May, 2004

High Times Down Under

by George Takei

LOS ANGELES - We know that everything is relative. We perceive things from our own vantage point. If you are facing me, my right side is your left side. We understand all that. However, when we go "down under" to New Zealand and Australia, all the laws of nature that we think we know somehow are turned upside down. Australians go north for their hot climate and south for the cooler. April in New Zealand - our springtime - is autumn "down under." June, when we begin our summer vacations, is when they are bundling up for their winter holidays. Christmas comes to them smack in the middle of their summer heat wave. Even the water whirling down their drain goes down in the opposite direction from ours. At first, it's disorienting - but a visit to New Zealand and Australia in April was befuddling in a delightfully fascinating way.

Star Trek conventions in Auckland, New Zealand, and in Sydney, Australia, took me on this wonder-filled trek "down under." I had been to Auckland once before on a one-day layover on my way to Australia. That one day happened to be the day they were having their annual 10K Run Around the Bay. I broke the lethargy from my long flight then with an invigorating 10K run before I flew on to Sydney. This time, I had to conserve my energy. Armageddon was the day after my arrival. As fearsome as that sounds, Armageddon was the name of the Auckland Star Trek convention.

This one was big. It would impress even a veteran convention-goer. The con was in a multi-level civic convention and auditorium facility called Aotea Center. During the three days of the event, crowds swarmed over all three floors of the convention center. As massive as it was, it worked like a well-oiled machine. Bill Geradts, the organizer of the con, was both efficient and hospitable. The fans were great fun and the convention was a fine success.

The bonus of this trip was the two weeks I had in-between the Auckland convention and the one in Sydney, Australia. I decided to split that time with one week touring New Zealand and the other in Sydney. I began my stay "down under" by going to the very highest point in Auckland, a soaring needle-like structure called the Sky Tower. Conveniently, it was just a block away from my hotel but the landmark tower loomed high over the entire city like a missile about to launch into space. The elevator shot us up to the top in a matter of seconds as my ears began to pop. The vista that greeted us as we stepped out was heart stopping. From the sparkling bay before us to the ocean beyond, from velvety green hills across the bay to the small villages clustered on the horizon, the panorama was spectacular. I looked down and noticed that the floor of the view platform became transparent near its outer rim. It was panels of thick, crystal-clear glass! Anyone could step out on it and feel as though he were standing in open space thousands of feet above the surface of the earth. Gingerly, I put one foot out onto the glass panel. Before I shifted my weight on it, I looked down. The shock chilled my blood! There was nothing between my foot and what looked like a sheer drop down to the bustling city far below. I almost leaped back to the solid part of the floor. Just then, a pre-teen boy went out onto the glass, laid down, and rolled around on it shrieking with glee. I couldn't look. The very thought of a boy behaving like an uncontrolled imbecile with that precipitous drop underneath was terrifying. I didn't need to watch that - even if it were an unusual "down under" experience. I headed for the down elevator. On the way down, I saw a poster and some brochures advertising something called a "sky drop." This was an experience for the truly insane. These people got themselves put in a harness with strong chords attached and jumped off the roof of the view platform to the roof of a low-rise building far below. Madness!

Bill Geradts felt that we should experience some of the natural beauty and indigenous culture of his country and very kindly arranged for a car to take us to the geothermal springs of Rotorua and the Maori village close by. The drive down was lovely - rolling green hill with cows and sheep grazing, stands of dense forests and charming villages with very English names like Cambridge and Hamilton and exotic Maori names like Cariotahi. As we approached Rotorua, we could sense our closeness by the scent of rotten eggs in the air - it is the smell of sulfur from the geothermal springs. The town of Rotorua was pungent with that light but definite stink. Columns of steam rose from random gutters, lawns, and even from around a few manhole covers. Despite the smell, hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops were everywhere. Hordes of tourists roamed about. The mineral springs were a major attraction and, indeed, they were an unearthly sight. The protected areas of the volcanic springs were like primeval moonscapes. Sulfur steam drifted up from every opening on the molten crust. Deep below the steaming surface, two active volcanoes rumbled lazily, then, periodically erupted with gigantic geysers that shot high into the sky. It was an awesome display of nature's might.

From the awesome majesty of the natural world, we were taken to experience the power and the rituals of the Maoris, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Removing our shoes, we followed our female leader slowly across a wide lawn into the sacred tribal long house. We were met by a fierce-looking, heavily tattooed warrior who greeted us with a powerful chant accompanied by threatening stomps, grunts and shouts. His "greeting" concluded with his eyes bulging wide and long tongue stuck full out at us. We had been cautioned not to laugh because this was their way of greeting guests. It did seem an incongruously comical way to welcome visitors. Despite the warning, I must confess, I couldn't help but smile inside. In the long house, we saw demonstrations of a war dance, a legend of a princess who loved a poor warrior and other ceremonial rituals. I learned more about the Maoris in that one day than I had ever known. The trip to Rotorua was topped off with a luxurious spa bath with all of the healthful benefits of that stinky mineral water that bubbled up into our private outdoor pool. It was wonderfully relaxing after a full day as a hard-working tourist. Later, I even bought a tube of the Rotorua cleansing mud to take home. They told me that it was rich with a bounty of health benefits. I'm a tourist - a sucker for any good sales pitch.

The final high of my New Zealand experience was my first birthday "down under." Doesn't that sound wonderful - my first birthday? We celebrated with dinner at a superb restaurant very simply named White on a pier overlooking Auckland Harbor. The décor was elegantly all glass, chrome, and white upholstery. I had seen the farms, pastures and fishing villages that produce the high-quality produce, meats, and fish of this land. At White, I learned too, that New Zealand produces extraordinary chefs. The gifted New Zealander, chef Geoff Scott, prepared my birthday dinner. His dinner was worth aging for. It was marvelous! If birthdays and aging could be as delicious as his cuisine, bring on all the years I might be blessed with. I want to come back to White to age again another day. As I dined, I thought of all those thoughtful people who always send me birthday greetings by e-mail, regular mail, and telephone to my home or office in Los Angeles. I thank you all for thinking of me. On that evening of April 20, my palate danced to the artistry of chef Geoff Scott, my eyes sparkled like the lights glittering on the waters of the harbor, as my spirit soared to heights far more stellar than the Sky Tower of Auckland.

* * *

A quick jet flight and we were in Sydney, Australia. It was definitely fall "down under" now and the leaves on the trees of the great Royal Botanic Garden were blazing golden or crimson. On my first morning run through the park, I noticed something exotic. Trees of many different types were all laden with similar, pear-like black fruits. As I stared up at these strange, dark, ovals hanging high up, a few of them seemed to come to life. To my astonishment, these weird fruits looked like they were sprouting bat wings! Then, I realized that they were indeed bat wings! There were hundreds of bats hanging from the trees of the botanic garden stretching out their wings as they woke up. As I started jogging off, I came upon a sign that told me that these roosting bats were damaging the trees and that the park staff was trying to find some non-poisonous ways of removing them. Soon the screeching of the waking bats filled the morning air. As I fled the ear shredding shrieking, I thought removing the bats would reduce the noise pollution as well as the damage being done to the trees. I continued to jog up a slight rise and, all at once, I came upon a spectacular view. It was the two signature landmarks of Sydney - the Opera House and Sydney Harbor Bridge. They looked fantastic in the morning sun - but strangely, the sun seemed to be rising from the northeast instead of the southeasterly direction to which we are accustomed at this time of the year.

The beauty of the Opera House is the iconic architectural identity of Australia. The building looks like a flotilla of billowing white sail boats floating on the waters of the harbor. As I approached the complex, the gracefully swelling white structures loomed up majestically on a wide platform base. The Opera House is actually a multi-purpose cultural center made up of two grand theaters, which are in the soaring sail-like structures, and three smaller playhouses in the base. I took in everything that was playing there while I was in Sydney - "Swan Lake" in the grand theaters in one of the white sails and, in the smaller playhouses, I saw an original comedy-drama titled, "Los Amigos" and a fun review about Noel Coward called, "Darling, It's Noel." I love great architecture and my passion is the theater, so I was in heaven. What a great landmark Australia has in the Opera House - an architectural masterpiece that contains living culture within its skin!

From the spiritual heaven of architecture and theater, I took up a challenging climb that took me to another heavenly height of Sydney - to the top of the magnificent Sydney Harbor Bridge. This was not like jumping off the Sky Tower of Auckland. The bridge was high, perhaps higher than the Sky Tower, but the climb was also very safe. Because of the strong winds across the harbor, we all had to wear a sturdy coverall outfit that had metal hooks attached around the waist. The hook was fastened onto a metal rod that traversed the entire climb route up and across the steel support structure of the bridge. The coverall kept us warm and the hook prevented us from being blown off or accidentally falling off. The climbers were divided into groups of about a dozen each. Our guide said that the climb would be about three hours long so we should all get to know each other. Our group, we learned, was made up of people from all over the world - except Sydney. Maybe that should have told us something, but by this time, we had paid our fee, dressed in our silver grey coveralls, and we were committed. When I started my climb, I must confess, a tinge of fear tightened my grip on the railing. The sky was a bit overcast and the wind was bracing. As I continued climbing, sweat began forming on my brow. The exertion and the concentration on the climb made me forget the chill and the elevation. At the first rest stop, I looked out at the scene below. It was stunning! The panorama from on high of the beauty of the natural harbor ringed by the modern high-rise towers of Sydney with the unique white architecture of the Opera House looking as if it were floating on water was striking. The higher I climbed, the more spectacular the vista became. The flag of Australia fluttered at the highest point of the bridge. When we reached that point, the exhilaration of achievement and the dramatic vantage point made for an experience I can never forget. We saw spread before us, the glory of man's genius combined with the magnificence of Mother Nature. It was truly a singular high.

The convention, called Supanova Pop Culture Expo, was in a huge hangar-like hall on a pier in an area called Darling Harbor. I had visited this lively part of Sydney, as charming as its name suggests, on a previous visit. Darling Harbor is crammed with fun restaurants, museums, and shops. Daniel Zachariou, the organizer of Supanova, had chosen the location well for his convention. Indeed, this event attracted fans from all over Australia and more than a few from "up above" the equator - Asia, North America and Europe. It was quite international. An enthusiastic fan that I've known from many previous events, Sachie Kubo from Osaka, Japan, was there representing her country. This peripatetic convention goer had been to cons in Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the U.S. as well as Star Trek gatherings in Japan. She told me she was planning on going to the one in Bonn, Germany next month. She is a genuine 21st century Trekker. The Internet, jet planes and cell phones have truly made us all members of a global Star Trek family. Now, if only our engineers could hurry up and invent the Transporter from our Starship Enterprise, we could not only beam "down under" but get "out there" in space as well.





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