Auckland really knows how to greet arriving passengers. We were already excited just to be in an English-speaking country — and one where we could drink the tap water to boot — but it was the arrivals terminal that really won us over. Stepping off the plane, we were confronted not with a dingy, governmenty holding pen with long lines and intimidating posters, but rather a bright, spacious room that could have been pulled from Epcot Center.
There was a grove of potted trees, faux carved-wood archways, and artificial jungle noises. The passport control officer actually smiled and welcomed us to her country; it's funny how much of a difference that can make. When we went to pick up our bags, there was no crowding and shoving; they have a stripe painted on the floor three feet from the carousel, and everyone stays behind it until their bag comes around. How polite. How civilized.
As we rode into the city, we took in a view of the skyline, which was dominated by a giant tower. It turned out to be just a few streets away from our hotel, so we headed over after breakfast and found ourselves in block-sized complex known as Sky City. The tower itself, called the Sky Tower, turned out to be the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Swept up in the adventuresome New Zealand spirit, we knew immediately that we'd have to jump off it.
Fortunately, there was indeed a professional base-jumping operation on site (called Sky Jump, of course). They sized us up for jumpsuits (Sky Suits?) and told us to empty our pockets. Since we were long-haul travelers and were wearing cargo pants, this took a bit of time. The only things they let us keep were Hilary's glasses — on an aggressively secure lanyard — and the key to our locker. Then they wanded us down, just like at an airport, to make sure we hadn't "accidentally" held on to, say, a camera.
The next insurance-company-mandated step was the weigh-in: wearing our baggy, heavy jumpsuits and thick, ringed harnesses, they put us on a scale and wrote our weight, in marker, on our wrists. Luckily it was in some crazy French unit of measurement that we had never heard of, or else we might have been embarrassed.
After our long elevator ride to the top floor, we found out why they needed to be meticulous about our weights — the big metal winch needed to be calibrated so that it neither stopped us five feet too early or, uh, five feet too late. Hilary wanted to go first. They clipped her in, sent her to the edge of the platform — disturbingly similar to walking the plank — and told her to step off. The winch spun wildly for a fraction of a second and then stopped, dangling her in midair a few stories below. This was the part where they lean over the edge and take your picture. Then the winch gets released again, whirs into a blur, and stops with a sudden jerk. The employee on the plank, who I think was named Lizard, told me that Hil had survived, and that it was now my turn.
Standing at the edge of the platform, looking down at the tops of the buildings, I couldn't help but notice how small the red and white bullseye seemed, 630 feet below. It was only my faith in science — and our litigious society — that allowed me to step off and take the plunge. It was exhilarating, and the rigging somehow did manage to set me down right in the center of the target. They offered us both a free second jump, since business was slow and since jumpers attract more jumpers, but it was definitely the kind of thing you do once in your life.
After reclaiming our belongings, we went up to the observation deck, which was a few floors below the Sky Jump platform. I was lining up my first photo when suddenly there was a big commotion: a sign was flashing "JUMPER IN 30 SECONDS" and everyone ran to crowd around the window. It turns out that when they stop you in mid-air and tell you to pose for a picture, you're also posing for everyone in the observation lounge. Good thing I hadn't wet my pants.
That was pretty much all we did in Auckland, except for one other terrifying adventure: renting a car. Hilary will explain.
In New Zealand, of course, people drive on the left. While this gave us an opportunity to even out the tans on our arms, I was nervous and made Mike do all the driving for the first five days or so. I was afraid I'd forget and make a right turn into the right lane or take a roundabout the wrong way and cause an accident, or at least embarrass myself. Once I finally gave it a try, though, I found that staying on the correct side of the road was actually pretty easy. However, there were two hard parts, and both had more to do with driving from the right side of the car than driving on the left side of the road.
When the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, it means that nearly everything is flipped (except the orientation of the pedals and, on a manual transmission, the shifting pattern). The glove compartment is on the left, the power button is on the right side of the radio, and so on. Most importantly, the controls for the wipers and the turn signals are swapped.
We both found it very hard to get used to this last one, accidentally activating the wipers at nearly every intersection and lane change — two of the most dangerous times for a driver to be distracted.
The other thing that gave us trouble was something I've never thought about, but seems obvious now: when new drivers learn how to center the car within a lane, they do it by aiming not for the middle (since the driver's seat isn't in the middle of the car), but rather off to one side. When, from the driver's point of view, everything's a little off-center, it means the car is properly aligned within the lane. It quickly becomes a subconscious activity, and you can devote the rest of your brain to important things like what's on the radio.
Now, when you find yourself driving from the right side of the car for the first time, you end up drifting left, since your brain is looking for the perspective it's used to seeing. It took us both some time to get used to this, since a formerly automatic activity had suddenly become a fully-conscious one. If you've ever tried to write with your other hand, you know what I'm talking about.
While riding in the passenger seat, we each helped the other master this technique by shrieking wildly every time the car drifted.
There were a few other differences, such as the metric system. There are pros and cons to using kilometers on the road. It's harder to estimate travel time — in America, you know that someplace 173 miles away is also about 173 minutes away, thanks to the handy coincidence that highway speeds average out to about a-mile-a-minute. You lose that when working in kilometers, and you have to do some multiplication in your head to estimate travel time, which is ironic since the whole point of the metric system is supposed to be about removing annoying conversion factors.
On the other hand, Imperial measurements create a divide between big distances and little ones: on the highway, you're thinking in terms of miles, but once you take the off-ramp into a city, you flip to the world of feet. "Turn left in 300 feet," says the GPS unit.
In New Zealand, I watched the GPS readout count down 3km, 2km, 1km, and then, as it smoothly made the transition to 1000m, 900m, 800m, I had a little epiphany. The two worlds are connected. Meters flow into kilometers in a much more graspable way than feet add up to miles.
As long as we're on the topic of cultural differences, here are a few more:
Our first destination outside of Auckland would be New Plymouth, where some friends of my family live. Robin worked with my dad in San Jose in the late 70's before returning to his native New Zealand. He and his wife Barbara invited Mike and me to stay with them while we were in the area, an offer we were very happy to accept.
We had gotten an early start that morning, and had a few hours to burn before our rendezvous, so we opened up our copy of Excellent Short Walks in the North Island and looked for possible hikes along the way.
A trail in the Hakarimata Scenic Reserve just outside the town of Huntly was known for a small grove of kauri trees, the only specimens on this part of the island. This was apparently a big deal, but our book did not explain what a kauri was. "How will we know when we find them?" I asked Mike. We shrugged and began walking up the trail, admiring New Zealand's wide variety of strange and lovely flora, including unusual-looking tree ferns. They're everywhere on the North Island, and give the landscape an eerie Jurassic feel.
Every time we saw a new kind of tree, we stopped to study it, just in case it was the elusive kauri. We didn't want to find out later that we had missed them.
It turned out they're unmissable; after turning one particular bend, we stopped in our tracks.
"Oh," we said. "Oh my."
In front of us was the largest tree we'd ever seen outside the California redwood groves. It had striking white scaly bark, with a huge, perfectly round trunk leading up to a tuft of branches and leaves high in the sky.
A sign explained that kauri are the largest trees in New Zealand and can live for thousands of years. The one in front of us was over 600 years old. "A young sapling," the sign pointed out, "when Joan of Arc was burned at the stake."
These large tree trunks were once so highly sought after for shipbuilding that New Zealand's kauri were nearly wiped out centuries ago. But the conservation area where we were walking has a restoration project, and in addition to the two fully-grown trees, we passed through a grove of much younger ones on the way out.
A few hours down the road, we made a slight detour in order to walk one more trail. This one led to Omaru Falls, which our book described as impressive and seldom-visited. After parking near the trailhead, we walked through many environments: along a creek, under lots more tree ferns, over a rickety cobwebbed bridge, past some sheep, through a sparse grove of pines, and around a grassy area with some ponds, where we finally heard the sound of falling water.
All we saw, though, was a creek burbling over a few rocks. "Is that it?" we wondered. Then we noticed an arrow pointing to a continuation of the trail, and walked along it until we eventually we reached a wooden staircase. When we reached the top, we were greeted with this spectacular sight:
We stood there for a few minutes watching the water fall, by which point it was getting pretty late; the trail had been longer than we'd expected and now we needed to turn around and walk it in the opposite direction. When we reached the road again we jumped in the car and started looking around for a payphone, so we could let our hosts know we wouldn't be on time. We never found one, but a friendly gas station manager was happy to let us use their office phone.
We arrived in New Plymouth just before nightfall. It's a small city with a busy port and a long waterfront promenade, where we all went for dinner. Afterwards, Robin, Barbara, and their daughter Renée showed us around the Pukekura gardens, New Plymouth's answer to Central Park. An annual festival was taking place, and everything had been decorated with elaborate colored lights — the waterfall, the bridge, the orchid house, and of course the tree ferns. Mike got to practice his night photography.
The next morning, we said goodbye to our friends (who themselves were hitting the road for a big rugby match in Wellington) and drove to nearby Egmont National Park, home of Taranaki. That's a mountain, one of the tallest in the country, though there's no "Mt." in its name. It's just Taranaki.
Situated in a flat area, there are great views of the mountain from the surrounding land, and vice-versa. Taranaki is perfectly round, and looks a lot like Mt. Fuji, right down to the cloudy, snowy top. In fact, it looks so much like Mt. Fuji that they chose to film The Last Samurai here.
There are trails all over the park; the first one we walked was relatively flat and fairly exploding with New Zealand's crazy lush greenery. It was so dense that our pictures didn't really come out — the sun was blazing overhead, but most of its light was blocked out by the leafy canopy.
We enjoyed it so much we decided to try another, more difficult trail. We climbed halfway up the mountain and, due to the steep grade and total lack of shade, arrived sweaty and tired at a high lookout point. From here we had a clear view across the park, past the farms, all the way out to the horizon.
We had been advised by a New Zealander in Tahiti to get a motel guide as soon as we arrived, published either by the Automobile Association or Jason's. We were able to pick one up for free at the airport, and it enabled us each night to scan the listings for a room advertising free wireless Internet, enter the address into our GPS, and find our way hassle-free to our lodging. It's great living in the 21st century.
We found the motels in New Zealand be inexpensive yet well-furnished, like little apartments. When you arrive at the front desk, they ask if you want, say, a studio or a one-bedroom. Then they ask what kind of milk you drink, and hand you a little carton along with the keys. This way, you get to enjoy a cup of tea as soon as you drop your bags, and New Zealand's excellent milk (due to extreme freshness? grass-fed cows?) beats the pants off shelf-stable creamer.
Every motel we stayed in had a kitchenette. All the culinary hardware is provided, but you have to wash it when you're done. And sometimes before you start. Some motels sell instant microwavable food, which turned out to be rather crummy, so whenever we'd be staying somewhere for more than one night, we'd visit a grocery store. Besides fruit and junk food, here's our recommended shopping list:
This gets you:
It also means that, when you inevitably find yourself starving in the car and hours from the nearest town, you can keep yourself going with peanut butter spread on bread ... or, more likely, peanut butter smeared on a chocolate bar.
We were on one such drive on Superbowl Sunday... by which I mean Superbowl Monday Afternoon. Kickoff was just after lunchtime, but we couldn't find any radio stations that were broadcasting it. Even in the few towns we passed through, there were no pubs or cafes showing the game on TV. Nobody even seemed aware that it was being played.
The new plan was to head straight for the next motel and follow the game on the Internet. Since we were still a few hours away, we turned the radio to a sports talk station. 29 minutes of each half hour was devoted to phone calls griping about how the Australian Grand Prix was going to be aired on a tape delay. Then, on the half hour, we would get a news update. If we were lucky, they would give the Superbowl score, which was the lowest priority and came after all the other news. Sometimes, when the cricket report ran long, the Superbowl score would get bumped altogether.
Finally we arrived at the motel, not even knowing whether the game was still going on. Amazingly, there was a TV station airing the game, and we sort of got the channel: sound but no picture. Still, we tuned in just in time to hear the big finish.
I was so excited that I was jumping on the bed. (You may have noticed that I used Giants colors for this writeup.)
Our next destination was the geothermally active interior of the North Island. We disobeyed the advice of our guidebook, our GPS, and Robin and Barbara by leaving the national highway and taking a partly-gravel country road through the hills. We were rewarded with a bucolic and perfectly comfortable drive. The only inconvenience was an encounter with a herd of cows moving to new pasture. The rancher was driving behind them in a pickup truck, and his three dogs were rounding up any stray cattle and guiding them back in the right direction. We were really impressed with the dogs' intelligence and skill — they weren't just chasing cows for fun, they knew exactly what they were doing. At one point, a cow got annoyed at being bossed around by a much smaller animal and turned to confront the dog. Immediately the other dogs two dropped what they were doing and rushed over to help. The sight of two more barking dogs backing up the first was enough to convince the cow to drop her insubordination play and fall back in line. After ten minutes of bumper-to-cow-butt traffic, a space opened up in the herd and we were able to drive through. The encounter had delayed our plans but we didn't mind at all.
Shortly thereafter, we reached our first stop of the day, Tokaanu Hot Springs. You can bathe in a public hot pool for a few dollars, but we just wanted to walk around the boardwalk trail, which overlooks clear but smelly pools, steaming vents, and bubbling mud pots.
We spent the night in the town of Taupo, and in the morning headed over to Craters of the Moon thermal area. This being New Zealand, it was a little too green to look truly moonlike, but it certainly is otherworldly to see and smell huge amounts of hot sulfurous steam rising from the ground.
Just across the highway from Craters of the Moon is Huka Falls, where a wide river squeezes through a narrow gorge. The falls aren't very tall, but they are very fast and very blue.
About an hour north of Taupo is another, larger resort town, Rotorua. We intended to drive up there next, but our motel manager warned us that there was a big concert going on that night, and rooms were so scarce that people were booking in Taupo.
First of all, that sounded unlikely — every motel room in Rotorua was booked and rooms were becoming scarce an hour away? Secondly, it sounded like she said the concert was by UB40 — really? The reggae poseurs from the 80's?
So we went to a payphone and called every single Rotorua motel in our guide that had an 0800 number. Sure enough, not one had availability. So we adjusted our plans a bit — instead of doing things in a sensible order, we would zigzag all over the North Island by traveling first to Otorohanga and the Waitomo Caves, then coming back east to Rotorua before heading northwest again.
On the way to Waitomo, we turned on the radio. It was indeed the nasal-voiced Englishmen playing that night in Rotorua. Thanks, UB40, for throwing a wrench in our plans!
Otorohanga is the biggest town near Waitomo Caves. Mike and I just can't resist a cave, especially one as talked-about as this. Waitomo is famous for its glow-worms, phosphorescent moth larvae that dangle from the roof and shine like the Milky Way (only green). New Zealanders being themselves, they provide plenty of options for caving adventure tours.
We didn't want to pass up any opportunities for danger, so we went with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Company's five-hour "Black Abyss" tour. After putting on swimsuits, wetsuits, nylon shorts, water booties, plastic overshoes, harnesses, and lighted helmets, we piled uncomfortably into a beat-up van for a two-minute drive (the most dangerous event of the day, our guides informed us).
Soon we arrived at the cave's entrance — a hole in its ceiling. In order to get down, we would have to walk out on a platform 110 feet above the cave floor and rappel in (New Zealanders call it "abseiling"). They asked if we were scared. "Not to disappoint you," Mike said, "but this isn't the first time we've jumped off a towering platform." After showing us the ropes (Mike made me write that), they took us out one by one to the rim of the cave, where we turned on our helmet lights and began our descents.
I should point out that we weren't allowed to bring our camera. We were really disappointed to hear this, especially since ours was waterproof, but it turned out to be necessary. There was a lot in store for us that would require both hands. Since we don't have any pictures, Mike drew a diagram:
Once everyone had reached the bottom, the guides had us line up on a narrow catwalk and turn off our lights. Mike and I were at the back and couldn't see exactly what was going on, but heard periodic yelps and whoops as people disappeared. When it was finally my turn, they hooked me up to a zipline (they say "flying fox") and sent me sailing into total darkness.
At the bottom, we got our first glimpse of the glow-worms. They were little green dots, all over the walls and especially the ceiling. Due to all the earlier suiting up and waiting in line, it had been a while since anyone had eaten, so the guides had us sit along the edge of a precipice and handed out tea and muesli bars. They said there was water below, but it was so black that even when shining my light straight down I couldn't see the surface. When we'd finished our snack, the guides told us to choose an inner tube from the large selection available, preferably one that fit snugly but comfortably around our rear ends. We were then instructed to jump off the cliff, kick our legs out, and land sitting up in the water below.
This was the scariest part of the whole tour, since I couldn't see the bottom and had no idea how far away the water was. But there was nowhere to go but down, so I closed my eyes and jumped. The good news is, I landed safely in the frigid water. The bad news is, I was so scared by the force of impact that I gasped and got about a gallon of water up my nose.
After we had all touched down, we towed ourselves along a guideline and floated back down, once again with our lights off, to admire the glow-worms. The reason they glow, we learned, is to trick other insects into thinking they've found an exit. Heading for the larvae, which they believe to be the night sky, they get helplessly entangled and ultimately devoured. Eventually, we came to some rapids where the tour company had built a slide. At this point, we abandoned our inner tubes and slid down headfirst. At the bottom, the guides handed out another snack: hot juice and squares of Cadbury Dairy Milk.
The last 90 minutes consisted of alternately hiking through ankle-deep water, swimming through chest-deep water (again, both freezing), and wriggling through small openings. Finally, just before the cave exit, we had a choice to make: we could follow a long boring path out, or climb up some steep waterfalls. Nobody wanted to look like a wimp, so we all chose the climb. The guides were on hand to tell us (screaming over the deafening roar of the water) exactly which handholds and footholds to use, and some of them were quite a stretch for my short legs.
After we made it out, we hiked back to the van and returned to headquarters, where we stripped off our layers, showered, and warmed up with tomato soup and bagels.
After quitting our jobs back in November, we had to get our own health insurance. The plan we picked had a long list of adventure sports that were not covered, and we used it as a sort of checklist: scuba diving, ziplining, basejumping, rappelling, whitewater activities, zorbing, — Wait, zorbing? What's zorbing?
Zorbing, we discovered, entails climbing into a plastic bubble and getting rolled down a hill. To encourage repeat customers, the Zorb team allows for a bit of variety: you can go alone or in pairs, or maybe opt for the "Rinse Cycle", where they add a few gallons of water to your Zorb before letting it loose, whereupon the water quickly soaks everything within.
It was a bit pricey (it's not like there are competing Zorb hills up and down the block), so we only went once. Our tandem Rinse Cycle was a ton of fun, and much more violent than it appears from the outside.
We wrapped up our trip in the Northland. Although the area is known for its beautiful beaches, we weren't interested in lying on the sand or swimming in the Tasman Sea. Instead we sought out more unique activities.
For example, Wikitravel told us of a stretch of beach where wind and sea have rounded boulders into near-perfect spheres. Thankfully, we had excellent directions, because we never would have found the spot on our own. We turned off a country road onto an unpaved (and unmarked) stretch that could have been somebody's driveway. "Park on the left near the old cattle yards" was the next instruction, which we did despite seeing no sign of a beach. A five-minute walk did indeed bring us to a body of water, and we had to go another ten minutes along the shore before we finally started seeing boulders that looked as described. As claimed, the rocks got more impressive the farther we went. The secluded nature of the spot only added to the atmosphere.
Our earlier walk near Huntly had piqued our interest in kauri trees, so we were looking forward to the part of Northland known as the "Kauri Coast." We visited Waipoua Forest, home to the oldest and largest kauris in existence. There was a beautiful boardwalk path winding through the trees, ultimately ending at Tane Mahuta, the world's largest kauri.
Its plaque eloquently began, "You are in the presence of one of the most ancient of trees" and then gave some statistics. Believed to be about 2000 years old — yes, the same age as Christianity — the tree was 170 feet tall, 45 feet around, and was estimated to weigh about 260,000 pounds.
Our last stop before turning around was the Wairere Boulders. This was one of those privately-owned tourist attractions that was actually worth the price of admission. Way off the beaten path, we bounced along loose gravel roads and came to a little shack with photos on the wall and an honor-system admission box.
This wasn't one of those attractions run by a faceless management corporation; we noticed that the only person in any of the photos, and on the cover of the brochure, was the lady standing right in front of us. She told us that the massive, grooved boulders were a "world-unique" phenomenon, formed when decaying kauri leaves produce acid, which drips onto the basalt rocks, carving great slices into their surfaces. We were still skeptical at this point, but the rocks did look cool, and we couldn't think of any other place in the world with similar formations, so we coughed up the cash and headed in.
We're glad we did. The boulders were indeed cool, and the trail itself was memorable too. Throwing away conventions about leaving nature unspoiled, it had all these handmade informational signs, presumably created by you-know-who, explaining all the rocks and trees. Some of the rocks themselves were painted — they were vaguely animal-shaped to begin with, so eyes and teeth and nostrils were added to complete the picture. This is exactly the sort of thing you'll never see at Yellowstone — for good reason, perhaps, but once in a while it's nice to break the rules.
On our way back to the motel we stopped at Whangarei Falls, a huge waterfall in an urban park. Kids seemed to have the run of the place; when we arrived in the late afternoon, the first thing we noticed was a group of boys playing in the river just upstream from the falls. This struck us as dangerous — what if someone got carried over? When we got closer, we realized they were climbing up a riverside tree, inching out on an extended limb, and leaping down into the river. Another limb held a long rope, where some of them would swing, Tarzan-like, before letting go and somehow avoiding several large underwater boulders as they landed with a splash.
We sat and watched them for a while before walking over a bridge and down a trail to the base of the falls, where it was cool, green, and loud. You can see some more pictures of the park, and the rest of our stay, in the Flickr album.
They say that many visitors to this part of the world plan their trip around Australia, and then just tack on a few days for the afterthought of New Zealand. Don't do that. It's a destination in itself, whether you're there for adventure or passive nature-admiration. We spent twelve days just seeing part of one of the two main islands, and we wished we could have stayed a lot longer.
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