Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mt. Hutt: Skiing in New Zealand

For the very small percentage of our readers who don't know me very well: skiing is just about my favorite thing in the world. So when our holiday swing through Australia and New Zealand coincided with the start of the Southern Hemisphere ski season, I couldn't resist the temptation to slap on some skis and hit the slopes in July.

Incontrovertible video evidence:
Now, to a certain extent, skiing is skiing, wherever you do it. The same fundamental set of variables apply: snow conditions, run length, vertical drop, lift speed. Two mountains of a similar size and shape aren't made all that different if you drop one in Korea and the other in Vermont.

With that said: Mt. Hutt is crazy.

First, it's one of the largest ski areas in New Zealand, but in terms of sheer size it's not actually all that big. Sure, it's almost 700 m (2250 feet) from top to bottom, but there's really only one basin with one lodge and a grand total of three chairlifts. It was this more than anything else that drove home just how few New Zealanders there are: at about 4.5 million, the population of New Zealand is a bit less than the population of Fukuoka Prefecture, or roughly two Pittsburgh metro areas.

And that population supports 25 ski areas. No wonder even the biggest of them feels a bit small!

Nevertheless, despite the small size (and the vagaries of the weather), Mt. Hutt is still a really good place to ski. Like pretty much all of New Zealand's ski fields, it's entirely above the country's very low tree line, meaning that you get a lot of skiable terrain in a relatively small area. In addition, Mt. Hutt packs a surprising amount of beginner and intermediate terrain into a fairly steep and narrow basin. But mostly importantly, the top of the hill has some blisteringly fast, wide-open steeps - with views stretching out over the whole Canterbury Plain, when weather permits.
The gate to the back country.

You can see here why they built the place so high up: in New Zealand, the low areas stay pretty mild throughout the year.

But by far the craziest thing about Mt. Hutt is the ascent. The "base" lodge is actually about two-thirds of the way up the peak, roughly in the middle of the ski area. If Hutt were in Europe, where it would have a bigger client base, they would have solved this problem with a cable car or alpine railway.

Here, the solution is an unpaved access road that climbs almost 5000 ft (1500 m) in the space of 8 miles (13 km). Basically, you turn off a road in the middle of nowhere on the flat-as-a-pancake Canterbury Plain, then go straight up an even smaller road even deeper into the middle of nowhere.
See if you can spot the road snaking around in the distance!

PS: We're on a bus for this one. Not a road I thought either of us should have to drive!

Yeah, of the side of the road, that's darn near a sheer drop for a good thousand feet. Kiwis are a different breed . . .

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Wednesday Weirdness: Sydney's Chinese Garden

Sydney is a big, cosmopolitan city, and parts of the city are really very Asian. Our accommodation was on the edge of Chinatown, for instance, so our culinary experience of Sydney was overwhelmingly Chinese. (Not that either of us minded!)

But nowhere in Sydney is more ostentatiously Chinese than the Chinese Garden in Darling Harbour. The garden, built in the classic Ming style, was a gift to Sydney from her Chinese sister city, Guangzhou, which is a huge metropolis no one really notices because it's vaguely near Hong Kong if you draw China really small. The garden opened in 1988 with the goal of promoting cross-cultural friendship and understanding.
Where the heck are we . . . ?

China, did you pull something crazy again?

It's also as Chinese a Chinese garden as just about anything we saw in China. How's that for cognitive dissonance?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Wednesday Weirdness: Salty Watermelon Pepsi

It is really, really hot here. The temperature itself is bad, but the humidity is just lethal. Our Californian coworker Kevin spoke longingly the other day of 105 degree dry heat back home, which I thought sounded silly since it's only 93 here, until I used a heat index calculator and learned 93 with 73% humidity is the equivalent of 118 (or 48, for those of you reading in Celcius). At midday, this places our front porch firmly in steam room territory. 

Justin had to cycle into the school around noon on Saturday to pick up some materials. Poor guy came back looking like this:

Except smellier.
In a situation like this, there's nothing to do but reach for a nice, cold, refreshing bottle of...

Salty Watermelon Pepsi?

We've been in Japan so long we don't even ask anymore.
It turns out that, as with Kit-Kats, the number of soda variants in Japan are, as Lady Bracknell would say, considerably above the proper average which statistics have laid down for our guidance. This is not the first seasonal summer Pepsi tried out here. Others included Blue Hawaii Pepsi ("just a little smurflike"), Shiso Pepsi ("really reminds you of the sort of thing you'd use to scrub your floors"), and Ice Cucumber Pepsi ("kind of like Satan's in my mouth.") So Japan does not have a totally unblemished record in the novelty Pepsi department.

What, then, of Salty Watermelon Pepsi?

You know what? It's actually pretty good. Disconcerting, but good.

The thing is, Salty Watermelon Pepsi tastes like real watermelon. Which is unexpected, to those of us for whom "watermelon" flavor means Jolly Ranchers. This is a very mild flavor, and not at all tooth-fuzzingly syrupy. If you threw watermelon in a blender and then somehow converted it to soda form, it would taste kind of like this. It might even be this color of pink. At the very least, we finished the bottle. We certainly wouldn't clean floors with it, and Satan was nowhere in sight.

And if it strikes you as odd that those two statements constitute high praise for a beverage, then you don't live in Japan.