Todd's New Zealand Journal

January 27, 2005

 I am sitting at our apartment in Sydney.  We have been in Australia for four days and I am finally getting around to writing about our week in New Zealand.

 In a nutshell, New Zealand is a beautiful, clean, safe, and well ordered country and we enjoyed our visit.  After Brazil, I found it to be a breath of fresh air, literally.  The people are polite, even friendly and the food is terrific.  The weather on our visit was great.  They speak a sort of English which is not what we are accustomed to, but we had no trouble understanding.  It reminded me a bit of visiting Canada.  Everyone drinks tea and every hotel provides a hotpot and small carton of milk for this purpose.  Prices were reasonable (despite the falling dollar).  They have beautiful, unpopulated beaches; they have lots of rolling pastureland and they have lots of sheep, but you knew that already.

 On January 16th we flew into Auckland on the North Island, rented a car, and checked into our hotel.  This was our first car rental on our round the world trip and it had to be in a country that drives on the left side of the road.  Because of flight delays, we spent 24 hours traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Auckland and we were all very tired on arrival.  Cheryl told me from the start that she had no intention of driving in any foreign country on the “wrong” side of the road.  For the first two or three days I just repeated to myself as I drove: “stay left, stay left.”  And with a few exciting exceptions, it worked.

 Our original plan was to stay in Auckland a couple days, and then work our way down to Wellington on the southern tip of the island.  We then planned to take the ferry to the South Island and see how far we could go before running out of time.  We knew we had to be back in Auckland the night of January 22 as our flight to Sydney was early the next morning.   It seems that New Zealand is a bigger little country than we thought because we never made it to the South Island.  In fact, we didn’t even make it to Wellington.  I did a little checking and determined that from north to south, the country is over 900 miles long.  That is almost the same distance as from Seattle to Los Angeles (or from Boston to Atlanta).  Shortly after we arrived I read that to really see New Zealand you need at least six weeks.  I laughed out loud at the time, but now I understand.

 In Auckland we stayed at the Domain Lodge just outside of the downtown area next to the Auckland Hospital.  It is non-profit hotel that offers a free place to stay for families of patients who could otherwise not afford it; paying guests help subsidize the cost.  Our apartment had two bedrooms, was quiet, clean and reasonably priced.  We checked in around noon, had some tea and laid down for a nap.  The plan was to sleep for three hours, get up and have dinner, and then go back to bed around 8pm.  This is the quickest way to get over jet lag when flying west through multiple time zones.  That was a fine plan that didn’t work, because we slept through the alarm clock and the next thing I knew it was 11pm.  Cheryl was awake, having some tea and reading.  We stayed up for an hour, then went back to sleep and got up again at 6am.  The girls finally woke up after 16 hours of sleep.

 We were all hungry and decided that we needed to find a Denny’s Restaurant.  Okay, it first came up as a joke, but I found an Auckland phone book and after consulting the map, I learned there was a Denny’s just 5 minutes away.  So, we piled in the car, I stayed left, and we made our way to that fine American dining establishment.  The restaurant itself was in the downtown area on the second floor of a small building.  We parked the car, went up and found ourselves the only customers in a place that could easily seat more than a hundred – this was at 7:00 on a Monday morning.  Cheryl and I were a little concerned, but the lady who greeted us had such a big smile and charming accent that we decided to stay.  We had a fine breakfast – paid at the counter and left.  Only one other table had been seated.

 I don’t know why that Denny’s was so empty, but I have five theories:

  1. It was cold in the restaurant - this was known among Aucklanders and they were staying away.
  2. New Zealanders know that Denny’s is an American company and were staying away as a form of protest against US foreign policy.   Cheryl and Lauren strongly disagreed with this one since the McDonald’s at the airport was packed.
  3. New Zealanders normally get up late and there would likely be more customers later in the morning.  This was supported by the fact that at 7:00 the downtown area was virtually empty, but by 8:30 it was bustling.
  4. New Zealanders normally eat breakfast at home.
  5. Denny’s food is not good and no one eats there except American tourists.

 I won’t go into detail about Auckland.  It’s a nice city, uncrowded and clean.  In addition to catching up on our sleep, we drove around in the rental car, visited a park along the water, had a picnic and visited the zoo.  We visited a park in the middle of town called Mt. Eden that has great views of the city.  All the while I was keeping left while driving.  We also read made a plan of where we wanted to go in New Zealand.

 Something else we did in Auckland is look for an Internet café that would allow me to connect my laptop.  I had updated the website with pictures and journal entries for Brazil, but was unable to “publish” them to the Internet at that point.  Since we left the US on this trip, I have not been able to publish via a dialup connection.  But I have been able to do it at business centers and Internet cafés that allow laptops – that is what I did in Rio.  The challenge I learned was to find a place that welcomed laptops. 

 After the second day we checked out of our hotel and headed south.  Our goal for that day was to visit the “World Famous” Glowworm Caves of Waitomo which we had never heard of before.  I determined that it would take 2-3 hours to drive there.  But with a late start, lunch, shopping, bathroom breaks, and a visit to the town of Hamilton, we arrived after 4pm.  Our timing was perfect as the tour buses and crowds were all gone.  The Glowworm Caves was worth the visit.  We took the tour which lasted about 45 minutes and got to ride on a boat through an underground river.  The glowworms themselves covered the roof of the cave and gave the appearance of a beautiful starry night.   Our tour guide, a sweet elderly lady, revealed that the glowworms were actually larvae or maggots, but at some point in the past they decided that “Glowing Maggot Caves” did not have quite the same appeal.

 We left Waitomo after 5pm and our next destination was a town to the east called Rotorua.  Rotorua is a resort area known for its beautiful lake, hot springs, and geysers.  It was during this drive that we saw sheep, that is, a pasture of sheep and I pulled over to take some pictures.  “Hey kids, look at all those sheep!”  Then we drove through the town of Te Kuiti which we learned is “the Shearing Capital of the World.”  The town is host to many shearing competitions and a “big shearer” statue is the most prominent feature in town.  It’s amazing that I pulled over for a picture of sheep because over next two hours we passed hundreds of pastures and literally hundreds of thousands of sheep.  When the girls were not playing their electronic games, they spent their time looking out the window to see if the sheep had recently been sheared, and then expressing sympathy when they saw one (as they were likely cold without a coat).

 At some point when the sun was low in the sky we realized that we would not make it to Rotorua until well after dark.  Like Seattle in the summertime, the sun was setting around 9pm.  I was weary from driving on (the left) and wanted to stop for the night.  But the towns along our two-lane country road were small and most had no accommodations.  Eventually we found a town that according to the guidebook had two!  It was called Mangakino and it was a couple miles off our route and near a lake.  The main street consisted of a grocery store, post office, fish & chips takeout place, a bar, hotel, a place you can butcher your own animal, as well as one or two other shops.

 The hotel looked a bit run down so we drove around for a few minutes looking for the other hotel without luck and then returned to the main street.  Cheryl and girls jumped out and quickly learned that hotel was locked.  There was no sign that it was open or closed and so they knocked, but no one answered.  They walked over to the fish & chips place (past the butcher-your-own-animal shop) to ask if the hotel was open, but the lady there did not know.  She did offer that another hotel had just opened across the street.  So, they walked across the street, over a lawn and through some trees and found the Lakeside Inn.  The proprietor was friendly and had modest rooms available with shared bathrooms down the hall.  The only distinguishing thing about the Lakeside Inn, other than it was nowhere near the lake, was that it was once the local hospital.  We didn’t bother to ask if the hospital moved or was closed due to lack of funding or even where we should go in an emergency, but we were tired and just glad to have found a place to stay.

 After getting the bags unloaded from the car, we walked back to find some dinner.  The fish & chips place was the only thing this town had for a restaurant that we could see so we didn’t waste much time deciding.  The only problem was they had no indoor dining area and it was getting cold outside, too cold for a family from Hawaii.  We walked over to the bar and found a lady standing on the front steps smoking a cigarette.  It turns out she was the owner and she told us they did not serve food at the bar, but we could buy fish & chips and bring it in.  And it was okay to bring the children with us.  So that is what we did.  I should mention that almost everyone we met in this town was of Maori descent, that is native New Zealander, including the bar owner.

 I’ll stop here because Cheryl promised to write about this in her journal.  Suffice to say we had a great time that evening and made lots of friends.  The next morning we were on our way to Rotorua.

 I think its worthwhile talking about the driving in New Zealand for a moment.  I read in one of the guidebooks that every year in New Zealand there are a handful of awful accidents caused by tourists driving on the wrong side of the road.  I almost got in a couple accidents as well, but not from the stay-left thing, but for two other reasons.  First, when I pull out into traffic, I instinctively look left.  This is not good in New Zealand as the cars are coming from the right.  This provided several opportunities for heart-pumping excitement to which Cheryl can attest.  The other reason is a local driving law that requires the car on the left to yield to the car on the right when both are turning onto the same street.  Okay, think about that for a moment: if two cars are driving toward each other on the same road, and each wants to turn onto the same street, you must first determine which car is on the right.  That by itself is a task because you ask yourself: “Whose right?”  I eventually learned that for determining right, you must imagine that you have already made the turn, and then the car on the right goes first.  Should I draw a diagram here?  Okay, it is confusing.  On several occasions I was waiting to turn right across traffic and found the oncoming car had stopped for me and the driver even motioned me to go ahead.  At first, I thought that it was because we were in a country of incredibly polite people, but later I learned that there was an actual law that dictated this behavior.  And it gets even more confusing: what if there are two oncoming lanes – with some cars turning and some going straight – what do you do then?  I confess I never did figure it out completely.

 Anyway, we arrived in Rotorua around mid morning.  It was a beautiful sunny day – one of those perfect Seattle summer days in the mid 70s with low humidity.  I asked Cheryl to read the guidebook and determine our first stop before getting into town, but she was not able to read while the car was moving as it caused her motion sickness.  Apparently told me this fact days ago back in Auckland, but I had forgotten.  I just wondered how we decided to have me drive and her navigate, but I knew that would not be a topic of discussion and we proceeded.  Shortly afterward we saw a sign for the Rotorua visitor centre and decided to make that our first stop.

 After a rest and snack and a visit to an Internet café (no laptops allowed), we decided that today was the day we were going to try bungee jumping.  We knew this insane sport originated in New Zealand and we had already passed several places where you could do it (including from the top of the Auckland Skytower).  At the visitor centre we learned of a place just 10 minutes away.  It was called the Agrodome Adventure Park and it was on a sheep farm.  The guidebook said they also offered sheep shearing and sheepdog demonstrations.  We got there and drove past all of that to the adrenaline area.  In addition to bungee, they offered several other activities.  The girls also signed up for something called Freefall Extreme and I signed up for a ride on the agrojet, a speed boat that whips you around a manmade course in about 10 seconds.  But we were there for the bungee and so we started with that.

 Cheryl, by the way, opted out early.  I tried to convince her to join us, but she thought it might jar her back.  I have a bad back as well, but was convinced this would actually help by lengthening and straightening my spine.  Cheryl was unconvinced by this profound logic and quickly designated herself the official photographer.

 The guy who got us rigged up on the bungee was an Australian named Doug.  He was very friendly and asked who wanted to be first.  Katie immediately volunteered.  I said I would go second and that made Lauren last.  This bungee setup was a jump platform on a long boom that they could raise and lower.  The height of this jump would be about 150 feet.  He got Katie rigged up and they both stepped onto the platform.  An operator moved the platform up with Katie and Doug while he gave her final instructions.  Within a few moments Katie stepped out onto the edge and without hesitation, she jumped.  It all happened very fast.  The next thing I knew she was on her second bounce and started to scream.  Prior to this she was silent.  It did not sound like a fun scream (whatever that sounds like) so I was a bit concerned.  But soon it turned to a laugh and I knew she was fine.  Within a minute they had her lowered to the ground and she was all pumped up.  She came over and gave me a high five.

 While they were lowering Katie, Doug’s assistant got me rigged up and then Doug came over to check the rigging.  I liked Doug, he was a nice guy, but he kept calling me “Toddy.”  He would say “Okay Toddy, right then.  How’s that strap?  Tight enough?”  Because of my weight, I got two bungee cords.  I stepped on the platform full of confidence and we rode up.  When we got to the top, Doug told me to step through the small gate and grab the handles.  Then he shut the gate behind me, told me to hold my arms straight out and just fall forward.  Now I consider myself to be an adrenaline junkie.  I love fast cars, fast boats, small airplanes and roller coasters, but I was actually afraid to jump at that moment, like I was going to die, and I hesitated for a couple seconds.  Maybe I’m just getting old.  Of course I did jump.  I even told myself I was going to keep my eyes open on the way down.  The initial fall happened so fast that I was already on my second bounce before I knew it.  That is when I started to yell (with excitement).  It is strange, when I thought I was going to die, I couldn’t speak.  But after the first bounce, the relief that I was not dead freed me to go ahead and yell.

 Bungee jumping is one of those experiences that will scare the pants off you when it is happening, but after it is over, confidence (or over-confidence) returns.  Such was the case here.  When it was Lauren’s turn, both Katie and I added to her experience by saying such things as “If you die, can Katie have your room back in Kona?”  Lauren jumped and all went well.  She screamed on her second bounce just like Katie and I.  She told me later that she almost didn’t jump, but she really focused up there and that helped her take the plunge.  She also mentioned that Doug told her (nicely) that if she didn’t jump she would not get her money back.

 Having survived our bungee jump, we walked over to a large contraption called Freefall Extreme.  This is like skydiving as they have a large vertical fan that is strong enough to support a person as if they were freefalling from an airplane.  Lauren and Katie gave it a go and had fun while Cheryl and I watch.  After that I rode on the agrojet which I described earlier.  That was a lot of fun as well.

 The next thing we decided to do was take a gondola ride to the top of Mt. Ngongotaha.  This mountain sits next to Rotorua and offers great views of the city and lake.  When we arrived we saw that there was a restaurant at the top so we decided to have lunch up there.  Also, they had a kind of luge course with wheeled sleds and concrete track that looked like fun for the girls.  After lunch Cheryl and I let the girls do that while we took the opportunity to sit and have a glass of New Zealand wine.

 After a couple hours we headed down the mountain on the gondola.  It was late in the day and we thought we had better find a hotel, so we did.  It was a Best Western and they had unit with two bedrooms and a kitchen.  They also had a pool and hot tub so we went for a dip.  That evening we drove back into the downtown area and ate at a Japanese restaurant.  We slept well that night.

 The next morning we decided to rethink our time left in New Zealand.  After four days in the country we were closer to our starting point (Auckland) than Wellington on the south end of the island.  In fact, we learned that it was a 5-6 hour drive to Wellington from Rotorua.  I asked a lady at a gas station how long it would take to drive from Rotorua to Wellington on the “motorway,” meaning the freeway.  She said: “I am sorry, but our motorways end outside of town, and then I am afraid you will have to endure country roads until you near Wellington.”   We knew that it was unreasonable to try and we did not want to push it.  Of course, visiting the South Island was out of the question.

 Also, there was more to see in Rotorua.  We had fun with the bungee jumping and the rest, but we had not done anything educational.  We needed an “education day.”  And it happens that Rotorua is a Maori cultural and spiritual center.  So, we made a plan to spend most of the day in Rotorua and then drive to the nearby Bay of Plenty on the Pacific coast and see why our old friend Captain Cook gave it that name.

 After a fine breakfast from a nearby convenience store, we set out for an attraction called Kiwi Encounter.  This non-profit sanctuary works with the New Zealand Department of Conservation to breed and release kiwi birds back into the wild.  We learned that kiwi populations have declined over the past two hundred years and are currently an endangered species.   We also learned that they are nocturnal.  We took a tour through a dark “kiwi house” and saw several of the little fellows lurking around.  We also watched employees weighing and feeding a baby kiwi in a lab behind lots of glass.  Of course, Lauren and Katie asked if they could have one as a pet, as they do whenever we see any animal that is remotely cute.  After a run through the gift shop with minimal damage, we headed for the car.

 The next stop on our education day was a visit to a thermal reserve and Maori cultural area called Te Whakarewarewa (also called Whaka).  Perhaps 100 acres in size, it is run by the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute.  We learned that the area around the reserve has great spiritual significance for the Maori people.  We took a walking tour which was very informative and included a visit to a bubbling mud pit as well as a geyser similar to Old Faithful (in Yellowstone Nat’l Park).  Our tour guide was a perky Maori lady who encouraged us to engage in “retail therapy” every time passed a gift shop or place where we could otherwise spend money.  We also watched a traditional Maori dance.  Of course, we were already familiar with this type of dance because we see it almost every time go to a tourist Luau back home in Hawaii.

 Sometime after 3pm we were back in the car and staying left with our twin goals to see what the beaches looked like on New Zealand’s east coast and to visit a kiwi fruit farm.  We noticed on one of the maps that there was a farm called Kiwi 360 along our route that offered tours so we made a plan to stop there.  Less than an hour later we began to see vineyards or what looked like vineyards.  And we didn’t just see one or two; we saw lots on both sides of the road.  And they were very nice looking with long lines of poplars and firs used as wind breakers.   Cheryl, who had been dozing, was fully awake at this point.  I was ready to put the beach-and-kiwi-quest on hold and stop for some wine tasting, but then someone suggested that these were likely not vineyards, but rather kiwi orchards.

 Sure enough, when we got to Kiwi 360 and drove into the parking lot our suspicions proved correct.  We got out of the car and walked over to the nearest vine and they were kiwi alright.  We went inside the building.  They had a gift shop and we noticed a sign that said they offered tours every half hour.  Unfortunately, the last tour was at 4:30 and it was now 4:40.  An older gentleman, who was either the owner or manager was standing there.  When he saw our disappointment and said not to worry, because he would give us a private tour.   He then took us out the door to some nearby vines and we spent the next 25 minutes talking kiwi fruit.

 We learned all sorts of interesting things about kiwi fruit, most of which I cannot remember.  I do remember there are three or four kiwi varieties. They grow on vines and most tourists mistake them for grapes.  For the plant to blossom and bear fruit there must be both male and female plants in the orchard, but only the female plants bear fruit.  To cross-pollinate, they use bees.  Most kiwi farms don’t own their own bees and hire bee services that come several times per year.  After the tour, we returned to the gift shop where our guide offered us samples of kiwi chocolates and kiwi liqueur.  We chatted for a few minutes and noticed that the lady at the cash register was counting her money, as in closing up.  So we made our purchases, thank him kindly and said our good byes.

 We did not have the opportunity to see a rugby match, but it was clear during our travels in New Zealand that they love this sport.  In fact, it is a national obsession.  And I could see why: the New Zealand All Blacks, representing a country of just four million people have won the Rugby Union World Cup more times than any other country since it started in the late 1800s.  The uniforms are all black with a silver fern on them and we saw forms of that image everywhere we went.  Katie bought a stuffed kiwi doll that had on it an All Blacks shirt and Pueo borrowed the shirt for the picture we took of him at the kiwi farm. 

 Our next stop was the city of Tauranga.  This town looked big on the map and we needed to find a place to stay so we headed in that direction.  Less than an hour later we were on the outskirts of town and following signs to the city centre.  Tauranga is a charming port city with a beautiful natural harbor.  The downtown area along the water was attractive and clean with wide sidewalks.  For a medium size city it had a very cosmopolitan feel as there were shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafés all over the place.

 It was in Tauranga where we saw a sign at railroad crossing that said “Bell does not sound from 10:30pm to 7:00am.”  My first thought was that the kind of driver who does not check for trains at a railroad crossing is the same kind of driver who will not read a sign posted there either, but there it was.  And frankly it didn’t bother me because I liked what they were trying to accomplish – they wanted to keep the train noise down during the night so people could sleep. 

 There is another reason I liked Tauranga: they had an Internet café that welcomed laptops.  We were driving into the city centre and Cheryl saw the sign first, so I will give her credit.  It said “Internet Café - Laptop Access.”  I don’t know how you would respond to such a sign, but for me, it was like seeing an oasis in a desert.  As I mentioned before, I had been trying to publish updates to the website since we arrived.  Every Internet café I visited in New Zealand up to that point would not let me bring in my notebook computer.  In other words, they welcomed me to sit at one of their computers, but to bring my own laptop, the answer was no.  And wireless networks, forget it.  In New Zealand they are either non-existent or secured or will not let you on if you don’t have a local telephone or cell phone account.  The Starbucks back in Auckland had signs in the windows: “Wireless Hotspot!”  But that did not help me.  I could not get a guest account or temporary membership or one-day pass.  Granted, I like New Zealand, I like it a lot, but this is one area that proved frustrating.

 Cheryl immediately asked me to pull the car over and park.  Then she encouraged me to go update the website right then.  She said “Go publish, you go publish now.  I’ll just be shopping with the girls and we’ll see you an hour.  Is that enough time dear?”  Just in case there was any doubt in your mind as to why I love this woman, there is your answer.  I walked in to the place, they had a seat available and I updated the website.   Cheryl and the girls were back an hour later.  I told the owner I loved him – just kidding – I told the owner we appreciated his services and we went to dinner.

 We read that the best place to stay in Tauranga was not actually in the city itself but in a nearby community on an outer island fronting the ocean.  It took us 15 minutes to get there and the name of the town was Mt. Maunganui.  We drove around for a few minutes looking for a hotel.  Like in the US, hotels and motels in New Zealand have a vacancy sign with the word “No” in neon letters in front.  Once the girls caught on, they could see that neon from a block away. Eventually we found a place.  By the time we got the bags unpacked it was dark, but we wanted to walk on the beach.  We had seen it while driving in and it was beautiful – wide and flat with light, almost white sand.  The evening was cool so we needed our jackets to keep warm, but we took off our shoes and the sand felt good on our feet.

 We spent the next day relaxing with a visit to the beach.  Our hotel room had a great view of the Bay of Plenty.  Apparently Captain James Cook sailed into this bay on the Endeavour in October 1769 and named it for the friendly Maori he encountered who help supply his ship.  This was in contrast to his reception a few weeks earlier to the south where he was not welcomed by the local Maori and no food was available.  He called that area Poverty Bay and it retains that name today.

 On our final day in New Zealand we headed back to Auckland as our flight to Sydney was early the next morning.  The drive took several hours and was uneventful.  We checked into the first hotel we found near the airport.  It was a bit of a dive, but they had a hotpot and carton of milk for us at check-in, so we figured it was okay.  For dinner we drove into downtown Auckland and ate at the Skytower.  The views were great and we had nice evening.

 What can I say about New Zealand?  It’s a lovely country and we plan to go back.  We would like to see the South Island; it looks nice in the pictures.  Mt. Maunganui is a charming town with a beautiful beach; we could easily park ourselves there for a while.  But that is another day.  Today, it's on to Australia...