Who Are We?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately and I know others have been repeating this question as we struggle through the strategic planning process.

It struck me the other day when one of my colleagues, a person I know worked on the current mission statement for Luther college, answered this question by referring to the mission statement. I guess it never occurred to me that reasonable people would consider this a settled question due to the existence of a “mission statement.” Maybe that is the case for some, but I think this is a question that needs to be revisited with some frequency, and the fact that this “who are we?” question keeps coming up over and over again, makes me think there is much more to talk about.

In an effort to make progress in my own mind I copied the mission statement reread it a couple of times, and decided to take it apart paragraph by paragraph to see if that helps me.

In the reforming spirit of Martin Luther, Luther College affirms the liberating power of faith and learning. As people of all backgrounds, we embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community, to discern our callings, and to serve with distinction for the common good.

Here are the items from the first paragraph that stand out, and my take on them.

  • Reforming Spirit — Yes we must always be in a reforming state of mind. We can never say that we are good enough. We must always be wondering whether we should change with the times or resist change for good cause.

  • Faith and Learning — There is no getting around the fact that Luther is a college of the Lutheran church. We need to define what that means. I remember well, a conversation a friend (former Luther prof) and I had with a woman in a ski chalet in Colorado a couple of years ago. She made a whole bunch of assumptions about what we were like because we were a “christian” college. Lets just say that the fact that our student congregation is a reconciling in christ congregation would have made her head explode. Yes we are a “christian” college but not a fundamentalist college.

  • Embrace Diversity — I think you might be hard pressed to find a major with more diversity than CS. We have lots of international students from many different countries. I think it is really important that we have a diverse student body, but I worry that we:

    • Define diversity too narrowly: Race and ethnicity are important forms of diversity, but so too are differences based on class, political ideology, and gender/sex identity.

    • Need to think through the implications of diversity carefully. If increased diversity means more financial aid, and more student services to support an underprepared population then we need the financial resources to back that up or we are just setting ourselves up for disaster.

  • Learning in community — I’m definitely an interactive learner, I need people to talk with and bounce ideas off of. Interdisciplinary programs feel more like community to me, and I would like to see more of them.

  • Discern our callings — This is a Lutheran hallmark, and I miss the sense of vocation program and the emphasis that this brought. I don’t think we ever have been or ever should be the kind of Liberal Arts college that says “don’t worry about jobs and outcomes, just study the humanities and you can do anything.” That is not the kind of place students and parents are looking for in 2017. It is OK for us to care about outcomes and careers and helping students find their calling and vocation in life. It is also a real source of pride that Luther is the kind of place where a student can come and figure out who they are and what their calling is without getting lost in the shuffle. Many times these discoveries happen because a professor makes a little extra effort at just the right time to really connect.

As a college of the church, Luther is rooted in an understanding of grace and freedom that emboldens us in worship, study, and service to seek truth, examine our faith, and care for all God’s people.

  • I didn’t really understand this one very well until my colleague Jim Martin-Schramm provided the following list in an email the other day:

    • Lutheran higher education offers a third way between the polarities of sectarian fundamentalism versus purely secular education.

    • Lutheran colleges see no contradiction between faith and intellectual freedom, which means no questions are considered off limits from vigorous debate and discussion—even questions about religion and the nature of God.

    • The Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith is the foundation for Luther College’s commitments to hospitality and inclusivity.

    • We are freed to question the most basic and even sacred assumptions because to do so deepens our understanding of the world and our place in it.

    • A theological marker that defines Christianity in general, and Lutheranism in particular, is the notion of paradox, which enables us to resist dualistic, either/or ways of thinking and easy answers.

    • While many understand vocation as a job or career, Lutherans understand vocation as a calling from God that encompasses all of life.

As a liberal arts college, Luther is committed to a way of learning that moves us beyond immediate interests and present knowledge into a larger world—an education that disciplines minds and develops whole persons equipped to understand and confront a changing society.

  • What I hear in my head when I read this is: Life-long learning — This is a big one for me, because its a way of life in my field. We help our students build a solid foundation in computer science recognizing that much of what we teach them, at least in terms of specific technologies, will be obsolete in a few years. They need to be equipped as lifelong learners, embracing all forms of learning including on-line as well as face to face.

As a residential college, Luther is a place of intersection. Founded where river, woodland, and prairie meet, we practice joyful stewardship of the resources that surround us, and we strive to be a community where students, faculty, and staff are enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning.

  • Residential, but a place of intersection — I think this word intersection gets lost in the woodlands…. The real point of intersection is to encounter others and I would argue that in the 21st century we need to embrace encountering others in ALL ways. Face to face as well as electronically. As Friedman says, “the world is flat”, and its getting flatter. In my own research work I routinely interact with people on other continents at all times of the day, through email, various forms of chat, and definitely face to face via Google hangouts or Apple FaceTime. We need not fear that we will somehow destroy the residential nature of Luther college by integrating online learning as a way of enhancing and enriching the student experience.

  • Practice stewardship of our resources — I fully support our sustainability initiatives as well as our environmental studies program. But to me we cannot lose site of the fact that the mission statement admonishes us to practice stewardship of our resources, which must include our financial resources. This means we need to think carefully about what programs should continue and what programs need investment and nurturing. Just because we have had a program in place for some years does not mean that it should be here forever and always.

  • A community enlivened by the exchange of ideas — Its too bad this one comes last, because I think as faculty engaged in shared governance we need a lively exchange of ideas. We cannot cast the administration in the role of “other” this governance cannot and should not be a we versus they contest. We need to be able to disagree, maybe even sharply, but at the end of the day we need to come together and pull in the same direction. If we can’t do that then we’ll tear the college apart. The best groups I’ve ever worked in have had lots of disagreement — loud, marker-throwing disagreement even — but at the end of the discussion it was the best ideas that rose to the top and were implemented, and fully supported by everyone no matter what “side” they may have taken during discussion. More, at the end of the day we saw each other as people and colleagues, not as representatives of a faction or rivals.

This certainly is not the definitive answer to the question “who are we?” Each of us will bring their own experiences and ideas to their own answer. It was a fun exercise and I encourage you to give it a shot too!

Fending Off “Day 2” at Luther College

I’m a fan of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, whether its because he “got it” and was the first customer of Net Perceptions or because of his fascination with space or just because I admire him as a leader. It doesn’t matter, I pay attention to what he has to say on a lot of things.

The building at Amazon where Jeff has his office is called Day 1, even when he moves to a new office he brings the name of the building with him. This is because he is always reminding himself to act like it is Day 1.

This morning I read his latest letter to the shareholders of Amazon in which he was asked what does Day 2 look like. Here is his short answer: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

In the letter he goes on to expand upon his ideas for how to fend off Day 2. I’ll give you his one sentence synopsis, and in the rest of this post I would like to share with you how I translate his ideas into the context of Luther College.

Here’s a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making.

Its not a surprise that customer obsession is number one on his list. The amazon mission statement is pretty simple: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” I am not a fan of viewing students as customers, but I think student success is a good substitute. So here is a lightly edited version of what Bezos had to say, plugging in student success where appropriate.

Obsess About Student Success

Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see student success. A student success obsessed culture best creates the conditions where all of that can happen.

That statement pretty well sums up the lens through which I view the discussion we have had on campus lately regarding program eliminations and reductions and how we evolve as a liberal arts college in the 21st century. We have to be bold and willing to try new programs at Luther. But we must equally be willing to accept that something we have tried did not work as well as we had hoped, and when that happens we should move our resources somewhere else. If we are student success focused then we can view moving on as a victory for the students rather than a defeat for a particular program of study. If we are student success focused then this frees us from endless debate about whether a particular subject is “central to the liberal arts.”

Its easy to view starting a new program as “planting a seed,” and as we heard over the past few weeks, when we do try a new program we must commit to making that program a success. As teachers and mentors I think we are always planting seeds in our students. Some of those seeds sprout quickly others need to be protected an nourished patiently over the course of three or four years. At the end of an emotionally draining faculty meeting Dean Krause gave us a great reminder that that we can and must challenge our best students as well as our weakest students.

Of course we could probably have a long discussion about what it means for our students to be successful. Some might define it in terms of outcomes, or jobs at the end of four years. Others might define it in terms of creating a “well rounded” person. For me, this translates into my classes in a different way. I have a pretty minimal syllabus with a set of goals and topics for the semester. How fast or how slow I go, how many of the topics I cover depends on the students in the course that semester.

Resist Proxies

As organizations get larger and more complex there is a tendency to manage to proxies. Bezos mentions two proxies in his letter than resonate strongly. Process and Surveys. Here is what Bezos has to say about process:

A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?

Bezos goes on to talk about a second dangerous proxy: market research and surveys. We cannot let surveys become proxies for our students, faculty, staff or alumni. Good teachers and administrators deeply understand their students and programs. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys.

I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering.

The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.

These big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace.

What big trends are we fighting against right now? Here are a few I might suggest we think about, I’m sure others can add to this list.

  • The trend to develop alternative revenue sources?

  • The trend toward online learning?

  • A more diverse student population?

High Velocity Decision Making

Day 2 companies make high- quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. Easy for start-ups and very challenging for large organizations.

First, never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. For those, so what if you’re wrong?

Second, most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes. This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too.

Fourth, recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.

“You’ve worn me down” is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead – it’s better.

I think we can learn from all of these examples. But I especially worry about the second and fourth with respect to our work in faculty governance.

Note: I originally wrote this post for Luther’s Ideas and Creations blog

If you are interested you can find the full text of Bezo’s letter here: This is the Jeff Bezos playbook for preventing Amazon’s demise - Recode

Spring Break 2017

Spring Break! Boy did I need one! With everything going on at the college, I really needed a few days away from school to clear my head and have some fun. What better way to do this than with friends Tim and Sandra Peter at their home in Florida!

Noodling with Tim

Although our delta flight was full of Disney bound kids (young and old) we arrived in Orlando ahead of schedule and headed to the Peter house. I love thier house, its perfect Florida living with a beautiful covered Lanai and a pool that Tim heated up just for our arrival.

We didn’t have a very full agenda for our time with the Peter’s, sit by the pool, and visit Stetson were really the only two must do items on the list. The sun and the pool were awesome. So was the visit to Stetson.

We also had a great dinner out at Hillstone restaurant in Winter Park. I had great ribs, but Tim, Sandra and Jane all had Hawaiian Rib-eye steaks. These were so good that I had to go find the recipe for the marinade and use it the next night on pork chops! I’m really looking forward to trying this on steaks again on my Hasty Bake.

One big learning from the trip to Orlando is that we are bascially not theme park people at this stage of our lives. We enjoyed a few of the rides but mostly we though we would have more fun just hiking somewhere. I guess this is a fine place to be in, and if we have grand kids someday then the enjoyment will be back as we get to watch them experience things.

Bula from Likuliku Lagoon

Bure View

With a view like that you would think I could write something really inspirational for this final post of our journey. Four weeks of travel with some absolutely crazy sights and adventures have wrapped themselves up here at the Likuliku Lagoon Resort in Fiji. To put it mildly the resort is amazing. A maximum of 96 guests, all adults, with a staff to guest ratio of about 2:1, maybe even 1:1 during the week here. All of them greet you with a smile and the Fijian greeting of “Bula!”

You have a few options for getting to the resort from Nadi: A ferry that makes the rounds of the islands three times a day, a private water taxi, a seaplane, or even a helicopter. But whenever and however you arrive you will be greeted on the island by a small band playing welcome music and many Bulas. Your luggage is whisked away and you get a cold drink and a quick orientation session on everything the resort has to offer. Kayaks, Standup Paddleboards, and sailboats are a few of the things you can do off the beach. Every guest in the over-water Bures is issued a mask, fins and snorkel. There is a ladder right off the deck so you can climb down and snorkel on the reef right outside your room! The floor in the room has two windows so that you can sit on the couch and look through the floor at the water and the fish swimming below! Or Jane.

By mid-afternoon, high tide, the water is practically bath tub temperature. The variety of fish we have seen just outside our Bure is astounding! We saw: Unicornfish, Clownfish, Angelfish, Parrotfish, Tang, Moorish Idol, Butterflyfish, Blue Sea Star, a Blue-spotted Ribbontail Ray, an Eagle Ray, a big old Moray Eel and many more. Many of these are also visible just standing on the deck and looking in the water! But cooling off with a bit of snorkeling is even better. At low tide you are not supposed to snorkel in front of your Bure as the water is shallow and the reef is protected. But you can still see some pretty amazing sights from the deck and the walkway. Check out the video of this huge school of sardines. Watch as the bigger fish (a Trevaly) swims though and leaves empty space behind. The Sardines are also a favorite snack for the Gar. Every so often as you are sitting out on the deck a school like this will go crazy and start jumping out of the water for a few seconds.

I really don’t think we have had better snorkeling anywhere in the world! Plus the convenience of snorkeling off your own private deck just can’t be beat.


Dinner time is really spectacular. You are seated right along the water and at 7:00 you have a fantastic view of the sunset as you have your appetizer. The menu is different every day and all the food is really good. This morning I had an omelette stuffed with mud-crab meat! For lunch we had grilled chicken with papaya salad and rice. The chicken was so flavorful. Our first night we had a feast of Indian and asian curries – prawns, crab, lobster, chicken, and lamb! Last night we had delicious steak. For lunch yesterday I had fried rice with at least a dozen big prawns with a spicy breading. I didn’t expect to be eating gourmet food for every meal here.

There are other activities you can sign up for, such as taking a wave runner for a spin to some of the nearby islands. You can go for a two hour picnic on a deserted island, you can take a tour of the island where they filmed Castaway. Or you can just relax, which is really the purpose of our visit. After going and going for three and a half weeks, these last few days are the vacation from the vacation! Today’s activities were as follows:

  • Get up and have coffee on the deck with my iPad while watching the fish. I’m trying to avoid Facebook because all of the articles and discussion about lying Donald is really depressing. “Alternative Facts” for pete’s sake stop!

  • Walk to the restaurant for breakfast – delicious

  • come back and lounge around in the shade on the deck while reading a novel

  • Walk to the restaurant for lunch

  • Do some standup paddle boarding to work off the lunch

  • Find a shady spot by the infinity pool

  • Get in the infinity pool to cool off

  • return to the room for high tide and snorkeling

  • shower

  • open a bottle of wine for happy hour and pre-sunset drinks

  • Walk to the restaurant for dinner

I’m exhausted just listing all of these things! 😀


Tomorrow we will spend the day here at the resort, then take the 4:00 ferry back to the main island and catch a cab to the airport. Our Fiji airlines flight leaves tomorrow night at 9:40pm and we arrive 13 hours later, the same day (well before we leave) in LA. In fact we leave Fiji at 9:40pm on January 25th and we will arrive in Minneapolis at 9:00pm on January 25th. Teleportation anyone?


Is this Hobbiton or Nerdvana?

Bag End

For as little as I wanted to go to the stinky spa yesterday, Jane wanted to go to Hobbiton today even less. She’s not a big Lord of the Rings Fan. But our guide told us that nearly 30% of the people who visit Hobbiton have never seen even one of movies nor have they ready any of the books. Having seen all of the movies more than once and read the books, I was at the top of my class for our tour group of around 30 people. I think there were two of us that admitted to loving Middle Earth that much. Do you recognize where I am standing in the picture above? If you said Bag End, you are correct! The home of Bilbo and Frodo. I swear that even though I was with a very unruly tour group I could almost convince myself I was “really” there at times. Oh, yes my vivid imagination. Only slight eye roll from Jane.

We got there early thinking we might be able to get in on an earlier tour, but as we listened to the people who had not pre-booked their tour in front of us learn that the next available slot was 5:00 this afternoon or tomorrow we realized that we were going to have an opportunity to enjoy our crackers and cheese that we had been bringing with us for the last couple of days. Crackers, cheese, meat and Ginger Beer, make a pretty good picnic. I went into the gift shop to kill a little time and other than a bottle of Middle Earth wine, I was pretty much ready to leave immediately. I was struck by the fact that they were selling “The One Ring” in multiple sizes! (what!?) for only $190.00. To be honest I knew this was coming because our tour guide, Robo, on the great ocean road told me he bought one.

Hobbiton is largely preserved as it was after it was rebuilt for the Hobbit trilogy. Its amazing to me that for Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit there was less than 4 months of filming here. Our tour guide told us several stories about how much Peter Jackson was obsessed with staying true to the book and keeping things logical. For example we passed by some apple trees in a small grove, in the books this grove was described as plum trees. So, Jackson made someone take all the apples and leaves off the tree and put on fake leaves and fake plums for a shot that got less than 5 seconds of screen time. You can only imagine the outcry of true fans who would remember that they were supposed to be plum trees but saw apples on the trees in that little segment instead!

Another example; in the picture of me at Bag End, the tree above me is actually fake! It was a beautiful old oak tree in the Lord of the Rings, but since the Hobbit was supposed to be 65 years earlier than LotR Jackson made the crew chop it down and replace it with a fake younger tree! Even worse, the company in charge of making the fake leaves did a bad job on the leaves and they had faded by the time filming was supposed to start. So, Jackson ordered someone to repaint all 200,000 leaves on the fake tree!

We also learned a bit about film tricks for making people look bigger and smaller. Some of the hobbit holes were made quite small so that when an adult human stood beside the door they looked very large. Others were built at full size so that the door would look fine when a hobbit was standing next to it. In other cases parts of the set were created special to create a perspective effect. For example the wagon that Gandalf and Frodo are riding in the wagon together the wagon was constructed to be 3 meters long. Gandalf rode in the front so that he looked very big while Frodo sat in the very back so that when filmed he looked very small, and like he was sitting next to Gandalf.

Green Dragon

At the end of the tour we stopped at the Green Dragon for Ale! I don’t think this was where the scenes were filmed as every other structure here was created for filming from the outside in, or with just enough room for the camera crew to film from the inside out. All indoor scenes were filmed in the studio, but this is part of the process of making Hobbiton more interesting for visitors. We had a couple of choices of Ale, a cider, or a Ginger Beer. This was also a great place to get some pictures of the Green Dragon along with the Mill and the pond.

The tour really makes you appreciate camera angles! On the bus back to the gift shop we saw some video clips from the movie and its amazing how large everything looks compared to how it seems in person. I can’t wait to get home and watch the extended edition disks that Josh bought me for Christmas. Maybe with a few days off we will find time to watch them together.

Today was also our last day in New Zealand and marks the beginning of the journey home. Tomorrow morning we fly to Fiji! The Novotel airport is just 25 yards from the entrance to the international terminal, so one good thing is that we don’t even need a cab to get to the airport in plenty of time for our flight! I’m looking forward to a couple days of R&R on the water!

A Day at the Spa... or 45 minutes of Smelling Bad Gas

Hot Springs

I woke up several times during the night, and each time I did I could hear the rain battering the metal roof of our condo. Around 5:30 Jane woke up enough to say, “I don’t want to go mountain biking on muddy trails.” Then she rolled over and went back to sleep. I figured she was probably right, even if the sun did come out this morning riding 20 miles on mud would not be a good first go at Mountain Biking. Especially knowing that at the end of the ride we had to get in the car and drive to Rotorua. After 3 plus weeks on the road we have lost our will to stop at any more charming roadside waterfalls, so todays trip was just a drive through the countryside.

So, we lazed around the condo and made a leisurely drive up the east side of Lake Taupo. We walked around the shopping area and had an early lunch at the Master of India restaurant in Taupo. It was quite good, I had the Vindaloo and Jane had Korma, we split an order of Naan and Basmati and some Ginger Beer. I’m going to have to talk to someone at Fareway about stocking Ginger Beer! After lunch we made our way North for another hour to Rotorua. We had nothing special planned here as this was mostly meant as a stopover night (in close proximity to Hobbiton) on the way to Auckland. However the Novotel here by the lake is quite nice, it is right next to Eat Street and we have a view of the lake.

Jane has been wanting to stop at a volcanic hot spring spa for a few days now, and I have been resisting. But the brochure for the Polynesian Spa looked pretty nice and they had either a private option or an adult only group of pools. So, I gave in. I’m 75% done with Jack Reacher #13 so I could easily have stayed in the room and finished that book. But that seemed silly. We decided to go for the adult option because that gave us a choice of 8 different pools and there was no time limit. We would have to wait for the private pool and then we were limited to 30 minutes. Anyway, communal bathing is certainly illustrative of many interesting cultural differences. The pools are constantly fed by natural hot spring water from right under the pools. There are two types of hot springs here: One that is good for your joints, and one that tarnishes the gold of your class ring. – Yes there are warning signs, and I took note and left my ring in my backpack. Jane now has a black 6 in her Luther ring. Hopefully it can be restored.

My only addition would be to say that the Sulfur and other assorted gasses were rather pungent. You may have guessed that already. As a reward for being-a-good-guy-and-going-to-the-spa-with-my-wife, the hotel left a complimentary bottle of Volcanic Hills Chardonnay by our bed. Its now two minutes past happy hour so I will post this, and see what we think. Its from the Hawkes Bay region and so far those have all been good. New Zealand is really good with their Chardonnays and their Pinot Noirs. No wonder I like this country.

Later we have a booking for dinner at a nice Italian place right on Eat Street called Leonardo’s Pure Italian.

Hot Springs

No Mount Doom for You

The goal for today had been to bike the Timber Trail. But since the forecast was for lots of rain we arranged to postpone that until Friday. My next hope was that we would be able to see Mount Doom . But we didn’t get to see that version (thankfully!), I’ll just have to watch the Lord of the Rings again to see that one. We also didn’t get to see this version . It seems that the weather on the North island has been a bit unsettled. Instead we saw this . Mount Doom (Mt. Ngauruhoe) might be back there somewhere behind all the clouds.

Instead of hiking the Tongariro Alpine trail for seven hours we took the “easy way out” an hiked the 2 hour trail to Taranaki Falls. When we started out it was mostly just cloudy and misty. But just after the falls it got bad, really bad. The rain was coming sideways and even my mantra about good gear was not enough to overcome the chilling discomfort seeping through my pants and filling my shoes. The falls were nice but we have seen lots of falls like these in New Zealand.

More than anything this walk was to get us out of the hotel and doing something for a portion of our day. We can’t just hang out in our room all day. Although we have a really nice 2-bedroom apartment that we could enjoy. We had hoped that the forecast was wrong that that once we got to the visitor center there would be plenty of trails to hike and enjoy.

Thankfully, we have a washer and a dryer, so after today we will have enough clean clothes to make it all the way back home without washing again! Our shoes are going to require a bit of work to get dry. We learned a good trick on the Routeburn: stuff your shoes with newspaper to help them dry overnight. Our room is pretty short on newspaper though so we’ll see what happens. The dryer is pretty hot so I’m not very enthusiastic about putting them in the dryer and letting them tumble around.


As I write this, I think we might have gotten our day backwards! I’m looking out the window and at 2:00 in the afternoon the rain has stopped and we are seeing some blue sky. This is not out of line with the forecast this morning which showed a higher chance of blue sky and rain for this afternoon! There is a winery a few miles away… Pinot Noir Rose and wood fired pizzas!

Kayak Sailing


When Jane told me that if the weather was right we might be able to sail our kayaks I was perplexed. “How do you add a mast to a Kayak?” I thought to myself. So I had mostly put it out of my mind as an option until we were an hour into the first of two two-hour paddles today. But then “Captain Jack” told us to make a raft and he started talking about how we would sail the kayaks. The sail consisted of a big black square of fabric with big loops at each corner. We had four Kayaks so the women (Jane and Dani) sitting in the front of the two outside kayaks were instructed to put the loops around their wrists and hold on. The

men in the two outside back Kayaks (Brad and Michael) were instructed to put the loops around one end of their paddles. When we put the paddles in our laps and hoisted the sail we were off! Sadly Kayaking and photography do not go together very well so this is the best picture we have of our sailing adventure.


Kayaking made us both feel pretty old. about 5 minutes into the second 2 hour leg my arms started to cramp up. I’ve been having a little tennis elbow in my left arm lately and that really started to hurt for a bit, luckily after the initial flare up it worked its way out and I was able to paddle. After 30 minutes both of Jane’s hands started to cramp, fingers pointing in all kinds of unnatural directions that needed to be moved back in place manually. She wasn’t able to paddle for more than a few seconds at a time from then on except for a few key places where we really needed both of us to paddle hard. Incoming waves, outgoing tide, and a river flowing out make for some FUN kayaking conditions along the coast. I really wish we could have captured them on camera, but those moments will have to live on in our memories only!

By the time we finished our afternoon of Kayaking we were both done! Our final day gave us the option of hiking or kayaking and it didn’t take any deliberation for us to realize that we had reached our limit. six more hours of Kayaking was definitely not in our future. Looking back, we made the right decision, and we enjoyed our final day of hiking very much.

Sailing Lesson

Only Mid Thigh


Estuary: the tidal mouth of a river where the river meets the tide.

The final leg of our hike today ended with an estuary crossing. We arrived about an hour before low tide so our guide, Jack, suggested that we just chill a bit and wait for the tide to go down before we started our crossing. So we walked around and counted the tiny little crabs and found some shrimp in a little stream. then we watched some of the other hikers standing in water up to their knees waiting doubtfully for the tide to ebb. At last Jack announced we would head out at 5:00, don’t worry he said it won’t be any higher than mid-thigh. OK, Jack was a bit shorter than me so I wasn’t worried.

The wider darker blue areas will be shallower he said, so aim for those if you are in doubt. At 5 to 5 Jane and I started walking. When we got to our knees we encountered the other hikers, still standing and waiting. I pressed and found a path that came just above my knees. “This way,” I said and just like that I’m a leader. A bit further on the water got deeper and Jane was nearly to her waist. I was definitely above mid thigh, and feeling the current of the tide heading out.

That was as deep as it got and so we made it to the other side of the estuary feeling like this was our adventure for the day. It was a beautiful 7km walk and totally different than the Routeburn. With the ocean on one side of you at all times and regular boat service to lots of beaches all day long you feel much closer to the “real world” than you do on the Routeburn. The scenery is also quite different with views of the bay rather than inland lakes.

golden bay

Like our Routeburn adventure, the day ended at a lodge that has been part of the Wilson family’s land since the 1800’s, well before this land became a national park. We had a delicious meal of lamb and mash and salad, and had a good time getting to know the other 8 hikers on our 3 day trip. We had already met Teresa and Jerad from Melbourne on the bus. There was also a couple from Northern Ireland (Michael and Dani) on their honeymoon and a family from Adelaide (Ronnie, Jeff, Craig and Lisa). All were very nice, and once again we had several educators plus some Geologists in the group. Once again it was a very fine group to share an adventure with and we hope our paths may cross again some day.


Driving the West Coast

After two weeks of organized tours and bus rides we struck out on our own today in a rental car. New Zealand drives on the left and there are many helpful arrows painted on the road to remind the foreign drivers of that fact. As always, Jane took the drivers seat and I rode shotgun in on the passenger side. We left Queenstown after a nice breakfast at the hotel and headed toward the west coast. Our destination for the first night was Franz Josef. A small little town near the Franz Josef glacier.

A couple of observations about driving in New Zealand

  • One lane bridges are everywhere! We counted twenty seven one lane bridges on our 280km journey the first day. I think this is part of the great environmental movement in New Zealand that they think really carefully before messing with anything in nature. Sure it slows you down a bit and occasionally you need to wait for a couple of cars to cross before you can take your turn but maybe a reminder to slow down is a good thing.

  • They have these nice bullseye signs that say 100 its not a target, drive according to conditions. its pretty hard to drive 100km/hr anyway as the roads are very twisty. I would guess we averaged closer to 60km/hr.

  • Cell phone coverage outside the cities is pretty much non-existent. I’m pretty sure this is again related to the environmental focus of the country. Don’t mess up the countryside by installing thousands of cell towers. This also impacts things like Google maps where the travel time estimates are wildly wrong. If they don’t get any feedback on the actual speed people drive the only thing they can rely on is the posted speed limits, which are way higher than almost anyone drives!

We stopped in the grocery store on the way out of Queenstown to pick up some meat and cheese, bread, and Ginger Beer, so we could do a simple lunch somewhere along the way. Once we reached the west coast, we drove in rain most of the day, and nothing we could see in a two minute walk from the side of the road could compare to what we saw on the Routeburn Track. Our lodging that night was at a small boutique B&B (The Westwood Lodge). It was super nice, just like the host who gave us a nice recommendation to go to Alice May for dinner. We did and we had a nice meal: Fish and Chips for Jane and I had a stuffed chicken breast with Brie cheese.

The next morning dawned sunny and clear, so we felt really great about our decision to postpone our visit to the glacier until the morning. On the way to the glacier it started to sprinkle a bit again, but by the time we had hiked closer to the glacier we were rewarded with nice sunny weather again! We were also lucky that we didn’t try to go the day before because one of the wooden bridges across one of the many creeks had been washed out in a downpour the previous day. Bridge Out we picked our way across the stone in the now-very-tame creek and continued to the glacier.

Franz Josef

On the way back we noticed a couple of construction workers with their massive power tools standing around watching each other prepare to work. We assumed that they were going to excavate and rebuild the bridge. A project likely to take weeks at their pace. Yes, construction seems to move at the same speed everywhere in the world. But as we walked further we met up with a dozen cheerful red-shirted volunteers carrying shovels and pickaxes. They were headed to fix the bridge too. I recon they took care of it by lunch time.

After our glacier hike we continued our way north. We didn’t have far to go and todays destination was a small B&B called Breakers, just north of Greymouth. We were met by the owner, Jan, who was a very delightful person to chat with. She was amazed at how light we were traveling and suggested we may want to give lessons to some of her previous guests. We arrived in mid-afternoon, with nothing else on the agenda except for lounging around and enjoying the view of the Tasman sea. Huge wave after wave coming in from the west was mesmerizing. We didn’t even leave the B&B for dinner that night as Jan made us a nice homemade pizza to enjoy in the comfort of our room or on the nice back porch.

Tasman View

Our final day of driving was the longest, but we made some fun stops along the way to break up the driving. The first was at Pancake Rock. Once again great views of the Tasman Sea, Blowholes in the rocks and just really interesting rock formations to gawk at.

Pancake Rock

The second stop was a tourist trap, but we stopped willingly to wander across the southern hemisphere’s longest swinging bridge. Spanning the Buller Gorge it was a nice view, but not nearly so much fun to have to pass someone on the bridge.

Swinging Bridge

Once we got closer to Nelson and realized we had plenty of time to spare before the rental car drop-off closed we decided to head into wine country and visit a couple of wineries in the hills Northwest of Nelson. We made a stop at Kaharunga and Neudorf wineries. This region is known for some pretty nice Chardonnays and rightly so. We need to figure out how to get some Neudorf delivered to the US.


Milford Sound

As we walked back from Ultimate Hikes to the Lovely St. Moritz hotel we stopped at the Real Journeys office to check on our reservation for Milford Sound. We had sort of concluded that if the helicopter return was not going to go, and we could back out at this late time, we would cancel and just enjoy a day of leisure in Queenstown. The Helicopter was not confirmed, we were the only two booked, and they need at least four people booked to fly. But we couldn’t cancel either. – Real Journeys take note, this is a terrible and unfair policy! To charge someone full fare to cancel a flight that is not even confirmed is ridiculous. With the NSF grant deadline about 36 hours away I was ready to cancel anyway and stay in the room to finish up my work on the grant.

The morning came and it was sunny and nice in Queenstown, so I did a bit of grant work and decided I would take my iPad on the bus. After all, I had already seen the first four hours of the trip on our journey to the Routeburn Track! The first bit of luck for the day was that the bus had WiFi! At least until just after Te Anau. So, I had about three hours of time to work on the grant and upload things to the NSF website. By the time we got to Te Anau I was feeling really good and I had all of the stuff for Luther uploaded.

The next bit of good news was that our driver seemed pretty confident that even though the clouds were really low and the fixed wing planes were on hold, the helicopters would still fly. But we still would not know whether we had another four hour bus ride at the end of the boat tour of the sound or whether we would have a nice 45 minute helicopter tour back to Queenstown at the end of the boat ride. We would just have to wait to know for sure. But again, Barry the bus driver was optimistic.

The two hour boat tour of Milford Sound was really great. The boat moved along slowly just a few meters from the sheer mountainside. The walls of the mountain come straight out of the water and soar 5-6 thousand meters over us. You really can’t grasp the scale of it unless you see another boat or some people to give you an idea.

Milford Scale

When we made it to the Tasman sea at the end of the sound and looked back we marveled that anyone would ever think to try to bring a ship there! You can’t tell from the oceanside that there is this narrow sound leading back to a nice little spot to land and build a small town. Nevertheless Captain Thomas Cook did follow the sound back and mapped out the area.

The highlight of the boat trip was definitely the final waterfall. The captain took our boat right up to the base of the fall, and we looked straight up at water falling some 52 stories! The height of the IDS tower in Minneapolis, nothing but water falling straight down at you. It is really beautiful.

Milford Scale

When we arrived back at Milford the captain announced that we had made it just in time as the weather was about to “turn to custard.” Whatever that meant we were not sure but we were pretty sure that helicopters are not meant to fly in custard. So we walked back to bus 17 steeling ourselves for another four hours on the coach. Fortunately when we arrived at the bus we were met with a big thumbs up from Barry! At least one other couple had upgraded to confirm our helicopter tour back to Queenstown! Now we just had to get out of Milford before the custard formed.

We rode the shuttle to the airport with another couple from our bus and hopped off just in time to see one helicopter take off and another, the color we were looking for, come in for a landing. However… as the pilot got out of our copter and started toward us, a bus pulled up and dropped off another couple. the pilot looked at all of our tickets and got a very perplexed look on his face. the two people he had brought in were booked to go right back, and now there were a total of eight of us for a six passenger ride. After some time, and a lot of anxious looking at the clouds turning to custard it was finally determined that the previous pilot had left prematurely. He would turn around and come back for the final couple to arrive. The rest of us would be on our way. After a very short safety briefing we boarded and took off.

Jane was on one side of the helicopter and I was on the other. She was on the side closest to the mountain. As I kept looking at her side I kept thinking how glad I was on my side. Her side seemed to be just feet from the side of the sheer mountain! One gust of wind and we are goners I thought. But, no worries, these Kiwi Alpine pilots know their stuff. The ride turned out to be (mostly) smooth and really really beautiful. what a treat to fly over some of the mountains we had hiked through in the beautiful sunlight.

Alpine Lake

Our adventures were not over because the flight home included a short stop on a glacier! Well, more of a big snowbank than a glacier, and really I didn’t think there was any way we could land in the spot we landed. It didn’t look level and the pilot landed just feet from the edge. Did I mention these Alpine pilots are really really good? so we got out and tramped about in the snow for a few minutes, Jane in nothing but sandals! Pictures were taken and we were all in awe of the beauty. But very soon we piled back in the helicopter and took off for the last bit of our journey to Queenstown. We were back by 5:10, a full three hours before the coach was supposed to be back, plus we had an amazing helicopter adventure!

Heli Glacier

Three Days on the Routeburn Track

Day Zero

New Zealand Falls

We arrived in Queenstown just in time to appreciate the change in temperature. We left the 90 degree weather in Melbourne and arrived to 70 degree weather in Queenstown. It was a very welcome change in both temperature and scenery. It takes about 30 seconds to realize why Peter Jackson decided to film Lord of the Rings here! The steep Mountains and misty low clouds around Lake Wakatipu make you want to break out into some dwarf songs.

We had just enough time to check into the St. Moritz before a short walk down the hill to the Ultimate Hikes center for our pre-hike briefing. Now is a good time to note that Jane and I have. noticed that we are no longer the young couple on the tours we have chosen. Most of the people we have met and toured with so far on this trip have been 20 years younger than us. Life Happens! As we contemplated 3 days of hiking with 30 year olds we were getting a bit nervous. So, we were pretty relieved to see that the vast majority of the 27 people at our briefing were in our age bracket.

There is no bad weather, only bad gear!

If I didn’t take anything else away from the briefing it was this quote. And we were really glad that we had done our homework and invested in some good rain gear and merino wool.

Day One

The first day of the trek kicked by meeting our guides – Jono, Anthony, Sadao, and Jo – then a bus ride leaving Queenstown at 6:30AM. We had a two hour bus ride until our stop morning tea in Te Anau. Every tour in Australia and New Zealand includes a stop for morning tea and scones. Very civilized. We had a couple more hours on the bus after morning tea before we got to the start of the trek in the Fiordland National Park. This first day we had around four hours of trekking (7.5 miles) to get to our first night’s lodging at Lake Mackenzie. The first hour and a half was all up hill pretty steadily, so even though we were geared up for the 50 degree weather and rain we began shedding layers only a few minutes into the hike. With four guides, one was at the front, one at the back and two floated between people in the middle. It didn’t take long for us to stretch out with the back being about an hour behind the front. We were somewhere near the middle.

We carried our lunches in with us, and we carried the rubbish out. The National Parks in New Zealand have no rubbish bins to prevent animals from learning to scavenge food. It works well. I don’t think we saw one bit of litter anywhere along the track. We hiked uphill to Howden Hut where we had our lunch stop along with hot tea and coffee made by our guides. We walked out of the rain shortly after lunch and enjoyed a really scenic hike through the afternoon. The highlight of the afternoon was definitely the Earland Falls. Anthony said, make sure you have your inhalers, it will take your breath away. And he was right. As with many of the sites on our trip pictures don’t do justice to the actual scene.

Earland Falls

We arrived MacKenzie hut around 4:00 and we were definitely ready to stop for the day. We were met at the entrance by Chris who had hot chocolate (called Milo here down under) and snacks for us. He gave us a quick tour of the lodge and showed us to our room. We were blown away by the accomodations. Ultimate Hikes made some kind deal with the Department of Conservation (DOC) whereby they built new facilities for the park in exchange for getting the concession for guided hikes and the ability to build their own huts on the track. They were so clean and nice. We had our own room with ensuite and shower. There was a clothes washing area, and a huge warm room called the drying room. Then a really nice common area where we could hang out, have a drink, eat our meals and get to know the rest of our group.

For dinner tonight we had entrees of Hummus or Salmon spread with cheese and meat. For our main we had our choice between a New Zealand Rib Eye and Chicken. For desert we had brownies and ice cream. Yes we were “roughing it” all right. It took us a few meals to understand that in Australia and New Zealand they call appetizers “entrees” and the entree is called the “main.”


Unfortunately the first night we also got to watch a helicopter landing. One of our group had fallen on the track and broken her wrist and hurt her leg pretty badly. So, she and her husband were evacuated by helicopter. The rescue team landed on a tiny little pad right next to the hut. Clearly these guys know what they are doing to drop out of the clouds and land right on target.

At 10:00 the generators are shut off until 7:30 the next morning. But that really wasn’t a problem as we were all in bed by 9:30 that first night! I was talking to one of the guides about their arrangement with the DOC and he said that the generator times, along with every detail down to the dishwashing soap and toilet paper was negotiated to have minimal environmental impact on the National Park. Everything at the hut is flown in and out by helicopter once a week.

Day Two

Mackenzie Lake

Day two began with sandwich making at 7:45. Amazingly we slept solid until 7:00 when I needed to get up and use the ensuite. A few experimental steps revealed that all the limbs were still working as they should with amazingly little stiffness. Continental breakfast was at 8:15 followed by eggs Benedict at 8:30. At 9:15 we met for a group photo by Lake Mackenzie and then we were off for a good six hours of walking. The beginning was again steadily up hill, then we rounded the mountain onto the rainy and windy side! The distance for today was just 6.9 miles but it was slower going than yesterday! There is no bad weather, only bad gear I repeated to myself. Nevertheless we made it to the hut on Harris Saddle for our rest/lunch stop. After lunch I did the optional climb up Conical Hill while Jane continued on towards the Routeburn Lodge with a few others. After the Harris Saddle and the Conical Hill the rest of the day was down hill which was nice but pretty hard on my calfs.

Conical Hill

A couple times today we were rewarded with a glimpse of what a great view we could have on one of the rare clear days. Still it was all beautiful in a Lord of the Rings kind of way. Although I walked by myself most of the afternoon, I enjoyed just going my own pace and enjoying the views.

The second night we stayed at Routeburn lodge. By the way if you’ve been reading Routeburn as “rowt burn” you are doing it wrong, it is “root burn.” This lodge is very similar to the Lake Mackenzie lodge but with a great view of the valley and the Routeburn falls right behind. We were all bit more tired and a lot more wet than we were the day before. So dinner was served a bit earlier. Tonights fare included a delicious Pesto soup as the entree followed by a choice of Salmon or New Zealand lamb chops. By now we had gotten to know a lot of our fellow trekkers pretty well, so before dinner and during dinner conversation was very lively. We have met a surprising number of people from Chicago on this trip and we have really enjoyed getting to know them, especially Dave and Lynn Reiner. We also met lots of nice people from New Zealand including a couple women (Jennifer and Megan) who reminded me of Jane and Shirley if they had New Zealand accents and were to take off on their own adventure. Lots of the people in the group were involved in education including the two women I mentioned and Professor Tiano from Duke University in Singapore.

It was nice to be surrounded by other academics as I was beginning to stress about the impending NSF grant deadline back home. Leaving my co-authors to finish the proposal while I was totally off the grid for 3 days is not the best plan. Of course agreeing to do the grant in the first place when you know the deadline is in the middle of your holiday does not show the best judgement either.

Day Three

I woke up at about 4AM on day three, once again needing to use the ensuite. However my first couple of steps out of bed were so painful I spent the next couple hours in and out of sleep wondering if my muscles would loosen enough for me to walk down the track on my own power. Thankfully day three dawned bright and sunny for the final 5.7 miles of our trek. Once again we started our day with sandwich making followed by continental breakfast and then eggs and bacon. Sadly it took me until day three to get lesson in making a proper cup of Milo from Jono. To anyone who may happen upon this in preparation for a trip to New Zealand here is the procedure: pour a couple tablespoons of cream into your coffee cup, then add six, yes six, spoonfuls of milo and mix it into a paste with the cream. You may have to add more to get the right pasty consistency. Then after you have a good chocolatey paste you can add the hot water.

Routeburn Flats

Today’s walk was the easiest of the three with the route being mostly down hill to the Routeburn flats and then more gentle downhill for the 5.7 mile distance to the end of the route. We had several intermediate stops along the way including an early lunch along the river. By the end of the trek we felt like we had really experienced New Zealand at its best. Great people, great scenery, no crowds, just lots of great natural beauty.


Our final stop of the trek was at the pub in Glenorchy for a schooner of ale and the presentation of our certificates of achievement! Several suggested that this certificate of achievement would make a good addition to my bio for the grant proposal 😜

The Great Ocean Road

Great Ocean Road

Arrival and Trolly Tour

We arrived in Melbourne and took a little dinner tour of the city on a dinner trolly. We thought it would be mediocre food, but a good way to see the city. It turned out that the food was better than expected, and in the end we didn’t see too much of Melbourne. Still fun, and we got to see “The Original Taco Bills”. Those of you who were at Luther in the 80’s will appreciate the Taco Bills excitement.

Dinner Trolly

Taco Bill

The Great Ocean Road

The great ocean road was built along the southern coast of Australia in the 30’s by men in the ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps). These were primarily WWI soldiers who needed work, and time to recover from the war. The statue at the beginning of the road commemorates these men.


Aside from our morning tea, and a lunch stop we made three main stops today: One for a Koala and Parrot viewing, the second for a 30 minute hike in the rain forest and the third at the 12 Apostles. Although the crowds were as thick as the flies the 12 Apostles were really the highlight of the day. Fun fact: The Australian government originally called these “the apostles” since there were only nine of them, but the tourists kept referring to them as the 12 apostles so eventually some marketing person in the government gave in and they renamed the site to the 12 Apostles and it remains that to this day. The name is increasingly less accurate at the moment as one of the 9 came down a few years back. However, in a few thousand years it is likely that the numbers will increase again as erosion along the shore does its work.

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

12 Apostles

Great Barrier Reef (batman)


WOW! we haveve just finished a day on a live aboard dive boat where we did 4 dives and 2 snorkels on the great barrier reef. I saw Nemo, Dory and all the rest, except for Crush! Plus we saw sea slugs, octopus, sharks (not Bruce!!) lobster, and many many more. My ear is a bit plugged up from the four dives, but its worth a few days of having the world sound a little muffled. I haven’t even mentioned that one of the dives was a night dive! We stood on the ship and looked at the reef sharks swimming next to the ship and still jumped in with our “torches.”

Night diving is definitely a bit eerie and I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about that one. It was quite the sensation to be underwater-weightless and in complete darkness except for the light from your own flashlight. We saw a lot of fish that we did not see during the day and of course we saw a bunch of sharks. Not the man-eating kind, just the normal kind that are more afraid of us than we are of them. The most common fish we saw on the night dive was the Giant Trevally. They were not afraid of our lights, and in fact knew just how to take advantage of them. If you held your light on a smaller fish for too long one of these big Trevallys would swoop in and … there would no longer be a smaller fish there. Unfortunately we did not get any pictures during the night dive, but the next morning we did a 6:30AM dive and were rewarded with a glassy sea and crystal clear water for viewing lots of active fish.


The boat we were on was called Reef Encounter and was by far the best diving experience ever! The crew was really knowledgeable and really helpful with novice and rusty divers alike. Our guide for the whole trip was Hugo and and he was fantastic. He was very patient with reminding us of all the details of setting up our gear, and let me descend as slowly as I needed to in order to keep my ears from exploding.


The live aboard boat is really the way to do the great barrier reef as you don’t spend three hours of your day getting out and back from the reef. Rather you can spend most of the first day diving, and again the second day you can start first thing in the morning. We transferred to the boat from shore on a day excursion boat that tied up with our ship to let us off and then pick us up again the next day. We had great company while onboard and because we were a part of the “Top Deck” program we ate our meals on the top deck with just a few other people that we enjoyed getting to know. In addition since things are very informal and everyone is on there to snorkel or dive we only brought our day packs with swimming suits, toiletries and an extra t-shirt. They don’t allow any shoes on board so there was no worrying about extra shoes to wear to dinner either.

When we returned to Cairns it was pouring rain and our guy Hugo offered to escort us off the boat with his umbrella. Sadly it was not an umbrella built for 3 and the wind was blowing so hard that the rain was mostly horizontal anyway, so even the nicest umbrella in the world would not have helped too much. The reception at the Shangri La was super nice when we arrived and immediately gave us towels to dry off with while they checked us in and retrieved the luggage we had stored there while we were on the live aboard.

Hiking the Valley of the Winds


Today we flew three hours and 1.5 timezones out of our way to see a big red rock! I’m not sure where to start unpacking this, the 1.5 timezones or the big red rock. But if you do a bit of research on Australia and the aboriginal people you will quickly learn about Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock. If you are on the right side of the plane you will get a nice view of this huge rock rising up in the middle of hundreds of miles of flatness. The picture above was taken at our outdoor dinner experience called “The Sounds of Silence.” There were about 60 of us out on a sand dune in the desert with a great view of Uluru and its sister called Kata-Tjuta. We were seated at a table with a family from Melbourne and a family from the US. The one son that I sat next to worked at Google as a software engineer, needless to say we had some good conversation that night.

Our plan had been to rent some bikes and ride around Uluru, but unfortunately last week they had massive rainstorms that washed out many of the trails, so they were closed except for one very short walking trail. We visited the head of that trail on the afternoon we arrived but didn’t go very far as the temperatures were over 100 degrees, and no shade in sight! We changed our plan to drive a short distance and hike the Valley of the Winds at Kata-Tjuta.

First View Point

We got up and out the door by 6AM to make sure that we could hike in the coolest part of the day. They actually will close the hiking trails around 11AM if the temp is forecast to be over 37 Celsius! The hike to this first view point was easy and and a good way to warm up our hiking trail legs. However when we arrived at the first viewpoint the sign told us that the rest of the trail was closed! We, and the four other people that were a few minutes behind us assumed that this was simply a left over from yesterday and they hadn’t changed the sign yet that morning. So, we ignored the sign and pressed on for the Karingana lookout.

First View Point

What a reward for an excellent little hike!

Although Ayer’s Rock is definitely a bit out of the way it was definitely worth the time and effort to see it. It is considered a sacred place to the Anangu people. Maybe it was the remoteness of the place or the lack of crowds, but you could definitely get a sense that it was a special place.