Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 in Review

This is the last week of 2013. So much has happened in this very eventful year.

On the top of the list is the passing on of my dear Ah Pa. If he were alived, he would be celebrating his 72 birthday next year. This sudden passing is a poignant reminder of the vagaries of life. I felt so helpless when I was in the hospital. No matter how much money or power I had, there was no way to bring him back.

Another important event is my decision to work part-time for second half of this year. There were habits to inculcate and values to instill into my two boys under my charge. I have sought help but others could turn down when the going was tough. I could not as I am their mother. It is a 24/7 job with no day off and no pay. However the greatest reward is to see the boys mature and become more sensible day by day.

I also experienced first hand of being sandwiched between two generations when my mom needed medical attention. Life was a constant shuttling from my place, clinic, hospital and my mom place. This was on top of the ferrying of my boys to-and-fro school. Things became more challenging when my husband was out of town.

Yet I managed to find time to resume my blog this year and to attend my toastmasters meeting. Many thanks to Ramana, Reuben and fellow toastmasters who have been so generous with your advice and help. Writing my blog calms me. Participating in toastmasters meeting energises me. Being with positive people makes me look at the bright side of life. It was also this year that I earned my Advance Communicator, Silver and Competent Leader Award. I may have taken a few years to do so. But I am enjoying the journey and making progress.

Today, I played a 18-hole golf game. I was pleasantly surprised of my drives and shots which have made new personal records. Close friends would know of the struggle I had learning golf. I picked up some really bad habits which were straining my back. Subsequent unlearning and relearning was a very painful process. I am amazed by my tenacity. There were times which I was actually deteriorating in my game, completing the game with a much bigger score than I previously managed. I persevere because I love husband and would like to take care of him in our game.

In a sense, playing golf is like living our life. There would always be challenges. It is important that we do not give up and keep working at it. One day, we will see light at the end of tunnel. 

believe that things in life happen for a reason and I will try my best to get through each challenge. I will keep moving and improving myself.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Antarctic Adventure and Shopping Fun in Christchurch

On our last day in NZ before we headed to Christchurch Airport for Singapore tomorrow, we checked out The Antarctic Adventure in the morning.

Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth and more than 90% covered in ice. Incredibly dangerous, the earth's 5th largest continent radiates an intimidating feeling across its untouched vast wilderness of white.

Globally important for environmental and climate research, Antarctic is also home to enchanting penguins, seals and wildlife and features spectacular seasonal light display (aurora's), stunning glaciers, ice formations and pressure ridges. On display in the centre was the little blue penguins. Being the most nocturnal amongst the penguins, they are not particularly colourful. But they do have a colourful chorus and yes, they are such great swimmers.

On the whole, it had been an awesome experience. Besides penguin watching, we were also thrusted into the Antarctic storm - the wind was bitterly cold despite the winter clothing and rubber overshoes provided. There was the Hagglund ride which gave us a taste of what it was like being a passenger in the wildest place on earth. I loved the very informative and enthralling simulated 4D cruise in the ocean to Antarctica, the short clip on the frozen sunset. There were also the amazing stories of the historically significant intrepid Antarctic explorers, such as Captain Scott.

After a quick lunch, our next stop was Re:Start Mall. Opened in late October 2011, this colourful labyrinth of shops based in shipping containers was the first retail activity in the Christchurch CBD after the February 2011 earthquake. It was a pleasant and whimsical place to stroll.

Thereafter we ventured to Westfield Riccarton. It was a well laid-out mall with lots of dining and shopping options. But there was really nothing to shout about as it was the typical shopping mall.

We then made our way to Dress-Smart Hornby. It is the South Island's only dedicated outlet centre, with over 60 outlet stores offering up to 70% off normal retail prices everyday. There are the main street favourites like Esprit, Columbia, Cotton-on as well as sports brands Adidas, New Balance, Asics, Puma and Canterbury. We did some shopping there especially for Columbia sportswear. Not only were there great savings, they carried sizes which I could fit.

Thereafter we went for a sumptuous dinner at Robbie's on Riccarton. This was our second visit here. This gorgerous and popular, Bar and Biston served pretty mean steak, pork ribs and delicious fish and chips. Not surprisingly, the restaurant had a healthy crowd. With the coupon from our motel, we could receive 10% discount and one free house wine per couple of diners. That meant more bang for our bucks.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Charming Country-like Christchurch

We experienced the rural Christchurch with a farm visit at Arion Farm in the morning. It was a no frills farm experience in a park environment.

The kids loved the farm visit as they could hand feed the goats, touch the farm animals and chase after the fowls. There was one billy goat that would follow R as R was very generous with his feed. We had to go to great lengths to distract the goat in order to open the gate without letting the goat out.


Domesticated farm animals.

Above: The goat that kept following R.

We returned to the city for a quick lunch. The effects of the devastating earthquakes in 2010/11 still remained. However, signs of the city dusting itself off and rebuilding to be brighter and better with a re-energised and closer-knit community spirit, were in full display.

Resilient Christchurch after the quake.

Thereafter we made our way to Willowbank Wild Reserve. It was a very interesting concept as the birds were allowed to roam around in the man made natural habitat for them. There were also nuggets of information about the origins of the animals.

The many animals at Willowbank.

Lovely landscape.

Native and introduced birds.

We ended our day with pizza at CBD Bar, Bar and Pizzaria in the heart of the city. This was not before a walkabout in the Asian shopping area. 

Most of the shopping places would be closed by 6 pm. This meant that we spent the rest of the night in our motor lodge, Ascot Vale Motor Lodge. It helped that there was free WIFI and laundry facilities in-house. It felt like a great vacation at home. 

The key takeaway of today's journey was a banner I read which said something to this effect "Canterbury has gone through a lot. The simple things in life are the most joyful." This pearl of wisdom applies our life too. Spending quality time together with our loved ones is the greatest happiness in life.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Captivating Mount Cook

Good morning! The sight of the quaint Queenstown and the sound of the chirping birds was refreshing. It was a beautiful Sunday here in Queenstown. We were back in our free and easy style to have a lazy morning before we set off to Mount Cook National Park. 

Aoraki / Mount Cook Mackenzie is situated in the centre of New Zealand's majestic South Island. Nothing could prepare us for out-of-this-world scenery. The remarkable turquoise blue lakes, valleys of emerald green mountains and awesome snow capped Southern Alps stretching across the western horizon.

Along the way, we were captivated by the natural landscape and scenery of the Mackenzie region. The blue glacial lakes and tussock-clad hills were mesmerising.

At Mount Cook Village, we took a short walk in the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. There we stood in awe of the towering Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain at 3,754 metres above sea level. 

Thereafter we made our way down the mountain and stopped at Heliworks for a helicopter ride to see Mount Cook up close and personal. Our pilot, Dave, a native, took us up via the Tasman valley, sharing his childhood memories of the place. On the helicopter, we witnessed the effects of the extreme forces of nature as massive glaciers scoured the land leaving a trail of lakes and rivers across the landscape. The highlight for the kids was the snow landing where they could play with the snow. At the landing, the landscape was white as far as the eyes could reach. The white was almost blinding.

On board the helicopter.

White snow and blue glaciers.

Playtime at the snow-capped mountain.

We were lucky as when we touched down, the weather condition had changed which made flying not possible.

Next we continued our drive and stopped by Mt Cook Alpine salmon for fresh salmon. We had the freshness salmon that tasted like a delicacy for the royalty - clean and delicate. This is due the salmons being farmed at high altitude with extremely cold, fast flowing water and having plenty of exercise. Only wilderness exists between the farm and the mountains, Mount Cook Alpine Salmon  is the highest altitude salmon farm in the world. Besides good food, there was also great scenery by Lake Pukake.

We then made our way to Mount John University Observatory where we had an unmatched aerial view of Lake Tekapo. We also did the Tekapo Walk.

Thereafter we proceeded to our next port of call, Christchurch. Even after we had left, the magnificent Mount Cook continued to linger in my mind.

"Falling in love with mountains is like any other love. You may, before, have been stirred by a voice or an alluring shape seen in a crowd, but there comes a time when you are suddenly aware of someone uniquely and bewitching different. So is with mountains.

Michael Gill, 1969 on a mountaineer's love affair"

I would remember the sights and sounds of Mount Cook for a long, long time.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Wilderness in Doubtful Sound

We enjoyed the warm hospitality of our motel hostess in Explorer Motor Lodge, Te Anau. She was a testament of the famed southern hospitality. She helped to book our trip to Doubtful Sound and had been most accommodating to our many requests. 

Above: Lovely Te Anau

We started our day at 7.15 am driving to Manapouri to catch the 8 am ferry. The cruise took us across the crystal clear waters of Lake Manapouri.

Rainy Lake Manapouri

Thereafter we took a tour bus bringing us to Wilmot Pass on a 22 km road which was built due to the power station. It was the most expensive road in NZ. Along the way, we learnt the flora and fauna of Fiordland's most dense rainforest and kept our eyes peeled to view Doubtful Sound far below. However the thick mist blocked the view. This was the typical weather in Fiordland where more than 260 each year were rainy days. 

There were 3 permanent and many temporary waterfalls which would pour after the rainfall. Then there was the challenging Dusky track which would need 7-10 days to complete. With the track running alongside a river, trekkers would need to wait for water level to come down. This little sanctuary also housed the Deep Cove Hostel where 12 year old children would camp for a week to experience nature.

On reaching Deep Cove, we boarded the catamaran Patea Explorer for a 3 hour cruise. Doubtful Sound is one of 14 major fiords formed 15,000 years ago in a scenic part of New Zealand’s South Island. Like all fiords, it contains fresh water in its top few yards and a much denser, colder, saltier layer below. There is little mixing between the two. Consequently, we have what is known as the deep water emergence as in what we have learnt in our cruise of Milford Sound the day before.

Onboard the cruise, we drank in Fiordland's rugged seascapes. It was like taking a step back in time where we saw the most stunning scenery of Doubtful Sound just as what Captain James Cook experienced yore years ago. During the first voyage to New Zealand by the English explorer Captain James Cook (1728–79). He skirted the fiord and made the unpopular decision not to go in. With largely westerly winds, he was skeptical of being able to sail out again if he entered it. That night, 17 Mar 1770 with the flickering light in his cabin, he charted his map and marked the spot "Doubtful Harbour".

The ethereal mist near Tasman sea was a result of the westerly wind picking up the moisture from the sea and hitting the boat. This gave Doubtful Sound a mythical feel.

Mythical Doubtful Sound

Lying at the geographical heart of Fiordland National Park, Doubtful Sound is a place of towering peaks and bush-clad islands, of twisting hidden arms and sheltered coves. It is home to a wide variety of plants and animals. A lone penguin and a colony fur seals were also spotted. Doubtful Sound was indeed an unspoilt wilderness.

Spectacular Doubtful Sound

The waterfalls here were stunning, with sheer thundering raw power on par with Niagara Falls. Millions of little water droplets splashed on us as the ferry ventured near them. When we approached one of the bush-clad islands, the captain shutdown the engine and in silence, we listened intently to the sound of the fiord. We were struck by the quality of its silence - a silence broken only by birdsong, or the rushing of a distant waterfall.  

Tumbling Waterfalls

Above: Commanding View of Commander's Peak
Below: Red flowers of NZ's Christmas tree in full bloom

The next leg of our tour was a coach ride some 2 km down the spiral tunnel hewn from solid granite to the immense underground machine hall. We arrived at the fully-operational Manapouri Underground Power Station - an fascinating engineering feat in NZ.

Left: Driving underground Lake Manapouri
Right: Power Station

Cross section of the power station 

Above: The powerful vision of Peter S Hay

Thereafter we arrived back at West Arm Visitor Centre and viewed the fascinating interpretation display on Fiordland National Park before boarding the ferry back to mainland at around 3.30 pm.

This marked the end of the trip to Doubtful Sound. We next drove back to Queenstown (Bella Vista Motel) - a 2 hour car ride. As there was still daylight, we took the opportunity to walk around the city to enjoy the spectacular alpine scenery that Queenstown boasted, with a hearty dinner by the Wakatipu lake to boot. That was not all. We were in for a treat as Christmas came early with Christmas carol. It was such a joy to be here again!

Quaint Queenstown by Lake Wakatipu

Above: Great alpine view
Below left: Christmas Carol

Friday, December 13, 2013

Milford Sound - A Safe and Beautiful Haven

We started our day at around 7.30 pm for the 5 hour car journey from Queenstown to Milford Sound.

En-route Kingston Flyer, we were mostly on mountainous roads. Our eyes enjoyed Mother Nature's art gallery showcasing a series of breathtaking artworks- the vast mountains summer collection. Surrounded by mountains which seemed to be thousands of hectares away, big clumps of snowy white clouds just above us drifted by. At times, the road in front seemed to be shrouded by mist. There were lovely valleys and majestic mountains dotted with tall, strong trees, covered with luscious green and complete with gorgeous lake. Against such a backdrop, our hearts broadened to the breadth of the lake. It was magical.

Places we passed by included Mossburn (deer capital, no we did not spot any deer there), Mavora lake, Lake Mistletoe and Te Anau. Along the way, we were greeted by grazing cows and sheep. They were carefree and at times, nonchalant. Lady Luck was smiling at us as we chanced upon a flock of sheep walking on the opposite side of the road.

The green was swopped for white as our trustworthy car cradled us up to the mountain. We drove passed Rodger's Creek and took some photograph at the Chasm. However, this had to be quick ones as the sand flies were a nuisance.

Above: Sight before Rodger's Creek
Below: The Chasm

We managed to catch the 11.45 am Southern Discoveries Cruise to see the spectacular Milford Sound - the crown jewel of NZ, and considered one of the most beautiful, must-see places on the planet.  (Fast Fact: to refer Milford Sound as a sound is incorrect. Sounds are valleys created by rivers. Fiords are valleys created by glacier.) There was only the Milford Road leading to the ferry terminal to board the ferry. No petrol stations were available past Te Anau, so it made sense to fill up the petrol tank. There was free parking available by the Blue Duck Cafe & Bar and from there it was a 10 minute walk to the cruise terminal.

We marvelled at the majestic national beauty of Milford Sound, up close and personal. The thick vegetation, comprising different species of trees with roots intertwined to grow through the cracks of the concrete rock, took a century to form. However, it would only take mere minutes to bring them down by a precipitous rainfall.

The ferry took us to the very heart and soul of the Fiord - braving through waterfall and revealing the rainbow arc as the ferry pushed its way towards the waterfall. Seals could be spotted sunbathing on the rocks. As rough winds were tamed by the majestic mountains as they channelled through. Fiords were safe havens for seals.

We stood in awe at the Australia and Pacific fault line which cut across the concrete mountain. As the ferry ventured close to the Tasman sea, the water became choppy. This was to be expected with Tasman sea at the intersection of the warm wind from Australia and cold wind from Antarctic.

Above: Australia and Pacific fault line 
Below: Tasman Sea

Our ferry docked at Harrison's Cove where we visited Milford Discovery and Underwater Observatory. There we were transported into the awe-inspiring underwater world. The key attraction was the floating underwater observatory where we descended 10m underwater for an uninterrupted 360 degree views of the magnificent rate black coral (which are white in colour!) and colourful sea creatures.

After the 2 hour cruise, we drove another 2 hours to Te Anau, Explorer Motor Lodge, to call it a day and make booking for a tour of Doubtful Sound.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dramatic Franz Josef Glacier and Picturesque Landscape

The once tranquil settlement of Franz Josef was nestled among the native forest of the West Coast and protected by the impressive peaks of the Southern Alps. Franz Josef, together with its twin, Fox Glacier, was rated number 12 of the 101 Must-Do for Kiwis. 

Today, this little town was abuzz with tourists and visitors flocking to see the stunning vista of the mountains. We had intended to take the helicopter ride but the cloudy conditions and light drizzle did not permit. We checked with Alpine Adventure before 9 am and were advised to check again at 10.30 am. 

Above: Aerial view of Franz Josef and Fox Glacier and the helicopter flight path

With some time to spare, we visited the West Coast Wildlife Centre, the official home to the breeding and incubation programme of the Rowi kiwi. Rowi kiwi was found only in the Okarito Forest, near Franz Josef, and is NZ's rarest kiwi. Through the silence, we heard the story of the kiwi. The Maori legend had it that long ago, when the trees' existence was threatened by bugs, the brave kiwi volunteered to depart from the forest canopy into the forest floor in order to save the trees. For that, it gave up living in the sun, its beautiful wings and colourful feathers. When our eyes laid on these furry nocturnal creatures, we fell in love with them instantaneously.

After our close encounter of the Rowi kiwis, we checked on the next available helicopter ride. It had been deferred again to the early afternoon subject to the weather condition. The light drizzle had been intermittent and persisted throughout the day. We decided to take a walking trail to see the glaciers. 

In our close to 2 hours hike, we left our footprints on the rocks shattered by the movement of the glaciers which had since retreated. Melted water flowed down from the mountains making melodious music. If not for the rocks in the bed, the river will have no song.

When we finally reached the lookout point, we came face to face with billions of cubic metres of solid blue ice. It was an unforgettable experience. Together with the Fox Glacier, 20km to the south, the Franz Josef Glacier cut through dramatic glacial valleys to flow into temperate rainforest. 

It was little wonder why the Franz Josef Glacier was widely regarded as the gem of the South West NZ World Heritage (a place likened to world treasures such as the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef). The glacier descended from the top of the Southern Alps into rainforest 300m above sea level - nowhere in the world's temperate climate can one find glaciers so accessible.  

At around 3 pm, we bade goodbye to this beautiful glacial country and continue our road trip with Queenstown beckoning ahead.  

Along the journey, we could see the Tasman sea. We could almost imagine the intrepid early explorers who sailed the seven seas in search of new land. The Tasman sea merged with the sky to form a tapestry of different hues of white with light tints of blue, draping down like a curtain. Mother Nature had weaved a wondrous art for us to marvel.

As we travelled, many serene scenery opened in front of us. There were mighty mountains on our right surrounding by fluffy white clouds dancing a slow waltz for us. There were water streams flowing down from atop the mountains on our left and joining the river below. The playful raindrops were drumming a cheerful tune on our windscreen. It was a harmonious medley of the elements of nature.

The picturesque view from Lake Hawea lookout was a sight to behold. The golden hue glowing from the depths of the valleys and the bright burst of lights from the clouds above, alongside the calm waters below was intoxicating. We were also treated with the majestic sight of the Crowne Range Summit.

Above: Lake Hawea
Below: Crowne Range Summit

It was about 8 pm when we reached Queenstown (Bella Vista Motel). After a long day immersing in nature's wonder, it was great to see civilization again.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

O' Hail Picton, Gateway to the South Island

Music was playing from my iPhone before the first light. It was 5.30 am in the morning. I stirred and quickly went into action. There was no time to lose. We had a ferry to catch. Little feet were running. Luggages packed as we scrambled for the door. Day 5 of our NZ journey had just begun.

We drove down to the ferry terminal to catch the early inter-islander ferry but not before a false alarm that we had arrived at the wrong place. We counterchecked our location with mobile on-the-go and found our destination in no time.

Thereafter we returned our rental car checked in our luggages and boarded the ferry. The ferry was huge and resembled more like a luxurious cruise ship with a total of ten spacious and tastefully designed decks. We were pampered by the smorgasbord selection of restaurants alongside scores of entertainment - such as movie theatres, television programmes, video arcades and many more. We settled at the family lounge to while away the 3 hour ride. Occasionally, we made our way to the sun deck to feel the strong winds that would blow our seasickness away and to soak in the wide expanse of limitless sea and mighty mountains before us. 

After a cold day the day before, we were snugly bundled up in our warm clothing. Hot spell made us uncomfortable and we changed to our sunny wear upon reaching Picton after picking up our rental car.

Our initial plan was to drive 5.5 hours to Greymouth and call it a night before continuing the car journey the next day. The good weather and long day light as we were driving along the coast line enabled us to drive another 2.5 hours to reach our next intended stop point, Franz Josef.

NZ was indeed one of the world's road trip Mecca. Along our car journey, we saw roads flanked by cherry plantations and vineyards. We were awed by majestic mountains. Our harried souls soothed by the docile nature of herd of cows and flock of sheep. We also passed by many small towns -St Arnaud, Araha, Ross Gold town, Waihura river, Arnord river, Lake Ianthe, Rainbow Ski field and many more. 

We had glimpses of the history as we made our pit stops along our car journey. One of which was Brunner town which used to be a mining town, what that remained today was a designated historical lookout point.

Top left: vineyard 

We reached Franz Josef Glacier at around 8 pm and managed to book a family unit at Bella Vista Motel, to put up for the night. The exploration of the glacier would begin tomorrow.  

Above: Franz Josef Glacier town