Saturday, February 22, 2014

New Zealand Day 13: Heading to Wellington

The main goal of the day was to get from Tongariro National Park down to Wellington at the southern tip of the north island, in preparation for the ferry journey to the south island on Sunday. Once we realized that the weather and schedule wouldn't permit me to follow Alex on the Tongariro Crossing, we decided to make a day of it, with some stops en route to break up the driving.

So off we went. We had an unusually long pause just down the road from our campsite in National Park. What was supposed to be a quick stop for gas was initially made longer by spider removal from the cab of the van—I don't think of myself as terribly squeamish, but when I'm driving along, feel a tickle on my foot, and glance down while shaking it, expecting to see a fly, and instead see a TWO INCH SPIDER, it is rather alarming. I did not crash the camper. I may have squealed.

Then we decided to take advantage of the wifi hotspot to try to upload some video of B playing her violin to send to her teacher. Half an hour later we admitted failure and moved on.

The road to the coast (a main state highway) started out brisk but then became very narrow and winding. My favorite part was having motorcycles zip towards me on the curves, leaning into my lane. They were having a lot more fun than I was!

We stopped for lunch in Whanganui, where in the midst of some navigational confusion, I pulled the van over to the side of the road to look at the map with Alex, and whomped the top left corner of the van on a leaning tree trunk (plenty of lateral clearance...just didn't realize that we were quite so high). Arrgh! (Yes, despite generally considering myself a pretty good driver I am now losing the driving-the-camper game 2 to 0. I think as an engineer Alex's spatial skills are superior. It's a good thing I have a job to go back to so I can pay off these cosmetic repairs.) We got some good coffee, made a quick grocery store stop, and had some food.

The next break was two hours south in Paraparaumu, where we had some ice cream and spent a little time on a playground on the beach.

Then I took the wheel again and brought us into Wellington. Originally I'd thought we would find a site a little north of the city to stay, but after looking again, decided to take a chance on a site right in the middle of the city near the ferry docks: the Waterfront Wellington Motorhome Park. It got pretty good reviews online and would give us a chance of doing some city stuff in the evening as well as on Sunday morning before our ferry. It was basically just a big parking lot, as expected, but it was also less than a 10 minute walk to the lower cable car terminus, and we had arrived in the nick of time to make the last showing at the planetarium.

So we parked and headed right out on foot. Here's B watching the cable car come into the lower station:

And getting ready to head up. She was nervous at first and ended up loving it, of course!

The upper end of the cable car line lets out right in the Botanic Gardens, just a couple of minutes walk from the observatory. We got to the Carter Observatory just as the 8 PM planetarium show was starting. I had been nervous all day because my Rough Guide said to make reservations, but our timing was going to be so tight that I hadn't been sure until we actually walked in that we were going to make it. Luckily, it wasn't busy at all—maybe six or eight people in the whole place. There was about a 25 minute film about going back to the moon (mainly focused on the Google Lunar X Prize) and then one of the staffers spent another 25 minutes or so walking us through the New Zealand sky.

She talked about many of the constellations including some of the stories behind them, and pointed out Orion, which is upside-down here in the southern hemisphere. Then she showed us some stars and constellations unique to the southern hemisphere, including the southern cross and the star Achernar, which can be used together to find the south celestial pole, a big aid to navigation.

After the show was over, we went upstairs to the observatory's beautiful telescope, made by Thomas Cooke in York, England, about 150 years ago. Here's our astronomer getting things squared away for viewing:

B and I are looking at Jupiter. We could see the colorful stripes and three of the Galilean moons. Amazing!

Alex got this beautiful shot of the telescope pointed at Orion. We could see the Orion nebula.

The observatory closed at 9:30 (they basically had to shove us out the door) and we headed back over the cable car. This is a view of downtown Wellington from the botanic gardens.

Then it was time to find some food! The main restaurant district was in the opposite direction from where we were parked, and with it being so late, we didn't want to walk all the way over there. At the recommendation of the woman in the planetarium, we wandered along Featherstone St. A couple of likely-looking places had stopped serving at 9:30, but then we found an Irish pub that was open. They weren't doing main meals anymore but did have a bar menu. We had an entirely satisfying pizza and french fries (we meant for the fries to come right away and tide us over but they came out with the pizza...oops). They also had a terrific hard cider on draft for me, Alex had a beer from the same brewery, and they gave B a nice highball glass full of cranberry juice. Then we all headed back to the campervan and collapsed.

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