Monday, March 11, 2019

Thoughts re New Zealand

Somewhat randomly thoughts as our trip wraps up, updated after we got home.

Photography:
-Bring all the lenses you use regularly at home to do the photography you like. Figure out how to do that, but bring them. There were any number of times I deeply regretted not having my 100 mm macro, though I'm not so sure I'd have used the 150-600. For us the problem was not the international flight; we had lots of weight and baggage allowance. It was the internal flights and my reluctance to put lenses in checked baggage. Half the stories say the Air New Zealand staff are brutal about the 15 pound carry on limit, and the other half say they don't care. The ones I've seen didn't care about me, but they were picking on a crew of geezers. Maybe as long as they think you get get your bag into the overhead bin they leave you alone.

-Bring your floppy photographer's hat and work out a system for dealing with your sunglasses. You need both, and for a while I lost my sunglasses because I was taking them off to shoot, and putting them in different places. I got lucky and they came home again.
-Bring lens cleaning supplies. You will get salt spray on them if you go to the beach.

-Bring more SD cards than you think you'll need. They are 2x the price in Alberta. I brought a 2TB portable drive and copied photos from the card to the drive every day. As each card filled up I set it aside and started another. I wanted to come home with a set of SD cards containing each photo taken, and a copy of each in Lightroom on the drive. Now the trick will be to import the NZ catalog into the main one on the RAID drive at home. (That went really well, and the photos are WOW on the big screen.) Then I'll have 3 copies, but the cards will get reused. WIFI is pretty good, though one place was wonky, so if you have a cloud service going, that might work. It might be best to check with your Airbnb host when you are booking.

-You will have a big bag that holds all your photo gear for airline carry on, but it's probably overkill for day trips. Bring a smaller bag to carry the camera body and the carry around lens, and the other lens you might use for where you are going, plus a pocket for backup battery (batteries) and SD card. There are times and places so beautiful and photogenic you will burn through both much quicker than expected, especially if you are mirrorless. My rule was when in doubt was take the shot. When was I going to get here again? On day 54 I've taken just over 11,500 photos.

-Scout your locations in the daytime. The roads here can be scary in places. Moke Lake for example. It's beautiful, and I think it's a great location for night shooting, but I wouldn't drive up that road at night. (There is a place almost as nice not that far away that I'll share if you buy me lunch :-) ) If I hadn't found another place my plan was to drive up in the fading light, shoot sunset, moon stuff, milky way/dark sky stuff, sunrise, and drive out in the morning. Maybe snooze a little.

-Once you've scouted your locations, use an app like The Photographers Ephemeris to check sunrise/sunset/moonrise/moonset times and locations and directions. Don't forget tide times if you're doing a beach. For some of the places you need low tide, others mid-tide is best. I didn't get out that much for dawn or sunset shooting but there is a ton of landscape that would be absolutely magical. Part of the problem is there is so much to see during the day, it's hard to start that early, or keep going that late, depending on time of year.

-Dark skies can happen surprisingly close to where you might be staying. A short drive out of town is likely to get you to darker skies than much of southern Alberta. Next time for sure I'm going out to one of the dark sky preserves, or to the Catlins, or Stewart Island, and stay long enough to wait out a spell of poor weather. (Poor from an astro photography point of view.)

-Even if you aren't a photographer, stay up late one clear night and drive out of town to look at the stars. WOW!

-Have a plan to deal with rain if you do the west coast. We got lucky. Remember, 8 m of rain a year at Doubtful Sound.

-Museums have wildly different rules about photography, and it might vary by the exhibit. There is often some sensitivity about Maori art being photographed. Ask if you're not sure. Don't be that guy.

-The local photographers that I ran into were, with one exception, friendly and helpful. I didn't make any effort to find them in advance (via facebook or Instagram) and maybe I missed a bet there.

Accommodation via Airbnb:
-At the very least we liked all the places we stayed, and would consider staying again. Several of them I could have made an extended stay in. A couple of them I could live in.

-We found all the places to be as described, and usually nicer. Even after the description, the view from the Wellington place was WOW upon walking in.

-All the hosts were wonderful and there were a number of suggestions of interesting things to see and do. Don't be afraid to ask!

-Heating and air conditioning here is done with a wall mounted unit controlled by a remote. A fuller description of how this operates would be good. Locals would know, of course, but few from North America do. I had to google it.

-We tried to get checked in and inspect the pantry before buying groceries. Some places had quite an extensive choice of basic stuff, others not so much, or at all. Some might have been supplied by the host, some might have been left by previous guests.

-Places seem to vary widely as to how rubbish and recyclables are dealt with. If the house book doesn't say, ask.

-Each place had lots of brochures about various nearby attractions. Keep in mind the problem is not finding something to do, it's choosing between them. If you get a chance, talk to your host about what you are interested in, they will almost certainly have some suggestions.

-If you rent a car, ask about parking. Along the way we had our own garage, free on street parking about a block away, cheap daytime free at night/weekends street parking across the road, the driveway, and free on street parking in front of the house.

-There is a series of emails through Airbnb as you book, and reminders as arrival day gets closer. They're all the same. We didn't need any of the booking details or confirmation codes. A few days before arrival an email will come with the actual details of entry, like where the lock box is and the combination. Flag that email so you can find it. Don't ask how I know to tell you this.

New Zealand travel in general:
-Sunscreen is a must. As near as I can tell every day is a high UV day. Find a cream you like and bring lots. A 200 ml tube was about $30. I haven't seen sprays here.

-Driving on the left is a cognitive demand, and you will tire quicker than usual. Take lots of breaks. Even after 2 months I've occasionally (under stress) reverted to turning on the windshield wipers when I wanted to signal a turn. (I talked to a local, and they're amused by the whole thing. "We see a rental car and the windshield wipers start on a sunny day, we know they're going to turn. At least they're trying," they said.) (We met a nice couple from Red Deer in the Vancouver lounge. They've been going to NZ every winter for 12 years. He said he STILL sometimes hits the windshield wipers to signal a turn. I didn't feel so bad.)

-Driving between many places involves twisty hilly roads populated with tailgating locals. Let them by, and take frequent breaks. A 2 hour drive can be tough sledding. Forget about the scenery, stay focussed on the road.

-The speed limit sign often says 100 and it's not even remotely possible, though the locals try. The road yesterday had a passing lane going around 50 kph corners, and the trucks here are about the same size as trucks at home.

-We used Siri to navigate and mostly it was pretty good, with some frustrating exceptions. She didn't know one roundabout now has 5 exits, not 4. That got exciting for a few minutes, but wasn't the meltdown. Get used to her lecturing 'return to the route!'

-Some beaches don't have cell service, so remember the way out to the nearest town. Usually there isn't much choice of road so that's not much of a problem. Not much road for some beaches.

-Gas is expensive, about $2 a litre or so. It's worth it to check out if public transit will work for you. It seems to be really good, much better than Calgary.

-The flights are cheap, so fly from major city to major city. Unless you like ferries, fly between the 2 main islands. There are rules about rental cars and ferries, find out what they are. The problem is that the internal flights have tighter weight restrictions so you might have to buy extra for your gear. That's better than trying to drive between major cities. Don't look at the distance, google the driving time and add some.

-Do not drink and drive. Just don't. I won't say I was 24 hours bottle to throttle, but generally I held off drinking anything alcoholic till I was home for the day. The laws are strict, and you need every scrap of attention for the road.

-We did most of our grocery shopping at New World. They have a ton of stores, a tourist club membership for free, and the receipt gives you a discount on gas from an affiliated station.

-Countdown is the other big chain, and it seems to be a Co-op/Safeway thing. Check out both and see which you like.

-Pie is a food group of it's own here. The best we had was in Lyttelton, in a tiny little pastry shop. The pastry was melt in your mouth. Most of the cafe pie were quite good. Even ordinary pie from New World is pretty good. Simple Simon pies would be laughed out of New Zealand.

-Cafes are everywhere and the food is good, and the treats are awesome, but they usually close by 3, and the kitchen sometimes closes earlier.

-All the coffee is good, though sometimes the quantities are small.

-Fish and chip is awesome. Better than Nova Scotia awesome. Wedges are even better than chips. Don't forget that tartar or ketchup usually comes extra. Ask the staff for recommendations about what's fresh or what's local.

-Food in general is really good, and not particularly any more expensive than at home, or only a little moreso. Maybe the swanky high end places are more, but we didn't eat in any of them.

-Check your electrical stuff to make sure you can plug it in here and don't forget the adapter. The laptop, phone, and camera battery chargers were fine. The electric toothbrush was not. We went back to manual, and I'm probably gonna hear about it from my dental hygienist.

-For the smaller coastal town it is worth checking the cruise ship schedule. If you can, avoid days a cruise ship docks in a small town. Just the way the locals asked "Are you off a cruise ship?" has me rethinking the cruise idea.

-Public toilets are almost everywhere. Most were clean, and some were surprisingly well furnished for the location. Like Dyson hand driers out in the boonies. Some of the more remote ones, like at beaches might have a flush toilet and running non-potable water for a sink, but no soap or hand drier. If you're fussy about such things, carry a tube of hand sanitizer. There was a "Super Loo" in Taupo that advertised like a supermarket, but we didn't check it out. The Ironman New Zealand race had been there the day before and there was still a ton of people there, with lots crowded around the Super Loo. I admit to being curious, and maybe we should have braved the mob. No, I did not attend the race.

-If you go to New Zealand, I cannot say enough about springing for business class on Air New Zealand. Start looking early for the dates you'd like to go, and track it daily. Compare the price of seats in economy, premium economy, and business, and you'll find it's not that much more, and it's a MUCH better experience. No, really. This is one of the places where trying to shave a few dollars off the cost is dumb.

-We had essentially no jet lag, and we attribute this to the comfort in business class. Next time we fly into Auckland, we'll plan several hours for a layover to have a shower (yes, the swanky lounges have showers!) then fly on to the ultimate destination.

-Be careful about tours. There are tours for everything. Mostly you can save some money and buy the admission yourself; then you can take as much or little time as you want. Sometimes you can't, like for the Milford and Doubtful sound tours.

-Lots of people rent camper vans and travel that way. They call it Freedom Camping, and there are lots of rules about it, where you can and can't. Check it out before you rent. Go back and re-read what I said about driving and the price of gas. It might or might not be cheaper than renting accommodation. We were on one road with a sign, 'Vehicles must be shorter than x feet.' I'm told some places there's a lot of that.

-If you like the Art Deco period, going to Napier mid-Feb is a MUST. Google it. Plan. Book in advance.

-They are serious about what you can and cannot bring in to the country. Very serious. Seriously Serious. Check the requirements. There are serious fines.

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