Fall Break Week Two: North Island

This is a very, very belated entry, sorry about that.  My only excuse is that I had a biopsych exam worth 40% of my final grade last week, and that I just didn’t feel like sitting down and writing this.  But here I am, this is gonna be another long one so be prepared – here you go, Mom, this is the North Island:
View North Island trip in a larger map
Day One – Monday 12 April – Christchurch to Picton
The thing about my trip to the North Island was that I was exhausted before I even left.  I got back from the South Island trip on Friday night, spent all of Saturday unpacking, doing laundry, and repacking, had a much-needed day of rest on Sunday, and left at 6:00am on Monday.  I caught my bus to Picton from Cathedral Square in the city center; it was such a scenic bus ride!  We made a quick stop in Kaikoura, and got to Picton around noon – it’s a really cool little town right on the water.  I was a little early for my ferry so I checked my bag, went into town to get lunch, and spent the rest of the time walking around the waterfront.  Apart from flying, the Interislander ferry is the only way to go between the North and South Islands, and the ferry boats are so huge that it was basically like being on a plane anyway.  On the ferry, I met up with two Germans, Felix and Melina, who were going to stay with the same CouchSurfing guy as I was in Wellington.  CouchSurfing is this website that connects travelers and backpackers with people willing to host them at no cost in the areas they’re traveling – it’s really secure because there are ID and location checks and everything, and you can meet some really awesome people through Surfing.  Anyway, the ferry ride was about three hours and we spent a lot of the time on the deck watching the sun set over the sound.
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When we got to port in Wellington, our host, Brian, picked us up.  He’s a 60-year-old self-employed rickshaw (read: taxi) driver, a really goofy jolly old guy.  He drove us back to his house in a suburb of Wellington called Brooklyn, way at the top of a steep hill with an incredible view of the city and the harbor.  He has a permanent boarder named Thomas (another German) and two crazy cats named Danny and Molly.  We got to Brian’s house around dinner time: fish and chips – even homemade beer batter for the fish! – that he and Thomas made (Felix helped, and they all had a super manly time hanging around the deep-fryer).  The five of us sat around the dinner table for almost six hours, eating, talking, laughing, and enjoying Brian’s great NZ wine – he’s quite the connoisseur!  He told us some hilarious stories about past CouchSurfers he’s hosted (he says it keeps him young at heart), and he and Thomas got into debates about NZ politics, which totally went over my head.  We also listened to a bunch of his old Pink Floyd records because he said “Wish You Were Here” is the best song that’s ever been written.  After a while it was finallyyy time for bed (I mean couch!).
Day Two – Tuesday 13 April – Wellington
Next morning I got up after Brian and Thomas had left for work but before Melina and Felix were awake.  Brian had left a bunch of stuff out for breakfast, so I had tea and toast (oh, how quaint!) out on his little balcony where I could appreciate the view even more.  Around 9:30 I walked down the hill through Central Park (apparently kiwis think it’s in Brooklyn) and into downtown Wellington.  My first stop was the city art gallery, which Thomas had recommended.  It was right in the civic center and had all sorts of work by different NZ artists.  There was this exhibit called The 40-Part Motet which was a choral piece recorded and played with each part/voice coming from a different speaker (40 all together).  They were set up in this big room in such a way that the music sounded like it was changing and totally different when you walked in and around the speakers… really cool.  My favorite was an exhibit by a local artist named Séraphine Peck, whose paintings were really surreal and sometimes pretty creepy (sort of Magritte meets Goya), but I really liked how imaginative and different they all were.  After the gallery, I braved a few minutes on the waterfront and quickly learned why it’s nicknamed “Windy Welly.”
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Civic centre square by the waterfront
Next stop was The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa – wahoo!  Definitely the place I was most excited to see in Wellington.  It’s six stories of art, science, history, and nature museums all combined into one.  It’d be impossible to describe everything that was in there, but some of my favorites were the colossal squid from Antarctica, the pounamu (greenstone – really sacred to the Māori) exhibit, and New Zealand history through art.  I spent almost four hours in the museum, and it was so nice and relaxing to just wander through on my own.  When I finally left Te Papa, it was well after lunchtime, so I went to Cuba Street (one of the main streets in the city), got some coffee, and just walked around the city center for a bit.  It started sprinkling eventually, so I caught the bus back to Brooklyn and got to Brian’s house right about when everyone else did.  That night Melina and I helped with dinner – shepherds pie, another kiwi specialty – and it was ridiculously delicious, if I do say so myself.  We had another great dinner all together, and Brian had made a blackberry apple pie for dessert (why did I ever leave?!).  He went to bed relatively early (taxi drivers get up at the crack of dawn!) and the rest of us watched TV for a while and went to bed.  All in all, an awesome day in Wellington; the only things I’d really wanted to see but didn’t were the Parliament buildings and, obviously, Bret and Jemaine (it’s their hometown, but they were probably in New York looking for me… we’ll go with that).
Day Three – Wednesday 14 April – Wellington to Turangi
Wednesday was a pretty uneventful day – mostly just traveling.  We all had breakfast together, I said goodbye to my new German pals, and Brian drove me to the railway station where my bus left from.  I got to Turangi and checked into my hostel a little before 5:00pm and met Ian, the owner of the hostel who I’d had great expectations of because of his hilarious email correspondence about my reservation.  He was really goofy and sooo nice – he offered to drive me to the grocery store if I needed anything for dinner!  It was nice out though so I wanted to walk…. there was a German girl (yep, another) named Anne who’d been on the same bus from Wellington and was staying at the hostel, so we went together.  It turned out she was planning to hike the Crossing by herself the next day, too, so we decided to do it together!  We cooked dinner back at the hostel, checked in with Ian about the weather for the next day, and went to bed early so we’d be all set to hike in the morning!

Day Four – Thursday 15 April – Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The Crossing is one of the most famous hikes in New Zealand – about 20km through the volcanic Tongariro National Park.  I set my alarm for 5:00am but actually woke up at 4:30 when Ian walked into my room – surprise, good morning!  We checked that the weather conditions were okay, had breakfast, and then caught our shuttle (Tongariro National Park is about half an hour from Turangi).  Our shuttle driver, Kevin, was really cool – he had a giant beard and was like a cool old mountain man, and he told us to call him Karehana.  We began the Crossing at the Mangatepopo starting point sometime between 6:30 and 7:00.  It was freezing (Anne and I were wearing every piece of clothing/gear we’d brought) and almost completely misty at that point, but Karehana told us that would probably lift within an hour or so.  The first part of the trek was rocky but mostly flat, with a little bit of climbing here and there.  Then we got to this big open flat basin and the mist totally cleared so we could see that we were right at the base of Ngahuroe, also known as MOUNT DOOM!  I’m telling you, that is one crazy big mountain (it’s actually a live volcano)… I don’t know how Sam and Frodo did it.  There was a sign that told us we were about to begin the part of the Crossing known as The Devil’s Staircase, and it said “Consider Turning Back”… so that was encouraging.  That part was some pretty strenuous climbing up crumbly volcanic rock, and we’d taken off a bunch of layers by the top.  After that, we got to this huge flat mud plain that was this weird beige color, and the mist came back in so we couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction.  It felt like we were on Venus or something (I’m just guessing… I don’t actually know what being on Venus is like).  The next part was the toughest stretch of the Crossing – a steep, rocky, windy climb up to the peak.  As always, the view was worth it once we made it up; we could see Ngahuroe, the Red Crater, and the Emerald Lakes.

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Tongariro is very volcanic and there’s a lot of sulfur in the environment, so there are these crazy colors that don’t seem like they would occur in nature.  We had to slide down this really steep scree slope to get to the Emerald Lakes, did a little more climbing, and then started the general descent, which was all switchbacks through the grassy mountains, by ravines and cliffs and over streams.  It was amazing how different the Crossing was from section to section – we went through so many different landscapes.  Anyway, our return shuttle was going to leave from the endpoint at 2:30pm and we were doing really well on time, so Anne and I took a long break at Ketetahi hut to escape from the freezing rain which was gracing us with its presence by that point (also made quite a dent in the giant bag of trail mix I’d brought).  The last kilometer or so of the trail was typical NZ rainforest, and we got to the end with about half an hour to spare.  By the time we got back to the hostel, we were pretty tired, so we had a very relaxing rest of the day.  Anne and I both took naps and then watched Seven with some other people in the lounge, which was sort of difficult because Ian’s eight-year-old son Jackson and his little kitten Lucy were both there and the complete opposite of tired – they were also not shy about jumping on people they didn’t know (like me).  We had dinner that evening, and then Ian told us that there was a hot tub Anne and I could go in, which sounded sooo perfect after a full day of hiking!  Unfortunately, he’d only turned it on right when he told us, so it hadn’t quite heated up all the way and in fact would have been more accurately advertised as a wetsuit jacuzzi, but we didn’t have any of those.  We decided it was time for bed after we’d both fallen asleep in the hot tub – I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to get into bed!

Day Five – Friday 16 April – Turangi to Te Awamutu
Checkout at hostels is generally 10am, so I was planning to leave then even though my bus wasn’t until 1:00pm, but Ian said I should hang around and that he’d drive me to the bus stop himself that afternoon.  He was seriously so nice, always wandering around and chatting with everyone, and you could tell he really enjoyed getting to know all the different people who came through.  Anne and I spent the morning catching up in our journals, and left around the same time (she was heading east to Napier next).  It’s so funny the people you meet when you’re backpacking and the way you interact with them… like we’d spent so much time together but had only met two days before.  Anyway, Ian dropped me off in town and gave me a big hug before I got on my bus – I really miss that guy!  The bus ride was a few hours to Cambridge, which is just a short way from Te Awamutu, where I was going to stay with the Englishes.  My grandparents met Barbara and Parker English when they were on vacation in New Zealand in the 1980s and they’ve stayed in really good touch – the Englishes have even been to visit them in the U.S. a couple of times!  Anyway, they have a 300-acre sheep farm in the beautiful rolling countryside and a really cool farmhouse.  They are both so incredibly nice and welcoming and treated me like their own grandchild!  We had a delicious steak dinner, and the Englishes showed me their photos from their visits to the United States.  Obviously I knew that they’re good friends with my grandparents, but it was still funny to be looking at pictures of Lake George and our old boat in someone’s living room in the middle of New Zealand!  After, some of their neighbors came over to watch a couple of rugby games that were on that evening.  Their region’s team, the Waikato Chiefs, did pretty darn badly – but the Christchurch Crusaders dominated as usual!  I went to bed at 11:30 that night, I think the latest I’d stayed up in two weeks – wayyy past my bedtime!
Day Six – Saturday 17 April – Waitomo and Rotorua
Saturday was a full-day ordeal that the Englishes had planned – we did so many cool things!  First, we went to the Waitomo Caves, about 40 minutes from their house.  The glowworms in Waitomo (and in Te Anau on the South Island) are such a unique NZ attraction – I don’t think there’s anything like them in the States.  Parker and I went on the tour, which was walking for the first part, and on a boat for the second part.  The boat ride was in the pitch dark so we could see the thousands and thousands (literally) of glowworms on the ceiling.  It was so incredible and looked sort of like a starry night sky, but a slightly different sort of glow.  After the caves, we drove to Rotorua, which is sort of like Māori central.  It was about lunchtime by then and Barbara had packed sandwiches, fruit, and a thermos of tea, so we sat on the grass and had a picnic!  I had not had a picnic in a very long time.  It was nice.  After lunch, Parker and I walked through Rainbow Springs Wildlife Park and saw all sorts of cool NZ animals – gigantic rainbow trout, paradise ducks, kea, tui, longfinned eels (GROSS), and even kiwis (which are totally hilarious-looking, by the way).  We also got to fill up complimentary souvenir water bottles at an sacred Māori spring, which was run through a traditional Māori water filtration plant and came out of authentic Māori faucets.  Then we went up the gondola (a lot like the one in the Port Hills near Chch) and had coffee at the top while overlooking Lake Rotorua.
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north island roadtrip 172We were going to head back down, but then we saw the Sky Swing (same thing as the Sky Coaster at Great Escape) and Parker really wanted to do it, so we did!  It was definitely better than the one at Great Escape because when you dropped, you swung way out over the mountainside instead of over a bunch of sweaty people and funnelcake stands.  We took the gondola back down and went to Te Puia, a Māori cultural center and natural hot springs park.  We got there right in time to see the big Pohuto geyser erupt, which was really cool.  There were also boiling mud pools, which were really bizarre but pretty neat.  After that, we had a great dinner at a place in downtown Rotorua, drove home, and didn’t stay awake long after such a busy day.  It was definitely one of the best days of my trip; I got to see so many uniquely New Zealand places and things.
Day Seven – Sunday 18 April – Te Awamutu to Matamata
north island roadtrip 193Sunday morning, we had a delicious breakfast of bacon, eggs, tomatoes, toast, passionfruit, and of course, tea!  Parker took me out to the barn and showed me how to shear a sheep – he even let me try it, but I will probably not be pursuing it as a career and I think all the sheep in the world will thank me for that.  Then he took me up to the highest point of their farm on the four-wheeler – I feel like the phrase “incredible view” is way overused in my descriptions of New Zealand, but I just don’t know what else there is to say.  Magical worlds collide.  My bus left Te Awamutu late that morning, and it was surprisingly sad to say goodbye to Parker and Barbara – it had really felt like staying with family!  However, hobbits awaited, so I had to journey on.  It was less than two hours to Matamata, where I was staying in a sleepout (little guest house) on a lady named Connie’s property.  It was such a cool little beachy bungalow, and Connie had the most beautiful gardens around her entire back yard.  It was a gorgeous sunny day in the 80s, so I walked back into town, got some hokey pokey ice cream from the Manly Milk Bar, and explored for a couple of hours.  Matamata is such a neat little town, and OH P.S. IT’S HOBBITON.  I went on a Hobbiton tour that afternoon – it was such a touristy thing to do, but I didn’t even care because it was sooo awesome!  There were only three of us on the tour because it was the latest time available: me, an older Australian woman who gave new meaning to the phrase “fanatic,” and a guy from San Francisco who looked hilariously like Peter Jackson.  Our tour guide was named Benji and reminded me so much of Leo.  He put zinc oxide on his nose before we started walking.  That didn’t necessarily remind me of Leo, it’s just a fact.  First, we drove out to the Alexander family’s sheep farm (the location of Hobbiton) and got to see… a sheep shearing!  Totally old hat for me.  Luckily for the sheep, nobody offered to let me shear this time.  Then I got to feed a wee little lamb!  After that we actually got to walk around Hobbiton.  It was so crazy to actually be walking around where the movies had been filmed.  I could have been standing in Billy Boyd’s footprints and not even known it – aah!  It didn’t look exactly like in the movies because a lot of it has been returned to its natural state, and there is some construction going on since filming for The Hobbit is going to begin pretty soon!  We saw Bilbo’s party tree, the lake, Bag End, and a bunch of other hobbit holes.  It was so cool; I was pretty much on Lord of the Rings dork overload.  By the way, don’t tell anyone I told you any of this, because I actually signed a contract swearing me to secrecy.  Oops.
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Matamata town square, and the view from Bag End!
Anyway, we got back to Matamata right about when it was getting dark, so I grabbed dinner from a takeaway place and walked back to Connie’s.  I talked with her for a while – she was really nice and wanted to hear all about the traveling I’d done so far – and then watched reruns of Magnum P.I. until I went to bed (awesome, I know).  The sleepout was such a cozy little place – I really wish I could have stayed there longer!
Day Eight – Monday 19 April – Auckland to Christchurch
Monday was not very exciting at all – basically just getting home.  I left Matamata pretty early and took the bus to Auckland, where I waited in the airport, got on a plane, flew to Christchurch, and finally got back to my flat!  As amazing as my two weeks of traveling had been, it was so nice to unpack my duffel bag for good and get back in my own bed.  THE END.
So, there you have it.  I actually wrote this whole entry yesterday but it didn’t save, so I had to redo it.  This made me very grumpy, but I am in Coffee Culture with Chelsea right now which is pretty much the best cure available for a bad mood.  Thanks for sticking it out, and congratulations on making it through these super-long travelogue entries.  Now we can go back to not-super-long regular life entries!  Yeah!
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3 thoughts on “Fall Break Week Two: North Island

  1. So awesome, Jules. Only thing that would make it better is if we were there with you (well, better for us, anyway!). Momma

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