Ten Days in NZ: Glowworms at Waitomo

Glowworms are one of the most unique and beautiful secrets of wildlife in Aotearoa. Although various bio-luminescent insects exist throughout the world (I used to chase and catch fireflies in the New England area of the US when I was a child -releasing them after an hour or so of intense admiration), and however fascinating these glowing bugs are, there is nothing quite like the underground galaxies in the caves of New Zealand. My trip could not have been complete without a visit.  As a bonus, I got to try my first black water rafting experience, too!

While I originally hoped to do the caves before the Hobbits, it turned out to be a good thing that my plans got swapped. Sunday had been beautiful and sunny as I wandered through Hobbiton, but I woke up Monday to a grey sky and light rain. Weather that would have put a damper (pun intended) on Hobbiton became wholly irrelevant to my enjoyment for the day since I would be spending it underground. Prior to my arrival in NZ, I had been under the impression that the glowworms only lived in caves, so I scheduled some time for myself to explore underground. My foray unsupervised into Waipu had been a wipe out, so to speak, but Waitomo offered plenty of guided tours that also included all the special caving equipment. As happy as I had been to learn that glowworms could also be seen in the bush, as magically fairy dusted as I was to have been able to find them not once, but twice above ground, I was still eager to see them in the caves where I was told their numbers were greatly increased, and where we would view them with no other light source but their own bio-luminescence.

There are several companies running a variety of tours in the caves at Waitomo, so feel free to shop around. I didn’t realize how many there were until I arrived at the hostel and saw the wall of brochures. Most of the companies don’t do a whole lot of online advertising, but if the options you find online don’t make you happy, rest assured there are more. The main types of tours are simple walking tours (no equipment needed), gentle boat tours (a group in a boat floating through the caves), adventurous caving/black water rafting (gear supplied, reasonable fitness required, clambering around and getting wet), and insanely adventurous caving (gear supplied, good fitness, zip-lines, fox-lines, rappelling, wall climbing, etc). Each of the companies offers some variety of these and everyone’s camera policy is different, so it’s just a matter of finding the one that fits you. I went with a winter sale that gave me one walking tour and one black water rafting tour. Ultimately, despite the fact that there were three caves to go through, I chose to to both tours in the same cave, Ruakuri.

Entering Ruakuri

I scheduled my walking tour first. I arrived at the tour center in time to get registered and check out what would be my lunch options later in the day. We didn’t need any special gear for the walking tour, so when the guide showed up, I just hopped in the van with her and we rode off to collect the other guests. (there are multiple pick up spots, too). We had a small group, just 6 of us including our guide, so it was a nice private feeling tour.

Ruakuri means “two dogs” in Maori and as we stood in an entirely fake made-of-concrete cave entrance, our guide explained that the cave was so named because one day the local tribe spotted a pair of dogs in the mouth of the cave. Dogs were rare, as only the kuri that the migrating Maori had brought with them from Polynesia lived in NZ before the British came. Kuri were valued for fur and meat (not necessarily as companion animals the way we think of dogs today), and the fur was reserved for those with the highest standing. So it was that when this tribe found the dogs, they killed them and made their fur into a cloak for the chief. Whenever he would win a great battle, he would go to the cave and lay the cloak down on the ground in thanks. It became known as two-dog cave, or Ruakuri.

The reason we were standing in a concrete cave instead of a limestone one for this speech is that the Maori also believe that caves are entryways to the underworld and would often place the bodies of the dead in cave mouths to help their spirits on the way. The original British invaders didn’t really care, but since then the Kiwis have developed some cultural sensitivity (and laws) about Maori ancestral burial sites, and a new entrance had to be constructed. Given the context, I don’t mind in the least.

Once inside, we passed through a very James Bond Villain sort of airlock tunnel that was part of the system to help regulate air, temperature and moisture within the cave. We emerged at the top of a spiral of softly glowing lights. When the new entrance was built, the owners of the land decided that they wouldn’t just make do with a stairwell or switchback, and instead installed a rather stunning ramp that gently wraps around the wide cylindrical shaft, making Ruakuri the only wheelchair accessible cave in New Zealand (and several other countries, I’m sure). From the ceiling above us came a thin but constant stream of water, beating down upon a worn stone below. When we reached the bottom, we were offered the opportunity to use the stone basin where the falling water collected to wash our hands, a symbolic act I have encountered in Buddhist and Shinto temples that is also present in Maori beliefs that cleanses the impurities of the world from one before entering a sacred space.

A Cave Walk

20160822_111607Once inside the cave, we were treated to chamber after chamber of beautiful limestone growths and formations. I’m lucky enough to have explored several of the best limestone caves in the US and I still found this one to be both beautiful and worthwhile. Like everything in NZ, the cave could not just be one type of landscape, but changed continuously as we traveled. In addition to the stunning stalagmites and stalactites, we saw curtain formations, several alternate types of mineral formations I don’t know all the names of because I’m not a geologist, some fossil seashells, some heavily layered rock, at least one natural chimney in addition to the man-made tube used to pipe in the concrete for the wheelchair safe pathways, and of course the glowworms. I should mention that anywhere a concrete path would have damaged formations, they instead used metal catwalks, sometimes bolstered from the floor, sometimes the walls, and at least once, suspended from the ceiling. They did everything possible to keep the cave intact while also making it accessible to everyone.

Seeing the glowworms up close in the cave was definitely a treat. Our guide shone her lamp askance onto a wall full of the little bugs, causing the feeding strings to become visible. Although I knew they must be there, when I was in the bush, I hadn’t wanted to shine a light directly onto the worms, and so didn’t really see the webs. But here, because of the shape of the wall, she was able to side-light the webs while still leaving most of the worms in darkness, meaning we could see both at the same time. My camera almost captures what that looked like, and certainly gives a clear view of the feeding lines. While only a few of the brightest bugs show up in the black portion of the photo here, to the naked eye, that space was covered in tiny blue dots of light.

20160822_105000Glowworms are larval insects who secure themselves to something dark and damp like the cave wall, then lower a strand of sticky silk. When some poor unsuspecting flying insect thinks their little glow is the moon and gets trapped in the web, the glowworm can then reel in the line and dine on the trapped flier’s brains. They are also quite territorial, so we were warned to be careful not to move the strands lest they become entangled with one another and cause a fight to the death to ensue between neighbors. It’s a little dichotomous to think of these beautiful serene lights as emanating from violent brain eaters, but then again, the fairies they are so often likened to are said to be beautiful yet cruel as well, so perhaps that metaphor is not so far off.

The cave was nicely lit for the walking tour, and you can see the rest of my photos over on Facebook here.

Black Water Rafting

After lunch, I had my second cave trip planned for a higher level of adventure. Black water rafting is so named because in the cave there is no light, so the water is black. It’s not merely an underground version of whitewater rafting, which is done in multi-person boats down exciting rapids and involves lots of coordinated paddle maneuvering to avoid rocks and whirlpools. In caves the water does not flow so predictably in a space where we can be assured of having air all the time, and there is certainly not enough light to see obstacles far ahead. So black water rafting is instead a kind of wet spelunking with an inner-tube.

20160822_170541.jpgWe started off by changing into some cave climbing wet-suits. These weren’t just regular SCUBA suits; they had special padding on the knees and bottom to help prevent injuries as we crawled and scooted around in the small tunnels. These suits were also 2 pieces, an overall style pants part and a long jacket. I am a short, round person and no neoprene suits were designed to my measurements even a little bit, so by the time I get something that fits my shoulders, bust and hips, its about 6 inches too long everywhere else, legs arms and torso (and rather unfortunately, it pushed up on my neck and chin so I had to unzip the first 5 inches of the jacket just to be able to breathe). In addition, the material is very stiff, so I felt like I was wearing a suit of armor built for someone 6 inches taller than me. I was suddenly very glad I’d decided on the less extreme version of the extreme adventuring.

Training Time

Despite feeling like a sausage in a tin suit, I was excited for the journey and waddled along after the taller and more lithe members of the group toward the inner tubes for our training. There were 6 people (7 with guide) in this group, which was a good size. We learned how to use our helmet lights, and how to link together in an inner-tube chain so we wouldn’t loose each other in the dark float, and finally we learned how to jump off a waterfall backwards. Yep, backwards.

I had read in the description of this adventure that it would include 2 waterfall jumps. I’m not sure what I had in my head, there were pictures on the website of people in inner-tubes floating along, perhaps I though we would just go over that way, or jump feet first with the tubes around our waists, but the reality was much more ridiculous. We went to a short pier over a day-lit portion of the stream to learn the proper backwards waterfall jumping technique. It is this: stand firmly at the very edge of the jumping platform, hold your inner tube to your bottom and resist the urge to bend your waist or knees too much. Kick off and out from the platform into the empty space behind you, splash butt first into icy river water which then floods up your sinus cavity and trickles into parts of your wet suit that were previously warm.

Wet Spelunking

Once we finished our brief training, we headed over to a totally different entrance of Ruakuri than the walking tour had taken. Within the cave, the river was often not deep enough or wide enough for us to float on the inner tubes, so we spent a significant portion of the adventure carrying them or passing them around. However, the river was always underfoot which meant that walking involved keeping our balance in various intensities of rushing water and finding footing under water we could not see the bottom of (not because it was cloudy, but because of the lack of light and/or the white water foam). We often had to sit and scoot or sit and jump to get down steep ledges. Our guide knew the terrain well, however, and in difficult passages would tell us all exactly where to put which foot, knee, hand or elbow for the best way through.

In one section of the cave, we were getting ready to enter a passage that required us to crawl hands and knees, but it was up from the main passage. The guide pointed to two divots in the rock and told us to put a right foot in one and the left knee in the other to get up. The step was about mid thigh height on me (another advantage you tall people have) which is something that is a little challenging but realistically achievable for me in “normal” clothes. However, at this point the overlong legs of my wet-suit became more than merely foolish looking because the stiff extra fabric was preventing me from lifting my leg high enough to reach the step! I felt like I was trying to lift my foot with a 40lb resistance band on my leg. I couldn’t even get my foot past mid-calf height and one of the other adventurers had to help by grabbing my foot and putting it up into the step. It was pretty embarrassing not to be able to do it for myself, but I was glad to be with people who so readily lent a hand. Once I got in the tunnel, I had the advantage over the taller folks, though, and I wiggled on through getting nice and warm in the process.

We came out back into the same chamber we had left our inner-tubes in. It turned out the crawling tunnel wasn’t strictly necessary but rather a fun part of the caving experience that we could do without loosing our floaties. After all, it’s not really caving if you haven’t had to wiggle through a tight fit, right?

Waterfall Jumping

We were scheduled to be underground for a little more than 2 hours, and quite a bit of that was spent making our way through the shallow but fast running water. When we came upon our first waterfall I hung back a little to try and get an idea of what the whole thing looked like. Our helmet lights weren’t very powerful (probably good so we didn’t blind one another) Even standing near the edge of the fall, I couldn’t get a sense of how far below the water was. When the first brave volunteer took the plunge, it became obvious it was only a short drop and was really no different from flopping down backwards onto a bean bag. Even knowing it was totally safe, knowing hundreds of people had done it before me and that the guide knew the space well enough to help me place my feet in just the right place, I still got some serious tummy butterflies. Unlike the pier, which is flat, dry and made of wood, we had to stand on an uneven rock ledge with water rushing past our feet… backwards. At one point my guide asked me to step a little closer to the edge to prepare for my jump and I think that tiny step was actually more nerve-wracking than the actual leap.

The water got less predictable and less shallow as we progressed. There was a churning whirlpool of doom that was called something like the concrete mixer or the meat grinder, but basically don’t fall in it because it will suck you under and batter you blue. The floor became more uneven so I would go from ankle deep water into knee deep water in one step. I spent a lot of time with one hand on the wall trying to keep my feet from being swept out from under me by the fast moving water, while my other hand held the light but cumbersome inner-tube. I had a blast. I’ve been caving in places that you had to bring your own light, the Ape Caves and Guler Ice Caves near Seattle were like that, but they were merely damp and required no special equipment beyond a light. I went spelunking ages ago with my father in a place that gave us overalls and had us rappelling down walls and wiggling through tiny tunnels. This was the first time I’d been able to do more than just look at an underground river and despite the nerves. It was a beautiful and rewarding climb.

A Galaxy of Glowworms

The true prize at the end of the tunnel were the two spots of deep slow water where we could lay in the tubes we’d dragged all this way and relax as we looked up at the cave roof. It’s a prize because here is where the glowworms live in large numbers, occupying much more space than any of the passages we had walked through up until then. For the first segment our guide had us link up, holding the shoes of the person behind us to form a chain, and then he grabbed on to my boots (I was in front at this point) and towed us all along behind him as he waded forward. We all turned our lights off to have the best possible view of the glowworms, which also means that while we were all going oooh aaah and floating along, our guide was pulling us along by memory in pitch blackness, so kudos to that guy.

It’s hard to describe the actual sensation. It helps if you’re not claustrophobic, I suppose, but the cave is fairly open at this point. Once the lights go out you have the very unique physical sensation of floating, because you are, with almost no visual reference at all. The water is ice cold, but the suits were doing their job and I wasn’t cold. I was not alone because I had the reassuring grip of the guide’s hand on my toes and my own grip on the boots behind me. And all at once I had no butterflies at all. It was the safest most peaceful feeling floating in the blackness with these people hundreds of feet under the earth.

Then I look up and it is nearly as though I am outside staring up at a night sky free of light pollution. The ceiling is covered in tiny glowing blue lights. It doesn’t look like the photographs. Those photographs are low light exposure or even time lapse and they make the bugs look like LED lights or computer animations from Avatar. I don’t mean to suggest the reality is a let down at all, just that I can’t show you what it looks like in a photograph. When you see a sunset, or the starry sky, or the full moon at dusk and you know that there is no way any photograph will ever capture that moment, it’s like that. As I lay on my inner tube floating in complete blackness, my only cues of movement coming from my inner ear and the slowly shifting perspective of this underground galaxy above me. I realized soon that the bugs weren’t evenly distributed across the ceiling like stars, but rather following a path like the river itself, winding and bending, widening and narrowing as it led us forward.

The Total Ecosystem Experience

With no lights, no watch and no way to tell how long I had stared hypnotized by this phenomenon, I felt both like an eternity had passed and that it had passed too quickly. Soon it came time to turn our lights back on and navigate our way to the next goal. After a bit more climbing, wading and one more waterfall jump, we came to what our guide called the lazy river. The current was strong enough to keep us moving forward and this time we did not link our tubes to float, but set off as individuals. The sensation was different.

Firstly because I had to put my hands in the water from time to time to paddle, and since I had no inner tube behind mine, when I tilted my head back for the best view, my hair dunked into the water as well, giving me quite the chill, though not unpleasantly so. Also, as we were at the mercy of the currents, I often drifted into walls that I had to push off, while not pushing so hard as to throw myself into the opposing wall. This meant that I was more engaged with the cave itself than the first float, but I was also not engaged with the other people except when we bumped into one another. The experience was no less intense or amazing for that, but instead of feeling an almost outer space quality of the first float, I was tangibly aware of the water and the rock through my bare hands, connecting the river, the cave and the beautiful but carnivorous lights above me into one ecosystem.

Wrapping Up & Moving On

I probably could have lay and stared at that view forever, but too soon it was over and we headed to the exit. It was a good level of adventure, physically challenging enough to make me feel like I’d done something and to make me ok with only doing the 3 hour version, but not so grueling as to make me not able to enjoy the calm and peaceful portions. The backward jumping waterfalls were a new type of face your fears activity that really helped remind me of the joy of leaping into the unknown. And the slow floats under the gentle blue glow of the unique little bugs are an image I hope to treasure for many years to come.

20160822_170414When we got back to the base, we took a final victory picture, doing our best to imitate the Olympic rings for the Rio Olympics. Then we peeled off the wet suits and ran shivering in our bathing suits into the hot showers to warm up and clean off before getting into dry clothes. They also had some hot soup and toasted bagels for us in the cafe when we came in so we could replenish some calories and get warm from the inside too. Our guide did his best to take photos of us in the cave, but was by himself that day and often had his hands full helping one or more of us find the foothold or handhold we needed to get through. Nonetheless, they did show the photos of our group up on big TVs for us to see while we sipped our soup. Most of the pictures were of us outside the cave or in the cave mouth, so it’s not especially great at capturing the in cave experience visually. Hopefully I painted a picture with my words.

I spent a long time lingering in the cafe and ended up chatting with two Chinese ladies returning from their own caving trip. We had a good talk about Buddhism and how to look for the teachers the universe sends us outside the temple as well as how to find and follow the path that’s set out for us in each life. This is something I give a lot of thought to, as I tend to spend more time in the world than in the temple. One of the girls said she hoped I could help more Westerners understand Buddhism better, which is a pretty lofty goal. When I found out they were going to Rotorua next, I gave them all my Google Map data for the hot springs there. I may not be destined to spread the Dharma to the West, but I can at least help a fellow traveler find some hidden treasures.

Waitomo was my last full day in the Land of the Long White Cloud. I drove back to Auckland that evening in preparation for departing the next day. It was hard to watch the rural roads return to urban highways, knowing that I would bid farewell to this land that had greeted me so warmly, but the stories aren’t quite over yet. There’s one more post coming after this one, filled with the odds and ends of smaller precious experiences that didn’t fit into any of the larger narratives so far. As always, thanks for reading and please check out my Facebook and Instagram for everyday updates in my travels! ❤


Ten Days in NZ: Hobbiton

Possibly the most anticipated blog from my New Zealand adventure has finally arrived. Hobbits! If you’re an avid Tolkein fiend, Jackson junkie or Frodo follower, this post is for you. Come with me into the magical lands of Middle Earth as brought to life in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

I Love Hobbits

10261107_oriI remember having some picture books as a kid about Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. They were highly simplified versions of the stories in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but my mother loved those stories so much, she made sure I got started early. The books had read along audio cassettes that I could play in my own little cassette player (because digitial music didn’t exist yet, that’s why). I learned about Golum and the One Ring while I was learning to read. It’s safe to say that the stories of Middle Earth are embeded in my foundation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn high school, we used to use Dwarven runes to write secret notes and one of my friends even learned basic Elvish. In 1999 or 2000, my mother and I were walking out of some movie or other and saw a poster on the wall of the theater with Elijiah Wood and my mother immediately exclaimed, “It’s Frodo!” without even reading the text on the poster. It was indeed Frodo, and the poster was the first advertisement for Peter Jackson’s film rendition of the epic stories. Now the books have spawned a movie franchise, sharing Tolkien’s work with a whole new group of fans with 6 movies so far, and I hear more in the works. So, when I found out that the Hobbiton movie set was still alive and well in New Zealand, I of course fantasized about going there. And, when I found my travels taking me down under this year, I finally got my chance.

The Movie Set

The Hobbiton movie set is on private land. Jackson and his team chose from among several farms in NZ, finally selecting this one for the combination of the Party Tree (that giant tree Bilbo stands under at his 111th birthday party), and the natural hillside that enabled them to build Bag End in such a way that matched the physical description in the books. Jackson’s attention to the detail in the books was demanding, sometimes to an insane level, but it made the movies match the mental image so many readers and artists had carried for years after reading the tales. When Jackson asked permission to use the land, the farmer agreed with the proviso that the land be returned to exactly the way it was after filming. However, when Jackson returned to film the Hobbit movies, the farmer saw an opportunity, and this time demanded the set be built to last a minimum of 50 years so that tourists could come to visit after the filming was done.

Visiting Hobbiton is not an inexpensive proposition. It costs a little over 50$ US for the tour, but this goes into maintaining the amazing detail of the set, a full time staff of gardeners and repairpersons as well as guides and staff at the Green Dragon to brew ale and cook Hobbit food. It’s so much more than a movie set left behind, it’s a very nearly living village that makes one believe the Hobbits have just ducked out for a moment but will be right back. Also there is no way to view the Shire from the public roads, so if you want to see Hobbit holes, this is it.

The Tour Begins

20160821_130200The tour is 2 hours long and starts at the visitors center where a massive car park surrounds a quaint gift shop and cafe. I was truly surprised at the number of cars in the lot when I arrived. The movie set is outside Matamata, and is quite remote. I had seen more sheep than people my whole drive over, and the nearest petrol station was more than 10 minutes away. When I turned into the car park, however, it was like a shopping mall on a Black Friday, I nearly didn’t find a parking spot. I did go on a Sunday, which may have accounted for the higher turn out, but there is no doubt that Hobbiton is a prime attraction. There is a fleet of green buses (the color of Bag End’s front door) emblazoned with the Hobbiton logo that drive visitors from the car park over to the movie set itself. On the way, the guide, Sam (our guide was named Sam, he swears it’s his real name and just a coincidence) told us that originally there had been no road into the farm this way. The New Zealand Army was contracted to come in and build the road so that all the set and filming equipment could be moved in. The farmer himself was under a non-disclosure agreement, so when one of his neighbors asked why the army was on his farm, all he could say was that they had been selected for a random road building exercise.

Deep in the farm, past many more sheep and the now empty fields that once once housed the set construction, make up tents, cast trailers and craft services hall, we finally caught our first glimpse of the Shire, the water mill and the Inn of the Green Dragon on the lake. The excitement on the bus was palpable. Despite the huge numbers of tourists visiting each day, it seemed that very few were idle viewers and most were just as happy as was to be arriving at the real, physical, 3D version of Bilbo’s home town. We piled out of the bus to begin our walking portion of the tour next to some last minute bathrooms. I hadn’t had a chance to go at the visitor’s center so I decided to do so here. The outside looks like nothing so much as a rustic gardener’s shed, and I rather expected the inside to be about the same. Instead was surprised to encounter one of the cleanest and most well appointed restrooms I’ve ever seen outside a formal restaurant. So that’s one more thing the entrance fee is covering, well done.

Welcome to Hobbiton

There is a sign at the entrance with old drawings of the Shire and an overgrowth of ivy. It welcomed us to Hobbiton and marks the real edge of where Earth becomes Middle Earth. As we continued on, we came through a narrow path with a high stone wall, the exact path that Gandalf uses to enter Hobbiton in his first appearance. Sam did a great job of pointing out all the details from the movie, as well as the books as we passed by, including many interesting stories of how and why the sets were built the way they were. The scene with Frodo and Gandalf on the cart uses forced perspective to make Elijia Wood seem Hobbit sized, so the path itself is very long and narrow to aid in the cinematic illusion.


As we continued into the town, we encountered a few differently sized Hobbit holes. Each set was built based on whether it would be used as background for a “normal” sized actor playing a human or a Hobbit, or a smaller actor playing a Hobbit, or simply as background, all to create the forced perspective illusion that Hobbits and their homes are small in comparison with the visiting wizard.

After each explanation, we had time to wander around the immediate area and take pictures. Apparently the record for most pictures on one tour is over 3,000 and I’m happy to say I didn’t come anywhere near that. The detail on the sets was incredible. Tiny windows set into the mounds of earth with even tinier window dressings. Knickknacks, tools, tiny Hobbit sized clothing out on a line to dry in the sun, stacks of firewood, jars of honey, fish out to smoke, picnic tables set for second breakfast, the garden bursting with real produce, as though we were intruders in a life still lived.

We circled around the gardens, the frog pond, up the hill past the baker’s house, taking in the sweeping view of the Shire as we slowly ascended the Hill toward a familiar oak tree and the distant shadow of a green door. Most of the sets are closed off by gates, and Sam asked us to leave them shut, but there are a few without gates, where we could get much closer, 20160821_135942and even one with an open door to give us the chance to stand inside the traditional round portal. There is nothing inside, of course, the interior of the Hobbit holes were only filmed in the studio, but it makes for a unique and fun photo opportunity to place yourself in the role of a Hobbit. I didn’t have time on this trip, but when I get the chance to go back and stay in NZ longer, I’d love to dress up and get some photos in cosplay on this set. I’d also love to bring my niece and nephew before they get too big (Gnome, Squidgette, I’m talking to you) because so many of the Hobbit sized sets are perfect child size and include a lot of props that are not hidden behind gates. There was a Chinese family in our group and watching the little ones pose in front of the smallest Hobbit holes was a cuteness overload.

Up the Hill

The higher we got up the Hill, the more amazing the view became. I had to present my vacation to my students (learn English so you can do this too!) and I used a clip from the beginning of the Fellowship to show off the Shire before starting and it really made me appreciate just how very much like walking through the movie this place was. 20160821_135226.jpgJackson’s attention to detail and commitment to the book was so intense that during the filming, he was unable to find plum trees in the right size to match a written description of Hobbit children sitting under plum trees, so instead he brought in pear and peach, but stripped them of their fruit and leaves to replace it with plum foliage, each leaf wired on by hand. The scene is only in the extended edition and only visible for about 2 seconds.

20160821_134507Other examples of his eccentric dedication include the frog pond which had such an abundance of loud frogs that staff had to be employed to catch and move the frogs before filming each day because they were too loud to work around and managed to return each night. Finally, the famous oak tree above Bag End. New Zealand does not have oak trees, so the entire tree was built from steel and plaster, with real (although dead) tree branches for the outer boughs to imitate the movement of wood in wind. The leaves were made in Taiwan and shipped in, then stitched or wired onto the tree frame one by one. On the actual day of filming, the leaves had faded and were no longer the right color, so Jackson sent a team up the tree to paint them.

Bag End

When we finally reached that oh so familiar green door and the sign on the gate reminding us that there were to be no visitors except on party business, it was as though a piece of my childhood had stepped from the pages of a book and come to life in front of me.

The gate was closed, and our tour was not there on party business, so we remained just below the entryway, but we could still see through the partially opened door, the hallway decorations of Bilbo’s house. Because Bag End was filmed from both the outside looking in and the inside looking out, the entryway of Bilbo’s house needed to be correctly decorated, unlike the open door we’d been able to stand in for photo ops earlier in the tour. Additionally, while that opening door concealed a small space that only 2-3 people could stand in, the interior of Bag End can hold about 30 people and film equipment. The all-interior shots were filmed in a sound stage, but anything that showed Bilbo or Frodo framed against the open door with the Shire in the background had to be filmed there on site.

The Party Tree

20160821_1402101It was very hard to leave behind the house on the the Hill, but our next stop was the party tree and the green field where Bilbo’s 111th birthday party was held. However magestic the party tree looked from afar, it was even more imposing up close. It wasn’t so big as Tane Mahuta, but it was taller and still an impressive girth. Unlike the oak tree, the party tree is a real and living tree that was one of the main reasons this piece of land was selected to be the Shire. Within the meadow, there were party decorations and Hobbit games for people to try out including a maypole, some stilts, a game of ring-toss and some see-saws. Children and adults alike had fun testing out the various activities and admiring the detail of the design. 20160821_1424021Even the fence, which looked old and overgrown with lichen was artistically aged with plaster and paint, but indistinguishable even after we knew what to look for. Before we left the meadow, we stopped off at Samwise Gamgee’s own yellow round door where you could just imagine Rosy and the children playing in the garden.

Around the Lake

From the party tree, we could see the Inn of the Green Dragon across the lake, but still needed to walk a fair way to come to it around the water. We passed yet more Hobbit holes, which is hardly a surprise because there are 44 total home fronts in the Shire (up from 39 for the Lord of the Rings), crossed a tiny bridge and came to a signpost dividing the path between Hobbiton and the Green Dragon. The path went into the forest as we left the town behind and I suddenly realized why so much of my time in New Zealand had reminded me so strongly of Middle Earth (you know, aside from the fact that nearly everything outdoors was filmed here). The forest path we were on, taking us around the lake, may or may not have been in any of the scenes, but it so clearly belonged there and just as clearly echoed so much of the landscape I’d been tromping through for the last week. 20160821_142646.jpgThere is something familiar yet otherworldly about the unique flora of New Zealand that must only seem familiar to the Kiwis themselves. For the rest of us, it is just different enough from what we are used to that it provides a sense of otherness, of the fantasitcal and created without being so foreign as to seem alien. The main context that I (and probably many of you) have become familiar with these plants unique qualities is in the films themselves, so it is no surprise that more than just the buildings here make me feel like I am walking in the footsteps of Bilbo himself.

The Inn of the Green Dragon

As we emerge from the woods, we come to the stone bridge that leads us past the Mill and into the waiting arms of the Inn. This is possibly the only part of the tour that I have any complaints about and it is only because there is simply too much to do and see in the amount of time we are given here. The exterior is amazing enough, with the same level of detail and attention as every part of the set. There are places to pose, things to climb on, and shadowed alcoves to investigate, but inside is, if anything, even more intense. The indoor scenes of the Green Dragon were not filmed here (like all indoor scenes, they were done on a sound stage far away), but the Inn here at Matamata has been designed to replicate the indoor set in every way with the understandable exception of the small area that serves food and the modern plumbing. Once inside, visitors are greeted with a pint (yes, Pippin, it comes in pints) of locally brewed (for the brave and true) ale but there is much, much more. 20160821_144212.jpgThere are comfy armchairs by the fire, and artwork all over the walls. You can have a taste of Hobbit food if you fancy a light snack (I tried the steak and ale pie, it was yummy), you can try on Hobbit clothes, wield Gandalf’s staff, and explore room after room reading the local Hobbit bulletin board, peeking at the range of knickknacks on shelves, visiting the Inn’s cat (not in the movies, but, you know, cats), or just admiring the large wooden carving that gives the Inn it’s namesake. I tried my best to multi-task, to take it all in, but I felt like I’d only begun to scratch the surface when Sam gathered us up to continue our trek.

Farewell Shire

Walking past the pavilion (used for the Hobbit feast if you’re up for the price tag, and for private events like weddings and birthdays), we continued around the lake back toward the path we had entered from. The weather that afternoon was a brilliant blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds that reflected so perfectly on the face of the still water along with the Mill, the trees and the few water front Hobbit holes. Although these photos aren’t movie accurate, they were still some of my favorite images of the day.

Our bus back may well have been a magic box that transported us from Middle Earth back to the land of car parks and gift shops. The gift shop itself is nothing special. About the only unique thing there is the beer and wine brewed for the movies and now for the tourists. There is a better selection of LOTR merch online, but that’s ok, this isn’t about the gift shop. Just expect that your souvenirs of Hobbiton will be your photos and your memories.

Despite it’s potential for crass commercialization, I enjoy movie magic. I’ve been to Universal Studios (still have to do the Harry Potter exhibit, but..) Hobbiton is different. It isn’t the costumes, actors or creatures that make Middle Earth come to life here, it’s the land itself. The majesty of the Party Tree, the sweeping vista visible from the front of Bag End that, as you stand there makes you feel that it is indeed a dangerous business, going out that front door, stepping onto that road because there really is no telling where it will take you…but you’re sure it will be one heck of a ride20160821_145225

I have so many wonderful photos and memories of this day. I sincerely hope you’ll take a moment to go and see the full album on Facebook. If you’re a Hobbit fan, it’s worth it. May the hair on your toes never fall out!

Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 2)

Part 1 ended in the middle of the performance, just after some lovely songs and dances. The second half of the story continues with insight into Maori tattoos, weapons, gender roles, and economic preservation in the form of a glowworm hike.

Tattoos / Moko

In between the musical performances, the chief spent some time explaining the traditional tattoos. In older times, Māori-Tattoo-Art-770x957.jpgthe tattoos were done by cutting deep grooves in the skin and filling the wound with ink over and over so that it created a combination of ink and scar tissue for the design. Although the cheif joked that now they have a tattoo gun, he still pointed out that rarely do Maori get facial tattoos these days, and that the performers were all wearing make-up. Bear in mind the Maori tattoos may be the closest thing to a written language they developed and are just about as complex as any other ideographic language, so I’m only going to get the tip of the iceberg here.

The Moko (Maori style tattoo) was a way of denoting a person’s rank, lineage, and achievements in life. No two people would ever have the exact same moko. The face alone is divided many times to show parents, rank, marriage, and other important representation of identity. The legs carried symbols of strength and speed for running through the bush, arms or shoulders may tell stories of loved ones or life experiences, and it seems the buttock tattoo was mainly sensual. The Mitai chief spoke to us mostly of their facial tattoos and of the four birds that the tattoos represented. This has been driving me a little bonkers, because I can’t find any reference anywhere to these birds in Maori moko except in other blogs about the Mitai Maori Village. I don’t think they made it up, but it does demonstrate how unique and regional the moko and their myths are not only to each of the seven main tribes, but to each family. So, what they told us, as far as I can tell, is true for their family, but not necessarily anyone else’s. Each moko is entirely unique, combining common symbols and ideas to weave a story of a person’s past and current life.

t1The basic legend: Mataora was a great chief who fell in love with and married a spirit from the underworld (Rarohenga) named Niwareka. One day Mataora struck her in a rage and she fled back to her father’s home in the underworld. Mataora felt remorse for his actions and decended to Rarohenga to find her. There he met her father instead who laughed at his painted face, wiping away the designs drawn there to show how useless they were. Mataora saw the permanent ta moka on his father-in-law’s face and asked him to mark his own face the same way. The pain was such that Mataora fell ill and his suffering softened Niwareka’s heart, so that when he recovered she agreed to return with him, and he promised never to hit her again as long as the markings on his face did not fade (so never). His father in law then granted him the knowledge of te moko and the Maori people have used it ever since.

The Mitai Version: This version is very similar, but when Mataora asks to have the ta moko, his father-in-law scoops up the four birds and uses them and their gifts to adorn / punish his son-in-law. 1614493167001_2285182574001_video-still-for-video-2210296148001.jpgThese four birds are the bat (go with it), the parrot, the owl and the kiwi. The bat represents knowledge. The head of the bat rests in the center of the foread and the wings spread out to either side. The parrot is situated along the nose, particularly the beak on either sideof the nose. The parrot is a talkative bird and this represents oratory skills and is very important in an oral culture. The owl sits on the chin (the only facial tattoo typically available to women) and represents protection. Finally the kiwi, envision it’s long beak open, rests on the lower cheeks, meeting the chin moko in a fluid design. The kiwi represents stewardship of the earth.

Like I said, I cannot find any corroborating reports of the Mitai story that are not self-referential, so take it for what it’s worth and know that these four birds are probably not the symbols found on other tribes’ and families’ facial moko. I can tell you that everyone agrees the face is divided into 8 main regions and the ones the Mitai described are 4 of those 8. However, the facial regions all represent things like lineage, rank, job, responsibilities, marital status and prestige, so it’s hard to say why the Mitai describe these four birds as being so central to their moko.

Them’s Fightin’ Words

The next main topic of the presentation were traditional Maori weapons. These are mostly long weapons, a fighting staff, a pointed fighting staff and an axe-like fighting staff, along with the spear. The main difference is that spears are thrown but staffs are held and used for beating, stabbing, or blocking. The men came down and gave us short demonstrations of the techniques for each weapon. 339_mere-pounamu_medThe only real hand to hand weapon is the club, or patu. The patu can be made from wood, bone or stone and resembles a paddle being narrow at the edges although not sharp enough to be a true bladed weapon. In addition to being carried to war like the long weapons, the patu were also used by women who remained at the village when the men were away hunting or fighting so that they could defend themselves against any hostile raiders. Women were expected to be skilled enough with the patu to kill their attackers. The chief pointed out that due to the shape of the patu, if one hit the skull of an enemy with the edge and twisted, it would pop the top of the head right off, handily combining village defense and dinner. Yes, the Maori used to be cannibals, too, but don’t worry, he told us “now we have McDonald’s”.

Following the introduction of the weapons, there was a short demonstration of fighter training activities that included an obstacle course of sticks that was meant to imitate the protruding roots of trees in the bush so warriors could practice running without tripping, then a sparring match between two young men using the fighting staffs. I do believe it was actually sparring and not a choreographed fight.

May I Have This Dance?

After the sparring, came one final dance of the men and women together, a cute little song expressing the women’s appreciation of the men. In the video I managed to take, the cheif actually translates their words, including “look at this handsome man, he’s so handsome he is almost ugly, but he has stolen my heart, so let’s dance”.

Finally, the warriors came together to perform the haka or war dance. This was a ritual designed to build courage and confidence and get the fighters riled up before a battle. The haka involves the same kind of intimidating face our potential chiefs had to make earlier that night, opeing the eyes as wide as possible and sticking out the tounge. There is lots of foot stomping and thigh and chest slapping, as well as a variety of lyrics that are fairly similar to modern day sports chants in other languages on a general theme of “we are awesome and you will die”. Nowadays, there are no battles, but the Maori use the haka before sports matches to psych themselves up and intimidate the other team.

We applauded our hosts, but I couldn’t keep myself from more mixed feelings as we went back into the dining hall to eat. The songs and dances were stylized and modernized and the chief had used any number of references to modern Western culture to crack jokes. I’m still torn between my fascination, my happiness that they have some way of sharing their culture and history and my total devastation that most of the visitors in that room were treating that culture and history like a theme park or a dinner theater. I’m not trying to sound like an elitist, I just want visitors to have enough interest and respect that sharing sacred land and legends doesn’t have to seem like vaudeville.


Dinner was simple, chicken, lamb, potatoes, kumara (sweet potatoes), stuffing, some kind of seafood chowder, garlic bread and lasagna. The meat, potatoes and kumara were all cooked in the traditional method in the ground as we had seen earlier, but the other food made no pretense at all at being anything other than imported tastes. Dessert gave me a chance to try, if not Maori dishes, at least some traditional Kiwi dishes including steamed pudding and pavlova. Pudding in this sense is like the British word that equates to the American term “dessert” and in this case was a gingerbread style cake that had been steamed rather than baked and was served with a warm custard. pavlova_2949_16x9Pavlova was a dessert that by it’s name made me assume it was from some Slavic country, but the natives at my table told me firmly it was invented in New Zealand, no matter what lies the Australians are spreading. The pavlova is named after a Russian ballerina, which explains why I thought it seemed linguistically Slavic. It’s like a merenge but more complicated, having a crispy exterior and fluffy interior. It’s also supposed to be very tricky to make and prone to collapse if it’s cooled too quickly. It’s traditionally served with whipped cream and fresh fruit. I found it unique and delightful.

Groups were put together at long tables during dinner. I found myself seated next to several different folks, some native Kiwis, one student from Norway and one lady from the UK. We exchanged some stories about where we’d been and what we’d done and I settled into seriously picking the brains of the two locals which is how I came to learn about the water laws in New Zealand, some of the history of the Maori treaties, the origin of the pavlova and other interesting local tidbits.

As the meal wound down, our guide came back to give us a chance to ask questions, anything we wanted. The first time I read Harry Potter and Hermione raised her hand, I knew right away she was like me. I am an incessant class participant. In my later years I did learn to share the classroom stage with others, but it was an uphill battle. So when it became clear no one was asking, I raised my hand to break the ice. One other person did ask a question after mine, but as the silence drew out, I couldn’t help but ask again and again, until it started becoming obvious no one else was really into it.


450px-IwiMap.pngHow are the tribes delineated and what are the differences between them?

I already described the first part, the seven waka that came from Polynesia became the seven main tribes, but our guide went on to elaborate about some of the linguistic differences between the tribes. The “wh” that I had so recently learned was pronounced  “f”? It turns out some tribes pronounce it “w” or “h” instead of “f”. Additionally, the “ng” sound can be pronounce as a “k” or “n” in certain tribes. I later found this handy map that shows the tribes by geography.

What are the gender roles in Maori culture, historically?

1474328365_large.jpgI had noticed during some of the talks that there were some unfamiliar gender roles being described. For example, the chief had to be male, and it was possible for a man to take more than one wife, but women were the landholders. Pre-colonial Maori gender roles appear to have been definitive, but not derisive. That is to say, women had very clear roles and responsibilities, but they were not thought of as lesser than men’s roles, nor were women seen as belonging to men. A woman did not take her husband’s name nor relinquish her membership to her own family or tribe at marriage. Women were seen as the progenitors of life, responsible for childrearing and the home. The main difference is that these roles were not seen as lesser to men’s roles.

The Maori believed in balance and had a very holistic view, meaning that all parts were essential to the health of the whole. War was the purview of men. Women did not go to war, not because they were incapable but because their role in the balance was peace. Women did learn weapons (mainly the patu), but only to defend the village. Women also carried out song, dance and storytelling except for the war dance, making them the main guardians of history. The house itself is seen as a woman, the peak of the roof being the spine, and the four corners the arms and legs, while the doorway represented the womb.

The women also all work together to raise all children and the Maori relied heavily on the village or family collective model until they were forced into a nuclear family model by the British. The guide tried to describe Maori culture as matriarchal, but I think he may have used the word incorrectly out of a desire to contrast Maori to the western patriarchal cultures. What I have read since indicates that the culture may have been a little weighted towards men, but it was one of the more egalitarian societies I’ve read about. Of course, that was before the Christian missionaries showed up and started treating the Maori women as inferior. If you want to read more about that history, check out this site.

If the moko (tattoos) on the faces are no longer done, what about the tattoos on other places such as arms?

traditional-tattoo-ta-moko.jpgThe two main reasons modern Maori no longer wear traditional facial tattoos are the painful physical process and the social stigma. As I described earlier, the moko isn’t done with a needle, but by carving grooves into the skin and coloring the wound. This process is both painful and dangerous, and although could be replaced with a tattoo gun, there remains the second issue. Even as the moko mark them like each other, they also mark the Maori as separate and other from the British colonials. Due to years of colonial mistreatment and outdated ideas of “savages” that boil down to little more than racism, the presence of Maori tribal tattoos can still be cause for discrimination in modern day New Zealand.

Many societies consider facial tattoos especially to be unprofessional at best or representative of criminal behavior at worst. Because of this the Maori stopped the practice of facial tattooing in younger generations, but continued to use traditional symbols and art to make personal moko they could wear elsewhere on the body, trying to adapt their history to the demands of a western society. Unfortunately, there are still people in NZ who will discriminate on the basis of these moko, and not because they don’t want to hire people with tattoos. They will hire whites with tattoos of knives or skulls or whatever on their arms, but will not hire Maori with their traditional tribal art in the same place.

How do you (directed to my guide and his family) feel about cultural appropriation?

Because someone in the audience had just gotten a new tattoo in Maori style, I waited until after the groups broke up to ask this one. There is some difficult talk in the US about people using Native art and dress for sports, fashion or advertising. There’s no doubt that the stereotypes are less prevalent than they were, but since “Sexy Indian” is still a Halloween costume, it’s clearly not over yet. One of the things that happens is non-native people getting tattoos of Native symbols without really understanding what they’re doing simply because it’s cool or trendy or pretty. But since arriving in NZ, I’d seen several adverts for tattoo shops that specialize in Maori styles and I wasn’t sure if this was for everyone, or just to serve the Maori themselves.

Kirituhi Tribal Tattoo 04.jpgMy guide said that he generally felt fine with other people getting Maori tattoos or wearing their art or jewelry as long as it was respected. These Maori tattoo artists won’t just put any old design you want on your skin, they will listen to your story and make something unique to you using the traditional Maori symbols and styles. So, while I suppose it is possible to print something off the internet and go to a non-Maori tattoo artist to replicate it, that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on in NZ and so it’s far less an issue of misappropriation and more a way of sharing and honoring. Later research revealed that the name for Maori style tattoos for non-Maori (Pakeha) is kirituhi and so most Maori don’t even see the kirituhi as being the same as the moko (even if it appears similar in design) because it lacks the spiritual and familial connections of a true ta moko.

Although the Maori have survived colonialism far more intact and with greater rights than nearly anyone else the British invaded, it is obvious that colonialism has done some damage in terms of women’s roles, the family collective, and the lingering prejudice for non-conformity. Many Maori around NZ struggle to fit in or get by, often suffering from the issues that plague many colonized peoples such as alcoholism, abuse, and crime that stem from living a purgatorial existence, neither able to fully embrace their own culture nor fully integrate into the dominant culture around them. At least these families in Rotorua are doing their best to revitalize the old ways and spread awareness and acceptance of the Maori to Kiwis and foreign visitors alike.

A Walk in the Bush

After dinner and the q&a were all finished, we were invited back into the bush for another walk to go and see the glow worms that lived in the area. To limit the light, they only gave a small flashlight to every other person, asking us to stay in pairs. At this point, I noticed several people actually complaining about having to go back into the woods, it was too cold or too dark. I couldn’t help wondering why they’d come if they felt that way.

47-mitai-maori-villageBefore beginning the glowworm hunt, we passed by an outdoor village replica so that we could get a better look at the housing construction and village arrangement. This picture is in daylight, but when I was there it was night. It was a little hard to see in the dark, but the guide gave a good description of the house (as a body) and of the general village construction on a hillside that allowed for greater protection. Before we moved on, he reminded everyone not to shine the lights on the glowworms and also, to cup the lights in our hands and point them only at the ground, so we could see where we were walking without obstructing the night view. I think about 5% of the group listened to this, because most people were busily shining their lights all over the woods.

I abandoned my “partner” with the light and dropped back to the rear of the group where I was able to find some glowworms. I pointed them out to a Japanese tourist and her daughter, but it took me a few minutes to get across to her that she had to turn her light off to see them. She did seem appreciative once she figured it out and got a good view of the little fairy lights under the bush, but quickly moved up to rejoin the main group. A couple of early 20s Americans were also interested so I got to help them find a few more clusters of glowworms and answer some questions about the little bugs. I have decent night vision, so I wasn’t worried about treading a well beaten path without my light (plus I had a phone if I really needed it) and I managed to find several more patches of twinkling insects while I caught up to the group who had arrived at Fairy Springs.


Patupaiarehe is the Maori name that is translated into English as “fairy”. patupaiarehe_by_typthis-d7qb21wThey were a tribe of supernatural beings that lived deep in the forest, ate their food raw and shunned the light. They were described as having pale skin and red hair, and it is thought that the red-haired Maori are descendants of a union between Patupaiarehe and Maori women. The gloworms are sometimes said to be they eyes of the Patupaiarehe, since they can be seen only in the dark places. They were not spread evenly around New Zealand, but seem to be concentrated in certain areas including Rotorua where they are rumored to have come down from the mountains to drink from the pure waters of this spring. The spring puts out more than 24 million litres of water each day. The dark spots in the photos at the bottom of the pool are not rocks, it is the constant billowing of the seditment as it is churned by ever arising spring water from the bottom.

While the floodlight was on, showing off the clarity of the spring, 20160820_203045we saw one of the native fish swimming around, but after the light was turned off and people started moving on, the freshwater eel resident of the spring came out. The second guide who was bringing up the rear tried to turn the light back on so I could see it better, but the light sadly drove it back into the rocks. However, having realized that I was more interested in the land than the majority of the tourists who were rushing ahead to get back to the halls, he stayed a little behind with me and started pointing out various interesting things around the bush.

He tried to find some of the river fish for me, but they were all hiding, and we talked a bit about the uniqueness of NZ flora and fauna. 620454-292773-14.jpgHe told me about a kind of mud-skipper fish they have, and about some of the extinct land birds. He left his flashlight off and we found many more glowworms. I tried to show some of the other tourists on the walk, but they were too busy chatting to stop and look. The Mitai tribe has been watering their forest areas in order to boost the glow worm population. They aren’t seen above ground in great numbers because the atmosphere is often too dry, but a hydration program was having a profound effect on the local population and I saw probably hundreds throughout the walk all along the rock-sides sheltered by roots and leaves.


I’m glad I went to the village. I learned a lot and it opened the door for me to learn even more about who and what the Maori people are and what the land of Aotearoa is all about. Nonetheless, when I returned to my room that night, my feelings were all over the map. Too many times I saw someone be impatient, ignore what was being offered, or flat up say out loud that they weren’t interested. There was too much focus on diner and boozing (because there was a bar in the dining hall) and too much modern western humor added to the performance to placate the guests.

Our hosts told us that the spirit of a person mingles with the spirit of the land through their feet, and by setting foot on the Mitai ancestral land, we mingled our spirits with it. They performed the hongi with our elected chief, making us more than visitors. They shared food, history and hospitality that was deeply meaningful, and yet so many treated it like nothing more than entertainment. It left me feeling profoundly saddened.

The Maori culture is no longer practiced day to day the way it once was and these villages are a way not only for us to see into the past, but for the modern Maori to reconnect with their ancestors and the spiritual values that shaped them before the influx of Christian missionaries. It is beautiful and interesting and fun, but it is not a theme park. If you visit them, remember their space is sacred, like a temple or church, and treat it accordingly. Enjoy their intimacy and openness, their delicious food and beautiful singing. Take delight in their wilderness, their spring and it’s wildlife. But most importantly, take a moment away from your regular life to reflect on what makes this place tapu, special and scared, and let the spirit of the land touch you through your feet before you wander on.


Ten Days in NZ: Mitai Maori (part 1)

Ever wonder about the aboriginal people of New Zealand? I had the opportunity to visit a Maori village in Aotearoa and it inspired me to learn a lot more about them. Not everything I have written about the Maori was something I learned in New Zealand. I did a lot of follow up research after I got home to help me understand what I had seen and to put the experiences into a greater context. For the purpose of this blog, I will be mixing the information I found afterward with the descriptions of the experiences to help make the connections clearer.

Feelings & History

When I found myself suddenly spending an extra night in Rotorua, the girls at the reception desk of my hostel recommended the Maori villages as a good activity. This was something I had some strong yet mixed feelings about while I was researching the trip. A lot of websites put one or another village in the top 10 experiences of New Zealand, to the point where it felt like an integral part of the national experience. The issue for me, however, was a leftover white guilt for the way that First People are treated in the US, now and historically. As I write this, tribes are coming together for one of the biggest united protests in our shared history in order to draw attention to a planned oil pipeline that is questionably off their land but would have serious impact on their water. (#NODAPL) Native American reservations already have some of the worst land and water in the continent and are rarely heard when they try to talk about the pollution, the violence against them that still pervades, the lack of access to healthcare or the justice system (only federal courts can hear their cases). Nevermind all the insane horrific murder, rape and mistreatment they suffered for centuries at the hands of European colonialists.

Then, there’s the fact that as a child, I traveled around the American west. It’s not a frontier anymore, but people like to pretend, like to see a show or visit a replica old west frontier town. I went to these and a lot of them are about cowboys and famous historical figures like Wild Bill or Calamity Jane, or Annie Oakley where you can see replicas of the shootout at the OK corral or a modern version of the Wild Bill show. That’s ok, I guess, not that different from going through replicas of colonial villages in New England, it’s a glorified version of history. But I also went to shows about the “Indians”. I watched an outdoor play one night, I don’t remember the story, but I know there were white characters and Native characters, and I remember being riveted. I got a rabbit skin from the souvenir shop and had the whole cast sign it for me… I don’t think I was more than 10 years old.

indian_gamingYou can’t go anywhere in the US without being on some tribe’s ancestral land, though. I learned about the tribes as we moved around the country. I learned their words in each new place because white settlers used the names the Natives gave to things long after the people were relegated to reservations, forced to wear western clothes, speak English and go to church. And in the few places where they are reclaiming their place, they are still only known for 2 things: casinos and tourist attractions. Casinos because crazy sovereign land rights make gambling legal on reservations. These buildings are decked out in the tackiest stereotypes of Native imagery with wooden carved Indians in giant feather headdresses adorning the entryways and sacred patterns hanging on the walls, using the images of their culture to draw in suckers. Only slightly less crass are the informational tourism spots where descendants of colonialists can come and see an authentic teepee or wigwam or rain dance. Sometimes they even sell sweat lodge experiences. And as much as I want to learn about the people and the culture, because that is maybe my greatest passion in this life, it feels cheap and tawdry whenever I see these displays outside of museums. This is not to say they shouldn’t live their own culture, but there is a difference between living your lifestyle and putting on a show.

Why I decided to go anyway

With all of this heavy history in my head and my heart, it was not an easy decision to visit a Maori village, to cross onto someone’s sacred ancestral land and be… “infotained”. Several factors helped to bring me around.

One, I really like to learn. It’s hard to separate me from an opportunity for knowledge, even if it is uncomfortable.

Two, it turns out the Maori are not “native” to New Zealand. It is believed that the Moriori were actually there when the Maori arrived from Polynesia and were gradually driven South and out (by the Maori) until they finally died off in the 1930s. Unlike the Native Americans who are believed to have travelled to the continent about 10-12000 years ago when there was a land-bridge from Russia to Alaska, the Maori are believed to have arrived in New Zealand only 1000 years ago. I don’t think it gives them less claim to the land, but it does mean that they have more in common with the European colonists than the Native American tribes.

Three, the Maori have not been nearly so hard done by as I had feared. This is not to say they did not suffer at the hands of the British colonists or that new European diseases did not ravage their population, but overall, there was nothing quite like the Trail of Tears or the massive amount of betrayal and backstabbing that went on during the colonization and westward expansion in the US. Captain Cook didn’t even land on Aotearoa until 1769, and for nearly the next hundred years, New Zealand was sparsly colonized, new British arrivals consisting mainly of whalers, seal hunters and missionaries eager to convert the trouserless heathens. Possibly the most damage done to the Maori during this time was the introduction of the gun to their intertribal warfare so that they could kill each other more efficiently.

Fun Facts:

maori-fishing-up-the-landMaori Colonization: The explorer Kupe took a really big boat and ventured across the ocean, leaving his home in search of new land. It’s believed that colonization of NZ from Polynesia was deliberate and slow after this. It took several hundred years of ocean faring boats going back and forth bringing more and more Maori. In fact, the seven main tribes now identify by which boat (waka) their ancestors arrived on. For those who have been wondering about why I keep using other names to refer to NZ, Kupe named the land Aotearoa which roughly translates to “land of the long white cloud”. There are a few legends on why, but no consensus. The seven waka hourua (ocean going boats) and later the seven tribes, are called Tainui, Te Arawa, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru, Aotea and Takitimu.

23054085.jpgThe Treaty of Waitangi was basically an agreement the Maori signed with the British crown stating that New Zealand was under British sovereignty, but that the Chiefs and tribes would keep their own land (selling only to British settlers, no filthy French or Dutch here, please), and that the Maori would have the same rights as British citizens. Of course they’ve been arguing over the terms and ignoring the details since it was signed in 1840, land was stolen anyway and wars broke out, but it was a big deal that the warring tribes came together to deal with the colonists (which did not happen in America) and that they never completely lost the power to leverage this document (also unlike every treaty the US government ever made with Native tribes). I actually passed by the treaty grounds when I was in Piahia, although at the time, I didn’t understand the true historical significance, as I had only US/Tribal treaties as a reference point.

12061-2Modern Maori: Are there arguments about land rights, water rights, fishing and hunting rights… and every other aspect of sovereignty? Of course, but it’s much more like an argument between people of (nearly) equal footing than in the US where we’re still ignoring the fact that our reservations don’t have safe drinking water or can’t fish their own streams/ coastlines for a food source. I found lots of news articles about the modern issues between the Maori and the State and the general tone is much more like dealing with a neighboring country or even another political party than anything else. Nowadays Maori language is taught in schools and there are a guaranteed number of Maori seats in parliament based on the numbers of Maori who are enrolled to vote. Meanwhile, Native Americans are struggling to regain their languages from the time the colonists forbade their use, tribes like the Haida in Alaska no longer have any members who can speak the old tongue and the last recordings of their language were made almost 100 years ago. And while there are people of Native descent in congress, they must run as representatives for their state, not for their Tribes.

Of course the Maori need to keep working to preserve their heritage and the colonial injustices are bad. I don’t want to say their issues are somehow less because other people have it worse. But, it did go a long way toward helping me see that these Maori villages that were offering shows and dinner to visitors were not being exploited or financially trapped into feeling like turning their culture into a show was the only way to earn a living. Rather that they were more like our Native Hawaiian population than our mainland Natives and, so far, I don’t feel guilty about luaus.

I met many Maori in New Zealand. I was surprised, actually at how not white the country is. It’s still about 70% European descent, but the census reckons about 15% of the population is Maori and the remaining 15% a mix of various Asian and non-Maori South Pacific. (In the US, only 2% are Native, and more than half of that greatly mixed.) I gave a ride to a Maori farmer who’s car had broken down and he talked about wanting to do something with his farm to bring in tourists like offering horseback riding tours and lessons. He told me how they used to use Maori language as a secret code when they were kids. Once I learned to recognize the features and not just the tattoos, I saw Maori integrated into every part of New Zealand, often displaying traditional jewelry or smaller tribal tattoos in more discreet places, keeping their culture close, but not ostentatious.

Visiting the Mitai

p-e6223960-c944-2800-c81f093ea594b12b-3747524Armed with a better understanding of the history and a strong desire to learn more, I booked myself a table at the Mitai Maori Village for that evening. The Rotoua area tribes (iwi) are said to all be part of the Te Arawa iwi from the original seven. There are at least 4 villages offering tours, shows, and dinners around Rotorua. I didn’t really do a lot of research into each one because initially I had not planned to go at all. When I did decide to go, I went with the Mitai Village because the hostel I was at was able to get a substantial discount from their regular price. Sometimes we make decisions for very practical reasons.

During my visit to the Mitai ancestral land, two main things happened to me: I learned a lot about Maori which was awesome, and I watched a whole bunch of obviously materialistic tourists treat the whole thing with the respect and solemnity you might expect from a Medieval Times Restaurant, that is to say, none, which was sad.

You’re Saying It Wrong

Now that I’m about 2000 words in, let me start from the beginning. The first thing I learned was that I’ve been pronouncing the word “Maori” wrong my whole life. I don’t know if it was from some well meaning documentary or just some assumptions about the transliteration, but I always said may-oh-ri, with three distinct sylables. I was wrong. It’s a two syllable word that sounds more like maw-ri  or mow-ri, the vowel sound is actually about half way between ma and mo and not common in English sounds. It was more like the Korean vowel ㅓ, and the r is more of a flap than a glide with the tip of the tounge tapping the roof of the mouth gently. I had already learned about the strange wh=f issue and now I encountered my first major dipthong (“ao”). I have no idea who Anglisized their language. The Maori had no written language and all of their words are now written using the English/Roman alphabet that is clearly unsuited for the sounds they make, so much so that I didn’t always realize words I heard that night were words I’d seen written on signs around New Zealand as I traveled.

sam_2253_01We were greeted at the entrance by a woman in traditional dress and (makeup) tattoo with the Maori greeting “Kia Ora” (key-or-ah) and escorted through to the dining hall for our introductions. Here, our host greeted us again and taught us to say kia ora then proceeded to offer introductions in the native language of every visitor there (although he did have to ask about a few). I thought this was a good idea because it felt like an exchange and not a lecture, and seemed like a good way of engaging the audience and personalizing the experience as much as you can in a group of 50. He told us a little about what to expect for the evening and taught us a few more Maori words, nearly all of which I have subsequently forgotten, but it was fun and as an amateur linguist I really liked having the opportunity to hear and practice the Maori phonology.

The Quick Tour

20160820_171604Next we broke into smaller groups and bundled outside to see some of the village. Our group first visited the boat displayed by the front gate. Our guide explained to us about the word “waka” (boat) and the three most common types of waka for daily use (fishing and transporting goods), for war, and for long ocean journeys. She pointed out to us the way in which this particular waka was made using planks and that was how we could tell it was a replica and not a traditionally made waka. In fact it was the prop from the movie The Piano. I appreciated the fact that they were so upfront about the fact it was a replica, using the movie prop to point out the similarities and differences between the prop and a traditional waka. It felt honest. Film and museum replicas are great for showing off history, but should never be passed off as originals.

After admiring the waka, we headed over to the cooking pit. Here, our hosts had dug a deep pit in the earth which was filled with hot coals. The food was carefully wrapped and lowered on a tray into the pit, then covered with blankets to keep in the heat, cooking what would soon be our dinner. This is one of two historically traditional methods the Maori used for cooking, the other being to use the geothermal heat of the region to steam the food instead of a manmade fire. I understand at least one village in the area still has access to a nearby hot pool they use to prepare dinner for guests with, but the Mitai lived with a vibrant freshwater spring rather than a geothermal one. Our guide told us that although the Maori cooked this way in the past, that mostly what they ate were the native ground birds which are now all extinct or protected and so the only traditional food in the meal would be the sweet potatoes (kumara) and that the rest of the chicken, lamb, potatoes and stuffing were all brought in from the British settlers. I suppose to some, this revelation may have been a disappointment, finding that our Hangi feast was really made of familiar food, but again, I appreciated the honest discussion of history and the unique way that a living culture had adapted to the changing times far more than any fake recreation of an imaginary past. Our guide said a prayer in Maori over our meal, before covering it back up and leading us once more into the dining hall.

Here he went more into details about Maori culture, language and history. He asked us to choose a “chief” from among ourselves to represent us as a visiting tribe. He told us the Maori called foreigners “the tribe of the four winds” or Ngā Hau e Whā, to represent that we come from everywhere. There were more than 21 different countries represented in the audience that night. Women are not allowed to be chiefs or you can be sure I would have raised my hand, but two men both volunteered and the guide decided to have a contest between them. New Zealand_Maori Culture_APT_740_LLR.jpgHe taught them how to make the traditional war face which involves opening one’s eyes as wide as possible, sticking out the tongue toward the chin and doing an aggressive war cry. One of the men took this task quite seriously, doing his best to make an intimidating face and sound as he was shown, buy the other (and younger) was too cool for school and sadly sought audience attention by laughing at the process and doing a poor imitation of the war face, perhaps unwilling to look foolish, but in the end failing. We were asked to vote by applause and the man who went all out won by a landslide, which was nice, because I felt like he would at least take his duties as our chief for the night seriously and not treat it like some kind of opportunity for laughs.

Maori Greetings

The guide then explained that when we went into the meeting hall (performance hall too), their chief would meet our chief. When two families or tribes meet, one puts a small offering on the ground (often a silver fern leaf). If the visiting chief picks it up, it is a sign that they are peaceful and pleasantries, trading, or feasting can commence. If the visiting chief refuses to pick it up, it is a declaration of the intent for war, and fighting promptly ensues. The next thing he showed us was the Maori greeting. We had already learned how to say kia ora (key-oh-ra), which means not only hello, but also goodbye and is a general well wishing like “be well” or “good health to you”. If someone says kia ora to you, it is polite to say it back. Next he taught us the body language that goes with it.

In the west, we shake hands, and in Asia, people bow, but when the Maori meet they touch foreheads and noses at the same time. Called the hongi (not to be confused with hangi, our dinner), it is an intimate greeting that breaks down the barriers of personal space immediately. The touch is done twice. On first touch, you do not breathe. This stillness is for the dead, for those who have come before and gone beyond. On the second touch you breathe, mingling the breath of life (ha) which can also be seen as a co-mingling of spirits. It is a representation of the creation of the first human. Tane (the giant tree who separated his parents to make room for life) created a woman (yeah, first human is a woman here) from the earth and breathed life into her. Once this is done, visitors are considered part of the village for the duration of the visit and share in all rights and duties that the villagers themselves do.

River Raid

With our chief prepared to meet the Mitai chief, we headed out into the bush to watch the warriors paddle their waka down the stream in a recreation of a traditional war party. This waka was made in the traditional manner, unlike the movie set replica at the front gate. Perhaps in the summer, this part of the performance is more visible. I’ve seen some pictures online that look like they are happening in daylight, but during August, the sun was setting around 6pm every night and it was quite dark by the time we were led down to the stream. Nonetheless, the warriors in the waka had torches (fire, not electric) and it was impressive to see them coming down the stream, chanting and going back and forth between paddling and using the oars in a type of dancing display.

Sadly, my cameras are really lousy at low light. Maybe one day I’ll run a go-fund-me for a new one, but somehow every time I come face to face with the choice of spending my money on a new camera or on a new country experience… there is no actual competition. As a result, I have pretty old cameras. I usually am able to share my own photos of the places I’ve seen, but in low light the best I can do is share the photos of people with expensive cameras who went to the same places to give you a better idea of what we saw.

Show Time

20160820_183118After the outdoor display, we headed into the performance hall. It was somewhere during this time that I started getting flashbacks to my childhood wild west/cowboys and Indians shows. The stage was set up to look like a Maori village, and once again, the guide was quite clear that it was a set and not real. The performance started with singing and dancing, then the cheif came out and gave a speech in Maori that of course none of us understood. While all the Maori performers were wearing traditional costumes, it struck me at once how different the cheif’s clothing was, especially the white fur cloak he wore. New Zealand has only one native land mammal, which is the bat, so where did this fur come from? It turns out that the Maori brought dogs, kuri, with them from Polynesia. The dogs were rare and their fur was prized as one of the elite materials for chieftain cloaks (along with fur seal skin), and because white was a common kuri coloring, I expect this was meant to represent a white kuri skin cloak and was quite prestigious indeed.

He presented the peace offering as we were told to expect, and our “cheif’ picked it up accepting the peace. He introduced us (his tribe) and thanked the Mitai chief for hosting us on their land. Then they performed the hongi (touching nose and forhead) and our chief was able to return to his seat. Following the formal introductions, the Mitai chief switched to English and gave a brief introduction of himself and the tribe, reminding us all that the Maori now live in modern houses, wear regular clothes and enjoy using facebook, and that all of that night’s show was a way of demonstrating their history and traditions that are no longer practiced except for purposes of historical preservation or special significance. He was easygoing and had a good sense of humor that kept the audience engaged, but it was still sad to me to see the fact that their history was being almost Disneyfied for our consumption.

The Action Song

The performance is known as waiata a ringa, or action song. In the early 1900s, there was a movement to revive traditional Maori music that added dancing and the guitar to the traditional singing, and eventually developed into a standard performance used all over Rotorua today that includes a sung entrance, poi, haka (“war dance”), stick game, hymn, ancient song and/or action song, and sung exit. Our performers (kapa haka) did not do it in exactly that order, but really close, and nowadays the action song is used in competitions between iwi (tribes) around New Zealand; it’s not just a tourist attraction.

337207941_48fcda1c62_zAfter the sung entrance and the chief’s introductions, they introduced traditional Maori instruments of which there are two main kinds: melodic and percussive. Melodic instruments (rangi) include flutes made from wood or bone, gourd instruments that are blown into or filled with seeds and shaken, and trumpet instruments made from shells. These are considered the domain of the Sky Father but each group and specific instrument has it’s own god/goddess or spirit associated with it. Percussive instruments (drums, sticks, poi -the white flaxen balls on strings, and a type of disc on a cord) are considered the heartbeat of the Earth Mother.

They showed us how some of the percussive instruments like the poi and the sticks had started out as training activities to strengthen the warriors, but had quickly been adapted as games and dances by the women. The poi were used in dances, but also to imitate sounds the Maori people heard around them, including the more modern sounds of the imported English horses and the railway. The short sticks were used in group dances combining rhythm and agility as the men and women tossed the sticks around the circle while singing and beating out the time (the stick game).


They also performed some beautiful songs that included the hymn and the ancient song as well as some lighter-hearted love songs. One of the cuter love songs included the lyrics, “hey pretty lady, your boyfriend he’s no good, so come with me instead”. The hymns were not translated for us, so I’m not sure exactly which gods they were honoring, but at least one of the ancient songs was a sort of Maori “Romeo and Juliet” about a pair of star crossed lovers named Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. They lived in villages in Rotorua, across the lake from one another, and their families forbade their marriage. Unlike Shakespeare’s famous couple, however, Hinemoa and Tutanekai had a happily ever after, because after his family had taken Tutanekai’s waka to stop him, Hinemoa swam across the lake to reach him instead.

The performance is far from over, but this post is reaching my self imposed limit for avoiding TLDR syndrome. I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned so far. I’m not posting an album on Facebook for this experience because my photos are too dark, but you can find my YouTube Channel if you want to see more videos of this and other travels. Part 2 is coming soon!


Ten Days in NZ: 3 Hot Springs at Rotorua

Here in Korea, the cold weather is starting to seep into my bones as the days grow shorter and the need to apply extra layers of clothing grows more intense. Looking back on my summer (or first winter) in Aotearoa, I yearn for the beautiful and soothing natural hot springs I found in Rotorua. 

I have a deep abiding love of hot springs. Not just spas and indoor hot baths, but the wild and natural heated water that springs from the geothermal centers of the earth to bathe us in the mineral rich (slightly sulfur smelling) warmth. I love spas too, goodness knows that I will treasure my Riyadh spa treatment for many cold winter nights to come, but this holiday wasn’t about pampering, it was about wilderness. Whether you believe in the healing properties of these waters or not, it’s still fantastic to spend a day soaking in hot water surrounded by natural beauty instead of tile and grout.

Finding a good natural spot, however, can be a real challenge. When I started looking around my US home of Seattle (also rich in hot spring activity) what I found was that nearly everything was either on private land, had been developed into a spa, or required a massive hike to get to. The shortest hike we found was still 11km from the car park and the campsite nearby had no drinking water and did not allow any fires. If we wanted to stay the night, we would have to haul in all our gear, our water, and our cold food. The most “natural” resort I found was a 5 hour drive away in the next state, required a 2 night minimum booking and cost hundreds of dollars.

However, due to NZ’s water laws, it’s much harder for private owners and companies to monopolize all the accessible springs and rivers. Rotorua is one of NZ’s main geothermally active locations and has bountiful natural hot springs. Some of these have been diverted/converted into lux spas where the water is filtered and even chlorinated and the environment is suitably sterile. I hear they’re nice. I didn’t go. Instead, I sought out three natural and free locations that I’d learned about online during my pre-trip research: Kerosene Creek, Hot and Cold, and Waterfall Spout Bath.

A note on wild hot spring safety:

 20160819_144111There are signs at every natural hot spring that basically warn you of 2 things:getting burned and getting sick. Because these are natural springs, the temperatures are not regulated, and water that is hot enough to burn you sometimes rises up from the ground in the river and pool beds. You can be sitting in lovely water and suddenly a hotter current will come by. You can take a step to the left and land on a patch of mud that is scalding hot. However, these are not insurmountable problems if you exercise a little caution and common sense. Don’t dig down into the mud/sand at the bottom. It’s hotter below the surface. Feel before you put your weight down, test the bottom gently with a hand or toe before you put your weight down so you can move away quickly if it’s too hot. If you’re really worried about it, you can always wear water shoes. The other thing to bear in mind is that hot water breeds microbes. In the case of the Rotorua springs, there is a small concern of amoebic meningitis. That sounds scary, but it can’t infect you through your skin, only if it gets up your nose, so just keep your head out of the water and you’re in the clear. If all this sounds like too much work, that’s why the spas exist.

Finally, it’s worth noting that NZ is having some issues with campers and tourists visiting these places being targeted for car theft. I received many differing accounts of the severity, but everyone agrees it is something to consider. Campers are known to be carrying all their belongings in the vehicle so they make great targets for theft. If you can leave your stuff in a hotel, hostel, bus station locker, etc. that’s probably the best solution. Otherwise do your best to make it look like the vehicle is empty and carry your most valuables (passports, money, jewelry, etc) down to the creek with you and lock them to a tree (preferably one you can see from the water). Honestly, if you’re roughing it and don’t have a hotel/hostel to leave valuables in, you should own one of those lockable, cut resistant backpacks for your valuables anyway. It’s sad that these places are becoming targets for theft, but it’s an easily avoidable problem and there are no reports of personal injury or violence whatsoever, so please don’t let it deter you from the experience.

Kerosene Creek

Kerosene Creek is easily the most famous of these three sites. I understand that during tourist season it can get somewhat crowded, and even in August when I was there, I saw about a dozen other people. It’s far from what I would call “comercialized”, but be prepared to share.

Kerosene Creek is also searchable on Google Maps, so if you have GPS this is the easiest one to find. As you drive south of Rotorua toward Wai-O-Tapu there is a little road called Old Waiotapu Road. It is gravel and filled with potholes. I drove very slowly down the 2 km it takes to get there. I also passed Lake Rotowhero (pictured here) which is another hot swimming spot that I didn’t know at the time if it was safe to go into due to the complete lack of signs or other indications of occupation. I have since learned the lake is debatably swimmable due to a potentially skin damaging pH balance and a tendency for the temperature to get to burning hot levels quite quickly once away from the shoreline. But it’s a beautiful lake with the plumes of steam rising up into the air, so it’s worth pulling over for a looksee on your way to Kerosene Creek.

The carpark is clearly marked with signage, and there’s even a toilet facility (hole in the ground style, not flushing) that doubles as a changing room if you arrive here without your swim gear on. The path down to the swimming hole is not long. It took me about 5 minutes of walking along the creek (which is also warm) to find the main area. 20160819_122343.jpgThere’s a beautiful and fairly large waterfall there and a pool that’s deep enough to sit in and have the water come up to a comfortable chest level. This spot is the spot, but if it’s too crowded, bear in mind that the whole river is warm and the path does keep going, so you could keep wandering to find a smaller more private area. There were some people leaving as I arrived, and two other campers came at the same time I did. At one point I think there were maybe 6 people in the pool, and another half dozen or so came by to look at the waterfall but did not want to get in. I also went on a Friday, a weekday, so it is almost assuredly more crowded on a weekend when families can come down from Rotorua for the day.

The entrance to the pool is a steep set of rocks that I actually had to sit down on to reach the one below. There is no stairwell or gentle descent into this particular pool, although there are many shallower areas along the creek. The water was actually not as hot as I had expected based on my experience at Hot Water Beach and all the warning signs. I didn’t have a thermometer but I’d say it was close to body temperature, maybe even a little below. Of course it felt wonderful in contrast to the crisp 16C air. The bottom of the pool was mostly small rocks and was safe to walk on barefoot, but not soft. I quickly discovered that getting closer to the base of the falls made me feel like I was getting a gentle massage just like a jacuzzi jet. There’s not much to tell about soaking in a hot pool for a couple of hours. I chatted with the other bathers and just relaxed, taking in the feelings, the waterfall air and sounds, and the beauty of the sunlight through the trees around us.

Eventually, the water stopped feeling as warm. I’m sure I just became accustomed to it, but it was time to move on. Getting out of the pool is a little tricky because of the steep entryway and I basically went backwards, pushing up from the bottom rocks until I could sit on the upper rocks and scoot back up. Because it took a little while to get out and back to my towel, I got quite chilly on the way, but once dry and rejacketed, the walk back to the car wasn’t too bad.

Hot & Cold

I was going to try to find the Waterfall Spout Bath next because I’d gotten some GPS coordinates from another backpacker online. Basically, you keep going to Wai-O-Tapu and take the Waiotapu Loop Road (paved, yay!) to a road called “The Avenue” which leads to Lady Knox Gyser (on Google Maps, easy to search). The path is just off the Avenue. Sounds easy enough, but when I got there, I discovered that there was a locked bar across the entry to the Avenue. The sign next to it indicated that the road was closed from 5pm to 9am, but it was only 2 in the afternoon, so I was a bit flummoxed. I headed up the road a bit to the visitors center and went inside to find out what was going on.

When I asked, it took a while to get through to the girl at the counter that I wanted to go up the road toward the Gyser. I had to repeat myself a few times that the road was blocked despite the posted signs indicating it should be open. She eventually led me over to an older lady who told me they close the road at 11am after the gyser is done doing it’s thing because there’s just no other reason to go down that way. Taking in my swimsuit under my jacket asked me rather tartly if I meant to go swimming and then told me there was absolutley no place to go swimming down that road… at all. I gently argued that I had seen it on the internet, which earned me a beleaguered sigh and an “of course you did”. She then went on at great length how dangerous it was because my car would be broken into, and I’d burn my feet and I’d get meningitis and and and. She told me that she’d lived there for 15 years and never even wanted to go look at it because it was sooooo dangerous. If I absolutely HAD to go swimming, I could go to Hot and Cold by the bridge, but she was sure I’d have my car broken into if I did.

When I asked her how this waterfall compared to Kerosene Creek, she told me how awful that place was too, covered with used condoms and needles (no it isn’t). I realized I was dealing with a genuine Paranoid Old Person™ and decided to humor her and back away slowly. “Can I just go look at the waterfall if I promise not to swim?”, (fingers crossed) I asked. “Well, I can’t stop you.”, she grumped back at me. I thanked her for her advice and indicated I’d head to Hot and Cold as she recommended, and leave my car in the visitor’s lot for safety if that was ok. She warned me they would lock it up before 5pm so I should hurry (it was still only 2pm).

Based on her directions, Hot & Cold was right around the corner from the visitor’s center, and since the Avenue wasn’t going to magically open for me, I figured I’d check that one out before assessing my plan of attack for the Waterfall. I did leave my car in the visitor’s car park, and if you’re worried about break-ins you can do the same while they’re open, but there is also plenty of roadside parking by the bridge. It was a short walk from there to the bridge that goes over the Hot of Hot and Cold. I saw several other cars parked around and sure enough there was a small handful (4-5) of bathers already enjoying the water.
Hot and Cold is an interesting geothermal phenomenon where a cold water stream and a hot water stream converge. The hot water stream runs under the bridge and the cold water stream runs along one side of the road. A nice shallow pool rests at the mixing point before they continue on as one merged stream. The Department of Conservation actually built wooden steps that lead down into the pool on one side of the bridge and into the hot stream on the other. The hot side is quite hot, so be careful if you decend into that side. I spent the majority of my time in the mixing pool, not for fear of heat, but because the sensation of being swirled around in hot and cold water is a uniquely pleasant one.

The pool is not merely warm water but active currents of HOT and COLD. Of course, it is generally hotter or colder as you near the appropriate stream, but the currents in the pool get everywhere. You can be soaking up a nice hot spot and suddenly a cold tendril wraps around your legs. One of the interesting activites the old foks in Washington taught me was that it was fun to go dip in the freezing cold river then dash back into the hot spring. I tried this exactly once, not because it wasn’t neat, but because the river was REALLY cold there. The hot and cold pool in NZ isn’t anywhere near so extreme, but it is a fun experience. It’s impossible to overheat in this pool since all you have to do is drift over to the cooler side, and because of the regular changes in temperature, the cool currents are refreshing and invigorating but don’t last long enough to make you cold, while at the same time your body doesn’t adjust to the hotter temperature meaning you get that ‘ahhhh’ sensation of new hot water on your skin over and over.

The water is a bit cloudy, no crystal clear mountain stream water here. You have to be careful walking around when you can’t see the bottom so you don’t stub your toe on a rock (most dangerous thing here). The bottom on the warmer side is sandy and rocky, while on the cooler side there is more algae growing so it gets a little softer (squishier) and muddier. That texture is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s pretty harmless. One of the locals I talked to here said in the 10 years he’d been coming up, he’d only had his car broken into once, and that was at night. I personlly did not go to these pools after dark partially for concern of my car, but also because I was travelling alone and still suffer some lingering paranoia about my single woman status and my saftey. If I’d had a travel buddy, I would have happily dumped all my stuff at the hostel (empty car is less tempting) and gone back for a candlelit soak.

Waterfall Spout Bath

20160819_174226Not wanting to find my car locked up in the visitor’s spot, I only spent a couple hours at hot and cold before venturing out to see what I could do about this waterfall situation. I was very determined not to miss out. Even if the water or mud turned out to be too hot, I just had to go and take a look since it was so nearby. I parked my car on the side of the road just in front of the barrier and off the main road. I’m not sure how advisable this really is, but in general it’s safe to park in NZ if you can get your whole vehicle off the road so that it isn’t blocking traffic and it was almost closing time for the visitors center anyway, coming around to the posted closing time for the road itself. The GPS coordinates I had said the falls were just 500m up the road which isn’t a far walk. As I was locking up the car, two more travelers walked out of the bush. They had parked a bit further away and were using the same set of coordinates to track the elusive bathing spot.

Sure enough, 500m down the road we began to hear the water and there was a small track off to the right. Just at the opening of the bush, the path is fairly wide and clear, but it quickly narrows and becomes overgrown. I’m glad I was wearing my jeans over my suit because I got snagged by a low growing thorn bush that bit right into the fabric. It’s not a long path and you can hear the waterfall sounds to know you’re heading in the right direction. 20160819_163144_1The first thing you see is the top of the falls. These are quite lovely and worth a gander, but the water up here is too shallow to enjoy a soak, so head on down the trail a little further and you’ll find the pool. Despite it’s lack of popularity, it was indeed marked with another Dept of Conservation sign warning us about mud burns and amoebic meningitis, so the government was clearly aware of the fact that people were coming here and was just as clearly not prohibiting it. Ostensibly, this is a result of the Queen’s Chain policy of reserving 20m of land around bodies of water (and prohibiting the private ownership of said water).

We made it down to the pool and quickly skinned down to our bathing suits and waded in. Of the three places I visited, this was easily the most rustic and the most amazing. The bottom of the pool is especially temperature variable. The other lady there singed her bum because she moved onto a hot patch without realizing it. No lasting damage fortunately, but it made us all aware that the hot patches on the bottom were not to be ignored. The pool was less than knee deep, but the bottom is not visible, so it’s necessary to carefully navigate. The water isn’t “dirty”, but the waterfall stirs up mud and leaf debris from the bottom. You can easily see in the stream above and below the falls that the water itself is quite clear. It’s still got microbes tho, so don’t get it up your nose.


Aside from it’s remoteness, and the fact that we slightly felt like we were doing something forbidden the most appealing aspect of this location is the waterfall itself. It is not a tall fall, perhaps 2 meters maybe a little more. It is very powerful, but still narrow enough to be approachable. Some people straight up “shower” in these falls, and given that water falling down on your head is unlikely to get up your nose, it’s not as risky as putting your head under in the pools themselves, but it was still more of a risk than any of us were willing to take. But, and a very important but, the falls are moving quite fast and the water comes at an angle so the bottom is further out into the pool than the top. It is, therefore, possible to get your back and shoulders under the falls while keeping the front and top of your head completely out. It’s a slow process to get there because of the hot mud pockets and the need to move slowly across the ground of the pool to avoid being toasted (considering some waterproof shoes next time) and then backing into the falls to find the sweet spot that hits high on your shoulders without dunking your head, but ah when you get there… the deep tissue hot water massage that mother nature gives you as a reward is oh so sweet.

Blessed by the Gods

After lingering around for another hour or more, I got a feeling it was time to move on. I wasn’t sure of the time, but could tell from the light it was getting dark and I had not left all my stuff in my hostel. My car looked totally lived in and I didn’t want to become an after dark target for thieves ruining what was otherwise an amazingly perfect day full of soaking and nice company. I said my farewells and struggled damply back into my jeans to guard my shins on the way out. Remember how I said I felt like my trip was being divinely influenced for maximum awe? Somehow 3 gorgeous natural hot springs and two waterfall massages was just not enough of a message, because when I emerged from the narrow path in the woods onto the main road I was greeted with the most beautifully gaudy display of sunset color I have seen in a long time. I stood in total shock before remembering to snap a picture and within about two minutes the whole thing was gone, returning the sky to a darkening gray. If I hadn’t listened to the little ‘time to go’ voice in my head, I would have missed it completely. I went from feeling like the gods of the land were putting on a show to wondering if I was instead being wooed by a heavenly being.


Some things are just too wonderful to attribute to mere coincidence and I’m a lousy monotheist. I tend to ascribe to a more fantastical yet practical version of divinity outlined by authors like Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I tend to think that gods are “real” in precisely the same way that “truth” or “honor” or “love” are real.


You can’t, of course, but we accept these as real. That’s basically what I mean when I talk about the gods of some place or another (up until the Diaspora, all gods were linked to the land and the local people). It’s not about religion or worship for me, but I do believe it’s important to express gratitude for the good things in life and it can help if that gratitude has a focus. Plus, it’s fun to imagine being courted by a god like a beautiful mortal maid from the old legends.

Once More With Feeling

I ended up spending 3 nights in Rotorua. On the first day I went to the springs, then on the second I did some more touristy things including a visit to a Maori village (post forthcoming). That second part was rough and emotional, so on my final morning, I decided I needed one more cleansing bath in the hot pools before I bid farewell to Rotorua and Waiotapu. First and last activities in a place go a long way to defining our memories of an experience, and as much as I valued my Maori visit, I didn’t want those feelings of sadness and conflict to be my last ones for Rotorua. Matamata was only an hour away by car, and the Hobbiton facility runs tours every 30 minutes until about 4pm, so I wasn’t worried about getting an early start for that part of the day. Instead, I woke up early to return to the Waterfall Spout Bath, easily the most remote and most beautiful of the three pools I had visited 2 days previously.  Now that I knew where I was going, it was much easier, and since the gate was open, I was even able to park at the trailhead.

This may have been the best decision I made in all of my time in Rotorua. The pool was completely empty, I had it all to myself. I like company often, but I relished the opportunity to quietly absorb the beauty of the surrounding bush as a means of replenishing my spirit, my joy and my gratitude from the night before. Once more, I could not help but feel that the land or the gods heard my requests, because the waterfall was, if you can believe it, even more beautiful on this morning than it had been the first time I found it. It was as though, having shown me the loss and sorrow that incautious tourism and exploitation brought, they now would show me the best and most beautiful that the untarnished land could offer.


The pool is set down below the level of the main road and most of the surrounding bush. When the morning sun came through the trees that surrounded and enclosed the pool, it was like beams of liquid gold pouring through fine black lace. Spiderwebs still dripping with condensed steam, gleaming like strings of diamonds between the branches drew my eye again and again as the patterns of sunlight changed. The steam itself rose up from the waterfall and the pool in great plumes, turning opaque in stripes and beams where the sunlight penetrated the canopy only to remain invisible in the shadows. If I had seen it in a movie, I would swear it was a computer generated effect, that no real thing could be so amazing all at once. As I lay in the pool, my body relaxing and revitalizing in the mineral water, the shining ribbons of light moving with the steam but also with time’s passage of the rising sun, there came a moment when I was directly in line with the sun itself, my vision becoming the center of a radiating circle of glowing sunbeams, dancing steam, and dark winding branches as though I were looking down a tunnel into another world, or even the afterlife. It was one of the most profound moments of natural beauty I have ever experienced.20160821_101856

I made another stop off at Hot & Cold that morning as well, and the sunlight was no less stunning. Once again, when I arrived I had the place to myself and the sun reached down into the riverbed through the trees not in rays and beams this time, but a spotlight to light up the steam from the hot river as it rose up the steep walls and curled back on itself in an endless spiralling dance of thermodynamics. Feeling wholly restored and incredibly grateful, I didn’t mind at all when other visitors showed up to the creek and promptly encouraged them to come on in. It was the best farewell to Rotorua I could have wished for.


I’m trying my best to get all the stories from my visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud up for viewing before the end of 2016. The good news is, since these stories are not linked to world events, they make sense whenever you read them. And, if you happen to be a northern hemisphere dweller, the weather from my trip is finally starting to line up with what you’re experiencing outside. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. Please check out the Facebook page for all the photos, and my Instagram for updates on day to day life in Korea. 🙂


Ten Days in NZ: Coromandel Peninsula

NZ drive map (1)Back to New Zealand. It’s like time travel, or at very least like one of those novels that writes chapters from all different perspectives or storylines. You can see my trail through the north island here, starting in Auckland and then looping around Northland before swinging wide to the East and Coromandel Peninsula. Also, I’m afraid that the night-time stories don’t have accompanying pictures as I have not yet acquired a camera that actually shoots well in the dark. Think of it as imagination exercise.

Hot Water Beach by Night

I got to my campsite on Hot Water Beach about 10:30 at night. Low tide was set for 12:01 and the ideal bathing time for the hot pools is 2 hours either side of low tide. I was a little late, but it’s a 4 hour window and I felt fairly sanguine about my outlook. As checked into my cabin, I saw a group of tourists marching out of the campsite toward the beach with shovels in hand.

I didn’t want to waste any time, so I dropped my stuff off in the room and changed into my suit to zip down to the beach. I didn’t have a shovel, but I figured I could improvise, and I stuffed a recently acquired bottle of Riesling into my bag along with my towel. The trail from the campsite to the beach is a bit long, but very nice. The moon was nearly full and almost straight overhead. There were no clouds in the sky; everything was bright and slightly blue. I walked down a forest path where the campsite security had said I might find glow worms, but I didn’t see anything aside from the glimmer of moonlight on the leaves. Finally, I reached the beach and saw that several people had already dug holes filled with hot water steaming into the cold night air.

In case I didn’t say before, Hot Water Beach is this rather amazing geothermal wonder wherein hot springs lie under the sand of the beach and are accessible at low tide. This means you can just scoop away some sand and have your own private hot tub right on the beach. How cool is nature?

I was watching the tourists who went before me froliking around in their pool which is quite large. I think the guys who dug it intened the girls to join them, but the girls were simply unwilling to be cold for the few moments between warm clothes and warm water and wouldn’t go in. Sometimes tourists weird me out, I mean, why come all the way out here, there’s nothing much else around, and you’re awake at 11pm to what… walk to the beach and refuse to participate in the majesty of nature because it’s a little cold? sigh

I took a picture for them anyway. I do that a lot, take pictures for other travellers when the selfie stick just won’t cut it. It was a decent way of breaking the ice so I could see if they’d share their pool, since they’d dug out space for more people than were going in. They were more than happy to let me, but it turned out that after the photo op, most of the group was ready to leave the beach. One guy from Swizerland complained bitterly that his companions were leaving him, that he wanted to stay and enjoy the water, so we chatted for a bit in the pool they left behind.

If you’ve ever built a sandcastle or a moat on the beach, you know the dangers of uneven waves and how it can ruin a whole edifice. The pool was no different. The guys who had dug it had shoved most of the sand in the direction of the treeline, not the ocean, so the barrier protecting the pool from incoming waves was weak. Initially, they had done it on purpose, so as to attract some cooler sea water because the hot water under that beach is HOT, but it became evident soon that it was a hindrance. My short-term Swiss companion was already having trouble balancing his temperature due to the sudden bursts of hot and cold water from beneath, but when the retaining wall broke and half the pool drained into the sea, he gave up and left as well. 

I was able to rebuild, and once the wall was restored the pool refilled from the springs below. With all the tourists gone, the beach was nearly bare. There was a quiet couple in their own pool next to the one I’d taken over, and one man wandering up and down farther along looking for his ideal spot. With the full moon overhead, the beach was a mixture of blue shadows and white highlights and the sea was black glass and silver foam. I lay back in my newly personal pool and discovered that the beach contained both hot and cold springs just below the surface and that they would emerge at random so it was somewhat necessary to keep the water moving so as to not become too hot or too cold. While this did mean I couldn’t simply lay back and stop moving, it didn’t mean I couldn’t relax and enjoy myself.

So there I was, midnight on the beach, with no human sounds for we were all being quiet and enjoying the sea once the tour group had gone. I soon fell into a rhythm of gentle movement of arms and legs to keep my pool pleasantly warm and I watched with all my memory to capture the silver night and the sound of the waves crashing on the rock that marked the center of the hot spring area. The hot water soothing my skin, the steam rising off the beach where the heat bubbled up, the glint of moonlight on ocean, the silvery whiteness of seafoam and the sound of waves, the moon overhead so bright it hurt to look directly at it after watching the earth below, and another clue that my travels in NZ were preternaturally blessed that I should wind up just here and just now to experience these things as they came together, full moon, clear sky and midnight low tide.

As the tide began to turn, I had to rebuild my walls more frequently, but I was unwilling to abandon the pool. The couple had decided to pack it in for the night, so now it was just me and the older gentlman down the beach. He wandered over with his shovel looking for another likely spot and seemed kind so I invited him to join me in my overlarge pool. He was a local man who lived just about 45 minutes up the road and often came down to the beach to enjoy the springs. We chatted a little about where I’d been and where I was going and he reassured me that the hot springs I was planning to seek in Rotorua did indeed exist and gave me some extra pointers on how to find them. The wall broke again, but as we worked to repair it, one giant wave came in with the tide and filled the whole pool with chilly sea water, letting us know the ocean thought it was time to get out.

Mostly dry and dressed, I headed back up the path. Some of the tour group girls had assured me they had seen honest to goodness glowworms on the path on their way in, not just gleams of moonlight, so I decided to look extra close on my way back to the cabin just in case. The first little fairy lights I saw were above me, but at this time I didn’t even know glow worms lived outside of caves at all, and only knew that in caves they were often on the ceilings, so why not? But when I moved the leaves around, it became obvious the lights were only reflections. Beautiful reflections that created a fantastical illusion of fairylights, but not glowworms.

This happened a few more times and just as I was ready to give up and put her sightings down to mistaken moonlight, I glimpsed a pale blue glow much lower to the ground, in a shadow where no moonlight should be falling. I moved in closer and shifted the leaves above it around to change the pattern of light and shadow but the glow remained in place. More than that, I saw a few more glows around it, winking out from the underbrush like stars.

The glowworms were hiding alond the wet rock banks beside the path, sheltered by the ferns and other low growing plants giving them an environment not unlike a cave. Now that I knew what I was looking for, it became easier and easier to spot them along my walk. Pictures of these creatures are only possible with long exposure, so I have none, but more than that, pictures I look at online are not accurate to my memory. Often the pictures that make the headlines are very beautiful and very artistic, making the worms seem like tiny lanterns, as bright as fireflies, as though you could put a few in a jar and see your way. It’s just not so. The glow worms are bright but so tiny that each one gives off only a speck that doesn’t even light up the rock it’s resting on. Most of the online photos are in caves, which is probably why I didn’t realize they even existed outside the cave environment, but even the few I found in the bush are set so that you can see the glow and the plants clearly. Watching with your own eyes, you peer into the darkest shadows and specks of phosphorescence peer back from the blackness. That may not make a stunning photograph, but it’s one heck of a personal experience.

Hot Water Beach by Day

The details of my campsite and breakfast will be in the forthcoming “Sleeps & Eats” post, but for now, suffice it to say that sleep and food were achieved before the onset of the next day’s low tide.

20160818_112555My breakfast spot was nearby a public restroom and shower as well as a totally different path down to the water. When the hours lengthened enough to head to the beach, I wandered over to the changing rooms and got kitted out with my suit, sunscreen and shade hat. The clear sky of the night before had carried over into the morning and I didn’t want to get sunburnt while soaking up my hot spring. The beach was also quite full of people. I was even more glad in that moment that I’d had the chance to spend a few hours the night before in silence and solitude. I love people and I had a great time chatting with the other bathers that morning, but I am grateful it was not my only experience of the beach.

I still didn’t have a shovel, but the other beach-goers were happy to share theirs so it was no problem. It’s not a solution I’d recommend, but if you’re absentminded, it’s not the end of the world. I picked a likely looking spot and dug out a spadeful of sand. The hole quickly filled with water, which I was glad to see because it meant I did not need to dig much to get a bath going. The water was incredibly hot. I stopped digging when I had enough for a footbath, thinking I could warm my toes and move more sand by hand slowly as I soaked my feet. Alas, the water was too hot! I borrowed a bucket from another nearby family to add seawater to cool it down, but this only lasted a few minutes before the heat returned. Soon enough, I had to abandon my small pool because I couldn’t dip my toes to soak nor my hands to dig more.

I wandered around, trying to triangulate the area we’d been in the night before, thinking if I could be nearer the sea, I could get a channel of cool water with each incoming wave as I had done on the beaches as a child. I dug my hand into the sand in another spot only to find it icy cold beneath the surface. As I tested more and more, I remembered the alternating cold and hot waves in the pool from the night before and surmised they must have accidentally included at least one of each, a hot and a cold source, so I set about trying to find a spot that had two such close together. Before I could, however, a young couple nearby decided to leave the beach and I simply poached their pool which was large and well balanced in temperature.

This set me up sharing pool walls with several other groups, as diggers tended to simply expand until they ran into another pool. No one minded and everyone shared, which was refreshing. No one invaded an occupied pool without invitation, but neither did anyone get grumpy or territorial and everyone was generally having a great time. Gradually, the pools around me emptied of their original inhabitants and were claimed by new arrivals. Two ladies were having trouble finding a good spot so I invited them to join me as I had more than enough space, and then we got a young couple as well, so my own stolen pool held 5 of us by the end. We just dug out deeper spaces or farther walls as we needed to.20160818_131034_3-animationThere was one pool between mine and the sea, which provided a worthy barrier when the tide began to turn. At one point I had an unobstructed view of the ocean, so I could watch the same large rock breaking waves as I had seen in the moonlight. The young couple left early, and the two ladies tried to hold out against the oncoming tide, but had seen nearer pools get washed away in the surf and were loathe to be doused in cold seawater. I had learned from my previous experience and had built the seaward wall up as much as I could to forestall the inevitable, but eventually the waves took it down for the last time. It was nearing 2pm and I still wanted to visit the famous Cathedral Cove before bidding farewell to the Coromandel Peninsula.

Cathedral Cove

20160818_145050Although Cathedral Cove car park is a mere 10 minutes up the road from Hot Water Beach, there is a further 45 minute hike (according to the sign) to the cove itself. The cove is not accessible except by taking this walk or by kayaking in from another point. It is famous more for it’s breathtaking beauty than for any particular historical importance, although it was used in the filming of Prince Caspian.

20160818_152828The timed signposts for trails in NZ were a bit frustrating to me because there was absolutely no way to know how fast one should walk to achieve this time. I’m perfectly capable of walking quickly, but I like taking my time on a forest walk and I can better judge my time if I know the length of the walk instead of the average hiker’s time. Average flat ground speed might be 5kmph, but of course rough terrain can change that too. Waipoua said about 40 minutes for the walk out to Te Mata Ngahere and back (very smooth trail), but I took about 2 hours because of all my stopping and looking. Waipu said 1.5 hrs for a 2km trail (very steep), and I took a little over 3 hours exploring things and watching the wildlife. So when Cathedral Cove said 45 minutes one way, I was skeptical. However, even with my frequent stops I still did manage to20160818_154224 make it in about 50 minutes, so well done on those sign makers.

The trail is a good mix of up and downs, most of which are very gentle and easy to traverse. Like many of the trails in NZ, I got to see a wide variety of landscapes in a very short time but especially the rain-forest and pastoral farmlands. I even got treated to a splash of pink by a surprise stand of (probably) cherry trees. The very end of the trail that leads down to the cove is quite steep and equipped with stairs, but I promise, it’s worth it.

Once you step out of the recessed wooden stairway onto the pale,
almost white sand of Mare’s Cove, you are treated to a sight so often reserved for magazine advertisements of expensive brands of jewelry or perfume: a pristine coastline. As if this were not enough, when you set foot on the beach and look left, you are greeted by the cathedral that gives this cove it’s name: a natural tunnel in a large cliff-like rock that protrudes out into the sea. Unlike the hole in the rock in Bay of Islands, this is a fairly long tunnel that visitors to the cove can freely walk into and explore. Out the other side20160818_155708 of the hole is the actual cove named Cathedral, but since I had left Hot Water Beach as the tide was coming in, I was loath to wade through the waves to reach the other cove, not knowing how fiercely the water level would be rising or how wet I would get trying to come back. Remember, it’s winter in August and I already knew just how cold that ocean was.

20160818_162042The sun was also low in the afternoon sky when I arrived, casting the coves into shadow. There is no doubt that this beautiful area is well worth a visit, but next time I’ll be sure to come down in the early morning when sunlight fills the beaches. As a result of my slightly off timing, I’m afraid my photographs are mostly in silhouette, but they do capture a bit of the majestic quality of this coastline. In addition to the star of the show, the cove also has some beautiful rock formations and a small waterfall.

I think when I go back, I’ll definitely spend more time in Coromandel, not just to go back to the Hot Water Beach (which I will never get tired of) but to spend more time at Cathedral Cove to enjoy the effects of changing sunlight and get in some snorkeling in the Marine Reserve.20160818_165705These long shadows and deep silhouettes told me it was time to hit the trail back unless I wanted to be hiking in the dark. In summer, I might have lingered anyway to play in the warmer water and to dry off in the summer night air on the walk back, but the temperatures dropped rapidly after dark on my visit and I’d already had one moonlight walk through the bush the night before.20160818_173257_richtonehdrI met up with another traveler on the path back and we pointed out great spots to pause and take pictures of the sunset to each other, arriving back at the car park just in time to see the last rays dip below the mountain ranges to the West. As we were about to part ways and get back into our cars to warm up, she pointed to a tiny white sliver on the ocean in the Eastern sky. “What is that? Is that the moon?”, she asked. I was entirely incredulous. There was no way. It reminded me a bit of a snow-capped mountain far in the distance and the blue and pink ribboned sky was hazy, distorting the details. As we watched, however, the shape grew and it became obvious that she had been right.

We quickly grabbed jackets from our cars and returned to the lookout spot to stare in awe at this atmospheric lunar phenomenon. The sunset and moonrise only happen at the same time on the evening of a full moon, so this was literally the only day in the entire month that I could have even potentially seen this happen. As happy as I was to be on Hot Water Beach with a (nearly) full moon, I didn’t plan my holiday around the moon phases, so it was sheer luck (or more of that cosmic intervention?) that I happened to be on the East coast to watch the sun set in the mountains behind me and then turn to watch the moon rise over the sea in front of me.

Cameras are nearly incapable of capturing the glory of a rising full moon. Low in the sky, the atmospheric distortion makes the moon appear enormous, a golden coin you could reach out and pluck from the sky. On top of that, watching the full moon rise in the lingering twilight of sunset meant that we watched it rise like a champagne bubble through the layers of color still staining the sky. The familiar seas of the moon were oriented differently, upside down from what I was used to seeing in the Northern Hemisphere and it made the appearance of the rabbit in the moon quite clear and dramatic. I watched in pure awe and gratitude for the fact that such a sight could exist and that I could exist to see it. I watched long after the moon rose high and the sky turned to dark blue and I felt again that my journey was especially blessed and that perhaps the gods of New Zealand were gifting me with these truly wondrous and awe inspiring experiences.

From Coromandel, I traveled to Rotorua to explore more geothermal wonders. Stay tuned for hot spring waterfalls on the next installment of Tales from the Land of the Long White Cloud. Plus, Rotorua is where I met the Maori family and learned about the culture and traditions of the not-quite-first people of Aotearoa. In the mean time, please enjoy the photo albums on my Facebook page and follow along for snippets and snapshots of my ongoing adventures in Korea. Thanks for reading!

Ten Days in NZ: Mostly Waterfalls

Still in the northern peninsula through day 4, I spent the afternoon of day 3 and the morning of day 4 at 2 spectacular waterfalls, then my afternoon attempt to go caving was subverted by a subterranean river and a lack of waterproof shoes, and turned into beautiful hike up the mountain instead.

Haruru Falls

After my exploration of Russell, I made it back over to Piahia (where I’d left the car) with enough daylight left for my other nearby photo-op: Haruru Falls. GPS told me the falls were a mere 10 minutes up the road and I had seen signs for them on my way in to town the night before. I expected to be led to a car park from where I could walk to the falls. In the US, nearly every natural sight worth seeing is a goodly distance from the road. It’s a serious effort to protect things from commercial development in the US and most of the State and National Parks have a sort of buffer zone of nature between development and whatever the highlight of the park is. Yellowstone Falls, for example, requires a long drive through the park and a longer hike through the woods before you can view them. While I was living in Washington state, I pursued a couple waterfalls. One fall was used as the backdrop of an expensive country club and I only got to see it because I went to a wedding there. Most falls that were free to view, however, came with a hike. My favorite one, Murhut, is a long drive down a winding gravel road and a mile of hiking up the trail… and that one’s considered close.

So, when I parked by the Hururu Falls signs that came just after the bridge over the river within easy view of the main highway and some nice suburban looking homes, I expected a walk. Nope. The falls are actually visible from the bridge itself and not in a binoculars way, but right there. I scarcely had to walk a few meters to be right on the edge of the river looking down over the tumbling water. Looking up, I could see people’s homes. This waterfall was practically in some backyards. I didn’t know it at the time, but this comes back to the public waterways laws in NZ, which meant that the homeowners and land developers couldn’t claim the land on either side of the river, making the falls a free public trust.

20160816_164233Waterfalls are a rare occurrence in my life but I treasure them. I ended up climbing out on the rocks to get close and then just sitting and breathing it in. There’s some kind of chemistry that happens to air that’s churned in a waterfall and it makes us feel better, happier (negative ions, no really, look it up). There was a trail along the river, but I’d had a full day of dolphin swimming and island hiking already and was content to soak in the late afternoon sun on the water and watch the rainbows dance in the spray above the valley below.


I made it back on the road before dark, but I had to pull over a few more times just to watch the sun set over the hills and the painted pink clouds opposite dancing around the near-full moon.


Whangarei Falls

Whangarei waterfall is quite a bit taller than Haruru but not so wide. There was some construction at the view point near the car park and I was a little underwhelmed by the viewing angle provided. Haruru had been so impressive and I was feeling out of sorts form a morning social media mishap (never read the comments!). I was hoping that the mere sight of some stunning falls would blast me back to happiness, but it wasn’t quite so simple. I looked at a nearby map which indicated there was some kind of loop that led down to the base of the falls and took about an hour to walk so I decided to go for it. This time, the nearness of the urban life wasn’t quaint and attractive, it was orange, brash and constructiony, so I was hoping to put that behind me on the trail. As I crossed the grated bridge at the top of the falls, I tried to scrounge a little whiff of negatively ionized waterfall air to bring my mood back in line with my environment.


The trail led briefly along the edge of a field and then back into the woods on the other side of the river. There were some stairs, but it was mostly gentle switchbacks and the fresh air of the river and woods was a treat to the senses. I had a nice leisurely walk down to the riverbed and by the time I emerged from the woods to see the falls properly, I was much happier. Good thing too, because Whangarei Falls are best viewed from the bottom. It was still morning and the light was coming in from behind the top of the falls. The river appeared to be transforming from light into water as it dove from the cliff. There were side trails around the small pool at the base allowing visitors to get up close views of the falls from several angles. I found a little shaded area that blocked the sun from my eyes and my camera lens for some great photos, then wandered around the bridge and the small beach where some ducks watched me and the other tourists with suspicion.

Water is one of the most cleansing experiences we can have, not just to wash our skin, but also our hearts and minds. Water that is still and reflective, water that is rushing, or water that is testing the very boundaries between itself and the earth or the air. A waterfall does all of these. The more of them I visit, the more I love them. I thought I was lucky in Seattle to be near so many good waterfall hikes, but clearly I knew nothing of what it really means to have accessible waterfalls. Just one more reason NZ is awesome: the Queen’s Chain!

Waipu Caves

I did have one more event for the day before an especially long drive for the night, so with some reluctance, I headed back up the other bank to return to the car park and on to Waipu Caves. It’s about 45 minutes from Whangarei and reputed by online sources to be a free cave where visitors could view glowworms with only the aid of sturdy shoes and a flashlight. We have unguided cave walks in the US, several in Washington state.  I spent some lovely summer weekends exploring them before I got this blog up and running. We really did go in jeans, jackets, gloves and good shoes with some flashlights and it was great. It didn’t seem odd to me that similar caves could exist in NZ. However, my sources were less than forthcoming.20160817_143921It turns out that there is quite a bit of water in the Waipu caves, and on top of that, they are subject to flooding if it rains too much. It hadn’t rained on me much in my visit but winter is the rainy season there. Just inside the cave mouth I encountered a stream that blocked my path entirely. Now, if the weather had been warmer, if I’d had spare shoes, if I’d had (most importantly) another person there for safety, I might have kept going and braved the wet and mud for the experience of seeing glowworms. But as it was, looking at wet cold everything with no spares, and the very real possibility of slipping in the mud to become hurt or stuck with no help made me turn back. I like doing crazy things and I’m usually ok with getting dirty, but in the end, life safety won the day, and I decided I’d just have to see glowworms in Waitomo instead.

After exploring the shallow cave entrance, I decided to walk up the trail into the hills above the caves. I’m not sure whether to call these land formations mountains or hills. They are largely made of rock, and that’s mountainy, but they are not that tall, which is hilly. Plus, many of them have been deforested and covered in grass for the sheep and cows to graze on. Farm in New Zealand doesn’t equal crops, it equals herds. Either way, the sign said it was a 2km hike, which didn’t seem bad. Off I went, forgetting in my enthusiasm that my hiking style was likely to make this 1.5 hr walk actually take 3 or 4…

20160817_150251The park service in New Zealand hasn’t really mastered the loop trail and this was no exception. The trail led up to a single point and returned along the exact same route. It was marked by the occasional tiny orange triangle nailed to a tree and for a while I felt like an intrepid explorer in Middle Earth. The forest was deep and green and dotted around with huge rocks that looked like nothing so much as Bilbo’s trolls turned to stone and broken down. I even found one that looked like a giant stone foot! Other places the rocks became less like the remains of curving carved statues and more like the square blocks of a fallen castle or fort, like the ruins of Cair Paravel. Of course, all the rocks are natural formations from glaciers, but it was fun to imagine. This part of the hike is the easiest and quite possibly the lovliest. If you’re here for a short visit, I’d say it’s worth it to walk as far as the bridge, at least.


20160817_152219.jpgBeyond the bridge the landscape changed. The rocks all but vanished and the type of plants completely altered. Now instead of lush green trees there were scraggly gray thorn bushes taller than me that were growing their first bright yellow spring flowers. This let out into another forest, but much more jungle/rainforest in theme than the boulder-filled fantasy below. There was a stretch of farmland too, which I thought may have heralded the end of the trail as it led onto a nice little grassy terrace with a view all the way to the ocean, and a little wooden bench to sit and rest. This bench would be my second recommendation for turning around if you’re getting tired. 20160817_164605The view is nearly as good here as it is at the top, so unless you’re an achievement junkie like me and just need to say you got there, it’s a fine place to end the hike. Or you can look for the little orange triangles on the gate past the bench and keep on trekking up. It’s a lot of up, and mud, through what is fundamentally a rain-forest.

20160817_155447I came across a goat on the path with her baby. They were both snowy white and I stopped to watch them for a while before they crashed off into the undergrowth. I hadn’t seen any goat farms around, just sheep and cows so I wondered if she belonged to someone or if her ancestors had escaped captivity, and now she and her kin roamed the park lands wild. After much muddy trudging, I emerged into daylight again only to be greeted with a fence and a businesslike sign advising me that I had reached the end of the trail and should now turn around. No monument, no viewing platform, just this electric fence and sign. The sign informs visitors that they are welcome to admire the view from the property line, but to be cautious as the fence is live. Ok then. It was a nice view, but there was not much room to move around and nowhere to rest, so I soon headed back down the hilly mountainside to find the bench I’d left behind.


The trip back down was less strenuous but not really faster. Steep muddy slopes and slippery steps meant I had to go slow and cautious, because spraining an ankle up here would not be a good time. I actually did slip in the mud once and was worried I may have sprained my wrist landing (it seemed ok by the time I went to bed that night). However, because I was moving slowly, I wasn’t making much noise and managed to sneak up on some little evening critter digging alongside the path for dinner. It had ears shaped like a rabbit’s, but shorter, and a long bushy tail, though not ringed like a raccoon’s. It reminded me of a gray-tone version of Pikachu. I tried to get some pictures, but the low light made it difficult and eventually the wind shifted enough for him to notice me and he took off up a tree. I have since identified the adorable furry mess as a brushtail possum, pictured below in a zoo setting. This was another surprise since the opossum in North America is a kind of drowned rat looking thing that is usually associated with roadkill and dumpster diving. The brushtail possum was imported from Australia for it’s fur, which explains also why I kept seeing clothing items of wool and possum in gift shops.


When the silent spell of wildlife watching passed, I realized that it was quickly getting dark, and I tried to hurry on back down the trail. It had taken me about 2 hours to reach the top, but I stopped a lot, so I was hopeful returning would require fewer stops to admire scenery I’d already seen.  The whole thing was like walking from one fantasy land into another, Middle Earth, Narnia, Fern Gully, Jurassic Park… it’s one thing for a landscape to be beautiful, but it’s wholly something else for it to be 4 landscapes at once!

Back at the base, I took another gander around the cave entrances, refusing to believe that this was really it. I had a brief conversation with some folks waiting in their car who hoped to see the glowworms in the entrance once it got to full dark. As tempted as I was to stay and see if that worked. I had an appointment with low tide in a town 4.5 hrs away and almost exactly that much time to get there, so I had to wish them luck and hope that the next caves would treat me better. My post-holiday research has since revealed that the cavern with the glowworms at Waipu is the third chamber and requires special equipment, experience, and should not be done alone. I’m still not sure if it’s possible to see any in the entrance, but I did find out later that night that it’s possible to see glowworms outside of caves.

The northern peninsula alone offered many splendors and wonders. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey so far and that you’ll stay tuned to see the Coromandel Peninsula and the unique Hot Water Beach! Enjoy the full photos from Haruru, Whangarei and Waipu on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading!

Ten Days in NZ: Bay of Islands with the Dolphins

From Waipoua, I drove across the northern peninsula to the town of Piahia in the Bay of Islands. Before traveling to New Zealand, I found that the Bay of Islands was famous for dolphin watching (occasionally whales, but those are typically off the south island). I looked around at boat tours half-heartedly because I’ve lived in Florida after all, where dolphins regularly show up around boats. And even around the Puget Sound we see mostly seals, but sometimes dolphin and orca fins as well from private craft or even from the passenger ferries. I felt jaded about it, only passingly interested. Until I read about the swimming.

One thing I do want to point out in retrospect. I should not have felt jaded about the animals or seeing them. I should have, like the giant trees, been excited to see them in the wild no matter what. This gratitude glitch is fixed now and I hope it never breaks again.

20160816_122924I’ve wanted to swim with dolphins since the very first time I went into a marine park and saw the trainers interacting with them. If we hadn’t left Florida, I may have pursued a career as a marine biologist and/or dolphin trainer. Alas, my years in Tennessee squished that childhood dream like a bug on an 18-wheeler. Since then, I have learned the damage that dolphins suffer in captivity and no longer support marine parks with captive large mammals, which might be all of them. I do still go to zoos and aquariums. There are good reasons to have those things, not the least is that it engages children early and makes people interested in and concerned about animals in the wild and wilderness conservation. However, I couldn’t bring myself to pay a marine park for the privilege of swimming with captive dolphins whose lives are unfairly shortened by that captivity. Thus, when I found this option, this swimming with wild dolphins in the ocean option, I was hooked.

Whether the Weather

I knew that the wintertime waters would be cold, but also that being so far in the north (everything is backwards and upside-down, remember) the weather wouldn’t be too bad and that a wet-suit would protect swimmers from the water temperatures well enough. In order to protect the dolphins, there are only 3 companies licensed at any given time to do dolphin encounters in the Bay of Islands. The first company I emailed turned out to be closed entirely for the winter. The second was open, but running limited trips and offering no swimming opportunities in the winter. With my fingers and toes crossed, I tried to the third and final company, finding that, yes, they did winter swimming, but that it was dependent on so many variables including the weather and the dolphins themselves that it wasn’t really very likely. They said I should wait until a few days before I wanted to go to make a reservation in order to get the best weather possible.

NZ drive map (1)This is not as easy as it sounds. I had booked a room in a different location nearly every night for my trip. I wanted to be able to wake up near my day’s activities, enjoy them, then in the evenings when the sunlight went away and the temperatures dropped drive to my next destination. I’d booked a room in Piahia for Monday night, with the hopes of boating on Tuesday. I watched the weather like a hawk and emailed back and forth trying to determine the ideal conditions. On Sunday, the weather showed Monday to be rainy, but Tuesday and Wednesday seemed to be nearly identically perfect. I’d booked rooms in the north peninsula for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night, each about an hour from the other because the peninsula isn’t that wide. So I had a little latitude if I was willing to do the extra driving, to rearrange my day activities Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. However, Wednesday night, I had a prepaid cabin at Hot Water Beach that I couldn’t move or cancel and that was a 4.5 hr drive back through Auckland and up the Coromandel Peninsula.

When I arrived in Piahia Monday evening and checked the weather again, it looked great. The folks on the other end of the email chain were still being cagey, telling me that recent outings had only been able to put people in the water 1 of 10 trips. I tried several times to let them know I understood that they couldn’t guarantee anything, because even in perfect weather the dolphins may have young or be feeding, both of which prohibit the entrance of swimmers into their waters. I just wanted them to give me a best case on weather alone between Tuesday and Wednesday…. email silence. I tried calling from the hostel, but the office had closed early and the answering service girls didn’t know about the weather at all.

Finally, I just decided to go. I was here, the weather looked nice. I couldn’t reach anyone in the know, but there was plenty of space left on the Tuesday morning boat. I I decided to just get up early and walk down to the wharf to book my spot on the spot. I No matter what, I would enjoy the ride. If the universe said no swimming, I would accept that, but if it allowed swimming conditions, I would not be the one to stand in the way.

I checked out of my hostel by 7:30 and walked over to the booking office of Fuller’s Great Sights where I chatted with a lovely young lady about my hopes and desires for the day. She assured me that the weather looked great for swimming. She told me some people got nervous about swimming in open water, but that she could tell from my enthusiasm it would not be a problem for me. She even gave me a discount on my ticket. I had enough time for a quick breakfast at the cafe next door (egg and bacon sandwiches should be universal) before we loaded onto the boat.

As an aside, the boats that are approved by the Department of Environment for dolphin encounters in NZ have special engines that do not disturb the dolphins. This means they have no fear of swimming right up to the boat and under it, giving passengers a first class view of the dolphins in the stunning blue waters of the Bay of Islands. My point is, even if the swimming isn’t your thing, this boat ride is a good trip.

Dolphins Permitting

20160816_094356I sat up on the very top and began (as I do) chatting with another lone traveler until the skipper asked all those interested in swimming to come to the cabin below for a safety talk. If/when they sighted dolphins, we would have very little time to get changed and jump in, so they wanted to give us the talk as early as possible. We filled out our health and indemnity forms and then listened to the safety regulations about not touching the dolphins, about the possibility of cold shock and hyperventilation in the water, and about how to wear a snorkel. Just as she was finishing up, the skipper announced a dolphin sighting. Our safety class all but disintegrated as everyone rushed to the doors and windows to see. Only threat of not being allowed in the water brought them back.

After the lecture was concluded, we did have a chance to go up on deck to see the dolphins in the water. As it turns out, the crew have to watch a pod for a while to determine their behavior before people can be allowed to join in. Juvenile dolphins are very curious and will wander off from their mothers in order to investigate the strange new creature in the water (eg, humans). Then the mothers will separate from the pod to keep their kids in sight and soon the two of them are cut off from the protection of the group. Bay of Islands is sheltered but not totally free of predators, including Orca, who would find a separated mother and baby quite ideal lunching. As such, Department of Conservation don’t want us in the water with the babies, not, as one might think, because it scares them, but instead because they are SO curious, they will put themselves in danger to be near us.

The other behavior that we cannot interrupt is feeding. Dolphins actually make separate time for feeding and for playing. Feeding is serious work, and usually group behavior. They work together to confuse and herd a shoal of fish so everyone can eat when the fish are grouped tightly near the surface. It saves energy from trying to catch one fish at a time and dolphins need a lot of energy. So if they are feeding, humans need to stay out of the way or we can loose them their lunch.

The dive instructor also told us that the dolphins could be somewhat cheeky and like to play pranks on swimmers. They had learned to recognize the boats and would come up to us just until everyone was in the water, and then swim away… until everyone was back in the boat and then come back again. It was their idea of a game, she told us, so don’t be surprised if they run off as soon as you get in.

20160816_094402As we were watching the dolphins swim around, the skipper announced they were feeding and we wouldn’t be able to go in the water after all. So I settled in to take some pictures and watch them play. I was amazed at how close to the boat they came. They swam around us, not just little fins in the distance, but just below the surface of the water alongside the rail. The skipper was identifying those of the pod she could by their dorsal fin shapes, as each dolphin’s fin is as unique as a fingerprint, and I’d only taken a few photos when suddenly the call came to change into our diving gear now, now, now.

Psych, Swimming!

I don’t have an underwater camera yet, and the crew were busy with saftey, so I don’t have any pictures of myself in the water. If

We rushed inside and started shedding layers of winter garb, scarves and jackets left pell-mell on the unused indoor seating. I ran to the toilet to throw on my swimsuit then back into the cabin for a wet-suit. They were only ¾ suits, stopping at knees and elbows, but that was likely for the best because they were faster to get on. Soon I was kitted out with a mask and flippers and people were lining up to jump into the water.

The boat had a large net on one side that we were meant to jump into and wait in. The boat pulled away from the dolphins while we entered so our splashing wouldn’t disturb them too much, then slowly went back toward them with us in the netting. The water was icy cold and shocking. Although it wasn’t actually freezing, 13 C feels intensely cold if you’re immersed in it. When I first tired my snorkel, it leaked and I was worried I’d miss my chance. People were already getting out of the net and into the open water while I was trying to convince the dive master to give me a new headset. She thought the water was coming in from the top, that I had it tilted back, but I’ve done snorkeling before and know what it feels like to have water come in at the top, this water felt like it was coming through a breach in the mouthpiece. Finally, I got a new mask and snorkel, and sure enough, no extra water.

By this time, I’d lost the group. I headed out into the water, following the pointing arms of the people in the boat who could see the dolphins nearby. At first I couldn’t catch my breath. This had made sense with the leaky snorkel, but now with the functional one, I worried for a moment I might be suffering the cold-shock induced hyperventilation she warned us about. I quickly tried to both get warmer by moving about and to get control of my breathing by taking even measured breaths. Yay for yoga. The instructor also told us that dolphins like to play. That holding still in the water is boring, so if we wanted their attention we had to spin about and do tricks and make noise. This sounds tricky while you’re on land, but it turns out that being in icy water and having lost not only all my people but also all my dolphins, meant I spun around like a top looking for anything there was to see while trying to stay warm.

The water, which had seemed so clear from aboard the boat, was cloudy once I was in it. The boat uses water jet engines and even on low they were stirring things up a little. Then there were the 9 people in the area trying their best to move around interestingly to attract dolphins, plus the dolphins themselves. When I popped my head up to orient myself, I found the group nearby and saw that the people in the boat were quite excited which told me the dolphins must be near. I put my head under again and I could hear them. Underwater is normally a very silent experience. If you are snorkeling or scubaing you hear only your breath; f you are holding your breath you hear nothing. It has always been one of the more peaceful things about swimming to me. Even on a crowded beach, I could just put my ears under and be in peace and quiet. But now, I could hear the dolphins.

You know the sound. Not the horrible Flipper sound of bad animal TV and even worse dolphin toys that sounds like some kind of deranged laughter. That is a sound we taught them to make in air. I mean the high pitched swoons and tiny popping clicks that they use with each other underwater. You’ve heard recordings, I’m sure. I know I have. That’s how I knew what I was hearing. But in the water, cloudy as it was and me with no echolocation in my skull, the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once. It was not muffled the way human voices and other sounds become under water are, but sharp and clear as any sound vibrating in air. A sound meant to be heard underwater. I almost stopped moving just so I could feel it better.

Then, out of the murk in front of me came a dolphin, huge and dark grey. The largest bottle-noses in the world live here and no one knows quite why they grow so large around NZ, but they do. When they swim past you at arms length, you understand just how truly large they are. The giant male in our group was about 4m in length (that’s 13 feet for the imperialists), the others not less than 3m. I swirled to look as he passed. I had no hope of keeping up the pace but wanted to look as long as I could, but then another passed by, and one below me. They didn’t come all at once, they almost seemed to be taking turns, and though I knew I was not far from the rest of the human group, I could not see any other people underwater with the limited visibility. I continued to whirl and spin, not for attention, but to see where the dolphins had gone. Suddenly a swathe of bubbles came up from below and to my left that could have been nothing else but a dolphin playing with me. Dolphins use bubbles to confuse and herd fish when hunting, but it is not unusual for mammals to imitate hunting behavior in play. (cats and yarn, anyone?) Despite the fact that bubbles are a hunting tactic, it was beyond clear these animals were playing and not threatening. It felt particularly interactive, and made me giggle and hum back to them underwater. Another pair swam by, and finally once more the huge, darker one. Then the crew was calling us back.

Did That Just Happen?

This may have been the single most ridiculously exhilarating thing I’ve ever done, I’m not sure. I don’t know how to talk about it without sounding like I’m bragging, but when people ask me what’s my favorite thing I’ve done, I can’t answer anymore because I’ve just done too many amazing things and it’s like choosing a favorite child. I’m lucky. I’m grateful. I wish everyone could have these experiences because I think if we all went around with a little more awe and gratitude the world would be a better place. Instead of a list from one favorite thing down, think of it like a series of tiers. The top tier is smallest, to be sure, but it has room for more than one thing, and it can grow if it needs too because it grows when you add stuff to it as do all the others. This experience definitely goes to the top tier where it will reside in good company with a few other peak memories of a lifetime.

I don’t have any pictures of myself in the water, but here’s a promo video from the tour company’s website to give you a visual of what I got to experience:

I am reasonably sure I was high on endorphins and adrenaline for the rest of the day. I could not stop grinning and I felt strangely warm once I was back on the ship. I was in no real hurry to get dry and dressed, and even once dressed, I felt fine leaving my scarf and coat on the chair. Meanwhile, the dolphins had swum away. They’d stuck around just long enough to play with us for a little while, then wandered off. Later, when I was talking to a crew member about them, she said that the dolphins in this pod included Ripper (an old grumpy male who usually hated people but liked showing off his male parts) and Flip. She said that they were not usually the friendliest of dolphins and often kept their distance from swimmers, but that for the last couple of weeks they’d been uncharacteristically interactive.

At that moment I had my first real clue that the gods of Aotearoa were putting on a show for me. I’m not kidding. One or two coincidences of timing and weather is luck, but this vacation has all the hallmarks of of “divine intervention” and this was the first sign that got through my thick skull. Keep watching.

Around the Bay

The dolphin encounter had been within the first 30 minutes of our 4 hour tour that day, so after I got dry and dressed we still had a lot of exploring to do around the bay. The Bay of Islands is famous because Captain Cook, the first European in NZ, decided it was a nice stopover on the way to Australia. For a while it was the most bustling metropolis in NZ, but ever since the capitol moved to Auckland, it’s become a sleepy little two town area that’s now famous for it’s beautiful seascapes and friendly dolphins.

20160816_105046As we rode out to “the Hole in the Rock”, we passed by dozens of tiny islands, some inhabited and some not. We were regaled with histories of piracy and assassination in the early days of European settlement, and of the farmers who later raised dairy cows around the islands which resulted in the need for a “cream run” boat to collect the milk and how that later became the first boat to run tourists around the bay as well and was the ancestor of the company boat we were currently on. The hole in the rock island has significance to the local Maori tribe and is still held in trust for them, although it is preserved as a wildlife refuge because it has no evidence of being exposed to external plant or animal life. We didn’t go on to the island because the boat tours don’t have an agreement with the Maori there, but we did sail out to take a look at the unique natural rock formation. When the weather permits, the boat will go through the hole, but the winds were too high so far out of the shelter of the Bay, and the skipper decided it wasn’t safe. Personally, I didn’t mind. If the weather had to pick only one thing to be cooperative about that day, I was in support of the swimming over sailing through a rock.

On the way back in, we spotted a tiny penguin. NZ has native penguins but I gather they are more common in the south. We also spotted a lone fur seal having a sun on a rock below a now remote controlled lighthouse. For the truly dedicated outdoorsperson, there is a cabin below the lighthouse that can be rented… if you’re willing to hike the 17km across the island to it. Finally we stopped at a larger island where we could disembark and walk around. There was a beautiful beach that I imagine would have been the most popular stop in the summer, letting the boaters bathe in the clear blue waters of the nearly undeveloped island coast. But since it was a little brisk for a second swim, I headed inland toward the viewing point instead.


The island boasted a flock of sheep and a few buildings, although we were told no one lived there full time. The hill was steep and we were pressed for time before the boat departed. Instead of my usual meander, I tried for a fast pace all the way to the top. It was a challenge, but the view was truly worth the effort. From the peak we could see all around the bay, the whole island we stood on, as well as others around us with the myriad shades of blue water, green land and yellow sand weaving a tapestry below the bright sunny sky. 


Back to Russell

20160816_122927Staying as long as we dared, we scampered back down the hill just as the boat was sounding the 10 minute warning and we passed the only other passenger ship on our way out.  During a lingering view of a close pair of islands, we spotted dolphins again. The same pod we had swum with earlier came back for another peek at the boat. The restrictions on swimming time meant we couldn’t go back in again, but this time I had more of a chance to watch them from the deck and snap a few more photos before they left us for the last time and we began our travel back in earnest. In opposition to some of our leisurely boating around the islands, we had a speedy return to the ports where we had two options for the afternoon: Piahia or Russell.

Although I boarded the boat in Piahia, I got off in Russell with a pass to take the ferry back when I was ready. Russell is the other sleepy little town here and I spent a nice couple hours chatting with a German tourist I’d met on the boat, enjoying a local lamb sandwich lunch, and walking around the town square to admire the local architecture and gardens. Despite the fact that it was still winter, there were so many beautiful flowers in bloom . It turns out that lilies grow wild in the north of NZ and this was the first time I’d ever seen a lily in the ground instead of a vase. I also found a banana tree that was part in bloom and part in fruit so I was able to see a banana flower for the first time as well. I certainly didn’t expect flower gazing to be a part of my winter tour of NZ, but it was a treat to see these beautiful blooms up close.

PSA: About the Bay of Islands Dolphins

During certain portions of our boat trip we traveled at max speed to cover distance when there was less to see. The waves were high and anyone on deck was likely to get drenched during the fast travel, so passengers came in to one of the two indoor cabins. On the way out to Hole in the Rock, I was drying off and changing from my swim. On the way back to Russell, however, I took the opportunity to sit down with the lady who knew most about the dolphins and ask her some more about who they were and what life was like for them here in the Bay of Islands.

I learned that dolphins don’t really have a “home” as such. If they did use the bay as a home, we would not be allowed to swim with them because that would be too disruptive. It’s only because the dolphins are also visitors to the bay that it is a safe space to interact with them. They like to have their young in the bay or places like it because the waters are sheltered and warmer. This is also where I learned about the problems of curious baby dolphins. She told me that even though the NZ government only approves three vessels at a time for dolphin encounters, every summer dozens if not hundreds of tourist vessels flood the bay and often approach the dolphins with engines running, or on high speed devices like jet skis that frighten and disorient the dolphins. The government approved vessels have special engines and never move fast near the animals. Additionally, summer visitors will often jump in the water with the dolphins with no regard for the animals safety, young, or feeding patterns which has been severely disruptive to their life and breeding. Both the number of dolphins in the bay and the birth rate of the dolphins have fallen dramatically in the last 20 years. The number of dolphins has dropped as much as 90% and the breeding rate has fallen by about 75%. This is not to say the dolphins themselves are dying out. They may be totally fine in another part of the ocean, but they aren’t using the Bay of Islands nearly as much as they used to, and the main contributor to this behavioral change has been human beings.

Don’t loose heart. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go see and swim with a dolphin here. I am saying you should do it responsibly. Make sure you go with a government licensed vessel and respect the dolphins breeding and feeding needs. If you do go out on a private vessel and happen to see them, make sure you slow down, don’t rush around them, and don’t chase them if they choose to swim away. Speed makes them uncomfortable, and they need to be free to get to open waters if they want. No matter how tempting it is, don’t jump in the water with them if you aren’t on one of the approved vessels. Their skippers are trained to know when it’s safe and healthy for the dolphins to have visitors. If you happen to be swimming or kayaking when dolphins approach, you don’t have to run away, but be respectful. Slow down, don’t chase them, don’t try to touch them. Swimming with wild dolphins is a magical experience, but if we chase it too hard, it will slip from our grasp. Dolphins will move away from disruptive humans and our chances to interact with them will dwindle to nothing. It took years of patience and planning to find a trip that met my standards to protect and not exploit the dolphins, but it was worth it. Please, if you love them, respect them and visit them in safety so that we can continue to do so for generations to come.


I thought about saving this story for last because so many people would assume that swimming with dolphins is just about the most amazing thing that could happen to a body during a vacation. In the end, I decided to keep it in order because the mounting sense of wonder, awe and appreciation that I felt over the course of 10 days is much more than any single experience can eclipse. I will treasure this experience forever, but it is not a jewel alone. I hope you’ll come back for more Tales from Aotearoa as we head for the waterfalls and the wilderness on the eastern side of the peninsula. Until then, please enjoy the full photo album on my Facebook page. Thanks for reading!

Ten Days in NZ: Waipoua Forest

I spent my second night in a farm town called Dargaville in a tiny little, um, place that I found on AirBnB. I don’t want to be unkind, but this was a great example of why you shouldn’t book rooms when you can’t see the interior in the add. The host was friendly and generous, however, and although the town of Dargaville is quite small, I found an Indian restaurant that was open late and wandered along the “downtown” waterfront before heading to bed. The next morning, I left with much alacrity, heading further up the western coast of the northern peninsula in search of the biggest and oldest Kauri trees in all of New Zealand, and by extension, in the world.

The Kauri are only found naturally in the northern peninsula and Coromandel peninsula of New Zealand, so this part of the trip was a unique chance to see a new species for me. The ancestors of the Kauri appeared first in the Jurassic age, and have changed little over time, contributing to the intense pre-historic feel of the Waipoua forests. Despite looking nothing like the average pine, spruce or fir tree we associate with evergreens, they are nonetheless coniferous.  After a century and a half of extensive logging, the trees are now protected, but the Kauri Die-back Disease is still killing them. As with all of our ancient forests, they cannot be replaced in our lifetimes. Save the Forests! Am I a tree-hugging hippie? Yes. I literally hug trees, especially ones as magnificent as these.


Google has some interesting interpretations of directions. Occasionally it will attempt to get to physically closer to the GPS coordinates listed for a site than the official car park for that site. This may mean it wants to go on strange back roads, private roads, or even closed roads on its quest for global positioning proximity. I followed Google Maps on one such mad quest this morning and the simple 45 minute drive up the main highway to Te Matua Ngahere became several hours of single lanes, dirt roads and gravel service paths.


Amid my wanderings I came across a hilltop between two farms that peeked between the rolling pastureland and cows straight out to the sea. I found hidden valleys filled with pale yellow grasses amid the vibrant green ones. I found a river that was crossed by a narrow, single lane, non-railed bridge that also doubled as a dam.


(I had to cross that twice, by the way, once going out and once coming back.) I found a lookout tower that offered 360 views of the whole region, and a path leading down the mountain that promised kiwi birds (although I saw none). Then finally, when I found that these roads did not lead to the Kauri I sought, I found the Waipoua Visitor’s Center. There I not only found directions, but another (or possibly the same?) river with a carving along its banks that had long since grown over with moss and plants, as well as a surprising field of bright pink flowers. Sometimes it pays to get lost.


20160815_130527When I did find the trail-head car park it was a bit later in the day than I’d hoped. The sun sets around 6pm in August where I was, so I had to make the most of the daylight hours. The first stop had 3 trails in one that lead to the 4 Sisters, Yakas, and Te Matua Ngahere. I was there for Te Matua, the second oldest living Kauri, known as the Father of the Forest. His viewing platform is the farthest in on the main trek, with trails for the other two branching off at intervals. The trails aren’t loops, so it’s just an in-and-back on the same path.

There are signs everywhere imploring hikers to stay on the path. Kauri trees, despite their immense size, have fragile root systems that rest near the surface and can be damaged by the passing feet of visitors. Parts of the path were even elevated to keep as much pressure off the roots as possible. I passed the turnoff for Yakas first, but it said 30 minutes (I don’t know why all the trails in NZ are posted in minutes rather than km., and worse, I didn’t know if that meant 30 min. one way or round trip!) I wasn’t sure I could spare an hour yet, so I postponed the decision, knowing I would come back this way on my return. The turn off for the 4 sisters said only 1 minute, so I decided to have a look. The path was elevated the whole way and I began to see trees whose girth inspired awe, but were not even labeled or named. As the path took me closer to the trees, I noticed their bark was quite peculiar, but I was still too far away to touch it.

20160815_131617The 4 Sisters are 4 large kauri trees growing close together. It’s fun to see tree formations like this, but I have to admit, it was a little underwhelming. The elevated trail that protected the roots also kept me far away from the Sisters. I’m used to being able to get up close with trees, and things farther away always do look smaller. Or maybe I’m spoiled because I’ve been to the giant redwood forests of California where it’s still possible to drive a car through a living redwood. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the view or the quiet energy of the forest. There’s a reason I’ll seek out ancient and giant trees anywhere I can, and it’s because they are always amazing. But, I also know what’s “big” in a tree and the 4 sisters weren’t it.

Returning to the main trail I found the sign telling me that Te Matua Ngahere was only 15 minutes away. I guess these are 5kmph “minutes”, but I walk slowly in the woods. I get engrossed in the scenery. I look at the plants and listen to the birds. In this forest, for example,  there was a bird that sounded for all the world like the Mockingjay from the Hunger Games movies, except it was 5 tones instead of 4. There were strange plants that grew from a ropy core up the trunk of a tree and sprouted cascades of green. There were stages of new growth, old growth, decay and rebirth that I had learned about in the WA rain forests and now observed here with different plants. It seems like such a shame to walk swiftly and purposefully through so many small wonders.

Along the way, the path led me right up to the base of an old Kauri too large for me to even get my arms halfway around. I had an excellent opportunity to explore the bark up close and feel the unique texture. The bark is designed peel away like paper if it gets a fungus or other infection,  so it’s worn like river rocks. There were no areas of splintering or wood shards, only rippling smoothness pocked and dotted with equally smooth bumps and whorls. There was a tiny little vine that grew up the trunk with little green leaves smaller than my pinky nail. There were a few spots of moss and lichen as well, but however long I ran my hands around the bark, the tree offered nothing but polished smoothness. It’s quite a contrast to the redwoods which tend to be rough and pitted with deep grooves between raised patches of bark. Running your hands over a California Redwood the way I was with this Kauri could easily result in a splinter or seven. 

Between my frequent pauses and my long tree hugging indulgence, I lost all hope of measuring my walk by time. I had no idea how close to the end I was. I walked on, enjoying breathing in the smell of the forest. Despite the decay and end-of-winter leaf mould, the forest did not smell dead, but rather the preponderance of evergreens and the fresh moving water gave the air an invigorating, clean and above all alive smell. I was feeling tremendously lucky to have had my wish to touch one of the giants granted, and just generally bursting with happiness when I rounded a corner and came face to trunk with the true giant: Te Matua Ngahere.


Ok, not quite face-to-trunk. He was still quite far off, but the path ended just ahead of me in a little cul-de-sac of benches and the forest canopy parted like a curtain to frame the enormous girth of the Father of the Forest. He is said to be the second largest living Kauri, but it depends on what you’re measuring. As far as I know, Te Matua Ngahere is the widest living Kauri, but does not have the total timber mass of the actual largest. 1043863_10151469307641646_1854591271_nAt a total girth of 16.3m, he’s only a little thinner than the tour-thru tree in Kalamath (shown here). He’s also probably about 2000 years old. There are several factors that make him impressive. One of course is the surprising view. Rounding a corner and coming upon him without warning is certainly a show-stopper. Compared to even the largest trees on the path, he is a giant, so he stands out among the forest in a way the redwoods (surrounded by similarly sized trees) do not. Another is that he is not that tall. He’s only 30m high and compared to the redwoods especially (which can be over 100m) he is short, like a withered old man whose spine has bent with age. The contrast of his girth and height make him seem wider, while the redwoods are proportionately similar to other cedars around them and can look almost ‘normal’ without some kind of prop for perspective. (Te Matua, left: 16.3m girth 30m height). Giant California redwood, right: 14.3m girth, 6+m height)

Either way, I did not begrudge my time to come and visit this squat giant. If anything the longer walk through the woods to reach him made the experience more serene, more spiritual. I took my obligatory photos, but then I simply sat there for ages, admiring the trees and listening to the animals who lived there. I could easily have spent hours just breathing the sweet air and soaking in the forest, but I could tell the light was changing and I wanted to visit Tane Mahuta before dark.

I spent so long lingering over the one trail that the afternoon was slipping away from me, so I opted not to visit Yakas on the way back. Taking another hour or more would have put the sun would behind the mountains by the time I got to Tane Mahuta. However, I found out later that even though Yakas is the 7th largest kauri in New Zealand, it is the largest that has a path leading right up to the trunk. Both Te Matua Ngahere and Tane Mahuta are set back from the walking trails so you can’t interact with them. When I learned about this I was a little sad to have missed the chance, but doubly glad to have spent some time with the touchable kauri on my way in, even if it wasn’t quite as big as Yakas.

20160815_125645Right at the trail head, positioned where everyone had to pass through it going in and out, there was a strange shoe cleaning contraption designed so you could scrub the soles and sides of your shoes, and then stand in a shallow sponge-full of disinfectant in hopes of reducing the spread of the horrible tree killing fungus, Kauri Die-Back. On the way out, I ran into some guys doing maintenance there and we talked a bit about the disease and the attempts at preservation around the area. Despite how clever the contraption seemed in concept, they weren’t actually too happy it, pointing out some flaws in effectiveness (like the brushes transfering debris from shoe to shoe instead of cleaning it away, and the disinfectant sponges going dry between scheduled refills) as well as the fact that it had turned a previously wheelchair accessible path into a non-accessible path. Hopefully NZ comes up with a good way to protect the trees and accommodate tourists soon.


Tane Mahuta is known as the Lord of the Forest. His trail-head is about 1km up the road from the three trails I had just seen and the parking area is much smaller. To make up for this, the trail itself is much shorter. About 1 minute away from the road, Tane Mahuta emerges to the left. His reveal is not so stunning as Te Matua Ngahere, and if you happen to be as I was, glancing off to the right or ahead (where orange signs draw the eye and indicate the trail ahead is closed), you may not even realize you are in the presence of the giant tree to your left. One of the maintenance guys told me that there was enough timber in Tane Mahuta to build a whole village. Although he isn’t as wide as Te Matua Ngahere (13.7m girth compared to TMG’s 16.3), he is taller (51m compared to TMG’s 30)and there seemed to be a whole other ecosystem in his upper branches. Other travelers have likened him to the central tree in Avatar and looking up into a tree that could build a village, whose canopy hosted a garden, I could understand why.

There is also a legend related on a nearby informational sign, which I later heard repeated by the Maori in Rotorua. Tane Mahuta is the son of Ranginui, the sky father and Papatuanuku, the earth mother. In early days these two remained in such a tight embrace that there was no space between them, and their children were forced to live in the cramped darkness. Eventually they decided to separate their parents, but none were able until Tane set his shoulders in the earth and his feet in the sky and drove them apart, making room for all his brothers. He is seen as the father of all life. During his quest for a wife, he first found only non-human females and fathered various insects, birds and trees. Finally he created a woman from the soil to be his wife and the first human.

artist: Jane Crisp

artist: Jane Crisp

As impressive as Tane is, because he’s so much closer to the road his glade lacked the peaceful serenity of Te Matua’s and after the 4th group of tourists wandered by, I decided it was time to go. I thought hard about going back to hike to Yakas, but in the end I drove on to Piahia instead. I ended up picking up a hitchhiker, a local Maori farmer, which I almost certainly would not have done after dark. His accent was thick and sometimes hard for me to follow, but he was an amicable fellow and talked to me about his plans to use his farm and horses to draw in some tourists for riding adventures and lessons. It rained on our way, despite the fact that the day had been sunny, so I was glad I had taken the extra daylight after all. I dropped him off one town shy of my destination where I arrived just as the sun was going down in the bay.


It turns out that New Zealand kauri forests are mostly evergreens, even if they don’t have needles, so exploring in the winter is a great way to see the giants with the place to myself. Two days into my adventure and I’d enjoyed the cool mild weather and some unique and magnificent natural wonders, but perhaps the least winter friendly of my plans was coming up in day 3. Piahia is one of the two main townships on the Bay of Islands where I discovered that dolphin viewing and even wild dolphin interactions were possible. Stay tuned for more tales from Aotearoa and until then, check out the full photo album from Waipoua Forest on my Facebook. Thanks for reading!