Priscilla, the Beer-Swilling Pig


Priscilla’s sign makes it clear the lady is in want of a beer!

Charmed by a pig? Better yet, out-guzzled by a pig called Priscilla? Only in Tasmania. And only at the Pub in the Paddock.


As we drove through northeast Tasmania, I perused a guidebook between glances at the hilly, verdant countryside – a very unpopulated landscape, with the occasional farm tucked into small valleys. A short sidebar caught my eye, headlined “Pub in the Paddock.”

“There’s a pig called Priscilla up ahead that drinks beer,” I announced. “It’s at a place called ‘The Pub in the Paddock.’ We should stop and take a look.”

“Okay,” said my husband. “Sounds kind of interesting. Different at least.”

A few detours and missed turns – as well as stymied and thoroughly blocked by a recalcitrant herd of bovines in the roadway – we indeed found the pub, also known as St. Colomba Falls Hotel, smack in the middle of a paddock, as promised, in a large farm valley in Pyengana, Tasmania.

P1000590_Pub in the Paddock, Pyangana

And, indeed, the premises boasted a large pig, Priscilla II, in residence along with her companion and guzzler-in-training, Pinky:


Priscilla II, the Princess of the Paddock.



Pinky, Priscilla’s companion.

Priscilla the First had gone to the great mud hole in the sky, the pub’s barkeep informed us. (I refrained from asking if she’d died of cirrhosis and whether she’d ended up on the menu or under a gravestone. But I held my curiosity and tongue in check.) In short order, we’d plunked down our $2 for the specially-brewed, low alcohol pig ale and were off to the pigsty in search of Priscilla.


I guess the Pub in the Paddock sees Priscilla as a blonde. This specially brewed ale is of reduced alcoholic content. No reason to let the Princess drink herself  silly. 

Priscilla, it turned out, not only loves beer, she’s unwilling to give up the bottle. A “swill” is no exaggeration when it comes to this lady. Priscilla gripped that sucker with her teeth and would have made off with the bottle or pulled me into the pigsty with her to gulp down that beer. To say she savored her brew is so much of an understatement it should be deep in the muck of the pigsty. Nervous about losing the bottle down Priscilla’s gullet and possibly killing off the biggest tourist attraction in northeast Tasmania, I passed the bottle on to Michael:

P1000599_Priscilla II guzzling beer

Michael holding fast to the bottle while Priscilla drains it to the last drop.

Having taken her fill (leaving nary a drop) Priscilla ambled off, content to wait for the next sucker tourist to come her way, bottle in hand. But despite her somewhat piggy manners, Priscilla was worth the detour, the $2 watered-down beer and the fun of seeing a master tippler guzzle her brew. And in her own way, Priscilla was, well, charming. And didn’t smell too bad either.

Note on The Pub in the Paddock: The pub is both a full service pub and restaurant and also has a few hotel rooms. The interior is quite charming, with a decent looking menu; unfortunately, we’d already eaten lunch and simply settled for mid-afternoon coffee. And, of course, the pub is chock-full of porcine memorabilia.



The Pub in the Paddock has quite an operation going: branded beer (for both swine and human consumption), its own wine label, and enough porcine porcelain to decorate a dozen fusty sitting rooms.


And to quote another famous pig:





Australia’s Unusual Marsupials


Wild Koala in Kennett River, Victoria, Australia.

Australia holds many distinctions from other countries: for starters, it’s the only island that is both a continent and a country, and, it has many of the strangest and most lethal animals on earth. Of its many weird fauna, none are as instantly recognizable as Australian as the kangaroo and koala, two of many marsupial species found only Down Under. In fact, Australia holds 70% of the world’s marsupials, with the remainder found in the Americas, predominantly South America.

So why are Australian marsupials so special and extraordinary? Probably their sheer uniqueness in looks and physiology, for starters. Definitely at least one, the koala, gets the Oooh and Ahhh Cuteness Award, hands down. But what I find interesting is the variety among these marsupial mammals.



Grey or “Forester” Kangaroo at the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo in Taranna, Tasmania.


Australian Icon: The Kangaroo

Take the most famous of Australian mammal, the kangaroo. The roos, as Aussies like to call them, are unusual because they are the largest marsupials in the world, and claim an additional distinction of being classified as macropods, a suborder of marsupials with disproportionally large hind legs and feet, and, disproportionally short forelimbs.


Note the delicate forepaws of this Grey Kangaroo. Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, near Canberra in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory).

There are several species of kangaroo, with another dozen or so macropod marsupials ranging downwards in size from wallabies to pademelons to bettongs, also called rat kangaroos. Regardless of their size, these macropods’ long, strong rear legs give them their only form of locomotion: hopping.

Bettongia tropica (northern bettong) © Queensland Government

Bettong, or rat kangaroo, the smallest of the macropods. Source

Being a marsupial in the animal world means the female, a mammal, gives live birth to an incompletely formed fetus which continues to develop ex utero for several months within the female’s external pouch, feeding on the mother’s milk. Typically, the kangaroo offspring is called a “joey,” which also applies to the young of other pouched animals in the Australian marsupial order. With kangaroos the reproductive cycle gets even weirder as at any given time the mom could be nourishing three joeys in separate life stages: (1) an adolescent joey, out of the pouch, but still somewhat dependent on the mother’s milk; (2) a still-forming joey in the pouch, fully dependent on the female for life; (3) an unborn joey, just waiting to be “birthed” as soon as #2 moves out of the pouch. Or, as I like to think of it, the Kangaroo Halfway House.


Joeys often hang upside down in their mother’s pouch. This particular one looks rather relaxed…I thought it might be dead, the way it was just hanging there.

P1000337_Joey emerging from lunch & snooze

Eventually the joey emerged for a look-see. Apparently it didn’t like what it saw as it retracted back into Mom’s pouch. Both photos above taken at the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania.


A few more facts:

  • The kangaroo is the largest marsupial alive today; among the varieties of roos, the Western Red is the largest, with males averaging 200 lbs. and 2 meters/6+ ft. in height.
  • The Western Red Kangaroo. Source.

  • Eastern grey kangaroo/ Forester kangaroos can be as tall as the Reds, but have a smaller body mass. Males grow up to 6 ft.,& 145 lbs. (2+ m and 66 kg). They are quite fast and can reach speeds of 35 mph/56kmph. (This species is called “Eastern Grey” Kangaroo on mainland Australia and the “Forester” Kangaroo on the Australian island of Tasmania.

Michael making friends with a “mob” of young Forester kangaroos at the Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania. The kangaroos in their several-acre compound at the Unzoo were very tame and obviously not bothered by close contact with humans.

  • Among macropods, males are larger than females.
  • Tree kangaroos, such as Goodfellow’s below, are found in both eastern Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Goodfellow’s TreeKangaroo, Taronga Zoo, Sydney.

  • A group of wallabies or kangaroos is most often called a “mob,” but can also be referred to as a herd or troop.
  • Both kangaroo and wallaby females can provide two nutritionally different types of milk to their joeys (off-spring), both to the one still developing in the mother’s pouch, and to another, older joey out of the pouch but still needing supplemental nursing.

Adolescent joey nursing. The Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania.


Icon or Pest?

Now you’d think that Aussies hold the kangaroo in high esteem, since after all, the kangaroo is a national symbol — in fact, is the national animal — and is depicted on the Australian coat of arms.

P1000276_Australia's Coat of Arms

Neither the kangaroo nor the emu can walk backwards, and thus were chosen for the Australian coat of arms. Early “colonists” were British convicts, working off their sentences, followed later by voluntary immigrants, seeking a better life. For both groups, there was no “going backwards.” (Photo is of a display at the Melbourne Museum.)

Nevertheless, many Australians consider roos pests as well as dangerous impediments to highway driving. (Which they are: an adult Eastern grey kangaroo has a larger body mass than a white-tail deer, and we’ve all had experiences with how much damage to car and person a deer collision can cause.) But there are other dangers posed by kangaroos.

Kangaroos are found everywhere in Australia, including the desert, or outback, which comprises the bulk of the continent’s landmass. However, being herbivores, kangaroos tend to congregate where there’s plenty of vegetation, such as agricultural areas, and parks, lawns and gardens in more urban areas ringing the continent.

And…golf courses.

P1000120_Golf course near Eden, NSW

Golf course in Eden, New South Wales. The kangaroos are listening to loud wooden clappers wielded by golfers trying to scare the roos off the fairway.

One afternoon we spotted a large “mob” of a dozen plus kangaroos grazing on a fairway, surprisingly close to the highway. Pulling into the club parking lot, I skedaddled over to the edge of the fairway to get some photos. Somebody out of sight started banging clappers — loudly – and shouting at the kangaroos. At first the animals just raised on their haunches and stared at the source of the clapping, which I couldn’t see due to shrubs and trees shielding a bend in the course. As the clapping noise came closer, the kangaroos took off. The golfers appeared, the game went on.

Apparently, not all golf course-munching kangaroos are that skittish. The on-line edition of Golf Digest posted a video of two extremely rattled golfers in Australia taking off in their cart like bats out of hell, chased off the fairway by one royally pissed – and very fast — kangaroo. A Google search came up with several other entertaining videos of roos run amok. They really do “box,” using forearms and their huge hind legs to pound their opponents – it’s a bit like watching a male kangaroo version of Xtreme Martial Arts. Except XMA-ers don’t have lethally sharp hind claws that can eviscerate their rivals. No wonder those Aussie golfers were scared out of their minds.

All amusing roo stories aside, Australia, particularly along the eastern coast, has become inundated with kangaroos who are wreaking havoc in urban, agricultural and open-land areas. Mobs of kangaroos are “de-greening” huge swathes of parks and open land, as well as eating farmers’ crops – and causing vehicular accidents. As a result, for many years the national government has permitted the culling of up to 5 million kangaroos and wallabies per year, even though the kangaroo, the Australian national animal, is legally protected throughout the country. (Government estimates give the total number of kangaroos to be about 50 million. )

The government has specific regulations that the animals must be killed “humanely”, with a kill-shot to the brain or heart, and issues cull licenses only to individuals with proven marksmanship skills. The authorized hunts are conducted to eliminate kangaroos in an area where they have caused environmental destruction, or, hunts for “a commercial purpose…where the animal shot is to be used as a product to be sold within Australia or overseas.” (Source: the National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies for Commercial Purposes 2008.) “Product” is the hide and meat of the kangaroo; of the latter, 76% is exported to Russia. Who knew the Russkies had a hankering for Aussie roo?)

Australians are in continual debate about these cullings, both on ethical and legal bases. The issues are many and complex, not the least of which that Australia is the only country that authorizes the killing of its national animal, and that these “culls” supposedly constitute the largest kill-offs of any single species on earth (although I question if the kangaroo & wallaby “culls” are as massive as the white man’s wholesale slaughter of the American bison in the 1800s).



Rock wallabies at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, Australian Capital Territory. The wallbies’ brush diet is supplemented with hay and fruit by the Reserve staff.

Wallabies and Pademelons

Wallabies and pademelons are mid-sized to small macropods and closely related to the kangaroo. There are several species of both inhabiting mainland Australia and Tasmania.

Both are marsupial mammals and herbivores, but in general, wallabies are smaller than kangaroos, and pademelons are smaller than wallabies. There are other, morphological differences, and, generally, wallabies and pademelons prefer forested or brush and rocky areas where protection is more easily found. Their choice of habitat reflects their primary food source, leaves, along with some grasses, fruits and flowers, while kangaroos tend to eat mostly grasses. However, all these macropods – like their kangaroo cousins — like to plunder crops and gardens, earning themselves the enmity of farmers and gardeners throughout Australia. They are nearly equally good as kangaroos at causing thousands of road accidents each year. However, because of their smaller size, they tend to be on the wrong end of vehicular “intercepts” if the amount of roadkill is any indicator — especially among the small pademelons.

P1000327_Pademelon or Red-Necked Wallaby

Pademelon at the Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania. Normally very shy as a species, this pademelon, a larger male, allowed me to get within about 10 feet. Pademelons have extremely soft, fine fur and were once hunted for their pelts.

The species we saw most frequently were Rock or Swamp wallabies and the Tasmanian pademelon. As with kangaroos, many Australians regard wallabies and pademelons as pests. As I snapped my dozens of photos we heard more than one Aussie deride tourists’ fascination with these critters. I’m sure a heap load of Americans say the same thing about tourists gawking at and photographing bison — except wallabies and pademelons are a heck of a lot cuter and smaller and can’t kill you if you mistakenly try to pet them. Unlike bison.




Grumpy Gramps just after awakening. This koala is one of several rescued during the massive brush fires of 2003 in which thousands of koalas and other animals died. About 70% of the total land area of the Australia Capital Territory was destroyed or damaged during the fires. Those rescued animals which could be rehabilitated were returned to the wild; this koala and several others could not be released and are comfortably living in an artificial habitat at the Tidbindilla Nature Reserve.

Just “Koala,” Please!

Almost iconic as the kangaroo, the koala holds a special mushy place in hearts worldwide. Once called koala “bears,” the Politically Correct Zoological Police have been able to educate most of us to now chant, “They’re koalas, they’re marsupials, not bears.” Nevertheless, these fat, stubby, near-sighted and fuzzy-eared marsupes have continued to captivate peoples’ hearts and sappy adoration on a level rivaling the panda. However, this state of admiration hasn’t been the norm historically: through much of the 19th and well into the 20th c. koalas were hunted for their thick, soft fur. Souvenir shops commonly sold koala “toy animals” covered in real koala fur.

Nowadays the koala’s major threats are still human-related, but not through hunting: their greatest threat is from habitat destruction (primarily from land clearing, brush fires, and food source loss due to eucalyptus dieback), as well as vehicular traffic, and attacks by domestic dogs, feral cats, and foxes. Chlamydia is an endemic bacteria naturally occurring among the koalas, although not as a sexual disease. (No, koalas aren’t any more promiscuous than any other mammal.) The presence of chlamydia normally doesn’t kill off healthy koalas, but can weaken their systems in times of major stress, rendering the animals unable to recover. While not endangered or threatened as a whole, the Australian government has listed koalas only in certain mainland eastern zones as “threatened,” but has not as yet enacted legislation to actively protect koalas or limit habitat destruction.

The mostly nocturnal, tree-dwelling koala sleeps about 18-20 hours during the day, and when not sleeping, scoots languidly along the branches of eucalyptus trees munching on the tender leaves of its choice. They are fairly social animals among themselves and several will live harmoniously together within the same home range, but can be territorially protective against invading koalas.

P1000814_Taragna Zoo Koala

Koala at Taronga Zoo, Sydney. Note the thick digits and claws; these enable the koalas to climb about eucalyptus trees, their sole food source. These exceptionally strong and long claws can also be the koala’s only defense against predators (other than helping them to climb out of range).




A young devil at the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, Taranna, Tasmania.

Bedeviled in Tasmania

Tasmanian devils break the mold of the grazing, group-gregarious, gentle marsupial. Devils are strictly carnivorous, and nastily so; they are solitary, coming together primarily for mating, which itself is surprisingly brutal. Over-sized heads with bone-crushing jaws and razor teeth, devils unsurprisingly have a hellish reputation for an animal that averages 20 pounds. All in all, devils are one of the most aggressive and hard-living of marsupials – nothing like that lovable, Loony Tunes whirlwind Taz.



The devil can rip apart the flesh of prey with their razor teeth and forceful bite. The bromide that the devil has the greatest bite force of any mammal is not exactly true, but one would be a fool to stick fingers in this little guy’s mouth. Source, picture. Source, bite force.


Image result for looney tune cartoon tasmanian devil

The gaping jaws are probably the only similarity to the Looney Tune version of Taz.

Once found throughout Australia, devils are now native only to the island of Tasmania. Through the last 200 years devils have survived aggressive hunting from bounties placed on their heads by settlers seeking to protect their livestock (although devils rarely went after anything larger than chickens). Numbers steadily increased once the government extended total protection in 1941, but the Tasmanian devil is once again facing possible extinction, this time from a species-specific, virulently infectious, fatal cancer called the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) which first appeared in the mid-90s. Government experts have estimated that as much as three-fourths of wild devils have died due to DFTD. The Tasmanian devils are classified as endangered by the Australian government and world conservation organizations.

In the absence of any cure or vaccine, the Tasmanian Parks Service and conservationists are establishing protected DFTD-free zones and preserves, hoping to keep a small percentage of the wild devils healthy and breeding while allowing the diseased population to die off. Sounds cruel or defeatist, but with no cure or vaccine in sight, saving some of the species is currently the only recourse available, especially as the disease is rampant among the wild population. Fortunately, the devils in the few protected preserves seem to be breeding in sufficient numbers that could help provide and sustain a disease-free devil population for the future.


“Neville the Devil” at 6 years is a Senior Citizen. Nevertheless, he attacks his meal (a wallaby haunch) with great gusto and fierce growls.

P1000514_Neville the Devil asleep

Neville in repose. Tasmanian devils are mostly nocturnal and Neville as an aging devil likes his naps.

Some devilish facts:

  • When devils eat, they consume everything, including the bones of their prey.
  • Despite their aggressive, fearsome natures, devils are predominantly scavengers, not hunters.
  • Devils are primarily solitary and nocturnal.
  • Devils aren’t large, the size of a small but sturdy dog, with large males weighing up to 12 kg (26 lbs.).
  • The black coloration, bone-chilling screech and massive, toothy gape of the devil helps this critter live up to its name. Listen to a devil vocalization here.
  • The average devil lives to about 5-7 years.
  • Once hunted and reviled, the Tasmanian devil is now the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service.
P1000293_Two young Taz Devils

These two young devils were bred at the Unzoo. Hopefully, captive breeding programs will continue to produce healthy devils which can be released to the wild in the future to protected, DFTD-free zones to establish new, healthy populations.



Eastern Quolls

I’d never heard of the Eastern quoll, another of Australia’s carnivorous marsupials. About the size of a small cat, the Eastern quoll commonly is found these days only in Tasmania, which has a stable population of these little critters. Of the six extant species of quoll found in greater Australia, only the Eastern quoll has gone extinct on mainland Australia, although there have been claims of isolated sightings in the southeastern region in recent years.


Three young Eastern quolls. The fawn-colored duo are males; their coloring is typical of most quolls. The black and white is a female, and was much shyer than her male counterpart. The black and white coloring appears in about 30% of the quolls.

Some facts:

  • The quolls are carnivorous, eating insects, reptiles and small mammals, especially rodents; they will both hunt and scavenge.
  • In the wild they are fairly solitary, congregating primarily for mating.
  • They are crepuscular/nocturnal in the wild.
  • Certain predators such as foxes, dogs and cats prey on the Eastern quoll as well as compete with them for food.
  • The greatest threat to quolls is habitat destruction from human activities: urbanization, agricultural expansion, and mining. Forest and brush fires also have destroyed much habitat.
  • The quoll is often referred to as the “native cat.” In fact, many settlers kept quolls as pets, as these little carnivores often kept the farmstead free of mice and rats.


And last but definitely not least….

Wombat in sun

The wombat. Definitely a very unusual animal. Source.

The Wombat

Confession time: I never saw a live wombat once during our 6 weeks in Australia. Stuffed wombats in dead-wildlife displays, dead wombats on the road verge – saw lots of those. Not one in the flesh, alive. But, wombats are among the oddest of Australia’s marsupials, which is why I saved them for last.

These large, pudgy, furry marsupials are herbivores, feeding on grasses, roots, moss and even bark. They look like small, barrel-like bears, and have strong legs and long claws for digging burrows.

As always, some basic facts: (But wait! There’s more!)

  • Wombats are the closest relative to the koala.
  • Generally they are solitary, but live in extensive burrow systems. These multi-chambered burrows may be occupied by a number of wombats, but with one wombat per den within the burrow.
  • Wombats only produce one offspring every 2 years.
  • They are primarily nocturnal but also crepuscular as well.
  • The wombat can reach a meter or 40 in. in length, with an average weight between 20 and 35 kg (44 to 77 lbs.).
  • Wombats are deceptively fast, running at speeds of up to 40 km or 25 miles per hour. Unfortunately, they aren’t fast enough; they have a high fatality rate along highways, despite the frequent Wombat Warning signs.


Yes, there really are wombat warning signs along the highways, along with similar signs for kangaroos, koalas, and other critters. Source.

  • Wombats suffer from sarcoptic mange, caused by a parasite. Once infected, the animal eventually becomes blind and deaf, and often dies from bacterial infections, if not starvation. Die-off in Eastern Australia has been massive.

The penultimate fun fact about wombats:

  • Wombats have very strong, tough butts. If attacked by another animal, the wombat jumps into its burrow, using its butt to block the burrow entrance. If the attacking animal persists (foolishly) in attempting to unwedge or bite-and-pull out the wombat by worming its head into the burrow, the wombat uses its powerful hind legs to suddenly push its massive butt up, crushing the attacker’s skull. (Now that’s impressive. The “killer-butt maneuver.”) Wombats must have a thing about butts, because that’s what they aim for when they attack another animal.

But the most interesting feature of wombats is their “fecal waste,” those cubed pellets of poop:

wombat poop

Wombat poop. Tootsie Rolls, anyone? Source.

Yup. Wombats poop out cubes. A lot of them. As do many animals, wombats use their scat to to “mark” their territory, strewing up to 100 of these squared off Tootsie Roll-like cubes around their turf.  Nothing new or different with their intentions to poop and mark – but in cubes?

Image result for bearman cartoon wombats

So, hats off to the lowly, weird wombat, probably the weirdest marsupial in Australia.

Who’d’ve thunk it?


Image result for looney toons logo




Stunning Sydney

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Sydney Harbor Bridge with the Opera House in the distance.

Sydney Harbor without a doubt defines the city of Sydney, Australia.Distinguishing landmarks such as the Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge simply help define this long, magnificent stretch of water. As symbolic as the Opera House is to the city, if it were not located on the harbor, much of its unique beauty would be diminished. Strong words, yes, but now having spent nearly 2 weeks in Sydney — much of it on or next to the harbor — I feel able to stake this opinion. Three factors brought me into the fold of devoted Sydney fans: the Opera House, the James Craig, an 1840 barque of the Sydney Heritage Fleet & the Maritime Museum, and the city’s harbor fleet.

Sydney operates a fleet of vessels from catamarans to refurbished tugs that are the harbor contingent of the city’s transportation system. The city is spread across the northern and southern shores for about 40 kilometers from the headlands on the Tasman Sea to where the Paramatta River empties into the harbor in the west, the ferry system is a complex web which is thoroughly enjoyable to travel upon. We spent many hours traversing the harbor on the ferry system, a very enjoyable and relaxing mode of transportation that shows off the harbor’s treasures.



Sydney Opera House — simply none other like it.

View a picture of Jorn Utzon’s innovative Opera House and you immediately recognize the setting as Sydney, Australia.

The Sydney Opera House has become as iconic to Sydney as the Eiffel tower is to Paris. What most people do not realize, is that the Sydney Opera House came close to never being built.

For starters, Utzon’s simple schematic – he didn’t submit architectural drawings – initially didn’t come close to making the short list. When a fourth person, belatedly, was added to the original design committee, he insisted on reviewing all the submissions. Spotting Utzon’s design, he pulled it from the rejection pile and requested a second review.

And just like that, Utzon shot from obscurity as a minor Danish architect to front page news.

The road from acceptance of a basic line drawing to a finished, functioning arts venue was neither easy nor pleasant. While the construction followed Utzon’s original design, the interior was designed and made functional by other architects and engineers. “Professional disagreements,” or squabbles between design committee, architect(s), engineers, and others; massive cost overruns; hash-slinging in the media; led to withholding of funding and even project termination due to a change in government. The wrangling between Utzon, the engineers and other architects, and the project’s various powerful backers became so inflamed that Utzon left Australia in 1966, washing his hands of the entire process, never to return during his lifetime to see the completion of his greatest work

Photo of opera house with ferry

Nonetheless, the political issues, the architectural and engineering snafus and even the funding were smoothed out sufficiently for the Opera House to be completed and open its doors in 1973 – 14 years after construction began. The project at completion was also severely in the red. The solution? A national lottery. Over several years the special lottery raised over $105 million – debt paid. Even the feud between Utzon and Sydney was resolved 1999. Although invited back to Sydney to see “his” opera house, Utzon was unable to return to Australia due to fragile health in his declining years. However, his son, also an architect, has continued to work with the city — with Jorn’s participation before his death in 2008 – to lay out Design Principles to govern future  renovations or modifications to the facility.


The exterior tiles of the Opera House are multi-layered ceramic of slightly different shades of both glossy and matte white, designed to radiantly reflect ambient light both day and night.

The third aspect that made Sydney special to us was the Australian National Maritime Museum and, specifically, our day cruise on the James Craig, a renovated 1840 square sailed merchant barque on loan to the museum. Rescued from a slow, rusting death in Tasmania, the ship was restored over a 20+ year period and is part of the Sydney Heritage Fleet. Usually a replica of Captain James Cook’s Endeavor occupies this berth at the museum, but she was on exhibit elsewhere in Australia at the time of our visit. The James Craig  is the only known 19th century merchant vessel still afloat, under sail, and taking on passengers on cruises. We were lucky enough to do so.


The James Craig as seen from the Maritime Museum’s 1920 lighthouse relocated from Queensland, Australia.

We spent nearly 5 hours touring the historic lighthouse and several retired commercial and naval vessels. When we were informed that a special cruise on the  James Craig was scheduled for the next day, we signed on. Guests could participate as they wished in the manning of the ship, and many of us did, from hauling on lines to raise or lower sails, or determining speed the old fashioned way with a knotted rope and wood plank, and ringing the hours on the ship’s bell (my forte). With perfect weather, the day was exceptional.


Michael and other volunteers readying to haul on a line to raise some sheets (sails).


Square-rigged sails lowered by the volunteer crew as we sailed into harbor.


Just a pretty shot I wanted to include.


As we returned to Sydney from the headlands of the harbor, it seemed that every boat in the region was taking advantage of the perfect weather and wind conditions to have a sail.


Crew hauling in the sails and rigging.

And end to a perfect day — perfect two weeks — in Sydney. The James Craig battened down for the night.

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The James Craig at dock for the night.


The Best of New Zealand: Mt. Cook and Doubtful Sound

Mt. Cook, known also by its Maori name, Aoraki, is the tallest mountain in New Zealand at 3754 meters. The lake is formed from melted glacier ice which gives the water beautiful hues from turquoise to cobalt, depending on the depth and amount of sediment in the water.



New Zealand is a small country yet chock-filled with natural beauty everywhere you look. It’s difficult to name any particular site as my favorite — and I certainly haven’t seen every square meter of NZ — but I’ve settled on two: Aoraki, also known as Mt. Cook, and Doubtful Sound, both on the South Island.

Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park

We spent three days in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park, hiking, sightseeing, and taking a thousand pictures. Aoraki absolutely captivated both of us. There are certain places in the world that capture the soul of everyone regardless of their background or beliefs. I believe Mt. Aoraki is one of them. The Maori name, Aoraki, means “cloud piercer,” and for centuries has been a sacred spot for Maoris. The great mountain certainly emits a form of raw splendor and an irresistible pull for people, regardless of whether they aim to climb it or simply bask in its beauty.

Aoraki is not a simple mountain to summit. Mountaineers deem it a highly technica, difficult climb. Sir Edmund Hillary first climbed Aoraki in January, 1948 and was part of the first team to scale the South Face of Aoraki a month later. Hillary prepared for the first succcesssful Everest ascent of 1953 by climbing Aoraki and other South Island Mountains.

IMG_9864_zSir Edmund Hillary statue

Statue of Sir Edmund Hillary as he was on the successful Everest ascent in 1953. It stands on the deck of the Hermitage Hotel in AorakiMt. Cook Village within the national park.


Aoraki as seen from the foot of the Hillary statue. The weather often blows from the west and the Tasman Sea, often causing rapid and extreme weather conditions. Upwards of 70 climbers a year are rescued from the heights of Aoraki.

We hiked several trails (or parts thereof) in the park. One of the most popular is Hooker Valley Track, which winds past the Hooker Glacier and Lake Mueller in its initial stages.


Hooker Glacier with Lake Mueller in the foreground.


The left peak is Mt. Sefton; at far right is The Footstool.


A huge moraine wall from the Mueller and Hooker glaciers. Mt. Aoraki stands in the background.

IMG_9938_Lake Tasman with glacier remnants, kayaks

Milky Tasman Lake at the foot of the Tasman Glacier, the longest in NZ. We tried for 3 days to go kayaking on this lake but the excursion was cancelled each day due to high winds.


Aoraki as seen from Lake Tasman; this is the eastern face, from which it is easier to see the triple peaks of the mountain.

Aoraki is 3754 meters high, 10 meters shorter than it was 25 years ago. In 1991 a massive avalanche — a common occurrence on the mountain — shaved 10 meters off the mountain top and caused such a rumble that the slide caused a 3.9 earthquake.


Our last look at Aoraki before heading to the Christchurch airport and Australia.


Doubtful Sound

Most tourists traveling to New Zealand’s Fjordland opt to take a 2-3 hour boat ride on Milford Sound, one of the dozens of fjords carved into the southwestern coast. We preferred to take an overnight cruise on a less-sailed fjord, Doubtful Sound. Deep Cove Charters, with whom we booked, carried no more than 12 passengers on its boat — a far cry from some of the fjord cruisers which have upwards of 100 people on their day trips. Our decision turned out to be a marvelous one. From the moment we departed the dock in Manapouri, we were on an adventure in a natural wonderland.


Dusk on Lake Manapouri — easily one of my favorite lakes in New Zealand.

Getting to Doubtful Sound was a bit more complicated than hopping a tourist bus. We took a 1-hr. boat ride across Manapouri, then the boat captain picked us up and drove us to the far side of these mountains, where we picked up the boat on Doubtful Sound. The extra travel was well worth it.

IMG_9627_First glimpse of Doubtful Sound. Waterfall is in background right of center.

First look at Doubtful Sound from the top of the mountains’ pass.


Another boat on the Sound — just to give some perspective.

After getting settled, the first order of business was lunch, fresh-caught lobster (or crawfish, as the Kiwis call it). And then the adventure began. The variety of landscape and wildlife within the Sound was amazing: penguins, dolphins, fish (and sharks), fur seals, albatross and seagulls, and waterfalls cascading off the steep slopes everywhere you looked. It didn’t matter too much that our two days’ were cloudy and ended in a light drizzle — the fjord was delightful.

IMG_9642 (2)

Crested Fjordland penguins.


This penguin steadfastly held his ground despite gawking kayakers and boaters.


Most of the passengers went fishing off the stern. For the most part, we caught perch, sea bass, and a few blue cod. One guy reeled in this 4-ft. school shark. The captain earned a lot of gold stars from me for hauling it on board to remove the hook (despite some very sharp, triangular teeth) and returning it to the fjord.


A Buller’s Albatross. Several of these birds as well as some Stewart Island albatrosses followed our boat. The captain used some of the smaller perch we caught to toss to the birds, so we had an ample entourage of seabirds.


A Buller’s in flight.


A sleek-winged Stewart Island albatross in flight.

IMG_9690_Buller's Albatross Landing

A squawking Buller’s comes in for landing and free fish.


The captain and mate pulled some set lobster traps. In one trap, an octopus showed up with the lobsters. When tipped out of the trap it rapidly crawled across the deck to the nearest scupper and disappeared overboard. We dined that night on fresh-caught fish and had some of these lobsters the next day for lunch. Lobster twice in 24 hours!


Three adolescent pups were part of a huge colony of New Zealand fur seals near the mouth of the Sound.


And so we said goodbye to Doubtful Sound, just one of the incredible sights in New Zealand.

Off-Track in New Zealand

IMG_9215_Lighthouse, Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula.JPG

Lighthouse on Taiaroa Head, Otago Peinsula, South Island, New Zealand. A Royal Albatross rides the thermals at center left. The Royal Albatross Colony protects the only “mainland” breeding colony for these magnificent birds in the world.


Traveling off the beaten path without an itinerary or reservations can lead to some unexpected pleasures and adventures. this devil-may-care approach can and has landed us in unnerving situations, but in Otago, South Island of New Zealand, we found ourselves happily diverted to unusual events and sights. At least one — a sheep shearing contest — certainly isn’t on your average tourist itinerary.

Sheep Shearing in Balclutha, Otago

Finding ourselves with some extra days, we decided to head to The Catlins in NZ’s southeastern corner to see or ourselves the magnificent terrain. Entering the town of Balclutha, I spied a sign advertising a sheep shearing competition. We decided we just had to go.

IMG_8937_Balacluth-Otago Sheep Shearing_the contestants, NZ v. Wales

The contestants line up: the men in black are Kiwis, the men in red are challengers from Wales, UK. 

The contest centered around an “international” competition highlighting the shearing prowess of native Kiwis against Wales’ best shearers. The competition was amazing. The entire process had hawk-eyed judges examining shearers’ technique (not good to nick the sheep too many times) and assure that no cheating occurred. (I wasn’t sure about the “no cheating” bit; is cheating leaving too much wool on the sheep or ripping it off the sheep with something other than the prescribed set of shears?)

Throughout the competition every clip and buzz of the shears was narrated by a man who sounded somewhere between a carnival barker and the guy who calls the Kentucky Derby. And wool was flying everywhere. It appeared that whoever sheared ten sheep first, won. The Kiwi who finished first sheared his ten in less than 20 minutes, which seemed pretty fast to me.




The competition looked back-breaking for both shearers and sheep.

What was interesting was watching the wool-gatherers — almost all women and no slouches — as they scurried around gathering up the shorn wool, sorting it in a mad frenzy of whirling arms into different baskets, or swiftly sweeping up those pesky remnants of wool balls all over the floor. I later found out that the wool-gatherers are also judged as to how well they sort the wool. Apparently you have to put the belly wool in one basket, armpit wool in another, dirty, backside wool in yet another. (OK, I’m probably exaggerating a bit here, but not much. there really are standards and rules for wool sorting.) In fact, there are a whole host of shearing rules that must be adhered to; an infraction leads to added points, and, as in golf, the less points you accrue, the better you are.

IMG_8969_The sorters

Wool-sorters picking feverishly through the wool. 

Needless to say, the Kiwis won. The two Men in Black will advance to the National Sheep Shearing Competition.

On to the Catlins

Having amused ourselves with the shearing competition, we set off again for The Catlins, a scenic stretch of southeastern NZ coastline with peaks and bays, blowholes and rocks waiting to cause a shipwreck. Absolutely breathtaking.

IMG_9025_Roaring Bay, south of Nugget Point, Catlins

Roaring Bay, south of Nugget Point.


Sea grasses in the breeze at Nugget Point.

IMG_9040_Taurakapanui Falls

Purukaunui Falls. Being summer, these tiered falls were a bit low on water, but still beautiful. 


The walk to the falls led through some beautiful forest, lush at all levels.

Onward to Otago Peninsula

We spent three delightful days exploring the Otago Peninsula in the southeast of NZ’s South Island, east of the city of Dunedin. The scenery was stunning, which we eagerly explored, but the real draw for us was the wildlife.


A Royal Albatross raises up to allow the nesting chick to cool off. The adult’s open mouth also indicates that she (or he, both parents take tuns on the nest) is also feeling the heat.

I mentioned in the beginning the Royal Albatross Colony on Taiaroa Head, at the tip of the Peninsula. We hiked to the top of the RAC’s land to observe nesting albatrosses. The staff at the center take seriously their mission to protect this magnificent birds and assist in their breeding. On hot days such as the day we visited, rangers turn on sprinklers planted at intervals among the nests to give the laying birds a cooling mist.

The Royal Albatross is second only to the Wandering Albatross in wingspan; the RA  runs an average of a 3 m. span (9.8+ ft.). They generally lay an egg every other year; the juvenile albatross leaves the home territory at about age 9-12 months, and stays aloft at sea for five years before returning to the natal home. The juniors usually are usually about 7+ years old before they find a mate and begin to reproduce. A combination of their late breeding and the devastation in numbers during the 19th-20th c. keep their numbers sufficiently low to be considered vulnerable.

IMG_9172_Blue Penguins, Otago Peninsula

Little Blue Penguins coming ashore at night, Otago Peninsula.

My favorite of the wildlife we observed were the Blue Penguins, the smallest of the 17 penguin species. Previously we had seen up close a molting Blue in Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, east of Christ Church, and, observed in Omaru the penguins’ ritual nighttime “parade” as they waddled ashore from a long day’s hunting out in the ocean. Otago is the only place in NZ where people are allowed to photograph these extremely shy birds, and only without use of flash.

IMG_8738_Molting blue penguin in nestig box

Blue penguins molt 1-2 times a year. During this phase, they are extremely vulnerable to introduced predators such as the Australian possum, stoats, weasels, feral cats, rats and even wild pigs. Many conservation groups as well as farmers are providing nesting boxes as safe havens for these threatened birds during their most vulnerable times: breeding and molting.

IMG_9202_Little Shag or cormarants, Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula

The slopes of Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula are home to large colonies of Little Shags, as the Kiwis call this local cormorant.

IMG_9257_Yellow Eyed Penguin coming in to shore in late afternoon, Otago Peninsula

A Yellow-eyed Penguin — found only in NZ — waddles ashore late afternoon. They are among the rarest of penguin species and are considered highly vulnerable.


A rare close-up of a yellow-eyed penguin. Each penguin marches off the beach and into the scrub to his/her territory for the night. Note the yellow device in the foreground. It is part of a trap to ensnare and kill stoats, one of several invasive species that have threatened most of NZ’s birds near to extinction if not a vulnerable status. The farmer who owns this land has partitioned off several expanses to be used for penguin and other species’ habitat. In addition to Blue & yellow-eyed penguin nesting boxes, he places traps every few meters in the conservation zones to help eliminate these predators.


These sea lions couldn’t have cared less that we were taking their picture.


Young NZ fur seal. Once nearly hunted to extinction, this species has rebounded quite well and is beginning to thrive.


One other form of critter caught our attention, but not out in the wild but at the Otago Museum’s Discovery World Tropical Forest, a multi-story tropical rain forest biosphere full of butterflies and moths from around the world. I became a bit attached to them myself.


For some reason, these paper kites from SE Asia decided to light upon me — at one point there were 4 or 5.

IMG_9364_Paper Kite from SE Asia


I’m not sure what species this is. My only complaint about the museum’s butterfly exhibit was the distinct lack of signage or photo identification of the butterflies.


A last look at a Blue Penguin heading “home” for the night. 

Only in New Zealand

Part of the fun of traveling is to learn about new cultures and people. Learning a bit about the language, customs and peculiarities of a country adds to your understanding and appreciation. For the last five weeks we’ve combed the North & South Islands of New Zealand, and have come to love the country, its natural bounty, and, yes, those quirky New Zealanders. Except…they’re not called “New Zealanders,” but “Kiwis.” And this is where learning the ins and outs of New Zealand (also known as “En Zed” for “NZ”) becomes a challenge.
And that’s because a NZ’er person is a Kiwi…
whereas a kiwi is the national bird, despite being flightless, short-sighted, very shy, and on the edge of extinction:
There are two other kiwis, just to be confusing, but both are inanimate:
There is the kiwi fruit, which, just to be clear, didn’t originate in New Zealand but in China, but nevertheless New Zealand is now a major producer of the fruit:
stock photo of kiwi-fruit - kiwi fruit on white background - JPG  and, there is the Kiwi Shoe Polish:
Image result for kiwi shoe polishwhich was invented by an Australian who chose the kiwi (with a small “k”) bird as the name and logo of the polish to honor his New Zealand-born wife who was, of course, a Kiwi with a capital “K”.
It is safe to say that Kiwis (the people) take kiwis (birds, fruit,  the polish and the kitchen sink) seriously:


IMG_9786_Chocolate Easter Kiwis

Chocolate kiwis for Easter.



But to return to the heart of our discoveries, Kiwis have a great sense of humor as well as practicality which result in surprising discoveries along the way — as well as colorful “Kiwi speak.” Such as finding a picture of Dino the Flintstones’ pet dinosaur displayed in an exhibit on earthquake monitoring in the Auckland Museum.

IMG_8200_Dino at a volcanic monitoring site, White Island

No one knows the identity of the prankster who left “Dino” next to the earthquake monitoring device & webcam. Schoolchildren all over New Zealand have enjoyed Dino’s own website which “reports” on geothermal activity at his new home on White Island.


The scientists found this amusing enough to leave Dino there and have used film footage from the web cam — and Dino — in educating school children about earthquake monitoring and geothermal activity.

Despite the frequent disruption of earthquakes and eruptions, Kiwis manage to accomplish quite a number of things: a Kiwi, Edmund Hillary, was the first man to summit Mt. Everest; Kiwis are acclaimed in the arts (Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fame); in the sciences eminent physicist Ernest Rutherford won the 1908 Nobel prize in chemistry (among other accomplishments he discovered radon and the first to split an atom); and sports — need we say more? The New Zealand All Blacks have ruled world rugby for decades. Maybe it’s their Maori haka (war dance) that scares the bejesus out of their opponents:

New Zealand’s world champion All Blacks performing their haka or Maori war dance before each game. As in war, this particular haka is supposed to terrify and immobilize their opponents.


Kiwis grow (in addition to kiwi fruit) a whole lot of sweet potatoes, known collectively in NZ as kumara. There are so many kumara grown, especially on the North Island, that one small town, Dargaville, claims the honor of “New Zealand’s Kumara Capital.”

Kūmara capital

Dargaville won the bragging rights for this title. Close to a dozen varieties of kumara are grown in the area; most varieties were developed in NZ.


Not to be outdone by such namby pamby fellow Kiwis, A.J. Hackett popularized the modern form of bungy jumping by performing the first bungy jump of the Auckland Harbor bridge in 1986. (A centuries-earlier form of bungy jumping had been a ceremonial activity among Vanuatu men. However, in that tradition, the men had to strike the ground with their heads; he who lived, won. Hackett must have realized smacking clients’ heads on the ground from 100 meters up wasn’t good for his insurance premiums, because that pulverizing form of bungy jumping is OUT. However, you can, if bungeeing off a great height over water, can opt to get dunked during the jump.) Regardless of how it’s currently done, bungy jumping is now a national past time in New Zealand, with intrepid souls leaping off all kinds of towering edifices, from the Sky Tower in Auckland and just about any bridge, building or ledge high enough to give one a thrill.

Bungy jumping off a mountain in Queenstown.


The surprises just kept coming with this country. A couple of British tourists we met on a wine tour encouraged us to visit the public toilets in Kawakawa (North Island). I’d heard of these colorful receptacles of human “sanitary waste” and was planning to stop by anyway, and a quick (and free!) pit stop showed why the Kawakawa facilities are so famous:


Entrance to the public toilets in Kawakawa. The Austrian artist and environmental activist Friedenreich Hundertwasser, who relocated to NZ after WWII, decorated his adoptive town’s toilet facilities using recycled materials.


IMG_8328 IMG_8330

Kawakawa now attracts a huge number of visitors just because of their colorful public (and free) toilet facilities.

Two other local sights deserve honorable mention:


This colorful, larger than life kiwi greets motorists entering the small town of Otorohanga, and serves as an advert for the Kiwi House, a wildlife preserve featuring native birds including the kiwi.

IMG_8744_Silo Motel

The Silo Hotel in Little River, near Christchurch, South Island. Note the little balconies added to the sides of the silos and the bicycle motif.


And now for charming linguistic oddities. New Zealanders are unfailingly polite, so we didn’t learn any off-color phrases, but there are several colorful terms we came across:

chilly bin — a cooler. (My absolute favorite Kiwi term! And a proud owner of my own Kiwi chilly bin!)

the long drop — outhouse. Speaks for itself.


flash — fancy, splashy, and not in an approving way.

panel beaters — car body shop

a butty — a sausage roll, that delicious, irresistible, greasy sausage in pastry with cardiac-arresting amounts of fat and cholesterol. And they go straight to the butty, too. Can’t pass them up!

a bach — pronounced “batch,” is a holiday cottage or dwelling fairly small and rustic. Probably comes from the longer term, “bachelor’s quarters.”

jandals — usually denotes flip flops but can also include other types of plastic sandals. The term originated in the late ’50s in NZ. Although there are competing claims as to who coined the term, all agree it’s a distillation of “Japanese sandals,” the phrase used for zoris in Japan. As a measure of how popular these flip flops are, New Zealand has “National Jandal Day.” Seriously. (And, seriously, the purpose of this unofficial national day is to raise money for coastal lifeguards & lifesaving training.)

And for the absolutely most tongue-twisting word I’ve come across in 5 weeks in NZ, the Maori name of a small (305 meters high) hill on the North Island, Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikmaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu.

But don’t ask how to pronounce it!

Steaming about Volcanoes


Mounts Tongiriro & Ngaruhoe loom over Lake Taupo. Mt. Ruapehu (below) is the third active volcano overlooking the lake.

IMG_8472_ Mt. Ruapehu, the highest mountain on the North Island

Mt. Ruapehu, the highest mountain on New Zealand’s North Island. The multi-crested volcano holds snow on its peaks year round.

Lake Taupo sits astride New Zealand’s most active geothermal area. That’s quite a bit of geothermal “activity” considering New Zealand is a land of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, boiling mud holes, and steaming pools and vents. In fact, Lake Taupo is the caldera of extinct Mt. Oruanui which, when it last erupted 26,500 years ago, was the largest volcanic eruption ever. One guide states, Oruanui made Krakatoa “look like a pimple.” In its last explosion in 180 AD, red skies resulting from the sheer volume of ejected volcanic ash were noted in both Rome and China.

The Waikato River, NZ’s longest, flows from Lake Taupo (pronounced “toe-paw”). One of the first gorges the river winds through produces the magnificent Huka Falls, a stunnning turquoise 10 meter blue cascade that surges through the narrow chasm at a rate of 200,000 liters per second.

IMG_8451_Huka Falls, Taupo

Huka Falls flows through this narrow gorge at 200,000 liters of water per second.

IMG_8453_Looking down Huka Falls

Looking down river through the narrow gorge forming the bottleneck creating Huka Falls.

IMG_8460_200,00 l. per second flows through the falls' gorge

The brilliant color is a combination of glacier melt and sediment from pumice stone.

We spent a day in Tongoriro National Park, New Zealand’s first national park, and named after the multi-coned volcano of the same name. Mt. Tongoriro (1967 m.) is an active volcano which most recently blasted volcanic spurts in 2012. Neighboring, single-coned Mt. Ngauruhoe (2297 m.) which erupted 45 times in the 20th century, erupted continuously in 1974-5 for 11 months. The volcano is most famous, however, as “Mt. Doom” in Kiwi native Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The tallest of this volcanic trio is Mt. Ruapehu (2797 m.), one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Ruapehu last burped in 1973, but is most infamous for its disastrous eruption on Christmas Eve, 1953, when the volcano blew, causing a massive lahar (volcanic mud flow) down its sides which swept away all in its path, including a railway bridge. Moments later a passenger train unable to stop, flew off the mountain side into a river gorge below, killing 153 holidaymakers on board.

Testing our luck and the fates, we decided to ride the chair lift up Mt. Ruapehu and were rewarded with spectacular views.


The lower level chair lift ascending Mt. Ruapehu. The mountain side below is strewn with scoria, or volcanic lava rock. The multiple volcanic cones of the mountain loom above.

IMG_8498Mt. Doom & tongiriro

Impressive views of Mt. Doom in the foreground, and Mt. Tongoriro, behind.

There is a beautiful Crater Lake further up Mt. Ruapehu, but we were unable to make the 3-4 hour hike up from the last chair lift stop on the mountain. We spent the day walking or driving around various parts of the park, taking shorter hikes. No matter the angle, the views of these three volcanoes are stunning. As we were leaving the park, I spied a stream of steam rising from one of the small cones on the flanks of Mt. Ruapehu:


Yup — Mt. Ruapehu is still kicking — and steaming. I viewed this as a farewell venting from the volcano, just letting us know we were lucky that day!


Back at Lake Taupo, we visited the Aratiatia hydroelectric dam and gorge. The dam holds back the mighty Waikato River to cull some of its hydro power into electricity for the region. Because of the sheer volume of water, the engineers open the sluice gates several times a day, creating brief but powerful waterfalls and surges, filling the rocky gorge below the dam with spectacular rapids for several minutes before closing the gates again.

IMG_8515_Aratiatia Dam on the Waikato River

The sluice gates at the Aratitia Dam before opening.

IMG_8516_empty gorge & pool below the dam

The rocky gorge beyond the dam. Note how the gorge looks impassable due to the numerous, tall rocks.


About 10 minutes since the gates were opened, the rising water has come partway up the gorge.

IMG_8528_10 min. into the dam's release, the seemingly impassable rock-filled gorge is mostly underwataer

The gorge is nearly full, and the river’s surge is still flowing.


The gorge is nearly filled….

IMG_8536_The waters receding as the gorge discharges its pent up water to below where the river widens

About 15 minutes after the gates opened, the gorge has filled and begun to empty again.

IMG_8541_About 20 minutes after the dam gates open, the grge has filled and re-emptied to close to its rockiest

Twenty minutes later, the waters have almost entirely receded, only to start the cycle again in another hour or so.

The highly active geothermal zone on the North Island runs from the Lake Taupo area northwest through Rotorua to White Island off shore in the Bay of Plenty. We chose to stay in the Lake Taupo area for several days because of the sheer beauty of the lake and mountains. We paid a nominal visit to Rotorua, the “hot spot” of the North Island, just to check it out. Broadly commercialized and lacking any interest for us, we walked around the town a bit, just to see some of the vents and mud pits, then left. However, there are a number of geothermal “parks” (read natural geysers, vents, mud pools, etc.) which are available for tourists to visit; most have some sort of “draw,” such as “cultural” event featuring a Maori haka (dance) or hangi (traditional feast) to supplement the natural, geothermal sights. Just a sample of what we saw in Rotorua:


IMG_8544_Boiling mud pool in Rotarua

Boiling mud hole in Rotorua.


Steam rising from a thermal pool.

The Taupo region is filled with spectacular scenery and constant geothermal activity. The area is considered highly unstable because of this geothermal zone, but, so is the rest of the country. New Zealand takes these threats seriously: Visitor centers and restrooms in the Taupo area displayed posters of what to do if an eruption occurred. Museums in both Auckland and Wellington portrayed extensive exhibits educating people about the causes and effects of this underlying geothermal activity. Each had “interactive” exhibits demonstration the sights, sounds and feels of a volcanic eruption or an earthquake.

The dangers of living in New Zealand are real. Christchurch, on the South Island, suffered two major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, the latter of which caused massive destruction and killed 185 people. Of the 2500 commercial buildings then in Christchurch, about 1700 either were destroyed in the 2011 quake or subsequently torn down due to the accumulated structural instability. The severity of the first earthquake in 2010 substantially contributed to buildings collapse and loss of life in the second, 2011 earthquake. The city still, five years later, has unbuilt-upon city blocks a”buildings.”


Five years after two earthquakes struck in 6 months, Christchurch still has many empty lots where buildings once stood.


The Anglican Cathedral remains boarded up as the city decides whether to try to save the structure or tear it down.


The Catholic church has only recently decided to rebuild its cathedral.


Shipping containers used to shore up an historical facade.

On February 15 — just three hours after we left Christchurch — the already traumatized city suffered a 5.7 earthquake. Thankfully, no one died (although several were injured) primarily because the quake hit 15 km east of the city and on a beautiful Sunday when people were out of offices and homes. Nevertheless, the earthquake was powerful and violent enough to cause nearby cliffs to collapse and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes.

The constant threat and occurrences of such natural disasters obviously hasn’t caused most Kiwis to leave their homes nor prevented tourists such as ourselves from visiting the region. For us, the beauty far surpasses the risk — for now. But these quakes and shakes of the land remind us that natural beauty also comes with nature’s cost.

IMG_8702_185 emptpy chairs - a symbolic, temporary honoring of 185 who died in '11 quake

185 empty chairs stand in a demolished lot as a tribute to the people who died in the February, 2011 Christchurch earthquake. The memorial is temporary, even after five years, lending some understanding as to how difficult the rebuilding of the city has been after the 2010 and 2011 quakes. The Valentine’s Day 2016 earthquake, situated 15 km east of the city, did little damage to downtown Christchurch but destroyed sea cliffs and damaged hundreds of homes in a nearby suburb.

New Zealand is For the Birds

Kiwi bird genome sequenced

New Zealand’s national bird, the Kiwi. Of the five extant species of this flightless bird, all are threatened to a degree and one species, the great white spotted kiwi, is severely endangered. Courtesy of


New Zealand is facing a crisis: without swift, radical measures for predator control, many bird species will be drastically reduced if not eradicated. The culprits: all are invasive species introduced by human inhabitants. Rats, stoats, brush-tail possums (not to be confused with the North American opossum), weasels, feral cats and dogs are the primary culprits.

Why there is such a problem with bird predation has a lot to do with how New Zealand has geologically and zoologically developed over the millennium, and with mankind itself.

  • The land forms which now make up the North and South Islands of New Zealand separated from the super-large Austro-Asian continent over 80 million years ago, leaving the island geographically isolated from other land masses.
  • There are no native land mammals to the islands other than bats. Thus, there are no large predators.
  • New Zealand has no snakes and no poisonous animals.

Maori hunters  posed with a facsimile of a moa to give perspective on size.

  • Birds were the most abundant fauna, with many avians becoming highly specialized. Two examples are the now extinct giant Moa, a super-large, ostrich like bird, and, the ground-dwelling kiwis, which range in size from a small turkey to a small hen. (The kiwi is also New Zealand’s national bird.) Over the millennia, both species became flightless with vestigial wings, most likely because they no longer had predators and therefore no longer needed flight as an escape defense.
  • The first human inhabitants, the Maori, arrived on the islands about 700+ years ago; Anglo-Europeans about 250 years ago. Both brought non-native animals with them: the Maori brought rats and dogs, the Anglos introduced many more invasive species.
  • Most of these non-native mammals were introduced with good but short-sighted intentions, but with present-day catastrophic results in this small island nation: with no larger animals as natural predators, stoats, rats, possums, ferrets and weasels are killing off New Zealand bird species at astonishing rates, some by eating eggs and chicks, the larger animals such as stoats and possums, killing adult birds.

The NZ Dept. of Conservation has listed the stoat as the country’s  Public Enemy #1 for bird predation.



The brush-tail possum was introduced from its native Australia into NZ to establish a fur trade. The marsupial has wreaked havoc among the bird population, and is thus a close second to the stoat as the major threat to many bird species. Courtesy of 

The “Battle for our Birds”

The Department of Conservation has embarked on a nation-wide campaign, “Battle for our Birds,” through predator control with intensified trapping as well as aerial applications of a biodegradable toxin of DOC lands, primarily in the lesser populated South Island. Additionally, many local governments and private conservation organizations have taken steps locally to reduce predator populations, especially rats, stoats and possums.

In the last two weeks we visited a few localities where bird conservation has become a serious mission. For the most part, these local efforts have a multi-step approach:

  • Eradicate the predators.
  • Restore native trees and other vegetation to attract and sustain native birds.
  • Where necessary, re-introduce native birds to the wild in protected areas, and if this is not possible, to establish sanctuaries. In this last instance, it may be necessary for sanctuaries to use intense mesh fencing or other means to prevent predator invasion, to continue to trap predators that do invade, and, to supplement the diet of birds within the sanctuaries. This last is especially true if the sanctuary is caring long-term for injured or older birds that cannot be re-introduced into the wild.

We visited a few bird sanctuary areas in the Bay of Islands, the Otorohanga Kiwi House in the mid-North Island, and Zealandia in Wellington. All were different in their approach but had the common goal of eradicating the predators and saving New Zealand’s native bird populations.


A colorful rendition of a feeding kiwi on the outskirts of Otorohanga, advertising their Kiwi House sanctuary for New Zealand birds, featuring, of course, the kiwi.

Below is a photo array of some of New Zealand’s birds, many of whom are endangered or threatened in the wild. Enjoy!


The great spotted kiwi is the largest of the five species of kiwi native only to NZ. The Kiwi House holds 2 of the 3 only to be held in captivity. The bird is the size of a small turkey, highly territorial and aggressive, but numbers no more than about 15,000 in the wild. The spotted great kiwi is considered highly vulnerable. Courtesy of  Dept. of Conservation, NZ.

The brown kiwi is the most common of the five species in NZ yet still considered vulnerable. Like all kiwi, it has poor eyesight but good hearing and an excellent sense of smell. Most unusually for birds, kiwi have external nostrils at the end of its long, curved beak. The beak is used to probe the ground for submerged insects, and the nostrils help locate the prey.


The kaka is a large, forest-dwelling parrot indigenous to NZ. It is highly vulnerable to endangered in the wild. The kaka is an extremely smart bird whose intelligence is compared to that of the great apes. Photo by Carol Rolnick at Zealandia.


The kea is a large, alpine parrot. Insatiably curious and “cheeky,” the kea likes to investigate backpacks and open car windows, often shredding packs and upholstery to bits with its sharp beak and talons. Photo by Carol Rolnick at the Kiwi House.


A red-crested kakariki, a small parrot. Photo by Carol Rolnick at the Kiwi House.

IMG_8634_Takahe, highoy  called Terminator 2

Terminator 2 is the fitting name of this rooster-sized bird. “T-2” and his mate, Puffin, are older and past breeding age and are now retired to the Zealandia sanctuary. Once thought to be extinct in the wild, takahe have been carefully managed  so that a few small breeding groups can be found in the wild. Nevertheless, the takahe remain highly endangered. Photo by Carol Rolnick at Zealandia.


A kereru, or native NZ pigeon, is far larger than the average pigeon. Photo by Carol Rolnick at the Kiwi House.



The tui bird, a very colorful and talkative bird. Its most easily distinguished charactereistic is the white “ruff” or clutch of feathers at the throat. Courtesy of

Anothere tui bird. From

The hihi bird, characterized by its up-tilted tail. Courtesy of Heather Arthur from

That’s all  folks — for now!


Rafting with Glow Worms

Spellbound glowworm threads (2)

Glow worm “threads” in Manawhitikau Cave, Waitomo, New Zealand. Photo by Spellbound.


IMG_8367_Glow worms at beginning of cave

The only glow worm photo I was allowed to take before we descended into total darkness for our subterranean rafting through the cave. This photo gives a better idea of the gossamer thin threads spun by the glow worms.

“You wouldn’t pay to come if we told you the caves were full of maggots so we call them ‘glow worms’,” said our guide. True enough. But in reality, the glowing strings from the larvae of the insect called arachnacampa luminosa are magnificent to behold, even if the larvae look just like slimy caterpillars.

IMG_8366_Glow worm larvae

Glow worms or larvae

Our blessedly small group of eleven headed for Mangawhitikau cave, a privately owned cave, and at 7 km long the longest cave in New Zealand. (In New Zealand, whoever owns the surface of the land also holds the rights to anything below and in the earth beneath.) About 200 meters into our first foray into Mangawhitikau we stopped to marvel over the silken, luminescent strings of a few dozen glow worms. Later, our group of eleven sat spellbound in a raft as the guide towed us down a subterranean river, through a small cavern carpeted with blue-green points of luminescence.  In the complete darkness (no headlamps, no cameras, no talking) it was easy to feel disembodied and imagine we floated through a strange, magical new universe. The only sound came from a waterfall gurgling loudly at the end of the underground river.

Spellbound light show

Glow worms on cavern ceiling. Photo by Spellbound Tours.

Copy of Spellbound Glowworms at end of cave (3)

Glow worms on the cavern roof — a galaxy of “stars.” Photo by Spellbound.

As mesmerizing as the glow worms were, we learned that these larvae – a halfway phase in the insect’s life – had a very basic purpose for their glow: survival. Their light is the product of a biochemical reaction called bioluminescence. The silk threads spun by the larvae hang like glowing, sticky strands of a curtain to catch other insects for food. Thus, the larvae act somewhat between an insect and a spider: the glowing strands use the light to attract insect prey, and the stickiness of the threads trap the hapless prey as a spider’s web. Yet, similar to other insects, the larvae eventually spin themselves into a pupae, from which they eventually emerge as adults to start the procreative process once again. We learned that while these glowing larvae can be found in dark corners of the forest, they thrive best in caves, and can be found in subterranean chambers throughout New Zealand.

Spellbound raft in cave

Rafting the glow worm cave. Photo by Spellbound.

Photos as noted from Spellbound Glowworm & Cave Tours, Waitomo, New Zealand,


Post Script: Rafting the Tongariro River

We took a hugely different half-day rafting trip down the Tongariro River south of Lake Taupo (pronounced “toe-paw”: 3 hours, 14 km and 52 Class 3 rapids later we were exhausted but exhilarated. As you can see we got soaked, but it was great fun. Remarkably, the Tongariro is so pure you can drink directly from it — which we did. Lovely, fresh,, clear water! We highly recommend the group we went with, Rafting New Zealand.


Getting ready to rock the Tongariro. We were a mixed group from the UK, Australia, US, Germany, Sweden, and, of course, New Zealanders.


Michael & I are the two in front of the guide in the stern, just as the rapids swamped us.


Near the end of the rapids, nearly 14 kilometers and 52 rapids under our belt. Good reason to celebrate!

Photos courtesy of Rafting New Zealand, Turangi, NZ,

Auckland: A city of volcanoes


Auckland from the harbor: the Sky Tower soars over all other buildings.


Three important tidbits of information from our driver pierced my jet lag fog as we shuttled into Auckland, New Zealand: (1) Auckland was founded by British so “everyone drove on the left side, so you Yanks watch out;” (2) Auckland was having a heat wave with unusually hot and humid weather (we later scoffed at their definition of humidity – and got royally sunburned in retribution); and, (3) Auckland sat on over 50 volcanoes, many of them active. Five wonderful but searing hot days later we left Auckland sunburned and alive despite constantly forgetting cars came at you from the right, and, with thanks to the still-quiet volcanoes.

The entire country of New Zealand has about 4.5 million people, one third of whom live in Auckland. The city is beautiful, incredibly clean and well organized, with a compact central business district bracketed by miles of waterfront and quaint suburbs perched on volcanic hillsides. The sprawling city straddles the narrowest strip of New Zealand, spreading between Manukau Harbor & the Tasman Sea on the western side, and at the core of the city, the eastern Hauraki Gulf leading to the Pacific.

IMG_8147_Rangitoto -- if anything will blow soon, this volcano will

Rangitoto Island, one of Auckland’s youngest volcanoes. It last erupted 650 years ago. Volcanologists predict if any of Auckland’s 50+ volcanoes will blow soon rather than later, it will be Rangitoto.

Self-appointed the sailing capital of the world, Auckland bristles everywhere with masts of Sali boats and yachts as well as “stinkpots,” a sailor’s term for motorized vessels. If the sea and island vistas don’t convince you, the thousands of sailboats, yachts, ferries, freighters – and more – will make the point: Auckland is entwined with the seas for livelihood, life and pleasure. They even have freighters that haul yachts to Auckland from around the world:

IMG_8121_Yacht Transport Frieghter

This freighter was carrying over a dozen yachts topside. No way of knowing how many were below decks.

Boats and ships were everywhere. Even if not on the water:

IMG_8126_Building built in ship form

A mixed-purpose structure built in a ship’s form. So very Kiwi!

The central business district (CBD) is very walkable, and you get quite a workout from all the volcanic hills once headed away from the harbor. The sea-to-city theme is always with you, whether in a museum viewing Maori culture displays of wakas (canoes) or pakeha (white Anglo-Europeans) sailing craft, or huffing at the top of Mt. Eden or other high points, marveling at the spectacular city-on-the-water views. And then there’s the Fish Market, where we bought fixings for most of our dinners in Auckland. Smoked broadbill (a large swordfish) is exceptionally tasty.

IMG_8128_Sky Tower at night

The Sky Tower glows with an evolving light show at night.

Another must-see landmark is the Sky Tower, which soars above its neighbors in the Auckland sky line. The Tower is where the more intrepid go bungy jumping, while the less courageous go on a tethered sky walk around a wide “lip” of the tower – still way high up there — while the true cowards among us go up the elevator to enjoy the views… Kiwis pride themselves on having a multitude of “adventure sports,” and claim that bungy jumping began in New Zealand.

Side bar: The original tethered jumping began as a rite of passage on Pentecost Island in Polynesian Vanuatu. A few centuries later, an extreme sports group in Oxford, UK, began the modern “sport” of bungy jumping. An enterprising Kiwi called A.J. Hackett saw a video by this group and developed his own harness rig to bungy jump off the Auckland Harbor Bridge. He subsequently bungeed off various high spots around the world, including the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He set up the first commercial bungy jumping business in Queenstown, NZ, which continues to claim (erroneously) to be the birthplace of bungy jumping.


View from the Sky Tower: Far in the distance above the center is the Auckland Harbor Bridge, location of the first “commercial” bungy jump.

Back to sea level: Various signs in Auckland and even the two-story wall of one building detailed the history of New Zealand’s attempts and wins in the vastly popular America’s Cup races. The last 40 years’ history of this yacht race reads like a schoolboy’s tale of bullies in the sandbox, except these guys take each other to court. (National origin of these pugilistic, filthy rich yacht owners doesn’t matter – they all act like spoiled brats when vying for an advantage in the races.) Yet tiny New Zealand has managed to haul in the trophy a number of times. Just as a point of history (I’ll be brief), the trophy is called the “America’s Cup” not because the U.S. has won it more times than any other participating country (which it has), but because the boat that won the initial, British sponsored race in 1851 was called “America.”

The Maritime Museum carries on with the nautical theme, and it’s one of the best such museums I’ve ever experienced. Multiple buildings house various ingenious watercraft from early Polynesians to 19th-20th century vessels used by Anglo-Europeans. Partial replicas of famous racing yachts, among them Peter Blake’s controversial Black Magic, which swept the 1995 America’s Cup, are displayed; the reason for the partial displays, such as half the massive hull of Black Magic, is due to size and space considerations within the museum.

One clever interactive exhibits coached you on how to design your own ocean-racing yacht. Michael tried his hand at racing yacht design. Warning signs kept flashing at him saying, “Your boat is very stable but isn’t going to win a race any time soon.” So he’d extend the sail height and narrow the hull, and kept getting told his boat wasn’t a winner, until….

IMG_8207_Dunked and sunk

Whoops. A bit top heavy. Capsized.

In other words, don’t quit your day job.

Auckland has much to offer, and, despite spending five days there, we only scratched the surface. I haven’t given justice to the city, as I’ve focused on a maritime theme, which is my interest and inclination. There is far more to see than I’ve written here. Hats off to Auckland – a fabulous introduction to New Zealand!

IMG_8168_sunset over Auckland from Sky Tower

Sunset from the Sky Tower.



And for those of you who thought we were over Holland, Holstein cows & Dutch cheese  —  think again! A popular ice cream chain features a Holstein cow in front of all its stores:


And on the way to our next stop, I noticed a sign saying, “Dutch Deli” and we just had to stop:

IMG_8212_Dutch Deli in mountain town

Ahhh…real Dutch cheese. We were in heaven.

It turns out that after WWII, Dutch comprised a huge number of immigrants to New Zealand, so Dutch cheese and other products aren’t as out of place as you’d think. Lucky for us!