Saturday, March 31, 2012

Goodbye, New Zealand!

At 3:30 am, feeling less than stellar, we got up and left the hostel. We had to wake our cab driver, who was snoozing outside, in order to load into the taxi. Paul said the driver continued to doze off while driving us to the airport, but I was too nauseous to notice. From there, we went through nearly the same route in reverse, flying from New Zealand to Australia and then to LA before finally landing, nearly 40 hours later, in Minneapolis. The timing of our flight combined with the time zone shifts meant we left on Monday and got back on Monday. This resulted in us eating a ridiculous amount of meals at odd times. I think it is possible we ate 3 lunches that day!

We were definitely sad to see the trip end as we could have been happily busy for so much longer in New Zealand. But, we knew we had limited time and that we made the most of our time there. Paul said the picture above (drawn on a wall at Spa Lodge Backpackers) really captured how it feels to leave New Zealand. Big, fat unicorn tears.

Blogging about this trip would not be complete until I trace this trip back to its source. Paul and I were able to take this trip because of a generous gift. My mom and her husband Roger inherited some money when Roger's brother Jim passed away. Jim was a well-traveled man who placed great value in seeing the world. He lived according to that value, working in many different countries throughout his life, many of them developing nations. When he passed away and money from his estate went to my Mom and Roger, they wanted to use some it in a way that would have pleased Jim. The chose to give my sister, Paul and I the very generous gift of airfare to anywhere we wanted to go. The instructions were to pick somewhere we may not have otherwise been able to visit. (My sister Jessy went to Kenya!) So, we thought long and hard about what would be a memorable and rewarding place for us to go that both Paul and I would enjoy. We finally settled on New Zealand, as halfway around the world is pretty much as far away as one can go!

This trip was truly memorable and also very well timed. When we received the gift, we both had just started new jobs. As soon as we chose where we wanted to go, we spent the next year saving up money and vacation time. It took a full year to get it all in place and now that we went, it is safe to say we have the travel bug! We plan to continue saving at the same pace so we can travel again as soon as possible. The gift from Jim, Roger and my mom has definitely encouraged us to dream big! So, folks, tell us! Where would you go if you were given a gift like this? Where should we go next? Such fun questions to ponder!

You know, sometimes when generosity starts flowing your way, it keeps on flowing. When Paul's mom found out what we were planning, she surprised us with some money to spend on something special while we were there. With her funds, we went on that amazing caving trip. Although, she may not have approved of our choice if she could have weighed in on the decision ahead of time!

And, my friend Pam was so excited for us when I told her where we were going, she pulled out some cash and gave us the instruction to have a treat on her there. We bought the ingredients for this tasty fruit and nut plate with her gift.

And, last but certainly not least, a debt of gratitude goes to Meg and Cyrus for holding down the homefront while we went on our adventures. They moved into our house and took care of Jack, Tchazo, Fanny, our plants and our house. I think they may have even had to shovel while we were gone! We felt completely comfortable leaving our home and our family in their capable hands. It was wonderful to know that our pets got to stay home and be stress-free while we were away. And, Meg and Cyrus are insanely considerate house guests to boot!

So, folks, that is the end. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone mentioned above and to Paul, the best traveling partner (and all-around partner) I could ever hope for. And, thanks to you for reading through this and experiencing a bit of NZ with me. For the time being, we'll go back to regularly scheduled programming around here (knitting, life, food), but I have a feeling we'll be traveling again soon.

(One more thing! Yesterday, we got the reimbursement check from Delta! We were not going to take no for an answer and I think they might have figured that out. The lost bag saga is finished!)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Rotorua to Auckland - Agrodome, Scenes from a Car and a bit more of Auckland

We have nearly reached the end of the trip and there haven't been any yarn stores! We asked around and found that we were likely to come across a good yarn selection at the Agrodome on our way from Rotorua to Auckland. The Agrodome is part working farm, part attraction and part shopping. We came in as they were escorting the very patient and well mannered sheep representatives out of the auditorium. Check out all of those breeds!

The woolshed did indeed have some yarn, but none of it struck my fancy. New Zealand is known for merino wool, but it turns out nearly all of it is exported (I'm looking at you, SmartWool!). They do sell a yarn that is part wool and part possum, but since they kill the possum's to harvest the fur, I wasn't so keen on that yarn.

Merino sheep have beautiful horns!

After chatting with one of the staff people in the shop about New Zealand's lack of yarn stores and buying a tea towel with sheep screen printed on it, I bid adieu to the Agrodome.

Speed limit: 100km/hr. Naughty Paul.

We hit the road for our last stint behind the wheel in New Zealand. I had a great time taking shots of the view out of the car windows and inside of the car.

Driving in mirror image! Paul grew so comfortable driving there, where everything is reversed, that he has turned the windshield wipers on instead of the blinker on more than one occasion since we've been back home.

Before returning the car, we took advantage of easy access to one last lookout. Mt. Eden, the site of an extinct volcano, in Auckland gives a great 360 degree view of the city as it is the city's highest natural point.

The distance from Mt. Eden to New York is 14,197 km, in case you were curious.

We were not alone up there! It was a wonderful sunny day and many people were there soaking up the beauty of the view, picnicking, hiking, and sunbathing.

And, taking photos of themselves. There was a lot of that, too.

With that, we returned our car, checked into Verandahs for one last night and prepared for our departure in the wee hours of the next morning.

Before departing, we decided to leave our guidebook and our map book behind. Being that those resources and I had been inseparable for 2+ weeks, I felt a little sentimental letting them go. Paul was an excellent driver and I his trusty navigator! I hope whomever picks up our books from the book exchange takes them on wonderful adventures. By the way, I was happy we went with the old school map book instead of a GPS system. There were plenty of opportunities to go digital, but I think there is something really rewarding about navigating by map. I had a lot of fun looking at our surroundings all neatly laid out and labeled.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rotorua - Tamaki Hangi and Stinky Egg Smells

That's right. We went from one stinky town to another!

Rotorua was a bit closer to Auckland and offered some more variety of thermal related activities for us, so we moved there for our second to last night. After arriving, we wandered around town checking out a farmer's market (disappointing, lots of things from Dole boxes), the local thermal park (more stinky, bubbly, smelly pits) and ended at the Rotorua Museum.

We were followed by the wind, as you can see. At the museum we learned a great deal about the role thermal baths have played in the town's history and, in a separate exhibit, about the Maori people. The exhibit was a good primer for what we had planned that night: an evening at a Maori village with Tamaki Tours.

Since they describe it so well, I will share their words with you to explain the progression of the evening.
Te Wero - The Challenge!

You arrive at the outskirts of the fortified village, but nobody may enter the tribal grounds until the Powhiri, a formal welcome ceremony, has been performed.

Powerful haka challenges are performed by a series of warriors from the village, every one more intimidating than the last!

Eventually, a peace offering (teka) is laid at the feet of your appointed Chief. Your groups signals their peaceful intent in the village by accepting this token.

The spine-tingling Karanga or welcome call echoes across the forest, as the women sing to announce your arrival to the villagers. The Powhiri (welcome dance) follows, and you are welcomed into the fold.

At that time you cease to be a ‘guest’, but are considered to be Tangata Whenua - one of our people.

Te Marae - Exploring the Village

Step through the fortification and be transported from one world into another...

You will be spirited back in time, to an era before the arrival of the European to capture the essence of a very proud people.

The entire village comes to life, and as you walk around each small dwelling, you’ll see and learn about various art forms, traditions and ways of life for Maori.

Hear fires crackling, songs being sung, and talk openly to the village people.

See warriors training for war with traditional weapons, watch women weaving and making Maori crafts, hear villagers tell stories of their ancestors and history, experience traditional Maori tattoo, ancient horticultural practices and so much more.
In the village, I was able to get a one on one demonstration of how they strip the flax plants and use the fiber. They have a technique for spinning and plying the fibers that is done against their legs. I think it was probably my favorite part of the night!

Te Hangi – Lifting your Meal from the Earth Oven

After some time exploring the village, your Maori hosts now invite you into the fully-covered hangi pit area – where you will view the lifting of your authentic hangi meal!

Your appointed Chiefs are invited to step forward. They are each given a spade, and together with assistance from your guides they dig away the dirt, pull back the hessian sacks and reveal the sumptuous hangi meal that has been cooking for more than 3 hours already on the hot stones beneath the ground!

The hangi baskets, laden with piping hot chicken and lamb, kumara, potatoes, carrots and delicious stuffing, are pulled from the pit. Your hosts deliver an interactive commentary on how the meal was prepared and cooked, the origin of the hangi and provide a brief history of how Maori hangis were cooked in ancient times. And for those interested in putting a hangi down in their very own backyard when they get home, we also provide a few handy tips!

Our hangi only contained chicken and potatoes.

Wharenui - The Sacred Meeting House

After some time exploring, the sound of a conch (shell-like horn) cuts across the village grounds and you are called into our sacred meeting house.

This building represents an ancestor, and the massive carvings on its wall tell stories of our direct history.

After speeches of welcome, let us take you on a journey into our world and share our culture through song and dance.

The roof of the meeting house feels as though it may lift off through the power of our voices.

Hangi & Wharekai - Dining together on traditional Hangi food

Celebration of life and togetherness, and the enjoyment and sharing of food is an important part of Maori Life – so we now invite you to join us for a relaxed 3 course dinner.

The traditional hangi has been steaming under the earth on hot rocks for a number of hours, ready for your arrival.

This is the age-old traditional cooking method of the Maori, and your hosts will share this method in detail with you.

Enjoy succulent New Zealand meats with a lovely, slightly-smoked flavour and fresh vegetables.

As well as hangi, you will enjoy Maori bread, fresh salads and seafood, mouth-watering desserts and a range of other yummy dishes.

Feast on as much as you like – it is our honour to fill your belly and your heart. Vegetarians are happily catered for upon request – just let us know when you book.

After your meal, as bonfires roar and the stars provide a canopy, relax and share stories and laughter with your hosts, or wander around the tribal marketplace and find something special to take home with you.

I didn't take any pictures of my food because it was gross. This vegetarian was given nasty, mini, fried egg rolls for her entree. The potatoes were good, though. They tasted like campfire potatoes.

This was, hands down, the most touristy thing we did in New Zealand. It was interesting to learn more about the Maori people and the theatrics of the evening were entertaining. However, I found it hard to look past the tourist trap vibe. I think they choreographed it well, but this isn't really my kind of tourism.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Taupo - L'Arte, Hot Springs and Craters of the Moon

After our exciting caving trip, we hopped back into Sunny and drove a bit east to a town called Taupo. Taupo is located on the shore of a large freshwater lake. Upon check-in to our hostel we learned that our long-planned and anticipated Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike was certainly not going to happen. We had set aside 2 full days in Taupo to increase the likelihood that the crossing would work out for us. We learned the weather was going to include gale force winds and snow on the mountain and that the required shuttle service was not taking people to the park. Plus, as further evidence of the severity of the weather, the Iron Man competition scheduled that weekend had been canceled. I guess it is safe to say that if the Iron Men can't do it, we shouldn't even try. We were really bummed, but there was nothing we could do to give ourselves more time there or to change the weather, so we had to let go of Tongariro (Apologies to anyone who was hoping we'd see some Lord the Rings action on this trip. This was as close as we got.)

So, we found ourselves with a few unplanned days that were weather restricted. What to do? What to do?

Oh, yeah! Eat!
Eating out in New Zealand is very pricey so we were selective about when and where we splurged on meals in restaurants. L'Arte was worth it! Not only did we get giant, from-scratch breakfast feasts, we also got to check out the art on the walls and on the property. There was even a full-sized, mosaic, outdoor living room that we could have lounged in (too cold to enjoy that day, see above note regarding gale force winds). We knew we were chose well when we walked past the chef out cutting herbs from the garden on our way in.

The weather in town wasn't terrible enough to keep us in our room all of the time. We were hankering to get out and move our bodies and see some stuff. With a pretty basic map from the park people, it was possible to set off and see some hot springs and Huka Falls, possibly more.
So, we walked from our hostel to a New Zealand Walkway.

These hot springs feed into the cold river and make for a popular place to soak, swim and, apparently, to steal things.

We weren't prepared to jump in and swim, but we did both enjoy testing the water. When asked about the water temperature, Paul said, "I don't think I'd make my shower water any hotter."

You can see the steam rising off the water in this picture.

And, here you can watch it in action:

I would've liked to take a soak in that water, but we were just starting out our hike and had Huka Falls ahead! The river we hiked along to get to the falls was so clear and clean.

That is, it was until it got squeezed through this narrow passage! The rapids were loud and forceful as they came through and approached the falls. The force turned the water white and aqua. Have a look:

The falls themselves were also quite powerful, but I think I preferred the rapids.

At this point we decided to continue hiking on to Craters of the Moon, a thermal park some unknown distance away. We figured out pretty quickly that our map was not drawn to scale as the hike took much longer than we anticipated. I have to admit that by the time we got to the very long and boring park entrance road with no sidewalk or shoulder to walk on and it started to rain on us while cars were speeding past, I had really wished we had turned back at Huka Falls. It wasn't so much the hike there that was bringing me down, but the thought that once we got there, we still had to hike all of that in reverse to get home! I learned something about myself. I am much more motivated by loops or one way hikes. This whole walking back where you just came from thing is not enticing!

By the time we got to the park, I was checking my watch and calculating the amount of time it would take us to see the park and hike back to our hostel. Then I was factoring that against how little food we brought and how little happiness I felt about the whole scenario. I am not sure how they knew, but the ladies at the ticket booth saw us and almost immediately said, "Did you guys walk here?! We can call a shuttle to bring you back to town when you are done, if you'd like." I almost leaned into their little ticket booth and kissed them! With that happy news, we took a little break, had a snack and with regained joy and energy, headed into the park.

The park was full of pits of thermal anger. Some of it them were steaming while others were bubbling mud pits. All of them were stinky.

The area is shifting, so we were warned to stay on the boardwalks. They have to monitor and adjust where the boardwalks are to make sure visitors stay safe. It was really disappointing to see that people had tossed litter into some of the craters. Bits of wrappers and beverage containers do not belong in such an other worldy place. Some people!

This mud pit was particularly active.

We took the optional hike up to the lookout to get a view of the whole park and to check out Taupo in the distance. Paul gives you a better look in this video and points out where we had walked from (for 4 hours!) to get there. Also, I look goofy in the background because I am trying to keep the wind from blowing my contacts out of my eyes!

There is a more thermal action for you on our YouTube page, if you are interested in videos of fumaroles and bubbling mudpits. They are sort of mesmerizing.

By the way, the shuttle drive was glorious and possibly the best $5 I spent on this trip! Plus, we got the bonus of a super interesting chat with the shuttle driver. He had a lot to say about tourists from the US and other countries and how we impact life in New Zealand. Apparently, it is partly our fault it is so expensive to eat out and buy things there. It is a good thing I was enjoying our conversation because when he got to our hostel, he turned off the van and essentially trapped us inside until he got another pick-up call from dispatch.

One more random tidbit about our time in Taupo: this was the only place during the entire trip that we had a room with our very own bathroom. The room was huge and even had a mini fridge. If we were to get stuck somewhere with rainy, windy weather and be limited in what we could do, that was a pretty good place to be stuck! I even got some knitting done in our room, which was a really rare thing on this trip. Although, we did enjoy some forced downtime, we cut our time in Taupo down from 3 nights to 2 so we could fit in a bit more before the trip was over. That's right! Sadly, it is almost over.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Waitomo - Caving, Abseiling, Tubing and Climbing

Full disclosure: I did not take these photos. However, I did do these things.

So, maybe you know this about me or maybe not, but I am not in love with heights. I can tolerate them when need be, but I do not seek out activities that require me to step over the edge of a platform. However, my husband does and we were in this together. If he wanted to step over the edge, I had to be game to follow right after him (Within limits, of course! No skydiving for me!). Plus, he did spent the day prior sipping tea, so fair is fair.

OK. So what did we have planned?

platform with a shot of the ropes and someone abseiling down

Let me back up a wee bit. We were in Waitomo, which is known for its caving adventures. Paul and I had a really amazing caving trip in Costa Rica and since then Paul has been itching to experience more caving. Waitomo has a lot of caves and a lot of outfitters offering trips to explore them. The
package we chose included abseiling, rock climbing, caving, glowworms and blackwater rafting.

So, that is how I found myself wearing an already cold and clammy wetsuit with rubber boots, a helmet and a heavy duty harness, standing at the edge of the platform about to lower myself down nearly 90 feet into a cave.

the entrance and exit points, abseiling ropes on the left and climbing ropes on the right

The good part: The experience was awesome, totally memorable and just the right amount of challenging.

The bad part: Since this is a wet experience, we were not allowed to bring our cameras. Our guide had a camera that he was supposed to use to take our pictures. We were to be able to buy a burned copy of the images on CD after the trip. However, the camera malfunctioned and he wasn't able to take any pictures on our trip. SUPER BUMMER. They did give us some generic pictures of the cave, so at least we can show you where we went. You'll just have to take our word for it that I actually stepped over that ledge.

The caves have water flowing through them, which provide a current. After we all safely abseiled down, we took off our harnesses (phew!), picked up inner tubes and started sloshing upstream in the cold water (brrr!).
While heading through the caves, we had the chance to go through small passages. Paul did every one of them, whereas, I did every one of them except the ones that required army crawling. Paul liked the challenge of working through those tight spaces. I like breathing comfortably.

The unique thing about caves in Waitomo is the large number of glowworms. Glowworms are unique to New Zealand and Australia, so we knew this needed to be on our must-see list. A portion of our caving adventure was focused on the spectacle these glowworms make. Up close, in the light, you can see the little threads they set out to snare their prey.

In the dark, you can see the worms glow. In the complete blackness, they look like stars in the sky. At one point, we sat in a cavern with our lamps off for long enough that my mind started to lose sense of what space I was in and it started to feel like I was outside looking at the night sky. At another point, we were floating down the stream in our tubes with our lamps off. The glowworms lined the passageway, which would come in quite handy if you ever needed to find your way out without a headlamp!
There were a lot of other things to see in the cave beyond glowworms, including eels, stalactites and stalagmites, fossilized bits, eddies worn into the rocks and lots of sharp edges! One person in our group ripped open the shoulder of his wetsuit while trying to get through one of the passages.

So, after our cave explorations were over, we had to climb up and out. Honestly and surprisingly, this was my favorite part! I think going up works better for me, since I can do it successfully without looking down.
It was only when I got to the top that I turned around to look back down. Whoa! That is a long way down!
I am grateful to have experienced something so neat and that I had Paul there to push me a bit. And, Paul...he loved it so much that even after the 5 hour trip, he wasn't ready to be done!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Auckland to Hamilton - Beer and Tea

After a night back at Verandahs, our home base in Auckland, we started our North Island adventures. Our car on the North Island was a Nissan Sunny. This car wasn't nearly as cute as Starlet, but the name was a good omen.

Unintentionally, this day turned out to be all about beverages. We went to Hamilton, where we tried to track down a craft brew distributor. They weren't open to the public, but they did send us to a wine shop that sold a small selection of craft brews. The person staffing the store was really excited that Paul seemed to know his stuff about NZ craft brew and talked up a storm. Judging by his tattoos, he is pretty committed to beer.

After our Hamilton stop, we continued on to Zealong Tea Estate. Zealong is New Zealand's only tea plantation. They grow, process and sell their premium oolong tea and have a tea house on site.

We opted for the full experience, with a guided tour, formal tea ceremony and high tea.

Our guide shared information with us about the history of oolong tea and the story of how Zealong came to be. If you want to know more about them, there is a ton of information on their website.

The tea house is surrounded by the tea fields, but we were only allowed to view them from a distance. Rightly so, I think they don't want visitors tromping around their field and messing things up. They are very serious about how their tea is handled and what it comes into contact with. The staff that process the tea leaves dress in uniforms that look like surgeon's clothing, complete with a scrub cap.

They have planted a few tea plants nearby the tea house so that we could see them up close. The guide demonstrated how the leaves are harvested. The best technique is to pick only the top three leaves. The entirety of the plantation's tea is handpicked, 3 little leaves at a time.

I got to hold on to it so that we could compare the fresh leaves with leaves at the other stages of the process.

A few of the tourists in our group were from a tea ceremony group in Auckland. The gentleman in the hat was their leader/expert. They had interesting questions regarding the steps of the tea ceremony.
Our group then got to learn about proper brewing and serving of the tea. Each of the 3 roasts were brewed and we were given tastes of each round. Some of the roasts or blends were brewed multiple times as the flavor can vary as you continue to use the leaves.

Each person's tea service included a little tray and two cups. The tea was poured into a tall, narrow cup which was used solely for experiencing the aroma of the tea. We then transferred the tea to the shorter, wider cup, which was for sipping out of. If you were brave, you transferred the tea by placing the wider cup on the top of the narrow cup and then flipping it over really fast. After watching our hostess flub that part, I took the safe route and poured it from one to the other.

I can't say that oolong is my favorite variety of tea, but the tasting really gave us a chance to note the various characteristics and to compare the roasts. Some of them tasted really buttery and grassy, while others tasted more roasted. They all had the slightly astringent quality that green tea is known for.

The amount of time and attention that goes into processing their tea is remarkable. For example, they take such great care with the leaves that they remain in their grouping of three all the way from picking to brewing. In the photo below, you can see the 3 stages: fresh, dried and brewed.

After our tasting, we stuck around for the high tea on the balcony.

Our spread included yet more tea, in all three blends. It is safe to say that I overdid it on the tea. By the time we left I had inevitably consumed little cup after little cup after little cup and was TWEAKING. I am pretty sensitive to caffeine so even though green tea is low in caffeine that much of it added up to too much for me. Oops!
Luckily, my caffeinated self was only unleashed on Paul. By the time we drove the rest of the way to our hostel, I had settled down a bit. Fortunately, I was able to get to bed at a decent hour. I would need to be rested for what we had planned the next day!
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