Thursday, April 30, 2015


We finally made it to Hobbiton. It was raining, cold, and muddy, unfortunately, but that's New Zealand. Unpredictable weather always. There were lots of hobbit hole facades and real fruit and vegetable gardens. I recognized some of my own plants there which was cool! Since we've watched the behind-the-scenes documentaries of the LOTR and Hobbit movies, there wasn't much new from the guide. We had the ginger beer (ginger ale soda) in the Green Dragon Inn and a chocolate chip cookie with lemon frosting. We would have appreciated a little more effort toward atmosphere on the tour, as listening to Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and other pop music on the bus ride to and from the set wasn't quite the movie soundtrack and experience we were expecting. They packed a lot of people into our group and the walkways aren't designed for that many people, so there was a lot of crowding (especially with us all using umbrellas). We plunked down a bit in the gift shop for some souvenirs and were on our way to Auckland.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rotorua, Land of Thermal Hotspots

Huka Falls is the "most visited" scenic area in New Zealand because it's right off the main road. And it's an easy walk. It was still magnificent, with loud, rushing water and beautiful turquoise water. There were tons of tourists there snapping selfies.

We cheaped out in Rotorua (it's super touristy and everything's expensive) and checked out the free Kuirau Park which had lots of bubbling pools and steam vents. It was my first time in a thermal area and the sulphuric smell was interesting. I got some great shots of the pukeko bird -- there were lots of them rummaging around for food. They have such pretty purple coats and that bright orange beak.

The Rotorua Museum was an iconic building, formerly the bath house that drew tourists to the area to receive all kinds of "medical" treatments, like being given electric shocks while soaking in the baths, or being spun around in a machine to relieve you of constipation. I wonder if people will look back on our time and consider our modern medicine to be so crazy.

There was a surprisingly cool corrugated art exhibit by Jeff Thomson. I enjoyed the animals and the submarine thing. Although we ran out of time to see a lot of the museum, there was a substantial Maori section which I'd like to return to see. The North Island does have a noticeably larger Maori presence which is nice to know exists since Christchurch doesn't emphasize their culture much.

The museum had a fun 20-minute movie with shaking seats and reenactment of the 1886 eruption of the nearby volcano, Mount Tarawera. It really made me think how dumb humans are when it comes to Nature. Despite past disasters, we recklessly rebuild in dangerous areas and even build huge tourist centers to encourage more people to come. We went on a guided tour of the museum with an older lady originally from Scandinavia, and she kept commenting on how the whole city and surrounding area is in a caldera from a volcano and could erupt again without warning. All of the hot springs and steam vents are an indication that things are still bubbling (literally) on and below the earth. And yet 50,000+ people live there now, and tourists have been coming for over a hundred years.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Turangi and Tongariro National Park Volcanoes

It rained almost the entire drive from Wellington to Turangi, so this was the view most of the time.

Thankfully, the next day was sunny and not rainy, so we were able to enjoy Tongariro National Park and views of the three active volcanoes: RuapehuNgauruhoe, and Tongariro. The park was the first national park in New Zealand and the fourth in the world. It was gifted by the Maori people in 1887 and the summits of the volcanoes are considered sacred. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Most of the backpackers do the 6-8 hour, 12-mile hike known as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (they usually do one-way and pay to take a shuttle back to their car). We, however, are not that fit or adventurous to do such a steep hike, so we did a 2-hour Taranaki Falls hike instead. The waterfall was beautiful and we had great views of the surrounding country along the way. 

added an "elvish" filter :)

straight out of Mario Bros., right?!
Then, we drove back to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing area and did a 30-minute hike just up to the first hut. After the clouds cleared, we saw Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings) in all its splendor and photographed it to death. 

hot thermal vents

cool mesa off in the distance
We were very fortunate to have such nice weather after such a bashing the day before, but you come to expect the see-sawing in New Zealand!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Wellington: Zealandia and Cable Car Museum

The next day we spent hours at Zealandia, a wildlife reserve with an anti-predatory fence around it to enable birds and reptiles to flourish in a managed rainforest just outside of Wellington. We walked some of the trails, surrounded by birdsong and enjoying many sightings of birds, and even a tuatara lizard and some weta bugs. There was also an old mining cave with lots of weta on the walls -- we got out of there pretty fast!

Tui are black with white tufts under their beaks
shags (cormorants) on their nests with babies

Can you see the tuatara lizard? (hint: right in the center)

Saddlebacks (named for orange feathers on their back)

large eel

ferns are one of the national symbols

There used to be a reservoir until they discovered it was on the fault line.

This robin was hoping to snag some crumbs from our lunch.

weta bug

New Zealand's native pigeon

old mining cave

pine tree that looked really cool

sweet orange mushroom!

Next we went to the Cable Car Museum at the top of a big hill with great views of Wellington. We also rode it down and up, although it is enclosed and not as fun as the cable cars in San Francisco.