I have lived for years on Florida’s Gulf Coast, just a mile from the city limits of a little Scottish namesake town of Dunedin, Florida. It has always been one of my pleasures to walk along Clearwater Bay, or down the shady Pinellas Trail to the cute little heart of that small town, where I bank or eat at Kelly’s or one of the fine seafood restaurants.
Dunedin was settled by homesick Scots but the only authentic mark they left behind was the annual Scottish Games and the name, of course. Now, I am visiting a much more authentic city of Dunedin, here in New Zealand, which surely looks and feels a whole lot more like the parent city. First, it’s very hilly. Baldwin Street has even been designated “The World’s Steepest Residential Road” by Guinness Book of World Records because of its nineteen- degree gradient. Even the ordinary downtown streets are plenty steep in my estimation.
Secondly, the local boulevards are named after the Scottish town’s streets; perhaps even some of Edinborough’s avenues might be included in that mix. Plus, here are grey stone cathedrals, courthouses and public buildings on every hill, as well as a big brewery and the Cadbury Chocolate Factory. All of this leaves Florida’s wannabe in the dust on all counts.
As if that isn’t enough, I’m staying in a very antique grey stone former Bishop’s Manse on a wooded hilltop accessed by sixty winding cement stairs. It’s now an accommodation, very aptly named Hogwartz Hostel. My six-bed, mixed dorm is set up within the stately Bishop’s dining room. There’s even a floral strip of wallpaper and a plaster frieze at the high ceiling level.
And yes, I’m watching Harry Potter episodes every night to truly get a feel for where I am. Never mind that Harry’s Hogwarts was in England. After the Chalice of Fire, the other night, we watched a Lord of The Rings movie: The Two Towers, right here in the mountains where it was filmed. Has anyone else noticed the uncanny resemblance between J.K. Rowling’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology? I’m getting my characters mixed up: Harry looks and acts like Frodo. The same is true of Dumbledore and Gandalf. If only it was J.R. Rowling… (i.e., J.R.R.) His name was J. R. R. Tolkien, and I would have taken that as a bald-faced clue to his Reincarnation.
Anyway, this is a fine Scottish-New Zealand town to ruminate about all this literary business. Next, I travel down to the city of Invercargill, the last large town of this nation. From there, I will ferry even farther south to the small and bird-filled Stewart Island for my last seven days in this country. It’s been a wonderful and varied three months here in New Zealand. Next up: Australia.
The city of Christchurch, halfway down the South Island of New Zealand, has an intimate acquaintence with both earthquakes and the continent of Antarctica. I have learned some enormous lessons since I came to this city. One of the most personal is how to be a survivor and literally, dig yourself out of the rubble and start all over again. Of course, my lessons were easy and one step removed from the actual, awful experience. I went to the new museum just opened here about the tragic earthshaking that brought a whole lot of the city down within only a few minutes. Two years ago today, a massive earthquake struck at the center of Christchurch, on a weekday lunchtime, and many city center buildings fell down. One-hundred-eighty-five people died instantly and thousands were injured. Homes, shops, familiar landscapes and landmarks all disappeared in a matter of moments. Devastating effects radiated outward, destroying foundations and roofs of homes; ripping up bridges and roads; permanently disfiguring life for many years to come.
Now, what could all this possibly have to do with that frigid, white Antarctic Continent directly south of all other continents on the planet? And what do the nations of those continents have to do with New Zealand’s interest in the South Pole? Everything!
- Christchurch, New Zealand is the jumping off point for most of the scientific expeditions sent to Antarctica by the Antarctic Treaty Partners. France, Italy, The United States and Australia are very active in the work done right here in Christchurch and the flights leaving regularly from a special airport which seems to have escaped damage.
- The world is in a race against time to prevent catastrophic events from occurring with even greater frequency due to global warming and the effects of civilization upon the planet. The ice which covers the frozen continent has been melting and, consequently, the oceans have been rising everywhere. No scientific expedition can prevent this reality; but they can keep mankind informed about the changes in the hopes that we can back off from our bad habits. All agree that Global Warning is a reality and that it is caused by our modern living habits. Their certainty is now 90% supported by recent research. New Zealand is all coastline. If the ocean rises here, many, many, many cities will be immersed and gone forever. They have a real urgency in preventing the human factor in what is causing all that ice to melt. The Earth represents a double-edged sword to residents of this long, skinny island country.
- Earthquakes are not being blamed on global warming. It’s the active fault lines that run under many of New Zealand’s cities, so this country is, perhaps, more sensitive than others about what can happen when forces of nature suddenly go out of control. Prevention is the only protection and Christchurch is rebuilding itself to be much stronger and much more colorful and even zanier….trying to find the upbeat note in a terrifying situation exactly two years ago. What else can one do?
Things are lots of fun at Christchurch’s International Antarctic Center. It’s a wonderful place to spend the day because they’ve created the World’s Best Antarctic Attraction with fun and educational things for the whole family. I found out how it actually feels to visit that forbidding continent….by standing in a room mimicing the Antarctic landscape at way below zero with a strong wind blowing in an Antarctic Storm…..I rode in a Hagglund transporter, the authentic Antarctic all-terrain vehicle….I even experienced the four seasons of Antarctica as if I were standing on the icy yard of Base Camp…. I even felt all sorts of spray hitting my face in the 4-D movie theatre: waves, pigeon poop, icicles dripping and seals barfing. Pretty realistic! The water coming from the ceiling was the 4th dimension.
The biggest stars are the 26 Little Blue Penguins who carry on a normal life with human eyes upon them at all times because their living area is surrounded by glass windows, even enabling us to peep into their burrows and underwater as they swim and feed. Each one has been rescued due to a disability… a paralyzed flipper, a deformed beak or foot….and could not make it in the wild. Here, they are all movie stars. This particular penguin is the world’s smallest and is a chalky grey-blue color. For an extra fee, you can go backstage and learn much more in a direct encounter. In fact, the ultimate visit would include a hands-on learning experience and a group sleepover beside the aquarium to see what penguins do when the lights go out. Groups of school children have some memorable nights here.
It’s an enormous, fact-filled exhibit; really a theme park under one roof and very reasonably priced. I paid $55 in New Zealand dollars, which is around US$47 and I could have stayed for hours longer to truly do justice to it. The only alternative is to pay US$5000 for a National Geographic Cruise to Antarctica, itself; and that’s way out of my budget and much chillier.
Oh yes, for that pittance, I was even able to simultaneously stand upon the North Pole and the South Pole for a photo-op. There’s a box with a test tube of melted ice from each of the poles and you stand upon the painted boot prints. Now, I can claim, forevermore, to have actually stood upon the represented Pole. Works for me!
July 25, 2012 – January 25, 2013
Has it already been a half-a-year since I flew to San Francisco from Florida to attend a Travel Writer’s Conference and then to Sydney, Australia? And it was nine-months before that when I flew to Brasilia, Brazil, to spend four months hostelling around a large chunk of South America. And another four months traveling down the Andes between Colombia to Chile. Any way we look at it, I’ve been on the road for a long time now; poking about in the Southern Hemisphere.
Something strange has happened! It all feels so normal now that I’m having trouble quantifying my experiences with the old ““Gee whiz, would you look at this!” attitude so necessary to a travel writer or a blogger. I change countries, cities, residences, bunk beds…. so frequently; and I get so instantly absorbed in my new surroundings that I have no time to contemplate as an outsider anymore. I’m neither Outsider, nor Insider, but am easily both.
I form instant and important friendships with some wonderful people and we run parallel for a few weeks. Then, I float away on a bus or a plane or a boat or a train. I can’t, or don’t, write about the time that I spent with them; because so often I have been privvy to some of their life-changing moments. Maybe I’ve helped a little by being a stand-in Mama or Counsellor but there’s no writing to be done while I’m looking at life through someone else’s eyes.
Then, there’s the fact that New Zealand, where I’ve been since mid-December, is so like the United States, that I take a lot of it for granted. Everyone is so friendly; the towns are so clean and beautiful and the countryside is spectacular. I love it in the North Island and am looking forward to the alpine scenery of New Zealand’s South Island, which I am heading for in my slow and rambling way.
It now occurs to me that, without planning to, I’ll be touching down upon the four southernmost points on the face of the Earth, lands which are closest to the South Pole.
It started when I visited Ushuaia, Argentina, the tiny town at the tip end of the Andean spinal column of South America, which is the nearest of the four, to Antarctica. Now, I will go all the way to Stewart Island, New Zealand; then, Tasmania, Australia; and finally, Capetown, South Africa.
I may try to wrap these purposes together in a “To The Ends of The Earth Book Tour” to promote the three books I have on Amazon.com. It’s a brand new idea for me and I’m trying to think originally while there is still time to set something up.
Because that, in itself, would get me out of my complacency that everything is just as normal as can be and what is there to write about?