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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[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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Hobbiton in Matamata, New Zealand: Evening Banquet Tour, and the Economic Impact that Lord of the Rings has had on the country

Located in what once was the laid-back Dairy town of Matamata, New Zealand (NZ), is the movie set turned tourist attraction, Hobbiton. It is a must see for any fan of Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie series, of the J. R. R. Tolkien books of the same names. From an economic standpoint, this single tourist attraction, which happened almost by accident, has become the “flagship” for what is now the impressive movie-tourism industry that has evolved in NZ over the past 20 years. As a result, visitors can swing through the entire country on any number of “see all of the LOTR locations in 14 days” type tours, (most of whom also throw in a taste of Māori culture for good measure). However, for myself, I prefer to take my time when traveling. As such I suggest spending the night in or near Matamata, and timing your visit so that you can attend a Hobbiton evening Tour and Banquet, which only happens a few times a week — all told, for any Tolkien fan, it’s well worth the price (and the food ROCKS!!).

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[I need to do a quick shout out to the Hobbiton staff who worked “on set” on the evening of March 3, 2019. They are all amazingly well-trained customer service wonks who all seemed to love their jobs and not only never squashed our excitement, but rather actually aided our enjoyment. None of them were “phoning it in” so to speak. While the whole thing was impressively well choreographed (looking at youtube videos I see the same thing over and over), none of it FELT rehearsed or false. The whole time I felt as though I were being led through the set by friendly folks who seemed to genuinely enjoy our excitement to be doing it (like great teachers are) … And the food was not only delectable, but just enough to make sure everyone who wants seconds can have them (with just enough left over to feed the pigs); while not so much as to be a waste, etc,. That, and the timing of the meal was also perfect, so that no one ever felt rushed. BRAVO on a great performance! That said, shame that some of the staff at Shire’s rest aren’t that good, although, but, on second thought… maybe that’s why they were delegated to that location and kept off set.]

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FIRST thing you’ll see when exiting International Arrivals in Aukland, need I say more? As in RIGHT in your line of sight after customs.

Let’s be real, if you’re a nerd/geek like I am, your number one motivator to go to New Zealand was probably to see the 12 acre Hobbiton movie set. Other than for that, it’s hard to think of what other reason might have drawn over half a million people to the small town of Matamata in just over 10 years. Even the town itself recognizes this reality, to the extent that their welcome sign says “Welcome to Hobbiton” in BIG letters, and only refers to itself as Matamata in the small print (see first image above)….Most tourists coming here believe the set, is simply what was left behind from when they made the LOTR movies back in the early 2000’s, but the truth is a bit more complicated.

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Local businesses in Matamata clearly understand what’s drawing people to them

Peter Jackson chose to build his Hobbit Shire in this general part of New Zealand because the region’s natural landscape of green rolling hills already conformed with his mind’s eye vision of the shire, as described in the books. In essence, the local topography is grass-covered sand dunes. This is why the area mostly supports things like dairy and wool production, as it is great for feeding livestock but less so for planting. While sandy soil is good for growing things like root vegetables and corn, that is only when the land is generally flat. With hills like these, any farming of that sort becomes difficult. Driving past the other farms that encircle the movie set area you quickly realize that this Hobbit like topography is NOT special or limited to the small farm inhabited by the movie set; the below image for instance was taken along a road about a 20 minute drive southeast of where the Hobbiton set is located, and could just have easily been chosen.

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Photo taken outside of Tapapa, about 20 min south of Hobbiton

According to the Hobbiton website, construction of what was intended to be 39 temporary hobbit-hole homes began in March 1999, and filming started in December of that same year… and lasted only three months. Once filming completed in early 2000, they began to tear down the set (as had been set forward in the initial contract) but then the rainy season began, which put a halt to the process. During that time the owner of the farm began giving private tours to friends and family, but word got out and then strangers began to trickle in, wanting to see Hobbiton with their own eyes (only he didn’t have the legal permission to allow that, let alone charge for it).

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NOTE the sign saying FULLY BOOKED, and this was off season

As such, the owner changed his mind and negotiated with the film company to stop the dismantling of the set, which left a bunch of empty holes in the ground and only 17 plain white plywood facades in place [click this link for an article with images of how it looked then]. The negotiations to turn it into a tourism business took about a year, and included the stipulation that the studio earn a percentage of the money from every tour given. When finally completed in 2002, formalized tours of the movie-set began, and a former sheep shearing building that belonged to the owner was retrofitted into the “Shire’s Rest,” an area where tourists assembled before being taken onto the grounds proper.

The following are clips showing how this whole location, which took a lot of money to build was actually only used for a few short minutes in the films….

Keep in mind that Hobbiton is JUST the exterior shots, all interior ones happened in an entirely different part of New Zealand, in a film studio.

Among the people in my tour group were an older couple who told me that this was their third visit to the site. Their first had been back around this time in the early 2000’s, and that at the time the whole thing looked more than a bit dilapidated… with bits of plywood where the doors had been … sort of like a boarded up Hobbit ghost town, and yet, the tourists came… but they claimed that this had not dampened their excitement at the time to be able to see it, even with weeds growing everywhere, etc.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28abWhen the studio returned to the site in 2009, asking if they could use the land again for the filming of the second trilogy which focused on “The Hobbit” (released in 2012, 2013 and 2014), the owner agreed, with the “price” being that this time rather than using materials intended for temporary film sets, all of the Hobbit holes had to be built using quality materials — and that they be left in place afterwards to support his now ongoing tourist trade. The rebuilding proceeded in 2010. At that time, since the location was now going to be a much more central feature to the films, five additional Hobbit Holes were added. (As I showed above, in the first trilogy the shire was only visible in the movie for a few minutes) When filming began again in 2011, actors commented on how the location, rather than showing any of the tell-tale signs of being a movie set, now looked like a real, but idealized, village where people lived and worked. This in turn, increased the value for visitors ten-fold, and like Disney World adding a new ride, word of mouth about the improvements generated not only return business, but new interest as well.

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However, at that time, no “tourist facilities” existed within the movie set area itself, which the ever-increasing number of attendees made problematic.  If you needed bathrooms or snacks, those needs could only be fulfilled back at the Shire’s Rest facility, before or after your visit (or porta potties, YUCH!). So in 2012 The Green Dragon Inn was built; it is an exact replica of the Inn, as seen in the movies. This final ‘destination building’ not only provided bathrooms, but solved a major complaint of tourists up until then.

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The Dragon Inn’s bathrooms: as imagined by the studio’s designers — I’m guessing, because this wasn’t in the movie… love the handicapped hobbit

As our guides made a point of telling us REPEATEDLY, Hobbiton was only built to provide exterior shots for the LOTR movies, and all interior ones were done at a movie studio, so “no, you can’t go into any of the hobbit homes” (let alone ask to use their bathrooms); and even where you could step in, what’s behind the door is not a real home (see images below). The Green Dragon Inn filled that gap in the experience by giving tourists the much longed for chance to enjoy a hobbit interior. As such, the Dragon acts as both the conclusion and the “HIGH point/climax” of your visit. It is both a place where tourists can have that experience, while having a rest (for a very limited time before being shuffled off the set again). There they are given one free drink of their choosing (from their special brews, for sale at the Shire’s Rest and at other gift shops in Matamata), and the option to buy more drinks, and/or a snack (or use the bathroom). BUT, as I said, on the normal tours your visit to the Inn is VERY limited, about 10 minutes tops. So signing up for an evening tour that includes the Banquet is the ONLY way you’ll be allowed to truly enjoy it at your leisure.

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The closest I got to Mount Ngauruhoe, this trip…

However, Hobbiton is just the flagship/main attraction, for a movie based travel industry that has evolved in the nation. What I’m about to say is a bit bizarre, and might offend some New Zealanders … but bear with me…. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, arguably at least as many locations to see as there are ‘things to do’ at Disney World — the world’s most famous movie-based attraction (if you include all the shuttle ferries, stuff to see at the hotels, etc). And both offer no shortage of tour books and web sites to help visitors discover where each and every one of those ‘attractions’ are and how best to appreciate them. Only while the excitement offered at Disney tends to be more passive (you sit, and are taken through something), New Zealand’s LOTR attractions, like Tom Sawyer’s Island or most of Paris Disney, are all walk through experiences, only with a lot more exertion required, trekking and mountain climbing, etc., and a lot fewer rides (think the tour busses). So it is in fact comparable, albeit different.

So for example, Mordor’s Mount Doom in LOTR is actually Mount Ngauruhoe, an active stratovolcano, that is one of the two such peaks located within Tongariro National Park; and like ALL mountain tops in NZ, it is a sacred place to her Māori people, and as such, by law, you are NOT allowed to drive to the top without first obtaining special permission. In fact, if you look at the google map for the place, while there are dirt roads going by it (accessible for those with mobility problems only if you rented a 4-wheel drive, and got official authorization in advance), there are in fact no roads that go up it; so if you want to see it your options are to hire a helicopter to fly you over (like I said, a movie-travel industry), or even more popularly, you can find local lodgings and choose to spend a full day hiking to the top. Oh, and if you want “shows” like at Disney, I suggest Māori cultural experiences. For myself, I STRONGLY prefer taking the time to relish things, and if I ever got the capacity back (unlikely without surgery and PT) would totally hike it.

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That said, the reality is, you actually don’t need to pay for a group tour to take you to see the LOTR sites/sights if you don’t want to, nor even buy a book on the subject to help you plan your trip. If you’re not someone who’s into pre-planning, you can in fact just impulsively fly to NZ, and figure it out as you go along. 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. 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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The government clearly knows from whence its tourist prosperity comes, and embraces that connection to Lord of the Rings, especially in Matamata. The town’s i-SITE building was even built to look like a cross between a traditional British home, and a Hobbiton one (note the round doors). While you COULD book your tickets here, in this particular case I REALLY don’t suggest leaving THAT to the last-minute. As mentioned repeatedly, Hobbiton is the flagship attraction to a WHOLE industry, and demand is high while availability limited. The set can only accommodate a finite group of tourists per day … particularly if you want to take advantage of any of the “tour and a meal” options. So seriously, book ahead for this part of you LOTR’s tour of NZ.

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While the Hobbiton tours began officially in 2002, in what was a half-broken down movie set, by 2012, after the repairs and upgrades had been completed (including the Green Dragon Inn) it had become enough of an attraction that it had 17 full-time people working on staff, and by 2013, attendance was said to average about 400 to 600 people daily, with as many as 2,000 showing up at the peak of the season; so, somewhere around 220,000 visitors annually, a number which increased to 350,000 in 2015Tours usually leave Shire’s Rest for the movie set every half hour (you can NOT enter the set on your own, you MUST be part of a tour) and, each of those lasts for about two hours. On average days, the last tour starts at 3:30, and on peak ones their hours are extended by just one hour, so that the last regular/no meal tour starts at 4:30. And, when they say pre-booking is essential, they mean it. As such, I would NOT expect to show up at the site, or even at the i-sight center the day of (or even the day before) and expect to be able to just walk on… unless you are very very lucky. I booked my ticket for the banquet tour a good three weeks in advance… during the OFF season, and there was already only limited seating available.

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One of the things that really amused me when we got to the Shire’s Rest parking lot was the sheer number of Jucy vans parked there…  for those who don’t know, this company was founded in Australia initially as a campervan rental company (vans converted into campers), although they’ve expanded into renting cars. For the most part (although they’ve come out with some subtler ones recently — note the plain white ones in the upper right image) these rentals tend to be pretty hard to miss. Most of the vans are the garish green you see above, while others are covered in what looks like graffiti art with off-color images and messages written on them. For those, you’ll rarely see two exactly alike. Their business model is to provide small, energy-efficient, well designed and highly functional, camper vans… at an affordable price. Their product initially was aimed at the backpacker crowd (young travelers), but as they’ve expanded into the family market they’ve toned down the exteriors of their rentals. If you want to do a LOTR tour of the island on your own (not part of a 14 day tour group), then you might seriously want to consider renting one of these.

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Adjacent to the parking lot you’ll find this small Information building, where those who have already reserved their tickets on-line (i.e., pretty much everyone) are asked to check in. (The window off to the left is a small ice cream shop.) When I was booking I wanted the longest stay possible, once I discovered that you’re NOT allowed to wander around the place on your own. I considered both the Tour & Meal combo, and the Evening Banquet tour options, but the former appeared no real competition to the latter. The “meal” option puts you into a tent that’s ADJACENT to the Dragon Inn (NOT inside), where there’s a Buffett… i.e., standing in line with lord knows how many other people to fill your plate. This option lasts for 2.5-3 hours (2 hours for the tour, and then about a full hour to eat). While the banquet option involves sitting down to an already drool worthy, family style laid out table where instead of being in a tent you’re comfortably INSIDE the warmth and comfort of the Dragon Inn. AND not only do you get to see the shire during the golden hour, with the sun setting over the hills, but you also get led through a 2nd time, late at night. So you see it in daylight, and you get to see it lit up by candlelight (well electric, but close enough). The Banquet tour is the longest visit option, lasting about 4+ hours: 2 hours for the tour, and then about an hour and a half spent at the inn, followed by the 2nd walk through the shire at night….. more details to come (see below).

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Once you arrive at the Shire’s Rest, originally the farm’s sheep shearing and wool shed building, which was retrofitted to its new purpose, there are sufficient things to do that, while you’re REQUIRED to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your tour’s departure time, you might want to get there a full half hour before that.

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To the right of the building (image above) is a small shaded area of benches and ropes, where you line up when it’s time to load onto the busses. The first floor of the main building holds the ticketing center, and a gift-shop selling a wide variety of LOTR “stuff” (most of which is available from online sellers). My tendency when it comes to places like this is, I window-shop the shops, but don’t buy. Having worked as a catalog photographer back when I was in my 20’s, I know full well how good we were able to make piece of crap items look in the photos… so before I buy I want to see the items with my own eyes. However, places like this tend to be overpriced and rely on your excitement about the visit (impulse buying) to drive sales. So, I take photos of the stuff that interests me (try to get the name of the producers, etc.) and then try to find it used on eBay.  Probably the only location specific items I’d seriously consider buying here are the postcards, and the LOTR themed Southfarthing™ beverage range, of Middleearth wines and such, which can be purchased here, or at the i-SITE center back at Matamata, or at the Green Dragon (but that are NOT available on-line… I’ve been looking, no luck)… and of course there are clothing items to be purchased made of local wools.

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The guy bottom right brought his Gollum character on the tour (will show up again later)

Upstairs on the building’s 2nd floor is a full service cafe that will provide you with cooked foods and hot coffee until 3pm, at which point their kitchen closes. Here is where you can find “second breakfast,” lamb burgers, and fish and chips. After 3pm, any already prepared foods that are still in the refrigerated case are available for sale, until the close of business, but nothing hot. Apparently, Shire’s Rest’s kitchen is also available to cater weddings, functions and company events.

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Adjacent to the main building is a smaller establishment called the Garden Bar, which offers outdoor seating only, and sells wine, beer and a small selection of nibbles. There are bathrooms adjacent to both the bar and the cafe. When it’s time for your tour you assemble in the area I described before, and are loaded up into busses and vans.

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If you’re given a choice (you might not be) the difference is this: The busses have a built-in video system where you’ll be shown a composite movie timed to last the entire trip. It is made-up from all scenes shot in this location, and all six LOTR movies, so that when you arrive you’ll have been recently reminded of what you’re looking at.

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The vans do not have this system, and instead there’ll be a tour guide who will recite to you about all sorts of facts and figures about the location (which I assume the movie also does), and will point out the one film location the busses pass (the one in the image above); the guide however can do something that the movie can’t, i.e., answer any questions you might have. I was in the van. The location above, if I recall correctly, was where the wizard Gandalf and the Hobbit Frodo pass through, while riding together on the wagon when traveling towards the shire at the beginning of the first trilogy.

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Once you arrive on the set proper, the entire group from all the conveyances will collect together and be given instructions of what you can and can not do: where you can walk, etc. The group will then be broken into manageable subgroups, each with its own guide. The groups will all take slightly different paths so that there’s never too many people in one place at one time, but all of the groups will ultimately see all the same things, but will come at them from different paths.

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According to a Forbes article from 2012, the making of the Lord of the Rings movies in NZ has touched the lives of each and every New Zealander, whether they realize it or not. Firstly, NZ is a place which, back when I was in high-school in the 1980’s I remember being laughingly described as having more sheep than people, and not much else. As a result, (and this excludes the people who have moved to the country in the 15 years since the movies came out) pretty much the entire population found themselves at one degree of separation from the film’s production.

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Firstly, from a country of 3.88 million (at the time) about 20,000 locals were hired as extras to work in the films (about 1/16 of 1% of the population) — BUT if the average Facebook account is any measure — limiting it to those who will only friend people they know because of face to face interactions — each of these have about 450 friends, family and co-workers each… and 20,000 X 450 = 9 million…. far more than the 3.88 million of New Zealand’s population in 2001. But the hiring of local resources in the making of the film didn’t stop there by ANY measure…

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According to this site, 1,200 suits of armor, 1,600 pairs of prosthetic feet and ears were made and used along with 2,000 weapons to recreate the battle scenes — and even if these were made abroad and imported, all of these had to be handled, organized, and distributed locally… which requires manpower. (The following video, which clarifies a lot of misunderstandings about the story that are held by people who’ve seen the movies but not read the books, includes a scene where two people are struggling to get a prosthetic hobbit’s foot onto an actor’s real one — its worth watching)

And the hiring did not end there; according to one of the officials for Tourism New Zealand whose job it is to focus on people arriving from abroad, Gregg Anderson “During a fight scene in Return of the King, I can see my niece’s horse.”

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Additionally, according to the same source, in order to create Hobbiton, 5,000 cubic meters of vegetable and flower gardens were planted a year before filming. According to our tour guide while MOST of Hobbiton is natural landscape, the homes did need to be dug into the hillsides, and some of the contours of those hills were changed subtly to support the lie that there were homes within them…

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As already mentioned, only a few of the doorways built into the sides of these hills actually lead to any sort of interior space. In such cases, there is usually JUST enough room for an actor or actors, to open a door and walk in or out (see the image below) … MOST of the doors in Hobbiton are just exterior facades leading to nothing– although they all had to LOOK like they are doors of actual homes that lead to something.

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The above home with the Red door, was the ONE such accessible space that tourists to the Hobbiton set are allowed into.  There was enough standing space inside for maybe three people, if one of them was crouched… and the tour guide sort of lined us up so each of us who wanted it could get a picture of themselves standing in the doorway.

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Bag-end, Bilbo’s Home

In each of the cases where the door opens to an actual space (as in actors must be able to enter), only enough of the interior is decorated as was necessary to support the illusion when said actor opened the door and the camera peered through it, if only for an instant. The above is Bag End the home of one of the main characters, Bilbo Baggins, the elder Hobbit who is in possession of the ring at the beginning of the initial LOTR movie trilogy, and the protagonist of the The Hobbit, the second movie trilogy. And as you can see, if you look through the doorway, you are given the impression there’s an actual hallway behind it… This however is the least impressive of the illusions of the set…

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That reward goes to the large tree above Bag End … it is a FAKE tree!!! While in the original movie there was a real tree there (although apparently even that was a cut-down tree used for the filming), what currently stands is a smaller replica with silk leaves. This is because of continuity issues in film making. When they filmed the original LOTR, they didn’t know it would be SUCH a big hit, or that they’d be filming The Hobbit a few years later. The first trilogy filmed (LOTR), in the fictional time-line, happened 60 years AFTER the story that happened in the second trilogy, The Hobbit (confused yet?), and trees GROW quite a bit in 60 years. As such, for the Hobbit (60 years before), that tree (which had been seen in the LOTR) had to be a smaller tree, requiring that they shrink the tree in order to maintain continuity… with no way to find a 2nd smaller tree to cut down with exactly the same sort of branch pattern as in the first trilogy (no two trees are exactly alike). SO, it was just easier to make a fake one! Movie Magic!%JrDeNLsSfmes89bJfdzBA_thumb_d92a

Another illusion manufactured at the location has to do with the size of Hobbits. According to Tolkien, hobbits are supposed to be between two and four feet tall, so the biggest are a bit shorter than the small boy in the pink shirt. I on the other hand stand 5’4″. The reason there’s such variation in the size of the doors is to manufacture the lie, with door sized calculated to falsify the impression of size the various actors had to create vis-à-vis the characters they were playing.

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An actor is seen outside of the above yellow door, so it’s human sized

Returning however to the economics of the thing: The (so far) SIX Lord of the Ring movies (which together cost slightly over one billion to make) were all major world-wide hits whose combined releases have to date generated $5,886,273,810 in worldwide box-office revenue. Because of the various businesses that have developed to support both the film industry and tourism, the massive success has gone on to have a long-term economic impact on the country of New Zealand that can not be overstated. As evidence, the positive impact of the first three LOTR films on NZ’s economy was enough to ensure that the government has not only gave Peter Jackson some controversial tax breaks, but also changed local employment laws in order to ensure that he didn’t keep to his threat of moving the Hobbit and all other future movies to cheaper locations.

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Currently tourism is New Zealand’s second largest industry after Dairy. Ask any of the long time locals and they’ll admit that Peter Jackson’s choice to use their country’s topography as the backdrop for his movies did more to advertise those natural wonders, and hence to put their nation on the tourism map, than ANY amount of advertising done by their government.

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Between the LOTR’s initial release in 2001, and 2012, the country saw a 50% increase in tourism, and even though only 1% of travelers (in 2012) said the movies were the ONLY thing that drew them, 6% of those asked admitted that the movies, and seeing the locations with their own eyes was one of the motivators for flying there — which accounted for about $162 million USD in tourism dollars. Even among those who were NOT motivated to travel to New Zealand because of the movies, 80% of them knew the films had been and were continuing to be filmed there, because of her unique natural wonders, a knowledge which helped them to see it as a desirable tourism destination.

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That said, the fact is that Peter Jackson, COULD have filmed all of his interior scenes anywhere in the world, but because he chose to shoot all of them in his home country of New Zealand, and then insisted on doing all of the post production  work there as well … at Weta Digital (a special effects house he founded) and at Park Road Post (formerly a small state-owned post production facility, but now a large one owned by Jackson) in Wellington — sometimes referred to as the house Frodo built, and due to Jackson’s influence now considered by some to be the best in the world … all of this together helped to build film facilities within the country that are now a 3 billion dollar industry NZD (New Zealand dollars).

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As mentioned previously, back in 2013 there was apparently some upset when Peter Jackson had threatened to move the filming and production of the Hobbit trilogy to places like Eastern Europe, etc., where it could have been filmed more affordably. By doing so, he successfully blackmailed the country’s government into not only coughing up $67 million NZD in tax breaks for his production, on top of having already in 2010, having had the country’s employment laws changed to his likings. The ‘Hobbit law’ — officially called the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill resulted in a lot of outcry not just from actors, but also from the nation’s workers at large. This change in the law barred anyone working in NZ’s film industry from collective bargaining, and stipulated that any actors working in film production would be listed as contractors, unless they signed a contract that explicitly listed them as employees, i.e., sort of a BIG DEAL from the point of unions, etc.

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One has to keep in mind that just the parts of the film industry that evolved out of LOTR had in 2016 added $1.015 billion to NZ’s real Gross Domestic Product, so clearly, those tax breaks were paid back, with interest, and that was only about 1/3 of NZ’s entire $3.3 billion in revenue earned from the screen industry at large for that same year. In part this is because the LOTR franchise helps to supports 2,700 other businesses  (carpenters, costumers, set catering, etc) …. businesses that can then go on to serve other productions in the movie industry, and whose very existence make NZ a more attractive alternative to movie makers in general, including the new online-TV production companies like Netflix and Amazon…. it’s a rising tide that lifts all boats, so to speak.

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And, the cream in that coffee is that most of these jobs are supported to the tune of 80-90% by money from the film budgets of FOREIGN companies (not NZ tax dollars), the majority of which come from Hollywood that again feeds money into the local NZ economies. All of this LOTR prosperity may account for why the New Zealand post office released stamps with the Hobbit characters on them, and Air New Zealand has two planes decorated with a Tolkienesque theme. And things like this:

This also explains why, in 2018, the new government had under pressure given in to taking a look at making changes to the Hobbit Law, while refusing to repeal it entirely (which is what their constituency had wanted); and this rejection was in spite of being WAY more liberal than the previous government. As a general rule, no government is going to ‘kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs’ without extreme provocation.

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Another VERY important point to know (that would surprise most people), 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. 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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Deregulation is almost always a good thing…. in the beginning. According to one study, between 1978 and 1998 employment in NZ increased by 50,000 jobs, an increase of 2.6% in a country that at the time had a population that grew, during that period, from 3.121 million to 3.8 million, and kept growing to today’s 4.794 million, all of which demanded a LOT of new buildings to go up, especially in city centers like Auckland. Keep in mind Peter Jackson began building the Hobbiton Movie set within this deregulatory economic context, in 1999. Of course the downside of deregulation is shoddy construction, increased pollution, etc.

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View from our Airbnb in Auckland, New Zealand, note all the new construction

I had my first hint that something of the sort was going on during my first days in the country, when we were at our Airbnb in Auckland. At the time I had commented to my travel buddy on the high number of newly constructed buildings that (to my well-traveled eye) looked like Asian construction. Architecturally, there’s all sorts of decorative devices you see in Asia that you’ll never see in the west, for good reason. Back when I was in my 20’s I did an internship with a Japanese ceramics firm that among a plethora of other things, made the easy to clean decorative tiles you see lining the sides of Japanese buildings. When I asked my boss why they didn’t expand into the US market, he told me, “We can’t. Those tiles are only stuck to the sides with a sort of glue, and they have a tendency to fall down from time to time and hit people in the head. In Asia, that’s no big deal because if it happens the victim’s family looks on it as just being bad karma. In the USA you blame the company for unsafe building practices, and it ends up in a massive lawsuit.” And then of course I lived in Korea for a few years, so I’m more than familiar with this sort of pretty but questionable constructionUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_cbc3

One day as I was stepping out of that same Airbnb (in Auckland), I came across a real estate saleswoman trying to sell an apartment in our building to this young guy. He was clearly annoyed and wanted to know if she had anything NOT in this building. Out of curiosity I asked her what was the place they were selling and the price, it was about $200K USD, which struck me as suspiciously cheap for a one bedroom in a high-rise apartment in the middle of any downtown, let alone in the nations largest city. She admitted the building had “problems.” I asked what kind, and she admitted it had all sorts of problems, not just one or two, and that the owners might not be able to fix any of them although they were trying. The price was so low because you needed to be able to pay in cash as no bank would give you a loan to buy a place in this building… In other words, these beautiful new buildings in downtown Auckland, most of which looked to me like Asian construction, were in fact, of … probably Chinese construction. Again, what happens when you deregulate the construction industry…. is builders don’t do what they’re not absolutely required to do… which can lead to problems.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_294fBut in the land of deregulation well…. it’s a double-edged sword. But for the deregulated environment, I doubt that Jackson would have had it so easy making his film here, or building his post production companies, and quite likely Hollywood would have pressured him into making the film elsewhere.

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Deregulation, like Daenerys Stormborn’s dragons in GOT can be HIGHLY problematic doubled edged swords

And but for his having had done all that in New Zealand, we’d not be having this conversation. Additionally, had regulations existed, its questionable if Hobbiton as a tourist attraction would have been legally allowed to develop in the haphazard way it did, as things of this sort normally have to jump through any number of regulatory health and safety hoops…. like it not having a bathroom for the first 10 years of its existence … So… there’s that.

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The Dragon Inn even  has a resident cat!

Returning to the tour: After an unexpectedly long wait, during which folks explored the area and took lots of pictures (see the ones above)… we were all brought together in the bar area, where a pair of heavy velvet curtains hid the dining room from us. We were asked to PLEASE not take pictures until we were seated at our tables, although they understood the temptation, because if we did the food would get cold and they promised that there’d be plenty of time to inspect the room between our main course and the desserts.

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They then made a big To-do of opening the curtains, asking for volunteers from the group to do the big reveal (the two women in the photo, bottom left) and we all piled into the room like a bunch of excited kids … (really the excitement in the room was palpable)

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That said the spread was HIGHLY impressive not only to look at but also to taste. There were two big roasted chickens which seemed to be of the rotisserie variety and hence very moist and flavorful, a big chunk of salmon that was also not dry in any way, a roasted pumpkin stuffed with succotash (which kind of surprised me because that’s very much an American dish — corn, tomatoes, and peppers all being New World foods — but as I said sandy soil like the sort that the local topography is made of supports growing corn, so I’m guessing these were all local ingredients). There as also a big tray full of lamb shanks that sat on a bed of bubble and squeak, and came with a huge jug of brown gravy, and a mushroom dish that was to DIE for (if you like mushrooms, which I do). There was this huge dish containing a single coiled sausage cut like pizza, resulting in slices of varying sizes (quite tasty).

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Remember the Gollum from before? The guy put him on the table to watch us eat… And look at that guy licking his fingers, you can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm

There was one tray of roasted vegetables, and a big bowl of roasted cut up potato (with spices) again very good… A green salad which to be honest I didn’t touch… cause with all this… fuck no I’m not eating a salad.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2949There was also a bowl of mashed sweet potato, which apparently in NZ is called Kumara, and has been a Māori/ Polynesian staple from BEFORE the white man arrived. This is kind of fascinating, again, because the sweet potato is believed to also be a new world food. I looked it up and the carbon dating of some sweet potatoes in Polynesia verified the vegetable’s presence there as early as 1400 CE., so before Columbus’s 1492 sailing. There are two theories, one is that Polynesians were SUCH masters of the ocean that they were already in limited trade contact with South America before the European discovery of the same. Another theory (for which no physical supporting evidence has yet been found), suggests that sweet potatoes might have already been on the Polynesian islands before the first humans ever arrived.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2978

My LEAST favorite dish was a beef stew type thing, which they described as being beef and ale. It wasn’t very tasty (kind of bland actually) and the beef chunks were very dry and chewy. That said, there were other people at the table talking about how good it was, so to quote one of my mom’s favorite sayings:
על טעם וריח אין להתווכח
….which translates to, “on taste and smell there is nothing on which to argue”

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What amused me no end was that the Green Dragon’s resident cat came to join us when it was time to sit down to dinner. He (she?) walked around the room, and then spotted an empty chair at our table and jumped up into it. The cat was VERY well-behaved, made no attempt to get at the food and just sat and waited for one of us to serve her — at least until she was spotted by one of the servers and shooed out …

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This almost made me cry because I had a cat (R.I.P.) that used to do the same thing. After my mom had died, every Friday night, I cooked all the other nights, my dad made dinner which included his home-made chicken soup. (To die for: the man used actual chicken feet which is the missing secret ingredient for why your soup is never as good as your grandmothers — as almost no one cooks whole chickens anymore.) Our cat would come and sit by the table, wait to be served … he loved that soup… and then went away, having never put his paws on the table, cause he knew it wasn’t allowed.

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More than enough time was given to us (and enough food supplied) that you could go back for seconds if you wanted to. Me, my stomach isn’t that big and I wanted to save room for dessert… so when I was done I walked around took some more pictures, allowing me to see some of the area in twilight.

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And then once EVERYONE was finished, and not before… One of the great things about this meal was you got no sense of being rushed during the banquet, the waiters came and cleared the tables, and then almost completely reset them to prepare for our dessert. During that time everyone got a chance to enjoy the twilight, or explore the room and all its details. (Not sure where this girl found the map of middle earth) While the trays of dessert were much smaller than what had been laid out when we first arrived, realistically we were all so full from the first course that it was more than enough, and there were leftovers when we were done. (Clearly, these guys have done this before — HAH! — and have the serving sizes down to a science, although the staff does a great job of making their performances ‘fresh’ so that you feel like you’re in a warm embrace of friends rather than being shuffled through something choreographed.)

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Look at that anticipation!

The dessert tray consisted firstly of a kiwi and strawberry sauce filled Pavlova (one of the national dishes of both Australia and NZ) topped with fresh cream. For those who don’t know, the Pavlova is essentially a large bowl-shaped container made of white meringue, created in honor of the famous Russian prima ballerina of the same name, who was also the first ever to go on a world-wide tour, and was responsible for introducing modern ballet to the world. This tour included Australia and New Zealand, and at the time she was the single most famous performer to ever visit here… so it was a REALLY big deal. In honor of her arrival the dessert was created, but it’s a point of serious contention between the two countries — a sort of tongue in cheek war that is talked about AD NAUSEUM — as to which one did it first … as apparently it was a great minds think alike sort of issue with two different chefs in the two nations coming up with the same idea for the SAME dessert named in her honor

…. because her most famous dance was The Dying Swan, a dance she performed 4,000 times, which involves wearing a white tutu that looked like Meringue.

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In addition to the obligatory Pavlova, there was a bowl of seasonal fresh fruit, British Bakewell tarts (bottom of image), butterscotch sauce (in the orange jug, which went REALLY well on the tarts), an Irish apple crumble (top of the photo), a bowl of Yogurt with honey and cinnamon (which at first we thought might be cream but it tasted wrong, and no one really knew what to do with it…), and a big metal jug full of Vanilla custard… which kind of goes well with anything

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After the meal was over, they handed about every third one of us a lantern, and they took us on a walk through the set at night. More than a few people supplemented that light with the flashlight function on their smartphones… The night was so clear, and there was SO little light pollution that if you look very hard at the photo above towards the upper right corner, you can see a star!!!

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I had NO trouble photographing the night sky with my iPhone’s camera (which generally sucks at low light images) and seeing stars in the image (see above)… because it was SO dark that what my eye was seeing wasn’t just a few stars, it was the Milky Way.

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After the walk through they had us form a circle and talked to us about our trip, asking us to remember our favorite moments and hold them in our memories. And then they had all the lights turned off, had us close our eyes for about a minute and then open them and look up… and just wow. IF you’re lucky enough to go on a night when the sky is clear, and I was… just wow…  and then those of us who wanted to got our photos taken in front of this one door, which was lit up with a powerful spot lamp

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After much searching I found this professionally shot advertisement for the banquet tour… that includes drone shots and (what were clearly directed actors as) tourists… but it shows stuff I could never have accurately filmed, like the night-time walk with lanterns … and the scene of the guy taking a bite out of a chicken leg so enthusiastically that it made me drool

As I’ve already said, I think it’s important to remember that Hobbiton is just the flagship for what’s become an entire LOTR based travel industry. Between the two existing trilogies there are already 170 LOTR filming locations scattered around NZ’s two main islands, enough to necessitate MULTIPLE trips on the part of any obsessed fan who wants to see them all, which can of course include multiple visits to Hobbiton. AND, because of the huge success that was the Game of Thrones (GOT) — which I’m currently bingeing in preparation for the release of the final season next week, Amazon has gotten on the SciFi band wagon and has ponied up a budget of one BILLION dollars for what is being advertised as the most expensive TV show ever made, an original five season Lord of the Rings. This is sure to happen because Amazon has ALREADY paid $250 million to Tolkien‘s estate, just for the film rights, which were given with the caveat that the film HAS to go into production in the next two years

The following is a preview of the new series (although the first 30 seconds is about the wildly successful of GOT and how that influenced Amazon decision. Warning, contains spoilers):

All of which means that most likely not only will the Hobbiton set be closed once again for filming, and hence more changes will be made, but that there are going to be EVEN MORE LOTR locations to be visited in New Zealand, in addition to the 170 that already there. All of which, should the show be as big a hit as the movies were, will mostly likely generate even more increased tourism to New Zealand.

[Note, not that this matters to you guys but, I had spent 3 solid days composing a very detailed discussion with research and backing statistics… which WordPress LOST; I had revised it multiple times, always making sure the software said it had saved it, even quit and restarted the program a few times… each time was told it HAD saved, only to hit publish once I had it all as I wanted…  and have the WHOLE thing get erased…. well… but for the title, THAT got saved (I had changed it only about an hour before hitting publish). Many emails back and forth to company later and all I got from them was a “we’re sorry, its not on our servers, must have been a bug with the new update” … YOU THINK!!! Every photo uploaded got saved (and in the correct order), and the new title (which I had only just modified before posting)… but all the text, GONE. So the above is me trying to reconstruct it using my google search history,  the photos, in order to try to remind me what I had said the first time. Which took twice as long in part because it was so frustrating]

P.S. I was just watching this 60 minutes show about the making of Game of Thrones, and broke into a cheer when I learned the sets for places like Castle Black are following the lead of Hobbiton. They were built to withstand the elements, and will be turned into tourist attractions. WOOT!

Lake Rotoiti, in Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island, New Zealand

If you ever have the chance to road-trip the length of New Zealand’s South Island, Lake Rotoiti (previously also known as Lake Arthur), which is located in the Nelson Lakes National Park, is one of the tourist spots so picturesque that it shows up not only on postcards but also on T-shirts.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_d222.jpgWhile this isn’t in my mind a “destination stop” unless you’re a local, it is a very pleasant place to stop and stretch your legs. We needed a place like that because we had the evening before taken the 2pm ferry from Wellington to Picton, which arrived at around 6:15 pm, and then rented a car, and spent the night in a very nice Airbnb with an en-suite bathroom, a walk in closet, and a hot tub,UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28a3.jpgin the small town of Blenheim, a place that felt like I was at the Hilton for the price of cheap motel — got to love Airbnb. We were just pit stopping there, but apparently it’s an area known for its vineyards, and a lot of people who are into wine will stay for extended visits.

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After that we took a drive heading in the general direction of Christchurch, but because we had a few days to kill (and because the most direct route is still being rebuilt after the 2011 earthquake which completely changed some of the geography along the south island’s Northeast coast), we opted to take a route that took us along the island’s west coast.

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I LOVE how my apple watch allows me to set up shots (you can see what the iPhone sees on the watch), which in this case the smartphone was sitting on the hood of our rental car.

One thing to keep in mind is New Zealand actually has TWO lakes called Rotoiti (the Maori word for center) one on the North Island, and one in the South, I’m currently talking about the latter. (Yes it’s confusing, but at least it’s one per islands, think of it like there’s 88 different towns and cities in the USA called Washington, and 41 different Springfields, etc.)

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Please note the restrictions of which vehicles are allowed on this lake, it’s important. There are a lot of formerly clean lakes that have been polluted by things like personal jet skies and such, all of which leak oil and gas into the water, turning it green and murky. One of the things that makes this lake so impressive, in my own opinion, is just how clear this water is.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_28a9.jpg

The picture with the boats at the end of the pier gives you an idea of how much deeper it is there. And still… this water is almost as clear as my bathtub. The upper left image is the water as seen from near the beach, while the bottom right one is taken from the far end of the pier… and you can still clearly see the rocks below

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After I took this image I started to see postcards and stuff depicting this lake, and they almost always have just this same shot… only framed better (my friend took it and for love or money I couldn’t teach him to frame a shot) and without the boats parked alongside the pier.

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Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne Australia and The Not Captain Cook’s Cottage

[Updated – forgot to add some stuff before] Melbourne refers to itself as the garden city of Australia, and Fitzroy Garden is one of the city’s many landscaped gardens that earns it that title. The most famous attraction located within the garden is Cook’s cottage, which some sites advertise as having belonged to the famous Captain Cook, the explorer who ‘discovered Australia’; historical buff that I am, this made me excited to see it, but that claim — if you come across it, is wrong. It was never his, it was one of his parent’s homes, and he never lived there. That said Fitzroy Garden where the house is located, is free to explore, but the Cook’s Cottage itself — which has been one of the major tourist draws in Melbourne since it was first moved here in 1934… is NOT, free that is…

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Me, standing as close as you can get to the house without paying a fee

Fitzroy Gardens, in the suburb of East Melbourne. To be technical about it… It’s not actually IN Melbourne, which is one of these TINY dot on the map cities that has never annexed adjacent suburbs so that it could ‘grow’, like Chicago or New York City did, and has ‘neighborhoods’ that are legally separate entities; as such you really have to think of it as the greater Melbourne area when visiting, because Aussies seem to get very irritated when we call East Melbourne, just plain old Melbourne… because it’s not.

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“Technically” considered to be the Oldest building in all of the greater Melbourne area, as it has been dated to at least 1755 [Melbourne was founded in 1835], the cottage had belonged (at one time) to the father of James Cook (1728 –1779), the famous British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy, who was also the first “recorded” European to “discover” Australia…. That said, the man who “discovered” Australia MAY have (we don’t know for sure that he ever did), at best, slept there… when/if he visited his folks in his home town (one has to assume he may have at some point)…. so yes, the connection is a bit tenuous …

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Originally located in the village of Great Ayton in North Yorkshire, where Captain Cook was born, the building was brought to Melbourne in in 1934 by the Chemist and Philanthropist Russell Grimwade, who gifted it to the State of Victoria in honor of the celebration of the upcoming 100 year anniversary of the settlement of Melbourne (1835). The owner had put it up for bid, on condition that it be moved to someplace else “in England”, but (according to Wikipedia) when the highest local bid had been £300 versus Grimwade’s bid of £800, she was ‘convinced’ to change that requirement to “in the British Empire.”

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Originally sold as the home of Captain Cook’s early days, the cottage is now only called “Cook’s Cottage” because later historians, rightly, called foul. While the initials J.C. and the year of 1755 had been engraved into a lintel above one of the doors… the JC did not denote James Cook the son and Captain, but rather James his father, a farm laborer who was originally from Scotland.

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The engraved lintel (covered in plexiglass, I assume for its protection from vandals)

What is not known for sure, however, is was the house built in 1755, or possibly rebuilt… or just purchased by Cook’s father. Also, since James Cook, the Jr., was born in 1728, and had moved away from home at 16 — which was normal at the time, he would have been 27 by 1755, the year engraved probably with his own home; this, in fact, was was the same year he had joined the Royal Navy in hopes of greater advancement, after having already served in the British Merchant Navy where he had been promoted about as far as he could in that profession, i.e., already an adult man with a career and his own private life…. Therefore, it is HIGHLY unlikely that he had actually ever LIVED in the house, at best he may have visited, it was therefore a misleading to continue to call it “Captain Cook’s Cottage”…

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The laminated 3-ring notebook you can reference if you want to know more about the house

The Cottage itself is open every day from 9 to 5, but you have to buy a ticket. These can be found across the walkway at the information building/Visitor Center and Conservatory, which also has a cafe, where you can have a meal, pamphlets about other things to see and do in the area

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And of course a gift shop…. with some very cute items for sale that I had not seen elsewhere, so worth checking out if you’re shopping for souvenirs

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I think these were hand-made Xmas tree ornaments, but they’re cute enough that even I’d buy them … the seemed to be made of pine prickles shoved into a form, sculpted and painted, or something of the like

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Although a bit steep for a rubber ducky at $14.95 AUD, I was seriously tempted to buy one of these …. afterwards I found a few other museums with sections devoted to Captain Cook that also sell them… for the same price. I might give in and buy one next time see it.

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Once you have purchased your ticket you cross over to the cottage and enter through a gate that scans your ticket (like at the airport). Inside were two docents dressed in period garb whose job it was to help orient you, or have their pictures taken with you (which I didn’t opt to do), or help you into the garb if you wanted to dress up yourself… but for the most part it’s all self guided.

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There were two 3 ringed notebooks of laminated pages devoted to the spot if you bother to take the time to notice them (almost no one did) located just in the doorway of the home (where folks would remove their coats and muddy shoes, I assume). The house consisted of a kitchen/living room/dining room with a running voice narrative that sounds like it’s supposed to be Captain Cook’s mother, talking about what it was like to live and work in the house

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Upstairs there was a narrow flight of stairs that were a lot steeper than we’re used to (most definitely NOT disability friendly), and required that visitors make way for each other going up or down

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You find a master bedroom, with more written explanation (and no voice narrative)

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and two small bedrooms, one upstairs and one down

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And in the back of the house is an herb garden

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Around the back/side of the house is the stable, which has been converted into a sort of museum/movie theater

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I am pretty sure I watched four different movies that were on display there, one about Captain cook discovering Australia, one about the sale and transport of the house, one about the history of the house, and one about his parent’s lives. One of the cool things was there were three screens, one of which was showing the same movie at the same time, on a smaller screen, with Chinese subtitles. Every time Chinese visitors stepped in I would point them towards that, because they tended to walk in, see the main screen, hear the English, and looked a little sad… only to have me point out the Chinese screen and have their faces light up… I’m thinking one of the docents should have been in there doing that.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2526.jpgBeyond the cottage, I found that overall Fitzroy is less of a garden, in my mind (relatively few flowers), and more of an urban green space, with tree lined avenues that before air-conditioning probably offered much needed shade in the summer heat. While it has some boring almost obligatory stuff, like the Grey Street Fountain… UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2514.jpg

…. and the River God Fountain, both of which are perfectly nice

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…these looked pretty much like any old fashioned/classic fountain and garden you’d find in any park …anywhere (especially in France or the UK). What’s cool/different about the garden is that it tends towards things that are a bit more fanciful and fun, such as it’s children’s playground, which has a dragon slide and a giraffe like swing set

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And a model Kentish Tudor village. The story on this is kind of cute in that all the homes were built by an elderly pensioner, Mr. Edgar Wilson who lived in the UK and liked to build these things out of concrete, just for fun, as his hobby. He gifted them in 1948 to Melbourne in appreciation of the food that Australia sent to England during WWII

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The town included a scale model of the house owned by Shakespeare’s wife (the one he quickly abandoned) the widow Anne Hathaway. I will admit that when I read the garden had a Tudor Village, I was expecting something radically different from what I found. In my minds eye I expected to find some full or at least half sized Tudor homes that you could walk through … maybe with some staff, sort of like what I had found at Cook’s cottage…. at least tall enough for small children to enter… but nope

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Instead I found a collection of homes that at best might come to my knee, and the homes are all completely fenced off, so little kids can’t really enjoy them much either… and adjacent to the Tudor village I found the the Fairies Tree

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which I was sad to see was ALSO surrounded by a fence, so that you can’t get up close and personal with it. BUT after I got home and studied it I understood why — did NOT find any description of this at the spot. This tree isn’t some modern thing made for kids to play on … The Fairies tree was carved back in the 1930’s by a local artist and author by the name of Ola Cohn, into the stump of a 300+ year old River Red Gum tree which had been original to the garden. Ms Cohn (who was of Danish extraction) was a well known (her portrait hangs in a museum in Canberra, and the link includes an image of her carving the tree) and respected local artist, who went on to be appointed a Member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, an order of chivalry — a sort of knighthood, for her work in the service of art. Because she’d carved it into what was then already a dead tree, there’s been issues with degradation and rot over time, so that in 1977, in order to stop the rot, they had to pull the whole thing out of the ground, removed wood that had already rotted — they found a perfectly preserved mummified Brushtail possum at that point (!!!), and then treated the remaining tree with chemicals to stop any further rot… remounted the tree into a concrete base and returned it to the garden.

So I get the history of the things, and why they might want to preserve them… but I have to think little kids don’t really enjoy either of them much as a result. So Nice but kind of meh…

I think my favorite fountain was the Dolphin Fountain, which seemed to be much more modern in construction….

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in fact it turned out to have been built in 1982, and for some reason the park’s website said that it was “controversial” but didn’t explain why…

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After some research I found this website explaining, some of the argument was regarding WHERE in the garden this $30,000 gift payed for by Dinah and Henry Krongold and created by a sculptress by the name of June Arnold should go… or if it was suited to the Fitzroy gardens at all because it wasn’t in keeping with the garden’s naturalism (???)

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Not surprisingly, little kid (according to what I’ve read) LOVE this fountain as it’s the only one they’re actually allowed to interact with… I saw parents lifting their small children up on to the rocks, etc.

Diving the Great Barrier Reef & learning about underwater photography: Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Earlier this week I am happy to say that I completed yet another one of my bucket list items; I went scuba diving/snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef along the eastern coast of Australia…. before it died completely. That said, I’m VERY sorry to say that, at least for the bits I was able to see up close, were already pretty much bleached/dead, when compared to pictures I have seen over the years of the explosion of color it once was…. very sad. Global climate change, it’s a thing.

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My travel-buddy and I had went up to Cairns in northern Queensland, which is the town located closest to barrier reef, and stayed there for a week. Be warned! Once you get there you’ll be barraged with boat tour options because Cairns is about either diving the reef, or visiting the UNESCO world heritage area rainforests/wetlands that line this part of the Australian coast. We ultimately opted for a company a friend of ours had previously used and been very happy with, called Reef Experience, which advertises itself as the only one to offer “all-inclusive” tours… no “hidden fees”, etc.

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This would be one of the photos they sell to you, taken by their photographer

What this translates to (per my understanding, which may be flawed)… is that while there are other companies that may seem cheaper… in reality they all pretty much cost the same or in fact more, while delivering essentially the same offerings. The major difference is other companies might not include various taxes and fees and what not (cost of the swim gear?) in the advertised price, and you’ll find you have to choose to add them in addition, or not dive… and by the time you do, those other guys are actually more expensive (unless you own all your own scuba gear, etc).

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Our tour group, including me and my friend (can you spot me?). The company posted this to their Facebook page for us to download afterwards — a freebie photo

They do have an online website, but I, rather than make the reservation that way, dragged my ass into their offices (a short walk from our Airbnb) FIVE days in advance of our trip …  on the assumption that this would keep problems from developing … I paid for the two reservations, and they asked were there any food restrictions. I explained that my friend was a vegetarian who was allergic to mushrooms. So, all good, and was told what to bring with me, when we’d be picked up, etc… and went home.

TWO days later (on Sunday, when we were supposed to dive on Wednesday), and I might add AFTER it was already two late to cancel and get a refund!!!!! I get an email explaining that under Queensland law, not everyone is legally allowed to do scuba diving and that we had to both fill out a medical form and send them a list of all the medications that we were taking, dosage, and how often; They would then show the list to their dive doctor and he would say if we could dive; or he would say that we needed to go to a doctor to be certified in person as healthy enough to do scuba. WHY they could not have told me that when I was in the office, and given me the form then, I don’t know. …. AND this was no PDF that we could fill-in and then send back to them, or even a website to fill out, it was an image file (???!!!). Something you needed to print out and fax back. Now keep in mind, we’re tourists, and I’ve yet to find a really portable printer (and who the fuck brings those on a plane?) and the Airbnb we were renting didn’t have “business office” facilities … so we had to get REALLY creative to figure out how to fill this thing… my friend, who is a professional geek, luckily had an image editor on his laptop… I have no idea how other people might manage it

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Also, read the form REALLY carefully. [Have you EVER suffered from a cold? Our best guess was that was, what’s called in the legal profession, a gotcha question; i.e, IF anything bad happens that you might want to sue them over, odds are you answered “have you ever had the common cold” with “No” because you want to be allowed to go scuba diving, and they can then say “SEE they lied on the form! They can’t sue us!”

So… Early Monday morning, after finally figuring out how to fill this thing in, and before we left to do the tourist stuff we had come to Cairns to do — which was NOT filling out medical forms, we sent it to them. LATE Monday night — seriously I kept checking my emails for a response from them, it didn’t come till around 9pm…. we got an email saying that their doctor had OK’d me to dive, but my NOT my friend (who is WAY healthier than I am and not a month before had been scuba diving in the waters off of Bali). Do not pass go, do not collect $200…. He had be seen by an actual doctor to get OK’d to dive, and they suggested a 24 hour walk-in-clinic nearby. My friend (being too tired and grumpy to go that night) contacted them to make an actual appointment for the next morning, but was told he couldn’t get one, that he had to come in as a walk-in, and hope to be seen on a first come first seen basis starting 5pm. (We called the company, who started calling around to other clinics and NONE could see him.) So the next day, he went over at 4:30 …but the doctors on staff did NOT know of his medication, and could NOT ok him to dive! They told him he had to come back AGAIN the following morning at 6:00 AM, BEFORE our 7:30 am dive, when the doctor who actually knew his stuff would be there. So my friend did, and that doctor said it was no problem — the drug is a common one in the USA, but less commonly used in Australia — and thankfully my friend was able to go there and be back by 7am, in time for our 7:30 bus…. which came 10 minutes early…. and after all that rushing, we were dropped off and discovered we now had to stand and wait for the boat crew to be ready…. because they were not.

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Talk about hurry up and wait!!! But back to the issue of pricing…. Essentially most of the one-day tours at this price point, about $150 USD/person, all seemed to last for about the same length. You should expect need to arrive at your ship at about 7:30 am and return to port at 4:30 pm. (Like I said, ours included pickup from and drop-off at our hotel — and thankfully the Airbnb was actually IN a hotel or they would not have — as part of the price… on the up side, they did call us when they were about to arrive. I STRONGLY suggest you find what the nearest hotel to you is, and set that as your pick up location if your airbnb is NOT so situated)

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Finally the staff arrived to check us all in. We had to show either the print out of our ticket or an email confirming it. On their sheet I saw that they had my friend listed as vegetarian, but NOTHING about his mushroom allergy, so I reminded them…. they said “thank you” and wrote it down…..

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This guy was traveling solo

Then every group of visitors (friends, families, etc) had their photo taken… like the one I posted at the top of the blog…. this is a photo you’ll be expected to buy later…

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Before the boat got started they talked to us, and told us that motion sickness pills (both medicinal and ginger tablets) were available. The Medical ones were $3 AUD for two pills (one for BEFORE we got moving, the second to be taken after lunch), which I went straight over the purchased… and was SO glad I did. Even with, I had to focus on calm breathing and such during part of the rougher parts of the ride out. During the way out to the dive site they fed us breakfast, and lets just say some of the folk who had thought they didn’t need the pills had ‘spilled their cookies’. For my travel buddy…. they had a veggie burger, which he didn’t want because he wasn’t hungry… and for everyone else there were fried-egg and bacon sandwiches… I just had a fried egg which I patted down with paper towels, to remove the oil. While doing it I talked to the chef-female and asked her, “did they tell you my vegetarian friend is allergic to mushrooms?” and the answer was “NO they  had NOT.!”… Keep in mind I told them this TWICE…. AND she kind of freaked because the dish she was getting ready to make for his lunch, was FULL of mushrooms!!!! That’s a MAJOR screw up!!

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There’s a top deck for those wanting to tan and rest, note the resort deck out in the distance (it just stays out there pretty much 24/7)

SO, that said… Along the way no matter which cruise you take, they’ll feed you breakfast, lunch, and a snack on the return trip (ours were all you can eat, and there was enough for seconds) — which is either included or you’ll need to pay extra. Ours was included, with water, tea and coffee for free…. pop or beer cost extra.

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Taken using their underwater rental camera… notice the color difference between the shoe in or out of the water?

Once out there, you’ll be lent a blue “stinger suit’ to protect you from jelly fish stings, a pair of flippers, a snorkel and goggles. Our company also lent a wet suit to anyone who was a certified swimmer and didn’t have their own (again something that I think other companies might charge you for). They seemed to have all the gear at pretty much every size, so for instance my friend who wears a shoe size of 13 Australia /49 European & 15 US — huge feet, has trouble find socks and shoes, WAS able to borrow ones that fit… while my feet are at the other end of spectrum (unusually small for a white girl, although average for an Asian woman), and I was also able to find ones that fit snuggly.

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They even had prescription goggles that they were lending out for free. I have particularly horrible eyesight, and doubted they’d have mine… but they had one that was close enough to allow me to see, and even had one that was for folks who were even worse than me… although they weren’t bifocals so I could see far but not near….

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Me, with my borrowed prescription goggles — purchased pic

Once we got out to the reef and dropped anchor, everyone got one scuba dive with an instructor (if they weren’t already certified), where the staff helps you get into the gear, into the water, and then makes sure you can both breath properly using the tank and regulator, and are able to expel water from your goggles while under the water (because apparently the goggles have not yet been made where that won’t happen).

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The rental camera is red filtered for underwater use, and is kind of lousy above it

And then you get led around by the instructor for about 20 minutes after that, after the photographer has had a chance to take pics of you while under the water. A second optional scuba dive was available for $65 AUD more (clearly advertised as such in advance), and you could make up your mind to add it after you’ve done the first depending on how you felt about it.

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This platform (holding a mini motor boat for emergency pick ups) was lowered into the water, and we took off from it, see the 12 air tanks lined up?

The first dive was about half an 35 min and included instructions and making sure each diver UNDERSTOOD them and could demonstrate them (one on one testing), while the second scuba dive is 45 minutes with none of it wasted on instruction. IF you are a certified diver… you could spend the WHOLE time swimming alone, but if not you HAD to swim with a guide and HAD to go through the lesson, even if, like my travel buddy, it’s not your first time going scuba diving. In fact in my group of four swimmers,  I was the only virgin who had never done it before.

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The red filter is simplistic, and makes everything look green

So the pic above — see how it’s very green? — That was one I took with their underwater rental camera which cost me about $99 to rent (but included my choice of 15 of the professional photographer shots … not great, … The pics below are that are blue, are by their photographer…. the very big fish is like the crew’s pet. Apparently this type of fish has a 5 year memory and is a bit like a dog in terms of his level of affection for the divers who come by daily

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The professional photos were color adjusted using very expensive specialized software, I’m SURE of it, because I watched him doing it.

So again, compare the color palate of the pics by the professional (blue) with the one they rented me (green), which I used while scuba diving… i.e., going MUCH deeper into the water than I would experience while snorkeling… much higher water pressure.

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The above were also passed through some basic color balancing attempts by me, using my Macbook’s photo program not complex algorithms for divers

Dealing with this pressure, and the fact that the goggles flood regularly is a big part of what they taught us before we went down. I felt ok for most of it; there were some initial problems my regulator which for some reason was set so tightly that I was having to REALLY force the air out while breathing, I could just breath out.

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Multiple boats all sharing reef adjacent areas, and little platforms set up about midway between

I hand signaled the instructor as we’d been instructed… we went to the surface and I told him about it and he made some sort of adjustment to the thing…  and from then on it was fine. Also between the fat on my ass and my tits, there was too much buoyancy between me and the suit (which also has built-in air pockets) so that I wasn’t able to submerge like everybody else … again I asked to go up… explained it to him… he made some more adjustments and then I was fine.

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A purchased pic of the diving staff, the blond guy front and center led my group of 4+him

After we finished the dive the instructor (blond guy wearing glasses above) told me that I had actually done unusually well and should feel proud of myself. He said that MOST virgins on the first dive freak out during the instruction section, because of problems breathing, or feeling like they were being water boarded, or whatever…. and MOST never actually manage to get past the initial instruction phase to do the scuba dive itself. I on the other hand had managed to do the whole thing, including pretty much the whole time allocated to the dive.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_213c.jpgBut at the very end of it my core muscles in my torso, and the muscles in my legs were just knackered. At that point, my friend, who is a strong swimmer, signed up not for the 2nd scuba dive (which he had intended to do) but rather for a snorkel dive with the ships marine biologist (I forget what the fee for that was, but it was less than the snorkel dive), which you could only sign up for if you were a strong swimmer. Since I was tired, he ‘informed’ me that he was borrowing my rental camera. 

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Me, showing off my iPhone in it’s waterproof plastic case, $28 AUD/~$20 USD ($13 on amazon)

Before going on the trip I had found a camera store just near our Airbnb rental. The girl working there had convinced me that the rental underwater camera’s offered by these trips weren’t actually all that good, and intended more for video than photos. That a better option, was to use my own iPhone inside one of these clear, heavy plastic zip-lock bags designed for smart phones. She said that’s what she uses and has used for a few years, and if you’re NOT going to invest in a top of the line camera it’s really the best choice. Supposedly I COULD have used it for scuba diving but to be honest, I didn’t trust it to keep my iPhone dry more than a few feet down …. but I figured snorkeling it could manage…. and in addition to the scuba outing, which you HAD to do with a crew member unless you had certification to scuba solo (which takes a full three days minimum to complete in Australia) there were two chances to go snorkeling independently (about four hours total) — although you had to stay within a certain distance of the boat/life guards while doing it ….

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Googles maps

An image of an underwater reef taken from above the water, they’re easy to spot, and at points they come up so high that boats can’t pass over them… so snorkeling really is a viable option… at the right locations you don’t HAVE to go very deep to seem them. Our boat while it ultimately docked at two different locations, so we got to see some variation of the reef while limiting our snorkeling to within the ken of the lifeguards. Although, that said…. BOTH locations were on/at the bit of the barrier called the Norman reef — if you look at a map of the barrier reef, it looks like a line of underwater islands.

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As the medical thing we had to go through earlier demonstrated, not everyone can scuba dive safely because of medical reasons— for instance people taking certain prescriptions aren’t allowed,  and not everyone feels comfortable scuba diving (even among those who want to, they freak out when first trying it as it can be claustrophobic and a bit like being water boarded). As such, even though scuba is included in the price, you can choose to just do snorkeling the whole time, if you’d rather

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These were the photos I took during our first chance at snorkeling, before we did our scuba session, when I was still using their rented underwater go-pro type camera (i.e., everything is very green)

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Photos from the rented camera, even after I futzed with the color balance on my computer, still not very good (but better)

… First thing I noticed when doing snorkeling was that MUCH bigger fish than I saw by the reefs seemed to like to hang out JUST under the boat. I think it has something to do with what was in the blue plastic bin they had hanging below the boat… it had these things that looked like transponders in it which I guess sent out sound-waves that attracts the fish to the boat… but that’s just an educated guess (after they pulled up the crate, no more big fish were hanging out down there). Anyway, once again… here was the photo I took of the photographer using the expensive to rent underwater rental camera … very very green

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And by comparison, THIS is the image of the same guy only this time I was using my iPhone inside the plastic bag. See how BLUE everything is? And sort of monotone everything is?

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Taken with my iPhone … really

DwdX1JAQSv+xgt9Rj8NcXg_thumb_c24e.jpgAfterwards, at the end of the trip while we were heading back to port, one of the staff members saw me flipping through images, and suggested try a free app for the smart phone, that she loves, which would automatically color correct my photos for me (it also allows you to modify that correction, less or more, etc) called Dive+ … which I did… and here’s what it looks like (before and after)

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So it’s a sort of judgement call as to whether to use it or not to apply the correction… but I was actually REALLY happy with some of the photos I ultimately got with the iPhone/Dive+ combo

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Love this one, it’s very other worldly

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I keep wondering how far down the professional dive photographer had to go to find this shot (below) … because it was NOT up near the surface where we were snorkeling (images above), that’s for sure

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Purchased image from our dive, also visible on their Facebook page

That said, its pretty clear from my images that the barrier reef, at least up at the top where a snorkelers could see it is already like 90% bleached out in these areas… which is very very sad.

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bottom right is scuba and deep divers (folks who are experienced enough to hold their breaths and go deep)

OR of course, if you don’t TRUST the plastic pack to keep your smartphone dry, you could always still rent from one of those underwater cameras from the tour company … which I opted for — at the last-minute — as the thought of a water-logged smartphone popped into my brain before the scuba dive. I admit I did this AFTER a lecture by the photographer about how much better my photos would be if I had the right equipment…

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purchased pic of me and my friend … I’m holding the rented phone (at the end of the yellow thing… which will make it float/bob in the water if you loose it) in my left hand

Actually I think that it was because  I decided to rent their go-pro-type underwater camera (the yellow thing in my left hand in the picture below) along with a package of 15 of the digital photos the professional photographer took……that they decided to put the above photo on their Facebook page… I’m GUESSING it was because … as far as I know, I was one of only TWO people who had opted to rent one of those underwater camera things, and as the camera is front and center in this photo, above, the photo helps to promote other people renting it

Grand Canyon, South Rim, Arizona

It’s the Grand Canyon, South Rim… it’s a classic! Rather than drive here, however, I took the train ride from Williams, AZ (on Route 66) where I was spending the night.

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To be honest, the three hours the Train service allowed me was ENOUGH, in large part because my pinky toe on my right foot was seriously unhappy with me (I had sprained it and rather than let it rest and keeping it elevated, I had been driving cross-country and doing a load of walking.) As such, rather than walk I first took the shuttle bus for invalids (organized by the train company) from the train to

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I LOVE the fact that an old-fashioned station wagon drove up just then, haven’t seen one of those since the 1970’s

El Tovar.. in order to get some lunch, and to see it because … HARVEY HOUSE!!!

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On the train I had asked the girl to suggest which of the restaurants had the best food, and she said the main restaurant at the El Tovar for sure… but I had done so much snacking on the way over that, while looking over their lunch menu, I found I wasn’t actually all that hungry, so I opted for the Onion Soup

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It was VERY good (definitely a cut above the average), and every person I spoke to at the surrounding tables was also extremely happy with their food. Let’s face it, you don’t expect food at restaurants like this actually be good, especially when the food prices are relatively reasonable. (You’re paying for the location, ambiance and view).IMG_0588

That said, the room is also quite spectacular…. both its interior and decorations,

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And of course if you’re very lucky (I wasn’t) you’ll be placed next to a widow with an amazing view.

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The bottom right image was from my table… I was WAY in the back but that said, ….Heh, my table was RIGHT next to the electric plug and my iPhone’s battery was down to 20% after the train ride.

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A bar, that also has a wonderful view

I wandered around the building a bit afterwards, cause it was gorgeous (and a Hardy House that had been kept authentic over time)… ‘

IMG_0597Directly adjacent to the El Tovar is Hopi House, which is also a historic landmark, that is used as store for mostly high-end Native American goods. It was designed by Mary Colter, the same woman who designed almost all of the Harvey Houses. IMG_0598IMG_8096IMG_0601After checking it out, I went to look at the rim…. pictures don’t do it justice, there’s something unreal about it.IMG_8107.jpgThat said, I was in AWE of how clear the view was. I kept saying to people, “do you realize that a few years ago you wouldn’t have seen this? That there was a horrible haze mucking it up? That its only because of the Clean air act, and the recent closing of some near by coal-burning power stations that you can see this so clearly” Apparently nobody did… Not only that but some Trump supporters actually started yelling at me (I’m shitting you not.)IMG_0602IMG_8114.jpg

IMG_8119.jpgMy weather karma is continuing— like I said it was supposed to be raining today…

IMG_8129IMG_0606IMG_0605IMG_8216At the other end of the part of the southern rim that I had walked along, is the Bright Angel Lodge which was also designed by Mary Colter, and this one has a very famous fireplace (that the one behind me in the images below)…. which again has amazing views at its restaurant… only the girl on the train told me the food isn’t quite as good.

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Adjacent to it is an ice-cream place that also serves sandwiches, and pretzels and snacks (all the food you’d eat while standing outside)… although while I was there mostly all people were buying was the ice cream.

IMG_0604 As they warned us on the train, there’s a HUGE fine, like $500 if they catch you feeding a squirrel… and that they will try to steal your food if you don’t watch out… what they neglected to mention is the little buggers bite, and will infect you with the plague!!!!

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After this I took an un-scenic shortcut back to the train station, because it was about time to go back to Williams, and if you miss the train you’re kind of screwed.

Grand Canyon Railway experience; Williams, Arizona

The Grand Canyon Railway experience is essentially a two-hour train ride from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon… if you return the same day (another two hours) you will have gotten to stay there for about three hours (so a taste). OR — if you are the hiking type, you can opt to stay at a hotel at the Canyon and return a different day.  The “experience” includes a cute little show before the ride, and then some entertainment while on the train, and concludes with a “faux” train robbery on the way back. All in all, when you add up the prices, IF you’re doing route 66 and just want to pop over to the Grand Canyon, to see it… this actually works out to be a pretty good deal money wise.

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The CHEAPEST ticket, which is what I got, was $62.86. This was for the Pullman car, their most historic car (No air-conditioning) and did not include the park entrance fee (as I have been buying the National Park’s yearly pass since I first started traveling… I have yet to not get my money’s worth — when you buy the ticket you tell you have it, when you pick up the tickets you show them the pass and they write down its ID number to submit to the park officials). IF you consider the cost of gas (maybe 3 hours there and back — the train does it slower), wear and tear on your car, finding parking, etc etc…. and the fact that the train includes live entertainment … I think it’s worth it to do it once.

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A lot of the people who do this opted to stay at their hotel as well, but this is not necessary and not what I did. (There is a Harvey House at that location, but its not where you’ll be staying… and you don’t have to stay at the hotel to see it. Essentially, its been replaced by a fairly generic building that looks like pretty much every other 3 star hotel along our highways)… I stayed at the Howard Johnson located about 2 blocks north, for substantially less money. (That said the hotel is OK, but the owners … an Indian couple… just don’t get it. The rooms are clean and comfortable, the WiFi was BLAZING fast… but the security is suspiciously lax. IF You go to this hotel make sure you check in early enough that you can change rooms if you need to. The hotel has no elevators, and they won’t help you with your bags if you have mobility issues like I do. The room I ultimately got did NOT have a chain on the door, or any sort of way for me to keep hotel staff out while I was sleeping. By the time I realized this — after dinner — it was too late to change rooms. The next day the woman who works for them — MUCH better at customer service than they are — and I looked for a suitable room, and we had to go through THREE before we found one with a working chain.)

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So… I checked the weather report for the next day at the Grand Canyon the night I arrived, and it said rain… eek… then checked again the day of, this time specifying the South Rim (which is where the train goes) and it said no rain… phew!! NOTE: It’s important to remember the Grand Canyon is a VERY big place, so when checking the weather, be specific for which part.

With the Train Ride, come a whole package of entertainments. The first happens BEFORE the ride and is cute… I THINK the whole point of it is actually a ploy to make sure customers are on site and ready to go a good 45 minutes before the train leaves… but still…it adds to the ‘ambiance’

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Looking around at the audience, I at first thought there may be one person in this whole crowd under the age of 40, But then I took that back … I just spotted a baby. That said, it was late September and most kids were in school, so the crowd consisted mostly of retirees who prefer to come to places like this when they are LESS crowded. It’s a cute show, funny even, more than a few good laughs. You can tell the actors have done this may be 1000 times but they’re not phoning it in

After seeing the show myself, and many days later… I watched this video and I guess the attitude of the organizers is, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” because in spite of the fact that I saw the show almost six years after this YouTube video was posted — this is almost word for word the same show I saw, just with different actors.

The actors do a bit of improve around what the audience does or does not do, and the audience member roped into the skit, but otherwise, I saw the exact same show. (They even found a guy wearing shorts who had a bag… albeit this bag was backpack)

IMG_3008And after the show, that’s when you’re led by the actors to the train, and you line up by the car you’re assigned to…IMG_7977.jpg

And this is where things got wonky. So the deal is this…. APPARENTLY if you sign up for the Pullman (which is the most affordable ticket) they tell you to show up at 8:30 like everybody else, for what you think will be a 9:15 departure…  but you won’t actually Leave until 10:00. IF they get a lot of people showing up, they’re going to break it up into two trains (according to the manager this is on behest of the park which doesn’t want a boat load of people showing up at once. He said they could easily put everyone on one train). Everybody who bought a ticket on the expensive cars — the ones with the observation bubbles on top of the train for better viewing…. and the MOST expensive cars which are old-fashioned luxury (but with air-conditioning), have a buffet and dedicated performers who are there just for you  — THOSE trains… they’ll leave on time … Those of us with tickets that have air-conditioning but no bubble up top, or those like me who purchased a Pullman car with no air-con…. they’ll leave you standing around and waiting for the second train (and there was NOTHING on my tickets denoting that).

GRRRRRR……

You do however get the same amount of time at the park because your return train also leaves later. That said, once we were on the train, it was actually very pleasant… first a guy comes on, and makes sure you understand all the thing you need to know

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Then we were introduced to our carriage’s aid, the girl in the blue and white outfit, and the photographer (the guy in the red shirt with the massive camera, whose job it is to wander between carriages taking photos on first leg of the trip, and then he tries to sell you your photos on our return one).

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While the downsides of being in the cheap Pullman car is that it goes last (leaving the station) and has no air-conditioning, the upsides are that one, it’s always placed directly adjacent to the dining car (they told me this when I was booking the trip)

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Although this also means everyone in the cars behind us has to pass through us to get to said dining car… for their drinks, snacks and ice-cream

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The other benefit… and this is the more important one I think… is that sitting in an old-fashioned Pullman with no aircon traveling through almost wild country it’s really easy to almost feel like you’ve drifted back in time to when train, horse or foot were your only options for getting out west … a mental fantasy that the more modern trains don’t really support.

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On the way to the Canyon we were serenaded by this young musician, who wasn’t bad

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And then on the way back (when we were all really pooped) we were played at by this guy

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Who was trying just a bit too hard to get us to be clapping our hand and tapping our feet, when all we really wanted to do was rest…

Towards the end of the ride to the Canyon we passed an area that had clearly had a forest fire, which made me wonder how it’d happened and if it were the fault of the train, or the people on it.

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And then right as we were approaching the park, our carriage’s aide (the gal in the blue and white outfit) began to tell us things like, that the red ponderosa pines that grown in the park have a scent. If you smell vanilla, than the tree is a female but if you smell butterscotch, the tree is male. (I never managed to get close enough to one to test it) That, and there’s a $500 fine for feeding the animals … even if it’s a squirrel who stole it from you .. and that we should all beware because they WILL steal your food if you let them.

And then we got to the park….

IMG_3023(I’m talking about the Park in a separate blog post, click here to see it)

And THIS is what you get to avoid by taking the train

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That said, the ride back was also very pretty,

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and the rain that the first weather report I had looked at promised, could be seen approaching us in the distance

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But it included rainbows, which made me happy….

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(and in fact greeted us as with a very light rain just as we arrived back in Williams, which got more intense later in the evening).

 

Towards the very end of the ride, we had a last bit of excitement…  there’s a train heist… it’s actually kind of cute

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(My video this time… Note how the train obligingly stops for the 2 riders )

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But somehow, even though there were TWO riders attacking the train, and TWO gunmen stealing from us… somehow one of them managed to be in two places at the same time (note: two horses carrying two gunmen, two gunmen stealing from us… yet one left over to take care of the horses… this happened how?)

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And then you’re ever so politely robbed. (They threaten to take your stuff, but never do.) We were instructed (by our conductor lady in the blue outfit) that if we wanted to we were supposed to take any money we wanted them to actually rob, and fold it and hold it out for them to take, which a few of the customers did… tips in other-words.

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And then a little later (after the thieves have had time to get all the way to the back of the train, where apparently the guy who plays the sheriff was waiting to arrest them (it’s a shame that only THAT car gets to see the arrest) he waltzes them back through the train to the front, and we all get to laugh about how law and order triumphs.

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Before I got someone to take our photo, the guy with the long white hair, who plays the sheriff, turns out he’s actually Dutch, has spent some time living in Japan, and speaks 9 languages at least a enough to get by… I didn’t get around to finding out how it ended up here doing this.

One thing to beware of… on the train, while you’re close to town WiFi is pretty decent, and from time to time it’ll pop back up…. but at the park and for most of the ride you can forget about connectivity. As such, save your battery and just put you phone on airplane mode to save the battery. This is especially true at the Park… Even though there is signal, you just can’t connect to it because TOO many people are also trying.

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Burnt Earth: Amboy Crater in Amboy California & Pisgah Crater in Newberry Springs, CA

When you drive through this part of the country, be it on Route 66 or even on 40, you can’t help but notice the sudden appearance of pitch black rocks everywhere that look like giant bits of coal, or chunks of burnt wood.

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IMG_7960.JPGThe first time I drove through here it was with a friend from university who has been a geology major, and he explained to me how these rocks were the result of lava rivers… but ones that exist well below the ground, but close enough to the surface that the heat from them had in fact burnt the ground above it. So it’s not lava but actually burn rocks (or at least I think that’s what he said… this was like 20 years ago)

IMG_7961.JPGYou can see how the ground looks sort of burnt and cracked, like really badly burned wood, or food. Well within in this general area are TWO craters that rise well above the ground, and are actually evidence of Volcanic activity, i.e., those underground rivers of lava actually making it to the surface and trying to create mini volcanos —- or at least that’s how I sort of understand it… I’m no geologist.

Driving east on route 66 the first of these that you will pass is the Pisgah Crater

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The other crater is the Amboy Crater… not much farther east (maybe another half hour…)

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I didn’t have time nor did I feel comfortable approaching these craters alone. I would LOVE at some point in the future to go there… but I would want to do either with a guide, or at the very least a friend. Being stuck out in the middle of no-where, in the heat of the desert…  all alone… did not appeal to me (should the car get stuck, or blow a tire or something)

Bonneville Salt Flats; Wendover, Utah

The world-famous Bonneville Salt Flats is located just west of the Tree of Utah as you travel west on I-80. It is one of the few places on the planet so flat and large that you can see the curve of the planet, and so deadly that not even the simplest life forms of our planet can sustain themselves there.

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The  Bonneville Salt Flats is another place I’ve driven past on numerous occasions, but never bothered to take the time to stop and see until this visit. I discovered there are two ways to see the place… the first is the a rest stop on the north side of Interstate-80

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The second option is to enter into the park itself to where the the measured mile is located, which is where the cars race. To get there, you go to the next exit west of the rest stop. There you will find a Sinclair Truck stop, that sells a collection of Bonneville Speedway t-shirts, along with the normal truck stop selection of goods

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and that, besides the obligatory gas, has something highly unusual for a truck stop…. a cafe that serves Indian food!!!

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I was so amazed when I spotted this, that I stopped to order some lunch. I ordered Sag Paneer, one of my very favorite foods, Tandoori chicken, and garlic Nan… the waiter told me that the wait for the chicken was going to about half an hour… so I told him I’d be back… and headed out to see the speedway

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This picture was actually taken on the way BACK to the truckstop

From the truck stop you drive down Leppy Pass Road, taking the curve in the bend onto the Bonneville Speedway Road (a two lane black top road along side which you’ll find a lot of people parked in campers)

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As was this one… (note the mountains)

For some reason the map won’t embed the map, so follow this link to show the spot of the final location: https://goo.gl/maps/qSFXak8XWEP2

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IMG_4628.jpgWhen I got there I was told that there was actually a race going on, and it would cost $20 to go out on to the salt flats… I told her I actually had to get back to the gas station because I had ordered lunch… and could I just take photos for now of the entrance way, and then come back after I had eaten (at which point I would pay to enter the area). She said yes, and directed me where to park.IMG_2372IMG_4629

After these photos I headed back to the cafe and had my lunch…. I also ordered a sweet lassi to drink with it.

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All of it was very tasty, but unfortunately the cook had undercooked the chicken thighs (my favorite part of the chicken too)… so he took it back in to have it cooked some more, and the chef for some reason opted to deep-fry it, meaning I still couldn’t eat it (not allowed deep-fried food).

And that’s when I suddenly had an urge to go to the bathroom (as in I really needed to poop all of a sudden). While there, for some reason…  I had the very bad luck of getting seriously sick. I was sitting on the toilet, pooping, and that black veil dropped in front of my eyes warning me that I was about to pass out. I put my head between my knees, started shaking and sweating really badly (as in heavy drops of sweat were falling off my forehead onto my glasses)… while sitting in what I knew was a cool room. I tried to stand up a few times and almost passed out each time, forcing me to sit again, and put my head right back between my knees… I tried pulling my pants up, but didn’t have the strength to do it. I was forced to ask a complete stranger to help me get my pants up. She, however, didn’t speak english; so, I asked her to please get someone who could — she spoke enough to understand that. It took her a while but she brought a guy from the shop, who translated to her what I wanted, while asking me if he should call 911, but warning me that the hospital was very far away and it could take them 20 minutes to get there. I told him not to. She helped me, and then I staggered over to the sinks and held on to them, still shaking horribly. She opened the faucets and started splashing my head with cool water, which actually helped.

When I started to feel a bit better I staggered over to the restaurant, paid my bill (poor guy must have thought I’d run out on it), sat at a table and put my head down on it and just stayed like that for about 20 minutes…. then with baby steps I got back to the car… guzzeled water I had there and waited for my head to clear so I could drive the almost 2 hour drive… I was actually pretty proud of myself all things considered

As such, I was only really able to glance at the salt flats before forced by illness to head directly towards my next hotel where I could rest … because to quote The Bard, “discretion is the better part of valor” —Henry IV, Part I, and while I am aware he meant it as a joke, I prefer its idiomatic usage, because it has a great deal of truth to it.

Halls Gap & Grampians National Park, Victoria, Australia

If you’re traveling around the state of Victoria in Australia, and want to visit Grampians National Park, which lies about three hours northwest of Melbourne, or a full five and a half hours drive south-east of Adelaide, take my suggestion and seriously consider a stop in the small town of Halls Gap. Based on my own perusal of google maps, of all the various ways into the park (which is a fairly large 646 square miles), Halls Gap is the only one ‘organized’ to support tourists’ needs. It is located on the side of Grampians that is closest to Melbourne, and its the only place where I know of where you’ll find a specially trained and staffed “Information Office” who are ready to provide you with suggestions of what to do while there; and it’s also where you can pick up things like hiking or driving maps, or arrange for various tours of either the parks or of one of the nearby vineyards, book a golf time, book lodging for the night, etc. (If it’s anything like the information offices alongside Roosevelt National Park in the states, their computer’s are organized to tell you which hotels still have availability for that night — but don’t hold me to that as we weren’t looking for lodging.)

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Our first stop was at the information center for maps, and then we went to the nearby Brambuk Aboriginal Cultural center & Bush Tucker Cafe, for a bite to eat (I strongly suggest checking out the Cafe as it specializes in the unique foods and flavors that the native Aboriginals and original European settlers to the Bush would have experienced.. but, that said, the cultural center was kind of a major let down and only suggested if you have time.)

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After that we drove into the park itself….. Because this visit was on February 10th, only about two weeks after I fell down and went boom on Jan 25th, giving myself the worst concussion of my life, our visit was limited to easily accessable by car locations… so no hiking for me, not even a little bit. Just sitting in the car, being driven around and seeing new things was exhausting for my brain at that point. Getting out of the car to experience the lookouts was about all I could manage.

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Our first stop was at Boroka Lookout

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The first time I tried to take a picture of the friends that I was visiting the park with they had their faces completely in the shade, making taking a photo of them almost impossible. The picture of me (above) was me trying to show them an awareness of light what was necessary in order for them to be well-lit in this harsh/high-contrast light situation (things photographers know); that said, the woman on the left is the friend who I was staying with (who serendipitously for me was a former registered nurse, so she perfectly understood my limitations at that point).

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Before this photo I had them do a little dance (“go left, no, not that far, yah stay there”) in order to make sure they were well-lit

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Our next stop was at Reeds Lookout and balconies …. apparently from the car park & lookout there’s an easy walk to the balconies, but like I said, I was not physically able at that point to do even that. That said I found a REALLY well done video on YouTube that someone made of the walk and the views I would have seen had I done it:

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That said, we met up with a fairly large group of bikers, while at the lookout
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After this we headed to Bunjil Rock Shelter, one of the many Aboriginal religious sites scattered throughout Australia, and then home.