Rain, wind and an average temperature of 10 degrees welcomed us to Auckland- which was definitely a shock to my system. I was wearing all my layers for the first few days as my body was adjusting to the “winter” weather in New Zealand. I didn’t have to be in NZ very long to notice all the 2011 World Cup Rugby advertisements, posters, merchandise and general paraphernalia plastered everywhere (WC Sep9 – Oct 23, Mark’s dad somehow got WC Final tickets, fingers crossed the All Blacks are in that game). NZ is the host country this year (last hosted in 1987, also coincidentally the last and only time NZ All Blacks team won) and the tournament starts September 9, so the countdown was on! This is quite strange since the All Blacks are consistently at the top of the world rankings each year, including the world cup years.
We were very fortunate to be staying with some of Mark’s family – Uncle John, Aunt Karen, and cousin Emma while we were in Auckland- and they were most welcoming and generous. The first couple of days, we were just so excited to be in a home, use tap water, take good showers, watch English TV, etc., that we did not leave their house for two days.
By the third day, we finally managed to make our way out into the city and explore the downtown and harbourfront as well as the national museum. The weather was a little gloomy, but you could still see that Auckland was a beautiful coastal city, built on a land of 50 dormant volcanoes. AKL is also home of the largest Polynesian population in the world and one of the few cities that has two harbours with major bodies of water (i.e. Pacific Oceanand Tasman Sea). The city is home for about one third of the NZ population at 1.4million people. We drove to a viewpoint at the top of Mt.Eden(one of the many dormant volcanoes in the city) one afternoon, and a huge rainbow arched itself across the city which was really beautiful; Mark was freaking out because it was a double rainbow. Mark and Emma were able to squeeze in a friendly tennis match – Mark did win, but Emma (who is 12 years-old) definitely showed her skill, so that next time when they have a re-match, I’m sure the result will be the other way around. We also did some bowling, Team NZ (John and Emma) vs. Team Canada(Mark and I), and I’m sad to report that Team Canada didn’t do so well. Although he claims he hasn’t been bowling in years, we were all convinced that John was spending some extra hours at the bowling alley recently because he was killing us with all these strikes in a row.
On our last day in Auckland, the sun was finally starting to show itself, so Mark, Emma and I went across the Tamaki Strait on the ferry to WaihekeIslandfor a relaxing walk around and to soak in the beautiful scenery. Six days later, we are off to explore the rest of the North Island of NZ in our rental car (which John helped us get at the bargain price of $12CAD a day!!!).
Within a couple of hours drive from Auckland, we were on the beautiful coast of Bay of Plenty where we located the famous Hot Water Beach in the small town of Hahei. Because of the natural thermal springs under this beach, if you dig a hole in the right spot at low tide, hot water will bubble up, leaving you with your own private natural hot water tub. With a mild and sunny day, and with the tide going out, it was a perfect day for this, so we hired a small shovel for a few dollars and proceeded to dig a hole in an area of the sand which we could feel was hot under our feet. We were warned that getting a comfortable pool of water would require some engineering, luck and perseverance, and I didn’t really know what people meant by this, but right after we started digging, we found out right away. After just a few feet of digging a very small hole, a little bit of water started bubbling up, but it was scalding hot (60C is spots)!!! We tried digging in a few other spots where we felt the hot sand under our feet, but it was that same boiling water that came up. We then started to experiment with that engineering we were told about, and dug trenches from our pool to the ocean in hopes of getting cold ocean water to funnel in – that didn’t work. We also resorted to using a bucket to transfer cold ocean water into our pool – that didn’t work either. Finally, after a long time, another couple saw us struggling and offered to share their pool with us, which had that nice comfortable temperature. We dug a little bit to expand their pool so we could all fit comfortably, but that didn’t help as that just resulted in scalding hot water seeping in on one side and very cold water on the other, so parts of the pool got really cold and then got really hot at unpredictable times. Both Mark and I left that beach with first degree burns on our feet and butts, but it was really fun and we stayed until the tide came back in and washed our pool away.
The next day, with the sun shining again, we took a nice walk to the much-photographed Cathedral Cove on another part of Hahei beach and then moved on to Coromandel Town. Even after only a few days on the road in NZ, I realized that driving itself is an attraction – the scenery is beautiful and it is hard not to pull over at every other park or viewpoint to enjoy the view and take pictures. In Coromandel Town, we took this train ride through a wild life sanctuary; the tracks and train were built by a NZ pottery artist in the 70′s – interesting and nice views.
Driving further south, we arrived in Rotorua or Sulphur City, where we were staying with Mark’s cousin, Monique, and her family (husband Koro of native Maori decent and their children Alex, Tamaku, Ihaia, and Awanuiarangi (aka Awa)). This city is nicknamed Sulphur City due to its pungent and unique egg smell as a result on being built on geothermal zone. We took note of it each day but locals noses I guess have adjusted to it and do not notice it much.
On the way into Rotorua, we had to Zorb, Rotorua being the birthplace of this odd activity. We decided on the wet Zorb option, which involved jumping head first into a giant transparent beach ball, the centre of which is filled with warm water, and then they close it up and roll you down the hill. Basically, the only way I can explain this is that it’s probably equivalent to being inside a washing machine. It doesn’t look like much when you watch other people go down the hill on this zig-zag track, but when you are inside that ball sliding away as it rolls down this hill, you are slipping and sliding with no control, and it is really fun.
After our Zorb experience, we were welcomed by Monique, Koro and the kids and they showed us around the Whakarewarewa Thermal Village (I have no idea how to pronounce that) where some of his family lives and gave as an introduction to Maori culture and the many geysers, thermal hot pools and mud pools in the area. Koro showed us someone’s traditional Maori hangi meal (meat and vegetables) being cooked in this pit dug in the ground, using thermal heat, and it looked and smelled delicious. The next day, we got better acquainted with Maori culture at the Tu Puia Arts & Crafts Institute where we visited the carving & weaving school and watched a Maori cultural performance. The performance included the Haka, which was traditionally performed by warriors before a battle, proclaiming their strength and prowess in order to intimidate the opposition, but has now been made famous by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, as they perform the Haka at the beginning of every match. Some of these Maori guys are really big, so when they do the Haka, it definitely is intimidating.
We took a small day trip from Rotorua to visit the glow worm caves of Waitomo. When we were in the caves on a small raft with hundreds of thousands of glow worms all around, it felt like we were in space, and it really was like nothing else I’ve seen before. Even better was that with every minute that went by, our eyes got more adjusted to the dark so the glow worms just got brighter and brighter.
Weather wasn’t great in Rotorua, but it wasn’t too cold or wet, and I was better acclimatized at this point, so it wasn’t too bad. Otherwise, we spent our time in Rotorua hanging out with Tamaku, Ihaia and Awa – we had a ton of fun with them.
Our last stop in the North Island of NZ was Wellington (the nation’s capital), where we stayed for a couple of days. The weather was brutal!!! Torrential sideways rain, sleet and wind – it was pointless using an umbrella because it would just be blown inside out, so we were generally soaked all day. Despite the weather, I really liked Wellington, there were lots of really cool shops, bars and restaurants. Over the couple of days we visited the Parliament buildings, the Te Papa Museum, took the old cable car up to the city viewpoint (although we couldn’t see a thing), visited some arts markets, and had a few beers at the local Mac’s brewery.
From Wellington, we were taking the Interislander ferry across the Cook Strait to the port town of Picton on the South Island. On the day of our departure, the rain and wind was still insane, which made for a very rough ferry ride. We were riding over swells that were 9m high and the largest ferry in the fleet at 22,000 tonnes was being tossed around the 100kph gusts. As a result, majority of the passengers were gripping onto vomit bags with their heads were between their legs and the ferry crew were working hard just to stop all of the cafeteria dishes and other fixtures on the ferry from crashing and falling over as we were getting rocked by the swells. Mark and I were well seasoned from our travels in South East Asia, so it was no problem for us ) Very abruptly, however, when we entered the Marlborough Sounds area on the South Island, we were sheltered from the weather, and the sun was shining. I felt like this was a good omen and I was very excited about visiting the South Island!!!
Other miscellaneous thoughts include: In terms of food, most of our diet consisted of sandwiches, pizza, meat pies, and fish & chips, as well as a healthy dose of chocolates and cookies, which is all good, but I was definitely beginning to miss my rice and noodles. Fresh produce is very expensive, like tomatoes were $12 CAD/kg and broccoli was $3 CAD per crown… ridiculous (the local kiwis attribute the high prices to the winter season, but groceries are generally more expensive in NZ). Gas was also outrageously expensive at about $1.75 CAD a litre. The backpacker places we were staying in NZ were amazing compared to what we were used to inSouth East Asia, and the price was reasonable at around $50-$65 a night for the two of us. On first meetings, Mark’s family members said they had to take a second look before they could tell it was him with that nest on his face. I am not good at reading maps and navigating, so fights often ensued when we are on the road and he’s driving and I’m struggling with the directions – I offered driving so that Mark could navigate, but Mark didn’t trust me driving on the opposite side of the road (not all Asians are bad at reading maps and driving though).