20th November - 2nd December
Crossing the International Date Line was not as exciting as I thought it might be. I was expecting some kind of Star Trek warp speed effect or something, but no. Apart from having to set my watch forward an entire day I hardly noticed at all. Customs was far easier than I was expecting: in America and Canada, they seemed to be worried that I might be a terrorist, or a drug smuggler. In New Zealand, they were quite happy to let me into the country, so long as I had clean boots. Oh, there are also beagles who have had literally seconds of intensive training to sniff out any food that people might be trying to smuggle in.
So I get through customs at Auckland (Orcland!) airport with minimal difficulty, and Brunnen-G meets me at the arrivals lounge. We drive back to her place, which involves, at one point, going the entire width of the country from the Tasman Sea to the Pacific in about 5 minutes. About halfway through the journey I suddenly realise "Hey! We're driving on the left again! Yay!". We shortly got back to her place, and I was introduced to Smallcat, shown around the place and given a map of the local area and a spare key. Then BG went off to work for the remainder of the morning. I did some laundry and got money changed. As a side note, NZ coins are HUGE. I kept trying to get the foil off so I could get at the chocolaty goodness that must have been inside.
That afternoon we explored the outskirts of the city, and clambered all over One Tree Hill (now sadly treeless), Mount Eden and North Head, which is much like the WWII secret government bunkers in Dover, but seems far more likely to contain monsters. It was very windy that day, and we needed to lean into the wind to be able to walk. I also learnt a thing or two about the Kiwi approach to the work ethic.
The next day I went to Kelly Tarlton's in the morning while BG was at work, which was fun. It's a combination aquarium and Scott museum, and they had lots of penguins - kings standing around, not doing very much, and gentoos nesting. There were other non-penguin fish there, but they were less interesting. Except maybe for the poisonous fish tank, which had pufferfish, Japanese fighting fish and stonefish in the one tank. Which was good.
In the afternoon, we went into Auckland, and up the Sky Tower, which I'm told is the tallest building in the southern hemisphere. They also give people a chance to do the world's highest wire-assist jump, which is where you freefall, with a wire to make sure you land at the right spot, and to brake you at the bottom. They also have glass panels set into the floor. It's quite surprising how difficult it is to step onto them without feeling like you're going to fall through.
After that, we went to Piha Beach in West Auckland, where we saw a big rock shaped like a lion, called Lion Rock. I tried to climb all the way to the top. But there was a fence blocking off the top where the path got unsafe, and after that there was an eight foot high sandstone cliff that I just couldn't get passed. But I did get as high as possible. And we had fish 'n chips for dinner. I was more surprised than I probably should have been to discover that they don't tend to use your normal North Atlantic fish like cod, but instead they have strange and exotic stuff like hoki. It did taste good, though.
The next morning, I went for a hike in Kepa Bush, which might as well be BG's back yard, for all the distance it is. That place is like something out of one of my old geology textbooks: "Typical flora of the Triassic period". I seriously half-expected to see dinosaurs skulking around. We spent the afternoon in the city again, mostly because I needed to get 'photos put onto CD. So we explored all sorts of nooks and crannies looking for an Internet café where I could do that. We also found some odd little craft shops that sold chairs (thrones, really) made out of driftwood, and pretty much anything you can't imagine.
The America's Cup was in full swing, so we had a look around the pier where that's all concentrated, and around an 18th century Italian sailing ship. All very fun.
The next day was a Saturday, so BG didn't have to work in the morning, and we could go off and do really exciting stuff. Which in this case was to drive around the Coromandel peninsula. The tone was set for the whole day when, the instant we get onto the peninsula, just past the town of Thames, we saw what I can only describe as a UFO just sitting there without any reason or explanation. We drove around lots of twisty turny roads. There would be a sign saying "Winding roads next 10 Km", and then 10 kilometres later there'd be one that said "Winding roads next 14Km", and 14 kilometres later... well, you get the point. I began to wonder why they didn't just put a sign as you leave the airport saying "Winding roads: entire freaking country". But I suppose that would have put people off. And we got to see lots of very pretty countryside on the way.
We got up to the town of Coromandel (which isn't exactly at the tip of the peninsula, but is as close as you can get without a landrover) and we went to Driving Creek Railway which is built on a 15 inch gauge (which is very narrow), and winds its way up to the top of a mountain, past little bits of random pottery scattered around in the undergrowth. It was all built (and is still being built, for that matter) by a typically insane Kiwi artist called Barry Brickall.
After that we took the 309 road (and in this instance "road" means no more than that cars drive along it) across the peninsula, stopping anywhere that looked interesting. The first place to look interesting was Waiau Waterworks, which was guarded by Shelob. Its slogan was "Where whimsical wonders are worked by water", which seemed pretty pretentious when we first found a flyer for the place, but actually fits perfectly. There were all sorts of mad sculptures there, the finest of which we quickly christened the "Toilet Dumper", and spent hours watching. There was all sorts of cool stuff there, including a water-powered music box made out of an old barrel, some heavy-duty screws and table knives; bicycles converted to water pumps; and some sit-in squirt guns with shields across the front of them, which were great fun to play with.
The next stop was a grove of kauri trees, which are nearly as big as redwoods. If they ever film The Hobbit, I fully expect that to be Mirkwood. Again, it was prime dinosaur country, and Kepa Bush just wouldn't be big enough.
The next place that we had to stop at was a tiny little organic food farm shop in the middle of nowhere. The shop itself was of no interest, but the jerrybuilt and rather dangerous-looking playground equipment that was there was too much to pass up. It turned out that it had been built by a neighbour for no apparent reason, but I can only assume that he like frightening small children. The cranky thing was the pride of it defiantly. A small child would sit on a small platform atop a pole, and someone would wind a crank at the base to make it spin. We took turns squeezing into the seat and were very glad there was a brake lever at the top. I can't imagine that it didn't break at least 30 different laws, though.
We headed to Hot Springs Beach, which is where you can dig down a foot at low tide and get boiling water bubbling up. We had no idea when low tide would be, so we expected to miss it. But, no. With amazing good timing, we manage to be there at exactly the right time. It was odd - two pools a mere inch apart might differ in temperature by as much as 30°. BG lost her 'phone here, but it turned up a couple of weeks later, handed into a police station a couple of hundred miles away. We played in the hot waters for an hour, at a guess, and then headed off home.
The next day, we headed south. Our ultimate destination was the glowworm caves at Waitomo, but as ever we found many interesting things to do before we got there. Our first stop was Rangiriri, which is the site of one of the most significant battles in New Zealand's history. The Maori had built a HUGE pa (fortress), which the British were unable to take, despite having brought specially modified steamships down the Waikato River to provide covering artillery. The following dawn, the Maori ran up a white flag of parley, and the Brits walked in, shook the Maoris' hands, told them that that meant that they (the Maori) had surrendered, complimented them on fighting bravely and ushered them out of the pa before anyone noticed what had happened. I was in awe. Unfortunately, most of the pa is now farmland, but there's enough left that we could get a decent idea of what it would have been like.
We drove through Huntly (which shall now forever be City of the Future in my mind). This would be entirely unremarkable except for a sign advertising a "4 Tarts Show" at Waikato Coalfields Museum. I have no idea what that might have been, but everything I can imagine hurts my head.
Gordonstown was our next port of call, and the lollypop factory. A few years ago, apparently, the held the record for making the world's largest lolly pop (I forget the exact weight, but it was several hundred (if not thousand) kilograms) for Radio Lollypop in Auckland Hospital. Unfortunately, they forgot to find out how big the doors were that it had to fit though... So this huge mass of sugar had to sit out in the car park, and kids snuck out of hospital to eat chunks of it, and it attracted bees
Anyway, we were a few minutes late to join the factory tour, so they let us in for the child rate, which I think was very appropriate. We got to make butterscotch lollypops, badly. Lots of fun.
Otorohanga was our next stop, home of the giant psychedelic kiwi on top of the garage. Actually, it's more famous for the aviary, but that's the first thing I noticed when we got there. We saw the kiwis in their simulated nocturnal habitat, and they ran around like mad things, which I wasn't expecting. I never imagined that they could run, from pictures of them. We also saw pied stilt-walkers, morepork owls and all sorts of other strange and exotic birds.
After that, we got to Waitomo Caves, with about five minutes to spare for me to go on a tour of the caves with Tumu Tumu Toobing. It cost $75 (NZD), which is £23.85 (GBP) or $37.73 (USD), so quite remarkably cheap for four hours swimming, drifting and clambering through muddy caves whilst admiring phosphorescent maggot excrement. I can't really describe it properly, but it's on my list of "things to take a detour for, if you're ever in the southern hemisphere". BG had already done that when Sam and Leen and Dave were here, so she went off on another (less hardcore) tour and we met up again later.
The following morning, I walked into Auckland (it took about an hour, and the weather was beautiful) while Brunnen-G was at work. I took pictures of the cinema complex, which I'll let BG describe:
I never take lifts unless it's the sort of lift where it counts as entertainment. The rocketship one in the movie complex downtown counts in this category. (I wish I'd thought to take Sam and Leen and Dave there; wintermute liked it WAY too much.) This lift is a clear narrow tube with big pointy kitschy 1950s red rocketship ends on it, top and bottom, and round lights set into the floor which you stand on, á la old-style Star Trek transporter beams. It only goes up two or three levels but it is SO WORTH IT.I also saw the slightly creepy Santa sculpture that they put up in the summer, and took various other pictures of the city.
In the afternoon we headed to West Auckland again, along a small ridge on the side of a mountain that can only really be called a road if you're in a Land Rover. We ended up at Whatipu Beach which is made of black ironsand, and there were big cool rocks that we tried to climb on, but had been sealed off for being too dangerous. Later we wend our way through a swamp there for no good reason. And one way or another, I managed end up knee-deep in swamp muck. I wasn't best pleased with that.
So I spend all the following morning trying to get my shoes dry again. Nothing much happened during the day, but that evening was BG's archery night so I came along to watch. We managed to get stuck in a traffic jam that London would be proud of and got there half an hour later than planned. Rather foolishly, BG lets me have a go at shooting cardboard cutouts of cute little animals. I had great fun, and it seemed rather easier than I'd been expecting. It's odd that I had to go halfway around the world to do that, though, seeing as I'm legally required to carry a bow and 6 arrows at all times incase the French invade. I ought to see if I can find an archery club around here somewhere, as I could defiantly see myself taking it up as a hobby.
The following morning, I took a ferry over to Waiheke - the largest island in Auckland bay - rented a mountain bike, and spent the best part of the day biking around the island. I got hold of the local bus map, worked out a vague route and just set off. I stopped at Onetangi Bay to enjoy the beach for a little bit, and I got bangers 'n mash at an Irish bar (which, unlike Irish bars in America, was actually owned by an Irishman) later on. Very tasty, it was.
On the way back to Auckland, I saw a couple of the America's Cup yachts coming back into port. I'm not sure if they'd been racing or just practising, but it was pretty cool, anyway.
BG took the next couple of days (Thursday and Friday) off work so we could have a long weekend touring the centre of the island. We spent a good chunk of the first day driving down to Oraki Korako in the Taupo Geothermal Zone. We had a room in this little lodge, and a wonderful view of the thermally active zone just across the lake. Also, it was an amazingly clear night, and we were miles from the nearest other building, so the stars were so much clearer than I've ever seen them before. And the lake was so still that you could even see the stars reflected in there. I was sorely tempted to sleep outside that night....
In the morning, we went across to explore the lakes of boiling acid. We'd actually started doing that the night before, but we only had half an hour before the ferry pilot went off shift and wouldn't be able to bring us back. So we saw lots of geysers, and BG kept on trying to "correct" me every time I pronounced that as "geezer". But it did make this rather more cool.
After we had done that, we spent most of the Friday driving around the mountains, paying special attention to Mount Rupaheu, which was used as Mount Doom. We found the Battlefield of the Last Alliance of Men & Elves, and built a snowman there.
We also went to the Waiouru Military Museum, which is probably the best I've been to. There was a memorial wall that I think was probably the best that I've seen: It was just plain jade with water running down the surface, and a computer terminal with a searchable index of every NZ serviceman who's died in combat, and you can add names out of sequence to the (normally alphabetical) list that's continually being read out. The dioramas there were also quite special somehow, although they weren't that different from those in other war museums.
We spent the night in Taupo, home of a giant steel trout. To be quite frank, Taupo is less exiting than I've made it sound.
The next day was a short run up to Rotarua, but we stopped to see more boiling acid and funny coloured rocks. We stopped at Wai-O-Tapu first, where we got to see someone trigger the Lady Knox Geyser with a box of washing detergent. That got to about 15 metres high. Then we went on to Waimangu, which is really a gentle walk in the woods, except that the streams are filled with boiling acid. Very strange place.
When we got to Rotarua, we went to Paradise Springs to see if they had any lion cubs we could play with, but unfortunately not. That would have ruled. So we went to the luge track instead. It's really more like a go-kart, but it's tremendous fun, and I only managed to fall off the once. So that ruled. At some point up to there, I got myself quite sunburnt without noticing.
We stayed the night in a backpackers place that claimed to be "thermally heated", which I thought was rather redundant, but no-one else seemed to notice. In the morning when I went to the bathroom, I managed to pick up the wrong keys so I was locked out, and had to go to reception (in another building) wearing only my boxers. Fortunately they believed me and gave me the spare key without asking for ID.
I spent most of the day singing what I could remember of The Ballad Of Bilbo Baggins, seeing as we were exploring the Shire. One of the first places we came across (though not LotR related) was the Castle Pamela. This apparently caused some consternation amongst residents of the area, which we could understand until we remembered the 20 foot high corrugated steel dog (with light-up nostrils) just around the corner.
We drove through various places that might have been in the Shire, and headed off to the farm where they filmed Hobbiton. It was due to open to the public the next day, but there were cars filling the car park. The person guiding cars in looked very much like a hobbit, except that he was 6 foot tall, so that was a nice touch. We got to the entrance and were told that it was a special locals-only-thanks-for-putting-up-with-everything tour that day, and we wouldn't be allowed in.
We headed back to Matamata (the local town, a mere 10 miles away) to see if the information desk could recommend any other filming sites we could go and see. The lady there suggested that it would be possible for her to sell us tickets to Hobbiton, but that we wouldn't want that. It took us about an hour to convince her that we didn't care that it wouldn't be the full tour, and eventually she gave in, and even gave us a discount down from $50 (NZD) to $10 (£3.20 (GBP), $4.99 (USD)), which was good.
On the way back to Hobbiton, we were quite literally bouncing around with excitement. Now that we had the magic tickets, the Orks on the gate let us through (even though they were well aware that we weren't locals). One of the kids on the tour with us had been a hobbit extra in FotR, which made it a bit more special. We saw the lake, the party tree, bag-end.... That was just so much fun.
On the way back to Auckland, BG joined me in singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins, too. And then, the next day I left for Thailand. But hopefully, I'll go back to New Zealand some day...