Wednesday, 24 October 2012

this week i didn't drown or send deathcar2000 plunging off a mountainside or get keelhauled by pirates or nibbled to death by fiordland crested penguins or anything

It was decided that this weekend a cruise in Fiordland National Park would be had.  There were two choices; Doubtful Sound or Milford Sound.  Doubtful won over Milford partly because it has a cooler name, but mainly because it's easier to get to.  Not least because the only road to Milford got blocked by an avalanche on Friday night, and work was still going on to clear some of the 500 tonne boulders out of the way.  Apparently the rocks are too hench to break apart by regular means, so they're drilling holes into them and blasting them apart with explosives.  Kaboom!  I suspect that it's little more than a weak excuse to blow stuff up - good for them.

We drove down to Queenstown Friday night, checking into our shitbox hostel just after 11.  The next morning we left early to get to Manapouri, where the cruise kicked off.  We got on a boat that took us across Lake Manapouri, dropping us off at the other end next to what is apparently the Manapouri power station; but it looked more like some villainous lair to me.

From there it was a six mile coach journey along the moderately precarious Wilmot's pass to the end of Doubtful sound and the start of our cruise aboard the Fiordland Navigator.

The weather was cold and wet, which meant that by and large, we were cold and wet; but the upside was that the lakes hidden from view way up in the hills and mountains were overflowing and there were waterfalls everywhere.  The landscape has been sculpted by glaciers over millions of years, lending the whole place a lovely baroque feel that Slatibartfast would surely approve of.  Great jagged chunks of granite rise almost vertically out of the waters; moss clings to the rock and creates an environment in which seeds can begin to grow and eventually forests form on the rock, all the roots locked together to form a huge arboreal toupĂ©e.  It's absurdly pretty, completely wild and raw, and mostly made me think of Jurassic Park.

The ship took us out all the way to where the Sound meets the sea for a bit of seal spotting, then headed back in to seek calmer waters so we could engage in various activities.  Eventually we made anchor in Precipice Cove, and I got to do a spot of kayaking in the rain.  There's probably some sort of knack to kayaking where you don't use the paddle to scoop up quantities of freezing cold water and tip it down your sleeves, but I don't have it.  Then dinner, then bar, then sleep...  The ship set off early the next morning to make the most of the morning sun.  A few dolphins were swimming alongside us briefly, a handful of penguins could be spotted huddling under the trees on a few rocks, and with the sun out the place got even more ludicrously pretty.  There was a bit more pootling about, and then the return journey - much the same as the outward trip, but in reverse and with a lot less rain.

We got back to Manapouri about midday on Sunday.  From there we drove up to Te Anau and suckered ourselves into doing some glow worm cave tour thing - it was kind of expensive for what it was, but very cool nonetheless.  No photos, because flash photography freaks out the glow worms; they feed off the light and swell to immense proportions, consuming people and boats in single mighty gulps (possibly).  

Back to the hostel in Queenstown to eat some crap dinner, and then we went off in search of a pub.  Queenstown has many of these, but we settled for the one that provided entertainment courtesy of Taxi, a jazz funk trio.  There were six of them.  I'd like to think that a jazz funk trio is one of those special numbers; much like a baker's dozen is equal to 13, a jazz funk trio is equal to any number you can think of (albeit governed by complex algebra based on floor space, critical funk mass and the division of beer money).  They were awesome and unexpected, and seemed to be taking it in turns to try to derail each song by freaking out and playing some insane solo.  The drummer was most successful in this respect; everyone else had to stop playing while he smashed the crap out of his drumkit for a solid two minutes... you could see their brows furrow in concentration as they struggled to pick up a beat to get back in with... damn, they were funky.

The following day was mostly spent driving back from Queenstown.  We took a slightly different (longer) route, winding through some steep and twisty Crown Range mountain roads to get to another pretty lakeside town, Wanaka; and then the rest of the long drive back home.

There was the delicate whiff of burning clutch in the air by the time we got to the top of Crown Range; but apart from this DeathCar2000 took it all in its stride and is exceeding expectations, in so far as it is still running and showing no signs whatsoever of ever stopping ever.  It has turned up more surprises in the last week or so; underneath the passenger seat I discovered a pair of socks (urgh), the case for Now32 (thankfully empty - phew) and a Black Eyed Peas CD case which contained no Black Eyed Peas, but two Ministry of Sound Dubstep compilations.  Dubsteb is infinitely better than the Black Eyed Peas; but only one of the front speakers works in DeathCar2000, and the rear speakers don't seem to cope well with low frequencies; so anything to loud and/or bassy comes out as a painful, repetitive crackling sound.  The sound of speakers dying.  The sound of butchered music.

Still better than the Black Eyed Peas.

Despite these minor indiscretions, DeathCar2000 easily ranks somewhere in the top three of cars that I currently own.

In recognition of my various nautical antics, this week's sinister foreign confectionery was the "Reel Rainbow Big Fish".  

It was supplied by the vending machine at work in exchange for the princely sum of $1.50.  I have never seen one for sale anywhere else ever, which could mean that the company that produces them does so exclusively for the benefit of the employees at my workplace; or it could mean that they stopped making and selling these things years ago, and the old stock is just sitting in the vending machine waiting for suckers to buy it.  Probably that one.  The Reel Rainbow Big Fish is a lump of dense sugary pink marshmallow covered in brown chocosubstance, and nothing more.  It's like a teacake; but without the biscuity layer, fluffy marshmallow and actual chocolate coating.  Also it is bigger, and almost shaped like some kind of hideous malformed fish.  I did not care for it.  If I saw a Reel Rainbow Big Fish in the street, I would fight it.

Monday, 15 October 2012

boldly going where thousands of people have been going for thousands of years

This weekend my workmate/flatmate and I did some intrepid exploring, and drove up to Arthur’s Pass for a bit of a bimble.  The weather in Christchurch was pretty naff, all windy and rainy.  I’d been assured by The Wise Old Bloke at work that if it was grotty down here, it would be nice up there.

The Wise Old Bloke was wrong.  At the edge of the hills we were stopped and told that after that point it was 4wd or snow chains only... so we turned around, drove back down the road to the last village we’d passed through (Springfield), bought snow chains, and drove back to find that the road had been temporarily closed while they dragged back someone that had got stuck.  No worries, it gave us time to wrestle with the bizarre tangle of chains.

Turns out the trick is to just keep swearing at the things until they go on.  As you can see, at this point the weather was still mostly just a bit wet and chilly; but we didn’t have to go very much further up the road to discover why the chains were a compulsory requirement.

DeathCar2000, with its spiffy new shoes, gave not a single fuck.  And then a few kms later, the weather cleared (ish) and the chains came off.

We made a stop on the way up to check out the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve.  There’s a 594m long cave stream that runs through the hill there; when the river is less raging and deadly, it’s possible to follow it through the cave.  We had to follow it overland, but there were still some nice sights to be seen.

Wet and cold, we ventured onwards.  Arthur’s Pass is, believe it or not, a pass named after a guy called Arthur.  Arthur Dobson was the first European to discover the pass in 1864; a coach path was constructed the following year to meet the demand for a route from the west coast to Christchurch during the gold rush.  Arthur’s Pass village itself is New Zealand’s highest altitude settlement (793m), and boasts a population of 54.  We arrived at around 1730, and everything was still a bit blizzardy and misty and bleak.

We found the pub,had dinner and some drinks and turned in for the night.

The following day was astonishing.  All the snow remained, but the sun was out; it was bright and clear and crisp and warm and glorious.  DeathCar2000 had made a new friend too.

This guy is a Kea, a kind of Alpine parrot.  The underside of his wings is bright orange, and looks pretty spectacular when in flight.  Not that they do a lot of flying; mostly they scuttle about sideways in a drunken fashion and try to remove all of the metal trim from around your car door.

We planned to spend the day doing a few walks and seeing the sights.  First up; Devil’s Punchbowl Falls.

At the start of the twentieth century the growing coal trade required a rail line through the mountains, and one was duly constructed.  These were the concrete foundations for the dynamos and whatnots of the old power station that provided electricity for the Otira rail tunnel, which goes straight through over five miles of mountain.

Lake Misery.  I don’t know why it’s called that, but it’s a cool name.

Bealey Chasm.  We saw this from a few different places; there were several different tracks to follow.

On the way back we took a few photos of where we’d been; the weather was so crappy the day before that we hadn’t been able to see what were driving towards...

Friday, 12 October 2012

pigs and ruins and candy

When I got into work on Monday morning, the first four people I spoke to all opened with something along the lines of "so... is the car still working?"

As it happens, yes.  Jerks.  I didn't mention my latest disturbing discovery; disc one of Now 34 in the stereo.


The hire car went back this weekend.  It wasn’t used at all for the last couple of days, and was just sat in front of the house as a reassuring fall back option... now it’s gone, and I must put all my faith in the mechanical fortitude of DeathCar2000.

Faith not being in any great supply, the weekend was spent exploring things not too far away from home.

First stop was Willowbank wildlife reserve to gawp at kiwis, monkeys, goats and some kind of giant pig that was strangely reminiscent of a Bantha.

The next day I went bimbling around Hagley Park (just to the west of the city centre) where I discovered “Icefest” - some kind of week-long outdoor Antarctic thingummy.  It sounds much more exciting than it actually was.  There was an ice rink, a bouncy castle full of kids and someone dressed up as what I assume was supposed to be an abominable snowman of some sort; but mostly they looked like an emaciated Hoth Wampa.

I got some food, read about Shackleton’s failed 1914 expedition and moved along to the botanic gardens, which were all very pretty.  

Somewhere in the middle of it all was Cunningham House, a huge glass-roofed building seemingly full of trees and things.  It’s been cordoned off due to earthquake damage.  I can imagine it all being a bit reminiscent of the Bioshock gardens level in there; all overgrown foliage, crumbling stonework and a general air of creepiness...

And after that I went around the centre of town to rubber-neck at some of the earthquake damage.

Mostly it's a bit of a ghost town... until you hit the edge of the redzone, where you will find the re:start mall - a shopping centre made out of shipping containers, defiantly painted in bright colours.  Swish.

All of which was terribly interesting, but the real reason for travelling halfway around the world is to experience sinister foreign confectionary.

Last week I tried a Pixie bar, which was a delicious slab of caramel coated in dark chocolate.

This week's sinister foreign chocolate bar was a Pinky - possibly the only chocolate bar less manly sounding than a Pixie.

It is pink marshmallow with a strip of caramel down the middle, all covered in milk chocolate, and seems to be an item of confectionary designed specifically to rot teeth and make kids all sticky and 'orrible.  It's not the worst thing I've ever put in my mouth, but I'm in no hurry to repeat the experience.

Friday, 5 October 2012

buggers muddle

Since my arrival in New Zealand I have been making use of a hire car to get around.  It turns out that there is a category of hire car even lower than 'Economy'; this.

A majestic 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer sedan with 180000 kms on the clock.  Like many cars here it is an automatic; which means instead of numbers there is a bunch of confusing letters on the gear lever.  I reached into the glovebox and consulted the manual.

The manual was in Japanese.  It also seemed to include a helpful section on how best to crash your majestic 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer sedan.

As much fun as the majestic 2004 Mitsubishi Lancer sedan was, I couldn't afford to have it on hire for the full three months that I'm here; but a car would still be essential for weekend hobbit-hunting.  In theory, a cost effective solution would be to buy a second hand car and then sell it on again when its time to leave...

Of course, this meant having to find a balance between the conflicting requirements of "must be cheap" and "must be cool".  What I found was this 1990 Toyota Celica GT-R... it was advertised at $1350 (cheap-ish), and had pop-up headlights (cool for the eighties, so good enough for me).  A test drive revealed that it was full of what some might refer to as "character" -  covered in dents, a collapsing drivers seat, peeling paintwork, knackered front shocks, worn cv joints, a disintegrating steering wheel and possibly water in the oil too.

Of course I bought it.

Less striking, more stricken.

In the end I forked out $1050 for it, which is about $1050 more than it's worth.  It's a manual though, and surprisingly, everything on it seems to work - including the active suspension, which as far as I can tell is a button that does nothing more than make lights come on on the dashboard.  But they are green lights, so they're probably telling me that everything's okay.  The manual might be Japanese, I don't know - I'm too scared to open the glovebox in case I find a severed head in it.

I have decided to call it DeathCar2000.

We moved into more permanent temporary accommodation this week.  It's nowhere near as fabulous as the cottage, but it is also half the price of the cottage; and we could always spend the money saved on fairy lights, scatter cushions and a disco ball if we start getting fabulousness withdrawals.  Aside from the lack of fabulousness, it's not too bad here; two double bedrooms, a living room with a pair of sofas, a crappy but usable kitchen and a similarly crappy but usable bathroom.  It feels a bit like student accommodation; the furniture boxes have been ticked at the lowest possible cost to the landlord, and there's next to nothing in the way if knick knacks or anything to make it feel like a home.  Nothing is particularly nice, but nothing is particularly dreadful either.

And finally... I spotted this poster on the noticeboard outside the canteen at work.

I have literally no idea what it's all in aid of, but the sign-up list beneath it has around a dozen names on it.

Monday, 1 October 2012

i have travelled through time and space

And so I find myself, to a considerable extent, to be in New Zealand.

Myself and another colleague shall be here for three months as part of work placement in which I will get to poke at aeroplanes, which is a novel experience for most engineers involved in the design of aeroplanes.  I had originally intended to go to Canada for my external placement; but the company I was to be seconded to quite selfishly decided to go bankrupt - so now I'm here instead.

Despite being a work placement, work is profoundly unsupportive of the entire shenanigan and generally takes the view that it's all a bit of a free holiday.  Which of course it is.  However, it does mean that the support we get extends no further than a subsistence allowance (half of which will be paid after the placement is completed) and the advice that we should try to sort our accomodation out as soon as possible.  Thanks, work.

Sorting out accomodation has been tricky; partly because being on the other side of the planet is somewhat inconvenient when it comes to viewing properties, but mainly because a lot of the buildings here have either fallen over or mostly fallen over.  Short term accomodation is hard to come by because so much of it is snapped up by people who having their houses repaired, or by the people that are repairing their houses.  In spite of this, it looks like we might have stumbled upon somewhere that is not upside down or on fire, and if all goes to plan we should be moving in on Wednesday.

In the meantime, we've been lurching between motels.  Motel number one was perfectly acceptable.  Not as luxurious as a Premier Inn, but also not as squalid as a multi-storey car park stairwell; finished in exquisitely functional shades of grey and brown, my room included a decent shower, a kitchenette thingy, a comfy bed and a TV with no porn channels.  Motel number two isn't a motel at all; it's a fabulous B&B.  Fabulous.  

In between checking in and out of temporary accommodation, I went to work.  Day one at Sinister Foreign Workplace was much like day one anywhere - lots of meeting people with eminently forgettable names and faces, wrestling with nefarious admin systems to obtain access to the various computer gubbinz that will be needed, and mandatory pre-employment drugs tests.  Disappointingly, the drugs test did not take the form of a Pespi Challenge style blind tasting; instead I had to pee into a cup for a nice lady who will send it away to see if it is possible to get high by smoking it.

So, all good so far.  Once things have settled down a bit I hope to do a bit more roaming about, seeing what there is to see and attempting to catch hobbits.