Road tripping to Rotorua for Christmas

We left Villa tied up at the Bay of Islands Marina, packed the car full of luggage and cat, and headed south. The plan had been to pick up Ben at the Auckland airport, but there was a snowstorm in Seattle and his flight got canceled. This would prove to be only the first in a long series of airline mishaps. The original plan was a quick hop from Seattle to Vancouver, a two-hour layover, and then a direct flight to Auckland. But the first flight was canceled too late to drive to the second, and instead he had to drive to Portland and sleep at his parent’s house for a few hours. Then it was an early-morning flight to LAX; LAX to Nadi, Fiji; and Nadi to Auckland. And since we would no longer be passing Auckland, he needed another flight to Rotorua, bringing the travel time well past the thirty hour mark. All of this shook out slowly, with us receiving occasional updates as we drove down and over the next day. Some sights from along the road:

We took a pit stop in Whangarei, where the mechanic who’d failed to fix the car took another look. (Verdict: residual oil in the wiring harness; it’ll just have to be cleaned a few times. Hopefully…) While we waited, Andrew and Jazz got haircuts, and Captain got a new sweater and a look at some fish at the local pet shop.

We stopped again outside Auckland to have lunch with Wes and Susan, who we’d met in Fiji on their boat Sauce Sea. We neglected to take a group photo, of course, but we did take a picture of Captain’s first successful roadside pit stop. So proud of this little traveler! Also pictured, some amazing ads from their (unisex) restroom.

We checked into our adorable little AirBnB cottage, and got Captain settled in after the long drive: seven and a half hours and over a thousand kilometers. We had cows and sheep in the back yard, a nice view down the mountain, and despite the place having made an exception to their pets policy for us, they had a built-in cat door. We made sure that that was locked, and headed into town to scare up dinner. There were lots of good options, even with Christmas looming, but we couldn’t resist a cheeky nostalgic Nando’s.

The next morning we went to check out Hell’s Gate Thermal Park. This is a set of volcanic pools and sulfurous hot springs set a little north of town. We arrived a little early, so we were the first car in the parking lot, though of course because it’s New Zealand, there was also parking for campervans. They have an intense, forbidding entry arch, that turns out to be a kind of protection charm against the angry volcano god.

They have hot, steaming pools and waterfalls, and an active (mud) volcano. Our guide strongly urged us to stay on the path, and had a small heart attack when a little kid jumped past the boundary: sometimes people create new boiling hot pools that way. The whole park is Maori owned and run, and various pools have been used for bathing, ritual, and even cooking for hundreds of years.

Yet somehow the highlight of our tour was the guide telling us stories about the local birds, clearly her actual passion. Aoteroa didn’t have mammals (except a few bats) before humans entered, so there are a lot of evolved behaviors that only really make sense in an environment with few predators. The Tui and Kereru, apparently, like to gobble berries, ferment the juice in pouches in their neck, and pass out drunk on the floor. Our guide encouraged us to gently nudge any such birds out of roads, and otherwise leave them alone to sleep it off. The pictured bird is neither of those, but is using the heavily acidic water as protection because nothing else will go there. The guide also pointed out the famous silver fern, the underside of whose leaves reflect moonlight and therefore make a great trail marker for Maori night hunting parties. The fern is everywhere in New Zealand culture, from the coat of arms, to street art, to the names of some sports teams.

The hot springs and mud baths were also nice, though as proper Harbin devotees we have to note that they were not actually what we’d call “hot”. We did appreciate the rentable swimwear, though: the allegedly healing mud was hard enough to clean off our skin, and we shudder to imagine getting it out of our own clothes. Jazz got some in her eyes, and the desk was prepared for this with special drops.

In the afternoon, we picked up an exhausted and travel-worn Ben, and headed back to the house, past the guardian sheep. We walked Captain around for a while, while Ben got cleaned up, and then headed out for a quick barbecue dinner.

Day two was our Big Day: we would be going to Hobbiton! We had bought one of the last available ticket times, which is why were were going on Christmas Eve, and why we’d driven all the way to Rotorua in one shot. We had sketched out a trip plan around a different timing, but then the tickets disappeared under us while we discussed with three people over two time zones, and we had to scrap it all and start over. Anyway, we departed early, leaving a slightly dismayed Captain at the house, and headed north. Along the way we stopped for coffee, and learned a new phrase that had us giggling most of the way there.

Hobbiton was pretty great. The set is set in an already idyllic rolling hillside, and then built up to a ridiculous standard of detail. You arrive at a landing spot, where it’s clear that this is a very internationl, high-volume enterprise. Then you take a bus over to the actual film site, where they do a reasonable job downplaying how may other groups are there at the same time.

It was cool to see, and arguably just as cool to hear all the little stories about how various pieces of the set came together. Like the washing line that someone had to hang and take down every day, not to keep the clothes fresh but to make sure there was a natural foot-path cut into the hillside. Or the frogs that invaded the pond and had to be caught and picked out, or the huge bald eagle the sound guys brought in from America to get all the birds to shut up for filming. The tree over Bag End is entirely metal, and before filming Peter Jackson decided the color was wrong, and dispatched a crew in the early morning hours to individually spray-paint the leaves darker. Also none of the trees are plum trees, so the plums in the movies are all tied on.

It’s also interesting that the holes are built at different scales, depending on whether the actors standing outside were supposed to look like hobbits or like normal-sized humanoids.

The tour ends at the Green Dragon Inn, where they serve you a special ale brewed just for the site. It was not particularly cold, despite being New Zealand, but Jazz immediately gravitated towards the fireplace anyway. It’s just who she is.

We left Hobbiton in great spirits, and had lunch and a walk around Cambridge. As we drove on, we saw a sign and made an impromptu stop at a kiwi sanctuary. Kiwis have become mostly nocturnal since humans arrived here, so the actual kiwis are kept in a room with flipped day/night cycles so that you can see them in action. So we did see a kiwi, but in a very dark room, so we have no photos of them. We do have a couple of snaps of a very cute native lizard, though. And of some giant kiwi statues, one of which is dressed up as Santa, presumably just for the season…?

The second destination as planned was the Waitomo glow worm caves. We went down into Aranui Cave for a tour of the stalactites and stalagmites, and Andrew took up the invitation to sing in a cave where Lady Gaga had once performed. So that was cool. Then we took a boat ride in pitch darkness, to see the glow worms on the roof. None of this was really photographable, so here is a representational shot of the worms from their promotional pages, a borrowed photo of the caves, and our group selfie at the cave exit. This was cool and we recommend it.

The next day was Christmas, and many things were closed, but the Whakarewarewa redwood forest was both open and cat-friendly. So we dressed up and packed up the cat…

And we took Captain for walk in the woods. He loved it.

We even got out our Christmas gear and did a family photo-shoot.

Our next stop, after dropping Captain at home, was the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. This place’s claim to fame is that it is the youngest volcanic region in the world. We walked past steaming, bubbling lakes, along a stream, and past colorful combinations of algae growth and mineral deposits that made the ground look somewhere between a chemical spill and a Dali painting. Stay on the path.

The hike finishes at a lake full of black swans.

We were on our way back home when the car in front of us slowed down, so we did too. And suddenly, there were two improbably small children bombing across the street on little tricycles like this one. There wasn’t an adult in sight, so we created a bit of a blockade to keep the drivers behind us from being dumb, and looked around for a parent as the woman driving the first car approached the kids. After at least a full five minutes, a flustered dad sprinted up the hill, looking chagrined. Our theory: these are new gifts, and the parents had not yet adapted to the sheer demon speed these gifts had unleashed, especially since the kids were at best unreliable walkers. Worse, for some reason the kids had gone uphill, and nobody had expected that. Anyway he grabbed a kid and bike in each arm, carried them off, and we drove on. This bike is from later on, as we didn’t want to take pictures of babies, but it gives a sense of the size; they’re on sale right now at a store called Warehouse, and recommended for under-twos.

Christmas dinner options were extremely limited, as they should be, but we had minimal facilities to cook, and the big tourist institutions were open. So we made a reservation at Skyline, which is a restaurant at about the same elevation as our AirBnB, but with a gondola to take you up there. When we arrived, we realized it’s actually also a bit of an adventure park, and our meal ticket included a luge ride.

It also included Christmas crackers and a visit from a huge Maori Santa.

When we got home, we opened another round of Christmas crackers, including a special one we had bought for Captain and which he immediately recognized as being for him. The grownup crackers yielded a mini jigsaw puzzle, about the right difficulty level for Christmas eve. And we managed to connect to Jazz’s family for the traditional reading of The Night Before Christmas. Note that they were 20 hours behind, so our Christmas had already happened, while theirs was just beginning.

The next morning it was time for us to check out, over Captain’s strong protests. He had been getting used to his morning walks by the sheep, and getting brave enough that we had to keep the windows closed to keep him from escaping… again.

On our way to a boxing-day breakfast downtown, we stopped to walk through the public volcanic park. We were waved and smiled at by a passing cop about twenty minutes before we saw the “no dogs, instant fine” sign, which we guess they weren’t in the mood to enforce that morning.

Finding breakfast was surprisingly difficult, since we not only had to find a cafe open on Boxing day, but one with available outdoor seating. A consequence of cat-equipped travel that we had not properly considered. But we managed in the end.

And then it was time to drive to Auckland, stopping to offer a ritual sacrifice to the giant dog gods.

One comment

  1. We enjoyed getting caught up on your New Zealand adventures. Now we need to make a third trip there since we obviously missed some great sights. We did see the glow worm caves. It sounded creepy, but it was awesome!

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