Sunday, 24 July 2011

NZ posts - now with pictures!

Photos like this one (Cardrona skifield, Day 5)

and this one, also from Cardrona, looking out towards Queenstown...

And here's one of Lake Wakatipu, around which Queenstown is nestled.

Here's what not skiing when on a skiing holiday can do to you...

Here's what skiing in white-out can do to you: make you drink mulled wine ...

And here's what having your photo taken by your mother can do to you ...

Musings - skiing etc

Miscellaneous notes to self/comments/observations.

In hindsight, the folks must have taken us spring skiing, and not winter skiing, when we were kids in NZ. I don't remember it being this cold. At the absolute screaming minimum, next time I must have a windproof layer (and my softshell jacket is not windproof). A neck covering of some sort is also essential, as might be a turtleneck jumper of some kind.

JD and I were very much the odd ones out. Even on the sunny days, more than 95% of skiers/snowboarders were wearing goggles and not sunglasses. Technology must have come some way, because I always found them uncomfortable and prone to fogging. And the ones designed to be worn with spectacles were even worse. (I wear contact lenses pretty much 24/7 these days, so that's not an issue any more.)

Another change is that well over half of all skiers/snowboarders were wearing helmets. The zoomy kids have worn them for a long time, but a lot of adults were wearing them too. I'm not sure why the adoption has been so quick, particularly among the "I am immortal" male 16-26 snowboarding demographic, but here are some of the reasons I heard/saw/read:
  • If I'm making the kids wear them, I figure I should too.
  • They keep your head and ears toasty warm
  • Built-in MP3 player and headphones, for tunes as you zoom
  • I believe all ski instructors are strongly encouraged to wear them, as role models.
  • And, um, the safety reasons - Natasha Richardson's death was not in vain.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Day 8: Kamala

Kamala is nearly four weeks post-surgery, and the bits of her brain that were bumped when they took out the last of the tumour have left her with minimal control of her left foot. However, this is improving rapidly. Unfortunately the screwy NZ health system is stacked against her.

In NZ, if you have an accident, you are very well covered by the ACC, the Accident Compensation Commission. However, other medical treatment is pretty dismal, whether it be a stroke, or cancer, or a congenital condition. This is one of the reasons it took Kamala having a massive seizure before her condition was diagnosed: it is very hard to get an MRI covered without insurance, due to the number of hoops that have to be jumped through to get it approved.

That said, they've done a good job. They only shaved a minimum of her head, in a T (she said it looked far more impressive when it still had the staples), making the psychological recovery that much easier.

We didn't see her boys as Kamala's dad, Stuart, had taken them to a play (he has been taking the boys each day during school holidays). K thought it would be far simpler if her boys didn't know we were visiting, so our arrival was delayed until after they'd left. When you're five years old (give or take), sometimes not knowing is definitely the best.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to stay long, partly due to our own schedule's demands, and partly due to Kamala not yet being at full strength. It was wonderful to see her, however briefly, and thank her for our opportunity to come to NZ at her expense. (The Chc-Mel ticket was bought for her and her family, but K chose to not delay her surgery further, and therefore couldn't use the flight.)

(It is very difficult to get a good photo when the boys are mucking about.)

Kia kaha, Kamala.

Day 8: Christchurch

Our accommodation at the Aloha Motel was a little less salubrious than our lodgings in Wanaka - perfectly adequate, but not "luxurious", despite its claims. It also has one of those key-controlled power shut-off things, which means you can't leave your iPhone charging while you're out for dinner. (Well, you can, but it won't charge.)

I had thought that accommodation in Chch would be plentiful, as most people were getting out of Dodge. An article in the local paper agreed, that the number of beds was down about 18%. However, the number of beds available was down 70% so the occupancy rate for those still operating was near capacity. After all, most of the big hotels in the CBD were either condemned, or at the very least in the no-go zone, so inaccessible.

Driving out in the daylight, one of the things I most noticed was the almost complete lack of chimneys. Many houses had bits boarded over, and rooves were patched showing where chimneys had once been. Other places had a metal flue in place of the ex-chimney - less likely to cause damage in the case of another big jolt.

As we made our way out to Sumner where my cousin lives, we saw (and drove along) some of the damage. A few buildings that had clearly been condemned, others already raised. We saw the houses hanging off the freshly carved cliffs which had given way in one or other of the quakes. We drove past double-stacked shipping containers which were serving as rockfall barricades along the road, at the base of the clearly unstable cliff faces. We saw devastated churches, closed schools, irreparably damaged libraries, shops that would never open again. And portaloos on many street corners.

It seemed a bit ghoulish to stop and take photos, so here are some others took.

Day 7: Wanaka to Christchurch Via Mt John

We set off at 10am, as anticipated, having enjoyed a sleep-in (well, it was 8:15, not 6:45 that we got up). Breakfast and packing took us through to 10. I also found out why the internet was so awful - the area's 3G tower atop the Treble Cone skifield fell over (functionally, if not literally). Therefore everyone was using the wifi system, which collapsed under the traffic. You'd think that it you build a critical bit of infrastructure at the top of a mountain that gets lots of snow, you'd design it so it copes with lots of snow. Ah, well.

We left Wanaka, heading south, because that's what you do when you want to go north-east. In fact, it's what you do when you want to go around, rather than over a bunch of mountains. South to Tarras (three shops might make it one up from a locality, but I don't think it quite gets to village), and the up over the Lindis Pass.

The Lindis Pass tops out at 965m, about the height of Mt Macedon at its summit. Except the Pass is the lowest point between a bunch of pointy snowy mountains, and so it feels very low by comparison. We didn't stop for a photo, which was silly, but never mind.

We did stop in Omarama for petrol and cuppas, and then went on to Tekapo. We passed across the bottom of Lake Pukaki, with Mt Cook at the far end towering over all. Again, stupidly, we didn't take any photos. So here's one someone else took.

We passed the turnoff to Mt John Observatory, and went on to Tekapo for lunch, arriving around 12:30pm. We randomly picked one of the various eateries in the main strip (the first one as you come into town), and had a very pleasant lunch. I had a veal stew with mash (v good), JD had an excellent burger, Ky a BLT focaccia and Jos a venison pie - the boys had chips with each of theirs.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Day 6: Fan-bloody-tastic

Great weather - sunny, light breezes, mild temperatures. Just perfect.

The boys did a run with us first thing in the morning (Jos and I managed to squeeze a second one in) before they had their two hour lesson, starting at 10:20. JD and I went off and did our thing, and then met the boys after their lesson, and had some lunch.

Turns out Ky had managed to miss his turnoff, and went down to the bottom of Whitestar, albeit with the assistance of one or more members of staff. I haven't quite got the details straight, but he seemed to do okay.

After lunch, I took Jos across to Captains, and then down the Whitestar lift runs. I think I've found my new ski partner. He did really well, and after each section of the run, he had a goofy grin on his face, and declared it "exciting" or "exhilarating" or just plain "fun". JD and Ky trundled up and down the McDougall lift and runs, Ky proving that he's better than he thinks he is.

Day 5: This is what it's about

Although Wanaka was cloudy and dreary, the snow report promised clear and sunny, and the forecasts for the past few days have promised that today would be a good day. And heck, if worst came to worst, we could drive up the mountain, and make a decision at the top like we did yesterday.

We got away later than we hoped, having spent ten minutes looking JD's new merino cap. Thankfully we found it once we'd decided to drop into town to get a new one. We were in the middle of a very long line of cars snaking its way up the Crown Ranges, and then up the access road.

As we came out of town, there was a big, fat, just past full moon sitting over the snow-capped mountain, and later, we could see the soft pink first rays of the sun kiss the tops of the mountains. Not only beautiful in its own right, it also promised clear skies and therefore great skiing.

Given the late start and the great forecast and the long line of cars, I figured we'd be parked well down the mountain. However, we didn't have to stop to put on chains, and we ended up at the start of the last row in the top carpark (ie great park). The weather was mild and the wind was fair, and the sun was shining. Wooo-hooo!

I went off to organise tickets while JD helped the boys get their boots on and get the skis off the car. Once we were all ready, we took the boys over and signed them into the day program (Archway Westside), and then headed off down the mountain.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Day 4b: Queenstown

We set off for Q'town around 11ish, taking the Crown Ranges route (the 'over' rather than the 'around' route). As we came to the turnoff for the Cardrona skifields for the third time, we could see the top of the mountain was still cloaked in cloud. We then came to the township of Cardrona, swathed in snow, with some old wooden buildings (pub, general store, arty-crafty store) and a lot of properties for sale.

We began the slow climb up the valley, encountering a bit of slush on the road near the saddle, and rather more on the downward side. And plenty of grit on the road.

The road had clearly been ploughed (plowed, for the Murricans in the audience) - the plough hadn't quite lined up with the road markings, so sometimes the upward-bound lane was kinda skinny, and we were driving well onto the shoulder, sometimes the other way round. The route down was mostly a series of hairpin turns, dropping quickly down to the highway about 10 minutes from Frankton.

We kept on into Q'town, and got turned about in the maze of one way streets trying to find a car park. Ky was getting a full blown dose of the hangries, so we ended up parking in a parking lot not far from the lake (Wakatipu). 

We checked out the menus of the three nearest eateries and picked Devil Burger.

Day 4a: Liars liars pants on fires

The ski report for Cardrona this morning promised "Sunny day with moderate SW winds, strong and gusty on the upper mountain", with unlimited visibility.

So we got up early (JD had a really awful night's sleep), packed all our gear and left the apartment about 7:45am. First stop was the ski hire place - we'd changed Ky's boots last night for something a little firmer, but forgot to take the skis in to get the bindings adjusted. Next stop was the supermarket for bandaids for Jos's blisters and some strapping tape for my wrist. And we were on the road by 8am, and to the top carpark a little before 9am.

And it was windy and gusty, like they said, but it was also white-out with very wet snow (aka sleet). Not as cold as yesterday, not quite as windy, but wet. And if you get wet you are miserable. It certainly wasn't sunny with unlimited visibility like they promised.
(This is part way back down the mountain, where the visibility was better.)

We hummed and haa-ed for five minutes, and in the end said, bugger it. It's too wet, too yuck. We've got two more days to go, and fingers are crossed for them.

So we backed out of the carpark and drove back down the mountain (and we weren't the only ones). We asked the guide at the bottom of the Cardrona access road, who checked in via two-way with the weather report guy, who advised they were expecting the cloud to stay for much of the day. Our decision was vindicated.

So we're now back at the apartment, have cuppas and hot chocolates and coffee (me, boys, JD respectively), and will switch out of our snow gear (but not our thermals), pack our togs and the like, and we'll head off to Queenstown for the day.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Day 3: White out wipe out

The ski report offered "a cold blustery start under mtn cloud cap followed by long fine periods and strong SW winds".

And they were right. Except for the long fine periods. The one fine period lasted about 15 minutes, and happened about 11:30am. We almost got enough sun to have shadows. For the rest of the day it was varying degrees of white-out.

It really isn't all that fun skiing from orange flag to orange flag which had been planted along the main runs. And it was utterly not fun to be painfully cold on the chairlifts between each run. I had to stop a few times to thaw out, having a cuppa or similar in one of the cafes.

I'd bought a stupidly expensive hat the day before and it turned out to be worth absolutely every penny. And I also bought $2 of fleece sewn into a double thickness tube for NZ$16 which protected the lower half of my face and my neck, and was also utterly worth it. Without both of those, there is no way I would have lasted more than a couple of runs. Instead, JD and I were out from 10am to 3pm, with a short break for lunch (and my thaw out stops).

The crap visibility was not helped by my sunnies icing up on most of the chairflift rides (licking them seemed the most effective way to fix that), nor the fogging that happened if I pulled my scarf-muff up over my nose. By early afternoon, visibility was probably down to 5m, which is when I had my first stack of the season.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Puzzling World

Puzzling World is one of the many tourist attractions in Wanaka, and one that is particularly appealing to Nerds Like Us.

There are three sections to Puzzling World - the free access areas, the Illusion Rooms and the Great Maze. Possibly a little overpriced at NZ$50 for entry to both for the lot of us, but compared to skiing, that's dirt cheap for three hours of entertainment.

Visible from the road is the Leaning Tower of Wanaka, sitting at 53 degrees off vertical (compared with a measly six degrees for the Campanile at Pisa).

There are vantage points where one can get a different perspective.

The clock on the tower started going backwards from the stroke of midnight 31 December 2000, so is now back into the 1990s.

Day 2: a snow-free day

We made an executive decision to have our rest day today, given the forecasts. Of course, it turned out to be a lovely day - we heard from one local that he'd had his best day in 15 years (he was at Treble Cone).

(View from the rear of the carpark at Puzzling World)

So we slept in, which was lovely, and then eventually set off for Puzzling World around 9:30ish. We spent a very enjoyable three hours there (see separate post), and came away with a few goodies, including a puzzle ring for me and for Ky, and a blow-moulded face of Einstein that follows you around the room. Oh, and a postcard for work. The site is on the south side of a very high rocky outcrop, so the sun didn't make it to the maze until around midday, which meant things were kind of icy until then.

We then went into town for some lunch, at the Wanaka Ale House and the far end of the strip facing the lake. It's got a grand view, looking out over Lake Wanaka to snow-capped mountains out the front, and more snowy mountains every way you look. It was really gorgeous, particularly when viewed from inside a nice warm room, with your arse warming by a fire.

Next stop was a ski-hire place (Wanaka Green Toad Ski Hire) which seemed to have pretty decent rates (when I checked out some other places, they were in fact very good rates - $22/day for adults, $16/day for kids for multiple day hire). And the service was excellent - Johnny was very chatty, picked out exactly the right boots for us first time off, and helped get all our stuff sorted. They even lent us a set of Allen keys so we could rejigger the roof racks to accommodate the skis (they were too close together to handle the bindings).

Finally, we went off to find a couple more hats - one for JD and one for me. These ended up being a fairly expensive exercise, but they're bloody good hats. JD's is an Icebreaker merino one; mine a Cloudveil one made from soft-shell type material, lined with fleece at the ears.
That should stop the headaches I was getting yesterday. We also checked in at the Cardrona office, but decided to hold off committing to tickets/ski school full day program - we'll go in at 7:30am tomorrow morning when the open.

We're back home now for a cuppa and a veg-out. I'm about to go for a swim, and pick up a few more ingredients for dinner (chicken curry, haven't decided whether it'll be Indian or Thai yet).

And we'll be up bright and early to decide which field we'll ski at tomorrow (realistically, Cardrona is our only option, at least until the kids have got their ski-legs sorted out.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Day 1: Lots of buck, not much bang.

So, we woke early, and finally managed to check the ski report (wifi was down). It was ambivalent - lowish visibility (100m), wind and snow, but clearing. We hummed and haa-ed a bit, and I went off to find an old-school SD card for the old-school camera. (Didn't actually manage to take any photos, of course.)

We left Wanaka a little after 9am, got to the carpark a bit after 10am, which meant we didn't have our lift tickets and rental sorted until nearly 11:30am. The reasons it took longer to check in than get there? Queues, sales assistant who managed to botch our order, more queues, nearly out of ski boots, and the rest.

We got tickets for the afternoon lesson for the kids, starting at 2pm, and figured we'd go and reacquaint them with skiing. Jos did fine, but sooked about a sore shin (turns out he didn't have his sock pulled up properly); JD did fine, but sooked a little about the cold; Ky sooked about the whole concept of skiing once he worked out what it involved, but eventually managed to let go my hand and do a couple of turns himself which helped his confidence enormously.

After three runs down the beginners (magic carpet) slope, it was nearly 12:30pm, so we fought the scrum for some lunch. The wind picked up and the visibility dropped while we were inside. Nonetheless we thought we'd try to get a few more goes on the magic carpet run before the boys had their lesson. However, by the time the boys had gone to the loo, JD had gone to buy a new hat (his beanie got lost somewhere in the lunch place), the wind had picked up too much, and they'd closed the magic carpet ride. Ky and I walked a little way up the slope, but a couple of failed turns completely shattered the little confidence he'd got up. Visibility was down to 20m, with a vicious cold wind whipping up a lot of snow. There was no way the kids were going to get their lessons with the beginners slope effectively closed.

Time to call it a day. We confirmed that the kids' ski lesson vouchers were valid for any other day of the season, and then returned our ski gear, and walked back to the car. It was snowing lightly by now, and really fricking cold (I only had a headband for my ears, and was getting a rotten headache from the cold).

At the car, we discovered I'd left the car headlights on and the battery was absolutely dead. I walked back up the hill to the top carpark and found someone who called someone who was able to give us a jump start (or two, which is what it took). Somewhere in this exercise I lost my sunnies.

After allowing the engine to warm up sufficiently, and having JD literally push the car out of the slushy ditch we were frozen into, we started heading down the mountain. The water bottle I had packed proved more useful than we expected, to help de-ice the windscreen. Apart from a wild fish-tail around one corner that got our heart rates right up, and a bit of trouble getting the chains off near the bottom, the homeward bound trip was uneventful. Better than one poor bugger who'd managed to drive into the ditch on the side of the road - there was absolutely no way he was getting out without a heavy-duty tractor tow. Someone else had already stopped to help, so we didn't feel the need to.

All up, it was a bloody expensive day, even after allowing for the favorable exchange rate.

Lift tickets and equipment rental for JD and me: NZ$260
Lift tickets, rental and lesson for Jos and Ky: NZ$200
(She originally charged us $790 and was perplexed when I baulked - $460 is bad enough)
Storage basket (for shoes): NZ$5
Lunch around NZ$55 (pies, chips, pre-made pretty ordinary wraps)
Lost beanie - probably on AU$10, but irreplaceable (it was JD's favorite Australian SkyDive beanie)
Replacement hat: NZ$5, but too thin to be useful
Lost sunnies - around AU$300 (RayBans)

TOTAL: AU$720 (US$750) and I'm still down a pair of good sunnies.

For all that, we each got three runs down the beginners slope. Not a good day.

The forecast for tomorrow and Friday suggest they are supposed to be similar to today, so we think we'll explore some of the other things the area offers tomorrow, and brave the snow again on Friday. The following three days (Sat, Sun and Mon) are supposed to be sunny and fabulous, so we'll be sure to make the most of them. And we'll probably arrange ski hire off the mountain so we don't have to stuff around with that in the mornings.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

We're here!

A little later than we'd expected, but nothing too significant.

After boarding a little late, we then sat at the gate for a while, until eventually the captain came on over the PA system and explained what was going on. The combination of slush on the runway in Queenstown plus a full plane (school holidays) meant that the calculated required landing distance exceeded the available runway length. Not an ideal situation. Something changed, and whether it was the weather/conditions in Q'town, or a more accurate calculation or whatever, the new calc said not only could we land, but we could (and should) carry a little extra fuel. So then we had to wait for the refueling truck to come back.

All up, we pulled away from the gate an hour and a half after the scheduled departure time, but the hosties flight attendants plied us with water and juice and lollies to help while away the time.

The flight itself was unremarkable except that I managed to sleep, and that JD and the boys managed to eat all the chocolate we'd brought while I was out.

Queenstown airport, more properly, Frankton airport, is nestled in the valley between two mountain ranges, a challenging approach if the wind is gusty, I'd expect. It is astonishing to emerge below the clouds to see the township surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains. It's just not something you see in Australia. And you didn't see in Q'town last week, as the hills were bare. It's cold (1 deg C), but calm and clear, and there is snow on some of the cars, and on the road verges.

After collecting our cheapie hire care (a Japanese import Corolla with 250,000+km on the clock), we headed off to the nearest shopping centre for a late lunch and a groceries run. We then set off towards Wanaka, about an hour northwestish of Q'town, driving through the slowly falling dusk, watching the stars emerge and the clouds fade, arriving around 6:30pm local time. We would have some photos of the snow-covered vineyards nestled in the Kawarau valley, but it turns out the 16Gb SDHD card I put in the camera is a little too modern for it - at best, it can take a 2Gb SD card. Eh, we'll get that sorted tomorrow.

The Alpine Resort Wanaka is a on the edge of town, a largish complex of semi-detatched units with 2, 3 and 5 bedrooms, now primarily accommodating families (rather than the uni students and rookies (snowboarders) the complex used to cater to). We have wi-fi, spas, saunas, a fairly spacious two bedroom apartment complete with lock-up garage, and a fully equipped kitchenette. I think we will be very comfortable here for the week. Wanaka is the winter-equivalent of seaside towns, with a permanent population of 5,000 people, growing to 50,000 in winter. (Q'town grows from 10,000 to 150,000, which is HUGE.)

The ski report is looking very promising for tomorrow, with clear skies tonight (snow generally falls overnight), so we'll be up early to get up there in good time tomorrow. Talk to you then!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Bags are packed...

And as expected, the weight limit is not going to be a problem - none of the bags are over 6kg (7kg limit). My handy-dandy checklist has check marks in each of the boxes (except for a long-sleeve t-shirt for JD - he doesn't have any - but I convinced him to pack a hoodie in lieu). Unfortunately, the couple of extra tops I ordered through Amazon (shipped via Snarky Bean) haven't made it here in time, so I don't get to try out my silk thermals this time.

Alarm is set for o'dark thirty (also known as 5am), aiming to get out the door by 5:30am, so that we are definitely on the road by 5:45. It's about an hour to the airport, probably less at this time of the morning, but it is school holidays. So while the roads will be relatively empty, the airport car park will be chockers. We must be checked in at least 90mins before the flight (ie 7:20am), and through security not too long afterwards, although we'll have a second breakfast before boarding the plane.

Snow update: almost all fields were closed today - they couldn't keep the roads clear due to the amount of snow falling. The two Queenstown fields (The Remarkables and Coronet Peak) remained open, so even if Cardrona is closed on Wednesday, we may still have options. My reading of the forecasts is that the snow should be easing by tomorrow night, and by the weekend we should have sunny skies. Fingers crossed!

Off to bed, and hopefully a good night's sleep - my back has decided now's a good time to play silly buggers. I'm hoping the ibuprofen and hot water bottle will convince it to calm down. There's a lot of constrained sitting in the next twenty-four hours, which will not be fun if I can't get my back to back off.  'night all!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The snow is falling! Time to pack.

Most of the NZ fields have opened for the season, but are currently closed due to heavy snow/drifts/high winds. Conditions are supposed to improve through the week, so we should certainly be en piste by Thursday (but hopefully Wednesday).

Given we'll need to be packed by tomorrow night (we leave home around 5:45am Tuesday morning), it's time to draw up a packing list. Our flights are super-cheapie, no stowed luggage allowance, so we each get 7kg cabin bag plus a handbag-equivalent. The issue this time is more likely to be volume than weight, as the ski gear is bulky but not heavy.  Because we'll mainly be skiing and catching up with family, we don't have to take dressy clothes which simplifies things a lot. It's also easier now because the boys are big enough to tow their own bag and carry a small bag for their on-board entertainment.

I expect to do a single load of washing half-way through our stay for socks/jocks/polyprop's to minimise the number of underwear items we need to take (and the stink).

I might also pick up a light day-pack for taking up to the fields, to carry snacks, sunscreen, clothes etc to save trips to the carpark during the day. JD could use this as his handbag-equivalent. For example, this one from Kathmandu holds 15 litres, weighs 200g, and folds into something not much bigger than a large fist.