01 May 2015

The Khagan Fortnightly: Ringing Up Tabs Since 2015 (2:9 – 22/04/2015)

Way Up North
The past two weeks have been one long adventure on the North Island. We visited many places along the way and more or less circumnavigated the sucker, minus most of the west coast as well as the area north of Auckland.

A troll almost stepping on me at the Weta Cave.
We began our journey north by heading on a five hour drive to Picton, the ferry port between the two islands. The boat ride was uneventful but the screaming kids did grate a little. We got into Wellington at about 10:00 pm—it was dark, rainy, and almost impossible to see. We realised quickly that while people talk up the wind in Wellington (we didn't notice it being overly windy), they don't emphasise enough the mountainous nature of the city. The city is situated between three bays that have experienced millennia of tectonic activity. In many places, there are little communities in tight valleys, while houses are on every conceivable location, including the very impractical. Our Air BnB was in one of these homes, with a beautiful view of the city, but we feared for our lives in case the long-awaited earthquake hit while we were there. Fortunately, it did not. We spent our first rainy day at the Te Papa Museum, which is the national museum of New Zealand. It was very well done and I highly recommend it to visitors passing through. That evening, we met up with our brief homestay roommate Sam, who moved there a few months back, and we chatted over dinner and snacks. Our second day was not raining...much...so we visited the Zeelandia wildlife park and then ventured downtown to the Trolley Museum. There wasn't much at the museum, unfortunately, but we did take a ride on the trolley. That also wasn't as impressive as we'd expected. It is more Shadowbrook Restaurant tram and less San Francisco trolley than we were expecting. We went for a walk downtown, but the area was a mess and we decided to cut our losses and return to the homestay.

The next two nights were spent at the small town of Turangi where we stayed at a hostel that had an overly friendly dog as its namesake. The hostel wasn't terrible, but it could have been better, too. Our full day there was spent venturing up to Tongariro National Park and hiking around the volcanoes, which fortunately appeared for some photographs before falling behind the clouds again.

Bubbling mud pots in downtown Rotorua.
Following Turangi, we spent a single night at the relatively nearby town of Rotorua, which is literally situated in the middle of a massive volcano. The thing blew up in 1886, destroying some amazingly beautiful sulphur terraces that were located on either side of a then-small lake. The eruption destroyed most of the terraces and deluged the rest, flooding much of the valley around the town. Today, the town is a tourist haven that attracts fans of volcanoes and hot springs alike. They have heat vents and bubbling mud literally everywhere in town, and apparently homes regularly fall into new vents that open up. The town also smells terrible, but it is definitely a place to check out. We went to the museum there which used to be a large Victorian bath house, and this isn't the giant swimming pool kind of bathhouse—this thing actually had a bunch of single-person baths in it. They catered to the sick and wealthy and tried to cure ailments with sulphur, mud, or any other tectonic treatment they could think up. The museum was one of the unexpected treats of the trip.

Bilbo Baggin's home at the top of Bagshot Row, Hobbiton.
On our way to Auckland, we finally stopped at Matamata and the Hobbiton Movie Set, but it was pouring rain for our entire visit, which was very unfortunate. The rain stopped just as our tour was ended. To be honest, the tour is a bit overhyped. The hobbit holes are awesome and the scenery amazing—I have a high respect for Peter Jackson's ability to visualise and create a set—but the tour was just done all wrong. Besides the rain, there were people everywhere and the whole thing was treated like a series of photo stops. It was literally, 'Take your photo, move along. Take your photo, move along.' Nobody was in costume; the actual stories told by the tour guides were rather basic, direct, and uninteresting; and there was no Lord of the Rings or Hobbit music playing on the set or in the bus (the bus was playing 1990s pop, of all things!). It just didn't give us the feeling we were hoping it would. And the gift shop was fun because of all the merchandise, but there was no theming at all. In contrast, the Weta Cave in Wellington, which we visited but didn't tour, felt like it knew its origins and the whole place just exuded Lord of the Rings and Jackson's other films. The two locations were in utter contrast to each other.

A sleeping tiger at the Auckland Zoo. All the animals were out that day (except the kiwis!).
Auckland itself was rather uneventful. The Air BnB there was pretty terrible, though it's large tv was a bonus. They crammed a queen sized bed on a full-sized frame that was the lower half of a very squeaky bunk bed. The kitchen was lacking in many important things, more prominently a microwave. And ants invaded the second night following a day of rain. It just was all kind of lame. Our first day out we out to the Auckland Zoo, which was very fun. All the animals were out because of the light rain, including the big cats. I highly recommend this zoo to zoo lovers. The red pandas were really cute. Our second day was a boat ride and hike on Rangitoto Island out in the bay. Prior to the boat, we also checked out the nearby art museum, which had a fun collection of paintings and other forms of art. Our last day was supposed to be a study day, but we spent much of it at the MOTAT (Museum of Transport and Technology) were we got to ride a historic streetcar and view some very large historic airplanes. Auckland as a whole was a success, but the city was less impressive than I expected.

A recreated city street at the MOTAT Museum, Auckland
Our ride back to Christchurch was long and meandering with a bunch of single nights at various east coast towns. The first day we headed around the Coromandel coast where we stopped at the Driving Creek Railway and rode up to the top of the hill. The railroad was built by a potter, of all people, who needed to get clay down from the hillside. Over the years, he kept lengthening the track and began running passenger lines. The track and everything on it were built by him and his small team of workers over the past 40 years, which is pretty amazing. The thing includes three tunnels and a bunch of bridges. After that, we headed to the famous Cathedral Cove where the heavily-photographed sail rock is located just outside the afore-referenced cathedral cave. The hike was long and there were a lot of people there, but the view was delightful and beautiful. We stayed the night at Tauranga, where it began to rain well into the following afternoon. Not the best time, but the Air BnB was nice, at least.

The Driving Creek Railway, showing the side of the train and one of the switchbacks, Coromandel.
A teracota tunnel constructed along the Driving Creek Railway, Coromandel.

A Driving Creek Railway passenger train, named "Snake", Coromandel.
One of the beautiful sea rocks on the Coromandel Peninsula.
Our next two stops were really more waypoints. We headed south to Gisbourne late after a hike with Kara's friend/student. There really was nothing there worth visiting (mostly outdoor stuff) so we moved out early the next day for our next stop: Napier. Napier was destroyed in a terrible earthquake in the early 1930s and rebuilt in an entire art deco style, which is absolutely crazy! My Aunt Klinda and my mom would love it. We got there early, checked out the Napier Aquarium, and then walked downtown. For some reason, everything is pretty much closed in these towns this time of year. I mean, even restaurants aren't open passed about 2:00. We ended up having to eat at Dominos Pizza of all places!

Downtown Napier, showing a few of the art deco buildings. We stupidly didn't take any better ones. Sorry!
The next day we headed south to Wellington for the ferry back to Picton. We stopped at a few Lord of the Rings locations in the Upper Hutt valley, but they ended up being less impressive than we were hoping. New Zealand still hasn't really figured out the whole people-love-Lord-of-the-Rings thing, so they really make it hard to search for these film sites. Our ferry back was much shorter than the ferry over and more relaxing. In Picton, we had a nice hostel to stay out and we headed out early the next day for home. On our way home, we stopped at two locations to check out fur seal colonies, both near Kaikoura. The northerly site has a little steam where the seal pups like to go and jump around beneath a waterfall. Idyllic is really the only word to describe this adorable display of youthful play. Just outside of the town itself, another colony sits on a peninsula and a little seal pup tried to come up to us, presumably for us to pet it. We didn't, but boy was the little thing cute. Another teenage pup was crashed out on the wooden walkway, not caring one bit about the people cooing over it.

The park through which Gandalf and Sauruman walk in Isengard in The Fellowship of the Ring.
And that was pretty much our two week trip to the North Island! I hope you enjoyed the photos.

The Southern Alps at Kaikoura, where they reach the Pacific Ocean.

Seal pups playing beneath a waterfall near Kaikoura.

The True Kiwi
Searching for kiwis is a strangely difficult task in New Zealand. Since they are an endangered species (and there are six species of kiwi), they are not found easily. We've already been to numerous places, in fact, that have kiwis, but we never even saw a trace of one yet. The North Island has more kiwis, but our search for one was still difficult. At Zealandia, we found that the daylight and openness of the park protected them, but also allowed them to sleep through the day (they're nocturnal, naturally). At the Auckland zoo, we discovered that they had multiple kiwi in an exhibit that flipped day and night. Yet the exhibit was still so dark that even if there were kiwi in there (we think we saw one's feet), they were out of sight and ignoring us. Finally, out of all places, we discovered that the Napier Zoo had a single large kiwi on exhibit, also with flipped day/night cycles. But we got there in the simulated morning, when the exhibit was somewhat illuminated, and right there, searching for bugs in the middle of the exhibit, was a class A kiwi bird.

These creatures are much larger than you may imagine, about a foot tall and round like a kiwifruit. They also are surprisingly fidgety. The one there was pecking around everywhere for foot scraps in the ground. And it found some, too, because it kept eating stuff it found. But also was pacing around frantically, which may have been because of the exhibit, or the simulated day, or who knows what. In any case, very strange creature and one of the weirdest birds ever. You've got to try and see one if you're in New Zealand, although results vary.

Burning Bacon
During our journeys, we did the almost impossible: we hardly ate out at all! That's right, we carted around our bag of pre-cooked bacon and eggs and other not-so-cooked comestibles. It wasn't always easy to accomplish and we broke down a few times, especially near the end of the trip, but overall we saved a bunch of money on not eating out. As a reward, we had a lot of ice cream or, more specifically for me, thickshakes. Thickshakes are what Americans call milkshakes. They are called that because they are thicker than a New Zealand milkshake. Like in the UK and elsewhere, milkshakes are more literally milk with just some ice cream, so they are really cold but really watery. Thickshakes put in around twice as much ice cream to keep it thick and creamy. Oddly, they also pretty much use vanilla ice cream exclusively for thickshakes, adding in flavour burst that resemble (and taste a bit like) snow cone flavours. Very odd.

We also tried to so something else creative on this trip: we pre-made taquitos. They actually came out really well, though they were a bit soggy by the last day. I didn't get sick of them despite eating them for five days in a row. Kara mixed in really pulled apart chicken (which mulched in the slow cooker), cream cheese, milk, mixed cheeses, a few peppers, and other spices. It was crazy gross looking but tasted amazing, wrapped in little initially crunchy corn tortillas. We decided as soon as they were finished to make them again this week, but turn them into full on deep-fried chimichangas with homemade refried beans, rice, and more cheese. They're going to be amazing, I can sense it! Too bad I'm almost out of my salsa. We ran out before the taquitos were done. The red salsa was SO hot, but it tasted good and I was actually getting used to it by the time I ran out, so that's good.

Ups & Downs
For once, we actually did some hikes. A bunch of them in fact. Our first hike was within Zeelandia wildlife park. The park is built in a reclaimed forest that served for many years as a two-tiered reservoir. When they realised the entire thing was built atop a major fault line, the dams were decommissioned. Today the park is slowly growing to become an old growth forest, though it has about 500 years to go before that goal is achieved. While the park has kiwis and rare owls, those creatures are only visible in the night, but since it had rained the night before, all the other animals were out in abundance. We wondered around the trails checking them all out, including native parrots, tui birds, large pakehas, fantails, and a bunch others. They also had little roach hotels for the native wetas, which we viewed a little too close for comfort when we wondered into an only gold mine shaft where these buggers are literally right there on the far-too-close-for-comfort walls. That little explorative journey didn't last long.

A few days later, we did double hikes around the volcanoes of Turangi. These were the inspiration for Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings, though they weren't, in fact, Mount Doom. The first hike was out to a beautiful waterfall that ran off an old lava flow. We walked through some beautiful forest and pretty fields on the way. It was quite beautiful. The second hike was along a major hiking trail through the volcanoes which takes about eight hours to complete. We only walked to the first hut, about 45 minutes away. Still, the view we got of the nearest and most picturesque of the volcanoes was perfect and the clouds even went away so we could enjoy it that much more.

A waterfall along one of the trails in Tangariro National Poark.

One of the volcanoes in Tongariro National Park.
Flashforward a few days to Auckland where Kara decided that all the animals she had seen were not enough, so we went out on a boat to the island of Rangitoto, where we were promised magnificent views and animals. We didn't really get either, unfortunately. The weather got somewhat bad while we were out there, and the boat was diverted to a different dock which made the walk a whole heck of a lot less scenic. The island was an old shield volcano (such as the Hawaiian Islands) and it still had a bunch of rocky lava flows all over it, which were mildly cool but got old fast. The climb to the top of the mountain was long and rather boring, and the view was nothing spectacular. I took a panoramic of it, but the clouds kind of greyed everything out.

View of Auckland from the ferry to Rangitoto Island.
At Tauranga, a few days later, we decided foolishly to go on a hike around yet another extinct volcano. Considering it was raining at the time, this was in hindsight a stupid thing to do. The walk took over an hour and we were head-to-toe soaked afterwards. We returned to our AirBnB to change and dry off a bit, but we had to get on the road so I was wet the rest of the day, which wasn't very fun. The hike itself was somewhat scenic, but it was so cloudy/foggy that we couldn't see out in the bay very far and the mountain itself was shrouded in mist, so it definitely could have been better. All-in-all, not a great hike.

That's pretty much it for hikes and walks. Quite a lot in a little time, but there were so many more we didn't do that we could have. New Zealand is a hiker's paradise, for sure.

Thesis Shmeshish
Getting a thesis chapter done while on the road is virtually impossible, I've found. We even dedicated a day to it at Auckland, which turned into a nice afternoon out at the MOTAT (Museum of Transport and Technology) instead. I mean, I got a few pages done early on, but we kept getting in too late and then there was DAREDEVIL! Yeah, that's right, a t.v. show distracted us. When we got into our otherwise rather crappy accommodation in Auckland, we discovered that we had a huge HDTV there. And I mean HUGE, like 60+ inch huge. Conveniently, I had downloaded first episode of Daredevil the night before, so we tuned in and OMG! Yeah, that's pretty much when our studies ended. All our other t.v. shows went on hold, all our nightly homework assignments went out the door, we have been watching a couple episodes a night, with a few interruptions, whenever possible. We were going to see Marvel's The Avengers: Age of Ultron tonight, but the tickets sold out, so we're going tomorrow instead. That means we get the Daredevil finale tonight instead. It's been a Marvel-ous week to be sure. In any case, these next two weeks are going to be very thesis-filled.

The Kiwi Way
Roads are something the kiwis are kind of bad at. From paving them properly, to keeping them at least two-lane, to remembering to put reflectors in them, to maintaining them—kiwis are bad at all of that and our trip proved it. First off, unpaved roads show up suddenly and without warning more often than they should. Sometimes a perfectly paved thoroughfare will become unpaved for a brief stint because of a recent construction project or something. When will they pave it? Someday, I presume. The road at the end our street is still unpaved three months after the construction crews stopped working on it. .:.sigh.:. Another phenomenon is the lazy bridges. Bridges here are often only single-lane. When you approach one of these, there will be a sign showing who has right-of-way, and even some long bridges are one-way, with little pullouts in the middle in case two cars both decided to try it at the same time. I can only guess that economics is the reason for these narrow bridges, but they really stink. From there, reflectors and even reflective road lines don't really seem to be a thing here. When it rains, the lines in the road literally disappear from sight—in Wellington, we had no idea if we were in one lane or straddling two lanes. It was sheer craziness! And road signs are often not reflective either, so at night you can't see where you're going or what you're driving on. One last annoyance is that most roads in New Zealand are two-lane, even major thoroughfares. Passing lanes may be provided, but it is always the slow lane that must merge into the passing lane, even though the passing lane always is broken off from the slow lane. It doesn't make sense, really. Passing lanes are not always marked, either. Sometimes they get their own lane, sometimes they are short sections that the vehicles have to almost completely stop in, and sometimes they are just really wide sections of road where cars can just move over to (sometimes noted, sometimes not). Regardless, almost all sections of road allow passing, and double-yellow lines outside of cities are pretty rare and reserved only for the most dangerous passing areas (sometimes). The bottom line: driving in New Zealand is more free, but is also less controlled and somewhat more difficult, especially at night and/or in rainy weather.

The Khagan Weekly Fortnightly is the unofficial news outlet for an American living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Anything he says can and may be used against him. His statements should be taken as factual, except when they are not. All rights reserved, except where prohibited...like in China. In fact, if you are reading this in China, you are a bad Han! Blogger is blocked in China, don't you know? They have censors watching you right now. Democracy! Capitalism! USA! USA! Well, you must be using a proxy server, so right on! Go free speech!

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