WHEN IN ROME
Documenting my travels across the globe
How can you tell if a driver in New Zealand is a tourist? They use their windshield wipers when it's sunny outside. New Zealanders drive on the other side of the road, which means the entire car is backward from the United States. When I first left the Auckland airport in my rental car, I accidentally used the windshield wipers instead of my blinker at least four times. I screamed out of excitement and nervousness for almost all of the thirty-minute drive to my hostel in downtown Auckland. The most nervewracking part of driving on the other side of the road is coming to a large intersection and turning right. I had to constantly remind myself not to turn directly into the righthand lane with traffic coming towards me. I'm happy to report that by the next morning, driving felt much more natural and it hasn't been an issue since that first memorable drive to my hostel — but I definitely still accidentally use my windshield wipers on occasion.
New Zealand is a beautiful country with countless opportunities to see natural wonders. From day one, I could tell I was going to fall in love. The country is clean, modern, eco-friendly, and extremely careful to protect their environment. The North Island specifically is like the state of Maryland. It's close to the mountains, beaches, cities, lakes, and the countryside — except the mountains and natural sites are exceptional in comparison.
The Kiwis (New Zealanders) are kind, helpful, genuine, and inviting. A Kiwi bus driver even let me ride the bus for free in downtown Auckland because it was late and she didn't have change for my $20 (despite a $20 not being the proper bill to offer a bus driver at any time of day). Kiwis also have great accents and interesting slang, which I've quickly started to adopt. I'll throw some into my New Zealand blogs when appropriate. My favorites have been keen (eager), reckon (think), heaps (lots), boot (trunk), "bit of a", and "good on you".
When I booked my trip to New Zealand, I figured it was only smart to spend two nights in Auckland. Yes, it was a city and not what I was looking for when I decided on New Zealand, but I wanted to make sure I was settled before driving around the North Island on my own. I did not expect that I would like the city as much as I did. It vaguely reminds me of Amsterdam and Seattle. Amsterdam because it is clean, modern, efficient, and feels European. Seattle because Auckland also has a space needle and is situated along the water with ferries to nearby islands. At night, the city is alive with people of all ages and twinkling with string lights along sleek city streets.
My first day in Auckland, I ferried over to Waiheke Island. Waiheke is known for its wineries, beaches, and luxurious vacation homes. I started my day trip off with a short hike along the coast, while I waited for the bus to arrive. The hike was beautiful, as it overlooked the bright blue ocean and sailboats docked in the water. I wish I had more energy to hike the entire three-hour loop, but I was keen to relax at a cafe. The bus took me to Onetangi beach, where I posted up at a restaurant called Charlie Farley's for lunch. For the first time, I sat alone at a restaurant table for hours reading a book, enjoying the sunny weather and view of the ocean waves crashing on the beach. Afterward, I made my way to Oneroa Beach and took a nap on the grass by the beach. I treated myself to the best vegan coconut milk gelato I have ever had and made my way back to the ferry. We sailed back into Auckland as the sunset in the distance. The colors were spectacular, with the sun burning bright red behind Auckland's skyline.
The next day, I got up early to drive to Hobbiton in Matamata. It was foggy and gray, but as soon as the sun started to rise the fog began to dissipate. It was one of the most beautiful drives I've had since arriving in New Zealand. I watched the sky turn orange and yellow through the fog and over the green hills of sheep. By the time I arrived in Hobbiton, the sky was clear blue and the temperature was perfectly comfortable.
Hobbiton was a magical experience. I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan and it was surreal to see the Shire in real life. As I waited in the cafe before my tour began, a man ahead of me in line ordered the "Second Breakfast" (a line from the movie) and I couldn't help but crack a smile. I suddenly realized where I was and what a trip I was in for. At the start of our tour, we walked through the hills to an opening in the land with over forty hobbit holes. The details were spectacular. Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, was apparently meticulous. He once made the set designers repaint 200,000 fake leaves on the tree above Bilbo Baggin's hobbit hole because he didn't like the color of them. They had also planted pear trees, which Peter Jackson hated because the book never mentioned any pear trees. Instead, he made them remove the leaves and make them into fake plum trees to better reflect the books. Those trees never even made it into the movies.
The land used to build the Shire is owned by Russell Alexander, a modest farmer turned businessman by Peter Jackson. Peter Jackson was taking a helicopter tour of the region to find a spot for the Shire when he saw a beautiful old tree in the rolling green hills of Russell Alexander's sheep farm. Despite Russell Alexander having heaps of sheep, Peter Jackson brought in sheep that he thought looked more rustic for the films.
The Shire was almost entirely alive, with real plants and even burning chimney fires. The only bummer is that none of the hobbit holes have anything behind their doors. In fact, all the scenes from inside Bilbo's home were shot on a set in Wellington. We learned on our tour that the hobbit holes vary in sizes to help give the illusion that the hobbits are small and other people are large. For instance, the large hobbit holes were used to film the hobbits working in their yards and the smaller hobbit holes were used to make characters like Gandalf look larger. Another interesting fun fact we learned was that Samwise Gamgee's daughter in the films is his actual daughter in real life. (Spoiler alert) When they shot the scene where Sam returns home from finally destroying the ring in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, he runs to his daughter and gives her a huge hug. In real life, he hadn't seen his daughter for six months because he was filming for the movie, so the hug on screen full of real emotions.
Later that day, I headed towards Rotorua to see the redwood trees in Whakarewarewa Forest. I've never been to California, so I was excited to experience the giant redwoods in-person and they did not disappoint. The trees towered over us and their trunks were the widest I've ever seen. It was also an interesting walk because Rotorua is a geothermal region, so the pools of water in the woods were cloudy and sulphuric. I had intended to check out some more geothermal activity in the area, but if I am being frank the town was extremely touristy and overall unappealing.
The next day I headed to Taupo. Taupo is a cute little lake town with Tongariro National Park's mountains in the distance. Tongariro National Park is New Zealand's oldest national park and a dual World Heritage Site. I spent the afternoon exploring the area's highly trafficked water sites. The first being the Aratiatia Dam, which opens its gates at specific times every day. I watched as the beautiful light blue and white water filled the riverway and quickly turned into river rapids. Then I visited Huka Falls, where the water moves so fast and picks up so much air that it turns a magnificent aqua blue. I ended my day with a dip in the local hot pools, heated naturally from thermal springs.
The next morning, I got up at the crack of dawn for my shuttle to Tongariro National Park for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is an all day, 19.4 km hike between the volcanic peaks of Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngaurehoe. Mt Ngaurehoe is more commonly known as Mt Doom from its feature in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The trek was both mentally and physically exhausting, but it was absolutely breathtaking and it felt incredible to have accomplished the long journey. The highest point of the crossing is at the top of Red Crater, which overlooks alpine lakes and geothermal pools. Since it is just the beginning of spring, most of the hike was covered in snow. Which means all but a part of the Emerald Lakes were covered in snow.
On my last day in the North Island, I booked a cave tour in Waitomo. Waitomo in Māori means "water passing through a hole". The town has a lot of underground limestones caves and used to be completely under water. The caves were created by rivers running through the limestone and today there are hundreds of magnificent caves that people can walk, repel, and water raft through. I chose to take a walking tour of the Ruakuri cave, which is about 160 feet under the ground and home to stunning limestone formations, bioluminescent glow worms, the occasional lobster and some eels. Eels apparently indicate a really healthy water ecosystem.
The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, similarly to the Hawaiians in Hawaii. Legend has it that a Māori man stumbled across two dogs guarding the Ruakuri cave's opening. He told his village of the cave, and they returned to kill the dogs and take it over. The Chief named the cave Ruakuri, which means "den of dogs", in honor of the dogs.
The Māori people would bury the deceased above ground in cliffs and caves. The Chief and other Māori people were buried in the opening of the Ruakuri cave and were discovered in the early 1980s. Since then, this part of the cave has been closed off, declaring the area "Tapu", or a sacred place. As we made our way through the cave, we could see the old wooden walking path from the tours in the 1900s.
Our guide, Lucas is of Māori descent. He has worked for the caves for over thirty years and helped build the new cement paths and gated walkways. He is comfortable in the caves, even alone in the dark because it’s his ancestors. However, he had some interesting ghost stories to share with us.
A German woman once, with no knowledge of the cave’s backstory, told her guide there were two men walking with them in the part of the cave that is near the burial site. One very tall and one shorter, but stronger. It is believed that it could have been the spirit of the Chief and another Māori man since the depiction resembled what is known of the Chief.
In the “ghost walkway” to exit that part of the cave, an employee was walking alone and heard footsteps. Thinking it was a friend, he hid and once the footsteps came closer he jumped out to scare him. There was no one there.
Another longtime employee was in the caves by himself, waiting for another group to show up. He laid and watched the glow worms from a ledge. He felt a push and fell into the water, but there was no one there. This was only days after he found human remains in a different part of the cave. That employee quit shortly after.
Despite the eeriness of the cave, it was the highlight of my tour on the North Island. Lucas was a great guide, giving us insight into the Māori culture and the history behind the caves. It was also special because I was only one of three people on the tour -- perks of taking the first tour of the day! As we walked through different areas in the cave, Lucas would light up the space we were in. We would go from total darkness to seeing the beautiful limestone formations surrounding us. Some areas of the cave we had to duck under small passageways to enter, which then opened up to tall and wide open spaces. The limestone formations were really interesting, varying between stalagmites and stalactites, along with cauliflower, popcorn, and elephant ear shapes. The colors of the cave varied as well from a pale yellow to dark red. I also really enjoyed watching the glow worms in complete darkness, as they shined like little stars all over the walls and ceilings of the cave.
If I were to return to the caves, I would do a canyoning tour, where you jump off waterfalls, repel the walls, and walk through the river way of the cave.
Before heading to the airport, I made a pitstop in Raglan to see the famous black sand beach. The sand felt like memory foam and changed between gray and black as I walked across the surface. It was a lovely way to round out my trip to the North Island.
Watch my video blog from New Zealand's North Island:
When In Rome
Two of my most cherished hobbies go hand-in-hand. Writing is my favorite way to reflect after traveling to a new country. I have kept this blog ever since I studied in Rome to share my travels with families and friends. I hope you enjoy learning about my experiences and getting a sense for my writing skills. If you have any questions, please reach out!