Where am I?

How to Recognize Kauri Trees from Quite a Long Way Away

May 10, 2006 at 11:34 AM | categories: New Zealand | View Comments

Bursting with seafood chowder, I take my leave of the funky fish, table, and kitten to journey into darkest Waipoua. Around me I hear native drums.

Oh wait - that's just a Cal Tjader recording called "Soul Sauce". I have four or five CDs with me, as part of my regular travel kit, and my trusty Nissan Rattletrap has a CD player. I believe that this model is sold as the "Hamsterwheel" in the USA.

nissan rattletrap

Yep... traveling as much as I do is worth it for the perks. Why, when I told the Hertz agent in Auckland that I was a "Gold" member with "#1 Club" status, he replied "Do what?".

The Rattletrap is an automatic, with a lusty 1.8L engine. Apparently they rent stick-shifts here, but I thought it would be wise to spare the much-troubled inhabitants of New Zealand the double scourge of having me on the proper side of their roads (mostly) while also trying to shift with my left hand. We'll save that for the next trip.

Anyhow, my Rattletrap and I are at the scenic vista above the Waipoua kauri forest. This area has been a forest sanctuary since 1952, when the NZ logging industry ran out of easily-felled kauri and into the brick wall of public opinion. That's a good thing: the logging industry in the US can barely manage to sustain weeds like cottonwood, plus various pines and firs, much less slow-growing ancients like redwoods or kauri.

Speaking of kauri, have we seen any yet? I have a vague idea of what the wood looks like, but are they those piney looking things over there? Or what?

Luckily, someone's planted a memorial tree at the scenic vista, and the plaque says it's a kauri. That's good enough for me.

memorial kauri

Does that help? I climb up into the lookout tower to try and spot more kauri. Didn't Shannon used to live in one of these towers? scenic vista scenic vista scenic vista scenic vista, plus ocean

We're very close to the west coast of the North Island, so we can see the ocean from here. I know we're looking west, because the sign says so. Or maybe it's just graffiti? WIBSTR!

Back on the road, I realize that there's been a mistake. I'm actually in the California gold country, just outside Murphys. Ignore that fern growing in the red dirt.

red dirt country

Next stop is the Waipoua visitor center. They're fresh out of brochures, but they're willing to lend me a chainsaw. There's one under the counter in the kauri exhibit, just in case a tourist wants to try his hand at some amateur logging.

visitors center chainsaw

I demur, and drive onward. A few km to the north is a sign for "KAURI WALKS", so I turn left onto a gravel road, and park. There's a sign. It's gist is "That's a nice looking car you have there: it'd be a shame if something were to happen to it." I pay NZ$2 for that protection, and pull on my hiking boots, The trail map says that it's about 15 minutes to the Four Sisters, and another 15 minutes to Te Matua Ngahrer (gesundheit!). I later find out that they've timed this journey using a one-legged stoat.

After a few minutes walk through scrub brush, the forest begins. It might be a mistake to call it a kauri forest... the predominant flora seems to be the ubiquitous silver fern. But there are kauri trees, too. In fact, there are many more kauri in this forest than there are giant sequoias in our California groves. Soon, I'm seeing kauri everywhere. silver fern kauri canopy kauri trunk Here are the Four Sisters: since kauri reproduce by dropping fertilized cones, this is bound to be a common phenomenon. The amazing thing is that these four siblings have lived so long without choking one another to death. Humans manage this by living apart.

four sisters

Kauri foliage is fairly distinctive: it looks more like eucalyptus that pine, and it's the most effective way to spot kauri from a distance.

kauri foliage

There's plenty of junk growing on a living kauri, but look at what happens once it dies! It's easy to see how swamp kauri happens. living and dead

Walking on, we glimpse Te Matua Ngahrer for the first time. It's big. It's really big. Who wants to check the vital statistics against our specimens of sequoia giganticus? glimpse of Te Matua Ngahrer Te Matua Ngahrer plaque Te Matua Ngahrer canopy Te Matua Ngahrer trunk Walking back to the car, I realize that there are kauri all around me. I can now recognize them close up, from the bark, and quite a long way away, from the foliage. They are immensely tall and have very straight trunks: I suppose a tall tree must start out very straight, or else it'll topple over when still very young. kauri bark kauri foliage kauri from quite a long way away kauri from quite a long way away Back in the parking lot, I notice two things. First, the man who blackmailed me into paying him to watch my car is gone. And there are much stranger folk in the forest than I. Normally I don't make fun of other people's failings, but - oh, who am I kidding? use the farce

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I Speak for the Trees

May 10, 2006 at 10:37 AM | categories: New Zealand | View Comments

Auckland is foggy this morning.

foggy auckland

By 09:00 I had checked out of the Spencer and was zooming northward on highway 1. It leaves Auckland as a motorway, or freeway, but quickly changes into a one-lane, barrier-less, barely-paved country road. It's a little worse than highway 4 through Bear Valley, CA. On the plus side, it's sunny now.

sunny northlands

Shortly I turn off 1 and onto 12, bound for Dargaville and the east coast. I stop at the Kauri Museum in Matakohe. It's devoted to the kauri trees themselves, and to the history of logging and kauri-gum gathering in the area. The trees themselves are huge: very tall, very large around, and very long-lived. As in any tree museum, there are labelled tree rings. The wood is really pretty: I suppose it's callous to mention that, since the loggers nearly wiped out the living population of trees. But it turns out that the wood is incredibly durable, and people still make furniture and bowls from "swamp kauri", dug up out of the ground after 30,000 years or more. labelled kauri rings spotted kauri kauri table

There's a vertical cross-section of a kauri in a long hall, to give some perspective. Kauri are cone-bearers, and the cones look vaguely like pine-cones. Did I mention that you can make furniture out of the wood? vertical cross-section kauri cones kauri dresser

Kauri gum is something like amber, but not quite as nice. I looked for some jewelry-sized pieces, hoping to make a new earring, but all the pieces I saw were too big and clunky. The gum was used as varnish, which explains some of the luster of the wood. Apparently it made for a fairly flammable varnish, though, so there's no demand anymore. kauri in coal kauri bowl kauri bed

kauri panel kauri platter kauri root

The museum includes a large room of nothing but kauri gum. Really. And it's on display in kauri-wood cabinets, which look very handsome. kauri gum display kauri with barnacles kauri cabinet, with credits

That was quite a lot of kauri in one place. I resisted buying any in the gift shop, though, and drove on to Dargaville. It didn't look like a good place to stop, so I spotted a mention of the "Funky Fish" in Baylys Beach: "People drive from Dargaville just to eat here." And why not?

They have a nice garden, a massive kauri-wood(?) table, and a friendly cat (who apparently smelled the funky fish from next door). I had the seafood chowder and a glass of viognier: the cat promised to be my best friend if I gave her some chowder, but all she got was a drop of viognier. She's too young to start on a life of chowder-fueled debauchery. funky fish funky table funky cat That was a busy day, and I've only just had lunch. Stay tuned....

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Ausweis aus Auckland

May 08, 2006 at 10:18 PM | categories: New Zealand | View Comments

"Michael, the boys and I are getting together for a tasting on Sunday. Give me a call if you're free." It was one of the guys I'd met at the First Glass tasting. He has a team of four registered in a blind tasting sometime in June, and really wants to wine. So they're getting together at every opportunity to practice - or that's his excuse, anyway.

The tasting took place at one of their homes, on a nice back deck overlooking a culvert. I didn't take any pictures, but it was fun. We had a blind sample of about twelve wines, and I did noticeably better this time around. I think it was just a question of parameters: when given a sample of unlabeled wine, I tend to think in terms of trick questions. Yes, this tastes like a nice Mosel Riesling, but what if it's really an atypical Semillon from Argentina? But it turns out that in this circle, at least, the questions are meant to be straightforward. That makes it much easier, but it's still tough to guess a vintage year for an Australian Shiraz.

After the tasting, I took a walk around the marshy area by the hotel. It gets fairly rural fairly quickly, but note the crane: a luxury high-rise apartment building is going up, next door.

hotel from marsh purple flower yellow flower

typically kiwi trees another mushroom takapuna beach

Monday was the last day of class, and I plan to clear out of Auckland, Tuesday morning. I haven't fixed any real plans yet, but I'm going to start by driving north, to see the Kauri trees in the Waipoua forest preserve. Then I may head south: I'd like to see Napier, but I don't know if I'll have the time or energy to drive that far.

Monday night, Alastair Tagg came by for a drink and stayed for dinner. Here's a picture for Carolyn:


Finally, here are a couple pictures of the coffee bar on the ground floor of the Spencer Byron, just for Shelly. Note the actual books: I always wondered what hotels do when I leave spare books behind. library bar - definition library bar - library

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Tiritiri Mantangi

May 06, 2006 at 08:10 PM | categories: New Zealand | View Comments

I have to get to the piers in Auckland by 8:30, to pick up my ticket and catch the ferry. Not a problem... oh wait, that's AM! This time I decide that it'll be quicker to take the bus, and with no traffic on a Saturday morning, the 08:05 bus has me there by 08:20.

ferry building

The ferry leaves at 09:00: it's about half full, but it makes another stop at Gulf Harbor to pick up more passengers.

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Arriving at Tiritiri Matangi after 10:00, there's an old takahe at the wharf to greet the tourists. He poses for pictures, and one of the reserve volunteers throws some grain on the ground so he won't wander away too quickly.

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I take the guided walk, and we start along the coast. It quickly emerges that these people are birders. At first I decide that serious boredom is the worst possible outcome, but then they laugh at me for taking a picture of a tree full of English sparrows. What have I gotten into?


The island was inhabited by Maori, who probably hunted out several species, and introduced rats and dogs, which would have preyed on flightless birds. But it wasn't until the island was leased for farming that most of the damage was done. All but a tiny stand of forest was cut down, and the whole island was converted to grazing. Fifty years ago they stopped the farming, eradicated all the rats, and started re-planting native flora and re-introducing native fauna. It's a volunteer effort, though: they say they get very little money from the government.

The weather is great, and the views from the island are stunning. Along the beach, we come to some penguin boxes, but don't see any penguins. We do see the hole in the ground where another local bird lives, and make our way into the stand of old-growth forest. The largest trees here are what we call the New Zealand Christmas Tree. They'll grow anywhere, apparently, and can live over 1000 years.

penguin boxes penguin molt nesting underground rock-dwelling christmas tree old christmas tree Once in the old growth, we begin to hear, and then see, more local birds.

trail map

I had a hard time with the pictures: can you see a bird in either of these?

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Me neither, but I suppose I thought I saw one when I took them. I used the Canon's "Kids and Pets" settings, since I couldn't find the "Tui that won't Sit Still" setting, or the "Fantails that Keep Flying Away" setting. Eventually, I even figured out how to turn off the flash, but I'm not sure if that helped. The guide mentioned that most of the bellbird's call is in the ultrasonic range: I suspect that the birds can hear the mechanisms inside the camera whirring, as it focuses, and they don't hang around to find out what happens next.

2006-05-06_023.JPG 2006-05-06_028.JPG 2006-05-06_029.JPG Mushrooms are easier: they can't hear, as far as I know, and they seem to like to have their picture taken. Tree ferns are good too: these are the silver fern, New Zealand's national symbol.

mushrooms tree ferns

The easiest way to take decent pictures is to find a feeding station. These aren't really cages: there are holes to let the birds crawl in, but the larger tui birds can't bother them while they're feeding. We mostly saw bellbirds at the first few, but there were some stitchbirds later on. I also saw around 10 saddlebacks: they're supposed to be extremely rare, but the guide reckoned that there are about 200 on the island, now. Sadly they don't photograph well at all: they're dark, and they like to hang around on dark forest floors. I don't think this helps them much with cats, though.

feeding station 2006-05-06_032.JPG bellbird After a while of this, we walk to the south end of the island and have lunch among the takahe.

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There's a lighthouse: fine Plimco craftsmanship.

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Then I wander around on my own. The trail system has it all over anything we saw in Argentina.

trail map trailhead Another walk has three birdbaths and a feeder station. There are plaques for the local flora, too: I can't vouch for the flowers on this one, but I tend to agree about its dense growth.


The first two baths are empty, but if I were a bird I'd use this one. I wish my hot tub had this view.


The last bath has another feeder next door, and lots of customers.

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two saddlebacks silverhead male stitchbird 2006-05-06_074.JPG 2006-05-06_075.JPG wattle walk sign

After a while I lose interest in the birds, and take more pictures of the views. We're some distance from Auckland, but you can still squint at the Sky Tower on the horizon. To the east are the outlines of the Barrier Islands.

distant auckland barrier islands view facing north from coronary hill


Here's the ferry: it's time to go back to Auckland. This Takahe posture means "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here." ferry goodbye On the way back, I saw a couple of interesting boats in Gulf Harbor. The second one has on the road for a long time!

maori boat long beach, ca

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Location, location, location

May 05, 2006 at 03:26 PM | categories: New Zealand | View Comments

There isn't much to say about the past few days. I taught the class, and there's one more day to go on Monday, so I'm in Auckland for the weekend. I haven't done any lawn bowling, but the option is there.


Besides the views, there are a few other nice things about staying at the Spencer on Byron hotel. My first discovery was a nice little Sharp compact stereo, which has an RCA stereo aux input in back. I have an RCA-to-mini cable in my bag, so now my ipod is plugged in and can wake me up every morning. When it does, I can mainline high-grade caffeine without leaving the room: because of New Zealand's British history, there are tea things in the room. And because the manager of the hotel is Sri Lankan, the tea is Dilmah.


Finally, there's the location. It's around the corner from a good-sized business district, which makes the room's kitchenette perfect for take-out food. I have a better view from the room than most restaurants have, anyhow. So on Tuesday evening I spotted a canopy advertising "FINE WINE" and strolled a couple of blocks to discover what looks like one of Auckland's two best wine shops. It's called First Glass. I picked up a Hawke's Bay Viognier out of curiosity, and made a note to come back on Wednesday, for their weekly tasting. Then I walked a bit farther and got some excellent take-out Thai food: chicken laab, and a green curry with shrimp. The restaurant staff were definitely Thai, unlike most of the SF-area places. It was probably the most authentic Thai I've had since Hong Kong (or Hollywood, yes) - and it was great with the Viognier.


Speaking of geography, the hotel is on the North Shore, and the office for the class is even farther north, so I avoid most of the traffic. But it's in Takapuna, which seems to be a bus hub, so it's easy to get a bus into Devenport or Auckland. The North Shore office of Hertz is also around the corner, so I picked up a car on Wednesday. I'm not sure if it's really a net win over taking a taxi into the office every morning, but it does have the salutary effect of scaring me awake, every morning. The tired, end-of-day drive back to the hotel is probably even more dangerous.

I made it to the wine tasting on Wednesday evening. The man wasn't kidding: there were 75-100 people packed into a tiny wine shop, on folding chairs. The tasting was blind, but was very informal: it reminded me of a church raffle or a pub quiz night. Despite that, the quality of palate seemed very high. I'm not used to blind tastings, but I only recognized two of the twelve wines in an even vaguely correct way, while someone took every prize offered.

There was a nice-looking young woman sitting next to me, and taking very serious notes, but she was spitting and I wasn't. Definitely incompatible. I did manage to find out that she was taking a class somewhere, thus the serious note-taking. If it's a class, you aren't allowed to enjoy it.

Two curmudgeons and regulars, standing behind us, were a little more forthcoming. They were loudly complaining that they'd called out the right answers, and the manager had given the prize to someone else. One of the assistants kept missing their glasses in the pours, too - or maybe they were angling for double pours. Anyway I got into conversation with them, afterwards, and we went around to a pizza place with a couple of their favorite local bottles. The pizza was very Californian, but good, and the wines were excellent.

pizza wine

Thursday evening I finally went into Auckland's center (the central business district, or CBD). I took the bus to Devenport and the ferry across: at that time of day I'm not sure that it was faster or slower than the direct bus, but I like ferries. The Shakespeare on Albert Street brews their own beer in the heart of the city, so I tried that. Then I went to Vulcan Lane for another couple of stops, before deciding that Auckland was getting a little too blurry.

blurry auckland

I'm starting to give up on NZ beers: they've been Sam Adams quality, at best. After getting such excellent cask-conditioned beer in New York, all year, that's disappointing. But there are several Belgian places, and I can always stick to the wine, so I can't complain. It's tempting to move here and open a place, if there's any market for it.

Friday, I made a reservation for Tiritiri Matangi. No, that isn't a character from the Jungle Book. It's an island set aside as a nature preserve. New Zealand has a lot of those, but this is one of the older ones, and non-scientists are allowed to visit. Apparently they'll even let me in.

warning - thief

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