Almost a year after my car got destroyed in a Hurricane Sandy-related incident, I was back in New York and ready to buy a new car, only I didn’t want to have to do any research, make any decisions, or negotiate with anyone about a price. A friend agreed to help me figure it out, but when we went out to dinner to talk about it, he somehow convinced me to go traveling with him for a few months, and since that meant I’d only be in New York a few weeks, I postponed the car purchase.
It’s cold in New York, so we decided to go south, and for various reasons picked Australia. We thought we’d take about two months and also go to New Zealand (because it’s close and I have a friend there), Vanuatu (ditto), and Indonesia. Then we both got interested in Papua New Guinea too.
We booked some of the flights and emailed the friends, but a few weeks before we left, my touring job booked an extra residency and a close friend died, and I decided I needed to come back to New York a few weeks earlier than planned. That didn’t leave us enough time for Papua New Guinea or Indonesia, but it left us too much time for just the trip we had planned, and we had already booked a bunch of flights, so we couldn’t just stay longer in each place, although that might have been nice since our schedule is pretty aggressive. We weren’t sure what to do. We considered going to Easter Island, which broke up the return journey very well and would be fantastic, but even if we were willing to pay the additional $3,500 in airfare, there were no flights near the date we wanted.
By the day before we took off, we still hadn’t booked the second half of our trip. Paul, who lives in Florida, and I met at his parents’ house in Scarsdale, and then we spent three hours, AKA six man-hours, each on a computer trying to figure out the second half of the trip. Eventually we found the magic answer: Fiji! Flying home through Fiji is cheaper, and we could spend a few days there on the way back. We also changed some other flights because our plan didn’t actually work, but at least we had a plan. Most importantly, I booked a flight home. We would land back at JFK a minute before March started.
We left on Wednesday, January 16, at 6am and spent over 10 hours on a non-stop to Honolulu seated next to the most annoying, loud, whiny family of six. Fortunately, the mushroom pasta and fruit salad on Hawaiian Airlines were really good.
As soon as we landed, we jumped into a taxi to the Pearl Harbor Memorial. I’d been here before but only walked around the grounds. We knew we would be too late to buy tickets to the Arizona, but somehow Paul talked one guard into radioing another, and they shooed us onto the last boat. We missed the movie, but no complaints on our free ride.
The memorial is built over the sunken battleship, and you can see rusted bits poking up. I didn’t realize how many people were killed on that morning. Below the names of the Arizona dead are the names of the survivors who chose to be interred there when they died years later. I’m not sure “interred” is the right word for having divers bring your remains into a shipwreck. Anyway, the most recent name was 2013. I asked the ranger, and he said there were about 300 survivors, over 10 percent of whom have returned upon death. He said he “was sure” they’d all want to be there, but that their families didn’t always allow it. I didn’t argue with him because I have no information on the subject, but it seemed plausible to me that by 72 years later, a survivor might want to be buried with his family or heck might have died in another war or who knows. There are still eight survivors alive. The oldest is 98.
We walked through two of the museums and wandered around torpedoes, monuments, and beautiful grounds. My favorite part was the videos of survivors, hospital workers, and others. Very disturbing and moving.
I wanted to check out the food trucks on Waikiki Beach, but the guards said we’d get caught in horrible traffic, so instead we got a recommendation for a fast food chain Hawaiian barbecue place. I don’t know what they think “barbecue” means, but we got chicken katsu saimin, lau lau, kalua pig, and spam. The katsu (friend chicken cutlets) came separate from the saimin (noodle soup), and we didn’t throw them in. The lau lau (pork cooked in taro leaves) and kalua pork (shredded with cabbage) combo came with macaroni salad and sticky rice. We also got a side of spam. Everything was way better than we expected, and we ate so much that our bellies hurt on the walk back to the airport.
We never had a Thursday. We crossed the international date line, and poof! Thursday disappeared. So weird that the time got earlier and earlier and then suddenly it was tomorrow.
The Hawaiian beef and scrambled eggs with chicken sausage on New Zealand Air were really bad.
I had packed some snacks for the flight but then realized we were flying to an island. New Zealand asked me to declare or dispose of all food, specifically mentioning dried fruit and nuts, which I had. Of course everyone tells me to lie, and of course I didn’t. But I’m too cheap to throw perfectly good fruit away either, so I just left those boxes blank and figured I’d see what happened. When I got to the officer, he asked me a bunch of questions about the food and then waved me in saying it was fine. Score!
After well over 20 hours in arctic airplanes, I was looking forward to landing in summer, but Auckland was rainy and cold. We took a shuttle to the lovely home of Julie, a friend of my mother’s cousin who had graciously offered to host us despite never having met either of us. Her house is right on the beach in Devenport, which is either a suburb or a neighborhood in Auckland and is gorgeous. After showering and changing clothes, we chatted about what to do on our two days in the city. Paul might have wanted to nap too, but I whisked us out the door.
We walked along the beach for about 20 minutes and caught a ferry into Auckland’s central business district. We bought beef rendang in the ferry terminal and ate it on the ride. It was good, but neither of us could identify the dominant spice flavor.
From the ferry, we walked a long way through nothing to the Auckland Museum, where we checked out the Maori canoe, meeting house, and tons of other local historical items. By then, jet lag hit Paul hard, and he went to sit down while I raced through the rest of the giant museum, which had freaking everything—natural history, emu skeletons, volcano displays, a Holocaust room, fighter planes, and tarantulae.
From there, we caught a public bus back to the central business district and gave ourselves a walking tour mostly following the Lonely Planet route.
We stopped at the Auckland Art Gallery along the way. Between all the walking and the jet lag, Paul was getting impatient, so I asked the woman at the desk how to get to the Maori portraits I wanted to see. The museum is free, so I figured we could just stop in to see the good stuff quickly. She told us it was on the first floor, then looked at us, and without commenting, explained, “we call this the ground floor, then there’s a mezzanine, and then the first floor.” We told her we’d understood but still thanked her for translating to American. Our walking tour also included the Civic Theater even though we couldn’t get in to the elaborate Moorish auditorium, Albert Park for formal Victorian gardens, a stop at Bun Hut for bland Chinese food, the university campus including an elaborate clock tower and the remains of some military barracks, a former synagog (now a university building), and, because I’d heard it was a local favorite, a hokey pokey ice cream cone, vanilla with toffee. Then we walked along Viaduct Harbor to gawk at fancy yachts. The best part was a mini library in a container truck.
- Break-fast Deal, Auckland. We did not eat this (but I did get a hokey pokey ice cream here).
By the time we took the ferry home, it was well after 7. Paul went to bed pretty soon, and I stayed up past 10 booking the last flight, emailing our itinerary changes to the friends who’re hosting us along the way, and, unfortunately, turning down a warm outpouring of hospitality from regional jugglers offering us places to stay, inviting me to juggling clubs, and recommending circus shows. Unfortunately I can’t take them up on any of it, as we haven’t built in enough time, but it was really nice to feel the juggle love.
Saturday we got up somewhere between crazy jet-lag early and eager tourist early. I made us eggs and toast, and then we walked back to the ferry, this time taking it to Rangitoto, a volcanic island that erupted out of the sea only 600 years ago. Our schedule looked like there were only two ferries to the island that day, so I asked whether we could walk around the baches first so we wouldn’t be hiking to the summit exactly when everyone else from our boat was. The baches (pronounced like the first syllable in bachelor, because the early ones were bachelor pads) were summer cottages from the early 20th century. We also walked though short paths to see mangroves and kidney ferns. Right as we finished the little paths and were ready to ascend, another ferry pulled up and dumped out dozens more people, so my plot for tranquility was completely foiled.
Still, it wasn’t that crowded, and everyone was lovely. We hiked to the summit and peered into the volcano and then climbed two more minutes to a stunning panoramic view of Auckland. On the way down, we went on a detour to see lava caves, and I climbed through two of them, both of which had parts small enough that I had to crouch on all fours. One of the tunnels opened into a glittery passage with plants hanging down from a rocks that sparkled in my flashlight.
Afterwards, we took the ferry back to Auckland instead of coming home to Devonport. We stopped at a fast food sushi place for lunch. I got some fried vegetable thing just because I’d never seen it, and it was better than I’d expected, with pieces of sweet potato and maybe eggplant. I rarely drink soda, but L&P suckered me in with its awesome tagline: “world-famous in New Zealand.” Tasted like lemon soda, no big deal. My ramen was spicy but boring.
From there, we caught a bus to the airport to pick up our rental car. The airport’s on our way out of town, so we added an unnecessary two-hour round trip by picking it up today, but we didn’t have to shlep our luggage at 7am as planned, and Paul was happy to practice driving on the left before we hit the highway.
That, by the way, was terrifying.
But we lived.
We came home to invite Julie to dinner, but she had a friend here and didn’t want to go out. I made a kettle of water, and brewed a giant pot of tea so I could refrigerate it for morning.
Then we walked down the steps from Julie’s back yard onto Cheltenham Beach. The tide was so low, it looked like the people 50 feet in front of us were walking on water. We hiked around the shoreline on rocks of lava and climbed up North Head, another of Auckland’s 50 volcanos. We didn’t see any evidence of the Maori pa, or settlements, but we did see tons of old military stuff, most of which was installed in the late 19th century when New Zealand was worried about a Russian threat and then augmented during the 20th century’s two world wars. Besides the historic interest, the short hike offered spectacular views, and the beach and volcano were covered in kids eating sand and tobogganing on cardboard boxes, respectively.
We climbed down on the other side of the volcano and walked into town, intending to wander through the Victorian and Edwardian architecture, but instead we sat at an outdoor cafe and shared parsnip fries, fish ceviche, and fat french fries. We were still hungry, so we let the waiter pick our last two dishes. He picked the most New Zealand things on the menu: lamb and fish. While we ate, we chatted with the three people at the next table. The two men were both rugby coaches. One had lived in Kansas City for three years coaching a rugby team. When I was surprised, they informed us that more people play rugby in the US than in New Zealand. Yeah, whatever, more Americans might play rugby than there are people in all of New Zealand for all I know, but that’s still nobody. It was fun to chat with locals even if I know nothing about rugby. Heck, they told me which four teams made it to the finals in American football.
On the walk home, Paul looked up and said, “Orion!” I wasn’t looking and thought he must be joking because I’d assumed all the stars would be different. I looked up, and there was Orion all right, only, he looked super funny. Then I figured it out: he was upside down! His sword was pointed up. Of course just because we’re on the bottom of the Earth, I don’t feel the weight of the world on me or have to clench my toes to keep from falling off, but that was satisfying proof that we really were upside down. I wanted to find Taurus and the Pleides, but there was too much light pollution, so Orion wasn’t shooting at anything.
When we got home, I went to put my tea in a bottle and refrigerate it overnight, but Julie had thought I had left a pot of tea from this morning, so she’d dumped it all out. Oh well. I was sorry that she thought I was inconsiderate and wasteful, but of course most people wouldn’t assume someone left a pot of tea on the counter on purpose. I made another pot.
We woke early and followed our local hosts to a nearby farmers market. It was my first time driving on the left, and I was pleased to get to ease into it gently, following someone who knew were she was going and sticking to small, country roads. Paul had had to start on the highway from the airport. We both keep turning on the windshield washers every time we try to signal a turn, but aside from that, we’re mostly doing okay, and when we aren’t, the locals give us an aggrieved honk, and we get back on our side of the road.
At the market, we ate a bunch of sample delicacies and picked up a loaf of bread with currants and other fruit in it, a bag of cherries, and a bag of apricots for the road. The highlight for me was seeing one vendor with a full-face Maori tattoo.
From there, we drove two hours to Waitomo, for the glow worm cave tour. There are three caves and a variety of adventure package options, the most popular of which involves inner tubing in wet suits, but we’ve both toured a lot of caves, and we just wanted to see the glow worms, so we took the cheapest option, a guided tour through just one cave.
The cave itself was gorgeous, with glistening stalactites and stalagmites and a 13-meter “chapel” with beautiful acoustics, which our tour guide offered the group a chance to test if anyone wanted to sing. Nobody did, but someone jokingly asked her to sing a Maori love song, so she gave us a sample in a clear soprano. The caves were first explored in the late 19th century by one Englishman and one Maori—our guide’s great, great grandfather. Her family and a few other Maori families started leading candlelight tours, but the New Zealand government seized the caves from them. After years of back-and-forth, the land is now owned by the four Maori families but leased to the government. Most of the tour guides are descendants of the original owners and think of themselves as keepers of a family treasure.
The glow worms, actually fungus gnat larvae, cling to the bottoms of overhangs and glow bright green to attract prey. They drop strings of saliva from the cave; the prey gets stuck in the saliva strings when it tries to approach the green light, and the pupae suck up the string snare and eat the unlucky victim. After six to nine months (depending how much food they catch), the matchstick-sized larvae go into a pupa stage for two weeks. The adults look like mosquitos, but they don’t have mouths, so they reproduce as fast as they can and lay 40 to 50 eggs before dying of starvation within two to three days.
We saw the bright green dots, and the guide briefly turned on a light so we could see thousands of sticky strings hanging from the cave ceiling.
The highlight of the tour was at the end. The guide asked us to stay quiet so as to disturb the glow worm habitat as little as possible, and in the dark silence, we boarded a boat that she pulled along by ropes, not even disturbing the water, as we floated through caves of thousands of tiny, bright green lights. My group had to wait a few minutes for a boat, and a few of the others nervously whispered in the silence. My rage mounted that people couldn’t respect the silence request enough to refrain from making important comments like, “it’s dripping on me,” but once the boat pushed off, everyone was awed into complete quiet.
When we left the cave, I wanted to go for a quick walk before getting back in the car. We found a sign for a 25-minute round trip trail to a summit overlook, and headed out through impressive foliage and striking limestone formations. The trail soon broke out of the forest and took us through farmland up to a wooden lookout of pastoral views with volcanoes in the distance. On the way down, I spotted a doorway in some limestone and wanted to see whether it was a cave or what, but a fence and signs asked us not to leave the path. As we were gazing at the doorway, trying to figure out what it was, we spotted a family of what I think were giant wild turkeys. At first we saw two adults, but as we watched about four juveniles came out through the doorway we were looking at. I say juveniles only because they were smaller than the other two birds. They were still bigger than any of the wild turkeys I see in Connecticut. In my sister’s car, the first one to spot a wild turkey wins a dollar. I didn’t make Paul pay me for spotting the birds though.
From Waitomo, we drove to Rotorua, stopping along the way for a relatively nasty roadside lunch. I had a skewer of spicy chicken, a miniature mince savory, and for some reason a chocolate energy drink that tasted like chalk and chemicals. Paul said his sandwich was fine.
It took another two hours to get to Rotorua, during which I had plenty of time to figure out what we wanted to do, but by the time we arrived around 4, we didn’t have a lot of options. We’d already missed all the daytime cultural performances, and there was only one evening option. Since it started at 6:15, we didn’t have time for a soak in a mud bath or thermal hot spring, and since it didn’t end till 9:15, we weren’t going to be able to do anything else, so we decided to find a hotel for the night and then return for the dinner performance.
First, we checked out a hostel, but I balked at the tiny room. The guidebook had the midrange hotels at $120-$180 per night, but Paul found one of the same ones on Orbitz for less than $80, so we checked in. Unfortunately, it only offers 20 minutes of free wifi, and the pool was closed for a “cultural event,” so I typed this in the room, and then we headed back out for the show.
Like Waitomo, Maori families owned Te Puia until the government seized it, but it returned the land to the families last year. Our guide grew up watching his family perform their ritual dances and songs for tourists and graciously thanked us for being the inspiration to keep their traditions strong. He chose one man from our group to act as chief, and then warriors from his tribe came out to challenge us and test us with a peace offering. Luckily, our chief, Chris from Devon, England, accepted the peace offering, so their women welcomed us into their meeting house, or marae.
Inside, they greeted our chief formally and then performed for us in song, dance, and haka. Of course I was most interested in the exhibitions of poi, which were traditionally training tools for male warriors but are now used only by women; staff; and sticks.
The performers invited women from the audience on stage to learn a poi dance, and I volunteered eagerly, fantasizing about showing off my few poi tricks, but they handed us each only one mini poi, about six inches long, and taught us all the same routine. Then they invited men on stage to learn the haka, which looked like more fun because it involved bulging your eyes and sticking out your tongue, which I’m sure would make kids giggle but was rightfully terrifying as a war face.
Before the performance, we had watched our food being pulled out of a hangi, an underground oven heated by the volcanic activity. Now we sat down to eat the pork, lamb, chicken, potatoes, kumara (Polynesian sweet potato), pumpkin, and bread stuffing that had been cooked in it, as well as corn, mussels, seafood chowder, cole slaw with pineapple, and shrimp. The only other people at our table were a German and an Indian, neither of whom spoke very much English, but our guide came over and let us grill him about his family and culture. For dessert, I tried all the things I didn’t recognize: Pavlova, trifle, and some kind of berries soaked in oh I don’t remember sauce, but they were delicious. There was so much even I couldn’t try everything, but I did enjoy a cup of chai latte.
For the last treat of the evening, we rode a tram that passed boiling mud and let us out to enjoy hot chocolate while admiring the Puhutu and Prince of Wales’ Feathers geysers, which spewed steam in giant bursts into the air. I’ve seen geysers in Hawaii and other places. Admittedly, I haven’t been to Yellowstone (weird, I know), but I’ve never seen anything this satisfying. The site was covered in shining mineral deposits, the hot water shoots 30 meters into the air, and the surrounding forest is full of bursts of steam. I walked around the geyser for a view into the blue thermal lake behind it, and it sure looked like two of the performers from our cultural show were getting busy in the lake. Bonus!
We spent most of Monday driving. We had been planning to go to Hells Gate and Taupo and decided against both, but we took the Thermal Explorer Highway, which ran along Lake Taupo, so we got to see it from the road. The lake was pretty. More impressive were the thermal vents that dotted the landscape, spewing steam into the air.
We stopped at McDonald’s because that’s often interesting. Paul got a burger, and we split some macaroni and cheese nuggets. They weren’t good. I was surprised by the elaborate dessert offerings, including several flavors of macarons (the French kind not the Jewish kind misspelled). At a different rest stop we had spaghetti sandwiches, mine with cheese. If you’ve ever wondered why people don’t put spaghetti on sandwiches, now I know. It was canned spaghetti, by the way, so it wouldn’t have been good even without the sandwich.
One highlight was driving through the Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s first and the world’s fourth national park and one of New Zealand’s three World Heritage Sites. It was used as Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies. I may not yet have mentioned that New Zealand tourism promotion is a little LOTR crazy. Even the airplane safety video features LOTR characters. Inside the park are three active volcanoes, one of which looks perfectly like a cartoon image of a volcano and played Mt. Doom in the movies. I never read the books and only saw the first movie (and don’t remember it), but I asked Paul to check us in at Mordor since he has a local SIM card. 193 people had apparently already had the same idea, and it was already a Facebook location. Aren’t we hilarious?
It took us about seven hours to get to Castlepoint, on the south east coast. I think this got on our itinerary because someone sent me a list of photos of the 20 places you need to see before you die or something like that, and Castlepoint was on it. It was really far from anything and sure looks and feels like the end of the earth. It’s a park with a big rock, a lighthouse, and a reef-sheltered cove. First we walked up to the rock, and it was pretty, but no big thing. As we walked up, Paul said he bet there’d be an earthquake while we were there. The path up to the rock was cracked in several places and looked like sections might collapse.
The day was overcast, and a few people wre swimming or surfing. We walked down to the water and back through the cove. Underfoot, we saw crabs and schools of little fish. Then I climbed up onto the reef to see what the guys were fishing. They showed me the kawhai they’d caught, and said they’d caught a little sting ray, but he got away. When I asked how big “little” was, both guys gestured that he was about two feet across, which doesn’t seem that little to me.
Then the guy asked me whether we’d been there for the earthquake, which he said happened “about an hour ago.” I’d checked my phone when we started the hike to Castle Rock, and we’d been there an hour and fifteen minutes. I hadn’t felt anything. I thought the fisher dude was teasing me, but he showed me pictures on his phone and pointed to where a boulder had just fallen. He said he saw hikers running off Castle Rock and a surfer who survived the waves.
I hiked up to the lighthouse, where Paul was waiting for me. Along the way I found the bones of a few animals on the beach and admired the fossilized fish in the reef and rocks along the path.
I told Paul about the earthquake, and he looked it up on his phone. Different reports had different numbers, but they all put it over six on the Richter scale and said it was centered 110 kilometers northeast of Wellington, in other words, exactly where we were. Who knows why we didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel either of the New York ones a few years ago either. They were a bit smaller than this one, but I was right in the city when they happened. I climbed out from the lighthouse onto the bluffs. Apparently sometimes you can see whales and dolphins from there, but I didn’t. The cliffs were stunning through. When you look down, you just see water, and I was curious whether I was on an overhang, so I left my flip-flops and phone about six feet from the edge and lied down on my belly trying to see over the cliff, but I couldn’t tell. None of my pictures did the area justice.
When Paul saw me climbing on the cliffs, he had to walk away, and by the time I got down, he had gotten the car and driven onto the beach to get me. As we drove, we saw rocks and debris in the road that hadn’t been there on the way in. How did we not feel the earthquake?
Paul stopped because he saw a sign for “historic tree.” A plaque explained who had stolen it and re-planted it in the 19th century. It was a nice looking tree. I don’t remember what kind, but it was from Australia.
The drive from Castlepoint to Wellington took another three hours (Paul did all the driving today). The landscape was satisfyingly full of sheep.
In Wellington, we found a hotel right downtown. Everyone charges a fortune for wireless though, so I’m feeling very cut off from the world.
There are a ton of restaurants around here, but it’s a local holiday (Wellington Independence I think) and it was almost 10pm by the time we walked to dinner, so a lot of places were closed. We ate okay Indian food and then tried to go to a local pub quiz, but it was already finished, so we called it a night.
This morning’s headlines were all about the earthquake. Nobody was killed, but lots of property was damaged and transportation disrupted. People right near where we were described it as violent and terrifying. We’re pretty sure we were driving at the time.
Our only full day in Wellington was cold and rainy, so cold actually that Paul, who hadn’t brought any pants or long-sleeved shirts, broke down and bought a Gore-Tex jacket.
The rain prevented us from wandering around the botanical gardens, visiting the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary, or going to the free outdoor Festival New Zealand events. Instead, we took a bus to the other end of downtown, figuring we’d sightsee along the walk back, with lots of long, indoor stops. We started at St. Paul’s Church, which is no longer an active parish but was taken over by the state and preserved for its beautiful Gothic interior made of local wood.
We got completely drenched on the way to the three parliament buildings, less than two blocks away. The most famous is the Beehive, because of its unusual design, but the Parliament House and Parliamentary Library were also lovely. Unfortunately, the conference of the speakers of the Commonwealth (or something like that) was about to start, so the usual free tours were closed for the week. We watched a movie and checked out the displays of gifts from other countries, but there wasn’t much to see. On our way out, we asked someone for directions, and just because it was raining and she wanted to be nice, she registered us as her visitors and then snuck us through the attached buildings to a closer exit, so we did get to peek inside the Beehive, see a display of political cartoons, and get a glimpse of the government offices.
We walked along the shops on Lambton Quay and then took the cable car to the Cable Car Museum. We had wanted to wander down through the Botanical Gardens, but it was really pouring, so we stopped for a snack in the café and then took the cable car back down. I got a lemon passionfruit tart, but it was boring and too sweet.
From there we went to the Museum of Wellington, whose highlights included a movie about the 1968 sinking of the Wahine and, my favorite, Maori folktales told by tiny holograms.
We also went to City Gallery, which had various sound and immersive installations on the ground floor and photographs, paintings, and installations upstairs. Behind the museum, we walked onto a plaza with a bridge full of art overlooking a cove. A bunch of young girls were pulling two boats from the water. They were wearing short wetsuits with bare legs and feet. We were freezing in coats!
After a brief stop at the Post Office, we walked down Cuba Street, checking out head shops, art galleries, and boutiques. We ate riistaafel at an Indonesian restaurant and stumbled back to the hotel exhausted.
The next day was beautiful, so we spent most of it inside a museum. D’oh!
First, we walked to Martha’s Pantry, a tea parlor that Paul wanted to try, even though he doesn’t normally drink tea. The shop was lovely, very English cottage/Laura Ashley looking.
Then we walked back to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Hey! I just looked that up to get the name right, and a link pasted in. Now I’d distracted wondering whether I should go back through everything I’ve written so far and add links. Hm, guess you’ll know by now what I decided. As I write, I haven’t added any of the photos yet, so that’ll probably take up all the going-back-through energy I have.
(Now, I’m on the second pass adding photos, which is taking forever, and I’m delighted to get to here! Obviously I forgot all about adding links.)
Anyway, the museum is gorgeous and massive, and we saw displays on Maori and New Zealand natural history, geology, art, history, and all kind of stuff. I liked the colossal squid, but who wouldn’t. Also, the wearable art exhibition reminded me of the Alexander McQueen at the Met last year.
We walked back to the African place, but it was still closed, so we just had lunch at a cafe. I had fish tacos of various fish I’d never heard of. They tasted like fish. My friend Scott says they give the same fish different names here, so maybe it wasn’t even exotic. We did see some “crayfish” in a market that were the size of lobsters. A gallery had a display of Dr. Seuss art, including some from the books and some I’d never seen before.
We had plenty of time before our flight, but we were pooped from hours in the museum. Also, although Paul had slept over ten hours, I was up half the night coughing. I didn’t want to walk anymore, so we drove up Mt. Victoria. I enjoyed beautiful views of the city and harbor, while Paul, who’s afraid of heights anyway, focused on the terrifying, winding driving. We stopped at a shop that sold sheepskin and possum goods. I hadn’t even known possum fur was a thing. Or that their posssums weren’t our opossums.
We passed a cricket match and pulled over to watch. We sat in the sun and tried to figure it ou by comparing it to baseball, but that doesn’t work, so I gave up and asked the people near us. They were Canterbury fans who’d flown in for this five-day match against Wellington. One of them had played softball, so they understood our baseball questions and were very gracious about out ignorance. The game still seems impossibly languid, but it was beautiful sitting on the grass in the sun.
The Wellington airport is full of Lord of the Rings references. Onwards to the south island.
My friend Dan picked us up at the Christchurch airport. He and I worked a summer together in 2002. I saw him a few times after that, and he stayed at my apartment in New York for a while, but I’m sure I haven’t seen him in at least a decade. We stopped at a supermarket on the way home, and then he and his girlfriend Kathleen made us a lovely barbecue at their home. I hadn’t known that Dan, whose father was a cooper, made the barrels in the Lord of the Rings movies, and we watched clips of the barrels and grilled him about the process. Seriously fascinating.
Daniel had warned me that there wasn’t much in Christchurch since the 2010-2011 hurricanes, but I had no idea the city would still be this empty. The next morning, after a few hours at a laundromat, Kathleen drove us downtown and told us what stores and businesses used to be in the empty lots. We saw the decimated cathedral, which the diocese wants to tear down but conservationists are fighting to preserve, and the “cardboard cathedral” that is its temporary replacement.
On sweet little Regent Street, I got a ginger beer sorbet, and took a photo of Christchurch’s iconic tram, which has recently started running again. I didn’t care so much about the tram, but check out the three dudes at the cafe. We saw photos around town of one of these guys and learned that he’s not a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter fan or a performer from the Buskers Festival; he’s Christchurch’s wizard.
Although it’s taking the city a long time to rebuild, we saw lots of temporary art, mini-golf, and Re:Start, a market in container trucks. We stepped into but did not pay to visit Quake City, the earthquake museum.I had wanted to visit the Wellington Art Gallery, but the building wasn’t open. We’re not sure whether it was new or being rebuilt. My other pick, the Arts Center, was also still closed from the damage it had sustained.
We’d timed our trip around the World Buskers Festival. The first show we went to was a children’s show called I Hate Children. The main performer was Paul Nathan, a magician I’d met at MotionFest about a decade ago but remembered because we have a good fried in common. . He didn’t remember me at all, but he put on a good show.
Paul got a waffle, and I got Hungarian fried bread with watercress walnut pesto. Garlicky and delicious. Turns out Hungarian fried bread is more flavorful than Navajo fry bread. We sat outside eating our snacks and watching Ruben DotDotDot as the weather turned colder. He had four volunteers holding his Chinese pole, and I got really scared when it began to rain as he climbed it. He pulled off some nice tricks.
I’d hoped Dan could meet me to watch our former co-worker Cate’s show, but he had a meeting. I’ve seen her in the last few years, but he hadn’t seen her in 12 years and didn’t know she was here. Paul and I watched the beginning of her show, but when the rain didn’t let up, it was a relief when she canceled the rest. We went to chat with her, and she said it had been hot all week until today. Just our luck.
We left the festival to go warm up. We snacked in a cafe for a while, and when we came out, it was still chilly, but the rain had let up, so we walked back to see some more shows. The next two I wanted to see weren’t there, apparently rained out, and the one we kept hearing was great was sold out. Some of the shows have admission prices to support the festival; the artists are all paid by the hat take.
We stalled, playing games on our phone while waiting to see what the weather would do, and finally paid to enter the Busker Comedy Club. We watched two juggling acts in a row as the rain got worse. Zane and Degge were young guys with an old school vibe, and the Blingling Brothers were hip-hop themed. The host then did a sexy diabolo act and canceled the show, saying it wasn’t safe for the non-jugglers to work on a wet stage in the rain. Frankly, I was quite impressed the jugglers pulled it off. I was disappointed of course but by then so cold it was a relief.
We found the bus stop no problem, but our bus was pulling away, and the driver turned away as we begged him to let us on. We waited 30 minutes for the next bus, and that driver loved us, offering to turn up the heat and trying to chat us up about New York. It was a long ride with very few passengers, one of whom was white but had Maori facial tattoos. The driver detoured off the main road because of construction, and we got to see blocks and blocks of homes that were abandoned after the earthquake made them uninhabitable. It reminded me of my last visit to New Orleans.
Weather reports from the south are not good. We’re not sure what we’ll do next.
We decided to spend another day in Christchurch. It was sunny, and I’d hardly seen any buskers. Within two acts, though, I decided I’d seen enough buskers, so we left the festival and walked through the park and botanical garden, admiring the roses. Then we randomly wandered into the Museum of Canterbury, which had a great street art show with a room full of Banksys. I also liked the room about Antarctica, the sea elephant skeleton, because I don’t think I’d ever heard of a sea elephant, and the crazy shell house.
Dan and Kathleen picked us up and drove us to the charming town of Lyttelton for an outdoor drink at the funky Wunderbar overlooking the bay. Over drinks, we told Daniel and Kathleen how an Australian busker had riled up the crowd by mentioning three things the world thought were Australian but were actually from New Zealand: the pavlova (a dessert), Russell Crowe, and … I couldn’t remember the third thing. “Crowded House?” Daniel and Kathleen both guessed at the same time. Yup. I couldn’t even name one Crowded House hit, so I had no idea how hard this would hurt Kiwis. Guess it’s a sore point.
On the patio, we met a juggler we’d seen in the festival, and he recognized my name from a common friend’s email. I’d forgotten I was supposed to look him up when we got here. Then, we picked up some fish and chips and picnicked on the beach at Corsair Bay. It was all charming and fun.
Even though it’s chilly, there’s no ozone layer here, so we’re both sunburned. I don’t mind at all. New York’s still under a blizzard.
My new favorite person, Kathleen, drove us to the airport the next morning, where we picked up a car and drove south for 12 hours. Yup, 12 hours. It wasn’t so bad, really. We’d planned to drive along the coast, but the guidebook said it was faster and prettier to drive inland, and we weren’t disappointed.
We stopped often. In Geraldine, we sampled fruit and baked goods at a farmers market, picked up some venison-pork salami, and walked through a craft market of about three stalls of women knitting. We also visited the Geraldine Historical Society Museum, which mostly had displays from the town in the 1920s.
Speaking of venison, along the road we saw something I’ve never seen before: fields of deer. Not a few wild deer by the side of the road, but many fenced fields with dozens of deer grazing in broad daylight. We also saw cows, horses, and llamas, but mainly we saw sheep. No joke, New Zealand has a ridiculous number of sheep.
The inland scenic route took us by Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. The glaciers that carved these lakes pulverized stone and left it suspended as “rock flour” in the lakes, making them a magnificent bright blue. I’d seen a similar phenomenon in Alaskan green glacial waters.
We snacked in Cromwell, a town marked by giant 3D fruit. Cromwell’s free historical museum was set about 40 years before Geraldine’s; most of the displays were about the mid 19th century gold rush.
The scenery along the route was gorgeous, and much of it was gorges. Paul did all the driving while I dozed; gawked at cliffs, caves, and blue rivers; and talked him into picking up a pair of hitchhikers. They were young, French, boring because they barely spoke English, and harmless. They didn’t smell. We dropped them off in Te Anau, the town we were planning to stay in and the last place to get gas before driving the remaining two hours to Fjordland National Park. The gas station turned out to be a visitor center. I bought a bag of Mars pods, which were chocolate candies with a chocolate cookie coating and a Mars bar caramel center. I don’t even eat candy or pastries much at home, but here I have to try everything I don’t recognize. They were nasty. Between the two of us, we barely ate half a bag, and then I gave the rest to the girls behind the counter.
Looking through the tourist information, I decided to book a combination cruise/kayaking tour and to stay at the only hotel in Milford Sound, so that we wouldn’t have to wake at 6am to drive the rest of the way to the park. The only rooms available were super expensive or super cheap, so we booked two dorm beds and drove on.
We got to the Milford Sound Lodge around 10pm, right as the reception desk was closing. The lounge was full of backpackers hanging out, and the dining room was full of people playing cards. Our room had two bunk beds. One was empty but had people’s stuff on it. We put our stuff on the other one, and I went to the dining room to brew some tea to refrigerate overnight. When I came back, our roommates were in their beds, but we never spoke a word to them, and they left before I woke up. I actually liked the place a lot, but we didn’t bring towels, so we can’t stay in hostels too often. For one day I didn’t mind skipping a shower.
When we woke up it was freezing and pouring rain. I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to see anything on the cruise and that we’d be cold and miserable on the kayaks, but it turns out I needn’t have worried. First of all, the area is one of the rainiest places on earth, averaging seven meters of annual rainfall over 200 rainy days per year. The tour operators are ready for rain. Secondly, it cleared up.
Our trip was fantastic. My photos are such pale approximations that I’m tempted to delete them all, but just picture this times 100. The water was clean and green, not from rock flour as I’d assumed but rather from all the moss and minerals the rain sweeps into the fjords. There are 14 fjords, including Milford Sound, the one we were in. A sound is carved by a river and is V-shaped. Despite the name, these are all fjords, which means they’re U-shaped and carved by glaciers. The mountains are the newest in the world and getting bigger fast enough to beat erosion and avalanches. We heard different numbers, but the one that sticks in my head is that they grow four millimeters a year.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the mountains are beautiful, the waterfalls are beautiful, the fjords are beautiful, but the really exciting part was, yup, you guessed it, charismatic megafauna. At night, fur seals are vicious predators. During the day, they’re cute lumps on a rock. Paul said, “Fur seals? That name doesn’t bode well for them. It’s like calling an animal a meat cow or a handbag crocodile. You know it’s in trouble.”
The highlight for me was when people sighted a pod of dolphins. I was looking all over the water and thought I’d missed them. Then I looked right under the boat, and there they were swimming with us, occasionally jumping out of the water. I’m short enough that my feet came off the bottom when I leaned over the bow to take this photo, but to my surprise, I didn’t drop my phone overboard.
They pulled the boat right under a few waterfalls. At one, Paul helped a crew member fill glasses with water. I stayed inside behind glass.
We went all the way to the entrance to the Tasman Sea, in the roughest waters in the world. The average swells are two to three meters high, and in storms they get to ten meters. It was choppy but fine. Looking back from the sea, it’s impossible to see the entrance to the fjord, which is why James Cook passed it twice without noticing it. Someone else eventually was trying to get to the coastline to take refuge when he found it. Yeah, of course Maori had already been there for ages.
The boat dropped us off at the floating Deep Underwater Observatory, where we picked up our kayaks. Our group was four visitors and two guides, one Maori and one Spanish. We paddled around a large, calm cove. On the way out, we stuck to the shoreline. My favorite moment was spotting a penguin. The guides told us it was a Fjordland Crested Penguin, the second rarest penguin in the world. There are only about 2,000 nesting pairs left. This one had likely wandered down from a mating ground 200 meters inland. By the way, no, I don’t think in meters. I just repeat the numbers people tell me without translating them. Anyway, the little guy was so clumsy I thought it was injured, but it was just incompetent and kept slipping on the rocks. I kayaked right to the shoreline, and it didn’t seem to notice.
After kayaking for over an hour, we returned to the Deep Underwater Observatory and checked out anemone, sea cucumbers, fish, and, most impressively, black coral, which is the lacy white stuff in this photo.
It took us about four hours to get back to Christchurch. Along the way we stopped for snacks a few times. I got a bacon, chili, cheese pie in Milford Sound and a venison pie in Te Anau. Savory pies are very Kiwi, but I don’t think I need to eat any more of them.
As usual we fought with the hotel in Queenstown, but when they didn’t give us the rate we wanted, we booked it on Orbitz from the lobby and although the desk clerk told us we’d have a dinky double with no view, we wound up in a lovely king with a view of the waterfront. We almost collapsed into free wifi, but we dragged ourselves out for dinner at The Cow, in an old cowshed. We split a bacon, shrimp, and mushroom pizza and a chicken liver pasta and walked around a bit. I sampled Marmite fudge in a candy shop. I don’t recommend it.
Tomorrow is our last day in the country.
Queenstown is known for adventure activities. Commercial bungy (that’s how they spell it) jumping was invented here, and the town’s many adventure operators offer paragliding, ziplining, jetboating, riverboarding, skydiving, and other challenges I’ve never even heard of. We weren’t planning to do any of the above, but somehow when we woke up this morning, we decided, hey, we’re here, let’s jump off a bridge.
Paul is afraid of heights so he wanted to do it as soon as possible with as little time to think about it as possible. I decided I wanted to do the classic Kawarau Bridge jump, which isn’t the highest but was the first commercial jump and seemed like the classic. When we went to buy our tickets, the store pushes combination packages and higher jumps, but the guy behind the counter said the bridge was his favorite, the most fun and the most beautiful. Sold! Paul asked a bunch of questions about how many people they’d lost (zero), how many chicken out (about one a day), and whether he was going to be sick. Oddly, the more nervous he acted, the calmer I felt. I figure, hey, they have more information on this than I do. If they say it’s safe, it’s probably safe.
Of course I wanted to eat first, and of course Paul was too scared that he’d get sick if he had anything in his stomach. We compromised on a quick snack and off we went. When we got there, Paul couldn’t even walk all the way to the edge of the viewing platform to watch the people before us. I knew I’d be too cheap to buy the official photos or DVD, so I walked around trying to get pictures of the bridge, but the drop was so steep I couldn’t even fit the whole scene in the frame. It was also beautiful, but it was hard to concentrate on the scenery when you knew you were about to launch yourself off it.
We checked in and got weighed and numbered. I’d gained a few pounds since leaving home and am almost too vain to post this picture, but Paul graciously tried to convince me it was all muscle.
They messed up the tags somehow and after they labeled me “63” they handed me something to sign with Paul’s name on it. I didn’t sign, luckily, because apparently the weight matters, so Paul wound up going first (he’s number 26). They had two platforms, so I got to watch him getting bound up and clinging to the pole, swearing at the teenagers clipping us in. The guy putting my kit on gestured over and asked, “are you with that guy?” I said yeah, and he said, “He’s terrified. Is he going to chicken out?”
I saw Paul clinging to the pole with both hands, but I answered, “He already paid. He’s going through with it.” Sure enough, Paul jumped. I was so proud of him I couldn’t believe it. But then I realized if he could do it, I was going to have to go through with it too!
By that time my feet were bound, my flip flops were clipped to my harness, and I was hopping to the front of the platform and staring down 43 meters (141 feet) at cold, green water. It would have been terrifying, except it felt exactly like being on the pedestal board of a flying trapeze rig—well exactly except a lot higher and with no net, but that same feeling that it’s impossible while knowing that it’s fine. I jumped.
It was glorious. You fall long enough to feel it and then you soar back up over and over long enough to play with your form and arc into the air. If I couldn’t appreciate the scenery before, now I was in the middle of it, surrounded by the impossibly green water, tall mountains, and beautiful bridge above. The guy had told me to arch my back and straighten my legs, but I have no idea whether I did.
The river current was moving fast, but two people approached on a yellow raft and held up a pole for me to grab. I took it and then took the wrists of one of the people in the boat. Once I had her, I did a sit-up and reached up to my legs so she could lower me onto the floor of the raft to remove my gear, and I walked back up to the bridge.
This is not me or Paul, but it’s the best photo I could get of the bridge.
Paul bought the photos, the video, the whole kit and caboodle, so if you want to see him jump, check Paul’s blog. You’ll also see me getting ready, but his video will be funnier than mine anyway.
When I walked back up, a woman asked whether I’d done that before. I said no, and she said I looked so calm and comfortable and had great form. That was super fun to hear.
I didn’t buy anything, but I did get a “free” t-shirt and certificate. Before we jumped, they’d asked us to sign the certificate. Only when I picked it up did I notice the waiver on the back. Guess I could have signed anything.
It was worth it. I was proud of Paul and full of adrenaline. I stayed and watched other people dive for a while. Some of them screamed and clung to the posts, but I didn’t see anyone back out.
We drove back via Arrowtown, where we stopped to visit the Chinese settlement, art galleries, stores, and a historic jail (or as they say, “gaol”).
Since I’d found out I’d gained a few pounds, I resolved to eat a little less. That lasted for about five minutes, during which I ordered a salad for lunch. But it was a calamari (fried) and chorizo salad, drenched in dressing. It was lovely.
We ate outside in a little park with a small boy waving to us shouting “bye-bye.” Although I’d been shivering earlier (the woman who put me in a harness said it was the coldest summer she could remember), over lunch it got so hot that my phone gave me a message I’d never seen before.
Speaking of overheating, while I was typing this, Paul went to bed, so I reached up to re-position a light away from him, and I burned two fingers so badly they’re still throbbing, and I’m having trouble typing. This sucks. Woman survives jumping off bridge and injures herself on hotel reading light. The whole thing is hot. Poor design.
Anyway, we drove back to Queenstown and walked around the beautiful blue waterfront and gardens. Musicians were playing, and paragliding chutes soared overhead. I sampled mascarpone/wild berry and fig/pistachio ice cream and got a cup of tramontana, which was cream and caramel.
In the gardens, we saw a few people slack lining, and then a few slack liners juggling! They were clearly beginners. I walked over to watch and then walked over to ask whether there was a juggling club in the city. They didn’t know of one. There were three men juggling and one woman watching, but it was clear that only Cam, the Kiwi, was gung-ho about learning more. He kept asking me to show him tricks. The others were from Germany, the US, and Estonia. The German and the Estonian talked about how the places we were from (New York for us, Los Angeles for the other American) sounded like places in movies and how much they wanted to go to America. I felt so cosmopolitan being from someplace so exotic and having been to each of their home countries.
Cam and I juggled for maybe an hour as he kept asking me for tips. He and the American were learning to pass balls, so I gave them some help with that too and then took the American’s place to show Cam 3-count, 2-count, and 1-count (synch and asynch). He kept apologizing for his mistakes, but actually he learned everything super fast, so I went on and showed him ultimates with five, which we got easily, and seven, which we couldn’t do. To tell the truth, I never pass balls, plus I wasn’t used to his big light-up balls (I use beanbags), so I was probably as much of a limiting factor as he was. Paul dozed on the grass, and I had a great time. The Estonian woman kept saying I should change my flight to stay longer because Cam was so excited to have someone to juggle with.
I didn’t get a photo of them but here’s a photo of the circus that I’m just missing here. I don’t know anything about it, but I told the others about it, and they might go. I’m the international juggling and circus ambassador!
Paul woke up, and I felt guilty, so we walked away. People were playing Frisbee golf throughout the park, and tons of flowers were in bloom. I like trees.
As soon as we rounded the turn out of the gardens, we ran into another juggler. He was juggling three homemade green clubs (made of plastic water bottles). I told him there was another juggler right up the hill who would be very excited to meet him. This juggler, who might have been Spanish, protested that he was just a beginner. “I play with sticks,” he said, gesturing towards a devil stick, “but I’m just learning the clubs.” I promised him that the other guy was just learning too and that they’d have more fun together. “Tell him a random woman from New York told you to go meet him,” I begged him. I don’t think he went. I may be an ambassador, but apparently I’m no juggling match maker.
We walked over to check out Queenstown’s oldest house, which now housed a nifty store full of New Zealand arts and crafts. We’ve had our full of paua shell and jade/green stone jewelry, Maori artifacts, wool and possum products, and kitsch, but Vesta had really beautiful housewares and interesting art. I liked the pin-up girls with Maori tattoos. We also walked into the historic church, but mostly we wandered around store after store.
We wanted to eat some real New Zealand food before we left. We were tempted by a fancy place with crayfish/spiny lobsters, but we wound up ordering from a shack by the waterfront because the chalkboard boasted so many exotic local dishes.
I asked what “mutton bird” was. “Titi bird!” the odd woman behind the counter yelled at me. “Is that a sheep? A bird?” I persisted. “Titi bird!”
I’ve had plenty of eel and raw fish just sounded like ceviche, but Paul said he loves ceviche, so we ordered everything except the eel. They were out of sea urchin, which was fine because Paul doesn’t like it, and we knew we were getting too much food anyway. This is what we got.
The paua pattie was bland and greasy, the raw fish was drenched in some kind of cream, and the mutton bird was disgusting: gamey, fishy, salty, greasy, and fatty. In fact, it was almost all fat.
This is how much we had left after we ate all we could stand.
It’s pretty rare for me not to eat something. This was disgusting. I even bought a soda to rinse my mouth out, and I don’t usually drink soda.
The guidebook had recommended Fergburger as a quintessential Queenstown experience. We got burgers. They were fine. I wasn’t even hungry anymore, but at least they weren’t mutton bird.
As we flew out of Queenstown, the water in the bay was so clear I could see right through it.
I was still awake as we took off, so I got to enjoy the safety video by Air New Zealand, aka the official airline of Middle Earth, which featured hobbits, wizards, and elves.
The USB plugs on the planes are upside down, just like Orion was.
I failed to get a photo, but soon I turned my camera on and took a few pictures from the plane.
We flew from Queenstown to Auckland, from Auckland to Melbourne, where we cleared Australian customs and tried to stay away from the windows because it was 39-43 degrees Celsius outside, and from Melbourne to Hobart.
New Zealanders told me everyone thought they were part of Australia, but I had the opposite reaction: I’d thought the country was much bigger. We didn’t go to the far north of either island, but we crossed most of the country in less than two weeks and had enough time at our stops. None of the cities were large, most were tiny as were the roads, and the landscape was gorgeous.
Worst part: rain and cold.
Best part: bungee jumping!
Since this blog is already super long, I’m going to break it up now by country and end this one here. Thanks for traveling along.
Thanks for coming along for the virtual ride!
New Zealand was the first of four countries I visited on one long trip in the beginning of 2014. To find out about the rest of this trip, please read my posts on Australia, Vanuatu, and Fiji. For a different perspective on the same trip, check out my travel companion Paul’s blog.