Monday in Christchurch dawns bright and warm, and after breakfast downstairs at the Hambledon Melanie and I walk into town. We select a different street this time, one that tracks the Avon, and watch the ducks fight the brisk current as they root for food. New Zealand already seems more conservative than Australia (trading all that snug Lycra for looser cotton), and the lines of schoolchildren in their proper little uniforms only adds to the perception.
After wandering the botanical gardens and marvelling at the perfectly flat and trimmed lawn at one of the schools we cross back into town for a snack and some e-mail correspondence across from the cathedral. Our plan is to head back to the airport to visit the Antarctic Centre, and as we weigh the NZ$20 cab fare back out of town we spot a city bus marked “Airport”. For $2.50 round trip the bus will get us out to the Centre if we don’t mind waiting a few minutes here at the terminus – no problem.
The admissions menu at the Antarctic Centre has the usual list of available add-ons – an audio tour (we opt for it) and tickets for the Hagglund ride… okay, so what’s a Hagglund? It’s the specialized cold-weather half-track transport that researchers use at the South Pole, and they have one available for demonstrations. There’s a sign warning folks with heart or back trouble to think twice. Melanie and I exchange looks. I pony up anyway, figuring we can always back out later. The next ride is in forty-five minutes, so we punch the code for “English” into our little audio handsets and head inside to the see the exhibits.
The exhibits are okay – some interesting things like ghostly video images of early explorers projected on glass at a lonely ice station, a cold room (we decline), a decent 12-minute slide show montage – but the displays come to an end fairly quickly, and we work slowly through the last room to fill up the time left until the Hagglund is ready. The audio tour doesn’t add too much to the experience – could’ve saved those two bucks.
There’s a pair of yellow metal moon buggies outside the entrance. The tour operator is a sturdy New Zealand woman in snow overalls who’s spent a few seasons as a mechanic in Antarctica, and she’ll be taking us around once she warns us about the risks to back sufferers, pregnant women and those prone to vomiting. What the hell kind of ride is this? We decide to sit in the trailer section, and Melanie take a seat by the door.
First stop is the airport, where all of the international teams’ planes take off for the South Pole. The machine howls and lurches on its halftracks, and I pull the seatbelt tighter. Not much padding on the seats. Bet this vinyl gets pretty icy in the winter.
Next stop is the U.S. gear depot, where all Americans headed to Antarctica collect their cold-weather clothes. The group passes around pieces from the four or so layers each researcher wears – hats, gloves, goggles, thick heavy parka. We get a description of the flight down there – a hundred folks sitting on the floor against the fuselage of a cargo plane, staring at each other for seven hours, hoping the landing doesn’t get called off at the five hour mark. You gotta really want to go.
It’s time for the obstacle course. We trundle out behind the gear depot and start along a brown-gray gravel and mud track. With a jerk the engine car ahead of us tilts forty-five degrees and starts climbing, and we follow immediately afterwards. the engine stops at the top of the hill leaving us tilted for a few seconds, then it rolls downhill and pulls us in a rattling arc over the top. At a top speed of about thirty-five miles an hour the driver bears into a circular crater and proceeds to do donuts, the diesel whining and me suspended by my shoulder belt, which isn’t as tight as I thought. We pause briefly and then pull donuts the other way, pressing me into the seat.
Previous transports were basically glorified bulldozers that had a tendency to crash through ice sheets and sink quickly. The Hagglund is designed to float and operate semi-submerged. The last part of the course is an olympic-sized mud puddle, and we dive in up to the windows. The machine paddles its own way out, and we emerge high and dry, none the worse for wear, no backaches or distressed pregnant women.
- If you’re at the Antarctic Centre, do the Hagglund.
Now here’s where a cab may have come in handy. It looks like the buses only run on the half-hour, and if we’ve just missed one that’s a lot of time to lose sitting on the grass in an un-scenic part of town, considering this is our last afternoon here. We spend a half hour deciding whether or not to make the move to find a cab stand.
- Get a bus schedule.
Ah well, the bus travels by Dux de Lux, and we head over to grab some food this time. It’s breezy now and my thin shirt isn’t keeping me warm anymore, so we pop into the dining room. Things are quiet at mid-afternoon, and the girl at the counter is all smiles helping us make up our minds. Melanie goes for the calamari and I get the spanikopita. The food is outstanding.
- When in Christchurch, go to Dux de Lux as often as possible.
The Dux beer tastes great after a big day in a Hagglund. The food and beer combine to create a strong sedative effect. Losing power. Must head back to Hambledon. Must… stay… awake.
Eric and Cindy, for their part, have been getting the grand tour of Christchurch with Christopher at the wheel. They head out to the Antarctic Centre as well, but a) take a cab (NZ$40 round trip) and b) don’t do the Hagglund. We’ve already learned that when you’re at the Antarctic Centre, you do the Hagglund. They get little bang for the buck on their excursion.
Groggy from my nap I clomp down the stairs to the Butler’s Room, where Melanie is chatting with Cindy. Eric is out cold on the bed, so it looks dinner won’t be for a while. I cross the foyer to the dining room to update my journal.
Nobody else is around, but there’s a stereo playing softly – a pretty voice singing jazz standards to a piano accompaniment. The music complements the big old wooden house perfectly, and I make a note to find out who it is… it reminds me a little of my mother’s Streisand records. Jo Floyd appears, and I ask her who’s on. She’s not sure, and goes to look for Calvin.
The stereo gets louder. I put down my pencil. I just want to find out who it is. Calvin appears at the kitchen door.
“I was just wondering who’s this on the stereo.”
Calvin’s eyebrows arch. “Ah… who do you think it is?”
- What is it with these innkeepers and the questions?
I know it has to be someone obscure.
The eyebrows arch again. “Actually it’s Kiri Te Kanawa. She’s a Maori opera singer – this is something she recorded a few years ago with Andre Previn.”
I thank him for the info and scrawl KARI DEKANOA in my journal. This commits me to three hours of web searching months later, trying to get her name correct. For the record, I believe the disc is , recorded in 1992. Somebody find this for me.
As night falls we round the corner to a small block of restaurants and bars. For some reason we choose the quietest spot, a small storefront Thai place. The food’s okay, the house wine’s not so good. Cheap, though. After an hour we exit to find all the other establishments on the block closed for the night.
The ladies retire for the evening. Eric and I walk down the empty streets to Oxford Terrace for one more drink before calling it quits.