Last night in NZ….

Back in Auckland tonight. Well, actually in Papateotoe, near the airport.

Stina’s hike across the Tongariro Crossing went very well yesterday with great weather. She has some amazing photos! I’ll post them when I have more time.

Today we drove from Taupo to Auckland via Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty. The beach there was gorgeous. Looking for views near Tauranga, we drove out to Mauao, a 232m high extinct volcanic cone at the tip of a long sand bar. On the inland side is a nice beach and Tauranga Harbor…

…while on the Bay of Plenty side is a long beach with the largest variety and number of seashells we’ve seen in NZ.

Both beaches have been affected by the wreck of the container ship MV Rena last October, and had signs warning that debris or oil may continue to wash ashore. No sign of any problems today, though, and lots of people enjoying the water.

After that, we headed to the Botanical Garden in Auckland, and enjoyed strolling around the grounds just before sunset. Now we’re sorting and repacking all our stuff so that we can get it on the plane tomorrow. I feel like we’ve done our part to support the NZ economy!

More to come from the US – we have a long Monday ahead of us! It will be about 43 hours long by my estimation…. We get into LAX 7 hours before we leave Auckland, due to the international date line!

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…let me sum up

“Let me explain…. No, wait, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

We’re still in New Zealand, and I am hopelessly behind in posting things because we’ve been so busy that I come back in the evening and crash out on the couch. Plus I’m coming down with a cold. Boo! Maybe after we get back to the US I will have time to post more photos and more about what we’ve seen. We go home on Monday! Hard to believe how fast the time has gone.

The last 3 days we’ve been in Taupo, which is in the central part of the North Island in a rather geologically active part of NZ. Our somewhat geographically challenged guide book says the lake at Taupo is the “largest lake in Australia” (copy editing? Anyone?) It’s basically a very large body of water in a collapsed caldera.

We’ve been touring “thermal parks” which are both amazing and somewhat alarming. Geysers, mud pots, paint pots, steam vents, fumaroles, hot waterfalls… We’ve seen it all. The nearby town of Rotarua is filled with these things – just walk through the city park, and there’s steam vents all over the place. What an odd place to build a city!

Last night we went to a Maori arts and crafts center, where they give you a tour of the place including carving and weaving demonstrations, then do a dancing and singing performance, and then feed you dinner that’s been cooked in a steam vent. Amazing food – some of the best we’ve had! One of the foods that was featured prominently was kumara, the indigenous sweet potato, which is considered sacred. Delicious. (Ways that NZ differs from Croatia, part #362!)

Today we’ve done several walks – then tomorrow Stina heads off on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is a day hike across Tongariro National Park. It involves a very early drive over to the aptly named town of “National Park” where she’ll meet her guide, so we need to go to bed early. Like an hour ago!

I will catch up soon, I hope. But for now I’ll leave you with an amusing scene from today. Now we know where all the traffic cones go on vacation!

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A visit to Hobbiton

Yesterday we went on a harbor cruise through Auckland’s lovely eastern bay, then went to the Auckland Zoo, along with half the families in New Zealand. We had another lovely sunset, this time on Piha Beach. Photos will come later!

Today was mostly a traveling day – a drive from where we were staying in the Waitikere Ranges west of Auckland down to Taupo, which is in the central part of the North Island. Happily, the route took us through the town of Matamata, which is near the filming site for Hobbiton and the Shire from the Lord of the Rings movies, and also the new movies based on The Hobbit. Our timing was good, since the movie sets were removed after LotR stopped filming, but had been put back in for The Hobbit just a few months ago. So we saw the full set with all the props still in place.

We stopped in the tourist information center in Matamata and found out how to get to the farm where the set is located, and headed out there. The set is on a large sheep farm (1250 acres) belonging to the Alexander family. The farm was picked out based on an aerial survey that Peter Jackson and his team did, where they were looking for the right kind of topography mixed with a lake and a large, symmetrical tree (“the party tree”). The Alexander Farm had all those, and so an extensive contract was drawn up (including a confidentiality clause) and work began, including building roads, a bridge, and numerous other buildings.

The NZ Army was employed in the road building, and the Alexanders had a hard time explaining to their neighbors what the Army was doing on their land, and just passed it off as “military exercises.”

We bought our tickets at the cafe and gift shop, which are housed in an old wool shed (rather steep entry prices at NZ$66 each). The cafe even serves “second breakfast”! At our appointed tour time, we piled into a big bus to be taken out to the film set, which is about 2km into the farm. There were about 20 people in our group, and we had a guide, but were also allowed to wander within some areas to take photos.

The Party Tree:

Bag End, where Bilbo lives:

A view of the Alexander’s Farm:

Definitely a lot of fun, and fabulous to get to see in person! Worth the trip. Our guide seemed disappointed that no one showed up in costumes, and I think they are all looking forward to the increased business that The Hobbit will bring in.

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More orienteering, a gannet colony and the NZ healthcare system…

More orienteering today, this time on a map called “Middle Earth” – ha! Neither of us placed very well, but we had a good time and found them all. Sometimes that’s all you can hope for. The area was NW of Auckland in Woodhill Forest – sand dunes with pine trees.

We then went by Muriwai Beach to see the gannet colony and enjoy some beautiful beach weather. Pictures to come as we haven’t downloaded them yet. It’s a beautiful place.

We had another gorgeous sunset, which we unfortunately only saw through the window of the health clinic in Henderson. Those of you who followed the Dubrovnik blog may remember the episode from December when the Bura wind pushed me over and broke my toe. Well, the other big toe wasn’t broken, but the nail turned black. It hasn’t bothered me at all until Friday when I whacked it on the sprint course, then got sand in it on the beach. Yesterday it was very painful and then started oozing last night, clearly infected. By this morning it was better (yay for neosporin!) but to be safe I showed it to the medics at the event today and they referred us to the minor emergency center in Henderson. We were in and out in about 90 minutes and the cost was covered by the NZ government since the accident happened here. I just paid $3 for the antibiotics. Amazing. Everyone was friendly and helpful, too…. So crossed fingers that it will improve. I shudder to think what a visit like that would have cost in the US….

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Orienteering, Bethells Beach and on the lookout for Xena….

We’re parked outside a cafe near Auckland using their internet service – it’s a pay-by-the-megabyte service found in lots of places in NZ, which we’ve used before so we have a few credits left! Yay!

Anyway, the last two days have been all about orienteering – the New Zealand National Champs started yesterday, and we both went out on the sprint. For once, we were even on the same course, though in different categories due to our age difference.

After the sprint, we found our B&B, which has some views of Auckland!

We then headed out to see the sunset at Bethells Beach. We were not disappointed!! A gorgeous sunset with lovely golden light. The beach and the area around it featured prominently in episodes of Xena, Warrior Princess, so we kept a lookout for Xena, too….

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One of the “must dos” for NZ listed in our guidebook for nature lovers is to visit Tahe Mahuta, lord of the forest, a giant Kauri tree. So today we did that. The region called the “Kauri Coast” is just to the west of where we are staying in the Bay of Islands. Though, I was beginning to wonder if the term “Kauri Coast” had been made up by our tourbook! None of the Kiwis we asked about it had heard the term. So I felt somewhat vindicated when we passed a big sign on the highway coming up to the Bay of Islands that said “Kauri Coast Next Left.”

Anyway, we were a bit lucky and although today was super windy, the rain stopped by late morning, and the sun came out and it was a gorgeous day! We started out with a walk out to Signal Station Point on the southern head of the Hokianga Harbor. It was sunnier than expected today, so great views!

The Tasman Sea…

…looking north along the coast…

…Hokianga Harbor.

We then headed into Waipoua Forest, where the first stop was Tahe Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, and the largest living kauri in NZ. The trunk circumference is 15.44m – that’s 4.9m (16ft) across! It’s hard to convey the sheer massiveness of the tree – or how impressive it was to come around the corner and see it. It definitely was a spiritual experience to be around such an old living organism – all the old kauris seem to have a real presence about them that’s hard to explain. While we were there a Maori guide came through and sang a brief traditional song about the tree, which was also a real treat. They have boardwalks all the way around the big trees so that you don’t walk on their roots, which are quite delicate, and all the trampling would actually damage them. So for most of the large kauri trees you can’t get very close to them. The photos really don’t do them justice – big trees are notoriously difficult to photograph!

We then went to another nearby area, which has a series of nature walks (between 10 minutes and several hours) to other notable kauri trees.

The Four Sisters (fused at the base – three are visible here – the fourth is behind).

Te Matua Ngahere, Father of the Forest, the 2nd largest living kauri in NZ (16.77m) and considered to be the oldest of the large kauris at over 2000 years old.

We also walked to see Yakas Kauri, the 7th largest in NZ (in 1971) with a 15.26m circumference. This one was particularly great to visit, because the boardwalk went right up against one side of the tree, so you could actually touch it. It was a long walk, but worth it!

There were lots of other large kauris in the forest – trees that would be huge in any other context, but which weren’t especially notable in comparison with the named trees.

The large trees had many epiphytes – a whole ecosystem living dozens of meters up in the air!

In all, a fabulous way to spend the day – it was great to spend some time in the forest and to meet so many enormous and ancient trees.

Tomorrow we head south to our B&B outside of Auckland in the Waitakere Ranges – apparently no internet there, so not sure when the next update will be! Normally we could stop at cafes or tourist info centers, but it’s a major holiday weekend here (both Friday and Monday are public holidays) so not sure how much will be open. We’ll see! In any case, have a happy Easter everyone!

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A historical site, two waterfalls, chocolates, a kiwi reserve and… a public toilet!

We sort of cobbled together some activities today to do in the pouring rain here in the Bay of Islands. A shame, since the area is lovely with a big gorgeous bay full of small islands. But high winds and periodic heavy rain meant that we really didn’t want to be out much.

So we headed over to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. The Wikipedia article presents a rather more complex view than the 10-minute historical movie they showed at the Treaty Grounds.

After seeing a short cultural performance, we visited Ngatokimatawhaorua, a 30-meter ceremonial waka (canoe) constructed for the centennial of the signing of the treaty.

By the time we finished viewing the canoe, the rain and wind had picked up a bit. We had lunch at one of the cafes, which had a sense of humor in its dishes. Stina had the Rainbow Warrior – “French toast sunk with fruit compote”.

After lunch we visited the Treaty House, which was even visited by Charles Darwin in his voyages in 1835. The brochure said the Treaty House was surrounded by “Gardens of National Significance.” So I had to have a few photos.

We also visited Te Whare Runanga, a Maori meeting house built in 1940. As this is a national meeting house, the carvings are from all of the different Maori tribes.

After all the treaty viewing, we headed out to see some waterfalls. We learned in Fiordland that waterfall-viewing is a great rainy day activity. Near Waitangi is Haruru Falls.

There was a rather remarkable lack of barriers or signs to keep you from just walking up to the water and falling in. There’s even a company advertising trips where you kayak up to and under the falls – but I’m guessing that only happens at lower water levels!

After Haruru Falls, we drove to the nearby town of Kerikeri, where we stopped at a chocolate shop (free samples!) to fortify ourselves before visiting the 27m high Rainbow Falls.

Before leaving Kerikeri, we figured we should look through the brochure once again to see if there was anything else we should visit – and saw a mention of Aroha Island, with nature walks and kiwis. We weren’t sure kiwis would be out in the rain (plus they are nocturnal), but thought we might as well check it out. If we could find it – the brochure didn’t give directions… Fortunately the trusty GPS came through, and we were off.

We ended up doing a nice little walk around the island in the wind and not-too-heavy rain – and scored our crazy American points for the day by showing up at this out-of-the-way place wanting to go on a nature walk in the rain. We didn’t see any kiwis (no surprise there), but did see some kiwi probe holes (we think) and a tui (the bird, not the beer).

After our walk, we had hokey pokey ice cream and chatted with the woman at the eco center about kiwis.

Our last stop of the day was the most famous public toilets in NZ. No kidding.

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