Days 5, 6, 7 - Ohakune to Wellington

Sorry for the absence (more on that later, related to entering an odd state of traveler's time, which is a good thing). After leaving Rotorua, we made our way on winding roads into the goat- and sheep-studded mountains. I've never been to Tuscany, but the landscape evoked that feeling. Maybe I'm just a sucker for Eat, Pray, Love. The variety of landscapes in New Zealand is striking, and it doesn't take long to pass from one to another, which is what we did as we arrived in Ohakune, at the base of rugged mountain peaks. 

We only spent a night in Ohakune, which was more of a waystation, but it was a delight. Ohakune is a turn of the twentieth-century mining town now turned ski bum paradise, and we thoroughly enjoyed an evening walk through the temperate mountain forest, as well as the ambiance (and heated indoor pool) at the Powderhorn Chateau. On much of this trip, in fact, the smaller towns we stayed in proved the most memorable to me—more quaint and of the place, less crowded and more embedded in local idiosyncrasies. 


It happened to be New Years Eve and Hawkins was determined to stay up until midnight. Marcy and I did not make it, nodding off around 10. Old people. Old, tired people. True to his promise, Hawkins woke us up five minutes before 2018 began, and we listened to a few random pops of fireworks and flipped on the television. On one channel, the Sky Tower in Auckland (tallest structure in New Zealand) exploded in colorful displays as a Lourde belted, "I'm waiting for it, that green light, I want it."

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On another channel, Crowded House, who are still somehow giving concerts, led a crowd in a lyrical back-and-forth to songs the audience knew by heart. On yet another channel—dedicated to Maori culture—the video for "Let's Get Physical" by Olivia Newton-John made me laugh out loud.

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The over-the-top cheesiness captured everything that was so-wrong-it-was-almost-right about the 1980s. I was raised on MTV, but I had forgotten how painfully awful some 80s music videos were. Then, we all konked out, exhausted, visions of feathered hair and leg warmers dancing in our heads. 

The next day, we made our way to Wellington, a bustling but manageable city know for its tech, craft beer, and coffee skills. On the way, we made a point of at least brushing close to the Whanganui River. This river gained legal status as a person in early 2017, after decades of legal discussions. I needed to pay my respects. 

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Wellington is oftentimes compared to San Francisco, in part due to its hilly terrain. I got a first-hand taste of this, squeezing between homes on seemingly secret pathways up to Zealandia. (I'll say a word about New Zealand's predator-free efforts in a later post.) At Zealandia, the birds are the center of attention.


Our time in Wellington included a tour of Weta Workshop, the home of Peter Jackson's movie-making cadre of magical elves. Basically, he's transformed the industry in New Zealand and even pushed forward a number of global innovations. We got a behind-the-scenes look at various costuming and special effects techniques. I was most impressed by how they've managed to drive certain technologies forward that we now take for granted when we put our butts in a cinema seat. The level of creativity and commitment are truly inspiring.

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All in all, Wellington was a very nice city, offering a good mix of cultural and natural attractions. But before we could settle in, it was time to move on... 

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Day 3 and 4, Hobbitton to Rotorua

We left Auckland and began our journey south. Our final destination is Queenstown, so we have many miles to go, with many stops in between. 

Having our ten-year-old along for the ride, we've folded a number of Lord of the Rings-related stops into our trip. The first of these was a tour of the set of Hobbiton, where director Peter Jackson took a sheep farm and transformed it into Middle Earth. Up close, we got to appreciate the movie magic that went into creating a town for Hobbits. As one example, the oak tree behind Bilbo's house is a fake—but a fake with 200,000 synthetic leaves wired into place. Our guide informed us that Peter Jackson had the entire tree's foliage repainted when he felt it wasn't precisely the right shade of green. 


We spent two nights in Rotorua, a town steeped in Maori culture. We took a short hike in Te Puia, a geothermal hotspot and a Maoria cultural center. Sulfurous fumes wafted through the air, mudpots burbled, and crystal clear waters poured from hot springs and geysers. Yet another reminder of this island's volcanic past and present. 


On the second day in Rotorua, we spent the evening in Mitai village, eating a traditional meal and getting a sense of Maori culture. There was a great deal to take in, including explanations of facial tattooing, demonstrations of weaponry skills and musical instruments, but the event was punctuated by the performance by Maori dancers and singers of various ritualized dances, including the haka.


Nature's organic patterns often served as inspiration for Maori tattooing and other arts, such as woodworking. The spiral of the silver fern shows up in many designs.


Oh, and while we were in Rotorua, Hawkins and I also rolled down a hillside in a giant plastic ball. 

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Day 2, Auckland to Waitakere Regional Park

Being in Auckland has been an excellent entry point for orientation to New Zealand. Today, we got outside the city, journeying to the "lungs of Auckland," the temperate rainforest of Waitakere Regional Park. Waitakere is a massive, now-protected area west of Auckland, a mere half-hour's drive from the city. It was not always protected. I had a chance to meet a handful of Kauri trees, including one that was a few hundred years old. We also passed a few young Kauris along the trail. "This one is 60 years old. Just a baby," said our tour guide. 

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Most Kauri trees were felled in the nineteenth century for their straight, hard wood. It boggles the mind that a being that can live for more than two thousand years could be seen as nothing but potential timber. What possessed the mind of the Englishman with the saw? What derangement overtook the shipbuilder who wanted masts? What paroxysm of madness dwelt within the gentlemen merchant sipping his tea halfway around the world? What made these trees things and not ancient forest keepers worthy of deference? A familiar story—closer to home, the white pine of the Northwoods decimated and fed into Chicago's fiery furnace. On the west coast, the giant Sequoias, sprouted before Jesus was born, clearcut and plundered. In an irony of globalization, after the Sequoias received protection, in 1906 San Francisco burned. Trees were shipped in to rebuild a city that valued its remaining Sequoias too much. Which trees? Kauri trees from New Zealand. 

Cool breezes whisper through palm fronds and ferns as we walk through a canopy of green leafy tunnels, whisked back to the Cretaceous. 

 Looking upward through the fronds of a silver fern. They were used by Maori to mark trails, their undersides almost bioluminescent in the moon's light.

Looking upward through the fronds of a silver fern. They were used by Maori to mark trails, their undersides almost bioluminescent in the moon's light.

 Another new bird to me, a fantail looking for insect treats.

Another new bird to me, a fantail looking for insect treats.

The highlights of the day came courtesy of the stunning views of the Tasman Sea, Australia lying somewhere beyond the blue. I dug my feet into a glittering black sand beach at Piha. Flecks of titanium sparkled in the sunlight, remnants of volcanic ash; long lines of white waves swept the shore, murmuring incantations. I noticed a woman in our group with hands together, facing the ocean. It seemed the only proper response. 

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Day 1, Auckland, New Zealand

After a 12+ hour-flight (my movie selections were Inception and Atomic Blonde, if you were curious), we landed in Auckland around 8am. I thought I would crash immediately into the hotel bed, if I didn't literally crash on the way to the hotel since I was driving on the left-hand side of the road for the first time. I gripped the steering wheel and eased the car around the roads as an octogenarian would in order to ensure safe passage. We arrived unscathed. 


By noon, it was 74 degrees outside, the city was abuzz, and I needed to stretch my legs and get oriented via a good walk. I visited a nearby urban park, an experience punctuated by seeing a monarch flutter by (assuming they were introduced here and didn't venture across the Pacific from Mexico) and several first sightings of birds. I say "sightings" yet what lured me was the euphonic invitation created by various trills, whistles, and burbles. The air was thick with sound. Birds with orange and yellow beaks seemed to be everywhere, their bright colors proof of tropical aspirations, like tourists in Hawaiian shirts. Among others, I met a sacred kingfisher, a silvereye, and a group of myna birds. It's a weird thing to look at a bird and think, "What the heck is that?"—a reminder of the astounding variations and forms that life can wing its way into. 

 Myna bird. Nice to meet you.

Myna bird. Nice to meet you.

I skirted the outskirts of the University of Auckland's campus, pausing for a few moments on a bench to absorb the vegetation. Trees (banyan?), with roots like mountain aretes and trunks that seemed to plea for climbing, dotted the open space. So did many people. It's summer here, after all, and sun calls to skin. Aucklanders seem to know the value of lounging. 

 Near "Britomart," people make use of beanbags for lounging. Brilliant.

Near "Britomart," people make use of beanbags for lounging. Brilliant.

At Queens Wharf, I saw the harbor and sniffed the southern ocean for the first time. Fisherman on the end of the pier stared into green depths, still as statutes, and a pied shag (real name, not my invention or an Austin Powers character) swam close by to take my measure. I walked back to the hotel through a bustling shopping district, roving up and down through this many-layered city. "Boxing Day" sales were in full swing. 


Auckland has a super international vibe with a great deal of south and east Asian influence. Despite a lack of sleep, I am invigorated. Jet lag, schmet lag. Right now, I'm juiced up on the energy of being in a new place, seeing the familiar in the strange and the strange in the familiar. I'm sure I'll hit a wall soon. Hopefully I won't be driving on the right-hand side of the road when it happens.