Sunday, March 25, 2018

New Zealand: Dreams Do Come True

When I was in middle school, I was entranced by The Lord of the Rings movies and dreamed of one day going to New Zealand to see where the magic happened. Well, I finally made it, and it lived up to all of my dreams! Like with our Australia trip, I'm going to try to cram a lot into just one blog post. I hope you're ready to fall in love with New Zealand like we did!

New Zealand is mainly divided into the North Island and the South Island, and we decided that this time we didn't have enough time to do both. We stuck to the North Island, known for its rolling green hills and rich cultural experiences, but we need to come back someday to experience the beauty of the South, as well! We spent our first night in Auckland with our amazing hosts A and N (having friends to visit all over the world is a major Foreign Service perk), and then set off for our North Island road trip.

We swung by the LDS Temple in Hamilton so I could attend a session, and I was very lucky to do so because in a few months it'll be closing for a years-long renovation. While we were in Hamilton, we also attended the Waikato Museum, most of which is accessible for free. The museum focused on local history and culture and boasted several art galleries. They had a real, beautiful, traditional Maori boat on display and a wealth of information about Maori systems of navigation, their history with British settlers, and their beliefs about the heavens.

There was also an impressive section devoted to New Zealand's involvement in World War I, complete with an extraordinarily detailed Minecraft reconstruction (of all things) of the scene at the Battle of Gallipoli, or Gallipoli Campaign, in modern-day Turkey.

The museum houses a few art galleries, as well. As I've previously mentioned, M and I are not the best appreciators of art and we usually do not enjoy art galleries. This time, though, we decided to take a look (mostly because it was free). As a result, we found a few gems that really stood out (to me, at least).

This first piece (pictured above) was a segment of an installation called "The Horses Stayed Behind" by Cat Auburn. The artist constructed these rosettes out of horse hair clippings donated from across New Zealand. What intrigued me most was the reality that inspired the art: the fact that 10,000 horses left New Zealand for WWI, and only four returned afterward.

This second photo is pulled from the museum's cubism exhibit. It caught my eye because unlike most of the pieces, which I found unrecognizable, this one immediately reminded me of my time living and traveling in Middle Eastern cities. I learned that this piece is appropriately titled "Amman" by artist Louise Henderson, and I hope it resonates with any blog readers who have lingering memories of the Middle East.

We thought we'd be done for the day after that, but as we checked into our hotel in Waitomo for the night the receptionist advised us to go on a free night hike in the nearby Ruakuri Reserve to see glowworms. If we had known there was a free option, we might not have booked the Waitomo Glowworm Cave tour for the next morning in advance! Anyway, we decided to take her advice and went for a romantic, starlit walk in the woods. To our surprise, we started seeing glowworms on the rock walls almost immediately, and they just increased as we walked closer to the caves. At their peak, they looked like stars glistening on the walls and the cave openings we could see. It was so dark outside, we couldn't even see each other's faces! Smartphone photos don't do the wonder justice, but you can see our attempt to capture the magical blue glow below. It was definitely one of the most breathtaking sights we've ever seen.

The next day, we did go to the official Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tour regardless. We were glad we did, not so much because the view of the glowworms was that much more epic in the cave river portion than on our hike but because our guide had so much knowledge about the caves, their history, and the glowworms themselves. We learned about how the glowworms are really fly maggots who eat their siblings and morph into adults who only have a few days to mate, lay eggs, and start the cycle over before they die of thirst and starvation because they have no mouths or other means to consume things. (Nature is cool, and often weird!)

After that, we journeyed to the place I've been looking forward to visiting for so many years: Hobbiton! I don't even know where to begin with describing this part of the trip. It was just as beautiful as I'd imagined and remembered adoring in the movies. We had a very friendly tour guide and plenty of opportunities to take photos. As soon as we saw the grounds of the farm where Hobbiton was built, it was easy to see why The Lord of the Rings director, flying in a helicopter over New Zealand, decided that needed to be the location of The Shire.

We (mostly I, with M along for the ride) loved seeing the places where scenes we remembered were filmed and learning about some of the perspective tricks they used. For example, the Hobbit Holes are built at different scales. Smaller houses (like the one featured as the first image of this post, complete with a tiny chess set) would make people who needed to look bigger (like Gandalf) look much bigger. Others were full-scale so the Hobbit actors could go in and out easily. Happily, I learned that I would have qualified (in terms of height, at least) to portray a full-grown Hobbit (you had to be under 5'3").

Of course, no trip to Hobbiton would be complete without a visit to its most famous residence, Bag End (where Bilbo and Frodo live), complete with its very impractical but whimsical middle-of-the-door doorknob.

Once we wrapped things up in Hobbiton, we made our way to Te Puia for a Te Po Maori cultural evening experience. We enjoyed an awe-inspiring series of dances, songs, and cultural lessons. The performers were clearly very happy to share their culture and very skilled in the demonstrations. We were glad to know that the fees we paid supported Maori cultural preservation efforts, including scholarships for representatives of every tribe of New Zealand to receive training in traditional skills and share their knowledge with their communities.

Then, we enjoyed a delicious and varied all-you-can-eat hangi dinner, cooked in the traditional way: heated underground and then un-earthed just in time for the feast. There were selections of lamb, pork, chicken, curry, shrimp, mussels, potatoes, pumpkin, salads, and an array of desserts. It was all delicious.

We wrapped up the night with a trip out to Te Puia's geothermal park, where we arrived just in time to see the Pohutu geyser erupting spectacularly! With a cup of hot chocolate, a seat on the rocks heated from underground, and the backdrop of gushing water and steam, our guides shared with us traditional storytelling and a farewell song.

The following day, we wanted some time with the natural sights in daylight, so we headed over to Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland. Now, the whole time we'd been in Rotorua we noticed the unforgettable stench of the geothermal parks (think rotten eggs), but in Wai-O-Tapu it was overpowering. We basically held our noses the whole time so we could check out the sights and learn a little but about the science behind these bizarre natural phenomena.

There were a range of geological features, including pools, waterfalls, rocks, steam, geysers, and mud pits. One of the most striking characteristics of Wai-O-Tapu (and what it's most known for) were its varied colors resulting from different types of natural chemicals and minerals present in different parts of the park. The last pool on the full trail, the Devil's Bath, literally looked like a neon green SoBe drink or something.

Then, we made our way to beautiful Tongariro Park for one last overnight stop before finishing up our trip in Wellington. We passed huge lakes and scenic outlooks on our way up the mountain. Like everywhere we went in New Zealand, we came across many, many camper vans and backpackers. (It really seems like that's the preferred mode of travel for Kiwis and visiting foreigners alike, rather than the rental car-hotel combo we're used to from most of our travel experiences.)

We finally arrived in Wellington, which definitely had more of a city feel than Auckland did. The two highlights of our short time there were the Te Papa Museum of New Zealand and the Weta Workshop. Te Papa was one of the largest and most engaging museums we've visited on our travels; it seemed to be on the leading edge of museum science from the diversity of exhibit topics and formats to the wide-ranging partnerships that made its success possible. (Plus, it's free!) We weren't able to take our time through every exhibit, but a guide recommended we devote special attention to "Gallipoli: The scale of our war" - the only exhibit that had an entrance queue.

It was as moving and breathtaking as we were promised. Using the real stories of New Zealanders and giant sculptures built by none other than Weta, Te Papa made New Zealand's role in World War I come alive. We were surprised to learn later that the sculptures were at 2.4x human scale, as they seemed much larger. The attention to detail was striking, with everything from pores to individual hairs to beaded brow sweat meticulously crafted.

Once we finished at the museum, we made our way to Weta Workshop - the design studio behind the magic of many of our most cherished cultural treasures. It was their extensive work on (of course) The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie series that drew us there initially, but they've also contributed to a mind-blowing quantity of Hollywood blockbusters and recent releases. (You can see the full list here. They've won many awards, too including five Oscars!) Although we weren't allowed to take pictures throughout most of our tour of the workshop, we were granted this nice photo op at the very end:

So just like that, our amazing road trip had come to an end. Over the past week, we became enchanted by this island. I in particular feel so fortunate I got to live out my longtime dream of visiting New Zealand and reliving my younger self's wonder at The Lord of the Rings. We just know we'll be back someday.

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