Thursday, April 30, 2015

Dinner at the US Ambassador's Residence

At the end of April, Sara and I flew up to New Zealand's capital of Wellington and stayed with our friend Michelle until our dinner on Tuesday evening. Monday was a holiday and Sara remotely work and I worked from our Wellington office on Tuesday.

During the day before the dinner, I remembered I still needed to get back with the Embassy with the make, model and plate number of the car we were driving. This was to allow us to park on the Ambassador's residential compound.

Dressed up before heading out.
Dressed up in formal wear, we drove off of the busy street in the Lower Hutt part of Wellington and entered the compound passing a red brick wall with only a shiny brass plague showing the street address. We soon stopped at the security point where our ids were checked and the underside of the car checked with mirrors and engine and trunk compartments visually scanned over. Once done the guard cheerfully let us drive on where we passed a large grass lawn with only a US flag at the top of a tall pole in the middle. We were now legally on US territory. At the far end of the lawn was a large colonial house, lit up with exterior lights.

Walking up, we could see the Ambassador and his wife chatting with a few other people in the foyer. We noticed a large abstract painting of President Obama through the window that sat on the wall just behind them. The Ambassador sees us through the window and opens the door where he and his wife, Nancy greeted us with a firm handshake and a cheek air kiss. We were then handed glasses of California red wine - ahhh tastes of home. You don't find California wines in New Zealand much.

We chatted with Ambassador Mark and Nancy and met the other guests that had already arrived including one staff member, Rob, the Public Diplomacy Officer at the embassy and whom we've met before at the 9/11 ceremony last October in Christchurch. While waiting for the other guests Nancy informed us about all the paintings on display and how they are all in loan as part of a Department of State program of show casing original pieces of art. Sara and I walked around looking at the paintings and photos hung around the house. Examples of paintings are an abstract painting of Uncle Sam, one of a bison and one of a box of Circus Animal Cookies. Some of the photos we saw: Ambassador playing one-on-one basketball with President Obama, Ambassador and Bill Clinton, Ambassador and Nancy with Vice President Biden all in mid laugh.

Ambassador Mark is a former Chicago White Sox player and turned to the financial sector afterwards. He was a supporter of the Obama presidential campaign. He is also what is called an "appointed ambassador", this is different from a "career ambassador" where "appointed ambassadors" are directly appointed by the President and confirmed by the US Senate.  In contrast, "Career Ambassadors" are Foreign Service officers that moved all the way up to position of full ambassador and move from one ambassadorship to another. "Appointed Ambassadors" have to be appointed each time by the US President. This is Ambassador Mark's first ambassadorship.

Dinner was announced, Sara and I walked into the dining room where the large dining table was set up for 14 people. The table was set up with white china with gold rims. The Seal of the US was branded at the top of all the plates, glasses and even tea cups. We found our seats by the names cards that were placed on the table. The cards even had an embossed Seal of the United States above our names. This is the same table and setup where visiting dignitaries ate at.

Besides the Ambassador and Nancy, couples were separated at opposite’s ends of the table and we sat in a boy-girl-boy-girl pattern. To the right of me was, Annie, the wife of an American professor at the University of Canterbury who is also on the US Fulbright Scholarship Board.  To the left was the Ambassador's daughter, Liz. Sara sat between the American professor himself, Trevor and Rob. Some of the other guests were Will, an Eisenhower Fellow whom I've met before as we both were speakers at a Connecting Young Leaders Conference last year in Christchurch, and his wife. The guest of honor was six-time Oscar winner, Richard Talyor and his wife of Weta Workshop. Richard worked on many movies including The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies and most recently designed the Anzac exhibit at Te Papa National Museum of New Zealand for the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC forces landing in Gallipoli (in present-day Turkey), which was the previous weekend and what the annual holiday on Monday was for.

Dinner was quite fun, the conversations ranged from light topics of Nancy sharing embarrassing moments of Ambassador Mark and Liz's addiction to some TV show called the "Game of Thrones" to more sobering topics of the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal (for the recorded was introduced by Nancy and not me).

At the end of dinner, Ambassador Mark brought the kitchen staff out where we were able to praise them for the amazing dinner and then Nancy handed out small parting gifts to us. We mingled a bit before leaving, where the Ambassador saw us off. What an awesome night?!

Monday, January 05, 2015

New Years Day Hike

Originally we were going to hike for 6 days in Nelson Lakes National Park on the Travers-Sabine track with a side trip to Blue Lake. But we changed the plan and just Sara and I headed south from the Sounds to Mt Aspiring National Park to do the Young River-Gillespie Pass Track

Hiking up the Young River Valley on the first day was long. Because we didn't want to cross the Makaroa River, we had to start 2 hours farther away at the Blue Pools trailhead where there was a swing bridge. This made the first day of hiking a long one. By the time we got to Young Forks (confluence of the north and south forks of the Young River), we were exhausted and decided to camp for the night. Even though a cold front was expected to pass overnight, we planned on hiking the last 3 hours to Young Hut in the morning, then wait out the rest of the storm there, before heading over the pass the following day.

The rain came over night, heavy at times, but nothing too bad. The Young River was muddy and twice as wide as it was yesterday, full of water, bank to bank. Assuming the cold front already passed, at first light, around 5:30am, we got up and packed up camp and started our way to Young Hut. We didn't' even bother with breakfast and just hit the trail to do the last 3 hours and then eat at Young Hut.

An hour into the hike, the actual front finally hit us (it was late). Lightning and thunder cracking overhead, with random hard downpours of rain. This wasn't so bad until a grey wall of wind and rain swooped down the vertical cliffs of the deep glacier carved valley. The trees bucked back and forth, snapping branches. At a point we thought it was going to cause a windfall (cluster of fallen trees).

We would wait until the lightning, wind and rain eased a bit before crossing a swing bridge, creek or meadow. But luckily before we knew it, we saw the hut.

We met a lot of great people in the hut as we waited out the storm for the rest of the day. Waiting was worth it, because the next morning, we had calm winds and blue skies. The hike to the headwaters and over the steep pass was amazing. we had a long lunch at the top and soaked in the views.

The hike down the pass and into the Siberia Valley was long. It seemed like it went on forever. But once we made it to the valley floor, it was all worth it.

The next day we were able to take the back flight out of the Siberia Valley and bypass some river crossings. Helicopters fly into the Siberia Valley and drop people off so they can walk back out. The helicopters would then fly back out empty, so the sell the seats for cheap to hikers wanting to fly out.

Blue Pools

Turn off for the pass

Climbing Gillespie Pass

Gillespie Pass

Over on the Siberia Valley side of the pass
Sara looking at what we just went over

Siberia Valley

Siberia Valley Hut, home for the night

waiting for the chopper

get to the chopper!

riding high!

over the Wilkin River

(post note)
One of the guys in the Young Hut where we were waiting out the storm with, Scott "Brock" Oliver, was killed three days later in the upper Wilkin River Valley. He was hiking with his girlfriend, Rachel, her 80 year father and brother. From the short time we've known him, Brock was a cheerful and funny guy -  and had the coolest backcountry expresso maker!

It is reported, after we flew out, Brock and his group hiked up the Wilkin River Valley to Jumboland Flats, from there they did a day hike to some lakes and on the way back, Brock went ahead from his group to scout out the trail in the Wilkin Gorge section and went missing. His body was found 3 weeks later and 13 miles down river from where his disappeared.

NZ Herald: Tributes for lost tramper Scott Oliver

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas Vacation

Christmas break was spend at a "Bach" (New Zealand term for holiday home) on Pelorus Sound for 4 days. Though cloudy for a few days, we had dry weather the whole time.

We got a Bach in Northwest Bay which is off of Pelorus Sounds up in the Marlborough Sounds. This area is totally off the grid, no power, no cell phone service, no roads. You can only get there by boat.

Jessie made a ham for our Christmas dinner and the rest of the time, we pretty much just hung out in the sun, took a quick dip in the cold waters and went on a few short hikes.

Since there was no road, there were no crowds, just the sounds of the New Zealand native birds.

Our bach (vacation house)

getting mussels for fishing bait

checking out the local flora

High Tide

Low Tide

Sara and a koru

Hanging out

picnic on the dock

picnic on the dock

exploring the area around Northwest Bay

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Foggy Peak

Day hike up Foggy Peak

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mueller Hut in Mount Cook National Park

This past weekend had perfect weather forecasted, so Sara and some friends and I took a weekend trip to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park to hike to Mueller Hut. Mueller Hut is a backcountry hut built by the Department of Conversation for people to use, this particular hut sits up on the Sealy Range at 1800m overlooking the glacier covered Main Divide of the Southern Alps. What an amazing trip. It's not a long hike, but it's straight up, climbing 1200m or 3700ft over a few miles. With the views and all the snow that had fallen in the past few weeks combined with the calm sunny warm weather, made the trip unforgettable.

We left Christchurch at 6am and drove down to Mount Cook arriving at 10am. bought our hut tickets and starting hiking up the 1080 steps to Sealy Tarns view point. From there, the trail becomes a poled route for the rest of the steep climb to the ridge top at which point the upper Mueller Valley is visible. Amazing views. before you know it, the red Mueller Hut view welcomes you. It's like a mountain lodge set in the most extreme scenery.
Starry night over Mueller Hut


on the summit of Mt Ollivier

Sharks Teeth

Mueller Hut

It's amazing that you can do a trip like this over a normal two-day weekend!

Our legs are hurting...