Sunday, December 4, 2016

14 days to have a relaxing holiday.

2016 trip to New Zealand

Regular readers may note that of late my holidays have been somewhat compressed. In this blog I will describe how C and I filled 14 days away from Los Angeles.

On Saturday November 12 I woke exhausted. All I had to do was pack, complete a six hour dance rehearsal, eat dinner, clean the house, then go to the airport. The checking agent was in training and said "You're in seat F, which is not window, not aisle... it's nothing. Ooops." Said I "Did you accidentally upgrade me to first class?" Alas, it was not to be. Seat F, on this particular aircraft, was in the exact middle of the plane. I felt like the world was turning around me, noone climbed over me, and I slept like a baby.

The following day, Sunday, was my sister A's birthday, but thanks to the international dateline, I did not have to observe it. Instead, I landed in Brisbane on Monday, stumbled through immigration, and attempted to pick up my rental car. My credit card fraud division helpfully blocked my card, although (as usual) I booked the relevant flights with the same card. Get on it, people! Needless to say I couldn't recharge my Australian card with a broken credit card, but I eventually broke the cycle of endless pain, and drove at the ludicrously low speed limit south to the border. On entering NSW, I turned the clock forward one hour and 20 years, picked up some groceries, and made my way to one of the old family farms in Huonbrook. 

I was dismayed to find that all the chickens had been eaten by snakes, but I spent the next two days cataloguing everything, from the platypus pool to the spring to the solar power system to ancient photos going back to my grandmother's grandmother. The house belonged to my grandmother's sister R, who passed abruptly a few months ago. 

At about the same time, it wasn't entirely clear if my fiance C would be able to get out of the South Pole where mostly weather had trapped her. If she was delayed a week, I would cancel my trip to Christchurch and fly instead to Canberra where my brother is operating on people. At the very last minute I heard that one of the key flights made it to the South Pole, so I resolved that optimism would triumph and, early on Wednesday morning, headed back to the airport. 

On arrival in New Zealand, I saw the effects of various recent earthquakes, including one from a few days before. During my time in Christchurch I felt about half a dozen aftershocks, which is more than I've felt during my six years in LA. I checked into an AirBnB where my host was a 3D printing enthusiast with a pet talking parrot. Over the next day or so I explored the city, which has been mostly destroyed (and since very partially rebuilt) since my previous visit about 15 years ago.

On Thursday evening I headed back to the airport and, on Friday morning only one day after we initially guessed, C arrived! She only smelled lightly of jet fuel, and was beside herself with excitement, mostly at the prospect of unlimited showers and 24 hour internet. 

The earthquake had thrown our previous plans into disarray, so instead we picked up a rental and headed south into the remote and sparsely populated mountains of the South Island. Over the next few days we stayed at a series of gorgeous lakeside towns, including Tekapo, Wanaka, Queenstown, and even drove across the mountains to Haast for a trip to the beach. Our mission to locate penguins was defeated by sandflies, so we took out some kayaks and paddled through the wind and scattered rain for a few hours. 

We did numerous side trips to various lakes (for skimming rocks) and forests (for examining moss and waterfalls) and in general just had a bloody marvellous time. We checked weather forecasts for Milford Sound and tried to be clever, taking a plane from Queenstown. In the end we were defeated by low cloud, so settled for a quick zoom down the Shotover River gorges in the quiet, peaceful jet boats, followed by a haircut, trip to the laundry, and zoom up the hill to the Overlook Restaurant, where we ate dinner as the sun set over the lake. We followed this with a hike among the wildling pines, then finally got some rest.

The following day we flew to Auckland, drove to Parakai hot springs, checked out their local aerodrome, soaked in the geological water, made dinner, and got some sleep. The following morning we checked out as the police arrested someone else staying at the hotel, drove back to Auckland, and had an amazing tour of Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-originated company that is building the Electron, one of the world's cutest rockets. It got started as a backyard inventor (Peter Beck) building rockets for his motorbike and has now developed into one of the only surviving microlaunch companies. They're focusing on hundreds of launches of small sats to Low Earth Orbit, at $4.9m/launch, and it was really amazing to see what they were up to. One of the most interesting aspects of the Electron is that its turbopumps are powered by electric motors. It turns out that with current batterytechnology, this constrains the overall size of the rocket to smaller payloads. These days most satellites are getting smaller as companies try to iterate the technology more rapidly.

We found lunch, C did an interview, then we headed for our next hotel in the hills to the west of Auckland. I thought there might be a nice walk to a beach near Piha, and I wasn't wrong. The hike started as an easy stroll throught the coastal scrub, before it became a near vertical series of boulder problems which eventually deposited us on an empty beach surrounded by gigantic cliffs. A waterfall tumbled down and flowed into a dark cave, from which we could hear the roar of the surf. The hike back up was faster than the descent but rather hard going. Back at the hotel we had the most amazing dinner and explored the grounds rather thoroughly.

Up until this point we had been extremely lucky with the weather, mostly skipping town just as the rain came in. Finally, it caught up with us. The next morning, it thundered down. We went on a deceptively long hike to a nearby waterfall with one rain jacket between two. By the time we got back to the car I was rather soggy, but the waterfall itself was spectacular. 

The next stop on the agenda was the Auckland Zoo, where we spent most of our time exploring the exhibit on New Zealand animals. We saw a Kiwi! It was rather large, like a soccer ball with feathery fur and a spectacularly long beak. We also saw some little penguins, which were just adorable. 

That evening we checked into our last hotel for New Zealand, splashed about in their pool, tested the pillow menu against pillow fights, and got lost in a room considerably larger than my house. We ate yet another spectacular vegan dinner, closely followed by a spectacular breakfast, both at Hectors restaurant, then headed once more for the airport.

We had a 16 hour layover in Sydney, during which we found various Australian animals (kangaroo, quokka, platypus, echidna, koala, bilby, wallaby, etc) and ate a great dinner with my parents. The following morning we headed to the airport for the last time, found a friendly looking plane, and headed back to the states. The flight was uneventful, and I got through secondary screening in a record 13 minutes. We followed that with a Lyft back to Pasadena in a near-record 26 minutes. As I write this I'm surrounded by the detritus of unpacking and moving, as C and I are moving in together! 

That, dear reader, is how one can spend 14 days, six hours, and one minute in luxurious relaxation!