The Great Penguin Sweater Caper of 2014

Oh what big hearts knitters have. We knit caps for kids in the cold, blankets for children who have lost their homes to fire or are hospitalized, prayer shawls for people battling cancer. I could go on and on.

Not surprising when a post about penguins in need of sweaters appears on Facebook it goes viral. Today I saw 3 separate posts. Aided by the animal lovers the appeal is irresistible to many.

Warning: penguin sweaters or jumpers are not needed at this time!
Warning: penguin sweaters or jumpers are not needed at this time!

And sort of not true.

If you are just finding out penguins slicked with oil do not need sweaters, I know how you feel.

I was in Auckland, New Zealand during 2011 when the non-stop coverage of the Rugby World Cup was interrupted to announce the Rena cargo ship disaster. In what seemed like slow motion the Rena ran aground off shore of the port in Tauranga (SE of Auckland) on the North Island. The fate of the cargo was not known for weeks but the oil on board started leaking immediately.

The local residents also responded immediately. I became fascinated with the rescue effort. The local iwi (Maori tribe) organized themselves and others to go to the shoreline and wash rocks! Local wildlife conservationists with oiled bird experts around the world converged on Tauranga to stage an impressive rescue operation. They quickly focused on the little blue penguin (the actual name and accurate descriptor).

Flashback to 2000 when a similar oil spill occurred 1300 miles away on Phillips Island in Australia and knitters responded to the call for sweaters to aid the penguins. The response by knitters was so overwhelming the Phillip Island Penguin Foundation ended up with a lot of excess sweaters.

Just days after the Rena crisis someone posted the penguin “jumper” (sweater) pattern on Ravelry (a popular knitting website) and the Skeinz wool shop in Napier offered to collect them. This was all based on “a friend of a friend” hearsay about the rescuers’ need. Too late, it went viral and hundreds of sweaters poured in from around the world.

I was so fascinated with the plight of the little blue penguins I even wrote it into my mystery novel as a sub-plot. I also fell in love with penguins. So fast forward to December 2012 and I am on a road trip with UK Sarah and we are staying at the Mt. Tutu Ecolodge near Tauranga. I asked several places in town for more information about the penguins and came up with no leads. I mention this to my host Tim Short. Serendipitously he was integrally involved in the rescue. I naively and enthusiastically asked him about the sweaters and then I learned the truth. They did not use any of the sweaters. The birds were understandably under duress and dressing them up in sweaters increased their stress. Instead they used warm water and heat lamps and lots of baths.

I had to let go of a cherished belief that knitters made a difference for the penguins. Nonetheless, the rescuers results are very moving. Everytime I watch this video I get emotional.

The response to the call for penguins jumpers is always met with terrific enthusiasm. It gives us something tangible to do when confronted with uncontrollable circumstances. We cannot realistically foreswear using oil and oil byproducts so we all bear some of the guilt from any spill. Knitting a wee sweater allows us to help our “neighbor” the penguin and feel a little bit better.

Knitting a penguin sweater is easier than stopping deep sea oil drilling.
Knitting a penguin sweater is easier than stopping deep sea oil drilling.

This latest call for sweaters is not a prank. Remember the Phillip Island Penguin Foundation in Australia?  They used their excess sweaters from 2000 on toy penguins and sold them as a fundraiser. Recently they asked for help in knitting more to continue to use them on plush penguin toys. Somehow that was lost in translation as the story went viral.

People mean well.

Dining New Zealand Style

This lamb burger with bacon and avocado inspired much photography.
This lamb burger with bacon and avocado inspired much photography.

There is a lot to love about dining in New Zealand. Fresh, local food is easy to find. Gluten free is catered to, although the regular breads are phenomenal so I am happy I am not sensitive to gluten. The eggs are all free range and some of the yolks are so yellow as to be neon orange from a diet of greens. The dairy products are among the best in the world. (I ran the gauntlet of US customs to bring home Edam cheese.) The beef and lamb are yummy because they are grass-fed. The wine, the bacon, the honey… obviously I could go on and on.

This lamb dish was delicious and beautiful.
This lamb dish was delicious and beautiful.

The food in New Zealand is not cheap. Even when you factor in the exchange rate (lowers price to Americans and Brits), and tax is included in your bill, and tipping is not customary, food is more expensive than in the United States. There are no 99 cent deals on any menus. Step out of the mindset of quantity over quality, “value” equals mass, and embrace the idea of high quality, tasty food served in just enough quantities.

Cafe Kohi on Tamaki Drive on a summer day.
Cafe Kohi on Tamaki Drive on a summer day.

Then enjoy dining outdoors whenever possible. And treat yourself to dessert.

The coffee is also an art form. Is it the milk that makes the flat white so special? Or the coffee? I could write a whole post just on coffee, however a young American living in Auckland has done such a good job I am going to refer you to Sedona Wilson’s blog post. Good on you Sedona for capturing the magic of a coffee in New Zealand.

P.S. Hokey Pokey is a Kiwi specialty and means it contains honeycomb.

Chocolate and Hokey Pokey ice cream tastes great at top of gondola in Queenstown
Chocolate and Hokey Pokey ice cream tastes great at top of gondola in Queenstown

Maori Experience at the Auckland Museum

Maori performerI love the Auckland War Memorial Museum so much I became a member last year. We made it one of our first stops on our recent visit to Auckland. There are so many diverse exhibits and those on the first floor change regularly so there is always something new. Even in the exhibits I have seen before I notice something new–like the room dedicated to Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition and follow up work building schools and hospitals in Nepal.

My mom and her friends expressed an interest in Maori culture and the Auckland Museum has an extensive collection of Maori art and historical artifacts. We also got tickets for the Maori Experience, a cultural performance by a talented group of young men and women. They sing and dance and explain the history of Maori traditions. When I lived in St Heliers I took a introduction to Maori class at Selwyn College taught by a woman from Ngāti Whātua, the local iwi. I recognized many of the songs, karanga, and dancing as they are still part of community celebrations. They ended the performance with a rousing demonstration of the haka. The explanation of how the haka, performed by both men and women, was an important part of sending off the young men into battle, helped me understand better why the haka is so motivational to the All Blacks rugby team. Afterward the performers went out into the hall and answered questions (and posed for my Mom’s pictures).

Maori performer

They perform 4 times a day and there are admission packages that combine tickets for admission with the performance for some cost savings.

Please use that cost savings to eat at the cafe. The food and coffee are delicious. Or shop at the gift shops. They have some of the best selection of real New Zealand jewelry, woolen items and other great gifts for yourself or your people at home. (Much better than the “made in China schlock that crowds the shops on Queen Street.)

I can easily spend a day at the museum and because we limited this visit to a half-day we did not have time to look at the natural history collections. The volcano exhibit is very popular.

Do not miss the Auckland Museum–and remember that the revolving door at the War Memorial entrance stops if you touch it. Always good for a laugh unless you are the one caught in it!

Getting to New Zealand

I just met a couple of young women who are making their first trip to New Zealand next week. Their enthusiasm is wonderful; I can almost guarantee that they will have a trip of a lifetime. When I tell some people that I just got back from New Zealand they get a wistful look and say, “Someday.” Or “It’s so far.” Then they tell you they have gone to Europe countless times. Obviously the American lack of geographic knowledge is getting in the way.  So here is a quick primer.

North Island and South Island comprise New Zealand.
North Island and South Island comprise New Zealand.
Whimsical Air New Zealand airplanes include "Crazy About Rugby"
Whimsical Air New Zealand airplanes include “Crazy About Rugby”

New Zealand is two islands–North Island and South Island–in the Pacific Ocean with the Tasman Sea between it and Australia. The most common mistake is to think New Zealand is Tasmania–the smaller island on the southern Australian coast. Or to think that there is little distance between Australia and New Zealand when it is another 5 hours of flying to get to Sydney. (In spite of this, it is worth the extra effort to visit Australia). The British refer to Australia and New Zealand as the antipodes–meaning the far opposite end of the world. Technically the Iberian Peninsula is the antipode of New Zealand. People feel a little less like they are at the end of the world with modern communication technology, but there is still a sense of isolation.

If you live in California the good news is the time required to fly to New Zealand is about the same as to London. Last time we flew from San Francisco to Auckland it took just over 11 hours. Usually it takes about 12 to fly out, and a little over 11 hours to fly back. Okay, so it is not a quick trip, but it is a heck of lot less painful than flying to Cambodia or South Africa. Plus Air New Zealand schedules their flights so you board, mess around watching videos and eating dinner, then turn out the lights and (hopefully) sleep for 6-8 hours. Then they bring up the cabin lights and you hear coffee being made in the galley kitchen. Stretch, eat breakfast and voila! You are at your destination.  Or alternatively, watch a marathon of movies.

My friend UK Sarah has a much longer journey from England. She has to fly 24 hours either through Hong Kong or through California. We now have a tradition where she breaks her return journey to New Zealand in either San Francisco or Los Angeles and we play for 2-3 days in my home state before she finishes her flight home. I wish I could make that offer to all of you. Of course California welcomes all visitors even if my guest room is not available.

There is one go-to airline: Air New Zealand.  It is not the only airline. Quantas also flies to New Zealand. Air New Zealand is a member of the Star Alliance for you point seeking travellers. Air NZ does not beat the Asian airlines for service to the individual flier; however, Air NZ comes out on top when you consider the terrific customer service on the website or on the phone, the humorous safety videos, the friendly staff at check in and on board the plane, the more than adequate in flight entertainment service, and free New Zealand wine.

Google: What time is in in Auckland, New Zealand?
Google: What time is in in Auckland, New Zealand?

clocksThe time difference also confuses people. I cannot claim to understand how the International Dateline works. Everytime I think I get it I look at the map with the crazy line and lose the thread again.  I actually have two clocks in my house to keep track for Skype calls. If you are on Pacific Standard Time then today you are three hours ahead and a day behind.  In other words, if it is 3:00 p.m. here on Monday, it is 12 noon on Tuesday in Auckland. It gets tricky because they are on opposite seasons and also practice Daylight Savings. New Zealand will “fall back” on April 6 and “spring forward” on September 28. While most parts of the US will spring forward on March 9 and fall back on November 2. If this is all too much math for your brain, there is always Google.

Once you get to New Zealand it is easy to fly from city to city via Air New Zealand or the Australian carrier Jet Star. Driving is an option; however the roads are not as fast as interstates in the USA and you have to weigh time and money. Also getting between North and South island is a challenge for people like me who get seasick in a bathtub. I have gone on road trips from Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin and it is worth renting a car to see more of the countryside. They drive on the left (please do not say “the wrong side of the road”). I actually find it easier and inexplicably more intuitive to drive on the left. Automatic (non stick shift or manual) cars may be harder to come by in New Zealand.

If you take a deep breath when you arrive in Auckland, listen to the Maori greeting as you enter the terminal, and allow yourself to adjust to “middle earth” time, you will be richly rewarded.

Hip and Chic Knitters Guide to Auckland and Queenstown

This New Zealand vacation is focused on the most popular destinations because I am accompanying my Mom and her friends on their first visit. We are dividing our time between Auckland and Queenstown.  You might be touching down in one of these two places and needing a yarn fix.

Close to cruise ships in Auckland's Central Business District
Close to cruise ships in Auckland’s Central Business District

The most convenient wool shop is at the Westfield shopping centre at the corner of Albert and Queen Streets right by the wharf: Masco Wool Shop. It is on the second floor in the corridor leading to the food court. It has a great selection of yarn including a large selection of wool made in New Zealand. This was my go to shop when I lived in St Heliers. I could get Debbie Bliss’ magazine here and all the basic supplies. If you arrived in Auckland on a cruise ship, this is an easy location to shop. Hours Monday through Friday 8-6; Saturday 10-6 and Sunday 10-5.

Pat at Woolly For You will help you find fashionable woolens
Pat at Woolly For You will help you find fashionable woolens

On my first visit to Auckland (after a Habitat for Humanity build in Wellington), I stayed at a hostel in Parnell and discovered Woolly For You at 237 Parnell Road in the part of Auckland called Parnell. It is not far from the wharf either and is an easy bus ride or quick taxi ride. You can also walk from the Central Business District if you have good walking shoes. This shop has a good selection of already made sweaters and a small selection of knitting wool too.  I bought a lovely lightweight Merino “jumper” at a more affordable price than you will find on Queen Street.

In Queenstown I walked around town and did not see any knitting wool. My Mom and friends said they saw a shop with knitting wool but could not remember the name. A Google search does not help to identify it. One of the challenges is the term “wool shop” can mean ready-made sweaters or knitting wool. Even “knitting wool” has led me astray. Then there are the disappointing yarn suppliers who carry mainly acrylics (see my blog from Dunedin).

41 Buckingham Street, Arrowtown
41 Buckingham Street, Arrowtown

The shop in nearby Arrowtown offers a variety of supplies for crafters including knitters and quilters. Offering my favorite “good buy” New Zealand wool by Naturally, you can pick up a new project. Quilters may not be able to resist special New Zealand prints for a project commemorating your New Zealand adventure. Anne Murchison at The Stitching Post does not have a website, but she recommends you check out these New Zealand yarn manufacturers and email her your requests: and Anne’s email is and phone is 03 442 0448.

I have made little progress on the dog sweater project I brought along; maybe because it is summer in New Zealand or because I have had little down time. Fingers crossed I will get something like a sweater for wee Cooper knit on the Air New Zealand flight to SFO.


Travel While You Can

Three of the Crazy Eights: friends for 60 years since Aviation Club at Santa Rosa Junior College
Three of the Crazy Eights: friends for 60 years since Aviation Club at Santa Rosa Junior College

I am traveling for 10 days in New Zealand with my mom, Karen, and her two friends Lisa and Nancy. They have been friends for 60 years (since Junior College), so you do the math. It has been fun and challenging.  It is like traveling with teenagers (and I am the parent). We all agreed to meet at the ferry building at 4:00 p.m. and at 4:25 they were still not there and I was very concerned. Unwilling to take my phone I had no way of tracking them or for them to call me if they needed help. I had already called the hotel to check if there were any SOS calls. They show up laughing and enjoying themselves. When I say they had me worried they each tell a different story from “I didn’t remember that we agreed to 4:00” to “I knew we were to meet at 4:00 but I thought the ferry was faster.” I do not want to cramp their style, but I do want them to be safe.

I was telling my friend Steve this story and he looked at me incredulously. “Didn’t you think of taking them for a test drive? Like to the mall.” I couldn’t stop laughing. No, it never occurred to me. Nor did it occur to me that a hotel room on the third floor without a lift is not such a great idea. Or that getting a wheelchair at the airport is actually much more difficult and time consuming than it looks. Or that none of them realize how deaf they really are!  “What do you think those insects are making that racket? (roar of Cicadas in background) “What noise?”  Nevermind.

It is hugely satisfying to give them the opportunity to see this beautiful country. They love meeting my friends and seeing my favorite places in Auckland. And now we are in Queenstown staying at the Rees Hotel thanks to Lisa’s experience as a travel agent. Today is my day for writing and they are off on a lake cruise and BBQ at a sheep station. Tomorrow we all go to Milford Sound.

But some of the best memories have been unplanned. Like listening to my Mom and Lisa cutting up whilst trying to answer the trivia questions on the Air New Zealand flight to Queenstown. The Boxer Rebellion occurred in which country? “South Africa!” they cry in unison with confidence. “China” I mumble looking up from my book. They just laugh.  Then they joke that the airline could give them the same questions on the return trip to Auckland and they won’t necessarily do any better!

Or laughing hysterically at a silly car racing competition inside a supermarket on the show Top Gear. Mom and I were watching in our bedroom at the Rees Hotel and laughing so hard that Lisa and Nancy came in to see what they were missing.

Mom, Lisa and Nancy are taking joy from a motto one of the parishioners offered as we were leaving St Philips Anglican Church on Sunday:

Travel before your medicine bottles outweigh your luggage.

Addo Elephant Park

Guest blog by Mara V. Connolly

Photo by Mara V. Connolly

I arrived at Addo Elephant Park, South Africa’s 3rd largest national park on Christmas day right at opening at 7am by myself in a borrowed car.  The park is unique, encompassing 5 of the 9 environmental biomes that South Africa.  The section of park I was entering is home to the bulk of the  550 strong elephant population, lions, spotted hyenas, zebra, kudu, black rhino, buffalo, and much more.  I was beside myself that you could actually drive yourself through such a park, amidst predators and animals big enough to topple your car.  I was about 2ks into the park taking a photo of a black headed crane when the borrowed car stalled.  Interesting.  The car never restarted and I quickly ascertained that I was dead in the water.  The park map had the park manager’s number who cheerfully answered my Christmas wish call for help!  He came along within about 30 minutes and promised to send a couple guys to help me and sternly told me to wait IN MY CAR.

Photo by Mara V. Connolly

As I sat by myself waiting, I saw a massive Kudu cross the road in front me, a gorgeous bird of prey I later learned was a chanting goshawk, and 3 wart hogs chasing each other around a bush.  Several people asked if I was ok as I waved them off because nearly everyone thought I’d spotted something REALLY good to sit idle for so long.  Two wonderful brothers stopped and checked every fuse (they were electricians) and spark plug in the car ruling out a hoard of nasty reasons the car might’ve died.  As they had their heads under the hood and I dutifully stood watch, a Swedish tourist drove by asking us if we knew there had been lions spotted in the very spot we were early in the morning.  I later found out there was a lion kill only 100 yards from where I spent two hours!

Mara and elephant

Nothing we tried revived the car so the two awesome park workers were working on tying a rope to my car when a herd of elephant came over the hill right toward us.  The moment was one that crossed all culture and language.  6 adult elephants and 9 baby elephants paraded within a 100 yards of us.  We all stood mesmerized by the beauty of the scene.  After the elephants were out of sight, I got a tow out of the park and promptly signed myself up for guided game drives.  The gift of the car dying was that someone else drove me around all afternoon leaving me fully attentive to taking photos.

Photo by Mara V. Connolly

photo by Mara V. Connolly

I had an EPIC Christmas day seeing over 400 elephant, and a variety of other creatures.  To put the day into perspective, I spent the next day on an even longer game drive and only saw about 30 elephants.  We did see two lions at a distance the second day which is a special treat as there are only 11 lions in the park.

Photo by Mara V. Connolly

The other gift I received for now being on foot and having time on my hands that I wouldn’t have had if I’d driven the park was finding two “hides” where you are sequestered in a nearly hidden structure that allows you close viewing of a bird nesting area and a watering hole for elephants.  I happened to arrive at the elephant hide just as the herd of elephant that likely passed me in the car arrived to drink and frolic in the water.  Being at ground level so close to the herd was amazing as you heard all the sounds from grunts to calls to the sucking of water to simply hearing them walk.  The experience was special as you literally felt as if you were in the situation, witnessing the creatures first hand.

Photo by Mara V. ConnollyPhoto by Mara V. Connolly

The last gift I received for the car dying was that my accommodation changed as my friend could only find one hotel who would agree to picking me up from Addo.  What great fortune as the Zuurberg Mountain Inn also runs game drives and one of the guides picked me up and let me join the end of their drive back up to the top of a mountain above Addo.  An epic way to end an epic day.

Mara V. Connolly is a professional photographer, coach, facilitator, resume writer, and leader.  Her life purpose is to be radiant illumination igniting passionate possibilities. You can read more blog posts from Mara at