what a croc!

pseeing yellow water

we seen a croc ‘r two in kakadu, and they been seein’ us, too

on patrol in the yellow water billabong

it took a while for us to figure it out. why would “yellow water” make the “must see” list of tourist attractions in australia’s northern territory ? “yellow water” sounds like a sewage pond.

certainly not a holiday to die for. maybe to die from.

my first thought when i saw the sign was, maybe it’s a warning. like “yellow fever region”? on second thought, maybe it’s a urinal, asking for contributions. maybe i could help out.

actually, the visit to yellow water, or ngurrungurrudjba in the language of the traditional owners of the land, the gagudju people, was possibly the highlight of our maiden visit to ‘the territory”. it’s a billabong in kakadu.

yep, ngurrungurrudjba is a billabong in kakadu. maybe a word of explanation is in order.

let’s take billabong first. it is several things. first, it’s an iconic aussie surfwear brand. it’s also a naughty four month old shoe thief who’s the newest member of the family.

billabong caught in the act

for our purposes here, though, billabong refers to the stagnant ponds that remain in river beds during the dry season, when the floodwaters recede. when the rains return, these billabongs overflow their banks and disappear into the flood plain that covers the lowlands.

yellow water billabong is part of the south alligator river system, a peculiar name since there are no alligators in australia. only crocodiles. in the dry season, it’s just a big croc pond.

the n.t. (northern territory) is mostly “m-t” (empty)

kakadu is australia’s largest national park, home to the gagudjus, a wandering tribe that has inhabited these lands since time immemorial. it is a 20,000 sq.km. treasure trove of waterfalls, rain forests, dramatic escarpments, aboriginal rock art, exotic bird life, and the yellow water billabong.

massive crocs glide by alongside cruise boats within arm’s length on the billabong, ready to snap off the limbs of anyone foolish enough to point. (“look ma, a crocodi…aaahh!”).

we were determined to see yellow water billabong even if we had to wear nose clips, because, frankly, we’d come for the birds. this billabong has been voted the #1 destination for birdwatching in oz! second place went to the alice springs sewage ponds in the southern northern territory, or “lower n.t.” in the local lingo. seriously!

yellow water attracts roughly a third of australia’s 900 or so bird species. we saw white-bellied sea eagles, whistling ducks, white egrets, pied herons, magpie geese, night herons, azure kingfishers, black-necked storks and comb-crested jacanas, to name a few.

the birds were great. don’t misunderstand. but it’s a challenge to snap a high-resolution photo of a bird at 100 meters with the average cell phone camera. on the other hand, photographing a croc looking you straight in the eye presents the opposite challenge. it’s hard to fit them in the frame. you snap them, they snap you.

this 15 ft. (nearly 5 meter) croc kindly swishes his tail so it will fit in the frame

we had booked a sunset cruise at yellow water, then returned before dawn the following morning for a sunrise encore. both were excellent, but something was troubling. the birds were plentiful, the crocs suitably sinister, the weather ideal, the guides informative, the sunrise and sunset magnificent. but the water? yes, it was putrid. but it was… dull as recycled cardboard. a crocodile camouflage gray. what were we missing?

what had the gagudjus (pron: ‘ga-ga-jews) seen that we weren’t seeing? it was a real head scratcher. we didn’t get it until we returned home and downloaded our photos. there it was! yellow water! we’d seen the trees and missed the forest.

a cruise vessel on yellow water billabong at sunrise

the gagudju people had known what they were talking about. we’d been too busy looking at birds and crocs and water buffalo to notice the “ngurrungurrudjba”. duh!!

most of the day, yellow water billabong water is just a mud puddle crawling with creepy man-eating reptiles. but at dawn and dusk, it transforms into a golden pond crawling with creepy man-eating reptiles.

in our defense, we were only there two nights. for the gagudjus, this is the promised land. they know it intimately.

which comes first, human safety or crocodile safety?

they may not look gagudju-ish, but they’ve been wandering the desert and fishing this billabong for thousands of years.

and sure enough, the waters do part each year, allowing the tribespeople to walk across the sea bed, in keeping with oral tradition.

there’s no clear record of how the gagudjus coexisted with the crocs, who were probably there first. but the gagudjus live in harmony with the environment, which in the top end includes tropical heat, torrential rains, annual floods, (and no internet).

without a written language, the gagudju people passed down from generation to generation highly localized knowledge of weather and climate patterns. they identified six distinct seasons that are particular to the yellow water region.

calendar of the six seasons by violet lawson, a traditional owner from the ngurrungurrudjba “yellow water” region

the most welcome time of year they call yucky, spelled “yekke”, which ushers in the cool, dry months when the waters recede and the “balanda” (the gagudju-ish word for gentiles) arrive in their campers to inject a little cash into the local economy.

in contrast, the “balanda”, who stay mostly in darwin, observe just two seasons in the top end, which they call “the wet” and “the dry”. they also note the brief interim period when lightning storms illuminate the night sky to herald the change of seasons.

in gagudju lore, a powerful creation ancestor called namarrkon the lightning man shoots down from the heavens on a bolt of purple-white light with thunderous fanfare to deliver relief from the heat.

that’s namarrkon, at the top right of the wall painting

during “the dry”, the gagudjus camp mainly in the floodplain; but to paraphrase a line immortalized in song by two members of “the tribe” (lerner and loewe), “the rain, as in spain, stays mainly in the plain”, so during the rainy season the gagudjus move up to the stone country for shelter.

also, there ain’t no crocs in the rocks.

a painting in the park depicting an indigenous family on the move

before the balanda began settling the top end nearly two centuries ago, (mostly the west bank of the alligator river), the population of what is now kakadu national park was about 2000 people. that number has since dwindled to about 500, who maintain the sacred sites and preserve their ancestral culture.

their mission includes preserving one of world’s greatest concentrations of rock art. some paintings are as much as 20,000 years old, making this one of the longest historical records anywhere.

nym djimongurr, photograph by valerie ihuede, c. 1970

many of the 5,000 artworks were spruced up and repainted by clan elders in a restoration project in the mid 20th century, as kakadu was coming to international prominence. much of the work was done by nym djimongurr, (pictured here), an elder who left behind a living record of his knowledge of gagudju-ish humor, stories and customs that provides visitors today with insights into bininj culture.

kakadu became a national park in 1979. in 1981 it was added to the list of world heritage sites. the unesco proclamation notes that kakadu:

“provides a window into human civilization in the days before the last ice age (and) reveals insights into hunting and gathering practices, social structure and ritual ceremonies of indigenous societies from the pleistocene epoch.”

almost any list of oz’s best national parks will rank kakadu #1. but it’s far from the most visited park. the most popular are those closest to sydney and melbourne. both have 20 times the population of the entire n.t.

like most of the top end, kakadu is practically “m-t”. “the territory” boasts a population density of about one person for every five square kilometers, most of them in darwin. by contrast, australia’s most densely populated region, the capital territory (canberra), has 150 people per square kilometer. (canberrans are quite dense.)

to understand just how remote the top end is, darwin is roughly a 45 hour drive (not minutes, hours) from any of australia’s big cities. it’s closer to jakarta than to sydney. getting to kakadu from sydney means a 4 ½ hour flight to darwin, then another three hours by car. so if you go, you can be pretty sure it won’t be crowded. (unless this blog post goes viral)

sunset from darwin’s bicentennial park overlooking the harbor

as a bonus, you can spend time in darwin, australia’s gateway to asia.

darwin’s status as a territorial capital is unique the n.t. is less autonomous than the country’s six states, and the people don’t seem to mind, partly because it’s virtually m-t, so there’s hardly any taxpayers. territorial status provides the n.t. most of the same rights and privileges as the states, but their administrative budget comes from the federal government. so by declining statehood, territorians can do whatever they please and let the feds foot the bill. they’re not that dense.

darwin is unusual in another respect. it’s been bombed. many times. it may be remote, but it’s strategically located on the timor sea. the same japanese planes that hit pearl harbor in december, 1941 turned their sights on darwin ten weeks later. they dropped twice as many bombs in the february 19, 1942 raids, killing 252 people. (damn near everybody there)

japanese bombers struck darwin 62 more times over the next 20 months.

the cenotaph war memorial at darwin’s bicentennial park

that bleak period is memorialized in a graphic display along the waterfront overlooking darwin harbor, where the bombs hit hardest. the city’s bicentennial park showcase the hardships endured during the period when all darwinians had one ear cocked for the sickening hum of incoming bombers.

it was “fair dinkum”, the locals said. “fair dinkum” is a catch-all aussie slang term. in this case, it seems to mean “this is not going to be pretty”.

bicentennial park serves as a reminder of darwin’s strategic importance, both in past military encounters, such as with japan, and the present, as the nation responds to an increasingly assertive china, which sees its backyard extending all the way to the australian shoreline.

darwin is, however, quintessentially aussie, as in directionally challenged. just as the australia’s south coast is on the east coast, the western most spot in the city of darwin is called… wait for it… east point.

that pales in comparison to what almost was. when australia became a federation in 1901, the north was part of the south. no one seemed to think it odd that south australia extended all the way to the north coast. eventually the southerners begged to be relieved of responsibility for the northern half because they couldn’t afford to administer it. there were no taxpayers there.

imagine the north coast being in the south

that’s it for year one. year two of the aussie adventure promises more road trips, as we’ve finally received our car. (it’s a beast) also, expect more adventures of billabong. he’s already practicing croc hunting.

billabong the croc hunter with his “catch”

we hope to include (covid permitting) a trip to uluru, in the southern northern territory. as the irreverent tourism slogan goes, see you in the n.t.

breaking news: a dane visits denmark

…and the lovable larrikin, a dog with a stick, and a cow with a telescope

it wasn’t exactly a state visit, but the ambassador of denmark to australia stopped for a “friendly chat” with the shire president of denmark, australia, in june to convey a brief message: “change your name, guys. we had it first”.

shire president ceinwen gearon was “not in” when the ambassador arrived, and kept the envoy cooling her heels in what might otherwise have been considered a diplomatic snub.

the president and the ambassador

but hey, this ain’t highfalutin’ europe, this is a back of beyond surfer town in west australia. the prez was at her day job at the local hospital. when staff called to tell her the ambo was waiting, she jumped in her van and zipped over to pose for pictures in her best jeans and housecoat. hell yeah! i mean, this is the wild west, and in oz that’s about a third of the country. or two thirds, depending on how you count.

the talks were held in the shire council chambers, where a portrait of the queen hangs on the wall. wrong queen. at least from the danish point of view. it’s the british queen. (that can be excused. australia is, after all, a member of the commonwealth)

just in case they have a change of heart, however, the ambassador is sending over a portrait of denmark’s queen margrethe, which incidentally is strikingly similar to the portrait of queen elizabeth hanging in the council chambers. (no, the queen isn’t hanging. just the portrait)

as for the name change request, it’s on hold. the town appears to have come by the name honorably, through an irish doctor whose family traces its roots back to a 7th century visit to ireland’s west coast by shipwrecked vikings, as honorable a bunch of rapers and pillagers as ever walked the earth.

interestingly, however, the good doctor never set foot in australia.

red dots denote the denmark region of the rainbow coast

dr. alexander denmark was a british navy surgeon at the turn of the 19th century, much beloved by a young hospital mate he trained as a physician. years later, that young man, thomas braidwood wilson, was exploring the south australian coast with an aboriginal guide, mokare, when they came upon a lazy stream mokare called kwoorabup. wilson, who was into naming stuff, decided to rename it the denmark river in honor of his old mentor.

over time, the region became known as the denmark district. decades later, when a permanent town was established where the river flows into “wilson inlet”, (which dr. tom named after himself,) denmark somehow won out over kwoorabup. the town’s namesake, meanwhile, lies in an unmarked grave back in england.

the denmark surf shop

denmark’s 25-hundred permanent residents (denmarkers? denmarxists? denmartians?) make a living mainly off the tourist trade. in summer, the shire balloons to several times its normal size as wave chasers descend on the “rainbow coast” seeking swells coming straight from antarctica.

even the prez keeps a board handy, and city employees work flexible hours so they can skip out when the surf’s up.

the coast gets its name because in winter, the low sun on the northern horizon combines with storms along the southern ocean coastline to create perfect rainbow conditions.

rainbow on the rocks – torndirup national park

on the morning of the winter solstice (22 june in oz) we drove east along the rainbow coast to torndirrup national park. we went for the spectacular rocks. what we got was a rock ‘n rainbow “two-fer” topped with an icy antarctic blast.

torndirrup bears witness to the long-term cohabitation of australia and antarctica (about 1.3 billion years). they only split up and went their separate ways about 50 million years ago. it seems to have been a messy breakup, and there’s no telling whose “fault” it was. it must have ugly, though, because the custody battle over several islands is still causing tremors, and a chill wind blows up from the south pole.

a wintry antarctic blast has pernille holding onto her hat

over the past fifty million years, the raw fury of the sea has left a ragged imprint on torndirrup’s coast, carving up granite like a thanksgiving turkey, one granule at a time, serving up its feast on tectonic plates. it’s a work in progress.

for the moment, the main attractions are a natural bridge and a gash in the granite called “the gap”. but a transformation is underway, one eon at a time. we plan to drop by again in oh, say, ten million years to see what the artist has wrought. we can’t wait to see the time-lapse photos.

and since we can’t wait, we wend our way west from the wild wintry winds to the wonderful world of warm water waves and award winning wines. welcome to the magical margaret river region, the space between the capes. it’s a place of waves and grapes.

from cape naturaliste in the north to cape leeuwin in the south, the margaret river knob is 85 miles (135km) of divine coastline jutting out from australia’s southwestern corner, right into the path of a tropical ocean current that funnels warm-ish water (in red in the graph below) into the cape’s wave-grinder. the effect is most pronounced in winter. see the infrared water temperature shot at left. (red is warmest)

so on a chilly june evening, the margaret river beach is buzzing, as are the blanketed spectators snuggled together, toasting each other (and themselves) as wave dancers pirouette through the psychedelic proscenium arch.

the river mouth was the site of the world surf league’s margaret river pro competition in may, 2021

on shore, a blizzard of sundowners rages, while on the western horizon, the flaming orb gently slips beyond the waves. it’s rumored the “blizzard-enabled” can hear the hiss as flame touches water and disappears in a puff of smoke. pretty rad, dude.

we pause for a moment waiting for the credits to roll. then as orange fades to black, the audience retreats to the parking lot, hoping not to encounter a sobriety check on the road home.

next morning, the thrill seekers are back. air temperature is about 50 fahrenheit, (ten celsius), and water temp about 68 (20 celsius). not bad for dead of winter this close to antarctica. we wander down to a rocky stretch of beach called redgate, just south of margaret’s mouth.

on this day the swells are relatively tame, but margaret river’s reputation for magical rides has made it an annual stop on the world surf league championship tour. with more than 40 world-class breaks, these are waves to die for. some have.

just south of the river mouth, amid the rocks of redgate, a grim reminder of nature’s power

the rocks at redgate bear witness to the power of the infamous rip currents that terrorize the cape’s wave riders. big signs warn of the danger. but on the morning of december 8, 2012, the signs were missing, apparently the work of vandals.

when two visiting americans paddled out from redgate beach that morning, lured by massive swells, they had no warning of the danger that awaited them. memorial plates embedded in the granite tell their tragic story

from the rocks it’s a two minute walk to the riflebutts reserve dog park, and as this blog is about to get very doggish, why not start here? it seems as if the augusta-margaret river shire council went on a sculpture binge around the beginning of this century, commissioning dozens of works. we ran across one on a morning jog through riflebutts.

“the stick” by russell sheridan at riflebutts park in redgate

many of the installations are noteworthy, but as we prepare to become parents of billabong the border collie, this one was irresistible.

not billabong, just a goofy hound with a stick
introducing the real billabong at 11 weeks old

it’s titled “the stick”. it’s the work of margaret river artist russell sheridan. a local sculpture website describes sheridan as “a larger-than-life character (who) memorably mythologizes the australian larrikin.”

larrikin? uh-oh, a new aussie-ism. turns out larrikinism is a time-honored australian tradition.

a history of the larrikin spirit written in 2012 calls it the key to unlocking the aussie identity: the lovable scallawag. its roots go back to penal colony times, when disdain for authority was a badge of honor.

but these days most aussies are coastal urbanites, a far cry from the hardscrabble convicts of two centuries ago. as the continent meekly complies with what others might consider draconian covid lockdowns, many are wondering whether the rough and tumble larrikin spirit is gone forever. steve waterson, writing in the australian newspaper, asks, “do we recalibrate our self-image, admit there’s no crocodile dundee left in any of us?”

truth to tell, oz is known more these days for water sports and wine. margaret river scores high on both counts.

don’t ask why, but one fine day, two wine ignoramuses got a hankering to go on a tour of the margaret river vineyards. (i mean, while we’re here…)

completely oblivious to reputations of various wineries, we simply typed into our GPS the name of a road where we had been told we’d find some “cellar doors”. when we came to that road, we turned right. a moment later we saw a sign that said “woody nook cellar door”, so we turned in.

the woody nook vineyard’s cellar door

the place looked deserted (middle of winter, you know) but the sign said “open” so we walked in. twenty minutes later we walked out the proud owners of a case of 2014 woody nook cabernet sauvignon.

wine and i have never gotten along, but this was lovely stuff. and it had a gold medal to boot. i have no idea how they hand out gold medals, (the writing is in french) but pernille serves vino at diplomatic functions, and the name “margaret river” with a gold medal on the label means wine about as good as you can get in oz, or anywhere.

back in the car, we proceeded to the end of the road, turned around and came back, passing a few more cellar door signs. it was vino roulette, where we stop, nobody knows.

the fermoy winery in margaret river

as we drove, we suddenly had that feeling. turn in. it was a place that might have been an old barn somebody had painted pink, installed a glass front, and called a winery. we walked in to find a group of ‘tasters’ gathered around a table, sampling the wares. as we glanced over, something caught our eye.

on the wall behind them was a massive photograph. a bride and groom dancing. and a caption. “wine fit for a princess”. hey, wait a sec! we know that princess! that’s “our” princess mary, the aussie commoner who married the danish prince!

sure enough, this is the winery that produced one of the wines served at the wedding of mary donaldson and frederik, the crown prince of denmark, in 2004.

the result: another case of wine for our “cellar”. with a gold medal, too. maybe they sell these gold medal stickers at the local wine growers association. who knows. was it a great wine? don’t ask us. but it was pleasing to the palate (suddenly we’re connoisseurs). and what a conversation piece!

pernille laughed when i said we could visit three wineries in an afternoon. wine tasting and driving don’t mix. but on we went to a third, and a fourth, and even a fifth. it was getting toward sundown and everything was closing, but we did manage to buy a third case of wine.


it was called cherubino. we know that because it was delivered to our house a week later. and the debit was on our bank statement. it was a pricey afternoon.

fortunately, after all that tasting, we found my airport. it was right outside the last winery we visited. we must have flown home. and we greatly appreciate whoever delivered our car back to our b&b.

after a good night’s sleep, the next adventure was to the most southwestern point on the continent, cape leeuwin, where two oceans collide. (at least in the aussie version).

along the road we encountered a restaurant with a sense of humor.

cape leeuwin is the site of the tallest working lighthouse on the australian continent. it’s also the home of a pirate cow holding a telescope with her hook. (real pirates have hooks, don’t they? and parrots on their shoulders, right? this one did.)

it’s hard to know what substances the augusta-margaret river shire council were ingesting around 2010 when they launched a region-wide “cow parade”. it seems to have been part of the same craze that produced the dog with the stick (above).

the cow parade was billed as the world’s largest public art event. cow art? at first i thought it was a typo, that they were in fact alluding to the bovine penchant for methane production. but no, these were supposed to be works-of-art. the “f” stays with “of”. “art” is separate.

the local tourism association apparently bought 80 or so methane-free (i.e. environmentally friendly) fiberglass cows and gave them to locals of artistic bent who volunteered to adorn them for display in various states of absurdity. despite the hail of udderly cheesy puns that followed, most of these “moo-sterpieces” were auctioned off after the parade to raise moola (cash) for local charities.

the pasteurized pirate, named “moo-rine the marauder”, eventually found a home at the lighthouse. several others migrated to cowaramup, a real life place in the capes region known as “cow town”. cowaramup’s website calls them “moorals”. (talk about milking a bad pun!)

it’s time to knock this off. pernille just came in in a bad mooood and said, “it’s pasture bed time”.

oh yes, the lighthouse.

the cape leeuwin lighthouse and interpretive center sit at the most southwesternly point of the continent. signs proclaim this to be the meeting point of the indian ocean and the great southern ocean. on some days the smashup can be quite violent. on this calm and windless day it was little more than a surface splash.

some newfangled international maritime organization came along some time back and tried to redefine the southern ocean boundary so it no longer touches australia’s southern coast. the aussies aren’t buying it. the larrikin spirit rose up and told them to go stuff it. crocodile dundee lives!

the cylindrical tower of the cape leeuwin lighthouse rises 39 meters (128ft.) from a square base up to an observation platform and a 100 million candle power halogen beacon that guides sailors around the treacherous cape.

the 100-million candlepower halogen lighthouse lamp

our plan was simply to walk the lighthouse grounds. we’ve been to plenty of lighthouses. but rowena, the interpretive guide lured us in, and we’re glad she did.

the tower’s 176 steps are a trip up through a time when the lighthouse was manually operated, originally using a kerosene wick lamp revolving in a mercury bath with a clockwork mechanism. it was the world’s largest kerosene lamp when the lighthouse opened in 1895, and could be seen for 40km.

for nearly a century, the facility was completely manually operated. three lighthouse keepers lived on the premises, so there was someone on duty 24/7/365 until it was converted to electricity in 1982.

after our lighthouse excursion, we went north to perth, excited to learn more about the west australian capital and oz’s fourth largest city. instead, we were given 24 hours to pack up and go home or face two weeks hotel quarantine. at our expense. we hightailed it to the airport. when it comes to covid, the devil-may-care larrikin spirit is overruled. crocodile dundee is in lockdown.

stay tuned. next episode we escape to real croc country.

a mariner’s rime in christchurch time

At length did cross an Albatross,
Through the fog it came;
As if it were a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.

–from “the rime of the ancient mariner”by samuel taylor coleridge (1798)

the albatross’s “vast archangel wings” as melville described them in “moby dick”

the albatross has captured the imagination of southern ocean seafarers since, well… ships. it certainly captured ours. a visit to aotearoa/new zealand was a chance to observe the “largest living thing in the air“, a sea bird with a three-meter wingspan.

like a horseshoe to a magnet, we were drawn to kaikoura, a seacoast village up the road from christchurch, the south island’s largest city. kaikoura bills itself as “possibly” the albatross capital of the world!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!

in nautical folklore, having an albatross hanging around your ship meant windy weather. it was a good omen back when seafaring vessels were powered by clean, renewable wind energy. in aotearoa’s maori culture, the majestic bird has been venerated since the first waka (boats) arrived from polynesia centuries ago.

a royal southern albatross tails our boat

conversely, having an albatross hanging around your neck; not so good. that’s what happens when you shoot the good luck albatross that’s been tailing your ship…

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.

… and the bird dies and the fair winds fade, and your superstitious shipmates start giving you the evil eye. it’s a heavy burden.

that’s exactly the story of samuel taylor coleridge’s “rime of the ancient mariner”, a mainstay of english literature since nearly a century before clean but unreliable wind power was jostled aside by combustion engines that “fowl” the environment.

in his lifetime, coleridge never actually saw an albatross. nevertheless, it is through his poem that generations of english-speakers have come to use the expression “having an albatross around one’s neck” to mean “bearing a heavy burden”.

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

a statue of the ancient mariner with albatross hung from his neck at somerset, england; where coleridge wrote “the rime”.

in coleridge’s “rime”, when the albatross dies, clouds evaporate and the air hangs like a blanket, turning the ship’s deck into a rotisserie.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

without rain, fresh water supplies are gone with the wind. shipmates drop like flies, unlike albatrosses, who have built-in desalination systems that allow them to drink seawater and expel the salt through their nostrils. (really!) leading to perhaps coleridge’s most (mis)quoted verse,

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

and one of monty python’s hilarious sketches. (warning: rough language)

natural desalination

winter is off season for albatross watching, so it was just us and the skipper embarking on our “albatross encounter” from kaikoura.

the flock was waiting for us. five different species of albatross and all kinds of petrels made it a diverse group. (though lacking in equity or inclusion). unlike the human world, the laws of nature are unchallenged in the bird kingdom. survival of the fittest rules. as the albatross swoops in with a whoosh, smaller birds scoot out of the way.

the albatross schools the black petrels vying for a peck at the scrap net

we come a-hunting coleridge’s bird
not with arrow and bow;
but camera in tow,
by combustion engine spurred.’

a bad coleridge impersonator, 2021

the skipper has brought along a net filled with fish scraps, and as he drops the scrap net in the water, a scrap begins. the scrappiest are the albatrosses, first in the pecking order. next are the black petrels, who scrap playfully among themselves while waiting for leftover scraps. smaller species hang around until the big fellows are done, then scrap among themselves for the scraps of the scraps. we have a front row seat.

graceful in flight, albatrosses are hopelessly clumsy on land. watch this short video clip recently captured by an “albatross cam” in new zealand.

coleridge’s influence on albatross mythology is so powerful i can’t help examining my own superstitions as we drive south toward our next stop, christchurch. the city has borne a heavy burden over the past decade.

the Ōtākaro/avon river drifts lazily through christchurch, probably the most english city outside england. punters in edwardian costume ferry tourists along landscaped river banks in handcrafted flat-bottomed boats.

at a bend in the river, the boat pauses at “oi manawa”, maori for “tremor” or “quivering of the heart”. it is a memorial to victims of the most violent earthquake to hit “the shaky isles” (as they are known) since the first european settlement more than 200 years ago.

it was lunchtime on a summery afternoon, february 22, 2011, when christchurch shuddered mightily. some of the city’s tallest structures crumbled in clouds of dust. entire districts were laid waste. on the streets, falling rock and debris crushed cars and busses.

the quake measured 6.3 magnitude, less than a 7.1 jolt five months earlier. but while the first tremor killed no one and caused minimal damage, the second was much closer to the surface, and its epicenter was just a few kilometers from the city’s central business district. when the earth erupted, structures weakened by the first toppled like bowling pins.

the riverside memorial wall bears the name of each victim etched in marble. it is a curious list. all names are written in latin letters, but many also in a foreign script. and rather than alphabetical order, the names of victims are grouped together with those they knew and loved.

of the 185 who died, 115 were in one building, the canterbury television headquarters. it was home also to a school where foreign nurses were studying english and taking medical classes. of the dead, 53 were nurses, 28 from japan. the victims included citizens of 16 countries.

a tribute to israelis killed in the quake

a decade after the tragedy, the wounds still burn. healing, physical and emotional, is achingly slow. so many people moved away after the quake that christchurch shrunk. once new zealand’s second city, it is now third.

one healthy sign: the historic christ church cathedral and its magnificent tower had at first been written off as a total loss and slated for demolition. seven years later, that decision was reversed, and work on resurrecting the structures has begun.

still, however, a sense of foreboding hangs over the city. an albatross. everyone knows it’s just a matter of time till the next big shudder.

the entire length of the southern island is riven by one of the world’s most active geological break points, the alpine fault. geologists are expecting a great quake, the “once every 300 years” variety, at any time. the last “really big one” was in 1717. that’s 304 years ago.

a website tracking the island’s seismic activity shows more than 130 quakes of magnitude three or higher around aotearoa/new zealand in the past month. smaller tremors number in the hundreds.

a few miles from oi manawa earthquake memorial, another albatross roosts.

the canterbury islamic center sits on a broad suburban street directly across the city’s main park from the earthquake memorial. the cast iron entry gate to the al-noor mosque stands welcomingly wide open.

it’s been just over two years since 40 worshippers were mowed down in a hail of bullets during friday prayers. eleven others were slaughtered minutes later at another mosque nearby.

some of the worshippers murdered at the christchurch mosques

as in the earthquake, the victims had come to christchurch from many places: bangladesh, egypt, fiji, india, indonesia, iraq, jordan, malaysia, mauritius, new zealand, pakistan, palestine and turkey.

the only outward sign that this was the site of the country’s most heinous crime is a banner hung along the front fence, over a shelf filled with flowers and painted rocks. inside the gate stands a modest stone of remembrance, unveiled by prime minister jacinda ardern, who earned plaudits for rallying the country in its time of grief.

standing at the entrance, i am overcome at the enormity of the evil committed on that spot. the mosque seems encased in a bubble of calm drowning out the hustle-bustle of the city. cars appear to travel in slow motion as they pass. a stain touches the city’s collecive soul.

as i snap a final picture and turn to go, a woman walks by. as she passes, i manage a weak smile of acknowledgement.

“what are you smiling at? she snaps back.

time will heal christchurch’s wounds. but the “archangel wings” of that damn albatross cast a long shadow.

to paraphrase coleridge

“a sadder and a wiser man

i rose the morrow morn.”


land of the long white cloud

clouds hang along the mountains around glenorchy, where many scenes for the “lord of the rings” trilogy were filmed

say the name. aotearoa. [it’s pronounced aɔˈtɛaɾɔa. or “ow-TAY-rwa”]. it could soon be on the “a-list” of united nations member states.

ok. it’s new zealand. at least for now. but the indigenous name change movement seems to be gaining steam (or at least cloud vapor).

aotearoa means “land of the long white cloud” in the māori language of new zealand’s first settlers. it’s easy to see why they chose it. during a three week visit to aotearoa/new zealand, so many strips of cotton fluff lay draped along the landscape we began to wonder; are they real, or are they memorex (computer generated)?

we became suspicious when we met ian taylor, founder and c.e.o. of animation research limited, a pioneer in computer generated imagery (c.g.i). animation research is based in dunedin, one of the southernmost cities on the planet.

interestingly, dunedin is only a laser beam away from where those cumulus streams were draped around towering peaks, just as a party of dignitaries was touring new zealand’s south island. coincidence?

from humble beginnings, raised by his māori mother in a north island village, sir ian has risen to the heights of the c.g.i. industry. if you’ve watched the master’s golf tournament, formula one racing, major league baseball, test cricket and the like, you’ve seen virtual eye’s innovative storytelling technology, which is revolutionizing how people watch sports.

virtual eye’s graphic overlays add so much to the experience of real time televised sports there’s hardly any point battling masked crowds to watch in-person anymore. and it’s all done from dunedin, half a world away from most major sports venues.

so hanging a virtual cloud around the mountains of tolkien’s middle earth? don’t be surprised if one day sir ian and company are outed for projecting clouds against the mountains, just for giggles. they’re good.

looks like tolkien’s mt. doom?

after all, aotearoa is imagination central. one of its claims to fame is that it’s where tolkien’s “hobbit” and the “lord of the rings” trilogy came to life. we suspect one of sir ian’s band of c.g.i. wizards is named gandalf.

honestly though, we have no proof. it’s just a good conspiracy theory. a really good one.

taylor and company were at their proudest showcasing the virtual eye coverage of this year’s america’s cup yacht race. the race was on home turf (surf), and the kiwis successfully defended the “auld mug” they won in 2018. it was the fourth time they’ve won in the last eight races. three other times they’ve finished second. yacht-a yacht-a yacht-a, as seinfeld might say.

c.g.i depiction of the kiwis crossing the finish line to win the 2021 america’s cup

the roving ambassadorial entourage also had a taste of aotearoa’s other big sport, rugby, at dunedin’s forsyth-barr stadium, the scene of past and future world cup matches.

the all blacks, the kiwi national team, are a rugby legend. they’ve won three of the nine rugby world cup competitions. the south african ambassador dumped a little rain on the kiwi parade, however, noting that the springboks have also won three, and are the current cup holders.

the all blacks perform a haka before a match in the 2011 rugby world cup competition

unfortunately, the all blacks weren’t there to perform a traditonal māori welcome haka. (they did play fiji in dunedin in july, however.) but for kiwi youngsters steeped in rugby lore, forsyth-barr is a field of dreams.

speaking of young kiwis, we did receive a welcome haka from the youth of dunedin. not as ferocious as the all blacks, but a sign of the current revival of māori language and culture among aotearoa’s emerging generation.

click the pic for a taste

at every stop our welcome included māori language and customs. at one stop we were given cards allowing us to taste the words with our own tongues.

and at every stop, unfailingly, the greeting was the māori “kia ora”.

kia ora is the national greeting, not a small car

dunedin’s otago university is not only the oldest institution of higher learning in aotearoa, it’s the southernmost university in the world. during our visit there, a power point presentation by university administrators was done with māori language visuals and english subtitles.

dunedin’s public art gallery is currently featuring an exhibit that elevates māori and indigenous voices, titled “hurahia ana kā whetū – unveiling the stars”.

when it came to elevating voices and unveiling stars, dunedin’s mayor aaron hawkins took us to the art gallery for dinner. after the main course, three of the waiters revealed themselves as frauds. they weren’t waiters at all, but opera virtuosos in aprons, stars of dunedin’s opera otago, the longest-running opera company in aotearoa.

so after serving our supper, they sang for our supper; a performance worthy of la scala, except we were sitting on stage, and la scala ticket prices are a few octaves higher.

i had the presence of mind to video the grand finale, an audience participation number that brought down the house.

click on the pic to watch.

a rousing rendition of “that’s amore” brought the house to its feet.

if dunedin was the main course of our “magical diplomacy tour”, queenstown/glenorchy was a luscious dessert. en route to queenstown, the bus pulled into highlands motorsports park, a competition-tested 4.1 km racetrack boasting a few jewels.

pernille settled in behind the wheel of a radical sr3 race car. i was a bit nervous. spoiler alert: damages were minimal.

the park’s showpiece is a $2.3 million aston martin vulcan. no driving, though. it’s in an on-site museum, just for racing enthusiasts to drool over. an attendant is always on duty to wipe up after tourists.

there’s also an attendant standing by to clean up after visitors to the men’s room. it’s often needed at the “orange man” urinal, where people lining up to pay “respects” have to mind their pees in queues.

according to “peer reviews”, the big mouth is a fan favorite, though it’s easy to miss while snickering. if you do miss, urine good company. there’s a lot of miss-chief, (and not much privacy.)

next up, queenstown; and glenorchy, where the clouds go on forever and the mountains meet the fjords.

the “dip-pack” debussed at glenorchy (if you can deplane, you can debus) for an end-of-tour group photo in front of the old red boat shed, with the spectacular mountains in the background. (see left). a professional photographer stood by with a ladder to capture the moment, (see right). but we got nary a peek at the peaks. photo bombed by a cloud.

whaddaya think? a diabolical plot? the animation research folks, maybe? just asking. for a friend.

instead we assembled on the shore behind the shed, in front of a thin sliver of drab hillside sandwiched between a cardboard gray sky and a dishwater gray lake. the inverse of a long white cloud. very clever, sir ian.

the gang of 52

the faces in the photo are small, but the tallest fellow in the back row center with a tan coat and scarf is jonathan austin, acting chief of protocol for the kiwi ministry of foreign affairs and trade. he and his team of sally forrest, fiona fowler, penny mitropoulos, alistair ferris and martin waikara herded diplomatic cats with aplomb during four action packed days, but they couldn’t overcome the diabolical cloud conspiracy.

as our magical mystery tour bus rolled back down the winding road toward queenstown and flights home to wellington and canberra, the curtain over the mountain peaks began to lift. it was a tease, just enough to fuel a final frenzied, but futile cell phone photo op of the fantasy land where the orcs roamed in the lord of the rings trilogy.

pernille and i elected to stay on a couple more days in glenorchy to retrace our daughter’s steps trekking after her semester abroad at the university of auckland in 2018, and to search for the fabled canyon stream known as the “orc-chasm”. (it’s real; no faking!)

we rented a cabin a stone’s throw away from the glenorchy landing. that evening, the sky was crystal clear as pernille went out for a sunset stroll to survey the local bird life.

the next morning, we peeked out our front door to see the snow-capped peaks peeking through. a long white cloud was draped along the surface of lake whakatipu. of course.

lake whakatipu

oh, and the bird pernille had spotted the evening before? a peeking duck.

gabby, shown here, is actually not a duck; she’s an albatross. she’s the city icon of dunedin. more on her in the next installment.

we spent the day hiking the routeburn track, considered among the world’s premier scenic trails. even on an overcast winter day deep in the southern hemisphere, it’s easy to see why glenorchy is a magnet for backpackers, lord of the rings fans, māori history buffs, or anyone who can get there by hook or by crook.

a place this gorgeous has attracted big bucks and big names, some you’d instantly recognize. there’s a spa catering to international jet setters embarking on “wellness adventures” to “rejuvenate the human spirit”.

then there’s paul and debbi brainerd, and camp glenorchy. it’s not a scout hangout. it’s an “eco retreat”.

paul brainerd might not be a household name. but back in the 80s, as a computer programmer in seattle, washington, brainerd developed a little thing called “page maker”, which in combination with the apple macintosh computer launched the desktop publishing revolution. he is actually credited with coining the term “desktop publishing”.

brainerd was eventually bought out by adobe. with the leftover change, he switched careers to philanthropy.

paul and debbi founded camp glenorchy in 2018 as aotearoa’s first net positive energy visitor destination, generating more power than it uses. they keep asking “what if?” the answers are promising.

time magazine listed camp glenorchy among the world’s 100 greatest places of 2019, and one of 44 “must go” accommodation destinations.

in retrospect, we wonder whether paul brainerd the desktop publisher and ian taylor the c.g.i. innovator might be old friends. it could explain a lot.

a parting photo as we drove away

we’ll be back, land of the long white cloud, whatever you call yourself.

the challenge — it’s a wero

pernille gets a nose bump

no red carpet, but a red tongue, a red flag the morning after a blood moon, and the pointy end of a spear greet the new danish ambassador to new zealand

hongis all around!! it was a big day at government house in wellington. the travel ban is lifted! hallelujah! aussies and kiwis can visit each other again. and the traditional maori greeting, the “hongi”, or nose bump — discouraged for more than a year — is back.

a “hongi” or nose touching, is a sign of welcome.

and so it came to pass on may 27th, under a cloudless sky, the morning after a blood red moon and a total lunar eclipse, a trio of spear-carrying warriors danced across the lawn of government house to challenge a group of new arrivals.

it’s the beginning of a welcoming tradition known as “powhiri”, as explained at maori.com

The powhiri is the ritual ceremony of encounter.

Traditionally the process served to discover whether the visiting party were friend or foe, and so its origins lay partly in military necessity. As the ceremony progressed, and after friendly intent was established, it became a formal welcoming of guests (manuhiri) by the hosts (tangata whenua or home people).

at the appointed time, a band of maori men and women gathers in front of the flagpole (which by some coincidence is flying a red and white danish flag). they are accompanied by a band of soldiers; in fact, a military band, some armed with trombones and trumpets, one with a sword, others with actual guns.

the visiting party approaches, prompting three warriors to raise spears, advance on the newly-arrived party, and issue the ritual challenge, the “wero”.

acoss the vast expanse of lawn came three warriors, hesitantly

the warrior chieftain dances forward, making loud noises and gesticulating with his spear. he then lays a token (taki) on the lawn, while maintaining eye contact with the lead male of the visiting party.

the lead male (in this case, me) then approaches the warriors, all the time maintaining eye contact with the chief, and picks up the taki.

eyes must be focused on the maori warriors while retrieving the taki

a successful taki pickup seems to satisfy the warriors of our friendly intent, which prompts a warm greeting to the arriving ambassador (a hongi). she is escorted to a platform, (covered in red) from where the force commander invites her to inspect the troops.

pernille pretends not to notice lint on one of the soldiers’ lapels as she inspects the troops

good news! the troops pass inspection. we are all then invited inside, where pernille gives a brief (but brilliantly crafted) introductory speech, conveying personal greetings from denmark’s queen margrethe, and hailing the friendship between denmark and new zealand.

both, she points out, are nations composed of islands. each has two main islands and lots of smaller ones, though denmark also has a spit of land that is actually attached to a continent.

pernille then hands over her letter of accreditation to new zealand’s governor-general patsy reddy.

dame patsy responds with a welcome address, assuring her there was no harm intended by the warriors on the lawn, and reflecting on the similarities between new zealand and denmark. she notes the two nations are tied for #1 on the world anti-corruption index and both are in the top ten of the world’s friendliest countries.

with that, pernille is officially the danish envoy to new zealand.

there’s time for a group photo of dame patsy and ambassador pernille along with two gentlemen of sparse hirsute foliage (not much hair), and karen pullar, the danish consul in wellington.

the standard photo

the photo is followed by a quick round of handshakes and farewells, then we’re out the door into a waiting limousine to whisk us back to our hotel. total time elapsed: 15 minutes.

next is a short walk to a dockside restaurant for a celebratory glass of bubbly and lunch in the warm late autumn sunshine. time elapsed: two hours.

oh , and about that blood moon. just by a stroke of luck i had decided to go for a run at dusk along wellington’s waterfront the evening before the credentials ceremony, forgetting that a lunar spectacular, including a total eclipse, was on that evening.

as i reached the intersection leading to the harbor, an orange sphere hovered above the horizon. sunset? sunrise? ok, we’re in a new country, maybe they do things differently here. but surely not evening sunrise?

out along the bustling pier, pedestrian traffic almost came to a halt as people reached for their cell phones to catch the spectacle. it became an instant social media sensation. “pier reviewed”, even.

then something unexpected began to happen. as i ran along the waterfront, the moon’s relationship to the hills across the harbor kept changing, giving the illusion that the orange ball was rolling up the crest of the mountain, until it dropped below the horizon.

i stopped to take a picture as the moon rose for the second time, then continued my jog. but as the altitude of the crest went ever higher, the moon disappeared again.

by this time, darkness was descending over the city, and as i witnessed my third moonrise of the evening, the reflection shimmering across the water brought the harbor to life, as moon replaced sun as the dominant light source.

we faded to “pillow land” long before the lunar eclipse hours later. (eclipses don’t make great cell phone photos, anyway.) but the next day we woke to an internet full of pictures that made ours look wimpy by comparison. one in particular was the money shot below by AP photographer mark baker over sydney harbor.

 Photo by Mark Baker/AP/Shutterstock

but seeing three blood moonrises in one night? that’s “luna-see”.

it’s a warm welcome and sendoff as we set out for three weeks of exploring kiwiland.