Week 15: South Island


This city has gone through so much the last few years. They are still rebuilding after suffering two giant earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Many buildings are still surrounded in scaffolding and there are still buildings with huge holes in them on main streets. Then last month, a white supremacist killed over 50 people in a shooting spree at local mosques. The people of Christchurch are extremely resilient, but the signs of these tragic events are everywhere.


mural on Canterbury Museum of a moa skeleton and living kiwi, old buildings downtown, flowers and tributes to those lost in the mosque shootings


sign in front of Christchurch Botanical Gardens


My Kiwi friends (more about them soon) recommended I stop in this tiny town and see the steampunk museum. After hanging out inside this place, I’ve realized there are aspects of steampunk that I absolutely love and admire and then there are parts that I just will never understand. Mostly I deeply respect the maker hustle and passion so clearly evident in all of the pieces on display. Many of the creations would have taken hours of work and hundreds of dollars to complete.


Steampunk HQ: moa metal sculpture, mad scientist laboratory, airship

The portal was probably my favorite installation: a room full of mirrors with strings of lights hanging from the ceiling. The mirrors reflect the lights in every direction, so it feels like the lights are repeating up and down and outwards into infinity.


I didn’t see anything else in town, but these boulders are famous. They are concretions (new technical jargon for me), which means they were formed when minerals in the water created a calcite glue that held together the surrounding marine mud. They started small and then grew very slowly, taking about 5.5 million years to get to their current size. Eventually coastal erosion uncovered them and there’s quite a few of them on the beach today.


boulders, me on boulders, more boulders


I came to Dunedin to see Beth and Josh, who I met back in November when I hiked the Inca Trail. They showed me around the city and the nearby Otago Peninsula and gave me all kinds of insight into Kiwi life. They first took me to the farmer’s market and around town before we headed out to New Zealand’s version of a castle. Completed in 1874, Larnarch Castle was built by a prominent banker named William Larnach. He had three marriages and there’s strong suspicion that his last wife having an affair with his son from his first marriage. Larnach’s personal finances were also in turmoil and he chose to die by suicide in 1898.


Larnach Castle, us in the gardens, closeup of stained glass instead castle


view of the peninsula and the city from the rooftop

My only request of Beth and Josh was to take me to see the yellow-eyed penguins. These are the rarest penguins in the world and one big reason for that is that they are extremely anti-social. We were fortunate to be able to see three of them hanging out in the wild as well as a bunch of them being cared for in the penguin hospital. Usually they care for about 100 sick or underweight penguins a year, but this year they’ve seen about 300. The area around their habitat has been overfished and climate change has meant they have to dive deeper to get to where their food is. Since they still have to hold their breath to dive, when they go down that deep it gives them less time and less chance to find food.


yellow-eyed penguins

After bidding adieu to Beth and Josh the night before, I started my drive to Queenstown. As you can see, it was probably the most scenic drive I took in New Zealand. I don’t think I’ve seen trees change colors since I moved back to California. Growing up my life was dictated by the four seasons and fall used to be my favorite time of year. I stopped quite a few times on the road just to soak it all in.


views from the Dunedin to Queenstown drive


fall colors in Arrowtown


I wish I could tell you more about this beautiful city, but the only touristy thing I did was take the gondola up to the top of a nearby hill. I had big plans for adventures, but it just rained like crazy the whole day I was there. Sometimes travel just doesn’t coincide with the weather. I’ve learned that in cases like this it is best to just roll with the punches. It was cold and wet, so I got in line with a bunch of other people who had the same idea and we all watched a midday showing of the Avengers. 🙂


view from the top of the gondola over Queenstown


Week 14: Dubai & North Island (NZ)


Dubai was a last minute addition due to an airline ticket that gave me a free stopover to explore the city for a little over 24 hours. This was my second time visiting the Gulf, I was in Doha way back in January. I stayed in the neighborhood called Deira, which is across the Dubai Creek from the rest of Dubai. It is close to the airport and, more importantly, way cheaper than anything downtown.


view of Dubai from Deira

I wandered creekside late at night when I arrived and even though it was past 11pm, there were tons of people (mostly men, admittedly) walking around as well. It was the only cool part of the day. Dubai is hot, like 100°F+ hot. When I awoke, I took a water taxi that cost one dirham to the other side of the creek. These boats are called abras and fit roughly 20 people on them. The old town is supposed to give visitors a taste of what Dubai was like in the past, but it’s got a Disneyland feel to it, more shops and art galleries than authenticity.


Dubai creek, abra – water taxi, light installation outside art gallery

I did have the most expensive breakfast I’ve eaten on this whole trip. I knew it was going to be way more than I could eat, but I ordered an Emirati breakfast anyways: balaleet (vermicelli with cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron topped with an omelette), fava beans, white beans, date molasses, melted cheese, cheddar cheese, watermelon jam, and a couple different types of bread. Later on at the mall, I got my first taste of camel milk in the form of a saffron milkshake.


spiced tea, Emirati breakfast, saffron camel milkshake

The biggest thing to know about Dubai is that everything is over-the-top. The most obvious example of this is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,717 ft (829 m). I’ve never seen anything anywhere close to this tall. (Trivia fact: Saudi Arabia has started building an even taller building that is supposed to top out at 1000 m, but construction is currently on hold). This is what oil money can do.


Burj Khalifa – day, evening, night

Everything in Dubai seems to have a normal experience and a VIP experience. It’s class segregation at its finest. Like Qatar, the UAE ships in immigrants from the rest of the world to do all the jobs the Emiratis themselves don’t want to do. In the course of a few hours, I talked to workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, India, and the Philippines. These folks have retail and hotel jobs with long-term work visas (with no chance of ever gaining citizenship) which allow them to make more money than they would at home. This is the nice immigrant story that the UAE would like to present to the world, but immigrants in other industries have their passports taken away and live in terrible conditions, stuck in a foreign country with few options. This modern day slavery has been well-documented. Its oppression of basic rights is what has allowed such technical achievements to be built.


baby skyscrapers from the normal viewing decks on floors 124 & 125 of the Burj Khalifa

Continuing on the theme of doing the most, the Dubai Mall has an entire dinosaur skeleton in one of its atriums


Diplodocus longus skeleton in the middle of Dubai Mall

and a floor-to-ceiling aquarium with a walk-through tunnel


cuttlefish, jellyfish, glass fish

and an impressive fountain show.

Dubai has sold its soul to capitalism and the result is a garish, pretentious elitism that I struggled to enjoy. It’s a booming place of industry, financed almost entirely by oil revenues and the future cost of our planet’s health. The country is superficially fascinating, but deeply disturbing under the shiny facade.


North Island

Dubai was just a stopover on my way from South Africa to New Zealand. After crossing eight time zones, I arrived in Auckland at 4:30am, exhausted and confused. I drove around aimlessly for awhile and eventually the sun came up and I had a huge breakfast. I checked into my hotel and promptly slept most of the day away. Jet lag is a mess. As you can imagine, I saw very little of Auckland. It was Easter, so almost everything was closed on both Sunday and Monday, so maybe it wasn’t so bad that I slept so much. On Monday, I drove on to Rotorua to enjoy a nighttime treetop canopy walk in a redwoods grove and a dip in some hot springs.


Easter morning sunrise from Takapuna Beach, Rotorua tree canopy walk, New Zealand cow grazing


view on the drive to Rotorua from Auckland

Then it was time to experience the biggest reason I’d come to the North Island: a pilgrimage to the Shire. The original set from the first three Lord of the Rings movies was torn down, but they rebuilt them for the Hobbit movies and Peter Jackson is still taking a cut from all the people who come to visit them today ($50 per person). All of the buildings only go back a couple meters and the hobbit holes come in various sizes based on whether wizards or hobbits were being filmed next to them to give different size perspectives. The biggest surprise was that apparently almost 40% of people who come have never read the books or watched the movies. In our tour of about 30 people, I was one of five who admitted spending several hours of my life reading the whole series of Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth.


top: Bilbo & Frodo’s house, me, Sam Gamgee’s house
zoom in on the rest to see what kind of work the hobbit who lived there did

After reading The Hobbit for school (Thanks Mr. Hawblitzel!), I at first struggled to get into LOTR. I finally read them one summer, going through all three of them in about a month. I think part of the reason was that the books are such male-centric novels. Yes, there are some powerful females with bit parts to play, but by and large it is an epic bro adventure. The Shire, nonetheless, was a place I imagined in my head when I was younger, so it is incredible to see it in person. It’s also nice to see how much the fantasy genre has opened up since then. I’ve read so much this year and this has included stories about deadly nuns,  a gunslinging desert woman with some hidden talents, and an African girl who is thrown into an epic adventure to free magic again in her world. Tolkien was one of the first, but fantasy is just getting better over time.

My last stop on the North Island was to see the glowworms in Waitomo, which were as spectacular as I hoped. I chose to go on a mini-caving and tubing adventure that was quite a bit of fun. I have never before floated down a freezing-cold river in a tube before (thank goodness for super thick wetsuits). There was one magical moment where the guides pulled all of us down a tunnel and all we had to do was sit back and look up at the blue specks on the ceiling. Bioluminescence is awesome. This is one of those things that just must be experienced in person, but here’s a brief glimpse at what it looks like.