Matamata, Waitomo Caves, Wellington, Auckland
10 Jul 2006
|July 9, 2006
Right now I am sitting at a large rustic wooden table in our hostel in Kaikoura, New Zealand (East coast of the South Island). The trip is going marvelously. About the fourth day, right around the time we flew to New Zealand, I felt like a fog lifted off my brain and I was able to function normally again—thus was my release from the misery of jet lag.
New Zealand is so gorgeous. Most of the northern North Island that we drove through is green green rolling hills and valleys, pastures and sheep and cows. On the 7th we picked up a rental car in Auckland and drove to Matamata. Luckily, driving on the left-hand side of the road is apparently like riding a bike, I fell right back into the habits of left-hand driving. (Except, unfortunately, for the turn signal/wiper switch problem.)
Near Matamata is where the set for Hobbiton was created for the Lord of the Rings films. When New Line went in to tear down all the hobbit holes, it was so rainy and muddy that they only got half-way through the job, and by the time they were ready to go back in, the owners of the property had decided that they wanted to run tours. So now there are a bunch of wooden hobbit-hole facades in the hill faces, and you can see the party tree and the lake where the mill and the Green Dragon were located. We took a tour of the area, which Cristie patiently put up with. The whole area is a big sheep farm, so we had to watch our steps, but it's gorgeous scenery, so it was definitely worth it. We basically got a two in one tour, Hobbiton and Working Sheep Farm. We then started our drive to the Waitomo Caves area. On the way we stopped at a place called Opal Hot Springs. Basically they have these natural springs that you can swim in and relax. While there we got a nice lecture on manners from the owner (apparently you have to ask before you can give them your patronage) and spent a relaxing ½ hour in the springs.
That night we drove to the Waitomo Caves area and stayed at a hostel called Juno Hall. The owner is a funny, friendly, talkative Kiwi who built the place about 15 years ago—it has a large living area, a gorgeous kitchen (which we didn't really use) and a resident cat that isn't really allowed inside but comes in anyway. There is also a broken-jawed ram and a humongous pink-and-black pig on the property. Other interesting fact: our host was one of the extras in LOTR, a Rohan warrior; he told us where to look for him in the third film and told stories about costumes, etc.
The caving experience was awesome. Our guide was named Regan, and he put up well with a group of 6 girls, including 2 other girls from Arizona and a mom and daughter from Auckland. The girl was the cutest thing ever—pixie face and haircut and a high-pitched giggly voice, but not annoyingly so. We bonded. First off, we all dressed out in wet suits (that were already wet when we put them on—ouch), ugly shorts (they had not function at all, just there to enhance the outfit), booties, plastic boots and miner helmets. Next, we drove out to the cave area and practiced jumping off a ledge into the water with inner tubes. Then we took a short hike through soggy green forest to the entrance of the cave, descended, and stooped along for about 10 minutes. This was the part that made me slightly nervous, because I don't like the feeling of being restricted in any way, especially if I'm marching off into a pitch-black cave I'm not familiar with. It was okay, though, and eventually we were able to ride our inner tubes through a bug stretch of the cave. One thing the area is famous for is glow worms, which are the larvae of a type of fly; they hatch, crawl up to a spot on the cave ceiling, and drop down a thin sticky thread to catch food. They glow green, so the ceilings of the cave glittered like Christmas lights. I had my underwater digital camera, so I'd opted out of wearing gloves on the tour. Yowza. My hands got ridiculously numb, so I couldn't control their movements. At the end of the tour they provided hot showers, but my hands weren't functional enough to unzip my wetsuit (Cristie had to help) or use any cleaning products properly. I managed to unscrew a bottle of shampoo and empty some into my hand, but when I went to do what you normally do with shampoo, I had problems. My fingers all stuck out straight and pointed away from each other—it felt like I was holding a set of lobster pinchers and trying to give myself a head massage. Dry clothes and hot soup helped, though.
That afternoon we started out to Wellington (southern tip of the north island), and completely underestimated the amount of time it would take to drive there. (We had to skip skiing at the place we'd planned, because the roads were all snowed out.) We arrived around 9pm and missed the rugby union match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Australia Wallabies. New Zealand won 32-16. In Wellington we walked around a bit and saw Pirates of the Caribbean 3 at the Embassy theatre—this is where they held the New Zealand premiere for Return of the King in 2003, and it just happened to be across the street from our hostel. The place was all decked out in banners, and the workers were wearing pirate outfits—ha. Apparently it's the biggest screen in New Zealand.
This morning we checked out Te Papa, the National Museum in Wellington. It has some really interesting exhibits, especially for children, all for free. There was also a Lord of the Rings exhibition showing a lot of the costumes, props and artwork (note from Cristie: truthfully the only reason we went to Te Papa was because of the Lord of the Rings exhibition, don't buy Rebecca's "oh and there just happened to be a LOTR exhibition there" bit☺. That said, I thought it was really cool too).
From Wellington we took a 3-hour ferry ride across the (gorgeous) Cook Strait to Picton in the south island. The ferry was this gigantic boat called the Interislander with an arcade, café, televisions, movie theatre and huge lounge areas. It was a luxury ferry. Our drive to Kaikoura was mostly in the dark, but it is a clear night so the moon and stars helped out. Parts of the drive were right along the coastline (sometimes with nothing in between the car and a cliff with rocky waves at the bottom), and we had a couple of magical moments of driving around a hard turn and finding snow-capped mountains just in front of us. We also stopped at a look-out and barely made out the shapes of seals on the beach below. (Actually, I picked my way down the hill, stood about 10 feet away and made kissy noises at them so they would look at me—what else do you do with seals?)
Our hostel, called Dusky Lodge, is really nice. We have a four-bunk room to ourselves, and it (the hostel) boasts a spa, sauna and Thai restaurant out the back. We had green curry and the slightly-intoxicated men in the kitchen made fun of us while it was being prepared. Saunas are hot; I don't think I like them much. There's a large kitchen and 2 lounge areas decked out with lots of wood and wood-burning stoves.
The next couple of days we are planning on skiing and doing a dolphin tour, then it's back to Australia for a while!