor from the top.

Above right:  There's also a little museum in the building at the top.  Here's Captain James Cook, the first European to explore New Zealand.  Cook discovered Hawaii, among many other places, and was killed there in 1779.

Wright Brothers, Step Aside?

Above:  The Richard Pearse memorial near Timaru.  This marks the spot where he crashed in 1903 after allegedly becoming the first person to ever fly an airplane.

I spent a week in Christchurch, then left on a cloudy afternoon and drove south on Highway 1 across the flat Canterbury plains, bound for the coastal resort town of Timaru a few hours away.  On my way there, I pulled off the highway and followed the signs down several country roads to a memorial dedicated to a man named Richard Pearse (1877 - 1953).


Dick Pearse was a tinkerer and loner who lived in a small village north of Timaru.  He was fascinated with air flight and around the turn of the century he spent many hours building a primitive plane powered by a two-cylinder engine that he designed himself.  Known as “Mad Pearse” or “Bamboo Dick” (a reference, I think – and hope – to the bamboo he used to construct his plane), he flew his crude plane for about a kilometer in March 1902, according to several eyewitnesses.  Apparently he then repeated the feat in March 1903 before he crashed. 


About nine months later, in December 1903, the Wright Brothers made their historic "first" flight at Kittyhawk, North Carolina.  The Wright Brothers, of course, were a bit smarter than Pearse because they had cameras rolling to document their flight.  Ah, the power of the media.


After his alleged flights, Dick Pearse faded into oblivion and died a recluse, spending his final years in a mental hospital in Christchurch.  Dick's story fascinated me since I'm a bit of a recluse and loner, too (though no one calls me "Bamboo Del").  If he was indeed the first person to fly, it will probably, and unfortunately, never be proven.  I think I would've liked Dick Pearse and I spent some time at his desolate memorial, surrounded by the quiet New Zealand countryside, paying my respects to him and his dreams of flight.

No Room At The Inn

After saying goodbye to Bamboo Dick, I got back on the highway and drove to the coastal town of Timaru (pop. 27,000).  Even though it was a Friday afternoon, I didn’t think I’d have trouble finding a place to stay that night because, according to my AA book, Timaru had about 25 motels.  As I discovered when I drove into town, though, they all seemed to be full, so I spent the next hour racing by the “No Vacancy” signs in Timaru trying to find a motel room, any motel room.  It finally paid off because, thanks to a cancellation, I snagged what turned out to be the very last motel room in town, at the Timaru Motor Lodge.  The nearest city was two hours away so I was very glad to get the room.


Above:  I've seen lots of "No Vacancy" signs in New Zealand these past few weeks.

While I was driving back and forth across town frantically searching for a room, I considered camping that night at a local campground.  I’m glad I didn’t, though, because a massive thunderstorm rolled through that evening while I was sitting in my warm and dry motel room.  In fact, a tree toppled over at the campground and crushed a tent, but fortunately no one was hurt.  A railroad bridge nearby also collapsed during the storm and a train derailed and plunged into the raging Rangitata River that night. 


I also thought about doing some hiking, but I’m glad I didn’t do that either, because two hikers were killed by flash floods from the storm.  Yeah, all things considered, I’m glad I stayed at the Timaru Motor Lodge!  By the way, these sorts of things have been happening nearly every day here in what's turning out to be a very soggy summer.


Frankly, the crowded motel situation, not just in Timaru but everywhere, has become very draining – no pun intended given our soggy weather – and makes me wish I was back in the U.S. now.  Fighting over motel rooms every night just isn't my idea of fun, despite the beautiful scenery here.  It’s more crowded in New Zealand now than anywhere I’ve ever visited in the U.S. during the summer months.  I definitely would not recommend visiting here between December and January unless you like crowded roads, crowded campgrounds, crowded towns (or perhaps the New Zealand rock band, Crowded House), and don’t mind sleeping in your car occasionally, which I’ve almost had to do a couple of times.


As I checked out of the Timaru Motor Lodge the next morning, I chatted with the motel owner, a friendly guy named Peter who, as I discovered, really enjoyed talking.  His eyes lit up when I asked him about a sign I’d seen referring to Phar Lap.  I don’t know much about horse-racing, but I’d vaguely heard of the racehorse Phar Lap, recalling that he was from Australia.  As Peter told me, Phar Lap was actually born right here in Timaru in the 1920s and then was bought by an Australian.  For several years, Phar Lap was the most dominant racehorse in the world, but he died soon after his first trip to America in 1931, apparently by a deliberate poisoning.


Horse racing is still big in Timaru and the local track is named after Phar Lap – as is a road, a farm, and even a Bed-and-Breakfast.  If you said that folks in Timaru are proud of their champion racehorse, you wouldn't be too phar from the truth.



Above left:  Parked at the Timaru Motor Lodge.  I had a nice chat in the morning with the owner and learned a lot about cricket.  Then I learned even more about Phar Lap.

Above center:  Timaru, New Zealand – a lively place during summer holiday.

Above right:  The Phar Lap memorial isn't very phar from Timaru.

The Peen-guins of Oamaru

I left Timaru in the late morning after visiting the Phar Lap memorial – which is on Phar Lap road, next to the Phar Lap Lodge – and continued driving down the coast on Highway 1.  A few hours later I reached the town of Oamaru (pronounced “AH-maru,” pop. 12,000).  I was going to drive on to Dunedin that afternoon but decided to check out this pleasant coastal town first.



Here's Lyle Lovett singing about those sensitive Penguins.


I drove through Oamaru, then stopped at a DOC (Department of Conservation) Visitor Center near the beach on the far side of town where a cute, soft-spoken ranger told me all about the Oamaru penguins.  According to the ranger, whom I could barely hear, there are penguins (or "peen-guins," as she quietly said with her New Zealand accent) just about everywhere in coastal New Zealand, but the best place to view them is right here in Oamaru.  Apparently, there's a colony of about 200 penguins living in a protected area just a few yards from the Visitor Center.  The penguins spend the day fishing in the ocean and return to the colony each evening around dusk.


Believe it or not, on most summer nights anywhere from 100 to 200 tourists pay $3 each to sit in the DOC grandstand and watch the penguins emerge from the ocean, waddle across the dirt path and head back to their little huts.  And believe it or not, after the ranger told me about this, I decided to spend the night in Oamaru and check out the penguin show too, never having seen a penguin except in a zoo.


Above:  The penguin colony (left) and DOC Visitor Center (right) in Oamaru.

I drove back into Oamaru and found a room at the pleasant Heritage Court motel.  I talked to Jerry, the motel's friendly owner, for a while and he gave me directions to the best fish & chips place in town.  As I'm discovering, fish & chips is the national dish here in New Zealand, so I stopped at the takeout restaurant and got a huge plate, and for only US$1.60.  I quickly discovered that fish and chips, when served with malt vinegar and some ketchup (oops, I mean "tomato sauce," as they call it here) is much better than the disgusting mutton sausages that I'd been having for dinner these past few weeks (see News:  January 1, 2002).


After my delicious dinner, I bundled up and headed back to the DOC Visitor Center for the Amazing Penguin Show.  I'm glad I got there two hours early, around dusk, because the grandstands were soon full and the latecomers packed in, peering through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the penguins (or "peen-guins") as they finally emerged, a couple hours after sunset, from the surf and waddled across the road – the penguins, that is, not the tourists.  As they waddled, each penguin quacked with a high-pitched squeal, sounding something like a duck being strangled.  It was certainly interesting and I’m glad I saw it, but sitting in a breezy grandstand for two hours on a chilly evening while waiting for penguins to waddle by is probably not something I’d do every night.


Not only does Oamaru have penguins, it also has some amazing architecture and it's probably the prettiest city I’ve visited in New Zealand so far.  Some parts of the town made me think I was walking through London in the 1800s.  There are even horse-drawn carriages, old penny-farthing bicycles (with the high front wheels), and a coal-powered train to complete the picture.  Oamaru is a delightful town and I spent several hours the next morning walking around and soaking up the nineteenth-century ambience.  This is definitely a place I’d like to visit again, even if there were no peen-guins.



Above left:  Sitting in the chilly grandstand that evening, waiting for the penguins to waddle in.

Above right:  Sure enough, they showed up a couple hours later.



Above left:  The folks in Oamaru are very protective of their beloved penguins. 

Above center:  "Dairies," or convenience stores, are found throughout New Zealand.  They're something like 7-11's or Circle K's in the U.S. but have a lot more personality and character.

Above right:  Riding a carriage through Oamaru's historic district.



Above left:  Tyne Street in Oamaru's historic district. 

Above right:  Street scene in Oamaru.


Above left:  I really love the layout of towns in New Zealand.  The shops are all packed together, not spread out like in the U.S.  This is Sunday morning, so there aren't any shoppers.

Above center:  I was fascinated by the architecture in Oamaru. 

Above right:  Santa celebrating with Jim Beam.

A Wee Bit O' Scotland

I said goodbye the next morning to Jerry, the cheerful owner of the Heritage Court motel (are there any other kind of motel owners in New Zealand?) then left Oamaru and continued driving down the beautiful southeastern coast of New Zealand.  The latitude in this area is about 45 degrees, or half-way between the equator and the South Pole, and the scenery here reminded me a lot of the Oregon Coast.  That's not surprising considering that Oregon is at the same latitude but, of course, is north of the equator.  There are no huge sand dunes here, Mo's Clam Chowder restaurants or wonderful State Parks, but it still reminded me a lot of the Oregon Coast.


Late that afternoon I pulled into Dunedin (pronounced “Dun-EDEN,” population 114,000), the second-largest city on the South Island and the site of a massive Scottish immigration during the late 1800s.  While Christchurch is decidedly English, Dunedin is definitely Scottish – right, laddie?  I’ve been in Dunedin for six days now and, thank goodness, still haven’t had any haggis, though I did see something called "black pudding" in the meat section of the grocery store last night.  It looked horrendous so you'll understand why I didn't buy any. 


I’ve spent much of my time here in Dunedin trying to fix my Canon D-30 digital camera but to no avail.  After giving up, I bought a Canon EOS Rebel film camera so, like I say, I'm once again shooting slides.  Between the demise of my D-30 camera, the cloudy and rainy skies, and the pervasive crowds (not to mention the "black pudding"), my visit to Dunedin hasn’t been a real high-point of my trip, unfortunately.


Dunedin seems like a wonderful city though, and if it ever stops raining I may have a chance to check it out.  I suppose I could visit all the museums and art galleries in town, but the place I really want to see is Baldwin Street, which, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the steepest street in the world.  Considering that my car’s brakes have been squealing a bit, though, I think I’ll probably walk it.



Above left:  Lunch stop on the way to Dunedin.  This area reminded me a lot of the Oregon Coast. 

Above right:  Kelp on the beach.



Above left:  The round boulders at Moeraki are a world-famous geological oddity – at least among geologists (or perhaps odd geologists).

Above right:  This is Karitane, just north of Dunedin.  Because of the rain, this would be the last time I'd see the ocean in six days.  I hope it's still out there!



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