Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Long Overdue Post

It has been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve blogged. I’d offer excuses but they would probably come across as pretty lame, mainly because they are in fact pretty lame. A lot has happened since the last posting, so let’s get you caught up!

First things first, Jess is now back in the US and working at the University of Minnesota Hospital. We decided that it was better for her to return a bit earlier than me to secure a job before the new graduates saturated the market. It’s already paying dividends, as she’s gotten a great gig. That leaves me here in Dunedin, plugging away on my MA. I’m on track to finish in August but there is a lot of work left to do. Now on to some adventures. Since I last blogged we visited the world’s largest sea cave, the world’s steepest street, and the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. It has been a pretty crazy couple of months.

Our main chunk of traveling was at the beginning of February. This is right at the end of the southern hemisphere summer, just before the first semester of the new school year got going. For this trip we spent 10 days traveling the North Island in a rented van.
Our home for the week

Our first stop after flying into Auckland was Whangarei, a coastal town in the Northland, which is the long thin peninsula at the top of the North Island. We stayed in campsites throughout the trip, but this was by far the best location. Our spot was right on the water.
Our Campsite

Breakfast by the water

The first day in Whangarei involved a visit to Whangarei Falls. It’s a beautiful waterfall just outside the city and on the edge of a forest. From the falls there are a number of walking tracks, one of which leads to a Kauri forest canopy walkway. Kauri trees are amongst the largest trees in New Zealand and the oldest trees in the world. The canopy walkway took us through the tree tops and by some massive Kauri trees. After a lunch back by the waterfall, we drove to Ocean Beach for some required beach relaxing time.

Whangarei Falls

Canopy walkway

One big Kauri Tree


The next day in Whangarei we took a visit to the Poor Knights Islands, one of New Zealand’s most popular snorkeling spots. The chain is made up of two larger islands and a number of smaller islets. The island group is also surrounded by the Poor Knights Marine Reserve due to the unique flora and birdlife. After a 30 or so minute ride to the island our boat set up in a beautiful dive spot, in a small protected part of one of the islands. No sooner had we put down the anchor then one of the crew members spotted a manna ray, at which the entire crew (minus the captain) jumped in the water to get a look at it. Once the crew returned it was our turn to snorkel. The water was great, it was crystal clear and not unbearably cold once you recovered from the initial shock. It was also immediately obvious why this was such a popular snorkel spot. The water was teaming with fish, and the rocky, rugged coast meant that just beneath the surface were incredibly interesting rock formations to explore. Our boat also had a number of kayaks, so after snorkeling for a while Jess and I took a kayak out along the island and into Rikoriko, the world’s largest sea cave. It was suitably massive, and amazingly quiet. Our boat also took us inside on our way back to mainland.

At Poor Knights Islands

Rikoriko Cave

Through a channel amongst the islands

Poor Knights Island

We left Whangarei the next day for the next stop on our North Island tour, Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. We stayed at a camp site about five minutes walk from Hot Water Beach, a stretch of beach which happens to be right on top of some hot springs. At low tide you take a shovel out to the beach and search till you find a hot spot. Then you dig a hole and allow some spring water to escape, and voila! You have your self a ready made jacuzzi. Jess and I went to Hot Water Beach fully expecting to get Moeraki Bouldered, i.e. underwhelmed, but were pleasantly surprised to find that the beach was actually really awesome. When we visited the beach it was at the tale end of when you can actually build your hot pool in the sand, and so we had to constantly fortify our hole with a seawall. Though, in the end we were glad that so much seawater got in because the spring water was scalding hot! The other big highlight of our time in Coromandel was our walk to Cathedral Cove. Coromandel Peninsula is one of the most scenic places on the North Island, and Cathedral Cove might be its best spot. It is only accessible by foot or boat and is a beach centered around a massive cave/archway and surrounding rock formations. It is an incredible place.

On the way to Cathedral Cove

A quick break to enjoy the view

The archway

After a few days on the Coromandel Peninsula we drove down to Rotorua, which is known in New Zealand as Roto-Vegas. The entire city is centered around tourism, and reminded me of the Wisconsin Dells. All of this also fails to mention Rotorua’s introductory feature, the smell. The city sits right on the banks of Lake Rotorua, and was originally settled by the Maori because of its geothermal activity. The area is filled with hot pools, geysers, and hot mud pools. This means that the entire city also smells like sulphur. You got used to the rotten eggs smell after a while, but every now and again you’d get a real good whiff that could make your stomach turn.

Rotorua Museum

Our first day in Rotorua was spent visiting the Rotorua Museum, which is located in an old bathhouse. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a big push to make Rotorua, with its abundant hot pools, a sort of health definition. It didn’t quite work out that way, but it prepared the city for its future as a tourist center. On our second day we took a nice coffee cruise around the lake on the Lakeland Queen. It was a fun cruise, though based on the commentary we both decided that our guide did not fully understand the concept of a ‘joke’.

The Lakeland Queen

That night we visited Te Puia, which is the home of the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute and is located amongst a massive geothermal area, for an indigenous experience. We started with a tour of the park, which included hot mud pools and Pohutu Geyser, the largest geyser in the southern hemisphere. The park also had a kiwi hut, and so we saw kiwi birds for the first time. I’m not going to lie, they are really odd looking creatures. We also got to see the Maori Carving School, which is where young Maori men are invited to learn their culture’s most important art form. After touring the park, we saw a traditional Maori show and attended a hangi, a traditional Maori feast. The main staples are chicken, pork and kumara, a New Zealand variety of sweet potato, which are cooked over hot coals for a number of hours underground. The show was really cool, both of us went up on stage. Jess learned a traditional dance, and I learned the haka. The food was also delicious.

Pohutu Geyser
Lots of geothermal activity here

Our hangi dinner

Kiwi thataway

The sheep show
On our last day in Rotorua we visited the Agrodome for the world famous sheep show. It was cheesy, over the top, and absolutely fantastic. The show introduced us to all the sheep breeds raised in New Zealand, showed off the skills of the sheep dogs, and included a sheep shearing. It was really interesting, and very funny. It was the most touristy thing we did in our time in New Zealand, but also one of the most fun things we did. After the show we took a tour of the farm on which the Agrodome is located, which was also really interesting.
Meeting the stars of the show

The final stop of our North Island trip, before heading back up to Auckland for the flight home, was a visit to Hobbiton. The movie set is located outside of Matamata which is in the middle of the North Island country side. We drove to the middle of nowhere just to get to the visitors center, and then had to take a bus further into the middle of nowhere to get to the actual set. It is amazing how much detail and depth there is to the place. For instance, our tour guide told us that before filming each Hobbit Hole was assigned a crewmember whose job was to walk from the front door to the laundry line twice a day. They did this just to wear down paths so that the homes looked lived in. That kind of attention to detail is all over the set. The best part was that at the end of our tour we visited the Green Dragon, a working pub. The two of us got the chance to sit in Hobbiton and enjoy a drink in the pub from the Lord of the Rings. This is certainly not something either of us expected to do.


A view of the Shire
Bag End
The Hobbit Holes are bigger than you'd think
Even Hobbits need road signs
At the Green Dragon

Enjoying a pint in the Shire

After returning to Dunedin from our North Island sojourn, we tried to visit some of the city’s sites before Jess’ return to the US. Our favorite was Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world as recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. This was another seemingly silly tourist thing which turned out to be really cool. The walk to the top was a real gutbuster though.
The steepest street in the world
Wellington's waterfront

Jess departed for home in mid-March, and flew out of Wellington. This gave us a chance to have a short trip there together before she left. We spent four days relaxing and enjoying the city. Wellington has a beautiful waterfront, and a reputation for lots of cool restaurants and cafes. We had a great time just exploring the city. Every one of the four days we were in Wellington we also visited Te Papa, which is the New Zealand National Museum. It is a really incredible place; it is massive and contains everything from a mild earthquake simulator to the worlds largest known Colossal Squid specimen (it measured 33 ft when it was caught). It also contained a number of nice cafes, free internet, great hours, and amazing brownies. So, every day while we were in Wellington we walked there, got a coffee and a brownie, and visited a new exhibit. We also took the chance to visit Weta Workshop, the special effects studio that is most famous for their work on the Lord of the Rings. While there we took a backstage style tour to the workshop itself to see how the place operates, which was really cool. The combination of craftsmanship and technology is really amazing.
An early birthday dinner

That about sums up our most recent bout of adventures. With Jess back in the US, and me trying to finish a thesis we won’t have many more to blog about. The last big trip on the docket is my visit to Australia. I’ll be spending some time in Sydney and then Brisbane for a conference, so perhaps I’ll blog about that visit. For the time being, I hope you enjoyed reading!