Australia’s Unusual Marsupials

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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).

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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).

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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

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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.

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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….

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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:

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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?

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

Who’d’ve thunk it?

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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Just a pretty shot I wanted to include.

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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.

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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.

 

Steaming about Volcanoes

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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The sluice gates at the Aratitia Dam before opening.

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

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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.

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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:

 

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Boiling mud hole in Rotorua.

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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.”

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

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

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

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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.

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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 kiwibird.org.

 

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 csse.monash.edu.au. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 tuiscope.co.nz.

Anothere tui bird. From pinterest.com.

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

That’s all  folks — for now!

 

Rafting with Glow Worms

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

 

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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.

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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, www.glowworm.co.nz.

 

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.

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

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

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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, www.rankers.co.nz.

Auckland: A city of volcanoes

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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….

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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!

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Sunset from the Sky Tower.

 

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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:

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

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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!

 

 

The World’s Oldest Hip Hop Crew

Their average age is mid-70’s. The oldest performer is 96. One person is on a walker. One person is legally blind, a couple others are partially deaf. Some have had joint replacements.  All of them have arthritis. Each has adopted a stage name, along the lines of “Boom Boom,” “Dollar and Two Cents,” “Mystic Diva,” and “Shake it up Sheila.” Their creed is that if any one of them dies during a performance, the others will “step over their mate” and keep right on dancing. The show, of course, must go on.

And do they put on a show! They are the “Hipop-eration,” world-renowned hip hop dancers from Waiheke Island, Auckland, New Zealand. No lie. This energetic motley crew of mostly octogenarians has performed internationally, including at the 2013 International Hip Hop Competition in Las Vegas.

Where and how did these dancing geriatrics get their beginning? And why hip hop?

We first heard of this amazing troupe while on a wine tour of Waiheke Island. Our enthusiastic driver-guide and island native first waxed on about Waiheke’s reputation for boutique vineyards, then segued into such an intriguing story about “the World’s Oldest Dance Group” that we had to learn more.

The Story: After surviving a devastating earthquake in Christchurch 2011, Billie Jordan found herself asking, “If I’d died in the quake, could I say I had really lived life to the fullest?” Her self-assessment emphatically concluded, ”No!” She relocated from Christchurch to Waiheke Island, on the eastern fringe of Auckland harbor basin, an idyllic, laid-back island full of aging hippies and wine-growers.

Looking around for something meaningful to do, Billie noticed that many of the aging residents seemed to lack purpose and any form of activity, so she began the Wiaheke Island dance group with initial intentions of staging “flash mob” performances to promote fitness in seniors. Why hip hop? “Why not?” Billie retorts during a TED talk about Hipop-eration.

Billie told the group, “Whether you believe it or like it or not, in 8 months you will be competing at the international hip hop competition.” Their local performances swiftly morphed into “the world’s oldest” hip hop dance group with fans and shows all over New Zealand. They did believe, and in less than a year from their flash mob beginnings, they did perform at the 2013 world hip hop championship in Las Vegas. The World’s Oldest Dance Group may not have won the overall competition, but they sure brought down the house. I doubt Vegas will ever be the same again. Hip hop certainly won’t!

 

Hipop-eration website: www.hipop-eration.com. Click on links on their website for videos of performances & workouts. Videos are also available on YouTube. Just type in “World’s Oldest Dance Group” and select which ones to watch.

Lecture by group founder, Billie Jordan: www.TEDxAuckland.com

 

Tuking into Cambodia

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A tuk tuk driver rests in his hammock at siesta time, chatting with another driver.

 

Tuk tuks, covered carts attached to a motorcycle, are a major and relatively inexpensive form of transportation in Cambodia. Variations of the tuk tuk can be found throughout most of southeast Asia and are equally popular. Finding ourselves with an unplanned day in Phnom Penh, our guide suggested an excursion to Mekong Island (Koh Dach) for some touring off the beaten path. Always up for an adventure, we eagerly put ourselves in the capable hands of Sam, our guide.

Our day began with a short cruise up the Mekong River (a childhood favorite of mine), passing river huts and “marinas” in the shadow of Phnom Penh’s booming tourist hotels.

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While we disembarked, Sam swiftly negotiated a half-day tuk tuk excursion, and in the three of us climbed. Koh Dach is one of several islands in the Mekong just north of Phnom Penh where silk production was once a major cottage industry. However, we experienced quite a bit of island life that day, way beyond our 1 hour visit to a silk “farm.”

First stop was a new temple complex. But what caught my eye was the house next to the temple. Most Cambodian abodes look similar to this:

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Most Cambodian village houses are simple structures on stilts. The raised abode has a dual purpose of keeping varmints out (think snakes & rats) as well as providing a shady place for livestock.

The house that caught my attention was this one:

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A monk sits in meditation surrounded by clever mobiles of…used cans and bottles. Repurposing as an at form — how clever!

Completely surrounding the porch perimeter, some clever artisan had turned soda cans and water bottles into decorative, hanging works of art. Take a closer look:

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I’d seen similar but smaller and less complex recycled art at home, but nothing quite as elaborate as these pieces.

Continuing on, our next stop was even more amazing. Sam, always on the look out for the unusual, called out “Stop!” to the tuk tuk driver and ordered him to turn back around.

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Female cow, on the right, is unenthusiastically awaiting her bull, the large humped bovine behind her. Assumedly, the third animal is her calf, but whether there just to help keep Mama calm or for instructional purposes wasn’t clear.

A gaggle of villagers, all men, were trying to “encourage” a bull to do his natural mission of impregnating the cow in front of him. She, being kept in place in a form of “stocks” by a nose ring and tether  was having none of it. She lowed and shook her head, the calf lowed and strained at his rope, and the bull — well, he looked completely and utterly clueless. After over five minutes of standing poised with camera in my face, I lowered the camera to give my arms a break and — FLASH!! — you guessed it — the bull had mounted and dismounted the cow in less time than it’s taken me to describe their mating. All of 3 seconds. Flat. I think some old fashioned “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” encounters have lasted far longer.

Afterwards, the bull looked a little less clueless and perhaps just a bit smug. The cow, on the other hand, was still lowing miserably.

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Continuing on our way, we passed through a few hamlets, with the road gradually deteriorating from paved-with-potholes to a dirt road — a very dusty dirt road. Sam once more hollered for the driver to stop when he spied an on-going Buddhist wedding in one village. He urged us to join the party, saying the couple would be very pleased and honored to have Americans join them. I demurred as I thought our uninvited presence would be intrusive and distract from the ceremony. Besides, I didn’t really feel comfortable being a “wedding crasher.”  On we went.

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Wedding #1.

 

The next stop — a silk farm — was fascinating as their production was truly from soup to nuts — or worms to silk products. (Skip this first  picture if squeamish.)

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Silk worms — caterpillars — feeding on a basket of mulberry leaves.

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The silkworms are placed in  bunches of hanging branches where they spin their cocoons. Once the moths have emerged, the cocoons are collected for extraction of the raw silk fibers.

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Dyed silk thread against a nest of cocoon fibers or raw silk.

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Raw silk fibers after being unwound from the cocoon.

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After the silk fibers are cleaned and dyed, they are woven into cloth for various types of silk garments.

 

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Michael trying his hand at weaving.

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Some of the finished product: colorful silk scarves.

Always a cottage industry, the techniques for silk production, especially weaving, have been passed down from mother to daughter over the centuries. However, silk production, once a mainstay of Cambodian life and local economy, has faltered in recent years. The reasons are multiple and interactive: overuse of pesticides in farming have killed off huge numbers of moths and silk worms; these same agriculture practices have made small-hold farming more lucrative, drawing off silk weavers and others to support family farms; many silk workers have left for more lucrative pay in factories as Western markets have increasingly shifted production to the lower wage Asian markets. This siphoning off of skilled or potential weavers has, in turn, exacerbated declining silk production. Initially, dying off of the silk worm population resulted in importing cheaper and more available raw silk from other Asian countries. However, in recent years, the cost of these imports rose while simultaneously the cost of the finished silk goods declined.

Cambodia has struggled mightily to correct decades of both layered, institutional corruption as well as the murderous, decimating rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s and other repressive government since. Recently taxes on raw silk imports have been lowered, and some subsidies instituted for silk production, but model silk “farms” such as the one we visited have not been able to offset the steady decline of this craft. The allure of higher paying manufacturing jobs, as well as the more productive family farm, have siphoned off much of the next generation of silk growers and weavers. It remains to be seen whether silk production and weaving in Cambodia will survive the 21st century.

By the time we left the silk farm, we were getting used to Sam’s exhortations for the driver to stop immediately and perform a whiplash-inducing U-turn in the road to go back to whatever Sam had just spotted. This also meant that as we turned 180 degrees, we immediately were covered by a cloud of dust churned up by our tuk tuk just moments before. But it was always worth it.

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Home brewed palm wine. Who can resist?

One such road reversal took us back to a tiny one room house where an enterprising young couple sold home-brewed palm wine. People — mostly men — would enter the hut with doubled or tripled plastic bags and emerge with a bulging sack of palm wine. The couple welcomed us into their abode, and offered us a sample of their brew. Trying not to think of how many people had imbibed from the same cup, I told myself a little bacteria can only make my immune system stronger. I sipped, Michael guzzled. We declined to buy; I really wasn’t keen on palm wine, I discovered.

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Michael samples the palm wine. Sam looks at me saying, “Your turn!” I had to do it….

The lady of the house — who was drop dead gorgeous — could not have been more than 18 but already had several children under foot. Michael immediately fell in love. I think his ardor cooled somewhat when he sniffed out the other home brew she had going: teuk trei, or fish sauce. Very pungent, stomach-churning, fermented fish sauce. We declined this purchase as well.

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The hut was no more than 12 by 6 feet for a family of (what looked like) five. One corner was the cooking area. The upper left corner above shows the concrete pan fire place where the palm wine (and fermented fish sauce) were cooked. Two of the bowls contain small river fish waiting to be added to the pot.

We had a few more neck-wrenching U-turns, all of them interesting. We came upon a second wedding, and Sam almost persuaded us to join the matrimonial fun. Images of The Wedding Crashers kept kalaidoscoping in my head so we chickened out. But the last stop was the best of all.

“Stop!” hollered Sam, followed by a torrent of Cambodian, he was so excited. “Cow! Giving birth! Come!” he finally managed. So we scrambled out of the tuk tuk and ran to where a half-dozen men were playing midwives to a cow. By the time I was able to get my camera focused, the calf was halfway out. We watched through the entire process:

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Two men gently help pull the calf from the cow, who looks on impassively.

 

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At this point, the calf was not yet breathing and the umbilical cord is still attached.

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One man gently wipes mucous and placenta from the calf’s body.

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The calf’s face and nostrils were carefully cleared and it began to breathe on its own.

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The calf was placed before the mother who proceeded to first smell and bond with the calf, then lick it clean.

 

So that was our day: breeding cows, repurposed porch art, uncrashed-weddings, attempts to weave silk, palm wine sampling, and witnessing a calf’s birth. Certainly an off-road day, and one to always be remembered.

Thank you, Sam!

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New Year in Hanoi

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Hanoi street market on the eve of the Vietnamese New Year: people are bustling for last minute gifts, especially those in the good luck colors of red and gold.

Têt, the days-long New Year celebration, is by far the most important holiday in Vietnam. Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, Têt falls on a different day each year. Preparations begin weeks in advance. Homes are first scoured to remove any bad luck from the previous year, then lavishly decorated with “good luck” colors of red and gold, bedecked with colorful flowers, miniature kumquat trees, and families begin to welcome home far-flung relatives as the majority of Vietnamese return to their ancestral homes for the holidays.

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Hanoi’s streets were lit up for the holiday.

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Signs saying “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” swayed from buildings and street poles. wishing all a Happy New Year.

Têt can last for several days, beginning days or weeks ahead, with preparing traditional New Year foods, and ancestral altars are cleaned and refreshed with heaps of foods and gifts for the family’s ancestors. The emphasis on honoring one’s ancestors is an important ritual of Têt, especially for those who’ve passed away that year. The various offerings are meant for the departed to use on their journey to (hopefully) heaven.

We were honored by an invitation from our young guide, Quan, to join his family for a New Year Eve’s dinner at his apartment. “Happy,” as he liked to be called, was newly married with a 5 month old daughter. Like most young Vietnamese,  he lived with his parents, an uncle and his grandfather in a Hanoi apartment building.

IMG_6048_Quan, Hih and their 5 month old daughter, An

Quan, Hih, and their baby, An.

We brought a traditional gift of candies, as well as a large bottle of beer. (I’m still not sure if beer is a traditional Têt gift, but Happy said his grandfather liked beer at the holidays, so beer it was.) Happy introduced us to his wife, baby, and mother, who had been laboring in the kitchen preparing all the wonderful foods eaten at Têt.

IMG_6049_Home altar with various gifts to famly ancestors and Vietnamese leaders such as HCM and General Giap

Happy’s family’s ancestral altar. Pictures on the left (partially obscured by flowers) are of honored ancestors, the picture on the right is of Buddha, and the white bust is of Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. In addition to flowers and candles, the altar held five types of traditional fruit, dried fruits, nuts, and candies, as well as bottles of spirits, and several packets of  Banh Chung,  banana leaf-wrapped steamed rice cakes.

Happy proudly showed us the family’s magnificent ancestral altar, laden with various Têt foods as well as gifts. We then sat on a straw mat with his family to partake of the modest feast his mother had prepared.

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In addition to plain rice, we were served Vietnamese sausage, mung bean pudding, red sticky rice, Banh Chung, or steamed rice cake (shed of its banana leaf covering), and Western-style mini hot dogs (which although certainly not traditional, Happy specifically liked  and asked for).

About halfway through the meal, Happy’s grandfather arrived, bowing and smiling in greeting before joining us on the mat. Grandfather Ca, in his eighties, formally introduced himself with Happy as his translator. After the introduction, the first thing he said was, “I am so happy our countries are friends again. War is a terrible thing, especially among friends, but now our countries are at peace. This makes me glad.”

I knew from what Happy had told us that his grandfather, now in his late eighties, had been in the North Vietnamese Army, and admired Ho Chi Minh (whose bust was on the family altar) but Happy said Grandfather Ca had always wanted Vietnam and America to be on peaceful terms. And this despite an awful, bloody war which saw, among other deeds (on both sides) massive U.S. bombings of swathes of Hanoi and other sections of then North Vietnam. Grandfather Ca ended his speech by giving me (because I had lived in pre-war Vietnam) a specially printed Têt card inscribed with a poem he’d written, and good luck wishes for the coming year. Happy explained that Ca and his friends would write these special poems and greetings every year to exchange among themselves and to give to family members and close friends. We felt quite honored.

We left after dinner for a short nap before making our way to the central lake in Hanoi to watch the fireworks that would usher in the New Year at midnight.We were intrigued by many of the altars set up on the sidewalks or roadways in front of shops to honor the shopkeepers’ ancestors. All had similar foods and gifts as had Happy’s family altar, but with the addition of a whole boiled chicken — head, cockle, beak and all — a special offering to the ancestors.

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One shopkeeper’s ancestral altar. Of note in the foreground, from left, are a boiled whole chicken, red sticky rice, and the steamed rice cakes, Banh chung, with a display of five fruits and several paper presents in the rear.

Due to my dawdling over these fascinating altars, we never made it to Hoan Kiem Lake where the fireworks were held. Caught at midnight in the streets with dozens of others, we gazed from a couple of blocks away at the fireworks as they exploded over the rooftops. The Vietnamese love fireworks, but at Têt they have a special function, to ward off any evil spirits as the new year begins. Children ran about, setting off long tubes of small fireworks and whirling noisemakers, making as much noise and bangs as possible to scare off the evil spirits. It was quite a display.

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A woman lights up paper offerings to speed her New Year gifts to her ancestors.

Returning to our hotel, we saw many people carefully burning their paper offerings that had earlier sat on their altars. Symbolic gifts are made of paper, such as (fake) money, cars, miniature houses, floral bouquets and wrapped (empty) boxes, to be burned as the new year begins to speed these offerings to their ancestors.

I’m not sure what is done with the chicken.

But I can definitely say that this Têt celebration in Hanoi was one of the most memorable celebrations I can remember.

Têt in 2016 in Vietnam will begin February 8.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

Cao Dai Religion of Vietnam

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Worshipers inside the Cao Dai Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam.

 

Vietnam is the birthplace of the unique and unlikely religion of Cao Dai. A mixture primarily of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, Cao Dai also imports teachings of Muhammad, Jesus, and Laozi, among others, along with some Catholicism (they have a Pope and a Holy See) and a bit of spiritualism thrown in. The primary temple (Holy See) is in Tay Ninh, in the heart of the Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam.

Suppressed by the Communists in 1975, Cao Dai was reprieved by the government in 1997 and has flourished since in this corner of Vietnam. Government estimates indicate at least 4.4 million declared worshipers, whereas the religion itself claims upwards of 6 million believers. Given Cao Dai’s long-time criticism of Communism — they also opposed French colonial rule and USA-backed President Diem — I’d guess these official numbers are an under-representation.

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The Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, 90 km northwest of Saigon.

Cao Dai believe in dual deities followed by a pantheon of saints and other holy figures. The ubiquitous, omnificent male Supreme Being, representing the yang, and the Holy Mother, representing the yin, create the balance of heaven and earth. Several historical persons are included in their panoply of revered souls, including, among others, Julius Caesar, Victor Hugo, Sun Yat-sen, and, inexplicably (in my opinion), Joan of Arc.

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The Divine, All-Seeing Eye of God.

Cao Dai is rife with symbolism, the most important being the All Seeing Eye, also known as the Divine Eye. Represented as the left eye of God, this symbol is a reminder that God is omnipresent and sees all.

The Holy See is a spectacularly gaudy display of color and opulence. The decorations of the columns and windows are so colorful and elaborate they reminded me of the rococo stylism of 18th century Europe. The three colors of Cao Dai — yellow, red and blue — represent the the three religions from which form the belief systems of Cao Dai. Respectively, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

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Worshipers inside the Cao Dai Holy See Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam.

 

IMG_4831_ Priest in red robs signifying Confucianism

Red represents Confucianism, and blue Taoism.

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The Holy See during a service. Lay worshipers are dressed in impeccable white, and the three priests in yellow, blue and red (just left of center).

Cao Dai beliefs and principles fundamentally stress the “oneness” of each individual with God and the universe. There is the focus on perfecting oneself, but also strong values placed, in this order, upon the family, society, and mankind. As in many religions, Cao Dai professes a form of the Golden Rule. However, they take this precept of acting well and empathetically to another level, urging adherents to do good deeds to earn merit and a better position in the next life. Another principle that I found interesting was the emphasis on wealth and materialism.

Additional precepts in Cao Dai are also somewhat universal: do not kill, do not perform adultery, do not steal, do not get drunk, and do not sin by word (i.e. do not slander or be verbally abusive to others).

Cao Dai followers participate in four services per day at a temple with a fifth conducted at home. We were lucky enough to observe the service above from the balcony at the rear of the temple. Also in the balcony were about two dozen worshipers seated or standing around a circle of musicians.

IMG_4843_In balcony, worhippers form chorus with accompanying traditional Vietnamese musicians. The raised headress of worshippers in foreground is that of people in mourning.

The cloth-covered wire headdresses of the two women in the right foreground indicate that they were in mourning for a loved one. The four men are playing traditional Vietnamese instruments, and the women in the left top corner formed a chorus of sorts, sometimes singing softly, other times chanting. Our guide explained that this small group of worshipers were conducting a separate “mourning” ceremony preceding the main service on the main level of the temple.

IMG_4845_From left to right, Sun Yat Sen, as symbol for revolution; Victor Hugo, as symbol for compassion for downtrodden; Nguye Binh Khiem, 1st poet laureate for Vietnam. Inscription reads

The tablet above is inscribed in French, “God and humanity, love and justice.”

Each Cao Dai temple displays in its facility some rendition of the Divine Covenant of the Third Amnesty. The three figures represent three of the more important saints. From the left: revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, revered for rejecting oppressive rule in China; Victor Hugo, for his compassion and humanity; and Nguyen Binh Khiem, a 16th century Vietnamese leader, poet and teacher.

Visiting the Cao Dai Holy See was a bit of an overwhelming experience in that the gaudiness of the decor visually clashed with the plainness and simplicity of the worshipers. The theology, as well, struck me as overly complex and almost regulatory, yet the devotion of the Cao Dai worshipers was unquestionably yet quietly fervent. Certainly, the religion is complex in both belief systems and structure. This posting is but a small attempt to introduce a fascinating minor religion.

 

Some Interesting Facts:

  • Cao Dai is considred a monotheistic religion with a Supreme Being or God, yet professes the  male/female balance, or yin yang, by having dual male & female deities. Additionally, there is a pantheon of saints that are worshiped as well, among them:
    • Joan of Arc
    • Julius Caesar
    • Moses
    • Louis Pasteur
    • Lenin
    • William Shakespeare
    • The Bodhisattva Quan Am (Guan Yin in Chinese)
  • Kim Phuc, the 9 year old girl photographed running naked in terror and pain after surviving a napalm attack in 1972, was raised in the Cao Dai faith. Her village of Trang Bang, was mistakenly identified by the South Vietnamese Air Force as a Viet Cong stronghold, then hit with napalm bombs. Some members of her family were killed in that attack. As a young woman, Kim was used by the communists as a propaganda symbol. She later sought asylum in Canada, where she continues to live. Kim started a foundation to provide medical and psychological help to child victims of war. She is also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations.