I spent much of last week at a conference in Hamilton, about 2hrs southeast of Auckland. I gave my talk on the first day, and other people were responsible for the exhibit booth, both of which lowered my stress level for the rest of the trip.

Hamilton is the capital of the Waikato region, and has a pretty poor reputation… agriculture, rednecks (called “bogans” here), etc. If NZ were big enough to have flyover states, Hamilton would be a place you scoff at from your business class seat.

But like many such places, there are plenty of good parts. The Waikato River is nice, well-stocked with rowers and paddlers, and bordered by a miles-long bike trail.

The downtown strip is mostly unattractive but they do love them some Christmas, so that’s all right.

And…and… and… it turns out Richard O’Brien thought up the Rocky Horror Picture Show while working as a barber here. Any town with a life size Riff-Raff statue cannot be all bad. And a Riff-Raff webcam.

I took a lovely little jog around Lake Rotoroa, and my knees didn’t hurt any more at the end than at the beginning, which is an improvement over the last few weeks.

We got a nice welcoming song and dance routine from the local Iwi. I blow hot and cold about the hat-tip to Māori culture that is sort of obligatory here, no matter how white the assembled audience. This time, I found it moving and inspiring. And on the subject of inspiring, if you ever want to be reminded why healthcare technology might be a career worth pursuing, check out Terry Lee, whose life is made more bearable by all the gadgets and gizmos and high-tech stuff.

The big conference social event was at Hobbiton. I initially had mixed feelings: my third visit in under three years. But this was the first time I’d been there without rain, and we had the whole place to ourselves, an amazing buffet dinner, and so on. As we stood around the fire pit watching the jugglers and listening to the band, all doubts were erased.

It was my third time at this conference, and a pleasure to catch up with some old friends (and tell stories about others not in attendance) and some New Zealand friends who are starting to feel like old friends. I can’t say I miss the level of travel I used to do, but it was fun to be back in conference mode for a few days.

Tawapou Farm Community Planting Day

Tawapou Farm is my ex-boss Tom’s family place. A few years ago they decided to put the land into a conservation trust and (over a decade or more) restore the native plants that had been destroyed by 100 years of cattle and pine tree farming.

Now, they have a community planting day every year to further that cause. Tom’s brother, who runs a large plant nursery on the property, does all the prep work (including killing off all the existing grasses), and they put out the call for volunteers. We were replanting between a pretty little stream and a new road they’ve put in to get to the children’s homes on the coastal ridge.

The Orca Research lady had first world conservationist problems… she had to arrange special permission to park down by the work site because there had been an orca sighting in the bay and she was on call to rush off and document any repeats.

Tom’s partner Isabella’s daughter with her beau… is this a pose they might repeat some day???

I don’t know how many people actually showed up today… maybe 80-100? But many hands certainly lightened the work. We planted over 5,000 shrubs and trees in under three hours.

After, we were treated to a great lunch and a long talk about bird habitat management (which mostly means killing rodents by any means necessary).

Kiwis feel about their gumboots the way many Americans feel about cowboy boots, and there many on display. And as with cowboy boots, some looked more authentic than others.

We are sore and that will get worse tomorrow. But it was a fun morning of community and I think it will be a long-term memory of doing something that feels unequivocally “right.”

And then, the long walk from the hotel to the bar… life is good.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, in Christchurch

Jogged around this morning. After the earthquakes in 2010–2012, Christchurch was in shambles. The central city is still more vacant land than buildings. There is a lot of construction activity, but it all felt pretty small-scale. Still, NZ’s good economy is good here too, and I suppose recovery will happen as it happens.

The Bridge of Remembrance, a War Memorial.

One of the recently terrorized mosques, now guarded by a couple of bored cops and adorned with many floral wreaths.

Air time

One of the people who also arrived early for this morning’s flight to Christchurch was Gwen, pictured above. She’d been traveling for 36 hours following a cruise in Scandinavia. Missed a connection. A bit wired up. Lost her luggage.

She’s written a book about her life, reviewed above. Does a lot of motivational speaking. She took my card and said she’ll send me a copy, here’s hoping!

Zero dark thirty

I arrived at the gate 1 hour 7 minutes before departure and was the first by quite a bit. Still not used to the casual approach to domestic air travel here… but it’s a good thing.


The haul from our visit to Tom’s farm in Tutukaka the other weekend. A paua (abalone) shell, a couple of super iridescent swirly shells, and a fragment of something… but what?

I’ve always thought of myself as a words guy much more than a numbers guy. So it didn’t take long to come up with “BLEND” and “WHISKY.” And that would have been the end of it, until Google. I typed in “blend whisky jug” and scrolled through the image results for just a few seconds. Amazing. There it was on the first page.

Drumroll please… the Royal Blend Whisky by A G Thomson of Glasgow was apparently a favourite of King Edward VII. They made a lot of jugs like this one more or less 100 years ago. Somehow part of this one ended up on a tiny beach in Northern NZ. You can buy an intact example for a couple hundred bucks on Ebay and elsewhere. So my little shard isn’t exactly the wreck of the Atocha, but it was still a good treasure hunt!

Ngockin aroung Ngunguru

We are up north this weekend visiting ex-boss Tom at his family farm in Tutukaka. But the hotel there wanted way too much for a room, so we found an Airbnb in Ngunguru, the ngext towng over. Pronungciation has beeng a topic. There’s no hard G, so no gurus in Ngunguru.


Ngunguru sits on an estuary. There’s a few hundred houses, a mix of second homes, retirees, and some people who make the commute into Whangarei. Pretty sleepy.

The next morning we went for a walk around. Despite there being nothing to see, we saw a lot…

The jandal fence.

The time capsule.

A whole series of funny little ant-themed pictures on the sidewalk.

The blue car that drove off the road.

A funny sign at the golf course and sports complex clubhouse.

And more. Would you want to spend your remaining time here? I don’t think I would, but it’s always a nice surprise to find some of the “more than meets the eye” stuff that surely exists everywhere.

Hot roddin’

Last weekend we loaded the tandem into the van (I can hear some people yawning already) and headed up to Orewa to check out the Te Ara Tahuna Estuary Cycleway and Walking Track.

The ride was lovely, although we got lost in subdivisions a couple of times (welcome to Orewa, where you can check out any time you want…)

But wait, there’s more! We were apparently the only people in New Zealand who didn’t know that Orewa over Anniversary weekend means hot rods. Lotsa lotsa hot rods.

I’m not really a hot rod guy, mostly for political/ snobbery reasons… those are, for the most part, not my people. But OMG the cars are magnificent. The giant engines, clean enough to eat off. You can reach into the metal-flake paint jobs up to your elbow. It’s all good: the ball fringe, the greasy food truck smells, the Betty Boop costumes.

And of course it’s almost all Americana. There were maybe 5 or 10% right hand drive cars… the rest was pure Detroit. There were more Mustangs and Camaros than anything else. We pulled in to the sounds of Johnny Cash, and later saw a very convincing Polynesian Elvis grinding away on the little bandshell stage, mopping his face in the heat.

Part of me does wonder, back to the political/ snobbery discussion, whether there’s a need for some additional work so that the next generation of li’l rodders is more fully empowered and socially tolerant than those that came before. But in the meantime, listen to that engine roar!!

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 5: New Plymouth

Our second and final night on the road was at New Plymouth, on the West coast.

We got in about dusk and went for a walk to shake off the road. One of the first sights we saw was this eerie light hanging out over the water.

It turns out to be Len Lye’s famous Wind Wand, one of several cool pieces of public art around the downtown area. Art takes money. New Plymouth has enjoyed some influx of wealth due to offshore oil and gas exploration. The current government, with its Green Party coalition partners, has stopped that program, so things are a bit tight at the moment.

We saw more Len Lye art at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery… like a lot of more recent art that appeals to me, these pieces are conceptually so simple that I say to myself “I coulda done that,” but then I find myself saying “But I didn’t and I’m glad somebody else did, because it’s magical!”

We walked around town for a while, had lunch, chatted with a blind clarinet player who was busking on the town square, and thus inspired picked up a couple of Django Reinhardt CDs for the drive home.

On the way our of town we stopped to see the Te Rewa Rewa Bridge and walk along the seaside track.

Mt. Taranaki looms in the background. It’s a ways from NP, but the road passes relatively close by, and it’s the most amazing mountain I’ve ever seen, as big as most Rocky Mountain peaks, and just sitting there all by itself.

Of all the places we saw on this quick trip, I’m most excited to go back and explore the New Plymouth and the Taranaki region in more depth.

New Year’s Road Trip (Non-)Stop 1: Road Shots

Once we left Auckland, it was 2-lane roads all the way. The van has all the usual amenities except cruise control. There were some stretches where it would have been nice to set it and forget it, but mostly I had to pay close attention.

On the way into Palmy North, the out of date maps on our GPS had us going over the Manawatu Gorge road, but it was closed a couple of years ago due to repeated land slips. There’s a detour up a twisty mountain road that takes you right up into the Te Apiti wind farm. It had been windy all day, and the spinning turbines were quite beautiful in their way. People hate them, and talk about spoiled views and subsonic disruption and so on. But to me, they are gorgeous feats of engineering and seem so much more benign than the amount of destruction associated with coal mines and oil refineries (although a refinery on a foggy night can also be quite pretty).

Our next non-stop was to see the glockenspiel clock in Stratford. We weren’t at the right time for its twice-daily performance, sadly. Lonely Planet seemed a bit snarky about this particular Roadside Attraction.

And finally, the giant sheep shearing sculpture at Te Kuiti. Other than “awesome,” there’s really not much to be said about that.

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 4: Palmy North

Exhibit A: We first heard of Palmerston North when Sparky, a small time crook character on Outrageous Fortune, had to lay low for a while in the worst place he could think of.

Exhibit B: Then we heard Laura Daniels’s great anthem about Palmy on Jono and Ben (may they rest in peace).

Exhibit C: We just watched Bandersnatch, which was awesome.

So… pick one option about our recent trip to Palmerston North.

Option 1: we stopped in town, had a nice meal, toured the city garden, the galleries, and a quirky corn-themed museum. We even visited the landfill named for John Cleese (who said Palmerston North was a perfect place for people who wanted to commit suicide but didn’t have the courage).

Option 2: we drove right through because we were tired and only halfway to the hotel in New Plymouth.

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 3 Part 2: Lick This, Dubious Boobs, NANZ, Op Shops, and Trainworld

An overnight stop doesn’t really allow much exploring… but we were ready to see as much of Napier as we could with our Lonely Planet guide and some pre-show googling (do you capitalize the verb form???).

First stop, the Pania of the Reef statue. Lonely Planet told us the Maōri story (like a lot of the Maōri stories we’ve heard, this one involved star-crossed lovers, angry parents, and being turned into islands forever separate) and described the statue as having “dubious boobs.” After close examination I can see the argument… they did look sort of pasted on, perhaps an ice cream scoop had been used in the sculpting process.

The ice cream shop at the skatepark is called Lick This, which we thought was all kinds of awesome. Did the local Council actually approve that name?

Maybe the biggest attraction in Napier is NANZ, the National Aquarium of New Zealand. It was pretty cool… better pictures than I ever get while diving! We got there soon after they opened, and it was a good thing… by the time we left it was packed!

The Little Penguins were super cute, but the attendant had seen it all before and was glued to her phone.

For the big ocean tank you can ride on a moving sidewalk in an acrylic tunnel under the water.

We still had a couple hours, so we went into town to stroll and eat lunch. I executed the best parallel parking job EVER!

And then we stumbled across Trainworld. Lee has a longtime fondness for scale models, and train layouts are one of the best ways to indulge that interest. It’s not really about the trains… it’s the landscaping and buildings and painting she enjoys.

Like many private museums/ attractions, this one seems to run on a shoestring budget, and has seen better days. Still… some really great train layouts and worth the $10 for us.

After that, we stopped into a couple of vintage (aka thrift) shops, and scored a couple of nice prints:

Pukekos by Rob McGregor, and

Spirit of the Plains by Sydney Long.

By the time it was all said and done we left a little later than we intended, but it was a fun half day in Napier.

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 3 Part 1: Napier itself

Napier is the hub of the Hawkes Bay region. It sits on a tranquil bit of ocean…

and is famous for its Art Deco buildings. The buildings are all in the same style because all the old ones were flattened in an earthquake in 1936.

Over the years, they’ve really embraced the Art Deco brand. There’s a big festival in February, you can take guided tours in vintage cars, and no civic detail is overlooked…

We stayed in a nice enough motel right on the beachside boulevard…

Overall, a nice place to go back and spend a week, maybe? But it was kinda hot and flat and after you see the attractions (next post), maybe there isn’t really much to do there.

New Year’s Road Trip Stop 2: Esk Valley Winery

After leaving Taupo, we continued toward our first night stop in Napier. There are many wineries along the route, and we stopped in one at random. It turned out to be fairly well known, and winner of multiple awards. We got the standard tasting patter (from a guy with a very strong Chinese accent… hard to understand for us, but catering to Chinese tourists is an absolute necessity here) and bought a few bottles.

Most of the driving was on two-lane roads that make Vermont’s byways feel downright spacious by comparison. So a swig of wine was certainly welcome by this point, only a few coastal km from the destination.

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