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Trip Report NZ Trip Report April 2004

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We sent out four rather lengthy trip reports to friends and family in the US while we were in New Zealand. I've edited them a bit and included things like hotel info (we had a Mainstay Go Kiwi Silver Pass) and the names of companies we used. I'm a Lord of the Rings fan, so you will see a few references to the book and films.
April 20th-24th

12 hours on a plane is a really long time - they showed two NZ travel
features, four movies, about three hours of TV shows, and a Lord of the
Rings feature. Since neither of us slept very well on the plane, we saw
parts of most of them. It got dark at 7:30 in Los Angeles, and it was
still dark when we arrived in Auckland 16 hours later! We took the 11:30 p.m. flight, which was not overly full. We had an empty seat between us, and appreciated the extra room.

We had some difficulty getting out of the airport, thanks to all the
roundabouts, but we got them figured out eventually and headed southeast
to Whakatane. Steve, from this forum, gave us great directions, enabling us to enjoy a really lovely, scenic drive. Thanks, Steve!

You know how you always see pigeons and squirrels at rest stops in the US?
Well, here you see...chickens. Yes, chickens gone wild. You stop the
car, open the door, and here they come! We thought it was odd the first
time, but after three or four stops, we couldn't stop laughing.

We drove through a number of older towns, some from the NZ gold rush (Paeroa and Ngatea, among others).
They look like early 20th-century towns in the Eastern US; immaculately
kept gardens and sort of Victorian architecture. Old cemeteries are
tucked in here and there along the hillsides.

We had lunch in a little town called Katikati, which has a lot of neat
historical murals painted on the buildings.

Whakatane is a pretty little town on the Bay of Plenty, on the east coast
of NZ. We spent the night at Lloyds Lodge, a backpackers (hostel) in a
70-year old house. Lloyd was the father of Pam, the owner, and she named
the hostel to honor him. Pam was great - very helpful and friendly. It
felt more like just staying in someone's home.

Pam's husband, Hare (Hah-ray), is Maori, and since there were a number of
new people staying with them last night, he gave us a traditional Maori
welcome in the evening. He sang some songs in Maori, told us the story
of how Whakatane was originally settled when the Maori came to New
Zealand, and helped us learn how to pronounce Maori words by teaching us
a song. He called that
section of the evening Maori-oke. <g>

This morning we went out into the bay for our dolphin swim with Whales and Dolphin Watch. Unfortunately, the dolphins weren't as welcoming as Pam and Hare - they
didn't show. <g> Doug, the skipper, saw two, but we never found a whole
group. I did see a flying fish, though - very cool!

Since we didn't find any dolphins, Doug took us to Whale Island, where we saw natural rock arches, baby seals and shags (a kind of cormorant). When they can't find dolphins, they give you the option of going out again the next day for free or a partial refund. Since we were moving on, we took the refund.

You definitely smell Rotorua once you arrive, since it sits in an active
volcanic area. There is a little vent spewing out hot water and steam right
outside the door to the pool at our hotel, the Lake Plaza.

We attended a Maori concert and hangi at the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, which was one of the highlights of the trip. Many of the hotels offer an evening hangi and concert, but we wanted something that would feel more real. Our guide picked a French guy
to be our group's "chief," and he had to give the response to the
warriors who challenged us upon our arrival. Fortunately the poor guy
had someone in his group who could tell him what he was supposed to do,
since he didn't speak much English.

After the challenge and response, we were welcomed into the whare (the
meeting house), where the men and women danced, sang, and demonstrated
some of the weapons and other ceremonial items they used.

After the concert, we went to the dining hall for the feast. It might be
the best meal we'll have while we're here! Lots of fresh seafood, lamb,
pork, chicken, veges including kumara (the
Maori sweet potato), and a bunch of great desserts, plus a really nice
cheese and cracker tray. After dinner, they lit up the geothermal area
for us, with geysers spouting and billowing steam everywhere.

Both Ross and I have been waking up at weird times throughout this trip, so when Ross couldn't get back to sleep the next morning in Rotorua, he got up at 6:30 and went out to explore the town. As we mentioned, Rotorua is part of an active geothermal area, and it was weirdly beautiful walking around that early in the morning with steam rising from vents all over the place.

We walked around Rotorua a bit later in the morning, and drove to Ohinemutu, a Maori area at the edge of Lake Rotorua. We drove past Kuirau Park, where they had a volcanic explosion about four years ago; you can see the scorched trees in the park. Ohinemutu has steam rising out of the drains alongside the road and most everyone has some kind of steam vent in their back yards. We went to St. Faith's Anglican Church. It has a glass window with an etching of Christ wearing a traditional Maori feather cloak, done so that it looks like He is walking on the lake.

Next we headed south to Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland, and saw a variety of boiling mud pools, steam vents, geysers, and a bubbling "champagne lake" with carbon dioxide bubbles, lots of steam rising from the surface, and a variety of colors from the various minerals in the water.

We drove through Taupo, a pretty little town on the edge of Lake Taupo. The lake is a huge volcanic crater lake.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at Tongariro National Park, our final destination for the day. The late afternoon light shone over the plains and on Mount Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, two of the active volcanoes in the park. We planned to walk the Tongariro Crossing, which crosses the saddle between the two mountains, the next day, and we both felt apprehensive and intimidated seeing just how big those mountains are! The sight of steam coming out the side of Tongariro didn't help much. <g> The scenery was really stunning, and our hotel sat at the base of Mt. Ruapehu, the third active volcano in the park.

We got up Friday morning to catch the shuttle to the start of the Crossing, went outside, and saw both mountains were covered in cloud. We decided it was a pretty good sign that we shouldn't try the hike - we had warm clothes and rain gear with us, but no compass, which the lists at the visitors' center said would be helpful in cloudy weather.

We weren't all that impressed with our room at the Skotel (nice wood paneling, but very tiny), so we decided to check out and head for Wellington a day early. We did the Taranaki Falls Walk, a 1 1/2-2 hour loop, which was quite a bit shorter, not nearly as strenuous, and a very lovely combination of tussocky grassland, forest, and waterfalls. Peter Jackson could easily have used this area for Ithilien or Fangorn Forest!

Before we left the park, we drove up the road to Whakapapa Ski Field, where some of the Mordor and Emyn Muil scenery was shot. When we got there, mist was blowing across the rocks, and it looked quite a bit like the scenes of Frodo and Sam trying to find a way out of the Emyn Muil at the beginning of The Two Towers.

After we locked the keys in the car in Ohakune, and changed the flat tire outside Ohingaiti, we eventually got to Wellington Friday evening. We stayed on the tenth floor of the Bay Plaza Hotel, overlooking the harbor and the famous Te Papa Museum, and we're a block from the Embassy Theatre, where the world premiere for Return of the King was held in December.

Ross went out on another early morning foray this morning and drove up Mt. Victoria, which is right behind our hotel. He found the "get off the road" location from Fellowship of the Ring, and we'll go up there tomorrow before we leave town to take some pictures.

We spent the day at Te Papa, which is an incredible museum. It combines natural history, science and industry, New Zealand history, and art, with a great kids' area. The Maori history section was particularly interesting; they let the Maori speak for themselves and the tensions between the Maori and Pakeha (Europeans) are evident.

We made sure to go into the Lord of the Rings Exhibition Store at the museum, where we saw a very cool replica of Aragorn's Ranger sword, the shards of Narsil, and one of the Lorien cloaks. If you have $1900, you can have your very own cloak, too! It was really gorgeous, though...

We took a short break at the hotel, then walked up to the Embassy Theatre to take a look inside. They did extensive refurbishing in preparation for the Return of the King premiere, and when we opened the door to the theater itself, we were able to catch the last hour of Return of the King - an unexpected bonus! People from all over the world donated money to help pay to renovate the theater before Return of the King's premiere, including the cast and crew of the films. I now have a nice picture of myself sitting in Viggo Mortensen's seat. <g>

April 25th-29th

We were going to try to go to church Sunday morning, but decided we had time to make a quick trip up Mount Victoria to the Shire sites before the service started. We drove up to the summit, got out, and were standing there with our Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook, trying to decide if we were at the right spot or not.

I looked up, and coming toward us were Richard Taylor, head of Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, his wife Tania Rodger, and their son Samuel! "Hey, he would know which way to go!" I said. Richard and Tania and their crew did all the special effects, makeup, props, armor, furniture, etc., etc. for the movies. I must say meeting them was extremely cool! They were really nice and very helpful.

We chatted for a few minutes, commiserated about driving on the wrong side of the road, took pictures, and had them sign our book, as well as give us directions to the correct path. They live on Mt. Victoria, and Richard really pushed to use it as a location for the film when Peter Jackson and the producers hadn't wanted to. The folks at Weta are working on King Kong and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe now.

We drove down the hill a bit further and found the "get off the road" site (not the one Ross went to the day before) and then the spot where they put the big tree with the roots that the hobbits hid under when the Black Rider came. By this time, unfortunately, we had to miss church.

After checking out of the hotel, we visited a farmers' market across the street and bought some really tasty kiwifruit and a feijoa. It's some kind of tropical fruit that's pretty tasty.

We drove around part of the harbor, along Oriental Bay, to Miramar, and found Weta Workshop and Weta Digital; we also drove down Stone Street but didn't find Stone Street Studios.

After a couple of attempts, we were able to make our way out of Wellington to Upper Hutt and Kaitoke Regional Park, the location for Rivendell.

This was one place in NZ that was clearly marked and easy to find! <g> They had a sign with pictures from Fellowship of the Ring to help you picture what things looked like in the area. It was really lovely, green, and peaceful there - a perfect location for "the last Homely House East of the Sea." Ross climbed down to the river and took a picture looking at where part of the set was built.

I had spotted what looked like a shortcut from Upper Hutt to Highway 1 on our map, so Ross asked a woman in the parking lot about it. She said it (the Akatarawa Road) was narrow and twisty, but it would take about the same amount of time as going back down to Lower Hutt and taking a different road, so we decided to take the Akatarawa Road.

Narrow and twisty was an understatement! Most of the way it was basically a one-lane road with two-way traffic, hugging a very uneven mountainside with hairpin turns every 100 meters or so. NZ drivers don't move over until practically the last second, so it was a rather harrowing experience. Ross said, in his best Gimli imitation, "Akatawara - what madness drove them in there?" <g> By the end, his arms were tired from all the curves in the road, but on the rare occasions when the road straightened out a bit, the scenery was gorgeous.

We eventually got to Wanganui that evening; it seemed like it took a long time after our adventure on the Akatarawa Road, though it's only a couple of hours from Wellington. Apparently they had had quite a bit of flooding in February or March, though things were back to normal when we were there. We were glad we hadn't scheduled our trip for earlier in the year. We stayed at the Avenue Hotel, which was probably the newest hotel we used during the trip - a nice room.

Our destination Monday was Mt. Taranaki/Egmont National Park, which is only a couple of hours from Wanganui. Taranaki looks quite a bit like Mt. Fuji in Japan, and it and the surrounding area was used to film The Last Samurai. The mountain tends to dominate the scenery in this area, which consists of gently rolling farmland.

We stopped in Stratford, the only town I know of where all the streets take their names from Shakespeare's plays. Their war memorial was still surrounded with small white crosses with the names of their war dead. We went into a takeaway shop and ordered fish and chips. We got four huge pieces of really fresh battered and fried fish and a ton of chips, enough for lunch with chips leftover for dinner. It was cheaper than McDonald's, too! I was sort of surprised, for some reason, to find American fast food restaurants in New Zealand, but we only ate in them a couple of times. McDonald's was more expensive than the fish and chips place, too, but in the NZ version of McDonald's big breakfast, you get those really good sausages, so it was a little different, and the chicken satay sandwich at Subway was tasty. <g>

It was just a few miles from Stratford to our destination, the Missing Leg Backpackers in Egmont Village. By the time we got there, it was cloudy and starting to sprinkle, so we found our room, put on our rain gear, and drove to the North Egmont Visitor Center in Egmont National Park. We walked the Ngatoro Loop Track, which was just gorgeous. It was filled with huge, old mossy trees, and reminded me of Tolkien's description of Fangorn Forest. Walking along the track in the cool, cloudy, misty weather was a pleasure.

The Missing Leg is run by Jo and Brian, a couple of back-to-the-land types. The chickens came running when we got back, and we fed them a few of our crackers. We picked herbs to go with our lamb chop dinner from their herb garden, kept the wood stove burning, and took a look at their beehive. The fence along the road is lined with all kinds of bicycles, large and small. Brian said he started putting his own bikes along the fence as sort of a gimmick to help people find the hostel. Eventually people started adding bikes to the fence and taking bikes if they needed one. He said all the kids' bikes are always gone by Christmas, but people always add more to the collection.

For travelers on a budget, New Zealand hostels are a wonderful resource. All three of the ones we stayed in were quite nice, though the foam mattress at the Missing Leg had a trough down the middle; no matter which way you turned, you ended up back in the center eventually. <g>

Tuesday, the 27th, we were off to Waitomo. It was a short drive again on SH 3 through the Awakino Gorge. The roads are all signposted for 100 km/hour, but usually you have to go around 80 because of the twists and turns. It was lovely traveling up the west coast with its black sand beaches, through the gorge along the Awakino River, then through more Shire-like country. We both had Howard Shore's Hobbit theme playing in our heads as we drove. It rained almost all the way, and was the wettest day of our trip.

The Waitomo Caves Hotel, which was on our hotel pass, was full, so we had arranged to stay at the Kiwi Paka YHA hostel, which was an option on Mainstay's Bronze hotel pass.

After lunch, we headed to Black Water Rafting for our Black Labyrinth cave tubing trip with Ray, our friendly and helpful guide. The six of us had to put on, over our swimsuits, rubber diving booties, a polypropelene pullover for extra warmth, a full-body rubber wetsuit, a rubber jacket, white rubber gumboots, and a helmet with headlamp. It definitely wasn't the most flattering outfit I've ever worn!

We drove down the road to the tube storage area, found a tube to fit our rear ends, then sat down in a line in our tubes so we could learn to steer. Ray taught us to paddle, to "eel" (hooking our feet under the arms of the person in front of us so we could all stay together), and what to do if he yelled "Rock (lift your bottom out of the tube, quick)!"

We drove down the road a bit farther to Ruakuri (den of dogs) Cave. There are no paved paths or lights ala Carlsbad Caverns here, just the lights on our helmets to help us see where to go. We walked further into the cave past stalactites and flowstone, with the stream growing stronger under our gumboots. After a couple of minutes, we sat down, turned off our lamps, and looked at a bunch of glowworms on the ceiling while Ray explained what a glowworm was and taught us about their life cycle.

We got in our tubes and floated downstream for a while before we got to the exciting part - jumping backward, holding our tubes behind us, off a 6-8 feet high waterfall! Ray gave us the option of jumping off facing forward with the tube around us, but somehow that sounded scarier than doing it backward. Aside from the water I got up my nose when I landed, it was really fun.

We grabbed a rope along the edge of the stream, got into our "eel," turned off our headlamps, and floated through the darkness, watching the thousands of blue-green glowworm lights above us. It looked like the Milky Way, just beautiful!

After about an hour underground, we saw light, climbed out of the other end of the cave, and went back to Black Water Rafting. There we showered, changed, rinsed out our wetsuits, and went up to the cafe for hot tomato soup and bagels. Though the air and water temperatures really didn't feel all that cold to me, we'd been able to see our breath in the cave, so the hot shower felt great.

Ray told us that the path we took out of the cave, the Ruakuri Bushwalk, was a good place to see more glowworms, so after our snack, we got our flashlight and drove back to the path. There were lots of glowworms along the sides of the path under ledges and bushes. We turned off the flashlight and just stood there for a few minutes admiring the lights and listening to the night birds.

Possums were introduced to New Zealand in the late 1800s, and since they have no natural predators, they are a real pest, eating something like 400 truckloads of vegetation a night. They are a different kind of possum than we have in the States - big, with brown fur, long bushy tails, and pointy ears. Running over possums is practically a national sport in New Zealand; people swerve out of their lanes to get one, and it's always open season for possum hunting. However, Ross declined to run over the one we saw in the road on the way back to the hostel. He thought perhaps the rental car company wouldn't like it. <g>

Wednesday, April 28th, we stopped at the Cave Museum, since tickets were included in our cave tubing trip. They had an interesting multi-media presentation about the glowworms. From there, we headed to Auckland. Since Auckland is NZ's biggest city, we called the hotel to get directions before we left Waitomo.

Aoteroa means "The Land of the Long White Cloud" in Maori, but we decided it most likely means "The Land of Bad Directions." We found our freeway exit fine, and turned onto Queen Street (the main street in the heart of downtown) with no problems. Whoever Ross talked to said to turn right on Victoria St. West, pull up in front of the hotel, and come in to register. However, they didn't tell us that the hotel was on the south side of the street and that there wasn't any place on the north side to park. We eventually managed to turn around and pull over in front of the hotel, but we couldn't park there because it was a loading zone. They hadn't bothered to tell us we could have parked in the bus stop. I jumped out and went in to register, and Ross drove around the corner to find the carpark. Unfortunately, they had told Ross which street to turn on, but not that he had to take a left turn off that street to get to the garage.

When I got in, they gave me a map to the carpark and said we should park first, then come in to register. So I went outside, waited for Ross to drive around the block again, got back in, and we were finally able to find the garage. By this time, Ross was a bit irritated, and he let the manager know that they needed to give better directions. They upgraded our room to a two-bedroom apartment, though, which was really nice. We had plenty of room to spread out, a full kitchen, and a washer and dryer. We used the second bedroom to store our suitcases and repack everything before we left.

We walked down to the Ferry Building and took the ferry to Devonport, a little village on the north shore of Auckland. It was a pleasant 15-minute ride across the harbor. Devonport has a lot of Edwardian buildings, and we picked up a map and took the Old Devonport Walk past historic churches and pretty little cottages. It was peaceful and relaxing, especially after the hassle of trying to find the hotel.

The ferry was just pulling away from the dock as we arrived, and we had to jump to make it. It was probably a good thing I didn't have time to think about what I was doing! The sun was going down, and the lights of the city were lovely.

We took it easy that night - just did some window shopping, fixed dinner, and found an Internet cafe to send out a report.

Thursday morning, the 29th, we drove to the Auckland Domain (a big park) and spent an hour in the Auckland Museum. It needed more time, but we had to return our rental car, so we only visited the very extensive Maori exhibits on the first floor.

The 4:15 Air NZ flight from Auckland to Los Angeles was pretty full. The two women in our row of seats had hoped to be able to move to a different row so they could stretch out, but there wasn't room. I don't know if this particular flight is usually full, but I suspect it would be since it gets into Los Angeles around 9:00 a.m.

If you read this whole thing, good for you! <g> We loved New Zealand, and would go back again.

Lee Ann

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