Until we meet again, New Zealand
Hello again! A lot has happened since I last posted. Let me bring you up to speed on the latest adventures of the Zelvis family!
NOTE: Unfortunately, the app I am using to blog, wix, is the worst I have ever used and it is currently uploading all my pictures upside down no matter what orientation I try to post them in. Hopefully the blog will hold you over until I can figure out the issue. As you can perhaps imagine, the North island is quite a bit different than the one located in the south. For one, it is much more populated and, being smaller, the population is quite a bit more dense. Why, you ask ? The north island is typically drier and warmer than it's southern counterpart. Even when the Maori came to New Zealand long ago, six of their seven tribes settled in the north island. Our ferry landed in Wellington, which at 200,000 people is the third largest city in the country. After picking up our new, dull orange rental car (which Ethan immediately named Squashy), we headed to our backpacker guesthouse in the city center.
We spent the next 2 days walking around the city, enjoying some sun in the scorching 65 degree weather. It really did feel quite warm to us coming from the south! We got some great views of the city from Mt. Victoria, walked along the harbour, checked out Te Papa, the national museum that covers some of New Zealand’s history, and checked out Zealandia, an incredible bird sanctuary just outside the city.
The plan next was to head to a small town aptly called National Park, as it sits right on the dual UNESCO Tongariro National Park. This national park is known for its hikes and volcanoes, and I was determined to do the best hike in New Zealand - the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The 20 kilometer hike takes you to a height of 2000 meters above sea level, heading up and between two volcanoes in the park. Heard of Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings, anyone? Yeah, it really exists - and it is one of those volcanoes! The weather, though, wanted to have other plans for me. With high winds and rain at the base of the park, it only meant conditions were going to be much worse at the top. I woke up early anyway and drove to the start of the hike, but the park ranger advised against going as wind speeds were hovering around 60kmph and the rain was severe enough to drench even the ranger, who had much better gear than I did. For an island with less rain than the south, the forecast was not looking good for the entire week. How could I miss out on the hike I so desired to do?! In the end, I took the advice of the ranger. Looking at the weather, I stayed optimistic that I still may have a shot at the hike the following day. The weather in the north island is still very unpredictable, but it was looking like a gap in the rain was opening up. We had more things to see, though, so we drove an hour north to the hot springs town of Taupo. Sitting in the heart of the most active volcanic region in New Zealand, Taupo is known for a large inland lake and natural volcanic hot springs. We used the day to walk around by the lake and visit a nearby fast-flowing waterfall, and also ended up visiting the McDonald's voted best in the world. It has an actual airplane in the play area, so those other McDonald's don't stand a chance! I went to bed watching the weather, hoping it would stay calm enough to allow me to hike the Crossing. We all got up very early in the morning to drive the hour back south to the beginning of the Alpine Crossing hiking track. The skies were looking quite overcast, but with the weather looking even worse for the afternoon, it was now or never. As we approached the national park, my heart sank as it started pouring on our car. Strangely enough, the rain dissipated as quickly as it came, as suddenly a blue crack appeared in the skies. Looking into the distance, Mt. Doom emerged from its hiding place in the clouds. It wanted to be climbed, and I was not going to disappoint! The hike was… Surreal. Heading up to the volcanoes was an absolutely incredible experience. Walking across the red volcanic crater with snow sitting on the cone is an image I will never forget. The sulfuric smell will stay with me forever. I've been in many hikes, and I am sure I will go on many more, but this one was just something special. The only downside to the hike was that the clouds decided to come back to hang out quite early. Right after I climbed to the highest point on the hike, they settled in and reduced visibility to almost zero. It really didn't take away from the experience for me, and I was still able to see the volcanic lakes and lagoons along the way. The hike ended up taking me exactly four and a half hours, and it was definitely worth it! Feeling like I had just slain a great beast, we drove back to Taupo and took advantage of the thermal baths there. Completely natural, the heat and minerals in the water did wonders for my weary bones. Finishing up our stay in Taupo, we drove further into volcanic territory to the town of Rotorua - built right in top of an ancient supervolcano! The entire town of Rotorua is known for geothermal sites, and we made sure to visit the best of them! Some of the highlights were a bright green thermal pool, bubbling mud pools, and some incredible geysers - one that sprays water up to 70 meters high! The entire town, sitting inside the extinct volcano has that rotten egg sulfuric smell. What a unique place! Not to be forgotten, Rotorua is also known for some giant redwood trees taken right from California. It is also a hub for Maori villages, and we took the time to visit one and learn about their culture and customs. Ethan even got up on stage and performed a Maori dance with some of the locals! Our next two days were reserved for two famous sites. First was the Waitomo glow worm Caves, one of a few places in the world where so many of the worms congregate. These worms live in dark places where they use biolumenescent poop to attract baby bugs who get trapped in the worm’s saliva, which dangles some 3 to 4 inches from its mouth. It is a disgusting ordeal, but for us, seeing them in these pitch black caves is like looking at a starry night sky. The following day we traveled to the site of the set where the Lord of the Rings movies began - Hobbiton. After building the site a second time for the Hobbit trilogy, the site was preserved for the sake of tourism, and it is left in the exact condition it was in for the recent movies. Tour guides walked us through the site, helping us to experience the magic of the town and also explaining to us how the site was created to create all the effects for the movie. Truly a remarkable experience! We ended our time in New Zealand by spending a few days in Auckland. At 800,000 people, it is the largest in the country and suffers a bit for it. It didn't have a distinctly New Zealand feel, and was missing the magic of the rest of the country. The frantic pace and litter dotting the streets didn't help at all. With no real sites of its own to see, it just didn't resonate with us. Not to say it was a bad city, we still got the chance to experience a massive Christmas concert, see Santa, and walk around the city center. Yes, it is very strange hearing Christmas music in 70 degree weather! All in all New Zealand was great to us. Even this last week where we were supposed to see a lot of rain hardly had a drop. The sites we've seen are like none other and New Zealand truly is a unique, magical place. Hopefully we can go back some day to see all the things we didn't have time for! As depressing as it is to leave, it is equally exciting to think about our next destination and all the incredible things we will see and experience there - Vietnam!