“The world isn’t in your books and maps, it’s out there.” –Gandalf the Gray
Here is a link to the photos we took in New Zealand… http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckenzie_pictures/collections/72157632657870815/
There has certainly been a lot of hullabaloo about New Zealand in recent years. With the Lord of the Rings, the Flight of the Conchords, and now the Hobbit giving it lots of well-deserved publicity, it’s hard not to have it on your travel radar. It’s also hard not to anticipate it being the most beautiful physical landscape you’ve ever encountered. Having seen the LOTR films several times, I was expecting nothing less than magnificent craggy peaks, wide open valleys and lush, mossy woods (preferably with trees that talk and walk around). New Zealand delivered all of the above and then some, except of course for the walking/talking trees. As we hoped, in a relatively small and accessible island nation, nature has somehow managed to stuff the best of everything it has to offer, from active volcanoes and glaciers to waterfall-fed fjords, boiling hot springs, sandy beaches and tropical jungles. It is an exceedingly efficient and eco-conscious place with clean, bright cities to explore and a tourism infrastructure that truly puts the rest of the world to shame. Though I know I sound like I’m being paid by the New Zealand Ministry of Tourism, I will still say that it is, from the moment you step off the plane, the easiest place to travel ever.
We flew from Fiji into Auckland, and as the plane circled the city we were both surprised by the beautiful turquoise blue of the city’s surrounding bays. As we would find out later, there seems to be no body of water in New Zealand that isn’t shockingly, bizarrely blue in its own unique way. Walking through the terminal halls in Auckland’s airport is like walking through an exhibit in a New Zealand themed museum, with the sound effects of birds, waterfalls and Maori tribal music playing on speakers hidden in the walls behind murals of Lord of the Rings movie scenes and vivid photography of New Zealand’s national parks and cityscapes.
After catching a spotless public bus (complete with a glass roof and guided commentary on each of the bus’s stops) into the center of town, we checked into a YHA hostel and wandered along one of downtown Auckland’s precipitous lanes towards Queen Street and the colorful harbor front. Rows of tiny Asian restaurants were stacked along the streets and alleys alongside outdoor gear shops, coffee houses and Maori art galleries. A flash mob of giddy dancers in Indian saris clogged one side of the street, flailing their arms to the beat of hippie drummers sitting nearby on the sidewalk.
The steep hills led down to the water’s edge, where there was a cruise ship docked and swarms of tourists clogging the nearby gift shops and information centers. We ducked into one of them to pick up a few free maps, and I felt happily overwhelmed by the sheer mass of perfect, glossy booklets that were available outlining every possible detail about every possible location in the entire country. New Zealand clearly wants to make its tourists as happy as possible, and that suited us just fine. We would later come to find that there are so many tourist information booths in New Zealand’s cities and parks that there is never a need to use your own phone to book anything (which was a huge relief, since it turned out neither of our phones worked there and we didn’t want to bother with finding SIM cards). The staff will always call around and check availability and book everything for you for free, and then they’ll call a cab for you to get there. Easy as kiwi pie.
The skyline in downtown Auckland is dominated by its Sky Tower, a space needle-type structure that has a ledge from which adrenaline junkies can base jump while attached to a cord that slows them as they reach the ground. We watched from far below as tiny, black outlines of humans leapt off the edge like ants falling off a tree branch. New Zealand is famous for being a mecca for the crazy people of the world. Bungy jumping and skydiving are seen as normal, everyday activities here. Though I am (sadly) not in a place in my life where I have the guts to jump off a bridge, we were determined to do something exciting while in this adrenaline-saturated country. It would just be a matter of choosing which activity to do, and we would wait until we got to Queenstown, the self-proclaimed adventure capital of the world, to figure that out (see Part II for further details).
By chance, we just happened to be in New Zealand while ‘The Hobbit’ was playing in theatres, so we bought tickets to see it since we were only a few hours away from where it had been filmed. As we watched, each scene of stunning mountain scenery and quaint hobbit villages heightened our anticipation of what beauty awaited us outside the city borders. Watching as Bilbo Baggins decided to face his fears and venture out into the world to have an adventure made us excited to start our own. We couldn’t wait to get out there and explore this hyped-up country. There was only one more hurdle to clear, and that was learning to drive on the opposite side of the road and the opposite side of the car…
Shifting a Little to the Left
I had been dreading this particular challenge for months. When I had booked us a rental car earlier, the agent had called me from New Zealand to confirm the details, and I asked him if many of his clients from the USA had head-on collisions because they forgot to drive on the left. He said only sometimes. Not very comforting. My mind kept conjuring a disturbing scene in which I was having a nervous breakdown in a busy downtown intersection, headed in the wrong direction around a dizzying rotary and being honked at by dozens of angry locals. We nervously picked up the keys to our car, loaded our bags, took some deep breaths, and jointly decided that Dwayne would be the first to give it a shot (sigh of relief).
He merged cautiously out into the traffic while I dutifully studied the road map and did my best to give him plenty of advance notice as to any turns he would need to be anticipating along the way. There were about four lanes of traffic when we began, and it took a little mental adjustment to get used to the on ramps and exits being on the left and people passing on the right. Right hand turns and rotaries were tricky, and every time Dwayne went to turn on his blinker, he would instead turn on the windshield wipers. Every single time. (It later turned out I would do the exact same thing). But for the most part, it was much easier than we had expected.
Fluffballs on Mount Doom
Driving south towards Rotorua, we headed out into the countryside, where the ‘real’ New Zealand began to unfold before us. Steep, grassy hillsides were speckled with thousands of white, fuzzy blobs. As we got closer, the blobs revealed their true shapes as some of the countless herds of sheep that prop up New Zealand’s economy on their woolly backs. It is said that sheep outnumber people in New Zealand by a ridiculously huge ratio (about 4 million people to 60 million sheep). As we drove through the hills, it became abundantly clear that this had to be true, and also that cows and deer had to outnumber people by a large margin as well. The rugged landscape was divided into sprawling sheep, cattle and deer ranches reaching out to the horizon in every direction, organized neatly by an extensive system of high-quality modern fencing. We wondered how the farmers were able to keep track of such vast tracts of land and all their 4-legged residents, but clearly they manage somehow.
As we had hoped, the hills began to look more and more like Hobbiton. It was a lumpy, twisted terrain with tiny squiggly paths (presumably from the sheep) winding up the hillsides and old, stunted trees rooting messily into grassy knolls. Some of the hills were green, and others were golden, with breezes blowing the tall grasses so it looked like the hills had hair that was being blow-dried. It was tranquil and cozy, and whenever we stopped to take photos all the sheep would stare at us and bah to each other with concern.
The road got windier as it hugged the shore of Lake Taupo and, as we neared Tongariro National Park, the unmistakable outline of the volcanic cone that was used as Mount Doom (in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) loomed in the distance. The name of this iconic peak is Mount Ngauruhoe, and we were a bit spellbound by it. As it got larger in the windshield, we noticed another nearby volcano along the Desert Road section of NZ Route 1 that was actually spitting up an ash cloud. It’s fascinating enough to see a volcanic landscape when you are only seeing the aftermath of eruptions, but we were fortunate enough to be seeing a mini-eruption as it was taking place. What luck! I excitedly pulled the car over to snap some photos, and was bahhed at by an orchestra of sheep as an added bonus.
Once we came down from Tongariro’s mountain pass, we pushed on towards Rotorua and eventually pulled into their YHA hostel, a shiny and trendily-designed metallic complex with cheap walls that shook when anyone in the entire dorm building closed any door. The lobby was packed with college-aged travelers inquiring at the reception desk about where to bungy jump, skydive, canyon swing, and cave tube, and video screens showed promotional video clips of people skydiving and rafting over 15-foot waterfalls. It began to sink in that hostelling does wonders to make anyone over the age of 24 feel extremely old and unexciting.
In the Land of Stinky Steam and Haka
Rotorua is a thriving region, famed for its status as the cultural center of Maori (indigenous New Zealander) society and also for its geothermal attractions. Once we had plopped our bags down next to our wooden dorm beds, we walked around the central part of town and along the lake’s edge. We strolled along a lively pedestrian mall full of every type of ethnic restaurant we could think of, and after finally deciding on Indian food we ordered up some refreshingly delicious tikka masala and garlic naan. As far as food culture shock goes, there is very little of it that happens when an American visits New Zealand, as all the same food choices, including most of our popular fast food chains, are readily available at every turn. (Finding familiar brands in the grocery store is another story entirely). Our spirits were high in Rotorua. The breeze from the lake was cool, the sky was clear and sunny, the food was tasty, and we’d gotten through the first day without crashing the rental car while driving on the left. It was a good start!
The next morning we visited the “Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland” to check out New Zealand’s finest display of volcanic surface activity. We struggled to find an open spot in which we could stand on tiptoes to peer through the immense crowd of tourists waiting to get a partial view of Lady Knox Geyser, which was rumored to erupt at precisely 10:15am every day. Impressed that a natural geyser would have such punctuality of routine, we waited eagerly to see if it lived up to the advertising. 10:15am came and went, and about 5 minutes later a park ranger walked up to the geyser, gave a short speech about its history and science, and poured a bag of chemicals down its spout to trigger an eruption. A bit of a letdown. Though the geyser was interesting to watch, I couldn’t help but compare it to the dazzling spectacle that is Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park back home. The American snob inside me peeked out from where I had hidden her and whispered snarkily, “We have a wayyy better one back in the US, and it erupts all on its own without being triggered by a park ranger, so there!” and it made me wonder how many times this snob would come out from hiding over the course of this world tour.
Indeed, the snob managed to sit on my shoulder the entire time that we explored the geothermal landscape. The air reeked of sulphur as we wandered through the steamy valley, and as we would view each bubbling mud pot, neon-hued hot spring and gaping sinkhole, I couldn’t help but compare these lovely features to their (in my snobby opinion) far more awe-inspiring cousins in my own country. Though it brought about a sense of pride in my beautiful home, I was disappointed in myself for not being able to shake the urge to compare this place with the USA. This trip is about experiencing new places and appreciating them for what they are, not judging them against what I left behind. The world is not just a giant beauty contest with each country vying for the number one spot on each traveler’s list of favorites, so I decided to try my very hardest to silence the snob and tuck her way so as to only be focused on my current surroundings. (Easier said than done, I’m afraid.)
That night, we bought tickets to see a Maori cultural show. The anthropologist in me was eager to get a peek at some of their famous facial tattoos and fierce expressions that I’d seen pictured in textbooks during my years of studying indigenous peoples in college. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C4%81ori_people#Culture) That, and I couldn’t wait to see the Haka! Haka is a particularly ferocious Maori war dance of the sort that used to strike fear into the hearts of early European sailors unlucky enough to find themselves facing the wrong side of a Maori weapon. These days, rugby is the undisputed king in these parts, and the infamous New Zealand All Blacks rugby team has adopted this traditional Maori dance as a part of their pre-game warm-up routine, much to the fascination of onlookers everywhere. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdMCAV6Yd0Y) As such, the Haka dance has gained notoriety and so has become an expected element of any exhibition on Maori culture, sort of like Hula Dancing in Hawaii but more bad-ass. The tourists will pay big money for this glorious outburst of shouting, stomping and intimidation, and I whole-heartedly jumped on the bandwagon, excited to be intimidated. We hopped a ride to the ‘traditional Maori village’ on a school bus full of tourists, and spent the ride learning a few Maori words from the bus driver and choosing a ‘chief’ to represent us at the village welcoming ceremony. Cheesy, but not at all a surprise.
Though they first arrived in canoes in ancient times (around 1300 or so), today’s Maori people are modern, cell-phone-toting, Facebook-checking, office-job-holding folk just like everyone else in New Zealand. So, we expected the traditional village to be simply a museum of sorts with people in costumes pretending to be warriors based on what they’ve learned about their culture from older relatives and schooling. And that was precisely what it was. There were elaborately decorated actors who took turns showing us ancient wood carving, game playing, and battle readiness training techniques at various stations along a wooded path in a replica village. They posed for countless snapshots with their trademark scowls frozen perfectly as the tourists scrambled to focus lenses and adjust camera settings. I asked one of the actors if any of the Maori people still get the traditional facial tattoos, and he said not usually because they don’t want to be judged. I felt sad, but knew that answer was coming. Outwardly visible Maori culture has completely morphed into what the current era requires it to be, a show. The real life of the Maoris is not something I’ll ever be a part of or a witness to, but I sure hope it is still burning strong behind the souvenir masks and the tattoo paint.
Once we’d been shown a video on Maori history and a dancing and singing performance in their auditorium, they launched energetically into the Haka as the grand finale. And yes, for all its theatrical, touristy hype, it still can send shivers down one’s spine. The rhythmic pounding of feet and controlled puffing of breath, mixed with the guttural chanting and unrestrained shouting in a language so exotic it’s nearly impossible for outsiders to even attempt to read the words aloud, made for a truly enthralling few moments. You can temporarily forget which century we’re currently living in, and forget that these people will drive their cars home to their electrified, internet-connected houses when they are finished performing for us. For a few moments, it is possible to imagine that you are a Captain Cook era explorer and that these people are a fearsome local tribe ready to kill you to defend their home from dangerous intruders who mean them harm. It’s a magical history lesson, and then it is over, and you wish it would begin again. These brief moments of time travel, of peering into the past and succumbing to an unfamiliar feeling of awe at the power of just one, primitive human sound, renew my faith that humanity is still a thing to be proud of and inspired by. But the moment quickly passed, the lights came back on, and just like that I was back in 2013 again.
We were herded into a dining room where the cooks had prepared a ‘Hangi’ style dinner which consisted of potatoes and meats that had been cooked underground in a large, covered pot buried in a bed of embers outside. The resulting flavor was smoky and not necessarily pleasant. I was happy not to have been born in a time period and village in which this was the regular way of preparing dinner. That said, I have always had an obsession with the traditions of indigenous cultures from all over the world, and there have been many times when I have half-seriously lamented not being born about 300 years earlier so that I could have been an explorer in the truest sense, back when the big, wide world was still a dark mystery. Today, I am an explorer in a world that is ready for me, that knows I’m coming and is prepared with plenty of gift shops, camera-flashing crowds, staged dance shows and packaged tours with convenient English translation. The days of wandering through a wild jungle into an unmapped village of tribal people living a simple, sustainable lifestyle are very close to being behind us for good.
This is something I have realized is true, but can’t seem to accept yet because it makes me depressed. Have we truly found every wonder there is out there to discover? Are there no more hidden Machu Picchus or Angkor Wats left buried beneath tangled vines? The thought sinks my heart. Though, when it comes down to it, I have to admit to myself that I’d make a terrible explorer in the days of Captain Cook. The old, hand-drawn maps of those epic voyages are drawn with all manner of monsters and demons coming out of the sea to swallow ships whole. I am not a courageous person, and I wouldn’t have the strength to step onto a ship and sail out into a sea that may or may not have an edge that drops off into the void of space. I could not face the terrifying prospect of giants or sea serpents or cannibals roasting me over an open flame. The only reason I’m able to travel the world now is because I know, for better or worse, what’s out there to see. I live in the age of coffee table photography books, National Geographic magazines, Lonely Planet guidebooks and the Travel Channel. I know that if I step onto a plane, the chances are extremely good that I will step off it in a place that I already know a lot about. A place that I know with certainty actually exists, that I didn’t just hear about in rumors or see on a ratty treasure map. I travel in the safety of a globalized world, though the process of globalization often keeps me from finding the types of adventures I seek from travel. The real ones, the ones they can’t sell. Those are the modern day treasures, and they aren’t easy to reach.
I came away from my Maori experience feeling exactly how I expected to feel. Just like when I’ve watched costumed dancers in the Amazon and when I’ve visited famous frontier towns of the Old West, the encounter was fake, but I was prepared and therefore still able to immerse myself in the vivid daydream of these peoples’ history and what life must have been like, even if I’ll never experience it.
I am, I must always remember, indescribably blessed to have been born in a time, place and life situation that allow me to even be making these observations firsthand at all. Travel used to be impossible but for the wealthy, and vast swaths of the world could not be visited for lack of a way to reach them even if you had the money. Voyages were arduous and took months and sometimes years, and the risk was unnervingly high you might not return at all. Women were seldom allowed to venture out on these voyages at all, even if they were brave enough to be willing. In my world, by contrast, any location on earth is reachable within a few days’ time spent cruising through the skies in a comfortable, cushioned seat while being served hot meals and reading books on a handheld computer. You don’t need to be rich, just diligent about saving. You don’t need to be commissioned by a king or sponsored by a trading company or church mission, all you need is curiosity about the world, a valid passport, and enough money to buy a ticket.
The world has changed so much since the days when the Maori warriors would tattoo their faces and scan the ocean’s horizon for ominous ship sails approaching. In reality, back then it was probably a nasty, scary world to be living in. A world full of untreatable diseases, filthy living conditions and gory hand-to-hand warfare, but my mind will always find the romance in my imaginings of that seemingly simpler and more nakedly ‘human’ time. I long for the type of excitement that people must have felt upon discovering something truly never-before-seen, and I wonder if I’ll ever find that something for myself.
As we neared the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, some of the ultra-modern homes of Wellington’s wealthier suburbs began to appear on the cliffsides high above the widening highway. We reached the seashore and could see sleek sailboats bobbing in the vivid blue bay, their sails rippling in the stiff breeze. Dwayne took care to stay in the center lane as the traffic began to close in heavier. Back in Rotorua, I had finally mustered the courage to drive our rental car and found it to be much less scary than my annoyingly overactive imagination had made it out to be, but Dwayne happened to be driving when we descended into Wellington’s CBD at rush hour. I struggled to read the map fast enough to direct him through a puzzling network of one-way streets to the hostel where we had reserved a room, and eventually a visibly stressed Dwayne decided that Wellington was not his favorite place ever.
The breeze picked up as we later walked along the capital city’s artsy oceanside promenade, with bronze sculptures of divers hanging off the dockside and beanbag chairs strewn in front of lively pubs. People swam in the bay, but it was far too windy and chilly for us to be jealous of them, and we went to bed that night eager to wake up and hop onboard the ferry to cross Cook Strait to the South Island. Not because we didn’t like Wellington (though admittedly we weren’t particularly in love with it) but instead because of the spirited ravings we’d heard about NZ’s notoriously spectacular southern half. It was very closeby now, and our anticipation was growing. We shared a hostel dorm room in the Wellington YHA with some Irish travelers who provided lots of insight into the beer-drinking scene in Australia, choked down some overcooked mac-n-cheese in the filthy hostel kitchen, crashed for a few hours, and made up our bunks early the next morning to head to the Interislander ferry terminal to catch our boat to the South Island and what many a traveler claims to be the most perfect place on Earth.
To be continued…