Ok. Week 2. (BRACE YOURSELVES: THIS IS A LONG POST. But super interesting, if I do say so myself, if I do say so myself, in the words of Jay-Z.) We were fully settled in New Zealand (now an 11-hour time difference with Malawi and an 18-hour time difference with the east coast), really enjoying the good-natured personality of the ‘Kiwi’ people and the beautiful scenery. After exploring the pretty Auckland, we were ready to head a little more inland on the North Island. We woke up early, finished packing and walked, in the rain (which would be the weather for almost this entire week), to the rental car place. We got a long-term rental (that includes a ferry ride to the South Island!!) and it was a super smooth process. (Many people either rent campers, buy cars & sell them later, or do long-term rentals when they come to NZ. The companies here are pros at this.) We planned to have breakfast at the Otara Market – a really neat-sounding flea market outside of Auckland that becomes a farmers’ market on Saturdays – but the rain was really unpleasant and not many food stalls were there. So we got some fruit for the week and drove to a cute place called Melba Manukau to eat and warm up. We hit the road from there for our 2.5 hour drive to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. These caves are super famous for these mystical (& NOT actually worms) glowing insects that you can see in the dark. We took a walk through the caves, were serenaded by our guide (because the caves have amazing acoustics) and took a boat ride to see the worms. It was super cool. We then drove to Rotorua, a town situated on its namesake, Late Rotorua, which is famous for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. Due to all of the natural baths, geysers, mud pools, etc. (from various volcano eruptions over the years), the town has a (famous) VERY strong smell. If you know me well, you know that I am very sensitive to smells. I, of course, wasn’t going to let that prevent me from exploring the town (and its surroundings) but I didn’t love it. I’m just going to say that now and leave it there before I sound like an asshole later. Now, let’s talk about what I did love. (Which was a LOT.) The town, itself, is pretty touristy but we were able to have a decent-enough Italian dinner within walking distance from our hotel and got to bed at a decent hour. I didn’t think about the smell. Not at all. (Ok, now I’m done.) We only walked 2.8 miles that day. Not a ton, but for being in the car most of the day, not bad, heh?
The next day, we drove to Waiotapu to explore the awesome geothermal park. It was packed then because the Lady Knox Geyser erupts at a scheduled time every day. It was super cool and the height of the eruption was massive. We then went to the main part of the park and walked to all of the various pools, craters, etc. (So many crazy colors in these pools, it was nice.) It was pouring and I, stupidly, forgot my umbrella in the car and got soaked from the rain (time to get a waterproof raincoat in lieu of my water-resistant raincoat!), so Jon continued on for the third part of the path and I went back to the information center to have tea and warm up. We then went to have lunch at the Waiotapu Tavern, a hole-in-the-wall place for locals that had fried everything, great beer and fun personalities. It was perfect. (And, for those of you who know The Boneyard, I think they would love it!!) We got back to the hotel and I had an appointment scheduled at the Polynesian Spa, an incredible place with different natural pools, overlooking Lake Rotorua. Jon doesn’t know what’s good for him and decided to work, instead, which was a huge mistake. It was fantastic. I got back, showered & got ready for our dinner at the Maori Village, Mitai. We arrived, had cocktails and got ready for the tour, where they showed us their village and performed a cultural ceremony for us. We thought it would feel cheesy but it really didn’t! We know that it’s commercial and designed to make money but they really take their traditions seriously and seem to like having visitors to teach people about the Maori culture. We loved every minute of it. (And the meal, cooked in a traditional way in the ground, was SO GOOD.) We got back home and went to bed early, as we had a big day coming up. (We walked 4.5 miles that day!)
The next day, we woke up early and got ready for our rafting trip on the Kaituna River. Our guide, Raana, came to get us from the hotel and he was a cheeky, funny guy. We took a short bus ride to the company’s office and started the process for heading out: got into a wet suit (first time wearing one!) and put on a jacket, booties, life jacket & helmet. We then got on the bus and rode to the start of the river, each of us carrying something down to the launch site (me: paddles, Jon: a raft). I’d done some reading about this river beforehand and I knew that there was a big waterfall, halfway down. What I couldn’t anticipate was how intense it would be. My heart was racing the whole time. I’ve rafted a few times before and the highest class of rapids I’d done was a IV. This river was a V. Plus, they went through all of the scenarios of what to do if you fall out during the 7 METER WATERFALL: tuck into a ball, swim like hell once you surface to get to a raft, etc. Eek! This is the tallest commercially-rafted waterfall in the world. The WORLD. So, needless to say, I was nervous. Luckily, they had us practice the “GET DOWN!” command a lot, so even though I got more nervous each time we did it, I knew that, subconsciously, I was prepared. The ‘practice’ waterfall (only a meter or so, ha!) actually had me have my sinuses chock-full of water, so I didn’t seem to have managed that one very well. But, it made me more focused for the big one. And, it happened so fast, once we went down, I don’t even know what happened. My hands were crazy numb and I’d cut my hands up grabbing the ropes, but that subsided once the adrenaline decreased. The main point, though, was that we all stayed in and because we were the medical raft, we went first and watched everyone else go down! The guides were all super fun and kept yelling, “TIP! TIP! TIP!” as each one went down, trying to splash people and bumping into the other rafts. After that, we had a relatively-easy rest of the ride and we went back to the site to change. It was amazing and I’m so glad I did it. We got back to the hotel and went to get lunch at a dumplings place, right next door, called Best Noodle. Super yummy!! We then went back to our room to work on travel plans for the next few days. We couldn’t do the Tongariro hike we really wanted to (it is supposed to be the most beautiful one-day hike in the world!) – the weather is really important and it was supposed to be terrible for the next week – so we made a different plan to go to wine country for a day. After that was sorted, we went to get some gear because my raincoat wasn’t going to cut it. Plus, I needed a hat and gloves for the glaciers we’re going to on the South Island. (Not needed in Africa!) We then walked around the Government Gardens, along the coast of the lake and within the beautiful greenways. We walked back into town and went to dinner at the Pig & Whistle, a pub that used to be a police station; it had character and the food was tasty enough! Our room, strangely, had a hot tub on the porch so we had a soak and watched an episode of “Parenthood” – bliss! (3.6 miles walked today!)
The next day, we woke up early and checked out of the hotel to start the journey south (within the north island). We stopped at Huka Falls, a massive waterfall, which is part of the Wakato River. 200,000 liters of water move through the falls each minute (it could fill five Olympic-sized swimming pools with this water!) and is used as a major power source for the country. (It generates 15% of NZ’s power!!) It was incredible and the water was sooo blue… We kept driving and listened to podcasts, music and started an audio book, taking in the scenery and passing the enshrouded Tongariro Mountain, wistfully… We got to Martinborough, a part of NZ’s wine country, got lunch and checked in to our AirBnB. We found out that with the weather being bad, the bridges to town were closing so we were glad we got in! We wanted to go to the winery with the best pinot noir in the country but they were fully booked. So, we went to another winery and they’d already closed for the day! 😦 We tried a third place, Palliser, and it was actually open! Yahoo! They have a famous pinot, too, so we had a nice tasting of that and some yummy white wines. We found one last winery that was open, Muirlea Rise, where the winemaker was super fun, entertaining and charismatic. When we first walked in, he asked, “Am I the only bloody winery open??” 🙂 It was fun. We then went to the Union Square Bistro in the Martinborough Hotel in the main square – one of the few places open for dinner that night – and it was tasty. (That day, we only walked 1.1 miles but we drove a lot so… Stop judging.)
The next day, we woke up, checked out of our place and got breakfast at the Village Cafe, in the main square, on our way out of town. We drove to Wellington, the capital, and parked our car in the deck connected to our AirBnB. (Which, we would be, ultimately, overcharged for, oops!) We walked to the Te Papa Museum (the national museum) and it was awesome. It had an amazing exhibit on NZ’s participation in WWI, which was very graphic, detailed and emotional. They also had a super cool exhibit on the Maori. We went to have lunch at TJ Katsu, a fun place where you can build your own sushi tray – such a good idea! We then looked around the Wellington Chocolate Factory and got tea and coffee at the super cute Leeds Street Bakery. We were then able to check into our sweet AirBnB, got settled and walked to the bus stop to ride to the Weta Workshop to see the design studio that made all of the props for the Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, etc. movies. It was super cool to see the props, the process, etc. We were geeking out. We went to dinner at a place nearby, Park Kitchen, a super cute and nice restaurant with really creative menu items, drinks & specials. We then took the bus back to town and got ice cream by our place – it was SOOOO good. They had some sorbet made from NZ fruits like golden kiwi and feijoa (like a guava) – YUM. We then went back to our place, did laundry and crashed. (We walked 4.7 miles, not too shabby.)
The next day, we headed out, got tea and coffee, and walked towards Parliament. On the way, Jon decided to stop at a game store that had a huge selection and we spent the next 30 minutes talking to the owner… (He was in heaven.) I managed to drag him away and we got to the government district. We saw the original parliament building, which is the second-largest, all-wood building in the world. We also saw the current cabinet, parliament and library buildings. We stopped for lunch at a local favorite amongst politicians, The Backbencher Gastropub, which was meh but very convenient. Then, we found the cable car (really, a funicular) and rode up to the top of town to get views of the city. (There are even people who have private cable cars to their homes. Seriously, Google the images.) We also went to the Cable Car Museum, which had information on the history of the system, as well as a replica of the original car. We stopped for a bubble tea at Noah’s Ark, naturally, and then we went back to our place. I relaxed while Jon went to watch a UNC game (which I was NOT interested in, obviously). Finally, we grabbed a quick dinner at an Italian restaurant nearby and then drove to Zealandia, an eco-sanctuary. Jon booked us an evening bird tour, which is not something I would necessarily pick to do, but it was really cool. This place is trying to restore their valley to the state it was in before humans arrived in NZ, 500 years ago, by preserving local vegetation, birds, etc. The tour went well into the evening and, despite being cold, it was really fun to see some nocturnal animals. We almost saw the national bird, the kiwi, but it’s very difficult to see. (We heard their call, at least…) We walked 5.7 miles on our last day in the North Island. Ok, ok, ok!
Stay tuned for the week three, where we traveled to the South Island on a ferry and started to explore some of the natural wonders down there.
– By Naama
**We walked 22.4 miles this week!**