I’d been interested in going to New Zealand for a long time, so I decided to prioritize that trip while living in Japan. Although 10 hours on a plane is a long time, it’s a whole lot better than the >24 hours that I’d spend traveling there if I waited until I returned to DC. So in February 2016, I went to New Zealand.
While I looked at some group tours, I ended up creating my own trip in order to maximize my time and get in everything that I really cared about. One of my colleagues in Tokyo spent a number of years working for the Embassy of New Zealand, so she gave me some good tips about interesting things to do. In the end, I had an itinerary that looked – from a logistics standpoint – about as complicated as a senior official visit, with thirteen hotels, five tours, three planes, two rental cars, one boat and one train.
I started my trip with one day in Auckland. Except that it wasn’t that simple. Because one hour before I was supposed to leave for the airport, a lady in my building left something on the stove while she went downstairs to pick up her son from the preschool. PSA: Do not do that. It’s the #1 cause of fires in the United States, and #2 cause of fires at our overseas posts. Black smoke was billowing out of her apartment. That apartment was pretty much destroyed; neighboring apartments had a ton of smoke damage. Thankfully, it was Japan, and we had a bunch of large fire trucks on the scene within minutes. Fire was put out. Nobody was hurt. I left the cat (in her carrier) with a friend, while I was escorted in to the building to grab my suitcase. Cat wouldn’t look at me when I left, but I got off to the airport on time!
So… Auckland. My entire experience with Auckland was a walk around the city center. It was kind of an interesting mix: casual restaurants, pubs, cafes, backpacker outfitting shops, surfing shops, souvenir stores, Gucci, Dior, etc. It struck me as a combo of southern California beach and Pacific Northwest granola. There were some people wearing suits, but New Zealand clearly caters itself to the outdoor adventure crowd. And it delivers!
Day two, I got in my rental car and headed south. First stop, Hobbiton! My plan was to drive to Hobbiton, check in, and then have lunch at the café before starting the tour. It was a grand plan. But I think my GPS was programmed to avoid all highways, because it took me on a very scenic, lovely drive consisting of a lot of back roads driving by a lot of dairy cows. I loved it. But I arrived just in time for the tour. The tour was wonderful. The LOTR fan in me was SO EXCITED. The setting was beautiful. I had hard cider and a beef and ale pie at The Green Dragon. It was great.
This tour was also the beginning of me meeting a number of very friendly couples over the course of my travels. There was one elderly Australian lady who was about as excited to be there as I was who told her husband “No grumps!” before the tour started. He had never seen the movies (gasp!), but I found out that he had worked on creating the set for “Man from Snowy River,” which was pretty awesome. At one point, we were talking, and I was telling him what I do. He looked at me and said, “what an exciting life.” Sometimes, I get too focused on the details, and I can start feeling lonely or sorry for myself over this or that. And in addition, I had been going through a stretch of time where most of the people I interacted with either a) had a similar life or b) who heard what I did and had a look on their faces that was a mix of "why would you do that"/"I couldn't leave me home." So that one comment – said so genuinely – was really timely and encouraging for me. The setting probably didn’t hurt either!
From Hobbiton, I drove south to Rotorua, where I went on the Te Po tour (Indigenous Evening Experience) at Te Puia. I got to see Maori cultural performances, eat a Maori feast, and walk down to the Pohutu Geyser, which is the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. The cultural performances reminded me a lot of Hawaii. Which all made sense when I saw the map that showed the Polynesian Triangle, with Hawaii at the north end and New Zealand at the south end. Don’t know why I never realized that before.
|"One does not simply walk into Mordor."|
The following day, I drove to Turangi, which is apparently a trout fisherman’s paradise. For me though, it was a base for going on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Tongariro National Park is a World Heritage site and home to three volcanoes. It’s amazing. It was also Mordor in LOTR. Mt. Ngauruhoe was Mt. Doom, except that the top of the mountain was always CGI, because it’s sacred to the Maori (if I remember correctly).
|See those little tiny people walking on the ridge?|
That's where I was going.
I was not in sufficient shape for this hike. So the first hour or so of flat was great, the next couple hours of going UP was hell, followed by the start of a migraine that I killed over lunch, and then the rest of the day was really nice. All told, about 8 hours of walking, because I’m slow. I loved it though. It was beautiful. I met some more very nice people – including two couples from Copenhagen that lived a few miles from each other, had mutual friends, and had never met before that day.
|To recap, I walked from the left side of this picture to the right side of this picture.|
|Wellington, from the botanical gardens|
The following day, I drove to Wellington. I finally started to see lots and lots of sheep. Wellington looked like a pretty town. Sadly, I didn’t realize when I planned this that everything closes by 5pm on Sunday. So I took the cable car up to the botanical garden, but I needed to eat and the restaurant was closed, so I went back down after a short walk around. (And my legs were still tight from the trek the day before, so I wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to walk back up the hill if I walked down to look at some of the gardens.) Eventually I found a place down by the water for dinner, which was very nice. And my hotel was a historical building with gorgeous rooms. With no staff, because it was Sunday. I feel like I need to give Wellington another try, because it had the potential to be great.
And on Monday, I took the ferry to the South Island.
To be continued…