Ubuntu Full-Disk-Encryption – A Field Report [en]

Since my old notebook computer recently gave up on me, I had to install a new one from scratch. I finally decided to give Ubuntu a go, after I had been using Debian (testing) for almost a decade. I must say that I’m really impressed with Ubuntu’s lean installation process, which handles diverse aspects like live-preview, hardware-detection, pre-existing operating systems, partitioning, etc. in a very convenient manner.

However Ubuntu also seems to come with several annoyances and limitations. I plan to figure out solutions for most of these in the following days, but one thing struck me right in the beginning: disk encryption. Sure, Ubuntu comes with easy support for encrypted home directories, but for reasons listed below that’s not exactly what I need.

According to an article by the EFF, the latest (12.10) Ubuntu installer already comes with built-in support for full-disk-encryption. Apparently, this feature only works when you’re installing Ubuntu alone, on an otherwise empty physical disk. Sadly, I wasn’t offered this option when trying to install alongside an existing OS. (Or maybe I just overlooked the feature, which would make most of the information provided here rather less essential. However, this article is still useful as a starting point for more exotic installations and as a reference for trouble-shooting.)

Update: By now I have successfully tested Ubuntu’s built-in support for full-disk-encryption on a different computer. When installing on an empty disc (or completely replacing an existing OS installation) it works as expected. The outcome – in terms of partition, luks, and lvm setup – is very similar to the one presented here. Hence I can fully recommend it, if applicable to one’s pre-existing setup!

Preconditions and encryption requirements

I partially use my computer for  development work, and I like to toy around with system-wide settings. That’s why:

  • Encryption should cover all the files on my Ubuntu disk partition. In particular files in etc (might contain passwords) and var (e.g. MySQL DBs) must also be covered. This helps prevent data leakage.
  • Encryption must cover Linux swap areas. These might contain secret data of running programs,  like passwords and keys.
  • Additional un-encrypted disks and partitions should still be possible. In particular other operating systems should still run in a multi-boot fashion. These may be encrypted by their own means, or not at all.
  • Encryption should integrate neatly with Ubuntu. It must work with latest Ubuntu 12.10 (Qunatal) and should be ready for future versions.
  • Encryption does not need to isolate data of multiple users against each other. I’m the only one using the machine most of the time. And the only one with root access.

I used to have a setup that addressed all these requirements on my old Debian box. As far as I remember the Debian installer had offered a rather reasonable partitioning scheme with luks encryption and lvm volumes – though some manual interaction may have been needed. It is this kind of setup I was aiming to reproduce with Ubuntu.

Setting up full-disk-encryption while installing Ubuntu

So I first checked the encryption capabilities of the Ubuntu installer. The presets it offers are very convenient, but as mentioned above, support for full-disk encryption seems somewhat limited. Even the manual partitioning tool of the installer, only seems  to provide very basic support for encryption. E.g. it offers dm_crypt, but does not have any (good) luks support.

So I had to abort the install, which got me back to the Ubuntu live-session. Being a GUI junkie, I first did some basic partitioning work (shrinking and moving old windows partitions) with gparted. Then I used the same to create the following 2 new partitions:

  • /dev/sda5 – ext4, 1GB:
    intended for an unencrypted /boot partition
  • /dev/sda6 – unallocated, a gazillion GB (I wish):
    intended for my encrypted Ubuntu installation and data

Next I used the CLI-tool cryptsetup to initialize an encrypted luks-container:

sudo cryptsetup luksFormat /dev/sda6
sudo luksOpen /dev/sda6 crypt1

The first command generates a new encryption-container on sda6 and asks for a passphrase to protect it. (Should be chosen wisely! However, luks also gives you the possibility to add or remove passphrases later.) The second command opens the new encryption-container (asking for the passphrase) and makes its contents available under /dev/mapper/crypt1.

Now, lvm comes into play:

sudo pvcreate /dev/mapper/crypt1
sudo vgcreate system-volumes /dev/mapper/crypt1
sudo lvcreate --name swap --size 3G system-volumes
sudo lvcreate --name root --extents 100%FREE system-volumes

This creates a new physical volume (pv) and a new volume group (vg) called system-volumes inside the encryption container. It then creates two logical volumes in this volume-group:

  • /dev/system-volumes/swap – 3GB:
    intended for a linux swap
  • /dev/system-volumes/root – the rest of the free space (extents):
    intended for the root file-system

That’s basically it. Without exiting the Ubuntu live-session, I started the installer tool again, and did the rest of the work with its GUI. GParted didn’t seem to recognize the new logical volume devices, but the partitioning-tool of the installer did. So I formatted the new volumes, and mapped everything to the following mount-points:

  • /dev/sda5   →   /boot   (ext4)
  • /dev/system-volumes/root   →   /   (ext4)
  • /dev/system-volumes/swap   (linux-swap)

I also chose to install Grub into the MBR of /dev/sda and continued installing Ubuntu.

Post-Install Fix-Ups

The installation finished flawlessly – but the first boot into the new system did not. It did not ask to decrypt the encryption-container on sda6 and therefore could not find any root file-system to mount. Instead, the boot process fell back to a BusyBox shell, and I had to decrypt it manually. As above, the following command does the trick:

luksOpen /dev/sda6 crypt1
exit

The exit command terminates the shell and resumes the boot process, which will now find the root file-system and continue to boot. In my case, this lead me all the way to a working Ubuntu desktop.

Since I did not want to do this manually on each boot, a few more steps were necessary. After my Ubuntu system fully booted, I created the following entry in /etc/crypttab:

#   <target>   <source device>   <key file>   <options>
crypt1   /dev/sda6   none   luks

This tells the system about the encrypted disks that are available. And the boot process will try to open them, and see if they contain the root file-system. In order for this to actually take effect at boot time, I also reinstalled the linux kernel, the initrd, and grub. (In my case I did it in the course of pending system updates, but one could also trigger package reinstalls manually with apt-get or synaptic.) From there on, the Ubuntu boot process has always asked me for a passphrase to access my disk, and booted flawlessly. Yeah!

Explanations and Implications

You might wonder, why one couldn’t adjust /etc/crypttab before or during the install? And, why a reinstall of the kernel is necessary? Well, maybe the first approach might work, but I didn’t test it. As for the kernel reinstall, it is not strictly necessary. The only thing that is strictly necessary is building a new initrd file, which will then contain its own copy of the above /etc/crypttab file. (I know there are other tools to achieve that, but a reinstall of the package seemed the easiest.)

But why is that necessary? And what is the initrd anyways? Well, you also might have been wondering how the boot process can access any configuration before the root file-system is mounted? Well, that’s where the initrd, the initial RAM disk, comes in: it contains all the files that are necessary for the boot-process, before the actual root file-system is available. That may be stuff like kernel-modules, low-level user-space tools (e.g. cryptsetup, lvm, BusyBox, etc.) and basic configuration files (e.g. fstab and crypttab). That’s why it is not sufficient to adjust the /etc/crypttab file in the actual root file-system. It is the /etc/crypttab inside the initrd that is relevant at boot-time!

After so much configuration hassle related to luks/cryptsetup, what about the layer above? What about lvm? Well, as you might have guessed by now, there is no further configuration necessary here. The lvm subsystem heavily relies on meta-data stored in the pvs, vgs, and lvs themselves. Apparently, the lvm kernel module together with the lvm user-land tools (from the initrd) automatically recognize the physical-volume /dev/mapper/crypt1 once it is created by cryptsetup. And lvm makes all the included logical-volumes available automatically, in particular the one containing the root file-system. Also, the installer already added a suitable entry for / in /etc/fstab. So this part of the problem seems to solve itself under Ubuntu.

Oh, one more thing: As you may have noticed, this approach leaves a couple of weaknesses open. In particular, the /boot partition itself is not encrypted. Neither is the grub code in the MBR. Or the partition table. This does not impose a huge problem, since those don’t usually contain any data that needs protection.

However, someone could tamper with them, when you leave your computer unattended! This might enable an eavesdropper to sniff your password. So when in doubt, you should probably re-install the /boot partition and the MBR! However, when someone has access to your computer, they might aswell tamper with the hardware. So I don’t consider this weakness overly relevant.

29C3 Talk: Certificate Authority Collapse [en]

Just watching axelarnbak‘s 29C3 talk on Certificate Authority Collapse, which covers structural flaws in SSL. I’ve reported on the mess with SSL before, and you may notice related complications (see CAcert) while browsing this page.

After a good summary, the talk mainly focuses on structural problems and regulatory solution approaches. But apparently there are other talks at the 29C3, which focus on the technical side of the problem…

Flashback: Home, To Where The Powder Is [en]

This is a flashback post, that is, it refers to a long-passed event, or contains content that was originally published through a different channel.
In this case it’s based on an e-mail I sent to a bunch of friends on 2008-06-25 from my trip to New Zealand.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Just a quick update this time, since my life has not been overly eventful recently. At least not in a positively exciting way.

P1: Tauranga – Sunset at a bay
P2: Tauranga – Scenic Walk by an Inlet

As mentioned, I spent autumn in Tauranga [P1][P2], which is in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island. In the beginning I was staying in a suburb called Mount Maunganui, right on the beach [P3][P4]. Many of the other hostel guests had surf boards, and some of them would lend one to me for an hour or two. Problem was, all of them were riding short boards, which are not exactly right for beginners. However, after a few days out I became good enough to catch a wave from time to time! I was really stoked it worked out so well, but admittedly it all depended on good wave conditions. Anyways, I guess I’m getting there…

Unfortunately I didn’t do as much surfing as I had hoped to do. First of all, Mount Maunganui does not have great condition all year round — the water got fucking cold soon and we had heaps of flat days and weeks. Also, I moved away from the beach after a few weeks, because of my new job…

P3: Mount Maunganui – Afternoon at the Beach
P4: Mount Maunganui – The Surf Beach

By that of course I mean my employment at the new hamburger bistro called Wünder Burger [P5]. As the place only just opened, I spent my first two weeks with occasional building and painting jobs and helping to figure out how to grill good burgers. However, once we opened the place a few weeks later I actually liked the food we were selling quite a lot! I had at least one burger, panini, or sandwich each shift. So once I’m back home I’ll be the burger man at every BBQ!

Wünder Burger was still quite a new place, and while we were quite busy at lunch time, at dinner time, and late night on weekends, most of the time the job was pretty boring. I was tending the place all alone most of the time, a big contrast to the busy bar I used to work at in Queenstown (QT), where I always had nice colleagues around.

P5: Wünder Burger

But the worst trouble I had during my stay in Tauranga was definitely related to my van. I’ve had problems with it before, but things kept getting worse and worse. First, one day when I wanted to drive to work, the drive shaft simply broke. (That’s a big solid metal bar connecting the engine to the wheels!) I waited a few weeks till I had more money to fix it and I spent another two weeks calling and visiting several wreckers to find an appropriate spare part.

Next, it turned out the battery had finally given up and I had to buy a new one. Moreover, I had to obtain a new Warrant Of Fitness for the van. While there were no severe problems to it, there were lots of small fixes to do before the van could pass the recheck. In the end all of this cost me a lot of time and money, and kept me busy until my last day in Tauranga!

As you may know, this was the first car I ever owned, and I really hated all the hassle related to it. Luckily I don’t need a car back home in Munich!

Due to all that trouble I did not do all the weekend trips I had planed. In the end I had to skip the Taranaki peninsula (with its impressive volcano) and Northland (anything north of Auckland).

However, I did go to Raglan, a lovely little town on the west cost, surrounded by probably the most beautiful scenery in all of New Zealand [P6]. Since it was also featured in the legendary “Endless Summer” movie I was expecting great surf there, but unfortunately I just hit some down-days. One afternoon we had some half-meter waves at least, so I grabbed the biggest rental board they had — about 9 feet. It turned out to be one of my best surfing days ever, the waves being small but nicely shaped and pretty constant. And with that huge board, I caught almost every single wave!

[Update: I should mention that Raglan has these great backpackers, two of the best I’ve ever stayed at in NZ. Also, they have Denise now:) ]

P6: Reglan – Manu Bay

The only other place I visited recently was Auckland [P7][P8], from were I was flying back to the South Island. A nice city, although I could not make out any killer sights. Being a fan of tall buildings, I liked the Sky Tower, but other than that the city center seems rather mediocre. However, Auckland is situated in a remarkable landscape with lots of hills (ancient volcanoes) and is situated in between several bays — the ocean is never far.

Unfortunately I spent the first 3 days in Auckland trying to sell that damn van. In the end I succeeded to get rid of it for a ridiculously low price — it’s just not the right season to sell backpacker vans. The rest of my days in Auckland were tainted with a really nasty cold I caught shortly before leaving Tauranga. So I could not enjoy much of the city and its nightlife.

P7: Auckland – Skyline by the Pier
P8: Auckland – Skyline with Marina and Sky Tower

I still felt pretty weak when I came back to QT, but it was really good to be back “home”. Five minutes after getting off the bus I already had my first free drink at my old and new workplace, The World Bar. The next day we were invited to a Drink Safe Workshop. by the local police authorities. Appropriately we had a staff party the same night, with lots of free food and drinks! The day after, I finally picked up work… sweet as!

However, some aspects of coming home to QT were slightly disappointing. The weather for instance: after my QT mates had already reported heaps of snow about a month ago, all of it melted away just the weekend before I arrived. The local ski resort has only been open for about one week and is currently closed until further notice. Well, right now it seems to improve, as it’s getting pretty cold again and it may be snowing during the next few days. If I’m lucky I’ll have my first snowboarding day by the end of the week:-) I’ll keep you up to date about the season…

Keep on ridin’,
Michael

Flashback: Important Message from the New Zealand Department Of Spam!!! [en]

This is a flashback post, that is, it refers to a long-passed event, or contains content that was originally published through a different channel.
In this case it’s based on an e-mail I sent to a bunch of friends on 2008-04-24 from my trip to New Zealand.

Kia Ora!

OK, OK. I understand that some of you may not be very happy that I’m constantly spamming you from the other end of the planet. If so, just drop me a note saying I’m a fuckin’ cunt and I should stop bothering you. And I’ll stop. I promise!

However, lots of stuff has happened in the past 2 months after I left Queenstown (QT) and headed towards the North Island of New Zealand (NZ). So maybe you’ll find the following travel report interesting…

Through The South Island

First, I headed to the Mount Cook National Park (NP), home of NZ’s highest mountains and most impressive glaciers. Being used to the great alpine landscapes south of Munich, the QT region never got me as much as my Czech and English friends. The lake and the mountains around QT are lovely, alright, but most of them are just oversize hills. In contrast, waking up in Mount Cook Village (after arriving late the night before) I was just startled by the surrounding scenery [P1]! I had finally arrived to NZ!

P1: Mt Sefton & Mueller Lake (Mount Cook NP)
P2: Tasman Glacier (Mount Cook NP)
P3: 2008-03-05 Mount Cook & Hooker Lake

The next few days, I did a couple of hikes in the area and a short mountain bike ride as well. That lead me along Tasman Glacier, which is NZ’s biggest one, even bigger than Great Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland. The retreating Glacier formed a new lake during the last century, which is surrounded by impressive moraines, about 100m high. The lower part of
the glacier itself is completely covered by gravel, but apparently the ice underneath is several hundred meters thick [P2]. The best views of Mount Cook (Aoraki in Maori language) itself are observed from the valley of smaller Hooker Glacier. I went there early one morning — before the masses arrived — and was rewarded by a clear glacial lake great views of the beautiful mountain [P3].

On my way further north I did some more hiking while crossing Arthur’s Pass, a region slightly less overwhelming than Mt Cook NP, but still better than QT. After heading down the pass towards the west coast I took the wrong turn and ended up on some long gravel road. However, wrong turns usually aren’t a bad thing in NZ and this one lead me to
Lake Brunner, which made a beautiful backdrop for my van [P4]. Otherwise, I had seen most of the west coast before, so drove through quickly. I only stopped to do a guided tour in a limestone cave, which also included some rafting on an underground river, with loads of glowworms around. That was good fun, but probably not worth all the money!

P4: My Van @ Lake Brunner
P5: Dunes On The Farewell Spit

By that time I had been traveling on my own for almost one week and the upcoming weekend led me to the sunny town of Nelson, which turned out to have a nice little backpackers’ hostel and heaps of pubs. Nelson is also a good starting point to explore the very north of the South Island, especially Cape Farewell and the Abel Tasman NP. Cape Farewell, the northernmost point of the south island, is the starting point of the Farewell Spit a narrow 20km long peninsula consisting mainly of sand dunes and low vegetation — basically a massive beach [P5]. Though smaller, the beaches of nearby Abel Tasman NP are even more inviting. They consist of a rather coarse (but soft) yellowish sand and are
surrounded by coastal rain forests [P6][P7]. I spent a whole day just hiking from one beach to the other (some of them accessible only at low tide) enjoying the views and going swimming occasionally.

P6: Whariwharangi Bay (Abel Tasman NP)
P7: Whariwharangi Beach (Abel Tasman NP)

Exploring The North Island

Next I hurried back through Nelson to Picton in order to catch the ferry I booked to Wellington [P8], NZ’s capital and my first stop on the North Island. Though Welly is pretty small (Auckland‘s population is about 10 times greater) it was by far the biggest city I’ve seen for half a year. It really felt good to fell some urban vibe once again, and it made me a little homesick for Munich. Unfortunately all the hostels in town where booked out due to some strange cricket game, so I resorted to sleeping in my van once again. I found a nice spot by the bay, right across the city center and to my surprise the authorities did not bug
me for ‘camping’ there 3 nights. Imagine that in Munich — impossible I assume! Anyways, I spend those few days just biking through the city, looking at sights, checking out pubs, wandering through shops, catching up some e-mails, and actually visiting museums. My most intense cultural experience in NZ so far!

P8: Wellington Harbor
P9: 2008-03-20 Me And My Bike @ Eskdale Mountain Bike Park

From Wellington I went on to Napier on the east cost to visit Adela, a friend of mine from QT. She has been living in Napier for almost half a year now and was kind enough to ask me to stay at their place for a couple of days. I was really grateful for sleeping in a proper bed for changes and to have some proper meals (BBQ and homemade pizza). We also went to a mountain bike park together [P9] and tried to do some surfing on a lovely beach north of Napier. Thanks again for the hospitality!

P10: Lake Taupo
P11: Waikato River @ Reids Farm Campground (Near Taupo)

My next stop was Taupo, a huge volcanic lake [P10] and a town on its shore, pretty much in the center of the North Island. Originally I just wanted to stay for one night, but I had trouble with my van. (The radiator was leaking water and the engine was boiling over all the time, but I could not find the leak, let alone fix it myself.) It happened on Good Friday and there was no way to have it fixed before the end of the Easter holidays. However, being stuck in Taupo was not all that bad: there was a free campground by the river [P11], some famous waterfalls, hot springs, a good spot for cliff diving, a beach by the lake, and mountain bike tracks all around. All that for free! One day on my way to town I noticed they also had a small bungy jumping platform right above the river. In contrast to the various bungy sites around QT it was very close to the city center and easily accessible for spectators. So I thought: “What the heck, I wanted to try this before I leave NZ, and there in front of me.” I bought a ticket and five minutes later I was sitting in the waiting area of the bungy platform. It was a nice sunny day and the river 47m beneath us looked very inviting. I was scared as shit anyways. After being tied up and fixed to the bungee rope I was suddenly standing at the edge [P12]. Luckily things went very quickly then. Once the jump master started to count me in I was already on my way down [P13]. I have to admit the free-fall phase felt pretty awkward, but when the bungy rope started to slow me down and then carefully dipped me into the water it was really fun! I can definitely recommend it!

P12: Preparing For My First Bungy Jump
P13: Plunging Into My First Bungy Jump

However, after a few days in Taupo I had to leave for the Whanganui NP since I had booked a canoe trip with Marcy, another friend from QT. So I left my broken van behind, and decided to do the 100km to our meeting point by bicycle. Turned out to be a bad idea, since the second half of the route — “down hill all the way” according to the woman at the tourist information — turned out to start with a rather nasty pass. Plus I had a heavy backpack filled with supplies for at least 3 days and it got dark pretty early.

I made it in time, and the next day our group of eight persons were driven deep into the woods to begin our way down Whanganui river by canoe. The trip itself was not that different from any European river you would do by canoe — it had a few entertaining rapids, but most of the time it was flowing very slowly and we had to paddle a lot. However, the surrounding scenery was astonishing. Wanganui River flows through a steep gorge most of the time, surrounded with lush rainforests bearing heaps of huge ferns. The huts we were sleeping at are only accessible by the river itself (using canoes or small jet boats) and the second one was built on the site of an old Maori village () with fortifications and a reconstructed meeting house. (Sorry, no photo’s yet, since Marcy
took care of that and I did not receive the results yet.)

Unfortunately Marcy had to return to the South Island right after the river trip, so I began to cycle back to Taupo on my own. However, I stopped at nearby Tongariro NP to do the Northern Circuit, a three day hike through volcanic landscape. The second day was by far the most impressive, since it included the summits of Mt Ngauruhoe [P14][P15] and Mt Tongariro, the first of which included a steep ascent of the almost perfectly conic volcano. The descend was a fun slide down a dusty gravel burn, almost like skiing! All along the way one could see different volcanic formations, in particular big inactive craters, steam holes,
and sulfur lakes [P16]. The third day the hike back led me closer to Mt Ruapehu, the highest mountain of the North Island. (Though both Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe are higher than Tongariro, the Maori consider Tongariro more sacred, hence it gives name to the NP.) However, that day was cloudy and rainy, so I didn’t see anything and I was highly relieved when I finally reached the campground at the end of the hike. The next day I cheated and hitched a ride back to Taupo — some caravan owners were kind enough to take both me and my bicycle along.

P14: Mt Ngauruhoe & Tongariro South Crater (Tongariro NP)
P15: On Top Of Mt Ngauruhoe (Background: Mt Ruapehu, Tongariro NP)
P16: Emerald Lakes (Tongariro NP)

Slowly Settling Down

Luckily no-one deemed it worth to steal my van in the meantime, so I could bring it to a garage and have it fixed the next day — pricey, but not as bad as I had feared. I could finally continue to a coastal region called Bay Of Plenty. One of the first places I passed through was Mt Maunganui [P17], a beach-flanked suburb of the city of Tauranga. I stayed in a hostel there for a couple of nights, and I quite liked the place. The beach has some reasonably good surf, there are nice bars, the nearby city should offer heaps of job opportunities, and the strategic location lends it self for short trips. That’s why I decided to end my journey here and settle for a while!

P17: Mount Maunganui (My New Home Town)

However, I started off with one of these short trips, towards nearby Coromandel peninsula to visit Cecilia whom I had met before in QT. I could park my van in her yard in Pauanui and she showed me around in town and at the beach. Ceci is also working at a bar, and that night they had some special stand-up comedy show on. So I dropped by and listened to two Australian guys talking about getting drunk, driving crappy cars, divorcing their women, bashing Yanks, placing an order at Subways, and the challenges of everyday live as a spastic — that’s right, one of the comedians was actually suffering from spasticity.
Since Ceci had to work early the next day, I set out to discover the Coromandel on my own. First I went to Hot Water Beach, a beach with geothermal activity right underneath the sand. Apparently, if you come at low tide, you can dig your own hot water pool in the sand. Though the beach was crowded with people trying to do exactly that, none of them was overly successful. So I decided to rent a surfboard instead but my surfing efforts were not overly successful either — I definitely need to practice more! Next I headed for a beach called Cathedral Cove, which is a famous tourist attraction. I often find such places disappointing, but the rock formations at this place where really stunning [P18][P19]. You could wade through a huge tunnel connecting the two parts of the beach. And since it was getting late already, I had the whole place for myself.

P18: Me @ Cathederal Cove
P19: Inside Cathederal Cove

Unfortunately I could only stay one more night in Pauanui, because I had to return to Tauranga for a Job interview. I had applied to a couple of places in the area and this one was originally for a Belgian bar called “De Bier Haus”. However, the same guys are also opening a new hamburger joint next door, and they want me for that. Not exactly what I was looking for, but it’s only short term so I took the job. Besides it’s quiet interesting, since it’s all just being set up and the managers do not have much more clue what’s going on than I do. Therefore I can contribute my own ideas and watch a new business being created (OK, it’s not like I’m witnessing the founding of Google, but still …). By the way, the place will be called Wünder Burger (umlauts are considered exotic here) and is inspired by QT’s Fergburger!! Well, if we’re only half that good, this should be a great place!

I had a couple of days off between the interview and my first shift, so I decided to try some other work as well. This region is NZ’s kiwi fruit capital and it’s harvest season right now. So it’s very easy to find a job in kiwi picking, which is sometimes paid quite well, too. Though kiwi picking is somewhat exhausting, the main problem is that it’s boring as hell! Well, at least now I can tell a green kiwi from a golden kiwi. Plus, it must have been the first time I ever got paid for working outdoors! Anyways, I only did the job for 2 days, since it started raining then and it didn’t stop for one week.

So I spent most of my time hanging around in the hostel. That’s where I’m living now by the way, and I think I probably gonna stay here for the time being. They have cheap weekly rates, nice people, loads of party, and the location is great— just 3 minutes from the beach. They also have an Internet cafe downstairs, but their notebook rates are a pain in the ass. That’s why I won’t be online that much in the next few weeks. Well, I’ve got used to it over here in NZ.

Anyways, I hope I can do some more surfing while I’m staying here in Mt Maunganui. I’ve already tried it several times, but I still find it pretty hard to catch waves. Hopefully that will improve over the next 6 weeks. And afterwards, I’m heading back to QT again, to devote my time to a sport I’m much better at: snowboarding! Did I mention I already got
my season ticket? Well, I did, so I can go snowboarding all the time from mid June to mid August, when I’ll finally start my journey home. I’ll let you know more about that once I’m back in QT…

OK, if you’ve read that far, you must really be the patient type, or you have plenty of free time. So, what about taking another few minutes, and writing some lines about you and about what’s going on at home! I’d really appreciate to read some other people’s stuff as well! Anyways, hope you’re all doing really well and having a great time! Hope to see
all of you soon, either in QT or back home in Munich or else where!

Keep on rockin’,
Michael

PS: Sorry for the poor quality of the attached photos. Most of them were taken with the camera built into my phone, which is really crappy. Still didn’t get around to pick and buy a real camera:-(

Flashback: New Zealand News [en]

This is a flashback post, that is, it refers to a long-passed event, or contains content that was originally published through a different channel.
In this case it’s based on an e-mail I sent to a bunch of friends on 2008-03-08 from my trip to New Zealand.

Hi there!

Once again, I’ve been too lazy to write for a couple of months. This time of course I’ve got another excuse: shortly after writing my last newsletter, my old notebook computer broke down:-( I didn’t feel like spending all my time asking my flat-mates to use their computers or running to an Internet café. Though I didn’t hurry to replace the computer, I finally got a new one half a month ago. So now I’m part of the information age again:-)

P1: Looking Stupid in the Mountains

The fact that I got my first non-IT job in years in December is another reason for not spending too much time on computers recently. As indicated in my last mail, I applied for several bar jobs in Queenstown. I was soon accepted at a place called The World Bar, one of Queenstown’s most busy backpacker bars. Work there was quite stressful and shifts usually where from 9pm to about 4:30am. However it was an easy job with no responsibility and consequences whatsoever, and therefore quite relaxing. It was also good fun as you can imagine. It’s not like you get drunk during work, but more often than not you get around to have a couple of drinks yourself. Also, you get to know lots of people working at other bars in town, so you get great discounts everywhere. After a
couple of weeks, Queenstown really began to feel familiar, cause I met friends anywhere I went.

P2: Top of the Remarkables: Single Cone
P3: Descending the Remarkables towards Alta Lake

The more relaxed work schedule at The World Bar also gave me the opportunity to explore more of Queenstown’s surroundings. I was able to do a couple of nice one-day hikes, with my flat-mates and my colleagues from the bar. For instance we hiked the first section of the famous Routeburn Track, a place called Glacier Burn near Glenorchy [P1], and Single Cone [P2][P3], one of the highest peeks of The Remarkables (and pretty scary.) I also bought a used mountain bike, and did some tracks around Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown Hill. One day a friend took us to the other side of Lake Wakatipu by car [P4] and we cycled about 60 km through a lonely valley and along the lake’s shore until we reached Walter Peak, a place connected to Queenstown by a tourist ship [P5].

P4: Another Cable Bridge Near the Movora Lakes
P5: Free Boat Trip on Windy Lake Wakatipu

As mentioned last time Queenstown offers a wide range of organized tourist and adventure activities. One of the advantages of working in hospitality is that you get lots of activities discounted or even for free. Consequently I got to do a rafting trip, a riversurfing trip
(floating down a white-water river on body boards), and the Luge (similar to a downhill go-kart track using unmotorized vehicles). My flat-mates also bought me a “Fly-By-Wire” ride for birthday, which let’s you fly around in a a small propeller-driven plane hanging down on a long rope. You then swing around on that rope like a giant pendulum. Sounds weird, but it’s good fun. Moreover there actually are some free adventures in Queenstown: There is a really nice cliff that allows diving into Lake Wakatipu [P6] and nearby lake Hayes even has a nice swing leading into the water. Admittedly, I’ve avoided the Queenstown’s classic Bungee attractions so far, partly due to their high price but
mainly cause I’m really scared of that. Probably I’ll take my chances with that later on…

P6: Cliff Diving into Lake Wakatipu

Since I wrote last time, I’ve only been to longer trips twice. The first time, I celebrated my first Christmas on the beach in a region called The Catlins in the very south of New Zealand. We went there with my flat-mates and some other Czech guys (yeah, I’m rather improving my Czech over here than my English) and we visited some local sights [P7][P8] and had two nice days at the beach and a Christmas Eve BBQ. I did miss the snow of course, but it’s good to have some change from time to time. On that Christmas trip I also tried surfing on a body-board for the first time in my life. At least it was the first time I tried it seriously, and it worked out very well!

P7: A Beach We Visited at Christmas
P8: Inside the Cathederal Caves

The only time I did some real surfing so far, was on my second trip, which was to Dunedin. That’s one of the largest towns in the south, and we stayed in a sweet little hostel that was located in an former lunatic asylum out of town. The first day we went to explore Dunedin and the surrounding landscape, seeing lots of beautiful landscapes and exotic wildlife [P9]. The hostel also offered surf trips for a small fee, so we joined in twice. Though we had some surf, the conditions where far from perfect, and two days is simply too little to get into that sport again. So I really hope I can get some more of that in the future…

P9: Penguins at the East Coast by Dunedin

That’s one of the reasons why I left Queenstown [P10][P11] one week ago and why I’m heading for New Zealand’s North Island now. Though I know some other guys traveling north at the moment, we were not able to agree on a common schedule. Most people here are somewhat chaotic unfortunately:-( Therefore I bought my own small camper van (a used Nissan Vanette) and I’m traveling on my own for now. Let’s see if I’ll be able to meet my friends on the North Island:-)

P10: Rainy Queenstown
P11: Me and My New Van

As mentioned, I already left a couple of days ago, and so far things are working out quite fine. Surprisingly, the car has been doing pretty well, and I hope it won’t give up on me during the next couple of weeks. I’ll fill you in on the details of my travels next time. For now, let me just tell you that I’m on the northern tip of the South Island and I gonna ferry over to the north soon. There I hope to find some nice beaches and finally do some more surfing amongst others.

If possible, I’d like to pick up another Job in a nice little town nearby the sea (I already know about some candidates) and stay there for about 2 months. However, I will return to Queenstown eventually, since I decided to catch the beginning of the next snowboard season in June. I already bought a season pass, since they give you good discounts when you buy early. But now worries, I won’t be staying in NZ for ever. The flight ticket I have is only valid till August, so I won’t even be able to stay till the end of the season.

This of course means, that I will finally be back to Munich then. I have to admit, I’m beginning to miss it a lot. Hope to see all of you Munich guys after I return! I know you may have your own traveling plans, but I’m really looking forward to meet you back home eventually! That’s all for now, I must have filled up pages already. I’d love to read your story soon!

See ya,
Michi

PS: I already got rid of that strange beard you can see in some of the photographs. No worries!

Flashback: Tales from Middle-Earth [en]

This is a flashback post, that is, it refers to a long-passed event, or contains content that was originally published through a different channel.
In this case it’s based on an e-mail I sent to a bunch of friends on 2007-12-02.

Hey girls, hey boys!

Time sure passes by! Last time I wrote, I was sitting at the beach in LA. As you may remember I went on to New Zealand the next day. Now, more than two months have passed, and I’m still stuck here in NZ! Of course that’s a good thing, and lots of stuff happened since. So let me fill you in on the details…

Changing planes in Auckland I arrived in Christchurch, a small city on the South Island. After experiencing the American lack of urban planing in Las Vegas and LA, Christchurch turned out to be refreshingly European. Several aspects of the city center (P1) made it
quite hard to believe that I had actually arrived down under.

P1: Neuschwanstein Wieners @ Christchurch

Anyways, the next day I continued my Journey to Queenstown, a small resort town in the middle of the Southern Alps. There I met Vonkish — an old friend of mine from Prague — who has already been living in NZ for 1.5 years. As promised, I could move in at his place, and that’s where I’ve been living ever since.

P2: Lake Wakatipu @ Our Living Room

We share the house among 7 people at the moment, which is quite a lot considering we only have three bedrooms. However, it’s very close to the center of QT, and we have a great view on Lake Wakatipu from our living room (P2). The house itself is not overlygood-looking. Moreover, Kiwis haven’t heard of double glazing or other means of insulation yet. That’s no problem now, but it was rather inconvenient in the winter.

Speaking of which, I was actually able to spend the first few weeks of my trip to NZ enjoying winter. The ski fields closed down about 3 weeks after my arrival, but I was lucky enough to get a cheap pass for the rest of the season. So I’ve been up a place called “The Remarkables” about a dozen times.

While it is one of the most famous resorts in NZ, it is by no means comparable to Europe. They only have three chair lifts, which are all painfully slow. Also, you have to go all the way up by car, and they only have a dusty gravel road. So in the end it takes you about 40 minutes to reach the lifts from Queenstown. To preserve Vonkish’s car, we’ve been hitchhiking most of the time.

Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun to go snowboarding there. They have a pretty decent snowpark and also some nice beginner rails and boxes. However, we got lots of fresh snow on the last days of the season, so we went free-riding most of the time. Even after all accessible slopes are pisted, you can get some great runs hiking up to the ridge of The
Remarkables. And the view up there is astonishing! (P3)

P3: Snowboard Hike @ The Remarkables
(BG: Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown)

After the lifts where closed, the season was not over yet. We still hiked up a couple of times, both at The Remarkables and at Coronet Peak, the other nearby resort. There I met Petr, another Czech guy who has been living here for some time. Since then we were up several times mainly for building boxes (P4) and kickers (P5).

P4: 50-50 to BS 180 out @ Coronet Peak
(BG: The Remarkables)
P5: Frontside Air @ The Remarkables

I also learned some new tricks during that time, including a frontside boardslide and a proper backside 180 over a medium size kicker (6 meter table)(P6). So after all, the snowboarding season was quite good over here. But I’m still a bit pissed hearing that you’ve already got heaps of snow back home in Europe now!

P6: BS180 Mute @ The Remarkables

On the other hand, snowboarding is not the only thing to do around here. Though I haven’t been traveling too much yet, I did a nice trip to the west cost about eight weeks ago. I visited Wanaka (P7), Mt. Aspiring National Park, some nice beaches (P8)(pretty cold though, I was lucky I bought that wetsuit in the US), and the glaciers Fox and Franz Josef, which descent from the Southern Alps and almost reach the sea, surrounded by tropical rain forests.

P7: Lake Wanaka
P8: Haast Beach

Queenstown itself is a rather interesting place, too. Though it only has about 12000 inhabitants, it is crowded with tourists and long-term visitors. Rumors say, there are some 3000 Brazilians living here, and there definitely are heaps of Aussies, British, Irish, Japanese, Koreans, etc. However, you will rarely find Kiwis here!

As you can imagine, this place has anything to rip of tourists. Besides skiing in the winter Queenstown focuses on a wide range of adventure activities. The world’s first commercial bungee jumping site is just a couple of kilometers away, and it’s not the only one nearby. Otherwise they offer stuff like helicopter trips, river surfing, para-gliding, and jet boating. The latter usually costs 60 EUR for a 20 minutes trip, but me and my flat-mates did it almost for free on locals’ day. For 8 Euros, this was actually fun! (P9)

P9: Jetboating @ Shotover River

The other thing I did after the snowboard season ended was getting a part-time job. So I’ve been working at a small computer company for about two months now. They do websites for customers from the tourism industry, and they are a rather relaxed employer. Though it has been fun working there, I decided to quit now and try something else for now.

Last week I applied for a job in some of the local bars here in Queenstown. I was actually invited for a trial in a place called World Bar yesterday, and I’ll start working there next week. Though the place is pretty busy, this kind of work seems very relaxing so far. No
responsibility whatsoever! And it’s only three nights a week, so I should finally have the time to travel some more.

Though I really enjoy working at that bar and going out in Queenstown, all the pubs, bars, and clubs around here are actually pretty crappy. Well, most of you know, how picky I am about the places I go to in Munich. And I have to say, I really miss places like KuK, Favorit,
Hochhaus, and Registratur! On the other hand, it is fun hanging around in these tourist joints with lots of drunk people from all over the world. I even don’t care about the boring music any more. I guess, that’s what it’s like being on vacation!

So that’s about all for now. Just for the record, I intend to stay in New Zealand for another two months. That means, I should be back to Europe by the end of February.

It also means, I’m going to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve here in Queenstown. Pretty weird considering it is summer by now. We’ll probably do a BBQ by the lake or something. Should be fun! At least I won’t have to put up with all that winterly Christmas decoration crap!

I hope I’ll manage to send my next report a little sooner than this one. Until then, I’d appreciate to hear lots of stories from you! Though I’m not home-sick yet, I definitely want to hear what’s going on at home!

Peace out,
Michael

PS: I still haven’t seen “The Lord of the Rings”.

Perspective [en]

I love how science puts things in perspective:

The earth is a microbial planet, on which macroorganisms are recent additions—highly interesting and extremely complex in ways that most microbes aren’t, but in the final analysis relatively unimportant in a global context.

[…]

Microbial life on this planet would remain largely unchanged were all plant and animal life eliminated, but the elimination of microbial life itself would lead in very short order to a completely sterile planet.
— Carl Woese
(1998) PNAS 95:11043-11046
(first paragraph from private correspondence with Mark Wheelis)

And that’s merely biology. Think physics…