Ten Days in NZ: Odds & Ends

How to make a ten day vacation last 6 months? Write a blog! With one week left before my Malay Peninsula holiday, I’m finally publishing the last of my adventures in the Land of the Long White Cloud. There are several smaller adventures that I enjoyed around New Zealand that didn’t make it into their own full post, so I have assembled them here along with the story of my last day in New Zealand. Odds:  Onehunga & Shopping (Auckland), Kuirau Park & Wai-o-tapu Geothermal Wonderland (Rotorua), Narnia (Whangarei), Stargazing (Waitomo). Ends: Planetarium & Cornwall Park, a  farewell to Aotearoa.


Onehunga, Auckland: Cute Shopping & Best Bacon Ever

I wanted to try to find some items that are rare/impossible to find in Korea, so I decided to check out the premier outlet shopping center on my first morning in NZ before leaving civilization. The Dress Smart outlet is in Onehunga, so I set my GPS a220px-onehunga_mall_layout_in_onehungand headed over early so I could snag a parking spot and some breakfast before the shops opened. In the States, Outlet malls are often far from the cities or even the suburban sprawl and exist as sort of concrete islands in what is otherwise quite unattractive farmland. Imagine my surprise when the GPS led me to an adorable little neighborhood, streets lined with tiny cafes, boutiques and thrift stores. Onehunga is adorable.

I parked the car and wandered over to find breakfast where I discovered New Zealand bacon for the first time. I’m familiar with US style bacon (cured belly meat, thinly sliced), and what we call “Canadian” bacon (from the pork loin, more like cured ham), but this was the first time I had ever been served this unique blend. “Middle bacon” served in NZ and Australia comes from a middle area of the pig so as to include some of the back (common in English bacon), some of the loin (Canadian) AND some of the belly fat (American), so it’s basically the best of all bacony worlds 20160814_094812combined and explains why it both looks and tastes like US bacon and Canadian bacon were fused together in some kind of mad-biology experiment went right. If you are a bacon fan and you are unable to get yourself down under, I highly recommend making friends with a butcher to see if you can persuade them to sell you some of this stuff.

After breakfast I walked back to explore the mall. Although I didn’t end up buying much, it did give me a really good idea of the types of shops and clothing that are available and popular in NZ. Shoes are clearly the most expensive basic clothing item in NZ. It’s interesting to see what’s expensive and cheap from place to place. The Converse outlet store was selling hightops (my preferred shoe) for 100NZD (about 73USD). I can buy the same shoe on the website for 55USD. I also looked for some better weatherproof shoes for my journey through the bush (and I plan on doing more hiking in Korea when the weather cools off), but there just weren’t any shoes that came close to being an improvement on my Chucks that were less than 200$… at the outlet mall!

Conclusion: Onehunga is adorable and worth the visit.  Dress Smart is probably best for shoppers who are looking for nicer clothes and not so much camping/hiking gear.

Whangarei: Breakfast in Narnia

Whangarei was a quick stop over between Bay of Islands and the Coromandel Peninsula where I planned to check out the Waipu Caves and the Whangarei Waterfall. I got one more fun surprise there when I set out to find breakfast. This trip wasn’t really about food, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit a place calling itself Narnia.

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It turned out to be a simple cafe with a standard range of NZ cafe food. This is much superior to US cafe food and may include things like Eggs Benedict, or smoked salmon omelettes. The portions are generous, the food is fresh and often free range, and it tastes as good as a promo picture looks. 20160817_105844There were of course posters of the Narnia movies and copies of the books around the place, and some artwork on the walls by local artists. It wasn’t until my meal was finished and I went to find the restroom that I stumbled upon the most Narnian feature of the cafe. The back seating area (and restrooms) were through a hallway that had been hung on either side with fur coats so that you had to push past them in order to enter. It was very subtle, because even though I had seen things hanging in the hallway, I had not really realized what it was until I felt the fur on my hands as I pushed my way through to the other room. The strange and sudden realization that the otherwise very ordinary cafe had worked in a hidden-in-plain-sight magic wardrobe made my whole breakfast even better.

Rotorua: Kuirau Park & Wai-o-Tapu

market-timeWhile I was in Rotorua, I had planned to take a lazy walk around the Saturday Market and Kuirau Park (a free park that has geothermal activity). The market was a cute little local flea market kind of affair with folks selling used clothes and books, antique jewelry and dishes, and a whole lotta food stalls selling Kiwi and Maori foods. I had been hoping for more handmade goods, but it was still fun to wander around and I picked up my souvenir gifts there from the one handmade stand I found: a lady who made skin balm from the native medicinal kawakawa plant.

20160820_104641Kuirau park is interesting. It’s got lots of mud pools and a hot lake that are all gated off to keep kids or drunks from wandering into them. It also has public foot baths using the thermal waters so people can come by and have a nice warm foot soak. I suspect the park is nicer in any season besides winter because there are a lot of trees and flowerbeds as well that were bare, and what looked like fountains that were turned off for the season. However, it’s free, so I do recommend at least stopping by if you’re in Rotorua, especially if you’re thinking of doing other geothermal parks. Several other blogs I read recommended this as an alternative to Hell’s Gate unless the mud bath is on your bucket list.

Wai-o-Tapu, Geothermal Wonderland

20160820_114946_1-animationWai means “water” and tapu means “sacred”. This area is known in Maori as the sacred waters. In addition to the free hot springs, there is also a free to view mud pool and gyser (the Lady Knox). The only pay to play activity is the colorful geothermal park. In fact, it is the most colorful in Rotorua and in my view, ranks up there with Yellowstone. Most of Rotorua is shades of gray and brown (mud), but I’d seen some stunning photos of Champagne Lake and decided it was worth the 23$US to check it out.

Waiotapu has 3 trails that cover multiple types of geothermal activity. I found the shortest trail to be the least interesting because the craters are just large holes in the ground. The outer trails are where the magic happens, so don’t get discouraged. Go all the way around the park. The map says it’s 75 minutes to walk all three trails, but if you stop to admire the view and take photos it’s quite a bit longer, 3 hrs in my case. The park is so colorful because the various mineral deposits along with resident bacteria create a stunning palette. Unlike the considerably more neutrally toned hot springs I was soaking up the day before, the mud and waters in the park here can reach boiling temperatures (100C/212F) so don’t think about dipping your toes in!

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The walk starts with a series of craters that can display different shades based on the mineral content of the gases escaping, but the first exciting view comes in at stop #5: the Artist’s Palette. This stunning body of water does indeed look like a giant paint palette with different colors scattered around. It is followed by a series of soft jade colored pools and above ground mineral deposit formations. It’s hard enough to describe these and not entirely effective to capture them in photographs. There are shades of blue and green that are almost milky or opalescent. There are bright splashes of sulfur yellow and dark inky black mini-pools. Some of the pools are still, but others bubble with heat and escaping gases. The ground formations look like they belong in caves but are out in the open, creating textures and color delights that range from the tiny few cm across to the large petrified waterfall.

The third part of the trail leads steeply upward through a forested area. There are lovely vistas of the colored pools, and if you’re willing to make the extra hike all the way out to the Lake Ngakoro Vista, you will be rewarded with a stunning panorama and a long distance view of Mt. Doom (Ngauruhoe). I have to admit, realizing my whole hot spring adventure was “in the shadow of Mt. Doom” made my inner geek girl squee and I may have taken a few dozen photos from this spot.

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As you come back down the trail, it rejoins the second loop at the Champagne pool. This 20160820_142200.jpgdazzling body of water is the one you see on all the websites, brochures and billboards for Waiotapu because it’s deep blue water and vivid orange shoreline are such a visually striking image. Combine that with the meandering edge of the built up lip of the lake and you are just left gaping at the majesty and variety of nature. I also discovered the reason it’s called Champagne. There are teeny weeny bubbles effervescing around the pool giving it the distinct appearance of champagne in a wide glass sending a constant stream of tiny bubbles out into the world. The extreme heat of the pool combined with the cool late winter air meant that there were great plumes of steam rising up from the water and obscuring the far shore. It made for a dramatic landscape, but I did get dosed with some intensely sulfur smelling fumes when the wind shifted. Other than that, the park didn’t have much of an odor.

20160820_144422.jpgThe Champagne pool may be the star of the park, but it’s not the last surprise on the trail. After passing by a few more craters, you reach the final stop, “The Devil’s Bath”, which is a deep sided pool of the most florescent neon toxic waste movie effect from the 1980s colored water you will ever see. I’m sure you’re looking at the photos going “no way”, but yes way, Ted. A few more sight seers came around the corner while I was staring at it and were equally blown away. My best guess for what causes the crazy green shade? Bacteria, chlorophyll loving bacteria. Weather the colors of Waiotapu come from animal, mineral or vegetable, it’s a great way to spend a few hours in between hot springs. Check out the full photo album on FB, here.

Waitomo: Stargazing in the Southern Sky

I had such a good experience with the YHA in Rotorua, I decided to go ahead and book with the same company again in Waitomo. Despite being part of a chain, the two hostels could not have been more different. Rotorua YHA was a giant multi story, multi building complex akin to a college dormitory. It was also walking distance from lots of amenities including food, banking and entertainment.

The Waitomo YHA, however, was more like a farmhouse. There were maybe a dozen rooms, and a large wood-burning stove/fireplace in the middle of the common room, plus a baby sheep and baby goat on the premises in addition to the farm dog. It was clean and warm, so I’m in no way complaining, but it was a much yha-waitomo-juno-hallbigger difference than I had anticipated. I even saw an advertisement for a horse exerciser position that offered room/board/caving and a little cash, clearly intended to attract backpackers to the job. The hostel was walking distance from the main tour company that offered trips into the caves, but not much else. Because of the isolation, a local cafe did a pick up service to bring guests over for a meal and a beer.

After dinner it couldn’t have been later than 8:30 at night, but the moon wasn’t up yet and the sky was clear as glass. I could see more stars than I’ve seen anywhere except some remote mountains and deserts. I remarked on the view to the driver, but he said that it wasn’t really much compared to the “real” views of stars they get, and that he’d come to take the whole thing for granted. He forgot people in the city couldn’t see it every night.

Despite the chill in the air (aka, winter), I couldn’t just go back inside, so I turned off the back porch light of the hostel and lay down in a hammock where I could look up without straining my neck. It was awe-inspiring and disorienting to see so many stars, but recognize none of them. I’m not an astronomer, but I went to my share of planetarium shows as a kid and I can pick out the big dipper and Orion easily enough. But even if I don’t know the names of all the stars in the northern hemisphere, I know the patterns as familiar.

Imagine you go to the same Starbucks every day, then one day you walk in and the whole shop has been rearranged. You couldn’t say where everything used to be, but you know that it’s different now. These were stars, the same lights and shades of color I was used to, but sprinkled unfamiliarly around the sky. What’s more, there was a patch of milky space that was clearly not a cloud but something much farther away. I’ve seen an arm of the Milky Way once or twice, it’s hard to see in the US anymore because of the huge amount of light pollution everywhere, but if you go far enough into a dark zone you can see it. This had a similar quality, but the shape was completely wrong. I couldn’t tell if I was looking at a part of the Milky Way or some other nebula deep in space. Either way, it was entrancing.

53ff6124cc72cb8388240908b242e4a0The only constellation I’d heard of for the southern hemisphere was the Southern Cross, featured on the NZ flag. I looked for it, but at the time, I wasn’t totally sure if what I saw was the constellation or my wishful thinking. After all, how many patches of 4 stars can look like a cross if you’re trying to find one? I stayed outside until my fingers got numb, soaking in the interstellar beauty and realizing once more, NZ had granted my wish. Before I came, I thought about how much I was looking forward to seeing the night sky from the south, yet until that moment, every night I’d been outside there had been either cloud cover or a bright full moon, making the stars invisible. Yet here on my last night in the bush, the night sky collaborated to put on just one more show.

Auckland Take 2: French Food, Planetarium & One Tree Hill

From Waitomo I drove back to Auckland. I found that driving away from the twisting, unlit roads that had so vexxed me just 9 days ago was sad and difficult. As the roadways became wider, straighter and streetlights appeared at regular intervals I began to feel that my time in wonderland was over as I drove back into the land of the urban and the mundane. I managed to negotiate a parking place at my hostel in the city and decided that if I was going to be urban, I might as well enjoy the city for what cities have to offer and I took myself out for a lovely meal at a nearby French restaurant.

Although there were many amazing looking things on the long menu, I decided to go with a set out of some nostalgia for my all too brief visit to France. I got a marrow bone with toast for an entree (appetizer), a duck confit for the main dish, and an apple tarte tartin for desert. I also found a type of wine on the menu that I was unfamiliar with called a Viognier and decided to try that.

20160822_211246The marrow bone was a huge bone, cut in half longways and sprinkled with a crust of herbs and sharp white cheese (perhaps a parm or asiago). If you’ve never had bone marrow, and are not a vegetarian, I would like to recommend it. It’s basically like meat butter, which is to say it’s rich rich rich like the best butter you can imagine but instead of tasting like cream, it tastes like the meat of the animal from whence it came. You will not ever have a cut of meat, however well marbled, that is as rich and decadent as bone marrow. As I scooped the marrow from the bone and spread it on the toast, I wondered briefly if I’d made a mistake in ordering so much food when the first dish was so intense.

I drank water with the bone marrow dish. Only after it was cleared away did I taste the wine for the first time. It was a light and pleasant white. The internet tells me Viognier is similar to Chardonnay, which I can see, although this particular bottle (no idea) was to my mind, neither especially sweet nor dry and certainly not oaky (a common way to age Chardonay). It was a good match for the meal and highly drinkable. I’m not a sommelier so I’m not going to get much more descriptive than that about the wine, but it’s my new second favorite white (Gewurztraminer is still number one).

The duck confit on the other hand is something I could talk about at great length. This magical way of preparing duck in it’s own fat produces some of the most tender and flavorful results you could hope for, but on top of the “regular” process, this restaurant had decided to serve the duck in a spiced candied orange sauce. 20160822_213413.jpgThe duck rested atop some caramelized onions and roasted potatoes which were themselves drowned in the heavenly sweet and spiced sauce. Atop the duck rested the candied and stewed orange slice and a small tomato, the sweet and tart qualities of which were complimentary to the sauce. At first glance I thought it was a version of orange duck, but then as the spices reached my nose and soon my tongue, Christmas exploded inside my head.

It was decadent, and the crisp Viognier was a good break for the sweetness of the sauce and richness of the duck itself. It took me a long time to work my way through the meal, not just because I wanted to savor each bite to combine different layers of ingredient in different ways and experience all the flavor combinations, but because I had to pause and wait for my stomach to make more room. When the waiter with his thick French accent came by to check on me, I told him I hadn’t had food like that since the last time I was in France he smiled demurely. I don’t know how many Kiwi’s have a chance to try real French cuisine, but he was clearly pleased that I made the comparison between the homeland and his little restaurant down under. I’d had duck confit in France, but it was lightly seasoned and focused mainly on the flavor of the duck. This warm citrus holiday spiced version just about blew my mind!

20160822_215921Finally, I considered myself conquered and had to leave some of the veggies behind to save space for my tarte tartin. This is a sort of upsidedown caramelized apple pie with ice cream on top. It was wonderfully soft and well flavored without being overly sweet. The caramelization left a light and pleasant bitterness, and the apples themselves brought a bit of tartness. In the end, I couldn’t manage more than a few bites and felt horribly guilty for letting such a culinary treasure go to waste. I apologized to the waiter, trying to assure him the tarte’s taste was not to blame for so much of it being left behind. I finished off the evening with a digestive (because boy did I need one by then) of green Chartreuse which is a fabulous herbal infusion made by French monks that is basically like Absinthe’s grown up, more erudite older brother.

Planetarium

I took advantage of my last day in the city to pick up items that aren’t readily available in Korea (deodorant, peanut butter cups, jeans my size), and as my shopping came to a close, I realized I still had several hours before I had to drop the car off. I began to think about some very sage advice I’d read about vacations: the first and the last thing you do set the tone of the whole trip because the first sets your expectations for the trip itself and the last seals in your memories.

I decided to have one more glance at Google Maps to see what was around me and noticed a little spot marked “planetarium” only a short drive away. I stared in disbelief. One more time, New Zealand had heard and answered my wishes. Just two nights before I had lay in that hammock under the unfamiliar stars wishing I could learn more about them and here was the planetarium practically right next to me! Of course I had to go.

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It turns out that the Stardome Observatory & Planetarium is inside Cornwall Park, which is famous for One Tree Hill, one of the two main (natural) high points in Auckland to get a panorama of the city from and highly recommended on the short list of free things to do. The Stardome itself has a free gallery exhibit as well. I looked on the website to try to find times for the planetarium shows, but all I could find were things about Pink Floyd.

I decided to go in person and find out what I could, hoping that they had regular shows on the hour or something similar that I could at least use to get a general idea of what I’d been looking at the other night. As I was waiting for the lady at the counter to finish helping someone else, a young woman in employee garb came out from the back and started talking in a clearly North American accent. When I had my chance, I asked her where she was from and how she came to be working at the planetarium in NZ so far from home. It turned out she was also from my mom’s hometown! After our chit chat, I remembered to ask about the shows. I told her I wanted to learn more about the southern night sky. She pulled out a brochure with the show times, but the next one would sadly not start until after I had to be at the airport. I explained my predicament, thinking maybe I could have a look around the gallery or have a few specific questions answered when suddenly she said, “do you have a little time now?”

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It turned out that she didn’t just work there, but ran the planetarium shows for the school trips that came through. Since the school day was over and the evening shows had yet to start, the viewing room was totally unoccupied and she offered to provide a private mini-show!

She went through a hasty review of the northern hemisphere, comparing Seattle and Busan for me before moving on to Auckland. It was great to be able to review my little bit of astronomy and get to ask questions as they popped into my head and the relevant images were on the screen. The Auckland night sky was much less impressive than what I’d seen in Waitomo. She pointed out a few familiar northern constellation inverted. It hadn’t even occurred to me to look for any, let alone to turn them upside down to see them from the southern perspective. She filled my head with facts and tidbits on star names, distances ages and whole new southern constellations.

Finally, we left Auckland for a night sky that she said was probably more like what I got in Waitomo and sure enough, the distinctive milky glow was right there. It turns out that it is part of the Milky Way, but not an arm like we see in the northern hemisphere. It is the center of the Milky Way itself. And if that wasn’t cool enough, there’s a void in th9029405_orige milky light caused by dark dust in the way that the Maori people identified as a type of constellation by negative space rather than connecting the dots. It’s an emu.She also taught me how to find the Southern Cross and use it and the Pointers to find due South. It’s not quite as convenient as having Polaris, but it was fun to see it in action.

The whole thing was much shorter than a show would have been, but it was absolutely a highlight of my visit to be able to get a personal tutor and starshow to help me better understand the southern skies. We stood around chatting outside the theater area for a good long while afterward about astronomy, science, history, neuropsychology and a plethora of other fun learning topics. I got the impression she’s a person I could easily be friends with if we had the chance.

The Last Farewell From One Tree Hill

I left the planetarium feeling wholly reassured that my final memories of New Zealand would help make a great last impression. I didn’t have time left to walk around the park. The airport was only 15 minutes away, but I had to fill up the tank and navigate traffic. Pulling out of the parking lot, however, I noticed a map of the park and decided I did have enough time to drive around the loop road and go look at the famous One Tree Hill.

Cornwall park is a large green space in the middle of a fairly urban area, but it’s not just any old inner city park. I drove down tree lined roads with daffodils in bloom. I passed a hillside of sheep and lambs as well as a field of cows. There were even a few chickens wandering around. As a final farewell, it brought back the pastoral beauty of the previous week’s travels. The view from the top was a complete 360 of Auckland starting with the wide greenbelt of the park itself, and ending with the sea and distant mountains with the bustling metropolis a tiny strip of urbanization in between. I watched the sun sink low and turn the blue-white sky into shades of gold and gray. Then I got back into the car and drove off to the airport. I could not have asked for a better farewell from Aotearoa.

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The experiences and memories from this very brief trip are now woven into the fabric of who I am. Every trip, every new place, person or experience changes us, some more than others. New Zealand may be one of the most magical places I’ve had the chance to experience and for whatever reason, my entire trip there felt like I was really connecting with the spirits of the land through the soles of my feet as the Maori myths imply. Ten days is too short a time to know if it is a place I could call home, but I know that Aotearoa and I are not finished with each other yet. I will be back someday, to walk more paths and breathe more forests and bask in the gifts of beauty and serendipity that are offered.

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

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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.

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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

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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

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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 New Zealand: An Overview

Having spent the last few days recovering from the cold I managed to give myself at the end of my trip, I’m now feeling much better and ready to tackle the slightly overwhelming task of writing about these 10 awe inspiring, action packed days and the truly daunting goal of winnowing down the over 2000 photos I took into something that is beautiful and interesting rather than something that resembles the family holiday slide show from hell. As you can imagine, this might take me a bit of time. Furthermore, I’m starting school again this week, and I have an upcoming long weekend trip to Jeju Island. I also don’t want to dump a novel on you all at once. So, be patient. The stories will come, and they will be no less wonderful just because you read them a few weeks or even a few months after they happened.


My Route:

I made a little road map to show you the relatively small section of NZ I managed to explore, and here’s the basic itinerary. (As they get written, I’ll be linking the full story to each counterpart in the short list below).

NZ drive map (1)

Day 0: Auckland (arrival, rental car, sleep)
Day 1: Auckland (Onehunga), Piha (black sand beach), drove to Dargaville (sleep)
Day 2: Waipoua Forest (giant Kauri trees), drove to Piahia (sleep)
Day 3: Piahia (Bay of Islands, dolphins!, Haruru Falls), drove to Whangarei (sleep)
Day 4: Whangarei Falls, Waipu Caves, drove to Hot Water Beach (midnight low tide)
Day 5: Hot Water Beach, Cathedral Cove, drove to Rotorua (sleep)
Day 6: Wai-O-Tapu – hot springs (Kerosene Creek, Hot & Cold, Waterfall Spout Bath)
Day 7: Rotorua (Saturday market, Kuirau Park), Wai-O-Tapu (geothermal park), Maori
Day 8: Wai-O-Tapu (hot springs), Matamata (Hobbiton), drove to Waitomo (stars!)
Day 9: Waitomo (glowworm caves, black water rafting), drove to Auckland
Day 10: Auckland (shopping, Planetarium, Cornwall Park, One Tree Hill), Airport

It was a jam-packed holiday to be sure. I intend to breakdown the stories based on geographical region and/or type of activity, therefore while it will mostly be in order, it’s not a strict blow by blow of the 10 days. In the remainder of this post, I want to share a few interesting things I learned about New Zealand that are useful if you want to travel there and are just generally neat.

Tipping:

This bizarrely internationally inconsistent cultural habit changes drastically from country to country and making a mistake while you’re visiting can be awkward or even offensive. Quick guide to NZ tipping is that you don’t. It’s not a tipping culture except…

1) let taxi driver’s keep the small change. It’s not precisely a “tip” it’s just inconvenient to make them dig out exact change.

2) similarly, tip jars if present in cafes are not looking for anything more than the small change (under 1$).

3) exceptional service – if you feel like a waitperson has just gone above and beyond, leaving a tip is a way of thanking them for that, but it is not expected at most restaurants or meals.

4) fancy restaurants – I didn’t go to one, but I hear a 10% is standard at these. Every place I ate at did not have a tip line on the credit card slip, thus it was actually impossible for me to leave a tip if I wasn’t paying in cash. Maybe big fancy places are different, I can’t say.

While I do cough up the cash where tipping is standard (don’t even get me started on tips as wages), I prefer non-tipping cultures because there is no awkward math or trying to judge my server’s performance. I typically find that I get better service when tips aren’t on the line because my servers aren’t busy calculating which of their tables is going to make them the most money. Plus, having done food service before, I’m convinced tip wages are some kind of anxiety induced torture because staff never know how much money they’ll actually make. So just be polite and courteous to your servers, say please and thank you and don’t worry about dangling a financial reward in front of them for doing their job well.

Driving:

For some reason, despite all the research that I did before going to New Zealand, I did not realize that they drove on the left until the day before I got on the plane. I even read about NZ traffic laws because I planned to rent a car and drive around, but somehow the government sponsored website failed to put that in an obvious place. As a result, when I landed in Auckland and got the shuttle to my rental car company, I was frantically trying to watch the traffic and the driver as closely as possible. On top of that, it was dark by the time I got my car, so I had to navigate my way to my airbnb in this backwards car on the wrong side of the road and in the dark. I do not think I have gripped a steering wheel that hard in years.

It turns out the hardest part of driving on the left isn’t the left lane, it’s the car itself because the driver’s seat is now in the right and everything is backwards. The turn signal and windshield wipers are reversed. I cannot tell you how many times I accidentally turned on my wipers while trying to signal. The gearshift is on the left. Thankfully, I had an automatic and the only times I was shifting were in parking lots, but I often found myself reaching for a steering column mounted shift that simply wasn’t there because my muscle memory found that to be the default when there was no gearshift to my right. Good news, gas and brake were still the same, otherwise I might have had some nasty accidents.

Driving on the left is mostly just a matter of staying in your lane. If you’ve ever driven in a multi lane highway, you’ll have experience with driving on the left as the passing lane (although here the left is the slow lane and the right is passing only). Oncoming traffic was terrifying for the first two days, and I spent about 4-5 days chanting “left, left, left” to myself every time I made a turn to help me land in the correct lane on the other side of the intersection. NZ doesn’t have many of “highways” as we think of them in America or even Europe. Much of the country is made of tiny winding wooded mountainous treks. It was a relief to get out of Auckland and have less traffic, but it was a whole new challenge to drive down roads that twisted with scant visibility and narrow lanes that ended in cliff-sides or sheer drops. I pulled over frequently. Partly because a line of impatient Kiwi drivers behind me wanted to go faster than I felt safe driving, but largely because the scenery in NZ is incredibly breathtaking, and I needed to stop driving so I could look at it properly.

There are a preponderance of roundabouts. All the roundabouts. I usually only saw “intersections” in the more pastoral areas. In anywhere with civilization, the preferred interchange was the roundabout. These were quite intimidating at first because there are no stop indicators, only “give way” or yields. You have to check to your right to see if anyone is already there, then go. Then count exits to find yours and trust that everyone else is going to yield to you once you’re in the roundabout. I made several mistakes, but no crashes.

Lastly: one lane bridges… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too much infrastructure? Maybe the bridges were built at a time when all the roads were one lane? Maybe kiwis just like driving dangerously? I lost count of how many one lane bridges I crossed. There are helpful signs that tell you which lane has right of way. It’s based on who has better visibility of the bridge. If you can see the bridge, you have to give way.  Only once did I have someone fail to yield to me when they should have, I assume another visitor confused by the rules, but I managed to stop in time.

As crazy as all of these things seemed when I started my journey, by the time I got to the end, I was entirely adjusted. I found myself driving at (or just above) the speed limit on those curvy roads. I barely slowed entering roundabouts with no oncoming cars. I learned how to pass the other slow drivers on the road, and was able to confidently navigate Auckland by the time I returned there on day 10. I met other travelers who were busing it, and a few who had rented campers. It became apparent that the busing travelers were highly limited in schedule and in events. They had to rely on tour groups to go anywhere outside the cities. I think the camper might be the best way to go, being able to park in free parking lots (of which there are many) and cheap campsites wherever you like is liberating, but I got turned off RVs when my dad explained the septic tank process. I think for my short trip the car was ideal. There are hostels near every point of interest that are cheap enough and I still had the freedom to track down some out of the way places at some less popular times. Conclusion? Driving on the left is challenging but worth it for New Zealand.

Insurance:

Ok, insurance isn’t exciting or glamorous, but most of us know it’s an important part of travelling because you never want to find yourself far from home with no way to pay for any liability you may incur due to accident or injury. Turns out NZ is one of the most traveler friendly nations in terms of coverage, so if you’re tired of expensive traveler’s insurance, this might be a good alternative.

Fortunately, I did not have any need to visit the healthcare system in New Zealand, but I did learn while I was preparing my travel plans (including insurance) that all accidental injury (regardless of the Darwinian nature of the cause or who is at fault) is 100% covered for anyone in NZ. ‘Anyone in NZ’ doesn’t just mean residents, but literally if you are injured in NZ, the government will pay for the healthcare you need. Obviously there are some limits, like long term care which you would get in your home country if you’re just visiting, but it was still good to know that if I got into a car accident or slipped and fell in a stream and broke my arm or something similar, that at very least the financial side of my imaginary tragedy would not be a burden.

Canadians reading this are probably going ‘well, duh’, because you guys never worry about healthcare costs it seems, but the Americans will get it. Accidental injury is one of the great banes of our existence where a trip to the ER can wind up costing thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. I often get some kind of traveler’s insurance that will keep me from bankruptcy and get me back to my country of residence for real care, but those policies don’t cover too much and can still leave you with poor care choices and large bills.

It’s never fun to have to limit your adventurous activities for fear of medical bills and thanks to the NZ government, I didn’t have to! Of course, I still didn’t want any broken bones. I was careful, but it was a serious relief to know that I was covered.

Additionally, all rental car companies must provide basic car insurance with every rental. You can’t decline the basic insurance (although you can choose the included basic over the extra cost comprehensive). This matters for a few reasons. One, lots of credit cards offer insurance if you pay for the rental on the card and decline the optional insurance. I spent some time trying to get a manager at Visa to confirm with me that the insurance in NZ isn’t optional and wouldn’t count against my Visa based car insurance (which would then basically cover damage to the car or other property, but not medical bills). Two, because of the accidental medical coverage, car insurance doesn’t need to include medical. Any injury sustained in a car accident will already be covered. Three, if you’re leaving the cities, you will scratch that car. The damage from small scratches from branches on the side of the road or stones thrown up from the car ahead of you are small and easily covered by the basic insurance and because everyone has it, the rental companies don’t stress trying to get a couple hundred extra dollars out of you for a scratch on the paint.

I’m afraid if your stuff gets stolen or broken, NZ doesn’t cover you for that, but I’ve found often renter’s or homeowner’s insurance has an option to cover your belongings while you’re on the road and sometimes the flight insurance will cover belongings for the duration of the holiday.

Water:

Not the drinking water (though that’s fine too), but the ocean, lakes and rivers. The vast majority of water in NZ is considered public. Water doesn’t belong to anyone. This has actually caused some controversy with the Maori population who lay claim to some bodies of water and the rest of the NZ government who say that water cannot be owned. Take a moment to savor the idea that water cannot be owned and then go write a letter to your congressman about Nestle buying up all the clean water in North America so they can sell it back to us in plastic bottles. The issues with Maori are complex and involve things like land use rights, fishing rights, and mineral rights that give them more exclusive access to waterways in some places, but not actual ownership of the water.

In addition, there is a piece of land called the “Queen’s Chain” which exists around most waterways (sometimes it does not due to environmental or safety reasons to restrict public access, and there’s still about 30% of the coastline the government is working to get back in the public domain, again, it’s complicated). The Queen’s Chain is 20m of land on one or both sides of a waterway that are public land, free to access assuming you don’t have to tromp through private property to get there. I’m told sometimes the farmers get stroppy (with shotguns) about backpackers and kayakers who are following a stream or river from a public access point into their land, so it does pay to be aware of where your river goes if that’s your plan.  If you want to read more about the laws, you can do so here.

The upshot of all these laws is that there are almost no privately owned resorts, country clubs or homes that get restricted access to a beach, river, lake or hot spring. How cool is that? I’ve been to many coastal areas with beautiful beaches that have just been developed to death because hotels can charge big bucks for access to their private beach. When I lived in Florida, the small stretch of beach that didn’t cost an arm and a leg to get into was limited and often overcrowded. In tropical paradises in the Caribbean, beaches have become little more than oceanfront bars. In Dubai they are oceanfront dance clubs. In Washington state, when we want to go to a hot spring or waterfall that’s undeveloped, we have to go into a state or national park and hike for several km. In NZ, however, these things are all near roadways with easy public access and safe off road parking. Many of them are even handicapped accessible.

Many of the astonishing places I visited on this holiday were only possible for me to see because of these laws concerning waterways and the land near them. If there were a hot spring on a beach in the US it would be a private resort charging guests hundreds of dollars for the experience, but in NZ it was totally free and natural with no looming 30 story hotels and no one selling margaritas above the high tide line, just a well-heeled campsite on the other side of the highway, a few private homes scattered through the hills, a quaint local cafe, and an art gallery. Similarly, Rotorua has fancy spas that filter the natural mineral water for clean and landscaped soaking experiences, which is fine, but less than 30 minutes out of town I was able to visit 3 natural hot pools in one day and spend a couple hours in each with no rigorous hiking or exorbitant fees.

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I support paying reasonable fees to maintain public land (taxes, anyone?). I happily paid my annual public park fee in Washington when I lived there (about 30$ for all access). What I can’t get behind is the total commercialization of natural beauty.  I’m not saying visiting cities or man-made wonders isn’t worthwhile too (goodness knows, I go to ancient ruins and modern amenities all the time) but it doesn’t replace a natural experience. The earth is our home and it is full of wonders that we cannot create nor replicate. Of course sometimes that means you’ll get dirty, or get a few bug bites, but it’s worth it and you get to come home to a hot shower after all because that’s the balance. Flushing toilets and hot water can coexist in a world with fresh rain-forests and pristine beaches.  New Zealand’s water laws don’t just protect the water, but much of the land around it, preserving the environment and giving us access to nature’s best features. I think a few other countries could take notes.

Lord of the Rings & Hobbits:

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All 6 films were made in New Zealand (in case you were living under a rock). Many natural features of the land are now famous Middle Earth landmarks. Most of those beautiful panoramic views were real, and not computer generated. It’s quite popular for Tolkien fans to make a pilgrimage from movie site to movie site. Most of the landscape has been carefully returned  to its wild state so you won’t see the Hall of Rohan at Edoras or the Last Homely House at Rivendell. However, walking around the bush in NZ made me feel like an adventurer in Middle Earth more often than not (the rest of the time, I felt like I was in Jurassic Park, more on that later). I also got more excited than I truly care to admit when I realized I could see “Mt. Doom” from the park in Wai-O-Tapu. I didn’t do much LOTR location viewing because most of the sets are actually further south than I ventured on my short trip, but it was fun to go to Hobbiton and see the Shire and I hope that I get to do more of the mountains and forests when I make it back to see the South Island.

Fern Gully:

Yes, that tree-hugging animated feature from the early 1990’s was based on the forests of New Zealand. Both the Maori and the British settlers contributed to a massive deforestation of New Zealand. Estimated to have dropped from 80% to 50% under Maori stewardship and then to as low as 20% under British/Kiwi stewardship, the forests of New Zealand have been under attack for nearly 1000 years. Up until 1985 deforestation was actually encouraged and subsidized by the government. However, the Department of Conservation was finally established and now native forests are protected, making up to about 15% of the land, and a further 15% are replanted forests (some of which are still logged for timber, but at a sustainable growth rate that will continue to increase forestation over time).

As a side note, Batty Coda (the insane bat voiced by Robin Williams) represents the only native land mammal in New Zealand. All other land mammals presently there were imported for fur, meat or milk. The Maori people thought of bats as a type of bird that represented knowledge and wisdom and incorporated it into their tattoos. You can see lots of NZ plant life as well as other unique New Zealand creatures in the movie including the large gecko that tries to eat Zack and the cave full of glow worms that Crystal and Jack go to be romantic in.

Whether Kiwi attitudes toward logging and preservation were impacted by Fern Gully or not, conservation has now become a significant part of life and government in NZ. With care and attention, the beautiful forests and natural landscapes that I was privileged to travel through will exist and grow richer in the decades to come.

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I hope this whets your appetite for more tales from New Zealand. I’ll be working diligently to get the rest of the posts up in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading 🙂