Monday, April 30, 2018

End of a fantasy - 26 April 2018 - Return to Chennai

With the alarm going off at 1.45 am I barely had two hours of sleep. But, I did not feel tired. When there’s action ahead of you, the mind becomes alert after the shortest of rests. That, to me, is the concept of power napping. A fifteen minute nap can keep me charged for almost 5 hours. In modern terms, that may be called a turbo charge! The need for turbo charges were more in New Zealand than in Australia. Towards the later part of Explore New Zealand I realized that the reason for this could be the hot water shower I took before starting the days’ drive. This probably lulled the eyes and lids dropped. Maybe, pure conjecture.

We all got ready in time for a 2.30 am departure. It was cold when we went out to load the car. Shukla had to clean up the window and side view mirror so that I could get better views of the road on his side. I kept my window open for a while till the turns on the road were over and we had hit the main road for the airport. It wasn’t that far either. In about 15 minutes we were at the drop off point of the Christchurch airport. We commandeered a few trolleys and unloaded all the luggage onto them, carefully counting the number of bags to tally with those loaded into the car from the accommodation. I left instructions with Shukla and Hetal to check in all of us if the counter clerk permitted without my presence. With that I drove off to the rental car drop off location.

I reached the parking lot without much ado and there was Neville sporting his trademark welcome smile. He watched where I parked the car and took the key from me. I took a selfie with the car that had served me well for 18 days. Neville ushered me into the office where he had been watching IPL action on TV. IPL fever was well and truly on. Kapil had been hooked on to it in Auckland. And now, other diehard fans here. Neville’s colleague, behind a desk, entered a few things in the computer and the process was over and done with. It was as simple as that. Neville showed me into a van and drove me to the airport. He told me that the rental company would fetch the car from the parking lot in the morning and they would settle any balance payments, if any, directly with me. He also told me that the occupancy rate of the car park is almost always above 80% since they were cheaper than the competition. Customer preference was also influenced by certain add-ons which his company provided like washing; customers didn’t seem to mind that they were a bit further from the airport than their competition. I exchanged warm goodbyes with Neville before getting down in front of the departure gate of the international airport.
When I got down I found the Shuklas and Hetal with the luggage inside the domestic part of the terminal. I was told that the International check in area would open only by 3.30 am. When the counters opened Hetal and I went to a vacant area and weighed our bags. It was indeed a great relief to note that the bags we wanted to check in were within the permissible limits. The Qantas check in queues moved quite fast and very soon the check in formalities were completed. The bags were all checked through to our respective final destinations. All of us were together for the legs from Christchurch to Brisbane and onwards to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong we would split up with Hetal flying out first to Mumbai and the Shuklas to New Delhi next. My flight to Chennai was the last. Immigration did not take up much time and security check was least intrusive. We spent a while in the duty free shops and found a few good deals for chocolates. I wanted to buy a couple of bottles of Krakken dark rum, but thought of getting them in Chennai instead of carrying them all the way from Christchurch. I was to rue this decision later. Shukla got us a cup of coffee after a long wait, by which time boarding was announced.

When I boarded the flight with the cup of coffee one of the hostesses showed me that she had also picked up her cup before boarding the aircraft. The flight to Brisbane was all of four hours and in time. As it turned out, ours was the first flight out of Christchurch for the day. It seemed that the airport is closed in the night hours. Breakfast was served on the flight and I had scrambled eggs, baked beans and sausage, besides a muffin and juice. The stayover in Brisbane was less than three hours and we whiled away time scouring the duty free shops and hanging around in the common areas. On the long flight to Hong Kong we all had seats together in the large aircraft. After a while, Hetal and I could not bear the cold in the forward section of the aircraft and we found a couple of seats in the last row. The Shuklas preferred to sit in the allotted seats with jackets and blankets to warm them. The nearly ten hour flight seemed longer than it was and the food was just passable. I had a couple of shots of vodka with ginger ale before dinner, which was predictably a Hindu meal! The choice of Indian movies was very limited and hence, I opted to sleep most of the time.

When the flight reached Hong Kong we found that the gate for Shukla’s flight to New Delhi was almost immediately after the transit check in. Shukla and I were on Cathay Pacific flights and this was the terminal for those flights. The gate for my flight was yet to be announced. As Hetal was flying Jet Airways she had to go to Terminal 1 taking the inter-terminal train. I accompanied her to her gate, which we reached without too much fuss. I took leave of her as boarding was announced. I went back to the Cathay Pacific terminal and met up with the Shuklas. Even when they started boarding the gate for my departure wasn’t announced. However, from the display board I realized that the flight was delayed by a half hour. Thus, I took leave of all the companions who had been with me for 24 days.

As the flight was delayed I went to the food court and looked around. Finally I settled for a meal of paratta and chicken curry. The meal was every bit Asian and a wee bit spicy. The gate announcement came just a few minutes before scheduled boarding time. The long walk to the gate, which took me more than 15 minutes of brisk walk, consumed the paratta and chicken curry. It looked as if the flight was full, but mercifully the seat next to me was empty. However, that did not deter the gentleman sitting a couple of seats away from knocking down my vodka with his blanket! The captain kept apologizing for the delay of the flight and promised to make up as much as he could. Nothing of that happened and I landed an hour late into Chennai.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quick and hassle-less immigration clearance in Chennai. I was tense regarding Customs clearance as I had a drone in my checked in bags. When the bags came, after some delay, I was happy to note that there were no chalk markings on them. While waiting for the bags I completed my duty free shopping. The liquor I wanted, Krakken Rum, was not available in the store. I cursed myself for not having picked them up in Christchurch, or even in Brisbane. In its place I bought a couple of bottles of Gin and plenty of chocolates. The duty free shop gave me a special bag to cart the goodies away. As soon as I came out of the airport I was assailed by the heat and sound of horns, both of which I was insulated from in the past couple of months. In that instant I knew I was back home.

Explore NZ - Day 18 - 25 April 2018 - In Christchurch

When Rahul and Michael visited us last evening they had warned us that most shops would be closed this day because of Remembrance Day. The ANZAC day is celebrated every year on 25 April as a mark of remembrance of those Australian and New Zealand soldiers who laid down their lives serving their countries in conflicts worldwide. The day is when the ANZAC troops entered the stage of WWI in Gallipolli. We were a bit short on milk for the standard breakfast of muesli. There are two convenience store outlets of Countdown very close to our accommodation. Shukla agreed to do the errand when I was working on the blog. He returned after a detailed round of the neighborhood. He had been unable to get milk because the Countdown outlets would open only after 1 pm. A few Asian shops that were open did not vend milk. He also mentioned that the streets were full of people, many in ceremonial attire who looked as if they were going to take part in a parade.

To make do with what was on hand we decided to improvise the breakfast menu. I had baked beans with spam, while the Shuklas and Hetal had mashed potato, pasta and muesli. In the excitement of the successful completion of the journey and fading light, the photo session got postponed to this morning. The excellent Madhubani work of Hetal stole the show yet again. Record Drive had completed its 12th expedition and all of them successfully.

Colonial settlers regarded Lyttelton as the ‘Gateway to Canterbury’. The busy harbor handles maximum freight business in the South Island. We drove up to the harbor and observed that the port was busy even on a holiday such as this. We used the harbor point as the entrance to the Port Hills. The Hills is a range that runs from the Gebbies Pass, above the Port of Lyttelton, to Godley Head, forming a wall between the city and the harbor. The range has many summits ranging between 300 and 500 meters above sea level. Sugarloaf summit is the most recognizable with a transmission tower located on it. The narrow roads on the Summit Road call for safe and concentrated driving. We enjoyed panoramic views of the city, the harbor and the surrounding waterbodies and islands from many vantage positions between the Gebbies Pass and Dyers Pass. The range of hills is considered to be remnants of a volcano that erupted millions of years ago. A portion of the Summit Road that connects the range from end to end has been closed following the 2011 earthquake.

At Dyers Pass is a prominent café called Sign of the Kiwi, which was originally a staging post from 1916. Remnants of the Toll Pass can still be seen there. It is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. At the time of our visit there were bicycle riders everywhere. Many biking paths, of varying difficulties, have been listed on signposts. People of all age groups were seen indulging in hiking, walking, running, biking or simply relaxing in the salubrious environment. The New Brighton Pier and beach was crowded with kids and their parents because of the many attractions for children on the shore and even on the waterside. The facilities helped children explore their talents and also enjoy a good day out in the sun. The original timber pier decayed in about 70 years of its construction and was demolished in 1965. The present concrete pier, an icon of Christchurch, was commissioned in 1997 with substantial financial commitment of the community. Kayaking, surfing and gliding seemed to be popular activities there.

From the New Brighton Pier we beat a path to Sumner Beach. The weather was good, but the numerous beaches we had been to, stole the thunder from Sumner Beach. Taylor’s Mistake is another curiosity in Sumner. It is named after the master of a vessel who ran aground here thinking that he was going over the Sumner Bay. It was difficult to find a place to have lunch because the cafes and restaurants were full beyond capacity and the eateries were awfully understaffed due to the holiday. We tried many restaurants in vain and then decided to try some closer to our accommodation. Finally we had a huge meal in a Pizza Hut outlet that was almost opposite the accommodation. We even had enough left over to feast on at dinner time.

I was exhausted by the time lunch was completed. It is always like this. Once an expedition is over sleep becomes the predominant activity for a few days. Maybe, the subconscious stress gets released and manifests in rest that had been foregone in keeping up a tough and hard schedule through the many days. I have been on the double leg expedition for almost two months and the sleep deprivation was overtaking me. I slept for over an hour and then left with everyone else to check out a retail Kathmandu outlet, which we had come to know from Rahul, as a must visit store. The items on sale were indeed tempting to pick up, but given the fact that the next expedition is more than a year away, I logged the items for future referencing.

The car has to be returned to an off-site location tomorrow morning which was necessitated by an early morning flight out of Christchurch. I wanted to check out the location and the procedure to avoid any last minute surprises, including payment. The location was not difficult to find and an extremely friendly Neville told us that they do not handle any payments and that it is done by the rental company directly. They merely operate a car parking facility on behalf of companies they have contracts with. He also suggested that we offload the luggage in the airport and one of us drive the car to the facility, preferably before 3 am. He said that the procedure would involve only handing over the car key and that they would drop me to the departure point in the airport. With this information under our belt we decided that we would leave the accommodation by 2.30 am the next day.

The University of Canterbury is one of the oldest in New Zealand. It has reputed departments for all faculties except medical. Rahul met us at the University bookstore and took us on a walk in the campus. The huge campus looked impressive with huge open spaces, large fields for rugby and football and outstanding library facilities. Even at the late hour, in nippy winds, children of different age groups were being coached in rugby. Rahul also took us to the Ilam House, which is a faculty interaction center and that which has been immortalized on celluloid based on twin murders that took place in that building in 1954. With a heavy heart we took leave of Rahul, who was a constant source of support, along with Michael, to appreciate the life and times in that part of the country,

The final matter that needed to be settled was the accounts. I had been keeping track of expenditure and maintaining accounts against the cash that had been handed over to me. It did not take much time to finalise because I had to only update this day’s details. Once that was amicably settled it was bedtime, albeit for a very short time.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Explore NZ - Day 17 - 24 April 2018 - Dunedin to Christchurch

Dunedin is the second largest city in New Zealand after Auckland. It occupied the numero uno position till 2010, when the administrative centre of the city of Auckland was enlarged. The Otago harbor and the surrounding hills are the remnants of a volcano. I was initially supposed to spend a couple of days in Dunedin, but the extra day was shifted to Christchurch on the recommendation of friends. Moreover, the extra day in Christchurch would give me enough time to pack for the return journey to Chennai.

I went for a short walk with Hetal in the morning before breakfast and came across numerous pieces of street art, mostly done with graffiti paints. Some of them were so good that I felt they should have been part of a museum, but then the streets themselves are open museums. Many buildings date back to the early Scottish influence upon the city. The stately sculpture of Queen Victoria, a marble Cenotaph, large Pohutakawa trees and other sculptures decorate the large reserve of land near the Wains Hotel. At the hotel we had a healthy cooked breakfast ad I tucked into eggs, bacon and baked beans, besides the plum and peach in sugar syrup.

Once the tummy was looked after we checked out of the hotel, loaded the bags in the car and set off on the last day of the second leg of my expedition – Explore New Zealand. We had set off from Auckland on 11th April and when we reach Christchurch this evening we would have done nearly 5000 km in 14 days on the road, having been to some of the most beautiful parts of the country. One cannot explore any country fully. But we got a flavor of New Zealand and the lovely memories will remain for a long, long time.

The Dunedin Railway Station is a tourist attraction and is in the heart of the city. It didn’t get us very long to get there from the hotel. The majestic building is more than 100 years old and the booking hall has superb mosaic floor and it almost shines despite age. The impressive clock tower of the station overlooks the ANZAC garden. The platforms have the old ‘colonial’ look and feel. Dunedin railway station was so busy during her hay days that more than 100 trains used to be handed on her platforms daily. Many reasons have contributed to the lesser traffic in modern times. At the time of our visit the popular Teiri Gorge Railway tourist train was about to pull out of the platform. My initial plan for an additional day in Dunedin included a day trip on the train to see the beautiful sights on the way.

A short distance away, diagonally opposite the railway station, are the twin towers of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory that shut shop more than a year ago and moved production to Australia. It is now a museum that gives one the experience of how the bean becomes a bar. High wages and cost of production moving factories away from developed countries has been a common observation during this expedition. Manufacturing in Australia is almost non-existent due to this phenomenon.

The Tunnel Beach is not very far from the railway station. The Tunnel Beach has sea-carved sandstone cliffs, arches and caves. The access to the beach is via a steep slope that is nearly 1.2 km that brings one down nearly 500 feet to see the magnificence of the cliffs. The claim to fame of the beach is the tunnel that was built into the rocks. By the time we reached the cliffs we ran out of steam to go down to the tunnel, more so because the tracks are slippery and tricky in wet weather. The walk back to the car, up the steep slope, drew on every bit of energy I had in me. However, the superb sights from the top of the cliffs was indeed awe inspiring.

The last point planned for visit in Dunedin was the Otago peninsula, the easternmost part of Dunedin, which was more than 20 km away from the Tunnel Beach.  Eco tourism is popular in this area because it is sparsely populated and is home to the famous yellow eyed penguins and the albatross. We took a tour of the peninsula to catch beautiful sights of the city and the neighboring areas. The views kept us spellbound and mesmerized. On the peninsula is also the Lanarch Castle, advertised as the only castle in New Zealand. The ‘mock’ castle is over 140 years old and is now a popular tourism destination with famed gardens in its compound.

It was time to leave the beautiful city and get on to the road for the final bend of the trip, to Christchurch. Much of the landscape was flat, with farmlands and pine plantations.  The visit to Tunnel Beach had drained me substantially and Hetal took over the wheels for over 120 kms till we reached Timaru for lunch at a Subway outlet. That stopover refreshed me and the rest of the drive was a breeze. Closer to Christchurch we experienced considerable traffic congestion owing to the rush hour and a horrendous crash on the road. The Chinese lady, owner of the accommodation we were booked to stay, explained whatever there was to about the house and left with the payment.

Rahul Rajeev has been friends on Facebook for many years. He had relocated to Christchurch a few months ago on a short term assignment and we promised to meet up when I reached the city. He came over to our accommodation with Michael Netto, who has been in Christchurch for over 8 years and works as a Mail Officer. Rahul, Michael and I toasted on the bottle of wine they had so graciously brought with them. Conversation flowed easily with the two bright men. Before leaving for dinner Rahul and Michael completed the tour log. Dinner was in a restaurant close by called ‘Coriander’. Food was authentic Indian. It was a feast of prawns, mutton rogan josh and rice for Michael and me while the ‘vegetarians’ devised their own means to satiate their hunger. We were the last guests to leave from the restaurant, partaking of the lovely food and scintillating conversation. I am really thankful to Rahul and Michael for their generous hospitality.

Explore NZ - Day 16 - 23 April 2018 - Te Anau to Dunedin

The Holiday Home was just the right kind of accommodation for a family – spacious and comfortable. It has three bedrooms one fitted out with a double bed and the other two with twin beds. The living room is extremely spacious with two sofas, a few reclining chairs and has a fireplace for a real family feel. Sufficient car parking, elaborate instructions on how to use facilities within the house, places of interest and eating places made our stay really pleasant. Most importantly, the accommodation is right in the heart of the town centre, yet a bit removed, and a stone’s throw away from the waterfront. I had been lucky to find this place after cancelling the accommodation booked earlier; change of dates necessitated the change.

The Chinese are everywhere. Large ‘hordes’ of visitors were in Milford Sound on buses and cruises. Special food arrangements are made for them by the Chinese tour companies that invariably organize the tours. They do get very noisy and ‘fashionable’. Being used to crowds back home, they are least bit worried about the environment outside their country. To them, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” is alien. The streets of Te Anau were no different – restaurants (the Chinese ones – it is uncommon to find them in other than Chinese restaurants), retail and shopping malls, wherever photo opportunities exist and everywhere else!

Once the standard breakfast of muesli and milk was done with we set course for Bluff, which is generally regarded as the southernmost point of the South Island. We reached Bluff in under two and half hours without any stops in between. The 190 km drive via Mosburn and Invercargill didn’t have any scenic places to stop for pictures. Mostly farm lands and forest, the drive was largely uneventful. Invercargill is the southernmost city of New Zealand and the world. The city has something of Scotland in it with most of the streets named after rivers in Scotland. Bluff was cold and the wind added to the chill factor. We drove into town and parked near the passenger ferry terminal, which offers regular trips to Stewart Island. The island is the third largest in the country by size and has seen a few movements for ‘independence’. The island is also a popular tourism spot for viewing the Aurora Australis, a geomagnetic anomaly.

Bluff is promoted as the ‘place where the journey begins’, because SH1 starts from Stirling Point in Bluff and goes all the way up to Cape Reinga. A signpost at Stirling Point shows the distance to Cape Reinga as 1401 km – as the crow flies, I presume.  The city is also called the ‘Pearl of the South’ and is home to the world famous Bluff Oyster. The Stirling Point Pilot Station was established in the 1870s and was functional for more than 70 years. Near the lighthouse we found a seal on the platform. I tried to go near it wondering how it had got there because the water was quite far below the platform. It did get a bit aggressive when I got too close for its comfort. We presumed that it was either sick or pregnant. When we were in Auckland, Venkat Raman of Indian NewsLink had told us that it is tradition to pick up a stone in Cape Reinga and throw it into the waters in Bluff. We had been carrying the stones from Cape Reinga in the car and from the platform of the lighthouse we threw them into the sea.

From Stirling Point we drove up the steep Bluff Hill, called Motupohue. The circular viewing platform gives panoramic views of the city and the neighboring waters and islands. It was too cold to stay outdoors there. Even though the temperature was a cool 8 degrees, it felt as if it was below freezing point. Informative panel boards near the viewing platform talk of the area being inhabited by humans about 1000 years ago and how other species of fauna and some flora became endangered, and some extinct like the flightless Moa, with only the kiwi surviving human assault, due to introduction of pests and pestilence as well as hunting.

When I was researching the route and information about the southernmost point in South Island I came across the Slope Point, which is officially given that recognition. Slope Point lies about 90 km east and further south of Bluff and took us about 2 hours of leisurely drive from Bluff. It was a fairly long walk through muddy and slushy grass to reach the Slope Point signpost which mentions that point as the southernmost of South Island. The signpost also gives the distance from there to the Equator and South Pole. There are numerous other viewing areas nearby that provide glorious views of the sea and beaches, but visitors normally give them a miss. They take photos at the signpost and vamoose after meandering thereabouts for a while. The cliffs are awe inspiring and at some points they are slippery. After spending over an hour there we trooped back into the car. We were all hungry and ready for a café experience. However, the route we took from the Slope Point didn’t have any, it looked like. So we ‘feasted’ on chips and wafers till we spotted the turn off to Curio Bay. However, when we reached the car park no one had the stomach for another long walk as all the energies had been spent in Bluff and Slope Point. We sought refuge in the Tumu Toka café and had lovely cheesecake, caramel slice, raspberry and coconut cake and a tiramisu with coffee quite leisurely. The Catlins was indeed a wonderful experience from Fortrose to the edge of Balclutha.

The drive from Slope Point to Dunedin was pretty straightforward. We covered the nearly 200 km stretch in less than three hours, giving enough time to Mrs Shukla and Hetal to visit the doll’s house in Balclutha. It is run by Alexander, who converted his house to accommodate the donations from various owners of their toys, mostly dolls. The ladies were full of stories of the exhibits and how Alexander had displayed them all over, including the garden. On the way to Dunedin Hetal took over the wheels for a short time. The mature manner in which she handled the car and roads in a foreign country amazed me, to say the least.

The Wains Hotel is a Victorian-era building in Princess Street, in the heart of Dunedin. The building is full of character, which includes the old lift, and the ambience is truly remarkable. We were allotted very comfortable rooms and a secure car park nearby. After all that was done we went on a short walk of the main street of the city. The statue of Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet, on the McMillan terrace was the first to be ‘discovered’. In the backdrop of the statue are the imposing St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral and the Municipal Chambers. Behind the two, a short walk away, is the impressive Town Hall and the two auditoriums. After a long walk and checking out a couple of restaurants we decided to sup at the India Gate restaurant. The food was excellent. It was Mango Lassi, Garlic Naan, Kadai Paneer and Dal Makhni for the vegetarians and Chicken saagwala with rice for the carnivore. We walked back to the hotel in light drizzle and retired for the night in the cozy rooms.

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...