The Grass is Always Greener . . .

Lately it seems that other photographers are capturing way better photographs than I do.  I’ve been combing the various websites that I follow and seeing an awful lot of images with a very high “wow” factor.  It has me asking myself why I’m not doing that.

I know there are many photographers out there that are more talented than me, and quite a few that have better equipment.  Talent and gear go a long way towards success as a photographer but I know there is one other common denominator that sets them apart:  they are out making photographs when the conditions are extreme or unusual – something I haven’t been doing.  Up until last week I hadn’t picked up my camera in over two months.  Seems as though one thing lead to another and then another forcing me to rattle off the litany of excuses I created for myself – work being at the top of the list.

But all that changed on August 3rd when I retired after 28 years with the company and 45 years in the industry.  I can’t use “work” as justification for my photographic idleness any more.   I’m a free man!

I kicked off my retirement with a week’s worth of fun and relaxation at a lake-house on pristine Pitcher Pond tucked away in the Camden Hills region of Maine.  Family and friends joined me for the celebration and the beds, couches and even a tent were filled to capacity for most of our stay.

The water was pleasantly warm and the kayaks, canoes and a borrowed paddle-board saw a lot of use – as did my camera.  Adding to the photographic ambiance was the fact that warm days followed by cool nights created an early morning mist that enveloped the pond in a captivating shroud.

A good portion of my photography was chronicling the aforementioned friends and family but I did spend most mornings sitting on the dock armed with camera and coffee cup awaiting the sunrise and wildlife to make their appearance.

 

There was no shortage of creatures as loons, bald eagles, herons, hawks, geese and deer all put on a spectacular show every day.  A nature preserve couldn’t have provided a better setting.

Pitcher Pond is also a dog heaven and my dog, Emmie wasn’t the only pooch having a blast.  She was as sad to leave this unspoiled place as I was.

I’ve often found the grass to be greener on the other side – literally and metaphorically. The solution is to go out there and do something about it and that’s my plan.  Look forward to more frequent Bicycle With a View posts – no excuses anymore!

As always, you can click on any photo to se a larger version.

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In Honor Of . . .

Fiery sky at Mother’s Beach in Kennebunk

In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate to pay a visit to Mother’s Beach in Kennebunk.  It turned out to be a good choice as I was rewarded with some gorgeous early morning light this past Saturday.

Officially called Kennebunk Beach, I don’t know how the name “Mother’s” came about.  Maybe the nearby playground has something to do with it.  I can envision kids playing on the swings while mom relaxes on the beach with a Dunkin Coffee-Cool-A-Da in one hand and a good book in the other – the scent of coconut sunscreen gently carried by the sea breeze.   That scene is hopefully only a few weeks away but beach weather seemed very distant on this 37o mid-May morning.  As I got my bike out of the car upon arrival I was happy that I threw in that extra “just in case” fleece layer.  I immediately donned it.

Nearby Gooch’s Beach where George and Barbara Bush often walked their dogs

Kennebunkport is a very busy town in the summertime.  Tourists flock here for the stately inns, charming boutiques, fine restaurants and the chance to spot a former president, or two.  I didn’t see either of the Bushes – in fact, at 5:30 am this popular destination was more of a ghost town than a bustling seacoast resort.

Built in 1905, The Narragansett Condominiums was once a hotel of the same name 

Nevertheless, I felt compelled to take a ride up Ocean Avenue to Walker’s Point in honor of the late Barbara Bush who so loved this area and its residents.  I can only imagine the stories the home holds in its memory of this amiable first lady.  Fortunately, her legacy will live on through the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland.

The Bush compound at Walkers Point

On the route to the Bush compound I spotted some sure signs of spring.  Tulips were in full bloom, tree leaves were blossoming and “open for the season” proclamations were clearly visible.

 

Much to my surprise, many of the inns and hotels in town were already well occupied as evidenced by the assortment of license plates from Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey in the parking lots.   No matter the temperature, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport have a lot to offer in terms of comfort and relaxation.

Let the tourist season begin!

Surfer at Gooch’s Beach

P.S. I am happy to report that Bicycle With a View now has a new set of wheels.  With the twenty year old Mongoose mountain bike showing signs of wear and corrosion due to winter riding, this lighter and sleeker bicycle will hopefully provide years of travel to photo destinations near and far.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Younger Next Year

Several readers have asked me why I haven’t posted a blog article in a while and wondered if everything is OK with me.  I’m happy to report that I am indeed well and busy working on getting younger.  Let me explain.

Several months ago a friend of mine recommended the book “Younger Next Year”.  It’s co-written by a doctor and one of his clients and it’s aimed at people like me getting ready to retire.  It outlines some steps that can be taken to reverse the aging (or more accurately the decaying) process and is a must read for anyone over age fifty.  As the authors point out, not much can be done to stop the aging process.  Hair will eventually turn gray and skin will someday take on a prune-like texture but there is something that can postpone muscle and bone decay.   Exercise.

For many years I was very active training for running events including marathons.  I also spent many hours on the bicycle participating in group and solo rides and, for nearly fifteen years, commuting 50 miles round trip to and from work by bike once a week during the summer months.  I seemed to have an endless supply of energy and motivation until one day, for reasons still unclear, the couch became a more appealing option than a long run or a lengthy bike ride.  I didn’t completely give up exercise but it was no longer a priority in my life.

The book Younger Next Year changed all that for me.  The crux of the authors’ message – and one of their cardinal rules – is to “perform serious exercise six days a week for the rest of your life”.  That sounds like a daunting task but I have faithfully followed that advice since reading the book and am already feeling “younger”.  I don’t plan to run another marathon but have embarked on a run/walk interval program that’s a little more forgiving than traditional running.  My indoor stationary bicycle was put to good use over the winter and now that the snow has finally disappeared, my outdoor bike typically hits the road at 5:00 am sharp on weekdays.  Consequently, with so much time devoted to exercise, photography was relegated to the back burner.

Of course, all work and no play make for a boring life so decided it was time to wipe the cobwebs off my camera gear, charge the batteries and choose a photo destination reachable by bike.  At the top of my short list of picturesque and inspiring places within striking distance of my home is Portland Headlight and, as tempting as simply throwing the camera in the car and driving to the lighthouse sounds, I reasoned that biking the hour or so from my residence would better embody the true spirit of Bicycle With a View.  Besides, it’s the perfect way to synergize exercise and my hobby.

Cycling in the dark is beginning to grow on me.  I’ve outfitted myself with good lights, reflective clothing and some warm socks and gloves to defend against the chilly Maine mornings.  As I become more accustomed, I realize that the solitude and lack of traffic that pre-dawn rides offer far outweigh the reduced visibility and lower temperatures I have to contend with.  Moreover, there’s a certain “je ne sais quoi” associated with encountering a runner or another cyclist at that early hour where a simple nod acknowledges the mutual admiration of our efforts to become “younger”.  Truth be told, it’s becoming addicting.

I set out for Portland Headlight at 4:00am this past Saturday and the journey was fairly uneventful.  I spotted a rollerblader shortly before 5 o’clock and my first thought was geez, that’s pretty strange but then realized I was being a pot calling the kettle black.  I noticed fewer steamy bathroom windows lit up in houses than I do on weekday mornings.  People obviously tend to take their showers later on weekend days.  Thankfully, no lions, tigers or bears (oh my!) jumped out from behind a tree as I rode the forested section of the Eastern Trail in the darkness– but the prospect crossed my mind having recently heard on the news of bears spotted in some southern Maine neighborhoods.

Friday’s cloud forecast from the National Weather Service predicted 50-60% coverage for 5:00 o’clock Saturday morning and that’s just about perfect for a dramatic sunrise sky.  To my disappointment, their calculation was considerably off the mark as there was nary a cloud overhead leaving me with rather mundane looking vistas.  Only a small cloud bank hovering at the horizon offered any hint of drama.  No award winning lighthouse photos would be made on this morning.

I took the scenic route through South Portland past two other lighthouses before jumping back on the Eastern Trail for home.  Walkers, runners and cyclist were out in full force by then as were the birds that call Scarborough Marsh their home.  I came upon a large blue heron in the water by the trailside and approached ever so quietly.  I was careful not to make any sudden movements as I retrieved my camera from the backpack when, for no apparent reason, my bicycle fell over and spooked the bird into a frenzy (I hate it when that happens!).  No award winning heron photo on this excursion but “I’ll be back”.

 

Gear Matters

The rising sun penetrates the sea smoke at Camp Ellis in Saco on a sub-zero morning

Most photography instructors will tell you that camera gear doesn’t matter and that a new lens or camera body won’t make you a better photographer.  They always cite the example that a professional photographer using entry level equipment will take better photos than a novice using top of the line gear.  I think that’s true but it certainly begs the question why professionals would dish out beaucoup bucks for high end stuff if they can just as easily take great photos with a cheap kit.  The answer to that question is that gear matters – in certain situations.

Sea smoke shrouds the rocky Camp Ellis shore

My neighbors recently returned from a three week expedition to Antarctica sponsored by National Geographic aboard the magazine’s exploration ship appropriately named “The Explorer”.   On the first day participants were greeted with wind driven, near freezing, rain as they set out to photograph the hundreds, maybe thousands of penguins gathered on shore.  Of the 130 people in the group, over thirty of them had their cameras die due to water damage.  That probably wouldn’t have happened had they been using more expensive, fully weather sealed cameras.  Whether you’re a rookie or a seasoned pro, a dead camera means no pictures – regardless of your skill level.  Gear matters in the rain.

A beached ice floe in Scarborough
The remnants of high tide in Scarborough

I like to save a buck as much as the next guy and so I often choose generic alternatives to brand name equipment when it comes to photography accessories.  I can’t see spending top dollar for seldom used non-essential items and often find that the “Acme” versions work quite well.   I also thought the same about camera batteries but Mother Nature recently proved me wrong.

Frozen seawater sculpts the beach near Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland

This recent cold snap saw early morning temperatures plunge into the -20F range and I ventured out multiple times when the mercury dipped to at least -15F.  That’s camera battery zapping weather and I quickly learned that the cheap Chinese knock-off batteries that I purchased at bargain basement prices didn’t last nearly as long as my much older, original equipment, battery.  I use the tried and true trick of keeping a spare battery warm by sandwiching it between layers inside my clothing.  Unfortunately, accessing that battery violates a cold weather rule that states that the best way to stay warm is to not get cold.  Having to remove my heavy gloves to unzip my jacket and other layers in order to retrieve the battery, coupled with having to fiddle with the camera to swap out the dead power source, turns a relatively warm me into a cold me.   Once that happens at negative 15 degrees, it’s difficult to recover.  Gear does matter in the cold and that age-old rule of “you get what you pay for” applies here.

A ferry boat makes its way through the sea smoke as the Cousins Island power plant churns out a massive plumage
You won’t find many boats out on the water on mornings such as these

2018 is off to a brutal start, weather-wise, here in Maine.  I don’t expect to be taking my bicycle out anytime soon!  In the meantime, I’m keeping the cut-rate Chinese batteries on full-time charge at least until the groundhog signifies that spring is just around the corner.

The trees refuse to let go of the snow on these frigid mornings

 

The Right Stuff

Click on any photo to see a larger version

I like to consider myself a “location” photographer.  This genre falls under the landscape photography umbrella but includes seascapes, cityscapes and places of interest – particularly lighthouses. A few nights ago I watched a video that discussed the three prerequisites for being a successful landscape photographer – none of which is directly related to photography.  It made me pause and think about whether I have the “right stuff” and what it might take to up my game.

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse

In no particular order, these requirements are:

  • Must be able to overcome the fear of darkness – Now this may seem a bit peculiar but is perfectly logical.  Many award winning landscape photographs are taken in remote places and typically around sunrise or sunset.  That means in order to get to/from this remote place one must hike up or down a mountain or traipse through the forest in total darkness and that can be a bit intimidating.  Other than occasionally riding my bicycle in the dark to or from a photo shoot, I don’t have any nighttime hiking or trekking experience.  Maybe it’s time to add that to my bucket list.  It’s in keeping with a photography axiom that states “get your camera in a different place”.
Nubble Lighthouse
  • Must have the physical strength and stamina to carry a heavy camera backpack and tripod long distances – I haven’t added much photo gear to my collection in quite a while but it seems that my camera bag is “feeling” heavier with each passing season.  Might be time to bring less stuff or regain the strength lost to the aging process.  This too supports a key photography principle: “zoom with your feet”.
East Point Sanctuary – Biddeford Pool
Old Orchard Beach
  • Must be able to tolerate adverse weather conditions – I don’t mind the cold and have photographed in sub-zero temperatures but I don’t like getting myself or my gear soaking wet.  Yet, some of the best images I’ve seen recently were taken in horrible climate – particularly in Iceland where freezing rain and hail pelted the photographer.  Not surprisingly he was the only one out there shooting, thereby subscribing to another guideline “shoot where there ain’t nobody else”.  I have Gore-Tex pants, jacket and boots so maybe it’s time to invest in some  rain/snow gear for my camera and get out there when others choose to remain indoors.
Willard Beach – South Portland
Giant Stairs Trail – Bailey Island

If I could add a fourth “must” it would be must be able to get up before the crack of dawn and function normally.  I think the pre-dawn and sunrise hours are the best moments for location photography.  Few people are out at that time, the air is often still, and the bugs are usually still asleep. Magical things happen early in the morning and I look forward to capturing more of them in 2018.  Here’s hoping that you’ll come along for the ride.

Camp Ellis Harbor
Pond Cove – Cape Elizabeth

I wish you all a very happy and healthy new year!

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse – South Portland

The Fall Guy

Click on any image to see a larger version

June is my favorite month of the year.  I love the long daylight hours and how the green vegetation coats the landscape.  October is my second favorite month.  Peak foliage is a photographer’s dream come true and I like the fact that all four major sports leagues are in action.  I particularly enjoy baseball’s World Series.

A wrong turn in Buxton led me to this scene

That’s why I was conflicted over leaving Maine in October for a three week trip to Australia and New Zealand.  Not only would I miss the height of the leaf-peeping season, for the first time since 1960 I would not get to watch one minute of the World Series – except for some video highlights via the internet and a few blurbs on Australian television.  Of course, since the Red Sox were eliminated from the playoffs shortly before my departure, missing the Series wasn’t all that painful.  Having to forego peak foliage time was a little more difficult to swallow.

Just off the Blue Trail in Rines Forest in Cumberland

Prepping for a three week trip didn’t leave much time for photography but I did manage to get out on the morning before we left.  Websites categorized southern Maine at about 60-70% peak color and I spent time in Buxton, Limerick and Cumberland in search of the reds, yellows and oranges that make October spectacular.

Somewhere in Limerick

The outing also offered me the opportunity to use one of my favorite photography accessories – purchased at Wal-Mart, no less: a cheap pair of rubber boots to wade into shallow waters.  If you want viewers to get a true “feel” of the scene being captured, you have to jump into the scene feet first yourself.  Waterproof boots help.

The Limerick Rapids

I may have missed peak foliage this year but I can’t complain too much.  I came back with some once in a lifetime photographs from Australia and New Zealand.  The leaves will turn color in Maine again next year and for many years thereafter.  Count on me being here.

An angler fishes the Saco River

The Land Down Below

Click on this, or any image, to see a larger version

When I first met my wife, Mindy, over thirty years ago she was very clear about her goals in life.  She wanted to a) get married  b) have children and c) travel to Australia.   We checked the first two items off that list within the early years of our relationship and even tossed in trips to Europe, Japan and Africa but as we approached thirty years of marriage we still hadn’t fulfilled her dream to visit Australia.  Realizing that we weren’t getting any younger, we decided that traveling down under would be a great way to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary and planning began in earnest in early 2017.

My desire to travel to the Southern Hemisphere was ratcheted up several notches when a friend told me about a New Zealand based photographer named Trey Ratcliff and I began following his blog.  It didn’t take long for me to appreciate the spectacular beauty of this island country and to decide that I needed to see this place for myself.  Therefore, it only seemed logical that if we were going to travel half way around the world to Australia, we might as well tack on another 2,500 miles and see New Zealand.  Neither Mindy, nor I, regret that decision.

When we stepped off the plane and saw this Ibis bird literally scrounging for table scraps, we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore

Getting to Australia is quite a schlep and our journey was made all the more difficult by some bad information from our travel agent.  We were told that visas were not required to visit these two countries but that was only partially correct.  You don’t need a visa to tour New Zealand providing you can prove that you have a ticket to exit the country within 90 days.  You DO need a visa to enter Australia and when we arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport without one, they wouldn’t let us on the plane.  Thankfully, a wonderful American Airlines representative worked diligently to procure the necessary documents online – even calling the Australian consulate – and we made our flight with little time to spare.  We experienced first-hand why airlines want international travelers to arrive at the airport several hours before departure time.  As we found our seats on the plane, we both breathed a jumbo-jet sigh of relief.

Boston to Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia is about twenty hours of flight time and we were very happy to step off the plane and claim our presence on continent #6 – Antarctica being the only continent we have yet to visit.  Immediately we were greeted with something that would accompany us throughout most of Australia – rain.  It rained eight out of the ten days we were there but we didn’t let it damper our spirits.   Armed with Gore-Tex jackets and umbrellas we did just about everything we set out to do and had the good fortune of rainless periods during our major planned excursions.

Australians and New Zealanders drive on the wrong (left) side of the road and that proved to be quite challenging.  I got my feet wet immediately upon arrival as the drive from the airport into downtown Brisbane was particularly terrifying – especially when navigating roundabouts.  Fortunately, Aussies are pretty laid back people (no worries, mate) and any close encounters were met with polite gestures that I needed to be on the other side of the road.  By the time I got to New Zealand, driving went from terrifying to just plain scary.

Spring in the Southern Hemisphere is very colorful

Our first hotel was located in the small seacoast community of Byron Bay.  Situated right on the edge of a rainforest, our room was within earshot of many tropical birds and the sound of the rain added to the ambiance.  Byron Bay has a Key West kinda feel to it with lots of free-spirited and eccentric people making up its population.  Surfing is its raison d’être.

Too many bird species in the rainforest to keep track of

A surfer makes his way to Byron Beach
It’s a steep climb to the Cape Byron Lighthouse  (iPhone photo by Mindy)

Our least enjoyable day trip was time spent at the Gold Coast – Australia’s version of Miami Beach – located about an hour north of Byron Bay.  Home to high-rise luxury apartments and fancy yachts, its beach known as “Surfers’ Paradise” was closed due to rough seas caused by an impending storm.  We settled for a harbor cruise that was enjoyable mainly for the fact that the rain had temporarily stopped.

The Gold Coast on a not so bright and sunny day

The Gold Coast wasn’t a total waste of time.  As we walked the beach, Mindy spotted a monk cloaked in red proceeding to feed a flock of seagulls.  I hurried to photograph the scene and feel very fortunate to have captured this serene moment in time.

Our next stop was the city of Cairns, the launch pad for trips out to the Great Barrier Reef.  A lovely seaside town dotted with outdoor restaurants, this was the only place during our three week trip that we could wear summer attire.  Our hotel was directly across the street from a waterfront promenade and evening and early morning walks featured warm, gentle breezes (when it wasn’t raining) as well as pelican sideshows.  Our only regret is that we couldn’t bottle up this warmth and carry it along to our other destinations.

Seeing the Great Barrier Reef (a.k.a. “The Reef”) was both exciting and slightly disappointing.  I envisioned colorful coral and aquatic life as seen in National Geographic magazine but in reality, the reef is now faded and gray – especially on a sunless day like we experienced.  Mindy and I snorkeled and the crew was very accommodating to first timers like us.  In addition to snorkeling and diving, the outfitter also had a glass bottom boat moored nearby and that proved advantageous for two reasons.  First, we got a much clearer look underwater than we did snorkeling in rough seas.  More importantly, upon Mindy’s request, this boat took her and me out to a small sandbar in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and deposited us there for about a half an hour.  Occasionally pelted by wind-driven rain we nevertheless treasured this time on our own private, deserted little island.  We both knew this was something very special.

A romantic experience somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

From Cairns we flew north to south across Australia to the city of Melbourne.  The highlight here was a safari like excursion out into the “bush” to see kangaroos, wallabies and koala bears in their natural environment.  Kangaroos outnumber people in Australia and finding a group to observe and photograph wasn’t difficult.

“Tie me kangaroo down sport, tie me kangaroo down”

Wallabies are a bit more elusive and we just happened to stumble upon several both here and later on the island of Tasmania.

A baby wallaby in its mother’s pouch is called a joey

Koalas, on the other hand, are extremely rare and difficult to find in the wild but our exceptional guide named, Sally, worked with her team of expert spotters to locate three of them in one day.  Once the spotters pinpointed a koala they would geo-tag the location using Google Maps and Sally would use her cellphone to guide us through the woods and find the sleeping buggers.

This koala was photographed in the wild
This koala was photographed in a sanctuary

The island of Tasmania was our next destination and the southernmost point of our travels.  The city of Hobart is surrounded by mountains and it’s only a short ferry-boat ride to many smaller islands.

The city of Hobart as seen from atop Mt. Wellington
Penguin sculptures in Hobart Harbor near our hotel

We made the day trip out to Bruny Island and enjoyed its unpaved roads and bare-bones accommodations.  The outing culminated with a climb to the top of the Bruny Island Lighthouse and some interesting tales offered by the resident tour giver.

View from the Bruny Lighthouse tower

Our end point in Australia was the wonderful city of Sydney, home of the 2000 Summer Olympic Games.  Mindy and I both agree that it has the most beautiful harbor (spelled harbour down here) of any waterfront city we’ve ever visited.  Great sights, super friendly people, and lots to do.

Sydney Harbour
The Sydney Opera House

Wanting to be a little adventurous, we decided to climb to the top of the Sidney Harbour Bridge – all 1,400 steps round trip – and view the city from this extraordinary vantage point 400 feet above the water.   The website promotes the climb as “360 degrees of wonderful” and it didn’t disappoint.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge
Climbers make their way to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge

The 3.5 hour adventure includes a fair amount of prep time and practice climbs on indoor ladders and walkways.  Each climber is outfitted with a jump suit (no one actually jumps) equipped with hooks to fasten glasses and hats as well as a belt to latch onto the safety cable that accompanies the walkway.  Pockets must be emptied and jewelry and watches must be removed.  Cameras are not allowed except for the guide who has it harnessed to his/her body.  The guide shares all of the photos taken and are free to use as desired.  We picked the perfect time of day as we got to see both the sunset and the early twilight minutes.  A truly spectacular experience!

The following bridge climb photographs were taken Brad.

The walkway was originally built for construction and maintenance workers.  A safety cable was added later.
Thankfully, it didn’t rain on this day!
Military helicopters made an unexpected fly-by
Twilight over the city
A perfect sunset

While we were in Sydney, Mindy reunited with a friend from her high school days who is now living in Australia that she hadn’t seen in fifty years.  Thank you, Pam, and your wonderful family for having us over.  The home cooked meal was just what we needed!

As much as we were sad to leave Australia we were equally excited to see New Zealand.  The roughly three-hour flight from Sydney to Queenstown on New Zealand’s south island was uneventful until we spotted the snow-capped mountains and rugged terrain during our descent.  After admiring those scenes, it became blatantly obvious that we had made a great choice coming to this southern Pacific paradise.

iPhone photo by Mindy

Queenstown is a smaller city than we had envisioned and that suited us just fine.  Our hotel was about five miles out of town and we took a water taxi to and from the downtown area.  An absolute must-do activity in Queenstown is to take the gondola ride up the mountain to Bob’s Peak overlooking Lake Wakatipu.  Coincidently, I had read an article on the flight over how construction of the gondola was almost thwarted by the then mayor in 1967 arguing instead that a skating rink would better serve the city’s residents.  Now in its 50th year of operation, roughly 18 million people have taken this steep cable-car ride up to Bob’s Peak and it’s doubtful anyone ever regretted it.  We certainly didn’t.

View of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu from Bob’s Peak
Queenstown is surrounded by mountains

From Queenstown we took an all-day excursion to Milford Sound and cruised the many fjords lined with snow-covered mountains spouting waterfalls around every bend.  The fjords are home to seals, dolphins and penguins and  we got a good look at a tiny penguin reported to be part of the third rarest penguin species in the world.

Milford Sound

The boat captain spotted this cute little penguin camouflaged by the rocks

Another tour took us on a jet boat down the Dart River, eventually making its way to Lake Wakatipu.  This wasn’t your typical pleasure cruise but rather a 70 mph rush through shallow waters complete with carnival like twists, turns and 360 degree spins.  We did stop briefly to catch our collective breaths and take in the breath-taking views.

These folks chose the slower rafting option

Leaving Queenstown we embarked on the six-hour drive through the Southern Alps to the city of Christchurch situated on the east coast of the southern island.

New Zealand’s Southern Alps

This drive was absolutely stunning and stops in Lake Wanaka, Lake Putaki and Lake Tekapo were icing on the cake.  Had I known it was this gorgeous I would have traded the time in Christchurch for a few extra days in this region.

Lake Wanaka
New Zealand allows free camping at Freedom Campsites such as Lake Putaki

Rugby is the national sport of New Zealand and it just so happened that the Rugby League World Cup tournament was taking placing.  Staying alongside us at the hotel in Christchurch was the national team from Scotland but they didn’t have much to cheer about as they were trounced 74-6 by the home team in a match played at Christchurch Stadium.  I briefly watched some of the game on television.  It’s a bit more barbaric than American football since the players don’t wear helmets or protective padding.  Tom Brady might not fare very well in this league but Rob Gronkowski certainly would.

In Christchurch we met a nice couple from Colorado who gave us an excellent recommendation about a dolphin cruise about 90 minutes away in Akaroa Bay.  Not the easiest place to get to, the route took us over mountain passes and down some steep, narrow and winding roads – all with impressive scenes.  This was a small, family run, cruise business and the captain and crew were committed to showing us dolphins, seals, penguins and other wildlife.  They even made use of a cute little dog named, Buster, to help locate the dolphins.  With his acute sense of hearing, Buster would listen for sounds of dolphins underwater and signal their presence.  A low-tech, but effective, four-legged sonar system.

The long and winding road to Akaroa Bay
Akaroa Bay – well worth the drive
With Buster’s help we saw many dolphins up close
Seals frolicked on the rocks, basking in the sunshine
Impressive rock formations

Leaving the south island, our next stop was the city of Wellington to the north.  The Australian rain eventually caught up to us thereby prompting some indoor activities.  Highly recommended was the Te Papa museum in Wellington – the official keeper of the country’s history and related artifacts. The featured exhibit for 2017 chronicles New Zealand’s entry into World War I at the battle of Gallipoli in Turkey and with free admission, the price was right.  Fighting alongside the Australian army, the New Zealanders totally underestimated the Turkish forces and consequently suffered enormous casualties.  The highlight of the exposition is a series of giant-sized figures constructed with elaborate detail that depict the soldiers’ pain and suffering.  I’m not much of a war buff but this was a very moving exhibit.

The figures were very realistic looking
Inside the Te Papa museum

Next on the itinerary was a one night stop in the city of Rotorua located on the shores of its namesake lake.  It is best known for its geothermal activity and is home to many geysers and hot mud pools.  An unpleasant sulfur odor radiates from the mud pools hence it is nicknamed the “Sulphur City”.

One of the many hot and smelly mud pools

Rotorua is also home to many Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.  Just outside of town they have established a re-creation of an ancient Maori village.  Here you can “discover Maori art, take part in ancient rituals and learn about fascinating Maori traditions”.  Included is dinner cooked in large underground pits fueled with hot volcanic rocks.  We learned quite a bit about the Maori culture and it proved to be a very entertaining evening.

The last destination on this whirlwind tour was the city of Auckland – New Zealand’s most populous city with approximately 1.5 million residents.  Our lodging was once again located on a wharf and cruise ships and ferry boats were just a stone’s throw away.  Whales are often spotted just off the end of the wharf but they chose not to make an appearance for us.

Auckland, New Zealand

If you visit New Zealand and don’t bungee jump off a mountain, bridge or tall building, you’re considered a wuss.  I didn’t let that sway my decision to stay rooted on the ground, but Mindy and I did go up to the observation deck of the Skytower – the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere.  Here, we were afforded a 360 degree view of this modern and charming city.

Bungee jumping off the Auckland Harbour Bridge
View from the Skytower observation deck (you can bungee jump off of here, too)

We took a 40 minute ferry-boat ride out to Waiheke Island which is home to several wineries and some very scenic hiking trails.  We opted for the latter and explored the island’s trails which meander along cliff tops, down to the beaches and into cool areas of native forest.

Waiheke Bay
We walked out to many of the Waiheke cliffs

Our final activity was a four-hour tour of the city with a gentleman named Michael who took us off the beaten path and was even kind enough to stop for ice cream so that we could get our last “fix” before departing for America.  The more we saw of the city and learned of its climate and culture, the more we contemplated that this could someday become our home away from home.

We’ll see!