I landed in Auckland so excited I could burst. Coming to New Zealand has been on my list for a very long time. I knew that seeing the Maori culture, beautiful scenery, and gracious locals would be a life changing experience. I was right! I did not plan much time in Auckland simply because I am not in New Zealand for the city sights. I only planned for one full day in the city before hitting the road.
I started my day in the city by taking a walk over to Sky City. It is a tower known for bungy jumping and a casino. Didn’t feel much like gambling with money or my life, so I continued my walking tour over to the tourist information office. I asked the question, “If you only had one day in Auckland, what would you go see?” The answer from all three of the counter clerks was a resounding, “The Auckland Museum – go to the cultural Maori show!” So I got directions to the bus depot and spent about 20 minutes planning my route. I walked over to the counter to buy my ticket just as the window slid shut. I looked at my watch, it was 11:01 AM. Huh, do they close for lunch? I was made aware of a big sign stating that none of the buses would be running from 11:00 to 4:30 for a Union meeting.
Change of plans – the trains! Great plan, except the nearest station was about a 30 minute walk from the museum. Oh well, sunny day and comfortable shoes, I finally made my way there in about 45 minutes. Either I’m a slow walker or I didn’t take the most direct route. Probably a combination of the two…
The museum did not disappoint. They had an exhibit of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012 photos that were absolutely amazing, but that was just the icing on the cake. The could boast an exhibit explaining how New Zealand was formed, including a live volcano simulation. It was pretty freaky when you consider there are many volcanos on the islands that could go at any minute!! After a while of cruising the exhibits I made my way to the meeting area for the show. I was greeted by a mostly naked man covered in tribal tattoos and blowing on a conch shell. He told me to follow him and I did!
They took us through the history of how the Maori people migrated to New Zealand from Polynesia and established themselves. After a rough period during european settlement, they have come full circle and have regained the pride and cultural stronghold in New Zealand. Maori is recognized as one of New Zealand’s national languages and the Maori culture is felt everywhere I go.
I made my way back to my hostel and stopped by the Wintergardens on the way. The Wintergardens are a couple of greenhouses with some of the most amazing examples if lilies and orchids I have seen! I walked through the gardens for a bit and then kept on rolling back to the city center.
The next morning I got up and got my first bus to Rotorua. After stopping at a roadside attraction of the Kiwi icon L&P bottle, We made a quick stop for lunch at the Shire’s Rest, a cafe positioned right in the heart of where Peter Jackson filmed some of the Shire scenes from Lord of the Rings. You could see why he chose the area filled with rolling hills and grazing sheep. It was neat to see the area and I was looking forward to seeing even more of the landscapes that captured his imagination and made New Zealand a Hollywood darling.
Rotorua is known for three things: Geothermal activity, Maori culture, and Zorbing. I will start with Zorbing. Thats where you climb inside a giant inflatable ball filled with water and roll down a hill. A few of my bus-mates tried it, but I stayed warm. The prices were pretty steep for a 6 second roll down a hill, but I enjoyed watching them at least!
The geothermal activity around Rotorua means that the entire town is riddled with steaming hot thermal bodies of water. Where there is geothermal activity, there is usually a good amount of sulfur, and Rotorua is no exception. It smells like sulfur. Everywhere. Ugh. But thats okay, you get used to it!
As for the Maori culture, they have rebuilt a traditional village on one of the original sites where there was a village and did a full reenactment of the rituals surrounding entering the village. After much yelling and posturing, we were allowed in where we learned about the games they played, the music they love, and the food they eat.
The crown jewel of the evening was the feast at the end of the night. Maori people cook their food underground using the thermal energy from the ground, burning wood, and hot rocks. They presented us with a feast of lamb, chicken, and vegetables that was to die for! We all ate way too much, but it was worth every calorie! They showed us the traditional Haka dance that is used to show the prowess of their warriors and get them psyched up to go into battle. It was a lot of body slapping, tongue jutting, and chanting. Great fun!! Overall it was a very memorable evening!
I spent some time the next day exploring the nearby park that featured many thermal pools open to the public. While the smell was overwhelming at times, it was neat to see the area and get to know the town a bit.
I boarded the next bus to Taupo on a rainy day and we make a quick stop at the beautiful Huka Falls. The rapidly flowing water made me want to go rafting!! The river rapidly goes from 28 meters wide to 8 meters wide, causing a huge acceleration, much like how a jet boat engine works. I watched an actual jet boat approach the base of the falls and he just about had the engine flat out just to stay in place long enough for his passenger to take pictures.
We stopped to take a look at Lake Taupo, a volcano that has collapsed in upon itself about 26 thousand years ago. The most recent known eruption was in 181 AD. It was the largest eruption in modern history planet earth and left a dust cloud as far as Russia. Three volcanos have erupted in New Zealand in New Zealand…in the last week. Yikes! It is a very active volcanic area and has the history of earthquakes and volcanos to prove it!
We stopped for the night in a small town called Taupo on the shores of Lake Taupo. I’m sure it is a very picturesque town, but most of what I saw was rain, lots and lots of rain. I tried to make the best of it and walked down to the lake and around town. I returned to the hostel to seek shelter and talked with a few of my travel mates about going to a pub quiz in town that night. After dinner about 10 of us made our way there and while the trivia was good, I enjoyed the camaraderie more!
After a late night, getting up to catch the early bus to National Park was not easy, but we all did it anyway. Normally the highlight of the north island is a full day walk called the Tongariro Alpine Crossing that takes you across snow fields to “Mount Doom” from the Lord of the Rings films. Unfortunately, there has been quite a bit of volcanic activity in the area, so they closed it. Poo! So without that to look forward to, it was a long travel day. When we finally approached the lodge, the bus started making some very sad noises before giving up the ghost right outside the hostel. We were supposed to go up to the National Park to do some walking, but the bus was not going anywhere. Just as well, it was still pouring rain. The rain is really starting to piss me off.
The next morning we walked out to find a new bus to take us to Wellington. Wellington is the port city to catch the ferry to the South Island. That’s when it hit me. I was leaving the North Island and I hadn’t seen much at all. It dampened my mood and made the six hour drive a little sad. I stared out the windows at the first day without a constant rain and was frustrated that I was spending it in a bus. Such is life. I have been traveling for almost 8 months and I have had very few days of bad weather, at least not when it mattered. So I decided to count my blessings and not dwell on what I didn’t get to see. All I can do is look forward to all the beauty and magic that the South Island has to offer. I will just have to come back to New Zealand again some day!
We arrived in Wellington late in the afternoon and one of my new friends, Donna, said she would go to the museum with me, so we dropped our stuff and went out the door to the museum. Te Papa is an incredible museum that shouldn’t be missed while in Wellington! They even had an earthquake simulator and a 3D exhibit highlighting the Colossal Squid found off the shores in 2007. I was a little sad to be leaving Wellington after only a few hours, but I will add it to places I will have to visit again someday!
My first stop on the South Island is Nelson to visit my friends Jackie and Chris. Loyal blog readers may remember them from my travels in India. They offered to host me while I was in New Zealand, and unfortunately for them, I took them up on it! I will blog again next week and let you know what we got up to!