My world from up above

2016 has been a spectacular year for me as a traveller (a detailed round-up post coming up next) – but one of the highlights was the bird’s eye view I got of some stunning natural and man-made wonders on chopper rides.

From the Grand Canyon in the USA to twice in Canada, over the Niagara Falls and over the Rockies, recently the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Australia from the vantage point of a helicopter.

Then the familiar landmarks of Dubai from a seaplane, and the very intriguing Nazca Lines in Peru from a light aircraft, it has been an amazing ride.

Here, a few of my favourite memories of the world I saw from above:

The dozen brown hues of the Grand Canyon

The magnificence of Niagara from the Canadian side

Up above the snowy Rockies

The mystery of the outstretched hands over Nazca

Fringes of the Palm and soaring tower of Burj

The 12 Apostles, shipwreck magnets from the past

Christchurch: back on its feet and dancing

It’s a balmy evening in Christchurch and I am dancing on the street to a Spice Girls song.

On a free walking tour of Christchurch, our guide Michael Borren has led us to an open square with what looks like a painted washing machine in the middle. He plugs his phone in to it, inserts $2 into a slot and voila! The washing machine is now a mean jukebox. That is how I end up channeling my inner Mithun Chakraborty and boogying under the disco lights strung up overhead. And it’s not only us who have danced to its tunes; in 2012, when on the Royal Jubilee tour of the Commonwealth, Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla boogeyed to it too.

Meet the Dance-o-mat, one of Christchurch’s unique delights. Designed by an urban regeneration group called The Gap Filler, it is meant to be response to the lack of lively public spaces post the earthquake in 2011 that left Christchurch devastated. Quirky, sure, but the city seems to understand that when you gotta dance, you gotta dance.

Dance

The earthquake– measuring 6.3 on the scale – struck the South Island’s largest city in February 2011. Four years later, remains of the destruction are visible everywhere. Our taxi driver takes over an hour to cover a distance of five kilometres, stumped by construction materials and bulldozers on every road. Almost all my interactions with locals are punctuated with references to those terrible days when hundreds lost their lives, homes and possessions.

Yet, as I wander around the city, I also find distinct signs of revival and even optimism. I am delighted to discover cheerful wall art everywhere, even dilapidated buildings sporting abstract images amidst the dust and debris. According to Michael, this is a recent phenomenon, another endeavour to boost public morale.

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When my husband and I set out from our hotel in the morning, we stop for a coffee at Coffee Traders. Housed in a handful of shipping containers, Coffee Traders is just one of the city’s many eating and shopping establishments that has found a home – perhaps permanently – among bright shipping containers.

Coffee

At lunch, we head to one of the most innovative projects to use such containers, the Re:Start mall, a cluster of boutiques, gift shops and eateries selling kiwi and international stuff. The mall is packed with locals and tourists basking under the warm autumn sun at the alfresco cafés and food stalls. Re:Start is a place we keep going back to, not to shop or eat, but to just enjoy the vibe.

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My favourite initiative though, is the cardboard cathedral, known locally as the transitional cathedral. This marvellous structure sprung up in place of the damaged 19th century Christchurch cathedral. The architect Shigeru Ban came with considerable experience in reviving broken structures and constructing new ones in disaster zones. He used his preferred material, strong cardboard tubes, tried and tested earlier in Japan and Haiti, in this building.

Cathedral
(Source: wikimedia commons)

The people have embraced this church – also using it as a space for community events – and see it as a symbol of moving on.

That afternoon, we take a lazy stroll in Hagley Park, where the trees are a blaze of yellow and orange. This verdant urban space, spread over 400 acres, seems untouched by the chaos on the streets. The only noises are the occasional birdsong and muted whispers of walkers.

Hagley

And later in the evening, we make our way to the Isaac Theatre Royal to catch a local Kiwi production of The Phantom of the Opera (excellent, by the way). Waiting in the foyer before the show, I eavesdrop on several conversations that centre on the recent restoration and reopening of this iconic theatre. By then, I know that this is common discourse among Christchurchers: what is the latest to come (back) to life?

The fact that Christchurch was listed by Lonely Planet among the top ten cities to visit in 2013 – just two years after the earthquake – is a testament to the way the city has risen from the rubble and carried on.

Amidst all this, Christchurch has not forgotten its dead. A street installation of 185 white chairs, empty and evocative, stands in memory of the lives lost. As we stand at the site – which includes wheelchairs and baby chairs – it is impossible not to be moved.

Chairs
(Source: wikimedia commons)

And it is impossible not to love a city so rooted to its past, while marching ahead resolutely.

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A slightly different version of this was published in Mint Lounge on July 25, 2015

Autumn in New Zealand

It was early autumn in New Zealand when we went there – the first week of this April and we were excited about seeing the foliage colours. Since we landed in Auckland and spent the first few days in the north island, we didn’t get much of a chance to spot autumn colours but once we flew to Queenstown, we were in for a treat.

On our first afternoon in Queenstown, we drove to neighbouring Arrowtown, where the Autumn Festival was on. Arrowtown is a postcard pretty, small town, fully decked up that day for the festival, with kids and their parents out, enjoying the mellow sunshine.

Arrowtown has one main street, with buildings that look straight out of the 1800s (probably are), with little lanes branching off from it, a few shops and cafes thrown about here and there, the green hills in the distance. All, oh, so charming.

Arrowtown

And the trees were ablaze in yellows and oranges and reds – my first time ever seeing such colours. And my husband and I were thrilled to bits.

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Later on, driving elsewhere from Lake Wanaka, we found these trees on the sides of the road – more signs of autumn. Overall, we experienced autumn bounty in New Zealand. And now I am all set for fall colours in New England in the set coast on the USA, the only thing is, I don’t know when that will happen…

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Friday photo: Reflections

It is almost impossible to choose one favourite among the dozens of stunning landscape images I have from New Zealand. But for now, a pic of an unexpectedly beautiful spot we came across near the Franz Josef glacier. There were several hikes near the glacier, of varying lengths and difficulty levels – and of course, we chose one of the easiest initially. This route led us to Peter’s Pool…

Peters Pool

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Also see: Friday photo series

5 reasons why New Zealand is great for road trips

I have just returned from a two week holiday in New Zealand, a whistle-stop tour of both the North and South Islands. For most of this trip, we had a rental car to get around from from one stunning place to another. My husband drove all of it, and though we were on the road for anywhere between 3 – 6 hours almost everyday, he ended each day with a smile, if not a big grin.

True. New Zealand is the ideal destination for road trips. And here are a few reasons why you should think of a self-drive car when you visit the country.

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1. The roads are practically empty

Come on, this is a country with a population of a staggering 4.4 million, so how many people are you likely to find on the roads? Of the entire population, almost a third lives in Auckland in the North Island, so the highways on scenic routes are devoid of any traffic. On some days, on some routes, we went for miles without seeing another car. In some ways (oh my god, what if this car suddenly stops), it is a little scary but it also makes for super easy driving.

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2. Everyone follows road rules

If you are a traveller from India, you will know what a surprising and pleasant experience this can be: right of ways, speed limits, no honking… sheer bliss! You get to drive comfortably in the knowledge that some car (or worse, pedestrian, autorickshaw or cow) is not going to appear on the scene at great speed from a side lane. Although most of the country roads are narrow and single lane, it is easy to navigate them at a decent speed, since everyone keeps to their lanes, without tryingovertake as if in a great rush to get somewhere. So, it follows that driving in New Zealand is not stressful or tiring as it can be in some Asian countries.

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3. The roads are super smooth

I don’t mean just the condition of the roads but also the way in which authorities make life happier for drivers. The roads are clearly marked, with excellent banking, so that curves are easy to tackle. Apart from the standard speed limits – 100 kmph on highways and 50 kmph inside towns – we found that every single curve on the winding mountain roads (and they are everywhere in the country – I mean everywhere) had yellow reflective signs and specific speed suggestions, making sure that we were driving at the safest and smoothest speed. And you do not need an SUV or large, fancy car to get around – there are enough budget rental options that will work just as well.

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4. Driving is the easiest way to get around

Road trips are the quickest and most convenient way of travelling within this country, especially given that bus and train connections are not that frequent or regular. Of course, there are inter-city buses like Kiwi Bus and scenic trains like the Tranz Alpine, but these may not always match your schedules. So, get into a car and start driving. The added bonus is that you get to stop and explore a dozen new places along the route every day, instead of just getting from Point A to Point B. After all, that is the fun of a road trip, and New Zealand has enough easy walks, seaside attractions, forest paths and crystal clear lakes to entice you.

5. The landscape changes every half hour

And finally, what is perhaps the most interesting thing about driving in New Zealand – no stretch along the road is like others you have seen earlier. Several times in an hour, you will find that the scenery looks different. And this is despite the fact that most of the country (especially in the South Island) is filled with hills and lakes of all sizes and shapes. One minute you are driving on a windy hill road and the next, you find yourself right next to the sea that gives you company for the next hour or so. And then the cattle – hundreds of cows and thousands of sheep grazing in lush green patches right by the roads… heck, we even saw ostriches once – Believe me, you will never get bored or tired in a “been there, seen it” kind of way. The flip side to this is the temptation for the drive to look at the stunning landscape or stop at random to take photos. But hey, that’s why there are all those stopping bays and lookout points everywhere.

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So, if you ever find yourself in New Zealand or even planning a trip, make sure to include a few days of self drive in your itinerary. Who knows, this may turn out to be your most favourite experience in the country?

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