Monday, February 28, 2011

Te Anau to Dunedin

After the flurry of activity yesterday, I don't have any great tales of adventure to report upon today; the main event was driving from Te Anau to Dunedin, a trip of almost 300km, which took us about four and a half hours. The highways took us through the rolling hills of the somewhat confusingly-named Northern Southland, past endless pastures of sheep and dairy cows, small homesteads, and tiny townships that one would blink and miss if one didn't have to slow down to the requisite 50km/h whilst passing through them. I passed the time listening to my iPod and enjoying the musical stylings of Tori Amos and Brooke Fraser.

Now, however, we are situated within the city of Dunedin, which with a population of roughly 125 000 is the second-largest city on the South Island (behind Christchurch). Dunedin was actually the largest city by population in all of New Zealand before 1900; it is also one of the oldest, being founded in 1848. The name Dunedin comes from the Scottish Gaelic name for Edinburgh, Dùn Èideann, and the city was founded by the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland with the intent of reproducing the characteristics of Edinburgh... even today, the Kiwi accent from Dunedin and the surrounding area has a Scottish-brogue flavour to it. Probably one of the more famous features of the city's layout is the Octagon, a octogonally-shaped (no, really?) road and plaza where the main streets of George, Princes, and Stuart meet.

Our hostel is called Hogwartz (I'm assuming the ending "z" keeps J. K. Rowling's people from suing their pants off), and is located in the old Catholic Bishop's residence for St. Joseph's Cathedral on Rattray St. It's a delightful old bluestone building built in the late nineteenth century, and while the rooms are fairly plain, the kitchen is bright and modern, the bathrooms are clean, and our fellow hostel mates are kind and friendly. The Harry Potter touches are all over the grounds; while they don't actually run us through the sorting hat to place us into dorms (why do I have the feeling I'd end up in Ravenclaw?), there is a "Hagrid's Cabin" out back, a laundry facility called "Dobby's Room", and a storage room (vault?) called "Gringott's".

The only downside to being in this grand old building is I find myself unable to relax fully... all I can see when I look at these majestic buildings of stonework and brick is the piles of rubble and clouds of dust that I know now litter Chistchurch's streets. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to enter an old brick building or stone church again without a sense of fear, or at the very least a terrible sadness for the beautiful architecture that was destroyed, and the innocent lives lost as mortar, metal, and glass came crashing down. I find it difficult to follow the news accounts continuing to pour out of Christchurch; I know too many of the locations, can remember all-too-vividly walking through those streets of chaos, surrounded by injury and death. I realise this earthquake is now old news in Canada, and that the rest of the world has moved on, but the harsh reality is even though the camera crews have left, the headlines have stopped screaming their proclamations of disaster, and the perfectly-groomed news anchors now fill the television screens talking about other juicy stories of violence or scandal, the aftermath of the earthquake is still real, still heartbreaking, still terrifying in its aftershocks, and has changed the face of Christchurch forever.

The earthquake also has many unintended consequences, which admittedly compared to collapsed buildings are decidedly minor, but still cause headaches. We ran into one today when we tried to rent a car for the second half of our journey here on the South Island; my dad spent almost an hour on the phone this afternoon, trying to find a rental car here in Dunedin. He was ultimately successful, but the supply of rental cars is incredibly depleted, and the price has been jacked through the ceiling. It reminds me of a line from the documentary The Corporation: "In devastation there is opportunity". Earthquakes are good money if one is a car rental agency.

While my dad was on the phone I spent the afternoon on my computer researching places for us to stay (we were originally supposed to stay in Christchurch Wednesday night, but that's no longer going to be the case, obviously), and generally fighting with the world's worst cell phone internet connection (it must just be my location inside this old stone building; Dunedin itself has decent cell phone reception). In the late afternoon, my mom and dad and I went out and did a little bit of sight-seeing down at the Dunedin train station, where we'll be catching the "Railroad to Gold" train tomorrow morning, and then headed over to the Countdown supermarket, where we bought chicken and vegetables for dinner (my mom got her favourite corn-on-the-cob again). My parents have just watched two Big Bang Theory videos on my computer, and are now in bed, and I should follow them shortly... I am exhausted.

I watched some footage of the recovery efforts in Christchurch this evening, and I'm really in no mood to type anymore. It's all so overwhelming and saddening, and my brain can't understand why I (and my parents) escaped relatively unscathed from all the destruction. Perhaps I have a minor form of survivor's guilt, and while I don't want to forget what I went through, as I know it's important to process things, I do wish I could turn off the images and sensations from that fateful day replaying over and over in my head. To bed I go now, hopefully to dream of happier things. Goodnight.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Day on the Water: Milford Sound and Te Anau Glowworm Caves

For three people that just survived a devastating magnitude 6.3 earthquake, my parents and I certainly seem to be trying to tempt fate: today we went through the 1.2km Homer Tunnel twice (passing under the Southern Alps) travelling to and from Milford Sound, and then spent 45 minutes underground on the western shore of Lake Te Anau, exploring the renowned glowworm caves. That's a lot of underground activity in a area that is essentially a geological earthquake time bomb just waiting to go off. Thankfully, we are all safe and sound and back in our beds at the Cosy Kiwi B&B. My parents just told me a rather pointed "goodnight", but too bad for them, as I want to take the time to write about the glowworm caves, and I need my bedside light on to do so.

Milford Sound was overcast today, but thankfully today wasn't one of their 200 days of rain that they get each year (and when it rains, it rains; the average rainfall is around seven metres a year). Happily, when we stopped at Mirror Lakes on the way up Highway 94, the water was clear and still, and I was able to get a nice picture of the backward-lettered sign propped against the far bank (is reflection reads "Mirror Lakes"). When I came through on the Stray bus it was raining, so my pictures didn't capture the mirror-like qualities of the lakes at all.

I won't blather on endlessly about Milford Sound, as I already did that in this post from November, but suffice it to say my parents had a great time on the 2 1/2 hour nature cruise. This was slightly different from the earlier Milford Sound scenic cruise I did with Stray, which was focused at catering to the big crowds on tourist buses; this nature cruise was on a smaller boat, the MV Sinbad, and featured English-only commentary from a knowledgable guide named Dave. As my dad said, he had "just the right amount of information without overwhelming you", and he felt that even as a native costal British Columbian he had been impressed with the beauty of Milford Sound. (We're so spoiled, we really are.)

We booked ourselves on the 10:40am cruise, so when we left Milford Sound at 1:10pm the hordes were flocking to board the boats for the peak time (and therefore more expensive) midday cruises; it felt nice to leave them behind and head back for the open road. Well, slightly open; it's pretty windy, and my dad takes great delight in whizzing around the corners as fast as he can. We stopped at The Chasm to watch the Cleddau river thunder away below the footbridge, and in the parking lot my mom was delighted to see a kea parrot in the wild; I was a little concerned the thing was going to start pecking at our car, as they haven been known to strip car windshield wipers just for fun.

Safely through the Homer Tunnel once more, we stopped to explore the old makeshift workshop and camp site where workers and sometimes their families lived while the tunnel was under construction. A cold wind was blowing in the valley today, and with the overhanging clouds and knowledge that this area receives no direct sunlight from May to September, I could envision life in this majestic but foreboding valley to be very inhospitable indeed. How fortunate we are to be able to hop back into our rental car and drive back down the road to the much more hospitable township of Te Anau!

For dinner tonight we went to The Moose Bar and Restaurant (this one's for you, Bruce. 'Today is Pig Day!'), which of course brought a smile to my dad's face. It brought more of a grimace to mine, however, between my parents' inability to make decisions over where to eat, which very quickly shorts out my patience, and the fact that my sandwich was swimming in mayonnaise and something trying to pass for avocado sauce and failing miserably (yuck). At least my apple cider was tasty, and my parents seemed to enjoy their fish and chips ('fush and chups').

Our evening adventure today found us once again patronizing the Real Journeys adventure company, exploring the Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Once only present in Maori legends (the lake takes its name from Te Ana-au, which is Maori for "cave filled with swirling water"), the caves were rediscovered in 1948 by a local tour operator, Lawson Burrows, after three years of searching.

At 250m long, the Glowworm Caves are just part of a huge 6.7km labyrinth known as the Aurora caves system, cutting though limestone up to 35 million years old. Unlike other caves that I have explored, the water runs out of these caves, not into them: that is to say, the farther one penetrates into the cave, the higher up one goes in the mountain, not lower into the ground! This is due to the nature of the caves' creation:  the caves themselves are about 200 000 years old, and shaped by periods of glacial advances and retreats. The origin of the cave's stream, called Tunnel Burn, is Lake Orbell, high up in the Murchison Mountains. At the end of each ice age, the retreating ice in the valley would create a new lake level, and the Tunnel Burn would carve a new exit into the lake. The continual dropping of the lake level after a glacier's retreat has resulted in a vast network of caves, with multiple entrances (old exits) along the mountainside. While the upper passages of the cave are dry and no longer have water passing through them, the Glowworm Caves are very young by geological standards - only 12 000 years old - and are still being formed. As such, stalactites and stalagmites are just beginning to form in the Glowworm Caves, but are common in the older and drier passages of the Aurora Caves.

Our journey began with a 25-minute boat ride across Lake Te Anau, culminating at a wharf where we were split into five groups of eleven or so, and assigned to a guide to introduce us to the landscape and take us through the caves. After my adventure spelunking in Waitomo, this was ridiculously easy; there was dim yet appropriately theatrical lighting throughout the first part of the cave, and a well-constructed and maintained system of boardwalks and ladders to assure that all we had to do was duck and stoop to avoid hitting our heads in low tunnels and outcroppings. Indeed, for a cave, things were incredibly spacious; the first part of the cave is called the Cathedral, and has ceilings up to 20m high!

At the end of the Cathedral, past a thundering waterfall and up a set of stairs, we were greeted with a large pool; after being instructed to remain silent (glowworms apparently don't like noise), we clambered aboard a small punting boat, and were carried gently away down a narrow corridor into the Glowworm Grotto, a magical place where hundreds (if not thousands) of glow worms dotted the ceiling and walls, sending out their bioluminescent rays to attract hapless insects searching for a way out of the cave, and filling the grotto with an eerie (but magical) blue-green light. Here, deep under the mountain, and drifting silently on a pool of smooth black water surrounded by tiny pinpricks of light, it is hard to believe the beautiful glow is caused by the larval stage of what will after nine months become the humble fungus gnat.

Leaving the boat, we were once again escorted out of the caves, and seated in the Cavern Hut, a complimentary cup of tea in our hands, we were treated to an informative presentation on the life cycle and feeding habits of the titiwae (glowworm; the Maori name refers to the lights reflected on the water). Rather than have me blather on, you can read all about glowworms here (I especially like the part about how they spend nine months as a larvae, and then as adults have no mouths, and so only live for three days!).

Once again picked up by our tour boat, we were safely ferried back across the lake, and are now in our beds here at the Cosy Kiwi, where it is after midnight and my mother has once again (somewhat warningly this time) asked me to put the lights out, so I had better be a good little threatened titiwae and extinguish the bluish-tinged light emanating from my screen. :-) Goodnight!


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Steamboats, Kiwis, and Fergburgers (Sounds like Queenstown to me)

One thing I am definitely noticing about travelling with three people as opposed to solo: it takes a lot longer to get organized. Or maybe that's just the problem of travelling as a family; we seem to take forever to get all three of us on the same page.

Regardless, we all managed to load up the car this morning, find a decent parking spot on the street (no easy feat in Queenstown, I assure you), and headed down to the shores of Lake Wakatipu to catch the TSS Earnslaw, a 99-year-old twin screw steamer passenger vessel. I briefly alluded to the Earnslaw in this post back in November, but this time I was actually able to sail aboard her on a 3 1/2 hour excursion up to Walter Peak High Country Farm.

The TSS Earnslaw is named after the highest point in the Queenstown region, Mt. Earnslaw. Built in 1912, she was constructed in Dunedin by J. McGregor & Co., and when completed was then disassembled and sent in pieces by rail to Kingston at the south end of Lake Wakatipu. Each piece of the quarter-inch steel hull plates was numbered, making putting the Earnslaw back together kind of like completing a giant jigsaw puzzle. Known as "The Lady of the Lake", the Earnslaw is 51m long, 7.3m across, and weighs 330 tonnes. Having spent her entire working life on Lake Wakatipu, she has at various times been a cargo ship, livestock carrier, passenger transporter, and pleasure steamer.

Until the 1960s when a road was finally completed, the farming homesteads on the western shores of the lake were only accessible by ships such as the Earnslaw; the voyage we took today took us to Walter Peak High Country Farm, which in its heyday had 170 000 acres, 40 000 sheep, and fifty full-time employees. As it stands today, the farm operates with 20 000 sheep and 850 cattle, and a hefty dose of tourism courtesy of the TSS Earnslaw bringing in passengers five times a day.

A neat feature of the Earnslaw is the way they have made the engine room accessible (or at least viewable) to passengers via an overhead metal catwalk; we were able to walk over the heads of the stokers constantly shovelling coal into one of the hungry Earnslaw's four fire doors (she can consume a tonne of coal an hour when doing twelve knots [22km/hr]), and see the two triple-expansion steam engines that drive each of the screws hard at work spinning their drive shafts. I especially liked the ship's telegraph, which allows the captain up the bridge to communicate with the engine room and let them know what needs to be done ("Full", "Half", "Slow", "Finished with Engines", or "Stop" for both ahead and astern directions).

At Walter Peak High Country Farm, we were treated to a brief tour/demonstration of sheep farming. Having some experience working with sheep while I was staying with Glen in Little River, I was immediately suspicious the moment I saw the sheep approaching the paddock gate as soon as they saw people arriving off the boat. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw how we interacted with the sheep: by feeding them handfuls of pellets. No wonder the sheep came running; they've learned visitors mean food! The "normal" sheep I mustered ran away from me, rather than toward me. Nevertheless, it was fun, and gave us all a chance to touch and be up close and personal with the animals.

After we were all back in an enclosed paddock, the tour guide demonstrated the heading and pulling capabilities of Bess, the extremely well-trained short-hair border collie sheep dog. She has been trained to respond to a series of differing whistles (which saves the sheep farmer from screaming him or herself hoarse across huge paddocks), and it was fascinating to watch her leap gracefully over the fence, race up the paddock, and bring the sheep down the other side in a herd ahead of her. Oh, how I wished we had had a dog like that when I was mustering sheep up those huge, steep paddocks in Little River!

Finally, our tour guide gave us a sheep shearing demonstration, taking ten pounds of wool off a ewe (who had taken a year to grow it) in about three minutes. When he was finished (and the now decidedly less bulky, pink-tinged sheep was back in the race), we were able to walk up and take a piece of wool as a souvenir. The wool was covered in lanolin, a natural oil secreted by the sheep to protect itself from sunburn and to act as a moisturizing and waterproofing agent (just imagine being a sheep, getting wet, and having to lug around a waterlogged wool coat. No fun!). The lanolin is extracted from the wool when it is washed and dried, and turned into many products, such as the hand creme my mom bought later in the day from the gift shop.

At 11:45am we were escorted over to the Colonel's Homestead, where those of us who had paid for a bbq lunch were seated on the terrace overlooking the house's beautiful gardens and stunning view of Lake Wakatipu, and treated to a delicious buffet-style barbecue featuring lamb, beef, chicken, pork, salads, corn on the cob, potatoes, rice, vegetables, a cheese platter, and fruit salad for desert. The weather was sunny and gorgeous today, and aside from a few annoying wasps, the setting was perfect.

Our cruise back across the lake aboard the Earnslaw was as enjoyable as the trip there, and I left the vessel half wishing I could stay on it and have another go around; I think I'm missing my steam trains, and the Earnslaw was a good substitute, at least for a day.

The next few hours were spent wandering around Queenstown, watching my parents perform an elaborate dance of trying to find shorts that fit, while at the same time constantly running out of shops and moving the car from one 30min parking space to the next. By 3pm my dad was getting somewhat antsy and wanted to get on the road to Te Anau, but my mom had her heart set on visiting the Kiwi Birdlife Park, so we parked the car on the hill and then walked down and over to the Park, situated at the base of the Skyline Gondola.

The main highlight of the park is their kiwi birds, which live in two special huts. The birds, being nocturnal, are kept on a reverse schedule (i.e. our daytime is their nighttime), so the kiwis were up and about, busily foraging for food when we entered the huts. One hut had a special "kiwi feeding" at 4:30pm, and the guide present told us that to the kiwis, the room is indeed totally dark; although it is lit by several red lightbulbs (giving it a similar appearance to a darkroom), kiwis are unable to see the colour red, so to them it really is pitch-black.

A neat feature of the Birdlife Park is the portable mp3 players and headphones they give you; each stop in the park features a sign with a number, and keying in the corresponding number on the mp3 player's keypad plays back an audio clip detailing the birds in that particular enclosure, interesting ecological facts, Maori historical uses of the birds, etc. Some of my favourites were the kiwis (of course), the tuatara lizard, and the kea - those cheeky and highly intelligent parrots would have happily shredded our hiking boots had we not brought them inside each night when I was hiking the Heaphy and Milford Tracks.

Leaving the Birdlife Park, we headed down to Fergburger, and my parents experienced the magic that is the gourmet hamburger the size of one's head (my mom and I split one). We also bought gelato at Lick, the desert place two doors down, leading my mom to comment that she will have to begin dieting when she gets home (really, mom, you don't have much to worry about). Then we were off to Te Anau, arriving here at the Cosy Kiwi B&B around 8:30pm. Now it is 11:40pm, and we have to be up and out the door by 8am to make it to Milford Sound for 10am, so I had best be off this thing (I'm sure my parents are tired of listening to me type... although the heavy dance music throbbing from down the street is likely annoying them even more).

Oh, and say a little prayer for my parents and I; we have to cross through the Homer Tunnel under the Southern Alps tomorrow twice when we go to and from Milford Sound, and after the earthquake activity in Christchurch I really don't want to think any more about earthquakes or the Alpine Fault line. Goodnight!


Friday, February 25, 2011

A Whirlwind West Coast Tour

Al's efforts in sending my blog post to the Vancouver Sun were successful; after seeking my permission, they published an edited version to their website, and also linked back to the original here on blogger.

Well, we didn't leave Greymouth at 8am as planned (ha, no one who knows my family will be surprised at that one). It was closer to 9am by the time we finally got everything loaded into the car (how the heck did we manage to amass so much stuff already? My parents don't even have the luggage they brought here, and already they are carrying around a bunch of shopping bags!) and headed south.

Today's ultimate destination was Queenstown, some 535km from Greymouth. It was quite the trek to make in one day, but we broke it up with several stops along the way; not to mention, of course, being treated to the beautiful West Coast scenery of towering mountains and lush green forest.

Around 11am we stopped at Fox Glacier to hike up to the glacier face; from the car park, it was about a half hour walk to the yellow rope barriers 80m from the ice (and signs that strictly intoned us not to go any further due to risk of ice fall, rock fall, surge waves, and any other number of scary-sounding hazards). Having already hiked the Franz Josef Glacier, and having parents who had already walked across a glacier in the Rockies back home, we were quite content to just stand and look at Fox Glacier. Although it is slightly longer than Franz Josef (12km as opposed to Franz Josef's 13km), both have the distinction of being some of the few glaciers in the world to end in a temperate rainforest, only 300m above sea level. The glacier takes its name from Sir William Fox, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, who first visited the glacier in 1872. Fox Glacier also has the distinction of moving ten times faster than other valley glaciers of similar size around the world; it has been advancing since 1985, and in 2006 was advancing at rate of a metre a week!

Back in the car, we continued driving up to Lake Paringa, where we stopped for a brief lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, eaten on a very windy picnic bench beside the lake. While we were eating, my dad made the mistake of leaving the car windows down, and about fifty sandflies were lying in wait for us when we returned... I was squishing and swatting them for the next half hour as we drove toward Haast. My dad got bites all up and down his arm; he won't make that mistake with the car windows again!

Driving through Haast Pass was stunning; it was just as beautiful as I remembered it being when I travelled down SH6 with the Stray Bus in November. I forced my dad to stop at Blue Pools, which regretfully due to the later afternoon sun being in the wrong position weren't as blue as I remembered them being when I saw then with Stray, but still proved to be a nice walk through the beech forest and down to the Makarora River.

What was a stunning blue colour, however, was Lake Wanaka; the day I passed through it had been cloudy, but today we were able to get some beautiful shots of the bright blue sky and towering mountains, and after travelling through "The Neck" we also marvelled at the jewel-tones of Lake Hawea.

I think my dad really got into the driving today; open road (highway) here in New Zealand has a speed limit of 100km/h, but the narrowness and windy nature of SH6 really requires that one drive far slower and with extreme caution. Well, my dad drives with caution, but the slower part kind of got thrown out the window... we were racing around some of those corners!

We made it to Queenstown around 6:45pm this evening; the hostess here at Butterfli Lodge knew of our experience in Christchurch and was extra welcoming to me, commenting on how we likely just wanted to have a nice relaxing evening free from stress or travel. We walked down the hill into the hubbub of Queenstown's nightlife (just rolling out of bed at 8pm), and after a little wandering (including a look at the TSS Earnslaw, which we will be sailing on tomorrow) settled for dinner at an Italian restaurant called Avanti, where my dad ordered a bottle of red merlot, and I had two glasses, and am now very sleepy and in need of bed. As such, I will end this here, have a shower, and then hit the sack. Goodnight!


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Trying to Recover in Greymouth

The more coverage of the earthquake I review, the more sick to my stomach I feel. Being part of the incident gave me a very different  - very scary, very intense, but very narrow - perspective of the event than that of someone watching the news reports, which have a much broader focus. It wasn't until today that I saw my first close-up pictures of the collapsed CTV and Pyne Gould Guinness Buildings, and with a horrible jolt I realised I had commented on the beautiful coloured glass that once adorned the top of the CTV building as I drove past it with Malcolm and Illy on the way out to play field hockey on Valentine's Day. Knowing what it looked like before, and knowing that only a twisted pile of wreckage is left, now a mass grave for the one hundred bodies believed to still be trapped inside... I turn my eyes away. It is just too much to take in, and reminds me of how narrowly my parents and I escaped with our own lives. When I hear stories of emergency workers having to perform amputations to extract victims, of the sombre declaration that no one could have survived under the rubble in the cathedral, even my faith in the law of large numbers and random chance is of little comfort in helping me accept that I should not feel guilty for being unharmed when so many others are suffering horribly.

As a foreigner in New Zealand, I had the advantage of being able to leave the city of Christchurch: in two weeks I will board a plane and return home to Canada. I could close my eyes and try to forget Christchurch and its citizens, now trying to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Yet the reality is Christchurch has provided me with a violent wake-up call: Vancouver Island is also located along the same geological fault line known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, and it is only a matter of time before our region is  also rocked by a powerful earthquake. I have no desire to live my life in fear, but neither do I want to relive the horror I experienced and saw experienced by those around me. If any good can come out of the tragedy of the Christchurch earthquake, let it be the chance for the citizens of other communities such as Victoria to acknowledge and better prepare themselves for the unpredictable forces of nature.

One of my friends in Australia, Al, was floored by my blog entry about the earthquake, and showed it several of his colleagues at work and e-mailed it to several other people on the Mainline Steam tour with us this year... as such, my e-mail inbox has been busy today with people letting me know they are glad my parents and I are okay. Al was so impressed by my narrative he asked my permission to e-mail it to the Vancouver Sun, which he did, and I later replied to an e-mail from a Vancouver Sun editor seeking permission to publish portions of the blog entry online or in print.

When Al called to ask permission to e-mail my blog entry my mom and dad and I were inside The Warehouse (the NZ Wal-Mart) here in Greymouth buying a few articles of clothes for my parents, who have nothing other than their daybags, seeing as their luggage is still trapped on the third floor of the Copthorne Hotel in Christchurch. We had previously gone to the Countdown to buy food for lunch on the road today, and after receiving Al's phone call I went back and sat in the car and quickly uploaded photos to my blog of the earthquake using my vodafone mobile internet key; I knew we would likely be heading down the West Coast of the South Island today, which has notoriously spotty cell phone reception, and that I wouldn't get another chance to update the blog until this evening.

As it turns out, I was half-right; I didn't get a chance to update the blog, but not because we were driving down the West Coast; we were just leaving town when I mentioned we were passing by the turn-off to Shantytown, and my dad suddenly made the decision that he would rather take today and relax in Greymouth than try and drive all the way down to Queenstown. As such, we ended up spending the afternoon in Shantytown (which ultimately ended in me calling the hostel in Queenstown and thankfully getting out of paying for tonight, and also calling Noah's Ark Backpackers and getting us another night's accommodation here, despite a minor hiccough when we were originally booked into a dorm room with two other girls; now, to my mom's relief, the three of us are in the Penguin Room all by ourselves).

An afternoon in Shantytown was likely one of the best things we could have done; we were able to relax, walk through the woods, and keep our bodies in one place rather than frantically rushing down the coast. I was also able to catch up with Jeffrey, the engineer (who not only remembered my name, but also where I was from and where I work - good job, Jeffrey!) who gave my parents and I a cab ride back to the lower station in the locie Katie. I also got to introduce my parents to Ian Tibbles, who was glad I was able to make it out to Shantytown again, and when I thanked him again for letting me buy his Steam School Books, said, "Oh, I know, you raved about them for several days on your blog!" I think he took my enthusiasm as a compliment. :-)

It only took three visits, but now I feel I have seen all of Shantytown; today filled in the missing pieces of the gold mining set-up, particularly the sluicing nozzle demonstration. The same apparatus was used in Barkerville: a high-pressure jet of water is shot at the earth (on a slope, such as the sides of a river or hill), and the silt and water is directed into a sluicebox whose bottom is covered by a washboard-like surface that collects the heavier gold as it sinks. At the base of their sluicebox from their sluicing nozzle set-up Shantytown allows visitors to pan for gold in the sediment for $5. After the nozzle was turned off, I picked my way up the section of hillside that had been blasted by the jet of water, using my eyes to search carefully through the freshly-exposed silt. I spotted something bright gold and glittering out of the corner of my eye; I had found a small flake of gold! I put it carefully into the palm of my hand and carried it down the hill to show the gold panning operator; he was most impressed with my find (considering I had just used my naked eyes), and put the flake into a glass vial for me to take home. I guess it was somewhat cheating, because I didn't pay my $5 (my dad jokingly accused me of "claim jumping"), but the operator didn't seem to mind at all.

The rest of our time in Shantytown we spent wandering around the township (mom and dad licking kiwifruit-flavoured ice cream from the general store), including requisite stops at the schoolhouse and fire station, as well as the hospital, butcher, and church. On our way out my mom and I bought a t-shirt and a souvenir guide to Shantytown; part of me wishes I could stay in New Zealand longer and volunteer there for a week or two as both Ian and Jeffrey kindly offered (Jeffrey even said he could put me up at his house if I wanted). I do have a feeling, however, that NZ's Shantytown has not seen the last of me yet, especially seeing as I am learning from Ian's textbooks.

For dinner tonight my mom and I made chicken stir-fry with coconut curry sauce, and sweet corn as a side dish (my mom was quite delighted to see sweet corn on sale in the supermarket; it's her favourite vegetable). Our evening has not been terribly exciting (not that we're looking for excitement, believe you me!): we got ready for bed, my parents read my blog entry from last night (ironic, when you consider how many other people read it before they themselves had even seen it), and now they're both trying to sleep while I click-clack away here sitting on the floor, so I should likely stop typing. We're leaving early tomorrow morning to head down to Queenstown, and I had best go to sleep, too, as I'll likely be doing some of the driving tomorrow on those windy NZ West Coast highways, and will need to be awake and alert. Goodnight!


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Earthquake Saga.

Where do I even begin. At the beginning, I guess. "A beginning is a very delicate time." Know then, that it is February 23rd, 2011, one day after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake devastated the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Know that as of 10pm tonight, 75 are confirmed dead, 600 are missing, and the number of unidentified (and therefore unconfirmed dead) bodies is growing, and that rescuers are starting to lose hope of pulling more survivors from the rubble. Know that the persistent aftershocks are constantly shaking the city, sending my blood adrenaline levels skyrocketing and making it impossible for me to sleep last night, as I spent the whole night in a heightened "fight or flight" response mode. Know that 40% of the city is without power, 80% without water, and while most of the major roads are passable, liquefaction has resulted in huge mounds of silt and rivers of water appearing where once stood fields, front gardens, and footpaths.

Know that my mom and dad and I are now out of Christchurch and on the opposite side of the island in the town of Greymouth, but that my thoughts are constantly with our friends the Snowdon family and wishing we could do something to help them, especially after they were so hospitable to us.


Yesterday morning I got up at 7:20am, and woke Malcolm up at 7:30am (and again at 7:45am, when he mumbled something like, "Come back in 15 minutes!", and after a rather unsuccessful attempt to warm up some of my scones from the night before in the oven we got into his car and headed off for the airport. I brought with me my backpack and my sleeping bag, and left the rest of my belongings (in something of a state of disarray, I must admit) scattered on the bed, in the dresser, and on the desk... I figured I would come back this afternoon while my parents were sight-seeing and pack up my things.

The traffic was a little heavy, but Malcolm had me at the airport for 8:35am, and after thanking him and wishing him well I then spent the next half an hour trying to figure out where the heck my parents were; I knew they had come in on a domestic flight (Auckland to Christchurch), but that their luggage had likely been checked all the way from Vancouver, so they were going to have to pick it up from the international baggage collection. After wandering back and forth between the two terminals (thankfully, it's not a very big airport), I finally spotted them in the International Meeting Area. I gave them my "Kia ora! Welcome to Aotearoa!" greeting, and we set off to find a shuttle to take us downtown to the Copthorne Christchurch Central, where we were staying.

Along the way my mom marveled at how much it reminded her of Victoria ("All the trees!") and how the weather was similar to home (it was overcast and a little rainy today, hardly summery), while my dad's eyes took in the phenomenon of traffic driving on the left, and started scanning makes of cars as they drove past, (I'm sure) creating a mental shortlist of the sort of car he would like to rent.

Arriving at the Copthorne, we checked in my parents' bags plus my sleeping bag, and then after phone calls to Grandma Wright and Grandma Taylor to let them know my parents had arrived safely, we headed out into downtown Christchurch to explore the square and find an ATM. One of our first stops after the bank was the Festival of Flowers display outside the cathedral, where my dad and I posed with a topiary moose (how fitting).

Mom and I in front of Christchurch Cathedral

We ended up wandering into the cathedral, as I had never been in before, and was curious about the inside after being in the beautiful cathedral in Nelson. I was not disappointed; inside were majestic pillars designed in the Gothic revival style, an ornately carved wooden altar frame at the back of the knave, and beautiful mosaics on the floor of ships, representing the four ships of the first English settlers to Christchurch. After looking around by ourselves for a bit, we decided to participate in the free tour, led by a kindly old retired English doctor, whose dry wit yet endearing and friendly personality made all the dates and names he was spouting come to life for us.

My dad wanted to climb the cathedral spire ($15 for a family), but because of the rain and low cloud today I dissuaded him from it, as I figured we wouldn't be able to see much anyway. We left a donation in the church's collection box of $20, and as we made our way out I could hear the bell across the square start to ring noon; inside the church, the midday mass commenced, and we decided to go in search of some lunch.

My mom's first words about lunch were, "I don't want to eat sushi!" (ha), so I took her and dad across the square and down Worchester St., as I knew a few restaurants existed around the corner of Worschester and Manchester Sts. We looked at a Spanish restaurant in an old brick building, but deciding the prices on the menu posted by the door were too expensive, headed back across the intersection to The Raj Mahal, an Indian restaurant I had walked by many times in my travels between the YHA and the bus stop, and figured it looked like a good place to try, as it wasn't busy, but I knew in the evenings I had seen it packed, so the food was likely good. We entered and had our pick of seats; we chose one in the corner with windows on both sides.

It's scary when I look back at it now, but the choices we made in deciding all these little, seemingly inconsequential decisions (when to eat lunch, and where to eat it) likely saved our lives.

We dug into our appetizer platter and drinks (coke for me, water for mom, a Kingfisher for dad), and sat and discussed our plans for the afternoon; my parents wanted to go have a ride on the city tram, and I decided I would head back up to Heathcote and pack up my belongings, and then meet them back at the hotel, as by then it would likely be 2pm and we could check into our room. My dad was once again starting to scan cars passing outside, commenting on the different makes and models, when things started to go horribly wrong.

I heard the earthquake coming before I felt it, and likely felt it a little bit before my parents did, as I knew what to expect... it started with a dull low rumble, and then a few slight vibrations, before turning into a roar; I looked up (I was facing the window), and saw the asphalt and gravel outside on the street rippling. My first thought was, "Oh, hmm, yes, another aftershock; well, my parents are certainly going to get the authentic Christchurch experience!" Then suddenly, I was jolted sideways in my chair, and I watched as the brick building across the street (the one housing the spanish restaurant) suddenly had is wall fold and crumble to the ground... I realized at that instant that this was no piddly little aftershock.

My memories of the earthquake itself are somewhat disjointed; I remember the shouting, the shattering of glass, and the roar of tumbling masonry and stone; my mother says it was deafening to her, but I don't remember the overall cacophony; I remember distinct sounds. The glass windows surrounding us shattered outward, causing my mom to dive under the table, and my dad fell out of his chair onto the floor. I looked up, still trying to sit in my chair and hold onto the table, and saw the decorative plaster moulding of the building above the sidewalk outside buckle and fall down toward me; I remember thinking, "The building is falling down on top of us," and then suddenly being thrown from my chair by an upward thrust, and then falling down hard onto the floor, striking something on the way down, and having my knees cut by the broken glass and grit rolling around on the floor. My mom grabbed my hand and screamed at me, "Get under the table!", and I thought, "Well, the table is pretty small, and if the whole building comes down it's not going to protect us", but I allowed her to pull me under, and I started to count like I had been instructed in school earthquake drills: "One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand..."

When I got to "seven one thousand" the earth stopped moving; we were in near total darkness, and choking on a thick white dust that filled the air, coating everything it touched. The restaurant staff started calling, "Are you alright? Are you alright?" to their patrons. I answered in the affirmative, and then they started calling, "Get out, get out!" I scrambled to find my backpack, which had shifted several feet away from where I left it, and grabbed my mom and I's coats from the floor. My mom was scrambling around, trying to find her purse, which she found after about five seconds, as we could hardly see, and it too had been thrown several feet away. We got up and picked our way across the floor, keeping our heads low; the entire front of the building had collapsed, and there was no longer a door; a window frame was preserved enough that we were able to climb up over the sill, shimmy sideways between the half-empty pane and some iron rods, and then stumble over the fallen bricks and mortar from the upper storeys.

Do you remember footage from 9/11? That's what I felt like I had stepped in to. I had grit in my mouth and was coughing up dust, and all three of us were covered in a white chalky powder. Outside, the church across the street had collapsed, sending its makeshift scaffolding from the first September earthquake tumbling into the street, along with its stonework and mortar. I turned around, and took my first good look at the building we had just crawled out of... and found myself almost disbelieving that we had just emerged from that pile of rubble. As we left my mom pressed at $20 bill into the waiter's hand; she didn't feel it was right to leave without paying for our appetizer.

The restaurant we were in. We crawled out the broken
window in the centre left of the picture.

The restaurant we were in. We were sitting approximately
behind where the tree is.

The annex attached to the restaurant.

The church across the street from the restaurant

The building (or what's left of it) housing the Spanish
restaurant we originally considered eating at. I'm glad
we chose the Indian one instead!

Here our senses were assaulted with the sensations of a war zone; hundreds of alarms, sirens, and buzzers going off, the muted sounds of glass and brick and mortar continuing to fall, and the dazed and shocked looks on people around us, as they milled in the street. I saw tears and hysterical cries, and fought the urge to panic or fall victim to emotion; I forced myself to make sure we had all our belongings, and then decided our best course of action would be to walk in the middle of the street back up Manchester St., and then make our way over to the hotel, as I figured a) it was a modern building and may have survived, and b) Victoria Park across the street was likely a safe place to be when the inevitable aftershocks started to arrive. The first one arrived just as we set out, causing more shouting and falling of mortar and bricks from the buildings around us.

I tried to focus on the task at hand as we picked our way down the street, but there are images here in my mind I know I will never be able to erase. We saw people working frantically to remove stones and mortar from the tops of cars that had been crushed by falling buildings, and I knew simply from glancing at some of them that the people inside those cars were unlikely to be alive. We saw one woman being helped away from a car, blood streaming down her head and coating her arms and legs, mixing with dust to create a dull red-brown stain. A man staggered in front of me, his eyes glazed over in shock; I asked him if he was okay, and he told me he worked in an office building just down the street: when the quake started, he ran for the door, and a woman in front of him made it out, but her brother, who was running out behind him, did not, as the building collapsed on top of him, and the man could do nothing but watch helplessly. I asked him if he wanted a sip of water, and I dug my metal waterbottle out of my backpack, and also gave him a piece of candied ginger, as I figured the sugar would do him some good. He thanked me, then abruptly got to his feet and walked in a daze back the way he had come, toward his office building.

We kept going, turning left up Armage St, and witnessing more physical signs of the quake; huge cracks had appeared in the road, tram lines had been sheared in half as if cut with a giant butter knife, curbs had pulled away from the asphalt, and entire sections of the road were buckled up or depressed under. We could smell and hear a leaking natural gas pipeline, and this, coupled with another severe aftershock (and the testament of a resident, holding a bandage to his bloody head and saying that this was definitely a more severe earthquake than the one in September) only caused us to hasten our pace to Victoria Park. Once arriving there, we were greeted to the site of several hundred people milling around in shock and confusion, and an ever-growing river of cloudy, greyish-brown water; the water mains had ruptured, and their contents were now spilling into the street. Liquefaction was also occurring, as sediment underneath the ground was forced upward with the fresh water, creating mini volcano-shaped cones of sand with water pouring down their sides.

A (relatively small) crack in the road

Buckling of a footpath

Broken water mains flooding Victoria Park

The hotel staff was having everyone congregate in one corner of the garden, and when my dad went over to ask about collecting our bags from the luggage room right inside the front door, we discovered the hotel (apparently a model of efficiency) had already moved them up to our room on the third floor, and clearly no one was going back into the building for the moment. The staff advised us to stay put in the park until they could further advise us on what to do.

An office building on the corner of Armage and Columbo Street had people trapped inside on the upper storeys; my guess is the stairwells had collapsed or were impassable. They had hung fluorescent vests on the balcony to attract the attention of disaster relief teams, and a group on the fourth floor affixed paper reading "HELP" to the windows. A young woman approached my dad and asked him if he could take a picture using his camera of the sign and then e-mail it to her; it turned out she was a reporter from The Press, Christchurch's newspaper, and I got talking to her about what we had just been through in the restaurant and what we had seen and experienced on the street.

Cordoning off the CBD

The same building as above, showing the messages
 taped to the windows saying "HELP".

The cellular phone networks were swamped as everyone attempted to call everyone else and see if they were okay; after several attempts I managed to get through to Arthur, and instructed him that while we were all okay, we needed him to call everyone in the family and let them know we were okay. Sitting on the cold metal wrought-ironwork surrounding a few trees in the park, I was super-sensitive to the tremors from the ground, and becoming increasingly cold; I wished I had worn pants instead of capris.

Looking down Columbo Street, I could see the spire of the cathedral lying broken and twisted in a pile of rubble; it made me sick to my stomach to think people may have been in the spire when it crashed to the ground. Suddenly, the ground began to shake violently again; we watched as the building next to our hotel shook precariously, developed a huge crack, and its entire corner fall off onto the street with a deafening crash. My dad looked up Columbo Street, and couldn't believe his eyes; either the entire Christchurch Central Business District sank, or the uptown section rose, as there was now a twelve-foot difference between one half of Columbo Street and the other.

Looking down Columbo St. The broken base
of the spire of the cathedral is visible just
left of the centre of the picture.

The building beside the hotel before it lost its corner...

... and after.
We were told to back further away into the park, and when it became clear that there was no way we would be getting our bags back with aftershocks like that occurring, we took heed to the instructions of the hotel staff and started making our way to Hagley Park, where we were told emergency shelters would be erected. As we walked away, I could see the disaster response team cordoning off the central business district with a thick band of police tape. Along the way to Hagley Park, we passed more liquefaction, more damaged buildings, and paused to listen to the first details of the earthquake from a car stereo playing on the side of the street. In crossing over the Avon River I noticed with a jolt it was flowing the wrong way, and full of the same muddy brownish-grey water.

Buckling of a road near Hagley Park

A tree that fell victim to liquefaction in Hagley Park

The flooded Avon River

After staying in Hagley Park for an hour, it became apparent that this might very well be where we would be expected to spend the night; in a place with no sanitation facilities, no shelter, and no chance of hearing anything more about getting my parents' belongings back. At this point, I took charge, and suggested we walk to Heathcote, as I had managed to get through to Ilya (thank god he was okay), and he said that while the chimney had come down into the house, we could likely stay in the sleep-out out back, which hadn't suffered any damage. Our decision made, we consulted our maps of Christchurch to determine we were walking in the right direction, and headed off.

The ten kilometres between downtown Christchurch and Heathcote seemed endless; partly because we were all in shock, not really knowing what to do, and partly because of the huge amount of damage and constant tremors of the ground around us. As we walked we saw more shattered buildings, more belongings and sales goods scattered about, more bends and belts and buckles and dips in the pavement, and more liquefaction water/silt volcanoes spilling out everywhere. With no power, traffic lights were out, and some corners were already manned by police officers directing traffic.

Once we crossed over and started heading down Ferry Rd toward Sumner, however, things became very quiet on the road; the bridge had been blocked off to vehicular traffic, and for the last three kilometres we were the only passengers on the road, save for two motorbikes and one cyclist. As we got closer to Heathcote, I began to see that the damage was not abating, but growing; entire houses had collapsed, brick façades littered the ground, and clay ceilings had fallen through. One of the most harrowing was the KiwiRail coal train which had been going through the Lyttelton tunnel when the earthquake struck, causing the engineer to throw his train into full emergency to avoid crossing over the road on the overpass that he was sure would have collapsed, therefore sending him careening over the side into traffic. As it was, he didn't stop in time, but amazingly, the overpass held; the engine is on one side, and several coal cars are resting on top. We had to walk under this overpass to reach Illy's house, and my mom made us run, as the side wall of the overpass had cracked and it could have possibly fallen at any time.

I held my breath as we approached 24A Flavell St; Illy had said the house was still standing, but I was afraid the aftershocks in the time since would have taken it down. However, it was still there, and I found Illy in the back garden sleep-out, sweeping the floor to get ready for us, having salvaged the canned food drawers and cutlery drawer from the kitchen. I introduced him to my mom and dad, and then I cautiously entered the house to see about retrieving my belongings.

It was so sad (and scary) to step into that house. Here was a place I had felt so at home, so comfortable, and to see it completely destroyed was heartbreaking. Everything had fallen off the shelves in the kitchen, leaving a mass of broken glass and jam on the floor almost half a foot thick. (I especially regretted this as mixed into that carnage was the peaches I had spent yesterday canning.) The living room was covered with dust and littered with bricks; Penelope's office was inaccessible due to a fallen bookcase blocking the door; the master bedroom was a jumble of clothes, furniture, and bedding; the bathroom in a similar state of chaos, with everything from the cabinets thrown across the floor, and the remaining bricks from the chimney threatening to fall down into the bathtub. My room was total chaos: the ladder to the loft was now bearing a significant amount of the bed's weight, and two dressers and a bookcase had fallen over, spilling their contents everywhere. Oh, how regretted not packing up my things beforehand!

With the help of my dad, we carefully began to salvage my things from the bedroom, a task made all the more dangerous by the tremors that kept rocking the house and forcing us to run outside as fast as we could. In the end, I think we got most of my things; I was unable to find my razor or two DVDs lent to me by Craig, but it was simply not feasible or safe to continue searching.

We had salvaged bedding and pillows for the sleep-out, and Illy was just boiling water on the camp gas range to make us all cups of tea when Vaughn, Kat, and Malcolm showed up; after all the introductions were made and we had convened in the sleep-out for a cup of tea, it was decided that everyone would come up and spend the night at Vaughn and Kat's, whose house in the hillside suburb of Cashmere was three years old, likely has its picture in the dictionary next to the definition "earthquake-proof", and had rooms for us all to sleep in.

We loaded up Penelope's car and Malcolm's car, and with Vaguhn and Kat riding Vaughn's motorbike, Ily, Malcolm, and my mom in Penelope's car, and my dad in I in Malcolm's car (poor dad, he had to drive on his first day here!), we carefully made our way down the dark streets in the rain toward the hills.

If anyone is wondering about Kismet, she survived the earthquake with Illy in the lounge of the house, but ran off as soon as the shaking had stopped; Illy let the neighbours go before we left to keep an eye out for her, and left some crunchies out for her in his sleep-out.

Up at Vaughn and Kat's house, we divvied up bedding and rooms, and cooked a passable meal of pasta and sausage using their gas range (after thoroughly inspecting it for leaks). My parents were humbled by the Snowdon family's hospitality; I suppose I should have been, too, but I simply knew being with them would be an exercise in us all pulling together to help each other, and it was far better than being down in the park.

We sat huddled in the living room until 11:20pm or so, bracing ourselves for the aftershocks that kept shaking the house, and marvelling the number of places in Christrchuch below that still had power (we didn't). We also pooled our information: apparently the earthquake was a magnitude 6.3, less than September's 7.4, but this one was far shallower, at a depth of only 5km. The epicentre was placed at somewhere just below Lyttelton Harbour, which explains why the Snowdon house experienced such violent shaking; it was just on the other side of the mountain range. Reports of deaths were already coming in, including those of two transit busses crushed by falling debris from buildings, and the 22 worshippers at the midday mass at the Cathedral, crushed under falling pillars and limestone.

At 11:30pm we all said goodnight; my parents went to sleep on an air mattress in another room, with Illy in the room below them; Kat and Vaughn went to their bed in the room below the living room, and Malcolm and I bedded down in the lounge, I on a extremely comfy bed-chair contraption, and he on a mattress on the floor. I hardly slept all night, however... each aftershock brought a jolt of adrenaline surging through my veins, and I lay there tense and in a permanent "fight-or-flight" response mode, ready to jump and run for it should another violent earthquake erupt.

In the morning we all decided on our courses of action: Vaughn went to work (he works in construction); Kat went to see a friend; Malcolm went downtown to see if he could help with moving liquefacted soil; and Illy, my mom, my dad, and I drove in Malcolm's car to Ashburton, a community about 80km south of Christchurch, to see if we could rent a car (we knew there was no chance of getting anything open in Christchuch). Along the way we passed petrol stations with queues 30 cars long; there was a huge run on petrol.

When we got to Ashburton and to the rental place I had been able to look up on my computer using my vodafone wireless key (which was also how I was able to update my facebook status to let people know I was okay), we found the agency only had one car left; people from Christchurch had been calling down to purvey a rental themselves. The deal done, we took Illy out for lunch to a Robbie's (the same restaurant chain I went to with Craig, how ironic), and enjoyed the luxury of a warm meal, electricity, and running water.

The exciting part of today for me was having to drive Malcolm's car back to Christchurch while my dad drove the rental; I wasn't expecting my first real right-hand-drive experience to be turning onto and navigating a busy highway into an earthquake-damaged city! With Illy as my co-navigator, however, we made it back to Cashmere and to the house safely (with a few minor issues of riding the rumble strip - my lane tracking isn't used to driving on the left - and reaching for the window wiper control instead of the signal switch). I can't say the same for my parents; they got a little lost, and ended up back at the house twenty minutes after us.

By 5:20pm, and after another big aftershock, the three of us had said our goodbyes and thank-yous, and were loaded up in our rental car, heading out of town for the town of Greymouth... "Getting the hell out of Dodge" as I called it. Due to my frazzled nerves, however, I screwed up and neglected to see that we were heading for Lewis Pass over the alps instead of Arthur's Pass, as we had originally intended to go, upsetting my parents as they were really looking forward to seeing it. Sigh, I'm sorry... this vacation is really not woking out well for them, now is it?! However, we may go see Arthur's Pass tomorrow as a side-trip.

Halfway through the drive my dad pulled over and let me drive the rest of the way to Greymouth while he rested in the back seat; now we are situated at Noah's Ark Backpackers in the Leopard room, and I am down here in the dining room typing this, where I have been for the last three hours (it is now 2:15am). I think I'm finally allowing my nervous system to come to terms with what it has been put through these past 36 hours. I'm completely on edge; every time I hear a low rumble, every time I feel the floor shake from someone walking by, I'm convinced it is an earthquake and my heart leaps into my throat in fear. I hope I am able to relax enough to sleep tonight, because god knows I am exhausted and need it.

I'm very grateful to be out of Christchurch, but I know my nervous system is still there, and my heart is there, too, with Malcolm and Vaughn and Kat and Illy (and Edward and Penelope, who found out what happened only this morning and are flying back from their vacation to see what can be salvaged from their ruined home). I hope I can think of something, no matter how small, that we can do for them.

I am off now, to try and sleep and not dream of earthquakes. Goodnight.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

We're Okay. We've Survived Christchurch Earthquake, Vol. II.

Christchurch. It rocks.

My mom and dad and I are all okay. We were sitting in a restaurant at the corner of Worchester and Manchester Streets when all of a sudden the ground began to heave and buckle... the glass windows shattered, the awning outside collapsed, and we were thrown to the ground. Twelve seconds of horrific shaking later, the brick building had collapsed around us.

We got out safely.

We made our way (walking 10km) to Heathcote, and now we are staying with Vaughn and Kat at their house in Cashmere, with Illy and Malcolm. We aren't sure what we're going to do tomorrow... somehow we need to get out of here.

We're just going to wait for daylight, but I'm not sure how much sleep we are going to get... aftershocks keep shaking the earth, and some are quite large and violent.

I feel so guilty for bringing my parents into a war zone.

I'm just grateful that we are okay... 65 were confirmed dead at 5pm. I'm sure the toll is only going to rise. We were in the Cathedral for a tour forty-five minutes before the earthquake struck... now the interior concrete pillars are collapsed, the pews are crushed, and those who were participating in the midday mass are buried under two metres of rubble and likely dead.

I think I'm in shock.

Hold on tight, everyone. I'll try to keep you posted as long as the cell phone towers keep broadcasting a signal I can connect to, and my battery holds out on my laptop.

Goodnight... I hope it is. I really do!


Monday, February 21, 2011

Peaches and Beans and Scones, Oh My!

My last day WWOOFing at Château Snowdon today... and boy, was I busy! Even though Penelope and Edward are on vacation, I still managed to occupy myself with a full day of work.

I started in the morning with making pancakes for breakfast, and then doing all the breakfast and leftover dinner dishes. Then I wrote my blog entry about Ferrymead, brought in a load of laundry, hung up a load of laundry, and put my own things in the washer. By then it was noon, and Ilya made the two of us a nice salad (it was really good; he's quite the chef!) before he headed off downtown. My next challenge (after hanging out my own laundry, of course): canning peaches.

I've never canned by myself before, but Penelope's method is slightly unconventional, so it didn't involve as much specialized equipment as my mom's canning set-up. I sliced peaches and placed them into jars, and poured a hot syrup of sugar water into the jars until the peaches were just covered. Then it was into the oven with the pop-tops lightly affixed to the jars, and I heated the jars until the liquid inside them started to bubble. Out of the oven they came (a very delicate operation involving a thick tea towel; there aren't any oven mitts here), and I placed them on the counter before screwing down the rings and leaving them to cool. I made eight jars, and all eight seals took, yea! Not bad for my first time.

Not content with canning peaches, my next task was to blanch some beans from the garden; I went out and picked a whole stainless-steel bowl full, and then washed and topped and tailed and sliced them before immersing them in boiling water for three minutes, then plunging them into a cold water bath before drying them and placing them in ziploc bags to be frozen. I even picked enough to have some for dinner... sigh. Beans... I've had about enough of them.

By this point the sun was getting low on the horizon, and I decided my last exploit in the kitchen would be to make cheese scones for tea and breakfast tomorrow morning; while they were in the oven baking, I slipped in a few sausage rolls from the freezer to eat for dinner. I certainly felt like a good little domestic girl today... I spent the entire day in the kitchen!

After dinner I had a shower, and then sat down to type up a letter from a handwritten copy (my contribution to Edward's Hurunui Water Project fight). That went along just fine until I came to a table full of 49 Latin plant classification names that had to be typed up as well... it almost made me wish I had studied biology at university so I would have a better idea of what I was transcribing.

Malcolm and Ilya came home from field hockey (Monday night intramurals), and the three of us relaxed in the living room, sampling various types of alcohol the two brothers had in their possession. We started with a port of Ilya's, then to a lemon liqueur of Malcolm's, then a cherry brandy, then straight vodka (you can see we're degenerating here), before culminating in glasses of absinthe. Well, having opened my mouth and saying absinthe can be served lit on fire, and having Malcolm the rocket scientist / pyro in the house, we promptly found ourselves in the kitchen, with shotglasses and a lighter! We used the "bohemian method"; first we poured a shot of absinthe into a glass, then soaked a sugar cube in absinthe and balanced it on top of the glass, resting on two chopsticks. Then we lit the sugarcube on fire, waited until it started to melt slightly, then removed one of the chopsticks to send it tumbling into the glass of absinthe, which then itself lit on fire. A quick addition of another shotglass full of water puts out the fire and completes the mixing of the drink (save for a little twist of lemon which we added later). I'm not a fan (I think absinthe tastes like the fluoride mouthwash they give you at the dentist), but it was great fun to soak sugar cubes in 60% alcohol and see them burn with a bright blue flame.

Now it is almost 2am, and I have to be up and out of the house by 8am at the latest. Why? Because MY PARENTS ARE COMING! As I type these words they are on a plane flying here to New Zealand; they left at 4pm my time (7pm their time) from Vancouver, and get into Auckland at 6am before hopping onto a domestic flight down to Christchurch at 7am, putting them into Christchurch Airport around 8:30am. It's funny... I always thought my parents were going to be the ones welcoming me back to Canada at the arrivals gate in Vancouver, but instead it's going to be me standing on the other side of the barrier here in Christchurch, saying, "Kia ora! Welcome to Aotearoa!" Goodnight. :-)


Sunday, February 20, 2011


Today was something of a disjointed day... I say that because in amidst of everything that I was up to, Penelope and Edward were trying to coordinate finally leaving on their much-needed and much-deserved annual vacation. They had originally hoped to leave on Friday, which turned into Saturday, then Sunday morning, and then finally Sunday night. It reminded me of my house before we leave on a big camping trip; bags and containers everywhere, people racing back and forth, and a car with all its doors open being systematically stuffed with goodies. (The main difference being here our car usually had a storage clamshell on the roof full of deck chairs and camping gear, not matching kayaks.)

This morning Penelope insisted I take it easy; she said I had earned a day off. Nevertheless, I did all the breakfast dishes and dinner dishes from the night before, and then sat in my room feeling guilty as Ilya moved mulch from the front yard to the back in the wheelbarrow. I spent the time going through my photos of the Milford Track; I'm hoping to get those up on the blog in the next day or two.

Around 12pm Ilya and I were finally out the door and walking down the street to Ferrymead Historic Park, which I can describe loosely as a BC Forest Discovery Centre on steroids, if one took out the forestry emphasis and replaced it with an Edwardian township. (Maybe the comparison of Barkerville, minus the gold mining and plus a steam train would be a more accurate comparison.) In addition to the steam train, there's a running tram system clanging along the township's main street, and a tiny two-foot gauge salt-mining train that runs in a big loop around several buildings.

Ferrymead is located on the site of the original Ferrymead Railway, which was built in 1863 to service ships docked at the Ferrymead Wharf while the rail tunnel to Lyttelton was under construction. Once the tunnel was finished in 1867, the Ferrymead Railway became the Ferrymead Branch, and was closed shortly thereafter. This gives Ferrymead Railway he dubious distinction of being both the first public railway to be built and the first railway to be closed in New Zealand. In 1964, local rail enthusiasts began restoring the site and laying track for the creation of a heritage railway park; trains began running in 1972, and Ferrymead itself opened in 1977.

On event days (such as today, a Sunday where the steam train was running) adult admission is $20; however, because Ilya volunteers at Ferrymead, the woman in admissions just waved us through when Ilya went to pay for me. We put the money to good use, buying ourselves lunch at the bakery onsite; meat pies, cookies, and I tried a bottle of Ilya's Smoky Thunder ginger beer (it was quite tasty). We took our purchases and went and sat on a luggage cart at the Moorhouse Station and watched the steam train arrive and then depart again. The train runs back and forth on approximately 1km of track between the Moorhouse Station and the Ferrymead Station, near the old wharf pilings. The train pulls the three carriages up the tracks, decouples, switches onto the passing loop beside them, and then recouples (backward) to the end of the train to pull the three cars back to the Moorhouse Station. Once there, it again decouples, switches onto the passing track, and recouples to the front of the carriages, ready for the next journey. Seeing set-ups like this (or Shantytown, where the train pushes the carriages up and then pulls them back down) made me appreciate the beauty of our figure eight at the BCFDC; the train is always pulling the carriages from the front of the train, and we don't have to bother with constant coupling and decoupling!

Nevertheless, the volunteers working on the train seemed not to mind all the constant shunting. Ilya introduced me to the three young people working on the train that day: Deen, the guard (dressed snazzily in a cap, blazer, and collared shirt and tie), Andrew, the railhand (helping couple and decouple the engine), and Alex(andra), dressed in a white blouse and long skirt who I assume was playing the role of a passenger, but really just wanted to hang out with the guys in the guard's carriage.

We hopped on the train and rode out in the open with the guard (where we weren't supposed to; sometimes it's fun to have friends who work at such places!), and then when we got back to Moorehouse Station Ilya got permission for me to ride in the cab for the next trip. The engine running today was W192, a very significant locie in that it was the first-ever locomotive built in New Zealand: it was built in Addington by the New Zealand Government Railway in 1889. It is one of only two W-class locies ever built (later modifications earned the Wa classification). For the first two decades of its life it worked between Upper Hutt and Summit on the North Island, and then for the rest of its working days was based out of Greymouth, hauling coal trains to the Greymouth harbour here on the west coast of the South Island. In 1959 it was withdrawn from service, but spared the scrap heap, and ended up featuring in a static exhibit in 1963, before being more fully restored in the 1980s for the 125th anniversary of NZR in 1988.

The driver and fireman were quite happy to chat with me about W192, and the fireman, upon learning where I work in Canada, said, "Well, now, you can't go home without saying you fired the very first locomotive built in New Zealand, now can you? Pick up that shovel!" So yes, I actually shovelled coal into the firebox as we puffed back down the line to the Moorhouse Station. "Shovel all the coal in, gotta keep 'er rollin'"...

Thanking the driver and fireman, Ilya and I then started wandering around the township of Ferrymead; or to put things more accurately, Ilya eagerly showed me around his favourite buildings. Our first stop was the general store, which featured a player piano and organ; naturally, I had a go at playing a few tunes. Our second stop was the post office, which was decidedly more exciting than the post office at the BCFDC: this one featured an exhibit of telegraph and teletype machinery, several antique automated telephone exchanges, and a working operator exchange!

When we first entered the room housing the manual telephone exchange, I squealed, "Oh, click and bang!", as I had heard the system called on a Secret Life of Machines programme. The volunteer (an older man) working in the area whirled around to see who had spoken, and then spent the next twenty minutes showing me around the exhibit. The machine I had first seen was actually not the Strowger "click-and-bang" I remembered from the TV show, but a slightly older version that was first adopted in New Zealand. He took Ilya and I into another room, where there was setup of Strowger selectors from the 1960s that looked exactly like the ones explained to me by Tim Hunkin. Ilya and I had a blast, calling each other from the several operating rotary phones on the counter, watching the selectors whirl and grind about, and then causing the other person's phone to ring.

In the far back room was an exhibit that proved to be even more fun: a working operator telephone exchange! Complete with four panels of inputs and 1/4-inch phone jacks in holders (kept neatly in place by a series of pulleys and bungy cords), many buildings at Ferrymead are wired into the main telephone exchange, allowing calls between buildings to be placed by ringing the operator and asking to be patched through the switchboard to the correct extension. When Ilya and I arrived three adolescents (dressed in period garb; their parents work at Ferrymead and as such they, too, volunteer here on the weekends) were engrossed in operating the exchange, taking turns calling the switchboard and routing calls through to other phones. Ilya even went running over to the general store to try and place a call through the switchboard back to the main room of the post office. I played along, too, and got a nasty loud popping sound in my ear when the line connected between me in the post master's office and one of the kids in the exchange room next door.

Finally, we left the fun of the telephone exchange behind, and went up to the signal box to watch the signal man throwing the points for the steam train. None of the points are thrown manually during all that shunting I witnessed the train crew doing; instead, they communicate with the signalman via a combination of bells and buzzers, and the signal man sets the points via a set of levers from high up in the signal box, recording every single change in a log book. Fortunately, the switches were behaving themselves today; the operator told me that since the earthquake in September, the contacts haven't been meeting properly and things can get a bit dodgy.

The next hour or so was spent exploring the various rail sheds and workshops of Ferrymead; several different groups and organizations are based there, including the Tramway Historical Society, The Canterbury Railway Society, and the Ferrymead Museum of Road Transport, so there was all sorts of machinery and equipment housed in sheds and buildings, or lying disassembled in the yards, some being worked over by volunteers, others which I'm sure have been sitting in their exact locations for years. Walking into the Rail Shop reminded me of a slightly larger version of the BCFDC's own rail shop; an HO scale model as opposed to an N scale, if you will. And believe it or not, it was approaching the same level of messiness as our own shop!

By the time we left Ferrymead it was almost 5pm; the gates had closed at 4:30pm, so we made our way out the back street, walking underneath the metal latticework erected to allow passage of the electric trolley down the street (it reminded me of sections of downtown Vancouver). When we arrived back at home we discovered Penelope and Edward had not left yet, but were getting ever-closer to their goal (this relieved me somewhat; I was afraid I wasn't going to get to say goodbye).

This evening I went out to dinner with Craig, the fireman I met at Shantytown last month. He lives in Christchurch, so it seemed only fitting (and polite) that we got together for dinner. It meant that I missed actually seeing Penelope and Edward off (which I regret), but I did give her a big hug before I left; Penelope told me I should come back, and that the door is always open: "You fit quite well into our odd little family!" she said.

Craig picked me up at the corner, and then we went out for dinner to a bar and grill called Robbie's up in New Brighton... I had a light dinner, as I had already eaten when I got back to Penelope's when Ilya and I returned from Ferrymead. Craig lent me two DVDs of train salvaging operations from the Greymouth River created by friends of his; they are footage of the recovery mission to rescue the trains dumped into the Greymouth river that he took me out to see when I was last in Greymouth. I'll give them a watch, and then I'll give them to Ian Tibbles at Shantytown so he can return them to Craig the next time he goes out there to work.

I got home around 9:45pm, and then after a shower, Ilya, Malcolm, and I watched several episodes of Big Bang Theory; Malcolm in particular seems to find it hilarious (likely because he's a graduate student in engineering at the University of Canterbury)! The two of them also laugh at me because I have so much of it memorized... but I can't help that my brain seemingly effortlessly remembers humorous snippets of dialogue. Ah, yes, we were three slightly silly adolescents, and didn't get to bed until after 2am (and only after Malcolm's setting off of a small container of rocket fuel on the back lawn, all the while claiming not to be addicted or a pyro. Riiight... ;-) Night!


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Compost (and the actual "Taming of the Shrew")

Oh, compost. My old friend, we meet again... who would have guessed (certainly not I) that I would become an expert in compost construction during my time in New Zealand? This morning's (and afternoon's) five-hour marathon task involved spreading old compost, then creating a bedding of sticks and leaves, a wall of bricks (oh yes, I'm a stonemason again!) to separate the new compost from the old cabbage leaf compost, and crafting alternating layers of compost ingredients. I could hear Rosemarie in my head as Penelope instructed me on how to alternate the compost layers; her system was very similar to Rosemarie's, with a few minor adjustments (a variation on a theme). After the initial layers of sticks, we laid down a layer of leaves and pea-straw ("dry") and then watered that down and sprinkled on "cow pooh water" (the yummy concoction was exactly what the name describes it to be). On top of that went the "green stuff", which was the huge pile of weeds I had managed to amass after four days of ravaging the garden. On top of that went a sprinkling of hydrated lime, and then another layer of dry pea-straw, starting the whole cycle again. Interspersed into the "green stuff" layers I added the seaweed I collected from the beach two days ago, and wheelbarrow loads of mulching chips that Malcolm (and later Ilya) generated by running branches and sticks through the gas-powered mulcher in the front yard. I also turned the existing "old" compost into the new compost, helping to aid its decomposition, and spreading the desired bugs and bacteria into the new compost pile.

Finally, by 2pm, I had a compost pile four metres by one and a half, and about three-quarters of a metre tall, or about 4.5 cubic metres of compost... that's a lot of compost, and boy, did my back and hands feel it! (I imagine I also looked and smelled like a compost by the end of it, either).

Thankfully, Penelope had created a delicious lunch for me and Ilya (rice, millet, and stewed veggies), and a slice of my banana cake for dessert. After lunch I sat around like a vegetative blob... I was exhausted from all my carting and shovelling and raking and spreading. As a thank-you for all my hard work, Penelope asked if I would like to go see an outdoor production of The Taming of the Shrew this evening with her oldest son, Vaughn, and his girlfriend, Kristin.

The production was put on by Top Dog Theatre, a local amateur theatre company, and on the Mound Lawn at Mona Vale, a historic farm estate on the Avon River. The picturesque setting was perfectly fitting for a Shakespearian production, and the three hundred or so audience members were crowded on the gently sloping lawn, sitting on blankets and in deck chairs, dining on picnic dinners and enjoying glasses of wine (there was even a draw at intermission for a bottle of wine, te he).

After a bit of an embarrassing moment at the gate (where Kristin made a big fuss about the tickets costing $12; she's American, and I hate to confess that I found her reaction and general temperament to be that of a typical American), we found a space to sit, and sat back to be entertained. And entertained we were! I had never seen The Taming of the Shrew (I've seen Kiss Me, Kate!), and this was a delightful way to experience it for the first time. Shakespeare is really meant to be heard and seen, not read... even though I didn't understand the usage of an occasional word or phrase, the spirit of the story easily shone through. As for the misogynistic-untertone-debate, I didn't pay it too much attention; I didn't feel like getting bent and twisted over something written over four hundred years ago, and intended as a comedy to boot. (But believe you me, I'll be doing a bunch of literary criticism reading on the play over the next few days!). I can't lavish enough praise upon the actors; they made Shakespeare come alive, and their flawless memorization was no small feat, I am sure!

After the play ended Vaughn and Kristin drove me back to Penelope's, where Ily and I got into a debate about the amount of corn-derived products in the food system, culminating in he, Edward, and I watching an iTunes U podcast on my computer of a lecture by Michael Pollan (drawn primarily from his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma). Now I am in the living room, Malcolm and Ilya and I are all on our computers (two MacBooks and a Dell), and Penelope and Edward are behind us, talking about Edward's trip to the lake, and the data he was able to gather to further the fight against the Hurunui Water Project.

Now it is 11:40pm, and I'm yawning like crazy... I think it is bedtime for Shakespearian compost-wenches. :-P Night!


Friday, February 18, 2011

The Domesticating of the Shrew

Today I got my authentic Christchurch earthquake experience; at 7:43am this morning, I was sitting at my desk in my room, and suddenly the bookcase began to shake, along with the desk surface, my chair, and the loft bed. I had just enough time to think, "Oh, my, we're having an earthquake! I hope it's just an aftershock... let's see if it gets any bigger", and then it was over... I figure it lasted about three seconds at the most. According to the GeoNet website, it was a 3.8 magnitude, at a depth of 8km, occurred 10 km southwest of Christchurch, and has been assigned reference number 3466477. I imagine for some people this morning the earthquake gave new meaning to the phrase "being shaken awake!"

Out in the garden this morning, my first task was to spread pea-hay over some newly sprouted seedlings, and then weed another patch directly adjacent to the seedlings so Penelope could plant lettuce, carrots, and radishes. I turned the soil and trucked over several buckets of compost... one thing's for sure, it's a lot easier to work the soil here than it was up at Howard and Rosemarie's in Nelson; this garden is far, far less stony!

After a little bit of time spent weeding the garden pathway, I turned my attention to the herb garden; more specifically, to the sage, rosemary, and mint plants, that were running wild all over the zucchini and bean plants. Armed with clippers and lopers, I pruned the dead branches out from underneath the sage, attacked the rosemary and brought it back under control (there was a whole dead section under one side that wasn't even visible under all the new growth!), and showed no mercy when it came to removing the mint plant; I pulled up runner after runner, root clump after root clump. Now all that remains is a small mint patch about a sixth of the plant's original area coverage; all of the herbs I pruned back have now been bunched and strung up in the rafters of the living/dining room here in the house by Ilya to dry.

After lunch an increasingly irate Penelope took an increasingly-lazy Ilya downtown (he needed to run some errands for his ginger beer business; the problem was, he slept away most of the morning, despite Penelope's repeated requests for him to get up and make himself useful in the garden), and I stayed at home and made a banana cake from six mushy bananas that were threatening to turn into a putrid goo on the fruit plate. I'm not much of an innate baker (too little practise), but I can follow a recipe reasonably well, and the cake was a success. My one mistake was in not letting the cake cool down enough; I iced it with lemon icing (made using freshly-squeezed lemon juice from a lemon growing on the tree outside!) when it was still slightly warm, causing some of the icing to drip down the sides. Edward looked at it and said dryly, "Ah, a global warming cake!"

Edward is actually one to know about such environmental issues; he is currently leading a crusade to halt the proposed damning project on the Hurunui River, which seeks to damn the river, raise the water levels in Lake Sumner, and use the excess water for irrigation. Like all controversial projects, the amount of misinformation flying around from corporations and politicians with vested interests is significant, and Edward has been working tirelessly to beat them at their own game, exposing the flaws and blatant lies in the "official" analyses. Tonight he has headed up to stay at his and Penelope's cabin at Loch Katrina, near Lake Sumner, and tomorrow with a colleague will be collecting data using a GPS system to refute the claims of minimal ecological damage the Hurunui Water Project pundits claim will occur if the dam is built. I have my own small part to play in this environmental crusade, but for reasons of privacy I'll keep it off the internet. Suffice it to say I'm trying to do something to help him fight this fight.

While my cake was in the oven I called my mom to discuss some final details about accommodation here in New Zealand, and had her give me her pancake recipe so I could try again to make her pancakes. Owing to a combination of having the correct proportions of ingredients, and lightly greasing the frying pan, I succeeded this time in crafting perfectly acceptable pancakes. I must say, with so much time spent in the kitchen today, I was almost domesticated.

I had just finished flipping the last two pancakes in the pan when Penelope came home, hiding a frustrated foul mood; she had dropped Ilya off downtown, and he had instructed her he would just be "two minutes"... she waited for fifteen before driving off, and by then one of the stores she wanted to visit had closed, and as such she now has to make a special trip in tomorrow to purchase lime for the new compost she and I are going to make tomorrow morning. Things were a little hectic and tense around here this evening, as Edward got ready to go to the lake, Penelope stewed about Ilya's laziness and inconsiderate nature while making dinner, and I tried to both stay out of the way and help at the same time.

After dinner Penelope finally got Ilya to do something; he put bread dough into bread tins and then put them in the oven to bake (and then conveniently forgotten they were in there; thankfully, Penelope caught them before they burned). Malcolm came home, and he, Ilya, and I enjoyed a few laughs over clips from Big Bang Theory and Corner Gas (it was amusing when Malcolm thought Saskatchewan and Saskatoon were the same thing, just pronounced differently. I learned him!).

It's 11:30pm, and I'm going to head to bed now. I believe I have a date with the mulcher and compost in the morning. Goodnight!