Monday, February 13, 2017

A Sampler Plate of Weather and Geography

We said our goodbyes to Carrie and sweet little Millie and set out just before eight. We would drive south along inland Motorway 4 until we reached Maxwell, just west of Whanganui. There we would stop for lunch at the farmstead of a friend's sister. We knew New Zealand's weather was fickle, but thus far we had been lucky with warm temperatures and clear skies. Along the way, it rained on and off, sometimes very hard. Just south of Te Kuiti, the road started to ascend into the Tongariro National Park area. The road signs for some corners on this route advised a 35 kph speed limit. There were several washouts where the road was reduced to one lane, and we had to be careful to watch for large trucks and careless motorists tearing around blind corners. The drive itself, while requiring attention, was not particularly difficult, but it did take forever. There were few places to stop for petrol or the loo so we had to keep our eyes peeled for these opportunities. We also had our first self-serve gas experience that day, with me trying to figure out how to manipulate the buttons at the pump, and grossly underestimating what it would cost to fill our car. Fuel cost almost $5 USD per gallon, which is the norm everywhere but the US.

We made it to Whanganui safely and without getting lost, and then turned on the GPS and followed the landmarks we had been told to look for to get to the farm in Maxwell. The social connection to the people we would visit here is an interesting one. It begins with my husband, Charlie, whose father Tony was in the US Foreign Service. As a result, Charlie spent several years of his childhood in Benin, West Africa. While there, Tony played on a rugby team with a Frenchman whose son, Nicolas, would become close friends with Charlie. Nic and Charlie spent several summers visiting one another in either the US or France, and kept in touch over the years. We spent time with Nic during our sojourn in France, and he came to our wedding a couple years later. He had been living in Australia for some time by then and soon after became an Australian citizen. In the meantime, Nic's sisters had also become world travelers, and the youngest, Mareva, had settled in New Zealand with her partner Cameron. Unfortunately, Mareva was at work the day we passed through Whanganui, but her mother, Marie-Christine (who lives in Brittany, France) happened to be in town for a long visit and invited us to lunch at the farmhouse. I had never met any of these people, but had interacted and chatted with them on Facebook. When Nic realized that we were all in New Zealand at the same time, he put us in touch.

The white farmhouse was nestled in a grove of trees amid a vast expanse of paddocks. We pulled in and a white golden retriever with a flattened rugby ball in its mouth immediately rushed out to greet us. Marie-Christine stepped out onto the porch and waved to us as we walked across the lawn. We said our customary French hellos (an "air kiss" on each cheek) and were invited in. As the door opened, a fluffy grey and white cat skipped out to say hello. The kitchen and living room area of the house were beautiful, with dark wood floors, cabinetry, and support beams made of what is now a protected species of tree, and grayish-blue paint. We could hear hammering coming from the back of the house where Cameron was working on renovations.

A beautiful home indeed

A picture on the wall of Nic, Charlie's longtime friend.

Marie-Christine gave us a tour of the inside of the house and then took us for a walk around the grounds. Behind the house sprawled a vast green lawn decorated with numerous giant trees. We walked its perimeter and Marie-Christine showed us the flowers, vegetable garden, and even fed us a strawberry from it. The dog followed along with us and at one point the friendly cat came skipping up to join in the fun. Back at the house, Marie-Christine invited us to sit at the long dining room table. She served us drinks and we chatted a bit while she buzzed around the kitchen making lunch. She served us a meal of chicken fried in bacon with a balsamic cream sauce, served over risoni pasta. She also made far breton for dessert, a custard-like cake made with flour, eggs and the farm's own milk.

Since needed to get into Wellington at a decent hour as a courtesy to our AirBnB host, we could not tarry long. We said our goodbyes and took some pictures on the picturesque porch, the golden retriever even posing with us. It was a lovely afternoon pause from the winding chaotic road and wonderful to experience such hospitality from complete strangers.

Human and canine smiles

Global connections

Now we were in the final stretch, with about three hours to go until we would reach Wellington (during evening traffic). The road was much straighter now and we got up to 100 kph for quite a long while, even daring to pass slower vehicles along the way. The traffic began to slow as we approached the city, and Mem anxiously waited for the sea to appear. From looking at the map we knew that we should be able to see the Cook Strait at any moment. We rounded a small bend just south of Queen Elizabeth Park and suddenly there it was! The wind was stirring up formidable choppy waves, crashing in all directions onto sharp rocks near the shore. That beach would have been death for even the best of swimmers. I wasn't sure I had ever seen waves quite that large.

 
Our first glimpse of calm Wellington Harbour

The evening traffic congestion was just subsiding when we entered the city and it wasn't too difficult to find our AirBnb in the suburb of Brooklyn. We climbed a steep hill and located the house, turning down a one-way the wrong way, once by accident and once on purpose for lack of a better idea. I parked on the street and we walked up to the door. We knocked and Sally immediately opened, welcoming us into her immaculate home. It smelled of the bouquet of lilies sitting on her dining room table. She had an eye for design, and her home was decorated with elaborate furniture, art and sculpture, framed in dark woods, gold, black, and white. There were blue and white Chinese vases in the hallway, heavy monarchic looking chairs, and sparkly crystal. Her living and dining area opened onto a reddish brown deck overlooking all of Wellington. The view was breathtaking. In the yard was her brown and white puffball of a Birman cat named Coco. I went to test her for friendliness and soon carried her in my arms. The wind was blowing hard that day and Sally complained that it had taken her furniture down the hillside with it. She sat us down for a cup of tea and we talked about the state of American politics.

View of Wellington from Sally's deck in Brooklyn

Coco inspecting the newcomers

I passed her test.

All is well.

After a while we brought in our luggage and then ventured into the living room to watch TV and chat. I had been wanting to show Mem What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about "real" vampires living in Wellington, but Netflix NZ didn't have it. Sally suggested we watch Boy instead, a charming coming-of-age comedy by the same director. We were not disappointed. After the movie, we went to our lavish room and got into the soft bed, complete with more puffy pillows than we could ever want or need, and fluffy covers.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Ride the Snake

We rose early and were out the door by 9:00 AM, knowing that we needed to stop and get petrol before making our way down the winding Waitomo Village Road to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. We also had a list of sites to visit along the route, which had been provided by the flirty barkeep from the Thirsty Weta the night before. He even told us what order to do them.

When you're in your own country you take simple things for granted, like getting gas for your car. There was a whole process involved for us to do it here. First I looked in the tour book to find out whether one could self-serve or had to wait for service. It had no information about that so I decided just to find out at the station. Before we left we confirmed which side the gas cap was on and how to open it. Then we drove to the station and a girl immediately came out to serve us. The only difference from service in the States was that I actually had to walk inside to pay afterward. Later I found out that you could also self-serve just about everywhere too, and that the options on the electronic pumps are totally different, and that you still have to go inside to pay afterwards.

I chose to set out without the GPS that day because I had noticed that signage tends to be quite clear (provided my horrible eyes can see it in time). It also seems that I learn the route faster, pay attention to landmarks, and generally feel more competent on the road when I'm not waiting for orders from the electronic voice in my phone, which had been getting confused a lot anyway. We had a list of things to see after the caves and, after reviewing the paper maps, were confident we could find them without Google's assistance. We were mostly right. 

The only unclear thing was where to pick up the glowworm cave tour. There were tons of businesses along the way with signs and information about acquiring tickets and visiting the caves. Only a couple of them were official outfits, and we stopped at two before we found the right place. The actual tour area was an attractive wooden dome that housed ticket kiosks, a couple cafes, and a large gift shop. We figured out where we were supposed to be, which was no easy feat, and watched other confused tourists gather in the same place. A couple of them for whom English was not their first language tried to use one of those translator apps to read the signs in the area. I wonder how the app handled the sign that just said "Welcome" in a dozen different languages.

Soon a tiny woman named Mere came to collect our group. We walked down a path to the cave entrance where she gave a small talk and then led us through the door. Mem and I were toward the back of the line, and just as we were about to enter the door, a young Chinese couple shoved past everyone, including a German threesome in front of us, to get through the door first. Expressions of disbelief were exchanged. As we walked through the first dark cavern, the Chinese man turned on his mobile phone flashlight, which is forbidden for several reasons, and frankly ruins the effect. One of the German girls decided to police the scene and told him to stop using his mobile. I thanked her.

Mere led us through several large caverns, including one area with a high ceiling known as the cathedral. She mentioned that actual weddings and some choral concerts took place there. One of the women in the tour group asked Mere to sing us a song. Mere was a bit nervous and shy about doing so, but eventually treated us to a simple but mournful Maori love song. It was a really touching moment and of course I had tears in my eyes.

Now it was time to get into the boat and float beneath the starry glowworm caverns. No photography was allowed, and tourists were asked to remain silent, partly for effect, and partly out of respect for the deeply spiritual significance of this place. A few folks chatted as they climbed onto the boat and Mere gently shushed them. I got in and ended up seated in front of the badly behaving Chinese couple who chattered away unabashed. In fact, they had been chattering away and PDAing the entire time Mere had been talking during the tour. As soon as we were ready to disembark from the platform, I turned around and put my finger up to my lips, made a shushing sound, and whispered, "Silence," hoping one of these gestures would translate. They understood, but only whispered more quietly for awhile. Eventually they went silent and gave us all a few moments of respite. I was just grateful I couldn't understand what they were saying, and their indecipherable whispering made the boat ride even more trippy and dreamlike at times.

Mere stood on the bow of the silent boat, pulling us along via several horizontal overhead ropes tethered to the cavern walls. The ride was short but unforgettable. Above, patches of glowworms emitted green light almost as bright as a full moon, illuminating large sections of cavern. You could hear the blurred echoes of faraway voices, drops of moisture falling from the ceiling into the still river below, and the occasional slosh of water as the boat turned. I would have loved to kick everyone else out of there, tether a canoe to one of the guide wires, and lie down staring up at the "stars" all day.

As we approached the mouth that fed into the open river, light began to fill the cave. Mere brought the boat to a halt at a dock just outside and we all climbed out. She thanked us and then pulled the vessel silently back into the dark mouth of the cave. A toddler had been seated next to us in the boat and had managed to stay silent for the majority of the trip, as instructed, except for a couple of small exclamations of wonder. Mem told his parents what a good boy he was, and I chimed in that he behaved even better than some of the adults. We waited around a bit to take photos of the surroundings. Here the river had cut down deeply into the terrain leaving steep cliffs on either side, which were covered from top to bottom in green. Two huge trout swam nonchalantly out of the cave and floated unconcerned nearby while we gawked at them.

Tourists disembark

Dark cave entrance with a trout emerging

Here fishy fishy...

The gift shop contained little of interest except for a glowworm puppet that Mem used to make silly voices at me, so we left.

Mem practices her ventriloquist act
The next stop on our agenda was Marokopa Falls, so we headed west on the curly road. The speed limit said 100 kph as we entered it from the roundabout, but I kept it around 60 most of the time. There were tight, blind turns and the road was narrow. Driving fast didn't seem prudent. As we went along, the lyrics "Ride the snake" from The Doors' This is the End came to mind, and I began to sing it. Along the way we stopped to take pictures of the impressive view and excitedly pointed out new signs that we recognized from the driver's manual.


Just an average roadside view in these parts

The narrow bridge sign: this indicates that a one-lane bridge is coming up. If the arrow pointing in the direction you're traveling is red, you have to yield to oncoming traffic.

Getting to the falls was a 30-minute drive, followed by a "10-minute" walk down a wooded path. I say that in quotations because I think the times given on these signs are for professional trekkers who have the stamina of caribou. We entered the trail just as an elderly English couple was exiting. Mem asked whether it was worth the hike and the kindly gentleman with the Attenboroughesque voice replied, "It's worth going down two times!"

Cows at the trail head!

It had begun to drizzle so we grabbed our hoodies to take with us. The canopy over the trail was so thick that they weren't even necessary. It smelled of Washington rainforest and birdsong alternated with deafening bugsong. Within a short time, although I suspect longer than 10 minutes, we were at the falls, their sound announcing their presence long before we could see them. As the canopy broke away, we found ourselves face to face with a squarish cascade of water pounding the moss covered boulders before it, a sparkling mist rising up from the chaos. The flow of water leading away from this physical drama was surprisingly placid. One could have easily waded across mere meters from the cascade rushing down from the cliff above.

An excited looking mother-daughter pair with an apathetic looking dad in tow emerged from the trail and asked us to take their family photo in front of the falls. We obliged and they returned the favor for us. I stared at the fall a moment longer and then we ascended back up the gently sloping trail. It got our heart rates up, but wasn't terribly strenuous.

The trail

Small but majestic Marokopa Falls



A hobbit!

Just down the road was a sign for Piripiri Caves, which were supposedly five minutes from the road. What they failed to mention was that these "five" minutes were spent ascending a wooden staircase that wound around the side of a steep ravine, and then descending again on the other side to the mouth of the cave. That's right, uphill both ways. As we neared the mouth of the cave, the German family we had seen at the waterfall emerged and headed back toward the carpark. We smiled and said hello. The cave itself was wide and tall, with a single staircase descending a few meters down into it. There was little protecting the cave's features and all one had to do to go traipsing around in it was step over the wooden railing. I'm sure more than one person had done it. The cave was only lit by the daylight coming through the tiny opening. You had to wait a few moments for your eyes to adjust in order to appreciate the numerous stalactites and other slowly formed features inside. Had I not been as interested in geology as I am, I might have been pissed about the physical exertion required for five minutes of enjoyment.

Looking out from the cave

A column in the making

Stalactites

My precioussssss...

 A young fern in the gully

Our next stop was the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. We hadn't really read a description of it so we weren't sure what to expect. I assumed it was something like a big suspension bridge through a wooded area, such as the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia. The sign at the entrance said it took 10 minutes to get there on foot, which I doubted very much by now. The walkway wound along the rock face below which the Mangapohue stream of the Marokopa River ran. The clear stream hardly moved and it looked like a great place for fishing (assuming there were any fish). We crossed a couple of small bridges over the waterway and wondered at each whether this was the "natural bridge" we had come to see. One was even the swaying suspension sort like Vancouver's.

A big rock with a perfectly round hole in it

The quiet Mangapohue stream

Some nerd crossing a bridge

Mem posing nicely


Interesting geology

 Gnarly rock formations

Along the walk, we passed the German family again, laughed, and waved at each other. Finally we came to the actual natural bridge, which might have been more aptly described as an arch, since you couldn't actually walk over it, but rather under it. It was a collapsed volcanic cave, only the top of which remained. There were some stalactites and ridge-like features on the underside of the arch, which gave it the appearance of a giant animal rib cage.

Oh, that's what they meant.

The underbelly of the Mangapohue Natural Bridge

Beyond the great arch, we could see that the walkway descended to a small fence. There was a special three-step staircase with a handrail set up there to allow people to step over the barbed wire safely. We had seen another family go that way, so we decided to follow. While it had perhaps been an actual 10 minutes to the natural bridge, I had a feeling what lay beyond was a much longer trek. At the fence, the treed canopy suddenly parted, giving way to a grassy, wildflower covered meadow; the stuff of fantasy. Spiky black volcanic rock structures jutted out of the ground intermittently like something out of an H.R. Giger creation, providing a severe contrast to the surrounding gentle greenness.

Threshold between the archway trail and the meadow

Paradise meadow

Volcanic rocks

A honeybee doing its thing

We saw an upward sloping trail marked for hiking, which appeared to lead past a sheep pasture and beyond into parts unseen and unknown. We decided to follow it awhile to see where it led. What proceeded was a thoroughly enjoyable gentle hike through rolling green fields blanketed in wildflowers, punctuated by rocky outcrops. We compared ourselves to Frodo and Sam on their epic journey to take the ring to Mordor. The trail curved around 180º until we were walking parallel to Mangapohue stream. The stream and natural bridge were so densely covered with trees that you would never have known it was there. We plodded along carefully on the soft ground, avoiding cowpies, and stepping over a couple other fences via the convenient staircases. Soon, we could hear the voices of other adventurers and the carpark came into view. This walk was easily one of my favorite parts of the entire trip and I was sorry it was coming to an end.

Mem enjoys the view

Rolling green

Fence stairs

Lastly, our list instructed us to visit the Ruakuri Scenic Reserve. When we got there, it was more hiking trails through wooded areas, and this was also the pick-up area for the more adventurous additional glowworm cave tours, the kind that involved headlamps, and crawling around in dangerously tight spaces. By then we had done quite a bit of hiking and I was just about out of energy. We had a quick look around the picnic area, read some tourist information signs, and then got back in the car to seek out the restaurant that had been recommended to us: Huhu Café. On the way, we made jokes about how it's name sounded like a euphemism for the vagina.

Huhu Café was abandoned except for the German family we had been following all day. In hindsight, I wonder if the server at Thirsty Weta had given them the same agenda. We took a table out on the patio, where little sparrows fought over French fries on the abandoned plates of other patrons. Even though the restaurant was far from busy, no one had bothered to bus the dirty tables yet. Our patio seat overlooked an RV park, beyond which we could hear repeated gunshots. One of the staff explained that there was a gun club just beyond the nearest grove of trees. The food was quite good. Mem ordered some Cajun spiced chicken strips, and I had king salmon with broccoli slaw and beetroot something or other. Both were quite tasty.

Fairly exhausted now, we went back to Carrie's for a rest and to wash up for dinner. Carrie had invited us to dine with her at the Otorohanga Club. The well-equipped club contained a central bar, a big open room full of pool tables, and an enclosed section with several TVs playing sports. There weren't many people in the club and the ones there were mostly men. We ordered food at the bar and then sat. The food was so-so, but filling and cheap compared to most other restaurants, and we had a great time chatting with Carrie.

That night we packed our things and retired early. We would be hitting the road by eight o'clock because we had a long drive ahead of us, all the way to the southern tip of the North Island: Wellington!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Majestic Rugby Ball with Legs

I awoke gradually as the rising sun began to show pink through the curtains covering my window. I was hunkered down in the fluffy covers, surrounded by pillows, having just had the first really good night's sleep since our arrival four days before. With unadjusted eyes I peeked through a slit in the curtains, only to have my retinas bleached by the sun's blaring light. The house was still all quiet so I padded out of my room as silently as possible to go get a better look at the morning's colors. I went into the living room, opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the deck (or "dick", as it is pronounced here). It was already warm and the light was blinding. A line of clouds nestled into the distant rolling hills. I heard the clicking of nails on wood and looked to my left to see Millie, who had apparently appeared out of thin air, trotting towards me. I sat in one of the deck chairs and she immediately leapt onto my lap for a cuddle. I remained there only a few minutes, trying to appreciate the view while shielding myself from the sun's rays. Millie hopped down and trotted back from whence she came, and I went inside to see if Mem was awake. She was, so I beckoned her out to look at the morning fog on the hills.

Millie says, "Good morning!" outside my bedroom window.

Soon Carrie also emerged and set to arranging breakfast, a combination of coffee, tea, cereal, fresh fruit, and a light, fluffy, locally produced yogurt. We chatted a bit and then readied ourselves for the short walk down the nearby Rotary Redwood Park bush path to the Kiwi House. We cut through a neighbor's backyard and emerged onto the drive, walking downhill a few meters until we came to a gate. The gate led into a shaded trail seemingly lined with trees of every variety. Carrie and leashed Millie led us down the composting path. It smelled of evergreen forest and a yet unseen choir of insects buzzed, chirped, and clicked from all sides.

Vines!

 
A lily pad-covered pond next to the trail

 
Biodiversity

A Mem!
It only took a few minutes to descend the steep path before we saw bird enclosures belonging to the Kiwi House. Carrie pointed out which pens contained kiwis and identified some orange-beaked seabirds who sat calmly on a vine-covered wooden staircase (and whose names I have forgotten).


Next we came to a pen where she called out to a wood pigeon who had taking a liking to her. At the sound of her voice, he flapped out of the foliage and grasped onto the chain link separating us, then perched on a high wooden beam as near to Carrie as possible. He was as large as a chicken, with the usual gray-purple colored head, but a brilliant and full white breast. He clearly liked Carrie as much as she liked him and trained his eyes on her as we all stood there gawking.

 
Carrie's pigeon buddy

Just a few meters further we emerged into the parking lot of the Kiwi House. Carrie walked us in and introduced us to the woman at the desk, who she knew from her own volunteer work there. She bid us goodbye and we paid our admission and entered. The first enclosure contained the great spotted kiwi, the largest of these unusual flightless birds, which are endemic to the north island. The kiwi display was completely darkened save for a few dim track lights meant to simulate moonlight. Once our eyes adjusted, we could see movement within the glass enclosure. Soon the shape of the kiwi became apparent as she wandered around the enclosure, bobbing her head up and down and poking her long beak into the undergrowth in search of food. To my surprise, she was roughly the size of a turkey, and the shape of a rugby ball with legs and a head. Her fine, frizzy feathers looked soft and she occasionally fluffed them up as birds are wont to do. She seemed animated and wandered all around the enclosure, sometimes coming right up to the glass where we could get a closer look at her.

It was time for the feeding and educational talk. We spectators saw light in the back of the enclosure as the keeper opened the door to bring in the kiwi's food. She saw this too and immediately ran to him, squawking to demand the food she was about to receive. He set down a bowl of nutritious hodgepodge and she happily ate. The keeper entered the darkened hallway and proceeded to tell us about this fascinating creature.

We went into a second enclosure containing a young, small North Island brown kiwi, the most critically endangered subspecies. His name was Kevin. Next door to Kevin was an elderly great spotted kiwi (they live 30-40 years on average). Neither of these birds were as trusting as the previous large kiwi, and it took them several minutes to gingerly step out of hiding to approach the food that the keeper had set out.

After this we visited the kea and kaka, two parrot-type birds with big personalities. They were all well trained and docile with the trainer who went in to feed them, even willingly stepping onto her scale in exchange for a treat. Several visitors got to help feed nuts and cheese to the birds in order to keep them away from the gate while the keeper entered and left. The kaka in particular were said to be accomplished escape artists and the numerous chains and padlocks securing their enclosure were testament to this.

 Kea



 A kaka waits for his treat for stepping on the scale.

We made the loop around the park to see the other birds, which mostly seemed to be varieties of duck. Opportunistic sparrows flitted around both inside and outside the enclosures, stealing as much food as they could fit into their little beaks. Finally we ended at the aviary, where we were given handfuls of birdseed to attract kakariki. These red-crowned green parakeets would land on our hands to dig through the birdseed mixture in search of the good stuff (sunflower seeds).

Mem feeds the kakariki

A pair of kakariki wait for an open hand of birdseed.

 My Disney princess moment

As we made our way toward the exit, the keeper pointed out a couple of large reptiles known as tuatara, who apparently preyed upon just about anything, including the charming green parakeets. This had occasionally resulted in some horrifying education for sensitive visitors.

The terror of the aviary

We bought a few pieces of jewelry and knick-knacks from the gift shop, an ice cream bar and bottle of water each, and then headed back up the path. Coming down it looked quite steep and I anticipated huffing, puffing, and sweating profusely the entire way back up. It didn't turn out to actually be that bad and we arrived back at Carrie's house in a matter of a few minutes, barely winded.

I lazed around a bit, taking an opportunity to put my feet up and relax. The sky was a clear azure and the wind cooled where the sun burned, creating an almost perfect temperature.

 
 This does not suck.

We ate lunch, had tea, and then decided to venture out again. We drove past downtown and looped around east to visit Lake Huiputea. It was more of a pond than a lake, and a stinky one at that, full of stagnant water, ducks who swam toward us in anticipation of a treat, and water-loving plants. We walked around the entire thing in about ten minutes. In the center of the pond stood a giant sculpture of a pukeko, an odd-looking blue swamp hen with a large orange beak. Just south of the pond stood a historic tree, surrounded by a circle of other non-historic trees. The sign at the site reads, "Around this tree in 1822, after their victory at Matakitaki, a section of Ngapuhi had an advance base where they were surprised and annihilated by a party of Waikato and Maniapoto. Captive Waikato women aided the attackers. Soon after this reverse, all Ngapuhi returned North."

Lake Huiputea

A leafy vine occupies a tree trunk.

New Zealand flax, traditionally used in Maori weaving

 Flax flowers

We got back in the car and decided to drive south on Motorway 3 to see what we could see. We didn't have a map, but knew that Te Kuiti lay just a short drive south. We arrived within about twenty minutes and parked as soon as we spotted the giant sheep shearing statue we had read about. As we stepped out of the car, an air raid siren went off. We froze, not sure what to do. We had been talking with Carrie about earthquakes earlier and weren't sure if this was why the siren was going off. We looked around at the few people nearby enjoying the park, but they didn't seem to be reacting. A tired, snaggle-toothed woman emerged from the liquor store across the street and installed herself on a park bench right in front of our parked car. Mem asked what the siren was about and she told us it was either because of an accident or a fire.

Te Kuiti is the sheep shearing capital of the world, hence the statue, and apparently has little else going for it. It was practically a ghost town, much like Otorohanga had been the evening before. We walked up to the sheep shearing statue and then read the informational signs next to it. One read, "The most common breed of sheep in New Zealand is Romney." There's a political joke in there somewhere. As we stood there reading the signs, a fire truck went by and turned south down the motorway. It had been several minutes since the siren went off and the response time seemed long.

Mem for scale

Across the street was the tiny Tatsuno Japanese Garden, which could have used a little tender loving care, but was pleasant anyway. We walked several blocks into the desolate downtown area and then turned around and headed back to the car. Apart from a few attractive historical buildings, there wasn't much to see or do. On our way back to the car, Mem noticed a sign that said something about the volunteer firefighter brigade who were called to action by the air-raid siren, which explained the delay between the siren and the departure of the firetruck.

 
 Colorful but empty Te Kuiti

We drove back to Otorohanga. Mem was in the mood for a beer so we stopped in at the Thirsty Weta again. There one of the employees flirted with her and she flirted back, earning a free shot of some chocolate mint liqueur. We ended up staying for some excellent burgers and fries even though we had planned to dine elsewhere that night. Why fix what ain't broke? We returned to Carrie's and had a good long conversation about the dreadful state of American politics and, of all things, retirement funds.

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take" - Wayne Gretzky