Freighters go to windward much better

I boarded the flight in Auckland bound for Sydney with mixed emotions.  The flight marked the end of our South Pacific adventure, and the beginning of a very different journey.   A little over a month prior to this I could not have imagined that this is what we would be doing at this moment.  It’s not a bad thing, it just kind of made my head spin, when I thought about it, just a bit.  You have  probably read about this in the previous posts, but in a nutshell, Michelle accepted a new job with Lindblad Expeditions and I had just finished packing the boat up for shipment from New Zealand.  She was in Sydney, Australia and I was headed there for a visit then on to Texas to see family and eventually to Vancouver, British Columbia to receive the boat, put it back together and get it to Seattle.  Michelle has touched on her new job, our travels in Australia, so I’ll focus the boat shipment project.

So, in late March when she received the job offer from Lindblad it meant that she would be relocating to Sydney, Australia for about six months.  We scrambled to consider the options for “us” and “the boat”.

Option 1-Sail to Sydney, Australia, find a slip there, liveaboard the boat and eventually ship it back via freighter to Seattle.  This seemed to make the most sense, get “Cheers” across the Tasman Sea and live on it until Michelle was shifted back to Seattle.  It seemed simple enough.  The first concern was that it was getting late in the season for good weather in crossing the Tasman.  The low pressure centers had begun to shift north (due to the fact that it was getting into fall) and these are very fast moving, sometimes ruthless weather systems.  Concern number two came up as I was researching a berth for the boat near North Sydney, where Michelle was going to be working.  Boat slips were very hard to come by and those that were available rang up to the tune of $2,400 Australian per month! This equates to approximately $2,200 U.S. dollars for a hole in the water.  This is about the price of renting a small flat or apartment in Sydney.  Put on top of this that it would cost about an extra $5,000 to ship the boat from here vs. New Zealand, hmm,,, we need a new plan.

Option 2-Sail the boat from New Zealand back to Seattle.  It’s a sailboat, just sail it back, easy yes? Not really.  It’s about 6,000 nautical miles in a straight line from Auckiand, New Zealand to the Seattle region.  Most if not all of this is to windward, which is not the most pleasant point of sail or very simply “it’s the wrong way”.  The other problem with this option is that I’ve lost my crew, (Michelle) to her new position with Lindblad.  We considered hiring someone to sail with me, (most sane sailors will not volunteer for this run) and I really had no desire to single hand on this journey.  The last consideration and a very valid one was the abuse that the boat would suffer during the trip.  A sail or two and some equipment would have to be replaced upon arrival into Seattle.  Ok, not the best plan, other options?

Option 3-Pack the boat up and ship it on a freighter to Seattle.  I had gotten a quote from a company called Taurus Logistics in New Zealand earlier in our journey for shipment from New Zealand to the Pacific Northwest.  I contacted them again to see if the bid was still valid, they said that it was and I sought out other bids to compare.  In the end there were only two companies that could or would handle this type of shipment, Taurus and TNL GAC Pindar.  The bids were competitive, about $20-23,000 US dollars.  This would necessitate that we sail the boat to Tauranga, New Zealand, unstep the mast, strip the decks, strip the mast, secure the boat to a cradle, load it on a ship bound to Vancouver, B.C., put it all back together on the other end and then sail it to Seattle.  More hmmm,,

We considered our options, discussed them at length and in the end decided to go with option 3.  This whole process has been an adventure in itself and this is how it went.

I contacted Taurus and began the process of “booking us in” for passage on freighter from Tauranga bound for Vancouver.  They have a ship departing about every “fortnight” or two weeks on this run but they don’t always have space.  We made a deposit in a New Zealand account to begin the process  and “book” the space.  We wanted to stay in Auckland, pick a weather window and then sail for Tauranga without arriving too early but also to be in line with Michelle’s departure for her training in New York.  Originally we were booked in on a mid-May departure but it turned out that they did not have space so we settled on the next departure which was early June.  Throughout this time period there were papers going back a forth, a trip or two to the bank and a lot of questions about how this was all going to work.  We departed Auckland and made a  beeline for Tauranga.  We made good time with some fair weather and had a mix of sailing and motoring during our trip.  In the end we decided to anchor off of the small community of Whitianga to enjoy our last few days of “cruising”.  This was a great decision and was a nice break from our “flurry” of arrangements.

We arrived into Tauranga, had planned on anchoring out but ended up at an outer berth in the Bridge marina in the harbor.  Tauranga is the biggest shipping port in New Zealand but it is also a beautiful part of the country.  The next day I touched base with the marina and the boatyard, everyone was very helpful.  In the end, Bruce and Lucy Goodchap at the Bridge Marina Travelift boatyard (gotta love that name) were able to answer all of my questions.  They actually were the best source of information throughout this whole process.  Much better than any of the broker representatives and shipping agents, I was still asking them questions once I reached Vancouver.

Michelle and I then began the slow process of decommissioning our home, while still keeping it together enough to liveaboard.  The big project that I needed Michelle’s help for was taking the mast down so me made sure to get that done before she left.  I coordinated with the yard, we picked a time (had to be slack tide due to the currents in the area) and we took care of it.  This required their crane, two of their people and Michelle and I coordinating on the boat.  It’s kind of unnerving to pull a 52’ aluminum pipe, off of the mast step (which is on the keel (bottom of the boat), guide it up through our lovely woodwork down below and then out into the boat yard without causing damage.  It went flawlessly.  I then spent the next few days stripping all of the wire rigging, line and anything else that I could pull off of the mast to get it down to just the mast.  I then wrapped it with bubble wrap and shrink wrap to protect it during the shipment.  Somewhere in here Michelle had to pack up and depart for New York, not knowing when she would be home again.  That’s a tough packing job knowing the it would be spring in New York, then to Australia for the fall and winter with travel to the South Pacific Islands for work.  It was hard to say goodbye but at this point we knew that we would be back together in Australia in a short while.

So, Michelle is off for work and I then finish off the worklist.  All of the new cockpit canvas and poling comes off and goes below, bow pulpit, stanchions and lifelines come off, liferaft, dinghy and outboard come off and go below, radar tower is stripped and secured.  Let’s not forget that all of the batteries must be disconnected and isolated, diesel fuel , gas, water and propane tanks must be emptied and all perishable food must be disposed of. Our lovely home became the ubiquitous U-haul.  I was lucky to have Jim Heumann and Karen Sullivan on board a 24’ sailboat ,”Sockdolager” (they sailed across the Pacific the same time as us) were doing the same thing with their boat and we gave each other a hand.  During this process Jim and Karen helped me get the boat to the yard to get it hauled out.  Shortly after this a local welder came and made a custom cradle for Cheers to be shipped in and I moved ashore for the final preparation for the shipment.  Once the boat was ready, Bruce Goodchap at the yard helped me crane the mast onto the boat, figure out how best to support it and secure it. Then it was time to strap the boat to the cradle with about 10 high load straps and lock it up for the last time in New Zealand.

There were many last minute “surprises” that had to be addressed and a few extra costs that were not originally quoted.  It turns out that each shipping company has different requirements for the shipment.  The “Chengtu” the Chinese freighter that Cheers was going on required that all propane tanks and fire extinguishers be taken off of the boat prior to shipment.  There were also about five forms that they wanted filled out and signed at the last minute.  I also found out that our boat insurance would not cover us for any part of the “shipment” process so we had to pay for an extra “rider” policy but then even this would not cover any personal belongings down below.  They recommended that all personal possessions be removed prior to shipment.  Not happening.  Final payments were made to the New Zealand account for Taurus and a wire transfer was made to their U.S. account, the boat was strapped, stripped and locked, it was time to go.

At this point I departed Tauranga for Sydney to go see Michelle, it’s late May at this point.  She was able to arrange that I accompany her for a ship-check voyage on board the Orion in Australia which was a bonus.  Australia for a little over two weeks with only a few nights in Sydney, on to Texas to visit my sister, her great kids, some time with good friends (one baseball game) and then it was on to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Dealing with the agency in Vancouver was a different story than in New Zealand.  At first it looked like things were going to be a breeze.  When it got down to the week prior to arrival there was last minute paperwork that needed to be rushed and a bond payment of $8,000 that Canadian customs was requiring for the time period that the boat was going to be in the country.  Then at the last minute Canadian customs decided that I didn’t need to post the bond but I’d already scrambled to get the agency the money.  They still have our money and this was coming up on a month ago.  So, I can scramble to get a wire transfer to them but they have to cut a check and mail it to me to get the money back to us, go figure, enough on that.

The “Chengtu” pulled into Vancouver on June 23rd after a stop in LA.  The transfer from the ship to the truck went well, (they wouldn’t let me in the port) and the transfer to the boatyard in North Vancouver went off without a hitch as well.  I took one look at the boat, realized how much I needed to get done in order to get out of there and was suddenly tired.  I got to it nonetheless and the going was slow.  It was sobering to realize that Michelle and I got roughly four times as much done when we worked together as opposed to when I was working by myself.  It took roughly two weeks to put it all back together and I was happy with the way everything went back in place.  North Vancouver was good to me, I found a great local marine store with great character and everything else that I needed but I was happy to get on my way to Seattle.

The weather was great out of Vancouver and I made a stop in Point Roberts, Washington to clear into U.S. waters and have a dinner out.  From there I made a short hop to Lummi Island, Washington to visit our good friend Sharon Grainger.  We had a great dinner at her place with some of her friends, a lovely hike on the island and then dinner aboard Cheers on our last night before I departed for Vendovi Island.  Vendovi Island is a small Island in the San Juan Islands that was once owned by the Fluke family of the “Fluke Meter” company.  Our sailor friends Shawn Breeding and Heather Bransmer are caretaking the island for the summer and I was invited to come for a visit and tie up at their dock for a few nights.  It is a lovely island in a great setting.  What a fine opportunity to catch up with Shawn and Heather, share a few dinners and explore the island. I loved catching up with old friends but it was time to head for Seattle.

I departed early in the morning on July 18th with perfect weather and a great tidal current window.  It was mostly a motorboat ride but I made amazing speed for the day (70 nautical miles in 10 hours). It was hard to steam by Cypress Island, our favorite spot in the San Juan Islands, without Michelle.  I could look off in the distance to the West and pick out a number of spots that held some wonderful memories from our time sailing in these waters.  It was pretty much sunny and calm for the final leg of this journey.

I pulled into Eagle Harbor, Winslow Wharf Marina on Bainbridge Island Washington at about 4 PM.  It was a very quiet afternoon with ferries coming and going, kayakers wandering the harbor and a small amount of other boat traffic.  I eased Cheers into our new home berth, tied up the lines and shut down our good old Perkins diesel.  This truly marked the end of our Pacific journey.  I was happy to be in our new berth, but also sad that this adventure was over and that Michelle was not with me to celebrate.  It has been a great experience that has given us back more wonderful memories than we could have ever wished for. Our next adventure has already begun, but we’ll talk more about that later.

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Catch Up, Part 2: Michelle in Palau

Two weeks ago, I left Sydney, and flew to Cairns, Australia for a day of meetings and scouting, then on to Guam, for a ridiculous 13 hour layover, and finally to Palau, a tiny island nation in the northwestern Pacific. Next April, the newly renamed National Geographic Orion will end one voyage and begin another there, so I went to meet with tour operators, hoteliers and guides. During the week of that trip, I was able to get out in the islands to explore on a couple of days, in between my meetings and work. I went kayaking at Long Lake, in the Rock Islands of Koror State, and saw newly hatched spotted eagle ray pups, incredible tropical vegetation and some lovely new birds. I snorkeled on the outer reef, at the edge of German Channel, seeing so many familiar tropical fish and invertebrates. I got to see a giant carved stone “wheel” of Yapese money.

I also managed to snorkel in the famous Jellyfish Lake. This saltwater lake has been isolated from the surrounding lagoon since the last Ice Age, for approximately 16,000 years. In that time, the jellies of the genus Mastigias that are present in the lake, have evolved to be essentially “sting-less”. Rather than catching their prey (since there’s no prey to catch…) with long, nematocyst-armed tentacles, these jellyfish harbor tiny algal cells known as zooxanthellae, which photosynthesize to produce food, both for themselves and for the jellies. This strategy, along with the ability to reproduce asexually, has allowed literally millions of these softball-sized jellies to flourish in the lake.

So, my guide, Ron, and I donned our snorkel gear, and kicked out along the eastern edge of the lake. It was still pretty early morning, so this shore was in shadow, leaving a sharp demarcation line between where the jellies were, and where they were not (they like the sun…). Ron thought we might have to swim all the way to the far end of the lake to find an aggregation of jellies, but a recent population explosion meant that we found jellies almost immediately. At first, they were gathered below us, a pale orange shoal maybe 20 feet down. Then, they moved towards the surface of the lake, and we were in their midst. For nearly an hour, I was completely surrounded by, immersed in and face-to-mesoglea with, millions of small, soft pillows, pulsing with orange light. The tiny ones pulsed rapidly, while the larger ones pulsed almost in time to my breathing. It was completely otherworldly, one of those rare experiences that I cherish. The jellyfish are incredibly fragile, so one’s motion has to be gentle and minimal. No splashing, struggling, hard kicking or strong arm movements allowed, or the jellies would be torn to shreds. Many people choose to use flotation to keep their motion to a minimum, but I preferred not. Just floating in salty water, rising and falling with each breath, watching these bizarre  and beautiful creatures move.

I’m back in Sydney now, and back to “real” work… Enjoy these photos, they were all taken by Ron Leidich, who generously shared them with me.

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Catch Up, Part 1: New Zealand to Northern Australia

I know, I know, I know. I have failed miserably to keep up with this blog for the past several months. All I can say is that it’s been a bit of a whirlwind, with very little time for contemplative writing.

The short / time lapse version of the past three months is this: Sailed Cheers to Tauranga, NZ and completely decommissioned her. I flew to NY for a week to train for my new job as Expedition Development Manager at Lindblad Expeditions. Then, I flew to Sydney, Australia, where I’ll be based for a few months in this job. Mark finished the decommission, put Cheers on a ship, then flew to Sydney to meet me. Together, we traveled to northern Australia to spend 2 weeks aboard Lindblad’s new ship Orion, in the Kimberley. Back to Sydney for a weekend, then Mark flew back east to spend some time with his family in Texas. I kept working. Mark then flew northwest, to Vancouver, B.C., to meet the ship carrying Cheers, reclaim and recommission our little floating home. He’s still there, hoping to sail south towards Seattle sometime next week. I stayed in Sydney, basing out of the Orion Expeditions offices, as we make the transition to Lindblad. Two weeks ago, I took off on a scouting trip to Cairns and then Palau, but that’s the subject of another post…

I’d hoped to write about our trip to the Kimberley, as it’s an amazingly beautiful part of the world, that very few Americans have even heard of. However, the steep learning curve of my new job, and the need to figure out housing, commuting, and all those various life logistics in a new city, have occupied me completely. I will say this, though, about the Kimberley…

Imagine the red rock country of the American Southwest. Stunning rock formations in every imaginable shade of ochre, rust, copper and yellow, lit up by early morning and late afternoon “golden hour” light, with brilliant blue skies during the day. Now inundate the scene, with tropical blue water off the outer coast, and muddy fingers of river and mangrove channels in the nearshore. Throw in some bright green mangroves and tropical vegetation, a very healthy population of saltwater crocodiles, giant barrel-like boab trees, tropical birds like jabirus and red-crested jacanas and a smattering of dugongs, and you’ve got the Kimberley. These are some of the most ancient rocks exposed anywhere on the planet, inhabited by ancient peoples who shared their stories with us.

Enjoy the photos, Michelle

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Our “Endless Summer” Comes to an End

Cheers entering La Paz Channel, February 2008

Cheers entering La Paz Channel, February 2008

I’ve always known that my life was not going to follow a straight and narrow path, but sometimes the curves in the road astonish even me…

Just over 5 years ago, in February 2008, Mark and I left the U.S. and sailed Cheers south to Mexico. Although we had no way of knowing it at the time, it was the beginning of what we’ve come to call our “Endless Summer”. We both worked in chilly Alaska that summer, but returned “home” to the warmth and sunshine of La Paz. We went to Greece for the first time, and then spent that winter working in sunny Baja California. Over the next few years, we lived aboard in La Paz, exploring the islands in the Gulf of California aboard Cheers when we weren’t working. In 2009 and 2010, we spent 6 months of each year in the Mediterranean, working aboard S/Y Panorama, and falling completely in love with Greece. The other half of each of those years was spent working either in tropical Costa Rica and Panama, or back in Baja California. Then, of course, we have this past 18 months; during which we went from autumn heat in San Carlos, to a tropical, northern-hemisphere winter in Puerto Vallarta. Sailing south and west, we found more warm weather in the tropical Pacific, and then arrived in New Zealand in time for the southern-hemisphere summer. We’ve had gorgeous sunny weather for most of our time here in NZ, continuing our “endless summer” for 6 more months. We’ve joked that we haven’t seen any real “winter” weather for a long time! That, however, is about to change.

We’re off on a new adventure, and it’s completely different than the one we expected to be embarking on, just a month ago. In a few days, Cheers and her crew will leave Auckland, to explore some of the islands in the Hauraki Gulf, before sailing down the east side of the Coromandel Peninsula to the Bay of Plenty. By the end of this month, we should be berthed in the Bridge Marina in Tauranga, and deep into passage prep, of a different sort. You see, I’ve been offered and accepted an amazing full-time job that will take me first to Sydney, Australia, then back to Seattle. Since time is of the essence, we’ve decided to load Cheers aboard a freighter, and ship her home to the Pacific Northwest.

Yep, you read that right. After nearly a month of discussion, researching various possibilities and a lot of soul searching, we’ve committed to a big course change that will close our South Pacific chapter, and take us on a new adventure. Although our “endless summer” is coming to an end, we’re excited to be returning to a place we both love so well. Cheers is coming with us so we can still get out on the water, and will be our home for the foreseeable future. We may be returning to a more “normal” life, but neither of us will ever forget our incredible South Pacific journey, and, after all, we’re still pretty much boat bums at heart.

We’ll continue to blog about our preparations for shipping, and the recommissioning of the boat, as a number of our cruising friends have asked us to share photos. Once we’re both settled back in Seattle, we’d love to tell you our stories and share our photos in person, all you have to do is ask.

Hoping that all is well in your world, Michelle

Cheers under the rainbow, Pier 21 Marina, Auckland

Cheers under the rainbow, Pier 21 Marina, Auckland

Three weeks in Vietnam

I’ve been home for a few days now, and would like to tell a story about my time in Vietnam. I know it’s bound to be an incomplete story, but I’ll do my best to paint a verbal picture. I encourage you to have another look at the photos in my previous post, and I’ve also included some more photos here, which I hope you’ll enjoy.

As our guide, Tung, said, “Vietnam is a country where the 19th and 21st centuries live side by side”. It’s a country both ancient and youthful, where rice is planted and harvested using centuries-old techniques, while iPhones and iPads seem to be everywhere. With evidence of human habitation dating to 20,000 years ago, and a rich history beginning in the Bronze Age, Vietnam has one of the older civilizations of the world. Although I didn’t visit many ancient sites, I saw evidence of this history in the 3 km-long tile mosaic wall built in Hanoi in 2010, to celebrate its millennial anniversary as the capital of Vietnam. I learned that 65% of the country’s population was born after 1975, and modern Vietnam seems to be a country of energy, youth and looking toward the future, while still honoring many traditions of the past. Although the 20th century brought three major wars, a devastating famine and 20 years of struggling under economic sanctions, the people seem to possess a grace and resilience, and a willingness to move on. In the U.S., the Vietnam War was a turbulent period that left no physical scars on the American landscape, but left deep psychic scars on many individuals. In Vietnam, there are still numerous physical scars on the land, but most of the people I met seemed to view that war as only one part of their long history.

When I first arrived in Hanoi, I hit the streets, and learned the locals’ street-crossing technique fairly quickly. I was looking for the sedate Tai-Chi practitioners in the park next to Hoan Kiem Lake, but found, instead, a group dancing to Gangnam Style! Women, men, young, old, there were about 40 people whooping it up, apparently having a blast on that chilly, wet morning. I found the market street, and learned that it’s okay to take photos, just don’t block a potential customer’s view of the wares. I missed my chance to buy a beautiful fresh baguette from an elderly Vietnamese woman, because I hadn’t yet learned to say “how much?” and I was shy. Small shore crabs, kohlrabi, fresh tripe being sliced, these were a few of my morning surprises. After wandering a few blocks, I returned to the hotel, for a pit stop, before going out again. This time, I hesitated on the curb just long enough to be a target for a local tout selling books. I spent $5 on a bootleg copy of The Quiet American, since I had been looking for that book at the Auckland Library anyway. It was a very poignant read, as I learned the country’s history and saw more of the landscape.

While staying at The Metropole Hotel, I took a brief tour, referred to as “The Bunker Tour”. It turned out to be a fascinating history lesson. The Metropole is the oldest hotel in Hanoi, and dates from the French colonial era. During an expansion of the Bamboo Bar eight months ago, they discovered the hotel’s old bomb shelter, used for guests during The American (Vietnam) War. Our guide wove a great story of the history of the hotel and the city, the French Colonial period and the terror people felt during the Christmas Bombing of 1972. It was a humbling experience for sure.

In Hanoi I also visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum complex. While the mausoleum building is imposing and the rules for entry a bit harsh, the popular adulation that surrounds the man himself is impressive. Described as a well-educated Nationalist, Ho Chi Minh seems to have wanted little more than freedom for his country. There seemed to be a number of nuances that we don’t really hear about in the West… I also visited Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, established in 1070AD, and dedicated to Confucian principles and Vietnam’s scholars. In fact, on my second visit to the Temple, there was a group of young people from a nearby medical technology college, all dressed up and celebrating their graduation. You’ll see a few photos of this in the slide show.

As a sailor and cruiser, Halong Bay was of huge interest to me. I’d read about its 2000+ limestone islands and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was also one of the filming sites for a movie I watched many years ago, and I remembered the images of craggy pinnacles draped in mist, and wanted to see for myself. The modern reality was less romantic, as the Bay has been developed as a coal port, and definitely discovered by tourism; however, I was able to see its beauty once out on the water, and into some of the quieter reaches of the bay. Many of the photos in my previous slideshow are from the floating village of Cua Van, which we visited by sampan. I was so eager to capture the reflections of the colorful boats and houses on the still water, and the varied faces and expressions of the villagers. While aboard the Halong Ginger, I especially loved waking before dawn and sitting on deck, listening to the birds as the sun came up.

The entire Ancient Town of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and offered a million more photo opportunities. Recognized as an exceptional example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to 19th centuries, I imagined that I’d mostly be photographing Hoi An’s architecture. However, it was the vibrant market and river life that drew my attention. One of our outings was a guided walk through the fruits, vegetables, fish, noodles and meats in the market, where we learned about many of the ingredients used in Vietnamese cooking. We then took a local boat on the river to the Red Bridge Cooking School, for a few hours of cooking lessons, and dining on our creations. I brought all of the recipes home, and have already tried a few in Cheers’ galley. Although I had to substitute a few herbs, and the dishes didn’t look quite as elegant as they did in Vietnam, the results were still pretty tasty.

In Hue, I was struck by the sense of tradition that seems to pervade everything. We toured the impressive Imperial Citadel, admiring the many reconstructed buildings while mourning the loss of the originals to wartime bombing. On my first visit, I had quite a few enthusiastic photographers in the group, and we took full advantage of the late afternoon light – those photos are in the slideshow of my previous post. My best experiences in Hue were visits to two restored mandarins’ homes, each unique and beautiful. Tha Om Garden House was largely destroyed during the war, and has been lovingly rebuilt by one of the youngest sons of the family. Mr. Vinh is an architect who applied his incredible talent to the intricate carving and elegant design of his grandfather’s house. We also had lunch here, filled with traditional dishes such as banana blossom salad, and beef cooked on a clay tile. The second home belonged to the family of Mr. Thanh Thuan An, and we were able to pay a special visit here on my first trip. Mr. An walked us around his lovely garden and explained the feng shui, or purposeful placement of each element (pond, sculptures, types of flowers, etc.). Knowing that we were a group from Lindblad / National Geographic, Mr. An seemed particularly pleased to show us issues of National Geographic magazine dating from 1931 & 1935, in which his family and family home were featured. He was also very proud to show off his new grandson…

Unfortunately, I didn’t really see much of Ho Chi Minh City, other than the tour to the Reunification Palace and out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I spent the bulk of my 3½ days there parked in the lobby of the Park Hyatt Saigon, tending to the questions and needs of the nearly 100 Lindblad guests who were either just beginning, or just ending their trip on the Mekong River aboard the Jahan. I was able to slip away for a half-hour “fast food” lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant Wrap & Roll across the street. If American fast food were anything like this, I’d eat it every day!!

I took nearly 1500 photos during these 3 weeks, and have only shared a fraction of them here. For me, the abundance of water meant reflections everywhere I looked. I came to think of these reflections as a metaphor, and found myself turning inward often. In these personal moments I felt sadness for the waste of war, for the inequities of poverty and wealth, and it was hard not to be overwhelmed on occasion. Then I’d focus outward again, listen to another of Tung’s stories and feel grateful for the opportunity to be there.

Enjoy the photos! Michelle

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Vietnam, Part 1

I’ve now been in Vietnam for 12 days, and will be here for another 10. It’s been a whirlwind of sights, experiences and many incredible meals, but I don’t have time now to do them justice in words. I’ve been keeping a journal of sorts, so I’ll tell some stories later, but for now the photos will have to suffice. This trip began in the north with Hanoi, then continued to the skinny “waist” of the country with Hue and Hoi An, in Central Vietnam and ended in the country’s economic center, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in the south. Tomorrow morning, I begin my second trip, and head north again.

Hope you’re well, stories to follow in a few weeks. ~ Michelle

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South and West, NZ Road Trip Final Chapter

Picking up where I left off… Our first almost-adventure happened right in the parking lot of the Christchurch Airport branch of Apex car rentals. We had the keys to our rental car, loaded the luggage, sorted out the maps, adjusted the seats and mirrors, and turned the key… Whoa! I hadn’t realized that the car was a manual transmission, so we jumped about a foot forward, since I did not have my foot on the clutch. At first I thought maybe it would be okay, but I quickly realized that I am useless with my left hand, and was already challenged enough by driving on the “other” side of the car and road. So, back into the office, apologizing for being an American driver and asking for an automatic. Prudence was definitely the better part of valor here. By the time I got back out to the parking lot, Mark had already moved all of our stuff into our new(er) Nissan Sunny, and we were ready to go!

I’d found a great package deal online, for 2 nights in the hot springs town of Hanmer Springs, so we headed north. It was a little out of the way, but was well worth the extra driving to soak away the last remnants of our nasty colds. We headed south two days later, refreshed and ready to explore. From Hanmer Springs, we drove back out toward the coast, and then all the way south to Dunedin, backtracking past Christchurch – again. We stopped for lunch in the little coastal town of Oamaru, and then pressed on. We were due to stay with some friends of a friend in Dunedin and didn’t want to arrive too late.

One stop we did have to make, though, was at the Moeraki Boulders. These spherical concretions formed on a muddy seafloor, and are estimated to have taken 4-5 million years to form. We’re able to see them today because they’ve eroded out of the surrounding mudstone by wave action. While Moeraki is not the only place in the world one can see this fascinating geological phenomenon, it was a first for us.

We spent two nights in Dunedin, making a day trip out to the Otago Peninsula in between. We’d intended to visit the Royal albatross colony at Tairoa Head, and perhaps stop into the facility at Penguin Place, but ended up having a completely different day instead. While we knew that the albatross colony was a protected area, we didn’t expect to be greeted by a hostile attendant upon entering the “visitor center”. She grumpily informed us that “your $5 only gets you in this door, and access to the toilets”. If we wanted to see the albatross, that would cost us $50 each, and we’d be allowed ONLY to walk up the path to the enclosed blind. While I’m always in favor of supporting local conservation efforts, I’d prefer to be welcomed, rather than snarled at. Our friends in Dunedin opted to take a day trip with Monarch Wildlife Cruises, and I think that’s definitely a better option. They had great views of the albatross and much more, along with fun, informative naturalist guides.

So, instead of staying at Tairoa Head, we went out for some low-tide birdwatching, followed by a walk to Allen’s Beach. For our efforts, we were rewarded with great views of Royal spoonbills, Spur-wing plovers, Variable oystercatchers, Pied stilts, Red-billed gulls and, my favorite, pukekos. These beautiful birds are listed as Purple swamphens in my field guides, but the Maori name is pukeko (pronounced poo-que-ko). We even saw one of them with two fuzzy little chicks following her around, then darting back under the protective cover of the marsh sedges. On our beach walk, we found several NZ sea lions half buried in the sand, along with a few NZ fur seals on the rockier end of the quiet, pristine beach. We watched and photographed, and then headed back to town for a quick stop at Dunedin’s famous train station.

The following day, we continued south to The Catlins, and found one of those wonderful little pockets of “old” Zealand. We drove on two lane, and then small gravel roads, and were rewarded for getting off the main tourist drag. Finding more birds and pinnipeds, great bush walks accompanied by bellbird and tui song, the dramatic Cathedral Caves at low tide, a “petrified forest” beach at Curio Bay, and, a chance to watch a rare Yellow-eyed penguin for a good long time. Despite the great wildlife and the much needed “nature fix”, I think our favorite part of our Catlins visit was the stop at The Lost Gypsy Gallery, in the tiny hamlet of Papetowai. A former engineer turned artist has created a magical little world, turning various “found” items in to “automated gizmos, with a twist. He’s created a bicycle powered television set, a piano that has each key wired to a different device, an old-fashioned hair dryer that’s become a surround-sound helmet playing gull cries and crashing waves, and so much more. Check out our photos to see some of the wonderful artwork in his Winding Thoughts Gallery.

At this point, we’d been away from home for 3 weeks, and were starting to get a little tired of living out of our suitcases. Unfortunately, we were just about as far away from Auckland as we could get, and still be in New Zealand. So, we decided that we really wanted to at least see the West Coast, even if it meant just driving through. From The Catlins we headed west to Invercargill, then north to Wanaka, over the beautiful, but very narrow, Cardrona Pass. At our hotel in Wanaka, we learned that country music star Shania Twain had property here, and we could certainly understand why. Early the next morning, despite waking to low clouds and heavy rain, we continued on to the west coast, and Franz Josef Glacier. This drive was less nerve-wracking than expected, and took us through some of the country’s most beautiful, lush temperate rainforest. Seeing it on a rainy day actually enhanced its beauty, and we stopped counting how many stunning waterfalls we passed. We arrived at Franz Josef, found a pub and happily discovered the last half of the Superbowl on television! Since the next day dawned crystal clear, we decided to stay for a second night, and hiked out to the glacier face. You’ll see from the photos that we were really glad we did.

The morning that we departed Franz Josef was New Zealand’s national day, Waitangi Day, which is a public holiday. We stopped in to get an early morning coffee for the road, and discovered that the one open cafe in town was adding a 15% surcharge on their already high prices. We almost didn’t buy the coffee, on principle, but in the end, the need for caffeine won. We just had to laugh, though, when we got our surcharge coffees, and found the cups only 2/3 full! Pretty cheeky if you ask me… We also discovered the most expensive gasoline either of us has ever seen here in Franz Josef. 91 octane unleaded (the lowest quality available here) was NZ$2.40 PER LITER! At the current exchange rate, that’s nearly 8 US dollars per gallon. Woof.

From Franz Josef we continued north, all the way to Nelson, on the north coast of the South Island. Although this seemed like a wonderful town, we stopped only for the night, and headed for our ferry at Picton the following day. One night at a quirky, but very quaint hotel in the town of Levin, and then the final 8 hour drive back to Auckland. We drove nearly 1100 miles in just 6 1/2 days, and were so happy to see our little floating home again! All’s well here aboard Cheers, and we hope life is good in your corner of the world as well.

~ Michelle

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Christchurch to Queenstown, and Back Again

Beginning in Christchurch, we spent 11 days escorting two groups of Lindblad / National Geographic guests on a land tour that either preceded, or followed, their trips on the Oceanic Discoverer. Our guide was a science teacher from Invercargill, who really helped us understand so many aspects of his country, from environmental issues to politics, and many things in between.

Our first stops were in Christchurch itself, with visits to the small, but interesting, Canterbury Museum and the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. I included the photos from that day in my previous post, in order to more evenly divide my slideshows. For those who may not know, Christchurch was devastated by significant earthquakes in September 2010, and again in February 2011. As of January 17th, 2013, the area around Christchurch has experienced a total of 11,000 earthquakes and aftershocks. Yep, that’s the correct number of zeros after that number 11 – eleven thousand! The city is slowly being rebuilt, but many of the historic buildings suffered irreparable damage. These quakes are due to New Zealand’s geographic location astride two of the earth’s major crustal plates, the Pacific and the Australian, and their movements against one another. In fact, some have called New Zealand “The Shaky Isles” because of this position and the seismic activity the country experiences.

From Christchurch, we traveled across the Canterbury Plain to Lake Tekapo, then through Mackenzie Country to Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park. Along the way, we saw acres and acres of sheep and cattle grazing. We heard stories of the lucrative dairy industry, and how farmers in the arid Canterbury region are investing millions of dollars and converting their rugged sheep pasture into lush, green dairy farms. Rolling through the small towns along our route, our guide fleshed out the story of New Zealand’s historical and current environmental issues. He told us that no self-respecting New Zealander would pass up the opportunity to run over a possum, stoat or rabbit with their car, and he bluntly informed us at one point that, despite the fact that we were looking at rolling countryside, covered in vegetation, he could not see a single native plant. Whoa. Mark and I looked at each other, and finally understood. Lloyd also told us about the country’s massive efforts to eradicate pest species, and to reintroduce and protect native plants and animals. If there’s one hopeful element to all of this, it’s that average New Zealanders really seem to understand and care about their natural environment. As we pulled in to Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park, we looked out on a very different landscape, and Lloyd told us that nearly everything we saw here was native. It was beautiful and rugged, and we felt like we’d finally found one of those bits of “old” Zealand.

We were so fortunate to be able to visit this gem of a national park twice, staying in the Park’s amazing Hermitage Hotel. During our time at Aoraki Mt. Cook, we took several hikes, went out on glacial Lake Tasman in a small boat and I was even so lucky as to join our guests on a ski plane flight that landed on the Tasman Glacier. That nasty cold that I mentioned in my last post dampened our spirits somewhat, but, you’ll see from the photos, we managed to see and do a lot.

From Mt. Cook we traveled south and west, to bustling, but beautiful, Queenstown. The town is set in a stunningly beautiful spot, on the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu, but it’s become the adventure-tourism capital of New Zealand, and feels a little like a Disneyland for adrenaline junkies. During your stay in Queenstown, you could bungee jump, sky swing, ride a wheeled luge down a concrete chute, jet boat around the lake, paraglide off the mountain, heli-ski, heli-mountain bike, heli-hike, and ride your mountain bike down the steep trail accessed by the gondola. We, however, enjoyed a little more of the region’s nature and history, and a little less of the adrenaline. On one of our evenings in Queenstown, we boarded the TSS Earnslaw, a beautifully restored and fully functional 100-year-old coal-powered steamship, that has been in near-continuous operation for the past century. Mark was like the proverbial kid in the candy store, and I hardly saw him during our hour-long voyage to Walter Peak Station. He hung out in the engine room, watching the engineers shovel coal into the glowing hot boilers, wandered the decks and photographed virtually every moving part of the vessel and finally made his way to the bridge, where he met the ship’s captain. We were especially impressed when she (yes, she…) brought this difficult-to-maneuver ship into the dock, and hustled to power in a second time when one of the shoreside line handlers dropped a line. We went ashore for a great dinner, followed by a demonstration of sheep herding and shearing. Crazy as it may sound, the man who performed the shearing demo, removed the entire fleece from a sheep in about a minute! New Zealanders claim that a good sheep shearer can shear nearly 400 sheep in an 8-9 hour day. Sounds like grueling work to me.

Our other excursion from Queenstown was to the lovely community of Glenorchy, where we took a backcountry drive, a short hike through native beech forest and then a jetboat ride on the glacially fed Dart River. You’ll see a few photos, which hopefully convey the experience.

Our first group left us in Queenstown, and our second group arrived. We did the land tour in reverse, and were back in Christchurch near the end of January. After finishing this second tour, we picked up another rental car, and set out to see more of the South Island on our own. I’ll save that story for the next post, so enjoy these photos in the meantime!

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Searching for “Old” Zealand, Road Trip Part 1

After 4 weeks on the road, we’re back home in Auckland. Whew. As our Kiwi friends here in Auckland said, we have “well and truly” seen New Zealand’s South Island, but it was a LOT of driving, and not always what we expected. Or perhaps I should say, much of what we found was unexpected… Let’s see if I can set the stage, and tell the story of our search for what we came to call “Old” Zealand. I’ve chosen to split this tale into 3 parts, because there’s too much to tell, and too many photos to share for a single blog post.

Please remember that any text below that’s in color is a link to another interesting webpage. Click the word(s) to check them out.

Around 85 million years ago, the landmass that is now New Zealand was one of the first bits to break away from the supercontinent known as Gondwana. “Zealandia” was much larger than modern New Zealand, drifting off to the north and east for more than 20 million years, as the Tasman Sea filled the gap. Since this separation occurred relatively early in the history of life on earth, Zealandia carried an ancient flora and fauna, which then evolved separately from that on other continents. Around 20 million years ago, this continent of Zealandia sank, almost entirely, beneath the Pacific waves. Even today, geologists say that some 90% of this original continent is underwater. Although it’s likely that a few ancient land mammals were onboard at the time of the original breakup, there’s little evidence of their survival. A few species of bats arrived as immigrants from Australia, and New Zealand waters are rich in marine mammals, but these oceanic islands appear to have had no native land mammals. For this reason, birds filled most of the ecological niches occupied elsewhere by mammals. Wonderful flightless birds like the kiwis and moas, foraged on the forest floor and browsed the foliage of Zealandia’s unique plants, with no mammalian predators to worry about. Only the giant Harpagornis, or Haast, Eagle preyed on the larger moas, and must have been an incredible bird to see. There were a few native lizards, and the fascinating tuatara, the only surviving members of a reptilian order that flourished 200 million years ago. Over the millennia a fascinating insect fauna evolved, including the weta, cricket relatives that often grow to enormous size. This unique land remained off on its own until just a few hundred years ago, and was the planet’s last major landmass to be “discovered” by human beings.

And that seems to have been the beginning of the end. Sometime between 1200 and 1300CE, a series of Polynesian voyaging canoes arrived on the shores of this untouched land. These early people came from the tropics, in impressive feats of navigation, and were well prepared to permanently settle here. They brought dogs and Polynesian rats, which quickly exterminated some of the defenseless ground-nesting birds. Maori hunters killed all of the large, and presumably tasty, moas prior to the arrival of Europeans. With their primary prey gone, the Harpagornis Eagles also went extinct. Early Maoris also cut and burned sizable tracts of New Zealand’s native forest and tussock grassland, for settlements, and cultivation of kumara, the South American sweet potato that they brought with them from the tropics. This impact, however, was nothing compared to what was to come.

Although Dutch explorer Abel Tasman had anchored off the north coast of the South Island in 1642, it wasn’t until James Cook’s 1769 circumnavigation of New Zealand that a real European presence was felt. The usual progression of settlers arrived, primarily from the British Isles, and in 1852 New Zealand became a self-governing colony of the Crown. A major gold rush, timber harvest and large-scale conversion of native bush to pasture for farming filled New Zealand’s next century. “Acclimatization Societies” introduced European animals, birds and plants, in efforts to reproduce the familiar “comforts” of home. Rabbits were introduced for sport and food, quickly becoming a noxious pest that decimated native vegetation. Stoats, ferrets and weasels were introduced to control the rabbits, but quickly developed a taste for defenseless native birds instead. Australian brushtail possums were brought to start a fur industry, but they’re voracious herbivores that continue to damage native vegetation to this day. In short, the history of New Zealand is the history of much of the colonized world, but the small size of the country, and its unique evolutionary history have made the impacts even more apparent.

Understanding only the most basic aspects of this story,  we set off on our road trip. We wanted to see New Zealand’s famed South Island and, hopefully, find some of its unusual flora and fauna for ourselves. Although we did manage to see a number of wonderful native birds, and found some beautiful native bush walks, our trip was really a month-long education.

Stopping first at Tongariro National Park, we then continued down to the capital city of Wellington. There, we spent a very stormy day exploring the country’s excellent national museum, Te Papa, and the following gorgeous sunny day walking in the Botanical Gardens. We paid a visit to the Oceanic Discoverer, the ship that Lindblad Expeditions had chartered here in New Zealand, and met with friends Richard White, Larry Prussin and Mike Nolan. We ferried across Cook Strait, just ahead of a frontal passage, and then drove through heavy rain and strong winds down the Kaikoura Coast to Christchurch. Unfortunately, we both managed to catch a really nasty cold, that stayed with us for the next two weeks. Boo!

In Christchurch, we began the first of two land tours, escorting groups of Lindblad Expeditions guests on a 5 day journey to Queenstown, and then back to Christchurch. That, however, is a story for the next post, so stay tuned! Here are some photos from our travels between Wellington and Christchurch, and there will be more following soon.

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New Zealand Road Trip, Tongariro NP

It’s been pointed out to me that I haven’t posted anything since Christmas. And that’s nearly a month past now. I’d apologize, but I’m fairly certain that most of you have been busy with your own holiday and new year activities, and we’ve been pretty darn boring anyway! We had a few “small world” encounters in Auckland, meeting up with friends from our Lindblad days, and having them over to Cheers. We spent a day with our friends Michael and Sara’s daughters, Leah and Holly, building sandcastles on the beach and having a massive fish ‘n’ chips picnic in the park. Otherwise, we spent our time on more boat projects and navigating the bureaucracy of extending Mark’s Visitor Visa, and trying to cash the check the insurance company sent us as settlement for our stolen car. Woof. The friends, sandcastles and picnics were great fun, the messy boat projects and bureaucracy, not so much.

About a week ago, though, we set out to explore some more of New Zealand. By land. In a rental car. No more car ownership for us for awhile. We headed south from Auckland, and had an incredible drive to Tongariro National Park. Tongariro was one of the first National Parks ever established in the world and is now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, plus, it’s the location of Mordor, from the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. One of the volcanoes erupted just last November, and the northern part of the Park is still closed to hikers. You’ll see in the photos that the Te Maari Crater of Mt. Tongariro is producing plenty of smoke and steam, giving geologists and vulcanologists good stuff to watch.

We felt super fortunate that our day of arrival at the Park was sunny and warm, so we were able to see the three volcanoes of Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Tongariro, even if it was just from the bottom. The next day, the day we’d planned to hike to the summit of the Red Crater, at the mid-point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, started out drizzly with low clouds, but was forecast to improve. We set out on our hike, and loved every minute of it; however, we were enveloped in cloud the entire day, and saw none of the features we’d hoped for. At the summit of the hike, we had visibility of 50 meters, or less, and winds howling at 30 knots or better. It was cold and wet for sure!

From Tongariro we drove down to Wellington, and are now on the South Island in Christchurch. Enjoy the few photos from Tongariro, and I’ll try to be better about updating this blog as we travel on the South Island.

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