Thursday, November 25, 2010


Another shot of the camper. This was at a nice "rest area" or kind of lookout on the scenic route to Invercargill. The lookout was out on a meandering river (at right in the image, beyond the trees, so just slightly obscured). It was a pleasant enough place to have lunch.  The road was not very busy and so the place was pretty quiet.  Except for the occasional lamb bleeting.  As (bad) luck would have it, however, we weren't alone at this picnic site for long...just a few minutes later another campervan full of what sounded like French rolled up.  Of course they came out with their Gauloises, or whatever brand they were smoking...stinking up the place (I used to be one of these stinkers—I'm glad I'm not anymore, especially since we used to smoke inside vehicles, I bet the campervan would have stunk if we had kept that up).
Speaking of the campervan (I got up this Thanksgiving morning, fairly lazily, and my mind drifted back to waking up in the campervan, I guess I kind of miss it a bit :) here is what the interior looked like. I have to admit that its creature comforts were quite good.  Behind the driver's seat was the dining table which doubled as a bed although we never set that one up.  Instead, we ended up sleeping above the cab.  You can't quite see it in the pic, but there was a mattress up there and a ladder that would let us crawl up there.  It was a bit squishy, but manageable.  The back of the van had another bed (in all there were three, as this was a 6-berth van) that we mainly used as a sofa.  We slept there the first night but the fridge noise was a bit too loud.  The fridge is under the stove, to the left of the sink.  The tall white door you see is the toilet/shower.  All of this equipment is very similar to a large sailboat, and most of the onboard systems are the same, e.g., electrical, including panel on which you had to turn the water pump on/off, water, with usable and waste water holding tanks, gas, and diesel.  I can't now remember whether the sailboat we were on was the same but I think so—I'm pretty sure it too had a diesel engine and propane for cooking.  The procedure on both, if I remember correctly, was to keep the water pump off unless you were actually using the water as it tends to drain the house battery and pressurizes the water lines.  Everything else could be on, and had to be on, to provide load when the truck was plugged in (to "shore power" as we'd called it on the boat).  The van also had an inverter somewhere which provided alternating current for regular household appliances (like hairdryers or what have you; for me it was iPhone charger, which served as the morning alarm clock).

Later on that day we reached Invercargill, although we actually circumnavigated it, as it were.  Here we are arriving at the "end of the world", well, at least the paved or road-accessible world.  We are at the top of a pedestrian-accessible lookout just south of Invercargill, at a town called Bluff.  From here we could see the town as well as Stewart Island, which I think is the southernmost piece of land before Antarctica.  Behind us was some kind of industrial harbour where we could see large tankers getting loaded.  There may have been an aluminum smelter or something back there, I don't quite recall what the nature of the industry was.  At the end of the road was this signpost on which you can find distances to other destinations, e.g., London (18,958 km), New York (15,008 km), Sydney (2,000 km), etc.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Tautuku Bay

This picture deserves special mention. On the way to Invercargill from Dunedin we stopped at a lookout point: Florence Hill Lookout, with views of Long Point and Tautuku Beach (Bay).  To me this looked like my "Zihuatanejo", a beach that a character in the movie Shawshank Redemption escaped to.  It was meant as kind of a place for retirement.  And at the end of the peninsula you can see little shacks that look idyllic for finally getting away from it's so remote that, according to the wikipedia entry, the huts are only accessible by all-terrain tractor.  It may be that the weather here is likely to be pretty harsh most of the year, but on that day it looked rather inviting.

Road to Dunedin

Our first destination was on the east coast: Dunedin (pronounced Doo-nee'-dyn), I think the largest of the cities we would visit. The drive from Queenstown took a couple of hours (was it three?) and it took me a while to get used to driving the big rig. Originally we had booked a two-person van, sort of like a small VW bus. They didn't have them so we went up to the next size, a 4-berth van like the one seen here but a bit smaller. When we got there they said we'd been "upgraded" to this 6-berth behemoth. It was roomy on the inside allright, but was a bit of a pig to drive.
Most of the roads were like the one shown here: pasture after pasture after pasture. And of course most dotted with sheep. In some cases cows or even deer (for venison). And all on the left side naturally. The campervan's steering wheel was on the right with the gearshift (automatic) to my left. I think our first choice was to be a stick shift, but I'm actually glad we ended up with an automatic. I've driven left-handed stick before (in Australia), and although I got used to it fairly quickly, the car I had then was much smaller.
Driving the behemoth was particularly perilous on one of the narrowest roads I've ever driven, Highcliff Road, or something like that, on the way to the royal albatross rookery. I don't think we actually have a shot or video of this road, however. I think my passenger was a bit too freaked out to be shooting camera. I think the GPS was to blame for this road selection because it was a bit of a shortcut over top of the cliff instead of skirting around the shore, like we chose to do on the way back. We didn't stay long at the rookery because in effect it was closed to visitors. This is the only place on earth where the albatross nest on land, or populated land at least. I think they also nest on some uninhabited island somewhere, but this is the only place that you can get to and see them in their natural habitat. So we were greatly disappointed to find out that we had happened to have been there in the three week period when they're nesting young and humans are not allowed to set foot there.
In Dunedin I was also hoping to do some shopping (always on the lookout for a nice jacket), but we got there too late and all the shops were closed by the time we managed to get in to town (this was the evening previous to our rookery excursion). We got to the "holiday" campsite (I think they're all called holiday-something-or-other). It was fairly nice, with fairly good facilities but I suppose it took us a little bit longer than usual to get settled in as it was our first one. And it so happened that the powered site we were to take was already occupied when we got there. So a bit of a mixup. We had powered sites at all four of our campsites. This was a smart move booking everything in advance as I think at least two of the sites were close to being fully booked (the last one surely was). All but one had good pump-out facilities, like the one you see here, where I learned how to dump out both of the campervan's holding tanks (grey and black water both).

Queenstown, NZ

The Rydges is where we stayed the first few nights in Queenstown before taking a few days to drive around the southern part of New Zealand's south island. This is also the hotel where the Asian Conference on Computer Vision was held, where I presented a paper at one of its workshops (on gaze sensing). Although eye tracking depends on computer vision techniques, this workshop was on a slightly different topic, more on eye detection and estimation of the direction of gaze rather than on eye tracking per se. Think of surveillance video, now try to estimate what people in the video are looking at, that's what the workshop's main theme was on. The paper I presented was on an automatic means of distinguishing eye movement patterns made when watching video. The tie-in to computer vision is that we compared eye movements made by humans with those predicted by a computer vision algorithm.

And then we went boating! I think this may have been the same jet boat ride that I once saw in a Warren Miller ski movie many years ago. In the winter Queenstown is a ski village, not unlike Aspen, Telluride, or Kelowna, for a few examples. I think Warren Miller may have filmed some skiing here and so it's likely that he may have also filmed the Shotover jet ride that we went on. It's only a 20 minute or so ride but it's pretty unique. Because the boat has two jet engines (instead of propellers), it can skim over very shallow parts of the river bed. The drivers are also well experienced and they get damn close to the rocky cliffs of the canyon we were in. They also spin the boat 360 degrees like you see here.
Toward the evening we went on a slightly slower craft, the TSS Earnslaw that you see behind me. This boat was constructed in the same year as the Titanic. This one had clearly survived and still sails today between Queenstown and Walter Peak Station, a sheep ranch (station == ranch in Kiwi). At the station, we enjoyed a traditional roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner. We missed the sit-down (first class) service and so made due with the buffet. I actually skipped the roast beef and went for the lamb shanks. After dinner we saw sheep dog herding and sheep shearing demonstrations. On the way back I took a look down to the Earnslaw's engine room. The vessel is driven by two coal-powered steam engines and functions as it would have done 100 years ago. There were two guys shoveling coal and an engineer who would control engine speed in response to the captain's commands relayed by the old-fashioned rotary dials (e.g., ahead full, full stop, etc.). After a couple of days in Queenstown we would embark on our road trip around the south island...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Flight to NZ

The flight to NZ is quite long: 5 hrs (ATL-LAX) + 12 hrs (LAX-AKL) + 2 hrs (AKL-ZQN) = 19 hrs, and that's just in the air, not counting layovers and time spent going through security. New Zealand's security is fairly strict about food and soil being brought in (I saw a little beagle sniff out some kind of pepperoni in one bag and a small bag of carrots in another—the dog could also sniff out food that was there but recently removed). They gave us a bit of a scolding for not declaring our hiking boots in our bags (which we really consider as running shoes). At left is a shot from the rear window of the plane as we approach NZ. The plane landed at about 07:50 so this is dawn as seen from the plane. The image doesn't do it justice, the eye could pick out the colors of the spectrum fairly easily.

At right is a shot from the plane from Auckland to Queenstown.  The south island has some pretty steep looking mountains, reminiscent of the Rockies, but with less foliage.  Queenstown, as it turns out, is an adventurer's destination.  Beside a couple of ski hills around here (too late for that unfortunately, we're here mid-spring), there is also a large glacier lake here.  So there are various sporting activities one could do here. Queenstown reminds me of a small alpine town, similar to Aspen maybe, or more like Kelowna rather, because it also has a kind of "ye olde British" feel to it, sort of like Victoria. Maybe it's like a blend of all three. I would love to try skiing New Zealand, but the length and cost of the flight really make that rather unlikely.
Below is a pic as we were being driven into tow—the cab driver took us on a scenic route and stopped at a nice vantage point. Below, to the right (at far right), is roughly where our hotel is at.  Across from the little bit of water is a tree-covered peninsula.  That is something like a tiny Stanley Park, that juts out from the town that is at the bottom of the peninsula, and at bottom right, unfortunately just out of the picture.  In town are numerous restaurants, pubs, and various kinds of shops.  Our goal today is go walk around there and look at various things (me, a leather jacket of course :)