Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Finishing it off in Auckland

Thursday, May 19
North Island

Thursday morning we left Rotorua for our last stop in New Zealand, Auckland. We were both sad the New Zealand part of the trip was nearly over, but we were also looking forward to exploring Hong Kong on our way back to Germany. 

On the way to Auckland we drove through the small town of Tirau. Though the main stretch through town was short and its roadside shops limited, we had to stop when we saw this unique building, and those people who knew Heidi will know why.  

There had recently been a celebration of veterans from the area, and red banners devoted to their remembrance lined the road hanging from the street lamps. 

I stood across the street from this enormous likeness of my dear baby girl and had to laugh. It was strange and a little comforting, though there's no logical reason I can see for the latter. We joked that Heidi was so beloved that upon hearing of her passing, the people of Tirau hurriedly built this monument to her, knowing, of course, that we'd be passing through. The red banner reading, "We'll Always Remember" hanging in front of her only fed that fantasy.

When it was time to get back on the road, I paused a moment to say goodbye to the big white dog of Tirau, and in that, took a small step toward saying the same to her.

When we got to Auckland we were a little tired, a little bummed to already be there, and unsure of what exactly we wanted to do in this city. So since the rest of the trip had been so busy, we took it easy in Auckland. We walked the streets up into the artsy part of town to find dinner, and we strolled around by the docks. Sometimes the best way to see a city is just to walk it and absorb its life, and we were okay with toning it down a bit here.

It turned out Kristin and Matt were in town the same weekend so we met up with them at an Irish pub by the water for some drinks and conversation. Matt is from Auckland, and much of his family still lives there, so they were spending one last week with them before moving to the States to start their married life together.

The next day we checked out and stored our bags, then set out to get one last day in before our late flight to Hong Kong.

Auckland's Sky Tower is probably the city's most recognizable structure. There's a jump you can do from the Sky Tower's top deck and it looked crazy! I wanted to do it at first, plunge toward the city below from this staggering height, but decided against it in the end. I'd already had some amazing adventures on this trip, funds and energy were a little low by that point, and we still had Hong Kong to go.

This was a fun wine bar we came across downtown called The Library. Hey, it was our vacation so we indulged! I loved that the whole place was packed with books so that if you wanted, you could read while you lounged on the cushy, velvety couches with your glass of cabernet.

We stayed a couple hours... 

After a laid back day of strolling and lounging, we met up with Kristin and Matt one more time. The plan was to get dinner together, after which they offered to drive us to the airport, which was great. We drank hard cider, ate yummy food, and laughed at how weird and cool it was to be having dinner with each other and our husbands in New Zealand 10+ years after high school. Who'da thought?

One of the finer points of any trip, in my opinion, is the personal touch brought by sharing time with friends. Our trip to New Zealand was book-ended by hanging out with an old friend and her new husband, two very cool people who added another dimension of enjoyment to an already amazing trip.

We weren't ready to leave when the time came to board the plane, but such is life and most things enjoyable, right? We absolutely loved our time in this incredible place, and though we may never make it back for another go, we can dream. The sense of adventure was only rivaled by the sheer and raw (and varied) beauty of the land and the people we met, and we could not have asked for a better experience. And even though we lost Heidi while on the east coast of the south island, when I think of the town of Kaikoura, instead of sadness I feel gratitude for the love we received there in the wake of our grief.

I'm not sure how this trip could ever be topped. Hong Kong!

Monday, August 15, 2011

An Evening with the Maori

Wednesday night, May 18
North Island

After racing back to Rotorua from Whakatane, we missed our pick up by less than 5min! Luckily, the lady at the hotel called and the bus driver was willing to make another swing by the hotel. We were soon on our way to the Tamaki Maori Village, a reconstructed, historically accurate village of this indigenous tribe. Our driver was awesome; she was kind and funny, and extremely personable, making us feel welcome and excited about the whole evening.

Our night would include a traditional Maori welcome, where tribe members put on a display for the visitors of strength and power, then lay down a peace offering. Our visiting tribe chief (he was an American who won the vote on the bus) and the one from the other group of visitors accepted the offering and then we were allowed to follow them into the grounds of the village.

Within the village were areas explaining important aspects of tribe life, including games, facial tattooing, food preparation, and story-telling.

As it was freezing, we hurried through and listened to each tribe member explain about their heritage.

After our time in the village, we were invited into the meeting house where the members of the Tamaki tribe put on a fantastic show of singing, dancing, and synchronized performances. They told us stories from their history and explained the purpose for the terrible faces the men sometimes made, eyes wide, tongue out. This was meant to intimidate one's opponent by making himself as ugly and scary as possible. 

After the show, we walked into the food preparation tent where our feast was dug out from the hole in which it'd been cooking all day. Maori tradition called for digging a hole in the ground for cooking. They stacked the food, then covered it all back up with vegetation, burlap, and dirt. We watched as the visiting tribes' chiefs got to help unearth the food.

After that, we were led into the dining hall where we were treated to a buffet style Maori feast, complete with chicken, lamb, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and even mussels. The bar was also open and we were able to have some not so traditional drinks :) The evening had been fun, and we ended it sitting with some very nice people. Two sitting right next to us, Chief Alexander and his wife (from the other visiting tribe) turned out to be from Edinburgh, a place we visited last summer and absolutely loved. We had plenty to talk about and even swapped email addresses, as Chris and I would be visiting Edinburgh in August for the Fringe Festival.

On the ride back to our respective hotels, our driver and guide had someone from each country represented on our bus belt out some sort of common song from their homeland - it was hilarious and extremely diverse! We had people from Germany, USA, France, Holland, Japan, Singapore, Australia...I'm sure I'm forgetting someone. After everyone had their turn (Chris and I sunk into our seats and let the other Americans do the singing), the driver said she wanted to lead us all in an old American favorite we were all sure to know. As she neared a nice round-about, she let us know we'd be singing every verse all the way through, and we wouldn't stop until we had. And so we drove around that traffic circle over and over...and over and over as we all sang, "She'll Be Coming 'round the Mountain." No one got sick, and everyone had a good laugh over it.

Walking on a Volcano: White Island

Wednesday, May 18
North Island

Wednesday morning we were on the road at an obscene hour to make it to the coastal town of Whakatane to make our tour of White Island, New Zealand's only active marine volcano. We seemed to be racing a blue Toyota all the way from Rotorua, and when pulled into the parking lot by the harbor, we were all happy to have made it in time.

Maori culture has a hand in the origin stories of many of New Zealand's towns, and Whakatane is one of these. It is said that while the men of Mataaua Canoe went ashore for the first time, the women had to remain in the boats without the use of paddles, as this was seen as a man's tool. The canoes began to drift back out to sea and instead of allowing herself and the other women be lost with them, the brave young woman Wairaka stepped up and grabbed a forbidden paddle to get the canoe back to shore, shouting that she would act as a man, "Kia Whakatane au i ahau." Emboldened by her decision, all the women took up paddles and saved themselves and all the canoes. This is where Whakatane got its name, or so the story goes. The bronze statue of Wairaka stands proudly atop a rock at Whakatane Heads to pay tribute to this courageous act.

Above, the boat passing by an island designated as a kiwi refuge to help save the endangered bird.

White Island is about 50km off the coast, which made for a high speed boat ride of about an 80min, which I absolutely loved. There's something about being out on open, water flying over the sea's churning waves that fills me with a freeness of spirit few other experiences bring. I would have been happy to ride that boat all day long, given the rain held out.

To the left was our first view of White Island in the distance waiting for us beneath some rather ominous looking clouds on a silver sea.

As we neared the island, a pod of dolphins came racing across the water to meet our boat, accompanying us for the last stretch of the journey. You'd think I'd never seen a dolphin before the way I leaned over the rail to snap as many pictures as I could, enamored by these playful creatures.

The closer we got to White Island, the better we could see that the low-hanging clouds surrounding it weren't clouds at all, but the island's rising steam. What I found most beautiful were the colors of this place, starting with the lush green edges where rock met sea.

The boat dropped anchor and everyone got ready to take turns boarding the smaller boat that would shuttle us to the concrete dock on the island. Years ago, as this island is a rich source of sulfur, there was once a mining camp and this dock was left from that time. Chris and I were on the second to last shuttle run to get to the island.

Once on the beach of the island we handed over our life jackets, but had to keep the hard hats on for the duration of our time there, as volcanic eruptions are always a possibility. We were also  required to carry gas masks in case the fumes got too overwhelming.


Welcome to White Island!

In case of an eruption, please stay calm and make your way as quickly as possible back to this meeting spot to await further instruction.

Steam rose from vents in the earth all around us, out of white and yellow mounds, cracks in the ground, and gaping holes we had to be careful to avoid. One thing was for sure immediately: this was way more exciting than Craters of the Moon!

Luckily for us, the rainclouds held back their fury (until the ride home) and allowed for a bright blue and sunny sky while we walked the island, making for a beautiful backdrop to the clouds of steam.

The bright yellow and white areas on the ground, we learned, were sulfur crystals, something they used to mine here. Cutting here and there across an otherwise dry and brown landscape were tiny rivers of rainwater and sulfur - yum!

I think perhaps the reason this place was so much more exciting and more alien looking than our first crater experience was because it was just so massive. We were walking inside an enormous volcanic crater filled with steaming, bubbling, and hissing natural gases. Nothing can live in this space, as it's much too acidic to support life within the crater walls. It was an eerie world out there, and we loved every minute.

Below, a dry riverbed with a floor of sulfur crystal growth. The colors in the layers of earth visible on the walls were beautiful, and we tried to imagine a river this large in this place.

This was the only time we were pushed by the heavy odor to don our gas masks. Behind me (and in the picture below) was a green sulfur lake sunken down at the base of the mostly yellow rock,  but it was difficult to see for the rolling steam on its surface. If you couldn't see it right away, your nose let you know how close you really were.

The wind really picked up as we began making our way back toward the shore where our chariot awaited. It'd really been a beautiful day out there, but the rainclouds were getting anxious.

Above, boiling mud pools.

To the left, a sulfur snack! Our guide talked to us at length about pure sulfur, and even invited us to try a taste. I didn't try any, but Chris said it tasted like nothing.

 Back where we'd begun was the devastated remains of the mining camp that once was. Rusted equipment still sits near the coast, and the stone and concrete walls of the buildings are there to remind us of the mysterious tragedy that ended the lives of the men who worked here.

A boat made regular visits to bring the miners food and supplies. There was an eruption, and the supply boat was delayed. Upon its arrival, the island was found to be completely deserted, most of the camp even gone. The theory was that when the volcano blew, a great wave of rock and debris simply washed the camp and its men right out to sea, never to be seen again.

We walked around the ruins and tried to imagine living out here for months at a time.

The ride home was a little bumpy as the clouds finally opened up and let loose a nice rainstorm. They served us lunch and I think half the people on the tour ended up falling asleep in their seats, us included.

The sun was there to welcome us back to Whakatane an hour and a half later, and though we would have liked to take a stroll around the town, we had to hit the road straight away in order to get back to Rotorua for our evening plans. Still, though bookended by a little rushing, it was a gorgeous and exciting (albeit stinky) day.