Antarctic Centre: Week 89

Polaroid of The Antarctic Cenre

“How about Tanks for Everything?” Barret asked one evening while we were making dinner. “That sounds rad.”

It was our third visit to Christchurch and I was beginning to feel like we were living in the North South Holiday Park. Every night, while we cooked dinner in the shared kitchen, we picked up a few tourist pamphlets from the rack near the door and read them.

“Well- this still looks cool. How about the Adrenalin Forest?!”


My modus operandi, at least since I picked up the brochure, had been to see a kiwi bird. Having achieved that, I wanted to save my money.

“The Antarctic Centre? You CAN’T say no to that.

I had previously nixed this idea as being dorky, but he was right. I couldn’t say no to that. Truth be told, I’d just found out that my sister Nan was chosen to go to Antarctica as a contract fire-fighter. I was pretty proud and somehow unsurprised that her first home-away-from-home would be an isolated, frozen tundra.

She was due to arrive in Christchuch in two days time for orientation and to pick up her cold weather gear. Only after she had forwarded me her contact details did I realize that the touristy Antarctic Centre was actually attached to the US Antarctic Program. In fact, the flights to Mc Murdo Station were the planes that flew over our tent and woke us up at midnight.

Suddenly attractions like the 4D EXTREME Theatre and Beyond the Frozen Sunset felt very relevant; I had to visit the Antarctic Centre.

Polaroid of the Hagglunds outside the Antarctic Centre

The tickets weren’t cheap, but Barret and I weren’t skimping on anything. We wanted to know as much as we could about what Nan might experience. If she was going to ride on a Hagglund, I wanted to as well. If she was going to fly on the Hercules cargo plane, I had to watch the whole informational video loop. If she got frostbite, then I was determined to simulate that by touching the ice slide with bare hands.

We browsed through Mc Murdo photo feeds far longer than the average visitor and shot each other knowing glances when there was firefighter equipment on display. Nan told me she was thinking of spending a winter season their too, so I watched an entire video about ‘life at the station’.

Spoiler alert- there were a lot of hippies and guitars.

I also gave anyone unfortunate enough to linger in my vicinity a short biography on my sister- employees included.

It was a new experience going to a museum with an agenda and I liked conducting research on behalf of my sister and my family. It felt a little bit stealthy, a little bit exciting, and I couldn’t wait to report back to Nan about Antarctica. She was going to love it!

How to get to the Antarctic Centre: 38 Orchard Road, Christchurch Airport, Christchurch 8544, New Zealand

Oamaru & The Victorian Fete: Week 88

Polaroid of the Steampunk HQ

A few years ago, the small Victorian town of Oamaru embraced the steampunk manifesto whole-heartedly. It wasn’t about making a radical statement; it was more like finally diagnosing a rare condition. Oamaru had every steampunk symptom imaginable: a cobbled Victorian precinct, vintage bicycles, a hat maker, and mock British battalion clubs. When push came to shove, the progressively retro citizens only needed to reorder their moustache wax and start collecting aviator goggles. I had anticipated something manufactured and gimmicky, but what I found was surprisingly genuine.

Polaroid of Oamaru Cycle Works

David Wilson, the owner of Oamaru Cycle Works and a blond handlebar moustache, was every bit the gentlemanly Victorian adventurer he appeared to be. Carrying only what fit inside custom saddlebags, David rode a penny farthing from the southernmost Stewart Island to the tip of the North Island. If you have ever driven the hilly landscape of New Zealand, you would understand why he is the only living resident of Oamaru with a sculpture in his honor.

Another proud Oamaruvian, Michael O’Brien, not only had 30 years of bookbinding experience but also looked the part of a scholarly artisan. Under his tidy charcoal vest was a white dress shirt, rolled up to the elbows. His full red beard said lumberjack, while the dark tie and beard combo said 19th century craftsman.

Everything in the narrow, little shop was handmade. While Michael told us about his background, I picked up a journal with marbled paper like a psychedelic oil slick. I knew I was going to buy it as soon as my fingers traced the sea foam bubbles and flipped through the thick acid-free pages. Since credit cards weren’t too popular amongst Queen Victoria’s subjects, I got a discount for paying cash.Polaroid of The Grainstore Gallery, Oamaru, New Zealand

Barret and I were so enchanted by the seaside city, we decided to return that Sunday for the Victorian Fete. It was a sunny day and Oamaru was flooded in period costumes, steampunk creations, Irish bagpipers, buskers, shoe shiners, food vendors and tourists. After a few circuitous rounds, a stop at the Grainstore Gallery, and a couple beers, we waited for the International Stone Sawing Competition to begin. Not that anyone came from far and wide to compete. In fact when I heard there was an open position, I all but dragged Barret to the sign up sheet. As he is a far more sensible drunk than I, he declined while I joined.

I was worried my inebriation would result in severed fingers (or at least a gristly cut), but I still found myself before a giant block of limestone and a saw blade longer than my arm. My heart pounded as I gripped the smooth wooden handle while my feet searched for equilibrium. As soon as the whistle sounded I was off like a bolt of lightning. My arms pumped back and forth, plunging the blade deeper into the rock, creating a cloud of powdery beige dust that covered my legs. Take that New York competitor! Up yours New Zealand!

My stamina must have lasted 30 seconds before I suddenly felt tired. Very tired. Each draw of the blade seemed to cut less rock while simultaneously requiring more energy. Next thing I knew, the race was over and I still had a way to go.

“Do I have to finish?” I asked the ruddy-faced MC.

“Yes,” she smiled at me before pulling out her microphone. “YES YOU HAVE TO FINISH.”

The crowd giggled but I didn’t care- I was focused, determined, and a little drunk. If I had done something stupid like not given up on myself or caught a second wind, I would have had to compete in the second round. NO THANKS.

It was the one time in my life I was relieved to come in last; which, coincidentally, also happens to be sixth place in the world.

How to get to Oamaru: Three hours south of Christchurch on State Highway 1.

Fox & Franz & Pete’s Possums: Week 87

Polaroid of Fox Glacier

Although I couldn’t see the Fox Glacier, there were definitely indications of its presence.  The valley had a telltale “U” shape and the river bank was peppered with “river  surge” warning signs. There were also the groups of tourists in ice climbing gear; wearing a look of disbelief as they surveyed their tropical surroundings, ice picks in hand.

I also had a hard time believing that a frozen block of ice was just around the corner. I wasn’t being pessimistic about the effects of global warming, I just couldn’t help but observe things like: luscious ferns, the silvery threads of waterfalls, and the hot sunny weather. As I walked, the dull thud of a helicopter sounded above. I knew the heli hike tours were going somewhere icy, but as I peeled off sweater layers I wondered how it could possibly be cold enough for a glacier.

Polaroid of Waterfalls at Franz Josef Glacier

It sounds impossible, but it’s true. New Zealand is one of only two places in the world where glaciers extend into temperate zones; Argentina being the other location. Although the view from the footpath isn’t really the best (the guided tours and heli hikes have the best views), that wasn’t what the experience was really about. It was about being at the beach, dipping our feet into the cool Tasman Sea and then heading a short distance through the rainforest to see an enormous chunk of ice. Insane!Polaroid of Franz Joseph Glacier

After seeing the Fox Glacier, we headed north along the highway to visit the Franz Josef Glacier- which had even more stunning waterfalls. I wish we could have gotten closer, but I knew better than to cross the barrier. There were plenty of signs reminding visitors of the two Australian brothers killed by a collapsing ice shelf.

Polaroid of the Bushman Centre

The only way we could cap off such an unbelievable day was with a possum pie. Ever since I’d read about the Bushman’s Centre, which is the only place in New Zealand that serves possum meat, I knew I had to go. When we finally got there, I jumped out of the car, swung my bag onto my shoulder, and heard a dull thump. It was my digital camera hitting the gravel parking lot. Shit- it was broken. I should have checked the zip on my backpack.

So I had gotten a little ahead of myself, but who wouldn’t get excited about invasive species baked goods? The lighting of the café-cum-museum was too dim for my vintage Polaroid camera, so there was to be no photos of possum pelt chair covers or notice boards full of disgruntled customer letters. I was super bummed and the only thing that made me feel better was an entire bag of Pineapple Lumps over a discussion about controversial vertebrate pesticides.

Oh, and of course possum pie.

By the way Barret, how does it taste?

“Uh,” he considered as he picked at his tongue, “it’s got some hairs.”

How to get to the:

Fox Glacier: Westland National Park- State Hwy 6, just south of Weheka

Franz Josef Glacier: Westland National Park- State Hwy 6, just south of the Franz Josef township

Bushman’s CentrePukekura, State Hwy 6- 35 minutes south of Hokitika

Red Zone Tour: Week 86

Polaroid of Christchurh street art

Sometimes, while riding the bus to work, I would open the calendar on my phone. If there was something important to remember I would create an “event”; if not, I’d start counting backwards. It was something of a meditative ritual for me, counting the number of weeks Barret and I had been in Korea.

That morning was a Tuesday, my busiest day of the week, so I should have been thinking about my Sponge Time activity. Instead, I was scrolling back from February 22nd, 2011. 26 weeks! I felt like I had accomplished something meaningful, but I wasn’t sure if it was because I had completed my little task or if it was because I was living in Asia. By the way, I still couldn’t believe I was living in Asia.

My memory of that day is hazy, but I must have been stepping off the bus when the earthquake struck; according to Wikipedia that was around 8:51AM.

The ground rumbled, buildings tumbled, soil liquefied, and 185 people died. Not that I’d noticed though, I was actually 6,286 miles away. Like most natural disasters, the Christchurch earthquake didn’t mean much more to me than another depressing video clip on the news. And even that began fading out of memory once I closed my browser.

It wasn’t until I visited Christchurch that I finally realized the severity of the quake. I mean, the central business district still looked like it was destroyed by a bomb a year and a half later! Although many buildings along this periphery remain abandoned, new businesses have opened up and visitors are allowed to walk around the cordoned off “red zone”.  The only way to access the city center is on a Red Zone Tour, which is what we did.

Polaroid of Gapfiller book exchange

Of all the things the guide pointed out (and there were a lot of information), the thing that struck me the most were the signs of resilience. Set against a backdrop of demolished buildings were temporary art projects, gardens, and even book exchanges- all thanks to organizations like Gapfiller. The community wasn’t the only sector being revitalized too, there was also Re:Start- a lively café and shopping district housed in temporary shipping containers.

Everywhere we looked we saw impromptu art installations, commissioned graffiti, miniature golf, sculptures made with shipping pallets, ect. There was no end to the creativity. The citizens of Christchurch had been given a clean slate and they were running with it. It was inspiring and cool and reminded me of art school (The poor GRA building was always covered with some undergrads art project). I could tell the city had been beautiful, but if the present was any indicator, then the best has yet to come.

About: Gapfiller

About: Re:START

How to get to the Red Zone Tours: Tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or in person at the i-Site visitor center on Rolleston Avenue (next to the Canterbury Museum). Buses depart on Rolleston Avenue.

Pancake Rocks & Castle Hill: Week 85

After two weeks of farm work, Barret and I were ready to rest our rash-covered forearms and what better way to relax than by looking at rocks? They’re certainly easier on the eyes than severed lamb tails. The South Island has lots of rocks, so make sure you pick the best when you’re ready for some vacation time.

The first site worth visiting is not only 30 million years old, but it also has ocean front property. The spectacular Pancake Rocks look even better than they sound (and probably better than they taste too). The namesake layered appearance is due alternating soft and hard layers, however that works. Apparently a detailed explanation was too long for the informational sign. What I do know is that the blowholes make the limestone rocks even cooler. If your visit coincides with high tide, huge spurts burst out of the rocks as if a whale were trapped below.

Since Barret and I didn’t wake up by 6AM, we missed the most active time. However, as we walked down a staircase fit for a life-size sandcastle, we saw an explosion of white foamy mist. It was the last big burst of the morning and, just before it dissipated, it looked like a bridal veil suspended in the breeze.

Further inland is Castle Hill, which as you might guess, sits upon a hill. Not even a king could have picked a more beautiful location though. The group of enormous boulders overlook a vast tussock and pasture-covered valley. With the exception of a few homes and working farms, the terrain was as open as the sky.

The tertiary limestone boulders are not only a habitat for some of the rarest plants in Canterbury, but they are popular for rock climbers. Equipment rental shops offering cushioned pads are just a short drive to the south. The large thick mats are carried like a backpack, which kind of made the climbers look like bipedal turtles.

Barret and I were in hardcore relaxation mode, however, so there would be no clambering. In fact the fastest pace we reached was due to a gust of wind. And you know what, some days that just feels right.

How to get to the Pancake Rocks & Blowholes: State Highway 6, Punakaiki, New Zealand

How to get to Castle Hill: West Coast Road 73, Castle Hill, Canterbury, New Zealand

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