Later on, this.
But first, I gotta talk about Emirates.
We flew them from Christchurch in New Zealand to Sydney. With their home base of Dubai in the dead center between Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, they’ve seized the opportunity to serve as a major global hub.
They’ve only got one route for all of the Americas, so we don’t hear much about them back home, but they’re taking over, and doing so with panache.
Their fleet is brand spanking new and crammed with the latest in passenger-pacifying technology. Of course, a screen built into each seat, but not with the 3 or 4 movies you usually get. They provide 150, from Harry Potter to Casablanca. All movies start on demand, with pausing and rewinding — basically a massive DVD collection for every passenger.
TV shows too. A couple dozen, including The Office, Simpsons, Seinfeld. You get three episodes from each series.
Games? Check. Forty of them.
Music? A couple hundred albums.
You can send email from your seat. Phone calls too, but that is, of course, expensive.
There are cameras mounted on the outside of the plane. You can watch the pilot’s view of takeoff and landing, or switch to the bottom view and pretend you’re a bombardier over Nazi Germany.
Free liquor, by the way. Menus at the start of the flight, and the food is fantastic.
Business class seats have a little private canopy over them. I only got a glimpse of the first class section cause there was a heavenly glow emanating from its core, but I believe I saw beds.
The one downside: every few hours you’ve gotta kneel down in the aisle, face Mecca, and praise Allah. Small price to pay, really.
We’re in Sydney now. Our taxi driver coming in was Pakistani and had lived in Dubai until some banking disaster forced him to leave. With a couple hours before bedtime, we asked for his advice on what to do with a Saturday night. He shared with us his eclectic tastes.
"If you like gambling, you can go to the Star City casino. If you like fun…fun in the sense of gambling…you can go to the Star City casino."
We opted for bed.
After a month in South America where most folks are just trying to get through each day, it’s refreshing to see this.
Took the obligatory walk to the opera house.
The place was buzzing because of the state funeral for Kerry Packer — evidently some charismatic media magnate. He was important enough to get the smarmy Prime Minister to show up, Russell Crowe read a poem, and Tom Cruise flew down with his zombie seed vessel in tow.
The press feigned outrage at a woman in her third trimester taking a fifteen hour flight. I don’t think they fully considered the benefits of Maverick’s private jet. Not exactly ValueJet coach.
Through the glass you can see the wait staff being instructed never to look Russell Crowe in the eye.
…yes, I’m now writing Jay Leno jokes.
Folks glommed around the entrance, no doubt to glimpse the raw, brooding manliness of their Prime Minister.
As the "mourners" rolled out, there was not a celebrity in sight, so we had to start making up our own.
That’s Prince William.
Cameron Manheim from The Practice. Guess she’s put the weight back on.
Stanley Tucci, looking fabulous.
We checked out the Sydney Museum of Whatever We’ve Got Lying Around. They had a big mineral and crystal display, which Melissa was giddy to check out. I never knew to be interested in that sort of thing, but it was actually really neat.
We visited the Sydney aquarium — one of the best anywhere. Their shark tank is a fine spectacle.
Found a great spot for a dancing clip.
Had to run back there first thing the next morning so we could have the giant window to ourselves and avoid the Asian snapshot brigade. It worked.
And that was our visit. Tomorrow we head up to Brisbane for five easy days catching up with old friends. Sort of a vacation from our vacation.
But wait, I promised dolphins. I must deliver dolphins.
The day after finishing our Routeburn hike, we flew to Christchurch with the hopes of renting a car and driving up to Kaikoura. That plan went pear-shaped quickly. We called several dozen rental offices from the airport and found them all sold out. They actually laughed at our inquiries, as if a car rental place would have any cars available to rent.
A humble suggestion for the people of New Zealand: buy more rental cars.
We eventually found one place that MIGHT have a station wagon in a couple hours, assuming it was brought in on time. That panned out, and the wait gave us an opportunity to explore Christchurch.
Lovely place. Great atmosphere. Just the right size, and with easy access to all the South Island and its myriad leisure activities.
I speak now to you, the reader. If the opportunity arises to work and live in Christchurch for a year or so, don’t blink. Take it. Even if it’s washing dishes, take it. I say that knowing it will never happen, as there is a mile-long cue of young Europeans biding their time in hostel beds, waiting to don the disposable plastic gloves of a Subway cashier.
Our trip to New Zealand was essentially a one-week "Best of" compilation from my longer visit three years ago. The two best things I did on the previous visit were trekking and kayaking with dolphins, both of which I was eager to do again.
I’ve been a broken record about the kayaking thing for years. It was sublime in a way I can’t put words to. It gave me my happy place. I return there in my mind, often. I wanted Melissa to know what I’d been going on about.
We called the kayaking office from a pay phone in Christchurch. The guy said it was unlikely they’d be seeing dolphins anytime soon. The brief window when they come close enough to shore starts in late February and ends in March. We were a couple weeks early. Nevertheless, he said they were going out at 4:30pm and we were welcome to join if we could make it in time.
By the time we got the car, we had less than two hours left and a two hour drive ahead of us. Melissa felt, with quite a bit of logic backing her up, that it would be sensible to slow down and go kayaking the next morning instead. But I had this thing in my head telling me we had to get there now, that it had to be today.
When we got to the office, they’d left already. The woman at the desk said they took an extra kayak along in case we showed up and we could still try to make it.
We raced across town and found the kayaks sliding into the water. Seconds to spare.
It was us, a British couple, and a guy from Ireland. The guide was named Matt. He remembered me from three years ago.
I told him I was hoping for a repeat of what I saw last time. He said it’d been weeks since they’d seen any sign of dolphins, and twice in a lifetime was probably too much for me to hope for. But we’d have no problem seeing lots of seals.
As luck would have it, Matt happened to be making a new brochure and he had a professional photographer along for the ride. We struck a deal to get all his shots burned on a disc for $20. This precluded the need for us to bother taking pictures. It also meant the images were a hundred times better than either of us could’ve taken. And since he was getting paid for it, we got loads of personal glamour shots thrown in.
I call that las t pose Desert Sunset.
And that one is Leathery Squint.
This one is very particular and difficult to achieve. I call it Tom Cruise Playing in the Park with His Adopted Children. Perhaps it was presciently inspired.
Melissa did well too.
She also got some doozies.
I call that one Cannonball Run Blooper Reel.
And that one, well…some things are beyond naming.
The goofy expression materialized as we watched a seal eat an octopus, so it was by no means unwarranted.
The seal would isolate one tentacle at a time between its teeth and jerk it out of the water, hurling the still-vaguely-alive octopus through the air like a pinwheel. Once the tentacle was removed, the seal would gulp it down whole.
The joyous feast continued until only the central hub remained. Finally the seal bit down on its head, bursting the ink sack and turning the surrounding water a murky black.
Disgust and fascination battled to a standstill.
Around this time, our guide noticed a big blue boat moving toward us from across the bay. More than a little surprised, he called out "Paddle! Everyone paddle like your life depends on it!"
Melissa and I led the pack. We got about a hundred yards from the whale watching boat, stopped, and waited. A few heads bobbed on the surface between us and the boat. It was a pod.
Matt shouted, "Here they come!"
And they did.
Pardon the analogy, but it’s like having a host of angels swarm around you. They have an overwhelming energy. They come from a better place. They’re fully aware of your presence and willing to, ever-so briefly, warm you with their glow.
They also want you to see all the cool tricks they can do.
These are not trained animals. There are no hoops. No one is handing out fish. It’s Duskys. These guys just love to soar.
From past experience, I told Melissa to start paddling. They followed alongside us, racing. Some leapt out of the water and splashed us coming down.
This was what I wanted to share. This was my happy place. And now it’s hers too.
That’s one of several shots I wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of getting. It’s like shooting clay pigeons.
As quickly as they appeared, they were gone. Something like that can’t last more than a moment. But a moment was enough.
Matt took us back across the bay to whaler’s point. The small peninsula used to be a busy whaling station. I went there on foot on my last visit and was struck by the stink of death that hung over the place. Matt confirmed the weird knack animals have for dying on that little piece of land. He pointed to a nearby cliff where grazing sheep routinely plummet to their deaths.
The image this conjured almost made me flip the kayak from laughing so hard.
Matt showed us how to kayak surf.
We started back to shore.
From now on I’m bringing a professional photographer everywhere I go.
On the way we spotted gajillions of tiny creatures clustered together in the water.
Krill maybe? No, too small. I’m not sure what it was, but it probably has something to do with the incredible abundance of macro ocean life that hangs out in the waters of Kaikoura.
We finished the kayak trip, both of us still glowing. To top it all off, it was Valentine’s Day, so I was off the hook for my part and Melissa treated me to a fancy dinner.
With the dolphin thing checked off, we had the next day to just kick around. Whale watching was a fairly obvious option, especially since Melissa had never seen one. But the boats are clogged with the buttpack set and I’m generally skiddish about anything that involves hordes of people taking snapshots in a large vehicle of any sort.
Another option, surprisingly not much more expensive, but still very pricey: sperm whale spotting plane rides.
Sperm whales are elusive. They feed in the open ocean at incredible depths. There are few places on Earth where they come close to shore with reliable frequency. And of them, even fewer are in countries with the infrastructure to support commercial tracking.
Kaikoura is at the top of a very short list.
The town’s surrounding waters have a unique topography; dropping off into the abyss just beyond shore. Down at the bottom is who-knows-what. Giant squid, very likely, as they’d attract the sperm whales. Whatever it is, it brings in just about everything with a blowhole.
We opted for the plane ride. It’s very short — no more than 30 minutes. But they usually know where the sperm whales are, go straight to them, and circle around until the whales fill their lungs and dive.
We got a few glimpses.
The pictures are fuzzy. My camera isn’t ideal for long-range photography, but I did my best.
Unlike the more common humpbacks, sperm whales aren’t very gregarious. They pay no attention to humans unless those humans are firing harpoons at them. And when that happens, the attention they pay isn’t the kind you want.
This shot gives a reasonable idea of scale.
The three we saw were fairly young bulls, nowhere near full-grown. It wasn’t quite the spectacle we’d hoped, but still pretty neat to see them from the air, head to tail.
With some extra flight time paid for and no more whales to be seen, the pilot gave us a pleasant tour of the surrounding inland area.
The next morning we drove back to Christchurch for the aforementioned flight to Sydney. We drove behind a pick-up truck with a freshly-gutted boar flashing its innards at us.
Once again, disgust and fascination did battle. This time, disgust won.