Archive for April, 2010

The Long Road Home

April 18th, 2010 1 comment


The flight back to L.A. was long, but after traveling for as long as we had it didn’t feel all that difficult. Despite how tired I was during the day, I didn’t feel too sleepy on the flight, and I managed to get through one movie and some more writing on the blog before I got tired. (For those that are interested, the movie was “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” which I found to be pretty funny and entertaining.) Dore watched “Avatar,” which apparently doesn’t need a forty foot screen and 3-D to continue being a good movie. What do you know?

A few hours into the flight, we were served a nice dinner of lamb and kumara (a root vegetable from New Zealand similar to a potato). The honey ice cream we had for desert was really nice. The flight attendants cleared our trays a while later and, contented and full, I turned in for a few hours sleep. It felt like I only dozed for a while, but when I woke up I was pleasantly surprised to find that about four hours had passed. Only three and a half hours left until we’d be on the ground. I realized that we’d crossed the International Date Line again. Instead of losing a day, however, this time we went back in time, and were now reliving April 13 all over again.

I tried to write a bit more, but by this time I my brain was basically in hibernation mode, and I was on autopilot. I took to playing with the in-flight entertainment remote, staring blankly at the “distance to destination” display, and sneaking glances at the movies that those around me were watching. For some reason I find it fascinating to watch three or four movies at once, all on mute. I’m not sure whether it’s a testament to the camera work and direction or a sad commentary about the level of writing in movies, but I never have any problem following pretty much exactly what is going on. There are actually a good number of movies I actually preferred watching without the audio. Romantic comedies are always a safe bet: they’re generally replete with lots of silly physical comedy and really, when you boil it down, the story is always about the same. The words don’t really matter.

With around two hours to go, we were served breakfast. I wasn’t that hungry, but I make it a firm policy to never turn down anything that is offered to me on an airplane. Food on an airplane is like the restrooms in Europe: you never know how long it will be until you’ll have another opportunity.

We touched down in L.A. a few minutes early, and made a quick taxi to the gate. Bleary-eyed, but on the whole not as tired as I had expected, we piled down the stairs and made our way to the baggage claim and customs area. We both sighed in relief as our bags came out. We pulled them up, then headed through to the passport checkpoint. I was expecting the usual long line, but by virtue of getting in during the middle of a weekday we actually managed to get a very small line. I think we only waited for about two or three minutes before shuffling up to the passport check. A few cursory questions, a look at our passports, and we were in. One last hurdle to go.

We walked in to the customs checkpoint. We had been on a farm (well, close enough), and had brought back some chocolates with fruit in them, so I expected a bit of grilling from the customs official. We walked up and handed over our customs form. The official looked it over briefly.

“You been on a farm?”


“Do you have muddy boots?”


“Okay. Any fresh fruit or meat?”

“No. Just chocolates with fruit centers.”

“Those are fine. Any seeds for planting?”


“Okay, you’re good to go.”

That was it. No search, no grilling. We were pleasantly surprised, and moved on quickly lest he change his mind.

We emerged from the terminal blinking and unsure where to go. We knew that we needed to get to the car parking company, but had no idea where their shuttle was. I pulled out the receipt, and dug around in my backpack for my cell phone. Meanwhile, we walked along the long strip of sidewalk where all of the shuttles congregate. Just as I was about to call the company, I spotted the right shuttle pulling up about fifty feet in front of us.

“There it is!” I called to Dore, and took off jogging toward it. She must have been just as happy as I was; I didn’t hear one grumbled word about “people with long legs running ahead.”

A short ride later, and we found ourselves at the car park, Dore’s Subaru pulled right up to the front and waiting for us. I paid for the parking and retrieved the key, we threw our packs in the back seat, and took off on the very last leg of our journey.

I have to say, the first couple of minutes in the car were a bit disorienting. After driving from the right side of the van for three weeks, being on the left felt… odd. When I tried to turn on the car I instinctively put my foot down to put in the clutch, and had a miniature “walking up the stairs and trying to take one too many steps” moment when my foot encountered nothing.

“Oh, right… automatic transmission,” I said sheepishly. Dore laughed.

Not surprisingly the odd feeling dissipated quickly, and I really didn’t have any trouble readjusting. Surprisingly, though, the one thing that I found both most difficult to adjust to in New Zealand — and reverting now that I’m back home — is the position of the blinkers and windshield wipers. The two levers are switched in the two locations so that the blinker is always on the outside. For some reason that just didn’t want to sink into my head, so that in New Zealand I was constantly turning on the wipers before a turn. I finally did get used to it, but now it seems that my brain doesn’t want to go back to home-mode. So if anyone happens to be riding with me and sees me do that, there’s the reason. I’m not crazy; I’m just hemispherically challenged.

Happily, the traffic heading North was pretty much nonexistent, and we made the drive in record time. We stopped once for gas and to grab burgers at In-and-Out, but otherwise had a straight shot to Santa Barbara. By the time we made it back, I was really starting to drag. I think another hour driving and I would have been in real trouble. Needless to say I was really happy to be home.

We parked near the apartment, flopped out of the car, and carried our luggage inside, dropping it in the middle of the living room floor. It was three in the afternoon, about twenty-five and a half hours after we’d woken up in Auckland. We flopped down into bed and fell asleep almost instantly. As I fell into the depths of exhaustion-induced sleep, images of our great trip swam through my thoughts. It’s hard to say, but I’m pretty sure I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

Our great New Zealand adventure was at an end.

Categories: Blogroll, New Zealand Trip 2010 Tags:

Time to Kill

April 17th, 2010 5 comments


Packing for our trip home was equal parts sadness at having to leave, happiness at the prospect of being back in our own bed, and the deep-down tiredness that comes from going full speed for as long as we could remember. There was also a little bit of sleep deprivation in there as well.

As it always does, packing everything securely for the flight back took quite a while. Pull everything out and dump it on the bed. Pick out anything fragile or expensive and put it in the carry-ons. Put anything else breakable deep down in the pack against the frame. Pack dirty clothes (and we had plenty of those) around the outside. Look down and realize that your belongings have somehow magically gotten bigger. Pull everything back out and start again.

A few more iterations, and we finally had everything stuffed in place and all of the little bits and pieces stashed in their pockets. We did a final check of the room, and headed out. At the front desk, we found out where the luggage room was, and went down the stairs to drop off our big bags for a few hours. It was about ten in the morning. Our flight wasn’t until seven that evening. Time to kill: nine hours.

We went to breakfast at a pub next door, where we had a nice traditional big breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, a bagel with cream cheese and jam, coffee and tea. Packing had taken longer than we’d expected, and by the time we got the food we were famished. We launched in with gusto, and filled ourselves to the gills.

Around an hour later, we headed out toward the Auckland central library for its promise of free Internet and comfy chairs. It provided both, and we spend a nice relaxing hour checking up on everything back home, reading, and writing more of the blog. After a while, though, we started to get a bit antsy, so we packed up and headed out to wander around Auckland a bit more. Time to kill: seven hours.

We walked through Albert park, which judging by the statue of Queen Victoria, was probably named for Victoria’s royal consort, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. (Okay, I looked up his exact name on Wikipedia, but I did actually randomly hear that Victoria was married to an Albert a day or so after visiting the park.) The park was very nice, but the major attraction for me were the trees. There were a number of very cool trees in the park, including a banyan tree with long hanging root tendrils and an enormous tree that I could not identify, but which had a huge base that was partially hollow. It looked like an army fortification. I was sincerely jealous of the children that were playing in and around the hollow. Damn them and their… littleness!

We continued walking down the hill back toward Queen street, and found that we were getting quite hungry. We decided to look for somewhere to eat once we got back to the main drag. On our way, however, we ran into a very strange procession that stopped us in our tracks for a few minutes. There were a number of women in black tights and day-glow orange reflector jackets (the type you see, for example, police wearing in many European countries). They were all carrying silver horns that they alternatively listened through, held up to hide their faces, looked through like a telescope, and put to their mouths to amplify the plethora of bird and animal noises that they made. The sound of their calls echoed off of the buildings, making a pretty decent impression of the classic Hollywood “jungle” sound that I’m sure everyone has heard at some point or another. They moved wordlessly through the square, flowing around people without interacting. It was actually somewhat eerie to watch, and more than a little confusing. But overall it was really cool to see — and in some part become a part — of such an odd performance art piece.

After watching for a few minutes our stomachs got the best of us, and we continued on down a side alley to Queen street. With nothing pulling us one way or another, we randomly chose to head up the street away from the harbor. We didn’t immediately see anything to eat, but Dore remembered that there were a number of restaurants near the Sky Tower, so we made for the cross street and soon had more than enough options from which to choose. We seriously considered a Thai restaurant, but then we saw a Turkish restaurant named “The Midnight Express Cafe.” A quick glance at their menu had us licking our lips. Delicious middle-eastern treats of all descriptions clamored for our attention. Without a glance back we headed into the cafe.

We knew we’d made the right choice a few minutes later when we received our plates loaded with delicious lamb kebabs and other deliciously seasoned meats-on-sticks, salads, hummus, tzaziki, pita bread, and a wonderful fruit compote that I think was a dressing of some sort. I don’t think we talked much for the next ten minutes or so except for the occasional exclamation at tasting a new morsel or sauce. The food was all the conversation we needed. We finished completely stuffed, but somehow regretful that there weren’t just a little more of everything. Sometimes the tongue is willing, but the stomach is weak.

Check the watch. Two o’clock. Five hours to kill.

Damn, this was harder than we’d thought.

That’s the funny thing about that last day of travel. You never want to do anything too ambitious, for fear that it will run to long and you’ll get off schedule. But you don’t want to do nothing. So you try to find all of the little things that you can do to make the best of your time.

At the same time, though, when you’ve been traveling and doing things every day for weeks, at some point all you really want to do is lay down and take a nice, long nap. But… it’s our last day. We have to do something.

Predictably, despite the fact that I was about to fall asleep where I sat, we got up and headed out again, this time up the street again. We wandered by various shops, poking our head in and looking at the various souvenirs and knick-knacks on sale. There were a couple of things that somewhat interested us, but nothing that we couldn’t do without. We moved on.

Then we came to a curious shop that we just had to check out. It was an Asian $3 store. And it was awesome. From the display of patterned fake eyelashes to the wall of toothbrushes to the cat-shaped cookie cutters, the walls were crammed with a thousand odds and ends and bric-a-brac. We wandered up and down the tiny, cramped isles, calling to each other as we found each odd, funny, or just plain neat trinket. It was really fun, even though we didn’t find anything that we really wanted. Don’t get me wrong: there were a couple of things I seriously considered buying, but we were out of cash, and somehow using a credit card in this store just felt wrong somehow. We moved on with just our memories. I suspect that’s probably for the best.

The back of the store contained a second cashier, and let out into a mini mall that turned out to be part of the giant cinema complex on Queen street. We’d visited this complex on our first time in Auckland. As we had done before, we rode the elaborate system of escalators up to the top floor just because they were there, leaning over the railing to look at the people way below us. What is it about escalators that tickles me so?

Of course, there’s nothing on top except movie theaters, so we headed right back down again. At the bottom we shared an ice cream cone and rested at the food court tables. Honestly, at this point I was happy to pay just for the chair. I was seriously dragging. And we had a twelve-hour flight in a few hours. Check the watch. Two forty-five. Three hours fifteen minutes left. I put my head back down on the table.

I’m never going to make it.

Dore was starting to feel pretty tired as well, and despite it being a bit early we decided to start heading back. We took the opportunity for a restroom break, then gathered ourselves up and trudged down Queen street in the direction of the hostel and the bus stops where we could catch the bus out to the airport. We popped in to a few stores along the way, but mostly to kill time. Dore did find a nice merino-wool-and-possum-fur (the fancy fabric of choice in New Zealand) shawl, which was cool because she’d been looking for one at a reasonable price the whole trip.

We finally made it to the hostel and grabbed our bags, then headed out to the bus stop. I saw the bus make it to the stop when we were about a half block away. We knew that the bus ran every fifteen minutes, but I really didn’t want to hang around the stop for that long. I ran the last few feet, and caught the bus just before it was about to leave. Dore caught up a second later. We were on!

As it turned out, our timing was pretty much perfect. We got to the airport exactly when we’d been hoping to. Four thirty. Two and a half hours to go.

Being the middle of the week, checking in and getting through security was relatively simple and straightforward. As simple and straightforward as it ever is, anyway. At least we got to keep our shoes on. We did make sure to only check our bags through to L.A., as we were going to skip the connecting flight to Santa Barbara and instead pick up our car where we’d left it on the way out. I wasn’t terribly keen on having a two hour drive home after the flight, but on the up side we were cutting out a long layover, so this did get us home earlier.

Inside the gate area, we had a bit of time to wait before we found out which gate we’d be boarding at, and we scoped out our food options. Hmm… Burger King or prepackaged sandwiches. Despite the fact that we’d managed to avoid all American food chains the entire trip and weren’t keen to break the streak, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to eat a prepackaged sandwich, so we broke down and got a Whopper meal. I have to say, that Whopper tasted so darn good. On the whole American fast food hasn’t done the culinary world a whole lot of favors, but when you just want a burger there really is no substitute. There’s probably a life lesson to be learned there somewhere. I’m not seeing it at the moment, though. If you figure it out, let me know, okay?

By the time we’d finished eating, the gate had been assigned, so we queued up for a secondary “super-duper security” screening that was more or less exactly what we’d been through before. If anything the security here was more relaxed. As far as I could tell there was really no good reason to do it other than that’s what the US demanded. I have no idea why the original security screening wasn’t sufficient. I’d be willing to bet no one else in the airport — staff included — did either. Sigh. Finally through the last hurdle, we plopped into a couple of open seats by the gate and tried as best we could to save our energy.

About thirty minutes later we started boarding, and at seven fifteen we taxied out for an on-time departure.

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Completing the Circuit

April 14th, 2010 No comments


No matter how long you’re away from home, there is something bittersweet about the first step you take to going home. Dore and I weren’t flying out of Auckland until the next evening, but as we got up got packed we both knew that the trip was winding down to its last phases. Unlike previous mornings, where we could simply leave bits and pieces of our belongings here there in the van, today we meticulously searched high and low for anything that might have fallen into the cracks. We had one last drive to Auckland, and then we’d be parting ways with our temporary home.

As many little quirks as the van had — a halfway broken lock, a finicky seat belt, a broken starter, and a third gear that never quite wanted to go in — I’d become accustomed to it, and felt like I knew more about this vehicle than I have many others I’ve driven. That’s the beauty of all-manual systems, and one that, sadly, we’re rapidly losing under a wave of fully electronic vehicles. Our children will probably never be able to work on their own cars. But if this trip has taught me anything about the Kiwi spirit, I suspect that in New Zealand, at least, the people will hold on to their old vehicles, fixing and tinkering to keep them alive long past their natural life spans. They won’t be pretty, but they’ll run. And when they don’t there will be plenty of folks around to lend a helping hand. And that’s something special that the world could use more of.

Packing almost finished, we emptied all of the trash from the van. Used tissues that had fallen into the cracks, old brochures from places we’d visited (and many we had not), and other bits and pieces of our adventures filled up the two little grocery bags we’d appropriated for the job. We also took off all of the sheets and stashed the duvet covers into the van’s cubbies. The van looked a bit austere and naked, like we’d already left.

We hit the road around ten, stopping along the road for breakfast at a bakery that Dore found on the GPS. As it turned out, the Gold Star Bakery was a fantastic place to stop, as they had the distinction of having won the New Zealand Supreme Pie Award for 2003, 2004, and 2009, as well as numerous other awards for their pies. Now a pie may sound like an odd thing for breakfast (at least to the Americans reading this), but pies here are not like those back home. Think more like a tiny pot pie, and you’re pretty close. The fillings range from standard to fancy, but generally fall into the savory, hearty meat-and-potatoes variety. The particular pies that Dore and I got were breakfast pies, and had bacon, eggs, tomatoes, and some other fun bits that I can’t quite recall. The crust — which in many instances ends up as a fairly greasy affair — was light and flaky, but with just the right amount of fat to keep it all together and add flavor without leaving everything an oily mess.

We got back on the road pretty quickly, which was a good thing. We needed to drop the van off by 2 pm — the latest drop off of the day — and Garmin projected us getting to Auckland around one. The roads were good, though, and we made good time. We stopped along the way to get gas and to call our friends in Auckland to see if we could meet up. We managed to get through to both David, whom we’d met previously on this trip, and Michael, a friend we’d made almost two years previously while on our honeymoon in Europe. We made what arrangements we could, the got back on the road.

We made it in to Auckland right on time, finding the Escape garage at 1:45. I pulled in, releasing my white knuckle grip on the steering wheel, and breathed a sigh of relief. Auckland had been surprisingly easy to drive in to, but it was still a major city, and I had been gritting my teeth against the possibility that something bad would happen right at the end of the trip. Now that we were safely in the garage, however, we were safe. Nothing bad could happen now.

“Sorry, but could you just back out for a second? We need to take two of the vans out.” It was one of the Escape employees.

I looked back, blankly. “You mean, into the street?”


I sighed. “Okay, here goes.”

I just knew I was going to get rear-ended or something.

Luckily, the street that had been chock full of cars a few moments before was relatively quiet, and I made the blind reverse into the street without any trouble, pulling off to the side in a bus lane. The two vans came out, then a third popped out behind. I waited a moment more, but no more vans were emerging, so I inched my way forward and made it in to the garage for the last time. I turned off the van, pulled off the seat belt, and jumped out before anyone could ask me to do any more maneuvers. I wasn’t that confident in my driving abilities.

A smiling employee came over and helped us with all of the return stuff as we pulled the last of our belongings out of the van and did a final check. We had a lot of extra bits and pieces — some Gladware that we never opened, a bunch of toilet paper, a bunch of cans of Coke — but overall we didn’t waste too much. We chatted with her about the various problems we’d encountered, and she apologized for the breakdown again. There really was no need; they’d handled the breakdown fantastically in my opinion.

The van completely unloaded, we headed in to the office to do the final paperwork. With all of the breakdown receipts we had, as well as the two-day refund they’d given us for the inconvenience, we actually ended up getting quite a bit of money back, which was both surprising and extremely pleasant. Not at all what I’m used to in the States. I could definitely see myself getting used to it, though, if any business owners are listening….

Picking up our packs, we set out to find our hostel, which, as it turned out, was only two blocks away. How convenient! Check in was a snap, and we were in our room within about five minutes.

After talking earlier with our friends in Auckland, we’d tentatively planned to meet up with David and Humberto for coffee, but we hadn’t settled on a time or location. Since we’d turned in the phone with the van, I went downstairs to try to catch them on email while Dore took a shower. The Internet in the hostel lounge was not working, however, so I ended up having to run out to an Internet cafe just down the block. I did get on the Internet and emailed David, but I didn’t see a response before my twenty minute credit ran out, so I went back to the hostel. Dore and I got our things together and set out into the city. We’d call everyone from payphones as we walked.

As we got out to Queen street we saw a shop that Dore had been meaning to go into, so we popped in and got a couple more souvenirs, then came out and found a phone. We called Michael first, and arranged to have dinner at a Mexican restaurant near the Sky Tower. Michael said he hadn’t been to the restaurant, but it had been recommended to him. Dore and I had actually been warned against the Mexican food in New Zealand, and had so far managed to avoid it completely, but I figured, “What the heck? We should at least try.” Next, I called David. As it turned out, he’d had to stay at work longer than expected, so wasn’t able to meet up for coffee. We did, however, arrange to meet up after dinner for a few drinks. Dore and I did a bit more shopping for souvenirs, then headed back to the hostel to rest before dinner.

A while later we got up, got dressed, and headed to dinner. We found the restaurant that Michael had suggested without too much trouble. As he’d said, “It’s pretty much the only Mexican restaurant in New Zealand.” We were a bit early, so we decided to wait outside. As we waited, we watched the people walking by. It was quite fun. We amused ourselves by guessing what they were doing and where they’d come from.

After a while, we started to get antsy, so I went off to find a phone to call Michael. I finally found one, but only got his voice mail. I left a message, then headed back to Dore, who’d stayed at the restaurant in case Michael showed up while I was gone. Dore hadn’t seen him either. I’d said on the message that we would be inside the restaurant, so we headed in and got a table. We ordered guacamole as an appetizer. I got a beer, and Dore got a passion fruit margarita. When it showed up Dore’s eyes immediately lit up, and I have to imagine mine were pretty wide as well. The drink was a gorgeous light yellow color, and glistened with condensation. I’m happy to say it tasted as good as it looked, without the sickly sweetness of most margaritas.

Michael and his friend Johnny showed up a few minutes later, and joined us at the table, followed closely by the guacamole. We greeted them and launched into the catching up with gusto. It was really fun to catch up with Michael, and to hear new stories from both him and Johnny. They have both (independently) sailed across the Pacific Ocean from Panama to New Zealand, and certainly have plenty of amazing tales to tell. They were really interested in our trip, and we had a lot of fun recounting our tales as well.

Johnny had never had Mexican food before, and the other three of us (all having lived in the US) had fun trying to describe what exactly it was like. I have to say, it was harder than I would have thought. How do you describe a burrito?

We all ended up ordering the fajitas, first and foremost because they sounded good. But in the back of our minds we figured that, no matter what, no one could ever mess up fajitas. I mean, seriously. Fajitas.


Well, I’m here to tell you that, yes, Virginia, you can do fajitas wrong. Very wrong. Very very wrong.

To their credit, the meal-called-fajitas was quite tasty. It just tasted like it should have been served in a Chinese restaurant. No amount of flour tortilla could cover up the sweet soy sauce flavor of the sauce, a flavor that has never, ever been appeared in Mexican cuisine. Oh well. We tried.

We talked some more, then headed out to the front to settle up the bill. Michael and Johnny had to catch a ferry and Dore and I had to get on to our meeting with David and Humberto. We headed out and walked down Queen street until we came to the turn to Dore’s and my hostel. We said our goodbyes, and moved back. Saying goodbye felt easier than it usually does; I think it’s because in the back of my mind I think we’ll see Michael again someday.

We went into the hostel quickly so Dore could change into more comfortable shoes, then headed out to meet David and Humberto. We had a bit of a wait at the meeting place, and we spent it surreptitiously checking out fronts of the strip clubs across the street and cracking jokes about “Gentleman’s Retreats.” Fortunately David and Humberto showed up before the novelty of the strip clubs wore off. The four of us set off down the block to a nice wine bar that David and Humberto knew of.

We talked about tons of different things, from our trip to politics to Kiwi-isms to life and travel in general. We laughed a lot. It was really nice to just hang out with friends after so long on the road.

We went home around midnight tired, contented, and more than a little buzzed. We dropped in to bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

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Hot Water and a Traditional Feast

April 13th, 2010 No comments


Dore and I got up a bit later than usual, but managed to get everything together very quickly, so we still managed to get out of the holiday park by about nine. We headed in to town to get breakfast and get started on the day. We parked near the info center and, since we were there, decided to drop in to see if they could recommend a place for breakfast. As expected, they were more than happy to direct us to a place, and in a few minutes we were happily munching our eggs and bacon.

After breakfast, we popped in to a souvenir shop to browse, then walked down to the shore of Lake Rotorua. The weather was gorgeous (as it had been for a few days), and a good number of people were out and about enjoying the sun. There was a really nice boardwalk by the lake, and we walked along it for a while and watched the black swans that were swimming up and down the shore. After a bit that activity lost its charm, so we turned inland and headed back to our van.

When we got there, we fiddled with the GPS for a few minutes, then set off for the Hell’s Gate Thermal Reserve. It’s a geothermal reserve with lots of hot pools, mud pits, fumaroles, and other smoking, steaming sights. It was pretty easy to find — just follow your nose, so to speak — and soon we were getting our sunglasses and sunscreen together to walk through the bizarre moonscape of the park.

If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone and seen the hot pools, this was quite a bit like that. Boiling lakes, bubbling mud pits, and the like. One fun thing that I hadn’t done elsewhere was the hot mud foot pool, where we stuck our feet in the warm, super fine mud from one of the cooler pools. (This was the only pool that we were allowed to touch, as the other ones were quite a bit hotter.)

There’s really not much else to say about the pools, so I’ll leave it at that.

After the walk, we stopped by a complimentary carving station, where we practiced our hand at chiseling designs into little blocks of wood. It was a bit silly and cheesy, but pretty fun at the same time. Dore had never done anything similar, but she picked up the technique without too much trouble at all.

Back at the main entrance and gift shop, we considered going into the hot mud spa — or, rather, Dore considered and I came along for the ride — but we decided that it was a hot day, and the prospect of being head to tow in hot mud really didn’t sound all that appealing. In addition, walking in the sun for two hours had tired us out quite a bit, and we were getting quite hungry. We decided to head back in to town to grab lunch and then relax.

We grabbed food at a Korean restaurant, which was a new experience for me. I liked it, but then again I like always everything when it comes to food. Now fed, we felt a bit better, but still tired, so we headed back to the holiday park to rest for a while before our big event of the day: the Maori hangi.

As I mentioned briefly before, a hangi is a traditional Maori feast. In particular, it is prepared by digging a big hole in the ground, which is then lined with hot lava rocks. On top of the rocks are placed various meats, vegetables, and other things. Throw on some water and cover with a big blanket and dirt, then wait for a couple of hours. Unearth, and serve to your suddenly numerous friends.

Dore and I had booked an evening at the Temaki Maori Experience, which is a recreated Maori village that is run by a group of local Maori. We met up with the tour bus at our holiday park at six, then rode the short way out to the village. On the way our bus driver briefed us on the protocol for entering the village and the rest of the evening. It was nice to learn a little of the ceremony involved, but it was a lot to take in, and there really wasn’t that much that we could learn in fifteen minutes anyway. The big lesson seemed to be, “hey, this is important to our culture, so try to be respectful,” which I definitely took to heart.

When we arrived, we grouped at the entryway to the village, where we were treated to a traditional Maori greeting ceremony. The “chiefs” (as appointed by the bus driver) of each “canoe” (bus) were met by warriors of the village. A peace offering of a fern frond was made by the warriors and accepted by the “chiefs,” and finally the greeting was completed with shaking hands and touching noses twice. All in all it was not a very complicated ceremony, but obviously imbued with a good bit of ceremony. This was probably the most elaborate performance of the evening, as each warrior did a complicated and unique war dance prior to the peace offering.

Once the greeting was completed, we were free to enter the village, where we had a bit of time to explore and look at the various elements. Dore and I stopped by a weapons training hut first, where I volunteered to play a traditional hand-eye coordination game. The game was basically to stand in a circle of six people, each holding a stick upright in front of them. Then, on command, each person had to jump to the stick to either the left or right before it fell over. If you messed up, you were out. I did pretty well, considering the commands were in Maori and I’ve never been very good at telling right from left quickly. I made it to the last three people, then got out when I jumped the wrong direction at the start.

After playing the game, we didn’t have much time left in the village, but we did see a few more things before we were herded in to an auditorium for traditional dances, songs, and haka (war chants). These were really fun to watch, and I quite enjoyed it. The overall feel of Maori song and dance is similar to other Polynesian cultures, but with a little different feel. I’m not really sure how to qualify the difference, so I’ll just have to leave it at that. I’m sure you can find examples on YouTube or something if you’re interested.

The dancing wrapped up, and the group performed a haka, or war chant, which is very impressive to watch. The bulging eyes and extended tongues that are hallmarks of the Maori haka are actually quite imposing. I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with someone that looked like that. After the haka, it was time for the main event: the feast!

We shuffled into the dining hall, where we were greeted by the delicious smells of slowly roast tasty things. After a brief introduction by one of the villagers, we were called up by table to get at the buffet. Dore and I loaded up our plates with everything we could fit and headed back to dig in. The meal was really good, and reminded us of Thanksgiving dinner. There was even stuffing and cranberry sauce! No turkey though. But they did have lamb. So on the whole not too shabby.

After dinner, we hit the dessert buffet, where we got to try pavlova, a Kiwi dessert of meringue wrapped around a marshmallowy, gooey interior and topped with kiwi fruit slices and strawberries. It was, as you might guess, quite tasty.

Finally stuffed beyond all reason, we stopped eating and rested in a dreamy haze until the end of the evening a while later. There were a few more songs, and another haka (this time by the rest of the staff — the bus drivers, emcee, and bus boys) before we piled onto our “canoes” to head back to town.

All in all the experience was a pleasant one, but a bit more touristy and “made up” than most of the things we’d experienced on the trip so far. We expected that, but it was still a bit of a letdown after all of the truly authentic things we’d done so far. But given our time frame (and number of contacts in the Maori community — namely zero), it would have been a bit tricky to attend a “real” hangi, so we settled for the best we could do. I did like one thing that the emcee said at the end of the evening however. He thanked everyone for coming, as “by coming out tonight you are allowing us to preserve and maintain our culture.” I liked the fact that we were taking part of a living culture, as opposed to a purely historical presentation. That made me feel good.

We headed back on the bus, singing songs from the various countries represented by all of the tourists and telling good-natured but somewhat crass jokes and generally having a good time of it. We finally arrived at our stop, and Dore and I got off, headed to the van, and dropped into a hangi-induced coma for the next eight hours.

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Cute Birds and Giant Hamster Balls

April 13th, 2010 No comments


We got up and out of the holiday park in pretty good time the next morning and hunted through the Waitomo Caves township for a cafe. All of them seemed to be closed, however, so we plugged the next coordinates into Garmin and headed up the road.

We stopped about twenty minutes later at a cafe in Otorohanga, where we got a nice hot breakfast, coffee and tea. After breakfast, we were just about to blow out of town, when I saw a sign for the kiwi house. A little light went off in my head, and I jerked around the turn like a madman, startling Dore more than a little bit, I think.

“Aaron [the father of the Australian family at the B&B] told me about this kiwi house!” I said by way of explanation, “It’s supposed to be pretty good.”

Dore grunted something I took as agreement, and a few minutes later we found ourselves outside the building. There weren’t any other cars in the parking lot. The house itself looked pretty small and no-frills, but we were there, so we figured that it was worth going in and checking it out. The tickets ended up being NZ$16 each, which seemed a bit steep to see a bird, but at that point I’d gotten it into my head to see the silly thing. Dore just shrugged, “Okay, if you want to.”

We paid for our tickets, then headed into the dark room that housed the kiwis. (Kiwis are nocturnal, so the kiwi houses all keep the enclosure on an artificial night/day cycle.) We stared into the dim enclosure for a few seconds, wondering where the kiwi was.

Oh crud, it’s probably sleeping or something.

But then we saw movement, and there it was: an enormous and very much live kiwi. I was instantly grinning from ear to ear. The bird was like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and words definitely don’t do it justice. Dore summed it up quite well, saying: “It’s like seeing a living fossil.” I have to agree.

The bird is a most peculiar thing. They are flightless, for one thing, and have such small wings as to be almost nonexistent. They are roughly pear-shaped, and have medium-length, muscular legs with wide, reptile-like feet. The beak is long and slender, and is used to poke into the leaves and dirt of the forest floor searching for bugs. The kiwi we saw was happily running around its enclosure, which was really fun to see. They way they run is sort of a bobbing jogging motion, and is very entertaining.

There was another type of kiwi in the other enclosure, but it was sitting very still in a shadow, and was not nearly as interesting to watch.

After a while, we headed out of the kiwi enclosure, and found ourselves in a very large aviary, which we spent almost and hour walking through. We saw tons of different birds, but the most interesting ones we saw were some very cute owls, several falcons, and a really cheeky parrot called the kea. I have to say, before this trip I didn’t know very much about birds. Now I feel like I know quite a bit, and Dore and I have happily been identifying birds in the various parks and on the roadside.

We headed out of the kiwi house very pleasantly surprised with our stop and continued along our journey toward Rotorua. The roads were nice, and we made good time, getting in to town around one (which was much earlier than we’d expected). On the way in to town we saw one of the activities on both of our must-do lists, and that we’d been lamenting as one we’d probably not be able to do: zorbing.

If you haven’t heard of zorbing, I would not be surprised. It is another of those particularly Kiwi inventions that I’ve yet to encounter anywhere else except, strangely enough, once in an old Jackie Chan movie. In essence, you sit inside a giant rubber hamster ball suspended inside another rubber ball (the space between is filled with air, and the inner ball is held in place by a ton of little ropes). So basically you’re on the inside of a meter-thick air cushion. You then strap yourself to the inside, find a nice long hill, and roll down it like a grinning idiot.

I’m probably not describing this very well, but it’s fun as hell.

We didn’t immediately stop on our way in, however, because we wanted to get the lay of the land first. We continued to the town center, where we immediately headed for the i-Site visitor center. We’d learned our lesson in previous towns, and knew that the info center was a one-stop shop for everything we needed to take care of.

True to form, we were able to get reservations for zorbing, a hangi (which is a traditional Maori feast — more on that tomorrow), a geothermal reserve, and a holiday park, all with no fuss. Just hand over the credit card, and everything is magically taken care of.

We had scheduled zorbing for the current afternoon, but there was no specific time we needed to be there. Since we hadn’t eaten yet, we popped by a local cafe to get a bite to eat. We had a nice satay chicken salad and a great passion fruit milkshake, then walked around the town a bit. The entire town smells of sulfur due to the geothermal vents that come up all over the place. Everyone always says that sulfur smells like rotting eggs, but I’ve always thought it smelled more like split pea soup. Maybe I’m just weird. After a while we got bored of looking at the steaming pools, and headed out to the zorbing hill.

As soon as we got there, we saw a ball roll slowly out of the loading bay at the top of the hill, then slowly, then with ever increasing speed, roll down the mountain until it came to a bouncing stop at the base. We were incredibly excited. The formalities of getting set up and up to the top of the hill took a few minutes, but then we found ourselves looking down the long hill toward the base station. The zorb balls were huge, towering over us. Dore went first. It was really fun to watch her roll down the hill, bouncing and spinning away to the bottom. Then it was my turn.

Climbing into the ball was a bit tough. There really isn’t any graceful way of doing it other than simply jumping in through the hole and flopping around until you’re in. Then you strap in to a seat with a harness, and away you go. I started out backwards, which seemed to me like it would be the more fun way to go.

The feeling of rolling down the hill is somewhat like going on a roller coaster, except less jerky. The ball is translucent, and it was fascinating to see the ground, then sky, then the ground again as I whizzed down the hill. As I rolled the ball took some odd little bounces, and I started to rotate to the side. I loved it. At the bottom the ball bounced around the catch berms, then came to a slightly bouncy stop. I unstrapped and flopped out, grinning. All in all a very fun experience.

Dore and I looked at the photos, and actually liked them enough (for a change) to buy a CD. We also bought an ice cream bar, since it sounded tasty. It was.

Adventures done for the day, we headed back in to town, where we checked in to the holiday park, soaked in the hot pool, took showers, and then set out to get some dinner. We walked the fifteen minutes or so to the city center, where we found a Japanese restaurant. It was pretty nice, in contrast to the previous one we’d tried in New Plymouth, and we had a nice dinner. The sushi selection was quite a bit smaller than we are used to in Santa Barbara, however, which I find somewhat surprising, considering that New Zealand has plenty of fish around. I don’t think the idea of eating raw things has really taken off here yet.

We stopped briefly on our way home to grab a drink at the Pig and Whistle pub, then headed back and went to bed. We were both exhausted from what had turned out to be quite a busy day, but Dore insisted I update the blog, and I managed to get two more nights finished before I crashed and went to sleep.

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Leap into Darkness

April 12th, 2010 No comments


We were a bit sad when we got up the next morning, as we had to say goodbye to Berta and the fantastic B&B. Adieu, adieu, and all that. We really were a bit bummed to move on. We’d rapidly come to think of the house by the mountain as home, sinking quickly into a comfortable rhythm that calmed and refreshed us.

Despite all of our foot-dragging, we finally got through breakfast and got all packed up and paid. We headed out and started the van (with no problems this time!) and got on the road. Our destination for the day was the Waitomo Caves, about 250 km north of us on the west side of the North Island. We we shooting to get there some time in the afternoon and find a place to stay. We made really good time, however, and arrived in town about one thirty. By now we knew just what to do, and stopped by the info center before doing anything else. A few minutes later, and we were booked for a blackwater rafting trip (more on that in a minute) and found out where to get a bite to eat.

Our raft trip didn’t leave until three forty-five, so we headed across the street to one of the few cafes in town. Dore got a burger and I got a seafood basket. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with that, but I surmised that it would be some type of fried seafood and fries. When the food came it was indeed deep fried seafood, but of a type I’ve not encountered before. On the overflowing plate were a number of deep golden brown nuggets of delight, containing a number of tasty surprises. As I bit into the various shapes, I found seafood cakes, shrimp, scallops, a green-lipped mussel, a fish fillet, and a few others that I’m forgetting at the moment. All together it was quite a feast, and a number of gourmet flavors.

I had to have Dore help me, there was so much, and we ate until we were both stuffed to the gills (if you’ll pardon the pun). In a bit of a fried-food daze, we set off back to the van and headed over to the Legendary Blackwater Raft Company headquarters, where we would be meeting our guides for the trip.

Now, what is blackwater rafting, you ask? I don’t blame you. I’ve never heard of it outside of New Zealand, and I think it may be unique to this adventure-seeking country. Simply put, it is inner-tubing through an underground river. Throw in a bunch of glow worms for company and the standard Kiwi “don’t be an idiot and we’ll pretty much let you do as you please” attitude, and you’ve got a recipe for awesome.

We actually showed up at the rafting company a bit too early, and were stuck waiting for about forty-five minutes or so, but it wasn’t too bad. They have a nice cafe and inside seating, so we put our heads town and dozed until it was time for the trip. At three forty-five on the dot our guides came out and led us down to the gear area, where we were issued cold, clammy wetsuits, neoprene booties, boots, and helmets. When I say the wetsuits were cold I mean they were cold. As the guides put it, though, “you paid good money to be cold and wet for the next three hours, so enjoy it!”

All suited up, we took a short bus ride down to the cave area, where we were issued our “rafts.” Dore and I had, somewhat naïvely assumed that we’d be going down on a raft similar to the ones used on whitewater rafting trips. So imagine our surprise when we were presented a number of inner-tubes of various dimensions and asked to “find one that you can squeeze your butt into nice and snug.” We shrugged and grabbed a couple of tubes. When in Rome, right?

Our caving tools in hand, we got our first taste of the water at the outdoor “waterfall simulator” (that’s right, there are waterfalls inside the cave) which was basically just a little dock about four feet off the water of a little stream. Here we were instructed in the proper technique for going over a cave waterfall. Namely, jump backwards onto your inner-tube. Preferably making as large a splash as possible and, if you’re like me, falling over backward. We emerged, dripping and shivering, fully qualified to go into the cave. Some training, right?

We hopped back onto the bus with our tubes for a very quick drive up to the cave entrance. A short walk past some blackberry bushes brought us to a dirt-and-wood stairway that led down to… nothing. It’s an eerie sort of feeling walking up to a cave entrance. The path got steeper and steeper, and the walls of green plants rose higher around us. The path also became tighter and more rocky, and then suddenly dead-ended by a hole in the ground with a small rivulet of water flowing into it, about six feet high and a few feet wide. Inside was black. We talked for a few minutes about protocol inside, and then headed into the darkness.

In contrast to the narrow entrance, the cave opened up into a relatively large room after just a few feet. Our entire group of twelve or so people fit in quite easily. We waited for a few minutes for our eyes to adjust and talked a little more about the cave. Then we headed in. The little stream we saw outside was joined by other underground springs and streams flowing from hidden inlets, and soon we were walking in a shallow stream bed. The cave twisted and turned its way into the mountain for several turns, and the stream got wider and deeper. Then we came to the first waterfall.

There’s a different feeling to jumping off of a platform into a stream in the daylight than there is to doing the same action in a cave. Maybe it’s the fact that the rock ceiling is only few feet above you, and slopes at odd angles so you can never be sure quite how far you can jump. Maybe it’s the blackness of the water below. How deep is it? What lies beneath the surface? Or maybe it’s the fact that you’re jumping backwards through the air into a pool of water somewhere deep underground, with nothing but your guide telling you that it’s okay to give you any idea of whether or not this is at all a safe or reasonable thing to do.

Breath in, breath out.



I felt the rocks on the bottom of the pool, but came bobbing up with no problems, sputtering and exhilarated. I looked around for the headlamp lights of the rest of the party. The guide grinned from above. “Good one, mate!” I grinned back. Man, this is fun. A few minutes later everyone was down the waterfall, and we headed deeper into the cave, paddling our odd little rafts awkwardly with our hands. The water was cold and black, and I could feel the cold seeping slowly into my extremities.

As I paddled, I noticed some queer blue-green lights in the roof of the cave. Glow worms! They looked like tiny LEDs set into the stone. I looked for the source of the light, but couldn’t seem to see it. I did see faint silky lines dangling below the lights like hairs.

We stopped a short while later and turned off our lights to see the glow worms in full effect. As the guides talked about the worms (or maggots, more precisely), I stared up in awe at the eerie constellations above us. As our eyes slowly adjusted to the nearly complete darkness, I found that I could just make out Dore’s face across the tunnel from me. Looking back down the tunnel the way we came, I could see the reflection of the worms in the water, like stars over a moonless lake.

A few minutes more, and we were back on the move. We went over a few more waterfalls and walked along wide sections of the stream with nothing to tell what the next step would bring but the feel of the rock. At one point we linked up into a long “chain” formation — each person holding on to the feet of the person behind them — turned off our lights, and the guides pulled us along a section of the stream in the complete darkness, glow worms silently sliding by overhead. At the end of the section we turned on our lights and walked along the stream some more.

When we reached the final section of the cave the guides again had us turn off our lights, and told us that we were going to play a game: “find your way to the exit in the dark.” I thought that they were joking, but it turned out that they weren’t. I imagine that the cave was pretty much a straight shot from that point, but it was still pretty awesome to paddle along in the dark, bumping into the walls and random other people, and generally not knowing what was ahead or behind.

After a few minutes, we started to see a faint light up ahead. As we drew closer, we saw that it was the lower mouth of the cave. I’m not sure that I can adequately describe the way that the end of the cave looked as we paddled towards it. The mouth was jagged and curved around slightly to the left, hiding what was just around the bend. We could see a little grotto with a shallow pool, the water lapping at limestone boulders. Whether it was my darkness-accustomed eyes or some trick of the light filtering through the trees above, the lighting in the grotto seemed a wan bluish-green. The light reflected off of the black water, adding to the eerie effect. I couldn’t help but think, as I drew slowly closer, of Gollum sitting on a rock, bathed in pale light and purring quietly to himself over some bit of pale, eyeless fish.

We emerged into the fading light of late afternoon in a forest. We must have looked a very peculiar sight: twelve wet, cold, and blinking people in wetsuits carrying inner-tubes through a forest. We didn’t care, though. We were all grinning ear to ear. We’d made it.

The walk back was much shorter than I’d imagined it would be. Although we’d been in the cave for at least and hour and a half, the total length of the cave was probably less than two or three hundred meters, as the crow flies. We emerged from the forest, walked across a parking lot, and were back at the inner-tube collection area where we started.

We dropped off our tubes, hopped in the bus, and rode the quick way back to the raft company headquarters where we stripped out of our cold wetsuits and ran in to the changing rooms for a hot shower. Although the wetsuit kept my core temperature pretty comfortable throughout the trip, my hands were cold all the way through, and the hot water felt cold and tingly.

Back in street clothes, we headed up and had some bagels and hot tomato soup (compliments of the raft company). I thought the soup was a really nice touch, and made for a nice end to the trip. We looked at the trip photos on the monitor, but there weren’t really any that we were willing to pay for, so we headed out to the van and in to town. We hadn’t gotten a place to stay yet, but had scoped out a holiday park on our way in to town. We dropped by and got one of the last couple spots. I’m not sure what we would have done had they been all full up. We probably would have just hunted around until we found somewhere else, I suppose. Traveling in the shoulder season is really nice, and Dore and I have found ourselves getting less and less worried about reserving things as we’ve gone along. There’s just been no need; everything has had spots available.

Spot secured, we settled in for the night and hung out in the van. I managed to get a good connection to the holiday park’s wireless Internet, so I uploaded a few photos and blog entries, and wrote some more. We hadn’t eaten dinner, but we’d had a large lunch and some soup, and weren’t all that hungry. We were mostly just tired. After a while we did get a bit peckish, so we split a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and had a couple glasses of wine (fancy, I know) then turned in for the night.

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Around the Mountain

April 10th, 2010 No comments


Dore and I woke up a bit earlier than usual so we’d be able to get a hike in before the afternoon. We ate breakfast at the B&B — Berta cooked again — and then headed up the mountain toward the trailhead. We made it there and started hiking by about 9:30.

After a quick detour where we went to the wrong trail start, we found the right track and started hiking. Our original plan was to hike around the mountain toward Dawson Falls, a round-trip of about three hours good hike. The hike started out quite nice, with the track winding along steep mountainside and cutting through dense sub-alpine bush. In places the path was like a tunnel through the dense flora. Other places the hillside was steep enough that we could see out over the landscape. The dark green of the native trees and plants went almost as far as we could see, then turned to patchwork farmland out on the horizon. We couldn’t see any other mountains in the direction we could see; the horizon was perfectly flat.

After hiking for about an hour we ran into an area where the trail had some standing water along a long series of steps. Some of the steps were several feet high, and Dore had a lot of trouble getting down. (She’s got shorter legs, you see.) Worse, the troughs that were formed by the wooden retaining boards were full of water, and some of them were soggy with mud. We gave it our best shot, but eventually we came to a spot where we were going to get our shoes completely wet. At that point we decided to bag it and head back. There was no use getting completely miserable.

It was just as well that we did turn back at that point, because we were getting pretty tired by the time we made it back to the car park. We gratefully piled in the car, and headed down the mountain. But we didn’t stop when we got to the B&B. Instead, we headed down and around the mountain. We were going to get to Dawson Falls by hook or by crook.

Twenty minutes later, we made it up to the trailhead by the falls. A quick ten-minute walk had us down at the falls. I have to say, the falls itself really wasn’t worth the effort. Sure, it was impressive, but I’ve seen better falls before. The bush on the way down and the crazy stairway path to the falls were pretty cool, however.

After a few minutes we packed up and headed down the mountain, but were stopped along the way by some road construction. We sat in the car as we waited, and I got caught up on my notes. After about fifteen minutes we got back underway, and from then on made good time back to the B&B.

When we got there we were both pretty tired and hungry. We devoured the rest of the Indian food from the night before, then I tucked Dore in to bed for a nap. (She was still battling her cold, and was pretty exhausted from the hike. I couldn’t blame her. I was tired too, and I didn’t have a cold.) As she drifted off, I headed back to New Plymouth to drop off the rental car and to pick up our van. The shop had called while we were on our hike to let us know that they had finished fixing it.

Amazingly, I didn’t forget anything in the shuffle, and an hour and a half later I was back at the B&B, more tired than ever, but basically done with everything I needed to get done for the day. Dore got up and we had some afternoon tea and coffee (and some more of Berta’s delicious date scones). After a while we got ready and headed out to a nice dinner at a restaurant in Stratford. We made it back home around 7:30, and again spent the rest of the evening relaxing and talking with the family from Perth. We were all pretty tired, and they had a flight early the next morning, so we said our goodbyes and headed to bed a bit early.

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To Make Lemonade

April 10th, 2010 1 comment


I woke up right at 8:00 the next morning to call the folks at Escape rentals to get the van in for servicing. After a few rings, I got through to the manager and explained what was going on. He was very understanding, and said that not only would they cover the current repair, but the cost of getting started in Wellington, since it sounded like that was caused by the same mechanical failure. He directed me to call the New Zealand roadside assistance number and let them know that I needed to get a mechanic. The roadside assistance folks were similarly efficient, and in no time I had the number of a mechanic in New Plymouth that could fix the van. I called the mechanics and let them know we’d be in later that morning.

I was quite pleased with this turn of events, and Dore and I happily headed out to breakfast. Berta continued her trend of amazing service by offering to cook us a hot breakfast with eggs and bacon, then simply refusing to take no for an answer. I had to accept to avoid seeming rude. Really, I did.

After breakfast (which was wonderful) Dore and I got cleaned up, then headed down to the van to take it in. As before, it wasn’t starting, so I had Dore turn the key as I banged on the starter motor with the tire iron. Lo and behold, it worked, and we were started in no time. I’m definitely going to remember that trick!

We drove in to New Plymouth, which was about thirty minutes away, and found the shop without much trouble. They told us that it would not be ready until later that afternoon, but we were already planning on spending the day walking around New Plymouth, so that didn’t hurt our plans at all. We grabbed everything we’d need for the day, and headed out. Fortunately for us, the shop was only a few blocks from the town center, so we didn’t have far to walk at all.

Our first stop was the i-Site info center for a bathroom break and to find out about what to do in town. As usual, the folks at the info center were really helpful, and gave us maps, brochures, and more things to do than we would ever have time for. As we headed out, we took stock of our options, and decided to head toward Pukekura Park, which is an absolutely gorgeous (and huge) park in the middle of town. My mom had actually told me about the park before I left as the one “must do” thing that she remembered from her time there.

The park was definitely not a disappointment. In fact, in a country seemingly chock full of amazing parks, it was pretty much the coolest one we had seen. As we entered the park, we walked past a perfectly manicured cricket green with cool grassy, terraced stadium seating. Then we found one of the two lakes inside the park, followed shortly by a view over the main lake toward Mt. Taranaki that had the mountain perfectly framed. I’m usually not a huge fan of taking the same postcard picture that everyone else has, but darn it if this wasn’t impossible not to stop and take a few shots.

Next, we headed in to the fernery through a tunnel in the mountainside. Inside we found a huge variety of ferns and flowers in all shapes and sizes. It was amazingly calm and relaxing, and we were loath to leave. But we wanted to see what else this awesome park had to offer.

Outside again, we cruised along the main lake, checking out a couple of beautiful old red-painted wooden bridges along the way. Eventually we came to the amphitheater, which sits in a smaller section of water opposite a large, semicircular grassy bowl. I could just imagine sitting on the grass and listening to a concert on a warm summer’s evening.

Finally to the end of the park (or at least as far as we were planning on going), we headed up the hill to see the final attraction we’d been aiming for: the Brookland’s Zoo. Inside we were delighted to see a whole herd of raucous capuchin monkeys, a pair of lazy lemurs, a pack of pacing alpaca, a brace of fuzzy chickens (seriously… their feathers were fuzzy), and a number of other fun animals. It was actually considerably cooler than either of us had expected. And the best part? It was all free! Hooray!

Finally spent on looking at animals, and getting ravenously hungry, we headed back to the town center as quickly as possible and found a Japanese restaurant that we’d been recommended. We popped in and got a few small things, but unfortunately the restaurant only had a la carte rolls (and not particularly good ones) and miso soup. We had been hoping for more of a full menu and made-to-order food, so we ended up just having a few things as a light snack and moving on.

We ended up going to the mall that was next to the info center, where we got some coffee and tea and rested a bit from our long walk. Dore was suffering from another round of her cold, and was feeling pretty run down. After a bit we decided to head toward the city library and relax while we waited for the mechanics to call about the van.

We found that the library was attached to the info center. It’s really an awesome building, housing the i-Site center, a cafe, a free museum, and the library. We scoped out some free chairs, and plopped down happily. I pulled out the computer, and found that we had free wireless Internet access. Hooray! We played around for a while, checking our email and various other sites.

Not long after we sat down, however, the shop called with some bad news: they had the van all apart, but weren’t going to be able to get the new part they needed until the next morning. We were going to be stranded! I asked if they had a loaner car or an agreement with a rental agency, but no dice. I hung up and let Dore know the bad news.

“What are we going to do?” she asked, not looking happy at all.

“Don’t worry, I can take care of this.”

I called the folks at Escape again and explained the situation. They were very understanding, and told me that they’d reimburse us for a taxi or rental car (our choice) until the van was fixed. Not only that, but they were going to refund some of the cost of the van rental because of the inconvenience! This is incredible. Every time I think I’ve found the limit of Kiwi hospitality, they do me one better. Did I mention I’m in love with this country?

Given that we were thirty minutes outside of town, it was pretty clear that a rental car would be the best thing to do, so I started looking on the Internet for an agency. That is, until Dore chimed in with a fantastic idea.

“Doesn’t the info center do bookings?”

Why yes, they do! We packed up, headed over, and within about ten minutes had not only a rental car booking (at a very reasonable price), but the rental car folks were going to bring the car right to us! Incredible. We thanked the lady that helped us with the booking, then headed over to the cafe to wait for the car.

They arrived about twenty minutes later. We went over the customary paperwork, and in no time we were on the road, headed back to the B&B. By the time we got there, Dore was completely exhausted, and feeling pretty down. We got her some tea and tucked her in to bed, then I called an Indian food restaurant in town to get a takeaway meal. I went in and picked up the food, and was back about forty-five minutes later. Dore had gotten some nice rest, and the spicy food helped get some life back into her.

After dinner, we chatted with the family from Perth some more, then finally headed off to bed.

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Two Troubled Starts

April 9th, 2010 No comments


Dore and I had read about Palmerston North in a book about New Zealand a while back, and wanted to check out the town before we headed out. I’m not sure if it was the weather, our recently low spirits, or the town itself, but we found the town to be a bit sleepy and uninteresting for our tastes. The city itself lies in the middle of — if the smells on our way in were any guide — a farming area. It’s also nestled in between two mountain ranges, but they are both far enough away that the land felt pretty flat and uninteresting.

We visited a mall downtown, which was actually quite nice, but really didn’t hold too much interest for us. It was more just a fun diversion from the rain than anything we really wanted to do. After perusing the shops for a while, we headed around the central square to the i-Site visitor center, where we found the local brochures confirmed our suspicions: there really wasn’t all that much that we wanted to do nearby.

What we did find, however, was that there were quite a few things to do in the Taranaki region, which was where we were planning on heading next. With a choice between a rainy, sleepy city and a fun-filled area ahead, our choice was pretty clear. We were going to skip town.

Just before we left town, we pulled out the old B&B book and flipped to the places we’d marked near New Plymouth, the principal city in the Taranaki region, and, incidentally, the city in which I was born. (I was, by the way, getting increasingly excited to finally visit the place of my birth. It’s a silly thing, seeing as how I left when I was only a year old, but I’ve always felt that I have a special connection to this place, and I’ve been wanting to visit for almost as long as I can remember. But anyway, back to the B&B book…) Flipping through, we settled on two main contenders. One was a farm stay a few kilometers away from New Plymouth and another that was about a 30 minute drive from the city, but sat right at the foot of the mountain. (Oh, I forgot to mention the mountain. Sorry about that. Like I said, I’ve been daydreaming about this place all my life, so I assume everyone knows about the mountain. Basically, Mt. Taranaki is a nearly perfect conical mountain about 8000 feet high that rises out of the middle of a wide, flat coastal plain. It’s often compared to Mt. Fuji, and actually played the part of Mt. Fuji in the movie “The Last Samurai.” It’s one of a handful of mountains that I’ve seen that I could immediately pick out of a lineup. Anyway, that should give you the general picture. Wikipedia probably has lots more info if you’re interested.)

After a bit of pros-and-cons analysis, Dore and I settled on the B&B on the mountain because of it’s potential for really good views of the mountain. We called the number in the book, but got an answering machine. I hung up, planning on calling the other place, but Dore pointed out that we had several hours to drive, and we could always have them call us back on our cell phone. I dutifully called back to leave a message, but was pleasantly surprised when someone picked up on the other end of the line. As luck would have it, they did have a double room free, so we booked the room and got on our way.

The drive went by very quickly, and we arrived at the B&B at the foot of Mt. Taranaki (near the town of Stratford) by about 2:30 in the afternoon. Berta, the owner, greeted us as we came in, and immediately set about making us fantastically comfortable. Berta originally hails from Switzerland (although she’s lived near the mountain for, if I’ve got this right, close to thirty years now). In my experience the Swiss definitely know a thing or two about hospitality, but Berta could give lessons to the best of them. When you’re traveling there are few things that can compare to the feeling of finding yourself in a place where you feel completely at home. As Berta ushered us into the house and fixed us a hot cup of tea and warm date scones fresh out of the oven, Dore and I felt ourselves rapidly — almost magically — lulled into a dreamy state of pure relaxation.

Can you tell I liked this place?

After a half and hour or so, in which we got to know Berta a little bit, we felt quite refreshed and invigorated. It was still drizzling a bit outside, and the mountain was completely hidden in cloud, but we decided that we’d take a quick walk around the property. Berta’s home sits roughly in the middle of a squarish five acre lot that is, as far as I know, the most diverse piece of land on the planet. On the property she has (and please forgive the laundry list style — there’s just too much for prose):

  • Four sheep
  • One pig
  • Several sheep paddocks
  • An area of native bush (which is basically an incredibly dense rain forest)
  • A water reservoir that runs into a stream with a little waterwheel at the end
  • And a path that runs in and around the entire thing.

Dore and I spent about thirty minutes gawking at all of the cool different areas of the property and getting seriously jealous before we finally made it back around to the house.

After we got in, we spend a bit more time resting, relaxing, and chatting with Berta, then decided to head out for dinner. We got all ready to go, and headed down to the van. We hopped in, turned the key, and got… nothing. I looked at the cigarette lighter. Nope, Garmin wasn’t plugged in. It looks like the finger this time was pointed squarely at the starter.

Rather than trying to get the van started and then risking being stranded in the rain in town, we decided to go upstairs and see what we could do with delivery or begging to buy some food from Berta. She had other plans, however.

“If you’d like, I can drive you in to town, and then you can just call me and I’ll pick you up after you’re finished,” Berta offered when she heard our plight. I love B&Bs. And New Zealand B&Bs in particular. We very thankfully accepted her offer, and headed in to town.

We ate at Malone’s, a restaurant that Berta recommended. When we got inside, we were a bit concerned by the decor. It was, to be frank, fairly shabby, even for a bar/restaurant combo. The carpet was frayed at the corners and the fireplace was unfinished concrete. But the menu looked good, so we stuck it out and ordered. I’m incredibly glad we did. The dinner was fantastic. It was clear that the chef really knew what he (or she) was doing. Everything was done perfectly, with exactly the right balance of flair and simplicity. Dore had an amazingly done (and huge) lamb rack with grilled eggplant. The sauce was perfect, with nice caramelized flavors. I had the John Dory (fish) which was served on an inspired pasta with a cilantro-lime sauce and garnished with sliced green onions. For desert we split the mud cake, which didn’t hurt at all.

Finished with our meal, we called Berta, who came and picked us up a few minutes later. We drove home, raving about the meal. When we got back, I grabbed the bottle of blanc du noir that we’d bought in Nelson to share with Berta as a thank-you for driving us. We opened the bottle and each had a glass as we talked the evening away with the family from Perth, Australia that was also staying at the B&B. After a while, everyone was tired, and we went to our separate rooms to bed.

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Some Days

April 8th, 2010 2 comments


Some days just weren’t meant to go right. Today started off with a tepid shower, and went downhill from there. Okay, not all downhill. There were some good points. But there were definitely some crappy points as well. On the whole it was not my favorite. Ah, shucks, why don’t I just shut up and tell you about it…

Dore and I got up a bit after our alarm went off at eight. For whatever reason we were both just tired, and dragged a bit as we got up out of bed. I hopped in the shower of our hotel room first, only to find that the hot water was anything but. After fiddling with the poorly labeled taps for a while I came to the conclusion that yes, the right one really was hot, and no, it wasn’t going to let me take a shower in anything but a weak stream of water that could most flatteringly be described as “not cold.” As I toweled off afterwords, I looked around at the bathroom decor. The old brown tiles of the bathroom must have seemed like a good idea in whatever decade they had been installed (the forties, perhaps?) and may well have looked opulent at the time, but now, chipped and dirty from years of low-budget accommodation housecleaning, they just looked chipped and dirty, as all low-budget accommodations seem to eventually become.

We got out of the hotel quite a bit before the ten o’clock checkout time, and headed down the road toward the Te Papa museum. We knew that we’d be facing a tough time getting something for breakfast because of the national holiday, but by the time we finally made it around the harbor and found a cafe that was open we were both famished. We ate hungrily, and completely cleaned our plates of the few crumbs that were left.

After breakfast we hit the museum. This was, by and large, our major triumph for the day. I really can’t say anything bad about the museum, except perhaps that it was too large for us to take it all in during one visit. But that’s just our failing, and actually is a point in favor of the museum. I especially liked the fossil and animal specimen exhibits, which were both informative and really well targeted toward both youth and adult audiences. I thought the art collection was probably the weakest point of the museum (I didn’t see any works by any famous artists I was familiar with), but even there we did see a humorous and very well executed exhibition of small human figure sculptures that Dore and I both quite liked.

By the time we were done with the museum, Dore was pretty exhausted, and starting to get into a low blood sugar haze. We left somewhat hurriedly, and went in search of food. After a few duds, we happened upon the Hummingbird restaurant, where we found the menu quite to our liking. Dore had a nice corn chowder. I ordered the steamed mussels, but they ended up bringing me mussel and mushroom cakes. Luckily I noticed and asked the waiter. He apologized for the mix-up and put in the correct order right away, then, in a move I’ve never seen back home, let us keep the cakes on the house. Sweet! I’m used to restaurants taking the incorrect order away and (presumably) dumping it in the trash.

I have to say, the mussel and mushroom cakes were phenomenal. Better, actually, than the mussels that came a bit later. But both were quite good. Dore and I left quite satisfied, but not before getting a bit of a shock. Dore had ordered a bottle of soda with her meal. It ended up being only 220 ml (or about 8 ounces), but set us back NZ$7.50 (about US$5.00). Yikes!

We walked back towards our car along the waterfront, which was really nice. It definitely had the feel of a really nice boardwalk, and we were enjoying being out in the sun. But after a while Dore and I started to get really tired. We were almost back to the car when we decided that we wanted to go up the cable car, or at least look at it to decide that it was too expensive. But when we made it to the station, we found that it was actually quite reasonable, so we bought our tickets and hopped aboard. A few minutes later, and we were atop the city, looking down over everything. It was a grand view, but we were still really tired, and now even farther from our car.

So what did we do? Ride down of course.

No, wait, that is what any sane person would have done. But no, we’re past that point now. We started walking through the botanical gardens, which start right outside the cable car station. My idea, I’m afraid.

Our walk took us part way down a steep hill, and after a few hundred feet we found the idea of walking back up too painful to even consider. So walking back down to the city it was. We took many little breaks along the way, taking full advantage of the benches that were provided along the path, but we were both beat by the time we finally emerged at the bottom. We popped into a service station and bought an ice cream cone, which perked us up a bit. We dragged ourselves the last block to the van, dropped our packs in the back, and hopped in, relieved to finally be back. We were ready to be on our way onward and out of the frenetic city.

I turned the key. Nothing happened.

Scratch head. Turn key.


I checked everything with elaborate carefulness. Clutch in. Brake on. Turn key. Nothing.

Oh hell. The battery’s dead. Did I leave the lights on? Nope, they were off. The interior lights? Nope, off. Look down at cigarette lighter. The GPS.

I forgot that on some cars the stupid GPS charger draws the tiniest bit of power even when the car is off. Damn it!

Long story short, we called the roadside assistance people, and of course it’s our fault so we’ll have to pay. And of course it’s a public holiday, so an extra fee will apply. We waited for about an hour before the mechanic showed up. He brought over his extra battery, hooked it up, and we tried to turn over the engine.


We scratched our heads. The mechanic thought the battery might be completely dead. He pulled out his tester, but found that it was only a bit drained. I’m pretty sure it should have even been enough to turn over the engine. Hmm…

The mechanic scratched his head for a second, then had an idea.

“Here, get in and try starting the engine while I tap on the starter,” he told me. I followed his instructions as he leaned under the car with a long metal bar. Tap tap tap… vroom. The engine came to life.

“The starter’s almost dead,” he said simply. “If this happens again just have your wife start the car while you tap on it.”

We paid him and finally got on our way northward. We drove a few hours to Palmerston North, where we got some burgers and fries from a takeout restaurant and finally made it to a holiday park. We parked and immediately set in on the food. It was predictably awful, but in a comforting, homey way. In some small way it made us feel a bit better. Where we had been a bit depressed about the day, we finally felt able to laugh a little bit, kick back and relax. Tomorrow will be better.

We can only hope.

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