Windy Wellington

I really enjoyed my day in Wellington. It’s got a pretty and compact CBD close to the water, while a little farther out there are wooden Victorian houses on the surrounding hills (like my B&B). They reminded me a little of San Francisco.

I started out by walking down through the town to the i-site to get some information about the various things I might want to do that day. I was debating on how to prioritize going to the Weta Workshop, the folks behind a lot of make-up, props, and non-CGI special effects for movies like the Lord of the Rings. I wanted to see it, but I also wanted to get a feel for the city of Wellington.

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I decided I would wait to book Weta Cave till after I had explored some more, so I headed out along the beautiful harborside walk to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand. I spent much more time than anticipated there!

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I then walked along the waterfront, headed to the iconic Wellington cable car that goes up to the Botanic Gardens, but it was out of service. Instead, I caught a bus and then walked down through the gardens back into town.

I stopped back at the i-site but found that the Weta Cave tours were all booked for the day. Luckily I wasn’t too disappointed as this would let me walk along the harbor to Oriental Terrace, a beautiful walk.

There was a night noodle market that I enjoyed walking through on my way. I found a lovely little restaurant with a water view where I stopped for a very early dinner or late lunch (only having had tea and cake at Te Papa), and I sat drinking wine and watching the sun set.

Rotorua to Wellington via Mt Doom

Wednesday was a bus day, spent traveling down the middle of the North Island via Highway 1.

The trip out of Rotorua was again reminiscent of the Shire, with all these oddly shaped, very lush green hills, plumes of steam visible.

Then we got to Taupo and the lake. Snowy volcanoes in the distance, part of Tongiriro National Park (near where the volcano that was used as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies is located). The lake itself had waves and was this deep blue color except right near the shore, where it was greeny-blue, like an ocean.

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As we went around the lake, there were cliffs visible, making such a striking landscape.

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I believe in this part, we were still on the geo-thermal explorer highway, but after we left the lake and paralleled those snow-capped volcanoes, we emerged from the forest-covered hills onto the dessert road. We were surrounded by scrubby plains, the majestic mountains towering in the distance.

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Then we re-emerged into hills, some seeming knobbly like they were covered by sheeps’ fleece, and dry, so they were a straw color. And they were spotted with sheep and some cattle, as were the greener hills we emerged onto.

We had lunch at a remote rest stop where I had a tasty lamb and mint sauce sandwich (seemed apt since we were in sheep country), and then continued on through hills until we headed closer to the coast. I must admit I fell asleep for part of this, waking an hour before we got Wellington. I was in time to see us hug the coastline and then turn inland through Wellington suburbs.

I ventured out into the city for dinner, trying some green lip mussels. (They really do have a green color around the edge of shell, and are much bigger and somewhat chewier than the mussels you get in the US or Europe.)

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From what I’ve seen so far, I really like Wellington!

Arsenic and Old… Traditions

I spent a wonderful, sulfur-smelling, jam packed day in Rotorua on Tuesday.

It started with me visiting two different geo-thermal areas, Wai-O-Tapu before lunch and Waimangu after. The area is located within a “super volcano” or caldera, which explains all the geo-thermal activity.

On our way to the “parks”, we stopped at a boiling mud hole:

Before entering Wai-O-Tapu, we watched their geyser be induced by one of the guides throwing some ecologically friendly surfactant. The geyser is fairly regular without the surfactant, but that means it will go every 24-72 hours, disappointing for visitors.

Wai-O-Tapu has pools of various colors caused by different mineral and metal deposits (such as arsenic, antimony, and sulfur). You actually wouldn’t want to spend too much time next to some of the fumeroles(?) at the bottom of the path, due to the heavy metals or other elements in the vapor. But in the short term, it’s well worth a visit, as you see these pools of water with different colors you’d never expect. Here’s the most striking:

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Because it was a cold day, the steam was intense, and the water levels were also fairly low, which meant it was a bit hard to see all the colors you might see on another day. Apparently each day the colors can be different. A German girl on my shuttle and I joined a guided walk, though I left it part way to go further on the path before my transfer to Waimangu.

Waimangu is totally different. Unlike Wai-O-Tapu, where much of the track goes through rock, the trail in Waimangu descends somewhat steeply through bush. It’s like a walk in the woods where giant ferns grow and the lakes steam and bubble, and you expect to come across a dinosaur around the corner.

I met a nice couple while walking through Waimangu and we ended up walking together for much of it. That made this city girl more comfortable – I like knowing there is at least one other human being around, especially when walking through bush where it would be relatively easy to twist an ankle and not have anyone around to help. Apparently the guy is in a band called the Thomas Brothers. (There, I’ve now put in a plug for the band! Always interesting to see someone’s performance when you’ve randomly met them.)

Waimangu is a long enough trail that they suggest walking out and taking a bus back. There are three bus stops and I’d originally thought I would have time to go to the end, but it seemed like we were cutting it close by the time we got to the second stop, and I was worried I wouldn’t make it back to the shuttle on time. Luckily the bus passed us at that stop and the driver said he’d wait for us at the third stop so we could see the lake, we just needed to hurry a bit. He was so nice!

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After that, I got back on the shuttle and made a flying visit to a tasting room for a boutique winery called Volcanic Hills, that a friend had recommended. It is located at the top of a hill at the edge of Rotorua, and you take a gondola up there. On the way up, I remembered how much I hate heights, but on the way down, after tasting five different fantastic wines, I did a lot better! I wish I could have brought back several bottles but I was running short on time before my Maori cultural performance and dinner and I didn’t want to carry bottles for the next two weeks. However, I am now regretting that decision. Oh well, the view, the wine, and the person leading the tasting all contributed to a lovely if short experience.

I headed back down the hill, rejoined the German girl I’d met on the shuttle to Wai-O-Tapu, and we headed a little down the road to Mitai, a Maori cultural performance and dinner (a hangi, where meat and kumara – sweet potatoes – are steamed in the ground).

It was a great experience, very polished and aimed at tourists but still well worth seeing. The dances were similar to what I had seen in Auckland. They had us delegate a “chief”, who was designated since he called himself out as the only vegetarian there! (Both Australia and New Zealand are such meat-loving countries!) He was such a good sport! Part of the tradition (incorporated into the show) was that the Mitai tribe would offer a song, and then our “tribe” would as well. There was a college group there who was ready and apparently prepped to sing, but our “chief” actually had a Native American flute and decided to play it! At the end of the performance, before dinner, they also had us practice part of a haka (war dance).  It was a lovely performance and a lot of fun, and the dinner after was tasty.

I had sprung for the additional night walk through a zoo/sanctuary to see the kiwis, who are nocturnal. I figured it might be the only chance I had to see live kiwi birds, and I’m glad I went. I also saw some glowworms at the beginning of the walk, tiny blue pinpricks of light over a pond. If (hopefully when) I return to New Zealand, I want to see the glowworms in Waitomo Caves. These whetted my appetite to see more!

Eggs Gone Bad

Monday morning I took a three and a half hour bus ride from Auckland to Rotorua. The countryside as we approached Rotorua was filled with green hills of a shape I haven’t seen elsewhere. I can only figure they are a product of the area’s geothermal/volcanic activity. They are smallish in terms of the circumference of the base, but very steep with a very rounded top. Many looked like they should have to entrance to a hobbit house peering out, not surprising since the Hobbiton set wasn’t that far away from part of the bus’s itinerary.

The host of my B&B picked me up and suggested some activities for the afternoon. I took a great hour walk to get back to downtown, starting out through anyone forest and then passing through several (smelly) areas of geothermal activity called Sulfur Bay. It’s called that for a reason – parts of Rotorua where you can see steam escaping from the earth smell like rotten eggs due to the sulfur content in the escaping vapor. I was really excited to walk through these area but also terrified, as it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the gravel of the path with the gravel of the unstable dangerous ground. Not surprisingly however, I made it through in one piece and without accidentally putting my foot through unstable ground into an acidic and scalding basin of water.

I then took a little bus tour to orient must to the city. I wrapped up the evening pretty early – it’s been a lot of early mornings.

Kia Ora! Hello from Auckland!

Despite my best intentions to get out early to see all I could see in my one day in Auckland, I had quite a leisurely morning at the B&B I was staying at. This B&B was a self-indulgent splurge, and was well worth it after the physical challenges of the prior few days.

To start, I walked over to the museum. (Technically called the Auckland War Memorial Museum, the war-related exhibits only take up the top floor.)

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I started out walking through some of the first floor galleries, but the real gem in my opinion is the Maori Court area, full of various Maori artifacts.

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This carving is from the prow of a Waka, or war boat.

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The protruding tongue visible in many of the carvings is reminiscent of the bulging eyes and stuck out tongue displayed by men during the haka (or war dance). It denotes ferocity and aggression in a haka, or more simply passion, if I understood correctly, in other contexts. If you want to see a haka, the New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks performs one prior to each match.

I learned this because I attended the half hour cultural performance at the museum, which was well worth the additional fee. They demonstrated a number of songs and dances, including the haka and the poi dance. Poi are balls attached to a cord, which dancers use to make rhythms and as an extension of their bodies while dancing.

It hadn’t quite clicked until the cultural performance that Maori are related to other Pacific Islanders, including Hawaiians. The songs and dances sparked that realization, however.

I did check out the second floor of the museum quite briefly. There are natural history exhibits on that floor but I was ready to go out and explore the downtown or CBD.

I walked through a park called the Domain on my way down the hill from the museum to the CBD. There were some amazing huge old trees on the way.

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Once downtown, I checked where my bus would leave the following morning, then headed up to the i-site (tourist information center) in the basement of the Skytower. The crazies were out, making the latter part of the walk rather unpleasant.

I didn’t love the CBD, but Auckland is a city of suburbs that I think contain more charm and character. The host at my B&B had suggested that I go out to one of the islands in the Auckland harbor, and since I didn’t have much time, he suggested Devonport. It’s got historical seaside homes and two volcanoes, one of which I climbed (North Head). North Head used to have a military post on it, so there are some lookouts and such you can explore from the top. There’s also a splendid view of the CBD.

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The paths up are through lush green grass that is delightfully springy, like a manicured lawn. The benefit of growing on an old volcano, I expect, plus obvious city maintenance.

It started raining so I took the ferry back to the CBD and a bus back to Parnell, where I was staying. It seemed fitting to conclude my first full day in New Zealand with some New Zealand lamb and wine (pinot noir), so I did!

Preparing for New Zealand

In any trip, you need to take some breaks – time to drink a coffee or a glass of wine, walk by the beach, write postcards…do laundry or other similarly glamorous tasks. By Friday, after hiking, camping out, swimming, and diving, i was ready for a break. Plus I was flying to New Zealand on Saturday and I needed to clean the Outback dust and mud from my shoes. New Zealand takes protecting its biological treasures very seriously, and their bio-security is extremely strict.

So I spent Friday morning scrubbing my hiking shoes and sandals with a toothbrush and doing some other errands around the hostel. And I spent Friday afternoon eating seafood paired with Australian white wines.

Then Saturday it was off to Auckland! I had booked my flight from Cairns on Orbitz and hadn’t realized that the layover in Sydney was actually a change in airline (Jetstar to Qantas). It meant going from the domestic to the international terminal, checking in again, and dropping off luggage again. Luckily it wasn’t busy and I had a three hour layover, so all was fine.

Both Australia and New Zealand have an e-passport expedited immigration system where passengers from certain countries just scan their chip passport, get their photo taken, and go through without waiting for a person. It’s quite efficient, though I really do miss having the stamps in my passport!

The incredible, amazing Great Barrier Reef

Words can barely describe how fantastic the Great Barrier Reef is. Think of any coral exhibit you’ve seen at an aquarium. Now increase the diversity ten fold, and think about swimming in this underwater world, in the quiet and filtered sunlight. It just blows you away.

Last Thursday I went out on the Reef with Passions of Paradise. The day was hot and sunny, the ocean pretty calm. It was a perfect day to be out on the Reef.

We went to the deeper site first (Paradise Reef), where I had my intro dive. I’ve done a Discover Scuba/intro dive a couple of times before, so I was really surprised when I panicked putting my face underwater and trying to breathe through the regulator. Maybe it was because it was a deep dive site – the other two trained us in shallow water first. Or maybe I was just nervous about diving on the Reef. Regardless, my dive instructor, Geordie, was amazingly patient. You’d think that was a prerequisite for the job, but believe me, it’s not. (The instructor I had when I started getting an open water certification was not, part of why I never completed it.) I got my breathing under control and went underwater. I didn’t even have as much trouble equalizing as I previously had.

This intro dive had us all link arms, which was good because I was rolling (my weights may have been unbalanced) and panicking a bit that I was going to touch and harm the coral. Again, Geordie was great, and towed me around for most of the dive. I’m not sure why I had so much trouble on this dive, but the instructor was just amazing and I trust he kept me from destroying anything with my flippers!

There were so many different shapes of hard coral, and it seemed like every fish we saw was a different species! Apparently there was even a shark, though I wasn’t fast enough to see it. Some of the snorkellers saw it, though. (And while it is important to respect reef sharks, it’s also important to remember that they generally eat small fish and leave humans alone.) I was wearing a prescription mask I had rented and I could see everything so clearly! There was this one formation that looked like a tethered hot air balloon!

The second location was Michaelmas Cay, a sand island that is 95% a bird sanctuary (and smelled like one too!) You can walk into the water from the Cay and swim back to the ship. Instead of the hard coral of Paradise Reef, this area had an array of soft corals, like spaghetti coral.

I passed on another dive and instead snorkelled for the first time. I was nervous as my only prior experience with a snorkel was during the certification training, and ended in my swallowing a ton of water. I decided to stay close to the staff member taking a few of us on a coral tour, not least because he dragged a floaty around that I could grab on to. (I have never really swum in the ocean and while I am swim, I’m not a very strong swimmer.)

The non-coral sea life was also different – there were several turtles around, one of which I saw resting down in the coral. These Green Turtles are beautiful, multi-colored and majestic. We saw sting rays (well under us). There were even giant clams!

The whole experience was absolutely incredible. And I worked up quite an appetite, so I decided on a roo burger for dinner!

My pictures are pretty terrible, but here are a few. (It’s not easy learning to dive/snorkel and take pictures!)