The Agrodome Farm Show, Rotorua, New Zealand

If you’re in Rotorua, New Zealand, and looking for a low exertion activity (with air-conditioning) that’s entertaining for the whole family — and a bit educational, I STRONGLY suggest a visit to the Agrodome. This 40-year-old “award-winning” Farm Show takes place on a 350 acre farm, that you can also pay to take a guided tour of (mostly a riding tour rather than a walking one, so also good for people with mobility issues). The attraction is really geared towards families, and their family priced ticket is a bit of a deal, as it costs the same as two adults and a child, while allowing three children. And if you check their website, they sometimes offer on-line ticket discounts. The show lasts an hour, and only happens three times a day, so make sure to time your arrival accordingly.  It’s a highly entertaining show, that’s in my opinion, and worth the $36.50 (NZD) [$24.03 USD] — even though the price seemed a bit steep to me at first.

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We arrived at the Agrodome pretty much first thing on our arrival into Rotorua, which I now know is one of the major tourism meccas for both for folks who are road-tripping through New Zealand and locals. As in, pretty much anyone who does the trip is going to be spending a day or two here taking in the sites, which include geysers, and other geothermal activities — mud pools, i.e., mud so hot it bubbles and is utilized for things like high-end full day spa treatments, etc.,. In addition, other attractions of interest to tourists have developed in the area, including multiple Māori cultural daytime and dinner shows, etc., rides of various types, and attractions like the Agrodome.

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To put it in perspective for Americans, Rotorua is a bit like the Wisconsin Dells area north of Chicago, the Gatlinburg area in the great smoky mountains, or the Canadian side of Niagara Falls (which is all casino’s, etc.). All of these locations began as places that people came to in order to appreciate the natural wonders of mother nature… but tend to have devolved over time into decidedly working and middle-class tourist traps, as the majority of their day-to-day customers tend to be nearby locals who can’t afford travel further afield. In ANY town like this, all the attractions tend to be a bit overpriced, I suppose this is done partly in order to make the customers feel like they’re buying something of value. (‘It’s expensive so it must be good’, being a pervasive misconception by the average customer that marketers utilize when positioning a product.)

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Again my favorite quote from American Gods by Neil Gaiman comes to mind

“So what is this place?” asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low, unimpressive wooden building.
“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”
“Come again?”
“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”
“There are churches all across the States, though,” said Shadow.
“In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices. No, in the USA people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a giant bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods

That said, IF you get there early (before the final show — which is the one we attended, off to the left side (as you’re facing the stage) of the theater there’s a petting zoo type area with baby animals and ducks

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…they will be taking part in the show later…  However, if you wait till after the final show… they might not be there, as its sort of a holding area (I’m guessing they go back to see their mom’s afterwards).

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The show begins with a sort of “fashion show of sheep” beginning with the local star, the Marino. In case you’re unfamiliar, this breed produces the finest and softest wool of all the varieties. While expensive it is AMAZING, and any item made of it is utterly worth the investment. MOST my socks, with the exception of my compression stockings  (edema runs in my family) are merino wool — and have been since I experienced my first pair. First time I saw them was in shop catering to outdoorsy types, and I was like “$20 for a pair of SOCKS?!! Are you MAD?” but the staff members assured me that they were entirely worth it. They challenged me to buy one pair, wear them for a full week without washing, and then sniff them. Seriously… not only do these wick moisture from you feet, but they also naturally kill foot oder issues… AND they are incredibly sturdy and last way way way longer than any other socks I’ve ever owned (and never stretch out over the course of a day).

Each is led in individually, introduced to the crowd, and its particular attributes described… so for instance the breeds like Merino, that produce wool that’s great for clothing, while others are desirable more for their meat than their wool.

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In the above image he’s introducing the Drysdale breed; this New Zealand created breed is raised primarily for its wool. It was developed in the 1930’s by crossbreeding a genetically freakish Romney ram with unusually coarse wool another Romney and a Cheviots resulting in a new breed of genetically modified sheep. One of the freak attributes is that both genders have horns, and its wool grows so quickly that it has to be shorn twice a year…. and the wool it produces is coarse and sturdy, so it is great for things like rugs…

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The full selection of “beauty sheep” on display

Once all the sheep have been led in and introduced, that is when you’ll get to see, the thing I was most hoping to see…. a sheep being sheered

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You, or more likely your older kids, might be chosen from the crowd to come up on stage and experience the joys of milking a cow

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or the excitement of feeding baby lambs and alpacas (who are ridiculously cute)

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and then you’ll be able to watch demonstrations of sheep dogs showing off just how smart and capable they are.

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Initially, a single dog is asked to herd around the stage a small bunch of ducks, the ones from the petting farm area, proably because there simply wasn’t room to do it with sheep. But then a different dog is asked to displayed something far more impressive, the ability to jump on top of the sheep’s backs, running across them like stones in a stream …

something the dogs need to be able to do in order to get a better vantage point from which to view of the entire flock, and be able to protect them from possible threats

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such as wolves, AND then they do it as a pack, multiple dogs run on stage and they do it together… even running past each other without falling off. I was impressed, having not known they could do it.

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After this highpoint of the show, the audience was invited to come up on stage, pet the dogs and take their pictures with the sheep…. and folks didn’t need to be invited twice…

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people raced up there really quickly and competed with each other for the best photos and to pet the animals

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we took our time and I waited for the crowds to clear off….

After that, I of course insisted that I have a chance to check out the gift shop. For the most part it was pretty much the same stuff you see in almost every other gift shop in Australia, so not really that big of a deal. That said…

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I had spotted this toy, which was a stuffed animal with actual sheep’s wool as the coat and thinking I might want to buy it looked at the tag to do my normal “look but don’t buy” then…. go home and find it on-line for probably less money than at an impulse driven shop (like this one). While doing so I definitely noticed that it doesn’t actually SAY made in NZ anywhere on the tag … but in way that sure as hell would lead the less trained observer to assume it had been… and I was like, “HEH, their gift shop is selling NZ stuff not made in NZ!” (and knowing what that told me about the politics of the owners) …. and then when I got home and googled it, sure enough! There was actually a legal suit brought against this souvenir company for misleading tourist into thinking they were buying NZ goods.

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“World famous in New Zealand”, visiting the Two big L&P Bottles, in Paeroa, NZ

If you’re passing through Paeroa, while road tripping New Zealand (NZ) — let’s face it you’re most likely on the way to some place else — you WILL be seeing these two “Big Things”, i.e., huge bottles with the letters L&P on them located at either end of town. They represent one of NZ’s national soft drinks, which is made in here, using the local water.

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It is a super sweet lemony concoctin called L&P, short for Lemon — because it’s supposed to be a lemon tasting drink & Paeroa, the name given to the magnesium bicarbonate rich water of the springs located here. That said, the brand is no longer made here… it got bought out by Coke years back and is bottled up in Auckland …. although I’m not sure how many Kiwi’s know this.

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bottle in front of cafe

The bottle above, located in front of the L&P cafe, is one of two such bottles in town. In the photo I’m pointing at the advertising slogan on a red banner across it’s front… which reads “World famous in New Zealand.” I thought that was pretty witty, but learned afterwards that, according to Wikipedia, it was so successful that it has become a popular saying in New Zealand.

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bottle in park

At first I assumed the one in front of the cafe was the promosed “big bottle” but when we got there we were told that it was in fact the smaller one. The BIG one, is at the other end of town in a small park along the main road/highway…  Although, that said, if you compare the one above with the one below, to me they looked to be about the same size, only the one in the park is standing on a pedestal

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In case you’re completely unfamiliar with the product, L&P is a local to NZ brand of a lemony flavored soft drink… that in my personal opinion wasn’t very lemony, and actually tasted kind of fake … like some lab’s idea of lemon… And then of course I read the ingredients and…. its basically water, sugar, a lot of acid, and Citric acid (330).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ad8As I discussed at length in the article about my visit to Hobbiton, (the movie set where the Hobbit Shire for the Lord of the Rings Movies where shot) is that while New Zealand’s economy is ranked first in the entire world for its socially progressive policies, and has a reputation for being one of the cleanest and greenest among the First World/western block, high incomeOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries….  the reality is that it is, ironically, also the most DEregulated government within that institution.

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This is the result of the economic policies of Roger Douglas, who was NZ’s Minister of Finance back in 1984, as part of the country’s Fourth Labour Government (1984-1990). Known as Rogernomics, a hat-tilt to Ronald Reagan‘s  Reaganomics, he had instituted a set of neoliberal economic policies, the most important of which from the perspective of this piece, was an almost complete deregulation of NZ’s industries.

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A retrospective of how L&P containers used to look, located in the entryway of the cafe

In day-to-day life, part of how this shows up for the average consumer is that in New Zealand, food labeling is DEVIOUS… so if you look at the close up of the bottle’s ingredients it says “food acid (330)” rather than “citric acid” … and ALL chemicals put into foods are like this… You know how in the states the general rule is if your reading the ingredients list and you can’t pronounce the ingredient you probably shouldn’t consume the product? Well in New Zealand ALL food additives are some easy to read words and a number code.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2add.jpgFirst my friend and I went to the L&P cafe location (which is the first one you’ll hit if driving south from Auckland to Wellington, and pit stopped long enough to try a bottle of the stuff and use the facilities.

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While the menu looked ok, I was actually holding out, if you can believe it, for a pit stop at the McDonald’s down the road. No, seriously! This was because along with happy meals in New Zealand’s McDs were giving out children’s books by Ronald Dahl (he of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was renamed as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the movie version) with the happy meals instead of toysUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ae0.jpgThe book being given out was his story Matilda (which in the movie version is called Matilda), only given out one chapter at a time — so that the title of the chapter was the title of the book — but with no reference on the cover to the fact that it was part of the larger book called Matilda. But for the fact that I’m very familiar with the story (not just the movie) I would never have known… and I was hoping beyond hope that at least they were giving out a chapter a week, because ever McD’s I stopped at was handing out the same “Marvelous Miss Honey” mini book.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ad4.jpgAfter this we stopped at the park at the other end of town where the “bigger” bottle was located. This one had little spots on the ground leading to it, which I’m guessing were supposed to be bubbles… which was kind of cute…. and a collection of signs talking about the history of the town

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As well as the history of the product

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According to the sign above, the reason the drink was made in this town, and I guess was made part of the drink’s name, was because the water in the town is naturally effervescent…. hence the bubbles on the floor.

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That said, we weren’t the only ones stopping to take a picture with the bottles… only these guy had the good sense to bring bottles of the stuff with them for when they posed in front of it.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ad2.jpg

Location of the Bottle in front of the Cafe

Location of the Bottle in a small park

Piha Beach & Lion Rock (Te Piha), Auckland, New Zealand

If you’re staying in Auckland, New Zealand (NZ), have a car, and are looking for a nice location for a nice day trip location, I strongly suggest Piha Beach; it is a one to two-hour drive away (depending on the traffic) and gorgeous, with lava-rock formations and black sand beaches. It is the most popular day trip destination for Aucklanders (hence the variable travel times), as along with sun, sand, sea and surf, it offers some nice bush walks, including one vertical/aerobic one up Lion Rock.

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The day we went here, we’d just picked up our rental car the day before, and had been intending to road trip up north … but I was still trying to shake off a pretty bad cold I’d picked up the first day we arrived, so rest was a priority.

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Views of Auckland as we drove north over the bridge

My friend had initially suggested we go see the Tāne Mahuta, the largest kauri tree known to exist today (in keeping with my love of BIG THINGS), which is located in the Waipoua Forest, towards the north end of the north Island…

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Kiwi Valley Farm Park, a spot along the route to the beach

but that was 3.5 hours each way … without stopping for anything … so it would have been too much of a strain for me in my condition (things to do next time I go to NZ). Instead, I did some digging on-line and I found this beach that was at most 2 hours away with traffic (because it was a Saturday), but might be a lot less… so we did that…

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View of the beach from Piha Beach Lookout, Piha Road

We were actually kind of lucky, and because the weather was kind of cool that day, (I liked it, he through it was a bit chilly), traffic to the beach was minimal. That said, it is 39 km (24.25 miles) west of Auckland, on the Tasman Sea coast, has two surfing beaches ….. and is quite pretty and restful.

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The population of Piha is so small (600 people) that technically it doesn’t even meet the requirements for a town, and is instead considered a settlement.

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Along with the two beaches is one sheltered lagoon, although as the signs said, that is NOT safe for swimming, fishing, etc. When we first arrived, I was tired and really wanted my morning coffee, which I had forgotten to drink, and a snack… so I headed to the coffee-house just a bit up the road from the beach… keep in mind I was struggling with a cold (while there I also picked up a few T-shirts from an adjoining gift shop).

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View from the cafe’s patio

My travel buddy at the same time proclaimed a desire to climb Lion rock, which divides the two surfing beaches from each other,

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Note the TINY figure on the beach (bottom left) to get a sense of the scale of the thing

and like all mountain tops in NZ, holds religious, historic, and cultural significance to the Maori people… and as such must be approached with respect….

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This image was taken by Mik, my travel buddy, with HIS camera

[Note the people in the image below, beginning the climb up the rock formation]

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I learned later while researching about the beach for this blog, that Lion Rock is an eroded 16-million-year-old volcanic plug rock formation. [The following images, OBVIOUSLY, are not in fact mine but were taken by my travel buddy with his camera, and borrowed with his permission… he even said I could post them. I couldn’t have taken them because I was sick with a cold, not to mention the fact that a climb like that would be unsafe for me due to my physical constraints.]

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In the image below [again, his] if you look at the road going up along the river near the center of the image, and just to the left of it as it starts to turn right, that is where I was having my coffee and doing some shopping.

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a panorama shot from near the top

After his climb he met up with me at the coffee shop, and commented that the climb … which had included stairs and a handrail (so under other circumstances I might have been able to do it), wasn’t AS strenuous as he had hoped as it only allowed you to go part of the way, rather than all the way, up to the top. This was because of constraints on the climb placed there in respect of the feelings of the Maori people.

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That ‘end’ location was CLEARLY marked with a Maori statue and the sign on the ground, about respecting the history of the place, that I posted earlier. He ALSO was highly critical about the fact that a lot of other folks [NOT him, because he is VERY into respectful of the concerns of Native Peoples] were ignoring that very clearly marked limit, and were continuing the climb PAST the designated point… [Note the image of him NOT smiling for the camera, because of what was going on behind him]

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(bottom left, I set up the shot and used my friend like a living tripod)

Afterward the two of us went down to the beach together…  I loved the color of the sand, it’s not so much black as a sort of iridescent dark tan color, that reminded me of the color of my Subaru back in the states.

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Images from the beach North of Lion RockUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2ac1.jpg

[For the bottom left one image, I told him where to stand, and to keep shooting till I told him to stop, then picked the best one]

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Then we crossed the river emptying into the ocean, and checked out the beach south of Lion Rock… Where I became transfixed with the patterns the wind created on the water

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Afterwards we both agreed that it was a wonderful place to spend an afternoon

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The Manawatu Scenic Route & Ruahine Dress Circle, in Rangiwahia, New Zealand

While my friend and I were road tripping south from Auckland to Wellington, we found ourselves with some (planned by me) spare time, and my friend … he who was doing the driving…  pretty much spontaneously decided he wanted to use said time to take a scenic route option his phone had notified him of, rather than stay on the most direct one. So, we turned off of New Zealand’s highway 1 and onto the Manawatu Scenic Route.

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Pretty much as SOON as we left route 1 we were happy we’d done so…

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The pictures really don’t do it justice

We found ourselves driving through a very windy and narrow river canyon type road (which was much more fun for him from a driving perspective than the mostly straight highway 1), with sides that were almost chalky white but shot through with green

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and a road that took us higher and higher up the side of the gorge, after which we entered a flatter area (at the top apparently)with some farms, and a GORGEOUS mountain range in the distance

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And then to MY delight (he was driving so past he didn’t even see it as we whizzed past) I noticed a stopping area with a sign and picnic area, and demanded that he stop and return us to it. [One of the many reasons we’re not traveling together anymore is he likes driving through places and considers them seen, while I like stopping each and every time I spot a good potential photo, so that I can take good pictures. Ironically, after I ended it with him, he wanted me to share with him said pictures.]UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a7e.jpg

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Panorama shot

looking down into the gorge I could see what the original settler meant, in terms of it looking like the dress circle seating in an Opera house (read the image above)…

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It wasn’t until afterwards when I researched the ‘Ruahine dress-circle’ that I learned that there was a side road we could have used to go down into it where there is a very popular swimming hole down there which we missed.

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my friend, who is about 6’+ tall, took this for me while standing on the picnic table (at my insistence)

Unfortunately, since he’s not one to carefully plan things in advance, my travel buddy was driving through the area sort of haphazardly (if I’D been the one to PLAN it, I’d have known in advance about the stopping location and the possibility of the swimming hole) and his GPS on his phone instead of taking us through the length of the whole scenic drive redirected us OFF of it once we got past the end of Ruahine Road, and (as he’s not a planner) he didn’t realize we actually had sufficient time and would have had MUCH better views had we stayed on it…  because from what I’m reading about it now, as I write this, we really only got a bit of taste of it…

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That said, we did get to see this view along Rangiwahia Road (which was NOT part of the scenic drive) after heading back to Route 1, which included our last view of Mount Ruapehu where Peter Jackson filmed his Mordor and Mount Doom in the The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Memorial of New Zealands Worst Train Accident, in Tangiwai

In Tangiwai, a rural Māori community in New Zealand, about half way between the rural towns of Rangataua and Waiouru, just off the side of highway 49, is a memorial to the worst train accident in the country’s history. The catastrophe occurred on Xmas eve in 1953, when the rail-bridge over the Whangaehu River collapsed beneath an express passenger train traveling from Wellington to Auckland, resulting in the death of 151 souls.

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A local school group was brought here to learn about the disaster

The disaster happened because the Islanders at that time suffered from a lack of understanding of the full risks associated with being directly downstream from an active Volcano, in this case, Mount Ruapehu (see images above and below).

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Note the Volcano and the reconstructed bridge in the above photo

Volcano’s are beautiful, and their eruptions result in rich black fertile earth at their bases that is wonderful for farming, and this is why so many farming communities are located directly at their bases all around world — in spite of their being some of the most violent forces on earth.

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For example: think about the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum located at the base of Mount Vesuvius (a volcano) in Italy, or the town of Kagoshima in Japan which sits directly adjacent to Mount Sakurajima, which is so active that residents have to walk around with plastic umbrellas to keep the volcano’s ash out of their hair.

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The cause of the Tangiwai disaster was in part seriously bad luck. Almost 10 years earlier in 1945, Mount Ruapehu, the volcano whose nearby presence is the source of the area’s sustenance, had erupted creating a thick layer of ash at the top of the mountain.

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Over the next 8 years, water collected in the cone of the volcano, forming a lake, held in place in part by that same layer of ash. Earlier that evening, at around 8pm, the water (heavy with lava, ice and ash) had broken through and rushed downhill via the Whangaehu River (whose headwaters are the yearly melts off the glacier that sits atop the volcano — see the pictures above taken in during NZ’s summer), and at approximately 10:15pm, the force of flood had taken out many of the railroad’s bridge’s supports…. but unfortunately, not the bridge (which the driver might have seen).

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The disaster happened only about 5 minutes later, at 10:21pm, and as I said resulted in the death of 151 souls; the recovery was horrific and continued for days as bodies were found hanging in near by trees, washed downstream by the river, or buried in banks of sand and mud; 21 of these bodies of the victims were never identified, and the bodies of another 20 souls, who were believed to have been on the train, were never found.

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Here are two videos about the disaster from youtube. The first is very short, 1.5 minutes video posted by the Auckland War Memorial Museum:

This second video is a full 20 minute TV show about bad days in history that focuses on the disaster:

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Giant Gumboot statue, Taihape, New Zealand

In a similar way to the tiny rural town of Riverside, Iowa (Population 993), having its monument in honor of the future birth of Star Trek‘s James T. Kirk, the slightly larger rural town of Taihape, New Zealand (NZ), population 1,730, has a giant “Gumboot” (Kiwi for a rubber boot) in honor of its fictional hometown TV character, a farmer by the name of Fred Dagg.

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Created by a NZ satirist by the name of  John Clarke, in the 1970’s, the Dagg character — known for wearing his Gumboot’s 24 hours a day (even in bed and in the shower) was designed to represent and make fun of the stereotypical NZ farmers, who lived in NZ’s stereotypically isolated farming towns.

Once he unveiled Dagg on national TV in 1975 the character made Clarke a national star. And as he had chosen Taihape as that hometown for his character, and the town owned that claim to fame with a will. Not only have they declared themselves the Gumboot Capital of the World, but they also have a yearly Gumboot Day, where contestants compete to see who can throw a gumboot the farthest, and who can wear them and look the dashing while doing it.

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As in nearby Tiarau, NZ, where corrugated galvanised iron was used to construct the Big Sheepdog, Ewe & Ram buildings, the Gumboot is also crafted from the same material, which New Zealanders seem to have a sort of love affair with.

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And just for kicks, some of Fred Dagg’s Greatest hit songs:

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Ohakune, New Zealand’s BIG Carrot

Located at the south end of the Tongariro National Park (the filming location for Mordor, in Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings move trilogy), in the small town of Ohakune, New Zealand (NZ), what is reputed to be the world’s largest carrot. Considered by many Kiwi’s to be an icon, the carrot stands 7.5 meters tall (24.6 Feet), and its known as being one of NZ’s most hugged things.

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As anyone who reads my blog knows, I have a sort of perverse love affair with BIG THINGS (this will be my 59th one to blog about), i.e., oversized road-side attractions. You tend to see them in small towns, places that people would otherwise not travel to; with the items built or purchased, as a way to draw in tourists. Casey, Illinois is probably the most obsessive example of this, as in they’ve got EIGHT big things around town that hold the Guinness World Records for being the world’s biggest, for that sort of item. America has a LOT of things like this, with the world’s biggest ball of twine in Cawker City, Kansas, probably being the most famous; it was in the hit movie Michael (1996) where the Arch Angle Michael — played as less than angelic by John Travolta — comes to earth specifically because he wants to see these sorts of things. I argue that anyone doing a road-trip across America is sort of obliged to search them out… because they are “Americana.” That said, once I started road tripping around Australia I discovered they were into this sort of stuff as well, and likewise,  New Zealand also has a few (although neither has as anywhere near as many can be found across the USA.)

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I found a very good Neil Gaiman quote on the topic of road side attractions, in his novel American Gods, which is now one my favorite books (read it three times at least):
“So what is this place?” asked Shadow, as they walked through the parking lot toward a low, unimpressive wooden building.
“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”
“Come again?”
“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”
“There are churches all across the States, though,” said Shadow.
“In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices. No, in the USA people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a giant bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”

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And that really is it… there’s an initial excitement as you head towards the Big thing… a profound level of satisfaction once you’ve arrived AT it, and then an underlying dissatisfaction once you’ve seen it.

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Anyone interested in WHY the big carrot is there, please to read the signs in the images above — basically, it comes down to the town being (for a time) New Zealand’s largest producers of carrots. The fiberglass carrot had initially been made as a TV advertising prop for a bank promotion, but later became available for sale;

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a35.jpgat this point, a group of the town’s vegetable growers Association, who had been looking for symbol to represent their importance to the town (many of whom were Chinese immigrants who had arrived in the 1920’s) bought it. It was then moved from Wellington, it original location, to the entrance to Ohakune in 1984, in a ceremony attended by NZ’s prime minister.

YtITP+naSuKrnMCKZc74Jg_thumb_d0fd.jpgThat said, once the ‘dissatisfaction’ stage had passed, I was more than a bit delighted with the activity park that the city has developed alongside the “erection” intended for both young and old to enjoy.

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The park includes a massive playground for kids housed with some scary looking examples of other vegetables grown in the area. I think they’re supposed to be cute, but both me and my friend thought they were kind of freaky looking… AND kids are NOT allowed to climb on them, so what’s the point of them being there?UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a3b.jpgThat said there is a nice selection equipment and game areas for the kids

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As well as exercise equipment for the adults

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This kind of made me sad… the towns forestry industry had added their own presentation section in the park, which included this massive log. According to the History of the log, it had been growing since the 13th century. When they felled the tree  in 1955, and when they got it to the mill they couldn’t use it because it was too big for the saws.. such a waste!

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There’s also a small area for people who just want a peaceful stroll through a green area, which feels a bit like walking through a patch of forest, along a stream, and is very restful. We saw more than few folks picnicking there.

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What I found amusing about it was clearly paid for with funds raised from local business all of whom got to embed a little advertisement into the concrete.

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And for the adults there’s also one of those mini outdoor gyms that are popping up all over place in public parks world-wide.

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That said, Ohakune is known for more than just vegetables. As I mentioned upfront, the active volcano in the background of the image above was the shooting location for the Mordor scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and is also has earned the being a duel status World Heritage Site both because of both its natural beauty and its religious importance to the Maori people. In summer, it is one of the country’s most popular full day hikes, known as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, with a terrain towards the top that some have compared to being on Mars due to its utter alienness. While in winter, it turns into something of a ski resort town (more affordable housing for those willing to drive to the slopes), with the closest resort being at Turoa).

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Picture of the volcano from the porch of our Airbnb

In fact that Airbnb we stayed at (it ROCKED, seriously, was like a really good BnB), the owners share their home in summer, but vacate it entirely every winter because of just how much money it earns them as a ski resort rental.

The Big Corrugated Iron Sheep Dog, Ewe & Ram buildings, Tirau, New Zealand

One of the very first things I noticed once my friend and I began our road trip around New Zealand was, this country seems to have a love affair with using corrugated galvanised iron to construct buildings, as in I’ve never seen SO many buildings made of the stuff. One of the towns that has embraced this material with a will is town of Tiarau, New Zealand.

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Driving into town you won’t be able to miss this trio of buildings where the Iron’s been molded to look like a sheep-dog that houses the towns i-Site building, and the adjacent sheep & ram building, which house a coffee house and a woolen goods store, respectively.

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To paraphrase the New Zealand tourism board’s website, there are over 80 i-SITE visitor information centers scattered around the country, many of them located in distinctive or historic buildings (like the one above). In them you will find no shortage of pamphlets, and trained professionals, who can inform you about everything there is to do in any particular area you’re currently in, including which parts were film locations — i.e., for those travelers who are Lord of the Ring fans. And, of course, while in these i-SITE centers, you can do some souvenir shopping — as I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have a gift shop.

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That said, the i-Site’s store doesn’t hold a candle to the one inside combined sheep and ram building next-door. The ram section is full of Marino Woolen goods, while the front of the Ewe (female sheep) section is is all things like New Zealand T-shirts, post cards, etc., and out towards the back there’s a coffee house that also has ice cream. (For some reason I didn’t take any photos in there.) If you have the time, I suggest walking around town because there’s a LOT of corrugated Iron statutes decorating the place. My friend and I were sort of in a rush to our next location, so we didn’t have time to really do the place justice, just a quick drive through… but there are at least eight different such decorations around town at last count.

The Powerhouse museum in Sydney Australia, and the STAR WARS Identities touring exhibition

If you are in Sydney Australia, have seen all the outdoor options, and/or are at a loss of what to do on a rainy day, I suggest visiting the Powerhouse Museum of applied arts and sciences housed in the converted Ultimo Power Station at 500 Harris Street, especially if you’ve got young kids.

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Initially commissioned in 1899, and opened for use in 1902, the building used to house the power station for electric trams, and was a functioning power plant till 1963.

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An interior shot that gives you a sense of its industrial nature

The Museum’s collection, began with the contents of the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 (the first World’s Fair to be held in the Southern Hemisphere), and then grew over time… and has been bounced around a number of different locations before finding its exhibition space in this building in 1988, although it is no where large enough to exhibit the entire collection.

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Another interior shot of the Powerhouse Museum

I learned this when blogging about Harry’s Café de Wheels, a 70-year-old Sydney pie-shop chain (as in meat pies) considered so iconic to Sydney that its original food cart is kept on mothballs by the Powerhouse, but not displayed… because they simply haven’t got the room.

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This steam engine train is parked inside the Museum

The first time I was in Sydney, back about a month after my massive concussion, one of my traveling buddy’s girlfriends came to Sydney. One rainy day he took her to the powerhouse, while I stayed in bed resting — the post concussive syndrome was still intense at that point. He had been really excited about taking us because it was one of his favorite memories from having grown up in Sydney, and he wanted to share it with us. When they got back I asked her, out of his ear shot, “so how was it?” And she was like, “it was ok, but not great. I mean it was nice doing it with him cause he got all excited with childhood memories… but … you know…”

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Overall, I have now spent three months total in Sydney, and have deemed it to be on the whole …. underwhelming; and this museum held true to that trend. To borrow a quote from Toptenz.net, “the fact that the Sydney Opera House is such a focal point of the city’s depictions might hint, to the analytical mind, that perhaps this is the case because there is really little else that is all that remarkable in Sydney.” And, as that article also points out, while said Opera House looks amazing from the outside, it has no shortage of design/acoustic flaws on the inside, so you’re not going to want to travel all the way there to enjoy a show when there are so many other better venues, acoustically. That said, while I thought the Powerhouse building was really neat, and I’m a big fan of retrofitting historic buildings to new purposes, the reality is that this building’s layout really isn’t conducive to exhibiting the kind of things they’ve got on show.  And the lack of useful floor space means much of what they own is left sitting in storage, where visitors and locals can’t enjoy it.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bc6e.jpgThat, and what they have on display is kind of underwhelming. Overall, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Science and Industry museums in Manchester, UK or Chicago, IL … nor to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. If it were in some small town somewhere it would have been a LOT more impressive, but in the middle of a major international city like Sydney, I expected better.

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Maybe the only part of the museum that really excited me in any way was their Mars Lab (a friend of mine actually is the head of designing the experiments that go on the Mars rover so I feel a connection to it) … but otherwise it really didn’t do it for me.

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At the base of the escalator are interactive physics things for kids to play with

HEY, if you’re already there, and you’ve got the kids, and it’s not a good day to go to Bondi Beach, or any other sort of outdoor activity… it’s something to do…There are more than a few areas of the museum that kids will enjoy, and of course its an indoor activity for rainy days

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The playground/cafe area of the museum draws a lot of local birds

Like I said, Sydney, in NOT just MY humble opinion, after a few days quickly becomes kind of a major let down — there are other places you’ll probably want to go BEFORE the Powerhouse. Start googling “overrated cities of the world”, and Sydney shows up on quite a few of those lists.  But the reality is that after about a one week stay, if you’ve been maximizing your time and not just hanging out at the hotel room (like I tend to do) you’re going to start finding yourself so desperate for things to do, and so willing to start scraping the bottom of the barrel so to speak … this is the point when you might want to consider taking the kids to see the Powerhouse Museum…

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One of these things is not like the other… personally I was kind of miffed … I mean WTF?!!!

For the most part, what motivated me to drag my ass to the Powerhouse, — after the bleh review from my friend, was that during my second stay in Sydney it was hosting an exhibition that utilized The Star Wars Movies …  as a platform for educating viewers about how our characters develop overtime as a result of multiple influences including genetic, environmental, choices, mentors, etc., but let’s be real, they had me at Star Wars… anything after that was just icing on the cake.

Rather than being an exhibit which you passively experienced, it was set up like a video game. The educational components utilized characters and paraphernalia on loan from George Lucas’ museum collection, i.e., STUFF that he has that’s left over from the making of the films. In all likelihood it’s part of what would have been housed in a museum in Chicago, had the city (i.e., my people) been willing to stick a museum dedicated to him and his creations in what is a claim to fame public park land that runs the length of the city along the lakefront, but in a location right between the middle of downtown and the water (he refused all other spots, even one along the lake front on the far south side of the city, where development is needed — nope he wanted to be RIGHT in the middle of downtown, where we’ve already got way to much traffic). San Franciscans likewise rejected his demands, which were equally ridiculous, and ultimately he ended up breaking ground in Los Angelus (where he had NOT wanted it to go).

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I’m guess that since it does not yet have a HOME, his collection had been broken up into multiple traveling exhibits, and this is one of them. If it comes to a town near you, you can come and either enjoyed the lesson (which I found a bit boring, and at times questionable in what it was preaching), on how we develop as individuals…. or you can just enjoy looking at all the costumes and stuff… which is what I did.

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Like I said the exhibit was highly interactive. On arrival each of us was given a bracelet, and an audioguide unit, which has a sound-wave dish on it, that we wore on a lanyard over our chests with the dish facing out; each of which came with an earpiece. They then tried to explain to us as a group, how to use it — but that explanation was actually very rushed and confusing (whoever came up with this system deserved a spanking). 

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The source of the sound waves, and you had to stand right where the light was aiming to pick it up

With this system, where you’re standing and what you’re facing determines what you hear — assuming you’re in range of a transmitter, and the audio device you’re wearing is working right… which a lot of the time it wasn’t. If you weren’t listening to individual narratives in your earpiece what you heard was soundtracks from various Star Wars movies playing in the background. That said, it wasn’t one of those systems where you key in a number and a track plays, rather you had to stand exactly where they wanted you to (these sound areas were clearly marked, see below) where your unit would then pick up the audio signal. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a08.jpg

But there was any number of issues with the sound devices themselves. The first one they gave me didn’t work, as in it was on and I was standing where I needed to be, and I STILL wasn’t hearing anything. They first switched out the earphones, still no good… So they replaced it with a second device … Which worked, but as I walked through the exhibit I was noticing that my sound was glitchy and realized that the wires in the earphones were shorting, so I had to futze with that, wiggling it this way or that… or no sound.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_29d5.jpgSo the devices had issues, AND the attached earphones were also having issues. This was particularly problematic for folks with small children a few of whom were complaining…. VERY loudly, “DAD I can’t hear anything!!” which was annoying the parents — and every one else.

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From what I saw, most parents never really took the time to figure out why their kids could not  hear– as in, “well mine works, so you must be using it wrong.” But of course it wasn’t the kids fault, it was the technology.

IMG_5293What I couldn’t understand was, WHY did the show’s designers went with this old fashioned system of individual units with ear pieces, each of which can break down for a myriad of reasons, rather than a sound system like I saw at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. That one was customer proof and cheaper in the long run because of no issues of wear and tear on the individual units.  If you look carefully at the picture above you’ll see a woman watching a video in the middle of wide open space…  and not wearing any sort of audio device. Where she’s sitting the sound is completely loud, clear and as distinct as if she’d been wearing headphones … YET, from where I stood taking the picture, I heard barely a whisper of that sound. If you look above her head, in the photo, you’ll see a white square hanging from the ceiling… That’s a speaker that produces highly directed sound waves. As in, she can hear it loudly and distinctly from the assigned seating spot (the padded bar) without it annoying someone a few feet away… and NO need for individual units which customers can break.

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The wrist band is placed into the Hexagon (6 sided shape), the shape lights up when activated

As previously mentioned, it was interactive… and to that end we were also all given wristbands similar to what they have at the Disney parks for tracking fast passes. Actually, as I thought about it I realized that these bands were probably exactly like the technology at Disney, which made a lot of sense as the big black rat now owns the Star-Wars franchise, and was most likely deeply involved in the designing of this educational exhibition.  As first you entered the exhibition space you “checked in”

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And then after seeing the intro movie, you’re given a chance to create your character within the Star Wars Universe, picking a race, gender, skin tone, and some basic abilities (like creating a character in role playing video game).

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I chose to be a Togruta, whatever that is

….and then as you walked through the exhibit at each location you were able to customize the character’s development as you made choices about its personality, abilities, and cumulative lifetime experiences

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Among the choices were what occupation your character had

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…. your planet of origin, the abilities you wanted to develop (so for instance you might be born with musical talent, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t work on learning music), the parenting style of your parents, and experiences your character has had that influenced who you become… AFTER each choice, you stand and listen to a video with explanations of how the decisions you just made might impact your identity over time (using star wars characters as examples). And you keep doing this till you get to the FINAL decision….

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Come to the Dark side, we have cookies

 And then as you were leaving the exhibit, as is the case with Epcot’s Spaceship earth, you could have the results of your character’s development emailed to your home address, as a free souvenir of your visitUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2995.jpg

Not to mention you could shop the gift shop, for even more stuff…

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That said, as a social scientist, Ph.D in cultural anthropology, yadda yadda, I didn’t agree with some of the twabble they were pushing in terms of identity development … it was seriously over simplistic and at times more concerned with political correctness than truth…

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But… let’s face it… while how they put the thing together was interesting to me in a technological sense, NONE Of this is what I came for. I came to see Star Wars stuff!!!!

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Some of the kids who came to the exhibit had totally dressed for the event, including the little boy above wearing a brown Jedi robe that was clearly purchased for him at a Disney park. Other kids were wearing their Star Wars T-shirts. Of course I was wearing a Star Wars T-shirt AND my Star Wars jewelry (my AT-AT necklace and death-star earrings).  

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Sydney’s Iconic Harbor Bridge, a photo montage…. and some thoughts about the city as a tourist destination.

[Updated, with more hard information added]
The Harbor Bridge, in Sydney Australia, which Wikipedia claims locals refer to as the coat hanger (although in the three months I’ve been here I’ve yet to hear it referred to as such), and the combined views of it and the Sydney Opera House … are as iconic of the city of Sydney as the Golden Gate is to San Francisco.

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Taken from the west, Opera House to left

A visit to Sydney, Australia is a bucket list item for most people. To any and all first time visitors — even those with mobility issues, I strongly suggest that you devote ALL of your first sunny day to appreciating the views of the city, with its iconic Harbor bridge and Opera House by taking full advantage of the city’s low priced ferry system.

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Taken from the East, Opera House to right

If you use their Opal card system, you can ride ALL day for a maximum charge of $15 AUD per adults, $7.50 for kids, and $2.50 for pensioners — no matter how many ferry rides you take; and if can arrange to do it on a Sunday (weather permitting), the maximum fee drops to ONLY $2.70 AUD!!! If you don’t suffer from sea sickness, its a heavenly and restful way to spend a day (bring your sunscreen), and CHEAP.

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For another $15 AUD you can climb up a three story tower that sits on the Harbor bridge from which you obtain an elevated view of the thing; my friend who did it said wasn’t that high… but because the price included a small museum about the bridge’s construction, he felt was worth it.

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I thought that if I rode over it on a bus (elevated) I’d get a good view but not so much, so it might be worth climbing that tower, if you’ve the strength to do it.

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From a bus, from a car you can’t see much

If you are both highly athletic (which I am NOT) and rich, a lot of my friends have really enjoyed the Harbor Bridge Climb. This will cost you between you between $174 ($124 USD) and $268 AUD ($192 USD), depending on which climb you sign up for (pregnant women and those above 75 years old will require a doctor’s permission before being allowed to do it). As this is more money for between a 2 to 3.5 hours adventure (which will leave you exhausted) than you’d spend on a full day ticket to Disney World, to be honest even IF I was energetic enough to do it, I’d still balk at the price. But that said, there’s so little to do in Sydney that I think a lot of folks sign up for it because they’ve already spent about 1K just on the airfare to get here, and feel they have to make that expenditure worth the price.

That said, having grown up in the Chicagoland area and having LIVED in cities like London, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Seoul (the latter of which I consider to be one of the most overhyped cites in the world –the rest of Korea is great, but Seoul itself, is Soulless), and I have visited Rio and Los Angelus (I HATE LA)… I’ve now visited Sydney twice for extended periods (although the first one was mostly about the massive concussion I suffered, which a year later I am still dealing with) and am still trying to figure out what it is about this city …OTHER than its impressive natural beauty — which is complimented by the Sea Shell like Opera house and the bridge, makes this city top most people’s lists as a tourist draw…. Seriously, I don’t see it.

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That said, I was really happy to see that Travel.com agrees with me that once you get past the views of the bridge and the Opera house — which admittedly are SO good that you can happily spend weeks just admiring them — that the city of Sydney itself is completely overhyped… especially if like me, the beach really isn’t a major draw.

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That said, the views are really quite impressive…. Every time I walk around areas where you can view nature, and admittedly Sydney offers a lot of them… you’re often times also seeing the bridge

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[With regards to the Opera House, I’ve heard the six performance spaces it holds are more about great acoustics than about looking impressive — once I’ve seen shows in them, then I’ll post about the interiors]

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_208a.jpgGot to love the double bridge effect in the photo above…. first the rainbow bridge, and then the Sydney bridge

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And as is obvious from the images above… I’ve spent many hours enjoy it from my Airbnb’s bedroom window … DAMN did we have a view or did we have a view???!!! (Not very expensive either considering it was an entire two bedroom apartment at the height of the Sydney travel season… about $140/night)

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Watched fireworks over it

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and bats flying in front of it

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2062.jpgOver the few months that I’ve already spent in Sydney, I have taken boats under it

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_208e.jpgand essentially have viewed it from all sides

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UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2064.jpgThe ONLY things I’ve yet to do is walk across it — I will at some point when I’m feeling athletic and the weather is not too hot… that and climb up it… which I’ve seen people do regularly… it’s a THING for tourists to do, but I am no longer capable of it now that I’m in my mid 50’s, 50 lb overweight and suffering problems with my hips, knees and balance.

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That said I felt I should probably to a photo montage at this point of some of my best images of it to date.

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Me and My former travel buddy