Enchanting, Other-Worldly New Zealand

I’m walking underneath Auckland Harbor Bridge, tethered to a steel cable so I don’t fall in the water 142 feet below. It’s a stunning blue-sky day, perfect for a Bungy Jump, and I’m with a group of about 10 jumpers and observers. My son, Scott, walking a few feet ahead of me, is all geared up to take the plunge. Me? I’m chickening out and just plan to watch.

A few minutes later our group gathers in a small structure on the underside of the bridge as the brave jumpers receive final instructions on how to jump and what to expect. They can choose to touch the water at the bottom or get dunked. Scott opts for the latter, and after leaping off the platform, he drops into the water headfirst and gets wet to his waist before bouncing up and down a few times and then getting hauled back up, his eyes shining, his face glowing, and his hair and shirt dripping wet.

One by one the other jumpers make their leaps, bounce around a few times, and get reeled back in. Every single person is ecstatic and says this Bungy Jump is the best thing ever. What? Really? Our guide says it’s not too late. I can still jump if I want to. I peer over the platform, ponder a bit, and shake my head. I’m just too scared, afraid of jolting my middle-aged back, not to mention dangling upside down in mid-air. So I turn down my first and probably last chance to Bungy Jump.

Luckily there are plenty of other adventures ahead. I’m in New Zealand on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my husband, Peter, and our 27-year-old son, who flew in from Okinawa. After a three-day writers’ conference in Auckland, we will travel around the North Island in a Maui motorhome on a two-week camping trip. Our itinerary is packed full of adventure.

As Scott and I attach ourselves to the bridge cables after his Bungy Jump and head back to solid ground, I make a promise to myself: No more chickening out!

 

LEAP OF FAITH

A few days later I’m wishing I could. Scott, Peter, and I are dressed in wet suits, carrying inner tubes through a pitch-black cave with only a small light attached to our helmeted heads. We’re on a blackwater rafting expedition, and Peter and I are decades older than the other participants. But it’s too late to turn back now.

The three-hour journey starts with a backwards practice jump into an inner tube. Mine is not pretty—and even with a wetsuit, the water’s freezing. We begin floating toward the mouth of the “black labyrinth.” After entering the cave, we have to walk through the stream at times, stepping on uneven rocky terrain—underwater—in the dark. Falling is a given, but fortunately a few scrapes are the worst of my injuries. At an underground waterfall, we have to jump backwards into pitch darkness. It’s only 3-4 feet down, but when you can’t see the water below, it’s a leap of faith—splash!

Later as we float down an underground stream, we form a snake by tucking our feet underneath the arms of the person in front of us. The guide tells us to turn off our helmet lights and we glide along with the current in pure blackness. I look up and see thousands of tiny lights—glowworms, subterranean creatures that cling to the cave ceilings and eat insects attracted to their eerie luminescent glow. The tiny points of light are stunning, almost like a star-studded sky.

We get to see glowworms again on a more sedate tour of nearby Waitomo Glowworm Cave, owned by a local Maori family. We take a short boat ride through the quiet caves, propelled along using a rope system. The only sound we hear is water lapping on the side of the boat as we glide in the dark. Above us thousands of glowworms remind us we’re not alone. There’s a sense of timelessness here in this cave. Millions, maybe trillions of glowworms have been living, eating, breeding, and dying here in these caves for eons, probably much longer than human existence in New Zealand. The spirit of nature dwells in this place.

COOLEST HOT SPOT

Another kind of spirit awaits in the Shire, home of the Hobbiton Movie Set. We head there the next day after spending the night in a cozy campground in nearby Leamington. Hobbiton Movie Set is a tourist attraction for Hobbit fans, who come every day to explore the very same ground that The Hobbit and parts of The Lord of the Rings series were filmed. Peter opts to spend quiet time in the camper while Scott and I join the throngs of tourists on a bus ride through the countryside to the film set.

Turns out LOTR fans are everywhere we turn in New Zealand. If you’re a fan, you know that the movies were directed by Peter Jackson and filmed in his homeland. New Zealanders are very proud of their country’s contribution to this history-making franchise, and LOTR tours are available from one end of the country to another.

Hobbiton is cute as it can be, but it seems empty somehow. I keep expecting to see Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf with his staff. Instead it looks like all the hobbits have disappeared in the middle of their chores. Clothes dangle on clotheslines, and baskets of produce sit half-filled beside real gardens. After taking lots of photos of the Hobbit homes nestled in the hillsides, Scott and I wander past the watermill toward the Green Dragon Inn, recreated using the actual movie set. The Tudor-style inn has a thatched roof built with rushes from the local farm. Scott and I sit by a cozy fire and sample a hard cider and wait for Bilbo to come through the door. He never does.

That afternoon we head to Rotorua, a picturesque city in the center of the North Island. Known as New Zealand’s coolest hot spot, the city sits amid active geothermal vents, volcanos, craters, and geysers. As we arrive to tour the Rotorua Museum, we smell a distinct sulfur smell in the air. It comes from Lake Rotorua, a volcanic lake whose temperatures range from scalding hot to comfortably warm. It’s a shallow lake and features unusual coloration as a result of its high sulfur content—think bright yellow, phosphorescent green, and brick red.

The Rotorua Museum is housed in a gorgeous Tudor-style building that used to be a bathhouse, attracting people from all over the world for curative baths. Now restored, the building offers a glimpse into century-old architecture and a behind-the-scenes look at the bathing facilities. The museum offers an excellent exhibit on Maori culture with interactive displays as well as a 20-minute film describing the science and myth found in Rotorua’s storied past. After the movie and a too-quick visit, we climb up to the museum’s roof for a 360° view of the city and the caldera that surrounds the lake. The tourist brochure says it’s the only complete caldera in the world. Sunset’s looming, so we decide to head to the grocery store and then to our campground a few miles out of town.

We quickly learn that New Zealand is surprisingly expensive. Even staples like milk, bread, and eggs are twice as expensive as in the States. It takes a little getting used to since keeping costs down was one of the reasons we decided to camp. In the long run we’re definitely saving money by preparing most of our meals, but I still get sticker shock when the cash register rings up our bill.


EXOTIC BIRDSONG

Here in Rotorua, we’re staying in a campground called Blue Lake. The first morning I awake to the sounds of exotic birdsong and slip out of bed, leaving Peter and Scott fast asleep in the camper. In the early morning light, I walk through the mostly empty campground, listening to the birds caw, whoop, honk, and chirp. It’s a jungle out here—giant ferns, feathery trees, and thick lush foliage—which makes it hard to spot birds. Instead I content myself with listening to their sounds and even record a few on my phone to help remember the amazing sounds they make.

Today I am heading to Polynesian Spa in Rotorua, which features hot mineral bathing and spa therapies. Peter and Scott join me for a soak in the facility’s thermal springs overlooking Lake Rotorua. The various pools offer a variety of temperatures, indicated by signs at each one, and the water ranges from acidic to alkaline.  One pool called Priest Spa is named after a Catholic priest who bathed here in the late 1880s and claimed his arthritis was relieved.

I don’t have arthritis, but soaking in the pools feels heavenly to me. Then I enjoy a back therapy treatment with Ripena, a Maori woman with a big smile and gentle, loving hands. After applying special Rotorua thermal mud to my back, Ripena gives a lovely leg and foot massage while the therapeutic mud does its magic. After removing the mud, she finishes with a deft back massage, zeroing in on trouble spots. Afterwards I spend more time soaking. The acidic pools, which feel fizzy, are good for aches and pains, and the alkaline pools are soft and silky—good for my skin.

That night we visit Tamaki Maori Village, a recreated living village designed to show tourists Maori culture. It’s voted one of New Zealand’s top tourist attractions, and I soon see why. Located on tribal lands, the village is well organized to handle crowds, who move to different stations in smaller groups and observe craft demonstrations like weaving and carving. At one station volunteers are invited to play a Maori game, which involves tossing and catching sticks with the other players. Scott volunteers and is the last one standing, after inadvertently knocking over another player in his enthusiasm. Luckily she isn’t hurt and dusts herself off good-naturedly.

After visiting all the stations, we enter the Meeting House for a cultural performance, which features the world-famous “haka” or Maori War Dance, a boisterous demonstration of strength and domination with lots of shouting and brandishing of spears. The dance also highlights the Maori’s predilection for making ugly faces with their tongues sticking way out, a technique used to scare off enemies. Add in their tattooed faces and muscular bodies plus loud shouts and grunts, and the haka is not something you’ll soon forget. As counterpoint, the show also includes beautiful singing and dancing.

The evening ends with a traditional “hangi” feast of food cooked in underground pits on hot stones. Tables laden with food await—all-you-can-eat lamb, chicken, fish, mussels, salad, potatoes, and more. After a busy day, Peter, Scott, and I dig in. I especially love the mussels—we’re in New Zealand, remember? Scott loves the dessert, pavlova, a creamy meringue concoction with fruit named after a Russian ballerina who visited New Zealand in 1926. As we head back to Blue Lake, we agree that even though Tamaki Maori Village is a tourist attraction, it’s a great way to become immersed in this living culture.


FRESH, NEW LOOK

Our last day in Rotorua we visit a unique park called Waimangu Volcanic Valley, the site of the region’s last volcanic eruption in 1886. When Mt. Tarawera exploded, a series of craters were formed, which allowed geothermal fluid from the earth’s crust to reach the surface. The result is a rare landscape with ongoing hydrothermal activity: bubbling pools, craters filled with turquoise water, brilliantly colored silica terraces, a crystal wall, stalactites, and fumaroles (steam vents).

We hike down a three-mile trail where other-worldly geographic features await around every turn. Strong sulfuric smells emanate from the earth, and steam rises from the oddest places. Surprisingly the area supports an active bird population, including the shining cuckoo, mynahs, and magpies. At trail’s end we watch beautiful swans glide on Lake Rotomahana while we wait for the bus to ferry us back to the entrance.

Somehow I feel a deep connection to the planet here in New Zealand. It’s a country that feels primeval in many ways—perhaps because it’s a very young country. It was the last habitable landmass to be settled by humankind. Whether you’re deep in a cave or standing beside a bubbling lake, New Zealand promises a fresh new look at the world around us.

Next month: Part 2 of our NZ adventure.

 

For more information:

• Tourist Information - www.newzealand.com

• Maui Motor Home Rentals - www.maui.co.nz

• Bungy Jump - www.bungy.co.nz

• Blackwater Rafting - www.waitomo.com

• Hobbiton Movie Set - www.hobbitontours.com

• Rotorua - www.rotoruanz.com

• Polynesian Spa - www.polynesianspa.co.nz

• Tamaki Maori Village - www.tamakimaorivillage.co.nz

• Waimangu Volcanic Valley - www.waimangu.co.nz

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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