Aotearoa – land of the long white cloud

Hi again everyone, you lucky lot have got another one of Emmy’s awesome iPhone music videos to look forward to at the end of this post, but not until you’ve read this little lot!

So after an incredible week in Sydney with Yvonne (Emma’s Mum), we boarded our separate planes for our flights to Auckland, New Zealand. I was really excited. Back at home in England I used to sit watching videos on YouTube and Vimeo of the landscapes and sights of NZ, I was blown away. Now was my chance to finally see all of this cool stuff and as the plane flew us over the Tasman Sea, the colours of the NZ coast started to appear. The turquoise colour of the water and the many shades of lush green inland immediately looked different from Australia, despite the two places seeming so close, it really did feel a world away.

Walking through the airport terminal confirmed we’d entered another world, Middle-Earth in fact. Prop’s from the new Hobbit film lined our walkway making it look as though we were walking through some Dwarf-carved kingdom. Giant statues of Dwarf kings looked down on us as we walked by, Hobbit fever had struck NZ as the film premiered there in a few days time. Back in the real world, we then reached a traditional red wood Maori arch, like the type the Maori have on their community meeting houses or Marae. We were being welcomed into their home. A chant played as we walked through the arch, wow what a start, we were already blown away by NZ (or Aotearoa as it is known by the Maori)!

We stood in the arrivals hall waiting for Yvonne to come through customs, they’re stricter here than in Australia. I stood in awe of all of the beautiful Maori people around us. This sounds very naive and stupid now, but I hadn’t realised how integrated NZ was. On arriving here it felt like a Maori country, as it should, and I loved it. The traditional culture was being embraced by all, everyone was proud of that heritage and the language was everywhere too, words I had no idea yet how to pronounce.

After regrouping with Yvonne and getting our bearings, we made our way out to the lovely suburb of Mt. Eden and settled into our hostel. Emma had chosen this one and had done a grand job, Bamber House was a lovely old colonial-style house with a very friendly atmosphere. We got into the communal spirit straight away by joining the mexican dinner that one of the staff members cooked up, it was awesome.

The next day we headed into Auckland to have a look around. After a detour to check out and book a campervan for the following day, we then headed to the waterfront. Auckland is often called the city of sails which I think is a pretty fair title, the harbour is full of very swanky yachts and a fair few racing boats, many pubs and restaurants are well placed to admire this view. We found ourselves a seat in one and stuffed our faces on the first of many of NZ’s pies. We had to try a local beer too, so a pint of Speight’s Distinction was tested and met our approval. After walking around as much of the city as we could, we’d taken in Queen street, the main shopping street and the steep back alleys to Albert Park. One thing to mention about this place is that there are a fair few hills about, each one though is an old volcano. Even Mt. Eden where we were staying was a volcano, something that we were not at all used to, after a few days in NZ though you get the impression that there’s a lot going on underground here.

The next day we excitedly collected our Jucy Condo campervan from the hire depot. It was basically a van with a massive hightop, suitable for 4 people. It was much more upmarket than our old flower power tin can back in Australia, we were going to be living it up for these next few days with Yvonne. A double bed in the roof pulled out above another down below, quite a clever layout, though still a little tight with both beds pulled out. We had to implement an honesty policy when we got changed as we’d take it turn to use the only bit of free space whilst the other two would have to look away. For anyone else with their mother-in-law this might have been a bit tricky, but I can safely say that after nearly 13 years of knowing Yvonne, she’s seen me in much worse situations 🙂

We hit the road and after a few wrong turns were heading south out of the big city in a huge green and purple monster, all of us excited about what we’d be seeing next. The buildings started to thin out, the scenery became greener and the sheep appeared in their droves. After a few hours we were pulling up outside the tourist information office of Matamata, currently boarded up but still open. Somehow, with minutes to spare we got onto the last tour of the day of the Hobbiton film set, for anyone who doesn’t know, that’s the home of Tolkien’s Hobbits. So off we went on a tour bus called Gandalf, deep into the heart of a sheep farm. The driver cracked as many kiwi sheep jokes as he could leaving none spare, he pointed out his first wife as we drove past one flock. Sure enough after 15 minutes of winding around the many small hills, we were there in the Shire. This place was incredible, even if you hated The Lord of the Rings you’d be blown away by how well this little village has been created. You could imagine Bilbo walking out of one of the small round doors of a Hobbit hole at any minute. Peter Jackson didn’t leave out a single detail, vegetables were growing in a small allotment and Hobbit sized clothing was drying on the washing lines. The mill and the Green Dragon Inn were also there and believably real. We later found out that in two days time you’d actually be able to have a beer in that pub, bad timing, I’ll have to go back now 🙁 Sorry to any Kiwis reading this, but we also got a great introduction to the NZ accent when our tour guide was pointing out how all of the movie props were scaled down, so as to be Hobbit-sized. She told us to look at the “kig” in a window of a Hobbit hole. None of us had a clue what she was on about, Yvonne thought she said “pig”, but we finally realised she meant ‘keg’. The letter ‘e’ becomes an ‘i’, ‘i’ becomes a ‘u’ and when coupled with a slight Australian-esque twang you’re there, “hey bru, how about some frish fush and chups for dunner?”. Back at the tourist info centre we realised why it had been boarded up. The entire facade has been rebuilt to look like a Hobbit house and would be revealed for the Hobbit premiere, quite impressive from what we could see.

The next day we headed further south arriving in Rotorua. Immediately a certain aroma started to fill the van and for once I wasn’t to blame. Rotorua is a geothermal hotspot in New Zealand, full of vents and geysers which all impart the interesting eggy sulphur aroma to the air. It’s not a vile smell, but it does occasionally creep up on you and catch you unaware. Eager to see some volcanic action we headed straight to Kuirau park. Imagine a nice little grassy park on the edge of any town with a few nice little ponds in places, this is pretty much it, except the ponds have bubbling hot eggy mud churning within. It’s crazy, this place is completely free, you just walk in and can see all of this amazing geothermal activity. We spent an hour just checking out the many different hot spots and then made our way over to a little thermal foot bath, heated by the power of the earth. We sat there enjoying the just about bearable hot water and loving this bizarre little park.

Next stop was the Rotorua museum, the building itself is a Victorian bath house, quite a nice looking building in formal gardens bordering the huge lake Rotorua, the source of most of the town’s pungent odour. We were shown around by a Maori guide who was able to bring alive the history of the Arawa tribe who were the first settlers in the area. Just a quick history lesson here, the Maori arrived in NZ sometime around 1250BC after arriving from their homeland, Hawaiki, the precise location of this place is unknown, it certainly sounds very similar to Hawai’i to me. These were people adapted to living in tropical island environments and NZ was a lot further south than they were used to. The geothermal activity of areas like Rotorua would have been very useful to them in surviving the winter and generally colder climate. The museum is full of incredible historical artifacts of the Arawa tribe and really brought to life what it must have been like arriving by canoe on this strange land.

After the early European explorers Abel Tasman and Captain Cook had ‘discovered’ NZ, sorry back to him again, European settlement began soon after. Rotorua was a very early tourist attraction because of the surrounding geothermal activity, people would flock from all over the world to see the nearby rose terraces, an ensuing volcanic eruption promptly covered the lot in molten rock and ash. A short film, featuring a cameo from Flight of the Conchord’s Brett, told this history and also gave us a violent simulation of what it would have been like to be present at the eruption. Before leaving the museum, since we were considered tapu (the origin of the word taboo) or sacred in this Maori exhibition, we had to cleanse our hands and sprinkle water on our heads in respect to the traditions.

When our brains were full to the brim with all that history we then went for a short walk over to lake Rotorua which I mentioned earlier. The lake was steaming away and we soon found ourselves snapping pictures of bubbling vents along with some Japanese tourists we’d followed. On a rather cold day, all of that heat coming out of the ground was quite welcome, so we sat for a while on some warm rocks enjoying the view. Walking away from the lake we realised that we’d somehow managed to cross a safety barrier and had been on a dangerous part of the lake’s edge, prone to subsiding and unpredictable outbursts of heat and very hot water. Oh, well we didn’t get boiled 🙂 We said goodbye to Rotorua and drove south finding ourselves a nice DOC campsite (Department of Conservation). These camps are all very basic, a long drop toilet usually, tap water from the nearby lake or river and very cheap at $6 a person a night. We set ourselves up with a nice glass of NZ north island cleanskin (cheap, unlabeled) Chardonnay and sat down to eat a hectic Moroccan lamb casserole I cooked up. A pretty perfect night camped beside the beautiful lake Rerewhakaaitu. This marks a good point to tell you a bit about Maori pronunciation. ‘Wh’ is said as an ‘f’ and the word is broken down into its smallest syllables, so that particular lake is pronounced ‘re-re-fa-ka-ai-tu’. At first I couldn’t help sniggering at all of the words with a ‘fa-ka’ in them, but I’ve well and truly got over it now 🙂

The next day we continued south to Wai-o-tapu, meaning sacred water. This is a huge area of geothermal activity with lots of big bubbling eggy things and is generally much more impressive than anything we’d seen so far. We spent a few hours marveling at the vivid blue lakes with bright orange banks and the water fizzing like champagne. Our ticket treated us to see the Lady Knox Geyser doing its thing, which it helpfully does at the same time each day, 10:30am. We soon found out how a geyser could be so punctual. A member of staff walked over to the fairly innocuous looking vent on the floor and proceeded to tip a bag of organic detergent into it, he stood back and twenty seconds later a huge plume of water and steam burst 20 metres into the air. Quite impressive, and it turned out that Emma’s foresight to judge the wind direction paid off, the tourists sat on the far left were covered in the volcanic goodness. Apparently the soap breaks down to non harmful gasses so they had nothing to worry about.

We hit the road south and made another stop at the Huka falls, the most raging waterfall I’ve ever seen.You wouldn’t stand a chance in the flow of water, it’s very hard to describe the incredible quantity of crystal clear water until you’ve seen it with your own eyes, very impressive.

On again we went, eventually reaching the colossal lake Taupo, pronounced “toe-paw”. It was a cloudy and quite windy day so this huge lake looked like a sea and not too inviting. We drove straight past it due to the unpleasant weather, but saying that, it took us 45 minutes to do that. I think it’s the biggest lake in the southern hemisphere just to put it into perspective. At the southern end of the lake, towards where we were now heading are three huge volcanoes, one of which, Mt. Tongariro was smoking away after having erupted only a couple of weeks earlier. Having seen extinct volcanoes and geothermal activity, we were now seeing the real dangerous thing. The next volcano in line is Mt. Ngauruhoe, a perfect cone-shaped specimen capped with snow, some of you might remember it as Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings. The final in line is Mt. Ruapehu, which in winter is covered with skiers and snowboarders. We drove past all three on the dramatic sounding dessert road. Quite an awesome drive passing these volcanic monsters, there’s not much vegetation around either so the area felt a bit like being on the moon, not that I would know, we couldn’t include it on our round the world ticket. I stepped out of the van at one point to take some photos and found the ground to be very soft ash which your feet sunk into. After the road descended back down to lower ground, we camped for the night at a town called Bulls. As we drove into town and big sign welcomed us saying “Welcome to Bulls, a town like no udder”, they’ve got a sense of humour these kiwis.

The next day we continued south following the western coast and eventually arriving in NZ’s capital, Wellington. The city is built around a huge bay and like most of NZ’s cities has its huge shipping ports on display, quite impressive in their scale alongside the modern city. Em map read and directed me through the nightmare one way system and out to a little suburb called Miramar where we paid a visit to the Weta Cave. This small museum houses props from a lot of films that Weta Workshops have been involved with, most famously The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. Yvonne, being a pretty big fan, was in her element and I think would have quite happily bought the shop if everything wasn’t so expensive. You could buy swords, ‘the one ring’, you name it. It was very cool seeing props from other films like Avatar and District 9 too. In case you didn’t know, this is the company that pioneered all of the special effects seen in LOTR, as well as creating the amazingly realistic costumes and props.

We spent the rest of the day walking around windy welly as it’s known, it certainly lived up to that moniker. We visited the small cinema where all of the LOTR film’s premiered and also where the Hobbit had just premiered a few nights before. The whole area was done up with a giant Gandalf above the entrance and flags promoting the film lined the streets. This was bang in the middle of where the films had been made and also the centre of the hype. After walking through the very cool Cuba street and popping in and out of the various shops we found ourselves stopping for a quick break in a pub. Before we knew it our parking ticket was up and so after 3 brief hours in the city we had to make a move. The weather had now turned sour too and the winds had really picked up. Driving the camper with the equivalent of a huge upturned bath on the roof became very interesting as the wind tried to push us in five different directions at once. We were now right at the bottom of the north island and would now be completing a circle back up to Auckland so that Yvonne would be able to catch her flight back in a few days time. We battled on against the wind and managed to get a fair distance north. We parked up in a camp for the night in a small town in the middle of nowhere and manged to find ourselves an Indian restaurant 🙂

The next day saw us driving north again a pretty big distance eventually to arrive in Waitomo. The big tourist draw card here are the caves which we paid a visit. The first part of the tour was not all that special, some impressive caves, the likes of which we’ve seen before, however the boat ride that followed blew our minds away. These caves are known as glowworm caves and we were about to find out why. We boarded a small boat and our guide whilst stood, directed the boat into the pitch black cave system on an underground river, using a network of ropes to pull us around. As we entered the supreme darkness, the cave roof above our heads was covered in tiny bright blue lights, it’s was silent apart from the occasional water drops falling into the river from the roof above. This really was a magical experience and coupled with the smoothness of the way our guide led the boat, made for something very unique. We emerged from the cave into daylight and found ourselves in a lush wet rainforest like environment. You’ve probably heard that NZ is green and this spot really demonstrated that, you’ve no idea how many shades of green there are until you’ve been here. We camped for free that night in a carpark outside one of the strangest hotels I’ve ever seen. They had a ship, a plane and a Hobbit hole all that could be stayed in, pretty mad. We settled with their gravel carpark.

The next morning we noticed a trap beside our van with a possum stuck inside. These guys were introduced to NZ by early European settlers with the intent of creating a fur industry from the poor little buggers. Well, fur soon become a little controversial and so they soon had free reign over the countryside as no one hunted them anymore. Being pretty varied in their diet, they eat and eventually kill native trees and many of the helpless native birds. It’s fair to say that these little fluff bags aren’t too popular around here and this guys fate was likely to be unpleasant. If only they could be shipped back to Australia, I’m sure they would be much more welcome.

The next day we drove the short distance to Otorohanga where we visited a small bird sanctuary. NZ is known as island of the birds for the fact that only two species of bat lived here prior to humans arriving, other than that no other mammals existed here, just the birds. Over time, with the lack of predators, many of the birds evolved to become flightless, surviving on the forest floor, like the kiwi for example. There’s even a flightless parrot called a Kakapo that lives here, very unusual and special creatures. With the arrival of the possum, the rabbit, the stoat (introduced to kill the now abundant rabbbits but found the native birds far easier to catch), rats and mice, the birds didn’t stand a chance. Centres like this now offer a rare glimpse of the incredible birds which used to be all over this place. By the way you might be starting to notice now that Em and I quite like our birds 🙂 We got a lucky chance to see a kiwi walking around and doing its thing in a special enclosure which reverses the light pattern of day and night, so the kiwi thinks it’s night in our daytime, they’re nocturnal of course. So in that one little centre we got to see kiwi, kaka, kea, bellbirds, various ducks and an odd little owl called a morepork. This little dude is named after his call at night which is said to sound like “more-pork”, if you’re very imaginative you might agree. They also had some Tuatara here, small lizards endemic to NZ which are the most closely related surviving animal to a dinosaur. Pretty cool, but again these guys are up against it and now are only found on a few island wildlife reserves, when they once were found all over. NZ certainly has some big conservation issues to deal with.

Heading north again we ended up passing back through Matamata, aka Hobbiton. We made a brief visit to a few souvenir shops and Emma tried a LOTR beer brewed for scenes in the films when actors were required to appear like they were drinking. The beer had been brewed so as to be very weak, about 1% so no one got too merry. As you would expect it didn’t taste of much, but made for a bit of fun. We headed off again intending to get as close to Auckland as we could so that we could drop Yvonne at the airport the next day. We found a lovely spot on a very quiet stretch of coastline overlooking a huge bay towards the Coromandel peninsula. It felt pretty much deserted and made for a very nice place to spend the night. The sea was pancake flat and as we drove along the coast we kept seeing lovely little kingfisher birds perched on branches over the water.

The next day the sad time had come when Yvonne had to head back home. Looking back, the week in Sydney seemed like an eternity ago, we’d managed to cram a lot into that short amount of time in NZ’s north island and I think we managed to show Yvonne the highlights. It certainly hadn’t been a relaxing holiday for her, she’d done a lot! We made the drive back into civilisation and soon found ourselves at Auckland airport. After a sad goodbye, Emma and I were back on our own again, the two idiots abroad. It was a very odd feeling, similar to when all of our friends left us in Bali and took a while to get used to. We now had just over three months on our hands to explore both islands of NZ at a more leisurely pace, but first we had to get rid of the green and purple monster and find some wheel of our own. That’s the next step of the adventure!

Thanks Yvonne for coming to see us and experiencing with us a part of the world very far from home. Thanks for reading everyone.




1 thought on “Aotearoa – land of the long white cloud

  1. Loved the video! And great pics again – what a fantastic place it is – New Zealand, I’ll be back! xxx

Leave a Reply