Kia ora, New Zealand! We’re adapting to driving on the left side of the road and almost ran over our first possum. Very cliche. We learned that there are 7 possums for every one person in NZ.
We woke up to the “baa” sound of three orphan lambs being bottle-fed on the farm hosting our Airbnb stay. The early rise was worth it when we saw the view that surrounded us: rolling green hills dotted with sheep, a beautiful lake and blue skies. We then drove to Rotorua, where we immersed ourselves in Maori culture: our new Airbnb host is Maori and taught us a lot, and then we went to the humorous and educational Tamaki Maori village experience.
The Maoris are badass! It’s no wonder the All Blacks national rugby team adopted the Maori haka chant to intimidate the opposition before every game (see video below). We got to experience the traditional version up close... and we definitely wouldn’t want to get on their bad side!
When the Polynesian people first arrived in New Zealand in the 1300s, they called it Aotearoa, or “the long white cloud.” We’ve heard two explanations for this name: it refers to the clouds that helped the navigators find land, or it refers to the snowy mountain tops — having never seen snow before, they mistook the chain of white peaks for a long white cloud.
These people had sailed from the Polynesian island of Hawaiki (which no longer exists today). They were the first inhabitants of New Zealand, and separated from the other Polynesian islands, they developed their unique Maori culture.
The first Europeans arrived in the 1600s, and the relationship between the Maoris and Europeans was mostly peaceful until the 1800s. The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi brought NZ into the British Empire, but proved problematic because of differing information about sovereignty and land ownership in the English and Maori versions. After many decades of injustice, only recently were reparations made to the Maori as a direct result of protests and appeals.
Our impression is that these days, New Zealanders of all backgrounds take great interest and national pride in Maori culture. And for good reason, as it is a fascinating one.
Today we visited a nearby geothermal park, where we saw neon blue and bright orange lakes, lots of geysers, and bizarre birds. Eric names every new bird we see in a convincing way: “look, there’s a red headed snake fisher,” and “over there it’s a spray tailed tarmigeon,” and then “wow, a rare blue-crested rabbit finch.” (Bea is pretty sure that Eric can correctly identify bald eagles, but that’s about it.)
The name of this town in Maori is “Te Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe,” which means “the second great lake of Kahumatamomoe.” Thankfully, the name was shortened to Rotorua (“the second lake”) — we doubt that tourism would have flourished otherwise. It turns out that Rotorua is only one of many beautiful lakes in the area, and today we explored several of them. Some of the lakes we saw had geothermal features and radioactive-looking colors. Others are home to tons of wildlife. We also went to the local spa for a relaxing soak in our own private geothermal pool with a view of the lake.
Today we drove from Rotorua to New Plymouth, visiting the Waitomo caves on the way. Bea is easily impressed by caves, but Eric, who has led caving expeditions in the US, is not. So you can trust him when he says he was very impressed with these caves. We first walked through the upper chambers, threading our way between stalactites and stalagmites. Then we descended to the lower level, where we boarded a small boat and floated silently into the darkness. The entire ceiling was covered with glowworms! It looked like someone had set up teal Christmas lights throughout the interior of the cave. So beautiful!
New Zealand glowworms are about 3 cm long, and each has many thin threads of saliva hanging from its body. When their tail lights up, it attracts insects, which then get tangled up in their sticky saliva and become dinner.
Nature is just incredible!
We had planned to hike close to Mount Taranaki to get a good view of this impressive volcano, but when we woke up this morning, it was completely cloudy and rainy. No view of the mountain. We debated, reminded each other of all the awesome no-view rainy hikes we’ve done in the Pacific Northwest, and decided to go anyway. During the hike, the rain turned to hail, and then to snow. It was below freezing. We considered turning back several times, but we persisted. Then, as we got close to our destination (after 2300 feet or 700 meters of hard-earned elevation gain), the snow stopped, the clouds opened up, and the mountain revealed itself!!!
It was a glorious way to see this isolated snow-capped peak, and perhaps our excitement led us to overstay a bit. We departed as the sun was going down, and completed our adventure by descending through the forest in deep twilight, eventually using our headlamp to navigate the dark path. It was fully night by the time we emerged from the forest at the trailhead, where we were rewarded with a clear sky full of stars and the Milky Way galaxy. What an awesome day!
Today we drove from New Plymouth to Wellington, arriving just in time to go on a tour of the Weta studios. Weta is the company behind all the props and special effects of many of our favorite movies, including “District 9,” “Chappie,” “Ghost in the Shell,” and “Lord of the Rings.” Traveling off-season comes with many perks, including being the only ones on the Weta tour (booking a private tour is prohibitively expensive).
Our guide specializes in metal and leather work, and made much of the chain mail and armor seen in “The Hobbit.” We heard lots of stories about the ingenuity and speed with which new props and costumes are made. Plus Eric got to try on a helmet our guide made for one of the dwarves in the movie. It was fun to see the robot costume from “I Am Mother,” the weapons and aliens from “District 9,” Green Goblin’s outfit from “Spiderman 2,” and many more. We also got to watch two sculptors at work, creating super cool masks — maybe for a future movie?
We ended the day with an excellent dinner at Apachè, a local Vietnamese restaurant. We’ve mostly been cooking our own meals so far, so it was nice to eat out for a change.
We wanted to learn more about the Maori culture, so today we visited the excellent Te Papa museum in Wellington.
We are now in Picton, after having taken the ferry from the north island to the south island. We’re looking forward to exploring!
Our drive across the south island and down the coast was beautiful, though quite windy. We traversed vineyards at first, then pastures with lots of sheep (of course) but also many cows, a herd of elk, and a couple of llamas. After descending from the mountains, the scene changed to rocky cliffs towering over the ocean.
We’re currently in “the wopwops” (New Zealand-speak for “the boonies”). We’re spending the night in Hokitika, a tiny beach town on the west coast of the south island. Fortunately, in New Zealand, even the wopwops have good supermarkets nearby, and we’re staying at a really nice Airbnb, so it feels sorta like the high-end wopwops.
Kiwi is an overloaded word, and today we experienced all three meanings. We talked with several kiwis (New Zealanders), we ate four kiwis (the fruit), and we saw two kiwis (New Zealand’s national bird). The birds are by far the least common — all five species are endangered. We got to see the Rowi species, of which there are only a few hundred left, in a conservation center. The Rowis are particularly cute because they look like round balls covered in soft fluffy feathers.
Today’s drive took us along the sparsely populated west coast of the south island, past the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, and inland through the gorgeous terrain of Mount Aspiring National Park. We were treated to a colorful sunset over the mountains just before we arrived in Wanaka. We’re looking forward to exploring the area tomorrow.
According to Maori legend, one day the king of the forest asked all the birds for a volunteer to live on the forest floor and eat the bugs that were damaging the trees. Each of the other birds declined for various cowardly and selfish reasons, but the Kiwi agreed. To do the job, the Kiwi had to give up her colorful feathers, her beautiful wings, and the daylight of the treetops. But in return, she became the best known and most loved bird of New Zealand.
There are five species of Kiwi, each native to New Zealand. They used to be plentiful, but now they’re all endangered. Early settlers depleted the population through hunting, but nowadays the biggest threats to kiwis are stoats — furry weasel-like creatures that were introduced to tackle out-of-control rabbit populations, but turned out to prefer eating kiwi chicks. Domestic dogs and cats are the next biggest threat. That explains all the stoat traps and signs prohibiting dogs that we saw when hiking here.
Fortunately, conservation efforts are making a positive impact. With predation, Kiwi chicks have only a 5% chance of survival in the wild. Conservation centers have raised that rate to 65% by incubating eggs, raising chicks to adolescence, then releasing them into the wild.
We spent today exploring the area around Wanaka, and flying the drone. This area reminds us a bit of Montana: big skies, farming valleys, glacier-fed rivers and mountains in the distance.
Our drive today took us through rolling hills covered in tufts of tawny grass, with snow on the taller peaks. On the way, we visited as many lakes as we could fit in a day. We’re in awe of the lakes around here because of their surreal teal blue color. At one point, dramatic storm clouds filled the sky, with occasional shafts of light peeking through, which further deepened the intensity of lake colors. It was truly spectacular scenery.
We’re now by Lake Tekapo, which is surrounded on three sides by distant snow covered mountains, and on the fourth side by the town of Tekapo where we’re staying. The sun was shining when we arrived, and lots of people were out and about. We’re feeling energized and we look forward to exploring tomorrow!
We spent the day exploring Lake Tekapo. We still can’t get over the stunning turquoise color of its waters. We had seen photos before we arrived, but we thought the color was edited. Not so! It turns out that this intense color comes from the lake’s connection to rivers fed by the glaciers of the Southern Alps.
Tekapo is a dark sky reserve, due to its very clear atmosphere and lack of light pollution. The town is home to the Mount John University observatory, and generally it’s a fantastic place to see the stars, planets and Milky Way galaxy. So we couldn’t end the day without doing some astrophotography.
Today we drove from Tekapo to Christchurch, where we’ll catch a flight to Australia. Kia koa, New Zealand — you’ve been good to us and we hope to come back!