Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Day of Departing New Zealand

Just gathering up my things here. Last minute packing and pressing things down so they fit. I received notification that my departure change until an hour and a half later but that shouldn't affect things too much. My connecting flight from LAX to MSP is still a rediculous 12 hours later. I'll have to see if I can change that when I get to the States. So now I'm just taking in the last breaths of New Zealand air, listening to the unique bird songs and contending with departure anxiety.
I have to give a deep thanks to Rob and Kel for their abundant generosity. Thank you to their lodging, meals, information, company, kindness and time. Some three weeks is a great deal of time to give to anyone and they have been so very hospitable. Hope to return it someday I do.
I think I'll maintain this blog as an record of future adventures. This wonderful chapter however, is nearing it's final pages. I thought it quaintly appropo to the end with the image I started with. The first was a painting of the Shire as seen through the door of Bilbo's Bag-End. To those that know it signifies the road ahead that goes ever onwards and the unknown journey that lies beyond us. That first step from your Hobbit-hole is always the largest and always the most difficult. So I leave you with a picture taken from inside the door of New Zealand's Bag-End. The door through which I now leave. I miss my family and friends which are only a stone's throw away, the summer sounds of the East Side and my garden and koi at my own Bag-End. Soon to be with pipe in hand and gazing at wandering Wisteria. Hope to see you all as soon as I can! Cheers!

'Take care! I don't care. Don't you worry about me! I am as happy now as I have ever been, and that is saying a great deal. But the time has come. I am being swept off my feet at last...'
From "A Long Expected Party", The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Eating Kangaroo and Horseback Riding

On Monday I went on a solo daytime venture. Catching the bus from Albany to downtown Auckland, I found my way to the Sky Tower. It is the most noticeable landmark in Auckland, extending far up above the skyline and as you near it you can see the two guide cables which extend from the edge of its saucer to the ground platform. On non-windy days people get strapped in and dropped the hundreds of feet to the base. Not on a windy and wet day like today did I see anyone falling. I caught the link bus to the the museum. Getting to the right places caused some anxiety but I always found someone helpful to provide me with the correct info, minded the names of the stops and had 2 and 1 dollar coins ready in my pocket. One could pay in bills or cards if they needed but I wanted to be as uncomplicated as possible.
The entrance to the museum and the gardens was a long-ish walk, winding through other gardens and greens. The entire area was actually called the Auckland Domain, so I wasn't initially certain if I was entering a mental asylum or the museum. I paid a brief visit to the gardens, similar to the Como Conservatory and the walked around to the museum entrance, a large, traditional, column-faced entry with a memorial to "The Glorious Dead" out front and a Kiwi flag above.
The museum was a good one. The featured exhibit was on the Egyptian death ceremony and the other exhibits featured the Maori and islander history, natural history (which included the 9 foot Moa bird) and a beautiful and British-feeling level dedicated to all the Kiwis who served and died in war. I spoke for awhile to a Canadian girl who worked there, had something to eat and then decided to walk back to the center of Auckland. On the way I spent some time in the central cemetery, through which a bridge had been built. I continued my walk, taking in the ambiance and did some filming. I purchased two seasons of 'Bro Town,' a very funny cartoon produced down here, and a candy bar. I then caught the bus back to Albany and met up with Rob. We then went to Rob and Kel's kick-boxing class. After learning how to wrap up my knuckles it was then to an intense hour butt-kicking led by a navy combat trainer. It was very cool but very exhausting. I felt pukey but also quite enjoyed the martial arts aspects and drills. All my years of practicing my Ninja skills and sparring with Jim paid off. ;) Then, oh yes then, it was off to fill my Hobbit-tummy! We went to the Winebox where I had a great Kiwi meat trio of Ostrich, Kangaroo and Lamb. The ostrich and kangaroo had a beef-like texture and appearance and tasted like it as well with a somewhat gamey flavor. We drank Sauvignon Blanc.

Today I had chance to go horseback riding! Kel drove me to Muriwai beach where I met my guide. It was nice to have a guide all to myself. I donned a helmet and reflective vest but felt only half as dorky as when in my Waitomo cave uniform. We rode the volcanic black sands of Muriwai. The wind had whipped the waves up into a rhythmic, gentle, fury and the coast extended on and on. (Evidentally, both the beach and woods we would soon visit were featured in Lord of the Rings. I'll have to look that bit up, but it certainly felt of Middle Earth.) The paths through the woods felt of Fangorn forest. Wonderful. We trotted a bit, but I just don't have that down yet and I end with me goolies smarting. It was a great trip. Kel and I then visit where the gannet colony resides, a British shop and did some shopping for dinner. Tonight I thought I'd show them Tim's Cha Cha's White Chicken Chili. Rob is making enchiladas...and margaritas.
My Kiwi blogs are nearing their end. One more to go I think. I'm sad about it. Even focusing on annoying Kiwi idiosyncrasies doesn't make this leaving any easier. The magic is ever-present. The gum trees that silhouette almost every horizon, the casual fleece and hoodie culture of clothing, nature embedded into every moment of consciousness, the food, the Maori, well... another time. There is much that I am returning to and that thought makes me happy. I better help with the cooking and get off of this now. Good on ya.' Love you.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

From Whakatane to the Shire

Rob and I made our way down to Whakatane to stay will Kel's mum and shaggy black dog, Cindy. On our way we stopped at the Avaganda Vineyard to pick up some Feijoa sparkling wine, a favorite down here. New Zealand tends to have screw-top wine bottles since they have no cork industry, unlike Europe, which does. American wines are embracing plastic corks but time will tell if they go the screw-top way as well. Regardless, I think Feijoa wine is tasty. I have also discovered a new favorite soda (fizzy drink), called L & P - Lemon and Paeroa - "World Famous in New Zealand." End of that tangent. In Whakatane we were treated to Kels mum cooking lamb, potato, carrots in lemon and kumara (sweet potato), finished off with the classic Kiwi dessert (pudding), pavlova. Pavlova is a meringue topped with whipped-cream and fruit (most notably kiwis, of course). Aussies and Kiwis still fight over which country created this. Tasty, nonetheless! The next day we paid a visit to the Whakatane shore. The miles and miles of beach shore in New Zealand, which you have entirely to your lonesome, is really amazing. We spent some time photographing the waves and shoreline and made a visit to the statue of Wairaka. According to Maori legend, one of their canoes came to shore and the men went to scout out the land leaving women and supplies in the vessel. All of a sudden, the canoe was washed out to sea. As it was forbidden for women to paddle, all seemed lost. Just then Wairaka, a young Maori girl, said “Ka Whakatāne au i ahau” (“I will make myself a man”) and saved them all from destruction by rowing the boat ashore. You can see her image in the picture. In the background you can see Whale Island which proved to be an impressive presence out in the ocean. As you look out to sea you will occasionally find such an island. Since most island and mountains (often volcanoes) have Maori names, it becomes easy to lose track of which is which. Many names are actually pronounced different than spelled. For instance, since many places are called "faka"-this and "faka"-that, it became a lot of "faka"-ing places to put on English speaking maps. So, "F" was substituted with "Wh." Now you know that when you see a "Wh" on a Kiwi map it is correct to pronounce it as "F." Not a big Whaking-deal. Sorry, had to.
After some fish and chips it was down to Taupo, then Tuarangi for some fly fishing. Fortunately for Rob and I, all that we had to rent was waders as his friend Brent kitted us up with fly rods, reels and other necessities for fly fishing. The first late afternoon was unproductive for everyone, even Andrea an Italian fishing dynamo from Venice. But it was fun to be out in the river, fly casting and getting comfortable. The next day was as windy as the day before but also mixed with more rain. Most quit early and this helped Rob and I to decide on heading back to Rotorua for a Maori experience. That night we took a tourist bus to the Tamiki Maori village and got to see the traditional Maori greeting ritual, some of what many of you have seen before, with the antagonistic gestures of Maori, complete with yells, wide-eyes and tongue protrusion. Keep in mind, the first white people to attempt a landing in New Zealand were beaten to death by the Maori. Those remaining Dutchmen thought twice about returning. After watching many performances and songs (which included the haka, of course) we were treated to a nice feast.

The next day we visited some of the geothermal activity of this region- hot springs, mudpots and steamy fumeroles and left for Mata Mata. It was here that Peter Jackson selected a sheep farm resembling Tolkien's description of the Shire in Lord of the Rings for use in his movie. We did indeed feel like geeks boarding the Hobbiton tour bus, but oh it was so entirely worth it! After riding the dirt road flanked by thousands of sheep our tour guide introduced us to the movie set. Many lush green hills, ornamented with different species of trees. Unfortunately, New Line Cinema (who owned the rights to the film) said that all sets had to be removed and that even the planting of Hobbit gardens was prohibited. So, in their place were white Hobbit-hole facades. But the locations were all the same as were the natural elements such as hills, lakes, trees, etc. It was magical to see the Party Tree which featured prominent in the films and walk the same stone steps to Bag-End as were there in the movie. I had to place the One Ring on the stairs for a shot. Just had to. Believe me, we were quite conservative compared to what some people have done. But heck, the books and movies have made so many people immensely happy. Why would one find fault in that?

I send you all the warmest of Hobbit tidings and look forward to the time we speak again. "The Road Goes Ever On..."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

From Dalai to the World's End

On Sunday we took in the open market in Auckland. There you could find many different merchants selling produce, pies and seafood, arts and crafts, and any other item you could imagine. I bought a small pie and had a taste of raw sea urchin. After a stop at Jester's pie shop it was off to see the Dalai Lama. He spoke in the Vector Arena, a brand new stadium where the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the first to perform only weeks ago. The Dalai was a jovial, laughing character, speaking about compassion and kindness, reminding us to focus on "we" instead of "I," to separate the wrong-doing from the wrong-doer and that attachment is what can bring us suffering. I liked the red visor he wore. He reminded me mostly of Yoda.
Then it was up to the coast where we checked into our small cabin or "bach." It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and futon. We then caught some sleep for the next day's dive. The following morning we headed down to the marina where we found our skipper and dive master. We filled out our forms, had some tea and then the engines fired up and we were off. It had been very choppy lately and this would be the first dive our guides had been out in since a week previous. Well, there was plenty of swell and chop for us as well! It was something! I couldn't contain the joy of the ocean within me, as the boat rose up upon the crest of one huge wave and then down like a roller coaster into the trough. The adventure in the open sea, with waves higher than our boat and playful seagulls following in our wake made one feel a small but integral part of this enormous beauty. I captured a bunch on my video camera. Rob and Kel were quite sick pretty quickly and I knew I would be sick eventually too, but dang, I smiled and even sung, drowned out by the sounds of the engine, wind and sea.
As we came up to the island, a high-cliff faced formation surrounded by smaller islets, you could see the vegetation which crowned the tops as well as the gannets which swung out from the cliff face. Our skipper brought us into an enormous sea cave of which our dive master said was the largest in the world and he accentuated this point by dropping a weight belt upon the aluminum decking of our boat so that we could be witness to the 8-second echo. It was really cool, to be on a boat in the middle of this enormous cavern! Then we were out again to find a diving spot. They attempted to find us the calmest spot they could but unfortunately for Rob and Kel it provided good swell and a chance for them to empty their tummies as well. we
got into our gear and jumped in. The coldness of the water took my breath away and I had some trouble getting a sufficient draw on my regulator. I was very cold. Unlike the others I had no hood and my rental dive suit was made of swiss cheese. But there was nothing for it but to drop down below and there we were. A kelp-like plant grew everywhere and swayed back and forth with the tide as fishies swam here and there. We saw a stingray in the rocks beneath us and many, many sea urchins as well. There were rocky crevices and coves and as we rose the swell greated us once again. I had worried about my air as some 30 feet below I saw that my air gauge was at '0' and after surfacing I drew the last shallow breaths of air from my tank - not a pleasant experience. I grabbed onto the ladder and did my best to climb up on the pitching boat. That pitching was all the encouragement I needed and I barfed and fed the fishies as well. That was my only contribution but it was good enough for me. As I came on deck I had a nasty headache and decided I would sit the next dive out. Normally, I would have given it a go, but not this time. Up on deck Rob and Kel were in rough shape and wanted to get off the boat and into the water as soon as they could, and did. This time alone gave me the chance to chat with the skipper about the sea, life and everything else I've been aching to have some time to speak with a Kiwi about. For me, it was probably the highlight of the dive trip.
When Kel and Rob boarded the boat we shot on back through the choppy seas. They fed the fish some more and I went to sleep as a refuge from my deep greeness. Back at our bach I had a sandwich, slept and then we woke feeling a bit better. Heading down to the marina we had dinner. I had an incredible, big bowl of chowder and some blue nose fish. Back at our place I went star gazing for a bit,videoed the Southern Cross for everyone to see and then retired.
The next day Kel headed back down to Auckland and Rob and I went to find the furthest northern tip of New Zealand, Cape Reinga. Most roads in New Zealand are nothing more than a paved, two-lane path with no shoulder, that often weaves back and forth and back and forth at a nauseating rhythm. However, the scenery is like nothing on earth as it is green farm field after rolling green farm field, tropical woods or views of expansive vistas, out into the the wave battered coasts. We stopped several times for pictures of surfers, coastlines or other such things. Finally, after a long drive, indebted to Rob, I am, we came upon it. The Maori refer to this as the place were souls leave to the after life. It isn't very hard to believe that when you are there. It is the edge of the world, or feels like it. Here the seas merge. Here the last fingers of coast extend out to the great Pacific. Here, the spirits of the dead ascend to the afterlife.
We then departed to catch the sun setting over the coast. We raced down to the sand dunes which are supposed to be the largest on the planet. So, lead by Rob's eagerness we climbed the immense dunes. They were fantastic! In the setting of the sun and the dusk the mountains of sand were like something out of a dream. One at the top we took many pictures, gave a last look at the northern sea and then departed back. Once gain, Rob piloted his vehicle, bringing us back the many miles to Auckland. We did stop for some 'Hell' pizza, though.

Next, fly fishing in Taupo and a visit to the geothermals at Rotorua.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Through Limestone Tubes to the All Blacks

Quite tired! It is 2:30 in the morning and we woke at 4:30am to make the drive to Waitomo Caves for our "Haggas" adventure. The Waitomo caves are a series of water-carved tunnels in which little worms dangle and glow in the dark. In the pitch black they look like the starry sky above you. After donning our gear of wetsuits, helmet and headlamp, gummy boots and climbing harness, the group of 12 of us were trained in on how to abseil, or in our terminology, repel, using a specially designed abseil. We then went single-file down into the fern encircled hole, repelled some 60ft down a shaft and began our exploration of the caves. We repelled through waterfalls and slid and slithered through shafts. Sometimes you found yourself on your stomach, and sometimes we were climbing up slick walls. At one point we had to tuck up and drop down a shaft into a roaring pool and then pass through a waterfall. The most challenging part was being told to duck down into the water underneath a low ledge, not knowing when you would surface in the tube ahead of you. It was cold, wet, slimey, roaring water (at times) and could be quite clausterphobic, but I was having a great time while I was doing it. Anyone could really do it and it helped having a group along. It had a Rambo rating of 8/10 and a glow worm rating of 6/10. It was very cool! You can see some dorky pics of me.

The next stop was back to Hamilton to watch the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team trounce the Canadians. It was quite an experience. A beautiful stadium and entertaining show. The country loves its rugby like a religion and the fans were very involved but not fanatical.

I will include some pictures. I apologize for the jumbled sentences. Sleep is calling but I really wanted to get this out to people before I left town. Tomorrow we head to see the Dalai Lama speak and then to Poor Knights for some diving at a location Jacques Cousteau marked as one of his top 5 in the world. I'm doing well though it is chilly and humid here and have yet to be significantly warm. Looking forward to returning to the heat I am missing so much! I will try to check back in two days or so. I'll give my regards to the fishies for you!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Mission Bay and Mount Victoria

Today we spent time on the north shore of Auckland. We booked a night kayak to Mount Rangitoto for next Sunday and had a proper espresso at an Italian-owned cafe. In fact, the Mission Bay community must be somewhat of a "Little Italy," as there were at least six Italian cafes and restaurants. We walked along the beach, caught some pictures of Oyster Catcher birds and then caught some seafood chouder at an Italian joint named...'Andreas.'

Then it was too the top of Mount Victoria, a spent volcano now covered with grass, atop of which there was old military fortifications to protect against the expansion of the Russians many years ago. It afforded us the chance to take quite a few pictures of Auckland and I had to take advantage of the Middle Earth-feel to take at LOTR pic. Then, we walked the shops of Takapuna. Tonight we are off to an Italian place and I'll fill you in later. Hope you all are well. Thinking of you.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Watchtower of Amon Suil

Just returned from Weathertop. The cool thing is, we found it! And although we made the courageous attempt to reach it, there were many factors that forced us to turn away! Out of Auckland we stopped at the Autobahn and I had some bangers, mash, peas and gravy. Then we traveled the Kiwi roads from Poketo to Tuakua and finally to Port Waikato. Once pass the Bombay Hills south of which, according to a Kiwi acquaintence, no good 'Flat-White' coffees can be found, we entered into country which immediately feels of Middle Earth. The greenest of hills, trees and hedges populated by sheep and cattle.
After some time of twisty lanes, some cutting straight through grassy hills, we entered a land full of limestone outcroppings. Many of these hinted at what we were looking for, the pedestal-like formation used in Fellowship of the Ring. Then, Rob spotted it. After some driving around, looking for the best access, we decided to brave the moist jungle-like tree line and down into the deep, moist valley. Much wet, slippery and sheet shite ground we slid down, always mindful of the watchful eye of an angry land-owner. The sentries were present and sounded their bleeting alarm. Hundreds and hundreds of sheep which would scatter off, bleeting and telegraphing their panic for at least a mile away. We made a best attempt. But thinking about the chaos we would cause in our attempt to see some piece of rock in a movie, we did what we needed to do and left the sheep alone and tramped back, feeling somewhat defeated, to our waiting vehicle.
So, we found it, but did not conquer it. Perhaps next time it would be good to ask the farmer if we could walk to it. It is a thought. It was a good adventure nonetheless.
Check the pics of Weathertop. One is from the movie, one is from our journey.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Of Auckland and Yarpies

Hello, hope all is well with everyone back in the States. Tuesday ended with an Indian meal prepared by Rob and Kel - 'Money Bags' which are chicken, garlic, coriander and black pepper twisted up in filo and dipped in a vinegar, sugar, garlic and chili sauce, Tom Yum soup, which is chicken, lemon grass, Thai ginger, chicken stock, mushrooms, etc., and Feijoa wine. A bit of spice but also heavenly. Sleep came too quickly and it has been difficult not to fall asleep around 10pm and wake around a quarter to 5.

On Wednesday we cruised around Auckland. First though, I accomplished one of my goals - eating and enjoying marmite and vegitmite. That is what was for breakfast. Rob and I out, booked a dive at Poor Knights, ate some sushi, stopped at Border's book store where I was able to get a star planisphere of the southern hemisphere, walked through Victoria park which was reminiscent of Pike's Place in Seattle, ate a fish pie and drank some P&J lemon drink at Jester's, a little fast-food type shop and eventually met up with Rob and Kelhi's friends at Occidental, a Belgium restaurant which served Leffe beer and Green-Lipped mussels! A big ol' pot I had, seasoned in garlic and onion.

Some observations: Auckland seems a bit like Seattle, both in climate (at this time of year) and in the general demeanor of the people. You see mostly white Kiwi's, also known as Pakeha, many south and east Asian's and smatterings of Mauri and other islanders. In conversation with some Kiwi's you also get the ethnic classification I've seen to be a trait of many Anglo's. One of these tensions is between 'regular' Kiwi's and what some call 'Yarpies' or the South African's, which account for the largest immigrant population to New Zealand. Needless to say, such classifications carry on into other groups as well.

Well, I will update more later. Today, we are headed out to find Weathertop! This location was used for the Watch Tower of Amon Suil in the Fellowship of the Ring. In actuality it is just a limestone out-cropping in the middle of farmer's field. Nonetheless, the adventure will bring us out into some real New Zealand outback. Somewhat uncertain on how we will identify it once we get there, but here we go nonetheless! Cheers!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Kia Ora!

Well, I'm here! In Albany, Auckland, New Zealand. The trip went quite smoothly, the 13-hour Qantas leg being the favorite. With 3 seats to myself, a digital library of music, movies and TV to choose from and pretty decent meals, Qantas offered a comfortable traveling experience. I slept most of the way, nodding in and out of consciousness as I stared out of the portal window watching the constellations turn up-side down. An astronomers delight! My mp3 phone offered a wonderful audio-accompaniment. The seat-back TV also offered a flight tracking option as can be seen in the pic.

After traveling beneath the Kia Ora greeting, I claimed my bag and found my friend Rob waiting for me. The pre-dawn atmosphere was wet but comfortable. We jumped in his CRV, after I mistakingly tried to get in the driver-side. This is a mistake I've made twice more since then. (The Kiwis drive on the opposite side we do, you see.) We then went to his and Kelhi's charming flat in Albany Auckland. After catching up we hit one of their favorite cafes for breakfast. I couldn't help but notice the symbol of New Zealand, the Silver Fern, sketched in the foam of my 'flat-white' latte.

The place is full of living green. Trees and vegetation are quite lush, even in this winter-time clime. Right now I've some down-time to watch the birds play outside Rob and Kel's patio and send you all and update.

Tonight they made me some massaman curry!

May Tuesday greet you as well as it has New Zealand! :)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Eve of Departure

Well then, here we are! Busy packing and sorting my bags. Excited for the journey ahead. Thanks to everyone and their blessings. A new adventure is about to begin...