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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Forget seeing the world, see the whole universe from Mt John

By David Morris

High in the hills of New Zealand’s remote Mackenzie Country, in the backblocks of a country that is fairly much the backblocks of this planet, might seem an unlikely place for discovering new planets in the universe.

Mt John Observatory has, however, been an integral part of a world-wide team that has recently discovered the smallest planet in the universe, about 8000 light years away, outside of our own solar system.

You could find out more about that particular story by going to the website of the New Zealand Herald but wouldn’t it be just so much more exciting to get it right from the source, from the astronomers at the observatory itself.

In a remarkable entrepreneurial leap for scientists, the observatory has opened its doors (and telescope window) to visitors for day or night tours.

The observatory is just outside the township of Lake Tekapo in the middle of the Mackenzie Basin, a vast grassy inland plain first discovered by the notorious 19th century sheep rustler James Mackenzie.

This remote location, along with the fact that it’s stuck in the middle of the even more remote South Pacific Ocean, means astronomers can gaze into space unpolluted by urban-generated light.

It’s one of the things that really hits home with visitors – when you look upwards and outwards from a place like this you realise what an incredibly beautiful thing the night sky is . . . and how little we city-dwellers see of it in our every-night lives.

Observatory tours are run by Earth and Sky Tours, operating out of Lake Tekapo township.

The day tour is a unique opportunity to visit a fully functioning scientific observatory where astronomers from the University of Canterbury and Nagoya University in Japan, amongst others, are conducting exciting research.

Learn about the exciting new M.O.A. project which uses the largest telescope in New Zealand to observe over fifty million stars each clear night, searching for dark objects in distant space. It was as part of this project that they came upon that tiny planet circling a small star 8000 light years away.

You’ll also get panoramic views of the Mackenzie Basin - including Mount Cook and the majestic Southern Alps as well as learning about the interesting geological features and history of the area.

The tour lasts an hour and costs $15 for adults, $5 for children.

The night time tour takes you to the observatory high above the town where you explore features of the southern sky. The tour company provides the equipment and the guidance, all you need to take are keen eyes, warm clothes and a desire to see, learn and experience.

Navigating through the Southern Sky using a telescope, binoculars and the naked eye, you will explore amazing sites such as our own Milky Way Galaxy, the Southern Cross, Alpha-Centauri - our closest neighbouring star at only 4.3 light years away, and Sirius - the brightest star in our sky.

View and learn about our closest neighbouring galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, which grace our night sky along with constellations such as Orion the Hunter and Scorpius.

You may also have the opportunity to see star clusters like the beautiful Jewel Box, awe inspiring planets, immense clouds of gas and dust, and distant galaxies which test the limits of human imagination.

Tour lasts 2 hours, including 30 min travelling time and costs $68 for adults, $35 for children.

You Can find out more about the Mt Cook region and the Mackenzie Basin at

Declaration of interest: I have no connection whatsoever, commercially or personally, with the Mt John Observatory or Earth and Sky Tours. I just like what they do and wanted to tell you about their gig.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Let’s be careful out there in the NZ rain-forest

A salutary warning from David Morris.

Another tourist has died out in the New Zealand bush, the second in the last three weeks. They are tragedies that just didn’t need to occur. This time it was a young Polish guy who got trapped by rising floodwaters in a bush stream. Last month it was an Israeli girl who strayed off a well-marked commercial track.

Many visitors come to New Zealand with trekking (in this country it’s called tramping) high on their list of must-dos. They want to experience the pristine wilderness that has disappeared or been desecrated in so much of the rest of the world.

What they don’t realise is that the NZ bush is an unforgiving mistress. It is real easy to die out there . . .and every year many do. Some of them are experienced hunters and trampers, which just goes to show that even years of experience don’t always save your hide.

In 1990, for instance, a troop of professional soldiers were trapped in adverse conditions on Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park. Despite the fact that the party included experienced army instructors, five young men died from hypothermia in a storm that lasted for a couple of days

What chance, then, a kid who has hardly ever been out of a big city? Better than you think if you follow the rules of survival: Be prepared, don’t take risks.

At the same time, in the same Ruapehu storm, was a young Japanese guy who set out to climb to the summit of the mountain. When the blizzard came in he dug a snow cave and stayed in it until the storm had blown itself out. The mountain rescue team that headed uphill to get him presumed they were going to bring back a body. Instead they saw a little black speck, high up on the mountain, making its way down towards them. He survived where the solders died because he did what he had been told.

There are some simple precautions that an adventurer can take that will make the difference between life and a lonely death.

Rule 1: Give the outdoors the respect they are due. It is not a big Disney theme park out there. You can die very easily. Choose a trip in keeping with your experience and ability, Preferably go with other people, preferably those with more experience than yourself. Be conservative in assessing your abilities. If you’ve never done a lot of trekking don’t start by taking on a three or four day track through rough terrain. Indeed, limit yourself to no more than a half or full day walk.

Rule 2: Plan and prepare. Know where you are going. Get information on the terrain and likely weather. If you are in a Department of Conservation (DoC) area – national park, reserve etc – talk to the local rangers. Talk to hostel managers. Go to the MetService website for up-to-date forecasts . . . and believe what they tell you. In other words don’t go in blind. It might look easy on a map, but when the weather turns foul and the terrain is rough you are in the red zone. The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council (MSC) publications 'Going bush?', 'Hypothermia', and 'Survival' are essential for trip planning. Collect a copy from or visitor centres nationwide. Explore the DoC website - it’s an absolute goldmine of information and advice. Do this before you even arrive in the country.

Rule 3: Tell someone where you are going and what time you will be back. Tell the hostel manager, the park rangers, the police, a friend. Who cares, just tell someone who’ll respond if you fail to turn up. Tell them you will check in with them when you return. That way if you don’t check in they’ll raise the alarm. Deaths occur because it is a day or two before anyone notices you are missing. Sometimes even longer. DoC headquarters and huts have log books for you to record your intentions. Use them. And above all else, for god’s sake, when you end your trip, do log out. Search and Rescue in this country is done mostly by volunteers. They get called out, often in atrocious conditions, they leave their work or business, leave their family and responsibilities and head into the mountains and bush to look for you. They can be there for a couple of days before it is realised that you are sitting with your feet in front of a fire many miles away. Believe me, they will not be amused.

Rule 4: Be prepared, mentally and physically, for bad weather. It doesn’t matter if you are only going for a one hour walk, be prepared to spend a night or two in the open. You have no idea how easy it is to get off a bush track and not be able to find it again. It’s late afternoon by now, night is closing in and with it can come freezing rain and wind. Hello hypothermia, goodbye world. The weather right through this country is very changeable. A stroll in the sun this morning can end up a hard, head down slog in driving wind and rain.

Rule 5: Take appropriate clothing. What you take will depend on the adventure you are planning. If it’s a half day trip, at least carry a waterproof parka and a warm jersey. If you are staying out overnight you’ll need to plan for really foul weather . . . overtrousers, gloves, hat, longjohns, t-shirts as singlets, sturdy boots, 2 or 3 pairs of warm socks. Wrap the woolies in plastic bags to keep them dry. Your pack should have a plastic liner to keep stuff dry.

Rule 6: Take the right equipment. If you carry only one thing, make it a whistle. Don’t go into the bush without it. Why? If you get lost you’ll start shouting for help. Guess how long your voice will hold out? Not long enough. In a day or two when the searchers are slogging their way through the mud and the slush and the undergrowth they’ll be calling to you . . and they won’t hear your feeble, croaky reply. But they will hear a shrill blast on a whistle. Take matches and firelighters – the sort of lighters used to start a barbecue - or even just a candle. All in a waterproof container. A torch, first aid kit, a survival sheet (buy them at outdoor shops), map and compass. All this gear amounts to no more than a kilo in weight. You can carry it easily in a day pack, yet it is the difference between life and death. You can buy a survival pack at outdoor shops.

Rule 7: Take food for two or three days longer than you expect. Even on a short hike you should have a heapin’ helpin’ of chocolate bars, muesli bars, biscuits, scroggin (nuts and dried fruit mixture). Maybe some dried soup. There is nothing better, when you are feeling lost and miserable, than to be able to start a fire and boil up a mug of instant soup. Oh, yes, you’ll need to take a mug and a billy. Tea, coffee, sugar, sachets of powered milk. Maybe something like cheese, salami - the fat content is high value energy.

If nothing else, these precautions allow you to stay warm and dry and reasonably well fed. That will keep your morale high. People die simply because they give up under the misery of the cold and the hunger.

Let me say again: The mountains and the rain-forest in New Zealand are beautiful beyond measure, and perilous to match. They are not a kid’s playground, a walk in the park.

The Boy Scouts’ motto had a lot going for it: Be prepared.

And live.

David Morris writes a travel guide to New Zealand. Read it at He also runs a rental car business called Downtown Rentals at

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Baking Italiano-style In Kaiwaka. (Where?)

Kaiwaka in Northland, New Zealand, a village of some 537 souls (according to the 2006 Census), sits astride State Highway 1, 20 clicks north of Wellsford.

It’s not what you’d call the cuisine capital of the country, but it does have one seriously redeeming gastronomical saving grace: La Nonno, an Italian bakery and cafĂ©.

Apart from a superb range of artisan Italian-inspired breads and pastries they bake a pie to die for. (My doctor tells me if I don’t lay off the pies that’s exactly what will happen to me . . . but what would he know? I won’t live longer, it’ll just seem longer).

Try the butter chicken pie, not exactly an Italian classic, I realise, but a wonderful manifestation of the pieman’s craft.

Even if pies aren’t your comestible of choice, the coffee alone is worth the stop. Again, maybe it’s the Italian influence – you gotta admit, the Italians do do wildly good coffee – but this cup is a cut above the rest of the run-of-the-road cafes along the way.

A highly recommended stop.

Read more about Northland on my webpage at

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Wairarapa in New Zealand Is a Way Cool Place To Go

Took a trip last month from Wellington through Napier and Taupo on my way home to Auckland.

Made me realise what an under-rated destination the Wairarapa region is. To start with it's physically beautiful - soft, gently rolling grassy downlands; the main road meanders easily along the flats between two lines of hills. The farmland is absolute picture postcard stuff.

Everybody waxes lyrical about Martinborough with its big rep as a wine growing area (for good reason), but some of the other towns are equally as interesting, Greytown and Carterton especially. These are classic Kiwi country towns that everybody ignored for decades . . . thus they were never upgraded with a bulldozer and have retained that wonderful snapshot of life in Victorian and Edwardian colonial New Zealand.

Greytown, a thriving country village, is a living museum of Victoriana. It was once the leading township in the region, but the railway by-passed it in the 1870s and the town slumbered on for the next hundred years. Fortunately, because of that deep sleep, it never got modernised, so there they all are - those delightful, authentic old buildings. The advent of the Martinborough wine growing region and resulting steady stream of tipplers travelling to and fro has revived Greytown's fortunes and it is now well serviced with great accommodation options and some superb cafes and restaurants.

Here are just a few suggestions:.

The White Swan. A hotel in the town. You could be forgiven, looking at it, to think that it's been serving the needs of the road-weary for a hundred years. In fact it was a service station only a few years ago, though in fairness the building itself began life in 1890 as a railways administration block at Woburn near Wellington. It was trucked in and refurbished with 13 themed suites and studios - mostly with an Eastern flavour. Tw/dbl $139-$269 per night.

Bright House another landmark. In 1856, enterprising local blacksmith Richard Bright combined 2 small cottages to qualify for a land ballot. It is thought that this orignal lower half is the oldest remaining dwelling in Greytown. The upper storey, built in the more stately late Victorian style, was added in 1891, the staircase being artfully designed to make the transition appear quite natural. You can stay there for $NZ150 a night.

At Wakelin House Restaurant and Courtyard Cafe in Carterton you can dine in a genuine antique. The house was built in 1872,. replacing an earlier cottage on the site occupied by Richard Wakelin, NZ's first journalist and founder of the Wairarapa Standard newspaper. Menu is Italian influenced - dishes include Carpaccio (marinated beef fillet), Salmoni Affumicati Penne (salmon in a creamed dill sauce with penne). Mains $24-28.

Or how about Cuckoo Cafe. Worth the visit if only for the decor - eclectic tatt I'd call it, but another writer described it at "delightfully bohemian in pink" - pink because that's the colour they've used to tart up the tatt. Does breakfast and lunches 11-4. Just a great place to utterly waste a Sunday morning doing brunch and reading the paper.

For wildlife enthusiasts - or if you have kids (which sometimes amounts to the same thing) - or if you just want to take a timely stop try the Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre. Here you can get close to some of NZ's most precious and endangered birds like saddleback, stitchbird and kokako. Indeed with "nest-cam" you can get right inside their nest. These are some of the rarest bird species in the world and they're being patiently nursed back from the abyss of extinction. Among them, is the kaka - a natural knockabout clown who never fails to amuse watchers at feeding time.

I'm as guilty as anyone in underselling this place . . . I'll have to update the information on the Hawkes Bay / Wairarapa page on my website at

Give me a day or two and it shall be done.