Saturday, March 9, 2019

R&R in NZ 2019 - North Island

Me haere kaatahi taatoni tenei haereka. 
We should travel together on this journey.

I wish I could find the original article I read in Outside magazine some 20 or more years ago. It was about bungee jumping over a canyon in New Zealand and I wanted to do it. 

The extreme adventure attraction was invented in 1988 and now that I've visited New Zealand, it makes perfect sense how it was invented there. Extreme. It's a word, though over used, explains easily the current of the island country. And not only in terms of the bustling adventure sports/tourism scene but also in the context of things such as its vast spaces between rugged, glacial mountains; the extreme good nature of the locals and the head-scratching juxtaposition of ecosystems that, like the humans they surround, live quite contently right next to each other. Rain forests stand next to beaches; mountains seem to grow right out of lakes and seas, and cities are built on top of dormant volcanoes where cars whiz by poisonous geothermal lakes. 

New Zealand was one of the last places to be discovered by humans and during its time of isolation it "developed a distinct biodiversity of animal, fungal, and plant life". Save for maybe a rare spider, there are no predatory animals on the islands: not a snake, not a bug, not anything flying or four-legged could kill a person or another mammal. Birds live their best life on these islands. There's no big hunting culture (what a relief), and deer and elk are actually farmed. The kiwi's love their land and they take a lot of effort to care for it and the animals and plants that live there. We saw options for recycling in every town and many signs asking for eco-engagement at many levels, be it removing saplings that were not native to the area, help saving a bird's habitat or simply taking a used box at the grocery store instead of a new paper sack. It was refreshing to see the drive for consumerism that seems to be everywhere else taking a back seat in NZ. There weren't any Walmarts or shopping malls. Billboards were few and far between. The two biggest cities we stopped in, Auckland and Wellington, its capital, were rather underwhelming compared to our sky scraping metropolises, but as a visitor, that was fine by me. The main attraction was beyond the lights, beyond the cruise ships, beyond tourists and for a new visitor, beyond imagination. 


There are so many ways to spend time in New Zealand. It was hard to decide where to start so between April and I, we used peer traveler reviews from Tripadvisor. She was turning 40 on the trip so that sort of helped give us a goal to hit and after about 3 months of planning and making reservations, we had a plan. 

Digital reenactment of our flight from Northern hemisphere to the Southern. In short, splurge for the leg room. Just sayin'.

The four of us, me and Ryan and our good friends April and Todd Eyberg, flew into Auckland and stayed the night before heading out early for a two hour drive to Matamata, home of Hobbiton and the Shire from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where we took a morning tour. From there it was another couple hours to Rotorua where we saw geothermal pools and took a stroll at night on an elevated walkway among a forest of redwoods and spent a whole day to mountain biking. April wanted to turn 40 doing something cool so it was in the next stopover, in the Tongariro National Park, where she and Todd would try to hike the famed Tongariro Crossing. But due to heavy cloud cover and rain, they were not able and had to turn back. Ryan and I headed to Lake Taupo that day about an hour back the way we came and enjoyed a sunny kayaking adventure with a Canadian guide and a couple travelers from Whales. Upon our return to Tongariro, we brought local bourbon, beer and chocolate cake back to celebrate April's birthday. Our final stop on the North Island was in Wellington, the country's capital, an inviting, bustling city. We had a half day to kill and discovered an active harbor, a gorgeous botanical garden, lots of public art, and a weirdly placed and very old cemetery. As extremes go, the North Island had it for sure. 

Hung out around the harbor mostly. Lots of tourists off a cruise ship so it was pretty busy. And holy overpriced fish n chips, Batman. But the dish was cool! 

Famous Sky Tower. After spending a wad on dinner, we didn't have the stomach for the admission fee to go to the top (nor spend it with a zillion tourists) so we opted for the ground view.

Overpriced fish n chips - the staple of the country, but check out this amazing platter!

How many gingers does it take to drive on the opposite side of the street?

Not sure why else anyone would come to this area other than to farm and raise horses but this is ground zero for the actual filming of the Shire in the Lord of the Rings movies. There were tons of people but the tour was pretty cool. It took about two hours, including standing inside one of the Hobbit holes (they're empty) and drink in the actual pub! Yes, we were given beer at the end of the tour and a snack. One thing's for certain, Kiwi's love their elevenses, lunch, high tea and second dinner!

Tour guide / comedian.

One of over 70 Hobbit holes on the set.

April's dream! She didn't even have to duck to go through through the door.

Bilbo Baggins' Hobbit Hole

The giant Oak tree is actually fake!!!

Can't take him anywhere.

Wagon prop. I must need to pee or something.

The pub!

The Party tree (it's real). This is the reason why Peter Jackson picked this location for the films.
Roto means 'lake' and rua means 'two' or in this case 'second' – Rotorua thus meaning 'Second lake' and it was a town we all liked. It had a chill vibe with a nice market area with shops and cafes. After a visit to the market area we discovered an amazing space called the Government Gardens that was, back in the day, a bath house and a place for fancy folks to come and play croquet n such. Now it's a museum (but it was closed for repairs) but the grounds were just gorgeous with wonderful flowers and landscaping. 

We also walked around a local park that had geothermal pools and steaming mud pots. April was pretty thrilled with these stinky puddles.

A fun attraction was walking on a suspended path about 20 feet above the ground in the Whakarewarewa Forest in Rotorua. We were told to go just as the sun sets and before the night crowd. Glad we did. There was an hour wait when we exited!

And I thought I was old...

These lanterns were made by a local artist.

Note that the distance from equator NZ and California is about the same making each a good climate for the Redwoods.
And it wouldn't be a successful trip to the other side of the planet if we didn't get on some single track, now would it? We rented some pretty hefty bikes but amazingly, we all did just fine climbing some of the roads that went straight up. The area we chose to ride was the Whakarewarea Forest because of its back-country feel without the bike park / resort craziness and it was perfect. The area didn't have a lift but instead some dude would shuttle us up in a rickety old bus pulling a flatbed trailer that held many bikes. We were dropped off at a point where many trails started and ended. We chose to ride higher and go out farther on our first ride being that we were freshly caffeinated by way of the cafe that was at the base of the park. 

Riding bikes in a rainforest was a first for us. The large fern trees blocked out the sun so our regular riding sunglasses were useless! The trail bed was tacky and delicious in the trees and dry and dusty in the open. Some of the trails wound through a recently de-forested area (they do this on purpose throughout the country) but so fun. Deep dips with high banking turns made for a pretty crazy ride. I ended up flying over a lip of one of them but luckily the dirt was so soft, I just kinda stopped. Whew! With me nursing a strained knee (from a wreck a few weeks prior) I was so relieved. 

On our last run, we went on a trail that wasn't on the area map and kinda got a bit turned around. Luckily a couple of locals gave us some advice and we eventually found our way back. It felt great to be riding in shorts in February and the views were ok, I guess. Wink, wink.

Base of the bike park. 

This was April's 40th birthday and it was up to her what the plan would be and she chose to hike the famed Tongariro Crossing, a 12 mile trek famous for its volcano craters and recently, its access to Mount Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom in “The Lord of the Rings" films. It was to take them all day and because my knee was still not 100%, she and Todd were going to tackle it without us. We dropped them off early at their shuttle stop and Ryan and I did a short hike to a waterfall and then drove to a nearby town to drop off postcards at a local hole in the wall cafe/postoffice and of course eat!! Nothing like beans n bacon with my eggs! So good. We scheduled a guided kayaking tour at Lake Taupo for later that afternoon, so we needed the fuel - at least that's what I told myself.

Lake Taupo is the largest lake in New Zealand, 238 square miles of surface water, with the deepest point being around 600 feet. It is a caldera of a volcano after all. The water is tropical in color and clear many feet down. On that hot, windy day, this was the perfect activity. Before we found the outfitter, we played in the water off a small beach where a couple black swans came right up to us! The outfitter was based out of a house where we met the guide, Oliver, who was from Canada. He was a bundle of energy and hadn't much of a personal boundary, asking us about our relationship and feeling comfortable enough to divulge his opinion on relationships when one is a vagabond/adventurer/guide such as he. Made the time pass when we had to paddle into a headwind. :) 

He took us to a famous Maori carving site that is only accessed by boat and though it wasn't divulged until we arrived, these were not ancient carvings but only a few decades old. However, they are carved to memorialize a family. Then we took a snack break on some rocks (the guide brought hot tea and pudding-filled muffins) and then he encouraged us to jump and swim in the lake. Wow! It was as refreshing as it looks in the pictures. The trip back was tough after already paddling a few hours (I also had a bum shoulder) but the guide was great at breaking up the paddling with stories and facts during rest breaks. It was a super fun experience and made Ryan more interested in kayaking in the future.

After kayaking, we stopped at a local liquor store in Taupo to find April some local birthday beers. We also grabbed a nice local bourbon to sip on for the rest of the trip. (Yes, it lasted almost to the end of the trip). Taupo is a crazy tourist town and we couldn't wait to get the heck outta there and back to the wide open. When we got back to the rental, Todd and April were outside taking pictures so we thought it'd be funny to lock the doors and hide. Man, it took them like 15 minutes to come back in and they actually had seen us sneaking around so it wasn't quite the joke we hoped but it was still fun. 

Mount Doom! 
We spent the evening celebrating the day and April's start to the bottom of the aging hill. There was an old ski lodge down the road run by an Indian expat that was a time capsule from the 80s. Great snacks and cocktails and beer in the middle of nowhere was exactly the gift we hoped for April. And chocolate cake to wash it all down. 

We left mid morning the next day for a long drive to Wellington, stopping along the way at another LOTR filming spot where Gollum was discovered but the fall was dry so we continued onto Wellington but not before we stopped at a park that had a giant carrot sculpture and I recalled that the carrot capital of NZ was in this area. So, because we're really childish most of the time, we played in the kiddy park that had cartoon vegetable characters in it with a creepy parsnip that looked like an alien (look to the right of the rather ripped Mr Turnip). 

But the best part, and this is so stupid, was the futuristic toilets. The door opened by way of waving a hand in front of the open light. Once closed, inside there was beautiful music playing and it was quite an oasis. The toilet paper came out by waving your hand in front of it and the toilet flushed when the door opened. It was seriously cool! 

April had caught a cold and had fought hard to keep it at bay but that day she was down for the count and slept most of the drive through the rolling hills of sheep country (which looked a lot like the middle of South Dakota) until it gave way to four lane highways and tall buildings that was downtown Wellington. (It wasn't long before I started getting symptoms of a cold as well). We drove past the harbor where we'd be ferrying to the South Island the following morning so our time in the city was short. Our rental was in a high rise downtown so we were able to walk right to the shore. By the time we were ready to explore, the streets and sidewalks were full of people leaving work and heading somewhere. We pulled up a bench at a cafe right on the main pier where we had a great view for people watching. Lots of folks on nice mountain bikes rode by so clearly there were trails nearby (found out later it was national bike to work day). 

After our early dinner, we strolled around the pier. There were people swimming after jumping off a public diving board right into the sea! It was also a popular area for rowing teams to practice being that we saw about 4 boats doing laps. As we walked we we saw lots of public art and there seemed to be lots of younger people hanging around so the vibe was less touristy and more local. 

knit bomb monsters were on every post along the boardwalk

public diving board

Walking bridge over a busy street

On top of bridge

Sculpture that hung above a liberal arts courtyard

Still with daylight to kill, we made our way to the local botanical garden. We walked to the top of the city, literally, up a walkway deemed City to Sea path that was really steep in places. At the top was the terminus of the city's cable car system. Wait, we didn't have to walk up that far?! We had a great view and there was a boy scout troop just having a crazy (and loud) time playing king of the hill. We continued to follow the trail signage through the botanical garden and it was just mind blowingly huge, at over 60 acres of hilly terrain full of flowers, trees and plants, both native and foreign. The air was fragrant and the birdsongs echoed throughout the canopy. 

Then as we exited the garden, we were surprised to be discover a public cemetery that was clearly very old and April being the one who loves to experience haunted buildings and all things creepy, we entered it. At first I didn't notice it but the headstones were really close to each other and by the time we reached the other side, next to the expressway that divided this neighborhood from the business district, they were stacked next to each other, within inches sometimes. Turns out the city had to exhume over 3700 burial sights to put in the expressway. The headstones were relocated but it wasn't said where the bodies and caskets went. These were 100+ year old headstones and made for some pretty creepy photos. 

Overall we liked Wellington. It had a vibe being fun and progressive with seemingly lots of access to art, culture and the outdoors. If we ever go back, we'd probably fly into Wellington and spend a bit more time.

The next morning, Valentines Day, we arrived at the ferry entrance around 8am and sat in line for about 45 minutes before driving onto the Inter Islander Ferry. It was just like driving into a parking garage, actually. The ride took about 3 hours and we could walk around inside or outside. There was a movie theater, a few cafes and bars and plenty of seating. It was a mini cruise ship for the most part. The day was sunny but windy so there was some chop in the water. Supposedly some dolphins popped up on one side but I didn't see them. It was the first time I had ever been on open ocean water and it was a bit intimidating but beautiful and wild all at the same time. 

Reading right to left, our route from North Island to the South Island (about 14 miles)

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entering open water
Ferry going opposite way to North Island 
Our car is the black on right next to the semi 

As we began to get closer to the South Island, my mind buzzed with wonder as to what was to come. Our biggest adventures were ahead of us. For two more weeks we were going to be zigzagging our way down to the bottom of the South Island. We couldn't wait to get off that boat and see what there was to see.

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