After a weekend in Christchurch I’ve had to revise my baseline expectations of the damage an earthquake can do. I recently read a book on behavioral economics and decision making, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ , which posits that we set our expectations of worst case scenarios based on our personal experience and have difficulty truly moving beyond that even when data shows things could be worse. My baseline for earthquake damage has always been the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The damage from the 2011 Christchurch earthquake is much worse. Even 7 years later the devastation is quite visible – empty lots and damaged buildings everywhere. What’s amazing is that even quite modern buildings were severely damaged and are uninhabitable. Does this mean I’m ready to buy earthquake insurance? No, but I may add a couple more days supply to my emergency rations.
But there is always a sense after the ground moves that not only is everything going to be alright, but there is an opportunity for a new beginning, to make everything even better, to rise from the rubble to new glories. Even 7 years later that feeling is palpable in Christchurch. Why does it take an event to trigger this sense in most of us, especially collectively? As the ancient meditation says, every in breath is a rebirth, an opportunity.
I’m off to Nelson to see what possibilities are there.
I spent Thursday 22 February wandering around Auckland, then flew to Queenstown on the South Island Friday morning. Queenstown is a tourist town, similar to North Lake Tahoe, with skiing in the winter, adventure sports in the summer, and severe traffic problems all year. I was glad to get out of there this morning and begin hiking the Routeburn Track.
It begins in the flats and winds through beautiful Beech forest along a stream. Moss and ferns cover the ground, and bright green lichen grows on many of the ancient trees. As the route begins to climb there are numerous waterfalls.
Today was a beautiful day, but a severe gale (120kph winds) and heavy rain are forecast for tomorrow and they may close the track.
As usual the weather forecast was worse than the actual weather – the winds were just 110kph and there was 10 inches of rain, not 12. I left the Routeburn Falls Hut with Peter from Wellington and Amy from Sydney just before 8am. We wanted to be gone before they decided whether to close the track or not (it did remain open).
It was a wet and windy climb up to the Harris Saddle (about 2000 ft elevation gain) where we stopped briefly at the shelter to warm up.Once we left the shelter and walked along the ridge the winds were ferocious. The track is above the treeline until just before the the next hut so there is nothing to break the wind, and when traversing around exposed outcroppings one had to brace or grab on to something to keep from being blown off the edge of the track by strong wind gusts. But it wasn’t horrible, and we all agreed it was an invigorating hike.
We were the first to arrive at the MacKenzie Hut at 11:30. Peter decided to continue on to the next hut. We started a fire in the wood stove and soon more hikers started straggling in, progressively wetter and more bedraggled as the afternoon wore on. By late afternoon there were wet boots and clothes strewn everywhere. It was commonly agreed that there is no such thing as a waterproof boot.
I’ve been reading a book about swimming, The Haunts of the Black Masseur, which led to a conversation about Goethe (an avid swimmer), and then the parable of the tortoise and the hare. Yesterday several people were running or walking across the track in one day – it’s only 20 miles. We backpackers with our heavy loads take three days. The person I was talking with had the unique perspective that we were like the tortoise in that we were trying to carry our home on our back, while the trail runners carried nothing, like the hare. I don’t think I’m really meant to be a tortoise.
An American who had walked in from the other direction told us he had waded through a raging stream up to his waist and practically swept to his death. An Australian sitting nearby said she’d walked through the same stream at about the same time and barely got her feet wet. We Americans are really getting a bad reputation as drama queens.
We left around 8am. It was a glorious day and the payoff for the weather the previous day was incredible waterfalls all along the track.
We reached the end of the track by 11. My shuttle wasn’t scheduled until 3pm. I got to talking with this guy who shuttles cars between the two ends of the track for hikers. If he only has one car to shuttle he runs back across the track to pick up his car, which takes him about 5 hours. He offered to give me a ride to Te Anau. As we pulled out of the parking lot there were two hitchhikers who turned out to be these German doctors I’d met the night before, so he gave them a ride as well. Later in the evening I ran into the German doctors again in Te Anau and they told me they were camping in the backyard of the hostel. I can’t visualize my doctor doing this. I need a new doctor.
Departed San Francisco the evening of Monday 19 February and arrived in Auckland the morning of Wednesday 21 February after a quite pleasant 12 hour flight. Tuesday was nothing more than a dream somewhere over the Pacific. Such are the miracles of air travel.
Auckland is a sprawling city that straddles the North Island. I took advantage of this fact by walking all the way across New Zealand on my first afternoon in the country (it’s only 9 miles). Starting in the industrial west of the city, the Coast to Coast Walkway traverses through neighborhoods of Victorian and colonial houses with their corrugated steel roofs, then through parks, and finally to the central business district and eastern harbors. From One Tree Hill midway along the walk there are spectacular views across the island to the Tasman Sea in one direction and the Pacific Ocean in the other.
Many of the trees in the parks and along the streets are absolutely gorgeous.
Everything is very green, the weather is humid but pleasant, the days are long, and the natives are friendly. The cicadas are noisy, but I’ll get used to that. Today I will explore the city.
Slept very well after my afternoon of skiing. Got up early, had breakfast, and joined a group for a guided hike on Sólheimajökul Glacier. Drove about 2 hours southeast of Reykjavík. Mostly 2 lane road covered in ice and snow – the only indication one is on a road are the side markers and the packed snow from previous traffic (glad I didn’t rent a car). The guide showed us how to use the crampons and ice axes, then we headed onto the glacier for a 3 hour hike. It takes about an hour just to climb up onto the glacier. There we could see the blue ice often with steaks of ash from volcanic eruptions in years past. The weather would change from sun to clouds to snow seemingly within minutes. The glacier was covered in fresh snow but we could see many crevasses and other features of the glacier. It was a great experience for someone from California who rarely sees snow.
I didn’t sleep well and it looked cold outside so I almost decided to skip Blafjoll. But I didn’t have anything else planned, so one step at a time I worked my way there, thinking I could always turn back if it looked too miserable. It was snowing and cold when we arrived at Blafjoll, and I didn’t have proper cold weather gear, but I went ahead and rented skis and went skiing for the first time in over 25 years. I’m so glad I went. I had forgotten how much fun skiing is, and I had an amazing time.
Blafjoll is just a 30 minute drive from Reykjavík, but once outside the city the landscape becomes otherworldly. Trees and all other vegetation soon disappear, and then there are just endless lava fields covered in snow. There are 16 ski slopes. I started out on one of the easier ones and slowly worked my way up to the scale of difficulty. Apparently skiing is like riding a bike in that it’s not something you forget how to do. In the afternoon the snow stopped and the sun broke through the clouds. From the top of the ski slope, the snow covered lava fields ran into the shimmering sea in one direction, and in the other they merged with the clouds at the horizon. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, where the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine.
I was having such a great time skiing that before I realized it I had been skiing for four hours, and I was in danger of missing the bus back to Reykjavík. The day ended with more snow and thick fog – the weather in Iceland is fickle. I’m having a really nice time here. I’m doing things I haven’t done in a long time or have never done before. Sometimes change is good.
Landed at Keflavík Airport at 3:30am. Cold and cloudy, but no rain or snow – yet. The plane was 3/4s full, but only four of us are staying in Iceland. We saw the Northern Lights from the plane – a god thing since the Northern Lights forecast for is poor for the rest of my stay. It took about 3 minutes to get through passport control. No one was working at Customs so I walked through without stopping. Almost everything at the airport was still closed. Thank god there was a shuttle bus leaving in 20 minutes. Got to my hotel before 5am, and fortunately they let me check in early.
I booked this trip a few days before Christmas, which seems a very long time ago. I never got around to making any travel plans other than the flight and a hotel, and when it was time for the trip I was kind of dreading going to a cold, dark, dreary place – I felt more in the mood for someplace warm and sunny. But sometimes it’s good to have low expectations because it’s easy to exceed them. And I booked a hotel with a really nice fitness center and spa, and brought several books, so if it ended up being too miserable outside I could enjoy myself inside.
I slept very deeply for a few hours and woke up feeling very refreshed. I put on my polar gear and headed out to find something to eat and have a look around. And I had a very nice day. Reykjavík is a rather small city with a population of about 250,000. But there is a lot here – a beautiful location on the sea with mountains in the background, many parks, several museums, a gorgeous opera house, and an active fishing port. I had a very nice lunch and wandered around. I went to the visitor’s center and since I was the only customer they were able to spend plenty of time with me figuring out what my activity options are. Everywhere I went everyone was helpful and friendly. The weather was cold with rain and snow showers, but not oppressive.
Then in the evening I went to a geothermal pool near the hotel. There are several of these around the city. Laugardalslaug has two large outdoor geothermal swimming pools heated to around 86 deg. F. They are surrounded by several “hot pots” (hot tubs), a seawater pool, and a steam bath. And it was better than someplace warm and sunny. Swimming in a warm pool while it is snowing and seeing people wandering around in bathing suits when it is 30 deg. F out is a surreal experience for someone from California. I spent about three hours swimming and sitting in the various hot pots and had a really wonderful time.
From Southern Spain I worked my way north – Seville, Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona.
Valencia has an amazing Arts and Science City designed by Santiago Calatrava.
Catalonia has been in the midst of political unrest for the last month. There are a lot of protests, a lot of police, but very peaceful so far. There are fewer tourists than I’ve ever seen here in the last thirty years, which is nice.