Communion Of Dreams

Scenes from a trip: they’re taking the choir to Isengard!*
December 20, 2011, 12:48 pm
Filed under: movies, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Tolkien, Travel, YouTube

Today is cloudy and a bit grim. No, I’m not talking about being in New Zealand. I’m talking about here, in mid-Missouri. The winter solstice is just a couple days away. And I think I have been putting off this last installment of our New Zealand adventure because I don’t really want it to be over. It was, after all, a far green country.

* * * * * * *

We had breakfast, then waited with other members of the group who were going on a bit of a private tour. No, nothing connected with the Choir. This was a LOTR tour.

Most of my friends and readers will understand exactly what that means. But just in case . . .

Lord Of The Rings was a three-movie adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s epic of the same name. Most people know that it was filmed in New Zealand by director Peter Jackson. And as a result, there is lots of LOTR-related tourism throughout the country. You can easily spend weeks in New Zealand, just doing that. There’s a great book on locations from the movies, if you’re interested.

We opted for occasional mentions from Helen, our Choir guide, combined with this 4 hour specific tour with Pure Glenorchy.

The vehicles rolled up. Four medium-sized SUVs. The drivers/guides were all pleasant, typical Kiwis. We had some laughs over the absurdity of our fandom for the movies/books. But hey, this was probably the only time we were going to make it to New Zealand, right? And where else would you get to:

Visit Lord of the Rings Locations and take a journey with us deep into Middle Earth. Explore Isengard, Wizards Vale, Lothlorien Forest, the Dead Marshes, The Misty Mountains, Ithilien and many more. Stories and secrets will be shared by guides who have a great insight into the filming.

* * * * * * *

We rolled down the highway, heading towards the hamlet of Glenorchy. This is a place about 45km from Queenstown, and is so small it has no police force, two pubs, and a “library” the size of a garden shed which is open two hours a week. When the weather is nice. No, I am not kidding. The Queenstown folk consider it something of a hippie retirement community.

It is also quite beautiful. Here’s a shot looking towards Glenorchy from the highway leading in:

* * * * * * *

As it happened, the driver of our SUV was Mark, the owner of the tour company. Young (late 20s/early 30s), outgoing, and well informed. He knew the locations and a lot of the history of the films quite well, and had fun telling us about related stories. How many people took time off from their regular jobs to go play extras in the films, since the pay was good, they were well fed, and got to be outdoors. How the caterers learned to feed the extras playing Orcs separately from the rest of the crew, since said extras tended to run roughshod over the food like the characters they portrayed. How the local rancher who owned a lot of the property where the filming was done managed to make a tidy profit off licensing his land for use, and so build quite the little odd mansion in the middle of nowhere. And so on.

We stopped first here:

From the best I can tell, we’re standing just about where the tower of Orthanc was in the movies.

And here’s a shot of the current filming for The Hobbit:

Yeah, you can’t really see much. Sorry. But you didn’t see it here first.

* * * * * * *

We next went into the Mount Aspiring National Park, a primeval red beech forest. The location is protected such that it is illegal to take anything out of the park, or to leave anything in it, for environmental reasons.

Which presented some real challenges for the film crews which filmed the scenes with the attack of the Uruk-hai and the death of Boromir, according to our guides. But we saw where Boromir died, then had a pleasant lunch.

Following that, it was back to Queenstown.

* * * * * * *

After dropping off things at the hotel room, Martha and I decided to go up the gondola and enjoy the sights. Here are some pictures:

* * * * * * *

After tromping around Queenstown just a bit following our trip up the gondola, we got back to the hotel in time to meet the rest of the group for our last adventure: taking the TSS Earnslaw across Lake Wakatipu to the Walter Peak High Country Farm.

The steam ship is about to celebrate its centenary, and is a delight to explore for anyone who appreciates old machinery. The trip across the lake was about just long enough to enjoy a pint of beer.

Dinner at the Walter Peak High Country Farm was quite enjoyable, and the view of Queenstown across the lake at sunset gorgeous. The display of “working” dogs and sheep sheering was of little interest to me. I’ve seen both done before, and better, and not at the end of a long trip when I was both tired but not really wanting to leave yet. I decided to forgo another beer on the return trip across the lake.

* * * * * * *

When we got back, there was a final gathering in the hotel dining room for all of us on the tour. A bittersweet farewell not just because the tour was coming to a close, but also because the Choir was going into a period of dormancy. It had a good 10-year run, but now many of the key participants wanted a break. There’s nothing wrong with honest sadness at the close of any adventure, and not all tears are an evil.

* * * * * * *

The trip home was uneventful, less unpleasant than it could have been, even though it was incredibly long. I think that Monday for us was some 42 or 43 hours altogether, until we finally made it in the door and back to life as we know it.

Jim Downey

* From this, of course. Which kept running through my head the whole time we were in that beautiful valley where Isengard was located:

Scenes from a trip: beyond standing room only.
December 12, 2011, 9:11 am
Filed under: Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

The cold made the clouds that much more threatening. And sure enough, we had snow as we headed into the Southern Alps.

* * * * * * *

Dunedin is on the Eastern shore of the South Island. We headed almost due west towards Queenstown, which is on Lake Wakatipu, just a little ways inland from the West Coast, on the lee side of the bulk of the mountains. Getting there means winding on a lot of mountain roads, all of it through beautiful country. I was glad I wasn’t driving and could just enjoy the scenery (and not worry about road conditions).

We stopped at the small town of Arrowtown, an old gold-mining community not that far outside of Queenstown. It’s now mostly a tourist/vacation destination, and they’ve done a lot to maintain the historic feeling of the place. Many of the buildings date back to the early days of the town (mid-late 1800s), and there’s a ton of great little shops and restaurants/bars there.

* * * * * * *

I had been waiting to get to Arrowtown for one primary reason: Pounamu, the New Zealand nephrite jade which is also colloquially called ‘greenstone’. I mentioned that I had been on the lookout for some of this stone while in Dunedin. But Helen (our tour-guide) had said that Arrowtown was one of the best places to get the stone, and jewelry/art created from it.

I wanted a couple of pieces of jewelry as gifts. But I also wanted a rougher piece for my own, to fashion into a tool.

Pounamu was highly prized by the Maori for use in making tools and weapons. For generations it was fashioned into chisels, axes, and adzes. While I very much appreciated the beauty of the many pieces of art I had seen created using Pounamu, for me the most memorable souvenir of the trip would be a bookbinding tool called a ‘folder’ made of greenstone. I didn’t expect to find one ready-made, but rather to find a piece of the stone which I could shape to my own use.

And I did. It’s about 5″ long, roughly an inch tall and an inch wide, slightly tapered towards the ends. One side is already highly polished, the others relatively smooth. I’ve already used it as is, and need to spend some more time with it before I decide whether it needs more shaping or not.

Another good thing – while a small piece of greenstone fashioned into jewelry can be quite expensive, this large and relatively unworked piece was about $25. The perfect memento of the trip, as far as I’m concerned.

* * * * * * *

After doing our shopping, Martha and I settled into a nice little cafe and had a late lunch. The weather had mostly cleared off, and it was a pleasant time just sitting there and relaxing before rejoining the rest of the tour group.

* * * * * * *

We made one last stop on the way into Queenstown, at the Kawarau River bridge. It’s a gorgeous place, and also the first commercial bungee-jumping operation. No, I did not jump. Over 50 + over-weight + high blood pressure = bad idea to seek out high-G forces for fun. I’ve gone sky diving and done other crazy things when I was younger, and am happy to enjoy those memories as memories.

* * * * * * *

Queenstown is a lovely place. The city is well known as New Zealand’s center for adventure tourism. Its location on the edge of the Southern Alps means that it is well positioned for skiing, jet-boats, white-water rafting, and so forth, not to mention such mundane activities as hunting and fishing. It very much has the feeling of being a university town, say like Boulder CO, though there isn’t a university there.

We rolled into town, got to our hotel, located right on the lakefront. Got settled, then did a bit of exploring in the downtown area (which is quite small – just a few blocks total.) The choir had a rehearsal.

* * * * * * *

ML and I went over to where the choir was rehearsing, to get set up to sell CDs. It was a small but very warm & friendly church by the name of St. Peter’s. It was clear from the outset that the local Welsh community had gotten the word out about the performance, and a number of the church members were there to help us get settled into place.

This was to be the “farewell” concert for the tour. We couldn’t have asked for a better venue or crowd. The space was small enough that it felt very intimate. And it was packed to the gills. All the pews were filled. Extra chairs were put in the aisles. People crowded in the back, standing. One of the church members had to actually put a sign on the door announcing that the church was over-filled, and no one else would be admitted.

Not only was the space full, but the crowd was very enthusiastic, both with their applause and with their participation. I swear, the Welsh must have an extra gene which compels them to sing at any opportunity. That church was bursting with sound and love.

And we sold a bunch of CDs.

* * * * * * *

Following the concert, the choir was hosted to an informal reception in the church meeting hall. Refreshments and good company were served and savored.

I was exhausted as we walked the couple of blocks back to the hotel. Nonetheless, we stopped for a bit and enjoyed the fireworks being set off on the lakefront. It was Guy Fawkes Night.

Tomorrow would be our last full day in New Zealand.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: sights, sounds, tastes.
December 8, 2011, 2:29 pm
Filed under: Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel, Weather

The morning clouds promised rain. And they made good the promise.

* * * * * * *

We got up, breakfasted, then climbed on the bus for a bit of a poke around the sights of Dunedin. First we made a stop at the steepest street in the world (seriously – hard to tell from the pictures, but it’s pretty damned impressive). The story goes that the city was laid out by planners in London who had never been to New Zealand and didn’t think that the reports of the topography of the area could possibly be correct. So they just laid out everything in a nice grid, and let the locals cope best they could.

True or not, makes a good story.

* * * * * * *

Then we climbed up to Signal Hill overlooking the city. It was here that the clouds turned to actual rain, forcing not only the members of our group to run for cover, but likewise a vanload of students from the University of Otago who had a bunch of seismic sensors set up around the Centennial Monument.

We wound back down into the city, to the gorgeous Dunedin Railway Station.

I’m not usually a big fan of Victorian/Edwardian ‘gingerbread’ architecture – such ornate structures are a little too self-congratulatory for my tastes (even though our house falls into this category…). But there is no doubt that this station is a wonderful example of the period, and the level of craftsmanship on display in almost every facet of the building is remarkable and something I can respect. The large booking hall has an intricate mosaic tile floor made up of some 750,000 individual tiles, and looks stunning. Likewise, the contrasting black/white of the building’s exterior stone is very striking. The whole thing underwent extensive refurbishing in the 1990s, and shows it.

* * * * * * *

Following a couple of other stops, we got back to the hotel in time for lunch. Martha and I decided to go check out the Speight’s Brewery just around the corner, where they have a nice restaurant/cafe.

The lunch was good – and there was a whole lot of it, as we had come to expect. The beer was even better, on a par with most of the decent micro-brews I’ve had at brew-pubs in the States.

After, we did a bit of walking around, then went back to the hotel to rest before the late-afternoon rehearsal.

* * * * * * *

The rain started up again, and the temperature dropped. I got a little take-away Chinese food to have in the hotel room for when Martha got back from her rehearsal. There wasn’t going to be time to get a real meal before the concert that evening.

The concert was just a couple of blocks from our hotel, at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the Octagon. It’s a beautiful old church, and certainly something to see.

But that night it mostly felt cold and almost aloof. The nasty weather kept attendance to the concert down, so it felt like the large space of the cathedral was empty. Further, there was a problem with the sound system, meaning that the usual chatter and introductions from the Choir Director couldn’t be understood through most of the space – even trying to project her voice didn’t work very well, and most people were completely befuddled as to what was going on. When the choir took a break in their performance, a lot of people thought that they were finished and just left.

My friend ML and I again tried to sell CDs. We failed dismally.

* * * * * * *

Following the concert, there was a very nice reception for everyone in the church basement meeting area. There we could actually hear what people were saying, and the whole atmosphere was warm and friendly, with tea and cookies/small cakes that were just delicious.

We stayed a while, headed out when the rest of the choir went to go. Though Helen, our guide, offered to make arrangements to have taxis on hand, Martha and I just elected to walk back to the hotel.

I decided to pop in to a little Greek place across the street from our hotel for a little something more substantial. The fellow who owned the place was friendly, but barely spoke any English. His Gyro was one of the best I’ve ever had.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: a bit of the ‘old country.’
November 25, 2011, 6:00 am
Filed under: movies, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

The cold & wind of the night before was part of a front moving in. So the morning came with a brilliant blue sky with few clouds and a significant wind chill.

* * * * * * *

Breakfast was . . . a disappointment. There was plenty of everything, but all of it was lukewarm. Here’s what I noted on Facebook at the time:

Bright & surly this morning. Our hotel specializes in gorgeous views and somewhat tepid breakfast. As this included the coffee, I’m not sure the trade-off was worth it.

One got the impression that the Peppers Resort wasn’t really set up to handle groups.

We packed up, loaded up the bus, popped down to the shore of Lake Tekapo where there is the Church of the Good Shepard, a popular tourist spot. It’s quite picturesque, and good images of it can be found here, but it’s also in the distance in this image I took the day before:

We’d hoped to be able to get in to see the church interior, perhaps for the choir to have a chance to sing in such a beautiful spot. But the local caretakers weren’t willing to open it up for our group. Surprisingly. So we had to settle for just looking around the outside, sheltering from the cold wind as best we could.

The bus was warm and welcoming.

* * * * * * *

We drove southeast, through the Mackenzie Basin, a largely empty place popular with tourists, particularly people who like to do gliding (air currents from the Southern Alps make it ideal some times of the year). It’s probably best known outside New Zealand for being the ‘land of Rohan’ from the Lord of the Rings movies.

* * * * * * *

Dunedin (pronounced “done Eden”) was our destination. We rolled into the town in the early afternoon, during a rainstorm.

After getting settled in our hotel, Martha decided to just rest a bit in the room. I opted to go out and about with our friend ML, exploring the city.

We headed down the main street, towards ‘the Octagon.’ Which features a large bronze statue of Robert Burns. That, and the bagpipe-playing buskers, kinda give some indication of the history of the city. Yeah, it was settled by Scots in the middle of the 19th century, and it has maintained a strong Scottish identity to this day. Lots of restaurants and pubs have a Scottish/Gaelic flavor.

ML and I walked pretty much the full length of the main commercial street, pausing to look into this or that shop. I was on the lookout for some nice greenstone (Pounamu – a kind of jade native to the South Island – more on this later), and ML was looking for some (more) fabled NZ woolen yarn. Between us we managed to enjoy a couple of hours walking and shopping.

* * * * * * *

After a bit of rest back at the hotel, Martha, ML, and I went in quest of some dinner, and to give Martha a chance to check out the central city. We stopped at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the Octagon – the location of the choir’s performance the next evening. The rain from earlier in the day had cleared off, and while it was chilly it was quite nice for an evening walk.

We settled on dinner at a pub near the hotel. They had good local beer on tap – I found out that it came from the brewery literally around the corner, and made a mental note to stop in there when I had a chance the next day. The pub-food we had was all very yummy, and overly generous in portion size. That was one thing we noticed at most pubs and mid-level restaurants: portion sizes were always quite large, at least as big as the (too big) portion sizes you get here in the U.S. At more upscale restaurants this wasn’t the case (also as you usually find here).

We crashed relatively early. All the travel was starting to take a toll, even as enjoyable as it was.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: into the heart of darkness.
November 24, 2011, 12:19 pm
Filed under: Astronomy, Light pollution, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Science, Space

They say on a clear night you can see forever. But would the clouds ruin everything?

That was the forecast.

* * * * * * *

We breakfasted, then loaded onto the bus for the airport. A quick and easy jaunt through the security checkpoint (the agents knew we were Americans, made quips about how we didn’t have to act like cattle in their country) and then a 45 minute flight south to Christchurch.

We met our new bus driver there – like the one on the North Island, he was friendly, knowledgeable, personable. We got a brief drive around Christchurch, a chance to see some of the damage and rebuilding going on from the earthquakes earlier this year. The choir had originally been scheduled to perform in Christchurch Cathedral. We went by to see it. Or, I should say, what is left of it. There’s still a big debate going on in New Zealand over whether it is practical to salvage *any* of the structure.

After that drive-around, we went to the Canterbury Museum and the adjacent Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Martha and I opted to walk the gardens, which was wonderfully relaxing and beautiful. Many of the plants were in full bloom, it was sunny and warm, ducks were in and out of the Avon River, there were families with children and school groups.

Then it was on to Lake Tekapo, located in the center of the South Island, up in the Southern Alps.

* * * * * * *

It was a wet and rainy drive, very spring-like, but colder than it had been up on the North Island. The landscape reminded me very much of the inter-mountain area of western Colorado, between the different ranges of mountains. We stopped for snacks along the way, and Martha discovered the joy of hokey-pokey.

We rolled into Lake Tekapo, out the other side in an instant. There’s not much there. To our hotel, an odd sort of place called Peppers Resort. Oh, it was nice enough, but the place is sorta like an apartment or condo, with a bedroom downstairs and then a large family room and fairly complete kitchen upstairs. Which was fine, except that a second bedroom was glommed-on to some of the units, and the people in that bedroom would have to access the upstairs by going through the bedroom-bathroom hallway of the other one.

Further, the units were all scattered in clusters over a fairly large campus, meaning that you had to walk outdoors for long stretches, and most of them were some distance from the meeting areas and clubhouse. It wouldn’t be bad for someplace where the weather was always warm and nice, but here it had us scratching our heads a bit.

* * * * * * *

Martha and I got settled in, then decided that since the weather was clearing, we’d walk the short distance into the small town, have a look around.

Lake Tekapo is quite lovely, and the small town is pleasant enough. Here’s a good shot of the lake, just behind the small commercial strip:

* * * * * * *

We had a large buffet dinner that evening with other members of the tour. It was quite good.

Then after, the reason we were there: the Mount John Observatory.

It’s New Zealand’s premier observatory, operated under the auspices of the University of Canterbury. Mount John isn’t all that tall – just about a thousand meters above sea level at the top – but it is located in one of the least light-polluted places in New Zealand. The lack of other ambient light sources means that it is easier to see the stars.

They took us to the top of the mountain in vans, handing out loaner parkas. Because it is bloody damned cold up there, and the wind is always intense. One of the guides said that the location held the record for highest wind speed in NZ – some 250 km/h (150 mph), and that sent the domes of the observatory tumbling.

We spent several hours with the different guides, all grad students and staff of the observatory, looking through 16″ and 9″ telescopes and with the naked eye. Unfortunately, there was a quarter-moon up, so it was harder to see the Milky Way, but it was still some of the best sky viewing I’ve had anywhere in my life, and of the Southern Hemisphere. Wonderful!

It was getting on to midnight when they bundled us back in the vans and down to our rooms.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: feelin’ groovy.
November 20, 2011, 1:27 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Art, Mark Twain, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

There’s the grey of spring, and then the grey of fall. Temps and clouds in Wellington were about the same as we had left back in Missouri, but somehow it felt warmer . . .

* * * * * * *

I looked out the window of our hotel room. I was not expecting Richard M. Nixon wearing an afro to look back at me. This was the horror of it:

I know one can become a bit overwhelmed when traveling to foreign climes, but for a moment I was wondering whether my sanity had “lit out for the provinces.”

* * * * * * *

Breakfast, then an optional tour through the city with Helen on our bus. First we went up to Mount Victoria, a gorgeous vantage point at which to enjoy the whole city (and location for a couple of scenes from Lord of the Rings). This was followed up with a visit to Te Papa Tongarewa – the national museum and gallery of New Zealand.

It’s a very interesting place, a mix of the traditional and the innovative. They’ve got a decent collection of modern art, and a lot of good stuff covering the history and culture of NZ, from the earliest settlements of the Maori to the present day. But what I found to be most enjoyable was the use of the built space inside the museum: it isn’t just simple layers of different floors, but rather incorporates multiple layers of open space/mezzanines so that you enjoy the exhibits from many different perspectives, creating a visual melding of the different aspects of New Zealand depending on where you are. It’s a very effective bit of architecture, and the museum staff make use of it very very well.

Martha, ML, and I spent several hours enjoying the place, including a break for some refreshments at one of the museum cafes. Then it was off for a walk back to our hotel.

* * * * * * *

Te Papa sits right on the waterfront of Wellington Harbor, and our hotel in the city center just a couple of blocks from the waterfront. So it was an enjoyable walk back to the hotel, past docks and seaside restaurants, then into the main shopping and restaurant area of downtown. We spent a good time just enjoying and doing a bit of shopping, then grabbed some lunch at a little local hole-in-the wall place.

Back to the hotel to relax a bit. Martha had a rehearsal that afternoon, I popped out to a grocery store and got some ‘picnic’ type items for a light dinner for us.

* * * * * * *

I always enjoy going to grocery stores in other countries. It is one of the best ways to get a handle on how local people live, and to see the differences between their culture and my own.

I’d mentioned previously I found NZ to be more like the US than like the UK or Europe. This was another manifestation of that. Yeah, there were clear differences between this grocery store and the ones at home – different brands, some different packaging approaches (such as cat and dog food in long tubes, similar to a sausage). But for the most part you could drop any American in the place and they’d feel right at home. The salad bar and deli areas were just like back home, though with meat pies and a couple of other such distinctions. There was more lamb than you’d find in most meat cases, but otherwise it was familiar. Baked goods on display were typical. Snacks and the beer/wine department like you’d find in a Hy-Vee store here.

All in all, perfectly normal.

* * * * * * *

ML and I again went with the choir when they went to the Opera House that evening, and we set up to sell CDs in the lobby. It was a great place, and was in pretty good shape, what you would expect of a classic Edwardian structure which has been renovated and cared for.

But the weather turned colder and wetter, and attendance at the performance that evening was fairly light. The performance itself, which included the Wellington Male Voice Choir as well, was quite good. We only sold a few CDs.

* * * * * * *

Following the performance, we were all invited to the Welsh Dragon Bar – a former public toilet which now plays off that history (and the Welsh connection) with their motto: “come in for a leek.” It’s owned by a Welsh emigre, and is generally considered the best (only?) Welsh pub in the Southern Hemisphere.

They’d made a bunch of Welsh & NZ finger food for the group, all of it welcome and quite tasty. The bar was mobbed, and we kept the place hopping with happy voices for a good while, some of the choir members staying on until closing time.

But not me, nor Martha. We went back to the hotel and crashed. We had to be traveling again early in the morning, catching a flight to the South Island.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: well, so much for *that* plan.
November 19, 2011, 1:34 pm
Filed under: Health, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

The clouds of morning brought rain and grey, dulling the view out the bus windows as we headed south.

But that turned out to be the least of our troubles…

* * * * * * *

So, we got up, had breakfast, lugged our bags down to the bus. The idea was that we would drive south to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, with stops at several points along the way to do some sight-seeing. This in particular was to include Lake Taupo and the surrounding area, including the Huka Falls, then on to a luxurious lunch at a winery before rolling into Wellington late afternoon.

That was the theory.

Things started going wrong when we discovered that we were one person short on the bus. A quick check found that one member of the group, an elderly woman who was a friend and supporter of the choir, was still in her room. She had gone off with family in Rotorua after the concert the day before, so had missed the discussion we’d had about plans for this morning. But she was also not feeling well, and was showing signs of confusion as they got her settled on the bus.

* * * * * * *

We were running a bit late due to the aforementioned delay and then the condition of the roads as we wound through the mountains of the central north island. Helen, our guide, tried to interest the choir and get everyone to relax with a series of CDs of local music played over the bus’s sound system. This included a bunch of what she characterized as “older folk-music” (stuff from the 1950s). Here’s how I characterized it on facebook:

…we’re talking about the Kiwi version of “Battle of New Orleans” and similar faux-Western or hillbilly stuff.

The horror, the horror . . .

I put in ear plugs. Then my noise-canceling headphones. Then I started wondering how hard it would be to break into the bus that evening and disable the sound system.

* * * * * * *

We stopped at Huka Falls. It was gorgeous:


* * * * * * *

After a stop at the nearby gift shop for snacks and postcards, we all started to pile back onto the bus.

But the elderly woman I mentioned earlier was feeling a little shaky, needed help walking back to the bus. Ron, one of the choristers, who is also a ICU nurse (and the choir’s unofficial medic when they tour), got her settled in her seat and then did an assessment of her vitals. He consulted with another chorister who is a medical professional. Together, they decided that the woman needed urgent medical attention.

We headed into the nearby town of Taupo, where there was a hospital.

* * * * * * *

It was a good decision, and probably saved the woman’s life. It turned out that she had pneumonia – a significant danger for anyone who is elderly.

We spent about 90 minutes at the hospital, as she was checked out and her condition determined. As noted, she had family who were in Rotorua, but my friend ML was tapped to stay with her until they were contacted and able to come see to the woman’s care. Why her? She’s smart, a lawyer, has a great deal of experience traveling and dealing with legal systems around the world, and wasn’t a chorister – meaning that she could miss part of the tour if necessary, and not hurt the make-up of the choir. She’s also stubborn enough to stand up to any bureaucratic problems which might occur, not to mention dealing with a cantankerous elderly woman who was more than a little certain that she didn’t need such medical fuss.

We got back on the road. Helen had contacted the winery where we had been scheduled to lunch, let them know we had a medical emergency which had messed up our plans. Once we were out of town she contacted them again, and sorted out rescheduling.

* * * * * * *

The bad news was that the rehearsal which had been scheduled for that evening with the Wellington male Voice Choir had to be canceled, because we were going to run too late to be able to use the reserved space.

The good news was that the weather cleared, and we’d be able to have a relaxed, but late, lunch after all. It wasn’t necessary to try and get through quickly.

The good news for most, that is. For Martha and I, it also meant we had to cancel our evening plans to get together with another person involved in the shooting sports, as well as her family and some friends from Wales. A shame.

* * * * * * *

We had lunch at the Mission Estate Winery in the Hawkes Bay area. It was delicious, both in terms of the quality of the food & wine, as well as in terms of the location & view.

Afterward, the choir gathered down the hill from the site of the winery, at a natural amphitheater which has been the location of many famous concerts. On this occasion the only audience were those of us traveling with them. Well, and a field of sheep.

I think we all enjoyed it. I did. The sheep seemed to. Hard to say.

* * * * * * *

We had given Martha’s phone to ML – our texting plan allowed us easy communication between the two phones, even overseas. She let us know that the family of the elderly woman had arrived and taken over seeing to her needs. She was going to require hospital care for at least several days. ML would catch the next flight to Wellington, and beat us there.

I almost envied her, not having to listen to more folk music.

* * * * * * *

We rolled into Wellington that evening. Our hotel was the Rydges Wellington – a very nice accommodation right downtown.

We dropped our bags off, then met ML in the lobby to go to dinner. Because she had gotten in earlier, she’d had a chance to scope things out in the area, and recommended a nice Dutch-inspired pub (there is a significant Dutch component to New Zealand’s history) just down the street. Some light dinner and a couple of good local ales helped my mood considerably.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: Koha a go-go.
November 18, 2011, 4:15 pm
Filed under: Guns, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Society, Travel

Looking out the window of our hotel room, clouds of steam rose from the various hot thermal springs and mud pools near the hotel and then drifted through the trees.

* * * * * * * *

Sunday morning we had some free time, with a number of different options open to us. I decided to have a nice walk in the redwoods of the Whakarewarewa forest. A little over a century ago there was an effort to see whether redwoods would grow well in this part of the North Island. They did OK, but not as well as some other species, so the effort was mostly abandoned, leaving a nice sized grove (about 15 acres) of coastal redwoods. What’s a little odd, is that they also have a mix of tree ferns. But it made for a very nice walk of about an hour.

* * * * * * *

I got back to the hotel to find that Martha had gone into town to do a bit of shopping. We didn’t have anything going on until that afternoon’s concert. I decided to try calling another contact I had concerning the shooting sports, a man named Don Perry. Don was a driving force behind the local shooting club, and one of the major players in bringing the 2013 Australasian IPSCAA pistol championships to Rotorua.

Don answered his phone, had been hoping that I would call. “Where you at?”

“At the Holiday Inn. Tell me where to go, and I’ll get a taxi out to the club.”

“Don’t be absurd. That’d cost you a small fortune. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

I think he was two minutes late. I didn’t mind.

* * * * * * *

Again, I’m going to write about this more completely for, but let me say that what Don and the other members of his club are trying to do in preparation for the 2013 IPSC event is nothing short of stunning. Seriously, they’re hard at work to take a decent-sized shooting range and turn it into probably the largest and most varied range in the world. It’s huge – everything from a score of short (25 meter) and medium (50 meter) shooting bays to a 180 and a 200 meter rifle range, and about a dozen different long-range (50 to 100 meter) bays where different tactical scenarios can be set up which competitors will have to move through. And all of these – all of them – have to have side and back berms which are 5 meters (16 feet) high, in some places almost twice that. Here’s a shot of a large CAT in the distance building one of the tall berms:

* * * * * * *

I spent about an hour tromping around the range with Don. In addition to the impressive scope of what they’re building, the site is situated in a gorgeous and mostly remote valley, which makes building the range and getting the necessary permits much easier, since it doesn’t present any kind of problem for neighboring houses or suchlike. If they can pull it all together, they will have a world class facility in one of the most beautiful locations imaginable.

When we were done, Don gave me a lift back to the hotel.

* * * * * * *

Martha and I had a bite of lunch before it was time for the choir to go to their pre-performance rehearsal. Our friend ML and I were the designated “sales team” for the choir, handling CD sales, handing out the programs for each concert, et cetera. We went along to help get things set up.

Good thing we did, too – there was a fair amount of set-up necessary at the church (St. Lukes), and the choir accompanist had forgotten something back at the hotel. ML popped out to get that, I took care of getting the display table ready and hanging a Welsh flag in the front window of the church. Handy that I had my little emergency kit with me, with 30′ of Spiderwire in it.

* * * * * * *

Since the choir was performing in a church, it was against the law to charge admission, even though the proceeds were going to help with rebuilding damage from the Christchurch earthquake. But they have this handy Maori term which is commonly used in New Zealand: Koha. The closest English is ‘donation’ or ‘gift’, but there’s more to it than that – it contains an element of respect. You show more respect, and gain more respect, by making a nicer gift/donation. So the little basket we set up had a note on it which simply said “Admission by Koha.”

Given that the local Welsh heritage society had been the ones to organize the venue for the choir, much of the audience were of Welsh settler stock, and they appreciated the choir coming. Donations were generous. And once the performance was done, more than a few people stopped by the basket to increase their Koha.

Because yeah, it was a great performance. The church was quite full, the acoustics good, the audience enthusiastic listeners and participants whenever they were offered the opportunity to join in (plus some times when they decided to join in anyway). ML and I sold a fair number of CDs, and a good time was had by all.

* * * * * * *

When the performance and chatting with the audience was all done, we loaded back on the bus. It stopped in the downtown area to drop off those who wanted to get something to eat there, but Martha and I decided to just grab something from the Bar Menu at the hotel. ML joined us, and we had a good meal, relaxing over drinks in the large lobby area. It was a good ending to a busy day.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: Do the haka!
November 15, 2011, 2:22 pm
Filed under: Art, Fireworks, Music, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Travel

Clouds of steam issued out of the bathroom. The natural gas pipeline had been repaired.


* * * * * * *

Breakfast was good. We packed up, were downstairs to wait with the rest of the group. Everyone was on the bus before our scheduled departure time – impressive!

What was also impressive was the way Helen, our guide, handled questions which would have made me throw things at people. Best example that morning was “Does the sun rise in the west here?”


* * * * * * *

We headed mostly south, towards the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. It was pretty country, like much of what we saw of New Zealand: beautiful rolling hills, lush, green, with dairy, sheep, and deer farms. To be honest, it reminded me of parts of Wales, or parts of the Ozarks. It took about three hours for us to get to the caves.

The caves themselves are a significant tourist attraction, though the whole experience wasn’t anything as horrid as many such places I’ve been. This is in part due to the delicate ecological condition of the caves, and the need to control traffic through them (as well as the impact which tourists have on the area around the caves.) The structures for bathrooms, and ticketing, and cafes, and the inevitable gift shop are all under a large clear double membrane which has air forced into the sandwich. It looks like a cross between a geodesic dome and bubble-wrap.

But it kept us dry (it had been raining most of the drive) and was a bit warmer than just being in the open. We got our tickets, went down into the caves as a group.

Nice caves, but nothing spectacular, part of a Karst plane such as we have here. Indeed, we have a cave on our own property which isn’t a whole lot smaller.

It was cool when the choir all gathered around and sang in the ‘cathedral’ of the cave. Excellent acoustics.

And then there were the glowworms . . .

* * * * * * *

These glowworms anchor themselves to parts of the ceiling of the cave, then let down long silk snares. The worm (a larval stage) then feeds off of mosquitos and other small flying insects which get caught in the snares when they’re attracted to the light of the worm.

When you turn off other light sources, the ceiling filled with glowworms looks remarkably like the sky filled with stars.

It’s very cool.

* * * * * * *

After the choir swept through the gift shop on the way out, we made our way to Otorohanga, a small town nearby. We took a break there for lunch (and shopping! Mustn’t forget the shopping! Good lord, did the members of the choir know how to support the tourist industry!)

I think it was the first time I tried the local version of fast-food: a pie. Meaning a small meat pie. Usually some combination of beef, chicken, lamb, but occasionally other varieties are available (and noted on the menu), combined with a thick sauce/gravy which might include potato or onion. All backed into a small round pie crust (about 3 or 4″ diameter, typically.) I had these a number of times on the trip, and I don’t think I ever had one which wasn’t extremely tasty.

* * * * * * *

As I noted on my Facebook page that day:

Safety quote from the morning paper: “When igniting a roman candle held between the buttocks, remember to use your free hand to protect the family jewels.”

Yeah, Guy Fawkes Day was coming. The Kiwis seem to have their own home-grown rednecks like the ones I grew up with.

* * * * * * *

We continued on to Rotorua, enjoying more of the landscape as we crossed the island heading east. After a brief tour around the city in our bus, we were deposited at the hotel to sort out rooms and get settled for a bit before our evening festivities.

From the tour itinerary:

Depart by coach to Te Puia, Maori Institute for your Maori dinner experience. Tonight you will enjoy an in depth experience of the customs and traditions of the Maori. The evening will begin with a traditional powhiri or Maori welcoming ceremony, next a warrior’s challenge and then a full kapa haka or Maori performing arts concert. Dinner tonight will be a modern version of the traditional Maori style of cooking, in a hangi pit where kai (food)– is steam-cooked by hot rocks in the earth. Following dessert, see the world famous Pohutu geyser illuminated against the night sky, while enjoying a hot drink. Transfer back to the hotel following your experience.

Actually, that’s not a bad description of what actually happened. Te Puia was pretty cool, all in all, though once again there was a touristy element to the whole thing. Seeing the haka is always fun, and the performers clearly enjoyed playing it to the hilt.

The geyser was cool. Er, you know what I mean. We sat on rock ledges overlooking the geyser, which were toasty warm from the geothermal vents, while the performers from Te Puia wrapped up the evening’s show. Well, they tried to, though the choir had to return the favor of song with a couple of pieces from their repretoire. It was enjoyed by all.

The bus came and fetched us, took us back to the hotel to crash.

Jim Downey

Scenes from a trip: You’re going *where?*
November 13, 2011, 1:06 pm
Filed under: Guns, N. Am. Welsh Choir, New Zealand, Society, Travel

After a bracing shower (there was still no hot water at the hotel) Martha and I went downstairs for breakfast.

It was touch crazy. Crowded, hectic, clusters of people swarming around the two buffets – one hot, one cold. But the food was plentiful, and good, and typical of what we found at all our hotels, so I’ll describe it here.

The hot buffet included bacon (this time American style, other times occasionally British), scrambled eggs, fried mushrooms, hot tomato halves, baked beans, and breakfast sausages. These last looked a little like the British counterparts, which are nasty, pasty things – but they turned out to be chicken sausages with a a fair amount of spice and flavor. There was also pancakes, rice, miso soup.

The cold buffet had different cereals, cold cuts of meat and cheese, yogurt, and plenty of sliced/chopped fruit. There was also a selection of different breads (and a toaster) as well as various rolls and pastries. And different juices – including kiwi fruit juice. (What we call kiwis the Kiwis call “kiwi fruit” – which makes sense and saves on confusion.)

We dove into the buzzing clouds, got our food, and escaped to the quiet of a table on the periphery.

* * * * * * *

We heard back from our bank. They had removed the block on our debit cards, said that we should have notified them that we were going to be traveling to New Zealand, which they consider a “fraud haven”. Who knew?

Anyway, we had access to our money.

* * * * * * *

Martha had a rehearsal that morning. ML and I went to the Auckland Domain, where the Auckland War Memorial Museum is located. It was wonderful. But don’t take my word for it: explore their site, and see what I mean. We spent the whole morning there, catching a taxi back to our hotel just as the choir practice ended.

* * * * * * *

I had made arrangements to meet some people involved in the shooting sports in New Zealand, for a series of articles for The first of these was in an outer suburb of Auckland. My contact had told me to catch the 1:30 ferry to Half Moon Bay, where she would meet us.

So I asked Helen (our guide) where we’d go to catch said ferry. At first she just looked at me in shock. “Half Moon Bay? Why would you want to go there? It’s nothing but a suburb. There’s nothing there.”

Of course, after explaining that we were meeting some people there, she was happy to provide full information. The ferry docked just down the hill from our hotel. Martha and I made it in plenty of time, and enjoyed the 40 minute trip up the coast.

* * * * * * *

I won’t go into a lot of detail about what we learned about the shooting sports – that’ll be covered in the articles on, which I will link here once they’re published – but I would like to share some observations from that afternoon and evening.

I mentioned in the first entry about this trip that I had expected New Zealand to be more like the UK than it actually is. Getting together with some locals was a quick way to find out how much the Kiwis are more like folks in the US. Specifically, how they’re more like most Midwesterners I’ve known. It’s always dangerous to make a generalization based on just a limited pool of experience, but this perception held true through our whole trip.

We were met at the dock by Debbie and her husband Andy. They’re in their 40s, solidly middle class. They have a nice suburban home on a cul-de-sac like you’d find just about anywhere in the States, though the yard is perhaps a bit smaller than we’re used to. She teaches their equivalent of High School, he has a factory job and runs a small side-line business doing gunsmithing. Two cars, no kids, a couple of friendly cats.

They showed us around, Andy taking some pride with his shop (clearly a working space, not just for show – and a decent selection of milling tools and other equipment I wouldn’t mind having). He opened his safe, we talked guns, they got things ready to go out to their shooting club. It was, to be honest, exactly the sort of conversation I could have had with about half the people I know here in the US.

We loaded up the car, drove out to the club, some 20 minutes further out of town.

* * * * * * *

I’m not one for ‘formal’ shooting ranges. I prefer the very informal shooting I can do on my own, or with my wife or a friend, on our property south of Columbia. I said this to Debs and Andy. They said they wished they could do the same, but this is one way that shooting sports differs between the US and NZ – any kind of pistol shooting (and most long gun shooting which isn’t hunting) has to be done at a government licensed club.

That said, their club, while meeting all the required safety and environmental regulations, wasn’t like some spotless formal facility I’ve seen in Europe. It was a little ramshackle in a very friendly and inviting way. Non-intimidating.

So were the other people we met there. Most of them were busy getting things set up for hosting a competition the next day. Again, they were just middle-class folks, doing the necessary volunteer work on their time off, so that everyone in the club could enjoy shooting that weekend.

After they introduced us and shown us the place, we went to one of the shooting areas so they could check some tweaks to one of their competition guns. Martha and I got hearing protection from a box available for visitors, Debs and Andy put their own on out of their range bags. A magazine or two of ammo satisfied them that the minor gunsmithing work was good, then they offered to let me shoot one of their guns. It was no big deal.

I felt right at home.

* * * * * * *

We went back to their place, chatted while Andy grilled some steaks and brats as we sat out on their patio. Another friend of theirs, Chris, who was originally from South Africa, joined us. He’d lived in the US for a while, where he had gone through apprenticeship as a gunsmith. He’d moved to NZ a few years back, and was as friendly and out-going as Andy and Debs.

Dinner was good, as was the company and discussion. We didn’t have anything alcoholic to drink, since after dinner they took us over to another shooting club for a .22 rifle meet.

* * * * * * *

This was a little more formal, both in terms of the facility and in how the club operates. The facility is actually government owned (local government), and rented out to several different shooting clubs which use it on different nights of the week. Because of this, they have a specific set of procedures that they go over as club business and safety protocols, but it wasn’t anything more onerous than what you’d find at most formal ranges here in the US.

Again, the others we met there were friendly and welcoming. We weren’t the only ‘newcomers’ there that evening, and I had the feeling that they were very used to having visitors and helping them get involved in shooting. At several junctures different people asked if I wanted to shoot any of the club’s .22s.

After about 90 minutes, we headed back to Debbie & Andy’s place.

* * * * * * *

They got all the guns and gear put away. We sat and had some dessert, chatted a while longer. Andy showed us some funny videos he’d seen online – stuff which I have since seen referenced by others here in the US.

Then, since they had a competition to run the next day, and we had an early departure and then a full day of travel, they drove us back to our hotel. It was about 10:00 when they dropped us off, wishing us well on the rest of our tour. I felt like I had made new friends who I’d never see again.

Jim Downey